"Swoop

Vigil

by Nightwind

"Swoop! Swoop, what wrong?!"

Sludge's anguished wail slashed through Grimlock like a point-blank blast from Megatron's fusion cannon, instantly wrenching his attention away from Slag and Snarl's latest argument. Up until the moment that Sludge squawked, it had been a normal, quiet day in a normal, quiet month in the Dinobots' huge lair at Autobot Headquarters, which had recently been dubbed "The Romper Room" by Jazz, a name that had stuck. Grimlock had been playing a "shoot 'em up" game on the computer in one corner of the room, but only half of his attention had been focused upon it. The other half of his attention had been devoted to keeping a wary optic on his comrades-in-arms.

Over on one side of the room, Slag and Snarl were arguing, quietly but heatedly. Arguments were everyday occurrences for the two of them. Slag was the bully of the Dinobots, always looking for a fight or provoking one if one wasn't to be found. Snarl, on the other hand, was a taciturn stoic who didn't much care about anyone and even less about what anyone thought of him. Snarl was usually Slag's favorite target for bullying, after Sludge. Slag was always trying to get a rise out of Snarl, for some perverse reason known only to Slag himself. Usually, Slag and Snarl's petty arguments were just that —petty. They called each other names, accused each other of being stupid, and impugned each other's courage — or lack thereof — under fire. In short, they blew off steam at each other and maybe they pushed each other around a bit, but that was usually the extent of it.

Then again, one never knew when one of Slag and Snarl's petty arguments would escalate into a serious one. If that happened, they could very well kill each other and perhaps a few innocent bystanders in the process. So Grimlock was as usual keeping most of his attention focused on the two of them, basically ignoring Sludge and Swoop.

Swoop and Sludge were on the other side of the room, engaged in one of their favorite pastimes: Sparring. It was something that never failed to amuse Grimlock whenever he watched them go at it. Sludge, after all, was the biggest and, arguably, the strongest of the Dinobots. Swoop was the smallest, the physically weakest and most delicate of them. Yet they got along famously. They were best buddies who often challenged each other to these mock battles, no powerful dinosaur forms or weapons allowed, just for fun. They had been in the middle of just such a "battle" when Grimlock had decided it was more important to keep an optic on Slag and Snarl.

Grimlock never did anything to discourage — much less stop — Sludge and Swoop's sparring matches. They never hurt one another, would, in fact, be mortified if they did. And Grimlock had long ago realized that it was actually good practice for both of them. Sludge, as the biggest of the Dinobots, was also the slowest and the clumsiest. Swoop was much quicker and far more agile than Sludge was, but to his disadvantage he also served primarily as air support for the Dinobots. He was getting rather good at air-to-air combat with the Decepticon jets and he had always been lethally accurate at dive-bombing enemies on the ground, but he had never been good at hand-to-hand combat, didn't have any real reason to learn. So by sparring, Sludge was learning how to fight an opponent much smaller and much quicker than he was and Swoop was...well, Swoop was just learning how to fight, period.

So now, hearing what might be trouble from the Sludge/Swoop side of the room was very disturbing to Grimlock. It meant that he'd possibly made an error in judgement in ignoring Sludge and Swoop. And he hated making errors.

Grimlock was on his feet in an instant, unfolding his huge body with surprising grace from the chair in which he'd been sitting. His optics locked onto the two erstwhile combatants on the far side of the room. Sludge's piteous wail had even brought Slag and Snarl's argument to a screeching halt, so all optics were suddenly focused upon Swoop.

For a moment, no one moved. All was silent...except for the strange sounds that erupted from Swoop's throat. They weren't words, these sounds, but neither were they only random noises. It sounded as if he was trying to say something coherent, but what emerged from his mouth was gibberish, as if his brain and his mouth were no longer on speaking terms. His hands were shaking violently. He was jerking his head sharply from side to side, as if trying to dislodge something annoying from his braincase. And then he collapsed ungracefully down onto one knee, and a squawk of confusion and genuine fear escaped him as his whole body began to tremble uncontrollably.

