“Not meaning to be rude, sir, but why precisely am I here.”
Prowl glanced up, very briefly, at the small blue mech standing glowering on the far side of his desk. The mech’s tone of voice said that ‘rude’ was precisely what he meant to be, but Prowl carefully avoided the bait. He instead returned his attention to the pile of report wafers on his desk, and gestured with his stylus at the chair opposite.
“That, Slipstream, is what we’re here to try and figure out. Please sit down.”
“I’d rather stand, if it’s all right with y-”
“It was not a request.”
Slipstream vented a curt sigh, crossed his arms firmly across his chassis, and plopped down onto the chair. (It didn’t escape Prowl’s notice that he wasn’t sitting comfortably, but perched right at the front edge, as though preparing for a quick getaway.)
Prowl turned his attention to the pile of report wafers on his desk, and began to leaf quietly through them. He’d read them all already, of course; didn’t have to read over them to remind himself of what they said. It was a useful way to gauge how a meeting like this was going to play out, though – the way an individual behaved when it seemed he wasn’t watching them.
And Slipstream just Could. Not. Sit still. Interesting. Prowl watched from the periphery of his vision as the youngling shifted on his seat and glanced around, uneasily, as though checking for a way out. He could have simply teleported away, of course (and Prowl wouldn’t have been particularly surprised if he had), but in spite of all the over-blown bravado and hyped-up aggression, it looked like there was an element of genuine courage in his spark. He might not want to be hauled over the coals like this – really, really not want to – but he was going to take it like a mech.
Prowl took a moment to squash the flicker of disappointment. It’d certainly have been easier if Slipstream just took the easy way out. That way, Prowl wouldn’t feel quite so bad when he sent the youngster home, because right now he was struggling to see any alternative outcome to this whole… debacle.
Had it really been less than ten earth days since word had come through from Cybertron that one of Skywarp’s sparklings wanted to visit? With no explanation, no rationale, just a very abbreviated request – more of an instruction, really – and barely enough notification to give them time to scoop him up from the space-bridge before Megatron got wind of it.
A mixed sort of curiosity and unease had spread rapidly through the Ark. On the one hand, most bots agreed that yes, it’d be nice to see the little bit again! The unexpected sparklings had made a big impression on everyone on their last visit – new lives, innocent of war, inspiring a little hope for their species’ continued survival, when it had looked like they were all trapped in an endless loop of the same exhausting aeons of war (and for what?) with their kin.
On the other hand… crashing so spectacularly out of the war hadn’t exactly put Starscream’s trine on much better footing with the Autobots, especially when the trio then hid themselves away in a backwater little district on Cybertron, out of sight and difficult to contact. They could have been plotting anything. The whole thing might be nothing more than an intricate ruse to deflect Autobot attention from what was really going on in the Decepticon ranks. Was the kid being sent to spy on them?
The youngling that showed up on their doorstep was barely recognisable. The sweet-natured scraplet that had so quickly won everyone’s spark had turned into an unsettlingly accurate mirror of his sire – quick with his fists, and even quicker to run his mouth. Slipstream was apparently not here to win friends, but to see how quickly he could goad every mech into a fight.
Prowl finally looked up from his reports, laced his fingers carefully against his desk, and gave the small machine a silent visual appraisal.
Slipstream scowled back, hostility radiating off him like a toxic cloud, his static field bristly enough that it could probably have been felt all the way over at the far door. He’d matured enough – chronologically, at least – for his first upgrade, no longer a protoform but a small grav-cycle, a lightweight speedy alt-mode that didn’t really seem very well suited to the belligerent personality it contained.
It probably wasn’t too great a stretch of the imagination to assume a sparkling raised by ex-’Cons would have a distinct element of violence in his upbringing. (Although, Prowl told himself, it would be delusional to think a spark raised by Autobots, especially this bunch, would be any different.) Slipstream’s size – or rather, lack thereof – was no obstacle to combat; he was happy to get into a fight with anyone. The clean, royal blue plating had quickly accumulated scuffs and scratches of other colours; polishing said paint transfers out did not appear to be in his schedule, as though he was actually proud of them. Tiny purple energon crystals still glittered at the edges of a cut just below his left optic; tiring of having to patch up the constant stream of minor injuries the small mech was accumulating, Ratchet had bounced him out of the infirmary and into Prowl’s office before the glue on this most recent injury had even had the chance to dry.
Prowl internalised a sigh. Part of him wanted to give the youngster a good hard shake and demand to know what he was doing. Why was he so determined to ruin the greatest opportunity any Cybertronian had been given – the chance to live, as he chose, without war casting its shadow over him and taking away everything he ever cared for?
The louder, more sensible part sensed that proselytising like that was just going to make the youngster draw even further back, and he’d never get to the bottom of things.
Prowl watched him for an instant, before speaking, carefully; “why are you here, Seem?”
“Well apparently, I’m belligerent and violent and need a time out.” Slipstream hunched his shoulders in a defensive shrug.
“…that wasn’t precisely what I meant.” Prowl shook his head. “Why are you here? On Earth, with us, when you are clearly neither happy nor comfortable with the idea?”
“I-… I told you why, when I arrived.” For an instant, the mask slipped, and a glimmer of the confused, uneasy young mech showed through. “I came here to learn.”
“To learn what?” Prowl spread his hands, palms upwards, inviting him to elaborate. “Facts? An ability? Or something else?”
