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War Without End

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War Without End: Ratchet

Part One

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In the end, Ratchet isn't sure why this particular order amongst numerous others is the one to make him snap. All he knows is that by the time the last glyph travels through the air and to his audials, he's drawn up taut, cycled down his optics, and point-blank defied his Prime.

“No.”

“Ratchet,” Prime says, his voice on the end of a good approximation of a human's sigh with fingers rubbing his face. He looks tired, radiating fatigue in his energy field. “That wasn't a request.”

His plating is shaking, Minute clangs of metal on metal echoing through the somewhat private corner of the gigantic warehouse.

“You can't.”

Bad enough that they allowed the humans to shove Jazz down there, something he didn't deserve in the slightest, but now Ironhide, too? And Que? The twins? Jolt?

“No, Prime,” Ratchet says again, shaking his helm, grief and anger twisting a slow burn through his spark. “Just... no.”

“We can't risk the humans--”

“That's slag, and you know it!” Ratchet snarls, hand cutting through the air, his vocalizer spitting static and expletives at his Prime. “Mearing snaps her fingers, and you scramble to obey.”

Prime shifts his weight. He crosses his arms over his chestplate, optics narrowing with warning.

“Ratchet.”

He slides out a foot, the scritch of metal over concrete a defining noise, prompting Sideswipe to look their direction. He prudently doesn't comment, however.

“It's disrespectful. Shameful. Wrong.” His hands curl into a fists at his side, spark an ache inside him. “They died for this stupid planet, and that's all the honor the humans can give them?”

Rusting. Forgotten. Abandoned too many leagues deep under corrosive salt water, left to rot away at the bottom of this planet's deepest ocean.

No, Ratchet won't stand for it. Not this time. He should have protested harder when they first put Jazz there. He should have made Prime try that piece of the Allspark shard before Megatron's cronies got their hands on it. And now, it's not only grief that's fueling his denial but also guilt.

Prime closes the distance between them, hands rising and landing on Ratchet's shoulders, grounding him with soothing pulses from his energy field. A frazzled, exhausted, and strained energy field that their Prime should have never borne. It's uneven, unequal, imbalanced and the medic's coding within Ratchet trembles in fear. Their Prime is a shattered ruin, and he's the only one who can see it.

He directs his optics away, not that it stops his sensors from scanning. Or screaming their disturbed results at his processor.

“I understand your grief, old friend,” Optimus rumbles, ignorant of the true nature of Ratchet's distress and the reasons the medic's plating rattles beneath his hands.

Your.

A part of Ratchet wants to keen loudly, here and now.

Your. Not our.

No indication that the grief and guilt are shared. As though Prime has distanced himself so far from their losses they don't even register anymore. Just more tick marks on an ever-growing casualty list, sacrifices made to ensure Megatron would meet his end.

“But this must be done.”

He slumps, for a moment, trapped in a paradox born of despair and disappointment. And then Ratchet jerks out from under his Prime's hands, putting distance between them, and a cold glare in his optics.

“I'll have no part of this,” he snarls and feels something shift inside of him, something already tenuous and strained. “Do whatever the humans want from you. I'm not helping.”

He turns on a heel, strides away from his Prime, pedes a noisy staccato on the polished concrete floor. Some of the humans wobble in the after-vibrations; Ratchet can't be bothered to care. His programming twitches, telling him to go back, apologize. He's being rude to his Prime. He should know better.

Ratchet ruthlessly shuts off the cries, shunting them to a background noise he doesn't have to acknowledge. His plating has clamped down, fans working overtime to expel the heat of fury. He can feel Prime watching him. He half-expects his leader to call him back, to berate him for the insubordination.

Prime, however, says and does nothing which only serves to make Ratchet all the angrier.

He heads to the small corner of the warehouse that has been designated as his medbay. His medcorner. It's no more private than the marked spaces labeled with their designations that serve as recharge grounds. It's a corner, nothing more. Boxed in with equipment and crates of supplies. There's no privacy. Apparently, they – as in the Cybertronians – don't deserve any.

Dino's arm is waiting for him on top of a table Ratchet had to weld for himself. The limb is in need of some reconstruction, several days’ worth of work. Something to keep Ratchet occupied, to keep his processor from focusing on the swirl of emotions cascading through his spark. He takes it all, Prime and the recent events and his own despair and locks it away, segments it behind a strong partition until he can take the time to deal with it.

It takes several minutes of glaring at Dino's arm, trying to remember where he'd left off when Prime summoned him, for Ratchet to realize he's not alone.

“Colonel Lennox,” the medic grunts in some semblance of a polite greeting. “Can I help you with something?”

At present, Lennox is leaning against a stack of crated supplies that brackets the narrow “entrance” to Ratchet's corner of the warehouse. His face is almost pleasant, but there’s a shrewdness to how he tilts his head.

“What was that about?”

This is a topic Ratchet has no interest in discussing. Especially with a member of the species which has caused part of his irritation. Lennox wouldn’t be able to understand, and if on the off chance he could conceive some measure of why Ratchet is so distressed, it’d then put him in an awkward situation. Trapped between his loyalty to his government, his own kind, and whatever friendships he has cultivated amongst the surviving Autobots.

Surviving.

Ratchet's spark does another squeeze of pain, and he forcefully bends his will. He returns his attention to Dino's arm, fingers of one hand shifting to smaller instruments as he starts to strip out ruined cabling for replacement. Parts gleaned from fallen warriors on the battlefield.

Decepticon or not, Ratchet will always think of the fallen as warriors. As kin. He can't ignore his coding so easily, no matter how long they've been at war.

Lennox exhales audibly, refusing to take Ratchet's silence as a reason to make himself scarce.

“Come on, Ratchet,” he cajoles and dares to step further into the corner. “I thought we'd gotten past this.”

Ratchet's shoulders hunch, and he focuses on pulling out a shredded energon line, tossing it into the discard box. There's no saving it for refurbishment at this point.

“William, you cannot even begin to comprehend all that’s wrong right now. Save your energy for an issue that could better use your attention.”

Directing the rescue and rebuilding efforts in Chicago, for instance. There are numerous government agencies crawling over the destroyed city, trying to restore it to some semblance of order. It’s a herculean task.

“Try me.” Lennox proves that he’s as stubborn as his guardian. Had been, rather. Stubborn as his guardian had been.

Ratchet locks down his vocalizer before the expression of grief can seep free. There’s no time to mourn. This is, or was perhaps, war. Losses are to be expected. He should be numb to them by now as many as he had been forced to acknowledge over the vorn. As many times as he's had to carry the broken body of a comrade, a friend, a member of his kin. As often as he's had to watch a spark gutter because there's nothing more he can do.

“I do not wish to talk about it.”

“Really? Because I think you need to.” Persistent, Lennox invites himself within, climbing large crates and stacks of materials as if he were a primate. “Otherwise, you wouldn't have tried to bite off Prime's head.”

They had spoken in Cybertronian. Lennox wouldn’t have understood their discussion. It seems though that despite the disparity in language, the tone of the conversation had been unmistakable.

Ratchet lets the silence build between them. Lennox stands firm. He won’t leave without an answer, and Ratchet suspects he'll see through a lie in a matter of moments, no matter how carefully fabricated.

A tangible pall has been hanging over Lennox since the battle in Chicago, come to think of it. At first, Ratchet had contributed the lingering sadness to Ironhide's loss, but perhaps there is something deeper. Perhaps Lennox doesn't seek to comfort Ratchet but obtain some comfort for himself. A pity since Ratchet has no comfort to offer.

He exvents slowly, collapsing the fine tools so that he has his hand once again.

“Two weeks,” Ratchet finally says, surprising himself with the static in his vocalizer and rebooting it to clear the interference. “They say the war is over. Earth is safe. People are celebrating.”

Humans, anyway. Ratchet hasn't seen a single smile from any of his fellow Cybertronians. Then again, none of them have smiled in vorns.

“We, however, can only mourn.”

Lennox nods, his eyes downcast. “Jazz,” he guesses. “Jolt. The twins. Que.” A lengthy pause, one thick with emotion. “Ironhide.”

Ratchet braces his hands on the edge of the desk. “Yes. Their loss is keenly felt as with all of our kin that have fallen in this war. But they are not all we mourn.”

“Cybertron.” Never let it be said that Lennox is slow on the uptake. “Your planet.” He too pauses, and his throat bobs with a thick swallow. “Your home.”

“And whomever we left behind there.”

Some Cybertronians had not been able to escape. Those who had survived the war before it went off-planet had opted to remain behind, no matter how desolate Cybertron had become.

“All of them. Gone.”

All that remains of their species, their society, is whatever scattered remnants of both factions still wander the universe and perhaps a colony or two of neutrals that might have escaped Megatron's wrath. Though honestly, there are no such things as neutrals in war, especially not in Megatron's optics. There are Autobots, there are Decepticons, and there are those too weak-willed to admit they are either.

“To save us,” Lennox murmurs.

Ratchet inclines his helm, shuttering his optics. “Because that was Prime's decision. Because he values this planet and its inhabitants more than he values his own people.”

He hears more than sees Lennox start.

“You can't really believe that.”

His fingers curl against the desk, carving grooves into the too-soft metal. Ratchet is tired, too tired for this. Too exhausted and sick of death to spare energy for ultimate compassion.

“I wish that were true, William.”

Lennox slides back, dropping down into a makeshift seat on a broken gear. “But Prime--”

“--is only a shadow of the mech he used to be.” Ratchet cycles his optics back on, tries to distract himself from the pain in his spark, that of the shameful truth. “We all are. We've become nothing more than what your government is afraid of.”

Prime is no longer a peace-preaching, soft-sparked scientist. Ratchet will never be a politician again, nor a medic who saves lives rather than taking them. And Bumblebee never had the chance to be anything more than a youngling in the midst of battles.

“We are war machines,” Ratchet continues, staring blankly at Dino's left arm, knowing that repairing the collapsible cannon must be done as well.

A cannon Dino once would not have carried. His caretakers wouldn't have approved.

But his caretakers are dead and probably his brother, too. Dead like the rest of Cybertron, most of their species, and everything they once held dear.

“We don't know how to be anything else.”

Lennox frowns, tucking a leg up against his chest and looping his arms around it. “I don't believe that.”

“Which doesn't make it any less true.” Ratchet tilts his helm, slanting a gaze at Lennox. “Do you know how many of my comrades I've had to leave to rust on the battlefield? How many times I've had to choose one spark over the other? How many sparks I've taken?”

Ratchet won't even speak of the blows his programming has taken, how it's become so corrupted by the choices this war has forced on him he's not sure what the original lines were intended to be anymore. Somewhere, he might have an archived copy, but what good is it now?

“Is that what you were arguing about?”

“Tangentially.” Ratchet still doesn't think Lennox would understand, but what's the harm in trying. “Prime has ordered me to assess our fallen comrade's remains before they are taken for disposal.”

His tanks roil with disgust at just saying it aloud.

Disposal. That’s what it has come down to, yes? Ratchet can't consider dumping them into the ocean as a burial or an internment. There's no ceremony involved, no rite of grief, nothing. Just dropping their remains into the deep, cold blue with judicious use of the human's carriers and a crane. It’s undignified, dishonorable.

It’s a shame that the ‘Cons showed more care in reviving their fallen leader than the Autobots could show for their fallen comrades. A terrible shame.

Lennox tilts his head. “You mean, before we transport them to the Laurentian Abyss for burial?”

Ratchet snarls toward the human. “It is not a burial, no matter what your superiors may think! That is not how we care for our dead!”

And cannibalizing their fallen frames for parts had never been the status quo until this fragging war began!

Lennox holds out his hands, a gesture meant to calm, to lower tension. “Whoa, Ratchet. No one protested the first time. With Jazz. So I thought this was normal. Now you're telling me it isn't?”

“Of course, it isn't!” Ratchet lets out air loudly, plates flaring in aggravation before he draws back a step. “But it’s what your government insisted, and Prime, in his infinite wisdom, agreed. For the sake of our political alliance.”

For the sake of the humans, his snide processor reminds him. Always for the sake of the humans.

He gets it; Ratchet does. This isn't their planet, their home. It's not the fault of the humans that the Cybertronians brought their war here. A certain measure of distrust is only to be expected. But it's been five of their years, and nothing has changed! There's been no attempt to understand cultures. With the government treating the Autobots more as tools to be used rather than allies. And then, only reluctantly.

They couldn't leave. Prime wouldn't let them because the threat of the ‘Cons.

We’ll stay to defend the humans,” Prime had said. “They cannot defend this threat on their own.”

Protect, yes. Ratchet can agree to that. But bowing down to every demand of the human government without second thought? No.

Ratchet was not sparked a warrior. The coding to obey his commanding officer was added when he chose to abandon his position as political liaison and become a battlefield medic. The coding was implemented as a survival necessity, never meant to completely override other protocols. And yet, after millennia at war, it has. To the point that Ratchet fears he is no longer capable of making a choice without seeking a superior officer's approval.

“What would you have done?” Lennox asks, breaking his silence. “If you were still on Cybertron? What are the real ceremonies?”

Ratchet's spark twists, and his back hunches. “It doesn't matter,” he replies with genuine static in his voice, shoving away Dino's arm. At this rate, it'll never be fixed. “Cybertron's dead. We are whatever you make of us.”

“Colonel Lennox!”

Lennox's head whips around at the sound of the shout, and he glances toward the opening that serves as a door to Ratchet's corner. One of the NEST soldiers stands there with arms full of paperwork, waiting for his superior's attention. With evident reluctance, Lennox rises to his feet.

“Yes?”

“Director Mearing has called for another meeting, sir.”

“Of course, she has,” the Colonel mutters and shifts his gaze back to Ratchet. “I guess I don't own my life any more than you do,” he says with a bitter curl of his lips.

Ratchet watches him go, surprised at the sympathy cropping up within him. Lennox is right though. He can no more make his own decisions than Ratchet can. Lennox is bound by his loyalty to his country, to the vows he made to his people. And he doesn't even have the restrictive coding to hold him back like Ratchet does.

In many ways, Lennox has far more courage and honor than Ratchet himself. It’s a sobering realization.

Anger reduced to a low simmer, Ratchet tries to turn his attention back to something productive. Prime's order sits on the back of his processor. If he doesn't do it, someone else will. Someone who won't treat the fallen with the respect they deserve.

Primus! Prime might even allow the humans to do it, under pretense of furthering trust between their two species.

Ratchet's hand brushes over his chestplate, spark churning in emotional agony beneath his touch. Which is worse, he wonders. Betraying his principles yet again, or allowing the humans to paw over the fallen Autobots frames?

Suddenly, Ratchet has no desire to be anywhere near NEST facilities or his fellow Autobots. He wants to be gone. This corner of the warehouse is too small, too noisy, and a mech can't spare a moment to have a thought for himself.

No one appears to be paying him much attention. Mearing has called a meeting, so all of the higher ranked members of NEST will be occupied. Dino's still in a medically-induced recharge. Prime is nowhere in sight, and there’s no one else who could demand anything of Ratchet nearby.

It's a simple matter to shift into his alt-mode and slip out the back, under the pretense of leaving their hanger to once again sift through the detritus in Chicago. To that effect, he leaves a message on his comm net citing that he's unavailable. The only one who’d possibly come looking for him is Prime, but he's too busy trying to placate all the angry humans.

No one tries to stop him at the back gate. Maybe the soldier on duty is asleep on the job. Ratchet doesn't know and doesn't care. He heads off the base and hits the road, the ruined skyline of Chicago a broken reminder of the battle from a fortnight ago.

He tilts his sensors upward, at a blue sky interspersed with fluffy white clouds. He remembers that brief second when he had seen Cybertron reflected in the Space Bridge. When his planet had come within shuttle distance, so close he could feel it.

He also remembers the moment he turned his weapons fire on the control pillar, hoping to destroy it as his leader had commanded. He remembers his spark crying out in agony, coding in direct conflict. Obey your Prime. Protect Cybertron. Prime has ordered it. Some of his kin are still planet-side. The humans will suffer. There's nowhere left to go.

He’s only a soldier. He used to be more.

Ratchet's shots had gone wide, a few of them clipping the pillar. In the end, Bee was the one who struck the final blow. Even so, Ratchet remembers. The guilt still claws at him in the middle of snatched moments of recharge.

Home. There is no more home. There is only Earth.

The disaster zone gets closer. Ratchet passes into the outer edges of Chicago where there's the least amount of damage. But instead of turning toward the current sector of the most in-depth recovery, Ratchet skirts around the working humans. He heads instead for a more industrial district, one that the humans have been saving for last.

There’s a warehouse here, ironically enough, whose lower levels had survived the Decepticon attack. Support beams and walls from the tops and sides had collapsed, creating a strange open space in the middle where the inner structures were relatively sound, but from the outside, it looked completely demolished. It’s a temporary hiding place but the best Ratchet can do until his patients are more ambulatory.

Yes, patients. As in two. Two Cybertronians who’d be unwelcome at NEST headquarters because of their faction. Two Decepticons Ratchet had saved in a moment of insanity and continues to fix because he doesn't know what else to do.

These memories, too, are as stark and clear to him as all others. The curse of being nigh-immortal and having computers for memory centers. Nothing can be forgotten unless intentionally wiped or accidentally degraded.

There are a thousand and one tasks Ratchet should be completing right now. Injuries to monitor, final rites to prepare, plans to make. A moment to allow himself to grieve even.

Instead, he finds himself in the ruins of a once great city named Chicago, scanners tuned to locate flesh and blood through the metal and stone rubble. He's searching for survivors,
human survivors. Because his Prime has decreed it so, and after so many millennia at war, Ratchet only knows how to obey his commander.

He does not begrudge the humans their grief. He too feels a pang in his spark for the innocent lives lost, crushed in Megatron and Sentinel's incomprehensible plot. He understands. Earth is their planet. It wasn’t their war. The Decepticons dragged Earth and its inhabitants into their conquest.

But in the end, Ratchet's loyalty belongs to his own kind first and foremost, to what remains of the Cybertronians.

In the end, Earth only suffered the loss of one city.

Ratchet mourns for the loss of his entire planet. Millions of his own people. Kilovorns of history and culture. The place he called home. What has always called to his spark.

What little hope he had ever carried of returning home has now become ashes on the air flows, rust in an abandoned factory. There is no Cybertron; there is no home.

There is only the bland warehouses, the human's kindly granted discards, and the growing sense that he'll offline without ever seeing a glimpse of peace. The war is over, Prime claims. To Ratchet, however, that holds no meaning.

Sideswipe is still limping. His knee can be rebuilt again with substandard Earth materials or perhaps parts gleaned from the fallen, but it'll never be the same. Lucky there's no war, Ratchet supposes, as Sideswipe's mobility will never be optimal.

Bumblebee's vocalizer is fried again. With Cybertron gone, so is the hope of him ever being able to speak aloud. Unless, of course, he's willing to accept a transplant from an empty Decepticon frame.

Dino has a shattered arm strut. It can be rebuilt, but that will take time. Time Ratchet's not being given.

No one knows what happened to Brains and Wheelie.

The casualties are high yet again. Too high considering there were so few of them to begin with. And if Prime has even stopped to properly acknowledge the loss of their forces, Ratchet will weld his own self to a berth. But no, there’s Prime now. Conferring with the human delegates. Reassuring them. Bowing to them.

And here is Ratchet, the Autobots Chief Medical Officer (whatever that title means anymore), digging through Chicago's debris for signs of human life. It's been three solar cycles. He hasn't caught so much as a weak heartbeat. The Decepticons had been very thorough.

His sensors reluctantly sweep another pile of rubble, certain there's nothing to find. But something pings back. Something of metal with a spark pulse. A Cybertronian?

Too large to be Wheelie or Brains. All of the other Autobots have been accounted for. Which means the spark ping is a ‘Con, probably an energy echo from one of the many nameless drones Megatron had thrown at their forces. Like sparklings sent to the slaughter, but far less self-aware.

Ratchet turns away, concrete crushing under his pede. What's the use? Drone or Decepticon, in the end, they were just enemies.

The ping sends out a stronger signal, all but grabbing Ratchet's sensors and making him stop. Too strong to be a mere energy echo. That's a spark.

It pulses again, twice, out of sync. Two mechs then, two sparks, the second ping stronger than the first. Both of them are faint, barely clinging to life. But present nonetheless.

Ratchet shutters his optics. His hands form fists at his side.

How many of his kind are left? In all the teams that are roaming the universe, that haven't been deactivated or lost or destroyed, how many? Thousands? Hundreds?

Dozens?

The war is over. It’s done. Gone. Finished.

Is it really? What does that mean?

Til all are one?

A scoff spills out of Ratchet before he can stop himself. The Autobots stopped following their own propaganda a long time ago. Even Ratchet himself has become a killer, betraying his own codes. It may have started out “Til all are one”. But since then, it has become “til all ‘Cons are dead”.

Peace is only a dream for those with the hope to still believe in it. Ratchet isn't one of them, and he hasn't been for a long time.

Battle protocols hum in the back of his processor. His hand shifts into a blaster. Better to extinguish their sparks now, ease their suffering. They are Decepticons after all. They are Enemy.

Once upon a time, they might’ve been kin. Friend. Partner to someone. Acquaintance. Coworker. Once upon an eon, they must have mattered.

Ratchet hesitates, blaster mechanisms clicking minutely as they tremble between remaining a weapon and shifting back. His processor stutters, coding conflicted.

By Primus, he doesn't want to be a kin-killer anymore.

His blaster collapses. The point may be moot. The two ‘Cons may be beyond his abilities to save. But he'll at least have tried, reclaimed a part of himself long corrupted.

It's wrong!

Another part of him cringes and shrieks as he kneels and starts to dig, tossing aside bits of building to reveal a metallic pede.

He's rescuing the enemy! He's betraying the Autobots! His Prime!

Ratchet ruthlessly ignores every warning that flashes across his processor. He shunts them away, far away, and taps into something long thought missing. Survival protocols, perhaps. He has to do this. Because if he doesn't...

No, that thought doesn't bear considering.

The war will never be over for Ratchet. Unless he does
this, right here and right now.

More debris shifts aside. The ‘Cons weren't as buried as he initially expected. Legs come into view, four of them. Digitigrade limbs.

Seekers.

Ratchet almost abandons his task then and there. He knows they can't be Starscream; he's seen that piece of useless scrap in the line of the fallen. But the fact that they’re Seekers is still an important distinction. Starscream is gone. How will they online in the wake of that knowledge? Would they even accept a truce?

Ratchet's plating clamps down, battle protocols rising higher on his cache. He'll never know unless he asks them. And if his initial scans are any indication, they won't be difficult to subdue should the need arise. He has to try. That's all there is to it.

It takes less than ten minutes for him to uncover them both. A more in-depth scan brings up an ID ping, designations popping up in his HUD. Thundercracker and Skywarp. Starscream's trine. Of course. The two Seekers in the entirety of the Decepticon army who would take that glitch’s death the hardest.

Still, without those ID pings, Ratchet wouldn't have recognized them. Like Starscream, they had abandoned their defining colors sometime during the course of the war. They also lacked the identifying glyphs scrawled into their plating like Starscream bore. In fact, the two better resembled cannon fodder and not higher-ranked members of the Decepticon machine.

How curious.

Right now, both of them are offline. Thundercracker's frame covers Skywarp, almost as though he were shielding his fellow from either an attack or the fall. Possibly even both. Skywarp seems to have the most damage from what Ratchet can tell from his initial scans. But they’re both in sorry shape. Crushed and dented armor, energon leaking all over the fragged place, twisted struts, scorched plating. One of Thundercracker's wings is emitting sparks, which indicates a short in his wiring.

It might be kinder to take a blaster to their sparks.

Ratchet doesn't.

He calmly checks his sensors and then his HUD. Prime is several miles away in a meeting with Mearing and Morshower, the president and his cabinet attending through video-conference. The other Autobots have their own grids of the search area, and the nearest human is several blocks away. There’s no one around to witness Ratchet's blatant act of treachery.

Strangely, that realization doesn't offer any comfort.

Sliding a palm briefly down his faceplate, Ratchet kneels to disengage Thundercracker from his protective curl. He'll need to move both of them somewhere out of sight from passing helicopters and NEST scanners. But first, he has to stabilize them both. And if he's lucky, one of them might become conscious enough to assist with the move. He’ll definitely need the help. Both Seekers have ten feet on him, but he has the superior hauling power. The benefit of being a grounder.

The moment his hands touch Thundercracker's dorsal plating, however, the Seeker stirs. One optic onlines, flickering dully, the other cracked and useless. The distinct whine of a sonic cannon powering up is startlingly loud in the silence. Ratchet is surprised Thundercracker has the energy to spare for such a thing.

Static spills into the air, Thundercracker's vocalizer trying and failing to function.

“If I were going to extinguish your spark, I'd have done it already,” Ratchet says, frame tense as he waits for a reaction. “I don't intend on taking prisoners either.”

The Seeker's limbs twitch, aborted attempts to move.

“...bzzkru-uce?”

It takes a second for Ratchet to translate.

“Yes. A truce.” He sighs, and it’s a distressingly human sound. “For now. I'll figure out the rest later.”

Ratchet doesn't know what it is that convinces Thundercracker to believe him. Something in his energy field perhaps. Whatever the reason, the Seeker croons a wordless tone of agreement, and the distant sound of battle systems humming fades away.

With Thundercracker's permission, more or less, Ratchet bends to his task. If he's going to save them, he has to be quick about it. The war is over, frag it. And it strikes Ratchet that in betraying his Prime's order, this is the closest to believing in peace he's come.


***

Chapter Text

War Without End: Ratchet

Part Two

-------------------------------------


“You are agitated.”

Ratchet snorts, focusing intently on the wiring in Thundercracker's lower left knee.

“A vast understatement.”

Fingers shifting into tweezers, he carefully plucks out bits of stone and other detritus caught in the delicate joint. It also serves as a useful distraction for not explaining further. Not that either Seeker seems to notice.

“Care to share why?” Skywarp pipes up from where he's lounging on a slab of concrete. An assortment of human bedding in various shades covers the heavy stone, a blinding clash of colors that the two ‘Cons have scavenged over the course of their convalescence.

“No.”

Ratchet shifts his weight, getting more comfortable as he cycles his optics and magnifies his view. Fragged Seekers and their tiny, tiny joints.

Thundercracker's quiet hum resonates throughout his chest cavity. “With that vile trill in your energy field, you probably should.”

“I'm not about to tell my woes to a pair of Decepticon Seekers,” Ratchet retorts, free hand pulling a spare hydraulic line from his subspace.

“And here I thought we were all friends, Ratchet.” Skywarp levers himself off the berth.
“How cruel you are.”

The medic shifts his attention briefly, and he aims a glare at the annoying pest.

“Friends would be stretching it, Skywarp. You are my patients. Nothing more.”

Hah. That argument could’ve sufficed a week ago. Not anymore though. The two Seekers are, for the most part, repaired enough that they could leave Earth if it were possible. They couldn't get very far, not with that glitch in Thundercracker's thruster, but if they could avoid the weapons watching the sky, break atmo, and hit the freedom of space, Ratchet supposes it wouldn't matter afterward. It's not like the humans or the Autobots could chase after them.

Then again, where would they go? Who would finish their repairs? Where would they get energon? Thundercracker certainly can't make it beyond this solar system. Ratchet would hazard a guess that the Seeker isn't actually capable of passing Earth's moon, but he doubts Thundercracker would admit to such weakness.

And so they stay.

Skywarp drapes himself across Thundercracker's back. Blatantly invading his companion's personal space and gifting a smirk down at Ratchet.

“You say it, so it must be true. Let me guess. Prime is kowtowing to the fleshbags again?”

He’s unable to hide his flinch or the resulting shiver in his energy field. “This isn’t our planet,” Ratchet says, neither confirming nor denying Skywarp's accurate statement.

Thundercracker's wings twitch in annoyance. “No. Our planet was destroyed to save this one.”

“I don't need that reminder,” Ratchet grunts and pulls back, his work complete. “Any other grievances I should know about before I go?”

Skywarp tilts his helm. His crimson optics take on a decidedly impish glow.

“Now that I think about it, I've got a kink in my energon line that--”

“Warp!” Thundercracker snaps, reaching up and flicking his wingmate in the forehelm. “Don't be crass.”

“But it's so much fun,” Skywarp purrs.

Ratchet rises to his pedes, reminding himself that this annoyance is suitable punishment for betraying his Prime and his fellow Autobots. He's also learned that it's in his best interest to completely ignore Skywarp's teasing and pretend he never heard it.

“I'll bring more energon next time. Anything else?”

There's a touch of impatience in his tone. Skywarp has the ability to annoy him far better than Sideswipe ever managed, though Ratchet attributes that to the whole fact they used to be mortal enemies.

Now? Now, Ratchet isn't sure what to define them. Hardly comrades. No longer foes. He doesn't seek their deaths; they seem to tolerate his existence. They haven't expressed any interest in retribution for Starscream's offlining. Although, touchy subject that it is, all three of them have wisely steered away from controversial topics.

Thundercracker leans forward then. “Tell me what it is that has you so rattled.”

“I fail to see where it is any of your concern.” Ratchet purposefully doesn’t look at him.

“We're trapped here, medic,” Skywarp retorts with a huffy expelling of air. “And we figure that the moment your Prime finds out we're not a pile of busted mech parts, he'll try to take us out. Tell me I'm wrong.”

Ratchet inclines his head. “I cannot.”

Once, long ago, he might have been able to accurately anticipate what his Prime might choose. Not anymore. What Prime has become is ruthless and unpredictable. Vicious, too.

Much like his brother as a matter of fact. It’s been a growing concern that Megatron's offlining has affected Prime more than he’ll admit. Both the first time and this second time, which is compounded by the death of Prime's mentor. No bot, no matter how strong-willed and touched by the Matrix, handles such betrayals easily. Yet, Prime has sought help from no one, least of all his medic.

Once upon a vorn, Prime might’ve gone to Ironhide. But that option as well is no longer available to him. Prime's entire support system has gone to dust. It’s no small stretch to believe his Prime is... unbalanced.

“Ratchet,” Thundercracker puts in firmly, a tone he no doubt acquired in becoming Starscream's second. “Tell us what the Prime has done.”

“You assume it was him.” Ratchet crosses his arms over his chestplate, an all-too-human move that he’s adopted, but this one, he doesn’t mind so much. “There are other grievances.”

Skywarp drops down onto a piece of concrete masquerading as a chair. “Spill it, Autobot. We don't have anything better to do.”

It’s a waste of effort to glare at Skywarp. He seems to feed off of the irritation he causes.

“Earth isn’t home,” Ratchet bites out, and it's strange how much his joints loosen at the admittance. “It will never be home, and with every day that passes, I’m further reminded of this. The humans will never accept us. What Prime hopes for is a pipe dream. A sparkling’s memory fragment.”

“To be fair,” Thundercracker replies, shifting forward, stretching first one and then the other wing out behind him. “I don't think it's possible to say what Prime wants. I don't think he knows. We don't really remember anything but war. We don't know how to function outside of it.”

Ratchet exvents loudly. His fingers dig into his forehead, which twitches with phantom pains.

“And here I am, pouring my disappointment to a pair of ‘Cons. Ironically, the only two who might understand my inner conflict.”

“What was it this time?” Skywarp leans back, making himself comfortable. “Don't tell me he finally agreed to hand over our weapons tech.”

“He has yet to make that mistake. But I don't think the humans will be satisfied by anything less.” Ratchet seeks out his own piece of debris, feeling weary beyond words. “And with the war over, we’ve lost all bargaining power we might have once had.”

Thundercracker croons a note of agreement. “Protecting against ‘Con incursion is the only reason the humans tolerated an Autobot presence. And even then, just barely.”

“Precisely.”

“So what's the big deal?” Skywarp rolls his shoulder in semblance of a squishy shrug. “We don't have to stay here. Earth's not the only planet in the universe.”

Ratchet shutters his optics. It’d be nice if they could make Earth home. He's so fragging exhausted. There’s much about Earth that is acceptable and intriguing. But Earth will never be Cybertron, and the humans demand all but the energon in their frames as payment for a scrap of land. It's not worth it.

“Prime won't leave,” Ratchet replies, and he can't even tell them why. He doesn't understand his leader anymore.

“Why would he?” Skywarp snorts, a flicker of disdain edging into his energy field. “He chose Cybertron over the humans. He will always choose the humans over his own kind. And he dares call Megatron the traitor.”

Ratchet wisely doesn't comment. It’s one of those disparate opinions that only serves to ignite tensions between them.

Ratchet is loyal to his Prime. Mostly.

The Seekers are loyal to Megatron. Somewhat.

Either way, it will take more than a little mercy and some repairs for either of them to admit that one side or the other is wrong. They tolerate each other for now. They have conversations lacking in threats and raised weapons. That, in Ratchet's opinion, is the best any of them can hope for at the moment.

As much as Ratchet regrets Prime's decision to destroy Cybertron in favor of Earth, he understands it. In all fairness, the humans don’t deserve the destruction of their home world or enslavement. Ratchet cannot truly blame Prime for making that terrible, terrible choice.

He can – and does – blame Prime for all the other decisions he made which forced their hand in the first place. He also blames himself. For never speaking up. For not standing his ground when the opportunity arose. For not doing more to make sure their Prime wasn't falling into pieces, decaying on the edges.

Ratchet onlines his optics.

“When was the last time any of us actually performed burial rites for the fallen?” he asks, voice a solemn echo in the speculative silence. “When was the last time we didn't have to cannibalize the fallen for spare parts? When we didn't have to leave our comrades to rust on the battlefield?”

He supposes they’ll never truly know the actual spark count of all the Cybertronians who had perished in their war. There's no way to be certain. It's not as though they can go back to all the frontlines on all the worlds and count grey frames. Or count the particles on vaporized battleships. Or remember whose parts belonged to which fallen comrade.

Once, Ratchet could have done it. He'd kept a steady log in the back of his memory banks. Back when it was possible to keep track of who had donated which part and who had received said part. Back when they could still count and notate every one of the fallen.

Sideswipe probably still has Camshaft's secondary fuel pump.

Ratchet's reasonably certain that Bumblebee owes his life to Tailgate's brave, if foolish, sacrifice.

Ratchet had once reinforced Prime's backstrut with Broadside's, a slapdash field repair that had held through three clashes with the Decepticons before Ratchet had been able to get Prime on a real medberth.

Ironhide--

No.

Ratchet briefly shutters his optics, dragging his processor away from the gruesome catalog he still carries. Most of it corrupted, other bits deleted as more and more mechs died and it hurt more to keep track of them all.

This realization is one of the greater tragedies of their war. At some point, the dead really are just tick-marks on a list that will remain forever incomplete.

Maybe Prime has it right. Maybe Ratchet is grieving for all the wrong reasons. Maybe he finally has lost his grips on his processor.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

He doesn't really know what to believe anymore.

It's been vorns since their war had any real purpose. Long, long ago it had started for a reason, take his pick. Megatron's lust for power. Prime’s determination to ensure that all Cybertronians remained free from his brother. The desire for a certain equality amongst all the designs. Fighting for whatever a mech put his faith into. A petty disagreement between brothers that devolved love into hatred.

Long ago, they all fought and killed and died for their principles. In the wake of their war's end, Ratchet's realized that their fight had become nothing more than a continuation of old grievances. Peace was never an option, not anymore.

They fight because they don't know any different. Because no one can forgive. Because there are only the two sides who survived, loathing each other. The cruelest of the Decepticons. The most ruthless of the Autobots. Very few soft sparks made it until the end. Soft sparks don't survive war. Not in any real meaningful way. They either die. Or become something else. Someone else.

“We’re in a war,” Thundercracker murmurs, filling the loaded quiet and dragging Ratchet from his thoughts. “There’s much we’ve surrendered in the wake of it.”

“Who can remember that far back?” Skywarp asks, words flippant but tone lacking that trivial edge. “Honorable burials and all that slag.” He expels a loud gust of air, a disdainful sound. “We soldiers were leaving pieces of ourselves on battlefields long before this stupid war came along. Civvies are the ones with rites.”

Thundercracker tilts his optics upward. “Warp's got a point. Those old rituals, they don't mean much now. And they never meant much to us war-builds anyway. No one cared what happened to us while we were functioning. Why would they care when we died?”

Ratchet arches an orbital ridge. “I know good and well you weren't always a war-build.”

“Yes, I was,” Thundercracker corrects. “But I wasn't always a soldier. There's a key difference.”

“Besides,” Skywarp interjects cheerily, legs swinging back and forth like a sparkling eager to play. “Sometimes, war is the better option. Sometimes, there are worse things.”

Ratchet's comm unit chirps before he can respond to that vague statement. He half-turns away from the ‘Cons.

--Ratchet here.--

--Prime's looking for you,-- Sideswipe tells him, sounding a touch irritated to be playing messenger bot. --Why aren't you on base?--

--Needed parts.--

He doesn't flinch at the lies anymore. After two solid weeks of sneaking out to repair the Decepticons and bring them necessary supplies, Ratchet barely stirs at the little white falsehoods.

The connection bristles with static, a pause of disbelief.

--Huh. Whatever. I'd get back before Boss Bot really flips his lid. Something's got him pacing. And I'd guess it was a squishy.--

Mearing. Or even higher perhaps. Ratchet can't hazard a guess, and a part of him doesn't care to. The humans in charge are interchangeable. In their politics, the only thing that remains the same is their greed and lack of respect. Can't trust any of them, save perhaps the soldiers who’d been with them from the beginning or Bee’s sidekick.

The medic makes an indistinct sound of annoyance.

--Very well. Ratchet out.--

He shifts his attention back to the Seekers, who are making no secret of the fact they’re openly interested. Thundercracker probably could’ve hacked into the comm if he’d really wanted, but he hadn't even tried. Out of courtesy or disdain, Ratchet doesn't know. He doesn't ask either.

“Duty calls, I take it?” Skywarp asks.

Ratchet hauls himself up. The squeak and hiss of unmaintained joints accompanies the motion.

“As always.” He waves a dismissing hand. “You know the drill by now. Stay out of sight. No transmissions. Etcetera, etcetera. I'll be back as soon as it's feasible.”

He turns to leave, no longer uneasy at giving his back to a pair of ‘Cons. It used to make his plating twitch. Even as his armor clamped tightly to his frame, and battle systems hummed in anticipation. Not so much anymore though.

“And when we're repaired,” Thundercracker begins, making Ratchet pause in the midst of ducking under a support beam, “what then?”

Ratchet's fingers rap over the metal of his thigh. “I don't know,” he answers honestly. “I've not figured out that far yet.”

He can feel both of them staring at him. He doesn’t turn around.

“Why did you do it?” Thundercracker questions yet again.

“I don't know the answer to that either.” Ratchet slides out from under the beam, preparing to drop into alt-mode as the ceiling becomes much lower from here to the street. “I'll return as soon as I can.”

Ratchet leaves the collapsed building and his two Seeker patients behind. He takes a meandering path back toward the warehouse that serves as NEST's temporary base while they manage Chicago's cleanup. Too much alien tech has been left lying around in the wake of the battle and no one – human or mech – is comfortable with that amount of equipment ripe for the taking.

All of Chicago is under martial law. No one gets in or out, mech or human, without the military's permission. Not that it's managed to stop the scavengers. They've all seen the postings on Ebay, things recovered from the massive battle and sold to the highest bidder. They don't have nearly enough staff to track down all the missing pieces. At least, not from this end. And there’s no telling what the government has already done with what they’ve managed to confiscate from the idiotic humans too stupid to not sell their goods openly.

Prime's hope that the humans never gain their weapons tech is a pretty distant reality by now. The humans are an ingenuous species; Ratchet will give them that. They won't need much to reverse-engineer anything, only limited by the materials that Earth can currently provide. Substandard compared to Cybertronian alloys. Yet, the threat is real.

Another reason that Earth will never be home, in Ratchet's opinion. When it comes down to it, and the humans find themselves capable of taking down the Cybertronians with their own technology, what then? They're already dying as a species. Who's to say the humans won't decide it's in their better interest to accelerate the process?

NEST's makeshift base is a whirlwind of activity when Ratchet arrives, more than when he’d left. Something has sent the soldiers into a flurry of excitement. A new arrival perhaps? Ratchet can only hope.

He pulls into the main warehouse, scanners seeking out Prime first and foremost. His leader, however, is on the far side, speaking with what appears to be Lennox. Perhaps issuing orders.

Ratchet slips out of alt-mode and snags Leadfoot as the Wrecker passes.

“What's going on?”

“Energon sensors're pinging in Brazil,” Leadfoot answers, eagerness buzzing in his field. “More Decepticreeps coming out of hiding. Sideswipe, Topspin and me are gonna take care of it.”

Ratchet can't share Leadfoot's enthusiasm. He frowns.

“What did they do?”

“Do?” Leadfoot's optics cycle down, squinting up at Ratchet. “What d'ya mean?”

“Did they attack the humans?”

“Uh, no.”

Leadfoot looks honestly confused. He shifts his weight, craning his helm to look around Ratchet like the transport's going to leave without him.

“But the locals don't much like squatting ‘Cons and neither does Prime.”

Something drops into Ratchet's tanks and roils unpleasantly. “So we're going to hunt them down and extinguish their sparks.”

It feels uncomfortably like extermination to be honest. The war's over, isn't it? Why the frag are they still fighting?

What the frag happened to til all are one?

“They're ‘Cons,” Leadfoot says, as if Ratchet has forgotten this key indicator. A statement that pretends like it’s all the answer Ratchet should need.

They are Decepticons. Therefore, they must be destroyed. One does not equate the other. Not anymore.

Ratchet's shoulder slump. “And peace won't come until every last one of them is gone,” he says, subvoc and rhetorically, but Leadfoot hears him anyway.

The Wrecker gives him a strange look, but he brightens quickly enough as he misinterprets the comment.

“That’s the idea.” He gives a little shimmy step to the side. “See ya later.”

Leadfoot hustles past Ratchet, heading for the massive open doors of the warehouse and the waiting transport. Sideswipe and Topspin are already there, the former rolling back and forth on his wheeled pedes. A contingent of soldiers are performing last minute checks of their equipment, and from this distance Ratchet can identify Graham as their commanding officer.

Careful of the humans darting around, Ratchet moves to the open doors, peering into the bright sunlight. The three bots are the first to load into the transport, shifting into their alt-modes as it’s more comfortable for the humans. Then, Graham and his team embark. Minutes later, they’re in the air.

Ratchet wonders who they’ll be murdering this time. For a slaughter it will be. The remaining ‘Cons on Earth are scattered, hiding out in ones or twos, underpowered and without leadership.

Two Wreckers, Sides, and a team of fully trained NEST soldiers? They won't stand a chance.

They'll fight to the last drop of energon. Surrender never existed in the vocabulary of the ‘Cons. Truth be told, Ratchet doesn't think his side understands the word either. Decepticons aren't known for mercy. And the so-called soft-sparked Autobots have abandoned theirs.

Shoot first. Shoot for the spark. Let Primus sort them out. If Primus even cares anymore. If Primus even exists.

Ratchet's proximity sensors ping with the approach of something larger than a human, returning with the familiar signature of a Cybertronian. An Autobot. Prime.

“Ratchet--”

“No need to remind me, Prime,” the medic retorts, cutting off whatever he’d meant to say and ignoring the screeching in his programming. One doesn't interrupt the Prime. “I am aware of my duty.” Coding conflicts keen within him, and he's sick to his very spark. “I'll be done by dawn.”

He can feel Prime's optics on him, like heavy weights on his plating.

“Your diligence in this matter is appreciated.”

Ratchet's tanks roil quite unpleasantly, but he can't decide if the disgust is aimed at himself for his submission or at Prime for forcing him into this corner.

“Don't thank me,” he mutters, turning away from the doors and facing his leader. “I'm obeying orders. That's all.”

By the Allspark, don't thank him.

He doesn't know which is worse. The feeling that he's betraying his principles, that he's betraying his fellows, or that he's been ordered into doing it.

Prime says nothing, and Ratchet takes it as tacit dismissal. He steps past his Prime, drawing his field tightly so as not to reveal the dark turmoil of his emotions.

It hurts. He doesn't enjoy this inner conflict with Prime. Once, not so long ago, he had admired this mech. He had trusted Optimus, and his Prime had earned all of his loyalty. Ratchet isn't sure he can pinpoint exactly when that devotion started to stutter, when it began to dim and flicker.

Maybe when they’d landed on Earth. Maybe the moment when they had to leave Bee in the hands of the humans because Prime hadn't wanted to harm them. Or when they'd handed over the last piece of the Allspark to the US government as a goodwill gesture. When they’d let the humans dictate every aspect of their daily existence.

Maybe it was just one act. Or maybe it's a combination of all of the above.

Ratchet sighs, stepping carefully around the humans, their equipment, their insentient vehicles. In the end, he supposes, it doesn't matter what caused the first flicker of disappointment and inspired the first act of rebellion. The fact of the matter remains. Prime values the lives of the humans and their planet more than he values the continuation of his own kind. A gross oversimplification of the twists and turns this war has taken, but such is the way Ratchet's spark is interpreting the current events.

He doesn't return to his tiny corner of the warehouse, where Dino's arm waits to be repaired. There is Prime's order to take into account first.

The humans have kept the remains of the fallen in a large locked and guarded room attached to the warehouse. It is under constant surveillance and patrols, and it can only be accessed with the express permission of Director Mearing. Imagine that. Ratchet cannot tend to his deceased comrades without the approval of another species. They have become owned, haven't they?

“State your purpose,” the armed human drawls in a bored tone, leaning against the panel that controls the electronic door and lock.

Ratchet bites back a stream of impolite vitriol. Or perhaps the urge to make this human extra squishy.

And wouldn’t Prime just love that?

“Final rites to the fallen. Prime's orders and, I presume, Mearing's as well.”

The soldier gives him a long look. “I'll just confirm that,” he says, and Ratchet's sensors pick up the low-band transmission of the human radioing to his commanding officer.

After a moment of conversation, the soldier nods at his armed partner. The both of them step aside, one hitting the release switch on the lock.

“You got one hour,” the man says, his tone lacking any hint of warmth or respect. “Better get to it.”

Clearly, he's not an original member of NEST. Ratchet doesn't recognize him, and the human radiates distrust and disapproval. Lennox would have had his head for his insolence alone, and no one like this would’ve lasted this long under Ironhide.

“You're too kind,” Ratchet retorts, his tone saccharine-false.

The human either doesn't notice or doesn't care as he waves Ratchet by. The medic just steps into the dark room, lit by a bare minimum of fluorescent bulbs overhead. The doors slide shut behind him and locking him in, granting a privacy he hadn't expected to be given. He stands at the end of the double rows, Autobots on one side, Decepticons on the other. There are more of the latter than the former, consequence of the fact the ‘Cons employed dozens of drones and, as the losers, suffered more losses.

For now, Ratchet avoids the line of them.

Jolt is first amongst the Autobots. Of them all, he’s the most intact. A single shot to the spark chamber, searing through his chestplate, eliminating all chance for Ratchet to save his life. He had been killed before his frame hit the ground. Spark snuffed out as though it were as delicate as a lit match.

Beside him are Skids and Mudflap, what remains of them anyway. Sentinel's blaster had been two powerful for their smaller frames. And his blade had finished the job. There's a thoroughness here that makes Ratchet's spark tighten with disgust.

That thoroughness, however, is nothing compared to the brutality of what the Decepticons did to Que. Shot first by a drone and then slaughtered by Barricade, only to be mocked in his death. Que is an assemblage of scattered parts, only half a helm and disembodied kibble. Some of which Ratchet can't identify.

The tiny crate, last in the line, is the worst of them all. Shot in the back by a weapon no mech can withstand. Cosmic rust leaves little left that’s identifiable. A finial here. A cannon coil there. A chip from a spark chamber. All four tires, rubber immune to the attack, but scorched by the heat of the blow nonetheless.

Ironhide.

Survived countless millennia of war against the Decepticons, only falling to the betrayal of an ally. Sentinel's last words a mockery of the dedication and sacrifice Hide had given to the Autobots. And before that, to Sentinel himself.

Ratchet drops to his knees, feeling a keen building in his vocalizer. The room thrums with a deafening silence that makes his audials twitch. His fingers clench and unclench.

He can't count the number of friends and companions and family he's lost over the millennia. There's a list in his memory core somewhere, all the designations and memories associated with them. Part of him is numb to those losses by now. He doesn't know why these deaths have struck him so deeply this time.

Because they are – were – among the last?

Ratchet doesn't know.

He can't do this. He hadn't been able to strip Jazz's frame of useful parts, and he can't do it here. Even if there was anything remaining of the fallen to be of use.

Que's processor survived mostly intact. There are probably libraries worth of knowledge tucked away within it. Jolt's electro-whips are still functional and could easily be transferred into another mech along with the associated subroutines, provided they have the frame to support and ground the currents. The twins' optical imaging scanners are very useful and survived the blast, too.

Ratchet takes none of these things. He’s supposed to, according to orders given by his Prime, but he doesn't. He can't, and he won't.

Instead, he cleans each frame to the best of his ability. He arranges each fallen Autobot into some semblance of dignity, though he knows it'll be ruined by the humans during transportation toward the burial at sea. In a moment of weakness, he slips the fragment of Ironhide's sparkchamber into his subspace. It is the only piece he allows himself to keep.

Then, he turns his attention to the Decepticons. Shockwave and Soundwave. Barricade. The Dreads. Nameless drones. Megatron. The humans also, without understanding the confusing tangle of associations and loyalties and broken sparks, have laid out Sentinel with the ‘Cons. By taking that decision out of the hands of the Autobots, should Ratchet consider it a kindness?

Moreover, he wonders if that is what Prime considers his mentor. Is Sentinel a Decepticon? Does his betrayal mark him as something other than Autobot? Someone, he notices, has gone through the effort of scratching through the Autobot symbol that still remains on Sentinel's frame. The etching looks deliberate and not the result of battle damage. It also looks to be the effort of a Cybertronian, not a human.

It should be easier to strip the ‘Cons of anything useful. But it's not. In death, all Ratchet can see are more Cybertronians, lost to the horror of war.

It should be a simple task. All he has to do is look at the line of fallen Autobots behind him for inspiration. Ratchet should be furious. He should be filled to the brim with thoughts of payback, tearing into the remains of the Decepticon frames with a vengeance.

He slumps, hydraulics depressurizing with a noisy hiss. He's tired of this, tired of everything. He doesn't have the energy to hate anymore.

Ratchet's helm lowers, optics shuttering in grief. No amount of time is going to make this easier.

****

Chapter Text

War Without End: Ratchet

Part Three

---------------------------------------------


“How's that?”

Dino flexes his left arm, testing the repair work.

“A little stiff.”

“It'll pass,” Ratchet replies, turning from the mech and putting away his tools. “Give it some time.”

“Hunh.” Dino rolls his shoulder, giving the joint a few more experimental twitches. “Time is what we have in spades now.”

“So they say.”

Dino tilts his helm. His optics focus on Ratchet with that eerie intensity he sometimes lets slip through the impatience.

“You don't believe it?”

Ratchet purposefully does not look at the red mech, busying himself with rearranging his tools in the small space of his medcorner. Not that there's much else to do with them.

“We thought the war over when Megatron was destroyed by the Allspark.”

Dino considers that.

“Yes, but at the time, most of the Decepticon command was still functioning.”

Command.

Ratchet barely refrains from snorting in disdain. He makes a noncommittal noise instead.

Dino rises to his pedes, alternatively shifting his arm from weapon and back again. “They're leaderless now. All that's left is to mop up the dregs. Right?”

“Apparently so.”

Peace through destruction. Why does that sound like Megatron's special form of propaganda?

History is written by the victors. The turn of phrase seems uncomfortably apt right now. If in the end, Megatron had won, would the Autobots have been painted the villains?

Of course. They were the oppressors.

“That means the war's over.”

“So they say,” Ratchet repeats and glances over his shoulder. “You're fixed. Kindly go find Sideswipe and send him in. He's late for his maintenance. As usual.”

Dino gives him a shrewd look. “You don't sound convinced.”

“I'm a medic, Dino. It's not my function to decide these things. I just put you pieces of slag back together after you're done getting yourself scrapped.” He turns, places both hands on Dino, and pushes the mech out of his corner. “Don't lift anything heavy. Let the welds set.”

“I know the drill,” Dino replies with a touch of annoyance, but he's at least stopped his line of calculating questions. His plating lifts and clamps closed. “I'll go find Sides.”

Ratchet turns back into his workspace. There's nothing of import left waiting for him. Everyone on the list has been repaired to the best he can manage.

They still haven't found Wheelie and Brains. Ratchet suspects that they're only going to find grey frames, if they find anything at all. And he also suspects that the delays in the so-called funeral are due to the missing bots. The humans don't want to waste resources on two burial rites. That would just be ridiculous.

Ratchet huffs and surveys his workspace. Routine maintenance is all he has left. He thinks of the stack of solar collectors waiting for him in their base in Washington, DC. Eventually, he'll get back to those if they weren't destroyed by Sentinel's rampage. And all the other, smaller projects that Prime had given him. Stuff that would help cement their “alliance” with the humans.

Never mind that the humans can't even bother to give Ratchet all the supplies he needs. Or that they can't afford the Cybertonians any element of privacy. None of them have private quarters. All of them recharge in their alt-modes and resort to car washes to get clean. Ratchet can't remember the last time he managed to scrub all of the grit and grime from his joints.

This is the world that they destroyed Cybertron and Jazz gave his spark to save.

Ratchet shakes his head. It's been five years, and it doesn't feel as if anything has changed. This bitterness is new though, and he can't seem to shake it either.

“Attention!”

Ratchet's awareness snaps outward, registering the flashing overhead lights and the warehouse-wide broadcast.

“Incoming energon markers detected.”

Incoming. Ratchet hasn't heard of any Autobots making contact. His long-range scanners aren't picking up anything either, but that doesn't mean much. They can't pierce the upper ranges of the atmosphere in this state of disrepair.

Yet another thing to blame on their lack of supplies.

“All Autobots report to ops.”

He hurries out of his medcorner, heading for the main console of their temporary warehouse, which receives real-time feed from NEST headquarters in DC. Prime and Sides are already there, optics locked on the huge viewscreen that’s currently displaying the arrival vector of the incoming Cybertronians. They're using protoform shells instead of a spaceworthy transport craft.

“Identity?” Ratchet inquires as he steps up to Sideswipe and peers at the screen.

Arms crossed over his chest, the warrior shrugs. “Unclear. Either they’re some ballsy ‘Cons or Autobots who don't know any better.”

“That leaves out Prowl then,” Dino jokes as he arrives, taking up a position on Prime's other side. “I'm betting on Decepticreeps.”

“Sucker's bet,” Sides retorts with a smirk.

Ratchet's optics are locked on the screen. Three different markers. Three new arrivals. They can't possibly know that the war is over. Nor can they be aware of the special defenses that NEST deployed around the globe. They wouldn't have been able to decrypt Prime's message.

“Prime, have you attempted to make contact?” Mearing demands, and only then does Ratchet realize she’s present. He had been under the mistaken impression she had left for DC yesterday.

Prime shifts his weight, glancing down the small female. “We cannot initiate communications while they’re in protoform state, Director Mearing.”

She frowns, her brow drawn tight. “Then you'd better figure out if they're a threat. Because if they get any closer, I'm blowing them out of the sky with or without your confirmation.”

“That won't be necessary,” Sides protests, rocking back and forth on his heels. “We can be at the LZ, take 'em down if we have to.”

“No.” Mearing's eyes narrow, one hand lifting to push her glasses up further on her nose. “They could land amongst civilians, and I'm not risking any human lives. Or collateral damage.” She turns, gaze searching the screen. “They'll be over populations in less than fifteen minutes. Better make it quick, Prime.”

A growl builds in Ratchet's vocalizer, and he has to force himself to lock it down.

“You can't just assassinate them.”

“Can and will.” Mearing's voice is firm, allowing no exception. “I’m not taking any chances. Not with human lives.” She whirls toward Prime, head straight and uncompromising. “Are they or are they not allies?”

“Not,” Leadfoot answers, slipping in between Sideswipe and Ratchet to point firmly at the screen. Or more particularly a line of code. “See those readings. Only 'Cons got those.”

Mearing brightens, triumphant.

“There. Problem solved.” She turns back toward the console, one hand gesturing to the soldier at the comm system. “Tell them to fire as soon as they have a clear shot.”

Ratchet's spark surges.

“They haven't done anything,” he protests, but it's weak. Too weak.

Sides spins on a wheel and gives Ratchet an odd look. “They're ‘Cons, Ratch. What's it matter?”

“They might not know the war is over,” Ratchet argues, his optics locked on the screen, and the tiny blips that indicate the incoming mechs' positions. “With Megatron deactivated, they might be willing to stand down.”

And though Ratchet has never been a mech who ruled his life with a warrior's honor, he imagines that it's simply disgraceful to shoot a mech from the sky while he's defenseless.

“Might?” Mearing repeats and scoffs loudly. “Unless you have immediate, plausible proof that they aren't going to attack, I don't want to hear it.”

Ratchet's attention shifts to his Prime. “Prime, they are still Cybertronian.”

Prime doesn't look at Ratchet.

“This is war,” he says, as though that is all the answer Ratchet should need.

But the war is supposed to be over.

“Defense system activated,” one of the soldiers states. “Impact in ten seconds.”

Ratchet swings back toward the screen, staring with a growing sense of despair. He's the only one who seems to remotely disdain the idea of shooting bots from the sky. He's the minority opinion.

And there's nothing he can do to stop the missiles from taking out the protoforms mid-flight, turning them to dust and scattered bits of debris that rain down on the Pacific. There won't be enough left to salvage, nothing to recover. The government won't have to worry about arranging for another deep-sea burial.

How efficient of them.

No human weaponry should have been capable of destroying a Cybertronian in protoform. At least, nothing short of a nuclear attack, but not even Mearing is that foolish.

But this isn't human technology. This is something built hand-in-hand with the Cybertronians with the intention of protecting both from Decepticon intrusion. Like the stronger sabot rounds given to the NEST soldiers.

The humans might have fired the shots, but Optimus had given them the bullets. And this is what it brought them.

Ratchet's tanks roil. His fingers curl into fists at his side, coding screaming at him, torn in too many directions. Obey the Prime. Save the wounded. Be impartial.

Decepticons are Enemy.

“Targets destroyed.”

The announcement over the intercom seems to echo in Ratchet's audials. There's a tremble in his frame, and he's not sure when it started.

“All right. Show's over.” Mearing claps her hands and looks at them. “Back to work, people. We still got the enemy to hunt down, a city to rebuild, and a mess to clean up. Time's wasting.”

A dozen phrases crowd Ratchet's vocalizer. Horror and contempt churn in his processor. He doesn't spare the effort to glare at Mearing. She wouldn't notice. She wouldn't care.

Ratchet turns on a pede and stalks toward his medcorner, ignoring the strange glance Sideswipe gives him. He feels... He doesn't know quite what he feels. Disgusted? Betrayed? Torn, for sure.

He should be exultant that more ‘Cons have been destroyed. That’s their goal, is it not? To win the war? That's not what Ratchet remembers signing up for. A long, long time ago, winning had not meant the termination of all Decepticons.

It's wrong, and he can't quite put into words why it is so. Words are failing him. He can't pinpoint when it shifted for him either. He'd thought that part of himself had shriveled into nonexistence a long time ago.

Maybe he'd sealed his fate the very moment he'd saved Thundercracker and Skywarp's sparks. Perhaps that had been the beginning of his end.

He's supposed to be saving lives. He's a medic. He's not supposed to be advocating execution. There's no better term. Those Decepticons never had a fighting chance, whoever they were.

No wonder Primus has forsaken them.

“Ratchet.”

Prime. Of course, it would be Prime.

He keeps his back to his leader, staring angrily at his makeshift desk and the scatter of tools across it. He doesn't have a project to distract himself. Unless he counts Sideswipe's pending maintenance.

“If Sideswipe knows what's good for him at all, he’ll be here soon,” Ratchet responds curtly, pulling out a drum of fresh coolant for the required flush and another crate of salvaged fluid lines. Knowing Sideswipe, the glitch will need several replaced. “And I have a shift in recovery detail in a few hours.”

In other words, make this quick. Or better yet, don't speak at all.

“Sideswipe's been assigned to investigate an energon reading detected in Tibet,” Prime comments, and only then does Ratchet realize that he can't sense anything from him. The mech's field is so tightly contained that it might as well not exist. “We must talk.”

“I'm listening.”

It's borderline contempt, and Ratchet ruthlessly aims his vocalizations more toward neutral.

There's a hiss of hydraulics as Prime shifts his weight. “You seem troubled, old friend.”

Overstatement of the millennium, Prime.

“No more so than usual,” Ratchet allows, a twitch cascading down his backstrut.

Silence sweeps between them. Ratchet can practically hear the younger mech tapping into his politics subroutines and searching for a diplomatic way to ask what the frag is going on.

“Then, I would ask what you would have me do,” Prime finally asks, each word carefully measured with curiosity, a hint of rebuke, and also, a degree of confusion.

“I don't know what you mean.”

“We cannot risk the lives of innocent humans, Ratchet.”

His tone holds an edge of exasperation, as though it's an argument he's had too many times before. As though Ratchet should know this very obvious fact.

“The Decepticons are sure to bring destruction.”

Ratchet performs a systems check, if only to keep himself for a scathing reply. He goes through several versions of possible retorts before settling on something that's the closest to polite.

“Of course, Prime. The safety of Earth's humans is paramount.” His right hand twitches, and Ratchet clamps his plating. “I was merely offering an alternative course of action. We are so few now after all.”

Prime steps forward, laying a hand on Ratchet's shoulder. An action that’s meant to be comforting. It isn’t. The edge of Prime's retracted energy field flickers against Ratchet's with a sickly wave of undefinable emotions that make Ratchet's tanks churn. He wants nothing more than to recoil from the dark twist of fury and hunger.

“Your concern is understandable. This is their planet, and they’re perfectly within their rights to dispatch threats.”

He shifts out from under Prime's hand, his plating crawling with echoes of that diseased energy field. “The war is over,” Ratchet replies, his tone soft. “Isn't that what you said?”

Finally, he turns toward his Prime, able to see each expression etched into those mobile faceplates.

“Yes.”

“And the surviving Decepticons?”

Prime cycles his optics. “It has been eons since any ‘Con has sought to defect. It stands to reason that they don’t intend to begin now.”

“But if they agreed to lay down arms?”

“If that should happen, however unlikely, I’d be willing to listen to their requests.” Prime pauses, exvents out in a passing semblance of a sigh. “The humans may have a different opinion on the matter. After all, the Decepticons aren’t apt to leave them in peace.”

In other words, a Decepticon presence isn’t conducive to playing nice with the humans. They don't want possible defectors; therefore, the Autobots won’t abide by them. If there is even another Autobot left who believes such a thing might be possible.

Ratchet stands alone apparently.

He squares his shoulders.

“You never gave them the chance to choose,” he says, unable to keep the accusation from his voice.

Where is the freedom now, Prime? Is he too abandoning his principles like his traitorous mentor?

“I put the safety of this planet and our allies above all else, Ratchet,” Prime returns without hesitation.

Disappointment cascades through his spark. But Ratchet can't pinpoint exactly why.

“I understand.”

And he does. Prime has done nothing but make himself abundantly clear.

Earth above all else. The Cybertronians had their chance.

Ratchet dips his head in a semblance of polite deference.

“Now, if you could excuse me, since Sideswipe can't make his appointment, there are other matters I must attend.”

Anything to get out of Prime's presence.

He feels a sudden need to be surrounded by ‘Cons. At least they are honest in their intentions.

Prime doesn't try to stop or question him. Ratchet is free to leave his tiny corner and the warehouse altogether. Free to head into the radius of destruction that is Chicago and the lair where he's hidden his pair of Seekers.

“Who were they?” Ratchet asks, bursting out of alt-mode and ducking into the limited space that houses the two. “You know, don't you?”

Thundercracker and Skywarp exchange glances.

“Nice to see you, too, medic,” Skywarp says with a fake chirp, hands busy as they pluck at something in the wiring of Thundercracker's wing.

Ratchet's hand slices through the air. “I don't care about pleasantries, Skywarp. Not right now. Who were they?”

Thundercracker lowers the datapad he's been scanning. It dangles from his claws, the screen dark.

“If you're referring to the three ‘Cons your allies just ruthlessly shot out of the sky, then yes, we know who they were.” Crimson optics flash with a tangible fury.

Skywarp's tone is light, but his words are accusing. “Why should you care anyway? They're just the enemy. Doesn't matter who they were.”

“It does to me.” Ratchet feels shame spread over his faceplate. “I have to know who we murdered.”

“A strong word.” Thundercracker arches an orbital ridge. “Murder? We are – or were – at war. And yet, you call it murder. Curious.”

Skywarp snickers. “You sound like a scientist when you say it like that.” He snaps a panel on the back of Thundercracker's shoulder shut and circles around his trinemate. “Can't you see how guilty he looks? Mech's practically seething with it.”

“Don't mock me,” Ratchet retorts, but it falls short of being scathing.

Skywarp's right, after all.

“That's what is so interesting about it.” Thundercracker's claw taps thoughtfully over the datapad. “Guilt? For a ‘Con's death? My how the tables have turned.”

“We did get an identity ping,” Skywarp adds, investigating the curve of his own hands, idly picking dirt and grime out from under them. “But as you know, protoforms are unable to receive communication transmissions. Pity that.”

They're playing with him. A growl resonates in Ratchet's chassis. No wonder they are Starscream's trinemates. Both of them excel in word games.

“Are you going to tell me or not?”

“Terradive. Jetblade. Sunspot.” Thundercracker recites with a bored tone and stares at Ratchet. “Does that ease your guilt, medic?”

Somehow, knowing their designations makes it worse. Ratchet's processor snatches up the names and applies them to the database he keeps in a separate partition, matching designation to file. All three of them fliers, lower-ranked Decepticons, no doubt seeking some member of high command for new orders. Perhaps their original mission was the lengthy search for the Allspark.

“Of course, it doesn't. You could probably knock out a mech with how vile Ratchet's field is.” Skywarp clicks a derogatory sound at Ratchet. “But that's not all that's crawled under your plating, is it?”

Ratchet's shoulders slump. He leans back, bracing himself against a piece of crumpled steel.

“Tell me about Starscream.”

Again, the Seekers exchange a look.

“You're full of demands today,” Skywarp remarks and holds out a hand to Ratchet, crooking his claws. “What do we get in return?”

“I saved your life.”

“Oh, yes. And what a life it is, this existence huddling in the remains of a fleshbag's warehouse.” Thundercracker flicks his wrist, datapad vanishing into subspace. “And all the while, your merciful Prime is a mere jaunt away, all too willing to slice off our helms. Yes, we have much to be grateful for.”

Skywarp waves a hand. “What you want to know about Starscream anyway? He doesn't matter anymore. He's dead.”

“He was your trinemate.”

Ratchet frowns, confused. He feels like he's missed something here.

“Yeah, well, he's not the Screamer he used to be either.” Skywarp's optics flash, field flaring with something before it draws back again, tightly contained. “He was dead long before your human blew his helm to shreds.”

“That simpering, cowardly aerial you saw? Not Starscream.” Thundercracker's lip components curl with disdain. “That's what he became in a vain effort to please Megatron. A shadow of the Air Commander we all followed.”

It sounds... uncomfortably familiar. Some of the very same thoughts Ratchet has begun to harbor about his own leader. A mech he once admired but who has so thoroughly changed over the eons that Ratchet doesn't recognize him anymore.

“His death doesn't bother you?”

“Not like you think it does.” Skywarp's wings flutter, betraying his discomfort with the topic. “We mourned Screamer eons ago.”

Thundercracker leans forward, pinning Ratchet down with his gaze. “Why all the questions, medic? What does it matter what we think about our glorious leader?”

Ratchet pulls an item from his subspace and thoughtlessly turns it over in his fingers. “Prime had me tend to the recovered frames of the fallen. Did I waste my time retrieving this for you?”

The thin piece of metal, Cybertronian in nature, bears the surprisingly intact etching of a Decepticon symbol. It’s all he could justify removing from Starscream's empty frame. He didn't know what ‘Cons might consider of import, if they even bothered with such a weak thing as sentiment.

His fingers tingle as one of the two Seekers scan his hand and the item he carries. Skywarp shifts closer, crouching in front of Ratchet, claws lifting toward the metal scrap and pausing.

“This was Starscream's.”

“You can tell from a scan?”

Thundercracker shakes his helm. “Not from the metal, no.”

He stands and leans over his comrade, plucking the metal from Ratchet's grasp. One talon scrapes over the painted metal, shaves of it flaking to the ground before he removes something impossibly tiny.

“From the ident chip,” he clarifies. “We all have them.”

“Embedded in your primary markers?” Ratchet's orbital ridges lift; it's not unlike the human military and their dog tags. “Clever. Very clever.”

“Among other locations, yes.” Thundercracker peers intently at the chip, his features softening. “We couldn't always go back to battlefields, but when we could, it helped identify the fallen. If only for Megatron to realize how many troops he had left.”

Ratchet winces, watching as Thundercracker passes the chip to Skywarp. He in turn cradles it with a reverence that belies their earlier statements of apathy regarding Starscream's fate.

“How many, do you think?” Skywarp asks, uncharacteristically solemn. A tiny croon builds in his vocalizer, a wordless sound of grief that ends nearly as soon as it begins.

“How many?”

“Of us are left,” Thundercracker clarifies, straightening.

Now standing, he towers over both the kneeling Skywarp and the sitting Ratchet. Strange that he doesn't feel threatened.

“With Cybertron gone, what is it? Thousands? Hundreds?”

Thundercracker sounds unexpectedly saddened.

“Dozens?” Ratchet finishes, tone vibrating in symphony with Thundercracker, their energy fields overlapping in a surge of sorrow that surpasses factional lines. “I don't know. We were scattered across the universe while searching for the Allspark. Many have died on Earth. More have died over the course of the war.”

He debates for all of a moment before continuing. What does it matter of the Seekers know how many of the Autobots are living?

“As of right now, there are eight Autobots on Earth. There are an untold number of ‘Cons in hiding, but those numbers are dwindling by the day. The humans won’t abide by any Decepticon presence, no matter how small.”

“They're hunting us,” Thundercracker observes.

“Yes. Ruthlessly.”

Skywarp curls his fingers over Starscream's ident chip and tucks it close to his frame. “Then we, as a species, are facing extinction. We're the last, dying revolutions of a fading spark.”

It is a sobering realization. Even optimistically, Ratchet can hope for a population grand total in the low thousands. Realistically, low hundreds. They have done a very good job of wiping each other out, and what have they to show for it? What were they fighting for?

No Allspark. No Cybertron. All they have are handfuls of refugees collecting themselves on this uninviting planet, while they mercilessly terminate any of the opposing faction. Further contributing to their species’ extinction.

Skywarp's words are haunting. Ratchet doesn't have anything to refute his statement. Neither does Thundercracker.

He leaves not long after, not overcome by anger but rattling with despair. Ratchet doesn't have answers to offer. Just the unrelenting truth. They are dying; they cannot revive themselves. Their Prime seems to think it a worthy sacrifice in order to ensure Megatron's destruction and any ambition that the Decepticon leader had left in his subordinates as well.

“Ratchet!”

The medic shifts into his root form, sensors scanning and locking down on the form of one William Lennox.

“Colonel,” he greets. “Did you need something?”

After all, it's not often that Lennox hollers his designation mere moments after Ratchet returns to their makeshift base.

“Got a minute?”

Ratchet hesitates. “I do have matters to--”

“It's important.” Lennox's expression is firm, unyielding.

“If you insist.” Ratchet scans their temporary headquarters, but no one seems to be paying any attention to the byplay. “To my medcorner? Or does this require a measure of privacy?”

Lennox crosses his arms. “You probably don't want anyone to overhear.”

Privacy then. Not that there are many options available. Everywhere Ratchet looks are observant eyes, eavesdropping ears, curious soldiers and recording equipment. There’s nowhere on base that is suitable.

Ratchet drops back into his alt-mode. He swings open the driver's side door.

“Get in.”

“Where to?”

Curiosity does not prevent the colonel from accepting the invitation. He gingerly takes a seat, avoiding the pedals and steering wheel, and Ratchet belatedly recalls all the practice Lennox had with Ironhide.

“Somewhere with privacy.”

Ratchet backs out of the warehouse and aims for the outer gate, which leads back into Chicago. If anything, there can't possibly be functioning recording equipment in the ruins of the great city. Though he’ll be carefully avoiding the sector in which he's stashed his Seekers.

He pulls up to the gate, but the bar is down, preventing him from leaving, which is a curious and recent change in protocol. It wasn't lowered a mere week ago.

“State your reason for leaving.” The soldier sounds bored. Like he doesn’t really care about the alien at his gate beyond the fact that he’s paid to do this.

Ratchet rocks back and forth on his wheels.

“The gate's never been lowered before.”

“Things change.” The man looks up from his computer, glancing out the window at Ratchet as his armed compatriot shifts restlessly. “State your reason for leaving.”

“Roll down the window, Ratchet,” Lennox requests.

He complies. The colonel leans out of it, smiling at the two men in the post. They snap to attention.

“We're heading out to do some recon. Got several sectors that're still hot.”

“Sorry, sir,” the armed soldier says. “We didn't realize...”

Lennox's smile widens, but they don't notice how it tightens around the edges. Ratchet sees it though.

“No harm. Just want you to let us through. Copy?”

“Yes, sir!”

The soldier at the computer drops back onto his stool and inputs into the console.

It's amazing how much having a human onboard changes their perspective. Most of the time, if Ratchet's using one of the other, more patrolled gates, the soldiers give him the third degree about his intentions. He usually has to lie about needing to strip the battlefield, obtain supplies, or some other nonsense.

The Autobots will never be trusted. It’s a disappointing realization. For all the Earth is to be their home, the humans will never treat the Autobots as though they belong. Earth cannot replace Cybertron. And the humans will never be kin.

Inquisition averted, Ratchet takes Lennox deep into Chicago, where the destruction is the worst, survivors are nil, and reconstruction is slated for absolute last. If the humans choose to rebuild at all. It's quiet here, a warzone, a grave reminder of the battle from several weeks back.

Lennox exits as soon as the door swings open. Ratchet eases into his root mode.

“Okay, Ratchet,” Lennox says after a careful glance around. “Spill.”

“To what matter are you referring?” He looks down at the much, much smaller human.

“Should I give you a list?”

Lennox quirks an eyebrow at him.

Ratchet gropes around behind him for a suitable perch. He finds a handy stack of empty vehicles that creak and groan as he sits.

“Lennox, I have neither the time nor the patience for games. What is it?”

“I saw you.”

“Yes. I frequent the base quite often.”

Lennox rubs his forehead. “You protested shooting the Decepticons down.”

“I’m a medic. My coding tends to err on the side of saving lives.” Where exactly is Lennox going with this?

“I don't think that's all there is to it.”

Ratchet ventilates noisily. “If you already know the answer, why bother asking?” Irritation coils within him.

“Come on, Ratchet. I'm not Mearing. You can trust me.”

This and that are two different things. Ratchet looks down at Lennox. Brother in arms, Ironhide's favorite human, someone who has fought beside them from day one. Someone who would die for them.

“I wish that were true, Colonel.”

And he means it. Lennox is one of the few humans that Ratchet feels is worth the air they breathe. Samuel, Epps, and Graham are also included on that small list. Lennox’s men, his mate and offspring round it out.

He has yet to make up his mind about the Spencer femme. Dealing with Mikaela's abandonment is difficult enough, particularly with the way she treated Bee at the end. The fact that Sam ultimately chose Bumblebee over her is a point in his favor, however.

Lennox shifts his weight. “I've always been on the Autobots’ side.”

“In spirit,” Ratchet concedes. “You aren’t your own man though. And I do not trust the hands that hold your reins.”

All signs of disagreement disappear from Lennox's expression. His eyes are too old for his face then.

“I don't blame you for that,” he acknowledges. “Sometimes, I'm not sure I trust my government. They have a history of making bad decisions. Case in point.” One hand gestures behind him, encompassing the destruction that is Chicago.

Interesting. But even more intriguing is Lennox's face. The emotion that flickers so tangibly into his eyes. Disappointment in his government, himself perhaps. Grief over what they lost.

Lennox's gaze flicks up to Ratchet. “So you think I'll be forced to reveal whatever you tell me. That as long as it's an order, I'll obey.”

Granted, Lennox does have a history of ignoring orders he doesn't agree with. But still, there are other aspects to consider.

“You have a family. You have a responsibility to protect them. Earth is your home. You can risk neither.”

Once, long ago, Ratchet had had family, too. A home. Now, he has neither. But he won’t have Lennox’s stolen from him. Not for this.

The human frowns thoughtfully. “But Earth is supposed to be your home now. That's what Prime said.”

“I don't believe your government approves or will allow it. The war’s over after all. The Decepticon threat is minimal at best.” Ratchet leans back, lifting his optics to the sun peeking through the remains of a building. “We have outlived our usefulness.”

“Is that why you protested?” he asks like he already knows the answer. “To give us a reason to let the Autobots stay?”

“No. I don't think you could understand my reasoning. It goes against everything we've done for the past five years as allies.”

No human, no matter how trusting, can comprehend why Ratchet regrets. Why he aches from his spark outward.

“Try me.”

“Lennox--”

“No,” the colonel cuts Ratchet off. “I get why you think you can't trust me. I do. But I get to go home and tell Annabelle why she won't see Hide again. And I can't even tell her that he died for a good reason. Not without lying.”

Silence swells between them. Lennox steps back, finds his own piece of apocalypse to make a seat.

Ironhide had trusted Lennox, more than could be expected for their working relationship. And Lennox had trusted him back. Had taken him countless times to see his mate and child. Had made him family of sorts. Offered Ironhide a home at their farm.

Maybe that's all the proof Ratchet needs to be truthful. Within reason of course. He doesn't think spilling the secret about his hidden Seekers is logical right now.

“Ratchet,” Lennox insists. “I just want to understand.”

The mech shutters his optics. “It’s a concept I don’t think you could understand, William.”

“I think I'd get more than you think.”

“Would you?” He cycles his optics on, meeting Lennox straightforwardly. “And if I told you that destroying the Decepticons is something I regret, would you understand that?”

Lennox flinches, his gaze shifting away.

“They were the enemy.”

“Yes. They were.”

“They killed Jazz. And Ironhide. And so many others”

It’s Ratchet's turn to flinch.

“Yes, they did.” His vocal tones are as quiet as the colonel's.

“They helped destroy your planet.”

A quiet ventilation escapes Ratchet.

“A fact I do not dispute.”

And all arguments he has had with himself over and over for the past few weeks.

“But you regret it.”

Ratchet lowers his helm, leaning forward to put himself and the human on more even ground.

“Once William... many eons before Earth was ever habitable, once we were merely Cybertronians. Not Decepticons, not Autobots, but one interconnected web of kin.”

He waits for Lennox to protest. To claim that the past is the past, and it can't possibly matter anymore.

Instead, Lennox doesn't speak. He waits. For Ratchet to explain himself?

Ratchet lets the silence build for a moment as he contemplates how much he should tell Lennox. Everything? Just enough? Maybe it's time for a little honesty.

“When the war first started... the majority of Cybertron rallied under Megatron's banner,” Ratchet begins, slowly at first. “What he desired, what it seemed he desired, was the sort of ideal that many of us craved deep in our sparks. And one I think you in particular would understand.”

Lennox inclines his head.

“Freedom.”

“Yes. Freedom. The right to choose. The opportunity to become something more than the path you were given.” Ratchet drums his fingers over his thigh plating. “You see, Cybertron was split into two broad categories: soldiers and civilians. Those were then further subdivided. Soldiers – war-builds – fought our wars. Protected us. Died for us. And in return, the civilians ostracized them.”

Lennox is studying him now. Clearly giving his utmost attention.

“What do you mean?”

Ratchet lets out air and feels the guilt of millennia. “We were afraid of the war-builds. They were bigger. Stronger. So we tried to keep them in chains except when we needed them. They didn't fit into our shining Golden Age.”

He shutters his optics, processor calling up the memories, the archives. All the things he himself had thought and done without a spare flicker to the consequences.

“They weren't allowed true citizenship. Didn't have access to the same privileges as civilians. They couldn't apply for mentorship, become an apprentice, or attend the academy. Much less, change their occupation. They were locked in a caste, so to speak. It was what the Council had decided was best for Cybertron.”

“So only the soldiers were unhappy?” Lennox frowns. “You can't tell me that soldiers outnumbered civilians.”

“No, they didn't.” Ratchet tilts his head and looks at nothing. “There were others who felt similarly discriminated. Miners. Constructicons. Laborists. They were treated little better. Even though, they had more supposed rights, they weren’t allowed to exercise them.”

“But not all ‘Cons were war-builds, right? And not all war-builds were Decepticons. Hide was one.”

Ratchet's orbital ridges lift. Ironhide had been more open with his charge than any of them even realized. Even now, most mechs wouldn’t admit if they’d begun as soldiers. At least, most Autobots wouldn’t.

“It is, after all, a choice. But yes. In the beginning, the Decepticons wanted freedom. And the Autobots wanted to stop them from mindlessly slaughtering and seeking power. Megatron could be charismatic. And perhaps back then, he meant what he claimed. After all, he was our Lord High Protector.”

“Must've been a long time ago.” Lennox draws up his knees, curling his arms over them.

Ratchet gives a nod.

“So... all the fights, what were you aiming for? How were you going to win the war?”

Ratchet now shifts his gaze to the horizon. The sunset is painting the dull sky in shades of reds and orange. Ironic that such beauty is caused by pollution.

“Prime always believed that defeating Megatron was key. That the path to peace and freedom could only be obtained through dethroning Megatron.”

“And now?” A contemplative hum rises in Lennox's throat. “Is this the victory you fought for?”

Ratchet offers a derisive snort. “This wasn't a victory.”

“But the war is over.”

“So they say.” Ratchet looks directly at Lennox, grief and disappointment leaking into his field in such a manner that even a human could feel it. “Our rallying cry used to be til all are one. Now, it's become till all ‘Cons are dead. Tell me how that's freedom.”

“Old grudges are hard to forget.” Lennox offers him a grim smile. “And you all have them now. Maybe a truce isn't possible.”

Ratchet's hands form fists at his side, a tremble in his frame testament to the roil churning beneath the surface. His coding and his spark are in conflict once again.

“Maybe,” he admits. “But we won't know unless we try.”

“You know that Mearing would never allow defected ‘Cons to live here. Not unless they were bolted to a table and maybe not then.” Lennox rubs his face, scruffy with unshaven beard. “She barely tolerates the Autobots.”

“I'm aware. And Prime, in the end, will side with the humans. Even if it means surrendering us to extinction.” He pauses, the weight of their condition sitting heavy on his shoulders. “Though that may be a moot point without the Allspark.”

“Do you really think a ‘Con would surrender? Or even agree to a truce?” the human poses.

“I just want to give them a chance to choose.”

Ratchet sinks down on his hydraulics. His frame is heavier than it should be, and his spark feels like lead in his chassis.

“Once,” he says as Lennox exhales heavily, “we all fought for what we believed in. Once, this fight actually meant something. Once, there were actual sides.” Ratchet lets out air, too. “I just don't know which was the right one anymore. If there ever was one.”

***

Chapter Text

War Without End: Ratchet

Part Four

-------------------------------------------

Energon readings detected in Sydney. Prime… Prime, report to ops. Repeat: Energon readings detected in Sydney...

Ratchet lifts his helm as the announcement comes through the PA system.

“That's the second time this week.” He lowers his welder, giving Sideswipe a temporary reprieve from fixing shattered armor.

“And here I am, stuck under your tender mercies.” The frontliner groans dramatically.

Ratchet darkens his optics and turns away, activating his comm. --Prime, it's been weeks. Their energy reserves must be low.--

--Then it will make them easier to subdue. Thank you, Ratchet.--

He exvents loudly, though Prime can't hear the irritated noise.

--That's not what I meant! I'm suggesting diplomacy.--

Surely, Prime remembers what that is?

But no luck. There's a notable pause in Prime's response, whether he's listening to the humans or praying for patience, Ratchet doesn't know.

--We've discussed this before. It's not an option.--

--Why not? Because the humans say so?--

--Ratchet…--

--Prime, the war is over. We need to move beyond this!--

The Prime's rising annoyance filters through. --We can't afford the risk of a second chance. The humans--

“Slag them! They think us war machines! Worse that I can't argue different!”

A finger taps over his arm plating. The ring of metal on metal cuts through the tension building in Ratchet's energy field.

“Uh, Ratch?” Sideswipe pokes him again.

Ratchet swings toward Sides, who taps his audial and visibly winces. Ratchet flinches, realizing that he'd transmitted the last over an open comm. Every Autobot within range had heard him snapping at their leader.

Fraggit.

Performing a much needed systems check, he struggles to get his temper under control, opting instead for the diplomatic coding still buried in the deepest parts of his processor.

--Prime, please--

Be the Prime you used to be. The Prime we all need right now.

A sharp rebuke sends a whine of feedback through the private comm.

--This is not up for debate right now. We'll discuss this when I return.--

Prime ends the transmission before Ratchet can reply. The medic knows better than to contact him any further. The decision has been made.

Ratchet mutters an invective and turns his attention back to Sideswipe. The bladed menace is watching him with that eerie way he has, the kind that makes shivers crawl up Ratchet's backstrut. When Sides looks like that, Ratchet's always felt like Sunstreaker's looking back at him and not his brother.

“What was that about?”

“Nothing of concern to you,” Ratchet dismisses brusquely. He waves at the berth. “Get back up there.”

Sideswipe arches an orbital ridge. “When it's got your field that sickening, my curiosity compels me. Do share, Ratchet. My spark's got to know.”

“I think your spark will keep on spinning regardless. Sit.”

“No need to get snappy with me.” Sideswipe hops back onto the berth, lying back as though taking a vacation, the very image of indolence. “I'm just an innocent bystander.”

Ratchet's mouth quirks. “Bystander you may be, but innocent you have never been.”

“Blaster to the spark!” Sideswipe makes a grand, faked gesture of injury. “You always know how to wound a mech.” He reaches out, knuckles brushing over Ratchet's plating. “C'mon, you know I can keep a secret.”

“Ratchet!”

The sharp tones in a distinctly human voice make Ratchet go very still. His very cables and joints tighten as he turns, ever so slowly, to greet the unwanted visitor. The lack of privacy in his medcorner is never so apparent as when any human can just wander in, Lennox and their friendly allies notwithstanding.

“If you don't mind, Director Mearing, I'm with a patient,” Ratchet says, concise and careful, as he directs a gimlet optic down at the woman.

She stands ever fearless. Her face is pinched with the very expression a caretaker might give a youngling.

“Sideswipe can wait.” Mearing gestures sharply to her assistant who scurries to hand her a bag and what appears to be a sheaf of documentation. “I need to know what in the seven blazes do you think you need with eight tons of acetylene.”

“Medical purposes,” Ratchet replies.

If she wants details, let her grill her tech people. Ratchet's not going to make it any easier for the humans to understand their biology or technology. Not when it's been proven that they will turn on the Autobots all too quickly.

“Medical purposes,” Mearing repeats. Her tone is flat, skeptical. “Not, for instance, weapons?”

Ratchet arches an orbital ridge. “We have our own. Why would we need your substandard weaponry?”

“Why do you need eight tons of our supply if you have your own?”

“This and that are two different arguments, Director. I need acetylene to ensure that the Autobots are in healthy, working condition.”

Ratchet knows, without even checking, that Prime is gone, off to kill some Decepticons. He’s on his own against the humans. As always.

She doesn't look convinced. “We'll consider it.” Mearing consults her notes. “And for your information, we will not be supplying you with mercury, platinum, or palladium.”

Sideswipe makes a noise, a tonal sound that would mean little to the humans but speaks paragraphs to Ratchet. He tosses Sides a warning look and directs his attention back to Mearing, reaching for every polite bit of coding he owns.

“May I inquire as to why?”

“Too dangerous. Too expensive. Not worth the investment.” Mearing checks something off with her pen, looking up at Ratchet from above her spectacles. “Or are they medical supplies, too?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm.” Her frown deepens. “As for plutonium... not as long as I draw breath. The answer is a firm, no argument, no.”

The request for plutonium had been a long shot anyway, but Ratchet had hoped that by asking for something outrageous, the more reasonable requirements might be given with minimal argument.

“Very well,” Ratchet concedes. “Nevertheless, I am in need of those supplies. The Autobots still require numerous repairs after the battle for Chicago.”

Mearing looks up from her notebook, closing it with an audible thump. “I’ll put your requests under consideration. There are procedures to be followed after all, and I’m not the only one with hands on the budget.”

“I don't recall so much bureaucracy surrounding my last supply requisition.”

Her lips twitch. “Things change.” She tucks the notebook under her arm. “Now, if you'll excuse me.”

Mearing turns on a perfunctory heel and strides out of his medcorner, her assistant scurrying to keep up and nearly dropping her bundle of assorted bags. Ratchet watches her leave, tracks her progress across the warehouse, and doesn't turn back toward Sideswipe until he's sure the director won’t be reappearing.

“Primus, if ever there was a squishy that deserved to be squished,” Sideswipe mutters, subvocally and in Cybertronian for good measure.

Ratchet looks at him. “However true that may be, don't let Prime hear you saying such a thing. He might think you mean it. And then, where would you be?”

Dead with the Decepticons probably.

“He just doesn't get my sense of humor.” Sideswipe puts in with a verbal grin, thankfully missing Ratchet’s unspoken addendum. “Not like you.”

“I'm honored.” Ratchet reaches for a scanner in preparation for dealing with Sideswipe so he can finally get the noisy nuisance out of his medcorner.

“You should be.”

For a moment, there's comfortable silence. Ratchet dares think that Sideswipe's been suitably distracted from his earlier line of questioning.

Until he feels those sharp optics on him again with that same eerie gaze that Sideswipe bears sometimes. It's enough to make a mech uneasy, want to back up a step. Except that Ratchet never backs down from anything.

“What?” the medic demands as his clunky scanner starts up with a whine of terribly outdated hardware. He might as well have a polaroid and pickaxe for all the good it does him.

“You never answered my question,” Sides replies almost sing-song and painfully familiar.

Jazz, dead though he now is, still has a lingering and unfortunate influence.

“I never said I was going to either. Be still,” Ratchet orders.

Sideswipe retracts his tires, pedes emerging to prod at the berth. He's at least learned his lesson about track marks.

“Can't. Mystery's afoot. Does it got anything to do with what happened last week?”

As in, last week when Ratchet protested the shameful act of shooting the arriving ‘Cons out of the sky. The decision hadn't seemed to bother anyone else. Yes, of course his recent ill behavior is a result of that, but Ratchet isn't about to tell anyone that.

“I need to concentrate,” he mutters instead and aims the scanner at Sideswipe, checking all the basics first, fuel levels and the like. The frontliner has been known on occasion to forget to top off his fluids.

“Uh huh. An avoiding answer if I ever heard one,” the silver mech decides. “Do I need to get Prime involved?”

Ratchet nearly flinches. “I outrank you, Sideswipe.”

As a matter of fact, with both Jazz and Hide gone and until – if – Prowl arrives, Ratchet is second-in-command. How easily they all forget that. How easily he forgets that.

“Hmm. So it has to do with Prime.” Sideswipe tucks his arms behind his head, an all too human gesture of repose. “Prime, who's off hunting down Decepticons. I think I'm starting to see a pattern here.”

Slag it all to the pits. Sideswipe is not as dumb as he pretends to be. He can and does know how to read between the lines, and his oddly tangential way of processing information ensures that he arrives at answers and bypasses all barriers. Often mere seconds before Prowl, whose linear, logical center makes him the perfect tactician.

Ratchet should’ve thrown Sideswipe out the very moment the silver bot expressed his curiosity, his maintenance be fragged.

“You're running low on coolant,” Ratchet comments instead as the scanner finishes its achingly slow examination and transmits the results to his HUD.

“Yeah. And my knee joint's scrap. I've got grime in my articulators – Sunny's gonna kill me when he finds out – and I need a coil of platinum yesterday. Tell me something I don't know.” His hand slips out, fingers coiling around Ratchet's arm, forcing the medic to look at him. “Gotta let it out somehow, Ratchet.”

The medic jerks his arm free, turning away to rifle through his crates of supplies. He's got to have a twist of assorted metals here somewhere and maybe a bit more lubricant for that knee.

“You're relentless.”

“Course I am. ‘Cons don't go down easy. Not even the drones.” Sideswipe's vocal tones turn musing, stating a simple fact.

Ratchet gives up his fruitless search. “I don't have any platinum,” he says with irritation. “Mearing's probably not going to give me any either.”

“Weird, isn't it?” Sides shifts as though to sit up, and when Ratchet doesn't protest, he drags himself completely upright. “Eons of war and we're right back where we started, at the bottom of the heap trying to climb our way up.”

Ratchet braces his hands on the edge of the crate, which creaks under his additional weight. Sideswipe is one who could have probably joined the Decepticons, so many eons ago. He would’ve wanted the same freedoms they proclaimed. He had been at the bottom of the social hierarchy. And Ratchet's not blind or stupid. He knows that there are many Autobots who think that Sideswipe and his brother are on the wrong side. That they’re more Decepticon than Autobot.

Eons of war and now they’re no longer Cybertronian. They are Decepticon or Autobot. As if the two are completely dissimilar, perhaps even separate species.

“It makes you wonder, doesn't it?” Ratchet questions, intending rhetoric but also fully curious as to Sideswipe's opinion on the matter. “If the Decepticons were right after all.”

The silence that falls is heavy. Sides’ energy field betrays his surprise.

“Is that what's grinding your gears?”

Ratchet waves it off. “Never mind.”

He lifts his hands, trying to dismiss the line of conversation. It's frag near treason, isn't it? And he's already crossed the lines by saving the two ‘Cons. He doesn't dare drag Sideswipe into it, too.

Sideswipe, however, is like a sparkling with an energon goodie. He's not letting it go so easily.

“I have wondered,” he murmurs very softly. Too softly.

Ratchet looks at Sideswipe, whose gaze has turned distant, optics focused on something only he can see. There's a distinct glaze in them that indicates the accessing of old memory files.

“Me and Sunny chose to be Autobots, but with our origins, we should’ve been the first in line on ‘Con sign-up day.” Sideswipe frowns, his optics dimming. “Sunny didn't trust the Council, but he trusted Megatron's intentions even less.”

And wherever Sunstreaker goes, Sideswipe follows. It goes without even needing to be said.

“You could've been neutral.” Ratchet braces himself against the crates.

Sideswipe grinds a few gears together, a sound of disdain. “Not an option. Not after the war trampled our livelihood. Prime and Megatron were fighting over every scrap of real estate on Cybertron. Nowhere was neutral.”

He has a point. All neutrals were potential Autobots to Megatron. Prime, for the most part, granted them their impartiality, but Megatron was ruthless.

“You chose the Autobots as the lesser of two evils?”

Ratchet doesn’t even have to feign interest. He honestly wants to know.

“You could say that. We've done a lot in the Autobot name. Dismantled more mechs than I can count.” Sides pauses, lifting a hand and unsheathing a blade, watching it slide free with the molten blue of heated metal. “We're not the mechs we used to be. Can't be again.” He drops his hands and shifts toward Ratchet. “I have to believe we picked the right side. Cause if we were wrong, I'd have to turn my blades on my own spark.”

It's a heavy confession. Ratchet never knew that Sideswipe had his doubts. The silver mech has always seemed so certain of himself. He never hesitates; he’s the first to dive into battle and doesn't flinch at the dirty work.

“Sunstreaker?”

“He's still alive. I'd know if he wasn't.” Sideswipe thumps his chest pointedly. “Trust me. And he'd tell you the same thing.”

“No matter what?” Ratchet folds his arms over his chassis.

Sideswipe inclines his helm. “We gave our vow to Prime. That's what matters.”

“Even if he's strayed from the path?”

“Who hasn't?” Sideswipe lifts his shoulders in mimicry of a human shrug. “Diplomacy. Truces. That slag isn't my job. Prime aims. I shoot. I have to believe in that.”

“It's that simple?”

“Because I need it to be.” Sideswipe's mouthplates curve in a crooked grin, spreading his arms out helplessly. “So you gonna fix me or what?”

Conversation concluded. Change the subject, medic. Though this has definitely been revelations for pondering.

Ratchet lifts his optics to the heavens and shoos the silver mech back up onto the berth. “Didn't you hear, Mearing? I shouldn't waste my resources.”

Sideswipe throws his helm back and laughs, his amusement carrying through Ratchet's medcorner and no doubt attracting attention. Neither he nor Sideswipe particularly care.

o0o0o

The next morning dawns crisp and bright. The sky is awash in shades of color they’d never have seen on Cybertron. For all that Ratchet misses his home planet, there are certain things about Earth that are pleasing. The sunrises for instant.

The beauty of the scenery, however, does little to distract from the somber pall hanging over their temporary headquarters. Whether out of respect for the Autobots or the fear of being squished, the humans are being suitably cheerless. Mearing has chosen today, of all days, to serve as a funeral for the Autobots lost in the line of duty.

It's been three months since the battle in Chicago. Ratchet isn't sure he should be insulted that it’s taken so long for the ceremony to be performed. Was it intentional? Were there other important things?

No way to know without asking.

Human recovery has been done with for weeks. A month really. All survivors are either passed or in stable condition, sure to recover. Homeless residents of Chicago have been moved to temporary living facilities or provided transportation to family members who can house them.

