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The Kidnapping

Chapter Text

 

Radishes

-

The Kidnapping

 

Prologue

 

The silence engulfing Praxus was deep, heavy and filled with the kind of anticipation that was the twin of dread.

The guards in the hallways of the Palaise stood alert, holding their weapons in experienced servos, paint chipped off the fingers in joor long trainings. Their red optics darted into the deep shadows surrounding them, pooling within corners and beneath furniture, rising to the ceiling and covering it.

The silence was absolute and nothing moved.

One young guard in the hospital wing spread his doorwings, but received no additional data. He frowned and made a step forward, opening his mouth. After all, didn’t his two cohort mates that did their duty just around the corner always whisper with each other? Joking and laughing, flirting even as their fellow warframes turned away in near embarrassment?

He opened his mouth and all that came out was an odd, soft blubbering sound. White-opticed, his hand went to his throat, feeling wet – wet – wetness, the world was tilting, tumbling, falling…

Two arms caught him, gently settling him on the ground. Fearful, he looked into the stranger’s face, but the warframe was already turning away, disappearing until all that remained was another shadow in the night.

Oh, so silent.

A door opened and closed and an empty room wasn’t as empty anymore. A place that hadn't seen anything but sober expressions and sad sighs for 16 vorns was now witnessing five mechs appear, where none had been before.

None of them sounded the alarm as they walked over to the berth, past the softly peeping machines that were more part of the chorus of silence than interrupting it, the lowly lit screens that depicted vital functions and were the proof that they had found what they sought. Past it all, they marched towards the small frame on the berth, which didn't even twitch as they neared.

"Is that him, One?" asked one shadow, finally shattering the silence with a near casual disregard.

"Yes, this is the one we were sent for," was the calm answer, the disapproval of the needless question clear in every word. "Five, what is his condition?"

One of them stepped aside to examine the screens. "Stable. Better than our reports indicated even."

"Very good. Three and Four, take care of the equipment and any other security you might find."

Two of the shadows drifted over, looking at the machines, then carefully opening their ports and hacking them with advanced equipment and more advanced augmentations. They were fast, very fast, considering the circumstances and where they were.

"Hack complete," one of them announced monotonously.

His partner added with a hint of worry, "We have only two breems until the next check-in."

"We expected tight security," said One and carefully touched the small frame on the berth. He smiled. "Well, Prince Smokescreen, it seems we will get acquainted despite the strong objections of your brother."

They bundled up the prince in a blanket, securing him with straps they had brought. Then the leader put the bundle on his own back and went to the window, carefully opening it. "Ready?"

"Ready, One."

"Activate cloaking."

The shadows vanished, taking what wasn't theirs to take.

The silence remained behind, whispering furiously of blood on the floor, death in the shadows, and an empty berth where hope once recharged.

Chapter Text

Radishes

-

The Kidnapping

 

 

Chapter One: Praxus

 

Prowl had believed that it was over. The only ones remaining of Vapor and his family were Greymist and Bluestreak, the former having rejected any right to inherit, the latter too young to matter yet. The warframes of the rebellion had scattered and were hunted down by his own soldiers, capturing them – or in the case of high-ranking officers executing them.

Just two decaorns ago, he finally had the traitor General Quake in front of him - unrepentant, proud, and with a dignity that permeated every single one of his bolts and turned even the shackles on his wrists into irrelevant adornments.

Instead of executing him like the other nobles, he had let his Warlords decide Quake's fate. Admittedly, he had expected the sentence to be death, but not quite that Quake would be duelling his own soldiers until he fell.

“It’s an old tradition,” his new General Warpath had explained, “Shows respect that he can die on his own two pedes.”

“He is a traitor,” Prowl pointed out.

But Warpath shook his helmet. “Quake isn’t like the others. He had different loyalties and simply followed his Field Marshal. He’s still a good soldier.”

Prowl had been silent then, for a long moment. “And yet all of you voted to kill him.”

His General shrugged. “War is war. You either live or you die.”

It had been a bloody, long drawn-out slaughter that would have made him sick to his tanks vorns ago, and now only left a feeling of distaste. Each fight held more desperation, more struggle and blood than the previous one and yet not a single warframe hesitated to step into the ring, to fall to the General’s blade, until eventually Quake himself succumbed, surrounded by the corpses of his own friends and soldiers.

Determined to not show any feelings, holding his spark with into a cold embrace, Prowl had watched it all, reminding himself that soon all this would be over.

That he had won and soon would be able to return to Smokescreen’s side with the promise of having created safety for them both and never leaving him again. He would be able to go home, even if said home was an empty, silent shell of itself right now.

In retrospect, he should have known that his dreams and hopes would be dashed.

“Repeat that, Sergeant,” Prowl commanded flatly.

The poor sergeant in front of him gulped, but did as he was told: “The guard around Prince Smokescreen has failed. Unknown assailants have broken into the Palace, slaughtered eight warframes and kidnapped the Prince.”

Prowl’s spark clenched and it was only the experience of the battlefields over the past 16 vorns that let him hide the spiking panic. “How could this happen? Vapor and his heirs failed two times, how could they succeed now?”

The sergeant looked down. “Ah… I assume they thought the major danger has passed and became more relaxed…”

Prowl’s optics narrowed. “I see,” he said, the frost of the coldest corners of space in his voice. “Captain Quickstrike, anything to add?”

The warframe flinched. “No. My orders to Prince Smokescreen’s Guard haven’t changed in the last vorn.”

Of course not. Dark rage bubbled within Prowl’s spark, but knew that the present mechs were the wrong targets. “I will deal with the responsible soldiers after mopping up their mess. Don’t think this is forgotten.” He looked away from the sergeant that tried very hard to become invisible towards his two loyal Warlords, who had waited on the side.

“Airlord Skydive, send out several patrols, maybe they can find something. Coordinate everything with the brigade in Praxus.” The flier’s wings flicked lowly and straight outwards – the military sign for ‘Order acknowledged’.

“Captain Quickstrike, inform everyone on the Warcouncil of the development and that they have six joors to come here.” He paused, thoughts barely racing ahead of his fears, “And tell Major-General Blueshield in Praxus to find out what went wrong there.”

“Yes, my prince.”

He turned to the one civilian frame in the room, a blue blocky mech of Ibix heritage that had formerly served beneath Yellowstripe as his theoretician. In reality, he had been the closest thing to a master of spies Praxus had. It had galled to be forced to trust him and his shadowy mechs, who lived for lies and worse. Upon discovering their existence, Prowl had ruthlessly taken control of the whole operation, inserted his own mechs where he could and kept close optics them since then. To his surprise, they had vocally approved of these measures and had proven themselves to be invaluable since then. Yellowstripe’s preparation had been well done.

“Skids, find out who right now has the interest in and the means of kidnapping my brother and present it at the Warcouncil later.”

“Yes, my lord,” the spy master answered and bowed deeply.

When he was alone, Prowl walked over to his desk, as always overflowing with reports and crashed into the chair. His spark hurt. More than it probably should, considering that his brother had been in stasis for 16 vorns now. But no matter, all he wanted was to pull Smokescreen in a hug and tell him that everything was be okay, that they were safe. He had worked so hard to make it possible and yet, now Smokescreen was beyond his grasp.

Possibly in danger. Possibly worse.

For a joor he was struggling with his fears, then he managed to push them away and started sorting through the reports about noble Houses, fleeing warframes and even criminals who were trying to use the chaos for their own gain. Whoever among them had dared to kidnap his brother, he would make sure that they would regret it.

Yet, the further he dived into the reports the less likely they all seemed to be as culprits. The noble Houses were terrified of him, largely looking forward to the peace, and his measures of keeping the heirs in place when they were innocent – some heir always was - had made extremely desperate moves by an entire House unnecessary. And a lone noble wouldn’t have had the means.

Of course, there were many warframes still fleeing from his reach, scavenging what they could find and hiring out their skill for violence. If a noble provided money and the warframes the mech power… then they still would need a secure base to operate from. A youngling in stasis was only in one way useful – blackmail. And to successfully blackmail Prowl, they would have be sure that he couldn’t find them.

That left the syndicates of organised crime. They had logistical routes, secret bases and networks sworn to silence. Of course, Prowl was aware of some of their operations, but hadn’t had the time to deal with them in any capacity in the last 16 vorns. They had thrived and might have felt confident enough to try such a stunt. But why risk the attention? Why risk Prowl’s fury that he had made sure to display for all of Cybertron to see when attention should be the last thing they want?

He shoved the datapads away and put his aching helmet into his hands. There was another possibility. One he didn’t want to consider, yet one that looked more and more likely…

A knock and Lieutenant Sharphack entered. “My prince, the Warcouncil begins in a breem,” he said.

“Thank you.” Prowl rose from his chair. “Any other news?”

“The White Wolfram company met no resistance when they entered Kolum. Kolum’s ruling House surrendered without conditions.”

“At least some good news,” answered Prowl drily. “Put the report of it on my desk and tell the company that they have my congratulations and praise.”

The Lieutenant bowed. “I will.”

Prowl nodded and moved past him to the Warcouncil room, which was really just the dining hall of the Travux castle they were currently staying at. The noble family who usually lived here had fled a few vorns ago and Prowl had claimed it his current base out of need.

When he entered, he noted that someone had arranged the traditional number of chairs – twelve – around the long table, despite the fact that they still were notably fewer mechs. No bondmate sat across him, no prime heir on his right and no Field Marshal at his left. All three seats, supposed to be staffed by mechs he called family were empty and would remain so for vorns to come.

Still, he had made some changes since the orn he inherited the Council. The Warlord Warpath had been promoted from Lieutenant-General to General, the highest position a warframe could achieve in Praxus. His old position had been given to Groundburn, a good solid warframe who had taught Prowl in his youngling days and was respected among the warframes far and wide.

In addition, Major-General Blueshield had stepped down the moment Prowl let him, unable to accept his failure to protect the Grand Dukes. Nowadays, he was an advisor to Captain Quickstrike, who Prowl had chosen for the Warcouncil despite the fact that his rank was nominally not high enough. When Quickstrike pointed that out, Prowl offered him a ‘field promotion’ to Major-General right there and then.

The soldier had paled and said, “My prince, please, I can’t accept such a promotion.”

“Why not? I do not see the problem.” Prowl had not bothered to hide his annoyance. “That Warcouncil seat is traditionally reserved for the leader of the Grand Duke’s protection detail, whatever his exact title is.”

“But-“

Prowl held up his hand, stopping him. “Do you see anyone else who is responsible for my protection?”

“No.” Captain Quickstrike sighed with defeat. “But my prince, I am a mere Captain.”

Prowl gave him a bitter smile. “And I am a mere second heir, yet here I am. These are trying times and we all must do what we have to.”

“I am aware, my prince. Yet-“

“Quickstrike,” said Prowl, deliberately dropping the title of his rank. Something that warframes among themselves usually only did after a clear invitation that they were allowed to. “I don’t have anyone else.”

Startled the Captain’s doorwings jerked upwards and he frowned, “There are Colonel Ironshield or Brigadier Farlance…”

“Who are good soldiers and probably better mechs.”

The warframe’s optics narrowed. “If my prince allows me to ask - but?”

“I don’t trust them with my spark.” The confession hurt and he wasn’t able to stand Quickstrike’s far too seeing optics. He turned away, towards his desk, pretending to look for a datapad.

Still, he heard it perfectly well when Quickstrike slowly, near hesitatingly said, “You said you have no one else.” Prowl didn’t answer. Maybe he had already revealed too much. It was only when Quickstrike took a step forward that he managed to look towards the warframe again.

Captain Quickstrike had bowed deeply. “It is an honour to accept, my prince.”

Prowl exvented as relief touched his hardened spark.

Between Airlord Skydive, General Warpath, Major-General Groundburn and Captain Quickstrike he had managed to fill all key position his army had needed, with only the Field Marshal position remaining unclaimed. But Prowl had no second heir available.

The civilian side of the table looked less positive.

Lord Clearwater, the High Judge, and Lord Shanix, the Treasurer, had proven themselves loyal and capable. In particular, Lord Shanix had flourished when he had discovered that not only did Prowl have a true interest in the state of the treasury, but also real understanding. And while the expenses of the civil war were crushing, Lord Shanix now stood more confident than in vorns before.

And yet, three chairs at the sides of the Lords remained empty. There was no Secretary of State and no Master of Trade. Prowl had been unable to find replacements he could trust. He didn’t know his nobles and had even less time now to rectify that. It was not exactly a good basis for trust, when you moved on someone’s lands with an army to execute their cousins.

Even worse was the case of the seat of the Secretary of State. While Prowl probably did know more civilians and commoners than most other nobles, he had only ever managed to befriend with a single one. And Flipper… well, Flipper wasn’t made for politics. And what kind of friend would invite the other to this pit anyway? He still wished for the comforting touch of a friend, but at the end of the orn he was happier to hear that Flipper had found new friends and was rebuilding all the things Prowl was destroying.

Maybe he would be able to change the seat, he mused. So that he would have never to be faced by a Secretary of State again. His optics flickered to Skids, who stood aside, datapad in hand. It was a possibility…

But not now. Not when Smokescreen’s life hung in the balance.

“Welcome everyone,” Prowl greeted them. “Please sit down, this will not be a pleasant session.” He himself took his seat. “I want to make it short: As you know the prime heir and third Prince of Praxus, Smokescreen, has been kidnapped. Who or how is unclear so far. Has anyone more information already?”

The Airlord shook his head. “My patrols were unable to find anyone on the ground. They are either hiding or had air support to move faster.”

Prowl forced his disappointment down. “Anyone else?”

“Not a lot,” said Captain Quickstrike. “Major-General Blueshield has confirmed that the attackers took Prince Smokescreen alive and must have been exceptionally skilled, with possible augmentations to make it through the Guard undetected. The investigation is still ongoing.”

“May I speak, my Lords?” Skids asked. Prowl nodded and he stepped forward. “I have looked through the data and most of you are probably aware we had started investigating exactly who supported the rebellion. The list of Houses within Praxus is now nearly complete, and while it is impossible to clearly divide the loyalties of every single noble, we have made good progress there as well.”

“Get to the point,” snapped Warpath.

Skids, far from being intimidated, simply nodded. “The picture is vastly different when we look at the supporters outside of Praxus. We know that they had access to armour from Iacon and swords from Kaon, yet everyone claims that they were bought in the name of the Grand Dukes of Praxus and they hadn’t known anything.”

“Oh, really.” Airlord Skydive leaned back in his chair. “That amount of weaponry, and the salesmechs didn’t think anything is amiss?”

“Not to mention, such a huge money flow usually attracts attention,” added Lord Shanix who, as Praxus’s Treasurer, had to know about such things. “Yet, there were no news reports, nothing out of ordinary.”

“Money can seal many mouths,” said Warlord Groundburn softly, his voice at odds with the usual loud ones of warframes. He had earned the nickname the ‘Philosopher Warlord’ for a reason. 

“Indeed.” Skids nodded. “The traitor Bristle explained the expenditure as a drive to modernise the Praxian armies in a bid to take on the bandits and many simply looked away, not wanting to know what was really going on. Yet when we compared the secured weapons and what Bristle ordered in Praxus’s name, over 15000 units were unexplained.”

Prowl frowned. “So two thirds came from an unknown benefactor?”

“Not entirely unknown.” Skids smirked. “Alloy analyses confirmed that they came from the same smithies and when we applied a bit of pressure everyone got very helpful quite fast.” He put a datapad on the table, showing the routes the units had taken. “We tracked down three large scale orders that seemed suspicious. Two were linked with Polyhex, one with Tarn.”

“Of course,” said Prowl wearily, as his worst suspicions came true. He felt suddenly so old.

Skids continued, “We managed to eliminate the city-state of Tarn as a suspect, because of their insecure border situation. They don’t have resources to give away, nor any political interest in Praxus.”

“While the Grand Duke from Polyhex is as power hungry as mechs come and our neighbour,” Warlord Groundburn said grimly.

“Not to mention ruthless,” added Lord Shanix, distaste clear on his face. “Just last vorn, he drove a trader family into ruin with baseless rumours and accusations for the sole reason that he didn’t want to pay his debt.”