Slipstream unfolded his arms. “Just… to learn things. How to fight, how to defend myself. I want to be able to help out, back on Cybertron. Defend our home, look after my family.”
“And who suggested here would be the best place for you to do that?”
“No-one?” The small mech sat on his hands. “It was my idea.”
“I mean it!”
Prowl narrowed his optics, fractionally. It was obvious there was something the mech wasn’t admitting to, but how to get it out of him? The idea Red Alert might be onto something with his assertion that the sparkling had been sent to get information on Autobot activity left him with an uncomfortable, prickly feeling under his plating.
“They’re fairly straightforward things,” he suggested, watching closely. “I’m quite sure the finest warriors to grace Decepticon ranks are perfectly capable of teaching you to fight. Why did you ask to come to Earth, instead?”
Slipstream studied the desk. It took him a few moments to answer, and when he did, his voice was small. “I wasn’t sure it was appropriate. I felt awkward asking them.”
“You ‘felt awkward’.” Prowl’s expression flattened. “Slipstream, you may have been coached to believe all this to have been your idea, but we do not have time to indulge the power-games of Megatron’s former loyalists. They may have escaped the war. We, unfortunately, are still shoulder-to-shoulder with the very worst the Decepticon regime can offer.” He straightened his back. “If certain members of your family want information, they can go through the appropriate channels and ask us for it, not send someone – under some flimsy pretence, I might add – to cause disruption in the hopes a little privileged information might leak out.”
Slipstream looked rather like he’d been slapped. He sat back in his chair, alarmed, optics wide. “I-I’m not here to spy on you-!” At least the shock in his voice was genuine.
“And yet you give us a frankly nebulous explanation for your presence here, and expect us to swallow it with no questions asked?” Prowl counted to five, and concentrated on visualising the unhelpful frustration bleeding away through his fingertips. “I’m not sure you’re cut out for this way of life, Seem. Your… style, for want of a better description… seems better suited to the Decepticons. Perhaps you should try and get over your ‘awkwardness’, and learn what you need from your family.”
“What-… what are you saying?” Slipstream shifted, and laughed, nervously. “You want me to leave?”
Prowl watched him closely, before speaking softly. “Yes. I think you need to go home.”
Slipstream’s expression flickered again. Any remaining bravado had evaporated, leaving him looking worryingly small and shocked, and starting to realise this was serious – not just a dressing-down. “Don’t send me back to Cybertron, Prowl. Please?”
“You’ve not given me much choice. This is not working. For us, or for you. Whatever you came here to achieve? Is not happening.” Prowl shook his head. “I’m not sure that your continued being here will be of benefit to anyone.”
“Please don’t send me home.”
Prowl noticed Slipstream was trembling; a light vibration in his exterior that was just strong enough to make him buzz, very softly.
“Please, I don’t-… I can’t fail at this too.”
“ ‘Fail’? Fail what? What do you mean?” Prowl’s expression softened, ever so slightly. It was becoming obvious there was a whole lot more to this than anyone thought – more than something as simple as spying. He lowered his voice and asked, gently; “Has something happened, Seem? Back home?”
“I can’t-… Please, give me a second chance?”
The mech was buckling – dissolving before his very optics. Carefully, Prowl pushed his advantage. “Who are you running away from?”
“I-I’m not running away.” Slipstream shook his head, and finally blurted the words out in a rush, as though he might lose the little courage he’d found and never manage an explanation if he didn’t get it all out at once; “I wanted to join you, properly join up as an Autobot but I didn’t know how to explain it without sounding stupid because you’re all so much stronger than me, I’m just a stupid little sparkling who ‘s so so far out of his depth, I was scared you’d think I was mocking you and end up sending me straight home if I didn’t prove I was strong enough to cope but I’m not coping and you’re going to send me back anyway-” He sucked in a pulse of cold air, trying to relieve some of the stressed heat from his core. “Please don’t send me away, I know I screwed up but I couldn’t think how else to prove I was going to be strong enough, please let me stay, I need to do this because I need them to know they can’t do that to my family, I won’t let them-!”
Prowl stared for a fraction of an astro-second before he realised he still had his mouth gaping open like an idiot. He grimaced, and headed off to find Jazz.
Prowl thought he’d been discreet, but it seemed not discreet enough to avoid the attention of the Ark’s rumour mill. News of Slipstream’s meltdown in his office flashed like wildfire through the entire base – in under two breems, everyone knew. That had to be a record. How had they all found out, anyway? Prowl just couldn’t get rid of the absurd image of Red Alert standing just outside his office, with a human stethoscope pressed to the door.
The revelation that Slipstream wanted to join the Autobots carried an unexpected amount of weight. The little mech’s highly-disruptive behaviour over the last few orns had been forgotten (if only temporarily) in favour of self-righteous outrage.
Slipstream is Skywarp’s kid, he’s spent almost his entire life around ex-Cons and neutrals, and he wants to be an Autobot? What in Primus’ name have they done to the mech?
Unable to resist the opportunity to snipe at their least favourite ex-Cons, almost the entire base had showed up. What should have been the chance to discuss things calmly, like the mature, sensible adults they all were (ahem), had devolved quickly into a shouting match.
Jazz cast a glance sidelong, and watched as Prowl sighed softly and let his helm come down to rest on one hand. He sympathised – felt like banging a few rust-filled heads together, himself, but figured the quicker everyone ran out of obscenities to scream at each other, the sooner they could get down to figuring out what had actually gone wrong.