True, they are still actively hunting down the hiding ‘Cons, but a brief delay in that line of orders couldn't hurt. It's not as though said Decepticons are harming human population. No, they are desperately concealing themselves, trying to forestall the inevitable. Oh, sure there have been thefts here and there, mostly fuel or supplies for repairs. But interestingly, there’ve been no fatalities.

Despite this, it's taken three months to arrange a ceremony for the Autobots. What that says about their alliance, Ratchet is reluctant to contemplate.

There’s nothing Cybertronian about the funeral, save for those being “honored” and those participating. The hanger housing the empty frames has been thrust wide open. There's a paved road between it and the aircraft waiting to transport the shipping container and its contents to burial at sea.

Humans and Autobots alike line up to either side of the road. Ratchet stands somewhere in the middle, between Sideswipe and Dino, Lennox perched near his collar. Bumblebee is here as well, though missing Sam and Carly. Prime’s closest to the aircraft, silent. The Wreckers are on the other side. NEST soldiers fill in the gaps with Mearing and her entourage standing opposite Prime.

Someone starts playing a song, instrumental only, a human melody. Ratchet could probably access the internet, find out the name, but he doesn't care. It's not Cybertronian. This is a concession to human sensibilities, nothing more. There’s no honor in being dumped at sea, shoved together into a cargo container, parts all jumbled and mismatched. It's a desecration.

The humans bring out Jolt first. As the most intact of the fallen Autobots, his frame is the most recognizable. He's been laid out on a flatbed, a mimicry of recharge repose. As he passes, the NEST soldiers snap into a salute, one that they maintain.

The procession moves on until the end, where Prime lifts Jolt's frame and places him inside the cargo container. His hand brushes Jolt's chestplate, over his nonexistent spark, and he bows his helm. He says nothing, but the air is humming with energy fields emanating grief. In this, for once, the Autobots are all in agreement.

It's a tangible thing. Surely, the humans can feel it. All of the surviving Autobots and their fields synching, creating a low, audible hum of sorrow.

The rest emerge in the same fashion. Skids and Mudflap, together in death as they had been in life. The pieces of Que, neatly arranged and carefully welded in semblance of a full frame. The surviving remnants of Ironhide, placed in a small container with his spare weaponry arranged around it, carefully emptied of any technology the humans might try to steal when they think the Autobots aren't looking.

They had elected not to bury Sentinel with his former brethren.

Prime is the one who seals the shipping container, the back of it painted with an enormous Autobot symbol in bright red. And for a long moment, no one says anything. The humans wrap up their song, and silence reigns supreme. Ratchet's already mourned, but it's hard not to get caught up in the moment.

He said his goodbyes a long time ago, but the ceremony has succeeded in making the pain rise afresh. What did they die for? To protect a planet that will never be home for them. For ideals the Autobots have forgotten.

The cargo container is loaded into the aircraft and the bay closed. As the plane taxies toward the runway, contents safely stored, Ratchet feels his spark give a lurch. It's not right, his processor tells him. His spark agrees.

“All right, gentlemen.” Mearing's voice cuts through the solemn atmosphere, pitched loud enough to be heard by all as she claps her hands together sharply. “We’ve work to do. Decepticons to track down, and we're moving into Sector 16 by the end of the week.”

Like a broken string, the joined resonance of sorrow snaps. Ratchet's own energy field shifts to irritation, sparks with anger. Barely five minutes of respect is all the woman can offer?

A low growl builds in his vocalizer.

Lennox's hand, warm and comforting, pats Ratchet's face. “Not now,” he murmurs, voice barely loud enough to be heard. “You can't make a scene.”

Oh, but he wants to. This is ridiculous. Uncivil. It stomps up and down their supposed alliance. And Prime stands there, not so much as a blip of protest in his field. He says something to Leadfoot, not that Ratchet can hear what it is, but he's fragged certain it doesn’t have anything to do with the funeral. And--

Wait a klik.

He turns away from the crowd.

“Did she say Sector 16?” Ratchet asks of his companion, who has yet to disembark.

“Yeah. It's next on the list. We're to tag buildings for either reconstruction, demolishing, or preservation.” Lennox sounds confused. “Why?”

To anyone else, it would mean nothing. To Ratchet, it's everything. Sector 16 is where he's stashed Thundercracker and Skywarp. They are well concealed from passing cameras and satellite imagery, but from energon detectors and scanning soldiers? Not so much. No way that NEST will miss two conscious and capable Seekers.

He has to move them. They are both capable of flight, but where would they go? Off planet? The long range defense system would shoot them down before they could clear the atmosphere. Even if they could make it, where would they go from there, as low on energon and still in need of some repair. Skywarp's processor still glitches, Thundercracker's thrusters are wonky, and both of them desperately need maintenance and a good, long defrag.

Ratchet realizes that he's going to need some kind of help. In order to move them. In order to find a place that they can safely remain. In order to continue concealing their presence.

“Ratchet?” Lennox prompts him again, a touch of concern in his voice.

The medic lifts a hand, gesturing for Lennox to move from his shoulder and onto his palm.

“Lennox,” Ratchet whispers as the man completes the shift, looking up at Ratchet and completely at ease twenty feet above the ground. “You once said that I could trust you. Now, I'm afraid I must test that promise.”

“What's going on, Ratchet?” He folds his arms over his chest. “Is this about Mearing?”

“I can't explain it here.” Ratchet glances around.

The Autobots and gathered NEST soldiers have dispersed to their respective duties. The aircraft has already risen into the air, heading for the Laurentian Abyss. Prime appears to be deeply in discussion with Mearing. No one is paying them strict attention, but that doesn't mean no one's listening. There are too many eyes and ears on the base.

“I'm asking for trust, William,” he continues, optics catching and holding the human’s blue eyes. “I need your help, and time is against me.”

He doesn't know if it's the gravity in his vocal tones or the anxiety that runs across his plating in a tangible shudder that convinces the colonel. But Lennox nods sharply.

“Okay,” he says. “Let's talk.”

Ratchet lowers his hand to the ground so Lennox can step down and then drops into his alt-mode. His passenger door swings open in invitation.

Lennox doesn't hesitate, not even for a second. He climbs into the seat and settles comfortably. Ratchet swings the door shut and heads toward the gate. This time, no one stops them, the guard waving them through without a second glance.

“What's this about?” Lennox asks, once they’re in Chicago and out of the line of sight of their comrades.

Ratchet drives in silence for a moment, steering toward Sector 16. He considers what he's going to say, how he's going to approach this. He's taking a huge risk here. Lennox could just as easily turn on him, tell Prime the truth, have Ratchet in the brig for his betrayal and the Seekers executed.

Ironhide had trusted him though. With his past. With his life.

For that, Ratchet will take this chance.

“What I'm about to tell you, Lennox, could put both our lives at risk.”

The colonel stares pointedly at the radio dials. That’s where most humans seem to direct their attention toward.

“I'll take that chance.”

“Lennox--”

“Are you a terrorist, Ratchet?” he interrupts, eyebrows lifting. “You gonna assassinate the president or kill Prime in his sleep?”

“No!” Ratchet is horrified by the mere suggestion.

“Then tell me!” Lennox insists. “I can take it.”

Ratchet turns down an adjoining side street, one thankfully clear of detritus. There is no way to say this than other to be blunt. Tact won't help him here.

“Ten weeks ago, I discovered a pair of Decepticon Seekers in Chicago's ruins. They were alive.”

Lennox doesn’t even pause before saying, “You didn't kill them.”

“No.”

“And you didn't tell Prime.”

“Again, no.”

Lennox takes a deep, audible breath. “You fixed them.”

The colonel's tone is perfectly neutral, which makes it difficult for Ratchet to gauge his opinion. But so far, things seem to be going well.

“They are not fully operational yet but essentially, yes,” Ratchet replies.

Silence fills the space between them, filled with the negligible shifts as Ratchet steers over and around the debris-strewn road.

Why?” Lennox finally breathes.

“For reasons you can't understand.”

“Try me.”

Ratchet cycles his cooling system and pulls to a stop inside an alley just across from the warehouse where his Seekers are hidden. He sinks down on his hydraulics.

“We are so few now, Lennox. And what we do we have left to fight over? Once, I used to be a diplomat and a healer. If the war is truly over, then I long to be so again.”

Lennox scrubs a hand over his hair, slouching down in the seat. He exhales audibly again, a touch of frustration accompanying the noise.

“Humans go to war all the time. We've never wiped ourselves out like you guys have.” His frown deepens into a scowl. “I can't imagine fighting until there's no one left. I'm a soldier, Ratchet; it's what I do. But even I don't get how Prime or Megatron could let things get so far.”

“Neither do I.”

Perhaps the human can understand this. There’s a point, several of them even, that the war could’ve ended. But both Prime and Megatron had kept on fighting through it. Until the reasons for the fighting in the first place were drowned beneath a deluge of pain and death.

“You're telling me this now.” Lennox rubs his palms down his thigh. His gaze shifts to the window and the enclosing dim of the alleyway. “So I can only guess that something's happened.”

“I've kept them hidden, but they’re in Sector 16. This sector.”

“The one next on Mearing's list. You'll need to move them then.” His eyes narrow in thought. “You said they were Seekers. Like Starscream? Couldn't they just fly?”

Ratchet flags their current status and skims it. “Skywarp is capable, but Thundercracker's thruster is unstable. He can't make sustained flight.”

“And the evil, ruthless ‘Con won't leave his friend behind.” Lennox's words are thick with bitterness. “What can I do?”

Were Ratchet in his root mode, he would’ve cycled his optics in surprise. As it is, he reboots his audials.

“Do you realize what you're agreeing to, Lennox?”

“I damn well get it, Ratchet,” he retorts fiercely. “I'm an adult. I know what I'm doing. So what do you need?”

A surge of affection pulses through Ratchet's spark for this human, this one man who is the best his species could offer. One of the few that Ratchet can dare consider kin.

“A place to hide them. A means to get them there. And a glitch in the systems to conceal their relocation.”

“We can detect Cybertronian hacks now. I see why you needed some help.” Lennox nods, inhaling with deliberation. “Okay. We got two days. I know where you can keep them. Just have to figure out how to get them there.”

“Where?”

“You know that my grandfather died last year. Left me this huge house up in North Dakota, but who the hell wants to live there? So it's sitting empty.” Lennox's lips curve with a smile. “There's acres of open land and very little populace.”

“That is most kind of you.” Ratchet stumbles, uncertain how to word himself properly. “I owe you many thanks, Lennox. This goes above and beyond--”

“You don't owe me anything,” the human puts in firmly and reaches out, tentatively patting Ratchet's dashboard like he has probably done so many times before with Hide. “You guys gave up everything to protect Earth, and the best my government can do is make you sleep in a warehouse. It's enough to make me hate my own kind, you know.”

Ratchet swings open the door so that Lennox can get out. Then, he slides into his bipedal form, stretching his limbs comfortably.

“We brought our war to you first.”

“But you didn't have to stay. You didn't have to protect us. It would’ve been easier, I know, to just let the ‘Cons have Earth and keep going. Especially after the Allspark was destroyed.”

He looks down at the small human. “Nevertheless, I will find some way to express my gratitude.”

Ratchet straightens and peers out of the alley, into the street. No intelligent life to be found.

“For now, allow me to introduce you to my patients.”

“They're not going to try to kill me?” Lennox poses. “Because this isn't the way I want to die. I haven’t even had the chance to threaten any of Annabelle’s future boyfriends.”

A small chuckle leaves Ratchet as he crosses the street and ducks under the collapsed pillar that hides the opening. Ironhide was right about this one.

“As long as you’re with me, you should be fine. I would, however, suggest that you let me do the talking. At least at first.”

“Gotcha.”

Lennox falls silent and lets Ratchet take the lead. He moves carefully through the delicately balanced debris, sending an identity ping ahead of himself so that Thundercracker and Skywarp know that he's coming. He wraps a warning that he's not alone with it.

“Primus, TC, he's even worse today. Mech needs to cross cables and soon,” Skywarp drawls as Ratchet steps into view. At present, the darker Seeker is crouched on the ground behind Thundercracker, who leans forward so that Skywarp can peer into his left thruster.

Ratchet tosses a glare at the irritating mech. “Get your digits out of his thruster. I don't want you to frag up my hard work.”

“I'm a Seeker, medic. I know more about this than you do,” Skywarp retorts with a sneer, optics flashing.

“You know field repairs. Not delicate fine-tuning. Claws. Off.”

“Warp,” Thundercracker says, waving a hand at his trinemate. “He's right.”

Skywarp huffs, dropping his hands and rising to his pedes. “You were the one complaining about an itch in your sensory line. See if I help you again.” He shifts a glare to Ratchet, dropping heavily onto the makeshift berth. “You said you weren't alone. Forget how to count, medic?”

“He has a human with him,” Thundercracker corrects, his optics glancing past Ratchet to Lennox who’s wisely hovering behind Ratchet's left leg. “Fine tune your sensors, scraplet.”

“Older than you,” Skywarp grumbles and nibbles on the end of a clawtip. “What did ya bring a fleshbag for? I don't need any more toys.”

“He's not a toy,” Ratchet replies with a noticeable rev of his engine. “Lennox is here because I need his help. And so do you.”

“From a human? Unlikely.” Thundercracker straightens and fails to hide his wince as something pinches in his dorsal armor. Likely whatever had prompted him to make the ill-conceived request of Skywarp to take a look.

Ratchet ventilates loudly and storms between the Seekers, circling around Thundercracker and gripping the back of his neck. He pushes Thundercracker forward to get a better look at him, activating his personal scanners. A crimped sensory line is the obvious perpetrator and a pressed cydraulic line, too. No wonder he feels... irritated.

“You have to be moved,” Lennox says, speaking for himself now that the Decepticons haven't instantly aimed to kill. “NEST operatives will be moving to clear this sector soon, and there's a high chance they'll find you.”

Skywarp makes a rude noise. “We can handle humans.”

“But can you handle the Autobots that'll accompany them?” Lennox challenges defiantly. “You know Prime's not going to ask you to lay down your arms. He's shooting to kill.”

Thundercracker hisses through his denta as Ratchet frees the crimped line but doesn't pull away.

“Such a wise and honorable Prime,” he sneers.

“We have a plan,” Ratchet informs them. “You can either let us help you. Or become another set of statistics for Prime and the Autobots.”

Skywarp's helm swivels toward Ratchet, an almost malicious look in his optics.

“You say that like you're not an Autobot, medic. You defecting? You a ‘Con now?”

“Of course not,” he snaps and tugs on Thundercracker's plating a bit too hard, prompting a snarled curse. “I know where my loyalties lie.”

Thundercracker's wings flick. “Do you?” Unlike his trinemate, his question is sincere, not a mockery. “You don't sound certain.”

“I’m not a Decepticon,” Ratchet responds decisively and steps back, having completed the brief repair work. “I'm not having this discussion now. We don't have a lot of time.”

“Ratchet's right.” Lennox dares another few steps forward, running hands over his hair. “In a day or two, this sector will be swarming with soldiers. We need to move you now.”

Skywarp sits up, wings shifting behind him. “What's the plan?”

As Lennox starts to speak, outlining a brilliant plan that is all the more impressive for how quickly he must have concocted it, Ratchet looks upon the situation with nothing less than disbelief. An Autobot, two Decepticons, and a human.

This is a punchline worthy of Jazz. And he knows the mech would be laughing his armor off about right now.

An Autobot, two Decepticons, and a human. All lying to their respective factions, all reaching for something more.

What that something is, however, has yet to be named.

***

Chapter Text

War Without End: Ratchet

Part Five

------------------------------------------


Ratchet lingers outside the open door, staring at the wrenched metal that had literally been torn open. The attackers hadn't bothered with hacking the panel, opting instead for brute force. Beyond the door is a hallway, the overhead lights flickering in and out, casting eerie shadows. The splatters of energon are visible nonetheless, though the subtle glow is ebbing away as it decays.

He doesn't want to go inside. His fingers curl tightly around his medkit. There aren't going to be survivors. Why did he bother? He's the senior medic on scene; he is supposed to go inside. But he can't seem to make his pedes move.

“Ratchet.”

He stirs at the sound of his designation. He turns to acknowledge the presence of his commanding officer.

“Ultra Magnus.”

Prime's brother-in-bond meets Ratchet's gaze. His energy field is tightly contained, but the emotions are too visible in the way he holds himself.

“I could call Hoist, if you prefer.”

Ratchet jerks his optics away, forcing a ventilation through his systems.

“No,” he denies, tanks roiling as he stares at the decaying energon. “I won't force him to endure this. His spark is gentler than mine.”

“I think you underestimate yourself, old friend.”

Ratchet doesn't reply, forcing his pedes to obey his orders and move forward, entering through the gaping hole of the main entrance. His sensors pick up the sounds of movement ahead of him, the three-mech team of soldiers who cleared the rooms of possible hostiles. Not that there are any to be found. Whoever committed this atrocity is long gone.

Decepticons.

His processor wants to accuse their most recent foe, but Ratchet isn't sure what to believe. Megatron is Lord High Protector. Surely he wouldn't sanction such a horrifying and pointless attack. What use would it serve? There's no advantage to be gained here. Unless demoralizing the Autobots and some of his own slagged troops is what he had in mind.

Frame hitching, Ratchet calls upon his steel-spun will and presses on. The first room is empty, but there are signs of a struggle. Broken furniture, energon splatters, claw indentations, drag marks. It makes him shudder. He keeps going, the lights casting macabre shapes everywhere. He cuts on his headlights, though his scanners tell him all he needs to know.

Another room is empty. Another.

The fourth is – was – inhabited. No longer. There are three inside, two mechs and a femme. An adult and two younglings, the elder curled around the younger as though to protect them. The blast had struck the adult mech from behind. Strong enough to cut through his civilian plating, straight through his spark, and out the other side where the younglings and their softer metal had no defense. All three, taken in a single blow.

Ratchet leaves as quickly as he enters, a soldier slipping in behind him to retrieve the empty frames for proper burial. To record designations and hopefully contact kin, if any can be found.

It's a blur. A blur of death, death, and more death. The heavy ion scent of weaponry hangs in the air. The floor is gummy with spilled energon.

“Medic!”

One of the soldiers hollers, and Ratchet breaks into a run, spark whirling in his frame. Someone's pinging him with a location, and Ratchet follows it, sensing the urgency in the ping.

A survivor. They actually found a survivor!

He skids to a halt near an open doorway and hurries to the side of two bots, hovering over the sluggishly bleeding and tiny frame of a youngling. Ratchet drops to his knees, fearing he doesn't even have equipment small enough to pierce the narrow lines and handle the delicate frame.

The little one's spark pulse is fading fast. His gold optics flickering like the overhead lights. One hand weakly clutches at a soldier's. His other arm is missing. He's been clawed from clavicle to hip strut, and Ratchet doesn't even need his sensors to see the state of the young one's spark. The spark chamber's been breached.

It's a Primus-given miracle that the little one has clung to life this long.

Performing a systems check, Ratchet reaches for the youngling, relieved that his hands aren't shaking. An energy field frantic with pain and fear grips onto Ratchet's own, making his chassis tremble. The little one clicks at him, reduced to the tonalities of sparkling language.

“I'm here,” Ratchet says with a gentleness that would surprise his usual patients, the rough and tumble warriors of the Autobot army. “I can help you. It'll be all right.”

At least, he wants to believe it will be so. The damage is so severe. He almost doesn't know where to begin. Torn and ravaged energon lines. The spark chamber breach. Energon a pool beneath the little one.

He gets to work, murmuring encouraging words, hands moving swiftly. He seals off leaking lines, sets up an energon drip, and whips out small strips of temporary metal to protect the little one's spark casing. He works as though the fires of the pit are chasing his heels, trying to pull the youngling from the arms of the soldiers still holding him.

Something happens. The little one twitches beneath him, optics flaring bright. One arm spasms, flailing out. His spark stutters.

“No!” Ratchet curses a solid stream of invectives, some not even Cybertronian in nature, and snarls at the soldiers still in the room. He needs more hands.

He's not going to let this youngling offline. He's not.

“Ratchet.”


He jerks out of the memory purge, sensors rapidly scanning, spark feeling too tight for its casing. One hand flutters to his chestplate, feeling the strong thrum of his spark beneath. The memory is fresh, all too fresh, despite how long ago that attack had happened. At the beginning of the war, to be honest. When hostilities had first broken out between the newly designated factions.

The youngling hadn't made it. So many of them hadn’t made it.

Ratchet's plating clamps tightly down to his frame, and he bows his head, shuttering his optics. The attack wasn't one of the first, nor was it one of the worst. The youngling wasn't the first mech to die in Ratchet's hands, and he wasn't the last.

How many times had he patched up a soldier from the battlefield, sent him or her out again, only to have repeat the process over again? How many times had he brought a bot back from the brink of death, only to fail the next time around?

--Ratchet.--

Someone’s pinging his personal comm channel. A specific one, in fact, that only a choice couple mechs and a single human have the codes to connect. With the Seekers being over an eleven hour drive away now, the contact by comm has become necessary.

--Do you have any idea what time it is, Skywarp?-- Ratchet demands as he forces several ventilations through his system. His HUD chimes with alerts for more energon and a reminder that his much-needed defrag cycle had been interrupted.

--Not a clue,-- the Seeker replies with far too much cheer.

Ratchet checks his chronometer. He's been in recharge for only a joor, and right now, it's the dead hours right before sunrise. He's got a maintenance scheduled first thing in the morning, too.

He slings his arms over his eyes, shifting about on the medberth, which is only slightly more comfortable than recharging in alt-mode. But it's not like the humans have given them personal quarters, furniture, or any privacy.

--It's too slagging early, is what it is. What the frag do you want?--

--It's cold here.--

Ratchet has begun to wonder if he’s lost his sanity. This only makes him certain of it.

His palm slides over his face as he stills. --You commed me to whine about the temperature?--

--It's snowing,-- Skywarp complains, and the comm still manages to carry the distinct, annoying pitch of a Seeker's whine. --And it hasn't stopped snowing since that idiot dropped us here. Couldn't you have picked somewhere warmer?--

Sparklings. He feels like he's adopted a pair of fraggin’ sparklings.

Ratchet's spark lurches then, the memory purge fresh on his processor.

--I didn't have the luxury of choice,-- he retorts.

And really, he didn’t. For all it had been ridiculously easy to hide the Seekers from sight and scanners, they didn’t have much choice in where to stash them after that.

At least, they’d been quiet in the warehouse though.

--Skywarp…-- Ratchet shakes his head, even though the other mech can’t see it. --…Do you remember the bombing of Ultrix?--

A moment of silence passes over the connection. Skywarp is most likely searching his memory core.

--Uhh. That was a long time ago, Ratchet. Back at the beginning of the war. I hadn't joined the Decepticons yet.--

--You must have heard of it. Ultrix was the first major offensive.--

Though no one could ever prove that it had been the ‘Cons who machinated the attack, it was a general assumption amongst the populace. One Megatron had never sought to disprove.

--The youth sector took the most damage,-- Ratchet continued.

Comprehension must have dawned because Ratchet can all but sense the wince in Skywarp's reaction.

--Yeah. I remember it,-- he allows slowly. --What about it?--

--Did Megatron order that attack?--

Now, Skywarp sounds annoyed. --I already told you that was before my time. You could've asked Starscream if that squishy hadn't blown his processor off.--

--Would Thundercracker know?--

--TC joined even later than I did.-- Skywarp huffs across the comm. --What does it matter anyway? Thinking of payback?--

Ratchet exvents softly. --I was there. I wonder, to this day, what could have possessed Megatron to consider it a viable target.--

--How should I know? Old Megs has always been a few circuits short of a board. Though I wouldn't take him for a sparkling killer. He was always… well, not tender. Megatron isn't tender. But he didn't bully the hatchlings. Not really.--

Ratchet reboots his comm system. --Wait. Hatchlings?--

This is news to Ratchet. Since when did the Decepticons have access to hatchlings?

--Yeah. The Fallen's ship had hundreds of stasis-locked pods. Unfortunately, what we didn't have was energon,-- Skywarp responds with a matter-of-fact tone, like reciting a shopping list or something else equally mundane.

Ratchet's processor is reeling with recognition. --The drones…--

--You didn't know?--

Honest confusion filters through the comm.

--We didn't realize.--

Ratchet feels like smacking himself in the helm, smacking all of the Autobots. They had thought the nameless, nude protoforms to be drones. Not unsparked frames. Not younglings.

Skywarp grinds his mouth components together, the noise carrying across the comm. --Stupid Autobots.--

--Why did Megatron online them if he didn't have the Allspark?-- Ratchet demands, unable to fathom the crazed leader's rationale. To use drones in battle is one thing. To involve unsparked protoforms is an entirely different matter!

--He needed troops.--

Once again, Skywarp sounds far too nonchalant about the whole line of conversation.

Ratchet's spark lurches. --That's horrible.--

--Or practical. Take your pick.--

Frag ‘Con logic to the pits.

--Where's the Fallen's ship now?--

--Gone. Megatron and Starscream moved the rest of the hatchlings to their base here. Though they're probably all dead now.--

Once again, Ratchet has to reboot his comm system. Skywarp's words and the reaction he's having to them don't seem to match up logically.

--What?--

--The only ones who knew where they were are dead now.-- Skywarp transmits a contemplative chirp. --Even if we wanted to help them, we wouldn't know where to start. Besides, without the Allspark, what's the point?--

Words fail Ratchet. --You can't... I can't... Younglings!--

That is all his shocked processor can manage right now. They'd fought younglings, slaughtered younglings.

Primus! They’re still destroying younglings. The various ‘Cons scattered across the globe and in hiding. The Autobots had believed them to be drones as well, the majority of them at any rate.

--Warp's right, you know,-- Thundercracker's voice cuts into the comm effortlessly. Either Skywarp had given him the key for this specific conversation, or he'd hacked it. --Without the Allspark, they won't be anything more than pseudo-aware frames. Barely better than drones.--

Ratchet grits his denta. --That doesn't make leaving them to starve to death right.--

--Autobot sentimentalities.-- Skywarp makes a derisive noise. --What can we do? We can't get to them. We have no energon to sustain them.--

--Sparkless ‘Cons. All life is precious,-- Ratchet growls.

Anger floods the comm in a heavy tide. --Unless they’re Decepticons, right?-- Thundercracker demands.

--We were at war!--

--If that’s the argument that eases your conscience,-- Thundercracker snaps his words into the comm, thick with bitterness.

Ratchet's hands form fists. --Don't tell me you never killed an Autobot.--

--We all have energon on our hands. But I'm through with listening to Autobots hide behind their hypocritical ideals while ripping out the sparks of their enemies.-- Thundercracker's tones are icy with a sense of betrayal that’s deeply personal. --At least I'm honest about what I am.--

Silence fills the empty space of the comm.

Ratchet concentrates on his frame as he tries to calm the frantic whirling of his spark. The Seekers are both right and wrong. He can't imagine simply abandoning the hatchlings. But he doesn't have any way to retrieve them either. That he can't argue over Thundercracker's characterization of Autobot ideals is perhaps the most telling fact to take away from this.

--I’m a medic, Thundercracker. And a mech who's fragging tired of this pointless war.-- Ratchet slumps. --That's all I can claim to be. Was there something else you needed?--

--It's cold!-- Skywarp cuts in, back to whining.

--Ignore the sparkling. This location will suffice,-- Thundercracker replies, tones stiff and indicating that their discussion is hardly over. --It’s perfectly isolated.--

--Good to know,-- Ratchet says and surprises himself by actually meaning the sentiment. --Try not to let the sparkling hurt himself. I'm a long drive away.--

A strained chuckle spills into the distance between them.

--He'll have it coming if he does. Thundercracker, out.--

Ratchet stares up at the bland warehouse ceiling. They’re not quite friends, the old wounds of a lifetime of war making that particular truth a long time coming. But they’re reluctant allies. It’s enough for now.

He offlines his optics, trying to slide back into recharge, hoping that the memory purges will leave him be.

Hatchlings. Primus.

o0o0o

Bumblebee shows up bright and early, so early in fact that Ratchet had just barely tumbled off the medberth before the young scout appeared in the open doorway of his medcorner. Bee's face flits with amused surprise as Ratchet cycles his optics, processor booting sluggishly.

--Long night?-- Bee asks across a narrow-band comm, looking but finding nothing that could possibly explain Ratchet's behavior.

His confusion is logical. Ratchet is very rarely caught flatfooted.

“Something like that.” The medic grunts, his HUD pinging him a reminder to refuel. He could go a few more hours yet though. “You're early.”

Bee steps inside, pedes a bare whisper against the concrete floor. --Didn't have anywhere better to be.-- He lifts a hand, fingers running over his neck components pointedly.

“Where's Samuel?”

--With Carly. I guess.-- Bumblebee's shoulders lift and drop casually; there's something unsettling about his lack of usual exuberance. --Mearing's still trying to keep him out of the loop.--

Ratchet huffs. “That woman never learns.” He slides off the berth, joints giving an unoiled screech. “Up here with you.”

--She thinks she's keeping him safe.-- Bee hops on, legs swinging over the side like the youngling he used to be.

Ratchet lets out a noise.

Safe. Right. Nowhere is ever going to be safe.

He pulls out his scanner, activating it.

“Any complaints? Now's the time to voice them. So to speak.”

Bumblebee's vocalizer works in fits and bursts. Ratchet despairs of ever fixing it properly.

--Left hip. It's not setting right.-- Bee moves said joint to prove his point with the sound of metal grinding improperly.

Hmm, that will have to be attended.

“Anything else?” Ratchet's scanner beeps and a list of Bee's vital levels pop up on the screen. He scrolls through them, finding nothing out of the ordinary, and sets the scanner aside.

Other than the hip – and the vocalizer – the scout's in perfect repair.

Ratchet reaches for Bee's leg, unlatching the first layer of outer armor so he can get to the gears beneath. He sets the plating aside when Bumblebee finally answers him.

--Mikaela was in Chicago. --

Startling, Ratchet draws back.

“What?”

Bumblebee doesn't meet his gaze. Looking past him instead, hands locked on the berth, a tight grip.

--She'd just moved there. A few months before the Decepticons attacked. --

Ratchet honestly can’t think of what to say and simply blurts the first thing that comes to mind.

“Did she make it?

The expression on Bee’s face says everything he doesn’t. Ratchet shutters his optics for a few sparkpulses.

“Does Sam know?”

--I haven't told him.--

“It's probably best that you don't.” Ratchet doesn’t know what else to say but this.

Mikaela had hurt more than Samuel in her sudden abandonment. Ratchet's not surprised that Bee had kept tabs on his former friend. They had so few human companions on Earth, especially those worth trusting.

Bee's helm dips. --I know.--

“Did she ever tell you why?”

--No.-- The scout lifts his gaze to Ratchet, optics a painfully pale shade. --It came out of nowhere, Ratchet. One day, they were in love. The next... I don't know.--

Ratchet remembers. He'd expected there to be rumors of long weeks spent in fierce, bitter arguing. He'd expected tales of stony silences, tears shed, and a gradual deterioration of their relationship. Instead, Bumblebee had reported Mikaela's abrupt dismissal and equally abrupt exodus from their life.

Samuel had refused to talk about it beyond saying that he’d made his choice and Bee was it. No amount of cajoling on Bee's part could convince him otherwise. And then, it all became a moot point because Mearing came into the picture, effectively shunting Sam out of association with the Autobots. She'd also done her very best to replace the familiar members of NEST with unfamiliar faces, ones who didn't warm up to the Autobots as quickly as their prior brothers-in-arms. She'd been successful in convincing Epps to take another post and only Lennox's stubbornness had kept him in command. He’d refused to leave Ironhide.

It seemed as though one by one, Mearing had been stripping them of their allies, anyone who would treat the Autobots as people. Who could see them as something more than war machines. Even if, in truth, Ratchet fears that is what they’ve become.

Attention! Incoming unidentified object detected!

Alert sirens flash and wail, cutting into the somber discussion.

Ratchet's attention immediately diverts. His spark drops into his tanks. No. Not again. He can't stand there and watch them mercilessly shoot another Decepticon out of the sky.

--An Autobot?-- Bee chirrups, sliding off the berth with less enthusiasm than usual, desperately trying to chase away his somber mood.

“I can only hope,” Ratchet mutters and turns on a pede, hurrying out of his medcorner.

No one's summoned him. Or the Autobots. Curiouser and curiouser. But he'd like to see them try and stop him.

Unsurprisingly, Prime is there before anyone else, his optics locked on the screen.

“Cybertronian?” he asks.

“We believe so, yes,” Lennox answers.

Mearing, thank Primus, is nowhere in sight. Perhaps she's gone back to DC for a face-to-face debriefing.

“Decepticon?” Ratchet asks, fingers curling into fists at his side. Never has he wished so hard for it to be an Autobot arrival. If only to spare a spark.

A moment of heavy, anxious silence spills through ops. Footsteps announce the arrival of other Autobots: Bee, the Wreckers, Dino. Sideswipe's probably in recharge.

“Comm systems confirm,” one of the techs replies, and her lips widen in a happy grin. “Autobot signal.”

Just one? The Autobots have all arrived in a group of some kind, but this arrival is by his or her lonesome.

“Coming in hard and fast, too,” another techie inserts, fingers flying over the keyboard. “Trajectory uneven. The transmission seems to be automatic.”

Prime swings his gaze toward Ratchet. “Injury?”

“Has to be. If the poor fragger's even alive at all,” Ratchet growls. “Projected landing coordinates?”

There's another pause as calculations are made.

“Shit,” the tech mutters and cranes his neck, looking over his shoulder up at Prime. “He's, uh, going to land right on top of us. If he doesn't deviate.”

Ratchet's frame stutters.

“Time?” Prime demands.

“Three minutes, sir. Max.”

Ratchet whirls on a pede and drops into alt-mode, screeching out of the main warehouse, sirens wailing to clear the way He can hear Prime right behind him, engine growling, and no doubt the others are coming, too. Ahead of them, the alert systems start screaming a warning to the soldiers and civilians. Informing them about the incoming, urging them to take shelter in bunkers.

Outside, Ratchet turns his sensors upward, scanning the skies for signs of the Autobot's arrival. They aren't kidding about the rate of descent. He's tearing through the atmosphere so fast he's leaving streaks of flame in his wake. His trajectory is wobbling.

“He's going to overshoot,” Leadfoot says, appearing at Ratchet's left elbow. “He's not going to hit the base, he's going to--”

''--slam into the river. Slaggit!” Ratchet snarls and takes off, the rest right behind him.

The roads aren't as clear as Ratchet would like, still choked with potholes save for a single lane cleared to allow the passing of emergency vehicles and supply transports. He doesn't get there in time to see the Autobot land, though his sensors pick up the tremors that radiate outward from the area.

Ratchet arrives just as the mech pulls himself out of the river, movements slow and stilted as water sluices off his protoform. He'll need an alt-mode soon, Ratchet decides absently. He doesn't immediately recognize this arrival, and he surreptitiously starts to scan the unfamiliar frame, reports pinging back a mech in desperate need of maintenance.

Prime, mere seconds behind Ratchet, shifts from to root-mode in one smooth motion.

“Unidentified Autobot,” he rumbles stiffly. “State your designation and team.”

The mech doesn't salute, but his optics skip first from Ratchet and then to Prime.

“Drift, sir,” he says. “Formerly stationed on the Solanus.”

Ratchet's optics spiral outward. The Solanus? Last he'd heard, it was destroyed by the Decepticons.

“Drift?” Someone repeats behind Ratchet, the voice identifying Leadfoot. Or the snarl, rather. “You mean Deadlock.”

Drift's plating clamps down tight to his frame, his stance rigid and contained. “I’m no longer that mech.”

Leadfoot growls. “Ya can change your designation, but that don't change what you are.”

“What's going on here?”

The voice, all too human, cuts into their conversation, and Ratchet's spark sinks at the sound of it.

So, Mearing is still here after all. And as they had been speaking in Cybertronian, she wouldn’t have understood the conversation between them.

Prime turns to face her; Ratchet only directs a sensor toward her.

“We have a new arrival, Director. Another ally.”

Leadfoot makes a disdainful grind of gears. “He's no ally.”

Mearing only glances at the Wrecker. He’s usually beneath her notice.

“He doesn't seem to think so.”

“He's a Decepticon,” Dino says with more vitriol than Ratchet could have expected out of the red mech. Perhaps there’s something personal between himself and Drift.

“I'd prefer to be neutral,” Drift says tightly, easily adjusting in the shift from Cybertronian to English. Prime must have data-burst him the language pack.

Mearing's eyes narrow, one heeled foot tapping impatiently against the ground. “We don't house neutrals here. Either Prime is your figure of authority, or you can leave.”

In other words, the humans don't want any loose cannons mucking about. Which may be yet another cog in the wheel explaining why they don't like the wandering ‘Cons.

Ratchet waits for Prime to say something to the contrary. That it isn’t up to the humans.

He waits in vain, however. And he should have known not to expect anything from their leader.

Prime instead inclines his head in acknowledgment of Mearing's statement and redirects his attention to Drift. “There were four others assigned to the Solanus. Where is the rest of your team?”

The unadorned head dips ever so slightly. “Smokescreen, Blurr, and Springer are dead,” Drift replies, and his systems audibly cycle down. “Perceptor and I were separated.”

“Separated?” Leadfoot tosses Drift a sidelong look, taking another step back and putting more distance between himself and the former ‘Con. “Probably killed them all yourself. Too much extra baggage.”

Ratchet expects anger. Those are the kinds of accusations that get mechs shot. Drift, however, neither raises his weapons nor snarls with fury. His plating clamps down tighter, if possible, even defensively. But he doesn't speak. His optics remain on Prime, waiting for their leader to pass judgment.

“He's a spy, Prime,” Dino insists with more that inexplicable vitriol.

Drift's flinch is less noticeable this time, but Ratchet is watching him too closely to miss it.

“Your transmission said that the war is over,” Drift inserts, focusing on Prime alone. “That this planet is our home now. Is this true?”

Prime studies him. “Yes, the Decepticons have been defeated.”

Drift nods, his helm lowering as though this news is something to mourn. Interesting.

“I see. That is good news.” His vocal tones don't support his sentiment though.

Ratchet shifts, trying to catch someone's attention. “Prime, protocol,” he reminds his leader.

It's his right, after all, to drag in any new arrival for a full checkup, and Drift needs an alt-mode and some rest. Not to stand here and be glared at by most of the Autobots, while Mearing eyes him with her special brand of disdain.

Prime gestures to him. “You remember my medic, Ratchet. He will see to your injuries and help you get settled.”

“I don't think this is a good idea, Prime,” Topspin says, backing up Leadfoot. Beside them, Roadbuster gives a show of support but says nothing.

“Drift has chosen to be an Autobot. I will give him the benefit of the doubt,” Prime finally decides.

Not a single one of them considers asking Drift what he thinks about the whole situation. Ratchet supposes that they're at least calling him a traitor to his face rather than to his back. He doesn't know which would be worse.

“You're own allies don't trust him,” Mearing comments then. “So if a single human is harmed, I'm holding you accountable, Prime.”

“Understood.”

Not a single argument. What’s this broken creature inhabiting the frame of their Prime? Have the deaths of Megatron and Sentinel truly shattered Optimus’ spark? Doesn't he have any pride?

“Everyone, dismissed,” Prime adds.

He gestures to the crowd of Autobots that have gathered. There are humans present, too, NEST soldiers and a few curious techs who came along for the ride. They start to disperse. Mearing doesn't look happy about Prime's decisions. Ratchet can see the storm brewing in her eyes, even as she digs out her cellphone and starts making calls.

Prime wants this to be their home. But how many before they are too many? Before the humans draw the line and say no more Cybertronians are welcome?

What then?

Ratchet ventilates and beckons Drift toward him. “Come on then,” he says, more gruffly than he intended, but there are too many thoughts swirling about in his processor to waste circuits politeness. “We'll have to walk until you find an alt-mode you like.”

Drift nods. Not one for conversation, is he?

Ratchet leads the way, barely hearing Drift behind him. The mech walks like he's had some kind of Special Ops training. And maybe he has.

Ratchet pings his databanks, trying to drag up anything he knows of him. Deadlock, he remembers, had been a brutal and vicious killer. No pity, no remorse. He isn’t the type of Decepticon Ratchet would have pegged for switching sides. If anything, Deadlock had been the posterbot for ‘Con brutality. He'd been Turmoil's second-in-command, another mech also known for brutality.

Drift, by outward appearances, hardly seems to match the Decepticon he’d been. Ratchet doesn't know much about him. Has met him only once in passing before the Autobots had split across the universe in search of the Allspark. In fact, Ratchet has only rumors to draw upon, and one rumor in particular has circulated with such continuing persistence that he wonders if it is fact.

“Will this do?”

Ratchet startles out of his pondering, turning toward the car that Drift is standing next to. It's probably one of the vehicles in better repair around here, by virtue of the fact it hasn't been crushed or set aflame. It's in remarkably good shape considering. And a quick internet search provides the make and model.

“It's up to you,” Ratchet replies with a shrug. “Some of us go for utility. Some of us like something a bit more... flashy.”

And no, he doesn't immediately think of Sideswipe or Dino. Or Bee, who picks the newest model of Camaro every chance he gets, which doesn't quite fit in with his position as scout.

Satisfied with his answer, Drift scans the vehicle and then shifts into his newly acquired alt-mode, each twist and turn of his frame slow and measured. He revs his engine experimentally, lifting up and sinking down on his hydraulics as he tests out his new form.

“Does it fit?” Ratchet asks, a bit of a smile teasing at his mouth.

“It'll do,” Drift replies. His vocals are tinny as they transmit through the air.

Amused, Ratchet shifts as well and then leads Drift back to their temporary base, which has gone back to business as usual now that the all clear has been given. Prime, no doubt, will be locked into meetings with Mearing and the human command chain again. He seems to spend all this time there as of late.

Sideswipe's probably still in recharge, lazy aft that he is. It looks like Dino's heading out for some rescue and recovery. The Wreckers... well, Mearing likes to keep them close to base. Now that she can't ship them off to Florida and out of the way, she only allows Prime to send them on ‘Con-slaughtering missions.

Allows.

Ratchet huffs. Optimus is their Prime. He’s supposed to be the one issuing orders. But now, he looks to the humans first. Seeks permission. Plays the loyal servant.

It's enough to make Ratchet's tanks churn.

“So this is our home.”

Drift's tone is bland, showing neither approval or disapproval.

“Temporary,” Ratchet corrects as he leads Drift to the main warehouse and the far corner that serves as his medbay. “Though our previous facilities weren't much better.”

Their headquarters in DC had been more spacious, more state of the art and more defensible. But in the end, they were still warehouses that lacked privacy and the distinct feeling of home. They felt more like a prison.

Drift returns to root mode, the new lines of his alt-mode clearly visible on his plating now. He's in shades of white with the occasional line of crimson to break up the monotony. Two crests, reminiscent of a Praxian's chevron, decorate his helm. And it's only then that Ratchet notices the sheath peeking up over Drift's right shoulder.

Ah, that's right. His file states that he is a swordsmech. Must’ve had it in subspace before.

“Your medbay appears underequipped,” Drift notes almost dryly.

“Tell me something I don't know,” Ratchet agrees and pulls out his scanner. “Up on the berth.”

The new arrival complies, his optics still gathering data on his surroundings. “The native population doesn't appear to be very friendly. Or welcoming.”

“Mearing is not the best example of her species.”

Ratchet sets a reminder to introduce Lennox and Epps to Drift. He wishes Graham were here as well. He has the feeling the two would get along.

But Graham is yet another of those whom Mearing had managed to successfully drive away, not but two months after the battle for Chicago. The Americans remain aligned with the British, but there’s no longer a British representative amongst NEST.

Ratchet's scanner beeps at him. He scowls at the device.

“Primus, you need a coolant flush.”

Not to mention two struts that require realigning, several stripped gears, a fluctuating heat capacitor, and shorts in his sensory net.

“Among other things.” Drift lifts a hand, giving it to Ratchet as the medic reaches forward. “I am... used to suspicion. But I must I didn't expect an unfriendly atmosphere.”

Ratchet sighs, hating himself for the human mannerism. “It's a long story. Or I could just give you the data packet if you'll trust me with a cable.”

A port is offered to him in the very next ventilation cycle.

“You aren't wary of me,” the other mech observes. “Why?”

“Because I believe that mechs can change,” Ratchet replies honestly, thinking of his Seekers and the other ‘Cons who just need a chance. “Though I may be the last who thinks that way now.”

“I noticed.” Drift pauses, helm tilting as Ratchet initiates the transfer. “It’s a large file.”

“We've been here for five years. A lot has happened.”

Ratchet bends over Drift's hand again, the fingers twitching as he plucks out stripped hydraulic lines and replaces them. Quiet fills the medcorner while the transfer completes, and Drift starts unpacking all of the data. In retrospect, it’s a lot to take in.

The destruction of the Allspark. Megatron's death and return. The alliance with the humans. Sentinel's betrayal. The destruction of Cybertron. The loss of their family.

A small keen escapes the white mech.

“Jazz,” he says as Ratchet looks up at him in concern.

Ratchet lowers his gaze. “Yes.”

“He was a good mech.”

There is no denying that point.

“I know.”

Drift makes a strange noise, vocalizer clicking. “Sentinel Prime. His betrayal explains much about their reaction. If a known ally could turn traitor, how much easier would it be for a mech who was once Decepticon? But Cybertron...?”

“Is truly gone.”

Every time he confirms it, Ratchet feels another piece of his spark shrivel away. Like he's dying sliver by sliver.

Drift offlines his optics, free hand tightening in a grip on his thigh.

“Earth will never be home,” he manages.

“You haven't given it a chance yet.”

“And yet, judging by the emotions in your field, you don't disagree.”

Ratchet clamps his mouthplates shut. He can't dispute Drift's claims. Not when the truth is buzzing all around him.

He finishes Drift's hand and moves to his left pede. The ankle joint is not responding properly.

“What happened to your team? To the Solanus?”

This time, it’s Drift's energy field that betrays his emotions. “...Turmoil.”

Ratchet winces. No wonder Drift hadn't disputed Leadfoot's claims. He must believe he might as well have killed his team himself. Turmoil had come after the Decepticon traitor and the crew of the Solanus had been in his way.

“Perceptor?”

“The last time I saw him, he was alive. Took the archives and his research before Turmoil could.”

“His research?”

“I don't know much about it. Something to do with our sparks.” Drift's faceplates tensed with concentration. “He was always babbling about the Thirteen and the origin of the Allspark.”

Drift's careful facade cracks with genuine grief. There’s real affection there, which Ratchet is not surprised to find. Drift's team had been carefully selected, by Jazz actually, to consist of mechs who wouldn't hold his past against him and would also compliment his abilities. Jazz had always been the best of seeing through a bot, to the truth in their spark.

It appears that Jazz's plan had worked. Drift had made friends, trusted companions, of his team. And if rumors were to be believed, perhaps they had even more.

Ratchet takes a risk and offers consolation. “I'm sorry about Blurr.”

Drift's helm dips. The grief that pulses from his field still fresh and spark-rending.

“It is war.”

That answer is thin at best. It always has been in Ratchet's opinion. That it’s war; that their friends and lovers and kin had died for a good cause.

A good cause Ratchet isn't sure he believes in anymore.

It's a pale comfort when faced with cold berths. The empty place in your spark where someone important used to be. The connection that drones flat and dead where a lover or caretaker once commed. It doesn't get easier to bear, the pain never fades, and with each passing vorn, each passing battle, the grief can only build on itself.

“You mean was.”

“I meant what I said.” Drift lifts his gaze. “I saw the data packet. The war isn't over for Prime. It won't ever be over for us.”

Ratchet's spark skips a pulse. “Because the Decepticons are still a threat.”

“Are they?” Drift's blue optics are pale, so pale they are nearly white. “Leaderless. Weak from hunger. Demoralized. Oh, yes. What fearsome opponents they must be.”

Ratchet nearly stares at him. He thinks that he’s found another ally. A kindred spark. Someone to see the truth as Ratchet sees it.

“The humans would never accept a truce,” Ratchet offers, giving the arguments that he already knows Prime would claim.

“How convenient an excuse.” Drift's optics spiral outward, as though his words are too rude. “Apologies, Ratchet. I've been alone in the universe too long. Too much time to think.”

“We could all use a little perspective.” The medic awkwardly pats Drift's leg, rising to his pedes. “And in your case, some recharge. I'll fix up the rest later.” He checks the logs for confirmation. “Bay 37 is your new berth. Congratulations.”

Drift stands, giving his fixed leg an experimental twitch.

“Welcome home,” he replies and doesn't bother to hide the sarcasm.

Ratchet doesn't have the spark to try and prove him otherwise.

***

Chapter Text

War Without End: Ratchet

Part Six

---------------------------------------


Prime's visits to the medcorner are few and far in between. He seems to avoid any opportunity to be within range of Ratchet's scanners as though he has something to hide. And maybe he does. Ratchet hasn't had a chance to do a thorough check up on his leader, not since fixing and reattaching his arm after the battle of Chicago.

And he certainly hasn't had the opportunity to check Prime's spark integrity or the functioning of his processor. Any other mech and Ratchet would have already dragged them in, strapped them down to the berth, and forced them into good health. He doesn’t have that option with Prime, and with Ironhide gone, there's no one to help Ratchet wrestle him into submission.

Prime enters the medcorner with evident reluctance, optics skipping from the stacks of disorganized crates, the line of cleaned surgical equipment, and the pathetic facilities that have been given to Ratchet for his use. Personally, Ratchet's seen slum clinics that are better equipped than his allotted corner.

“Ratchet,” Prime greets. “How's our new arrival?”

He resists the urge to give his commanding officer an incredulous look. “Settling in. He's a quiet one, thank Primus.”

“Mmm. That reserve may be part of the problem,” Prime muses aloud, referring perhaps, to the fact that none of the Autobots have warmed up to Drift in the week since his arrival.

One wonders why.

Ratchet lowers the datapad he'd been skimming.

“Drift isn’t a spy.”

“You're certain?”

“Being an Autobot or Decepticon is a choice,” Ratchet retorts, staring at Prime, who doesn't look well to be honest about it. The mech's in need of a good wash and wax, his gears are making noises indicating ill maintenance, and Prime is... twitchy. “Isn't that what we told Wheelie?”

Prime's helm turns toward Ratchet. His optics spiral out and in, like he's having trouble focusing.

“Deadlock was a fearsome opponent. A sparkless killer.”

“Deadlock doesn't exist anymore.”

Can he get away with a subtle scan? Would Prime notice?

“That remains to be seen.” Prime waves a dismissing hand and focuses on Ratchet again, with an eerie intensity. “You've been troubled, my friend.”

Ratchet's spark gives a lurch of discombobulation. From suspicion to concern, he's not sure what to do with this unbalanced Prime.

“My spark is mourning.”

“Of course. We all mourn. There is much we have lost.” Prime might as well be reading a newsreel for all the inflection he's putting into his words.

Maybe there's a rationale behind Ratchet's suspicions.

“You keep saying that the war is over. I don't know how to believe that.”

“What do you mean?” Prime's energy field reaches out with a tentative brush of concern probably meant to be comforting, but it succeeds only in making Ratchet uneasy.

He takes a step back. “Cybertron is destroyed as is the Allspark. We have no home, no future...” Ratchet drops the datapad onto his desk with a clatter, spark giving another painful lurch. “What's the point?”

“Earth--”

His head whips toward Prime, cutting off the empty reassurance.

“--is not the same.”

It doesn't feel like home. And it never will. Not to Ratchet, and now, he knows, not to Drift either.

But Prime... He wants to believe it. Ratchet can see it in Prime's optics. He's convincing himself with every fabric of his being, maybe even writing it into his very coding. Prime wants Earth to be home. Desperately, almost madly so. Blinding himself to the humans' disdain, to the fact Earth could never really support them in the long run, to the irreconcilable truth that their species is on the slippery slope to extinction.

Ratchet shutters his optics. “We have no future, but we slay any Decepticon who shows his face. What happened to us? What have we become?”

His vocals are soft, a true confession, but he fears they've fallen on offline audials.

Prime's faceplate molds into a passable display of disappointment.

“They would never lay down arms, Ratchet. War is all they know. War, battle, and death.”

And Ratchet realizes with his own wave of discontent, all the Autobots know as well. They fight because they don't know any different. They kill because they've forgotten the line between defense and offense. They war because grudges are stronger than hope, and a battle for ideals has turned into a fight to the death between us and them.

Ratchet is no better than the rest. He's turned his back on his vows as a medic. He claims to be a pacifist, but he has a running tally in his processor of his kill count, the designations he knows and the nameless sparks ended by his own hands. His medic coding is slashed to glitched ribbons.

This war is never going to end. Not until every last Cybertronian is dead. There will be one mech standing, an Autobot or a Decepticon, and he won't have the spark left to mourn.

Is there any hope for change left?

“But what if they did, Prime?” Ratchet asks, desperate for Prime to see the same realizations that are starting to haunt him. “What if, by some miracle of Primus, a Decepticon puts down his blaster and asks for a truce?”

Prime shifts, uncomfortable.

“The humans--”

“Slag them!” Ratchet's hands slam onto his desk, rattling the contents, sending a tool crashing to the floor. “Why is it their choice? Why are the humans deciding our fate?”

“This is their planet.”

Prime's vocals are calm, rational. So at odds with his own thinking, and he can’t even see it.

His placidity only rankles Ratchet further.

“Then let us leave!” he demands, frustration coloring his tone. He whirls toward his Prime, hand slicing through the air. “There's nothing for us here, Prime. No reason to linger!”

“The Decepticons--”

“The war is over!” Ratchet near-shouts.

His coding screams at him for daring to cut off his Prime, to raise his voice. Where is his subservience?

Prime straightens to his full height, which towers well over Ratchet's own. His optics a blue flash of disapproval.

“Ratchet,” he says, harmonics layering his words with rebuke. “Earth is our home now. We’ll defend it as such.”

No.

Ratchet draws back, as though physically wounded.

No. Earth is to be their grave. They left a dying Cybertron so they could all deactivate somewhere else.

And Ratchet will find himself dumped in the ocean with the rest of the dead Cybertronians one day. His frame rusting and corroded by salt water, his coding torn to ribbons. He'll offline a medic with energon staining his hands. He'll die a traitor to his spark's calling.

The realization strikes him then like a jolt to his logic circuit.

Ratchet can argue with Prime until his systems overheat, but he'll never be heard. He can debate the urgency for making peace with the Decepticons, point out all the reasons the humans will never accept them as kin, and it won't matter.

Ratchet could draw up a diagram, fill up a datapad, or put on a presentation. But it won't matter in the end. Optimus Prime has closed his audials to anything but his own fractured hope.

No. Not Prime. Not really. He's Optimus now. That dead, useless relic nestled snugly next to his spark chamber doesn't mean a fragged thing.

Prime is broken somehow. Like the rest of them. Changed since Jazz's death and irreparably shattered after Chicago. Destroying his brother and mentor must have been the last blow.

Earth is his last hope. He can't see anything else beyond it.

Ratchet's helm dips. He ventilates quietly, resigned.

“You are Prime,” he says and ignores the strange crawling sensation in his frame. The way his processor tics, coding contradictory. “You see hope where I cannot.”

Hands land on Ratchet's shoulders, his energy field washing over the medic in a dank, cloying flood.

“Time is the great healer, old friend.”

Ratchet flinches. It sounds so trite. Mechanical. Like he doesn't even believe his own propaganda anymore.

Ratchet nods, stripped of words. This mech is a stranger to him, a mech he no longer knows.

Or maybe Ratchet's the one to blame. Maybe he's the one who has changed.

His commander leaves a moment later, his comforting duty done for the day. One of the soldiers calls for him, and after a gentle pat, he makes himself scarce. He walks away, helm held high, a mech lost to his own delusion.

Only when he’s out of scanning range does Ratchet let the shudder free, rattling his frame from crest to pede. He feels the strangest urge to scrub himself down, take heavy bristles to his plating where Optimus had touched him.

What now, medic?

o0o0o

Days pass. Then weeks. A month goes by and Ratchet's existence settles into a monotonous pattern of death and disappointment.

The Autobots continue to hunt down the surviving Decepticons, a task that gets easier with each passing day as the lone ‘Cons get weaker and weaker from hunger. Teams are sent out constantly, cleaning up the mess from Sentinel's failed attempt to enslave the human population.

Ratchet snorts inelegantly at the thought. The whole plot never made much sense to him. Taking control of Earth for their natural resources, sure. But enslaving the human race? What can a mere human do that a Cybertronian cannot?

Sentinel's plan had reeked of desperation. Unfortunately, Ratchet can relate.

The Autobots bring Ratchet back bodies of dead ‘Cons to be stripped for useful parts. He'll probably be able to make Sideswipe one-hundred percent now. Bee doesn't want anything to do with a ‘Con vocalizer. Dino's grateful for the new circuits for his arm.

Pretty soon, the humans will be making another drop for a special ocean burial.

Ratchet's learned his lesson from Thundercracker. When no one's looking, he pries at the paint on the Decepticons' main sigils. He collects ident chips, stores them in a little box in his subspace.

Hundreds of mechs had been hiding on the moon, in a special stasis, waiting for the call from Sentinel. They’ve only managed to hunt down and kill half of those by Ratchet's count.

It's good for their alliance with the humans, Ratchet supposes.

And when Optimus runs out of ‘Cons to slaughter, what then? What will bear the force of his grief and anger? Megatron is gone, for certain this time. There's no shard of the Allspark to bring him back to roaring insanity. He's searching endlessly for a battle he's already won several times over.

Two more arrivals turn out to be Decepticons. Prime and Mearing agree to shoot them down without a single protest. Ratchet doesn't even learn about it until after the fact because he'd been out in the field, participating in more rebuilding efforts.

Thundercracker and Skywarp tell him their designations, and Ratchet files away their identities. One day, he tells himself, he'll have to stand before Primus with all of this energon on his hands.

The only bright spot is that Ratchet's Seekers are fully recovered. Both of them are healed enough that they could fly anywhere they wanted, if the threat of being shot out of the sky wasn't so prevalent. Besides, as Thundercracker has asked so many times, where would they go, just the two of them?

Not that their current existence is any better. They’re surviving. It's all any of them can do right now. Ratchet included.

He spends time with Drift. Maybe it’s because only Drift understands and it’s so hard to get away to see the Seekers. Maybe it’s because they have a genuine connection in their sanity. Either way, no else seems at all interested in joining them. They don’t think much of it though, and the only time Drift blips on their radar is when they feel like reminding everyone that he’s a Decepticon traitor.

At least the cleanup in Chicago has reached the point where an Autobot presence is no longer required. They've recovered every last bit of Cybertronian tech – to the best of their knowledge anyway – and there's been talk of shipping the Autobots to a more permanent base. Something better equipped, like the one Sentinel had destroyed.

Ratchet's not involved in the decision-making. Lennox is the one who tells him about the relocation. Prime's been otherwise occupied. Ratchet's the second-in-command, but it's an empty title. Sort of like his position as the Chief Medical Officer of the Autobots. Hard to be the chief when he's the only one left. Who the frag does he command?

“Ever get the feeling you're not wanted?”

Ratchet tilts his helm, glancing over at Drift. They really do spend a lot of time together now. Understandable, considering that the other Autobots treat him as though he carries cosmic rust and the humans look at him as if he's a ‘Con in Autobot colors.

“And I'm not talking about me personally,” Drift clarifies, almost absently, as he sorts through a crate of assorted supplies.

Frankly, if Drift continues to make sense out of the madness that’s Ratchet's disorganized medcorner, then the mech can spend all the time around Ratchet that he wants. His leader has luckily recognized that the only mech willing to tolerate Drift is Ratchet; therefore, Drift spends the entirety of his duty shifts in the medcorner as well. Or sent out on errands for the resident medic. Just little things to keep him away from the other bots.

Ratchet turns his attention back to his datapad. Where he is currently comparing the supply requisitions he submitted against what he was actually given.

“It’s hard to argue the need for an alliance without a clear and present threat.”

Drift makes a disbelieving sound. “Sounds like an excuse to me.”

Ratchet can't argue. He doesn't bother to try. He feels like he's defending something he doesn't believe himself anymore.

“They don't want us here,” Drift continues, though he switches to Cybertronian and lowers his vocals, as if fearing to be overheard. A logical concern considering their current location. “They don't care what we gave up for them. And if we don't give them what they really want, our usefulness is done.”

Ratchet crosses the scrap metal off his list. “Some of them are grateful.”

Lennox, certainly. And Epps. Samuel. There are others, too. Members of NEST. The people of Chicago they managed to save and pull from the debris. Strangers all around the world who aren't quite so xenophobic and have more open minds to the Autobot presence. Ratchet should know; he's seen the fansites.

“The majority aren't. And one thing I've learned over the eons, the majority dictates everything.” Drift pauses, reconsidering as he pulls out a handful of tangled bits of wire. “The majority or those with more credits.”

Again, Ratchet can only concede Drift's point. The former ‘Con is being unusually verbose today. Ratchet is more than willing to encourage this. Being that disconnected from his fellow Cybertronians... It's simply unhealthy. It's enough to drive the sanest mechs mad, and Ratchet's seen enough of Drift to know the mech isn't all there to begin with.

“They haven't learned at all. Not even after Chicago. We gave up everything. And what do we have to show for it?” Drift frowns, tossing the ball of twined wire over his shoulder toward his discard pile.

“Prime made the only choice he could.”

“I'm not talking about the past. I'm talking about right now. What else do we have to give? When will it stop?” Drift braces himself on the crate, shoulders hunched. “How many more of us have to die?”

“Am I interrupting something?”

Both Ratchet and Drift whirl toward the medcorner doorway, finding Lennox standing in the aperture, looking up at them with a faint frown. He's carrying a sheaf of papers as well.

Ratchet smoothly intervenes, though Lennox couldn't have understood any of the conversation. He owes this man and considers him a true friend. If there are any humans he wants Drift to actually like, this would be the one.

“Just a discussion. Did you need something, Colonel?”

Besides, Lennox may know of Ratchet's betrayal, but Drift doesn't. Ratchet needs to keep it that way. He can't trust Drift completely. Not just yet.

Lennox doesn't look convinced, his eyes trekking to Drift and remaining. The white mech has returned to digging through his crate though.

“I do need a minute of your time, Ratchet. I need your opinion on a couple of... strays I found.”

Oh.

“Certainly.” Ratchet turns to his assistant. “Drift, would you excuse us?”

Drift is the master of controlling his expressions, but Ratchet is the master of reading subtleties. Drift is curious, but he doesn't ask. He simply inclines his head and leaves, probably to find a quiet corner in which to sharpen his sword and meditate. He does that a lot, meditating that is. Though come to think of it, he sharpens his sword a lot, too.

At least, it's a quiet hobby. Unlike Sides’ penchant for causing mayhem. Or Jazz being himself. Or Ironhide and his--

No. Too raw.

Ratchet forcefully disengages his thought patterns and shifts them toward Lennox. He steps further into the medcorner, lowering his voice.

“We got a problem.” His fingers crinkle his papers loudly.

“I see.” Ratchet drops into alt-mode, swinging open his driver's side door. “Let's talk.”

Lennox accepts the invitation, and Ratchet slowly takes them out of the warehouse, sending Prime a quick databurst full of lies. Off to do some reconnaissance with Lennox, one last sweep of the city.

“Tell me,” Ratchet says, once they are out of range of human ears and beyond sight of Autobot optics. A quick dampening field takes care of mech audials, and the only two bots on Earth truly capable of hacking Ratchet's systems both lie at the bottom of the Laurentian Abyss. Autobot and Decepticon together in death.

No. Best not to think of that either.

“Something weird's going on in Africa,” Lennox starts without any preamble. He leans against the door, staring out the window. The lack of eye contact always seems to bother the humans.

“What do you mean?”

Lennox crumples the papers a bit more. “That's just it. I don't know. But it's something Cybertronian. Got enough energon detectors that can't decide what's what.”

Ratchet's processor starts flagging possibilities. Bots coming in quietly, somehow slipping past the human's skynet?

“You got a file?”

Lennox pulls out his Blackberry. “Sending it now.”

Ratchet waits patiently, scanning the area for a suitable place for them to stop and have their chat. His HUD chimes when the file arrives, and Ratchet unpacks the information, scanning it. Energon detectors are flagging incidences, but they come and go, fading in and out. False readings?

No. Not at all.

The detectors simply aren't calibrated for this particular type of energon. Diluted in potency but packed with necessary nutrients, all the metals and materials a growing protoform might need to develop.

Fraggit all to the pit and into the Unmaker’s embrace.

“Has Prime been told?”

Lennox shakes his head. “I'm not even supposed to know.”

Ratchet curses internally, a shudder passing through his frame. The humans have found the hatchlings, and they don't even know it. They don't seem intent on informing the Autobots either. He can only imagine what they'll do once they realize what their devices are telling them.

“Is it Decepticons?”

“You could say that.” Ratchet turns off of the main road and down a side street, one that will dump them at the edge of a local park. “They're hatchlings.”

Lennox sits up straight, staring at the steering wheel. “Hatchlings... Babies? You mean robot babies?”

“Close enough.” Ratchet mutters another vile invective. “That must’ve been where Megatron was hiding them. Fraggit.”

“Wait a minute.” Lennox holds up a hand. “How do you have robot babies without the Allspark. Thought you needed it?”

Ratchet pulls to a stop at the park and swings open his door, prompting Lennox to exit so that he can return to his root mode.

“They're sparkless. Drones with a higher capacity for intelligence and bare emotional protocols but no sense of morality or even true life as you’d understand it. Soulless, I suppose,” Ratchet explains as he pulls up a piece of broken building for a chair, and Lennox parks himself on top of a picnic table. “The Allspark would’ve made them truly sapient.”

Lennox is quiet, staring down at his clasped hands. “They're Decepticons.”

“No. They can't make that decision for themselves.” Ratchet ventilates noisily, lifting his gaze to the sky above. It’s is a dull grey, threatening storms. “Slag, but I can’t get to Africa.”

Frustration makes his plating rattle. In this moment, he can understand the need for a flight mode. He envies his Seekers.

“What?”

Ratchet redirects his optics to Lennox. “What do you think Mearing will do once she figures out what they are?”

Human eyes widen, hands clenching into fists. Lennox has a daughter, a child. That changes most beings.

“She’ll kill them.”

“Or worse.”

“Shit.” Lennox sucks in a breath, and Ratchet can pick up the sound of his heartbeat increasing. “We have to warn Prime. She's not going to tell him either. I know she isn't.”

Ratchet grits his denta. The thought of telling Optimus had never crossed his processor. Informing the Seekers, yes. Finding a way to Africa, yes. But telling his superior officer, his Prime? No.

“Ratchet?”

He stiffens.

“William, I am not certain telling Prime would matter.”

Lennox stares. “They're babies. He wouldn't kill them.”

“Hatchlings,” Ratchet corrects. “Prime can't see anything beyond the Decepticon symbol anymore. More than that, he wouldn't act without Mearing's approval. He's made that quite clear to me already.”

“But...”

“I can't accurately predict how Prime will choose anymore,” Ratchet adds gently, his spark giving a flicker of disappointment. “And that very uncertainty makes me all the more confident that I can't tell him.”

He no longer trusts Optimus to do what’s right. Such a realization feels like acid on his spark. Once, Ratchet would have followed Prime to the pits and back because he believed. He believed that Prime had the right path. Prime and the Autobots both.

Now... now, Ratchet isn't sure what he believes.

Now, he has two Decepticon Seekers that he's protecting from the Autobots. He's watching his own kind get shot out of the skies by a species younger than his left aftplate. He's watching his Prime kowtow to the natives without a second thought to the survival or continuance of his own kind.

“He wouldn't kill them!” Lennox argues.

How pathetic is it that Lennox sounds far more certain of this than Ratchet?

He looks down at the small human, who has the kind of expression young ones of all species do when an adult is telling them that their favorite story is nothing more than just that. A story. That Primus is just a sparkling tale. That Santa Clause is a figment of a child's dream. That brave, strong, and honorable Optimus Prime is fallible and not as noble as they all believe.

That sometimes, Primes can break, too.

The Fallen did, after all. And he was once the best of them.

“Maybe he would; maybe he wouldn't,” Ratchet concedes, all too gently, because it hurts to see the faith in Lennox when Ratchet knows he's lost his own. “But if it came down to a choice between the hatchlings and the human's favor, I don't know what Prime will do.”

It hurts to admit, but it’s the truth.

Lennox sits back heavily, the picture of defeat.

“This isn't right.”

“William, nothing's been right in my world since the first mech died on my operating table and the first time I killed one of my kind to save my life,” the medic replies with exasperation.

There's a chance now. A small one, mind. But a chance nonetheless. He can save these lives, if any of them have survived this long.

Lennox's hands flex over his knees. “What can we do?”

“Everything that we can.” Ratchet raps his fingers over a thigh panel. “I'm going to contact Thundercracker and Skywarp. Together, we’ll all come up with a plan.”

He comms the Seekers using their encrypted channel, then sets up a relay so that Lennox can join in the conversation. Thundercracker is most likely to take this seriously, so Ratchet pings him first.

“Thundercracker.”

A long moment passes where Ratchet gets no response. He frowns, pinging the Seeker again. And just for good measure, pings Skywarp as well. Had something happened?

“You rang?” Skywarp chirps, all too cheerily.

His trinemate responds with a much groggier, “This had better be important.”

Ah, Thundercracker must have been in recharge. It explains the delay. Also, it would be logical if the Seekers recharged in shifts.

“It is,” Ratchet answers with equal curtness. “Lennox has brought information that’s simultaneously worrisome and encouraging.”

“I'm listening,” Thundercracker replies, sounding more alert now.

Skywarp clicks with curiosity. “Good and bad news, huh? Are we going to have to move again?”

“Perhaps.”

Ratchet shifts his attention to Lennox, who’s listening intently to the dialogue between the three. Ratchet had purposefully spoken in English.

“NEST technicians have been picking up strange readings in Africa. Energon readings,” Lennox explains, hesitating for a moment before continuing. “Ratchet tells me that they are indicative of hatchlings.”

A second of silence passes before Thundercracker and Skywarp try to both speak at once.

“You found them?”

“Are they alive?”

“What do you mean the squishies found them?”

“Does Prime know?”

“He'll kill them!”

Ratchet winces, the two Seeker's voices nearly indistinguishable as they pepper him with questions.

“At this point,” he says, a touch loudly, to get their attention, “we are certain Prime has no knowledge of them. Only the humans, which doesn't make them any less in danger. And there's no telling how long it will take before Prime learns of their existence.”

“Ratchet,” Thundercracker says, his voice unrelenting. “You may hold illusions about the honor of your Prime, but Skywarp and I do not. He’ll kill them if only because they’re Decepticon in design.”

“I’m not unaware of this, Thundercracker.” Ratchet glances at Lennox, gauging the human's feelings on the matter, but for once, Lennox's face is devoid of expression. “We contacted you in order to discuss our next move.”

“You said the humans found them?” Skywarp inserts.

“They found something,” Lennox corrects. “But I guarantee that they're going to send someone to investigate, and I'm pretty sure Prime isn't going to know a thing about it. Prime might hesitate, but my boss won't. She's starting to trust the Autobots but unknown entities? Not a chance.”

Skywarp mutters an invective into the transmission. “How long do you think we have?”

“A couple days. Maybe a week if she's trying to be sneaky, which I suspect she will.”

Ratchet's fingers rap across his plating again. It’s a nervous habit he thought he'd defeated quite a long time ago.

“Then we don't have much time. We have to get there, figure out if any of the sparklings survived, and do that before the humans get a team together.”

“We can't leave them there either,” Thundercracker says musingly. “They are indefensible, and we won't have access to energon converters.”

“No,” Ratchet agrees, realization pouring through him and setting his spark aflame, his coding twitching. “No, we can't.”

Lennox stares at him. “Even if you do find some alive, there's no way that we can hide this, Ratchet. Moving the Seekers was different. This...”

He shakes his head, words failing him.

Thundercracker easily picks up the slack. “Do you realize what it is you’re suggesting? What act you are committing yourself to?”

“Nothing worse than I've already done. And it is something I should have done a long time ago.”

He's betrayed his Prime in more ways than he can count. This would only be the final twist of the wrench.

“You won't be able to go back,” Skywarp warns, and he actually sounds sad.

Ratchet huffs loudly. “I gave up that option from the moment I pulled your sorry frames out of the rubble. But all of this is moot if none of the hatchlings survived.”

“Then that's our first point of business,” Lennox insists. “We need to get you to Africa, Ratchet. Somehow.”

Thundercracker's contemplative hum resonates through Ratchet's speakers. “The human is right. We cannot make firmer plans without knowing what we’re dealing with.”

“He can't do it alone,” Skywarp adds with a surprising amount of logic. “Flight by Seeker isn't exactly subtle though.”

“I’m certain I can construct a reason to scout in Africa,” Ratchet grunts, processor already drawing up several plausible lies. “Prime will send me with a team.”

“Perhaps I might volunteer for this mission then.”

It takes several embarrassing seconds for Ratchet to realize that the offer doesn't come from Lennox, Skywarp, or Thundercracker. The voice is familiar to him but not an individual who should be privy to this conversation.

In a flash, Ratchet whirls. He scoops up Lennox with one hand, ignoring the man's shouted protest, and his free hand shifts to his blaster. Battle systems surge into alert, targeting the lone mech standing at the edge of the park, hands spread and palms up, indicating his intentions.

Drift.

Had the bot followed him?

“Drift,” Ratchet growls and ignores the demanding pings both Seekers are sending at him. He's already cut off the relay so that only he can hear them. “What the frag are you doing here?”

“Following you,” the white mech responds with his usual bland tone. “I haven’t reported this conversation to Prime. Nor do I intend to.”

Ratchet refuses to lower his weapons, though his spark surges within him. Drift could ruin everything, and Ratchet can't have that. The lives of the sparklings are on the line, along with William's career and his family. Ratchet's own life. The lives of the Seekers.

“Why wouldn't you?” Ratchet demands. He doesn't know that he can trust Drift, no matter how much their hopes for the future seem to coincide.

Drift remains calm, hands still showing a willingness for peace. “Because we want the same things.”

Lennox squirms in Ratchet's free hand. Much like an unruly sparkling.

“Ratchet, put me down!” he hisses.

Ratchet ignores him. He can better protect Lennox if the man is in reach.

“And that would be?”

“An end to the war.” Drift's energy field trickles outward, a bare brush of sensation against Ratchet's own. “Peace perhaps. A home.”

Ratchet makes a fair approximation of a snort. “Earth is our home.”

“You don't believe that any more than I do.” Drift arches an orbital ridge, looking pointedly at the crumpled remains of Chicago around them.

Shifting his weight, Ratchet's aim doesn't waver. His cooling fans kick on with an audible whine, battle systems sending his systems into overdrive.

“It's that easy for you then. To betray the Autobots as you did the Decepticons. Your loyalties are fragile, aren't they?”

Drift flinches. Visibly. The remark hits too close to home. It might even be a bit out of line. But Ratchet's not taking it back. There's too much at stake.

Drift lifts his chin. He forces defiance onto his faceplate.

“The Autobots have betrayed themselves,” he says.

An observation that Ratchet has noticed himself.

Drift still isn't attacking, hasn't made a threatening gesture. Silence sweeps between them. Lennox gives up on trying to get free. The Seekers ping Ratchet again.

Does he dare lower his weapon?

“I don't know that I can trust you,” Ratchet retorts with blunt honesty.

The idea, however, of blasting Drift's spark then and there doesn't sit well with him either. There are many things Ratchet may be forced to do in the future, but spilling Drift's energon today is not one he wishes to add to his tally.

Drift's hands drop, hanging at his sides, not even defending himself.

“I know.”

He doesn't offer proof. He doesn't beg his case. He puts his spark in Ratchet's hands.

Fraggit.

Ratchet ventilates loudly. He supposes trust really is a moot point. He only has two choices here. Offline Drift now and make up a story, or let the mech live and give Drift a chance to prove himself.

It's not in him to be a cold-sparked killer.

“Goddamnit, Ratchet! Put me the frag down!”

“I was offering you protection,” the medic says sourly, though he finally consents to letting Lennox stand on his own two feet.

“I don't need it.” Lennox steels himself and storms toward Drift, glaring up at the former Decepticon. “You really want to help?”

Drift's optics cycle down as he shifts his gaze to the small human. “I want to do what my spark is telling me is right.”

“Could get you killed.”

“Tomorrow is never promised.”

“Heh. He'll do.” Lennox grins and shifts his attention to Ratchet. “Put the blaster away, Ratch. I think he's telling the truth.”

Ratchet hesitates a second but takes his battle systems offline. His blaster collapses back into his arm with a whirr of gears.

“And you consider yourself the best judge of character?”

“One of us has to be,” Lennox snarks, and it’s so familiar that Ratchet aches inside. It’s exactly what Hide would’ve said. Probably what he would’ve done, too.

Not to mention Jazz.

“Besides,” Lennox cuts through the realization, “we can't be in a Cybertronian standoff forever. We’ve got hatchlings to rescue.”

o0o0o

Ratchet is not a fan of travel by human contraption. He remembers Cybertron fondly, the shuttles and trains – insentient and self-aware alike – that could transport a mech from one place to another. The human idea of a long distance transport, however, isn’t so sturdy.

It's akin to rattling along thousands of miles in the air in a tin can, and Ratchet doesn't like it. Being strapped down in his alt-mode doesn't make the journey any easier to bear. He's shut down all but his primary systems just because everything else was sending him errors. There's an enduring sense of vertigo, and his tanks churn.

If he doesn't have to climb into another C-17 it’ll be too soon.

He supposes he should be glad that NEST has been supplied the transport at all. There’s no other method for a few groundbound Autobots to cross the ocean.

Drift, Ratchet notices, doesn't seem to have a problem with their accommodations. He is, of all things, recharging. Either that or meditating. He didn't even hesitate when it came time to strap him down.

Sideswipe, on the other hand, is as uncomfortable as Ratchet, but instead of turning inward, he's turned his discomfort outward. He's been joking with the technicians nonstop, to the point where their patience must be as frayed as Ratchet's. He rocks back and forth on his wheels in the limited confines of the netting until one of the soldiers snaps at him to stop.

Taking Sideswipe hadn't been part of the plan. But their leader had insisted, citing that Ratchet would need backup, reliable backup since he didn't quite trust Drift just yet. Ratchet couldn't think of a logical argument that wouldn't raise suspicions. It was hard to keep from getting assigned Leadfoot or Roadbuster as well. The less mechs on this mission the better.

Besides, as Ratchet pointed out, this is merely an investigative exercise. Nothing to be concerned about. No Decepticons to fight. Just investigating some weird readings in Nambia, Africa. Maybe even fix a malfunctioning sensor or two. Sparkling play.

The C-17 banks hard, aiming to land. Ratchet stifles a groan, disliking the way it jars his stabilization gyros. He turns off his optical sensors and focuses on being very, very still. And quiet.

“Gonna be all right there, Ratch?” Sides asks, and were he in root mode, Ratchet doesn't doubt that the frontliner would have been poking him.

“Fine,” he grits out as the C-17 starts to shudder around them. It doesn't seem to bother the humans any, but all Ratchet can imagine is the plane crumbling to bits around them.

Cybertronians are made of stern stuff, but an uncontrolled fall from such heights would result in a messy offlining, parts strewn across the savannah. It makes his tanks churn just thinking about it.

Sideswipe laughs. “Didn't think there was anything you were afraid of.”

“Not afraid.”

Being cautious is not the same as fear.

Sideswipe laughs again, and when the C-17 gives another telltale shudder, abruptly shuts up. Thankfully.

They land several minutes later with no small amount of relief from two-thirds of the Autobots. Ratchet waits with growing impatience for the humans to unstrap him from the netting, eager to stretch his limbs and emerge from his cramped alt-mode. Subspacing mass is never comfortable for long periods of time.

“We'll refuel and wait for your signal,” the NEST soldier says at the bottom of the ramp as Ratchet is the last to descend. “Mearing has placed a ten hour time limit on this excursion.”

The medic bites back a snarky response. “Whatever the director wants,” he replies blandly and gestures for Drift and Sideswipe to follow him. “Apparently, we have a curfew. Let's get moving.”

“What're we looking for?” Sideswipe asks, moving past Ratchet, taking point as his optics scan the horizon for any possible threat.

“Anything unusual that could explain the strange readings we've been getting.”

Snorting, Sideswipe wheels ahead of them, blades sliding in and out of view. “Probably just some Decepticreep trying to be stealthy.”

“Or a glitch in the systems,” Drift offers.

“Let us hope it is the latter,” Ratchet replies, pulling a scanner out of his subspace.

He has an idea of the location of the hatchlings, but it would be a challenge to make the discovery appear random. And he still hasn't decided what to do about Sideswipe.

“Let's go.”

Neither mech argues with him.

It’s early yet. They had timed their arrival to coincide with sunrise, which would leave hours of exploration without having to resort to night vision. Cybertronians could see decently in the dark but not the minute details.

Though reluctant to return to altmode, for the sake of expediency, they shift into their wheeled forms. Sideswipe continues to lead with Drift bringing up the rear, occasionally pinging Ratchet with narrow-banded queries.

“What to do,” he asks, “about Sideswipe?”

As the humans say, Ratchet will cross that bridge when he comes to it. Maybe he won't need to do anything. Maybe all of the hatchlings will be offline.

Which is the worse outcome?

It's just past midday when the dull repetition of scanning across the African savannah is finally interrupted. Sideswipe bursts out of altmode, battle systems coming online, just as what appears to be a tiny scrapyard comes into view.

“Decepticons!” he hisses.

Ratchet recognizes the ping of a ‘Con as well. His spark leaps in his chest. He can't see anything like a hatchling, but there’s evidence of habitation and not human either. Several numbers of oil drums and large pieces of broken machinery are in view.

No, not machinery. Even as Sideswipe's blades slide into view, the two piles of seeming scrap shift into average-sized mechs. Mechs, Ratchet's scan tells him, without a spark. Left behind, perhaps, with the intention of guarding the hatchlings, but their programming leaves little room for anyone else.

“Sideswipe, don't!” Ratchet yells, starting forward.

Wheeled pedes are faster than his own, and Sideswipe is quick. The drones fire; they don't know anything more than to register Autobot and threat. Sideswipe easily dodges, cutting one down and leaping on the other, crushing their rusted frames with an echoing crumple.

But there are more Decepticon pings. Not drones this time but the hatchlings. Ratchet's scanners find them in the oil drums, what ones still live at any rate.

Sideswipe, running high on battle routines, turns his attention toward the pathetic camp and the stirring hatchlings. To what his sensors tell him are Decepticon in programming.

No.

Ratchet moves, and Sideswipe doesn't see him coming. He tackles the frontliner to the ground with a nauseating crunch of metal on metal, shock flaring from Sideswipe's energy field.

“Stand down!” Ratchet snarls, grappling with Sides, trying to pin his wrists down and keep those deadly blades away from his internals. He has the height and weight on Sideswipe, but the mech is crafty.

“They're Decepticons!” Sideswipe splutters, confusion making his struggles weak and ineffectual.

Ratchet slams an elbow against Sideswipe's chestplate. “They're hatchlings!” he hisses, optics flaring.

Sideswipe stills, optics cycling outward.

“You knew?”

Hurt washes through his field, battering at Ratchet's own igniting guilt.

His helm lowers, though he doesn't relax his hold.

“Yes.”

He admits his betrayal, for he can think of no other word for it.

Sideswipe's plating clamps down, his frame trembling with restrained emotions. His energy field is equally reined in and unreadable.

“What the frag is going on?” he demands and surges upward, every ounce of strength into the motion.

It takes Ratchet by surprise. He tumbles to the side, slamming into the unforgiving ground with a painful crack of gears now out of alignment. Ratchet groans, pain washing through his sensor net.

Sideswipe snarls, optics blazing. He stalks toward Ratchet, who rolls to his pedes despite the pain.

“Why?” he demands, spitting that ache of disappointment.

Ratchet's uninjured arm forms his blaster, though he hesitates in lifting it toward Sideswipe. The mech who is more than comrade, who is family.

“You already know the reasons.”

Sideswipe shifts forward. “Ratch--”

His optics widen, energy field flaring outward in surprise, a dull clank echoing through the dry savannah. Sideswipe drops, revealing Drift standing behind him, sword pommel aimed toward Sideswipe.

Ratchet had half-forgotten Drift had accompanied them.

“He's still alive,” Drift says, nudging Sideswipe with a pede and flipping the smaller mech over. The edge of his blade rests on Sideswipe's chestplate, aimed over his spark chamber. “Or...?”

“No!” Ratchet's hand slashes through the air, horror striking at his core. “No more killing. I'm done with it.”

Drift stares at him for a long moment, expression and sword unwavering. Then, he takes a step back and sheathes the weapon.

“The hatchlings?”

Casting a lingering glance at Sideswipe's unconscious frame, Ratchet hurries into the makeshift camp. There's nothing to be done for the two drones that Sideswipe dispatched, but there are a dozen or so oil drums scattered around the campsite. He takes a brief moment to pop his shoulder back into place, gritting his denta at the flare of pain the action produces. He'll have to tend to it properly later.

Ratchet activates his scanners, searching for signs of life. Only seventy-five percent of the drums ping back with active systems.

He peers into the first. The Decepticons had packed the hatchlings three to a drum, leaving them little room to grow in any sense of the word. Not, he supposes, that it matters since they hadn't supplied a proper nutrient bath to support development in the first place.

Such a waste. What had Megatron been thinking? Disposable warriors alone?

Ratchet reaches in, pulling out a frame that drapes over his hands. It is limp, too limp, systems cold and dead. Nubby winglets sprout from the hatchlings back. It would’ve been a flyer. Seeker, perhaps.

His spark aches. Ratchet gently lays the empty frame aside, reaching for the next. It too lacks anything resembling an active, online system. It is a sturdy, broad frame. A warrior mech perhaps. Or a builder, a constructicon.

The third is another Seeker. Or would’ve been. Once upon a time, outside of Megatron and Prime's war. Ratchet's helm dips. And there are eleven more drums. He dreads what he’ll find.

“Ratchet?” Drift stands alongside him, expression neutral but energy field a light press of anxiety against Ratchet's own.

His glossa feels heavy, though he doesn't need it to vocalize. “Half of them are offline,” Ratchet says, hazarding a guess. “The rest are so low on energon that they are close to it. Most are probably in desperate need of repair from nutrient-starved metal decay.”

His hands tremble where they cradle the empty mech of the Seeker. It’s grey without life and metal tinted with rust.

“I can't help them here.”

Anger surges, threatening to override the dismay.

He wants to hit something, destroy someone. There's no one to direct his fury at, no one to hurt to ease the pain. Megatron is offline, and his own leader is miles away. They aren’t the only mechs to blame. Ratchet knows he should turn his blaster on himself, too.

Primus. It's just so senseless.

“Then do what you can,” Drift says. He looks at the tiny frame in Ratchet's hands almost distantly, but his optics give him away. “We knew it would come to this.”

Yes, they did. They had planned for this possibility.

Ratchet glances at Sideswipe's unconscious form, guilt warring with dismay and anger. Until his emotions are such a tangled mess he can't define them.

“As soon as I call the Seekers, the Autobots will be alerted.”

“Are you asking me if I'm prepared?” Drift questions, hand lifting and touching the limp arm of the hatchling Seeker. He's careful, as though the hatchling were still alive and delicate, and it matters.

“Yes.”

“Are you?”

Ratchet vents shakily.

“No.” He crouches, gently lowering the hatchling next to his fallen nestmates. “But for the first time, I feel like I'm on the right path.”

He moves to the next oil drum, reaching in and drawing out a live hatchling. The small, lightly armored frame twitches in his hold. A wordless sound of hunger floats to Ratchet's audials. Are his instruments even small enough to spike such tiny lines? He may have to force the energon down the hatchling's intake.

“Then let's contact the Seekers. And you can tell me what to do until they get here.”

Ratchet carefully drops to one knee, laying the hatchling over a thigh paneling as he scans the delicate frame. The little mech – or femme he supposes – will need repairs for certain, a heavy infusion of necessary metals, and energon as soon as possible.

“Got any medical training?”

“Some.”

Well, Ratchet will just have to work that then.

“They won't have spark pulses,” he says almost absently as he eases the hatchling to a better position. “Can you separate the living from the dead at least?”

“Yeah, I can do that.”

“Then get started.”

Drift inclines his helm sharply and turns on a pede, heading for the oil drum furthest from Ratchet's current position.

With the other mech occupied, Ratchet pulls out the emergency energon rations he had brought – not nearly enough – and tries to energize the hatchling in his hand.

--Thundercracker?--

There's not even a moment's pause before the Seeker answers.

--You have good news?--

--Depends on your definition.-- Ratchet bites back a wave of bitterness. --I found the hatchlings. They’re close to offlining. We'll need to transport them out of here.--

--Then lucky I already thought of a plan!-- Skywarp inserts into the comm cheerily. --We can be there in about two Earth hours. Or less if TC puts some burn in his thrusters.--

--You? I'm afraid to ask,-- Ratchet replies, paying strict attention to the hatchling in his hands.

The little mech is shaking but seems to be accepting the nourishment. And there are still more to assist.

--You should be,-- Thundercracker replies with a glyph of disdain passing through the comm. --It's undignified. Starscream would’ve never stood for it.--

--The old Screamer would’ve understood the sacrifice,-- Skywarp retorts petulantly.

There's a moment of awkward pause. Then, a gruff response spills into the comm.

--We'll be there as soon as possible. Thundercracker, out.--

The transmission cuts off abruptly, and Ratchet can only imagine the sharp discussion that will probably ensue between the two. Reminders of the mech their trinemate used to be haven't been received well. Skywarp lacks tact sometimes. Thundercracker isn't as forgiving as his composed nature implies.

There’s nothing left to do now but wait. Wait and tend to the hatchlings who managed to survive all this time.

It's a slow and spark-rending process. Drift is quick, efficient, and compassionate as he separates the living hatchlings from those who hadn't. He lays out the empty frames in a long, spark-breaking line, while carrying the survivors to Ratchet personally.

By the time they have emptied the oil drums, Ratchet has twelve hatchlings to tend. Twelve. Out of thirty-six. Four Seekers, three airframes of other design, and five potential grounders, warrior or civilian class. They aren't nearly enough to repopulate Cybertron, to begin restoring their species.

Are they worth it?

For a long, long moment, Ratchet asks himself this question. Even as he works to spike tiny energon lines, drawing from his own reserves so that the little ones could live.

Twelve hatchlings aren't going to revitalize his species. In the long run, they aren't going to make much of a dent in the slide toward extinction. It's like slapping a piece of tape over a ruptured fluid line. Energon's still going to leak out but a bit slower.

He asks himself again. Are they worth it?

Are they worth betraying the Autobots and his Prime? Are they worth completely siding with the Seekers? Dragging Drift into his treason? Making an enemy of his friends and the humans alike? Are they worth risking his very spark?

Looking down at the tiny, tiny grounder curled in his palm, Ratchet already knows the answer. Yes. They may only ever be drones because he doesn't have the Allspark, but they are alive. They are still Cybertronian.

Yes. They are worth it.

“You know,” Drift says quietly, kneeling next to Ratchet and trying to coax a Seeker hatchling to swallow some diluted energon. “There's still a chance.”

Ratchet lifts an orbital ridge. “For what?” he asks blankly.

Drift doesn't look at him, too distracted. “Perceptor's research. Methods to enspark frames without the Allspark. It's possible.”

“You couldn't mention this before?” Ratchet demands.

The white mech lifts his shoulders and moves one hand up. “It wasn't relevant before.”

Ratchet struggles to rein in his temper. It’s really a battle. Not that it usually isn’t.

“How?”

“I'm not a scientist. Perceptor was always mumbling about spark energy and how it replicates itself over time.”

“Do you have any of his research?” Ratchet tries not to let himself hope. He's not a true scientist either, but he is a medic, and perhaps he can intuit hints from Perceptor's notes.

Drift's hand gently strokes the Seeker in his lap, trying to soothe the tiny hatchling into a restful recharge. It seems to be working.

“No, only the bits and pieces I picked up during his rambles,” he admits. “I can forward you the vids?”

--Ratchet!--

The medic startles at the sudden comm that slices into his attention with all the force of a shout. He recognizes Prime's ident code and his systems snap into sharp awareness.

Should he reply? Should he pretend ignorance?

Ratchet glances at Sideswipe, still offline, still lying in a crumpled heap several yards away. The Seekers are inbound, should actually arrive any minute now.

Drift's looking at him. He must have seen Ratchet startle.

He could lie. He could answer the comm, tell them that everything is all right. That they are still searching, and no, he doesn't know why Sideswipe isn't answering his comms. He'll make sure to ask though.

Of course, they could also be contacting him because they've detected the presence of the Seekers. They've probably also figured out where the Decepticons are heading. Maybe the Autobots are already scrambling to intercept and want to give Ratchet fair warning.

The options ping back and forth in Ratchet's processor. He hovers on the fence, his choice staring him in the optics with a suspicious glint of Decepticon crimson.

He makes the choice, he believes, that’s the first strike of finality. He ignores the comm. He dismisses his Prime.

Another ping hits him not but a minute later. Ratchet ignores it as well. He watches as Drift flinches.

“You ignored him,” he says.

He has no doubt been pinged since Ratchet hadn't responded. In all likelihood, Sideswipe was tried next. Not that Sides could answer.

Ratchet inclines his helm. “Yes.”

Easier, he believes, to not speak than to try and lie to his Prime.

Drift carefully sets aside the recharging hatchling and rises to his feet, gaze turned toward the horizon.

“How long?”

“I suspect they are already on their way. Luckily, human transport is slower than Seekers when they’re in a hurry.”

“Speaking of...” Drift gestures to a pair of dark spots in the sky, growing larger at a fast clip. “Here they come.”

Ratchet rises to his pedes, still cradling one of the hatchlings. His optics zoom in on the approaching Seekers. Is that a net? Did Skywarp somehow convince Thundercracker to sling a net around his alt-mode?

No wonder Thundercracker had claimed it undignified. Copters hauled freight, not Seekers. And Seekers certainly didn't fly around with nets strapped to their chassis.

“This is your brilliant plan?” Ratchet demands as Skywarp transforms mid-descent and lands with a firm thump on his pedes.

The darker Seeker chuckles as he reaches up to guide the net down as Thundercracker does a strange half-transformation that allows him to land without getting too tangled in the heavy coils of whatever substance they've braided together.

“I wanted to carry a cargo container between us,” Skywarp replies with a smirk. “But it was not only too heavy but also too bulky. Besides, we didn't have an extra pair of hands to attach it.”

Thundercracker gives his trinemate a sour look. “It also slowed us down considerably.” His gaze shifts to Ratchet. “The Autobots are coming. We had to take out three of the human jets before they'd leave us alone.”

“We didn't kill them,” Skywarp adds hastily. “We gave the squishies time to eject.”

“How thoughtful of you,” Drift mutters, giving the Seekers a distinctly untrusting look as he edges closer to Ratchet. This would be the first time he's met them faceplate to faceplate.

“Only one net,” Ratchet observes.

“If we're going to be fighting off squishies every hundred miles, we can only afford one net,” Skywarp replies with an edge of hostile indignation.

Ratchet glances at the numerous hatchlings, Drift, and then himself. “It'll mean more than one trip.”

“We know. Luckily, we're faster than the Autobots. It'll be close.” For a second, Thundercracker looks worried until his gaze seems to zero in on the hatchling in Ratchet's hand. “Is that...?”

“Four Seekers,” Ratchet informs him and carefully tips the tiny one into Thundercracker's eager fingers, the Seeker being extra-careful of his clawed digits. “Eight other survivors as well.”

Skywarp's wings visibly droop. “Only twelve?”

“They were starving,” Ratchet counters softly. “We're lucky to have saved so many.”

A low growl resonates in Thundercracker's chassis. “Luck has nothing to do with it.”

If only the Autobots could see the Seekers now, carefully cradling the hatchlings that Ratchet has managed to stabilize as they bristle with protective subroutines. As they risk everything for a dozen lives that don't matter much in the long scheme of things.

To be fair, not all Decepticons are like Thundercracker and Skywarp. There are many glitched slaggers that’d be better served with a merciful offlining. But they still deserve the chance, the opportunity, to show that they are more than propaganda has made them.

Drift shifts his weight. “The Autobots are coming,” he reminds.

“Right.” Skywarp nods perfunctorily. “Enough of this soft-sparked moment. Ratchet, into the net with you. And as many of the hatchlings as you can fit.”

With his knowledge of Seeker carrying capacity, Ratchet has already made several calculations.

“No,” he says. “Take Drift first. He's lighter.”

Ratchet, on his own, outweighs the Seekers. He would slow them down.

Thundercracker gives him a long look. “No offense, ‘Con traitor. But right now, the medic's worth more.”

“None taken.” Drift waves it away. “I'm inclined to agree with you.”

“I'm also heavier. And the one mech the Autobots are least likely to shoot on reflex.”

Calculating travel time round trip, Ratchet estimates that it'll be close. Real close. The Seekers might not get back before the Autobots arrive.

A lighter burden makes for a faster trip. The Seekers can take Drift and the hatchlings the first round and be back faster than if they took Ratchet and fewer of the hatchlings. Simple mathematics.

Skywarp has already started carrying recharging hatchlings toward the net.

“And if they take you prisoner, what then? None of us know enough to keep these hatchlings alive.”

“I can live with being a prisoner,” Ratchet replies, and his gaze cuts to Drift. “But I know very well that they won't give Drift that option.” They'll see the former ‘Con as returning to his roots.

