Chapter Five

Something wasn't right. Mirage pulled to a stop on the edge of Ark territory and hastily transformed, throwing up his shield. Slowly, the spy rose to his feet, leaning over the harsh surface of a boulder, optics and radar swinging in tandem as he scanned the area. He lay silent for a good fifteen minutes, finger tapping the trigger of his hunting rifle in anticipation of an ambush – not that anyone would have seen him. Satisfied that there was nothing amiss in the form of Decepticons, Mirage declared and slipped his rifle back into place along its niche in his side, dismissing the precognition and blaming it on an overtaxed cortex.

He walked the rest of the way to the Ark, figuring that it was pointless to use his alamode when he was just going to transform when he reached the main hanger bay. As he strolled along, his optics swept up to land on their usual place above the boosters. What he noticed laid him flat in his tracks – Solarflare was not there.

Maybe it was a trick of the light, casting shadows, he reasoned. Flare was grey, after all.

Yet, as he drew closer, the reason behind his previous ill-feelings came rushing back to him. What had shot foreboding through his circuitry was not the presence of Decepticons, but the non-presence of his bondmate. It all but floored the spy.

She's always here, he thought, jogging up to the side of the wide boosters and looking up. All that greeted him was the ubiquitous whine of Red Alert's cameras. Always.

Urgency sped him along the corridors, up to the barracks, completely bypassing the bridge and almost running over Powerglide as the miniplane entered the hall.


The spy spun around. "Where's Solarflare?" he demanded of Powerglide. The small red jet held up his hands, never one to cause strife between he and the spy.

"Still out with Prowl."

Prowl? Mirage frowned. "She was on-duty today."

Powerglide began backing down the hall as he took in the spy's inflection. This was not a good time to be answering any questions, he decided.

"Powerglide," Mirage repeated, vocalizer low, "where is she?"

"I told ya, our with Prowl! He took her off-duty so that they could go into town! Look, Raj, don't blow my head off."

Mirage took one step forward; the jet gulped, his faceplate shifting up and down. "Don't," the spy intoned, "call me 'Raj'." And he turned on his heel, stalking down the hallway in the opposite direction, leaving Powerglide to rub the back of his neck in utter confusion.

Up he went to the barracks and shut himself in their room, only to begin pacing. His cortex was filled with indignation – and jealousy. How many times had Flare come in, utterly exhausted in body and mind after one of their excursions? How many times had he to pry rocks and bits of fruit from her plating – results of the indignation of prepubescent females? … yet, how many times had he returned from patrol, only to find her sitting in the rec room, laughing with Prowl? Short was the time they had to actually talk to each other these days, what with Prime stepping up patrols due to Megatron's lapse in activity.

The spy paced, each swing of his legs taking him past memories, holos. He stopped and bent down, picking up a recent image taken by Hound: candid and snapped without their knowledge, it showed he and Flare perched on the lip of the volcano, staring into the setting sun. Mirage's slim black fingers tightened on the holo's edge and the frame shook with his uncertainty.

Fool, reason barked at him. With disgust, the spy set the holo down and turned away, fingers lacing behind his back, staring at the wall. Solarflare was too avian to … what did Spike call it? Cheat. Her raptor instincts were insurance against such an occurrence happening, and if he had been presented with this scenario, he would have dismissed claims of her infidelity with a fist to the accuser's face. However, at this moment, that assurance wasn't providing him with a clear cortex.

Yes, he was upset. In the light of Powerglide's information, it appeared to him that Prowl, who was the most stalwart of officers, was taking essential personnel off-duty in order to facilitate his personal problems. Did Prime know? And if he did, why was he allowing this breach of protocol to go on?

Mirage sighed, walking over to their dual recharging bed and laying his hands down upon its surface, head bent. Perhaps Prime was lax in the interim between battles – no, that didn't sound right. It had to be that he was just as occupied as the patrol personnel. Yes, that has to be the case. Whatever it was, Mirage knew that he couldn't go stalking to Optimus and demand that Prowl be taken to task; that would make him appear no better than say, Cliffjumper or, Primus, Red Alert. And though he respected Cliffjumper, traitorous remarks aside, he had no such reservations about Red. The simple fact of the matter was that no one wanted to be associated with the security director's obsessiveness and propensity to blow things out of proportion.

What to do?

