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The Kidnapping

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 Radishes

-

The Kidnapping

 

Chapter Four: Polyhex, Part 2

 

Surely, Ricochet thought, surely there was a good explanation for this. An epic misunderstanding, a daring rescue of the prince from a villain… or something. Anything. But the lack of windows, the grim warframe next to him, and the heavy steel door...all of it made him feel faint.

He was standing in a prison.

The silence in the room stretched, and Ricochet couldn't formulate his jumbling, skittering thoughts into a meaningful sentence that was able to even partially encompass what he was feeling. One implication after another fell into place, of Polyhex, the war and the Grand Duke he has sworn his loyalty and life to. This new picture of his home and its people brutally shattered his naïve expectations and hurt deeply.

Eventually, he straightened, refusing to let his shock and spark aches rule him forever. This was a secret, a wrong-doing done by those he was loyal to and it was something he was now part of. There was a reason, he realised bitterly, that third heirs learned about ethics, and first heirs about law, while it was always the second heirs that dealt with the ugly reality. It was their duty after all, and he knew his as well as he knew his own spark.

A heavy weight settled on his shoulders as he resolved to deal with this. Somehow.

He turned to Colonel Riptide; however, the huge warframe's attention seemed to be completely captured by the youngling within the berth. He could only guess at the Colonel's expression behind visor and facemask, but the sharp tension between his black shoulder parts made Ricochet hesitate.

Colonel Riptide sighed slightly and moved forward into the room. "Come," he ordered and Ricochet followed.

His pedes sank deeply into the expensive carpet, and the small table next to the berth was of exquisite detail, just like everything else within the room. Yet the furniture was bolted to the ground, the only glimpse of the outside were the grand paintings at the wall and all the golden, polished surfaces were empty of anything but their own reflections.

They stopped right next to the berth, less than touching distance from Smokescreen. In another place, it would have been a crude breach of protocol to dare to stand above a first heir of a Grand Duke, but here… Ricochet gulped hard.

Despite them being so near, the royal youngling hadn't even twitched. Powerlessly, Prince Smokescreen was slumbering on like a prince in the fairy tales of Ricochet's youth. For a short moment, his thoughts flashed to Jazz, who was just the same size, just the same…

Automatically, he stretched his hand out to the prince, to touch - to reassure - to know, if this was merely a deep recharge… or worse.

His wrist was caught by Colonel Riptide with a movement Ricochet had barely seen.

"Lord Smokescreen will not wake up," rumbled the warframe next to him. "Not yet, at least."

"Why?" Ricochet couldn't help but ask. "Is the Prince drugged?"

"He was," said the Colonel and released his hand.

"Ah." He suddenly felt even worse.

The warframe's visor lightened up for a moment and as the Colonel spoke, he sounded quite wry, "It wasn't us, who drugged him, Lord Ricochet. It was his brother."

"Colonel Riptide, surely you jest! You can't mean the very same brother, who is right now apparently waging an entire war to get him back?" asked Ricochet with utter disbelief.

"The very same."

All of this, Ricochet thought with despair, made no sense and yet mechs were dying because of it. Why? Where was the justice? What was the reason for all this madness?! With a snarl, he whirled around. Darkly satisfied, he saw how the Colonel nearly took a step back, and this only made him lean more forward:

"Colonel, you claimed I'm Prince Smokescreen's handler."

"You are."

"Then tell me what in the thrice cursed pit is going on here? I have a right to know, why my Duchy saw it fit to apparently kidnap the first heir of Praxus! This," he gestured to the prince, "is insanity!"

Colonel Riptide didn't move, and Ricochet had just enough time to remember where he was and who he was with and wonder if this had been an intelligent move. Then he heard a low chuckle.

"Lord Mirage warned me that you have a good spark."

"Mirage," said Ricochet flatly. He didn't want to believe, that his wonderful friend could be involved… but he clearly was. The realisation was as bitter as Rust Belt energon.

"Lord Mirage to you," came the instant rebuke, "I was told Prince Smokescreen suffered a near fatal bondshock after the murder of his creators, the Lord Grand Dukes of Praxus. He healed slowly and Prince Prowl choose to prolong his coma, probably as an attempt to be able there for him when his brother awakes."