Red Alert had claimed the centre of the floor in front of Teletraan-1, and was using it as a stage to pace back and forth, apparently unaware that he was mirroring the agitated steps of the scarlet jet on the big screen. “I told you we should have done a deal with them before they slunk off back to Cybertron.” It was hard to tell who was the precise target of his ire, right now. “They should have only been allowed to go free provided they left the sparklings here – safe, with us. This, this… ludicrous experiment…! Should never have been allowed!”
Jazz gave the words a second to process. “An experiment that resulted in new allies and a cease-fire…?”
“It resulted in those three playing us for idiots, slinking around where they think we’re not aware of what they’re doing, laughing at us!” Red Alert stabbed his finger in a point at the screen. “Some allies! Whatever outrageous claims of reformed character they might make, they’re still Decepticons! It was idiocy to think we could actually trust them, and with two innocent new lives, no less-”
Starscream leaned into the microphone, giving the assembled bots a good close-up view of the recent battle damage excoriating his armour. “You paranoid morons have no idea what you’re talking about.” His abrasive voice cut through Red Alert’s with such glass-etching fury, it was a wonder Teletraan’s screen didn’t shatter.
Sideswipe recovered first. “Of course we don’t. He won’t talk to us.”
“Maybe he doesn’t talk because it’s not something you need to know,” Thundercracker suggested. His fuselage bore the same shocking silver lines of fresh repairs – as though his wings had only just been attached. “If it was any of your business, we would have already told you-”
“Oh come on! Can you seriously not see this?” Sideswipe threw up his hands in disbelief. “He’s traumatised! You made it our business! What exactly have you done to the poor kid?”
Thundercracker’s glare deepened. “Stop calling him ‘kid’. He isn’t a sparkling, any more-”
“Well he sure ain’t some full-grown battle-hardened Deception, either,” Ironhide growled, lending his considerable weight to the Autobot argument. “Don’t forget that you sent him here, Con. If you’re having second thoughts about sending a kid to spy on us, tell us. Don’t terrify him into doing your damn dirty work.”
“Spy-… what?” The blue jet shook his head. “We didn’t send him. He asked to go, and against all my better judgement, I gave him permission-”
“If we’re going to go with wild accusations, might I add it’s a brilliant job you’re doing, keeping up your end of the bargain. We’ll guard the space bridge, they said. Hah!” Starscream’s pitch rose dramatically. “Perhaps you let them through intentionally! Excellent way to get rid of those troublemaking failed Cons, and don’t even have to get your hands dirty in the process!”
Starscream’s voice had evidently reached a far more painful quality on the Cybertron side of the connection, if Thundercracker’s wince was anything to go by. The blue jet carefully unpeeled his fingers from the fists they’d curled into. “Star, do you really need to be here? You’re not helping.”
Starscream snorted, but went miraculously quiet. He resumed pacing, sharp little back and forth strides like an angry vulture, glaring at the screen, arms folded protectively tight across his chassis.
“What does the space bridge even have to do with anything?” Red Alert made an effort to reclaim control. “If you think we’re going to be stupid enough to fall for such an obvious distraction-”
“-then you are going to be seriously disappointed.” Another frosty second of silence passed. “And why isn’t Skywarp chiming in on this, huh? Doesn’t he get a choice, or do you not trust him not to screw up and let the secret slip? The little brat is his offspring, right? Or is that yet another lie from our favourite ex-Cons?”
Going by their reactions, the casual onlooker would have been forgiven for thinking Red had personally declared war on the pair. Both visibly stiffened and straightened, leaning away from the screen, and the hostile chill intensified into a silence so sub-zero, it felt like time itself had frozen over.
Starscream recovered first. “This conversation is over.” He leaned closer over Thundercracker’s shoulder, reaching for a control. “I’m coming to get him.”
Thundercracker grabbed his wrist and pushed him away, just before he could turn the screen off. “If you don’t want Slipstream there, just tell us.” He maintained the soft voice, but the expression in his intense scarlet gaze was anything but gentle. His voice crackled, ever so subtly. “And we’ll come and get him.”
“Well you better be prepared for a fight, mech.” Sideswipe folded his arms. “Because we’re not gonna let him go back to more of your abuse without one.”
A little ripple of agreement spread through the room.
The blue seeker’s optics narrowed, fractionally. “Are you insinuating we’ve hurt him?”
“Well, he’s very keen not to come home. It’s like he’s almost afraid of the idea. Who’d have thought it, huh.” Sideswipe stared him down. “A sparkling, scared of what a bunch of Decepticons are gonna do to him.”
Before Thundercracker could reply, Starscream seized him by the shoulder vents and dragged him unceremoniously off-screen. A fragment of hushed argument hissed from the speakers, unintentionally caught by the microphone;
This is ridiculous! Why are we wasting precious time justifying ourselves to these imbeciles when we should just go fetch Skyw-… Seem, and bring him home?
Thinking up more ways to avoid the subject is hardly going to help. We’re going to have to tell them-
I’m not having our personal trauma splashed all the way across a hundred Autobot gossip channels, like some… lurid celebrity tattle!
They’re going to find out eventually. Primus, half of Deixar already knows.
Half of Deixar isn’t our enemy-!
-and neither are these guys, any more. Isn’t it better that one of us breaks the news than they find out via half-truths from the rumour mill anyway?
“It’s all right.”