Lord Clearwater nodded slowly. “If Lord Straxus suspected that we were following the trail back to him, potentially gaining information that could tarnish his reputation, he would have felt pressured to act. Especially considering that most Polyhexians take Prime’s verdict against any who supported Vapor quite seriously.” He paused. “For a mech with no morals, it would be a reasonable reaction to acquire blackmail material of his own.”

“Reasonable!” snarled Prowl with sudden fury. “How can kidnapping a helpless, sick youngling ever be reasonable?!” When no one dared to answer, he continued, “Haven’t I shown what happens to anyone who threatens my family? Why would he challenge me now?”

The Warlords exchanged glances. “My prince,” said Skydive slowly. “Polyhex has a large army, which is excellently stocked, fresh and experienced.”

Prowl gnashed his denta. “While we are tired and bled out from a Civil War.”

The Airlord simply nodded. They all knew that while their losses and the damage hadn’t been as high as they could have been, Praxus was far from its strongest right now. Most soldiers were tired and wanted to go home, in addition their weaponry and fuel stocks were depleted. And they hadn’t even smelted all the dead yet.

“We will march when you command it, my prince,” said Warpath anyway, his words ringing with truth and loyalty.

Prowl gave him a long glance, tempted to just give the command right here and now and to the pit with the consequences. Then, slowly, he shook his helmet. He had sacrificed too much of Praxus already for Smokescreen to jump into this without knowing the price. “I will only give the command if we can win and it is worth it,” he said, feeling as if the words were chains he was putting upon his own spark. “Still, your loyalty is noted and will not be forgotten, Warlord Warpath.”

Warpath nodded, despite his words only now relaxing. “Thank you, my prince.”

Prowl took a moment to bury his concern for Smokescreen and to assess the situation coolly. When it came down to it, Grand Duke Straxus was just another enemy in his path. And if he had Smokescreen… then Prowl would show him the exact reason why no one within Praxus stood up against him anymore. Lord Straxus should better pray that Smokescreen was unharmed.

“Skids,” he said and the spy startled, “Give the Warlords everything you have about Polyhex’s military forces. Lord Shanix, please calculate what expenses we would need to consider to make at least half of the army fit for a war campaign. My Warlords, find out if Praxus can weather a war against Polyhex in its current state and what we need to prepare for. Lord Clearwater…” Prowl paused, then hardened his spark once more, “You seem to understand best what Lord Straxus might want. Please make a list of what we can accept to give for Smokescreen’s return - and what not.”

“It is more likely that Grand Duke Straxus will try to play this as a long term situation,” Lord Clearwater pointed out. “We should expect many demands.”

For a moment, the Warcouncil was plunged into silence. Lord Clearwater folded his hands in front of him, clearly gathering his courage, and looked into Prowl’s optics. “My Lord, I know he is your brother and you love him. But he has been in stasis now for 16 vorns and little if any knowledge about his health has become public. If there isn’t a chance he wakes up… is it really worth…?”

Of course, it was worth it. It would always be worth it. But those were only his emotions speaking. Prowl had moved beyond that. “Due to the danger of the war, the medics and I have decided to keep it a secret that Smokescreen has been slowly getting better. His spark is healing and over the last vorn he has been kept in stasis artificially. The medics were unwilling to wake him up without a familiar face and spark nearby.” He paused. “As it stands, it is very likely he will awake in Lord Straxus’s company now.”

Possibly panicking and damaging what had only barely healed.

“Well, slag,” Warpath summarized the situation.

“Language, General,” said Lord Clearwater primly.

To Prowl’s surprise, Lord Shanix gave the other noble a pointed glance. “I find myself agreeing with the General’s assessment. Sometimes crude language is the appropriate reaction.”

General Warpath, on the other side of the table, smirked. Over the last 16 vorns they had had far too many Warcouncil meetings to not establish some kind of familiarity and trust.

“While the topic of proper language is certainly a fascinating one,” Warlord Groundburn began, “I think all of us are very busy mechs – and as it stands our future will only get busier. I propose that we get the other pressing matters directly out of the way so we can concentrate on Prince Smokescreen’s rescue. I would like to begin with discussing the situation at Road 78. A decisive decision is needed there.”

Airlord Skydive nodded. “I also would like to discuss the medical supply situation in the east. I am hearing nothing but complains from there.”

“Medics always complain.” Lord Shanix frowned. “If this is about the replacement parts for arms, they will take another seven decaorns thanks to the loss of that shuttle on Supply Line Eight.”

“Supply Line Eight is now secure once again,” said Airlord Skydive. “Is it really not possible to send something earlier?”

“Only if we send a shuttle just for this alone.”

A war stopped for no one and nothing, especially not if you were the Grand Duke and needed. Prowl forced himself to listen to the small and big complaints, gave orders, confirmed other decisions and coordinated a few new supply routes. It didn’t take long, they all had learned to work with – and in a few cases around – each other.

Eventually, everyone had brought their most pressing concerns forward and left the room. Prowl wanted to follow them, when a voice held him back.

“My Lord, wait for a klick,” said Lord Clearwater. “A conversation among four optics, please?”

Prowl felt himself tense. In the doorway, Skids hovered, looking at them, but Prowl waved him away. Lord Clearwater was an elderly noble, who had never had any second heir upgrades nor experienced military training beyond the typical gentlemech’s fencing. Between the two of them, Prowl was the truly deadly one. No, Prowl wouldn’t be in any danger, yet just why had his High Judge requested a private talk? There were very, very few things not all on the Warcouncil could know… and none of them very good.

“As you wish,” he said, steeling himself for bad news. “What can I do for you?”

“I wish to talk about the situation with Prince Smokescreen.” Lord Clearwater’s optics were dark with concern. “Lord Smokescreen is currently the only heir Praxus has, because the primary and secondary succession lines have been eliminated.”

“I am aware.” Prowl’s optics narrowed. “I did half of the elimination process, if you recall. What of it?”

“Your House is dangerously close to dying out,” the Lord said bluntly. “If that happens, the one to inherit everything would be the Prime House as it was Lord Sparkshimmer’s sparking House – but the treaty of Primes forbids them from holding more than one Dukedom.”

Prowl had known that in a way. But still… he rubbed his chevron, wishing his bad feeling away. Despite Yellowstripe’s education, he was still seeing things like a second heir most of the time. The small print in some old, dusty treaties seemed so unimportant. “That means?”

Lord Clearwater sighed, and sounded weary as he answered: “Other Lords might hope that the Prime would be forced to give away Praxus and the House name to another fitting heir… or maybe to even break it apart.”

Prowl frowned. “But… surely there are some minor nobles here in Praxus who could inherit?”

“They might be able to, if a Prime backed them, but their claim would be weak. Possibly too weak to defend it against other minor Houses.” Lord Clearwater shook his helmet. “Worse, there are precedents – Nyon and Ultrix.”

Prowl paled. “The massacre of Nyon…”

“Yes.”

It was a famous tale on Cybertron and a warning for every young noble. Once, Nyon had been a prosperous Dukedom, until the main ruler died without having ever bonded. The House fell apart as most thought the rightful heir unfit and sadistic. He was assassinated a mere two orns later, the murderer never found and never much searched for. It resulted in a near endless civil war which ravaged the land, turning more than one third of the population into refugees and led to atrocities better left buried. In the end, there had been only two factions, one barricaded with hundreds of soldiers in the Acropolex, the ancient ruling place of the family. The other side was unable to break through for many, many vorns, until they sent in mutated sparkeaters – a war crime on an astonishing scale. After everyone inside the Acropolex was killed, the spark eaters multiplied and started an uncontrolled plague. In a desperate effort to save the neighbouring states, the then ruling Prime ordered Nyon bombed until the entire city had burned and melted and nothing lived or moved there anymore.

“Praxus is not Nyon,” said Prowl. “And we will never be.”

“But other Lords might try to cast us in that light,” warned the Lord. “And while Nyon was extreme, Ultrix wasn’t. We cannot accept that risk.”

Prowl gave him a dark look. “I understand your concern, but Smokescreen does still live.”

Lord Clearwater bowed a little his helmet. “For the moment.”

Prowl’s tanks felt as if ice had appeared within them. “Are you saying that Straxus might kill Smokescreen just to bring my House a little bit closer to extinction?”

“No. Not Lord Straxus. But the less heirs you have, the more likely assassination attempts from other sources become.” Lord Clearwater’s doorwings twitched agitated. “Lord Starxus’s goal is hopefully to merely blackmail us. If it is not, then we will not be able to save the Prince anyway. And if that happens, you have no heir left and your spark would be everything that stands between them and a free-for-all shot at Praxus.”

Sometimes, Prowl missed being a second heir who wasn’t forced to care about such things. He sighed, feeling old and tired. “I cannot change this.”

“Not right now, no,” admitted Lord Clearwater. “But I would like you to consider more… extreme measures.”

“Extreme?” He didn’t like the word. “What would you have me do?”

“Bond as fast as possible.” Lord Clearwater raised his hands to stave off protest. “I know bonding is a delicate and above all dangerous step. And your spark, as I said, must live.” The noble paused, waiting for Prowl to say anything, but he didn’t. “It means that you will have to try bonding with the mech with the highest compatibility rating and give no consideration to the rest.”

Prowl shuttered his optics. “Will it not even matter if I like him?” he whispered.

“My Lord…”

“That is a yes, isn’t it?”

“I cannot force you into anything,” the Lord answered gently, his optics old and understanding - hating even – what he was saying. “And as you said, Smokescreen does still live and you might have a long, safe life ahead of you as well. But the danger is there and true.”

“I understand,” said Prowl, opening his optics, because what else was left to be said? Praxus was taking and demanding everything from him, even this. He had always known that as a noble he would have less choice about who to bond with than others. But this took it to a whole new level.

“I will try my best to find something we can placate Lord Staxus with,” the noble promised quietly. “We can offer a lot, more even than appropriate for a normal prime heir, thanks to the unique situation.”

“And,” Prowl felt his voice shaking, he gulped, and when he spoke again, nothing hinted at his weakness anymore: “And what if it isn’t enough?”

“In that case, I would say it is fortunate you are a second heir…”

“Armies are slow,” Prowl said harshly. Finally, speaking the fear he had suppressed since hearing the message. “What is to stop Lord Straxus from killing him until then?”

The older mech remained silent for a long moment, then said, “It might be unorthodox, but we could try lessening Prince Smokescreen’s worth.”

“What?” Prowl looked towards him.

“The traitors’ youngest creation, Bluestreak. Nominally, he is still your heir, even if you haven’t recognised him and condemned him to swear the oath the moment he can.”

Prowl frowned. “If I claim him publicly as my second heir…”

“No. Not publicly. We cannot risk some hopeless insurgence in Bluestreak’s name. But we could make it clear to our ambassadors and in a missive to Prime that should anything happen to you and Smokescreen that Bluestreak would inherit. That you recognise his nominal status as his true one.”

Prowl tried to remember the laws in case an underage noble inherited. “Wouldn’t Prime then become Bluestreak’s guardian and Praxus’s steward after my death?”

“Yes.”

Prowl looked at the problem, turning it around in his processor until he was sure that he understood it in all its facets. But really, there was precious little he could do, besides trying not to die and rescuing Smokescreen.

“I will not lower Smokescreen’s status until he is dead or safe,” he decided. “But I will write a message to Sentinel Prime to make sure that in the worst case, Bluestreak inherits to keep Praxus’s integrity unchallenged, at least until I am bonded or he has taken the oath.”

“Very well.” It was clear that the noble was not entirely satisfied, but at the same time was relieved that he had gotten something. “Thank you for listening to me in such a difficult joor. I am sorry to have burdened you with this as well.”

Prowl bristled. “I only demand loyalty and honesty. Not pity.”

“Of course.” The Lord bowed. “May I go?”

A dismissive nod and the noble left the room. Prowl was alone. And felt exactly like that. He closed his optics and imagined Smokescreen. A healthy, lively, awake Smokescreen in his arms. He was worth all this and deserved peace and safety. Prowl swore he would make it so.

~

A mere decaorn later, Lord Clearwater was standing on the small blue rug in his office, holding a datapad with the treaty as proposed by Polyhex’s negotiators. His doorwings hang low.

“The negotiations are failing,” he said after barely greeting the prince in front of him and placing the datapad on Prowl’s desk.

Prowl merely nodded, having received the reports that had painted a darker and darker picture. “Any word of Smokescreen?” he asked, though he already knew the answer. But desperation and hope let him ask time and again.

“No, my Lord.” Lord Clearwater looked sorrowful. “We must assume the worst.”

Prowl felt his optics burn. “He might just be in stasis still.”

“Let’s hope so,” the noble answered, then straightened. “Maybe I could travel personally to Polyhex-“

“No.” Prowl shook his helmet. “You wouldn’t return. Lord Straxus wants to turn Praxus into a vassal state, wants to force us to heel and you would just be another hostage.”

The noble said nothing, a sign that he agreed with Prowl. For a moment the sparse office was plunged into silence. Prowl walked over to the window, looking over the sprawling field of barracks and tents that surrounded Travux castle.

There were more than the last orn, and he knew that tomorrow there would be more again. He had been calling them in, concentrating his forces in preparation for restructuring them. Recently damaged warframes and their commanders would stay here, securing the peace. The rest…

“We will march against Polyhex in a decaorn,” he said quietly, touching the cold window with his hand.

“That’s too soon!”

Prowl flicked his doorwings, not turning around. “Yes. But it would also be too soon in a vorn. We will take who we can…” He looked back at the Lord. “And I mean anyone who we can.”

Lord Clearwater looked puzzled. “Please elaborate, I am not quite following…”

“We have marauding groups of warframes all over Praxus. They are hungry and dangerous, but most of them simply were more loyal to their Field Marshal and General than to a second heir they have barely met. Personally, I can’t fault them for that.”

“They still fought against you!”

“And I haven’t forgotten.” Prowl said darkly. “But the population is suffering under the danger they represent, and if they can rob caravans, they are also well enough to fight. Lord Clearwater, I need them.” He flicked his doorwings. “The other Warlords have already agreed. In the morning, General Warpath will offer any of Vapor’s mechs within Praxus’s borders a place in my army. If they fight in my name in Polyhex, if they risk their sparks for my brother, I will overlook who they fought for in the civil war.”

Lord Clearwater looked stunned. “That’s…”

“Illegal?” Prowl gave him a curious look. “I admit I haven’t had the time to read over the laws, Lord High Judge.”

The older Praxian shook his head. “As the acting Grand Duke, it is within your power to pardon criminals. Though, usually it is not done on such a scale.”

“In the best case it will double our numbers. Straxus will not expect that many – and he certainly will not expect my second surprise.” Prowl smiled grimly. “Polyhex will rue the orn they thought us weak.”

“Of that,” said Lord Clearwater quietly, “I have no doubt.”

Chapter Text

Radishes

-

The Kidnapping

 

16 vorns ago:

 

"Winglord! Winglord!" A Seeker flew through the giant doors of the meeting hall with a lot more than the recommended 'controllable' speed and nearly crashed into said Winglord. The older Seeker, though, was well versed in the arts of dodging and catching, and managed to elegantly prevent a most undignified crash.

"Steady, Cloudstripe. There is no need to emulate the younglings." The Winglord flicked his wings in amusement as he helped the other Seeker up. "Is there a reason you seem to have lost the ability to slow down?"

"Yes!" Cloudstripe only then realised who he was talking to and squeaked. Hastily, he scrambled on his two pedes and bowed deeply as it was proper. "My deepest apologies, your Highness. I am sorry for my conduct, but this message-"

"Is no doubt incredibly important?"

"Yes!"

The Winglord raised an optic ridge in a perfect display of aristocratic doubt. "Well then, out with it. And just as a warning, if Starscream and Sunstorm are screaming at each other in the gardens again, I do not care."

Cloudstripe blinked, then became very serious. "Ah…no. I bring dire news. The Grand Dukes of Praxus are dead, poisoned and stabbed by their most trusted friend and ally, the one they held at their doorwings – the Secretary of State."

The Winglord's wings spread violently with shock. "Yellowstripe," muttered Stormraiser, stunned. "But why?"

"I'm afraid more details haven't reached Vos yet. Prince Smokescreen was hurt as well, and forced into such a deep stasis that he might never awake from it."

"Of course." The Winglord rubbed his nose bridge, trying to ignore the small pang of sorrow in his hardened spark. Warframes they might be, but younglings were always the most bitter of casualties. "Who is ruling now?"

