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Untie This Fate

Chapter Text

«Prowl,» Blaster's voice said into his comm system, normally mellow drawl crisp with tension. Prowl booted out of his recharge cycle in less than a klik, all his systems coming online with a roar. «You've got an urgent call from the field.»

Which explained why they were going through Blaster, anyway. «Secure a line,» Prowl said. «I'll come up to the communications room.»

«Already done. He's holding.»

Prowl only took a moment to secure his door behind him before heading to the communications room at top speed. Had they been in the relative security of Omega Supreme, Blaster could have routed directly to Prowl or his room. The Ark, and Teletraan 1, despite their convenience as a mobile base, would never have the security of a sparked Guardian.

A sparked Guardian, on the other hand, would not have the space needed to function as a base of operations for the dozens of teams flying in and out of Optimus Prime's flagship at regular intervals.

The communications center sat just off to the side of the security office, and Prowl spared a moment to nod to the sensors just outside the door. Red Alert had taken a double shift again and would no doubt be eavesdropping, but he had the security clearance to be trusted with whatever information Prowl obtained. The doors opened with a faint hiss, and Blaster looked up from his console. The expression on his face could be better described as a grimace than a smile, but he beckoned Prowl over.

"Calm down, Blue," he said to the console as Prowl approached. "He's right here. Okay? He'll take care of you."

"—ait, Blaster! I can't—sir, is that you?" Bluestreak's voice had a peculiar tremble Prowl had never heard before. "This is Bluestreak, reporting in."

"What's the situation?"

"Um, I don't—the problem is, sir, that I don't know. I—I was within my parameters for the mission. Stay close to the nearest large object, survey any Decepticon activity, permission to snipe if the opportunity presents itself…" The tremble in Bluestreak's voice increased as his voice rose. "The nearest object to the Nemesis was a floating spacebridge from the Golden Age, sir, I had no way of knowing it was still active. The chances of it being functional after so long were infinitesimal—"

Prowl frowned. "Are you lost? Your signal is coming through strong." Though that would explain the tremble in Bluestreak's voice.

"No, sir. The stealth shuttle and I are present and accounted for. It's Megatron, sir. Megatron fell through the spacebridge. After I shot him."

Prowl's processor stalled for a brief moment. "Kill shot or no?"

"Unconfirmed," Bluestreak said, his voice miserable. "The spacebridge activated approximately two kliks after I got the shot off and pulled him in. There was a hit, but I can't confirm a kill. It hasn't reactivated since, but, sir, the Decepticons are nearby, and they're going to come looking—"

"Get back to the Ark, now," Prowl snapped. "We'll get eyes on your location, but you don't have enough stealth experience to withstand an extensive search. Get back and prepare for debriefing."

"Yes, sir!" The tremors vanished from Bluestreak's voice. "I'll be there as soon as possible."

"Prowl out." He terminated the link and nodded to Blaster, whose optics had widened. "Emergency meeting, top-level only." He felt a twinge of what could almost be termed anxiety at the prospect of waking up Optimus Prime, who had no doubt been just as deep in recharge as Prowl himself, but he crushed the feeling without remorse. They all had to make sacrifices.

"Emergency meeting called, sir," Blaster said. "Memory blocks or no?"

Prowl considered. "No memory blocks should be necessary," he said. "You can be trusted not to speak out of hand. If the Decepticons know enough to hack you, they will gain nothing new by it."

"Oh, good." Blaster grinned. "I really hate those things."

There was nothing more to say. Prowl turned and left the communications room to head towards the securely armored command meeting room. He spared another nod for Red Alert as he passed the office, then transformed. The corridors weren't built for high vehicle traffic, but this could qualify as an emergency. Prowl reached the door, verified his identity with the spark-signature scan, and let himself into the room to begin the process of checking over for bugs and security leaks before the others arrived.

Jazz, predictably, reached the room soon after Prowl and wordlessly joined him in his task. Prowl appreciated the reprieve from Jazz's usual friendly chatter, however temporary, and between the two of them they finished mapping out the room well before Optimus stepped inside.

Sentinel would have entered the room and snapped out, "Report," and despite over six thousand vorns of Optimus' more haphazard leadership style, Prowl still straightened and pulled his doorwings in to display the proper respect. Jazz didn't bother with such formalities and never had; he dropped into one of the chairs with barely a whisper of sound and tilted his head at Prowl. "So what's all this about?"

Optimus sat down in the Prime's seat after a moment of hesitation, and Prowl let his doorwings relax slightly. "Bluestreak took a shot on Megatron," he said, then held up a hand as Jazz leaned forward with a bright gleam in his visor. "Unfortunately, unknown to him, he had taken up a position near an active spacebridge, and Megatron fell through it before he could confirm status."

"Well," Jazz said. "Isn't that something. The Decepticons aren't gonna be too happy about this no matter what the outcome is."

Prowl didn't dignify that statement with a reply. "He is currently en route to the Ark to submit to a full debriefing and possibly a memory dump for my analysis. However, since Megatron has not reactivated the groundbridge or called for help yet, chances are high that he is critically injured, dead, or in some sort of hostile environment which would make using the groundbridge again unfeasible."

"With another mech it could be that he just got knocked unconscious," Jazz said to Optimus in a low voice, "but Megatron's got those protocols nearly erased, by all reports. He'll die fightin' before he'll get offlined by anythin' short of critical."

"Yes, thank you," Optimus murmured. He rubbed one finger against his audial fin. "Can we send someone through the spacebridge to confirm his status without alerting the Decepticons?"

Prowl considered that, sifting through various scenarios. "Unlikely," he said finally. "The spacebridge is old, and to have activated without manual control it has to be faulty. Sending someone through would be dangerous. A better solution would be to have someone reconstruct the coordinates so we could program our own spacebridge."

"I'll send Bulkhead with Bumblebee," Jazz interjected. "He's got some experience with spacebridges, might see somethin' another mech wouldn't. Might even be able to get it workin' safely again to follow through with that idea of yours, boss."

"The Decepticons will have traced Megatron's energy signature before anyone could complete repairs on a spacebridge this far out," Prowl argued. "It would be better to outfit Mirage with space mods and instruct him on how to reconstruct the coordinates remotely."

"Prowl, he's gonna be visible in space like he's got biolights on every square millimeter of his plating, space mods or no space mods." Jazz gave a wry grin. "Bee and Bulkhead will do alright. They won't go in if it's too hot."

Prowl's wings twitched, but he nodded.

"Oh, Primus," Optimus said in a near whisper. "This means Starscream's in charge, doesn't it?"

Well, yes. That was the entire point of this meeting. Prowl's wings twitched again, and he didn't bother to say anything, but Jazz gave Optimus a grim nod. "Better him than any of the other Cons, actually," he said. "Starscream's got weaknesses. Shockwave doesn't have much goin' for him in the way of emotion—imagine if Prowl were in charge of the Autobots! And Soundwave plays everythin' real close to the chest." He snickered at his own joke and propped his feet up on the table. "Starscream, though, we can handle him. Don't get too worked up over it, boss."

"Starscream is a loose cannon," Prowl pointed out. "I can't predict what his reaction to power will be with any reasonable degree of accuracy."

"Yeah, so?" Jazz's grin softened as he tilted his head at Prowl. "Sometimes you just gotta let things play out. And think about it: it's not like he's real tight with Soundwave or Shockwave. Seems to me he's gotten in a few one-sided screaming matches." They all paused at the memory of Mirage bringing back recorded footage of one particularly memorable incident. It hadn't contained confidential material, so it had turned into oft-replayed entertainment at the refueling station, to Prowl's dismay. "Point being, we might not know what he's going to do now. So we wait for him to make his move, and then we figure out where to aim our guns. Simple as that."

"I don't like it," Prowl huffed.

"You don't like anything, mech."

Optimus gave a rattling sigh of air through his vents, accompanied by a vocal approximation. "I don't like it either, in all honesty," he admitted. "But what you say is true. We will wait, and we will react once we have been given enough information." He paused and glanced at Jazz, then over at Prowl. "Do you think you can get back into recharge? I want you available for a long shift once Bluestreak gets back."

Prowl held his wings perfectly still. "I can recharge at any time, if those are your orders, sir." At the limits of his optical range, he could see Jazz shaking his head in Optimus' direction.

"No," Optimus said, his voice heavy. "That is not an order. I would suggest getting more recharge at some point before his return, as there is little you can do at this point, but it is your choice whether to do so or not."

In other words, an order, or Optimus Prime's wishy-washy version of one. Prowl nodded stiffly and headed for the door. Jazz and Optimus remained silent as he left. He made his way down the corridor as the numbing code kicked into effect, dulling the edges of anger that had started to creep into his processor at the concept of not being needed. No, he would have no trouble going into recharge, and his Prime wished it. He lay down on his recharge slab and shut down all noncritical functions to restart his cycle.

Prowl rebooted naturally some joors later and immediately began to run Starscream probabilities in his head. He knew the effort to be futile, but some small insistent part of his programming wanted to prove Optimus and Jazz wrong. Try as he might, though, he couldn't predict any scenario with any decent degree of likelihood. He hunched over and let his doorwings move in short, sharp bursts of frustrated agitation until he heard the door chime.

At the same instant, Jazz's voice came across his comm line. «Prowl? You awake in there?»

Prowl sighed and got up to open the door. He closed it behind him before Jazz could slide into his habitation suite. "If I hadn't been awake, I would be after you commed me," he said.

Jazz grinned and leaned against the wall beside him. "I can't help it. You time your recharge sessions down to the nanoklik. And, hey, it makes my job easier, knowin' when you're gonna come back online."

"What do you want?"

"Do I haveta want somethin', Prowl?" At Prowl's look, Jazz shrugged. "I know you. You're gettin' too far in your own head 'cause you think Optimus called you useless. And you know by now he didn't mean it like that, mech."

"He's right," Prowl forced out. "I am useless at this point in time."

Jazz sighed and put a hand on Prowl's upper arm, above the elbow joint. When Prowl flinched, he let go. "No, you're not. Let's get you fueled up before you run yourself down to nothin', yeah?"

"I have a long shift."

"You don't have it yet. I took the liberty of pushin' it back a bit. A little Cassette tells me Blue's not back yet, but he's comin' in soon, and you're gonna have to be available to handle him." Jazz's visor hid a lot of the emotions that more minute optical flickers normally gave away, but his voice had that particular tone to it that he always adopted when Prowl forgot to recharge. "You know dippin' into your energon reserves chews up processor power."

Prowl's doorwings hitched high. "I can't stop working just because Megatron might be dead," he snapped. "Bluestreak is not the only priority I have right now. There are countless Decepticons out there who are still alive." It had occurred to him that the first place Soundwave would turn for information about Megatron's whereabouts would be the Autobots, and that his Cassettes were masters of infiltration. Every time Red Alert patched up security, it was only a matter of time before those mechanimals found their way back in. Were they listening even now? What sort of attack would the Decepticons launch if they believed that the Autobots were relaxing their guard in the wake of this news?

"Hey. Hey." Jazz stopped and reached out to snag the bottom of Prowl's door in a gentle but firm tweak. Prowl's whole body twitched. "I know this is tough for you, but you need to take care of yourself. Whatever you're thinkin' up there, stop for a moment. I'm not askin' for much of your time. Just a few breems. When Blue comes in, we'll take him to my office for some peace and quiet. How's that?"

"Very well," Prowl snapped. He knew from long experience that arguing with Jazz in one of these moods would accomplish nothing. Even if Prowl managed to hold out, Jazz would go to Optimus and have him talk at Prowl about the dangers of overextension in a subtle but effective display of the chain of command. Prowl hated the way Optimus tried to couch his lectures in the gentle tone of a mechanism speaking to a new hatchling, and Jazz knew it.

The refueling station, thankfully, had a quiet, calm atmosphere between shift changes, and Prowl found himself relaxing the tiniest bit as they walked through the door. Dispensers lined the walls on one side, and injector spigots lay set into the other for those who had no mouths or preferred to refuel with direct tank injection. Jazz, of course, headed straight for the dispensers; Prowl made his way to the spigots with a small burst of spite. Before Jazz had managed to fill his second cube, Prowl had already uncapped the line to his fuel tank and settled the spigot in its nook.

"Getting started without me?" Jazz laughed as he returned. "You must be angry."

"I'm not." Prowl focused on the readouts and the growing fullness in his fuel tank, ignoring Jazz's indulgent chuckle.

"There goes my idea of talkin'."

Prowl finished refueling and capped himself again. As unwilling as he would be to admit it aloud, Jazz's timing had been good; Prowl's reserves had needed topping off as well. Jazz drifted over to where Crystal Widow had four of her legs in the internal mechanisms of one of the spigots, talking quietly enough that Prowl could tune both of them out. He ran simulations in his head—the likelihood of infiltration, this time—and sent his suggestions to Red Alert before Jazz appeared in front of him again.

"You with me? Rewind tells me Blue's comin' in."

The trip to the dock was a short one, which ended with Prowl waiting for Jazz to greet Bluestreak and run a preliminary bug scan. Jazz, unlike Prowl, enjoyed casual touch, and he had the qualifications; Prowl didn't mind letting him take charge. The trip back to the office was likewise short, and Prowl spent the entirety of it attempting to glean information from the particular twitches of Bluestreak's doorwings. He learned that Bluestreak still felt anxious, though his tone of voice sounded much calmer as he talked to Jazz, and that he was in need of not only refueling but recharge. Unsurprising.

Jazz's office, so chosen because he technically outranked Prowl and because mechs felt more comfortable in the softly-lit room with comfortable chairs and furnishings. Jazz had chosen his decor for that exact purpose rather than out of any sentimental attachment. By contrast, Prowl's office was well-lit and cluttered with numerous datapads.

Bluestreak sat down and accepted the cube Jazz gave him with a grateful smile, though he glanced over at Prowl for confirmation before taking a large sip. "Bluestreak reporting in, sirs."

"Are you capable of giving a memory dump?" Prowl asked without preamble, ignoring Jazz's irritated look.

Bluestreak, to his credit, appeared to have expected the question. He hesitated, but his doorwings stayed motionless. "As long as it's one of you or Ratchet, I think so."

Prowl was already unspooling his medical cord. Jazz stayed silent as Bluestreak opened his shoulder hatch and Prowl clicked in. Bluestreak pushed a package of data at him; Prowl caught it and backed out again to respool the cord. Easy, clean, simple, and now he had a firsthand sensory account to sift through.

Bluestreak offered his open port to Jazz, but Jazz shook his head. "It's okay, Blue. Better that I get it through Prowl anyway."

"Okay," Bluestreak said, and he shut his hatch. "so does this mean I can just leave now?"

"I haveta admit, I was workin' up to some questions, but it looks like Prowl had other ideas." Jazz gave Bluestreak a wry smile. "You gonna be okay to recharge?"

Prowl noticed Bluestreak's hesitation, even distracted as he was by sifting through the memory packet he'd received. But Bluestreak grinned and gave Jazz an otherwise convincing, "Sure I am!" so Prowl decided not to comment. At this point in the war, they all had their glitches and their battle damage, and Prowl had more important duties to attend to than attempting to convince a soldier to go into Ratchet for another round of memory blockers to cover up persistent emotional memory programming damage.

Starscream hated bridge duty. He hated the whole pandering show of it, where he could pretend at having power while still being accountable to someone else's will. Just like always. Megatron had promised him a freedom and control that Vos had never given, and what did Starscream have to show for it? The ability to parade around on the bridge, giving orders but with everyone knowing that they had come from Megatron, not Starscream himself.

And, of course, even if he wanted to give orders that weren't handed down like so many spare parts, Soundwave or some other simpering sycophant in the know was always hovering in the background. Sometimes it was even Skywarp, who wouldn't be in the loop at all if not for his sparkbond to Starscream, who nonetheless liked Megatron better and would blurt out every single one of Starscream's missteps because he had no discretion or sense of trine loyalty.

Even the thought was enough to make Starscream fume.

Soundwave froze.

Starscream froze as well, momentarily. He'd developed experimental anti-telepathy mods for himself and his trine, and they'd seemed to serve well enough for countless thousands of vorns, but he couldn't afford to be overconfident. Had something gone wrong with the mods? Had Soundwave managed to upgrade his telepathy somehow?

He ran a discreet scan of his frame and found that absolutely nothing was different about the mods. Soundwave hadn't challenged him, either. Not that he'd been thinking anything particularly seditious today anyway, Starscream reminded himself. Anger at Skywarp was something that many mechs aboard the Nemesis experienced on a regular basis. Nothing to be alarmed over.

More likely, one of Soundwave's little pets had gotten themselves injured. Starscream made himself relax as Soundwave bowed his head over the console, tapping too quickly for Starscream to read his movements.

His comm line buzzed. «Starscream. Lord Megatron shot. Status unknown. Vanished.»

Starscream bolted upright in his chair, wings hitched high.  «Wait, what? Repeat that.»

«Lord Megatron shot. Status unknown. Vanished.»

Starscream's spark pulsed wildly in its casing. He looked around the bridge, optics bright; none of the rest of the crew seemed aware. They went on about their miserable lives as though nothing had changed. Everything had changed. Soundwave wouldn't pull pranks, he was too much of a stick-in-the-mud. And nobody would joke about something like this anyway. Megatron had finally gotten his rusty plating shot through, which meant…

Which meant…

For the first time in his life, Starscream had real power in his hands, and, for a moment, he didn't know what to do with it. He could have done anything. He could have ordered them all out of their seats to crawl forward and lick his shin plating. He could order the Nemesis towards the Ark for an all-out attack on Optimus Prime while none of the Autobots suspected anything.

Then reality intruded on his fantasies. Of course he wouldn't be able to do those things; he still had Soundwave and Shockwave to contend with. In fact… «Have you told Shockwave yet?»


Not even a sir. Nothing even close to the Lord Megatron that Soundwave sometimes gave to their former leader. Starscream snarled. «Well, we'd better get him up on the viewscreen, hadn't we? Call him up.» Starscream turned up the volume on his vocalizer. "Listen up, you lazy scrapheaps! You're going to leave this bridge right now and only come back when I say so. Don't think this means your shift is over. I'll say when it's over!"

One or two scurried out immediately, clearly glad for even a moment's reprieve. Slipstream, the nasty little traitor, lingered. "What's this about?"

Starscream drew himself up to his full height. He would never be the largest of Decepticons, built to be Vosian royalty as he was, but he still had a bit of height on Slipstream's marginally smaller frame. "That's for the command staff to know," he sneered. "It's not your job to question, it's your job to take orders."

Slipstream sneered at him, but Barricade took hold of her arm before Starscream's weapons could whir online. He tugged her towards the door. Starscream watched, optics focused on them in narrow band. Barricade hadn't left immediately, but he hadn't joined in on Slipstream's tiny mutiny, either. The rest of the crew left without incident.

Thwarted violence streamed through his systems like energon. Starscream flung himself restlessly down into his chair. "Well?" he demanded. "I don't see Shockwave's oh-so-lovely face."

Soundwave didn't even bother to make excuses. Too bad. Starscream could have gone for a fight. Moments later, Shockwave flickered into view, his vile, blocky frame not even turned towards them. His single optic remained focused on whatever desecration of science he currently had on his to-do list. Starscream gave a loud beep. "So, Shockwave. Have you heard the news? Our beloved leader is gone."

Shockwave didn't even pause. "I fail to see how this affects me. There is a chain of command in place for just such an event."

Starscream waited. Surely, Shockwave would have some reaction. He liked Megatron, as near as Starscream could tell, which mostly meant that he actually looked up from his ridiculous experiments when Megatron spoke. After a few kliks, Starscream could wait no longer. "Well? That's it? Lord Megatron is dead, you fool, and you can't even summon up a reaction?!"

Shockwave finally glanced over at the transmitter. "If you didn't call me for a good reason, I'll be going now." The transmission flickered, then cut out.

"He hung up on me," Starscream said flatly. His entire body thrummed. "He hung up on me!" He glared at Soundwave. "Well? What about you, Soundwave? The two of you were awfully close, weren't you? Don't you have anything else to say about this turn of events? Anything at all?"

Soundwave stared at him for a long, unreadable moment, then turned and followed the rest of the bridge shift out the door. Starscream found himself alone on the bridge, his plating buzzing with an unpleasant sensation, not surrounded by the cheering throngs that should be his due but the heavy silence of complete solitude. Around him, the Nemesis' systems hummed, and it occurred to Starscream for one awful moment that he could steer the ship into a star unchecked.

He let raspy ventilations hiss overheated air out from under his plating, and gradually the trembling slowed. No, he had no desire to steer this ship into a star. He was here, too, thank you very much, and he had no desire to end his sudden inheritance of power as soon as it had begun. Shockwave and Soundwave had given him tacit control of everything, and without Megatron's fans buzzing in his audials, Starscream had the perfect opportunity to do something that nobody would expect. Something so perfect that the Autobots would never know what hit them, that the Decepticons would realize just how much Starscream had been held back.

He just had to think of it, first.

Chapter Text

Starscream felt a little better after summoning the bridge crew back and yelling at them for abandoning their posts. He then promptly issued an announcement that Megatron was not going to be in the picture for the foreseeable future and that Starscream was now the lord of all Decepticons. Soundwave didn't come back to protest the claim. In fact, as Starscream had hoped, none of the crew bothered to protest the unfair treatment, not even Barricade or Slipstream; they were too unsure of the new status quo. Starscream reveled in their meek acceptance.

Or, at least, he reveled in it until he returned to his quarters to find Skywarp and Thundercracker deep in recharge, piled on each other like discarded frames. All the excitement of the shift coming down through the trine bond, and they had slept through it? Starscream marched over and nudged them with his foot. "Get up," he said. "Get up, you worthless scrapheaps!"

One of Skywarp's optics flickered on to glare balefully at Starscream. "'S not my shift yet," he mumbled.

"It's your shift if I say it's your shift," Starscream retorted with a smirk. "Haven't you heard? Oh, excuse me, were you too busy catching up on your precious recharge to care about the fact that your precious Lord Megatron is dead?"

"What?!" Skywarp gasped, his other optic coming online as he jolted upright. His wings quivered. "Lord Megatron's dead?!"

Thundercracker stirred. "Calm down, Skywarp," he mumbled. "Starscream's just messing with you again."

"Starscream, Skywarp whined.

Starscream glowered at both of them and crossed his arms over his canopy. "Do I sound like I'm lying?" he snapped, then decided he didn't want to hear whatever snarky comments they would come up with as an answer. "Forget it! Access the data; it's public, and it came from Soundwave. Or go on and recharge all the way through the mourning period, be my guest."

Skywarp's optics flashed an erratic pattern in time with his wings. "Thundercracker. Thundercracker! He's not lying!"

Thundercracker finally hauled his lazy frame up, casting a suspicious look at Starscream and tugging on the bond. Starscream scowled, but opened it just the faintest bit. "All this says is that he's gone indefinitely," Thundercracker said. "And you're saying that he's dead?"

"I'm saying that he was shot."

Skywarp let out a low keen.

"So, this makes you the leader of the free Decepticons?" Thundercracker tipped his head to the side.

"Yes. Yes, it does. Starscream's wings fanned out. "And you will show me the proper respect from now on."

Thundercracker smirked instead of cowering in fear. "If you're interested in lording your power over someone, go find a grunt and plug into them. Are you forgetting Winglord law? All power is shared equally."

Starscream snarled. "Frag you! You won't show any interest in power until I've done all the work for you? I have news for you, Thundercracker: I don't care about Vosian law. And neither have you up until now. You. Will. Kneel."

"Frag you both!" Skywarp yelled before Thundercracker could say anything. Starscream had nearly forgotten his less intelligent trinemate's presence, but Skywarp stood in the middle of the room, his whole frame quaking violently, optics flaring bright enough to leave streaks in the air. "Lord Megatron is dead and all you two care about is getting into contests about who's got bigger wings!"

"That's not even a contest," Starscream muttered, and Skywarp let out a loud screech before teleporting away. Thundercracker's vents hissed as he headed towards the door. "Hey! Where are you going? We're not done here yet!"

Thundercracker shook his head. "If you go after Skywarp, he's going to end up even more upset." The door closed behind him.

Starscream stood there, left entirely alone for the second time in an orn. His own wings shook, and he scowled as he tucked them hard against his frame. Abandoned by his own trinemates, of all things, at his moment of greatest triumph. He stormed over to the nest of metal sheeting and scraps that they called a recharge slab and kicked it.

Well, Thundercracker and Skywarp wouldn't be intelligent enough to help him scheme against the Autobots anyway.

It occurred to him, as he stood there staring at the mesh, that he would have to order searches to confirm Megatron's death. The thought sat uneasily in his processor; he would have expected either Soundwave or the ever-logical Shockwave to insist before Starscream declared himself their lord. The fact that they hadn't meant that, in theory, he could leave it—but no. He had no doubt that Soundwave would be sending his pets with or without orders, and if Starscream ordered this—

If Starscream headed the search effort—

Maybe it wouldn't matter if Megatron were already dead. The though calmed Starscream's wings, and he sat down on one of the chairs in the corner, eying the tiny viewscreen. He could make the announcement now, of course, but would it look better if he waited? Would it look even better if—

Starscream straightened and let a grin spread over his face. Oh, he'd have to look up procedure for this, but it would be worth it. After this ploy, the Decepticons would have to acknowledge him as their superior lord and master. He finally had a chance to rise above Megatron's truly pathetic ambitions and build something greater, a place in which he could leave his trine at last and build a new one of his very own, where he would be afforded all the respect he deserved.

He went to the database and opened the appropriate etiquette files. Let Soundwave snoop to his spark's delight; Starscream would be done before anyone realized, before anyone could give voice to tiresome complaints and endless whining they would never have dared voice around Megatron. Starscream would be the one laughing when he had finished.

Wings fanned out and happy, he leaned forward and began to read.

Prowl found himself jolted out of recharge by a priority comm yet again, though this time having improperly shut down the night before. «Prowl?» Jazz's voice repeated, sounding worried. «Everythin' okay over there?»

«Yes,» Prowl ground out, attempting to quit out of all the messy backup recharge routines that his processor had become entangled in.

«Good, because OP and I need you at the command center ASAP.»

Everything froze. The room, Prowl's processor, everything. Everything returned to normal speed a nanoklik later as he terminated the rest of the recharge processes and flung himself out of the door to transform and drive towards the command center as fast as he dared, sirens blaring.

He found Jazz and Optimus Prime there, looking calmly at a small viewscreen in the corner, and he composed himself. A quick comm to Blaster and Red Alert confirmed that Optimus had remembered to ask for a secure line, at least, which meant no viruses and no additional sensory percepticon. Audiovisual only. «It's a trusted source,» Blaster added. «Did the checking myself; he's exactly who he claims to be.»

Which meant nothing, as the mech on the screen had no presence on current or terminated lists for either Autobots or Decepticons. A comparison of older models, locked away in Prowl's memory core for thousands of vorns, produced an answer: Dai Atlas, a defector from the Autobot cause from before Prowl's hatchling, currently the leader of a third faction claiming to be Neutrals, stationed aboard a mobile but processor-locked metrotitan. Prowl frowned. "What do you want?"

"Prowl!" Optimus said reproachfully. He shook his head at Dai Atlas. "Forgive my lieutenant, Dai Atlas. He has not been informed of the situation."

"Is this what the Autobots have come to?" Dai Atlas grumbled. "I have encountered more discipline in hatchling yards." He turned his gaze to Prowl. "The Decepticon leader Starscream, so chosen to be the heir of the late Megatron, proposes a ceasefire and wishes it carried through the proper channels." Prowl's wings twitched; Dai Atlas had a thick Primal Vernacular accent and a tone dripping with superiority. "He requests a mourning period for their leader in exchange for the promise of a more lasting treaty."

Prowl's optics flared. «More likely,» he said into the command comm channel, «Starscream doesn't want to say anything face-to-face because he knows we would see through his flimsy plot.»

«No, Dai Atlas is telling the truth,» Optimus said. «I looked it up while we were waiting for your arrival. There's a precedent of using the Neutrals and Dai Atlas' group in particular as an intermediary for ceasefires.»

Yes, obviously. Prowl could have told him that. That wasn't the issue at all. «That was Megatron,» Prowl said. «This is Starscream. And you can tell how well those previous ceasefires turned out. That's why we stopped

Jazz glanced at both of them, then stepped up to the viewscreen with a winsome smile. "Well, it seems like our lucky day," he drawled, "but it's kinda hard to believe when we're hearin' it secondhand. Don't suppose Starscream offered up any proof, or terms with his signature? Somethin' more solid?"

Jazz had a way with mechanisms; Dai Atlas nodded without so much as a frown or optical flicker. "I am transmitting the file to you now," he said. "Our virus experts have cleared it personally."

«Blaster, clear it,» Prowl said immediately through the comms.

«Clear what?» Blaster asked, then— «Oh, this? Yeah, sure, gimme a klik. …Oh, slag, really? Do I need memory blocks for this?»

Blaster got significantly less professional when sharing a comm line with Jazz. Prowl vented out in a small, inaudible huff, but Optimus Prime cut in with a firm, gentle voice. «No, you do not need memory blocks. Assuming this is legitimate, we could hardly hide such knowledge. I would only ask that you refrain from gossiping until the announcement has been made.»

«Prime, do me and my mechs ever gossip?» Before Prowl could chastise Blaster, or give concrete examples, the cleared file pinged on his HUD, and he opened the file.

The file did, in fact, contain Starscream's signature and a very dry—obviously copied—request for a ceasefire, along with terms and conditions and, as Dai Atlas had said, a note that this ceasefire was offered in the hopes of increasing goodwill for further negotiations. Prowl closed the file with more vehemence than necessary. Further negotiations, was it? As though they could trust Starscream as far as Optimus Prime could throw him. Starscream obviously knew that the Autobots were close enough to have made the shot and wanted to take advantage of Optimus Prime's honorable nature to escape further retribution.

Before he could give voice to those thoughts, however, Optimus Prime smiled at Dai Atlas. "Thank you for bringing this to us," he said. "We accept the terms, of course. I will send you a signed file within the joor."

"I shall relay it to Starscream upon its arrival," Dai Atlas said, and the viewscreen went dark.

Prowl frowned, anger flaring up before the numbing code bubbled up over it. "You are supposed to consult me before making any major tactical decisions," he said, voice flat. "That is my purpose."

"I know," Optimus said, his voice gentle. "But if this ceasefire could truly lead to peace, I cannot afford to refuse, even if is inadvisable. I need you to turn your attention instead to making sure that Starscream does not break it."

"Just think of the downtime you could use to expand your parameters," Jazz added. "With the Circle of Light overseeing the peace again, we can finally restock our supplies. We can make sure everyone's repaired and healthy. We could head back towards Cybertron and strengthen communications for the first time in vorns—"

"No," Prowl snapped. "I refuse. Cybertron is far too unsafe. He'd be making a target out of himself."

"Moreso than existing in the same sector as the Decepticon flagship?" Jazz sighed and held up his hands. "I know, I know. I understand, mech."

"There could be hatchlings," Optimus murmured, and settled a hand over his chest, over his spark, over the Matrix.

"No, there couldn't," Prowl ground out. "Not until the war is over. The Decepticons have already proven—"

"Not for me," Optimus interrupted with a wistful smile, before Prowl could finish. "I know we can't have that many hatchlings running around consuming resources. A full clutch would require caretakers and safety we do not have. I do pay attention, no matter what you think of me. But others could have litters. We would have the resources to support a small number, spread over a number of parents, for those who have been waiting for vorns to start a family."

Prowl opened his mouth to continue arguing, but Jazz put a hand on his arm and spoke into a private comm line. «Leave it, Prowl. OP's not going to run out and fill his frame with a clutch of hatchlings after what happened to Sentinel's. And he doesn't need to be reminded of that right now, either. Let the mech dream of the skitter-crash of little feet.»

«It's foolish,» Prowl said, though he did keep that to a private line. «There is neither practical nor sentimental reason for him to want hatchlings.»

«Sure it's foolish. But most mechs like dreamin' foolish dreams now and again. Besides, it's not like OP can help wantin' some little hatchlings around to make up for everyone we've lost, even if he can't be the one raisin' 'em.»

«The negative consequences outweigh the potential benefits of population regrowth.»

«Hmm.» Jazz eyed them both and said aloud, "We'll be sure to keep an eye on the Nemesis, but we've gotta be stealthy about this. I'm willin' to bet that Starscream's gonna be lookin' for excuses to say that we broke the truce. Let's step real light."

Optimus gave a solemn nod. "Yes. I will be entrusting this to the two of you. Still, I believe we can make the announcement to the Autobot forces as soon as I have filed the appropriate data with Dai Atlas. As for this joor, I would prefer it be spent streamlining the process and making sure any questions can be answered in a reasonable amount of time."

"My function is military," Prowl muttered, but if Optimus' very sensitive audial receptors picked that up, he didn't reply.

Jazz grinned. "No problem, OP. I'll get that set up real fast with Blaster, and Prowl can focus on security concerns with Red Alert. You go off and do your thing."

"Jazz," Prowl hissed as Optimus left.

"Mech, you are real angry, aren't you?" Jazz sounded almost admiring. "Gotta hand it to you, this isn't what I figured would set it off. C'mon, gimme some credit. You can huddle down with Red Alert and talk about keepin' out Decepticons, and I'll handle the troops with Blaster and his Cassettes. Got you permission to share this information with Red Alert early, didn't I?"

"Permission was unnecessary," Prowl said stiffly. "We both know logic would have overridden any implicit commands Optimus gave."

Jazz shook his head. "Go play with your security system. You can watch out for any chaos on the monitors. Go. Shoo. Unless you want to help field questions…"

Prowl's wings flared high and aggressive, but he stalked out without a word.

"You realize, of course," Elita-1 said without turning around, "that my sensors are tuned high enough to detect Soundwave's Cassettes. Compared to them, you're a lumbering tank."

Slipstream abandoned her attempts at stealth halfway across the room and closed the remaining distance with her feet ringing out against the metal floor. "What gave me away? It was the thrusters, wasn't it?"

"It was something like the thrusters," Elita-1 deadpanned. Actually, it had been the heat signature and the quiet whisper of the sliding door, but Elita-1 had learned fast that letting Decepticons know any of your capabilities meant that at least ten would see it as a challenge to surpass those limits. Usually for the purpose of playing pranks. She sighed and turned her attention from the screen to the reflection of Slipstream's wings in the monitors. Elita-1 had little enough knowledge of aerial body language, but from what little she'd gleaned by comparing Slipstream's past moods to the position of her wings, she looked upset. Fair enough; Elita-1 could even guess why. "Come to take out your frustrations on the resident Autobot?"

"What Autobot?" Slipstream leaned in over the screen, wings twitching. "I don't see any Autobot."

"Not all of your companions see it that way," Elita-1 said. "But thank you for not sneaking in to try and scrap me. That would have been troublesome."

"Troublesome, yes," Slipstream said. "You have sharp claws for a grounder." Her voice deepened to a rumbling purr. "I just stopped in to see how you were doing."

Elita-1 gave her a long, slow look before turning deliberately back to the screen. She could still feel Slipstream everywhere, leaning too close, the heat from her plating a bright flare against Elita-1's sensory net, the ventilations from her modulation fans puffing across Elita-1's armor. "Funny, I don't imagine many Decepticons would think of doing that. Shouldn't you be in mourning?"

Slipstream's claws snagged on Elita-1's chin and turned her around so that their optics met. Elita-1 met that challenge with a silent stare of her own. She had no interest in all the dominance posturing the Decepticon aerials seemed to enjoy so much, and Slipstream should know that by now. "Funny, your words would imply that you're not in mourning."

"Slipstream," Elita-1 sighed. "Whatever it is you want from me, I'm not interested. Find someone else to take your frustrations out on. I'm sure there's someone else itching for a fight out there."

Slipstream's wings twitched again, and she let go with a scowl, stalking back away from Elita-1. "Are you having second thoughts about abandoning your precious faction?"

"What is this, the start of an abandonment complex?" Elita-1 shot back. "I'm exactly where I want to be. Why? Are you having second thoughts?"

Slipstream hissed and lunged forward again, this time grabbing Elita-1's shoulders and digging her claws in just the tiniest bit. Elita-1, with the ease of much practice, brought her hands up to get double handfuls of Slipstream's wings, curling her own claws against the far-more-sensitive plating until Slipstream yelped and wriggled away.

"I told you; I'm not interested in being anyone's punching bag." Elita-1 watched Slipstream struggle to compose herself. "Are you going to tell me what this is about, or do I have to guess?"

"Can't a mech just want a little company?"

Elita-1 didn't bother to answer that. "Hmm. No, I don't actually want to guess. You can tell me, or you can leave."

"There's nothing to tell!" When Elita-1 stayed silent, though, Slipstream's wings twitched and folded against her body. She leaned up against the console and stared past Elita-1 to the door behind her. "How would the Autobots have handled this?"

She sounded quieter, less smarmy, so Elita-1 decided to risk an honest answer. "I can't tell you precisely what went down when Sentinel Prime died, because I don't know. But with the Autobots, leadership is more about who possesses the Matrix of Leadership than it is about the chain of command. I can tell you that Optimus doesn't look like any of the mechs Sentinel had on his staff."

Slipstream snorted. "And that's why I could never go over to the Autobots," she said. "Who chooses a leader based on who's compatible with some ancient hardware?"

Elita-1 would hazard a guess that Slipstream wasn't too happy about how the Decepticons were handling leadership, either. "And, of course, the Neutrals haven't had that problem. I imagine if Dai Atlas died, the Circle of Light would splinter off and go their own ways, and the semblance of being a third faction would crumble into dust. They're less concerned with leadership than they are about remaining out of the conflict. There aren't many who would be able to do what Dai Atlas does and mediate without getting drawn into the battle."

"I didn't ask about the Neutrals," Slipstream hissed.

"You wanted something to compare to; I gave it to you." Elita-1 turned her attention back to the console, hesitated, then logged off. She couldn't focus with Slipstream distracting her anyway, and her shift was nearly over.

SLipstream's red optics glittered in the suddenly-dimmed light. Even now, thousands of vorns later, the sight still pinged Elita-1's defensive subroutines, but she shut them off again. "So, you're happy with the way things are?"

"Yes," Elita-1 said. "Is it so hard to believe that I might consider a ceasefire a good thing without being an Autobot?" Slipstream scowled. "I already told you: if you have something to say, say it. I'm not playing a rigged guessing game, and it's clear that I'm not giving you the answers you want. In precisely a klik I'm going to walk back to my hab suite alone, and if you follow me I'll throw you out using as much force as necessary."

That made Slipstream's mouth tug into a small smirk. "So you really are a Decepticon after all," she said. Her optics slid to the console Elita-1 had just logged out of.

"You're welcome to try to hack it," Elita-1 said, "but I wouldn't advise it."

"You're sure I can't follow you to your quarters?"

"Not in this mood." Elita-1 stood and brushed by Slipstream on her way to the door, all too aware of the size difference between them as she did so. Slipstream didn't make any attempt to follow, despite her words, and the door slid shut on the smarmy facade having melted into something more pensive and solemn. Elita-1 felt a brief pang in her spark that she smothered. She had never been an overly sentimental commander, back when she had commanded other mechs. Slipstream, she told herself, could just find someone else.

She stopped once she'd reached her hab suite and locked it behind her. She rested her head against the cool metal before running her traditional bug sweep. Regret had no place among the Decepticons, and misplaced empathy could get you injured or killed, but Elita-1 couldn't get that final expression out of her processor even as she lay down to begin a recharge cycle.

Perhaps, she told herself, she could do something after all. Maybe not for Slipstream, but for all the unsettled thoughts and memories Slipstream had brought up. Not that she thought Starscream would roll over and open his chestplates for Optimus Prime, of course—but each side was sure to have an angle, and Elita-1 knew better than most what the Autobot angles were likely to be.

Chapter Text

A decivorn after news of the ceasefire reached the Valiant, Hot Rod finally set eyes on the Ark's bright, beautiful interiors once more. "Ahhh, home sweet home," he said, flinging his arms wide. "Have you ever seen a more beautiful starship?"

"Most of us have, hatchling," Arcee said, voice dry as she brushed past him. "Look around a scrapheap and you'll find a better paintjob."

Hot Rod glanced back to see if Moonracer had emerged yet. Ultra Magnus, of course, would stay behind to report in and hand over his itemized list of everything wrong with everything, but Moonracer was no stick in the mud. It wouldn't do to leave her behind. Fortunately, she scurried out of the door within a few nanokliks, rushing to catch up with them before they reached decontamination.

«Sorry!» she exclaimed over broad comms as the jets started. «Ultra Magnus needed me to confirm the weapons inventory. He could have done it himself, I guess, but I thought maybe if I gave him a hand he might actually take a break at some point.»

«Not a chance,» Hot Rod said with a twinge of bitterness. «He'll just find some other way to eat up his time.»

«Yeah, I know, silly me.» Moonracer put her hand against the flow of one of the jets to redirect it at Hot Rod. «I should have just asked you how that went the last forty times you tried it.» Hot Rod yelped and squirmed at the softer spatter of fluid against his plating. Moonracer giggled, then dropped her hand. «So, Arcee, are you going to be spending any time with us at all?»

«We should celebrate!» Hot Rod chimed in, peering through the billowing steam as he tried to catch a glimpse of Arcee's intimidating energon-pink armor. «Eject says they've got a bar set up, with real engex!»

Hot Rod yelped as something pinched his neck wiring from behind. «Hatchlings, please,» Arcee said, her voice deep and amused. Hot Rod hadn't even seen movement. How'd she managed to get across a room this narrow without him noticing? «This ceasefire is going to end before the vorn is out. It always does. Celebrate if you must, but don't forget that the war isn't over.»

«Moodkiller,» Hot Rod grumbled. He wriggled until she let go. «Come on, you can still celebrate a ceasefire!»

«Unless you're planning on celebrating it some other way,» Moonracer put in, her tone sly. «With someone else.»

Hot Rod felt his optics flare as he straightened. «The Wreckers are here, too?»

«That's what Ultra Magnus said.» The jets around them shut down, and Hot Rod could make out the edges of Moonracer's slag-sucking grin. "So, Arcee, going out to meet a special someone for a private celebration?"

"Sure," Arcee purred, her engine giving a low, comfortable noise that made Hot Rod uneasy. Arcee only made happy noises like that when murder was involved. "We're going to get together and privately knock a few dangerous names off the roster."

"What?!" Hot Rod yelped. "You can't break the treaty! I haven't even gotten to drink engex yet!"

"Oh? Then maybe that's not what I'm doing." Arcee sauntered to the exit and wiggled her fingers at Hot Rod and Moonracer. "Don't get so loopy that you can't reactivate your FIM chips."

"Well," Moonracer said into the silence. "Now I definitely need engex to forget I ever heard that." She rattled her plating, spraying excess decontamination fluid on Hot Rod. "Are you still up for it?"

"Of course I am!"

"Then let's get going!" Moonracer grabbed his arm and pulled him into the next room.

Hot Rod winced at the first burst of compressed gas. He transformed and drove towards the main door, then skidded out only half-dry. «I'll meet you at the bar,» he told Moonracer on her private line before gunning his engine and racing off towards the refueling station. Ultra Magnus would rip them apart if they took engex on anything less than a half-tank of real fuel. Verbally, sure, not physically, but Hot Rod had sat through enough of those lectures with and without Moonracer to want to risk one on his free time.

Maybe that was the point.

Hot Rod remembered the refueling station as large and clean but impersonal, with only a few silent mechs going about their business. Instead, he found a lively place filled with idle chatter. He got a few waves and cheers as he headed over to full a cube, spark close to bursting with excitement in his chest. This was what he'd been missing locked away on that little ship. This was what he'd hoped to find on the Ark.

And speaking of what he'd hoped to find…

"Bluestreak!" Hot Rod dashed over. In his haste, he slopped some energon over the side of his cube, but whatever, there were cleaning drones for that. "Bluestreak, hi. I hear you took out Megatron."

Road Rage cackled and clapped Bluestreak on the shoulder as his optics widened. "And now you know how the rest of us feel all the time," she said. She knocked back the rest of her cube and gave Hot Rod a grin. "Welcome back."

Hot Rod returned that grin with his most charming smile. "Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. What were the two of you talking about?"

"Nothing that can't wait."

Bluestreak watched her go with a frown. "Some bodyguard you are!" he called after her. "If I were Crosscut, I'd file a complaint!"

"If you were Crosscut, you'd be paying me!" she hollered back.

"Did you just imply that you need to be bodyguarded?" Hot Rod demanded. "From me?" He almost went in for a hug but stopped himself at the last nanoklik. He wasn't a hatchling anymore. "Also, the Megatron thing. I want to know about it. Give me details."

"You do realize that's not supposed to be talked about?" Bluestreak asked with a nervous twitch of his doorwings. He looked around the room. "Do you want to paint a target on my back? Look, I can't tell you anything about that."

"I hear a 'but' in that sentence." Hot Rod beamed up at the mech who'd been one of his favorite visitors from hatchlinghood.

Bluestreak lowered his voice. "You're looking for the engex, aren't you? Mirage has it in the lounge nearby."

"Great, yes," Hot Rod said. He promptly poured the entire cube of energon in his mouth. When he lowered the empty, Bluestreak shook his head.

"I will never understand where you put all that. Whose idea was it to build a mech your size with a tank capacity bigger than Optimus Prime's?"

"It was the will of Primus." Hot Rod beamed and commed Moonracer the location as Bluestreak led him a few hallways down. The bar Eject had talked up turned out to be a long table brought in and placed against one wall, with Mirage and Sideswipe behind it.

Most of the chairs were occupied, but Bluestreak tapped Hot Rod on the shoulder and grinned. "I'll save us a place," he said. "I don't drink engex much, so you don't have to worry about getting me any."

"Make sure there are three seats! Moonracer's going to be joining us once she's done in the drying room."

Bluestreak nodded and moved off with a quiet snort, leaving Hot Rod to approach the bar. By the time he'd finished trying—and failing—to get Mirage to tell him about top-secret superspy stuff, Moonracer had come in, retrieved her own engex, and sat down with Bluestreak. Hot Rod came over to find both of them engaged in a hideously boring conversation about sniper rifles. He huffed loudly through his vents.

Bluestreak looked up. "Gossip time? Gossip time. I can't tell you anything classified, remember, because Jazz and Prowl would have my head, but I can tell you that Prime finally started approving hatchling leave applications a few quartexes back. We've had a few batches taken off to some secret location. And something feels different this time. Smokescreen's got a pool on whether Prime's preparing to clutch or not."

"He's clutching?!" Moonracer gasped, leaning forward. "It would take him more than a vorn to get back into fighting shape after that! The war could have started back up. He doesn't have caretakers! We haven't had any in vorns and vorns."

"And he doesn't even have anyone to clutch with," Hot Rod complained. He leaned back and took a long sip of his engex. His fuel intake alerts started pinging immediately. Yeah, this was the good stuff. "Is Smokescreen taking bets on whether he's going to take a Lord High Protector, as well?"

"What are we fighting for if not the right of our Prime to clutch without a Lord High Protector?" Bluestreak said. "Besides, Prowl and Jazz oversee the military. One of them could probably handle it." His wings wiggled in a slow, suggestive pattern. "Or both. Diversify the clutch."

"Not that Prime clutches need a second donor for that," Hot Rod put in importantly. "That's what the Matrix is for."

"Still, it's a really pretty though." Moonracer sighed. "Can you imagine it? Black and while all over Prime… All those cables tangled together. I bet Prime's ports could fit Prowl and Jazz together."

"Jazz is kind of small," Hot Rod snickered. He took another drink, bigger this time.

"You of all bots should know that the size of a frame has nothing to do with the size of the interfacing equipment." Bluestreak looked him up and down, wings still wiggling.

Moonracer grinned and licked a stray drop of engex off her upper lip. "Oh, that reminds me! He succeeded this time. We stopped off at Nebulos, and Hot Rod actually managed to sneak off and find an organic to interface with. You should have seen Ultra Magnus' face. He was so mad!"

Hot Rod wanted to sink a little lower in his chair. He remembered the incident all too well and very differently. The Nebulan had approached him, for starters, and when they'd gotten back to the Nebulan's home, the whole thing had devolved. Apparently, Nebulans only had one port and one short, stubby little cable that wouldn't fit in any of Hot Rod's ports. Not that he'd really wanted it there. The whole thing had been a disaster. He'd gotten the Nebulan off with all three of his cables, but he'd left with sticky organic residue all over his interface equipment and plating. He hadn't felt triumphant or satisfied afterwards, he'd felt cold and empty. He'd never even had a chance to learn the Nebulan's name.

Still, it did make for a really cool story, and even Arcee had acted impressed after he'd received his dressing-down, so he puffed himself up instead. Sure enough, Bluestreak raked an awed, admiring gaze over him. "An organic? Really? And after the last time Ultra Magnus yelled at you for sneaking off?"

"I know, right?" Moonracer tipped her head back, optics strobing unsteadily. The engex in her cube had vanished. "He's the only one on the ship who's interfaced in nearly a full vorn, and it was with an organic. Sometimes I wish I were back with Chromia's team. If only I were any good at stealth."

"Hey, being with Ultra Magnus' team is great!" Hot Rod protested.

Moonracer giggled. "He wants Ultra Magnus' cables in his ports really bad," she confided to Bluestreak. "Too bad Ultra Magnus doesn't go for casual interface."

Hot Rod wanted to protest that, as well, except he had thought about it once or twice. He'd even thought, maybe, alone on his recharge slab on off cycles, that he'd be okay with any kind of interface Ultra Magnus liked, if it meant that Rodimus had the entirety of that intent, focused attention. It wasn't any use, though; Ultra Magnus wasn't interested in interfacing with him, and the closest Hot Rod got to that dreamed-of attention would be endless lectures and disappointed looks.

He finished off his engex.

"I'm no Ultra Magnus, but I wouldn't object to interfacing if one of you wants to re-engage your FIM."

Moonracer's optics brightened. "Just one of us? It's Hot Rod, Bluestreak, he's up for trying anything." She glanced to the side and smiled. "Right, Hot Rod? Want to try a threesome?"

Hot Rod thought about it. He thought about protesting that he hadn't even had a chance to enjoy being overfueled. But the bar wasn't going anywhere, and, hey. Moonracer wasn't wrong. Hot Rod was up for trying anything, and maybe interface would be easier and more fun if the third mech's presence could take some of the pressure off of him. "Yeah, sure," he said, and activated his FIM chip. The world cleared as his filtration systems kicked into overdrive and removed the pleasant, buzzing distance of everything moving ever-so-slightly out of sync. The alerts vanished. "Your hab suite?"

"Of course, unless you've already gotten your assignments." Bluestreak rose to his feet and held out a hand to each of them.

Hot Rod took one as the tight, stifling feeling started up around his spark again. It would be fine; he liked Bluestreak and Moonracer, and Bluestreak couldn't lie if his life depended on it. He'd tell Hot Rod right away if Hot Rod turned out to be terrible at interfacing without any worries about being polite.

Still, Hot Rod tried to start up the lubrication pathways on his ports with the code mod he'd made. Cheating, maybe, but lubrication always took longer with a partner. At least cables didn't need any preparation to share charge.

Bluestreak had a nice enough hab suite. Nothing at all like the great destroyer of Megatron should have, but way nicer than Hot Rod's room on the Valiant. Not even Bluestreak's recharge slab could fit all of them lying down, but Bluestreak solved that by hopping onto it and sitting up against the recharge regulation board with his legs folded, wings dipping in tandem with his inviting smile. Moonracer laughed and hopped up after him before holding out a hand for Hot Rod. Hot Rod took it and joined them so that they made up a roughly triangular formation as they crowded onto the slab.

Threesomes, as it turned out, were harder to keep track of than basic partnering. After the first few touches, Hot Rod couldn't tell whose fingers were in his seams and whose plating his own hands glided against. Hot Rod shut off his optical feedback and focused on the sensation, arching into the rubbing and occasional tweaks. They felt wonderful.

Too soon, though, they brushed his interface paneling, and all the warmth vanished at the realization that he hadn't managed to build up any excess charge.

He turned on his optics again to discover that Bluestreak and Moonracer had already exchanged cables and turned twin smiles on Hot Rod. "Well?" Moonracer teased, flicking her finger against the tip of another cable. "It's not much of a threesome if you don't get to play, too."

"You saved the best for last," Hot Rod bragged, hoping his grin looked convincing. He slid the panels on the front of his hip joints aside, leaving the port and cable between his legs covered. His ports had lubricated enough. It wouldn't hurt, at least. "Are you up for asynchronous flow?"

"Oooh, kinky," Moonracer teased. "I'm game if Bluestreak is."

"I've never tried it before," Bluestreak admitted, but his cable crawled across Hot Rod's armor to tease at his other port. Hot Rod squirmed at the tickly sensation, then bucked his hips to feign desire. "Why not? Sure. Don't be too rough, Hot Rod."

"I won't." Hot Rod unraveled his own cables and pressed them into his partners simultaneously. He flared his ports as wide as possible as Moonracer and Bluestreak pushed inside the opposite ports, plugging him. The sensation never hurt, exactly, and neither did the flow of electricity between them—it just felt weird. At least asynchronous flow would help him mask his own lack of arousal.

All data exchange hardware remained inert. And that was the great thing about casual sex. No data exchange or nanite expectations, and when overload crackled through Bluestreak and dragged Moonracer and Hot Rod with him, that was it. Hot Rod carefully pulled back his cables and tucked them away alongside his tender ports.

Bluestreak flopped onto his side. "Wow," he said, static thick in his voice. "That was…wow."

"Speechless? You?" Moonracer squirmed up to cuddle beside him.

Hot Rod found himself beaming despite his discomfort. Sure, other partners might have lied to spare his feelings, but Bluestreak? If Hot Rod's performance had been unsatisfactory, Bluestreak would have been stumbling over his own lack of tact by now. Buoyed by this success, Hot Rod flopped his smaller frame on top of both of them and listened to their vents squeal. "It's because I'm so awesome," he bragged.

"At this, maybe." Bluestreak reached up and stroked along Hot Rod's spoiler. Hot Rod shut off his optics to cuddle into the buzzing feeling of the plating underneath him. Moonracer's hand joined Bluestreak's, and Hot Rod's engine purred. "Don't get too cocky."

"Who's cocky? No one's cocky. Recharge now." Hot Rod thumped his head down on Moonracer's chest to make his point. Moonracer laughed.

Hot Rod liked this. He'd always liked this, even in the awkward aftermath of his first encounter, where he hadn't known how to do anything right or pretend to be charged. He liked the warmth of their hands and the freeness of their affection. He liked how willing mechs became to have their vents stifled by his weight and how they didn't pull away. Every single time, it only cemented his determination: there had to be some kind of interface he liked, so that he could feel the way the datapads said he should and still have this.

He let himself fall into recharge like that, warm and weightless and reassured by their presence.

Sometimes Wing thought that the longer a mech spent in Dai Atlas' company, the more they would become like him. Not because, as Dai Atlas would like to think, he had become a role model for all things still good and just in the world, but because exposure to his constant dour moods and inability to listen to any dissenting opinions would make anyone else similarly crabby and uptight.

And for the past joor, Dai Atlas' mood had threatened to destroy all optimism remaining on the bridge.

Normally, Axe could break the tension with a mild joke or a quiet suggestion to Dai Atlas that they take a break, but Flatline had called Axe in for emergency maintenance exactly one joor ago. Just as Dai Atlas' mood had soured.

Maybe there was a connection there.

"Fastback, report!" Dai Atlas barked at the screen.

"Sir," Fastback said, "there is nothing to report. The Decepticons haven't done anything out of the ordinary."

"That is highly unlikely. You're not looking hard enough. Report back in three joors." Dai Atlas cut the communication without waiting for reply.

Wing glanced across the bridge to where a young repair tech had her shoulder plating hunched up so high that her kibble hid her head. Ey let out a low sigh through eir vents and turned to Dai Atlas. "It could be that they honestly intend to make peace," ey suggested.

Dai Atlas didn't even bother to look at em. "We have been through this many times before. The outcome is always the same."

"Megatron has never been dead before."

"I highly doubt Megatron is dead this time." Dai Atlas scowled at the screen. "All evidence suggests that Starscream lied about Megatron being dead, and his reasons given for the number of long-range scouts he's sending are flimsy at best. Fastback is simply not trying hard enough."

Wing forced eir wings to remain tucked away and still with every ounce of patience ey could summon. A knight, ey reminded emself, is calm. A knight does not let emotion control them; they let it wash over them and fade. Still, Dai Atlas didn't look like he was letting his emotions fade, either, and the atmosphere in the bridge made every sensor in Wing's plating shriek.

Finally, after a few agonizing breems of awkward silence, Axe walked through the door and gave Wing a small nod. Wing used the opportunity to take eir leave. The training rooms would be open and waiting, but Wing turned instead down the corridor to the science quarters. Scientists, ey had found, tended to find personality less of a weakness than eir fellow knights. And right now, Wing could use a little personality.

Nautica looked up from her datapad as Wing opened the door to the lab she and Proxima shared. "Wing! What brings you down here today?"

"Do I need a reason?" ey asked. Ey felt better already, and ey smiled warmly at her.

"Well, no, but you have to admit that most people have one." She tapped something on the datapad and set it down on the table in front of her. "Things are slow, though, I mean, you're not interrupting anything."

Wing settled opposite her and glanced around the room. Proxima had two datapads, one in each hand, and appeared to be making notations on one with her thumb. She glanced up and smiled at em as well. Unlike Nautica, however, she returned to her task afterwards. The rest of the lab looked empty; no new machinery hummed in the center of the floor or off to the side, and the input/regulator units on the side had their lights dimmed.

"Just datapads?" Wing asked. Nautica gave a wry smile and nudged her datapad over to eir side of the table. Wing picked it up and gave a surprised laugh. "The Energon Mines of Yuss? I didn't know you read fiction."

"Yes, well." Nautica reached out to pull the datapad back. "I've already read everything else this ship has to offer. There isn't very much for a quantum engineer to do at the moment. All my proposed alterations and upgrades have been either rejected or put on hold."

Wing gave a soft beep of sympathy. "Let me guess: the repairs would take the ship out of commission for too long?"

"It would just be a few cycles." Nautica grimaced, then shook her head. "I understand, I do, I really do. We're here as a peacekeeping presence, so we have to be vigilant. But, well, that does mean that I'm stuck reading The Energon Mines of Yuss. The author didn't even bother researching real historical refinement techniques." She stared down at the datapad. "Though, it would be worth reading through every single one of those forty-eight installments if the war would finally end."

"It would be worth a lot more than that." Wing's face flaps wiggled.

"Oh, well, of course it would!" Nautica propped her chin in her hand. "Though sometimes it feels like we can't do anything."

"We can't," Proxima confirmed from her corner, without lifting any of her optics. "We could help if we wanted to join a particular side, but the point is that we don't. And Dai Atlas is content to wait for them to fight it out, so we must be as well."

Wing sighed. "I appreciate that the other option is joining a war and a fight I cannot believe in," ey said, "but I, too, wish we could do more."

"And you had friends who stayed with the Autobots, didn't you?" Nautica murmured, optics flickering.

"Most of the Primal Vanguard did." Wing managed a small smile. "In their view, I'm sure I'm the traitor for turning my back on the vows I made."

Ey had a different view of it, of course. Ey had seen the tensions and betrayals that had led their Lord High Protector to break from their Prime. Ey could not condone the methods, but the Prime's promises had been the first to shatter under pressure. Wing could not have stayed with the Autobots. But those reasons, spoken aloud, turned easily to excuses, and Wing would make none to those who saw it differently.

Nautica's visor slid down over her optics. "Maybe you could see them again, with this ceasefire on," she suggested.

"Probably not," Wing murmured. "Most of them, I imagine, are dead."

After that, there seemed to be nothing more to say.

"Soundwave!" Starscream said, planting his hands on his hip joints as his wings flared in aggression. "You've had a decivorn. How long does it take for your miserable little minions to find an aerial the size of Megatron? I thought the two of you were practically sparkbonded!"

Soundwave's mask and monotone voice made him impossible to read, but he answered "No," without hesitation.

"'No' is not an answer. How long, I said?"

"Time unknown. Space bridge coordinates corrupted. Space bridge capabilities vast."

Starscream considered needling him about sparkbonding again—it seemed to be the only topic that he could reliably get any kind of emotional reaction out of Soundwave with—but decided against it in favor of complaining. "This is ridiculous. How are we supposed to find our great and magnificent leader's remains and pay proper homage to them if you can't even work a simple spacebridge?" He threw himself down in the nearest chair with a scowl. "If only we could kidnap the Autobot responsible. They would know."

"Unlikely," Soundwave said. "Spacebridge malfunctioning. Jeopardizing treaty unwise. Decepticon forces diminished."

"Yes, yes," groused Starscream. "But in case you had forgotten, the Autobots are sending their warriors off to breed as well. And they're allowing healthy soldiers to leave."

"Hatchlings from healthy soldiers more likely to survive. Autobot strategy weakens Autobots now but strengthens them later."

Starscream tipped his head back. "Well, then, the sooner we end this farce the better. I grow weary of giving Prime and Dai Atlas insipid smiles, and I have no interest in spending thirty-seven vorns searching for Megatron only to find a hoard of new Autobot soldiers venting down my wings. If you can't offer me anything useful, then give me one good reason why I should keep you on this task."

For a moment, Starscream thought Soundwave wouldn't answer. He stood as still and silent as ever. But then he turned and moved towards the nearest console and it blinked on without Soundwave even touching it. Showoff, Starscream thought in irritation.

The display on the screen showed a piece of twisted gray scrap metal. "Yes?" Starscream prompted. "This means nothing to me."

"Piece of Megatron's armor, retrieved by Laserbeak," Soundwave said. "Tracking signal faint but present. Megatron alive."

Starscream's entire frame locked up. He didn't know what he'd been expecting—he'd told himself time and time again that Megatron couldn't be dead, that it couldn't possibly be that simple, and he'd known that they would have to seek Megatron out. He'd known all this, and yet the shock of hearing all his suspicions confirmed by Megatron's staunchest supporter made his spark chamber feel like it was crumbling inward.

He scowled and struggled to get control of himself. He made his vents steady and forced himself to frown. He could salvage this. "And why wasn't this brought to my attention sooner? Why have you been wasting your time with the space bridge and probable destinations when you have a live tracking signal to chase down? Those coordinates could have been given to our long-range teams! Have you enjoyed leaving our glorious leader to suffer?"

The display flickered to the probable destinations map Soundwave had given Starscream a few quartexes after the incident. "Tracking signal irrelevant. Tracking signal impossible to trace. Soundwave already searching. Armor gives nothing but confirmation of status."

Starscream flung himself off of the chair and into Soundwave's personal space in an instant, flaring his wings to loom. "That," he snapped, "is not for you to decide. Everything you discover could be relevant! I am in charge here, and I should not be left ignorant of what you find just because you personally do not believe that it is relevant!" His voice rose into a shriek. "You will give me everything, do you understand? Everything! I am your leader, and I will be given the respect I am due!"

Soundwave watched him. Or, at least, his damnable mask stayed turned towards Starscream. Starscream wanted to rip the thing off and throw it to the ground, to force Soundwave to look him in the optics. The rage rising up in him threatened to overwhelm everything. He could focus on nothing but the overwhelming urge to hurt someone.

With effort, he forced it down. Soundwave couldn't be underestimated, with his cadre of beastformers and minicon Cassettes. In fact, Starscream wouldn't put it past Soundwave to have deliberately instigated a battle just to take him out. Maybe Soundwave had found Megatron already and was only baiting Starscream. Making him easy for Megatron to put down.

If only Starscream could come up with a foolproof way to get rid of a telepath with five drones.

As he thought that, Soundwave's head twitched, and Starscream stiffened. The two of them stared at each other, silent, neither saying a thing. Starscream tried not to think about anything at all. Anti-telepathy mods, he reminded himself. It's just a coincidence. He didn't catch any of that.

The door hissed open, and Slipstream walked in. "Lord Starscream," she drawled with just a touch too much insolence in the title to make Starscream happy. "I have the results of the latest search for you." She dangled a datapad from her claws.

Starscream looked away from Soundwave to grab at the datapad with a curse. "Give me that!" He flicked through it. "Another failure. How surprising."

"Not surprising at all when you consider the lack of competent long distance fliers. Maybe if Blast Off hadn't become part of a combiner, we could send a team with him." Slipstream's gaze slid past him to the map. "Is that the range we're supposed to be surveying? That's going to take us vorns."

Starscream watched as Soundwave slipped silently out the door. He'd have to keep an eye on his second-in-command, but for now, he had a mouthy aerial to deal with. "Is that a complaint? You don't think you're capable of it?"

Slipstream stiffened, her wings rising in a defensive display. "I can do it." The words came out short and clipped, and she turned to leave without waiting for his dismissal.

Everyone was working against him. Starscream curled his hands into fists and stared at that damnably huge display as he integrated the new data with it. One system eliminated from the possible locations in one decivorn. He only had a vorn until the ceasefire expired and other decisions had to be made. As much as he hated to admit it, Slipstream's observation rang true.

As he looked at the display, a set of coordinates off to the side and towards the end of the spacebridge's range caught his eye. Against all odds, he recognized those coordinates.

His vents tightened, making the air rasp as it left them. How had he not noticed that before? How had he not seen this tiny system that held so much significance?

He fumbled with the display, switching it off as his frame heated with unpleasant emotion. Distress. His wings snapped down against his frame, and he fell back into the chair to cradle his face in his hands. Memories rose in his processor, and he pushed back at them. No. He would not allow himself this weakness. Not now. Not here.

And yet, as he forced himself to rise and stalk back towards his hab suite, he couldn't help the wistful, bittersweet thought that all of this would be so much easier if Jetfire were here with him.

Chapter Text

Rewind had reached the point of absolute boredom nearly a joor ago, but Chromia seemed unbothered. She kept her frame still, optics flickering between the monitors and the external view of the Nemesis. Meanwhile, Rewind had started playing back his archives to himself in real time just to stave off the sense that absolutely nothing was happening. He couldn't even comm Blaster; even with the added security of a host link, Prowl had forbidden any communications except in the case of an emergency.

He contemplated starting up an Old Cybertronian opera, which lasted an entire orn. He'd downloaded it to torment Eject with, but close surveillance duty was turning out to be even more horrifying a prospect than endless mechanical screaming. At least he'd have the memory of noise to distract him from the silence.

Rewind had accepted the job thinking that surely he wouldn't get bored. He enjoyed watching and recording people who had no idea they were being watched or recorded.

As it turned out, though, even that could get old.

"What's that?" Chromia murmured.

For a moment, Rewind thought he'd started to play the opera out loud by accident. He nearly apologized before realizing that Chromia's gaze had remained fixed intently on one of the screens. He leaned over to see a cluster of Decepticons gathered around a screen of their own, with more dashing in and a few dashing away. "Something's happening?" he offered, partly to hear himself speak aloud and partly to drown out the sudden nervous hum of his own spark.

"Something's definitely happening."

Chromia and Rewind watched in silence until Buzzsaw's distinctive head appeared and looked directly at the camera. The feed went dead, and Chromia let out a series of obscene beeps. "No, no, no, scrap—!"

"They know we're watching," Rewind said. He felt a little like someone had just stepped on him. "What now? If I sneak back in to reset the cameras, I'll get caught for sure."

Chromia tapped her fingers against the edge of the console. "Okay," she said. "First of all, you go back. Report on this in person; you're not a combatant, and if they find me here, I don't want to be distracted by having to protect you. And if they can pick up comms, I'd rather they do so after you're out of the line of fire."


"Escape pod." Chromia pointed towards the back of the small shuttle. "Extremely short range, and you're small enough. If you leave now, they shouldn't have time to lock on and shoot you."

"That's very comforting," Rewind muttered. "What do I even say? We don't know anything."

"Tell them there's an increase in activity, and I'll be monitoring outgoing and incoming signals for Blaster's decryption. I'll keep him updated via secure link." She went quiet for a moment as Rewind made his way to the back and closed himself in the pod. The metal around him was cold, and the consoles had nothing but bare metal and thin energy-saving lights. He dimmed his optics and started the ejection procedures.

«Blaster?» he said, opening a secure comm link that included Chromia as the pod started to move. «I'm coming back in an escape pod.»

«Okay. We've got eyes out for you. Chromia—»

«Was going to wait until Rewind was further away to report. I'm staying out here,» she said. «I'll call for help if I need it.»

«You never call,» Blaster said, his voice light.

«I never need help.»

Rewind huddled to one side of the pod, feeling isolated and all the more vulnerable for how little the escape pod let him see of the outside galaxy. On the other end of the sparkbond, he could feel Chromedome's worry, mixed with enough love that Rewind could relax enough to speak again. «Chromia? Is anyone…»

«Nobody's coming after you. No ships have launched, no aerials are in pursuit. It doesn't look like they're breaking the ceasefire just yet.»

«That's a good sign," Blaster said.

«That doesn't mean they aren't going to break it soon.»

«That's very comforting,» Rewind groused, but he passed a sense of reassurance back through the sparkbond. The rest of the journey to the Ark passed in tense, thick silence made bearable only by Chromedome's half-presence. Never again, Rewind decided. If he ever did this kind of reconnaissance again, he was making sure Chromedome had the clearance to talk to him during the mission.

Just as the escape pod neared the Ark's open hatch, Chromia called in again. «There's an outgoing transmission to the Circle of Light. Ongoing.»

Rewind sat up straight as the Ark's doors closed around the pod. «Wait, that's good, right? That means they're not planning on launching some sort of attack.»

«Not necessarily,» Chromia said, her voice terse.

«But it's less likely, yeah.» Blaster's voice, by contrast, sounded loose and relieved. «I pinged Chromedome, by the way. He'll be waiting for you when you get out, and he'll get you whatever you need before you come up to report in with me.»

Rewind smiled as the door opened to reveal his sparkmate and conjunx endura. «Thanks, Blaster. Was he pestering you?»

«You have no idea.»

"I knew this would end badly," Chromedome said immediately, crossing his arms over his chest. "It's bad enough that you go gallivanting off through Decepticons ships, but then staying right next to them instead of coming home…!"

Rewind extracted himself from the pod and tottered over to pat Chromedome's hip. Relieved affection swelled in his spark, and he pushed it all through the bond. "It's fine, Domey. I'm fine. Come on, let's get me back to Blaster before I miss all the fun, okay?"

"From what Blaster said, you didn't even see anything, anyway," Chromedome muttered.

"Yeah, but if they want to invite me along to a command meeting, I am not going to say no." Rewind grinned and tapped his camera light. "I'm going to record as much of it as they let me. I'll show you later?"

"Don't violate any confidentiality." But Chromedome did lean down to give him a hug in front of the communications room, just as Blaster emerged. Rewind relaxed into Chromedome's arms for a long moment, letting go of all the fear he'd felt in that little escape pod. Then Chromedome huffed and let go, and Rewind climbed Blaster's plating to sit on his shoulder as they made their way towards the conference room.

Everyone else—or, at least, everyone else Rewind would expect to be there and more besides—looked up at their arrival. Optimus Prime and Ultra Magnus stood towards the front of the room, near the viewscreen and facing each other. Prowl stood in the far corner, jabbing at a datapad. Jazz and Windblade were the only two seated, and Jazz grinned at them both. "Hey, mechs. I hear you have news for us."

"Not really," Rewind said. He slipped off of Blaster's shoulder to climb up onto the long table. "You probably know the basics already—a lot of Cons started running around, then Buzzsaw found the video feed and took it offline. And then they contacted the Circle of Light, and here I am." He spread his arms. "Sorry, Chromia only sent me back because she didn't want to have to worry about my safety."

Jazz laughed. "Information is information, little mech."

"And that does sound like Chromia," Windblade said fondly.

"Uh," Blaster said. He straightened. "We're getting a call from Dai Atlas, sirs."

"Route it through," Optimus said. He and Ultra Magnus turned to face the viewscreen, and Rewind scooted closer.

"It's a split signal," Blaster said, then shook his head and dimmed his optics. A few moments later, the viewscreen flickered on. It was, as Blaster had said, split: Dai Atlas took up one half of the screen and Starscream the other.

"Well, well, well," Starscream purred. "Hello, Optimus Prime. It's been some time."

Rewind couldn't see Optimus' expression, but he made sure his camera's field of vision included the Prime anyway. Definitely some sort of important moment.

"Starscream, Dai Atlas," Optimus said. He inclined his head. "What is this about?"

"A peace treaty," Starscream replied. "You will recall that was part of our initial agreement." His voice dripped with smarm. "I believe it's time to start looking forward to the future that we create together rather than being trapped in the past."

"As I recall, our initial agreement was for a ceasefire that lasted the traditional vorn. Why the sudden change?"

"Why wait?" Starscream draped himself back against the chair he sat in, wings moving low and wide at an angle that looked like smug self-satisfaction to Rewind. "In the past, ceasefires have been nothing more than a temporary cessation of hostilities. What we're moving towards now is a complete and final end to the war. You can't tell me that Optimus Prime, who has tried so hard to negotiate with our unfortunately hostile former leader, is now against the idea of working towards peace?"

Rewind turned to look at Optimus' back, but no reaction showed. On the screen, however, Dai Atlas' optics narrowed.

"The next step, of course," Starscream continued without waiting for a response, "is to find an appropriately neutral location upon which to conduct negotiations. This sort of thing shouldn't be done over viewscreens. We need to foster trust face-to-face."

«Primus below,» Blaster murmured to Rewind. «Is Starscream, of all people, really going on about trust?»

«I'm going to have to play this back for everyone later.»

"An appropriately neutral location," Optimus Prime repeated. "I presume you have something in mind."

"No, not at all. I was hoping you would have some suggestions, Optimus Prime."

Rewind didn't dare take his camera off the viewscreen long enough to do a full optical sweep, but he could see Ultra Magnus' optics flickering rapidly as he looked down at his datapad. Rewind would have bet anything that Starscream was lying.

"Junkion has plenty of open space," Optimus Prime said, voice slow.

"But the rest of the planet is Autobot-allied," Starscream countered. "I hope you don't think me so foolish as to agree to that."

"The best solution would be to use a planet that has no sentient life whatsoever. However, many of those planets with no sentient life have at one point or another been used as a base for military maneuvers."

"Yes, that is unfortunate," Starscream murmured. "I'm sure you'll understand that the great trust I extend to the Autobots is not so great that we can allow ourselves to be dragged into Autobot territory." He looked down at his hands with a tiny frown. After a moment, his optics lit up, and he looked at the viewscreen again. "Oh! I have the perfect solution."

«Of course he does,» Blaster scoffed.

"Some twenty-four thousand vorns ago, I fancied myself an explorer of sorts. As it happens, one of those planets I visited is very remote—so remote, in fact, that it has played no part in this long war. It has no sentient creatures, and its resources can easily be converted to energon for as long as we stay. It should be perfect. I will send you the coordinates." A ping and a display at the bottom of the viewscreen indicated that Starscream had, in fact, done so. "Let me know when you've decided to give peace a chance, Prime." And with that, Starscream's display flickered off.

Dai Atlas' optics dimmed and narrowed, and he vanished as well after a brusque farewell, leaving the conference room silent.

"Well," Jazz said finally, voice thick with sarcasm. "There's no way Starscream could possibly be leadin' us into a trap."

"What are our choices?" Optimus Prime turned to face the rest of the room. "Can we afford to ignore this overture to peace, even knowing that the Decepticons will turn on us?"

Prowl shifted in the corner. "I am reluctant to point this out," he said, "but Starscream is a prominent enough figure that if he had returned to the planet during his time as one of the Winglord Trine of Vos, it would have been noted by our spies. He would have had to send others to assess the state of the planet and plant the means for a Decepticon victory."

"Which is unlikely," Jazz added. "We've been keepin' surveillance on the Nemesis since the ceasefire started, just like they've got eyes on us. We've had some aerial teams heading out, but none of them have headed to known spacebridge locations or the coordinates given." He tapped the side of his face. "Doesn't mean it's not a trap, though."

The room fell into silence once more.

After a half-breem or so, Optimus glanced down at Rewind and smiled. "I would appreciate if you and Blaster don't spread this around yet—there's no point in raising anyone's hopes. However, you can let everyone know that we'll be engaging the Ark's transwarp drive soon."

"Optimus," Jazz scolded. "You're gonna get their hopes up, you say it like that. There's already rumors going around that you're clutchin'."

Optimus laughed, but the light in his optics faded. "No matter what we say, their hopes will be raised. And isn't that better than having hope so fragile that it cannot grow?"

"You know it's gonna crush them when Starscream plays his hand."

Rewind felt a large hand settle on his shoulder and looked back at Blaster. "Hey," he said. "Wanna get out of here and back to your conjunx?"

Rewind glanced over to see Jazz and Optimus staring at each other, clearly having switched to internal comm systems. "Yeah, okay." He climbed to Blaster's shoulder, but before he could settle down for the ride, he caught sight of Ultra Magnus.

He'd almost managed to forget the force of Ultra Magnus' presence. The huge mech hadn't spoken once during the entire call. And now he stood staring at Rewind, expression unreadable. Rewind felt a trail of ice run down his struts, and he reflexively clutched at Blaster's audial fins as he sat.

"You okay?" Blaster asked as soon as the door slid shut behind them. "That got a little intense. I don't think they were expectin' that when they invited us to up."

"No, it's not that," Rewind said. "It's just some bad history I've got with Ultra Magnus." After a moment, honesty compelled him to add, "It's not Ultra Magnus' fault or anything. Just—"

"War memories," Blaster finished. "You don't have to explain that. I get it. We've all got those. Still want me to drop you off at CD's place?"

"Please," Rewind said. He turned off his camera.

Slipstream had never been a huge fan of the Vosian stragglers. A few of them still talked loudly about the inherent superiority of aerial frames with an attitude that, in Slipstream's opinion, ran counter to everything the Decepticon movement stood for. But, at the same time, she didn't have any interest in becoming Thundercracker, either; he remained welcome in those Vosian circles purely by virtue of his status as part of the Winglord Trine, and because he could make things miserable for anyone on the ship at the drop of a screw. Not that he ever had, to Slipstream's knowledge, but it gave him some serious leverage. Slipstream didn't even have a trine, period. She could easily slip into the foul weather of Vosian opinion if she didn't schmooze on a regular basis.

This time, though, she was on a mission.

"Skywarp," she said, settling onto the stool next to his with a careful flutter of her wings. "I brought you some engex."

Skywarp turned on his optics to stare at her. "What do you want for it?" he asked with a scowl.

"Nothing at all. Well, except the pleasure of your company. I only want to talk."

"Hm." Skywarp eyed the engex, then made a grab for it. Slipstream watched as he took a long drink and smacked his lips. "Ahhh, that's the good stuff."

"Only the best for our Winglord," she simpered. "Consider it a token of my appreciation for all your trine is doing for the Decepticons."

"All our trine is doing for the Decepticons," Skywarp muttered. "Fragging Starscream." He took another long drink. "You want peace with the Autobots, huh?"

Sensing a trap, Slipstream let herself pause to consider her answer. "I'm sure Lord Starscream has only the best of intentions," she said. "But do you really think he's interested in peace? I assumed…" She trailed off.

"That he had something else stuffed up his cockpit?" Skywarp finished helpfully. "Ugh. Yeah, probably. What a fraggin' glitch. He can't even tell us about his plans? We're his fraggin' trine." He muttered something subvocal that Slipstream couldn't hear over the room's baseline noise, then took another drink of engex. "This is real good stuff."

"He didn't tell you anything?" Slipstream feigned shock.

"Nope. He never does, anymore." Skywarp turned the empty cube over his head and ended up with a pink smear of liquid along his cheek that his tongue couldn't reach. "Thundercracker's got him figured out, though. You know the spot he picked for the treaty? Exactly where he tried to run away before…before." He shook the cube sadly, then set it down and sighed.

Slipstream's optics narrowed, but she kept her voice oozing oily sympathy. "He…tried to run away?"

Skywarp turned his baleful stare on her, and for a moment she thought he would call her out. But he didn't. "It's not a fraggin' secret. 'S not like Scream was happy with bein' trined to us. So he ran before the ceremony." His wings tilted forward and back in a shrug. "Made it here, came back, trined."

"But he's not trying to run now, at least," Slipstream said to cover her confusion. She'd have to look up that piece of history—discreetly, of course.

"Nah." Skywarp tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling. "He's just gettin' weird about it. More engex?" he added hopefully.

Slipstream considered it. But he looked like he was on the verge of slipping into protective recharge right there and then, and there wasn't much point to feeding him if she couldn't get more information out of it. "Sorry," she said, "I don't want to accidentally damage your systems."

"Thundercracker warned you about that, didn't he," Skywarp grumbled. His optics went dark.

After a few moments, Slipstream tried nudging him. He didn't move. She let out a small, annoyed blat of static and got up. Time to move on. Fortunately, Skywarp had settled near the edge of the balcony, so she only had to slip over the small railing and glide down towards the line of assorted dispensers. She performed an exaggerated double take as she saw Barricade filling his cube in the corner. "Barricade!" she exclaimed. "I haven't seen you in a while."

Barricade's optics flickered, and he looked up at her. "It's been a busy eight decivorns."

"So it has," Slipstream said. She sidled closer to use the dispenser next to his. "It would have been nice if Starscream hadn't rearranged the duty rosters. Shifts aren't as much fun without someone who understands that complaints aren't treasonous."

Barricade's vents huffed. "I think it's mostly Starscream who doesn't understand that."

"Don't say that too loud; he might hear you." Slipstream wiggled her wings and took the now-full cube in her claws. "Or maybe Soundwave will be kind and spare us the interrogation. Hello, Soundwave."

Barricade snorted and took his own cube over to one of the grounder benches. Slipstream followed, but stood; joining him on the bench would mean squeezing into a too-small place with her wings against the wall. Barricade smirked at her. "Did you have something to say?"

"I'm a little worried about Starscream, actually," Slipstream said. She flicked her optical field around, but nobody seemed to be paying attention. Good. "Don't his motives seem a little…" She waved her hand. "Personal?"

"He seems like the same old Starscream to me," Barricade said. "You got something I don't?"

"Well." Slipstream pursed her lips and tapped one claw against them. "I'm not so sure about that. It's only that Skywarp was just telling me about how these coordinates they've picked for the treaty are some place Starscream already knew about. And it's a peace treaty with the Autobots. That doesn't strike you as strange?"

Barricade's optics dimmed, his face going unreadable, and Slipstream tensed. "You don't think he's got something else in mind?" he asked, a guarded sort of censure in his tone, and Slipstream cursed her mistake.

"I mean," she fumbled. "I did, until Skywarp mentioned—" She cut herself off with a scowl. "You're doing it again!" Barricade hid his mouthplates behind his energon cube. "You fragger, you're making me sound like something I'm not."

Barricade tipped the energon cube in her direction, which was no answer. She fumed quietly for a moment, then turned around to stalk off. She could play it like she'd been overcharged and angry; she'd apologize later, when she had a better sense of what Barricade had even been doing there.

Movement up on the aerial balcony caught her optics as she neared the door, and she glanced up. Thundercracker stood there, Skywarp in his arms, watching her with a serious expression. Her wings twitched downward in startled reflex, but he didn't comm her. He stared at her for a moment, then moved off with his sparkmate in his arms.

Slipstream retreated to the hallway outside and stood there, wings trembling minutely. It had all been going so well, too! If Barricade had just been in his usual pragmatic mood instead of one of his rare mindfragging games, she would have been able to point out all the deflections Starscream had made until Soundwave had taken him aside. Then it had been bam, instant Autobot peace treaty.

Starscream had something in his cockpit, sure enough, but Slipstream wasn't so sure that it would benefit the Decepticon Empire. And nobody but her seemed to have noticed.

The planet Starscream had chosen was swarming with organics in an overwhelming display of biodiversity. That alone would have put Prowl on edge, but to make it worse, Starscream had lied about their sapience. At some point during Starscream's many vorn absence, a bipedal species—that resembled Nebulans so closely that Prowl had to double check to make sure no interplanetary contact existed—had gained sapience and very primitive adaptive technology.

"This is unacceptable," Prowl said to Optimus Prime. "He brought us to a planet crawling with organic allies; who knows what sort of technology he's supplied them with? There are too many of them. We're outnumbered. They're small, but one wrong move and we could all be wiped out. And that's not even going into the potential diseases."

They hovered in orbit around the water planet. Prowl had see to it that none of the major sensors would display the ship's location, at least, but they'd have to make a decision soon. Not even Jazz had the resources to hide an entire flagship for orns on end.

"The Circle of Light and the Nemesis arrived at the same time," Optimus Prime said. "I doubt Starscream masterminded this. You yourself told me that it's unlikely Starscream has been able to return here since he became Winglord. We have seen no evidence that they know Cybertronians even exist." He smiled. "And they have vehicles, though non-sentient. It should be easy enough to remain in disguise through the negotiations."

"Starscream may not have been here himself, but that doesn't mean they're not on his side. And the Circle of Light doesn't have the same caliber of spies as we do." Prowl's wings twitched, and he crossed his arms under his bumper. "You are being willfully ignorant. And you sent Jazz away because he would have a better chance of arguing you out of whatever idea has crossed your processor."

"It's not an idea, Prowl. But our situation hasn't changed. Do we want peace enough to take the risk for it?" Optimus' voice sank into the deep, reverent tones he used to speak to his people. "I believe that we cannot afford to assume that Starscream isn't genuine in his desire for peace. We will simply have to work with this new situation."

Prowl's wings sank down. "Prime."

Optimus still wouldn't look at him. "Though," he said in a thoughtful tone that made Prowl's wings dip even lower, "if these organics are as dangerous as you say, perhaps it's best to test them. We can reveal ourselves to the local faction in power and explain that we are here for a peace treaty. If they react poorly, we have a reason to request a change in location."

As far as ideas went, it wasn't the worst Prowl had heard come from Optimus Prime's vocalizer, but his processor still rebelled at the idea of driving into such an obvious trap. "You are going to get everyone on the Ark killed," he said, voice dulled.

At least, he thought as Optimus Prime accessed the primitive viewscreen technology and adjusted for systems incompatibility, it could be worse. Optimus would never match Sentinel in sheer angry obstinance.

"Hello," Optimus Prime said into the viewscreen in one of the many native organic languages. Prowl straightened. "This is Optimus Prime of the free Cybertronian Autobots. I wish to speak to your leader."

Almost immediately, Prowl received a comm from Jazz. «What did Prime just do?» he laughed into Prowl's internal audio sensors. «Everythin' just went wild down here.»

Prowl's wings hitched high and indignant. «The mission he sent you to was planetside?» he demanded.

«Oh, Prowl, don't get your energon lines in a knot.» Jazz sounded almost sad for a moment. «Yeah, I'm on Earth. It's wild down here. You'll hate it. These organics have so much life.»

Prowl already hated it. «Tell me he's at least having you scan for shielded Decepticon technology.»

«Of course he is,» Jazz soothed. «OP's got his head screwed on straight.» A moment of silence, then another laugh. «He's really got 'em riled up! If it makes you feel better, Prowl, they're even more upset than you are.»

It didn't. «And have there been any signs?»

«Nothin' concrete. I've gotten a few false signals, but nothin' leadin' back to the Decepticons. As far as the humans are concerned, the Neutrals and the Decepticons are invisible. Guess OP was the only one to come up with the idea to make nice with the locals.»

Prowl dimmed his optics and started to plot out possibilities. «Let me know as soon as that changes.»

«Mech, if that changes, I'm going back to radio silence so they can't intercept,» Jazz laughed. «You wouldn't have it any other way. Just keep an eye on Optimus and make sure he doesn't do anythin' too dangerous.»

Prowl scowled and curled his fingers, tension cords tight enough to squeak.

Earth itched, as well.

Prowl resisted the urge to vibrate his plating in an attempt to scare away the miniscule organics brushing past and landing on it. He'd done that as soon as they'd arrived on the surface, but the humans gathered around had trained their weapons on him immediately, having misread his irritation as some sort of strange threat display.

«There are organics crawling under my armor,» he complained to Jazz. Prowl had at least secured a promise from Optimus not to let the humans know about Jazz's presence on Earth, so he and Chromia could continue to do their surveillance unrestricted. It was the least Optimus could do after his plan to assess the intentions of the locals had backfired.

The humans had first declared Optimus' message to be a hoax and demanded proof. With that given, they had turned to the flawed conclusion that the Autobots had come to conquer them. When Optimus talked them down from that, they had insisted that the Autobots land on a remote island far from land, and when Optimus pointed out that they were using Earth as a place to negotiate a peace treaty, had been redirected instead to a remote hidden base with nothing around for miles.

Prowl had taken no pleasure in pointing out to Optimus how terribly his interactions with the humans had hobbled them. At least he'd been able to persuade Optimus to authorize the reactivation and maintenance of the Ark's portable spacebridge by Wheeljack and Perceptor. And to keep that technology a secret from the humans.

Prowl had also insisted on being part of the in-person interactions with the humans in an attempt to minimize further damage stemming from Optimus' apparently genuine desire to get along with the things. He regretted that now.

"Greetings," Optimus said with a warm smile. "I thank you again for this opportunity to work with your species towards a greater peace for all peoples everywhere. I am Optimus Prime. Accompanying me are my tactician, Prowl, and my Air Commander, Windblade."

"Soldiers," one of the two without visible weapons said with a nod at each of them. "I'm Special Agent William Fowler."

"And I'm Special Agent Marissa Faireborn," said the other. "We'll be your liaison officers. Anything you need to tell the US government, you tell us, and vice versa."

"Hello," Windblade said, her voice as friendly as Optimus' had been. "Thank you so much for this opportunity you've given us." Her wings twitched, and the humans around them twitched as well. "Optimus didn't have a chance to ask, so I thought I might do it myself—is there any particular protocol you wish me to take so as not to confuse your drones?"

The humans exchanged a look. Special Agent William Fowler cleared their throat. "I'm afraid you're going to have to be more specific," they said. "What protocol are you referring to?"

Windblade twitched her wings again. "For flight. I am the Air Commander, after all."

"The humans don't have aerials," Prowl told her in Neocybex.

"I know. But they do have aerial vehicular drones with very strict flight rules."

Special Agent William Fowler's face scrunched up. "I'm afraid we can't allow alien spacecraft in our airways," they said. "You'd cause a panic among the general population."

"I wouldn't be piloting a spacecraft," Windblade explained. She knelt on the ground. "I'd be flying myself."

"And you think that a giant alien robot flying around would cause less panic?" Special Agent Marissa Faireborn asked, sounding almost amused according to the emotional inflections Prowl had analyzed.

"Oh!" Windblade gave a small laugh. "I understand what the problem is. You can't transform. Don't worry, we were all sure to reset our vehicle modes to match Earth fashions." She held up a hand. "Allow me to demonstrate." Prowl felt a vindictive sort of joy as all the humans made high pitched noises and jumped back. When Windblade's careful transformation was finished, she tapped at the ground with one landing wheel. "Does this help? I'd be flying like this. Oh, and I wouldn't hit any of your drones, don't worry."

Special Agent William Fowler and Special Agent Marissa Faireborn exchanged glances. "Well," Special Agent William Fowler said. "I can't promise anything right now, but why don't I—ask somebody about that." After a long moment, they said in a stronger voice, "I was a pilot myself in my younger days. I'll do what I can to get you up in the air, how about that?"

"Don't make promises you can't keep," Special Agent Marissa Faireborn muttered in a quieter tone clearly unintended for Autobot audial receptors.

Prowl scowled and gave into the urge to vibrate his plating again, heedless of the weapons trained on him. «I hope you're having fun out there,» he groused at Jazz.

«Yeah, I am,» Jazz said. «Keep cool. Remember your mission: you're there to keep Optimus and Windblade alive. Focus on that instead of the organics.»

Right. Prowl twitched his doorwings again as a buzzing organic landed on them and tried to follow Jazz's instructions.

Chapter Text

Next time, Deadlock thought, I'm leaving rumors and intrigue up to Soundwave.

Sure, the talk of Starscream's connection to the planet they'd landed on had intrigued him. And, sure, he was one of the few officers with a high enough rank that he didn't need to clear his absence with Starscream; he'd gone to Soundwave and Shockwave instead to get approval for planetary investigation. And, sure, Soundwave had pointed out that he and his Cassettes were busy with the mission of finding Megatron. But Deadlock hated this planet already and wanted nothing more than a shower and clean tank of energon.

He'd made the mistake of driving right into a human city, and—as though by instinct—he'd managed to find that part of it. The part that existed in every city Deadlock had ever been in, no matter how wealthy or prosperous or egalitarian, where the native life-forms eyed him hungrily with glazed optics.

Deadlock felt unclean just driving past. Not that he could get Syk here, but he could still feel the beginnings of an empty, hungry gnawing in his lines and every single tank. Only the best mnemosurgeons could remove circuit booster cravings, and Megatron didn't employ any.

He'd left the cities behind half a joor ago to ride out into the lush organic landscape. He'd thought it beautiful when he saw the image captures Barricade had taken. Certainly Deadlock had no attachment to the bright glowing lights and deep metals of Cybertron, and the hills he found himself driving along were lined with vibrant green. Nothing here felt empty or alone; once he'd passed outside the city, he'd discovered that non-sentient organics were everywhere. Aves class organics even had a language that sounded like Cybertronian as spoken through an organic body.

But as hard as he tried to focus, he couldn't center his processor on that reassuring noise or the beauty of his surroundings. He could only focus, with increasing horror, on that feeling of emptiness, on the knowledge that this horrible feeling would go away if he could just get some Syk—

It hadn't been this bad in a while. On the ship, he could at least find someone to brawl with when the hunger started to burn through him. Here, he was surrounded by sparkless drones and tiny organics, and he was spark-crushingly aware that he'd accidentally sped further away from the Nemesis instead of making the sensible choice and heading right back.

Useless, he berated himself. Useless and senseless.

He finally stopped, quivering, in an open off-road field. He made sure none of the sapient organics were nearby. Then, with a roar, he transformed and started to shoot at a spot in the ground. Damp clumps of dirt spattered up and hit his plating, and he imagined it as clumps of softer internal metals and congealed energon.

"What did this planet ever do to you?" said a voice by his audial fine, in cultured high-society Neocybex.

Deadlock spun, and only at the last moment did he remember that there was a peace treaty, and he couldn't shoot anyone unless they shot first. He aimed the blaster down and got the dirt right between white-plated feet. The mechanism didn't even flinch. "What are you doing here?" he growled.

That got him a smile, as though the mech hadn't interrupted a fearsome warrior armed to the core and already violent. "I thought I would go flying," they said—ey, Deadlock noted for his database. Ey used the neutral Neocybex reflexive rather than the gender-modified terms. "It gets boring living on a ship after a while, don't you think?"

"Aerialbot," Deadlock snarled. He looked over the aerial's frame, but he couldn't see the Autobot insignia at this angle, only glowing yellow optics and pristine white plating with red highlights. A high-class Aerialbot, from their accent. Cursed aerials and their incessant twitchy need to disregard things like orders and common sense. Ey had a weapon, too: a huge sword strapped down against eir back. No blasters, though. Not a serious threat.

"Does it matter? There is a ceasefire," the aerial said. "I'm Wing."

"…Drift," Deadlock replied. He felt uncomfortably aware that the Autobots might think that he was out sabotaging them instead of investigating Starscream. Better to let the aerial think him a grunt who'd wandered off against orders. The name, though, forced images of those hungry humans and filthy Cybertronian streets into his processor, and he turned away with a snarl as he tried to collect himself.

"It's wonderful here," Wing was saying. "There are so many fascinating creatures. The colors are so different from anything you see on a Cybertronian ship."

"You like this mudball?" Deadlock scowled and looked back to see Wing still smiling that strangely implacable smile.

"Of course. Life is beautiful." Wing spread eir arms. "It thrives even in the most unlikely of places. In two million years, Starscream's planet devoid of sapient life has become a prosperous hub of different subcultures and societies. Have you been to any of the other continents yet?"

"I'm not an aerial, so no," Deadlock sneered, making sure to bare his sharpened dental plate. "Driving around getting organics in my internals isn't my idea of fun."

Wing tilted eir head. "What is your idea of fun?"

Deadlock's optics flickered. "Shooting things," he said before the silence could give away his confusion at the question.

"Ah. That does explain why you were shooting the ground." Wing shifted closer. "It must have been hard for the past eight decivorns, being in a ceasefire."

"Yeah," Deadlock said, uncomfortable now for a different reason. "I wouldn't expect an Autobot to know much about that. You're more fans of sitting around and doing nothing until someone comes along who you can crush under your feet."

"Sitting around, is it." Wing's headflaps wiggled in an odd pattern, but eir smile never faltered. "If the ceasefire is troubling you this much, I could teach you some meditation programs. It's better than shooting up organics and their habitats."

Deadlock lifted the blaster to point straight at Wing's head, right between the optics. He felt unreal somehow, as though someone had reached inside him and torn out everything that made up Deadlock. He felt a little like Drift, hopeless and tired and desperate. "Take your disgusting Autobot superiority somewhere else."

"Drift," Wing said, voice soft, and Deadlock could have screamed at that name said in that tone. "I just want to help you."

"You're the one who's going to need help if you don't get away from me right now."

"If that's what you need." Wing wiggled eir headflaps again and moved backwards to transform. Deadlock followed em with his blaster. "I hope I'll see you again. Please let me know if you change your mind."

And with that, the sleek white jet took off, leaving Deadlock behind in a torn up clearing, muddy and shaking. The cravings, at least, had finally been shocked to the back of his processor, leaving him aware of just how close he'd come to breaking the treaty.

He'd learned nothing about Starscream, but he couldn't stay here anymore. He needed to get back before he destroyed anything else.

"Soundwave, surely your resources should be dedicated to more specialized matters rather than tracking down Megatron," Starscream wheedled. "The Autobots have allowed themselves to be placidly led along until now, but they must be planning something. Your pets are far more useful for surveillance and security than for long-range exploration. Better to leave that to one of my aerials. Someone who is capable of independence. I am Lord Megatron's chosen successor; I should be the one entrusted with this task."

His plating might as well be transparent, Laserbeak scoffed from where ey nestled securely in Soundwave's dock alongside Buzzsaw and Ravage. Does he really think he's fooling anyone with that act?

He's only fooling himself. "Lord Megatron's chosen successor"? As if Megatron would ever willingly leave the Decepticons in the claws of a power-hungry elitist glitch like him. Buzzsaw stirred faintly. I'd like to rip out his optics for that arrogance.