Ricochet absolutely didn't approve of drugging one's own little brother... but he could understand it, in a way. It was a horrible, in many ways despicable, act, but it had happened out of love and, maybe, desperation. "So, Prince Prowl did indeed drug him."

"Yes. Grand Duke Straxus saw an opportunity and ordered the kidnapping of the first heir of Praxus. Our medics decided to let him naturally wake up, instead of risking introducing drugs to a weakened frame they have no experience with."

Ricochet vented deeply. And then did it again, just to be able to accept the belief-shattering meaning of these blows disguised as words. "Colonel, please tell me I'm wrong: Polyhex started this whole war by kidnapping the only living family and heir of a mech who conquered an entire duchy through sheer bloody force and thinks that major public executions are great public entertainment. And, oh, just happens to have a fanatically loyal army, which is right now marching towards this capital." He grabbed his helmet with both hands, as he realised the sheer stupidity of this. "Primus! In what way was this an opportunity?"

The black warframe turned away from him and said in a very final tone, "It is not my place to question, my Lord. And neither is it yours."

The urge to kick something hard was strong. "Of course."

He glanced at the recharging youngling, who hadn't a single inkling that he was far from home and safety. Bondshock… Old, bonded mechs were supposed to suffer from it, not younglings with their entire life still before them.

The angle of Prince Smokescreen's doorwings, which were splayed beneath him, looked uncomfortable, but then Ricochet was no expert in doorwings and all things Praxians… maybe it wasn't. He sighed as he realised the sheer scale of his new task.

"Why me?" Ricochet asked quietly. "Handler is just a glorified word for younglingsitter, isn't it? There must be dozens of mechs better suited than I."

He wished the visor would not hide all emotions as Colonel Riptide looked at him for a long time. "Less than you suspect."

"Right." If Ricochet sounded sceptical, he couldn't care less.

"It is true, Lord Ricochet. The ideal mech needs to be able to fight as this is still a prison, but should not be a warframe so the Prince can emotionally relax easier. They need to be of a warm and positive spark, ideally with experience in caring for younglings. They shouldn't be involved with any other secrets or shadow operations as our goal is to return Prince Smokescreen alive. Above all, they need to be trustworthy beyond any doubt," the Colonel said. "You fulfil all these requirements."

"… I do?"

"You do." There was a finality in these words. "Few mechs come with the recommendation of House Morgana."

"I see." He didn't. Not really. He really needed to speak with Mirage as soon as possible. "When will the Prince wake up?"

"The healers estimate tomorrow."

"…Understood," he said and thought that poor little Smokescreen really didn't deserve all of this. "I need to go to House Morgana to… gather my things, but I will return in a few joors and then stay until he wakes." He paused and then added, "He shouldn't wake alone."

"He shouldn't," agreed Colonel Riptide quietly, with a surprising softness in the words. It made Ricochet wonder if maybe the warframe was more disquieted by the whole affair than he had let on.

~

"Mirage!" he yelled, when he stormed through the door into his friend's rooms. More than a few disapproving optics had landed upon him as he ran through the hallways of the mansion, yet his ire proved to be stronger than any ingrained notion of how a noble should behave.

At first glance, the by now familiar rooms, decorated with an exquisite taste towards straight lines and true artistic skill, seemed utterly empty. Cogs wirring, he came to a sudden stop, unsure of how to proceed, when he noticed the small, curled up form of a mech.

Mirage was sitting on a giant, dark purple pillow right next to the window, with his helmet pressed against the pane and optics focused on something far within the gardens. With the knees beneath his chin, and two steaming cubes of energon sitting right next to him on a copper plate that shone golden in the evening sun, the scene seemed to capture 'peaceful melancholy' perfectly.

Quietly he closed the door behind himself, and walked towards the pillow across from Mirage. It was the same size and colour, and Ricochet knew Mirage too well to believe that this wasn't deliberate. It was a sign, but of what, he didn't know.

He settled on the pillow cross-legged. "We need to talk."

Mirage sighed and slowly unfurled. "We do," he answered softly. When he met Ricochet's optics, there was an unfamiliar heaviness in the blue depths. "Please take the teagon and – "

"And listen to your excuses?" he challenged.

Mirage slightly frowned. "It's only teagon and good manners."