Leadfoot, especially, will take great glee in extinguishing Drift's spark. Oh, his glorious leader might have a moment of hesitation. He might want to take a minute to ask Drift some questions. But his order will likely come moments too late. Leadfoot will shoot to offline, and their vaunted leader won't shed a proverbial tear afterward.

Thundercracker huffs loudly. “The Autobots--”

“This isn't up for debate!” Ratchet snaps, sharp enough to cut off Thundercracker's protest. “We don't have the time to argue, and none of you are in a position to force the issue. Take. Drift.”

Quiet settles between them before Skywarp swears a string of vitriol that's a lovely mixture of several languages, foreign and domestic. It’s almost refreshing.

“Get in the net, grounder!” he snarls, grabbing Drift by the arm and shoving him toward Thundercracker.

“This is a foolish plan,” Drift protests, stumbling from the force of Skywarp's shove.

But he obeys. If anything, Drift is a soldier. He knows when to obey.

There’s a look in Thundercracker's optics, like he's going to argue, but he doesn't. Instead, he helps Skywarp get Drift situated, then packs the hatchlings in and around the smaller mech. It's not the ideal situation, but desperate times.

“How's the weight?” Skywarp asks his trinemate.

“I can handle it,” Thundercracker replies, which isn't precisely the answer any of them are looking for. “Though if it comes down to combat, I'm fragged.”

Skywarp grins. “That's what I'm here for, sweetspark.” He pats Thundercracker on a cheek spar, a touch of condescension in his tone.

“Shove it up your afterburner,” the blue Seeker retorts, but it lacks heat.

Chuckling, Skywarp circles his trinemate, probably checking to make sure everything is nice and secure. Wouldn't want Drift and the hatchlings to tumble out after all.

“Everything set?” Ratchet demands, his chronometer ticking down the passing minutes, reminding him that the Autobots are only getting closer. The Seekers will probably pass them along the way.

“Yeah, we're good to go.” Skywarp steps back, passing a critical optic over Thundercracker. “I still say this is a bad plan.”

“Your opinion is noted.” Ratchet turns his back on all of them. There's a secondary reason he opted to wait for the second round. “Get going. Time's wasting.”

Thundercracker is the first to take to the skies, shifting fully into his jet mode once the netting draws taut. Skywarp flies around him in a few circuits, checking the integrity of the lashings, before the two of them rise higher into the air.

--We'll be back,-- Thundercracker transmits. --Try not to get yourself slagged before then.--

--Duly noted,-- Ratchet retorts dryly.

He glances at Sideswipe. The mech is still unconscious. Hopefully, he'll remain that way. Until then, Ratchet has his own duties to attend.

They'd managed to fit all of the hatchlings into the first load. There are, however, supplies here that could be useful. Mainly, parts.

It's a dirty, spark-rending job, but someone has to do it. They'll need the parts for the survivors. Ratchet doesn't have the supplies or the equipment to fabricate his own.

There's a long line of empty hatchling frames waiting for him to attend to them. He doesn't want to. But practicality wins out. There are no supply lines that he can rely on. They will not be receiving help from the humans. The Seekers could, in theory, leave the planet, but they cannot safely return.

Ratchet grinds his denta, forcefully locks his emotions away, and bends to the grisly task. It must be done.

Time passes; he tries not to count the minutes ticking by.

His proximity sensors shriek with alarm. But the warning comes too late. Ratchet stirs from his concentration to the sensation of hot metal sliding against his neck components. Not a killing blow but incapacitating enough that he won't be able to defend against the next likely attack on his spark chamber.

“Why?”

The single word carries a heavy weight, crouching on Ratchet's shoulders with confusion and despair and betrayal.

Ratchet doesn't move.

“I used to be a medic once,” he replies, slowly withdrawing his hands from one of the last empty frames so that they dangle loosely at his side. He consults his chronometer, surprised by how much time has passed.

The blade doesn't waver but Ratchet can sense the tremble in Sideswipe's armor nonetheless.

“You're a medic now,” he insists, joints creaking as his weight shifts. “You're an Autobot. They were Decepticon. Why?”

“The lines aren't so simple anymore.” Ratchet half-turns, keeping his actions measured and nonthreatening. “And I am still an Autobot.”

A noise of disbelief resonates in Sideswipe's chassis. “Prime’s coming. He thinks you were attacked. He's worried.”

He can see the sneer curving Sideswipe's mouth.

“Worried about the medic who turned on his own allies.” Only now does Sideswipe's blade waver, the edge of it tapping against Ratchet's neck cables with a quiet ring of metal on metal. “I don't know what to tell him.”

Ratchet turns, ever so carefully, so that he can look Sideswipe in the optics. His spark is heavy.

“Tell him the truth.”

“I don't know what the truth is!” Sideswipe shouts, and his energy field flares with frantic emotions.

Ratchet straightens, part of him worried that Sides might snap and attack. A larger part of him, however, has fought alongside the frontliner for centuries, and he would trust Sideswipe with his spark.

“Then you have to figure it out for yourself,” Ratchet replies, keeping his vocals calm and quiet. “But I had to save them.”

“They're Decepticons!” Sideswipe hisses.

“They were hatchlings,” Ratchet corrects gently. He doesn't think that the lone twin had seen the little ones. “Drones without the Allspark but still living beings. And Prime would’ve killed them all.”

If it were possible for a mech to go pale, then that’s Sideswipe's reaction. He rears back, optics cycling outward, weapon lowering in his shock.

“You're wrong.”

It’s painful how much he sounds like Lennox in that moment, desperate to believe in the purity of the Prime. That he's been pointing himself in the right direction during the war.

The low drone of a powerful engine captures both of their attention. Ratchet looks up, catching sight of the human transport; Sideswipe doesn't have to. No doubt he's been in contact with them from the moment he onlined.

Now would be a good time for the Seekers to return, Ratchet muses. Barring that, he's prepared for whatever may come.

“I don't know what's going on,” Sideswipe says, his vocals growing steadier. “But if you surrender, I'm sure Prime will understand. You know how he is. Soft-sparked and all that.”

Oh, Sideswipe. If only Ratchet could believe that. But it's not their glorious leader making the decision anymore. It's the humans that stand behind him, pulling his strings.

Ratchet tries his private comm. --Any chance that you two are about to swoop in and retrieve me?--

There's no answer. Frag.

The opportunity to fight his way free has long since passed. He can already see their Prime and the Autobots he brought with him dropping from the C-17 without waiting for the plane to land.

Ratchet does what he can. He straightens, keeps his weapons locked and his battle systems offline. The Autobots are his friends, his family. He can't imagine harming them.

Ratchet doesn't respond to Sideswipe, and the frontliner adds nothing else. Perhaps it’s better that way. He doesn't have words or excuses or explanations. He can't begin to put into mere words all of his reasons. Ratchet suspects that most of the Autobots won't understand anyway.

They are none of them the ideal they used to believe.

Somehow, just watching their Prime approach, flanked by Dino and the Wreckers, Ratchet feels his resolve strengthen. There's no logical reason behind his reaction, but his shoulders straighten, his chin tilts up. Defiance brightens his optics, but sadness resonates in his energy field.

“Ratchet,” Prime says, intonation indicating he intends to say more, but he falters. He stares at the medic, flanked by his Autobots including Sideswipe.

There's an invisible line in the sand.

Ratchet stands on one side, surrounded by the detritus of an abandoned campsite, pieces of parted hatchlings arranged neatly on the ground behind him.

The Autobots are on the other side, silent and uneasy. The Wreckers don't speak for once, have no insults to offer. Dino's staring, too shocked to raise his weapons. Sideswipe still hovers between anger and dismay.

“Ratchet,” Prime begins, trying again. “What have you done?”

He performs a systems check, attempting to calm the frantic whirl of his spark. The way his coding screams at him to cease defying his Prime.

“Something I should have done long before now, if I'd had the courage.”

“Where is Drift?”

“With the hatchlings,” Ratchet answers, and his hands clench and unclench at his sides. “And no, I am not going to tell you where. He, the hatchlings, and the Seekers are safe.”

“Safe?” Prime's tone is measured, gentle, like one might speak to a frightened sparkling or a cornered turbo fox.

“From you.” A tremble radiates up Ratchet's strut, and he fights to keep himself from betraying that weakness. “I'm tired, Prime. Tired of the war. The killing.”

He watches Prime's fingers flex.

“The war is over.”

“Is it?” Ratchet's helm tilts to the side, surprising himself with how calm he is. “When we're shooting our kind out of the sky still. When we hunt them down like sparkless beasts. When we can't see beyond the next kill? Oh, no. Prime, for you the war will never be over. No matter how many Decepticons you slay. Or how many Megatrons you kill.”

Beside Prime, Leadfoot bristles. Dino gapes. The others stare at Ratchet as though he's lost his processor, like his spark has been replaced by Starscream's.

He has even managed to shock Optimus into silence. For once, the Prime is bereft of speeches, of sanctimonious preaching about honor and the ideals of the Autobots.

Ratchet vents quietly, spreading his hands, palms down. I have given all that I can give, the gesture says. Summarily, it also indicates his willingness to surrender.

He won't raise his weapons to his friends. There is another, more nagging, part of him that won't allow it either, but such is a different matter.

“Leadfoot. Sideswipe. Secure the prisoner,” Prime says carefully, his optics never leaving Ratchet, something in their glow reflecting dismay.

Both Autobots hesitate, glancing at their leader, their Prime. The others can't seem to decide who deserves their attention more, their medic or their Prime.

A sensation of static electricity fills the hesitant silence. Ratchet startles, his plating twitching. The atmosphere feels at once, both sharp and tight.

Then, it snaps.

Skywarp bursts into space just behind Ratchet, or at least he assumes it to be the darker Seeker since Thundercracker can't teleport. Ratchet hadn't realized Skywarp was well enough to access his warp drive. He's even less certain that they have enough energon to compensate for its use.

“Well, what have I stumbled upon here?” Skywarp asks, his tone bright but his words sharp.

He looms over Ratchet from behind, draping his arms over the medic and peering over Ratchet's left. It's a lover's hold, something intimate and sure to invoke all the wrong ideas. Protesting would be a waste of time.

“Skywarp!” Dino hisses.

Weapons spring to life on his arms, pointed instantly at the irritating Seeker.

“Aww, you remember me.” Skywarp leans heavier on Ratchet. “How sweet. I'd love to stay and chat, relive old times and all, but I'm only here for one thing.”

Prime steps in front of Dino, blocking the mech from firing at Skywarp and possibly taking out Ratchet as well.

“Let Ratchet go.”

“Sorry, Prime. That's not what he wants.” One of Skywarp's arms drop from Ratchet's shoulders, curling instead around his waist almost possessively. “Is it, medic?”

He can feel the tension in Skywarp's plating, the hum of battle systems that are online and actively tracking potential threats. Skywarp is poised to leap into the sky at a moment's notice and take Ratchet with him. Thundercracker must be nearby or near enough.

“I'm sorry, Prime,” Ratchet says and surprises himself with the level of sheer remorse that flickers in his energy field. “But this is goodbye.”

Seekers have a flair for the dramatic. If Ratchet had wanted to say anything else, the opportunity is stolen from him.

Skywarp's hands suddenly wrap tightly around him, no longer in a parody of a lover's embrace, and he powers on his thrusters with a fast burn. Ratchet smells scorched grass before his tanks drop into his pedes, Skywarp pushing them up into the freedom of the skies, leaving the Autobots on the ground below, staring up at their departing frames.

--Show off,-- Ratchet grumbles.

Skywarp's arms tighten around him. --Would you rather I let you go back? Rot in the Autobot's idea of a brig?-- His energy field flares with irritation, and a surprising dose of concern. --Course, the humans might have a different punishment in mind.--

--No--

--Then stop whining.--

Below them, Africa is a wash of greens and browns. Skywarp can't keep up this speed for long, not carrying Ratchet. No doubt they'll meet up with Thundercracker somewhere.

Skywarp's fingers rap a nonsense rhythm against Ratchet's plating, where his hands rest against side panels.

--Do you regret it already?-- The Seeker sounds oddly sober.

Ratchet doesn't answer immediately.

He thinks about the orders Prime had given him, grudgingly obeyed. He thinks about Lennox and Mearing and the contrasts between them.

He remembers saving the Seekers and how he used to be a medic. He remembers what that had meant once upon a vorn.

He remembers the hatchlings and his files call up Drift's words, the possibility of supplementing their doomed species.

--No,-- Ratchet finally responds. --I don't regret anything.--

End Ratchet

Chapter Text

"We're getting close."

Prowl doesn't bother to ask Sunstreaker how he can be so certain. He's given up understanding or making reason out of myth.

"Estimated distance?"

Sunstreaker glances at him. A visible shudder skips across his armor.

"Soon."

Prowl nods and returns his attention to the nav panel. They've swung around a gas giant with an enormous storm on the surface. Prime's message came from this system. The planet's coordinates are simple to follow, but Sunstreaker's confirmation is appreciated. It makes something in his processor settle as he's reassured they are on the right course.

"And Hound?"

Sunstreaker doesn't so much as turn and look over his shoulder. The disquiet in his field is tangible. It speaks volumes.

"Still hanging on."

Prowl presses his mouth together, and his plates pull tight against his back. Sunstreaker's assessment is an overstatement. Hound has been in deep stasis for more than half of their journey. He has only surfaced from his self-inflicted state to occasionally inquire about their location or apologize even more. Prowl has long ago given up the attempt to correct him.

If anyone is at fault, it is Prowl himself. It was his plan. His…

He shakes his helm and resolutely turns his attention back to the console. A blinking light indicates their growing proximity to Prime. And by proxy, Ratchet.

Medic. Salvation.

Hound needs Ratchet if he is to live.

Clawed fingers rap over the console. Sunstreaker shifts, either out of discomfort or anticipation.

"This flying slab of tin won't survive atmospheric entry," he says, and his tone is full of nameless things that threaten to reach inside Prowl and tear him asunder.

"We will have to do an orbital drop," the lieutenant replies. He's already anticipated this issue.

Sunstreaker pauses. "He won't survive an orbital drop."

He doesn't need to say who he means. Hound is always first in their thoughts. Nothing else is more important at this point. Nothing.

"We have no choice," Prowl responds, but his voice is tight. Edged with things he still can't admit. "He will offline if we leave him here. He must come with us."

Sunstreaker ex-vents. His optics shift back to the viewscreen but don't really seem to see it.

"And if he doesn't?" His claws curl into fists. "If it kills him?"

"It won't. He will live."

Prowl can't remember when he became such an optimist. Necessity, he supposes. If he tried to believe anything else, he would've succumbed to the drag of this endless war vorns and vorns ago.

Sunstreaker's makes a derisive sound. "I fragging despise orbital drops," he mutters, kicking out a pede in a sparkling-like sulk.

It's all bravado though. Pure theater to hide the vulnerable spots beneath. Prowl can see Sunstreaker's optics flicker toward the back compartment. Toward Hound.

"I'm sure Sideswipe will be willing enough to help you scrub off the scorch marks," he counters effortlessly.

Sunstreaker inclines his helm. "That slagger. He better give me a proper welcome."

If there is one topic certain to shift Sunstreaker's mood, it is to talk about his brother. Prowl will admit that he shamelessly takes advantage.

"He'll be happy that you're alive," he allows, but his tone has a hint of wickedness that he'd deny until the end of time.

Prowl returns his attention to the console of their tiny shuttle as it putters toward the planet where the Autobots are to make their new home. He tries not to hold too much hope but fails spectacularly as his thoughts turn to Hound and Ratchet who awaits them.

"That fact has never been in question." Sunstreaker flicks his fingers through the air before pulling a cloth from subspace and rubbing it over his arm. "I still expect some pampering after he abandoned me to wander the universe with you and Hound."

There had been others, as well. Too many others. But neither of them make mention. The pain is still too fresh.

Besides, an unwise mech would take offense at Sunstreaker's words.

Prowl is many things but not that.

A chuckle bubbles up in his vocalizer. "For what it's worth, I couldn't have asked for a better partner."

"You could have," Sunstreaker corrects, optics flashing with his own brand of amusement. "But you wouldn't have found one."

After so many vorns, it's no longer unusual how his friend's offhand arrogance feels so comforting and familiar. A mech, who Prowl once believed he could never predict much less understand, has now become as almost close to him as his brother.

Prowl shakes his helm. His hands land on the controls as the shuttle shudders, and proximity sensors alert them to the presence of an asteroid band in the solar system.

"Are you picking up anything on the comms?"

Sunstreaker swivels his chair. His taloned fingers plucking at the other console.

"Not a blip," he says, but then, his field spikes. "Wait. There's something."

"Autobot?"

Prowl twitches, and the shuttle jerks hard to the right, deftly skimming around a particularly large asteroid. Their transport may not have much in the way of amenities or space, but it more than makes up for that lack in speed and maneuverability. Especially since it has little shielding and zero defensive capabilities, which is the primary reason why they fly silent.

He would like nothing more than to try and contact Prime, but the message they received was so garbled that Prowl had trouble discerning details. He was able to pick out coordinates, determine an Autobot presence, and extrapolate to a victory. But regarding the Decepticon menace, he remains in the dark.

"Yes and no." Sunstreaker raps over the console before he whirls around in the seat. "There's heavy interference. Two broadcasts overlapping. One of them's Prime. The other…"

Prowl's entire body sets in a grim line as they emerged from the asteroid belt. Another planet appears on their scopes.

"Decepticons."

A soft whine fills the tiny cockpit. It is a familiar noise, that of battle systems charging. But it's one Prowl hadn't heard for several diun. Their last encounter with Decepticons ended in their current harried flight and Hound's unfortunate condition.

Prowl glances to his left, but the scanners offer up nothing. Not so much as an echo of a Decepticon signal.

"An overlap means the broadcast origins are of the same general coordinates."

Sunstreaker puts a hand to his face. "Meaning they're on the same planet with Prime." He offers a frustrated noise. "Think he found Megatron?"

A small flutter of optimism dares to flicker through Prowl's processor.

"It is possible," he concedes.

There's also a fair chance that Prime has found the Allspark as well. However, the incoherent communications leave too much to speculation. For all he knows, Prime is now the last of their kind. Or is surrounded by a hoard of sparklings. Or now sits at Prima's right hand with Jazz laughing as he watches from the sidelines.

Each seems about as likely as the next.

Sunstreaker straightens, hand rising to his chassis again. His fingers grasp where his spark is hidden beneath triple-reinforced armor.

"We're close. Really close." His optics flare with what Prowl would designate eagerness were Sunstreaker any other mech.

He can understand the sentiment. He isn't a twin, can't even behind to understand such a tie. But he does have a brother. One he hasn't seen in so long. Their connection has been dormant so long. Distance and time have quieted it to an aching whisper he can barely even hear. Danger has made it muter still. Has made both he and Jazz close the door between them. Lock and bar it tightly. And then cry out from opposite sides.

But that won't be for much longer.

Through the viewport, Prowl watches their shuttle whip by a small, red planet. Beyond that is another planet. It is blue and white primarily, and early readings indicate an atmosphere, a true atmosphere. Very organic, Prowl assumes, especially with a base of carbon and an abundance of dihydrogen monoxide. It matches the coordinates Prowl gleaned from the communication and that is all that matters to him.

"What are we going to do with the shuttle?" Sunstreaker asks, energy field giving an impatient pulse.

Prowl's doors contract as he considers. "There's a satellite," he finally points out. "It is as good a landing zone as any. We can make the orbital drop from there."

"I still say it's a bad idea," his friend mutters.

That doesn't require a response. Prowl adjusts their course so that their trajectory intersects with the orbiting satellite. As a precaution, he dials down several more systems, trying to run as many stealth protocols as possible.

"Uh, Prowl," Sunstreaker interrupts just as the satellite comes into view, both optically and through the sensors. "We've got a problem."

"Is it the thrusters again?"

"Remember that Decepticon broadcast?" Sunstreaker shoves away from the console and shoots to his pedes. "Well, it isn't coming from the planet."

Prowl's tank all but dives toward the floor. One hand remaining on the controls, he reaches for the console, already trying to plot a new course. Frag it all to the Pit and back. Of course the planet and its satellite would be in a synchronous orbit just close enough to completely baffle the communication equipment.

"How long?" Prowl demands as proximity sensors suddenly blare to life and bathe the tiny cockpit in garish colors.

Sunstreaker curses, fist slamming into a panel and denting the cheap metal. "No time. They must be scanning for approaching ships. We were in their sights before we even cleared the asteroids."

Prowl's jerks the shuttle off course entirely. He aims instead for the blue-white of the planet.

"We have no choice then," he bites out, optics cycling down. "We'll have to chance atmospheric entry."

"This isn't how I wanted to offline, Prowl," Sunstreaker informs him, bracing his arms against the narrow doorway connecting the cockpit to the rest of the shuttle.

"That's not going to happen." Prowl grits his denta as the sensors shriek and the shuttle trembles around them.

He cables himself to the shuttle, alerts and warnings cascading by his HUD, and the ship's computer streams data into his processor. One thruster is down for the count, a smoking ruin. Laserfire has scored several hits, but the Decepticons haven't breached the hull. Yet. It's only a matter of time; this craft is not built for battle of any kind. It's a miracle they've made it this far on something originally meant for short-range flights.

However, with the shuttle's real-time data pouring into his processor, Prowl finds it easier to take control. Sensors indicate two attackers, probably Seeker in origin, giving off Decepticon signals and making no attempts to hide it.

Another barrage rakes across the shuttle's portside, and Prowl winces. A few more hits like that, and it won't matter if they survive atmospheric entry or not. He redirects more energon to the thrusters, pushing them harder and faster. He streaks toward the planet with utter disregard for the fact he'll have to decelerate rather soon.

"Prowl!"

"I know what I'm doing." His tone is serene, a complete contradiction to their situation, but his doors are flat against his dorsal plating. "Haven't you learned to trust me by now?"

"It's not a matter of trust!" Sunstreaker hisses, and the sound of crumpling metal is barely heard over the alarms.

Prowl doesn't so much as turn around. "See to Hound." His focus drops away, processor immersing itself in controlling the shuttle. "Strap him down. Put him in deep stasis if you must."

"But-"

"That's an order, Sunstreaker."

There's a long moment where Sunstreaker all but vibrates with the urge to disobey, and Prowl knows that his mouth must be set in a obstinate display.

Then, Sunstreaker slams another fist into the wall.

"Fine."

He whirls on a pede, stalking through the door before it closes behind him.

Prowl ventilates and bends the entirety of his attention to piloting, to getting them planet-side without offlining all three of them in the process. He has lost too much – too many – to this war, and if it takes the last of his functioning, Prowl will see that Sunstreaker is reunited with his brother. He refuses to fail.

More laserfire erupts, and scores a few minor hits. Either their attackers are terrible shots, or Prowl's more attuned to the shuttle's movements than he could have expected.

The planet looms in front of them, brilliant blue and white. The unsubtle blip of Prime's continued broadcast nags on the edge of Prowl's senses.

More warnings screech through the shuttle's systems. Another hit scores, this time taking out a stabilizer and Prowl tightens his control. His fingers fly over the panel as the shuttle rattles. The engines whine in protest, pushed beyond their limits.

Heat. It envelops the shuttle and Prowl can feel it, even through the craft's metal shell. His own temperature ticks upward, vents kicking on with a furious whirr to cool his frame.

Sunstreaker pings his personal comm, but Prowl ignores it. He reaches out, flicking the switch to lock out the cockpit. Sunstreaker and Hound will both be safer where they are.

One of the Decepticons draws back, as though reluctant to get any closer to the planet, but the other remains right on the shuttle's tail. Determined.

The heat is overwhelming. Several sheets of the shuttle's hull peel away, and one of the stabilizing fins is ripped off by the force of the atmospheric entry. Prowl's fingers grip tighter around the controls, and the entire craft shudders violently. He can see nothing through the viewport but a blur of colors and fire.

The shuttle gives a violent lurch, nearly heaving Prowl to the floor. It tilts dangerously, but then, they are through. The planet's foreground comes into view, a smear of organic colors through the viewport. The shuttle yaws dangerously, laserfire scoring through the atmosphere, and one of his attackers streaks through the air in front of it. Prowl catches a glimpse of grey, bulky plating – not a Seeker but shuttle-class – before the Decepticon is out of view.

The comm unit crackles, picking up a transmission. It pierces through the fog of Prowl's connection, igniting his battle systems and logic centers both. He peels back the layers, forces more of his conscious to the surface, hoping that the second of inattention won't spell the doom of himself and his crew.

The words are garbled. Not, Prowl realizes, due to technical issues but because he doesn't understand the language. It's not Cybertronian, that's for certain. Probably the native dialect.

"This is Autobot Prowl," he replies in a universal language, static lacing each word as he hopes he's not outing their presence to an enemy threat. "I have two Autobots on board, currently under fire from an unknown Decepticon. Please respond."

For a spark-stalling moment, nothing more comes from the communication but static-dark silence.

"Acknowledged," someone replies on the other end. This time it's in Cybertronian, his tone lacking any and all defining harmonics.

He isn't Cybertronian. Prowl is certain of this. There had been no inflection, no evidence of dialect or accent. But he has little time to spare for pondering right now. The shuttle is spewing smoke. Fire crackles along the edges, and Prowl is reasonably certain that they are losing plating by the sheet.

The planet's landscape looms in front of him, a wash of green and brown and endless blue sky. He has no idea where to aim himself, what would make for a safer crash, but Prowl tries to keep the ramshackle spacecraft in the air as long as possible. He might have succeeded too, if the pursuing Decepticon hadn't decided to throw himself directly on top of the shuttle.

The whole ship lurches and instantly dives, pushed by the additional mass. There's nothing Prowl can do. His thrusters are shot, stabilizers worse, and the ground is rushing up to meet them. He can only brace himself, shout for Sunstreaker and Hound to do the same, and pray.

His battle computer spits statistics at him, probabilities of survival. They are all of them grim. Prowl frowns, grips the console, and ventilates softly.

Another failure to add to his never-ending list. The latest in a long line that stretches so far back he can't even remember the beginning anymore.

He ventilates again as blue sky is swallowed by brown and green until that's all he can see. At least it's beautiful, Prowl thinks. Something glorious to see before death.

He thinks of life then. Just before everything eats away. He thinks of Sunstreaker. Of Hound.

Of his brother. So close and yet so far away. Close enough to touch now, where he hadn't been before. Close enough to grasp, to hold, if only he could.

Prowl reaches for him, but there isn't enough time. He offlines his optics mere astroseconds before everything goes dark.

o0o0o

"-owl. Prowl!"

His optics snap online, and Prowl's entire frame jerks. Only to go rigid as pain cascades through every system, HUD flashing alerts at him from all directions. A low groan escapes as he struggles to not so much as twitch. Somehow, he manages to cautiously take in his surroundings.

The world is fuzzy, edged with static, but there's a blue glow above him and an indistinct shape. His sensors register the weight of hands on his shoulders, but there's also a sense of pressure on his left leg, and he can't feel his right sensory panel. It's either dislocated or gone, neither of which are good considering their lack of access to a medic.

"Prowl!"

He reboots his optics. The bleary image sharpens into a familiar helm.

"S—Sunstreaker?"

"You fragging idiot," the warrior seethes, drawing back from Prowl's immediate sight though the hand remains on his left shoulder. "Did you pick up that self-sacrificing attitude from Prime, or is it just a charming bonus to that backward battle computer of yours?"

Prowl's right hand twitches. His systems ping back with a status update. Something's pierced his leg, a piece of the shuttle perhaps. His sensory panel is indeed dislocated. He's suffering from numerous punctured lines, and his interface cable has been torn from his frame, likely still attached to the shuttle's console.

He quickly dials down his receptors using a little medical override Ratchet gave him eons ago. Right now, he needs a clear processor, and the pain radiating from every micron of his frame isn't helping.

"The Decepticon?" Prowl asks, having to reboot his vocalizer twice just to clear the static. He feels unstable and reasons that he must have taken several hits to the helm. He wouldn't be surprised if he fried a circuit or two.

"Down," Sunstreaker replies, tones clipped and furious. His hands, however, are roaming over Prowl's frame, no doubt searching for more injuries. "Can you move?"

"Offline?"

Prowl tests his limbs, none of which are numb, but he knows he can't rest any of his weight on the one leg. Not without yanking the piece of shrapnel first, and Prowl doesn't need a medic to tell him that's probably not a good idea. It might cause more damage.

"Close enough," Sunstreaker bites out and shuffles around the sparking, debris-strewn interior of the shuttle. He maneuvers until he can get an arm under and around Prowl. "He's gone Empty."

Prowl winces as Sunstreaker lifts him to a semblance of standing. The pain is gone, but the discomfort remains.

Empty. Energon mad. Primus, no wonder the Decepticon wouldn't stop attacking. Energy-starvation has caused many a mech to do insane things. Most out of sheer desperation to stop the self-repair from cannibalizing their own frames and their processors from shorting out. The only worse affliction would be space madness.

"Got an ID, too," Sunstreaker says almost gruffly. "Blitzwing."

Prowl runs the designation through his internal database. Triple-changer, his memory banks tell him. Not terribly loyal to Megatron but an acknowledged threat. He is most often seen in the company of another triple-changer.

"Then the other was likely Astrotrain," Prowl says as Sunstreaker half-carries him out of the shuttle's ruins, a few systems flickering colorful lights in their wake.

The shuttle is a loss. Perhaps they may be able to glean useful spare parts, even find some supplies in the wreckage, but it's a miracle that they survived.

Prowl's helm dips.

"Hound?"

Sunstreaker loses control of his energy field for a moment. There is an aching tingle of worry mixed with something Prowl doesn't dare name.

"He's still in stasis, but he's functioning," the yellow warrior murmurs, but his grip is too tight. "That weld didn't hold."

Prowl stills completely.

Hound may be functioning for now, but unless, they can get him to a medic and soon, he won't make it. The slapdash repairs are the only thing keeping Hound's chassis together. Speak nothing of the desperate attempts to patch his spark chamber. He's been functioning on borrowed time for several vorns.

Prowl fears it is nearly run out.

Dull keening floats to Prowl's audials, barely perceptible above the noise of metal cooling and popping and coolant systems hissing. Before he can even begin to pinpoint the origin, Sunstreaker is half-dragging, half-guiding him out of the wreckage. They stumble into brilliant sunlight, warm and insistent upon Prowl's plating. He cycles his optics just to see.

Sunstreaker lowers him to the ground with a care that few ever see, but Prowl releases another hiss. There's a piece debris behind him, and Prowl leans against it almost involuntarily. He sweeps their surroundings, noting that their so-called landing was a crash after all, and they've left a swath of destruction in their wake. The shuttle has cut a deep furrow into the ground. It is, as Prowl suspected, organic rather than metal in nature.

He can see mountains in the distance, and his audials detect several unrecognizable sounds. His still-functioning comms pick a clatter of disjointed noise, so many different broadcasts on too many different avenues. If there's any kind of Autobot transmissions present, Prowl can't pick them out of the mélange. At least, not while his processor is yet churning.

The keening is louder. Prowl turns his helm, which takes more effort than it should, and sees the mech half-crumpled against the dirt. He's on his side, arms stasis-cuffed behind him, Decepticon insignias stark against pale plating. Energon streaks the ground beneath, running in rivulets over his frame. He's twitching.

Sunstreaker limps into view, plates visibly dented on one side. He's taken several hits from a blaster, but he's in remarkably good shape considering recent events. Prowl envies the quality of his battle armor.

"Now what?" his friend demands as he approaches, crouching to give Prowl a critical optic. He focuses on the piece of twisted metal poking out of the tactician's leg.

"Someone made contact," Prowl manages, expanding his sensors for a broader sweep and hoping to discern anything about their new environment. "I assume they are allies, but we must be prepared for other possibilities."

Sunstreaker sneers. "You really think Prime is here?" he asks, optics scanning the landscape. His mouth components curl with disgust.

"You would know better than I," Prowl murmurs, fighting not to lean into Sunstreaker's warmth too much.

"If you can't pick anything out of this, I know I can't." Sunstreaker grinds several gears together. "But yeah, Sides is here." He taps his chestplate pointedly. "Getting closer by the nanoklik, too."

Relief resonates through Prowl so strongly he surprises himself by the depth of it. Some of the tension eases out of his frame.

"Then you have your answer."

Sunstreaker stands then and scuffs a pede against the ground. "Doesn't mean I have to like it." He scowls at the organic bits on his armor and the dust cloud that arises. "I'm going to check on Hound."

He whirls and stalks away before Prowl can protest, not that he has the processing capacity to spare. He can't think more beyond the fact that the Autobots are coming, and in all likelihood, the closest Decepticon is the one currently babbling nonsense mere meters away.

Prowl adjusts his position with a grimace and assesses his condition. Self-repair is making short work of the minor tears in his lines. He's losing a minimal amount of energon thankfully, and no coolant lines are damaged. The shrapnel in his leg is the worst of the wounds, and once Sunstreaker returns, perhaps he can convince the warrior to relocate his sensory panel, however uncomfortable that might be.

If only Hound were so easy to fix.

But Prowl can't think of that now. He won't.

Drawing a repair kit from his subspace, Prowl busy himself by tending to the few injuries he is capable of fixing for himself. Over the vorns, he's learned a passable amount of field repair, but much is still beyond his scope. Sunstreaker's knowledge is slightly better as a consequence of his time spent in the gladiator circuits.

But even between the pair of them, it still isn't enough to meet their true need.

While his servos are busy, Prowl purposefully turns his processor to other matters. He begins to sort through the untidy collection of transmissions that float across the airwaves. There's a miscellaneous assortment of languages present. Prowl may not be able to recognize them, but he can at least determine that some are of a different cant. There is also what might be music, if not based on a different tonal system. It is altogether puzzling. Chaotic. Loud.

Jazz must love it here.

-Still functioning,- Sunstreaker tight-beams to Prowl from wherever he is with Hound, just out of immediate sight but not sensor range.

But for how long?

Prowl's mouth components set in a thin line. -Keep him in stasis until we can make contact with Ratchet. It may be safer over all.-

He can't hear Sunstreaker huff out, but he knows the golden mech far too well to think he doesn't.

-I will.-

Sunstreaker cuts off without waiting for a dismissal, but the warrior's curtness no longer irritates. Instead, it's nearly comforting, familiar. A form of directness that is still refreshing no matter how much happens. Sunstreaker is nothing if not honest, brutally so.

His friend limps back into view then, blaster drawn and tapping against a thigh. There's a gleam to his optics, one that Prowl recognizes as a mech with every battle system engaged. A wise decision. Prowl doesn't intend to be caught off guard again.

"Didn't you say Astrotrain was this piece of scrap's partner?" Sunstreaker asks, waving his blaster in the direction of their prisoner's quivering frame.

A static-laced growl emerges from the Decepticon, but he can do little more than twitch under the influence of the cuffs. Truly though, it's probably a mercy. Empties aren't known for being docile.

Prowl merely tips his head. "Does it surprise you that a Decepticon would abandon his fellow?"

Sunstreaker gives Prowl a flat look in return. He stalks over to Blitzwing, prodding the downed triple-changer with a pede. The Decepticon makes a truly wretched sound.

"Primus, he's pathetic this way." Visibly recoiling, Sunstreaker steps back and gives Blitzwing a wide berth. "Want to bet they've been sitting on that satellite, just waiting for some hapless bot to come along?"

"I imagine Astrotrain is in little better state," the lieutenant comments "Still, he hadn't wanted to enter this planet's atmosphere, which makes him more cautious. Aware."

"Dangerous?" Sunstreaker infers, and that earns him a nod.

But Prowl's gaze turns even more thoughtful then, and he gives their prisoner a once over.

"Damage?"

"Mmm. Don't think so." Sunstreaker tilts his helm, blaster again tapping on his thigh. "Other than the energon madness, Blitzwing here's in pretty good shape. Probably hasn't seen any battle longer than we have." His optics shift away to something beyond Prowl's helm and the shuttle wreckage behind him. "I think Astrotrain was avoiding actually coming to this planet for a reason."

A noise cuts into their conversation.

Sunstreaker whirls, blaster whining as it builds a charge. Prowl goes rigid, sensors expanding outward in a rapid sweep. His are more finely-tuned, and he detects the vibrations of some sort of engine. He isn't picking up any kind of signal, however, Autobot or Decepticon.

"What is it?" Prowl demands, annoyed by his immobility.

He shoves his uninjured leg against the ground. He attempts to brace himself against the piece of debris and stand.

"Don't get up," Sunstreaker orders as his optics cycle down, shifting his optical scanners for long-distance viewing. "It's some kind of personal transport. Natives probably."

Prowl ignores him and tries to push himself upright. But his left leg won't respond at all. No doubt the motor relay has been either damaged or severed.

Sunstreaker mutters a curse under his breath, shifting his weapon to his other hand and stalking back towards Prowl. He grasps the tactician's uninjured arm and hauls Prowl up with little effort.

It makes Prowl's gyros spin.

Ugh. Perhaps standing is not in his better interest after all.

"Stubborn glitch," Sunstreaker says subvocally, but he all but forces Prowl to lean on him nonetheless.

Prowl scans the landscape as soon as his optics right themselves. Several transports come into view on a black strip that can only be a road before pulling off and making straight for them. Prowl's own battle systems click on with a quiet hum, though he's next to useless at the moment.

Prowl can't detect anything that might be a weapon, but it's frustratingly difficult to be certain at this point. He doesn't know if the locals are friendly, though if Prime's taken to living here, he must have come to some kind of agreement with the indigenous population.

The vehicles stop at a distance as though unwilling to come any closer, and tiny beings step out. They jabber to each other in their own language, pointing at Prowl and Sunstreaker and the shuttle wreckage. They don't approach.

Something chimes Prowl's comm unit, finally breaking through the tedious jumble of transmissions infesting this planet's atmosphere.

-Prowl, this is Optimus Prime. Lower your weapons. The humans won't harm you.-

Several questions answered all at once, Prowl feels the tension ease out of his joints. But he still feels a twinge of it in his chest as he reaches out. If Prime is close, where is Jazz?

He sends at a questioning ping, but there is so much interference around him that he can't even hear a reply.

"Put away your blaster, Sunstreaker," Prowl finally instructs after a click. "Apparently, they are on our side."

"I'll believe it when I see it," Sunstreaker replies curtly, optics locked on their spectators, blaster unwavering.

Prowl bites back a retort and shifts his attention back to Prime's comm. Now, isn't the time for this.

-It is a relief to hear from you, sir. We are in need of transport and medical assistance though I can't provide coordinates at this time.-

-There is no need. We have been tracking you since you first entered Earth's airspace. We'll be arriving within five minutes.-

That last term is unfamiliar to Prowl, but he ignores that for the moment. Prime has been amongst the natives for long enough that he has likely adapted some of their customs and terminology. Prowl is sure he'll come to understand it with time.

-Understood. We will wait for you. Prowl, out.-

The comm closes. Which subsequently opens Prowl up to all of the ambient noise again, and he hurriedly dials down his communication protocols. He establishes an alert for any pings coming from the channel now identified as Prime's, but any others are to become background babble that he doesn't wish to pay any heed. He only leaves two more open. One that he shares with Sunstreaker and Hound. The second, a frequency he and Jazz have long used only between themselves.

"Prime's on his way," Prowl says then, reaching out with his uninjured arm to place his fingers over Sunstreaker's wrist. It's an almost intimate gesture, but his companion merely lowers his weapon. "They are friendlies. Do not fire."

He can feel Sunstreaker's frame vibrate, tense and ready for combat. It's much harder for him to cycle down from battle readiness than it is for Prowl, and he has always been keenly aware of that. Aware that he is different than the other two of his team. An obvious weapon where they are more concealed and unassuming.

Sunstreaker says nothing. However, his grip on his blaster tightens by a fraction, and his energy field draws so tightly to his frame that energy crackles over his armor in blue-white snaps.

"Sunstreaker," Prowl repeats, keeping his vocals firm. But his touch is steady, gentle even.

Sunstreaker audibly grinds several gears before he peels his fingers off the blaster's grip, one by one. He slowly stashes the weapon away.

"I don't like this planet," he grits out in a low tone.

Prowl shakes his head. He doesn't much care for it yet either.

"We have only just arrived," Prowl states evenly enough.

"Your point?" Sunstreaker tilts his helm, looking at him. There is an eerie gleam in his optics that the warrior gets from time to time.

Before Prowl can respond, Sunstreaker's entire frame goes rigid and his head snaps up, optics focused on something beyond their immediate sight. He awkwardly shifts around in Sunstreaker's grip until he can see whatever has captivated his attention.

More transports now approach, but this time, Prowl's sensors ping back with Autobot identification codes. Prime, Sideswipe, and a third who Prowl knows only by reputation. Leadfoot is a Wrecker, and frankly, Prowl is surprised that any member of that team has survived this war. A fourth transport follows behind, but it doesn't respond to a curious ping. It must be of the insentient variety then, like the ones the other humans use.

Prowl watches them as they come closer, but something tugs at his spark even as he looks on. He can understand very clearly why Sideswipe his here. But why Leadfoot? Jazz is undoubtedly needed at their base while Prime is away, but where is Ratchet? Where is Ironhide?

Training? A mission? Injured even? Surely not… deactivated?

It doesn't even bear contemplating.

Prime rolls up to meet them then, shifting to his root mode the instant he comes to a halt. Sideswipe is right on his heels and Leadfoot as well. The fourth transport veers off, heading for the humans clustered around and now staring at all and sundry.

Prowl tries to stand up straight to the best of his ability. Only Sunstreaker's grip on his elbow truly keeps him upright.

"Prime," he greets. "Autobot Prowl reporting for duty." He offers a salute. "With me are my second, Sunstreaker, and our scout, Hound. He is in need of medical assistance." The lieutenant pauses for a moment. "Is Ratchet not with you?"

Sideswipe doesn't startle. He's too good for that, but Leadfoot visibly tenses.

"There is much we must discuss," Optimus replies instead, noticeably avoiding the query. "Right now, we must focus on getting you and your team back to our base."

Sunstreaker is all but fidgeting next to Prowl. He knows without even looking that he's eager to reunite with his brother. They haven't taken their optics off of one another for a single astrosecond.

"Go," Prowl says softly. "I'll make sure Hound is attended."

Sunstreaker finally glances away, even if only for a click. "You'll fall."

"I am capable of standing on one pede for a limited amount of time." Sunstreaker's concern is touching, but Prowl gives the warrior a light tap on the arm. "Go."

This time, he doesn't argue. Sunstreaker disengages himself from Prowl carefully and heads for his twin. Sideswipe is already hurrying to close the gap between them, and while Sunstreaker is not one for public displays of affection, it doesn't stop him from grabbing Sideswipe's helm with both hands and dragging his twin close. They press their foreheads together, optics offlining, energy fields swirling, struggling to sync after so long a separation.

Prowl knows he needs to look away, but somehow, he can't. Can't look anywhere but at the brothers and wonder where his own is. Wonder when he'll see Jazz again and if he will fall apart completely when he does.

"Prime, looks like they caught themselves some Decepticon scum," Leadfoot interrupts his thoughts.

Prowl rips his optics away to glance at the Wrecker. But that's only to watch as he advances toward Blitzwing, mouth components twisted with disgust.

Prowl wobbles, off balance. Then, Optimus is there, offering an arm like Sunstreaker had.

"He and another Decepticon attacked us before we entered this planet's atmosphere," Prowl informs the group at large. "They launched from its satellite. The second, Astrotrain, withdrew. Blitzwing did not. He is energon mad. Empty even."

"I see," Prime says, and his energy field reaches out, offering comfort. But it's edged with something else, something Prowl can't quite place. "I suspected that more Decepticons were hiding there, but we haven't the capability to leave the planet to be certain."

Blitzwing begins to cackle as Leadfoot circles him, wriggling in the confines of the stasis cuffs. He is too far gone to do more than snarl unintelligibly, and it's a truly pathetic sight indeed.

"You want me to take care of 'im?" Leadfoot asks suddenly.

Prowl feels himself stiffen at the tone, but Prime merely seems to be considering. He looks over at the Decepticon, battle mask concealing his expression. It is strange, but Prowl once though their leader to be so approachable, so readable even when he chose to protect his faceplate with the mask. But now... not nearly as much.

"Is your base equipped with a brig?" Prowl questions, sagging slightly as his system protocols send him flashing alerts. The pain reroutes cannot remain for much longer or his system will force stasis on him.

Leadfoot makes a disgusted noise. "No." His right arm rises as a cannon forms out of his hand. "It's not."

He fires, one quick and clear shot directly into Blitzwing's helm. Instantly, the mech stills.

Prowl's optics cycle wider. His entire frame goes rigid. Even as his processor shorts.

By the Allspark!

"You-"

Leadfoot fires again. The quick blast drowns out Prowl, and the shot sears through Blitzwing's chassis and destroys his spark chamber in one fell swoop.

Prowl's processor comes to a shrieking halt, and absolute disbelief crowds at his logic center. He waits for Optimus' rebuke, his outrage. For any reminder about the preciousness of all life, that they must be better than the Decepticons.

Prowl waits for words that never come.

"I will inform Mearing that we require another disposal," Prime comments, voice eerily calm before he turns his attention back to Prowl. "Can you transform? We can find you something to scan. Or I can locate a trailer for transport."

Prowl cycles a ventilation. His spark shivers as his processor brings up several responses before he can settle on the safest. And truly, it's the only thing he can actually think to say

"I am… incapable of transforming currently."

He stops himself from physically withdrawing from Prime. It's a near thing.

Optimus doesn't seem to notice.

What in Prima's name is going on?

"Fair enough." Prime shifts them both easily. Carelessly even.

The fourth vehicle from earlier returns. Two more of the natives – humans – step out, and one of them addresses Optimus in a language Prowl has yet to translate. The human gestures to Prowl before gesturing back at his leader.

-Prowl.-

The comm comes from the private line that only members of his team know. And he's quite certain the request hasn't come from Hound.

He looks to Sunstreaker, who is no longer pressed together with his twin, though they are still standing closely.

-What the frag's going on?-

Prowl feels his mouth pinch. -I honestly don't know. What does Sideswipe have to say?-

He sees Sunstreaker twitch.

-The fragger's not talking. Says he'll tell me when they get back to Chicago. Wherever or whatever the Pit that is.- Unease echoes in Sunstreaker's words.

"Prowl."

He shifts his focus from the private comm and back to his Prime, who has ended his conversation with the human.

"The trailer is here," Optimus informs him, still acting as if nothing at all is the matter.

Prowl can only incline his head.

What appears to be a large cargo container comes into view, hauled by a transport very similar to his Prime's alt-mode. It is large enough to hold Prowl and Hound comfortably but not Sunstreaker. Luckily, the warrior is in well enough shape to transform, no doubt having copied alt-mode schematics from his twin.

-Prowl.-

-Quiet, Sunstreaker. I can't focus.-

He's wobbling worse now, one leg numb and the dislocated sensory panel off-setting his balance. His processor is reeling from the clash of information, and Blitzwing is still there, offline and grey. None of it makes any sense.

Optimus helps him to the trailer, and Prowl awkwardly drags himself inside, where it's dark and lit by a few running lights. The metal enclosure is humming in tune to the transport's engine.

"Will you be all right inside?" Optimus asks as Sideswipe and Sunstreaker come into view, carrying Hound between them. The scout looks limp and lifeless.

Prowl has to look away.

"I am not alarmed by confined spaces," he replies and leans against the side of his enclosure. "The discomfort is only temporary after all. I'm sure Ratchet will fix me soon enough."

"We are several hours from base," Optimus offers, inclining his helm. "In the meantime, I can send you a data packet with the details of what's happened over the past five years. I know how you hate to be idle."

Finally, some answers. Prowl actually feels a flash of relief at that. Though once again, he doesn't fail to notice that Optimus has avoided anything mention of Ratchet. And for that matter, Ironhide.

Jazz's absence is more understandable. Someone must remain in command after all, but Prowl can't help the trickle of worry that aches at his spark as he opens the bond between them ever-so-carefully. Reaching. Searching.

His systems ping then as a rather large file awaits his acceptance. He takes the packet and sets his processor to unpacking it while he makes himself as comfortable as possible within the confines of the trailer. He detects the sound of the transport's engine rumbling to life, and with a lurch, they start to move.

There will be plenty of time, he surmises, for sightseeing later. Right now, it's better that he at least understand what it is he's looking at.

Shifting, Prowl reaches out a hand, laying it gently on Hound's helm. The scout doesn't stir beneath his touch, and the subtle hum of Hound's systems is barely present. But he's still online at least, and there's hope now, hope that Hound will make it. Fixing him should be no issue for Ratchet.

Hound will love this world, Prowl realizes. The scout has always had an affinity for life of an organic nature, and it seems this planet is teeming with nonsynthetic creations. Sapient, sentient, and otherwise.

A chime in his processor announces the completion of the file decompression. Prowl offlines his optics, focusing on the immense amount of data that Optimus has sent him. First and foremost is an introduction to the planet, called Earth, and its many residents. There are several language files with a suggestion that he integrate English into his principal communication processes.

There's a ping to his comm then. It's from Sunstreaker and seems urgent, but Prowl merely sends an automatic reply that he's busy.

Nearly eighty percent is details about Earth, the natives, and everything Prowl might need to know for living here. Several humans are of key importance. Including a Colonel William Lennox, whose image matches one of the faces Prowl recalls seeing earlier. There is also mention of a Samuel Witwicky – these humans possess strange designations. But his name is marked for further details, all linked to the summary of recent events regarding the war.

He comm beeps again. Still Sunstreaker. And now, Sideswipe as well.

But Prowl has already opened the file regarding the war on Earth. His spark begins to whirl with quiet anxiety. He almost doesn't want to know.

And there it is. In all it's terrible glory.

The battle of Mission City. Megatron and the Allspark.

Jazz…

There's a sound like a mech dying, and it takes Prowl a moment realize it comes from him. He feels Sunstreaker ping his comm desperately, but he cuts the connection like a knife to the spark and puts his head in his hands.

It's so stark. So frank and devoid of emotion. A mere recitation of data with no element of grief.

Jazz. Killed in action. A date on the human calendar.

Nothing else. Nothing at all.

Not how he died. Not where they're keeping his body or who now has his recycled parts.

And now, everything makes sense with a sick sort of clarity.

No wonder he hasn't sensed his brother on this planet. No wonder Jazz has made no attempts at contact. No wonder Optimus arrived without his trusted second by his side.

-He was brave,- Prime suddenly comms, and his tone isn't nearly as sorrowful as it should be. As if he hadn't just informed Prowl of his brother's death through an information packet.

Prowl can't even respond to that. Jazz is always brave. It means nothing to even say it. Like calling a sun bright. Or saying that fire burns. It's so obvious.

-He fought Megatron to buy us time,- Prime continues, clarifying what his damnable file hadn't bothered to explain. -He saved many lives that day.-

Prowl's entire frame trembles. He's alone in the half-dark save for Hound's unconscious form and Prime's voice. His good hand flexes against his side, and his processor is such a twisting mess that he can't even fathom anything beyond the fact that his brother is dead. He can hear Optimus speaking through the comm, but it means nothing. He only catches snippets.

-Performed his duty well.-

-Fought with courage.-

-Everything I expect of my mechs.-

Prowl's helm is still in his hands, and he grips the side of his face so strongly that he leaves dents. His ventilations are a ragged sound that echoes around him. Louder and louder until he hears little else. Not the transport as it travels onward without care. Not the subtle rumbles of his own body. And surely not Hound's weak systems.

Only that and Prime.

-You should be proud of him,- his leader says then, and his tone is so matter-of-fact. Flat even. Blunt without any softening of the deathblow.

There is no grief. No remorse. Nothing resembling sentiment.

-You should be proud,- he repeats, and he doesn't sound sorry at all.

Prowl stops listening then. He doesn't want to hear anything else.

Chapter Text

The rest of the file, when Prowl can finally pull himself together again, is little better. It's cold and stark like the light that once came from the Towers. Hollow like the transport that still carries he and Hound. Empty of anything resembling empathy or true compassion.

It still manages to get the point across, and the emotionless tones actually keep Prowl in check as he scans through. Hoping against hope that there are no more surprising horrors held inside.

He's soon disappointed. But at least now, he understands why Witwicky's designation is marked as important. A human defeated Megatron, more or less. Killed him where so many others had failed. How... unlikely.

The Fallen is a twist to the war that Prowl didn't see coming. None of his calculations ever involved the possible return of a mech long reduced to myth and legend over the eons. Earth came perilously close to its own destruction, and Prime actually died?

Again, Samuel Witwicky proved himself more than an average human.

Then, Megatron returned using a shard of the Allspark. Another piece – and all that does remain – is mentioned in passing, but there is no location given. No hope that it is still even in Autobot hands.

The next part is even worse.

Sentinel Prime.

Prowl's spark – the part that hasn't been ripped to shreds and stomped on –drops into his tanks. Sloshes around. And threatens to come up through his intake.

Sentinel was supposed to be offlined ages ago, along with his entire crew. He went missing when they ejected the Allspark into the void of space. His disappearance is the chief reason Optimus became Prime in his stead. Why he's now even in charge of their faction.

Sentinel was dead. But only until he wasn't.

It doesn't make any sense. None of it does. Much less his plan for this planet and its use would the humans be as slaves? It stands to reason that raiding Earth's resources to rebuild Cybertron would be useful, but enslaving the indigent population?

Was Sentinel mad? Completely and utterly processor-fired? Had the war broken him so completely? Or was it a much deeper cause? Had he lived too long? Had he seen too much? Had he felt there was truly no other way?

Sentinel's betrayal strikes deep, but no more so than the list of casualties attached to this designation. Nearly a third of the Autobots fell to Sentinel's treachery. Including Ironhide. Stalwart and steadfast. Betrayed to his death.

So much of it. Too much death, Autobot and Decepticon alike. They've lost so much. Their world. Their brethren.

Most of Prowl's own team is now gone. They'd once been a dozen. Now, they are three. And he despairs. Not just for them or Ironhide or even Jazz. He despairs for everyone.

How many of them are left? Here? Out there?

The data lists seven surviving Autobots on Earth. There's an estimation of Decepticons in hiding, scattered around the globe.

Is that all? Are they all that's left?

Prowl closes the file. And tosses it into a corner of his processor. His spark is a heavy ache that eats him through, and he curls closer to Hound. Desperate for any contact he can get.

Jazz is gone. Hound is fading. Ironhide is dead. So many are dead. Lost.

They are so close to extinction. They have no planet. No way to revive their species or their culture. They are on the brink. Dying for all that they are long-lived. What is left? What do they have now?

Wait.

Prowl's optics snap open, and he reaches out a mental hand to pull the file from the depths. He scans it once and again. Skipping over the parts that set his spark on edge. But he still can't find it. Find him. No, he is not mistaken.

Ratchet isn't there. He isn't on the list of those on Earth. However, he's also not mentioned as falling in battle.

-Optimus,- Prowl prompts, and it's the first he's spoken to his leader in what has to be several of the human hours. -What of Ratchet? Where is he?-

There is a noticeable delay in Optimus' response, one Prowl could attribute to inattention. Nevertheless, he strongly suspects that the delay stems from reluctance.

-Ratchet is no longer with us.-

Prowl frowns. He is all but lying next to Hound's battered frame, and his gaze is fixed on the crumbling weld on his friend's chassis.

-He isn't listed amongst the fatalities.-

- Ratchet is not offline.- Again Optimus hesitates, as though carefully choosing each word. -He chose to leave. Of his own volition. His current whereabouts are unknown.-

Leave? Why on Cybertron would Ratchet leave? His loyalty to Prime and the Autobots is unquestioning, much like Ironhide. Ratchet has always been with Prime, as far back as Prowl has known the three of them.

Curious also, that Ratchet's current state is not listed or explained anywhere. Is Prime unwilling to admit Ratchet's actions to himself? Or is it something he wishes to conceal?

He shakes his helm, though Optimus can't see the action.

-I don't understand.-

-I share your confusion,- Prime replies, but his voice and tone are peculiar. –It's been three months since we have seen or heard of him. He may not even be planet-side anymore.-

-How is that even possible?-

And really, that is the question. For surely, Ratchet hasn't suddenly sprouted wings and flown off.

Prime takes his time in answering. So long that Prowl wonders if he's been forgotten.

-He is in the company of two Decepticon Seekers and an Autobot deserter,- Optimus finally admits, and he is hollow sounding even over the comm.

Confusion stutters Prowl's already fragile processor. This makes even less sense than Ratchet suddenly departing.

-He joined the Decepticons?-

-I'm… not certain.- A soft sound of disappointment trails through the line. -His departure was sudden and left us with many questions. I can't help wondering if he's not under the influence of some outside force.-

Prowl shifts, the discomfort of his injured frame suddenly more apparent. They are none of them medics. What will they do without Ratchet? How could this have happened?

Questions stack upon questions. There are no answers.

He looks at Hound, innocently in stasis. What remains of Prowl's spark contracts all over again. There is no help for Hound now. This is something beyond those who remain.

What is he to do now?

This is too much. It is all too much.

Jazz and Ratchet. Death. Abandonment.

Loss.

Once more, his head is in his hands. It's not a comfort, but it's all he has. All he can fathom as he bends over Hound and listens for the barely perceptible hum of his spark.

Prowl doesn't even notice when Optimus cuts the comm and the line goes dead.

o0o0o

Sideswipe, Prowl muses, would've made a passable medic once upon a time. Perhaps with proper training and guidance, he could've been even more. It's a pity that circumstances and the war have turned his function into something the complete opposite.

His hands are deft, well-articulated, and steady. His knowledge, at present, is passable. But relocating Prowl's sensory panel and replacing the motor relay in his leg do not require a surgeon's expertise. Were Prowl flexible enough, he could probably fix both issues himself.

"There," Sideswipe says with a final pat before he draws back. "Got any complaints, feel free to report them to management. Not that they give a frag."

Prowl finds himself having missed Sideswipe's special brand of humor, for all that it's off-color. He reroutes feeling to his limb, restoring the haptic connection, and twitches as all of his sensory lines bombard him. It is an annoying discomfort, however, and nothing has been damaged untoward. The rest his self-repair should be able to handle save for his severed data cable. Nothing can be done for it. The linkages are ruined and only a trained medic is capable of reconstructing them without frying the circuits.

"Thank you, Sideswipe," Prowl replies, flexing his knee joint before sliding off the medberth in this corner of a large warehouse. This is Ratchet's former work area, Prowl's been informed. "You've done well."

The warrior arches an orbital ridge. "Repeat that after your panel fully integrates, and then, I'll be impressed."

He is right, of course. For the moment, Prowl has disengaged the input from both of his sensory panels, and he dreads establishing that connection once again. Ratchet could've fine-tuned the process, set up some sort of reroute to buffer most of the input noise, but such is the way of things.

"Any discomfort I may endure is not your fault," Prowl assures and rests for a moment against the edge of the berth. He can't help but be appalled by what Prime has termed their base.

For having been stationed on Earth for five of their years, their living situation is dismal. No personal quarters, no privacy, no supplies. They might've just arrived for all that they've been given a sense of permanence. Granted, Sentinel did a fair job of destroying everything, but from what images Prowl's seen, their prior accommodations hadn't been much better.

Sideswipe shrugs. "If you say so. But we both know you wish Ratchet had fixed it."

Prowl's gaze swings toward the warrior, the first to actually mention their missing medic by his designation. No other Autobot had been willing to speak of Ratchet. The Wreckers avoid the topic. Optimus changes the subject. Prowl hasn't even seen Bumblebee yet. Dino is doing a fair job of pretending nothing is amiss, despite the tangible pall that hangs over everyone.

"How long has it been exactly?" Prowl questions. He wonders if Sideswipe's penchant for disobeying orders means he'll give the answers no one else seems eager to provide.

"Six orns, give or take." Sideswipe folds his arms, gaze shifting to the side, optics cycling down. "I dunno what happened, Prowl. He was acting bothered by something, but I never suspected… I mean, Hide was gone, so of course he'd be a little bothered."

Sideswipe ex-vents audibly. His energy field leaks from his control, teeming with conflicting emotions.

"The next thing I know, we find some Decepticons, Ratchet's attacking me, Drift's knocking me out, and I wake up with no clue what's going on. Ratchet doesn't even tell me, either. Just vanishes with that stupid Seeker. Then, we're all left staring at each other like a couple of glitches, the fragged squishy breathin' down our backstruts demanding answers, and Prime..."

His faceplate twists with something. Prowl doesn't know what to name it. But then, Sideswipe shakes his head again.

"Bah. It doesn't matter anyway."

Except where it does. There's something there, something about Prime, that Sideswipe isn't saying.

"Drift?" Prowl asks instead.

"Used to be Deadlock. I'm sure that name's stored up in your processor somewhere." Sideswipe's lipplates curl as he lifts his helm and meets Prowl's gaze. "He and Ratch were pretty cozy up until then, but I never guessed it would go like this. None of us did."

Prowl makes a wordless sound of commiseration. His fingers tap against the weak metal of the berth as he considers.

"Do you believe Ratchet's been compromised?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Sideswipe drops his hands to his sides, rocking back and forth on his wheeled pedes. "He left willingly. There's nothing they could've threatened him with. What do any of us have to lose anymore, after all?"

Could it really be so simple?

Prowl's frown deepens.

Sideswipe heads for the break in the crates that block up the medcorner and give it a semblance of privacy. "I don't know, Prowl. You're asking the wrong mech. I just do what I'm told, shoot where I'm aimed." He pauses but doesn't look at Prowl. "Thanks for keeping Sunny alive. Don't know what I'd have done without him."

Sideswipe leaves before Prowl can formulate a response; receiving gratitude from either twin is such a novelty that he's speechless. Still, his cortex is turning Sideswipe's words over and over, trying to find something in them to explain Ratchet's abrupt departure. What could have possessed Ratchet to defect?

No. Perhaps defect is the wrong word. The Decepticons are defeated. They can no longer be considered a defined faction, not with their entire command element offline and the rest of their forces scattered around the universe. Skywarp and Thundercracker, while Decepticon in name, cannot be considered the entirety of them.

Again, Prowl is left wondering what could've changed. What had gone so wrong.

Venting, Prowl pushes himself off the berth and steps out of the medcorner, wary of the humans constantly in motion around the warehouse. Hound has been taken to another part where Prime hoped to solicit the aid of the humans. Though what such primitive creatures can do, he doesn't know.

Prowl limps across the open space, ignoring the stares the humans give. Sunstreaker has already complained multiple times that he feels like he's back in the gladiator pits, for all that the so-called squishies watch him. And though Prowl has always considered Sunstreaker a mech who enjoys attention, there is something unsettling about the manner in which the humans stare.

They seem unnaturally fascinated with Hound as well, and that unsettles Prowl even further. He hasn't missed the coveted looks several white-coated humans give his stasis-locked scout.

At the moment, Hound lies upon a makeshift berth, little more than a massive slab of metal positioned above the ground. It looks to be constructed of scrap metal and ingenuity with various stairs and ramparts hanging haphazardly around it. The better for the humans to observe, Prowl supposes. Surprisingly, Optimus is here, conversing with one of the humans on the rail near Hound's helm.

"You are certain?" Prime asks as Prowl approaches, speaking in English as a matter of course.

The human, whom Prowl does not recognize, nods his head. "The alloy is nothing we are capable of forging. There's nothing we can do."

"It's as I feared." Prime's vocals teem with disappointment. "Thank you anyway, Dr. Fujiyama."

The human shutters one optic briefly. "No problem, Prime. Seriously. Any chance you want to give me to get my hands on some more technology is a chance I'll take."

"Duly noted."

Prowl watches as the human doctor smiles up at Prime, offers a sketchy salute, and then turns to begin the long, arduous climb down from the railing. Prime, however, offers a palm to the human and helps him down to the floor in one fell swoop.

"The humans have reached the limits of what they are capable of providing," his leader says once the doctor is beyond audial range.

Prowl cycles his optics, surprised that Prime even sensed his nearness. He takes it as permission and steps closer, one hand landing on Hound's thigh plating. The subtle warmth of armor is a bare comfort.

"What can we do?" Prowl inquires softly, sensory panels flat against his back in distress. "Self-repair is barely keeping him functional. And-" His vocalizer glitches, emitting static.

Vorns of war and it's still difficult to admit his own insecurities aloud. To admit that he doesn't wish to lose Hound. That he's still so raw from losing Jazz. That it'd be more than agonizing to bear another failure. To lose another so close to his spark.

Prime hums a sympathetic note, but his gaze is focused solely on Hound.

"Perhaps it might be better to bring him out of stasis."

"That will put undue stress on his spark. Hasten the degradation of his systems," Prowl protests. His grip on Hound's leg grows tighter, as though he can hold his teammate together with willpower alone.

Prime ventilates a noisy hiss of air. "Hound must have the choice. Whether to spend his remaining days in stasis or alert and aware of his surroundings. He may wish to bid farewell."

"He could still pull through," Prowl states, and it's a sparkling's denial. The belief that everything can be made better so easily.

"And it is my sincerest wish that he does so."

Prowl stares at him.

This is Prime's best option? If the humans fail, wake up Hound and hope he can make it on his own? What kind of vague, empty hope is that? Especially since they all know the true answer to this riddle.

Prowl works his mouth. His processor goes through several iterations, and he hopes that he chooses the least accusing.

"Are you certain we can't contact Ratchet?" he questions, and his tone is as flat as he can make it. "Perhaps a widescale broadcast? An open comm line? The Decepticons aren't a large threat. Surely, we can risk it."

"The humans will not authorize it," Prime says as though this is the ultimate answer that cannot be argued with. "They consider Ratchet persona non grata."

The last phrase is unfamiliar, but Prowl can reason the meaning of it well enough.

His sensory panels press so tightly to his back that it actually hurts.

"What do the humans have to do with it?"

Finally, Prime turns. His energy field is contained and unreadable, his optics equally so.

"This is their planet, Prowl. They have every right to choose what to allow."

He sounds... confused. As though it should be obvious to Prowl. As though he should think it normal for them to concede every point to the humans.

For an astrosecond that feels like vorns, Prowl stares at his Prime. He's at a complete loss for words.

"They would deny us the opportunity to seek medical assistance for one of our own?" he somehow manages, voice so very faint and unlike him. "Purely out of principle?"

Out of spite, he really wants to say. Since that could truly be the only reason. He doesn't even need to know the humans to realize that.

Prime's optics shift hues into a darker cobalt. "Ratchet left of his own accord, openly siding with Decepticons. In their eyes, that makes him an enemy. And they have a policy against negotiating with known enemies."

Aghast, Prowl finds himself doing what he has never expected to do before: argue with his Prime. He doesn't mean debating the usefulness of a battle plan or offering advice either.

"That shouldn't be their choice," he points out, frustration growing. His free hand gestures to Hound, spark constricted within his chassis. "Hound is one of ours! We can't let him offline because the humans demand it!"

Prowl's fans kick on, much to his surprise, as heat rises in his frame. He forces a ventilation to calm himself.

"At the very least, we must attempt to contact Ratchet. We must try," Prowl stresses. "I can't simply throw my hands into the air and surrender this chance."

He cannot lose another of his team. Not with help so near. So within his grasp if he's willing to take it.

Prime doesn't waver. Something like sympathy crowds his expression, and his energy field flickers free. It pushes against Prowl, buffering him with resignation.

"I'm sorry, Prowl." His hands land on Prowl's shoulders, emitting soft pulses of warmth that is probably meant to be soothing, but it leaves the lieutenant cold from the inside out. "But there's nothing we can do."

o0o0o

The moon, as Prowl's datafiles indicate the uninspired name of Earth's satellite, is mostly hidden by clouds. The Autobots base is lit by numerous floodlights, but luckily, soldiers only patrol the perimeter. There seems little need for security within.

For a mech quite used to slipping through Decepticon blockades, battle lines, and bases, it's a simple matter to ease past each human. Prowl has learned over the vorns how to mask the sounds of his frame, how to reduce the shifting of metal to a low hum that merges with the overall thrum of his surroundings.

If Prime won't concede to finding a solution for Hound, Prowl will find Ratchet himself. There's no other choice. No other option.

A nagging sensation tugs at his processor. He is more or less disobeying his Prime. Optimus hadn't given him explicit orders not to find Ratchet, but the implications are there. Still, it is a matter Prowl can't let stand.

He sticks to the shadows, activating the nanocells of his paint to better conceal himself. The moon's bare presence works with him. No human seems to notice.

Slipping out of the base isn't a problem. Finding Ratchet is. Prowl doesn't know if the medic is even on-planet anymore or where Ratchet may be hiding. He doesn't know how to contact the medic, save to broadcast some kind of distress signal, but desperate times call for the most desperate measures, even if to any other mech they may appear to be foolish.

It's almost a plan that would make Sideswipe proud, truth be told. Perhaps that indicates a certain element of success.

Prowl sneaks past the soldiers guarding the gate into Chicago, too busy as they are with their conversation and a small television set, and heads into the ruined city. Beyond human sight, he shifts into alt-mode and eases through the cluttered streets. His headlights offer a dim path, sweeping over splatters of energon and scorchmarks and wreckage strewn in all directions.

Where to begin? Should he head north or south? There's simply no way to guess where Ratchet could be hiding. He could choose to lose himself in one of the humans' larger cities, or easily be forgotten in the vast tracts of land that even humans consider inhospitable. But if he's truly aligned with the Seekers...

Prowl's engine gives a rev. He doesn't want to believe it. Ratchet isn't a Decepticon, no matter what the humans may believe. Ratchet is not a traitor.

Torn, Prowl returns to his root mode, sensory panels lifting and settling against his backplate. The lack of facts is making his battle computer have a fit. Without data, he's left without a means to calculate odds. He's flying blind, so to speak, and that is a state of affairs that Prowl doesn't like at all. But he has to do this. He must.

Jazz is dead. He can't let Hound die, too.

"Where do you think you're going?"

Prowl whirls at the sudden vocalization, none of his sensors picking up the fact he'd been followed or that another Cybertronian is present. His battle systems queue up, a scan snapping into the shadows of the crumpled buildings, but he doesn't need the responding ping to identify the speaker.

"You followed me," Prowl accuses. He draws himself up straight, panels unflexing in a threat display any Praxian would recognize.

Sideswipe steps out of an alley, and his silver armor catches a glimmer of moonlight. In the dim, the blue of his optics is the most visible.

"I had a feeling I'd need to."

The lieutenant stills. "What precisely does that mean?"

His tone is edged, sharp before he can stop himself. But his legendary control has been slipping for a long time. Before he came to this cursed place or even learned of his brother's demise.

"It means what you think it means." Sideswipe folds his arms over his chassis, radiating nonchalance as he leans against a ruined building; scorch marks are an indicator of what caused its destruction. "I know what you're trying to do, and I'm telling you it's not a good idea."

Prowl doesn't glare at him. It's a near thing.

"You presume too much."

Sideswipe flickers his optics. "I get that you think you know Sunny. But really, Prowl, we're not that different. You're not going to be able to find him."

"I'm going to make the attempt," Prowl retorts and then presses his mouth together.

Why is he even arguing with a soldier? He outranks Sideswipe!

He turns back around, striding a single step forward. But then, Sideswipe bursts from his casual stance, wheeled pedes a fast clip over asphalt. He skids to a stop directly in front of Prowl, halting him in his tracks. Though there's not a weapon drawn, there's a distinct element of warning in Sideswipe's actions.

"I want Hound to get fixed as much as you do," the silver mech says, arms down at his sides, unthreatening but somehow worrisome all the same. "But if you go out there alone, they'll call you a traitor, too. And even if our glorious leader wanted to, he wouldn't be able to convince the humans otherwise."

Prowl lifts his head. "Optimus has not forbade this."

"Semantics and you know it." Sideswipe lifts his hands, near-beseeching, as he rocks back and forth on his pedes. "You won't be able to find him, and if you leave, you'll be risking your spark for nothing. I can't let you do that."

"So you'd have me abandon Hound." The chill in his vocals is enough to drop the ambient temperature by a dozen degrees. "Turn my back on him as though we are no better than our enemies."

Something flashes in Sideswipe's field. It's without definition but aches as strongly as any regret or any fear.

"No. I want you to live." His optics are too bright in the dark. "For Sunny's sake if nothing else."

Frustration colors Prowl's every movement, streaking across his processors. His hands form fists, spark whirling a dissatisfied beat. This is anathema to him, to surrender before the battle is even done. How can he look Hound in the optics and tell him that there is no hope, that nothing can be done?

He looks at Sideswipe, calculating to the very core. And something vicious stirs at his spark. Something hurt and trembling lashes out.

"And if it were Jazz on that berth? If it were Sunstreaker?" Prowl demands, and his own vehemence surprises him. But he knows he's scored a hit when Sideswipe flinches. "Would you still stop me?"

A growl resonates in Sideswipe. "That's a low blow, and you know it, Prowl," he counters, wheels retracting as he stomps forward and closes the distance between them. "You think I don't know who kept him alive? Why he isn't half-crazed and mad at spark? And you're asking me that?"

Sideswipe's lipplates curl into a sneer worthy of any Decepticon. And he looks far too much like his brother then. Far too much like Sunstreaker when they'd lost yet another of their team.

"Frag you, Prowl," Sideswipe bites out. "You go out there, get yourself blown to bits by some trigger-happy human, and you'll lose the Autobots three mechs instead of one. Try calculating that in your glitched battle computer."

Each word is a punch to the faceplate, and Prowl is both impressed and stunned by yet another example of how much Sideswipe has changed. He truly isn't the mech Prowl remembers. He's never been quite so cold or calculating. Not until now.

Then again, not a single one of them remain unchanged.

Sideswipe's energy is a staticky discharge of anger and grief. "Hound isn't the only one who needs you," he finishes and pushes past Prowl, shoulder knocking against him with enough force that a lesser mech would be thrown off balance.

Prowl doesn't turn to watch Sideswipe go. He barely even registers the noise of the warrior's pedes across the crackled concrete but still hears the distinct noise of transformation and then a high-performance engine roaring into the night. Wind whips across Prowl's armor, pulling and pushing at his overheated plates.

He stares at the road in front of him, leading out of Chicago. Internal maps downloaded from the internet point him to nearby cities and states. He's pinpointed over two dozen possible locations where Ratchet could be hiding, battle computer tagging even more by the astrosecond.

There are so many. Too many. Prowl doesn't have nearly enough time. Not without some hint. Some suggestion to where their medic might be.

The return to his alt-mode is excruciating; every transformed joint and shifted seam feels like a betrayal to his very spark. Turning his aft toward the road out of Chicago hurts even worse, more than knowing that Sideswipe is right. Understanding that for once, Prowl acted on impulse, and it had proven to be the wrong decision. Realizing that he cannot help Hound is like acid on an open line, a blaster to the core.

Prowl heads back to their pathetic warehouse with a heavy spark and the stench of failure wafting from his ventilations. Yet another to add to the roster, the list of missing and deceased Autobots who have fallen while under his command. Hound may yet pull through, but Prowl knows the probabilities. He's run them through his cortex too many times. Calculating variable after variable, hoping to forestall the inevitable truth.

All of his faith rested on getting to Ratchet in time. Every nut and bolt and energon line of his being was focused on that one certainty.

Prowl's engine rumbles, and even it sounds defeated as he rolls up to the same gate he sneaked through earlier. The soldiers look surprised to see him, but lift the gate and return to their television and their loud conversation without a word.

What has happened? What has changed?

Prowl has gone over the bland, impassive facts given to him. He can find nothing in the details, nothing in the reports submitted, that can explain the current state of the Autobots.

He can find no answer to Prime's strange behavior.

Prowl understands that this planet isn't their own. He can concede to the necessity of working with the humans, giving and taking, making concessions as they are needed and being willing to compromise. He cannot, however, fathom his Prime's behavior or choices. That they should bow and scrape and surrender to every demand of the organics.

The main hangar comes into view. Prowl shifts back to root-mode, stepping through the massive doors and turning to the left, where Hound's been resting. The monitors attached to Hound's frame are a quiet hum in the otherwise stark silence. Many of the lights are a reassuring, steady gleam. But one in particular has a slow flicker, and Prowl doesn't need to be a medic to understand it's the most important one of all.

Someone has dragged a crate next to Hound's berth. It is the perfect height and mass to suit a Cybertronian form, and Prowl takes a seat. Hound's arm lays lifelessly within reach, and Prowl takes the scout's hand in his, alarmed by how cool his plating is to the touch. He feels more than halfway offline already, so still and silent. Hound has never been one for quiet.

He has always laughed and joked and encouraged, doing his best to pull the more withdrawn members of their cadre into the fold. He hates battle but will fight with denta and talons to protect his own. And he lives, lives where Prowl and Sunstreaker are slowly losing themselves to the madness of this never-ending war.

It's unfair that Hound should be the one on this berth, spark hanging on the precipice of existence. Of all of them, he'll enjoy Earth the most.

Thus the question remains. Would it be better to keep Hound in stasis or allow him to wake?

Prowl lowers his helm, offlining his optics as his hand curls around Hound's limp one. Truly, it's a riddle without an answer.

"I am sorry," Prowl murmurs to audials that cannot hear him. His fingers twitch around Hound's hand. "Forgive me."

o0o0o

In the end, the decision is Prime's as it has always been.

Prowl bows his helm, concedes to his superior officer, but remains present as they take Hound out of stasis and allow him to come online. Sunstreaker, too, is present. However, he hovers in the background, pacing a circuit that alarms the humans milling around and refusing any comfort Sideswipe offers.

Even in this, they have no privacy. Beyond the wall of Autobots are the humans and their machines and their shouting and their engines. All of it is a cacophony on the edge of Prowl's audials that continues to disrupt the solemnity of the moment. Have they no respect?

-This is fragged!- Sunstreaker snarls across the narrow band comm unique to their team alone. -Ratchet could fix him in a click. It's sparkling play to him.-

Prowl's lipplates thin. -Ratchet isn't an option, Sunstreaker. I'm sure Sideswipe has explained it to you.—

Apparently, Sideswipe had not seen fit to inform Sunstreaker of Prowl's former intentions. Interesting.

He can practically feel Sunstreaker's glare boring into his back. -He's not an option only because the squishies demand it. Why are they calling the shots? What the frag is Prime thinking?-

Prowl's insides are hot with agreement, and while it hurts him to do it, he still rises to defend his Prime.

-It isn't our place to question Optimus. I am sure he's doing what he thinks is best.-

Sunstreaker's frantic pacing abruptly ceases. -You really think this is the best? –

He is utterly incredulous.

Prowl understands completely. But he knows that he just has to look for another solution. He just has to buy them time. To convince Optimus otherwise. To find a clue to Ratchet's whereabouts. For Hound to heal on his own.

-We don't understand enough of the situation,- he says in his own defense. -The humans outnumber us, Sunstreaker. We cannot afford to anger them.-

The stare bores between Prowl's sensory panels like a laser-guided strike. -We shouldn't have to fear our allies.-

Prowl's panels lift, upright and rigid, a language that he knows Sunstreaker can recognize after so long together. It is a chastisement and a warning all rolled into one motion.

-We will discuss this later,- Prowl replies careful to keep his tone sharp and inflexible. -Hound deserves our support right now. He doesn't need our anger.-

He can feel Sunstreaker wilt a bit at the last part, and if he says anything further, Prowl doesn't hear it because he closes off the line and reroutes all queries to a queue. Sunstreaker's words ring with an element of truth, but Prowl doesn't have time to consider them right now because Prime has disconnected the many cords attached to Hound, manually booting the scout from an enforced stasis.

Prowl steps forward, standing at the base of the berth. He watches as optics flicker on, and the low hum of wakening systems fills this corner of the warehouse. Hound's left pede twitches and then his right arm. Immediately thereafter, Hound sends out an automatic, location ping, something they'd gotten into the habit of broadcasting over the vorns.

Prowl reflexively responds and notes that Sunstreaker does as well. A grating noise resonates in Hound's chassis, a sound that might have been a laugh were his systems in better shape.

"It seems like every time I boot up, something's different," Hound rasps, energy field extending outward in seeking tendrils. He brushes against Prowl with familiar warmth and continues further.

"Should be glad enough to boot up at all," Sunstreaker all but growls.

Surprise radiates from the other Autobots, those who don't know Sunstreaker well enough to hear the care behind his words. Hound, however, chuckles again. He struggles to sit up, but machines shrieking warnings at him encourage him to believe otherwise.

"Yeah, Sunny, love you, too."

Prowl lifts a hand, laying it gently on Hound's leg to let the scout know where he is. Though Hound's multi-layered scans must have already informed him.

"How are you feeling?" he asks very softly.

"More than ready to get out the berth." Hound's faceplates crinkle with a smile as he turns his helm, optics surveying the room and all those gathered. "Lots of familiar faces, I see. And Prime, too. We finally found you, sir."

Prime rests a hand on Hound's shoulder. "It's inspiriting to see that more of our kind has survived. You are on an organic planet that the natives call Earth."

"I figured it had to be something like that." Hound's orbital ridge furrows, an action Prowl has recognized as his processor slipping into scout-mode. "There is a lot of multi-tiered chatter on the airwaves." He flashes a cheerful grin. "So where's Ratchet? I'm ready to get back on my pedes."

Sunstreaker mutters a curse, field flaring strongly enough that it feels like a slap to the face. Prowl doesn't startle, having suspected that the volatile mech's emotions would escape his control. Dino and Prime though whirl toward Sunstreaker.

Not that the warrior offers anyone an explanation. He sneers at Prime, shakes his helm, and storms away from this corner of the warehouse. In passing, Prowl gets another taste of Sunstreaker's energy, a chaotic mass of fury and despair and helplessness, before he's gone.

Sideswipe sighs, runs a hand over his face, and rolls out after his brother. He falls so easily into his once-upon-a-time habit of trailing along in Sunstreaker's oft-destructive wake.

Hound winces and shares a commiserating glance with Prowl.

"Ratchet isn't here," Prime answers in the ensuing silence, tones carefully modulated, but not even he can take the sting out of the truth.

There's no help for Hound. They onlined him from stasis to tell him that he's going to die.

Prowl's free hand curls into a fist, and he carefully reins in his energy field. He doesn't wish for Hound to sense his own confusion and despair.

Not that it matters because Hound's smile starts to falter as realization dawns.

"Oh." His vocalizer crackles with static. "I see." His optics flick around the warehouse again, the familiar prickle of a scan washing over Prowl's sensors. "Ironhide was with you, too. And Jazz. They aren't here either."

His optics go to Prowl, and the lieutenant sees the apology there. One for Jazz. One Prowl doesn't deserve.

Prime's vocals remain infinitely gentle. "No, they aren't."

Hound's arm flops around, strutless, before landing on his chassis. "The war's over though. Right?" His palm is flat against his chestplates.

"Yes." Prime's fingers stroke over the armor on Hound's shoulder, but it's an intimacy that he hasn't earned. "Megatron is defeated, his forces thin and scattered. The war is won."

Hound releases a shaky gust of air. "That's good," he says, optics dimming several shades. "That's... a relief. Glad that happened before I... well, I'm just glad."

Prowl cannot take it anymore. His hand has curled into a trembling fist, the anger in his energy field barely restrained.

"Do not speak that way, Hound. You are not going to die here," he states with enough emotion to take Prime aback.

Optimus angles his frame toward Prowl, and his hand withdraws from Hound's shoulder. His ventilations though are heavy with exasperation.

"Prowl-"

He gives a jerk of his helm. "There's still a chance. There's always a chance."

Optimus stares at him for a long and agonizing moment, and something a lot like pity buzzes in his questing energy field. He drags a hand down his faceplate.

"We will discuss this later." But it's more dismissal than statement. "For now, please take advantage of the time you have."

Prowl's optics cycle outward, but Prime is already turning back toward Hound. His expression is oddly blank.

"Welcome to Earth, Hound," he says ever-so-pleasant, as though Hound will be able to get off the berth in the next few astroseconds and dance happily into the sunset. "You are an Autobot of which to be proud."

Optimus pats Hound on the shoulder and excuses himself from the shadowed corner. That leaves only Prowl and Dino behind.

The lieutenant forces his gaze away and struggles to regain his usual poise. It's a battle he's losing with every passing second. With every dipping number on the machines hooked up to Hound's spark. Time is slipping by at an illogical rate.

Dino's engine revs a strangled noise then. The red mech approaching the berth like one might approach a rabid Empty.

"Hound..."

Dim optics briefly brighten in recognition. "Not a youngling anymore, are you?" Hound asks in a voice thick with affection. The look he gives is soft and warm. "Mirage would be proud, you know."

Dino's plating clamps tightly to his frame at that. He has to look away for a click before glancing back.

"Have you seen him anywhere?" he questions, tone pitched low. "Do you know where he is?"

"I wish that I did." Hound pauses, face twisting with a grimace. A full-frame shudder rakes across his plating along with several curls of blue static. "And I'm sorry that I don't. You shouldn't worry about him though. He's a fighter and a survivor. The 'Cons never could catch him, and they never will."

Dino takes a step forward. Only to retreat a few paces back, as though reluctant to get too close.

"He's going to be fragged off," the red mech says, sharing the hint of an inside joke. "You're not supposed to die without him."

Hound only smiles. But there's a bitter pull to it.

"Sometimes, we don't have the luxury of choice. But it's all right. He can yell at me in the Allspark."

Prowl winces and turns abruptly away so that neither mech can see his expression. Hound doesn't know that the Allspark is gone, and he hopes that Dino is wise enough not to mention that fact. Let Hound cling to whatever hope remains.

"Yes." Dino crackles with restrained emotion, but he thankfully, does not correct Hound's assumption. "I'm sure he'll rant for joors."

Prowl offlines his optics and restores acknowledgment to the private line he shares with his team.

-Sunstreaker, return to the hangar.-

-No,- the yellow twin snarls, fury and despair bleeding into the line. -I won't stand there and watch him go grey.-

Prowl's mouth forms a severe line. -That was not a suggestion. That was an order. He is your teammate, and the least you can do is acknowledge it.-

It's a cruel thing that he makes Sunstreaker do this, and Prowl is well aware of that. They have both sat by too many mechs, watching them turn grey. Or watched in the midst of battle, as their companions were shot through the spark, or rent to pieces, or taken and never seen again. Or worse, left behind and lost.

-Sometimes, I think you enjoy reminding me how much of a sparkless drone you are,- Sunstreaker hisses and abruptly cuts off with a whine of feedback that aches in Prowl's audials.

His sensory panels droop. He onlines his optics, Hound and Dino's conversation returning to the forefront of his attention.

"Take care of yourself," Hound is in the midst of saying. "Raj's going to need you."

Dino makes an incoherent noise. "I will," the red mech says.

He lifts a hand, touching first his own forehelm before pressing the same two fingers to Hound. A gesture of long farewell once so common in the Towers but now a lost part of that culture.

Nothing more is said. Dino turns to leave, shooting Prowl the briefest of glances. Then, he too is gone, and Prowl is left staring in the faceplate of his most recent failure.

"It's okay, you know," Hound murmurs into the quiet, optics focused on the ceiling since Prowl's current position puts him out of view. "A part of me is ready by this point."

The lieutenant lurches into motion, crossing the distance in a few long strides, until he stands at Hound's berthside. One arm flops toward him, fingers smacking against Prowl's chassis, leaving him no choice but to take Hound's hand into his. The scout's energy field is remarkably calm and even for all the terrible reality of the situation.

Prowl tries to speak but static spills out of his vocalizer. He forces himself to reset it.

"No," he replies, startling himself with how fiercely the denial emerges. "It is not and will never be okay."

He cannot stop himself from pulsing a low-level scan, but the results spew pessimism and bad news. Hound's spark is losing viability at an alarming rate. The cracked weld isn't holding, and the longer Hound is online, powering even minor systems like his optics, the more stress he's putting on his spark.

"It is and will be," his friend retorts and has to pause, optics flickering him. His left leg twitches, and he draws in a slow ventilation. "It's not your fault either, and you know frag well I'd do it again if I had to."

Prowl works his jaw, searching for a diplomatic answer, unable to grasp his usual cold distance. It's impossible now. He's fought and lived with the members of his team for far too long to treat them with the detachment that has served him so well in the past. During the war. Before even. When the only one to even look at him as worthwhile was Jazz. Before they became brothers, never telling anyone save Prime that they'd ever been different.

But Optimus isn't the only one who knows anymore. Prowl has been with Sunstreaker and Hound for too long to not have them know the truth. To not have them know him as only Jazz has before.

Hound squeezes his fingers then. "Prowl."

He jerks his gaze back toward the scout, remarkably calm for the fact he knows he's about to die and nothing can help him. Nothing except for the one thing Prime is unwilling to do and that knowledge brings forth another spark of anger, one Prowl struggles to bury beneath the grief so that Hound can't sense it.

"I'm tired," Hound says softly, field stretched and seeking, wrapping around Prowl's like a warm breath of air. "Aren't you?"

"That's not the point. The war is over," Prowl replies, sensory panels rigid, resisting the comforting pull of Hound. "You have every right to enjoy this peace."

"Peace comes in many forms." Hound tries for a smile, but it slips around the edges. "Do me a favor though. Tell Sunstreaker it's not his fault, too."

Prowl works his intakes. A weight settles on his chassis that has nothing to do with physical pain.

"I am sure he would prefer to hear it from you. He's on his way now."

At least, Sunstreaker had better be. Prowl would hate to have to chase the frontliner down and drag him in here by his vents.

One of the machine's hooked up to Hound starts a slow and steady beep in minor tones that don't bode well. Hound's spark is failing him faster than any of Prowl's calculations could've anticipated. No doubt the crash landing on Earth had contributed to his rapid decline in health. Frag Blitzwing to the Pit! If he isn't there already.

"I'm here."

Prowl doesn't turn, his sensory panels twitching to acknowledge Sunstreaker's presence. Surprisingly enough, Sunstreaker even came alone. Sideswipe isn't with him.

"You left," Hound comments without a hint of accusation in his tone.

He's like that sometimes. Perfectly neutral, perfectly accepting. It is one of the reasons he was a good choice for a team that would include Sunstreaker.

It is and has always been impossible to hate Hound. Sunstreaker, over the millennia, is no exception to that pattern.

Sunstreaker stands there, just on the edge of Prowl's vision, both awkward and contrite.

"I'm sorry."

The need to make himself scarce becomes suddenly apparent to Prowl. He squeezes Hound's fingers one last time before releasing his hold.

"I will return," he promises and turns away, leaving the space at Hound's side open for Sunstreaker to take his place.

The warrior glares, but it lacks heat. He brushes past Prowl. Their energy fields come into contact for a brief, nauseating click. The churning emotions hidden beneath the surface are more than Prowl can even begin to translate. It's better for his sanity that he doesn't try. Sunstreaker is the most complicated mech he has ever met, and that includes knowing Jazz for so very long.

Prowl lingers for a moment, watching as Sunstreaker perches on the sturdy crate next to Hound. His hands are folded in his lap until a murmured word from Hound encourages Sunstreaker to reach out. They are speaking to each other, subvocally, and Prowl could strain to hear them, but he suspects it's none of his business.

Better that he leaves them alone for now.

He wishes he could grant them a measure of true privacy, but there's none to be found in this massive warehouse. The humans are still milling around, occasionally glancing curiously at the two Cybertronians locked in a personal discussion. Some openly stare, faces twisted with a grimace that Prowl recognizes as disgust, even with the difference in their species.

Prowl's plating clamps down tightly, an unconscious response to feeling threatened. The humans are small, frail, but Prowl does not think them harmless. He's seen images of what their technology can do to Cybertronian armor.

He steps out of the main hangar, optics cycling up to compensate for the fact the sun is setting and artificial lights are flickering on all around him. Sensors ping at him, warning him that he's not alone, but Prowl doesn't have to look to know who's been lying in wait.

"Did you help convince him?" Prowl questions, panels fluttering before he turns to acknowledge his visitor.

Sideswipe's arms are crossed over his chassis. His expression is carefully neutral.

"I left you my brother. You gave me back a stranger," he accuses.

Prowl merely gives him a look. "He's not that different."

Sideswipe glances away, optics narrowing. "He's different enough. We're warriors. We're good at that. It's another matter entirely to sit and watch someone die."

Prowl looks down and nearly startles at the sight of a human perched near Sideswipe's left pede. He remembers this one from the data packet: Colonel Lennox.

"Whether he says it or not, Sunstreaker does wish to be present," Prowl retorts, lifting his gaze back up. "Has he not told you?"

Sideswipe straightens, his mask cracking. "I know better than to ask. He will when he's ready."

Prowl glances at the open doorway. He can barely glimpse the gleaming metal of Sunstreaker's plating.

"He missed you. Do not ever believe otherwise."

A noise of disdain escapes from Sideswipe, and his gears grind in an unpleasant answer.

"I don't need you to tell me that."

He pushes off the side of the building, wheeled pedes rolling over concrete. Prowl watches him go. It's not as though he has the words to fix anything anymore.

"So," the human says, completely forgotten until that point. "You're the new guy."

He looks down and shifts his language to push English to the forefront.

"I have recently arrived, yes. I am Prowl. I presume you have met Sunstreaker?"

"Sides' brother?" Lennox's lower lip curls with a grin. "Yeah, we've met. I don't think I impressed him much."

"There is little that does."

Prowl must admit he is impressed though. He towers over the small human by several degrees. Yet, Lennox does not look upon him with fear or unease. Clearly, he has grown used to spending time with Cybertronians.

"You are the leader of the military here?" Prowl poses, but he already knows the answer.

Lennox scratches his chin. "Someone else pulls my strings if that's what you're asking, but yeah, you could say that."

Prowl studies him for a click, but he isn't about to let this opportunity slip by.

"Did you spend a lot of time with Ratchet?"

The human's hand drops from his face to hang at his side. "I hang around with all the Autobots. It's part of my job."

An evasion. But a good one. Prowl considers that.

"Do you think he's been compromised?" he questions almost softly. Like he's afraid the other humans will overhear.

Lennox makes an unidentifiable noise. It's one that Prowl's recognition software can't catalog.

"It's not really my place to know, is it?" Lennox shoots back. "Mearing doesn't think it matters."

Mearing. The human-Autobot liaison as assigned by the United States government. Prowl has yet to meet her, but he is certain that such a thing will happen soon. Optimus is sure to want to start assigning him duties. They are so few after all.

"What do you think?"

One booted foot taps against the ground. "I'm not paid to think, Prowl. I just follow orders."

He does not miss, however, the note of bitterness in Lennox's tone. It lets it slide though. Especially when Lennox speaks again.

"Sideswipe tells me that Hound's not looking so good."

The sharp stab of grief and despair that attacks Prowl is unprecedented. He can't even begin to battle it down.

"We came here with all of our hope hanging on Ratchet being with Prime," Prowl admits, and it's agony to even say it to himself. "Without Ratchet, there's nothing any of us can do."

"I'm sorry," Lennox says, and there's true sincerity in his voice, not just words given to fill the silence. "I wish that I could help."

"I am quite certain that there's nothing you can do," Prowl retorts before he can stop himself.

"Yeah." Lennox pushes himself off the wall. "I'm only human after all. Pretty damn useless in the end."

Prowl could argue otherwise. The case of one Samuel Witwicky is in his databanks after all, but the human is already taking his leave, hands shoved into his pockets. Lennox isn't quite what Prowl would have expected from these organics. He is a human who bears watching.

No one else approaches Prowl after Lennox departs, and he has no desire to return to the hangar at the moment, wanting to give Hound and Sunstreaker what privacy he can spare. As Prime has yet to give him any duties, Prowl has nothing to occupy his processor.

What then to do?

Solitude is in short supply around this pathetic example of a base. Nevertheless, Prowl seeks it out in the ruins of Chicago. There's something oddly ironic about discovering peace in the middle of destruction.

A sign, scorched by laserfire, is still legible and informs Prowl that he's reached some sort of park. Vegetation survived the Decepticon attack for the most part. It's something Hound would have loved. Will love.

Appropriate, Prowl thinks as he lowers himself to a large piece of building that somehow landed itself in the middle of the park. It makes for an adequate seat to keep himself from the soil. He takes several image captures if only to share them with Hound later, for however long the scout's spark manages to spin. Prowl's scan before he left hadn't been optimistic.

This world is painfully different. While Prowl hasn't seen much beyond their landing zone and the arrival in Chicago, the world wide web is full of pictures and videos and documentaries. Earth is the epitome of organic, and Prowl misses the elegance of Cybertron so very much.

He doesn't like how the soil shifts beneath his pedes. He doesn't like the lingering odor of decay and rebirth. Nor how quickly time seems to pass here. And he especially doesn't like how nothing here feels the same way that Cybertron does. It's a sensation he cannot quite put into words.

Cybertron, the planet itself, always hummed with life. As though the legends of their planet being the body of Primus have some element of truth. Earth, while life survives on the surface, feels dead to the core.

It shifts and surges, entirely unstable.

But Cybertron is gone; it is nothing more than a memory. And all that the Autobots have left is Earth, this planet. Prowl does not feel very victorious. How can they even begin to rebuild here?

Was there really no other option? Was destroying Cybertron the only choice Optimus could reach at the time?

Prowl's spark contracts. He no longer knows where to direct his efforts, what hope to cling to.

What he truly has left.

He isn't even sure how long has passed when he senses Optimus. His leader's energy field is a confusing tangle of mismatched emotions, and Prowl knows the he hasn't been sensed in return yet. Optimus is careful where he places his pedes, displaying a grace unusual for his size, but skilled at stealth he is not.

"If you had commed me, I would've come," Prowl says, not turning to acknowledge the other mech's approach. Still, his sensory panels twitching in recognition.

"This isn't an official matter," Prime replies, pausing once he stands beside Prowl. His bulk blocks off the dim glow of a single, functioning streetlight. "I was concerned for your welfare."