That was all that Grimlock needed to see. He charged over to Swoop's side, roughly shoving aside Snarl and Slag, who stood in his path. As Grimlock stomped to Swoop's side, Swoop looked up at him and his face was easy to read. He was terrified. That was a distinct rarity for a Dinobot.

"Grimlock," he croaked weakly. "Help. Help me!"

Grimlock knelt down beside Swoop, let Swoop lean back against him when he could no longer hold himself upright, easily supporting his relatively light weight. He was whimpering weakly, collapsing against Grimlock, slowly but surely losing consciousness. His entire body was twitching and shaking in Grimlock's arms.

Grimlock turned his gaze up at Sludge. He was standing next to Swoop as if he'd sprouted roots that held him securely in place. His wailing had stopped, and he was staring, frozen with concern, down at Swoop. He met Grimlock's glance, his expression at first haunted, and then a look of alarm flitted across his face.

"Me Sludge no hurt Swoop!" Sludge protested, apparently interpreting Grimlock's questioning glance as an accusation. "Me Sludge not ever hurt Swoop! Me swear!"

"Me, Grimlock know that, Sludge," Grimlock assured him quietly. Grimlock also knew that Sludge would be of no help in this situation, as upset as he already was, so Grimlock sent him on the only mission that he could think of at the moment. "You Sludge go get help. Find Wheeljack and bring him here. Tell him Swoop sick."

Sludge obeyed immediately, barreling for the door, his heavy, stomping footsteps rattling the metal plates that made up the floor of the Dinobots' quarters.

Grimlock knew that, of all the Autobots, Wheeljack was perhaps the most sympathetic to the Dinobots. For a long time, Grimlock had been certain that Wheeljack was sympathetic to the Dinobots simply out of self-interest, because he'd created them. But slowly, over the years, Grimlock had come to realize that Wheeljack was genuinely interested in the Dinobots and their progress as living creatures. Most of the other Autobots saw the Dinobots as cannon fodder — Optimus Prime assigned to them the jobs that everyone else was too afraid to do because they were dangerous. But Wheeljack...Wheeljack genuinely seemed to like the Dinobots. So Wheeljack was the only Autobot that Grimlock thought to call upon in this particular crisis.

Thinking about it again, Grimlock realized that he probably should have told Sludge to find Ratchet, but it was too late now. Sludge had already charged out the door, grateful for something to do. Grimlock could still hear him pounding down the corridor at a full run, but it was too late to call him back now. Even radioing him would make no difference, in all likelihood, since Sludge would ignore a hail at that point. He was particularly single-minded, after all. His brain could handle only one task at a time, and all of his attention would be riveted on completing that one task that Grimlock had assigned to him. So Grimlock turned his gaze on Snarl and Slag instead, and he growled at them in irritation. Slag was immediately offended, as usual.

"Why you, Grimlock, look at me, Slag, like that?!" he demanded hotly.

"Me look," Grimlock snarled, "because you idiot. You and Snarl!"

"Not idiot!" Slag and Snarl both protested, almost in unison.

"You both idiots!" Grimlock insisted. "You have another stupid, loud argument. Make me, Grimlock, watch you and not Swoop. Me Grimlock might have seen something wrong with Swoop before if me not so busy watching you argue."

Saying nothing in his own defense, Snarl merely scowled, turned, and walked away. He claimed a nearby chair and set about ignoring everyone, which was his normal defense mechanism.

Slag, on the other hand, was predictably furious.

"Not my fault Swoop big, weak baby!" he raged. "Not my fault he can't handle baby fight with stupid Sludge. Not my fault Grimlock too stupid to notice that Swoop sick."

That last insult, the one aimed at Grimlock himself, made Grimlock furious. He was just about to lash out, ready to club Slag over the head with whatever was at hand when he caught himself, when he realized that the only thing at hand was Swoop's body. Realizing that he'd almost unthinkingly done something that could have seriously injured Swoop by itself, notwithstanding whatever was wrong with him, he slowly reined in his temper. Calming himself, looking at a problem coolly and rationally, was something that had always been difficult for him, but it was also something at which he was getting much better. He was able to answer Slag calmly, which was certain to confuse Slag, and that would in turn defuse his temper.