The whole assembly turned as one to find Slipstream in the doorway, tucked up close to the frame as though using it for shelter. He forced a wobbly smile that just seemed to make him look even smaller, even more scared. His voice cracked, but he carried on anyway; “I can tell them. I probably should have already.”
A defensive Autobot-coloured wall made an effort to hustle the sparkling out and away from trouble, but he refused to be hustled, meeting the tired crimson gaze on the screen without a flicker of the unease so many had predicted.
Thundercracker looked like he was trying to resist the urge to roll his optics; in the background, Starscream had already thrown up his hands and was storming off, possibly looking for someone to punch. “Not like this.” The blue seeker shook his head. “Not because they’re forcing your hand.”
Slipstream shrugged one shoulder and finally dropped his gaze. The orange floor was fascinating. “It’s all right. Maybe-… maybe it’ll help.” He shuffled his feet. “I need to figure out a way to deal with it… right?”
Quiet until now, Jazz seized his chance, and gestured towards the exit. “C’mon, guys. This isn’t our argument any more. Let’s give them some space to talk.”
“Talk about what?” Red Alert put himself in the way. “You don’t seriously expect us to leave them alone in here do you? So they can work out how to spread more lies, more misinformation?”
“We’re only going out the door, Red.” Jazz lowered his voice until only Red Alert could pick it up. “Are you telling me you don’t have this place wired for sound? Come on. We can still listen in, and swoop to the rescue if we need to. Or were you hoping they’ll just admit to everything if we stayed in here?”
“I’d prefer they didn’t get the chance to say anything, especially to someone so vulnerable.” Red Alert glared, but backed down. “If anything goes wrong? It’s down to you.” He elevated his voice and stabbed a threatening point at the screen. “And I will be keeping my optics on you lot, as well!” After a parting glare at the bristly seeker still onscreen, he vanished out the door, followed by a broken string of reluctant comrades.
Jazz was last to leave. He paused in the doorway, and mantled a gentle hand on the small blue shoulder. “I’ll be just outside. Holler if you need me. Right?”
Slipstream nodded, just the once, and husked; “thanks.”
Then even Jazz was gone, and it was just Slipstream, facing the hostile vision on the huge screen. The room felt much larger than it had only a few moments before.
The youngster centred himself in front of Teletraan. “I’m sorry.” The words felt sticky and discordant. “I didn’t mean to get you guys involved. I-…” He drew a long pulse of cold air through his core, but it didn’t seem to help. “I thought I could handle it. But I don’t really know what I’m doing.” He grimaced his way to a sad smile. “I’ve just made things worse, haven’t I?”
Thundercracker smiled back, with effort. He still looked tired, but the hostility wasn’t quite so overt, any more, now the Autobot audience had finally departed. “You… haven’t made it better, perhaps, is a good description,” he suggested, diplomatically. He offered a lopsided shrug. “There’s nothing weak about admitting you need to come home. We’ll find another way to do this. I can speak to Prowl, perhaps he won’t mind… postponing things. If you still want to join the, uh…” The ex-Con had to take a moment to unstick the concept from his vocaliser. “…them… it doesn’t have to be right now.”
“I’m not sure I’d find the courage to come back, if I left it.” Slipstream laughed, uneasily, and folded his arms around himself. “I wanted to prove I’m not scared. If I run away, it proves the opposite.”
“It’s not running away, Seem-” Thundercracker swallowed the scold. “I don’t want to dampen this enthusiasm, but I’m anxious you’re going about all this with the wrong aim in mind. You’re trying to make a point to someone who’s not ever going to see it. You’re so far down on the Triplechangers’ list of priorities, you probably never even popped up in their attention.”
“I know.” Slipstream shuffled his feet, tracing out little semi-circles with his toes. “It’s… I guess it’s more for my benefit. I want to feel like I’m doing something, not just… sitting here, helpless.”
Thundercracker had to take a moment before he could reply, and his words were soft. “Yeah. I know.” He sighed and briefly rested his brow against folded hands, elbows propped on the desk. “If you stay, don’t let them bully you into anything,” he said, at last. “This isn’t gossip for them to use as currency. Only you get to decide if you are going to talk about it, and if you don’t want to?” He spread his hands, palms up. “That’s the end of it. It’s not their place to go making demands of you.”
“Thing is… I do kind of want to talk. But I’m scared of-… of going through it all again,” Slipstream admitted, faintly, trying to keep his voice from dwindling right away into a whisper. “If I talk about it, I have to look at it again. Relive it all. If I don’t look at it, it didn’t happen.”
“Yeah. I know how tempting that is.” Thundercracker managed a snort of bitter laughter. “Denying it happened is only denying you the chance you need to come to terms with it. It won’t make it un-happen. You need to figure out how to get something meaningful out of it.”
“I’m trying.” Slipstream hung his head. “I just-… not sure I can? Not right now. I know I need to, even if only because I owe Prowl an explanation. He’s had to deal with me being a brat. I just don’t know how to start.”
“Start small. You don’t have to tell them all the most difficult details. Just as much as you feel comfortable with. And who knows, you might find it cathartic, talking to someone.” The blue seeker smiled, a little more genuinely. “I know when I was at my lowest? Just… talking through my concerns with Panacea always seemed to help.”
“I’m not sure the Autobots have a shrink.” Slipstream attempted to joke, but his expression came out as more of a wince.