Patience, Ravage told both of them through the sparkbond. Our first task is to find Megatron.

Laserbeak might not be as energon-hungry as Buzzsaw, but ey had heard Starscream dismiss them as sparkless beasts too many times. Soundwave, let us join the twins, ey said. You can argue with him as much as you need to, but—

Soundwave understands, he said, accompanying the words with a gentle wash of love and understanding. Laserbeak felt eir agitated wires start to calm. Soundwave will not make you listen. Aloud, he said, "Starscream is not stealthy. This planet is inhabited by sapient organics. Laserbeak, Buzzsaw, Ravage: eject. Operation: find Megatron."

Laserbeak felt that familiar joyous surge of energy as ey met the cool air and transformed. Ey took off immediately down the corridor, away from Starscream's horrid, grating condescension. I could tear out his optics right now, Buzzsaw said, sounding almost wistful. If I'm just a drone, he could be convinced it was an accident.

He'd kill you even if it were an accident, Ravage replied. You're no good to any of us dead. Get out of the ship and let's find Megatron.

Laserbeak felt a triumphant curl of amusement brighten eir spark at that. Indeed. Revenge isn't always about energon spilled.

It should be, Buzzsaw grumped, but ey followed them instead of attacking Starscream.

Revenge, Laserbeak thought, was sometimes about information withheld. Nobody knew that more keenly than a beastformer, cursed to the dregs of society, looked down and sneered at by even the lowest of the low. The same mechanimal forms that had them classified as Cybertronians of inferior intelligence under most of the ranking systems and drones under the worst meant that nobody bothered to guard their vocalizations. It meant that with Cassette resizing, they could sneak anywhere undetected. And none of them held any loyalty to Starscream beyond the lip service Soundwave had to pay under the nominal Decepticon ranking system.

None of them could hide as well on an organic planet where the sentients were of a size or smaller than them, but Laserbeak unfurled eir cloaking panels anyway as ey left the ship. The native technology, at least, was easily bypassed. «Rumble, Frenzy,» ey said over comms. «What's your status?»

«Rumble would like to grumble that you keep speakin' over your sparkbond instead of using comms,» Rumble said, then cackled. «We're all clear. The signal's coming from this place loud and clear, and we're in place to cause a distraction. Could do with an aerial to help with it…»

«Me,» Buzzsaw said instantly. «Laserbeak and Ravage can do the boring part.»

«You're a birdbrain after my own spark.»

«Don't start anything until we've assessed the situation ourselves,» Ravage ordered. «We can't afford to go into this without a decent plan.»

«The decent plan is "kill everybody,"» Buzzsaw said. «Everybody except Megatron.»

«Buzzsaw,» Soundwave warned.

Frenzy snickered. «Ooh, sounds like someone's recharging outside the dock tonight.»

«I'm not actually going to tear open Starscream's spark casing and feed it to scraplets,» Buzzsaw said. «I'm just going to wish I could.»

«Yeah, you're definitely not allowed to do anything like that unless we're there to watch,» Frenzy said. «No way would I ever want to miss a match like that.»

«There is no match.» Laserbeak dipped as ey approached the designated meeting space. Ey could see the human facility off in the distance. Nothing suspicious from overhead, no aerial defenses. Good. «If Buzzsaw tries it, ey's just going to get eir wings ripped off.»

Ravage and Buzzsaw joined them. «The problem,» Ravage said with a flick of his tail, «is that this base is built for Cassette sizes or smaller. The security is laughable, but we will inevitably be seen because of the size of the facility and the amount of organics.»

«You could mass shift into your alt and hope they carry you in,» Buzzsaw offered without much enthusiasm.

Ravage sniffed and flicked his tail again, making the blades snick in and out. «That's a terrible idea. We'd have humans alert to our presence and location the entire time. We'd have a much better chance attacking from the front.»

«Which we could do!» Buzzsaw said. Laserbeak leaned over and nipped eir throat cables. «Ow. Fine, yes, subtle.»

«Let's explore,» Laserbeak suggested. «As long as we remain outside, we should be able to avoid the humans. Most of the heat signatures are coming from inside, yes? So we get close, and then when we find a way in with minimal visibility—»

«Bam!» Buzzsaw clacked eir beak. «We create a distraction, and you two slip in to get Megatron.»

«At which point our security will be compromised by necessity due to Megatron's size,» Ravage concluded. «Very well. That is our plan.»

«It's a boring plan,» Rumble complained. «What are we supposed to do, just wait? Again?»

«Just wait,» Buzzsaw agreed as ey flew off to a nearby outcropping of rock. «Don't rush this.»

Laserbeak turned down the volume on their inane chatter as ey took off towards the facility. It had an odd layout by Cybertronian standards: a series of flat, rectangular shapes made up the entirety of the facility, most of them too low to the ground for an average mechanism to enter. A thin border of charged metal wire marked the perimeter, with one entrance marked by a tiny building that not even Frenzy could squeeze into. Flimsy. Everything was flimsy and constructed from inferior metals or thin organic compounds.

Knowing Megatron's tracking signal originated from this place made that flimsiness eerie instead of contemptible. The only way he could fit in any of these strange buildings was—well, he couldn't. He couldn't have fit through any of those doors. Laserbeak doubted from eir perusal of the internet and the human security systems that they could take down any mechanism, much less one as strong as Megatron, but the thought sat in the back of eir processor: what if? What if these tiny organic things had managed to take down and subdue Megatron?

Ey rustled eir wingplates and swooped down to glide low and hidden against the sides of the building. To eir surprise, ey found emself confronted almost immediately with a bright blue set of doors that would easily fit a Cassette. Gingerly, ey leaned forward and pressed eir beak and feelers to the metal, reaching out into the sensory net of the building. The only security devices ey found were a motion-activated alarm system, easily turned off, a a heat detector, also easily turned off, and a few hidden hidden security cameras with visual and auditory data only, easily looped.

«I think I found something,» ey said through the open comms. «We can fit through this door, Ravage, and it leads into the largest building. I've already taken care of security.»

«Already? You'd think if they wanted to contain them, they would have spared no expense,» Ravage said. «But I suppose their technology is very primitive. I have your coordinates, Laserbeak. You can go in at will. Frenzy, Rumble, Buzzsaw, start with quiet distractions. Don't give yourselves away unless you need to.»

«You're making this less fun,» Buzzsaw grumbled, but Laserbeak could feel eir warmth and assurance down the sparkbond.

Laserbeak pushed carefully against the door. Ey didn't want to break it; the noise could get the attention of the humans inside. Fortunately, the doors were held together by only a few small metal plugs, easily sliced through. Laserbeak shuffled inside and found emself in some sort of wide-open storage space.

«Megatron's not on the ground level,» et reported as ey glided around the few stacks of empty metal containers. «But his signature is coming from this location. He must be underground.»

Ey turned at the sound of Ravage's metal claws clicking against the smoothly bonded scrap metal and rock that comprised the flooring. «Well, then,» Ravage said, all his blades snapping out at once. «Let's get below.»

Getting below also turned out to be far too simple once Ravage sniffed out the location of the hidden door. Laserbeak reminded emself that the ease of their infiltration had to be because of human technological limitations and not because they were flying into a trap. It couldn't be a trap, in fact, because as soon as they got the large hatch open, humans below them started shrieking incoherently to each other.

Laserbeak swooped in before they could get out their blasters and realized the problem immediately. The tracking signal originated from this location. Megatron had to be alive for the tracking signal to work.

But Megatron wasn't here. Instead, scattered across the enormous room were lumps of barely recognizable metal that had once formed his frame.

Ravage, Laserbeak said over the sparkbond.

I know, he replied, grim acceptance in his voice and spark. Find what you can.

Laserbeak gave a shrill verbal affirmative and dove with claws out at a bunch of humans clustered together. They screamed and scattered, and Laserbeak crashed into the ground to huddle protectively over what they'd been hiding.

Megatron's spark.

Laserbeak would know it anywhere, could remember—Soundwave's memories—long joors of trying to fall into recharge with that soothing pulse through two thick layers of gladiator-level armor.

What's wrong? Buzzsaw demanded, panic rising in eir voice. Ravage? Laserbeak? Did something happen?

Laserbeak tried to form words, but ey couldn't. All ey could do was curl eir feelers around that fragile, cracked spark casing and tuck it against eir plating, hating every second of it. Ey couldn't see Megatron's chest plating anywhere.

It's here, Ravage said. His own grief shaded into a wild, incomprehensible anger. Laserbeak looked across the room to see the top half of Megatron's body—broken, twisted, split open. No energon spilled onto the floor or oozed from the gaps rent in Megatron's plating. Those wounds weren't recent. Some of the metal had tried to repair itself, stretching over a gap too far for self-repair nanites to reach. Some had been re-broken several times. Ravage stood in the middle of Megatron's opened torso, his blades vibrating and dripping with organic liquids. He had something in his mouth.

Megatron's t-cog.

Laserbeak felt Ravage's anger seep over into eir own spark, and with a sudden cry, ey lifted into the air. There had to be one more piece, or Megatron's spark would have faded long ago. The humans had finally brought out their blasters and started to fire, but Ravage let out a hiss and pounced. Laserbeak shook off eir fresh dents and circled once, twice.


Megatron's head sat in a corner, hooked up to so many wires that Laserbeak could have keened. His cranials, too, had been cracked open, and most of the wires went directly to his brain module, through his audials, through the holes where optics had once been, through drilled holes and torn cracks. Laserbeak tried to tamp down on eir horror and disconnect the wires safely, without hacking Megatron as well, but eir feelers trembled.

Warm spatters of organic fluid hit Laserbeak's wings as ey finally disconnected the brain module and flew up towards the ceiling. Is there anything else we can take? ey asked. Before Ravage could answer, a human launched themself up towards Laserbeak, and Laserbeak let out a shrill shriek.

Get out now! Ravage instructed. We can't risk damaging these. He tossed the t-cog into the air, and Laserbeak caught it seconds before it would have been hit by a human's primitive blaster.

Damaging what? Buzzsaw wanted to know. Here, we'll clear a path— «Rumble, Frenzy, break the wall!»

«Already on it!» Frenzy sang out.

As the building shook and the humans cried out, Laserbeak flew up, up, up, heading back to the steady, grounding presence of Soundwave in a daze. The others would take care of everything else. Right now, all that Laserbeak could focus on was Megatron.

Laserbeak's sensors were so numbed by overwhelming grief that ey smashed into Soundwave's shoulder as ey approached the Nemesis. He'd left the security of the ship, it seemed, lured by the rising pain in his bondmates' sparks, and he tucked his arm under Laserbeak's legs before ey could slide down to the ground.

Soundwave, Laserbeak keened, pressing eir face against Soundwave's dock. Ey loosened eir grip on Megatron's vital components, letting them tumble into Soundwave's free hand.

Soundwave made no sound, aloud or over the bond. Laserbeak felt his shock, his growing desolation, and keened again. Ey scrabbled onto his shoulder to press eir face into his neck cabling. Eir own grief diminished before Soundwave's, consumed by the need to protect and comfort. They stayed that way, trembling together, as the other Cassettes made their way back.

"Boss," Rumble whispered, optics wide, as Soundwave fell to his knees.

Buzzsaw immediately mirrored Laserbeak's position on Soundwave's other shoulder, while Ravage leaned against his thigh. Frenzy and Rumble gravitated towards each other, shoulders pressed together as they drew close enough to rest their hands on Soundwave's other leg.

The storm of Soundwave's grief could have lasted joors for the length of time Laserbeak found emself buffeted by it, but when ey checked eir internal chronometer, it had only been a few breems before Ravage spoke. "We must deliver him to Starscream," he said, voice quiet and sure.

"What?" Buzzsaw squawked. "Starscream will eat his spark and crush his brain module! Megatron is defenseless like this!"

"Yes," Ravage said. "And we cannot repair him. If we had his body, perhaps—" and Laserbeak turned off eir optics as the memory of those broken, scattered pieces flashed across eir visual cortex— "but what is left is damaged beyond repair. This is all we have of him. He needs expertise and materials that we don't have."

Soundwave remained silent for another long moment. FInally, drawing on their quiet support, he straightened. "Ravage is correct. Megatron requires medics. Buzzsaw: also correct. Starscream desires unchallenged leadership of Decepticons. Cassettes, operation: protect Megatron at all costs."

Of course we will, Laserbeak told him deep in his spark. Always.

Aloud, outside the spark bond, Rumble and Frenzy glanced at each other. "Yeah, Boss," Frenzy said, reaching out to put a hand on Soundwave's leg. "You can count on us."

Starscream stared at the three remaining pieces of their esteemed leader and wished that Soundwave and his fragging pets would just turn around. It would be so easy to reach down and crush that already-fractured spark casing, to let that light burn itself out. "How," he ground out, his vocalizer feeling as though someone had just tossed fragments of scrap metal inside of it, "did you find this?"

Soundwave's unreadable gaze stayed fixed on him. "Starscream chose location. Starscream did not know this was the origin of Megatron's signal?"

"That's—I—" Starscream stopped, wings hitching high and aggressive. Soundwave had to know full well that Starscream hadn't, but he'd offered an out anyway. "I believe we went over this already," he spat. "You were to give me everything you knew about Megatron's location and your search for him! I am the leader—the second in command! You have deliberately flaunted your disobedience, and I have no choice but to punish you for it."

"Medics summoned."

"You—" Starscream cut himself off again. This had to be Soundwave making his move, and he was wasting it on someone else. But Starscream should have seen this coming; Soundwave had never demonstrated any kind of healthy ambition, and he had only risen up the ranks because of his connection to Megatron. It just figured. The only mech ever seen going in and out of Megatron's personal hab suite, and he was as sickeningly loyal as his own pets. Starscream debated yelling further, but decided against it. He'd have to push a new angle.

"Soundwave? …Lord Starscream. What is the emergency?" Not Knock Out, Starscream noted with some disappointment, but also not the most irritating medic.

"Ambulon," he said, adopting his saddest expression. "It's terrible. As you know, we have been following Lord Megatron's tracking signal all this time. We traced him to this planet, and Soundwave immediately dispatched his pets to bring our lord and master home. But, as you can see, he was too late." Starscream swept a hand beside him in a gesture to encompass the small pile that made up Megatron's vital components. "Alas, but now we may bid him a proper farewell and give him all we can: a swift and painless freedom from the prison of pain he has lived in for these past eight decivorns."

Ambulon's optics widened in a satisfyingly shocked expression. He rushed over to the spark chamber and immediately began scanning it. "His life signs are stable. Spark pulse is weak, spark casing is cracked, and brain module is locked down, but even without medical stasis he should last—"

"His brain module is locked down?" Starscream interrupted. "Soundwave, what condition did you find him in?"

Soundwave's yellow visor flashed bright. For a moment, Starscream worried that Soundwave would try something—but if he attacked Starscream, Ambulon would see, and Soundwave's telepathy didn't extend to remote hacking. Starscream had modded himself, and Ambulon had a full medical mod suite including protective hardware. Just try it, Starscream though. Try it, and I'll make sure you're out of my way once and for all!

Soundwave only bowed his head, though. "Humans attempted to hack Megatron's brain module," he said, as toneless as ever. "Human technology inferior."

"That would explain it," Ambulon said. "I can't assess the damage unless some of the lockdown is reversed."

"If only we had a mnemosurgeon," Starscream said. "But even with the humans' inferior technology, we have to assume that they possessed him for the entirety of those eight decivorns. By now, the damage they caused will likely be irreversible." He made his voice go quiet and mournful. "What is in that pile is no longer Lord Megatron. I know it's hard, but the sooner you accept that, Soundwave, the sooner we can free our master."

Ambulon had moved on to the cracked spark casing. "This is a very old fracture, healed over and rebroken multiple times. It might have been caused by the initial shot," he said. "An injury that bad could have locked up his systems entirely even with gladiatorial overrides." He grimaced. "It's impossible to be certain without access to the rest of his frame, of course."

"Ambulon," Starscream said. "That is beside the point. The point is that Megatron is suffering, right now. You can perform the autopsy later, after we have freed him."

Ambulon, curse him to the Pit, looked up at Starscream, then glanced over at Soundwave for confirmation. Starscream's claws curled as Soundwave shook his head. "Soundwave will rebuild Megatron," he said.

"You might be skilled at field repairs, but you're no medic," Ambulon replied. "You'll need help." He glanced at Starscream. At least he had the good grace to look nervous about ignoring Starscream's position as the ultimate authority of the Decepticons. "We can reassess his quality of living once we've figured out how much damage there's been to his brain module."

Starscream growled. "Then surely in the meantime we should take revenge on the creatures that did this, these foul humans who have overrun this planet." He folded his arms over his cockpit. "We can't let them think that the Decepticons are so easily taken down."

"Humans do not know location of Nemesis," Soundwave said. "Many human groups exist. Cassettes did not discover which took Megatron."

"So send them back," Starscream ordered.

"Information irrelevant. Revenge for Megatron to take, not Starscream."

"How dare you—!" Starscream hissed. "I am the—the acting—Lord of the Decepticons!"

Soundwave just looked at him again. Starscream hated that look. He wanted to claw off Soundwave's mask and possibly his entire face. But he forced himself to appear calm as he looked over at Ambulon. "What do you intend to do with Lord Megatron's remains?" he asked.

"They don't need medical stasis, but they'll do better with it. I'm going to consult with our medical team, and when we have come to a conclusion, we will ask Soundwave what his wishes are in accordance to his position as Lord Megatron's legal medical authority." Ambulon's tone stayed perfectly polite and about as deferential as a medic ever got, but Starscream hissed anyway. Of course Megatron had designated Soundwave as his legal medical authority. Fragging sparkbonded and they wouldn't even admit it.

"You will inform me as soon as you have decided on a course of action," he commanded. He gave one final scrap-melting glare to Megatron—it just figured that even as a useless, frameless pile of internals, Megatron managed to thwart all of Starscream's greatest dreams. Then, with a loud vent of hot, angry air, Starscream turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.

Soundwave might have won this round, but Starscream wouldn't let him win the next. He'd figure out some way to take out Megatron, and fast. He'd worked hard enough for this power, and he wasn't about to give it up before he'd managed to get the respect he so richly deserved.

Chapter Text

Laserbeak. Laserbeak stirred at the sound of Soundwave's voice resonating deep through eir spark. Ey stirred; the comfort and warmth of being tucked away inside his armor alongside his internals made eir own grief feel small, and ey sent that contentment to eir larger bondmate in a few gentle pulses. He smiled behind the mask and returned that feeling with love, though he followed it with a determined professionalism.

A task, then. Laserbeak let eir transformation seams click out a bit, just enough to press reassuringly against Soundwave's dock door. It opened.

"Laserbeak: eject. Operation: surveillance," Soundwave said aloud despite the privacy of their quarters.

Laserbeak, instead of obeying him like the mindless animal most assumed em to be, swooped back to land on his shoulder and nuzzle up against his mask until it retracted. Ey nipped playfully at his mouth until it turned into a shy smile, then sat back. What do you want me to keep surveillance on? I thought Ravage was watching Megatron.

Ravage is watching Megatron, Ravage put in. I don't need any assistance, Soundwave.

Laserbeak: do not help Ravage. Decepticons building base on Earth.

Laserbeak ruffled eir wings as Soundwave sent a memory packet. Sure enough, the Decepticons had decided to build a base in a large abandoned building just as unsuited to average Decepticon height as the one they'd found Megatron in. Why? ey asked, unable to hide eir dismay.

Medics need separate facility for Megatron, Soundwave sent, lifting a hand to stroke along Laserbeak's back. Ey leaned into that touch. Megatron must be kept secret.

Laserbeak chirped and leaned in to nuzzle eir beak against Soundwave's mouth again. His optics flickered faintly behind his visor. Megatron will hate waking up in that sort of place, ey said. It will be too familiar.

Megatron will be moved when rebuild is complete, Soundwave said. Laserbeak: survey building, assess Decepticon loyalties. Decepticons disloyal to Megatron must not be permitted to guard.

And do they know that Megatron's returned?

Rumor has been spread, Soundwave said. Rumble and Frenzy's task was well executed. Megatron has not returned yet. Megatron's signal close. Soon Decepticons will reunite.

Laserbeak ruffled eir wingplates and butted eir head against Soundwave's smooth cheek. That works. I'll keep in touch with you.

Soundwave turned and pressed his mouth to eir head before ey could fly off. Laserbeak is valued, he said.

Laserbeak chirped again and took off.

«So,» Buzzsaw said over the broader Cassette comm, still warm and slow with recharge, cozy in Soundwave's dock. «Bets as to whether Starscream's trine is loyal?»

«No bet,» Frenzy said. Skywarp cries alone in their quarters that Megatron won't plug his ports.»

«Thundercracker doesn't care who's in charge,» Rumble added. «He's just along for the ride because his trine is.» They both snickered. «And Starscream's a no-brainer.»

«Boring,» Buzzsaw shot back. «And outdated. Skywarp hasn't cried in his quarters over Megatron's cables for vorns.»

Laserbeak let eir fellow Cassettes bicker amongst themselves as ey dipped silently into the building. Up close, ey felt relief wash through em: it bore little resemblance to the facility where Megatron had been held beyond the overall rectangular shape. The walls sagged, the glass of the windows had been long broken, and while the Decepticons, too, were building underground, the cavernous expanse that Laserbeak found emself in held Cybertronian sensibilities in every line of it.

Cloaking panels engaged, ey swooped down low to listen in on the muted conversations taking place between the workers. Sure enough, as Soundwave had predicted, some of them sounded more skeptical and less relieved at Megatron's rumored return. Laserbeak passed all the names to Soundwave: anything less than unadulterated joy probably shouldn't be trusted with the safety of Megatron's vital components.

"I wouldn't believe it for a second," Barricade said as he leaned against the wall and watched his companion work. "I mean, this is Starscream we're talking about. He didn't choose this place because Megatron was here. And what sign have we seen of him, anyway? Nothing."

"Of course he wasn't on this planet," Cryotek protested. "There're other planets in this system that don't have all these pesky organics. Megatron's got to be on one of those. Maybe he ordered Starscream to come here but not to tell anyone."

"Hmm," Barricade said, narrowing his optics. "It'd be nice if it were true."

"I'm sure I'm right." Cryotek looked down at the welding torch in his hands. "Those little pipsqueaks are even more tuned in than you."

"And yet the first I heard about any of this was from them, not from my usual methods." Barricade shifted. "Doesn't that make you curious?"

"No. I'm sure it's for the same reason you're assigned to construction duty." Cryotek shoved the welding torch at him. "Speaking of which, you're not working!"

Barricade grumbled, but he took the torch, and Laserbeak compressed the clip with some amusement for Rumble and Frenzy's benefit. «I think you're upsetting your friend,» ey told Frenzy.

«Frag off, he's not my friend! We're operators in the same field with a mutually beneficial acquaintanceship.»

Rumble's high-pitched laughter indicated what he thought of that.

As Laserbeak moved from group to group, watching them clean and build under the watchful supervision of the Constructicons, ey became aware of a faint noise. Ey landed on a rock and dialed up eir auditory sensors, but it remained faint, an odd scuffing sound barely audible under the sound of machinery.

Ey cast one last look over the growing cavern and moved towards the entrance. «Do you have enough names, Soundwave?» ey asked.

«Laserbeak's names along with Rumble and Frenzy's names sufficient for duty roster,» Soundwave replied. «Laserbeak is done?»

«There's something up aboveground,» Laserbeak said. «I'm going to investigate. It could be a bug Starscream installed, or—" Ey rose up our of the hatch and found emself face-to-face with a human. Or a human.

"Oh my god," the human whispered, the skin around its leaky optics stretching away. "Oh my god I didn't take anything!"

Laserbeak, Soundwave sent sharply. Does human seek to regain Megatron's spark?

Laserbeak landed with a soft thump on the cold floor, and the human shrieked, stumbling backwards until it pressed against the wall. It trembled. Laserbeak tilted eir head. It is scared and unarmed.

Operation: apprehend human.

Yes, Laserbeak sent. Ey rose up again and extended eir feelers. The human whimpered, then balled its tiny hands into fists and stepped forward in one aggressive motion. Their fists felt like Rumble or Frenzy tapping lightly on Laserbeak's plating. Ey almost felt bad about the ease with which ey wrapped the human up, covering its mouth with a feeler to muffle its sounds, and carried it up and away, back towards the hab suite where Soundwave waited.

"Prime! I need a word with you." Prowl looked up, doorwings twitching as the two humans stalked in. At least they'd abandoned the idea of having an armed escort every time they spoke to Optimus. Today, both humans designated as their liaisons had similar expressions on their stretchy faces, though Faireborn hung back as usual while Fowler led the interrogation. "In fact, I need a word with all three of you, and I'm not taking no for an answer."

"Of course, Agent Fowler," Optimus said, apparently completely content to rise from the corner where he'd been sitting and consulting with Ultra Magnus over a mobile viewscreen unit. "Windblade is in flight, but she will return shortly. What seems to be the trouble?"

Fowler crossed his arms over his chest. "No, I'm waiting until all three of you are here. I'm not going to risk one of you running off."

Optimus glanced at Prowl. «They seem unusually hostile today,» he said over private comms. «Do you have any idea what the problem could be?»

Prowl wanted to protest that he had no means of predicting these aliens, but that would have meant claiming that he couldn't do his job. He scowled and gave the internet a quick comb-through but saw no mention of any alien sightings or other events that Fowler had claimed would "cause mass panic." «There is nothing nearby, and none of their stated rules have changed. Windblade is within the flight parameters given and is keeping her speed comparable to human aircraft.»

Optimus gave a brief ping of acknowledgement and turned back to Fowler and Faireborn. The silence stretched. Faireborn stepped up to murmur something in Fowler's ear, quiet enough that even Prowl couldn't hear it. A breem later, Prowl heard the distinct thump of Windblade coming in for a landing.

"Hello? Everyone's so quiet," she said as she ducked inside. Her optics didn't so much as flicker towards Prowl or Optimus, but she sent a wordless conformation across the comm link: Optimus had conveyed the situation to her.

Fowler cleared his throat. "Optimus Prime, where were you and your people one week ago?"

"Seven human days?" Optimus asked. At the nod, he pointed up at one of the many security cameras. "We were here, Agent Fowler. As requested, we have made no attempts to evade your restrictions. We will wait until we are contacted about the start of the peace treaty negotations, and then we will reassess the situation. All of us were right here."

"Even Windblade?" Faireborn asked.

"There's been no reason to break the flight restrictions," Windblade said. "Seven days ago I wouldn't have been flying, because I would have just come back."

"Isn't that convenient," Faireborn said, raising one eyebrow.

"Agent Faireborn, what is this about?" Optimus knelt carefully on the floor to bring himself closer to face level, as he might have done with a severely traumatized Cassette he needed information from. "You are obviously asking for some powerful reason. But you could easily have checked the data yourself rather than asking us. Has one of the cameras been damaged?"

Fowler and Faireborn exchanged a glance, and Fowler's mouth made a complication motion. "That's not exactly the issue here," he said. "A week ago, we had a break-in at a secure and top-secret government facility in which some highly classified technology was stolen. There were five deaths and thirty-seven injuries of varying severity."

"The survivors all say the same thing: that the thieves were robots." Faireborn stepped towards Optimus, tilting her chin up. "And you're saying you don't know anything about that? What about that ship of yours, floating up there in our orbit? You wouldn't have brought anyone down to the surface without permission, would you? How close an eye can you keep on your underlings if you're not even present?"

Beside her, Fowler sighed and rubbed his head with his fingers. "Like it or not, Prime, you and your bots are coming up as suspect numero uno."

Prowl hitched his wings higher and waited. If Optimus gave Jazz and Chromia away—

"There are others here on Earth," Optimus said, "but they are not under my command. As I believe I have explained to you before, we are on Earth to negotiate a peace treaty with the Decepticons, under the supervision of Dai Atlas."

"Wait, wait, wait." Fowler held up a hand with his palm flat towards them. "You're saying those robots you're negotiating with are already here?"

"Yes, of course," Optimus said.

"Well, why in the name of Uncle Sam's star-spangled jockstrap didn't you say that before?!"

"I believed it to be self-evident." Optimus bowed his head. "However, that is beside the point. I cannot imagine why any of them would do such a thing. Human technology is…beyond archaic, to our eyes. There is nothing to be gained by stealing any of it."

Faireborn and Fowler glanced at each other. Prowl's optics brightened as he caught brief microexpressions on both of them: discomfort.

"You say those other bots are on Earth already," Fowler said. "But we haven't had any sightings."

"You won't, Agent Fowler," Optimus said. His optics flickered briefly towards Prowl. "If the Decepticons have truly stolen from your people and caused death to your kind, then rest assured, we will do whatever is in our power to drive them from your planet once more and resume our battle without further collateral damage."

Faireborn and Fowler exchanged another look. "This conversation isn't over," Faireborn said. "Consider yourselves under house arrest until we get this worked out. Any movement in or out will be taken as an act of war. And Prime? We don't go down easy." She turned on her heel and stalked out.

"We'll try to sort this out fast enough to get you in the air again," Fowler added, then followed her.

Silence reigned in the building once more.

«Well?» Optimus said over comms to Windblade and Prowl.

«I have reason to believe that they are lying about what was stolen. That's the point at which they hesitated. They may be trying to instigate war.»

«Or they just aren't telling you the whole truth,» Windblade agreed. «You caught that, too? Something else is definitely going on. But why would the Decepticons or the Neutrals risk the peace treaty by attacking the indigenous population?»

Optimus Prime rose to his full height once more. «Starscream cannot have predicted our interactions with these creatures—these people,» he said. «That is far beyond even his machinations. There must be something else that we're all missing.»

Prowl quietly brought Jazz into the comm channel. «Jazz, there's been a situation,» he said.

«You act as though I haven't been watchin' all of you on the security cameras,» Jazz said, his voice light. «I got a pretty good idea of the situation. You want us to check it out, right?»

«I want you to stay away from the humans,» Optimus said. «I'm taking a risk by hiding your presence in such a delicate situation. If they find you, they'll be within their rights to ask us to leave. Have you picked up anything from the Decepticons?»

«Not a thing. The Circle of Light's had a few people going in and out, but they're staying in disguise, and no humans have picked up on it yet. They're not going too far; I assumed they were scoping out the area.»

«You know where their ships are, then.»


«And no Decepticons have left the ship?»

Jazz hesitated. «I can't confirm that,» he said. «We found them after we found the Circle, and you know they keep their security more up-to-date thanks to good old Soundwave.»

«Keep watching,» Optimus instructed. «If you have a chance—»

«Of course. You three just sit pretty for the humans. I'll have something for you soon.» Jazz cut the communication before Optimus could protest or clarify, and Prowl hid a faint smile.

Once the thrill of flight wore off, Slipstream started to worry about how easy it had been to convince Starscream to let her go flying. It wasn't that she thought he would deliberately keep an aerial locked inside; he might be a glitched scrapheap consisting entirely of ego and ambition, but he knew as well as any Decepticon not to keep someone locked down. Land vehicles might be able to transform and drive in the ship. Aerials, on the other hand, had to leave in order to stretch their wings. No, Slipstream didn't think he would have denied her in any case, but as she thought about it she started to wonder why he hadn't made it harder for her.

Finding a secluded area large enough to land in with no humans around proved to be an interesting challenge. The surface she tried turned out too soft, and she crashed into a transformation that ended with mud in all her seams. Slipstream grimaced and sat up, flicking her wings in irritation as she tried to scrub the worst of it off of her paint without scratching it.

Before Slipstream could turn her attention to her other side or her internals, she found herself slammed into from behind by a heavy enough weight that it had to be a Cybertronian. Slipstream yelped and tried to rotate her torso, but a blaster pressed to her helm before she could get her clogged transformation sequences into gear. "Don't move," a voice said, cold and hard.

Slipstream recognized that voice, though not from personal experience. She froze. Chromia. Every mech on the Nemesis knew Chromia's name and had heard her voice. As a hatchling, she'd heard from older mechs that if she crept off without their supervision, Chromia or Jazz might sneak up and steal her away. Now, a full adult for many vorns, she finally found herself up against the mech and severely hindered by that terror programmed into her. She cursed and dug her claws into the soft dirt underneath her. "Let me up! You're breaking the terms of the treaty!"

"Don't mistake me, Slipstream," Chromia said, and Slipstream felt as though all the energon in her lines had just clogged. "This isn't a fight. I'm only here for information. And if I'm breaking the terms of the treaty, well…the Decepticons did it first. Tell me: what is it that you stole from the humans?"

"What?" Slipstream blurted out. "What are you talking about?"

"The technology, Slipstream. What is it? What did you steal it for?"

"Your programming is corrupted!" Slipstream yelled. "There's no human technology worth stealing. What is this really about?"

"Hmm," Chromia said. After a few moments, the pressure of the gun against Slipstream's head vanished, as did the weight across her back. Slipstream scrambled to her feet, wings vibrating indignantly. Chromia looked as clean and shiny as ever from across the clearing, calm and far too small to be so dangerous.

"I don't know what it is you think you're doing," Slipstream said. "But the Decepticons won't stand for it. You assaulted me and scratched my paint while we Decepticons upheld our side of the peace treaty. There's no way you can keep quiet about this. If you really wanted information, you should have gone through the Neutrals and asked, like a normal mech."

"Hmm," Chromia said again. She inspected her gun, then transformed it away. "You might want to get mad about something different. If you don't know what I'm talking about, consider who among the Decepticons might be keeping it from you."

Slipstream narrowed her optics even as they flared. "I know exactly what you're trying to do, Autobot. I chose my faction; I have no intention of abandoning it because you made a few implications about human technology and how misinformed I am."

"Did I say anything about abandoning your faction. I didn't, in fact. I wonder why that even came to mind." Chromia bared her dental plates. They were dull, as Autobot dentals tended to be, and the overall effect made Slipstream shudder. Chromia looked harmless, but Slipstream's coding knew she wasn't. The dissonance created a jarring echo effect. "I'm just giving you something to think about before you go demanding justice for a few scratches that you probably gave yourself after that transformation mishap."

Chromia actually waved and turned her back on Slipstream. Slipstream fantasized for a moment about following her, about leaping on her back and ripping open her armor—but no, Chromia would be expecting that, and she was Chromia. Slipstream wasn't foolish enough to gamble her life away on the slim possibility that a spy known for trickery and deceit might be letting down her guard.

Instead, as soon as Chromia had vanished out of sight, Slipstream transformed again and shot into the air. She landed some distance away. This time, she braced herself for the give of the ground and transformed before hitting the ground so that she landed feet-first. Quietly, to the best of her capabilities, she scanned herself for bugs.

Chromia could have tricked her programming into thinking nothing had been done. Slipstream knew that. But Chromia hadn't been touching her that long, and when Slipstream's scans came up normal she thought she might have escaped the worst of it. Still. Still. She felt dirty, inside and out, from the organic waste all over her and from Chromia's words.

Starscream might be terrible leader, but he was no Autobot. Slipstream had no illusions about what her life would be like under the reign of a Prime: used as cannon fodder, her values and life disrespected, her labor valued only so long as the Prime felt like paying lip service to it. No, she had no interest in working into the hands of Optimus Prime.

And if that meant halting her campaign against Starscream's terrible, self-absorbed decisions, so be it. It didn't matter anyway. With rumors circling that Megatron had been found, it seemed like things would be back to normal soon enough.

Chapter Text

"Well?" Starscream demanded. "What are you doing now? It looks to me like you're all just standing around like useless scraps of metal. Surely this can't be helping our great leader."

"Do you mind?" Knock Out snapped. "We're trying to perform an analysis, here!"

"I," Starscream hissed, "am your temporary leader. You will show the proper respect." He moved closer to Knock Out to loom, raising his wings in a threatening pose. Maybe if he kept this up, one of the medics would slip up with their laser scalpel and get rid of Megatron for him.

It was a nice thought, anyway.

Megatron's spark had been deemed too fragile for immediate surgery, apparently. It sat in a stasis unit packed so thickly with supportive gels that only the line of metal connectors stayed visible. The t-cog was also in a miniature stasis unit, clear and unlined, and the full primary medical team—consisting of Nickel, Knock Out, and Ambulon—had the brain module out in front of them as they scanned and rescanned. They also refused to tell Starscream anything about their results as they spoke in vague, incomprehensible murmurs and medic-level privacy comms.

Fragging medic exemptions.

"Just tell me," Starscream tried. "How much damage is there? Will our great leader Megatron ever live again? I was right, wasn't I—he deserves a peaceful, quiet death. A mercy."

"Repeating that word doesn't make it true," Nickel said without looking up, before Knock Out could reply. "If you want to make yourself useful for fragging once, you can run along and bother someone else."

"What did you say?!" Starscream screeched. All three medics winced.

Nickel planted her tiny hands against the medical slab, palms flat and fingers spread, and stared straight up into Starscream's face. "I said get out of this medical bay before the pitch of your voice damages Megatron's auditory sensors," she said. "You want authority here, scraplet? Then go back and get medical training and the imperative coding. Until then, go defrag for once before your lack of modulation damages your slagging vocalizer even further. Oh, that's right—it's not damaged!"

Ambulon and Knock Out both went rigid. They didn't look at Starscream, but they didn't have to. He could tell they were waiting for a reaction, and he didn't intend to disappoint. He drew himself up to his full height, turned his vocalizer to max settings—

And let out a tiny screech as a hand hooked around his shoulder and pulled him backwards. "Starscream, stop bothering the medics," Thundercracker said wearily.

"How's Lord Megatron?" Skywarp asked. He moved around Starscream to stare with large, pathetic optics at Megatron's brain module.

"We don't fragging know yet," Ambulon said. "That's why we need to perform these tests undisturbed."

"I understand." Skywarp nodded, then spun in place to fix Starscream with a determined glare. "Starscream…"

Starscream hissed. He could recognize the futility of this whole endeavor when his two trinemates had been turned against him, thank you very much. He turned and stalked out of the medical bay with the two of them following close behind.

"Starscream, don't get in a snit about this," Thundercracker said. "What did you think was going to happen?"

Starscream rounded on them. "Foolishly, I assumed that my trinemates would not disgrace me in front of my army!"

"You were going to damage Megatron!" Skywarp growled. "I don't care if you are my trinemate. I'm not going to let you do that!"

"There's something else going on," Thundercracker said. "You've been like this since before we found Megatron."

"Yes, well," Starscream said. "It's all very nice for you, isn't it? The two of you never cared that we were to be…welded together like so much scrap metal. Don't think I haven't noticed how you always take each other's sides. When have either of you ever helped me with anything?! You miserable fragging scraplets!"

Thundercracker's optics started to dim, and his wings raised with anger. "You're worried about imbalance in this trine now? What a joke. Has it ever in twenty four thousand vorns occurred to you that we're just as trapped as you are? That we chose to try to make something good out of it? That we joined the Decepticons with you just to make you happy?"

"That wasn't about me!" Starscream protested. "Skywarp was practically leaking from the moment he saw Megatron! He wanted a gladiator as his third trinemate, don't even try to lie."

"Is that what you've got against Megatron?" Skywarp demanded. "You don't even care about us! Why would you care if I— And I wouldn't, anyway! You're the one who keeps plugging in everyone else's ports."

"What, exactly, are you implying?"

"That you don't even plug into us anymore!" Skywarp's wings hitched high. "If you're so worried about us being a proper trine, why haven't you ever tried to fix it?"

"Because the two of you are so caught up in your own little melodrama that you never bothered to notice me!" Starscream arced his claws back, ready to lash out as his trinemate, until Thundercracker caught Skywarp up in his arms and tugged him back out of Starscream's space again. "See? There you go again! If the two of you actually cared about being a trine—"


"—you would—you would—" Starscream floundered on that last for a while, torn between feelings he didn't have words for and feelings he couldn't let himself give voice to. Instead, he turned around and stalked off down the hall. He tried to ignore the sound of Thundercracker and Skywarp murmuring to each other behind him. He refused to turn around and look. They were being irrational and trying to justify their subpar methods of treating him. He wouldn't suffer their poor excuses.

His vents opened to full capacity as his systems heated. The more he thought about how terrible they were, the faster he stalked down the hall, turning on instinct rather than out of any clear goal. He couldn't go back to the medical bay, not now. And he wouldn't go back to their quarters—they might find him there and churn out more self-righteous nonsense.

"Whoa!" Starscream's sensors screamed a proximity alert at him just as the other mechanism flattened himself against the side of the wall. The tire kibble that masqueraded as stubby pseudo-wings flared up as Barricade narrowed the optics on his face and on his hips. "Starscream? Look where you're going, sir."

Despite himself, Starscream felt some of his anger drain as he arranged his wings in a haughty but carefree position. "You're the one who should be looking where he's going."

"Uh-huh…" Barricade tapped his claws against his leg. "Usually there's no risk of running into aerials around the grounder quarters."

Starscream would have hated those words and the implied critique from anyone else. But from Barricade, somehow, it sounded charming. He'd never had any sense of self-preservation around any authority figure. Not even Megatron. Starscream's wings tilted out, and he stepped forward to trap Barricade against the wall. "I must be looking for something, then," he said. His wings dipped and rose in a slow, graceful motion.

Barricade's facial optics stayed fixed on Starscream's face, but the ones at his hips followed the smooth motion of Starscream's wings. "Looking for something, huh," he said, voice dry.

"Something…or someone." Starscream reached out to trace his claws over the glass highlights on Barricade's chest.

Barricade shivered, and his optics went dim for a moment before brightening again. "This is a terrible idea," he muttered. "You're mad about something."

Starscream tapped the glass, and Barricade writhed, trying to twist away from the sensation. "I'm mad that you're not inviting me into your hab suite," he said. "What's the matter, Barricade? Are you frightened of me now that I rule over all the Decepticons?" He dipped his wings again.

Barricade hissed air out of his vents and raised his hand to Starscream's face. Starscream froze, uncertain, as sharp claws traced around his own optics and mouth. The touch skimmed too light to be threatening but hard enough to raise prickles of charge. "Is this what you're looking for?" Barricade asked, his vocalizer dropping into a low thrumming purr.

"Yes," Starscream said. He shifted, impatient. "But not here in the corridors like the crude grounder that you are. I am Winglord Starscream of Vos, Lord of the Decepticon Army, and I will be treated as such."

Barricade chuckled. "This really isn't a good idea, Lord Starscream," he said. He pulled his claws away and ducked under Starscream's arm to walk in the opposite direction. Starscream stayed there, wings still as he processed the rejection. Then Barricade turned his head. "Are you coming or not?"

"Of course I am!" Starscream proclaimed before the words sank in. Not a rejection. Good. Of course; who would reject Starscream, aside from his foolish trine? He tipped his head and wings high and followed Barricade inside a cramped grounder room with a grounder-sized recharge slab. Starscream stopped just inside the door and looked around, taking in the dim lighting and the collection of ancient, well-worn consoles and datapads stacked in the back of the room. Those stacks gave the only sign that the suite belonged to someone; Barricade had no holograms, no special paint on the walls, no decorations, no nothing.

Everything looked almost exactly the way it had the first time he'd come to Barricade for an interface.

"Not up to your standards?" Barricade asked from the recharge slab. He sat down on it, then lowered himself backwards onto his elbows. Before he could reach a complete horizontal, he hesitated. "You do want to be on top again, right?"

Starscream considered the question. Last time, he'd been afraid of Barricade making him feel trapped, but the concept seemed laughable now. Barricade might be large for a grounder, but he still only came up to the middle of Starscream's chest if they both stood upright, and he was lighter than an aerial. Last time, as Starscream recalled, the whole process had been complicated by the necessity of keeping his full weight from crushing Barricade.

Plus, he thought, it would be nice for Barricade to have to be the one maneuvering around. Oh, yes, Starscream definitely liked the thought of lying back and having Barricade's claws at his ports. "You thought wrong," he said with a sneer. "Get off that slab and let me lie down."

Barricade's optics flickered, but he got up without a word and watched as Starscream flopped back. A grounder's recharge slab wasn't built to accommodate wings, Starscream discovered, but after a klik of wiggling around, he found a position that didn't pinch his delicate components. "Well?" Starscream demanded as soon as he stopped moving. "What are you waiting for?"

Barricade let out a snort of air and climbed up on the recharge slab to join him. His mouth twitched down at the corners, and he leaned over Starscream with his optics bright. "Demanding, aren't you?"

"I am Lord Starscream," Starscream said in a lofty voice. "I—ah!" His vocalizer cut off as Barricade's claws slipped into his shoulder seams to tease at the delicate wires. He shivered, vibrating those sensitive places against Barricade's touch. "Yes," he said, when he could speak again. "Keep doing that."

"Just that, Lord Starscream?" Barricade straddled Starscream's legs and lowered his head, delicately tracing over Starscream's chest with the soft protoform of his glossa. The mesh covering it made the sensation rough. Starscream dimmed his optics and settled his hands on Barricade's hips. "Careful," Barricade warned. "Don't poke my optics out, there."

Starscream lifted his head and scowled. "As though I would ever be so crude as to accidentally damage someone's optics," he huffed.

Barricade, apparently unbothered by Starscream's chastisement, moved his own head and swiped his glossa over Starscream's mouth.

Starscream jerked away. "I—" He parted his lips to touch his own glossa to the area. His mouth felt like Barricade had brushed a live wire over it instead of his glossa. "Don't do that," he instructed. "No, wait, do it one more time. Then stop."

Barricade brushed his glossa over Starscream's mouth again in a perfect demonstration of obedience. Starscream's vocalizer gave a shuddering sigh. Barricade leaned up with a smirk on his faceplates. "Like it too much?"

"No," Starscream lied. "Stop distracting me." He grabbed Barricade's wrists and shoved his hands down towards Starscream's still-covered interface paneling.

Barricade let Starscream guide his hands, but before Starscream could encourage him to touch, Barricade leaned down and slipped his glossa into Starscream's already sensitized shoulder joints. Starscream shrieked as unexpected charge rushed through his entire body from that one spot. His grip on Barricade's wrists loosened, and Barricade pulled free. Starscream's fans clicked up to full speed.

"I bet I could make you overload just from this," Barricade murmured, almost too low to be heard over the sudden whirring. "I haven't even touched your wings yet."

"What are you planning on doing with my—" Starscream's vocalizer cut out again as Barricade leaned down and licked the flat of Starscream's wing. Slippery mesh against sensors finely tuned to the slightest changes in air pressure and temperature drew all of Starscream's charge up at once, and he overloaded with another shriek. His fans hiccuped for a moment as his systems reset themselves, and he found himself staring at the ceiling, dazed.

Barricade, fortunately, didn't laugh. Instead, he slid the backs of his claws out over Starscream's wings, expertly regulating the sensation into something more manageable. "Sorry about that," he said, though he didn't sound sorry at all. "It's been a long time?" Starscream tensed, waiting for the comments about how his trine must not be taking care of him, but they never came. Barricade just kept stroking his wings in broad, firm swipes.

Finally, Starscream huffed and resettled himself as the flickers of charge started to run through him again. "Long enough," he said. "Some of us don't enjoy slumming."

Barricade sat back to regard him with all four optics for a moment before reaching down to Starscream's interface paneling. Starscream lifted his pelvic span up and gave a contented hiss of air. The paneling retracted, each individual cover giving way easily to the gentle touch of someone else's claws. "Do you want to hook in this time?" Barricade asked.

"No," Starscream grumbled. "Just put your claws in my—stop cutting me off!"

Barricade chuckled and made a slow circle in Starscream's wet port with the tip of his claw. Starscream arched; he liked the feeling of something inside him without the risk of being hacked. He liked the way Barricade's claw scraped, not painful but ever so slightly wrong in a way that magnified the sensation. It sent just as much charge through his system as a cable ever had, especially when Barricade pulled out his claw, now slick with lubricant, and traced it around the rubbery hardened protoform that made up the lip of the port.

"The others, too," Starscream demanded.

"As Lord Starscream commands," Barricade replied, his voice silky. That sent charge through Starscream's system, too. He reached up to trace over Barricade's stubby tire wings, testing the give of the hardened protoform there. He spat static as Barricade dipped his claws into both Starscream's hip ports at once.

"Mm, if only you had three hands," Starscream said. Despite his lack of effort, he could feel charge crackling under his fingers as he stroked Barricade.

Barricade paused. "I have a glossa."

Starscream had a moment to consider before he heard his vocalizer activate without his command. "Yes."

Barricade smirked and lowered his head, leaving his claws to make slow circles in Starscream's hip ports as he lapped at the one between Starscream's legs. Starscream yelped as the appendage actually squeezed inside, filling Starscream's port completely and rubbing that mesh against the wet, charge-sensitive inner components. All it took were a few rubs from that glossa before Starscream shrieked out another overload, followed this time by Barricade's whole body stiffening in an overload of his own.

Two unexpectedly powerful overloads in a row after so long without meant that Starscream's optics flickered even after the reset. He found himself slipping down into protective recharge, despite frantic attempts to halt the process.

A breem later by his internal chronometer, Starscream's overrides won out and his optics turned on. He froze.

Barricade had taken advantage of his unconscious state to curl up on the slab, half beside and half over Starscream. That wasn't surprising. Barricade wasn't crushing any vital components. But he was also tracing his still-sticky claws along Starscream's chest armor, right over his spark.

And he'd been doing so while Starscream was unconscious.

Starscream flung himself across the room, wings flaring in an aggressive threat display. "Do you honestly think you can kill me, Starscream, Lord of the Decepticons?!" he yelled. "I'd like to see you try it while I'm fully online!"

Barricade sat up, his optics flaring and then dimming as he frowned. "What? Starscream…?"

"Don't come after me!" Starscream shrieked. "Stay away from me!" He opened the door and used his overrides to slam it shut again and lock it. Let Barricade hack his way out of that one. Starscream stood on the opposite side of the door and trembled, his claws curling into fists and then relaxing again. "Fool," he spat at the door before turning to walk away. He should have known better. He should have remembered that he could trust nobody. He had to stay on his guard around here. There had only ever been one mech worthy of Starscream's trust, and he was long gone.

The best thing about Elita-1's workstation was that nobody else ever stayed for long. Elita-1 had worked for the Decepticons since before Slipstream's maturity and subsequent Nemesis assignment, and now that they'd landed on Earth, nobody could send her on missions. They'd managed to keep Elita-1's presence a secret from the Autobots for this long; they wouldn't risk revealing her now. Slipstream was practically guaranteed Elita-1's undivided attention whenever she dropped in.

And with all her sensors still jangling from Chromia's attack, even after decontamination and a nice long trip to the washracks, she needed that guarantee.

Slipstream paused in the door, admiring Elita-1's diminutive grounder build and the clean energon pink of her paint lit by the blue glow of the console. She had nice lines, smooth and Autobot even after the mods she'd taken. She was what all the Autobots should have aspired to be: dedicated and goal-oriented and with a firm, unwavering belief in the equality of all mechanisms.

Kind of like Megatron, if Megatron were a small, no-nonsense, energon-pink grounder instead of massive, charismatic, death-gray aerial.



Slipstream blipped out a cough of static on her vocalizer as she stepped all the way inside and closed the door behind her. "Reviewing more Autobot intel?" she asked, trying to regain the feeling of solid metal under her feet.

Elita-1 glanced up at her. "Are you here to bother me again?"

"And here I thought I was being so subtle." Slipstream moved forward, already feeling more stable at the smooth sound of Elita-1's voice. "I don't suppose you have any time in your busy schedule for little old me?"

"Not if you're here to play games again." Elita-1 turned back to the console. "Surely you have something else to do on this vast ship."

Slipstream frowned and tried to peer over Elita-1's shoulder. "Surely you don't. We're in a ceasefire. Is Soundwave really so busy that he can't take some work for himself?"

Elita-1 frowned and looked up at her again. "Megatron's back," she said simply. "Haven't you heard?"

"Found isn't the same as back," Slipstream said. "So you're telling me that's changed?"

"It's not up to me whether to tell you or not. You're a Decepticon; you figure it out yourself."

Slipstream scowled and twitched her wings. "If Megatron were really back, Soundwave would have more time on his hands, not less," she said. "He's been looking for Megatron all this time, right?" She watched Elita-1's optics in profile for any sign of an emotional reaction. "But you're busier. So either you're lying, or Megatron's not back."

Elita-1 glanced back at her with the barest hint of a wry smile on her faceplates. "Is that your final answer?"

"No, of course not!" Slipstream thought hard. "If you're not lying and Megatron is back, the only reason Soundwave would be busy is if something's happened." That strange unease from her encounter with Chromia started to creep back. "Something's happened…to Megatron. But it's reversible. It has to be, if everyone knows he's been found."

"They won't be able to hide it much longer, I imagine." Elita-1's fingers flew over the console.

"And—they're building an Earth base," Slipstream continued as her horror grew into a swirling mass. "They're not treating Megatron on the ship?"

Elita-1 coughed static out and gave Slipstream an exasperated look.

"I didn't—" Slipstream protested, then switched to comms. «Starscream's still a Decepticon. It's really safer down there with the Autobots and all those creepy organics?»

«It must be,» Elita-1 said. «Have you ever known Soundwave to put our lord's life at risk?»

«No,» Slipstream said slowly. Her processor remained focused on the possibilities spiraling out from that realization. If Soundwave didn't trust Starscream—their leader, despite Slipstream's disdain—with Megatron's life, and if he figured out that Slipstream had been working to undermine his petty methods of ruling… No, he couldn't have noticed, she told herself, or he would have taken action already.

Except, after her encounter with Chromia, all those little danger signs were flashing brighter in her HUD. She shifted closer to Elita-1, getting a blank, unimpressed stare for her troubles. «Slipstream…»

"What would you say," Slipstream said aloud, because the only ones who would overhear her would be Soundwave or his pets, "if I told you I couldn't use my hab suite anymore?" She pitched her voice low and intimate.

"I'd say you're lying," Elita-1 said with a particular gleam in her optics. "But I'd wonder why. What is it that you want, Slipstream?"

Slipstream paused and considered her options. She probably wouldn't die if she went back to her own hab suite. No, she could hold her own against most of the Decepticons currently on the ship; she almost definitely wouldn't die. She could change the lock code and even upgrade security. Every Decepticon worth anything knew their way around basic security systems. But that was also the problem. No matter how good Slipstream was, she wasn't the best, and she'd never be able to nab supplies for a more secure upgrade without raising suspicion.

No, the safest place for her would be the room that had been given top-of-the-line security on par with Decepticon high command. And coincidentally, the room with the one mech Slipstream wanted to spend all her time with.

"I don't have a trine," she said. "I get lonely."

Elita-1 spun around and raised a hand. Slipstream flinched and stepped back, her own hands coming up to ward off a blow that never came. Instead, Elita-1 released her medical cable from her wrist and let it dangle in front of Slipstream's face. "If you really don't want to tell me," she said, "I won't insist. But I do have some concerns that you need to address."

Slipstream stared at the cable for a moment, then snapped open her medical port and plugged Elita-1 in. "Mmm," she said, more for a reaction than anything. "You feel good."

She didn't, really; medical ports were sturdy things without sensors and with an added degree of built-in data security. Slipstream couldn't feel a thing, to her regret. But Elita-1 snorted and lost some of the tension in her frame. "At least now I know how it feels when you're lying. Tell me, Slipstream: do you intend any harm towards me?"

"Of course not!" Slipstream said, raising her wings indignantly.

Elita-1's optics bored into her. "Are you looking for something in my personal databanks?"

That had occurred to Slipstream before, but more as a passing fancy than anything else. "No," she said, and tried to focus on meaning it.

Elita-1 didn't reply. After a long moment, she tugged her medical cable free to let it spool back up. "Fine. You can come stay in my hab suite, since that's what you're angling for. But one wrong step, and you're out."

Slipstream's wings spread to a flirtatious cant. "I won't do anything to make you unhappy," she promised.

Elita-1's expression didn't change. "Oh," she said. "And if you're there at the same time as I am, you're recharging on the floor."

Verity Carlo had already decided that this August was the worst month of her life, but being kidnapped by weird giant robots was a whole new level of awful. Everything felt way too real to be some sort of dream, and the only thing she'd put in her stomach in the past day was a sealed bottle of water she'd managed to lift. So this probably wasn't some sort of sensory hallucination.

Which meant that she had in fact been carried by a weird robot bird with tentacles into some sort of alien spaceship with weirdly pulsing lights, where she'd been promptly deposited in front of a fucking huge robot painted in a solid glossy black. It glowed, too, from purple lines pulsing up and down its sides, and faintly from some weird block of semi-transparent red glass in its chest. It had a solid line of yellowish glowing light where eyes would have been on a person.

A smaller robot—the size of a large person instead of a fucking house—painted in blue with red decorations stood nearby. Verity might have felt more comfortable with that, except that unlike the giant robot, the smaller one looked armed to the fucking teeth.

Verity locked her knees to keep herself upright and curled her fists at her side as the robot bird flew up onto housebot and settled on its shoulder. "What the fuck do you want with me?" she demanded, trying to keep her voice from shaking. "You can't just kidnap me. I'm a minor!"

"Human will explain presence." The creepy-ass electric monotone came from the huge robot or somewhere behind him.

Verity scowled and felt cold sweat trickle down her spine. "I'm here because that thing grabbed me! What is this, some sort of sick mind game? 'Cause I'm not playing." Then she paused as the wording and odd phrasing sank in. Human. As in, they're not.

Slowly, as slowly as she possibly could, she moved her hands to her pockets, nearly sagging with relief as she felt both pepper spray canisters tucked tight against her legs. She hooked her thumbs in, keeping her elbows close to her body, and widened her stance. She'd be ready if these—if these aliens decided to show themselves.

"Human will explain presence in building," the creepy monotone said.

Verity shivered, then scowled. "Oh, I'm sorry, did I stumble onto your weird alien base of operations? I thought the building looked warm, and I needed a place to stay. Sorry to bust your bubble. Nobody else will go near it 'cause they think it's haunted, which makes it way safer for me. That's all." It was halfway true; she'd also entertained the idea of snooping around for anything valuable in the process before she hopped on the next bus, but that probably wouldn't fly with overly suspicious aliens.

"This isn't working, Boss," a different voice said, this one using actual inflections. The person-sized robot lunged forward and grabbed Verity's arm before she could bring up the can of pepper spray.

"Ow, fuck!" she yelled as metal fingers dug into her skin and ground against bone. She flinched, trying to pull back, and the robot let go abruptly. Verity found herself flat on her ass, her arm throbbing. She scrambled upright and grabbed at her arm, feeling at it for anything out of place while trying to keep all three robots in her line of vision. It didn't feel broken, at least, just like the biggest bruise she'd ever had. She could move her fingers without any pain, at least.

"Scrap," the person-sized robot said. "Humans are really fragile. I mean, we knew humans were fragile, but they're fragile." A moment of silence passed, and the robot did a passable imitation of a scowl. "Shut up, I know, okay? I know!" The robot gave Verity an unreadable look and trotted back over to the huge one. "It didn't break, shut up, Laserbeak."

"My name," Verity said, "is Verity. And I'm a girl, not an it." That got her nothing but silence. She shivered and licked her lips, hooking her fingers back in her pockets. Her thumbs brushed the pepper spray.

"No, seriously," the smaller robot said after a moment. "How did they get Megatron, Boss? He would have squished them easy, no problem. They don't even have real guns."

"Megatron shot by Autobot," the huge robot said. "Injury may have incapacitated. Unlikely, but possible. No way to fight."

Verity's eyes narrowed. "Excuse me," she said. "I can't help but overhear, since you're speaking English. Are you looking for information about what some other group of humans did? Because I'm pretty sure killing an alien or whatever isn't something anyone but a government or some weird-ass cult could cover up. And I would like to add, for the record, that I am the opposite of affiliated with any government group."

All those robot heads swung to her in unison, but she held her ground. A small part of her wondered if they'd deliberately and mistakenly adopted those uncanny valley Gundam-style disguises in an attempt to blend in, because nobody would go through the trouble of having that degree of body language otherwise. Or maybe they were AI.

"Explain," the huge robot said after another long pause.

Verity frowned. "Explain…what? The government? I don't think anyone can do that." She folded her arms across her chest when it became apparent that none of them were moving to attack her. "But, um, basically they're a huge group of people who claim they know what's best for everybody."

"Soundwave understands government. Explain Verity."

"What? Why? I just told you why I could have had anything to do with this Megatron person."

The giant robot—Soundwave? Soundwave's Gundam?—leaned forward, until Verity had to take a step back just to make sure she didn't get crushed by a falling robot. "Explain—" it said, then played back a recording of her voice. "the opposite of affiliated with any government group."

Verity shifted her weight. Having that intense focus fixed on her made the words dry up in her throat. "Uh. You know, I'm not the kind of person they like having around."

"Explain," Soundwave repeated.

She was officially getting a headache from all this. Or maybe that was just the lack of food going to her head. "Well, I'm not a big fan of the foster care system, for starters," she said, picking her words carefully. "But I don't see why that would be interesting to you, or why you would even—"

"Explain dislike of foster care system."

"Oh, my god, seriously?" she grumbled. "Look, it's supposed to be a place where kids get taken care of. And it's not—it's a place for kids to fall through the cracks in the system because nobody actually gives a damn what we want. Or need." Her words plodded to an awkward halt. Even if she wanted to get up on her soapbox, which she really didn't when her major worry was the kidnap-happy aliens, she had no idea how to phrase it in a way that someone from another planet would understand.

In the ensuing silence she could hear a distinct clicking sound that echoed off the walls. "Government hatchling care, flawed," Soundwave said finally.

"Uh. Childcare, not—hatchlings? Are you serious?" It occurred to Verity that she could write up this whole encounter for the internet and nobody would ever believe her.

A few more clicking noises. "Government flawed. Verity's care insufficient. Verity alone?"

"That's a really fucking creepy question!" Verity scowled at all of them. "Look, just—let me go. I don't know anything, I can't help you. I won't tell anybody, okay? You can go on being creepy secret aliens, for all I care, as long as you leave me alone."

"Cybertronian government also flawed," Soundwave said. "Workers paid insufficient wages, enslaved for debt. Debt slaves used for labor under worse conditions. Government profits. Debt slaves and criminals also used as gladiators to fight for the entertainment of the rich and powerful. Soundwave was a gladiator."

"No shit, that would explain why you're fucking huge," Verity muttered.

"Mechanimal forms scorned," Soundwave continued, sweeping one hand up in a gesture that encompassed the creepy tentacle bird on his arm. "Considered less intelligent, unable to get jobs. Stealing only method of survival available."

Verity straightened at that. "Yeah," she said, still wary. "That sounds familiar. Can I go now?"

"Soundwave will provide Verity with food and other needs," Soundwave said after a moment. "Decepticons will protect her."

"Excuse me?" Verity demanded. "I've been doing perfectly fine by myself! I don't need a bunch of giant alien freaks wearing metal suits to take care of me! I've had enough of other people trying to run my life." She turned to stomp away, only to realize that she didn't know the way out of the spaceship. She hesitated, uncertain, and turned to look at the bird.

"I'll take you back to your home," the mechanical bird said in a smooth, cultured tone. Verity did a double take. "Follow me if you don't want to be carried again."

"You—" Verity cut herself off. "Okay. You know what? Fine."

The trip outside the spaceship didn't allow much time for sightseeing. Verity had to scramble to keep pace with the bird. It flew with all the skill of a real bird and twice the agility even though the wings barely moved. What little Verity did see if the ship gave her the impression that maybe it had been built for creatures the size of Soundwave. As in, maybe he was the exception and not the rule. She tried not to think about it.

Unfortunately, leaving the ship didn't solve her problems. She still had no idea where she was.

"Is there a problem?" the bird asked. It sounded concerned, which, okay, it had been the one that kidnapped her.

Verity scowled. "Nope. No problem." It wasn't like she'd never hitchhiked before. She had a good sense of what creeps to avoid getting in a car with, right? And she still had that pepper spray. She tugged her cap more securely over her face. "Just fly along home or whatever it is that you do."

The bird tilted its head and said nothing.

Verity felt those bright eyes follow her as she picked a direction and started to walk. She didn't give the bird the satisfaction of turning around when she felt an odd gust of wind from above, either. Whatever. If the robot bird wanted to make a target of itself in the nearest city, Verity wasn't going to stop it. But as for her, she was getting away from the headache-inducing nonsense of alien invasions holy balls and back into the rhythm of life that she'd made for herself.

And she was going to steal something to eat as soon as possible.

Chapter Text

Four humans with the clearance to speak to them was four humans too many, in Prowl's opinion. He could deal with Faireborn and Fowler, if necessary, but Optimus Prime had no reason to be authorizing two additional humans, much less scientists who'd been invited for the purpose of figuring out how Cybertronians functioned. Prowl's numbing code kicked in almost immediately.

"And you couldn't warn us until two breems before their arrival?" he demanded. "Have you been hacked?"

Optimus Prime heaved a massive burst of air through his vents. "I could not tell you more than two breems before their arrival because they called to let me know only a klik ago," he said. "My choices were to concede or create tension with our small allies. Rest assured, they will not be bringing any armed units in the name of protection."

"Prime," Prowl said. "This is a move designed to force your hand and give humans insight into Cybertronian technobiology so that they can develop strategies and weapons to subdue us. One of their armed units with their unimpressive weapons would be less of a threat."

"I wish I could disagree with Prowl," Windblade said. "But the humans have done nothing but put blocks on our systems since our arrival. Forcing your hand like this is incredibly suspicious."

"Your concerns are noted." Optimus' optics flickered. "However, I stand firm in my belief that this will prove harmless. I have no intention of baring the Matrix or your sparks to the curiosity of the humans."

Windblade's wings flicked back, and Prowl's optics narrowed. "It would be tactically sound to give misinformation. It should be easy enough to hack into any primitive scanners they bring."

"I'm not sure I'd go that far," Windblade said. Her optics moved back to Optimus.

Prowl had predicted Optimus' response, but he scowled anyway at the sound of the words. "I don't think that will be necessary at this time, Prowl."

"There may not be another if they get readings on us," Prowl warned. "It's better to take action now."

"There are no substances on Earth that can match our capabilities," Optimus said. "We have nothing with us now save our frames."

"Optimus, you've been equipped with some of the heaviest protective frame modifications possible." Prowl's own wings went up. "The amount of information that they could glean from any sort of scan and your verbal confirmation… The Decepticons could easily intercept human transmissions of any sort. We aren't the only Cybertronians on the planet. Even if you don't consider the humans a threat, you need to think of the danger this could present from our known enemies."

Optimus' optics flickered again, and Prowl began to hope that he'd gotten through. "No," Optimus said finally, dashing those hopes. "Humans are a young species. They are curious about the world beyond them. I will not deny them that. I will not, however, force the two of you to comply."

Prowl's doorwings flared out in an aggressive display before the new surge of anger faded to a steady burn. He had already pointed out Optimus' unique vulnerabilities; logic would no longer function as an argument. He sent a comm to Jazz instead. «Optimus is planning on putting himself into danger,» he said. «I will be circumventing his orders. Please log this as my superior officer.»

«What?» Jazz sounded baffled. «I'm not readin' any Decepticon signals near you. What's he doin'?»

«He's going to let two human scientists examine his frame and record what they find.»

«And…you're thinkin' two steps ahead and seein' how the Decepticons could get ahold of that information and use it to target him,» Jazz said. «Okay. So what're you plannin'?»

«That depends on the methods they use to examine Optimus.»

«Good thinkin', Prowl. I trust you. Do what you think is necessary, but don't start another war.»

Prowl could have countered that warning with the fact that the humans were the ones prying into Cybertronian affairs: accusing them of theft, keeping them under "house arrest," and springing scientists on the whole affair, for starters. But he kept quiet because he could hear the telltale thrum of human vehicles approaching the base. He cut the comm with a curt acknowledgement and waited for the newcomers to appear.

Fowler and Faireborn were the first to exit their respective vehicles. Fowler even had the temerity to smile at Optimus like the humans weren't doing anything wrong. "You need any help there, doctor?" he asked, turning back to the vehicle.

"A little would be nice," a voice responded. "They didn't really design these for wheelchair users, did they?"

Faireborn snorted. "Fowler, you do realize you can requisition wheelchair friendly equipment, right?"

"Yes," Fowler muttered. "But you have to submit the paper further in advance than you have to for aircraft. Apparently." He grimaced and went around to the back, presumably to help the doctor.

Prowl stayed on the alert and watched Faireborn's vehicle. He could still see a heat signature inside. After some fidgety movement, the door opened and a small human popped out. "Oh, my god," it exclaimed. "Actual giant alien robots! Wait, wait." It was followed, more slowly, by a larger human, who reached out and grabbed its upper arm.

Faireborn watched this with a peculiar sort of horrified fascination twisting her squishy features. "How on earth did she sneak in? I swept that car!"

The larger human winced. "I am so sorry. It—it is a particular talent of hers, getting into trouble. Sari! Please get back in the car and wait for us to finish. This is a highly secure government facility—"

"Aw, come on, Dad! They're giant alien robots! I can't not meet them." She yanked away from the larger human's grasp and darted over to Prowl, who only just barely managed not to flinch away from the sensation of her tiny human hand on his leg plating. "So, hi. I'm Sari, what's your name?"

When Prowl didn't answer, Optimus leaned down. "I am Optimus Prime, Sari," he said. "It is a pleasure to meet you. Are you one of the scientists we were told about?"

"Nope," Sari said with all the cheer of an unrepentant lawbreaker. "That's my dad." She pointed back at the larger human.

»Optimus,» Prowl said over the comms. «You didn't authorize this human. This is a good reason to send them away.»

«She's a hatchling, Prowl,» Optimus countered. He reached out his hand, and Sari hopped on. «A human hatchling, isn't that wonderful?»

«No,» Prowl said, voice flat, but he resigned himself to being ignored.

"I'm Windblade," Windblade offered, reaching her own hand down as Sari shoved up against Optimus' hand, presumably in an attempt to get him to lift her. "And our friend over there is Prowl."

Prowl decided to ignore the hatchling and focus instead on the larger human and Faireborn, who were discussing the possibility of removing Sari from the base. "It won't work," the unnamed human said, shaking its head. "She is stubborn and very good at hiding where even I cannot find her. Perhaps this way she will get it out of her system."

"Personally," said another human, coming into view on a sleek metal contraption with wheels that immediately caught Prowl's eye, "I don't see the harm in it. We're here to learn, after all. A child should have just as much right to education. And they've cleared the possibility of alien contaminants, if that's your concern." It rolled up to Prowl and stuck out an empty hand, almost as though it were holding a gun. Prowl's wings twitched. "Hello. Prowl, was it? I'm Dr. Chip Chase, and I'd like to thank you for agreeing to meet with us."

Prowl stared down at it. "You may thank Optimus Prime for that," he said. "I had nothing to do with it."

"You don't want to be treated like a lab rat, huh?" The human sounded sympathetic.

"Sari, please come down from there right now," the as-of-yet unnamed human scientist said, sounding terrified. "I'm so sorry, I promise I did not tell her anything about this—"

"I was working off of my gut instinct," Sari said proudly. After another shove, she sighed and hopped down from Optimus' hand. "Come on, Dad, giant alien robots! And you were going to keep this a secret?"

"Okay, once you're not my responsibility anymore, I'm going to like you," Faireborn said.

"Your offspring is welcome," Optimus said. "Rest assured, I know how fragile humans are and will treat her with the utmost care."

Sumdac grimaced, his eyes moving away from Optimus to rest on the wall for a moment as Sari groaned. "Hey, no, don't treat me with with the utmost care! I'm not made of glass. C'mon, what's the point of meeting aliens if you're not going to do anything fun?"

Chase watched the scene play out with the same smile on their face before turning back to Prowl. "Well, it looks as though this isn't going according to— Whoa!"

Sari skittered in front of him, then crouched behind him for a moment before darting out towards Optimus again, avoiding her sire by a wide margin. "So, you guys can transform? You have to let me see that!"

"Sari, please," Sumdac said, his voice pitching up. "We have talked about your manners in front of strangers."

"These aren't strangers, they're aliens! And they don't mind, right? You were going to ask them to transform anyway." Sari's voice took on an accusatory tone. "It's not like I wasn't in the car. I could hear you."

"I don't mind," Optimus said with a smile. "Yes, we can indeed transform." He initiated his transformation sequence. To Prowl's dismay, he went through it much slower than usual, giving the humans ample time to observe. Prowl's wings flicked.

Chase whistled, a slow, startlingly Cybertronian noise. "That's beautiful," they said. "And that's one of our vehicles. Is that the mechanical equivalent of convergent evolution, or are you deliberately adapting to our world?"

"It is a deliberate adaption," Optimus rumbled. "Your government was very concerned that our undisguised presence might cause alarm in the general populace."

"I think they're right," Chase agreed. "Still, I would have loved to see what—"

"Oh my god, this is the coolest day of my entire life!"

"Before we go any further," Windblade interjected smoothly, "I would like to know what pronouns to use for all of you. From my research, proper pronoun use is very important, and making assumptions could lead to hostility and aggression." She smiled. "We would like to avoid that, if possible."

"That makes sense," Chase said with a nod. Against his will, Prowl found himself impressed by the human's calm demeanor and lack of overly organic reactions. At least they weren't running around touching everyone with their fleshy hands. "I use masculine pronouns. Ah…you do know what those are?"

Windblade laughed. "We did our research," she assured him. "All of us have a solid grasp on the two dominant sets as well as a variety of alternatives, and it would be easy enough to integrate others. We didn't arrive here knowing any Earth languages, after all."

Except for Chase and a confused-looking Sari, the humans looked bizarrely uncomfortable at Windblade's words. Still, Sumdac did volunteer that he used masculine pronouns as well, and that his daughter used the feminine variety—which Prowl already knew, as they had addressed her that way before.

At least it distracted them from examining Optimus' workings.

"Sooo," Sari said loudly. "Putting aside this boring stuff, what are you guys?"

"We are sentient and sapient mechanical lifeforms from the planet Cybertron, just as you are sentient and sapient organic lifeforms from the planet Earth," Optimus said. "Many simply call us Cybertronians, though many colonists prefer to refer to themselves by the name of their colony and distance themselves from our political systems. Our species name, I'm afraid, is impossible to translate."

"Oh my god." Sari grimaced. "You managed to make even that sound boring!" Behind her, her father looked more and more unsettled, though he didn't reach out to grab her again when she ran up to Windblade and started investigating her foot.

"Really?" Chase said. "I didn't find that boring at all. You've colonized other planets, then, or are these colonies part of Cybertron?"

"Different planets, for the most part," Optimus said. "There are many systems and planets that no organic could survive but a mechanical lifeform can adapt to."

"That's fascinating!" Chase said.

"Fascinating, yes," Faireborn interrupted, "but as I recall you're here as our computer specialist, not as a biologist or sociologist." She grimaced. Despite her words, she sounded apologetic.

The humans were acting under a commanding officer as well—likely many. Prowl reminded himself of that fact; though the humans had no comm systems to sense, and their commanding officers were invisible, they existed. Prowl needed to keep that in mind when dealing with the underlings that had been designated to liaise with them.

"Right." Chase sighed. "Isaac, was it? Or do you prefer Dr. Sumdac?"

"Oh, Isaac is fine," Sumdac said. "And many call me Professor. May I call you Chip?"

Chase's reply was drowned out as Optimus transformed back into root mode and settled himself into a seated position on the floor. "My colleagues are uncomfortable with the prospect of having their framework examined," he said. "I'm afraid that you must settle for me."

"Well," Sumdac said with a nervous laugh. "I suppose we had better get started." He glanced back at Faireborn and Fowler, then started towards Optimus to climb up on top of his thigh. He reached immediately for Optimus' chest, and Prowl found himself spitting out a threat in Cybertronian before he could stop himself. Sumdac hesitated, then his eyes widened and he scrambled backwards, nearly falling off. "Oh, I am so sorry! Is that a bad place? I am so sorry, I should have asked."

"It is fine," Optimus said. "As I said, I am less unsettled than my colleagues."

"Still," Chase said firmly. He wheeled himself closer. Prowl spared a moment to be fascinated by the way he used the wheels that clearly weren't hooked up to his systems before returning to Sumdac's wide-eyed near terror. "We should establish some sort of system. You're able to communicate, and you know better than us what areas are taboo. Is it even possible for me to look at your coding? Do you have coding as we humans would understand it?"

Optimus glanced over at Prowl. "I'm afraid not," he said apologetically. Sumdac opened his mouth, then closed it. "However, had we more time to prepare for your arrival, we would have had someone from our ship bring down a basic drone to examine."

Chase laughed. "Fair enough," he said, then glanced at Faireborn and Fowler where they stood tight-lipped against the wall. "Honestly, I'm not sure what anyone thought I'd be able to do here, but I do enjoy the opportunity to meet new life forms."

Fowler sighed and waved a hand. "It's not exactly we have precedents set here. What about you, Dr. Sumdac? Do you have any ideas?"

"I," Sumdac said, visibly floundering. A tremor had started in his hands. Prowl's optics narrowed.

"I do!" Sari interjected. "I think they should all transform and take turns giving me rides, how does that sound?"

"I'm afraid that won't be possible," Fowler said. "They're on lockdown."

"Why?" Chase asked. "It's not as though they'd attract any suspicion if they're disguised as Earth vehicles, at least not at a distance. Though transporting only Sari might seem a bit odd." He glanced at Optimus. "Can you—"

"Carry passengers? Yes. We have compartments designed to carry small creatures and objects, typically where your drivers and passengers would sit." Sumdac slid down and started to prod through the gaps in Optimus' knee. His hands, Prowl noted, were still trembling, and Optimus couldn't quite hide the tiny flinches that passed through his system at the compression or stimulation of sensitive wiring.

"So you can totally take me for a ride," Sari said. "Come on, why are they in lockdown, they're giant alien robots! Who wouldn't love them?" She bounced over to Sumdac and peered into Optimus' knee joint with him before grimacing. "You can't just look at giant alien robots, you have to do fun things with them? Who's going to teach them about the important parts of human culture if they stay locked in here?"

"Perhaps this was a mistake," Sumdac said. He pushed back from Optimus abruptly and walked towards Fowler and Faireborn with his hands curled into fists at his sides. "We should come back later with better tools and a better idea of what we are asking."

"And no Sari, is that it?" Sari stuck her lower lip out in a bizarrely exaggerated motion that squished her way in a way that made Prowl's fuel tanks churn. "Well, tough luck, because I know what you're up to now, and you're not going to be able to keep me away."

"I would be delighted if she were to return," Optimus said.

Prowl could admit, she made for a decent distraction. "As would I," he added reluctantly, and Windblade gave a little chirp of surprise before sending him a sly look.

"It would be nice to be given more warning," Chase agreed. "This is something that needs to be negotiated carefully so everyone comes away happy."

Faireborn rolled her eyes in a roughly circular motion. "Yeah, I get it," she said. "They're sentient, not machines. You try explaining that to people who barely even know what science fiction means."

"What say we pack up for now," Fowler suggested. "We can come back later and talk this out in a long and very boring way."

"Ughhhh," Sari groaned. "You adults are all so terrible! It's like you forget how to have fun! I don't want to leave. Can't I stay with Optimus and Windblade and Prowl? We can have a sleepover."

"Sari, please!" Sumdac yelped. He dashed over to grasp her arm again. "Let's just go home, we will talk about this later."

"I don't want to talk about this later, I want to stay with them!" Sari wailed as Sumdac dragged her into the back seat of Faireborn's vehicle.

Faireborn winced. "I don't suppose you want to swap?" she muttered to Fowler.

"Oh, hell, no. I'm staying out of this family drama. Have fun."

As Chase rolled towards the other vehicle, Prowl dimmed his optics and reached out over the comm systems to send a disruptive burst to all the human communication devices. Hopefully, they'd find something to blame, like their own technology. He'd done what he had to, and he'd do it again when they came back armed with tools.

"Useless," Dai Atlas muttered as the latest returning scout scuttled away from the bridge. "I don't need to know that the Decepticons are planning something. I need to know what it is and why." He glowered around the room, and out of the corner of Wing's optical field ey could see everyone else intently staring at their consoles. "If they have resumed fighting once more, we will not be subject to their manipulations and claims of peaceful intent."

Wing, mind still caught by the wild beauty of a sprawling organic planet that ey'd only seen once during an unauthorized trip outside, stepped forward. "I will go, if you wish it," ey volunteered, keeping eir tone deferential and formal. Ey bowed eir head. "Our intelligence force has no wings; I may have only minimal training in stealth, but an aerial view may shed some additional light on the situation."

Silence. Wing didn't dare look up to see Dai Atlas' expression.

"No," Dai Atlas said finally. "You would be caught immediately. I need you for a different task."

Wing kept eir face smooth as ey raised eir head to meet Dai Atlas' optics. "What task is that?"

"There has been a surge of organic activity involving weaponry, far too close to our ship for comfort. You will fly out and investigate, in a disguise that the organics will not recognize as alien."

Wing's headfins twitched ever so slightly. This assignment held promise, even moreso than the idea of trying to analyze Decepticon behavior. "What is my purpose, Dai Atlas?"

"Discover whether the humans know of our presence and whether or not they intend to attack us," Dai Atlas said. "If these organics attempt battle, it could be part of a plot to distract us or lure us into conflict. I will not risk my people's lives so easily. It could also be that the Decepticons' thievery has provoked them into hostility towards all Cybertronians, in which case this planet would not be a safe location anymore."

"The humans have the Autobots held in a secure location, as well, don't they," Wing murmured. "Perhaps this was Starscream's plan all along."

Dai Atlas' vents creaked. "If you have time to speculate, you have time to go select a new alt mode and fly out to your assigned location," he said. "Fulfill your mission with honor, as a paladin of the Circle of Light. Do not engage." Ey sent a wireless packet of information that Wing accepted.

"Yes, Dai Atlas," Wing murmured, though of course ey'd already picked out another alt and configured it. Ey moved out of the command center anyway and dithered around the corridors for a moment before heading down to the laboratories. That would almost certainly be interpreted by a casual observer as Wing following Dai Atlas' instructions.

However, instead of ducking into the alt reconfiguration chamber, Wing stepped just inside the lab that Nautica and Proxima shared. This time, neither of them had their attention on stories. Instead, they were crowded together over a single datapad, arguing in technolinguistics too fast-paced for Wing to catch, pointing at various places on the screen. Wing, bemused, said nothing and waited to see if they would notice em.

Eventually, Nautica looked over and gave Wing a distracted smile before turning back to Proxima and jabbing her finger down just off to the side of the screen. Wing grinned and ducked out again. It had been long enough. Ey had enough of a cover that ey didn't have to bother them.

As ey'd done before, ey made sure there was plenty of distance between emself and the ship before launching into the air and opening Dai Atlas' datapack. It contained mission parameters, of course, which Wing made sure to integrate into eir memory banks, as well as a map of the locations the humans had been seen. This, Wing though, would be nothing for an aerial. Do a few passes overhead at intervals timed to resemble the passage of human aircraft, and monitor incoming and outgoing transmissions in the meantime, which required no special training whatsoever; human technology was so laughably simple that a hatchling could decipher it.

And, fortunately, Wing would have some idea of what transmissions were valuable or not, as ey'd taken to researching a number of local species to stave off the inevitable boredom of duty cycles spent on the ship doing nothing beyond listening to Dai Atlas grumble.

Ey had to stop emself from doing a joyous roll as that research enabled em to recognize a red-tailed hawk soaring nearby. Hunting, most likely; many of the organic life forms consumed other organics for survival. The thought sent a strange frisson of discomfort through eir systems alongside the thrill of recognition.

Soon enough, ey reached the site of the human activity and slowed so that eir arc would allow em the maximum time to observe. Ey could see heavily armored trucks and aerials that set Wing's spark thrumming with battle-readiness despite the obvious lack of spark. These aircraft couldn't look up and see em. They couldn't launch themselves into the air without a runway.

The aircraft did serve a purpose, however: they caught Wing's attention for too long. A few nanokliks later—slow, too slow—ey noticed the anti-aircraft angle of some heavy guns that had been hidden to the side of the trucks. Ey just barely managed to dodge the first. Ey wasn't so lucky with the next two.

Two burning slugs caught Wing, one scraping a burning gash in eir wing and the other ripping clean through eir main body.


Wing's processor blanked as reality contradicted everything ey'd taught emself about human technology. Nothing they produced should have been able to rip through eir outer armor. Not even Cybertronian blaster weapons could injure em so easily. Eir vents came rapid and unsteady as ey careened away. The only thing ey could focus on was fleeing, to a place where ey could transform and defend emself.

Ey landed hard in a wooded area, doubtless getting soil in eir wounds, and tried to calm eir roaring fans. Fine, shocked tremors rattled through eir plating; ey hadn't felt this frightened in hundreds of vorns.

Ey shouldn't be frightened. Ey didn't fear combat or death. But this hadn't been a combat mission. Ey hadn't done anything hostile, hadn't gotten between two mechs trying to kill each other, hadn't walked into a battlefield. And yet eir stealth mission against these tiny beings with archaic technology had gotten em noticed immediately and injured worse than ey had been since eir time in the Primal Vanguard.

Ey had underestimated them and paid the price. A member of the Circle should know better than that.

Ey kept moving, stumbling forward in root mode while keeping eir sensors extended in all directions. Almost too late, ey sensed something speeding towards em and drew eir sword just as a familiar Decepticon launched from a nearby road into Wing's clearing, guns out and fixed on Wing. "Stop following me!" he snarled.

"Drift," Wing said, the word a relieved sigh. Ey lowered the blade slightly to project a non-threatening facade, but ey kept alert; those guns might not be able to cause as much damage as the humans had, but Wing was already injured. Ey could not afford to grow complacent again today.

Drift flinched ever so slightly and didn't lower the guns. "Why are you here?" he demanded. "How are you stalking me?"

Wing shook eir head. "I promise you, it's a coincidence," ey said. "I followed the destruction last time, and this time… Well, it would be nice if you would help me patch up these wounds. I can't reach them myself." A lie, but harmless enough. Wing carefully slipped eir sword into place against eir back and turned to display the wounds ey'd received from the humans.

"You want me to—" Drift cut himself off with an ugly laugh. He put the blasters away, at least, his optics flickering. "Right. You want to play this game? Fine. But you'll owe me for helping you. I'm not about to do an Autobot any favors."

Wing almost asked why Drift thought ey was an Autobot, but prudence held eir tongue. Drift could find out for himself if he did the research or bothered to look for an Autobot badge that wasn't there, but in the meantime Wing would hold to the letter of Dai Atlas' desire for secrecy if not the spirit. "I'll owe you a debt," ey agreed, and how fortunate that Drift didn't know how seriously a knight would take that.

Drift gave Wing a wary once-over, but moved closer. Wing helpfully spread eir wings to display the damage, ignoring the pain that sent through eir body. "What is this, you were fighting another Decepticon and now you've come to me to get fixed up, is that it?" Despite Drift's aggressive words, though, his touch felt too-light, almost shy, as though he'd never touched another mech's armor before. Wing craned eir head to watch as Drift smeared energon over eir plating in an attempt to clean the wound. The energon had pumped most of the dirt out, at least, though eir filtration systems were going to go into overdrive once the wound started to gum. And even with a field patch, Wing could see that ey'd need to see a medic with real tools afterwards.

Maybe, though, Drift would help enough that Wing could transform and fly back without risking leakage. Or worse, a crash.

Drift gave Wing a sudden narrow-opticked glare. Wing met the expression with a calm smile. "I wasn't fighting anyone," Wing clarified, aware that ey'd hesitated for too long. "I was flying and had a bit of an accident."

"Yeah, right," Drift muttered, but he returned to his task. "Accidents don't leave holes like this."

Wing continued to watch Drift's fingers as a core of peace reasserted itself in eir systems. "I've heard some odd rumors," ey said. "Rumors that the Decepticons invaded a human facility and made off with human technology."

"What?" Drift's response could not have been feigned by any but the best actors: pure confusion. "What are you talking about? Who would want human technology?"

Wing let emself sigh as ey held out some patches for Drift to use. Drift grabbed all of them, though Wing suspected ey would only need two. No matter. Dispensing such minor medical supplies couldn't be counted as getting involved in the civil war. "It's a rumor, that's all," ey said. "It confused me, as well, but the humans claim this theft was carried out by Cybertronians."

"And of course you assume the Decepticons did it," Drift snarled. He slapped the patch on with enough force to send jolts of fresh pain through Wing's body, but Wing held emself carefully still so as not to show it.

"Well," Wing said, attempting to be reasonable, "I know who didn't do it already, and I was missing a Decepticon perspective. How fortunate that you came along."

"What a heap of slag," Drift snarled, coming around to Wing's front to repeat the process with much less tenderness to eir side. "You're just asking because—" He cut himself off abruptly as realization dawned on his face. Wing watched: so he did know something. But instead of falling back on the defensive, Drift's face twisted into a snarl of pure rage.

Wing almost stepped back.

"We didn't steal anything from the fragging humans," Drift hissed. He jammed his fingers into Wing's bleeding lines.

Wing dimmed eir optics and accepted the pain, letting it move through em. "You do know what the humans are talking about, however."

"No, I don't." Drift smeared the dirty energon down Wing's plating.

"Yes," Wing said, keeping eir voice quiet and calm, but with a core of Cybertronium. "You do, and I want to know."

Drift scowled. "Stop being a nosy Autobot and focus on your own problems. Who did you piss off to get torn up on this planet?" His voice, despite the scorn, shook.

"Drift, please," Wing said.

Drift let out an electronic shriek of rage and shoved Wing backwards without slapping the bandage on. "You want to know why?" he yelled. "You really want to know what it was? That was Megatron. What the humans claim we stole from them is what was left of Megatron after you and the humans got through with him!" Drift's vocalizer crackled into static halfway through the last sentence, and he stumbled backwards like he didn't recognize anything anymore. After the second step, he transformed, heedless of the inhospitable surface, and sped off with his engine roaring.

Wing stayed there, frozen, hand pressed to eir side where energon still leaked through eir ripped plating in chunked by the natural sealant autorepair nanites produced. Eir already-fast fans sped even further as ey struggled to make sense of Drift's words.


Ambulon leaned back with a low groan and stared up at the ceiling. "This isn't going to work."

"Yeah, no fragging joke." Nickel flung herself down off the medical slab with a loud, frustrated beep. "Knock Out, what's the status on his other components?"

"Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?" Knock Out came to sit down on the floor with them, though he swiped at it with his foot first to clear away the metal shavings Nickel had left. "Because the good news is that there's no change. And, guess what: the bad news is that there's no change."

"Fragging rusted interface cables," Nickel grumbled. "He's stable. He should be responding."

"Perhaps our constructed frame isn't up to our lord and master's high standards," Knock Out suggested. "It isn't as though frame construction is our specialty."

Ambulon itched uncomfortably at his paint job. "It shouldn't require a slagging high standard frame to get his core components synchronized and colonizing a frame again. We can always transfer him to something more long-term once he's re-stabilized and has a means to interact with the world around him instead of being trapped in stasis with no input. Megatron's not going to care about whether he looks okay."

"Are you so sure? He's always managed to look nicer than someone in this room." Knock Out's claws twitched.

"I have a medical condition," Ambulon muttered. "It's not a choice."

"Quite frankly, I don't know how your patients can stand lying in a pile of your chipped off paint," Knock Out continued. "It's a disgrace, if you ask me."

"Enough, hatchlings. If you don't cut out the slag I'm going to weld your fragging vocalizers until they're nothing but scrap. We have more important things to be worrying about." Nickel bashed her palm against the ground, sending shavings every which way. "I think you both know what we need to do."

Ambulon glanced over to the corner of the room, where Buzzsaw lurked. "We should let Soundwave know before we make that decision."

"He's not going to be able to refute this." Nickel pulled herself up to her full height. "Besides, all you have to say is hey, Soundwave, we're calling in Shockwave."

Ambulon's plating shuddered and clattered and clamped tight around his interior. Nickel gave him what might have been a sympathetic look. "Do we have to?" he asked, trying not to whine.

"Do you really think I'd suggest him if we had another choice?" Nickel snapped. "Let's face it, the fact that he's done so many alt-mode reformats and complete frame rebuilds means that he's the perfect mech to work on this project."

"What, aside from his little habit of accidentally killing the mechs he's working on?" Knock Out shuddered. "No, thank you. Soundwave would peel us out of our armor before we let Shockwave at Megatron's spark. Just imagine: Megatron gestalt."

Ambulon shut off his optical feed and tried to focus on keeping his autonomic programs as steady as possible. The itch in his paint grew to a feeling like scraplets digging all over his plating as the memory surges roses, giving sensory stimulation he knew was false. The stench of sour energon and paint mixed with the strong scent of sterilizing agents. The screams. Pain in his spark as a gestalt he'd never even met was ripped away, leaving him empty and hollow.

He vented out in a steadying stream of hot air and raised his memory blocks again.

"Are you happy with what you've done?" Nickel demanded. "Can you get it through that fragging cranial plating of yours that I need both of you operational if we're going to supervise Shockwave?" She rapped Knock Out's plating, and Ambulon's optics lit to see her standing on the medical slab as Knock Out rubbed his head.

"I don't see how it's a big deal," he complained. "If we're going to see Shockwave in his natural habitat, he's going to need those memory blocks in place anyway. I was helping him."

"What would be helping would be to allow me to suggest it independently, since clearly neither of you can be trusted to think for yourselves!" Nickel flicked her tiny fingers at Knock Out's face, and he flinched back. Nickel glanced at Ambulon. "Besides, why the frag would I suggest that we go into Shockwave's den of sin when we have a perfectly functional comm system?"

Ambulon scratched at his paint and shifted. His internals ached with a phantom pain that not even the memory blocks could dull. He could function; he nodded at Nickel and then glanced over at Buzzsaw again. Well, they weren't getting attacked, and Soundwave had his ways of overhearing, so it was probably okay.

Knock Out held up his hands. "Fine, fine. But I would like it noted for the record that this was not my idea, and if it goes terribly wrong, I had nothing to do with it."

"Do you want Megatron functional or not?" Nickel asked, then looked at Ambulon again. "You want an early shift dismissal, or are the memory blocks holding?"

"They're holding," Ambulon confirmed. "It's okay."

"Right, then. Knock Out, you're dismissed, and I want you recharged and ready to supervise by next shift," Nickel said briskly. "None of your dawdling, you hear? I'm sure anything Soundwave could dream up would be far worse than missing a step in your maintenance routine for one day."

"Yeah, yeah," Knock Out muttered. He stood and waved at them without looking back as he headed out.

Nickel watched him go, then hopped over to the viewscreen. Ambulon stood and hovered behind her. "Shockwave?" she said after a moment, then— "Soundwave, yes, I do know what I'm doing, thank you very much. Do you think you're better at rebuilding a frame than medics would be? You're not, sorry to bust your bubble. Patch me through to Shockwave. We'll be monitoring the entire process, of course."

The viewscreen flickered on to reveal Shockwave's creepy optic. "What is it that you want?" he asked.

"Your expertise in frame construction and integration," Nickel said. "I have a mech stripped to his bare essentials who's been disconnected from his frame for a significant length of time. We're having trouble reintegrating him with a new frame, since his old frame is unavailable."

Shockwave's optic widened, focusing on her for a long moment. "I will be at the warehouse within a joor." The transmission blinked out.

"Frag, I hate that," Ambulon complained. "You didn't even tell him where we were!"

"He's a slagheap, all right," Nickel said. "Go get this place tidied up."

Ambulon nodded and moved to the drone storage to program in the parameters. The itch in his plating rose again, but he ignored it to focus on the task at hand. He had no interest in showing further weakness in front of Shockwave, memory blocks or no.

Chapter Text

Elita-1 slipped into her hab suite and initiated the bug check by rote before realizing that someone was lying sprawled across her recharge slab. She grimaced and let the bug check run anyway, wincing at the false positive of unexpected presence in room before deeming it safe enough. She walked to the recharge slab and set her hands on Slipstream's wings, claws curling over the metal. "I believe I said something about sleeping on the floor," she said.

"Mmm," Slipstream replied, destroying the illusion of recharge. She stretched out under Elita-1's hands. Her wings fluttered ever so slightly. "You weren't here to defend your slab."

"And now I am." Elita-1 considered digging her claws in, then sighed and lifted them away. Slipstream shifted onto her back, bright optics glittering up at Elita-1. She didn't rise, only stretched her various components in a rippling chain of creaking metal. "Slipstream, it's been nearly two orns. Have you even left this room?"

"No," Slipstream said. "Why would I? It's so cozy here."

"If you get this lonely without a trine, maybe it's time to start looking for one." Elita-1 reached out for Slipstream's wings again. This time she twisted the metal in a light pinch.

Slipstream arched, moving with the twist and splaying her legs out. Her optics flickered, then brightened into a warm, inviting glow. "But why would I want to look for a trine when I could have you?" she purred in an unmistakeable invitation.

"You don't have me," Elita-1 said, pitching her voice lower as her processor spun in a rapid cycle. "You conned an invitation into my room."

Slipstream's mouth curved up into a lazy smile, and she reached out towards Elita-1. "I'm offering something in return," she said, and took hold of Elita-1's wrist to tug her up onto the slab as well. Elita-1 found herself with her legs tangled against Slipstream's, her back to the warmed slab and Slipstream leaning over her. "It's not like you're getting nothing out of this." Before Elita-1 could respond, Slipstream's wings twitched, and she spread her fingers out against Elita-1's chest armor.

Elita-1 stared up, silent. She let go of Slipstream's wings and carefully spread her limbs just enough that an enterprising claw could slip into the seams.

Slipstream's engine purred. She stroked up Elita-1's chest and over her shoulders, curving long aerial claws over the plating. She didn't take advantage of the gaps Elita-1 had left; she only stroked over Elita-1's armor, over her arms and legs, leaving a faint tingling sensation in her wake. Elita-1 watched Slipstream's expression for any signs of danger, but Slipstream stayed focused and intent on those touches. As though, Elita-1 realized with an abrupt surge of charge, Slipstream wanted to take her time and memorize Elita-1's entire frame.

Perhaps this wasn't some sort of ploy.

Despite herself, Elita-1 shivered, and Slipstream's optics sharpened. "Is that all you've got?" Elita-1 said.

"What's the rush?" Slipstream asked. Her hand slipped down over Elita-1's hips, teasing at the interface paneling. Elita-1's vents stuttered as her fans clicked up a notch. "I've got you right where I want you, for once. Former Autobot commander Elita-1, brought to overload at my hands."

