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* * * *

It was six full joors - over a third of his first allotted free cycle - before Ironhide managed to escape the medbay, weighted down with supplies crammed into every micron of his subspace and a still recharging sparkling tucked in amidst the overflow of supplies in a container. Ratchet had given the little femme a clean health stamp after refreshing her sedative and a thorough exam; dented, scuffed, low fuel levels, but not injured or drastically low in any system.

Ironhide, who had stood by and watched through the entire procedure, had questioned that last bit - along with several others, but Ratchet, once he had realized that the frontliner was asking on point queries based on first aid and specialist data packs, had ceased growling at him and switched into lecture mode instead. If Ironhide had been hoping for blunt, to the point answers, he had found he had accidentally unleashed the academy instructor in Ratchet's pre-war function instead.

When he had pointed out the areas worn thin in the femme's inner systems he had been treated to a lengthy lesson on endomass assimilation and fabrication. Ironhide had switched off his vocalizer and refrained from pointing out that it was basically identical to system regrowth after injury, a procedure he was intimately familiar with both from exterior and interior experience. A mecha's endomass structure, however, was usually set by their frame codes; a developmental sparkling, Ratchet had explained, had no set frame coding yet, and ideally each basic part and modification would be assimilated and replaced until they reached an endomass size and density as determined by their spark output. Ironhide had looked at the sparkling laid out on and dwarfed by the medberth, then at Ratchet, disbelief bleeding into his field. "Yeh mean she could end up bein' a habitat frame?"

"Possibly," Ratchet had replied blandly, and Ironhide had been willing to bet the fragger had done it just to watch the surprise ripple over Ironhide's plates. "But probably not. Her absorption rate isn't going nearly that fast. Subtract it from the half-life forge dating of her spark chamber and measurement suggests she'll probably be a light mass frame. Heavier than a bi-tread, smaller than either you or me. Scout frame, maybe."

Absorption, either for repair or growth, meant deficiencies in system elements. "Normal, within tolerance," Ratchet had declared, but it had been the start of a brisk scouring of medbay supplies and a growing pile of supplements, pre-filtered fuel cubes, non-acidic cleansers, and a rapidly filling partition in Ironhide's file storage of medical data on the structure and upgrading of developmental models.

"All well an' good," he had grumbled half to himself, "but it don't tell meh what temperature Ah need in quarters t' keep her runnin' best."

Ratchet had unexpectedly gripped his shoulder, a pulse of apology in the other mech's field. "I never had one under my direct care," he had admitted ruefully. "Grapple might have. We'll get you more files. For now, just do the best you can."

He had, by the medic's best estimate, a quarter of a joor from the time he finally left the medbay to when the little femme would start rebooting. "If she hasn't shaken it off in another half joor, call me," Ratchet had said, a pinched tinge of something Ironhide couldn't identify souring his field. "I'm doing the best estimate I can on her processing rates, but she'll need fuel soon."

It gave him enough time, in the quiet corridors of a mid-shift base, to return to quarters. Once there, Ironhide moved to put the container down on the already cluttered workspace surface, shoving aside a half-assembled internal blaster assembly and scooping the little femme back into his arms. It gave him enough time to look around his quarters with an assessing optic, and blow out a low ventilation as he took it in.

Rank had privileges, and he had traded on his own for a room near the engineering labs, where he frequently requisitioned parts and workspace time. It was smaller than his rank actually would have warranted but he had never needed much beyond the single workspace and berth the room offered; it was not the first or last base he expected to serve at and the little room was devoid of personal touches beyond the parts of whatever project he was currently working on.

A look around the room, gauging things at pede level for the little femme, made him hastily put her on the berth and access the basic quarter modulation controls. Shelving unfolded from the walls at his own shoulder level were well above the reach of curious small hands - weapon parts, tools, and the supplies from medbay all went onto them, until his workspace was as bare as the cycle he had claimed the room as his own.

Lowering himself onto the berth beside her made him reassess that as well, and he triggered the controls to lower the berth height by half, then half again, and finally signaled the frame to fold away entirely in a series of small transformation clicks until the berth pad was flush against the floor. Knee height to the femme, he judged, and easy for her to get on and off of. It was bare, but no more so than the common spaces of the ship he remembered from his own freshly sparked orn, when cohortmates had determinedly swept things he didn't yet fully understand out of his reach.

