June, 2006

It was well past midnight, and the shadows had grown long. Sentries stood their posts along the watch-stations of the Ark, motionless and silent, invisible but for the soft glow of their optics in the dim, and the faint shine of starlight off their weapons as they raised them in quiet salute to the Autobot commander. Passing softly, Optimus acknowledged them with the barest nod, memorizing them, knowing them. He knew them now not just by their faces, not just by the sound of their voices, but by the very character of their movements, and he could pick them out at a glance, and know by the set of their shoulders and backs whether they were bored, or at peace, or afraid. He knew them, and by the same token, they knew him, and they offered the ages-old salute with a familiar grace that said to Optimus Prime just one thing: "I accept you; I accept you; I accept you."

Why did they accept him? It troubled him, at times. Prowl knew, and Ironhide, and he was sure that Jazz suspected. He never let it show, of course, that he struggled with the burden of leadership, and he was confident that his Autobots did not know. It would be a burden to them, to know that he wavered, and he was diligent in making sure that they never knew. But there were times. There were times when he questioned himself, and questioned why it had been he who had been chosen to lead. There were times when he wondered whether high command had seen something special in him, some indomitable spark in his nature, that caused them to choose him among so many. But even more, there were times when he wondered whether that same spark was evident to his Autobots, whether they saw a part of his character that truly stood forth, magnanimous as his given name, or whether they only imagined they saw greatness in him, and believed, like fools, in an illusion. He had just been Orion, once. Had he been great then? Not really, or so he felt. And was he so different now? Not really.

Not really, no. For all his efforts, he was just Orion still.

The last of his rounds complete, Optimus Prime let himself into the Ark through a small side door, and stepped down into the soft-lit dim of the dusky halls. Down two levels, and inward, he came silently to his office, and passed through the hissing doors like a ghost. It was strong, lately, the doubt. He hid it well, as always, but it seemed of late this doubt sought him out, and that it drew closest in the quiet hours, and in the dark.

With a bit of a sigh, he lowered himself down behind his desk, and sat heavily for a moment, optics closed. He would shut down in just a bit, or Ratchet would have his head on a plate, and that he didn't need. There was a rumor that the Chief Medical Officer was the only Autobot on the planet who could back Optimus Prime into a corner, and put the fear of Primus into him with a vengeance, but what the rumor mill didn't know was that this was true. Sure, the council picked him to be leader of the Autobots, but they picked Ratchet to be the snarling, cussing, epithet-wielding backbone of the Autobot command element, and Prime had to admit, if only to himself, that there wasn't a day of the week he'd choose to cross the surly medic. Not that he was actually afraid of him. Not…really.

In any case, he set his internal chronometer to remind him in an hour to shut down, and began sorting through the messages on his desk. Neat datapads were stacked in the inbox – Prowl's doing, Prime surmised, by the orderliness of it – and data pegs were affixed to the disciplinary board, where they glowed a variety of sullen colors, each peg coded with its corresponding Autobot's color scheme. It wasn't necessary, obviously, to have an entire calendar-board dedicated to discipline, but after a while Prime found it to be helpful in tracking just how often which Autobot was getting into trouble, and when. Also, it gave him a good ranting tool, which he could point out while he was yelling at the offender, and show him just how much of the board bore his particular color, and how often. Interestingly – shockingly – there were a great many yellow pegs, alongside a great number of red.

Funny, it was always like that. Which Prime supposed pointed to the fact that his 'ranting board', as he liked to call it, wasn't really very successful. But still, he was sure, it had to have some effect. Besides, it was fun.

With a small, wicked smile, and with a reluctant feeling of fondness for the Autobots' criminal element, Prime turned to his inbox, to sort through the last of the day's messages. Most of it could wait until morning, he knew, but every so often, there was something pressing, something that wasn't emergency enough to interrupt him during the day, but wasn't something it was wise to leave until morning, either. Mostly, these were personnel problems, issues he knew the Autobots would be too embarrassed to give priority over their leader's more pressing daily matters, but which mattered still. Even more, if personnel issues got past Jazz, and even Prowl, Prime knew they would be issues of greater significance, and he wanted to deal with those quickly. No matter how complicated this tangled Earth-battle became, his Autobots would always come first. Always.

A small device skittered loose from the pile of datapads, and clattered onto his desk, where it came to a slow, spinning stop. Furrowing his metal brow, Prime picked up the sliver of metal and plastic, and saw at once the simple seal. A small, attached chip glowed briefly blue with the Cybertronian character for Prowl's name, and Prime knew at once that it was his tactician's quiet way of telling him that this device held something he should see at once.

Turning it over, Prime found a tiny 'play' button, and recognized it as a small human tape recorder. Uttering a small snort of surprise, he pressed play at once, and wondered what fiasco awaited him now. Some news commentary, damaging to Autobot public relations? Or worse, it could be recorded evidence of some wrongdoing on the part of one of the more 'adventurous' Autobots, and some gold-digger (as the humans liked to say) was selling it back to the Autobots for ransom. With a sigh, Prime steeled himself for the worst. He didn't like surprises under the best of circumstances, and surprises when he was half-exhausted already were about as low on his wish list as a mud clot in his fuel lines.

But to his surprise, the voice he heard belonged to Spike.

"A-Spike here – I almost said 'Autobot Spike'. Heh. Been around these guys so long, it's like I'm starting to think I'm one of 'em. Next thing you know, I'll be growing antennae out my ears, and developing sub-space pockets. Wouldn't that be cool?

Anyway, Spike here, and it's October 11th, and this is for a school project, so I hope I can get some volunteers, because I'm gonna need 'em. I officially have no idea how to answer this homework question, and I'm pretty sure none of the Autobots do either, but I'm gonna give it a try. I mean, at least Bumblebee will help, right?

Anyway, I have this essay for English, and I'm supposed to write a paper on the meaning of loyalty. Also, I'm supposed to interview at least five people, but I guess the teacher won't care of the 'people' are machines, right? Well, I hope not, anyway.

Man, I feel stupid talking into this thing. You'd think I wouldn't, since I talk to machines all day. But, I mean, you know…Autobots aren't like, really machines, you know?"

The recording paused for a moment, and Prime checked the seal again, sure he'd been seeing things. This couldn't be what Prowl had found to be so pressing. Sure, he was interested in Spike, but why a school assignment should take precedence over some of the other matters he knew were rather important, he couldn't imagine.

Frowning, he ran his thumb over the seal, but just as it had before, the small chip glowed blue in the faint outlines of Prowl's Cybertronian character, and with a shrug, Prime continued to listen, though not without making a mental note to ask Prowl in the morning whether this had been a mistake.