Bitterness crops up before Prowl can block it. "I'm not the one microns away from deactivation."

"Hound was a great soldier. He will be sorely missed."

Prowl twitches before he can reign it in. Prime speaks of Hound as though he's already offline. Has already written him off as some sort of acceptable loss. As if he doesn't even matter.

Prowl's helm dips. He doesn't dare look up at his Prime or mingle their fields. They've had this argument too many times, and he knows Prime's decision isn't going to change. The question that remains is... why? This Prime isn't the one Prowl remembers. Not at all.

"I noticed that Sunstreaker is sitting beside him," Prime continues either oblivious to Prowl's distress or unsympathetic; it isn't clear which is worse. "It's not uncommon for soldiers to seek comfort in one another. Are they… involved?"

Prowl rises then without even meaning to, and his core clenches. Prime might be their leader, but it isn't any of his business. Not anymore. Not when he's given up without a fight.

"I've lost more than half of my crew," Prowl states, and it's quite flat. "Not a one of us thinks it smart to bond in the midst of this war."

Which is not precisely an answer.

"It's my hope that the war's end will change that." Prime's helm lifts, optics focused on the darkened sky. "Earth has given us a chance for a new beginning. We must always be grateful to the humans for their aid."

The humans. Prime has placed his faith in the organics. But what of the millions who have died on Cybertron? The thousands of Autobots who offlined in the name of saving their planet? What have they sacrificed to obtain?

Cybertron is gone, and their reward is Earth? Prime calls this a victory? They are on the verge of extinction! How many Cybertronians are left, even if Prowl counts the Decepticons? Thousands? Hundreds?

Dozens?

Yet, it's the humans that Prime has chosen to place his faith in. The very same species who demands so much and gives so very little in return.

"What can we expect?" Prowl asks softly. "What future can we have, Optimus, when we are so few? When the Allspark is lost and our planet a ruin?"

A smile, unexpected, curls Optimus' lipplates. But it's so foreign, so surreal. Prime looks like a complete stranger then. Like a mech Prowl's never even met before.

His spark chills within him, and something like dread snakes through every line and pathway.

Optimus doesn't even notice the flicker of horror. He just keeps talking.

"There is always hope, old friend. It is up to us to find it wherever possible."

Prowl has to fight not to flinch when Optimus reaches out to touch him.

Empty words, empty promises.

Prowl slides out from under his hand with a graceful motion.

"You are right, of course," he concedes though he wants to shout otherwise, and he takes several steps back. "I think I will return to the base now. Hound shouldn't be alone."

He doesn't give Optimus the opportunity to request that he stay or argue with him otherwise. Prowl shifts into his alt-mode and races into the debris-strewn street, engine rumbling a throaty-pitch. This human-designed frame is unwieldy, lacking the sleek design of his Cybertronian mode, but it's the best Prowl could find. The goal, after all, is to blend in.

Optimus does not give chase, and what does this say about Prowl that he hadn't expected his Prime to do so. Optimus doesn't so much as toss a warning comm at Prowl's departing form. Instead, he turns his attention back to the dark sky and the winking stars and leaves Prowl to his own devices.

He isn't the mech Prowl remembers at all.

Chapter Text

Hound is never alone.

Between Prowl and Sunstreaker, someone is always sitting at his berthside. Admittedly, it's Sunstreaker more often than Prowl since it doesn't take long for Optimus to involve his second-in-command in their alliance with the humans and the ongoing task of clearing out the Decepticons.

That their enemies hide is interesting in itself. Very few have shown their faceplates or attacked the humans head-on. But surely, they must be energon-starved, losing their processors in the midst of their isolation.

Prime, however, handles the remaining Decepticons personally. It's up to Prowl to familiarize himself with the details of the human-Autobot alliance. That means he has been introduced to Charlotte Mearing, and Prowl has honestly never met an entity he has wanted to step on so badly in his entire existence.

She fights him on everything, down to the quick. Supplies. Deployment orders. Land for the purpose of building a more permanent home. Freedom and privacy for the Autobots.

She demands technology, weapons and the like, which Prowl refuses to give her. The humans are dangerous enough in their own right, and if they haven't figured out to reverse-engineer Cybertronian weapons yet, Prowl is not about to hand over the instruction manual. There's something in Mearing's tone, in her eyes. It suggests ridding the universe of all Cybertronians is the only way to get any peace.

Sitting by Hound, in their noisy corner of the warehouse, is all the respite Prowl receives. She tries the very depths of his patience, more so than Sideswipe or Sunstreaker ever succeeded. Prowl can't shake the notion that he's fighting a losing battle. Swimming upstream against the current, as the humans might say.

And while he wrestles with Mearing and struggles to find means to repair the Autobots without a medic and worries over the lack of quality energon and fills out sheet after sheet of useless paperwork, Prowl sits beside Hound. He watches his teammate, his friend, slowly fade away. Gradually dim and diminish.

It's agonizing. And not just for Hound.

They've disconnected him from the machines that sustain his systems. It's a waste of energy and resources, sustaining a spark that's withering away anyway. Or so Mearing so elegantly put it. Optimus in his most tactful way indicated that perhaps prolonging Hound's suffering is less than kind, too.

Without the steady, if not declining beeps of the machine, the proverbial quiet in this corner of the warehouse is all the more prevalent. All Prowl can hear is Hound's raspy ventilations, the soft hissing of hydraulics as he shifts on the berth.

Conversation, what little there is, remains stilted and awkward. Overwhelmed by the reality of the situation.

Hound is dying, little by little. Prowl fears every time he walks away that when he returns, it will be to an empty shell. It's only a matter of time, hours not days. Perhaps even minutes.

Nevertheless, Prowl returns every moment he has to spare. It's the only useful thing that he can do.

"Don't you… have work to do?" Hound asks when Prowl comes into view.

The pause between his words is noticeable. His ventilations have become more and more labored, and Prowl suspects the worst.

Sunstreaker is already here. Perched beside Hound as he has done during every free moment. Going so far as to recharge upright and on the uncomfortable crate.

"Nothing that cannot keep," Prowl assures his scout. He pulls up his own crate and seats himself near the mech's knees.

Prowl hears Hound reset his vocalizer. He tries to clear the static and only marginally succeeds.

"I'm sure it is important."

"Tch," Sunstreaker mutters, grinding gears in a gesture of disdain. "Who cares what new rules the squishies want?"

A look of affection and fond exasperation flickers onto Hound's faceplate. Then, it's gone again, the effort of holding any expression too great.

"Sunstreaker," Hound murmurs on a rattling ex-vent. His optics cycle in and out, as though struggling to focus.

Sunstreaker huffs but leans closer nonetheless, fingers grapping onto the edge of the berth. And Prowl doesn't miss the near-unconscious flinch that Hound tries to hide.

"Are you in pain?" he asks because Hound would never say if he were aloud. He thinks himself too much a burden already, no matter how much Prowl and Sunstreaker declare otherwise.

Their scout's lipplates curl in a weak smile. "I don't feel much of anything," he confesses.

Prowl's spark stutters. That isn't a good sign.

Worse that Hound's field has become nonexistent. Prowl stretches out his own, struggling to find any trace of the familiar, cheerful vibrations. There are none to be felt.

He reaches out, brushing his fingers over the plates on Hound's thigh. They're cool to the touch, and the thrum of living machinery is absent. His extremities are no longer receiving energon or charge.

Then, Sunstreaker's comm chines.

Hound's helm shifts in the most minute of movements. "Time… for your… shift."

Each word is forced. Dragged from his vocalizer.

Sunstreaker twitches. "Prime can shove it up his aft," he barks. "I'm not leaving." He lays a hand on Hound's chest, golden metal a direct contrast to the protoform-silver of Hound's own. Even his color nanites have already succumbed.

Blue optics, once a bright turquoise and now paler, flicker.

Prowl feels himself go rigid all over. He wants to look away. He can't bear to do so. Death hasn't been like this for too long. Offlining has always occurred quickly. He's never had to grieve while one of his bots still lived. He's never had to sit and watch one of his mechs wither away.

"Hound-"

Words fail him, constrict in his vocalizer. Prowl has no clue what to say, what platitudes to offer.

"I'm sorry," Hound forces out, power audibly rerouting to his vocalizer. "I should've… dodged that shot.

Sunstreaker's hand twitches on Hound's chassis. He makes a sound like agony, low and hollow.

"Don't you dare apologize," he grits out through clenched denta.

"If anyone is to blame, it is me," Prowl retorts and curls even closer.

Sunstreaker's gaze whips toward him. His optics are ablaze with more emotion than Prowl has ever seen him display.

"Don't you start either."

Hound chuckles, staticky and off-rhythm. He reaches out with motion Prowl didn't know he's capable of. Shaking fingers brush against Sunstreaker's face and make the warrior to turn his optics back. The soft brush of metal and metal seems unnaturally loud, and more notable is the way Sunstreaker doesn't pull away.

"Hey," Hound murmurs. Now, his attention is focused on Sunstreaker alone, though his optics are flickering slowly. "It's okay."

Sunstreaker's ventilations catch. His hand flattens on Hound's chassis, on the raggedly welded piece of temp plating. His fingers hook on a seam as though trying to strengthen Hound's spark with will alone. He leans closer, mouth moving, but whatever he says, Prowl can't hear it. Not that he's trying. The words aren't for him, they are for Hound only. Whatever they are, Hound manages a faint smile with whatever strength he has left.

A rattling ventilation seems abnormally loud. And Prowl waits for the next cycle. His audials are primed for it, counting the clicks.

It doesn't come.

Sunstreaker's helm dips further.

Pale optics flicker out and then don't online again.

The grey hand drops from Sunstreaker's cheek, landing with a solid clunk against the berth. Sunstreaker seems to lose his battle with gravity. He sinks down on the crate. His forehelm presses to Hound's shoulder, one hand curled in his lap. The other is still pressed to Hound's chassis.

Prowl has no words. His own ventilations are staggered, and his spark is small and tight. The emotion is there, but he can't break. He has to be the one who holds it together even if his greater urge is to flee into the night, wheels to the road, if only to find his sanity again.

A soft sound breaks the silence. Prowl half-turns, spotting Sideswipe. The twin's plating is covered in a thin layer of dust. He must've been on patrol, perhaps switching with one of the Wreckers in order to be here.

He and Sideswipe trade a glance, but no words are exchanged. Behind where Sideswipe appeared, Prowl notices one of the humans. Lennox. He's watching Sunstreaker and Sideswipe and Prowl, too. There's something in his eyes. Sympathy perhaps.

He says nothing, but he locks gazes briefly with Prowl before turning and walking away. For once, none of the busy humans around the warehouse are watching. They are all scurrying around with their busy little lives, paying no attention to the tragedy mere feet away.

It's enough to make Prowl's tanks roil.

Sideswipe, obviously, is only here for his twin. He wastes no time in approaching his brother and lightly resting a hand on Sunstreaker's shoulder. His twin gives no sign that he's noticed Sideswipe. Save for the bare shift in his energy field. An invitation to share his pain.

-Prime to Prowl.-

The sudden comm shatters Prowl's thoughts. He jerks to his pedes and whirls away, if only to hide the expression of distaste on his face. Could there be any worse timing?

-Prowl here.-

-Captain Manus informs me that Sunstreaker hasn't shown for his shift. He isn't responding to my comms either,- Prime replies with no preamble.

Prowl shutters his optics. He cycles several ventilations if only to keep himself calm.

-There are extenuating circumstances, Optimus.-

A moment of silence passes before understanding colors Prime's transmission.

-Hound?-

Prowl fights to control himself at the complete and utter nonchalance in that name.

-Yes.-

But it's clipped. Brittle.

-My condolences.-

There's something not-quite-right in the flat way Prime offers his sympathies, as though the matter is far removed from him. As though losing one of his Autobots is simply a piece of data to be absorbed and cataloged.

There once was a time that everyone believed Prowl to be so sparkless. And yet, he is now experiencing it from the famously soft-sparked Optimus. The incongruity is startling.

-I will arrange for someone else to cover Sunstreaker's shift,- Prowl replies because he doesn't know how else to respond.

-I'll inform Dino for you. Prime out.-

The quick dismissal is as startling as the sudden hailing.

Prowl, reeling, closes the line and cycles yet another ventilation. His pump feels as though it is straining in polar directions, utterly torn. His field buzzes around his frame; only his tight grip keeps it from flooding the warehouse. Bit by bit, he's losing control.

He onlines his optics, turning back toward Sideswipe and Sunstreaker. The latter of whom has allowed Sideswipe to pull him away from Hound's empty and cold frame. Sideswipe also, has completed the painful task of drawing the shutters on Hound's optics, saving them the bitter sight of dark sockets.

Anger surges in Prowl as strong as the sorrow, and all of his emotions are an inexplicable tangle. He wants to grieve; he wants to shout. He wants to draw his blaster and destroy something, everything. He wants to find the nearest Decepticon and claim his spark. He wants the war to be over, frag it.

And it is. Or so Optimus claims.

But if that were true, why are Autobots still losing their sparks?

o0o0o

There's an ache in his spark that won't leave. It haunts him, minute by minute, making it difficult to concentrate on the assignments Prime has given him.

It's only been an Earth day since Hound went cold. Hardly enough time to even begin processing that truth.

And Sunstreaker...

Prowl firms his lipplates together. He hadn't needed another reason to despise Mearing or their so-called human allies, but they keep offering him opportunities every which way he turns.

Primus forbid they should be given time to grieve. Prowl largely suspects that their human allies do not acknowledge the Autobots as being truly sapient. That they look at the Autobots and see only highly advanced robots, machines that produce a facsimile of emotion.

Then again, considering how Optimus hasn't so much as unleashed a warble of sadness in his field, perhaps they have a point. Dino has barely managed a sad look in Hound's direction. It's as though in the millennia that stand between them, Prime and his team and those gathered here have become closer to machines and further from their sapient selves.

It's worrisome.

Prowl doesn't know this Prime. He looks into Optimus' optics, and he sees a stranger. Not the unfamiliar sight of a soldier who has looked into the maw of war and come out changed. But those of a mech who may have been a lie all along. Who was nothing more than a figment.

It's disconcerting to say the least.

He remembers Optimus. He remembers willingly coming to that mech's service, despite all the confusion regarding his origins. Whether or not he was a true Prime or just the leader they all needed once Sentinel vanished. But Prowl always preferred Optimus over Sentinel, even if the former was so foolish.

Wanting peace all over Cybertron, believing in the good of any mech, often to his own detriment. Wanting to trust everyone around him.

Prowl remembers an Optimus who was approachable. Who saw beyond class or make or even caste.

He doesn't know this mech. This... warmonger, who has bowed himself to their human allies to the detriment of their own kind. Writing off a bot who has been with him throughout the millennia and even before their planet devolved into war.

Optimus isn't Prime. He's become some kind of militant. One who seeks only the next battle, only the next victory. It's as though he cannot see peace anymore. Not under the rivers of energon spilled. Someone who can't abide by peace anyway.

Prowl worries.

Has their Prime fallen? Has the line of Primes become broken?

Is the war to blame for Prime's changes? Or perhaps it was the betrayal of his brother-spark? The shattering of the bond that he and Megatron shared in their dual leadership? Was it when Ultra Magnus offlined?

Was it when he came to Earth?

Was aiding in the death of his brother the final blow? Was watching Sentinel betray him the acid on a torn line?

So many questions. Too many questions.

Prowl wishes he could contact Ratchet. He's starting to suspect that Ratchet is not compromised but truly did leave of his own free will. Prowl wants to know why. What did the medic see? What was the last rusted cog that led Ratchet to disappear?

He needs answers, and Prowl's searches have come up frustratingly short. The datapacket Optimus gave him only mentions Ratchet in passing and has no details on the medic's disappearance. What files Prowl can access on the human's systems are also equally sparse. As though both human and Autobot alike are seeking to conceal the truth of Ratchet's departure.

No one wants to talk. Optimus changes the subject. Dino and the Wreckers only know what they saw. Sideswipe was present, but he doesn't know anything either. Prowl hasn't bothered to ask the humans. It's quite clear that they don't care what happened to Ratchet beyond the threat the medic's absence might represent.

And Prowl hasn't seen plating nor energy field of Bumblebee since his arrival on this planet. Optimus claims that his scout spends most of his time in the presence of Sam Witwicky and doesn't seem bothered by the fact that his loyal soldier doesn't care to socialize with his fellow Cybertronians.

There are secrets here. Many of them. Prowl doesn't like secrets that he isn't privy to.

Jazz would've found them out. Jazz would've kept Prowl informed. Primus! Jazz would've known exactly where Ratchet had gone and why.

Jazz probably would've gone with him.

Prowl vents softly, panels drooping. They too ache. Especially the one on the right. Sideswipe fixed to his best ability. Nonetheless, there's a crimp somewhere, and it sends low pulses of irritation to Prowl's sensory net from time to time.

"Am I interrupting something?"

Prowl's panels jerk upright, provoking a hiss that he fights down. He turns around slowly. Awkwardly in his current chair and desk that consist of a stack of storage crates crammed into the first open corner in the warehouse.

His recognition software has already identified the speaker as Colonel Lennox. Prowl isn't surprised to find the human standing there, expression carefully neutral.

"Was there something you needed?"

Lennox's head dips, eyes searching Prowl intently. "Actually, I was going to ask you that question." He pauses and runs a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry about Hound. I didn't know him at all, but well, I know what it's like to lose soldiers."

He would be the first to offer condolences. Whether they are honest or not.

Prowl's posture softens if only by a micron.

"Thank you," he responds, though he severely doubts the human can even begin comprehending the true depth of what it is like to lose a soldier one has fought and survived beside for eons. "There's nothing to be done now, however, but to ready ourselves for the final ceremony."

That draws the human up short. He cocks his head and brings his hand up in a peculiar way that Prowl finds oddly familiar.

"Ceremony?"

Prowl flickers his optics. "You would call it a funeral."

"Ah." Lennox folds his arms over his chest then and hunches his shoulders, suddenly uncomfortable. "You really should talk to Prime about that."

There's something in that statement. Something hinting over the hidden. It sends a chill up Prowl's processor.

"I intend to."

That is, if he can ever get a moment of Optimus' time. One that isn't overwhelmed by some new pile of information that his leader feels Prowl needs to assimilate.

Lennox rocks on the balls of his feet in a gesture very similar to a particular twin.

"Sideswipe tells me that Sunstreaker's gone into solitary," the human says then.

Annoyance creeps in again, despite Prowl's best efforts to fight it down, and his engine gives a small rev. It's true that the Autobots do not have anything resembling a brig, but that has not stopped Mearing from devising a means to punish. A tiny shipping container has become a makeshift cell just large enough for one Autobot. But barely.

"Yes," he allows in a clipped tone and turns back to his desk and his work, assuming that Lennox will leave. "Mearing didn't appreciate his refusal to show up for several of his assigned patrols."

Never mind that Hound was dying. Never mind that none of them are pleased with the fact that they are all but serving their so-called allies. Even now, eighty percent of Prowl's duties circulate around the humans, their requests, their problems.

Lennox is one of the few who seems to solve his own.

"He was with Hound, wasn't he?" the colonel questions, and his manner is very solemn then. Tired.

Prowl stiffens but gives a nod. "Yes."

Lennox makes a noise of disgust, and the twist to his expression is visible from one of Prowl's lateral sensors.

"She probably didn't give a damn either." He mutters, "That bitch."

Prowl's faceplates set in a neutral expression, but inside, he's surprised. He turns toward the human.

"Pardon?"

"What?" Lennox arches an orbital ridge and shows no sign of fear despite the fact he could easily become a smear beneath Prowl's pede. "Just 'cause she's human means I'm obligated to like her? That's awfully narrow-minded of you."

"That isn't what I meant." Prowl is careful to choose his words, but he also takes a closer look at Lennox, seeing more in the human this time than he has acknowledged before. "She is your superior officer, yes?"

Lennox visibly shudders. "She's government, yeah, but she's not the one who pulls my strings. I report to General Morshower."

None of Lennox's contempt for Mearing is present in regards to the second human. Instead, there is genuine warmth and respect. Curious.

"Mearing's just the typical politician with her head up her aft and no clue what it's like to actually be here on the frontlines," the colonel finishes.

Perhaps Prowl isn't the only one who finds it frustrating to have dealings with Mearing. It seems she is talented at thwarting anyone who does not conform to her own plans.

"She has proven to be... difficult," Prowl acknowledges with an element of tact that would've made Jazz proud.

Lennox snorts. "Yeah. Difficult. That's the word I'd use." He shakes his head, as though trying to clear away mere thought of her. "I'm serious, Prowl. If there's anything I can do to help, let me know."

Prowl looks at him for a very long moment. This human isn't like the other ones. There's something in his demeanor. In the way he carries himself. It's so very familiar.

"Why?"

He's genuinely curious.

The human unfolds his arms and runs an anxious hand through his hair once more. He doesn't look at Prowl, and his gaze is distant.

"Because Annabelle – my daughter – still asks me when Hide's coming home, and I die a little more each time I have to tell her he's not." Lennox breathes out and finally glances up. "I really am on your side. Even if it seems like no one else is."

Prowl struggles to find words. In the face of so much loss, he hasn't had much time to mourn Ironhide. It never occurred to him that one of the humans might in his stead.

"I understand," he says, keeping his tone soft and even. "Thank you, Colonel Lennox."

He smiles. "You can call me Will, if you want. Ironhide always did."

"Very well." Prowl inclines his helm. "Thank you, William."

The colonel makes a face, but it's tinted with playfulness.

"Close enough."

William's half-smirk is a pale shade of amusement, but it's there nevertheless. And Prowl begins to see why Ironhide was so drawn to this human.

o0o0o

The discovery of three Decepticons in India derails Prowl's efforts to discuss Hound's ceremony with Optimus. Instead, he watches as Prime, Roadbuster, and Dino take off in a large human aircraft. They are heading for far shores in order to put down the threat, and it seems even with the war ended, the battle has not been won.

Prowl hopes that the encounter is short and swift. With Ratchet gone, they have no medic. And he doesn't think he can watch another of his own offline so soon.

Optimus' absence frees up Prowl as well, especially since Sunstreaker is still in solitary. Prowl has his own duties, but for once, the thought of returning to the datapads of dry facts that Optimus gave him holds no appeal. And while he's never been a mech who loathes confined spaces, there is something about the cluttered, noisy, and yet open space of the warehouse that sets him on edge.

Perhaps it's the multitudes of humans constantly moving around underfoot, no bigger than recently sparked hatchlings and equally ignorant to the danger. It is exhausting to keep track of so many scurrying forms, and the humans don't even have the safety-sensors that all hatchlings are equipped with. Nor do they seem to care whether or not they are in range of an Autobot's pede.

It's been a month since Prowl and his team arrived here, and he still feels as uncomfortable here as he had since the crash. This place, this warehouse, these humans... they do not feel like home. Prowl despairs that they ever will.

He wanders around the compound on the edge of the ruins of Chicago, occasionally glancing at the shattered skyline and the destroyed buildings that are still somehow standing. The humans suffered a terrible blow at the hands of the Decepticons and Sentinel, but Prowl is still appalled by what truths led to the battle in this city.

They surrendered themselves to the Decepticons, agreed to ship the Autobots off-planet. What did they think was going to happen? Years of fighting alongside the Autobots and they still hadn't realized the Decepticons couldn't be trusted? What special kind of glitches were these humans?

Then again, the Nebulans had tried the same thing. The sight of their planet reduced to a decimating black hole is all the convincing Prowl has ever needed.

Dispirited, Prowl continues his wandering, taking note of the locations of all the buildings, the armories, the insentient vehicle storage, and what areas the humans consider off-limits. He finds some storage facilities, another hangar that seems to be a collection of all the Cybertronian tech recovered, and a third storehouse that contains the wreckage of his shuttle. Humans currently crawl all over the scorched hull and shattered ruins.

What Prowl does not find, however, is any trace of a mausoleum. There may have been one at their base in Washington before Sentinel destroyed it, but there should also be one present here or close by. After all, half a dozen Autobots died in Sentinel's betrayal and the following battle.

There is no map in the file Optimus gave him. There are no directions, no indications of its location anywhere. Not on this particular continent or on this planet for that matter. Where then has Optimus entombed their fallen comrades? Where has he placed the pieces that couldn't be salvaged and worn to honor their brethren?

Bumblebee still has not shown his faceplate. Leadfoot is recharging. Topspin, Prowl knows, is on a routine patrol. That leaves Sideswipe to ask, and so the lieutenant seeks him out.

He finds Sideswipe on the other side of the base's runway in his alt-mode, not quite recharging but soaking up the warmth of Earth's sun. It is a novelty, Prowl thinks, to have a sun again. Perhaps the only aspect of Earth that he has grown fond of in his short residence on this planet.

"Never thought I'd see the orn when you, of all mechs, were restless," the warrior comments as he approaches, tires crackling over gravel interspersed with weeds.

Prowl slips out of alt-mode. "Were you watching me?"

Sideswipe too emerges into his root form. His arms stretch out with crackling pops of joints and hisses of hydraulics.

"Sometimes, I hack the humans' radio chatter." He makes a nonchalant motion. "They were keeping tabs on you."

Prowl hesitates a click. That's the sort of behavior one would give the presence of an enemy in his or her midst, not supposed allies.

"I see."

He frowns. Do the humans distrust them so much?

"How is Sunstreaker?" Prowl tries instead.

"Were you really bored enough to look for conversation?" Sideswipe redirects, scuffing one tire against the ground and pulling up clods of damp dirt. It rained yesterday, a phenomenon that no longer surprises Prowl, having seen it on other organic planets.

Prowl vents softly. "I take it he is unhappy."

"That's putting it tactfully. Good for you. Finally learned it." Sideswipe grins, but it doesn't contain an ounce of humor. "Maybe we should give Sunny some kind of long-range patrol because he hasn't stopped bitching about Mearing since they shoved him in that crate. But that's Sunny for ya. Nice to see some things haven't changed."

Implied in Sideswipe's words are that other things have. Sunstreaker is different, and if Prowl can recognize this, of course his brother can.

The lieutenant makes a wordless noise of acknowledgment. Sideswipe gives him a sidelong look.

"But you didn't come to the furthest edge of the base to ask me about my brother," Sideswipe says and folds his arms over his chestplate, a mannerism he must've picked up from the humans. "What is it?"

Prowl turns his attention to the landscape. From here he can see a great expanse of water, the Great Lakes according to a quick internet search.

"I wish to pay my respects to Jazz," he replies, and his tone is soft. Aching. "Where is the mausoleum?"

Sideswipe gives a harsh intake. That's Prowl's first indication that he's not going to like the answer. But it's his optics that seal the deal.

"We don't have one."

Prowl's panels jerk upright. But he forces them to relax.

"Was it destroyed?"

Sideswipe has to look away, and that makes Prowl's processor prickle.

"No," he retorts, and it's long and drawn out. "We never had one. Not in Diego. Not in Washington. And not here." Sideswipe's energy field spikes with a querulous mix of anger and resignation. "They've moved us around so much we never could build anything. Not that it matters. The humans had a better idea of where we could keep the fallen."

The bitterness in his tone is tangible. Prowl call all but taste it, and he nearly shudders. He dreads the answer, but he still needs to ask.

"Where?"

Blue optics darken with disgust. Sideswipe doesn't look at him still. Doesn't dare.

"It made sense at first. Who cares about the Decepticons anyway? They deserve whatever they got, and what better place to shove them than the deepest, darkest place on this planet?" His engine gives an unhappy rumble. "But then… they put Jazz there, too. Optimus didn't fight them on it."

Prowl stares at him. And keeps staring.

Jazz was… He'd been… What? What was this?

"I don't understand," Prowl admits, and he really doesn't. "What do you mean?"

It comes out like a demand, and Prowl would be mortified at the emotional tone were it not for the circumstances.

Sideswipe, however, wears an indescribable expression.

"Jazz got dumped just like the 'Cons," he repeats.

There's a buzzing, staticky noise in Prowl's audials. It rattles through his processor and right into his spark. Right where Jazz should be but isn't.

He aches for the loss and knows he won't ever stop.

Few mechs even realize that they aren't true siblings. Know that they'd found each other later and formed a connection beyond mere friendship. Beyond imprinting even. A true and lasting bond.

But Optimus knows. Had always known. He'd treated them just the same. Had given them all the same privileges and rights that true brothers shared. Had never treated them as anything but siblings.

And now… Now, of all times, he's decided to treat Jazz like gutter trash? To throw him away like unwanted scrap?

Ice filters into Prowl's lines. So cold that it burns all the way through. Empty like Cybertron was at the end and twice as bitter.

"Where?" he snarls, and he doesn't have to explain the question.

Sideswipe looks at him then. "They call it the Laurentian Abyss. To them, it has some sort of cultural significance. To me, it's just a dark hole in their planet's crust. A Primus-forsaken maw at the bottom of the ocean. A place ya send mechs to rust."

Horror floods Prowl's processor and replaces the anger. He struggles for words. His vocalizer clicks but forms no syllables. They entombed Jazz with the Decepticons. They threw him down in some pit like nothing more than slag to be scrapped off.

And they hadn't even told him. Him… Prowl… Jazz's brother!

The anger is back now. But it's more like rage. More like the agonizing cold of deep space and infinitely more desolate.

"And the others?"

His tone would almost be neutral were it not for his optics. For the gleam and glare. For the tightening of his hands and jaw.

"It's a deep hole." Sideswipe's shrug seems casual, but Prowl can see the disdain. "There was plenty of room for more."

"That's..."

Words fail him yet again.

Over the millennia, the ability to properly entomb their fallen soldiers was left by the wayside. Cybertron was out of reach. Battlefields were large and numerous. Often times, the fallen warriors were parted to provide one last service to their brethren. But if the opportunity presented itself, if there was a lull and they had the resources, Prowl knew that they did their best to give a proper ceremony to those who had lost their sparks.

But this... this is unfathomable.

Reality strikes Prowl in the next thought-cycle. This is what they will do to Hound. They will take his frame and chuck it into the deep sea with the rest of the Cybertronians, Autobot and Decepticon alike.

His ventilations stutter.

"Yeah," Sideswipe allows, fingers curling into visible fists. "From what I hear, Ratchet hadn't liked it either. Not that our glorious leader was listening. He doesn't listen to any of us anymore."

o0o0o

Sunstreaker is not present and Prowl, admittedly, is glad for it. The warrior wouldn't have agreed to this farce of a ceremony. He would've done something irreparable.

Mearing surprisingly allows Sunstreaker to pause his sentence in order to attend the so-called funeral, but Sunstreaker refuses to emerge from his confinement. Sideswipe backs his brother up, and so it is a small collection of Autobots that gather for Hound's sending, if that is what Prowl wishes to call it.

His only consolation is that they aren't yet depositing Hound in the ocean. Too much cost, Mearing grumbled, to ship off one Autobot frame. They'll wait until they have more Decepticon remains to make the transport economical.

Human music plays in the background, a warble of some high-pitched instrument that grates on Prowl's sensors. A small assemblage of human soldiers have come to pay their respects, among them Lennox, but they are even less than the Autobots.

Bumblebee still hasn't returned.

Prowl watches, spark a leaden weight in his casing, as Hound is rolled out of the warehouse on the back of a flatbed, arranged in the humans' idea of repose. The sight of his frame so still and silent is like watching him offline all over again.

Worse still is the alarmingly small shipping container that shall serve as Hound's casket. It's smaller even than the box that confines Sunstreaker and barely big enough to hold Hound's bulky frame. Someone has messily scrawled the Autobot symbol on the outside. And recently at that, as the paint is still dripping in lurid dribbles down the rusted metal.

Optimus is the one to lift Hound's frame from the flatbed and place it inside with more care than Prowl half-expected. He doesn't know what to think anymore, not when it comes to their Prime. All of his calculations are useless; his percentages shift with each revelation.

The music ends, the half-dozen soldiers snap a salute, and the doors on the cargo container shut with a screech of metal and a dull thud. Optimus flicks the latch into place, tightens the clamps, and signals for the pulley to start reeling the container into the cargo bay of the transport. Prowl knows that from there, it will wait for other containers with similar cargo before the final trip to the ocean.

No, Prowl is completely wrong. There is no consolation to be found here at all.

The soldiers disperse. Sideswipe, at the back of the crowd, rolls away. His expression is unreadable, and he's no doubt contacting his brother over a private line. The Wreckers also disperse. Roadbuster to patrol, Leadfoot to the warehouse where he's been tinkering with Prowl's destroyed shuttle, and Topspin to recharge.

Prowl lingers, watching the transport until it is a mere speck in the distance. His emotions are so chaotic he cannot even describe them to himself. Almost as though he is numb, truth be told.

How many ways, he asks himself, has he failed Hound? Shall he add this to the list?

His processor seems stalled; messages to his motion circuits misfire. He knows he needs to move, get back to work, but the idea of returning to the diplomatic issues with their human allies makes his tanks churn. They have given so much, and yet, Mearing cannot spare a single compromise.

Optimus approaches, and for a brief, shocking moment, Prowl has the urge to turn and walk away. Almost unconsciously, his field draws tightly around his frame, not so much as a wisp escaping. His panels flatten and arch, a purely protective formation. And Prowl's horrified to realize that, for a second, his defensive subroutines has responded with autonomic precision as though considering Prime a threat.

Yet, Optimus' battlemask is withdrawn. His optics are bright, almost friendly, and there's a smile on his face. He's not being aggressive, his weapons are gone, and his energy positively buzzes.

"How are you?" Optimus asks, vocal tones rife with harmonics. They contain bare traces of the soothing tones he used to bear in abundance.

"I am functional," Prowl replies, and he swears it sounds faint.

"It's always hard," Prime says, sounding in that moment, very much like his old self. "There are so few of us now. Each new loss is a fresh wound. We can take comfort, however, in knowing that the war is over. We can begin to rebuild, start anew, forming bridges between ourselves and our new human allies."

For some reason, Prowl's processor stutters. The war is over. Why does that sound so false?

And why does he suddenly think of Blitzwing in this moment? And Astrotrain who is no doubt lingering on Earth's moon.

Blitzwing was restrained, cuffed and mobility-bound. They could've taken him into custody and questioned him about the remaining Decepticons. Prowl expected to hear Optimus give one of his grand speeches about the right of all beings and follow it up with giving the Decepticon the opportunity to defect if he so chose.

That Leadfoot fired a round into first Blitzwing's helm and then his spark chamber was something Prowl never expected. That Optimus wouldn't protest seemed even more unlikely.

The war is over. They can rebuild. And all Decepticons must die apparently.

It seems logical. Dare they trust a Decepticon? Dare they risk what few lives remain on the hopes that a 'Con might legitimately defect?

Leadfoot's method, however, seems too callous. Too uncompromising. And never in all Prowl's existence serving the Autobots, has he ever seen their faction reduced to execution.

Until now.

The war is over. Megatron is offline. As are Starscream and Soundwave and Shockwave. Anyone who might be capable of uniting the Decepticons.

The Allspark is gone. They have no future.

The war is over.

Why won't that simple fact compute?

Prime though isn't privy to his thoughts. He continues on blithely. Without care.

"For that, old friend, I will call upon your aid." Prime lays a hand on Prowl's shoulder, as companionable as millennia past, but this time, his sensors crawl with revulsion. "We need to cement our alliance, build ourselves a home here, and I need your help."

The lieutenant forces a smile to his face, but it droops along the edges.

"Of course, Optimus. I am here to support you. What would you have me do?"

Prime expression brightens with the sort of glee that seems incongruous to the situation. "The humans have asked for our assistance in taking down several organizations that have proven a threat. Your talents in putting together plans will cut down on their losses, and you will best know how to incorporate the Autobots into their tactics."

Prowl reboots his audials, certain he had misheard. "You want me to plan their next battle against their own kind? And also include Autobot troops?"

"Yes."

"That's..." Prowl struggles to formulate a response that's not overly insubordinate. "Optimus, we are not mercenaries hired out to the highest bidder. We're Autobots."

His leader's hand retracts. Prowl suppresses a sigh of relief.

"And as such we are dedicated to preserving life," Prime states almost loftily. "Is it too much for our allies to ask for this assistance?"

"Yes," Prowl responds perhaps too hastily and rushes to explain himself. "We are significantly larger than our human counterparts and better armed. We can't be so biased as to allow ourselves to only offer aid to one portion of this planet's population. It would destroy the balance of power!"

Prime chuckles. "You are overthinking the matter, Prowl. These aren't petty disagreements after all. These men are insurgents, terrorists even. They are a threat to the lives of countless civilians."

"By whose definition?"

"The last thing we need, Prowl, is to start questioning our allies. If we want to gain trust we must first offer it in return."

Prime gives him a patient look like one might a misbehaving hatchling. Or long ago, one Prowl might have given a querulous Sideswipe.

Prowl fights with himself.

"Of course," he allows grudgingly. "I will do the best I can. When will they need a workable plan?"

"As soon as possible." Joy returns to Prime's energy field. "With this, we can further cement our ties to our new allies, building the foundation for a place we can call home. Thank you, Prowl."

"Anything for the Autobot cause."

If he sounds disinterested or skeptical, Optimus doesn't seem to notice. He simply strides away with the strut of a confidence leader, his shoulders unburdened and the future bright and charming.

Prowl feels as though he's the one standing in shadows, grasping for signs of the light, but it's nowhere to be found. How much is he going to compromise? How much will he have to surrender for Optimus' idea of their future?

What else are the humans going to demand from them? What else will he hand over? When will it end?

Chapter Text

The energy field that blasts Prowl nearly knocks him off his pedes. It's frenzied with barely suppressed aggression, and it's clear that Sunstreaker's two weeks spent in solitude have done no good for anyone. This was less punishment and more torture, but all of Prowl's attempts to argue the penalty fell on deaf ears and audials both.

Sunstreaker staggers out, but before Prowl can move forward, Sideswipe is there to catch his brother, whose optics are dull and his finish equally so. The last time Prowl saw Sunstreaker's paint in such disrepair was after the battle on some distant moon, and Sunstreaker barely survived getting stepped on by a gestalt.

"Easy," Sideswipe murmurs, hand on his brother's chestplate to keep him steady. "Don't go crazy on me, bro."

Somehow, Sunstreaker dredges up a glare for his twin.

"Kiss my aft," he snarls.

Ah, brotherly love.

"Are you in need of energon?" Prowl questions, having learned from experience that it's best to be straightforward with Sunstreaker. Pretense never works with him.

Sideswipe snorts. "Of course, he does. He's running on fumes by now! Mearing wouldn't let him fuel up before she ordered him in there."

Prowl ignores Sideswipe's indignation. "Sunstreaker?"

"Yeah," he responds in a gravelly tone. "Could use a cube or two."

Prowl pulls one out of subspace, brought along specifically for this reason, and hands it over. Leaning on his brother, the yellow mech downs half the cube in one gulp, giving credence to Sideswipe's earlier statement.

Prowl frowns. Sunstreaker probably needs an overhaul. Like the rest of them. Not that there's a medic present to do so.

"Did they do it?" the golden twin demands once he chugs down the other half and disperses the cube with a clench of his fist.

Sideswipe's orbital ridges draw together, but Prowl knows what Sunstreaker means.

"Yes," he replies and pulls another item from his subspace, one he's been holding onto for the past week. "It was a waste of energon to try and argue otherwise. No one else had succeeded after all."

Sunstreaker's face twisted with disgust. "Barbarians."

"They are young and naïve, still in that stage of development ruled by arrogance," Prowl corrects.

Sunstreaker shifts. He puts more weight on his own pedes as the energon floods his systems.

"Don't give me that slag, Prowl. They're just not afraid of us. Prime's done his best to ensure that."

"We do not need our allies to fear us," Prowl counters, but there's only cold calculation. "They are capable of bringing us harm, if you do recall."

"Tch." Sunstreaker's engine whines, a half-sparked rev. "We should just leave. They don't want us here, and I don't want to be here."

Sideswipe, whose optics have been darting back and forth between the two, frowns. "I'm feeling a bit left out here."

"That's because you're dull-witted," Sunstreaker shoots back, but it lacks heat. He flickers his optics at his brother and shifts his gaze to Prowl. "Tell me you want to stay and I won't believe you."

Prowl ignores the latter statement. "We are under constant surveillance. Nevertheless, I was able to obtain this for you." He steps forward and hands over the tiny item he had procured.

It's a small chip from Hound's spark chamber. It even still radiates a measure of the familiar feel of Hound's spark and undoubtedly will for millennia to come. After all, it has housed Hound's essence for countless vorns, since his very creation.

Prowl was forced to rely on programs Jazz had once given in order to sneak around the base and acquire that tiny splinter. He hadn't felt like explaining to the humans why he was doing so and was even more reluctant to ask Optimus for permission. He knew it never would've been granted anyway.

Sunstreaker takes the sliver, a whorl of Cybertonium alloys that glint in the sunlight, with more care than Prowl has ever seen him treat anything. The chip is tiny, barely the width of Prowl's finger, but anything larger would've been more difficult to acquire. Prowl himself kept Hound's Autobot marker, the same as he has for all of their fallen teammates.

It's the only way he has to remember. To remind himself of his failures.

"Thank you," Sunstreaker murmurs with complete and utter sincerity as he tucks the shard into a small cache he has in his armor, near to his own spark chamber.

Prowl gives a nod. He wants to do more, but he doesn't know how.

"He would've wanted you to have it," he offers instead.

"Yeah, probably. He's always been soft-sparked to the core."

Sunstreaker's tone, however, is wistful and the frenetic whirl of his field finally settles on a blend of grief and fondness. He's quiet for a moment then, looking out at nothing in particular before his gaze goes back to his lieutenant.

"What are we doing, Prowl?" he asks unexpectedly.

He cycles his optics. "What do you mean?"

Sunstreaker, steady on his own pedes now, stares back at him. "Prime's lost his processor. The humans are walking all over us. Hound's gone. What the frag are we doing, Prowl? Where do we go from here?"

"Go? We go nowhere." Prowl shifts, sensory panels flattening against his back. "We are Autobots, and Optimus is our Prime. There is nothing else."

"Now that's downright depressing," Sideswipe says, a poor attempt at a joke. "All this time, fighting and surviving, and this is our reward? A berth of concrete, oily energon, and the disdain of our allies. Why… it's just like old times."

"With all due respect, that's a slag-poor plan," Sunstreaker adds, frown deepening.

Prowl shakes his helm. His processor is starting to ache.

"Leaving is not an option. Where would we go?"

"Ratchet's out there somewhere," Sideswipe offers, and there's a playful tint to his tone that isn't entirely real.

Prowl looks at him. "You want to be a Decepticon, is that it?"

"Never said that!" Sideswipe slams to a halt and whirls around. "Primus, Prowl. I'm an Autobot. Always will be. And so is Ratchet."

Prowl merely tilts his head. His demeanor is calm, but he inside churn.

"And yet, he isn't here."

Sunstreaker huffs. "Can you blame him?" One wobbling arm gestures to the ramshackle warehouses that serve as their home. "Take a look around, Prowl. There's nothing here for us. Nothing."

Prowl's helm dips. "You would abandon the Autobots and join forces with known Decepticons then? It's a simple matter to you?"

"Hey. Sunny never said that," Sideswipe protests, and he's almost angry now. "And neither did I. We're just saying, you know, something's not quite right here."

"Besides," Sunstreaker retorts and gives his brother a push despite how much he's wobbling. "Leaving Prime and joining the Decepticons are not the same thing."

Sideswipe nods, but there's a shadow to his face. A darkening to the blue of his optics. He shares a look with his brother.

"We're Autobots," he says very softly. "We made that choice. And we're sticking to it."

Prowl isn't sure he believes either of them.

o0o0o

Sideswipe's words haunt him.

Prowl tries to bury the implications in the depths of his processor and focus only his work, the task Optimus has given him. It's significantly easier to plan a course of action regarding the humans and their enemies. Incorporating the Autobots doesn't complicate matters much, though there are precious few to assign.

He still loathes the idea of this. He finds it unprincipled and a waste of the Autobots' time and energy. There are still Decepticons out there after all. Not to mention their lack of a permanent residence.

The task must be done, however, and Prowl bends himself to it. Despite the discomfort of his makeshift office, the noise of the warehouse, and the nagging thoughts that hover on the edge of his concentration. He hasn't had a solid defrag since landing on this planet, and Prowl despairs of ever acquiring one. Not here in this noisy warehouse, that's for certain.

He can't shut down properly. Too much noise, too much movement. His sensors go haywire; he feels surrounded by threats, and his systems won't cycle down. Sunstreaker's confinement hadn't helped matters, though Prowl is hardly of the sort to ask the warrior to guard his recharge. He's starting to suspect though that this may be his only option.

The sound of a human clearing his throat pulls him from his musings a minute later. He looks down, identifying the visitor with little surprise.

"You are here for the first draft, I presume?" Prowl asks, watching as William effortlessly climbs several stacks of supplies until he is more or less at optics level. This suggests familiarity, a task that the colonel has done time and time again.

Considering that this is all that remains of Ratchet's medcorner, perhaps William spent more time than he is admitting in Ratchet's company.

William rolls his shoulders. "It's not my gig, so I guess some lackey will come by soon enough for it."

Prowl considers that.

"Is there another reason for your visit?" he inquires and is honestly curious.

"It's not official. I just wanted to see how you were doing." The colonel makes himself comfortable on the crate. "I don't see you in the field like I do the others."

Prowl inclines his helm. "I'm primarily a tactician. I'm not often needed on the frontlines. Although with our limited personnel, that is likely to change in the future."

"The future?" William draws up a leg to balance his arm across it. "As in, more battles? But the war's over."

"There are still Decepticons on this planet. Your latest intelligence puts the estimates at approximately thirty." Prowl turns back toward his assortment of datapads, selecting one on his far left. "My calculations put that number closer to fifty."

The discrepancies are only because Prowl is taking into account the number of Decepticons that are still hiding on the moon, like Astrotrain currently is and Blitzwing was earlier. Surely, not all of them had hopped Sentinel's space bridge, and others may have arrived as well.

William lets out a slow whistle. "That's not good."

Prowl's intakes rattle, and he pauses to contemplate the noise. He could probably use a comprehensive flush. He isn't receiving any system-wide errors. To be fair, he hasn't seen a medic since Hoist was killed in a surprise bombing.

Their first encounter upon leaving Cybertron resulted in a full third of Prowl's crew offlining, his medic the very first to fall. In retrospect, he should have taken that incident as a sign of the sparkbreak and grief to come.

"By now, they must be desperate for energy," Prowl finally replies, again shuffling his datapads. "It will make them reckless. We should be able to locate them easier."

The colonel studies him then. His optics – eyes – are small but full of emotion.

"Locate and destroy, you mean," he clarifies.

Prowl shifts before he can stop himself. "If they will not lay down arms and comply, yes."

The human scratches the side of his nose. His demeanor is strange. Almost hesitant. Like Ironhide when he wanted to say something but had thought the better of it at the last click.

"You... uh... haven't been reading all of the reports, have you?"

William's reluctance gives reason for Prowl to once more study the human.

"I have assimilated the details of every report Optimus has given me and those I've found on the servers at this base." He leans forward very slightly. "Why do you ask?"

William rises to his feet, as though he doesn't wish to say this while sitting. "Prime's not been giving the Decepticons a chance to surrender. Mearing doesn't want to threaten human lives, and he concurs."

That brings Prowl up short.

Blitzwing's execution wasn't been a fluke?

Primus, why are the reports so incomplete? It's as though Optimus is trying to hide the truth. Ratchet's so-called defection, the burials of the fallen, and now the fate of any located Decepticons.

Prowl has never held much faith in the possibility of Decepticons truly defecting, save for a select few. He's found it harder and harder over the years to not take the war personally, but to not give them the opportunity… It is a distinctly un-Prime-like choice. More like Optimus's brother in fact.

And isn't that a chilling line of thought in and of itself? That Optimus is acting so much like Megatron?

Another tick mark adds itself to the growing list in Prowl's processor. All the ways that Optimus has changed. All the decisions he's made that hold no logic or seem counter-productive.

"I see." Prowl sets his pad down, flattening his hand on the top of the crate. "What of arriving Decepticons?"

William won't look at him at all.

"We have a pretty good defense net now," he explains without really explaining. "Unless Prime can positively identify Autobots, Mearing doesn't take any chances."

A puff of frost races down Prowl's backstruts. Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. And vice versa. Not having an Autobot signal doesn't mean that they aren't Autobots.

"Have we suffered any Autobot casualties as a result of this?" he questions, voice pained.

William breathes out. "As far as we know, not yet."

A small comfort. For all they know the next arrival will be hiding aboard a Decepticon spacecraft or will be disguised him as a Decepticon for the sake of survival. What if they are unable to transmit Autobot codes as they enter Earth's atmosphere?

Prowl and Sunstreaker are slagging lucky they weren't shot straight out of the sky upon their harried descent. And that their signal was stronger than Blitzwing's, for that matter.

"I will speak with Optimus," Prowl says, returning his attention to his datapads. "We are few and cannot afford to lose any one else. Especially not to a mistake that could be prevented."

The human makes a wordless noise of agreement in his throat. "You'll have to convince Mearing, too."

Prowl's sensory panels twitch. It's a tell. One that any mech who truly knew him would be able to recognize. But on this planet, the essentially meant Sunstreaker and perhaps his brother.

"I will factor that into my calculations," he offers.

"Might be a good idea to set up some kind of beacon, too," William suggests. "There are plenty of remote areas in the United States where human casualties would either be at a minimum or nonexistent."

A beacon. The colonel has a point. Even if it drew Decepticon and Autobot alike, with the minimized casualties, Prowl wouldn't have to work so hard to convince Mearing.

"Excellent suggestion," Prowl acknowledges. "I shall start searching for an appropriate location immediately."

William dusts off his hands and approaches the edge of the crate. "Good luck. I'd suggest North Dakota, but honestly, who the frag wants to go there?"

Prowl only half-watches as the human nimbly climbs back down, once again proving a sense of familiarity. The rest of Prowl's concentration is reserved for assimilating the new data William has provided, adding it to a file that's growing with disturbing speed. He also diverts a portion of his processing to the colonel's suggestion. Frankly, it's surprising that Optimus hasn't thought of a beacon already.

Then again, Prime hasn't seemed to spare much time for rational thought as of late.

o0o0o

Prowl's world settles into a routine.

A dull routine to be truthful but a relatively peaceful one. If he doesn't count the infrequent Decepticon sightings, immediately followed by a prompt dispatch of Autobots and NEST agents. Only once does Prowl accompany them on such a mission.

After watching the humans flush out the obviously under-energized mech and then witnessing Roadbuster run him down and put a laser through his spark, Prowl hasn't the interest in attending another. Offlining an enemy in the midst of battle is one thing. These feel too much like executions, and Prowl's logic circuits most certainly do not approve.

Luckily, Optimus prefers him on base, accessible, hooked into the human's database and working on upwards of thirty scenarios at any given time. Not to mention his usual duties involve in assisting Mearing and maintaining their supplies, a task which was once Ratchet's.

Days pass. And then weeks.

There is no sign of their medic. No other arrivals, Autobot or Decepticon, and even Mearing has backed off from her outrageous requests.

Leadfoot has managed to engineer a solar collector, one that harvests barely enough for a small cube of energon daily, but it's better than what they refine from natural fuels. Honestly, Prowl doesn't remember what real energon tastes like. He's survived on battle rations for so long, he doesn't think he could process anything more.

Dino spends a lot of time staring up at the sky, especially at night. Searching the stars and waiting – hoping – for some kind of sign from his brother.

Sideswipe is Sideswipe. Sunstreaker, while refusing to warm to this planet and its inhabitants, hasn't caused any obvious trouble. It's almost a miracle. Prowl actually finds Sunstreaker's good behavior to be unsettling. But trying to explain that to someone else only results in baffled looks.

Routine, he supposes, is a good thing. Peace is much better than war, but Prowl can't shake the feeling something's not-quite-right. He cannot relax. He cannot settle. He feels as though he's waiting for the next assault.

Speaking with Prime does nothing to allay his disquietude. If Prowl were a different mech, he might admit that instead, Optimus' presence seems to exacerbate his unease.

Speak of the Prime...

Optimus registers on his sensors long before he announces himself, and Prowl carefully saves his current work on the off-chance Optimus requires that he leave his makeshift office. It doesn't happen often, but with their leader as of late, there's a first time for everything. Prowl can no longer accurately anticipate what he will do.

"Are you busy?" Prime's field is curious, expression open and teasing.

Prowl's sensory panels hike higher. "No busier than I am at any given time," he responds truthfully. "Has something happened?"

"No." Prime wanders around the tiny space that Prowl has attempted to make his own with limited success. He simply doesn't have the supplies or the means for a proper office. "I do have another assignment for you to look over, however."

Inwardly, Prowl groans. Not another favor for the humans? He is quite weary of sending his Autobots out as though they are hired thugs.

"Of course."

Prime circles back toward him and offers a data pad. "This may be unsettling at first, but rest assured, it's in everyone's best interest."

The unease grows. Something unfurls talons in his tanks and claws at the inside.

Prowl powers on the pad and scans the contents. Only for his spark to stutter, ice slushing through his lines.

"Are you... I cannot..." Prowl shakes his head. "Optimus, you surely do not mean for us to go through with this?"

Prime noisily lets out air and clasps his wrists behind his frame. "Unfortunately, yes. Director Mearing brings up a valid point. While we may be uncertain of Ratchet's motives, the Decepticons are clearly a threat."

"It's been half a year," Prowl argues. "We have seen no trace of Ratchet or the Seekers. They haven't attacked nor had we heard any rumors of mysterious thefts. How do we even know they are still on-planet?"

Prime brushes aside his words easily. "How could they have left? Not even we are capable of that at the moment."

Prowl presses his lipplates together; he fights to keep his panels from retracting. Prime means for them to hunt down Ratchet, Drift, and the Seekers. Despite the fact they have confirmed nothing about Ratchet's motivations. Hunt them down and no doubt execute them to the last spark. Just as they have all the Decepticons hiding out on Earth. Regardless of what they were doing at the time.

"We have no evidence that they are a threat," Prowl states, hoping that his Prime will see reason. "More so, I wouldn't have any idea where to begin. I am still unfamiliar with this planet."

Prime unlocks an arm and taps the datapad with one finger. "I don't intend for you to produce results immediately, Prowl. I'm only looking for a plan of action."

Prowl's processor glitches. He's torn between two directives. His need to protect fellow Autobots versus his drive to obey his Prime. Ratchet is an Autobot, and Prowl still can't fathom a reason that he would willingly abandon them and become a Decepticon. He has always been one of the most loyal members of their inner circle, trusted to the core, Prime's personal medic.

How the Seekers got to him, manipulated him, Prowl is determined to find out. He wants answers. Yes, he would like to find Ratchet and the others. But not like this. There's no sign of intent to capture or interrogate. It's simple search and destroy.

Prowl's fingers tighten around the pad, drawing it closer to his frame. He stares at the uncompromising lines of text.

"And when I find them?" he asks, but he already knows the answer.

"We will deal with them accordingly."

What does that even mean?

Prowl ex-vents, tucking the datapad away so that he no longer has to look at it. His tank roils, and his cortex sends sharp jabs into his motor functions.

"Optimus, are you certain of this course of action?" he inquires and glances up at his leader, his Prime. His friend.

Prime tilts his helm. "The Seekers present a danger to human populaces. It's important that we locate them."

"Yes, that is only logical. However..." Prowl draws in a heavy intake. "Are you certain that Earth is where we should remain? That it is the best option for us, as Autobots?"

Prime flickers his optics. There is genuine confusion on his face. As if he can't fathom why Prowl is unhappy here. Why he doesn't like their treatment by the humans. Why he doesn't approve of hunting down his friends.

"You do not approve?" Prime asks in return, still puzzled.

But there is an odd glow to his optics, an off tilt to his helm. A tightening of his mouth at the corners. A foreboding expression that isn't like Prime at all and more resembles his brother.

It's even more unnerving than being told to hunt down Ratchet.

"I am only concerned," Prowl hastily corrects.

Far be it from him to approve or disapprove. Optimus, after all, has the matrix. He has been chosen by Primus himself. Surely, he knows what is best.

Surely.

"The humans don't seem to like or trust us despite the events of the past five years," the lieutenant explains further. "I merely worry that their tolerance for our presence will reach its limit sooner rather than later."

"They are a young species," Optimus agrees, and suddenly, he looks more like himself. Once again clasping a hand to Prowl's shoulder. "But I'm convinced of their hospitality. They have a right to be wary, suspicious even, which is why we must do everything in our power to be honest and forthright with them. To better cement our alliance and strengthen our ties."

Prowl isn't convinced. For all intents and purposes, Mearing is not willing to allow any possible defectors to live. Or anyone not completely with her for that matter. She grudgingly accepts the arrival of new Autobots and seems all too eager to destroy any others. All attempts on Prowl's part to contact someone higher in the American government have been thwarted, and he strongly suspects that should Prime learn of Prowl's efforts, he wouldn't approve.

"Then perhaps you could convince Mearing to let us build a more permanent base," Prowl pushes on. "The Decepticons are no longer a threat, and there are many sparsely populated areas on this planet where we could make a home."

"All in good time, old friend." Optimus squeezes his shoulder, field flaring with approval. "We still have much work to do until then."

Prowl's sensory panels twitch. He takes a step backward, Prime's hand sliding away. Much to his relief.

"I understand," he says, careful to keep his tone neutral. "I will begin analyzing this data at once. I should have a draft ready by the end of the week."

"Excellent. I'll look forward to it then."

Optimus leaves. Prowl doesn't watch him go.

It strikes him then that he honestly doesn't know what Prime spends most of the day doing. Recharge is obvious. He also participates in several missions regarding discovered Decepticons. Prowl has seen him in meetings with Mearing and other members of the government from time to time. But there are also times when Prowl doesn't know what Prime is doing or where.

That is… worrisome.

o0o0o

When the alarms go off, Prowl is startled. He disengages from several datapads and rockets to his pedes.

An attack?

He edges out of his tiny cubicle, scanners detecting the many humans who scurry about as busy as always. None of them look particularly frightened or alarmed, but the sirens keep blaring.

"Energon detectors have activated in Sector Fourteen," a monotonous tone announces over the PA system. "Autobots Optimus Prime, Prowl, and Leadfoot, report to ops immediately. Repeat: Energon detectors have activated in Sector Fourteen. Autobots Optimus Prime, Prowl, and Leadfoot report to ops immediately."

This can't be another matter of a Decepticon sighting. They don't bother to announce those with such urgency. Most of the time, Prowl doesn't even learn until after the fact.

Prowl hurries to ops, another warehouse located in the near-center of the base. The bay doors are wide open, and no one spares him a glance as he hurries to enter. Soldiers shout to each other, back and forth, across their assigned stations. Optimus is already inside, near to the main screens. One of the three sections show a location marked on a map, the second a live feed from Director Mearing's office, and the third appears to be video footage, obviously amateur, of two aircraft in the sky.

No. Not just any aircraft. Those are Cybertronians, their forms distinctly non-human in design, and one of them even has a large glyph painted on his plating. The first appears to be Seeker class, definitely warrior in origin, but the other is a flyer of a different frame type. Not Vosian. Perhaps Tarn.

"-answers, and I want them now!" Mearing's shrill demand pierces Prowl's audials.

He hurries toward the main console and screen, next to Optimus, and tries to take stock of the situation. Clearly, the two bots on the screen are the reason they've been summoned.

"I do apologize," Optimus replies to Mearing. "We have received no indication of new arrivals in the past month. Nor has our system detected any unauthorized landings."

The human woman's face twists with irritation. "They had to have come from somewhere, Prime. Maybe your defense net isn't as secure as you think it is."

Prowl's gaze whips toward his leader. Surely, he's not going to allow her to speak to him like that?

"There are many possible explanations," his Optimus concedes, making a vague gesture with his hand. "I'll assign someone to look at the grid. Right now, however, we should consider our handling of these mechs."

Mearing makes a disdainful noise. "Autobots or Decepticons? And make it quick. Because my boss has twitchy fingers, and they're getting closer to civilian populations."

Optimus shifts, glancing down at Prowl. "Do you recognize either of them?"

It takes a longer second than is logical for Prowl to stir from his shock. He shakes his helm.

"Not at first glance."

He steps closer to the screen, peering at the wobbling image and trying to make sense of the highly pixelated video capture. The two mechs on screen don't appear to be engaged in combat nor do they seem to have a destination. Their speed and pattern gives the suggestion of a pleasure flight, perhaps even an element of flirtation. Not that Prowl is all that educated on the peculiarities of flight-based mechs.

"The picture quality is too poor for a positive identification, Director," Optimus explains.

Behind them, Leadfoot strolls in with the other Wreckers on his heels. "It's pretty fraggin' obvious, isn't it, Prime? They have to be Decepticons."

"How would you know?" Mearing accuses, one finger adjusting the bridge of her glasses further up her nose.

Leadfoot forces a rev through his engine. "Autobots don't fly."

"Not entirely accurate," Prowl corrects before Mearing can get it in her head to start shooting and stop asking questions. "While the majority of us are ground vehicles and most Decepticons came from flight-class castes, there are exceptions on both sides of the faction lines."

Mearing huffs. "Are they or aren't they, Prime? I've got better things to do than debate this all day."

Prowl diverts more of his processing power in an attempt to identify the mechs. They aren't of Silverbolt's gestalt. Of that, he is certain. The Aerialbots are the only Autobot Seekers for that matter. At least, the only ones still thought functioning. Which means one of them is a Decepticon and the other must be by default.

Except...

Prowl's optics cycle wider. "Freeze that image," he barks out, overriding whatever anyone else is saying. "Can you define the quality at all?"

"I can try," the soldier at the console says.

Prowl doesn't miss the way he subtly edges away from the Cybertronians in the room either. His stress pheromones have spiked considerably. Perhaps the poor human should consider a career change.

"Prowl?" Optimus prompts.

He vents carefully. "One of them is a Decepticon. You can see his insignia on his wings when he banks left or right. The other..."

The paused image on screen magnifies by thirty percent and then clarifies. The darker Seeker, Decepticon insignia's bright purple on his wing tips, is quickly identified as a warrior class. Maybe even once under Starscream's command. The other though isn't a Seeker. He's not even a Decepticon.

There's only one Autobot Prowl can recall with a frame similar to a Seeker's but whose base support is actually built upon a ground frame. Tracks' caretakers were high class, as high as Mirage, and only wanted the best, the most unique for their Allsparked heir. They wanted him to have the best of both worlds without all the twitchy coding that having a Seeker frame required. Tracks is a triple-changer in everything but name.

-Dino, report to ops,- Prowl orders over a private comm.

If anyone can confirm Tracks' identity, it is Dino. Standard education for Towers bots required that they be aware of anyone at or above their station.

Dino's response is less than subordinate. -I'm scheduled for recharge right now.-

When the frag did they start scheduling recharge times?

Prowl frowns, orbital ridges flattening. -This will only take a moment.-

-I suppose.-

If it were possible to transmit resignation across a comm, Dino manages it. There is also evidence of a Sunstreaker-class sulk. Sometimes, Dino is a Towers' mech to the core.

Prowl turns back to the others.

"The other is an Autobot," he finishes, and the prickles of Prime and Mearing's stares are annoying against his armor. "If I am correct, his designation is Tracks."

He doesn't voice the obvious question. Such as, what in the name of Cybertron is Tracks doing with a Decepticon?

The soldier returns the image back to a real-time feed. The two mechs are still flying together, either unaware that they are being observed or not caring. The Decepticon tips left and right in midair. His wings waggle at Tracks, who does an acrobatic loop and cuts through a thick cloud.

The image fizzles in and out. Static and low-quality worsen the view.

"Surveillance drone has been dispatched," a female soldier announces. "ETA, five minutes."

At least, they'll be able to get a clearer view. Perhaps the Decepticon will have a designation etched in the glyphs on his wings. Some of the older Seekers do.

"Why is an Autobot flying with a Decepticon?" Mearing demands. "Is he another traitor?"

Prowl's sensory panels stiffen, now arched high behind his shoulders.

"We don't-"

"Director Mearing," another human interrupts. "They're approaching Spokane. At their present speed, they'll be over populations within ten minutes."

Her eyes narrow, fingers rapping noisily on her desk. Her chair squeaks as she leans to the side, free hand grasping the phone to her left.

"I'm calling in air support."

"That may be wise," Optimus concedes and inclines his head. There's a subtle shift to his stance then.

Prowl's vocalizer glitches, words failing him and emerging as discombobulated clicks. Behind him, Dino stomps into ops, field a whirl of irritation and fatigue.

"Well?" But his gaze shoots past both of his superiors to the shaky camera footage. "Oh. Is that Tracks?"

Prowl's shoulders slump. "That is my assumption, yes. One that you confirmed."

"What the frag is he doing with a Decepticon?" Dino scowls.

"That's what I want to know," Mearing snaps, phone cradled between her ear and shoulder. "Clearly, both of them are a threat."

"Drone is now within scanning distance," a technician announces, remarkably calm for all of the madness going on above his head and on the screen. "Police have been dispatched to clear citizens from the area."

Meaning whoever is supplying this shaky cell-phone footage is about to find themselves escorted from the scene. All the better. The less chance of human casualties,. The more likely Mearing will listen to reason, however small that chance might be.

The image onscreen switches from the cell footage to shots taken by the much more advanced surveillance drone. Prowl's suspicions prove accurate as identifying glyphs are now visible on the Seeker's wings, just below his faction symbols. Dreadwing. It isn't a designation familiar to Prowl, but he supposes it doesn't matter to Mearing or Optimus. All that matters is his faction.

"I don't know the circumstances of their arrival on this planet, but the fact that they haven't attempted to make contact with us is telling," Prime offers gravely. "We have made no secret of our own location after all."

"That's hardly cause to shoot them out of the sky," Prowl counters, forcing his vocalizer to work, trying to reason with madness.

Prime doesn't even glance in his direction. "It's cause for suspicion, and that is reason enough for me."

"Optimus, he's an Autobot!"

Prowl's vocals are resounding, surprising himself with their volume. The sheer contention in his tone.

Prime doesn't flinch, nor falter. Not even at his second-in-command's unusual behavior.

"One knowingly associating with a Decepticon."

Prowl's hands curl into trembling fists. His sensory panels hike up higher than he can ever remember keeping them.

"Dreadwing may be a defector," he argues. "We can't preclude that possibility."

"Nor can we take that risk." Prime gestures toward the screen with a casual flick of his wrist. "They are over civilian populations."

"Shooting them down is no safer than letting them be," Prowl insists, energy field swelling, unable to be contained. "We must at least attempt to contact them. Tracks has always proven himself loyal. We have to give him the benefit of the doubt!"

"Tch." Leadfoot's mouth components twist with a sneer, one pede stomping the ground. "He's a Towers mech. You can't trust them any further than you can throw them."

Dino gives the Wrecker a sidelong glare. "I have been nothing but loyal." He crosses his arms over his chassis.

"Don't see where you have much of a choice right now," Roadbuster retorts.

He steps up beside his fellow Wrecker, and Topspin quickly joins him. The three glare heatedly at Dino, whose plates clamp tightly to his frame.

"Enough," Prime orders, tone harsh and sharp, cutting through the tension. "We are not questioning anyone's loyalties at this time."

Prowl shakes his helm. "Yes, we are. There's an Autobot out there, right now, and you are suggesting that we fire upon him!"

Prime's optics cycle down, energy field heavy and suppressing.

"Prowl," he admonishes. "We are no longer in a position where our assessment of risk is the tipping point. We must consider the safety of the humans above all else."

What about them? What about their own kind? Are they worth less than the thousands upon millions upon billions of humans infesting this planet? Less than beings who slaughter each other callously and without thought or care daily?

Helplessness rises up and crashes over Prowl in pounding waves. All he can see is Hound's faceplate in front of him, the flickering optics, the faltering ventilations.

"It's a war, old friend," Optimus intones, his voice gentling by any definition but Prowl's own. "Sometimes, sacrifices must be made."

He turns back to the screen. Turns his back to Prowl and all the other Autobots in the room.

"Director Mearing, if you wish to preserve human life, the time to fire is now."

Mearing sits back in her chair. Her face is a mask, but Prowl can see the triumph in her eyes.

"I'm three steps ahead of you. Raptors are inbound and will make contact in less than a minute."

She was going to fire anyway. No matter what Optimus said, Mearing intended to shoot down those mechs from the beginning. Questioning Optimus was a formality.

And he's allowing it. Continues to allow it. Doesn't even call her on the lie.

Prowl stares, aghast. "Optimus..."

He's powerless as the Decepticon on-screen suddenly yaws to the right. Perhaps his sensors are keener than those of Tracks, and he has already detected the danger. Tracks startles and veers in the opposite directions, and a mere half-second later, a missile explodes between them.

The two whip around to face their attackers, but strangely, they don't fire back. They evade with maneuvers acrobatic enough to make Powerglide deeply envious. Work in a tandem that suggests they have flown together for quite some time.

And then, Tracks miscalculates. He swings around to avoid one jet, only to head straight for a trap, a cross-fire.

Prowl's tanks lurch. His spark flutters. His hands curl into fists.

No. Not again. He can't stand here and watch another Autobot offline.

Weapons fire from somewhere off-screen lights up the transmission. One of the jets goes down in a hail of laserfire but not before the human pilot ejects safely. Another jet careens away, spewing heavy smoke.

The human chatter becomes background noise to Prowl's audials. His every focus is on the screen. This new arrival Prowl knows, both from the files Optimus gave him, and because he's spent many a battle accounting for this Seeker's unusual talent.

Skywarp.

He appears in the footage briefly, flitting in and out of the tiny battle. He easily evades the human jets and shoots them down one by one. Not a single pilot fails to eject, Prowl clinically notes. But then, as suddenly as he appears, Skywarp is gone again.

Tracks and Dreadwing bump wing-tips, a gesture that suggests reassurance. Familiarity. Companionship.

Warning sirens shriek through ops from the surveillance drone itself. There's a flash of bright light, and then, the live feed goes dark and staticky.

Skywarp took out the drone.

Mearing's shouting now. Demanding that someone give her answers, get eyes back on the scene. More aircraft are dispatched. Prime asks the Wreckers to investigate, see what they can find.

And William is looking up at Prowl with something akin to pity. Although that doesn't make much sense at all.

"Prowl, I'm going to need you on this," Prime says, his vocals muffled and staticky in his lieutenant's audials. "Possible trajectories, intentions, base locations, anything you can give me with the available data."

"Yes, sir," he replies on automatic. But the rest of the world is dim, seen through a veil, a haze of utter loss.

"If anyone dies, Optimus, I'm blaming you," Director Mearing threatens, fingernails rapping on her desk. "This is what you're here for."

"We will stop them," Prime replies gravely.

Prowl turns on a pede and flees. No one either notices or cares. Prime probably assumes he's rushing to his office. Rushing to compile and collate and devise a means to track down their fellow Cybertronians.

Outside, the air seems no fresher, the atmosphere no lighter. Something dark and nagging clings to Prowl's spark. His tanks lurch again and again, and the thought of returning to his makeshift office, to the uncomfortable crates and stacks of datapads, makes something inside physically recoil. Wind whips across his frame, and only then does he notice how much his armor has clamped down, protecting him on reflexive impulse.

He needs... He can't...

Distance.

Prowl turns away from ops and the main warehouse where his office sits surrounded by assigned recharge zones and a makeshift medcorner. He just needs a moment to himself.

o0o0o

"Ratchet tried to argue with Prime once, too," William says.

Prowl startles. He hadn't realized he was followed. He now stands on the distant edges of their base, between two light posts, where it's dark and silent. Then again, human bodies are so much quieter than the hissing pistons and hydraulics of a Cybertronian.

He looks down at the colonel. But William's gaze is focused elsewhere, his words almost nonchalant.

"He wanted to at least give the Decepticons a chance to surrender," the human continues, voice strangely soft. "He kept hoping that maybe this peace could actually be peaceful. And I think every time we shot a 'Con out of the sky, something broke in him."

Prowl studies him. "What are you saying, William?"

The colonel finally looks up. "You don't have to tell me. I can see it. The doubt. The hesitation. You don't know what to do. What to believe in anymore."

Prowl feels himself freeze. It's like William has glimpsed into his very processor. An odd sensation indeed.

"Is that what Ratchet told you?" he poses, but his thoughts are reeling.

The human's shoulders lift and then drop. "Most of it I figured out for myself. Some of it, I made him tell me. It's what Hide would've wanted."

This is yet another example of his familiarity with Ironhide. Had his old comrade really formed such a close bond with an organic? It seems so farfetched, and yet, having met this particular human, it also isn't.

Prowl watches William for a long moment. Looks at his posture, the tilt of his head, the shadows in his eyes.

"Did he tell you he was defecting?" he asks, and it is softer now. Voice pitched low.

William's gaze sharpens. His mouth becomes a flat, grim line.

"Ratchet is not a defector. Or a Decepticon." He makes an emphatic gesture. "He's an Autobot."

Prowl's vents are stuttered and exasperated. "Then why did he leave with them?" he all but demand but stops himself from saying more.

William sighs.

"He couldn't do it anymore. If I had to guess." William sighs a second time and drops his gaze, running a hand over his hair. "Betrayal is a double-edged sword, and Prime struck the first blow."

Words fail Prowl. He simply stares. It's all he can do.

After all this time of William claiming nothing, all of the sudden he has a keen insight into what Ratchet had been thinking. Why he had done what he did.

But it seems William can read Prowl just as well. Even without any words.

"Do you know why I'm telling you this now? Why I waited?" he questions, and his eyes are far too keen.

Prowl's mouth components work, but his vocalizer produces no sound. He shakes his helm.

"It's because I know what you're thinking," William replies and turns his entire body to face Prowl, unafraid despite having to look up several feet. "I know you're thinking that you've reached your limit. I know that leaving has crossed your mind. Even if you know you have nowhere to go."

His sensory panels flatten against his back. He feels his optics flicker. Once. Then again.

"Are you attempting to stop me?"

It's almost harsh now, and really, when did he lose control of himself? When did he become so emotional? Is this what their Prime has wrought? Is this what happens after so much loss? After Jazz and Hound and everything else?

"Not my place." The colonel's lips curl with a bitter grin. "All I'm gonna say is that North Dakota is nice this time of year. And that third shift change is just before dawn. In case, you know, you feel the need to inspect the troops or something."

His tone is flippant and doesn't match his words.

Prowl stares at him again.

"Why are you assisting me?" the lieutenant asks, but before the last syllable passes his vocalizer, he suspects he already knows how the human will answer.

And he is right.

The colonel looks up at him, eyes haunted by an emotion that Prowl has seen all too often. And most recently in Sunstreaker's optics.

"It's what Hide would do, and I owe it to him to see this to the end." His hands go into his pockets, and he rolls his shoulders. "Whatever that end might be."

Prowl's frame slumps. "How can I abandon the Autobots? How can I even consider turning my back on my Prime?"

It isn't so much a question as a demand. From William. From himself.

"I can't answer that," William replies, shaking his head and turning back to the night sky and the multitude of stars. "But I do know that you wouldn't even be considering it without good reason."

He is right, of course, but that doesn't make Prowl's contemplations any easier to bear. He feels like a traitor, and his loyalty codes are giving his processor fits. He took the coding upon himself willingly long ago, and it has become fragmented over time, but still...

Betrayal is a double-edged sword.

Can he really consider Prime's behavior the first blow?

Prowl hangs his helm, hand lifting to touch the small compartment on his right hip. More than a half-dozen Autobot sigils rest inside. Sometimes, if he concentrates, he can still detect faint flickers of those who once carried them. Right now though, Hound's is the only one still strong enough to sense through the metal.

Optimus let Hound offline when he could have been saved. He allowed one of his mechs to die at the whims of their so-called allies. Should that not have been his first clue?

But is it enough?

"Sometimes," William says, and it's so soft that Prowl has to dial up his audials to actually hear him. "You can't fix things. Sometimes, there's no cure or miracle. Sometimes... giving up is the only option left."

He looks at Prowl for a moment longer. Searching his face for something, but Prowl isn't certain what. Finally, William gives a simple nod and leaves.

Prowl can only track his footsteps, the crackle of heavy boots over gravel. He says nothing else. He can't even offer the human his gratitude.

o0o0o

Prowl doesn't stir until dawn is a mere fifteen minutes away. It's taken him all night to

come to a conclusion, and he still isn't certain it is the best path to take.

It is, however, the path he's going to choose.

He has no belongings, nothing that he considers of value. Anything he cannot bear to lose is either attached to his frame or something he can't bring along.

Sunstreaker is going to be furious. Something that Prowl muses over as he sticks to the shadows and quietly makes his escape. He's using the same path he'd taken before. That one disastrous attempt to seek Ratchet alone, which now seems so long ago.

William is right. Shift change at dawn is the best time to slip into the silence with no one the wiser.

He should've said goodbye, Prowl thinks, staying in his root mode for now as it is quieter than the engine of his alt-mode. He wants to draw as little attention to himself, so he pulls in his energy field, puts his systems on silent mode, and even powers down the glow of his optics. All neat little tricks Jazz taught him once upon a time. When they were both young and foolish, flush with finding a kindred spark despite their differences of class and make.

Perhaps though on his way to North Dakota, Prowl can take a detour. He can swing to the East Coast, pay his respects to all the Autobot brethren left to rust beneath the ocean.

And there's a strange sensation in his chassis, as though several layers of grit have been washed away. His pedes are lighter; his spark is less constricted.

What he's doing, Prowl's not really sure. He's leaving. He's going to find Ratchet. He's going to find answers. He's going to do... something.

Prowl will figure it out when he gets there. Just as Jazz would if this were his plan, and maybe that's why the lack of knowing is strangely comfortable. Prowl planned. Jazz improvised. Together, they'd been nigh unstoppable. Now, Prowl will have to do it for both of them.

But for now, he's going to drive. Put rubber to the asphalt, feel the wind over his plates, and try not to let the weight of the world drag him down. Only if for the drive.

The sun starts to rise, turning the horizon a wash of pinks and oranges that are caused by pollutants in the atmosphere. Yet still considered beautiful. Strange how these humans think.

In the silence, Prowl hears an engine rumble. He pauses, turns around, and can't decide if he's surprised or not by the fact Sunstreaker is less than a block behind him. If Prowl is going to slip by the human's security net without being caught, he'll have to make this quick.

Sunstreaker shifts out of his alt-mode, optics focused on Prowl alone.

"I knew I'd find you here," he says, rocking on his wheeled pedes just as his brother does. "You're leaving."

It's a statement. Not an accusation.

"Yes."

The warrior huffs and flickers his optics. "I'd ask why, but I can already guess." His voice is an odd mix of exasperation and fondness, but then, it goes cold. "It's not right. It hasn't been since we got here, and I don't think it's ever gonna be right."

Prowl closes the distance between them. One hand goes on Sunstreaker's shoulder plating and rejoices in the fact Sunstreaker doesn't flinch from him. The trust between them remains.

"No, it's not, but it's better that I go. I can't stay here. You and I both know that."

Sunstreaker lets out a gust of air, but he doesn't shake off Prowl's hand. Instead, he leans into the touch. Still reacting to the novelty of a mech not his brother who would burn worlds for him.

Prowl gives his shoulder a squeeze. "I couldn't have asked for a better partner," he admits because it needs to be said and Sunstreaker needs to hear it. Especially now.

The smile he receives could hardly be counted as one, but considering the state of grief and anger that's been hovering over both of them, he'll take what he can get.

"Prowl-"

"Stay with Sideswipe," he says firmly and before the offer can even be made. "Stay with your brother."

"Is it an order?" Sunstreaker asks despite himself.

But Prowl doesn't rise to the bait.

"A request. From a dear friend. Please stay. He'll need you."

The smile fades. "I… Yes, sir."

Prowl smooths his fingers over golden armor for a second and then releases him. He very slowly withdraws the gentle mingling of their energy fields. Allowing himself one final moment in such familiarity and fighting down the urge to hold on and never let go.

"You don't have to call me that anymore. Not that you ever really did," he adds, and that too is fond.

"You're still an Autobot," Sunstreaker grits out, and Prowl doesn't miss the way his hands are clenched at his sides. "No matter what anyone else, mech or human, is going to say."

"Your faith in me is worth more than you know." Prowl takes a step back, aware of the time ticking down, the swift approach of dawn.

Sunstreaker revs his engine. There are a thousand things on his face. Things Prowl knows that he desperately wants to say. But really, by this point, there are few secrets between them.

"Keep that brother of yours in line."

It earns him a chuckle. Just as he knew it would.

"Give me something hard." Sunstreaker gives a dismissive wave.

Before Prowl can convince himself to react with soppy abandon, he turns and drops into his alt-mode, chasing the disappearing shadows. He'll be cutting it close, but he reasons it doesn't really matter. It won't be long before the humans realize he's gone, though it may take some time for them to understand that it's more than an unauthorized jaunt off-base.

Sunstreaker doesn't follow, and while Prowl aches at the loss, he's glad for it all the same. If there is one thing Prowl is going to accomplish, it'll be keeping the brothers together.

Now, he can only hope to find Ratchet.

To North Dakota it is.


Chapter Text

Not for the first time does Will consider putting in for a transfer. Or a voluntary discharge.

How many times has he filled out the paperwork, lingering over every line, staring at every date and signature? How many times has he lain awake in the barracks, thinking of Sarah and Annabelle? Of Ironhide?

And how many times has he ripped up the papers and thrown them away, only to request a fresh set a week or two later?

The base is quiet as of late. Too quiet.

Will remembers when the Autobots first arrived, how much noise and bluster there was then. Military leaders shouting, politicians turning red in the face, the Autobots patient in the brunt of it all. Optimus dignified and enduring, sharing information and refusing to give weapons tech.

Skids and Mudflap used to get in all kinds of trouble. There was something glitched in their processors, Ratchet had said, something he couldn't fix. A word that Ratchet had hissed and never repeated.

Shockwave.

Then, there was Sideswipe. Forever racing around. He seemed to have a need for speed.

And Bee played music at all volumes, at least when he was there. He wanted to spend most of his time with Sam.

Arcee and her sisters were quiet, like Optimus.

Ratchet was always tinkering with something, deep in one project or another, fitfully attempting to distill better energon.

Ironhide was always sparring or practicing or targeting or...

It still hurts to think about his guardian. His friend. His partner.

Memories.

It's the memories that bring Lennox back, again and again, to the paperwork. He could so easily walk away. No one could argue that he hadn't done his duty, that he hadn't played his part. No one would protest. Mearing would probably rejoice and quickly encourage someone to take his spot that’d be more malleable.

Would the Autobots even notice?

Maybe Sideswipe. He's the only one who seems even remotely unchanged, happier even, with the arrival of Sunstreaker. His brother, his twin, half his spark.

Will's not even supposed to know that much, but Ironhide was surprisingly chatty once he knew someone. Besides, Will knows what a person looks like when he or she has some demons to exorcise. Autobots might be alien robots from outer space, but some things are universal. Ironhide's facial structure didn't really leave much flexibility for expression, but there are other ways to understand.

Will's military background pales in comparison to Hide's, but there's enough there that he understands. He gets why Hide's optics sometimes dimmed, why his posture sagged. Why he would sometimes find his friend standing at the edge of the farm, staring up into a dark sky.

He can't imagine what it must be like to fight a war for millennia. To watch as, bit by bit, mech by mech, their entire civilization withers away.

The base is so quiet now.

Ratchet is gone. And with him, Drift.

And now, Will has to tell Optimus that another one of his Autobots has gone missing. Will guessed that Prowl would soon take Ratchet's route. It’s why he had hinted where Prowl should go.

Will won't be surprised either if one day, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker disappear as well.

There's something broken in the Autobots, and Optimus Prime stands at the core of it.

Whatever madness had begun the war, had infected the Decepticons and set them off on their deadly quest for freedom or power or whatever, has infiltrated to the spark of the Autobots. Or maybe, the madness has been there all along. Optimus is, after all, Megatron's kin.

Not that Will's supposed to know that either.

He finds Optimus on the edge of the base, staring out toward the ruins of Chicago. His battle-scarred armor is painted in the shadows of the sunset. Standing there, Optimus looks regal and proud, a strong survivor of an endless war.

It’s only when Optimus turns to greet him that the flat glow in his optics makes Will's insides crawl. He can't really explain it. He doesn't sense energy fields like the bots can. Nor can he tell with a scan that something's wrong.

He knows, however, to the very fiber of his being that something is broken inside Optimus. Will despairs that it can’t ever be fixed.

Ratchet hadn't been able to after all.

“Colonel,” Optimus rumbles in greeting, lowering himself down. He always does that more than any of the others, and it somehow comes off as unintentionally demeaning. “Were you searching for me?”

Will's lips pull into a strained smile. “You're not a hard mech to find, Optimus.” The half-a-dozen papers he's carrying feel all too heavy. “Got some bad news for you.”

“It seems that is the only news to be found as of late.” Optimus breathes out – ventilating, Ironhide had called out. He lowers himself down fully, sitting upon the pavement.

And isn't that the truth?

Will breathes in and out himself.

“Prowl's missing,” he says, though he finds it a bit strange that he's the one to tell Prime and that the mech hasn't noticed for himself. “No one's seen him since before shift change, and he hasn't reported for duty.”

Optimus' gaze tilts downward. He rests one arm over a bended knee.

“I see.”

There’s an evident pause. Will knows that look, that distant flicker of a mech's optics. Optimus must be contacting some of the others.

“He isn’t responding to the comm,” Optimus says or narrates rather. “None of the others have seen him either.” The mechanisms of his audial spin and twitch. “You haven’t been able to locate him with our search net?”

“No.”

Will suspects Prowl is far too intelligent to be caught by a simple spark scan or locator beacon. No doubt he’s accounted for both methods.

“He is certainly off-base,” Optimus Prime states but then falls into silence again.

Will honestly doesn't know what to say. It's a fine line he walks, between covering Prowl's tracks and pretending to be equally concerned about the tactician's disappearance.

“Would you like to organize a search party?”

Will shifts from foot to foot, but Optimus doesn’t seem to notice. The mech lets out air again, a rattling and gusty sound that hints of poor maintenance.

“No, I don’t believe that will be necessary.” He rises up. “I suspect Prowl left of his own volition.”

Aren't you worried? Will wants to shout. Do you even care? Does it bother you that your troops are vanishing into the night?

“Why?”

Optimus looks down at Will. “I don’t know, Colonel. It’s unlike him to abandon his post, but…” He pauses, helm lifting to peer up at the sky. “The same could be said of Ratchet.” He makes a gesture that Will can’t quite interpret. “Have you informed Director Mearing?”

“No.” Will isn’t the best of actors; he can't hide the distaste in his tone. “I didn't know if there was anything to report.”

“She won’t be pleased,” Optimus states and drops his gaze once more. “We can do nothing for Prowl, Colonel. Yet, there’s still work to be done.”

Will blinks. He’s thrown off balance by the sudden shift in conversational tone.

“Work?”

“Prowl's disappearance is regrettable. He didn’t finish the task I assigned him.” Optimus reaches for a panel on his hip and pulls free a datapad, Autobot-sized. “I do, however, have a plan that is half-completed. It should be enough for your tacticians to work with.”

Words fail. Will works his jaw soundlessly.

“A plan?”

He feels like a parrot, only able to repeat what Optimus tells him and nothing more.

“Yes.” Optimus' fingers drag over the screen, calling up some kind of file, and then William's Blackberry beeps as it receives the document. “Finding Ratchet and the Decepticons was Prowl's task.”

“You...” Will falters, inhales to control himself, and strongly hopes that he’s wrong. “You ordered him to devise a plan to track down Ratchet?”

Optimus nods, a humming sound emerging from his chassis. “Director Mearing was concerned about the presence of unknown Decepticons, including the ones who most recently escaped. It’s her opinion – and one I share – that they are all in hiding with Ratchet. This cannot go unchallenged.”

His stomach drops to his ankles even as his eyes widen.

This isn’t right. Ratchet was one of his soldiers for longer than humans have had writing. Ratchet is his comrade. His friend.

It isn’t… It isn’t right.

But he knows without having to ask that it’s been on Mearing's urging. Damn that woman to hell.

Still speechless, Will pulls out his Blackberry, accessing the file. It’s large, and a quick glance through confirms its identity. Though if this is what Prowl considers half-complete, Will is impressed. Not that he’d trust any of it since it was made by the same mech who’d just hightailed it out of here to join Ratchet and his merry band of miscreants plus Drift.

“This will be a lot of help,” Will forces out instead and bites his tongue to keep in what he really wants to say. He wants to put this off as long as possible.

And he knows that wish as he might, he’ll be in this job for a long time yet.

After all, if he quits, who will take his place? Who will be there to help divert attention and resources away from hunting down Ratchet and the others?

Who will be the voice for the Autobots?

“I’m glad to hear it.” Prime tucks away his own datapad and offers Will a smile that feels completely out of place. “Your acceptance of us, Colonel Lennox, has always been greatly valued. I, for one, am proud to have made your acquaintance.”

Will feels sick to his very core. His stomach churns, threatening to expel his very nutritious breakfast of stale coffee and an equally stale doughnut.

“Thank you,” he forces the words out. “You guys have done a lot for us. I'm just doing my part.”

Optimus nods again. “Earth is our home now. Our future. We will do whatever it takes to defend it.” He pauses, helm tilting. “If you'll excuse me, Director Mearing is requesting a meeting.”

Demanding more like. Will has never heard Mearing politely request anything.

“Sure, Optimus. Good luck.”

Humor fills the large mech's vocals. “Sometimes, I am quite certain I shall need it.”

Will turns, watching Optimus head back to the command center. Mearing is supposed to be in Washington the majority of the time, but as of late, she's been lingering around Chicago to the consternation of Will's soldiers. The Autobots, save Optimus, despise her. Will's noticed a distinct lack of their presence whenever Mearing is here.

Sighing, Will contemplates the file on his Blackberry. Technically, he should be contacting General Morshower and letting his CO decide what to do from there. Will finds himself reluctant.

He wants to protect himself and his family. He wants to keep helping Ratchet, though he doesn't give a slag about the Decepticons Ratchet saved.

Those papers on his desk are looking more and more appealing by the minute.

o0o0o



The base is quiet. Chicago is starting to rebuild, inch by inch, street by street. Will reflects that humans are remarkably resilient. We can always rebuild.

Cybertron, however, is beyond saving.

He thinks of the document he just sent to Morshower and the phone call he just completed. Even the general sounded startled at Mearing's demand and Optimus' compliance. But the both of them have met the quota of risks they can take in the breadth of their career. Will doesn't so much as hint to his own acts of near-treason, but he can hear it, hear the indecision in his commanding officer's voice.

General Morshower has always been on their side. Even so, Will dares not trust him with Ratchet's fate.

Will wants nothing more than to go home. He misses Sarah and Annabelle. He wants to kiss his wife, hold his baby girl, and forget everything. Retirement is looking more and more appealing. For all that the war is over, he knows he's fighting a losing battle.

The sound of weapons fire pierces the silence though. Will orientates toward it, the reverberating booms indicating Cybertronian weapons as opposed to human-made artillery. He hasn't heard this sound in so long, it seems.

There's paperwork on his desk. His job is more and more administrative these days. Other members of NEST go into the field with the Autobots. Soldiers that Mearing feels can be trusted more. Or so Will assumes. She has yet to come right out and say what she thinks of Will Lennox and the others who've been through all major Autobot-Decepticon clashes.

Will's feet turn toward the weapons fire anyway. He's not sure this is a job still worth saving. He's not sure what or who he's supposed to be protecting anymore.

He doesn't need so many guesses as to who’s test-firing their weapons. Though the fact it’s Sideswipe does come as some surprise. He always figured the silver mech for preferring his blades over his blasters. Though he has seen that Sideswipe can be deadly with either.

Sides must know he’s there, watching. But he says or does nothing, barely shifting as he continues a steady barrage at a set of targets on the far side of the river, set up in the ruins of Chicago that won't be rebuilt for years to come. Will can't see them hit, but he does see the puffs of ash and fire that rise up in their wake.

These are the mechs Mearing has no problem provoking. Will is quite certain there's something loose in that woman's brain. Thinking she’d be able to make the Decepticons see reason because the Autobots would back down. Foolish, foolish woman.

Silence falls. Will's ears ring.

He tilts his head, looking up at Sideswipe. The mech keeps examining one of his blasters.

“Nice shooting.”

“I won't ever be as accurate as Blue,” Sideswipe says, but he tilts a grin down at Will. “But I'm still slagging good.”

“Blue?”

The grin fades back into a neutral expression. Sideswipe's concentration returns to his weapon.

“Bluestreak,” he clarifies without looking down again. “He was an Autobot, a sharpshooter. The best any of us had ever seen.”

“Was?”

“He's dead. Gone. Like all the rest of us.” Sideswipe prods at one of the mechanisms in his blaster, popping it loose and frowning over it. “Maybe.”

Will crosses his arms. It's getting late, the sun setting and a cold wind settling in. Winter in Chicago is never comfortable.

“You don't know?”

“He was on Sunstreaker's team,” Sideswipe replies and shoves the piece back into his blaster. There's an audible click. “They had to leave him behind.”

“What?” Will blinks. “Really?”

Sideswipe's vents expel a rush of air, and his blaster vanishes to wherever their weapons go when they aren't in use and attached to their bodies. Subspace, Ironhide had said, not that Will understands or is supposed to know about it.

“I don't think they had a choice.” Sides rocks back and forth on his wheels before peering down at the colonel. “Were you looking for me?”

He can't feel energy fields like all Cybertronians can. Nonetheless, it doesn't take an alien robot to see the grief and resignation clinging to Sideswipe like a bad waxing job.

“No.” Will shakes his head, feeling like he's stepped into the middle of something important. “Heard the noise. Came to investigate.”

Sideswipe holds up his hands, the smallest of smiles flitting across his lips. “Promise I'm not destroying anything important. I got permission.”

“Oh, yeah? From who?”

“Myself, of course.” The brief attempt at humor fades as quickly as it appeared. “Hide's gone. Jazz's gone. Ratchet's gone. Bee's pulled a disappearing act. And now Prowl? That leaves me.” His facial ridges draw down. “Or at least, it would have. That's Leadfoot's job now.”

Will winces. He hadn't needed the reminder of all the Autobots lost. But there it is in all its depressing glory.

“You know about Prowl, huh?”

“Prime made sure to let everyone know,” Sideswipe confirms, rocking back and forth on his wheels again. “He assigned Roadbuster to investigate.”

Surprise rolls over Will like a bath of icewater. “Optimus told me not to organize a search party.”

Sideswipe tilts his head. His optics cycle with curiosity.

“Investigating how and why Prowl left isn’t the same thing as sending a mech to look for him.”

In other words, Optimus has already written off Prowl.

Frag. Double and triple frag. It's like the Autobots are prisoners here or something.

Will sighs and palms his face. “I suppose you have a point.”

The churning in his gut intensifies. He thinks longingly of the paperwork on his desk, the most recent set he has yet to tear and toss. The set waiting for a date and a signature.

“What do you think happened?”

“Thinking's not part of my job. I'm just a weapon.” Sideswipe's blades slide out of their sheaths pointedly, dripping hot metal before he retracts them. “I go where I'm pointed.”

Will debates with himself before he lets the question slip free. “What if they point you in the wrong direction?”

Sideswipe looks at him, a wealth of words in the slow flickering of his optics. “I have to trust that they aren't. Otherwise, the weight of everything I've done will crush me.”

He turns back around then. And doesn’t dare look at Will again.

It's a sentiment that Will understands completely.

o0o0o



Thank Primus it's Tuesday.

“Bobby!”

“Will!”

Manly handshakes give way to manly-slap-on-the-back hugs. One doesn’t do go through hell and back multiple times to get intimidated by a little bromance. Will loves Epps like the brother he never had, and he's been through too much to be ashamed to show it.

They've been having this weekly meet ups since the whole Chicago fiasco. Bobby makes the three-hour drive because he's that side of awesome. Not to mention that he knows Will can't leave the base.

Epps is grinning ear to ear, a curve to his lips that hints of mischief. “Shit, Will. You look like hell.”

“Tell me about it,” Will grunts and slides into the booth, opposite from his best friend – aside from Sarah and Hide of course. “There are times I hate you for getting out when you did. And then, there are times that I envy you.”

“Uh, oh. Prime throwing another tantrum?” Epps asks as he slides into the seat across from Will, looking in far better cheer. He's all patched up, too. No evidence of Chicago's madness is present on his body.

Will still limps from time to time. Doctors tell him his leg's never going to heal right. Small price to pay. He's lucky he's alive.

“I wish it were that.” Will shakes his head. “Mearing's enough to give a migraine a migraine.”

Epps laughs, nearly startling the waitress who comes by to take their orders. Not that it ever changes. Four dozen of the hottest wings, bleu cheese dressing, and a pitcher of beer. They're in for the long haul, as they usually are.

Sometimes, Will thinks these weekly get-togethers are all that's keeping his sanity intact. He wishes Graham could be here, too. But Mearing has long since shipped him back to Britain. That bitch.

“You'd think after Chicago she would’ve mellowed some,” Epps shoots back, slumping in his seat until he's comfortable.

Will rubs his forehead. “If anything, she's gotten worse. Especially since Ratchet left.” He's already told Epps about Ratchet, though he had left out the circumstances behind the mech’s departure and his own involvement in it.

“I still don't understand that.” Bobby frowns, arm slinging across the back of the booth as his other hand taps the tabletop. “I always thought Ratchet was one of the more loyal ones.”

“Maybe he knows something we don't,” Will edges around and is relieved when the waitress returns with their drinks.