"You haven't brought me anywhere near overload," Elita-1 said. She raised her own hands to settle on Slipstream's hips, pressing the blunt part of her thumbs against Slipstream's own interface paneling with a steady pressure and no friction. "Do you think you can do it?"

Slipstream slid her claws into Elita-1's hip joints, and she stroked down an already-heated wire. Elita-1 turned off her optics briefly as the faint teasing flickers of charge found an outlet and slid along her core to pool in her interface systems.

Slipstream grinned, suddenly, and turned her claws outward to tug on the inside of Elita-1's armor. The backlash of sensation hit Elita-1 like a blaster, and all her interface covers snapped open at once. "What…?" She struggled up on her elbows. "How—"

"Do you want to do this?" Slipstream asked, instead of answering. Elita-1 could barely hear the words over the static in her audio receptors. Slipstream sounded hesitant. She never sounded hesitant.

Elita-1 tried to route her processor into forming words. As soon as she did, a thousand responses came to mind, from snarky—perhaps if I'd know you were after this the whole time, you might have gotten here sooner—to flippant—you wouldn't be in this position if I didn't. None of them hit the tone she wanted. Instead, she lifted her hand to cup Slipstream's face, charmed by the way Slipstream nuzzled into the touch. "Yes," she said. "It's fine."

Slipstream dove back to her task without a verbal acknowledgement of Elita-1's words. She slid her claws under Elita-1's armor again, making Elita-1 squirm from the unexpected newness of it all before overload crashed over her with a suddenness she hadn't experienced since reaching her thirty-seven vorn majority.

Her fans spun at top speed as they tried to dispel the heat of overload. She gazed up at Slipstream. "That was remarkably selfless of you," she managed.

"Not unless you're vetoing what happens next," Slipstream laughed. Her interface paneling opened with a hiss, and all three of her interface cables slithered out to slip into the seams of Elita-1's hips as Slipstream withdrew her claws. Instead, she gently coaxed Elita-1's cables out, stroking them with a remarkable gentleness.

Elita-1 rubbed her thumb over Slipstream's cheek, feeling adrift in the wake of her overload. Had this been what Slipstream wanted all those times she came in to make a nuisance of herself? Had Elita-1 grown so used to her paranoia that she'd forgotten why she changed sides? There had to be answers, but she couldn't think, didn't want to with Slipstream's cables brushing her ports, dipping in and back out to smear lubricant all over. Carefully, Elita-1 lifted one of her cables to press gently into Slipstream's hip port; it was so slick inside that it was practically dripping. Slipstream arched and let out a rattling moan as her wings moved in small jerks.

"Okay," Elita-1 said softly. She reached down to Slipstream's cables and tangled one in her fingers before guiding it to her own port. "Okay."

It had been over seven thousand vorns since she'd last had anyone's cables filling her ports or anyone's ports tight around her cables. She hissed and slid her other cables in, wriggling them slightly to tease at Slipstream's sensors. Slipstream yelped and returned the favor; both her remaining cables pushed in at once. Charge crackled through, and Elita-1 yelped.

Time slipped away, chronometer and other higher functions closing off as Elita-1 lost herself in the pleasurable tangle of sensation and the pulsing rhythm of exchanged charge going back and forth. She spiraled higher and higher until the tension released with a crash into another overload, larger than the first and enough to offline her temporarily. She came back to herself with cables still in Slipstream, ports still full. It felt good; she shifted her hips experimentally to feel the way that Slipstream moved in her.

Slipstream yelped and flopped down on top of her. "No fair," she complained, sounding less guarded than she had in the entire time Elita-1 had known her. "You can't just—ah!"

Elita-1 carefully disengaged her own cables, dragging them over every sensor of Slipstream's ports before sliding out. She grinned up at Slipstream and put her own cables against her mouth to lick at Slipstream's lubricant. Slipstream watched, optics wide and bright.

After that, Elita-1 let her cables spool back up and patted Slipstream's hip. "Not bad," she murmured. Her optics dimmed as Slipstream tugged her own cables free.

"I blew you offline, and all I get is a 'not bad'?" Slipstream complained, but her voice had settled somewhere between warm and mocking. Like this, systems still running too hot, Elita-1 found she didn't mind at all. "Are you going to kick me off of the slab, too?"

"No," Elita-1 replied. "You can stay up here. But at the next chime, you're going to be the one fetching the energon."

Slipstream went quiet, and Elita-1 glanced up at her suddenly unreadable expression. "I'm not into my reserve tank yet," she said. "Couldn't it wait? I'll give you an overload at the next chime, instead…"

"Slipstream." Elita-1 frowned. "I don't have the processor power to talk about whatever it is you're trying not to say, but I can tell there's something. We'll discuss it later. Okay? I won't push about the energon until then."

Slipstream didn't look happy, but she subsided and settled on her front next to Elita-1 with her wing resting over Elita-1's chest. Elita-1 watched as Slipstream's noncritical systems shut down, one by one. Finally, Elita-1 settled a hand on Slipstream's back, between her wings. "What am I going to do with you?" she murmured before letting herself slip into recharge as well.

"Time for Rumble to tumble towards the warehouse?" Rumble asked, then cackled. "It's been a while since you had one of your little lovefests."

"Rumble's offer is appreciated," Soundwave said. "Frenzy is where?"

«Frenzy is with Barricade,» came the answer through the Cassette comm channel. «And before anyone says anything, we're not interfacing. Not everything revolves around interfacing, Rumble.»

«I didn't say anything!» Rumble protested, then chortled.

«He wanted a friendly audial and a spare processor, so we're exchanging information,» Frenzy said. «I should have some great gossip by the time I get back. You can gimme a call if you need help in the warehouse, yeah, Rumble?»

«Don't worry, I won't interrupt your date unless there's an emergency.» Rumble grinned at Soundwave as well. Soundwave stared back until Rumble gave a loud huff and hoisted himself up into the drone pathways.

Just as Rumble left, Laserbeak flew back. "The human is safe," ey reported as ey angled in to land practically on top of Buzzsaw. Buzzsaw made an irritated chittering noise and reached out to nip Laserbeak's neck. The two of them tussled on Soundwave's arm for a moment, then settled together with their feelers entangled for balance. Soundwave loved moments like this; they never let their guard down in front of the rest of the crew. He and only a few others had been allowed into their personal lives and only he into their sparkbond, and he took comfort from it.

He was content to let the silence and the warmth of their affection steady his spark and mind until Ravage returned, leaping silently down from the same drone pathways that Rumble had left by. "Getting started without me?" he asked, and he crawled up Soundwave's frame without waiting for an answer.

"Soundwave will lie down," Soundwave offered.

Buzzsaw disentangled emself from Laserbeak's feelers and pushed off into a slow glide as Soundwave arranged himself on the recharge slab. "If anyone's getting any ideas," ey said, "I've never been less charged up than I am right now."

"Nobody's getting any ideas about anything, and you should be able to feel that," Laserbeak said. "Come back; you're warm and dry. The rain here might not be as acidic as back on Cybertron, but it's not pleasant, either."

"Soundwave uninterested in interfacing now," Soundwave agreed. "Thoughts linger on Megatron and the instability of his system. Cannot maintain charge."

"Yeah." Buzzsaw landed again on his chest, nuzzling eir beak over his spark. "Maybe once Megatron's back up and running. How long do you think it'll take? I couldn't tell."

Soundwave considered. "Medical assessment correct," he said after a moment. "Soundwave cannot do better. Shockwave is experienced in frame reconstruction. Shockwave is Megatron's best chance."

"We won't give up on him even if Shockwave fails," Laserbeak declared. Ey nipped at Soundwave's mouth. It was as close as any of them could get to kissing, and Soundwave brushed his lips over eir beak in return. "Megatron deserves that much from us."

"Agreed," Ravage said. "Though I suspect that Soundwave is correct. If the medics and Shockwave cannot fix him, what are the chances that we can do differently?"

"Soundwave is technopathic," Soundwave reminded him. "Telepathy is most visible manifestation, but not only. Skills untrained. It may be possible to reach Megatron's brain module without translation framework and receive assistance from Megatron's own hardware. Not attempted because Megatron vulnerable. Technopathy is an intrusion. Preferable to give Megatron's body back before waking him."

"Hmm." Ravage flicked his tail back and forth and then draped it over Buzzsaw's claws. "Your point is taken, but I would rather not raise our hopes to unrealistic levels. Tragedy is part of life. And no matter what happens to Megatron, we will be together." Soundwave could not express his emotions in words; instead, he let his love and affection pulse through the sparkbond. Ravage chuckled and nuzzled at his cheek. "It always amazes me how much you're capable of, sweetspark."

"Soundwave is grateful," Soundwave said. "Without you, without Megatron, Soundwave would be dead."

"But you're not dead, and you're not alone," Laserbeak said firmly. "None of us are alone so long as we have each other. We're never going back to that place."

Ravage gave a delicate full-body shudder. "Never," he agreed.

"Yeah, maybe we shouldn't talk about this," Buzzsaw muttered. "I can feel all of you getting upset about this, don't think I can't. And I'm going to get mad if you all get upset, because I can't claw out the spark of anyone who's ever hurt you."

Laserbeak nipped Buzzsaw again, without intent to hurt or arouse, and the four of them settled into a companionable silence. Soundwave focused on the sparkbond, on the feel of all their sparks pulsing with life and energy so close to his. There were other things he wanted out of life: the victory of the Decepticon cause and the abolishment of a Prime-lead government, Megatron restored to a functional frame, the happiness of Autobot Prowl, the safety of human Verity. But for now, he would take this moment of warmth and love and let himself bask in it for a little while longer.

Wing stared at Dai Atlas. The welds on eir side and wing ached in perfect counterpoint to the stuttering, uneven vents that seemed to be all ey could manage. "I don't understand," ey forced out. "This is the information that you were looking for, and it's not what any of us expected. Why?"

"It's not about the information you obtained," Dai Atlas said. He held out the stasis cuffs, and Wing automatically offered eir wrists. "You brought the information that we wanted, but you did so by breaking your cover such that the humans attacked you and by initiating contact with an unknown Decepticon whose trustworthiness cannot be verified. Did it ever occur to you that the Decepticon could be lying? You can't even give a good reason as to why the Decepticon would be out there in the first place. Perhaps the humans and the Decepticons are collaborating after all."

"I thought of that," Wing said, "but I observed no signs of decepticon in what he told me."

"He's a Decepticon." Dai Atlas took hold of the stasis cuffs, hooking a finger in the middle and looking Wing straight in the optics. "Do you understand why you are being punished?"

"Dai Atlas," Axe said, his voice soft.

Dai Atlas didn't break optical contact, even when Wing didn't respond. "It's not about your lack of adherence to military command. It's not about your contact with the enemy. It's about the private vows a knight takes to himself and to the order that you have failed to uphold. I requested that you fulfill this mission with honor; I find instead that you have disregarded all the mission parameters I trusted you with. We are here as mediators, not as instigators. It is not our place to get involved in conflict."

But it hadn't happened like that. Wing dimmed eir optics, then shut them off entirely as Dai Atlas led em to a cell, eir autonomic systems responding sluggishly through the stasis to keep em balanced. "At least tell the Autobots," ey said as heavy footsteps moved away from eir cell. No response. Eir optics came back online with a faint snap of electricity. Ey could only see Dai Atlas' back. "Please! Please, tell the Autobots! They deserve—"

The heavy brig door slid shut.

Wing stared helplessly at the blank white of the door, at all the empty cells around em.

A knight should not doubt Dai Atlas' words. A knight should respect eir lord.

But all Wing could think was that every Cybertronian on Earth could be in danger if they didn't know the risks they took by staying here, among the humans.

Still, ey tried to clear eir head. Ey tried very hard. The fog of urgency kept creeping back into eir processor, dulling everything else. The Circle of Light does not allow impetuous emotions to rule them, ey told emself. A true knight lets the world flow around them, seeing what others do not.

The fog persisted. Wing flexed eir hands against the stasis cuffs and, in a deliberate burst of motion, overrode the mild stasis pervading eir frame to lurch against the forcefield. It snapped and bit at eir frame, especially the fresh welds, but Wing stayed there. The pain distracted em from the fog, and ey shut eir optics off.

Emotions do not rule. We are different; we are not drawn into conflict. Strong emotions lead to conflict. Conflict leads to pain and suffering. We desire only to live peacefully.

Wing certainly didn't want to bring harm on the humans, who might only be defending their home. Perhaps Dai Atlas was correct: telling the Autobots would only lead to retribution, which the Decepticons were doubtless already planning. Why had Drift been out there, anyway? Had he intended to attack the human base? But if so, why had he stayed and tended Wing's wounds before taking off in the opposite direction? Why had he been alone?

Wing steadied eir vents into a slow stream of overheated air. The licks of pain from the forcefield started to dull all sensation, and Wing flopped back to land painfully on eir wing holders. Perhaps Dai Atlas was right in not taking hasty action, but the thought of not taking any action at all still stung at Wing's mind. If the humans did intend harm, surely the best plan would be to move the treaty negotiations. Hadn't that been why Dai Atlas sent em in the first place? Why would Dai Atlas dismiss those concerns? True, telling the Autobots could lead to more violence, but so too could silence.

Wing's spark ached. Ey reached up and pressed a hand over eir armor, feeling the last lingering static of a charge that couldn't possibly feel less sensual. Someone had to be wrong: Wing and Dai Atlas could not both be right about this. And Wing's spark would not accept the thought that maybe, just maybe, ey could be wrong.

Meditate, ey told emself. You need to calm your systems.

Slowly, after what felt like joors, Wing managed to push emself up into a sitting position. With eir optics still offline, ey turned eir head up towards the ceiling and started a forcible override of every single autonomic system, routing them all into eir main processor and slowing them. Like this, inward focused, ey could feel eir own spark as it reached outward through the living metal beyond. Ey dialed eir systems down further and further, until ey had moved them to a slower pace than stasis cuffs could induce. The cuffs clicked off as Wing's systems passed their danger threshold setting.

Like this, Wing was practically in stasis of eir own free will, eir frame useless, with only eir own mind to contend with. Here, perhaps, ey could find some answers.

Chapter Text

"This is a terrible idea," Prowl said again. He folded his arms under his bumper and held his wings high as he glared at Optimus. 'Just because you are suffering some sort of medical problem—"

"What?" Optimus blurted out. He scratched at his chest again and then looked down, as though realizing. "Ah, no, this isn't why I'm bringing Ratchet down. I just need to wash." He gave a self-deprecating laugh. "I shouldn't have gone for an offroad drive in all this dust."

"Then there is even less reason for Ratchet to come here." Prowl scowled. "He's our best medic. He shouldn't be trapped here at the whim of the humans."

"They're starting to loosen their restrictions," Optimus said. "They're letting us drive, aren't they?"

"That should have been our right from the beginning," Prowl countered. "They still aren't letting us drive unsupervised, we know those cameras are present, and if requiring permission for a medic to arrive at the base isn't enough prood that you shouldn't be giving them access to Ratchet and his technology, I don't know what will convince you." That was a lie: he did know. It involved the sparkless husks of the dead and dying, but overselling would do nothing but close Optimus' audials further.

Optimus grimaced and brushed at his chest as though he could clean his internal components with transferred vibration. "For what it's worth, Prowl, I am listening to your concerns," he said in a conciliatory tone. Prowl's wings hitched higher. "I've talked this over extensively with Jazz, as well, and we both appreciate that you're looking out for me—for all Autobots. But we must also understand that these creatures are new to the concept that they are not alone in the universe. We are larger than them and hardier than them; we frighten them, and thus we must proceed with caution and understanding."

Prowl gave Ratchet up as a lost cause. "And Chromia?" he demanded instead. "Her talents are espionage and infiltration. Why is she being pulled back here?"

"Because I asked her to," Windblade interjected apologetically from across the room. "She has to activate her holomatter avatar so as not to alarm the humans, and it's putting an unnecessary drain on her systems. She didn't get any information from the Decepticons, and neither did Jazz; if more espionage is required, it should be someone who can transform into a larger vehicle with internal components easily disguised with tinted glass."

"Is that your professional opinion?" Optimus asked, sounding warmer.

"No, it's my opinion as someone who's personally invested in her health." Windblade smiled and tilted her head. "Besides, Prowl, don't you want more people here who share your suspicion of the humans?"

Prowl's wings were held so tight that they ached as he waited for the numbing to take effect. When it did, he let out a slow vent of overheated air and forced his wings to relax. "I do," he said. It was obvious he would gain nothing by continuing to argue now.

"Jazz believes that she will be more effective here," Optimus added in a soothing tone of voice that made Prowl's doors hitch again. "He, Windblade, and Chromia made this decision after a long discussion."

"Then tell me who will replace her in the field." Prowl gave them both a cool look. "I cannot function as a tactician unless I am given all the available data."

"Jazz has orders to let you know as soon as he's decided." A wry smile pulled at Optimus' mouthplates. "I admit, we haven't been operating at peak communication since coming to Earth."

Prowl kept his opinion of that accurate assessment locked in his processor. "Fine. You can have Ratchet and Chromia. But the rest of the medics are staying up in orbit with adequate security measures in place to protect them."


Before Prowl could say anything more, Ratchet's voice boomed across the broad comm channel they'd set up for the Earth base. «Hello? Does anybody want to let us in, here? Apparently it doesn't open from outside unless you know the trick.»

«I could break in easily enough,» Chromia added, «but I assume you want the humans to think us incapable of doing so.»

«Yes, your patience would be appreciated,» Optimus said. «I will be there in a moment.»

«No, wait, never mind,» Chromia said. «Human vehicle approaching.»

«That will be Agents Fowler and Faireborn. You may introduce yourselves, if you wish.»

Prowl wanted to object. Anything they said should be in front of him, so that he could analyze it and make sure that the humans weren't getting any impressions other than what their current team had carefully cultivated. On the other hand, they could hardly be worse about maintaining it than Optimus himself, and Windblade was right: having Chromia in the base might alleviate some of his frustration at Optimus and Windblade and their hardcoded diplomacy programming. So he waited, shifting his doors, until the base opened up and three vehicles drove in.

"Yeeeah!" a familiar voice cheered as soon as the doors to the human vehicle opened. "Jeez, I thought we'd never get inside."

"Sari?!" Fowler yelped. "How did you— Hold on just a moment, where's your dad?"

"I don't know," Sari said, all her attention already focused on Ratchet and Chromia. "Probably working. Hi! I'm Sari. I hope you're more interesting than the three over there."

"Probably not," Chromia said with a tight smile as she glanced at Ratchet.

"Zing! Okay, I like you. You can stay. And, whoa, you're a bike. That has to mean I can ride you. Right?"

"No," Fowler said, almost loud enough to drown out Chromia's affirmative. "There will be no riding of anyone. Marissa…"

"Don't look at me, I never even had siblings." Marissa gave Sari a baleful look. "How about you get back in the car and one of us will drive you home?"

"No, that's okay," Sari said. "I just want to meet the new bots." She trotted over to Chromia, ducking Faireborn's halfhearted attempt to grab her. "So, do you have a name?"

"I'm Chromia, and this is our medic, Ratchet. He's very interested in how you humans function." Chromia's smile widened as she glanced over at Fowler and Faireborn. "As I understand it, there was a bit of an informational exchange planned, right?"

"Aha," Fowler said weakly. "Right."

Prowl allowed his doorwings a victorious twitch.

"But seriously, how did you even get in the car?" Faireborn asked Sari. "Not one security system picked you up?"

"Nope," Sari declared with a grin. "And I'm not telling you how, 'cause that's a secret. If I told you, you'd try to stop me, and I'd have to stay home."

"Kid, do you understand how catastrophic a security hole large enough to let you through could be?" Faireborn crouched down. "We're talking explosions and death catastrophe here."

"Only I know about it," Sari muttered. "I would tell someone if my dad were in any danger, okay? He's my dad."

"That's not—" Faireborn cut herself off with a frustrated sound. "This conversation isn't over."

«Well done distracting the adult humans,» Prowl told Chromia over a private comm line. He saw Optimus give him an unreadable look out from the far side of his optical range, but he ignored it. «Do you really intend to give the child a ride?»

«Don't worry, I won't be causing any accidents if I do. Interesting, though; neither Ratchet nor I caught her in our scans, but now she's registering normally. I wonder if this technology that the Decepticons stole is some sort of deflector technology the humans came up with.»

«I don't think that they could have come up with something like that on their own,» Prowl started, then froze as his logic centers caught up. Deflectors, even crude imitations of what Cybertronians could produce given the proper resources, might be able to shield the humans' technological capabilities. Surely they wouldn't have enough to mask all of the planet. Unless… «You've reported your speculation to Jazz?»

«Not yet. My orders are to wait until they leave and compile a single condensed report.»

«Make sure you include that. We should begin operating under the assumption that the humans have the means to hide their technology until he's able to prove otherwise.» Prowl made sure his own recording devices were trained on the majority of the room and settled back to watch and worry.

The trick, Hot Rod had discovered, was that the spacebridge only activated to get the officers much needed supplies, which meant that it cycled between two fixed locations and set times. In ordinary circumstances, he probably would have gotten bored after the first shift change, but the problem was that everything had gotten boring. They were trapped in orbit above an awesome alien planet, unable to even go down to the surface where all the action was taking place. No missions with Ultra Magnus. No expeditions to the planet's surface. Rarely anybody to play games with because all the bots who'd tolerate Hot Rod for longer than a single shift had all been scheduled opposite him.

So, really, the fact that he'd managed to sneak into the spacebridge room repeatedly with nobody noticing was someone else's fault and not Hot Rod's. Security should be better, for one, and life on the ship should be more entertaining, for two.

Hot Rod had wandered away from the spacebridge, but he always ended up coming back. It wouldn't hurt anyone if he snuck down for a little joyride, right? He'd even done his research and found an alt that wouldn't alarm the local organics. And the groundbridge had a guard, sure, but Hot Rod had already managed to sneak past them multiple times.

So it only made sense that he'd take advantage of the opportunity and reprogram the space bridge to let him slip down to Earth unnoticed.

"Hey, watch it, asshole!" someone yelled as Hot Rod narrowly avoided hitting one of the organics.

"You're in the wrong fucking lane!" someone else shrieked. Hot Rod skidded out of the way of the oncoming vehicles and laughed; it had been so long since he'd been able to just drive.

His comm system pinged. «Where are you?» Moonracer demanded without so much as a hello. «You're late for your shift, and you're going to get in trouble if you're not in the surveillance room within the next few kliks.»

«Moonracer!» Hot Rod exclaimed happily. «Look, I need you to cover for me, okay? I don't want to get in trouble, but I'm kinda unable to make my shift at the moment.»

«Hot Rod…»

«Look, it's nothing bad! If I were on a critical shift, that'd be one thing, but you and I both know they're only sticking us on guard duty to keep us occupied, and I'm doing something really important. Fixing a critical hole in security, some might say.»

«Oh, Primus. Okay, Hot Rod, give me one good reason why I should stick my wires in the fire for your critical security hole.»

«Because you love me and don't want to see Ultra Magnus peel off my plating and feed it to scraplets?» Hot Rod skidded and sped out of the organic city. All that yelling was making it harder to focus on Moonracer. These organics never shut up. «Come on, all you have to say is that I forgot to turn off my FIM in time and my fuel systems are glitching. Minor repair, I'm doing it myself in my hab suite. You don't need to make me sound good.»

«Okay,» Moonracer said after a moment, «but only because I'm really curious about this security hole of yours. You'd better tell me everything when you come back, and if it's not by your next shift, I'm letting Ultra Magnus loose on your frame.»

«Thanks!» Hot Rod did a quick circle on an empty road before zooming past some four-legged organics eating what looked like wavy green crystals. He slowed down to get a better look, but the organics didn't so much as glance at him.

«A-ha,» said someone new over Hot Rod's comms, even though he hadn't gotten a ping for any channel access. He screeched and started to accelerate until the voice said, «Hot Rod, if you try to lose me, I'm afraid I'm gonna end up reportin' you to Optimus Prime himself. What are you doing on Earth in a direct violation of orders?»

«Jazz?» Hot Rod spun, and, okay, Jazz looked a lot different in Earth-based alt, but that sure sounded like him. «I, uh, wasn't— How'd you find me?»

«The fact that you're disobeyin' just about every traffic law on Earth would've been a big clue,» Jazz moved past Hot Rod. «That and you didn't bother to check the security of your comms. Don't worry; I'm takin' care of that. Let's just take a nice, slow, quiet drive. All speed laws obeyed. We're not here to attract attention, despite what you might think.»

«Nobody caught me,» Hot Rod offered. «And I didn't hurt anybody! I don't see what the problem is.»

«The problem is that human vehicles are a lot less responsive than a mech. If you want to blend in and not terrify them, you have to obey their laws. That's the basics of alien interaction. Aren't you supposed to be an expert on that?»

Hot Rod's fans clicked on, though thankfully drowned out by the sound of his engine. «Are you going to drag me back to the Ark?»

«Why would you think that? We're just gonna have a nice little chat about what you're doing down here.»

«Exposing holes in the Ark's spacebridge security!» Hot Rod blurted. «I think it would be better to give me a commendation than to torture me. Or…whatever you're planning on doing.» He eyed Jazz's rear wheels with some trepidation. He'd never bought into the rumors that Jazz's real job was torturing Decepticon prisoners. For one, they were Autobots, and Autobots were supposed to be above Decepticon tactics. For another…well, he couldn't think of the other reasons right now, but that didn't mean Jazz could actually get away with whatever inventive punishments he was supposedly capable of.

«Yeah?» Jazz sounded amused and not angry, at least. "You got a different idea about what I should do with you?"

«Teach me how I'm supposed to be driving here?»

Jazz laughed, moving back and forth very slightly in front of Hot Rod. «Yeah, okay,» he said. «You managed to sneak down here, you can consider yourself reassigned once you make your full and detailed security report to Red Alert. I was lookin' for a new minion anyway; I figured it'd be someone with actual training, but what's one more? Let's park, and I'll help you with that report.»

«What?» Hot Rod protested. «I wasn't done driving yet!»

«You got a complaint to make?» Jazz pulled into an empty expanse with a weird white grid design. «You can't be trusted to drive on your own yet, Roddy. You're with me until I'm confident you won't get yourself tagged and pulled by the humans or by the Decepticons. I'd ask if you could do somethin' about that paint, but I'm guessin' that's a no.»

«You're not touching my paint,» Hot Rod said with more confidence than he felt. «You wouldn't do that.»

«You might be surprised,» Jazz replied. «A good spy can't get attached to their paint job. Lots of times you gotta change it or cover up on a moment's notice. Lucky for you, there's some pretty flashy rides down here, and since we're hidin' in plain sight, it's a bit different than tryin' to blend in with Decepticons. You got that report ready yet?»

«You've been talking to me,» Hot Rod protested. «I can't write while you're talking!»

Jazz chuckled. «Not spy material yet, huh.»

«Is this supposed to be my punishment or something?» Hot Rod grumbled, but he hastily pulled together a report that Red Alert could probably decipher, sent it off, and followed Jazz out of the "parking lot," as it was apparently called. Punishment it might be, but it was least more interesting than being stuck up in that ship with nothing to do. Even getting driving lessons from someone with Jazz's sense of humor—and speed limits that low had to be some sort of cruel joke at Hot Rod's expense—had to be better than whatever lecture Ultra Magnus could come up with.

He felt a twinge of guilt as he thought that. He did like hearing Ultra Magnus speak, even when the subject matter was incomprehensibly boring. And he didn't want to abandon his friends—but the assignment to Jazz's team was temporary, anyone could see that. Hot Rod wouldn't make a good spy, and Jazz knew it. And when Hot Rod got back, oh, the stories he'd have for Moonracer and Arcee.

Rewind knew the exact moment Ultra Magnus stepped into the archival bay, but he kept himself hunched low and discreet. The archival bay tended to be dark and empty, even during a ceasefire, unless some critical bit of information was needed—and even then, if Rewind could rattle off the information within a joor, only rarely would someone look further. Chromedome or Blaster or even Eject would have been an expected presence; Ultra Magnus was anything but.

Loud, ringing footsteps retreated and approached, and Rewind refused to look up. He kept his optical band fixed on the datapad he'd been studying. He wasn't currently involved in any data transfer or reconstruction projects, which he regretted; Ultra Magnus wouldn't interrupt such a delicate procedure, and it would be a good way to avoid—

"Rewind," a deep voice over him rumbled.

Rewind carefully hid a wince. That, yes. "Yes, sir?"

Ultra Magnus stared down at him. "Has Hot Rod come this way?" he asked. Then he straightened, gaze snapping up to a point just above Rewind's head. "Report."

Rewind frowned and shook his head even as he connected to the roster. "No, he hasn't. Mechs rarely come down here."

"I am aware of that. Such locations are often used to avoid undesirable tasks, such as duty shifts."

Rewind's frown deepened as he sat up. He would have expected the words to drip with censure and anger, but instead, Ultra Magnus sounded almost…resigned. It stood to reason, Rewind scolded himself. Ultra Magnus had a spark. He undoubtedly had likes and dislikes just like any other mech. He couldn't be all business all the time.

Still, Rewind didn't have to like the tension that voice sent through all his support struts at once. He distracted himself by searching the duty roster, and, this time, his frown wasn't for Ultra Magnus. "Uh, sir, it says here that Hot Rod was reassigned to Jazz's command on Earth. He's not even on the ship."

"What?!" Ultra Magnus burst out. "Why was I not informed of this? As his—his prior commanding officer, I should have been approached to sign off on such a task!"

Rewind carefully didn't step away from Ultra Magnus despite the anger thrumming audibly through his body. Ultra Magnus wouldn't smash him, he didn't sound threatening, Rewind told himself. And he couldn't even if he wanted to—he'd have to explain his breach in protocol to Optimus Prime. Rewind was safe.

Blaster reached out with a concerned comm at practically the same time as Chromedome. «You okay?» he asked.

«What's wrong?» Chromedome wanted to know.

«I'm fine,» Rewind sent back to both of them, then narrowed his focus. «Domey, you're not on shift, right?»


«So I'll check in with you soon, okay?»

«You're upset, I can feel it,» Chromedome said at the same time as Blaster sent an affirmative ping back.

«I know you can. I'm not in any danger, okay? It's a long story. I'll tell you when I get there.» Rewind cut off the comm gently but firmly and sent a pulse of affection towards Chromedome through the spark bond. He felt worry mingled with affection come back at him.

It helped, a little. He felt calmer as he returned his attention to Ultra Magnus' words. "—a chain of command in this vessel, and it is intended to be obeyed! Had I been consulted in this matter, I would have informed Jazz in no uncertain terms that Hot Rod does not meet his qualifications for spywork; if he wanted someone from my unit, he would be better served by Arcee, and even she does not possess the skill for dissembling that a post on Earth would require!"

Even with Chromedome's emotions bolstering him, Rewind found himself cringing down at every word, delivered as they were in a blistering tone that could have made paint peel. It was a lecture intended for soldiers, and Rewind had never considered himself a soldier, no matter if he technically was. Blaster sheltered all of his Cassettes from most of the command structure and combat, as much as he could.

After a moment, though, Ultra Magnus glanced down at Rewind and visibly stopped himself. "This is unnecessary for you to hear," Ultra Magnus said, his voice stiff. "Thank you for the information." He hesitated for just a moment, then turned on his heel and stalked off towards the door. Rewind opened his vents and let out a rush of hot air as he tucked his datapad away with trembling hands.

«Domey? I'm coming by now.»

«I got some engex while I was waiting,» Chromedome said. «You might make it to our suite before I do. Don't worry if I'm not there.»

«I would have been happy with just you,» Rewind said, but he had to admit that a little bit of engex additive in some warm energon would go down really well right now. And Chromedome knew that from long experience.

As luck would have it, Rewind didn't have to wait in the hab suite long. Chromedome stepped in a few nanokliks after the door had hissed shut behind Rewind. He carried two cubes with intake straws, one small and one large. Rewind sat up from where he'd flung himself on the recharge slab and took a long drink from the small cube as soon as Chromedome handed it over.

"So," Chromedome said, flicking at the straw in his own cube as he sat down on the slab next to Rewind. "What happened?"

Rewind felt his optical band start to compress into another frown and sent an override. Instead, he leaned up against Chromedome's warm side with another long vent. "Ultra Magnus," he said. "It's a long story. Before you rush off to yell at him, he didn't do anything terrible."

"Good, because I don't think I'd stand a chance against someone like him." Chromedome settled a large hand against Rewind's back and started to stroke. Rewind turned off his optics and set down the rest of the cube so that he could focus on the sensation.

"You won't have to test that. I mean, he yelled a little, but it wasn't at me." Rewind grimaced. "There was some mixup with the rosters or transferrals or something, it's just—he's intimidating. He's huge. And…he brings up bad memories."

"I didn't even know you knew Ultra Magnus," Chromedome said, voice quiet.

Rewind knew without even looking that Chromedome had his helm downcast at that. He nuzzled against Chromedome's chest plating and felt himself drawn up into his conjunx endura's lap. "Don't feel bad. I didn't even really tell Blaster…ever. I don't like to talk about it. I know, me not liking to talk about history, right?" He felt Chromedome's soft, almost-amused beep of agreement vibrate through their plating. "But it's not a specific thing he did or anything. It's just—timing. Weird timing. I told you about losing Dom, that's the important part of the story."

"I thought Dominus was murdered by Decepticons?"

For a moment, Rewind felt lost, then comprehension dawned. "Oh, yeah, there was an investigation, but not by Ultra Magnus. That wasn't it. I think the officers involved are long dead. At the same time as Dom was murdered—" his voice caught on that, but he forced the static in his vocalizer back as he pushed through— "we started to get investigated for Decepticon sympathies. There was even some weird thing about Dom having been a Decepticon and faking his own death? It was awful. Minimus lost his job as a council aide and so we both ended up on the streets."

"You don't have to tell me this again," Chromedome said, holding him closer. Rewind could feel love and sympathy through the bond, and he grabbed onto that.

"No, I think I have to. So, uh, there I am, recently sparkbroken, and Dom's brother isn't doing too much better, and we're both minis. We didn't have anywhere else to go, so we had to rely on the kindness of strangers—of all people, Chief Justice Tyrest took us in and made sure we had enough energon and medical care to get back on our feet. He was doing a lot of charity work back then.

"Only—it turned out that Minimus had some sort of spark defect the doctors had never caught." Rewind curled further into Chromedome. "With the additional stress of the sparkbreak, even though we'd both been shielding, he got labeled a lost cause. He started acting stranger and stranger, and finally, he died. And just as he died, Tyrest brought Ultra Magnus in. I couldn't deal with it. Losing Dom was hard, but losing Minimus as well and the last connection I had to the Ambus house meant I couldn't bear to stay with Tyrest anymore. I left, and—that's when I met you."

Chromedome didn't say anything for a long moment, but Rewind could hear the faint, almost undetectable buzz of his processor working. "So, you could also say that he brought us together."

"Yeah, there's that," Rewind agreed. "I tried that one when I first saw him again in the army, but it never sticks. He just feels so callous." He stood up on Chromedome's lap and pressed his face to Chromedome's collar plating. "At least I have you and Blaster and the other Cassettes, now. I'm not alone."

"No," Chromedome agreed. "You're never alone, love."

Rewind might have said something, then—probably to suggest data transfer, since that always calmed him down even without an overload—but the buzz of Steeljaw's comm came through before he could say anything. «Rewind, we need you here with Blaster. Something's happened.»

«What is it?» Rewind asked as he added Chromedome to the channel.

«I just managed to hijack some footage from the Nemesis. It's barely a nanoklik, but freezeframe shows Megatron. Basic analysis shows that wherever the footage is from, it's not the Nemesis, but it's recent, and he's uninjured. We need all hands on deck for this one.»

«Chromedome? I'd usually leave this to my Cassettes, but I know Rewind tagged you in just now. You used to work in mechaforensics, right? I'd appreciate your help as well.» Blaster sounded apologetic.

Rewind sighed and disentangled himself from Chromedome enough to snag his mostly-full energon cube. So much for that FIM-free engex. "Well?" he said aloud to Chromedome. "You don't have to come if you don't want to. I think I've picked up enough."

"It's Megatron," Chromedome said. "Of course I have to come. Steeljaw's right. Besides, I don't want to leave you alone."

"Yeah," Rewind said. He slipped his free hand up into Chromedome's. A sudden pulse of foreboding shook his entire frame. "Okay, you're right. I don't think I want to face the prospect of Megatron having been behind this whole business on my own."

Belonging pulsed through the sparkbond, and Rewind tightened his grip on Chromedome's fingers. Together. They'd face this together.

Chapter Text

Starscream had a plan.

Starscream always had a plan; this particular plan hadn't been anywhere near his list of top choices, but with Soundwave and the medics and Shockwave all hovering over Megatron's component parts like a bunch of glitch mice over a scrapheap, Starscream couldn't even get close anymore. To add insult to injury, he'd had to resort to getting updates from Skywarp, of all mechs.

Starscream had even restrained himself from stomping on Skywarp's naïve enthusiasm as a reward for that information.

"You leave me no choice," he muttered at the comms systems as he double-checked the locks and booted up the systems that he'd designed ages ago to keep Soundwave's pets out of his private work. "If you had cooperated, we could have all been happy with Lord Starscream, Supreme Commander of the Decepticons and Winglord of Vos. But no; you have all proven yourselves traitors, all too happy to welcome back a sparkless frame over me!" He paused in his work to vent in a loud hiss of rage. "But now you'll all see. I got you back your precious Megatron; let's see how you like him now!"

He pressed the button with great ceremony and allowed a triumphant smirk to spread over his face as he waited. It fell slightly as nanokliks ticked by and no answer came.

Finally, Optimus Prime's face appeared on the viewscreen, hidden by his unsightly battle mask as usual. "Starscream, hello. To what do I owe this call?"

"Really, Prime," Starscream said. "You needn't sound so suspicious. I'm calling for the same reason we are on this organic-infested planet in the first place: to negotiate for peace."

Optimus Prime's mask, disappointingly, hid any hint of a reaction. "I'm sure you are well aware that to formally pursue peace, we must have our chosen negotiator present and listening," he said.

Starscream waved him off. "Yes, yes," he said. "Of course, negotiations must take place in person, as well. We wouldn't want to worry about any… interference, as it were." He gave Optimus Prime his most charming smile. "I called merely to formalize our agreement, as I realize we never did so before. I wouldn't want you to doubt the intentions of the Decepticons, after all."

Optimus Prime looked at him silently for a moment, no doubt consulting his advisors over comms. No matter; Starscream could wait. He tapped his claws against the console in a slow rhythm until Optimus Prime spoke again. "The Autobots are willing to formalize our negotiations."

"Excellent," Starscream purred. "I presume you are recording this and would like a vocal confirmation as well as my personal electronic stamp?"

"If you would be so kind."

"But of course. I, Starscream, leader of the Decepticons, hereby state that the Decepticons wish for peace, and therefore we will enter into peaceful negotiations with the Autobots, lead by Optimus Prime, to be presided over by Dai Atlas of the Circle of Light, at neutral coordinates selected by Dai Atlas himself. We shall begin this negotiation next orn, and our representative shall be the magnificent leader of the Decepticons himself." He preened; he hated to be so vague, but the purpose was to trap someone else not himself. If his position was going to be stolen, let whoever stole it from him be responsible for tens of thousands of vorns of war. Let them be hated and reviled as all the lives lost were on their frame once more.

Let Megatron burn in the slagging smelter.

"Next orn?" Optimus repeated. "That is a very short span of time; we've only been on Earth for a few orns now. Why is there a rush now?"

"Yes, well." Starscream waved that away. "We were not expecting this infestation, unfortunately. Some adaption of our previous plans was required before we could be certain the negotiations could be carried out safely. And now, having wasted so much time, we are eager to get started. We presumed you would be as well. We all wish for this peace, Prime."

"The humans have some questions for you."

"That can be handled during the negotiations themselves," Starscream said breezily. "I'm certain they, as well as you, would prefer their answers straight from the source. Oh, would you look at that; I'm being called away. I trust you will send this footage to Dai Atlas and work out whatever location you all feel is best. I trust you to find someplace suitable. Starscream out." He cut the connection before Optimus Prime could say anything else.

He stared at the blank viewscreen for a moment, energon heated and fast as it moved through his lines in anticipation of some exciting event. He'd done it; he'd sealed the fate of the Decepticon leader, whoever that ended up being.

Because Starscream could feel all the way in his struts that it wouldn't be him for much longer.

The rage overtook him within a klik, and he stood, slamming his hands down on the console. He'd given the Decepticons so much: his talents, his life, his very spark. And this was how they repaid him?

He grabbed the blocking tech he'd used and stored it in his plating before storming out of the room. He forced his wings down from high and tense to wide and flared. Hopefully nobody would notice how carefully he held them so as not to give away his mood. He needed to get out of this vessel. He needed to fly.

"Starscream!" someone called behind him. Barricade. Starscream almost turned, but the memory of Barricade's claws at his spark—of Barricade's glossa filling his port—gave him pause. He kept moving and made sure his wings didn't hitch any higher. "Starscream, wait!" Barricade sounded exasperated; good for him. Starscream had no interest in listening to his complaints.

Still, even when it should have been clear that Starscream had no interest in listening to him, Barricade's footsteps echoed down the hall after him until the moment the flight deck opened and Starscream flung himself into the air. He heard cursing behind him, and a little bit of vindictive joy warmed his spark. Barricade's day couldn't possibly be as bad as Starscream's, but Starscream could do his part to make it a little more miserable nonetheless.

Megatron awoke in an unfamiliar location with a faint but persistent feeling that something was wrong. He reset his optics several times, trying to clear the haze in his visual processing systems—in all his processing systems—but to no avail.

He first thought that the Autobots had managed to capture him and do something to his systems, but he could see only Decepticons around him. Soundwave and his Cassettes. Shockwave. Deadlock. One of the medics—the shiny red one. Megatron struggled to sit up, but his frame refused to respond to his commands. "Report," he said. His vocalizer sounded fuzzy and slow to his own audials.

"What is the last thing you remember?" Shockwave asked instead. He hadn't looked at Megatron's face yet; he stared instead at a piece of medical equipment in his hand.

Megatron's optics flickered involuntarily. What did he remember? He remembered… "Pain," he said, feeling uncertain. "What happened to me?" He felt sure, now, that something had; he was in some sort of medical facility.

Sure enough, Shockwave nodded his optical casing and set down the equipment. He started tapping commands on the console instead. "I will loosen the memory blocks now."

"I'm not so sure that's a good idea," Starscream's voice said from some distance away. He sounded sulky. "What if he panics?"

"Megatron does not panic," Soundwave said.

Megatron floated for a moment before the haze started to lift and his processor started to clear. He blinked his optics again, but before he could try to focus them properly, the memories started to hit.

The sensation of a heavily-modded sniper rifle ripping through his plating right at his spark. The feeling of falling, of twisting and being torn apart. Silence. Stillness. The itching sensation of rust creeping into his plating. Of creatures crawling all over him. Of little metal hooks and heat tearing him apart, piece by minuscule piece.

If Megatron had been alone, he would have screamed. As it was, he stiffened as much of his frame as he had control over so that he wouldn't tremble or otherwise show weakness in front of his army. Hot air blew out of his vents in an explosive gust. For a moment, he found himself agreeing with Starscream; he didn't want to remember any of this. Not any single bit of this past vorn.

He stared up at the ceiling and let that selfish desire for relief and ignorance transform into rage instead, as he always had. He needed control, now. "I believe I ordered a report," he said to the metal arching above his head. It looked almost familiar, now, and at the same time jarringly dissonant. Those metals were Earth metals, but shaped using Cybertronian construction techniques.

"Megatron fell through malfunctioning spacebridge," Soundwave said. "Destination coordinates unknown. Metal found; Megatron's signal was faint. Megatron's signal was tracked. Spark, brain module, and t-cog found by Cassettes, retrieved, frame rebuilt by Shockwave and medics."

"If I am indeed rebuilt, there is no reason to leave me in frame stasis," Megatron said. "Release me."

"Yes, my lord," said the red medic.

Megatron sat up experimentally and felt an overpowering wave of nausea consume him. His spark hadn't fully synced with the new metal.

A completely new frame. They hadn't been able to salvage his old frame. Over ten thousand vorns of war, thousands more before that in high-risk situations, and Megatron's basic frame had always been salvageable. These humans had done more damage with their tiny, fleshy hands and their heedless actions than the Autobots had ever dreamed of. They had stolen all of him, piece by piece.

Every single part, even before Megatron had shut down his brain module to ward off their increasingly effective attempts to hack him.

Even knowing that this new frame hadn't been touched, Megatron felt more violated than he ever had in his entire life. A snarl ripped through him, and he lurched to his feet with his new claws flexing. "The humans must be destroyed!"

"Oh, I'm afraid that won't be possible," Starscream oozed. He finally made his way forward from the corner he'd been standing in with a slink in his step and a smug twitch in his wings. Megatron didn't buy his saddened expression for a moment. "The humans have allied themselves with the Autobots, and as we have just finalized peace negotiations, it would be decivorns of wasted effort to harm them."

"Peace negotiations," Megatron said, his voice flat. "What is this nonsense?"

"Not nonsense, my lord," Starscream exclaimed. "Optimus Prime has proven himself very reasonable on the topic…but, of course, the success of the negotiations will depend upon your skill. You have always stood up for our rights before; now that you are awake, as the supreme leader of all Decepticons, you will need to put aside your fusion cannon and fight with words instead." His optics glittered. "Once, you were good at that."

"This is what you have done in my absence?" Megatron took a step forward and found a vicious gratification in how quickly Starscream stepped back. "You've given us over to the Autobots when I fought for thousands of vorns for our freedom?!"

"Spare me your self-righteous speeches," Starscream said, waving his hand. "You would drive us all into extinction for your cause? Without the Matrix, the Decepticons cannot clutch. In war, our hatching rates are abysmal. You know this as well as I do, and you would still choose to fight when there is a chance to attain what you want through peace?"

Silence fell. Megatron's ventilation came ragged and uneven. He couldn't think; it was all he could do to stay upright and not shake. He couldn't deal with Starscream now. Nobody else in the room spoke. "Leave," Megatron rasped. "Leave now."

Starscream smirked and wiggled his fingers and wings at Megatron as he sauntered off. Megatron turned, optics dim, and roared as he ripped up the medical slab he'd been lying on and threw it at the wall, narrowly missing Shockwave. Shockwave didn't so much as flinch.

Megatron stared at the ripped wires, the flickers of electricity with nowhere to go, and could not think. He could feel his fusion cannon warming, and before he could inflict any more violence on the location, he turned and stalked away.

«Megatron, bridge required,» Soundwave said into his personal comms. «Turn right.»

Megatron nearly snapped at Soundwave instead of obeying, but an instinct older than violence kicked in, and he turned. A groundbridge flared to life in front of him, and he stepped inside to find himself right outside his own door. He lurched forward, then stopped as the memories washed over him again.

A nudge against his ankle made him look down, and he saw Laserbeak there, on the ground. He could have stepped back and crushed em as easily as anything; instead, he opened the door and stalked inside.

Laserbeak followed and made a show of sweeping around the room. Megatron almost managed a smile. He sat down heavily on the floor, in the middle of the room, and waited for Soundwave and the others.

Sure enough, the door slid open with another hiss before closing and locking. Buzzsaw dared to touch Megatron first, landing on his shoulder right before Ravage crawled up into his lap. Soundwave settled down on his other side and hesitated for only a moment before wrapping arms and tentacles alike around Megatron. Finally, Laserbeak joined them, fitting emself neatly in between Soundwave and Megatron.

Megatron's systems still hummed in overdrive. Like this, though, he could feel the hum of their systems as well, the faint pulse of other sparks through armor. Slowly, he tried to vent out all the overheated air and focus on Soundwave's presence. He ghosted his claws over Ravage's back. Focus, focus. He could make himself functional again; he'd done it before.

But he'd never been in a situation this bad before, for nearly a vorn.

Soundwave's internal systems started purring just as Ravage's did, and before long all four of them were vibrating against Megatron's plating in low, comforting tones. Megatron nearly laughed; his vocalized hitched on the sound, and he raised a hand to settle on Soundwave's back. As the memories of the past vorn grew stronger and stronger in his head, too strong for him to shut off his optics, he tried to focus on the sensation of Soundwave in his arms, curled around him just they'd been all those vorns ago. A trembling, wordless lullaby rose to his vocalizer, and he found himself singing.

Laserbeak chittered against his jaw and snuggled closer. Megatron lifted his optical sweep to the ceiling—the familiar ceiling that should have felt reassuring but just felt cold—and focused as hard as he could on memories further than the past vorn. If he pretended that the ache in his spark chamber and the phantom pains in his untouched frame were from mechs, well, he knew well that he could defeat those ghosts. He could rise up above them and lead his army to freedom.

He could rise above this, too, if the memories would stop rising with him. He could have asked for therapeutic memory blocks, he realized; should have, except that to do so would have been to show weakness. Weakness that the rest of his army—that Starscream—could not be permitted to see, but which he felt throughout every part of his still-acclimating frame. Even with his own song echoing throughout the room, he could hear alien voices, alien laughter, alien frustration as they burned him and tore him and touched every part of him.

His voice faltered as he started to tremble, and Soundwave keened before taking up the wordless lullaby instead in a high, clear voice, pitched as perfectly as a hatchling's caretaker. Laserbeak joined them, then Ravage, then Buzzsaw, until all five of them were huddled tight together on the floor of Megatron's hab suite, singing hatchling lullabies and shaking hard enough that their plating all rattled together.

"Lord Megatron is awake, and you're still in my quarters?" Elita-1 paused in the doorway, though she had to admit that the effect of her scorn was probably diminished by the fact that she held two energon cubes in her hands rather than one. Then again, given Slipstream's reaction last time, perhaps that was for the best. She sat down on the slab next to Slipstream's head and wiggled one of the cubes. "Do you want this or not?"

For all of Slipstream's casual brush-offs about her reserve tanks, she grabbed the proffered cube with all the greed of an Empty loosed on an oil house, as she'd been doing every time. She couldn't possibly be suffering major fuel loss; Elita-1 had been bringing her the proper amount and grade for flight tanks, and despite their repeated activities, Slipstream had been spending the majority of her time in recharge. Still…

"Do you need a doctor?" she asked as Slipstream guzzled the fuel.

"What? No." Slipstream inched closer. Her wings dipped in a flirt. "You could examine me, though…"

Elita-1 snorted a laugh and took a sip from her own cube, then found herself staring into the pink liquid as a sobering thought hit her. "The negotiations begin within the next orn," she blurted.

"Negotiations?" Slipstream repeated.

"The peace negotiations. With the Autobots." Elita-1 arched a brow ridge and glanced up at Slipstream. "Had you forgotten? Your processor must be going dull with disuse."

Slipstream huffed. "I just didn't think Starscream would follow through," she said. "He's a slippery petrorabbit who cares nothing about the Decepticon cause unless it can further his own interests." Her wings twitched, and a sly smile spread across her mouth. "So, what, are you worried about seeing all your old friends anymore?"

"I hardly have any 'old friends' among the Autobots." Elita-1 scowled and tossed back the rest of her energon in one long swallow. "Worried?"

"Only for your state of mind," Slipstream purred. "If you're scared, I could paint you black and reformat you; I think you'd make a lovely arachnicon. The Autobots would never have to know."

"I don't think you're that good at reformats," Elita-1 said, but she reached up and stroked Slipstream's face. "Thank you for the offer, but if there really is going to be peace, I won't hide from what I've done. If it means facing the Autobot justice system… I made that decision a long time ago."

Slipstream leaned into the touch and vented loudly. "You mean the hatchlings?" she asked, her voice almost quiet. She shifted so that Elita-1's hand fell to her wing, instead, and Elita-1 smiled as she stroked up the sensitive plating.

"Yes, I mean the hatchlings."

"That's a bunch of scrap." Slipstream arched into the touch. "The Autobots can't convict you for that, right? None of the hatchlings would agree."

Elita-1 hummed. "Under Autobot regulations, they wouldn't have to."

"Autobot justice," Slipstream muttered. After a few kliks, she snorted. "So, tell me the truth. Barricade was one, wasn't he? He's a grounder and all. I always thought he acted kind of weird."

Elita-1 reset her optics and frowned, focusing on the line of Slipstream's face. "There were plenty of aerials in the batch," she said. "Sentinel might not have gotten the nanites from his Lord High Protector, but he always preferred aerials."

"Yeah, but clutches have lots of grounders. Everyone knows that; that's why there are so many grounders in our army now." Slipstream twisted to look up at Elita-1. Then, all at once, all her systems visibly froze up. Elita-1 could feel the sudden absence of movement under her hand, could hear the sudden hitch in Slipstream's vents. Slipstream's optics narrowed, then widened as her systems resumed function. "Me. You're saying that I was going to be an Autobot hatchling before you rescued me."

Elita-1 let a small smile settle on her face. "That's how I always thought of it, anyway," she quipped.

Slipstream turned more completely, pulling her wings away from Elita-1's claws and rising up on her hands and knees with a grace that made Elita-1's spark throb. "Well. I'm really glad you were never my caretaker." Slipstream glanced back and grinned, baring her sharpened dental ridges. "I would have missed out on your amazing interface skills."

"That's all you ever think about, isn't it?" Elita-1 laughed and shook her head; to think she'd once given Slipstream credit for masterminding some sort of malevolent scheme. "I wouldn't have been a caretaker even if the Decepticons had trusted me from the beginning. I was a military commander. Most of the caretakers defected to neutral instead and refused to get further involved in the conflict."

"Tell me about it sometime," Slipstream suggested. "But not right now. I really just want to interface with you again."

Elita-1 huffed and reached for Slipstream's wings. Despite her tone and her words, Slipstream wasn't acting charged up, and, sure enough, nothing licked along her plating when Elita-1 touched it. "You're insatiable," Elita-1 said anyway.

After a few moments of long, slow pets to her plating, Slipstream spoke up again, her face hidden. "Do the others all know? That I'm Sentinel's hatchling?"

"I should hope so, since most of them were alive for your hatchling. It's a matter of public record." Elita-1 tweaked a wingflap. "You never bothered to look up where you came from? If you assumed you had Decepticon parents, why didn't you try to find them?"

"What was there to look up? I know who my caretakers were, and I know—whoever coded me didn't want to take care of me. It's not that uncommon." Slipstream's wings twitched. "Is that why Starscream hates me?"

"It might be," Elita-1 allowed, hiding her surprise. "I suspect it would have more to do with the fact that you're a troublemaker, just like him."

"A troublemaker, is it?" Slipstream glanced back at Elita-1 with dimmed optics. "Is that what you think of me?"

Elita-1 tweaked Slipstream's wingflap again. "Don't get ahead of yourself fishing for compliments," she said mildly. "And don't take me for a fool; I know you've been hiding plenty."

"Ow," Slipstream complained. She flopped back onto the recharge slab and flared out all her seams. "I don't think you're a fool. I think you're amazing."

"Then tell me why you haven't left my suite." Elita-1 tapped her claw against her upper arm.

Slipstream, predictably enough, went from guileless and open to closed off and shifty within nanokliks. "Oh, you know," she said. "It doesn't really matter anymore, does it? I could probably leave now, as long as I had an invitation to come back."

"Do you want me to paint you black and reformat you?" Elita-1 suggested, grinning when Slipstream's optics flared. Direct hit.

"No, I'm fine," Slipstream grumbled. "Are you going to invite me back or not? I won't leave until you do."

"Don't push me," Elita-1 said, biting back the automatic "hatchling" at the last minute. "I could have you out of here in a klik."

"Face me, then prove it." Slipstream's wings wiggled.

Elita-1 shook her head. "I'm not your coping mechanism, and I'm not in the mood to share my slab tonight. Threats don't charge me up." She lunged forward and dug her claws into the sensitive seams of Slipstream's wings, provoking a yelp and a violent twitch before she started carefully steering Slipstream to the door.

"All right, all right, I'll leave," Slipstream grumbled. "I was just joking."

"I know." Once Slipstream was at the door, Elita-1 relented and withdrew her claws, dragging Slipstream's face down for a kiss instead. "You might be able to come back if you fuel yourself up properly beforehand, clean up your plating, and ask nicely."

Slipstream shook herself, rattling her wing plating, and beeped an affirmative. Elita-1 liked the sound of that; that was the type of affirmative beep that soldiers gave their superiors so as not to accidentally say anything disrespectful. She tapped a claw against Slipstream's chest and stepped back to let Slipstream leave.

As the door swished shut again, though, Elita-1 found herself alone in the dimly lit room, processor caught again by the problem that Slipstream had at least been able to distract her from. "Frag," she muttered to herself as she looked around the sparsely furnished hab suite. "What am I going to do now?"

Chapter Text

Prowl stepped into the building first and flicked his wings in irritation when he found Jazz already there. «You were supposed to report in,» he said over comms, mindful of the fact that the Circle of Light already had this location under heavy surveillance. «In fact, we were supposed to discuss the status of your new agents days ago, and you refused to respond to my pings.»

Jazz grinned at him. «Oops,» he said, obviously unrepentant. «Prowl, you know I don't report to you, right? I made my decisions, and I outrank you.»

«It's a bad decision,» Prowl grumbled, doorwings twitching again at Jazz's soft laugh. «From all of Hot Rod's reports, he's the worst possible candidate for stealth.»

«Probably.» Jazz tapped a finger against his hip. «But if he's restless enough to sneak off the Ark, you better believe he's restless enough to cause trouble if I send him back. This way, I let him work off some of his energy and maybe get a little bit of work in return. And I got another agent comin' down, which you should have seen as well.»

Prowl had, and Bumblebee was a far better choice, but Hot Rod remained a problem.  «You realize, of course, that this planet is crawling with Decepticons who could easily capture and interrogate him.»

«Relax.» Jazz winked an optic. «I've got it under control, and you know I don't say that lightly.»

"No comms," a large black and purple mech said. "We're going to be setting up a jammer so everyone's on an even playing field."

"And if there are incoming transmissions from our ship?" Prowl asked, looking the mech over. Not Dai Atlas; Dai Atlas' second in command, Axe.

"If you're worried, you can have a mech wait outside the jamming range and come inside to relay," Axe said. "But your ship should know that they can contact us if they need Optimus Prime for anything." He offered a smile. "Hey, I hope this works out."

"Me, too," Jazz said, voice smooth. His optics glittered at Prowl as he sidled by. «I'll take down the jammer,» he said over comms in one final burst, «but don't let them know unless you have to.»

Axe watched Jazz go, gaze fixed on the sway of his hips. Prowl folded his arms under his bumper and moved over to where Optimus Prime stood in the center of the room, talking quietly to Dai Atlas. "There is still no sign of the Decepticons. You know how likely this is to be a trap."

Optimus Prime paused and looked down at Prowl with a sorrowful cast to his mouth. "Patience, Prowl. This location was chosen to give us the best possible defense, and the Circle of Light outnumbers all of us. Starscream will be here."

"Or Megatron himself, followed by countless Decepticons," Prowl returned. "You should have allowed me to plant perimeter cameras."

Optimus Prime glanced at Dai Atlas. "My apologies. It is difficult for my advisor to have trust after so many long years of conflict."

Dai Atlas didn't look bothered. In fact, from his body language and expression, he seemed to approve. "Rest assured, my Circle of Light may not have participated in your war, but we are all capable warriors. If the Decepticons launch an attack, we will know and be able to hold them off long enough to coordinate an escape."

That didn't answer all of Prowl's concerns, but he wasn't likely to get more. He inclined his head and settled back to listen as Optimus resumed discussion of his hope for an elective council to grant the people veto power over the Prime and Lord High Protector. Prowl could have told Optimus that his hopes were for naught; Optimus would barely even listen to his own advisors if he got into his head that he was doing the right thing. A council wouldn't change that.

"Incoming!" someone called, and Prowl turned his head just in time to see a sleek and undeniably familiar aerial swoop in, all gleaming paintless metal in the color of poverty and death. Megatron. Prowl had been right; he stiffened, doorwings flaring out as he waited for the attack to commence.

Nothing happened except that Megatron transformed and landed on the ground with a loud clang that echoed throughout the building. "Well, well, Prime," Megatron said. "I see you couldn't resist bringing an Autobot guard. How very untrusting of you."

"Megatron," Optimus said, standing his ground. "I see that rumors of your demise were greatly exaggerated."

Megatron's harsh laugh rumbled through the walls, but Prowl refused to pull his wings in against his frame. "So it would appear, Prime," he said. "Did you truly believe me so easy to kill?"

Optimus let his optics dim and then brighten again in a slow blink. "I am pleased that you have agreed to these peace negotiations," he said. "I believe that together, we can work towards a better society for all of our people."

"Our people, you say," Megatron said. "Very well. Let's get started."

"Wait," Dai Atlas rumbled. "Don't you have someone to report?"

Megatron's optics narrowed, but his confident smirk remained the same. "No, I don't," he said. "Unlike Prime, I feel no need to protect my life with a guard."

"They are my advisors, not guards," Optimus said. "Prowl will stay."

"There will be no comms allowed." Dai Atlas gave Megatron a disdainful look. "If you wish to communicate with your ship, the messages must be relayed through us."

"I have faith in my people to handle any emergencies without me," Megatron said. "Unlike the young Prime."

"My name is Optimus." Optimus stepped closer to Megatron, but stopped as Megatron's armor flared out. "This is not how I expected to meet face-to-face."

"And how did you expect that to happen? With your sword buried in my spark chamber?" Megatron sneered.

Prowl could feel the snaps of tension in between the numbing periods. He stepped forward. He could feel the surge of heat as his optics flashed. "You would accuse Optimus of what you did to your own Prime?" he snapped. "Sentinel didn't kill you; you can't play the martyr."

Megatron's optics flickered briefly to Prowl. "This strapping young replacement has not even opted to hide his dictatorship," he said. "Where is the improvement from Sentinel's corrupt reign? I expect these negotiations will be yet another attempt to paint my Decepticons as ruthless murderers who must be tamed for the sake of a peaceful society."

"Because you are ruthless murderers," Prowl snapped. "You put your blade through the chest of your own sparkmate."

Megatron glanced at him again, sidelong. "Then perhaps your young Prime should reassure me," he said, "so that I do not feel the need to do so again."

"Enough!" Dai Atlas barked. "You are here to negotiate, not to bicker like hatchlings. We will be focusing strictly on business rather than the events of the past."

"Dai Atlas is correct, Prowl," Optimus said, though Prowl could tell by the set of his body that Prowl's reminder of Megatron's untrustworthy nature had not got unnoticed. "We are here to focus on the future, not on the past. Megatron, I acknowledge that you are dubious of our intentions, but too long has our species been trapped in the endless cycle of this war. If we continue, we will only drive ourselves into extinction."

"Better extinction than suffering at the hands of the Autobots," Megatron said. "But very well. I am here to listen to your sanctimonious, self-righteous prattle. What is it that you propose we do?"

"I propose that first we determine what each side wants." Optimus resettled his armor with a nervous flick, barely noticeable. "If we simply decided that there is no compromise before even addressing the concerns we have, then any peace would truly be doomed to failure."

Megatron's optics slid over Optimus' frame in a way that made Prowl very certain the Decepticon leader had noticed Optimus' anxiety. "I believe I've made it very clear what the Decepticons wish for: a rule without the unchecked tyranny of a Prime chosen in some mysterious ceremony that the common people must accept as fair. We want freedom and rights and the end of a corrupt justice system. We want to be able to raise our hatchlings undisturbed, without having them taken from us—" Prowl coughed violent, scornful static and got a glare from Dai Atlas for it— "and we want a world where we will not be demonized for who and what we are."

The Decepticons are the ones who stole hatchlings, Prowl thought resentfully.

If Optimus had noticed Megatron's hypocrisy, he showed no sign of it. He inclined his head. "Those are very reasonable wants," he said. "The Autobots wish much the same, and also desire a world where violence and death is not a part of everyday life. We would like the safety and security of a world where everyone is capable of getting along."

"A hatchling's pre-vocal dreams," Megatron said. "A mech who is not given anything must grab it with their own frame. You speak as though we began this violence."

"We are not here to dwell on the past," Optimus said as Dai Atlas opened his mouth. "But perhaps the past is something that must be addressed at some point. It is clear that the specter of it still looms over all of us. Nevertheless, Megatron, I spoke not of that, but of real peace."

Megatron looked at him for a moment, expression unreadable, then snorted a laugh. "Do you know what I asked of Sentinel Prime all those vorns ago?" he asked. "Patience, Dai Atlas, this is relevant to the matter at hand. Curb your need for absolute control for a moment. I asked Sentinel to leave the Decepticons in peace, so that those who found themselves crushed under the wheels of Autobot society could find themselves a new home."

Optimus' optics flickered. "Is that so." He glanced at Prowl, who stared back and didn't react. Megatron had always had a way with words.

"The problem with you Primes is that you don't like acknowledging that you do not have control over everybody. That the people might not welcome your Cybertronium fist." Megatron curled his claws together in demonstration. "All those who follow me have chosen to do so of their own free will; those who crave the security of someone else's rules, those who remember shiny homes and extravagant living conditions built on the backs of the poor, followed tradition instead."

"That is enough," Dai Atlas rumbled. "If you have a point, make it."

"My point is that it doesn't matter what the Decepticons want from peace," Megatron growled. "It has never mattered to a Prime before; why would this change now?"

"I am not Sentinel," Optimus said. "My name is Optimus Prime, and this war has gone on unchecked for too long. I would prefer to settle our differences so that we can live together as one people."

"And if that is no longer possible?" Megatron asked. He shifted, looming over Optimus in a clear threat display. All of Prowl's warning alerts went off, and he started calculating what he would need to do to fling himself in between his Prime and the threat. "What will you do to force our compliance, little Prime?"

"I won't do anything," Optimus said. "We are only here to talk."

"Then tell me how you would make this new Cybertron safe for my people when we have been at war for thousands of vorns," Megatron said, sounding self-satisfied. "Explain to me how you would create a new system wherein laborers are valued and given more than the barest scraps of energon. Explain how your so-called new society would be any different for us than before."

Optimus shook his head. "I cannot do that," he said. "Not because I do not think it possible, but because this is not something I should decide on my own. The purpose of these negotiations if that we will be working together on solutions that are beneficial to all our people. I ask this of you as one leader to another. You know the Decepticons and their plight far better than I."

Megatron studied him. "Pretty words," he said with a contemptuous beep. "Very well. I will tell you the problem with Autobot justice: Autobots and the Council praise and value only those who build off of the exploited labor of others. You have never considered the underpinnings of your society; instead, you punish those who have less for wanting more."

"I do not intend to let criminals run unchecked," Optimus said with a frown. "Or rather, as part of our treaty, I am prepared to excuse old crimes, but we must have a justice system in place to protect our people and live in peace."

"And who do you intend to give this justice system to? Whose laws do you intend to favor?" Megatron examined his claws. "The Decepticons are not the mindless brutes you would make us out to be. We have our own ways."

"Then we will work together towards some sort of compromise." Optimus sounded patient, at least. "If we must spend these negotiations talking out all the details, that is acceptable to me."

"You say that now," Megatron said. "You forget that I am familiar with the empty promises of a Prime, and of how easily a Lord High Protector's input can be case aside under the guise of consideration. I will not enter my people into a binding contract that they will suffer from."

"Then tell me of your justice system," Optimus said. "We cannot reach a compromise if you do not tell me what it is you would change."

Megatron studied Optimus for a long moment before hissing through his vents. "Let's begin with how Autobots punish offenders."

"The gladiatorial arena is no longer operational," Optimus said immediately. "That is not justice."

"Hmm. And yet it brings a profit from those so-called criminals who would otherwise be a strain on your precious resources. Do you intend to implement another means of prison labor?"

The tension in the room vibrated like a high-strung engine. "Megatron," Dai Atlas said, "these negotiations will never get anywhere if you do not offer up your own thoughts."

"I believe I'm making myself perfectly clear. Optimus Prime has no intention of bringing the Decepticons and Autobots together in harmony. He only wishes to restore order to Cybertron under his own rule, using the systems that he is comfortable with." Megatron gestured expansively in a motion that encompassed everyone in the room. "And how, for that matter, would Optimus Prime deal with the matter of debt slavery?"

"I am against it as a rule," Optimus said before Dai Atlast could scold Megatron further. "And I realize that the strict guidelines for sedition would not be feasible in a new society. The problem of a unified justice system is a difficult one, and not something I believe I have all the answers to, as I have said. I would appreciate your expertise in the matter."

Megatron studied him again, his expression unreadable. "Well," he said. "If there are truly to be peace negotiations, there will be plenty of time to discuss this issue. We shall see later how sincere your desire for second opinions is. I do not have time for this today."

"You were told that the negotiations would be beginning now," Dai Atlas said with a forbidding rumble. "You will stay here."

"I will not." Megatron bared sharpened dental ridges in Dai Atlas' direction. "I'm afraid Starscream was sadly misinformed as to my prior…obligations." Prowl tensed. "As such, you will have to set up the next meeting with me directly. After all, Prime, this is between you and me as representatives of our people. Let's not encourage miscommunications."

Optimus' optics flicked towards Prowl, visibly uncertain now, and Prowl had to stiffen his struts against the urge to correct that vulnerability. "Very well," he said. "I did think it strange that you allowed Starscream to speak for you. Next orn, then, at the same time."

"Next orn," Megatron agreed. "Until then, perhaps we should discuss the matter that you brought up at the beginning, that you seem so concerned about." He stepped close to Optimus; to Optimus' credit, he didn't back away. "There is, of course, the question of what we would focus on to remedy this concern about…extinction."

"It is not a concern; it is a surety if we continue on as we are." Optimus met Megatron's gaze, unflinching. "You must know this, too."

"Oh, I do." Megatron huffed a quiet laugh and turned away to walk towards the door, giving Optimus some space. "Another critical matter we must consider, then, is breeding rights. My Decepticons deserve a clutch to supplement our population, and as you have not provided any hatchlings yet even for your precious Autobots—"

"You are not Optimus Prime's Lord High Protector," Prowl broke in swiftly.

"No." Megatron's optics flared. "I am not. But since he has no Lord High Protector of his own, there should be no problem. Oh, and Prime—next time, have the courage to come alone, as I did." He grinned, a sharp-edged, predatory smile, and sauntered out the door. As they listened to the sound of transformation followed by flight engines, Prowl watched Dai Atlas' dour expression grow even more grim and the way Optimus' optics lingered on that doorway.

"Come," Dai Atlas said to Axe, then turned on his heel and strode deeper into the construct they had built.

Optimus vented shakily as they left. Excess heat poured off of him, and Prowl doubted it was arousal. He recognized that jittery optical movement and the way Optimus seemed to unfold from himself as anxiety.

"I heard all of that," Jazz said as he slipped in through the same door Megatron had left by. "What a slagger, right, OP?"

Optimus grimaced. "He has a point. I—did not appoint a Lord High Protector, and even if I had one there is precedent for breeding rights not being exclusive. I should have anticipated that clutching would come into play."

"I believed from previous statements made that you understood Megatron would want a clutch off of you," Prowl said with a twitch of his doorwings. "It's obvious; the Decepticons have no means of producing that many eggs at once. At least one joint clutch would be expected as an indication of unity between Autobots and Decepticons."

"Hey," Jazz said, pressing a hand above Optimus' elbow joint. "You doin' okay there? Want to restart your systems?"

"It's breeding rights," Prowl grumbled. "In and of itself it's not terrible. You can always produce a second clutch for the Autobots afterwards. Though you should be aware that Megatron is going to try to insert himself as your Lord High Protector to gain power again, as he did with Sentinel."

"I—" Optimus glanced at Jazz, then abruptly sagged, optics blinking off and then back on as he rebooted. The process went fast, barely more than a klik. "I suppose for a Prime I have been very neglectful of my clutching duties."

"Hey, now," Jazz said. "You've been leadin' us in a war. I'd say that means you can avoid thinkin' about that sort of thing. If we'd been plannin' this far ahead when you became Prime, we could have set you up with a Lord High Protector so that Megatron couldn't challenge, that's all. It should have been you, Prowl."

"What?" Prowl's wings flared.

"You've got all the qualifications," Jazz said. "Just because you never got the title doesn't mean you weren't picked just for that purpose."

Prowl shifted his weight. "Sentinel abolished the position for a reason," he said.

"Yeah," was all Jazz would say.

"A Lord High Protector may be necessary to reestablish peace," Optimus said, voice quiet. "Perhaps it is fortunate that I didn't choose one for myself."

"Megatron abandoned his right to that position when he betrayed Sentinel," Prowl said. "He'll try to change your mind, but you don't have to listen. You are well within your rights to refuse."

"On what grounds?" Optimus glanced between Jazz and Prowl. "I am neither his direct hatchling nor Sentinel's, so there are unlikely to be any coding redundancies. One way or anther, if we want peace, we must give Megatron and the Decepticons some measure of power."

"That's not necessarily true," Prowl said immediately. "If you misdirect them, you might be able to lure them into accepting a Prime's leadership. If they refuse, there is no purpose to attempting peace; they'll only disobey any laws you put forth, as they've always done."

"Prowl." Optimus sounded tired more than anything else. "As Jazz reminds me, you are not my Lord High Protector." Stung, Prowl's wings drew inward. "I intend to work for this peace; if it succeeds, it will be worth the cost."

"The cost is likely to be your spark," Prowl snapped. "I don't mean metaphorically. You haven't seen the recordings of Sentinel's offlining. Megatron may not have been able to rip the Matrix out of his sparkmate, but he tried. Sentinel Prime only survived long enough to pass down the Matrix because of me. He will not underestimate me again, and if you think Megatron intends to treat you any differently, you're wrong. This is what Megatron is. He hasn't changed."

"Prowl," Jazz said softly, moving closer. "Optimus knows what he's doing."

"He may think so, but he has never met Megatron." Prowl's wings twitched out. "He hasn't spent vorns analyzing the movements of the Decepticon fleet under Megatron's command. I'm warning you now: don't let Megatron have any control."

Optimus shook his head. "Compromise is what a treaty negotiation is about," he said. "You and I were not privileged enough to be online before the war began, but there are still many who lived through that time to learn from."

Prowl hissed through his vents, then nodded as the numbing stole over his processor. "Very well."

Jazz grimaced. "That's never gonna get any less creepy," he said. "C'mon, if we got another orn to strategize, let's get you both back to base to chat with Windblade. Maybe she'll have somethin' new to offer. And Optimus, if you need an ear…"

"I know," Optimus said, his voice quiet. "I need to think about this. It isn't as though I'm opposed to the concept of clutching, it's simply that there was never a time when the hatchlings would have been safe."

"And now you're faced with the prospect of Megatron as the code donor," Jazz finished. "You ever even interfaced before?"

Optimus gave a rueful smile. "Is it that obvious. No. There was never anybody." He glanced over at Prowl and grimaced. Prowl met his gaze calmly. "I…couldn't."

"Figured it might be somethin' like that," Jazz muttered. "C'mon, c'mon. I might not be able to stay with you, but you got my comms. You know I'm willin' to talk about this, and I got some experience. I can at least tell you what to expect, if you decide to go through with it."

"Thank you, Jazz." Optimus rubbed a hand over his chest plating, then brought it up to his audial sensors to rub those. "I don't know what I would do without you. Both of you."

They fell into an uneasy silence as they left the building and transformed to drive through the spacebridge a safe distance away from any location that would let the Decepticons pinpoint their base. Prowl should have been diverting processor power to the task of trying to extricate Optimus from the entire situation, now that Optimus had demonstrated his willingness to be led astray by Megatron, but instead he found himself trapped by the coding patch that normally sent out signals to calm his systems. Perhaps this planet had affected him, too; the thought made him uncomfortable enough that once they reached the Autobot base, he drove past Optimus and Windblade to find a quiet corner to run self-diagnostics.

There, alone in the dark, he found himself shaking, trembling uncontrollably, and he tried to calm it for a full breem before forcing himself towards Ratchet's makeshift medical bay to undergo a more guided systems reset than any mech could manage on their own.

Chapter Text

Megatron landed on the flight deck with a rattling thud that reverberated through his new frame and up into his still cracked spark chamber. Nickel had assured him that the cracks were purely cosmetic—scars of his time with the humans that would last vorns past his rescue—but sometimes he felt as though they were going to shatter and explode into his internal systems. Now was one of those times. He snarled and curled his claws up.

"You're back early, Lord Megatron," Starscream said, stepping out onto the flight deck and turning his wings into the light. The Earth's sun lit Starscream's smug little smirk with a too-bright alien glow. "Did you fail so miserably at negotiations? What a shame. Our people will be disappointed."

Megatron turned to look at his second-in-command. Something had changed during his captivity; had it been him or Starscream? Perhaps both. Either way, his processor refused to function properly to analyze the situation, and the silence stretched on until Starscream's smirk began to falter. Finally, Megatron forced his head to turn. "No, Starscream. Whatever your intentions might have been, the negotiations continue. But they continue on my schedule this time."

Starscream's smirk returned in full force. "Well, well, well," he said. "What an unexpectedly positive development. I was so worried that you would take the chance to extinguish Optimus Prime's spark. That is what you did with Sentinel, after all. Do you think this Prime will be as fun to plug as your former sparkmate was?" He chuckled and twitched his wings, causing a slow cascade of light to shimmer over them. No doubt deliberate; Starscream had always been fond of highlighting his physical attributes.

Enough, Megatron decided, was enough.

He strode over towards Starscream, a vicious part of his processor glad at the way Starscream's body language immediately shifted, ready to spring away into the air. "Don't misunderstand me," Megatron growled, lowering his vocalizer. "I haven't dealt with you yet because I haven't decided what to do with you. But I have no intention of keeping a second-in-command who tries his best to kill me and goes behind my back to force me into political negotiations out of pure spite. Watch your back, Starscream. Because I'm watching mine."

"My lord," Starscream laughed, his body language straightening into something resembling amusement. "I'm certain I don't know what you're talking about. Surely you can see, going back through all the footage, that I attempted to find you and rescue you from whatever fate had befallen our glorious leader."

"Surely," Megatron echoed. He stared down at Starscream. Megatron could see the flickers and twitches in Starscream's optics and wings that marked his confidence as a lie. "Starscream, my patience grows thin. You escape the brig by virtue of being one third of the leading trine of Vos; do not tempt me to burn those bridges."

Starscream's face twisted in a soundless snarl, but he leapt up and transformed, shooting off into the alien sky without another word. Megatron watched him go, feeling pressure heavy on his chest and spark. He resisted the urge to touch his plating. Instead, he turned away from Starscream's angry retreat and stalked inside towards the medical bay.

Nickel met him there and immediately ushered him over to a slab. "What seems to be the problem this time?" she asked.

"Just scan my spark chamber." Megatron stared up at the ceiling. "Has the warehouse been dismantled yet?"

"No, and if you think it's going to be after all the work we put into it, you've got another think coming." Nickel scanned him, then went for his medical port. Megatron flinched. "Scans indicate nothing out of the ordinary for you. I'm guessing you want something more solid than that if you're coming to us of your own free will for once."

Megatron grimaced and popped his hatch. "Get it over with as soon as possible," he ordered.

"Yeah, yeah," Nickel grumbled. "You can thank me by actually thanking me afterwards for once in stead of storming off in your broody funk." She plugged in, and Megatron tried to concentrate on other things, like the feeling of air against his frame and the steadiness of his own vents. After what felt like forever, though his chronometer identified it as little more than a klik, Nickel disengaged and closed his hatch. "You're clean. No Autobot viruses, no unusual frailty of your spark chamber. If the humans didn't get through it, a little exercise is hardly going to send you into a medical catastrophe. Good on you for coming here of your own free will, though." Nickel looked him over and huffed. "I'd order you to take some time to rest and recuperate, but you'd just ignore that, wouldn't you?"

"I would have to," Megatron said with enough solemnity to let her know that her concerns were being heard. "These negotiations may indeed prove vital to the survival of the Decepticons, even if it is only in gathered data about the Autobots and their current situation."

"At least you're not fighting," Nickel allowed. She grabbed a tool from a nearby box and waved Megatron out. "I'm sure I'll be seeing you again shortly. If not, I want to see you sometime next orn."

"Next orn," Megatron agreed. "After I have met with the Autobots once more."

Nickel eyed him shrewdly. "Good idea. I can scan for viruses again. Very well, you're dismissed. If you're not in here at the appointed time, I'll hunt you down, see if I don't."

Megatron couldn't help it; he smiled, ever so slightly. He'd always liked her attitude and her disrespect for authority that far outstripped her tiny size. "I don't doubt it," he said. "Thank you."

"And tell Soundwave that just because he's worried over you is no excuse to skip his own maintenance checks," she called after him as he left. Megatron turned his head slightly and saw Buzzsaw swoop out of the medical bay after him before landing on his shoulder.

Megatron felt his systems startle in a way that made him angry all over again, but he managed to hold it in long enough to engage his comm systems. «Was that reminder for you to convey?»

«No way,» Buzzsaw retorted. «She was talking to you.»

«You can't possibly believe she didn't know you were there.» Megatron turned to head for his own quarters, rather than Soundwave's; even without Buzzsaw's presence, Soundwave would know where he was.

«I can believe what I want.» Buzzsaw flared eir wings as though ey intended to leave Megatron's shoulder, then settled down again. «Laserbeak's out, and Ravage is patrolling, so you're stuck with me unless you want the twins in here as well.»

Megatron let out a long, slow gust of air through his vents. «And Soundwave?»

«Already analyzing the footage you got us.» Buzzsaw adjusted eir wings again, then hopped down onto Megatron's forearm. «Honestly, he's not much better at the mushy stuff than I am, though. You're out of luck. Want to find someone else?»

«Nobody else would understand,» Megatron said. «Nor would I want them to.» He stroked down Buzzsaw's back and focused on the small chirps of contentment that got him. «I survived many vorns without Soundwave, and I will survive many more.»

«Yeah,» Buzzsaw said, tilting eir head to look Megatron directly in the optics. «So did we. This isn't like that, though, is it?»

Megatron's plating rattled in a half-muffled shudder, and he didn't answer. After a moment, Buzzsaw ducked in close, head bowed apologetically, and they stayed that way in silence.

«Stop giving them information,» Prowl ordered Ratchet. «There's nothing good they can do with this.»

«Oh, lay off,» Ratchet grumbled. «I'm not giving them confidential information. I've been a medic longer than you've been online, and I've traveled to plenty of organic worlds. You can't treat them all like Decepticons just because you don't trust their intentions.»

"This is fascinating," Chase said. "I admit, my specialty is more on the software end of things, but it sounds like you have a tremendous capacity for internal temperature regulation that we can barely even imagine."

"Yes," Sumdac said. "We may have hydraulic fluid that works at a great variety of temperatures, but I would have—anyone would think that beings as large and as advanced as you would put off great amounts of waste heat, and that simply isn't true."

Ratchet snickered. "Oh, there's waste heat all right."

«Ratchet!» Prowl said sharply over comms, only to be completely ignored.

"But, yes, you're right. It's not something we can do without being adequately fueled and regularly checked over, but when they're working, our internal regulation systems are certainly much better than the basic technology you've got here on Earth." Ratchet poked disdainfully at the tiny tablet Chase had given him earlier.

Sumdac hesitated. "May I ask how your fuel system works, exactly?"

"Sure," Ratchet said. "All Cybertronians need energon to function. Energon occurs naturally on our world, but variants can be refined from resources found on many other planets. Your oil, for instance, has the basic components needed to make energon. Fortunately for your oil supply needs, we've got plenty of energon back on the ship."

"I haven't seen any of you head back to the ship for refueling," Faireborn said, her voice flat.

"Yes, how long is it that a Cybertronian can survive without energon?" Sumdac twisted his hands together.

"That depends. For optimal health, refueling should occur once every orn—roughly ten to fourteen of your days. Not that most bots here do that without being ordered to." Ratchet gave Faireborn an equally flat look. "I brought plenty of supplies with me. But if we're talking about survival… well, Empties can last for vorns before their systems cannibalize entirely. But past a vorn, the damage to the processor is likely irreversible. About the same lifespan as you humans."

"I see," Sumdac said, his voice very quiet.

Chase looked down at the tiny hatchling-sized datapad in his lap and attempted another flick through the basic words. "I've been meaning to ask about sex, actually," he said. "But don't hesitate to shut me down if it's too intrusive. I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable."

"Sex as in the act of copulation or sex as in the biological dimorphism required for some organic species to create offspring?" Ratchet inquired. "Your language is imprecise."

«Don't tell them about hatchlings,» Prowl hissed into the comms.

«Relax, Prowl,» Ratchet said. «And I'd make that a medical order if I thought it would do any good.»

Chase laughed. "I don't think I'm brave enough yet to ask about the former," he said. "Windblade and Chromia use female pronouns, but from what she said, you learned those pronouns on the internet."

"Of course we found them on your internet," Ratchet said. "How else would we know how to speak your language? But since you're asking, no, we don't have any sort of biological sex."

"But then it would be very odd to have a social structure with gender, wouldn't it?" Chase asked. He abandoned the datapad on his lap to adjust his glasses and peer at Ratchet.

"The simple answer is, we don't." Ratchet glanced over at Prowl and didn't volunteer any information about frametype, which Prowl supposed he was supposed to be grateful for. "However, we've had enough dealings with organics over the millenia who do incorporate some sort of gender structure that some mechs have a standard type of pronoun that gets adapted to whatever the language is that we're dealing with. Some of us don't really care. Me, I'm a he to you right now because that's the pronoun that's going to get me the most respect on your planet."

Chase looked down at the datapad and tapped it. "So, by that logic, anyone using female pronouns is likely to prefer it overall, whereas anyone using male pronouns could be using it to avoid dealing with our societal prejudices."

Ratchet gave a low, approving hum. "Something like that. 'Course, that's not always how it goes. I'm told I'm too pragmatic about this sort of thing. We've got some mechs who change depending on how they feel on any particular orn, not for any practical purposes, and Optimus Prime doesn't get much of a choice."

"Wait, wait wait wait," said Fowler, straightening up from where he'd been sitting in low-voiced conversation with Faireborn. He looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Are you telling me Optimus Prime would be a girl if he got to pick?"

"I'm not saying that at all," Ratchet huffed. "Have you even been listening?"

"And would there be anything wrong if he were?" Faireborn asked, raising her eyebrows. "Think fast, or you owe me a beer."

Fowler waved her off. "More like you owe me one less," he said. "You'll excuse me if I'm a little unsettled by the idea of an alien leader crossdressing because he doesn't think we can handle the truth!"

"Yeah, I don't think we can argue that one." Faireborn gave a lazy stretch. "And they're aliens, what did you expect?"

Fowler gave her an exasperated look, but Prowl lost focus on the conversation as something else pinged his awareness: Optimus wasn't there. He should have been there, earnestly trying to explain to the humans about the spiritual connection aspects of Cybertronian gender identity or trying to spill secrets that would make Prowl's processor ache. Everyone else was there; Windblade and Chromia watched from another corner, doubtless engaged in conversation over private comms.

Only Optimus had vanished, and without Prowl noticing.

Prowl frowned and withdrew further into the base. The human building, while spacious for creatures their size, had an extremely limited range of movement for Cybertronians of average size and build. Sure enough, it only took a few kliks of searching before he came across Optimus leaning against an outer wall and staring upwards, his optics flickering very faintly.

"You're going to break it. Human metals aren't that strong."

Optimus' optics flared with surprise, and he turned his head to stare over at Prowl. "It is thick enough to support my weight," he said.

Prowl crossed his arms under his bumper and glared. "You're unwell."

Optimus grimaced and rubbed a hand over his chest. "It's nothing serious."

«Ratchet,» Prowl growled. «Get Chromia and Windblade to distract the humans. Optimus Prime is ill.»

«Oh, is that why he's been avoiding his checkup?» Ratchet replied, his voice dropping into an angry calm. «I'll be right there. Don't let him escape; in fact, get him over to our medical bay, if you can.»

Prowl's doorwings twitched. "Medical bay," he said aloud. The memories of Sentinel's death had already been raised to the forefront of his consciousness, and he tried to shove them down again.

"I don't think—" Optimus started, then looked away. "No, you are correct. I should not take chances. Very well."

Soon enough, Optimus lay on a medical slab, the soft metal of his face tight as Ratchet's scanning beam made a slow journey from head to feet. "Well," Ratchet said after a pause. "Funnily enough, you've got nothing turning up on the scanners, but—" he held up a hand— "the Matrix puts out enough energy that it could be interfering with my equipment."

Optimus raised a hand to curl over his chest. "I cannot risk any damage to the Matrix while we are in peace negotiations. Megatron has already made it clear that clutching will be a key factor in his willingness to integrate our species once more."

"Optimus…" Ratchet put his hands down on the slab next to Optimus' shoulder with a loud clang. "The Matrix is just as likely to get damaged by problems with your internal circuitry as it is to get scraped by my tools. A deep probe would be the safest course of action."

"A deep probe is out of the question right now," Optimus countered. "It would put me out of commission for more than an orn and anger Megatron. This is precisely what I need to avoid."

"Megatron can smelt in the Pit for all I care," Ratchet growled. "If there's a serious problem, you need to be looked at as soon as possible."

"There is no problem." Optimus' voice became gentle, almost soothing. "it is only a slight itch that I believe stems from this planet's ambient air contents."

Ratchet gave a frustrated series of beeps and threw up his hands. "Fine, fine. You have a quartex; either get those negotiations done fast or put them on hold before the quartex is up. In the meantime, I'll look up potential reactions to Earth's air and try to do some sort of backwards long-distance analysis. At least there have been plenty of Primes before you, and I'm sure at least one of them got an itchy chest at some point."

"My thanks, Ratchet," Optimus said gravely, swinging his legs off the medical slab with a distinct glint in his optics.

Once he had left, Ratchet turned to Prowl and shook his head. "Thanks for letting me know," he said. "Not your fault Optimus is more stubborn than a new hatchling about his own health."

"He's right," Prowl said. "The negotiations will almost certainly fail if he's forced to undergo any sort of exploratory surgery that has a risk of complications."

"You don't sound too disappointed about that." Ratchet reached down, then grimaced and went to the corner of the room to retrieve a sterilization spray. "Slagging restrictions. I could use a cleaning drone around here."

"We're risking too much already by allowing the humans to examine our datapads," Prowl returned. He turned and left the room, an unsettled pit of feelings lurking just beyond the veneer of calm he clung to. The main hangar remained a boisterous upswell of human nonsense noise, but Prowl forced himself over to where Optimus Prime had leaned down to talk to Chase and Sumdac so that he could continue monitoring for any information leaks and scanning for any unauthorized life forms.

Soundwave scanned the room automatically, even knowing that Elita-1 had locked it down as part of her daily routine. "Your assistance is needed," he said, coming up to stand beside her.

"Soundwave," she said. She looked up at him. "How rare to see you in person."

He extended the chip holding the recording of Megatron's brief first engagement with the Autobot negotiations. Elita-1 looked at it, but didn't take it; after a moment, Soundwave inserted it into the reader on the console. "Elita-1 was with Autobot high command."

Comprehension dawned on her face and lit her optics. Elita-1 looked down at the console, and her claws flew over the command characters. "This is a recording of Optimus Prime's demands?"

"Negotiations barely started," Soundwave said. "Megatron requires more information."

"Understood. I'll try to get my analysis to him as fast as possible. But keep in mind that I haven't been part of Autobot high command for a long time, Soundwave, and I've never dealt with Optimus myself. I don't know where Sentinel found him. You know just as much as I do—probably more." Elita-1's mouth twisted as she spoke. Regret, Soundwave thought, but not regret for the life she left behind. Regret that she couldn't offer more to the Decepticon cause.

"Understood," Soundwave echoed back at her. "Estimated time?"

"This can't be more than a breem's worth of data," Elita-1 said wryly. "Give me a joor and I'll have a preliminary report, give me two and I'll have some more in-depth analysis."

Soundwave watched as she moved swiftly through the data and caught the precise moment when all her joints locked. She glanced up at him. "Hatchlings, then?" When Soundwave didn't respond, unsure what words she wanted from him, she shook her head. "No, I suppose that was to be expected. In peacetime we would have had a number of clutches since the last."

"Hatchlings at risk during war," Soundwave said. "Optimus is wiser than Sentinel."

"Mm. Or something. Who knows if the slagger would have stopped if Megatron hadn't ripped him open."

Elita-1 said something else, but Soundwave didn't hear it. His sparkbond and Cassette bond with Laserbeak buzzed with simultaneous activity. «Soundwave, Verity's been caught by humans. I've been keeping an eye on her—they haven't hurt her—but they're taking her to a human residence. She doesn't look happy, but she doesn't seem to be in danger. But they're in a more populated area. If I continue surveillance, I run the risk of being seen. What do I do?» Soundwave felt eir anxiety press at him.

«Slaggers,» Buzzsaw hissed. «We could just kill them and rescue Verity.»

«She wouldn't want that,» Ravage said. «She didn't ask for our assistance in the first place.»

«Yeah, but she's so small!» Rumble broke in. «And really fragile, none of you felt how fragile she was.»

«I did,» Laserbeak said, sounding irritated. «Would you all just be quiet? I asked Soundwave.»

«Tough luck, you asked over the main channel,» Rumble retorted.

Soundwave hesitated. «Laserbeak must not be seen,» he said finally. «Laserbeak, return.»

«Right,» Laserbeak said, eir voice heavy. Then, after a few nanokliks of silence, surprise registered through the sparkbond. Too late; she saw me!

You really need to work on your stealth, Buzzsaw said. Just her?

Just her. My stealth is fine; it's not my fault deflection doesn't work the same way on organics. Laserbeak hesitated. «Soundwave? What do I say? I can't comm her.

Allow Soundwave access, Soundwave requested, and immediately he felt the disorienting spin of systems integration. Between his telepathy, the sparkbond, and the Cassette bond, this sort of long-distance input came easier, but he still felt like purging his systems when he opened "his" optics and found himself staring at an alien residence on an organic world instead of the cool, clean room he'd just been in.

Was still in.

"Hello, already, I know you can speak," Verity hissed, her voice low. Then her eyes widened, and she reached down to raise a cell phone up into Soundwave's—Laserbeak's—line of sight. "Here, try this! Do you need me to read out the number?"

Comms! Laserbeak exclaimed. And you've already integrated, haven't you? I'm sorry.

Apologies are unnecessary, Soundwave said. He didn't have the coherence necessary to verbalize further, but he pushed his emotions at Laserbeak anyway and felt em absorb his own anxiety for Verity's frailty and anger towards her government. She was just a hatchling, after all, albeit one close to maturity. He felt soothed to see for himself that she had no visible injuries and to hear that she spoke with the same fire that she had thrown at beings many times her size and strength before.

He stayed integrated as Laserbeak hacked the device and sent a message in silent characters. I am here.

"Yeah, that's obvious," Verity muttered. "Look, I'm not saying I need your help, 'cause I don't. But don't think for a second that I haven't noticed you hanging around being a creepy stalker—and, by the way, we are going to have a talk about that. You kidnapped me already, what's the deal with the stalking?"

We want you to be safe, Laserbeak wrote, eir spark reaching out for Soundwave's, distressed.

"Whatever, Edbird Cullen." Verity snickered. "So that talk's happening later if you stick around. But also, if you're going to be here anyway, I would not turn down some extra muscle, so to speak. Come back next week, okay? I can't make a break for it now; they're on high alert."

You'll let us help you? The text message didn't convey the way hope lifted Laserbeak's spark into a pulsing radiance, but Soundwave could feel it mirrored by his own.

"Just this once," Verity said, raising a finger and glancing back.

I will return within the orn. Will you be safe until then?

"I don't know what an orn is, but are you kidding me? I'm always safe. I've got pepper spray coming up to my ears, and I fight dirty." Verity glared at Laserbeak. "If you don't want to help me, I'll just do it on my own, like I always have." She made a huffing sound through her nasal vents and crossed her arms.

I will be here.

Verity snorted. "Stalker," she said, and she reached up to pull the glass window closed.

Soundwave let that noise jolt his systems free of Laserbeak's, and he regained awareness of the room around him. He found Elita-1 watching him with a faint smile on her lips. "Duty calls?" she asked, then turned back to her work, apparently not in need of an answer or aware that Soundwave had no intention of giving her one.

Laserbeak, report.

I'm nearly out of residential area, ey said. It's dark enough that I'm fairly certain I haven't been seen. Nobody's making any fuss, at least.

Which they would be if they had seen you, Ravage interjected. Brief us when you get back.

«Okay, seriously, what the frag is going on in there? Another sparkbond party?» Rumble grumbled over comms. «Do you have Verity, is she safe?»

«Verity remains in human residence,» Soundwave said. «Laserbeak will retrieve her later this orn.»

«But—yeah, okay.» Rumble sent a rude blat. «You're still all slaggers.»

«And don't you forget it,» agreed Buzzsaw.

Soundwave smiled behind his mask and nodded to Elita-1 as he left. She glanced up at the sound of his footsteps. "Preliminary report in a joor," she said. "I won't forget."

Soundwave didn't doubt her. It bothered him, sometimes, that the most reliable Decepticon under his command had once been an Autobot, but he'd learned to live with it. She would have the reports delivered on time, and then Megatron would be able to plan with more data and a clearer head. In the meantime, however, Soundwave needed to find privacy before purging all his fuel, so that he wouldn't lose his carefully cultivated sense of invulnerability among the crew.

Chapter Text

The new site the Neutrals had prepared for negotiations bore an uncanny resemblance to the top of an old Council building. Megatron would recognize the rounded architecture anywhere, even with the flat landing platform all around the interior and the deflector plating installed. It looked even more misplaced and outdated set in the middle of an organic sea, heavy with artificial stabilizers that creaked and swayed as Megatron transformed and landed on the metal.

The Autobots and Neutrals doubtless wish to minimize territory disputes with the organic lifeforms,

Elita-1's report had read.

However, as their new location grants an advantage to flight-based mechs, they'll likely be watching even more closely for any incursions by our aerial forces. Optimus Prime initially took his two ground-based lieutenants not only to protect himself, but to reassure the Neutrals of his relative harmlessness in a way you have no means of doing. It's a strategic move, considering their only method of transportation is going to be via some sort of bridge, which is far riskier. The Neutrals won't see it that way at all. They'll only be watching you.