"Prince Prowl is the rightful ruler, but parts of the military are breaking away under the leadership of Field Marshal Vapor."

"Mmh, so the weakling heir of those peace-loving fools is facing a civil war of all things? What an unexpected development."

The Winglord stepped towards the balcony arch, looking over Vos' towers and the fog rolling between them. It was peaceful and he had fought and bled that it remained so. With darkening optics, he looked towards the horizon where the shores of Praxus laid and felt a quiver within his spark. Things were changing and sooner or later Praxus's plight would touch upon its sister city Vos, no matter how estranged they had become.

"Unexpected, yes, but not entirely unwelcomed." He smiled sharply. "After all, bloodied winds always bring change."

Chapter Text

 Radishes

-

The Kidnapping

 

Chapter Two: Vos

 

He crashed into the sand beneath them, rolling a few times, then stopping. It hurt, the crash had barely dented his armour, but his right wing edge had not been so fortunate. And Starscream didn’t even want to look down and check his paintjob. Sand and paint nanites never went well together.

“Ready to give up?” teased a voice.

He spit out a bit of the sand. “Never.” He looked up and glared at Thundercracker, then disengaged his wingblade. “Let me show you your place, trine brother of mine.”

Thundercracker smirked, copying the move. It was smooth and fast, speaking of vorns of hard training and excellent teaching. His blade gleamed dull in the sun, despite the excellent upkeep Thundercracker bestowed upon it. It was the only outward sign that this was not a forged weapon, but one grown with the help of their heritage and the very first upgrade any seekerlet received.

“Give your best, Screamer,” said Thundercracker, deliberately using the nickname his brother hated, as he got into position. It was the slightly ridiculous looking stance of Form Three – the defensive form. It was the one that emphasized most that a wingblade was the last line of defence for any Seeker and a Master was able to protect himself and any charges for joors against a multitude of enemies. “Maybe you can land a hit on me.”

“Maybe I will slice you apart,” answered Starscream confidently, his own stance less rigid and more outward. He had always preferred to act instead of reacting and Form Five – the war form – was ideal for him. It took more energy, but if it hit, the enemy rarely stood up again.

He attacked, his deadly slices clashing with Thundercracker’s unmoving defence. With seemingly barely any effort his trine brother blocked, thwarted and shoved aside everything Starscream could throw at him. But Starscream only smiled and heightened the speed. A single mistake on Thundercracker’s side and it would be over. And Starscream was fast, very fast. Slowly, but surely he kept accelerating, showing off his greatest strength.

For a single moment, Thundercracker nearly faltered, Starscream struck – and was blocked yet again, if barely. In the background he could hear the crowd screaming with excitement.

Again a mistake, again Starscream ducked beneath the defence and aimed at his brother’s spark. Thundercracker let himself fall down and back, rolling on the sand, until he was again standing.

“Good strike,” Thundercracker commented.

“Good defence,” answered Starscream, wasting no more time to attack again.

He couldn’t let Thundercracker recover; if he did, his trine brother would exhaust him and win in the end. Again the wingblades clashed and Thundercracker’s optics blazed with concentration as he used every advantage the economic movements of Form Three provided him with.

Starscream felt himself waning. He was slightly smaller built than Thundercracker. Not much, but in these duels one didn’t need much to lose. What his inherent speed gave, Thundercracker met with endurance.

Another clash, sparks flew through the air, and suddenly Thundercracker ducked, hitting Starscream’s leg with his own. Starscream, off balance, let himself fall and roll, barely escaping a strike that would have ended the duel. Using the same movements as Thundercracker before, he tried to stand – and froze.

A wingblade hovered next to the main cable line of his throat.

On the other end of it, Thundercracker gave him a smile. “I win.”

Starscream snarled wordlessly, but there was nothing more to be said. In a real fight, he would be dead right now. He raised his hands and let his blade fall into the sand. The crowd around them went wild, the sheer noise ringing in Starscream’s audios.

Thundercracker turned away and towards the crowd. Starscream picked his own blade up again, after all a true Seeker never was defenceless out of his own free will, and stepped up next to his trine brother. Together they raised their hands, holding the blades and crossed them – the traditional greeting after such a duel. If it had been a duel between enemies, maybe even to the death, only the victor would stand with his blade risen. But they were trine brothers, One in everything that counted.

“In the Winglord’s name, Vos Rise!” Thundercracker and he declared and the crowd answered enthusiastically “Vos Rise, Vos Rise, Vos Rise!”

The chant resonated within the ground and the open stadium, filling it, until there was nothing else. The wingblade in his hand vibrated, and even the sand beneath his pedes jumped.

“Let’s fly,” he said to his brother.

Thundercracker only nodded, and they lowered the blades, taking a step away. Starscream concentrated, before jumping into the air, transforming and igniting his thrusters only centimetres above ground. The sand melted into glass, as the two Seekers left the stadium with thunderous speed and another show of their skill.

As they had cleared the last of the ranks, their third appeared out of nothing next to them, turning their flight into a formation. Effortlessly, they changed their flight to correspond to each other and raced further into the starry, cloudless sky.

It was glorious perfection for a moment. It was trine.

Below them the hundreds of Vos’ towers pierced the sky, gleaming columns of the flier’s might. Between them was only darkness, and far, far below was the Rust Sea, sloshing silently against the towers’ bases.

Beside them, Skywarp whooped and teleported above them, just to enter a deep dive, which was immediately followed by his brothers. Playing in the air, dancing on the edges of the wind, they let themselves drift, racing through the night. After a joor, Starscream and Thundercracker were slowing down, their sparks settling from the fight and Skywarp wasn’t teleporting anymore, egging them on to let go of the fight lust warframes like them possessed. Their sparks were peaceful and One.

Only then, they fell into formation again, something that came near deep-coded to them, and took the fastest way to the highest twenty towers of Vos, standing together in a circle, connected through bridges and surrounding a red-golden tower in the middle. It was the seat of the Winglord, the Spire of Wind.

Their trine flew to the tower on the utmost left, nicknamed Black Diamond Tower for the decorations on it. They landed on a balcony at the very top of the tower, right outside of Starscream’s rooms. On the same level were only two other balconies, two other apartments, but neither Thundercracker nor Skywarp protested that they hadn’t gone to their rooms.

Starscream didn’t waste a further astrosecond and hurried into his living room to activate the news screen. His apartment favoured clear lines and forms, without any clutter or needless decoration anywhere. But what he did have was of the very finest material available and statements of power and taste.

His news screen as a result wasn’t merely something any mech could put in some corner of their living rooms, but a sleek device covering half the wall with an integrated holomatter device made from the a black metal that was only mined in another sun system.

But the only thing Starscream right now cared about was that the screen worked and showed a picture of him and Thundercracker, standing in the arena with their blades crossed.

“Don’t worry, you two looked great,” said Skywarp from behind him, now sipping a highgrade cube from the energon dispenser. “Really. It was everything a try-out should be.”

“We can only hope that it was enough,” muttered Thundercracker behind him. Only the slight tension in his wings showed how much this meant to him. It had been their first try-out, and as such the most important one. A bad impression would be impossible to repair.

“It was, you’ll see.” Skywarp’s voice had moved to the right and was followed by a soft sound. “We left the Rainmakers standing in their own fragging rain and that Sun trine doesn’t look as shiny anymore.”

Starscream didn’t need to turn around to know that his trine brother was laying on his couch. A couch he only still had because of Skywarp, else he would have replaced it long ago with a more stylish model. But Skywarp claimed it was “comfy” and so it stayed.

“Storm trine,” he corrected. “The Winglord has offered our brother trine that title, you should use it.”

“Oh come on, Star, even the civilians call them Rainmakers!”

On screen, they zoomed out from the video showing Thundercracker and Starscream fighting and a sleek civilian flier, who was one of the most popular moderators in Vos, appeared, smiling widely at the audience:

“Welcome to our talk of the try-outs! As you can see, we had the pleasure of watching the long awaited finale between the Princes Starscream and Thundercracker. Despite being trine brothers, and their trine as of yet having no title, they gave each other not a single wingspan. We have invited Nacelle, the famous Flight Academy instructor and war decorated Seeker. What can you tell us about this finale, Nacelle?”

Nacelle smiled on the screen. “First of all, allow me to say that the finale of the Crown Princes’ tournament was all I hoped for. After the races, where Prince Starscream defeated all his brothers easily, we were aware that he is without a doubt one of the fastest Seekers alive. On the other hand, Thundercracker had already proven in the ground duels previously that he is an extremely dangerous and clever fighter with wingblades and any other weapon. It is remarkable that they are both within the same trine.”

“Yet, Thundercracker defeated Starscream…”  the moderator pointed out.

Starscream crossed his arms. “Luck,” he muttered, even knowing that it hadn’t been.

Thundercracker next to him only gave him a long look. Behind them both, Skywarp snickered.

Nacelle nodded. “Yes, but not easily. The only reason he won the flight duel was for his Sigma ability and I might point out that Starscream’s Sigma ability is still yet unknown.”

“There are rumours he doesn’t have one.”

Starscream clenched his hands to fists. He had known that there were speculations out there. But that didn’t help a lot against the hot feeling of indignation running through his cables. He forced his wings to hold still, so that his brothers wouldn’t know how much the meaningless comment affected him. Considering that not even Skywarp was offering any banter, either he was succeeding spectacularly well – unlikely – or failing. Wonderful.

“Very unlikely.” Nacelle scoffed. “Of all nine creations of the Winglord, eight have proven to have powerful Sigma abilities. Starscream’s own trine brother, Skywarp, has one of the most unique and powerful Sigma ability on record. Why shouldn’t Starscream be as blessed?”

“Then why hasn’t he shown it this orn? It might sway opinions in his favour.”

“They are right,” said Thundercracker quietly. “It is becoming strange that you haven’t declared your Sigma ability.”

“So what? It’s just an ability,” said Skwarp. “He is still the resident genius.”

Thundercracker shook his head. “Intelligence isn’t seen as a blessing of Primus.”

Nacelle smiled. “There might be several reasons. He might simply be a late developer, Starscream’s trine is the youngest one after all. Or it might need augmentation to fully use it. Or it might be some small Sigma ability which he thinks useless.”

“I understand.” The civilian nodded thoughtfully. “But let’s return to the wingblade fight, which was the highlight of this try-out. Would you say Prince Thundercracker deserved this victory?”

“Absolutely. Thundercracker clearly is becoming a Master of Form Three and he is solely focusing on the Third Form.” Nacelle was clearly approving of this. “Starscream on the other hand has switched for some time between Forms Four, Two and Five, which gives him a bigger repertoire, but ultimately let him fall behind Thundercracker in regards to mastery.”

“So, are you saying that Prince Thundercracker might be a better future Winglord?”

Starscream looked over to Thundercracker, who gave nothing away. Typical. His brother had always been the calmest of them all. Even Skywarp, who so often wore his emotions on his wings, was now as difficult to read as a slip of cloud.

Nacelle’s wings showed indecision as they fluttered back and forwards. “If we want a Seeker to defend us, yes. But Starscream is more flexible. He is trying to find a balance in defence and offense, and I have to admit that has a certain appeal.”

“Yet he lost.”

“Only to Thundercracker, his own trine brother.”

The moderator looked down on his datapad for a moment, before turning the conversation into a new direction: “Many say that Sunstorm, Prince of the first trine, should be the future ruler. He hasn’t taken part in this set of try-outs, because he still is on pilgrimage, so we haven’t yet seen a direct comparison between him and the youngest trine. But from previous try-outs, we know that he is an experienced fighter, devout and with the most powerful Sigma ability ever observed. Many believe him to be blessed by Primus and fated to be the next Winglord.”

“Fated, because his Sigma ability is radiation? That isn’t a very good reason,” Nacelle said with a clear frown. “We could argue that Skywarp’s ability to teleport is just as strong as sun radiation in its own way.”

“They mentioned me!” Skywarp sounded gleeful.

“Yes.” Starscream huffed. “Congratulations.”

“Sunstorm’s trine brothers Solarflare and Flareburst also have strong Sigma abilities tied to light…”

“Very true. Yet they both haven’t shown any desire for the throne. Just like Prince Skywarp, who is also powerful and a good flyer, but hasn’t shown any ambition…”

“Solarflare and Flareburst both have stated that they believe Sunstorm is fated to be the Winglord. Does Skywarp believe the same about his trine brothers?”

“Well, I think the answer is ‘No’. He certainly seemed more competitive than Solarflare and Flareburst, but he grew up with his brothers.” Nacelle grinned. “Who are both strong candidates. In my opinion it says a lot positive that he knows his own limits, but is supporting them.”

The civilian seemed a bit more sceptical. “What about the second royal trine, the Royal Storm trine of Vos… would you say they showed any aptitude for the Winglord title?”

“They had without a doubt the best teamwork among them. If I didn’t know better, I would call them telepathic and even their Sigma abilities complete each other.” Nacelle’s wings lowered. “Yet, this is also their weakness. A Winglord needs a strong trine, but essentially he is the first among Seekers and not one among a trine.”

“The polls seem to agree with you.” He called up a holo screen. “Sunstorm is currently at the top, the religious fliers flocking to him, followed closely by Thundercracker and Starscream. The other princes have all far fallen back…”

Starscream deactivated the screen. He had seen and heard enough.

“We didn’t beat Sunstorm,” he growled.

“We knew that, we are the youngest. But our trine as a whole definitely is the strongest one.” Skywarp grinned. “Our brothers underestimated us.”

“Sunstorm underestimated us,” agreed Thundercracker. “He didn’t even bother to compete this time beyond interrupting his pilgrimage,” he spat the word, “for the Sigma show.”

“His loss.” Starscream sighed. “Still, if with such a brilliant try-out we are still behind him…”

Thundercracker nodded. “We need either the religious ones to back us as well, or some other boost.”

“Everyone loves a victorious Seeker,” suggested Skywarp.

“War?” Thundercracker frowned. “I am not looking forward to dying young.”

“We are Seekers, TC! Warriors of the Sky! War is what we were made for,” answered an exasperated Skywarp. Thundercracker rolled his optics.

“Anyway, Vos is at peace currently,” Starscream pointed out. “And it’s not like we can just walk over to Praxus and ask if we can join Prowl’s army like common mercenaries.”

Skywarp snickered. “Still sounds strange, Prowl and army.”

“Well, he is a second heir…” Thundercracker smiled. “Though the most bookish, boring and nerdy second heir I’ve ever met.”

“He cried easily too,” said Starscream amused.

Skywarp laughed. “Yes, remember when I threw him into the mud and he stood up, completely covered and just looking like the saddest thing ever?”

“Oh yes. And then you laughed, and kicked his datapad also into the puddle.” Thundercracker grinned. “Primus, I’ve never laughed as hard as when he chased you across the courtyard, whacking you with the datapad like a tiny avenger.”

“Yes! Good times. He always had a temper.” Skywarp smiled. “So, when becoming mercenaries in Prowl’s army is out, what else can we do to prevent Sunstorm from ruining Vos forever?”

“We could try to appeal to the religious fliers too,” suggested Thundercracker.

Both his brothers stared at him. “Really,” said Starscream. “Us. You want us to praise Primus, look all shiny and important, and piteous.”

“Praying every orn, doing some boring pilgrimage and bonding as fast as possible? We haven’t even had a single compatibility test yet!” added Skywarp disbelieving.

“… on second thought, no. I like Vos standing and the idea of Skywarp procreating makes my wings shiver.” Thundercracker sighed. “Any other ideas?”

Starscream groaned. “Charity? Always gets one a few plus points, even with the religious types.”

Thundercracker nodded slowly. “Yes… I like the idea. Skywarp?”

“Why not. I claim something with younglings.” He chuckled. “They will be fun to be around.”

“Good. I will try doing something at the military academy. And Starscream… you should really try to get your Sigma ability under control.”

Starscream looked down at his fingers, trying to hide his anger. Thundercracker was right. Slagging Sigma ability. He twitched his wings, wanting to go for a flight again. “Whatever,” he decided and stood up. “Let’s go flying. That is what we are clearly the best at.”

Thundercracker laughed, the rumble of thunder in his voice. “We will rule the sky.”

“’Cause we are the best,” laughed Skywarp and teleported. From outside he yelled, “What are you waiting for? Come on, slow-pokes.”

Starscream ran, throwing himself out of the balcony, Thundercracker behind him – and they flew.