Simple. He could ask Solarflare to stop the charades. Ark gossip told him as much as he needed to know about what occurred between them, though Flare herself related the accounts when possible. He did not doubt her sincerity, nor that she was considering leaving him for Prowl – again, the raptor instinct for life-mating. Still. It hurt. It hurt deep that he was not the one out there, wandering Portland, the beach … slag, concerts even.

War-love had its price, and he was paying it, deeply. Flare was his treasure, the other half of his spark; she kept him whole and reminded him that there was more to life than trophy-hunts and high-societal gatherings. More to life than Cybertron.

And he felt he was losing her.

A moan of frustration slipped from his lip components. Mirage tipped forward and banged his head on the bars of the recharging bed.

Solarflare laughed and playfully slapped Prowl's arm. "I didn't know you had it in you," she was saying, lifting one sleek black finger to wipe washer fluid from her eyes, so caught up in mirth. "The way that you told those girls off – priceless!"

Prowl fairly dimpled and shrugged, a wide smile on his own facial plate. "I think," Flare continued, too amused, "that we're on our way to the completion of a successful mission, don't you think? I mean, it was on TV for Godsake!"

Successful mission. Those words jolted Prowl. He stumbled and quickly turned it into fake I-tripped-on-a-rock motion. Solarflare tilted her head, concerned, but the analyst merely winked and explained that he hadn't been watching where he was going. She let it go and continued with her accolades, never knowing that she was now talking to herself and the air.

Was he really prepared to end the "charade"? Especially now, when it seemed no longer a play to him. Was he falling for Solarflare? He couldn't be sure; his battle computer was null on the subject. But what was true was that she'd finally managed to capture him with her vivaciousness and sheer force of personality. She'd been able to crack the shell that was "Vice Commander Prowl" and emerged with his spark tucked neatly into the smooth black palm of her hand.

She's Mirage's bondmate, logic told him indisputably. They'd been through the Pit and back for each other. And yet … he couldn't quite get rid of the notion that perhaps, if but a part of her, was enjoying this a little too much, too. Prowl, Prowl, you're fooling yourself, he chided. Still …

"Good night, Prowl," he heard her say. With a jolt, he realized that they were standing in the middle of the hanger bay, Solarflare wearing a bemused expression, her crazy crest arched high.

He stifled the urge to cough. "Might I walk you up to your room?"

Was it her imagination, or did her smile lose some of its vibrancy? Whatever it was, she was beaming again. "But of course." Arm-in-arm, they walked the halls and entered the elevator, taking them up to the soldier's quarters. Prowl walked her directly to the door bearing hers and Mirage's names and stood there as she entered the combination. As the door slid open, they were greeted with the slumped posture of the white-and-blue spy. Solarflare's face lost all its gaiety; it simply ceased to exist.

"Mirage!" she cried, rushing over to the spy and kneeling at his feet, her hands laid on his thighs. "What's wrong? Was there a Decepticon attack? Are you hurt? Should I get Ratchet? First Aid?"

Prowl and Mirage locked optics, and for once, the superior officer felt inferior. "Good night, Prowl," Mirage said, discordant. "Well, yes. Good night Mirage, Flare." With a sketchy bow, the black-and-white officer took himself out, shutting the door as he did so. Flare watched the tableau with a certain amount of detachment. Was it her imagination, or was there some sort of male posturing going on? Deep in her subconscious, her avian instincts saw it as Mirage had thrown his wings wide, mantling over nest and mate; Prowl, being the interloper, recognized the display and backed away before he lost any plumage. How had she not seen this? She had tried her best, deepest, hardest, not to construct any sort of jealousy between the two – let alone encourage any latent romantic interest in her in Prowl. Oh, Primus!

She hung her head, ashamed that she had betrayed Mirage.

And realized that he was looking down at her with cold, impassive blue optics.

"Mirage?" she repeated, peering at him, her spark grown cold at this uncharacteristic display. "Do you want me to stop? Tell me now and I will." Her Energon pump beat quicker, harder, threatening to burst through her titanium chest plate. He was so quiet!

Slowly, he nodded, almost as if in defeat. Optics that were a clear, bright blue were shrouded and dark. "Yes, Solarflare. I do."