Right. As much as he liked Mirage, sometimes he had a thing for etiquette Ricochet could barely understand. Yet, he could appreciate any fine drink, and so he leaned forward and took the cube, an action immediately mirrored by Mirage.

The teagon was nearly too hot in his hand, though he ignored it. "Do you know what I saw today? Do you?"

Mirage looked through the steam towards him. "Yes."

The simple answer sparked anger and disbelief. "Really?! I saw the first heir of Praxus as a prisoner within the palace! He's not even awake!" A few drops of hot teagon splashed upon his hand and he gritted his denta.

Mirage handed him a small serviette. "Last I heard he will wake soon."

"Tomorrow." He took the serviette and cleaned his hand carefully, glad that he could use the distraction to calm himself.

A tiny nod. "And you…?"

"I will be there, of course. I am not a mech who leaves a youngling alone and in danger, as you very well know. Not even if he's the enemy." Mirage gave a tiny nod of acknowledgement as they both remembered very well the orn they met. "Prince Smokescreen shouldn't be a prisoner, but he is. I shouldn't be his handler, but I am. And we, I am guessing, shouldn't be at war, but we are. Mirage, what is happening?"

Mirage sighed and took a sip of the still far too hot teagon. It must have burned him. "A succinct description of the situation, one you should take care not to speak outside of my rooms. I admit, though, that I have dreaded this moment."

"So, you knew that I would not just accept these outrageous secrets and did it all anyway?"

"Yes." The word rang in the silent room like a chiming silver bell.

Ricochet felt his spark constrict. "You better have some good reason then."

"A noble's life is ruled by our birthing order and the duty it gives us," said Mirage quietly. "A first heir isn't so different from a second heir in the end. You give your spark to protect land and House with the sword, we give ours to obey, command and lead." He paused. "The duty that fell upon me, were the commands of my Lord, the Grand Duke of Polyhex. Even now I obey, no matter how distasteful, because it is my duty, and because out of love to my House."

Ricochet wanted to say that he didn't understand that, but he did. It was simply not done to not obey your Grand Duke, your Lord who you House swore loyalty to, such a road led to chaos and decay, as Praxus as shown. Besides this was what defined a noble, and gave them the right to command the commoners – that they had their duties and obeyed as well. The only one who never hand to bow and kneel was the Primus-blessed Prime himself.

Still… "House Morgana is involved in this far more deeply than other Houses and you can't tell me they are not willing. And what about me, why add me to the Green Guard, a secret prison guard?"

For a moment, Ricochet thought Mirage was avoiding his optics, then he realised that the first heir was looking down at the mere handspan between their knees, a distance that in noble circles was too close for mere friends. Mirage's gaze lingered a lot longer than was appropriate, and then it climbed higher and higher until the optics once again rested on Ricochet's face.

"Ah, you… I was selfish." Mirage smiled, but it was tinged with bitterness. "So very selfish. I just wanted to keep you here and there were few ways to do this. The Green Guard will never go to the frontlines, and when the Grand Duke asked for an experienced handler that has had proven his trust, I put forward your designation."

Ricochet put both of his trembling hands around the warm cube of teagon, trying to comprehend what Mirage had just said. "Experienced and proven?", he repeated. "Mirage, that isn't me, I'm new to all of this... Primus in your sparks, Mirage, you lied to our Lord, so I wouldn't have to go to war?"

He should have been appalled, yet, the thought that Mirage had gone so far for him left him strangely breathless and warm.

Mirage gently shook his helmet. "Lying is such a strong word. I heavily implied that you have helped my House with secrets in the past, that is all."

"I have done no such thing."

"My creators and I are aware, but besides us..." He made a small handwave underlining the word us. "Truth is a very malleable thing, prone to change and twists."

The warmth evaporated abruptly. "It shouldn't be!" Ricochet snapped. "Truth isn't something to simply bend to your liking. How can I even know you tell me the truth now if you hold such views?"

Mirage's grip around the teagon became steely, the only sign of the anger he was surely feeling. Then, suddenly he broke his posture, slumped into the seated and sighed. "I guess I should have expected this. Your ire is a righteous one." Ricochet met this sentence with only silence. "Very well, I have no desire to be a liar in your optics. From now on, there shall be only truth between you and I until we depart into Primus' hands. This I swear on my House, honour and everything I am."