The little femme had curled into herself; Ironhide raised the environment temperature by a click, settled himself next to her, and took one of the pre-filtered fuel cubes - a quarter ration, no larger than his palm - from his subspace. Ratchet had assured him that they could be refilled from the medbay at any time, that the filter grade was a standard medical stock. Keeping one optic on the femme, Ironhide cracked the seal and took a small sip, letting his internal sensors pick apart the filtration levels of the bland, smooth taste.

* * * *

The space around her was quiet and cold, devoid of the sound and warmth of other systems. Shadow held herself still as she rebooted, straining to fill the empty space with nothing more than audial data, but heard only one other system. It sounded wrong; not her cohort, not Master.

Strangers, she remembered, shivering, her optics clicking online. The frame near her was big, bigger than Master, a solid wall of red and wrong and fear. She flung herself away with a muffled shriek, rebounding painfully off a hard surface before scrambling frantically into open space.

::Master!:: The Basic wailed through her vents with all the volume she could force into it, nearly covering the clicks of need-fear-help streaming from her vocalizer. ::Sorry bad-wrong sorry sorry. Come please.::

The space around her had too much light, too much open, with nothing to orient her as she frantically tried to get away, to hide, to find her cohort. Movement was conditioned into her; to stop was pain, was target, and she kept moving until she fetched up at the back of the most sheltered space she could find, folding herself into a ball, optics static-shot and vents heaving.

He should, Ironhide told himself harshly, have been better prepared - the little femme hadn't had a single response which wasn't fear driven. As it was, he could only be thankful he had thought to lower the berth, where the light tumble off of the pad to the floor was too small to do her real damage.

Her shrieks had Basic glyphs to them, and he could feel his tanks seize up cold - Master would have been Labyrinth, he was sure, and the frantic apologies, begging for the return of a mech he had ripped into with his bare hands, made him feel sick. Six frames in the smelter and the little one huddled in a shuddering ball beneath his worktable had hidden beneath a loose panel of the wall. Master might be the only thing she knew to cry for, but it was the last thing she needed.

Slowly, keeping his engine in a steady, deep vibration that his function class had once used to calm rescue operations, he eased down onto the floor. ::Safe,:: he whistled softly. ::Safe now. No harm.::

He could, if he moved very slowly, just push the little cube of fuel across the floor to within a few handspans of the area by the workspace. Ironhide pulled back before she could dart away again, settling beside the berthpad, and triggered the door lock with a short pulse. She wasn't, by the look of her, operating on anything beyond panic protocols, and keeping her safe would need to be his main priority. He sent a brief update to Ratchet - Awake, we're seein' about fuel now - and downshifted the harmonics of his engine into an even slower rumble. ::Safe now. No hurt, no harm.::

The stranger did not try to drag her out into the open. No grabbing, no yelling, no orders, and when he moved away from her hiding spot, leaving the energon behind, Shadow let herself uncurl a little. Only one cube, a fraction of what they were used to sharing, but still fuel, and they had a limited time to share it among them. She chirped for the others, distress growing as there was no response, until her calls dissolved into a wordless keen and she tucked herself more tightly against the wall.

To her surprise, the mech made no move to take the fuel back. He talked to her, she remembered. Talked like her cohort did, Basic whistles and clicks that were deeper but no different from what she knew. Master didn't talk to them like that. Master's orders were always from the language packs he had uploaded into each of them.

She reset her optics to clear the static and looked at the stranger carefully. He was watching her, but he was across the room and he didn't look angry like Master always did. He didn't move when he saw her optics were watching him, or when she slid carefully toward the end of the table and reached for the energon, or when she dragged the cube under the table and retreated against the wall again. Still, she tucked the cube carefully behind her. The others weren't there now, but they shared. They always shared. She could wait for them.

Location chirps, and Ironhide's spark ached to hear it because whoever else - however many others - the little femme was calling for were gone and the sparkling tucked herself in and shook, keening a wordless note of distress and pain. When she finally gathered herself to take the cube it was to pull it into the deepest recess beneath the workspace, untouched.

He wanted to gather her back up safe but every move he made only alarmed her more. Proximity wouldn't help, not when he was clearly registering as a threat, but neither would leaving her alone help. Instead, moving slowly, one painstaking shift at a time, he took out another cube and nudged it closer. ::For that-one,:: he whistled gently. ::Yours. Safe.:: When he had pushed the cube as close as he dared without making the sparkling bolt again, Ironhide retreated to the far side of the room, planting his back to the wall and aft to the ground.