Flare jerked her hands back as if electricity had just been shot through it – or been zapped by one of Wheeljack's crazy experiments. " 'Solarflare'?" she stammered, completely taken aback. The way he'd said her name – he rarely called her by her full, chosen name. And in the dark, he called her by her true name, her human name. "What's wrong?" her spark cried.

Mirage sighed. "Solarflare, I have to be truthful. I thought I was all right with this whole game and then I saw how Prowl was acting around you, and I saw you responding –"

"But – I was acting!"

He held up a slim, black hand, forestalling her protests. "Let me finish." Oh, how his voice was emotionless! "You're too good for me, Solarflare. Maybe … I was wrong to claim you for my own. I see now how you brighten the lives of us lowly soldiers, brighten this war."

Flare's mouth dropped open, her lip components trembling. She wasn't hearing this! No, not now! Fluid rushed into her mouth, clogging her vocalizer. "You're tired, taxed," she reasoned. "Please, let me get you something." She reached for his hand, to touch him and let him know that all she wanted was him, because he was everything to her. Friendships might be deep, but nothing was as deep as what they shared.

The spy evaded her fingers, much to her spark's outcry. He had made his decision, for now. "Look, I'm going to go bunk with Hound tonight …" As if in sympathy, he stretched out one arm and made as if to touch her hand, but Solarflare snatched it away, a feral light in her optics. She took one step back, then another – and bolted. She didn't even wait for the door to slide all the way open before exiting. Down the hall she ran, not knowing where she was going, not even caring who she ran into in her mad dash for sanity. Hands made a grab for her, trying to catch an arm or a wing as she pushed past them, heavy feet pounding the orange corridors, washer fluid streaming from her optics. Voices called out, both external and on the comm, but she heeded neither.

As luck would have it, she ended up crashing into Hound. Green tracker and grey warrior went down in a heap of limbs and wings in the middle of the landing bay, only inches from freedom. In vain, Hound tried to pin her, but she kept her arms and legs whirling, talons out and down, scraping metal in vicious lines. The others came pounding up, concern etched into their faceplates, but Hound waved off their attempts to assist him. Amidst fending off Solarflare's mad scramble, the tracker managed to get all her limbs in the correct order and succeeded in restraining the communications officer.

"What's wrong?" Ratchet demanded, laser scalpel in hand.

"Nothing," Hound replied, slinging the incoherent Solarflare over his left shoulder, where she continued to pound on his torso plate with her pointed feet, mouth opening and closing like a gaping fish, not a word getting past her vocalizer. And this was how he carried her until he reached his quarters. Contorting at an unnatural angle, Hound managed to use the tip of his holographic projector to press the panel on his wall and open the door. Quickly, he slid in and shut it behind them; scanning his room, he set his friend down on one of his easy chairs and took the one opposite.

"Flare," he called gently.

It took a moment, but slowly she uncurled and lifted her tear-streaked white face, crest feathers flat against her helm. "Flare," he tried again, "what's wrong?"

A hiccup escaped the grey avian femme; she sat up, sanity returned. "M-m-irage," she shuttered; took a deep breath and met Hound's calm blue optics. "Mirage."

"What about Mirage?"

Flare drew her legs up to her chin, wrapping her arms around her knees for comfort. "About me … and Prowl."

Understanding dawned as clear as a Cybertronian day for the tracker. He knew. "I thought he was okay with the arrangement?"

She nodded and hiccupped again; Hound reached over and passed her a rag, only noticing it the moment she lifted it to her face, that it was smeared with oil from his last cleanup. Solarflare didn't seem to be aware of it; she wiped the whole of her face, leaving streaks of oil across the gleaming white surface. "He said it was my decision, that he was cool with whatever I decided to do. But … not today."

"What happened?"

She sniffed unnecessarily, for Transformers had no mucus in their olfactory components, but a residual habit from being born human. "Prowl walked me to our door. When I opened it, he was slumped there. He and Prowl had a mini … mini staring contest. Lasted only a second before Prowl left." Much to Hound's chagrin, she wiped the dirty rag all over her face again before continuing. "… He said … he said that he shouldn't have me. It sounded like he was telling me that I was free to be with the others, because I made everyone so happy."