Bobby, however, is not easily distracted. “Yeah. And that's what worries me.” He takes a deep drink of the beer, the noise of the bar rising around them. “What does Mearing think about it?”

Will rolls his neck, feeling the tension in his upper body. If only he was home with Sarah’s magical touch. Woman had the hands of a masseuse and a goddess both.

“She's ordered Optimus to hunt him down. And now Prowl, too.”

“Wait a minute.” Bobby pushes himself up, hand sliding down to smack against the table. “Prowl left?”

“No one's seen him, so that's what we're assuming.” Will shrugs and tries not to look guilty. He isn’t sure that it’s working.

Bobby frowns. “Damn.”

He tilts his head to the side thoughtfully. There’s something in his eyes. Something far too shrewd and far cleverer than anyone would ever expect.

“Why are the Autobots jumping ship, Will?” he suddenly asks, voice and tone painfully neutral.

“I wish I knew.”

Will reaches for his own beer, draining the mug in one fell gulp and pushing it to the edge of the table. Tonight, he thinks, is the night for a dozen. He can always call for a ride. Sideswipe won't mind. Much.

“The war's supposed to be over, but it still feels like we're all on high alert,” Will allows with a flick of his hand.

Bobby’s eyes narrow. “I guess that's cause the 'Cons are still around.”

The waitress returns again, setting a plate of wings down in front of them. The sharp bite of spices floats to Will's nostrils, and he inhales greedily. So much better than the food at the mess.

“What are you talking about?” Will asks as he loads up his plate and snags one of the plastic cups of bleu cheese. “The half-offline drones that are scattered around?”

Bobby shakes his head and munches on a celery stick. “No, I'm talking about the 'Cons that showed up in DC the other day.”

Will nearly chokes. He coughs, trying to clear his airway, washing it down with a gulp of beer.

What?”

“You didn't know?” Bobby waves his chicken wing like it’s a pointer. The motion is casual. Too casual. “One of my boys down in DC was telling me about it. Though strangely, no one was hurt.” He looks at Will again, eyes glinting and tone too light.

“What happened?” Will asks, and he doesn’t trust his own voice.

Bobby ravages the one wing and then grabs another. His mood is too light now. Too deceptive.

“Some Decepticons broke into the warehouse. You know, the one where they hauled all that tech and shit from the DC base? Anyway, they took everything.”

Will stares at him as he eats with gusto.

A couple of days ago?

Something heavy drops into Will's belly, and it has nothing to do with the beer or the wings. He wipes the sauce from his chin.

That matches the timetable when the strange Cybertronians randomly appeared in Washington state, too. Almost as if they were trying to attract attention.

“Mearing said nothing about this. Not to me or Optimus.”

Or maybe she had told Optimus, and the Prime hadn't seen fit to inform Morshower or Lennox. He's certain Morshower would’ve passed it on.

Bobby snorts. “Yeah, well. She wouldn't, would she?”

Will considers that for a minute.

“What kind of stuff?” he finally questions.

“Tech.” Bobby toys with a stick of celery. “Not weapons so much as refining equipment, some welders. That kind of thing. Oh, and a busted engine.”

Will frowns even more. That definitely doesn't sound like the work of Decepticons. Why would they take equipment? They’re more likely to raid human settlements for energy, which they are in such desperate need of.

No, Will suspects that this is not the work of ‘Cons. Or at least, not them alone.

“They couldn't trace it either. By the time the bastards got into Canada, they'd found the trackers and ripped 'em out.”

That sells it. The scattered ‘Cons are underpowered and too stupid for something like this. It has to be Ratchet and his team. They’d need the stuff. Will knows their whole plan involves leaving Earth.

Bobby tips the rest of his beer into his mouth. He swipes the back of his hand over his lips in a way that his own wife and Sarah both hate.

“It's enough to make me worry, want to hurry back home,” Bobby says then, and his face is once more too shrewd. “Are they coming back, Will? ‘Cause I thought their command was dead. Megs is gone. Starscream is just scrap. Sentinel and Shockwave, too. Right, Will?”

“It wasn't the Decepticons,” Will counters, and there's no hiding the heaviness in his voice. He feels like a prick for lying to his best friend.

“What?”

Will shakes his head, reaching for the beer again. It's not enough though. He's seriously contemplating some liquor.

“It wasn't Decepticons, Bobby.”

His friend stares at him now. “Will…”

But he shakes his head, nonchalantly glances around the bar. No one can hear them in their back corner, not over the noise of the game on every TV in the place.

Bobby looks at him again, and suddenly, he doesn’t look at all like a man happy with military retirement. Suddenly, he looks just like the man who’d walked through war zones and always had Will’s back.

“What aren't you telling me, Will?” he asks. “What do you know?”

His gaze wanders away, lips pressing together. Will wants to speak, but he can't. Bobby shouldn't know. It'll put him in danger. It’ll put his wife and all his kids in danger. Hell, Will's not sure how he's been carrying this for so long.

Bobby leans over the table. He lowers his voice so that it's barely audible over the noise and raucous.

“William Lennox, so help me god if you know something you aren't telling me, I'm going to reach over this table and slug the shit out of you. They can’t even haul me in for insubordination anymore either.”

Will momentarily gapes. Then sighs. His elbows hit the table as he buries his head in his hands.

“It's complicated, man.”

“Then uncomplicate it,” Bobby all but hisses. “Shit's going down. I know it. You know it. But only you know why.” He exhales loudly, but it’s drowned out by the cheering from the bar crowd. “So spill it. I got just as much right to know. I was there with you. Remember?”

“You were just telling me you were worrying about your family's safety,” Will retorts. “I tell you this, and you're putting them in even more danger.”

Bobby snorts. “I can't protect them if I don't know what to worry about, dumbass.”

“This isn't ‘Cons, Bobby. This isn't big metal monsters sweeping down to vaporize us all,” Will says, squeezing his eyes shut. “It's betrayal and treason and hope all wrapped up in one fragging mess.”

Silence sweeps between them, more prominent for the racket that surrounds them.

Bobby stirs, whipping out his wallet and tossing several twenties on the table, more than enough for their bill and a generous tip. Not that he can’t afford it with his cushy job. One that pays way more than even Will makes as a colonel.

“Get up.”

Will's arms drop. “What?”

His best friend slides out of the booth, motions jerky and restrained. “Get your ass out of that seat. I'm not having this conversation here.”

Will is stunned. But Bobby's not waiting, and he scrambles out of the booth to follow, plastering a fake smile on his face for the sake of all the strangers who aren’t even watching them. Still, they've visited this bar often enough that they could be recognized. Will’s face was plastered on TV often enough after Chicago anyway. Almost as much Sam’s was.

It isn’t until they’re outside that Bobby whirls on him.

“You're going to tell me everything,” he insists, heading towards his SUV. “Something's got you twisted up inside, and I can't help you if I don't know what it is.”

“It's not safe,” Will tries, but it’s feeble at best.

Bobby jerks open the driver's side door. “Will, I haven't been safe since Qatar. At least give me a fighting chance.”

Will sighs, circling around to the passenger side and letting himself inside. “Fine,” he says as their doors slam shut in tandem. “But don't say I didn't warn you.”

Throwing it into gear, Bobby pulls out into the street, away from prying eyes and eavesdroppers. Will supposes that they'll come back for his own car later. If there is a later. Bobby might just kill him now and be done with it.

“Warning noted,” Bobby says, not privy to his morbid thoughts. “Now, tell me what the slag is going on.”

All the fight – not that there was much – goes out of Will. He slumps into the seat and lets it spill. He tells Bobby everything he knows, everything he's done. He hasn't been able to tell anyone, not even Sarah, for fear of what could happen. But he trusts Bobby more than he’s ever trusted anyone.

Save Ironhide.

And no, Will can’t think of that now. Can’t think of him. Only he is. And that’s the problem.

He sighs then. Long and hard. And turns to Bobby. Looks at him. His profile. His eyes as he glares at the road like it’s personally offended him and called his mama names.

He’s trusted Bobby with his back. With his life. And now, he does it again. With his future. With Sarah’s future. With Annabelle’s.

He can trust Bobby in this, too.

***

Chapter Text

“This is unacceptable, Prime.”

She paces back and forth across the catwalk, her agitation clear, her expression pinched with fatigue and disappointment.

“I understand, Director Mearing,” Optimus replies, leveling his gaze on the small organic with a large grasp on their very existence. “I’ve already assigned a mech to track him down.”

She has not taken Prowl's abandonment of his post very well. She seems even more rattled than the Autobots themselves. Perhaps it’s because her superiors want answers that she’s so adamant about facing Optimus here today.

Mearing frowns and reaches up to adjust her glasses. “You seem to be losing control of your troops,” she says in a carefully controlled tone that hints of the angered swirling beneath. “They’re defecting faster than you can recruit them.”

Optimus shifts his weight, feels the grind and creak of unoiled pistons. Ratchet is missed for more reason than one, but he can’t bring himself to think of that now.

“We aren’t yet certain of the reason behind Prowl's absence. It is possible--”

She raises her voice, not quite yelling but enough to make herself heard over his statement. “He left without proper clearance or informing his commanding officer. He did not use the proper channels and snuck out like a teenager evading curfew. He defected.”

Optimus' helm dips, and he rubs his faceplate. It is concession.

“We are investigating the circumstances behind his departure.”

She makes a noise of skepticism. “Have you bothered to watch the security footage yet? It's quite clear to me.” One hand waves in vague gesture.

The soldiers walk by as they speak, pretending not to notice the exchange of words. The low murmur of conversation in the command center becomes even quieter. Computers beep and chirp updates by the minute, but only humans tend to them. There aren’t enough Autobots to go around.

Mearing begins to pace again. Optimus watches her, counting the steps. Five, six, seven before she stops and turns. Ten, eleven, twelve. Stop and turn.

Optimus cycles a ventilation.

Focus. He needs to focus. Needs to keep flashes of Ratchet’s grim face and Prowl’s seeking optics from overpowering him. He just needs a moment to think.

“The video does not reveal motive,” he says instead.

Mearing whirls toward him, heels making a bright clack against the metal. “Except that he left of his own free will. And that crazy yellow one didn't try to stop him.”

Sensation crawls over Optimus' chassis, scrabbles over his shoulder and drizzles down the other side. His backstrut twitches.

“Prowl is my second in my command,” Optimus states, though surely Mearing must know this. “Sunstreaker is accustomed to obeying his orders.”

It surprises Optimus though. Sunstreaker has never been one for obeying any mech, not even Prime himself. Yet, for Prowl, he’ll bow his head and do as he’s told.

Mearing arches an eyebrow at him and plants her hands on her hips. “Are you blind or merely dumb?” she hisses. “There was no order given.”

Optimus looks past her and down. At the main monitor, a series of images flickering across the screen.

“Perhaps, Director Mearing, it would benefit us to ask Sunstreaker.” He lifts a hand.

“Don't bother.” Mearing dismisses the action. “He's back in solitary.”

It seems to be a common location for Sunstreaker as of late. Just last week, he'd gotten into an altercation with Roadbuster over some imagined slight.

Optimus lowers his hand. “You already questioned him?”

“More or less.” Mearing rolls her shoulders. Her earlier anger seems to bleed away, leaving a resigned annoyance behind. “He refused to answer. I guarantee you, Prime, he knows where Prowl has gone.”

Perhaps.

Optimus makes a noncommittal sound. “I will speak with him.”

Mearing snaps her fingers, and her assistant scrambles forward to stand by her side. But the woman barely even seems to notice as she reaches out.

“See that you do,” she says, her focus now on one of the bags being handed to her. “It’s imperative that we solve this as soon as possible. The President isn’t pleased.”

Optimus merely tips his helm at that statement. “I understand.”

“Good.” Mearing frowns again and gives him a sidelong look. “Find Prowl and you’ll find Ratchet, I’m sure. Find both of them, and we’ll have their Decepticon allies.”

Though Optimus is unsure of Prowl's motivations, Mearing is certainly correct about Ratchet. His former medic hasn’t made any attempts to hide his connection to the Seekers. A year after Ratchet's departure and Optimus has come to the conclusion that the medic has left of his own accord. He has sided with the Decepticons. He has joined their enemies.

It’s like a punch to the chassis. A blade to his processor. A blast to his very spark.

Such betrayal. Such treachery.

It seems to follow him everywhere. Come at him from every quarter.

A part of him wonders who it will be next. Who would turn on him without warning.

But Optimus forces that thought away. Locks it down deep inside his processor and refuses to let it back into the light.

Instead, he watches Mearing descend the catwalk with soft tap-taps of her shoes. She’s no longer wearing the heels, having exchanged them for more sensible footwear. Her assistant scrambles to follow, but Optimus still doesn't know her name. The harried woman keeps her eyes down in the presence of the Autobots. Out of fear or respect, Optimus doesn’t know. He doesn’t dare ask.

A twinge ripples through his substructure. Optimus buries the wince, curls his hand into a fist to keep from prodding at his chassis. It isn’t a pain, not in so many definitions of the word. But it has been more frequent as of late.

The Matrix remains an uncomfortable burden to bear.

Optimus turns away. His proximity sensors alert him to a soldier within range of his pede. He carefully steps around the man and heads out of the command hub. He must speak with Sunstreaker. He’s perhaps the only one on base with any answers regarding Prowl and his departure.

Prowl has been his second in command for vorns. Eons upon eons. He has always been a close friend. Optimus, however, wonders if he ever really knew Prowl.

After all, there has always been something different about him. Something off. Maybe it’s the strangeness of his connection with Jazz, how they seemed like true brothers but weren’t. Perhaps it’s his manner. So cool and contained. Or it could have simply been his nature. His origins.

War-builds and war-inclined bots can so rarely be trusted. If at all. The Decepticons show that even now. Prowl only proves it.

Optimus has long tried to extend his hand to them. Long tried to show them the true path. Only to be rebuffed time and again.

No longer though. He will no more offer the other cheek.

Outside, the sun shines down and quickly heats his exterior armor. It’s approaching summer, and the muggy warmth pulses straight through to Optimus' substructure. His plating lifts, helping to expel extra heat.

The base is a whirlwind of activity. Since Chicago, it has grown less makeshift and more permanent. Housing has been established. Roads have been paved. Sooner or later, it will be renamed and given status as an actual military compound.

The President has suggested that the Autobots remain permanently stationed here. It will be easier on the taxpayers than rebuilding the DC base. Besides, there’s still much work to be done in Chicago.

Optimus has agreed.

This will become their home. He has spent so long without one; he has nearly forgotten what it feels like to have a place to belong.

“Prime!”

He turns at the shout. Wheeled pedes crackle as they roll across the tarmac, and Sideswipe approaches like a mech on a mission. There’s a grim set to his faceplates. His energy field is withdrawn and constricted.

“Do you have a breem?” Sideswipe asks and rolls to a halt.

There can be only one reason Sideswipe would have that look on his faceplate. There’s only one mech who has ever meant more to him than anything, including the Autobots.

“I’m on my way to speak with Sunstreaker.” Optimus gestures to the line of shipping containers in the distance, one of which is currently occupied. “You can come along. Unless this requires privacy?”

Sideswipe's optics dart around, measuring and identifying everything around them. It’s mostly humans. Topspin is out looking for Prowl. Roadbuster is in recharge. Dino is on the targeting range. Leadfoot is in his lab.

Optimus can't remember the last time he saw Bumblebee on base.

“That's what I came to talk to you about,” Sideswipe switches to Cybertronian and lowers his vocals.

Optimus shakes his helm, taking up his stride once again. Sideswipe falls into step beside him.

“Sunstreaker's refusal to speak has gained him his punishment,” he responds but sticks to English. He doesn't wish for the humans to feel uncomfortable.

“Mearing ordered him there!” Sideswipe protests with a bleat of static. “She's not in our chain of command. We shouldn't have to listen to her.”

Heat waves rise from the blacktop in ripples of near-illusion. The smell of tar and construction is heavy in the air. The pang in his chassis starts up again, and Optimus scratches at his chestplate before he can stop himself.

“Director Mearing's questions were reasonable. Sunstreaker has a habit of disobeying.” Optimus drops his hand, though the itch remains. “His punishment stands.”

Sideswipe releases an ex-vent of agitation. His armor is all but ruffled.

“But--”

“He must understand that the humans are our allies,” Optimus states, and it hints with command. “As should you. It’s important that we work together with them. Not against.”

Silence.

Sideswipe tears his gaze away. Optimus can hear the subtle grinding of gears. The click-click of a few systems reset. The crackle of tires over pavement and then gravel as they approach the shipping containers.

“They ask too much,” the younger mech finally allows, though his tones are so quiet Optimus wonders if he’s meant to hear them at all.

Optimus pauses and half-turns toward the warrior. He rests a hand on Sideswipe's shoulder, feeling the warmth beneath his palm.

“It’s their planet, Sideswipe,” he offers gently. “We must never forget that we are the intruders here. We brought war to their home. It’s only fair that we offer concessions in return.”

A shift of his weight and Sideswipe rolls out from beneath his touch, rejecting it and what it represents.

“We’re the only ones who bend.” His energy field draws even tighter, so withheld it might as well not be present. “I know that it’ll come to a point when they ask for something we can't give.”

“It won't come to that.” Optimus gives a brush of his own field for reassurance. “They are our allies. Our comrades in arms. Now that the war is over, we can all enjoy this peace.”

Sideswipe's faceplates are blank. His optics are unreadable, but then, he looks away.

“I understand.” He glances toward their makeshift brig. “I’ll make sure Sunny understands, too. Will you let him out of solitary?”

“If he answers my questions, yes,” Optimus replies and picks up his stride again, coming within auditory distance of the containers. “If not, he will remain in solitary until he’s willing to cooperate.”

He cannot afford to have Sunstreaker ruin their alliance with the humans. The mech will learn to cooperate, or he won’t enjoy freedom. It’s a simple equation.

“I--”

Sideswipe cuts himself off, rocking uneasily on his wheels. He moves as though to say something further but then shakes his helm in a firm human gesture.

“I understand. Thank you, Prime.”

He turns to go.

Optimus is confused.

“You do not wish to accompany me?”

“Mearing assigned me a patrol shift,” Sideswipe tosses over his shoulder, vocals devoid of inflection. “If I'm late, I'll just end up next to Sunstreaker.”

He leaves. Back straight and helm held high.

Optimus simply watches him go. He says nothing.

Sideswipe has been different since Ratchet left. Less reckless and more contained. His mood improved at Sunstreaker's arrival but has since dropped again.

He’s a warrior though, if not a true war-build. This peace must be frustrating. Optimus vows to set some time aside later. He wants all of his soldiers to embrace the peace, to function outside of it. He will speak with Sideswipe.

First, however, is the matter of his brother.

Two soldiers guard the container. They are present for show as Sunstreaker could easily break free. He submits because it’s in his best interest. Not to mention sabot rounds are not easily ignored.

Optimus greets them with a tip of his helm. He doesn’t know either of these men. They are of a new unit, recently assigned to the area.

“I will be questioning Sunstreaker,” he informs them. “Please unlock the doors.”

The younger man on the left gives him a hard look. His dark eyes are under a helmet that covers his hair.

“Give us a moment to confirm.”

Optimus waits as they contact their superior officer, who no doubt contacts Director Mearing. Or perhaps Colonel Lennox. Sometimes, the human chain of command is quite flexible, and Optimus is never sure who really has seniority.

“Alright,” the other man on the right says. He is older appearing, but it’s so difficult to gage human ages. “You're cleared.” He steps aside and nods to his partner.

A chain and padlock are undone, slithering to the ground in a noisy jangle of metal on metal. One soldier twists and pulls the rod lock, sliding it aside. The door opens a few inches with an eerie creak. Stale, heated air puffs out, and there's a susurrus of sound as the mech within stirs.

“It's not been a week,” Sunstreaker rasps, his rich baritone vibrating in the narrow confines of the container.

“No, it has not.” Optimus steps back.

The soldiers also move aside. They tighten their grips on their weapons, however, uneasiness entering their expressions for the first time.

Optimus ignores that.

“I wish to ask you some questions,” he informs his soldier. “Cooperate and you won’t have to return to your confinement.”

A low, bitter chuckle precedes Sunstreaker's appearance. He drags himself out of the container, one much too small for any degree of comfort. His paint is scuffed, streaks of rust marring the once-brilliant shine. His optics are dull and glassy. He rises to his pedes though with an air of dignity, despite an evident wobble.

“Ask me no questions,” Sunstreaker offers with a tone that echoes of Jazz and past misdeeds, “and I'll tell you no lies.”

His confinement has done nothing for his attitude, Optimus decides as he consults the base's database. Sunstreaker has been imprisoned for nearly two days. From the moment the video footage was discovered and his part in it.

Optimus straightens his shoulder. “Director Mearing asked you of the video footage?”

“Yes,” he admits and says nothing more.

Sunstreaker isn’t going to make this easy. Not for the first time does Optimus wonder how Prowl managed to gain this warrior's respect.

“You were the last to see Prowl. Speak with him,” Optimus says for Sunstreaker's benefit. “You must have known he was leaving.”

The other mech rolls his shoulders, defiance rising from his frame in waves. “Maybe I did; maybe I didn't.”

“Sunstreaker--”

“Whatever answer you think I know, I don't,” the warrior interrupts with a sharp burst of air. He rocks back and crosses his arms. “I don't know why Prowl left. I don't know where he went.”

He is lying. The falsity is all but etched into Sunstreaker's features. Yet, his optics are steady and unyielding.

This is a dead end. Sunstreaker's loyalty to Prowl, it seems, is stronger than his tie to the Autobots. A shame that, especially with how good they’ve been to him.

And where does Sideswipe fit into all of this?

“Can I get out of solitary now?” Sunstreaker asks with all of the insubordination a mech can fit into his vocals without turning derogatory.

Optimus sighs heavily. And idly wishes Ironhide were here. He’d always managed to get mechs to answer. Even without resorting to violence.

“No.”

Sunstreaker's optics oscillate wide in indignation. “What? I answered your questions!” He jerks as though intending to gesture broadly but then reconsiders.

“You lied,” Optimus counters.

A burst of agitation and outrage slaps Optimus in the faceplate before Sunstreaker recoils his field just as quickly. It’s the most Optimus has ever sensed from the notably withdrawn mech.

“I did not,” Sunstreaker hisses. “I've told you what I know.”

“You have not.” Optimus steps closer and into the mech's personal space, a tactic Ironhide had once taught him when it came to querulous frontliners.

Not surprisingly, Sunstreaker steps back, colliding with the shipping container in a ring of metal on metal. A low dong that reverberates through the humid air. It resonates in Optimus' audials, too.

He loses his train of thought.

Optimus stops, puts himself back on track. The ache in his chassis returns with a vengeance.

“You haven't,” he repeats. “I am sure you knew of Prowl's intentions when he spoke with you. As I am certain you know where he went.”

“Why?” Sunstreaker demands, optics flashing fire. “Because that woman told you I did?”

The last is better termed a sneer. His armor clamps tight to his frame, as though he expects an attack and must protect his substructure.

Such a strange reaction.

“Director Mearing is an ally, Sunstreaker,” Optimus says firmly. “You will treat her with respect.”

Sunstreaker's faceplates close down, all expression gone. “Maybe you should tell her that. She hasn't given us an ounce of it since we arrived.”

Sunstreaker has no expression, but Optimus knows that tone. He straightens to his full height and locks his hydraulics.

“Sunstreaker! That is enough. You will complete your punishment as given. That’s an order.”

Silence sweeps between them. One of the soldier coughs into his palm, amusement curving his lips.

Sunstreaker does not fail to notice. His sneer deepens, disgust radiating from every ruffled plating. There is violence in his optics, the urge to act.

It’s a look so familiar to Optimus. It’s a look he saw so often in his own brother’s optics. In the cut of Megatron's smirk and the grip he carried on his weapon. It’s the last thing Optimus remembers before the first blow fell and civil war began.

His hand itches to transform into a blade, but Optimus remembers himself at the final instant. He draws discipline from the Matrix and pins his focus on Sunstreaker once more.

“Am I understood?”

The silence is heavy. It weighs on Optimus' shoulders. It itches in his chassis. He reaches up without thinking, scratching between his windshields.

Sunstreaker's optics track the motion. “Yes, sir,” he bites out, but there’s no submission that Optimus can hear.

It’s enough that he obeys. He turns away from Optimus with sullen disregard and sliding back into the dim confines of the shipping container.

Sunstreaker will have to be watched.

Nodding to the two soldiers, who move to relock the container, Optimus moves away. His thoughts are in turmoil.

Sunstreaker isn’t happy here. He’s barely controlled in his fury. He’s insubordinate to the point of treason.

He could have left with Prowl. He did not leave with Prowl. The dichotomy between the two concepts throws Optimus' thoughts into a feedback loop.

Optimus turns away from the main core of the base. He seeks solitude and finds it at observation point delta. It’s the furthest from the command hub and provides the widest view of Chicago's devastation despite the rebuilding.

Mearing has suggested that Autobots provide their services with that as well. Optimus has agreed. Perhaps in working side by side with their organic allies, the two species can at last come to an accord. It can only help.

His comm, however, buzzes within seconds of his arrival. It’s Leadfoot.

--Colonel Lennox is looking for you, Prime.--

He contemplates that for a moment.

--Inform him of my location.--

--Yes, sir.--

No argument. No accompanying glyphs of disdain or disappointment. Leadfoot's professionalism is refreshing. It’s as if Prowl were the one there, running ops. It’s as if Prowl had never left.

Optimus closes that thought with a snap. He settles in to wait. It isn’t long before his sensors and audials detect a golf cart approaching. Colonel Lennox is alone.

“You were searching for me?” Optimus says by way of greeting.

Lennox hops out, brushing his hands over his head. “Yes. I had some plans for you to look over.” He holds up his Blackberry pointedly.

“I see. Send them when you are ready.”

“Already did, Prime.” Lennox grins, a pleasant sight considering the tangible pall of disquiet lingering around their most staunch ally.

No sooner does Lennox speak than Optimus' systems ping him. The file arrives, and he unpacks the data, perusing it. Lennox's tacticians have taken Prowl's unfinished plans and refined them. There’s still a little work to be done, but they should be ready for implementation within a week or two.

“So, uhh, you okay?”

The uncertain query intrudes upon Optimus' study of the search plans. He cycles his gaze, looking down at the human.

“I am functioning, Colonel Lennox.”

He sighs and rubs the back of his head. “That's good to know but not really what I meant.”

Optimus flickers his optics, a longer look assessing the colonel from head to toe. Confusion filters in. Why should Lennox be concerned?

The human shifts as though uneasy. “I mean, first Ratchet and then Prowl. It can't be easy.”

It takes him a moment before understanding dawns. Lennox isn’t concerned for Optimus but hinting to a sadness of his own? He did, after all, lose Ironhide. His guardian. Perhaps he had sought out a replacement in another.

“Did you spend much time with Prowl?”

Lennox frowns at that. His eyes narrow with confusion. As if he has not followed the logic of Optimus’ question.

“No more than anyone else,” he denies. “He wasn't… approachable.”

An apt description if Optimus ever heard one. And also, one utilized by many members of the Autobot fold. It’s still baffling that Prowl has gained the loyalty of one such as Sunstreaker. Or even one such as Jazz before they became as brothers.

And that truly is something Optimus never understood. How two so very different mechs could imprint and bond. Become closer than most true siblings.

Perhaps though it is Jazz’s death that turned Prowl from their path. Perhaps he blames the humans for that loss. He had been unusually withdrawn while on Earth after all.

Optimus angles himself away from Lennox then and looks out across the city. It is beautiful in its brokenness, though he will never admit that to the humans.

“I had not seen Prowl in eons,” he confesses. “He isn’t the mech I used to know. Time affects even us.”

“So you're saying that you don't really know why he left either?” Lennox seems honestly puzzled.

“I do not.” Optimus brushes away the topic and once again peruses the plan that Lennox has given him. “These are good. I've underlined a few places that should be refined. Once they are, we can make assignments and begin the search.”

Lennox nods, visible from a peripheral sensor. “Alright. But… are you sure?” He looks up, expression unreadable. “These are your people, Optimus.”

“Yes,” the Prime agrees with another aching twinge that stretches all through his substructure, “they were.”

Silence settles in the air between them.

Lennox clears his throat noisily. “I'll take your suggestions to our guys,” he says and climbs back into the golf cart. “Don't worry. We'll find them.”

“I have every faith that you will.” Optimus offers the human a smile.

He isn't quite sure what to name the look Lennox gives him in return. He watches as the colonel whips the golf cart around and heads back to the core of the base. In the distance, Optimus can see Roadbuster emerge from a warehouse, shaking off the vestiges of recharge. The Wrecker offers Optimus a distant salute.

The roster scrolls across his HUD.

Topspin is out looking for Prowl. Dino is on the targeting range. Leadfoot is in his lab. Sideswipe is on a patrol route. Sunstreaker is in solitary. Roadbuster intends to join the construction crews in Chicago.

He is missing someone.

Optimus reassesses the list, the nagging sensation that he has forgotten one of his own like an itch in his processor. Not Ratchet. Not Prowl.

Realization dawns.

Bumblebee. He has not seen his scout on base since the aftermath of Chicago's battle. At least, not in abundance. Bumblebee lingered long enough for Ratchet to affect repairs and to stand guard over Sam, but then, he left for the Witwicky homestead. He has been with Samuel since, returning only to refresh his energon supplies and at Mearing's rare summons.

Optimus does recall charging Bumblebee with Sam's safety, but perhaps his scout has taken the matter onto himself. Not that the Decepticons are a threat anymore.

Chicago was the worst of the war here on Earth. They lost many, too many. And then Ratchet was gone with Prowl soon after.

Perhaps that’s what Bumblebee is avoiding.

He can’t be allowed to be so distant for long. Optimus will grant him his solitude for a month more. And then, he will call his scout home.

The war is over. Optimus wants nothing but peace for his Autobots. For them to have a home again without fear of the next battle.

Why could Ratchet and Prowl not understand that? Why did they leave?

The questions haunt him, all the night and all the day.

It is, for Optimus, the past all over again.

It’s watching Megatron, his brother, sneer obscenities and kill the very civilians he had vowed to protect.

It’s standing on the other end of the battlefield, taking blade in hand, because he's the only one who has ever been able to stand up to Megatron's might.

It’s Chicago, Sentinel's betrayal, and his brother's hand in it.

His spark contracts again, and Optimus bows his helm.

It’s him wondering what is broken inside. Wondering what is so terrible about his very existence that the two he loved most both betrayed him in the end.

And now, Ratchet. Who has stood by his side from the beginning. Now, he has gone with the Decepticons. With a pair of murdering Seekers.

Prowl. His most steadfast lieutenant, loyal to the end, has abandoned his post.

The world has gone mad. A world that has already sank into the Pit.

Optimus onlines his optics, tapping a panel on his forearm and opening up a small cache. He withdraws two items that glint in the sunlight.

Leadfoot retrieved these for him. He hadn’t asked for an explanation or seemed bothered by the request. He had done as Optimus asked without argument.

Of all of his Autobots, perhaps only Sideswipe might understand why.

A part of Optimus will always be Megatron. But his brother is no longer of this world. And without the Allspark, there’s nowhere for his essence to have gone.

This fragment of his spark chamber is all that remains. The humans smelted down his frame this time. Just to be sure. And Optimus cannot fault them for it.

Sentinel was buried amongst the others. With Autobot and Decepticon alike. In the dusky waters of the Laurentian Abyss. It was a rite wholly unlike the Prime burial of Cybertron past but apt given the situation.

Optimus carries the only thing that could give Sentinel life once more. He won’t deny that he has considered it once or twice. Once, Sentinel was a good mech. In his own way, Sentinel intended to save Cybertron. His goals were admirable, but he chose the wrong path.

In this, he was much like Megatron.

Brother and mentor and family forged true. All have betrayed him in the end.

“Sir?”

Optimus stirs out of his reflections. His fingers close into a fist around his precious mementos.

Leadfoot has emerged and now stands at Optimus' left side, in Prowl’s normal place. The Wrecker's face is a mélange of emotions, and his energy field reaches out to tentatively brush against Optimus' own.

“Yes?”

“We – myself, Roadbuster, and Topspin – want you to know something.”

Confusion ripples like a heatwave through the air. Optimus turns fully toward the Wrecker.

“You have my attention.”

Leadfoot stares for a moment longer. Then, he begins to kneel. He lowers himself to one knee, an arm braced against his leg.

“You will always have our loyalty,” Leadfoot says, his gruff vocals rumbling through the air. “I speak for my brothers as I say this. We pledge our allegiance always, Optimus Prime.”

Words fail him. His ventilations flutter. Optimus struggles to compute.

It’s a vow he has never demanded. It’s a promise he hasn’t expected. He doesn’t consider himself worthy of such commitment.

“To what do I owe this honor?” Optimus asks, vocals soft by contrast.

“We Autobots owe our survival to you,” Leadfoot explains, his energy pulsing with bursts of fidelity. “And there can be no peace so long as a single Decepticon functions. You understand that. So we will remain at your side.”

Gratitude overflows. It’s nearly enough to wash out the ache in his spark.

Optimus dips his head and rests a hand on Leadfoot's shoulder.

“Your vow is appreciated and accepted,” he says, field flexing into Leadfoot's with blessing. “Peace is at hand. We only need reach out and take it.”

He receives a welcoming pulse of energy in return. One that is familiar but not as familiar as others. Optimus manages to stifle the image of another kneeling before him, one who should be here but threw him away as soon as it was convenient.

Leadfoot, however, doesn’t seem to notice his lapse.

“Until all are one?” he questions instead.

“Yes,” Optimus confirms almost absentmindedly. He withdraws his hand and looks out at Chicago, rebuilding but still scarred. “Until all are one.”

***

Chapter Text

They are not a military unit. Nor civilian cohort. Rather, they’re something in between. A vague approximation that isn’t entirely one thing and not something else either. A group. A cohesive element. Bots facing the same general direction with circumstance binding them together and enemies all around.

Regardless of all this, a hierarchy has established itself.

No one is more surprised than Thundercracker when he becomes their unofficial leader. It’s a job that Ratchet doesn't want, seems to abhor truth be told. He says he's a medic; that his job is to fix mechs, not lead them.

It's a position no one wants Skywarp to have. The intelligence is there. But the maturity sometimes lacks, and Skywarp can be frustratingly short-sighted.

Drift, by his own admission, prefers to follow. Thundercracker suspects that the former Decepticon simply doesn't trust himself to make the right decisions.

Frag. Everyone makes mistakes. No one does the right thing all the time. Take a look at their precious Prime. Not so high and mighty now, is he?

Whatever.

So Thundercracker finds himself the one with all the answers. He makes the plans. He decides, taking leadership when they’re all floundering in the first few weeks after rescuing the hatchlings, retreating to their pathetic new home with Ratchet and Drift in tow, and at a loss for what to do next.

Ratchet spends days moping. Oh, he doesn't brood like normal mechs, but his usual irascible temper worsens to a downright hostility. He's taken up a habit of throwing things, usually at the wall, sometimes at the helm of whoever's irritated him the most. Which is typically Skywarp.

Amusingly, Drift seems to be the only one immune to said target practice. A fact Thundercracker has not failed to notice.

Ratchet also seems to make it a personal mission that every rescued hatchling will live. He's like one of Earth's mammalian matriarchs, devoting every non-recharge klik to feeding them solar-generated energon droplet by precious droplet.

Trying to force the medic into recharge is an exercise in futility, Thundercracker learns. He usually sends in Drift, and he doesn't know how the grounder does it. But somehow, Drift manages to patiently withstand the torrent of vitriol, and minutes later, Ratchet's shuffling off to his makeshift berth like a good nanny-bot.

Then, there’s Skywarp. Thundercracker has learned over many millennia that a bored Skywarp is someone he'd much prefer to shoot. So he makes sure to give his trinemate plenty to do.

Skywarp's first task, completed even before Ratchet had joined them, had been to construct generators as both a shield and a cloak. Now, their energy signals are effectively concealed from the humans and their random planetary sweeps for Cybertronian signals. Cobbled together from spare parts, a hefty amount of luck, and a few prayers, two generators rattle and clunk their way through every orbital cycle. To further ensure their safety, Thundercracker has put them all on war-time rations, not that anyone is complaining. To be honest, they are so used to limited energon and rations that anything more would be detrimental to their systems and downright decadent.

Thundercracker continues to give Skywarp little tasks to keep the mech's processor busy. Constructing more solar converters. Building berths. A single stasis pod. Some of the equipment Ratchet might need and hasn't had time to build for himself. Skywarp's also constructed their security net, the entire perimeter of alarms enclosing their makeshift base, and he was the one who hacked into the human's satellite systems so that they'd always know when a voyeur might be overhead.

Drift, as the most inconspicuous of the lot, is the one Thundercracker sends out on patrol. He often cautions the former Decepticon to be circumspect, but such warning isn't really needed. Drift quietly goes about his duties, doesn't protest once, and spends all of his free time helping Ratchet with the hatchlings. Not, Thundercracker suspects, because he's that worried over their survival. More because he's grown attached to the medic tending them.

It would be cute if Thundercracker dared think of anything in such terms.

All told, Drift is the quietest of their lot, and the easiest to manage overall. He does what he’s asked every time with deliberation and diligence no matter the task. He never complains (Ratchet) or cackles (Skywarp) or contemplates how in the Pit they ended up here (Thundercracker himself).

And while their little military unit cum cohort continues to keep itself hidden, Thundercracker busies himself with making plans. What are they going to do from here? What if the Autobots and Prime or the humans find them? What kind of future do they have?

Getting off this planet is priority one, obviously. However, they need materials and supplies. They have no destination, so they have to be prepared for a long journey. They have the hatchlings to consider as well.

He spends a lot of time monitoring human transmissions, looking for signs that they’ve detected Thundercracker and his motley assortment of… well, he supposes the best term would be Neutrals. But there's no sign that Prime is even searching. As though he's turned his back on Ratchet as much as the medic has torn himself away from his Autobot brethren.

Never a fan of the Prime, Thundercracker still finds this disturbing. It’s always seemed a universal constant. Autobots are weak, soft-sparked, willing to concede.

Yet, it seems Optimus has more of his brother in him than any of them could’ve ever guessed. He's more ruthless now, unwilling to compromise. There are less grey areas and only black and white, us versus them. He’s colder. As if some part of Megatron lingers in his very spark and whispers venom in his audials.

Or maybe their Prime has always been this way. Has always had this dwelling inside but had better reason to keep it in check.

Either way, Thundercracker holds no illusions. Prime will wipe them out given the chance. He will not offer an option to surrender.

He'll offline Thundercracker and Skywarp on the spot. Nuke the hatchlings just because of their origins. And then he'll take Ratchet and Drift into custody for a parody of justice that’d result in their execution.

This is it. This is their only option. Band together and live. Or separate and die horribly.

And protecting them all has fallen onto Thundercracker's shoulders. It's a heavy burden. No wonder no one else wants the job.

He vents air and rubs a hand down his faceplate. The faint feel of gust and grim coats the metal surface, but given the circumstances and seeing as he’s had much worse, Thundercracker barely even notices.

Starscream though would have a fit if he were here.

“Why so glum, chum?”

Thundercracker twitches. “Shouldn't you be in recharge?” he asks without looking up from the console they've scraped together. It’s little more than a mutant lovechild of human tech and Cybertronian debris that’s held together by pleasant thoughts and well-timed kicks.

“I was. Not anymore.” A weight settles on his back, Skywarp's pointed chin digging between two plates and compressing a hydraulic line. “Got bored.”

How the frag does one get bored during recharge? Thundercracker will never understand his trinemate. The mech makes no sense at the best of times.

“I fail to see where that's my problem.” Thundercracker flares his armor, trying to encourage the mech to get off. “Go find something to do. Bother Ratchet.”

“Did that already, too.” Skywarp laughs, his energy field teasing and tickling. “He threw a scanner at me.”

Thundercracker resists the urge to vent again. “Did it break?”

“Not this time.”

“Thank Primus.”

He taps the console, bringing up another screen, this one a schematic for a potential escape shuttle. It's not Thundercracker's own design, but one he happened to have archived deep in his memory banks. Not even he's quite sure why. But it's more than adequate to suit their needs.

The only problem is obtaining the materials to build it, and where are they going to hide everything while construction is ongoing. Yes, they are isolated out here, but any human contraption passing by overhead could easily detect a shuttle of this size.

“TC,” Skywarp whines, pressing down on him with all the weight available in his frame. “Entertain me.”

He rolls his shoulders again, barely dislodging his annoying parasite. “No. Get off.”

One hand curls around his chassis. Skywarp's long fingers toy with a transformation seam.

“I could get you off.”

Of all of them, Skywarp seems to have embraced human vernacular the most. He takes a perverse sort of pleasure in spouting human phrases purely to confuse their fellows, even Ratchet who has arguably been here the longest.

Thundercracker jabs an elbow backward. He aims for a sensor nexus that's particularly sensitive.

“When have I ever been interested?” he retorts as Skywarp retracts himself with a pained grunt.

“Spoilsport,” the other mech grumbles, a screech of metal on metal filling the room as he absently rubs at his plating. “Seriously, TC. I'm dying of boredom here.”

“Go assist Drift,” Thundercracker orders, trying and failing to concentrate on the schematics. Skywarp's voice is like a burn in his processor.

Skywarp rolls his optics, visible in the reflection of the monitor. “No way. He's currently doing what he does best. Calming the raging Hatchet.”

“Still oblivious?” Thundercracker's mouth twitches of its own accord.

“Terribly.” Skywarp makes a clucking sound with his glossa. “Were we ever that dumb?”

“You?” he scoffs. “Quite often.”

A hand whips across the back of Thundercracker's helm, but the motion is halfhearted and barely stings. Thundercracker doesn't bother so much as glare. For Skywarp, that’s a love tap but still harder than Starscream usually managed. Not to mention, that as annoying as Skywarp is, he’ll never compare to Stars whenever his plates were all twisted up about Megatron. Or any of the Decepticon command staff for that matter.

“Why are you so mean?” Warp practically whines like a human child.

Thundercracker does even look at him. “Why are you so bothersome?”

Skywarp huffs out. “I can't talk to you when you're in a mood like this.” He whirls on a pede, stalking out of Thundercracker's tiny space with wings arched in a good old-fashioned sulk.

He must have learned that from Starscream, too. Nobody could sulk like Stars. Or subsequently plot revenge. Thundercracker should really do something to head that off at the pass. He does have to recharge eventually, and that’s when Warp is guaranteed to strike.

He taps a single key. The console spits out a tiny data disk.

“Skywarp.”

What?”

It’s very nearly a snarl.

He swings around on his makeshift chair, holding up the disk between two claws. “Your next task,” Thundercracker replies, waggling the slim metal so that it catches the light. “That is, if you think you're up to it.”

Skywarp rises to the bait perfectly, just like Thundercracker knew he would. Warp stomps back into the room and snatches the disk from his talons.

“What is it?”

Thundercracker doesn’t smirk. It’s a near thing.

“A transwarp generator.”

What?!”

That, right there, is kindly termed a screech.

Thundercracker winces, feedback echoing through his audials. He gives his trinemate an utterly patient look. Though over the millennia, he's surprised he has any left.

“We can't leave Earth without it.”

The disk disappears into subspace but only because Skywarp has thrown his hands into the air, field whipping around with incredulous shock.

“Just where am I supposed to get the materials to build it?” Warp demands, optics flashing. “At the very least, I'm going to need several tons of duryllium.”

“Get me a list of what you need, and I'll see what I can do.” Thundercracker swivels back around to his console, tapping a few keys to approach the schematics from another angle. “If you can't start on the generator, there are other components that need constructing.”

Skywarp grinds several gears to express his utter disgruntlement. “You really know how to ruin my day.”

That tone comes from Stars, too. Sometimes, he and Warp were far too similar for Thundercracker’s comfort. Though truth be told, Skywarp reminds him more of how Starscream used to be. Long ago when he still believed in the Decepticons and thought Megatron might actually make Cybertron better.

How naïve he’d been. How foolish they’d all been. Autobots and Decepticons alike. Optimus and Megatron were brothers after all. They were exactly the same. Rotten to the core.

Thundercracker continues to tap on his console. He ignores both his memories and Skywarp, too.

“I make it a point to do so,” he finally says, and really, it’s a bit too smug.

With that, Skywarp storms out of the room again. Thundercracker doesn’t look as he’s no doubt flashed a very human, very vulgar salute. At least, this will keep him occupied for the next week or so, and Thundercracker can get some of his own work completed. Also, Ratchet will be glad for the quiet. And a pleased Ratchet is a manageable Ratchet.

And that makes them all happier.

Refreshing his concentration, Thundercracker returns to the schematics and flickers his optics. It's going to take months, years even, for them to build this fragging thing. Of the four of them, only Skywarp has any real engineering experience. Ratchet knows how to work parts for Cybertronians themselves, not their machines. It’s hard to say what Drift actually knows but certainly nothing like this.

How are they supposed to do this again?

Thundercracker has considered modifying one of the humans' space shuttles. That would certainly save them on construction time. But how to go about such a thing without the humans a) noticing or b) tracking them down?

Or even c) killing them all?

Pit! Slag! Pitslag!

Is it too late to make Drift their leader?

--Thundercracker.--

His engine rumbles. Thundercracker slams his elbow onto the console top and props his chin upon his palm.

--Yes, Ratchet?--

--Have you refueled today?--

There’s a distinctly tetchy note to the medic's comm. He really is in a foul mood. Either Skywarp has annoyed him to this point so early in the day, or there's a deeper reason. Thundercracker suspects it’s the latter. What has stirred the sleeping dragon this time?

--Yes, I have.--

--Recently?--

There’s a nagging note to his comm that only proves the sheer protective nature the medic has suddenly adopted. Thundercracker slumps on his crate, rubbing his faceplate tiredly. He's never going to get this work done.

--Adequately.--

It’s less a reply and more a retort.

--I'll decide what's adequate!--The response is swift and sharp. --Drift's on his way. Drink every last drop, you ungrateful slagger.--

Thundercracker buzzes with the static of a dropped line. So much for being the leader. He's still getting pushed around by the medic, but then again, that does seem to be a universal constant.

Hook hadn't been one for idle chatter either.

Fingers rap over the open doorway to Thundercracker's tiny cubicle. Drift at least announces himself as opposed to Skywarp's pouncing method.

“Special delivery,” the grounder says dryly and with a twinge of humor that’s certainly new in the last several weeks. Definitely since he and Ratchet left the humans and their Autobot pets.

Thundercracker sticks an arm behind him and waggles his fingers pointedly. “I'm resigned. Give it here.”

“For someone who doesn't want to lead, you certainly give orders well enough,” Drift observes, but the weight of an energon cube settles on Thundercracker's fingers.

Drift is very good at obeying at least. Unlike everyone else.

Thundercracker pulls the cube into view, frowning at the violet hue. Is it a special blend of mid-grade? Or is this a side-effect of the slapdash technology they’re using to manufacture the energon? Every orn it's a different shade or texture. Is Ratchet experimenting, or does he have Skywarp to blame for this?

“It's got a kick,” Drift offers with a hint of wickedness to his tone. “Kind of tastes like magnesium slime, but it energizes well enough.”

Fantastic.

Cutting off his chemoreceptors, Thundercracker quickly downs the whole cube. He still shudders as the thick energon sludges down his intake. He should have cut off his olfactory sensors, too.

Sigma, the smell!

“Could be worse,” Drift comments. He watches as Thundercracker crumples the cube in his fist. “Could be mil-rats.”

Thundercracker gives the former defector an askance look. “Tell me Ratchet's not giving this sludge to the hatchlings.”

“He'd be offended you think so little of his medical knowledge.” But Drift merely offers him a placid look in the medic’s stead.

Thundercracker flicks a wing back at him. “He'll get over it.” He presses a knuckle to his lipplate. “How are they?”

“You should see for yourself.” Drift's shoulders lift and fall, jarring the pommel of the sword visible to the left of his helm. “I'm a soldier, not a medic.”

Impertinent little...

Argh. Megatron would have backhanded Drift across the room for that kind of nonchalance. Not that Megatron is the sort of leader Thundercracker intends to emulate. Not Prime either. One stabbed everyone from the front. The other let them fall into rust to waste away.

Both have managed to nearly kill all of them.

He glances back at the work he's not getting done and rises to his pedes. He taps the console, saves his progress, and shuts down the file.

“Has he recharged?”

Drift looks away, which is pretty much all the answer Thundercracker needs. He clamps down on his wings before they flutter, betraying his agitation and rubs the plates of his face. His free hand waves through the air.

“Just... go make sure Skywarp doesn't blow anything up.”

“An exercise in futility if I ever heard one,” Drift mutters, but he turns to do as Thundercracker asks. He doesn't salute, but then, Thundercracker never demands one. As far as he's aware, it's never been an Autobot habit either.

Drift leaves, vanishing into the shadows for all that he's mostly white with a few bits of silver and black. Purity to balance out the darkness in his spark.

Thundercracker shudders. He remembers Deadlock, and the difference between that particular Decepticon and Drift is startling. It's hard to look at Drift and believe that his spark is the same one. Deadlock was everything Megatron wanted in a soldier. Quiet. Efficient. Deadly. Cold. Calculating. Merciless.

Drift is quiet. Efficient, too. But there is warmth despite the silence. Genuine concern for their group. For their medic in particular. He’s already risked what little clemency and goodwill the Autobots had for him on the word of Ratchet alone. He, more than any of them, truly understands what’s now at stake. But he’d helped Ratchet and subsequently followed them home anyway.

Drift is nothing like Deadlock.

That worries him more than anything.

What kind of torture, Thundercracker wonders? What kind of reprogramming could change a mech so drastically? What could have possibly happened to make him so very different?

But that’s a pondering for another time.

Thundercracker shuffles out of his makeshift office, having to turn to the side to accommodate the spread of his wings. He steps into a broader space, which is a full two-thirds of a barn they partially use for their home.

Lennox's farm is quite large by human standards; cramped and barely suitable by Cybertronian needs. Once upon a time, it might have thrived. There is land as far as the optic can see, fields upon fields of swaying grasses and rangeland. There are three intact barns and a farmhouse, easily two stories not including a basement.

They’ve turned one barn into living quarters of a sort. Warp has claimed another as a lab-cum-engineering space. The third doubles as energon manufactory and makeshift medbay. There’s plenty of room in the Seekers' barn. Ratchet and the hatchlings spend their days in the medbay, so of course that was where Drift can be found, too.

The house, for the most part, has been gutted of all usable materials. Many of the unnecessary walls are removed, leaving a hollowed out space in the middle that is now simply storage. From the outside, no one can even tell that four massive, sapient machines currently lived on the property.

How long their presence will remain a mystery, however, is a worry that haunts Thundercracker constantly. It’s clear that they cannot live on Earth forever. Their supplies will ultimately run dry. Prime’s madness will seek them out. Some human youngling could stumble upon them. Any piece of bad luck could be their downfall.

Where to go from here?

This is a question that plagues him nearly every night. There is also the matter of how.

Why in the Pit is he the fragging leader again?

Stooping, Thundercracker eases himself into the medbarn and manufactory. He straightens once inside, heading away from the widened entrance area and through a half-door. The sounds of bubbling liquids and a mech’s mutters float to his audials immediately.

They've had to get creative when it came to the hatchlings. They don’t have the supplies, the knowledge, nor the means to build actual tanks for the young ones. So they’d acquired an assorted collection of human bath tubs, metal tins, and anything water-tight and bowl-shaped large enough to bear a hatchling.

Three rows of these assorted tubs line one of the walls, each row containing four bins, each bin home to a hatchling. The tubs themselves are filled to the brim with energon – a brighter, fresher color than the sludge Thundercracker earlier consumed. He knows that Ratchet spends a lot of time calibrating and concocting nutrients to add to the alimentary baths. It's a crude and primitive set up compared to the colonies they once had on Cybertron, and Thundercracker's spark constricts at the sight.

This is what the war has brought them. They have only themselves to blame. Themselves and Prime and Megatron.

“If you've come to complain about your energon, you can save it,” Ratchet says without so much as turning around. He’s bent over a table, examining one of the hatchlings. From here, Thundercracker can't tell which.

He steps carefully into Ratchet's domain, choosing to hover near the tanks as they will provide him a measure of protection. Ratchet won't dare throw anything if he's in their vicinity, soft-sparked bot that he is at his core.

“I know that you’re doing the best you can,” Thundercracker replies carefully. He's particularly talented at this given how volatile Starscream was.

He keeps that observation to himself though. He doubts any comparison between Ratchet and Stars would put him on the medic's good side. Not that Ratchet really has one. Starscream didn’t either come to think of it.

The grounder huffs, half-turning to give Thundercracker a suspicious glance. “What do you want?”

“You assume I want something.”

Only a bit unnerved, Thundercracker turns his gaze to the hatchlings, his optics focused on the top row, which contains all of the Seeker models. Well, three of them at any rate. Ratchet must be tending to the last.

He reaches for the first bin, dipping a talon in the energon bath, gently nudging the resting hatchling. It wriggles in the thick gel, wing nubs twitching and hand blindly pawing for the tip of Thundercracker's claw. The earliest stages of color nanites are beginning to take form, Thundercracker notes. A pale yellow is appearing in patches on the hatchling's legs and arms.

“You didn't come here for a chat,” Ratchet retorts, but he does turn his attention back to the hatchling, words acerbic but touch gentle.

The Seeker hatchling grasps for Thundercracker's talon and holds on, tiny digits squeezing and unsqueezing as though testing its strength. It's a fragging miracle. Especially considering that when they had first brought the hatchlings here, none of them had any capability of motion. They were too energy-starved.

“How long?”

Ratchet's gears grind in exasperation. He doesn’t look up though.

“You'll have to be more specific.”

The metal of the hatchling's frame is scarily soft, yielding under Thundercracker's light touch. No wonder Ratchet banned Skywarp from doing more than looking.

“How long until they can be ensparked?”

Ratchet huffs again and turns, cradling the little Seeker in one hand. “You mean if we had the Allspark?”

He reaches up, very gently depositing the hatchling into the nutrient bath before shifting his attention to the second row, pulling out one of the other airframes. Thundercracker strongly suspects it will be a rotary.

“I don't know when they were first formed,” the other mech deflects. “Hatchings usually take a hexa-diun.”

Thundercracker watches him for a moment. “If you had to guess.”

“They were severely under-nourished. That delayed their development.” Deft medic fingers remove the hatchling from its tank, to a very vocal protest by said hatchling, and Thundercracker feels the prickle of a scan. “Three more diun, I suspect. Though Seekers tend to incept earlier.”

The hatchling beside Thundercracker falls back into a pseudo-recharge, its grip loosening on his talon. He withdraws, letting the energon trickle back into the bath. They can't afford to waste a drop.

“What can we do?”

Ratchet brings the airframe closer to his optics. Thundercracker hears the click-click of magnifiers.

“Nothing. They'll be alive, but that's about it. We'll have ourselves a nice collection of drones. Without the Allspark, that's all they'll ever be.”

A long moment of silence passes. Thundercracker watches Ratchet confirm something with his inspection before he returns the hatchling to its bath and reaches for the next. He's been keeping a close optic on all twelve of them, determination bent to making sure they survive.

It makes Thundercracker’s spark ache and crack on the inside.

“Are we wasting our time?” he asks softly. Tone something that Ratchet’s never quite heard before but something Warp would easily recognize.

Ratchet doesn’t dare glance his direction.

“Depends on your definition.”

“Ratch--”

“You're asking me a question I can't answer,” Ratchet snaps with an audible growl of his engine. “Did I make the wrong choice? You think I don't ask myself that every fragging day?” His energy field spikes, betraying the emotions churning beneath the surface. The sorrow and the regret and the determination and the longing.

Thundercracker holds his ground. “Drift has mentioned Perceptor's research more than once.”

“He doesn't have any copies of it!” Ratchet whirls toward him, abandoning for the moment his inspection of the hatchlings. “All he has are memory fragments of overheard babbled conversation!”

“It can't be entirely useless,” Thundercracker counters.

The grounder’s ventilations kick into a higher gear. “It is to me. Drift 's not a scientist. And for that matter, neither am I.”

Thundercracker doesn’t buy that at all.

“But you are a medic.”

“A field medic,” Ratchet stresses. “I've had vorns of experience, but I don't have all the data. This is beyond repairs. This is mythology and spark physics and creation all rolled together into a crumbling scrap heap that makes no sense.”

Thundercracker frowns, folding his arms over his chassis. Mythology? His processor flickers, contemplating.

“Who made the Allspark?”

Ratchet startles, audibly rebooting his audials. “What?”

“It had to have come from somewhere,” the Seeker insists. “Primus? Who is that? The body of Cybertron?” Thundercracker works his jaw, thoughts leaping from one pattern to the next. “Does that mean Primus is dead because Cybertron is gone?”

Ratchet palms his faceplate, shoulders sinking. “Now, you're having an existential crisis? Sigma, Thundercracker. I don't know what you want me to say!”

“That's not what I'm getting at.” His wings flutter. “If the Allspark was made, can't we make it again? Or go back to the source?”

One of Ratchet's hands wave through the air dismissively. “From what I can gather, that was the core of Perceptor's research. Allspark origins and the like. But you're asking the wrong mech to make sense of it.” He fists his hands out of sheer frustration. “We need Perceptor. Or Skyfire. Or slaggit all to the Pit, Starscream.”

Thundercracker doesn’t even tense at the final name anymore.

“We don't have them.” But it’s quiet. Gentle even.

“Tell me something I don't know.” Ratchet's field spikes, slapping the Seeker with a harsh whip of exhaustion and exasperation. “The Allspark is gone, Thundercracker. We can't rebuild it. We can only resign ourselves to extinction.”

Ratchet abruptly turns back around, belying his own words with the tender care he gives to the next hatchling he scans. The tiny grounder lies in his palm, blunt fingers curled into fists, optics shuttered, barely formed frame soft and malleable. They are so fragile, and no wonder Skywarp doesn't dare touch them. No wonder Drift only looks, afraid that his self-control is not as strong as he needs it to be.

There are only twelve of them. The entire future of the Cybertronian race, and they are nothing but a collection of drones. So much wasted life, so much wasted potential.

“We'll find an answer,” Thundercracker states firmly. To believe otherwise invites him into a spiral of pessimism and surrender. Despair.

“So you say.” Ratchet grinds several gears together, his engine idling, and seems to bend his entire focus toward tending the hatchlings.

For right now, it really is all they can do.

o0o0o



They aren't a military unit or a civilian cohort. They aren't really friends or family the way humans have them. And yet, it somehow doesn't feel strange to sit together, all four of them at once, passing around cubes of Ratchet's latest attempt to distill a better energon.

The kneejerk reaction to seeing the infamous Autobot sigil has all but faded. Thundercracker's weapons no longer cycle up. His battle systems have stopped flashing online. He doesn't so much as startle.

He sits next to Skywarp, stares at two former enemies from across the swept-clean space of a barn floor, and it should feel odd. It doesn't. Not anymore.

“Know what this slag reminds me of?” Skywarp says into the comfortable and contemplative quiet as he holds up his cube of energon, giving the pink hue of it a disdainful look. “Remember Maccadam's?”

Thundercracker pulls out a datapad from subspace. “Don't think there's a mech from Cybertron who doesn't know Maccadam's.”

“Yeah,” Warp offers with a shrug,” but remember that one time Oilslick got into a fight with Sky Shadow?”

He glances up from the datapad, cycling his optics. “What does one have to do with the other?”

Skywarp shrugs and quickly tosses back the energon, his powerful engines giving a thrum of distaste. “Just making conversation.” He leans back against a crate, legs splayed out in front of him. “It's been eons. Cybertron's just a memory now. And I've had enough of forgetting those.”

“We don't forget,” Ratchet says, facial components twitching with the effort of concealing his emotions. “We don't have squishy brains.”

Skywarp taps his helm with one talon. “Memory cores get damaged. Slag happens.”

“That's what backups are for, glitch.”

“Backups get lost. Destroyed.” Skywarp shrugs and glances away, his body expressing discomfort. “Sometimes, even we forget.”

Thundercracker doesn't look up from his pad, but he can feel the tension in the room. He remembers the first time he met Skywarp, eons and eons ago, remembers hauling the battered mech out of a warzone, thinking that the poor Seeker wasn't going to make it. But some field medic had performed a miracle, and Skywarp had survived. But his processor had been severely damaged, his memory core taking the worst of it.

There's a lot Skywarp doesn't remember. And never will.

Sometimes, Thundercracker wonders if forgetting is the greatest gift any of them could have. There's a lot he doesn't want to recall.

“And when we're gone, who’s going to remember?” Skywarp adds, a strangely maudlin tone to his vocals. “Cybertron's gone. There's what? A few hundred of us left? Probably less. Our culture's rust on the eaves.”

Thundercracker ventilates, offlining his pad with an audible click. “Washracks,” he says, to the surprise of his three companions. “I can't remember the last time I used a proper set of washracks.”

There had been facilities on the Fallen's ship, but they spat cold solvent and were shared with dozens of drones who had no concept of quiet and personal space. Right now, they are cleaning themselves with buckets and human clothes. Thundercracker can feel the grit in layers, all through his internals. Probably packed on his hydraulics, his joints, everywhere. He can't remember the last time he had a full maintenance either.

“Rust sticks,” Drift offers from where he leans against the wall, sword propped over his legs, fingers idly tracing the length of the blade. “Energon gummies. Oilcakes with tungsten shavings.”

Thundercracker's tanks gurgle an agreement. Eons and eons ago, when energon had taste, when the higher ranked military mechs could spend their meager credits on a treat now and then. When the shades of energon were varied not because of their quality but because of the special additives and flavors of metallics.

“Facilities,” Ratchet offers quietly, optics downcast. “Real medical equipment. Scanners and welders and stasis pods and fully-functional berths.”

“Chairs,” Thundercracker agrees, thinking longingly of actual seats where he can be comfortable without worrying about pinching a line or kinking a joint. Where he can flex his wings without flicking them against something solid and uncomfortable. “Any kind of furniture really.”

Skywarp makes a noise of agreement. He tosses back another gulp of his cube and grimaces at the taste of it.

“Holovids,” he adds almost reverently. “It's so fragging boring here! What I wouldn't give for one of the classics.” He leaks air. “The shopping districts, remember those? Not that we ever really got to roam around one.”

Mech's got a point. Shopping was for the nobility; those who didn't have to work for a living. They spent their creds, wandered around the expensive stores, and exclaimed over the newest frivolities.

Thundercracker's sole experience with shopping extends to hunting through the lines and lines of merchant stalls crammed into the tiniest alleyways in Kaon or Vos, depending on where he was stationed at the time. What little credits he had were spent on the maintenance and upkeep of his frame. Rarely did he get to indulge.

“Libraries.” Ratchet’s optics glimmer with the evidence of upcoming overcharge. “Archives full of data. Full of answers. What would I give to have access to those again?” He slumps against the wall, dully pushing his energon away from him.

“The mausoleums,” Drift murmurs. His helm tips downward, the side of it leaning against the hilt of his sword. “Respect for the dead. Think we lost that a long time ago.”

Thundercracker's spark gives a squeeze of sorrow. He thinks of his kin, fellow Seekers, wingmates and soldiers. All who have fallen over the course of the war. Thundercracker is one of the last of his kind, if not the only one left. Even Skywarp is of a different model line.

“We lost a lot of things,” Skywarp decides miserably, kicking out his pede again, like a sparkling building toward a tantrum. “Stuff we aren't ever gonna get back. Frag us all to the Pit and back.”

Silence sweeps through the confined space, their energy fields syncing in shared misery and guilt. Ratchet's, however, is the worst, as it has been from the moment he first pulled Thundercracker and Skywarp from the wreckage. There's so much remorse and agony in the medic's field that it's painful to be around him.

So Thundercracker is hardly surprised when Ratchet lurches to his pedes, tossing his empty cube at the wall. It shatters into bits, highlighting his noisy stomp from the room and taking his swirl of despair with him. Another pair of blue optics track Ratchet's exodus, and once again, Thundercracker is hardly surprised when Drift stands as well, carefully stowing his sword in the sheath along his backstrut.

“Thank you for the company,” he says in that painfully formal way of his and makes an exit from the room, albeit much quieter and contained.

Skywarp watches after them and then leans back into the cradle of scavenged bits and pieces. “Mech really knows how to ruin a mood,” he remarks, gaze sliding toward Thundercracker with a knowing glint.

A smirk curls Thundercracker's lipplate as he bows his head. He returns the majority of his attention to the datapad in his claws.

“You think it'll be tonight?”

“Nah. Ratchet's prickly, and Drift doesn't know how to push. The saga continues.” He kicks up one pede, making himself obscenely comfortable. “Never have I seen two more oblivious bots.”

Thundercracker stares at the screen without really seeing it, memories surging to the fore and threatening to spill into his active recall. He reboots his vocalizer, just to ensure there isn't any static in his response.

“Yeah,” he agrees and bends further over his pad. “Autobots have a talent for being blind to the obvious.”

Skywarp snorts, an organic noise that he has assimilated into his emotional routines. “It's how we got in this mess in the first place.” He slings an arm back over his optics, as though he intends to go into recharge at this very moment.

Thundercracker makes a wordless hum of agreement. He hopes that Skywarp does fall into recharge. Then he can sink into the memories in peace.

It’s quiet for a time. So long that he does think Skywarp is on the verge of recharge. He’s wrong though.

“TC?”

It’s soft. Almost uncertain.

Thundercracker slowly looks up.

“Yes?”

Skywarp's energy field vibrates with hesitation. His face says something Thundercracker isn’t sure he wants to hear.

But then, Warp turns away.

“...Never mind.”

****

Chapter Text

The first clue that something is not quite right hits Thundercracker as he bursts out of recharge. He’s woken by a tiny subroutine that runs on the edge of his awareness, keeping track of their perimeter sensors.

Something is approaching.

Before he's fully online, Thundercracker swings himself out of the berth and taps into their makeshift systems. He’s instantly skimming the report from the perimeter sensors and the sensory grid laid over their base. The arrival isn’t one of the human's insentient vehicles passing by on the little-traveled road at the edge of the farm. No, whatever’s approaching is coming from above.

Human transport aircraft don’t fly this low unless landing, and there aren’t any airports nearby. It could be another one of those annoying crop dusters or a personal craft, but it’s the wrong time of day for those.

Thundercracker pushes through the curtain concealing his berth and into the living space. There, Skywarp is stumbling from his own debatably private area.

“Want me to check it out?” Skywarp asks, already flexing his wings.

Thundercracker taps into the cameras. There are four of them, carefully concealed on the roofs and giving a broad view of the surrounding landscape. He sees nothing. No low-flying planes. No birds that occasionally trip the sensor grid. Not even so much as a lost weather balloon.

But the alarm is still flashing. Now, Thundercracker's comm is buzzing, too.

“What's going on?” he voices aloud.

--We don't know-- is Drift’s reply, succinct as always. --Can't see anything on the vids. Sensors are pinging back something large, but it's not registering on any of the scanners. It passed through the trip lasers, but it's not there.--

“Maybe they're malfunctioning?” Skywarp suggests as he listens in. He rubs his fists against his optics like some organic.

Thundercracker checks the satellite schedule, hacked from the military database, and deems it safe enough to go outside. He peers into the open fields, the faintest ripple in the sky giving credence to the alarm of their sensors.

“No, they aren't,” he counters, battle systems cycling on. “Whatever it is, it's cloaked.”

Further confirmation arrives in the form of a second alert that pings Thundercracker's processor. It’s the pressure sensors warning him that something has moved in the field.

Skywarp's wings jerk upright. “That's Decepticon technology,” he says in a low tone and Thundercracker hears the quiet whine of a blaster charging. “And we don't have any buddies who'd come looking.”

“The better question would be how they found us,” the other Seeker agrees, moving into position.

He sends out a light sweep with his own sensors, a probing glance that pings back the dimensions of a spacecraft. Not that Thundercracker couldn’t have guessed that on his own. He exchanges a silent look with Skywarp and his trinemate nods, blasters replacing his hands and spinning with building charge.

Thundercracker powers up his own cannons, and the two of them split. They move to flank the ship that has invited itself into their sanctuary.

“Unidentified Decepticon spacecraft,” Thundercracker says aloud, keeping his tone as commanding as possible. “State your designation and your purpose, or you will be fired upon.”

The air ripples in front of Thundercracker. The cloaking field shifts as the Decepticons disengage the protocols that would allow them to disembark without unveiling their craft. These bots are no fools.

“Mech, that is some kind of greeting,” a voice drawls from nowhere, though acoustics indicate it’s coming from directly in front of Thundercracker.

He tenses. Searching out with his energy field since his own sensors are seemingly useless. Something tugs at him. Something oddly not hostile.

“Identify yourselves!” Skywarp growls from nearby. His thrusters spit heat, betraying his anxiety.

Everything is at stake right now. Their lives. The hatchling’s lives. Everything.

This is, of course, the very click that Ratchet comes bursting out of his medbarn. His energy field is a whirl of surprise and relief and happiness that shocks Thundercracker more than anything else.

“Wheeljack, you aft, get your rusty frame out here!” Ratchet all but bellows, pedes stomping through the frost-covered grass.

Thundercracker cycles his audials.

Wheeljack!? Why is the designation so familiar?

“Wheeljack!” Skywarp gasps, boggling as laughter echoes all around them and the sky ripples again.

A mech appears out of nowhere, all lines and stocky frame, battlemask concealing half his face, but his vocal indicators flashing merrily. The mech bounds straight toward Ratchet before Thundercracker can even fathom what’s going on, and they collide with a screech of metal on metal. It’s an attacking embrace that sends Ratchet tumbling on his aft and probably causing no small amount of dents.

Thundercracker stares. So does Skywarp. But for different reasons.

“You glitch,” Ratchet snarls, managing to both cling to the new arrival and smack his palm over the bot’s helm at the same time. “You stupid, fragging...”

“Primus, I missed ya, too,” the mech, whom Thundercracker assumes to be Wheeljack, puts in with another laugh. There's a groan of metal on metal as his arms tighten around Ratchet and refuse to let go.

Ratchet moves to grip him firmly, pulling Wheeljack forward him, pressing their helms together. His optics offline, a shudder of relief flickering across his frame.

Skywarp powers down his weapons and wanders over beside Thundercracker. He looks disappointed. Wistful even.

“Well, that was... unexpected.”

Overstatement of the eon, Warp.

Thundercracker disengages his own battle protocols. He isn’t sure how to react to the scene before him, but he settles for something like acceptance. It’s better than the alternative at any rate.

“Unexpected but lucky,” he decides.

Especially since any kind of battle would’ve threatened their makeshift base. The barns are little more than weather-beaten wood and provide bare protection to the hatchlings within.

Behind him, a door swings open. Drift emerges with a wary glance, sword gripped in one hand. Thundercracker gives him the sign for all clear, but Drift doesn't immediately relax. He nods once, sheathes the massive sword, and steps into the open, pulling the door firmly shut behind him. The hatchlings don't need constant supervision fortunately, and it's best that their new arrival does not see them yet.

Ratchet may trust the Autobot that tackled him to the ground, but Thundercracker is reserving judgment. For now.

“Not an attack?” Drift asks, his vocal tones soft. But his optics lock on Ratchet and Wheeljack, who better resemble a pair of reunited bondmates than fellow soldiers.

Skywarp smirks then. “Why? You jealous?”

Drift ignores him, focusing on Thundercracker instead. Though he doesn't miss the way Drift's optics keep floating back to Ratchet. Interesting.

“How did he find us?”

A very good question. One Thundercracker intends to have answered, sooner rather than later.

He approaches the cuddling Autobots, wings flared, rumbling his engine pointedly. The fact that they have discreetly cabled themselves together isn't missed either. Hmm. Perhaps Ratchet and Drift are truly platonic. Never mind what the latter obviously wishes.

“The satellites will pass overhead in less than ten minutes, so unless you intend to announce our presence to the humans, I suggest you make yourselves more presentable,” Thundercracker says, and he can't hide the annoyance in his tone. Partly because he hates being left out of the loop. Not to mention he's once again stepped into the role of leader.

Ratchet doesn't look up or even online his optics. However, the snarl that echoes in the medic's chassis proves he's paying attention.

“I know about the satellites, frag it.”

Wheeljack chuckles, pats Ratchet on the back. He then extricates himself from Ratchet's arms, despite the medic's protest.

“Cozy little family you've got here, Ratch,” he comments with a green flash of his indicators. “Not... uh, what I was expecting.”

“Where is Optimus Prime?”

Thundercracker whirls toward the cloaked ship at the unexpected voice, though he should have guessed the Autobot wasn't traveling alone. The field shimmers, and two more mechs step into view. His optics cycle wider at the sight of them. One, he doesn't recognize, although the Autobot sigil is plain enough. The other is a Decepticon.

Thundercracker sends off a ping, which confirms one identity and provides a designation for the other – Tracks. Not that it helps. Thundercracker doesn't know anything about this Autobot. And because politeness couldn't hurt, Thundercracker sends a quick burst of his own designation for their benefit.

“Dreadwing,” Thundercracker acknowledges and draws himself up straight. “What are you doing with these Autobots?”

The larger Seeker arches a brow. “Shouldn't I be asking you the same thing, Commander Thundercracker?” He gives a pointed look around. “Where is Lord Megatron?”

“Dead,” Skywarp chirps, bounding forward to examine the two of them, giving the Autobot a briefly interested look before focusing on Dreadwing again. “Is there anyone else aboard?”

“No,” Tracks answers, his voice laced with cultured tones and accents that denote his origins as a Towers mech.

Thundercracker's optics narrow. “How did you find us?”

“I can answer that,” Wheeljack says brightly, patting Ratchet on the shoulder before moving to stand with his companions. “It was me. I found Ratchet. I can always find Ratch. Though I did expect him to be with Prime.”

Ratchet palms his face. “That's a long story,” he responds, emotion leaking into his vocals. “But Thundercracker's right. We have to get back inside.”

“Why?” Dreadwing frowns and shifts closer to Tracks as Skywarp eases up to them.

“It's part of that loooong story,” Warp inserts, throwing an arm over Dreadwing's shoulder and poking the dark blue Seeker in his abdominal plating. “We don't want to be found by the humans just yet. That’d be bad.”

Dreadwing shrugs out from under the arm. He shuffles even closer to Tracks until his wing brushes the Autobot’s side.

“I see.” His gaze flickers to the barns, and Thundercracker can see the distaste in his expression. “This is your base?”

“For better or worse,” Ratchet grumps and turns on a pede, stomping toward the medbarn. It has the most space and carries the least explosive material.

Drift follows him without another word.

“Some things never change,” Wheeljack offers with a shake of his helm. He turns to acknowledge his companions. “Come on then. We won't get any answers standing around here; that's for sure.”

Tracks’ mouthplates curl into a grin. “This is going to be... interesting.”

Dreadwing gives him a look but trails after him very closely even as he steps forward. All three new arrivals follow Ratchet and Drift into the barn, leaving Thundercracker and Skywarp alone to stare at each other.

“You ever feel like you've wandered into some alternate dimension by accident?” Warp asks suddenly. His gaze is locked on the still-cloaked ship, wings all but twitching to go explore. So much Cybertronian tech so close. He's all but oozing over it.

Thundercracker turns away. “Every tic of every cycle,” he grumbles. “Get your aft in here.”

“You probably don't remember Wheeljack, do you?” Warp poses after a moment.

“I never made it a habit of knowing my Autobot oppressors,” he replies automatically, not even thinking over the answer.

Skywarp makes a noise, half-amusement and half-disdain. “Don't spit that Decepticon propaganda at me,” he shoots back.

Thundercracker is just in front of the door, but he turns toward his trinemate.

“You’re telling me you don't believe it?”

“That's not what I said.” Skywarp folds his arms over his chassis. “The Council's offline, and for that, I say good riddance. But there were some decent mechs in the Autobots. You worked with Ratchet, remember?”

Thundercracker doesn’t even dignify that with a scathing look.

As if he could forget.

“Exception to the rule,” he retorts and tries not to remember things he’d much rather forget. “The majority of my other clients weren't worth the energon in their lines. Or mine.”

Which, as a consequence of his position within the Home Guard and his origin as a war-build, was barely adequate for his needs and completely tasteless.

And that’s beside the point.

“You do know Ratchet's an Autobot, right?” Skywarp presses with a raised orbital ridge. “And Drift, too.”

A low sound resonates in Thundercracker's internals, but he bites it back. Warp is too good at pressing other bot’s buttons, and he refuses to let this bother him. Skywarp will eventually let it go; Stars never would have. He’d simply press and cajole and threaten until Megatron stomped on him or he found something else that caught his interest more. Only to return to the original topic at the least convenient time possible.

Warp though… He was just testing the skies. Seeing what was hidden in the clouds and noting the topography of the land below.

“That's a different matter entirely,” Thundercracker dismisses, and his tone says that it’s time to cut this out. “Why are you suddenly Team Prime anyway?”

Skywarp's optics flash, and he bares his denta in an unexpected burst of aggression. One that takes Thundercracker aback.

“Frag Prime and everything that glitch stands for,” Warp spits out, and his wings flare. “He's just as bad as his brother; it just took him longer to show it.”

Thundercracker searches his face for a long moment. He isn’t quite sure what to think of the look he finds.

“Just what are you getting at?” he questions, but it’s softer now. Muted and delicate. Like what he’d used when dealing with Stars at his worst.

Starscream was the moody one of their trine. Prone to snits and fits and pouting like a spoiled Towers-born sparkling who hadn’t gotten the last energon treat. Warp was supposed to be the energetic one, bright and loud. Boisterous. Not sullen.

“I'm sick of it,” Skywarp says then, and his entire frame slumps, his face twisting with exhaustion. A rare display of vulnerability. “Autobots. Decepticons. Factions. The lines that divide us. Real and imagined.” He gushes out air. “You don't remember Wheeljack, but I do. I remember admiring him, wanting to meet him, thinking… This is what I could’ve been if my spark had been given a different frame.”

Some part of Thundercracker aches at that. His spark, he thinks. His memory core, too. He could’ve been a lot more as well. If he’d been given a real opportunity.

“And now's your chance,” he offers and moves closer to put a hand on Warp’s shoulder.

He doesn’t shake it off. Instead leaning into the touch in a way that Starscream never would. No matter how bad things got.

“Yeah.” A chirrup of hope brightens the core of Skywarp's energy field as it wraps around them both. “Weird how things turn out, isn't it?”

That's one way of looking at it, Thundercracker supposes. He makes a semi-verbal agreement and gives a squeeze before letting go. Turns and girds his loins, so to speak. New arrivals mean new dangers mean new processor-aches.

Until the moment he was designated their unofficial leader, Thundercracker never thought he'd have reason to miss Starscream, aside from the obvious. But with the knowledge that three Autobots and two pseudo-Decepticons await him in a human-made structure… well, that make Thundercracker's spark contract with anxiety.

Thundercracker steps into the barn, Skywarp on his heels, and is surprised by the arrangement that greets him. He expected to have found the Autobots migrating together, excluding Dreadwing. Thereby putting a clear line between the two factions. Drift would’ve probably kept himself a mech apart, looking longingly in Ratchet's direction.

What he finds, however, is that Dreadwing and the Towers mech are all but attached at the hip along the near wall. Wheeljack is away from them, now examining an energon purifier with close scrutiny. Meanwhile, Ratchet has one of the hatches open, listening to whatever directions Wheeljack gives.

The only one who meets Thundercracker's expectations is Drift. He’s sitting on a crate, closest to the entrance the hatchling area. He’d seem terribly nonchalant were it not for his painfully pathetic expression as he looks in Ratchet's direction. It’d be hilarious if it weren't so pitiful.

Pfft. Autobots.

At least, all of them are clustered in the first part of the barn, away from where the hatchlings are kept. Thundercracker doesn’t want to have to explain that one just yet.

“Cutting it close, weren't you?” Ratchet immediately snarks in his direction without looking up. “Frag it, Jack, if you do that you'll short out the regulator!”

Wheeljack has the gall to look offended. “I think I know what I'm doing, medic. Trust me. This'll work.”

Skywarp all but runs over, field a whirling mix of excitement and trepidation.

“What are you doing?” he demands like an eager sparkling. “That's delicate equipment. It barely works as it is.”

There's a distinct clunk. A flash of something. The smell of smoke. Thundercracker winces, but Wheeljack's indicators light up with self-satisfaction.

“And now, it'll barely work better,” Wheeljack says with an affectionate pat to the machine's outer casing. “It's good work for what you got. Build it yourself, kid?”

Thundercracker watches as Warp puffs himself up with indignation. Only to deflate and fluster at the unexpected praise.

“Ratchet helped.”

“Since when have you been modest?” the medic retorts with a roll of his optics as he snaps the panel closed. “I gave you the materials. That's the extent of my contribution.”

Wheeljack elbows Ratchet in the side, though affectionately. “Smart move, Ratch. Remember the last time I let you build something without supervision?”

“Irrelevant!” Ratchet declares loudly, and with a huff, he turns his back. “Have your little talk. I'm busy!”

“I, for one, would be interested in some answers,” Tracks interprets, lifting an arm and waving it in the air. “For instance, what's going on? Where's Prime? What is Ratchet doing with you two? Why are we hiding out in this... building?” Revulsion is evident in the mech's sour look and the way he inches from everything, as though afraid of the inescapable dust.

“We're hiding here because we don't have much of a choice otherwise,” Drift inserts as he leans against the wall and folds his arms over his chassis. Disappointment practically wafts from him. “The Autobots would kill us, and the humans would happily toss whatever's left into their oceans.”

“Humans?” Wheeljack repeats, the curiosity in his tone evident.

“The dominant sapient species on this planet,” Thundercracker answers with a wing flip. He pulls up a crate; this is going to be a long conversation. “Optimus Prime is currently allied with the humans along with the rest of the surviving Autobots, and he isn’t the same mech. He is... different.”

Wheeljack's optics dim, giving away the frown hiding behind his battle mask. He turns to their medic.

“Ratch?”

“Don't ask me to explain it, Jack,” the other mech replies with a tired burr of static in his vocalizer. His back is currently to them as he tinkers around, trying and failing to look busy. Equally trying not to look to where the hatchlings and their containers are hidden just out of view. “Just… don't.”

Tracks' orbital ridges lift nearly to the edge of his helm. “Very well,” he allows slowly. “Prime is different. So you defected?”

“Something like that,” Drift answers as Ratchet visibly stiffens but says nothing. “He's still Autobot. They're still Decepticons. Together we're... what?”

“Trying to get off this fragging planet,” Skywarp throws in, dropping himself down into a lazy sprawl. “Though there's nowhere to go. Cybertron's gone. Destroyed. By Prime himself.”

Shock ripples through the barn in a tidal wave of spiking fields. Dreadwing steps forward, but Tracks’ grip keeps him back.

Drift shakes his head and puts a hand to his optics. “An action caused, in part, by Megatron and Sentinel Prime’s incomprehensible plot. It forced our hands.”

“It’d be easier,” Ratchet interjects rather loudly, “if you gave them the data packet.”

Trust Ratchet to bellow the most convenient suggestion.

There’s a moment of pause then as they look at each other. With an almost sheepish air, Thundercracker directs Skywarp to cable up to Wheeljack, Drift to Tracks, and then takes Dreadwing's offered data connection himself.

Compiled by Ratchet and Drift, edited from the one the Autobots currently use to induct new arrivals, this particular packet leaves out nothing. No details, no truths. Just the hard, bitter facts. Once the file is transferred, Thundercracker watches the new bots, able to tell just when they've unpacked certain details.

Five years is hardly a speck in the cosmic timeline to Cybertronians, but it’s so very rare that so much change hits their race in such a short period. Megatron's death and resurrection. Optimus Prime's death and resurrection. The battles, the mechs lost on both sides, painful revelations, the destruction of their world, the Autobots’ tentative alliance with the humans, and the disdainful way they are treated by the organics. The Fallen, Sentinel's betrayal, the hatchlings...

Dreadwing slumps onto a crate, a mournful keen rising in his vocalizer. Tracks passes an arm over his companion's back, as though he knows the reason behind this sorrow. Thundercracker immediately suspects it’s specific and not a generalized grief for the loss of their kind and their home.

Wheeljack too lets out a painful sound of loss and drops to his knees. A surprised Skywarp nearly topples down with him as he reaches out to catch the Autobot on automatic.

Thundercracker's own spark gives a tremble of sympathy. It's easier for him, he supposes, since he's had so much time to absorb all of their losses little by little. He's been here, on Earth. Too busy trying to keep hidden, to stay alive, to figure out what the frag they’re going to do. He hasn't really had time to dwell, to mourn.

It must be worse for them, to learn of how very fragged they are as a species. No planet. No leadership. No future. Friends and kin extinguished by this pointless war, trapped on a planet where the resident population would sooner see them offlined and dumped somewhere to rust.

“Ratch,” Wheeljack croaks, vocalizer stuttering with static and indicators now grey. “Did he...?”

“Suffer?” Ratchet's voice, for once, is soft and gentle. There is none of his earlier ire. “No, Que offlined quickly.”

Lies. Autobot sentimentality. Thundercracker knows what happened in the Chicago battle. He remembers picking up the celebration over the airwaves, hearing Barricade and a pack of drones gloating. He remembers being disgusted, spark churning at the gleeful murders and honorless dregs the once-great Decepticons had become.

Que's death was violent and then mocked. Unable to hold onto his dignity even after fighting for a planet that didn't want the Autobots' protection.

Ratchet moves away after that, heading through the door to the medbay proper. Thundercracker though grits his denta and glances at Dreadwing, whose helm has bowed, his hands clasped together. Tracks is all but welded to him, murmuring into the Seeker's audial. So close that their fields have blurred and synced. Thundercracker can’t even tell them apart now.

Are they… together? Involved? Autobot and Decepticon? A Towers mech and a Seeker? A war-build?

Before the war, Dreadwing could’ve been imprisoned for even touching someone from the Towers. For speaking out of turn. And now, he has one all but attached to his spark. Willingly!

Yet another mystery to unravel.

Rubbing his faceplate, Thundercracker turns away from the sheer misery and joins Ratchet in the back room. Not that the medic is doing anything important. He's standing in front of the single berth, braced on the edge, shoulders hunched.

“They could probably use some energon,” Ratchet says quietly as Thundercracker approaches from behind. Sneaking up is practically impossible; his proximity sensors are always on high alert. A carryover from the last several years around Prime and the humans.

And what does that tell, Thundercracker muses from time to time. What does it say that Ratchet was so uncomfortable around his own allies that it warranted being on constant alert.

“Do we have it to spare?”

Thundercracker thinks of the hatchlings first. He glances over the screens that someone – Drift, perhaps – had moved to block them from both easy view and sensor sweeps.

Ratchet huffs. “With Wheeljack here, we can recoup our losses in less than a half-orn. If he and Skywarp work together, probably within an Earth day or two.”

For some reason, that makes him feel strangely buoyant. He doesn’t dare think on why.

“Autobots and Decepticons cooperating?” Thundercracker says instead, lipplates curling in a wry grin. “Perish the thought.”

A rattle echoes across Ratchet's plating. His energy field betrays the mixture of relief and sadness that seems to be ever-present as of late.

“It's strange,” he murmurs, shoulders sinking further as he stares straight ahead. “This, right here, is the future Optimus claimed to always want. It's the reason Ironhide pledged his life to the Autobots. It's the reason so many followed Optimus, despite loathing the Senate and High Council.” Ratchet's helm dips, ventilations a long, slow rhythm. “We're in this barn, Decepticons and Autobots sharing grief instead of ordnance. And the Prime who should be here, proud and accomplished, is out there somewhere. Trying to kill us all.”

Words crowd Thundercracker's vocalizer, but they’re all trite and useless. Ratchet is right, of course. He remembers the way he felt when he realized Megatron's original ideals were now buried by a lust for power. He remembers the betrayal that stabbed his processor, though he'd remained a Decepticon because the alternative was much worse. Go Neutral, desert his few friends, and subsequently starve on his own. Join the Autobots and forever suffer disdain as both a traitor and for his frame-type. Or remain a Decepticon, stay with Warp… and Stars, and suck it up.

Such wonderful options those were.

“Frag the Prime,” Thundercracker states in sudden clarity. “Frag him. Frag the Lord High Protector. The Senators. The Councilors. Frag the government. When has it done anything but make us miserable?”

A bitter chuckle spills like static from Ratchet's core. “Anarchy to the end, is that it?” His laughter is edged like a weapon. “We were never more than their pawns. Their playthings.” He glances over his shoulder, optics dim and betraying his exhaustion. “And because they didn’t know better, they called it civilization, when it was part of their slavery.”

It’s a human quote, but one that Thundercracker surprisingly recognizes.

“Maybe.” He pulls out some energon, though he feels like a poor host for offering the new arrivals this pathetic, gritty mixture. Even if it is the best of the batch so far. “Help me carry these?”

“Yes, sir.” Ratchet's tone is wry, but at least the overbearing sadness has lightened. He takes two in hand, leaving Thundercracker to carry the others.

Thundercracker, however, hesitates. His curiosity won't leave him alone.

“Coincidentally, you and Wheeljack...?”

Blue optics narrow. “Do you want to finish that question?”

An image of Drift's pathetic expression flashes across Thundercracker's databanks.

“I wasn't intending an insult,” he counters. “But he did say he could find you anywhere. Brothers?”

“Primus forbid.” Ratchet snorts in a distinctly human manner. “I've known that glitch more than half my functioning. Long enough that he's imprinted on my field and vice versa.”

Imprinting...?

It's not unlike the links that Seeker trines use, but this is not something that can be forced. It’s born only from constant proximity, and once solidified, imprints don’t fade. Similar to bonding in that regard but not quite the same. Caretakers often rely on it for siblings if they choose to take on more than one sparkling. Assuming, of course, that the siblings don’t spontaneously form a true bond of their own. And further assuming that there is a sibling in the first place. After all, such a thing is reserved for the middle or upper classes.

Lower class citizens simply couldn't afford more than one sparkling. If at all.

Thundercracker lowers his gaze. He’s unable to help the smirk in his tone.

“Does Drift know that?”

Not unexpectedly, Ratchet bristles. His plating flares out as though to make himself larger and more intimidating. Not that he isn’t intimidating enough as is.

“What does that have to do with anything?” he barks and pushes past Thundercracker, energy field a whip-crack of irritation.

At least he's been distracted from the melancholy, though by the time they join the others, it washes over Thundercracker again and tries to drag him down. Drift remains a silent statue, alone as he sits on the floor. His sword is perched between his legs, hands wrapped around the hilt. His helm is bowed as though either in recharge or meditation. Thundercracker suspects the latter.

Tracks has shifted from half-embracing Dreadwing to draping himself across the large Seeker's back and wings. His fingertips trace calming patterns over the etched glyphs on the broad, dark blue expanse. A subsonic hum resonates in the Autobot’s chassis, a soft cant of sympathy and consolation.

Skywarp's not even present. Where his trinemate has gone, Thundercracker isn't immediately certain, but a location ping indicates he's sneaked away to his lab. Thundercracker will have to venture over there and figure out what's caused him to go into hiding.

Wheeljack is the only one who looks up when they return. His optics brighten by much smaller margins than his earlier good humor.

“I'm not sure I want to know what that is,” he says with a pointed glance at the cubes in their hands.

“You'll take it and be grateful,” Ratchet grumbles, shoving the sludgy mixture at him. “And then, you can make sure we don't have to drink this slag again.”

Wheeljack tips the cube left and right, watching it glop around. “I wouldn't even put this slop in the Jackhammer.”

Which, Thundercracker assumes, must be the name of their spacecraft.

Still, Wheeljack slides his battlemask back, revealing a faceplate riddled with weld scars. Some of them look recent.

Ratchet rolls his optics and stomps by his fellow Autobot, snatching one of Thundercracker's cubes to take both to Tracks and Dreadwing. That leaves Thundercracker with a final cube that he has no intention of consuming for himself. So he caps the energon and stows it away in his subspace for later.

“So,” Wheeljack says, planting his hands on his hips and staring at Thundercracker. “What exactly are your plans?”

The Seeker just looks at him.

“Why are you asking me?”

A rumble of amusement echoes in the engineer's chassis. “Because Ratch doesn't lead, and I'll bet the grenade in my subspace our former Decepticon doesn't either.” He glances Drift’s direction before a second. “Something tells me Skywarp isn't one for giving orders. By default, that leaves you.”

Thundercracker tilts his helm in Dreadwing and Tracks' direction. “And them?”

“Who? The dream team?” Another rumble of laughter, this time emerging from his vocalizer with a staticky after-effect. “Tracks rescued me, but we both follow Dreadwing's lead. We Autobots are notorious for that.”

The last statement is edged with bitterness. Not toward Dreadwing but to Autobot culture in general.

More and more intriguing.

It’s obvious in just the handful of breems he’s known Tracks that the Towers mech would side with Dreadwing come Pit or the Unmaker himself, but for both Autobots to follow a Decepticon? For two former civilians – one of them a Towers mech – to follow a war-build? It fritzes his processor.

Thundercracker makes a noncommittal noise. Just about the only unpained sound he can offer.

“So you have what?” He gestures ambiguously. “A truce? An understanding?”

“Once the Allspark was gone, nearly everyone left Cybertron,” Wheeljack says and leans against the energon refiner he tinkered with earlier. “Autobots and Decepticons, we took off in all directions. There were skirmishes. I was part of a ten mech crew. I'm all that's left. Probably would’ve died if Tracks hadn't pulled me from the wreckage.” He ventilates and looks at the ground. “He was already with Dreadwing then, both of them the only survivors of their respective groups. By that point, eons and eons into a war that left both factions so scattered, insignias didn't seem to matter that much.”

“Are they...?”

Thundercracker leaves it vague on purpose. Easier if Wheeljack fills in the blanks.

Another bark of laughter is his answer. Wheeljack’s indicators light up, but the Seeker isn’t sure how to read them fully just yet.

“You'd think that, wouldn't you?” Wheeljack poses but waves off the question. “Nah. I don't know what to call them, but they’re as platonic as they come. I’d swear they were brothers if not for frame-type.” He casts a look their direction, where they’re still all but merged together. “I don't even pretend to understand it either. Some weird type of imprinting. A bond of a sort.” He shrugs then. “Not even Ratch and I are like that, and we’ve known each other since before I went to the Academy.”

Thundercracker arches an orbital ridge, unable to keep the incredulity from his energy field. Tracks' hands look possessive, not platonic, and the way their energy fields entwine with evident familiarity doesn't feel that way either. Maybe they only claimed such for Wheeljack to feel less isolated.

Thundercracker considers that possibility before casting about for another topic.

“What has Dreadwing so stricken?”

Wheeljack simply shrugs. “You'd have to ask him that. He wasn't particularly loyal to Megatron as far as I know. Cybertron's loss perhaps.”

Thundercracker frowns. The fate of their planet, their home, is grief-worthy to be sure, but this seems beyond that. Perhaps the data packet had brought news of Dreadwing's own trine or kin. He doesn't know enough of the Seeker to even hazard a guess.

“We should leave.” Dreadwing's vocals, laced with static, rumble through the entirety of the barn. “There is nothing on this planet for us but death.”

“We have nowhere to go.” Tracks makes another humming noise, his fingers dragging across the edge of a dark blue wing.

“We aren’t organic,” Ratchet corrects, having finally convinced both of them to take the disgusting energon and consume it. “There are other planets that might better suit. The problem is how.”

“The Jackhammer's spaceworthy,” Wheeljack says with a casual flash of his indicators. “But it's scout class, not transport. We won't all fit. And she needs repairs.”

Ratchet drops heavily onto a crate, the weak wood crackling beneath his weight but holding strong. “Repairs aren't the problem. I'm not leaving a mech behind, Autobot or Decepticon.”

“You’re certain Prime is beyond reason?” Tracks inquires. He leans over Dreadwing to snatch his companion's energon and drink from the barely consumed cube, only for his faceplates to twist with sheer disgust.

“He’s as mad as his brother,” Thundercracker answers when Ratchet falls into silence. “If not worse.”

“Then what's the plan?” Dreadwing questions, vocalizer glitching a few times before he audibly resets it. He leans further into Tracks and cycles down his optics. “You must already have something in mind.”

Thundercracker lowers himself to one of the crates that serve as furniture. “We’re pooling our resources and building equipment in an attempt to make our eventual exodus possible.”

“But until we find a vessel large enough for all of us and our precious cargo, we're stuck,” Drift unexpectedly adds. His head tilts up and over in the direction of the twelve hatchlings.

Dreadwing's optics dim completely. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a sparkling.”

Megatron's numerous drones don’t count in Thundercracker's opinions. Hatchlings incepted as quickly as possible, their processors loaded with battle subroutines, weapons stapled to their frames, and then sent to the slaughter. Without the Allspark, they were drones, but they could’ve been more. So much more.

“Yes… well, without the Allspark, you still aren't going to see one,” Drift comments, words aggressive but his tone tiredly disappointed.

“What's on the moon?” Wheeljack asks then.

Thundercracker flickers his optics at the odd non sequitur.

“The moon?” Ratchet repeats.

“Something pinged us as we passed,” Tracks clarifies. His helm rests on Dreadwing's shoulder from behind, a feat of placement considering the breadth of the Seeker's wings. “Some kind of automated signal.”

“You didn't stop to investigate it?” Thundercracker demands, scanning his processor for any clue as to what could’ve been left there.

Part of Sentinel's plot included a large force of Decepticon warriors being kept in stasis and hidden on the moon. Some of them could’ve been left behind during the battle, having either never onlined at Sentinel's signal or missing the opportunity to take the spacebridge to Earth. But any who did emerge from stasis would be long offline by now from lack of energon alone.