"So, Bumblebee," Spike's voice continued, "like I said, I have this assignment, and it's to define the meaning of loyalty. So…what do you think?"

"Well, Spike," came Bumblebee's thoughtful voice, "I guess…well, that's a hard question. I mean, I guess it's what we Autobots do every day."

There was a pause. "Well, right," Spike said, "but, I mean, I need sort of like, a definition, you know?"

"You mean like in the dictionary?"

"Right," Spike replied. "Except, in your own words. Like, what loyalty means to you. Or maybe who you know is loyal, or…something."

"Huh." Bumblebee sounded stumped. A moment went by, and then he said, "Well, I guess I know a lot of Autobots who'd give up their own spark before letting down his fellow Autobots. I mean, take Prime for example. He's like, the definition of loyalty."

"In what way?"

"Well," Bumblebee tried again, "in the way that he'd never let us down, ever. I mean, I'd trust Prime with my life – he's the most loyal 'bot I know, and I know a few. Speaking of which, you know who'd be good at this? You should talk to Hound. He wouldn't mind answering this question. I mean, not that I mind, because I don't. I just think I'm not the 'bot for the job, Spike. I mean, I'll try again if you want to, but…go try Hound. I bet he'd have a great answer."

There was another click, a pause, and then there came the sound of Hound's voice.

"Well, gee, Spike, that's a tough one. Defining words isn't easy. Have you looked it up?"

"I'm not supposed to," Spike's voice sounded in return. "I'm supposed to interview people and write about what I find out. I know it sounds dumb…"

"No, no it doesn't," Hound reassured him. "Not at all, really. Hmm…let's see…" The tracker paused, then said, "Well, I guess loyalty, for me, is sticking to a job until the end. I mean, whether that job is protecting your friend, or protecting the Autobot cause, or just tracking until I find what I'm looking for – that's loyalty. Or at least it is for me, I guess. Does that answer your question?"

"Sure," Spike replied. "I think. Heh. I hope I don't flunk this."

"Yeah, I hope not, too," Hound said with a chuckle. "Because I'd be partly responsible. You know what? Mirage is more of a thinker than I am. Why don't you go ask him? He had a fancy education back on Cybertron – might be able to answer your question better than anyone."

There was another soft click, and at once Prime recognized the offended tones of one Autobot spy, Mirage.

"I'm sorry, but what exactly is this about?"

"Oh, it's uh, for school," Spike answered, and Mirage must have seemed unconvinced, because the boy tacked on, "honest. I have to write this paper…on, uh, loyalty…and uh, Hound said you might, er…"

Spike trailed off, and the icy reception he was getting from Mirage all but radiated through the recording. "Hound put you up to this?" the spy asked in clipped tones.

"Well, yeah," Spike replied. "He said you had a, uh, 'fancy' education back on Cybertron, and you might know—"

"Oh, fancy, is it?" Mirage cut him off. "Is that what they're saying now? I'm too 'fancy' to be trusted?"

"No, no, no," Spike put in quickly. "It's not that at all! Hound just thought –"

"Hound," Mirage cut him off again, his tone a little wounded, "is just like Cliffjumper if he thinks he can send you to interrogate me with your backhanded questions, and I for one will not be a part of it. I am an Autobot. I do believe that I have made that clear on more than a few occasions. And I will not have my loyalty questioned by Hound, by you, or by anyone else for that matter. Now if you will excuse me, unlike some other miscreants around here who have nothing else to do all day but sit around and talk about me, I have work to do."

There was another pause, and Prime sat back, optics closed, as the recorder played on atop his desk.

"Hey, guys," Spike's voice sounded again, though perhaps a bit tentatively. He shouldn't, however, have worried, as his next targets were able to hold a grudge for approximately one tenth of a nanoclick.

"Wassup, Spike?" Air Raid's affable voice spoke up, accompanied by a round of 'wazzuuuuups' from three of the other Aerialbots.

"Hey, mind if I, uh, get your help for a sec?" Spike asked.

"Sure," one of the Aerialbots said – Skydive, from the sound of it – as they audibly clustered around. "What do you need?"

"Well, I have this assignment. For school. I mean, no one put me up to it, so…" Spike paused, and obviously the Aerialbots were all waiting for him to continue. Prime could only imagine their friendly, zippy circle of faces, and he would have bet they'd be an encouraging sight to someone who'd just suffered through Mirage. "Well, anyway," Spike continued, "it's just that I have to define the meaning of loyalty, and I'm not supposed to look it up, and I'm supposed to ask at least five people. So…any ideas?"

"But," Fireflight put in, "there's only four of us."

"Well, yeah, dim watt," Slingshot sniped, and Prime heard the clang of a backhand. "He can ask someone else later for the fifth."

"Ow, Sling."

"Ow yourself."

"Oh, knock it off, you two," Skydive admonished, to a chorus of jeers from the others, and Prime found himself feeling a fresh pang of pity for Silverbolt.

"So…ideas?" Spike prodded.

A moment of quiet passed (a miracle, with these loons), after which Skydive said, "Loyalty. The quality or state or an instance of being loyal. Fidelity. That is, according to Merriam Webster's Dictionary."

An explosive sigh sounded from Slingshot. "Dummy, we weren't s'posed to look it up."

"No," Skydive corrected, "he wasn't supposed to look it up. That's different."

"Well, now you just cheated for him. Nice going, Dive."

"Cheating, rule-bending, all semantics," Skydive came back.

"Thank you, Sideswipe," Air Raid muttered.

"Well, I suppose Spike will find it to be helpful," Skydive defended himself stoutly. "And that was the point."

"No," Slingshot countered, "the point is your dumb semantics is cheating."

"Where?" Fireflight asked, clearly perplexed.

"Where what?"

"The semantics you guys are talking about. I don't see 'em."

"Sheesh," Slingshot muttered, "we could trade 'im in for Swoop and never know the difference. Semantics," he raised his voice, "ain't real, Flight. They're just like, pretend, you know?"

"Then why are we talking about 'em?" Fireflight asked.

"Loyalty, guys," Spike's voice sounded, trying to herd the bunch back on track.

"Right. Loyalty," Slingshot spoke up immediately, clearly not ready to let go of center stage. "Speaking of Sideswipe, I got a definition for you. How 'bout this? Loyalty is when I don't rat out Air Raid for smuggling contraband in for Sideswipe to sell on the underground? How 'bout that for loyalty?"

"That," Air Raid put in, a bit testily, "is not loyalty, you son of a scrag-bolt – that's called extortion. And I am not paying you off to shut your yap about it either."