"Is your fault you too stupid to keep big mouth shut," Grimlock declared emphatically but not loudly. "Go away, Slag."

At that, Slag scowled. He thought about arguing, but he knew it wouldn't do any good. Grimlock had that "I'm in charge" aura of his securely in place, a shield that Slag had never been able to dent, try as he might. So he stomped as far away from Grimlock as he could get without actually leaving the room.

Satisfied, Grimlock sighed inwardly as he watched Slag retreat, and then he looked down at Swoop cradled in his arms. He was fully unconscious now, but every once in a while one of his arms or legs twitched, telling Grimlock that he was still alive, at least. Gently shifting Swoop's body in his arms, distributing his weight a little more comfortably across his legs, Grimlock sat back on his heels to wait for Wheeljack to arrive.

Hurry, Wheeljack, he silently pleaded. Hurry.


* * * * * * *


Wheeljack was sitting at the drafting table in his lab, idly toying with a design idea that had been ricocheting around in his head for the past few days. Leaning back in his chair, kicking his feet up onto the tabletop, he began a few sketches on a small portable datapad.

He was halfway through this latest design when he became aware of a distant thumping sound that was getting closer and louder by the second. With a sinking feeling, he recognized the sound: Footsteps, the running footsteps of an extremely large Transformer. One of the Dinobots, he suspected, was about to pay him a visit. Wheeljack had narrowed his impending visitor's identity down to one of two possibilities, but he was still surprised when the less likely of the two candidates shot through the door of his lab as if he'd been belched from a cannon.

Sludge pulled up just in time, before he ran headlong into the wall. There was a look of utter panic on his face, something that was certainly rare for a Dinobot. They weren't easily rattled by anything, after all. Sludge's behavior instantly set Wheeljack on edge. Something, he now knew, had to be very wrong...

Most of the Autobots took it for granted that the Dinobots were morons. And sometimes the Dinobots did, indeed, act like morons. But Wheeljack was convinced that they did so mostly because they'd heard that they were morons so often. They'd started to believe what they heard about themselves all the time — that they were incapable of intelligent thought, incapable of compassion, incapable of any genuine emotion except, perhaps, for hate. As the Dinobots' designer, Wheeljack knew better.

Certainly the Dinobots' operating programs were much less sophisticated than that of a "normal" Autobot, but that wasn't the Dinobots' fault. If the fault was anyone's, it was Wheeljack's. He'd designed and built many things in his time, but the Dinobots' creation was a first for him. It was the first time that he'd ever attempted to design anything remotely as complicated as a new Transformer from scratch, without so much as an existing personality matrix upon which to build.

And on a whim, he'd tried to remain true to the prevalent human idea that dinosaurs were nothing more than stupid, lumbering brutes. In fact, at the time of the Dinobots' creation, the Autobots had sorely needed a dose of unfeeling, pure brute strength. But now, several years later... Now, Wheeljack harbored the guilty suspicion that he had done the Dinobots a grave disservice, that without really thinking about it he'd cursed them with a life of eternal ridicule, eternal prejudice. One of his greatest fears was that they'd forever be treated as outsiders to the Autobot cause when they had, in fact, saved the Autobots' collective bacon more times than Wheeljack wanted to count. It just wasn't fair to them that they were so often ignored. Even worse was the fact that when they weren't being ignored, they were often being ridiculed to their faces by their own allies.

So now Wheeljack did what he could for the Dinobots. He tried to spend time with them, did his best to educate them whenever the opportunity presented itself. He was always working on ideas to upgrade their operating programs, to try to undo some of the damage that he'd unwittingly done to them when he'd designed them to be simple-minded brutes. He often found himself defending them from the sometimes-cruel jokes that the Autobots made at their expense. The Dinobots didn't always understand the jokes, but Wheeljack certainly did, and he was offended on the Dinobots' behalf.