He took several mounting brackets he was in the process of re-tooling from his subspace - it had reached the fine tuned smoothing stage and the sounds were softer, only the shushed rasp of mesh cloth over metal as he ground down the manufacturing burrs. It kept his hands busy and let him tip his head down, optics engaged, though his sensors were still tracking the tiny form across the room. Setting his engine into a slow, deep idle sound that resonated all the harmonics he knew that meant safety and home, Ironhide sat, his only movements tiny ones between his hands, and carefully tried to not pay attention.

Shadow didn't immediately move, unsure if she believed the stranger. Energon was never for only one; energon was shared, no matter how many or few cubes appeared when it was time for them to fuel. No one else answered her calls, though, and the mech had said for her.

She stayed where she was for a long time, while the stranger lost interest, his attention on something in his hands. It felt safer when he wasn't looking at her, and as her systems slowly cycled down from the panic of earlier, she became aware of a growing demand for fuel. A distressed click escaped her vocalizer as she looked from the cube she was guarding to the one still out in the open. Fuel was shared, but she had no one to share with.

The stranger had put out both cubes. He had talked to her. He had not tried to grab her. He had said hers.

He was not Master; maybe he didn't know. Maybe he would put out fuel for the others when they returned.

Cautiously, she took the second cube, pulling it under cover as well, and kept her optics on him as she broke the seal and took a swallow.

Ironhide vented soundlessly, a soft exvent of relief as the sparkling broke open one of the cubes. He pinged another update to Ratchet confirming her intake and received an acknowledging ping, along with the alerts of other incoming messages - mission reports from Trailbreaker, Brawn and Sunstreaker, which he shelved for later, and a brief message from the Prime confirming that all due process would be made in attempting to contact one of the remaining civilian enclaves.

He shelved that as well and turned his attention to the list of supplies Ratchet had shoved off on him, cross-correlating it with the diagnostic of what the little femme was low in, and then paused and cross checked it again against what would - or would not - be easy to induce a newspark to intake. Bismuth and yttrium were dismissed out of hand, as was molybdenur and thulium; sharp and bitter on one hand, sour on the other. Silicon, cerium and rubidium were more likely, from bland to pleasant, but it was vanadium, in a thin, pressed wafer, that he finally picked from the assortment in the dosage case Ratchet had given him. The scent of it across his intake sensors was sweet and tantalizing, even without any notable deficiency in his own systems.

The little femme froze when he moved, stock still and all but vibrating, her bright optics tracking him unflinchingly. Humming softly, Ironhide leaned forward in the same slow, micro movements, placing the supplement wafer down where the cubes had been. ::Yours,:: he whistled, retreating. "Intake," he added, and then, not sure if she had any word glyphs or not ::Fuel, not-fuel. For that-one.::

Shadow chirred, a soft, questioning sound that was not, quite, a question. He had said hers, again, but this was not fuel, was not familiar at all. She crept forward on all fours, optics never leaving him, olfactory sensors cycling up to analyze the unfamiliar scent. It smelled good, made her want it even though her systems were fueled and she shouldn't want anything more.

She reached for the new object blind, hyper-aware of every shift in the stranger's position. It was almost as wide across as her palm, and the strange mech made a low sound of approval when her fingers curved around it.

He said hers, she reminded herself. He said hers, like the energon had been hers, and it smelled so good.

Bracing herself to be wrong, she snatched her hand back under the table and shoved herself against the wall again, her prize clenched tightly to her chassis. The stranger sat and watched and didn't yell, letting her examine the thin, brittle wafer. Intake, he had said; she bit down on one corner and it cracked easily between her dente, the taste sweet and strange. That low, almost inaudible, rumble of approval vibrated in the air between them again, and she relaxed, nibbling at the broken edge of the treat.

This, Ironhide thought, was going to take time. More time, he admitted to himself, spark aching, then they might have - more time, certainly, then his chrono was counting down before the cycle after next when Ratchet expected him back in medbay.

Short term. Too much of the longer term plans were insubstantial, decision trees that hadn't been plotted out first. One and two thirds cycles, during which he needed to get the femme settled enough to be left alone for the joors he would be surgery.