Thundercracker lifted a gently chastising finger. “…and not in her capacity as a doctor. Just in her capacity to be someone who’d listen to me, without telling me what I should be thinking. And you could find a far worse person to talk to than Jazz. I’m sure he’ll understand, and won’t push you if you want to stop.”
That last sentence sounded like it had been intended for the audios of any eavesdroppers who may have been lurking just out of sight, but Slipstream nodded anyway, silently.
“You know where I am. You know my frequency. Any problems, any worries, and you call me, all right?” Thundercracker perked his wings, just a tiny bit.
“Thanks. I will.” Slipstream glanced around himself, and added, quietly; “you’ll tell me if you hear anything about Ama?”
“Absolutely. The very instant.”
“Has-… has there been any change?”
“A little. They’re going to have another go at getting her off the generator, in an orn or two.”
Slipstream’s small shoulders rounded, subtly.
“…and I’m not just saying that, Seem. It’ll be fine. I promise. Everything that’s happened has forged you all stronger. And I know you can handle this; you’re a strong spark, just like-” Thundercracker swallowed the rest of his sentence, but fierce determination blazed from his optics. “We’re taking steps to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. Megatron wanted our attention? He’s got it, and then some. So keep that chin up, eh?”
“Chin up,” Slipstream agreed, in a whisper, before finally saying his goodbyes and letting Teletraan’s immense screen go blank. For a moment or two, he had to prop himself up on the console.
Drawing cold air through his system in an effort to flush the stale heat from his core, he turned reluctantly to face the doorway (and the rest of the world). He edged up to the opening, and peered out into the neighbouring space, not sure what he was expecting to find.
True to his word, Jazz stood just outside, leaning against the wall, rather like a bouncer to keep the unruly element at bay. He glanced down at the sound of footsteps and met Slipstream’s gaze with an encouraging grin. “A’right, mech?”
Soft though it was, Jazz’s voice drew the attention of the others, waiting to hear the outcome. Every mech went quiet, every single pair of optics in the room turning to look over at them.
Slipstream visibly baulked at the circle of expectant faces, taking a step backwards and putting the doorframe back in the way. “H-… how much did you hear?” He struggled the words out.
“Only a li’l bit.” Jazz held up one hand, thumb and forefinger almost touching. “I was too busy keeping these guys from swamping you.”
Slipstream suspected Jazz was just being polite; this close, he should have heard every last syllable. He had to reboot his vocaliser, and it still refused more than a staticky squeak; “what-… n-now what?” He could hear the others moving forwards, murmurs of concern; is he all right; what’s gonna happen; we’re not gonna let him just walk back there, right? Don’t box me in. I can’t talk to everyone.
Jazz stepped forwards, carefully putting himself just between the youngling and the rest of the group. “Give us a bit of privacy, guys?” he suggested, with the tone of voice that said it wasn’t really a request. “Just for now?”
“So you can do what?” In spite of his suspicion, Red Alert managed to keep his voice even. “Figure out how you’re going to cover for those three? Coach Slipstream on what to say to us?”
Jazz matched stares with Red Alert. His expression was genial enough, but his body language quite clearly said not now, Red. “So we can figure out how being here can help him.” He lowered his voice before adding; “which it won’t if you keep throwing the accusations around. Can’t you even gimme the rest of the orn to try and work out what’s gone on here? Because sitting on the kid until he spills his spark ain’t gonna achieve anything except hurt him.”
For a second or two, the two Autobots just stared at each other, neither willing to back down. Finally, Red Alert broke the stalemate. “The rest of the orn,” he agreed, although he didn’t sound remotely happy about it. “Then you come and talk to me.”
Jazz spread his hands, palms up. “No problem.” He glanced down and behind the wall, and met the dim lilac gaze looking back up at him. “All right with that?”
Slipstream nodded, watching as Red Alert finally muttered something unintelligible, actually glared very subtly at him, then turned and left.
“C’mon.” Jazz nudged his shoulder with a knuckle, attracting his attention back. “Let’s go find somewhere more comfortable to talk. Prowl, we a’right to use your office?”
“If you hadn’t asked, I’d have suggested it.” Prowl followed them down the corridor, a step or two behind, noting how small the cycle looked in comparison to the much older Autobot. Soundwave’s cassettes were proof you couldn’t judge a mech by his size, but Slipstream looked oddly vulnerable, right now, the top of his head coming barely to Jazz’s elbow.
“We don’t specifically have a counsellor here, so I’m afraid you got me.” Jazz shooed him into one of a pair of comfortable chairs in the corner of the office. “Although I can go get Ratch, if you’d rather.”
A smile ghosted briefly over Slipstream’s face. “It’s all right. Thanks.”
He settled on the edge of the cushion – still preparing for that quick getaway, Jazz noted, just like Prowl had described – although now it looked a lot more like running away from the monsters in his head, rather than from a well-deserved dressing-down. He gave Prowl an uneasy glance, as the other mech settled at his desk, as if to say wasn’t this meant to be a private conversation?
“Eh, ignore Prowler. He’s just here in case I get stuck, right mech?”
A little snort answered the question.
Jazz settled into the chair opposite Slipstream’s, relaxing into the big cushions and hooking one ankle up over his knee. “We shoulda done this when you first got here, right mech?”
Slipstream nodded. “…right.”
“So.” Jazz spread his hands, encouragingly. “Why are you here?”
Slipstream met his gaze for only a second or two before finding some interesting spot to study on the floor tiles instead. “Because I want to be an Autobot.” His words were soft. Reluctant. “Learn how to be strong. How to protect the things that are important.”