And, of course, Wheeljack was forever pleading the Dinobots' case with Optimus Prime. Prime certainly appreciated the Dinobots' value to the Autobot cause, but he would also just as soon keep them securely locked up in a cage like wild animals, to be called upon — used, really — only when it served the Autobots' interests. Granted, Wheeljack supposed that Prime was justified in shunning the Dinobots: Grimlock and his crew had almost killed Prime once. But still...

Wheeljack knew that if the other Autobots would just take it upon themselves to interact with the Dinobots every now and then, then the Dinobots would learn from them. Along with brute strength, Wheeljack had given them an enormous capacity to learn as they progressed through life, just as human children learned as they progressed from a messy birth, through childhood and turbulent teenage years, and on into reasonably intelligent adulthood. The Dinobots just weren't being given much of a chance to learn anything.

So now Wheeljack knew that Sludge wouldn't have come charging into his lab in a blind panic for just anything. Something terrible must have happened, Wheeljack knew, to make one of the Dinobots seek out an Autobot in the first place, even one of his own creators. Wheeljack stood up, eyeing Sludge warily as Sludge spun around and locked his panicked optics with Wheeljack's concerned ones.

"Wheeljack!" Sludge wailed. "Wheeljack, you come quick! Swoop sick! Swoop very, very sick!"

Wheeljack's optics widened in surprise. So that was it. The Dinobots might not care much for the Autobots, but they were usually fiercely loyal to one another when they weren't fighting amongst themselves, theirs the strange camaraderie often found amongst the socially shunned. And Wheeljack knew that Sludge and Swoop in particular were friends, kindred spirits in spite of their physical differences. Both of them were friendly and outgoing in comparison to the other Dinobots, always attempting to fit in even when the Autobots and particularly the other Dinobots ridiculed them for it. And of the five Dinobots, Sludge and Swoop were particularly vulnerable to ridicule, precisely because they genuinely wanted to be accepted. And now something was apparently wrong with Swoop, which was sure to make Sludge panic.

"Where is he?" Wheeljack asked.

"Romper Room," Sludge replied. "You, Wheeljack, come with Sludge! Help Swoop! Please!"

"I'm gonna try, Sludge," Wheeljack said reassuringly.

Sludge frowned at that.

"You always say not try, do!" he protested. "Like Yoda!"

Wheeljack didn't answer, although he was pleased that one of his lessons, at least, had apparently sunken into Sludge's head, even if it was a lesson borrowed from a movie. But now he was too busy thinking to comment.

Wheeljack couldn't imagine what could be wrong with Swoop. His mind was off and running through a list of the things that could go seriously wrong with a Dinobot. The list was short — and, distressingly, most of the things on the list were invariably fatal. Wheeljack felt the beginnings of panic flutter around in his brain. So he busied himself gathering up the equipment that he thought he might need, and then he rushed for the door. Without being told, Sludge fell into step next to him, a festering knot of worry who shadowed Wheeljack down the corridor.

"What's wrong with him?" Wheeljack finally asked of Sludge. Not that he'd expect a diagnosis from the Dinobot, of course, but maybe Sludge could give Wheeljack some idea of what had happened to Swoop. Sludge, however, just shook his head miserably.

"Not know!" he cried forlornly. "We play-fighting. He fine, but then he stop and say he can't move. Then he not talk right. Then he fall down and not get up again. Then Grimlock tell Sludge to find you. Me go. Me Sludge not want to see Swoop like that."

Oh, no, Wheeljack thought to himself, a sudden sinking feeling descending upon him. Me Wheeljack not want to see Swoop like that, either...

Immediately, he contacted Ratchet, the Dinobots' co-creator and the Autobot whose help Wheeljack now realized he was going to need.

"Ratchet, Swoop's crashed," he said succinctly.

"So what else is new?" came Ratchet's sardonically amused reply.

"I don't mean crashed out of the sky!" Wheeljack snapped, annoyed. "I mean systems failures."

"What?! " Ratchet responded, alarmed, all joking sarcasm gone in that instant. "How is that possible?"

"I don't know!" Wheeljack griped. "Just get your tail down to the Romper Room now. I'm gonna need your help with this, I think."