Ricochet was thrown for a moment. Such a lifetime vow was not easily given, especially not by mechs of such high ranking as Mirage was. It was the stuff of romantic legends and epic tales, not of shady deals and secrets.

"I accept the vow," he said slowly, feeling like a small boat in the grip of an emotional ocean. "And I return it, on my House, honour, and everything I am."

For a moment Mirage seemed surprised, then he smiled genuinely. "Thank you."

Ricochet simply nodded. "I haven't ever given you less than the truth."

"I know," admitted Mirage.

Around them, the shadows between the golden light of the evening sun grew deeper and longer.

"This is not a simple or easy story. Many are involved and few know all of it. But to understand it all, I suppose you first need to understand my House," began Mirage. "House Morgana is descended from the House of Polyhex and due to a surprising love match an ancestor of mine acquired a legendary Talent that made us feared above all and, in the same turn, the perfect weapon."

Ricochet sipped the now drinkable teagon. It was Magnus Grey, Mirage's favourite teagon. "So? That was generations ago."

"My ancestors never officially gave up their right to the throne, but were simply deemed unsuitable to the obvious Talent. After all, as you know, true nobles have no Talents as their very existence is above and beyond the normal peasants." Mirage looked towards him. "Yet, legally, every single heir of House Morgana is a potential heir to the Grand Duke of Polyhex."

The teagon suddenly blocked his throat and Ricochet had to cough. "What?" he finally managed to say.

"You can imagine that this made House Polyhex always more than merely wary of House Morgana… It has kept us on a short leash." Mirage looked to the outside sky which had turned from golden to red. "The problem has been made worse by the fact that many of us have inherited the legendary Talent of invisibility."

Ricochet had to raise an optic ridge. "My dear Mirage, you are not in all seriousness claiming you can make yourself invisible!"

Mirage smiled. And then vanished.

Dumbfounded, the second heir stared at where Mirage had just been sitting. Upon a closer look, the steam from the teagon was still visible… but the cube and Mirage weren't. Curious, with a beating spark, he leaned forward, hand outstretched.

Something very gently, softly touched his hand. He flinched back, looking at his hand, then up to a Mirage who had appeared again. Just what… oh. His optics found the alluring, still smiling lips of Mirage and he blushed.

"Well," he said, hiding his hand within the other one and trying to ignore his spinning spark. "I am convinced."

"Mirror has the same talent," Mirage said. "He said he tried to hide from you after you rescued him, but then you looked so concerned, that he reappeared."

"Oh." He blinked, completely surprised. "I had thought that I just overlooked him in the shadows."

"Not quite."

"As I now know." Ricochet didn't bother to hide his amazement. "This is a stunning Talent. I have heard of many, but few display something of such power!"

Mirage nodded. "That is very much true. Though… sometimes it feels more like a curse, as such a talent has many uses and precious few of them good."

Concern sneaked into Ricochet's spark, followed by realisation. "Please, don't tell me…"

"I am," was the short, clipped answer. "I swore to tell you nothing but the truth after all, Ricochet." For a short moment, there was something like regret on his face. "Over the years, House Morgana became the favourite secret weapon of Polyhex. Many suspect of our existence, but few know for certain. Our service and loyalty is traditionally the payment that the Grand Dukes of Polyhex let our House prosper beyond reason, even though we are a possible existential danger to them. But should we step out of line…" Mirage shuttered his optics. "As I said, it is a short leash."

The teagon in his hand felt suddenly like the only warm thing left in the room. "The security in the mansion…"

"Is mostly loyal to the Grand Duke."

"And the wealth…?"

"We live like the Grand Duke does in his palace, don't we?" Mirage shrugged. "I guess, it is to take away the incentive to try a coup over the mere aspect of wealth. House Polyhex fears but needs us in equal measures."

Ricochet only stared. "Have you ever tried a coup…?"

"Not as far as I know," admitted Mirage. "But… the Grand Duke's fears are not baseless. While Morgana prospered with more and more heirs, House Polyhex has withered. Grand Duke Straxus has no heir, and he knows that he isn't a very good Lord. There were voices in my House demanding a more… let's say proactive approach. But then Praxus happened and we saw what a civil war might mean. We don't want this happening here, not now, not ever." Mirage vented deeply. "But that means that we remain loyal and follow orders without questioning, even if they are dishonourable in every aspect."