"Oh yeah?" Slingshot came back. "How's about I got to Prowl and rat you both out right now?"

"Well, gee, Sling," Air Raid replied smoothly, "that would be where you would learn all about the words 'mafia', and 'thug', and 'Oh help me Primus because Sunstreaker just ripped my optics out with a spanner wrench'."

Dead silence.


Optics still closed, Prime chuckled, and vowed never to even attempt to dissuade Sideswipe from his more nefarious pursuits. Mostly because, if he were being honest, they kept Prime entertained. And well-stocked with high-grade.

"Hmm…" Groove's pleasant voice sounded next. "Loyalty…that's a good question, Spike."

"So, you got any ideas on it? You know, the meaning."

"Well…hmm…" A moment of silence passed, with Groove obviously pontificating. "A good question," he murmured, then spoke up. "You know, everyone knows what loyalty means, but…does everyone know what loyalty means? You know? Like, I'm loyal to my brothers, sure, all the way. But I'm pretty young yet. Suppose one day we don't feel like hanging out any more? You know? How you can one day just sort of need to move on? Hm."

"So…you're thinking you might not always want to be a Protectobot?"

"Nah, nah, nothing like that. Just…I'm there for my brothers, right? We stick together, always will. But what if I just feel that way now, and ten, a hundred, a million years down the road, we don't want to hang out so much anymore? I mean, what will loyalty count for then? You know, it's like, you know what you'd do right at this moment. But in time, when so many things have changed, or maybe when there's something at stake that you don't wanna give up, how loyal are you then? Know what I mean?"

"I think so."

"It's like this, man. I was out and about, just cruising, and I have this road I cruise by pretty often. It's nice out there – quiet. And one day, I saw this dead fox on the side of the road, with another fox sitting close by, just quiet-like. So I didn't think much of it until those foxes were still there a few days later, and then a few days later again. Finally, I kept going back there until the fox that was watching – well, it was lying dead now too.

"So, I got to thinking and thinking about those two foxes, and I read up a little, and found out that foxes mate for life. And I realized that those two must have been mates. Must have been that one got hit by a car, and the other just…well, the other just wouldn't let his mate go. Coulda run off, found another mate. But he was loyal, and I think he just pined to death.

"So like, if like, I ever got sick of my brothers, would I go off on my own for a while? Or would I stay with 'em until the end? And if – Primus forbid – they all died and I was the only one left alive, would I pick up and go on, or would I pine away like that fox?

"I dunno. Maybe it's dumb to think this way. Maybe it's better to go on. But I got to say, in the end, I think I admire the fox."

"Wow." Spike spoke up after a minute of silence. "That's deep."

"Nah," Groove waved the comment away, "just thinkin' is all. Makes the miles pass by, you know?"

Frowning, Prime opened his optics to look down at the tiny recorder. He hadn't realized that so much went on inside Protectobot's processor. Groove was so quiet. He was capable, and pleasant, and always willing to do whatever Hot Spot required of him, so it just hadn't occurred to Prime that he worried about such things. He shouldn't. All of the Protectobots were pretty thick with each other, and Prime didn't imagine Groove had anything to worry over.

But the recording was playing again, and he shifted and settled back again to listen.

"Loyalty?" Cliffjumper's loud bravado leaped from the recording. "Loyalty's being an Autobot no matter what. Don't matter what it costs you. You stick by your fellow Autobots, and that's that. 'Nuff said."

"But what if, you know, it wasn't easy?" Spike asked.

"Like how?"

"Like what if Megatron threatened to…I dunno…feed you to the Predacons if you didn't give up Autobot secrets?"

"Then they can feed away. I hope I taste good. Cuz I ain't never givin' 'em nothin'."

"But what if," Spike asked, and Prime had to give the kid credit for asking pretty good questions here, "what if they were either gonna feed you to the Predacons, or you could rat out an Autobot you didn't like? I mean, think about it – it's gotta be painful to get eaten by a Predacon, right?"

"Don't matter," Cliffjumper replied without hesitation. "Some Autobots may be jerks, but I ain't a rat, not ever. I'd be loyal to the end."

"And what if," Spike pressed, "the Autobot you were protecting was someone you didn't trust?"

"Like who?"

"Oh, I dunno. Like someone you maybe thought could be a traitor. Like, you didn't know if he'd already ratted the Autobots out, and if you didn't rat him out, then you'd get fed to the Predacons."

"That's…" Cliffjumper started, then trailed off, confused. "What?"

"Well, like, maybe you thought someone had already betrayed the Autobots. Would you still protect that guy, even to death?"

"Well…maybe…I dunno…" Cliffjumper paused, then asked, "What is it I think he did?"

"Doesn't matter."

"Then I dunno. Depends, I guess."

"On what?"

"On…whether he'd ratted us out or not."

"But," Spike said, "that's like only being loyal to Autobots you thought deserved it."


"That's not what I said," Cliffjumper put in, after a moment of static.


Prime snorted softly to himself. Smart kid, asking questions like that. But it almost wasn't fair to Cliffjumper. The mini-bot was one of the most loyal Autobots Prime had, and the fact that he wasn't terribly bright wasn't his fault. He was a good mech, and Prime valued him highly.

But that kid still had a point. Even if it did sting a bit.

"Loyalty?" came Wheeljack's deep chuckle, while someone banged around in the background. "Loyalty is Ratchet not removing Sidewipe's spoiler and stuffing it down his throat. That's loyalty."

"Ow, slaggit, Ratchet! Watch it with that thing!"

"Well, hold the slag still, you mite-ridden little glitch."

"I am holding still. Primus."

"Don't you 'Primus' me, slagging son of a humper-droid. You wanna see Primus? I'll show you Primus, and I'll show you with my arc welder. Now HOLD the SLAG STILL."

The melodious sounds of Ratchet and Sideswipe's bickering match filtered through the background while Spike and Wheeljack chatted.

"No," Spike laughed, "I mean seriously."

"I am being serious," Wheeljack told him. "What you're witnessing right here? That's loyalty."

"I don't get it."

"Heh. That's because you think old Doc Ratchet's kidding about the arc welder."

Again, Spike laughed, though this time it sounded a bit nervous. "Heh, yeah, well, he is kidding, right? I mean, he wouldn't actually hurt Sideswipe on purpose?"

"Wouldn't you if you were Ratchet?"

Wheeljack must have been smiling, because Spike laughed again. "Well, yeah, totally. He's a pain in the butt."

"Right. Now multiply that pain in the butt by more years than you can count. How annoying do you think Sideswipe would get by then?"

"Well, huh. Pretty annoying, I guess."

"So you get my point."