"Be there in a flash," Ratchet assured him.

Wheeljack hoped so. If what he thought was wrong with Swoop actually was what was wrong with Swoop, then he had to accept the fact that Swoop might already be beyond help by the time he and Ratchet reached him. But if anyone could help him, it would be Ratchet. Wheeljack's specialty was designing things; fixing them when they broke was Ratchet's forte. Without a word, Wheeljack broke into a run, Sludge following closely on his heels.



* * * * * * *

The first sight that greeted Wheeljack when he walked into the Dinobots' lair was Grimlock. He was huddled on the floor, and his shoulders were slumped dejectedly. Swoop's relatively small body was sprawled awkwardly across his lap, his head resting in the crook of Grimlock's elbow. His body was twitching randomly, but he was unconscious. Sludge was right. It appeared that he was very sick, indeed.

With Sludge trailing anxiously on his heels, Wheeljack approached Grimlock, who tensed and laid one protective arm across Swoop's body until he realized who it was that was standing over him. He looked up at Wheeljack, and Wheeljack was stunned to see worry and naked fear in Grimlock's somewhat limited expression. He'd never thought to see Grimlock afraid before.

"Swoop dying, Wheeljack!" Grimlock cried with uncharacteristic anguish. "He won't wake up! He not allowed to die, Wheeljack!"

Wheeljack laid a reassuring hand on Grimlock's shoulder as he knelt down next to the big Dinobot commander and his smaller, helpless burden.

"Easy, big guy," Wheeljack murmured, pulling a medscanner out of the small kit he'd hastily put together and brought with him from his lab. "Let's just have a look here..."

Wheeljack ran the scanner over Swoop's inert body. And then he winced as the small device immediately began to blare dire warnings about Swoop's condition, which, as Wheeljack discovered, was not good at all. Swoop's systems were indeed crashing, one after another, at a dizzying pace. So far, his vital systems were unaffected, but from what Wheeljack saw on the medscanner's read-out, that was soon to change. It was only a matter of time, maybe minutes. And he had no idea what to do to stabilize him.

C'mon Ratchet, Wheeljack silently urged. Where the hell are you?

Grimlock was staring at the medscanner, meanwhile, alarmed. He knew what plaintive scanner sounds meant, after all.

"Not good!" Grimlock bellowed. "You, Wheeljack, fix him now!"

"I can't, Grimlock!" Wheeljack snapped back, more irritated with himself than with Grimlock, because all he could do was sit and ineffectually watch Swoop die by inches. "Ratchet's on his way."

"But Ratchet no like Dinobots!" Grimlock protested. "Call us 'bubbleheads.'"

Wheeljack sighed exasperatedly as he continued to monitor Swoop's condition, watching in helpless concern as more and more of his subsystems crashed.

"Only when you act like bubbleheads," he answered, annoyed. "Like you are right now. Why do you always assume that someone doesn't like you just because they point out to you that you're acting like an idiot?"

Grimlock was silent for a moment, actually thinking about Wheeljack's question.

"Not know," Grimlock finally concluded. "Must be design flaw."

Wheeljack glanced up at Grimlock then, stunned. Is he teasing me? he silently asked himself. Maybe he is learning...

Before Wheeljack could comment, though, Ratchet skidded into the room. He nearly plowed headlong into Slag, who'd been edging slowly closer to Swoop and Grimlock since Wheeljack had arrived, curious despite himself about what was going on with his flying comrade. Ratchet pulled up just in time, muttered a half-hearted apology to Slag, who ignored him, and went over to crouch down next to Wheeljack, who growled at him like...like a Dinobot.

"'Bout time you got here," he groused. "What'd you do, take the scenic route?"

Ratchet chose not to answer, attributing Wheeljack's uncharacteristic surliness to his concern for Swoop. Ratchet could understand. He was concerned himself. He'd had a rather large part in the Dinobots' creation, too, and of the five of them, he was most fond of Swoop. He was an intensely curious soul, like Ratchet himself and, lately, he'd developed a habit of hanging around the medical bay, silently watching what the medics did for hours on end, even if they were just going about routine business. Lately, Ratchet had started to give him small, simple tasks to do around the bay, just paying attention to him in general.