And suddenly Ricochet understood. "So, it was you who…"

"Yes." Mirage hesitated and added nearly as a whisper, "I led the extraction team." He looked down at his hand, and it turned slowly invisible. "I am not sure how much my creator tried to dissuade him. I know the matter was hotly debated on the advisory board, that's all."

"The Colonel said they saw an opportunity."

"That is probably true. Polyhex is in a rather weak position with the Warlords to the north and a new war-like Praxus in the south, especially because the Warlords seem to respect this new Praxus very much. Just look at Vos, already they are flying on Praxus' side again… If the gamble had worked and Praxus had been as weak as it seemed, they could have forced it to ally with Polyhex instead of its traditional ally Vos, or worse, the Warlords in the north."

Ricochet emptied the cup, feeling sickened and unexplainably sad. "That gamble is lost."

"Indeed." Mirage sighed and for a moment both their thoughts went to the warframes and second heirs that in this very moment were fighting and dying on battlefields not that far away.

"But what about you, Ricochet," said the first heir eventually, "Will you forgive me my machinations and deeds? I can't force you, but if there is hope…" His words trailed off with a tremble.

Ricochet looked at Mirage, the beautiful mech steeped in shadows, strong and dangerous to his enemies but sweet and vulnerable whenever they were alone.

In this very moment, he could walk away without looking back and Mirage wouldn't raise a hand. He would collect his weapons and join his warframes on the battlefields where he should always have been and fight there while pretending that his stay here had never happened. Afterwards, he could return home and simply live his life.

Or he could stay and accept the secrets and power plays, while being close to Mirage and experiencing wherever that fragile, precious thing between them would lead him.

Ricochet smiled as he realised that it wasn't really a choice at all. Deep down, he had always been the mech to take a risk and this, this was the right moment. He leaned forward and kissed a wide-opticed Mirage on the crown of his helmet.

"My friend," he said quietly, "I understand, there is no need to forgive anything."

He wanted to lean backwards again, but Mirage's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Ricochet," he said and it was enough to make his spark flutter. "I hope that after this, you might want to… continue the winding path of where our current relationship is leading us."

The second heir looked wonderingly into his blue, oh so blue optics. "You are not talking about friendship."

"I am very much not," admitted Mirage. "And if you feel differently about this, you can always leave this House… and me, without any repercussions. I do not want you to think that I would force you to anything."

If Ricochet hadn't known Mirage already so very well, he wouldn't have head it – the slight waver of choked up emotion inside the educated, polished voice at the word 'leave'. It let him draw nearer, until he heard Mirage's vents flutter.

"I do not want to leave," he said quietly and raised cupped Mirage's face with his hand. "May I?"

Mirage huffed with suppressed laughter and put his hand on the other's hip. "You may," he said and pulled him closer even closer, until Ricochet was nearly straddling him.

Ricochet closed the space between them, and finally, as if by magic, they were kissing in the golden evening sun.

~

"You are here again," Colonel Riptide greeted Ricochet the following morning.

"Where else should I be, Colonel?" answered Ricochet innocently, as if he didn't know that the soldiers probably had bets on him running. "Has the Prince woken up yet?"

"Stirring, but still sleeping." The Colonel opened the door. "The medics and we will stay in the hallway. He is expected to wake in the next few joors."

"Thank you." What else was there to say after all? Ricochet entered the room and pulled a chair next to the berth. The Prince, Smokescreen, was still recharging deeply, looking just as innocent as he was. No one would guess that he was the indirect cause of his brother tearing up the land, razing city after city.

Ricochet had prepared for the wait and pulled a datapad with a nice adventure novel out of his subspace. The novel had everything he liked, a hero, villains, magic and a plot that ended in a heroic deed. Thankfully it didn't include a Prince or worse, someone ranking Noblesse du primus. He probably wouldn't have been able to stand it in the face of the very real youngling next to him.

A few times Smokescreen moved, once even muttered something, but it was always a false alarm. When again there was the tiniest of movements, Ricochet nearly missed that Smokescreen's optics had onlined. A very sleepy youngling was blinking rapidly, and slowly focusing on his face.

Hastily, Ricochet put his novel away and tried to look as friendly as possible. "Ah, good morning, Prince Smokescreen. How are you feeling?"