~

Starscream would have loved it if Sunstorm were as naïve as he sometimes appeared to be. He wasn’t. Arrogant, self-centred and a zealot, yes. But not naïve or stupid. As a result, Sunstorm reacted to the try-outs results and became a serious contender for the position of the Crown Prince. He was still the favourite, but now there were two other strong options – who were working together.

It was fortunate that his trine agreed on the fact that whatever happened, they wouldn’t accept Sunstorm wearing the Corona of Vos. Not now, not ever. Too deep were the memories of their youngling days, when the older Seeker had laughed at them, burned them with his radiation and scared them for nothing but his own personal amusement.

Seeker culture had always been competitive and sometimes harsh, but all three of them would never forgive Sunstorm for being the reason for their first scars. So, yes, Sunstorm was going down and afterwards… afterwards Starscream would claim the throne with a smile, no matter what Thundercracker said.

His plans were only made slightly more difficult by the fact that Sunstorm was targeting Starscream nearly exclusively, pointing out that he apparently didn’t possess any Sigma Ability, wasn’t blessed and as a result certainly Primus didn’t want him as the future Winglord.

As if! Starscream just had to find a way to make his Sigma Ability more powerful. Somehow. But he knew that it was possible, even if so far all his secret experiments had failed. He just could feel it, that these small stun lasers from his fingers weren’t possibly everything.

Still, Sunstorm’s plan was succeeding. Starscream was losing in the polls, falling behind his brothers and no amount of charity or public attendance was changing the trend.

It had made Starscream’s search for a solution to his Sigma Ability all the more frantic. He rarely left his private laboratory in his apartment anymore, if it wasn’t needed. Nearly on the side, he completed his education as a chemist, moving on to physic, because chemicals hadn’t seemed to hold any solutions.

A knock at the door let him look up. “What?” he snarled agitated.

“My prince,” came the muffled voice through the door. “You have received a long distance call.”

He blinked. A long distance call? There weren’t even that many mechs Starscream knew outside of Vos, even less who would want to call him. It intrigued him.

“Coming!” he yelled and put his current experiment away. At least it was just some lenses and nothing that could explode if he wasn’t there for a breem.

The long distance communication room was at the centre of the tower. That the tower had one at all was more of a power statement of a previous Winglord than anything indicative of need. Vos had become isolationist two generations ago, and since then it was usually only a military campaign that let them fly to the continent.

The servant closed the door behind him, and Starscream was alone in the circular room with a round table, surrounded by three chairs. He was the only one here, as expected. Thundercracker was probably at some function and Skywarp used every joor of his orn to work at some youngling charity he had created. He touched the stone, and waited.

It lit up once, twice, thrice, then a shimmering face, followed by an upper body with doorwings appeared. Starscream frowned slightly, the colours were always muted over long distance calls, but this mech seemed like no one he knew. Still, he seemed familiar… if he imagined him slimmer, younger, carefreer and with less scars…

“Prowl?” he guessed.

The Praxian nodded. “Yes. You seem uncertain. Have I changed that much?”

“Not really,” he answered. Not if one knew. The paintjob was the same, the chevron and doorwings were still there. And yet, the face was utterly different with a coldness that hadn’t ever been there before. Unconsciously, Starscream spread his wings, trying to look bigger and more intimidating. A ridiculous reaction, and he immediately pulled them down again.

“We haven’t seen each other in quite some time,” he said. “How long was it, 80 vorns ago?”

“93.” Prowl’s doorwings twitched. “If I remember right, the Winglord of Vos decided then that there wouldn’t be a military collaboration between Praxus and Vos anymore.”

“Well, yes.”

Vos hadn’t been able to stand the pacifism of the Grand Dukes, and Starscream’s and his brother’s complaints of Prowl being boring and nerdy certainly hadn’t helped. They had been sister cities, with Praxus south bordering on the Rust Sea, but their shared past hadn’t seemed to lead to a shared future. Until the assassinations, until everything had changed and Prowl took control.

Starscream was very aware that many Seekers were looking at this mech favourably now, claiming him to be a reincarnation of their shared warrior past and analysing his battles during polite dinner conversation. Even the civilian fliers were looking towards Praxus with fascination and new apprehension.

It was understandable. The Prowl who had cried when hit by a bit of mud was long gone. This mech carried the scars of war and behind his optics Starscream could see calculations running at the speed of lightning. Prowl knew every detail of why the Winglord of Vos hadn’t let his youngest trine visit Praxus anymore, and what the old collaboration in all war matters had included. This wasn’t a random call.

Suddenly, Starscream smelled it in the air – opportunity.

“But I am certain that the acting Grand Duke of Praxus isn’t just calling me to reminiscence about the past. Haven’t you just won your civil war?” He smiled sharply. “I watched the executions of your own cousins, and Yellowstripe, you know. I really hadn’t thought you had it in you… but my respect for doing it anyway.”

“They rebelled against my family and they paid the price,” was the calm answer of the Praxian. “But you are right, this isn’t why I have called.” Suddenly, Prowl leaned forward, optics intent. “In three orns, my armies will attack Polyhex.”

Starscream spluttered. “Polyhex! You are invading the Dukedom of Polyhex?!”

“Yes.”

“But why?” This was completely coming out of the blue. No one anywhere was expecting this! Starscream hadn’t even heard it among the most absurd rumours. This was big and would potentially change more than a few alliances.

“Lord Straxus kidnapped Smokescreen.” And the repressed rage in the words made Starscream pause.

“Ah,” he said. “Your brother.” And warframes Seekers might be, competitive and arrogant, but they all were created as triplets, as trine, and as such Starstream knew brotherhood as intimately as he knew few things else. All the highs and depths, and the never, ever changing fact that his trine brothers and brothers were his. Even Sunstorm was, when it came down to it, his brother. And while the brothers were allowed to harm each other, no one else was.

“Yes.” The doorwings on Prowl’s backs flicked sharply. “We tried negotiation, but he demands that Praxus bows and becomes nothing more than his vassal state. I refused.” Prowl’s optics blazed. “Lord Straxus can only hope he hasn’t harmed Smokescreen so far, or I will turn the Polyhexian plain into his funeral pyre.”

Of course he had refused. No second heir or warframe would have ever accepted such a price without fighting. That Lord Straxus had even demanded it… wanted that fool war? Because Prowl certainly was ready to give it towards him.

“Right.” The Seeker slowly nodded, feeling a slow respect growing for the new Prowl in front of him. “… yet why are you calling me?” And not the Winglord? Or even better, why was Prowl informing Vos at all?

“I want Vosian air support.”

Starscream frowned. “Our treaties have crumbled…”

“But they were never officially called off.” Prowl folded his hands, face full with confidence. “And things have changed.”

How very true. Prowl had changed them a lot. 50 vorns ago the thought that Praxus would attack Polyhex would have been a fine joke. “That isn’t enough and you know it.”

“Of course.” Prowl smiled. “But I know that your trine is competing for the Crown Prince position…”

Starscream froze, wings snapping upwards. “Yes.”

“And wouldn’t it be very, very helpful to have a successful military campaign under your wings? Even better, to have restored the treaty with Praxus as it was in the past? Vosian fliers and Praxian warriors. We always were deadly in combination.”

Starscream wetted his lips. Prowl was right. If it worked… it would be a huge boost in their popularity, and the Winglord would probably even give his trine the title they had been waiting for. “It is the Winglord’s decision.”

“Naturally. But you and your trine know Praxus and me best.” Prowl’s doorwings twitched. “If you support this loudly, it would swing things in my favour.”

Would it? Probably, yes. Oh yes. Starscream suppressed a delighted shudder. “Why us and not Sunstorm?”

“I know you too,” was the calm answer. “And if I have to choose a Winglord, I would prefer one from your trine.”

What a manipulator. Starscream could admire that, truly he could. Outside support had rarely decided the choosing of a future Winglord, but it would help

Really, there were only advantages for them, even if they had to risk their lives on the battlefield. But then, they were Seekers, trained and created for this. Sooner or later Vos would send them into battle anyway, probably for worse reasons.

“Deal,” Starscream said. “If my trine supports this, we’ll go to Winglord Stormraiser.”

~

“You did what?!” screeched Thundercracker a mere half joor later.

Skywarp laughed. “Don’t get your wings all dented, Starscream did the right thing.”

“He signed of us up for a war we know nothing about!” hissed his brother.

“Then ask Prowl,” Starscream snapped. “But don’t say no just because you are a coward!”

Thundercracker huffed, and stalked to the communication room.

In the end, it was simple. Thundercracker called Prowl and asked him new questions about strength of the opposition, how many warframes Polyhex and Praxus had and so on. Prowl answered mostly with full confidence, something that hinted at an extensive spy network.

“He needs us,” Thundercracker concluded afterwards, “because he doesn’t want this invasion to become too bloody.”

“And Polyhex has warframes, but few fliers.” Skywarp smirked. “Low risk for us.”

Starscream looked up from the desk which was covered with datapads. “So, we do it?”

Two determined nods answered him. For the princes, it was relatively easy to get an audience with their own creator. Relatively, because of the fact that there was this one secretary who really disliked Skywarp. With good reason too, as everyone admitted. Still, they had their audience in the highest level of Spire of Wind, the throne room. It was a circular, light room, covered by a dome high above which was painted with Vos’s creation story, a floor made of milky glass and diamonds, and high, wide windows reaching between the two, holding the elements off through elaborate force fields. The force fields themselves were the most expensive art in the room, soundless and invisible they were impenetrable for anyone but the Winglord and his bondmate. Everyone else, even the trine brothers and Princes, had to take the elevators. A security measure unlike any other, it had saved the Winglord’s spark in the past.

“Please tell me you are not here to complain about Sunstorm,” were the first words their creator greeted them with, sitting behind his desk, the Corona golden and bright on his helmet. Behind him stood the more elaborate throne. Few knew that the desk and its chair were capable of vanishing into the floor when needed.

The trine blinked. “What?” said Skywarp.

“Very eloquent, winglet,” sighed the older Seeker and put his stylus down. “Well, you three, by the surprise on your faces, I guess this truly isn’t about him?”

The three brothers exchanged meaningful glances. “Why should it be?” asked Thundercracker carefully. “We haven’t seen him in quite some time.”

“You haven’t, yes.” The Winglord’s wings twitched. “But your elder brother saw it fit to regularly visit me.”

“To complain, obviously,” muttered Starscream, then shook his head: “No, creator, we are here because something happened. Something important.”

Stormraiser gave his youngest trine a considering glance. Important meant many things to young Seekers after all, but when none of them budged, he nodded. “Tell me.”

The Winglord Stormraiser listened quietly to their tale, face and wings barely giving more away than interest. When they finished, he looked to the ceiling, thinking. “You were right,” he said. “This is important. And delicate…” He looked down to his youngest trine. “Yet, in some ways it is also quite simple. Lord Prowl is more than just within his rights to attack Polyhex. If we support him, we support justice and Prime’s laws. Considering that Sentinel Prime has proven not to be very … let us say supportive of Vos, this might help us in the long term.”

“Sentinel Prime is just unwilling to recognise the Corona and the true meaning of the Winglord’s position,” said Skywarp. “He might be Prime, but he is Prime of the groundbounders.”

“He is Prime,” said the Winglord. “And that makes him our Prime as well. No matter what I am.” He shook his head. “Besides that, I am more interested in the prospect of having Praxus as our true sister city again. We have become isolated and while we are the strongest force within the skies, on the ground we are weak. Praxus…  Praxus was always the solution for that.”

Stormraiser scrutinised his creations. “And you three truly think that Lord Prowl will be able to become our ally? That he would stand on our side against any enemy?”

“Yes.” All three answered at the same time and looked a bit surprised by it. Starscream elaborated, “He isn’t weak.”

“Not as weak as you three once described him to me?”

They blushed. “Not at all,” answered Thundercracker. “He still likes numbers a bit too much, I think, but that makes him probably just a better tactician.”

“He definitely isn’t a cry-cry anymore,” added Skywarp, a touch wistfully. “Became all icy and stoic.”

“I see,” said Stormraiser carefully, and all three had suddenly the feeling that he might be understanding the situation far better than they were. “Have you considered that he might be lying about his reasons to attack Polyhex?”

“Yes,” admitted Starscream reluctantly. “But I do think it unlikely and we lack the time to launch an investigation. The flight to Praxus alone takes a few orns…”

“I am aware,” Stormraiser interrupted him. “Fortunately, I have received many reports from Seekers and fliers in Lord Prowl’s Airforce. Some official, many of private nature. They all spoke of a Warlord they were proud to follow, a mech that despised Contract-breakers and traitors above everything else.” He paused. “It would certainly be to our advantage if Lord Prowl continues to rule Praxus instead of some unknown, very likely worse heir. Very well, the chances are worth a little bit of risk.”

The three young Seekers’ wings went upwards in anticipation.

The Winglord continued, “We shall honour our old connection and you three will fly for me. Polyhex shall be a test of your trine and strengths and of Lord Prowl’s resolve. Each one of you, choose a division and leave Vos as fast as possible. The flight is long and Lord Prowl will march soon.” He smiled at them knowingly. “You will not want to miss the battle.”

Starscream’s spark glowed with sweet triumph. It was time to show the universe the might of the next generation of Vos’s Seekers.

 

Chapter Text

Radishes

-

The Kidnapping

 

 

'War,' Prowl thought as he pulled out his lance, 'is an ugly thing.'

He stepped over the corpse into another mud puddle made out of pink lifeblood and tried to make out his mechs through the bitter-sweet smoke in the air. They had been ambushed by a sizeable platoon and his guard and soldiers were giving their best to drive them back.

Of course, Straxus had known Prowl was coming and had prepared. Of course, he was trying everything he could to kill Prowl, because when he fell it would be over. Prowl allowed himself a small smirk. Straxus had been so self-assured, he hadn't even tried to stop the army at the border. A mistake that was now costing him, because he had severely underestimated the numbers under Prowl's command and the fact that experience did matter on the battlefield.

It had been a long time since Prowl had hesitated to strike like that foolish second heir he had just killed.

Far away, he could hear explosions, screams and then the howling of a titan falling. One of his? Worry curled in his spark. His backup regiment would only reach them in several dozen breems and how long could they defend themselves here? What if he had underestimated Straxus' tactical processor and his spy network?

Screeches in the air, and then the smoke was blasted apart by bombs and liquid fire raining down.

Prowl's vision turned red, and he threw himself into the mud, next to the corpse as traning dictated. With spinning spark and hammering pump, he waited to be hit – but nothing happened. A few steps away and far too near, he heard a thump.

Warily, certain he was looking upon his own death, he looked up.

"Missed me?" smirked Starscream.

Pure relief made Prowl slump for an astrosecond. Then he remembered himself and stood up, trying to look somehow dignified, even while dripping with blood and mud. "Starscream," he greeted. "Your timing is impeccable."

If possible, the Seekers grin grew and he all but swaggered towards him. "I thought I would come over and help you out a bit. There seems to be quite the party going on here."

Prowl looked around, taking in his soldiers who were now mostly sitting on the ground, trying to recover from the fight; the parts that were all that was left of the enemy and the entire Seeker platoon that was circling above their helmets like a silent tornado. Seeker medics were now, that the situation was secured, dropping down and offering aid to the groundbound warframes.

"Indeed," Prowl answered drily. "And you brought even more guests to this party. I think the host will like their presence as much as he likes mine."

Especially because Polyhex would definitely not expect them. So far most of the fights had been solely on the ground. This changed everything.

"Oh, I assure you, he will." Starscream's optics flashed. "Vos specialises in leaving lasting impressions."

"And here I thought that was always just you and your trine-brothers," answered Prowl amused. "Have you brought them as well?"

"Of course." Starscream pointed towards the horizon and there Prowl saw two other entire wings of fliers darkening the sky, and taking out what was yet another titan of Polyhex. A scream and then the titan fell and the earth beneath their pedes trembled.

"I think," Prowl said mildly, "that I will enjoy working beside you."

Chapter Text

 Radishes

-

The Kidnapping

 

Chapter Three: Polyhex

 

The copper grass of Crystal Garden moved gently in the wind, shining golden like a fiery, endless sea in the evening sun. Further away, the mountains that surrounded the valley rose proud and grey, only their tips encased in eternal white snow.