And he loved attention, soaked it up as a human soaked up sunshine while lying on a beach. So few of the Autobots paid attention to him or to any of the Dinobots, after all. It really was a shame in Swoop's case, at least, for Ratchet had discovered that he could be rather endearing. He reminded Ratchet of a Great Dane puppy — big, awkward, rambunctious, and completely heedless of his own strength, but hopelessly eager to please. And now...Now it was particularly disturbing to see him in such bad shape, more disturbing than he might have expected. Over the last year or two, Ratchet had gotten used to his curious, ever-cheerful presence.

Without a word, Ratchet snatched Wheeljack's medscanner out of his hand, and ran it over Swoop's twitching body, as Wheeljack had done. Just as he'd begun to interpret the medscanner's findings — not at all liking what he saw — Swoop's body suddenly went into a fit of powerful convulsions. It was all Grimlock could do to hold on to him, despite the fact that he was twice Swoop's size, and the medscanner began to have an hysterical fit, blaring warnings more dire than ever.

"Damn!" Ratchet cursed loudly, drawing alarmed glances from both Wheeljack and Sludge.

"What?!" Sludge demanded to know. "What wrong with Swoop?"

Ratchet had no time to answer. He twisted around and started rummaging frantically through the kit he'd brought with him from the medical bay. Various pieces of medical equipment went flying everywhere as he dug through the kit, hoping that he'd thought to toss in the device that he needed. With a relieved sigh, he finally located it buried in the bottom of the kit. Haste making him clumsy, he grabbed the small, box-shaped device, pulled it out of the kit, and quickly unwound the cable that was wrapped around it. Turning hurriedly back to Swoop, he popped open a small access port at the junction of his shoulder and his neck and, while Grimlock held him as still as he could, attached the device to him. Almost immediately, Swoop's body relaxed and some of the medscanner's frantic bleating subsided. Ratchet sat back on his heels, momentarily relieved.

Wheeljack was watching Ratchet warily, not particularly wanting to hear Ratchet's diagnosis because he was already fairly certain what it would be and it wasn't good news. But he had to know.

"It's cascade failure, isn't it?" he asked quietly.

Ratchet nodded miserably and sighed.

"I'm afraid so," he said sadly.

"Damn it! What'd I do wrong?" Wheeljack suddenly exploded, smacking a fist against the floor, making Sludge, who was crouched next to him, jump. As Swoop's designer, Wheeljack apparently felt that Swoop's problem was his fault, although Ratchet couldn't begin to understand why.

Grimlock, meanwhile, glanced between the two Autobots who had, between them, designed and built him and the other Dinobots. Sludge, however, asked the question that Grimlock wanted to ask before he could ask it.

"What wrong with Swoop?!" Sludge demanded to know. "What is...cascade failure?"

Wheeljack and Ratchet exchanged a look. Wheeljack shrugged, deferring to Ratchet. The Dinobots deserved to know what was wrong with their comrade, and Wheeljack knew that Ratchet would be able to explain it to them far better than he could.

Ratchet sighed, taking a moment to put into extremely simple layman's terms what had happened to Swoop.

"You know that all Cybertronians live and behave the way they do because of the...programs that are encoded in their circuits, right?" At Sludge's wary nod, with a glance at Grimlock to make sure that he was still following, too, Ratchet continued. "Well, sometimes what happens in one of those programs can affect what happens in others. It's called being interlinked or interdependent. And sometimes, something goes wrong in one program that happens to be interlinked with others, and that one problem ends up spreading through all the other interlinked programs until, finally, the entire network of operating programs ends up failing."

"And then they die?" Grimlock asked quietly, anxiously cradling Swoop more tightly against his chest as if that would protect him from further harm.

Ratchet nodded.

"Sometimes," he said gently. "If help doesn't arrive in time to stop their central operating programs from crashing, then yes, they usually die."

Both Grimlock and Sludge looked troubled, exchanged a distressed glance. Wheeljack asked the question that they were apparently afraid to ask.