"Well…not really," Spike admitted. "I mean, yeah, Side's annoying sometimes. I mean, not to me – I think he's cool. But maybe to Ratchet, he's irritating. But Ratchet wouldn't really…"

"Wouldn't he?"

There was a silence, while Spike considered this. "You mean," he asked, after the banging and bickering had carried on a bit, "he really means it when he threatens these guys? I mean, really?"


"But they keep coming back for more. I mean, it's not like it stops Sideswipe from getting into trouble on his off days, like today."

"Nah, Sideswipe likes playing with fire where Ratchet's concerned," Wheeljack explained. "It's like Extreme Sports to him – get mangled, and then play the medic lottery. Who will be on duty? Will it be First Aid? Swoop? Me? Or…"

Again, Spike laughed.

"Personally?" Wheeljack said, "I think Side prefers it when he gets Ratchet. He and Ratch get along. Dunno why."

"But if they get along so well, why would Ratchet really…you know."

"Hurt him? End his life?" Wheeljack chuckled. "Well, you've seen first hand why Ratchet gets worked up, especially over Sideswipe. Side's the worst. Hell, I've had to pull the doc off of old Swipe more than a time or two."

"But why?"

"Why? Cuz he likes 'im."

"Wait. Ratchet likes Sideswipe, so he'd hurt him? I don't get it."

"Not hurt him. He does that for fun, smackin' him around and such," Wheeljack explained. "I'm talking about doing him in."

"Woah…Ratchet likes Sideswipe so much that he'd…kill him?"

"Well, not exactly in those terms. I'm explaining this all wrong. It's like, Sideswipe's got under Ratchet's plating. We all have by now, but Side's a good example, because he's…well, he's Sideswipe. So, Ratchet's gotten pretty fond of Side, and Side keeps comin' in all beat to hell, and Ratchet's gotta go through the drama of bringing him back from the brink of death all the time. You know? It's like you and your dad. You're pretty close, right?"


"So, imagine if your dad kept coming in, day after day, year after year, almost dead, and you kept having to fix him, and kept having to go through almost losing him. Imagine how bad you'd feel after a while, and how much you'd start drinking, and wishing it could all just end. Imagine wishing so much it'd end, that you start thinking about ending it. So you think about it, and eventually you start threatening it, and everyone thinks you're joking.

"Except, you're not joking. You really do want to end your dad's life – or your own – because you love him, and you can't stand almost losing him one more time. You can't stand it so much that you start wishing you'd never met your dad. And then you drink more. And then more years go by. And then more years. And eventually, it takes every scrap of strength you have to hold yourself together, so you can hold your dad together. And the holding it together, that's loyalty."

Spike paused to consider. Then he said, "You mean like, sticking around when you don't want to? For the Autobot cause?"

"Not for the cause, no," Wheeljack corrected him. "For the Autobots themselves."

Spike was quiet at that, and it seemed that Wheeljack felt the need to clarify.

"Aw, I didn't mean to scare you, Spike. It's just…Ratchet's gotten so fond of these guys – of all of us – that it starts to drive him buggy some days. And I just think, in my personal opinion, that he's pretty loyal guy to keep us all together the way he does. Even when it drives him a little nuts."

"Well, yeah, yeah, I can see that."

"And don't worry about Sideswipe. He can hold his own. In fact, there's been a little bet floating around for – sheesh, more than four million years now, I guess – on whether Ratchet would be the end of Sideswipe, or if it'd be the other way around. Odds-on favorite is Sideswipe to do Ratchet in. But it changes, depending on who's looking stronger at any given time. I'd say Ratchet's pulling even as we speak."

Spike gave off a weak laugh, and sounded a bit overwhelmed as the clanging and bickering reached a crescendo in the background. "Well, uh, thanks, Wheeljack. I'm sure this'll help a lot."

"Any time, Spike. Any time."

Prime smirked. He'd had several credits riding on that bet for – well, more than four million years now – and he was banking on Sideswipe all the way. The red slagger had some mettle; he'd give him that. And besides, Prime liked an underdog.

"Aw, Spike, he didn't mean nuthin' by it." Jazz's unmistakable lilt rose from the recording. "Ol' Doc Ratchet's been after Sideswipe since day one, man. Ain't never been different, ain't never gonna be."

"But, Wheeljack was talking about Ratchet actually…killing Sideswipe someday. Or the other way around."

"Well, yeah, Spike. Either Ratchet's gonna kill Sideswipe, or Sunstreaker will. An' if Side don't make Ratchet hang himself, Wheeljack'll do the job for him. Truth is, in the end, if the battle don't kill us off, we all might just kill each other."

"But, how can you be so relaxed about this? Doesn't this bother you?" Spike was really sounding worried.

"Nah, nothin' bothers the Jazz-man." Prime could all but hear the grin. "Spike, you gotta chill, man, an' realize we've all lived a long, long time with each other. It's like, we get so in each other's faces, we can't help but flip out a little, you dig? Most times, it's just a shouting match, maybe a fist fight, but we still flip."

"Has…has anyone ever…?"

"Anyone ever off anyone else? Sure, 'specially in Special Ops. You see that kinda thing all the time. It's war, man. It just gets to you, in your processor. But it ain't as crazy as all that, so don't sweat it. Nobody 'round here's in any danger of flippin'."

"So…Ratchet wouldn't really…?"

"Nah, nah," Jazz assured Spike, and Prime wondered how much of what he was saying was truth, and how much he was just putting the kid's mind at rest, "Ratchet wouldn't hurt a flea. It's complicated, what 'Jack was talkin' about. Part true, part joke, part truth made into joke just to keep it from being so awful. You dig?"

"I guess."

"Listen, Spike-man, don't worry over-much, ok? It's been a long war, and people say some things. True things, but…things as shouldn't be said maybe. It's gotta be tough to understand, how war makes us all a little nutty. But no worries, ok? Sideswipe'll be Sideswipe, and Ratchet'll be Ratchet probably long after your grandkids are dead and gone."

"Woah. I guess…I hadn't thought of it like that. I tend to think of you guys as, I dunno, my age maybe."

Jazz laughed. "Nah, we're a little older than that, Spike. And we been puttin' up with this war and each other for a long, long time. It's like King Arthur's round table, you know? You sit at the table year after year, and the chairs go empty one by one, and the table seems to get bigger with fewer and fewer knights left. Know what I mean? And you find yourself wondering if it's your chair that will be empty next, or your buddy's. And you start thinkin' sometimes that you just don't wanna wait to find out. You start thinkin' it might be better just to split – any way you can.