Between the tall blades of grass, farmers talked about the upcoming dark season, while steelsheeps moved along on the dirt paths towards home. Inside the village, families and cohorts were already warming the fuel for dinner, the breeze carrying the sweet fragrance of Polyhexian energon like a beckoning call back to the fields.

A small dot appeared next to a mountain peak, diving into the valley with a speed that broke the sound barrier twice. The evening light reflected upon the green and purple finish of the newcomer, signalling far and wide that this warframe was in the employ of the Grand Duke of Polyhex. Uncaring of the dozens of unsettled optics upon him, the flyer broke his fall with a single barrel roll and gently landed within the courtyard of Crystal Castle.

The castle was old and sturdy, built with massive grey walls which were flanked by watch towers, and possessing long narrow hallways easily defended in case of an invasion. Though, in these times of peace, the watch towers were deserted and the walls bore the traces of age and weather.

The two lone guards at the gates of the castle had watched the intruder's descent with surprise and were now hurrying towards him.

"Hold!" the older one commanded. "Welcome to Crystal Garden Castle. What is it that you seek here?"

The foreigner looked sleek and modern next to the scuffed guards, who hadn't received any upgrade in metacycles nor seen a skirmish in even longer. But instead of letting his condescension show as the guards expected, the flyer only squared his shoulders.

"Brothers in arms, I carry an emergency missive from Grand Duke Straxus for the Counts of Crystal Garden. It is urgent."

The two guards exchanged a brief look to confirm that they both had heard the same. More than the words, it was the timbre of the envoy's voice that made them tense.

"Urgent?" the younger one asked.

The flyer nodded. "War is coming."

These simple words echoed deep within the two warframes. Older and scuffed they might have been, but they were warframes and soldiers first and foremost. Peace hadn't taken away their edge.

"Understood," answered one guard, surging military protocols making his words crisp. "Please wait here, we'll search immediately for the Counts."

Already his partner was calling other warframes on the commlines, spreading the word.

When next morning the Counts spoke to the population of Crystal Garden, confirming rumours of an unprovoked attack by Praxus, of war and a call to arms, the warframes took it with barely any surprise. They had already their polished weapons attached to their hips and the travel gear ready by their pedes; had already kissed their younglings goodbye and visited the graves of their ancestors.

They were ready.

And when the civilians looked into their optics, they too could already see the coming war.

~

"Ricci! Ya gonna have to go?" whined Jazz again as he looked up with bright visor and a pout.

Ricochet nodded, his smile firmly in place. "Of course, little Jazzy. I'm your big bro, and second heir, how else am I supposed to become a hero?"

The black and white sparkling frowned. "Saving da shining prince?"

The mechs that surrounded them in the crowded courtyard smiled fondly at the question, after all who didn't love the tale of Prince Shining and his brave Knights?

Nodding with all the seriousness he could muster, he answered: "The prince and the entire duchy! And then I'll return with my very own oath-sworn, who will become my future bondmate!"

Maybe the answer was a bit overly fantastic, as Ricochet admitted quietly to himself, but little Jazzy wasn't even ten vorns old yet and a third heir as well. Everyone knew that third heirs were a bit softer and coddled, and his brother was no exception. No one had told the little one yet that dragons weren't real and that some princes could be the monsters.

And frankly, right now Ricochet was the last mech seeking to change that. He would sooner start explaining interfacing in excruciating detail, followed by 101 ways to please your partner properly, than to steal the little one's belief in a good and just world.

His little brother looked awed for a moment, and then grinned. "No stuffy sworn like Note!"

"Never," he laughed. Their older brother Resonance's bondmate wasn't a bad mech, but strict and, yes, stuffy. Ricochet was the complete opposite and a bit proud of his reputation as a daredevil. He knelt down, one knee on the dusty ground, and spread his arms. "Come on. Give me a good-luck-hug, Jazzy!"

Jazz flew into his harms with a giggle. Tiny arms managed to sneak around Ricochet's neck and just as small legs scrambled for a place to stand on. Ricochet hastily caught the sparkling, and smiled.

"Promise?" muttered Jazz into his neck.

He blinked. "Promise what?"

For an astrosecond the youngling was very still. "You come back," he then quietly said.

Ricochet's spark did a very painful flip.

When it truly came down to it, it wasn't his choice to go or to stay. Their liege lord had called upon the army of Polyhex, and the House of Crystal Garden had to obey or be accused of treason. As the second heir, it was his place to lead the troops of Crystal Garden, had been trained in the arts of war since he could walk just for this moment.

Despite this, their creators offered to buy him free with a ridiculously high amount of money. Ricochet loved them for it, but while he might be a second heir and not trained in tax and finances, he wasn't an idiot and such a large sum would hurt the entire Crystal Garden badly. It was already a rather poor county without any mines or big industries and his spark wasn't worth a season of hunger, not when this was his very duty.

And so he had smiled and assured his family that this was what he wanted. That he wasn't nervous or scared by the prospect to kill another mech, but instead eager and self-confident. It had worked surprisingly well, probably because he truly did want to prove himself on the battlefield and to wow others with his skills. But… war. He had heard the stories, and they hadn't been the fairy tale kind.

Still, he had believed that Jazz, young innocent Jazz, had been oblivious to all of this. Maybe he had underestimated the little tyke.

With a heavy spark, he petted Jazz's helmet.

"Of course, I'll come back," he promised. "You won't even have the time to miss me properly."

~

It was strange to leave Crystal Castle, leading an entire convoy towards the mountains. It felt as empowering as scary, and Ricochet was glad that he had familiar warframes walking at both of his sides. His teachers were here, the younger ones that had trained with him, their families that had invited him in the past…

His spark clenched. These were his mechs, - his soldiers - and he was potentially leading them to their death or to glory. Maybe both, when he could trust the stories. Failure wasn't an option.

Crystal Garden was a valley deep within the Arc Mountain Range. Only one road was open during every season, and even avalanches were cleared away from it as quickly as possible. The Seven Guardian road, called so for the seven canyons it led through, was maybe one of the greatest natural defences on the planet. Each canyon could be blocked and defended, possibly for vorns.

The remoteness had made Crystal Garden poor, but also very safe and secure. Ricochet knew that once his family had owned more land, had even vassals and other Houses sworn to them, but war and treason had made his ancestors retreat and even flee, until Crystal Garden became their haven and home.

Each canyon had a wall and gate that was a sight to behold, towering high and mighty, with murals depicting ancient battles and half-crumbled statues that were rumoured to be even older. The first four valleys, they marched through without seeing another mech, their heavy steps echoing through the canyons, until instead of a single troop it was an entire army on the march.

And he was the leader and officer, their second heir!

Ricochet's steps became a bit lighter thanks to pride, and when they passed through the last three canyons, with walls that were kept in good repair and manned by warframes of his creators, he smiled in greeting and found a few nice, uplifting words.

Soon, even these familiar sights were behind them, and finally they met a big and well enough built street that the warframes could transform. Sitting on an armoured truck, Ricochet watched as the landscape flew by.

Soon they joined larger convoys, and ever more warframes seemed to appear. Once small enough to march through canyons, they were now hundreds of mechs racing along with a dust cloud, large enough to darken the horizon, behind them.

Another second heir greeted Ricochet with a short nod. "First time?" he asked.

Ricochet could only nod silently, not wanting to show any of his nervousness.

The other second heir, older and bearing silvery scars, laughed. "Don't worry, Praxus isn't a really dangerous opponent. They are too weak from their civil war and arrogant on top of that. Now, if it had been Kaon, it would be a different story, of course!"

"Kaon?" asked Ricochet, surprised. "Why should Warlord Megatron attack us?"

The mech sobered up. "Because they live for battle, kid. Praxus probably wants something, but Kaon… Kaon might just decide that fighting is their goal."

Ricochet tried to imagine an enemy like that and shuddered. "I like peace more than fighting," he admitted.

"We all do," answered the other heir solemnly.

After that, nothing much was said anymore and they moved on and on, passing rural villages, prosperous fields and staring farmers with barely any break in between. Ricochet had been trained for such long treks during the many wildness hunts in the mountains, but this endless shaking and the dust everywhere was an exhausting experience. The worst thing though were the rations, consisting of a special thickly brewed high-grade, which tasted horrible and burned slowly in the tank. But it gave them much needed energy and so he drank without complaint.

Polyhex appeared rather suddenly before them. One moment they were still deep within the needle forests, and the next they were on a straight, broad road that shone like a white ribbon between fields and hills, leading to a city where towers and domes rose like a dream in front of them. With red and yellow and blue roofs, pastel coloured walls, and seemingly every tower proudly bearing its own, distinctive flag, Polyhex was a tsunami of colours. Even the city gates were striped in green and purple, the colours of the Grand Duke.

Loud cheers welcomed them into the city and the citizens stood on both sides of an avenue, built out of crystal mosaics depicting geometrical forms and the legendary twelve first Primes.

Ricochet swivelled left, right, left again. Where to look at first? At the mechs, with their artfully decorated paintjobs and helmets? At the shops, with their big windows and lavish displays? Or forward towards the square and the palace that was awaiting them?

The square was vast and unbelievably crowded by the soldiers and second heirs gathering there, yet ever more were coming. Ricochet's armour touched the one of the mechs next to him, scraping the paintjob off and making any movement besides deep venting thanks to the collective heat of the frames nearly impossible. Before them rose the palace, its very size a statement of power, with a huge closed portal and far above a grand balcony on which the banner of Polyhex was gently caressed by a breeze.

Ricochet, forced to move with the crowd, felt suddenly small and lost.

And then, finally, mechs walked onto the balcony. Two huge warframes flanked a broadly built mech with a green and purple cape. Cheers echoed across the square and vibrated within Ricochet's breast plates. This must be him – the Grand Duke of Polyhex, Lord Straxus!

"Welcome to Polyhex!" the Lord said, and opened his arms wide. He might have been smiling, but it was too far away for Ricochet to tell for sure. "I hope your journey was safe and swift. It gladdens me to see you all here. I wish the occasion was a more positive one, but it is as it is. Three orns ago, the Praxian army, led by the ruthless second heir Prowl of the House of Praxus, has violated all treaties and crossed our borders! A division stationed there has been completely annihilated without warning or mercy."

He paused, gripping the balcony edge. "My mechs, this means war. Lord Prowl is blinded by arrogance and ambition – to rule one city state isn't enough for him! But he is underestimating us, underestimating you. And we will show him the error of his ways once and for all, so that he will never put a pede onto our land again. Are you with me?!"

The roar of the crowd was deafening and Ricochet screamed with them. Of course they would show the mad second prince of Praxus what they were made of!

From somewhere rose the chant: "Po-ly-hex! Po-ly-hex!"

Lord Straxus gave them a few klicks, then he spoke again. "North of the city, accommodations have been prepared for you. Rest and recover from the journey. Tomorrow at dawn is the blessing of Primus, afterwards you have to march south. But never forget this: As long as we stand together to protect our families, our homes and Polyhex, as long as we are united nothing can defeat us!!"

This time Ricochet joined the chants: "Po-ly-hex! Po-ly-hex! Po-ly-hex!"

On the balcony, Lord Straxus waved, then turned around and left. But the crowd didn't stop screaming for breems. Ricochet fell quiet a bit earlier and looked at the warframes around him. There were those he had brought from Crystal Garden, and they didn't really look all that different from the others here, fitting in without any effort as they raised their fists and chanted like the rest.

Shortly after, they were led to their accommodations, which turned out to be a large, dusty tent city. As an officer and second heir, he was in a smaller tent with just three mechs of the same rank – all of them second heirs of different ages. After just a breem of talking they decided to go drinking in the city; after all, as the oldest of them put it, it might be their last chance.

It turned out that a lot of the warframes had the same idea as the city's bars and clubs and inns were overflowing with guests. Barely a joor in, and Ricochet had lost his three companions. One was trying his luck with a flirty merchant, one had wanted to get high grade and never returned, and the third one had been just behind him – until he wasn't and Ricochet was wandering the full streets alone.

The highgrade sat warm in his fuel tanks, however with every step his spark was feeling colder as he wished that someone, anyone really, would walk beside him. After all, it might be his last evening, and he was all alone…

Already he was missing home, the valley and his brothers. How pathetic was he?

He contemplated returning to the tents early, when he heard it: "IIiiiiyaaaaaah!"

He froze and looked around. He was in a small, dirty side alley, somewhere in the east part of the city, an old area with many tiny streets, courtyards and pubs that belonged to the poorer parts of the population. His own safety had never been in question as he was armed and trained, but this scream… Ricochet whirled around and dove into the alley to his right. It must have come from somewhere nearby!

"Leave me alone!"

His spark clenched, the voice was so slagging young.

Ricochet started running, suddenly saw an open gate into a dark courtyard and yes, there they stood: A small youngling with his back against the wall and two large warframes in front of him.

"Hey!" he yelled, immediately drawing their attention. "You heard what he said!"

"And who might you be?" said one of the soldiers. "Another noble?"

Another? He blinked and then looked at the youngling more closely. A civilian frame, but with expensive – noble – upgrades. The shadows didn't let him see more, but that wasn't needed. Ricochet was already determined to protect that unfortunate kid.

"Another noble, yes," he bit out. "A second heir to be exact. State your name and rank, soldiers!"

The two robbers, or whatever else they were, hesitated, clearly realising that they had now a problem. And then they attacked. Not even having the time to curse, Ricochet took a hasty step back and drew his sword, just in time to block the one heading for his helmet. Sparks flew where the steel clashed.

"I won't let you escape. Your superior will hear of this!" he vowed and stared into the eyes of the warframe. Then he was forced back again as the second one attacked.

"Doesn't matter when you're dead," came the calm answer.

If he had had the time to think, he would have been shocked how quickly things had escalated, but instead all he could do was to listen to his training. Dodge – slash – parry – dodge again. Then, something made the first warframe stumble, and Ricochet didn't even think as he pierced the armour with his vibroblade.

"Farsight!" came the wail from his right, as he pulled the sword out.

Already greying, the frame fell to the ground. No, he hadn't, right? So easy, so very easy…

With a scream of pure hate and grief, the second enemy stormed towards him. The slashes were fast and uncoordinated, forcing Ricochet back as he didn't dare to block them. If it came to pure physical strength, most warframes beat him easily. A step back, another one, and suddenly his back hit the wall.

'Oh, slag,' he thought panicky, as he realised his error.

"Got you," grinned his would-be-murderer.

He dove to the ground, escaping the blade, but not the following kick. A crack, pain, and he flew across the courtyard, just to be stopped by another wall. All he could think about was not to let the sword fall. If he lost his weapon, it was over.

He concentrated on venting, so he could ignore the pain enough that he was able to stumble away from the wall. He had to hit, he had to kill, or it was over. Fuelled by fear and desperation, he attacked - only to dodge a moment too late and the warframe scored a hit on his left arm. Not on his sword arm, thank Primus.

He gritted his denta. He had to win. He wanted to do so much, he wasn't finished yet!

'Primus,' he prayed. 'Help me.'

Again his enemy tried to force him against a wall, but this time Ricochet wasn't fool enough to fall for the same trick twice. He jumped over a few crates and kicked them into the warframe's face. It gave him enough of a break to reach the middle of the courtyard. Enraged by the crates, his opponent attacked near blindly and this time Ricochet had the room to let his superior agility shine.

He parried to enraged attacks, indicated another step backwards, guiling the warframe into another wild, open attack, and then dived forward, ducking below the enemy's defences. It was a risky move, near suicidal, but his only chance at winning. Yet, if this failed, he would be completely open and vulnerable. For a moment he thought it was all over.

It succeeded.

The soldier realised the trick too late for what it was and didn't manage to protect his throat fast enough. One clean slash and the head flew away, while the frame crumbled loudly on the floor.

Disbelieving, Ricochet stared at the spreading blood, sinking to the knees himself. He did it. He was alive. The world was rushing back in, bringing along the noise and shouts of the startled neighbours, the pain of his frame, the sniffles of the youngling.

The youngling!

He looked up and forced himself to ignore everything else. "Hey, where are you, little one? Are you alright? We might want to get a medic…" And a few Enforcers. Or higher officers?

Primus, just what had he done?

"Here," answered a small voice.

Ricochet looked to his left, where the youngling was standing. It seemed he had simply overlooked him in the shadows. He gave the little one a rather pained smile. "Good to see you. I'm Ricochet, second heir of House Crystal Garden."