Hound frowned in consternation. That was completely un-Miragelike! By Primus, he must've been running this over for a long time and never let it out. Given his track record with emotions, it wasn't hard to understand. He let Flare sigh, hiccup and paste herself with grease while he thought this over. Mirage couldn't be serious; everyone in the whole Ark knew that he would sooner throw himself in a Seeker's exhaust port than let Flare be harmed – or give her up, for that matter. Mirage had issues, to be sure, and this seemed to be one of those times. However, it was nothing to be taken lightly, for the last time he'd run like this he had nearly deactivate himself rather than compromise his and Flare's friendship for his love of her.

Looking up, Hound could take it no longer. He reached over and plucked the greasy rag from Solarflare's shaking hands. "Flare, Flare," he said softly, taking her hands in his, making her look up into his wide blue optics. "It'll be okay. I'll go with you; we'll sort this out." With a gentle finger, he wiped away the fluid streaming from her optics and took a clean rag to fix up her face.

She nodded absently, fingers fluttering in her lap as the green Jeep continued his ministrations. Hound tilted her head this way and that, making sure that he'd eradicated all traces of oil from her white face and set the rag aside. "C'mon, Flare, up you get."

And her arms were around him for a hug, unsettling him so badly that they both landed with a crash and thump in the middle of his cluttered room. Oh, slag, he thought, optics rolling ceilingward. As if there weren't enough misconceptions already! Absently, he patted Flare on the back, trying to convince himself that he'd buried those feelings long ago and accepted the fact that he could only have her as a friend. Not true, it seemed.

He sighed softly and drew his hand along the back of her head soothingly. The tracker turned his optics skyward, seeking a higher opinion; not that he didn't know what to do next, but if it'd been any other femme … He had to get her off. She was too vulnerable right now, and he needed to see if he could talk to Mirage.

A sharp rap on his door jolted the tracker. "Yes?" he called out, trying to shift Solarflare so that her knee spikes stayed away from his lower torso.

There was a pause and a cultured, hesitant cough. "Hound? Is – is Flare in there with you?" Hound mentally groaned. Oh, Primus. That's just what the two of them needed right now – for the spy to see his bondmate in yet another mech's embrace.

Solarflare's head shot up at the sound of Mirage's voice, optics gone wide, crest flat against her helm. No, she mouthed, pleading with her strange gold eyes. Hound looked down at her, brow plate drawn over his own optics. "Hold on," he called back at the wall. "C'mon, Flare," he whispered. "He's here for you. See – I did promise you, didn't I?"

"Please – Hound. I know she's there. Can I see her?"

Mouth drawn tight, Hound managed a rough laugh. "Gee, hold your pistons, Mirage! I swear, you sportscars are twitchy."

There was an exasperated sigh from the other side of the door. "Hound –"

Hound ignored him, turning to Solarflare. "Listen up, Flare –" He took her chin and lifted her lowered head so that she was making optic-contact once more. "Flare!" Her optical sensors had slid from his face and he turned her head again, playing a mad game of dodge-ball with her sensors. "Solarflare. Will you cut that out? Do you want to see him or not?"

The grey femme's crest jerked upright at the uncharacteristic harshness in the tracker's voice. "This isn't a time to play, Flare," he continued. "Don't hold this against him."

Flare sat up and stood a ways back, wiping her face with the back of her forearm. "Let him in," she said quietly, almost inaudibly. Hound nodded and got up; he crossed his room, laden with objects from all over Earth, and opened the door. Mirage stood in the entranceway, shoulders slumped; his whole posture spoke of loss. Deftly, Hound maneuvered himself so that his blocky body barred the spy's view of his quarters.


Mirage looked up, startled. Hound suspected that the spy believed that he would have to stand out here all night. Mirage coughed again and hooked his hands behind his back. "Will she talk with me?"

"I don't know," the tracker admitted. "You'll have to ask her yourself." And he stood back, revealing the lean grey femme standing in the middle of Hound's quarters. Mirage took a step forward and halted, looking questioningly at his friend.

Hound simply shrugged. "Go on, man." He stepped away and leaned up against the wall. Perhaps this should be a private conversation, but Hound felt that he should at least stay, in case something other than what he was hoping for would occur. Mirage gave the tracker a slight smile and entered. He stopped a few paces from where Solarflare was standing and got on his knees before her, arms outspread. Hound could just see Flare's expression melt; her crest slumped and so did her wings at this unexpected gesture.