"That's all 'Jack was tryin' to say. Just that it gets us in the head after a while, dig? Especially since we get so close. I mean, it's not cuz we hate each other that we wanna punch each other out sometimes. It's cuz we like each other – gotten used to seeing each other around an' all. An' that makes it hard when the chairs keep getting emptier."

"Yeah," Spike mused, "yeah, I guess that makes sense."

"So if you want a definition o' loyalty, it's seein' a bunch of Autobots not kill each other," Jazz audibly grinned. "And some days, that's a mighty big feat."

The recording clicked, then crackled back to life again.

"…so do you think, maybe…I'm recording now, so you know…you wouldn't mind, you know, telling me what you think loyalty is? If you have time. I don't wanna bug you."

The silence deepened, and Prime was just wondering who on Earth would be so slagging cold to the poor kid, when he realized it could only be one mech. "Why ask me?" came Sunstreaker's sullen reply, and Prime rolled his optics to himself.

"Well, cuz…you're loyal. And I thought…you might know something about it."

"Me?" Sunstreaker perked up, obviously at least somewhat pleased now that he was being complimented. "And how's that?"

Oh good. So he wasn't going to posture and preen about his supposed loyalty to the Autobot cause. Take compliments and run, yes. But at least he wasn't jumping down the kid's throat with a bunch of 'of course I'm loyal' nonsense. "Well, you know what I mean," Spike was saying. "With Sideswipe."

"What about him?"

"Well, you two are pretty loyal to each other."

"How so?"

Primus, he was thick.

"Well, you're twins," Spike said, as if that should have explained it. And really, it should have.


"So…you're twins, and you've always stuck up for each other. I mean, you're how old? And you and Sideswipe have had each other's back for…well, all your lives, right?"


So thick.

"Well, that's loyal. I mean," Spike pressed on, though he seemed to be running out of ways to explain the obvious, "you're…loyal. To Sideswipe. Like, you've never not been loyal to him. And I figure you always will be."

There was a pause, then Sunstreaker said, in a sort of 'well, duh' voice, "Uh, yeah."

"So that's loyalty."

Sunstreaker seemed at a loss, or at least there was another befuddled silence. "How?" he managed at last.

"Well," Spike put in, sounding slightly exasperated, but as though he were trying hard to hide it, since this was, after all, Sunstreaker, "you stick by him, right?"


"And, sometimes, you wish you didn't have to, right?"

"What?" That didn't sound so thick. In fact, it sounded rather pointed.

The tone wasn't lost on Spike, and he backpedaled furiously. "No, no…I didn't mean…I mean, not like, you'd ever ditch him, right? We know you'd never ditch him, not ever. Ever," he added with real emphasis, and Prime surmised that Sunstreaker wasn't looking particularly friendly just then. "I just meant…that maybe sometimes…you know, it's hard to…have a brother maybe…" He trailed off hopefully.

"Well, of course it's slagging hard to have a brother," Sunstreaker snapped. "Stupid slagger, always taking my stuff, taking credit for stuff I do, and generally trying to be me, cuz we all know that's what he wishes he was. Pain in the aft."

"Ok, so," Spike put in carefully, "then, sometimes he's a pain in the aft, right? So, it might make you want to…maybe take a vacation, right?"

"Like where? Side's been wanting to go to Mexico, but I told him I ain't going there and getting sand fleas all in my interior. And anyway, it's not like there's a real vacation spot on this rock. Maybe if we hiked a trip on the space bridge…"

"No, no," Spike cut in, though he was careful to wait for Sunstreaker to pause. "Not a vacation with Sideswipe. I mean a vacation…from…Sideswipe."


"What…what do you mean, how? You just…you just go."

There was a pause. "Go where?"

"Away. Away from Sideswipe."


"Because…because of the pain in the aft part. Because Sideswipe can be a pain in the aft."

"Can be? You mean always is. Every day with that slagger."

"Right. So then, haven't you ever wanted a vacation from him?"

Deep silence.


Prime shook his head. Poor kid. He didn't get it at all.

"Bwuahahaha!" Trailbreaker's loud guffaw crackled through the static. "You asked Sunstreaker what?"

"Was that…wrong?"

For many minutes to follow, Trailbreaker could be heard audibly leaning over and giving in to a long fit of the giggles. "Oh, Primus, kid. Oh, you did not…hee…"

It went on for some time, and Prime was just wondering whether Trailbreaker had been into the juice when he seemed to sober up. "Oh, slag me, that was good. I needed that. Oh, you asked Sunstreaker…"

"Well…" Spike asked, seemingly completely at a loss, "…I just thought…"

"You thought he'd be able to help," Trailbreaker finished the sentence for him. "Bah, siddown, pull up a chair, let ol' Trailbreaker explain. See, you weren't gonna have no luck with Sunny, no matter how long you tried. Cuz the simple truth of it is? He just don't get it."

"Get what?"

"Get it. Where Side's concerned. Sunstreaker just don't see the forest for the trees, an' he never will. An' if he did, I'm bettin' my tailpipe that he wouldn't admit it. Gettin' either one of those two to admit their attachment to each other? Get out. It ain't gonna happen. Not ever."

"So Sideswipe wouldn't have been any more help."

"Naw, Spike. Naw, Side woulda just clowned you a bit more, not been so cold about it. Most likely, he woulda been even more frustrating, so I think you did good goin' to Sunstreaker. 'Least he gives you the straight scoop. Which is, no matter how many sticks you beat him over the head with, he ain't never gonna admit he loves his brother. No way. An' don't ever go sayin' I used the name 'Sunstreaker' and the 'L' word in the same sentence neither. Or Sideswipe. They don't take to that slag at all."

"But," Spike said, "it wasn't just that he wouldn't admit it. It was like he really just didn't get it."

"And chances are, he didn't get it. No, really, Spike. Listen, those two been so close for so long – hell, they been two halves of one whole since they were sparked – that they just don't get the idea of being apart. I ain't kiddin'. You try explainin' the same stuff to Sideswipe, and you'd get the same deer in the headlights. Swear to Primus, I'm tellin' you the truth. The ideas of 'me' and 'apart' are sorta fuzzy to them. Always been that way."

"You mean," Spike asked, "they really, honestly don't understand being apart? I mean, not just being hard-headed about it, but really."


"Oh, come on. They really don't understand being apart? I find that hard to imagine."

"Well, think about it, Spike. When do you ever see them separate?"

"Not a lot."

"An' you won't. Even Prowl figured that out a while ago. They can go on separate missions, fine. But they work better, and they cause a heck of a lot less chaos, when they're together. They jus'…how do I describe it? They jus' don't think like you an' me. They jus' don't."

"But twins here on Earth, they're not all like that."