The youngling bowed slightly. "It's – It's a pleasure to meet you." Another sniffle. "I- I'm Mirror, from House Morgana."

"Nice to meet you, too." Just Mirror, Ricochet noted. Was the youngling deliberately not mentioning his rank or didn't he have an official rank? The latter was very unusual, after all most noble families didn't have more than three creations to avoid exactly that… Whatever it was, it wasn't his business.

"Well, let's get you home, yes?" he said. "Can you lead the way? I'll accompany you."

A solemn nod. "I can, yes."

When they left the courtyard, an Enforcer was already running towards them. Ricochet gave his name and rank according to protocol, and described what happened. Though, when he mentioned the House of the youngling, the Enforcer suddenly stood a bit straighter, while giving the youngling a long glance. Yet, he let them both go, merely extracting the promise to be available if questioning should be needed. It certainly paid to be noble sometimes.

House Mirror turned out to have an entire giant mansion right next to the palace. Ricochet stared at it, and thought that he should have heard of this House a bit sooner. Seriously, they had the money for golden window frames of all things!

"Mirror! Where have you been?" A voice suddenly yelled.

The youngling's head flew around. "Mirage!"

Astroseconds later, the youngling threw himself into the arms of a slender, elegant mech with white shimmering glyphs who caught him easily. "You rascal! Everyone is searching for you and an Enforcer even called…!" said the exasperated mech, but warm fondness coloured every word.

"Sorry," muttered Mirror and clung to the older mech. "I won't do it again."

The other noble chuckled. "Tell that to Reflection. Last I saw him, he was spitting nails he was so angry…" Then he looked towards Ricochet with a frown. "And you are…?"

Ricochet blinked, then attempted a slight bow for politeness sake. The wound in his side made him wince and he barely kept a grimace from his face. "Ricochet, second heir from House Crystal Garden. It's nice to meet you, but please excuse me. I need to find out where the hospital is located…"

The other's optics white narrowed. "You're hurt."

"He saved me!" Mirror suddenly said. "From two large warframes! Mirage, he needs to see Kaput!"

"Indeed, he does." Mirage made a step forward. "I am Mirage of House Morgana. It would be an honour to treat your wounds for saving Mirror."

Well, there was no way to say no to that. "Thank you," Ricochet answered.

The interior of the mansion was just as impressive as the outside. The floor was shining, expensive stone in the hallways, the staircases broad and open, flanked by beautifully crafted statues, and just everywhere were servants. Ricochet felt uncomfortable, but kept close to Mirage who kept up a steady stream of light conversation about Mirror and how everyone had searched for him.

Reflection, as it turned out, was the Lord of the House and sire to Mirage. Also, according to Mirror, completely unreasonable about curfew.

"Grandcreator never lets me go anywhere and carrier supports him! That's why I snuck away. I didn't think…" Mirror looked away and snuggled deeper into Mirage's arms.

"He has his reasons, little one," said the older noble and looked towards Ricochet with an apologising smile. "We are a bit concerned with so many foreign mechs in the city."

Mirage eventually found a room, knocked, and asked Ricochet to wait for a moment. When he returned, it was without Mirror.

"It's best to first calm some worried creators," Mirage explained with a chuckle. "My brother nearly ripped Mirror from my arms."

"My family is the same," admitted Ricochet. "Little ones are precious."

"They are, yes. Please follow me." Mirage guided him through several hallways to the medbay, which seemed in the centre of the mansion. "I haven't heard a lot from your House in recent years. Is it prospering?"

"Ah…" Ricochet floundered. How to answer that? What was the right, polite answer? "Uhm, we are doing well… my brother has just bonded and my little brother is around the same age as Mirror."

Mirage gave him an interested glance. "Is your brother also a rascal who loves challenging the rules?"

"Jazz? Oh yes." Ricochet found his balance again. "Very much so. Why, just let me tell you about this one time…"

It was pleasant to talk with Mirage. The other mech always knew what to say or ask to set him at ease and never seemed bored by his answers. Indeed, sometimes Mirage even laughed at his jokes, and then told his own. Who would have thought that this prim and proper noble had such a wicked humour?

The medic, Kaput, was highly professional, and didn't even ask what exactly had happened. With a critical optic, he assessed the wounds and then started treating them while muttering about stupid young adventurous mechs. During the procedure, Mirage never left Ricochet's side.

"Would you like to stay the night here?" Mirage asked finally, when Kaput declared himself to be finished.

Ricochet startled. "Ah… Thank you, but I think I'm expected to be back at the camp."

For a moment Mirage stared as if Ricochet had turned into a petrorabbit, then said, "Oh. And later?"

Later? Had he missed some polite rule? "Ah, I'm afraid we are moving out tomorrow."

Mirage's face fell slightly. "I see."

Ricochet frowned, not liking to see this funny, intelligent mech like this. "I can maybe visit later? I mean, if I return…?" If. He winced at that word. "It's just unfortunate timing."

The other noble nodded, and then gave him a contemplating look. "Well. You are now injured and who knows how badly, really. Such a fight, to bravely save an heir of House Morgana, proving your honour…" Mirage winked. "Maybe you should stay in the medbay, until you are healthy again."

Ricochet opened his mouth to say 'no', then closed it again. What exactly was this offer? He hesitated. On one hand, he didn't have to go to the battlefield quite yet, if he accepted. On the other… He frowned. "The Grand Duke's orders are clear," he said. "I am not sure he would simply let some unknown officer stay, even if he is injured."

Mirage petted his arm. "I will take care of this, I promise. Just… stay until you are completely well again and capable of defending yourself on the battlefield."

Put like that, it would be a folly to say 'no'. He captured Mirage's hand, to politely – and a bit old-fashioned, but he had always liked grand gestures! – kiss it. "Then it will be my honour to accept your hospitality, Heir Mirage of the House Morgana."

When he looked up again, he saw Mirage blushing and felt all warm and happy.

~

Mirage was even better than his word. Not only did the Grand Duke accept that Ricochet stayed in Polyhex, but he had signed an official document that acknowledged the brave deed done and named him an exemplary second heir of the Duchy.

Over the following orns, Ricochet had his own room in the mansion, was regularly visited by Kaput and even more often by Mirage. Ricochet talked about the beauty of his home county, Mirage told him about the fantastic balls held in the palace at peace time and they both enjoyed long walks in the mansion's garden.

"I kind of envy my brother that he has already found a compatible sparkmate," admitted Mirage during one of these walks. "Searching isn't easy. There are many applicants and few compatibles."

Ricochet hummed. "I haven't really searched yet for a sparkmate. Oh, there were one or two, but the tests weren't good enough and I hadn't loved them yet. But … sometimes, I wish for someone at my side."

"Only sometimes? You big, bad second heir." Mirage laughed.

"Says the first heir of House Morgana," Ricochet said and rolled his optics.

Mirage had stopped walking. "I never said…"

"That you are the first heir?" Ricochet frowned. "What else could you be? Lord Reflection is your sire, you obviously aren't a second heir and Mirror's carrier Shard isn't the first heir, or Mirror could call himself first heir in line…"

"Ah. I guess you are right."

Ricochet stepped closer to Mirage, the soft grass bending under his pede, while a strange, soft excitement surged through his cables. "I don't understand why this bothers you, but I will not tell anyone if you do not want me to."

"Thank you, but this is unnecessary. I just thought that when you knew you would…" He looked away from Ricochet towards the artificial waterfall a bit away.

"Treat you differently?" he said gently.

There was a long heavy silence, and then a small, nearly fragile, "Yes."

"… I guess that's happened before."

Mirage nodded shortly and looked back at him, blue optics swimming with memories. "Too often to count. House Morgana has a certain reputation and not all of it is good."

Ricochet had already thought that much. The many obvious and hidden guards, the reaction of the Enforcer, the weapons the members of the House carried… all of this had created a disconcerting picture. But despite this, he had felt always warmly welcomed.

"Most of what I've seen from House Morgana so far is you, Mirage," he said. "And that's something that I've liked very much so far."

Mirage's optics widened.

What…? Oh. He hadn't just said… he had. Primus, take him and his stupidity! He wanted to hide his burning face behind both his hands.

Then Mirage broke into a wonderful, brilliant smile, so unlike all the others previously seen. "You are sweet, Ricochet." He paused. "And I like you also very much."

On the way back, Mirage sneaked his hand into Ricochet's, and neither said anything about it. But Ricochet's spark was spinning so very, very fast, that he felt like floating.

~

"You are healed now," said Mirage an orn later, leaning against the doorframe of his guest room. "Do you want to train with me?"

He blinked. "With you? I thought you are a first heir…" Not that many cousins walking through the halls weren’t armed, but Mirage had seemed to be an exception so far.

"I am." Mirage's smile turned sly. "But that doesn't mean that a first heir can't rescue themselves, should the need arise. So, my big, bad second heir, up for a spar?"

He gathered his weapons and answered, "With you? Always."

The training room was vast and full with several training bodyguards, who glanced at Ricochet with clear curiosity. Mirage walked past them towards an empty mat and then turned towards him:

"En garde!" he said, and pulled out a rapier out of subspace.

"An elegant weapon, for an elegant mech," Ricochet commented, while taking out his own longsword. "But can you fight with it?"

"Try me."

He did, and yes, Mirage could fight with it. Very well, even. After a few bouts, where they were rather even, he started showing Mirage how to fight with a longsword. Mirage returned the favour and explained that his family traditionally fought with a special variant of the rapier called carrót.

That evening, Ricochet got a letter that told him he was being permanently transferred from the frontlines to the Palace Regiment, more specifically the Green Guard.

"Do you have anything to do with this?" he asked Mirage, the moment the other mech had entered his rooms, holding the letter high.

"If I said yes, would you be angry?" Mirage said quietly, but in his optics was a hard look.

"No!" he hurried to say. "It just surprised me that you are willing to do that for me."

Mirage relaxed and chuckled with relief. "You silly mech, of course I am."

~

The palace wasn't far, and in the morning he walked there by himself after a wonderful breakfast with Mirage who had wished him good luck. The other noble was really an extraordinary mech, gentle, caring, funny. Anyone would be more than fortunate to date him, and Ricochet couldn't stop himself from hoping that maybe, just maybe, Mirage's interest into him was more than just kindness.

Even though House Morgana was so much above his own House, they were both nobles and it wouldn't be too scandalous. Right? So maybe… He couldn’t stop himself dreaming.

"Second heir Ricochet of the House Crystal Garden?"

He looked up, startled. Before him stood a massive, black warframe with thick plates decorated with the green-purple badge of the Green Guard. But the most remarkable thing was the face, which was covered by mask and visor, so that nothing was visible.

Ricochet stood automatically straighter, and forced himself not to salute. "Yes, that's me."

"I am Colonel Riptide." The voice was deep and rolling. A southern accent, Ricochet guess, that only served to enhance the commanding presence of the mech. "Welcome to the Green Guard. Were you made aware of our duties?"

"No? I'm sorry if I should have been…"

Colonel Riptide made a short handwave. "It's better if you haven't. Our existence isn't something we want everyone to know of, but considering your connections to House Morgana it wouldn't have surprised me had they already briefed you. Follow me, we don’t have the whole orn."

Ricochet did, while his thoughts raced. His connections to House Morgana? He wanted to deny that there were any, but then… there was Mirage. And Mirage was a pretty big name in the right circles, he was sure… he really should stop to think about Mirage.

He rubbed his nose. ‘Concentrate, Rico,’ he thought. Especially, because the Colonel was acting as if he had joined some secret special taskforce.

The palace hallways were made out of the best of the best, exquisite art, precious metals, expensive jewellery where ever the optic wandered. And yet… Ricochet couldn’t but think that the opulence in the Morgana mansion had had more warmth and taste.

All the while he was expecting the Colonel to say something, anything, but the warframe was marching silently along with huge steps. Ricochet had to hurry after him, nearly running. Suddenly the Colonel stopped in front of a decorated door, just like the dozens they had already passed.

Colonel Riptide leaned forward, placed a giant hand on his shoulder that seemingly weighted more than the average boulder and captured his optics. "Listen, I don’t know you. I don’t trust you. But you came with recommendations, and that is the only reason why you’re here. Everything from here on is a state secret - every word, every mech, every shadow. We will know if you talk to the wrong people. So do not disappoint me or those who vouched for you, and we’ll all get along swimmingly. Got it?"

Ricochet nodded hastily. “Y-yes. I understand.”

"Good. Come."

Behind the door was a hallway. Nothing here reminded anyone about the decoration of the palace anymore. It only had a grey floor, white walls and six guards that all stood to attention when the Colonel entered.

"At ease," said the Colonel. "This is Ricochet. He will be the new handler."

The soldiers gave him short glances, but that was the only reaction he received.

Handler? Handler of what…? Just what had Mirage signed him up for?

The hallway was short, and at its end was another, clearly reinforced door, made out of military grade steel if Ricochet knew anything. It opened slowly, but without a sound. Silently they walked into, well, if Ricochet had to describe it, the hall of a nicely decorated apartment. A bit bland maybe because it lacked any personal touches, but it could have easily switched places with any suite in a luxury hotel. There was the soft carpet, the elegant lamps, and an open door which gave the view into a living room.

On second glance, he noticed there weren't any windows. Not a single one. Ricochet felt suddenly colder. "Is this… a prison?"

The Colonel next to him gave him a surprised glance, but thankfully didn't deny the obvious. "Yes. What you are about to see doesn’t exist, and can no one ever know."

He walked to a closed door, opened it and stepped aside. Inside was a nice bedroom, dominated by a huge medical bed. And at its centre was a small, so very small, youngling, covered by a blanket and recharging peacefully.

"That is Prince Smokescreen, first heir of Praxus. You'll be his handler."

Ricochet could only gape.

Chapter Text

 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.

Chapter Text

 

Radishes

-

The Kidnapping

 

“To all shadows, the ‘quarter’ has been breached. I repeat, the ‘quarter’ has been breached. Immediate support needed.”

Mirage, stationed at the western wall, had immediately turned around and, followed by his cousin, run towards the palace, all the while silently cursing. Above them, a few Seekers thundered across the sky, and explosions were audible further away. Below his pedes the ground was vibrating and ashes carried from places already experiencing the furnace of war were filling the air.

His home was fighting for survival.

They reached the palace, its hallways far too empty, if one ignored the occasional corpse. The Praxian had clearly been here. The door to the ‘quarter’ was standing open, showing traces of violence. Inside, they could see more corpses, and some had Praxian doorwings.

His cousin looked at him, the first heir and the older one, for confirmation, but Mirage hesitated. Inside the blood, there were prints that already led outside again. He knelt down and looked closer and yes, even outside were bloody pede prints leading away.

“Go in invisible,” Mirage decided. “Be careful. I am pursuing them.”

“Alone?”

He gave his cousin a smirk. “They will not see me.”

He drew his carót and started to run towards the direction the footprints had suggested the Praxians had taken. There were several courtyards, behind them the gardens and then already the wall. It was a logical escape direction, and fortunately Mirage knew several shortcuts.

In the last courtyard, built with dozens of blindingly white columns and winding paths between softly glowing crystals for summer parties, he caught up with them. Invisible, he was just a few meters in front of them, well hidden by his Talent and several columns. They were a small group, just five bloody, exhausted Praxian warframes – no doubt most of them had already fallen. In addition, one had his hands full with a very frightened Smokesc – no. He was occupied with the target.

Mirage breathed deeply, raising his carót. He was invisible, highly skilled and would be going in for the kill. He would get two, before they would even register that something was happening and then he would aim –

Shadow 301?” his cousin suddenly interrupted his thoughts over the commlines. “The ‘quarters’ are secured, the jewel is missing. There are no survivors.”

He froze. “Ricochet…?”

Dead. … I’m sorry.

Loss ripped through Mirage with an agonised howl as all strength abandoned him. He was barely able to grasp the column by his side as he sank to his knees, weapon forgotten. Ricochet… he remembered the smile, the golden sun on his armour, the brilliance of his spark.

How? Why?! He had barely started to dream of a future together, had just started to love Ricochet with the fullest of his spark.

A spark he could hear now cracking in the suddenly devoid, cruel world.

This wasn’t fair! Ricochet deserved so much more…

A sob escaped him and his world became blurry with tears and pain, while just a few meters away, the Praxians were running past without suspecting anything.