“And your family are genuinely all right with that? They know it’s why you came here?”
“They-they gave me their blessing to come,” Slipstream agreed, with a little jerky nod. “I guess they’re not… happy, as such. I mean. Autobot, right? Haha.” He twisted his hands together. “They said it was all right. So long as-… so long as I promised not to stray too far. Stayed in the Ark.”
Jazz smiled, testingly. “Funny thing to get you to promise. Where else would you be?”
The cycle still wouldn’t meet his gaze. “I don’t think they completely trusted me not to go looking for Megatron.”
“…why would you do that, Seem? Bit dangerous, isn’t it?” Jazz let himself mull over the new, more uncomfortable thought that had come to his attention. What if it hadn’t been the Autobots he’d been sent to spy on? “Your folks haven’t been trying to get you to do things you didn’t want to do?”
Slipstream smiled, lopsidedly. “Mould me into the perfect soldier, you mean?” He shook his head. “No.” He studied at his fingers, interlaced in his lap. “They’ve been… patient. I mean. I-… I know they didn’t really want me and Lucy. We’ve mostly been obstacles. Meant TC couldn’t go back to Vos, and got sticky marks on Starscream’s plans for global domination. But they’ve never hurt us. Never tried to force us into anything.” He finally glanced up, to meet Jazz’s inscrutable blue gaze. “You might not believe me, but they didn’t ask me to spy on you, either.”
Jazz spread his hands, amicably. “Can you blame us for worrying about you?”
Slipstream sat on his hands again. “If you were going to send someone to spy on a group, wouldn’t you send the one that gets on with everyone and knows how to handle her emotions? Not the arrogant brat with a burr under his plating who thinks punching things is an appropriate way to show he’s not scared of everything that moves, right now?”
After a flicker of irritation – was the little scrap of tin whose age couldn’t yet even be measured in whole vorns really trying to teach him how to spy? – Jazz realised it was an admission. “Everything? Naw, I don’t believe that. Not so long ago, you sat and stared Dirge out.”
“Believe what you like.” Slipstream shrugged, awkwardly. “Maybe I was just too young and stupid to really understand what Decepticon meant. I guess you could say I’ve been educated.”
“Which is why you wanna be an Autobot, huh? Big decision.” Jazz inclined his head. “Political decision. You saw everything they did to TC, lived pretty much your whole life around Starscream, and you never once thought about it before? Why now? Something musta made you think it was a good idea.”
Slipstream folded his arms around himself, quietly. Jazz watched; aha. Now we’re getting somewhere. Perhaps close to what triggered the chain of events in the first place.
“You don’t have to be here with us to be an Autobot, either – surely your Mama explained that?”
Slipstream almost flinched. “I have to be here, or-or it’ll mean they’ve won.”
“Who’s won?” Jazz internalised a sigh, and leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows against his knees. “How about try starting from the beginning? You might find it easier than keep giving me little bits and pieces, every now and then.” He found a tired smile. “If not, well, you at least left me enough breadcrumbs to know there’s Con involvement. We can try again later.”
“No. You’re right. Start at the start. Now is-… before my struts go again.” Slipstream drew a very long pulse of cold air through his vents, and offlined his optics. “So, uh. Triplechangers paid us a visit, just over twenty orns ago.” He slumped back in his chair, as though trying to encourage the padded surface to swallow him. “They were looking for Starscream. We don’t know why. Seemed too… haphazard… to have been ordered by Megatron. Maybe they just wanted to score a few points, I don’t know.” He shook his head. “We were all a bit… distracted. Maybe we weren’t watching our backs as closely as we normally would have been. One of them got lucky and cornered TC in one of the training yards.”
That would explain the suite of recent repairs they’d seen branded into the blue jet’s enamel, Jazz realised. Musta been a serious scrap to leave him looking like he’d lost a whole wing.
“They, uh. They landed TC and Starscream in hospital. TC shot Astrotrain, forced both triplechangers to retreat, but they got fixed up faster than my family, and went looking for Day.”
“And-...” Jazz prompted, in the lull. “Is he all right?” He almost didn’t want to know.
Slipstream took a few moments to organise his thoughts. That subtle buzz had picked up in his plating, again. “They couldn’t find him, so they went after Ama. We think to ask her where he is, but we haven’t been able to ask her, yet. We guess they figured, if they couldn’t find Skywarp? It’d bait him out of hiding if they targeted someone close to him.”
Jazz stayed quiet, only barely resisting the urge to interrupt with questions.
“They, uh. Left her in a recycling compactor.” Slipstream rebooted his vocaliser in an attempt to clear away the discordance, but it didn’t really have the desired effect. “I found her just before it killed her. She’s still in hospital. Still hasn’t woken up yet. Not sure if she even will.”
Jazz sat and quietly digested the words. Small wonder the kid was traumatised. And where the frag was Skywarp, letting everyone around him get so thoroughly slagged? The idea the triplechangers could have got all the way to Cybertron and caused all that chaos without the Autobots even noticing they’d left the planet didn’t sit well with him.
He realised he was looking at the possibility that Blitzwing and Astrotrain might have even killed their former comrade. It’d explain why Skywarp hadn’t been adding a helpful commentary to his brothers’ earlier spat with Red Alert. It’d explain why the two were worked up enough to get into a shouting match in the first place!