"Naw, and they won't be. Maybe some. But not most. You gotta understand, human twins are sorta like Transformer twins, but not completely. I mean, I don't totally get the Transformer spark, other than I got one. So I'm kinda a bad choice to explain this to you. But it's like, Side an' Sun are still one spark. They jus'…got split into two. And so, for them, it's a real stretch to think of things in terms of ever being apart. I mean, shoot, even though they each have their own quarters, they still bunk together in one an' use the other as a spare."

"So, as far as the loyalty thing then," Spike asked, "it's not like they even get the chance to be loyal to each other? They're like, stuck together?"

"Maybe," Trailbreaker replied. "Maybe not. I don't think we'll ever know. But what we do know is that they do love each other. An' maybe that's loyalty right there. Cuz maybe they're stuck in this life and this war together, but they sure are there for each other along the way."

"Like how?"

"Like makin' each other laugh, and keepin' each other entertained and sane. Takin' hits for each other. You've seen that. Backing each other up, bickering for the fun of it. It's like, they're so loyal that it doesn't occur to them not to be. You know what I mean? So maybe…maybe it's like you said, that they don't get a chance to be loyal. Maybe they're jus' stuck. But then again, maybe they do have a choice, and they jus' don't take the out. Maybe they're so committed to each other that they've forgotten they don't have to be. You know?"

"So…you're saying, being loyal can be so…ingrained…that you forget you're even being loyal?"

Trailbreaker laughed. "I dunno, but that's probably putting it better than I did. Bottom line? I wouldn't wanna be the one to get between the twins, an' that's sayin' it lightly."

"Hey, thanks for explaining, Trailbreaker. This helps."

"Sure thing, Spike. Just, one thing. Don't tell the twins I said any of this. They can be a bit…tetchy 'bout stuff like this."

"Heh. Your secret's safe with me."

There wasn't much tape left, but the recording clicked again, and after a crackle of static, there came the sound of Smokescreen's soft voice.

"So who'd you interview?"

"Well, let's see," Spike said, "There was Bumblebee first, then Hound, Mirage, four of the Aerialbots, Groove, Cliffjumper, Wheeljack, Jazz, Sunstreaker, and Trailbreaker."

"Heh," Smokescreen chuckled, "that's a bit more than five."

"Well, it's just, I couldn't quite get an answer out of everyone. So I kept trying."

"I don't blame you. I'd bet at least a few of those guys were a little hard to get anything out of."

"You're telling me. And what's weirdest? I'd have thought Bumblebee and Hound woulda been the most help, but they hardly said anything."

"And why do you think that is?" Smokescreen asked, voice quiet and pleasant as ever.

"Well, I dunno. They seemed, I dunno, like they thought they'd mess it up or something."

"And did they?"

"No, no…Bumblebee said he thought Prime was the most loyal person he knows, and Hound said loyalty was like tracking, and like sticking it out till the end."

"And did that answer the question?"

"Well…no. Not really."

"So you went on to someone else."

"Well, Hound sort of passed me on."



Smokescreen chuckled. "And how'd that go?"

"Bad," Spike admitted. "I think I peeved him off. But I didn't mean to, honest. I hope I can find him later."

"Hm, good luck," Smokescreen said, bemused. "I bet I know exactly how Mirage took that, and if I'm anywhere near right, I'll bet you won't be seeing him for a while."

"What, like he'll take off, just cuz of what I said?"

"Oh, no, he'll be around," Smokescreen assured him. "You just won't see him. You have to understand, it's taken a lot of commitment for Mirage to be loyal to the Autobots, and he takes it hard when he thinks people are questioning that."

"But I wasn't."

"I know, and I'm sure he knows that. Don't worry about him, Spike. Mirage is a good Autobot, and I believe he always will be. He just has to believe it himself."


"Nah, enough about Mirage. You'll see him again in no time, chipper as ever. Who'd you see next?"

"Well, I thought the Aerialbots might be a safe bet, seeing as they're brothers and all."


"Well," Spike said, "Skydive cheated and gave me the definition from Webster's, then they bickered for a while, and then Slingshot threatened Air Raid with extortion, and Air Raid threatened Slingshot with Sunstreaker. And it sort of got jumbled from there."

Smokescreen laughed. "Sounds about right for them," he said. "Sharp as tacks, but with the collective attention span of a swarm of gnats. Well, except for Fireflight. You can leave off the 'sharp as tacks' part for him."

"I like 'em," Spike said with enthusiasm.

"So do I, Spike."

"So, anyway, I couldn't get much out of 'em, so I figured Groove, cuz he's always thinking."


"He said…well, he said he hoped he'd be loyal to his brothers. Or something like that. He said like, you couldn't really know how loyal you'd be until you got to where being loyal wasn't easy. Or – well, he said it better."

"Hm," Smokescreen sounded bemused. "Interesting."

"Think he was right?"

"About what?"

"About, not being loyal when the going gets rough. Or even boring. He said, you know, what if he got sick of being around his brothers someday? Or they had a falling out or something. Would he be loyal then?"

"What do you think?"

"Well, he's a Protectobot, right? Those guys are fierce, and I can't imagine they'd ditch each other, ever. So…I think he would be. But it bugs me. I mean, I want to be loyal, you know, to my dad, to Carly, even though she's just my girlfriend right now. I know it sounds dumb and all. I just…you think I'd ever stop being loyal?"

"Well, I suppose that comes down to what you think, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. My choice to make. I know. But, do you think…?"

Smokescreen chuckled. "I'm sure you'd be fine, Spike. You're as stout as any Autobot."

"Huh. Thanks, Smokescreen."

"Anyway, so, next I went to see Cliffjumper. He's a real Autobot, you know? True as they come."

"That's true, Spike. Cliffjumper's a good guy. I'd trust him with my life."

"Yeah. Yeah, he's…"


"Well," Spike hesitated, then blurted, "choosy."

"Hm." Smokescreen sounded amused. "Choosy? How?"

"Well, like, he said he'd never betray an Autobot, even if the 'Cons wanted to kill him for it. Except, if he thought an Autobot was a traitor, he might turn on 'em then."

"Ah…yes. That sounds about right for him."

"Well, is that right? I mean, I understand, I guess, where he's coming from. But…how would he know?"

"Know what?"

"Whether an Autobot was a traitor or not?"

"Well, I guess he would either have evidence, or he'd just be guessing."

"Yeah, and he was talking like he'd be disloyal over a guess."

"Sometimes you have to guess, Spike."

"Yeah, I know. But, he's always ragging on Mirage, and there was that one time with Sunstreaker, when…you know…" Spike trailed off, obviously not wanting to go into that subject, but he didn't have to explain.