The youngling stared at him, then said, "Tired."

"That is normal," Ricochet said, hoping that it was. Why hadn't he stopped one of the medics? "You have slept for quite a long time."

"Huh." Smokescreen looked at him, and Ricochet could make out the very moment the youngling started to remember. With panicked optics, he looked around and struggled to sit up. "My creators! Sire, Carrier… Where are they? I can't feel them!"

Ricochet felt his spark breaking a little bit and he sighed. "Prince Smokescreen," he began and tried to find words that would be gentler but failed. "I am sorry to tell you that your creators have both died. My condolences."

Smokescreen froze. Ricochet expected to be screamed at that he was lying, but the youngling only started to tremble. "I was with Carrier. He… he acted strange."

Ricochet nodded. "I have heard one of them was poisoned."

Smokescreen trembled harder, until his doorwings were nearly vibrating. His hands were fisted into the blanket. "And Sire?"

Suddenly Ricochet remembered that the murderer had been close to the family. But he couldn't remember who or why, and so he decided to give the Prince the only thing he knew for sure. "…The assassin killed him with a dagger."

That did it, the little one started crying hard. Ricochet slowly moved forward. "May I hug you?" he asked. "I know I'm a stranger, but... it might help."

After a short hesitation, Smokescreen nodded and nearly threw himself into the waiting arms of Ricochet who started petting his doorwings without a word. What could he say, after all, without making it worse? Even neutral condolences seemed presumptuous in his position as a jailer.

They sat a felt eternity, until Smokescreen managed to calm enough to ask: "Prowl?"

"Ah. He is alive and I assume well." Ricochet tried to smile, but it wasn't exactly calming to realise that the Ice Prince would probably kill him just for touching his little brother.

Smokescreen nodded slowly, then looked up with a frown. "…you don't know?" For the first time, he really looked at Ricochet and suddenly tried to get a bit of distance between them. The second heir let the youngling disentangle himself from the hug. "You are not Praxian."

"No, I am not." Ricochet tried to smile anyway. "I am Polyhexian and you are in Polyhex."

Smokescreen looked dumbfounded. "Why?"

A deep sigh. "As I said, you have slept for quite a long time and many things have happened," Ricochet explained. "After the death of your creators, Praxus went to war with itself. Your brother was a very busy mech and my Lord decided that you would be better kept here than in a warzone."

If he had hoped that the youngling wouldn't immediately get his meaning, that hope was in vain. Smokescreen scrambled to get away from him, doorwings flat on his back and nearly screeched: "Are you saying that you have abducted me?!"

"Well…" Ricochet had to avoid the accusing gaze. "Let's just say you are an honoured guest here in the meanwhile."

Silence fell between them and Smokescreen looked around, obviously searching for an escape. When he saw only the heavy door, he became even smaller. "For how long?"

"Not very long," Ricochet answered truthfully. "Your brother is trying to get you back."

Smokescreen's doorwings went up minimally. "He is?"

"Yes, little one. After all, he loves you very much."

~

"News from the frontlines: The Praxian army has further advanced to the north and was only stopped by destroying all northern bridges over the Mirjam Canyon. Contact to the villages Trevax and Locon have been lost. Grand Duke Straxus is sending new troops…"

~

Smokescreen was an easy youngling to like, Ricochet found, despite the circumstances. They both soon realised that they enjoyed lessons and so Ricochet tried to visit every orn with something new to teach. They switched from math to economics just as easily as from music to a fighting move. The first time Ricochet taught him how to throw a proper punch, a medic stormed into the room and held a lecture about 'safe behaviour'. Both Ricochet and Smokescreen broke into laughter the moment the medic left.

"They are really worried about me," said Smokescreen with a smile. "Worse than Hoist!"

"Hoist?" asked Ricochet with curiosity.

"Our family medic…" Smokescreen suddenly smiled. "He sometimes gave me sweets behind my creators' back and said I'm very clever!" A dark thought extinguished his happiness quite suddenly. "Do you know what happened to him?"

"No, I'm sorry." And by Primus, he was. He really wished he could give the youngling true positive news, but as it was all he could do was shelter him from the worst. "But if he worked in the Palace, he should still be there. It wasn't touched."

"I hope so." The youngling looked forlorn. "Did Prowl catch those who killed our creators?"