Megatron ignored the Circle of Light Neutrals glaring at him and strode inside with every ounce of Lord High Protector he could muster. It had served him well enough the last orn.

The Prime hadn't brought his lieutenants this time. Instead, he stood alongside Dai Atlas in a deliberate display of solidarity. Megatron curled his lips back from his dental plates. Yes, Prime, I am aware that the Neutrals would side with you if not for their ridiculous and hypocritical claims of pacifism. What a charming group of mediators.

"Megatron," the Prime said, his voice a low rumble. "I trust today's negotiations will be more productive."

Megatron snorted and raked his gaze up and down the Prime's frame. Without that condescending holier-than-thou Autobot attitude and the title of Prime, Optimus would be incredibly attractive. He had a solid truck build with bright colors and thighs bare of kibble, shielding, or paint. It helped that he loked nothing like Sentinel Prime; Sentinel had covered his whole frame in armor excessive for a Prime and compensated by decorating the covers on his hip ports to draw the eye regardless. Optimus had retained the aesthetic of Sentinel's predecessors and kept that entire area bare, his ports only covered by a thin layer of metal.

Megatron's cables felt sensitized with a thin layer of charge that grew the more he let himself dwell on the Prime's looks. His ports, however, remained completely dry.

Well, he didn't have to be plugged himself to contribute nanites.

"I've set aside enough time for more involved negotiations," Megatron said. "But I have some requests. I want the Circle to agree not to interfere unless it looks like we will come to blows." He bared his dental plate again, this time at Dai Atlas. "You were enlisted as a mediator, and now that the Prime has come alone, we can speak together leader to leader without any meddling."

Dai Atlas scowled, but the Prime looked back at him. "I would agree with Megatron's request," he said, his voice apologetic. "I understand what you are doing for us, and I am grateful for it, but negotiations will run more smoothly if Megatron and I are allowed to interact freely."

Strong words for a little Prime who had done nothing of consequence beyond continue his predecessor's war. Megatron studied him again, ignoring Dai Atlas' stiff nod as a foregone conclusion. The former Councilmech had little enough backstrut when faced with true conflict. "Have you thought on my request, Prime?"

"I have, and I am prepared to give you a clutch, under certain conditions," the Prime said. He pressed a hand over his spark for a brief moment before curling it into a fist and dropping it by his side. "These hatchlings will be created in peace rather than in war. They will be my first clutch. I would like a chance to know them."

Megatron snorted. "I have no interested in my offspring being poisoned against me by the whispers of the Autobots; they will be raised by Decepticon caretakers in a location where their safety is assured." Megatron raised a hand as the Prime's optics dimmed. "However, if you visit alone, I see no reason why they could not meet you."

"My advisors would not permit me to visit alone," the Prime countered. "I must be allowed bodyguards."

Megatron felt anger boil up from nothing. "Bringing hostile Autobot warriors into a Prime clutch of hatchlings designated as Decepticons? Have you forgotten that I know what Sentinel did?"

The Prime frowned. "I know that you kidnapped a clutch of Sentinel's that had none of your coding and made it clear you would do so again with any further clutches," he said, his voice rising. "I don't see that anything the Autobots have done comes close to what you have done."

Megatron's vents roared, and all his armor spikes flared out in an unconscious threat display. Behind him, Dai Atlas said something, but all of Megatron's focus was on the Prime. Megatron stepped closer, looming over him. "On the contrary, Prime," he hissed. "Those hatchlings were removed from his reach because he proved himself willing to slaughter Decepticon hatchlings and remove Autobot hatchlings from the proper care facilities. Tell me, Optimus. How old were you when he took you from your caretakers to mold into the perfect little successor? Never questioning. Never caring. Only continuing his war for him as the universe crumbles around us!"

The Prime's optics had gone wide and bright, the rest of his expression hidden behind his mask, but he didn't step back. He stayed there for a nanoklik, two, three, before he said quietly, "I was past my adult upgrades when they brought me in to become Prime. I wasn't in facility at all at that point; I was in training to be an archivist. Whatever you think you know about me, Megatron, you're wrong."

Megatron leaned back, and the Prime's hand twitched at his side. "Then ask your army how old they were when Sentinel took them," Megatron said. "Ask them, then come back and tell me again that you want Autobot warriors among my hatchlings." Before Optimus could speak again, Megatron cut him off with a downward slice of his own hand. "Enough of this. We will speak no more of hatchlings this orn."

Dai Atlas' optics brightened, and his mouth twisted in a scowl. "If you will permit this interruption, Megatron," he said with a haughty upper-class dignity, "you previously stated that your primary concern was for the justice system."

The Prime vented out in a slow, even hiss, but Megatron was close enough to feel the elevated heat of it. So he hadn't been as unaffected as he pretended, at least, though whether he'd work himself into a self-righteous rage of his own as Sentinel would have done remained to be seen. Megatron inclined his head. "For now, we shall change the subject," he said, making sure his voice had just enough of a vicious underbite to make Dai Atlas' optics flicker.

«Prowl?» The comm came to Prowl's awareness as he watched the humans and their interactions with his fellow Autobots. Sari had rejoined the group, at least, and Chromia was playing her role perfectly: the two of them careened around the room and "accidentally" interrupted serious discussion as often as possible without the other humans growing suspicious. However, despite their efforts, Chase's tablet had returned, and this time he and Ratchet murmured together as they hooked the tablet to a very basic cleaning drone.

Prowl would need to find some inconspicuous way to corrupt any data Chase obtained from that.

«What is it?»

«I've found somethin',» Jazz said. «It's very close to the Neutral ship location, and there's traces of energon in the dirt. It's hard to separate out, but it looks like there was some sort of battle.»

Prowl's processor clicked. «This is where the Decepticons attacked the humans?»

«I don't know,» Jazz admitted. «I tried checkin' their security cameras, but they've wiped the systems, and recently. Or someone else has wiped them. The whole place is cleared out.»

«But the humans would have told us if they had been attacked by the Decepticons again,» Prowl finished. «They don't care for this treaty the way Optimus Prime does, and it makes no sense that they would refuse to seek his aid if it happened again.»

«Not only that.» Jazz's voice sounded heavy, containing none of the levity he was so known for. «The Decepticons wouldn't come into a battle already bleedin'. And while I'd like to think that maybe Starscream got a little too screechy and ripped into one of his allies with those claws of his, I doubt it. All of the Decepticons who could have been dispatched are too competent to leave energon behind on purpose.»

Prowl dimmed his optics for a moment. «The humans.»

«That's what I'm thinkin'. Prowl, don't do anythin' rash.»

Prowl eyed Chase, then Sari, then Sumdac, who sat some distance away from Ratchet and Chase examining the hatchling datapad. «I won't.» He cut the comms before Jazz could say anything further, and rose. If he could question the humans before the negotiations finished for the orn and have some sort of answer by the time Optimus Prime returned—

Before he could take more than a step, though, he heard the distinctive sound of the entranceway opening as all the proximity sensors tripped. He stopped. His doorwings flicked with irritation. Doubtless Optimus would wish the investigation conducted with more sensitivity towards the humans, regardless of the clear threat they presented.

Optimus' engine roared as he drove full-speed into the area without his usual regard for human safety. He pulled to a halt right in front of Prowl and transformed on the spot with a heavy look on his faceplates. Had Jazz told Optimus what Prowl intended to do? He could have guessed, easily, after all these vorns. But that didn't make sense; Optimus didn't look angry. He looked…panicked. "Prowl," he said, and Prowl's wings twitched again. "I would like to speak to you in private."

Prowl replied in Cybertronian. "The humans are dangerous. The evidence Jazz has uncovered requires a more thorough explanation. You can't stop me, Prime. This is for our alliance."

"What?" Optimus frowned, glanced back at the humans, then shook his head. He responded in Cybertronian as well. "You can tell me later, and I will deal with whatever this new problem is. But first, I must speak with you. Please. Follow me."

Without any option beyond a clear refusal to follow orders, Prowl followed Optimus into the medical bay with one last look at the humans. "What is this about?"

Optimus didn't say anything for a few nanokliks, though his optics flickered. Finally, he asked in a quiet voice, "How old were you when Sentinel took you from the hatchery?"

What? "What?"

"How old were you when Sentinel took you from the hatchery?"

Prowl scowled. "Why are you asking this pointless question?"

"It's not important." Optimus hesitated, then shook his head. "No, it's important, but that's not why I need to know. Tell me, Prowl. How old?"

Prowl flicked his wings and looked to the side. He prided himself on data, on facts, on the numbers that he kept because he needed a solid base for the strategy he'd provided up until this damnable ceasefire. Logic kept his place in the world. This, however, this question he couldn't answer with numbers or data. He didn't have them. "Less than a vorn," he finally said, voice low. His vocalizer felt scratchy and irritated. "I can't give a precise answer, as my archival systems were not yet functioning at optimal efficiency."

Optimus' optics flared, then dimmed alarmingly. "Primus," he whispered. "And—what about—" He stopped and shook his head, pressing a hand to his chest. "Megatron was right."

"What?" Prowl scowled. "Megatron knows nothing about me. He committed treason before Sentinel found me. What did he tell you?"

Optimus shook his head and slammed his palm against the door controls before storming off. Prowl watched him go, confused and even more irritated. Optimus' reaction made no sense, the claim that Megatron knew something about him made even less sense, and Optimus had apparently forgotten about his promise to listen to Prowl's concerns with regards to the humans. All Prowl could conclude was that Megatron had been talking about the hatchlings again and hadn't understood that Prowl's situation had been a special one.

Which Prowl would have explained had Optimus stayed instead of throwing a tantrum like a hatchling himself.

Prowl huffed and retreated to the numbness once more. There was little he could do right now; if Optimus wasn't in the correct frame of mind to listen, nothing Prowl said would bring him into it. Which mean that the humans were, for the moment, Prowl's prerogative. He moved back into the main hangar and stopped, frozen.

"Something the matter?" Ratchet asked.

"Where are the humans?"

"Optimus looked like slag." Ratchet gave a dismissive beep. "I sent them packing to give him some privacy."

"Next time, notify me if you intend to do that. Did Chase—"

"I took care of it," Chromia said before Prowl could even finish his sentence. Efficient, but he felt a twinge of irritation anyway at the disrespect. "After all, you can't expect not to catch a few viruses from interfacing an alien drone."

"Chromia!" Windblade exclaimed, but she sounded amused more than offended. Chromia grinned.

"I wish to speak with all of the humans when they return," Prowl said, loud enough to catch all their attention. "Do you understand?"

"We understand." Windblade caught his gaze, her optics flashing a question, but Prowl shook his head. He didn't need to risk Optimus being told in a manner he couldn't control. Optimus needed to see the threat the humans truly presented. He would take care of this himself.

Laserbeak flattened emself against a human roof, radiating deflectors at maximum levels, and wished, not for the first time, that ey'd been able to enlist the help of one of the others. Ey couldn't have, of course; Ravage would be the best option, but his grounder form would be too large to slip around a human neighborhood unnoticed. Even Buzzsaw would be having the same problems as Laserbeak, only moreso. Buzzsaw could manage stealth, but it didn't come naturally to em any more than raw violence did to Laserbeak.

And the worst part was that ey could have sworn getting to Verity's prison-house last time had been less troublesome.

Need some moral support? Buzzsaw offered from the warmth and safety of Soundwave's dock. Seriously, I don't know why you're all going caretaker on this hatchling. She said she can take care of herself.

She asked for my help, Laserbeak said. Ey sent back a strong pulse of memory: of Soundwave, still clumsy with the newness of his adult upgrades, optics wide and hurt as he stared at the harshness of the world around him.

Okay, first, that's cheating. Second, you don't want to interface with the human hatchling, because that's just wrong on so many levels, so it doesn't even work as an analogy. Third, I'm not saying you shouldn't help the hatchling, just that I don't understand it. Buzzsaw sent back irritation, followed by an apologetic burst of sensation, letting Laserbeak feel the warmth of Soundwave's spark for a moment.

Aerials, please, Ravage said. Buzzsaw, if you need to express your opinion, you can do so when the human is safe. Until then, you're just upsetting Laserbeak and Soundwave.

Verity's safety is important, Soundwave agreed. He sent a wave of encouragement at Laserbeak, bolstering eir next glide to the rooftop.

These human landing platforms are so flimsy, Laserbeak complained. I can't put any weight on them, and I have to hover just right to utilize it as cover. And that's not even counting the weird places humans put windows so that other people can see in. It would be useful if they couldn't see out as well!

That's probably the point, genius, Buzzsaw said. Stop dawdling and go get the human if you're going to get the human.

You're lucky I know you love me, Laserbeak retorted, but ey flung emself to the final roof in the chain, to a place where ey could look down into the tiny structure that Verity had been trapped in.

Only to find that the window leading to the room Verity had been in previously was open, and the space beyond it empty. Laserbeak scanned the house—nobody that resembled Verity. Unless her organic structure had changed completely, Verity had vanished.

What's going on now? Buzzsaw wanted to know, but Laserbeak blocked the sparkbond. Ey needed all eir concentration for this.

Laserbeak tucked emself back up on a roof and sent a concentrated scanning pulse out, locked on the organic signature ey'd taken from Verity earlier. Nothing in this direction, nothing in that direction… Laserbeak had almost given up on finding anything in that area when a faint ping sent em diving towards the place where the city rose upwards, with more communal buildings and denser housing. Ey found Verity—or a figure ey assumed to be Verity, who matched the output ey'd been tracking—crouched in a thin alleyway between two high buildings made of stone.

I thought you wanted my help. Laserbeak waited, and was rewarded with a yelp from Verity along with a full-body twitch as she twisted and reached into her layers of cloth to pull out the communication device. The phone, Laserbeak corrected emself.

"Oh my god," Verity whispered as she turned around and up, her eyes wide. "You are so not subtle, you giant creeper bird!"

Laserbeak tilted eir head. After a moment, ey tried to cram emself into the alley alongside Verity. Verity grimaced but shifted over, letting Laserbeak flatten emself, half transforming to ease the discomfort of the position. Ey unblocked the sparkbond. Ravage, any suggestions?

What? …I see. No, of course I don't have any suggestions beyond get her out of there. Ravage felt nervous; it just figured, since he took the greatest pleasure in putting himself into dangerous situations during stealth missions. Hypocrite. Laserbeak sent him a blat of annoyance.

That's a really bad position, Buzzsaw chimed in. How are you even doing that? That's got to be uncomfortable. And you can't maneuver at all. Give her a ride or something, come above the cloud cover.

Humans cannot survive above clouds without assistance or time to acclimate, Soundwave put in. Do not risk Verity's safety.

I'm not going to hurt the hatchling.

Laserbeak extended eir feelers only to have Verity slap them away. "Stop that!" she hissed. "What are you even doing? What even are those? No."

Human hands aren't strong enough to reliably maintain a decent grip. To fly, I must hold you.

"We're not flying," Verity said, then frowned. "Well, okay, maybe if I can get to a field, but there aren't any around here. Just—go somewhere people won't see you, okay? You're going to blow my—" There was a rattling sound, then a shriek followed by muffled yelling. Verity winced. "My cover. Hell."

Laserbeak's sensors flooded with a growing amount of communication signals as the yelling grew. A door somewhere slammed open, and Laserbeak flung emself out of the alley to get rid of those vulnerable half-transformation seams. Ey reached back in with eir feelers, and this time Verity didn't slap them away. Laserbeak took off just as a bit of metal pinged off of eir wing.

"Just great!" Verity said. "What a wonderful help you were, getting me noticed like that, you media sensation you." She squirmed and thumped the underside of Laserbeak's wing.

"Hold still, please," Laserbeak said, tightening eir grip. Someone tell Rumble that we're coming in. If he doesn't have the human habitat set up by now, he's going to have to rush it.

"No, seriously, this is really uncomfortable!" Verity yelled. "Can we stop somewhere? I'll go with you to your weirdo alien base, I just want to not be squished before I get there!"

"Squished?" Laserbeak rippled eir feelers and felt Verity's malleable human flesh twitch in response. Okay, right, somewhere free of human population to land—there. Laserbeak zeroed in on a clear, mostly empty stretch of land marked only with stone carvings. Ey set Verity down carefully, feet first, and then landed, shaking out eir wing plating. "Okay, here you go. Hurry on, and I'll hold you on top of me instead."

Verity looked around the clearing Laserbeak had found, wide-eyed for a moment before she scowled and scrambled onto Laserbeak's back. "Yeah, yeah, this had better be more comfy than the tentacle express." She wound her arms around Laserbeak's neck—an oddly gentle sensation.

"You can hold on more firmly," Laserbeak said. "My plating may be thinner than someone with a combat-ready frame, but human strength won't so much as dent me."

"Good to know," Verity muttered. Laserbeak wound eir feelers around Verity's body and took off with one last look around to make sure they hadn't been followed. Behind them, ey could hear sirens and an upsurge of traffic. But before the sounds could draw closer, Laserbeak glided off again, fast enough that Verity gasped and tightened her grip. The sounds faded with distance behind them.

Chapter Text

"Prime!" Fowler yelled as he opened the door to his vehicle and climbed out. He slammed the door behind him in a way that made Prowl's doors twitch reflexively. Was that a threat? He rose from where he'd been sitting in a corner with his systems patched into the base's security systems, reviewing every fluctuation and analyzing the footage. Faireborn followed close behind Fowler; the scientists were absent this time. "Prime, get out here right now!"

"What seems to be the problem, Agent Fowler?" Optimus asked as he rolled into the main hangar and transformed. He sounded normal: his emotions were within acceptable levels, and he only gave Prowl one oddly unreadable glance before turning his full attention to the humans. Good.

"One of those Decepticons you're negotiating with just kidnapped a teenage girl right out of her home!" Faireborn yelled. "You owe us some answers, right the fuck now."

Prowl held out his hand to keep Optimus from answering. "No," he said. "You owe us some answers. You've been lying to us since the moment we set foot on your Earth."

Faireborn looked ready to draw her weapon and fire on him, but Fowler grimaced and put a hand on her shoulder. She shook her head and folded her arms. "Fine. If it'll get us answers, we don't mind answering a few of yours."

"First: human technology," Prowl said. "You claimed earlier that something had been stolen by Cybertronians, some piece of Earth technology. The problem with that claim is that there is nothing on Earth that would be worth the effort for a Cybertronian to steal. You can see that now, surely, after you've had your scientists poking and prodding at our technology." He cast a baleful glance at Prime. "And yet you will not tell us what it is that was stolen."

"Yeah, about that," Fowler said, scratching the back of his head. "We realized it wasn't you. It had to be the Decepticons. So the brass is lettin' it go in the interest of peace."

"We aren't going to let this go, though," Faireborn interjected. "Once these Decepticons start thinking they can steal our citizens—our children—as well as our technology, it's no longer something we can ignore."

"You said there were human lives lost during the theft," Prowl said flatly. "You're more willing to forgive that than this kidnapping you claim took place?"

"Prowl," Optimus said in Cybertronian. "The Decepticons do have a history of stealing hatchlings." He sounded almost apologetic.

"Cybertronian hatchlings," Prowl hissed back in the same language.

"That's not precisely—" Fowler said, then sighed. "Look, it's not your problem what our messed-up human priorities are. You're robots, I get that you don't understand this impulse we humans have to take care of our children. But we have it, and it's strong, and the Decepticons just stole one and are doing who-knows-what to her as we speak. And, as you say, you also think it's perfectly okay to negotiate with people who have killed humans."

Prowl's doors tilted downwards. "None of that explains your behavior. What is this piece of technology that you were so willing to accuse us of stealing? Why did you drop your accusations so swiftly? We have reason to believe this event didn't happen the way you claim it did."

"And why's that, Prowl? Did your Decepticon buddies cry a sad sob story for you?"

"You do realize they could be lying," Faireborn growled. "It's right there in the name you gave us: Decepticon."

"Prowl's deduction that we are not being told the whole truth is unlikely to be wrong in this case," Optimus said quietly in English. "I do wish for harmony between all of our people, human and Cybertronian alike, but the very premise is suspect. What proof do you have that the Decepticons have done this? Why would they be interested in organic technology—or, for that matter, organics themselves?"

"That's what we want to know!" Fowler said. "As for whether or not it was your Decepticon buddies, the reports are that a giant metal bird with tentacles swooped down from the sky and made off with a teenage girl. This wasn't a mistake, Prime. We've got enough reports to deduce that, unless we've got civilians mass hallucinating giant metal robots as some sort of bizarre coincidence, these Decepticons are stealing children!"

«Probably Laserbeak or Buzzsaw,» Chromia said from behind Prowl, over base-wide comms. «Though that still doesn't explain what they would have wanted with a human hatchling.»

«Maybe they didn't realize it was a hatchling and wanted to speak with it,» Windblade offered.

«With the amount of energon I found at the site of the supposed theft, I don't think they've got good intentions.»

«Jazz, these are the base comms, you're not supposed to be on this channel,» Prowl snapped.

«Yeah? Tough. You all heard 'bout the energon, right?»

«I suspect Prowl has not had the opportunity to tell us,» Optimus said. «I interrupted him quite forcefully. I apologize. What is this about energon?»

«I found some near a site that's been wiped clean. It's closer to the Neutrals than the Decepticons, though.»

«The Neutrals have even less reason to steal human technology or kidnap a human,» Prowl interjected. «That is unlikely to be of any significance.»

«Not to mention the Circle of Light doesn't have any aerials that resemble Earth birds on their roster,» Chromia said.

Optimus shook his head and spoke aloud to the humans. "While I would appreciate a more illuminating answer as to the situation that lead to this theft, I will ask the Decepticons about this kidnapping. Negotiations cannot continue if they are stealing children behind our backs."

"Optimus!" Prowl protested in Cybertronian. "If you give in now, they'll never give us the answers we need."

«And as much as I like the humans, halting the negotiations that could save our entire species just because of a missing human child in a situation we know nothing about seems premature,» Windblade added. «Optimus, you can't make that promise.»

«Nevertheless, this cannot be ignored,» Optimus said. «And perhaps a show of faith will convince the humans to be more forthcoming with us.»

«More likely it will convince them that they can walk all over us,» Prowl muttered. «There was energon. What further proof do you need that the humans are hostile towards Cybertronians and have the means to harm us? At the very least, cease giving them access to our frames and technology.»

But Optimus only looked down at the humans with a solemn expression, completely silent.

"I take it your other bots have something to say about that," Fowler said, his expression drawn in and his tone neutral.

"Prowl is concerned about how adeptly you are avoiding his concerns," Optimus said after a moment, and Fowler and Faireborn exchanged a glance.

"Fair enough," Faireborn said. She blew out a long sigh. "We'll see what we can find out for you, in exchange for your information on the kidnapping." She nodded to Prowl without really looking at him and stalked back to her car.

Fowler lingered for a moment. "Call us as soon as you've got an answer from the Decepticons," he said. "I want to know what those metal bastards have to say for themselves. And make it quick; there's a little girl out there who's undergoing who knows what kind of horrors."

"Okay," Verity said, surveying the boxed-off area. "I have to admit, you've got a pretty sweet setup here." She grabbed another carrot and crunched it between her teeth—it wasn't the best carrot she'd ever had in her life, but it was decent, and she liked the way the crunch distracted her from the weird ambient hum. "Still, you could have gotten me something to eat besides vegetables. How did you even pay for this?" The blue robot opened its mouth to answer, and Verity held up a hand. "No, wait, don't answer that. You didn't, right?"

"We did," the bird interjected—or rather, the bird who'd kidnapped her twice, because there was another bird with gold and black paint settled on top of some glowy console.

The black cat…dog…thing robot lying in the corner raised its head. "In a manner of speaking," it said. "However, the methods used weren't legal by human standards, no."

"Or by any other standards," snickered a red robot the size of the blue one and practically identical except for the reversed markings. "So, c'mon, are you going to introduce us or what?"

"Introduce yourself, if you're so eager," said the golden bird. "We all know who Verity is."

Verity narrowed her eyes. "Yeah, I see being creepy runs in the bird family," she said. "'Hi, I'm Verity, it's nice to meet you.' Most people would wait for that."

"Why?" the golden bird asked. "There's no point. Anyone can see we're Soundwave's Cassettes."

"Cassettes?" Verity repeated, then clapped a hand over her mouth to stop the inappropriate laughter from bubbling up. "Uh, what? I think your translation got a little messed up there."

"No, we're definitely Cassettes," the blue robot said. "I'm Rumble, and my less handsome twin is Frenzy." He gestured at the red robot, who elbowed him in the side.

"I thought we were supposed to introduce ourselves," Frenzy said in a snooty tone that made the golden bird blat static at him.

"I should have introduced myself before," the bird behind her said. "I'm Laserbeak."

The catdog—okay, definitely more of a big cat type, she decided—stretched. "Ravage."

The golden bird made a beeping sound. "Buzzsaw," it said finally.

Verity eyed it for a moment, then looked down at the pile of food. "Okay, no seriously, though, why is this all vegetables?"

"That's what the internet said was healthiest for humans," Rumble said, sounding almost proud.

Verity shook her head. "Yeah, no, a pile of carrots and lettuce isn't going to cut it for me. You're going to take me back down and let me do my own shopping, or I'm going to die up here. Die a horrible orange-skinned carroty death."

"What?!" Rumble exclaimed, and she almost felt bad for a moment at the stricken look on his metal face. How did they even form expressions? Shouldn't metal not be able to do that? Except Rumble and Frenzy's faces didn't look metal so much as some weird form of non-crinkly foil, or mercury holding a solid form. It didn't move enough to be as soft as flesh, but it certainly moved more than any metal Verity had ever seen. Not that she was an expert or anything.

"Well, if you're going to go back down to the human world, Laserbeak had better not be the one who takes you there," Buzzsaw said. "Seriously, Laserbeak, the only reason the media outlets aren't reporting this is that the government put in a hush order. Do you want to hear these channels I've found? Because you're all over them."

Verity leaned up against the wall and watched as Ravage stood up and strode over to bump its head against Laserbeak's wing, silent. Buzzsaw let out another blat of static.

"Aww, come on," Frenzy said suddenly. "No sparkbond around Verity, she can't hear any of it. We want to make her feel welcome, right? English only." Ravage turned its head and stared at Frenzy, and Frenzy grimaced. "Oh, fine. Keep your charge talk to yourselves."

It felt a little like Verity had stepped into the Twilight Zone. The last time she'd been here, everything had felt alien and bleak, with oppressive silence and strange robots. Now, it felt—well, still strange and alien to the point where Verity could feel the adrenaline pumping through her body and every single sound refocused her attention, but the robots weren't acting like robots. They were acting like—siblings, or something. Sure, she might be the center of attention, but there wasn't the laser focus on her that there had been before. She could sit back and eat her vegetables—seriously, only vegetables?—and watch the interplay between them.

Maybe they were just different when Soundwave wasn't looming over them.

"Stop, stop, you shouldn't eat those!" Rumble cried out, dashing forwards towards Verity. She flinched back, and he stumbled to a halt. "I swear, I didn't see any of those articles about food poisoning. Seriously, how are vegetables so good for humans if they're responsible for producing that much poison?"

"What?" Ravage looked over at them and swished its tail. "Food poisoning is caused by microscopic organic life forms, Rumble, not by food itself."

"Still," Rumble protested. "I don't want the human to die."

"Well, then you'll take me back down again like I said, and I can get my own supplies," Verity interjected. "Don't tie yourself in knots over this, jeez. I've been taking care of myself for years."

"Where were you planning to go before Laserbeak ruined your plans?" Ravage tilted its head to the side, watching her.

She tipped her chin up. "I was gonna go meet up with a guy named Raoul. He's helped me out a few times."

"You've escaped from your inadequate human caretakers more than once," Ravage murmured.

"Yeah, that's about the size of it." Verity shrugged; she'd made sure to scope Raoul out the first time, after a run-in with some sleezy old guy who'd pretended to be a helpful good Samaritan online. Raoul was, if anything, even nicer in-person and gay as anything, which helped Verity's peace of mind. Not to mention his garage always had some kind of odd job Verity could help out with to pay him back, usually involving Raoul's admitted lack of computer expertise. She'd ribbed him about it the second time—how did he even manage to get online to offer his help in the first place? He'd just shrugged and grinned, saying that he preferred cars because he could tell what he was doing right and what he was doing wrong.

She swallowed to keep her throat from tightening, just a little bit, and shook her head. "So, you guys have hatchlings, right? Are you all siblings or something? And what even are you?"

"Siblings?" Buzzsaw exclaimed flaring out its wings.

"Well, me'n'Frenzy are, we're twins," Rumble said. "But they're all sparkmates."

"Yeah, that really clears it up," Verity said, deadpan. "I know exactly what you mean."

"We're Cybertronians," Laserbeak said, hopping closer. "We're not organic, we're mechanical. Earth doesn't have any mechanical life forms, so it's understandable that you'd be surprised, but that's what we are."

"And we're not siblings!" Buzzsaw put in.

"So…living robots?" Verity guessed. "That's—weird, but okay. Sure, I'll buy it."

Laserbeak hopped so close that Verity had to look up into its eyes. She stepped back, raising her eyebrows, and Laserbeak didn't follow. "Buzzsaw and Ravage and Soundwave and I are sparkmates, as Rumble said. I believe the human term would be—lovers?" It bobbed its head. "I think that's the correct term. You have a lot of very nuanced terminology."

"Wait," Verity blurted out before her brain-to-mouth filter could catch up. "You're saying that all three of you are fucking the big guy? Soundwave's, like, huge!"

Frenzy snickered. "Yeah, they're fuckin' the big guy."

"How can you even do that? You're robots."

"Mechanicals," Laserbeak corrected. "We're mechanical. Your robots aren't sentient or sapient, and they aren't capable of autonomous reproduction."

"Yeah, fair enough," Verity said. "But I'm pretty sure there's some sort of translation error. Seriously, Soundwave is the size of a house. You're the size of—of a small horse."

"We're not here to give you a lecture of Cybertronian physiology," Buzzsaw grumbled. "I thought you wanted to go down and see this Raoul human to get more dead organics to consume."

"When you put it like that, it sounds creepy." Verity shrugged. "But okay, point taken, I'll try not to be weird about it. It doesn't bother me what you do in your spare time as long as you don't have robo-sex right in front of me or something."

"Yeah, Buzzsaw," Frenzy said. "She'd better come hang out with us if you want to do that."

Laserbeak beeped. "Well, Verity?" it said gently. "Are you going back to the surface or not?"

"Wait, we shouldn't leave all these vegetables lying around," Verity said. "They're still good, I just can't eat all of them before they lose some of their zing. Could we donate it or something…? At least some of them are still in the packaging, that should be okay. Probably. Better than leaving it to rot, anyway."

Laserbeak turned its head to look at Buzzsaw. Buzzsaw made a grumbling noise and shook itself, but hopped over towards the veggie pile. "Oh, all right," it said. "And unlike you, I won't get spotted."

Slipstream had to admit it: she'd probably been too paranoid about what kind of tricks Starscream could pull off. She'd managed to successfully dodge any unwanted speculation while Megatron was helpless, but going back to her quarters she'd half-expected a bomb or a virus or some other sort of sabotage that would be impossible for most people to trace back. She'd even composed a dying message just for fun, imagining that maybe Elita-1 would beg to help, and she'd discover Starscream as the culprit when nobody else could—it would make for an amusing mystery novel, in any case, even if Slipstream didn't relish the possibility of being the victim who set off the whole chain of events.

In any case, her hab suite had stayed completely untouched, and nobody had tried to slip any clogging agents into her energon or anything. She'd even kept an eye out for Barricade, given how unhelpful he'd been earlier, but he was nowhere to be found. A few casual remarks to others had earned her the information that Barricade had been keeping to himself, and he'd only been seen with Frenzy aside from a few trips to the refueling station looking more intimidating than usual.

Well, whatever. Their loss, Slipstream's gain. If she was able to strut around the ship again, she was going to do just that.

She found herself riding high off of a successful refueling spent schmoozing and shamelessly eavesdropping on other people's conversations, thinking about whether Elita-1 would let her back with a clean hab suite and no excuse. Elita-1 would, right? She'd admitted that the interfacing was good. Slipstream might not know anything about Autobots—despite being one, originally—but surely Elita-1 wouldn't hold a grudge for very long.

Still, when Slipstream passed a room she'd never noticed before, she hesitated. The door had to be malfunctioning; it had stopped just short of closing, and light played through it. If it had been closed, it would have looked like any other wall panel. As it was, curiosity tugged at her processor, and after a long moment pointing out to herself that she'd managed to avoid all those dangers she'd imagined for herself, she stepped in.

Megatron sat inside, attention focused on a datapad. His optics flicked to her, and she froze, but he just looked back down at the datapad. He didn't seem angry, at least. She hadn't intruded on something private. Still, she made a great show of turning to the door and examining it until she found a damaged bit that had stopped it from sealing properly. She removed it and held it up triumphantly between her claws before turning.

"Lord Megatron?"

Megatron looked up again, his expression unreadable. He looked—different, which Slipstream hadn't really expected, but in very subtle ways. His frame looked more solid, the metal looked darker. He still didn't have any paint, so the changes could probably be attributed to the fact that Megatron's metal hadn't come from Cybertron itself. And that color covered his entire frame, the breadth of the new shoulder spikes, the length of his claws—they wouldn't do that for a simple patch job. Even armor redesigned for greater protection would leave the nonessential parts of the body the same.

He'd been completely reframed.

"What is it?" he asked as Slipstream's vocalizer sputtered a silent and temporary death.

Slipstream struggled to reset it, processor whirling. "I'm sorry for interrupting. I just wanted to say that I'm glad to see you back and looking so well." She twitched and almost held out the scrap metal in her claws before thinking better of it. The scrap metal landed in the corner where she tossed it, instead.

Megatron, however, didn't return to his datapad. Instead, his optics dimmed, then flared, and he surged up out of his seat. Slipstream flinched backwards into a reflexive cower as he loomed over her. "Why are you starting this?" he demanded. "I have no patience for Starscream's games, and I have no patience for yours. If your goal is to curry favor, you should know that you will gain none by pushing me." His claws flexed in a clear threat.

Slipstream glanced at the door, optics wide. Her wings trembled. She should leave, she knew that; nothing good would come of staying. But from deep within her processor, the thought surfaced that Starscream would run right now. He might deliver a parting shot, but he would do the smart thing and leave before risking Megatron's anger. And if Megatron was already angry because of Starscream, Slipstream would do herself no favors by acting the same way and linking herself to him.

Instead, she put her chin up and found herself blurting out the first thing that came to mind. "Elita-1 told me where I came from."

Megatron didn't snarl at her or lash out. He frowned. His optics flared, and he leaned back just enough for Slipstream's ventilation to come a little easier. "You hadn't known?"

"No," Slipstream muttered. "I didn't think it was important to know. And—I still don't, mostly. I think it was really noble, what Elita-1 did, betraying the Autobots so that we could be rescued. But I've got Sentinel Prime's CNA—his base coding. And not yours." She forced herself to look up into Megatron's optics. "We should have been yours."

Megatron barked a sour laugh and turned to walk back to his chair. He lowered himself down with a strangely delicate care, then put his hands together and looked back at her. "Yes, you should have been mine, but if it had been up to my coding, you never would have existed. I certainly wasn't going to plug into him at that point."

"I wish you had," Slipstream muttered. "It's not like I know who else contributed CNA to my functionality. They're probably awful, too."

"You are mine in all other ways," Megatron said. "You are mine because you were raised with the freedom of a Decepticon rather than imprisoned in the claws of the failing Autobot regime. In this sense, all Decepticons are mine." He gestured expansively with one hand. "All Cybertronians should have been mine, had Sentinel Prime allowed it. That is the role of the Lord High Protector: to be the caretaker to all. The instant I accepted it, the choice to leave everyone with a corrupt government was no longer mine to make."

Slipstream's steady venting stopped for a moment. "I'd never heard you say it like that," she said. "I'd forgotten."


Slipstream looked away hastily to gather her slipping composure. "How much it means to me," she said. Her vocalizer still felt scratchy and out of sync. "It was always important to me as a hatchling that I wasn't raised in fear. Maybe—thinking about it, maybe I would have done okay as an Autobot, but it wouldn't have been my choice. It would have been because of what my alt-mode is, or what job they needed me for enough to have it assigned to me. Or how troublesome I was. Sentinel Prime should have cared about us, but he didn't, and you did."

Silence filled the room, and she looked back to see Megatron watching her with an unreadable expression. She kept her wings steady with great effort.

When it became apparent that Megatron had no intention of saying anything, she barreled on ahead into the heavy silence. "It meant a lot to me as a hatchling because you're the leader who cares, and that's why we should follow you. You didn't want us offlining in an energon mine even if we didn't have your CNA. But knowing that I'm—I'm his in some way, that my coding forks from his, that makes the fact that you care even more important. You hate him, but you care about us anyway."

"Well said." Megatron regarded her for another moment. His mouthplates twitched up at the corners. "Though I'm afraid that your fervor may be for naught, as the government may not be divided for much longer."

"I know," Slipstream said, aware of how disappointed she sounded. She reset her vocalizer again to clear out the errors and allowed a fatalistic dip of her wings. "I understand why you're doing this. You're protecting us again. And you won't let us go back to the old system. We all know that."

"No. And the new Prime is not the one who bore you."

"An Autobot is an Autobot," she said, then winced. "I'm sorry, Lord Megatron, that was—I didn't mean it like that. I know you'll protect us. I just don't like them."

Megatron laughed. "And finding out that you were intended to be one has not swayed your opinion at all," he said. "But you're right. He could have focused on changing policies and making peace before this moment, and I find myself suspicious that he waited until I was…temporarily incapacitated to make overtures with Starscream."

Slipstream hesitated and debated pointing out that Starscream had been the one to make the first move. But, no, if Megatron needed to know that—or, rather, if he somehow didn't know that—Soundwave would tell him. Saying anything about Starscream at this moment would just seem like a power grab, even though it wasn't. Instead, she bowed, hoping it didn't look too awkward. "I'm sorry I disturbed you, Lord Megatron."

"Your conversation was enlightening," he said, and he looked back down at his datapad. Slipstream took that as a dismissal and stepped back out the door and into the hall. She let out a huff of air as the door slid properly shut behind her. Her processor spun. She navigated the halls by instinct until she found herself back at her hab suite. She stared at the door for a nanoklik before inputting the code and stumbling inside. She didn't even bother activating the lights; she found her way to the recharge slab by memory and climbed on, initiating an override as she did, so that she could process the conversation in the background during recharge instead of overthinking it. The recharge cycle started before her head came in contact with the slab.

Chapter Text

The sound of the cell power clicking off penetrated the thick fog of statis-assisted meditation, but it took almost a klik after that for Wing to turn on eir optics. Dai Atlas himself stoof there, watching Wing. "I trust you've thought things through."

"I have," Wing agreed, matching Dai Atlas' neutral tone. "I've had long enough."

"Good." Dai Atlas hesitated, and for an aching moment, Wing thought he was going to bring up the past. He'd always traded in nostalgia for the better, simpler times, after all, and maybe—just maybe—but he only resettled his weight to gaze down at Wing from an even more impressive height. He said nothing about how he and Wing had once been close to friends instead of mentor and wayward disciple. Nothing about fond personal memories. Only that lingering superior silence. "You are not to go to the Autobots with your histrionic message. Do you understand? If you do this, you will be defying orders, and your punishment will be more severe."

Wing ducked eir head. "I understand," ey said. "You do not wish to endanger this peace."

"And if the Decepticons have a plan to destroy it, we must not play any part in helping them." Dai Atlas stared at em for a moment longer before apparently deciding that was sufficient. He leaned down to undo Wing's stasis cuffs with a deft touch.

Wing rose with as much grace as ey could muster after so long in stasis and stretched, wings rattling for a moment before they flared out. "Am I permitted to refuel, Dai Atlas?"

"Of course," he rumbled. "You are no longer under punishment regulations."

Wing dipped eir head and waited for the formal dismissal—granted with a low, rattling sigh—before heading to the refueling station. Ey didn't grab a cube this time. Normally, ey avoided the injector spigots, but right now ey had no desire to speak to anyone on the ship. Ey turned to face the wall and ducked eir face down to cast shadows over it. If anyone noticed, they had the sense not to approach.

Ey filled eir tank completely, ignoring the overfill warnings, and immediately started up eir flight subsystems so the extra energon would get routed into them. Finally, ey pulled the spigot out and wiped it down before replace it on the wall. Then, optics straight ahead, ey made eir way to eir quarters.

The sword was there, of course, as it should have been. But Wing had to relax eir tight plating in relief; ey'd half expected it to be gone, confiscated, no matter what Dai Atlas' increasingly empty words on the matter had been. One day, there would be too many infractions. One day, the sword wouldn't be waiting for em when ey came back.

This, Wing thought, would be the final straw, if anyone noticed. But if they did, it would be after ey was long gone. Ey would make no farewells to eir friends. Ey had thought about it, and ey had made eir decision. Ey didn't want to be stopped, and so ey wouldn't be.

The flight deck sat empty, as always. Wing folded out into a transformation, plates covering eir sword, and ey took to the air. This time, ey flew in a wide arc around the humans and followed instead the direction ey had seen Drift leave in. Maybe it didn't lead anywhere. Maybe Wing would have been better off downloading the pathing from the ship's systems. But maybe Drift had been upset enough to go straight back towards the ship without bothering to take precautions. They were here to negotiate a peace treaty, after all; he should have little reason to hide.

When a mech stepped out from nowhere with a blaster aimed straight at Wing's spark, Wing sagged in relief and let emself land into a transformation. "Hello," ey said in eir politest tone. "I surrender."

"What are you doing here?" the mech asked, flaring her optics. "How did you find us?"

"I'm a messenger," Wing said, then hesitated. "From Dai Atlas. I mean you no harm; I have an urgent message. Could I please speak to Drift?"

The mech studied em. "There's no Drift here." She lowered her blaster. "But if you'll surrender that sword, I'll bring you before Megatron himself." There was a twitch to her smile that made Wing think she was calling a bluff.

Wing nodded and removed the sword to hand over to her. "I will need that back when I leave again," ey said. "Please keep it safe."

Surprise flickered in her optics. "Kind of unwieldy, isn't it?" she asked, hefting it a few times in her arms. She didn't wait for an answer—good, since Wing had no idea what to say. She turned and began to walk. Wing followed her, letting the deflector field slide over em as the ground under eir feet became familiar Cybertronian metal instead of soft Earth rock. Once inside, she paused for a moment before leading Wing down a hallway and into a room where Megatron sat in a large, intricate chair that could easily be called a throne.

Wing wondered if they expected em to bow. Ey didn't. Instead, ey merely dipped eir head in respectful acknowledgement of the Lord High Protector. That should satisfy diplomatic protocol while allowing em a certain degree of caution.

"Flamewar, you're dismissed," Megatron said, not taking his optics off of Wing's face. "Get back to your post."

"Yes, Lord Megatron."

The door hissed shut behind her, and Wing suddenly felt the absence of eir sword. Ey vented out a steady gust of air and drew emself up straighter. "Megatron," ey said. "I know what happened to you."

Megatron's optics didn't so much as flicker. They remained on and steady, his body entirely still. "Do you, he rumbled.

"I don't mean that as a threat," Wing said, voice quiet. Ey shifted, fighting the urge to glance down at the place where the medical patch had been. "I've come to ask that you tell the Autobots what the humans did. Please; they may be in danger as well."

"From what?" Megatron's mouth twisted in a grimace. "From the humans? The only reason they were able to hold me is that they waited for the Autobots to do their dirty work."

"That's what we thought as well," Wing said, and this time ey did touch the place where the patch had been. "But I was shot by them some orns ago, and they were able to rip through my plating more effectively than any Cybertronian blaster. If you are truly working towards peace, please do not let the Autobots suffer a terrible fate at the hands of an alien race simply because they believe them to be harmless."

"And you come to me instead of them," Megatron said.

Wing flinched. "I have been forbidden from contacting the Autobots," ey admitted. "I…" Ey trailed off. It occurred to em that ey could ask about Drift, could explain that Drift had helped em, but even if Megatron recognized the name when one of his subordinates didn't, ey would only get Drift in trouble for giving away such sensitive information. Wing could see the barely-restrained fury in the light of Megatron's optics and the tight curl of his claws. "I would prefer not to risk unbalancing the situation further."

Megatron's optics roved over Wing's faceplates for a long moment before he sat back and waved a hand. "You're dismissed. Leave my ship and go back to your commanders."

Wing hesitated for only a moment before retreating back the way ey'd come. It was an illusion, this freedom ey'd been granted, but to stay would be to provoke the Decepticons further. The last thing ey wanted was to incite conflict. Ey would return to the Neutral ship; eir excursion had taken less time than ey'd anticipated, and perhaps nobody would realize that ey'd been gone. Ey retrieved eir sword from Flamewar with a grateful smile and a quiet thank you, then leapt into the air once more.

The restless itch in eir processor, however, didn't go away.

Hot Rod actually thought about sending a comm to Jazz once he started to approach the Autobot base. He'd enjoyed Jazz's previous missions, even if they did reek a little bit of keeping the new mech to the easy jobs. But the problem was, he'd started to get curious. When he actually obeyed the speed laws, humans stopped being shrieky and incomprehensibly angry, and once he taught himself some of their languages—and how could such a young species need so many?—he could catch snippets of really interesting conversationgs.

And Jazz, he'd learned, was a pretty kickass commander. He'd been the one to recommend that Hot Rod watch some human television shows just to familiarize himself with the local culture, even though Hot Rod wasn't allowed to initiate any conversations. Verisimilitude, he'd said, was important, and even if Hot Rod wasn't talking to them, he was interacting with them through his silent presence on the road. Little details made all the difference.

Hot Rod really liked that idea, and he didn't want to piss Jazz off or anything, because he was a pretty neat guy and also scary, and Hot Rod sort of still wanted to become a spy. But the novelty had worn off after only an orn. Being a spy meant being quiet, and Hot Rod had never liked that. Maybe Jazz knew and only ever intended to give him quiet missions, as some sort of punishment. But that thought didn't sit well with Hot Rod; he wanted to be at the front of the action, after all, meeting the Decepticons in battle and all that slag he'd been fed as a hatchling that he'd only ever gotten to do once or twice.

And, really, that fact settled it pretty conclusively. Spies didn't participate in frontlines battles unless they really, really needed to. Jazz was great, but Hot Rod couldn't stay under his command.

Of course, if the treaty worked out as intended, maybe Hot Rod would never be able to earn that glory, and the thought made his fuel tanks churn. Sure, he wanted peace just as much as anyone else. But the thought of a vast unknown stretching out ahead of him instead of the comfortable familiarity of the way things were…Hot Rod couldn't even imagine it, really. What would it be like? What would he do? Would it be anything like life on the Ark was right now? Because Hot Rod hated that, the mundane, useless tasks that didn't get anything done, the boring shifts waiting for attacks that never happened, the interface offers that grew more and more frequent. Sure, the engex was nice, and the crew had loosened up, but—no. That sort of life wasn't for Hot Rod.

Maybe he'd become some sort of traveler to alien planets, like Ultra Magnus had been. But you didn't get a position like that by being a spy, either. Probably. So: Autobot base.

He really hoped Jazz wouldn't get too mad at him.

Of course, once he got there, the problem with the Autobot base turned out to be that it looked like any of the other Earth rock-things in the area. There wasn't any sort of door or obvious bridge; it just kind of sat there as Hot Rod rushed up to it. A quick perusal of the perimeter yielded nothing more than the same disappointing lack of anything.

If Hot Rod didn't know better, he'd have said that Jazz had given him the wrong coordinates. But, of course, he couldn't comm Jazz and demand to know the way in without Jazz getting at least a little bit suspicious. So, instead, he drove around a few more times before he got bored and accelerated, trying to determine how tight a loop this new alt-mode could do now that he wasn't anywhere that humans could catch sight of him.

«Hot Rod!» Prowl's voice thundered through Hot Rod's comm system, and he shrieked out an involuntary response. «What are you doing?»

The sound of sirens interrupted whatever excuse Hot Rod might have spit out as Prowl streaked across the ground towards him. "Aww, come on!" Hot Rod protested instead. "I didn't even get to see how you came out. How does that base work? Is it really human technology? I thought they were supposed to be really backwards."

"Yes, it is human technology, with additional security measures added to protect Optimus Prime," Prowl said. He came around behind Hot Rod and nudged up against his bumper. "Drive in. Slowly."

Hot Rod glanced around to see an opening in the rock-thing he'd been driving around. "Whoa!" he yelped, then sped ahead to examine the inside. "It looks so weird in here. And so big!"

He transformed and turned, excited, only to find himself nose to nose with a glaring, dim-eyed Prowl. Hot Rod froze; this wasn't an Ultra Magnus-level glare. This was an I'm three nanokliks from tearing your plating off your spark and crushing it into oblivion glare. "I said," Prowl ground out, "slowly."

"Oops?" Hot Rod gave his most charming grin. "I jsut wanted to see what it was like in here, that's all. So where are the aliens? I mean, humans?"

"Hot Rod?" Ratchet poked his head through a door. His entire facial structure twisted so hard that it actually made a quiet shrieking sound as the metal hit its limits. "What are you doing down here?"

"That's what I would like to know," Prowl said grimly. "I will be contacting your superior officer."

Hot Rod let his spoiler rise and fall in a crude approximation of a wing shrug. "Yeah, I figured," he said. "Hey, Ratchet! How's it going?"

Ratchet held out a hand, palm flat and claws curled in Hot Rod's direction. "If you've managed to contract an alien virus via interface—"

"Aww, come on," Hot Rod grumbled. "I was being stealthy, it's like nobody has any faith in me."

"I'd say that lack of faith has plenty of basis, considering you haven't been approved by anyone on the ground team," Ratchet said.

Prowl, on the other hand, remained silent, his face twisting up. Hot Rod itched to hear what Jazz was saying about him, and after a few moments, he commed his new boss. After a few more moments and a transferred signal, he found himself listening to a conversation. «—can't take him in here! He's your responsibility!»

«And now he's yours," Jazz said, his voice bland. «Come on, Prowl, you can't tell me you haven't thought about what a great distractions for the humans Hot Rod could be.»

«He won't just distract the humans

Jazz laughed. «You've got your work cut out for you, huh? Listen, tell Hot Rod to keep alert and report back to me with his observations about the humans.»

«I will do no such thing.»

«Ah, well. Good thing I just did. Jazz out.»

«Jazz—!» Prowl glared at Hot Rod, but Hot Rod bore up under it with a grin. Maybe Jazz hadn't ordered him here, but Jazz had expected him here, and that was all the confidence Hot Rod needed. "Hot Rod, come with me. When the humans visit, you will be confined to the medical bay until we can secure permission from the humans for you to be on Earth."

"What!" Hot Rod drooped. "Aww, come on, you heard Jazz, I'm supposed to observe the humans for him."

"Chromia is already doing so," Prowl returned. "You aren't able to offer anything except a lack of training and discipline."

"And besides," Ratchet interjected. "It won't take that long for Prowl to get you the permission you need." He fixed Prowl with a bright stare. "Because I am not dealing with a troublemaker like Hot Rod in important and necessary medical facilities that are already barely adequate."

"I don't feel very appreciated," Hot Rod complained. "Where's everybody else?"

"They're all taking advantage of the break to stretch their t-cogs," Ratchet said. "Especially Optimus. I'd worry that he's avoiding me, but these negotiations are taking it out of him. It's no surprise that he wants a chance to drive."

"That's why we should have pushed to have a presence at the negotiations so he isn't alone." Prowl's doorwings flicked.

Ratchet dimmed his optics. "Oh, no, you're not getting me all caught up in politics again," he said. "I'm hoping Optimus manages to pull this off so I can retire somewhere none of you will ever find me again." He looked over at Hot Rod and sighed. "Well, come on, we might as well go over the rules and what you can't touch. Which is everything, I'm telling you straight up. You will be touching nothing in the medical bay. There's some very sensitive equipment in there."

"Are you sure?" Hot Rod asked, following close behind as Ratchet made his way deeper into the base. "You never know, I could be really great at medicine. I'm pretty good at basic patch jobs, Ultra Magnus told me so before."

"Ultra Magnus is not a doctor, and patch jobs are not an indicator of medical skill," Ratchet replied. "You will be touching nothing, and that's final. I'll get you a datapad to read so that you can educate yourself while you're under house arrest."

"Awww." Hot Rod slumped. "This had better not take longer than an orn."

"Oh, I'm in full agreement with you there."

The third round of negotiations started on a completely different topic than the previous two: ground and air traffic laws. SOmething there would be little conflict on, something that had never played a role in the Autobot and Decepticon battles, and something Dai Atlas would have no reason to speak up during. Megatron found himself suspicious, at first, then admiring of the little Prime. Whatever his reasons for this tactic, he managed to keep the tension in the room to a minimum, and by the end of the discussion, they had the first pad ready to sign.

It was a good move, clearly calculated, and it gave them something solid to build on. Megatron could have protested or redirected, but he found himself enjoying the calm debate, the lack of emotion going into it. Perhaps it was a failing on his part to be swayed like this, to keep his optics on the way the little Prime's whole frame moved. He looked animated by this sort of minor debate. He looked almost like he was enjoying himself.

Of course, if he'd been training as an archivist, maybe it shouldn't be surprising how excited he got over minor laws. It would have been almost cute if he hadn't been leading the Autobots against Megatron's Decepticons since the death of Sentinel Prime.

As Megatron handed the pad with his electronic signature to Dai Atlas for witnessing, the little Prime spoke up again. "There is one more thing I would like to resolve before we adjourn, Megatron."

"And what would that be?" Megatron rumbled, tensing the cables under his plating. Dai Atlas looked up from the datapad he held.

The little Prime looked up and met Megatron's optical light with his own before placing his hand directly over his spark. "I have given thought to your concerns over our hatchlings. I have come to the conclusion that your demands are within my capacity to grant. My first clutch shall be given to you in its entirety, and nobody will have the right to visit them without your permission."

Megatron narrowed his optical bands. The words sounded nice enough, but they reeked of martyrdom. "I have already granted you permission to see the hatchlings whenever you please," he said. "You will not be barred from the process, and you will not be harmed. These hatchlings will only exist if we truly achieve peace."

The little Prime ducked his head. "I know," he said. His optics shifted to the side, to Dai Atlas, then back to Megatron, but he didn't say anything more.

Interesting. Megatron wondered how loud that silence spoke. A thought spun into existence in Megatron's head, the memory of a dusty white Neutral jet. "Very well. If you're willing to concede this, then let us draw up the contract before you change your mind."

"I won't change my mind," the little Prime said, voice quiet but firm. "As I said, I have given this some thought and come to my own conclusions. Your clutch shall belong to you."

Megatron wasn't about to argue him out of it. He held out the datapad and let the little Prime—Optimus—compose the proposal. Afterwards, he took it and skimmed for any loopholes. He could find none; he gave Optimus one final glance, then stamped his signature on it before handing it off to Dai Atlas. While Dai Atlas read the document, Megatron opened his comms for a moment and reached out to Optimus' private signal. Soundwave had been very prompt about retrieving it, with some help from their resident Autobot expert. «I would like to speak to you later, Prime,» he said. «You know how to contact me.»

Optimus' optics flared, but, to his credit, he didn't give away that Megatron had commed him. Instead, he stayed still as Megatron sauntered out of the building and transformed.

The uncomfortable tightness in his cables persisted even as he flew. It felt almost as though if he shut off his optical feed he would be back there, back with the humans, as though even thinking about it would summon the images and the sensory memories that he couldn't block by himself.

It had certainly happened before, though he'd at least had enough time to lock the door after the jet had left.

Still. He'd made his decision, and Optimus Prime would either call or not. Megatron landed on the flight deck and immediately pinged both Soundwave and Elita-1. «Meet me in Elita-1's security room,» he said, and disconnected before either of them could say anything.

Laserbeak landed on his shoulder with a gentle thump, and Megatron allowed himself a moment of public weakness so that he could reach up and stroke eir wing.

Soundwave and Elita-1, fortunately, were both waiting for him by the time he reached the room. "I'll need the best security on my private line," he said. "I'm expecting a call."

Elita-1 nodded and immediately turned to the console, her claws flying over it. "Will you be taking the call anywhere in particular, sir?" she asked.

Megatron glanced at Soundwave. "My private quarters," he said. "Work quickly. The security must be up before the call comes in."

"It won't be secure from the other end," Elita-1 cautioned, "but nobody will tap into it from your end." She didn't salute or even look up at him as he left; good. In the beginning, she'd been so focused on formality and so mired in Autobot habits that she'd been more concerned with appearances than results. The long vorns had changed that for the better. Megatron stroked Laserbeak again, not caring who might see them as he headed back to his hab suite.

Sure enough, as soon as he got in, his console flashed. He sent Laserbeak off of his shoulder with a significant look, and ey dipped eir head before flying off to do a bug scan. Megatron, meanwhile, took a nanoklik to compose himself before allowing Optimus' face to appear onscreen. "Optimus Prime," he purred. "The future bearer of my hatchlings. I didn't think you'd actually have the courage to call."

"I had my own reasons," Optimus said. "If you hadn't asked to speak privately, I would have. We have received reports of a human child—hatchling—being kidnapped by one of Soundwave's Cassettes."

"Soundwave's Cassettes kidnapping hatchlings, is it," Megatron said, keeping his face and voice neutral. "Tell me, Optimus Prime. Did you agree to let me sire a clutch on you believing that I had some nefarious plan to kidnap human hatchlings to form some sort of—" he paused, considered. Optimus had used the word kidnapped rather than killed— "organic army?"

"No," Optimus said. "But the fact remains that this is the second complaint we've had from the humans about thievery, and they are even more upset about one of their hatchlings being stolen than they are about their mysterious stolen technology."

For a moment, the words floated across the surface of Megatron's consciousness. Then, like a stab straight to the spark, it sunk in. Megatron went perfectly still. He focused on keeping his vents steady. Everything spun, even as Laserbeak careened into his back and huddled there, hidden from Optimus and vibrating eir plating in a soothing rhythm.

Nothing felt soothing anymore.

"Technology," Megatron repeated, his vocalizer ringing distant in his own auditory sensors over the roar of remembered alien machinery. "And did these humans see fit to enlighten you about what this technology was that we so callously stole from them? Did you even think to question their story?"

"Yes, of course, but they gave no satisfactory answer." The little Prime hesitated. "Will I get one from you, Megatron?"

Megatron bared his dental plate against the vacuum of memories threatening to pull him in. "Certainly, little Prime. That mysterious technology belonged not to the humans, but to the Decepticons. The Decepticons recovered a living Cybertronian, or what was left of him that the humans had not mutilated beyond repair. Your new allies are the dangerous ones. The next time you meet, you might ask Dai Atlas what happened to his Neutral jet, who was forbidden from contacting the Autobots and warning them against human treachery after having eir plating ripped through by human weapons unprovoked."

The little Prime's optics flared and dimmed, erratic, as his hand rose up to cover his chest. "That…you?" he asked, his voice almost inaudible. "This was where the Decepticons found you?"

Megatron wanted to transform, wanted to shift to a form he would feel more secure in, but he knew from long experience that he would maintain the illusion of control if he didn't move. So he sat there, unable to speak, hoping that his sworn enemy would find the truth in his silence.

Instead, the Prime's optics flared an alarming white, then grey. He fell forward against the console, and the feed cut off. Megatron surged forward. "Megatron?!" Laserbeak yelped from behind him, then, "Scrap, that wasn't a reset. What will you do?"

Megatron stared at the screen for a moment. His internals felt shaky, his spark chamber close to shattering. Even a few orns ago, he would have been grateful for the news of Optimus Prime's demise and the end to this ridiculous negotiation. He would have rejoiced and encouraged the same for his fellow Decepticons. They would get a new Prime, of course, but a newer Prime meant easier pickings, and eventually, they would snuff out the last one and lay claim to the Matrix for themselves.

Now, though—


The thought rose unbidden to his processor that he had just given this Prime a weapon against him, a memory that could be stored in the Matrix and accessed by whatever new Prime they chose. He didn't hesitate a nanoklik longer; he commed Soundwave to demand a connection to Megatron's replacement. «Your leader has just collapsed,» Megatron said without preamble. «I suggest you find wherever he was hiding and tend to him.»

«Megatron? What have you done?»

«I did nothing,» Megatron said. «Fix him, if you can, and tell him we shall resume our conversation at a later date.»

Once he'd terminated the connection, he sat there for a breem. His claws had extended to the screen, somehow, and only the scrabbling sensation of tiny talons up against his back as Laserbeak climbed up to his shoulder reminded him that he wasn't alone in the room. "Do you think they'll get to him in time?" ey asked.

"I don't know," Megatron rumbled. He turned his head to press against Laserbeak's warm plating and let his venting resume. "All we can do at this point is wait for the Autobots to make their move."

Chapter Text

"I didn't touch anything!" Hot Rod yelped as the medical bay doors opened to reveal a fuming Ratchet. "I swear to Primus I didn't!"

"Not now!" Ratchet snapped. He made urgent shooing motions with his hands, and Hot Rod obediently went to stand in a corner. No point in getting Ratchet even angrier. "Okay, bring him in!"

"Bring him what?" Hot Rod asked, confused. Ratchet ignored him. Hot Rod scowled, but before he could say anything else, Chromia and Windblade appeared in the open doorway. They carried Optimus Prime, of all people, between them. Hot Rod felt his optics flare. Oh, slag. Oh, slag. "Wait, what happened? Did the Decepticons attack? How badly hurt is he? I should go out there and help!"

"There's no battle," Ratchet snapped. "Turn off your vocalizer if you can't keep quiet on your own! I need to concentrate."

Windblade turned to give Hot Rod a reassuring smile after she'd set Optimus on the slab. «I'm sure he'll be fine,» she said, but before she'd even finished saying that, Ratchet gave a shrill yell.

"No comms, either! No communication of any kind beyond what I'm saying. I don't know what kind of problem this is, and I need to focus." Ratchet went directly for Optimus' sparkchamber with the saw, and scrap if that wasn't hard to watch. Hot Rod knew that Ratchet wasn't actually going to snuff out their leader's spark, but ow. "Fragging Primes, fragging Primes and Primus' fragging Matrix. No problem that leads to this kind of collapse would have itching as the only symptom. Prowl! Did he show any other signs?"

"No," Prowl said in a clipped voice as he walked in. "But he was conversing with Megatron before he collapsed."

"You think it's a Decepticon virus? What method was he using?"

"Screen," Prowl said.

"Unlikely, then, given that his symptoms started early, but I'll scan him once I can get a solid read on his spark." Ratchet pried open Optimus' chest with a shriek of unwilling metal. "Chromia, get me those pliers; I'm going to need to extract the Matrix."

"What?!" Prowl and Windblade protested at the same time.

"I don't exactly have much of a choice, now, do I?" Ratchet said. He turned on his headlamp and shone it down into Optimus' open chest. "It's slagging blocking my readings, and I can't see any sign of trouble in front of it. It's got to be behind, if it's spark troubles." He waved a hand towards Chromia, and she set pliers against his fingers. "Don't worry, I'll put it back in as soon as I've figured out what's going on and how to fix this. Honestly, if Primus wanted us to take parts of em and put them in our bodies you'd think ey would have turned off the high level of interference the Matrix causes with slagging everything. You religious types need to explain how you justify that to me someday." Hot Rod looked away hastily as Ratchet snagged some wirecutters and reached into Optimus' chest with both tools. The sound of short, precise snips filled the air; the whole medical bay had gone otherwise silent. Not even Windblade responded to Ratchet's angry words.

Hot Rod's fuel tanks churned.

"There," Ratchet announced, and Hot Rod looked back just in time to see Ratchet lift the Matrix out, held firmly in the grip of the pliers. It looked smaller and duller than Hot Rod had expected. Maybe that was just the energon sliding off of it, and, oh, Hot Rod definitely didn't want to think about energon bleeds near the spark.

Ratchet's the best doctor we have, he reminded himself. He won't snuff Optimus by accident. Or on purpose. Or anything.

Chromia returned silently to the corner Windblade stood in and took Windblade's hands, resting her head against Windblade's chestplates. Prowl remained in the doorway, his gaze fixed on Optimus.

"Slag," Ratchet said after a long moment, anger drained into a bleak tone. "There's a rust infection here. How'd he manage to get one so deep without any superficial precursor infections?"

"How serious is it?" Prowl asked.

"I can't tell yet." Ratchet set down the Matrix on a wheeled platform and brought the pliers into Optimus' chest once more. "It's nothing lethal, I can tell you that much. Might be that he collapsed just because he wasn't taking in enough energon to rebuild his circuits, or because it was too close to his spark for his self-repair systems to compensate without assistance. But his rhythm's steady, and it doesn't look like it goes all the way into the spark chamber. I'll scrape him clean and do some part replacement. He's in no immediate danger."

Hot Rod looked away again as Ratchet reached in with a scraping tool and pulled it up again to display the sickly red-brown of rust. Hot Rod hated rust. His optics settled on the Matrix again instead.

The Matrix appeared to be…wobbling.

Hot Rod frown and reset his optics, but the Matrix kept wobbling, teetering on the edge of the platform Ratchet had set it on. "Um, guys?" he said, his vocalizer scratching into panicked static. "There's something—"

"Slag it, Hot Rod, I said to keep quiet!" Ratchet snapped.



The Matrix tipped over and started to fall. Slag. Hot Rod darted forward to grab it—to support it, to put it back on the cart Ratchet had rested it on in the first place—but as soon as it touched his hands it started to glow. Cables extended from it towards Hot Rod and he took a step back, forgetting that of course the Matrix would come with him. "Um?" he squeaked.

"Hot Rod, what—"


"Put that down right now!"

"What is he—"

Hot Rod couldn't look up at them. He could only stare down at the Matrix, entranced by the glow. It heated in his hands with a peculiar kind of pulse.

Almost like a sparkpulse.

Like, maybe, Primus' sparkpulse.

He heard the sound of metal moving, and he realized that it was coming from his chestplates. That was strange. Why would his chestplates open? There were so many people around, and he didn't want to—

Didn't want to—

Feeling like he'd lost control of his body entirely, he watched as his hands lifted up to press the Matrix in. Then he shrieked and doubled over as the interior of his chest pulled a thousand different ways, lines snapping and reforming, his whole body twisting and half-transforming into something other. He could feel the Matrix pulse against his spark, heavy and oppressive and nestled close in a way Hot Rod had never felt before. It didn't feel like he wanted to draw it closer. It felt like he wanted to writhe away and he couldn't.

"Hot Rod, no!"

His chestplates shut with a clang, nearly catching Prowl's fingers in the seam.

Abruptly, control of his own body returned, and he scrambled to his feet. "What—what just—"

"The Matrix has chosen," Windblade murmured. Her optics had dimmed.

"Really, Windblade? Are you seriously saying that the Matrix didn't want this treaty?" Chromia asked.

"That's slag," Ratchet said. He shook his head. "I don't know how the rust got in this deep, but it's got nothing to do with any will of Primus mumbo-jumbo. My guess would be that it's because of the water content on this planet. The Matrix picks any mech who touches it. Maybe it's not common knowledge, but that's the truth of it."

"Yeah," Hot Rod echoed, "anyone," only as soon as he said that, he could feel that he wasn't Hot Rod anymore. Rodimus Prime. My name is Rodimus Prime.

The Matrix was even in his processor, now. Was this how Optimus felt all the time? Rodimus grimaced.

"I don't want this," he added, quickly, before anyone else could talk. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to—I just wanted to keep it from falling, and this happened!"

Ratchet shook his head. "I can't help you right now, kid. In fact, everybody out! One patient at a time. This happened because I let all of you stay, and I'm not going to make that mistake again. I'll deal with Optimus' infection, and then we'll see what we can do for you, Hot Rod."

Rodimus' struts felt like they'd been melted into protometal as he staggered out the door. Once he'd made it into the hallway, a hand settled on his shoulder. "The Matrix can't be removed," Windblade said. "You carry a part of Primus inside you, now. It's chosen you for a reason. Are you going to throw that away?"

Chromia grimaced. "Windblade, shush," she said. "It chose Optimus, too, and Optimus is still alive." Windblade's optics flickered, and she lifted her wings in a shrug, but she lifted her hand away.

Prowl's doorwings, meanwhile, had hitched high and aggressive. "None of that matters now," he said. "Hot Rod, you need to accompany me. You must be briefed on the duties of a Prime."

"Prowl, please," Chromia said. "Both of you, calm down. Can't you see that he's overwhelmed?"

Rodimus opened his mouth to defend himself—to say anything at all—but at that moment a flood of errors filled his HUD, and he collapsed into protective shutdown.

"Starscream, you can't stay locked up in here forever," Thundercracker said as he leaned into Starscream's field of vision, all blue plating and feigned concern.

"I'm not," Starscream muttered. He moved his datapad out from under Thundercracker's ugly faceplates. "I'm trying to work."

In the corner of his optical range, he saw Skywarp and Thundercracker exchange a glance. "You haven't even touched that datapad," Skywarp said. "And you're always here. C'mon, Starscream, don't you even want to go flying?"

Starscream stared down at the datapad. Infuriatingly enough, Skywarp spoke the truth: Starscream hadn't changed the display on the datapad for over a joor. It still showed the same coordinates on the same map, transcribed from where they sat in his memory and converted to human units in order to access local photographs of the area. The pictures stretched under the map, showing rocks and solidified water, with no sign of Jetfire's remains.

And, yes, all right, maybe he hadn't been outside for a while. Who could blame him when Megatron had waltzed back in and taken everything and even threatened Starscream's position? And, worse yet, neither Thundercracker nor Skywarp had been sympathetic. His trine, supposedly, proving everything Starscream had ever suspected about their loyalty. Nobody among the Decepticons had fought for Starscream. Everyone had complained and meddled under his leadership before returning to fawning over a master they should have spurned. Lord High Protector? What a joke! Megatron had given up the right to use that title the nanoklik he had split from his Prime.

"Starscream, come on," Thundercracker said, his deep voice dropping into a soothing rumble. "Let's get out of here."

Starscream tucked the datapad into his internal storage in a swift, decisive movement. "You know what, Thundercracker?" he said. "You're right. I've had enough of playing Megatron's lackey. The Decepticons have done nothing for me. It's time for Vos to free itself once more and form a new empire from the ashes of what Tarn left us."

"What?" Skywarp protested, his wings flaring in alarm. "We're not leaving."

"We may not be, but I am," Starscream sneered. "If you'd rather stay with Megatron than join me, so be it. I'm breaking the Winglord trine."

"You can't do that!" Skywarp's head swung to Thundercracker. "He can't, right?"

"Who's going to stop me?" Starscream hiked his wings high and aggressive as he stalked over towards Skywarp to reclaim his attention. "The Vosian Council? Those doddering fools are all long gone."

"Be realistic, Starscream," Thundercracker said, his voice quiet. "Power is all you've ever wanted. You're not going to get it by breaking the trine."

"And I'm not going to get it here, among Megatron's sniveling cronies!" Starscream snarled. "And besides—that wasn't all I ever wanted."

Thundercrackers optics dimmed, then flared. "You can't mean…"

"Can't I?" Starscream gathered himself up even taller. The datapad under his plating felt warm, almost hot, though his sensors gave no indication that anything out of the ordinary had happened. Starscream's whole processor felt clear for the first time in decavorns. "And why can't I? The two of you never wanted me around anyway!"

"You were the one who never wanted us," Thundercracker said. He stepped forward and lowered his wings in supplication. Starscream bared his dental plate and stepped back. "Starscream, please. We were always willing to make this work. We're a trine. None of us can change that."

Before Starscream could formulate an answer to that, a strange tugging sensation in his spark distracted him. The bond. He hadn't forgotten about it, no, but he'd forgotten what it felt like when one of his trinemates kept trying to use it. For one weak-willed moment, he considered letting Thundercracker in, letting him attempt whatever reconciliation he wanted, let him feel the hurt Starscream felt whenever the other two went gallivanting off by themselves or sided with Megatron over their own trinemate. Every time he came back to find them huddled together like nestmates, every time they didn't bother to invite him when they went flying.

A nagging little voice at the back of his processor reminded him that he'd brushed off their attempts for thousands of vorns now. Of course they wouldn't invite him.

Starscream quashed the voice with a snarl and clamped down tight on the bond to block any further attempts. Why would he have bothered to succumb to their pity when they had conclusively proven that was all it was? He'd tried—maybe not in the beginning, but once the sting of Jetfire's loss had begun to fade. He'd tried, but Thundercracker and Skywarp had always gravitated towards each other, and every attempt they made to reach out felt—cheap. Like pity. The interfacing was nice, but that was all. It still felt hollow, all of it.

He wasn't about to let himself be swayed again, not when Megatron had proven that there was nothing here for Starscream. He reached into his plating next to the datapad and met Thundercracker's optics as he pulled out the injector.

"What is that?" Skywarp whispered, too loud in the now-silent room. "Thundercracker, what's that?"

Starscream didn't look at his other trinemate as he slid his chestplates aside and settled the tip of the needle against one of his main energon lines. Thundercracker's optics flared, but the tugging at the bond didn't stop.

It didn't stop until Starscream pulled the trigger and sent the spark disruptor fluid straight into the energon feeding to his spark.

Thundercracker collapsed in a clatter of loose metal. Skywarp shrieked and fell to his knees, curling around himself with his wings hiked high.

Starscream dropped the injector from suddenly numb fingers and shoved at his chestplates. The command to close them didn't want to execute; the spark disruptor fluid had clearly taken out some of his basic function. Finally, with a squeak of metal, Starscream managed to push the plates flush against one another and engage the lock.

Skywarp's shrieking didn't stop. His vocalizer just kept wailing. Starscream stared at him for a moment, at the heap of metal that had been Thundercracker, then spun on his heel and stalked off towards the flight deck. He'd made his choice; there was no turning back now. He was no longer Starscream, one third of the Winglord of Vos. Now, he was only Starscream.

He transformed and took off, ignoring the pain growing in his spark.

The noise in Soundwave's hab suite abruptly ceased as Megatron stepped inside. The silence lasted precisely until he closed the door again, locked it, and looked around. He found the human hatchling sitting on the floor and watching him intently as it leaned up against Laserbeak. Rumble and Frenzy sat close by, arguing over devices connected to a small Cassette-sized viewscreen. Buzzsaw and Ravage were nowhere to be seen, but, fortunately, Soundwave was sitting on his slab. He looked up at Megatron, his optical band dim.

Megatron returned his gaze to the hatchling and stared down at it for a moment, letting the visceral fear swamp his systems. Get it away, get it away, get rid of it, squash it— His vents kicked into higher gear, and, with great effort, he looked away from it to focus on Soundwave again. "What do you intend to do with this hatchling?" he asked. "Even if you intend to take it as your own, human lifespans are not even a vorn. And the battlefield is no place for a hatchling."

Soundwave's optical band dimmed further. "Negotiations are not yet terminated," he said. "Peace is possible."

He sounded better than he had for a while; his voice was measured and smooth instead of carrying the jagged edges that only Megatron and the Cassettes seemed able to hear. "You must know by now that the humans are angered by the kidnapping of one of their young. The Autobots will be forced to choose between their alliance with us and their alliance with the humans."

Soundwave's optical band flickered off, and he turned away to face the hatchling. The Cassettes grew quiet again, all their optics dimming in time with one another. Air rasped through Megatron's vents; he felt as though he'd damped all the power in the room.

The human hatchling looked around, made a strange, scrunched frown, and stood up. "Hey," it said. "If you're talking in here, use a language I can understand. English or español, por favor."

Megatron stared down at it. For a moment, the world spun in a dizzy circle; he'd learned that language as the humans crawled through his internals and sliced into his plating, over the process of agonizing years. After a time, he'd shut off his audial sensors; hearing what they intended to do to him without the ability to fight back proved to be more torturous than simply waiting for them to do it. But the knowledge still lingered, and it had clicked into place without his knowledge or awareness.

"Hey," the human said. "I'm talking to you." It glanced over at Soundwave. "Does this one not speak English?"

"Unknown," Soundwave said.

"Well…great. Someone want to translate for me?"

"I understand you, human," Megatron said before one of the Cassettes could take it upon themselves to repeat any of that. He could hear the phantom whine of drills in his audial sensors. "My words are not for you."

"Yeah, but I'm in this room, too, aren't I?" The human put hands on its hips. "If you can understand my language, and everyone in the room can understand that language, then speak in that language so I can understand, too, it's only polite. Unless you're doing that…that spark thing. My name is Verity Carlo, I'm a girl, and I'm just as much of a person as you are."

Megatron couldn't speak for a moment. Finally, he bared his dental plate and moved to loom over her. "There are plenty among your species, Verity Carlo, who would not consider me a person."

To her credit, Verity did perform human fear displays—he could see white around the dark center of her eyes and tension in the line of her body—but she didn't step back. She raised her chin up in a challenge. "Yeah? I'm willing to bet the same's true in reverse."

"Boss," Rumble said in Cybertronian, though it was unclear whether he was speaking to Soundwave or Megatron. "C'mon, she's just a hatchling."

Immediately, Verity whipped her head around to glare at Rumble. "You too," she snapped. "I'm not interested in giant metal aliens having any kind of conversation over my head when I don't know what the hell you're talking about. You could be talking about squishing me, for all I know, and if that's the case I'm not about to stand here and let you."

"They weren't talking about that at all," Laserbeak soothed, hopping closer to her. "They were talking about you, but—"

"But nothing! If they were talking about me, I get to understand what they're saying. Period. End of story." Verity folded her arms over her chest and stared up at Megatron again.

Megatron nearly quailed under that wet, organic stare, nearly moved back and away just so that he wouldn't have to look at it anymore. Nearly reached out and crushed her so that he wouldn't have to keep all his plating from rattling. He stared back, and in his peripheral vision he saw Soundwave stand and move closer to Megatron.

Soundwave knew.

Soundwave knew, and somehow that made the prospect of Megatron giving in to his panicked urges even more unbearable. He curled his claws into fists and met Verity's dim eyes with his optics. "I have no interest in seeing what evil you are capable of," he said. "Your people want you back, and I intend to return you."

"The hell you will!" Verity exclaimed. "If you give me back, I'll tell the whole world that you exist."

A miniscule threat, hardly anything of note, but the defiance in every line of her body gave Megatron pause. He looked over at Soundwave. "Megatron, do not," Soundwave said. It was a plea, not a demand; Soundwave's vocals might be difficult to read emotion into, but the tension in his frame was anything but.

"Wait." Verity held up a hand, flat, with her palm towards Megatron. "Wait, you're Megatron?" Her eyes widened, then narrowed again. "You're even bigger than Soundwave!"

Megatron stared down at her. "How does she know my name, Soundwave?"

Soundwave didn't answer, and Megatron didn't look away from the human. "You can't even ask me?" she demanded. Her tone shifted back into aggression, but her body language moved to something Megatron couldn't interpret. He had seen confidence, he had seen anger, he had seen glee, he had seen defiance, but he had never seen the oddly relaxed slump of her back combined with a strange lean forward.

"How do you know my name, human?" Megatron growled. He clashed his dental plate together.

This time, she did take a step back, her body snapping straight. Then she caught herself and squared her shoulders, her hands curling into fists and her whole body trembling. "You don't scare me," she said. "I know the government did something to you."

A low, eerie whine filled the room. It took Megatron a few nanokliks to realize that the sound came from his own overstrained ventilation systems.

"Whoa," Rumble said before Frenzy's elbow connected with his chest plating.

"Shit," Verity whispered, almost inaudible under the whining that Megatron couldn't seem to stop. He should have squashed her for seeing that moment of weakness, should have reached out and felt the wet warm spatter of organic fluids over his plating. Instead, he drew himself upright and turned to Soundwave.

"Very well. You may keep her."

"Whoa, wait, what?" Verity yelped before Soundwave could say anything. "Excuse you, nobody's keeping me. Maybe I'm staying here for a little while, but that's only because I've got a few months to go before I'm legally an adult. And your buddy here drew so much attention to me that it's a little impossible to stay off the radar right now. I'm not going back until the system can't touch me, but I'm nobody's pet."

"Not a pet," Frenzy corrected. "A hatchling."

"I'm not a hatchling, either! God, what is wrong with all of you weirdos? If I wanted to be someone's kid, I'd have fucking—" She cut herself off and looked away. "Look, I tried that for a while, it didn't work out. I'm not your kid, freak." She jabbed a finger at Frenzy.

"Yeah, yeah." Frenzy blew a snort through his vents. "But you're still the youngest."

Megatron watched the interplay for a few moments as they moved on to physically jostling each other—or rather, Verity jostling Frenzy, who displayed an uncharacteristic amount of restraint and only poked her very gently in return. Beside her, Laserbeak flared eir wings in a warning. "Ah," Megatron said in soft Cybertronian. "So that's why you did it." He looked over to Soundwave and found his gaze met with unmistakeable sorrow.

"Megatron," Soundwave said, his voice filled with static.

Megatron shook his head, unable to reply. He couldn't stay here; Soundwave and the others would bring no comfort with the small human there, and the feeling of something scraping under his plating had only grown worse. He shook his head again, though Soundwave had said nothing, and left. He heard the sounds of playfighting escalate behind him and quickened his pace. He stormed through the halls until he made it to his own quarters and stood there in front of the door, staring at nothing in particular until the sound of someone else about to round the corner drove him into action.

Ravage lifted his head from where he lay on Megatron's recharge slab. "Ah, there you are," he said. "I was worried that you might not make it here."

Megatron looked down at him and, for a moment, considered accepting the comfort being offered to him. He had no doubt that Soundwave had asked this of his partner. But right now, all he could think when he looked down at Ravage was how Soundwave and the others weren't here. He should take what he could get, had always encouraged others to grasp with both hands, but this time he stepped away. "Get out," he heard himself say. When Ravage hesitated, he roared, "Out!" and listened to the telltale hiss of the door.

Megatron collapsed in the center of the room without even making it to the recharge slab. His claws dug furrows in the thick metal floor, on the plating of his new legs, and he kept roaring. At least when he roared, he couldn't hear the insidious whining of those human drills anymore.

Chapter Text

After Prowl's second attempt to hack into Optimus Prime's private viewscreen unit, he gave it up as a waste of time and commed Blaster. «You set up his field unit, correct?» he asked.

«His… Optimus', you mean?» Blaster sounded confused. «Eject did it, actually.»

That would explain the unnecessarily complicated loops and dead ends. Prowl had to admit that Eject's security measures were effective, if tiresome. «Have him grant me access; I need the log.»

«Whoa, buddy!» Eject chimed in without any warning that he'd accessed the line. «You're not the Prime, you don't get to go through his stuff.»

«Eject,» Blaster groaned. «Sorry, Prowl, I'll talk to him.» The comm line shut off, and Prowl found himself alone in an improvised storage closet Optimus had collapsed in. His wings twitched with irritation. The closet was dark and cramped, and yet Prowl felt no inclination to move away from the viewscreen. His priority right now had to be determining whether or not the Decepticons had played a part in Optimus' collapse.

The viewscreen rang.

Prowl startled and stared at the unit. Instead of a normal incoming call screen, it displayed an erratic, staticky pattern. For a wild nanoklik, he thought it might be proof of a virus. Then he realized the sound and the screen meant something more mundane, but no more pleasant: the humans.

«Windblade,» he called. «The humans need to speak to our current representative.»

«What? Is that me?» After a brief pause, Prowl heard the distinctive clang of approaching footsteps. "Sorry, Prowl, I should have changed the frequency to redirect the calls to me." She gave him a small, distracted smile and nudged her way into the closet to tap the screen. "Hello, Windblade here."

"Windblade?" Fowler sounded surprised. "Where's Prime? I need to speak to him."

"Optimus isn't available at the moment," Windblade said.

"Okay, no problem. We'll be there in fifteen minutes. I'll speak to him in person. Make sure he's back from his drive by then."

Windblade's wings hitched up so fast that Prowl had to press himself against the wall to avoid being hit in the face. "I'm afraid that won't be possible," she said. Her voice stayed cool and professional. "There's been an accident."

"An accident?" Fowler's voice sharpened. "What kind of accident?"

Windblade glanced at Prowl and grimaced. Prowl flicked his doorwings; he knew the humans well enough by now to guess that they wouldn't be able to get out of this without offering some sort of information. "More of a medical problem than an accident," she said.

"She says there's been a medical problem, some sort of accident," Fowler's voice said, more distant, clearly speaking to someone else but still audible through his primitive communications device.

"Perhaps I can help!" Sumdac's voice.

"Hey, Windblade," Fowler said. "I've got Sumdac and Chase with me if you need any help."


"…That's it? Just no? Listen, I understand that you're a little short-staffed at the moment, which—"

"No," Windblade repeated with another glance at Prowl. "We don't know what pathogens you might introduce to the situation, and we cannot risk it until we're certain that everything is back to normal."

"Right, right. That makes sense." Fowler sounded disappointed, though, and the tone of his voice made Prowl's doorwings hitch up as high as Windblade's. "I'll expect a status update within the next week. Got it?"

"Of course. Windblade out." Windblade cut the connection on the screen and held out a hand. "Prowl, before you say anything, consider whether you want our priority to be keeping the humans away or pretending that we don't have medical problems."

"They could already guess," Prowl said. "They know Ratchet's title. But it shouldn't have to be one or the other. We could easily shut down this base and keep them out long enough to bridge back to the Ark and make our getaway. You've bought us plenty of time."

"And risk the treaty in the process?" Windblade's optics flared. "No, Optimus wouldn't approve of that at all."

"And Hot Rod?" Prowl challenged.

Before Windblade could respond, Blaster's face appeared on the viewscreen unit without any warning. "Prowl, Eject won't let me give you the codes, but we've been over the logs ourselves. There's nothing unusual except for a recent call to Megatron—this unit is the one that initiated contact. Do you have a Decepticon spy in the base?"

Prowl dimmed his optics and felt the numbing code kick in. "There is reason to believe that Optimus made the call himself," he said. "Is there any sign of a virus?"

"What?" Blaster's optics blinked. "No, viruses can't be transmitted through a viewscreen unit—not coding viruses, anyway. Contact viruses, maybe, but you wouldn't need access codes to scan for that."

"No coding viruses can be transmitted that we know of." Prowl's wings twitched. "Do a scan regardless of whether or not you believe it's possible, and get Eject checked over for rust afterwards."

After a few moments, Blaster bleeped a negative. "The viewscreen's clean, except for that strange call," he said. "Anything else you need?"

"Not at the moment. Prowl out." Prowl looked over at Windblade to find her watching him.

"Want to see what Ratchet's found?" she suggested, her voice strangely gentle.

They managed to catch Ratchet just as he emerged from the medical bay, the plating on his hands scuffed and his optics dim. "There's nothing new," he said before either of them could ask. "Just that damned rust infection. You're all scheduled for checkups, by the way—symptoms or no, I want to make sure this isn't something that's going to catch anyone else off guard."

"It was only behind the Matrix, right?" Windblade asked. "So how's Hot Rod?"

Ratchet's faceplates tightened. "That's the thing," he said. "I opened him up to take a look behind the Matrix, to make sure it wasn't transmitting the rust to him. That thing was covered in Optimus' energon. I hadn't cleaned it. But there's absolutely no sign of residual rust on the Matrix. Not so much as a speck, and Hot Rod looks fine. As far as I can figure out, the Matrix purged itself of water damage, but it couldn't clean Optimus."

"Mm," Windblade murmured, optics flickering and head dipping in a slight nod.

"Anyway, I set up some precautionary alerts, but we have no idea what caused Optimus' infection in the first place. It could be that Hot Rod will get the same infection anyway. We'll have to keep an eye on him."

"Can you remove the Matrix and reinstall it in Optimus?" Prowl asked.

"No, he can't," Windblade said firmly. "The Matrix chose this, that much is clear."

Ratchet's optics flickered. "I can," he said, "but not yet. He's still recovering from the rust infection, and I can't keep an eye on his chest if he's got something in there blocking my scans again. Might as well let Hot Rod be Prime for a little while."

Prowl's wings twitched. "Of all the possible candidates for Prime," he said, "Hot Rod in the absolute worst. He has no regard for authority, no visible ambition beyond interfacing his way through the army and all of our allies, and he is terrible at task completion and commitment. He can't negotiate with Megatron; Megatron would crush him under one foot and all the hopes of the Autobots with him."

Ratchet sighed. "Not my area of expertise," he said. "Optimus isn't getting it back until he's recovered, and that's final. Anything more than that you two can work out on your own."

Windblade turned to Prowl without hesitation. "Hot Rod is the Prime now," she said. "You can't change that, Prowl. You need to think of a way to work with him."

He ignored her. He was already mapping out scenarios in his head. Hot Rod could not be Prime, but the truth of what Ratchet said was also undeniable and fixed, and now Prowl had to work with it. He didn't need someone else to tell him that.

An idea unfurled at the back of his processor and began to take shape.

"Prowl?" Windblade prodded.

Prowl waved off her concern. "I understand," he said irritably. "I have no intention of endangering Optimus Prime's life."

Windblade stared at him for a moment, her optics dimming. "We'll talk about this later," she said with an air of finality. She spun on her heel and walked away. Prowl chuffed and moved into the medical bay to sit down between the motionless bodies of his former Prime and his current Prime.

The sound of gunfire and blasters together yanked Wing's thoughts from peaceful contemplation into a tense, battle-trained response. Ey'd avoided human settlements as much as possible since the incident with the slugs, but the sound of human gunfire, it turned out, was not uncommon on the landmass currently housing two Cybertronian ships and a group of Autobots.

This sound wasn't just the explosion of primitive gunfire, though; Wing could hear the distinct noises of Cybertronian weaponry.

Eir immediate instinct was to approach and assess the situation. Only memories of that cell and Dai Atlas' cold expression made Wing hesitate. The sounds quieted, and Wing eased eir vents open. Then the sounds returned in another sharp burst, and Wing altered course, letting impulse override logic. Ey'd already interfered, after all, by going to ask Megatron for help; ey'd already broken eir vows and cast aside eir knighthood, no matter how ey justified it to emself.

Besides, the hypocrisy of it all was that Dai Atlas would have wanted to know about any altercations, so long as Wing wasn't the one telling him.

Wing vented that thought into the air and let it disappear as ey moved into cloud cover. Ey trusted that eir white plating would give em at least some measure of camouflage to overzealous humans. Had ey been high enough to grant cover last time? Had they detected em by some other means? None of that mattered if eir fellow Cybertronians might be in danger, but anxiety made eir spark spin anyway as ey drew closer.

A ping over broad-range comms made em startle, and ey opened the channel carefully. «Starscream,» came Drift's familiar impatient snarl, «if that's you fucking around with deflector technology, get your aft down here and give some fragging air support!»

Startled, Wing almost dropped out of cover. «I'm not Starscream,» ey sent back over the same band and hoped that nobody else who would recognize em had heard.

Drift only sent back a muttered curse. Wing circled the area in a tight loop as more gunfire echoed out. Eir immediate instinct was to go down, to help Drift, to rescue as many as ey could. No, ey told emself. No assumptions. Watch, listen, and learn. Assess the situation for yourself before you act. Do not allow your instincts to bring harm to others unnecessarily.

Wing let emself drop just barely above cloud cover, spark roiling so hard that eir wingtips felt numb.

Ey had expected a battlefield, soaked with energon and organic fluids and the corpses of the fallen. Instead, ey found what appeared to be some sort of standoff; perhaps thirty human ground vehicles stood lined up against a few Decepticons in an otherwise empty human settlement. The ground vehicles all looked identical. No blaster shot had hit a single human vehicle, though there were a few scorch marks to the sides and a scattering on the ground in front.

Likewise, none of the Decepticons bled energon, though Drift did have a mild dent right in the shiny white plating in the center of his chest. But that seemed strange; Wing knew from experience that the humans had the ability to pierce Cybertronian armor.

Noise came from a human speaker system, loud and crackling, but Wing ignored it as ey moved in to land behind the human vehicles.

«Incoming!» was all the warning Wing got—and more than ey'd expected—before four aerials zoomed into view and made a low pass over the human vehicles. Wing ducked, but ey could still feel the hot rush of air.

«Sorry!» someone unfamiliar said over the same broad-range comm. «Uh, you're not here to help them, right?»

«No,» Wing said. Ey stepped forward, and three of the human vehicles swung their guns around to face em. Ey masked a flinch, then launched emself into the air just as three shots fired at where ey'd been standing a moment before. Ey might have no idea what the Decepticons were doing, but ey could at least play decoy.

«You helping?» another voice asked over the comm. Without waiting for a response, they added, «Get higher; Ion Storm's going to take out their audio systems, and I don't know if ey has enough control to prevent explosions.»

«I do!» someone else protested. «You know I wouldn't risk defying a no-kill order.»

Wing swung low and out to the side, drawing some of the guns away from the Decepticons. A moment later, two of the new aerials made a low sweep again, and the audio dissolved into a loud crackling hiss before vanishing.

At the same moment, Drift lunged forward with a snarl twisting his face, blasters up and facing the human vehicles. He pointed the tip of one blaster down directly on the barrel of one of the guns and fired, melting through the metal.

That, it seemed, was enough. Wing's spark relaxed into more normal pulses as the human vehicles turned and slowly trundled away. Ey landed again and touched eir sword as ey watched them go. Too slow, too slow; ey could see the Decepticons out of the corner of eir optical range with their gazes similarly fixed.

Then, finally, the humans were gone, and Wing dropped eir hand to rest beside em once more.

"Hey!" Drift yelled. "You, Wing!" Wing turned to see him striding toward em, optics flaring bright. "What the hell was that about?"

Wing gave Drift a quick smile before fixing eir attention on the dent. "Hello," ey said. "I was looking for you, earlier, but nobody seemed to know you."

"Oh, hey, friend of yours?" said one of the aerials as they landed beside Drift. They gave Wing a quick once-over and a wing-flick of acknowledgement; Wing identified them as the one who'd warned him out of Ion Storm's path. "I'm Slipstream. Thanks for the help, but next time you might want to give a little warning before you jump into the middle of a combat situation and nearly scrap our maneuver."

"My apologies," Wing murmured. Ey inclined eir head before reaching for the dent on Drift's plating. "I heard the call for air support, so I thought I could provide some distraction."

Slipstream shrugged her wings in a lazy motion. "It worked out," she said. "I'm not mad. It's not like it was real combat."

"Did you see that?" The aerial Wing presumed was Ion Storm landed beside her, wings twitching with gleeful abandon. "They scattered like glitch mice! Really, really slow glitch mice!"

"Did you say that I was friends with an Autobot?" Drift snarled at Slipstream, flinching as Wing's fingers smoothed a field patch over the dent. "What the frag are you playing at?"

Wing looked up and frowned, but before ey could say anything, Slipstream twitched her wings in another lazy shrug. "Doesn't look like ey has any faction branding. How's that an Autobot?"

"I'm Neutral," Wing murmured. Ey gave Drift a hesitant smile before nodding a greeting to Ion Storm.

"What?! Then why the frag did you tell me you were an Autobot? Is this some kind of sick joke to you?"

"No! That's not—"

"Whoa, okay," Slipstream said. "Not to break up this lovers' spat, but to break up this lovers' spat. Look, Neutral. Wing? Thanks for the help. Those humans are persistent little slaggers. But we can take it from here. You're not supposed to interfere, right?" She pulled out some field patches of her own and waved them in the air. "We've got medics, I promise."

"I didn't interfere," Wing replied with a slight frown. "The humans are hardly Cybertronian. Though I do wonder why you remained here instead of retreating. This is a human settlement, not your battleship."

Slipstream studied em for a moment, then glanced at Drift, who looked away. She huffed and gestured to the large, flat building behind them. "They weren't using this one, so we decided to," she said. "Ours now, and we're not letting them get their hands on what's inside it. So, swooping in to save Deadlock, huh? You know, you could join up, if you wanted to, then you wouldn't have to worry about neutrality."

"Deadlock?" Wing repeated with a curious glance at Drift.

Drift—Deadlock, apparently—gave em a smirk. "You lie, I lie," he said. "And Slipstream, shut the frag up, or I'll rip out your vocalizer." The threat was delivered with a flat, bored tone that made Wing's wings flatten against eir body.

Slipstream, apparently unimpressed by the threat, waved her claws at him. "No, no, I'm interested now," she said. "So, Wing, was it? What's your history? How come you didn't know his name?"

"That's none of your concern," Wing said firmly. Ey moved backwards and nodded to both of them. "My apologies for intruding. I won't tell anyone about what happened."

"No, no!" Slipstream called from behind em as ey transformed to fly away. "Intrude anytime! Wait—do you have Deadlock's private comm line?"

Wing didn't respond; behind em, ey could hear mocking laughter, and humiliation burned through eir circuits for a brief klik before ey managed to get eir emotions under control again.

Prowl set aside the datapad he'd been reading as Hot Rod made a whistling noise through his vents and started to move around with his optics still off. He looked ridiculous; Prowl had few enough points for comparison on how mechs usually woke up, but Prowl certainly didn't roll around and whine. In fact, Prowl had to reach out a hand to hold Hot Rod on the medical slab so that he didn't fall off.

Still, Prowl reminded himself, as Hot Rod made a pleased noise and nuzzled against Prowl's arm. This was an opportunity, no matter how unfitting a Prime Hot Rod was.

Finally, finally, Hot Rod's optics flickered on, and he frowned. "Prowl…?"

Prowl withdrew his hand. "Hot Rod."

Hot Rod grimaced and sat up, rubbing at his chest in an unconscious echo of a gesture Prowl had become accustomed to from Optimus. "Uh, not so much anymore. I'm Rodimus Prime now."

Prowl added a note to his databanks and inclined his head. "Rodimus Prime, then. We need to discuss your new duties as Prime."

"Yeah, about that," Rodimus said. "Can't we just…not? Optimus is still alive, right? We can wait until he's awake and healthy and transfer this puppy back in, and then everything will be fine again. Boom. Like I was never here."

"Optimus," Prowl countered, ignoring the bizarre slang, "will not be cleared to take the Matrix again before the next round of negotiations."

"Frag." Rodimus hung his head. "Can't you like…delay it or whatever? I'm not good at negotiations. My talents are all in other areas." He grinned up at Prowl and tilted his head.

Prowl ignored him. "And, of course," he said, "you should choose a Lord High Protector."

That made Rodimus straighten his backstruts, his face falling into a slight frown and his optics dimming. "Optimus never chose a Lord High Protector," he said. "I thought everyone agreed that he didn't need one for…Primely duties."