Thundercracker had seen the state of many of the Decepticon forces. Minor maintenance needs was a matter of course. Some reflexes were stunted, battle computers hazy after so much time spent in stasis. It made them easy pickings for the humans, not to mention the Autobots.

Wheeljack shoots a glance toward their medic. “I knew Ratchet wasn't on the moon. That was all that mattered to me. I figured I could always go back later.”

“Nothing attacked us either,” Dreadwing points out, but now, his energy field tightens with contemplation. “The signal read more like a locator beacon.”

“Or a general statement of existence,” Tracks offers with a dismissing flick of one hand. “It wasn't a threat.”

Ratchet straightens suddenly and with a whine of servos that aren't use to such rapid movement. “It's the Ark,” he says and palms his face, shoulders sinking as a fair dose of exasperation floods his field. “Primus, how could I forget?”

“The Ark?” Tracks draws himself up straight as well. “I thought it was scrap. Starscream blew it to pieces.”

Ratchet frowns, hand dragging down, fingers rapping thoughtfully over his thigh plating. “It is, and it isn't.” He pauses, optics flickering as he accesses his memory banks. “It’d stand to reason that there are all kinds of tech left on the moon. Megatron had a lot of troops stashed up there, not to mention other things.”

Hope tries to rise within Thundercracker. He can’t quite keep it from lifting off.

“You're thinking we can use it?”

Ratchet lifts his gaze, meeting Thundercracker's own. “I'm thinking we can fix it.”

Drift stares at the both of them as though they've gone completely mad. “It crashed hundreds of vorn ago. And you said it was half-buried!”

The medic bursts to his pedes, full of nervous energy that takes him into the medbay. “It's the best chance we have,” he calls back but then pauses. “Maybe. I wasn't really checking for structural integrity the last time I was there.”

“It's worth a look.” Dreadwing pulls out of his melancholy slump, prompting Tracks to straighten as well. “I'm guessing the Ark was a transport ship?”

Ratchet's vocals fade as he starts to dig through the crates of disorganized spare parts in his medbay. “It was Sentinel's flagship, carrying the hope of the Autobots.” He tosses something, which clatters to the floor. “More than that, it had a sparked AI, Teletraan. It can house a hundred mechs comfortably, along with the supplies to support them, and it's built for interstellar travel.”

No wonder it was Sentinel's flagship. Hope dares rear itself again. Thundercracker lets it.

“We could leave with such a vessel,” he decides, processor already racing with possibilities.

Ratchet moves into view and stares at him. “And take the hatchlings with us.”

“If it can be fixed,” Drift points out, ever the pessimistic one. “It's practically scrap, isn't it?”

Wheeljack all but vibrates with excitement, vocal indicators flashing a stream of pale colors. “We can take the Jackhammer up. She's got enough go in her for a few trips. Between the two of us – three actually with Skywarp – I'm sure we can fix it.”

It's a plan, Thundercracker realizes with a soft whirl of satisfaction in his energy field. A workable, plausible plan that gives them something to work toward. Something to do other than linger in this half-existence, waiting for a miracle.

But...

Thundercracker looks at a pensive Dreadwing and Tracks, who’s still hovering ridiculously close. Wheeljack has already said that they follow Dreadwing's lead, and it would be wiser, safer even, if they chose to up and leave Earth now. Before getting tangled with Thundercracker's cohort of half-Neutrals and the crazed Autobots under Prime’s command. Not to mention the humans.

“You could leave,” Thundercracker says, directing his vocals at Dreadwing, though his words are for all three of them. “The Jackhammer could easily take you away from Earth. Away from this mess.”

‘You don't have to get involved,’ he thinks.

The war is over. What do they owe either faction?

Wheeljack's indicators flash a flat, stale ocher. “Frag that,” he spouts, indignity buzzing in his field with a discordant hum. “I'm not leavin' Ratch behind. Not again.”

Brief amusement curls Dreadwing's lipplate. “Besides that, we wouldn't survive long in a Scout-class ship. We've been lucky to make it this far.” His wings lift against his back, only to settle again. “After all, where would we go, just the three of us?”

Where indeed?

Drift drags his fingers down the flat of his blade, the soft rasp of metal on metal loud in the ensuing silence. “The universe is beyond scale. There has to be somewhere we can start over. We just have to look for it.”

“First, let's focus on getting off this planet,” Ratchet adds in his two credits, once again in the medbay. “Preferably before Optimus finds and slags us.”

Thundercracker nods. They'll worry about where they're going later. Right now, their focus should be escape.

“Very well. Wheeljack, if you would take Ratchet and I up to the Ark next solar cycle.” He taps the edge of his face thoughtfully. “We can at least see the damage.”

Saving the trip for then will also allow everyone to get settled. Their team has only just arrived. Thundercracker suspects they'll want a full tour, so to speak, and Dreadwing would probably like to hold a hatchling or two, judging by this earlier interest.

“Acceptable,” the larger Seeker answers for all of them.

Light laughter drifts out of the medbay. “And here, you thought you'd be a terrible leader,” Ratchet comments, amusement accusing in his energy field.

Thundercracker tosses a glare at the medic, not that Ratchet can see. Even Drift cracks a smile.

Annoying slaggers. The whole lot of them.

****

Chapter Text

Thundercracker's attempts to speak to his trinemate only results in the Cybertronian version of frag off being sent through his personal comm. While it causes his orbital plates to rise in surprise, Thundercracker honors the rude request. Whatever has crawled up Warp's thruster will have to be solved later.

Right now, he has to focus on what condition they'll find the Ark in.

Wheeljack wasn’t exaggerating either.

The Jackhammer is on its last legs. Though invisible from the outside, Thundercracker can see evidence of multiple battles from within. Weld-lines, blaster scores, partially activated systems, and the fact that the entire ship is running on minimal power. He wonders if Wheeljack had to fight to get the Jackhammer back from Decepticon occupation.

The atmosphere is stale when Thundercracker pulls it through his intakes. The entire vessel creaks and groans, and when Wheeljack powers up the massive engine, it rattles around them.

Part of Thundercracker wants nothing more than to walk right back off the ship. No wonder they claimed they couldn't make it much further.

It's also very cramped. Thundercracker's wings press tightly to his back, and he wonders how Dreadwing withstood it. But then, he is a deep-space model. Perhaps he preferred to tack himself to the hull.

“All aboard!” Wheeljack says with far too much cheer as he drops down into the pilot's seat in the tiny, tiny bridge.

A bridge so small it might as well be a cockpit, and there isn't space for a co-pilot. There’s a secondary station tucked away to the side, however. Probably for a navigator or communications specialist but no room for a third.

Thundercracker lets Ratchet take the chair. He'll be far more comfortable on his own two pedes. He can brace himself much easier than the medic anyway.

“Are you sure this heap of scrap's going to make it?” Ratchet questions with a dubious glance around the interior.

Thundercracker seconds the skepticism.

Wheeljack flickers his optics and finishes powering up the Jackhammer, sealing all the exterior locks and also the door to the bridge. The hissing of pressurization seems abnormally loud. Especially since Thundercracker is trying very hard to not think about the last time he was on a ship like this.

“You have such little faith in me,” Wheeljack comments as the blast shields slide over the viewport and the Jackhammer starts to rise.

Thundercracker's tanks lurch. He drops back, pressing against the wall and bracing himself.

“Can you blame me?” Ratchet snarks back.

Thundercracker makes a noise of disgust. Primus. If he has to listen to the two of them bicker like a pair of angry bondmates for the whole trip, he'll have to offline his audials. It's not unlike listening to Warp and Stars in the early days. Before the war went wrong. Before Starscream decided he wanted power and position more than brothers-in-arms.

He frowns, offlining his optics and looking at nothing. Painful memories, those. He doesn't want to remember the Starscream that was.

“--and if you hadn't crossed those wires, I wouldn't have had to--”

Thundercracker dials down his audials and sets a subroutine to keep track of the conversation so he won’t have to. If they speak to him or say something important, he will give his attention. Until then, he prefers not to listen.

It feels odd being here. Being around Autobots without shooting them or trying to rip out their sparks. Still, between himself and Skywarp, Thundercracker is having the easiest time adapting. He's one of the few war-builds who ever spent time in the company of true civilians before the war.

It’s an experimental program, an attempt to make use of war-builds when there isn’t a war to be had. Thundercracker is drafted into the program on recommendation of a superior officer he frags off. Fortunately, Thundercracker is actually qualified. He’s one of the few.

They assign him to one of the scant handful of the upper caste willing to take part. Most of those capable are too afraid of war-builds, or reluctant to have violent and dangerous mechs so close to their person. But his is a Senator of a different mind. One who fears nothing and sees the goals of the program as a challenge.

More than that though he believes in the intended results.

The Senator takes one look at the hulking Seeker, who stands several helms taller than him, and does nothing more than arch an orbital ridge. His optics are blue and vibrant, a contrast to the white and red of his frame. It’s an unusual combination. At least, it would be for a war-build. They rarely use such a pristine color. It’s too hard to keep clean and shows the stain of labor too easily.

“You actually want to do this?” the Senator questions when he’s finally satisfied with studying the mech in front of him. His tones are brusque, and his dialect is strange. The lilt of the highest class, but the words are pure commoner.

Thundercracker doesn’t shift in place, but it’s a near thing. He feels bare without his weapons and completely unlike himself.

“The decision wasn’t mine,” he admits simply because the truth is usually preferable. Not to mention that he doesn’t expect this particular mech to favor lies. “Still, I don't intend to waste the opportunity either.”

Humor alights in the Senator's optics. He even chuckles.

“Doesn't seem like any of us have much of a choice in anything, does it?”

It’s a strange observation, but he doesn’t given Thundercracker a chance to answer, just waves for him to follow. Actually turning his back and walking them from the front office to an area in the back. Thundercracker doubts a war-build has ever even been this far into the building before, much less in the private office of a Senator.

The mech takes them inside, and the door closes behind them. But he doesn’t even move to sit before he’s turned back around to face Thundercracker.

“It's menial work, the job I have in mind. It's not stimulating.” He makes a sound of annoyance that belies his tone. “Still, I need an assistant, and I'm tired of the useless thin-plates they keep sending me.”

Thundercracker stares, shocked by the less than tactful comment. Thin-plates was a term better used by gutter-mechs to describe the upper class. Tower bots. Cybertronians whose frames are built for visual aesthetics rather than form and function.

The Senator himself is strangely solid with almost a worker's chassis, if far too immaculate for that. Still, he is nothing like the sharp and thick armor of a soldier.

Thundercracker cycles his optics. And then again. He isn’t entirely sure how to respond to that.

“Yes, sir,” he finally decides. “I’ll do my best.”

The smaller mech gives him a strange look. “Don't call me that.” But it’s half-order, half-rebuke. “I'm not your superior. I'm not even military.”

Thundercracker's fights to keep his face blank as he tries to wrap his processor around that statement. An upper class who doesn’t want overt respect? What then should he call the Senator? Did he dare ask?

“I'm Ratchet,” the mech continues, gaze raking Thundercracker from the top of his head, across the span of his wings, and down to the taloned tip of his pedes. “Or if that's too familiar, you can use Senator. You're not a slave. I don't want one. I don't need one. What I do need is a bot who can think. Can you do that?”

It isn’t a matter of whether or not Thundercracker can think. But whether if he’s allowed or whether it’s appropriate.

He honestly doesn’t know how he was supposed to take Senator Ratchet's behavior. It is blunt, which he’s used to. However, it lacks the edge of fear that interactions with civilians tended to garner.

“Yes, Senator,” Thundercracker replies instead. It seems safer than to be overly familiar. “I’m to be at your service.”

Ratchet's lipplates curve. “Yes, that's what they tell me.” He lets out a bark of laughter that isn’t at all amusement and has two shades of bitter disgust. “However, I delight in fragging off my fellow politicians, so let's see if we can't buck that trend, shall we?”

Thundercracker finds himself completely flummoxed, once again unable to decide how he should respond. This isn’t going at all like he expected. He thought he was too be little more than menacing furniture. Something to stand in the background and look intimidating. Someone expected to be there but contribute nothing more than silence.

After all, most civilians don’t even treat his kind like they have a processor. Much less a functioning one.

Thundercracker can only offer a sharp nod. To confused to do much else.

“Yes, Senator. Whatever you say.”

If there is one thing his military background gives him, it is the ability to obey.

“Good.” The Senator claps him on the shoulder, reaching up to do so and not flinching from the contact at all. “Then, let's see what you can do.”


For Ratchet, it was that simple. For Thundercracker, it was a whole new world.

Of course, the program would later be dissolved, termed a failure. Within the vorn, Ratchet would quit the Senate and pour every credit he had into medical training. Thundercracker didn’t see him until vorns later, on the battlefield alongside Optimus Prime.

“--landing in about five minutes. Thundercracker?”

He stirs from the memory, cycling his optics and deleting the subroutine as well. He straightens from his slouch to find Ratchet giving him an odd look.

“Spacing out on us?” the medic asks, and there's a hint of humor in his optics.

Thundercracker uncrosses his arms. “No. I was tuning out your inane babble.”

Wheeljack laughs; Ratchet scowls.

“It wasn’t babble,” the medic retorts with a huff. His plating bristles, like an offended feline. “So if you would kindly pay attention, you'll notice that we're approaching our destination.”

He turns with a sound of grinding gears – oh, he's really irritated now – and gestures to the viewport. Wheeljack's retracted the blast shields. Thundercracker can now see the speckled black of space, but the entire left side of the viewport is filled with a rapidly expanding grey mass.

Earth’s singular moon.

On the surface is a dark form that’s like a black stain amidst the grey. It protrudes from the landscape, a blot in the paleness. There are other places, too. Pockmarks in the land where the hidden Decepticon battleships once rose from their slumber. Bits and pieces of metal glint in scattered places, too. Debris and detritus that meant nothing to the Decepticons but may very well be the salvation of their cohort.

Even with that though, the Ark looks like scrap, and that’s the nicest thing he can even think. Thundercracker feels his fragile hope crumble to ash and rust. He vents out air. At most, they'll be able to salvage some parts.

Another dead end. Another disappointment.

“Don't sound so dejected,” Wheeljack says, still maintaining that irritating cheer as he guides the shuttle down for a landing that kicks up a brief cloud of dust. “Sure, it looks bad, but I haven't scanned it yet. The structural integrity could still be decent.”

Thundercracker's wing flicks. “Is it an Autobot thing to be ridiculously optimistic?”

“No,” Ratchet puts in with some degree of humor, leveraging himself out of his chair. “It's a Jack thing. Frankly, I'm with you. It's worse than I remember.”

Wheeljack releases a blat of noise. “Primus, the both of you are such negative nanobytes. Do you want to get off Earth or not?”

“It's not a matter of wanting,” Thundercracker retorts as the lock disengages and they are free to leave the cockpit. He immediately takes advantage. “It's a matter of capability.”

Ratchet follows him, Wheeljack trailing along after.

The engineer's vocal indicators flash strange lights on the walls of the narrow corridor. “Then have a little faith. We can do it.”

Thundercracker grits his denta and keeps any further comments to himself. He reaches the outer hatch and waits for the Autobots to catch up. The cabin depressurizes, and the ramp lowers, allowing them access to the moon's surface.

From here, they would have to communicate through internal comms. They've at least already traded frequencies.

Thundercracker steps onto the sandy, near-powder surface, both optics and scanners searching around him. No signs of life, no signs of other Cybertronians. Save for a persistent signal that is coming from the Ark itself.

Said structure looms in front of him, easily half buried. It looks like a scrapyard of jagged lines, scorched metal, and twisted beams.

Thundercracker will be surprised if there is anything left to salvage.

--Wow!-- Wheeljack lets out a sound like a low whistles over the open comm line. --I’d forgotten how big this thing was. Wonder if Teletraan's still alive in there?--

--Most AI's know to keep backups of themselves,-- Ratchet reminds him, but his movement betray his anxiety. --If there is even a fraction of the control systems functional, then Teletraan will have survived.—

Thundercracker sets his mouthplate and starts toward the crashed ship. His optics go through a few settings before he finds one that helps him distinguish between the shadows cast over the Ark. He sees where Prime and Ratchet had first made their ingress into the Ark. It’s the easiest way to examine the craft's interior.

--You didn't check? The first time, I mean.--

Ratchet's hesitation is all too telling.

--We were on a time table. Prime wanted answers. The humans were tapping their watches. Other things were more important.--

There’s disappointment in Ratchet's comm as well. In himself Thundercracker largely suspects.

He ducks into the Ark, and metal shifts warningly beneath him. Sensors ping back sectors where the structure is too weak to bear his weight, and Thundercracker shifts accordingly.

Inside, despite the dim and the dust and the scattered debris, the Ark looks in much better repair. There’s still shrapnel everywhere, and Thundercracker doesn't look too closely at all the deactivated frames strewn about. He pays more attention to the structure, which will decide whether or not it's repairable.

--I'll head down to the engine room,-- Wheeljack says, his indicators flashing through a spectrum of orange and red. --See what we have to work with.--

The engineer turns away and heads down a different corridor, picking his way with half as much care as Thundercracker. To be fair though, he is only half Thundercracker's mass.

Ratchet, however, is silent. Unusually so.

Thundercracker pushes further inside, heading for the bridge. There are more deactivated frames. Most of them probably offlined upon impact. Others could’ve bled out, slowly succumbing over the years. Still more were likely injured before the unfortunate crash. It's difficult to tell.

Thundercracker pauses on the edge of a dark opening and glances down into the vault. Here is where Sentinel slept, safely in stasis. Secured and snug while all of his mechs perished. Such a typical Prime thing to do.

--Optimus thought only of Sentinel,-- Ratchet murmurs across the comm, stepping up beside Thundercracker and staring down into the open maw. --Perhaps that should’ve been a clue.--

He steps away, heading for the bridge controls and the five mechs arrayed around the control panel. His gaze seems to linger on one, recognizing him perhaps, before his plating ruffles in visible discomfort.

Thundercracker still has to ask.

--How many?--

Ratchet's optics cycle in and out, too bright. --My last packet indicated a hundred.-- He pauses, fingers drawing into tight fists. --One hundred of the best tacticians, warriors, engineers, and medics that Cybertron had to offer.--

Thundercracker feels his wings draw up. He looks from one wrecked body to the next. To the debris strewn all over the floor.

He lets out a sound that is both bitter and tired.

--We could use the parts.--

Ratchet's helm whips toward him, optics blazing blue fire.

--Practically speaking.-- Thundercracker pointedly gestures around them. --And at the very least, we can give them a proper rite.--

It’ll be more than the humans deigned to give any of the fallen, Autobot and Decepticon alike. Though, if the Ark is useless to their ends, Thundercracker supposes it serves as good a tomb as any.

Derision flexes in Ratchet's energy field. --They're Autobots. Why should you care?--

The tone is sharp and jagged. Even over the comm. Thundercracker tosses the medic a look. Now, isn’t the time for this.

--Aren't we past that by this point?--

Ratchet looks away. --It's a long war,-- he retorts, folding his arms over his chassis. --Old habits die hard.--

Thundercracker's systems rattle, ventilations tripping on something caught in his filters.

--I'm tired,-- the Seeker says and attaches glyphs to each of his words, hoping to hammer his point home. --I stopped taking the war personally a long time ago.--

It was one of the reasons Starscream came to dislike him so much at the end, truth be told. Thundercracker used to hate. He used to loathe the Autobots. He kept record of each and every Decepticon that he knew personally and those who slayed them. He used to have lists and lists of designations with other names attached to them.

The hate powered him. The animosity burned in his energon, fed straight to his blasters and thrusters. The utter abhorrence made it easier to fire on his own kind, to shoot straight through the spark. To tell himself the whole time that it was revenge and justice and retribution all rolled into one righteous justification.

But then, the Allspark was lost to space. Cybertron was abandoned. And Thundercracker forgot the point out of it all somehow.

He stopped recognizing faces and designations. It didn't matter which Autobot he was slagging because there would always be another. Wherever he turned, death was waiting in one form or another.

It stopped being personal. It turned into anonymous slaughter. All he saw was the Autobot symbol and he fired. He didn't think about it. The list faded to nothing, lost in his memory banks. What did it matter? Whatever Autobots on his list were probably already offline, killed somewhere else by someone else.

Stars thought him weak. Thought him pathetic because he didn't care anymore. Thundercracker didn't have the energy or the effort to spare on hatred. He just wanted to make it through this pointless war alive, to keep his trine intact. He wanted to survive.

The Senate is fragged, the Council offline and ashes. All that’s left to hate are the survivors, other soldiers fighting in a war without end. Thundercracker can’t deride them for that.

And when the hate abandoned him, so did everything else. Leaving nothing but weariness behind.

Hate takes so much effort. And it offers nothing in return. It didn’t keep Starscream alive. It didn’t keep their trine together. It hadn’t saved Warp and him either. It was Ratchet who had done that. Ratchet… the Autobot who now stands beside him.

Thundercracker reaches out, and while Ratchet starts beneath his grasp, he doesn’t move away.

--What does it matter now? The main perpetrators are all offline, and I'm tired of fighting for the sake of fighting.--

He offers a single squeeze before letting go, and then, Thundercracker moves away. He takes careful steps around the bridge of the Ark. It's unnerving, how still and empty this craft feels.

Behind him, he senses more than hears Ratchet shift. --Aren't we all?-- He rubs his face tiredly. --I did save you… didn't I?--

Thundercracker half-turns. The medic is painted in shadows and watches his every move, but Thundercracker offers him a nod and a genuine smile.

--That you did.--

Ratchet looks at him for a moment longer before glancing away, almost embarrassed. A first for him to be sure. So very odd. But then, Ratchet’s mood has been all over the place this trip. From pleased bickering to hostile and now bemusement.

Thundercracker frowns.

--I can fix it!--

The sudden exclamation makes both of them startle and whirl around. Thundercracker's battle protocols kick on with a roar, having spent far too much time in idle, and his weapon systems surge toward auto-target.

Two sets of targeting lasers swing around and focus on Wheeljack, whose optics have spiraled wide. Both hands lift into the air in a universal gesture for don't shoot.

--I can fix it,-- the engineer repeats, his gaze darting between the pair of them.

Thundercracker mutters subvocally and disengages his battle protocols. Ratchet curses, too. But he doesn’t do it over the shared comm band.

--You can? Really?-- the medic blusters, covering up the building tension his default setting, but he seems relieved more than anything.

--Yep.-- Wheeljack sweeps a hand over his helm. --With time and a lot of ingenuity… And maybe some help. I’m sure Warp'll have a few ideas.--

--Warp, huh?-- Ratchet gives his friend a look. It’s almost amused. --When did that happen?--

Wheeljack shrugs. --He's a brilliant kid.--

--That kid is older than you,-- Thundercracker inserts, fighting off the bubble of anticipation that threatens to burst. Not that he can blame Wheeljack; Skywarp rarely acts his age.

The engineer stares at him. --Really? Huh. Never would have guessed. Sorry. I didn't mean to offend.-- He pauses, optics going between Thundercracker and Ratchet. --So, I'm getting the feeling that I interrupted something.--

--You didn't,-- Ratchet says perhaps a bit too hastily.

Though to be honest, Thundercracker's not sure what it is that Wheeljack disturbed. Ratchet having another snit-fit? Or is there something deeper?

Amusement flickers on Wheeljack's vocal indicators. --If you say so.-- He tilts his helm, brushing dust and debris from a piece of armor. --We can go back to Earth now. There's not much I can do yet.--

Thundercracker inclines his head, all too eager to escape from the dark insides of the Ark. It’s far too haunted by the past for his liking.

--Give me a list of things you'll need. Come up with a plan. We can't make numerous trips. A lot of work will have to be done in one go.--

Wheeljack waves a hand in acknowledgment. --The Jackhammer's not up for multiple trips without some serious digging through her internals,-- he replies, scratching at his chin and mask.

That and the fact they still have to conserve energon – the hatchlings come first. As well to make certain not to attract undue attention. They’d have to be circumspect about their visits.

--At least we have a plan,-- Ratchet offers, leading them out and back toward the waiting shuttle. --That counts for something.--

Yes, Thundercracker agrees, it does.

o0o0o



It's become a habit over the past three months.

Every hour or so, every time he emerges from recharge, every instance he takes a break, Thundercracker sends out an imperceptible but very important ping to his team. He just wants to know where they are, what they're doing, if anything untoward has happened.

Since Wheeljack's team arrived, he's included them in his constant checks, too.

So when he groans, pushes himself back from the cobbled together computer system, and contemplates a cube of energon or a visit to the hatchlings, Thundercracker sends out the near-automatic ping.

Skywarp and Wheeljack are in the lab, being secretive about their project but in an overall good mood. He'll have to invite himself in and see what they are doing later. Something about the pair of them striking up a friendship sends a frisson of concern up his backstrut.

Ratchet's in the medbarn, though he should be in recharge. That will be another fun discussion to have.

Drift's on patrol. No surprise there. Tracks is with him. That, however, is a surprise. The Towers mech is usually within grabbing distance of Dreadwing.

Speaking of which, his third Seeker is on the Jackhammer. He's not recharging, but he's still logged himself as busy. Whatever the frag that means.

Switching his computer to standby, Thundercracker rises to his pedes and twists his frame, working out the kinks in his lines and the cramped cables. He isn't in the mood for staring down a stubborn Hatchet or interrupting scientists at work. Dreadwing though is a mystery still.

Thundercracker checks the satellite schedule, confirms he has a window, and heads for the Jackhammer. Skywarp and Wheeljack have already constructed a holographic array to conceal the shuttle, drawing less energy than maintaining a constant cloak. To Thundercracker's optics, a collection of farm equipment and a stack of baled hay sit in the yard. His scanners and sensors, however, ping back a Cybertronian space craft.

He heads for the tractor, and if any human or mech is watching, they see him vanish into nothing. For the time being, Thundercracker has grounded the Jackhammer. It's in need of repairs before they can start taking it back and forth to the moon. The fragging thing nearly killed them all on the return flight not so long ago, so they haven't been back to the Ark since.

Inside, he finds Dreadwing of all places in the main room, which is a dubious title given that it barely fits the both of them. The other Seeker is crouched over a large basin. A pile of grimy, rusted parts sits to one side with a stack of recently scrubbed ones to the other.

Thundercracker pulls to a halt and cycles his optics. “What in Prima’s name are you doing?”

Dreadwing doesn't look at him. He just reaches for a dirt-clogged something with a clawed hand and dunks it in the bucket.

“Cleaning parts.” His tone is one mechs use for outdated drones. “What does it look like I'm doing?”

Thundercracker cocks his helm to the side in a way that always seemed to annoy Starscream when they were still friends and not subordinate and superior.

“Why?” he questions, honestly curious.

Dreadwing doesn’t even look up. “It needs to be done.”

Thundercracker can't argue that, but it still seems more like a duty assigned as punishment. Most often to Skywarp, truth be told.

“Did you volunteer?”

“More or less.” Dreadwing rests his wrists on the edge of the basin, finally lifting his optics. “It was either this or sorting wire. I opted to scrub. As Wheeljack knew that I would.”

Thundercracker gropes blindly for a stool and pulls it behind him. “He knows you that well?”

“Spend enough time wandering space with a mech, and you learn their various quirks.” The larger bot drops his gaze back to his work, sloshing water and degreaser without care. “Word of advice, don’t share a berth with Jack. He twitches.”

That… is far more than Thundercracker wanted to know. And it says a great deal about Dreadwing’s group. Certainly, he’s closer with Tracks, but Wheeljack isn’t the third cog, so to speak. They aren’t just a pair with an odd mech out. More like a trine almost.

“I'll keep that in mind,” Thundercracker replies dryly and lapses into silence, watching Dreadwing work.

Still, he finds it difficult to fathom. This Seeker who knowingly associates with two Autobots and doesn't appear bothered by the utter destruction of his own side. A Decepticon who shares constant field contact with a Towers mech and apparently a berth with an Academy bratling. He’s a strange one, to be sure. Dreadwing bows to Thundercracker's leadership not out of respect, but like Ratchet, he doesn’t want the position for his own. Which is more than odd enough for most Decepticons. Even more, he isn’t hesitant to offer assistance. To clean spare parts during his downtime for no other reason than it needs to be done.

How peculiar.

A spotless part, now identified as some kind of pump, joins the stack. Thundercracker watches for a moment and is even contemplating his own assistance, but he’s interrupted.

“Go ahead,” Dreadwing says suddenly, turning to another piece of rust scrap. “Ask me.”

Thundercracker pauses in the act of reaching out.

“Ask what?”

Since really, he doesn’t know.

“Whatever question it is you sought me out to have answered.” Dreadwing sits back, grabbing the cloth slung over his shoulder to wipe off his talons. “Your energy field is irritatingly sharp with confusion right now.”

Thundercracker has a lot of questions. Some of the answers are obvious. He suspects he won't get a real truth about others. Still, the offer was made…

“I’d call it a healthy curiosity,” he hedges but then barrels on. “You and Tracks--”

“--are none of your business,” the large Seeker states firmly. He flips the cloth back over his shoulder. “Try another one.”

Well, that didn’t last long.

Thundercracker cycles a ventilation. “You don't seem particularly loyal to Megatron. But something in Ratchet's file disturbed you.”

Dreadwing's wings twitch as he no doubt debates with himself. He rises from his seat, grabbing an armful of cleaned parts and heading for an array of crates nearby. There, he starts to sort.

“Most war-builds don't have caretakers,” Dreadwing finally allows, the clank and clunk of parts punctuating his words. “We're raised in batches, uploaded with battle routines, and slapped into units.”

Thundercracker lapses into silence. He isn’t unfamiliar. Such is the way he matured. He was in a batch with eleven other fliers. He remembers instructors, the occasional advisor, and then of course Ratchet later. But as for caretakers, no. He was never worth such an effort. Never even had a mentor.

This is all something he knows. That all war-builds know. Why even bring it up?

Dreadwing glances at him, even as he works. “There were a few war-builds, however, who had the standing and the credits to raise a sparkling. My caretaker was one of them.” He drops the last part in a crate with a solid thunk. “He was a Seeker, and I don't mean what our brethren have made Seekers either.”

History trickles out of Thundercracker's memory banks. Once, long ago before the war and the soldiers the Decepticons became, Seekers were designed to... Well, seek. They left Cybertron to find sources of energy, intelligent life, and anything of interest.

“He disappeared vorns before the war officially began, before Optimus Prime and Megatron even took their positions.” Dreadwing turns toward his stack of dirtied parts with little interest in getting back to work. “He was assumed deactivated, lost to the stars. I couldn’t even feel him anymore. He was simply… gone.” He lets out a long leak of air. “I lost everything.”

Understanding dawns.

“Jetfire,” Thundercracker murmurs.

It isn’t a guess.

Dreadwing drops heavily back onto his chair. It creaks alarmingly beneath him.

“Yes. My caretaker was here, and he gave his spark to destroy the Decepticons. To stop the very side I’m on.” He offlines his optics for a bare moment. “That says something, don't you think?”

“What?” Thundercracker shrugs in such a human gesture. “That we’ve been in the wrong all along?”

Dreadwing rolls his own shoulders. “In the beginning, no. Since then?” He flicks his wings dismissively. “Autobots. Decepticons. We're all wrong. Cybertron's dead, and what do we have to show for it?”

Thundercracker sags. “In the end, neither faction got what they wanted.”

Which is why they’re currently here. Scrambling for a future. On a planet that brings only death to their kind. With a species who would sooner scrap the lot of them than grant anyone a safe haven.

--TC!--

The transmission interrupts Thundercracker's thoughts like a blow to the helm.

--I think you better come see this!--

He frowns, holding up a hand to let Dreadwing know he’s temporarily distracted. --What is it, Skywarp? I'm not in the mood for a prank.--

--It's not a prank!-- He sounds just like Stars would. Purely indignant with wounded prided. --It's important.--

Thundercracker gives a ventilation. --What is it?--

--A new arrival,-- Ratchet cuts in, shamelessly hacking into the private comm line. --Autobot and Decepticon.--

Surprise flares in Thundercracker's field.

--I'll be right there.--

He cuts off the comm, flicking his optics toward Dreadwing.

“Someone's arrived.”

That earns him lifted facial ridges.

“Who?” Dreadwing questions, but he's already standing.

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Thundercracker stands, hurrying to leave the Jackhammer. Satellites indicate they still have a window, so he's good to go.

Everyone's gathered into the main barn, even Drift and Tracks. The entirety of their motley crew huddles around a scavenged television set. The volume has been notched up, and Thundercracker can clearly hear the broadcaster's ongoing narration.

“--moments ago. Judging by the military's response, though they are withholding commentary at the time, we have concluded that they are friendlies.”

Thundercracker steps up behind a seated Drift, easily seeing over the smaller mech's helm. On screen, there’s somewhat shaky camera footage of wreckage, still spewing smoke into the air. Sparks spit from severed wires. Regardless, it’s definitely a space-faring shuttle.

The camera pans left and pulls back, revealing the presence of two Cybertronians, one an apparent Praxian and the other of unknown origin. The Autobot symbols on their chassis are obvious.

“Who is it?” Thundercracker questions the room at large.

Ratchet, just to the left of the television, sighs and scrubs his faceplate with his palm. “I’m certain that’s Prowl.” He hesitates for an astrosecond. “I believe the other is Sunstreaker.”

Thundercracker considers that.

Prowl is most certainly known to him. There probably isn’t a Decepticon alive who doesn’t know this mech by designation if nothing else. He’s probably the main reason his side lasted so long. He isn’t just a lieutenant of the Autobot forces; he’s the lieutenant. Optimus Prime’s only current living one. Which most likely puts him as the second highest ranking officer of the remaining Autobots.

The next mech is familiar by reputation only. Sunstreaker… a brutal frontliner of no insignificant renown. He’s a twin, if Thundercracker recalls correctly. Brother to an Autobot friend of Ratchet.

Or perhaps former friend at this junction.

“Do we know why they crashed?” Thundercracker finally asks.

“Faulty maintenance?” Wheeljack offers, but it's a pale humor that falls flat. “The humans are speculating, so that’s all we can do.”

“Is that Blitzwing?” Warp inquires, suddenly leaning over Tracks and pointing at the screen. “Where the frag did he come from?”

Thundercracker frowns and peers closer. The footage is blurred and shaky, but there does seem to be another bot present. A huddled mass of grey plating, winged, with a smudged Decepticon symbol.

“Do you mind?” Tracks mutters, trying to inch out from under Skywarp's weight. “You're scratching my finish.”

Warp ignores him.

“I think it's obvious why they crashed, if that’s indeed Blitzwing,” Dreadwing comments before he reaches over, hooks a claw in an armor seam, and pulls Skywarp off to the side.

The smaller Seeker squawks and then shoots a venomous look. “Primus! Possessive much?”

“Hush,” Thundercracker hisses and ignores Ratchet's quiet snicker. Sometimes, he feels as though they've made him leader of a pack of over-energized minibots.

His attention returns to the broadcast, but it offers no new information. The camera keeps panning back and forth between the wreckage and the two Autobots – no, three. Sunstreaker has pulled another bot from the debris, though this one looks in poor repair.

“Before you ask,” Ratchet interrupts, “no, I don't know who that is.”

Tracks leans forward though. “He resembles a former business partner of mine.” He peers closer and tilts his helm this way and that. “Perhaps it is Hound.”

“With the way this war has gone, I'm surprised we recognize anyone anymore,” Drift remarks, arms folded across his chassis.

And then, the other Autobots arrive. Prime’s in the lead followed by Sideswipe and Leadfoot. A fourth vehicle accompanies them, but humans in military uniforms emerge from it.

Prime goes to the Praxian – Prowl. They exchange conversation that the news crew's cameras cannot pick up from so far away. Especially since they are in fact being urged further from the crash site.

Sideswipe goes straight for the second mech. The two embrace in such a way that leaves little question as to the warrior's identity.

“Definitely Sunstreaker,” their medic confirms loftily.

“Wonderful,” Tracks mutters, a scowl twisting his mouth.

Thundercracker ignores them, his focus is on the last Autobot. On Leadfoot, even now approaching the Decepticon who might be Blitzwing. The camera has the reunion between the two terror twins front and center, but Thundercracker can see Leadfoot off to the side. He prods at Blitzwing with one pede, one hand collapsing into a cannon.

“Is he...?” Wheeljack trails off, as though he doesn't want to voice what all of them already suspect.

“Autobots don't take prisoners,” Ratchet replies, pity and disgust now etched into his tone. “Not anymore.”

A glance is traded between Prime and Leadfoot. Then, there’s a bright burst of weapons fire. Blitzwing's frame jerks and crumples. Leadfoot shifts his weight, repositions his blaster, and fires again. Blitzwing twitches and goes completely still.

The humans don't notice. They are too busy speculating on the relationship between Sideswipe and Sunstreaker, abnormally interested in two robots embracing each other.

Leadfoot nudges Blitzwing with a pede again before he collapses his blaster, seemingly satisfied with his job.

Thundercracker’s cohort can only watch in something like muted horror. Even Drift is visibly disturbed. Much less Wheeljack and Tracks, who haven’t seen their vaunted leader since before the humans even had a formalized writing system.

“You asked me why I didn’t stay with Optimus,” Ratchet puts in quietly, though his words are directed to the room at large. “He isn’t the Prime I pledged my spark to, and the Autobots are not the faction I remember. Not anymore.”

The medic turns away, returning to the medbay portion of the barn, and to tending the hatchlings. He’s closed his energy field off completely, and nobody is at all surprised when Drift rises to follow.

Thundercracker's own tanks churn.

It's war. Mechs die. Cities get destroyed. But not like this.

That was execution, plain and simple. With no evidence of the justice the Autobots used to spout in pointless droves. What happened to Prime's ideals? What happened to the Autobot vision of their future?

Thundercracker holds no illusions about his own faction. It wouldn’t be unusual for the Decepticons to gun an enemy mech down in the midst of war. But even Megatron typically interrogated them first. Attempted to seduce them to his side if only to amuse himself and nothing else.

The war is supposed to be over though. Is that not what Prime continues to tell his troops?

“I can almost believe it to be mercy, considering they no longer have a medic,” Wheeljack offers, optics dim and his field drawn tightly to his frame. “But even I'm not that naïve.”

A roil of emotions brews inside of Thundercracker. His armor clamps down tightly as Skywarp shifts closer to touch his wing. But he can still feel the subsonic hum echoing in his friend’s grasp.

“Fix the Jackhammer,” Thundercracker says then, his hands pulling in and out of fists. “Priority one. If you need something, we'll get it.”

Several pairs of startled optics turn toward him.

“How do you expect to do that?” Tracks asks.

“I'll figure something out. We'll steal it from the humans if we have to.” Thundercracker stares at the television, looking without seeing. “But I'm not staying on this planet any longer than is necessary.”

“Me neither,” Warp bites out beside him, fingers still on his wing. “Else Prime will have all our sparks.”

****

Chapter Text

A new duty is added to the rotation. They are so few, stretched thin, but Thundercracker has no choice. They must monitor the human broadcasts. It's the only means they have of tracking new arrivals.

Skywarp likens it to monitor duty and pouts about it like a spoiled sparkling.

“It should be a punishment,” he whines like Starscream in a snit. Only with a lower pitch. “I could be working in my lab instead of wasting my time watching the news.”

“You watch the television all the time,” Thundercracker points out, drawing patience from a well that's rapidly going dry.

Skywarp flares his optics. “I watch documentaries. Shark Week. Mythbusters!” He throws his hands into the air, wings arching high against his backstrut. “Not the news.” A long groan of dissatisfaction rattles from his chassis.

Thundercracker plunks Warp down in front of the television set. He’s long immune to whine. Particularly from his trine.

“We all have to take a turn.”

That earns him a petulant glare. And really, isn’t Skywarp supposed to be older? To be an earlier model than Thundercracker himself?

“Ratchet doesn't.”

He keeps his grip on Skywarp's shoulders. Thereby preventing the mech from moving or teleporting away as Warp is wont to do.

“Ratchet is our only medic,” Thundercracker reminds him, “and the only one qualified to both take care of the hatchlings and keep us functioning.”

Skywarp's energy field reaches out and slaps him. “Not true. Wheeljack's a field medic. He can do it.”

Since really, if they had to choose, Wheeljack would be the one they’d all want repairing them. Yeah… Right…

“Wheeljack is an engineer.” Ratchet's voice washes over them from nearby. Fortunately, there's amusement rather than irritation in his vocals. “Emergency welds and jury-rigged repairs are the extent of his expertise. Not hatchling maintenance.”

Thundercracker's lipplates twitch. “Thus, the reason Ratchet doesn't have monitor duty.”

“I do, however, have a direct line to my processor for our base's security system,” the medic adds, just to drive the point home. And, Thundercracker suspects, because it annoys Skywarp.

His trinemate huffs so hard that Thundercracker hears the fans whine in protest. He’s far too old for such behavior, but trying to get him to act better than an overcharged civilian is impossible.

“I still say it's unfair,” he whines again.

“Your complaint is noted,” Thundercracker says dryly.

Skywarp's armor twitches beneath his hands, sending a low buzz of irritated charge into his fingers. He knows better, but Thundercracker still finds himself explaining.

“Warp, we don't have any other method of tracking incoming arrivals. Not unless Wheeljack can get the long-distance scanners running,” Thundercracker reminds him, lowering his vocals though Ratchet can probably detect them anyway. “Do you want to watch another Blitzwing?”

His trinemate goes rigid beneath him. One wing flicks out and back, smacking against Thundercracker's chassis.

“That's a low blow, TC.”

But still a valid point.

“You understand why it's important.” Thundercracker gives a brush of his own field. “I know you do.”

Skywarp's energy draws tightly against his frame. He no longer bombards his leader with jabs of appeal and dissatisfaction.

“Go away. I’m busy.” he says at last. “Watching the monitors.”

Just like Starscream. Primus and Prima help them all. Was Warp channeling him now?

Satisfied, Thundercracker releases his hold, leaving his trinemate to the task. It’d certainly be a simpler matter if they could set up the monitoring for a subroutine, one triggered by certain keywords. But humans think in such non-linear fashions that Thundercracker worries they might miss something. Aside from that, there are other details that only the broadcasts could reveal, such as what the government is currently doing or if other surviving Decepticons from the last battle have been spotted.

“You've certainly mastered the art of leading him at least,” Ratchet says, standing in the aperture of the wall that divides the monitors from the rest of the barn.

“It's an acquired talent built upon several eons,” Thundercracker counters in that same dry tone. He turns to follow Ratchet as he heads for the medbarn.

The Seeker immediately makes a beeline for the hatchlings, much to Ratchet's shimmering amusement. For once, the medic isn't a closed-off, roiling heap of tank-churning emotions. He is, dare Thundercracker say it, in a pleasant mood. Has to be plotting something then. Or he has a particular target in mind.

“I can imagine,” Ratchet says in an equal tone.

Thundercracker peers into the first row of hatchling tanks – the Seekers. His orbital ridges rise.

“They've improved greatly.”

They look less like rusted, emaciated wrecks and more like healthy seekerlings now. Some have even started to get their colors in bright, identifying marks. One is now a vibrant yellow, nearly glowing. Another is white with red highlights.

Ratchet makes a wordless sound. “Did you expect different?”

“They were in such terrible shape. You truly are a miracle worker.” Thundercracker casts a glance over his shoulder.

Ratchet lets out a ventilation. “They survived because they were the strongest of the clutch.” He moves past Thundercracker, reaching for one of the grounders taking up residence in a bathtub.

“You don't give yourself enough credit,” Thundercracker retorts, but it’s pleasant. Amused even.

“Why should I?” Ratchet's tone softens as he cradles the grounder in his palm. Its colors are bright and cheerful, an array of red and orange. “I can help them finish their development, but I cannot give them sparks. It's a pointless endeavor.”

Thundercracker watches him work with the hatchling, completely belying his words. He calls it pointless, but he’s ridiculously gentle, treating it as the precious life that it is.

Ratchet pretends indifference, but he is the most invested out of all of them.

“It’s only as meaningless as you make it,” Thundercracker replies after a moment. “At this rate, how much longer until they are ready to be ensparked?”

“You mean, if we had access to the Allspark?” Ratchet tilts his head in consideration. “Two diun. Perhaps more. Perhaps less. At least, for the seekerlings.”

Thundercracker stares at them. Something yearns inside of him that has no real designation.

“We'll find a way,” he says more to himself. “There has to be another way.”

Ratchet watches him now. “What makes you so certain?”

“Primus wouldn't doom our kind to extinction for lack of a single artifact,” Thundercracker states, and it’s the absolute truth as he believes it.

Ratchet offers a noise of derision. “You actually believe in Primus?”

“Don't you?” Thundercracker raises his orbital ridge.

The medic pulls up a stool. He gently lays the hatchling on a pile of blankets and scanning the tiny frame.

“Once upon a time perhaps,” he allows rather gruffly.

Thundercracker considers that answer carefully.

“But not anymore?” he prompts.

“Do you really want to get into a philosophical discussion about Primus' existence?” Ratchet gives him a flat look.

Thundercracker scrubs a hand down his faceplate. “Not particularly, no.” The last thing he wants is to get into yet another heated debate. “What about Perceptor's research?”

That earns him another ventilation.

“Minimal progress. I've been discussing it with Wheeljack,” the medic admits. “We suspect it might have something to do with the Swarm.”

Thundercracker's energon lines freeze. “As in uncontrollable reproduction? A la the Insecticons?”

Amusement curls Ratchet's lip. “The manner of ensparking is similar, but we presume Perceptor had some manner of controlling the outcome.”

The chill crawls up Thundercracker's backstrut. He doesn’t like this line of thought. Not at all. But it make be their only chance.

“Had he actually attempted to replicate Shockwave's experiments?” he questions and somehow keeps his voice steady.

“Not as far as Drift knows.” Ratchet's tone turns fond, but perhaps it is because the hatchling is currently grasping his fingers with a little warble. “Perceptor is – was – a theorist. Not an experimenter. And spark manipulation is the most dangerous of sciences. Few with sense or morals ever even attempted it.” He curls the hatchling around his hand so very tenderly. “Perceptor is many things, but he isn’t reckless with the lives of others.”

Thundercracker studies the tiny grounder. “What does that mean for us?”

“I don't know.” Ratchet sighs, stroking the tip of his finger over the hatchling's head. “We're still working on it.”

“We're running out of time,” the Seeker reminds him.

Ratchet's energy field spikes. “I know that,” he snaps, though he is careful to keep his touch gentle. “But I'm working with nothing. This is unexplored territory, and frag it all, I was a politician before all of this. I simply don’t have the research background that a fully Academy-trained medic has. I'm doing the best I can.”

“I never said you weren't,” Thundercracker appeases, now sensing he's rapidly losing control of the conversation. “You’ve done everything you can, and we all know it.”

He imagines that other members of the Senate probably felt like this when faced with a Ratchet on the rampage. He isn’t a mech to be trifled with.

“I am simply disappointed that we – that I – can't do more,” Thundercracker adds and takes a pointed step backward, nearly colliding with another mech.

He startles, half-turning to find Wheeljack just behind him. There’s a sheepish glint to his indicators. The engineer rubs the back of his neck.

“I think it's become my habit to interrupt you,” Wheeljack says, optics sliding back and forth between them.

Both Thundercracker and Ratchet latch onto the distraction as though it is a lifeline.

The medic flickers his optics. “We're just talking,” he retorts, rolling his shoulders as well with the sound of metal against metal. “What did you want?”

“Testy, testy. I think all these eons just worsened your mood.” Wheeljack tosses Thundercracker a long suffering look. But when Ratchet's glare sharpens, he pulls a datapad out of his subspace. “The list you requested, dear leader.”

He holds it out to Thundercracker who eyes the datapad with no small amount of trepidation. Considering the level of disasters that tend to happen around Wheeljack, he thinks it wise to be cautious.

“Don't call me that,” Thundercracker practically orders and takes the datapad, which is already powered on. He scans the contents, unsurprised to find a lengthy and specific list.

Where on Earth does Wheeljack expect him to find all of this?

“I know it's a lot,” Wheeljack comments, indicators now a grim color. “Sadly, that's the bare minimum. The other parts I'll be able to manufacture with what's already listed.”

Thundercracker's frown deepens. “It's impossible. I wouldn't know where to begin for half of these things.”

A quick search on the human's internet would help him locate the other half, at least. Humans love to put all of their business into the public eye.

A presence tickles at the edge of Thundercracker's senses before Ratchet leans into his personal space for a look of his own.

“Primus, that much?”

Wheeljack nods, misery radiating from his frame in waves. “When I sat down and looked at my scans in depth, I saw other things that would need tending.” He taps the edge of the datapad pointedly. “And some of that's just for the Jackhammer.”

“A few of these materials aren't even available on Earth as far as I’m aware.” And hope sinks with each realization. “We’d have to be able to mine off-planet. Or even go to another solar system. Say nothing of the trade routes that are no longer open to us.”

Wheeljack's doors droop. “I know. I see little other option. Unless we steal from the humans.”

“At this point, they owe us.” Thundercracker powers off the pad, tucking it into a compartment on his hip. “Though considering the quality of their work...” He trails off, gaze falling to the hatchlings.

Yet another way that they’ve failed.

“You know,” Ratchet inserts, words drifting between them, “you might have the right idea, Wheeljack.”

Both of them turn and stare. Thundercracker especially as he would’ve never thought Ratchet to sanction any direct action against the humans.

“Come again?” Wheeljack asks.

Ratchet shifts up onto their single medberth with the groundling still in hand. “To be fair, I wouldn't call it stealing so much as reclaiming what belongs to us in the first place. We've left a lot of tech lying around over the past five years. Tech the humans have been taking and storing with great zeal.” His expression has turned thoughtful.

“You know where they keep it?” Thundercracker asks, spark reluctantly surging.

Ratchet inclines his helm. “When they finally decided to permanently house us in DC, it was all shipped there. Sentinel destroyed that base, but he didn't take out the warehouses.”

“What about all the tech left behind in Chicago?” Wheeljack inquires, indicators starting to brighten.

Ratchet's drums on the berth with his free hand. “It was being temporarily stored on base. Whether or not they've shipped it to DC, I don't know. But I guarantee we can find what we need in some shape or form.”

“We had at least six warships in stasis on the lunar surface.” Thundercracker calls up the files in the back of his mind, all of the supply lists from Sentinel and Megatron's plot. “They were all shot down. The parts must be salvageable.”

“It's sure to be guarded,” Wheeljack muses aloud.

“All of the Autobots are in Chicago,” Ratchet points out, too. “And the DC base isn’t being used at the moment. It'll be staffed by human soldiers. They'll be equipped with anti-mech weapons, but we should be able to circumvent them.”

Thundercracker considers the situation, their current staff, and how on Earth they are going to pull this off. The odds aren’t that great, but they do have surprise on their side. Not to mention a bot with intimate knowledge of the Prime’s base. And a teleporter. Can’t forget him.

“We'll need a distraction,” Thundercracker decides. “Something to keep their eyes away while we raid the storehouse. The last thing we want is for the Autobots to try and stop us. We don't have enough on our side.”

“We don't want to draw their attention here either,” Wheeljack asserts. “The distraction will have to be elsewhere, preferably far away from both DC and our base.”

“And what would be more distracting than a pair of unknowns?”

Thundercracker turns at the unexpected voice, and Dreadwing edges into the confines of the medbay where space is already limited. They all have to shuffle around to make room for the large Seeker.

“He’s got a point!” Skywarp inputs from the main section of the barn, perfectly capable of hearing their conversation even if he can't see any of them past the partition. “They’ll be confused all to the Pit when they see a couple of mechs they didn't know were on-planet.”

Dreadwing makes a noise of agreement. “They'll trip over themselves, second-guessing their energon net, to figure out how we arrived planet-side without their knowledge.”

“Don't send Wheeljack,” Ratchet says, excitement nearly palpable in his vocals. “No offense, Jack, but you're stuck on the ground. They can corner you a lot easier than they can the Seekers.”

“And Tracks,” Dreadwing confirms. “We can put on quite the show, make them even more confused when they see both Autobot and Decepticon sigils.”

Thundercracker rubs a hand over his chin. “While Wheeljack, Drift, and I can retrieve the materials.”

“What about me?” Warp demands, near a whine.

“You’ll accompany us for a time,” Thundercracker says, though he can't conceal the whuff of irritation. “And when we need a distraction from our distraction, you'll have a part.”

“Hmm… Complicated and confusing,” Skywarp offers. “I like it!”

“Not as much as you make it out to be,” Dreadwing returns, leaning against a stack of crates that wobble dangerously. “We draw their attention, put on a show, and you arrive out of nowhere to take out whatever they send against us.”

Thundercracker taps his faceplate. “Lead them on a merry chase even, away from the base, and when it's time to go, you’ll head into the upper atmosphere where they can't follow.”

“This could actually work.” Ratchet sounds surprised.

Dreadwing nods. “It has a certain degree of success. Regardless, it’s a risk we have to take. We're not leaving the planet on scraps and dreams. We need materials, and it's only fair that we reclaim what is already ours.”

Agreement ripples through them.

“The sooner we get started, the sooner repairs will be completed,” Thundercracker states, a fact no one disputes. “We go tomorrow.”

o0o0o



They journey to DC under the cover of darkness, leaving near dusk and arriving an hour after sundown. There is less chance of humans spotting anything in the sky, and the Seekers don't need light to navigate. Their sensors are more than enough to compensate for the lack of daylight.

Drift and Wheeljack have it easier, their alt-modes more common on the highways than a pair of F-22s wandering randomly. Thundercracker arranges for the two vehicles to arrive first, parking nearby and pretending to be nothing more than insentient human transports. Wheeljack's even gone so far as to equip them with miniature spark dampeners to further avoid detection, not that anyone's paying them much attention.

Running silent and dark and equipped with his own spark dampener, Thundercracker initiates a quick pass over the warehouse, Skywarp on his wing. He spies Drift and Wheeljack parked on the street, powered down but alert.

The warehouses and former Autobot headquarters are a mass of police tape, crumpled buildings, piles of wreckage, and vast areas of darkness where there is no exterior lighting anymore. It's practically an invitation for thievery.

One Thundercracker is happy to accept.

--Remember,-- he transmits to the frequency specifically chosen for this mission. --We have to be quick. We can’t give the humans or Autobots enough time to scramble a counterattack or give chase.--

--Speed isn’t a problem,-- Wheeljack replies with a happy clip that completely belies the seriousness of the situation. --I know exactly what we're looking for.--

Thundercracker certainly hopes so. Since right now Dreadwing and Tracks are putting their sparks on the line, and though Thundercracker has a contingency plan, he doesn't want to put them in that position in the first place.

--Which ones should we target?-- Drift asks as Thundercracker sees him move out of his parking space below, running silent and careful. --Ratchet was unclear as to the organization of the contents.--

--Even if he had told us, I doubt everything would’ve remained the same after Sentinel's attack,-- Thundercracker responds.

Wheeljack offers a thoughtful noise. --My scans indicate that B7 contains weapons of some sort. There's a high volume of duryllium in C3, and I'm detecting some specific tech in D1 that's got my designation all over it.-- The engineer's grin is all but tangible over the transmission.

Beside him, Skywarp nudges Thundercracker with a wingtip. --My scans are showing some useful bits and pieces in A5, too. Interesting compositions and energy signatures.--

His scientists are practically begging him. Time for an executive decision.

--We will split up,-- Thundercracker says, processor weighing and measuring options. --Ignore the weapons. We don’t need them and not even Prime's stupid enough to let the humans have them.--

--We mightn’t need the weapons, but we could use their power cores if any survived,-- Wheeljack counters.

Thundercracker bites back a wing flare. --Fine. I'll take B7. Skywarp, A5. Wheeljack, D1. And Drift--

--Let me guess,-- the swordsmech inserts with a dry tone. --C3?--

Skywarp's chuckle bubbles across the transmission. --Brilliant deduction, smart-aft. Can you cook, too?--

Cook?

An exasperated hiss escapes Thundercracker. His trinemate spends far too much time watching human television.

--Skywarp. Focus.—

That earns him a prickle from Warp’s nearby energy field.

--I know, I know. I'll behave.--

Thundercracker highly doubts that.

--And don't dawdle either. You may need to leave in a hurry.--

--Whatever you say, bossmech!—

Skywarp gives a cheeky glyph across the comm. He then waggles his wings before vanishing, never one to fly when he can warp.

--He's so charming,-- Drift comments in Skywarp's absence. --Really, I don't know why you haven't berthed and bonded him.--

Thundercracker ignores them both. It's not a statement that bears reaction.

--There aren't any alarm systems. Complicated ones, I mean,-- Wheeljack adds, a bit belatedly since Skywarp’s already rifling through the stockpile. --They didn't think to be worried about Cybertronian thieves apparently.--

It helps also that the majority of the energon detectors in the city were destroyed by Sentinel Prime.

--That’s good news for us.-- Thundercracker banks into a turn, heading for the warehouse he assigned to himself. --Alright, everyone. Get to work.--

A chorus of affirmatives chimes across the transmission before it falls silent.

Thundercracker lands, identifying a few patrolling humans who seem more interested in their cell phones than security. There are several cameras pointed at the human entrances, but none at the bay doors. It's easy enough to hack the system and set the video feeds at a loop.

Even Drift, who isn't scientifically inclined in the slightest, is capable of doing this.

Thundercracker quietly lifts the bay door, optics sharp for patrolling humans as it creaks and rattles its way upward. None come to investigate the noise, even though it carries in the humid summer air. Amateurs.

Inside, there are copious but unorganized piles of Cybertronian technology. No effort has been made to sort anything, most of which are weapons of a personal nature. They’re all basic as well. Blasters and energy blades and the like. There’s no evidence of specialized or augmented weaponry. Perhaps Prime had shown foresight in keeping it from human grasp.

Thundercracker doesn’t care either way. He simply gets to work, ripping out useful components and stowing as many power cores as he can carry both in his subspace and cockpit, which was scanned as part of the human alt-mode but utterly useless. Even so, he runs out of salvage long before he runs out of space. He casts one final look around, certainly he hasn’t missed anything useful. Then, he carefully eases out of his warehouse to help Wheeljack, who’s just whined over the comm about running out of storage. They make quick work of that warehouse, too.

Thundercracker is finishing a last walkthrough when Dreadwing sends him a high frequency ping. It’s the signal for extraction, and Thundercracker nearly startles in surprise.

This is the moment of truth.

--Skywarp, it's time to disappear,-- Thundercracker orders. --That goes for the rest of us, too.--

--And I was having so much fun,-- Warp retorts, though the humor in his response is evident. --I'm on it, boss.--

--It's just as well,-- Drift adds in. --This scrap is heavy, and I'm not built for hauling.--

--You should’ve picked a more useful alt-mode,-- Wheeljack teases, slamming his passenger door on the last of the salvage that Thundercracker had earlier placed.

Drift's wry repartee is crystal clear through the transmission. --Speak for yourself, he of the flashy paintjob.--

--I like my colors,-- Wheeljack shoots back, indignant. --They give me character.--

Drift laughs. Thundercracker can hear the rev of a high performance engine as he pulls into view, headlights darkened.

--I think you already have enough character,-- the Seeker informs them both.

--Is that supposed to be a compliment?--

Thundercracker restrains an ex-vent as the two continue their tete-a-tete. So much for radio silence unless absolutely necessary. Lucky that the humans haven't put any effort into monitoring this location.

--Enough, you two. Back to base.-- Thundercracker attempts to his best ability to shoo both away from the warehouses.

--Right away, sir,-- Wheeljack replies with a mischievous tone that dances the line between respect and insolence. He really has been spending too much time with Warp.

Drift offers a sound not unlike a human snort. Wheeljack nudges him with a door as they pass by, and then, off they go.

Elite soldier cadre they are not. Strangely, Thundercracker actually prefers it this way.

--Do we have everything we came for?-- Drift asks even as they leave.

--We have plenty!-- Wheeljack answers as Thundercracker takes to the air, circling above. --More than I could have hoped for.--

His tone is excited and thrilled both. A ray of brightness on the dark horizon.

Hope threatens to build, and this time, Thundercracker lets it come.

****

Chapter Text

There’s a blinking icon in the corner of Thundercracker's monitor, one that he doesn't recognize. He frowns, tapping on it. That brings up a type of communication program, one used for electronic mail. He has a message.

Probably spam, he thinks with a roll of his optics, but he clicks on it nonetheless. A new window pops up. The message is from an unknown address, but the content is entirely applicable. Lennox has somehow learned a method of contacting them, and Thundercracker will rip out his squishy heart and set it on fire if this leads the Autobots to them.

--Ratchet. Dreadwing. My office. Now!-- Thundercracker growls over a quick-bursted comm, closing it down immediately thereafter and leaving no room for either mech to argue.

“Your office?” Dreadwing questions, his vocals coming up behind Thundercracker almost immediately. He must have been dozing nearby. “Is that what you're calling it?”

Thundercracker whirls toward the other Seeker. “I'd get you one, but we're all out of crates.”

The barn door slams open with a screech of rusted hinges. Ratchet stomps inside.

“This had better be slagging important,” he all but snarls, spewing Pitfire and slagstone from his energy field.

“Did you give Lennox the means to contact us?” Thundercracker throws out, ignoring Ratchet's usual foul temper. Seriously, Drift needs to do something about this sooner rather than later. It's starting to affect everyone's temperament.

Ratchet draws up short, optics cycling in and out. “It's not exactly a secret,” he huffs. “If anything goes south with the humans, he's our first warning.”

“Including internet mail addresses?” Thundercracker half-turns, tapping the monitor for his scrapped together computer system.

“He's our ally! Of course, I did.” Ratchet folds his arms over his chestplate.

Thundercracker vents out of relief. “That wasn't a criticism. I wanted confirmation.” He presses his knuckles to his lipplates. “We're about to get a new recruit.”

“What?” Dreadwing demands. “Who?”

Ratchet, however, seems to already know.

“Prowl,” he says, and it’s like a sigh.

“How would you know?” Dreadwing gives the medic a suspicious look. “Did the human contact you, too?”

“No, he guessed.” Thundercracker leans back against the console. “And you're right. It’s Prowl. Lennox says he disappeared several hours ago, missed the dawn and the noon roll call.” He studies his medic. “How did you know?”

Ratchet drags one of the empty crates over and seats himself. He rubs his face for a long moment.

“Because we know who crashed and you only indicated one recruit. Sunstreaker would never leave Sideswipe. Hound wouldn’t abandon Dino.” He looks away, suddenly seeming eons older. “I had both dreaded this and hoped for it all the same.”

“Why the disparity?” Dreadwing asks, and he seems honestly curious.

“Prowl would be a great asset. I admit that his battle computer would go a long way towards ensuring we can get off this planet alive and survive long-term.” Ratchet's helm dips as he leans forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “But if even Prowl becomes disillusioned with Optimus, then it means that he’s far too gone to be saved.”

Thundercracker levels his gaze. “It’d be confirmation that the decision you made was the right one.”

“Not confirmation.” Ratchet shakes his head, fingers clenching and unclenching. “But similar enough that my conscience is alleviated.”

“You doubted yourself.”

From Dreadwing, it is more statement than it is question.

Ratchet cycles his optics. “Wouldn't you?”

“Warrior builds haven't the luxury of self-doubt. We must always be certain of our convictions,” Dreadwing responds, but there is no chastisement in his tone. He’s rarely one to criticize anyway. “I’ve heard of Prowl. Who hasn’t?” He shrugs. “You’re certain Prime wouldn't send him as a spy?”

“As much as it pains me to admit, I don't think Optimus has that much foresight.” Ratchet lifts his gaze, the quirk of his mouth wry and shaded with disappointment. “Unless it was Prowl's idea, which is possible. Jazz was the more underhanded of the two, but Prowl has always been subtle in his own way.”

Thundercracker frowns, thinking hard. He doesn’t like that implication, but if it’s real, if Prowl is truly coming to join them, this would be a great boon. A master tactician and an excellent fighter with updated intelligence on their enemies all wrapped up in one nice big former Autobot package.

“Dare we trust him?” he poses of no one in particular.

Ratchet gestures to the screen. “Lennox seems to think we have reason to. Something's obviously happened in Chicago, something that would cause Prowl to abandon his post. Unless we cease trusting Lennox, I think Prowl's defection is honest.” He reads the message over again. “Besides, Lennox has just as much to lose if it isn’t real. He did help us before, enough so to guarantee his death if anyone caught on. Perhaps even that of his sparkmate and child. He wouldn’t say anything unless absolutely certain.”

The two Seekers mull over that before exchanging a glance.

“Then what do we do?” Dreadwing’s gaze focuses on Thundercracker, once again affirming that they have unanimously declared him to be their leader.

Thundercracker flutters his wings involuntarily. “There's no telling precisely when Prowl will arrive. Or if Lennox gave him exact directions.”

“He wouldn't have,” Ratchet answers. “Too many audials. Too much risk. He probably gave him a vague idea just to get him moving in the right direction.”

“Then we send Warp out to look for him,” Thundercracker decides.

Dreadwing fiddles with the tip of a talon. “Would he accept a Seeker’s invitation?”

“I’m sure he already knows that I was last seen with Skywarp,” Ratchet says, some of the anxiety in his energy field ebbing away now that they are no longer focusing on him and his own troubles. “Nevertheless, I would suggest that Skywarp employ some… tact.”

Dreadwing's pump all but stutters with disbelief. “Are we talking about the same bot here?”

“Skywarp's the only one who can perform long-distance recon without alerting the humans' energon net,” Ratchet points out.

True enough since he can teleport in a split-second.

“We could send Drift, I suppose,” Thundercracker allows, “but if it is a trap, he won't be able to escape so easily.”

“Tracks is an option,” Dreadwing adds, but there is reluctance present. “But I’d be the first to admit he isn’t as fast in the air as Skywarp. And again, he doesn’t have the ability to vanish so easily.”

“If Prowl is intending to seek out Ratchet, he won’t be surprised to see Warp,” Thundercracker adds, fingers drumming on the desktop. “It has to be common knowledge that Ratchet with him.”

Their medic nods. “Skywarp, it is.”

“He isn’t planet-side right now, remember?” Dreadwing points out, trepidation shifting to amusement as his hand drops to his side.

“I think that this takes precedence over repairs on the Ark.” Thundercracker swivels back around to face his monitor.

He taps into the communication systems, keying in the triply-encrypted channel to the Jackhammer. Before he can send the ping, however, the line beeps with an incoming call. Speak of Unicron and he arrives.

Thundercracker accepts the comm and isn't surprised when Skywarp's face appears on screen. However, he can also hear muttered cursing in the background. The image fritzes with static, but there’s evidence of blaster-scoring on Warp's visible shoulder. He also looks frazzled, though he covers it up with a half-sparked smile.

“I’m afraid to ask,” Thundercracker says by way of greeting, tone carefully neutral.

A deprecating chuckle escapes his trinemate's mouth. “We kinda got a problem, TC.”

In the background, Thundercracker hears a crash. The image jerks as though the camera has been struck, and there's a flash, followed by the sound of Wheeljack spitting a curse. Drift, their backup, is nowhere in sight.

Thundercracker's optics narrow. His sensors prickle as Dreadwing and Ratchet crowd behind him, peering over his shoulders at the screen.

“What kind of problem?”

Skywarp winces. “You're never gonna believe who was on the Ark when we got here.
Looks like he's been here for months, too. Must have arrived just after that one time you three came up here.”

“Who is it?” Dreadwing demands.

Skywarp's optics flick past Thundercracker. They linger on Dreadwing for a click.

“Our favorite slagger, TC! It's Astrotrain.” He sounds somewhere between cheerful and crazed. So like normal then. “And he is not a happy mech. The fragger's two shades from Empty.”

Ratchet curses behind Thundercracker, his energy field buzzing. It took severe energon starvation for a fully-sparked mech to sink that low.

“He almost took out Jack! I think he just saw the brand and went fragged.” Skywarp glances behind himself before returning his gaze to the screen. “Luckily, my scanners registered movement, and I was able to intercept before he became a pile of paste.”

Ratchet grinds a few gears, a discombobulating noise that screeches in Thundercracker's audials. The medic seems on the verge of going to the moon and avenging his old friend personally. If he could fly that is.

“Wheeljack's not that easy to kill,” he bites out but doesn’t sound entirely sure.

Thundercracker resists the urge to bang his helm on the nearest flat surface. Since really, that’s just the way this orn is going. Is this what drove Megatron and Prime to madness?

“Astrotrain is twice Wheeljack's size and weight,” Thundercracker says instead, convenient surface unavailable. “And you know good and well that Empties don’t have the usual safeguards in regards to their own well-being.”

Nonetheless, thank Primus and Prima both that he'd had enough foresight to send Wheeljack with company. Skywarp can help with the repairs, true. But he’s also an able soldier. Drift too is useful in that regard. He might not be able to repair, but he can haul, guard, and be an extra pair of hands.

“I took him down,” Warp continues on-screen, far too proud as his servos rubbing over the visible blast mark. “Though not without some grappling. Astro wouldn't listen when I told him to stand down. He's fragged about something.”

Dreadwing makes a contemplative noise. “I seem to remember… something,” he alludes. “Were not he and Blitzwing partners?”

“Of a sort,” Thundercracker acknowledges, though Blitzwing was friendlier toward the Seekers. Unlike Astrotrain, who always had a rod shoved up his thruster for some reason. “Triple-changers always did like to stick to their own kind.”

Then again, the same could be said for all the divisions of Cybertron. Flight mechs gravitate toward other flight mechs with rotaries keeping to their own. Shuttles often lost to the vastness of space with Seekers practically a coven of secrecy. Groundmechs aren't so different. It doesn’t help that many flyers are – were – war-builds, automatically setting them apart from the rest of the civilian population.

It was a rare flyer that was a true noncombatant. Tracks and Skyfire are the only ones that Thundercracker can think of offhand. And they were both Autobots. Still most on that side are grounders because most civilians were grounders. Transports and haulers and construction-class and all the other various varieties. Four-cylinders, three-cylinders, two-cylinders and no-cylinders. They all had their associations. Medics stuck to medics or engineers, though they had their own cliques as well, and the scientists were notorious for their reclusive natures outside of a select few.

Thundercracker once worked for Ratchet, who was then a Senator, as a contracted war-build with a noteworthy aptitude for higher processor functions. It was an experiment from the upper echelon, to see if other uses could be made of war-builds in times of peace. Not that those were common.

Thundercracker was a success. Many of his fellows weren’t. The plan was scrapped several vorns later, and Thundercracker was returned to the army, where he had to struggle to climb his way back to notoriety. His fellow war-builds disdained him for the civilian life he briefly carried. Or even attempting to rise above his programming.

“Anyway,” Skywarp says, dragging Thundercracker from his memories, “we've got him cuffed and restrained. What should I do with him?”

“If he's that close to Empty, then he isn’t coherent enough to fully comprehend his actions.” Ratchet glares at the ceiling like it personally offended him. “We can't, in good conscience, offline him. He may be willing to lay down arms.”

“Astrotrain?” Skywarp guffaws; there’s no other word for it. “Not likely. The mech only followed the Decepticons because Megs beat him to scrap. He always had his own agenda outside of that. He isn't gonna bow to me or TC or Dreadwing. And he definitely isn't going to listen to an Autobot.”

In the background, Drift floats by like a white specter. His paint is visibly scratched, but his demeanor is unruffled. Knowing his history, this was probably like a light spar before the real fun began.

“Mechs can change,” Drift offers pointedly, one hand trailing near his Autobot sigil. “It's been vorns since you've spoken to Astrotrain, has it not? Maybe he's different.”

“And maybe he isn't,” Skywarp counters, the edge of something in his tone. “Look, Ratchet. I'm all for gathering up the loose ends and making some kind of neutral colony, but I'm telling you now, Astrotrain isn't going to sit around the campfire and sing kumbayah.”

Thundercracker finds himself wanting to bang his head again. This is the type of thing they all need to sit down and debate in depth. It's a discussion that can't be made on the spot, and right now, they did not have the time. Prowl's impending arrival cannot be ignored.

Rubbing his nasal bridge, Thundercracker waves a dismissing hand in the air. “You all have a valid point, but right now, there are bigger issues.”

“Prowl,” Ratchet confirms.

Skywarp startles. Drift does as well but more subtly.

“Prowl?” Warp repeats like he heard it wrong the first time. “What about him?”

“He's on his way here. Possibly.” Thundercracker settles back on his crate, wing bumping against Dreadwing, who barely seems to notice. “I need you here, Skywarp.”

“Well, what the frag am I supposed to do with Astrotrain?” his trinemate demands, gesturing with a taloned digit. “Let him wreak havoc or something? Make Drift go sit on him?”

Ratchet leans around Thundercracker to get a better view. “Tell Jack to put him in medical stasis. But pour some energon down his intake first. He'll keep for a while like that.”

“A waste of good energon if you ask me,” Skywarp mutters, but he seems to be considering it. “Fine. We'll tie him up somewhere and be back as soon as possible. But don't say I didn't warn you.”

“Noted.”

Thundercracker ends the transmission, knowing his trinemate too well for Skywarp to be offended. Besides, the longer their conversations last, the greater the chance the humans or Autobots will detect the signal and track them down. He swivels back around to Dreadwing and Ratchet, both of whom have become indispensable advisers as of late. Though for different reasons.

“Dreadwing, find Tracks and tell him to hit the road. If he finds Prowl, let us know but don't make contact. Maintain his distance,” Thundercracker orders.

They'll have Skywarp make first contact since he can escape easier. But if Tracks finds Prowl first, at least they won't have to waste the energon sending Skywarp to look.

He turns to their medic next.

“Ratchet, keep an optic on the newscasts. The humans are probably looking for Prowl, too. Let me know if they find him first.”

Ratchet nods, but Dreadwing returns his gaze evenly.

“And Astrotrain?”

“We'll figure him out later.” Thundercracker frowns, ten kinds of scenarios dancing across his processor. “He might be willing to work with us, but I'm not ready to trust that or him. We have too much at stake.”

He thinks of the hatchlings, growing in their makeshift tanks. They may never be sparked, but they are the last. Thundercracker will protect them to the end.

If they as a species are to survive, this is what must be done.

Ratchet looks at Thundercracker. “You know,” he says, vocals soft but shaped with awe, “that you are giving him a chance is more than Optimus was ever willing to do. I think that says something. Don't you?”

Uncomfortable, Thundercracker pushes himself to his pedes. “It’d be hypocritical of me to kill Astrotrain, wouldn’t it?”

“Who would have ever guessed that a 'Con would be the one advocating peace?” Dreadwing echoes. “I can almost believe the war will soon be at an end.”

“For us, maybe.” Thundercracker moves by both his lieutenants – for lack of a better term – and steps out of his makeshift office. “But until we leave this planet and Prime's reach, we’re still at war.”

o0o0o



Within an hour, Skywarp, Drift, and Tracks are scouring the neighborhood for signs of Prowl. Lennox had been forthright enough in giving them a detailed description of his alt-mode. They had every reason to suspect that Prowl, the walking battle computer, would be there soon enough.

Unsurprisingly, it’s Skywarp who finds Prowl first.

--Got him!-- Skywarp all but sings into the comm. --Want me to make contact?--

Thundercracker glances at Ratchet. “What do you suggest?”

“An invitation,” the medic replies, drumming his fingers on a crate. “Ask him to meet us somewhere, far enough from the base that we're not compromised.”

Thundercracker inclines his head. “Where do you suggest?”

“There is an abandoned weigh station about an hour's drive from here,” Dreadwing offers and unfolds his arms. “The road is sparsely traveled.”

Thundercracker glances at Ratchet. He merely shrugs.

“Coordinates?”

“Already sent.”

Thundercracker's systems ping the arrival of a small document that he then forwards on. --Deliver an invitation, Warp. Be tactful.--

--You got it, boss.--

“This ought to be interesting,” Dreadwing mutters.

Thundercracker ignores him, instead contacting Drift and Tracks, telling them to return to the base.

“Luckily, Prowl never fires without considering all the variables,” Ratchet comments with a thoughtful tone.

Thundercracker checks their furthest reaching sensors for anomalies but can see nothing that could possibly be a danger or NEST intrusion. There's not anything on the cameras either. That doesn’t mean that Prime's group hasn't found their hideout. Thundercracker is determined to be paranoid until the danger has passed and maybe not even stop then.

--Message delivered.-- Skywarp sounds far too cheerful for anyone’s liking. --And he didn't fire at me even once, boss!--

--Thanks. And don't call me that.-- Thundercracker ends the comm before Skywarp's laughter can filter through.

Primus knows how much he hates that they've thrust this leadership upon him. And Skywarp continues to rub it in simply because he knows his trinemate despises it. He doesn't like making the decisions. He doesn't like the responsibility resting on his shoulders. He feels like he's steering them all down the path toward destruction.

Though in comparison to Megatron and Optimus Prime both, Thundercracker's practically a human saint, a priest of Primus, and the Allspark all wrapped into one neat package.

“Well?” Dreadwing prompts as both he and Ratchet look at their glorious leader expectantly.

“Skywarp delivered the coordinates, and I assume they were accepted. He didn’t indicate otherwise,” Thundercracker replies, gesturing for the two to precede him out of the barn.

They only have a short window in which to meet Prowl, discern the mech's intentions, and return to the Lennox farm before the satellites come into position. The false readings Wheeljack earlier inserted into the human's energon detection system will be found out soon. They can’t afford to delay.

“We’ll need to fly,” Thundercracker adds and gives Ratchet a pointed look. “It’ll be faster.”

The medic scowls and crosses his arm over his chassis. “I'll stay here then.”

“Not an option. Prowl will trust you. He’ll treat us with suspicion,” Thundercracker insists.

There’s also the added measure that in the event of a trap, the Autobots might delay their weapons fire to avoid striking Ratchet. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Still, it's a calculated risk. If this were a trap, then they as a team are doomed. Ratchet's expertise is needed for the sake of the hatchlings. For all of them truth be told. Wheeljack is good for emergency patches, but complicated procedures are beyond his scope. If they hope to survive once leaving Earth, they’ll need a medic of Ratchet's caliber.

It’s that understanding that makes Thundercracker think twice and even a third time about bringing Ratchet along. He considers taking Wheeljack instead, but he hasn't been planet-side that long. He knows nothing of Prime's current behavior, at least not personally. He won’t be able to shift out falsities in Prowl's stories as Ratchet would.

That doesn’t even go into the fact that Ratchet was on Prime’s handpicked team. With Prowl’s own brother. Or that they are personal acquaintances.

A fluttery sound escapes Thundercracker. This second-guessing is why he despises leadership so very much. He isn’t a tactician. He does not know how to read mechs, especially ones like Prowl. He doesn't know if he's making the right choice, and they’re all still looking to him for answers.

It's enough to drive him to madness.

Thundercracker can only shake his head.

“Let’s go.”

“I fragging hate being carried,” Ratchet grumbles but follows after them.

Thundercracker delegates the task to Dreadwing, who is larger anyway. It's another point in the favor of peace that Ratchet doesn't pitch a fit.

The location Dreadwing offered is a twenty minute flight away from the farm in the opposite direction of Chicago. Abandoned is an understatement. The weigh station has not seen visitors in so long it’s become overgrown by vegetation. There’s little to be seen of a building beneath all of the vines, both living and dried out husks. Luckily, it’s surrounded by woodland, though the road that connects it to the main highway is choked with weeds.

They arrive before Prowl. Skywarp lingers out of sight and ready to warp in at a moment's notice, and Dreadwing sets Ratchet down with care, probably having learned his lesson from Warp, who once dropped the medic and got a wrench to the helm afterward. The Seeker griped about the dent for weeks, but Thundercracker had no sympathy. His trinemate deserved it for being an idiot. Not that such is a thing is a rare state of mind for Skywarp.

The silence seems to wrap around them. Ratchet stands and waits, pulling out a datapad and frowning over the contents. Dreadwing finds an abandoned car, using it as a perch as he draws his blade, polishing the edges. Thundercracker stands closest to the road, watching and waiting for Prowl to arrive. Skywarp has already sent him a picture of the mech's alt-mode.

The sound of a high-performance engine precedes Prowl's arrival. Thundercracker tries to remain relaxed, but he can't stop his autonomics from triggering a first-level fighting subroutine. Dreadwing doesn't move, but Thundercracker can sense that he’s very aware. Ratchet subspaces his datapad. Three pairs of optics lock on the dirt road.

A police car, white with broad black highlights, comes into view, drawing to a halt with a crackle of tires on gravel. There is a moment's pause before Prowl shifts to his root mode, facing down the three of them with nary a twitch to betray him. His sensory panels – the front doors of his vehicle mode – resemble wings as they protrude from his back. He looks from Ratchet to each of the Seekers and then back.

This is it. The moment of truth.

They don't have the time for politeness or courtesy. So Thundercracker dives into the spark of the matter immediately.

“What are your intentions?” he demands.

As far as size goes, Prowl isn’t the largest grounder amongst the Autobots. Not by far. But he isn’t as short as his brother was either. Instead, he’s strangely average. Both height and build.

However, there’s something about the way he holds himself. Poised. Oddly graceful. Like a human king who stands before his enemies but has lost nothing of his commanding nature.

Prowl looks from Ratchet to Thundercracker, but his optics give nothing away.

“Peace.”

Dreadwing looks up from his sword, but his talons drag down the length of the blade. “Why?”

For a moment, the stoic facade flickers.

“It's the only hope I have left,” Prowl responds, doors giving a slight twitch and betraying his grief.

Ratchet steps up beside Thundercracker. His frame language is wary and his vocals quiet.

“What has Prime done?”

Prowl cycles a ventilation. There’s almost a bleak quality to his face despite the impassiveness.

“More than I can bear,” he answers, and the last syllable edges with static. “I understand why you left. It was inevitable that I’d do the same.”

“You haven't said why. What was the final straw?” Dreadwing insists, finally rising and sheathing his blade. He stands on Thundercracker's left side with Ratchet on the right.

The three of them present a unified front.

Prowl draws himself up straight. But his tone is hollow, echoing.

“Hound is offline. Prime let him die.”

Quiet then. Deathly so. It makes even Thundercracker wince. He doesn't have to look at Ratchet to feel the devastation. Thundercracker doesn't know Hound from any other Autobot, but of course, his medic would.

“What do you mean he's offline?” Ratchet demands.

Prowl's optics dim, now little more than grey specks. “We came here because we knew you’d be with Prime. Hound… He was severely injured, and our crash landing didn't help.” His doors press tightly to his dorsal plating. “His spark chamber was compromised, Ratchet. There's nothing I or Sunstreaker could do. Primus knows we tried.”

“You should’ve left him in stasis!” Ratchet’s voice is now a hiss. He lurches an aborted step forward but then presses back to Thundercracker's side. Field reaching out as if in search of comfort.

“To what end?” Prowl's vocals are knife sharp before he can get himself back under control. “There is no medic among the Autobots, not anymore! You were gone. Without an explanation… At least none that Prime would give me. I’d honestly thought you dead until later. And then… Then, Prime forbid contacting you.”

Ratchet's plating rattles audibly. His energy field is terrible. A roil of anger and anguish and misery.

“I’m a medic first,” Ratchet declares, and Thundercracker has to steady him. “Optimus knew – knows – this. I would’ve come. I would’ve... We could’ve worked out something!”

Thundercracker tightens his grip.

Yes, Ratchet would’ve gone, and he would’ve gotten himself killed. All without saving Hound in the process. It’s a good thing Prime didn’t even try. Thundercracker would’ve had to stop him, and that wouldn’t have ended well.

Thundercracker would’ve done it anyway.

Prowl's doors jerk upright. His fingers twitch against him, but his tone is almost dead.

“That was only the beginning.” Each word is clipped, broken at the edge. “I thought I understood, but I didn’t know the situation. I thought Prime knew what was best. I tried to convince myself, but for once, logic failed me.” His voice suddenly lowers, as if admitting a shameful secret. “I didn’t want to believe you a traitor. I simply couldn’t lose anyone else. I couldn’t be idle. If not for Sideswipe, I would have gone to locate you myself.”

“Against Prime's wishes?” Dreadwing is incredulous, and probably with good reason.

If there is an Autobot who exemplifies law and order, it’s Prowl of Praxus. Even a Decepticon like Thundercracker knows this much.

“I didn’t understand then.” Prowl straightens, hands smoothing over the white plating of his thighs. “Sideswipe stopped me. He… I was forced to realize my folly. I returned, but Hound's spark lost the fight soon after.”

He looks away then. At the ground and nowhere else. Especially not the mechs in front of him.

“But it doesn’t sound like you left immediately,” Thundercracker says into the ensuing quiet that’s already thick with grief and regret. “You still stayed.”

Blue optics snap at him, and he sees true rage there as Prowl's frame goes rigid. It’s just a glimpse before he looks away, but it’s enough. Anger so cold that it’s burning. Biting with icy fangs that sink into his very spark.

“I made a promise,” Prowl replies, and his vocals are at complete odds with his demeanor. “One I do not abandon lightly. I just didn’t know how much Prime and the Autobots have changed. I didn’t see it. I didn’t want to see it.”

“What was it?” Ratchet asks, and he lacks the accusing lilt Thundercracker used. “What finally changed your mind?”

For a long moment, the tactician is mute. His head dips, thoughts obviously turned inward. Even his sensory panels are frozen against his back.

Finally, he lets out a slow ventilation.

“Destroying our enemies is one matter, but when he sought to turn those same weapons on one of us, on an Autobot, without hesitation...” His hands flex against his thighs again. “I fear Prime can no longer see peace for the war anymore. I fear…” He shakes his head. “I know that he’s lost himself to the madness.”

“Then, you’re willing to work with us?” Dreadwing inquires almost gently. “To turn your back on the Autobots?”

“The Autobots were the first to turn.” Prowl lifts his gaze, shoulders straight. “If I am to preserve what is left… then yes, I will.”

They look at each other then. Prowl to Ratchet. The Seekers to each other and then to him.

Ratchet pings Thundercracker after a breem.

--I believe him.--

Thundercracker fights to keep in a sigh.

--You’re willing to bet your spark on that?--

Ratchet shifts beside him, field now quiescent against his frame. --If I'm wrong, then it’s more than my spark at stake.--

Unfortunately true.

If Prowl is tricking them, there isn’t a single one of them who will survive. Thundercracker and his Decepticon brethren will be killed on sight. The hatchlings will be disposed of, and the Autobots will be taken for questioning. Before no doubt meeting their end, too. Or worse… reprogramming.

--There's no lie in his field,-- Dreadwing adds on the same encrypted channel. --He’s left, though not without difficulty. He left someone of value behind. Just look at him.--

Thundercracker doesn’t need to, but he does. It only makes his spark twinge before he glances away.

He really hopes he isn’t dooming them all.

“Very well,” he allows if only because he doesn’t know what else to do. “You’re welcome to join us.”

Prowl relaxes but only marginally. “Thank you.” He offers a short bow that is too formal for Thundercracker’s comfort.

“But first,” Ratchet says, stepping forward and holding up a device, “we have to make sure you aren't carrying any uninvited guests.”

“A necessary precaution, I'm sure,” Prowl accepts with the barest glimmer of gratitude.

Thundercracker leaves them to it. He takes the reprieve and turns instead to Dreadwing.

“Are your sensors detecting anything other than native life?” he asks quietly, knowing that the larger bot’s scanners are more highly attuned.

“Other than Skywarp circling us like a vulture? No.” Dreadwing's field brims with amusement. “I believe that Prowl is sincere. A lucky break for us. There is no processor better suited for helping us.”

Thundercracker glances at the two Autobots. “Soundwave would’ve been useful,” he muses.

“Soundwave was and will forever be loyal to Megatron,” Dreadwing retorts with a wing-flick. “It's in his programming, his core coding. He can't be anything but. Luckily, he's not a problem.”

“No. Prime took care of that for us.” Thundercracker can't hide the disdain in his voice.

Soundwave would never have agreed to this tentative peace. Still, that doesn't mean Thundercracker approves of Prime's method of taking him out of the picture.

He turns to Ratchet and Prowl, done with this little discussion. “He clean?”

Ratchet doesn't answer for a moment. Then, his scanner beeps, and he nods.

“As far as I can tell.” He sounds inordinately pleased, especially given what he just learned about Hound. “Ready to head back to base, boss?”

“Yes.” And just because Ratchet is being a smart-aft, Thundercracker decides to return the favor. “You can drive this time. Show Prowl the way. I'll let Skywarp keep an optic on you.”

Ratchet makes a disgruntled noise. It’s more comforting than the good humor.

“Small favor.” He flicks his servos at the Seekers. “Go. Fly. Be free. We grounders will meet you there.”

Sometimes, Thundercracker wonders if he really is the one in charge. He shares an amused look with Dreadwing. Both of them activate their thrusters and launch into the sky, transforming along the way.

--Warp, keep an optic on our ground-bound companions,-- Thundercracker says as Dreadwing pulls up on his right wingtip.

--Oh, give me the boring job,-- Skywarp gripes, but he arcs around nonetheless. --Just because you want to… --

Thundercracker cuts him off. --Skywarp.--

--Fine, fine. We'll be there soon enough.--

He ends the transmission before Thundercracker can respond. Not that he would’ve said anything more than a kind of chastisement. Not that Skywarp ever really listens anyway.

He and Dreadwing arrive at the base long before Ratchet and Prowl. Dreadwing lands, but Thundercracker circles a few times, his scans set to max. This is a terrible risk they’re taking, and Thundercracker can't help worrying he's made a mistake.

He doesn't like it; this burden of leading others. It's too heavy. It's too much. And though it's no excuse, it's no small wonder that Megatron and Optimus Prime went as crazy as they did. Some days, Thundercracker thinks he might fall into that Pit himself.

He doesn't land until he sees Skywarp approach, and in his wake are Ratchet and Prowl, too. Thundercracker still doesn't feel safe, but there's nothing on his scanners. Their security system pings signs of all clear, and Skywarp passes him in a whirl of excited energy with no signs of worry.

“All's clear,” Warp says as they drop down in root mode. He tosses Thundercracker a jaunty salute.

His trinemate bites back an annoyed sigh; it would only encourage him.

“Good. Go get some rest or something.”

“What about Astrotrain?” Warp immediately asks.

Thundercracker waves him off and keeps going. “Later.”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

Another sharp salute, and Skywarp vanishes, never one to waste an opportunity to teleport.

Ratchet and Prowl arrive then, the former in the lead, and both shift to root mode as they pull up to the Seeker’s position. Prowl gives the base an assessing look, and Thundercracker can only imagine what he sees. A collection of ramshackle buildings and acres upon acres of grassland. Compared to the human base that the Autobots use, it’s quite pathetic.

“I think our newest arrival would benefit from a tour, don't you?” Ratchet says with a calculating gleam to his optic that doesn't bode well for Thundercracker's chances of escaping a scan. He needs to get control of his energy field and fast.

“It would be appreciated,” Prowl adds in a distracted tone. His sensory panels shift up and down against his back. A clear signal of agitation.

“I see no reason why not,” Thundercracker replies. “Though Skywarp just made a beeline for his lab.”

Ratchet twitches. “I'll make sure to avoid it. Come on, Prowl. The boss looks like he needs to brood.”

It’s Thundercracker's turn to twitch, though he keeps it to himself. Prowl tosses him a look but allows Ratchet to lead him away. Thundercracker watches them until they’re out of sight into the medbarn. It is, in his opinion, the perfect opportunity to make himself scarce.

He heads for his office, passing through the quarters that he and Skywarp share. Though Warp has been spending more time in his lab as of late, and Dreadwing has more or less taken over Skywarp's berth, complete with Tracks attached to his side.

He pushes through the cloth partition and drops down into his makeshift chair, staring blankly at the dark monitors of his computer system. A subtle tremble works its way from his substructure, and Thundercracker leans forward, bracing his arms on his thighs. He has to focus to dial his battle routines back down.

Is there a true ally among them? Or is Prowl a virus waiting to activate?

Thundercracker doesn't know. He hates that he can’t trust his own judgment. He doesn't like the weight that rests on his shoulder. The burden is too much. This responsibility is too much.

“You made the right choice.”

Thundercracker jerks upright. He swings toward the doorway, finding Dreadwing.

“I don't recall asking your opinion,” Thundercracker says, irritated that he's been caught.

“And I don't need an invitation to give one,” Dreadwing retorts, inviting himself fully inside so that the curtain swishes shut behind him.

Thundercracker straightens. He isn’t a sparkling. Maybe never was one. He shouldn’t have to fight not to fidget.

“I suppose you don't need permission to disturb me either,” he manages instead.

Dreadwing folds his arms over his chassis. He leans against a reasonably stable stack of crates.

“Oh? Were you busy?”

His tone is pure Towers mech and is obviously borrowed from Tracks. His optics glance pointedly at the dark monitor.

Thundercracker performs a systems check, if only to keep himself from snapping back.

“Did you want something?”

Silence settles between them. Dreadwing's gaze drops to the computer and away from Thundercracker.

“It's difficult, isn't it?”

Thundercracker draws back but hesitates. Unsure where this is going.

The other Seeker shifts, arms dropping as he fiddles with a crate. His energy field is contained, but it’s clear he has something more he wishes to say.

“Autobots don't like to lead,” Dreadwing continues pensively. “And the ones who do were once military themselves.” His wings twitch against his backplate, an indication of his disquiet.

Thundercracker, however, just keeps staring. He honestly doesn’t know what to say. Even if he did, Dreadwing doesn’t allow him time to get a word in.

“Jack and Tracks listened to me because they only know how to follow,” the larger Seeker continues. “For all that they were once civilians, they’ve had a lifetime of conditioning to do whatever the Senate or the Council or whomever told them. War-builds are supposed to follow commands, but our programming ironically gives us more room for independent action. For adjusting to the situation as long as there’s a goal in mind.” Dreadwing ventilates audibly. “We follow orders, but we can also make them or change them on the fly.”

Thundercracker doesn’t reply. It only makes the larger mech sigh.

“I didn't like telling them what to do, but someone had to or we were all scrap,” Dreadwing admits. “Neither one of them would’ve ever stepped up. Not even Tracks. Towers bots were the most compliant of all.”

Thundercracker swivels around to power on his computer. “You can't know that the choices you make are the right ones,” he confesses.

“That's why it's difficult.” Dreadwing’s hand falls to his side. “I'm not a tactician. I can command a unit of Seekers or a pair of Autobots, but I don't know how to lead in peace. How to have so many different functional-types look at me for guidance. How to look past the war and think of something more.”

“That's the crux of the matter, isn't it? We're all so used to war we can't function outside of it.”

Thundercracker stares at his monitor, but he doesn't really see it.

“To be fair, it's what we were sparked for.”

A laugh escapes Thundercracker. There's no humor in it.

“Still trapped by our origins, aren't we?”

It really isn’t a question.

“Some things can't be changed,” Dreadwing murmurs.

His hands draw into a fist. “I refuse,” Thundercracker says and surprises himself with the fierceness of his reply. “I haven’t come this far to bow to my coding.”

“Neither have I.” Dreadwing's tone echoes his with a quiet conviction. “I'll die before I submit to another again.”

Thundercracker agrees. He may wish for peace, but he’ll never return to the way things were before. No matter how much he longs for home.

“Submission and deference are not the same, however,” Dreadwing adds, and his head turns toward Thundercracker with a pointed look. “Sometimes, it is simply convenient to leave some tasks to those better suited.”

He looks up at the other flyer. “Is this your method of offering me advice?”

“A small suggestion.” Dreadwing's lipplates lift in a semblance of a smile. “Feel free to disregard it.”

He turns back toward the partition, dismissing himself as abruptly as he had invited himself in. He leaves behind fuel for thought though, and Thundercracker presses his knuckles to his mouth, substructure now quiet and stable.

Perhaps that’s not such a bad idea.

o0o0o



Astrotrain is a matter that Thundercracker can’t ignore.

Now that Prowl’s been confirmed and invited, Thundercracker can’t in good conscience leave Astrotrain in stasis. A decision must be made.

It requires another trip to the moon, a calculated risk and a use of energon that’s still being stretched thin by new additions and the ever-growing hatchlings.

Ratchet refuses to come.

“I've got better things to do,” the medic grumbles as he carefully transplants one of the groundlings into a larger container. The supplements he's added to the energon baths have caused a spike in maturity. “These hatchlings aren't going to care for themselves.”

Thundercracker barely stops himself from grinding a few internal gears. “You were his loudest advocate.”

“And I'm sure you won't forget it if I'm there or not.” Ratchet gives him a look, though his motions are careful and gentle. “I'm just the medic, Thundercracker. That's all I've ever been, and that's all I want to be.”

There's little chance of convincing him. Ratchet is perhaps the most stubborn mech that Thundercracker has ever met, including Starscream. In many ways, the two are much alike. An observation that he wisely keeps to himself.

He supposes it is better this way anyway. Ratchet is too valuable to their cause.

“Besides,” their medic continues. “Jack is more than capable of bringing Astrotrain out of stasis. And if Skywarp's description is accurate, there's nothing wrong with the mech a little energon won't cure.”

Thundercracker merely nods and leaves Ratchet in the care and protection of Drift, Tracks, and Warp. He debates leaving Dreadwing behind as well, if only to provide a voice of reason, but if Astrotrain is as crazy as he thinks, they’ll need the physical backup. Both Prowl and Wheeljack are capable of fighters, but they’re almost half the size of the Seekers and even smaller than a triple-changer.

The flight on the Jackhammer is different than the last time. The small scout-class shuttle is in much better repair now. It doesn't rattle and roll or emit strange creaks. It’s almost pleasant even.