"Alina," the spy began, "I'm sorry. When you left, I realized what a stupid drone I was. I – I was all right with it in the beginning, but as you and Prowl continued this charade, I began questioning whether or not you were developing feelings for him, because you seemed so happy when you came back. I know – I should have asked you directly, but I didn't. And that is my fault. The more I repressed it, the more jealous I became. And when you came back today, I lost it. I said things that I shouldn't have. … I love you." Mirage's shoulders dipped with exhaustion. "Forgive me."

Solarflare's shoulder struts fairly fell off, they were trembling so badly. She reached out and hesitantly touched the side of the spy's grey face. "You are ingrained upon my very soul," she whispered., rubbing her thumb along his cheek. "Of course I forgive you."

Hound decided that it was time to hustle the two back to their own quarters. Sure, it would have been more noble to let them have his bunk, but truthfully, there was a movie he wanted to watch at the moment.

"Guys," he spoke into the silence. Mirage turned around and smiled embarrassingly.

"Apologies, old friend." He rose and took Solarflare by the waist and led her past the tracker, pausing only to lay a hand on Hound's shoulder and mouth "thank you" before exiting. Hound watched them go and then shut the door; he wandered over to his couch and slumped down in it, flicking his DVD player on. As the opening credits scrolled by, the tracker promised himself that he would get together with some of the other Autobot warriors and petition Prime to see if they could get more femmes down here. With a shuddering sigh, Hound passed a hand over his brow plate. Because we really need them, he thought. Sure, for the most part, Flare was "one of the guys", but no one could deny her utterly feminine presence. Not even Prime himself.

"And you're the jealous one, Mirage?" the tracker wondered aloud. "We're all jealous of you."

And then the movie started, and Hound lost himself in the action.

When Prowl had been stared out of the vicinity by a very territorial upper-class spy, he made for his office and the serenity therein. Locked in solitude, he set his hands on his desk and started pounding his head on the tabletop. Satisfied that the bugs that had invaded his specialized system had been shaken loose, he sat down, right there on the floor, and leaned his head against the smooth surface.

You're a fool, Prowl, he chided himself. A fool for letting her in and allowing her to change who you are. And double fool for even considering that she was beginning to like you – and you, her. Of all mechs, he should have known better. How many times had he told Solarflare that he liked himself the way that he was? That he would tolerate no changing to his programming? He knew that she was puzzled, confused; having been born human, she had a skewed point of view, a short-lived point of view. One's programming made sure that you lived; it was there for you when you needed it the most.

Rubbing his chevron, Prowl stood up. It would not do his reputation any good if he was found to be sulking in his office after being bounced out by a lower ranking officer. Prowl severely hoped that this little episode never got past the three of them.

Wishful thinking, dear Primus.

Out into the hall he went, busying himself with random inspections. He dropped in on the twins and bolstered his waning spirits by slapping them with seventeen demerits – half of which he made up on the spot. With Sunstreaker spitting invectives and Sideswipe left shaking his head in disbelief, the patrol car rode the elevator down to the barracks level, prudently avoiding Solarflare and Mirage's wing. Moments before he made the turn, his high-tuned audios caught wind of whispers. Making adjustments, he caught his own name being spoken before the tones dipped into internal comm-to-comm.

Curious as to what was going on, Prowl tip-toed to the corner and poked his head around. He really shouldn't have: leaning up against the burnt-orange wall was Solarflare, her hands wrapped about Mirage's shoulders. So close that they might have been one mechanism, the spy's forehead was pressed to Solarflare's peculiar helm accoutrement while his own hands were wrapped around her waist.

After what seemed to be an eternity, the spy lifted his head and pressed his lip components ever-so-gently against the topmost feather on her head. Wordlessly, they broke apart yet still connected through their hands, black on black. Deftly, Mirage turned his bondmate so that she did not glimpse the corner. With a groan, Prowl slid back, once more embarrassed and put in place. He should have known that Mirage had sensed him; what good was a spy who did not keep track of his surroundings?

"I forgive you, Prowl," came the low-frequency sending. "But … I'm sorry, but Flare will no longer be able to assist you in your endeavors."

"Accepted, Mirage."

"If I might offer a suggestion: this is but one minor detail. Let it go. Answering such mail is but one minor sacrifice."

Prowl paused. My sacrifice … And walked away.

Up next ... "More Raptor Than Robot" -- Once, it was Solarflare's motto, now it's her curse ... and perhaps, her undoing.