It was so wrong. She shouldn't be alone, not then, not at all, and he had already tried to think of who he could ask for support but the answer was there in the same neat flanking maneuver they had brought out in the first place - he had no cohort, the days of his squadron at his back and he at theirs long gone, and the little femme crunching on the supplement wafer with wide opticed enthusiasm had no cohort left either. They were both alone, and the pain that ached through him was an old one, something he thought he had archived already but which still echoed and shuddered through him.

Another gulf, another difference between what he had known and where he was now, surrounded by mecha that had no context or recognition of things that had defined his very function class. "Alone," he whispered, a bare hint of vocalization across an exvent, the glyphs wrapped in the unique cant layers of the Guard where to be alone, to be the last of a cohort, meant a closing of ranks around until one was never alone again.

There had been no ranks, no cohort-squadrons left when that word, stripped to its stark literal meaning, had ripped him apart. He would not - could not - leave a pre-coded sparkling to that.

Time, Ironhide thought grimly, and the first thing was to make her safe. His motions were still startling her - he didn't for a moment think that any other motions were going to be any less alarming, but a few moments of terror might give her better rest after. He slipped the brackets back into his subspace, took out a tablet, and patched into the room controls once more, sketching out the rearranged changes with a careful hand before uploading them.

Movement in what Shadow had begun thinking of as a safe space startled a scream from her. The wafer fell, unnoticed, from her hand to shatter on the floor as the table above suddenly sank down, and the wall at her back hummed a quiet vibration through her plates as it reached out, wrapping around the table supports. She curled up, keening, unable to decide if it was better to stay and be trapped or risk the bright and open spaces...and then the vibration stopped, and when she cautiously raised her head the area around her was darker, enclosed except for a single opening that allowed her to watch the stranger's movements.

She reached out, patting the wall to her right. It was solid and cool under her hands, just like the wall behind her. The darkened space around her felt safe, just big enough to curl up or stretch out, high enough for her to get up on her knee joints and have room. Big enough for maybe two more to fit, and she carefully gathered the broken remains of the wafer, piling them atop the energon cube.

Maybe the others would come back soon.

Ironhide caught a quick glimpse of the little femme as she anxiously checked the opening he had left in the newly enclosed area beneath the workspace. Dropped down a few handspans lower, the wall plates extended around most of the perimeter, it created a sparkling sized shelter within the larger dimensions of the room.

It wasn't right and it wasn't enough, but until he stopped registering as a stranger and threat to her it at least gave her somewhere to retreat to. Which she did, ducking out of sight, only the faint noise of her motions marking the corner she had curled into.

Letting out a low ventilation, Ironhide shook tension out of his back joins. There was another small shrill of alarm from beneath the modified workspace but he resolutely ignored it; the only way strange became familiar was through experience. Tugging the berth pad a few steps to the right, where he could easily see both the room door and the entrance to the modified space, he rolled onto it and stretched out, letting his systems stretch long, hydraulics hissing softly.

She hadn't known the supplement, he was willing to bet on it, but she had either known the glyph for 'intake' or been smart enough to correlate 'fuel' with a solid. He arched his dorsal plates, working a soft series of clicks down the joins while he thought, and switched the lighting down by half.

"Ironhide," he announced aloud, the bass tones of his voice quiet in the still silence. ::This-one designation. That-one hears-knows?::

Shadow hesitated, tucked back in the shelter of her hiding place. The decrease in lighting meant it was nearly dark where she was, and while it still felt safe the dimmer light made the outer room more attractive. The stranger was still there, though, visible and too close for her to risk exploring.

She could maybe go closer to the opening of her space, now that he wasn't moving, close enough to better hear the sound of his systems.

He wasn't looking at her, and she had begun to consider poking her head out of her nest, when he spoke. His voice made her jump, but then he talked to her again, the whistle-clicks of Basic pulling an affirmative whirr out of her vocalizer before she realized.

::Yes,:: she chirped again, after a short pause. He wasn't cohort, but he talked to her, and she was alone. ::This-one hears-knows.:: Another brief silence, waiting anxiously to see if her answer was what he wanted, but unlike Master he didn't react. "Ironhide," she said, to prove she really understood. ::This-one hears-knows.::

::Good!:: The approval was easy and rolled through him; Ironhide pushed his field outwards, trying to let the little femme feel it. Ratchet had taken the core measure of her code base but hadn't been sure without a full line by line check which code packs beyond Basic she had installed. The notes were all filed in Ironhide's storage, but it was reassuring to find out from first-hand that her vocalizer was a multi-purpose advanced enough model to use both words and Basic, and that she could differentiate the two.