"… yes," said Ricochet, remembering the executions that had been streamed across the globe. "Yes, he caught them all."

Smokescreen looked up at him, optics full of trust that Ricochet was sure he didn't deserve. "Who were they?"

He sighed. "Many of the nobles, I do not know all their names. It was a conspiracy, which is why Praxus fell into a civil war." He was aware that there had been more of the House of Praxus involved on the other side, but the names escaped him and maybe they hadn't been close. It was probably a foolish hope, but then they had murdered each other.

Smokescreen nodded silently, accepting the answer and for that Ricochet was thankful.

~

"News from the frontlines: Despite massive fortification, the Praxian army has crossed the Mirjam Canyon. Vosian bombardments have critically weakened our defense lines. Lord Straxus is negotiating with the Winglord of Vos…"

~

The Praxian Prince tried to escape twice. Those were the ugly orns and Smokescreen didn't speak with him after he was dragged back by the warframes. The next orn, they both pretended again that all this was somehow normal.

~

"You know," Prince Smokescreen suddenly said out of the blue, "Prowl never wanted to be a soldier."

A bit surprised, Ricochet looked up from his book. "He didn't?"

"No. Carrier always said that Prowl was born too intelligent for his lot in life and that he is too easily bored." Smokescreen nodded seriously. "Which is why -"

Ricochet now turned all his attention to his small charge. "Why what?"

"Can't tell," Smokescreen mumbled. "Prowl wouldn't be happy that I tell anyone."

Secrets? Well, it didn't sound like a bad one. "I am sure your brother didn't do something too scandalous."

"Prowl? Never! He is the boring one!" The little Praxian grinned. "Brazen though is- … was a different story. They didn't think I was noticing, but he came home drunk often!"

"Well," chuckled Ricochet, "sounds like Prowl and Brazen were quite different."

"Yes! Everyone liked Brazen, while Prowl… well, he is always busy with something else." Smokescreen shrugged. "But I think Brazen was a tiny bit jealous of Prowl."

"He was?" That was rare, a first heir jealous of a second heir.

"Yes… Prowl just does what he wants, while Brazen had to stay around, because he was the first heir." Smokescreen's doorwings twitched. "Not that Prowl doesn't work hard at his university, but… he is just better at complicated things than Brazen and just doesn't notice it. He is too busy reading."

Ricochet was unsure how to comment on that. It sounded like Brazen had been the nice, social mech, while Prowl had been the hidden genius without a spark. Pity, that the rest of Cybertron had realised far too late who was the more dangerous one.

"Interesting," he said finally. "I do not think my big brother is jealous of me, but have I ever told you about my younger one? His name is Jazz, and I am sure you would like him…"

~

"News from the frontlines: The rearguard battles are not going very well. Lord Straxus has ordered several companies back to our capital as it appears that Prince Prowl is determined to conquer Polyhex. On his direct path to the capital, he has even ignored several economically very lucrative cities such as Geryhex."

~

During the second decaorn, Ricochet arrived at the same time as always, but Colonel Riptide stepped into his path. "Please wait."

Behind the black warframe, the door to Ricochet's small apartment was closed. "Why?"

"Lord Straxus has deigned to visit the Prince," said the warframe, voice so carefully neutral, it was nearly lifeless. "They have been talking for a joor now."

Ricochet nodded and a small tendril of worry sneaked around his spark. "Do you know about what?"

"No."

They both said nothing more. They knew the war was going badly for Polyhex, so whatever had driven Lord Straxus to visit the youngling now was probably of significance. Maybe, Ricochet suddenly hoped, a deal had been finally struck, then the war would be over, Smokescreen could go home and well, he himself could spend more time with Mirage. The thought of such a future made him nearly smile.

He missed spending more time with the other noble. These orns Ricochet was so busy, that they barely had half a joor each orn and always, it would be Mirage waiting for him. He was feeling slightly guilty.

As time passed, he started twitching and the worry returned. Finally, he stood and looked at the Colonel: "I will knock and ask if they need anything."

That the warframe only made a step aside was more than proof that Ricochet wasn't alone with his bad feeling. Surely, a Grand Duke hadn't that much to speak about with a youngling he was holding prisoner?