"That point has become moot now that we are enmeshed in negotiations," Prowl said. "Megatron is attempting to position himself as the true Lord High Protector, complete with breeding rights."

Rodimus grimaced. "Uh, to be honest with you, I never even really thought about having hatchlings," he said. He shifted, then shifted again, apparently unable to find any position he was willing to hold for more than a few nanokliks. "Is that—I mean, Optimus is going to be getting the Matrix back, though, right? It's not for real with me."

Prowl's doorwings flickered, irritated. "I will be honest with you, Rodimus. There is no guarantee that Optimus will be able to take the Matrix back. For better or worse, it is yours, now, and we need to plan for a future where you are the Prime. You cannot hide from your responsibilities simply because you think they might be temporary."

"I was really hoping you wouldn't say that." Rodimus looked down, scowling at the floor for a moment before his optics flared. "Wait, you said I should choose a Lord High Protector. It's my choice?"

"Of course." Prowl's doorwings flicked again. "You are the Prime; it's not something that should be decided for you. Of course, it would be easier for all of us if they were already in a position of some military importance, seeing as we're in the middle of negotiations."

"All right. I pick Ultra Magnus."

Prowl reset his optics. "You—what?"

"Is that a problem?" Rodimus leaned forward. "It doesn't need to be someone who's already on Earth, right? Because Windblade and Chromia are an item already, and I don't want to come between that, and you're kind of scary—no offense—and Jazz isn't really my type."

"Of course it's not a problem." It was, Prowl reflected, better than he could have possibly hoped for. Ultra Magnus had an extensive history of obedience and devotion to the cause, and he had experience reining Hot Rod in. "He will be your Lord High Protector, then."

"What? Uh." Rodimus fidgeted again. "You're not going to ask him or anything? Because I don't want him to be my Lord High Protector if he doesn't want to. Can I unpick him?"

"I assumed that the swiftness of your answer was due to some sort of prior understanding." Prowl fixed Rodimus with a stern look. "He is your preferred Lord High Protector if he accepts."

"Yeah, what you said." Rodimus rubbed at his chest. "I just don't want to force him into anything."

Prowl considered the portable viewscreen unit. Blaster had cleared it, and he trusted that, but on the other hand, something strange had caused Optimus' collapse. There was no need to take chances; he contacted Blaster and had him ensure security on a three-way channel before he pinged Ultra Magnus and Rodimus in.

«Prowl. Is there some sort of problem?»

«There's been a situation. No casualties.» Prowl nodded at Rodimus.

«Hi, Ultra Magnus!» Rodimus said, his voice bright. «How's it going back at the Ark?»

«Has Hot Rod been causing trouble?» Ultra Magnus asked.

«What? No! I've been great!» Rodimus protested. «Seriously, Ultra Magnus, you'd be proud. Jazz loves me.»

Ultra Magnus paused. «Has he disrupted the chain of command with inappropriate fraternization?»

«You have so little faith in me,» Rodimus grumbled. «Prowl, tell Ultra Magnus I didn't interface with Jazz.»

«I have no interest in whether or not you interfaced with Jazz,» Prowl said, scowling at his new Prime.

Rodimus winced. «Okay, okay, so, Magnus, there's great news! I'm Prime now!»

«What.» It wasn't a question; it was a flat statement of disbelief.

Before Rodimus could manage to drag this out any further with inane commentary, Prowl interjected. «Rodimus Prime is correct. The Matrix has been transferred, despite Optimus' continued survival, and it has chosen a new designation for him. This is not a misguided prank.»

Silence descended on the comm channel, stretching out for two full kliks. «I see,» Ultra Magnus said, his voice crisp and professional. «I take it this is not public knowledge yet.»

«No. There is still a chance that the Matrix may be transferred back into Optimus without incident.»

«Then I would like to know the reason I have been informed.»

Prowl looked at Rodimus. "This is your chance to ask," he said.

"What?" Rodimus' optics swept the medical bay but never quite landed on Prowl. "I thought you were going to ask for me. You know, make sure I'm not pressuring him or anything. I am his new Prime, after all."

"His answer is unlikely to change regardless of who asks," Prowl said. "He is a soldier, and this is a time of war. He will be what you need him to be."

"Frag, don't say that!" Rodimus yelped. "I don't—can't you just ask if he wants to?"

"If you're so concerned about his answer, why don't you ask him yourself?"

«Prowl? I would like an answer to my question.»

Prowl's doorwings jerked up. «Rodimus Prime wishes you to become his Lord High Protector.»

«Prowl, that's not even asking!» Rodimus complained. «Uh, Ultra Magnus, would you be interested in being my Lord High Protector? There, like that.»

«Me?» For a moment, Ultra Magnus' composure slipped, and Prowl could hear complete, overwhelmed disbelief. «Hot Rod—»

«Rodimus! I'm Rodimus now. Um, so, is that okay?»

Before Ultra Magnus could respond, Prowl added, «Rodimus needs a Lord High Protector immediately; Megatron has been bargaining with Optimus for breeding rights and the return of his own Lord High Protector status. Without someone in this position, Optimus has been fumbling; Rodimus needs protection so that he does not make the same mistakes.»

«I'll do it,» Ultra Magnus said instantly, his professional demeanor back in place. «Are there any rites that need to be observed before the negotiations are resumed?»

«It would be better, of course, if we could perform the traditional ceremonies, but with Rodimus' status uncertain and Cybertron inaccessible, we'll have to make do. For now, I will draw up a contract, and I need both of your signatures on it as soon as possible.»

«So…that's it? Magnus is my Lord High Protector now, just like that?» Rodimus' optics flickered, too bright.

«Just like that,» Prowl confirmed. «I will have the contract written within half a joor.»

«It will be signed and returned as soon as I receive it,» Ultra Magnus said. «Ultra Magnus out.»

«Hey!» Rodimus protested, then slumped on the medical slab. "He could have at least said something different. Um…"

"Yes?" Prowl pulled out his datapad again to run quick revisions on the contract he'd already written, only half paying attention to Rodimus.

"So if Optimus wakes up again…Ultra Magnus isn't his Lord High Protector now, right? He's mine." Rodimus folded his arms over his chest. "Your contract can say that, right?"

Prowl hesitated, then reluctantly added a few lines to clarify that. "Very well."

Rodimus drew his feet up onto the medical slap in a remarkable display of flexibility for his frametype. "We don't have to get bonded or anything if he doesn't want to after Optimus gets it back," he muttered, the words muffled against his thigh plating. "Just, he agreed to be my Lord High Protector. Not Optimus'. So that's okay, right?"

Prowl's wings flicked. "Please remain here," he said, and he rose to leave the room. He would find some other, quieter place to finish the contract revisions. And maybe he'd have Ultra Magnus sign it first, so that Rodimus couldn't make any more ridiculous demands. At least, Prowl reflected, this would enable Ultra Magnus to assist in the negotiations. It was possible that he could even take over, seeing as how Rodimus had absolutely no experience.

With that comforting thought in mind, Prowl made his way to the storage closet and the abandoned viewscreen.

Chapter Text

"Barricade!" Slipstream yelled, ducking under Ion Storm's arm to dart after him. "Hey, Barricade, wait!"

Barricade didn't slow, but he turned his head a tiny amount to the side. That was enough of an opening for Slipstream; she sidled along next to him and fell into step. Maybe he could move faster on the ground in root mode, with his smaller size and no wings to encumber him, but Slipstream's battle protocols still whirred away in her head, stymied by a battle that could only generously be termed as such. She used the boost to match his speed.

"Hello to you, too," she said. "Where the frag is Starscream?"

"I don't know." Barricade's voice bit at the edges of each word, terse instead of sly. "Why don't you ask his trinemates?"

Slipstream faltered for a moment. "What, having a bad day?" she asked. "Too many people yelling for him on all the broad channels?" Barricade turned to look directly at her, his expression flat and unreadable, his optics dim. Slipstream huffed and angled her wings up in irritation. "Fine." She slowed; Barricade didn't. From the direction of his stride, Slipstream could guess that he was heading for his quarters. Who knew? Maybe he just hadn't gotten enough recharge to deal with all of Drift's angry yelling. His armor looked kind of scruffy, too, from behind.

Slipstream huffed and turned down the corridor that led to the aerial hab suites. Almost as soon as she started moving with intent, doubt hit her. She'd passed the Winglord suite many times, of course; everyone had. It was just that if anyone had ever bothered them…well, Slipstream didn't know of anyone who'd ever done it, and she'd been on Megatron's ship for ages, practically since she'd hit maturity. You just didn't bother the Winglord. If you wanted to talk to them, you commed them, or you waited until they were out in the open, because behind those doors they could be doing secret Winglord things—interfacing, most likely—and who would want the Winglord mad at them? Particularly when one of the trine was Starscream?

Starscream's sudden and complete absence during an attack on the warehouse, however, required answers. Slipstream steeled herself and pinged the door for access.

She was met with silence.

Just as she was about to ping again, the doors flew open, and Skywarp stumbled out into the hallway. He looked even worse than Barricade. His plating hung dusty and colorless on his frame. His optics flickered and flared, but they never got above a baseline of dull that made Slipstream hope that some sort of freak dust storm had happened in the Winglord suite.

"Well?" Skywarp demanded. "What do you want?"

Slipstream rallied herself. "There was an attack on the warehouse by the humans," she said, making sure her voice stayed crisp and professional. "Starscream was hailed a number of times, but our forces were left without our Air Commander's orders or organized aerial reinforcements. Where is he?"

Skywarp scowled. "They're just humans! Why would anyone need Starscream's help with that? Just squish them!"

A strange, uncomfortable sensation twined around Slipstream's tanks. "There are orders not to, directly from Megatron," she said slowly. Skywarp's optics hadn't once focused on her. "Skywarp? Is everything—"

"There is no Winglord trine anymore." Thundercracker's voice boomed through the entire corridor, like he'd just used his sonics.

Slipstream's internals shifted in a violent burst, as though they were trying to transform out of her armor. She shuddered, then ducked under Skywarp's wings and saw Thundercracker lying there on the floor, his plating just as dulled as Skywarps, his optics completely dark. He wasn't moving.

A quick optical scan of the visible portions of their hab suite didn't reveal any sign of Starscream. Slipstream stepped back and straightened as she commend the medical team. «Emergency in the Winglord trine hab suite. I don't know what happened. I think Starscream might be dead. Skywarp and Thundercracker are in really bad shape. I don't know what to do.»

«Of course this would happen when I'm the only one in the medical bay,» Nickel said. «I'm on my way. In the meantime, I need you to give me an assessment. Can you get close enough to Starscream to check for a sparkpulse?»

«No, I mean…he's not here. There's just Skywarp and Thundercracker, and Thundercracker isn't moving. He's speaking, but he isn't moving.» Slipstream's wings flattened against her body just as Skywarp staggered against the doorframe and grabbed onto it, his plating shuddering in odd jolts. «Please hurry.»

«I'll be there as fast as I can,» Nickel snapped. «Calm down. If Thundercracker's speaking, he's not going to offline in the next few kliks. How's the plating?»

«Really dull. And dusty.»

Nickel went silent, and Slipstream pressed herself against the opposite wall. She made sure to keep both Skywarp and Thundercracker in her field of vision, but at this point, she didn't think either of them were aware of her presence. Her internals churned again. They'd responded to her, they'd seemed aware of what was going on around them, but—

"What happened to Starscream?" she blurted out before she could stop herself.

"Starscream's gone," Thundercracker said, his voice just as painful as before. Slipstream winced as her armor rattled in its wake.

"Gone like…dead?"

"Gone like gone!" Skywarp screeched. His wings flared up, and Slipstream dropped into a defensive crouch just in case he attacked.

He didn't, though, and Slipstream slowly straightened again as she watched his whole body sway. Fortunately, it wasn't too long before Nickel arrived. She didn't stop moving; she only slowed enough to take in Skywarp and Thundercracker with her bright optics before she wheeled straight to Thundercracker. "All right," she said. "I want an explanation for this, and I want it now."

"Starscream broke the bond," Thundercracker said. This time, his voice didn't boom. Instead, it came out almost too quiet for Slipstream to hear, and her curiosity drove her forward again. Skywarp gave a low moan and slid down to the base of the doorway. His wings jerked again, and static started on his vocalizer.

He was crying.

Oh, Slipstream wanted to be gone now, now, now. She shifted her weight, torn between the impulse to flee and a desire to hear this out.

"I can see that much." Nickel swept a scan up his body. "You're a textbook case. And of course neither of you fools thought to comm for help, did you? Just because you're big, tough Decepticons means you can avoid the medical bay during emergencies, does it? Do you know how much damage you've done by trying to wait this out? Do you care? Slipstream! A little help here. Thundercracker isn't going to be able to get to the medical bay by himself."

"What?" Slipstream protested. "I'm not—don't you have other medics?"

"Do you see any of them here?" Nickel snapped. "No excuses! Over here, now!"

Slipstream obeyed, sidling past Skywarp and trying not to touch him. Not that it mattered; she was going to have to touch Thundercracker, apparently, and he looked even more terrifyingly unhealthy. She crouched opposite Nickel. "How do you want me to carry him?"

"Whatever works for you," Nickel replied. "He's not injured. He's sparkbroken. Literally. What a fragging mess." She scowled. "Hurry up and come along. Skywarp! If you don't follow me, I'll disable your warp and make sure nobody can fix it." Slipstream glanced over as she struggled to heft Thundercracker's awkward bulk. Skywarp didn't even react to Nickel's words. Nickel grimaced and went over to press her hand against his ankle. "Skywarp," she said in a voice so gentle that Slipstream almost didn't believe her audial sensors. "Come on, we're going to get you and Thundercracker taken care of."

"Thundercracker," Skywarp moaned.

"Yes, Thundercracker. This way." Nickel tossed a glance back at Slipstream, and Slipstream grunted. She had to drag Thundercracker's legs along the floor, but she could manage. Probably. The medical bay wasn't too far.

Fortunately for everyone's dignity, they only ran into a few mechs on the way there. Slipstream couldn't even appreciate their comically horrified looks as they jumped out of the way to clear a path for Skywarp's barely-controlled stagger.

Once inside the medical bay, Slipstream hefted Thundercracker unceremoniously onto a medical slab just in time for Nickel's actual colleagues to show their faces. "Let me guess, aerials on a bender again?" Knock Out quipped as he strode inside.

"Knock Out," Nickel snapped. "Finally. Help me get Skywarp on a slab. We've got two thirds of the Winglord trine present with sparkbreak symptoms, one third missing. I need a medic, not a comedian."

"Right." Slipstream's wings settled a bit as Knock Out moved to hoist Skywarp onto the slab and get stasis beams around him. "Wait, so Starscream's…?"

"Gone," Slipstream said. "We have no idea where." She shifted on her feet. "Are you going to report this to Megatron? He really needs to know."

"Later," Nickel said. She'd pulled some strange piece of medical equipment out and activated it with a low, whining hum. "I've got two patients who need my attention right now. If you're concerned about Megatron, you go report it to him."

"You're the medics, though," Slipstream tried.

"Oh, for crying out loud," Knock Out snapped. "Either do it or don't, but leave. You're distracting me."

She did. The uncomfortable feeling in her internals hadn't settled; if anything, it had worsened. She didn't think sparkbreak was catching, at least. She smoothed a hand down her canopy and set her fans on high to get rid of some of the anxious heat buildup. Then she steeled herself and began walking down the hall towards the bridge. She had a Lord High Protector to report to.

Another shift ended with no sign of Slipstream as Elita-1 pushed herself to her feet. The silence since that last conversation had been resounding, and had allowed Elita-1 plenty of time to replay the scene in her processor, over and over, trying to analyze why. Slipstream had given no indication that she was upset with Elita-1; she'd sounded as though she understood that she would be welcomed back.

And yet she hadn't returned.

Elita-1 knew a little, from the footage she'd gathered. She could see that Slipstream was currently being talked up by the Storm siblings for taking command of a charge on an attacking group of humans. She knew that Slipstream had attempted to talk to Barricade before vanishing into areas that Soundwave watched personally. But as to why Slipstream hadn't come back yet…Elita-1 had no idea.

"This," she muttered at the console, "is why I don't get tangled up in relationships."

The console said nothing back. It didn't reply that Elita-1 and Slipstream weren't even technically in a relaitonship; interface didn't mean that they had any kind of long-term understanding. Elita-1 had assumed—but neither of them had clarified. She'd thought that Slipstream's obvious interest would keep her coming back.

And maybe, she reminded herself, it would. Slipstream hardly seemed bored in any of the footage; maybe something else was going on. But one thing was certain: if Elita-1 wanted answers, she couldn't expect to wait around and have them handed to her.

She would have to ask Slipstream herself.

The prospect didn't appeal, but, surprisingly, the thought of going back to her hab suite and its empty recharge slab appealed even less. Somehow, in that short span of time, she'd grown to like hearing the sound of someone else's quiet recharge fans and enjoy the sensation of someone else's plating pressed up against hers. And, more than that, she missed Slipstream's company. Even before they'd started interfacing, Slipstream had been a semi-constant presence, and Elita-1 didn't like the sudden silence that Slipstream's absence had left.

She definitely didn't like the thought of Slipstream's only goal having been a few rounds of interfacing.

Elita-1 huffed as she left the room. She accessed her internal map of the Nemesis' layout and overlaid it with a stream of spark signature data before moving towards the bridge. She passed a number of mechs who did a double-take at her presence and a few who sneered and muttered just at the periphery of her audial sensors. She ignored all of them and ducked into the room just off the bridge where she'd found Slipstream's spark signature.

"—don't know how long they'll be out of commission, Lord Megatron," Slipstream's voice said, professional and clear of the low purr Elita-1 had grown accustomed to. "One of the medics will have a report for you later."

Megatron glanced at Elita-1, then tapped two claws against the arm of his chair and rested his gaze on Slipstream. "Very well. In that case, you will take the position of Air Commander."

Slipstream's wings flew out, her optics flaring wide and bright. "What? I—That wasn't… Thundercracker and Skywarp are still Winglord, Lord Megatron, even without Starscream."

"And what do you suggest I do with two thirds of a Winglord in my medical bay?" Megatron asked. "You've proven your competence in battle and your loyalty to our cause. You won't be my second-in-command. But I need someone who I can trust to lead my aerial forces competently in my absence. Your position will likely be temporary." He leaned forward. "If you do as Starscream did, it will be extremely temporary."

"What did—" Slipstream started, then bit off her words and nodded. "Of course. I can be your temporary Air Commander. It will be an honor, Lord Megatron."

"Good." Megatron gave her a sharp smile. He pushed himself out of the chair and made his way over to the door, his optics flickering over Elita-1. "Tell me, what have you been making of our negotiations?"

"You've received my reports, sir."

"Yes, I have, and I have read every one of them. I want to know what you think." His optics flashed.

Elita-1 glanced at Slipstream, who hadn't moved, then back at Megatron. "I think there's something going on. The Autobots have tightened the defenses on their Earth base, but I'm sure Soundwave's kept you informed of that. At this point, I've been away long enough that my guesses are no more educated than anyone's. Perhaps the humans finally turned on them; they don't appear to be letting organics in anymore."

"Hmm." Megatron tilted his head to the side, looking up and past her. "An interesting theory." And that, apparently, was that; he moved through the door and back onto the bridge, leaving Elita-1 and Slipstream alone in the room together.

Slipstream's wings twitched, and she sidled closer. "So," she said in a close approximation of her usual tone. "You've been analyzing the negotiations?"

Elita-1 took in her still-too-bright optics and the telltale quiver of her wings. "Yes, I have," she said. "But is our new Air Commander really interested in them?"

Slipstream gave an odd engine sputter. "I, uh…it's been pretty busy around here since Megatron came back." Her wings dipped and bobbed with more deliberate intent. "Hi."

The ambient hum of the bridge's machinery filled the room as Elita-1 stared. She'd been formulating a dozen different ways to broach the subject of relationships and boundaries and Slipstream's long absence. She might not need fancy sparkbonding promises, but she'd lived long enough to know what she wanted. She had no interest in ambiguity. And yet, somehow, staring up into Slipstream's hopeful expression, she couldn't bring herself to say any of the words she'd planned out. "Hi," she said, her voice quiet. She reached up to trace a finger down the bottom edge of Slipstream's wing, enjoying the small shudder that bought her.

"So, does this mean I'm forgiven?" Slipstream asked.

Elita-1 tapped the tip of her claw against that wing. "You already knew you would be," she said sternly. "We're not going to get into games like this."

"No, no games." Slipstream moved forward. "But…"

Elita-1 hesitated. "Do you want to come back to my quarters?" she offered, finally. No ultimatums. No negotiations. None of the questions that Elita-1 should have been asking.

"Of course!" Slipstream's optics brightened even further, and a huge grin split the metal of her face with a fast curl that looked almost like a partial transformation. Her wings bobbed high and happy. "Lead on."

Well, Elita-1 mused as she turned to head back to her quarters, at least she didn't have to worry about Slipstream having lost interest. Everything else could be worked out later. For now, she just wanted to curl up against the warm plating of an aerial and recharge. The warm plating of this aerial, specifically.


Starscream had lost track of time. It wasn't that his chronometer had started to malfunction, exactly; it had just ceased to matter, somehow, in a way that the quiet ping at the back of his processor wanted to protest. He'd been flying for human days, at least; his first task had been to fly around the entire planet in a zig-zag pattern that would make him harder to trace.

He'd imagined, in the time before the pain started to worsen, that Megatron would realize the error of his ways and send his entire army after Starscream. That had been nothing more than a fantasy, of course. Megatron wasn't smart enough to realize what an asset he'd had in Starscream. Starscream's fantasy had changed as the pain had; instead of Megatron, Thundercracker or Skywarp would send the troops after him to bring him in and tend his frame so that they could apologize.

But his roiling spark hadn't liked that fantasy one bit. Cold logic doused it. He wasn't Starscream of the Decepticons, or of Vos, anymore. He never would be again. He was Starscream, independent agent. Not Neutral, but something better. He was beholden to no one. He was free.

He was free, entirely alone, with only the agony in his spark to show for it.

His thoughts started to fragment after that. He had a plan, he'd come out here with a plan, he knew that much, but it felt like it had been buried under layers and layers of thickly gelled energon. Each thought solidified into incomprehensibility as soon as it formed. Why was he out here? He'd had sparkmates, once, a very long time ago.

A very long time ago. The phrase itself felt important.

It was with great difficulty that Starscream managed to summon data files to the forefront of his processor. Plans. A map with local coordinates for an area translated from Cybertronian units and back again. Pictures obtained from the rudimentary datanet of an expanse of stone and ice.


The name meant something, stirred old memories beneath that thick energon surface that Starscream could barely reach beyond. Memories of a huge shuttle with an easy smile and pristine white paint. Memories of warmth.

Starscream looked around himself and saw stone and ice that resembled the pictures he'd just summoned. Somewhere around here was the source of that remembered warmth. Somewhere around here.

Slowly, his thoughts began to clear again. Yes, that was right. Thundercracker and Skywarp had given up on him, so he was looking for Jetfire, who had gone missing so many vorns ago. There had been a storm, a storm on this very planet, and a single horrible shriek that had echoed for only a klik before shattering into silence. Starscream, his own sensors damaged, had retreated back to the nearest outpost to find help, and instead of help he had found himself dragged back to Vos for the bonding ceremony he'd been fleeing.

The most painful part, he thought now, was that he hadn't been sparkbroken then. He'd wanted to be; he'd felt like he was, and hadn't that been a moment of vicious glee, seeing the realization and the pain in Thundercracker and Skywarp's faces when they'd bonded. But he and Jetfire had never so much as touched each others' sparks.

Starscream had been a fool.

He knew this mission, too, was doomed to failure. He'd scanned the entire internet for any sign of unusual metal deposits—even Empty, Jetfire couldn't have cannibalized himself so thoroughly that his greyed frame wouldn't leave signs behind for the local organics to find. So Starscream was left with only one conclusion: Jetfire's frame hadn't been found yet.

It was his. It was his to find, his to mourn, his to dispose of. His to take with him as he left his alien planet in search of one of the energon-rich supply stations he'd marked as likely stops along his eventual goal of returning to Cybertron.

If only his HUD would stop bothering him with alerts.

If only his processor could keep focus.

If only his spark would stop hurting so badly that it disrupted the signals to his motor functions.

Abruptly, everything cut out, and Starscream found himself hurtling towards the surface of the planet and the solid water that encased that particular area at terminal velocity, nose first. Strangely, he didn't feel panicked or upset. He only felt pain, and a lingering sensation of rightness.

This must have been what it was like for Jetfire.

Perhaps Jetfire hadn't even survived long enough to go Empty. The thought felt strangely comforting. Starscream shut off his optical feed and gave in to the inevitable crash.

Chapter Text

Optimus Prime was late.

Megatron could feel unease and anger pinging through his circuits to create an uncomfortable bloom of heat behind his armor that he refused to click his fans higher for. He had told the Autobots; he had let them know, and they had been given plenty of time to repair whatever was wrong with their leader. If they needed more time, they would have told Dai Atlas, at least. The meeting hadn't been delayed, therefore Optimus Prime was late.

The anger reminded Megatron that he had trusted Optimus Prime too easily. Optimus was Sentinel's hand-picked heir, no matter how different he acted. All those words Megatron had hung his meager but growing hopes onto, those could be falsehoods selected to lure a battle-weary Megatron into making the worst mistake of his life. Even that collapse could have been feigned.

And Megatron had trusted him with the knowledge of what the humans had done. Optimus knew Megatron's weakness now.

His claws curled and uncurled at his side as he struggled to keep his vents steady.

After nearly three breems of waiting, he gave up and let the hot air explode from his vents as he stalked over to Dai Atlas. Dai Atlas glared at him and shifted into a combat-ready stance. Megatron growled. "Do you think that I am the one provoking hostilites?" he demanded. "Contact the Autobots. Optimus Prime must explain himself."

"I will permit the use of your comms," Dai Atlas said, his voice cold. "You may contact him yourself if you don't have the patience to wait."

Megatron peeled metal back from his dental plates. "I think the Autobots would welcome a call from you before they would welcome one from me."

Dai Atlas glared at him with all the heat Megatron remembered from the Council room and then some. "Very well. You will retire to the other side of the platform."

Megatron snorted, letting his fans click higher for a moment before he turned and deliberately strode out from under the metal covering and over to the ocean. He could feel the sting of water and salt seeping into the gaps of his armor. Nickel would have his plating for it if he didn't manage to scrub himself throughly in one of the decontamination rooms before he returned to the medical bay.

The hiss of an opening bridge pulled Megatron's attention from the ocean and towards the Autobot stepping from it. Jazz. Not Optimus.

"Hey," Jazz said, and Dai Atlas looked up. "There's been a little problem, which you've probably guessed. Mind if I step in and chat with Megatron for a few moments?" Without waiting for an answer, he turned and looked up at Megatron, his face a pleasant mask of a smile that set Megatron on edge. Nevertheless, he followed Jazz around the edge of the platform to where the metal wall and the rush of air would mask quieter words. "So, tell me, did that call of yours include any viruses for Optimus?"

Megatron set his foot down with a heavy thunk. Wariness crawled up the cord connecting his spark chamber to his brain module. "If there were any viruses," he said, "shouldn't at least one of your Autobots have found them by now?"

"That's a good question." Jazz tilted his head. "Unfortunately, it doesn't answer mine."

Megatron snorted. "What purpose would there be in infecting the carrier of my future hatchlings, during peace negotiations, before informing your own command staff of his infirmity? No, Autobot, I sent no viruses to your Earth base."

"You've got a point there." Jazz's fake smile faded into a grim line, and his tone grew more serious. "Optimus' condition hasn't improved. We've had to make some changes. In fact—" he raised his voice and started to move back to the entrance again to include Dai Atlas in the conversation, to Megatron's irritation, "you'll both be dealin' with a new negotiator from now on."

"I will only negotiate with the Prime," Megatron said in a flat voice. "If we need to wait for his recovery, so be it."

Jazz gave him an inscrutable look. "Oh, you'll be negotiatin' with the Prime, all right. And you'll be dealin' with the new Lord High Protector, as well."

Megatron stood frozen for a moment as the words sank in. Then rage crackled all through his body, and he expelled the heat in a furious howl of air. "What did you say?"

"You heard me." Jazz didn't look or sound smug, which was the only thing that saved him as two more figures made their way through the gate: a flashy red and yellow model who transformed immediately into root mode, and Ultra Magnus. "Meet Rodimus Prime and his Lord High Protector, Ultra Magnus."

"So, hi!" the flashy model said. "It's nice to meet the mech who's been killing all of us. …What? At least I didn't try to shoot him in the face, right?"

Megatron's fans roared. "This is clearly some sort of joke," he said. He cut each word clean and precise from his vocalizer. His optics grew so bright that he could barely see. "If you wish negotiations delayed, they will be delayed, but I refuse to indulge in this prank of yours."

"No prank," Jazz said. "This is Rodimus Prime."

Megatron's claws curled. "Then I will wait here until you bring Optimus, so that I may verify this myself."

"Whoa, no!" Rodimus yelped. "We can't just let him get his claws into Optimus when he's feeling—when he's not doing so hot, right?"

"Rodimus is correct," Ultra Magnus rumbled. "Optimus has no means of defending himself right now."

Dai Atlas let out a blat from his vocalizer, drawing all attention to him. "He is perfectly safe here," he said, "unless you do not trust the Circle. Megatron is the only Decepticon here, and we have guards in position around the platform. No harm would come to Optimus." He scowled. "A new Prime at this stage in negotiations is a very drastic change. We do need to verify it. That said, we would have no need to see Optimus if we could see the Matrix to confirm Rodimus' status as Prime."

"You want to see my spark chamber?" Rodimus yelped. He clutched both hands over his chest. "No way!"

"The Matrix will be covering your spark," Dai Atlas said, and Megatron felt a surge of vindictive triumph as he heard that patronizing distrust leveled at an Autobot for once. "You will not be baring your spark, but rather verifying the presence of the Matrix of Leadership."

"Like frag!" Rodimus transformed again and drove off around the opposite side of the platform with a loud rev of his engine.

"Our apologies," Ultra Magnus said. "I will speak to him about what showing the Matrix entails." He hesitated, glancing around, then moved off to follow Rodimus.

Megatron spun towards Jazz. "I am displeased with this change in negotiators," he said, his voice as cold as he could make it through the roar in his audial sensors. A new Lord High Protector! Everything the Autobots had claimed to fight for, shredded to reveal the hypocrisy underneath. Right here, right now, Megatron could see the proof that Lord High Protector had only been discarded by the Autobots as a rank because Megatron had held it. And now they would return to the systems of old rather than negotiate for peace? Very well. Megatron would shred them all where they stood, singlehandedly. He had no doubt that he could do it. This Prime was young and untested.

But first, he would play along with their little game. He stepped closer to Jazz. "I will negotiate with Optimus and no other. If this means that the new Prime must negotiate through the old Prime, so be it."

"Optimus isn't here," Jazz said, his voice flat. "Didn't we just get done tellin' you that?"

"I'm well aware." Megatron's lips had peeled back so far from his dental plate that he though the heat might melt them into the rest of his facial metal. "Are you hearing me? We will all wait here until Optimus has awoken, so that you can bring him here. I have some questions for him."

"Hot Rod!"

Rodimus wheezed through his vents in surprise and clamped down on his fans. Then, after a moment of consideration, he transformed so that he could give Ultra Magnus his most winning smile. "Yes?"

"You can't just run off in the middle of negotiations after yelling at our mediator," Magnus scolded. The familiar cadence of his disapproval settled some of the anxiety curdling Rodimus' fuel tanks. "You're a Prime now."

"Yeah, about that. Shouldn't you be calling me Rodimus Prime instead of Hot Rod?"

Ultra Magnus paused. "I…Yes, I apologize. Rodimus Prime. You still can't yell at Dai Atlas and run off. His request was perfectly reasonable."

"It's my spark," Rodimus whined, covering his chest. "I mean, it's a great spark, who could blame him for wanting to see it, but it's my spark. Shouldn't I get to choose who I show it to?"

Ultra Magnus' optics flickered. "The Matrix covers your spark. All you will be showing them is that you are the Prime you claim to be."

"And how are they going to verify that? By sight?" Rodimus felt the weight of realization crash down on him. "Magnus, what if Megatron wants to go poking around in my chest?"

He hadn't expected an insightful response—he'd known for vorns that Ultra Magnus didn't do the comforting thing, not really. The closest he usually got was exactly what he was doing now: silence. Normally, it felt kind of nice, to sit there and not have someone try to cheer him up, at least until Rodimus started to worry that Ultra Magnus had gotten distracted by some datapad or other.

But right now, instead of feeling that crushing weight lessen by degrees, Rodimus could feel other realizations creep in to gnaw at his spark. "Oh, Primus, they expect me to clutch, don't they? With Megatron?"

"That was in the datapad you were given, yes," Ultra Magnus said, though for once Rodimus couldn't read his tone. Was that Rodimus, did you seriously not read the datapad—which he had, thank you—or was that Rodimus, stop asking questions you already know the answer to, or was that something else? Ultra Magnus didn't sound angry. He sounded…quiet.

Rodimus kept his arms curved tight over his chest. "I don't want to."


"No! I know I have to, I don't want to! I didn't agree to any of this, Optimus did! I'm not Optimus!" Rodimus felt his optics flare hard, streaming light, and he reset them to minimize the bleed. He didn't want anyone else to see him getting this upset. Just Magnus. It was okay, with Magnus; Magnus had seem him upset hundreds of thousands of times before, and he didn't treat Rodimus any differently.

"I know," Ultra Magnus said, his voice heavy. "Nevertheless, if the Matrix does not return to Optimus…"

"I'm Prime," Rodimus muttered. "I know that. I'm Prime, and that means I don't even get to choose— If I have to clutch, I want to be able to choose—" He broke off. At least all the other people he'd interfaced with let him cuddle afterwards. He liked that petting, that stroking, the purr of happily satisfied engines against his. With Megatron, he didn't want anything. The thought of Megatron's interface cables anywhere near him, of Megatron touching his chest with those big, sharp claws— Rodimus wanted to purge his fuel tanks. He wanted to purge all his internals. He wanted to rip the Matrix out of himself and throw it on the ground until Optimus came to pick it back up.

But he couldn't. Ultra Magnus would be disappointed in him.

Ultra Magnus' fingers twitched at his side. "If you go through with this, you will be able to choose your own partner afterwards," he said firmly. "We will make sure of that, and I will not stand in your way."

"That's—" Rodimus' words faded away. His vocalizer felt scratchy. He wanted to scream, kick, punch, anything to get out this feeling like scraplets crawling all over him and inside him. "I don't want Megatron to touch me at all."

"If you would prefer, we can ask that I be present as an observer during the act," Ultra Magnus offered. "I won't let him hurt you."

Rodimus let out a low keen and listed towards Ultra Magnus. He took two stumbling steps and pressed his overheated body against Ultra Magnus' solid bulk. He'd never touched Ultra Magnus like this before, frame to frame, and the feel of a strong sparkpulse through that huge frame made Rodimus keen harder and cling to Ultra Magnus' chest.

Slowly, Ultra Magnus' arms rose to cup Rodimus' elbows. "We should have prepared you better," he said.

Rodimus shuddered. He felt inexplicably safe here, even on this unsteady metal platform floating in the middle of an alien ocean, with the Emperor of Destruction on the other side of Ultra Magnus' body. And yet, even though he'd wanted Magnus to hold him this way for vorns, he couldn't stop that inescapable scraplet feeling from growing. He'd picked a Lord High Protector, like Prowl said. He shouldn't have to breed with anyone else. If he had to bare his spark to someone, if he had to have hundreds of tiny sparks growing in his frame, why couldn't they be Ultra Magnus'? He hadn't chosen Megatron.

And more than anything, he hated that he couldn't stop himself from shaking when he should have been calm and collected. He should have been making devastatingly witty remarks and reducing Megatron to sobs, he should have been proving that he could carry the weight of the Autobots on his back despite all odds.

He couldn't. He'd never asked for any of this.

He pressed his face into Ultra Magnus' plating and trembled as he waited for his systems to start working correctly again and for all the terrible feelings building inside of him to just go away.

Everything felt so different when he woke up. His chest hurt; he'd expected something like that. His whole frame felt heavier, which made sense as well. What didn't make sense was the fact that the medical bay he woke up in had become something out of the educational broadcasts the Council sent out about the dangers of using clinics that hadn't been certified. Everything looked gray and jumbled and disordered and shabby.

He reset his optics. Maybe some sort of residue had gotten onto their surface during the transfer? But the shape and size of the room had changed as well. He'd seen the medical bay. He remembered walking inside. Everything had been expansive and high-tech. There had been automated drone assistants and computers covering an entire wall in lines of red and green along sleek black screens. The medic had ushered him into a privatized segment, where he'd seen another mech, lying there wheezing from his vents while energon dripped steadily from crushed metal on his chest past visible flickers of spark energy.

Here, there were no privacy screens. He couldn't see the medic from before.

"Easy," murmured the one with traditional red and white primaries. "So you're finally awake, huh? Let me run some scans."

He lay back and fixed his optics on the ceiling. Could he have been kidnapped by the Decepticons? No; those were Autobot logos, weren't they? He felt his chest plating slide away, and then the medic's tools were prodding at his insides.

Fear jolted at him as something scraped close to his spark chamber. "Did something happen?" he blurted.

"Ah. Yes." The medic fixed him with a solemn look. "You had a rust infection in your chest, just behind the Matrix. It had to be removed so that I could treat you."

"Oh." Orion couldn't think of anything else to say. He didn't know whether he felt relieved or disappointed. Certainly he'd never pictured himself as any sort of leader, but— "Rust infection?"

"Nothing serious." The medic pinned him with a glare. "But I think this has been a good lesson about the perils of avoiding regular maintenance checks. Negotiations or no negotiations! You feel strange, you come to me, you don't hide your symptoms until they knock you out of commission for over an orn."

"Yes, sir," Orion mumbled, though he really didn't remember feeling any symptoms. He rubbed his chest as the medic withdrew. Shouldn't he have noticed something like a rust infection? He didn't recall feeling anything out of the ordinary. Maybe the anxiety had distracted him. After all, it wasn't every day that he got pulled away from his duties by Sentinel's personal guards. "Where—"

"Hot Rod has it," the other medic put in. "He has taken over the negotiations in his official capacity as Rodimus Prime."

What negotiations? Orion didn't ask. He nodded and tried to sit up, instead. The medics let him, and Orion looked down at his chestplates and the sparklight spilling through before closing them. He still felt scraped up, which made sense if he'd been treated for a rust infection.

But wherever he was didn't look anything like a proper Autobot facility. Too much of this didn't add up. If they were Autobots, had they brought him to this place? Who were they? Where were Sentinel's guards? What negotiations? How had he not noticed a rust infection? None of it made sense, and their answers only served to confuse him further. "Can I get up?" he asked, hesitantly. No matter who these people were, he didn't want to upset them and provoke a violent reaction.

"You can try," the first medic said. "If you have any problems with your balance, I want you to sit back down."

Orion nodded and pushed to his feet. He felt disoriented, certainly, but he could stand. He wasn't about to tell these strangers how uncomfortable he felt in his own body. He didn't think it had anything to do with the rust infection, anyway. Rust infections didn't make your limbs heavier.

He looked around the room again from this angle. Everything still looked strange and small, but the walls didn't just look old. The metal looked strange, like nothing Orion had ever seen before. Was it even metal? His fingers itched to reach out and touch, but he held himself still. The tools, by contrast, looked old but in decent repair, so that was a relief. If this was some sort of elaborate kidnapping, at least they weren't probing around inside him with scrap metal.

Though, he noted with unease, both of the medics had subtle transformation seams on their arms that indicated integrated weaponry.

Another black and white mech burst through the door before Orion could think of anything to say. "We got a situation," they said grimly. "Rodimus is havin' a meltdown."

"That's to be expected," the red and white mech said sourly. "He doesn't have the training for this, and he wasn't given time to prepare."

The newcomer grinned. "Fair enough. Anyway, it bought us some time. I see Optimus is back among the livin', at least."

Orion gave a discreet scan with his optics. He couldn't see anyone else lying on a slab. So Optimus either had to be the other medic, who looked fine, or Orion himself.

"Oh, scrap no," the medic said. "Whatever you're planning to do with my patient, you can just forget it."

"I'm afraid you can't stop me on this one, Ratchet," the newcomer said with a flash of their visor. "Megatron won't continue the negotiation unless Optimus is there, and Rodimus didn't exactly do a great job of convincin' him otherwise."

Megatron? Orion tried not to react, but he couldn't hold back a faint shiver of dread. They were negotiating with Megatron? For what? Is that why they'd kidnapped Orion?

Was he some sort of tribute?

"Yeah, no kiddin'," the newcomer said to him, sounding almost apologetic. "No worries, though. Ultra Magnus is there as Rodimus' Lord High Protector."

"What?" Orion blurted. "But Sentinel abolished that position!"

"And Rodimus brought it back." The newcomer grimaced. "Look, OP, without a Lord High Protector, Megatron was going to chew up and swallow Rodimus whole. You know that, I know that, everyone knows that. At least Ultra Magnus is high up enough that he already knows the deal. He won't become another Megatron."

"I—" Orion cut himself off. The less said to these mechs, the better. "Okay."

"You're takin' this a lot better than I expected."

"Lay off. He's disoriented. He'd just woken up when you decided to poke your sensors in here." Ratchet huffed and turned away. "If he shows any signs—"

"Ratchet, cool your circuits. It's fine. We're just gonna go in, show him off, and bring him back. I'll be with him the whole time." The newcomer tilted his head. "Prowl, you aren't sayin' a whole lot."

Orion's optics flared. Wasn't Prowl the name of the Autobot tactician? Sentinel's silent hand? What would he be doing here, in a decrepit medical bay? He couldn't have been kidnapped as well—he was being treated as an equal, not as a prisoner.

But, then, they were treating Orion oddly, too.

"There's nothing to say," the mech Orion had assumed was another medic replied. "I expected that something like this would happen."

"Yeah, yeah," the newcomer grumbled. "Come on, Optimus, let's go."

Orion balked for only a moment before deciding that, with his frame as unsteady and alien as it was, he couldn't risk slagging off armed warriors. They all looked like they'd seen vorns of combat, which meant that Orion's best strategy would be to keep his wits about him and not make unnecessary enemies. He had names already. Prowl, Ratchet, Rodimus, and Ultra Magnus. Ultra Magnus was one of Sentinel's best soldiers, of course—not as high ranking as Prowl but still someone who could have Orion's spark crushed with a single word.

The newcomer, as it turned out, was herding Orion towards an open bridge in the middle of a cluttered mess of a room. Orion nearly balked again. He felt his plating clatter, and the newcomer gave him an unreadable look. Mechs like Orion didn't use bridges. They drove, or they flew, or they walked, or they took other forms of transportation if their alt mode didn't support long-range. He'd never seen anything like this in person before, with the green particles swirling around in a circular shape. Nothing was visible beyond it. Where were they taking him?

"Somethin' the matter?" the newcomer asked. "You need to go back to Ratchet?"

Orion shook his head. "It's nothing," he said, then stepped through. He at least knew enough about gates to remember that he had to keep moving—walking, driving, flying, anything. If he stopped, and the gate went down, he'd be dispersed along with the particles. The image flashing in his memory center was one of the photographs that had been attached to an informational datapad he'd consumed in between his studies: a mech horribly twisted from the inside out, their spark chamber visible where their chestplates should be and completely crushed, two of their limbs completely missing, every inch of their plating crumpled and mauled, with thick armor curled up like the thinnest of foils.

He regretted reading that datapad now.

He walked faster, and suddenly the green haze was gone. Walking, strangely, hadn't felt any different until he put his feet down here, in this new place, and realized that it felt familiar. Not as though he'd been here before, of course—from what he could tell, this was some sort of vessel, since no permanent building would have a bridge tucked away in so small a room, but the metals under his feet and around him felt like the metal he'd been walking on all his life. He turned, even knowing that he couldn't see the previous room through the gate, expecting to see swirling green. Instead, he saw no gate at all.

"This'll just be a klik," the newcomer said. "We could make a looped bridge straight to the site; I'm pretty sure the Decepticons know where we're hidin' out. But this way's still safer, just in case. Hold on; we'll get you in and out again in a jiffy and back to Ratchet's tender lovin' care."

Orion looked away. He didn't want to go back to Ratchet's anything. He wanted—well, he wanted to go back to the archives, if they didn't need him as a Prime. He didn't want to be some weird bait for Megatron.

"Optimus?" the other mech prodded. "You're bein' real quiet. That's startin' to worry me."

Orion grimaced. "Could you please stop calling me that?" he mumbled.

"You may not be Prime anymore, but you're still Optimus," the other said. Another bridge swirled into existence. "There we go." Then, abruptly, their visor flared. "Wait, OP, when you say that—"

"I'll just go through," Orion said to the ground, and he walked forward. He felt strange, almost like he wanted to transform to protect himself against what might be beyond the bridge—negotiations with Megatron—but he couldn't get his t-cog to work.

Maybe they'd disabled it.

He stumbled into a bright, alien world. This wasn't just some strange metal in a tiny medical bay; this was a wide blue sky and a moving metal platform under his feet surrounded by some sort of strange blue-green liquid. Orion froze, then moved hastily towards the center of the platform, where a small building stood. The air stung at his sensors, giving strange readouts he'd never seen before. He could practically taste organic material in the air, and he'd never even seen organics before in his life.

"OP!" The other mech followed after him, then stopped. "OP, wait."

Orion froze. Something in the other mech's voice made him look around. He hadn't seen everyone as more than shapes, at first, too distracted by the strangeness of this place. He could see armed mechs all around—not that they needed armed mechs to deal with him when the alternative was for him to dive into endless organic liquid—and two imposing figures that he'd nearly walked by. One of them was Dai Atlas, who wore a menacing scowl on his faceplates as he looked at Orion. And the other was unmistakably Megatron.

For a moment, Orion couldn't think of anything but the memory of Sentinel dying on the slab beside him. Couldn't see anything but the claws that must have been used to rip Sentinel's plating open.

Megatron was huge. Not shuttle huge, but bulkier than most aerials, and he carried armor spikes that made Orion's spark feel like it was shrinking back into his chest. Megatron's optics shone bright, glittering miner-red. His face was set in a sneer that revealed the sharpened dental plates that had so scandalized most of Cybertronian society when Sentinel claimed him as Lord High Protector. He looked like he'd just flown from the gladiatorial pits of Kaon. He looked like a sparkeater.

"Ah, Optimus," Megatron said. Orion had heard his voice in broadcasts, of course, everyone had, but it was an entirely different experience to hear him in person. His voice wrapped warm and sinuous around Orion's spark, like it was about to squeeze and snuff it out. "It's about time you got here."

Orion shuddered and took a step back, then another. He glanced off to the side at the mech he'd arrived with. Megatron sounded angry. At him. Logically, of course, if Megatron wanted to kill Orion, he could have done so in a dozen different ways by now, but Orion couldn't control the shivers running through his joints and transformation seams.

When he looked back at Megatron, Megatron's frown had shifted. His lips covered his terrifying dental plate, and his optics had increased their brightness. "As I have explained, I would like to continue negotiations with you rather than your new Prime. That is all."

Orion glanced back again. Even if he had been Prime, it had only been for a few kliks, right? They would have discovered the rust infection right away. None of this made sense. What did Megatron mean? What negotiations? He hadn't been negotiating with Sentinel. Orion himself had barely even met Sentinel. He thought back, scrambling for answers, but his memories remained the same: he'd been approached by the guards, who had told him that he'd been chosen as Sentinel's successor. He hadn't really thought about what that could mean, or why; he'd been so blindsided by the whole thing that he'd just gone along without question after verifying their identities. If Sentinel had chosen Orion, he wasn't about to turn down the Matrix.

But this—he didn't even have the Matrix. Did Megatron know that? He had to, if he knew about this Rodimus being the new Prime.

What was going on?

The mech Orion had arrived with stepped forward, faceplates tight. "I think there's been a bit of a problem, Megatron."

"Again?" Megatron rumbled, optics dimming again in displeased threat. "What sort of problem is it this time?"

Orion's vocalizer spat static. He reset it, but not before he'd drawn the attention of every mech in the area. He winced, feeling pinned down by their gazes. This was too much. Whatever was going on, he didn't want to continue this farce for a moment longer. Every part of him rattled, but he forced his head up so that he could meet Megatron's gaze. "I think there's been a mistake," he said, and to his relief his vocalizer didn't stall. "I'm not the mech you want. My name is Orion Pax."

Chapter Text

Megatron stared down at Optimus. "Do you think this is some sort of joke?" he asked, keeping his voice cold. He looked over at Jazz. "I have no interest in playing your Autobot games."

Jazz's cocky smile looked strained, and Megatron allowed himself a nanoklik to be grateful for that. At least this wasn't all going according to some grand plan. "No joke. Optimus woke up, and we brought him directly to you, as requested."

Megatron returned his focus to the former Prime. Optimus—Orion—hadn't moved, though the tremors running through his body had grown more violent. He looked as though he might shake apart at the transformation seams. He had none of Optimus' calm confidence despite sharing the same frame. Megatron frowned, then bared his dental plate again; Orion flinched backwards.

This had to be some sort of ploy to catch him off guard. But what purpose would there be in pretending that the Matrix belonged to an incompetent soldier, that Optimus Prime had become someone else entirely? Megatron couldn't think of any. There would be no benefit for the Autobots other than the complete and total destruction of the peace negotiations, at Megatron's hand, as he let his rage take over.

He dimmed his optics. He felt a brief moment of relief; Optimus had collapsed fast enough that he couldn't have shared the truth of what had happened to Megatron with anybody. Whatever the Autobot ploy, they weren't using the humans against him. If he met the Autobots in battle once more, any ideas of peace long forgotten, they would still view him as the terrifying gladiator warlord he'd become.

But on the heels of that relief came a dozen other emotional subroutines all crossing paths and confusing his thoughts until he shunted them into the background with a growl. He stalked towards Jazz and pretended that he didn't see how Orion sagged in relief. "Is this your way of escaping from the clutch that the Autobots owe me?" he demanded. "Did you remove the Matrix so that Optimus Prime would no longer exist?"

"So suspicious, Megatron," Jazz said, his voice light. "You saw what happened with your own optics. In fact, I think that we should be askin' you if this is one of your plots. We've got a whole lot of trouble now, thanks to this." He met Megatron's optics with a steady light.

Megatron gave a wordless growl of frustration and glanced back at Orion. He had gathered himself; he'd stopped shaking, at least, and he looked back at Megatron with wide, too-bright optics. The Autobots wanted him to react poorly to this and break the truce himself? No; he wouldn't give them the satisfaction. "I will not hurt you," Megatron said. "Not unless these negotiations end. Dai Atlas, show him the datapads."

"I am not one of your soldiers, Megatron," Dai Atlas said. "What do you intend? He clearly no longer possesses the Matrix or any right to this treaty. Or must you see his spark to confirm this?"

Megatron waved a hand, hiding a grimace as Orion flinched again. "I said before that I would deal with Optimus and no other. As Optimus is no longer here, it seems I must deal with Orion, instead."

"Hey!" Jazz snapped. "Orion doesn't have the authority to deal with you. You got Rodimus, and you got Ultra Magnus."

"Then they may be present." Megatron gave Jazz a feral, angry grin. "The datapads, if you would, Dai Atlas. Give them to me if not to Orion."

Dai Atlas gave Megatron an absolutely wrathful look that had to be breaking some Circle tenet, but he handed the datapads to Orion. Orion's vents went shaky, but he immediately started to scroll through them. His vents hitched again, then got small and quiet as he continued reading.

Disgust, most likely, Megatron thought, along with relief that he'd escaped the fate he had written himself into with the Matrix. Optimus Prime had agreed, but Optimus Prime no longer existed. Whether or not Optimus' absence was an Autobot plot, the fact was that they had a new Prime with a new Lord High Protector who would implicitly be given all the breeding rights that Megatron had bargained for. He should have felt some measure of relief that he wouldn't have to touch another Prime, but all he could feel was sorrow for all those lives he had allowed himself to believe could one day exist.

He had grown weak in captivity. What had he been thinking, trusting the Autobots? Even when the negotiations were formalized and signed, it seemed, they found a way to circumvent those promises.

"If we are all done for now, I would suggest that we return to our own ships until the Autobots have had some time to prepare their Prime," Dai Atlas said, interrupting Megatron's thoughts.

Megatron snarled. "If anyone goes home before I am done with them, I will consider negotiations terminated. The Autobots have done a fine job of reneging on a signed portion of this treaty thus far, and I have no intention of letting them get away with it."

"Fine words from the last person to see Optimus Prime!" Jazz retorted.

Orion Pax looked up from the datapads, his expression pensive and his optics dim. His vents had quieted somewhat. "I don't remember doing any of this," he said, his voice almost too quiet to hear. "But if peace is the goal, I'm willing to examine any footage given to me and work alongside Rodimus Prime to overcome this…" He trailed off, fans clicking higher as he lowered his head. "I…would need time, though."

Megatron stared at him, assessing. Megatron had already made too many mistakes. But it was also clear that he would get nothing useful from negotiations with the new Prime in the lead. It occurred to him that if he let them disperse, he could return and get aid from his own advisors, seeing as how the Autobots had decided to completely disregard the single representative rule.

"I want this formalized before you leave," he said finally. "You began these negotiations, whether you remember them or not. You will see them through to the end. However—" he let the tips of his dental plate show— "you shouldn't be too worried if they fail. You are no Prime; I have no reason to crush your spark."

Orion's vents stuttered, but he nodded and accepted a blank datapad from Dai Atlas. He wrote quickly and efficiently, and when Megatron took up the signed datapad, he found a clear, concise promise that Orion would take the lead as negotiator until such a time as negotiations ended. It would have to do; he signed it, waited for Dai Atlas to coax new Prime to sign, then transformed and took off with a loud blast of his flight engines.

He had a lot of thinking to do.

"Emergency meetin," Orion's handler said as soon as they made it back to the small building Orion had woken up in. "Now."

He sounded angry enough that Orion flinched again. Maybe he'd been wrong to say those things, to make that offer, but it had sounded like Megatron wouldn't accept anything else. And he'd bought them some time, hadn't he? Had he misinterpreted the situation?

"Everyone is here," said a red and black aerial Orion had never seen before. Orion looked around the room; in addition to his handler, Ultra Magnus, and Rodimus Prime, Ratchet and Prowl had moved out of the medical bay, along with the aerial and a smaller blue mech.

"Right," his handler said. "To start with, this here is Orion Pax, not Optimus Prime. He doesn't remember bein' Optimus." Orion stared down at the floor as a roar of noise rose to follow that proclamation, but his handler continued. "So I thought we might start with introductions real quick before we dive into figurin' out what the frag we're gonna do about any of this. I'll start. Orion, I'm Jazz."

"I'm Windblade," the aerial said, then gestured to the blue mech. "And this is Chromia."

"Prowl," Prowl said, his voice short and clipped. "What happened?"

"Nothing happened," Rodimus grumbled. "Megatron got his circuits in a bunch, and we left, end of story."

"Rodimus," Ultra Magnus said reproachfully. "What happened is that Megatron did not approve of the change in Primes." To Orion, he added, "I am Ultra Magnus, and this is Rodimus Prime."

"He didn't approve of the addition of a Lord High Protector, either," Jazz said. "He is royally slagged off at that one, mech." Prowl's wings twitched.

"Why didn't you say something?" Ratchet grumbled. He moved over to Orion and started to scan him. "Scrap, Op—Orion, you must have known something had happened. And you didn't mention that you might be missing memories?"

Orion hesitated, then shuddered as Ratchet reached up to his medical port. He let the hatch retract with some reluctance. He still didn't know any of these mechs, except that according to all the evidence, he did. Logic dictated that they probably wouldn't hurt him. Still, he dimmed his optics almost to the point of no visual input and listened to the other mechs around them rather than dwell on Ratchet's grumbling.

"It's fine," Rodimus said. "I can give Megatron as many clutches as he needs! I'm tough like that. You don't need to worry, Magnus."

"That is the opposite of what you said earlier," Ultra Magnus replied.

"Yeah, well, I was just kind of, you know, unprepared. I'm fine now!" Rodimus' optics flickered. He couldn't seem to stay still. Orion hadn't known him for very long, but he didn't look fine, and from the way the others exchanged glances, Orion wasn't alone in that assessment. "It's the way to get peace, right? And we want peace, right?"

"Well, that's great," Jazz said, "but that's not the only issue. Megatron signed that contract with someone who doesn't exist. He's going to be expectin' that contract, which gives us very little leeway if we want to actually keep him happy. We gotta start wonderin' if it's worth it. What do we want out of this?"

Orion looked down at his hands. He wanted that peace, very badly. The fact that Megatron and the Decepticons might want peace as well felt like some barely-realized dream, like he'd stepped out even further into a state of unreality. But he wanted it. He didn't want to see any more mechs dying in front of him.

And he wasn't the Prime anymore, so he had no say.

"Megatron claims to want peace, but thus far he's done nothing but make unreasonable demands," Prowl said, flicking his wings again. "To concede would be to give ourselves over to Decepticon rule."

"Yeah, mech, you keep sayin' that, but Optimus believed in peace enough to make those concessions. And they were his to make, just like they're Roddy's to make now. Let's not look at it from a standpoint of what Megatron's done, but what we're willin' to do."

"I said I was willing to clutch," Rodimus muttered. He looked almost as lost as Orion felt, and Orion felt a sudden surge of empathy for him. If Orion had just lost the Matrix, Rodimus had to be as new to this as Orion himself would have been. "Why aren't any of you listening to me?"

"Optimus," Prowl snapped, "was hardly all-knowing. He had his weaknesses, and this was one of them! If we give in to Megatron's demands, we're only supplying him with an army that he'll raise and attack us with!"

"And you think he's not ready to do this right now anyway?" Jazz demanded. "Scrap, Prowl, I'm absolutely certain that the only reason he's not attackin' the humans right now is because of this peace treaty. Whatever they're hidin', OP wanted to protect 'em. And they need protectin' from themselves. They're attackin' the Decepticons on their own, did you know that? And all the Decepticons did was scare 'em a little."

"Optimus only prioritized their safety because he was a fool!"

Orion flinched, and the room fell silent.

"Prowl," Windblade said after a moment, her voice calm. "Is your code malfunctioning?"

Prowl straightened, and the erratic movement of his wings slowed. "No," he said, and Orion's optics flared; the emotion had drained completely out of Prowl's voice, as though Windblade's words had triggered—something.

"Look, I'm the Prime now," Rodimus said into the silence. "I said I could handle it, so I'll handle it."

"Rodimus, you look like you're ready to keel over if Megatron so much as bares his cables," Chromia said with a glance at Windblade. "If the negotiations fail, that's not necessarily the worst outcome ever. We just need to come up with a plan—"

"But if I'm Prime, that means you have to do what I say, right?" Rodimus said. Orion felt his plating scrape together as it pulled closer to his internals. "Just—Optimus. Orion, oops. You were Optimus before. What do you think?"

Orion felt the light of seven stares come to rest on him. "I'm not Optimus," he blurted. "I don't remember why he—I—would have done any of this. But if there's footage—I could analyze that."

"He's not going to be able to tell us anything we don't already know about Optimus' state of mind," Prowl said. "In fact, we are in a better position to figure out his motives, given that Orion Pax is missing over six thousand vorns of memory." Orion's processor froze for a moment. "He will not be able to analyze enough data in the next orn to be of any use."

"Look," Rodimus said, his vocalizer pitching higher.

Jazz stepped forward and took Rodimus' shoulders in his hands. "Hey," he said, his voice low and soothing. "We won't make any decisions without you, okay? How 'bout you get some recharge for now. You're the Prime, we know that. I've been workin' for Optimus for thousands of vorns. I promise nothin's gonna happen without you. Recharge, come back, we'll have some better options to hand you."

Rodimus sagged. "Fine," he muttered. "But if you make any decisions without me, I'll—I'll be really angry."

Jazz looked up and met Ultra Magnus' gaze with a nod before a gate appeared. Ultra Magnus and Rodimus left, and some of the tension in the room lifted.

As soon as they were gone, Windblade's wings flicked, and she stepped forward to take Orion's face in her hands. She stared at him, and he stared helplessly back, still caught by the revelation of just how much of himself he had lost. "He has a good spark," she said. "I don't know why the Matrix rejected him, but I don't believe we should cast him aside just because of that."

"The Matrix didn't slagging reject him," Ratchet said. "He had a bad reaction to Earth's atmosphere." He sat back and pulled his medical cord from Orion's port. Orion snapped it closed and rubbed over the hatch. "And those memories are definitely gone. There's no sign of memory blockers, not that I used any. The memories just aren't there. No sign of a wipe, either. It's like those memories never existed in the first place. My guess is, they got coded on the Matrix instead, and since it's no longer inside him, he can't access any of it."

"Great," Jazz grumbled. "And here I just sent Rodimus off for a nap."

"We could easily recall him," Prowl pointed out.

Jazz waved a hand. "Nah. Let him defrag a bit first. You didn't see him with Megatron." His visor flickered. "You should be gettin' some recharge, too, Orion. We can figure this all out in the mornin'."

Orion wanted to protest. He could picture them sending him off and deciding to end this fragile peace once and for all once he and Rodimus were deep in recharge and unable to put up any sort of resistance. But no; he couldn't think that way. He wasn't Optimus Prime anymore, and he didn't remember ever having been Optimus Prime. He had no authority, and no security clearance, most likely. He bowed his head and let Ratchet lead him back to the medical bay like a dutiful Autobot soldier.

"We don't have any habitation suites on this planet," Ratchet explained. "We'd be taking turns if you hadn't gotten yourself that rust infection."

"It's okay," Orion said. He tried not to tense as he lay down on a slab and shut off his optics.

Despite his worries, though, Ratchet didn't wait around to make sure that Orion's systems had gone into rest mode. He left, and Orion slid off the recharge slab to make his way over towards the nearest console. He had enough information—six thousand vorns missing!—to start some research of his own, even if the Autobots wouldn't share footage of the actual negotiations with him. And with the energy levels running through systems still unfamiliar to him, he had enough energy to pull a five-orn research marathon.

"So do you wanna burn off some charge before we recharge?" Rodimus offered. He felt out of place and off-kilter, but he'd just checked, and the Matrix wasn't interfering with his lubrication mods. He stood at the door to his hab suite, leaning against the door with a practiced, seductive smile and a tilt to his hips that he knew from experience drew the eye down to them.

He could do this. He could seduce Ultra Magnus. Just because he'd failed every single time he'd attempted before didn't mean anything. Ultra Magnus was his Lord High Protector now, right? That had to mean something. He'd agreed, and part of being Lord High Protector was plugging the Prime.

Ultra Magnus didn't look any more seduced than usual, though. He looked down at Rodimus with a flat, uncompromising expression. "You aren't exhibiting any signs of arousal."

Caught flatfooted, Rodimus fumbled. "Well… You can fix that, though." Or his mods could. "Come in?"

To his surprise, Ultra Magnus did in fact step in, leaving Rodimus to scramble after him and close the door. That done, he moved closer and grabbed Ultra Magnus' arms, leaning up to brush their faces close.

He had barely even touched Ultra Magnus' plating before Ultra Magnus stepped back, shaking his head. "Rodimus, no."

"What? But you came in, didn't you?" Rodimus' entire spark felt deionized. It hurt. "I thought we were going to, you know, make it like a Prime and his Lord High Protector."

Ultra Magnus folded his arms over his chest. "Rodimus…"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. You gave your answer," Rodimus muttered to the ground. He tried to pull himself back up. "It's probably just that you're used to seeing me as a subordinate, though, right? That was probably in the rulebook somewhere."

"Not that you ever read it."

"I did!" Rodimus protested. "I just, you know, there was more vital data that needed to overwrite it." He tried to summon his best cocky grin, but he didn't need to see the way Ultra Magnus' expression softened to know that it failed miserably. "Just—can it be you? Before Megatron? Maybe after Megatron?"

Ultra Magnus shifted his weight and looked off past Rodimus' head. "There will be plenty of time to discuss that at a later date," he said, his voice stiff. "For now, it is obvious that you would be better served by recharge."

"Nah, I'm too hyped up to recharge!" Rodimus protested. "Come on, come on, help me burn my charge."

"Rodimus, you are not charged." Ultra Magnus walked over to the bed and sat down, which had Rodimus confused for a moment. What was he supposed to pay attention to, Ultra Magnus' words or his actions? Was this Ultra Magnus giving in? It certainly seemed like it when Ultra Magnus gave a rattling ventilation and settled his hands on his spread knees. "Come here."

Rodimus obeyed without question. He felt the sweep of Ultra Magnus' optics from close range and shivered. It wasn't a charge, he could admit that. He just—liked it. Like he had full command of Ultra Magnus' attention, for once, and Ultra Magnus wasn't even frowning or angry. Maybe Ultra Magnus wasn't happy with him, but Rodimus could work with "not angry." He leaned in and reached down towards Ultra Magnus' interface covers.

Ultra Magnus caught his wrists in a strong but gentle grip before he could even touch plating. "Rodimus," he said. "No."

Rodimus wilted and found himself sagging forward against Ultra Magnus' chest, just as he'd done in front of everyone on the floating metal platform. Not his most shining moment. But it felt different like this, more intimate. Magnus' legs were bent, so Rodimus could drape more securely, and the dim lighting of the closed room made everything feel more private. Maybe, Rodimus thought, he could get charged up like this. He wouldn't mind Magnus' cables in his ports and Magnus' ports around his cables; he knew it wouldn't hurt, and just having Magnus there—it could make a difference, even if nothing else had yet.

But when Ultra Magnus released his wrists, it was to pat at Rodimus' shoulders before wrapping his massive arms around them. "Recharge," he said, and the vibrations of his vocalizer rattled through Rodimus' entire frame.

"In a minute," Rodimus muttered. "I don't—" want to be alone. He fumbled for a nanoklik. "I'm comfy now. You're warm, Magnus." Ultra Magnus gave a low rumble of his engines, then hoisted Rodimus into the air with no apparent effort at all. Rodimus yelped as he found himself lifted up and gently lowered onto the recharge slab. "Hey! That's cheating! You can't cheat!"

But, to his shock, Ultra Magnus didn't take advantage of Rodimus' prone position to leave the slab and head for the door. Instead, he picked up his own legs and swung himself around until he lay beside Rodimus on the slab, back to the flat surface, staring up at the ceiling.

Rodimus didn't hesitate for a moment. He dove right in to nestle beside Ultra Magnus, half draped over him. "Is this you giving in?" he murmured against Ultra Magnus' audial sensor.

Ultra Magnus twitched. "No. It is a method for me to ensure that you have obtained the optimum amount of recharge," he said, though there was something to his voice that Rodimus had never heard. Before he could think about it too hard, Ultra Magnus' hand slid up his spoiler and settled there. "Recharge, Rodimus."

Rodimus shivered, but he shut off his optics. He wasn't about to argue with Magnus when he'd apparently managed to get the optimal end result of an interface session without any of the tedious work. Just for good measure, the make sure Ultra Magnus couldn't run off as soon as Rodimus' systems shut down, he tucked his leg over one of Ultra Magnus', settling the entire length of his body against Ultra Magnus' warm frame. Slowly, his systems started to wind down, and before he knew it, he'd slipped into recharge with the faint rhythm of Ultra Magnus' sparkpulse lulling him.

Chapter Text

"Your paint looks beautiful in the light of that console."

Elita-1 hid a smile and didn't look up from her work. "Your lines could use some work," she said. "Or is this just because you've been coming to visit me for so long that you've learned to look past the truth?"

"No, I really do think you look beautiful," Slipstream purred, sidling up until she could nudge behind Elita-1, out of sight. Elita-1 twitched; even telling herself that Slipstream was no threat, she didn't like having someone at her back. Someday, she should get down to the medical bay and have them install rear-facing optics so she'd get some input beyond the basic heat signature, which couldn't tell her if, say—she stiffened as Slipstream ran a claw up her spinal strut. "When do you get off duty?"

"My schedule hasn't changed." Elita-1 turned to take Slipstream's hand and move it some distance away. "If you stop distracting me, I won't have to stay late."

"You won't have to stay late anyway," Slipstream said, though she didn't try her luck with the claw trick again. "There's nothing to do. There's a truce."

"There's going to be footage of the peace negotiations coming in shortly," Elita-1 countered. "That needs to be analyzed as soon as possible. And shouldn't our new Air Commander be focusing on her troops instead of interface?"

Slipstream waved a lazy hand. "Like I said, there's nothing to do. The humans haven't bothered to come back, and I went over the plan with everyone before I came here. Ion Storm's on shift when I'm not, and as long as ey has someone to cover em, the humans have no way to fight." She grinned. "I'm really starting to enjoy being Air Commander. Do you know how much human technology is vulnerable to Ion Storm's abilities?"

Elita-1 lifted a hand to brush the backs of her claws over the underside of Slipstream's wing. "I'm glad it's working out," she said. "Starting to hope it might be permanent after all?"

"I don't know about that. It's one thing to command troops on this planet, it's another to lead them in battle against other mechs." Slipstream lifted her wings and dropped them in a shrug. "Besides, if this treaty goes through, we'll have to combine militaries, won't we? The Autobots would never let us keep our own."

Elita-1 made a noncommittal sound. Privately, she doubted Megatron would trust that easily—she hoped Megatron wouldn't trust that easily. Even if he had no formal military, all of the Decepticons he'd trusted in battle before would be kept as close as he could manage. She didn't say anything, though; in that imagined future, she would either be in an Autobot jail or playing spy among them for Soundwave, and it wouldn't do to upset Slipstream over a peace that might not ever come to pass.

At least, that was what she told herself.

"Seriously, though," Slipstream complained. "I made all this time for myself, and you're not even going to be off shift?"

"You could catch up on your recharge," Elita-1 suggested. "I'll wake you when I come in."

Slipstream perked up immediately. "In your hab suite?"

Before Elita-1 could answer—or transmit the code—the door hissed open again, and Megatron himself stepped into the small room. Elita-1 froze, then spun to face him. Normally, nobody but Soundwave and his Cassettes came into this room while Elita-1 was working; Slipstream had made herself the sole exception. And, to make matters worse, the expression on Megatron's face looked awful. He stood in the doorway for a long moment as Slipstream scrambled to attention, his optics dim and his claws curled into fists.

"Lord Megatron," Elita-1 said.

His optics brightened and fixed on her. "I require your presence at the next orn's negotiations," he said.

Elita-1's vocalizer froze. She reset it. "Yes sir," she managed, unable to choke out anything else, or even think of anything else. Her processor felt numb.

A long silence stretched into the space between them. "Good," Megatron said finally.

"Sir?" Slipstream blurted, sidestepping towards Elita-1 and then back in an odd shuffle. "Why… Won't the Autobots try to prosecute her for stealing the eggs?"

Megatron's optics dimmed and refocused, as though he hadn't realized she was in the room, despite her being right in front of him. Elita-1 felt her circuits start to heat uncomfortably as her fuel tank churned. Just what had the Autobots done to him down there to make him so visibly off? A disquieting portion of her processor started running the likelihood that they'd had enough time to force a compliance virus into his system, past all the latest and best protections.

She held no illusions that she would be ordered to accompany him because of her talents. She had been kept hidden from the Autobots for thousands of vorns through deliberate misdirection and the assumption of a new identity over general comms. If he wanted her there, it wouldn't be because the Autobots had discovered her presence. But then, why?

After a moment, she realized that she had no answer, but she could do something, right here and now. «Soundwave,» she said. «There's been some kind of situation. I don't know the details, but Megatron is at my workstation, and he's acting oddly.» She received a wordless beep of affirmation before the line cut.

"Sir?" Slipstream repeated, her voice getting higher, and Elita-1 realized that Megatron's optics had begun to dim even further. She scrambled away from her chair.

"Please sit down, sir," she said, keeping her voice quiet and gentle.

Megatron didn't even protest. He sat down in the too-small chair heavily enough that it creaked, but nothing broke.

Elita-1 vented out and knelt into a partial transformation. "I will accompany you to the negotiations, Lord Megatron. Whatever you need of me, I will provide." Behind her, she heard Slipstream make a muffled noise.

Megatron's optics scanned around the room again, focusing on nothing at all. "Good," he said again, as though the entire exchange were brand new. Then he glanced at Slipstream and bared his dental plates. "If the Autobots attempt to prosecute her, we will no longer negotiate with them," he said. "They already wish to renege on their promised clutch."

"What?" Elita-1 burst out, transforming back to full root mode as she straightened. "But that was—Optimus Prime himself signed that!"

"Yes," Megatron said with a dark, wild chuckle. "He did."

Elita-1 glanced back at Slipstream and exchanged baffled looks with her. Neither of them had ever seen Megatron like this before. What had the Autobots done to him? How could Dai Atlas be willing to overlook something so critical as an attempt to refute a signed portion of a treaty-in-progress?

Silence descended on the room and didn't lift until the hiss of the door opening preceded Soundwave's appearance. «Sir,» Elita-1 said, relieved. «Do you have the footage?»

«Footage will be delivered to Elita-1's hab suite,» Soundwave replied. «Dismissed.»

Elita-1 bowed her head and beckoned to Slipstream with one claw. Slipstream, to her credit, followed without a word until they had made it safely behind Elita-1's locked door. Then, after a moment of silence, she exploded. "What the frag was that about?" she demanded, spinning to face Elita-1. "You're just going to go down there and let the Autobots grab you?!"

"Those are Lord Megatron's orders. Are you contesting them?"

"I wouldn't, I'm not—but he was—" Slipstream cut herself off, her vocalizer softening. "Something happened, didn't it?"

"Even if I knew, I couldn't answer that." Elita-1 sank into a full transformation as her processor whirled. After a moment, Slipstream crept closer and knelt down to stroke claws over Elita-1's tires and rims. "If this is what I can do for the Decepticon cause now, so be it. The most likely reason is that Megatron needs a way to break out of the treaty now that the Autobots have done…whatever they did."

"I don't like it." Slipstream's claws slipped into Elita-1's seams, and Elita-1 dimmed her optics to focus on the sensation.

"And yet you accepted the position of Air Commander from Megatron, so you must trust him." Elita-1 let Slipstream stroke her frame for a few kliks more before an itchy restlessness drove her to transform back into root mode and climb onto the recharge slab. "Just as you have your role, I have mine."

Slipstream followed, her wings folding down in a display of visible unhappiness that Elita-1 didn't recall ever seeing before. "That's not fair," she complained. "It's not the same thing."

"If hostilities resume, the position of Air Commander is as likely to get you shot down as my presence at negotiations is, if not moreso." Elita-1 slid her hands over those downturned wings until they twitched into her touch. "And though you may not have seen me in combat, I assure you that I am capable of defending myself."

"I believe it." Slipstream pressed her face into Elita-1's chest, right over her spark. "I bet you killed thousands of Decepticons with your bare hands." Elita-1 rumbled her engines, but Slipstream didn't sound angry or upset. Without lifting her head, she continued: "If you come back with so much as a dent, I'm ordering the entire air force to scrap them, consequences be damned."

Elita-1 put her hand over Slipstream's cockpit. "All right," she said.

Wing hadn't spent a lot of time in the ship since eir release. Ey attended eir shifts, because nobody seemed to have noticed yet, but eventually Dai Atlas would realize. Wing kept emself prepared for exile at all times, sneaking energon off the ship and into discrete caches in isolated locations. Old lessons from the Primal Vanguard kept moving to the front of eir processor, and ey avoided the company of other mechs as much as possible in those brief periods between the end of eir shift and eir exploration of the alien planet.

So the fact that Nautica could find em at all would have been surprising enough, even putting aside the fact that Nautica never came up to Circle quarters. As she'd explained it last time, the only reason she would have to come up in the first place would be to socialize with Circle members, and anyone worth socializing with already came down to the lab and the civilian areas. Also, she'd added, she didn't like the decor.

Wing couldn't really argue; it had taken em a while to get used to the stark, undecorated halls as well.

"There you are," Nautica said, relief evident in her voice. Her hand loosened on Wing's wrist. "I don't know which one is your hab suite, but can we go in? I feel like the walls are staring at me."

"They could be," Wing said, "but I doubt it. The metrotitan has been unconscious for longer than I remember."

Nautica made a face somewhere between a pained smile and a grimace. "Thanks for that," she murmured. "Are we going inside or not?"

Wing led her to eir room and let her in; the space, just barely adequate for one mech, felt impossibly crowded with two. "What was it you didn't want to say out there?"

She looked at the ground without raising her visor. "You never visit anymore," she said. "You're sneaking off the ship again, aren't you?"

"I never stopped," Wing said, forcing a smile to eir face. "Except when I was in the brig."

"Wing, I'm serious. You can't keep doing this." Nautica shook her head. "I mean, if I've noticed, other mechs have as well. I'm not the most observant when it comes to people." She flashed a quick, nervous smile.

Wing let eir gaze drift up and away from her. "To be honest," ey said, "I thought I would be discovered well before this. You're right; what I'm doing is dangerous. I've been pushing my boundaries more than I should. The conflict in my spark is too great, and distance has not resolved it. I have to leave the Circle."

"Okay, that's not what I meant," Nautica said. She reached out, then drew her hand back and did a restless full-body partial transformation before settling back into root mode. "Are you planning to join one of the other factions?"

"No." Wing reached out eir hand and waited for Nautica to put hers in eirs. "I've been thinking a lot about my time in the Primal Vanguard recently."

Nautica tipped her head to the side and finally met Wing's gaze for a brief moment before letting her optics dart away again. "You mean survival training," she said. "Are you leaving, then?" Her mouth twitched upward in a brief, awkward smile. "I suppose there are plenty of planets less hostile to Cybertronian life than this one."

"There are," Wing agreed ruefully. Eir plating gave a flinch at remembered pain. "But for all my quarrels with how Dai Atlas is handling this whole situation, I cannot bring myself to abandon my people—my friends—in a hostile environment. I will be here, should anyone need to call on me."

"I hope the peace treaty goes through." Nautica squeezed Wing's hand for a moment before drawing hers back. "I'll miss you. And I'd be lying if I said I thought you'd stay put on this ship. Maybe I'm not the most observant mech out there, but…you haven't been happy here for a long time, have you?"

Wing dimmed eir optics. "No," ey admitted.

"Then maybe once the Autobots and the Decepticons stop fighting, we'll be able to meet again." She opened her abdominal plates and pulled out a small device. "Here, this is a private communicator. Proxima and I modded it for you. Take it? We can use it in case Dai Atlas blocks your comms to the ship."

Wing took the device and smoothed eir fingers over the small viewscreen. "Thank you," ey said.

Nautica grinned. "Don't worry, it can't track your location unless you tell it to," she said. "I don't want you to be out there in trouble, all on your own…but I don't want the communicator to be the cause of that trouble, either." She hesitated, then leaned in to give Wing a hug. It wasn't the best hug Wing had even been given; Nautica hugged like she had no idea where to put her limbs and how tight to hold, and when she drew back her plating scraped uncomfortably against eirs. But ey hadn't been hugged at all in far too long, and so ey savored the sensation for as long as it lasted.

"You have been a good friend," Wing said into her audial sensor. "You and Proxima both. I'm glad to not have to say goodbye to you just yet."

"Well. You're still saying goodbye to me," Nautica said, pulling back with a little laugh. "But we'll still be able to talk."

"Come with me to fill my tanks one last time?" Wing asked. "I won't make you stay any longer than it takes."

Nautica's optics flashed behind her visor. "Do you think you should risk being noticed?"

Wing pinged eir chronometer and debated for a moment before sighing. "Perhaps not. I should have enough energon stored out there for a while." Ey bowed eir head. "I will miss you."

"I'll miss you, too." And, after a slight hesitation, she left, striding out the door and down through the halls like she had wheels in her feet. Wing closed eir eyes and tucked the communicator into eir plating.

Nautica was right. It was time to leave the Circle of Light for good.

Ambulon was the only medic on duty when the two patients awoke. Fair enough, he supposed, given that Nickel and Knock Out had dealt with the initial distress call while Ambulon recharged. And technically, he could have called up some of the Constructicons once the equipment started beeping a five klik to wakeup warning—they'd all gotten enough medical training via the link with Hook to be useful enough around the medical bay, even if they had an irritating tendency to bypass medical security protocols. Truthfully, he just didn't feel comfortable around them—a fully functional combiner, none of Ambulon's itchy paint or memory blocks needed, and they'd always seemed perfectly at ease with sharing their mental space in a way that Ambulon couldn't understand.

So instead of making any calls, he let those five kliks pass in aggrieved silence.

"Where am I?!" Skywarp shrieked as his systems booted up. "Where's Starscream?"

Ambulon had taken up a position between the two recharge slabs, and he leaned over so that Skywarp could see the light of his optics. "You're in the medical bay," he said as clear and precise as he could manage. "Starscream isn't with you, but Thundercracker is on the other—whoa!" He flinched back as Skywarp's arm shot out to pat frantically at Thundercracker's wing where it hung off the slab.

"Thundercracker?" Skywarp whimpered, sounding more like a lost hatchling than one of the Winglord trine. Ambulon grimaced and turned to the status readouts. He hated this part of his job.

When Thundercracker finally answered with a very faint, "I'm here, Skywarp," Ambulon dimmed his optics and tapped his claws on both slabs to get their attention.

"You may not want to hear the details, but you need to know so that you can decide what to do," he said to neither of them in particular, staring at the space in between where only Skywarp's trembling hand and Thundercracker's limp wing stayed. "As you may or may not be aware due to traumatic memory processing damage, your sparkbond has been broken. Skywarp, you had the bond closed off when it snapped, so while you may experience some fatigue and—" a low wail started up from Skywarp's slab, but Ambulon soldiered through— "emotional damage, you will make a full physical recovery."

"Why are you saying it like that?" Skywarp screeched. He thrashed in the loose stasis bonds remaining over his body. "Thundercracker? What about Thundercracker? He's going to be okay, too, right?"

Ambulon risked a glance over at Thundercracker and immediately wished he hadn't. Thundercracker lay there, staring up at the ceiling, fine tremors running all through his frame.

Frag, Ambulon really hated this part.

He tried to keep his voice professional. "Unfortunately, it looks like Thundercracker was reaching out with the bond when it snapped. In addition to weakening his spark overall, there was also a rebound effect where the tendrils of his spark snapped back on his frame. That caused enough damage to the chamber to make it impossible for Thundercracker's spark to modulate its own fluxes. As a result, for now, Thundercracker's spark is too weak to sustain his entire frame."

Skywarp wailed, and Ambulon looked towards the door for a moment. Maybe someone from the medical team would come in anyway. "What does that even mean?!"

Ambulon risked another glance at Thundercracker, but aside from his optics looking dimmer, he gave no sign that he was even listening. "It means he's not going to be able to move normally for a while—if he stays too long in this frame and his spark continues to weaken, the metal could turn to slag permanently, but that's a very unlikely scenario. It means that no amount of exposure would make it living metal again. But, again, it's unlikely. He'd have to be inflicting more damage on his spark instead of allowing it to recover." Finally, his traitorous voice overcame the politeness he'd been attempting, and he found himself blurting out, "It means he's not going to recover if you try to bond with him again too soon."

A loud static shriek met that statement, and in one swift movement Skywarp ripped the stasis bonds off of his body and jolted upright, standing there with his whole frame tensed and trembling in a strange mirror of Thundercracker's. "What do you mean? You're saying I can't bond with TC again?"

"No, that's not exactly what I—"

"Thundercracker?" Skywarp's voice rose in pitch and volume, drowning out Ambulon's attempted correction. "Thundercracker, I can't feel you at all. Aren't you upset about this? Say something! We're never going to—" He stumbled towards Thundercracker's slab and fell to his knees, grabbing for Thundercracker's limp hand. "Say something, Thundercracker!"

Ambulon waited. Thundercracker could speak; his vocalizer and other important functions were close enough to his spark that they would be prioritized over the rest of his frame. When Thundercracker said nothing, Ambulon flipped through the readouts. Completely clear vocalizer function as well as commlink; neither active.

Finally, after another agonizing wait in which Skywarp started to make small keening sounds, Thundercracker spoke. "Calm down, Warp. It's not that bad."

"Not that bad? We can't bond again, and Starscream's gone, and he's probably dead, and it's not that bad?!"

Ambulon stepped forward hastily before Skywarp could start throwing things around or something. "It's really not," he said. "Most of the permanent spark damage can be compensated for given sufficient recovery time. And—Thundercracker, we can reframe you into something smaller, temporarily. You still wouldn't be able to bond with Skywarp until your spark has stabilized and most of the major damage is repaired, but you could move around on your own."

Skywarp's low, rattling moan rose up through the medical bay, making Ambulon's audial sensors sting. Then, abruptly, it vanished, along with Skywarp himself, leaving only the sensation of displaced air.

Right. Teleportation. Ambulon vented heavily. At least Skywarp had been given the news and was throwing his fit somewhere besides the medical bay—

As if on cue, another, lower keen began. "I can't feel him," Thundercracker rasped, his voice barely a whisper and almost inaudible over his own static. "Oh, Primus, I can't feel either of them."

Ambulon shifted his weight awkwardly. "It's temporary," he offered, since Thundercracker at least seemed quieter than Skywarp. "Spark recovery is hard to give precise timelines for, because spark energy is so individual, but you've got a good chance of being able to bond with him again within a vorn. If you…want to."

"That's—that's still a vorn that I won't know whether he's alive or dead." Thundercracker's trembling grew worse, until Ambulon could have sworn he felt the vibrations through the slab and into the floor underneath his feet. Right. Sonics. That'd do it. "I don't think I can— What if he's doing something ridiculous and dangerous right now? He was so upset."

Ambulon grimaced down at his own hands. He felt impossibly itchy. "If it's the backlash damage you're worried about, he really is fine. The most he's got is a little charring on the inside of his spark chamber. It'll heal on its own."

"Even though the bond with me was open when Starscream—broke it?"

Ambulon's fingers scraped across his chest, and he realized he'd been scratching. Claws retracted, at least, but as soon as Thundercracker was calm again, he'd need to spray on some coverup paint. "Even though. With multiple bonds, it's actually safer to break the bond unless everyone's…open at the same time. His spark felt yours rebound and withdrew automatically to protect itself before the bond between the two of you snapped." In fact, if Thundercracker's own damage hadn't been so severe, the bond with Skywarp might have even stayed in place, albeit severely weakened. Ambulon didn't say that, though. He wasn't Knock Out, frag it.

"You can't say the same for Starscream."

"No, I can't, but if he was trying to block the bond, his symptoms are probably minor." Ambulon rubbed his palm hard against his chest in an attempt to alleviate some of the itch without scraping tracks in his paint. I felt my combiner team die, and I lived. He didn't say it; combiner teams weren't exactly the same as sparkbonding, and this wasn't about sharing personal experiences just to make a patient feel better.

Even if he was tempted to do something to make Thundercracker stop crying.

Before he could think better of it, he accessed the line to the bridge. «Medical bay here, we have an unauthorized exit. Make sure any sentries keep an eye out for Skywarp, and give us a call once he's found.»

«Got it,» said the crisp voice on the other end. «Should we have them bring him in?»

«I don't think that would work very well,» Ambulon said after a moment of wistful contemplation. «Just…keep an eye on him. If he looks like he's going to take a dive, get him out of the air, but otherwise you don't have to intervene.»

«Right. Bridge out.»

Ambulon turned the Thundercracker, whose keening hadn't abated. He sighed. "The sentries will be keeping an eye out for Skywarp," he said. "They'll make sure he stays safe."

Thundercrackers optics flared. Light streamed from them in ribbons as he turned his head slightly. He opened his mouth, then closed it. He didn't say anything.

Ambulon gave him an awkward smile. "You're stable enough that I'm going to go into the back room for a few moments," he said. "Is that okay?" At Thundercracker's low affirmative click, Ambulon walked over to the miniature lab area and shut the door before leaning heavily against it. He looked down at his chest; scratched all to hell, like he'd though. And, of course, it still itched fiercely.

A layer of paint wasn't going to do the trick; he activated the memory blockers as he moved towards the shelves in the back where they kept cosmetic supplies. That should get him through the rest of his shift, at least, even if Thundercracker started crying again.

Chapter Text

A full local solar cycle passed, and Orion found himself no closer to understanding the events leading up to his memory loss. He hadn't recharged, and he'd only pulled himself away from the data when he heard footsteps near the door. Sometimes Ratchet would come in and rummage around for one tool or another, and Orion would use that time to feign recharge and try to process all the data he'd downloaded. Eventually, once he had deemed himself "recharged" enough that the others wouldn't fuss over his absence, he slipped away into a small storage closet containing a singular viewscreen unit and used a datapad to continue sorting through news clips and databytes designed for hatchlings of all ages onlined more recently during the war than Orion had been.

The problem, he'd swiftly discovered, was that he had no emotional memory of Optimus Prime. Why had he made the decisions he did? Certainly none of that was in the archival footage Orion had found. And not finding it made sense; Optimus Prime had been a Prime. He would have been talking these decisions out in secret councils, more organized than the emergency meeting Orion had found himself a part of. Optimus Prime had power and advisors, and the only advantage Orion had was that he had somehow made these decisions, once upon a time.

Decisions like signing over a whole future clutch of hatchlings to the Decepticon warlord who'd overturned their society and launched a civil war.

It hadn't seemed so strange before he'd learned that over six thousand vorns had passed for everyone else. Megatron hadn't been shy about his dislike for his own sparkmate back in Orion's time. Orion was used to readjusting his views and theories as new information came to light, and maybe Megatron's issues had just been with Sentinel Prime. Maybe the rest had somehow been propoganda. But the records showing the capture of that hatchling ship—a memory that had seared itself into Orion's very core when he first heard the news—hadn't changed. Nothing he could find suggested that those reports had been false. And Optimus had agreed to Megatron's terms despite that.

Orion needed the footage from the negotiations, but nobody had seen fit to give it to him. They might never give it to him, he thought, remembering how quickly they'd shuffled him out of their meeting. At least he'd been accepted by a hostile warlord as a negotiator in an unstable peace treaty, and didn't that sound like a terrible idea when he thought about it. Even just remembering the anger radiating from every part of Megatron's fearsome frame made Orion shiver as his vents stopped momentarily.

But there had to be something he was missing that would give insight into Optimus' plans. Optimus Prime had never taken a Lord High Protector: why? Had he considered Megatron his Lord High Protector? That seemed backwards. Orion tried to think about how he had felt walking into that medical bay, but everything he'd thought previously had become inexorably tangled with the new information piling into his processor.

He'd idolized the relationship between the Prime and the Lord High Protector once, but that wasn't unusual. Most of the other hatchlings in the facility had considered the bond between the Prime and the Lord High Protector to be the ultimate love story when they stumbled across the banned recordings one of his caretakers had hidden away off the net. They'd watched holovid after holovid, from formerly authorized documentaries to thinly-veiled fictionalizations. The story of a young, unbonded Prime discovering his true love in the terrifying gladiatorial pits of Kaon. The story of a former prisoner rising above his misdeeds to become first the popular champion of the arena and then the bonded sparkmate of the Prime and the military leader of all of Cybertron. What about that story wouldn't they have fantasized over?

But that had all fallen apart less than a vorn later, when a different caretaker stumbled on them playacting as the Prime and the Lord High Protector, and they'd all been set in front of a different holovid, one clearly made for much older hatchlings, one that didn't shy away from the energon ripped from living plating or the sight of graying frames falling limp. That vid had made it clear that Megatron had been born in energon and returned to energon, and segment after segment of a quiet, sober Sentinel talked about how he'd been taken in, how love had dimmed his optics to the truth. Orion and the others had listened in horrified silence as Sentinel began to argue that Cybertron didn't need a Lord High Protector, that the tradition had only lead to disaster. The Matrix, he said, could not choose a Lord High Protector. The Matrix could only choose a Prime.

Since then, Orion had read countless histories. Sentinel and Megatron were the only pair in recorded history to have separated so violently, though with a critic's eye Orion had noticed discrepancies that hinted at previous less than perfect unions. In fact, he'd written about it and compiled all the data he'd collected as part of his archival evaluation before his final frame transition.

Maybe, he thought, that had been what attracted Sentinel's attention; proof that Orion would not be swayed by a handsome Lord High Protector the same way as Sentinel had been.

But while that would explain why he'd never taken a Lord High Protector, it didn't explain why he'd agreed to clutch for Megatron so easily. Especially considering that the records made no mention of him bearing any previous clutches. And it certainly didn't explain why Rodimus Prime had a Lord High Protector, apparently acquired just after the transfer of the Matrix.

The Autobots might be willing to answer that question. They might even give him the footage he needed once they calmed down. But something about the whole situation felt off—the Autobots weren't as friendly and welcoming as he would have expected.

It would have been idealistic and unrealistic, he told himself, to hope that the Autobots were a bunch of likeminded individuals fighting off Megatron's tyrannical desire for the strong to rule. That would be ridiculous; he'd already known that wasn't true, because not all of his fellow hatchlings in the care center had been fine, upstanding citizens. But apparently, somewhere in his spark, he'd wanted to believe in something that wasn't—this. Whatever this was.

Orion hated not knowing. Scrambling for emotional context that would explain his own decisions felt nothing like his thesis. There, he'd taken the questions Sentinel had put forth about the sanctity of the Prime and Lord High Protector relationship and applied that to analysis of past relationships belonging to dead mechs. He'd analyzed the difference between Override Prime's reported plan of military action and the events that played out on Cybertronian colonies following her Lord High Protector's intervention, then focused on the reports she'd made after that for inflection and word choice and omissions that had been overlooked by a society convinced that their relationship had to be perfectly harmonious. It had felt good, like he'd been able to finally uncover a truth hidden in plain sight.

Reading about himself felt like an exercise in frustration.

Maybe with time, he'd be able to achieve the emotional distance needed to make a proper analysis, but he didn't have that time. He'd seen already how unstable everything had become. And lingering in his mind was the thought that he had to get this right, because he couldn't afford to have regrets if—when—he regained his memories.

He could neither make decisions his future self would regret nor wait until those memories returned.

Orion gave a subvocal groan and put his head in his hands. The sting of new grief that should have been old couldn't be helping Orion focus, either; he'd learned early in his research that Alpha Trion, along with many of the mechs Orion remembered, had died. He'd been killed in a Decepticon raid on Iacon's Hall of Records; the data had been saved, but many of the archivists had not.

Maybe Orion needed a new tactic to understand all of this. Maybe trying to analyze his own actions would inevitably end in failure because he had too much emotional investment in the outcome. He'd lost over six thousand vorns of memory; in that time, he could have had hundreds of love affairs and had lost countless friends. Every newsclip he watched about himself served as a reminder that he sat here, functionally alone in a shoddy building on an alien planet with nothing to call his own.

But what if he focused on something different? There had to be another angle to look at this from, one that wouldn't bog him down in fresh grief or frustration.

His processor, already turning over those fresh memories of Sentinel Prime and his Lord High Protector, alighted on something Orion had always assumed he knew: the cause of the war.

Sentinel had talked a lot about how inherently violent Megatron had been, and how that had led to sedition. Nothing Orion had seen up until the point where his memories vanished had suggested any differently; the Decepticons had attacked cities full of civilians, had stolen those hatchlings, had fought again and again. Megatron had killed his sparkmate.

But now Orion had come face-to-face with the most terrifying, fearsome warlord Cybertronian history had ever known…and he had survived. More than that—if he thought back and pushed aside everything he'd ever believed—

Reneging on the treaty, Megatron had called it. He'd been angry, like some sort of caged beastformer, because he believed that the Autobots were trying to sabotage the peace negotiations. He'd been almost—almost—reassuring to Orion.

Orion wanted to see the negotiation footage with a desperation he could almost touch.

But taking Megatron's words for truth didn't make sense, either; the Decepticons had been the ones to start the war. If they'd wanted peace, they could have just stayed on Cybertron and fought with words instead of claws and blasters. Orion dimmed his optics. The viewscreen unit sat there, taking up his field of vision.

We're not currently at war. I could ask.

Before he could stop himself, he had shifted to face the viewscreen with intent, fingers gliding over the touchpad until the screen itself flickered on. The technology might be newer than Orion's heftily modified frame, but it still felt more comfortable than poring over newsclips of himself. He'd relaxed so far into the sensation of dealing with new technology set in front of him that it took a moment to realize that he didn't know how to contact Megatron. It wasn't as though there were a database of contact numbers, and the Autobots weren't going to give Orion a line to the Decepticons.

Still, he liked the sensation of the viewscreen, thrumming and ready to work. Instead of entering a frequency, Orion sifted through the specs—it was a surprisingly nice model for something that had been unceremoniously shoved into a storage closet—before turning to the list of previous calls.



Orion reset his optics, but the text at the top of the log remained unchanged. While the incoming calls list was full of designations Orion didn't recognize, both alien and Cybertronian, to all appearances the most recent outgoing call had been to Megatron himself.

A strange crawling sensation moved under Orion's plating. His fans clicked on as his spark flared and contracted. No, he couldn't sit here and try to analyze why Optimus Prime—why someone had called Megatron. Orion himself had turned the viewscreen on with the intention of calling Megatron. Maybe Optimus had wanted to know Megatron's motives as well. Maybe he had asked.

But he could have talked about those during negotiations, right?

Orion reached out and pressed the call button before he could talk himself out of it.

Megatron appeared on the screen, as menacing as he had ever looked, with his optics narrowed. "What are you playing at, Orion Pax?" he asked. "Do your Autobot handlers know you're contacting me?"

Orion straightened, his fans running faster. "No," he said. "They don't. I wanted to ask you some questions."


"Yes." Orion looked down at his hands and tried to calm their trembling. Megatron couldn't very well reach through the viewscreen and rip out his spark. The worst Megatron could do would be to sever the connection, and he hadn't done that yet. "I want to know why you started the war."

Megatron stared at him for a klik, then began to laugh. He didn't sound happy; the laugh sounded harsh, and it scraped across Orion's audials like claws. "Don't tell me you're missing those memories too," Megatron said. "You're too young to have been onlined before the war."

"I didn't forget," Orion said quietly, refusing to give a visible reaction. "I do remember what Sentinel Prime had to say on the subject. I've even seen a few clips of your speeches here and there. The ones that weren't censored in their entirety."