He eased his chassis plates outwards, letting the sound of his engine echo more loudly between the spaces of his systems in a deep, continuous thrum. ::That-one, bitlet, knows others?:: "Fuel, safe, danger, stop, yes, no."

Shadow wiggled a little, edging all the way to the opening of her hiding place; he wasn't Master, but the praise still felt good. ::This-one understands,:: she repeated. ::Master orders, this-one understands, obeys.::

Except she didn't, always; she hadn't obeyed when Master wanted to take her with the others. She wrapped her arms around herself, curling into a ball, loneliness and a need to understand overriding her fear. ::This-one not always obey. Bad-failure. This-one...this-one alone because bad?::

It took everything Ironhide had not to tense, not to let the rush of feeling flood his field or stutter through the sound of his engine. It took him two vent cycles to work past it, a mix of rage and pain that scoured through him.

::Not bad,:: he whistled when he could do so steadily. ::Not failure. That-one smart, good, stay-safe.::

He could watch her without moving much, a tiny shape huddled at the edge of the makeshift shelter that he ached to tuck back in against his chassis. Her thermal readings were lower than he could be sure of; he clicked the room environment a notch higher, easing his own plates open to compensate.

::Bitlet,:: he whistled gently, pure Guardian cant where the term had been an all purpose designation for every newspark, wreathed in layers of care and affection. ::Alone... because wrong. Because accident. Sorry, so-sorry.::

::Alone,:: Shadow whistled. Alone hurt, but she didn't say that; things that hurt were punishments, and the stranger thought she wasn't bad. She didn't want him to change his mind.

She stayed curled up, small and as close to invisible as she could be without going back in her hiding place. The room was warmer now, warm enough for her systems to begin to cycle toward recharge, but she had never recharged without her cohort packed around her.

::Alone always?:: she asked, the sounds unsteady. ::This-one...this-one not like alone.::

There were limitations to Basic and the first core pack of most rudimentary glyphs. There was no good way to promise her that she was not alone without a faltering, butchered explanation that her cohort was dead, and then an even worse attempt to explain what that meant. Sentience without code, Ironhide thought, without the data banks that made sense of the world around them, and the idea was chilling. Pain, fear - she was predominately feeling, telegraphed clearly through the tremors in her systems and the tight curl of her frame, without needing words at all.

Alone was pain. Alone was grief, even if she didn't have the word for it. Alone was fear of the unknown and unfamiliar, and the pain of loss, an endless wanting to fill the empty spaces where countless other small frames should have been packed in around hers.

Developmental models formed attachments, he remembered Ratchet saying, and 'Master' might have been the center that dispensed 'good' or 'bad', but alone meant her siblings and the feel of plates ripping beneath his hands was never going to be enough to atone for those fragile frames they had rescued just a little too late.

::Not alone always,:: he whistled softly. ::This-one stay with. Protect, keep safe.::

With a stranger was still alone, but this stranger thought she was good, praised her with an ease and enthusiasm Master never had. He talked to her. He gave her fuel.

He had not hurt her, yet. If she was very good, maybe he would never need to punish her.

::This one recharge,:: she clicked, sliding back into her space. She didn't think she could be that good, but she could try. She could at least stay out of the way, where he wouldn't see her to punish her.

Ironhide kept the rumbling echo of his own systems going for a handful of kliks, then a handful more. Steady, even, and when he finally let the sound quiet there was nothing to be heard in the room, and nothing to be seen except the still motionless thermal signature of small barely shielded systems, tucked up against the corner.

He waited half a joor more after that, until he was certain she was deep in recharge.

He could, he admitted to himself, have reached in and carefully lifted her up just enough to slide a spare bit of berth pad beneath her - enough to give her some comfort while leaving her be in the safety and security of her own space. It was still an empty space, though, nothing but the illusion of walls and a roof, an empty space with only her tiny frame in it. He could remember empty rooms, the illusion of safety, and 'alone' didn't care about illusions. It crept through walls and under doors, through roofs and floors and cushions, and the sharp claw of it at a spark in the quiet of recharge had been something it had taken him vorn to escape.

In the end, he lifted her up, her little frame tucked tight around herself, and carried her carefully back to his own berth. He set her on the cushion where she could see and reach her makeshift space unobstructed, before carefully curling the mass of his own bulk over and around her in a living shelter, field and system warmth washing over her.