"I do know," Smokescreen told him.

"Well, those guys…the ones who sold Sunstreaker out…they weren't…"

"No, Spike," Smokescreen said quietly, "Cliffjumper and the others weren't very loyal that day."

"And, see, that's what I was talking about with Cliff. I asked him if he'd sell an Autobot out just cuz he didn't like him, and he said he never would. But he did."

"I know," Smokescreen assured him. "And Cliffjumper knows. Don't think he's forgotten that. We all make mistakes, Spike, ones we should never make."

"But Cliffjumper –"

"Cliffjumper is as loyal as they come. Trust me on that one. He made a mistake – along with a few others, I might recall – and they paid for it. It does happen sometimes."

"But, Cliffjumper was so…"

"Adamant about it? Yes, I suppose he would be. Cliff's a gung-ho kind of guy. But like I said, even he makes mistakes. I mean, think about it. He sold Sunstreaker out to the jets. But then there's Sideswipe, dishing out all that punishment right back at Cliffjumper and the others. So who was in the right?"

"Sideswipe," Spike said firmly. "I don't care what everyone says. That was wrong to do Sunsteaker like they did, and Sideswipe was just getting 'em back like everyone knew he would."

"Well, yes, he was. And honestly, Sideswipe would probably do it again. He's every bit as gung-ho as Cliffjumper. More so where Sunstreaker's concerned."

"So? Side was just being loyal to his brother."

"Ah. Well then, what would you think of Sideswipe if he sold the Autobots out to save his brother?"


"How loyal would that be?" There was another silence, and Smokescreen said, "You see, Spike, it's in all of us to be disloyal, if the price is right. It's in Sideswipe to betray us all, if Sunstreaker is at stake – and vice-versa. And you know, because those two are so fiercely loyal to each other, it probably makes them two of the biggest security risks the Autobots have. Bigger than Cliffjumper by a longshot."

There was another silence, and when Spike spoke up again, he sounded chagrinned. "Wow…I hadn't…thought of it like that."

Smokescreen chuckled quietly. "But don't worry about it, Spike. I'd trust Sideswipe and Sunstreaker same as Cliffjumper. Even if they are our most prolific resident criminals."

"Heh," Spike laughed weakly.

"So who was next?"

"Well, Wheeljack. He was talking about Sideswipe and Ratchet, actually, when Ratchet was fixing up Side earlier."


"Well, he said," and here, Spike still sounded sort of worried, "that Ratchet might 'do Sideswipe in' someday. Or that Side would do Ratchet in. Or something like that."

Now Smokescreen laughed for real. "Yup, that's probably true. If the war doesn't get us first, we'll probably lose it and bump each other off."

"That's what Jazz said. I was talking to him, too."

"Oh, now Spike, you can't worry about that. It's a joke, mostly. I see…you don't understand."

"Not really."

"Ok, well, first you have to imagine being around these guys for a long, long time. I mean, how long do humans live? A hundred years?"

"If we're lucky."

"Well, some of us are over nine million years old. That's…ninety thousand of your lifetimes. Now, we haven't all been together that long, but some of us have been together for over a million years, plus four million in stasis after the crash on Earth. And before we crashed, we were working as a unit together for several thousand years, at least for most of us.

"So, imagine working day in and day out with people for that long. And then, imagine getting stranded on…say, a desert island with those same people. Now you're not just working with them, you're living with them. They're not just annoying members of the unit anymore, (and let's face it, even the best of us gets annoyed with each other at times), they're family. These guys are all you've got. So, you start to care about them, right? But just because you care about them doesn't make them any less annoying. In fact, it makes them even more annoying, because you can't get away from them, and even if you could, you find you wouldn't want to. Because you all end up liking each other.

"So, imagine all of that, and then imagine that you get particularly attached to one guy. Say, Sideswipe. And say you're a medic, who's got to patch the idiot up every time he decides to fling himself off a cliff, or roar around on that stupid jetpack of his. But you don't just patch him up a few times. You patch him up a million times. Two million. Ten million. You see?"

"I guess so," Spike said, and it did sound like he was starting to comprehend what Wheeljack, and then Jazz, and now Smokescreen had been trying to explain.

"So, it's not that we're all out to kack each other off. Most of us would probably give our lives for the other Autobots. We're all that dedicated to each other, partly because we have to be, partly because we want to be. It's just…it's just that it drives us a little odd sometimes. It's why there are so many quirks running around here. We're just packed in too close with each other, and we're all just a little worried that the day may come when one of us guys isn't here anymore."

"Yeah. Yeah, I see that," Spike said. "So when Jazz said that loyalty is Autobots not killing each other, he just meant living through all of this."

"You got it. So," Smokescreen asked, " who was winning?"


"Ratchet or Sideswipe? Who was winning?"

"Well, Ratchet, I think."

"Huh. I got a bet riding on that."

"I thought that was just a joke!" Spike blurted, sounding a little scandalized.

But Smokescreen just laughed, and asked, "So who was next?"

A moment of static passed, during which Spike was presumably getting ahold of himself. When he spoke up again, he still sounded a little incredulous. "Sunstreaker."

"Ha," Smokescreen snorted. "You asked Sunstreaker about loyalty?"


The Autobot emitted a high sort of giggle.

"Yeah, Trailbreaker laughed, too," Spike grumbled, sounded a little offended.

"Oh, Spike, I didn't mean anything," Smokescreen said, sobering. "I just bet you didn't get much out of him."

"Well, no."

"Well, there you go. Welcome to the world of Sunstreaker's mind. There isn't much there."

"That's not true. I'd say Sunstreaker's pretty smart."

"Oh, smart, sure, capable, definitely. Got quite a bit of common sense, actually, which is probably a large part of why Sideswipe's still alive. But, Spike, the thing with Sunstreaker…well, I was kidding about him not having much upstairs, but the thing about Sunstreaker – Sideswipe too – is that they just think differently than the rest of us."

"Yeah, that's what Trailbreaker said. He said Sunstreaker just didn't get it when I asked him about being loyal to Sideswipe."

"And he wouldn't."

"Yeah, I gather. He said it's like they don't even remember that they're being loyal. They're just so used to it."

"That's probably true."

"Hm. I'd like to have loyalty like that some day. Like I wouldn't even question myself."

Smokescreen chuckled. "I don't know if you could, Spike. I don't know if they were ever truly aware of being two mechs. For them, it's like there's just one. And who knows? There are theories that if a Transformer twin dies, the other would expire soon after for simple medical reasons. So maybe it's not loyalty at all. Maybe it's just about survival."