Megatron shook his head. "I have seen what the Autobots consider fair representation of my position," he said. "It's little more than a string of words they put together."

"A very brief string," Orion said. He let a little bit of humor slip into those words; maybe he didn't agree with the Decepticons, but he could at least recognize how little the Autobots had allowed him to know about the former Lord High Protector. "I…know that you were a dissident, and a gladiator, and that Sentinel Prime made you Lord High Protector despite all of that."

Megatron's optics flickered. "Do you really want to know what happened, Orion Pax?" he asked, and his voice had changed. He didn't sound angry anymore. His words had an odd intensity behind them, but they didn't sound cruel.

"I do."

Brilliant ruby optics flickered again, and Megatron leaned back. He must be in some sort of chair, Orion thought, though the viewscreen focused on his face rather than the surroundings. "I began life as a miner. Flightframe miners are rare, but the supervisors had no intention of releasing me because of my alt-mode. For vorns, I labored in terrible conditions, receiving just barely enough energon for someone doing half that amount of work to survive on. I watched what happened to my fellow miners. I saw how young all of us were; rarely does a miner reach three hundred vorns. And so I began to speak, and I began to write. This alone would have labeled me as a dissident.

"But when my writings grew popular enough to gain outside support, and the mines began receiving criticism, the Council saw a threat to their oppressive system and branded me a traitor. In their infinite kindness and mercy, they sent me to the gladiatorial ring, where I might one day win my freedom." Megatron's optics flashed bright. "Do you believe that this gladiatorial system was just?"

Orion could recognize a trap when he heard one. "I don't think I know enough about the system to say. You had already destroyed it by the time I came online."

"Hmph." Megatron flashed his dental plates in a sharp smile, devoid of warmth. "You might have lasted longer than a few seconds there, if someone had taken you under their wing. I was lucky enough that others there had read my words and believed in me, and were willing to teach me how to survive. There were a great many mechs to whom nobody granted that courtesy, for whom the gladiatorial pits became a swift execution that the Council had cleaned their hands of. A great many more grew sick, thanks to unsanitary conditions and constant exposure of energon to the air. Even if a mech survived the gladiatorial pit and won their freedom, they would not be the same. The Council would point to this broken husk of a mech, who had undergone thousands of vorns of torture, and they would declare that this justified their system. Have you ever wondered why there are so few histories of those who won their freedom? Why the few that did win it were only paraded briefly at public appearances before being shuffled out of sight once more?"

"I did," Orion said. Then he admitted, "I thought it was because the mechs were due their privacy."

Megatron barked another harsh laugh. "No." His optics dimmed. "I was luckier than my fellows. The aid of mechs now long dead gave me enough of an edge that I became a legend in the pits. I learned to fight, and to kill, and I was good at it. My popularity began to attract even those who considered themselves too good for the base amusements of the pits. People began to talk, again, and to look more closely.

"And Sentinel, well, Sentinel wanted to be the mech who tamed the mighty Megatron." Megatron's dental plates were on full display, now, not in a smile but in a grimace. "I took his offer. What better chance would I have to make my voice known? What other mech in any position of power would risk it by taking the conjunx rites with someone from such base origins?

"But he only gave me pretty words and promises, nothing else. He refused me contact with my former comrades, with the excuse that they were criminals. They would drag me into a sea of corruption, he said, and I had to present myself as the Lord High Protector. I have often thought that this was his secondary objective—to not only seem as though he had tamed me, but to tame me in truth. He did nothing to better the lives of those suffering. He would deflect and defer anything I asked for.

"And so, when I made my move, when I finally went against his wishes to speak out for the people who were still allowed no voice, he denounced me. My choices were to return to his side and stay a silent, obedient drone, or to protect my people. Which would you have chosen, Orion Pax?"

Orion didn't answer. He couldn't answer. Instead, he stood there in uncomfortable silence for a moment before bluring out, "Did you love him?"

"Never," Megatron said. "And before you begin your self-righteous Autobot scorn, your precious Sentinel bore no love for me, either. Ours was a bond of convenience—it was not even a bond of spark."

"Oh," Orion said quietly. "That's how you survived killing your own sparkmate. He wasn't your sparkmate at all."

"No, he wasn't." Megatron studied him for a moment. "Was that all you wanted to know?"

"Can I call you again?" Orion tried to bite the words back as soon as they left his vocalizer, but they hung there in the air as Megatron's optics flared.

"I see no reason why not, on my end," he said, his voice and face unreadable, "but your Autobot friends will find out that you have been calling me. I wouldn't be surprised if they put you in the brig for this breach of Autobot sensibilities. I could have extracted all manner of confidential data from you."

"I don't remember anything useful anyway," Orion said. A rush of reckless confidence struck him, and he found himself smiling. "And we're in a ceasefire. I'm your negotiator. So it's fine." Probably. "Until later, Megatron."

Megatron laughed, low and sharp, and the viewscreen went dark before flipping back to the log of previous calls. As soon as Megatron's image vanished, so too did that sudden confidence, and Orion found himself staring at the screen, at Megatron's name. Why had it been there? Megatron hadn't seemed—well, he'd seemed larger than life and charismatic enough to talk someone into a black hole, but he hadn't seemed—cruel. Or angry. What had Optimus Prime and Megatron talked about?

Orion glanced down at the datapads he still held. His plating jittered. Optimus Prime had agreed very swiftly to carrying a clutch for a previously hostile enemy. Had he and Megatron been involved in some sort of secret affair?

No. There was no way. There would have been some hint in the records—time spent away from the Autobots, rumors, speculation…someone would have picked up on it, even if it had been covered up. But then, what if that's why they took the Matrix away? I wouldn't remember why, after all.

Orion shivered again, full-bodied this time, and turned off the viewscreen unit with a decisive click. The call had to have been something else. He'd just have to ask Megatron next time, so that he could find out what the Emperor of Destruction had to say about the whole thing.

Verity stared blankly down at the gigantic datapad propped up against the side of Soundwave's recharge slab, eyes skimming over the alien characters before she turned and yelled. "They're doing what?!"

"Mounting raids," Ravage said from where he lay in the corner. His tail twitched back and forth. "They want you back and are beginning to escalate the amount of force they're willing to use."

"Did they even try asking me?!" Verity slammed the bottom of her fists down on the nearest surface, which left the sides of her hands stinging. She winced and shook them. "That's such bullshit! They only give a flying fuck about me because you're aliens or whatever. What are they going to do with me if they get me back, experiment to make sure I don't have any alien viruses? Stick me back with foster parents who can't be bothered to give a shit about me? Sure, maybe they'd try for the first couple of weeks for this famous alien-kidnapped kid, but if I weren't almost eighteen I could guarantee that within a year I'd be back in rotation because they couldn't deal with me and won't deal with me." She tried to slam her fists down again, but Laserbeak let out a screech and caught her wrists gently in warm metal tentacles.

"Be careful!" Rumble yelped. "Human bones break really easily."

"Whatever!" Verity could feel the sting of hot tears behind her eyes, and she turned away, yanking her wrists out of Laserbeak's grip. "You all think of me as a novelty, but at least you acknowledge that I'm a thinking, breathing person. For now. Fuck them. I don't need them. I don't need anyone! As soon as you let me go, I'm gone."

Before she could get a full head of righteous indignation on, though, Laserbeak shuffled awkwardly against her from behind, resting a heavy metal beak on her shoulder. "Soundwave explained before, didn't he? We beastformers were treated as little more than drones back on Cybertron. Other Cybertronians were allowed to have a chance; beastformers were almost universally sent straight to the gladiatorial pits as soon as we reached our majority. The ones that weren't couldn't get jobs. They had to steal to survive, or they went Empty."

Verity spun, yanking herself away again to glare at all of them, an angry retort on the tip of her tongue. This wasn't about them. But within an instant, all that red-hot rage fizzled out into a low, longing melancholy. She knew what Laserbeak was trying to say. She sighed and flopped down onto the hard metal floor, pretending not to notice as Rumble flopped down next to her. "So what did you do?"

"My hatchling facility let me out into the world," Laserbeak said. "I think they believed they were being kind; they let all the beastformer adults go. I stole for a little while before overconfidence led to carelessness. I was captured and sent to the pits half-offline. I got lucky; Ravage and Buzzsaw found me and nursed me back to health."

"And what about them?" Verity glanced at Ravage, but his tail had stilled and his optics gone completely dark. He looked asleep, or what passed for sleep when you were a mechanical alien.

"Uh," Rumble said. He scrambled to his feet as though he'd been yanked up by the hand of God. Verity watched, bemused, as he ran towards the door. "I think I hear Boss calling me. You have fun back there."

Verity watched as the door slid shut and clicked behind him. "What's gotten into his plating?"

Laserbeak's expressions might be harder to read than the more humanoid Cybertronians, but Verity was pretty sure she wasn't imagining the confusion she could see on eir face. "Scared of Ravage?" ey guessed. "He shouldn't be. Ravage never talks about his past, so we don't really know." Ey glanced over at eir sleeping lover, and, wow, Verity would never get used to polyamorous robots with enormously different physical types and sizes. That was something you didn't see in most alien invasion movies. "Buzzsaw was hatched in the pits, but we think Ravage might have been sent to the pits by his creators."

"His creators?"

"I don't think he was part of a clutch," Laserbeak said. "He's never shown any recognition when I talked about my experiences in the hatchling facility."

Verity frowned and opened her mouth to continue that line of questioning when it hit her. "Oh, fuck. You mean you think his robot parents sent him to jail?" Her stomach lurched and started to twist into a knot. "Oh, fuck."

Laserbeak ducked eir head. "We think he might still have siblings out there. Or…might have, before the war. But we wouldn't know who they are, and Ravage doesn't talk about it."

"What about genetics?" Verity offered. "You know…they've got to have something in common."

Laserbeak stared blankly for a moment before eir optics flared. "Oh, you mean like frametype!" ey said. "No, not necessarily. Beastformers are a random mutation. His siblings could be aerials or grounders, we'd never know. And past the immediate generation, unless you have a direct comparison for the donor or donors, most CNA coding can't be traced for lineage. It's not like your human genetics."

Verity shook her head. "Okay, let's not get into that right now. I'm not sure I'm capable of handling that much information about robo-babies. What about the others, though? Rumble and Frenzy don't look like animals, they just look…small."

"That's their story," Laserbeak said. "They're not part of our sparkbond. And Soundwave doesn't like being gossiped about."

Verity let out a long, slow breath and sat up to drape her elbows over her knees. "So what you're saying is that you're another orphan, huh?" She glanced at Laserbeak out of the corner of her eye. "So are you going to give me up? To the army, I mean. I'm causing everyone a lot of trouble just by existing. You'd be better off without me. Right?"

"We're not afraid of humans." Laserbeak fluffed eir wing plating up, and Verity listened to the soft clattering—like rain, she thought—as it resettled. "Even if they have brought out a weapon that can pierce Cybertronian plating."

"No way," Verity scoffed. "I didn't vanish that long ago. How would they even do that? You guys are more solid than rock! Are they using diamonds or something?"

"Worse." Laserbeak's optics dimmed. "They're using melted and repurposed bits of living metal from Megatron's old frame."

"Uh." Verity's stomach lurched so hard that she had to clutch at her abdomen. "Oh my god. You're telling me that they're shooting you with dead bits of your friend's body? That's so fucked up!" She shivered and locked her hands together, pulling herself in tight against her knees. "Maybe I should go out there so they know I'm here willingly." As soon as she said it, she could think of a dozen different excuses they would tell themselves: she's brainwashed, she's a fake, she's being threatened, she doesn't know what she's doing, she's infected, Stockholm Syndrome, whatever. Well, screw them. They didn't know a damn thing about her.

"It would make you a target," Laserbeak said. "Rumble's right: humans are very fragile. If their bullets can rip through our plating, imagine what they could do to your skin."

"So find a way!" Verity retorted. "This is my fault, and I'm going to go out there and say something no matter what. I have to do something."

Laserbeak tilted eir head. "If you insist," ey said, and Verity thought ey sounded almost proud. "I'm no expert, but I bet we could build you some crude exoskeleton to give you some type of protection."

"Good," Verity said. She watched her own hands as they curled around her calves. After a moment, Laserbeak side-shuffled closer again, and this time Verity didn't pull away from the warm thrum of living mechanical systems and the comforting heat against her side and back. Her breaths started to slow, and her mind started to turn.

Chapter Text

The biggest problem with the storage closet turned out to be that Orion kept losing track of time and having to ping his chronometer. Without Ratchet coming in all the time, he managed to get himself completely absorbed in his reading again, spurred on by the new information he'd gotten from Megatron. Not sparkmates, he'd said, and not in love; they had taken the conjunx endura rites out of convenience. But they'd definitely had a physical relationship unless they'd been lying about that first clutch of theirs, or the second.

Thinking about it brought a fresh wave of horror and sorrow. What must it have been like for those hatchlings to realize that one of their creators had killed the other, back when it had happened?

This time, though, he wasn't looking for information on the relationship between the Prime and his Lord High Protector. He'd scrolled through countless newsfeeds searching for information about the prewar mines, and he'd found distressingly little. If Megatron had been lying to him the whole time—which Orion didn't think was the case—he'd picked a good topic. What Orion could verify about the mining situation rang true. He even found a brief reference to a mining accident that chilled his spark with how callous the writer sounded. Megatron's apparently game-changing speech, which followed, had been stricken from the record clumsily enough to leave behind decaying static, while Sentinel Prime's speech not a joor later denounced Megatron as the Lord High Protector.

So Orion continued to pick through the scant information about the state of the mines, wondering as he did if he had once done the very same thing as Optimus Prime, tucked up in the storage closet with the viewscreen. If he'd called Megatron for the same reason.

And if so, why it had taken so long to recognize the discrepancies in Sentinel Prime's story.

Orion found himself jolted from his thoughts by the viewscreen coming online with a harsh buzzing ring. He frowned at the incoming call—the name looked alien, perhaps one of the native residents of this planet? Agent William Fowler. Before he could answer it, the viewscreen accepted the transmission automatically, and a strange, alien face popped up, subtly different from a Cybertronian and in constant fluid motion. "Hello?" Orion said, cautious but intrigued by the newcomer.

"Prime!" the alien yelled. "There you are; I want you to tell your people to let us in. Do you know how much work it's been convincing everyone that you haven't turned on the human species? You couldn't even get someone to take a few minutes out of their busy alien day to let us know what you found out about that poor girl they kidnapped?"

Orion stared at the screen and reset his audial sensors and optics both at once. "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," he said. "There's been some sort of misunderstanding, I'm—"

"Misunderstanding!" The alien's face contorted, and Orion watched with fascination. It looked like humans—if that was what this being was—were almost entirely made of a soft, squishy protometal. "Look, I know you're operating on a different time system, but you've got to work with me here. We need that information, and you're the only one who can get it for us!"

"I'm not who you think I am," Orion said before Agent William Fowler could get in another word. "I'm not Optimus Prime. I'm Orion Pax."


Beyond Agent William Fowler, Orion heard another alien voice. "What's going on? Do we need to go back again?"

"No, wait, hold up. First of all, how did you get down to Earth, and second all, why do you look and sound exactly like Optimus Prime?"

Orion shifted his weight, suddenly wary. From Agent William Fowler's words, it sounded like some tension existed between the Autobots and these aliens, and he didn't really want to accidentally involve himself in two highly charged diplomatic situations. "I can't really say," he said, keeping his voice quiet. "It's not—I'm not authorized, I think."

"Not authorized— Okay, listen. Whoever you are, can you let us in? We need to have this conversation indoors, if your Prime is well enough to cope with potential pathogens."

"I'll ask someone," Orion promised, and he scrambled out of the storage closet as fast as he could just so that he wouldn't have to look Agent William Fowler in the eyes as he commed Windblade. «Windblade? There's a viewscreen unit in this closet, and it just turned itself on. There are aliens on the screen, and they want to be let in to talk to us.»

«Don't touch the viewscreen,» she said without hesitation. «Prowl doesn't want you talking to them.»

Orion grimaced and closed his mask over his face. «I may have already done that,» he admitted. «By accident. They were very angry, so I told them I wasn't Optimus Prime.»

«Ah.» Windblade fell silent for a moment. «Well, then, I believe it's time we let them in.»

«What?» Orion rounded the corner and emerged into the open space, where Windblade gave him a brief smile just as large doors slid apart to reveal a long, dark tunnel.

A single vehicle drove in, and to Orion's surprise, small organics crawled out of it, one of them Agent William Fowler. He folded himself down into his newly unfamiliar alt mode, trying to get a better look at their faces as they retrieved another organic in a wheeled chair—similar in concept to a hoverchair, Orion noted, but designed specifically for ground travel.

An angry Cybertronian blat behind him made Orion scramble back into root mode, chastened. He shuffled back away from the aliens. They were so small! The viewscreen hadn't given any indication of how tiny they were, especially the one with two streamers coming from their head.

Agent William Fowler looked at him, then pressed the flat of their hand above their eyes. "That's Prime," they said. "That's Prime or his evil twin, one or the other. Does someone want to explain to me what the hell is going on here?"

After a brief moment of silence—from the way Windblade and Prowl's optics flickered, Orion guessed there was a conversation going on that he wasn't privy to—Windblade lowered her wings and knelt down on the floor. "There was an incident," she said. "Optimus Prime is no more; he has no memory of being Optimus Prime, and he is no longer our leader. This is Orion Pax."

"Amnesia?" the roundest alien asked, a strange hopeful quality to their voice.

"Was this always a possibility?" one of the others asked.

Windblade didn't answer, but the clang of new footsteps indicated Ratchet's arrival. "It was," he said, "though we didn't know it. He had an allergic reaction to your planet's atmosphere, let's say. Once he got here, he was going to lose his memories sooner or later."

"Well, shit," said the same one who'd just asked. They glanced over at the smallest alien and grimaced. "What about your negotiations?"

"The situation became uneasy for a while, but Orion has kindly volunteered to examine what information we have and aid in negotiations despite not having access to his memories," Windblade put in smoothly. "Now, if I may, what was so important that you needed to speak to us?"

Agent William Fowler scowled like they'd gotten a glitch mouse sized obstruction in their fuel intakes. "Listen. We're not in a very good position here. Most of the government doesn't trust you. Or like you. The fact that one of your Decepticon buddies snatched up a human girl while you continue to make nice with them doesn't sit well with anyone up there in their fancy business suits."

"Trying to explain that you work on a different timescale doesn't hold water for them," the other talkative one added. "They've got ants down their pants, and right now we're trying very hard to keep hostilities from escalating. America definitely doesn't need a war with alien robots right now, but good luck trying to convince someone who's paranoid and trigger-happy. We can't do anything more right now unless you help us get that girl back."

"Look, we get it," Agent William Fowler continued. "Strange robot amnesia does tend to put promises on the backburner. But that still leaves us in an awkward position—"

"Humans!" a new voice yelled excitedly. Orion startled back as Rodimus Prime barreled in, all flame and flash as he leaned down. "Greetings, humans, we come in peace!" Ultra Magnus followed at a more sedate clip, frowning.

"…And who the hell is this? Are these?" Agent William Fowler rubbed at the side of their head. "I thought we agreed that you had to clear any newcomers before they arrived. Or at least let us know."

"I'm Rodimus Prime, supreme leader of all Autobots," Rodimus said, tilting his head in an arrogant preening gesture. "This is my Lord High Protector, Ultra Magnus." When none of the humans looked impressed, his plating flattened somewhat, and he added, "Bah-weep-graaaahnah wheep ni ni bong?"

"What in the name of Uncle Sam's undershorts are you saying?" Agent William Fowler rubbed harder at the side of their head. "You're the new Autobot leader? And what in the world is a Lord High Protector?"

Ultra Magnus folded his arms over his chest plating and didn't answer. In fact, all the other Cybertronians were silent, as were the humans. Rodimus scowled and whipped his head around to glare at Prowl. Definitely a conversation that Orion wasn't invited to.

Well, if he wasn't being told not to, might as well deflect the tension using some well-placed ignorance. "The role of Prime is that of our supreme leader, chosen by Primus emself through the Matrix. The Lord High Protector, traditionally, shares the responsibility of governing and protecting our people."

«Orion Pax,» Prowl hissed into his comm. «Be silent.»

Orion thought about arguing, but he settled back as Rodimus folded himself down into vehicle mode. "So that's the long and short of it!" he said. "Check out my style, don't I look great? Hey, who wants a ride?"

"Me!" The smallest human raised their arm.

"Rodimus," Ultra Magnus rumbled. "Have you forgotten why we're here? The negotiations will be beginning again soon. We need to get Orion Pax to the site."

"Awww," Rodimus said, though he didn't transform back. "Okay, come on, Orion Pax. Get your t-cog in gear, we've got an evil warlord to out-negotiate."

"And exactly how long is this expected to talk?" the chatty human asked. "We haven't exactly gotten any answers yet."

"I will answer any questions you have," Prowl said, his voice sharp as a blade.

The human eyed him. "Yeah, I think we'll wait, just to be safe," they said.

"Hurry up, Pax!" Rodimus yelled, and Orion tore his attention away from the interactions between Prowl and the humans. He folded himself down into his alt mode and followed Rodimus through the same tunnel that the humans had come in from.

Elita-1 spent most of the trip in tense silence; she wasn't sure how to feel about riding Megatron to the negotiation site, but she certainly wasn't about to treat it as though they'd suddenly become best friends. He was still her commanding officer, no matter the awkwardness of the situation. But just as she spotted a speck on the horizon that her locational analysis confirmed as being the negotiation site, Megatron spoke. «Are you nervous about seeing the Autobots again?»

Elita-1 grimaced, glad that Megatron couldn't see her expression. «Yes and no,» she said. «I don't believe Prowl will be there, at least.» And wouldn't that have been awful, to see Prowl as devoted to the Autobot cause as ever, to have him see her as a traitor to the cause when she could only look at him and see the face of everything precious the Autobots had ruined.

«No, they've done a good job of keeping him away.» Megatron's tone grew dry as they neared the structure. «Remember that you will not be bargained away.»

«Understood, sir.»

Perhaps that had been his way of checking in on her mental state, Elita-1 thought as they glided over. She slid off his frame midair to land on the metal with a clang. Megatron landed some distance away, and Elita-1 stayed in a crouch until the swaying of the platform had tapered off.

"Megatron, you're late," Dai Atlas growled. Elita-1 turned to look inside the structure. The Autobots, apparently, had already arrived. Elita-1's optics skimmed an uncomfortable Orion Pax and a nervous Rodimus Prime before settling on Ultra Magnus. His optical field met hers, and his faceplates went momentarily blank.

"Ultra Magnus," Elita-1 said, giving him a tight smile and a mocking salute. "Fancy seeing you here. How's the war been treating you?"

"Elita-1?" Magnus sputtered. "You—you were killed!"

"No," she said, deadpan. "Surprised?"

Megatron stepped up behind her, all contained violence. "Surely you wouldn't begrude me my own Autobot companion, seeing as how the Prime's escort has expanded."

"Uh," Rodimus said. "That's a Decepticon brand. What, do you think we're stupid?" He half-turned to Magnus. "They're not allowed to do that, right?"

"We do outnumber them at the moment," Orion said in a quiet voice.

"Elita-1," Ultra Magnus rumbled, looking down at Rodimus, "was formerly an Autobot commander, one of Sentinel Prime's lieutenants. She went missing and was presumed dead at the hands of the Decepticons following the capture of the ship she was protecting, which carried a clutch of hatchlings. There was no indication—" He cut himself off and scowled at Elita-1.

"If we could get back to the negotiations?" Dai Atlas snapped. "There is a lot of ground to be covered."

"So…she's been brainwashed?" Rodimus leaned towards Elita-1 with a frown. "She does look evil."

Orion Pax looked down at the ground, visibly uncomfortable with the entire situation. Elita-1 couldn't deny a streak of vicious glee at that; after everything Optimus Prime had put the Decepticons through, all the conflict he'd continued unquestioning from where Sentinel left off…well, she didn't want him dead as much as she'd wanted Sentinel dead, but she wasn't above being glad to see him like this.

"You could go elsewhere if you grow impatient," Megatron suggested to Dai Atlas. "Surely we have enough of your Neutrals here to oversee the process in your absence."

Elita-1 smirked at Ultra Magnus more for show than anything else and sauntered back to position herself behind Megatron's left shoulder as a show of support.

"I hate to interrupt," Orion Pax said, still too quiet, "but I've been thinking a lot about this, and I believe the first thing we need to agree on is a foundation to make sure the people at the bottom aren't exploited. I think both sides have concerns about this, and if we resolve that issue, perhaps it would be easier for us to proceed forward without feeling that either the Autobots or the Decepticons are going to come out on top." He hesitated and looked up at all of them in turn. "Would that be okay?"

Megatron turned his attention towards the former Prime. "You've certainly changed your tune," he said. "Have the Autobots been forgetting to lecture you on what you're supposed to want from us?"

Orion's optics flickered and refocused on the ground again. "Perhaps it's just that I remember being from a time when the war was only a few thousand vorns old, as opposed to…this. But it's what both sides want, right? Protection from the other?"

"Shouldn't I have some say in this as well?" Rodimus complained—but without much heat, Elita-1 thought. "I'm the Prime, after all."

Ultra Magnus, to Elita-1's surprise, glanced over at her before saying anything. "Orion Pax has a good point," he said. "A system of justice should be fair to all, regardless of origins. I would be interested in hearing your ideas as to how this could be implemented, Orion Pax."

Well now. Megatron glanced back and caught her optics, and she returned the look with a brief shrug. Perhaps she shouldn't have overestimated the Autobots; an analysis of the original footage hadn't shown any indication that they had planned the Prime changeover. Up close like this, she could see the honesty shining through in their reactions. These three mechs had very different personalities and priorities. Orion Pax came off as almost painfully earnest, while Rodimus Prime clearly had no concept of how to behave or throw his weight around, and Ultra Magnus… Ultra Magnus somehow hadn't changed at all despite the burden of his loyalties.

Maybe, a tiny part of her whispered, she should have tried harder to tell him the truth before she left.

Still, those loyalties still held strong, and as she followed Megatron and the Autobots inside the structure, she could see Ultra Magnus watching her with the same expression he would have given any criminal, common or uncommon. So maybe trying would have been futile after all, as she'd originally thought. Either way, without any arrest attempts and the Autobots visibly off-guard, Elita-1 felt a whole lot more optimistic about the peace negotiations.

Marissa was beginning to regret promising the giant alien robots that they'd wait. Sure, it was a matter of pride, now, in addition to intergalactic relations, but after the first three mind-numbing hours she started to think longingly about being somewhere where she could crawl into a hot tub with soft music playing instead of the headache-inducing clang of giant metal footsteps interspersed with Sari's occasional deliberately dramatic sighs and loud arguments with her father.

If they'd had a reasonable expectation of privacy, she would have used the time to talk to Bill and strategize some, but the bots had proven early on that they possessed phenomenal hearing. Anything Bill could hear, she had to expect the aliens would hear as well, and wasn't that just the cherry on this ice cream sundae of impending disaster. She could sit and stew in her own feelings all she wanted to—which she had—but she couldn't do more than give Bill meaningful glances every now and then in between attempts at meditation and ridiculously inane cell phone games.

Dr. Chase had brought his tablet again, of course, and apparently felt comfortable enough to hook into whatever wi-fi signal the Autobots had tapped into, because she'd glanced over a number of times to see him cruising the web and checking his email. Smart. Foolish, too, given the fact that being exposed to alien technology tended to short out electronic devices and the government probably wouldn't pay for this one, but smarter than just fucking sitting here.

The silence weighed all the heavier because all of the mechs besides Chromia stayed completely silent. Chromia would occasionally talk to Sari in a quiet tone, but the other mechs weren't just not talking unless they needed to; they weren't talking at all. End of story.

So when Dr. Chase gave a soft exclamation over something, Marissa was willing to give the middle finger to polite boundaries. She stood up to peer over his arm at the tablet. "What is it?"

Dr. Chase tipped the tablet to give her a better view. "It's…a message. To me, apparently; I suppose I need to be more discreet about the work I do for the government."

"Wait, what?" Bill roused himself from the light doze he'd settled into to join them on Dr. Chase's other side. "There's been a breach of security?"

"I'm not sure."

Marissa skimmed the message and frowned.

So, hey, you're not actually the guy I want, but you've got the connections I need. Show this to your government grunt friends, okay? The ones who know the Autobots. The ones who attacked us. This is Verity Carlo, and if you're going to start some kind of stupid war, you'd better not do it in my name. Nobody gave a shit about me before, and you don't really give a shit about me now if you're going to attack my friends. I AM HERE OF MY OWN FREE WILL. Nobody kidnapped me, nobody's hurting me, and you can't touch me. -Verity

Below that were three attached photos of a girl who did indeed look very much like Verity Carlo. One showed her with her arms around the neck of a shy-looking blue and red robot only a little taller than a human. The next showed her grinning as she rode on the back of what looked to be the same black and red flying robot that had kidnapped her in the first place. And the third showed her curled up against the side of a metal panther.

"Well, I'll be damned," Bill said, then grimaced and cast a guilty look in Sari's direction. "What do you make of this?"

"I don't know," Marissa replied, leaning back so that Dr. Chase could tip it over towards Bill for a closer read. "That's…very convenient."

Sari, apparently attracted by the thought of being somewhere she wasn't supposed to, darted up to lean over Bill's arm before grabbing the tablet from Dr. Chase and holding it up with both hands. "Oh, wow, is she flying? She looks like she's having a great time!" Sari darted a meaningful look at her father. "I bet she doesn't have to deal with people whining about how she's not old enough to fly on her own! She can't be that much older than me!" When her father just looked confused, she turned to Windblade, which gave Marissa the opportunity to snatch the tablet back and deposit it in Dr. Chase's lap.

"What do you think?" she asked. "How would someone have found out that you're working with us?"

"Well, it could theoretically have been someone who's noticed my absences from the university," Dr. Chase replied, "but I don't think they would put that together with aliens. If this young woman is really who she claims to be, couldn't she have gotten help from these Decepticons? We know that Cybertronians are capable of great technological feats that seem nearly impossible to us. Our security is probably nothing compared to what they could come up with; we're lucky to be so far below them that they consider our secrets uninteresting."

And wasn't that an unsettling thought, especially knowing that there were certain higher-ups who wanted to start a war with an alien race in the misguided opinion that they would win. Marissa shuddered.

"So we know she could've sent it," Bill said. "That doesn't mean she did."

"She looks happy," Marissa said. Her eyes strayed to the picture of Verity riding the metal bird. "I'm no expert on kidnapped children. That's never been my area, thank god. But you have to admit, it makes more sense than the Autobots teaming up with these Decepticons for some nefarious purpose." She locked gazes with Bill long enough to know he was thinking the same thing she was: that Verity's apparent happiness didn't make a nefarious plot impossible, and part of protecting humanity would always be carrying those lingering doubts. But unlike General Bryce, they'd been working with the Autobots for months, and while the bots might be frustrating and stubborn, they hadn't been violent towards humans. "And if they didn't take her by force, there's something else going on."

"And given how little we've been told…" Bill trailed off, comprehension dawning on his face before it was replaced by a bleak mask. Marissa imagined she looked much the same. What had been so important that the Decepticons needed to kill for it?

A slight sound drew Marissa's attention, a little panting inhale. "Dr. Sumdac? Are you okay?" She glanced over, and all the muscles in her back and abdomen locked up. She didn't see a man in medical distress. She saw a man terrified beyond all logical reason, and her instincts kicked into overdrive. "You know something, don't you?"

"What? No, I—" Dr. Chase looked up and fell silent as his gaze, too, settled on Dr. Sumdac.

"I," Dr. Sumdac said, his voice high and strained. "I do not know what you are talking about, but I—I should—"

Bill stood up and walked over to sit down beside Dr. Sumdac. Marissa let out a long, careful breath. Let him play good cop, sure. "Dr. Sumdac. If there's something going on here that would give us some sort of insight on Verity's condition, I think you should tell us."

Dr. Sumdac looked around the room. His eyes lingered on the Autobots, who stood there like statues. His entire body quivered, but he lifted his chin and nodded his head after a long, tense moment. "Very well," he said, his voice still strained. "I will tell you what I know."

Chapter Text

Sumdac raised a trembling hand and extended it towards Sari before pulling it back to clasp his other hand instead. "Sari, I apologize, but I must make what amends I can." Then he looked up at Faireborn for a moment before locking gazes with Fowler. "I do not know what will be done to me if I tell you this. I am under orders to speak of this to no one."

Chase made a low noise that Chromia identified after a moment as "clearing his throat." "If it would make you more comfortable, I can move to another location," he said. "I'm not exactly cleared for this kind of thing, but if I'm across the room, I won't be able to hear."

"It might be safer for you that way," Sumdac said.

Faireborn didn't even look in Chase's direction. "Up to you, Doc."

Chase frowned, but he settled his hands in his lap, away from his wheels.

Sumdac's hands still hadn't stopped trembling. "I…I scarcely know how to begin."

Chromia unfolded herself from vehicle mode and knelt on the floor over him. "Is this something the Prime should hear?" She made sure to keep her voice clear and quiet and free of hostility, but Sumdac's heart rate leapt anyway.


"No," Faireborn said before Sumdac could answer. "We do this now. If the Prime needs to know, I'm sure all of you would be willing to pass along anything you consider noteworthy."

«Any thoughts, Prowl?» Chromia asked. Prowl's doorwings twitched, but he didn't answer. «If you don't have any objections, I'd suggest that you keep quiet. If you've got any questions, route them through me; the humans react better to Windblade and myself.»

«Fine,» Prowl said shortly, giving another flick of his doorwings.

Well, that would have to do.

Sumdac twisted his hands together, squeezing each of them in turn. "First of all, I—Sari, I must ask you to listen to all of this. This is not how I wanted you to find out, but—I could not figure out how to tell you without risking both your life and mine. It took everything that I had just to raise you as my daughter."

"Dad?" Sari stood frozen, her eyes locked on her father. "What are you talking about?"

"It…it is a long story." Sumdac's lungs inflated and deflated. "Thirty years ago, I was approached by a recruiter who wanted my robotics expertise for the military. I wanted to help my country, and they would pay me well. I would not be working on ways to kill people, they told me, but I would be set for life and get to do what I loved. And so I agreed, and I was brought in on a top-secret project at a top-secret location, working with—what we believed to be some sort of robot."

He wrung his hands together again and glanced up at Chromia. She stared silently back.

"I—Not to brag, but I was very brilliant, and within a year I was leading a team with new, innovative ideas based on this exciting new technology. I had completely revitalized this project, which I was given to understand had been lying dormant for eighteen years without much progress. I—I figured out a way to—to pry this robot open so that we could—access its inner workings."

"It was an Autobot, wasn't it?" Sari said, her voice low. "It was an Autobot. You killed an Autobot. That's why you're here, isn't it? Because…" She trailed off into silence.

«It was Megatron,» Chromia said to the other Autobots in the room. Her spark twisted, caught in the vise of contracting internals. «The humans had Megatron.»

«That was the stolen technology,» Prowl agreed. «We need to get rid of them right now.»

«What? No! We need to hear the rest of this out, Prowl. Then we decide what to do once Rodimus Prime gets back.» She pinged Jazz with a heads-up and a condensed data packet on her securest comm channel, which he received with a brief, distracted acknowledgement.

"No, we did not kill it," Sumdac said. "You have to understand, it—he—was not properly alive. He was badly damaged and all attempts at communication failed. We tried this many times."

"And that meant you had to take him apart?!" Chromia, startled, glanced over to see Windblade standing there with her wings flared in a posture somewhere between aggressive and terrified. "How did he even survive that, how could you—"

«Windblade,» Chromia said, scrambling to her feet and reaching out to grab Windblade's hand. «Don't make a scene, or he'll stop talking. I promise you, we will deal with this.»

«How could they do that to anyone?» Windblade turned a betrayed expression on Chromia. «How could they not tell us?»

«I suppose this is where I point out that we did know they were keeping secrets,» Chromia said, a bit wryly, but she reached up and tugged Windblade down until their foreheads could rest together. She felt a tremor run through Windblade before she let go. «Go stand with Prowl, sweetspark, he's upset, too.»

"We did not know it was capable of understanding, or recovering," Sumdac was saying. "We did not even think that it could be possible that there would be life forms who were not organic! But we had no intention of destroying him. There was—a power source. It seemed to be generating some sort of self-sufficient electricity, but when we moved certain parts far away, it began to dim, so we were careful to keep those components close."

"So you had some idea that it wasn't just an ordinary robot," Faireborn said. "And when these aliens landed, you and your team realized that you'd fucked up."

"Yes. Something like that. I did not know until I was told to go and study them." Sumdac winced. "I do not mean that the way it sounds, I don't think they believe you are specimens to be studied, it is only that we want to understand…"

"Well, you definitely didn't manage to kill him," Chromia said aloud. She glanced over at Prowl.

«You suggested that I wait and hear the rest of this out. He's not finished.»

«No?» She looked back, but Sumdac seemed done. He'd hunched in on himself as though he believed he could fold himself up into an organic alt-mode. «Do you want more details?»  "What were you trying to create from his parts?»

"Oh… Nothing much, not like we had hoped." Sumdac rubbed at his eyes. "It was the project of a lifetime, not of a few years. We only managed to create some small robots based on his—your—systems of movement, but we had nowhere near the technological capabilities to decipher how he functioned. I now see that was because he was not operating based on the mechanics we had assumed a robot would use, but rather code for a living being undoubtedly more complex than the human genome. The robots would not even move properly without some of that code, so we developed our own programming instead."

"Okay, this is pretty terrible stuff, but I don't understand what this has to do with me," Sari said, folding her arms over her chest. "I've got nothing to do with this. What, did you meet my mom at your little taking apart a living person convention? Is she some sort of secret government agent? Because I wasn't down at those laboratories. You never took me there. I've got nothing to do with this."

If possible, Sumdac seemed to collapse in on himself further. "No," he whispered. "No, that is not why I needed to tell you. Sari… Twenty-nine years ago, when I had first begun to assist in dismantling the—in taking him apart, we came across a very strange system. I was very young and foolish, and I believed I had found some sort of coding replicator. So as a test, I—injected some of my own DNA on the near-microscopic chips. Not purified, you understand, just scrapings from my inner cheek and some hair. I was very, very young, and I—had been drinking. And I—I put those in the replicator."

Chromia froze. She could hear someone's systems whirring too loud in her audial sensors. Her own fans wouldn't even start.

"And—that is how you were born," Sumdac said, his voice barely over a whisper. "A structure like an egg formed, and one night, when I was alone in the laboratory, you emerged."

«Chromia, oh scrap, oh scrap, she's Megatron's hatchling,» Windblade wailed, a perfect chorus of misery rising with the sudden shrilling of fans before the room erupted into chaotic shouts. They came from all directions: from the humans, from Prowl, from Ratchet, and, after a moment, from Windblade.

Chromia couldn't move. In the eye of the storm, she stared down at Sari Sumdac, Megatron's half-human hatchling, and watched emotions play off of her too-soft organic face. "I'm not human?" Sari whispered. "My mom's an alien?"

"Sari…" Sumdac started to say, reaching out a hand towards her, but Sari shook her head and started to back away. After a few of those long, stumbling steps, she turned and ran out of the base, all the doors flying open for her.

Chromia, with only a brief ping to Windblade, folded herself down into vehicle mode and drove off after her.

Sari, fortunately, didn't get too far on her own, and when Chromia pulled up alongside her, she hesitated for only a moment before climbing on. Chromia steered the both of them a distance away from the base, towards a sheltered area that wouldn't be visible from above or from the main road. There, she transformed and crouched next to the child. Hatchling. Scrap.

She half expected Sari to transform in a whirl of unexpected technorganic gears, but Sari just put her hands over her mouth and shrieked into them. As she did, all of Chromia's sensors screamed a warning, and Sari…vanished. No, not vanished—she was visible to Chromia's optics, audible to her audial sensors, but her heat signature, biological readouts, everything else disappeared. After a klik, the readings reappeared.

"Well," Chromia said, keeping her voice light even as her processor whirled, "at least we know how you manage to be stealthy."

"Look," Sari said, "it's not like I didn't know I was different from other kids, right? But I assumed that was because dad—because Isaac Sumdac insisted on homeschooling me. I don't have any of the—what do you call them, formative experiences? I read that in a book once. I don't have any of those. But I thought—I thought if he'd just let me go to school I could learn to be normal. I'd have friends. I've never had friends before, just dad and his stupid old robots and computer programs." She scrubbed at her eyes with one hand. "I guess it turns out that I was one of his stupid old robots, huh?"

"We're not robots." Chromia reached out and settled her hand palm up on the ground in case Sari wanted to crawl onto it. She had a vague memory of reading some sort of informational pamphlet on what sort of things hatchlings did, but, honestly, did any of that even apply to a half-alien? "And you do appear human to my sensors, though none of us thought to do any sort of deep scan on you."

"And I'm twenty-nine years old!" Sari wailed. "I don't even remember any of that. I thought I was seven! He said I was seven! We celebrated! What if I never grow up?"

"You'll grow up," Chromia said. "Full Cybertronians don't reach their majority until thirty-seven vorns—that's approximately three thousand and seventy-one human years. For a hatchling less than one vorn, you're already remarkably mature, but chronometers are never accurate to start out. The sensors take time to calibrate. Your organic half seems to be stabilizing your technological half much earlier than I'd have expected."

"What was he going to do with me?" Sari muttered. "Was he just going to—die and leave me alone to try to figure out who I am? What I am? Still looking seven after eighty years? He didn't tell me anything. It's my body and he didn't even tell me!"

"I'm no expert, but we can have Ratchet do a deep scan on you when we get back. He's sure to know more about hatchling development." Chromia's fingers twitched, and she pulled her hand back. She almost felt disappointed, like she'd wanted Sari to curl up in her palm. Windblade would have laughed and teased her forever under any other circumstances.

Speaking of…

«Windblade? I've got Sari out here. She's fine, no unexpected surprises, but she's very upset and likely to run if anyone else comes after us.»

«I don't think anyone's letting Sumdac out of the building,» Windblade said grimly. «It's good that you went after her, though. I wouldn't be able to—oh, Primus, Chromia, I wouldn't have wished that one anybody, not even Megatron.»

«I know. You're a good spark.» Chromia wished for a moment that they'd bonded already, so she could send some of her affection through. «If anyone needs a status update on her, just ping me.»

Windblade fell silent for a moment. «She's upset?»

«Understandably enough. Everything she thought she knew about herself is wrong.»

«Right. Of course. I wouldn't expect any different.» Another pause. «I love you, Chromia.»

«Yeah, you too, softspark.»

Sari had slumped into a sitting position against the rock, staring down at the ground. "I don't want to go back," she said, her voice thick. "Please don't take me back. I don't want to see him anymore."

"You don't have to," Chromia said. She hesitated, then shifted back into vehicle mode and nudged herself beside Sari. Sari immediately leaned up against her, plastering her humid organic body against Chromia's warm metal sides. "I'll stay out here with you as long as you need. Until you're ready to go back. You might need to get supplies if you plan on being out here for longer than a day."

Sari sighed and clung tighter to Chromia. "Yeah. Okay. That's okay. I just can't—just not my dad. I'm so mad!" She sniffled, and salty liquid splashed onto Chromia's side. "I'm so mad, why didn't he just say something?"

Chromia didn't reply. She didn't even move. She just let her engine rumble quietly as Sari cried out her rage and betrayal. Maybe Chromia didn't have any interest in hatchlings, but she could recognize that as the mech most able to hold her cool in this situation, as the mech who had already been assigned to the task of distracting Sari, she was the best choice.

And if worst came to worst, she was more than capable of protecting one tiny half-human hatchling from any danger that might crop up.

Orion Pax drove away from the bridge and towards the base with a sense of hope surging in his spark. Contrary to all expectations, Megatron had been reasonable, quiet even. And Elita-1, despite Magnus' obvious discomfort and Dai Atlas' anger, had suggested some compromises that seemed extraordinarily fair. Well, he supposed, if she'd been a high-ranking Autobot, she would know more about the inner workings of the system than an archivist who didn't remember being part of the government.

He still had more work to do once he got back, of course. He had to let Ratchet check him over again at some point for signs of any re-emerging rust infection after being exposed to the wet, salty air. he had to do some more research and pore over the footage that Magnus had promised unrestricted access to from now on.

He had to call Megatron again.

But what met them when they drove back into the base was pure pandemonium. Orion froze in the doorway as Ultra Magnus and Rodimus transformed. "What the frag is going on here?" Rodimus demanded.

Nobody paid him any attention. Prowl and Windblade were locked in some sort of heated but silent debate, wings flared, Windblade standing between Prowl and the humans. And the humans, rather than looking threatened, seemed to be having their own internal conflict with voices rising and falling and overlapping. Ratchet stood next to Windblade and Prowl, optics bright.

"No, seriously, what the frag?!" Rodimus' voice rose.

Ultra Magnus placed a hand on Rodimus' shoulder, then skirted around Prowl to approach Ratchet. He leaned in close, though his faceplates didn't move. Ratchet nodded and followed him over to the doorway.

Belatedly, Orion forced himself to transform into root mode, though he felt like all his joints and seams had locked into place.

"Okay, now what the frag," Rodimus said, more quiet this time, putting his hands on his hip joints.

"Turns out the humans had Megatron after we shot him down," Ratchet said grimly in Cybertronian. "Our liaisons didn't know about it. Not only that, but they managed to create a technorganic hatchling with his nanites, somehow."

Orion froze up again. He shouldn't be hearing this. None of them should be hearing this. This wasn't any of his business, except—he realized with a sick lurch of his fuel tank—it would affect everything about the negotiations. He wanted to fling himself back into vehicle mode and speed away, but he stood there listening, instead.

"…Did he have an alliance with the humans?" Ultra Magnus asked in a slow, pained voice.

"No." Ratchet's optics flashed. "From what the human says, Megatron wasn't even capable of giving consent at that point. As far as I can tell, seems the human was able to mod Megatron's own CNA nanites and tricked his gestational systems into accepting those nanites. The DNA had to be made viable somehow, since the technorganic appears human and self-fertilization has been proven impossible."

"Wait, how did you find out, if the humans didn't know about it?" Rodimus didn't sound as sick as Orion felt, but when Orion looked over at him, his optics had dimmed to only the faintest flicker.

"Our liaisons might not have been in the know, but Sumdac certainly was." Ratchet grimaced. "His hatchling is the technorganic. Chromia's with her now, that's why she's not present." He addressed the last to Ultra Magnus.

Orion felt like all the energon had leaked from his tubes and left him Empty. He couldn't move. He could barely feel his systems. "Does Megatron know?" he asked, his voice sounding distance and remote even to his own sensors.

"We don't know," Ratchet said, glancing at Orion for a moment before turning to Rodimus. "So, what now, Prime?"

Rodimus' mouth opened, but he hesitated and looked over at Ultra Magnus. "Uh, we need to find out more, right? If Sumdac is telling us…about this…then there's got to be a reason, right?"

"Right," Ratchet said, sounding surprised.

Rodimus grinned and flung his arms wide, nearly hitting his Lord High Protector in the chest. "Therefore!" he said, voice ringing out in English loud enough to carry over the shouting. "The humans will just have to have a slumber party with us!"

Dead silence met that proclamation as Orion struggled to pull himself back together.

"What?" Prowl hissed.

"Well, we can't let them out of our sight, right?" Rodimus said. "So we'll have a slumber party. It'll be great. We'll ask lots of questions, don't worry. And play games! But only with the good humans."

"Prime…" Windblade trailed off and bowed her head. "As you command."

"Um, no," one of the humans said. "That's not going to work. You run on a different timescale than we do. You've already had us here for way too long. We need to eat, we need to sleep—and, okay, you have bathrooms, but the toilet paper is almost out of stock. We're going to need supplies, and Fowler and I need to report in unless you want someone thinking you've kidnapped us."

"I should think you'd understand why we can't trust you," Prowl said, his voice sharp and his doorwings twitching.

"Yeah, we get it," another human interjected, their voice quiet. "But she's right. Humans can't survive very long without fuel."

Prowl's optics flickered. "Very well."

"Thank you," the first human said, though to Orion's audials it sounded a bit forced.

They were so small and so squishy. Orion watched as they climbed into their drone vehicle and left. How had a creature that small—well, that creature, the one they had left behind, apparently, according to the glares Prowl kept sending their way. How had that creature managed to—to rape Megatron? To have a hatchling with him? And not even a proper litter—just one.

Orion's internals shifted uneasily. What if it had been a litter but Megatron's systems had only been capable of supporting one hatchling? To not only force an unasked for hatchling, overriding Megatron's own gestational permissions as well as the coding of his own nanites, but to do so with someone who shouldn't even be capable of producing a litter?

He forced his legs to move so that he could stumble out of the room and purge his fuel tanks quietly in the hallways, where he could clean it up before anyone else noticed the perfectly good energon that refused to stay inside. He couldn't call Megatron. Not like this. He needed to process this, first.

As soon as the thought occurred to him, he felt like purging his tanks again. He rebooted on the guilty thought that Megatron hadn't just had to process this, he'd had to live it. And despite that, he still came across as so confident, so powerful, so in control of everything. Orion struggled upright again to find some sort of cleaner drone. Once he'd borrowed the medical bay's and cleaned up the mess, he ducked into the storage closet. The viewscreen sat there, silent and dark, judging him.

Orion choked on a staticky sob and powered down all his systems into a forced recharge, hoping that he could piece himself back together by the next orn. No matter how terrible he felt about how this affected him, he needed—he had to—he couldn't be a wreck. He had to be strong. He held onto that thought as his consciousness slipped away into comfortingly autonomic patterns.

Chapter Text

Orion woke from recharge prematurely, his systems growling a series of low-level error messages at him. He rose, groggy, and stumbled out of the closet in search of energon. There had to be some in the medical bay, at least, for emergencies. He stepped inside, and Ratchet looked up from whatever he had been doing. "Something I can help you with?"

Orion assessed his chronometer. Not even a local hour had passed since he'd powered down, but it looked like the situation with the humans had settled. "I purged my tanks earlier," he said. "Is there any energon here?"

"How much earlier?" Ratchet waved his hand over a storage container, which beeped, and pulled out a small, sealed cube. "Have you been experiencing any pain?"

"Fifty-two minutes." Orion accepted the cube gratefully and drank it down, wincing at the first splash of fuel into a prematurely emptied tank. "I don't think it had anything to do with rust. It was—what happened to Megatron."

"Hmm," Ratchet said noncommittally. "Well, you're about due for a check-up. Hop onto a slap and open up your chestplates."

Orion did so, though he had to look away as Ratchet approached with tools in hand and started to prod into his chest cavity. The silence stretched. Metal scraped against metal. Orion's optics flickered, then dimmed. "Did Optimus— Did I ever merge?"

"You'd feel it if you'd bonded, kid," Ratchet said. "Or, well, not if it'd been broken cleanly, I suppose. Is that what you're asking? The answer's no. No secret Lord High Protector for you."

"It's not that," Orion protested. "I just… Ow."

"Sorry 'bout that." Ratchet straightened. "You're clean. No sign of rust anywhere. You can close up your plates." He retreated to the other side of the small room. "You're just thinking about it because you heard what happened to Megatron, right? Optimus was the same way. I don't know what you're hoping to hear, kid. As Optimus' primary physician, I can tell you that he's just as inexperienced as you remember being. You don't have any kids running around, no sparkmate, no nothing. Anything more than that, I can't tell you. What your frame's done, I can tell you that. What your spark's felt, you never told me."

"Thank you," Orion said. He rubbed at his closed chest plates and, for a moment, imagined what it would feel like to have someone else where Ratchet's tools had been. To have someone's hand brushing against his spark chamber while Orion lay there, accepting, trusting.

What it would be like to have someone strip that control away and force themselves into his systems, to force a litter on him while he watched, helpless to stop it.

His hand tightened on his chest as his fuel tanks gave a little lurch, but he didn't purge. His processor felt more stable even with that small amount of recharge. Even his imagination felt safer.

"Your scans are all clean, too," Ratchet said. "I'd recommend trying to recharge some more, now that your fuel tanks have some energon in them. And the next time you bridge onto the Ark, I'll have someone waiting with enough energon to completely fill them. We can't have you running on emergency rations."

"Thank you," Orion said again, though more for the graceful dismissal than the clean bill of health. He made his way back to the closet and shut himself inside. His systems still felt strange, but they were no longer the swirl of chaos that had forced his shutdown earlier. He reached for the viewscreen.

He hesitated with his fingers in the air. Megatron might not welcome his call, but he hadn't turned it down before. He'd seemed very receptive. And…Orion might not ever get a chance to say what needed to be said in an official capacity. Even if he did say it in an official capacity, that message wouldn't be coming from Orion Pax; it would be from a representative of the Autobots.

He pressed the button before he could talk himself out of it and follow Ratchet's advice.

"Orion Pax," Megatron's rumbling voice said, and Orion held back a full-frame shiver. "Back for more information that the Autobots are withholding from you?"

"Megatron," Orion said. He felt something settle inside his processor. Part of him had expected that, knowing what he did, Megatron would be—different. But Megatron was still Megatron, with his precise, slightly mocking tone, and it was only Orion looking at everything differently. "I—yes. I just—I wanted—" He reset his vocalizer on his clumsy attempts to speak. Megatron watched him, optics bright. "I wanted—What was it like being the Lord High Protector?"

"Did I not answer that to your satisfaction the last time you called?" Megatron snorted. "As I told you, I was more a figurehead than anything else. Sentinel liked my cables and he liked my ports." Orion's fuel tanks gave a more urgent lurch, and Megatron's mouth split into a smile that bared all his teeth. "Did you want to hear more about that?"

"No, no, no," Orion said hastily. He hesitated again. He wanted to apologize, to say what he'd called to say, but the words kept getting trapped inside his vocalizer. He just needed a little more time. "Maybe—about being a hatchling. Were you in the care facilities?"

"For a time, but the mining care facilities could hardly be called standard." Megatron's optics dimmed as they scanned over Orion's face. I am told I had parents, once, but they offlined early enough that I can only guess at what they were like. I have never met miners capable of supporting their own litter; I imagine the resource depletion left them vulnerable to plague or exhaustion."

"I see." It should have been the ideal segue, but everything Orion could have said felt inadequate. He looked helplessly down at his own hands. "Did…did you have any hatchlings…before Sentinel Prime?"

"No," Megatron said, his voice short. "Enough of this. You have something on your mind, and I want to hear it. Don't dance around this; you are no skilled orator. What's made you so clumsy?"

"It has nothing to do with me," Orion said. He grimaced and looked up, forcing himself to meet Megatron's gaze. "I—I didn't know what happened to you, earlier. I looked at ancient history, but not recent history, and I didn't know. And I know nothing I say will change what's happened, but I'm sorry. I'm sorry the humans did that to you, and I'm sorry—I'm sorry nobody got here sooner. I'm sorry." His fans clicked on, and he vented out his stress in a rush of hot air. "I wanted to say that. In an unofficial capacity."

Megatron didn't react as Orion had expected; he sat there quietly for a moment, but without so much as an optical flicker to show he'd been affected. "Who told you this?"

"Who—told me this?"

"Yes, who told you this! Has that Neutral been spreading rumors?!" The screen shook as Megatron lunged forward, and Orion flinched back.

"No, it's—No." Orion shook his head as dread coiled in his systems. "I just wanted to say that, I have to go now." Before Megatron could say anything else, Orion terminated the call and lowered his head into his shaking hands.

He'd been foolish. He hadn't thought. Did Megatron really not know? Had he assumed that nobody else did? Orion couldn't tell, and he couldn't think. The small calm that had settled over him when the energon hit his tanks had vanished: he felt shaky and disoriented again. After a moment, he shut the viewscreen off so that Megatron couldn't call back and curled up into a small ball before initiating another forced recharge. Hopefully, he hadn't just ruined everything.

Megatron sat in front of the viewscreen, staring at the blank screen. Soundwave. Soundwave would know where the little Autobot had found out about Megatron's—past. He would know, or he would be able to find out. Megatron lurched to his feet, pressed a hand reflexively over his chest to make sure his spark chamber hadn't shattered, and made his way out the door.

Before he reached Soundwave's quarters, however, he found two small grounders blocking the hallway. One he recognized as Barricade after a few nanokliks of struggling with his scrambled systems. The other he couldn't recognize, despite their distinctive Cassette size and shiny red plating.

Megatron frowned. His entire crew roster should be present in his databanks, even as disoriented as he was. Had Barricade managed to corner an Autobot spy?

No, that couldn't be it. The little mech wasn't yelling Cybertronian.

It was yelling in one of the human languages.

Megatron locked his dental plates together for a moment and strode forward. "What seems to be the issue, Barricade?" he asked, as calmly as he could manage.

"Lord Megatron," Barricade said. "Are you aware that a human's managed to sneak onboard your ship?"

"Yes, and you seem to be aware that I know. If you had truly believed this human's presence a threat, you would have squished it or taken it into custody." Megatron leaned forward. "Or were you planning on putting that off until later?"

All four of Barricade's optics flickered at once, then flared bright. "Are you also aware that it has access to Decepticon technology?"

"I could hardly be unaware of that fact, looking at it now." Megatron leaned in, abruptly exhausted by Barricade's borderline disrespect. He didn't mind it most of the time, as it never came with that edge of derision that Starscream's did, and Megatron could appreciate someone willing to risk the wrath of a stronger mech to stand up for their own opinions. Now, though, Barricade's tone felt grating and insincere. "I'll ask you again: if you're worried about this human, why haven't you dealt with them?"

Barricade scowled and turned on his heel before storming off. Megatron stared after him. Barricade didn't storm off after confrontations with his superiors. He did what he was told, though he made his opinion known.

Perhaps Megatron's turbulent emotions weren't the cause of that odd confrontation. He called up the Nemesis' personnel database and flagged Barricade for a high-clearance watch. Then he turned to Soundwave's human hatchling. "What are you doing outside of Soundwave's quarters?" he demanded in the human language.


"Lord Megatron?!" Rumble and Frenzy careened around the corner, fans whirring hard. Frenzy stopped just short of colliding with Megatron's leg before overbalancing and falling to the ground with a hard clank. He scrambled back up and dashed over to Verity, where his twin had already grabbed her arm.

«What is the meaning of this?» Megatron demanded.

«We're really sorry, Boss,» Frenzy said, «really we are. She just kind of, uh, took off after Laserbeak fitted her with that.»

"I'm fine," the human said, shaking Rumble off and then punching him in the shoulder. "I would have been fine even if Megatron hadn't shown up! Stop worrying."

«Next time, I won't interfere if someone wants to slag her. Keep her hidden, or she'll end up dead.»

«Yes, Boss.» Rumble sounded uncharacteristically subdued. Perhaps his fellow Cassettes had already given the same lecture.

«Is Soundwave in his quarters?»

«Uh, yes?»

«Good.» Megatron looked down at the scene playing out at his feet once more. His internals turned over. He stepped over all three of them and around the corner to Soundwave's door. There, the door opened automatically, and he stepped inside, stopping just in time to avoid stepping on the three tiny beings who had somehow managed to skitter under his feet again without his noticing.

"Megatron, apologies." Megatron's optics reset, and he looked up towards the recharge slab to see Soundwave standing there. "Verity will be kept in quarters. There will be no more trouble."

"The human will stay in here, and you will come with me," Megatron snapped in Cybertronian. "If the human wants to get herself killed by Barricade's bad mood, she can do so with my blessing."

He turned around with a final glare at the shiny red armor plating before leaving the room. Behind him, he heard the human's voice rise. "What the hell? If he's mad, he could at least yell at me! Do you hear me, Megatron? If anyone's getting in trouble, it should be me! Soundwave doesn't own me or whatever the hell it is you think! He's not—"

The door closed behind Soundwave, and the human's voice cut off with it. Megatron dimmed his optics briefly in relief before leading the way back towards his own quarters. It occurred to him, belatedly, that he could have commed Soundwave and avoided this whole mess. His processor spun.

Soundwave's hand on his shoulder brought him back to the present. Megatron glanced back to see Soundwave's visor dim and sympathetic.

Neither of them spoke until the door had closed behind them. Megatron trusted that Soundwave wouldn't have touched him had there been anyone about and watching in the hallways, but auditory feedback had a tendency to carry in the long corridors. And so, as soon as the doors closed, Megatron turned to face his friend. As soon as their contact broke, Soundwave tucked his head to his chestplates and dropped into a half-transformed bow.

"Is that why you believe I brought you here?" Megatron asked, his voice quiet and his spark shaking.

"Megatron is upset." Soundwave tipped his head back. He didn't sound frightened, at least; Megatron didn't know whether he could have taken that. "Soundwave is responsible."

His voice sounded better than it had in vorns. Megatron grimaced and reached out to cup the side of Soundwave's face in the palm of his hand. "The Autobots know what happened to me," he said. "I know you and your Cassettes have been distracted by the hatchling, which is one of the reasons why hatchlings don't belong in war. But I need you to set that aside and find out what has happened, and I need you to destroy any recordings that exist."

Below him, Soundwave trembled. "Megatron," he said, and he unfolded himself from the partial transformation to climb onto the slab behind Megatron. Megatron followed, with some relief, and pressed his side against Soundwave's warm plating. "Autobots will be dealt with."

"Quietly," Megatron cautioned. "This peace treaty may be our last hope for survival."

"Soundwave knows." Soundwave's optical visor flickered. "Starscream did not intend to succeed."

"Yes, knowing him, he likely intended some sort of backstab." Megatron dragged a hand down his faceplates and huffed a loud vent of air. "I—hadn't considered that Optimus Prime might react differently."

Soundwave nodded, not challenging him on that. Slowly, Megatron relaxed further, his tense plating creaking as it splayed out. Any other subordinate would have run off immediately to do his bidding, but Soundwave knew what he needed. Why he had dragged Soundwave to his room. The two of them stayed there, pressed together in the dimmed lighting as Soundwave's Cassettes carried out the task that Megatron had asked of them. Too little, too late, but at the very least it might ease the buzzing sensation in Megatron's head somewhat.

Rodimus' processor spun. Too much information, that was it; if he could find a nice quiet place to defrag and recharge—for a moment, his processor caught on the thought of Ultra Magnus defragging him with that gentle attention fixed completely on that task, and he paused for a moment before realizing that they'd probably have to interface or something like that, and while Rodimus would do it, especially for Ultra Magnus, he didn't feel capable of faking interest right now.

Well, not faking interest, because surely with Ultra Magnus he wouldn't have to fake it. Right? But he didn't even feel up to activating his lubrication hacks or deploying his cables. He just wanted to lie down and not be upright, because if he continued being upright, Prowl might find him again and give another lecture on how Rodimus should be acting in this situation.

It wasn't like they were going to hear how a human had managed to sire a hatchling on Megatron again anytime soon, Rodimus had pointed out, but that had just sent Prowl into another tizzy because—because some reasons Rodimus hadn't really had the energy to pay attention to. It had been a really long orn. In between Magnus' ex-friend the traitor and Megatron's mysterious pregnancy had been Rodimus' own concerns about the whole treaty and horrific sensory images of his frame visibly clumping up with a clutch of eggs, even though he knew it didn't work that way. He'd looked up clutching Primes, and they didn't look any different, but his sensors wouldn't stop harping on the imagined threat of a painful push behind his armor that threatened to burst his seams.

Frankly, it was exhausting enough trying to battle those sensations long enough to pay attention to anything else.

"Rodimus!" a voice barked right by his auditory sensors, and Rodimus flinched away.

"You don't have to be so loud," he complained, glaring at Ratchet. "I'm right here."

"And you weren't listening the first three times I said your name," Ratchet said. "I need to run a few scans on you. Nothing invasive, we can wait on that, but I want to check on the Matrix itself."

"Um, okay." Rodimus followed Ratchet into the medical bay. "I guess I've got some questions, too. Like, what's carrying like?"

"Are you asking that in a professional or personal capacity?"

"Whoa, you have hatchlings?" Rodimus blinked and sat down on a slab.

"I did have a life before the war, you know," Ratchet grumbled. "But my history isn't going to be of much use to you if you're looking for information about how Primes form eggs, because the process is different with the Matrix. Streamlined, as it were, since you're borrowing energy from Primus. You don't carry them as long, for one."

"I know that much." Rodimus fidgeted. "But there's…more of them. How do they all—fit?"

"Hold still, please." Ratchet nudged Rodimus onto his back and ran a visible scanning beam over him. "They fit exactly the same way a litter would, except more of them. Primes lose the ability to transform when they're carrying, so that all the extra space can get filled up with eggs."

That…did not sound any more pleasant than what Rodimus had been imagining, with all of them clustered up by his spark. In fact, if anything, it sounded worse. He imagined that horrible pushing sensation all over his frame and shuddered, prompting a wordless scolding sound from Ratchet. "I wouldn't even be able to transform? Not at all?"

"Not at all." Ratchet frowned at his arm. "Hmm. Open up your chest for me. I'm going to need to hook something into the Matrix directly."

Rodimus complied. "Doesn't it, you know, hurt? Not that I'm afraid of pain, just, that might be weird."

"Most Primes don't report any unusual pain associated with clutching." Ratchet sounded distracted. "In fact, there's only one on record who had any difficulties at all. The eggs don't grow large enough to cause pain. Now hold still."

"I just—maybe we should focus on getting this back to Optimus. …What are you doing?"

"I'm accessing the Matrix's memory storage," Ratchet said. "The Matrix is rust-free, and you seem fine, so at this point I'm just making sure all the data is there."

"Couldn't I do that?" Rodimus seized on this new not-egg-related thing with all the fervor of Arcee hunting down a new target. "I mean, that's one of the perks of being the Prime, right? The wisdom of the ancients?"

"Can you actually call up the memories yourself?"

Rodimus slumped back. "I guess not yet," he mumbled. "And maybe I never will, since this thing is going back to Optimus as soon as he's cleared, right?"

"As soon as the negotiations are stable and Windblade can be convinced not to interfere." Ratchet attached an archaic-looking cable to the Matrix. "On the bright side, you shouldn't need to worry about clutching."

"Yeah." Rodimus stared up at the ceiling. "I really wasn't looking forward to that part. Jeez, Optimus, maybe next time don't agree to things your successor will have to—ow! What was that for?"

"This cable's malfunctioning," Ratchet said shortly. "Hold still while I find another."

"You didn't have to rip it out that fast." Rodimus rubbed at the rim of his open chestplates, wincing as the vibration from the Matrix caught his fingers. The sensation didn't hurt, exactly—it just felt like it should hurt, since he knew it was vibrating at a different frequency from his own sparkpulse. It felt weird.

Ratchet made another grumbly noise, this one shorter and sounding more like an expletive than before. He approached with another cable clutched in the grip tool he held, and he reached into Rodimus' chest again. Rodimus gripped the sides of the slab even though he couldn't really feel anything from the Matrix. It wasn't part of his body, not really, it couldn't be integrated into his systems like most metal. It was more—

"Frag. Frag frag frag. Frag!"

Rodimus' optics flared wide and bright as he looked at Ratchet. "Uh, I'm pretty sure that's not a good reaction."

"Slag," Ratchet said, his voice bleak. "We've been operating under a set of assumptions that's very wrong."

"Um." Rodimus wanted more than anything to sit up, but he couldn't, so he squirmed instead. "What kind of assumptions? Am I sick like Optimus? Am I gonna die?"

"Die?" Oh, no, nothing like that." Ratchet hit a button on the equipment the cable was attached to. "That cable wasn't malfunctioning."

"…So it's a bad thing that your equipment works?" Rodimus ventured.

"No." Ratchet swept his optics over the screen. "It's a bad thing that the Matrix's memory storage is completely full. There's been nothing recorded on here since Akiba Prime, with the exception of your Primal memories." Ratchet's optics dimmed as he looked up.

Rodimus had never felt so confused in his entire life. "Uh…please don't look through my memory files."

"I can't access the memories themselves!" Ratchet snapped. "I'm just scanning the list. The issue here is not me looking at your memories, not that they would tell me anything I couldn't figure out on my own, scrap-for-processors."

"So what's the problem, then? I don't get it."

"The problem is that there's nothing there!"

"But you just said there were memories there! Akiba Prime and me, right?" Rodimus waved his arms around to express just how much he didn't understand Ratchet's freakout.

"Yes, and you'll notice whose names I left off of that!" Ratchet snapped back. "Akiba Prime was well before Sentinel. Whatever the Matrix is doing to store the memories of the current Primes, it stopped putting memories into long-term storage after she passed on. That means the wisdom of the Primes is limited to everyone before her time. And that means that the Matrix isn't storing Optimus' lost memories, and neither is Orion. All of those memories are gone. There's no chance of them ever being recovered. They've been overwritten."

Rodimus froze.

"And that means," Ratchet continued, relentlessly, "that Optimus Prime is dead."

Chapter Text

At first, Wing through the plating half-visible below em belonged to a human aircraft. But curiosity drew em back for a second pass, and then a third, and when no screaming humans or painful bullets appeared, Wing landed and shook eir wings fretfully before pulling them back into eir root mode. Ey wasn't built for this type of wet cold, and ey didn't want to stay here long, but ey couldn't ignore a mech's frame trapped on an alien planet.

Ey reached out and pressed a tentative hand to the solid water in front of em. It glinted, and Wing's hand came away wet. «Nautica? I've got a situation here.»

«Just a moment.» Nautica's voice had that distracted tone that meant she wouldn't be listening until she finished whatever task was at hand, so Wing turned eir attention back to the mech and the ice surrounding them. It had an uneven quality, which probably meant that the mech wasn't melting it from the inside out; it had to be something else, like the ambient temperature. Or Wing emself, even. Ey pressed eir hand against the ice again, kicking up eir temperature a notch and watching as rivulents of melt trickled down into eir joints. «Okay, done! Wing? What do you need?»

«Nice to speak to you, too, Nautica,» Wing laughed. «I found a mech trapped in ice, and I'm not certain why or how to free their frame. I thought you or Proxima might have some insights. I'm sending you a visual and some scans.»

«Got it. Proxima might know better, though; you know me, I'm really more about quantum physics than I am about what's right in front of my face. Oh! Frozen in water?»

«Apparently.» Wing shifted eir hand, then drew it back. Eir plating had grown too cold for comfort already, even with eir homeostasis systems in full throttle. «Is there any way to get them out?»

«Cool your jets, Wing, I'm asking Proxima. She says they look like they're still alive, can you confirm?»

«What?» Wing looked the strange frozen mech over. «I'm not getting any hint of a sparkpulse. Is she sure?»

«She says it looks like it's there in your scans, just very, very faint and much slower than you'd be used to, as though the mech is in cryostasis. She also says you can try defrosting them if you want, just don't make it too sudden.»

«I'd already have done that if I could figure out how.» Wing tilted eir head and jittered eir wings against eir back. «Does she have any suggestions?»

«Are you telling me you can't figure out how to generate heat?» Nautica sounded amused.

Wing grinned to emself even as ey shifted around to embrace the ice and kick on eir engines. «Why, Nautica, is that a joke about interface?»

«What?! No! I—Augh, just do something!» Ey could picture her as clear as day, hiding her optics behind the twin shields of her visor and her hands.

The ice around the mech streamed down Wing's body in an uncomfortable flood. Ey shifted eir weight again. «How much damage is the water likely to cause?»

«Not that much if you're in good health. Just try to fly somewhere warm and dry after this—you and the other mech.»

«If they're alive, they're probably not going to be moving very far very fast. It's unlikely we'll be able to fly anywhere with a different climate.»

«You'll think of something. I've got to go for now, but call me back later, once they're warmed up. I want to know how this turns out.»

Wing sent her a distracted acknowledgement as ey squirmed around again, trying to find the best position to melt the water evenly without all of it trickling against eir chest seams. The frozen mech was large, a shuttle from the looks of it, and if ey wanted to melt all of it, ey had to keep moving around and even hover a little ways off the ground. That was no easy feat when ey had to keep pressing emself up against cold, slippery ice.

Eventually, though, when only a thin layer remained, the mech's optics flickered dimly. Wing collapsed back, tired and cold and victorious, and watched the rest of the ice crack as the mech spread their limbs and stumbled forwards, landing on their hands and knees in front of Wing. "What… What?" The mech's vocalizer sounded hoarse and raspy. "What's going on? Who are you? Where's Starscream?"

Wing pushed emself up into a seated position, gesturing for the other mech to do the same. "My name is Wing," ey said. "I'm afraid I don't know where Starscream is. Were you out here looking for him?"

The other mech's optics flickered. "I don't remember," he said slowly. Clearly lying; Wing hid a smile. Ey hadn't heard a lie that bad since they'd last had a batch of newly grown hatchling recruits for the Circle. Which reminded em; ey scanned the other's frame discreetly for any sign of faction symbols and found none. And yet, this mech definitely wasn't on the roster for Dai Atlas' motley crew, or Wing would have at least known of their absence. Curious.

"It seems the ice protected enough energy reserves for you to speak normally," Wing said instead, changing the subject away with a graceful dip of eir head. "How are you doing aside from that? Are your systems responding?"

The shuttle took a moment to answer. "My tanks are very low," he said. "And some of my minor systems are malfunctioning—my chronometer, my equilibrium calibration… I won't be able to fly far."

"I've got some energon," Wing offered, "but I'm unqualified to deal with those sorts of system repairs."

The shuttle's optics flickered again. "What about the rest of your crew? You can't be out here on your own; I can see from here that you're not outfitted for long spaceflight."

"It's a long story." Wing stood up. "If I were less wet, I might be able to go get help, but I'm fairly certain this is going to freeze and cause some problems."

The shuttle smiled. "You're really not prepared for this at all, are you?" He gave a rattling engine cough and pulled a very old spray bottle out from under his plating. "Here, try this. If you transform, I can apply it for you."

"Some sort of protectant?" Wing guessed. Ey transformed and rolled closer to the shuttle so that he didn't have to stand up. "Handy, that. Do you think you'll be able to maintain enough system integrity to keep from freezing again until I'm back with help?"

The shuttle hesitated, optics dimming, then nodded. "It shouldn't get cold enough to be a problem, and I'm not Empty yet," he offered.

Wing hesitated, then partially transformed to withdraw a small container of energon ey'd stashed. Ey set it on the ground. "In case you need it before I get back," ey said softly. "Take as much as you want." Ey could always try to persuade Nautica to sneak em some more. "I'm going to try to fly back to Starscream's ship and ask for assistance, but I can't guarantee they'll give it to me. No matter what, I will return within a few joors. If there's an emergency…"

"Comm signal?" the shuttle suggested. "I don't think that's functioning, either."

"All right." Wing grimaced. They would just have to hope, then.

Ey took off, heading back towards the warehouse ey'd found the Decepticons guarding before. It took em longer than ey'd hoped, as ey had to avoid flying over too many densely populated human settlements, but the warehouse itself was thankfully conflict-free when ey landed. "Hello?" ey said to the blank front. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I have an aerial out in the wilderness who needs medical attention that I'm incapable of providing."

Almost immediately, a small black grounder burst out of the building, red optics flashing. "Wait here," they growled, then vanished back into the building.

Wing did as told, though ey extended eir sensors further than might be recommended for energy conservation, unable to rid emself of the lingering fear that the humans would return. Shortly, the grounder returned with another grounder plated in bright red. "Take us to him," the black grounder said.

Wing looked between them. "I don't think I can carry you both," ey said apologetically. "If one of you is a more experienced medic, I would prioritize that mech."

"Let's be clear," the one with red plating said. "My name is Knock Out, and I'm the only medic here. Barricade just wants to come along for our little joyride." He gave a delicate shudder. "Not that I'm looking forward to any of this. Alien wilderness, blech. They don't even have any proper roads out there on this little organic scrapball."

"Frag." Barricade scratched next to his upper optics with a long claw. "Okay, Acid Storm is going to carry me. You." He fixed Wing with a menacing look. "Stay here until Acid Storm's out. Ey'll need to follow you."

Wing inclined eir head. "I would prefer to leave as soon as possible, however," ey said. "It's very cold up there, and our friend seems to have been frozen for longer than is healthy."

"Can you give me a rundown?" Knock Out asked.

"Not much of one. Some of his systems are offline, and his tank's mostly empty, but he seemed stable when I left."

"Any loss of movement function, erratic power surges?"

"I didn't stay long enough to see any of that." Wing grimaced. "I woke him up and then left to find you."

"Oh, sure, leave all the work to me." Knock Out huffed.

Behind him, a green aerial that Wing recognized from eir earlier encounter landed on the ground. "You owe me so much for this," ey grumbled. After a moment, eir wings waggled a sheepish greeting at Wing. "Oh, hey, it's you! Deadlock's friend!"

Luckily, Wing didn't have to decide how to respond to that, because Barricade growled impatiently and climbed onto Acid Storm's back. Knock Out followed suit with Wing, and then they were up and away.

The trip, to Wing's relief, ended up being silent. Ey assumed that the Decepticons were conversing with each other via comms, but to Wing the trip passed in blissful calm aside from the one time Knock Out and Barricade made clawing gestures at each other until Acid Storm did a roll. They landed in front of the shuttle, who now lay on the ground with his optics offline, and Wing stepped a polite distance away as ey transformed.

"The frag?" Barricade blurted. "This isn't Starscream! This isn't even a Decepticon!"

"It appears to be some sort of shuttle," Knock Out said, tapping lightly on the armor. "But they're unconscious. Figures. And no sign of any insignia anywhere."

"He's not from our ship," Wing said. "I assumed he might be some sort of spy or scout working for you; he asked for Starscream as soon as he woke up from cryostasis."

"Cryostasis?!" Knock Out groaned and gave the armor a harder rap before running a scan down it. "You didn't say anything about this!"

"You didn't ask," Wing said. "You acted like you understood."

"Because we thought it was fragging Starscream, you glitch!" Barricade's engines roared. After a couple of loud, angry vents, he gave another soft growl and shook his head. "But you—couldn't have known that. We'll treat him."

"We'll what?" Knock Out paused to give him a look. "You can't be serious. There's no way to transport him back to the Nemesis, and even if there were…!"

"And that's why we brought you out here," Barricade said. "Are you going to go against direct orders?"

Acid Storm cupped eir chin in eir claws and watched the two of them like they were a holovid.

"Are you giving me a direct order? Because I certainly didn't hear one coming from Lord Megatron."

"Yes. I'm giving you an order. Fix this shuttle. He's not an Autobot, it's not a betrayal of the Decepticon cause." Barricade scowled at Knock Out and crossed his arms over his chest plating.

"Ugh. Fine, fine. But only because fixing him will get me out of this horrid weather sooner than trying to argue with you." Knock Out shook his head and leaned over the shuttle to plug in his medical cable.

"Can I go home?" Acid Storm asked.

"No," Barricade and Knock Out said in unison, and Wing finally felt emself relax.

Prowl's ping drew everybody's attention to the sound of human vehicles and startled Orion from his rote examination of yet another datapad containing a history of the war. That was okay; reading analyses of how terrible Megatron's actions had been just left him feeling cold and uncomfortable now. The thought of seeing humans again didn't fill him with joy, but at least they were the non-Sumdac humans. Maybe if he listened to what they had to say for themselves, he could settle his systems enough to deal better with his current task.

Orion headed back to the main hangar feeling very disoriented. Even before the human vehicles rolled in, there were supplies that he didn't remember seeing before scattered around the room—a miniature structure like a small slab with thin cloth strips on it, a small white cabinet running on electricity, and a clutter of small objects in the corner that had been designated "for humans." Orion glanced sideways at the other Autobots, but of course they wouldn't tell him what was going on—he was no longer Prime.

All three humans emerged from the vehicles. Agent William Fowler and the other one without the rolling hoverchair—Agent Marissa Faireborn, according to the databanks—looked strangely blank, but the third—Doctor Chip Chase—rolled himself over towards Prowl immediately. "My contacts wouldn't give me any information," he said. "They're definitely suspicious of you, though. As soon as I started asking questions, I got pressure to write programs that could be used to disable Cybertronian weaponry."

"Unsurprising," Prowl said. "Does your species intend war with all of us?"

"No," Fowler replied. "Definitely not. There's a lot of fear, but there's also some hope that you'll defend us from the Decepticons."

"The Decepticons are not attacking you," Orion put in. "They haven't."

"They caused a lot of damage when they retrieved this Megatron," Fowler said. "That includes some deaths. And nobody's getting all the information, including us. That's not going to get you a lot of good will."

Faireborn cleared her throat. "To be perfectly honest, when we're not getting information that's vital to our jobs, we can't be sure this project was officially sanctioned. Or, if it was…it's been so long that nobody in charge remembers it anymore. If they were willing to meet with you and talk this out…"

"It's a mess," Fowler said, his voice wry. "You're pretty scary to a lot of humans, you know that? Even without your friends the Decepticons stirring the pot, you're huge and made of metal and guns." He held up a hand. "Not blaming anyone for that. Obviously, you can't help what you are. But imagine how that might look to someone tiny and squishy with no natural defenses. They send a delegation to talk to you, you could squash 'em where they stand."

Windblade scowled. "We would never," she said.

"I know that. Hell, we're still around, right? But…" Fowler made a gesture. "Look, we're on the same side, here. But give me some time to help the people who haven't actually met you realize that."

"Who hired you?" Faireborn asked Sumdac in a quieter voice.

"I do not know," Sumdac said. "I worked under a Colonel Leland Bishop for many years before he died, but I never encountered anyone who held a higher rank."

"Leland Bishop," Faireborn repeated. "Never heard of him."

"It would have been before your time," Sumdac said almost apologetically. "I am sorry. I had no reason to suspect that he might be doing anything untoward. It all seemed aboveboard to me." He glanced around at the mechs and blanched. Orion winced as well; at least he'd rested enough that his fuel tanks weren't giving purge warnings this time. "But never mind that. Where is Sari?"

"Is she still gone?" Fowler asked.

"Prowl's been taking supplies out to her and Chromia," Windblade said. "She's in perfectly capable hands, and she's still not ready to come back in."

"Were either of you able to discern how much your government knows about Cybertronian physiology?" Prowl asked, doorwings flicking. "Sumdac has given inadequate answers."

Fowler sighed and rubbed at his head. "Listen, Prowl, I get—"

«Autobots! Emergency meeting, right now. You too, Orion, you're on this band for a reason.»

Orion yelped and jerked his head back at the unexpectedly loud voice coming through his comms. He winced as everyone turned to stare at him, humans included, then mumbled an incoherent excuse as he stumbled out through the door, trying to avoid everyone's gaze.

"Well," he heard from behind him. "He's definitely very different from Optimus Prime."

"All of you," Prowl snapped, "stay here. One of us will return shortly."

The medical bay felt cramped with all of them pressed in; it had clearly not been designed for the purpose of containing multiple Cybertronians, though at least it didn't hem them so close together that they brushed plating. Still, Orion found himself eying the slab longingly, thinking that at least if he were on one of those again, he wouldn't have to keep adjusting his position to accommodate their very fidgety and wide-opticked Prime.

After a few moments, though, Rodimus fidgeted his way out of the medical bay entirely, leaving Orion standing next to Windblade instead.

"Report, Ratchet," Prowl said.

"Optimus Prime's memories are gone," Ratchet said, then held up a hand. "Yes, yes, I know that look. I'm not talking about Orion's memories of being Optimus; I'm talking about the fact that there are no memories from Optimus Prime left, the end. They're not on the Matrix. The Matrix's Primal memory storage is full and has been for a while."

Silence. Orion gave a shaky vent, finding himself strangely relieved by the concept. Maybe this would ruin everything they'd worked for, maybe now he'd never know what Optimus Prime had been thinking, but…he didn't want to be erased. He wanted to keep existing as he was. He looked down at his fingers and waited for someone else to say something.

"The Primal storage is completely full? How?" Ultra Magnus asked.

"Completely full. As far as I can tell, it's able to keep the current Prime's lifetime memories—though earlier memories will start getting fuzzier than hatchling memories—but as soon as the direct connection is remove, those memories are completely erased, to be overwritten by the next Prime." Ratchet grimaced. "I can't give you any more detail than that; there were never any studies done on how the Matrix worked because it was deemed too sacred to examine part of Primus' body. What a bunch of slag. If we'd done more research, we might not be in this mess right now."

Ultra Magnus didn't say anything to that. Instead, he turned around and walked out of the room, his footsteps thudding in Orion's audial sensors with every step.

"Well, that went well," Ratchet muttered. "What, not going to give me slag for digging around in the Matrix?"

"No," Windblade snapped. "This isn't about— This is—" Her wings hiked high, and she turned around to leave as well. After a few kliks, Prowl turned around and left without saying a word, and then Ratchet and Orion were alone together.

"And you," Ratchet said. "How are you handling this?"

"It's fine," Orion murmured. "They're really—gone? All of them? There's no chance you could get them back?"

"They're all gone." Ratchet raised a hand to rest it against Orion's forearm. "I'm sorry, hatchling."

Orion shook his head, but he couldn't think of a way to explain the spark-deep relief without sounding terrible. Instead, he stayed there, letting Ratchet stroke his plating and wishing he could feel the despair he was clearly meant to.

Ultra Magnus didn't bother looking around the human base; he knew that Rodimus wouldn't be there, not when he had the authority to command the bridge. When the situation had calmed down, Ultra Magnus would reprimand him for disregarding proper protocol. Right now, however, he had a Prime to catch up with before anything unfortunate happened, and that required doing exactly as Rodimus had.

«I had nothing to do with it,» Moonracer said as soon as he commed in for the bridge. «Just so you know, I only obeyed him because he's the Prime now.»

«You acted correctly, soldier,» Ultra Magnus said, because it seemed like the appropriate response to her confusing jumble of words. Of course Rodimus would need to be obeyed now; he was the Prime, and to disobey him without consulting one of his advisors would be an offense worthy of punishment.

He walked through the bridge and spared Moonracer a nod before heading to the spot he had deemed most likely to be Rodimus' destination: the ship docking bay and the Valiant. Sure enough, he found Rodimus draped in a careless pose over the captain's chair, legs splayed and optics off. Ultra Magnus huffed and sent a ping.

Rodimus yelped and jumped upright. His optics flared to life and settled on Ultra Magnus. "Oh, Mags, hi! Did Ratchet finish with you already?" He gave a short, nervous laugh. "Pretty great news, huh? We can't get Optimus back, so I'm going to get to be Prime forever." He cupped his hands over his chestplates for a moment, then dropped them abruptly to his side. "All hail Rodimus Prime, huh? I'm gonna be the best leader there ever was."


"No, no, it's okay, Mags! I got this." Rodimus' optics flickered wildly. "I just gotta seal up this deal with Megatron and then we'll all go back to Cybertron, and I'll—I'll unite everyone—"


"I—" Rodimus cut himself off and stood there. "It's gonna be great."

Ultra Magnus wasn't equipped to deal with this. His focus had always been laws and facts and regulations, and he did not get close to people. He'd never been good at it, even before the incident. He'd thought that accepting the role of Lord High Protector would be a way to aid the Autobot cause, but watching Rodimus implode in front of him made his entire frame ache. He might be able to struggle through comforting a Rodimus who would admit he was upset, but he couldn't deal with—this.

He turned, his whole frame held rigid, and started to walk away.

"Wait!" A small hand grabbed onto his, and Ultra Magnus froze. He turned his head to see Rodimus standing there, looking down at the ground with his optics dimmed. "You're my Lord High Protector, right? So…would you interface with me?"

"What?" Ultra Magnus reset his optics and looked around the ship. "Here?"

"Yes! No? It doesn't have to be here. I'm just…really charged up, and you're my Lord High Protector!" Rodimus' optics brightened again, and Ultra Magnus grimaced as they flared too bright. "Please? I'll do anything you like, I'm really good at it, everyone says so."

Magnus rubbed his thumb across the surface of Rodimus' shoulder plating to confirm what he already suspected. "You're not charged up."

"What? No, you don't get to decide that, I decide that!" Rodimus scowled. "I am, I really am. Do you want me to prove it?" He pulled his hand away from Ultra Magnus and slid his paneling back, baring his ports and interface cables. "Look, I'm ready for you."

Ultra Magnus had already adjusted his optical field of vision so as not to include anything below Rodimus' waist. "Rodimus, neither of us is interested. There's no point to pursuing this any further."

"But I am!" Rodimus wailed. "Do you think this has all been some sort of game for me? I've been trying for vorns because I am interested in you! You might not be interested in me, but I've wanted this forever, you can't decide that I haven't!"

Ultra Magnus dimmed his optics. Right now, more than ever, his spark felt very small, far too small for his massive frame. He'd turned down plenty of others before, but it had never made his spark ache inside its shell. "It isn't you," he attempted. He turned back to face Rodimus completely, staring just a little bit above Rodimus' head. "I have never been interested in interfacing. With anyone." He wanted to shut off his optics; even when he'd been Minimus Ambus, hiding in the shadow of his spark brother, he'd never been interested. But at least back then, he'd never had offers.

At least he'd never had anyone lie about their charge level to convince him.

He heaved a sigh when Rodimus said nothing. "I did consent to being your Lord High Protector, and I will carry out those duties as necessary, to the best of my ability, because I have no wish to see you hurt. But if I must interface with you, I would prefer to wait until you are actually charged up, not just upset." Whatever Rodimus thought, Ultra Magnus did care; he'd always held a certain level of fondness for Hot Rod's unique brand of irreverence, well tempered by the exasperation of being the commanding officer who had to deal with the consequences of Hot Rod's antics. Ultra Magnus had no interest in seeing the light in those eyes extinguish.

Though he felt a little like he already had.

"Wait," Rodimus said finally, his vocalizer high and scratchy. "Could you repeat that? What do you mean, never interested in interfacing? Isn't…everybody? It's just a matter of finding out what you like, right?"

"No," Ultra Magnus said, firm and repressive. This much he knew. "Some mechs are interested in interface, and some are not. I am not. That will not change."

"But… How do you know unless you try?"

Ultra Magnus frowned. "It is an intrinsic quality," he said slowly. The only unusual aspect of his own situation had been that spark siblings usually shared some degree of inclination; Dominus had enjoyed interface, though he had never sought it out. The strangeness of their situation, though, had never bothered Ultra Magnus. He had envied Dominus his quietly dedicated love affairs, perhaps, but not the aspect where they shared fluids and data. "I have always known."

"Me too," Rodimus blurted, and Ultra Magnus blinked his optics off and on again before refocusing on Rodimus' trembling, bright-opticked face. "I mean—I've never been interested, either. Ever."

"But you do interface, all the time." Ultra Magnus regretted the baffled words as soon as they'd escaped his vocalizer. He didn't know the right thing to say in this situation, but that clearly wasn't it.

Rodimus didn't seem bothered, to Ultra Magnus' relief. "Yeah, I know! I mean, that's because I thought that maybe someday I would be interested, but I never was!" He surged forward to grab Ultra Magnus' hand again.

"Why in Primus' name would you believe that?" Ultra Magnus frowned. "Surely there are surviving texts on the subject. Is this because you refuse to read, again?"

Rodimus laughed wildly. His optics flared too bright again, and his grip on Ultra Magnus' hand tightened. "This is the worst day of my entire slagging life," he said. "I find out that I'm not alone, and I'm—I'm normal, and you're not going to expect me to interface, and you're my Lord High Protector anyway, but I still need to clutch for Megatron because Optimus is dead forever, and if the Matrix ever goes to someone—better—I'm going to forget everything, and I'm going to be alone again because I won't know any better!"

Ultra Magnus grimaced as Rodimus' voice wound higher and higher, grew faster and faster. Finally, he stepped forward and pulled Rodimus to his chest, hoping that what had helped before might help again. It seemed to; Rodimus quieted abruptly and his arms wound around Ultra Magnus' waist. The violent tremors running through his frame quieted into small intermittent shivers.

Carefully, Ultra Magnus maneuvered both of them until he was sitting in his chair. Rodimus crawled up into his lap and tucked his head against one of Ultra Magnus' shoulder stacks. "I'll tell you again," Ultra Magnus said quietly. "If you forget, I promise I will tell you again. Really, Rodimus, this is very basic information that should have been given to you a long time ago."

Rodimus' arms tightened around Ultra Magnus' plating with a creak and the shrill scrape of metal against metal. He didn't say anything. Ultra Magnus sighed and slipped his own arms up Rodimus' back to pet his spoiler as gently as possible.

Chapter Text

Orion had expected seeing Megatron in person again to be awkward, but he hadn't anticipated just how much. Megatron himself hadn't changed; he remained a solid wall of fearsome dark metal, sharp dental plates, and bright red optics. But Orion's perception of him had shifted into a topsy-turvy mess. Megatron had swooped in with Elita-1's energon-pink plating bright against his chest, and Orion had flinched, half expecting some sort of attack. Of course, nothing had happened; Megatron only strode into the structure without a word.

The whole meeting felt strange. Thoughts wouldn't form properly in Orion's processor. He couldn't look at Megatron without thinking about that human back at the base, so he kept his optical sweep fixed on Elita-1, on Ultra Magnus, on Rodimus Prime. Megatron, by contrast, looked completely pulled together, his words as sharp as ever as he debated the legal system with Ultra Magnus.

Orion curled his fingers around his elbow joints and tried to focus. He had a job to do.

The sound of dental plates clashing together startled him from his thoughts, and he jerked his head around to see Megatron watching him. "What, afraid of me again, little Autobot?" he asked. His voice sounded almost gentle, with none of the scorn that Orion would have expected to hear. "Don't worry. You'd barely be a mouthful of energon. You look like the Autobots are barely fueling you."

"If we could stay on track," Dai Atlas snapped. "You cannot possibly be saying that you believe it feasible to restructure not only the governmental systems that Cybertron is built on, but the infrastructure that the city states have been using for hundreds of thousands of vorns."

"And why not?" Megatron's grin sharpened as he turned his focus to Dai Atlas once more. "These Primes want the Decepticons to integrate back into society instead of leaving for a colony of our own."

"I wouldn't mind if the Decepticons made a colony," Rodimus interjected hopefully, but he was ignored.

"If the old systems are brought back again out of your own laziness and devotion to a visibly flawed hierarchy, we already know that sooner or later, you will come for us again." Megatron turned to face Ultra Magnus. "You always have."

Ultra Magnus grimaced. "He is correct," he said to Dai Atlas. "Historically, attempts to gather back to the old led to mass incarceration. The Decepticons are lawbreakers and traitors under our current system. For successful integration, we need a different system."

"Ughhh," Rodimus complained. "Nobody is listening to me. I'm with old and Neutral over there. Can't we just fix this up by giving the Decepticons a new planet to colonize? It's not like we didn't have colonies, once."

"Colonies which still answered to Cybertron and borrowed heavily from our justice system's precedent." Ultra Magnus sighed. "Rodimus…"

"Besides," Orion said, his voice quiet, before Rodimus could say anything. "If we keep things the way they were and keep the Decepticons separate, isn't there the danger that another Decepticon movement will rise on Cybertron? If we treat our citizens the same as we had been, we should expect them to react the same."

Dai Atlas' optics flashed. "There are plenty of citizens who did not join the Decepticons," he rumbled. "And there are plenty of us who recognize that these problems are not solved with violence."

"So says the mech who carries around a sword almost as large as himself," Elita-1 said. "If you want to be an Autobot, then toughen up your plating and join them already; don't hide behind your supposed pacifism like a shield. We've all seen your Order take up arms when you deem it necessary, don't pretend otherwise."

Dai Atlas actually snarled at that, and Orion took a panicked step backwards. Megatron looked over at him, then let out a loud growl that cut off whatever reply Dai Atlas would have made. "Enough! The old systems are getting rewritten if you want this peace to exist; both Decepticon and Autobot have agreed on that much. Orion, I would like to hear your thoughts on how this transition could work."

Orion tightened his grip on his own elbows to hide the tremble in his fingers. "I'm no politician," he said, "or, at least, I don't remember being one. But since Rodimus Prime brought up the colonies, I do remember there being precedent for adapting governmental policies, as Ultra Magnus said. There was that clash between Junkion and Caminus, right? The metrotitan bearing colonists passed too close into Junkion space, and since we're all mechanicals, there was a fuss over whose policies took precedence."

"I don't see what that has to do with changing Cybertron's methods of government," Dai Atlas said, but his voice had lost that harsh, angry edge, and his face had relaxed into something pinched but not hostile. "And Caminus was abolished as a failed experiment long before the war began."

"Not as a failed experiment," Megatron countered. "It was abolished because Sentinel Prime didn't like the idea that anyone would set up their own system of government outside his sphere of power. Caminus had too many revolutionary policies, so he cut off the support system." He flexed his claws. "And thus Caminus fell. Plenty of former Camiens now live on Junkion, as I understand it, because they preferred that to Cybertron's mockery of justice. A good catch, Orion Pax."

Orion, pleased, let his hands fall to his sides and straightened. "I didn't mean that we should adopt those policies," he said to Dai Atlas, and to Ultra Magnus, who'd remained silent. "Just that there is a precedent for heavy modification and compromise. We'd need to restructure completely anyway. I—I don't know this from experience, of course, most of it was after my time, but it seems like many of the cities don't exist anymore."

"They don't," Ultra Magnus said. "Many have been reduced to rubble or altered dramatically by the reduction of civilians. Orion Pax and Megatron have both spoken well." He glanced at Rodimus. "Do you have anything to add, Rodimus Prime?"

"Yeah, actually, I do," Rodimus said with a scowl. "If the Decepticons are just going to integrate back into our society like they didn't start a fragging war, why does Megatron need a clutch in the first place?"

Megatron's optics flared and dimmed. "Are you trying to deny me what has already been promised?" he growled.

"No! I'm just saying that it doesn't make any sense. You're not going to be on some far-off planet, apparently, you're going to be part of Cybertron, too. And it's not like you don't already have a hatchling!"

"Rodimus," Ultra Magnus said sharply, at the same time as Megatron's flat, "What?"

"Uh, nothing?" Rodimus said, his optics flickering. He stepped closer to Ultra Magnus' bulk. "Sorry, just forget I said that, I didn't mean any of it. Of course you can have hundreds of little hatchlings running around, it's not like—" He silenced himself abruptly.

"No comms," Dai Atlas rumbled, then frowned. "The jammers should be working, in any case."

"Sparkmates don't use comms," Orion said hurriedly, though in truth he had no idea if Ultra Magnus and Rodimus were sparkmates. He just knew he had to say something. "If—if it's okay with everyone, I'd like to explain to Megatron in private."