Chapter Text

 Radishes

-

The Kidnapping

 

 

 Chapter Five: Praxus - "Brother, oh brother"

 

Prowl waited in his tent, outside of Polyhex. He would have been too big a target had he chosen to enter the city with the extraction team. Not to mention the battle was raging on all around Polyhex and he was needed as a commander. Yet his spark was with the extraction team, hoping, praying for a success.

For the past several joors he had heard nothing from them. Then, finally, the message reached him that they had reached their perimeter, that Commander Blueshield and several others had fallen, but that the mission itself had been a success. Smokescreen was safe. And awake.

Immediately, Prowl had given the order for a retreat. They had what they had come for, and needless destruction was beneath him. Then he waited, pacing back and forward, until Quickstrike entered his tent, holding securely in his arms the one thing Prowl had sought above everything else.

“Smokescreen,” he breathed, nearly unable to believe that this was real. That finally Smokescreen was really here, awake and not in danger.

Smokescreen, who had hidden his face in Quickstrike’s shoulder, had hesitantly looked up. “Prowl?”

Primus be praised. “Yes.” He scooped his little brother into his own arms, hugging him and vowing to never let him go again. “It’s me. You are safe.”

Smokescreen, instead of answering, started to cry.

“Shh,” whispered Prowl, trying to be reassuring. “Shh. Everything is well.” And with Smokescreen in his arms, he even believed that.

The youngling sniffled.

Concerned about his brother’s treatment among his enemies, he scrutinised the frame and paintjob, but it was as well as could be expected. A bit pale, maybe, but then Smokescreen had been sick for a long time. Still, “Have you fuelled since waking up?”

Smokescreen nodded his head. “Where are our creators? Lord Straxus said they-” A sob. “They are dead.”

Prowl’s euphoria plunged. “Oh, Smokey…” He hugged his brother closer, wishing he could offer a placating lie. “He spoke truth.”

Another sob. “He- Carrier, he looked like in pain. Like he had drank a really bad fuel…”

“Poison. Shimmerspark was poisoned,” Prowl answered with a heavy spark. “Black Haze was killed too.” ‘Please don’t ask how,’ Prowl pleaded silently. He didn’t want to tell him about Yellowstripe, about the dagger in the back, the blood everyway, the office rooms that were now sealed and would remain so as long as Prowl lived.

“Like Brazen?” said Smokescreen instead, voice shaking with uncertainty and shock.

“Yes.” He had forgotten, Prowl thought that for Smokescreen no time had passed while in stasis. It was all still so very fresh for his brother. “And like some others. You have recharged for a long time.” He caressed the small helmet, marvelling at the fact that finally he could do that. “I have missed you.”

Smokescreen nodded, then looked up directly into Prowl’s optics. “Lord Straxus also said that Yellowstripe and Uncle Vapor killed them, and that you killed them and many more in return. And I told him you wouldn’t do this. Murder is wrong and you would never murder any mech!”

If someone would have taken Prowl’s spark in that moment and crumbled it in their fist, it would have hurt less. Smokescreen was young, but their creators had believed that morals should be taught young to a third heir anyway. Shimmerspark himself had been a third heir. Yet, his brother was too young to see the grey between right and wrong. And now… now Smokescreen was looking with his big optics at Prowl, waiting for the denial that Prowl couldn’t provide.

“Smokescreen,” he said slowly. “Vapor and Yellowstripe killed our creators, and started a civil war. I did what I had to do to protect us.”

Please, please believe me.

Smokescreen’s optics became wider if possible. His doorwings fell flat to his back, as he struggled to comprehend Prowl’s words. “But they would never hurt us...” was the whispered answer, disbelief behind every single glyph.

“They hurt you severely.”

“And you killed them for it.” Smokescreen became very, very still in Prowl’s arms.

He tried to soothingly put his hand on Smokesceen’s little doorwings, but they moved out of his way. “Uncle Vapor fell on the battlefield.”

“And Yellowstripe?”

Prowl was silent, unable to answer the question, knowing that he would never be the same in his brother’s optics if he confirmed it.

Yet, the silence seemed to be enough of a yes. A violent tremble shook his brother. “And everyone else? Who else did you kill?!”

The accusation was sharp and hit true. How many had died on his orders? He truly didn’t know anymore. He even had lost count of those he had killed on the battlefields. Prowl was grasping for a lie, for anything to make this better, for anything to stop this.

“Prowl!” Smokescreen’s tiny hands shoved him. “Answer me!”

He caught his brother’s hand, holding it, looking at the one he loved most on this planet. “I killed everyone who threatened us.”

The silence after the words was terrible. In that moment Prowl knew that nothing ever would make these words unforgotten. Nothing. Why did it feel like he tethered on the edge of a large chasm? Powerlessly hanging in balance over a vast nothingness?

Smokescreen looked at him for a long moment with something Prowl could only describe as horror, then he struggled to get out of his arms. Afraid that he would simply fall, Prowl set him down. Without losing a klick, Smokescreen ran to the field berth, climbed up on it and hid beneath the blanket. The huddle trembled, and low sobs emanated from it.

Prowl stood there, a part of him wanting to copy Smokescreen, another part simply wanting to scream. But all he could do was stand there, frozen, searching for something elusive, soft, light… hope. Where was it?

“My prince,” whispered Quickstrike who had stepped up by his side.

Prowl flinched. He had forgotten about the warframe. “Yes?”

“Go to him. He needs you.”

“He just ran from me,” said Prowl, his voice breaking. “As if I am some monster.”

The Captain gently shook his helmet. “No, my prince. He ran from the news that his creators are dead, that the rest of his family betrayed and killed each other. That is a lot to take in.”

Prowl looked at Quickstrike, and found that he trusted the warframe more than himself. Slowly he nodded, grasping at the explanation as an empty grasped an energon cube. “I pray you are right.”

Slowly he walked to the berth and sat down on it, putting a hand on the quivering huddle.

“Smokescreen,” he said softly, scrambling to find something reassuring to add. Anything but the awkward silence between them. “Smokescreen,” he said again. “It will be alright. Everything will be alright.”

The words rang hollow. Yet, he still had the tiny, flickering hope that it would be alright between them.

A loud sob, then a pair of optics looked out of the blanket fort, and two small hands grabbed his large one and pulled it into the huddle. Then Smokescreen continued to cry. Prowl sat there, silently, giving his hand as Smokescreen didn’t seem to want to accept anything else from him.

And if Prowl silently cried in that joor, only Captain Quickstrike saw it.

~

Their reunion only lasted for two joors, then reports of an emergency were coming in from a retreating division, new skirmishes were reported and finally casualty estimations made. With regret, Prowl let Smokescreen go, settled him on a chair, put a blanket on him and did his duty. He tried to forget the look of alarm on Smokescreen’s face as he turned away.

Altogether, it could have gone worse. The Seeker of Vos were providing ample cover for them until they reached Praxus’ soil again and were safe.

It became obvious during the following orns that despite Prowl’s wish to spend most of his time with Smokescreen, he was needed everywhere else. He hadn’t any family members to share his duties with, no Master of Trade and no Secretary of State to support and advise him. His orns were long and hard, especially because his inauguration had to be planned.

“It has been put off long enough,” Lord Clearwater had said and Lord Shanix had nodded behind him. “We cannot wait any longer, now that we are at peace.”

And at peace they were. Polyhex offered no apology for kidnapping Smokescreen, but Prowl had not expected one after destroying part of their city. Instead there was complete silence on both their sides and even trade had ceased mostly.

The other dukedoms had slowly been sending their ambassadors, once the situation was declared safe and stable. Vos first among them all, even going so far to send a brother of the current Winglord as a representative. It was a powerful sign of their reforged alliance. Praxus was economically weakened, but it had been reborn as a military power.

The second ambassador to arrive was from Iacon, bearing a congratulation note from Sentinel Prime, also not unexpected. It was the third one that Prowl hadn’t guessed right at all: Only an orn after Prime’s missive, four mechs had entered his Palaise, bringing their joint congratulations from the four Warlord ruled city states - Kaon, Tesarus, Tarn and Helex. Also known as the War States.

“I thought they were allied to Polyhex?” muttered Prowl a bit later.

“Not anymore, it seems,” had answered General Warpath with a grin. “Seems they weren’t too impressed by Lord Straxus’ defeat.”

“You have proven yourself in many ways to them,” added Lieutenant-General Groundburn. “And the alliance with Vos, another warframe state, has certainly not hurt.”

Prowl nodded and looked out of the window towards Praxus. A hundred vorns ago, his creators had ruled and been known as pacifists. Now, warframes accepted him more readily than most anyone else besides the Prime House. What would his creators say if they could see him? Would they recoil in horror like Smokescreen?

He told himself, that it didn’t matter. He did what was necessary to keep Smokescreen and Praxus safe.

“Treat them with the all the amenities any foreign dignitaries deserve,” he ordered. “And if they want to use the battle grounds, make sure that they fight Praxus finest.” He would not let them get any impression of weakness, not under his watch.

The warframes exchanged approving looks. Only Captain Quickstrike frowned. “And if they want to fight you, my prince?”

Prowl smiled sharply. “Then I will give them that honour. I am sure that while I might not win, I will not embarrass us.”

He didn’t. In fact, he won two fights out of four. But when he left the training grounds, bleeding, dented, victorious, he suddenly saw Smokescreen hiding behind a barrack, looking scared and alone. Alarmed, he changed his course towards his brother, who turned and ran away. Prowl stopped, unable to leave the Warlords and Ambassadors to follow Smokescreen.

With every step Smokescreen took, he felt the chasm deepen.

He wished he had someone, anyone, to call besides the tutor Smokescreen should be with right now. The only thing he could say to the poor mech was to berate him as to why he'd left his charge alone.

The invitations for his inauguration went out, and Prowl could only hope that any nobles from non-Warframe ruled city states would bother to appear. It was a promising sign when the first to confirm his attendance was his Royal Highness, Prince Orion from House Prime.

“Of course, I will come, Prowl!” Orion had assured him over a call. “I’ve wanted to visit for vorns now, but my creator was too worried for my safety...”

“Rightfully so.” Prowl managed a small smile. “I look forward to seeing you.” He paused. “Will Sentinel Prime also come?”

Orion shrugged, looking apologetic. “When they think that there is no risk, yes.”

Sentinel Prime indeed confirmed his attendance just a short while later, though he would only stay for two orns. Once that became public knowledge the preparations stepped up in their frenzy and attendance confirmations from all over Cybertron landed on Prowl’s desk.

The inauguration itself became also a sign of hope for the Praxian population. The sign that not only was the time of war und instability over, but that the future looked safe and good again. They were recognised internationally again. In many ways, his inauguration was also his victory celebration.

Prowl might have been as close as he got to happy in these orns, if there hadn’t been Smokescreen. His younger brother avoided him, and had become withdrawn and quiet. The formerly lively youngling was a mere shadow of himself and when he believed that Prowl wasn’t paying attention he watched his own brother with a wariness Prowl had never seen before.

It hurt Prowl and what little spare time he had, he tried to spend with Smokescreen. He invited him to games, to dinner, even to some public outings in the city. Smokescreen never complained, and never seemed to enjoy himself.

Discreetly, Prowl tried to talk with Smokescreen’s tutors, mechs the youngling had already known from before and who had proven loyal.

“He is simply mourning,” one tried to assure him.

A second one sighed. “It is the building, my Lord. His – your – creators died here, he watched his carrier dying here in front of him. He is afraid of the hallways.”

Yet another was bolder. “My Lord, you have changed and Smokescreen… has not.”

And didn’t it come down to that? Smokescreen had been ripped out of a world of safety and comfort, and placed into one similar, but bereft of everything he knew and where the values he had been taught were nothing more than nice wishes.

The youngling wasn’t blind. There were guards everywhere, his brother was littered with scars, their entire family was dead or exiled and at the public outings… the civilians respected Prowl, but they weren’t comfortable with him. Not in the way they had been with Brazen or the Grand Dukes. The public executions had cast Prowl into a very different, bloody light and Smokescreen could now see that knowledge reflected in their optics.

Was it any wonder he looked at Prowl as if he was a stranger?

Prowl understood, intellectually, yet it didn’t change the fact that his dream of having his brother at his side was proving very different in reality. In his processor, Smokescreen had always been glad to see him, holding his hand and happily talking about his orn.

But, as with so many other things, that was the past now.

The only exception was, when Prowl sat down with Smokescreen to explain about the inauguration, who would come and what would be expected of him. Smokescreen made it a point to sit as far away on the table as he could, doorwings drawn close, always looking down as if he was here for a dressing down and not for a relaxed talk with his brother. But then, suddenly, his brother looked up and asked:

“Orion is coming?”

“Yes,” said Prowl. “And Sentinel Prime.”

Smokescreen’s doorwings went up, shyly and hesitant. “I missed them… Will they bring those green, sweet balls like last time?”

“The jelly balls? I don’t know. We could ask them?” Prowl said carefully.

“Yes! Let’s call them!” Smokescreen smiled excitedly, then it dimmed a bit. “I mean, only if it doesn’t bother you… Please?”

He hastily said, “It doesn’t bother me, not at all.”

As if Prowl would be able to say no to the first sign of happiness his brother had displayed since waking up.

Luckily, Orion had just laughed, and promised to bring some of them and something new for his favourite cousin. Smokescreen’s doorwings were nearly vibrating with anticipation for the visit and just two orns later, Smokescreen quietly asked Prowl if he could call Orion again. Prowl, recognising the loneliness within his brother, had easily allowed it and all the times afterwards as well. Orion never seemed to mind.

When Orion and Sentinel Prime finally arrived, nearly the last among a score of other nobles from all over Cybertron, Smokescreen stormed past Prowl to hug Orion – and then with a bit more hesitation, Sentinel Prime. Both hugged him back, Sentinel admittedly a bit stiffer than Orion, who wondered out loud just how big his cousin had become.

The jealousy in Prowl’s spark was a living, clawing thing, but he didn’t dare to say or do anything lest he would destroy Smokescreen’s happiness.

“It is good to see your brother so well,” Sentinel said a bit later quietly, as they stood Prowl’s chambers. “I had feared the worst.”

“Me too,” answered Prowl just as quietly and then decided to continue, because this was Prime and family and who else could he tell this? “Sometimes, he still worries me.”

“This haven’t been easy vorns, for him and for you, but he will heal.” Sentinel turned towards Prowl, scrutinising him with a glance that went far deeper than mere armour. “What about you, Prowl?”

Prowl for a long moment stared at Sentinel, trying to comprehend the question. “I?”

“Yes, you.” Sentinel’s face lines grew deeper with concern, in that moment his resemblance to Shimmerspark and Brazen was painfully obvious. “Don’t think, I am unable to look beyond your titles and deeds. I saw you when you were barely two orns old, and when you were crying, because your pet Toddy died. I know you, Prowl and you are not well.”

He opened his mouth to deny, lie, assure, then he looked away. “I miss them,” he finally said, the words breaking free from his spark. “Every joor, I miss them and curse them for leaving me with this.”

Sentinel Prime only nodded, not a hint of surprise on his face. “You are their creation and love can be the most painful of all blades.” He gave the younger mech a considering glance. “But you are strong, Prowl, remember that. You were created for this.”

“Brazen…”

“Brazen was a fool,” Sentinel said harshly, then added softer, “A loveable, beautiful, charming fool. Had Orion bonded with him, I have no doubt that Orion would have ruled in his stead most of the time.” He paused, taking a sip of his energon cube. “Also, it would have meant you would have become the ruler of Praxus, anyway. I meditated on it, Prowl. And no matter how, if shadow ruler or because your brother bonded with my creation and became Grand Duke of Iacon, or through civil war and betrayal… your road would have always led you towards power.”

“Maybe.”

Sentinel Prime shook his helmet. “No maybe. I am sure, this is your rightful place in life. Take comfort in this: This was Primus will.”

Prowl nodded. From every other mech he could have ignored the words, but this was Prime. Primus’ representative on Cybertron, his hand and mouth, his holiness poured into a single mech, yet what Prowl felt was far from anything the realm ‘comfort’ offered. Primus was a cruel god.

Sentinel smiled at him, all ruler and Prime, and nothing like the uncle Prowl had hoped for. “You will do well, Prowl. I have no doubt.”

Prowl answered “Thank you” and felt cold.