Prowl is a silent traveler, processor whine the only noise he makes the entire trip. Wheeljack chatters to Dreadwing, who listens but doesn't offer much in return but seems relaxed enough all the same.

Thundercracker, in turn, paces in the limited space available. He wonders about Astrotrain's mental state. Triples and Seekers rarely get along. And he's certain Astrotrain never got over the offense of being put in his place by Starscream, not once but multiple times. Astrotrain has little love for the other two members of Stars’ trine either. Thundercracker holds little illusion of him happily joining their crew. Despite Ratchet's optimism, he strongly suspects he'll have to put a blaster to Astrotrain's spark by the time this is all over.

The Decepticons may have originally started as a rebellion, a bid for freedom and equality, but Megatron's origins and charisma often attracted other sorts as well. Mechs who wanted war for the sake of war. Mechs who just wanted power and rule. Mechs eager for a taste of spilled energon without fear for legal ramifications.

Astrotrain and Blitzwing never believed in the cause. Then again, by this point, there are few survivors who joined for the right reasons. The soft-sparks offlined first, oftentimes by friendly fire. Being scattered across the universe hasn't helped matters. Nor has Megatron's absence.

Thundercracker vents in and out. Their whole crusade was fragged from the start.

So it won’t surprise him in the least if Astrotrain isn’t at all interested in what they have to offer. But in the interest of fairness, Thundercracker wants to make the attempt. To prove to himself if no one else that they are better than Prime and his sycophants.

The moon now fills what Thundercracker can see through the viewport, and when the Jackhammer lands a few breems later, Wheeljack disembarks first with Thundercracker bringing up the rear. He gives the ruined Ark a critical look. The ship doesn’t look to be flightworthy anytime soon, though Wheeljack and Skywarp both assure him it can be done.

As for Astrotrain, he’s just within the Ark, propped up against a broken wall near the bridge, a crumpled mass of rust and disrepair that matches the Ark itself.

--Right where we left you,-- Wheeljack declares with a forced cheer and a muted flashing of his indicators.

He approaches the trussed up triple-changer with wariness. And that’s despite the darkness of Astrotrain's optics proving he’s still in stasis.

He's not much to look at in Thundercracker's opinion. Astrotrain's paint is scuffed, the original shade nearly incomprehensible. His paneling is dented, and only a few of the injuries are recent. There is evidence of neglect. Of no self-maintenance. Both clear indications of a mech whose processor is spiraling down the dark path to Empty.

No wonder he attacked Wheeljack. He must’ve been desperate to be energized. Maybe it wasn't the Autobot symbol that provoked him. Maybe it was just the sight of another living mech. Crouching here in the shadows, surrounded by the corpses of long dead frames, only contributed to Astrotrain's madness.

Thundercracker dangerously approaches pity as he realizes that, and he isn’t sure what to do about it. If it even really matters. They’re already planning to give him energon. To allow him the chance to join their cohort. To not be so alone.

Wheeljack kneels just behind Astrotrain as Thundercracker watches. He plugs into a neural port and is already activating protocols as the rest of their team catches up. Thundercracker is ever-aware of Dreadwing and Prowl moving to flank him, and there’s a tangible hum of systems on battle-standby.

Dreadwing clearly expects a fight. And while Prowl's expression is carefully neutral, he is poised for action.

Once again, Thundercracker feels a mech out of his element.

--Almost there,-- Wheeljack informs them, indicators muted now. But he abruptly directs back. --Oh, slag. He's going to…--

Whatever Wheeljack intends to say is cut off as Astrotrain onlines with a burst of energy and throws himself forward. He probably would’ve swung his fists if they weren't cuffed behind him, and his forearm plating twitches, as though trying to activate weapons that have already been removed.

Thundercracker throws himself forward even as Dreadwing bursts into action, tackling Astrotrain to the ground in a cloud of rust and Moon grit. A scuffle ensues, and Wheeljack pushes himself free with a pained twist of his faceplate. The torn end of a cable dangles from his wrist, something Ratchet will no doubt bitch about later.

Despite the energon, Astrotrain is still weak. It doesn't take much for Dreadwing to subdue him, pinning the triple-changer on his knees, wrists still cuffed behind him. The Seeker holds one of Astrotrain's wings, the other hand clasped firmly on his shoulder.

The triple-changer's expression has shifted to one of mulishness and disdain. His optics blaze scorn, though filth clings to his frame like some kind of disease. Given his general state of health, it might just be.

--You alright?-- Thundercracker asks Wheeljack, turning to him instead.

The engineer prods at his cable, spooling it with great care back into its casing. --Compared to how loudly Ratch is going to yell, I'm doing just peachy.-- He brushes off his frame, but he’s otherwise unharmed.

The fight wilts out of Astrotrain then, his energy expended. He sags in Dreadwing's grip with optics flickering.

--Astrotrain.--

Thundercracker transmits over a Decepticon frequency he’s sure to have. He's already given access to Prowl and Wheeljack, but it’s unlikely to be traceable by the Autobots on Earth.

Dim red optics lift to him as a sullen air wafts up. The triple-changer looks at Thundercracker with a curl to his mouth.

--What?--

Primus. He isn’t going to make this easy. Thundercracker's premonitions take an even darker turn.

He decides to start easy.

--What are you doing here?--

Astrotrain rolls his helm. He doesn’t even flinch when Dreadwing tightens his grip.

--Same as you. Followed the signal. Except the message forgot to mention that Megatron was dead.--

--He and the rest of Decepticon command,-- Thundercracker confirms, watching closely. Astrotrain may be restrained and underenergized, but he is no less dangerous. --The war is over.--

A burst of disbelief screeches across the comm. --Tell that to Prime!-- Astrotrain retorts with a sneer. --He's killing us even as we speak.--

How Astrotrain is aware of the events on Earth is a mystery. Perhaps he has found some way to hack into the human's satellites. Soundwave had, after all.

-- Prime has gone mad. Lost his way,-- Thundercracker concedes. --Cybertron is gone. There’s nothing left for us on Earth. If we are to survive, we must leave.--

Astrotrain’s wings twitch. --We?-- He scoffs. --You mean you and your consortium of Autoscum.--

Prowl tenses and steps up beside Thundercracker. Wheeljack's battlemask has already slid shut, concealing his expression. Plating dents beneath Dreadwing's grip, though Astrotrain doesn't appear to notice the pain. Maybe his systems have already scavenged those lines.

--They are my allies, yes.--

Thundercracker hesitates. He feels strangely offended, though he can't explain why.

--Imagine that,-- Astrotrain puts in snidely. --Allies. Like we’re holding a nice little conference and energon party.--

Thundercracker hesitates again. He doesn’t know what to say. Doesn’t know how to win someone over like Stars always managed. How to befriend someone so different from himself like Warp can. He’s just himself, and he’s never been so personable before.

--Survival is what matters now,-- he finally insists. --Not faction.--

Astrotrain shifts. His plating clamps to his substructure as he physically and mentally turns away.

--Whatever helps you in recharge, traitor.--

Thundercracker fumbles. The conversation has already gone off course, and he isn’t sure how to steer it back.

--I…--

--You are that devoted to the Decepticons?-- Prowl interrupts then, his tone curious but mostly neutral.

Another sound of disdain spills into the comm as Astrotrain shoots him a glare. --Frag, no. But leaving the 'Cons and walking hand in hand with Autobots are two different things.-- His gaze swings back to Thundercracker in accusation. --Autobots aren't allies. They’ll never understand.--

--The Autobots are on Earth right now,-- Prowl counters, effectively calling back Astrotrain's attention. --They serve under Optimus Prime, and they are not what we are.--

It’s Thundercracker's turn to look at Prowl. Wheeljack does, too. They are both confused. Ratchet has long professed that he’s still an Autobot, but Drift's recently removed his sigil, claiming he is neither. Wheeljack still has his though, and Tracks never seemed to have one at all as far as anyone can tell.

Astrotrain tilts his helm. --Then what the frag are you? With that red face on your chassis, mech?--

The police car lifts a hand to trace the emblem. --I am Prowl. I was sparked a tactician, and it’s what I will always be. I’m currently a refugee and an orphan, like the rest of us,-- he says, and his optics are too blue. --I’m searching for a place to call home. That’s what I am.--

Quiet for a moment. But then, Astrotrain turns his head again.

--Tell me another lie, bot.-- His features twist into a sneer. --You still wear that mark, don't you?--

--I notice that you’re still labeled as well.-- Prowl gestures to the stamp on Astrotrain's chestplate, front and center. --Factions do not make us who we are. They aren’t the sole entirety of our functioning. We are more than the brand we choose to bear.--

Silence again, but it’s more thoughtful now. Astrotrain peers at Prowl, as though he's never quite seen his like before. Thundercracker, for his part, is stunned. Is fumbling for something to say. And now for a different reason than before.

--So what. You all are Neutral or something?-- Astrotrain demands. His gaze skips around to each mech present, Autobot and Decepticon alike.

--Or something,-- Thundercracker manages when Prowl steps back, as though conceding the floor once more. Though frankly, Prowl is doing a far better job at this. --We have a plan. A goal. Where you fit into it is up to you.--

Astrotrain flicks his left wing, the one Dreadwing isn’t grasping. He smacks it against Dreadwing's frame as though protesting the restraint.

--If I tell you to frag off, are you gonna snuff my spark?--

Thundercracker cycles a ventilation. This part he can handle.

--If we let you go, are you going to turn around and shoot us in the back?--

Astrotrain grins.

Stalemate.

--What is that what you want, Astrotrain?-- Prowl questions.

The triple-changer's grin wipes away in an instant. --I wanted to live,-- he says, and his optics narrow. --I wanted to slagging survive. Me and my partner both. But it don't seem like that's an option now, does it?--

Well, that confirms at least one mystery. It might be kinder, Thundercracker reflects, if they do offline Astrotrain.

--Survival is our aim,-- Prowl responds, while Thundercracker mulls over an appropriate response and comes up blank. --No more fighting. No more killing. Just survival.--

Astrotrain twitches. His gaze falls to the tattered remnants of the Ark's flooring.

--Down there is death. Up here is death. What choice do I have? There’s nowhere to go.--

--There is,-- Prowl insists, and his tone is almost hypnotic. --If you are willing.--

Astrotrain stares at him. At his black and white paint. At his Autobot sigil. At his too blue optics.

--Can we trust you?-- Prowl questions, voice so very soft.

Thundercracker wants to shout a firm negative. Astrotrain may seem willing to submit now. But only because it's in his best interest. He'll never be trustworthy.

Astrotrain, however, smirks.

--Probably not.-- He rolls his shoulders. --Let me go, and I won't shoot you in the back. It wouldn't do me any good anyway. Give me some energon, and I'll pledge my allegiance.--

--We don't want your pledge,-- Thundercracker says, unable to hide the annoyance in your tone. --It's worthless to us.--

A hand settles on Thundercracker's arm. He startles, looking down. Finding that Prowl has now touched him, pulsing calm through his energy field.

--A pledge is not necessary,-- Prowl offers, all without looking up at Thundercracker for confirmation. Taking charge, it seems, is in his coding as well. --Do you wish to join our efforts? Or do we send you on your way?--

Astrotrain stares at Prowl again. His optics flicker as he obviously weighs his options.

Thundercracker switches to a private channel. --Do you think we can trust him?--

--Of course not.-- Prowl squeezes his arm again, as though offering comfort. --If he agrees to stay, I recommend that we leave him here on the moon. He will serve as adequate guard as long as we provide him energon, and he will not be a danger to the hatchlings.-- His field is gentle over Thundercracker. --I question his motives.--

--What would I have to do?-- Astrotrain demands then, losing none of his belligerence.

Prowl’s fingers smooth over Thundercracker’s plating in a single motion. The Seeker lets out air.

--Stay here.-- Thundercracker gestures to the Ark around them. --This is our way off-planet. Guard the Ark. Fix what you can. Ensure that we can all escape.--

Astrotrain, though aggressive and sullen, is also a capable in his own right. Not nearly as skilled at Wheeljack or even Skywarp. He’s more a mechanic than an inventor if Thundercracker remembers correctly. However, over the vorns, they've all had to expand their skill-set, and Astrotrain is no exception.

--And you'll give me energon?--

Astrotrain clearly has his priorities in order.

--You won't be able to consume to your spark's content, but you will be adequately fueled,-- Prowl corrects.

His hand falls away from Thundercracker, taking a step toward the bound mech. A glance from him, and Dreadwing releases his grip on Astrotrain, backing away. Neither of them even thinks to look to Thundercracker for confirmation. Which is probably a good thing.

Prowl just keeps going. --The question now is what you plan to do with our offer.--

--I don’t trust him,-- Dreadwing says across their encrypted line. His optics hold nothing but distaste. --He will cooperate only until it no longer benefits him.--

Prowl's helm lifts a fraction, enough to indicate his agreement. –Then, we’ll simply have to make sure he is benefited until the time comes that we can encourage him to go his own way without concern for retribution.--

Dreadwing takes a click, but he appears to accept that. Thundercracker merely offers a shrug.

--Fine,-- Astrotrain says on the main channel. --I'll join with your happy band of traitors. Got nothing better to do anyway.-- He raises his hands pointedly. --So can you take these cuffs off now?--

Prowl gestures to Dreadwing, who ruffles his wings but crouches down anyway.

--Are you otherwise injured?-- Prowl inquires as the cuffs are removed and Astrotrain rolls his shoulder joints.

--Nothing a bit of self-repair won't cure.--

The triple-changer rises with a noticeable wobble; he is still low on energon after all. The medical stasis and energon infusion did wonders for his mental state but not necessarily the physical.

--I wouldn't say no to a wash though,-- Astrotrain informs them, brushing at the filth caked on his frame.

--There is a small facility on our shuttle,-- Prowl informs him, looking up at the massive Decepticon without a trace of fear. --Dreadwing will show you, and Wheeljack will assist.--

--Throw me under the bus why don't you,-- their engineer grumbles, but humor edges his words.

Prowl tosses him a look and uses the private channel. --Fix his minor injuries. And while you're at it, make sure he's not carrying anything we should know about it.--

--Well, that's the mech I remember at least.-- Wheeljack curves his lipplates in a smirk. --For a parsec there you had me thinking you'd lost your processor. Or gone all soft-sparked.--

He taps the triple-changer on the arm. --Come on, big guy. Let's get you cleaned up.--

Wheeljack leads and Astrotrain follows with Dreadwing trailing behind the both of them. Thundercracker doesn't have to ask to know that Dreadwing's still running battle subroutines. Astrotrain is a threat, though a muted one now. Thundercracker isn’t going to trust Astrotrain any further than he can toss him into the void of space.

--He will need to be monitored,-- Prowl says once the three are gone. He turns toward Thundercracker, face pensive. --I would also recommend that we lock the controls for the Ark and keep anything remotely useful with us on Earth.--

Thundercracker gropes for one of the empty command chairs and slides into it. --It might be safer just to offline him now,-- he comments, nestling into the chair. It's nice to have furniture built to Cybertronian specifications, even if for a short while.

--Safer, yes. But hardly in line with what we’re trying to accomplish,-- Prowl replies, a slight curve to his mouth. --Otherwise, we would be no better than Prime or his brother.--

Thundercracker leans an elbow on the arm of the chair and sends a dismissive glyph across the comm. Prowl's right, of course. But he doesn't have to like it.

Then again, Prowl's been right about a lot of things. He's only been a member of their motley crew for a scant few days, and already, he's seamlessly merged into their hierarchy. He's all but thriving in it actually.

Thundercracker rests his helm on his knuckles, watching the Praxian as he wanders over to the Ark's dark console. Prowl has always been very highly ranked within the Autobots. There are few of them who Thundercracker knows by reputation and name alone, and Prowl is one of them. He's known for being highly intelligent, an unbeatable tactician, and curiously fair.

In facing Astrotrain, Thundercracker floundered, but Prowl easily took up the slack. Within moments, he measured and weighed and calculated and discovered the best outcome.

Dreadwing's earlier words float to the forefront of his processor. The seeded idea takes root and sprouts a few growths.

--You're good at this,-- Thundercracker says then, spark surging a strange rhythm inside his chassis. --At leading.--

Prowl gives him a strange look. --It's what I was sparked to do, after a fashion. I suppose you could say I was lucky in that regard. I actually enjoyed the place society had given me.--

--I'm not,-- Thundercracker responds and shifts in the chair. --Good at leading, I mean. I hate it. I can step up if pressed, but I don't like it. That's what Starscream was for. And Megatron.-- He looks at Prowl pointedly. --I'm a follower, and I’m comfortable with that.--

Prowl freezes. He very slowly glances up at Thundercracker. His optics are searching, seeking, but he seems surprised by what he finds.

--What are you implying, Thundercracker?--

The Seeker looks back at him. His spark vibrates in his chest, and his pump squeezes tightly.

This is it.

--If we’re going to survive long enough to leave this planet, we're going to need a strong leader,-- Thundercracker says, and some of the bands squeezing his spark, start to ease away. --So far, I've managed not to get us scrapped. But that's not enough.--

Dust stirs as Prowl approaches and stands directly in front of him. The two are nearly of a height with Thundercracker seated and the tactician standing.

--There are several other mechs available and capable of the position,-- Prowl points out, and his tone is more thoughtful than careful. --Dreadwing, for one. Ratchet, for another. Both have been leaders in the past, and Dreadwing was the head of his trine before they joined you. Ratchet was even a Senator.--

Thundercracker snorts at the thought. --They’ve both made it quite clear that they don’t want it either. That they’d only lead if there was absolutely no choice.—

--They’ve both been here longer than I,-- Prowl insists. --They’ve earned their place. Your trust.--

--So have you.--Thundercracker laughs. --You just did. You were amazing. You’ve never even met Astrotrain until now, but you read him like a datapad and got exactly what we wanted. And that’s while giving him what we planned to offer anyway.--

That seems to stump Prowl. His energy field is controlled as it always seems to be, but he doesn’t wrap it around himself as some mechs do. Instead, he allows it to reach out freely, to intermingle with Thundercracker’s. It’s a heady feeling. It speaks of trust and companionship, despite the fact they barely even know each other.

Nevertheless, Thundercracker knows enough.

Prowl just looks at him. --You would truly follow an Autobot's lead?--

There are so many things Thundercracker can say to that. But the truth is probably the best.

--No.-- He shakes his helm, meeting Prowl's gaze firmly. --I would follow yours.--

Silence settles at his words, heavy and expectant. Prowl's optics search his face, and Thundercracker can all but hear the calculations racing through his processor.

Finally, Prowl's helm dips.

--I need a breem.--

Thundercracker's lips tug toward a smile, but he doesn’t say anything.

--You are certain this is the better course?-- Prowl asks after a long moment, but he cannot hide the astonishment that wavers in his field. --This was not my intention after all.--

--It's for that reason really.-- Thundercracker raps his talons over the arm of the chair. --You would’ve followed. Done whatever I told you, even if it wasn’t what you’d have done personally.-- His energy brushes against Prowl’s own. --We don’t need another follower though; we need you to lead.--

Prowl puts a hand to his chin, and his doors move behind him. His optics are so very blue, bright like the lights on Cybertron before the war.

--Only if you are my lieutenant,-- Prowl decides suddenly.

It’s Thundercracker’s turn to be taken aback, but it’s only for a moment. Then, a weight lifts from his spark, and relief rushes through Thundercracker's systems. He can stand by Prowl's side, be his second, support his choices. But that he doesn't have to make them personally anymore is a burden happily surrendered.

He nods, and Prowl’s sensory panels flex and settle against his back when Thundercracker nods.

--Then, I will gratefully accept.--

He reaches out to claps Thundercracker’s hand. The gesture is returned gladly. Their future is already starting to look brighter.

***

Chapter Text

If someone had told him when the war first began, that it would eventually end with Megatron's defeat, Skywarp would have scoffed and then promptly shot the dissenter in the faceplate. With a secondary shot to the spark chamber for good measure.

If another brave spark would’ve added that Optimus Prime would thereafter proceed to lose all trace of sanity and be the catalyst for a true end to the war, Warp would have laughed and laughed and taught that newbie a thing or two about warfare.

He doesn't think anyone could’ve anticipated this.

Autobots and Decepticons and In-Betweens, all living together in a scraped together base on an organic planet where both the natives and their own kind seek to hunt them down and eliminate them. They are refugees and defectors and survivors and so desperate that not a one of them dares even think of hope.

They have wobbly plans that they attack with one optic on the clock and the other on the horizon, waiting for the moment that the great and venerable Optimus Prime tracks them down and arrives with an army. It's an existence that lies on the razor's edge.

It's this edge, Skywarp supposes, that has caused Prowl to organize this discussion. Or as Warp jokingly calls it, a family meeting.

Space is increasingly limited across their so-called base. Nevertheless, every member of their cadre has crowded into the common area of the medbarn. Ratchet has eased their space woes by staying in the med-area where he can hear and take part, but the rest of them are wedged inside.

TC and Dreadwing have snagged the crates, and Drift and Jack are all but snuggled together on the makeshift couch. Tracks is practically sitting in Dreadwing's lap. Skywarp, as the late arrival, got the dubious honor of the rickety stool that threatens to collapse beneath his weight.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Or will fall if this stupid stool has its way.

Prowl, as the organizer of said family meeting, has taken center-stage, content to stand. Of their cohort, and Warp uses the term loosely, Astrotrain is the only one who isn’t invited.

“I'll try to make this brief,” Prowl effectively slices through the murmurs of conversation. “Especially since we have much to do and scant time to work with.”

Thank Primus. If there is one thing Warp has always loathed, it's staff meetings of any kind. Hopefully this one is both the first and the last.

“You have all done well to evade detection so long,” Prowl continues, optics tracking over each and every one of them. “However, we must now change our tactics.”

Skywarp supposes that makes sense. They can't rely on luck and human stupidity forever.

There is a rustle in the medbay partition, however, as Ratchet comes into view and hovers in the entryway. His lipplates are downturned in a frown.

“Prowl, don't tell me--”

“It was my duty, Ratchet,” Prowl cuts in, but his tone is soft. “The plans they have are incomplete but not entirely useless.”

Thundercracker holds up a hand with wings visibly twitching. “Wait a klik. You devised a plan to what? Hunt us down?”

Prowl's chin tilts. “Yes.”

“It's not like we didn't know it would happen,” Drift says, pushing back on the couch as it creaks and groans beneath him. “Prime's not going to let us go in peace.”

“No, he is not,” their leader agrees and some of the rigidity eases out of his posture. “The humans consider all of us a dangerous threat with orders to kill on sight. Even Ratchet.”

Skywarp's not sure who's more surprised, Ratchet himself or everyone else. Medics, especially those that offer themselves with goodwill efforts, are exempt from trigger-happy attacks. Medics are rare and valuable, and Megatron himself would have preferred to capture rather than destroy Ratchet. To seduce him to the cause or at the very least use him as a valuable hostage. He would’ve only resorted to death if all else failed.

Warp wishes he could be more surprised, but he isn’t. Not after knowing what Prime and his Autobots have become. If a Decepticon cannot surrender himself because he faces death, then of course the Autobots would hunt down their own.

“Prime agreed with this?” Ratchet asks, audibly booting his vocalizer as the last emerges on a blip of static.

“I am inclined to understand it was his idea to begin with,” Prowl answers.

A disgusted noise rattles out of Skywarp's vocalizer. “Why are you surprised? You know that Prime's let himself become their lapdog.”

“Yes, but...” Ratchet's shoulders slump. An array of emotions flutter over his faceplates. “I thought… I believed...” He turns away from all of them. “Never mind, I don't know what I believed.” His tread sounds heavy as he disappears behind the partition.

“The Autobot ideal is dead, ashes from the first blow Optimus landed against his Lord High Protector,” Prowl says and there's a twinge of something in his words that hints of a deeper disquiet. “We can expect no mercy.”

Warp flickers his optics as he absorbs that. But it’s the middle part that gets him. Does the tactician really think the Prime's madness began that long ago?

“I am glad,” Tracks voices, a second surprise because the once-Towers mech is quiet at the best of times, “that I have not had to bear witness to how far Optimus has fallen.”

TC cycles a ventilation. “You know the plans you devised, Prowl. What must be changed?”

“Everything.” Prowl’s sensory panels are a rigid configuration against his backstrut. “Patrol routes first and foremost, what few are necessary. Alt-modes, especially for known Autobots. Part of the long-term plan was to involve the public in a search grid, for every Autobot except Ratchet.”

“Why not Ratchet?” Skywarp questions then.

Dreadwing is the one who answers though. “Ratchet is one of the first arrivals,” the large Seeker says, talons drumming his thigh armor. “He's familiar to the humans as an ally. They don't dare tell the public that he's no longer aligned with them. The backlash would only hinder them. Especially after that fiasco in Chicago with Sentinel Prime.”

“Exactly.” Their leader shifts to look at Jack, who twitches under the intense scrutiny. Prowl kind of has that effect on bots. “Wheeljack, you are the only one they will not know or recognize. Everyone else is fair game. Change your alt-mode or your paint scheme or both.”

A series of annoyed grumbling rises up like a wave, words indistinct but the dissatisfaction plainly evident.

“It doesn't matter what color we are,” Warp insists, gesturing to himself then Dreadwing and Thundercracker. “Unless we're on an Air Force base, a couple of jets are going to be noticeable. Why waste the energy?”

“Good point,” TC says. “We'll do our best to keep flights to a minimum.”

Warp slumps. That isn't his intention, but he supposes he'll have to make do. Flying's about the only good thing about this planet.

“Our top priority remains the reconstruction of the Ark,” Prowl continues. “It is our escape route. Second to that are the hatchlings.”

He has slid so effortlessly into this position of leadership. Somehow, for all the added stress it brings, it seems to be relaxing him. Maybe like everyone else, Prowl has spent so long with his fate in someone else's hands that he's leaping at the chance to take control of it himself.

“I'm working on it,” Ratchet grumbles from out of view but obviously not hearing range.

“I know you’re doing the best you can,” Prowl says, raising his vocals to be heard clearly, before addressing the mechs in front of him. “Of the Autobots remaining, the true threat lies in Optimus and the Wreckers.”

“Not the others?” Drift asks, but it is almost like a statement. An assessment.

Prowl shakes his helm. “Bumblebee is rarely on base. Point of fact, I never saw him. Dino is conflicted and spends much of his time alone. Sunstreaker was already questioning Optimus. In time, I am certain he will convince Sideswipe.”

“Do not underestimate the human presence either,” Dreadwing inserts, leaning back and adjusting the weight of Tracks against his side absentmindedly. “They are small, but they are numerous and treacherous.”

“There are good ones,” Prowl comments. “Few and far between, but they are not all insects to be eradicated as Megatron once believed.”

“Lennox, in particular, is risking much to help us,” Ratchet’s voice floats from the med-area in a way that keeps making Warp stifle a laugh.

Prowl inclines his head. “Precisely. Which is why we must redouble our efforts to remain as concealed as possible. We cannot draw attention to ourselves. As soon as the Autobots paint us as a danger, we will have millions of humans watching for us. Discretion is a necessity.”

Warp slouches. That means even less time out flying, more time spent monitoring the satellite feeds and--

“That includes more monitor duty,” Prowl says, and yep, that confirms the sinking sensation in Warp’s tanks. “It is a tedious task, I know, but the humans enjoy broadcasting everything. Television coverage might be our only warning.”

Tracks huffs a ventilation. “If that's the case, then how much longer do we have to hide here? How long until the Ark is fixed?”

“That's not really something I can give a precise estimate for,” Jack answers, indicators flickering a mute array of colors. His fingers twist together as though agitated. “Repairs are coming along, a lot of the infrastructure is stabilizing, but I'm worried about maintaining the hull’s integrity.”

Skywarp shakes his helm. “And I'm not sure we'll be able to replicate or repair the warp generator.”

“So... maybe a few months?” Wheeljack hazards a guess and flicks his optics to Warp who nods.

“Three, probably four, maybe more.” Skywarp lifts and drops his shoulders in a shrug. Humans have such fascinating frame language! “We can be more accurate the closer we get to completion.”

A soft ventilation wheezes out of Prowl's vents. “That is much sooner than I could’ve hoped. In the meantime, we must do our best to avoid notice.”

“Duly noted,” Dreadwing adds, his deep vocals vibrating through the room and making Warp's wings twitch. They always did respond more to sound than anything else. TC likes sound too but all over his frame.

Stars though, for all his prickliness, liked to be touched. It was akin to trying to pet a hungry Sharkticon, but once someone got through, Starscream all but melted. That was a long time ago, however. Long before Lord Megatron, the war, and the huge barrier Stars built between himself and the rest of his trine.

“Is there anything else or can we call this family meeting concluded?” Tracks asks with an askance look at Skywarp that hints of humor.

Warp grins, triumphant. At last, his terms are catching on.

Dreadwing though taps the back of his hand against Tracks' thigh-plate, a light chime of metal on metal that's a chastisement. It’s in actuality more like something a trine leader would use on a misbehaving subordinate.

Curious. Skywarp still hasn't figured why those two are bonded at the wingstrut.

“It's concluded,” Prowl says with a wry tone that's there and gone again so fast Warp might’ve thought he imagined it. Prowl's been the picture of restraint since he joined up with them, but no bot can go through all that he's gone through and silently endure.

There're cracks in that pretty white veneer, and Warp's been standing here wondering what's going to make them shatter all the way through. It's always the quiet ones, he muses to himself. TC's like that. He holds it all in until he can't hold it anymore, and then, he sort of crumbles. It'd always been Skywarp and Starscream dragging him back out, reminding him it's okay to break.

Slag it. Thinking of Stars again. There his processor goes, on another one of those frag-irritating feedback loops. Maybe he should have Ratchet take a look at it.

Their team-cadre-cohort-call it whatever is dispersing now. Prowl's moved off into a corner with Dreadwing, speaking in low tones, and TC is already joining them. Jack's made a quick exit, no doubt to the lab that he's sharing with Warp, and wow, has that been fun. Tracks has pulled out a polishing cloth, no surprise there. And Drift...

Skywarp huffs a ventilation. Well, no bothering Ratchet now. Drift's already making his way into their makeshift medbay, and like frag Warp's going to interrupt that. He's got one of Jack's last cubes of high grade on how long it'll be before the two of them pull their helms out of their afts and stop making big optics at each other.

Warp's inbox pings him. Curious, he opens the datapacket that has Prowl's origin stamped on it, and browses the contents. Whoa. Is he serious?

It's a schedule for monitor duty. He's already drawn one up? Mech sure knows how to work fast. He's over there having a conversation with two others, and meanwhile, his processor is working overtime. Talk about multitiered processing, and Warp knows a thing or two about that. He has to, what with the warping and all. Calculating arrival and departure vectors, pitting it against his velocity. Physics, sometimes, is not Warp's friend.

Tracks must have done the same thing as Skywarp because the Towers bot lets out a low curse. He tosses Prowl an annoyed look, which the tactician ignores with the kind of practice that takes eons. Amused, Warp watches Tracks plop himself down in front of their cobbled-together monitor station. Numerous human televisions sit in a row on a piece of homemade shelving, each tuned to different news channels.

It’s the single most boring and tedious duty of all the duties they've taken up here. Tracks and Drift get the worst of it, Warp notices. Mostly because they don't have any engineering or mechanical experience and aren't quite big enough to wrangle Astrotrain without killing him. Poor mechs.

Skywarp's not due to cycle up to the Ark until later. He and Wheeljack will head up with Dreadwing after sunset. Or whenever Dreadwing finishes his little powwow with Prowl and TC. So he has time to spare, and since the doc is otherwise occupied...

He crosses the floor, pulling up a rickety crate next to Tracks. Might as well make nice with the rest of his cadre, right?

“So,” Warp chirps, trying and failing to make himself comfortable on the creaking wood. “How are you?”

Blue Autobot optics shift briefly to him before returning to the monitors. “I'm not going to answer whatever question is brewing in that processor of yours.”

Warp pouts. “You don't even know what I'm going to ask.”

That earns him a slight huff.

“I have some idea.”

“But you're not sure,” Skywarp points out and tries to watch the screens but more than half are showing weather patterns, the other two are commercials, and the last is depicting the results of a sports game. “It could be an innocent question like what's your favorite high grade? Or probably, for you, your favorite wax?”

A low rumble of laughter echoes from the towerling's chassis. “Nothing with you is ever innocent,” Tracks replies, but his exterior armor smooths down, visibly relaxing. “And I don't like high grade.”

“Why not?” Warp boggles.

Not like high grade? It's the best energon in all the universe. Potent and spiced and burning in his tanks. Skywarp can fly for joors on a good cube of it and never run the risk of depleting his reserves.

“Do I have to have a reason?”

Tracks sounds amused and not offended, at least.

“I suppose not.” Skywarp hums thoughtfully, optics wandering to the much more interesting sight of Prowl and TC and Dreadwing, of whom had gotten awfully chummy recently.

Warp supposes it makes sense. Prowl and TC are a lot alike, quiet and contained, and Dreadwing's much the same. All three of them have been leaders in their own right, and now that Prowl is their commander or whatever, TC's become his lieutenant. And somehow, Dreadwing stepped into the role of TIC.

Not that Warp minds. The less leading he has to do, the better.

Tracks' stool creaks as he leans closer, though he takes great care not to stop watching the monitors.

“Is it just me or have those three been friendly as of late?”

Warp's lipplates curl into a grin, and he swings his gaze back to the towerling. “Isn’t everyone being friendly, all things considered?”

Tracks lifts an orbital ridge, and his pale optics brighten with a rarely seen humor.

“True,” he drawls, “but I'm implying a different sort.”

A chuckle vibrates through Skywarp's chassis. “It's not just you. I've noticed, too.” He pauses, tilting his helm. “That doesn't bother you?”

That earns him a flicker of blue, blue optics. Before they go back to the monitors.

“Should it?”

It’s an unexpectedly soft inquiry. Not sharp like he thought it’d be.

“...Yes?”

But he's not quite sure though. Maybe this will be his chance for Tracks to answer some of those burning questions. Sometimes, ignorance really can pay off.

This time, Tracks looks at him a few seconds longer, but luckily, all the monitors are displaying commercials.

“Why?” His tone is honestly curious. “Because Prowl's an Autobot and Thundercracker's a Decepticon?”

Warp's wings twitch, and he fights to ease them down.

“If that were the case then we're all in the wrong place.” He slouches, lowering his vocals so as not to be overheard. “I meant, you and Dreadwing are kind of... well, I don't know what to call it, but you're something. Right?”

There's a long moment before Tracks laughs, actually laughs out loud. Skywarp's never heard him do that before. Then, Tracks shakes his helm, turning his attention to the monitors. His lips are curved with genuine amusement.

“We are something all right,” he replies, spoiler twitching on his back. “But it isn’t like that. We're not even a trine.”

Well, of course not. Trines, by their definition, require three. Wheeljack's nice and all, but he can't even fly. Of course, they aren't a trine, but Skywarp won't be surprised if they are just a deuce searching for a third. Then again, he and TC and Stars had been a real trine, and they never treated each other like that. Not even in their earliest, closest vorns.

They don't quite act like siblings, and their behavior is better suited to mates, spark-mates at that. But they continuously deny that they are bonded. Jack even vouches that they aren’t.

“It doesn't really matter what you call it,” Tracks continues, stool creaking as he shifts his weight, humor a steady chord in his field. “We are what we are. And if he wants to pursue Thundercracker or Prowl or both of them, it won't bother me.”

Skywarp puzzles over that looks at him for a tic before turning away. Not quite an answer but it'll do, he supposes. Even if it’s not what he wanted to hear.

But then, maybe there are just some things that defy definition.

His optics stray to the command three then, even as Tracks shifts next to him. Dreadwing and TC don’t touch, but their wings are incredibly close. Truly, it’ll be more natural for them to brush. Prowl is further away, but there’s something to the way he stands. To the shift of his body and the manner he holds his helm as he speaks.

Warp glances at Tracks again, and both of them share a smirk.

o0o0o



Second to monitor duty in tedium is data processing.

Warp is lucky. He isn't usually planted in front of their makeshift computer and told to process. He isn't one for being idle. At least with monitor duty, there are five different screens to attract his attention and he can sometimes switch channels to interesting shows when slavedriver Prowl or caretaker Thundercracker aren't looking.

Data processing, however, requires his intense focus on one screen and one topic and one duty. Skywarp isn’t so good at the single-processing focus.

But every once in a while when the others are busy, he's the only one lounging around, and Thundercracker drags him up by a wingtip and plants him in front of their makeshift comm. station. The only plus is that it's relatively private, quiet, and whoever's doing the processing gets the best of the day's outtake of energon. After the hatchlings, of course.

Warp's wings twitch. A finger taps the scroll button as he pages through columns and columns of data. Most of it regards potential candidates for future places to make a home. Planets and moons and everything in between.

He fights back a yawn, yet another excellent example of human body language. Cybertronians don't get tired the same way organics due, but the encroaching boredom can certainly mimic fatigue.

Then, the computer gives a happy chirp.

Warp cycles his optics, dragging his attention to the icon in the corner of his screen. They've a new message on their forum, their contact blog as a matter of point. It's the one Lennox uses to keep them up to date or warn them. It's how they found out about Prowl.

Skywarp taps the icon, bringing up the messaging system. He selects the newest message, skimming the header, and feels his ventilations stall.

He doesn't recognize the sender.

No. Don't panic. It could be spam. It's happened from time to time. No matter how vigilant they are or how confusing those captchas are, occasionally spam gets through.

ArtisticLicense is a lot more legible than the usual spam user-name though. It even addresses Doctor Doom and Cobra Commander. The code names given to Ratchet and Prowl respectively.

Is he safe?

That's it. No other indication of identity. No further queries or statements. Just a three word question.

Warp sits back in his chair, fingers tapping the desk. Then, he activates his comm.

“Uh, TC, I think you better come have a look at this.”

--Why? What's going on?--

His trinemate tries and fails to conceal his worry. He can all but hear the stress building in Thundercracker's processor, and the other Seeker has probably launched himself out of his seat and his meeting with Prowl.

“I honestly don't know,” Skywarp replies, staring at the screen and the message and wondering how long they have before Prime is on their doorstep with an army.

--What do you mean “you don't know”?--

And that, friends, is Prowl He sounds more tightly wound than a quantum coil as he impolitely barges into the private conversation between trinemates. Though, in all fairness, this is probably a discussion he should be involved in.

“I mean that I don't know how to interpret this,” Warp responds just as the sound of heavy treads echoes in the main room of the barn. “Thus the reason I asked you to come look.”

The curtain that served as a doorway swishes open, and Prowl slides inside first with TC lingering in the background. There is only so much room in their improvised cubicle after all.

Frag, there is only so much room in their entire base. Even with the addition of the Jackhammer.

“Gee,” Warp drawls, pushing back from the console so that one or the other could see for themselves. “I hope I didn't interrupt anything.”

They both ignore him.

Prowl approaches the console first. He leans closer and skims the screen.

“It isn’t Lennox,” he says, like Skywarp couldn't have figured that out himself. “Have we been compromised?”

TC folds his arms. “We would know by now if we had, yes?”

“Not necessarily. They may be trying to gain our trust in order to learn where we are hiding,” their leader replies and leans back, optics cycling down as he contemplates.

“You think Lennox betrayed us?” Warp questions.

“I think that a man with a family to protect might have little options otherwise,” TC retorts and his frown deepens. “Or… we could aim at optimism and assume it is an ally.”

“Optimism.” Skywarp scoffs, looking at his trinemate as though he’s a stranger. “Since when have we ever relied on something that foolish?”

“Artistic license,” Prowl murmurs to himself and his field goes flat and still. His optics dim and cycle so narrow it's as though he's about to drop into recharge.

Both TC and Warp look at him, the former with expectation, and Skywarp himself with confusion. Sometimes, Prowl goes into his own helm, and it takes a lot to drag him out, more effort than Warp is usually willing to give. Which is why he sort of thrusts the tactician in TC's direction and makes a hasty escape.

This time at least, the distraction is not based on melancholy but contemplation.

“What?” TC all but demands, and yet, his tone is somehow soft and searching.

“Sunstreaker.”

It’s a murmur. Almost wondering.

Skywarp resets his audials. He's no master of one-word dialogue exchanges.

“What about him?”

“It's Sunstreaker,” Prowl clarifies and leans closer to the screen as though that will change the content. “ArtisticLicense is Sunstreaker.”

His fingers reach for the keyboard, keying in a succinct message so swiftly that Warp doesn’t even finish reading before Prowl hits send. The computer makes a whooshing noise as the message vanishes into cyberspace, off to its intended recipient.

“How do you know?” TC questions, and there is an edge to his voice.

“I simply do.”

Prowl straightens. Something like a smile curves his lips before it dies as quickly as it appeared. Melancholy swirls around him in near-visible tendrils.

“You can call it a calculation, if you wish. One with favorable results.”

TC makes a humming noise. Warp keeps his silence. He isn't sure what to think except that Prowl and Sunstreaker must have been very close.

But then, he and TC had once been close with Starscream.

“Then we have an ally?” TC proposes.

Prowl offers a minute inclination of his helm, but his sensory panels give him away with an almost eager wiggle.

“Yes. One that can give us even greater insight into the Autobots.”

The Autobots.

Not his friends. Not his allies. Not Prime and his allies… but the Autobots, as though Prowl considers himself separate from that title. A distant address. Like a former acquaintance who is only vaguely recalled.

Skywarp glances at TC and wonders if his trinemate has noticed that distinction. Though whether or not it is a good thing remains to be seen.

***

Chapter Text

Family meetings become a weekly thing. They are so few, stretched across so many duties, it’s a rare event that they are all in the same vicinity. It's a bit strange how him calling it a family meeting has kind of made it that. Yeah, they gather to talk intelligence, update everyone on the hatchlings, the progress of the Ark, but they gather for other reasons, too.

So Wheeljack and Ratchet can bicker like a couple that's been bonded for megavorns. So they can all mutter about the moony optics Ratchet and Drift toss each other when they aren't looking. So Dreadwing and Tracks can cuddle for whatever-frag reason they cuddle, and Warp can poke at TC until his trinemate takes a swat at him or Prowl unbends long enough to crack a smile.

It's kind of nice actually, now that Skywarp thinks about it. Nice to have a place to call home even if this cluttered old barn is only temporary. Maybe Tracks was on to something when he said that Dreadwing was his home.

Energon for thought.

Prowl always presides, standing with his back to the medcorner and facing the rest of them. Except Ratchet because the medic likes to putter around doing whatever it is he does when he's tending the hatchlings. That he enjoys tossing comments at them over the crate barrier is probably part of it. Sometimes, if Drift's feeling brave, he might join Ratchet over there.

Jack makes everyone groan with his ever-growing list of needed supplies for the Ark, though they'd gathered a fair amount from their raid on DC. Prowl reminds them that they can't go back, that the humans are bound to put two and two together eventually. They'll have to make do with what they have.

“Has Lennox made any recent contact?” Ratchet asks… or hollers rather.

Both Prowl and TC shake their helms.

“No,” the tactician consults the datapad in his hand. He seems permanently attached to the thing. “And neither has Sunstreaker. I’ve no doubt that they are tightening their security. There is a high possibility that we must discount their aid in the future.”

“Then we are flying blind, so to speak,” Dreadwing murmurs, almost as though to himself. Despite shifting to internal calculations, he hasn't paused in grooming Tracks with hands sliding constantly over a pair of pseudo-wings.

“We can make some small assumptions,” Prowl says, stylus sliding over the screen. “They are searching for us. There have been no new arrivals. And they have chosen to make Chicago their new base of operations.”

Ah. Warp does remember hearing something about that on the news. It was important enough that the all the major broadcasts covered it. The Autobots are setting up base in Chicago, both to continue rebuilding and to start anew.

“What of the remnants in DC?” Dreadwing inquires mid-stroke.

“You mean whatever we didn't take?” Tracks replies with a smirk, only to scowl when Dreadwing pinches a brace.

Prowl's lips nudge up toward a smile, however small. Progress!

“Yes. They are shipping anything of importance or classified to the Chicago base. It is out of our reach now.”

“You know,” Drift comments, hands folded atop that massive sword of his, the jewel gleaming in a way that always makes Skywarp uneasy. “If you consider all the variables, we outnumber the Autobots.”

Skywarp raises an orbital ridge. “How do you figure that?”

“Bumblebee is never on base and hasn't been since the last time I did a maintenance check.” Ratchet's answer floats over, proving he’s still listening. “But I wouldn't count on the twins if I were you. If Sideswipe intended to leave, he would’ve done so when I did.”

Prowl's stylus pauses. Warp only notices because he's been watching their leader so closely. He's kind of made it a personal mission of his because no bot can go through what that mech has in such a short period of time and not crack. Or start shooting stuff. Or both.

“Ratchet is correct. Sunstreaker might be wavering, but when it comes down to it, they will obey orders first.” Prowl’s tone quiets. “Unless they come to us, we must assume that they will not side with us.”

The twitch of his sensory panels belies his true feelings on the matter though.

Warp glances at TC, but his wingmate isn't paying attention. Or if he is, he's not showing it.

Maybe, Skywarp thinks almost casually, it’s better that he breaks now when they can do something about it. Rather than later when everything's on the line. No one's saying it, but they can all feel it. The weight of impending doom. The knowledge that their world is shrinking around them and that there's every possibility the humans will find them before they finish the Ark. They may evenly match the Autobots right now, but all it takes is for the humans to get twitchy and decide that a tactical nuke might solve all their problems, and then, nothing will be left of this barn and their home but some scattered pieces.

And even if they don't go the nuke route, a strafing run from a party of F-22s would still put a serious dent in their armor and take out the hatchlings. A stray bullet hitting any number of machinery or combustible materials and the whole compound will go sky high.

They're standing on a hair trigger, a landmine, and they all know it.

“I did a flyover down the coast,” Skywarp says, thinking that it is now or never. “They were making another trip out to the Abyss.”

TC's gaze whips toward him while his comm. pings their trine-specific line. “You mean a cargo of Cybertronian tech. Specifically anything in DC that wasn't any use.”

“And any ‘Cons they've offlined as of late,” Warp confirms but ignores the ping. It has to be done. “Not that there are many. They're running out of those, and once they do, they'll have nothing left to distract them from us.”

Cold silence descends, punctuated by the tight spike of a mech's energy field, like a slap to the faceplate. Warp glances at Prowl from the edge of his sensors. The tactician has gone entirely still, save for the minute rattling of his frame, his sensory panels arched.

Skywarp doesn't know, and Prowl hasn't said. Not what he'd seen or witnessed or found out for that near-year he spent with the Autobots and their Prime. But he has his suspicions, and if such a casual mention of this invokes such a reaction, perhaps he doesn't need to know at all.

“There were not only Decepticons in that freight,” Drift says in a low, dark tone. “Remember?”

Tracks makes a disgusted noise, gears grinding like a rusted axle in his chassis. “Treating us like melted slag. Treating sentient beings like garbage. It's barbaric.”

Prowl's voice cuts through the air. Low and vicious and like nothing Skywarp has ever heard the calm tactician use. Not even in the midst of battle.

“Hound is not garbage,” he hisses. “And Optimus has no right to do this.”

“There's nothing we can do about it,” Tracks points out, either heedless of the razor's edge that Prowl walks or uncaring. “He's Prime.”

“He's Fallen,” Prowl all but snarls, hands at his sides, fingers clenching and unclenching in slow, steady motions.

Skywarp lowers his helm as the energy in the room spikes with shock. They have all at one point suspected such a thing about the vaunted Optimus Prime. But no one has put it into words until now. How long has Prowl seethed with this suspicion?

There's a noise, a creak of aging wood, and Ratchet appears in the entry just behind Prowl. One hand grips the crate-wall. The medic's field betrays his unease, winding with the general discomfort permeating the room like a spill of used oil.

“Prowl...”

“Tell me I'm wrong,” their leader demands, and his tone is edged as he stares at the floor, optics getting bluer and bluer. “Tell me that a true Prime would act like this!”

Wheeljack's vocal indicators pulse an apprehensive grey. “That's not our call to make.”

“Why not?” Prowl's ventilations emerge in sharp bursts. “If the Matrix is so flawless then the first Fallen would’ve never arose. But this is where it's judgment has gotten us!” One hand flings out in a vague direction of Chicago. “Abandoned. Homeless. Treated like scrap by the very mech who should be our champion!”

Warp flicks out a wing. “Oh, now you're getting it. Aren’t you, Autobot? Your precious Prime is no better than the Senate and the Council before him. And still you wonder why we followed Megatron!”

Dreadwing growls before anyone else can offer a word. “There is a reason we are all here together, Skywarp. Don’t bring faction into this.”

“Faction has nothing to do with it!” Skywarp insists, popping up to his pedes, reading the room of frantic emotion all too easily. “I just want everyone to face the facts. Prime has condemned us to extinction for this planet and these stupid squishies. The sooner we accept that the oh-so-special Prime is just as fragged as the rest of us, maybe we can move on.”

Optics narrowing, Tracks rises as well. “You should watch your tone, mech. You insult eons of culture and respect. You call us fools.”

“If the cog fits,” Skywarp retorts.

Tracks' engine rumbles, but Dreadwing's hand on his shoulder gives him pause. They share a glance that says everything and nothing before Tracks pulls back.

“Fighting each other will solve nothing,” the larger Seeker murmurs.

“Especially since Skywarp is right,” Prowl inserts, his vocals soft but somehow cutting. “We are all fools. Prime is broken, Fallen. We should have seen it long ago. We could have saved so many lives if we paid attention to the mech and not the title.” The aggression fades from his frame. Replaced by something else, something Skywarp has been watching for. “Primus, but I have been a fool.”

Ratchet's mouth opens and closes. As if he is struggling to find words and debating amongst the ones he does find. Jack's hand closes his arm, and he shakes his helm firmly. Prowl's tone is soft, but his energy field is a vile sting of conflicting emotions that no longer conceals the torrent beneath.

“Megatron's equally to blame,” Skywarp says with a shrug that is far from nonchalant. TC's watching him closer now, and good, maybe he's starting to get it. “When it comes to that, we're all pretty fragging stupid. We only have ourselves to blame for this mess we're in.”

“Not. Helping,” Ratchet hisses, looking as though he wants to pounce across the room and throttle someone. Specifically Skywarp.

“I am,” the flyer retorts with a scathing glance. “Just none of you can see it and all of you are too soft to do it.”

Tracks lurches forward, anger twisting his faceplates. “You--”

“He's right.” Prowl's words are barely a whisper, but they cut through the room as if he's shouted. He's staring at the ground, staring right through it. “We are all fools. We are all to blame. Something has broken in Optimus. He isn’t Prime. Has not been for a very long time.”

His sensory panels flatten against his back. His armor draws close, as though protecting himself.

“Should we have seen it sooner?” he asks, but it’s directed at no one. “Were we looking for it? All we saw was the war, the next battle, hoping and praying there would be an end. All the while knowing peace was impossible. There was too much anger, too much pent up hatred and despair.”

Pain leaks into his voice, his field, and the whole barn has gone silent. Skywarp even is without words.

“So what if Prime killed a few Decepticons?” Prowl shrugs in such a painfully human fashion. “So what? That's a few less we have to fight. Maybe that's what we need to do to claim victory. Except no one ever defined what victory would be. So Prime sends the Allspark into space to protect it, and dooms us all in the process. We didn't protest then, so what right do we have to protest now? How dare we claim to miss Cybertron when we didn't fight to save it?” He shakes his head. “Oh, we fought. Each other. Over and over again. Killing ourselves and our planet, and still we didn't stop.”

Prowl's optics lift; his gaze wanders the room. But Skywarp wonders if he's even really seeing any of them.

“And this is what we have left. A Fallen Prime. A destroyed planet. A mishmash collection of traitors. Who do we have to blame but ourselves? Autobots? Decepticons? We're all to blame. We've lost everything. It's no more Prime's fault over Megatron's. It's all of ours. We listened. We reacted. And we kept on fighting.” He sucks in a ragged ventilation. “I'm tired of fighting.”

“I know,” Thundercracker replies in the heavy silence that follows, and Skywarp has never heard his trinemate sound so gentle before. “That is why we are all here.”

They stare at each other for what seems like a long time before Prowl's armor eases from its defensive clamp.

“I... apologize,” he says with another of those extended ventilations. He dips his helm. “I did not intend to lecture everyone. Please excuse me.”

He turns and leaves. Not quite a run, but close enough to be called fleeing. Prowl brushes between Dreadwing and TC in the process, field screaming the state of his processor.

TC turns, but Skywarp puts a hand on his trinemate's arm.

“No,” he says. “I got this. You just do what you're supposed to do, Mr. Lieutenant.”

“Don't break him,” his friend says subvocally.

Warp flicks out a wing, slapping TC on the upper arm. “I know what I'm doing.”

At least, he hopes he does.

Skywarp leaves, just as the conversation behind him picks up. Ratchet's protesting, trying to go after Prowl himself, and Thundercracker is arguing his case.

Good. Prowl doesn't need a medic poking at him to find where it hurts. He doesn't need a psychologist either. He just needs someone to listen, and fortunately, Warp's very good at that. When he feels like it, that is.

There aren't very many places for Prowl to have gone. He doubts the tactician would be in the lab, and space aboard the Jackhammer has always been limited, strained as it is. Their storage house is far too cramped, and since it is far too risky to linger outside, that only leaves the barn serving as shared quarters between TC and Skywarp and now Prowl as well.

Their boss is sitting at TC's desk, staring blankly at the cobbled collection of tiny computer monitors. He hasn't plugged into the system yet, which proves he isn't working. It's more an illusion of being occupied.

There's no chair for another mech in here. Instead,Warp leans against the wall, ignoring the way it creaks and groans beneath his weight. It's held up so far.

Prowl knows he's here. Skywarp wasn't exactly subtle about it, and that twitch in his panels proves that Prowl sensed his arrival immediately. Silence reigns, but Skywarp, for once, exhibits patience which is rewarded when Prowl is the first to speak.

“I’ve spent my entire functioning in service. I’ve always been reliable and needed, from one Prime to the next, to whomever was owed my loyalty. I’ve never asked for anything because service is in my coding. One might almost say that it is branded to my spark. And yet...” Prowl's helm lowers, half-turned as though watching Warp from the edge of a sensor. “I feel as though I’ve been discarded as easily as Prime had tossed my brother into the deep.”

Ah. Now we get to the crux of the matter.

Skywarp folds his arms. “Have you even given yourself time to grieve?”

“There’s been no time.” Prowl ex-vents softly. “And there was no mausoleum to offer me comfort.”

“I know a little something about that.” Skywarp frowns a little, digging deep, trying to bring fractured memories to the fore and as always failing. “I had a brother once. He was a lot like you, I think, not that I can remember much about him.”

The chair-crate combo creaks as Prowl turns. Looking at him with those calm optics that nevertheless appear so incisive.

“You can't remember?”

Warp unfolds an arm, tapping the side of his helm. “There was an accident, not that I can tell you what. My memory core got damaged, irreplaceable, and I couldn't recall where my backups were, if even had any to begin with. There's a lot I don't remember, and even more I wish I could.”

Sympathy floods Prowl's field, twining with the echoes of grief that have been dark and consuming as of late.

“That's the hardest part,” Skywarp admits. “The not remembering. I know I had a brother, but I can't remember anything about him. All I have are these echoes, fragments of feelings, a mech that I loved. It's the worst thing.”

“Was it during the war?”

Warp shakes his helm, ending the scanning program before it can give him another negative response. “No. It was before all this craziness started. I guess he got the lucky end of the deal.”

Prowl raps his fingers on the desk, metal tap-tapping on aged wood. “Sometimes, I wonder and I ask myself, wouldn't it be better if we had kept on fighting? Maybe we had our chance. Maybe we deserve to die out like this.” His engine settles into a low, thoughtful rumble. “Maybe it's better this way?”

“Maybe it is.” Skywarp rolls his shoulders, wings rustling. “Maybe it isn't. I can't really answer that except to say I'd like to try living just this once. What we have here, it's not fun, but it's something.”

Prowl's expression turns thoughtful as he shifts back toward the computers. At least the dizzying edge of utter despair has left. Maybe now he'll be able to process. His field had been driving Skywarp crazy. Or well, crazier.

“It's kind of nice, too. To fight to live,” Skywarp says, turning to leave because he's done what he came to do. “Better than fighting to die at any rate.”

“Better indeed,” Prowl replies, and his panels drift out of their rigid posture. A very good sign.

Warp grins to himself and takes his leave. If he happens to hear a murmured gratitude on his way out… well, that's his secret to keep.

o0o0o



Anxiety isn’t an emotion that Warp is familiar with. He is more of a leap-first, look-later Seeker. Has been as long as he remembers. It helps when he needs that split-second decision making to calculate warp vectors and landing points. But when it comes down to life outside of combat, that mentality often leads to his fellows branding him as stupid or excitable.

He's neither. Well, perhaps a bit of the last one.

Warp's gotten used to the way others tolerate him. TC and Starscream had always understood to a certain extent. They had to since they are all part of the same trine and know him better than anyone else.

Still... Warp's very functioning has never left much room for anxiety. He doesn't waste processor space on worrying. Rarely does he bother with caution.

But Skywarp isn’t stupid. And only a stupid mech would dare bother the Hatchet in the sanctity of his lair with a possibly idiotic question.

It’s one of the few times that Warp can ever remember exhibiting a degree of restraint. He creeps into the medbarn, stealthily tiptoes through the common area, and peers around the partition.

The hatchlings are quiet, probably recharging. It's all they ever do. A few tanks bubble with supplemented energon, ready to feed the hatchlings at a moment's notice. And Ratchet himself, the most feared medic in all of Cybertron, is fiddling with something at the table in the middle.

Warp tries to get an idea of the medic's energy field from his current position. It's always hard to tell Ratchet's mood from expression alone. He can look perfectly peaceful on the outside but be a brewing storm of agitation and angst in his spark.

Mech needs a good, hard interfacing like no one he’s ever seen. Drift better get his aft in gear soon, or Warp will have to take one for the team.

“Either come in or leave,” Ratchet says, and Warp nearly leaps backwards in surprise. “I heard you minutes ago.”

Warp whuffs a ventilation. “You could’ve said something.”

The medic glances up from whatever it is he's tinkering with. “Considering it's you, I thought you'd speak up first.”

Ratchet's calm. Not quite a good mood but not angry at the world either. It's probably the best Warp's going to get.

“Oh.”

“Did you want something?” Ratchet asks, dropping his optics back to his work. He puts down a wrench and picks up a bolt-driver. “I know you didn't come to see the hatchlings.”

True enough. Warp doesn't trust himself around the smaller frames. They are so delicate and so quiet. They unnerve him in a way nothing else does.

He busies himself with examining the energon distiller that he had built for Ratchet's use in the medbarn.

“I was thinking--”

“You sure it's safe to do that?” the medic inserts with an amused whuff of his ventilations.

Indignation wars with relief. Teasing generally means Ratchet's in a forgiving mood. Still...

Skywarp tosses a scowl at him. “I'm being serious.”

Chuckling, Ratchet tosses the driver onto the table and places his project down beside it. “I'm listening.”

A sulk threatens to make an appearance, but Skywarp dials it back. He fiddles with the controls for the distiller.

“Do you think you can fix my warp drive?”

He can feel Ratchet's gaze on him, raking him from helm to pede. The medic's mood tangibly plummets.

“You broke it already? Primus, Skywarp.”

“It's not broken!” Skywarp snaps, whirling around and nearly clipping the distiller with a wing tip. “I mean, not since you fixed it the first time. But that didn't finish the job.”

“... What?” Ratchet cycles his optics.

Skywarp lowers his shoulders and swallows down indignity. “Do you remember Jetfire?”

Miniature faceplates shift and flex as Ratchet goes through a range of emotions before confusion takes precedence. “What are you getting at?”

“He could teleport others,” Warp says, remembering Stars’ description of Jetfire's abilities all too well. He never forgot them. “I wonder if I can do it, too.”

“Have you tried?” Ratchet frowns.

Skywarp fidgets. “Once.”

“And?”

His wings twitch. “Pain.”

It's not quite a lie.

He's actually attempted to take a passenger twice in his functioning that he can remember. The first time had been an accident. Someone grabbed his arm as he'd opened a warp gate. That mech hadn't survived. Skywarp himself had spent several diun in a medical center as scientists worked to fabricate a leg, an arm, and both of his wings.

Pain had been the entirety of his existence. Warp had learned his lesson.

But in Chicago, Skywarp had risked it. This time with intention, an act borne of desperation. He concentrated, grabbed TC, and tried to get them both out of the city before the humans could blow them out of the sky. The war was lost, Cybertron gone, Megatron in pieces and Starscream headless.

All Skywarp had wanted to do was escape. He wasn't going to leave TC behind.

So he had grabbed his trinemate, ignored the pain of his wounds, and tried to warp away. He had not succeeded. His only consolation, before they hit the ground and the building buried them, was that he hadn't killed them both.

“Then there's your answer,” Ratchet offers, picking up his wrench again. “You can't warp with passengers.”

“But would you look?” Warp insists. “Maybe my generator is damaged. I can't look for myself or access my own schematics, so it has to be you.”

This causes Ratchet to frown again. All mechs can access their own schematics. Otherwise, how else would their nanites know what to maintain?

“Why not?”

Warp taps his helm. “Damage. I don't know how. I can't remember.”

“Your memory core got fragged?” Now, Ratchet sounds interested. He circles around the table. “You never mentioned this before.”

“More like it's glitched.” Skywarp shrugs.

Ratchet gives him a searching look. “You know, I'd have to do a hardline processor scan. That's root coding.”

“I know.”

Inwardly, he winces. Hardline scans are the most intimate medical link-up there is. Ratchet will be able to see and access everything, and with his medical training, he could do whatever he wanted. Wipe Skywarp clean. Alter his code. Anything.

Warp lifts his optics to the medic. “But I trust you.”

Ratchet's field flares with shock. He throws his wrench back to the table and lets out a gust of air.

“You're a crazy glitch, you know that?”

“TC tells me all the time,” Skywarp says with a half-smile.

He feels a wide but efficient scan pass through him and ping across the rest of the medbarn. No doubt Ratchet is seeing if they are alone.

“You want to do this now?” the medic questions.

That earns him a cocky wave.

“No time like the present.”

Flickering his optics, Ratchet gestures to the only fully-functional medberth they have. Wheeljack keeps meaning to bring in the portable one from the Jackhammer, but it's somewhere near the bottom of a list of priorities.

“Hop up on the berth.” Ratchet hustles across the floor to do a quick scan of the hatchlings. “I'll tell Prowl that we'll be out of contact and not to be disturbed for an hour. Maybe more depending on what kind of mess I find in that processor of yours.”

“Might take a few days then,” Warp jokes as a thread of uneasiness winds its way through his spark. He eases himself onto the berth, but it’s slowly.

He does trust Ratchet. There is no other medic he'd rather have mucking around in his coding and his processor. But there will always be an element of discomfort to allowing anyone that much power over him.

Ratchet snorts. “Better not. I've got other things to do.” He roots around in his crates, producing a couple scanners of various designs.

Warp reclines back and lets the cushion support his wings. He gazes up at the slats of the barn above him.

“You still sure you want to do this?” the medic asks as he steps into Skywarp's peripheral vision.

He cycles a few ventilations. In the upcoming weeks, they could certainly use this tactical advantage. And Skywarp's tired of not knowing, not remembering. If there's anything Ratchet can do to help, than he’s willing to risk it.

“Yeah,” he says firmly and offlines his optics, manually commanding his medical interface port to pop open. “Do it, Ratchet.”

Fingers wrap around his wrist, with a gentleness that Skywarp has come to expect from the medic in the case of injuries not caused by stupidity. “Set your permissions for me?”

“Done,” Skywarp says as the alien sensation of another mech plugging into his systems winds through his sensory net.

He can feel Ratchet's presence like a prickle in his circuits or a ghost in his coding. Once he identifies the markers of 'Ratchet,' it's easy enough for Skywarp to allow the medic deeper access. His firewalls permeate, one by one, and Skywarp tries to get comfortable.

“I'm going to put you in a light stasis,” Ratchet says, both aloud and a direct transmission to Skywarp's internals. “It'll be easier on you. If there's an emergency, you can be good to fight in under a minute.”

Skywarp's talons prick at the berth padding, but he ex-vents and forces calm into his field. “I trust you,” he repeats, and he's honestly not sure if he's reassuring himself or Ratchet at this point.

He feels Ratchet considering Skywarp's trust before the medic does what he does best when confronted with emotional attachment. He sets it aside.

“Initiating stasis,” Ratchet says.

Skywarp would laugh if he weren't so nervous. When he wakes up, he's so going to have to tease Ratchet. And then lock him in a closet with Drift.

With that thought dancing around his processor – and Ratchet's confusion at his seemingly random amusement – Warp submits to the welcome stasis.

They don't dream. They can, however, slip into memories during their recharge. Like humans, their processors continue to function even if their frame and outer systems are shut down.

Stasis, for Skywarp, is never boring. His memories, few and scattered though they are, love to initiate themselves. Once, long ago, a medic had offered him a simple data patch, something to stop the constant playback. Warp had declined.

Sometimes, the playback is all he has left of a life he can't really remember, can't fully access in his online hours.

Most of the time, it’s even enough.

Sometimes, it isn’t.

He remembers the sound the repair chamber makes as he floats suspended in a thick gel of energon, repair nanites, and cooling fluid. His systems are flush with the substance; he can feel it sticky in his gears and under his plating. It's going to take forever to wash out, not that he can remember how long he’s been here.

He can't remember how he got here in the first place. He remembers pain, flashes of light, someone shouting. He remembers a pair of crimson optics looking down at him, arched wings branded with the city-state of Tarn.

Words beyond his prison are muffled, mere vibrations against the thick material that surrounds him. He has limited movement, and every now and again, he drags a blunt clawtip down the inside of his prison. It’s made of sturdy material, transparent for the most part, but the goo turns everything a pale, hazy green.

He sees mechs walking in front of his chamber. They are all sorts of designs, mostly worker class, a few medics. Every now and again, a Seeker or two stops by to look at him, making a notation on a datapad before moving on.

He can't remember who he is. He can't turn to look at his wings, remind himself of his origins. He gets error messages every time he pings his memory core. And someone has either removed or turned off his communications array, along with dulling his motor network. He can twitch, but he can't break free. And perhaps he shouldn't. He's still getting warnings, lists of wounds that have yet to repair or are in the process of healing.

He recharges because he has nothing better to do and the gaps in his memory fill him with discomfort. He doesn't know how long he's been in this prison, and time loses meaning without a reference point. Joors pass. Then orns.

Finally, he is released. The gel drains out the bottom, and the tube opens up, expelling him onto a shiny metal floor. He lands on hands and knees, sputtering goo from his vents, splattering the floor and the mechs around him. Two of them look down, fields brimming with disdain and disgust. They are groundmechs.

Of more interest is the Seeker with them. He is familiar somehow, the glyphs carved into his wings speak of a Tarn hatching.

“What is your designation?” one of the grounders demands, treads bristling with warning. A tank then, military-design.

Military?

He does look battered and worn, a few blaster marks scoring his chassis. He's seen battle recently. Have they gone to war?

“His memory core is damaged,” says the other grounder, the medic symbol stamped on his chestplate prominent and bright. “He may not know. He is also missing his ident chip.”

“Deserter then,” the tank says with a disgusted chuff of ventilation.

The flyer is the only one to step forward, gripping him by the elbow and pulling him to his pedes. He wobbles, uncertain, but offers the Seeker a shaky smile. The grounder, at least, isn't wrong in one respect. He doesn't remember his designation. There's a gaping hole in his memories, a block in his core that’s laced with error messages and warnings of incomplete data.

He flexes his wings, tries to turn and see them, but as far as he can tell, his plating is as smooth as a newly hatched Seekerling.

“They were damaged,” the flyer says, vocals deep and resonating. “You’ve been rebuilt nearly from your protoform. It’s a wonder you survived at all.” His field is warm and welcoming, nothing like the two grounders. “Can you remember your designation?”

He shakes his helm.

“No.” He looks around, but there are no windows, nothing to indicate where he might be. The Seeker is from Tarn, the medic has a Perihex accent, and he can't place the tank at all. “Where am I?”

“You're in Kaon,” the medic says and stomps toward him, the prickle of a scan dancing across his frame. “They pulled you out of some wreckage almost a vorn ago.”

His optics cycle wide. That long? It really is a wonder he isn’t offline, if it’s taken his injuries that long to repair.

“He's repaired, for the most part. There's nothing I can do for the core unless I replace it altogether. He'll probably continue to have memory problems, even with storing current events,” the medic continues, though his words are directed toward the tank. “The rest can be handled by self-repair. I leave him in your care.”

The tank's engine gives a low-tone rumble. “What am I supposed to do with a half-fixed Seeker?” he demands and scrapes a big, rough hand over his helm

“I just repair them. It's up to command what to do with them afterward,” the medic tosses the words over his shoulder. “He's your property now.”

“P-property?” he repeats.

Beside him, the Seeker's face flashes with a grim look before it is smoothed over by restraint. “The military is obligated to pay for your repairs since you survived. It’s why he hoped to get your designation. He wants to stake a claim on your accounts.”

Massive pedes storm across the floor, leaving flakes of some metal behind. “You,” the tanks says, jabbing a thick digit in his face. “Can you fly?”

“I have wings,” he replies, and frustration eats into his own field. “I'm at least old enough to do that.” He should probably feel grateful; instead, he's irritated at the gall of this grounder.

“It’s a Seeker's natural instinct,” the flyer says, his own field spiking with increasing bursts of annoyance. “You may sign him into our custody. I've received permission from my commanding officer.”

A whuff of rattling air escapes the tank. “Fine. The less I have to deal with the better.” One big hand waves dismissively as he shoves a datapad at the Seeker. “He's all yours.”

The tank storms off, and he is not sad to see the grounder go. He is abrasive, and that scuffs against his plating like an acid storm.

The Seeker cycles a ventilation but just shakes his head and turns away.

“Come with me.” The datapad disappears into a compartment on his arm. “I’m Thundercracker, by the way. Major under Commander Skybright. My unit is the one who found you.”

They exit the medical center and into a hallway filled with noise and other bots. Grounders and aerials alike crowd the corridor, all of them plated in thick, military-grade armor.

It’s like onlining to a whole new world. He doesn't remember much, but it seems impossible that he could have forgotten something as important as a war. He remembers peace and exploration and a golden age of unity and invention. Not this, whatever it was.

Thundercracker is talking, but he's not hearing all of it. Not when they pass by a window and he gets his first glimpse of the city, of Kaon. His optics cycle wider, and he comes to a halt, staring out at the smoke-clogged skies, the masses of mechs and femmes trudging through ash-covered streets. It’s entirely dark, the city lit by thousands upon thousands of street lights. It can't be night, not according to his chronometer.

Where is the sun?

“I don't understand,” he says. “What did I miss? What kind of Cybertron is this?”

“A lost one,” Thundercracker comments, stepping up beside him. His field is flat with mixed emotions, none of them pleasant. “We’re a planet on the brink of war, and there’s nothing that can stop it now.”

“With who?”

Thundercracker doesn't look at him, instead staring out over Kaon. A Kaon that is unfamiliar to him, ruined and bleak.

“Ourselves.”


“--warp. Skywarp, can you hear me? Blast it!”

He stirs from stasis with all the alertness of a drugged turbofox. He feels as though he has to swim to consciousness, and though his processor doesn't ache, Warp feels different.

“What's wrong with him?”

“Slag if I know! I'm not an expert on Seekers!”

Something crashes on the edge of his hearing, and he flinches.

“'M fine,” Skywarp says, but his words slur and his vocalizer glitches. “'m awake. Maybe.” His optical shutters feel sealed shut; he can't seem to lift them.

“Did you break him?”

“He was already broken!” That snarl is most definitely Ratchet. “I'm the glitch trying to fix him. Primus!”

“Well, whatever you did, it didn't work!”

And that irritated tone is TC. Warp can feel his trinemate's field as an agitated whirl against his own, concern mingling with exasperated affection. That there's a touch of caretaker's worry in it, which makes Skywarp want to smirk. TC can't help doing what he does best when it comes to Warp – taking care of him.

“That's because I'm not through yet!” Ratchet snaps.

“Ratchet. What do you need?”

Another voice, one he doesn't immediately recognize, but is perhaps Prowl because the Autobot tactician is the only one who would sound so calm in the face of Ratchet's fury.

“Time! Parts! Knowledge! Equipment!” There's another loud crash. “All of which I don't have, slaggit all to the Pits!”

Awareness trickles in. Skywarp fights with his diagnostics, his control circuits, and his systems until he can force all to obey. His optics snap open, and he tries to roll to his side, but his limbs don't want to respond.

“Why can't I move?” he demands and nearly celebrates when his words come out coherent and without static.

Instantly, three helms come into view. Two pairs of blue optics and one pair of red.

“Safety precaution,” Ratchet offers as the distinct prickle of a scan washes over Skywarp's frame, making his circuits twitch. “I've had my servos in your internals for the past ten hours. Do you have any idea how old you are?”

Warp cycles his optics. “Is that a rhetorical question?”

“Actually,” Prowl says with traces of amusement in his tone as he glances at the irascible medic. “It's not.”

Confusion replaces anything else Skywarp might have been entertaining. “If this is a joke, I don't get it.”

“It's not a joke,” TC cuts in, but his tone is soft as he lays a servo on Warp's shoulder. “Your spark chamber is significantly older than anything Ratchet can recognize.”

Skywarp's ventilations shudder.

“I don't...” He trails off, orbital ridge flattening. “What are you saying?”

“I couldn't fix your memory core.” Ratchet stares grimly at the results of his scan. “The damage is vorns old. Older than the war. But I did what I could for your warp generator. Which, by the way, is also like nothing I've ever seen. Intact anyway. It's an original.”

“An original?”

Skywarp feels a bit like one of those Earth birds because all he can do is repeat what Ratchet is saying to him. It doesn't make any sense.

“Like Jetfire's,” TC clarifies, and his tone holds something Skywarp hasn't heard in his trinemate before – awe. “You're a Seeker, Skywarp.”

His mouth open and closes, something like hilarity bubbling up in his chassis. “Of course I am. And so are you. And Dreadwing.”

Prowl shakes his helm. He has a finger on his chin and taps it thoughtfully.

“What Thundercracker means to say is that you are a Seeker.” The last is spoken in an older Cybertronian dialect, overlain with glyphs. “Like Jetfire. One of the first.”

Skywarp cycles his optics. “I... what?”

Ratchet reaches for his arm, plugging into an auxiliary port, and finally, Skywarp is getting a response from his extremities. Too little too late because he thinks if he gets up, he's going to pass right back out. They are all talking nonsense.

“We stopped using adamantium on spark chambers vorns before the first rebellion because we ran out,” Ratchet explains, his actions professional if not his words. “Kup doesn't even have it, and that fragger liked to talk as if he was Primus' berthmate.”

Warp's vocalizer engages with a click, but nothing emerges for several long seconds. “Ratchet, you're not making any sense.”

“Adamantium,” the medic stresses around ground denta, “is so rare as to be almost considered myth. It also just so happens to be the base construction of your protoform.”

Motion fully restored, Skywarp sits up with a startled jerk. His spark whirls in its chamber.

“That's not possible.”

“That's what I thought when I saw your spark chamber. It's why I started poking at your base.” Ratchet jabs him with a finger, right between two pieces of plating on your shoulder. “Someone should have noticed by now. So either you've been fixed by some really inept medics, or you've never been that badly damaged.”

Thundercracker shakes his helm. “They always dumped him in a stasis tube. No one had the patience for delicate repairs. You either survived on your own power, or you made room for the next piece of fodder.”

“Skywarp, as much as I want to, I can't fix your warp drive,” Ratchet says with a dismissing wave of his hand. “It's technology beyond my scope. Maybe if I still had access to the Archives, I might have been able to do something. But now?” He shakes his helm, field spiking with helplessness. “I did the best I could.”

Warp looks at his hands, five digits and taloned as they are. Just like Stars' and TC’s, a bit slimmer than Dreadwing's. They are the only shape he’s ever known, and it’s then that he remembers that Skywarp isn't even his designation. It's the one TC gave him. Strange how that's not occurred to him before. He's never heard of an ancient Seeker named Skywarp.

Just who the frag is he? Why can't he remember?

He pings his memory core, runs into corrupted sector after corrupted sector, fragments of conversations and sensations that have never made sense and still don't. He remembers having a brother but not his name or faceplate or appearance. He remembers joy from once upon a time but not why or how.

He doesn't have a fragging clue who he is.

“Skywarp--”

He bats away the hand on his shoulder. Only to realize it was Ratchet after the fact.

“Don't call me that,” he snaps, spark twisting and spinning with frantic bursts. “That's not who I am, is it? So how can you call me that?”

Two Autobots and a Decepticon look at him, and all Warp can see is the pity. They are giving him distance, and Skywarp wonders why. Are they that afraid of him?

There's a low-pitched whine in the room, batting at his audials, and then Warp realizes that his battle protocols have activated. His cannons are powering up, activating, prepared to defend him from an outside threat. There are no enemies here, only friends and family, and Skywarp has to consciously dial it back down.

“You are still Skywarp,” Thundercracker says, tone carefully modulated. “You’re my wingmate and the same mech who studied under Starscream. That is what matters.”

His memory core startles.

“I think we should call you Skywarp.”

That's right. It was TC who gave him his current designation. After wandering here and there for orns upon orns, it was TC who finally offered him something better than the number they'd been calling him.

Warp's memory is a patchy collection of fragmented images. He doesn't remember much of anything from before TC found him, and even after that, his memories don't store properly so occasionally, he loses them.

“Does it matter who you were before?” Prowl questions. “Does it matter what you can't remember? Do you think this is my original frame? Do you think any of us are the same as our beginning?”

“We've all lost pieces of our original selves,” Ratchet adds with a softness that Skywarp doesn't expect of the irascible medic. “My base coding is as tattered as your memory core, but what can I do but keep moving forward?”

“Why do you let him do that?” Skywarp asks, anger clear in his tone, spiking in his field, as he applies the field patch to Starscream's right thigh panel.

The grating chuckle that emerges from the Air Commander's vocalizer speaks nothing of humor.

“Because it's the only way to keep moving forward,” Stars says with a grim smile. “There's no meaning in the past if I can't grow beyond it. No matter what I have to suffer.”


Skywarp dips his helm. “Move forward, huh?”

He glances from one of them to the next, and TC shifts closer and lets their fields mingle with familiarity and friendship. Warp vents out.

“I suppose there's nothing better to do than give it a try.”

***

Chapter Text

“I think it needs a switchback mechanism.”

“Well, I think it's fine the way it is.”

“Because you're the expert on battle-cruiser class engines?”

“No, because the last thing we need is a double-loop on the power circuit!”

Skywarp plants his hands on his hips and stares at his opponent. His wings are twitching, and he refuses to give ground.

Neither does Wheeljack. The grounder is a few feet shorter than him, several tons lighter, and less visibly armed. Though to be fair, it is Wheeljack, and who knows what manner of explosive devices are concealed throughout his frame?

Warp's lips twitch.

Jack's indicators flash a muted purple.

Warp starts to chuckle. His systems dial back down from a brief stint toward battle protocols, an instinctual response to any sort of confrontation. Wheeljack shakes his head, field flicking out with amusement and exasperation both.

“I think we're both in over our helms.”

“Speak for yourself,” Warp retorts with an air of fake offense. “I can fly.”

Laughter rings from the Autobot, indicators bubbling a joyful blue. “Lucky you.” He turns back toward the heap of slag that they’re generously trying to turn into an engine. “This thing's hopeless.” He gives it a tentative prod with one digit.

“It just needs some TLC.” Warp circles around to the other side, poking at a few frayed cables with his own talon.

“Some?”

Warp's grin widens as he crouches and peers up into the corroded power linkages.

“Perhaps a lot. But it can be done.” Some of his humor fades. “It has to be done.”

“Sick of Earth already?” Wheeljack’s tone is soft, almost searching.

“I hated it from the moment I laid optics on it,” Skywarp replies truthfully. There are few things on this miserable planet that he appreciates.

The sky is big and blue and unencumbered, but he can't indulge in it because the threat is too great. Optimus Prime is waiting for them to slip up. The humans are eager to test new ordinance, and they're running out of Decepticons.

Jack makes a noise of agreement. “I'd probably like it more if I could get out and explore.” He ventilates a sigh of disappointment. “But all I'm getting is what we can find on the internet and television, and if either of those are an example of humanity, I'm not at all interested.”

“They're not that far off the mark,” Warp agrees. Though to be fair, he hasn't been out exploring either. His sole experience with Earth and its occupants is the battle in Chicago, immediately followed by hiding and running for his life.

His talon scrapes over a component. Dirt and rust flake to the ground.

“By the Allspark, this whole thing's going to need a flush.”

“Might be easier just to drag it into the Jackhammer's washracks, you think?” Wheeljack asks, humor flitting in and out of his energy field.

Warp catches Jack's gaze and tosses the engineer a wry grin. “And short-circuit all of my careful wiring? Over my empty frame!”

They laugh.

It’s surprisingly easy to get along with Wheeljack. It helps, he supposes, that once upon a time he’d admired the mech. He used to read every proposal of Wheeljack's that he could get his talons on. He's heard so many stories, marveled at too many creations. Wheeljack is a legend amongst engineers and inventors.

It's also nice to spend time with someone who doesn't look at him like an ancient relic recently unearthed and put on display.

“You know,” Jack says as the sound of his tinkering begins anew, including the whine of a welder powering on, “I'm rather curious as to how you became so knowledgeable in engineering.”

Luckily for the Autobot, Skywarp has already learned that his new friend often speaks before he thinks. He doesn't mean any offense intentionally.

Skywarp cycles a ventilation. “I never went to the Academy. Not like Stars. I didn't have an official education.” He pauses, a wry grin quirking his mouth. “War-build, you know. They kind of had rules about that sort of thing.”

“I remember.” Wheeljack's response is soft, tinged with regret and disappointment. “There were a lot of things about Cybertron that were ridiculous and foolish. I, for one, won’t miss the council and their slagging rules.”

Skywarp rises to his pedes, but only to pull up a crate. It's awkward to crouch.

“Me neither.” He pokes at his memory bank, glitched though it is, memories rising out of the fog to the fore. “That's how I met Stars. He was always a Seeker, a war-build, but he wasn't always a soldier, you know.”

“I remember that, too. He was brilliant.”

Was being the operative word here. It should hurt, Skywarp reflects, to talk and think about his trinemate. And in a way it does. There's an old ache in his spark, mostly for the Stars who was. For the intelligent and brightly-innocent young scientist who had so many dreams, visions of a different future.

Starscream had thought because the council was lenient and generous enough to grant him a scholarship, a chance to be better than his hatchmates, that political opinion as a whole could be altered. He thought he could prove his worth in sciences and open doors for other war-builds, confirm that soldiers could be more. By the time he learned it was a farce, a form of entertainment for the council and an experiment they never expected to succeed, it was too late.

No small wonder he had been so easily swayed by Megatron. Then again, Megatron had swayed them all with little effort. They all wanted something different, to be treated fairly, like mechs rather than armed slaves.

So when the Academy kicked Starscream out, he had no choice but to return to his roots. To the position for which he'd been sparked – the military.

“Skywarp?”

He stirs from the memories.

“Sorry. What was I saying?”

Wheeljack pauses in the midst of welding to look at Warp over the bulk of the engine. “Should I not have asked?”

Compassion too is another facet of his current functioning that Skywarp is struggling to adapt to. Compassion from an Autobot makes it even more disorienting.

“It's fine,” he assures. “Stars is... was...”

Words fail him and frustration colors Skywarp's tone. He leans forward, bracing himself on his thighs.

“One of my first assignments was guard duty for the various academia. Starscream was one of them. Shockwave was another.”

“Shockwave?” Wheeljack's indicators flash a startled orange as he ducks back behind the engine.

“You'd be surprised what you learn by watching,” Skywarp comments. “But you'd be right. Shockwave never deigned to show me anything. He liked to pretend we weren't there. That we were just drones for his personal use.”

Warp would also bet every credit he ever earned that Shockwave didn't know who he was either. Not even after vorns and vorns of war when Skywarp inexplicably found himself tied to Decepticon high command. He never seemed to recognize the Seeker who stood at Starscream's side.

“Still... it's Shockwave.” Disgust buzzes in Wheeljack's energy field.

“Tell me about it.” Warp grins. “Luckily, Shockwave preferred real drones over thinking mechanisms and dropped his military escort. I was assigned to Stars next, who was working on a project for the Senate.”

There's a rattle-clunk and a poof of smoke before Wheeljack grumbles a dissatisfied curse.

“Was that the null-ray?”

“Yeah, it was.” Skywarp can't hide his surprise. “Everyone thought it couldn't be done, but Stars pulled it off.”

“He was brilliant,” Wheeljack muses aloud, his tone carrying harmonics of honest admiration. “I read his thesis on energy states and matter conversion. He could have done so much more, if only they had let him.”

Skywarp makes a noncommittal noise. “Let being the operative term here. Anyway, Stars had guards, but he never had assistants. For some reason, they kept quitting, so he was always needing another pair of hands. He tended to snap at us to help him even though that's not what we were there for.”

Amusement threatens to rise to the fore.

Starscream had always expected to be obeyed. He would issue orders like it never occurred to him someone might protest. And maybe that's why he kept losing assistants.

“I learned a lot by watching,” Warp continues, yanking off a panel and ripping out a handful of electronic guts. He tosses them into the trash pile. “And then he offered to teach me. He thought it was offensive that his guards were so ignorant. Turns out, I had a real knack for weapons, too.”

“Hah. Don't we all?” Wheeljack's optics lit up with amusement, matching the bright glow of his indicators. “Some of the more interesting accidents were when I was in weapons design.”

Warp laughs. “Is that why Ratchet looks at you like an accident waiting to happen?”

Jack waves him off, starting up a grinder with a loud whirr. “He exaggerates. I've only damaged myself bad enough to need him twice in our entire functioning. All the other times were minor things he insisted on fixing. I let him because that's who Ratchet is. He needs stuff to fix.”

“I got that impression.” Skywarp smirks.

If it weren't for the hatchlings, Ratchet would probably be harassing them all about their maintenance habits, recharge schedules, refueling, and all manner of mechanical subjects. It's a good thing he has other distractions now.

As if on cue, the door to the barn rattles open, Ratchet striding through as if summoned by their very conversation.

“Hey, Ratch,” Jack greets with more than a little reservation. “What brings you by?”

“My Wheeljack senses were tingling,” the medic says with a sour note that usually indicates a mech in need of a good 'face. “You're about to do something stupid, aren't you?” He turns his helm left and right, as though scanning the laboratory for possible explosions in the making.

Wheeljack chuckles. “Whatever gave you that idea, Ratchet? It's just me and Warp here, fixing this engine.” He gives it a loving pat, and there's a dull thunk from somewhere in the bottom.

Skywarp eyes it cautiously. Wheeljack steps back a pace. A panel drops out of the bottom along with a handful of rusted gears.

“Fixing it, huh?” Ratchet comments, but his mouth curves into a grin. “Doesn't seem like you're doing a good job.”

Wheeljack rolls his shoulders. “Well, it hasn't exploded yet. I consider it a win. Must be Skywarp's good influence.” He winks an optic, and Warp grins back.

“Yeah,” he says. “Must be.”

Ratchet's field spikes, rife with suspicion and no small amount of apprehension. “That you two are getting along worries me.”

Warp braces his arm on a mount. He casually kicks the rusted parts under the suspended engine.

“Why? Are you jealous? Don't worry, Ratch, I can still fit you into my 'facing schedule.” He shutters an optic.

“I don't-- You don't-- ” The medic startles, his plating clamped down before he devolves into a scowl. “I'm going now,” he snarls and turns on a pede, leaving as abruptly as he'd come.

At least Wheeljack and Skywarp wait until he is out of the barn before they break into laughter. Ratchet tends to get even pricklier if he thinks someone is amused at his expense. And a prickly Ratchet is a violent one who likes to throw things. Though now that Wheeljack's here, it only means he has more targets.

Skywarp shakes his helm and returns his attention to the engine, though the amusement lingers. It's kind of nice, he thinks, to relax like this.

Even if it is with a couple of Autobots.

o0o0o



Astrotrain, Skywarp learns, has a habit of looming. He knows that the triple-changer is doing it on purpose. A psychological tactic, though all it succeeds in doing is making him irritated. There aren't many mechs online nowadays who would be intimidated by a little looming.

They've lived through too much for it.

Warp still isn't sure letting Astrotrain live was a good idea. That mech isn't on their side, is never going to be loyal to them, and has his own agenda. Just what that agenda is, Skywarp doesn't know. But he sure as frag is going to find out.

At least, Thundercracker and Prowl haven't completely lost their senses. Keeping Astrotrain on the moon is the smartest thing they could’ve done. He can't come to Earth without being shot down by Prime and the humans. And it wouldn't do him any good to attack Skywarp's cadre unless his processor goes completely fragged or something.

Still...

The looming is slagging annoying. Skywarp's tempted to shoot out Astrotrain's knees just to stop the itchy-crawling sensation of being watched.

--How can you stand it?--

The question, which suddenly spills into the open-comm they've designated for Astrotrain to use, makes Warp startle. He curses as his helm smacks into the bottom of the Ark's main control console. His optics have to recalibrate from the brief fuzz in his vision.

Glancing down the length of his frame, he can just make out two dark grey stumps. Astrotrain. Looming. Like always.

Skywarp bites back an exasperated comment and plants his most patient tone into his response.

--Stand what?--

--Working with the Autoscum,-- Astrotrain says, and as he shifts, the plating on his legs lifts and clamps visibly. --They're the enemy.--

Skywarp slides out from under the console. --No, the Senate was the enemy. The High Council.-- He pauses, considering. --Even Prime. All of them. Sentinel and those before him. Optimus now.--

He watches as Astrotrain's empty weapon mounts twitch. As though he's trying to cycle ammunition he no longer carries.

--The Autobots fought for the Senate.--The triple-changer insists. --That makes them the enemy.--

Skywarp can honestly say that he expected this to come up eventually. Astrotrain hasn't bothered to hide his disdain for his current circumstances, and though he treats them all with contempt, he saves his best behavior for interactions with Wheeljack and Prowl. They’re the only Autobots who actually come to the Ark.

--And now you're working for them.-- Astrotrain's transmission is dripping with disgust. --What kind of Decepticon are you?--

Skywarp gives him a level look. --The kind who wants to survive.--

Astrotrain sneers, his wings flaring as though in challenge. --They bombed Altihex. How can you forgive that?--

--Because I have to.—

Because he really has no other choice, truth be told, but Skywarp's not letting Astrotrain get that far under his plating.

--We flattened Praxus, remember? I'm sure Prowl does.--

--They razed Vos to cinders!-- Anger underlines every word, acrid in Astrotrain's energy field.

Skywarp shifts and sits a bit more upright. --And we destroyed Uraya, which was packed with civilians: Autobots, Neutrals, and sparklings alike. All because Megatron wanted to make a point.--

Amber optics brighten, Astrotrain's sneer deepening. --What? You feeling guilty for that?--

Skywarp shrugs, trying to effect nonchalance. --I'm just saying that it has to stop,-- he offers, though he doubts his words are going to get through to Astrotrain. --I haven't forgiven them, but I have to look past it. Otherwise, all we're going to do is keep fighting, keep killing. Until there aren't any of us left. And then what was it for?--

He catches himself, cycles a ventilation. Astrotrain's never going to understand, so why is he bothering? But the words are spilling out, and now, maybe Skywarp thinks they are more for himself.

The wreckage of the Ark surrounds him. The twinges of old hurts and weld lines are constant reminders.

--Though we might’ve already passed the point of no return,-- Skywarp says, and there's no concealing the regret and despair intermingled. --There may be no saving our species.--

At best, he could’ve hoped for silence. Thoughtful, if not respectful. But no. Such is beyond Astrotrain right now. Perhaps his battle-lust truly has infected him core deep.

--Heh.-- The laugh is mocking and cruel. --Look at you, trying to sound smart.--

Skywarp withdraws his energy field so fast it gives him figurative whiplash. He directs a glare at the triple-changer and shoves himself back under the console, scraping his wings in the process. Ratchet's going to bitch later. Strange that Skywarp's actually looking forward to that.

--Shove it up your afterburner, Astrotrain,-- he retorts and grimly picks up his tools. --If you can't get with the program, you're welcome to leave.--

Astrotrain kicks at a chair and sends it careening into the darkness. --I'm not leaving. Not until I've done what I need to do--

Despite his efforts, Skywarp's servos still. --And what would that be?--

--Don't you worry.-- The floor shakes with the force of Astrotrain's steps as he retreats out of the bridge. --Your precious group of traitors don't hold any interest for me. I couldn't care less that you're all a bunch of deserters.--

Astrotrain cuts off the comm, leaving Skywarp alone in a silence that is both welcome and worrisome. What are Astrotrain's intentions? What is he waiting for?

--I suspect our Astrotrain problem will solve itself,-- Dreadwing inserts, and Warp starts again, having forgotten that he was listening in. --Sooner rather than later,-- he adds, his words coming across their private comm, one Astrotrain cannot access.

--What do you mean?--

--His loathing for Prime is no secret. He may do something unwise.-- Dreadwing, who is currently onboard the Jackhammer, ensuring that it doesn't get appropriated by their unfriendly triple-changer, transmits a contemplative glyph.

--Like attempt a direct assault on Earth?--

--We don't have the resources to save those who don't want to be saved,-- Dreadwing replies, which isn't so much an answer as an evasion. --It's come to this. We can only do what we can do.--

Skywarp sighs. --He's not on deck anymore. Do you see him?--

--He's standing out here, staring off into space.--The other Seeker sounds partially amused and partially irritated. --Safer to leave him alone.--

Skywarp can agree with that. Sometimes, as they say on Earth, it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.

--Besides,-- Dreadwing continues. --Don't you have work to do? We want to leave Earth sometime this century.--

Warp sends him the Cybertronian equivalent of an emoticon across the comm. --You've been working with Prowl too long. He's made you boring.--

--And you would know this how?--

Skywarp refrains from answering. He slides back under the console, tools in hand. Dreadwing's right at least. The Ark isn't going to fix itself, and they are on a time crunch.

It's time to get back to work.

o0o0o



“You must be bored.”

Warp rolls his helm upward, optics following. “What makes you say that?”

Ratchet tosses him an amused look. “Because you're lingering in here, quite possibly the least entertaining place to be right now.”

“Maybe I enjoy your company.” Warp offers him a winning grin.

Ratchet barks a laugh. “I don't believe that for a second.”

Skywarp snorts. “It's true. You haven't thrown anything at me in days!”

Actually, come to think of it, the medic has been in a fairly decent mood lately. Warp's caught him smiling a couple of times and his energy field isn't vile enough to knock a gestalt over either. It's almost as if something has happened, something that has finally evened out the dissonance in his spark...

“I can always change that, you know,” the medic says, heedless of the epiphany that Warp has just stumbled upon. “I've got a nice--”

“You and Drift finally caught a clue, didn't you?” Warp accuses, leaping to his pedes with a gleeful quirk of his wings.

Ratchet startles, mouth briefly clamping shut. “I... You... I don't know what you're talking about,” he blusters, but Skywarp can tell he's flustered. He drops his gaze, starts puttering around, picking things up and putting them down again in no certain order.

Warp's grin widens. “Oh, I think you do. You know exactly what I mean. Congratulations must be in order then.”

Ratchet huffs. He casts an askance look as he pretends to look busy by examining the hatchlings, which have doubled in size since they were first rescued.

“You are impossibly nosy,” he grumps. “And full of wild stories.”

“Sticks and stones, Ratchet.”

Skywarp trails along after the medic. Ratchet had at least been partially right. He is bored, and he's not due to work on the Ark until Jack gets back, which means he needs to find something to entertain himself. Something that's not watching Tracks polish himself mirror-shiny or Prowl and Thundercracker play some kind of strategy game or Dreadwing read a datapad.

Needling Ratchet is its own form of entertainment.

“Besides, you looked in need of some company,” Warp adds as he follows Ratchet down the steps and into the area set aside for growing hatchlings. “Seeing that Drift is on patrol at all.”

Ratchet ventilates a sigh. “You are like a turbofox, aren't you? Always sniffing where you aren’t wanted?”

“It's part of my charm.” Warp smirks and stands back, leaning against a precarious stack of crates as Ratchet wanders through the maze of containers and their precious contents. “So when are they due to hatch?”

The medic tosses him a wry look. “They aren't organic ovum, Skywarp. They don't hatch.”

“Semantics.” Warp waves off the medic's dour expression. “When do they get to decant from the nutrient bath?”

Ratchet pauses by one of the tanks, a Seeker maybe. Or Skywarp thinks perhaps one of the other flight-class frames.

“At this rate, within the next season.”

Skywarp winces. “That's... soon.”

“Yes. I know.” The medic's happily buzzing energy field flattens like a balloon that's been deflated. “And we'll have a dozen healthy drones underpede. Lucky for us.”

Skywarp pushes himself off the crates, moving to the nearest tank substitute, one containing a grounder. The little bitling is actually kind of cute, even if it isn't a flyer. And also, not so little anymore. The smallest of their cadre is Drift, and the hatchlings would probably come up to his chestplate, the Seekerlings would match him in height.

“Still no luck on Perceptor's research?”

“Drift's told me all he knows,” Ratchet replies. “I've added it to my databanks, compared it to my own knowledge, but there are no answers.”

Leaning on the edge of the tank, Skywarp idly drags a talon through the nutrient bath. It’s more an energon gel packed with supplements the growing protoforms need.

“What about budding?”