"Explain what to me in private?" Megatron hissed.

"Yeah, you do that," Rodimus said. He offered Orion a grateful smile.

"Nobody will be doing anything in private," Dai Atlas said. "You can remain here and explain anything that needs explaining to all of us."

Orion grimaced. "No, it's okay. I mean…I can't hurt Megatron, and if he hurts me, it's not like I'm the Prime, right? It should be fine. And it's got nothing to do with the negotiations. Just…please?" Ouch. He shouldn't have added that last; he should have just walked right out of the shelter and hoped that Megatron would follow him.

"You're fine," Ultra Magnus said with a nod. "Go."

"Yeah, go!" Rodimus echoed, making shooing motions.

Orion glanced at Megatron, then scurried out into the open air. The sun had vanished, replaced by a dark, clouded view of the stars, and Orion felt his wires shiver. The cold ocean spray hit his plating as he stepped too far out, and he hesitated before decided that he could handle some salt water if it meant the others couldn't overhear him.

Fortunately, Megatron follow, though his optics were dim and his mouth was set in a grim line. He came close enough to loom over Orion, close enough that he could reach out and nudge Orion into the water. Orion should have felt intimidated, but he only felt an unexpected wash of sympathetic horror. He didn't know. He didn't know, and he needs to know. I need to tell him.

"What is all this about?" Megatron asked, his voice quiet and his whole frame rigid.

"I'm so sorry," Orion said. His voice trembled, but he kept going. "I—before I called you, we discovered a…a half-human, half-Cybertronian hatchling."

He could see the realization play out in the erratic flickering of Megatron's optical lights. Orion's spark ached; he wanted to reach out, wanted to offer some kind of comfort. But what kind of reassurance could you offer someone who hadn't even known—who had been ripped apart by the sire—

Orion stood there, feeling worse than useless, until Megatron let out a low snarl and flung himself up into the air. Orion yelped and reached out, but Megatron transformed before he could even start falling, and the hot air of his thrusters caught Orion's face. Orion stumbled back, wiping at his optics, and wobbled on the edge of the platform. By the time his sensors came back online, Megatron had vanished.

The pain in Orion's spark sharpened.

"What did you say to him?"

Orion shuffled away from the edge and turned his head to see Elita-1 striding towards him. "I'm sorry," he said, "but it's up to Megatron whether he wants to share that information with you or not. It's personal."

"Hmm." She looked around. "He doesn't seem to be here to ask."

Orion's fans hitched. "No, he just left."

"And did you intend for this to happen?"

"No." Orion thought about asking her why she'd followed them out—and how she'd managed to keep the others from following her—but he kept quiet. He didn't want to make her any angrier.

"And did you think about how the hell I'm going to get off this platform without Megatron's assistance?"

"What?" Orion's head snapped up. "Oh, Primus. I'm sorry."

She studied him for a moment longer, then huffed. "You didn't think at all. Well, whatever you told him, I believe that your spark was in the right place, if not your processor. Come on. Let's go back inside. Negotiations are on hold for now."

"I really didn't mean to," Orion said. "Can you tell him that? I didn't want— I hope this doesn't—" He fell silent. He didn't want the negotiations to be beyond saving, and he'd thought he was doing the right thing, but what if he hadn't? What if Megatron attacked the Autobots over this?

He realized, with a sick little lurch of his fuel tanks, that he didn't feel that reaction would be entirely unjust. The Autobots had Isaac Sumdac in their custody, after all, and his only punishment had been confinement in the base. They weren't even keeping him in any kind of brig.

Orion followed Elita-1 back into the shelter, head down and processor whirling. What if he had ruined everything? What would he do?

"Megatron's already left," she announced to the group. "And it looks like I'm stuck here, so if someone could fix this, that'd be great."

Dai Atlas grimaced. "His manners are abhorrent, as always," he said. "I will have one of my aerials transport you."

She looked at him, then raked her optical sweep over the Autobots. Orion looked away. What could he say? Even after all this, he believed he had done the right thing by telling Megatron. But Megatron shouldn't have found out that way; nobody should have.

So instead Orion waited in silence for the bridge to open. He half expected to get a reprimand over the comm system as soon as they stepped into the Ark, but there was nothing. Neither Ultra Magnus nor Rodimus spoke to him, though he could gather from the rapid flickering and body language that they were using their comm systems.

Orion put his head down and let the silence stand.

Megatron looked up from the slow drip of energon down his arms at the insistent ping of the viewscreen. «Turn it off, Soundwave,» he ordered.

«Transmission is from Orion Pax. Megatron's orders are to receive all such calls.»

«I'm overriding that order.»

After a pause, the viewscreen flickered on to show Orion Pax's worried, open face, his mouth downturned and his audial fins angled back. Megatron snarled and curled his wet claws beneath the range of the camera. For a moment, he felt a fury that nearly whited out his systems, followed swiftly by terror that he'd managed to anger Soundwave badly enough that his friend would retaliate. After another few nanokliks, logic started to reassert itself: Soundwave had a sparkbond with Buzzsaw, who was unpredictable at best, and a host bond with Rumble and Frenzy.

And no matter who had done it, Megatron's situation remained the same: he stared down at the former Prime's face, his peace of mind already shattered into pieces so small it felt as though he would never get them back.

"Megatron?" Orion ventured into the silence. "I'm sorry." Just as Megatron's fury rose again into a sharp snarl that threatened to spill out into the air, Orion continued, more hesitantly. "I—didn't mean to disturb you. I thought—I like talking to you. If—I'd like to know more about the Decepticons. About how you got started as a movement. If that's— If you're—"

Megatron nearly laughed. The position of Orion's audial fins made it perfectly clear that he had called for a different reason entirely. Megatron wanted to grab him through the screen, wanted to smear his face in the energon already covering the floor, wanted to snarl and claw and fight.

But with that desire came the cold realization that Orion Pax was a civilian who had never fought a day in his life, and by attacking him, Megatron would make himself just as much a monster as Sentinel had always claimed.

Megatron licked at his dental plate with the mesh of his glossa. Orion's optics flickered, and Megatron gave him a cold, humorless smile. "I already told you our story, little historian."

"No, you didn't." Orion's optics brightened. "You told me about what happened to you. And I know from the history texts when the war started, officially; it was the moment you went against Sentinel's orders, right? But what about the movement itself? Did it start before that? When did you become the Decepticons?"

"The movement existed long before me," Megatron said slowly. "My writings tapped into an unspoken thought that most of dared not speak aloud. And as a named movement…" He hesitated, remembering Sentinel's smug, sneering face as he said the word. "Your predecessor named us."

"If you don't want to talk about it, I could ask something else, instead," Orion said. Kind. Gentle. Just a touch too clumsy to be pitying.

He looked so young. Even with Optimus Prime's familiar faceplates and frame, there was something about Orion's memory-lacking spark that changed his entire demeanor. He flung himself into everything with a passion that made Megatron's whole frame ache. This was who had gotten Sentinel's Matrix. Optimus must have flung himself into the Autobot cause with the same passion, before, until he started to burn out from the inside.

Optimus should have negotiated for a peace treaty before. He'd tried, once, but it had been a supremely half-sparked effort, and Megatron had rejected it as he had rejected all of Sentinel's smarmy advances before.

"Do you know where the name comes from?" Megatron said. "Deceive, the signs for trickery and manipulation. Con, for a swindler peddling false wares. That's how Sentinel wrote it. But we write it differently. We write it those who will not accept what is given to us under false pretenses."

Orion said it aloud, putting the stresses on the right syllables for the first time. "And Autobot…"

"It would take a wiser wordsmith than I to twist that nomenclature." Megatron flexed his claws at his side and heard the spatter of liquid. He was still dripping, then; Nickel would undoubtedly take him to task later. His processor felt clearer, though, and while he still refused to think of what had driven him into this state—he had a hatchling, the humans sired a hatchling on him, an abomination of nature, and he hadn't even known, hadn't even been aware, their saws their drills their cheerful voices as they split him apart and ruined him—he could feel his combat systems winding down the longer he looked into Orion's ridiculously earnest optics.

"But, if you think about it, it's not particularly uplifting, not the way Decepticon is," Orion said, leaning forward as his optics grew brighter. "It's just, 'self, continuing the way things were.' Wouldn't it have been better for Sentinel to call us warriors of justice, or protectors of the truth, or something?"

Megatron still couldn't bring himself to give a genuine laugh, but he found a slight smile tugging at his face. "You speak like a hatchling raised on fantastical stories," he said. "Autobot is very accurate."

"Yes, but it's not inspiring," Orion grumbled, then shrunk into himself a little bit, as though he'd just realized he was speaking so casually to a fearsome Decepticon warlord. "So Autobots and Decepticons didn't exist until the war, but the attitudes were around for a while, I understand. But how… Why did you start writing about those things? I mean, why hadn't it been done before?"

"I suspect," Megatron said dryly, "that in eras past, jobs such as mining were not treated with the same carelessness that they were by your predecessor's time. I cannot be certain, because nobody bothered to document the conditions under which the mines operated, but surely I could not have been the first otherwise." He hesitated, and Orion leaned forward even more, apparently unbothered by Megatron's hostility. "Though I myself would not have published my writings if not for the encouragement of a mech named Terminus."

"What happened to him?" Orion asked.

"He died, of course," Megatron said shortly. "He was dismantled after an accident that left his systems in such disrepair that he could not meet his quota. His guttering spark was extinguished, and his frame was recycled for spare parts."

Orion's vents gave a squeaky hitch. "But that's murder!"

"Careful," Megatron said with a sharp, brief smile. "You don't want to let your Autobots hear you say that. Calling state-mandated euthanasia murder is one of the points they filed towards the case for my words being treason."

Orion bowed his head. "It couldn't have been common," he said, in the tone of someone trying desperately to convince himself. "Someone would have noticed."

"No, not common," Megatron allowed. "More common was my fellows dying where they stood, unable to stop working long enough to heal."

"Oh." Orion looked down and away from Megatron, his audial fins down and miserable again. "Were you ever…happy?" When Megatron found himself unable to answer, Orion looked up again, optics flaring in panic. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to ask that! I'm sorry."

Megatron's engines gave a warning growl. "Stop apologizing. It makes you sound pathetic."

"Then…what would you like to talk about?" Orion asked, sounding desperate.

Megatron studied him, distantly. Orion Pax looked amazing, even as as out of place as he clearly felt in his fancy Prime frame. Megatron had felt desire for him, before, as Optimus Prime, though it had been the desire for control and power. Orion Pax, for whatever reason, listened to Megatron, spoke with him willingly. Orion's expressions lit up his whole face; how would he look with the light of electricity changing the curve of his facial plating? Orion wouldn't challenge Megatron, wouldn't fight him, would accept whatever he was given. He would have been perfect. Megatron's spark caught on the image.

But no charge rose. Not yet.

Megatron's arms ached, and his whole frame felt empty as he dragged himself back to cold reality. "You called me, Orion Pax. You are the one who wished to speak to me. If you have nothing to say, then leave."

Orion hesitated for a long moment. "Okay," he said, his voice soft. "Thank you for humoring me. I'll think about what you said."

Megatron abruptly felt exhausted. He switched off the viewscreen without saying anything else and slumped down onto the floor to slip into recharge. When he came out of it, he would see Nickel and get his forearms seen to. For now, he just wanted to sink into his own head and not have to focus on anything he'd been told today.

Jetfire woke again, his processor spinning. He felt better than last time, at least; the aerial—Wing?—must have found eir promised medical team. Everything still felt stiff and thin, like the metal of his frame had been eaten away, but he could at least focus on the world around him. And the world around him currently consisted of four mechs, three with shiny badges emblazoned on their plating. Some sort of long-range team? It didn't look like the Primal Vanguard brand, and Jetfire had never heard of any formal team so far out, but he supposed Starscream might have found some organization on Cybertron that Jetfire wouldn't have paid attention to.

"So," the red-plated ground drawled. "You're awake, then. Let's make this simple. I'm Knock Out, he's Barricade, ey's Acid Storm. And you're stable. Thank you, Knock Out, your medical skills are excellent as always. You're welcome, you're welcome, you're too kind."

Jetfire reset his optics, but the scene in front of him remained the same. He let his gaze drift to the alien ground and considered his options. All of the plans he and Starscream had made would have been ruined by Jetfire's crash and subsequent rescue. Maybe Starscream wasn't even here; maybe he was still back on Vos. Had he sacrificed that much to save Jetfire's life? Whatever the case, Jetfire probably couldn't make the situation worse by giving his designation. "I'm Jetfire. Thank you for helping me."

Knock Out's optics gave a flicker of shock, but he recovered in a few nanokliks. "Yes, well. You're very welcome."

"How are you feeling?" Wing asked. Ey looked calm and better than ey had when Jetfire had seen em earlier, but he couldn't tell how much of that was his own twisted perceptions. That earlier moment, with Wing covered in melting water, felt almost like a sensor ghost.

"Better," Jetfire said. "Thank you, as well. All of you," he added, though he wasn't sure what Barricade and Acid Storm had done.

"Those are some impressive manners," Knock Out said. "You're definitely not a Decepticon with etiquette like that. Neutral?"

"I told you," Wing said patiently, "he isn't anyone on the crew's roster, or I would have taken him there instead of asking you for help."

"There are neutral mechs who haven't affiliated with your antiquated ideas of being an Autobot without accountability," Barricade said. He turned to Jetfire. "You know Starscream?"

"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," Jetfire said. He tilted his head. "I've never heard of the Decepticons."

All four of them stared at him until Acid Storm wiggled eir wingflaps. "Guess that answers the question," ey said. "Definitely not Decepticon, definitely not Circle of Light, but the good news is that he's not Autobot, either."

Barricade made an impatient gesture. "Come on! I'm asking whether or not you've seen Starscream, that's simple enough."

"I would ask you the same question," Jetfire replied carefully.

"So you don't know," Barricade said, his voice flat. "Good to know this was a waste of time and energy."

"Seriously, what scrap crawled into your fuel tanks?" Acid Storm shook eir head. "This glitch is just worried, that's all."

Jetfire looked at Barricade with a little more sympathy. True, he didn't remember Starscream having any grounder friends back in Vos, but it wasn't impossible. "The last I saw of him was before I crashed," he said. "I don't know where he is now, but I would assume that he doesn't want to be found."

"Of course he doesn't want to be found," Barricade said, then stopped. His optics flared, including a second pair on his hips that Jetfire hadn't noticed. "Wait. Scrap. I've got a faulty processor. When did you crash?"

"What part of his chronometer is damaged did you not understand?" Knock Out sniped.

Barricade waved that away. "All right. What was going on when you crashed? Had the war started yet?"

"War?" Jetfire repeated, confused. "What war?"

"Holy melted sire of slag," Acid Storm murmured. "He can't possibly have survived that long without going Empty, right?"

"Even in cryostasis, that's highly unlikely," Knock Out said. "There are too many risk factors in this atmosphere alone." Then his optics widened. "But with a pre-war shuttle prepped for long range exploration, that would have been taken into account… Frag."

Jetfire's engine rumbled against a sudden chill. "How long has it been?"

"You're the one he tried to fly off with, aren't you?" Barricade's optics flashed. "It's been over twenty-four thousand vorns."

"Twenty-four thousand…!" Jetfire's internals felt like they had turned to liquid scrap. "And I'm still alive?"

"Cryostasis," Knock Out said. "What can I say? Anyway, this is my cue to leave; I certainly can't do anything else, and I have business to get back to. Acid Storm, if you would?"

"I'll stay here for now," Barricade said without looking away from Jetfire. "There could be some information we're missing."

"What information?" Acid Storm muttered. "He's been in cryostasis for vorns." But ey took off, carrying Knock Out with em and leaving Jetfire alone with Barricade and Wing.

Jetfire looked Barricade over more thoroughly. Despite some evidence of disrepair and poor maintenance, easily explained, he looked solid enough. "In twenty-four thousand vorns, I assume Starscream moved on," he said, despite the pain that thought sent through his spark.

"Yeah," Barricade said in a tight, clipped voice. "You could say that."

"I'm glad he found you, then." Jetfire hoped that would be enough of a peace offering; he wasn't sure he could manage a more convincing show of it. He had lost everything in an instant. Sure, he had pieces of his life that Starscream hadn't slipped into, but he'd left those behind before the crash, and they'd be gone by now, anyway. Even with a war so terrible that they expected him to know about it all the way out here, the Academy would surely have assumed he was dead by now and given his position to someone else.

Barricade gave him a flat stare. "Not me," he said. "He was bonded to Skywarp and Thundercracker."

"Oh," Jetfire murmured, unsure of what else to say. "I thought he wasn't interested in them. What happened?"

"With Skywarp and Thundercracker? Couldn't say. I didn't know him at the time." Barricade studied Jetfire for a moment. "He broke the bond and flew off on his own a while back. He's invisible to our sensors, somehow; he managed to confuse all the trackers, so we can't even find him."

"And that's why you're looking for him." Jetfire's spark hadn't stopped hurting, but he nodded once. "I won't join your group—your faction—because I don't know enough. But if you're looking for him, I'd like to help."

"Is that so?" Barricade snorted. "He could be anywhere on this planet or off, and the native organics are dangerous."

"It's not going to do anyone any good if I just stay here and stare into the distance," Jetfire said.

Wing stepped forward and put a warm hand on Jetfire's wrist joint. "I'll help as well," ey offered. "I, too, am affiliated with no faction, and that means I have no other obligations. Isn't that so, Barricade?"

Barricade glared at both of them. "Fine," he said. "But you call me the instant you find him, okay? No Neutral or Autobot ship is going to grant him asylum."

"I think you underestimate them, but I will call you," Wing said, voice smooth. Ey stepped back and transformed. Jetfire watched sleek, alien lines come into form; had Cybertronian fashion changed so much? But as soon as Wing and Barricade had gone, he forced his own body into his block alt and took off as well, trying not to think about anything. Especially not the mech he was looking for, who had bonded into a trine he'd sworn he didn't want and left Jetfire on an alien planet alone for over twenty-four thousand vorns.

Chapter Text

Chromia's proximity sensors woke her out of the light recharge she'd settled into as a compromise. She didn't transform, but only because she'd been too well-trained.

Something was touching her.

She readied her transformation sequence and her battle protocols, but forced herself to remain absolutely still. If a wandering human had somehow managed to make it past the first line of her sensors, well, nobody would be very happy if she were forced to squish it.

"Chromia?" asked Sari, low and too close to Chromia's audial sensors.

Chromia turned on her optics with a frown and ran another sweep before transforming. "What in the world are you doing with your signals? Why are you invisible?"

"I am?" Sari sounded surprised, at least. "Uh, I'll try not to be. Is it working?"

"Not yet." Chromia focused on the area the sound was coming from. "I didn't realize you had visual deflectors as well."

"Yeah, well, neither did I," Sari grumbled. "It's a whole new world." She appeared again, and while the rest of her still registered as nothing to Chromia's sensory reads, audiovisual would have to do for now. Chromia relaxed. "Is that better?"

"Much. What did you want?"

Sari raised her chin. "I want to meet my mom."

"Your mom," Chromia repeated blankly. She reset her optics as she ran a memory search on the term. "You mean Megatron."

"Right." Sari's mouth twisted down at the corners. "I know he's a guy and all, I got that much. But he's my mom, right? He carried me and everything."

"Yes. He did." Chromia folded herself back into her alt mode. "I don't think that will be possible, Sari." She forced her systems to calm. Everything else about the situation remained normal, except for the overwhelming worry that if Sari could become completely invisible to Chromia's sensors, so could someone else.

It's because she's half human, Chromia told herself. There are no other technorganics with Cybertronian heritage in existence, because we haven't been here long enough to create them. She allowed herself a shudder.

"Why not?" Sari demanded. "I'm not my dad, okay? I'm still this Megatron's daughter, right? Just because I assumed my mom was a human woman doesn't mean I can't still—do what I intended to do someday. I mean, I guess I didn't think about it too much. Sometimes I kind of thought maybe she was dead or she'd left us on purpose, y'know? But if I'd really thought about what it would be like if she didn't abandon me, I'd have wanted to get to know her." Sari crossed her arms. "And I bet he's much better than my dad."

"He's a warlord who started a million-year civil war and is the cause of countless deaths," Chromia said, her voice flat. "He's nothing like any of you humans could imagine."

"Yeah, and he's still the guy my dad—" Sari broke off and scrubbed at her face. "He didn't get a choice or anything, but it's not like I did either. I didn't ask to be born. I didn't ask to be some—freak—"

"Sari," Chromia said. She unfolded and cupped a hand around Sari's tiny back, feeling minute vibrations against her plating as Sari shook. «Windblade? We have a situation here.»

«What kind of situation?»

«Nothing immediately dangerous. The kind of situation where Sari wants to meet Megatron.»

«You told her that's impossible, right?»

«Of course. But she really wants to meet her other creator. You're the softspark, here; how do we keep this from turning into a disaster?»

Windblade hesitated. «She could come back inside and use the portable viewscreen for some sort of long-range meeting. That way, we wouldn't have to worry about Megatron crushing her in a rage.»

«Do you think he'd answer?»

«Well, I'm not about to fly either of you out to see him face to face,» Windblade said. «I'm fairly certain that he'd terminate negotiations if we did that, anyway, even if we could keep Sari safe.»

«Hmm,» Chromia said noncommittally. «So, viewscreen?»


Chromia tapped a gentle finger against Sari's back to get her attention. "I think there might be a way," she said. "But there's a problem. We'd have to go back inside."

"No way," Sari said instantly. "This is a trick."

"No trick." Chromia made herself smile an easy, laid-back smile, then gave herself a mental pat on the back as Sari returned it. "You don't have to speak to your dad at all. But there's a comm system in there that you should be able to use to talk to Megatron face-to-face, if he accepts the call. That's about as much as you're likely to get; I suggest you take it."

"But I want to see my mom," Sari grumbled, half-sparked. "I don't want to just…talk to him on Skype."

"Like I said, it's the best you're likely to get."

Chromia tilted her head and waited, and finally Sari let out a huge sigh. "Fine, okay, we'll talk on alien Skype. But I'm not gonna talk to my dad, and I get an apology flight from Windblade."

"You'll get no such thing," Chromia said. She made her way slowly to the entrance of the base. It wasn't easy to keep herself to a human pace, especially when the human had legs as short as Sari's. Chromia would be glad when her self-appointed job as hatchling guardian reached its end. On the one hand, trusting the task to anyone else could have drawbacks. On the other, it would be nice to have some downtime with Windblade again.

"Sari!" Sumdac cried as soon as they entered the building. He ran over towards them. Chromia scooped Sari up in her hands, protective instincts blaring a warning. "Sari, I am so, so sorry."

Sari scowled and wrapped her arms around Chromia's thumb. "Tell my dad I'm not interested in his apologies," she said.

Chromia looked down at Sumdac. He stared up at Sari. "Sari, please," he said.

Sari pressed her face against Chromia's finger, and Sumdac bowed his head. After a long, tense moment, he stepped out of the way, wringing his hands. Chromia stepped by him and moved down the hallway towards the closet that contained the viewscreen.

"Why does he do that?" Sari asked.

Chromia glanced down, but it didn't seem like a question Sari would want a genuine answer to. And besides, it wasn't as though Chromia were an expert on human behavior. Instead, she set Sari down on the keypad and flipped through the screens until her optics caught on Megatron's name.

Her first instinct was to call Jazz and let him know how many times Megatron had been called from this very unit. She held herself back; they weren't technically at war anymore, and they'd appointed Orion Pax their negotiator under very unfair circumstances. He knew next to nothing about the later course of the war, and he'd always been a bit of a softspark anyway. She'd just have to tell Ultra Magnus to keep a closer eye on him during those negotiations.

Windblade poked her head into the closet a moment later. "Do you want me to call?" she asked. "Diplomacy isn't exactly your strong suit."

"I don't think Megatron's going to respond well to any of us," Chromia said. "But if you want to be the one to try, go ahead. Be my guest."

Windblade stepped up to the viewscreen as Chromia flattened herself against the wall and smiled down at Sari. "Hello there. I'm glad to see that you're doing well."

"I'm doing so-so," Sari said. "I'll be doing better once I can see my mom."

Windblade hesitated with her fingers above the screen. "You…you'll probably want to refer to him as Megatron," she said. She glanced back at Chromia.

«I have no idea. As far as I can tell, it's both a biological and social concept, usually linked heavily to gender.»

«Megatron barely even qualifies as a biological carrier, considering how heavily Sumdac must have modified his systems,» Windblade replied with disapproval heavy in her voice. «Does she understand…?»

«I'm just here to make sure she's safe,» Chromia said, «not to discuss the ethical ramifications of what she calls her carrier.»

Windblade huffed a little sigh of air and flicked her wings as she finally started the call. He appeared on the screen immediately and scowled when he saw who it was. "Autobots," he said. "I am certain Dai Atlas would not approve."

"Hello, Megatron," Windblade said. She folded her hands together. "I have someone with me who would like to speak to you. A hatchling—"

"No," Megatron said, his voice flat. The call terminated.

Chromia winced; Windblade and Sari stared at the screen as though they both expected him to call back. "Well, that's that," Chromia said. "Sari, do you want to stay inside or move back outside?"

"That was very rude of him," Windblade murmured.

"And the vorns of civil war weren't rude?"

"That's my mom, huh?" Sari hadn't moved. "If he doesn't want to talk to me, I'll just have to find him in person so he can't run away."

Windblade and Chromia exchanged a glance, and Chromia moved to scoop Sari up off of the viewscreen unit. "I don't think it's a good idea to run off half-transformed," she said. "You're small and very squishy, and he's violent."

"I'm his kid," Sari said, frowning, but she grabbed onto Chromia's thumb again. "He wouldn't squish me."

"Let's not put that to the test right now. You tried to speak to him already, and he didn't want to. If you're going to pursue this, you need to come up with a way to get him to listen to you while staying absolutely safe. Right? And that's going to take time."

Sari didn't answer.

Megatron had expected to be clearheaded when he stumbled into the medical bay, but instead his processor felt more shredded than it had previously. His recharge cycle hadn't completed. The Autobots had spotted their opportunity and succeeded in discombobulating him. The energon that had dripped from his lines a few joors ago had clumped up into clots, and he still felt dizzy and underfueled.

"Half-melted slag on a stick of scrap," Nickel swore. "What in Unicron's Pit did you do to yourself?"

Megatron lifted an arm blearily and peered at the very sluggish slide of fluid from behind the clot. "It isn't healing," he said.

Nickel smacked herself in the face and then dragged that hand down before marching over and jumping up onto one of the largest slabs. "Come over here and lie down," she instructed. Megatron complied, flopping face-first against the slab. "Not— Oh, never mind."

"Did you know?" Megatron asked as Nickel began working.

"Did I know what? That you were prone to inflicting massive injuries on yourself? No! Do you think for a second I would have let you out of here if I thought you were going to mutilate your arms? Do you know how long it took for us to get you a frame again in the first place? Lord High Protector or no Lord High Protector, if this is the path you insist on heading down, I'll cut your slagging motor relays. Look at this mess! Can you even move your arms right anymore? No! Because you fragged up all the circuitry with energon and rips! Do you know how much work this is? Of course you don't."

Megatron shut off his optics. "Did you know that the humans induced me to carry?"

Nickel fell abruptly silent. "Slag," she breathed. "That's what did it, huh?"

"Did you know?"

"None of us could have." Nickel resumed working, pulling out ruined components far more gently than she had been. "The only parts of your original frame that Soundwave could salvage were your brain module, your spark, and your t-cog. The basics. Your old gestational equipment is still in that piece of melted scrap human facility." She pressed her little hand to his shoulder joint. "They had another Cybertronian at that facility?"

"I don't know," Megatron growled, tensing.

Nickel flicked the back of his head with her tiny fingers. "Don't you get mouthy with me," she said. "Your arms are a valuable and difficult to repair part of your frame. Do you know how much work is required to make sure your digits have any control or grasping power? The amount of data that needs to be able to reach your brain module so that you don't crush everything you touch? Of course you don't. So listen to your medic: next time you feel like clawing yourself up, claw up something else, instead. Or better yet: don't. We've had good results from sensory programs, and I'm going to give you a few to play whenever you need to, okay? This is why you come to your medic first."

Megatron couldn't seem to form words, so he shut down all his systems and slipped into recharge. He woke later, his chronometer pinging insistently, and turned on his optics to see Nickel standing in front of the slab, hands on her hips.

"Feeling better?" she asked. "You should. Arms completely repaired, energon stores refilled, sensory programs installed. You're welcome."

"Thank you, Nickel," Megatron said quietly.

"You can thank me by never doing that again." She leveled an accusatory finger at him. "If you had waited a breem longer, some of that damage would have been permanent. We would have had to do a total limb replacement. And none of us want that."

Megatron pushed himself upright. True to her words, his arms didn't hurt at all, and the movement didn't tug on any damaged energon lines. His claws had been polished—and, he though, dulled a little, but he couldn't tell how much of that he had done himself by trying to cut into his own metal—and everything gleamed bright and new. "Did anyone else see?"

Nickel looked at him without saying a word, then glanced towards the doorway. Soundwave stood there, blocking the way, his visor dim. "I'll refrain from lecturing you anymore," she said, "because I think you're about to get as much of an earful as Soundwave can manage. Remember: use the damn programs and don't you dare lay another claw on your own circuits, you troublemaker."

Megatron could feel his own sparkpulse as he made his way towards Soundwave. Soundwave inclined his head and turned to duck into one of the private rooms. "Did she call you?" Megatron asked.

Soundwave gave a solid negative beep. "Cassettes told Soundwave," he said, then turned to Megatron. "Soundwave apologizes. Soundwave has been distracted. Megatron requires better."

"Soundwave," Megatron said.

Soundwave's vocals grew faster, his words nearly overlapping. "Soundwave has failed. Deserves punishment. Megatron has been kind, but Soundwave—"

"Enough!" Megatron bellowed. He stepped forward to wrap his newly-repaired arms around Soundwave's frame, resting his chin on Soundwave's shoulders. "I have also been distracted."

"Soundwave should have helped with Megatron's distraction." To Megatron's dismay, Soundwave's vocalizer started to short out. The component had been built sturdy, with the minimal inflections possible, and it shouldn't have been able to fall prey to the problems that affected natural vocalizers. "Soundwave is failure. Deserves punishment."

"No," Megatron said firmly. "Do you think that I would punish you for anything less than treason? How far have I trusted you, Soundwave? How much of the Decepticon movement do you believe would exist without you? You have done nothing to make me doubt your loyalties."

"Megatron." Soundwave's visor turned off. "Soundwave knows."

Megatron turned off his own optics. "Which Cassette? Wait, no, don't tell me. They all know by now anyway."

"Only sparkbonded," Soundwave offered. Well, at least that meant Rumble and Frenzy wouldn't be running their little mouths about it all over the ship. That was one small mercy, at least. "Megatron—"

"No. Stop." Megatron pulled himself together with sheer willpower. "You found me, Soundwave. You and your Cassettes found me, and you rescued me. And we both know there have been plenty of times when I have not been able to rescue you."

"Megatron not to blame!"

"And neither is Soundwave." Megatron pulled back and cupped Soundwave's face in both his hands. "You care deeply about those in need. That's why you adopted this human hatchling, is it not?" Soundwave trembled, but didn't pull away. "I have no doubt that if I'd ordered you to eliminate the human or Prowl, you would have done so, but I have not."

"Megatron cannot do this alone," Soundwave said.

Megatron stared at him for a moment. "You're right," he said, voice heavy. The words ripped out of him like a piece of his spark. "I can't focus properly on the negotiations. I can't—think."

Soundwave made a low noise and rubbed his cheek against the side of Megatron's shoulder spikes like one of his beastformer sparkmates. "Soundwave will help."

"No. You're distracted as well. You have the recordings, but so does Elita-1, and she's been down on the ground."

"Elita-1's loyalties are secure."

"I know." Megatron stroked the smooth, warm metal down the side of Soundwave's face and mask. The sensation soothed over his newly-repaired sensors. "You would have found evidence of wrongdoing long ago if she had been a spy. Call her in, and we'll talk, the three of us. For the future of all Decepticons."

Soundwave blatted a brief klik of static before extricating himself from Megatron's arms and straightening. He looked perfectly composed when Elita-1 entered the room a moment later and stopped to give them both a half-transformed bow.


Megatron glanced at Soundwave. With Soundwave, he had ages of being seen at his lowest. Here in the medical bay with an outsider, even fully repaired, it felt as though someone had taken a welder to his vocalizer and melted it down to slag. He pulled himself straighter; he could do this. He was Megatron, Lord High Protector, and he knew better than anyone that a leader would be nothing without advisors. Perhaps if he'd replaced Starscream sooner—but, no, that hadn't been feasible.

And there was no point in dwelling on regrets when the future lay in front of him.

"I have not been at my best," he said. His voice came out a low growl. "I—would like your opinion on where the negotiations are going and whether they are worth pursuing to their conclusion, now that you have spoken to the Autobots yourself."

Elita-1 didn't so much as hesitate, to his relief. "If you'd asked me that back at the beginning, I would have said they weren't worth it," she said. "Optimus meant well, but you were fighting him and Dai Atlas, not working together to create a new world. Orion and Ultra Magnus, though—I believe that they both genuinely want equality for all Cybertronians, or as close as we can get as soon as possible. My suggestion would be to wrap things up with them as swiftly as possible, before the other Autobots realize what's going on and bring in someone nastier. We don't want Prowl or Jazz involved in any official capacity—Prowl was raised to be Sentinel Prime's ideal Autobot, and Jazz is completely unpredictable."

Megatron grimaced. "And Rodimus Prime? He seems unpredictable as well."

"He is, but nowhere near Jazz's level." Elita-1 glanced over at Soundwave; to her credit, she didn't ask why this meeting was taking place in one of the private patient rooms, but perhaps she already knew. "He's…young and restless. The other two are there because they don't trust him to handle any decisions on his own. His unpredictability isn't a ploy. It's as much a detriment to the Autobots as to us." She scratched the side of her face. "He'll give you a clutch if you insist on it. He won't go for your spark when you're alone; he'll just run his mouth. When they're together, Ultra Magnus keeps him in line pretty well."

Megatron's grimace deepened. Even the thought of interfacing with Rodimus Prime made his cables want to crawl further back into his plating. He had been trying to avoid thinking about that scenario; of course Elita-1 wouldn't advise him to drop that clause when their numbers were dwindling. Still, he'd insisted on that back in the beginning, with Optimus, when he'd thought that the little Prime would balk from it and show his true colors. Megatron could hardly back away now. He was no coward. He had suffered worse. He had suffered worse at the hands of humans, apparently, and the thought made all his internals crawl into different positions.

"Peace will be made," Soundwave said.

"I think so, too," Elita-1 said. "Strike while the metal is hot, shape this peace into what you want from it before the Autobots can react, and free us from this war. You know you'll have us behind you again if you need to start another."

She said it with such devastating ease that Megatron's vents hitched. "I am not the only one who could wage war," he said.

"No, but you're the only one who did." Elita-1 watched him steadily. "I didn't even realize what the Autobots were doing. But it doesn't really matter now, right? You can do this for us. If you can't do it alone, that's fine. We're here to support you."

Megatron reached out to rest his claws on her shoulder. "Thank you," he said. "I hope your proposal doesn't lead us astray."

"So do I," Elita-1 said with a wry edge. "I don't think it's a guarantee, but I believe you were right to pursue this peace. If we had continued as things were…"

"Likelihood of extinction was high," Soundwave finished, and Elita-1 gave him a nod.

"Better to try this and use the chance to regroup. Now that Starscream's not heading everything, you've got an astronomically high approval rating for pursuing this peace, too." Elita-1 glanced downwards. "I hear some of your officers are hoping to have a chance to settle down and raise a litter."

Megatron laughed, short and thin, and glanced over at Soundwave. «Does that include you, my friend? Are you planning to say something to Prowl?»

«Soundwave and Prowl are still enemies,» Soundwave replied. «Courtship must wait until that is no longer true. Soundwave will not accept Autobot litter. Prowl will not accept Decepticon litter. Must be neither.»

Something about the way Soundwave said that, simple and clean-cut, made Megatron's spark resonate stronger in answer. He reached out and clapped Soundwave on the shoulder as well. "We will do everything we can to make this happen," he said, and Elita-1's optics flared bright in answer.

"Do you understand what you might have cost us?" Ultra Magnus reached out to grab Rodimus' shoulder and turn his recalcitrant Prime. "Rodimus, pay attention, you can't be cavalier about this!"

"I get it, okay?" Rodimus snapped. He yanked himself away from Ultra Magnus' grip. "I fragged up, and I'm sorry, you don't have to keep telling me! And I didn't mean it the way you keep saying, anyway, I just meant that he already has a hatchling, he shouldn't need me. What about what I want? Did that go away the second this slagging thing crawled into my chest?"

The honest answer would be yes, but Ultra Magnus couldn't bring himself to say it. "Half a joor ago, you were insisting again that you could give Megatron as many hatchlings as he wanted without any problems. You can't keep changing your mind, Rodimus. Either you feel capable of giving Megatron hatchlings as per his agreement with Optimus, or you do not. And give what we have discussed, I believe it is likely that the answer is 'you do not.'"

"Slag off," Rodimus huffed, but all the heat had gone from his voice. "Just because I'm not interested in getting plugged doesn't mean I can't do it."

"And yet you do not feel comfortable with Megatron or with the act itself." Ultra Magnus crossed his arms. "It would be better to address the issue at hand: you are not interested in the act of interface, and you do not want to bear a clutch of hatchlings for a mechanism you dislike. And yet you are being told that you must, for the sake of peace for all Cybertronians."

Rodimus sagged. "Ugh," he said. "This whole thing sucks scrap. I didn't ask for any of this."

Ultra Magnus forced his vocalizer a note softer, though it still came out sterner than he wanted. "I know you didn't. I am—sorry that I yelled at you."

"No, you're not," Rodimus said. "You yell at everyone because you care. It's one of those Ultra Magnus things." He came forward and rested his head against Ultra Magnus' arm. "Pet me?"

Ultra Magnus raised a hand to stroke carefully along Rodimus' spoiler. Rodimus sighed and melted further against him. Rodimus had always carried that physical ease with him, the ability to touch others and be touched and to do so with a seemingly innate sense of what he wanted. How, Ultra Magnus wondered, had he done so when he had clearly been pushing his own limits by interfacing with others? Ultra Magnus could barely conceive of it. He had spent two lifetimes standing distant from others so as to minimize the chances of giving them the wrongful impression of physical interest.

Had he ever touched anyone the way Rodimus wanted him to touch? He didn't think so. This was a kind of physical comfort he had always associated with hatchling care and relationships. When he and his brother had outgrown the need to be taken care of, that had been the end for him.

It felt…nice. Ultra Magnus especially liked the way Rodimus' optics dimmed and his engine started to purr.

All too soon, however, the purring stopped, and Rodimus pulled away. "I'm not going to have this when I forget, am I?" he asked, his voice uncharacteristically quiet and solemn. "I mean, you're going to tell me, but you're not going to be my Lord High Protector anymore, you won't have to hug me."

Ultra Magnus wasn't sure what to say. He tried to imagine hugging Hot Rod, but that felt wrong; Hot Rod had been his subordinate, and the change of name eased the mental transition between social norms. "I don't know," he said after a long pause. "You would be under Jazz's direct command, if you no longer had the Matrix."

"But I wouldn't know that I could hug you," Rodimus insisted, his voice growing loud and agitated again. "You wouldn't tell me, you're Ultra Magnus! You don't talk about—hugs. I'm going to forget everything."

"Perhaps you could carry around some sort of recording device," Ultra Magnus suggested hastily. "You could tell yourself everything you believe you should not forget, rather than relying on the people around you."

Rodimus' optics lit up, and his body language snapped into something new and open in a nanoklik. "Magnus, you're a genius!" He lunged forward to grab a datapad. "Okay, datapad, how do I—aha! Ahem. Dear future Rodimus, this is past Rodimus, and I just want to say, Ultra Magnus is the best, and he gives really great hugs."

"Rodimus," Ultra Magnus sighed. "You could at least wait until I'm gone."

Rodimus held up a hand with his palm out and made a sharp gesture. "As I was saying. He's really great, and as long as you're not his subordinate, he said he'd give you hugs, so you should really think about doing it. I know you're trying to interface with him, but don't bother. It's not worth it to make both of you uncomfortable when he'll give you everything you need anyway. Well, maybe except for kissing. I haven't tried that yet, but I bet he's really good at that, too."

Ultra Magnus tried to say something again, to protest that it wasn't appropriate for him to be hearing this, but his vocalizer felt stuck. A turbulent swell of unfamiliar emotions rose in his spark, and his processor spun dizzily no matter how he tried to focus. The emotions had interfered with his balance modulation and overwhelmed his priorities. He wanted to step closer to Rodimus again and hold him close. He wanted—

He wanted—

He forced himself to turn away and leave the room, with Rodimus still chattering away to the datapad. He would inform Rodimus of more efficient methods of recording later, when he had regained control over himself. For now, Rodimus required privacy.

Chapter Text

Orion found himself more relieved than he would have expected to see Megatron looking calm and collected again at the next round of negotiations. He and Elita-1 worked together like a well-oiled team, and neither of them mentioned the incident from last time despite Rodimus' clumsy attempt at an apology.

Orion took that as a cue and flung himself into strategic planning. How would they implement a system with enough flexibility to be altered according to the changing needs of a post-war society while blocking off a clear path back to the same problems that had lead to the war in the first place? How would they make sure everyone had fuel once they got back to Cybertron?

Afterwards, feeling buoyant and hopeful, Orion trotted outside after Megatron. "Megatron!" he called. "I wanted to ask—"

"Negotiations are over for the orn," Dai Atlas rumbled behind him. "If your question is important, you can ask at the next meeting."

Orion scowled, but held his vocalizer in check. "Fine," he said, as neutral as he could manage.

"Don't mind him," Megatron said. "Dai Atlas is upset that not everything is staying the way he believes it should, to most benefit himself." Without waiting for a response, he launched himself up into the air, this time catching Elita-1 with his claws before flying off into the distance.

"He knows nothing," Dai Atlas growled. "His demands would have us leave behind everything that makes us Cybertronian."

Orion hid a smile. "I think that is a concern that should wait to be addressed until the next negotiation period," he said, then slipped back inside.

Rodimus hopped from foot to foot and transformed as soon as he caught sight of Orion. "Come on, come on, what are you waiting for? Let's go! I've got a huge speech to record."

"On the viewscreen?" Orion hoped he sounded appropriately curious instead of disappointed.

"What viewscreen?" Rodimus asked. "Blaster got me a ton of datapads. A ton! I wonder where he got all of them, were we just carrying them around in the Ark's storage units? Is this what ships use instead of brain modules?"

"I don't think so, Rodimus." Ultra Magnus transformed as well and nudged up against Rodimus' back bumper. "Go."

Orion followed them at a more sedate pace, without transforming. He still felt odd in his new alt-mode, in his changed frame. He'd started to recognize the gate operators, at least, though he didn't know their names. The one currently on shift was the pale green one who made furious hand gestures at Rodimus and laughed when he gave back a rude whining beep of sound. Orion smiled at them before passing through the second bridge that would bring them to the base.

He went immediately to the viewscreen. Megatron might not be there, he reminded himself. Megatron had to actually fly all the way back—and that struck him as odd, suddenly. The Decepticons were Cybertronian, just like the Autobots, and comprised a decent portion of the population.

"Why don't the Decepticons have a functioning bridge?" he blurted as Megatron's face appeared on the screen.

Megatron's optics flickered, and his mouth tugged up in a smile. "And here I was preparing to reassure you again that Dai Atlas is a grumpy old traditionalist who only formed the Circle of Light so that he could refuse to put his shanix where his intake is and call himself honorable for it. What's this about bridges?"

Orion grimaced. "I'm sorry, it just occurred to me that I don't know why you don't use them."

"We do," Megatron said. "However, bridges take very specific supplies to create and maintain, and there is little purpose in using them when we have a greater number of aerials on our side."

"Because of you and Vos," Orion guessed. "I suppose that makes sense."

"Don't sound so disgruntled," Megatron laughed. He sounded almost gentle like this. "Not everything has an elaborate history."

Orion studied him for a klik. "How are you?" he blurted out before he could lose his nerve.

Megatron's optics flared. "I am as you see me. And you, Orion Pax? How are you? Has anyone asked you that, after you lost vorns of memory against your will?"

Better now that I know they won't come back, Orion thought. Instead, he said, "I'd rather lose memories than remember something like—what happened to you." Even before he finished saying it, he regretted the bluntness.

Megatron didn't flinch or yell. "That is why memory blocks exist," he said. "But not even miners were lucky enough to have access to memory blocks back in the days when medical services were restricted. To give a gladiator memory blocks would have been unthinkable. And so gladiators either learn to survive to become stronger by remembering what they'd been through, or they died. I am very much alive." Megatron bared his gleaming, sharpened dental plates. "Spare me your pity. I have no need of it."

He looked strong. Orion dropped his gaze. "You must think I'm weak, then," he said. "I don't even remember how to fight."

"No," Megatron said instantly, to Orion's surprise. "You have your own strength. Do you know how many Autobots have dared to speak to me the way you do? To ask questions?"

"None?" Orion guessed, and smiled when Megatron confirmed it with a soft beep. "But there was never really a peace treaty before this, right?"

"There were attempts, though perhaps the Autobots have hidden them," Megatron said with a low growling undertone to his voice. "Tricks, the lot of them, and once Optimus came to power there were no more."

Orion glanced down again. "I don't like to think that I'd be doing anything differently if I had the Matrix," he admitted. "But we were taught from our hatchtime that you were some terrifying Sparkeater in mech frame. Maybe it would have been harder if I hadn't seen you as—"

"Weak?" Megatron snarled.

"As a mech who wants peace," Orion corrected. "Someone who might not be like me, but who wants the same things. Who—who's patient when his worst enemy calls him up to talk about history. Who's—" beautiful— "strong."

"I doubt Optimus was ignorant of my strength. He knew it better than you."

"But still," Orion said. He could feel his optics dimming. "I wish—" things were different. I wish I were still Optimus, just a litle; I don't think I'd have any problems bearing your hatchlings. I want to. Even if it's just for a peace treaty. Is that why I agreed before, when I still had the Matrix?

He didn't say any of it. He couldn't think of anything to say instead, to cover up that stumble. But Megatron didn't ask him to, didn't say anything to fill the silence that followed, and the two of them stared at each other across the viewscreen. For that long moment, Orion could feel the foolish yearning of his spark.

He couldn't do this. Practically speaking, he barely knew Megatron, though it felt like they were closer than Orion was to any of the Autobots. Megatron was still technically the enemy, as well as a Lord High Protector, though not Rodimus'. Orion had no claim on him, could make no claim on him, not when the success of the treaty might depend on a full and healthy clutch sired on Rodimus. Not when Orion had no way of knowing if Megatron wanted to interface with anyone.

But for this one moment, Orion let himself think about how it would feel to have his plating pressed against Megatron's, chestplates open and spark to spark, completely possessed and protected by the strongest mech he'd ever met.

For a full klik, he could practically feel the electricity and charge building up between them, fantasy or no, but then it faded as naturally as it had come. The moment passed. Orion reset his vocalizer and his optics, and when he looked up again, Megatron looked—tired.

"Rest well, Orion Pax," Megatron said, and the viewscreen turned off before Orion could say anything back.

"Sooo," Slipstream said, sidling up to Elita-1's recharge slab as though she hadn't just gotten up and made it nearly all the way to the door before changing her mind. "I was thinking, I don't have a shift right now, and neither do you. I checked."

Elita-1 gave an affirmative beep but didn't rise from the slab. "If you've got something to say, say it before I turn off my optics and go back into recharge."

"What, I can't hold your interest otherwise?" Slipstream purred. She sat on the side of the recharge slab and drew the tip of one claw lightly up the front of Elita-1's plating. "I was hoping to get up to something a little more physical than talking."

Elita-1 stared at her for a moment before surging up to wrap an arm around Slipstream's waist and press the flat of her claws against one of Slipstream's still-covered hip ports. "If this was all you wanted, why are you so nervous? I can practically feel your spark flares."

Slipstream's purr grew loud enough to fill the entire room. Her wings flared out. "Nervous? I'm never nervous. I just wanted to know if you were interested in a little datasharing, that's all."

That casual little bombshell made Elita-1 freeze for a moment, her processor whirring overtime. "You want what?"

"Only if you want to," Slipstream muttered, some of her purr dying away as the confident facade crumbled. Her wings dipped. "I just thought you might like to."

"If you can't even be honest outside of datashare, that's not a very good sign," Elita-1 said. She tweaked the bottom of Slipstream's wing to make it flutter higher again. "Besides, isn't that usually something that mechs in relationships do?"

"But we're in a relationship, right?" Slipstream glanced to the side.

"We've never talked about it." Elita-1 tweaked her other wing. A sneaking suspicion started to grow in her mind. "Is interface all you think a relationship is?"

Slipstream's consternation turned to annoyance. "What else would a relationship be?"

Elita-1 couldn't help herself. She laughed, just a little. "I'll tell you what; I'll spare you a lecture right now, because I would like to datashare with you." Slipstream's wings immediately perked back up into a preening flare. "But don't think you're going to escape forever. I'd like to be in a relationship with you, but we need to be on the same wavelength."

"I don't see what's so difficult about it," Slipstream said. She twisted eagerly, hands roving all over Elita-1's frame. "You want to be in a relationship with me, I want to be in a relationship with you. We're in a relationship, the end."

Elita-1 tickled her claws against Slipstream's ports again, and this time the covers retracted to bare all three. Slipstream moved with intent, pressing and rolling until Elita-1 lay on her back on the recharge slab with Slipstream mantling over her. Carefully, Slipstream lowered her hips to Elita-1's and rubbed their interface panels together with one long, slow roll. Warm lubricant from Slipstream's open ports smeared over Elita-1's plating, crackling with the friction, and Elita-1 gasped as raw pleasure shot straight to her processor and interface components all at once. Her own paneling snapped back, cables unwinding automatically.

She reached up and grasped Slipstream's elbow joints as she pressed her cables into Slipstream's ports all at once. Slipstream's vents hitched, and her fans whirred higher as she ducked down and pressed her head right above Elita-1's shoulder. Then, after a moment, her own cables pressed against Elita-1's ports, pushing into place one by one as Elita-1 shifted to heighten the sensation.

For a long moment, Slipstream just waited there, until Elita-1 realized with a charmed pulse of her spark that Slipstream didn't know what she was doing. Everything grew warmer and brighter for a moment as Elita-1 reached up to helplessly stroke the back of Slipstream's neck before extending the probes on her cables the rest of the way to initiate a full connection.

As soon as she'd done that, raw sensation data from a different frame flooded her: uncertainty, joy, desire. Elita-1 gasped and arched up as she tried to modulate the data. "Extend your probes," she managed, her vocalizer sounding distant and gritty to her own audials. "Extend them!"

"I don't," Slipstream started with another burst of uncertainty. Then she went quiet, searching, and after another pause, Elita-1 felt the strange sensation of long-dormant dataclamps being pushed apart by someone else's probes.

She had only a short moment before the sensation tripled, and they both cried out simultaneously as two systems overloaded as one into something bright and more intense than Elita-1 remembered ever experiencing.

Elita-1 came back to herself slowly and not entirely. They'd stayed connected. The tips of her probes felt pinched, her dataclamps aching with unfamiliar use. She could feel Slipstream echoing back the same sensations, along with pleased wonder. Before Elita-1 could say anything, Slipstream lay half-beside, half-over her, careful not to jostle their connection, and pressed their cooling plating together to trap the cables between them. "That was wonderful," she said. "We can do that again, right?"

Elita-1 laughed and felt joy ricochet through their connection again. "Of course we can. Are you ever going to disconnect?"

"Later," Slipstream said. Her claws playing up Elita-1's spinal ridges. "That was over way too fast."

"Your ports and cables aren't going to thank you later," Elita-1 warned, but she couldn't bring herself to push the issue. She liked the sensation, too, and the way she could feel the pleased response as she stroked her own hands over Slipstream's larger frame.

"Please, like I care about that." Slipstream shifted the inside of her leg along the outside of Elita-1's to cuddle closer. "The more they ache, the longer I'll remember what it's like."

Elita-1 dimmed her optics and let herself relax into the dual sensations of self and other. "Once the negotiations are finished," she murmured, "we won't have to worry about coordinating shifts anymore. We can stay inside and do this all day." A sudden jolt of discomfort jarred her from the lull she'd worked herself into, and she brightened her optics to stare at Slipstream. "That…bothers you."

The wall of heat over and around her shifted away just enough to let cold air reach Elita-1's plating. "No Autobots are good Autobots," Slipstream muttered. "They're just playing all of us. Look at what they did. What they were going to do. To me."

Elita-1 grimaced and followed Slipstream along the recharge slab. "You know the Decepticons have done some pretty terrible things to them as well, right?"

"Of course! But that's different—we had to do those things, otherwise the Autobots would have destroyed us."

"And I promise you, that's exactly what most of the Autobots thought."

Slipstream withdrew again, hurt echoing through the datalink. "Why are you defending them? You're fighting with us, now. Why do you always…do that?"

"Empathy isn't the worst thing in the world," Elita-1 said, keeping her voice gentle. "I'm not saying the Autobots aren't bad, and I'm not saying I trusted anyone in charge until I interacted with them myself. And I'm not saying that I regret joining the Decepticons—stop that, I can feel you getting hurt by that, and you know very well I mean it. But I wouldn't be helping with the negotiations if I didn't believe that some people on their side were committed to justice and equality. We're never going to have a better chance, sweetspark. Do you want to be at war forever? This way, there'll be plenty of time for you to find something you're as good at as Air Command."

She felt that one hit right on the nose. Slipstream's wings flattened, and Elita-1 pressed herself up against Slipstream's cockpit.

"Maybe," Elita-1 said, letting her voice melt into something lighter, "you could be the leader of Vos now that the previous Winglord Trine is gone. Take over all of Starscream's former positions."

Slipstream made a low noise and wrapped her arms around Elita-1 again, warmth flooding through the link. "No," she said into Elita-1's audial, her voice quiet. "You need to be part of a sparkbonded trine for that. And I only want you."

Elita-1 didn't know how to describe the feeling that rose in her spark at those words. Fortunately, with the link in place, she didn't have to. She clung to Slipstream, the warmth and growing affection spinning and pulsing between them like a living spark all of its own.

"Ow! Come on!" Verity protested. She grabbed the helmet back from Rumble. "You can't take it, Buzzsaw made it for me!"

"But it's so heavy and you're so fragile!" Rumble fretted. "What if it crushes you?"

"What is with your bizarre overprotective streak?" Verity grumbled, but instead of jamming the helmet back on her head she pressed the button to open the visor so that she could fiddle with the internal components. "It might have been cute the first twenty times… No, wait, it was never cute, my mistake."

"Yeah, Rumble," Frenzy snickered. "Getting some carrier instincts there, bro?"

"I am not!" Rumble punched his brother in the arm, hard enough to make a metallic screech that had Verity wincing. "Shut up, whose hatchlings would I even carry? Nobody's, that's whose. Rumble is too good for anyone else."

"Rumble is too fussy for everyone else," Frenzy said, and ducked.

Ravage sat up from his spot in the corner. "Please at least make an attempt at civility," he said. "Soundwave wouldn't have called all of us here at once without a good reason."

"Do you think he's been ordered to give up the human?" Laserbeak asked quietly into the silence. "He feels worried."

"Okay, I am banning the speculation now," Buzzsaw snapped. "And stop fiddling with that, human, what's your problem?"

"I'm curious about the air circulation," Verity said. "You mentioned something about it being airtight in case of chemical weapons, right?"

"Right!" Buzzsaw hopped down from the other side of the room and waddled over. Verity managed to keep a straight face the whole time. Ey and Laserbeak made very gorgeous, dignified figures in the air, but on land they reminded her a bit of very wide metal penguins. "See that, there's a seal in there so you can't get whatever condiments you humans have weaponized in your eyes or lungs. It also, I might not, makes it spaceworthy, so if you were dropped out of a ship you'd survive for however long humans usually survive without fuel."

"Yeah, well, excuse me if I'm a little skeptical about where my oxygen supply is going to come from when the suit was made by a species that doesn't need any particular kind of air to breathe."

"Technically, we don't need air at all," Laserbeak put in. "Especially the long range exploration classes. It's just easier if we have something to work our vents and fans with. Internal temperature control is a lot more important if you don't have an atmosphere to draw on."

Verity pointed her finger at Laserbeak. "Yeah, see, that's not reassuring. I just want to know that you've put some thought into this and I'm not going to die because I put on my helmet, okay? A little bit of actual reassurance would be nice."

"You're not going to die because you put on your helmet, obviously," Buzzsaw said. Ey poked it with an extended feeler. "It's not as though you humans don't have the basics of rebreather technology. I just put a Nebulan spin on it."

"Huh." Verity wasn't entirely convinced, but rebreather rang a faint bell, and she could always go hunting on the internet later. Either that or she could ask again when Buzzsaw continued eir lessons on Cybertronian anatomy; ey'd begun, to the immense amusement of the others, loudly claiming that Verity needed to earn her keep somehow, though ey hadn't let her actually do anything yet besides stare at datapads.

The door opened, and Soundwave stepped inside. He didn't look worried, but then, he never did. He had a mask over his face and no eyes; how could he possibly look worried? But Laserbeak and Buzzsaw immediately flew up to perch on his shoulders, cooing and pressing the flat tops of their heads against the side of Soundwave's head and neck.

Verity averted her eyes.

"Soundwave—" Soundwave started, in clear English, then stopped and said more haltingly, "I must give formal announcement of intent to my Cassettes and sparkmates. I intend to pursue courtship with Prowl."

"Who didn't see that coming," Frenzy muttered.

Verity frowned, wondering if she had misunderstood. They were all speaking in English, for her benefit, but the words sounded strange. What did courtship even mean to giant alien robots if it wasn't some archaic term for trying to date someone? Was this like the word Cassettes all over again? Soundwave already had three lovers, which, okay, was weird enough given that they all looked the size and shape of housepets compared to him, and Verity was pretty sure he hadn't called them all together just to break up with them.

And Ravage leaping gracefully up into Soundwave's arms, all four of them huddled close together, her theory was all but confirmed.

"Well, I'm against it," Rumble said loudly. "This was a bad idea in the first place. I said so from the beginning, didn't I? Nothing has changed."

"Peace is coming," Soundwave said. "Autobot and Decepticon will no longer exist; Prowl will not be an Autobot. Soundwave will not be seen as a threat."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that, Boss." Rumble scratched at the side of his head. "But, okay, fine. You're a big bot, you can make your own mistakes, I get it."

Verity leaned in closer to him. "Uh, so, what the fuck does he mean by courting?" she murmured. "Because it sure sounds like Soundwave's on the hunt for a new boyfriend. Girlfriend. Significant other of nonbinary gender?"

"I think Soundwave's hoping for something a little more permanent than that, but yeah, that's about right." Rumble eyed the sparkmate huddle; Soundwave had started swaying silently with all three of them gathered in his arms. "Long story short, Soundwave's been crushin' on this guy for a long time, but he wasn't gonna be interested because he's an Autobot through and through. He hates Decepticons."

"Okay, I feel like you're stuffing my brain with cotton, here." Verity pointed at the four of them. "Doesn't Soundwave already have those three? Did he just come in here and say they weren't good enough?"

Laserbeak poked eir head up from the increasingly dense knot of sparkmate. "It's not about that at all," ey said. "We feel what his spark feels. How could we not want him to be happy?"

"What Laserbeak isn't sayin' is that they're all at least half in love with Prowl as well," Rumble said in a stage whisper. "Buzzsaw might be too proud to admit it, but we've all seen em lose track of eir stealth mods when ey passes by Prowl."

"I do not!" Buzzsaw protested. "I can't help it if Prowl is halfway competent, unlike most Autobots! He sees me because he's good at his job!"

"He sees you because you can't resist showing off your over-polished golden wings," Frenzy snickered.

"So they're all crushing on him, but Soundwave's going to be the one going after him?" Verity grimaced and sat down to start stripping off the rest of her armor. "That still seems kind of weird to me, but whatever works for you giant alien robots."

"We're beastformers and Cassettes, and he's a grounder with high status," Ravage said in his low, rumbling voice. "No matter how interested we are in him, he'd be even more likely to reject a suit from us without considering it."

Soundwave bowed his head. "Soundwave is likely to be rejected as well, because of Decepticon affiliations. But Soundwave must try."

"Yeah," Verity said. "Okay. I still don't really understand, but I'm behind you all the way if you're all happy with this." She hesitated, then made her way over to Soundwave's leg to pat his ankle. "Good luck, big guy."

With a creak of metal, Soundwave knelt down to cup a huge hand over her back like a warm metal shell. Verity grinned up at him.

Chapter Text

Megatron knew something was wrong the instant that Orion Pax's optics flared.

Megatron hadn't been looking forward to continuing the negotiations, not with Rodimus Prime there, but Elita-1's cautious optimism made his processor rest easier. He'd landed on the platform more certain of himself than he'd been in a while and very carefully not thinking about the sick terror that had bloomed in his processor the last time he'd been here.

And then Orion's face had lit up with panicked emotion, and Megatron's spark deionized in his frame.

"Hey, you!" a small, shrill voice said. Megatron looked down and saw a small human trotting towards him from the Autobot delegation. All his plating went rigid to hide an instinctive flinch.

The human wore pale yellow colors topped with a red crest on its head and brown plating—skin—underneath. It looked nothing like Megatron; it looked exactly like the humans that had crawled over Megatron and cut into him. He stared down at it.

He felt nothing but disgust.

"Uh." The creature stopped, finally, and shuffled its feet, glancing back at the Autobots. "I'm Sari. Sari Sumdac. You're my mom, right? Megatron?"

In one panicked moment, Orion Pax lunged forward and put himself between Sari and Megatron, trying to protect Sari from Megatron's wrath. But, no, that couldn't be right; he'd put his back to Megatron as he hunched over Sari. Megatron could have swiped out easily and sunk his claws into the thick armor protecting Orion's spark.

If Orion had still been Optimus, he might have.

That thought, more than anything else about the situation, made him take one step back, then another, until Elita-1 caught his arm and gave him a piercing look. He flexed his claws and straightened his stance; if he ran off again, he would demonstrate the weakness of the Decepticons to all assembled. He wouldn't do that. He couldn't do that, not with a chance for peace sitting in front of him.

If Megatron ended up as a sacrifice for the well-being of his Decepticons, so be it. It would be his due for those vorns of luxury as Sentinel's pampered pet.

"You have to go back!" Orion was saying, quiet and desperate. "You can't be here, Sari."

"I can too! He's my mom."

"And please stop calling him that."

"Ugh, why is everybody like this? If he wants me to go away, he can tell me to my face." Sari darted out, away from Orion's protective shell, and glared up at Megatron. "Look, I'm not my dad, okay? I'm just—I just wanted—" It—they—faltered, looking away. "I just wanted to meet you face to face. For real. Okay? Since you wouldn't talk to me before."

Megatron stared down at them and found himself at a loss for words. His processor began to slot the pieces into place, as incredible and terrifying as they seemed. A true hatchling would have been pre-verbal at less than a vorn, communicating only in the clicks and beeps that a basic vocalizer could produce. But he knew what mom and dad meant to humans. He remembered, now, Orion Pax describing the hatchling as half-human.

His processor crashed and reset itself into the space of a few nanokliks. He wanted to dismiss this entire scene as a joke, but Orion made that impossible. Orion, with his desperate attempt to protect both of them, with the way he reached out even now to try to hook his fingers around Sari's middle.

The human, as unrealistic as it felt, had come from his spark and his gestational systems.

Megatron kept staring. He felt nothing, now, beyond and all-consuming desire to leave, beyond the surging tide of memories that threatened to swamp his processor again. He could have squashed the hatchling right then and there and felt nothing. He could have done what any true sire or carrier would have been blocked from by basic coding.

The hatchling wasn't even Cybertronian.

"Are you… Don't you even want to talk to me a little?" they asked, voice rising in pitch. "I guess I don't look much like you, but I'm— I can't transform or anything, but I can do things! I'm not useless." They flickered in and out of sight and then spread their mouth in a wide grimace. "See?"

The humans, Megatron realized, must have altered his coding on a structural level to create this thing that looked like one of them. How had they done it? How had they corrupted his coding on such a fundamental level to override his protective coding?

On the heels of that thought came another: the Autobots had known how human this thing appeared. It was no wonder Rodimus had been so forward about his reluctance to have Megatron sire a clutch; what if the alteration to his coding was permanent? What if Shockwave's frame replacement hadn't repaired the underlying damage? Megatron lifted his hand and stared at his claws. All the evidence pointed to the fact that the damage had been permanent, if he could imagine reaching out and using those claws to rip the hatchling apart.

"Aren't you going to say anything?" the human hatchling waited, and this time someone did succeed in catching them around the middle. Ultra Magnus lifted them carefully into the air, supported by his other palm. "Let me go! Put me down! He's my mom!"

"Please stop saying that," Orion said, louder this time, with a sharp edge to his voice.

"Sari Sumdac, you are not permitted to be here," Ultra Magnus rumbled. "You will be removed from this location." The human shrieked and tried to squirm out of his grip, but he held them close to his chest and carefully transformed around them until the sound of their voice was muffled by Magnus' cab. Their tiny hands thudded out what must have been a painful rhythm against his windows. "Please excuse me; I shall return shortly."

"Well," Rodimus Prime said into the ensuing silence, as a bridge appeared and Ultra Magnus vanished into it. "That was even more awkward than me. Right? So, uh, I'm forgiven, right?"

Behind him, Megatron heard Elita-1's fans kick up a notch and the hum of battle-ready systems coming online. He struggled to care for a brief moment, then dismissed it. She wanted peace; she wouldn't attack the Prime before Megatron himself did.

Orion Pax turned and stepped forward, his face a display of awkward misery. "I'm sorry," he said. "I had no idea she'd tagged along with us. If we'd known, we wouldn't have—" he cut himself off, and his frame gave an odd little jerk. "I'm so sorry."

Megatron forced himself to look away from Orion and found his optics locking with Rodimus Prime. "What's done is done," he ground out. "Do you intend to continue the negotiations or not?"

"Of course we will," Orion said. His optics flickered, but he resumed the description he had been giving of a potential system for medical care that he and the Autobots had come up with. His voice stayed quiet, gentle but strong.

Megatron couldn't keep focus. He looked all the way around the structure, meeting and challenging the gaze of every Neutral, ending on Dai Atlas. Megatron peeled his lips back from his dental plate in a snarl, but Dai Atlas refused to look anything but smug and aloof, as though he hadn't even seen the hatchling.

Or as though he had seen the hatchling and thought it nothing more than what Megatron deserved.

With a snarl, Megatron forced his attention back to Orion. Orion paused, but his voice didn't tremble anymore when his optics met Megatron's.

Abruptly, Megatron found himself swamped by a wave of longing, hard on the heels of the helpless rage he'd been trying to stave off. Longing shouldn't have hurt, but it did; only a few orns ago, he could have reached out and held Optimus Prime close, and now he felt painfully aware of how much he wanted even that brief moment to have been his. Optimus Prime might have been weary and martyred, might have believed all the scrap the Autobots had fed him, but he had once been as vibrant as Orion.

And if none of this had happened— If he'd never found out about that hatchling that had come from his own spark—

Megatron growled and ripped his processor away from thoughts of hatchlings and the aching loss of what had never been his to begin with. At his side, Elita-1 tilted her head and responded to Orion's proposals, and Megatron turned the tattered scraps of his attention back to the goal of gaining freedom and happiness for his people.

Megatron went straight to the medical bay as soon as the negotiations had concluded, pinging Nickel as he went. She met him at the door and ushered him into a private room without even being asked, which earned them a curious glance from Knock Out as he leaned over a slab upon which Thundercracker lay.

"So what's the problem?" Nickel asked.

"My coding," Megatron said. His vocalizer felt scratched and rough. "I need to know what the humans did to my spark and coding."

Nickel peered up at him. "Okay," she said. "I love that you're visiting the medical bay of your own free will these days, don't get me wrong, but at some point you're going to have to trust that we fixed you. Shockwave did most of your reframing, but we all double-checked his work to make sure he didn't put in anything experimental. You're clean."

Shockwave, Megatron thought, would love to know that a Cybertronian could bear a technorganic. He resolved never to share that information. "My concern is not for my frame."

"Megatron, your spark is healthy, and all the diagnostics for your brain module came up clean. Is there something specific you're worried about?"

"I saw the hatchling," he said. His voice sounded distant, as though his audial sensors weren't functioning. "It looks human. I felt nothing but revulsion."

"Frag, I wouldn't feel any different." Nickel shuddered. "I don't know how they managed it, but technorganics don't happen naturally." She stopped and climbed up on the nearest slab to get closer to Megatron's face. "Is that what you're worried about? Parental coding?"

"Yes," Megatron growled.

"Scrap that." Nickel shook her head and put her hands on her hip joints. "Carrying by choice involves a process that deliberately activates your coding. Induced carrying, I would imagine, is about bypassing that coding activation. Especially for a technorganic designed to look human." She poked his chest. "I'll give your gestational systems another scan, but if they managed to corrupt any part of your spark or brain module permanently, I would have seen it by now."

"You weren't looking until now." Megatron met her gaze and moved closer to loom over her.

"I wasn't looking for specifics, but I'm damn good at what I do, or you wouldn't have picked me for your personal team." Nickel folded her arms over her chest. "Now, do you want that scan or not?" Megatron let out another wordless growl, but he tilted himself to give her access to his shoulder port. She plugged in, brief and professional, and withdrew after a few nanokliks. "You're clean. You still have protective protocols intact, though they're dormant. I can't give you an exact reason as to why they're not activating around this hatchling, but, listen to me, Megatron: I can think of any number of possibilities, and none of them would suggest to me that you couldn't create hatchlings using the normal method."

Megatron scowled as a thin stream of relief spread from his processor throughout his frame—not enough to soothe his scrambled thoughts, but enough that he managed to give Nickel a curt nod before storming back out of the private room.

Knock Out was nowhere to be seen. Thundercracker had been moved to a hoverchair that currently sat flat against the ground, and Skywarp lurked nearby. Had he been there when Megatron came in? Megatron couldn't have said. Skywarp's abilities made his presence unpredictable at best.

Megatron grimaced; as off-balance as he felt, he had a duty as Lord High Protector to express his condolences. He took a moment to gather himself together, then stepped forward. "Thundercracker, Skywarp," he said.

"Lord Megatron," Thundercracker said. His head rolled against the back of the chair so that he could meet Megatron's optics. His wings remained eerily still.

"I came by to see you earlier, but you were in the middle of a recharge cycle. I was assured that you were doing as well as could be expected, and I am glad to see that is indeed the case."

Thundercracker's dim optics flickered. "Yes, Nickel told me you'd been by. I'm sorry I wasn't able to greet you."

"Don't be." Megatron glanced at Skywarp, who remained silent and unresponsive. "I would rather you take the time you need to recover."

For a long moment, Thundercracker fell silent as well, leaving a bristling feeling of discomfort lingering in the space between them. Then he said, in a voice heavy with some indefinable emotion, "You know neither of us desire power the way Starscream did."

"Yes, I know." Megatron studied Thundercracker's face. "Has the last remaining vestige of Vos' power been destroyed, then? That will not sit well with some."

"Possibly. With the council gone, I don't know who would be left to enforce the aerial hierarchy."

Megatron inclined his head in acknowledgement, and his optics lit once more on Skywarp. "And Skywarp, I trust your recovery is also going well."

Skywarp's wings hiked aggressively. "Leave me alone," he said.

"Skywarp!" Thundercracker's faceplates shifted in a slow grimace. "Please forgive him, Lord Megatron. He's not doing so well in Starscream's absence."

"Starscream, Starscream, Starscream!" Skywarp's wings flared and snapped. "I don't fragging care about Starscream! He never cared about us, so why should I care about him?" His optics moved to the right, then to the left, and he vanished.

Thundercracker's head fell forward against his chest and the rattle of his ventilation grew louder and more unsteady. "Please don't be too hard on him, Lord Megatron," he begged, his composure thinning. "He's— I can't even feel him, but he must be so upset. He hardly ever even comes around to see me. Everything's—" He cut himself short as the rattling ventilations became a slow, grinding wheeze.

Alarmed, Megatron reached forward to lift Thundercracker's head. He tilted it back up, and the horrible noise eased somewhat. Thundercracker's optics had dulled to the point of near-darkness, and, though the rest of his frame couldn't indicate misery, he looked the picture of it. "I didn't mean to drive Skywarp away," Megatron said, keeping his voice soft.

"He would have left by now anyway," Thundercracker said, and his vocalizer fuzzed with static.

Megatron could feel heat against his hand where he still cradled Thundercracker's head, but not nearly as much as he would have expected from a crying mech. "You shouldn't be alone right now," he said. "Do you have someone I should call?"

"Who else would I have needed, when I had my trine?" Thundercracker choked out. His head swayed forward again, but Megatron adjusted his grip to keep it upright. "No, Lord Megatron. There's no one. I can make it back to my quarters alone."

"You may be able to," Megatron allowed, "but you shouldn't have to. I will accompany you, if you allow it."

Thundercracker's optics flared again, just a thin little flash of light. "You don't have to, Lord Megatron."

"I know." Megatron kept his voice low. "This is my choice. In the Pits of Kaon, we had only each other. Here, on an alien planet, I find I feel much the same." The silence settled over both of them again, but the tension had vanished. Thundercracker's optics and the steady sound of his overtaxed systems felt friendly where Skywarp's presence had prickled with hostility.

Megatron felt a rush of sorrow. This was not how he would have chosen to rid himself of Vos' legacy.

"All right," said Thundercracker finally. His hoverchair rose, dislodging Megatron's hand in the process, and he moved out into the hallway. Megatron followed him in silence until they reached the large trine-compatible quarters Megatron had never been allowed in before. Thundercracker hesitated, but the door opened after a moment, and Megatron took that as permission.

"Remote access," he commented. "Good thinking. I hope they gave you the codes before releasing you from the medical bay."

Thundercracker's mouth twitched in a weak smile. "I nearly left without them the first time. Ambulon had to stop me." He paused, and his vents hitched again. "Please don't treat me like I'm going to break, Lord Megatron. It makes me feel like I'm going to."

"Understood." Megatron looked around for a place to sit and found one by a well-worn console. "Regret makes fools of us all; I feel I should have seen that Starscream's anger towards me would lead to consequences for those he had the power to hurt."

"No, he's been unhappy with us for a long time." Thundercracker gave a shuddering sigh that had Megatron half-standing again before he realized what the sound was. "You should understand; you took the conjunx vow with someone you had to kill."

"I took the vow," Megatron said, "but we were never sparkmates."

"Oh?" Thundercracker's optics dimmed. "We had witnesses. We couldn't have faked it. I thought…they say sharing a spark means that you learn to love each other. That's why the Vosian Council pushed it even after Starscream ran."

"It doesn't look as though their theory held up." Megatron reached out to put a hand on Thundercracker's arm.

"No. Maybe if Starscream hadn't been dragged back to bond with us right after his previous would-be conjunx died." Thundercracker sighed. "I don't even miss Starscream that much. He was always miserable with us. I just wish he hadn't taken Skywarp with him when he broke the bond." Static clogged Thundercracker's vocalizer again. "You don't know how being alone feels after this many vorns of being bonded. We were bonded for twice the length of the entire war."

Megatron stroked Thundercracker's arm. "Does Skywarp know his absence is causing you this much distress? He always seemed very fond of you."

"I don't know." Thundercracker's arm gave an odd flinch under Megatron's hand, and he lifted it away. "They say it'll take at least a vorn for me to regain control of my frame and have the ability to bond again. There's no reason he'd bond to me again; we're no longer the Winglord Trine, and we won't be ever again. Not without a third and the support of the Council."

"I think you're underestimating the level of support that your people have for you," Megatron said. "If you wanted to, you could leave the Decepticons and rebuild Vos right now, even with Starscream gone."

"If we knew the situation on Cybertron."

"If we knew the situation on Cybertron," Megatron conceded. "Do you think I would have chosen Starscream as my second in command if I had believed Vos would join our cause otherwise? No. I feared you would go to war as a faction all your own, and then Vos in its entirety would have been wiped out."

"I don't know, Skywarp always admired you," Thundercracker said with a grainy laugh. "He might have convinced Starscream eventually. There weren't many of us left to wage war."

"No, but Vos had a powerful impact on aerial subcultures all around Cybertron."

"Not you." Thundercracker sighed. "You were always thinking about everyone, not just aerials."

"The mines did not allow me to find solidarity with my aerial alt," Megatron admitted. "Perhaps I could have escaped to Vos, with some difficulty, but Vos wouldn't have accepted those who suffered with me."

"We should have." Thundercracker fell silent. "Lord Megatron, if Skywarp comes back—"

"I will leave the two of you alone," Megatron assured him.

"But not…"

"Not until you ask, or until duty calls me away, if he does not return." Megatron leaned forward to catch Thundercracker's still-dim gaze. "I meant what I said. You should not be alone right now. If you would like, I'll send in someone else when I leave, if Skywarp hasn't shown himself."

"No." Thundercracker sounded firm on that point. "I don't want anyone else to be forced to spend time with me. That's what started this whole mess. And I'm going to have to deal with being alone someday."

"Someday," Megatron conceded. "But someone spending a few joors with you isn't the same as being sparkbonded, and you do not have to learn to be alone just yet."

Thundercracker made a low, noncommittal noise. Megatron took that cue and turned the conversation away from the present situation once more, reaching into memories of the long past to find bright stories to share.

Jetfire's crash and long cryostasis had left him weak in a way that not even medical attention could have repaired. He confined his search to one system, flying out into space just so that his plating could be free of crawling organisms, and making sure he only did so when the strange vessels had reached the far side of their minimal-disruption orbit. But after reaching the nearest planet, he'd already exhausted himself, and when he finally returned to the surface of the planet he'd come from, he could only make one loop before that exhaustion caught up with him. He headed straight for the nearest Cybertronian signal.

Barricade made a surprised noise as Jetfire landed heavily beside him. "Careful, you're big enough attract unwanted attention even in your alt. What, no luck so far?"

"Barricade," Jetfire said, a little pleased that he'd managed to find someone he'd at least met before. "Hello. What are you doing out here?"

One of Barricade's hip optics shifted away. "Thought you could use some sensors on the ground," he grunted. "Don't worry, there won't be anyone coming after me to drag me back this time."

"Oh." Jetfire shifted his aching plating, feeling very out of his depth. "Then, you—"

"I didn't desert. I just traded a few shifts." Barricade transformed back into his alt mode. "Come on, seriously, aren't you listening to me? You need to get somewhere hidden and block their slagging cameras."

"There wasn't any of this when I crashed here," Jetfire said softly. "All the resources were completely unmined."

"Yeah, well, that changed." Barricade drove slowly enough that Jetfire could follow in root mode, step by painful step. "You need to be careful. And there are plenty of places that are better explored from a grounder's perspective."

"I'm not disagreeing." Jetfire sat down once Barricade stopped, in what appeared to be a shelter formed by some rocks and a lot of trees. He looked down at Barricade and considered his words. "You're in love with Starscream, aren't you?"

Barricade's entire frame jerked mid-transformation, and Jetfire made a wordless sound of alarm. "What? Just because I'm helping you look for him?" Barricade's optics darted away even as they flared, and Jetfire felt some cold, remote part of him that hadn't yet thawed. There. That was it, then; his question had been answered.

And here we are, he thought. Two fools in love with Starscream, who was bonded to another pair of fools.

His spark stung behind his chest plating, and he rubbed it absently. "I'm sorry," he offered.

Barricade looked at him again for a long moment. "Yeah."

"What do you do?" Jetfire asked, then corrected himself. "I mean, what did you do, before this?"

"Before the war, you mean?" Barricade shook his head. "Security, mostly. I did a brief stint of police work, but it never agreed with me. Too many mechs in power exerting their influence to make sure we looked the other way."

Jetfire didn't know what to say to that. "In what city?" he ventured, because that seemed safe enough.

"Iacon," Barricade replied. "The Prime's city itself. Surprised? You're Vosian, right?"

"Me? No." Jetfire let his mouth tilt in a wry smile. "I was hatched in Kalis as part of a distributed clutch, but I attended the Iacon Academy of Science and Technology and lived there for many vorns."

"Distributed clutch…" Barricade frowned. "Huh. I didn't think Sentinel did those."

"I'm not Sentinel's hatchling." Jetfire rested back against one of the rock formations with a sigh and a creak of unhappy metal. "He'd just been made Prime when Starscream and I…"

"Eloped." Barricade reached out and snagged a bit of tree in his hand. Jetfire found himself instantly on his feet, despite the pain. He caught Barricade's hand in his own just as Barricade moved to break the limb off. "What now?"

"The tree," Jetfire tried to explain. "It didn't do anything."

Barricade's hand was warm enough that Jetfire's plating felt cool after he'd jerked away. "So that's what you did? You flew around the galaxies defending innocent organic non-sapients?"


Barricade huffed. "You're nothing like I would have thought," he said. "I would have assumed you'd be more like Starscream. How did the two of you even meet?"

"The Iacon Academy of Science and Technology," Jetfire said, dimming his optics. The ache in his spark grew. "He came with a delegation and managed to convince his creators to let him stay and attend for a few vorns, I never knew how."

"And the two of you hit it off?"

"Not at first." Jetfire managed a weak smile. "We'd seen each other around the campus, but we first met when Starscream had been having a bad few orns. I thought he hated me." The next orn, though, he'd come to Jetfire's door with an elaborate engex blend he'd concocted himself, and Jetfire had taken a chance on inviting him inside. They'd spent the next few joors commiserating over frustrating supervisors and poorly constructed educational programs, and by the end Jetfire had been enthusiastically talking about his current project with Starscream listening raptly and offering insightful commentary.

A vorn later, Starscream had come to Jetfire with his optics panicked and his frame disheveled, talking too fast about how his creators had called him back to bond into the Winglord trine. About how he didn't want to, about how the only one he'd ever wanted to bond with was Jetfire.

And then—

Jetfire shook his head. "It doesn't matter now," he said. "That life is over." That life he'd wanted so badly, that had seemed so possible with his skills and the steady work from the Academy. He'd crashed, and even if he hadn't died it felt like he had. Even if they found Starscream, what would Jetfire say to him? Would Starscream want to see him at all?

"Huh," Barricade said. "I wouldn't have pegged Starscream for someone who'd enjoy living in Iacon."

Jetfire looked down to see Barricade's optics resting steadily on him. They'd lost some of that harsh, abrasive light. Jetfire felt almost soothed by them. Maybe when he felt a little less like he was dying, he'd be grateful to Wing and Barricade for showing him these small kindnesses, in this world where everyone had left him behind. Right now, he couldn't even speak.


Jetfire reset his vocalizer hastily to rid it of the growing static buildup he could feel and straightened as he answered. «I'm here. What is it?»

«Are you on Earth? I've found someone who might be Starscream, but I'd prefer if someone who knows him could verify his identity.»

Jetfire stared down at Barricade. "Wing might have found him," he said. A ripple went through Barricade's frame. «I am; I'm with Barricade.»

«Two verifications would be even better; bring him along. I'm sending the coordinates now.»

Jetfire lifted himself with some difficulty, and Barricade grimaced. "You can't carry me like this," he muttered. He started to climb Jetfire until he reached the line to his fuel tank. "What have you been doing? Knock Out just fixed you up."

"Looking for Starscream," Jetfire said, feeling a little bit helpless and a little bit warmer as Barricade worked the cap to his own fuel line loose and transformed an emergency nozzle directly into Jetfire's. The liquid energy hit Jetfire's tanks with a splash, and he tried not to shudder; he didn't want to knock Barricade loose and waste any of that precious fuel.

Barricade made a derisive sound. "Not your smartest idea," he said.

Jetfire didn't reply. He waited for Barricade to recap both lines before transforming down, careful to fold himself around Barricade. Barricade made a short, surprised sound, and Jetfire took off towards the coordinates Wing had sent.

Chapter Text

"Rewind, my mech!"

Rewind looked up to see Hot Rod—no, Rodimus Prime—bounding towards him with an excited smile on his face. "Prime," he said politely. "How can I help you?" «Blaster, do you have any idea why the Prime is here to talk to me?»

«Not a clue. You need a rescue or some moral support?»

«Don't be silly, I can handle Hot Rod. I'm just confused.»

"So!" Rodimus Prime said, clapping his hands together. "I'm almost off to see the medics, but before I dazzle everyone with my shining frame, I thought I'd stop by and see you, old buddy."

«…He hasn't been infected by anything contagious, right?»

«Not as far as I know,» Steeljaw said, eir voice haughty.

«Right, thanks.»

"I hear," Rodimus continued, "that you have a camera installed in your frame."

"Yeees." Rewind resisted the urge to cover his light. Or to start recording this instant for posterity and later analysis. "I'm an archivist and a data disc; the preservation of history is my primary function."

"Great, excellent." Rodimus flung himself down in front of Rewind, legs crossed with an impossible flexibility that made Rewind's more basic leg joints ache in sympathetic reflex. "And I was thinking—well, Ultra Magnus was thinking—I could talk to you about the possibility of getting some kind of recording device installed on my person, in a way that would in no way make me less attractive. No offense, but on you it's kind of blinky, from here."

Rewind turned off the recording as fast as he'd turned it on. Then Rodimus' words caught up, and he found himself boggling. "Ultra Magnus told you to talk to me? Ultra Magnus?"

"Yeah, he knows everything, doesn't he?" Rodimus sighed. "He's the one who came up with the idea to record in the first place. He seems really stodgy and boring, and he kind of is. But he's great. He knows…everything. He's the best Lord High Protector I could have asked for. And he knows a lot about recording, I bet, but he didn't have time to talk to me about it because he had to go to some boring paperwork meeting that I skipped out on. So he said to come to you."

Rewind? Chromedome asked through the sparkbond. Something's upsetting you, do you need my help?

At almost the same moment, Blaster's voice rang through the Cassette channel. «Hey, Rewind, you sure you don't need a hand? You're broadcasting here, buddy.»

I'm fine, Rewind said. «I'm fine.» Then, after a moment of hesitation, he offered, It's just Rodimus Prime talking about Ultra Magnus.

What? Why would he be talking to you about Ultra Magnus?

I don't know. I'm trying to figure that out. Rewind shook his head. "Why did he tell you to come to me?"

"Uh, because you have an audiovisual recording device installed?" Rodimus looked concerned. "Are you okay? Am I going too fast? Should I slow down?"

"No, I mean, Ultra Magnus and I have never been close," Rewind said. "Why would he think to tell you to visit me?"

"Oh, that." Rodimus waved a hand. "He keeps track of all these little details, it's ridiculous. He actually cares about compiling data and ship rosters and supply lists and all that other boring stuff. Maybe he's never met you, but I bet he knows all your specs. That'd be kind of creepy for anyone but Mags, but Mags does it because he wants to analyze data and make good decisions, and he does. Make good decisions, I mean."

"I suppose," Rewind allowed. The whole situation still stuck a little in his chest and in his processor, but what Rodimus was saying did make sense. Ultra Magnus had climbed the ranks by being an excellent tactician and commander, able to make spur of the moment decisions that ended well for him and his team—by all accounts, at least. Just because Rewind associated him with bad memories didn't mean he was a terrible mech.

"Hey, so, while I'm here," Rodimus said in a faux-casual tone, "can I ask you another question? What's it like to have a sparkmate?"

"What?" Rewind floundered for a moment, caught off guard by the change in subject. "It's…nice. You can feel everything, if you want. You never have to be alone."

"That does sound nice," Rodimus sighed. He propped his chin in his hands and stared past Rewind. "Say, do you think if I sparkbonded to Ultra Magnus I could store my memories inside him? Would we still be bonded if the Matrix got taken out? Not that it would be," he added hastily, "but if it ever did. Do you think that would be possible?"

Rewind stared at his new Prime. "I don't think that would be possible, no," he said slowly. "Sparkbonding isn't about sharing processor space, it's about sharing—a spark."

"It still sounds nice, doesn't it?" Rodimus's optics dimmed. "Not having to be alone, I mean."

"Didn't you want to know about recording devices?" Rewind asked, though he really wasn't sure what to say about that, either. His own recorder wasn't a mod; it had been part of his frame since his final upgrades.

"Yeah, I guess I did." Rodimus sounded far less enthusiastic than he had when he'd bounded up to Rewind. "Uh, so, tell me about them."

Rewind ran a hasty search of his own database. "For starters, you probably wouldn't be able to integrate anything into your frame without extensive long-term modding. If you perform that sort of surgery without letting the frame and the brain module adapt, there's a high chance of complications. So you'd—"

"Right, right," Rodimus interrupted. "So that's a vote against an integrated camera. You think I should just go for something that I can attach to my head like a crown? Hey, what if it actually was a crown with a camera set inside, maybe in the shape of my face so that nobody would get confused if they saw it lying around somewhere? That way, I could carry it every with me, but it wouldn't have to be jacked into my brain module or anything weird like that. Does that sound good?"

"It sounds…creative," Rewind said, and then added with complete honesty, "I'd love to see something like that."

"Yeah, me too." Rodimus grinned. "I think I'm gonna ask for that. Hey, thanks, Rewind. I'm glad Ultra Magnus told me to talk to you. You're good with ideas."

"So," Jazz's voice said from behind Prowl. "You gonna tell me why you've been so quiet lately? Plottin' your latest method to sabotage the peace treaty? Or did you realize that you miscalculated last time?"

Prowl glanced behind him to see Jazz half-hidden in the shadows, his visor set in light-blocking mode. Unease stirred in Prowl's processor. "Why are you here? You should be out investigating the humans."

Jazz didn't move. "I'm here because I know you, mech. And right now I'm in the unique position of bein' the only mechanism with that experience who outranks you. So it's up to me to keep an optic on you. And, Prowl, you don't like the humans, and you don't like the Decepticons. And whatever plan's cookin' up there in your processor, you're gonna have to decide soon whether you want peace like all the rest of us or whether you're gonna be an obstacle."

He unfolded and stepped out of the shadows, the light behind his visor blinking back on. Prowl stared at him.

"Prowl," Jazz said, his voice not softening one bit. "You have to know I'd take the amica endura vows with you if you didn't think they were a waste of time. But if you're gonna stand in the way of our survival as a species, no matter what your reasons are, you know that I won't hesitate to take you down and make sure you stay there. You got me?"

Prowl looked back down at the datapad in his hands, which contained Ultra Magnus' latest report. "I know." He had made many mistakes since coming to this planet, not the least of which was allowing Ultra Magnus to become Rodimus Prime's Lord High Protector. As an officer, he had been unfailingly loyal and obedient. Since becoming Lord High Protector, he had made it clear that his obedience only lasted as long as he was required to answer to another. Prowl had foolishly handed over the future of Cybertron to someone who had managed to hide his Decepticon-sympathizing leanings all this time.

And even though Prowl had been right about the humans, Sumdac still walked free in the main bay.

The warmth of Jazz's hand against his shoulder startled Prowl from his thoughts. "Hey," Jazz said. "How's your coding doing?"

Prowl hesitated. "The numbing code has been working near constantly since our arrival on Earth," he admitted.

"You don't think that might be clouding your judgement a little bit?"

Prowl gave a flat noise of denial. "That's not the purpose of the coding. It is to ensure that I have a clear head and can make tactically sound decisions."

"Doesn't seem to me like you've been doin' that." Jazz dropped his hands and gave a full body stretch, his transformation seams gleaming. "In fact, I'm pretty sure not even Sentinel would've wanted you to keep the war goin' at this point."

"It's not about keeping the war going," Prowl protested. "The war will keep going whether I plan for it or not. But if we take precautions, we can keep the Decepticons from surprising us and overwhelming our forces while we've been lulled into complacency."

Jazz stayed there silent for a moment. "Hmm. You ever think about removin' that codin' patch of yours?"

"Is that what this is about?" Prowl snapped. "You want to threaten me into removing it because you believe it has compromised my judgement? No, Jazz. It's irrational to be angry all the time, so I have taken steps to overcome that." As if in answer, the numbing code kicked in, soothing over his irritated circuitry. "It's only because of this patch that I'm able to function while the rest of you cavort about like you've forgotten everything the Decepticons and humans have done to us!"

"Bein' angry all the time sounds like a real terrible fate," Jazz said. "But you ever think that like this, it's just backin' up in your systems? You got no way to let yourself really feel it, so it's just lingerin' there like gunky energon. Maybe once you let it out, it'd be nasty for a while, but then it'd clear up and you wouldn't need to stop it anymore."

"If you're here to threaten me, threaten me," Prowl said with a tense flick of his doorwings. "I have no interest in listening to you talk about something you don't understand."

Jazz gave a dark laugh. "Oh, mech, what makes you think I don't understand?" His visor glittered. "You think I've never been angry just because I'm real good at hidin' it? No, Prowl, that doesn't mean I don't understand." He stepped forward into Prowl's personal space. Prowl's wings fluttered, but he didn't dare retreat. "That just means I'm better at handlin' it than you."

"Better at handling what?" Prowl snapped. "This mass delusion that the Decepticons have had a change of spark? They haven't; Megatron is the same as ever. Did you know that Elita-1 betrayed us?"

"I'm readin' the same reports as you, Prowl. Of course I know."

"She stole the hatchlings. She gave them willingly over to a would-be tyrant for induction into his army."

"Hmm," Jazz said noncommittally. "Could be you're right about that. Could be you're wrong about that, too, 'course. No way of knowin', unless we meet one of those hatchlings."

"Even then they would have already been brainwashed into the Decepticon philosophy," Prowl said. "They're lost to the Autobots."

"Mech, you're breakin' my spark here," Jazz said softly. He reached out again, this time catching Prowl's hand in his. Prowl tensed, uncertain. "I don't wanna threaten you. So I'm gonna let you in on a secret that I don't think anyone's bothered to tell you yet: trust is scary."

"I'm not a hatchling," Prowl said. He pulled his hand once, reflexively, but Jazz held on tight.

"No, you're not. You're a grown mech who's been raised to be the very best at what he does. Only you're not so good at this part, and it's eatin' you up inside like a scraplet infestation. If I had to guess, I'd say you don't even know how to trust. Do you? Have you ever decided to trust anyone before, Prowl? Are we askin' the impossible here?"

"Of course I trust the Autobots." Prowl's entire frame felt still. "I wouldn't have remained here if I didn't."

"Yeah, you trust us as soldiers," Jazz conceded. "Sometimes. But that's different than the kind of trust I'm talkin' about. 'Cause from what I've seen, you trust us to uphold the Autobot code as you interpret it, and you trust us to follow orders, and that's it. You don't trust us to keep you safe in this new world that we're buildin'. And that makes sense to me. I don't think you've trusted anyone as an individual before, and there's a lot of that in peacetime. So I'm askin' you again, Prowl: are you intendin' on sabotagin' this peace? Are you gonna keep things familiar for yourself at the cost of freedom for everyone else? Are you gonna prioritize your own needs over others? Or are you gonna take a chance and make a change?"

Prowl looked away. Whatever emotion he was feeling now, he didn't like it, and the numbing code didn't activate for it. It felt strange and uncomfortable, like too much pressure on his processor. He felt tongue-tied and helpless, and that he could remember experiencing before, but Jazz wasn't backing him into a corner. Wasn't threatening him. Was only touching his hand.

"No," he said finally. "I have no intention of going against the Prime."

The words felt hollow even as he said them. He didn't know whether they were true or not, and Jazz could probably tell. But Jazz didn't yell or accuse him, and his visor didn't go dim and threatening again. Instead, he stood there, still holding Prowl's hand in a warm grip.

"I meant what I said, Prowl," Jazz said. "Think about it. All of it." Then he let go.

Prowl watched him fade through the shadows, vanishing through the door to the rest of the base. Slowly, Prowl let the hand Jazz had been holding rise to touch the base of his neck. After a moment, the hot rush of a more familiar emotion flooded through him, followed by the cool sting of the numbing code.

Starscream snapped back into consciousness to the sound of an unexpectedly familiar voice. For a panicked moment, he thought he'd been taken back to the Nemesis—or, perhaps, had never left, the final uncertain length of time having been some sort of intra-processor hallucination. But when his optics snapped back online, he saw the alien sky stretching out above him, as well as a familiar red medic leaning over him.

"Do you mind!" Knock Out snapped. "I told you to keep your optics offline, thank you very much." Something clicked deep in Starscream's systems, and his visual feed vanished. "There, now you can pretend that you have some basic respect for the medical profession while I work. As I was saying, you've somehow managed to slag up all of your input systems. How much of that was before the crash and how much of that was after, well, who knows, take a guess, it doesn't matter." As Knock Out grumbled, Starscream could feel clinks and shuffles in his internals. "Aha! And that was a clamped energon line, very vital. This is what happens when you crash yourself joyriding about with a broken spark."

"Is he even awake?" came a second voice. Acid Storm, of all people; ey sounded fascinated. Ey'd never been one of Starscream's loyal supporters, but ey hadn't been parading about as a model of mutiny during Starscream's brief reign, either. Starscream supposed it wasn't too much of a stretch to believe that ey'd come to eir senses once Megatron returned and decided to cut loose and join Starscream's new nation.

The bitter twist in eir spark probably had some sort of complicated medical diagnosis behind it. Starscream ignored the sensation.

"All right," Knock Out said. "I want you to bring your sensory feeds back online. Slowly. One at a time. And for Primus' sake, never do anything like that again. Not that you'll listen to me, of course. I just like to hear the sound of my own voice."

Starscream ignored Knock Out's sarcasm and snapped his optical feed online to make a full sweep of those who had defected. Knock Out, of course, as he had seen. Acid Storm. An aerial Starscream didn't recognize, with no faction symbol, which made Starscream frown. He hadn't made any effort to reach out the wishy-washy Neutrals, but perhaps he should have, if they were so easily swayed. And beside that aerial, Barricade, of all mechanisms, standing next to—

Standing next to—

Starscream scrambled to his feet, ignoring Knock Out's shout of protest. It couldn't be. His memory files gave him nothing but a stretch of indeterminate time in which his search had been unsuccessful. More than that, Jetfire was dead, and Starscream had only been searching for his remains. What shuttle had dared to give themself the same paint job, the same terribly familiar structure? Starscream tried to demand an answer and found his vocalizer locked; he hadn't sent the command yet to bring it back online.