He knocked at the heavy door, quite sure that on the other side they wouldn't be able to hear him, then he opened it and stepped into the apartment, the door immediately closing behind him. The door to the berth room was open a bit and he heard the words:

"- ashamed of being related to such a being. He has turned into a monster through the act of killing all in the House of Praxus for power and now he is seeking more," said a hard, vicious voice.

"…Prowl wouldn't," he heard a sob.

"He did. He killed all the others of your House. Your uncle, your cousins, and many other nobles besides. He forced the entirety of Praxus on its knees and now invaded Polyhex and is leaving entire cities for dead! I even heard he tortured that murderer of your creators personally, what was his designation again? Yellowpoint?"

Another sob. "Stripe. Ye – Yellow…"

"Ah, yes. Tortured him in the dungeon and then personally executed him in front of hundreds of witnesses. Your brother is quite fond of public executions nowadays."

Ricochet listened to these words with horror. That was not how Smokescreen should have gotten this knowledge! He steeled his determination and walked to the open door and knocked on its frame.

On the berth sat Lord Straxus himself, and in front of him stood a distraught Smokescreen, tears running down his face.

"My Lord," Ricochet bowed. "It's an honour to see you here."

"Ah, I've heard of you." The Grand Duke stood up with a smirk. "You're his caretaker."

"Yes. It is time for the morning fuel of the youngling. I apologize profoundly if I have disturbed your conversation."

"No, no," The Lord walked towards him and through the door. "I have already informed Prince Smokescreen of all he has missed. I think a warm meal might be now just what he needs."

"I do my best to provide it, my Lord." He bowed again, and waited until the heavy prison door fell closed behind the Grand Duke. Then he hurried to Smokescreen and tried to hug him, just for the youngling to bat his arms away.

"Smokescreen…," he said quietly.

"He lied. He must have lied!" sobbed the little Praxian. "Prowl would never execute Yellowstripe! He loved him most! A-and he wouldn't kill Uncle Vapor and all the others, he wouldn't… Please tell me he lied."

Ricochet looked down at the crying youngling and sighed. "I cannot. I am sorry." He touched Smokescreen's shoulder. "But I am sure your brother loves you."

"…but…"

"I know. Come here." He opened his arms wide, and after a long, long klick Smokescreen fell into the embrace. He carried him back to the berth, and settled upon it with the crying bundle. "Shh," he whispered. "Everything will be well."

Smokescreen only shuddered and cried harder.

~

"News from the frontlines: The armies are advancing on Polyhex…"

~

A mere two orns later, they were playing a word game on the floor when an explosion outside made the stones vibrate. Ricochet frowned, knowing full well that the frontline had moved closer to the capital in the last few days, but it shouldn't be yet that close, at least that had been assumed.

"What was that?" asked Smokescreen.

"I do not know," he answered. "But I will be staying here with you, until the Colonel gives us a signal that it is safe."

Smokescreen hesitated for a moment, playing around with the little white stone in front of him. "… but what if it is Prowl?"

Ricochet tried to smile, even though he didn't feel like smiling at all. "Then you can go home, and until then we are quite safe here."

A tiny nod and for a moment they waited both in silence, hearing nothing. But then, that they had even heard something the first time, was more a testimony of the size of the explosion than of anything else.

"I don't know what to say to Prowl," confessed Smokescreen and curled into a ball. "I guess I should be happy that he is searching for me. You say he loves me."

"He does." He moved forward and rubbed the littles one's horns. "What big brother couldn't love you?"

"But Lord Straxus has said… has said," a dry sob, "… he just wants to eliminate all the heirs…" Smokescreen hid his helmet between his knees.

"Oh Smokey. I am sure that isn't true." Another explosion shook the apartment, louder and nearer, but Ricochet only had optics for his charge. "There is no need to be afraid. There isn't anyone who would hurt you."

He heard the door swing open behind him and smiled reassuringly at Smokescreen. The little one's optics widened and, suddenly alarmed, he whirled around.

Behind him stood a warframe, huge and with doorwings at the back.

Ricochet opened his mouth, maybe to say something, maybe to scream, while he was standing up, his hand already moving to his subspace – but a sudden piercing pain made him freeze and look down…

The world tilted, became a vortex of colours to be consumed by the rushing darkness.

The last thing he saw was Smokescreen's horrified face.