“You mean self-propagation?”

Warp lifts his shoulders in a shrug.

“Whatever the medical terminology. I seem to remember hearing a rumor about Shockwave dabbling in something similar.”

It's only a small white lie as it isn't so much a rumor as something Skywarp witnessed for himself when he was working as part of Shockwave's armed guard.

Ratchet makes a noise of disgust. “Yes, and that’s why we have Insecticons.” He pauses. “And to a lesser extent, the Vehicons, though the latter is far more coherent.”

Skywarp tilts his helm. He watches as Ratchet scans one of the tanks and then turns with a frown, as though the gel is lacking something.

“Explain it for the medically disinclined.”

Casting him an impatient glance, Ratchet nevertheless launches into a retelling of the facts as he knows them.

“Self-propagation is not unheard of or difficult. Any mech is capable of doing so. That doesn't mean it's not dangerous. There's a limit to how much of our spark energy we can spare. And that limit prevents spark portions from achieving full sentience.”

It takes a moment for Skywarp to parse the terminology.

“So what you're saying is that the spark percentage is too small?”

“Yes.”

Warp considers.

“On top of that,” the medic continues, “Self-propagation in itself would only produce a dim copy of the original donor, which doesn't help us at all. We can't repopulate our species by making faulty copies of ourselves thousands of times over.”

Skywarp actually chuckles at this. “I imagine not. Can you imagine a world filled with Wheeljack, each dumber than the one before it?”

Ratchet tosses him a glare. “I meant that such an attempt is how we got the Swarm. But that’s an important point as well.” He dumps something into one of the tanks that looks like metallic dust. “Over time, we'd reduce ourselves to machines, like de-evolution.”

Such isn’t the intended result at all. They are looking to repopulate, not make matters worse.

Skywarp withdraws his talons from the tank, shaking off the excess energon. Okay, so self-propagation isn’t the answer. Though he could’ve swore Perceptor's research mentioned something about the spark's ability to regenerate. There's got to be something!

“Wait a klik.” Skywarp turns, orbital ridge flattening. “What about twins? Split-sparks?” It's the same concept, isn't it?

Ratchet shakes his helm. “That's different.”

“How?”

The medic sighs and moves to the next tank. “Twins like Sideswipe and Sunstreaker are split from a single, abnormally large and unstable spark. Ninety percent of the time it disassociates. Occasionally, it survives as a single, unstable spark. Rarely, it splits into two separate but viable sparks.”

“So it's possible.” Warp folds his arms, wondering how to apply this to their current situation. But spark physics and Cybertronian biology are hardly his fields of expertise.

“No, it isn't.” Ratchet turns toward the Seeker, one servo dragging down his faceplate. “A split spark is still a single spark, only divided. The two halves are smaller than the average.”

“Meaning?”

One hand flicks through the air in dismissal. “It isn't large enough to spare the extra energy for budding. In effect, a twin could never self-propagate even if the process did work.”

Warp's hopes wither. “So a normal spark splitting--”

“--would result in deactivation for both halves.”

Ratchet turns back toward the tank, but he doesn't scan. Instead, he braces himself on the edge, looking down at the hatchling with a dismal push of his energy field.

“And the safest percentage, even at the highest limits, is not enough to achieve the desired results.”

Skywarp mulls over the mathematics. Half of a spark is too much, killing the donor. A third is too little with not enough charge to achieve sentience.

“What about two?”

Ratchet's entire frame goes still.

“Two?”

The calculations start working at a frantic pace in Skywarp's processor and he knows Ratchet must be crunching the possibilities, too.

“Yes. Two. What if two donors budded and the results stuck together?”

The medic whirls. “You mean merging them?”

He sounds horrified at the mere thought, but underneath it all is a current of possibility.

Skywarp nods, fingers rapping over his forearm panel. “Would that be a sufficient spark charge?”

It's simple mathematics. Two-thirds is more than one-half, and if the donor spark can survive on two-thirds, then it stands to reason that the newspark could as well.

“It would be dangerous!” Ratchet's hand slices through the air, his horror magnified. “Bad enough to attempt that process on one mech. But on two? And then there's no guarantee the two partials would unite. And--”

“But would it be enough?” Skywarp interrupts, surprising himself with his own patience.

Ratchet's mouth clamps shut. He backpedals, sinking down onto the med berth. He says nothing, but Skywarp knows he must be performing the calculations, dumping possibilities into his processor. And he knows, by the sinking of Ratchet's shoulders, that the medic has come to the same conclusion as Skywarp.

“It is, isn't it?” he presses, eager for Ratchet to confirm his calculations.

“That doesn't make it plausible,” the medic snaps, field whipping into a frenzy that mingles excitement, fear, and desperation. “It's highly dangerous. Split sparks are unstable, prone to dissipating. And the primary spark is weakened.”

Skywarp arches an orbital ridge. “But it recovers.”

The sigh that emerges from Ratchet's vents echoes audibly. “Eventually, yes. The rift seals itself, and the spark slowly regenerates the lost mass.”

“Like a self-sustaining energy plant,” the Seeker comments.

“More or less.” Ratchet slumps further, the initial excitement dwindling to nothing, replaced by a marked lack of hope. “That doesn't mean we can start experimenting as we please. We are too few to risk the loss of one.”

Warp shakes his helm. He’s unwilling to let this chance go.

“We're already dying, Ratchet. If we don't try, what's the point?”

The medic has no answer for him. He gives Skywarp a look that best resembles pity, a contrary set to his frame that indicates he isn’t going to bend on this.

“He’s right, you know.”

Skywarp isn’t sure who’s more surprised, himself or Ratchet. They both turn around to find Prowl just within the medbarn entrance. He regards both of them with curious optics.

“If we do not take this opportunity, our kind will cease to exist,” Prowl continues, stepping further inside and sliding the door shut behind him.

Ratchet's optics cycle down. “We're talking about a process I know very little about. With no guarantees of anything.”

“Nothing is ever guaranteed. Except death,” Prowl says, and his sensory panels are arched and rigid behind him.

A storm dances across Ratchet's faceplate.

“Fine,” he all but snarls at them, throwing his servos into the air and rocks to his pedes. “If you're that bent on tearing the fabric of the universe, be my guest. But I'll have no part of it.”

Tearing the fabric...? Skywarp cannot help but be amused by the seemingly melodramatic medic. Surely, it can't be that serious.

“That is your decision,” Prowl replies, unflinching in the face of Ratchet's ire. “Though I am sure we’d be more successful if we had your assistance.”

The medic tilts his gaze away. “No,” he states, arms crossing his chassis. There's no room for persuasion in his tone.

Skywarp still intends to try. But then, Prowl sets a hand on his arm. The look in his optics carries all the warning the tactician needs.

“If you insist.” Prowl keeps his tone carefully mild. “Skywarp, perhaps you would join me in further discussion...?”

Ratchet doesn't look to be budging anytime soon, and Warp would bet a fair amount of cubes that the medic is devolving toward a sulk. Best to clear out before the tools start flying.

“Sure.” Skywarp gives Ratchet one last look, but since the medic won't meet his gaze, it’s a lost cause. For now.

He follows Prowl outside, waiting until the door shuts before he dares talk.

“Why did you--?”

“Ratchet is stubborn,” Prowl offers before he can finish the question. “The more you argue, the more he remains belligerent. You have to give him time to decide for himself.”

“Yeah. Sounds like somebody I used to know.”

It's uncomfortably familiar, actually. Stars used to have much the same problem.

Of course, Starscream liked to argue against Megatron of all mechs.

Prowl's lips curve in a half-smile that Warp has come to recognize as amusement.

“Don't worry. I will talk to him later. Wheeljack as well.”

“And I'm sure Drift will have something to say, too.”

More amusement trickles into Prowl's energy field.

“Perhaps.” Prowl tips his helm and brushes a light hand across Warp’s back as he moves away. “We shall see.”

The tactician leaves then, aiming for the storage barn, where a small common area of sorts has been arranged. It’s also the last place Skywarp remembers seeing Thundercracker.

Surprise, surprise. Only not.

Warp chuckles to himself and turns toward his lab-slash-occasional living quarters. He has work to be done.

***

Chapter Text

He finds TC in the Jackhammer. He’s slouched in the pilot's chair and aimlessly flicking through the open channels on the console. There’s nothing but static to be heard with the occasional human broadcast interfering.

He finds TC alone, which is surprising. Though Warp already knew he would be since all the others are either otherwise assigned or in recharge.

“Hey.”

TC doesn't so much as twitch. No doubt he's long sensed Warp's energy field.

“Were you looking for me?”

Skywarp grins. “After a fashion.” He leans on TC's chair, causing it to tilt back and jerk his friend backwards. “Where's Prowl?”

His wingmate's energy field is always a quiet purr, carefully contained and close to his plating. Such is true today. But it also flares at Warp's question before being quickly withdrawn.

“How should I know?” TC asks, and though his tone is even, there's an edge of irritation underlying it that Skywarp can recognize.

Warp drags his fingers across the top edge of TC's wing. “I hardly see you two apart nowadays. You're practically joined at the hip.”

“Stop that.” Thundercracker leans forward, off-setting Warp's weight, flicking his wing out of reach.

Grinning, Warp backs away and holds up both hands in surrender. “Private property. I understand.” He edges around the narrow space, dropping himself down into the copilot’s seat. “I notice you didn't answer me.

“You didn't have a question,” TC retorts with an askance look.

“Didn't I?”

Swiveling his own chair, TC gives him a level look. “What's on your processor?” he questions. All traces of his earlier irritation are gone, replaced by a quiet and genuine sobriety.

Sometimes, TC knows him a little too well. It can be annoying. Though he supposes the fact that he sought out his wingmate at all proves that Skywarp wants to talk.

And he does, too. Only without Autobot audials or whatever the frag Drift and Dreadwing want to call themselves either.

“It's just weird, you know,” Warp says, sinking into the comfort of a chair that had been designed for their kind. “Fighting and living and laughing with the Autobots. I still don't know what to think about it.”

Understanding flickers over TC's expression, but he turns his attention back to the console. “I never took you as one so loyal to the Decepticon cause.”

“The cause, yes. Megatron and the Decepticons? Not quite.” Skywarp leans to his right and braces his chin on his servo. “Over the eons, it got harder to remember what it’s all for.”

“And now?”

He lifts his gaze to the viewscreen. It’s shuttered now, and he imagines beyond it is the distinct rippling effect of a shuttle hidden from human satellites.

“It feels like we're the closest to our goals than we've ever been. And this?” His other hand flicks against the dark brand, etched into his chassis. “This feels like a lie.”

A trace of amusement reflects in TC's vocals. “Are you going to switch it out for an Autobrand now?”

“Frag no!” Skywarp is more horrified than offended. “I don't want either of them! I don't want a faction to define or decide for me anymore.”

TC's digits rap over the console, but his tone is soft. “Then what do you want?”

It's a fair question. They've functioned for so long within factional lines that they’re all having a hard time shaping themselves without the brand's dictations to guide them. After all, they’re traitors to their respective sides.

Once, a long time ago, before factions designated them, Seekers were known by their markings. Tribal lines and origin indicators and batch numbers all swirled across their plates and wings. Starscream, as their Air Commander, had been the only one allowed to keep his.

Skywarp misses his own. More than that, he wishes he could remember what they were.

They, at least, would be far preferable to the brand of Decepticon or Autobot. He wouldn't have a faction to define him then.

What does he want?

The answer comes easier than Skywarp would’ve expected.

“Friends,” he says. “Allies. Peace. Family.” His spark pulses an ache, and Skywarp cycles a ventilation. “I don't remember Vos, TC. I don't remember my hatchmates. I don't remember home.”

His memory core is a ruin, a mismatch of partially-repaired pathways, burnt out circuits, and smashed linkages. It's unrepairable, even with all of Ratchet's talents. There are things Skywarp is never going to remember. Until now, he hasn't had time to think much upon that loss. In war, what he can't remember didn't really matter. Every battle brought him one flight closer to offlining.

But now? Fighting for peace? Things are a lot different.

TC pauses, a soft whuff coming from his vents. “Tracks told me something not too long ago.”

“Tracks?” Warp cycles his optics. “Since when do you spend any time with that Seeker wannabe?”

TC shoots him a warning glance. “Since I became curious as to how he joined up with a ‘Con.” He taps Warp on the forehead. “Hush. I'm making a point.”

“Fine.”

It still doesn't make any sense. Then again, TC has always been more for thinking than the average Decepticon, which is why Skywarp came to him in the first place. In the absence of Stars, TC has the answers. It's practically written into his core coding as an absolute at this point.

TC gives him another look but returns his attention to the console. “I asked him why he wasn't disturbed by Cybertron's destruction.”

Warp cocks his head. He has a point. Of them all, Tracks was the only one who didn't have as much of an outward reaction toward the data packet.

“He said that he hasn't been home in eons. Everyone and everything he ever knew is offline and gone. Destroyed by the war.” TC hesitates, the sound of armor clamping down loud in the silence. “To him, Cybertron became a myth, a legend almost. The planet itself isn't home.”

It does not compute. Cybertron isn’t home?

“Then what is? Earth?” He doesn’t bother to hold back a disdainful blat of static. This organic-infested rock is never going to be home.

“No.” The chair creaks as TC shifts, ceasing his random fiddling and going still. “Dreadwing. And to a lesser extent, Wheeljack.”

Skywarp frowns. “But they aren't mates. He said so himself.”

Multiple times in fact since Warp has a habit of teasing everyone. Dreadwing does not approve.

“Neither are we.” TC swivels his chair, looking straight at him. “But you’re my wingmate and my family all the same. If you wanted to skip out on the others and leave this very click, I’d go with you. For no other reason than you were leaving.” Thundercracker just gazes at him for a very long moment before letting out a chuckle. “Even if you do irritate the slag out of me on a daily basis.”

Skywarp stares.

Those are dangerous words. Especially to come from a Decepticon. But then, they aren't ‘Cons anymore are they?

“The Cybertron I remember isn’t one I'd want to return to,” TC continues, but his vocals are even softer, his gaze distant. “It was a miserable existence. This--” Here he gestures all around them, encompassing the shuttle, their miserable base, and all its occupants. “--for all its flaws, is an improvement. Autobots included.”

Skywarp supposes he can agree with that much. Mine labor and then press-ganged into a battle group and sent to war as though his spark meant nothing, that's the Cybertron he remembers. It's not one he wants to see again.

Maybe Tracks has a point. Still...

Warp leans forward. He flicks his finger against TC's wing, striking the emblem branded into a solid plate.

“Are you going to give it up?”

“No.” TC turns back to the console, taps a few buttons, and the viewscreen clouds over. “I don't know if I’m ready for that.”

Warp flickers his optics. And yet, TC has no problem cuddling up to an Autobot. Truly, he is a Seeker of many contradictions.

“Then what are you ready for?” he inquires, and his voice is actually sincere for once.

“Peace.”

Warp grins. “Me, too. Even if it means working with Autobots.”

Many of whom, if Skywarp is honest, aren't that bad. Drift's got a wicked sense of humor, Ratchet's all bluster, and Jack is an explosive genius. Literally. He's still making up his mind about Prowl, and Tracks has kept mostly to himself. And Dreadwing.

“For better or worse, they’re our future,” TC agrees, and the screens sift through images of the stars, galaxy maps and the like.

Only then does Skywarp realize what it is TC is doing: searching for a new planet or moon for them to call home.

Skywarp sits back in his chair. “It makes you wonder what Stars would think, doesn't it?”

A blip of reluctant amusement flickers in TC's energy field. “I know exactly what he'd do.?

“Try to overthrow Prowl and declare himself our leader?”

They share a mutual glance of fond exasperation. It's hard not to.

“That exactly,” TC decides.

Warp shakes his helm, lifting his optics to the steady search on the screen. Known planets are weighed, measured, and dismissed or set aside for further investigation.

“He was a power-hungry fragger, wasn't he?”

“Not always.” TC's tone is heavy with regret. “Not in the beginning.”

Yeah… that, too.

Skywarp leans on the arm of his chair. “Maybe it's better this way then. For everyone. I can't see Stars bowing to peace.”

No, he really can't. There’d been so much hate and anger surrounding their trinemate's spark. At first, it’d been dedication and determination, but over the eons of war, the vorns of Megatron's influence, all those good qualities were tainted and cast aside.

Sometimes, Skywarp misses the Starscream he used to know. He supposes it has to do with that whole family bit. He doesn't remember his own origins, caretakers, or hatchmates. TC and Stars were all he had.

“I was from Tarn,” TC offers then, pulling Skywarp from his musings. “I was fifth in the Gamma Hexa batch. And I wouldn’t protest if you choose to bear our mark.”

Surprise bursts in Warp's field before he can reel it in. Warmth flushes through him, affection rising to the fire.

“I...”

He has no words, nothing that can match the honor TC has allowed him. He can only look at his trinemate. His friend. His family.

“Thanks, TC.”

His wingmate makes a noncommittal noise, as though embarrassed by the offer. “Don't you have work you should be doing?”

Yes, definitely embarrassed.

Warp grins and levers himself out of the chair. “Slave driver,” he teases and throws himself at TC. “Love you, too.”

A sound that can best be described as a squawk spills from TC’s vocalizer. “Get off me,” he orders, trying to push at Skywarp. But he can't hide the affection in his field. The fondness that swirls around them both.

Skywarp laughs and lets himself be rebuffed. He pulls back, putting a respectable distance between them. His trinemate is right, he supposes. He does have work to do.

He heads for the door, noting that TC has just as quickly returned to his searching. The quiet click of his talons on the Jackhammer's controls are near the only sound in the bridge.

And then, Skywarp has a thought. He pauses in the doorway.

“Say, TC,” he begins. “I was thinking--”

“--Second in Beta Ennea batch. The one from Vos. Not those idiots in Kaon.” TC shakes his head. “Don’t use their emblem.”

A smile curves Skywarp's lipplates again. TC always seems to know what he's thinking.

“Thanks.”

He taps his fingers against the door frame and takes his leave. He should be heading up for the Ark soon. Thundercracker's given him a lot to think about, and he'll have nothing but time to do so. First though, Skywarp wants to see Ratchet. He's thinking it's about time his naked wings got a little decoration.

On his way into the medbarn, Warp nearly collides with Prowl who is on his way out. The boss, however, neatly sidesteps. And Warp can't help himself as he offers Prowl a bit of advice.

“TC's in the Jackhammer,” he says.

Prowl pauses, arching an orbital ridge at him. Autobot faceplates are so weirdly expressive.

“Is there a reason you're supplying me with this information?”

Warp shutters an optic, a parody of a wink he picked up from the television. “I just thought you'd want to know.”

“But why?”

Prowl actually sounds confused. A score for Skywarp!

“Oh, I think you'll figure it out eventually,” Warp replies with a grin, shimmying past and skirting into the doorway of the medbarn. “Good luck.”

Prowl gives him a look that is nothing short of flabbergasted. “Thank you...?”

Laughing to himself, Skywarp lets the door slide shut. Let the tactician brood on that for a while. Maybe he'll get it faster than Drift did.

Warp beams and shakes his helm. He’s already seeking out Ratchet in the cramped confines of the barn.

This may be home after all, he reflects. Not Earth. But rather the mechs around him.

He supposes it's not too bad, all things considered. Not too bad at all.

***

Chapter Text

He’s being watched.

Sunstreaker has no proof, but there's an itching sensation between his shoulder blades. His battle routines cycle up constantly before he has to force them back down.

The squishies watch him all the time. Sunstreaker's gotten used to their stares, their undisguised loathing. He's not afraid of a bunch of organics barely taller than his ankle servo. Their surveillance means nothing to him.

No, it’s the other looks that bother him. Ones Cybertronian in nature.

It’s Optimus Prime. It’s the flat shade of his optics and the absent scratching of blunt fingers at the seam of his chestplate.

Alarm bells shriek in Sunstreaker's processor. His instincts react with defensive subroutines. He is afraid for the first time in a long time and Sunstreaker doesn't dare turn his back for fear of the energon blade that might pierce it.

He’d realized within the first few minutes of reuniting with Prime that something was off. How Sideswipe hadn't recognized it, he still doesn’t know. But Sunstreaker had seen it immediately.

How could he not?

It's the same imbalance that had made the past vorns wandering in space that much more unbearable. He'd missed Sideswipe. Ached with his separation in such a way that words and explanations cannot qualify. Even now, with them reunited, he isn’t rebalanced. They are too different. It will take time for them to equalize.

But Prime's brother is dead, slain by his own hand, and there's no precedent for the effect that sort of thing has on a mech's stability. Then again, Sunstreaker believes this volatility has been around a lot longer than the battle in Chicago.

He doesn't know why Sideswipe is being an idiot either. Why he clings to this farce. This Optimus Prime is not the same one Sunstreaker offered his blade. This is a shadow in a mech's body, rambling aimlessly around their base, staring off at nothing with unfocused optics

He's creepy is what he is. And somehow, Sunstreaker's the only one still around who recognizes it.

What the frag does Prime do all day?

He wanders around, looking lost. Aimlessly moving from one place to another without real direction or cause. Shifting from one part of their base to another without true destination or reason.

It's rather like watching an Empty prowl the ruins of Cybertron.

Sunstreaker shudders.

Everything has changed. Nothing has stayed the same. Not even hunting down ‘Cons, which seems to be the only task Mearing feels Sunstreaker is capable of handling.

What they hunt are worn, famished mechs scrounging on the edge of humanity for a drop of energy. The more time passes, the more they encounter frames better described as Empty. The last one had lunged at Sunstreaker, optics nearly grey with under-charge, claws reaching to rend and tear.

It hadn't been a challenge. It felt like mercy to plunge his blade into the mech's chassis, especially when coolant and hydraulic fluid are all that spill out. Energon is so bare as to be nonexistent.

To Sunstreaker, who spent most of his functioning in the pits of Kaon, it doesn't feel right. It feels a lot less like war and a lot more like extermination.

He should’ve gone with Prowl.

But he can’t leave his brother behind. Not again.

Recharge, he thinks, is the worst part. Corralled into bays, given no privacy, with the noise of the humans and their machinery surrounding him. It’s no wonder Sunstreaker is often struck with purges. He recharges restlessly, can’t cycle down completely, and onlines with a burst into battle readiness.

He doesn’t feel safe here. There’s no one to guard his recharge, and Sunstreaker feels like a fool for even thinking about it. Sides is assigned a bay on the other side of the warehouse, so he couldn't co-recharge with his twin even if he wanted to. Sunstreaker feels that distance keenly, like a chasm that can’t be crossed, and he might as well have never found his brother at all for as little time as they spend together.

He should be used to recharging alone. He blames Hound for that though. Hound and Prowl both.

Once upon a time, he had recharged on a berth, encased by silence, and forced himself into shut down. More recently, he had rested to the sound of Prowl's steady ventilations and Hound's more labored ones. The noise of a rickety ship in motion soothed him. The feel of familiar energy fields had surrounded him, and sometimes, in his more banal moments, Sunstreaker felt safe.

That time is long gone. Safety, Sunstreaker realizes, is an illusion. A lie.

By Primus, he misses Hound. Misses his voice. The glow of his optics. The feel of gentle fingers on his arm that grew bolder as time passed.

He just misses Hound.

All of him. Everything about him.

His belief that the war would end. That things could be better. That the two of them wouldn’t have to do or be anything that they didn’t wish.

It wouldn’t be this bad if Prowl hadn't gone. If that warmth and familiarity was still here. And Sunstreaker knows he could’ve gone, too. Could’ve followed. But he’d stayed to be with his brother, and somehow, he feels more alone than ever.

Sideswipe is far more a stranger to him now than Prowl or Hound had ever been. Sunstreaker doesn't know who to loathe for that realization. Should he blame Prime for the distance between himself and his twin? The war? Megatron?

Himself?

Sideswipe is half his spark. Sunstreaker wonders if that isn’t enough anymore.

He hurts. He aches, and he can't show it, can't explain it. The crawl in his plating worsens with every passing week. He finds himself patrolling the edges of what is considered their base, staring longingly into the distance. He wonders how hard it could possibly be to find Prowl and Ratchet and the others.

He can't leave Sideswipe.

He can’t stay either.

He needs to find Prowl.

He needs to stay with Sideswipe.

The coding conflicts drive him to exhaustion.

And still, he can feel the optics watching him.

o0o0o



Dino hits the ground with a solid thud and skids several feet away, kicking up clouds of dust with a horrendous screech of metal against stone. Sunstreaker grins, triumphant. He lowers his blades as the once-noble spits a curse and labors to his pedes.

This is their second spar of the day, and it’s ended in much the same manner as the first. With Dino on his back and Sunstreaker victorious. The sparkling's got a lot to learn if he thinks he's going to be able to stand against Sunstreaker and not end up flat.

“That was a cheap move,” Dino says, swiping the back of his hand against his faceplate, flicking away a few droplets of energon.

Sunstreaker arches an orbital ridge and wheels around the other mech. “When it comes to surviving and war, there's no such thing as a cheap shot. There's just surviving and doing whatever it takes to stay that way.”

“And what of honor?” Dust coats red armor as Dino manages to clamber upright, but he favors one leg.

From the sidelines, Sides scoffs. “You think a mech in the Pits is going to bother with honor when he's stabbing you in the back for a cube of Energon? You think the 'Cons care?”

The look Dino gives Sideswipe is only a few degrees warmer than Prowl's famous glare of doom. Though of course, Prowl's is far more intimidating. Prowl is a mech to respect. Dino, not so much.

“I think that our whole species could do with a lesson in honor,” Dino retorts, trying to ease the kink out of his leg. He has yet to reach for his blades.

Sunstreaker sighs to himself. There's no one of any worth to spar on this base. He and Sideswipe are too evenly matched, and though his twin has picked up a few new tricks, there is still little challenge.

“Honor is not going to teach you how to wield that,” Sunstreaker says, gesturing to Dino's weapon with the flat of his own. “It’s taking me far greater concentration to keep from harming you than it is to keep from getting harmed in return.”

Anger blossoms in Dino's field. His hands curl into fists.

“Perhaps a more skilled opponent would prove a greater challenge.”

Sunstreaker's optics cycle wider, and he slowly spins his wheels. He turns around to find Optimus Prime stepping into the crudely drawn circle. The mech is almost twice his height, looms without trying, but he is a challenge.

For the first time, it’s one Sunstreaker isn’t certain he wants to accept. Eons before, he would’ve leapt at an opportunity to face down Prime, test his mettle against the mech who leads them. It would’ve been the ultimate challenge.

Here and now, he hesitates.

Dino, of course, takes the opportunity to bow and scuttle away. Or so Sunstreaker's sensors inform him. He retreats to a safe distance beside Sides, content to watch. The scores in his plating are a testament to his need for greater training.

Sunstreaker's blades return to their sheaths. “I didn’t think you had time for casual sparring, sir,” he says. But it’s really a buy for time.

To Prime, he’d be polite. Something in his spark tells him it’s better to do so. Mearing, however, can go lick rusted slag for all Sunstreaker cares.

“You aren’t the average soldier,” Prime replies, and his face is unreadable behind his mask. “I’ve learned Sideswipe's tricks. I am interested in yours.”

They begin to draw a crowd, human and bot alike. Sunstreaker's pride won’t let him back down, though his hackles raise in accurate threat assessment. He hasn’t seen his leader fight since arriving on Earth, but he has viewed the vids of the Prime's previous battles. That he has only grown more vicious over time puts a tremor of worry through Sunstreaker's logic circuit.

“Terms?” Sunstreaker asks and mentally weighs the odds.

He’s faster than Prime and more agile. Prime, however, has the mass and the height advantage. As well as sheer power. Sunstreaker has learned to attack foes bigger than himself, but it’s always easier to take down a Decepticon. They are predictable. Prime is not.

“As we have no fully trained medic, cosmetic damage only,” Prime says.

Sunstreaker nods. “Close-range attacks. No blasters.”

One hit from that cannon his leader calls a blaster and Sunstreaker's shields will be history. Not to mention a limb or two.

“Acceptable.” Prime draws a sword from where it’s attached to his back, and the blade is easily the length of Sunstreaker's arm. “The first to yield concedes defeat.”

With a reluctance that surprises even himself, Sunstreaker unsheathes his weapon again.

“Agreed, sir.”

Sunstreaker slides into a defensive stance, swords at the ready. His gaze tracks Prime’s every move as blue optics never deviate from his own frame.

“Sides,” Sunstreaker calls, cycling a ventilation. “Call the match.”

If there is tension in his vocals, he pretends he can't hear it. So does his twin.

“Sure thing.”

His brother stands off to the side, spaced between them but not in the way. “Now I want to see a clean fight,” he says to the amusement of no one. “No tricks. No treats. Just good, clean fun.”

“Sideswipe,” Sunstreaker warns.

Sides effects an exaggerated sigh. “You take the fun out of everything,” he comments but gestures for the match to begin.

Sunstreaker expects to be forced to make the first move. Prime has always been a defensive fighter who only attacks when necessary. He rarely, if ever, goes for the offensive strike.

Clearly, the millennia have changed him in more aspects than Sunstreaker was aware.

Prime lunges, moving faster than anyone can expect of such a large frame. His blade whips through the air. Sunstreaker bursts into motion, wheels replacing pedes and kicking up a cloud of dust as he moves. The sword whistles through the air, inches from Sunstreaker's helm. His spark throbs with shock, defense protocols snapping into place with a speed that almost hurts.

Sunstreaker whirls, dropping down, trying to get in under Prime’s reach, aiming for the thicker gaps at his waist. He hears nothing but the sound of his systems, of Prime’s louder ventilations, the sharp snap of a battlemask.

Pain.

What the frag!

Sunstreaker grits his denta, throws himself to the side, limps on a leg that doesn't want to fully support his weight. Agony burns through his hip, and energon slicks down his side.

This is a spar! Sunstreaker wants to yell.

“My apologies,” Prime offers as they separate. He doesn’t sounding sorry at all. Not as Sunstreaker's energon and paint cling to the tip of his blade. “I misjudged the distance.”

Sunstreaker regards his Prime coolly. “I've had worse.”

He speeds forward, swords raised, and he clashes with Prime in a loud ring of metal. He uses both of them, crossed, to bear against Prime's single assault. But he feels his arm servos creak under the pressure.

Prime's field is that thick, sticky buzz of wrongness. Sunstreaker’s tanks roil. He pushes back, feints left, and hits the ground, rolling on his shoulder to come up behind his opponent.

Prime whirls, and their blades once again clash. This time, they don't lock, and Sunstreaker plants his pedes, trying not to lose ground against the rapid flurry of blows. Each strike feels like it reverberates through his frame, rattling joints and fastenings that haven't seen a real medic in millennia.

He's outmatched.

The realization strikes Sunstreaker the same moment that Prime breaks rhythm and shoves him back with a particularly powerful hit. He stumbles, catches himself, and throws his frame to the left, just to avoid the follow-up strike.

Sunstreaker hasn't been in a real battle for a long time. Blitzwing hadn't been an opponent. Taking him down was an act of mercy. These half-starved Decepticons hiding around Earth? Just like fighting newly-spawned hatchlings.

He's gotten complacent. Too complacent.

And Prime has lost his restraint.

A sword slices through the air. Sunstreaker dodges, cycling a rapid ventilation, swinging a desperate blow in return.

Prime knocks it aside, swats at him with a massive fist, and Sunstreaker absorbs the backhand to the face, pain blossoming. His optics glitch. He sways, and instinct sends him to the ground, rolling away from the next attack. He's getting dirt all over his armor, but frag it, Sunstreaker's worried more about keeping his spark intact at this point.

He rolls and dodges to meet Prime’s blade. The impact reverberates up his arm. The sight of his sword shearing right off and flying through the air sends a cold chill dancing down his backstrut. He doesn't have the moment to mourn its loss, not when his opponent is pressing his advantage, coming at Sunstreaker as though he's a Decepticon on the rampage.

He blocks the first strike with his remaining blade, ducks forward, sliding under the next swing. He jabs the broken end of his sword at Prime, scoring armor, and Prime is quick to retaliate.

The elbow slams into Sunstreaker's chestplate, right at the hinge of two plates, and throws him backward. There's no time to catch himself, and Sunstreaker hits the ground hard, gyros reeling, something in his shoulder going crack. His ventilations stutter.

Helm spinning, Sunstreaker tries to push himself upright, but his frame is rattling and there's pain in his chassis like something's broken off. He tastes and smells energon, and an energy field washes over him like the punch of a hundred vibroblades.

Pedefalls vibrate the ground. His protocols shout warnings at him. Sunstreaker's helm jerks up, optics snapping into focus.

He sees the blade, sees it cut through the air, sensors picking up the displacement. He sees its speed increase, the intense focus in Prime’s optics. His spark strobes fear. He isn't fast enough to block it, not with his shoulder giving him errors and his knee wobbling and his confidence shattered.

“I yield!” Sunstreaker shouts and retracts his undamaged blade. Praying to the Primus he doesn't believe in that his words will penetrate.

The sword stops an inch from his chestplate and the dent caused by Optimus' elbow.

“I yield,” Sunstreaker repeats, and he dips his helm, a show of concession.

It galls him to his very core. The humiliation burns. His tanks churn.

The sword falls away. Achingly slow to Sunstreaker's perceptions.

“Very well,” states Prime, and his tone is neither conciliatory nor humored. He cycles his optics, a slow reset, and harsh whine of defensive routines powering down seems over-loud in the ensuing silence. “You are a good challenge, Sunstreaker.”

“And you as well, Prime,” Sunstreaker manages, and perhaps his tone holds a waver. Perhaps not.

He wants to stand, to brush the mud from his armor, to retrieve the remains of his blade. But he fears that if he moves… or even twitches that his yield will mean nothing to his Prime.

Something passes through Prime’s optics. Something that Sunstreaker can't name. Then, the Prime's battlemask slides aside. He reaches down, offering Sunstreaker a hand. And that discordant energy field reaches out with him.

He almost can't bring himself to accept the help, but he forces his own hand to take Prime's, biting back the disgust as their fields collide. Prime hauls him to his pedes and Sunstreaker lets go, eager to put distance between them.

“Good spar,” his leader offers. “Same time next week?”

“Yes, sir,” Sunstreaker replies and wonders the consequences of declining. “Sounds good.”

Applause and cheering erupts in the crowd around them, Roadbuster and Topspin especially congratulating their Prime on his victory. Dino approves. Sunstreaker refuses to meet any of their optics, choosing instead to hunt down his damaged blade and reclaim it. His hip aches. He needs a trip to the washracks, and he wants to scrub down his hand. Prime's field lingers around him, as though clinging to his frame like old energon.

Sunstreaker shudders.

They don't have a medic. He doesn't have anyone to fix the sword. Thank Primus the war is over.

The clamor behind him fades away. No one comments on his escape, though Sunstreaker can feel that he’s being watched. That sensation never goes away, no matter how far from the Pits he's crawled or how long the war's been done.

The sound of wheels over gravel follows after him. He only needs one guess to know it’s his brother. A frown twists Sideswipe's lips, his field a quiet flurry around him.

“What was that?” Sides questions now that they are out of direct sensor range from the others.

Sunstreaker doesn't turn, concentrating instead on finding a place to rest. He thinks that last blow might’ve pinched something in his hip. There's a sharp pain every time he swings his right leg forward.

“Prime's improved,” Sunstreaker replies, locating a partially demolished building with a pile of stones that should serve his purpose. “There's no shame in losing to a Prime. Or so I've been told.”

Sideswipe snorts. “Slag. That wasn't losing to Prime. That was handing him the victory.”

Sunstreaker lowers himself down and finally looks up at his twin. “You said it so it must be true.”

Sideswipe skates around him in circles, kicking up dust.

“You never yield.” His tone is thick with suspicion.

“He would’ve killed me if I hadn't.”

Sideswipe rolls his optics, another mannerism he's picked up from the humans. But that’s not what makes Sunstreaker’s spark sink in his chest. It’s the disbelief that follows.

“C'mon, Sunny,” his brother scoffs. “It's Prime.”

Sunstreaker gives him a searching if sour look, but he doesn’t like what he finds.

“No, it isn't. Not anymore.”

He tries not to remember the look in their leader’s optics. Tries not to feel that harsh trickle of their fields brushing.

He fails.

“That wasn’t Prime,” Sunstreaker bites out, and his voice is pitched low with both revulsion and something a lot like fear. “I don’t know what that was, but it wasn’t our Prime. And he would’ve killed me if I hadn’t surrendered.”

He can feel Sideswipe staring at him, but Sunstreaker doesn’t dare glance up. He’s already on the edge here. He’s already close to saying thing that will get both of them hunted down and slaughtered if they’re overheard, and he can’t quite take that risk.

And Sides… his brother, his twin, his spark… stands next to him. Hovering just within his field. Brushing softly against him. Soothing by just existing. Reaching for him.

But then, like Sides has been doing ever since Sunstreaker arrived and quite probably before that, his brother ignores the nasty truth staring him in the face. Instead, he settles for the more pleasant lie.

Sides pulls away before they even truly touch.

“You know what I think?”

He doesn't respond. Instead, Sunstreaker examines the jagged end of his sword.

“I think you're just looking for an excuse.”

Sunstreaker jerks up his head. “For what?”

“So that you can leave. Abandon the Autobots as surely as Ratchet and Prowl did.” Sides crosses his arms, faceplate unreadable.

Sunstreaker wants to laugh. To scream. To turn back time. Turn their fragging ship around and take Prowl and Hound elsewhere.

Trust his brother to stand between damnation and salvation before stumbling over to the third option. Ignoring both entirely.

Sunstreaker can only let out a slow ventilation.

“I'd take you with me,” he says in place of screaming.

Sideswipe stomps the ground. Agitation makes his plating clatter, his energy field a disordered mess.

“Frag, Sunny. That's not my point.”

Ironic since he hadn’t gotten Sunstreaker’s point at all.

“I know it's not,” the golden twin manages and forces down all the terrible other things he really wants to say.

Sides huffs out of frustration. His gaze wanders away to a point over Sunstreaker's shoulder.

Which is the only reason he doesn’t see that gleam of agony to his brother’s optics.

“Why didn't you leave with him?”

Sunstreaker's vision cycles outward, betraying his surprise. His spark lurches in his chassis. He climbs to his pedes, unbroken blade retracting.

“I can't believe you're even asking me that.”

There’s anger in his voice now. A flicker of rage has replaced the dread.

“If I already knew the answer, I wouldn't need to ask,” Sides retorts, head swinging to face Sunstreaker directly. “But I don't because I don't know you anymore.”

That’s the long and short of it. Isn’t it?

They’re twins but strangers now. Sideswipe of old wouldn’t need to ask. Wouldn’t have missed all the things his brother can’t say.

Sunstreaker lets in a ventilation and reaches for a glimmer of composure that is all Hound and none of himself.

“Mechs change.”

Something flickers in Sides' field before he draws it back.

“Yeah,” he says tightly, visibly working his intakes. “They do.”

Sunstreaker looks at him, and all he can think is how desperately he wishes both Hound and Prowl were here. Prowl because he’d know what to do. Hound because he’d know what to say.

But one is dead and the other is a world away.

“Sides,” he whispers.

“You should’ve just gone with him, Sunny,” Sideswipe states in a low tone, so unfamiliar that it aches. “You obviously don't know me anymore. Don’t need me anymore.”

He whirls on a pede then, smooth and agile. He wheels away with a speed few knew him capable of.

Sunstreaker's spark constricts. “Sides!”

His twin doesn’t pause. Not even to look over his shoulder. He becomes a silver gleam in the distance, disappearing into the cluttered maze of buildings that comprises their home base.

Sunstreaker doesn't give chase. He never has before.

He's not some forlorn lover. It's just one of Sides’ usual tantrums. He'll get over it.

Besides, he needs the silence that follows. To bow his helm and concentrate on his spark. To watch his hands clench in and out of fists. To convince himself that how deeply he hadn't been afraid.

o0o0o



Another day, another Decepticon sighting.

It's just he and Dino this time, trudging through the thick underbrush in South America. Sunstreaker hadn't known he could hate an ecosystem as much as he hated the jungle. Between the humidity, the insects crawling beneath his plates, the swampy mud squelching in his pedes, and the vegetation, he is thoroughly disgusted.

It doesn't help that the 'Con is small and stripped down to his protoform, difficult to see in the murk and undergrowth. It feels like a very boring game, and Sunstreaker can't decide if he'd rather linger around here hunting this mech or go back to Chicago and all the tension.

Not to mention, the humans are getting twitchy, too. They keep wandering further and further from Sunstreaker, guns swinging toward each rustle in the bushes.

--Any signs of him?-- Dino asks, the message coming across their private comm, one the Decepticon shouldn't be able to crack.

Pfft. The slagging 'Con's halfway to Empty, Sunstreaker bets. Especially to be so desperate to try swigging that pitslag the humans call fuel.

--No.-- Sunstreaker sneers, though Dino can't see him. The other mech is about fifty feet away, nothing but a smear of red peeking through the foliage. --And I'm no tracker.--

That’s Hound's job. He’s their scout, their tracker, the one who can make himself invisible, find energon, conceal them from enemies. He's the one who found their ragged ship and made it possible for them to escape that desolate moon.

And then, a Decepticon got off a lucky shot.

Sunstreaker made him pay for that mistake, but it hadn't fixed the damage. It hadn't been enough to turn back time, stop the blaster from punching through Hound's spark chamber, melted slag corrupting the delicate spark energies within. They'd tried. Oh, how he and Prowl had tried to put their third back together.

They had welded him, fed him all the best energon, used bandage after bandage, consulted whatever manner of data was available in the ship's databanks. But Prowl only knew as much as he'd been given in emergency first response as an Enforcer, and the Pits never bothered with repairs. You either survived the battle and healed on your own, or you offlined.

--I've found something.--

Sunstreaker turns his helm as sensors seek Dino. --You?--

A moment of silence passes between them. Dino's position lights up on Sunstreaker's HUD.

--There was a time when Hound was like a brother to me,-- comes the soft reply, a strange glyph accompanying the admission.

He has no response for that and falls into silence instead. Sunstreaker gestures to his human accompaniment and works his way through the underbrush to where Dino waits. The red mech is crouching over something, his own team of humans arrayed around him.

Sunstreaker can't help but feel like this is overkill for one sad Decepticon.

“What is it?” Sunstreaker questions, careful to keep his vocals no louder than the barest minimum.

Dino gestures, and Sunstreaker sees it, the splatter of energon on the ground, sludgy though it might be. One of their earlier shots must’ve scored.

“I'm surprised he's capable of motion,” Dino admits and frowns as he drags one finger through the sludge, as if testing the consistency. “He has to be running on reserves alone.”

Sunstreaker inclines his helm. “Which way, do you think?”

Dino pushes to his pedes. His optics scan the underbrush, concentration evident on his faceplate.

“East. There's a ravine. Suitable cover.”

“Our detectors are malfunctioning,” offers one of their human soldiers. “We can’t really say.”

“We don't need your equipment anyway. We've been tracking and fighting ‘Cons before your kind crawled out of that organic soup,” Sunstreaker mutters and rises to his own full height.

Dino tosses him a look that in some universes would be considered chastising. If Sunstreaker cared.

--You could hide your disdain a little better.--

--What's the point?-- It takes effort to restrain his sneer. --They don't like me any more than I like them.--

--We're allies.--

Contempt rises in Sunstreaker's field before he can tamp it down. --By whose definition? Certainly not mine.-- He moves forward, taking point. --Allies wouldn't have left Hound to his fate.--

Allies wouldn't intend to send Hound to rust and rot at the bottom of some ocean. He deserves better than that. He deserves to live. If anyone should’ve taken that shot, it should’ve been Sunstreaker!

--Ratchet is the one who left,-- Dino cuts in, and his tone is icy. --I don't see you blaming him.--

Sunstreaker doesn’t even bother glaring.

--Maybe Ratchet had the right idea,-- he says, but it’s more to himself.

A hand on his arm draws Sunstreaker up short, and Dino's optics cycle down.

--What do you mean?--

Even through the comm, Sunstreaker can feel the chill. But he’s spent far too much time with Prowl to be intimidated by a frosty demeanor.

--Exactly what it sounds like.-- Sunstreaker removes Dino's hand as politely as he can given the situation. Which is better than Dino deserves.

--Ratchet abandoned us,-- the red mech bites out.

Sunstreaker can’t stop himself. --Is that what you think?--

An expression crosses Dino's faceplate, one that Sunstreaker hasn't seen before. They've stopped walking, attracting the attention of their human companions. But clearly, this is something Dino's been wanting to say for a long time.

“It's what I know,” Dino snarls, thankfully in Cybertronian. “He took off with the ‘Cons and left us to our fate. He betrayed all of us.”

“Ratchet did what he had to do,” Sunstreaker retorts, though he can't claim to know what their medic was thinking. He can guess, considering what he's witnessed here, but he can't presume to know.

“And Hound died because of him!” Pure rage slaps Sunstreaker in the face, so thick in Dino's voice that it crackles his vocalizer. “If he'd been here, we could’ve saved him. But he wasn't because he's a selfish fragger who doesn't care about anyone but himself.”

Dino whirls on a heel, stalking into the forest ahead of Sunstreaker and the humans, half of whom scramble to follow. It's for the better, Sunstreaker thinks, because he honestly has no response to that. He can't defend Ratchet, not without betraying his own interests to someone who would turn him in.

“Sunstreaker?”

One of the humans, he hasn't bothered to learn their names, looks up at him. There’s a mixture of confusion and suspicion.

“He’s just being difficult,” Sunstreaker snaps and flicks his hand in the direction Dino had gone. “We've got a ‘Con to catch. Snap to it.”

They grumble about that, but at least they listen, and Sunstreaker brings up the rear. Hunting this Decepticon now holds little appeal for him. He'll let Dino and the humans do what they must, and he'll offer himself as back up if needed.

Nothing more, nothing less.

****

Chapter Text

“What are you brooding about?”

Sunstreaker looks up from his polishing cloth, finding that Sides has tracked him down to the edge of the base.

“I don't brood,” Sunstreaker retorts, bending back to the task at hand.

“You’re worse than a human teenager,” his brother counters, but he adds a grin and plops down. “Don't you have anything better to do?”

Sunstreaker tries and fails not to dignify that with a response.

“Don't you?”

“Touché, brother.” He nudges Sunstreaker with an elbow. “Come on. Let's talk about your feelings.”

He twists away, irritated by his twin’s blasé attitude. “Sideswipe, go away. I'm not in the mood.”

That earns him a chuckle.

“When are you ever in the mood?”

Sunstreaker doesn’t glare. But it’s a near thing.

“Is there something I can help you with?” he questions instead.

Sides just tilts his head and tries to scoot closer. “Can't I just want to commune with my little brother?”

He looks at Sideswipe. The glitch is giving him a big smile, the kind that has always hidden the mischief beneath.

“No,” Sunstreaker says and leaves it at that.

He turns his attention to his finish, which is suffering from lack of proper supplies and care. Not that there's much he can do about it. Whatever he had left was on their shuttle, burned to ashes, and the humans don't bother giving their Autobot allies anything useful.

Hound would’ve managed to scrounge something up for him though. Using whatever weird mystical powers he possessed to always find stuff when nobody else could. Then, Hound would’ve taken his merry, sweet and wonderful time helping Sunstreaker apply it. Thoroughly embarrassing Prowl in the process.

Good times.

“You've gotten meaner,” Sides interrupts and promptly shatters Sunstreaker’s more pleasant recollections.

“And you've gotten stupider,” the golden twin retorts.

But Sides only laughs. “Primus, Sunny!”

“Don't call me that.”

Despite himself, amusement curls within Sunstreaker. This at least is familiar. Pointless banter that to anyone else sounds cruel but has always been the norm for them.

“Sunbeam? Sunflower? Earth has a lot of yellow things.” Sideswipe pokes at his leg, finger winnowing between two pieces of armor in something like a caress. “Cheese?”

At this, Sunstreaker swings his gaze back to his twin. “Cheese?”

“What?” His brother shrugs in such a human way. “It's yellow.”

Sunstreaker shakes his head. “Don't you have work to do?”

“I'm on standby.” Sides waves a lazy hand. “We picked up two signals, but one was so weak that Mearing thinks it's a glitch in the system.”

Something a lot like loathing jitters through Sunstreaker's spark. “Mearing, hmm?” he comments and looks away. “Funny how it's up to her now, isn't it?”

Sideswipe shifts. “It's their planet.”

“So I'm told. And since leaving isn't an option for us, thanks to our Prime's decree, we have no choice but to obey every one of the human's whims,” Sunstreaker says, and yes, his tone is as thick with as much derision as he can fit into each syllable.

“And you think you have a better idea?” his brother returns with his own sort of mockery.

“Of course, I do.” Sunstreaker tucks away his polishing cloth, rising to his pedes and looking down at his twin. “We should have gone with Prowl.”

He expects the burst of surprise in Sideswipe's field. He is stunned by the undercurrent of anger that charges it as well.

“We can't just leave, Sunstreaker,” Sideswipe retorts, and he must be irritated, since he didn't use that stupid nickname. “We took a vow, pledged our sparks to the Autobots.”

“No, not to the Autobots,” Sunstreaker corrects, and his memory circuits fire as he tries not to think of what Hound would say to that.

Sideswipe jumps up. His field is a swirl of emotions around him.

“To Optimus Prime.” He jabs out a finger. “They're one and the same.”

“They are not!” Sunstreaker hisses, flinging out a hand in denial. Disgust rises to the core, bubbling up within him. “That mech, that empty shell, is not Optimus Prime!”

A palm slams against his shoulder, knocking him back, anger splashing across Sideswipe's faceplate.

“Shut the frag up!” he snarls, and there's something in his vocals that isn't quite anger, but something else. Something both of them had vowed to never embrace again. “You wanna get us slagged saying that?”

Sunstreaker's optics cycle wide. This damn planet! Since when did his twin become that kind of coward?

“That's the mech we serve?” Sunstreaker demands, his vocals dropping in volume but not intensity. “That's the mech you want to continue serving? The one who’d sooner slag us for a war that's supposed to be over?”

Sides lets out a sound like a cry.

“He's our Prime!”

“Since when has that ever mattered to you and me?” he grabs Sideswipe's arm, jerking his twin closer. “We chose Prime of our own free will. Which means we can walk away if we want.”

Sideswipe vibrates beneath his arm. His field is a discordant mishmash of emotions; his frame is tense as though preparing for battle.

“If it was that easy, don't you think I’d have left sooner?”

“Ratchet did,” Sunstreaker whispers, and he softens his tone, if only because their argument is probably drawing attention. “Prowl did. And we can, too.”

“You mean, you can. You've just been waiting for the moment to leave,” his twin snarls, spitting the words at him. “What I can't understand is why you're still here, you slagger.”

Sunstreaker snaps. He isn’t Prowl, so self-contained. He isn’t Hound, calm and bright even in the darkness. He’s only Sunstreaker. Flawed. Weak. Grieving.

His fist slams against his brother's face. Harder than they’ve hit each other in a long, long time. Since they were alone save for the other. Since they were desperate for anything to survive.

He drives Sideswipe backward. Pain explodes in his spark with tangible force, though no attack accompanies it. Words rise up and crackle in his vocalizer, crowding in on themselves.

Sideswipe gives him a look. Surprise colliding with betrayal as he swipes energon from his lip. Sunstreaker's punch has even dented his cheek plating.

“I'm not going to explain,” Sunstreaker hisses, his vocals a soft rustle between them. “It's pointless to try. Not when I shouldn't have to!”

Silence stretches then, too heavy and expectant. His brother’s frame heaves with the force of his ventilations, field stretched taut.

“I don't know who you are anymore,” Sideswipe says, and he backs up a pace, hands forming fists at his side. “And I'm not sure I want to.”

His twin whirls on a pede, the clamped armor of his back as unfamiliar to Sunstreaker as their animosity. He watches Sideswipe leave and has no words to say.

He wonders if is this how it began. So long ago, the rift between Optimus and his brother? The disagreement that spawned a war?

Is he Optimus, or is he Megatron? Is he the unreasonable or the uncaring?

When it comes down to it, will he have to leave his brother behind? Is he even capable of doing so?

“Is everything all right?”

Sunstreaker startles, and his sensors scream at him. He jerks around to find Prime standing there, staring at him. And how the frag hadn't he noticed him there? How had he missed that vile field?

“Sunstreaker?”

Odd, that's almost concern he hears in Prime's vocals.

“Fine,” Sunstreaker grits out, resisting the urge to roll backward, put much needed space between them. “We just… Brothers quarrel. You know how it is.”

“Mm. So I do.” Prime’s lipplates curl up, like a half-afted attempt at a smile that loses steam partway through. “Nothing serious, I hope?”

Sunstreaker's plating rattles.

“No. Just… sorting a few things out with our fists.”

Not quite a lie. Not the truth either. Prowl would see it for what it was. Hound, too. Prime could’ve once upon a time. But no longer.

Sunstreaker rolls his shoulder at the weight of realization, and he stares at Prime, wondering why he’s even here.

“I'm certain Sideswipe is happy you've returned,” Prime says, and he almost sounds sincere, halfway to reassuring. “He has lost so much that it must be difficult to accept what he has gained.”

“We didn't lose Ratchet,” Sunstreaker retorts before he can stop himself. “He left, and so did Prowl.”

No expression. No reaction. No twitch. Not even a flare of that glitched energy field. Sunstreaker has no words for the blankness in his Prime except to highlight all over again how fragging creepy it is.

“It is unfortunate,” Prime comments, and his gaze is distant. “I do not understand how they could be led astray. Perhaps they’ve only been strangers all along.”

Sunstreaker slides a pace backward; Prime doesn't notice.

“We're all strangers here.”

“For now, yes.” Prime scratches at his chestplate, and his optics slide back toward Sunstreaker again. “But perhaps with time, we can know each other again.”

Fear slithers into Sunstreaker's spark, whether he approves of it or not. He stops backtracking, frame tense, fighting down every rise of his defensive protocols.

“Time, yes,” Sunstreaker agrees, and his ventilations are stuttering. “That's probably what Sideswipe needs. Which is fortunate since I'm due for a patrol now.”

“Of course.” Prime offers something that might’ve been a smile. Once. “We all know how Director Mearing feels about tardiness.”

Since really, Director Mearing's opinion is the one that matters most to Sunstreaker? Maybe they should start calling her Prime?

Sunstreaker dips his helm in something that could be construed as a polite bow and excuses himself. It probably looks like he's escaping from a distance, but Sunstreaker can't be bothered to care anymore.

He looks back once, to see Prime standing where Sunstreaker left him, gazing into the distance and once more scratching at his chestplate. His fingers are digging into the minute gaps in his armor plating, as though trying to get at some obnoxious pest beneath. But his face betrays nothing of discomfort. It's blank.

Sunstreaker shudders.

Prowl better figure out how to get them off this planet soon. If he doesn't, none of them will live long enough to figure out why their Prime has gone completely bonkers.

o0o0o



“Tell me about Hound.”

The words float to Sunstreaker through the thin walls of his prison. He frowns, stirring from his lassitude.

“Sideswipe?”

He honestly hasn't spoken to his twin since their last argument and had since then fragged off Mearing somehow. In a way, he's gotten used to the time he spends in solitary. It's fractionally better than what he spends outside of it, being watched by unknown forces and fearing for his safety.

“Yeah, it's me, you fragger.” Sides raps against the side of the shipping container, and the sound echoes in Sunstreaker's audials. “Tell me about Hound.”

Sunstreaker tilts his helm back and off-lines his optics. “What the frag? You've been ignoring me for weeks, and now, you come out with this slag? Why in the Pit do you wanna know?”

“Because I asked.” Sides sounds frustrated, and there's a dull thunk and vibration behind Sunstreaker. As though his twin has sat down against the crate, his back to Sunstreaker's. “The humans aren't here. I dismissed them.”

Sunstreaker frowns.

“Weird, isn't it?” Sides continues, his tone quieting until only Sunstreaker can hear it but only just. “Mearing trusts me to follow her rules. But not you. And yet, we're kind of the same mech. Or at least we used to be.”

“She's trusts you because you obey her,” Sunstreaker shoots back. And yes, there's a great deal of disgust in his tone.

Sideswipe's fingers rap against the side of the crate again, an annoying cadence. “Yeah, well, I kind of like my limbs intact. Same as my spark.” There’s a shuffling sound. “So. Tell me about Hound.”

Sunstreaker lets out a gust of air. “What's the point?”

“I want to understand, Sunny. I want to know why you're more loyal to Prowl than your own twin.”

Sunstreaker cycles another ventilation.

“Sunny?”

“Don't call me that.”

It's dark in here. Dark and too hot and too small, and strange, how it's the closest thing to feeling like home that Sunstreaker has right now. To being back on their ship. He can almost imagine Hound curled next to him as they lie on a single berth. Can almost feel the hum of Prowl’s field that’s always so close by in such a small place.

“Tell me about Prowl, Sunny.”

That fragging glitch. A thousand vorns and he never changes. For all the differences, he's still the same annoying little glitch.

“Why don't you tell me where you were before you landed here?” Sunstreaker counters because Sides hasn't talked about that either. “Where've you been in the vorns since we abandoned Cybertron?”

There’s a thunk then. Like a head against the container.

“It's not a happy story.”

Understatement.

“Yeah, well, neither is mine.”

Sideswipe's elbow knocks against the shipping container.

“Don't give me that slag. At least you still have Prowl. At least he's still alive.”

Sunstreaker feels his fingers curl.

“Until your precious Prime hunts him down and kills him.”

“Primus, Sunstreaker! Will you shut up with that kind of talk already?”

No. No, he won't. There's a point, Sunstreaker realizes, when he's made his decision and he must have passed it. He doesn't care anymore. He hates this place. He hates Optimus Prime, and since he can't have Hound back, he at least wants Prowl. He at least wants his world to make sense.

And if he's lost his brother in the great expanse that is the war and their separation, Sunstreaker supposes he'll have to deal with that when the time comes.

“It's the truth,” Sunstreaker replies. “It's what I really think.”

Sideswipe's sigh is just loud enough for Sunstreaker to hear it. “Are you trying to get us killed?”

Sunstreaker is tired then. So very tired. Aching. Bleeding out.

“With the way you're behaving, I'm the only one in danger,” he mutters.

“You honestly think I'd stand by and watch if they tried to kill you?”

Sunstreaker lets his silence speak for itself. He isn't sure what to think when it comes to Sideswipe. Not anymore.

“Sunny...”

He dips his helm, drags his legs up as much as he can manage, draping his arms over them.

“I'm not going to apologize,” Sunstreaker replies. “And I can't give you the answers you want. You'll have to figure them out for yourself.”

There's a dull thunk. As though Sideswipe's knocked his helm back against the wall of the shipping crate again.

“You're my brother,” Sides says, as if that's all that is supposed to matter anymore, and maybe it is. “I'll see if I can convince Mearing to let you out sooner.”

Sunstreaker hears the scrabble of Sideswipe climbing to his pedes, metal clanging against metal as he fruitlessly brushes grit from his armor.

From Sideswipe, that's as close to an apology as Sunstreaker is going to get.

o0o0o


The sirens split the afternoon at the same instant Sunstreaker's personal comm blares an alert at him. He exchanges a glance with his brother before they turn in tandem for central command. That sound can only mean one thing: new arrivals.

The last three had been Decepticons, shot out of the sky before they could hope to touch land. At least, Sunstreaker hopes they were 'Con. There's never been enough wreckage to verify, and Mearing is unwilling to take chances. That Prime doesn't argue otherwise leaves Sunstreaker's tanks rolling.

“I'm betting Autobot this time,” Sideswipe says, scrubbing a hand down his faceplate. “We could use the reinforcements.”

Reinforcements? For what?

Sunstreaker shakes his head. Sideswipe's clinging to a war that's supposed to be over, if only to provide justification for all the truths he's ignoring. And everyone says that Sunstreaker's the crazy one. Slag. At least, he's not delusional.

“Is there a ‘Con horde on Earth that no one's told me about?” Sunstreaker asks, falling in line beside his brother.

Sideswipe tosses him a confused look. “What do you mean?”

“What do you think we need reinforcements for?” Sunstreaker tosses back and makes a broad gesture to what is beyond their base. “Last time I checked, there were less than two dozen ‘Cons in hiding on Earth. And they aren't what I'd call a challenge.”

“There are other Decepticons out there. They could find a way through our defenses, just like that rotary last week,” Sideswipe points out, and he swings his gaze forward, focusing on the modified warehouse ahead of them. “And Megatron's come back from the dead once. I don't trust that slagger not to stay dead.”

There is a yearning in Sideswipe's vocals. One Sunstreaker recognizes because it used to infect his own. Though Sides yearns for something different. He wants battle, true battle, a battle that makes sense. Not these half-afted, clean-up, human-given tasks.

Meanwhile, Sunstreaker longs for something else. He longs for peace. He wishes for Hound. He wishes for Prowl to have stayed.

No. He wishes he’d gone with Prowl and forced Sideswipe to come with him if necessary.

How had it come to this, he wonders? Sides has become the one who thirsts for energon, and Sunstreaker wants to sink into peace and quiet?

It has to be this planet. Something he thinks with a disgusted look at the dirt that streaks his pedes and creeps under his armor. Something here is infecting them, turning Prime mad and his brother stupid. Has to be.

“Or maybe,” Sideswipe says, and suddenly, his tone is carefully neutral. “They found Ratchet and the others.”

Sunstreaker's spark spins cold. “As careful as they've been, I doubt it,” he counters. “Especially now that Prowl's with them. He's too smart to be caught.”

Sideswipe huffs. “You put too much faith in him. I can't believe how quickly you forgot how much of an aft he is.” His brother puts on a burst of speed, preceding him into the warehouse.

Something like a sigh ticks through Sunstreaker's ventilation system. Yeah, Prowl has always been an aft. An even worse one all those centuries ago. But mechs change. Sides just hadn't been there to see it. Just like Sunstreaker can't understand the difference in his twin either.

Dino slides into the command center ahead of him, making Sunstreaker the last to arrive. Now, he stands at the back of a crowd, all gazing at the massive monitor.

“Autobots, incoming arrivals have been detected.” Prime gestures toward the screen.

“The question remains, Prime,” Mearing states, her voice grating on Sunstreaker's audials. “Friend or foe?”

Leadfoot shuffles his pedes with a grunt. “We're waiting on the readings to ping back. Ten seconds at the most. Plenty of time for you to prep your defenses.”

Sunstreaker's internals clench. He stares at the screen, where the new arrival’s vector shows itself in a glowing streak that beeps as it passes certain sensors. There are three of them, protoform shells by the look of it. How had these mechs traveled? By ship?

In front, Sideswipe and the Wreckers are exchanging high grade chips as they bet on the outcome of the scans. Sides and Roadbuster claim Autobot, Leadfoot says Decepticon, and Topspin thinks they are a mix. After all, he says, isn't Ratchet with ‘Cons now?

That comment gets a hushed silence, a stolen glance at an oblivious Prime, and a slap upside the helm from Leadfoot. The designation Ratchet is all but forbidden around here. At least, when not spoken as an enemy. Prowl soon will bear that stigma.

Dino is silent, arms folded across his chestplate, the armor on his back twitching. He is the one Sunstreaker understands the least. He had known Hound, even before the war, and Sunstreaker had yet to see him display a single trickle of regret for Hound's fate. Anger, yes. But not at the right people.

This planet is cursed. Truly, that can be the only explanation. Which means he needs to get his aft off as soon as possible before it infects him, too.

Three tones echo in rapid succession. Scans are complete.

“Autobot!” the human technician announces. “We've got Autobots incoming, Director Mearing.”

Roadbuster and Sides slap their palms together in congratulations, demanding their payment from the others.

Prime inclines his helm. “Understood. Expected landing coordinates?”

“They must’ve detected our signal prior to entering the atmosphere. They should hit the river,” the technician answers.

“Do we have any indication of identity?” Mearing asks, and her high heel is digging into the metal grating.

“No, Director.”

They could be anyone. Autobot and Decepticon alike had scattered across the universe once Prime ejected the Allspark. It’s impossible to guess identities, which is why Mearing has been taking no chances.

How many have they lost already?

Sunstreaker turns and wheels out the door, knowing the others will follow to greet the new arrivals.

How many Autobots have they shot down, Autobots who may have been broadcasting Decepticon for any number of reasons? How many peaceful ‘Cons have they destroyed? Ones who answered Prime’s call thinking they’d have mercy and salvation?

This too is probably the reason Ratchet left.

Sunstreaker skates toward the river, optics lifted to the sky where he can barely make out the falling fire of the Autobots’ arrival. There are three of them, one bigger than the others. It’s impossible to identify them at this distance, even less likely to discern frame-type.

“Anyone you know?” Sides inquires from his side.

Sunstreaker ignores him. The others are crowding around the bank of the river, too. The cheer in the mingled energy fields is a distinct uptick in the general atmosphere around base as of late. New arrivals are cause to celebrate. They are so few, so scattered. And yet, Sunstreaker can't help but wonder.

How many more will the humans allow? How many is too many? When will they draw the line? And what will Prime do when that line is set in stone?

Sunstreaker doesn't know that he can believe Prime will act in the best interest of them. He's not even sure that Prime knows what the best interest is anymore.

The minutes tick by at a crawling pace, and though the mid-afternoon sun feels good on his plating, Sunstreaker itches to go back indoors. He feels exposed out here, like waiting for an enemy to strike. Or maybe that's because the humans are gathering in droves, curious and contemptuous and not bothering to hide the way they point and stare.

Primus, he hates them. The only decent one among them is Will Lennox. Well, maybe Bumblebee's Sam, but Sunstreaker hasn't met that human yet so he'll withhold judgment.

Lennox though, he's a worthy warrior. A true definition of a brother-in-arms. Even if the current Autobots don't give him the acknowledgment he deserves.

It’s because of Lennox and only Lennox that Sunstreaker hasn't done something stupid and gotten himself and Sideswipe killed. And thanks to Lennox, Sunstreaker has already helped out Prowl and the others as much as he can.

“Why didn't you leave with him?”

Sunstreaker reboots his audials at the unexpected voice. He casts a glance all around him before looking down, not expecting a human to address him. But this human is the one who is the most at ease around them. Lennox, he remembers, had actually offered sympathy when Hound passed.

“Prowl,” Lennox clarifies when Sunstreaker doesn't say anything, not that he needs the clarification. “Even I could see you two were close. Why didn't you go with him?”

Casting a glance around, Sunstreaker confirms they’re alone. He crouches, putting himself on more even ground with the human. He balances his arms on his knees, tilting his helm as he regards Lennox. Just what is the man after?

“I wasn’t given the choice,” Sunstreaker says, choosing his words carefully. He is aware that Mearing doesn't trust him. It wouldn’t be beyond her to send someone to suss out the truth.

Can he trust Lennox?

“Bullshit.” The human snorts and folds his arms over his chest. “You stayed for a reason. I'm guessing because you wouldn't leave your brother, but you know, that's just a guess.” His face contorts, and he looks away. “There's a lot we endure for the sake of protecting others.”

Sunstreaker cycles a ventilation. His optics narrow.

“Why do you ask?”

Lennox lifts his shoulders.

“Curiosity.”

“Pitslag,” Sunstreaker retorts.

The corner of Lennox's mouth curls into a smile, and he turns his gaze back to Sunstreaker.

“You don't like being here. You don't like us. Seems to me you would’ve left when you had the chance. And you did. Have the chance, I mean.” Lennox lowers his head, giving Sunstreaker a knowing look. “Mearing got a hold of the video, but it's strange how the audio malfunctioned. Isn't it?”

Sunstreaker feels his own mouthplates twitch. Something in Lennox's tone reminds him a lot of a certain, sneaky saboteur. Or Ironhide when he was feeling particularly vindictive.

“Yes. Strange,” he agrees and tilts his head. “Is there something I can help you with, Colonel?”

“Actually, I was thinking I can help you.”

Sunstreaker turns his helm left and right, scans rising and falling around him. If only to confirm they are alone, that Lennox is not bugged, and there doesn't appear to be any electronic surveillance nearby.

“Help me,” he repeats.

“I owe a debt,” says Lennox, his tone dropping in volume, though Sunstreaker's audials and sensors pick it up just fine. “I made a promise. And even if I'm the last human on Earth who gives a damn, I'm going to keep that promise.”

It takes a tic, but Sunstreaker understands. Fully and completely

He flickers his optics in and out, relaxes his plating, and sinks a bit lower. “I'm listening.”

And Lennox looks up at him and smirks.


“Incoming!” someone shouts.

Sunstreaker's gaze snaps up, bracing himself as the three Autobots plunge through the atmosphere. They shriek through the air and plummet into the river with an earth-shaking rumble. Some of the humans aren't so quick and tumble to the ground, grumbling to themselves. Sunstreaker ignores them, shifting closer to the river with the rest of the Autobots, curious about the new arrivals. Not that it matters to him, he supposes. The only Autobots he ever liked are either dead or on this planet. There's no one else he misses. Not anymore.

They emerge from the river, streaming water down their protoforms, bare of all but the basest colors. Two of them are smaller than Sunstreaker expected, and he fights back a sneer.

Ugh, minibots. The only two of them he ever liked are Jazz and Bee. And Jazz didn't even call himself a minibot.

The third, however, is taller than Sunstreaker but far less armored and built. He's whippet thin, all long, gangly limbs and protrusions from his backplate suggest an aerial build of some kind.

There aren't many aerials in the Autobots. Sunstreaker frowns. Decepticon defector, perhaps? Like Drift?

“Welcome, Autobots,” Prime intones, stepping forward with his optics sweeping across the new arrivals. “I am Optimus Prime. Identify yourselves.”

“Autobot Cliffjumper, reporting for duty, sir!” The one in front with a rusty-red as his base color salutes. “And happy to be here.”

Sunstreaker's sneer deepens, and he sinks back, trying to stay at the back of the pack. Of all the Autobots that had to find their way here, Cliffjumper had to be one of them. Of course the little slagger would survive. He's like an Earth cockroach.

Prime chuckles. “We are happy to have you, Cliffjumper. Welcome to Earth. It is always a pleasure to greet new allies.”

“Is it true that the war is over?” the other minibot asks in a tone that's just a shade off insubordinate.

Sunstreaker zones out. Listening to them recount the entirety of the war and the explanation of why they are on Earth, blah blah blah. He’s ceased being interesting after the first retelling. Any details he needs are in the data packet anyway. Besides, he needs to make himself scarce before Cliffjumper figures out who he is and starts trouble.

After all, he can't keep in contact with the others if Mearing has him in solitary.

“And who’s at the second base?”

Second base?

Sunstreaker's gaze whips back toward the minibot before his entire frame freezes.

Cliffjumper's words attract everyone's attention. Prime, too, stills.

“Second base?” Prime repeats. “We are only located here in Chicago. What do you mean?”

Cliffjumper rolls his shoulders with a clatter of armor against armor and gestures vaguely westward. “We picked up signals further north as we came in, but they weren't your beacon, which is why we chose to land here.”

Murmuring ripples through the gathered Autobots. The soldiers also exchange knowing glances.

“The traitors,” Mearing says with a note of triumph. “We've found them.”

“They were Autobot? You are sure?” Prime questions, and there's a low growl in his engine, one that makes Sunstreaker's spark go cold.

He skates back a pace and then another, slowly backing out of the crowd and hoping no one notices.

“Translated more neutral… but Autobot in origin, yeah,” says the rotary who still hasn't identified himself, but the fact that he's only got one optic makes Sunstreaker shudder. That had been Shockwave's trademark.

“Traitors,” Cliffjumper says, his optics zeroing in on Mearing. “What do you mean by that?”

Prime gestures Cliffjumper to follow him. “You would be able to locate these signals again?”

“Of course, sir.” But the minibot suddenly looks a twinge uncertain. A first for him. “Are they actually the enemy?”

“Of a sort,” Leadfoot inserts, and there's a grating rumble of disdain from his internals. “Traitors. The worst kind of enemy. Decepticons and Autobots turned 'Con.”

Sunstreaker sneers, turning away from all of them, hands balling into fists. Prowl is not a ‘Con! And he'll sooner rust than believe that of Ratchet either. Those fools!

“Prepare your men,” Mearing is saying to Lennox, her voice obnoxiously clear above the noise and clatter of excitement. “I want all units ready to deploy as soon as possible. I want those coordinates.”

“Yes, Director.”

Sunstreaker catches the look Lennox tosses him when everyone else has started moving off. He idly wonders if anyone else notices or if the Autobots really don't bother paying Lennox any attention anymore. Maybe Bee sees, but all he cares about is Sam, and he's not talking. Sides maybe, but only because he's watching Sunstreaker so closely.

“What was that about?” he demands… or hisses rather as distance forms between Sunstreaker and the rest of the Autobots. Most of whom are following Prime and the new arrivals back to the command center.

“What?” Sunstreaker feigns ignorance.

Sideswipe skates in front of him. His wheels skid to a dead stop, forcing Sunstreaker to halt as well.

“What are you thinking?”

That he has to ask… well, it speaks volumes of the time that lays between them. Sunstreaker fears they may never bridge that gap. At least, not so long as they are here, steeped in Prime’s poison.

“I'm thinking that we've got twenty-four, maybe thirty-six hours, and one last choice to make. That's what I'm thinking,” Sunstreaker shakes his head, slipping past his brother. “Not that I need the time to decide. You're the one straddling the fence.”

“Are you trying to get us killed?” Sideswipe asks, chasing after him and reverting to Cybertronian now that he gets the picture.

The humans won't understand them, but any passing Autobot might.

Sunstreaker shrugs, spark thumping an odd rhythm in his chassis. “No, I'm trying to keep us alive.” He pauses, half-turning to look at his twin. “Are you with me or not?”

Sideswipe rocks back and forth on his wheeled pedes. His field is a mixture of bewilderment and dismay.

“You're my twin,” he says like it makes perfect sense.

It both does and doesn’t.

It’s also not an answer, Sunstreaker notices. He barely conceals his frown as he whirls back around. The base has become a flurry of activity, news spreading fast amongst the humans. Most of the Autobots have dispersed with only Leadfoot joining Prime and the new arrivals in the command center. There's a feeling in the air, an excitement mingled with dread.

It isn’t unlike the potential before battle, before war. A shiver undulates down Sunstreaker’s plating. It slithers into disgust that settles internally.

He's getting off this Primus-forsaken planet. He'll warn Prowl and the others as best he can and do his best to delay the Autobots' attack. Somewhere, in there, he can only hope that there will be an opportunity to slip away, to make his own escape.

Sideswipe's coming if Sunstreaker has to knock him out and drag him. Because he’s not staying on this planet, and he's not leaving without his brother. One way or another.

***

Chapter Text

They are fighting again. Their argument trickles down the floors to Bumblebee's audials, clear as day. Sometimes, he thinks they forget how fine his sensors are, how he has to tone them down to ensure he's not focusing on the irrelevant. He has several subroutines running constantly, just to filter out the extraneous.

Sam and Carly's voices have never been considered irrelevant. They are a comfort to him, a familiar tone in an ocean of unfamiliarity.

Bee's engine purrs, and he sinks lower on his shocks. He could shift to his root mode, but what's the point of sitting by himself, staring into the dark. He might as well conserve energy by keeping this form.

They are arguing again. Sometimes, Bee's not even sure there's a root cause. Maybe they argue for the sake of arguing.

Sam's angry, and Carly's scared, and the distance between them gets larger and larger every day. Sam's feelings of inadequacy grow, fuel to the fire, and Carly's inability to understand only worsens things.

Bee misses Mikaela. For all that she up and left them one day without answer, without explanation, that doesn't mean he's forgotten her.

But he doesn't want to compare Mikaela and Carly. It's not for him to decide who Sam should spend his life with. Mikaela was an important friend. Carly was approaching that… but maybe, not so much anymore.

The war is over, Optimus says. They should be free to build lives for themselves, enjoy peace-time. Relax and recover.

The war is over, but Ratchet’s gone. Prowl left shortly after. The war is over, and they’re still hunting down Decepticons, and Bee doesn't know who Optimus is anymore. He doesn't return to base because hearing Sam and Carly argue is still better than feeling the sheer wrongness in Optimus' field.

Bee can't explain it, and he's not even sure when it started. Not soon after the battle in Chicago maybe. Or even earlier and he just didn't notice because he spent so much time being anywhere else but there. It was only the down-time, the soft moments between one ‘Con encounter and the next, when Optimus' behavior seemed unusual.

Not so much anymore.

What had been the last straw for Ratchet? Why had he gone?

Bee remembers the last time he'd seen the medic. He'd gone in for some routine maintenance, and Ratchet had fixed the last of what was broken or needing repair. He had a new vocalizer, refurbished from a ‘Con but better than nothing. Ratchet too had acted strangely, distracted and deep in thought, but there'd been nothing to indicate his future intentions.

How much should he worry? How broken is their leader that not even Ratchet could fix him? That Ratchet felt there was no other option but to leave? To join forces with Decepticons?

How could their Prime let Hound die?

Bumblebee hadn't been there for that either. But Sideswipe told him. As it is, Sides is the only one who bothers to keep Bee updated about. He didn't even know Ratchet had absconded with a bunch of ‘Cons and Drift until Sides contacted him.

They don't let him know about new arrivals either. They don't call for him when they go all over the world to take down ‘Cons. They don't tell him about ‘Con arrivals.

At first, Bee blames himself. He extends his absences from the base, citing the need to watch over Sam. He puts distance between himself and the others because all of the empty spaces beside Optimus rattle too strongly within him. He can't look at Optimus without thinking of his hulking black shadow or the small silver form lurking in the background. He can't look at Dino without thinking of the shiny new modification courtesy of their resident inventor.

Maybe he has asked for too much distance. Maybe in giving him what he wants, he has brought this upon himself.

Ratchet is gone, and Bee hasn't a clue why, save for the niggling uncertainty he gets whenever he's within field-range of their Prime. There's an odd blankness in his optics, and the last time Optimus reached for him, Bee had skittered out from under his hand on instinct alone. He doesn't know why, only able to sit down and process his actions later.

Vile.

That's what he remembers. The vile trill in Optimus’ field had grated against his overly-sensitive scanners. He registered as Threat and Enemy, and his automatic protocols had responded as they were programmed to do. Programmed by Jazz, point of fact.

Bee had been horrified, at himself, at his Prime. His instinct had been to attack Optimus, to defend himself from a perceived threat. That horror had caused him to flee. He made the excuse of tending to Sam, while all the while alarmed by his own reaction.

Only later did he realize it wasn't a mistake. Only later, when Sides told him that Ratchet had left did it all start to make a perilous sort of sense.

There is something wrong with Optimus, and Ratchet was the first to notice. And if Ratchet can't fix it, what hope is there for the Autobots?

Prowl too has left, which is all the convincing Bee needs that Ratchet had been acting of his own accord. That Ratchet had been right. If even Prowl, ever-logical, ever-loyal, believes that their Prime is broken, then it must be true.

Bee's comm beeps. He expects to find Sideswipe's ident code attached to it and wobbles on his tires when he realizes it is Optimus instead. That he is alarmed in the first place should be a point of concern.

“Yes, sir?”

--You must return to base,-- Optimus says with no preamble, no casual conversation as used to be the norm. He doesn't ask how Bee is coping or how Sam is faring.

Once upon a time he would have.

“Sir?” He feigns confusion.

--You have been absent too long. There’s much we must discuss.--

So formal. Bee aches to hear it. Optimus' vocals are odd through the comm as it is, but they sound even more foreign to him.

“Yes, sir,” Bee replies, but his internals twitch to ask Optimus explain. However, Bee suspects the time when he could be so frank with his leader has passed. “I’ll finish my business here and be in Chicago as soon as I can. Will you be sending a replacement to guard Sam?”

--I don’t believe that the Decepticons present a threat to Samuel any longer,-- Optimus replies, vocals coming as through the end of a long tunnel. --Guardianship is no longer needed.--

Disappointment curdles within Bee, and he twitches again on his tires.

“Will I not be allowed to see Sam anymore?”

--Of course, you will. I simply meant that guarding him will no longer be our first priority.--

He sounds like Mearing. And that realization sits in Bee's tanks like lead, uncomfortable and disorientating.

“Yes, sir.”

Bee is done with this conversation as of yesterday. He's not even face to face with his Prime, and he already feels as though he's speaking to a stranger. He's half-afraid of what he will see when he returns to Chicago.

“Is there anything else?”

--No. I will tell the soldiers to look for your arrival. Optimus out.--

The comm goes dead and hisses like static. Bee closes down his end. He fights off a shiver, shaking his alt-mode as though throwing off bad vibes.

Is there no way he can avoid going to Chicago? Where's a ‘Con attack or invasion when he needs one?

Bumblebee sinks down on his tires, undercarriage bare inches from the cold cement. He wishes Ironhide were still here. His former trainer would know what to do. Of course, Hide would wrestle Optimus down and make Ratchet run scans. He'd have realized long ago that something isn't quite right.

He misses Jolt, too. Arcee. Que.

And Primus… Jazz.

Sorrow revisits. It strikes his spark in all the ways Bee has been trying to avoid since Mission City five years ago.

Jazz wouldn't have stood for this either. He would've done something, would've noticed the weird behavior sooner. He would’ve been an open audial for Bee. He would’ve fixed everything while all Bee can do is keep on hiding in Sam's basement, listening to him argue with his girlfriend.

The lift to the basement creaks and rattles as someone above activates it, riding it down to the basement where Bee stays. It won't be Carly, Bee knows, and it won't be Wheelie or Brains either. They never found the two mechlets, and he suspects they never will. Either they died in the battle and were unrecoverable, or some scavenger had picked up their frames as souvenirs.

Sometimes, Bee really hates humans. Save for one.

Sam comes into view. A blanket is slung over one shoulder, and a pillow is clutched under an arm. His hair is sticking in all directions, and dark-circles are under his eyes. He steps out of the lift. The gate rattles and clanks behind him.

“Hey, buddy,” he says with a forced smile. “Mind if I crash with you for the night?”

Bee clicks open his door in wordless offer. “I never do. Though it does seem to be getting a habit.”

“Yeah, well, it's getting mighty cold in my bed upstairs,” Sam returns, rubbing a hand over the back of his head before he climbs into Bee's the backseat.

He wriggles around, adjusting his blankets and pillow to his liking, cursing a little at the cramped space. Camaros aren't exactly built for sleeping.

“I don't mind the company,” Bee replies, turning on his heaters so that Sam doesn't catch a cold.

“We really need to move somewhere else. You staying down here isn't fair to anyone,” Sam replies, thumping his head back against the pillow once he gets comfortable. “You don't go back to base much anymore either. What's up with that?”

Bee debates. He hasn't really told his human about anything going on in Chicago. Optimus hasn't said it was classified, and he doesn't care what Mearing has to say about it, but he still hesitates.

“It's not somewhere I want to be right now.”

“Why not?”

Bumblebee cycles a ventilation, something rustling in his internals that probably requires Ratchet's attention – an impossibility.

“It is full of strangers.”

Sam folds his arms behind his head. “Why didn't you tell me there were new arrivals?”

“There aren't. Or at least, there were but aren't anymore.” Bee resigns himself. Talking to Sam is better than keeping it to himself. “Prowl and Sunstreaker and Hound arrived a year ago, but since then, Hound has died, and Prowl disappeared.”

Sam startles. “Wait. What?”

“I don't understand it myself. Ratchet and a new arrival named Drift left with some ‘Cons six months after the battle in Chicago. And now, Prowl's vanished, too.” Bee sighs, so many of his new mannerisms picked up from all his interactions with Sam.

“That's just...” He feels more than sees Sam shake his head. “Why didn't I know this?”

“I only know because of Sideswipe. Perhaps Optimus doesn't want me to know, or maybe he simply forgot to inform me.”

Sam's mouth opens and closes, his incredulous stare focused on Bee's radio. “Forgot?” he splutters. “How could Optimus Prime forget one of his own soldiers?”

“Why would Ratchet leave?” Bee asks instead, though he has his suspicions. “I don't think any of us understand Optimus anymore.”

“Bee, that's...” Sam rubs his face. “I don't even have words for that. What's going on?”

“I suspect I'll find out soon enough.” Bee's sigh echoes through his interior. “Optimus has requested that I return to base. Something has happened, though he wouldn't tell me what. I might try and comm Sideswipe later for answers.”

Sam frowns. “It's not the ‘Cons. We would have heard about that by now, if they were back.” He pauses and clutches the blankets tighter around him. “Can they come back?”

“Megatron's dead.”

Not that it stopped him before.

“So are the members of his command. I couldn't even tell you who is next in line.” Bumblebee's systems click as he adjusts his interior temperature for Sam. “I don't know who is still alive. I don't know if there are any more 'Cons out there or if they'd come here for revenge.”

He doesn't, Bee realizes, know much of anything.

“I do know that Optimus intends to protect Earth and its inhabitants. He intends to make this our new home.”

Not that they have any other options. Bee was there. His shots had done the worst damage to Sentinel’s device. He’d done it to protect Sam, and he hadn't allowed himself to consider what he was sacrificing.

Could this too be a reason for Ratchet leaving? For Prowl joining him as well?

“Bee?”

“Sorry, Sam. I was...” He trails off. Sam is an adult now, but he's still so young. “I hope that your people can accept us, allow us to build a new home.”

Sam pats the seat, his favorite way to show affection. “I'm sure they will, Bee. You deserve it.” He snuggles down, obviously intending to sleep. “Can I come with you?”

If only…

“I don't think that's a good idea. Mearing won't like it, and Optimus...” Bee bites back a frustrated huff of his vents. “I wouldn’t trust your safety there.”

“Who do you think would hurt me?”

Bumblebee lapses into silence. He doesn't know how to answer that question. He doesn't know how to admit that he can't trust his own kind or even Sam's. What does it mean that he feels he can't trust anyone, save Sam?

“Bee?”

He cycles a ventilation. “I don't know. Circumstances have changed. The world has changed. I can't account for anything anymore.”

Sam’s fingers are soft on his seat. Tracing a circle.

“I trust that you'll protect me.”

Fatigue washes over and through Bumblebee, fatigue that has nothing to do with physical exertion.

“And I don't trust that I'll be allowed to,” Bee murmurs.

He can feel Sam go rigid, tense with fear. “What does that even mean?”

“I wish I knew.” Bee tries to project a calm he doesn't feel. Humans can't sense fields, but Sam used to say that he could feel something when he's around Bee. “I'd be happier if you stayed here. It's better all around.”

“Yeah, I think so, too.” Sam sighs. “Is there anything I can do to help? I mean, I know I'm just the messenger.” He can't quite hide the bitterness in his tone. Those taunts had struck deep for all that Sam tries to forget them.

“No. Thanks for the offer.”

“Anytime, Bee. You're the best friend a guy like me could have ever had.” Hints of a smile curl Sam's lips.

A brief surge of happiness dances through Bumblebee's spark at the admission. He’d stay here forever if Sam – and Optimus – would let him. Stay and be loved like he never quite has been before.

“You too, Sam,” he whispers and dims his interior lights. “Sleep well.”

It’s all the permission Sam needs. The young man makes a murmur of agreement, burrowing deeper into the blankets. Whatever is going on between he and Carly is clearly not a matter he wishes to discuss. At this point, Bee isn’t certain it’s something that can be fixed anyway. Carly isn’t Mikaela, after all. She’s soft where the other was hard. Fragile where the other was strong.

Not that it mattered in the end.

He often wonders how different Sam's life would have been had the Allspark and the Cybertronians not entered into it. Would he be happier? Would Earth be a happier place?

Where would their species be if Bee hadn't tracked the Allspark to this planet? Would they still be battling the Decepticons endlessly?

Is this the better end?

“Sam?”

“Yeah?”

There’s a sleepy quality to the boy's voice now. He really is about to doze off. Bee debates whether or not he wants to actually bother him, but no time like the present. Human lives are so short...

“Do you ever regret getting into the car?”

Sam sits up like a bolt of lightning. “What the hell kind of question is that?”

Bee ventilates a burst of warm air into his interior. “A valid one. Your life has been nothing but tumultuous since we crashed into it.”

Sam throws the blanket over his head and burrows into Bumblebee's backseat, as though purposefully tickling his interior.

“Yeah, you guys have been trouble from day one. Nearly got me killed a couple times. I even died once. Lost a girlfriend, maybe two. Can't find a job. My parents are more paranoid than usual. Yeah, you've made my life difficult as hell.”

Sam breathes in and out, a steadying sound. One hand slips out from beneath the blanket to pat Bumblebee's door.

“But I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. It's been crazy, but it's been worth it.”

A tension Bee didn't realize he was carrying eases out of his shocks. He relaxes fully on his tires, spark tremors quieting.

“Thank you, Sam. I think I needed to hear that.”

“Something wrong?” His words are muffled through the blanket, but the concern in his tone is genuine.

“Nothing I can put into words.”

Nothing Sam would understand. Sam can't make this decision for him.

Sam's hand disappears back under the blanket, and Bee cycles a few more bursts of heat into his interior. It gets freezing down here in the basement.

“Hey, Bee? What about you? Ever regret meeting the spastic kid with overprotective parents?”

A chuckle vibrates through his systems. “No.” Bee sobers his emotions, relaxing his sensors. “I regret the pain we’ve caused you and your planet. But I do not regret coming here.”

“Well, at least we have each other then,” Sam says, and his breathing starts to even. His voice drifts away into the night. “That's something.”

Yes, Bee agrees. That is something indeed.

He sets his scanners to minimal warning and puts most of his systems on standby, including his comms. Only an emergency would come through.

I am sorry, Ratchet. I can't join you yet.

He is Sam's guardian, after all, and Bumblebee won't abandon that task. There’s little he has left to cling to anymore, and Bee can't abandon what he still has. For now, he will stay with Sam.

Sixty, seventy years in the future… well, he can make that decision then.

***

Chapter Text

Days pass. Weeks. Then months.

The Ark starts to take shape as a legitimate mode of transportation. It's less a hulk of mismatched wreckage and more a vessel with sleek lines, room to move, storage space. Bit by bit, so do the powerful engines that'll take them away from this organic rock and an increasingly dangerous Prime.

Little by little, things change.

Skywarp and Wheeljack wander around together, laughing and joking and teasing Ratchet. Sometimes, Tracks tags along.

Prowl and Thundercracker keep making googly optics at each other when they think no one's looking. Dreadwing watches them both with amusement and exasperation intermingled.

Astrotrain stays on the moon, and everyone's glad for it. He's a mood-killer, and he refuses to mesh with their cadre, and yes, that's what they're calling each other now. Not military unit or family but cadre. A collection of mechs with the same goals, an affinity for one another, and a driving temperament to protect that which they consider sacred.

The hatchlings.

That they are bigger doesn't mean Drift's any more inclined to hold one. He still doesn't trust himself. And they are definitely growing faster and faster. Most can't fit into the makeshift tanks anymore, having to be moved to containers the size of above-ground pools. There's hardly room to move around the medbarn now.

They are settling into their colors, more or less. Drift asked Ratchet once why they even have colors to begin with, and the medic had said that he doesn't really know. It's some kind of strange phenomena. Logically, they should all remain a protoform-grey, but they don't. Like the protoform itself begins to develop a personality even without a spark. Curious.

Drift spends a lot of time watching human television because he doesn't know a thing about engineering or medical repairs and because he can't take down Astrotrain without killing the triple-changer, which is counter-productive. Human programming is tedious and processor-numbing but necessary. Lennox's contact is sporadic, but the news networks can be relied on to inform them of incoming Cybertronians and their subsequent destruction by the Autobots.

It makes Drift tanks churn, but there's nothing they can do. They can't intercept the arrivals, and they can't risk revealing themselves by trying to contact them beforehand.

He also on occasion has a long range patrol. It's a huge circuit around the farm, looking for anything out of place that might indicate someone is watching them. While they have a sensor grid and cameras directly around the Lennox farm, it's a good idea to see threats coming, too.

Prowl has no issue in being overly cautious. There’s a lot at stake.

What little time Drift has left after monitor duty and patrols, he spends in the medbarn. Assisting Ratchet and attempting to convince the medic to rest or recharge or refuel. Sometimes, he succeeds. Sometimes, he doesn't. But he tries.

All in all, there's a routine with the occasional hiccup thrown in to really make Prowl twitch. For the most part, however, they all know what they’re supposed to be doing and act accordingly. They diligently work on the Ark, the engineers sometimes going without fuel and recharge, depressingly aware of the razor’s edge of danger they walk.

Astrotrain is annoying and snide but tolerable. Drift is glad that he doesn't have to spend much time on the moon.

Not that endlessly circling the countryside is any more fun.

He returns from a daily patrol, the sun setting on a damp spring day. Their ramshackle base looks even more derelict in the dying light. At least the dilapidation is a form of cover in itself. No one would expect the collection of run-down barns and a farmhouse to hide a small group of sentient, alien beings.

Points to Lennox for the brilliant idea.

Drift tries in vain to brush the road grit from his armor, but it's pointless. He'll need to run through the Jackhammer's washrack when Wheeljack and Skywarp get back. That's the only thing that will get all this Earth dust out of his gears.

He heads into the medbarn, surprised that no one's sitting at the monitors in the main area. Who's supposed to be on shift right now?

Drift consults the schedule that Prowl posts for their convenience. Ah, it's Prowl himself. He must have the images streaming directly to his processor then. With his kind of tactical processing, he can handle that data easily.

The rest of them? Not so much.

The medbay itself is very much occupied, however. Rarely is its owner not present, and only when Drift can convince him to take a step outside and ventilate fresh air. Well, fresher. With all the pollen and toxins and organic elements floating around in the atmosphere, they can hardly classify the air as clean or fresh. But it is better than the stuffiness in the barn.

A small crash echoes from behind the partition separating the medbay from the rest of the barn. Drift raises an orbital ridge as he approaches. It can't be Skywarp this time; he's up on the Ark.

“No! This one goes here, that one goes there. Pay attention!” Ratchet snaps, words carrying easily through the close quarters.

“Sorry, sorry,” chirps a tinier voice, one Drift does not recognize and speaks with the cadence of machine-code.

Who...?

Drift pads to the opening, steps silent as always, and peers into Ratchet's domain. He sees the medic first, pointing at a row of crates with their lids peeled off. These crates are the extent of their medical supplies, meager though they are. Most important, however, is the mech scampering across the floor, hip-height to Ratchet and arms loaded down with cleaned spare parts.

“A hatchling?” Drift blurts out, his optics locked on the smaller figure.

The hatchling is not fully-formed. Otherwise, it would be taller, closer to Drift's height since the wheels and spoiler identify it as a grounder. Its protoform plating is a dark maroon with gray highlights, and its optics are Decepticon-red, like all the other hatchlings.

“How did you spark it?”

Ratchet's helm snaps up, his optics brightening. “I didn't,” he growls and takes an aborted step forward before falling back a pace, sliding a palm down his face. “He's a drone. He's running a sophisticated AI, mind you, but he's not sparked.”

“Done!” the little hatchling chirps, dumping the armful of parts into one of the crates. “Next?”

Drift finds himself without words as Ratchet lowers his hand and gives the hatchling-drone another series of instructions, this time pointing to a nearby plastic container of mismatched parts and assorted tools. They are all in need of sorting and a good scrubbing, something that is sure to keep the drone occupied for a while.

“I think that I'm going to need more of an explanation than that,” Drift says as he watches the hatchling plop itself on the floor and start digging into the container.

Ratchet shakes his helm and redirects his attention to another hatchling that's lying on the medberth. This too is a grounder, protoform in garish shades of red, orange, and yellow.

“They're getting too big for the growth pools,” Ratchet says as Drift steps up beside him, though he lowers his vocals as though preventing the hatchling from hearing him. “The Seekers have been ready to incept for a week now. They finish their maturation outside the tank, you know. I don't dare take them out of stasis. Even with an advanced AI, they'd malfunction.”

Drift frowns, leaning his hip against the end of the berth as he watches Ratchet tend to the unconscious hatchling. “Are you going to online them all?”

“I don't know.” Ratchet cycles a ventilation. “Red over there is a test, to see how his systems would integrate the AI I designed. I'm a medic, not a programmer. I all but crossed my fingers as I booted up his systems.”

Drift turns his attention back to the hatchling. He watches as Red sorts the assorted parts into different carts.

“How sentient is he?”

“He's only been online for a couple of hours,” Ratchet admits. “As you can see, he does talk, which indicates an element of comprehension that I attribute to the AI. He'll react to stimulus – pleasure and pain – but complicated thought patterns are beyond him, and he has no emotions.”

“Is that better than stasis?”

It makes Drift wonder, what really is the line between themselves and machines. Is it the spark itself? Or are they all supremely complicated AIs?

“I don't know.” Ratchet's tone is oddly soft, contemplative. “I suppose we will find out.” He plugs a datapad into the hatchling on the berth, the screen filling with gibberish only a medic would understand.

“Do you plan to wake him, too?” Drift questions.

“Maybe. We'll see how Red handles it first.” Ratchet dips his helm toward the sorting drone, who appears cheerful to Drift, even if he isn't truly emotive. “At least if they’re operating AIs, they’ll know enough to run should the situation call for it.”

He has a point.

“Have you given up on sparking them?”

“I don't see any other choice. I don't have any answers or options.” Ratchet huffs, fingers tapping over the datapad's screen. “Maybe if Perceptor were here, if I could see his research for myself. Maybe we'd have a chance. Without it or him, it's hopeless.”

Drift turns away, optics scanning the ten other hatchlings, quietly recharging in their nutrient baths, helpless and patient. They are all that remains of Cybertron's future. Drift can't believe that the Allspark was their only avenue. It can't have always existed, can it?

“Didn't Skywarp have an idea about spark-splitting?” he ventures softly

“Ha!” Rat