If they’d got through in one direction without being noticed, it stood to reason they may have come back similarly under the radar. They wouldn’t have come back without a trophy, though, right? So Vantage wasn’t the brightest of bulbs, and his loyalty was dithery at best, but surely he’d have clocked something like that? As soon as they finished here, he’d get Red Alert to pull up all of Sky Spy’s recent footage-
Jazz realised that Slipstream had begun to speak again; the little mech’s voice was still dwindling, getting softer with every word.
“She couldn’t have told them anything, anyway, because-… we don’t even know… We don’t know where he is. We don’t know what happened. There was an accident. A ship crashed near us. Not a Cybertronian one but we, uh, we went to look, anyway. See if we could help or if it was dangerous, but it was too damaged. Day and Lucy got trapped underground. Botched his teleport, got his thruster trapped. He told Lucy to go climb up to the surface, get help, but he was stuck.”
It was like listening to Slipstream recite a list – lots of little bullet points, trying to maintain a fading control. His hands were clutched together in his lap so hard, it was a wonder he wasn’t buckling his own plating.
“We think he tried to teleport out, and because he was overheating he misjudged it. Went… down instead of up, or something stupid. We don’t know what really happened because we, uh. We.” He waved his hands, as though trying to conjure up an explanation. “There was just a leg. We’ve been searching forever and we haven’t even found the rest of his body, yet-”
That was the last straw. Slipstream’s emotions finally found the chink in his armour they’d been looking for, and suddenly he was bawling like a sparkling. All those emotions he’d tried hard to keep under control, held locked down inside him for so long, all bubbled up out of him as though from an erupting geyser, raw and hot and painful. He hugged his arms tight around his chassis, trying to claw the static back inside, curling helplessly in his chair.
Jazz shuffled his chair forwards and reached out both hands. Previously tight, bristly emotions flooded out against his static field, stinging like a storm of small fireflies. “Seem-…” For once, he was almost speechless. “Ah, Primus. C’mere.” He slung an arm around the small shoulders, and drew him carefully closer.
“Primus, I’m suh-sorry, Jazz.” Slipstream choked the words out. “I thought I could handle it, I didn’t want to think about it because it means he’s gone. Oh, Primus. This wasn’t-… it wasn’t supposed to be like this! They’d only just got out of it all, just got out of danger-…”
For a whole breem or two, Jazz just held him while he sobbed, using his own static field to support the smaller mech’s. Poor little guy probably needed this, and with his Mama in hospital? Where else was he gonna turn? Jazz couldn’t imagine those two big angry seekers being able to offer that much comfort, right now. “Why didn’t you just say something, mech? To one of us, in private?” he murmured. “We’d have understood. You wouldn’t have to open your spark to the whole Ark.”
“I didn’t know how. Couldn’t think what words to say. I didn’t want you to treat me differently. Like I needed-… gentle handling and sympathy.” The words struggled out through hitching static. “Because I’m supposed to be here to learn to be strong, and I can’t even cope with this.”
Jazz smiled in spite of himself; what was it the humans said? Like father, like son. “Being strong isn’t about picking fights, Seem, or about who you can overpower. And who said you’re not coping? You’re just… reacting normally to something traumatic. I’d have been more worried if you’d just brushed this all off like nothin’ had even happened.”
“But I didn’t do anything helpful. It just proved how useless I am to anybody-”
“Hey, no. Stop that.”
“-I’d thought we were safe, that I was maybe even helping keep it that way. And I-I couldn’t do anything to help her. I barely got there in time. If I’d just been a little bit faster-”
“-…then we’d have been mourning the loss of two good sparks. Not angry at the fact we almost lost one.” Jazz held him carefully at arm’s length, hands firm but gentle on his shoulders, and looked him in the optic, seriously. Slipstream looked back, his gaze still dim and flickery, but at least the involuntary crackles of static were starting to soothe out. “Look what they did to Thundercracker. If you’d run up against them, on your own? They would have killed you. Plain and simple. Then there’d have been no-one around to save your Mama.”
Slipstream stayed quiet, digesting the words.
“Don’t you dare reduce your sense of self-worth just because you didn’t singlehandedly take on two of Megatron’s biggest, best, most loyal warriors.” Jazz gave his shoulders a little squeeze before finally letting him go. “You saved Pulsar’s life, against almost insurmountable odds. That took an insane amount of courage for someone your size, your age. That’s what I want you to focus on. All right?”
Slipstream nodded and wiped his face with one hand. It was reassuring to note he wasn’t constantly looking away, any more. “Right.”
Jazz steered the conversation gently into a new direction. “How’s your twin coping?”
“Well she’s not punching everyone, if that’s what you mean.” Slipstream half-smiled through his tears. “She’s harassing Auntie Sepp. Says if she’d known how to fix Day, they could have both got out. She doesn’t want to be left in that position again. So, she’s trying to get Sepp to teach her medicine. I know we don’t precisely have the brains for it, but… maybe there’s still something she can do that doesn’t need them.”
“Well, the two of you got plenty of ambition on your side. I guess it’s up to us to help you get something productive out of it.” Jazz sagged back in his chair and covered his face with his hands, briefly. “Ugh. Okay. Lemme think.” He let his arms dangle, and studied the ceiling for a few moments while he sorted through all the news he’d just been given, trying to figure out how to use it. Talk about being blindsided. Sure, maybe it wasn’t the Decepticon way, talking about what left you vulnerable, but would it really have been that hard for someone to have given them the tiniest bit of forewarning so they knew what they were getting into?