"Yeah, but," Spike countered, "they really do get along. When they're not fighting."

Again, the Autobot laughed. "Ah, but that's when they're getting along the best. And you're right. They really do get along, don't they?"

"So," Spike said, "I guess I got everything I need then."

"You still look bothered."

There was a pause. Then Spike said, "I guess what I don't get is…how Prime keeps them all together. I mean, I didn't realize all of this stuff about…well, everyone…and it just seems unbelievable that they're all on the same side."

"Ah, the ages old question," Smokescreen said gravely. "No, I'm not making fun of you. How indeed does one mech keep the loyalty of so many crazy buggers?"

"Heh. Well, I wouldn't have put it quite like that."

"And how would you have put it?"

Another pause, while Spike considered. "Uh…huh. I guess…I guess you could actually put it like that."

"I thought so."

"So how does he? Keep everyone together?"

"How indeed." Smokescreen sounded both thoughtful and amused. "There have been many good leaders," he said, "but few qualified to actually be a Prime. A Prime, Spike, is a very rare thing."


"Because a Prime must have what it take to be a leader. A Prime must have what it takes to keep a unit full of lunatics and killers together and all pointed in the right direction."

"And what does it take? What makes a Prime?"

"Wisdom. Presence. Courage, not just to face the enemy, but to face himself. The ability to make a decision without hesitation. Forgiveness, so that he can endure his own mistakes."

"Wow," Spike said quietly. "That's a lot."

"Intelligence," Smokescreen continued. "Knowing when he's right, and even more importantly, knowing when he isn't. Knowing when to listen to people smarter than him, and having the humility to do it."

"That's Prowl, right?"

"That's a lot of people. Prime has to be able to know when someone has an idea better than his. The will to go on, he has to have that, too – even when he starts going a little nutty himself. Patience. Understanding. And loyalty."

"Well, yeah," Spike put in. "Bumblebee said it straight away. Prime's the most loyal Autobot of them all."

"Yes, of course he is, Spike. But you have to know what that means. It doesn't just mean loyalty to the Autobot cause, but to the Autobots themselves. It means being the first into battle and the last out. It means putting the other Autobots first. But it also means knowing them. It means actually caring not just about their well-being, but about their sanity. It means knowing when Tracks has had enough, and truly needs to go chill out with his friends in the city. It means making a decision about whether Mirage is on our side or not, and sticking by it – even when other Autobots question that decision. It means putting his confidence in Silverbolt as a team leader, and sticking up for Perceptor when others don't think he contributes enough. It means playing football with the Dinobots to make them feel included – even if it means Prime gets his bodywork rearranged a little.

"It means hiring minibots into his unit when other Primes wouldn't. It means believing in Wheeljack even after all the disasters, and listening when Bluestreak needs to talk. It means accepting First Aid's decision not to fight, and trusting the team leaders to handle their own troops, even when Blades and Air Raid get into an aerial fistfight that knocks out the south gun turrets. It means not killing the twins, despite overwhelming reasons that he should. It means thanking Prowl for the long hours, even when Prowl doesn't need to be thanked. It's seeing Omega Supreme as more than just a weapon. It's actually reading up on baseball, just to keep up with Eject, and it's letting Steeljaw ride in his cab, just so 'Jaw can stick his head out the window and feel the wind on his face.

"It's…a lot of things, Spike. It's a lot of things that make a Prime. But the main thing is just plain being kind. And that is the kind of thing that keeps the Autobots loyal to Optimus. That is what keeps us together."

There was a very long pause after that, and then a long breath of air, as though Spike had been holding it. "Wow, I didn't…I didn't know Prime did all those things."

"Few do."

"He really likes his Autobots, doesn't he?"

"Yup," Smokescreen replied. "And we like him back."

The recording clicked for the last time, leaving Prime alone in the dimmed office. For a long while, he sat like that, simply staring into the darkness, his back eased into the time-worn hollow of his chair. Frowning, he looked down for a moment at the device. He picked it up, and ran his thumb over the tiny glowing seal, musing. And then, for no explicable reason other than it felt good to do so, Prime began to laugh.

Leaning back, head sagging against the headrest and arms dangling on the armrests, Prime laughed. It was a long laugh, almost grave, almost wistful, but good. Good to laugh. Pressing matters, indeed. Prowl's glowing seal had been no mistake.

Oh, Primus, he worried too much. He worried, and he fretted, and he gave in to long and tragic bouts of moping, and then came Prowl, stepping in just when Prime needed him to. Leave it to the tactician to know just when Prime had had enough time to feel sorry for himself. It was always like this, and Prime supposed he should probably live up to Smokescreen's opinion of him, and at least be humble enough to admit it. He'd been wallowing. There. He said it. At least to himself.

Wallowing, when he should have felt honored. Honored that this colorful, mismatched, inane bunch of Autobots should all hold him in such high regard. And who was he to call them fools for holding him in such high esteem? Who was he to doubt their confidence in him? Slagging hell, that was arrogant, and worse, he'd bet his trailer that Prowl could sense that, too. Prime swore, some days, it was just a little mortifying to have the tactician around. Medicinal, as a kick-in-the-pants usually was, but mortifying.

Because Prowl could see right through him. Prowl could see how Prime worried and fretted over every nagging little suspicion in his mind, that he wasn't good enough, that he wasn't fit for command. And yet, despite Prime's almost constant self-doubt, the Autobots never changed their opinion of their leader. Talk about loyalty; compared to them, he was nothing. Compared to his Autobots, Optimus Prime was just humble Orion still, grateful and relieved that so many good mechs held him in such faith. And Prowl had seen that, and had found, in his quiet fashion, a way to tell Prime so.

With a heave, he stood, and rubbed a hand over his face. It was late – well past the appointed hour – and he was sure he'd hear about it from Ratchet tomorrow. And wouldn't that be a charming experience? Just the thought of stumbling into the rec hall tomorrow for breakfast, and enduring the beady stare of the crabby, morning-afflicted medic made Prime cringe already. Mornings were not good to Ratchet, as a rule, and Prime would bet that tomorrow morning would not be good to Prime either. Not if Ratchet caught sight of him.

Of course, there was always the option of hiding, but then that pesky rumor about Prime being slightly afraid of Ratchet would turn into an even more pesky verifiable fact, and Prime just couldn't have that. No, he could not have that at all. Because while it seemed that he had his Autobots' unwavering loyalty, he was not about to test that fidelity by showing himself to be a great, big chicken. Though he could, if he promised a few get-out-of-jail-free cards, get Sideswipe to run interference for him.

But not before he made sure to thank Prowl. Whether the tactician wanted to be thanked or not.