The inauguration and the following celebration became a bombastic triumph of Prowl’s accomplishments. No one dared to tell him to his face that he was too young to rule, too inexperienced. Instead they all tried to curry favour with him, wanted to talk about trade routes and negotiations and old contracts that had rested during the civil war. Some, friends of his creators and his family, gave him their condolences in quiet tones, but he wondered if they really felt it or if they were just worried for their own fortunes.

In the end, their words rang hollow in his audios as did so many other things. Maybe, his ability to trust had been damaged permanently.

In all of this, Orion was a presence at his side that he didn’t want to miss. His kind words relaxed Prowl and his ability to distract even the most annoying mechs made him precious beyond words. Not to mention – Prowl trusted him. He was family and even if Smokescreen wasn’t happy to have Prowl near him, Orion just took him as he now was.

Additionally, Smokescreen was delighted to see Orion. They had never been very close, but now Smokescreen latched onto his cousin, even going so far to follow him around.

“It’s cute,” Orion had said amused. “Like a cyberpuppy.”

“Don’t play fetch with him,” warned Prowl playfully. “It sets a bad example.”

“Mmh, don’t expect me to say ‘no’ to Smokey.”

During the celebration, Smokescreen sat next to Orion on his own wish, the Prime between them and Prowl, and the royal prince even managed to make the youngling laugh. It was this, more than anything else that moved Prowl to ask, “Will you stay a bit longer, Orion? I know you have your duties, but…”

We need you.

“Yes.” Orion smiled warmly and he touched Prowl’s arm. “Yes, of course.”

Prowl’s doorwings sagged with relief. “Smokescreen will be glad to hear that.”

“Only Smokescreen?” teased the royal prince and laughed, when Prowl looked away embarrassed. “It is fine, Prowl. I will be glad to stay.”

And he did. The inauguration passed, the mechs left, but Orion stayed. Orns passed, then two, three decaorns. A new sense of peace entered the Palaise, and Smokescreen became less of a shadow and more of the lively youngling he had been.

As long as Prowl wasn’t in the room.

~

Prowl watched from the window of the library as Orion and Smokescreen played in the garden. Smokescreen was laughing and looking carefree for a change, while Orion was grinning widely. Prowl wished he could go down and join them, but by now he knew that his presence would make Smokescreen uneasy. So he stayed up here, silently watching and wishing that things were different.

With a throbbing spark, he finally turned around and started searching for the town plans he had come for. His work amount hadn’t lessened and there was always something to be done.

It was two joors later, he was sitting at one of the reading tables for the library, determining which buildings had priority for rebuilding, when he heard a shuffle in front of him. He looked up and saw to his surprise his brother.

“Smokescreen,” he said. “What can I do for you?” Internally, he winced. Certainly there was a better way to say this. This was his brother not some soldier, but far too often he unconsciously fell back on his training first.

To his relief, Smokescreen didn’t seem to take the words too harshly. His doorwings fluttered nervously. “Brother… am I disturbing you?”

“No.” He deliberately put the stylus aside. “I am nearly finished anyway. Did something happen?”

Smokescreen looked down. “No… Not exactly.”

Prowl frowned. “But?”

“Ah, well… Orion mentioned something. A school for heirs in Iacon. He said I could move there and attend and he would regularly visit. And I really want to go, please?” With every word he was speaking faster, until he reached the “please” and just stopped.

As had Prowl’s spark. His brother, his own brother, wanted to leave him. Wanted to abandon him.

How dared he!

Hadn’t Prowl done everything to protect him? He had become a murderer, feared far and wide, and eradicated anyone who stood between him and a secure, safe Praxus all so Smokescreen would live. He had sacrificed Praxus, its inhabitants and warframes for this. He had sacrificed his own dream of becoming a scholar, his friendship with Flipper and the rest of their family.

And this was his supposed thanks for that?!

Anger raced through his cables, and abruptly he stood up, his chair falling down behind him. He stepped towards Smokescreen, to shake sense into him, to hold him, to keep him and to never let him go. He couldn’t leave.

He stretched his hand out – and Smokescreen flinched back, fear bright in his optics.

Prowl froze. He had seen this fear far too often, right before he struck the opposing mech down. Never had he wanted to see it on his little brother’s face.

“Smokescreen,” he whispered and despaired. Slowly, he let his hand fall away, and took a step back. The silence between them was empty and far too large to be crossed by a few words anymore. Something, somewhere had broken and fallen to dust.

Smokescreen looked from him to the door and then back, wariness in every inch of his frame.

“I have heard of this school,” Prowl finally said. “It has a good reputation for heirs and is under the personal protection of the Prime.” It had been established as a school for hostages, but in these modern times, many more heirs also visited it to further personal connections between the Houses. Most were prime heirs of lower houses or the third heirs of the more important ones.

Smokescreen nodded, relaxing a bit. “Orion said that too. He said he went there and Brazen was there also for ten vorns.”

“They were.”

He turned away from his brother and set the chair right again. Carefully, he sat down on it, not letting his emotions out of his iron grip. He could order Smokescreen to stay and no one would say anything as he was Smokescreen’s legal guardian and a Grand Duke, with only the Prime even able to reprimand him. But as he looked at Smokescreen he knew that this would hurt his brother, Praxus was not a good place anymore for the youngling: Surrounded by guards, no other younglings to play with and always the shadow of tragedy in the air. Smokescreen was wilting under it all, instead of moving on.

But could Prowl let him go? He had gone so far just to have Smokescreen in his arms. Safe and sound. And now… Yet if he didn’t, then everything he had done to protect Smokescreen might have been for nought.

“If you truly wish it,” he said, the words like dust on his tongue, heavy and bitter, “you can.”

Smokescreen’s wings perked up. “I can? Truly?”

If Smokescreen’s happiness required the sacrifice of his last hope and dream, then so be it.

“Yes.”

Smokescreep whooped and spun around: “I have to tell Orion!” He ran out of the library door shouting “Orion! Orion! He said yes!”

Prowl never heard the answer, because the door fell closed behind his brother.

He stood up, seeing from where he stood into the garden, and remembering how Orion and Smokescreen had played. With sudden raw emotion, he grabbed the chair and threw it against the wall, lined by datapad shelves. It shattered.

Venting, Prowl looked at the destruction and screamed, swiping his datapads from the desk. They clattered to the floor as he stumbled back, his doorwings hitting another shelf painfully. Slowly, he slid down, curled into a ball and wept.

There was no hope, nothing to save him from the chasm, and he was falling.

~

He wasn’t surprised when in the late evening someone knocked on the door of his private chambers. Orion entered, bringing with him two small cups and a cube of Iacon’s finest highgrade – Silver Ian. Without a word, he sat across from Prowl who had been listlessly staring into the fireplace, poured a cube and handed it towards him. Taking his own, he turned towards the flames. Around them, night fell and the shadows lengthened.

Irregularly, Prowl sipped from his cup, feeling the highgrade burn in his tank. It paled to the burning pain in his spark. Once the cube was empty, he sat it down on the tiny table beside him. Orion leaned forward to fill it again.

“You’ve stolen my brother from me,” Prowl finally whispered.

So many had tried in the last 17 vorns and he had brought to them all death, pain and fire. No matter what they had been - creator figure, uncle, Grand Duke – Prowl had crushed them all. It was this knowledge that turned the words into a threat and made Orion tighten his hand around the cube. Deliberately forcing a semblance of normality on them, he finished pouring and gave the cup back to Prowl.

Prowl looked down and wondered if he had drank poison tonight, and if he should care. He took another sip.

“I am sorry,” said Orion as quietly as his cousin. His face was full of sympathy.

Prowl wanted to hate him. “You purposely told him of the academy, told him he could come with you.”

To his credit, Orion didn’t deny it and answered simply, “It is for Smokescreen’s best.”

“I know.”

Orion looked away from him. Silence descended on them once more. Prowl continued to drink, determined to reach the numbness of being drunk some of the warframes had described. His optics swam, and the flames of the fireplace seemed to engulf his entire world.

“We will leave the orn after the next one. It is soon, I know, but this way Smokescreen will not miss a single orn of the term.” Orion wetted his lips. “Will you be alright?”

Prowl opened his mouth to answer automatically, then closed it. He was too tired to lie. “I will live,” he said and nothing more.

Orion nodded, face twisting with understanding and guilt. But no regret. It was done, the words had been said and Smokecreen was lying in his berth with a smile because of it.

The cruellest of all emotions, Prowl thought, was indeed love.

~

He watched as they left.

Smokescreen was smiling as he climbed the stairs to the carriage, Orion holding his hand. Only on top of them did he turn around towards Prowl and his home. Prowl hoped for a sign, for something, but instead his brother merely flicked his doorwings and entered the carriage.

Orion’s optics caught Prowl’s and he gave a slight nod, then the doors closed behind them both and the carriage started rolling away, leaving, abandoning Prowl and everything he stood for behind it. Surrounding it were dozens of the guard of Praxus, so many that it might seem excessive to some. To Prowl it had been the only way he could think of to show he cared.

He watched as it rolled through the Golden Gate, onto the square and then down the main street. He kept watching even when they had long vanished, irrationally hoping that they would return.

“My Lord?” asked Quickstrike finally.

“Yes.” He forced his gaze away from the horizon, forced himself to abandon hope. “Let us go inside. It is cold out here.”

He turned away, walking back into the empty Palaise with too much space and too many memories.

They all had made their choices, for their own happiness or for the happiness of others. They all had left, one way or another and they all had forced choices on him, choices he hadn’t wanted to make.

‘Make them kneel,’ Yellowstripe had said, the words sparkdeep engraved into Prow like a curse.

He had. He had succeeded. He had made them all kneel.

Now, he truly stood alone.

Chapter Text

Radishes

-

The Kidnapping

 

Epilogue

 

It was raining outside, and the warframe that had stood in his living room just moments ago had left a small puddle on the floor.

Every civilian would have made sure to dry themselves before having an audience with one of the highest ranking nobles in the state, but warframes were different. They had their mission and their mission only on their processors, and small things like rain were only noted as logistical obstacles.

He should have been calling a servant to clean it up, instead he was watching the puddle as if it held all the secrets of Praxus.

Before the Civil War, he wouldn’t have cared what kind of message a dripping warframe carried, he would have chastised him for being wet, dirty and improper. He would have made it a point to mention that the floor was two generations old and expensive and that the warframe was ruining it right now.

It felt like a lifetime ago, instead it had been barely been 17 vorns.

He hadn’t known warframes then and, if he was truthful with himself, he had always been a little bit afraid of them. They were bigger, better armoured and no matter who he was, they could take him down. His brother, the second heir, had told him about their loyalty and once, when they had both drunk too much, he had confessed that he thought a friendship with a warframe was worth more than with a noble.

He had argued with his brother harshly then, and only now, far too many vorns later, he regretted it. Maybe he should visit his brother’s resting place, just to tell him that he understood now. That he still wasn’t friends with them, but now understood the worth of their loyalty and the treachery of nobles. And that he appreciated the price of peace, now that he knew the scourge of war.

Who would have thought that 17 vorns could change so much. They have all been humbled.

“Was it a message from the Grand Duke?” asked a soft voice from behind him.

Lord Clearwater turned away from the puddle, towards his bondmate who stood in the doorframe. “Yes.”

His bondmate’s blue and silver doorwings gave an agitated switch before settling again. He moved into the room, took a look at the puddle then at Clearwater. “He sent a warframe. Is it another emergency?”

Another catastrophe? Another war? Will you have to leave yet again to maybe never come back? The questions remained unspoken. Raindrop was far too self-controlled to express such weaknesses. But through their bond he could feel them, the echoes of his bondmate’s fears.

Slowly he shook his helmet. “I do not think Lord Prowl has yet understood that most rulers send envoys instead of soldiers,” he answered drily. “As is the case here, it was just… a message.” Even as he spoke this, it felt like a lie.

The bond cleared of the tendrils of fears and bloomed with curiosity and a softer kind of concern. Raindrop gave him a look that clearly said that his feeble attempts at deflection weren’t welcomed. “Love, I might not enjoy the political functions as much as you do, but I am not stone-sparked. I felt your disquiet in the gardens.”

His bonded had always had an attitude that cut right through to the problem with a smile and a tongue sharper than a blade. As much as he loved to watch having that characteristic turned against other mechs, especially their own creations or other nobles, it was sometimes inconvenient to find himself in the line of fire.

Lord Clearwater’s gaze wandered again to the innocent puddle. Loyalty, duty, sacrifice, that was the trinity that ultimately ruled a warframe’s spark. They were created and raised in it, their upgrades and programs supported it, and they fought and died for it. Second heirs were in those aspects the same. Different stock and different upgrades, but in the end… very much the same.

Even if the second heirs became prime heirs and rulers that didn’t change anymore.

He looked back to Raindrop, who was patiently waiting for an answer.

“His Highness just saw it fit to inform me that he has taken my advice to spark and will search for a compatible bondmate,” he said and watched as the first reaction of his bonded was relief, followed by distanced fondness.

Raindrop hadn’t met the young Grand Duke often since the calamity of the old Grand Dukes’ assassinations 17 vorns ago, but he had learned more than enough of him through Clearwater’s stories and their spark bond. “But that is good, isn’t it? A bit of romance might distract Lord Prowl from the empty Palaise and with a bondmate he could even fill it again with life.”

“Yes.” Lord Clearwater sighed.

Raindrop touched his arm. “I am missing something, aren’t I? What have you done, Clearwater?”

“I also told him to bond with the highest compatible mech available.” He paused, then added the damning words: “No matter what.”

For a single stunning astrosecond their bond fell empty, Raindrops green optics simply staring at him.

“You didn’t,” said his bondmate flatly.

“I did.” Sacrifice and self-sacrifice. Like so many in this war. Like his brother.

The feelings between them rushed back, a maelstrom of distress, alarm and wrongness.

“But…,” his bondmate said, touching the plate over his own spark. “What if they are merely compatible in numbers and not in character? It would be a loveless bond, or worse, a forsaken one!”

Lord Clearwater pressed his lips together. “Lord Prowl is strong and a second heir. He will survive and create heirs. Even if it hurts and it cuts him open inside again and again.”

Raindrop shook his helmet. “But for what? He could be trapped for all eternity. Even after death…” He shuddered.

“For us!” answered Lord Clearwater, maybe a bit more harshly than necessary. “For Praxus. For the safety and happiness of every single Praxian alive.”

“Are we truly that desperate now?” Raindrop whispered. “That much afraid of an unknown future?”

“No!” Lord Clearwater snapped, flaring his doorwings.

Raindrop gave him an unimpressed glance. “No? Then what is this?”

“Advice. Good advice as well, if his Highness wants what is best for Praxus. It is still Lord Prowl’s choice.” And it always would be.

“He isn’t even 250 vorns old yet,” Raindrop pointed out. “Even our youngest is a few dozen vorns older and just last vorn you cautioned him to bond, at the earliest, after fifty vorns of being oath-sworn and if his love is unshakeable.”

It was true. Clearwater looked away, and only saw the puddle again. Loyalty and sacrifice. “I know,” he finally said. “But Praxus needs heirs, and all that stands between us and anarchy and maybe even worse is Lord Prowl’s spark, now that Prince Smokescreen has left.”

“He might return,” Raindrop said softly.

“Maybe,” he acknowledged. “But will he be strong and old enough then, if the worst happens? Many nobles within Praxus and beyond only accept Lord Prowl because he has shown beyond any doubt his right to rule. A weaker ruler…” He shook his helmet. “We can’t risk it.”

Raindrop said nothing for a long while, only stepping into his bondmate’s spark field. Lord Clearwater felt the warmth of his other spark nearby and relaxed. Between them the bond sang with love eternal, with trust and loyalty and unity.

“In the end,” Raindrop said slowly, carefully, “the third Prime decree says bonds must not be forbidden nor forced. It will be solely up to his Highness and that is only right.” He touched Lord Clearwater’s arm. “Whatever else happens, you have given your advice and I think you shouldn’t meddle anymore.”

The words eased Clearwater’s spark and processor, and he nodded. Murmuring his thanks to his bondmate, he took his hand with the suggestion they retire.

As they moved past the brown, muddied puddle, Lord Clearwater once more gave a thought to his mate's counsel, and he couldn't help but conclude that Raindrop was correct.  There was nothing more he could do.  Or perhaps should do.

Hopefully, the search would be swift and lead to a worthy mech. Praxus and its Lord deserved a bit of luck.