As he did so, Starscream's optics lingered on the worst joke of his entire life. They hadn't given themself the shiny new coat Starscream remembered; the paint looked dull and worn, with bits and pieces scratched off entirely. Ha. That was their mistake; Jetfire had never looked so tattered and unhealthy in the entire stretch of time that Starscream had known him.

But, a small, treacherous part of Starscream's processor whispered, it's what Jetfire might have looked like if he'd been stranded on this Primus-forsaken, organic-infested mess of a planet for so long.

He took a step forward, wings twitching without any conscious input.

"You look…" beautiful, his processor supplied. Jetfire had always looked beautiful; for all his sturdy, dependable lines that others might have dismissed as boring, Starscream knew what his reds and whites looked like framed against the darkness of space. But Starscream could hardly say that to an imposter, in front of all these people. "You look terrible."

The Jetfire imposter looked taken aback by Starscream's words. Starscream looked away; he couldn't bear to see that expression on even a facsimile of Jetfire's face.

"That's Starscream, all right," Barricade said into the ensuing silence. "For Primus' sake, Starscream, the mech's been frozen for how many vorns, and that's the first thing you can think to say to him?"

"Hello, Starscream," the Jetfire imposter said, and Starscream's wings froze. That voice. He'd nearly forgotten the warm, low rumble of it.

This wasn't an imposter. This was Jetfire.

And Starscream—

Starscream had—

No, he couldn't apologize, not in front of all these mechs. He couldn't fling himself down and beg Jetfire to take him back, either, not when Knock Out had made his broken spark very clear to all of them, the fool. Whatever happened to medical confidentiality? Starscream huffed and stuck his nasal ridge in the air, lifting his wings away from his back where they wanted to rest in quiet shame.

"How?" he demanded. "You were dead! I saw you crash!"

Jetfire's wings rose in a slow shrug. "I couldn't tell you," he said. "I don't understand it myself. The ice here shouldn't have been cold enough to freeze my systems without prep, and the shifting state of this planet should have unfrozen me long before now." His wry smile slipped somewhat. "Starscream, I…"

No, no, no. Not here, not in front of all these people. Hastily, Starscream waved a hand. "Not now," he said in his most dismissive, bored tone. His wings jerked when he saw Jetfire flinch. Barricade reached out to press a hand to the side of Jetfire's leg—the only part of him that Barricade could reach. How long had Starscream been unconscious? Had Barricade decided that the appropriate revenge would be stealing the love of Starscream's life? But revenge for what?

Starscream hated everything.

The unfamiliar aerial glanced back at Jetfire and fluttered their wings. "Perhaps we should leave the two of you alone for a time," they suggested.

"No, Starscream's right," Knock Out said, which instantly made Starscream doubt himself. "They've got more pressing concerns to deal with. As amazing as I am, I can't keep being the benevolent dispenser of medical assistance. Quite frankly, I don't have the supplies or the technology out here, and since Starscream and Jetfire are both suffering from overexertion, it's doubtful that any of us would be able to procure enough energon to keep them fueled. Also, if Lord Megatron catches me out here, I'm going to be in a whole heap of trouble for wasting resources that should be going to the loyal Decepticons. Great idea, by the way, Starscream. Leaving really helped your situation."

Acid Storm snickered.

"The Circle of Light's presence here may be useful in this situation," the unfamiliar aerial said. "Dai Atlas isn't cruel, and so long as neither of them are affiliated with—"

"No!" Starscream snapped. Vorns of instinct bit at him; he might not be Decepticon now, but he was not traitor enough to go begging that pompous bag of wind for help. More than that, Dai Atlas would be at the center of the negotiations Starscream had started; he imagined all the evidence of his failed plan piling up in front of him and hid a cringe.

Still, that close to the negotiations, maybe he could…

"No? What else would you do?" The strange Neutral dipped their wings in question.

"I would be just as likely to get mercy from the Autobots as the Circle of Light," Starscream snapped. His own wings flared high and aggressive. He had no need for anyone's patronization.

"Then why don't we do that, if you're more comfortable that way?" Jetfire suggested, his voice quiet. "You need medical treatment, Starscream."

Starscream stared at Jetfire. He felt caught for a moment by that voice, by the undisguised care. Somehow, when Jetfire spoke, the words didn't reek of disdain or suggest weakness. Starscream felt weightless, like he could fly for miles buoyed only by the concern in Jetfire's bright blue optics.

"That," Knock Out said with a certain amount of glee, "sounds like an excellent plan. Don't you think so, Barricade?"

"I do," Acid Storm chirped.

"No!" Barricade scowled. "What do you think the Autobots are going to do with an advantage like Starscream in their grasp?"

"Oh, please," Knock Out said before Starscream could agree. "By this point, anything Starscream knows is obsolete. He's been out here forever. Not as long a forever as you, of course," he added to Jetfire, "but any intelligence Starscream could offer has decayed. Militarily, of course."

"I thought you were on my side," Starscream growled.

Knock Out put his hands on his hips and gave Starscream a flat stare. "Thundercracker's been our patient since you left," he said. "He's refused frame adjustment surgery to make it possible for him to move independently, so he requires the use of a hoverchair. He cries, Starscream, do you know how upsetting it is to have patients crying in the medical bay? Ambulon's gone through almost all of our paint supplies!"

Starscream refused to flinch, though he could feel his battered spark shrinking. "He knew what he was doing!" he snapped. "He refused to pull back in time to save himself."

"And doesn't that just tell you everything about the two of you," Knock Out returned.

"It's not as though I ever wanted to bond with him!" Starscream felt as though his wings had been twisted before being shoved off of a cliff. He threw a panicked glance at Jetfire. "Why shouldn't I have been free instead of tied down to two mechs who wanted nothing to do with me?"

"That's a question you can ask yourself and the Autobots," Knock Out said. "Come on, Acid Storm, we're leaving."

The Neutral aerial sidled closer to Barricade. "Would you like to return with them?" they asked.

Barricade let out a low, grumbling wheeze of a vent but followed the Neutral away, leaving Starscream and Jetfire completely alone.

"I didn't want to, you know," Starscream told the ground in front of him. "I went back to find help, and…"

"You were right," Jetfire said. "We shouldn't talk about this now. We should go find…the Autobots? Or the Circle of Light, if you'd prefer?"

Starscream's optics dimmed. In the midst of a tangled swell of emotions he couldn't decipher, he managed to drudge up the thought that it would be even easier to sabotage the negotiations from the Autobot base. "Very well," he managed, finally, and spread his wings with the intent to transform, only to realize very abruptly that he couldn't.

Before he could panic, Jetfire transformed and opened his door. "You'll need to ride in me," he said. "I should have enough fuel to get you wherever we're going, as long as we don't have to break orbit."

Starscream stepped forward and pressed his hand to Jetfire's door for a moment before hauling himself inside. "Yes," he said, in a last, mangled attempt to salvage some dignity. "You won't have to break orbit. I know where we can find them."

Chapter Text

"I can't believe it! My own mother didn't want to see me," Sari complained for the umpteenth time as she led the way into the main bay of the base. Chromia followed in motorcycle form, feeling very put upon by the whole thing.

«Windblade, help. Diplomacy is more your speed; how would you tell a hatchling she might have cost us a treaty and restarted a very long war? Because I've tried changing the subject, and she just keeps coming back to this. Ultra Magnus already gave her a lecture.»

Windblade glanced up from where she stood in the corner with Ultra Magnus, poring over datapads. «She's not an ordinary hatchling, Chromia. I think she'll understand if you say exactly that. Just…maybe be more gentle about it. She hasn't bonded with Ultra Magnus the way she has with you, so she's probably more likely to listen.»

Chromia let out a slow vent but nudged closer to Sari. "First of all, as Orion's pointed out, you probably shouldn't be calling him your mother," she said. "That's a human concept, and it's unlikely to be welcome. Would you try to make friends with someone by calling them a name you knew they probably didn't like?"

Sari shrugged. "I wouldn't know," she said. "Maybe if I'd ever had friends instead of robot tutors."

"Second of all," Chromia continued, but she found herself interrupted by Sumdac running across the room at a surprising speed from the direction of the bathroom.

"Sari? Sari, is that you? Sari, please, I must speak with you!"

"Ugh," Sari said, her voice loud enough to echo. "Chromia, let's go somewhere else, I don't want to be in the same room as Professor Sumdac."

Chromia rattled her engine, frustrated. "Second of all," she said. She moved to block Sari's escape route. "Those negotiations are incredibly important in a way you can't fully understand. You've been raised and sheltered here on Earth, as a human. But that means you're lacking basic Cybertronian history, which is that without this chance at peace, we're likely to continue fighting until everyone but the Neutrals are destroyed."

Windblade made a small noise from the corner. «That's being a little too honest,» she said.

«Then I won't mention that the Neutral population has been steadily diminishing as well.»

Sari groaned and wrapped her arms around her chest. "I know, okay? I'm sorry. I just… I wanted…" She scrubbed at her eyes and then whirled on Sumdac. "You! This is all your fault. If you hadn't— I know I wouldn't exist, but my mom— my other parent doesn't even want anything to do with me, because you made me like that! You did something unforgivable, and that means I'm never going to have a mom who loves me, or, or even forgives me. And I'm never going to be human or Cybertronian, not really, I'm just going to be some weird mess of circuits and organic flesh, and, and what even am I?" Her voice rose higher and higher, scraped into something raw and harsh, and on the last word she crumpled. She folded in on herself with a shriek as her eyes and nose started to leak and her breathing grew labored and hitched.

Chromia didn't think she'd ever get used to how terrible human crying sounded. Static might not be pleasant, but it wasn't harmful. Human sobbing sounded like air getting repeatedly punched out of their lungs as their insides liquified.

She nudged closer so that Sari could press against her side.

Sumdac, to his credit, made no attempt to touch Sari in her vulnerable state. He stood there at a distance, wringing his hands together and staring at her. After a while, when her sobbing started to quiet into something lower, he spoke. "I know what I did is unforgivable," he said. "If I had known what I was doing, I never would have done it. But of course that does not change the fact that it is done. It is done, and you exist, and I love you very much."

Sari made a loud, muffled noise against her arm and turned further into Chromia's side.

Sumdac continued, undeterred. "You have been my little girl for over twenty years," he said. "Most human parents do not get to spend that much time with their little girls. How could I not love you, when you have brought such light and wonder into my life? There was a time when I believed that my only joy would be found in machines. You are the one who changed that, Sari."

"How can you say that?" Sari wailed. "I am a machine!"

"No, you are not." Sumdac bowed his head. "If you were just a machine, what I have done would not be wrong. But it is, and you know that it is, and so you must not be a machine."

Sari snuffled loudly and wiped sticky liquid on her sleeve as she looked up at Sumdac. Her eyes had turned red, and the skin around them had puffed out considerably. "I'm never going to forgive you for what you did," she said.

"No, I would not expect that." Sumdac wrung his hands again. "You do not have to. Nor does Megatron, of course, but…" He turned towards the corner where Windblade and Ultra Magnus were pretending not to pay attention to the drama playing out in front of them. "I would like to apologize to him. It is not very much, but it is the least I can do."

"No, bad idea," Chromia said before Ultra Magnus could speak. "If your government is getting this upset over a human child who apparently chose to spend time with the Decepticons voluntarily, imagine how they would react if Megatron squashed one of their leading scientists."

"It's not as though you have permitted me to leave this building anyway," Sumdac said. "It is very likely that I no longer have a job. Along with…other consequences."

Sari made another sound like she'd been punched and started crying again. "You mean they're going to kill you?!"

"What? No! I may go to jail, Sari, that is all." Sumdac waved his hands in the air. "No, I did not mean to upset you further."

"So I'd never see you again?!" Sari wrapped her hands around Chromia's handlebars and clung. "So I'm going to be alone no matter where I am!"

"Oh, no, no, no," Sumdac fretted. "We will figure something out for you, Sari. You will not be alone. I promise. I love you."


«I know, I know.» Windblade sounded grim. «We will figure something out for her. But we can't focus on that right now.»

«I feel like I should be the one saying that.» Chromia blinked her lights. «Want to come over and help soothe the hatchling?»

Windblade hesitated, but after a moment, she handed Ultra Magnus the datapads and crouched down to stroke the flat of her finger down Sari's shaking back.

Megatron strode into Soundwave's quarters with purpose. The Cassettes present—Ravage, Buzzsaw, and Laserbeak—didn't so much as look up at his entrance, but the human hatchling did. Megatron stared down at her. Soundwave and the Cassettes had seen in her a creature worth adopting, worth protecting and caring for. Megatron had seen with his own optics and heard with his own audials reasons why they would care for her like this.

He still only saw yet another human.

"Okay," Verity said, standing up and putting her hands on her hips. "What is this about?"

Megatron froze as he glanced behind her and saw the open circuits and pulsing energon lines of a sloppily-patched medical practice drone.

Soundwave made a low noise from the corner. "Megatron," he said.

"Scrap!" Buzzsaw yelled. Ey flew up into Megatron's face, landing on his head. "I'm teaching her some patches," ey said into Megatron's audial. "It's not what you're thinking."

"I know that," Megatron said tersely, even as remembered sensory input flooded his processor. He focused on Buzzsaw's claws scrabbling over his helm and on holding his ventilations steady.

"No, seriously, what is this about?" Verity asked Laserbeak. "Is this some thing where I did something wrong and the big bad mech has to stand watch over me to make sure I don't do it again? Am I that bad with Cybertronian tools? Look, it's not my fault all these things were designed for people with big metal hands."

"I'm fairly certain he's doing something Nickel wouldn't approve of," Ravage said, his voice raised just enough to get past the roar of white noise in Megatron's processor.

Buzzsaw stamped one more time on Megatron's helm and then slid off. "If you don't mind," ey said. "Laserbeak, what are you having her do, that's not how you hold a welder!"

"You try demonstrating the proper handling technique," Laserbeak retorted. "We don't even have hands!"

"Birds, birds, you're both pretty," Verity said.

«Megatron, do not do this,» Soundwave said over comms as Buzzsaw neatly patched up the practice drone and dragged it over to the storage compartment in the corner.

«Tell me, Soundwave. How do you see an organic fleshling as a hatchling?»

Soundwave didn't answer right away, but his frame started to broadcast upset. «Soundwave can feel your distress, Megatron,» he said, and, of course, at that his sparkmates all looked up.

«Nickel is going to strip your frame of all nonessential functions if she finds out what you're doing to yourself,» Ravage said. «Do you know what you're risking for all of us if this backfires?»

«You could start by treating her as an individual,» Laserbeak suggested, eir voice hesitant over the commlink. «Try not to think of her as a human, or even a hatchling, just as Verity.»

Megatron grunted, and Verity herself looked around the room at the suddenly silent mechs. "Okay, something's definitely going on. Someone want to fill the human in?"

Frustration flooded Megatron's processor. He wanted to reach out and silence her; instead he only leaned down in her direction. "What is going on is that I have a hatchling who looks very much like you."

"Uh," Verity said. "Okay. First of all, it's really creepy when you do that. Back the fuck off. Second of all, I'm not anybody's hatchling, thanks, if that's what you're thinking of. Third of all, you don't sound like that's something you want congratulations over, so I won't." Her whole body trembled, and even her voice shook, but she kept her wet human orbs locked on Megatron's optics.

Megatron let out a gust of hot air and leaned back. He felt a small twinge in his spark. "What do you believe will happen when the Decepticons leave Earth?"

Verity glanced around the room, but Soundwave and his sparkmates remained silent and still. Perhaps Soundwave had told them what Megatron needed from this.

If only Megatron knew himself.

"Okay, I'll take that to mean, 'what's going to happen if you leave right now' and not 'what's going to happen if you leave in thirty years.'" Verity fiddled with the welder in her hands. The trembling had stopped as soon as Megatron moved away. "I don't know. I'd probably go hang with Raoul again. I've been chatting with him off and on, and it sounds like he's managed to keep out of this whole business. My eighteenth birthday is coming up soon, I'll be legal then, and I'll have a nice life free of obligation or some shit if the government doesn't manage to screw that up for me. Maybe I'll be able to get a halfway decent job." She hesitated and glanced at the Cassettes. "It'd be nice if we could stay internet buds. But whatever. Does that answer your question?"

"We'll make it happen," Laserbeak said. "The internet thing. We've got our ways."

Megatron moved towards the door but didn't leave as Laserbeak moved close to Verity and started nudging at the thin, malleable strands on her head. He glanced over at Soundwave, who gazed steadily back at him.

"I answered the question," Verity said. She raised her voice. "So just for the record, I think telling you that entitles me to ask about your hatchling."

"I thought you didn't want to hear about anything involving Cybertronian biology," Buzzsaw needled.

"I didn't, and now I do." Verity folded her arms across her chest. "Excuse me for thinking that something weird is up when a giant metal man walks in and says he's got a hatchling that looks like me. What does that even mean? Is that supposed to mean something? Why isn't the hatchling here if it's got something to do with me?"

"Well," Buzzsaw drawled, eir voice soaring into the highest range of patronizing smugness. "When two or more Cybertronians want to have a litter, procreational nanites are injected into a gestational chamber, where the code is absorbed, sorted, and randomized. Depending on the couple, they'll probably also want to spark-merge, so that the carrier isn't the only one feeding spark energy into the litter. Keeps the little bits healther that way."

"Wait, are you seriously answering my question with some shit about where little robots come from?" Verity's face twisted. Megatron's fuel tanks lurched. "Sure. Okay. Why not. Let's keep going. So we've gotten to little baby mechs in a robo-uterus, go on. I'm sure this won't be scarring in any way."

Buzzsaw gave a squawk of laughter. "It's not as scarring as human childbirth! The carrier spark splits off little sparklets, which get surrounded by protective metal so that they're not reabsorbed. When the sparklet is strong enough, the egg will start growing, and when it's large enough to cause discomfort, the carrier's chestplates open automatically so that the eggs can be removed to finish forming on their own."

"A sparklet can't suffuse through the metal if they're too close to their carrier's spark, after all," Laserbeak added. "Once the egg's become a part of their frame, they can transform for the first time."

"It usually takes a few quartexes," Buzzsaw concluded. "And that's how Cybertronian hatchlings are made."

Verity stared at them, then up at Megatron. "Do you think I haven't noticed how hard you're avoiding every single one of my actual questions?" she asked, but she sounded more resigned than annoyed. "You could have just said it was none of my business."

Laserbeak nudged her shoulder. "We could have," ey said, "but we did want you to know a little bit about us even if you weren't going to get a full answer."

"Yeah, yeah, stop shoving me, birdbrain." Verity still hadn't taken her eyes off Megatron. "I wasn't trying to ask anything really personal, okay? I just wanted to know. You could just tell me your hatchling's name or something."

Megatron stared down at her.

"Sari Sumdac," Soundwave said after the silence had stretched.

Verity looked away from Megatron, finally, and he found his ventilations steadying. "What? But that's—" She broke off and frowned. "Right. Okay. Not asking any more questions. Thanks for telling me. So, can we test the suit again?"

Megatron shut off his optical feed as the whining sounds of remembered human tools built in his head. He felt a gentle touch against his elbow joint. «I'm fine, Soundwave.» He might not have been lying.

Soundwave didn't say anything at all, and he didn't move away. He stayed there, letting Megatron gather himself together piece by piece as the Cassettes and Verity started a loud argument about the best way to protect a human body.

«Chromia, I've got somethin' comin' through that you're gonna want to take a look at.»

«Jazz?» Chromia pulled herself out of the light recharge she'd put herself into and transformed. «Dangerous or no?»

«Not dangerous. It's the Decepticons' human friend, only this time she's not reachin' out to Chase. She's got a message for us that you're gonna want to see. All systems go?»

«I'm ready. Send it my way.»

Jazz didn't bother to send it on any of the secure channels; Chromia caught it and decrypted it in less than a klik.

Autobots, it began, I don't really know the whole story, but I've heard enough of it to know that I want to talk with one Sari Sumdac. I'm told she's staying with you for some reason, so could you pass on my contact information? At the end, she'd listed an email address, along with a set of instructions for how to log onto a secure chat program that the Decepticons had clearly helped with.

«You read this?» Chromia asked, just to be safe.

«I did,» Jazz said, grim-voiced. «I think it's worth tryin' out. It might be that we'll get some new information from it.»

Chromia looked down at the small hatchling who had become her charge. Sari, it seemed, had woken up before Chromia and was muttering something under her breath as she drew in the dirt with a stick. Her cheeks had puffed out overnight, which alarmed Chromia for a moment until she saw the now-empty bag of marshmallows on the ground nearby. Those cheeks were just the right size for one of the squishy white cylinders each.

"Sari," she said.

Sari jumped, and some strange white foam dribbled out of her mouth. Chromia grimaced; there was no way that substance was natural for a human or a Cybertronian. "Aaaa?"

"Once you've finished your marshmallows, I have a message for you."

"Iiii aaaa oooaaa aaa eeee?" Chromia stared down at Sari until she finished her hasty mastication and repeated, "It's not from my dad, is it?"

"No, it's not from your father. It's from Verity Carlo, who's—"

"Verity Carlo! She's the girl with the Decepticons, right?" Sari grabbed the empty bag and ran up to Chromia, her expression transformed into one of manic glee despite the lingering sticky residue all over it. "What does she say? Can I talk to her? Can I talk to her, please? Is it about my—my carrier?"

"There's no indication that she wants to talk about your carrier," Chromia said, "but if we can find you a computer, she would like to talk to you."

"Yes!" Sari cheered. She flung her hands up in the air. "My dad never lets me use a computer to go online. Not that I didn't go anyway, sometimes. I just didn't tell him."

Chromia sighed and considered her options. «Windblade,» she said finally, «we're heading inside again. We need a human computer and—are Faireborn, Chase, or Fowler available?»

«Chase hasn't been by lately, but Faireborn is here. Why?»

«Just send her into one of the spare rooms with a human computer. We're going to have to make this work without getting Sumdac involved.» Chromia picked up Sari with a grimace. «And is there any solvent stronger than water for cleaning human hatchlings?»


«Never mind.»

Faireborn met them in the room with her hands on her hips. "What is this about?"

"I'm gonna talk to Verity!" Sari cheered as Chromia set her down. "She wants to talk to me this time, not one of you boring adults."

"What," Faireborn said, her voice flattened so the word no longer sounded like a question.

"Sari's description is accurate enough." Chromia leaned down. "If you could set up the computer over there—"

"I'll get to spy on the proceedings?" Faireborn headed over and sighed. "This is the strangest assignment I've ever had. Remind me again why I keep fighting to keep it."

"Computer!" Sari cheered. She dashed over and sat in front of it as Faireborn plugged it into a wall socket. With a high pitched mechanical whine, two of her fingers transformed into a USB port, which she cheerfully slotted in.

"What the hell!" Faireborn yelped. "Did you just— Get your fingers out of there right now before you hurt yourself!"

"No, it's okay, I've done this before," Sari protested. "It's fine, let go!" Images started flipping by on the computer's GUI faster than a normal human's reaction time would have been able to perceive. "Verity wanted to talk to me, so I'm going to talk to her."

"Most humans can't transform themselves, you realize," Chromia said. She crouched down to get a better look at the connection.

"Well, what else is this port for? Oh, wow, the internet is great!"

"Oh, hell," Faireborn muttered. "No net nanny here."

"Net nanny?" Chromia took a moment to look up that term, then winced. "Ah. It should be fine so long as she only talks to Verity."

"Oh, haha, ewwww," Sari said. "You can do that?" She looked up at Faireborn. "Can humans really do that?"

"Okay! You either talk to Verity, or I turn the computer off," Faireborn said, raising her voice.

"Jeez, okay, okay," Sari muttered, turning her attention back to the screen.

U14522033: hi, this is sari. the bots gave me your message. are you verity? i really liked your pictures.

U782230: Yeah this is Verity. So you're NOT an Autobot then.

U14522033: no.
U14522033: i mean sort of?
U14522033: i kind of am.
U14522033: they're taking care of me. but my carriers megatron

U782230: I know THAT much.
U782230: You've got an awfully human name, Sari Sumdac.

U14522033: uhhh that's cause i was.
U14522033: i mean i thought i was. i'm half human.
U14522033: did megatron say anything about me?

U782230: Half human? oh fuck.
U782230: wtf
U782230: brb

U14522033: what does that mean?
U14522033: verity hello??? what does that mean. what's wtf and brb
U14522033: never mind i found it lol
U14522033: how soon will you brb? chromia's getting really impatient. and i'm bored.
U14522033: (๑•﹏•) whoa there are cute faces!
U14522033: ( •᷄⌓•᷅ ) are you coming back

U782230: I'm back.
U782230: okay so clearly there's some heavy shit going down.

U14522033: i dont understand what that means

U782230: …how old are you?

U14522033: i don't know
U14522033: i thought i was 7 but my dad said i'm over 20

U782230: fml

U14522033: chromia says my age depends on whether you're counting the time i spent as an egg
U14522033: but i don't know how long that was and i don't want to ask my dad

U782230: Okay. Okay clearly there is a lot going on here.
U782230: Are you safe with the Autobots?

U14522033: yes
U14522033: (゚ペ)?

U782230: Just had to ask.
U782230: fml I probably sound like every sanctimonious social worker I've ever had in my life
U782230: I blame giant aliens.
U782230: So you're okay and you're safe.

U14522033: ⊂((・▽・))⊃ i'm safe
U14522033: i really want to talk to my carrier though
U14522033: i wont call him my mom anymore i promise
U14522033: do you think he'll ever talk to me?

U782230: You're asking the wrong person. He can barely stand to talk to ME, and I'm living with his best friend or something.
U782230: Please don't ask me to explain alien interpersonal relationships I barely understand them myself half the time.

U14522033: (•̀o•́)ง someday i'll get to talk to him!!!!!!!!!

U782230: You might need to do it sooner rather than later. It sounded like the decepticons were planning on leaving
U782230: Though by their timescale that might mean they plan on leaving sometime in the next 20 years.

U14522033: Σ(°□°)⊃ what??????????!?!?!?!?!
U14522033: don't let them do that i have to talk to him!!!!!!!

U782230: I'm sorry, I just wanted you to know.
U782230: And to talk to you.
U782230: I don't think I can do anything about it, though.

U14522033: (•̥́_•ૅू˳) ok………
U14522033: chromia says that means the talking might end? there might be peace?
U14522033: if there is can i meet you face to face?
U14522033: irl!!!

U782230: Yeah, let's make that a goal. I want to meet you, too.

Chapter Text

"So, about that conversation we had earlier."

Prowl looked up and behind himself to see Jazz standing in the shadows again. "Is this going to be another lecture on trust?" he asked. "Because you aren't acting very trusting yourself."

Jazz chuckled. "No, nothin' like that. Just wanted to let you know that negotiations are gonna be endin' soon. A little glitch mouse whispered in my comms."

Prowl straightened, doorwings twitching. "What are the Decepticons planning?"

"What? No, Prowl, you got me all wrong." Jazz stepped forward, out of the shadows, and put his hand on Prowl's arm. "Remember what I told you?" Peace is happenin', mech. They're not gonna be our enemies anymore. I want to know what you have planned. I don't want my favorite tactician to get lost in the shuffle."

An uneasy sensation crept in to gnaw at Prowl's tanks. "They can't," he said. "They don't want peace, they want victory."

"Prowl." Jazz moved his hand back and forth. "What're you gonna do once the war is over? You're miserable enough right now. Am I gonna have to hold your hand for this? 'Cause I don't mind."

Prowl tried to formulate an answer that would satisfy Jazz, but his processor had gone terrifyingly blank. He stared at Jazz, his spark pulsing faster.

"What are you winding Prowl up with now?" Ratchet's voice echoed through the room as his heavy footsteps became audible. He looked between the two of them with a faintly amused light in his optics.

"What, you don't think bein' on Earth is enough to wind Prowl up all by itself?" Jazz withdrew his hand to wiggle his fingers at Ratchet.

"Oh, I believe it. But you have a knack for twisting mechs up in knots."

Jazz's optics flared and dimmed as he smiled. "Is that an invitation?" he purred, moving closer to Ratchet.

Ratchet chuckled. "Not that I'm opposed to getting a little tied up, but I don't think either of us wants to leave Prowl in the lurch."

"I'm fine," Prowl said, his voice stiff. He didn't feel fine. He felt like he had been picked up by an aerial and dropped over a cliff; an imprecise metaphor, but it was the closest he could get to describing the falling sensation his internals seemed to be reacting to.

"You don't sound fine," Ratchet said, all teasing and flirtatious subvocals gone from his voice. "Do you need to talk privately?"

"Seems like we had the same idea," Jazz said. "I'm worried about his ability to cope with this new situation."

"Don't talk about me as though I'm not here," Prowl snapped, then rocked back as the numbing code hit with full force. He looked at Ratchet. "There is no purpose in talking privately. Jazz would find out one way or another. You might as well not bother trying."

"Well, you've got a right to your privacy as much as anyone." Ratchet scowled at Jazz. "If you're worried about it, I can handle Jazz."

Prowl lifted his wings and shoulders and dropped them in an imprecise shrug. "He will find out no matter what."

"I think Prowl has a little less faith in me than I'd like," Jazz murmured. "Prowl, you realize I'm not here to threaten you, right? I'm only gonna threaten you if you do somethin' that needs a little threatenin'. Livin' your life isn't one of those things."

Ratchet sighed heavily, his vents wheezing. "I came here to offer memory blockers," he said, his voice quiet. "Long-term blockers or short-term blockers. Once we get back to Cybertron, we'll have access to all the high-end facilities again. I could make you like Orion. You could forget all the time you spent with Sentinel."

"You mean my entire life?" Prowl snapped. "No. You are not going to convince me to forget my entire life."

"Or," Ratchet said, drawing out the word for emphasis, "we could do something a little more specialized. I'm no mnemosurgeon; I couldn't do anything permanent, which might be a comfort to you. Your decision doesn't have to be something you abide by forever."

"Sentinel was a fine Prime," Prowl said. "Optimus and Rodimus are ones that have made me unhappy. Would you offer me memory blockers for their time carrying the Matrix? No?"

Ratchet and Jazz grimaced as one. "Prowl," Jazz said, his voice soft. "You do know this isn't about policy decisions, right? This is about you."

"I am a policy decision." Prowl's wings flared and then hiked up, hard enough that they pulled at the tense metal of his joints. "Do you think that my presence in Sentinel's retinue was ever about anything else?"

"You're a mech, Prowl, not a policy."

"Jazz," Ratchet said, his optics flickering.

Jazz sighed and reached out for Prowl again. "It's your choice," he said, quiet and sincere enough that Prowl almost believed it. "We'll abide by whatever choice you make about the blockers. Me, I'm not convinced blockin' your memories is the right choice any more than usin' that code. But it's your choice."

"Unless I make a move to sabotage this peace you believe is coming," Prowl said.

"Unless," Jazz agreed.

Ratchet gave a quiet beep. "If you think you can handle listening to more choices you have without getting upset, I'd like to give them to you," he said. "I've put a lot of thought into this. And while Windblade and I don't always agree, she has some non-medical strategies for dealing with life that might be more effective for you than some medical patch slapped onto a gaping, unhealed wound."

"I am perfectly healthy," Prowl snapped. He eyed both Ratchet and Jazz, then decided to take his chances and walk between the two of them to the door. Neither one of them stopped him; they had locked optical sweeps and were probably talking about him over comms. He resisted the urge to give them one final glance after he strode past—he didn't want to give them the chance to call him back—and continued walking, his wings drooping against his back.

"You need to let me handle it," Starscream snapped. "You don't know these mechanisms, you haven't even been awake for—a long time. There's a war going on, Jetfire. You know nothing about war."

He couldn't bring himself to look at Jetfire's console directly as he said that, but he could still see the uncomfortably hurt way that Jetfire's entire display dimmed. "I know," Jetfire said, his voice a soft, familiar rumble that sent shivers through Starscream's whole frame. "I was awake for long enough before we found you."

Starscream braced himself for the and Primus, do we regret doing that that he could hear following those words. But of course, Jetfire wouldn't say it, unlike everyone else; Jetfire had always been too nice for his own good. The silence stretched out until Starscream finally managed to break it. "Yes, well," he said. "You know of it, but you don't know what these Autobots have been doing for the entire war, and I doubt you'd want to."

"You wouldn't have suggested that we seek asylum from them if you believed they would hurt us," Jetfire said, but Starscream could hear the edge of uncertainty under that statement.

Everything had changed.

"Land here," Starscream ordered, making his voice as haughty as possible to hide any possible sign of weakness. It wouldn't do for Jetfire to feel even more uncertain about the whole thing. "We're close enough to where their base should be that we can proceed on foot."

"What about the native organics?"

Starscream waved a dismissive hand. "None of the sapient ones are around. We'll keep away from their roads, if that's what you're worried about."

Jetfire didn't say anything. He landed and transformed in a smooth motion that had Starscream gliding out on instinct, as though those endless vorns of loneliness hadn't happened. The ache in Starscream's spark grew at that, illogically, and he landed further away from Jetfire than he needed to. His processor swam.

The Autobot medics would fix them, Starscream reminded himself. And then, before they knew it, Starscream would turn their plans upside-down and prove once and for all that…something. Something to do with Starscream being a better ruler. Maybe he could even seize the Matrix somehow, though he doubted it would overcome its foolish anti-aerial prejudice without some persuasion.

His fanciful thoughts were cut off by a booming voice ringing through the general comm channels. «Stop!»

Jetfire continued on as though he hadn't heard it. General comm channels, Starscream thought desperately. Those had changed since the war. Did Jetfire even have the capability for comm signals that weren't specifically sent to his individual channel? Starscream didn't know, but he found himself making a low, panicky noise and lunging forward to grab Jetfire's arm.

Jetfire's optics flared, and he looked down. "Starscream? What's wrong?"

"Your comm channels are defective," Starscream hissed. "The Autobots are speaking to us, and you're going to get yourself shot!"

"What?" Jetfire looked up again, as though he could discern where the Autobots were hiding with his optics.

Foolish. Starscream snorted. That voice belonged to Prowl, if he wasn't mistaken, and Prowl did none of his own dirty work. They would be met either by the bright lights of a previously hidden weapons system, or a small group of highly trained warriors with some form of stealth modification, or—


Starscream couldn't think of another way, actually. He scanned the nearby rocks for the upcoming attack.

"Starscream," a low, cultured voice said, and Starscream jerked his gaze up to see a red, black, and golden aerial landing in front of them. Windblade. Damn it. Starscream had hoped that she'd flown off and rejoined the Neutrals by now. At least she'd try to talk them to death before attacking.

"Windblade," Starscream returned with a sneer. "Did Prowl send you to prattle us into submission?"

"Starscream!" Jetfire said reproachfully before Windblade could respond. "Windblade, was it? Starscream and I are here to request asylum. We're both in need of medical attention."

"And you've come to the Autobots for help."

"I'm sure we could go elsewhere if you don't want us taking up your resources," Jetfire said, his voice quiet. "But Starscream's no longer welcome with the Decepticons, and there was some skepticism about whether the—the Circle of Light?—would grant him mercy. I thought, perhaps, since you're negotiating with the Decepticons…"

Starscream drew himself up to his full height, flaring out his wings in the most confident pose he could muster. "What my companion is trying to say is—"

"We are negotiating with the Decepticons," Windblade said to Jetfire, turning her attention to him for the first time. "By your own admission, Starscream is no longer a Decepticon, and therefore we have no obligation to help him. You should have gone to the Neutrals." After a pause, she said in a completely different tone, "Especially as your lack of badge would indicate that you are a Neutral."

"And entirely unaffiliated with the Circle of Light," Starscream said. "Which means that we cannot seek their aid."

Windblade stared at him and tilted her head to the side. Her wings remained motionless, giving Starscream no indication of her thought process. Finally, she put her hands on the top of her thighs. "We'd like to know your name and situation, please."

"You already—" Starscream started, but he found himself cut off by Jetfire's gentle voice.

"My name is Jetfire. Before the war even began, I crashed here and was presumed dead. A short time ago, a Neutral named Wing found me and melted me out of the cryostasis I'd gone into involuntarily." Jetfire sounded calm and collected and more than willing to hand over information that should have been bargained out. Starscream's wings flared again. "Ey informed the Decepticons, who then performed basic repairs but were unable to offer anything more extensive. And Starscream is suffering from sparkbreak."

"Don't tell them that!" Starscream snapped. "They don't need to know!"

"Actually, if you're looking for medical attention, we do," Windblade said. She tilted her head again, clearly discussing something on private comms. Starscream shifted impatiently. "All right, you can come in."

"We can?" Starscream blurted out, unable to hide his surprise. He wondered if he could have pulled this trick vorns before. One of the rock formations in front of them opened up, and he followed Windblade and Jetfire inside with a nervous twitch of his wings.

He didn't like the idea of the two of them being incapable of flight, but that was the point, wasn't it? Neither of them could fly safely on their own at this point anyway, now that Jetfire had used up his reserves to carry Starscream here.

Jetfire stopped so abruptly that Starscream almost walked into him. Starscream bit back the anger that wanted to rise from his vocalizer on automatic; he couldn't find it in himself to hold any genuine anger for Jetfire. "What now?" he asked instead.

"Are those the native sapients?" Jetfire asked, not moving his optics from a corner where, ugh, Prowl, of all mechs, stood with a small cluster of four tiny humans.

"Yes," Windblade said in a terse voice. "Come to this corner, please; you're too large to fit comfortably inside our medical bay."

"May I speak to them later?" Jetfire wanted to know. He settled himself in the indicated corner, the metal of his frame groaning as he slid down against the wall with his legs splayed. The careless vulnerability of the display made Starscream want to cringe. He didn't. "I'd like to experience for myself how life on this planet has evolved."

"You won't be able to communicate unless you can speak their language." Windblade ran a handheld scanner over Jetfire, then turned to Starscream. He scowled but held still and let her scan.

"This isn't gonna do at all," said a voice from directly behind Starscream.

He whirled to see Jazz standing there. Even though he barely came up to the middle of Starscream's chest, the sight of that blue visor sent a fisson of fear through Starscream's processor. "How long have you been standing there?"

"What, am I makin' you nervous?" Jazz grinned up at Starscream. "Get those weapons out and offline."

"I'm already in your base," Starscream challenged. "If I want to fight, your humans are in the way. How many do you think I'll be able to take out before you manage to subdue me?"

"What a good question." Jazz leaned closer, never losing that smile. "I'd say zero."

"Starscream, please don't antagonize them," Jetfire said with a desperate edge to his voice. Starscream set his dental plates together tightly and opened his plating to remove the weaponry he'd stashed inside it.

"There," he hissed. "Now you have me defenseless. What will you do to me now, Autobots?"

"Hold still for medical treatment, ideally." Starscream whipped his head around to see a red and white medic emerging from a doorway with a full kit. "Windblade, if you'd be so kind, I left a bunch of supplies in the bay because I couldn't carry them."

"Wait!" Jetfire called after her. "How do I learn their language?"

"Do you have an internet connection?" she shot back.

Jetfire mulled over his answer before shaking his head. Ratchet snorted. "If you're telling the truth, I'll get you fixed up with one," he said. "Don't worry about that."

"Thank you," Jetfire said in a quiet, grateful tone that made Starscream's entire frame ache. He wanted to wrap his arms around himself, to flatten his wings against his back, but he couldn't show such weakness in front of the Autobots and their pets. He had to stay strong, and he had to focus on his mission.

Even if Jetfire wouldn't approve.

"So that's it?" Rodimus asked. He stared down at the datapad in his hands. "That's the whole entire treaty?"

"That's the whole entire treaty, minus the six datapads from earlier negotiations that have already been signed and approved," Elita-1 said. "Take it or leave it."

"I, uh, I want to look at the other six datapads," Rodimus said. He tilted his chin up. Ultra Magnus silently handed them over, and Rodimus gave a haughty click as he started to flip through them.

Orion snuck a glance up at Megatron. Megatron didn't look happy. He looked downright angry, with his optics flashing erratically and his claws curled into fists. "If you're not sure, maybe we could—"

"No, Orion Pax," Megatron hissed. He stepped forward. Elita-1's own optics flared in alarm, and she reached out almost as if to grab him. Her hands closed on air and dropped back to her sides. "I see what is happening. Young Rodimus Prime has no interest in upholding the parts of the treaty that were signed by his predecessor, but you all wish to wave your flagrant disregard for promises in front of me."

Orion's whole body rocked back as though he'd been struck.

"What Megatron is saying," Elita-1 said after a moment of silence, "is that we would like clarification on how you intend to uphold those portions of the treaty. It has been left unaddressed until now."

Rodimus grimaced, his optics flashing pale and near white. "What, you think I'm going to back out because I'm scared or something?" he said. "Bring it on, Megatron, I could carry a hundred clutches for you!"

Ultra Magnus put a large hand on Rodimus' shoulder. "But he will not be doing that," he said.

Megatron snarled. "Of course he will not! Does he think he's been subtle about his disgust for this whole charade? Does he believe that I would actually want to sire a clutch on someone like him?"

"So if you don't want to, and I don't want to, why don't we just throw that part away?!" Rodimus yelled.

Megatron drew himself up with a creak of plating, looming over Rodimus and Ultra Magnus both. "And what do you presume the population will look like once you clutch for your Lord High Protector?" he rumbled. "If the Decepticons are denied access to the Matrix's clutching capabilities because the Autobots are unable to follow through with our agreement—"

Orion's spark felt like it was being squeezed out of his chest. A thousand bits of data swirled around in his processor, unable to form into coherent thoughts that could be spoken aloud. If Megatron was so vehement about his lack of desire to sire on Rodimus Prime, did that mean he had wanted to sire on Optimus Prime? Was he only worried about the state of the Decepticon population, as he said? If everyone was unhappy with the situation as it stood, was there truly nothing that could be done?

"Look, I told you that I'd give you a clutch, and I will!" Rodimus snapped. "If you don't even want to clutch with me, why are you so concerned that I don't want to touch your big ugly frame in the first place?!"

"I," Orion blurted before he could stop himself. He cut off his vocalizer after that single word, but everyone had already turned towards him. His vents hitched. "If…if neither of you wants to… The agreement was with Optimus Prime, right?"

"Yes," Megatron said. His tone had gone unreadable.

Orion dimmed his optics. "This is just a suggestion," he said, "since it seems like part of the problem is that we already signed the agreement. I can't clutch. But I'm willing to uphold Optimus Prime's end of the bargain if we can figure out another way to work out the population issue. After all—" he lifted his head only to catch on Megatron's bright, intent gaze— "I am Optimus Prime. Or what's left of him."

"So, what, you want the Matrix back so you can make hatchlings?" Rodimus poked at his chest. "Ugh, seriously? You can have it back. This piece of junk can ruin your life again instead of ruining mine."

Megatron turned his gaze on Rodimus again. "What is this? A Prime without the desire to remain in power?"

"No! I mean, yes! I mean…" Rodimus grimaced and glanced back at Ultra Magnus. "That's one of those things I shouldn't have said, huh?"

Ultra Magnus heaved a rumbling sigh. "Rodimus…"

"It just slipped out! Look, they should probably know Primus is malfunctioning or whatever in case they were going to double-cross us, right?" Rodimus flung his arms out wide. "Ta-da! Crisis averted, thank you, Rodimus Prime."

"Malfunctioning," Elita-1 repeated, her voice flat.

Orion's spark still felt squeezed too tight. He restarted his vocalizer and forced himself to vent. "The Matrix is—it's no longer storing memories. That's why…" He looked down at himself. "That's why I don't have Optimus' memories."

"Ah. Is it even capable of producing clutches, then, if it's malfunctioning to that degree?" Elita-1 asked.

"As far as we can tell, yes," Ultra Magnus rumbled. "It began overwriting memories before Sentinel Prime's ascension, and he produced a number of clutches."

"Then, presumably, if the Matrix is transferred to Orion once more, the underlying problem remains." Elita grimaced and glanced over at Megatron. "Perhaps it would be best to take Orion Pax's words into consideration and examine this from a different point of view."

Orion found himself the focus of everybody's attention again. He forced himself to stay still, lifting his optics to rest his gaze on the far wall. In the corner of his optical sweep, Dai Atlas' own optics narrowed. "Surely you are not going to pressure this hatchling into bearing litters until the size of a clutch has been approximated."

"Of course not," Megatron growled. "That many litters would be too much strain for the carrier's body. It would not even be possible. A few Decepticons tried, when we realized clutching would be forever lost to us. The first litter is fine, the second litter is weak, and after that a litter simply will not happen until the carrier has given their frame and spark time to recover. The carriers attempting it gave up at that point." At Dai Atlas' look, he bared his dental plate.

"But," Elita-1 said, "perhaps we could take Orion's offer and amend the contract with an additional clause."

Ultra Magnus made a slow, descending scale of clicks. "The clutch's coding should not matter, if I am correct." He gave Elita-1 a severe look, which she returned calmly. "Perhaps we can cede the caretaking of Rodimus Prime's first clutch, when he decides to have it, with the partner of his choice. Rodimus? Would you agree to this?"

"What? Yes!" Rodimus leaned forward, optics bright and smile wide. "I can wait as long as I like, right?"

Megatron's optics flared as they settled on Orion. "I will agree to this, so long as it is your first clutch. If the Autobots are repopulated first—"

"Yeah, yeah," Rodimus said, waving a hand. "First clutch, whatever, it's all yours. It's still gonna take a while."

"And for your part, Orion?" Megatron asked, his voice soft enough that it felt like he and Orion were the only two mechs in the room.

"Yes!" Orion blurted out the word so fast that he nearly stumbled over it. He wondered for a humiliated moment if Optimus Prime had ever done that and took a moment to gather himself. He drew himself up to his full height and tried to ignore the fine tremors running through his body. "I. Yes. I will bear a litter for you. If…that contract is still in effect." Even if it wasn't, truth be told, but he didn't dare say that in front of the entire assembly, especially not when the final signatures weren't yet in place. He didn't want the whole peace to come crashing down because the Autobots mistakenly believed that Megatron had done something to compromise him.

Well, something besides existing, and talking to him, and listening.

"Then you will bear that litter," Megatron said. He still hadn't taken his optics off of Orion. Orion's fans kicked into overdrive, and he finally dropped his gaze as he struggled to get his vents under control.

"Let's get that agreement formalized, if nobody's going to have second thoughts." Elita-1 moved closer to Rodimus to rifle through the datapads until she could pluck one from the pile. Orion looked over at them and found Rodimus looking back. Rodimus tilted his head to the side with a frown. Orion couldn't begin to hazard a guess as to what Rodimus was trying to convey, so he shook his head and smiled at the same time.

"Well, if you say so," Rodimus said aloud. His spoiler twitched, and he turned towards Ultra Magnus. Orion pressed a hand to his chest, right over his spark chamber, and let the smile on his face grow.

Chapter Text

"Barricade!" Deadlock bellowed. His voice bounced off the halls and made all the mechs in the ground-based refueling station turn to look at him. All except for Barricade, of course. Deadlock snarled and stalked over to grab Barricade's shoulder, looping his hand around the tire winglet and yanking hard. "We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way."

Barricade's claws scraped against the armor covering Deadlock's side, just under the area where the arm joint created a vulnerability. "Yeah," he said. "We can. Back the frag off, Deadlock."

Deadlock yanked Barricade's tire harder. "No, Barricade, you misunderstand me. I outrank you. I'm willing to take this to a private location, but if you want to be beaten to scrap metal in the middle of the refueling station, there's not a single mech who's going to help you, unless you all want to be brought up on charges in front of Megatron. And I don't think he'd appreciate being interrupted."

"Fine. You want to do this? Then let's do this." Barricade yanked himself free from Deadlock's grip and stalked off. Deadlock followed him closely, keeping an optic on Barricade's transformation seams to make sure he didn't drive off.

He didn't; he ducked into the database room and growled a low "Out!" at the two mechs currently on-duty. They obeyed, ducking their heads down as they passed Deadlock.

Barricade eyed the data storage units with a long optical sweep before turning to half-face Deadlock. "I don't think Megatron is going to be impressed if you decide to attack me in a room where the collateral damage is priceless pieces of our history."

Deadlock's hands itched to grab his blasters. "Then don't," he growled, "make that necessary."

The joints of Barricade's claws clicked as they locked into place, combat-ready. "You're the one who dragged me out of the refueling station. If you had a reason beyond beating me to scrap metal you can go ahead and say it now."

Deadlock did not like being given orders by his subordinates. He snarled and grabbed Barricade's wrists. The metal under his fingers creaked. "I know you've been sneaking out of the Nemesis," he hissed. "And I know it's not to go to the warehouse, either. Sometimes you bring Acid Storm and Knock Out with you, but you're the ringleader. And since Knock Out is claiming some sort of medical confidentiality, you're going to be the one to answer my questions. Do you understand?"

Barricade met his stare without attempting to pull his wrists free. "Acid Storm has no medical confidentiality."

"Acid Storm is an aerial under Slipstream's direct command," Deadlock hissed. "Do you really think ey would deign to share that information with a grounder?"

Barricade bared his dental plates. "Rainmakers told you to go frag yourself, huh? Well, allow me to do the honors, since you asked so nicely. Your little aerial sparkmate has been helping us with a confidential project. Seems ey's gone solo, without any Circle of Light to help em out."

"My…" Deadlock trailed off, then growled. "You mean Wing."

"Unless you've got another pretty white Neutral that you've been stringing along."

"Ey's not—" Deadlock cut himself off with a snarl. He had no intention of falling into Barricade's trap. "Do you really expect 'confidential project' to fly with the Decepticons?"

"No." Barricade finally yanked his wrist back, but Deadlock kept a firm grip on it. Whether by accident or by design, Barricade's face moved close to his. "I'm not expecting that at all. But what's done is done. The mechs we were helping have already sought asylum with the Autobots, and you can't do a single thing about it."

"See if I can't," Deadlock hissed. "Last time I checked, betrayal was a crime."

"Is it betrayal if Megatron's working on a peace treaty and no secrets were given away?" Barricade countered.

"Yes." Deadlock slammed his free hand into Barricade's shoulder. Metal screeched, and when Deadlock pulled away with a triumphant snarl, Barricade bore clawmarks in his paint. "The Autobots aren't allies yet."

Barricade snarled but didn't counterattack. "That part was your precious sparkmate's idea," he growled. "And just remember: you're the one who started running around with strange Neutrals first."

Deadlock hesitated. Had Wing been one of the mechs to seek asylum with the Autobots? If so, Barricade had phrased it oddly. But who else could it have been, if the project had been Wing's? Other Neutrals who wanted to flee Dai Atlas? Deadlock couldn't blame them, from what little he'd seen of the mech. "I only have your word that you haven't been giving away secrets. If this was so harmless, why didn't you report it to Megatron?"

"If this is so important, why do you have me in the data storage room instead of a prison cell?" Barricade hissed. "I'm calling your bluff, Deadlock. You've done your share of sneaking away from the Nemesis, and you know that I know. If Megatron starts investigating us, he's going to find out about you and the countless others who've taken their little joyrides. And either he already knows and doesn't care, or you join us in the slag pit. Do you know why everyone else is leaving? Not you, I know why you leave. And not the three of us: I'm talking about everyone else. They leave because they're tired of war. And you know what? I think Megatron is, too. Starscream had plans. Megatron just wants this to be over."

Deadlock growled and slammed his claws into Barricade's shoulder again as a formless ball of rage and frustration rose around his spark. "Nobody asked for your worthless opinion!"

Barricade's cheerless grin widened. "Did I hit a nerve?" he asked, voice as precise and sharp as wire cutters. "Because, Deadlock, everyone knows you're not tired of war. You'd keep fighting until the day you die—and that's not going to be anytime soon, because you're good. Look at this. I haven't touched you, and you've made me bleed." He wiped his shoulder with his claws and flicked a few drops of energon at Deadlock. "We're done here. I've answered all your questions. I can't wait until the day when Deadlock, feared commander of the Decepticon army, becomes Deadlock, brutal, aimless thug. You'll be a good way to test out the Autobots' justice system."

Deadlock snarled and lunged after him, but Barricade was already mid-transformation. Deadlock had to catch himself on the doorframe to stay upright as his quarry drove off at full speed. He stared after Barricade, vents straining and every inch of his plating feeling too tight.

Slipstream first heard the gossip from the shift leaving the bridge, moments before the announcement itself rang out over the PA system. "Well, I'm happy," Twirl declared. "Those humans were starting to creep me out. Just sitting there and not doing anything! What did we ever do to them? Also, this atmosphere is terrible. Organic bits get stuck everywhere under your plating, there's no way we could even celebrate properly. It'll have to wait until we're home again. Oh, maybe we could have some sort of pre-celebration on the ship, though!"

Flamewar grunted. "I don't think there's room in the refueling stations for everyone," she said. She glanced at Slipstream and shrugged as they went by. "How would you even pull this off?"

"I don't know!" Twirl said, waving her arms. "That's why it's a pre-celebration and not an actual celebration. Come on, Flamewar, aren't you sick of this boring old war? Don't you just want to party?"

"No, that's you," Flamewar said, entirely deadpan.

"What's this about?" Slipstream asked as she trotted after them. She fell into pace just behind them. "What are we celebrating, Twirl?"

"Oh, we're—"

Twirl's voice cut off as the announcement chime rang out through the ship. "Attention, all Decepticons," Megatron's voice said. "The long war has ended. Your twelve thousand vorns of struggle were not in vain. The Prime and I have come to an agreement wherein I believe we shall all be treated fairly. And if we are not, we shall rise once more, and the Autobots know this well. Together, I believe we can make the war we have fought for all these years. We shall not bow and return to the way things were before. We are Decepticons! We shall shape Cybertron's future into one we can proudly share with our hatchlings. We shall thrive."

A shiver slid up Slipstream's back even as unease crawled under her plating. "So it's really happening," she muttered.

"Yep," Flamewar said. "The war's over, and a whole host of new problems begins."

"Oh, lighten up," Twist said. She draped her arm over Flamewar's shoulders. "If I ever met someone who needed a few dozen shots of engex, it's you. This is what you look like right now." She paused, presumably imitating Flamewar's expression, though she hadn't bothered to retract her mask. "It's the age of the party, now!"

Flamewar snorted. "It's always the age of the party in your mind." She gave Slipstream a long-suffering look. "Are you planning on celebrating, Air Commander?"

Slipstream looked away. "The war's over. I'm not Air Commander anymore," she muttered.

"That doesn't mean you can't celebrate!" Twist danced into the center of the corridor and swiveled her hips this way and that. "You know what, when we get back home, I'm going to go to all of the parties. Even parties thrown by Autobots. Nobody can stop me now!"

Flamewar folded her arms over her chest. "Oh, really," she said with the faintest hint of a grin. "Last I heard, you still had your shift at the warehouse in a few joors."

"Half an orn!" Twist protested. "And that's probably canceled by now."

"I doubt it." Flamewar looked at Slipstream. "Megatron didn't say anything about this changing our duties. We're still the Decepticons. We're still on our ship. We're not back on Cybertron yet."

"We will be, though!" Twist said, throwing her arms up in the air. "No more ugly, squishy humans! Ugh, they're so tiny, I bet I wouldn't even notice if I stepped on one until the decaying organic matter started to smell."

"And wouldn't that be a disgusting end to the party," Flamewar deadpanned. She stepped forward to shove Twist. "Come on, if you want to party, at least get some energon in your system first. Or just let me get past you. I'm hungry."

Slipstream followed them as they started to move, then yelped as a weight barreled into her from behind. "The war's over!" Nova Storm cheered in her audial sensor. "It's over, it's over, it's over! No more humans! We can leave this planet!"

"See, that's just what I said," Twist called back. Slipstream squirmed free of Nova Storm's grip, and ey bounced over towards Twist. "No more stinking humans."

"No more humans, no more of that awful warehouse, no more having to just stand around all day." Nova Storm shuddered delicately. "I think I want to be a caretaker when we get home, what do you think?"

"Have you ever taken care of hatchlings, ever?" Slipstream wanted to know. "Have you even seen hatchlings since your upgrades?"

"I've read datapads," Nova Storm replied, wiggling eir wings. "It's not like we have a lot around. Besides, you've never seen them, either."

"I have," Flamewar said. "And I bet there'll be a long waiting period once you get your training data, so you'll have plenty of time to back out. We could use more Decepticon caretakers, though. I don't think any of Sentinel's stayed with us once his batch reached their final upgrades."

Slipstream turned her head to hide the grimace she felt twitching at the corners of her mouth. "None of you have any problem with this?" she asked.

"Any problem with what?" Nova Storm asked, sounding genuinely puzzled. "Did I miss something? Are you upset that your caretakers left?"

"Oh, someone's just worried that she won't be Air Commander anymore." Flamewar gave Slipstream a knowing smirk.

"I got along just fine before my promotion," Slipstream said, letting her voice ooze into friendly smarm. "I'm just worried about potential dissent among the ranks."

"I don't think you'll find much dissent here, on the flagship," Flamewar said. "No, some of the other units, yes. We should start a betting pool on when Crasher breaks whatever new laws they've set up here. And maybe she'll be the first, but she won't be the only one."

"I know I'm tired of fighting all the time," Nova Storm. "And I bet the Autobots have way more surviving data archives than we do."

"I don't know, we did a fair amount of damage," Flamewar said, tapping her chin. "You were hatched off-planet, weren't you? Of course you were, you're practically still a hatchling yourself."

Slipstream fell back as they made their way into the refueling station and a burst of crowded sound hit her ears. She tried to sift through the excited chatter to make out words, but to no avail. After a moment, she moved towards the energon cubes, keeping her gait easy and her wings relaxed once she landed on the aerial platform.

Peace. With the Autobots. She shouldn't feel so unsettled; she'd known for orns that this was coming. She'd accepted the position of Air Commander as a temporary post. She'd been told that the peace talks would most likely succeed. But somehow, everything felt hollow and unreal. Everyone who had raised their voice in celebration had already crushed Autobot sparks. Why did they look so happy?

Slipstream filled her cube and looked around the refueling station one more time before ducking outside again. Once in the hallways, she hesitated, then made her way to her own hab suite. Elita-1 might ask, might be angry, even, given that she'd helped get the Decepticons to this point, but for right now Slipstream just wanted to be alone to clear her processor of the dread growing inside it.

"Wait, you're leaving?" Sari wailed. "You can't do that! You just got here!"

"Sari," Sumdac said, his voice soft enough that, as far as Orion could tell, she didn't even hear it.

Orion glanced over at the other three humans present. They didn't seem nearly as upset. "Don't think anyone's going to complain about that," Fowler said. "Higher-up, I mean. You have all been making some serious waves. Nobody knows what to do with you."

"They will do nothing with us," Prowl said. "We'll be leaving as soon as possible."

Sari's wail lost all coherence and gained enough volume to make Orion's audial sensors glitch. He winced and turned them down.

"Sari's right," Windblade said, and Orion turned his sensors back up as Sari abruptly stopped crying. "We can't leave her here, stranded on an alien planet where the only person who knows anything about Cybertronian physiology learned it by mutilating one of our own."

Chromia crouched and cupped a hand over Sari's back. "Thanks, sweetspark, I was just about to say that."

"You can't stay here forever, either," Faireborn said. "Most of the land on this planet is home to someone already. We might have tolerated you spending some months here building your treaty, but I can guarantee it's going to look a lot like an invasion if you decide you're going to make planet Earth your new home."

"It is not our home," Ultra Magnus said with an air of finality.

"We can't take Sari with us, either," Ratchet said. "Not permanently. She's not full Cybertronian. Humans don't know about Cybertronian physiology, we don't know anything about human physiology, and nobody knows about Sari's."

"We could leave a few Cybertronians here," Windblade suggested, but she sounded doubtful.

"I don't like the idea of stranding anyone here," Rodimus said. He held up the recording device, aimed at his own face. "We made this peace for everyone, and we should all go home together."

After a moment of silence, Ratchet sighed. "There's something you're all forgetting," he said. "There's a spacebridge on the Ark. Fully functional, too; we made sure of that for the peace negotiations."

Prowl recoiled. "Are you suggesting that we place it on Earth?" he snapped. "Humans have already proven they can't be trusted with Cybertronian technology."

"Hey now," Faireborn said. "You haven't exactly given most of us a chance, what with your secretive act."

"If you'll let me finish," Ratchet said to Prowl, though he gave Faireborn a nod as well. "I realize that you probably don't want such sensitive technology to be left unsupervised in the hands of the humans, and the humans probably don't want us to have free access through their borders. But humans can't survive on most of the other planets in this system. Once we've got Cybertron resettled again, we can send a spaceworthy team back through the spacebridge to move it to a less volatile location. In the meantime, we could leave a couple of guards here, too, as Windblade suggested."

Starscream, who had been sulking in the corner with red optics glittering since Rodimus announced that negotiations were over, casually unfolded himself enough to flick his wings in a careless gesture. "Perhaps you could leave Jetfire and myself—"

"No," Ratchet and Prowl said at the same time. Ratchet sighed and continued. "The two of you should be under medical supervision until we have access to more complete facilities. Jetfire especially."

Starscream huffed. "Might I remind you that Cybertron's medical facilities may no longer exist?" he said. "And how are you planning on transporting us? Will you keep us in the prison hold of your ship? I doubt you have the proper amount of space for a long-range shuttle, in any case."

"And how would you suggest you stay here on Earth?" Fowler countered. "Because as I understand it, the two of you aren't affiliated with anyone right now, which makes you loose cannons as far as we humans are concerned. The deal we made was with Optimus Prime, not with the two of you."

"So make a new one with us," Starscream demanded.

"Starscream, you are in no position to make demands," Ultra Magnus said. "You came to us for assistance, and your friend still requires it. If you choose to leave, that is your decision, but do not expect our cooperation."

"Well, I can't stay on Earth," Rodimus said. "I'm the Prime. I need to be there to bring the joyous news about the war being over to all of Cybertron. And you can't stay. And Orion can't stay if he's going to be carrying Megatron's hatchlings—"

"What?!" Fowler rubbed his face with his hands. "No, don't explain that. Let's try this again. We don't even have permission from our bosses to let you do this. We also don't know what's happening with that girl the Decepticons picked up. That's going to have an effect on the landscape."

"Would it matter so much if she could come back through the spacebridge at any point?" Chromia wanted to know. "If she's stayed with the Decepticons this long, she might not want to go back."

"She doesn't," Sari muttered. "She doesn't, and neither do I!" She directed the last in a yell at Sumdac, who looked down at his hands.

"I understand, Sari," he said. "If the Autobots permit it, I do believe you will be safer with them while we get everything sorted out here. My only request would be that you perhaps consider visiting me again sometime before my lifetime is up."

Orion looked down at his own chest plating. He felt sorry for Sumdac, suddenly, and the contrast between that feeling and his disgust with everything Sumdac had done made Orion's fuel tanks shift uneasily.

After all, soon enough, he'd have his own hatchlings with Megatron to consider.

Sari made a strangled, incoherent wailing noise and pressed her face against Chromia's hand.

Chase, who'd remained very silent up through the whole discussion, cleared his throat. "You know I'm not authorized to speak on behalf of the government," he said, "but perhaps I can offer my opinion as an individual. I think that what we could learn from the Cybertronians would be invaluable, and there are planets in this solar system that are uninhabitable to us, like Ratchet said. I believe that some sort of agreement would give us all a more equal ground and a means by which to learn from one another."

Prowl's doorwings flattened momentarily. "If we are going to do this, we will need assurances from your government that no harm will come to any Cybertronians left behind," he said.

"And you'll need to make counter assurances," Faireborn replied. "This isn't a one-way street. And none of us present here have the authority to make any promises."

Prowl turned to Ultra Magnus, and from the way their optics flickered Orion could guess they were speaking over comms. After a klik or so, Ultra Magnus inclined his head. "Humans, if one of you will pretend to drive me, I will accompany you to a place where your government and I may speak directly."

"Oh, yeah, that's going to go over well," Faireborn said with a sigh. "What the hell, let's do it. Chase, you coming? We can drop you off on the way."

He waved. "I thought I'd stay here for a bit longer to chat with Jetfire, if that's all right with the Autobots."

Jetfire practically lit up. "I'd like that," he said, his voice quiet as he glanced over at Prowl.

Ratchet huffed through his vents. "Whatever you decide on, don't take too long," he told Faireborn and Fowler. "The spacebridge would take at least an orn to move down here, and I think we all want to be on our way back home as soon as possible."

"No offense, but we want you on your way back home as well," Faireborn said with a wry grin. "I think we'll manage to persuade them to take that into account."

"Can I come with you?" Sari asked Chromia. "Please? Please please please?"

"You'll have to try to let Ratchet scan you properly," Chromia said. "We'd have to make sure your human side could survive."

"But if Verity's coming…!"

"We don't know that Verity is coming." Chromia sighed and glanced over at Sumdac, who hadn't lifted his gaze from his hands and appeared to be trembling faintly. "Come on, we're not going to abandon you here no matter what. Let's go talk this over in the medical bay. Professor Sumdac, would you join us?"

Sumdac startled and raised his head, wide-eyed. "What?" he asked. "Are you really sure that is a good idea?"

"No," Chromia said. "But as Windblade pointed out, you know her physiology best. Ratchet?"

Ratchet beeped an affirmative and laid a hand on Prowl's shoulder, murmuring something soft in what sounded like Cybertronian to Orion's straining audial sensors. Prowl shook his head in a jerky motion, but he let Ratchet, Chromia, Windblade, Sari, and Sumdac all leave the bay as Ultra Magnus departed with Fowler and Faireborn. For a moment, he stared at Jetfire and Chase, who'd moved closer together, then he turned around and stalked out of the room as well.

Orion looked down at his chest again and sighed. He rubbed his plating.

"Are you gonna be okay with this?' He startled and looked up to see Rodimus peering solemnly at him. "I mean, this is Megatron we're talking about. Are you sure you're okay getting plugged full of his hatchlings?"

"I'm sure," Orion said, which wasn't really true but was close enough. He still couldn't quite believe it, but he wanted this to work out, more than anything. He wanted to feel newsparks thrum under his plating. He wanted to feel Megatron's claws on his ports and twined in his cables. He tried to make sure that came across on his face, in his voice. "Besides, it's too late for me to change my mind. I suggested it, and everyone else agreed, and I wouldn't go back on that."

"Yeah," Rodimus muttered. "You made a really great Prime." He glanced away, then glided over to Jetfire and Chase to ask them what they were doing in a loud voice.

Orion wondered if anyone would notice if he slipped off to call Megatron. Probably not. After a few kliks of consideration, he ducked his head down and made his way towards the door.

Chapter Text

"The Decepticons are up to something," Prowl said as soon as his heat sensors informed him that Jazz had entered the room behind him. "We'll be leaving the spacebridge and some of our people behind, and for what? For two creatures representing a species that has done nothing for us except cause harm?"

"From where I was sitting, it didn't look like the Decepticons decided any of that," Jazz said. "The only Decepticon in that whole bunch was Starscream, and you shut him down fast."

"They don't need to be directly involved to have manipulated this situation." Prowl's wings twitched. "They have the human, and that's the leverage they need. They know the other humans have been cooperating with us."

"And you think their plan is what, exactly?" Jazz sounded curious rather than scornful, so Prowl risked a look behind him. Jazz watched him from where he'd leaned up against the wall near the door.

"They have to be setting up a situation that would pit us against the humans," Prowl said. "The current plan of action is likely to cause tensions, even with Ultra Magnus negotiating. If there's a conflict while we're gone, and the mechs that we leave behind are overpowered and hacked— If they get access to the bridge—"

"We'll build in some kind of defense," Jazz finished. "Because you're Prowl, and you're already workin' on ways we could shore up those defenses. What's wrong, mech? You lost your touch just because we're not fightin' anymore? I don't think so."

"Soundwave is still on their side, but we haven't seen him this entire time." Prowl felt his wings flatten against his back even as he said it.

"Soundwave?" Jazz sounded puzzled. "Prowl, c'mon, mech, talk me through this. You're worried about Soundwave not being part of the negotiations? Because he's my counterpart? Because you don't feel you can predict him? I wasn't involved, either; us bein' absent is a courtesy."

"Because he can predict me," Prowl said, forcing the words out of his vocalizer and into the open air.

Jazz's mouth turned in a frown, and his visor retracted to show dimmed optics. "Are you still thinkin' of…? Prowl, that happened once, and Ratchet and I both scrubbed you afterwards. There was no sign of any virus, and I know you; you would have turned yourself in if you seriously believed that Soundwave had some sort of invasive coding in you. And I know you would because you did, the klik you started to suspect."

"I know," Prowl ground out. "But there…there were incidents afterwards as well."

Jazz stepped forward, all traces of casual indifference gone. "What did he do to you?"

Prowl ground his dental plates together with a high metallic shriek. "Nothing," he admitted eventually. "Nothing obvious. He and his Cassettes were simply…there. And as this never happened until the incident, I am forced to conclude that he did indeed do something to me."

"And I haveta assume that our forces were never compromised because of this." Jazz's optics flashed.

Prowl's wings tried to flatten harder against his back. "I had no reason to believe so, after you both scrubbed me."

"You just noticed them more," Jazz said. "Could it be that you just had a better idea of where they'd be?"

Prowl's fans ticked up, and his vents gave a tiny screech as he tried to clamp down hard on that automatic reaction. "I doubt it," he ground out. "There is no logical reason why I would be more aware of Soundwave's Cassettes unless they made…alterations during the period of time I can't remember."

"Maybe your spark remembers." Jazz reached out and took Prowl's wrist in his hand. "But, okay, we'll say it's not that. They were followin' you for some reason. But that doesn't mean they're plottin' against you right now. The war's over, mech. They don't have any reason to hurt you."

"It would have been more efficient for them to take me out during the war," Prowl said. "I must assume, since they did not, that they wanted me alive for some reason."

"Okay." Jazz fell silent. His thumb rubbed back and forth over Prowl's plating. Prowl resisted the urge to pull away. "So we thought that the situation had been resolved, but you're tellin' me all these vorns later that it wasn't. You kept seein' the Cassettes, but they never did anything to you that would make it necessary to turn yourself in. So…what? You still think he succeeded in hackin' you? That he's been hackin' you remotely all this time, and you never saw it as enough of a threat to remove yourself from situations where you'd have access to sensitive information? That's not like you."

"No," Prowl hissed. He resisted the urge to run a bug scan; Jazz wouldn't understand the comforting routine it had become. "I don't know what he did to me."

"Prowl." Jazz's grip tightened for a moment. "There's some reason you're gettin' worked up over this now. You sure you're not just huntin' for excuses to make this peace disappear?"

"No," Prowl said, and for some reason it didn't feel like a lie.

"So why don't you ask him?" Jazz watched him intently, optics still dim. "Goes against all of your programmin', I know, but I don't think you're gonna get an answer by stewin' in your own paranoia over here. Or I can ask for you, if you're worried."

Prowl hesitated. If he wanted answers, Jazz would find them. Jazz had a better read of body language than most, and Prowl expected that there would be more answers gleaned from what Soundwave didn't say than what he did. But at the same time, the thought of Jazz going over to the Decepticons and obtaining those answers, when it was Prowl's processor being discussed, when it was his lost time, when he'd seen Ravage catch sight of him and wait for a long klik in the open before casually turning and walking away, felt—too intimate. Too out of Prowl's hands. Jazz already knew more than Prowl would have ever wanted anyone to know.

And Soundwave…

"No," Prowl said. "I'll…ask him myself." Then he hesitated.

Jazz's optics brightened but stayed soft. "Need some suggestions so you don't scare him away before he's given you an answer?" he offered.

"No." Prowl scowled. "If he flees, that's enough of an answer." His wings still hadn't lifted from his back, but he pulled them up with some effort.

"Then what is it?"

Prowl didn't answer. Jazz already wanted him to remove the numbing code; he wouldn't understand how much Prowl loathed all the uncomfortable emotions swirling around inside of him that weren't anger.

Worse yet, Jazz might be able to put a name to them.

Soundwave and the other Cassettes had heard Buzzsaw's initial report a joor ago, but they waited with mounting excitement until Buzzsaw returned with eir head high and the news that the local human government had agreed to the proposition the Autobots had put forth.

Verity eyed eir proud strut with visible trepidation. "Okay, what now?" she groused. "Whatever secret you're trying to keep, don't. You're bad at it."

"We're not keeping secrets," Buzzsaw huffed, flaring eir wing panels before tucking them down at eir sides. "The others were waiting for me to get back because this is my discovery, and if they'd told I would have repainted the lot of them."

"Just get to the point, Buzzsaw!" Rumble yelped. "I'm dyin' here!"

Soundwave took note of the gleam in Buzzsaw's optics with some amusement. Frenzy smacked the back of his hand against Rumble's chest. "Oh, come on, you couldn't keep your vocalizer on mute for a klik? Now ey's never going to tell!"

Verity folded her arms over her chest and stared at Buzzsaw. "Ey'd better tell."

"Oh, fine, fine," Buzzsaw grumbled. "It is my pleasure to announce to you that the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons is over."

Soundwave only saw the brief flinch in Verity's expression because he had his optics fixed on her. "Great. Congratulations. So when are you dumping me over at Raoul's?"

"Whenever you want," Buzzsaw said, "but you could also stay with us, if you want. The Autobots are going to install a semi-permanent spacebridge so you'll be able to travel back and forth whenever you want." Ey ducked eir head and preened. Soundwave sent a soft pulse of affection through the sparkbond, and Buzzsaw let out a small chirp.

"Wait, what?" Verity looked around the room at all of them in turn. "Okay. So I don't have to leave. That's great, but how is this even going to work? I'm guessing your planet doesn't exactly have the proper mixture of oxygen and whatever else to keep me alive."

"Oh, that," Buzzsaw said, waving a feeler dismissively. "Give your armor here, I'll mod it. We can adjust the ship to carry some Earth mix air, as well, cycle that around and keep it as a backup. Once we're on Cybertron, we can figure out what gates are functioning there and set up a supply line…"

A priority ping directly to his internal communications grid pulled Soundwave's attention away from Buzzsaw's rambling and the tentative light in Verity's face.

Wait, is that from Prowl?! Laserbeak exclaimed. Almost simultaneously, Ravage and Buzzsaw froze.

Soundwave answered the ping, feeling like his spark had turned into molten metal in his chest. «Prowl.»

«Soundwave. I want to talk to you in person, without your Cassettes present. I will send the coordinates and the time.» And, as swiftly as the conversation had begun, it ended, without giving Soundwave a chance to reply.

He looked helplessly over to the corner where Ravage and Laserbeak sat.

"Uh, did something just happen?" Frenzy asked, looking around the room.

Soundwave tried to speak but found his vocalizer frozen. He reset it several times before Ravage realized what the problem was and sat up with a graceful curl of his tail. "Prowl called," he said. "Apparently, he wishes to meet with Soundwave alone."

"Wait, already? I didn't think Boss had started courting him yet."

"He has not." Ravage looked towards Soundwave. "Are you going?"

Soundwave still couldn't get his vocalizer to work. Instead, he sent the complicated mess of emotions he felt to his sparkmates.

Laserbeak hopped up and glided to his shoulder to nuzzle his face. "Don't worry," ey said, soft-voiced. "We understand. It would always have ended up like this."

"I agree," Ravage said. He padded over to rest the side of his head against Soundwave's lower leg. "Go. Hear what he has to say. Make your offer, if he is receptive."

"Okay, I feel like I'm missing something, but…get it?" Verity pumped her fist in the air in a motion she'd described earlier as triumphant. "C'mon, big guy, get someone new in your weird harem."

Soundwave bowed his head and sent gratitude and affection through the bond before turning to leave.

"He's quiet today," he heard Verity say behind him.

"Eh, it happens," Buzzsaw said. "Come on, let's get this armor modded. You want to go to space, right?"

Soundwave steeled himself, working on reconnecting the pathways to his vocalizer as he walked. Once, this work had been second nature to him. Over the vorns, his use of the vocalizer had become easier, something closer to the way it felt when he integrated his systems with one of his sparkmates. Now, it seemed, at the worst possible moment, it had gone back to being this clumsy, oppressive thing that refused to work with the neural connections Soundwave knew were present.

Prowl arrived at the indicated coordinates first, though even without the aid of a spacebridge Soundwave made decent enough time and avoided the complication of human interference. Prowl had set up a perimeter of jammers and stealth disruption devices, which Soundwave could have disabled—but that wasn't the purpose of this meeting. Instead, ignoring the reflexive twinge at putting himself in such a vulnerable position, he drove into Prowl's line of sight and transformed.

"Prowl wishes to speak," Soundwave said. He felt a pulse of love and support from his sparkmates.

Prowl's wings twitched and then relaxed in a motion that Soundwave recognized as a sign that the intrusive coding had activated. "I want to know what you did to me," he said, voice flat.

A brief, wordless conversation with his sparkmates revealed nothing but confusion. "Soundwave does not understand," he said.

Prowl's wings jerked. "Don't feign ignorance," he hissed. "Every since my memory was corrupted, I see your Cassettes everywhere. What is it? Did you hack me? Did you make a copy of my processor and then wipe me? Did you install a virus so insidious that none of us could catch it?"

Soundwave floundered for a moment, struggling for words as Prowl's wings calmed with preternatural speed. He knew the incident to which Prowl referred; he could still see Prowl's impossibly damaged frame vivid in his visual memory. "Prowl remembers nothing," he said. "Cranial damage was too extensive."

Prowl took a step back. "Yes. And you should answer honestly, if you want this peace to last."

Do you need me to speak for you, sweetspark? Laserbeak asked, and Soundwave shook his head, sending back reassurance even as he drew strength from eir offer.

"Prowl's group was ambushed," Soundwave said. "Prowl, only survivor." A flood of calm from Ravage stilled his nerves; he reset his vocalizer and continued, this time with the neural pathways functioning as expected. "Cassettes discovered Prowl and informed Soundwave. Soundwave attempted to hack Prowl—"

Prowl's engine growled.

"—but discontinued when invasive coding was discovered," Soundwave finished. "Prowl was left alive, removed from area, returned to Autobots. Soundwave and Cassettes installed nothing, copied nothing, only wished to see Prowl safe."

"You're lying," Prowl said. "I am the chief tactician of the Autobot army. It would have been foolish to leave me alive without any modifications."

"Foolish," Soundwave acknowledged, "but necessary. Soundwave wishes to ask permission to court Prowl."

Prowl stared at him, optics flickering. The swirl of confusion in his processor reached out and swamped Soundwave's control for a moment with a tangled mesh of sensation and emotion. This is a trap, Soundwave heard. What possible reason could there be? This has to be a trap.

Soundwave shut Prowl's feelings and thoughts out with some effort and stepped backwards in the hopes that he would present less of a threat. "Soundwave has been interested in Prowl for vorns," he said. "Soundwave was initially sympathetic, once coding discovered. As vorns passed, Soundwave became attracted to Prowl as well, for strength of processor and beauty of frame. Soundwave was Decepticon, Prowl was Autobot; interest could not be pursued."

Prowl kept staring at him. Soundwave almost reached out with his technopathy again; had he made the situation any better? Had he made it worse? Before he could repeat his courtship request, Prowl's optics flared. He transformed before speeding off fast enough that Soundwave couldn't have followed him even if he'd already been in vehicle mode.

Well, at least he knows now, Laserbeak said quietly. It's okay, sweetspark. You did well.

Let things fall out as they will, Ravage said. For now, come home.

Soundwave bowed his head.

Megatron's spark gave a pleasant pulse as Orion ducked his head. "Do not mistake me," he said gently. "I am grateful for your suggestion, and that you would wish to bear my hatchlings under these circumstances. But I am surprised that you thought of it, when the only reason Optimus and I agreed upon it was that he could produce a clutch."

"Does it matter why I thought of it?" Orion asked, his vocalizer quiet. "You and Rodimus are too stubborn to have agreed to any other solution, even though neither of you wanted to interface with the other."

"We might have," Megatron admitted. "Ultra Magnus' proposition is sound, so long as no clutches are bred in secret." He studied Orion's face and considered mentioning that he trusted Ultra Magnus and Orion more than he had trusted Optimus Prime, but it seemed cruel. "You could still remove yourself from the process. I would only object for sake of appearances."

Orion shook his head. "I want to," he said, his voice still soft but firm. "Nobody pressurd me into anything; none of the other Autobots would have even thought of it. I think it would be nice to bear a litter for you. If you want a litter."

"Not for the Decepticons," Megatron said. "For myself, and for you." His claws itched to reach out and touch Orion's face, but touch could not be transmitted through a viewscreen. He kept his foolish impulses to himself. "Unless you intend to give me the hatchlings once they can be separated from your frame."

"I could," Orion said. "If you would prefer that."

Megatron felt abruptly furious. "Do not martyr yourself," he growled. "I have no interest in becoming anyone's method of self-sacrifice."

Orion straightened. "No! I didn't mean it like that." He grimaced, his optics dimming. "I meant that I don't want to make this more difficult for you."

Megatron looked away. His processor felt strange and hazy, trapped between moments of abrupt, intense feelings that, once they vanished, felt entirely out of place. Flashes of desire, of joy, of anger, all completely incongruous to the reality of the moment. All the hope he had been feeling had been purged from his system entirely. "The hatchlings might not survive with me as a single caretaker," he said. "I—am assured that my coding is not damaged, but when confronted with—the hatchling—"

Comprehension flared in Orion's optics. "I was raised in a hatchling facility," he offered, "but even before my maturity I wanted to raise hatchlings of my own someday. I'd—be honored to raise hatchlings together. With you."

Megatron turned off his optics and imagined it: little hatchlings crawling around all over their frames as they stood together. Would he be able to hold Orion with the same ease that he could hold Soundwave or the Cassettes, knowing that Orion remained untouched by the arena and all of its slag?

He didn't know. But he wanted to try.

"You would have to come and dwell with me, wherever my Decepticons settle," Megatron warned. "Your Autobots will not like it."

"I know," Orion said. "I'm not afraid of you. I was, at first, and I know you could kill me if you wanted to, but you don't." He smiled, shy and brilliant. "Besides, I thought we were going to be attempting integration. There might not be a separate Decepticon community."

"Attempting," Megatron said darkly. "I do not expect it to be as easy as all that, and hatchlings are an easy target. The others can dwell amongst Autobots if they choose."

"You'll protect the hatchlings." Orion touched his chest, right over the glass of his windshields, and his smile widened. "I know you will. You wouldn't have fought so hard for them if you didn't want them."

Megatron huffed and shook his head. He wouldn't argue. He didn't want to argue—sitting here, talking to Orion, felt like nothing he remembered experiencing before. Even when his processor felt wrong, Orion's enthusiasm soothed like a coding patch. Like songs pulling him back from the brink of despair, only he sat alone in his room. For now, he would lose himself in this moment and hope that when he emerged again, he could function without driving Orion away.

Nautica told Wing about the spacebridge as soon as she heard the news, but ey waited a joor before swinging by to see it for emself. The truce seemed too good to be true; what had Wing wanted all those vorns if not a complete cessation of hostilities, and now it had finally happened?

And maybe it was foolish, hoping to see those mechs Wing had spoken to once or twice before, but ey couldn't deny that the prospect of solitude felt much emptier knowing that the others had taken steps to stop dividing themselves into warring factions. All of Cybertron together with Wing on the outskirts, alone; the prospect held no joy, but Wing thought ey could bear it so long as ey could see for emself that they were building something worth protecting.

Nautica had given no details, and Wing had imagined some massive but incomplete project. Instead, as ey flew to the outskirts of the guarded area, eying one of the humans posted as a perimeter guard warily, ey found that the bridge stood complete. The Constructicons were there, of course, along with Deadlock and a motley assortment of Autobots, including Hoist but not Grapple or any of the other Autobots Wing could recognize for their building capabilities.

"Wing," a deep, familiar voice rumbled, and Wing turned eir head to the side to meet Dai Atlas' gaze. In contrast to his calm tone, Dai Atlas looked furious.

"Dai Atlas," Wing returned with a sharp incline of eir head. "You are here to oversee construction?"

"You have betrayed your vows!" Wing hid a wince as Dai Atlas' voice rose, attracting no small amount of attention. Ey could see Deadlock's optics flash out of the corner of eir field of vision. Amusement, maybe?

"Is it a betrayal?" Wing asked. To eir surprise, ey didn't feel hurt by those words. Ey'd always felt a deep desire for approval when ey'd spoken to Dai Atlas before, but now ey felt nothing. Ey'd made eir choice, ey supposed, and seeing Dai Atlas now, vibrating with emotion, smoothed over any lingering uncertainty in eir spark. "From my perspective, I held true to what I pledged myself to all those vorns ago."

"You pledged yourself to the commitments of a knight," Dai Atlas growled. "A knight must be obedient to the order. You know what chaos would follow if each knight decided for themselves what course of action they thought was right. You know how easily they would be lead astray."

Wing nodded once more. "This is true," ey said. "But if the knights follow as their leader goes astray, then are we not all making a mockery of our vows? You stand before me and you speak of how I have lost my path. But I see anger in your optics and hear fury in your voice. I am not lost to emotion; I have made my choice, and I know I have lost my place in the Circle for it. But you cannot see the flaws in your own spark nor the anger that has eaten away at you for all these vorns."

Wing expected the blow that followed and leapt out of the way of Dai Atlas' sword. But ey hadn't expected the flinch that immediately followed, the way Dai Atlas' optics widened. "You…"

He trailed off and left the word hanging there. Wing glanced around at the Autobots and Decepticons who had given up even the pretense of working in favor of staring. Ey wished, abruptly, that ey had spoken over the relative privacy of comms.

Well, what was said was said. Wing had already chosen to face the consequences.

Unexpectedly, Deadlock moved closer. "Is that it? Is the Circle of Light not supposed to feel anything?" His vocalizer sounded rough, as though shards of glass had lodged inside it. He sounded angry. "Is that why you all just stood by and did nothing while the Autobots slaughtered our hatchlings?"

Dai Atlas looked at him, optics dimming from their erratic flare into something more normal. "And how would you have had us react? With senseless violence, as you did? With kidnapping, as you did?"

Deadlock snarled. "By doing something more than floating out there pretending the war didn't exist! They were hatchlings!"

"And how many hatchlings did you slaughter in your marches on Autobot cities?" a new voice piped up, and Wing looked over to see a gray Autobot with quivering doorwings and a determined set to their mouth. "Do you know how many people survived the attack on Tarn? Too few. Do you think there weren't hatchling care facilities there? That there weren't—families?"

"Bluestreak," one of the Autobots said softly, reaching out, and the gray Autobot—Bluestreak?—shook his head.

"The Circle of Light might not have condemned the Autobots, but they never condemned you, either, even after all the people you hurt. And killed." Bluestreak's doorwings gave a pained jerk downward, slamming against the metal of his back with a loud crash. "And don't tell me lies about how it was all propaganda. I'm Tarnian. I was there. I saw—" He cut himself off.

Wing saw Deadlock's hand twitch in a motion that signaled a thwarted transformation. Before the situation could devolve any further, Wing stepped closer to Bluestreak. "You're Tarnian?" ey asked, voice quiet. "So am I."

Some of the manic light faded from Bluestreak's optics. "You?"

Wing beeped an affirmative. "I wasn't present for the attack," ey admitted. "I was part of the Primal Vanguard at that point. But I lost people in the bombing." Ey edged closer. "And if I'm not mistaken, Vos destroyed Tarn before allying with the Decepticons."

"Right before," Bluestreak said, optics flaring again. "Even if the Decepticons had nothing to do with it, which I don't believe for a nanoklik, they still saw what Vos had done and approved of it enough to welcome them as allies!"

Wing reached out and offered eir hands, palm up. Bluestreak looked at them for a moment before reaching out to squeeze tightly with his own. "I am not defending Vos' actions, or those of the Decepticons. I joined the Circle of Light for a reason. From afar, I saw all the death, all the senseless destruction. Vos, too, was destroyed, and by Tarn. Violence only breeds further violence. What do we believe is sensible and just? Where do we draw the lines? This is what I asked myself, and I found no answers. Perhaps, now that I am no longer following someone else's path, I will find those answers for myself. But I do not believe that hatred is the answer; I believe it is the easiest escape from pain."

Bluestreak's ventilations hitched, and his grip on Wing's hands tightened. But after a long silence, the vibrating tension in his doorwings relaxed, and his grip loosened. "I don't think I could make that decision," he said. "I can't—"

"You do what you must," Wing said. "And having done what you must, having fought for thousands of vorns to correct this wrong, is it corrected?"

Bluestreak managed to dredge a grin from somewhere. "I think you're talking a whole pile of slag, but point taken," he said. "…Thanks. I didn't mean to—ruin things."

"I don't think anything is ruined," Wing murmured. Ey glanced back at Deadlock, who no longer looked ready to kill. "Though perhaps you should return to your ship for now, for your own sake. An injured spark after all these vorns is no small wound."

A few kliks later, with Bluestreak gone and a sharp-opticked energon-colored warrior in his place, Wing turned back to Dai Atlas. At least the construction teams had finally resumed work; they were no longer the sole focus of attention. And Dai Atlas, rather than looking angry, looked…thoughtful. "You spoke well," he said, his tone flat.

"That was pretty impressive." Deadlock raked his optics over Wing and scowled. "I could have taken him, though."

"I know," Wing said. "Why do you think I wanted to calm him down instead of letting it escalate into a brawl?" Ey shook eir head at Deadlock. "This peace was hard-won."

"Not by you."

"Does that mean I cannot value it?" Wing glanced at Deadlock and then at Dai Atlas. "If I'm unwelcome here, I will leave."

"No," Deadlock said. He looked at Dai Atlas as well, a challenge in the set of his mouth. "You're welcome here."

Wing's spark fluttered, and ey bowed eir head. "Then I will stay," ey said. "Where can I be of use?"

Chapter Text

"The government still isn't comfortable with this," Fowler warned. "Lot of aliens setting up some portal to their alien planet? Even with heavy security, that's a tough sell."

Jetfire wished he could make assurances, but he could promise nothing about his species. After all, they'd started a war while he slowly froze to death over tens of thousands of vorns. He couldn't stop bitterness from rising in his spark every time he thought about it; mostly, he tried not to.

Ultra Magnus, on the other hand, could address all of the humans' concerns. "The same will be true for us," he replied. "I would not recommend that any humans attempt to use the spacebridge until we have begun plans to move the spacebridge to a more permanent location; for our part, we will be unable to use the bridge until we are back on Cybertron, and we will contact you beforehand. Once the spacebridge has been moved, I expect both sides will enforce a level of high security by building a processing unit around it."

Fowler sighed. "Just tell me again why you couldn't build it on some other planet to begin with," he said.

That much Jetfire could help with. "Earth's already inhabited," he said. "You're capable of providing the supplies we need to get this done quickly. Building a whole outpost on another planet with conditions we've studied less would mean orns or even decivorns more work." He gave Chase a quick, apologetic smile. "To be frank, the reason Starscream and I came to this planet to begin with was to scout for sources of convertible energy, which Earth has in abundance. Even if it weren't inhabited, this planet would have been easier to transfer the bridge to. It should also make scouting for a new location easier if we have a base of operations in this system; it shouldn't take that long to find something that humans can't acclimate to. Humans aren't the sturdiest creatures." He hesitated, and then added, "I mean no offense."

"No, I understand," Chase murmured with a small laugh. "None taken."

"Once we have a more permanent outpost here, I expect we'll use it primarily for trade and exploration—maybe even paired exploration, as I understand humans have an interest in space travel that outstrips your current technology levels." Jetfire unfolded a bit from the hunched lump of metal he'd been feeling like. "And I'm sure we have xenobiologists and anthropologists on Cybertron who would love to meet a new sapient alien species. You're so similar to Nebulans!"

Faireborn raised her eyebrows. "I think we'd be more interested in trading for some technology upgrades than being studied by alien scientists," she said dryly. "Definitely open with that one."

Jetfire glanced at Ultra Magnus, but Ultra Magnus didn't look angry. His optics flickered, but very faintly, as though in thought. "I will discuss it with my Prime," he said. "Though I must warn you that we will be hesitant to provide medical or military technology, given the incident with Megatron."

"Speaking of that," Chase said, "if it's not classified, I'd like to know what's going to happen to Professor Sumdac once the Autobots leave."

Jetfire glanced over at Sumdac. He looked terrible compared to the other humans and always had; his eyes looked sunken in his head, ringed by dark circles; his hygiene went neglected; and the only conversation he seemed to initiate was the occasional attempt to apologize to his offspring or the Autobots. The whole situation made Jetfire profoundly uneasy, especially since nobody else seemed to care. Oh, there was a reason for it; Windblade had taken him aside earlier to explain in a quiet voice and to make sure that Sumdac and Starscream were never alone together—for Starscream's sake.

Without the Autobots, would his care revert to the humans? And, given how little the other three humans seemed willing to address Sumdac's obvious problems, would that be any better?

"It's not classified because nobody knows," Fowler said with a grimace. "The situation is…delicate. But he won't be getting the electric chair, if that's what you're asking." He glanced up at Ultra Magnus. "Say, you seem a little more reasonable than Prowl. You got any insight into how the Autobots want us to handle this?"

"No," Ultra Magnus rumbled. "I understand the complications. Your human justice system has no laws in place to protect aliens, and since we are not publicly known, you cannot take this to trial and let your legal system build new laws."

"That's about the size of it." Fowler sighed. "Seriously, nothing? How would you handle it if he were mechanical?"

"Bill," Faireborn said, then rubbed her hand over her face. "Are you sure you want to know?"

"I do," Chase said.

Before Jetfire could add his voice to the chorus, he felt claws close around his elbow. "What are you doing?" Starscream hissed in Neocybex. "Stop associating with these fleshlings, Jetfire, you'll catch some sort of disease. Your immune system is too weak to protect you right now."

"It's not going to make much of a difference if I sit across the room from them." Jetfire resisted Starscream's tugging, though his systems thrilled at the casual touch. "Starscream, please, I want to participate in this conversation."

Starscream snarled, and his grip tightened for a moment before he released Jetfire as though his plating had become molten. "Fine! Do what you like, see if I care," he snapped, then turned on his heel and stalked away, wings hiked high.

Jetfire watched him go, his spark aching. Suddenly, he didn't feel like observing or participating in the conversation with the humans anymore.

It took some persuasion to get permission to visit the spacebridge construction site. Jetfire had to petition Windblade, then speak to Ratchet, then Ultra Magnus, then Windblade again. But the sense of relief as he flew away from the Autobot base and Starscream's unnerving new hostility was worth every awkward moment of it.

Two of the Autobots greeted him by name, but Jetfire only managed a distracted smile at them before he started looking around the site for familiar Decepticon faces. The only two aerials present stood together, apart from the rest, neither of them green. Jetfire's optics lingered on the one in the hoverchair for a long moment as unease and sympathy welled in his spark.

"What are you doing here?" a familiar voice snapped, and Jetfire looked down with a bright smile to see Barricade glaring up at him. "Aren't you supposed to be with the Autobots, keeping an optic on Starscream?"

"I was," Jetfire replied. His optics pulled back to the aerials as though magnetized. "What happened to them? Was it the war?"

Barricade glanced back and grimaced. "You don't want to think about them too hard," he said. "That's Thundercracker and Skywarp. Nobody's seen Thundercracker out and about since Starscream pulled a fast one, and Skywarp's been unusually touchy."

Jetfire watched the way the rest of the mechs moved around them. "Why doesn't anybody speak to them, though?"

"Besides the fact that Skywarp's even more of a slagger than usual?" Barricade scratched at his chin. "Vosian politics would be my bet. It's not like Thundercracker ever went out of his way to make friends, so now that he's nobody important…" His tires gave a lazy spin.

Impulse crystalized in Jetfire's processor. He started forward. "I'm going to talk to them."

"What? No!" Barricade scrambled along behind him. "Bad idea, Jetfire. Starscream left them for you. That hoverchair? That's because Starscream broke his spark!"

"If it's my fault, then I have a duty to apologize," Jetfire said firmly.

"It's not your— Slag." Barricade gave a loud huff. "Do what you want, you glitch."

"Do they even know that you found Starscream?"

"No, because it's better that way." Barricade looked away. "You fragger, you're going to tell them, aren't you."

Jetfire slowed as he stepped within the invisible boundary everyone else had set. Skywarp and Thundercracker's optics fixed on him immediately, assessing, and he dropped into a partial transformation. They might not be Vosian royalty anymore, but it couldn't hurt to show them respect by making himself vulnerable.

Of course, now that he'd gotten their attention, he had no idea what to say.

"What the frag? Who are you?" Jetfire re-transformed and looked at Skywarp, whose wings had hiked even higher. "What are you doing here? You're not an Autobot."

"No, but I'm staying with them," Jetfire said. "My name is Jetfire—"

"What the frag?!"

"He's telling the truth," Barricade put in. "He was discovered in cryostasis in one of the colder regions of this planet."

"And what do you want with us?" Skywarp demanded. "Starscream's not here anymore, in case you didn't notice."

"No," Jetfire said, voice quiet. "I thought you might like to know that he's received asylum from the Autobots."

Skywarp's optics flared so harshly that for a moment Jetfire thought static would accompany them. Then he flickered out of existence, reappearing a nanoklik later some distance away.

"Not because of me," Jetfire said to Thundercracker. "We both needed medical supplies, and the Autobots were kind enough to offer them."

"Oh, Primus," another voice snapped, and Knock Out strode over. "Do you have some sort of death wish? What are you even doing here?"

"Telling Thundercracker about Starscream," Barricade muttered.

Jetfire felt his optics dim, but before he could give up and slink away, Thundercracker's head rolled. "Starscream's alive?"

"Starscream's alive," Jetfire confirmed. Something turned over in his spark, and he looked away. "I'm sorry."

"Please," Knock Out snapped before Thundercracker could say anything. "You're not responsible for Starscream's actions. What do you think you could have done, trapped in the ice like that?" He huffed and crossed his arms. "The only person to blame for Starscream's actions is Starscream himself."

"That's not true," Thundercracker said in his quiet voice. "He might have been—different, if things had gone differently. If we hadn't been bonded."

"Yes, well, it happened, so no use thinking about that." Knock Out glared around at all of them. "What is this, a Starscream pity party?"

"It should be," Barricade muttered.

"We're not together," Jetfire said to Thundercracker, ignoring the commentary. "It's been— There's too much that's diffe