Slipstream just sat and watched him, quietly.
“All right.” Finally, Jazz straightened up, and folded his arms in an attempt to underline the seriousness of what he was about to say. “I still don’t think you need to be here, because you’re plenty strong in your own way, but we’re not gonna send you home just yet. If we’re gonna make another try at this-… that was ‘if’, Seem, I ain’t made a decision yet. Park that aft back on the chair. If we’re going to do this, then we need to give you some structure, give you something to actually learn. And I expect the same from you – this isn’t a game, it’s a serious commitment, and I’m not sure that you’re even gonna be able to cope with it.” He fixed the small mech on a serious stare. “Still wanna do this?”
Slipstream nodded, instantly. Well, at least he had spark. (Jazz crossed his fingers that it wasn’t the same idiot fearlessness his sire had often shown.)
“Okay. Before we do anything, we’re gonna set ground rules. Rule number one, to be enforced immediately, is no picking fights with bots bigger than you.”
“But-” Slipstream’s gaze flickered briefly to Prowl, but he was being discreet and studying a pad. “Everyone’s bigger than me.”
Jazz lifted a finger to underscore the point. “Precisely.”
“…all right. No fights.”
“Second? You will swear to me, on your honour as an Autobot, that you won’t do anything so damned stupid as to go looking for Megatron on your own.”
At least Slipstream had the decency to look suitably embarrassed. He sat on his hands and hunched his shoulders. “…yeah. That was stupid. I promise.”
“Good mech. Now I want you to go get some energon, go back to your room, and get some down time. Defragment, recharge, recalibrate. Take however long you need to get yourself back to peak operating capacity, because we ain’t doing a thing until then. And I mean peak; I will get Ratchet to check if I’m not convinced. In the meantime, I’ll organise your schedule, so we all actually get something out of this.” Jazz pointed a semi-threatening finger at him. “And you better not go making me regret this, or I’m telling your uncles.”
“Thank you. Thank you!” Slipstream looked torn between saluting stiffly and being a good, tough little soldier, and bawling some more and hugging the older mech. Finally, he elected to take the third option, and fled.
As soon as the sound of soft-soled feet had faded, Prowl emerged from the shadows with two small flasks of high-grade. “And there’s you thinking I keep you around just because I like your company.”
Jazz snorted and accepted the flask. “Love you too, Prowler.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and allowed himself to slump down in his seat. “Ugh. No joking, I better have made the right decision with that scraplet.”
Prowl scooted the chair a little closer, to sit alongside his friend. “Are you having second thoughts already?”
“I don’t know what I’m having. I’m all the way up to fifth, at least.” Jazz took a long draught from his energon. It rinsed a little of the sludge off his spirit, but didn’t help clear the doubts in his mind. “I wanna send him home to his family. That’s where he should be, with folk that can help him come to terms with all this slag. And if he still wants to join us? He can come back once he’s not on a knife-edge.” He waved a hand. “But what right do I have to tell him how he’s supposed to heal? This might be exactly what he needs. We ought to at least give it a chance, right?” He vented a long, slow sigh of stale hot air and offlined his optics, tipping his face towards the ceiling.
Jazz onlined a single optic to cast a suspicious sidelong glance at him. “Hm what? You think I made the wrong decision?”
“No, not necessarily. I’m just being cautious,” Prowl allowed, with a little incline of the head. “I think he’s a whole lot more like Skywarp than we’re letting ourselves consider. Smaller and sweeter in nature, perhaps, but he’s proven he’s got the same temper, the same impulsive streak.”
Jazz looked sideways, but his friend was contemplating the surface of his energon. “Soo… What are you saying, mech?”
“I’m saying,” Prowl swirled his high-grade, gently, rehearsing his words in his head, “are we doing the right thing, indulging this warlike side? What if all we do is end up culturing an Autobot clone of his sire?”
“We’re not indulging it,” Jazz corrected, carefully. “We’re… givin’ it some direction. I think? We promised to protect those little bits from everything that’s torn our people apart, and look what a slagged-up job we’ve made of it so far. He’s been sucked into our stupid war, whether we wanted him to be or not, and you can bet it won’t be the last time Old Buckethead or his cronies pays Cybertron a visit. It’s up to us to give him the tools to survive.” He snorted, softly. “Besides, who else is gonna teach him? D’you really want to leave it to his uncles? Come on. They have no idea about grounder sensibilities. It’d be like us teaching Lucy to fly.”
Prowl finally looked back at him, and arched an approving brow. “See. You did make the right decision.”
Jazz cuffed him lightly on the arm. “You coulda just told me you agreed with me.”
“I could have, but you rationalised it better, this way.” Prowl took another small sip. “One thing we haven’t figured out yet. Our fellow Autobots are going to want to know what you were discussing.”
Jazz shrugged, amiably. “Ah, we can cook up an excuse that doesn’t involve telling everyone about what’s happened to his family just yet. He’s just… trying to figure out who he is, and what function he’s gonna serve in society. Not to mention, find a way out from under his family’s shadow.”
Prowl nodded, quietly. “Small wonder he’s struggling. That’s one very big shadow.”
“The humans have a phrase that I always liked, and I think it fits pretty well here.” Jazz drained his flask. “‘May you live in interesting times.’”
Prowl allowed a smile. “I’m not sure a fictitious curse counts as sagacious advice, but for once I’ll give you it. They’re certainly going to be interesting."