"And Swoop?" he asked quietly. "Did help arrive in time for him?"

Ratchet sighed again, smiled faintly and tiredly. "Just barely," he said. "If I'd gotten here half a minute later, his central operating program would've crashed and we'd never have gotten him back. For now, this bypass," he continued, gesturing at the small box that he'd attached to Swoop, "is keeping the failure cascade out of his most vital systems, but it won't work forever. I've got to get him to the medical bay and see how much damage has already been done."

"So Swoop will be OK?" Sludge asked brightly.

"I hope so, Sludge," answered Ratchet fervently. "Grimlock, will you carry him to the medical bay for me?"

Grimlock nodded, adjusted his grip on Swoop, and then stood up, gently cradling the fallen Dinobot in his arms. Sludge bounced to his feet, too.

"Sludge come, too!" he announced.

Grimlock nodded, then aimed a glower at Slag, who was close by now, and then at Snarl, who was still off in a corner, ignoring everything that was going on around him. Grimlock was still blaming Slag and Snarl's argument for Swoop's trouble and his own inability to recognize that something was wrong with him sooner, even though he knew the accusation was completely illogical. Still, Grimlock wanted the two more troublesome Dinobots with him, so that he could watch them. He didn't trust them alone.

"Us all come," Grimlock announced, glaring at Slag in particular as the others headed for the door. Snarl shrugged indifferently, then stood up and began to follow the others, but Slag stayed where he was, arms folded defiantly across his chest, optics narrowed furiously at Grimlock and his chin raised belligerently.

"Not want to!" Slag spat vehemently. "Not care about Swoop! He weak. Weak should die!"

But Grimlock was having none of it.

"Now, Slag!" he bellowed, not even bothering to debate Slag's theory on the survival of the fittest. After a moment or two of hostile staring at one another, Slag growled and headed for the door. He nailed Grimlock with a furious glare as he walked by, though, as if to say that the argument wasn't over.

Ratchet, meanwhile, sighed as they left the Dinobots' quarters.

Great! he thought to himself, glancing heavenward as if in search of divine help. Just what I need. A bunch of big, bickering, over-protective oafs rubber-necking while I try to save a life.

It was the start, Ratchet was certain, of what promised to be a very long, very bad afternoon...

* * * * * * *

Optimus Prime was in the Control Room of Autobot Headquarters when he heard the news.

Ostensibly, he was listening to daily status reports from Ironhide and Prowl, but in reality there wasn't much for the two of them to report. Everything was operating smoothly at Autobot Headquarters and had been for weeks. And the Decepticons had been curiously quiet for almost nine weeks now, something that was both a relief and a nagging worry for Prime. It was a relief because he hadn't had to deal with Megatron and his merry bunch during that stretch of time, but it was a worry because Megatron's continuing silence made Prime wonder what his Decepticon counterpart was dreaming up now. Megatron's most successful, most devious schemes had always come after long silences such as this one. Prime was, in general, waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

But today, Optimus Prime was in a particularly mellow mood. Ironhide's and Prowl's "reports" had degenerated into a light-hearted, three-way discussion about Saddam Hussein and his similarities to a certain Decepticon leader. The three of them were laughing uproariously when Jazz poked his head into the room and loudly cleared his throat to get their attention. Instantly, all of Optimus' attention was focused on Jazz. He expected that Jazz was about to announce that the other shoe had just dropped, so what Jazz eventually told them was a complete surprise.

"Hey, guys!" Jazz said. "You all heard the news?"

"Aw, what news, Jazz?" Ironhide drawled lazily, leaning back in his seat and lacing his fingers behind his head. "There hasn't been any 'news' in weeks. It's been so damn boooooring."

"Yeah, well, this is news, my man," Jazz said with a grin. He leaned one shoulder against the doorjamb, crossed his arms over his chest, and dropped his bomb. "Something's wrong with one of the Dinobots," he announced. "Like big-time wrong."

"What?!" Prime exclaimed, completely surprised. "Which one? What's happened to Slag now?"

"It's not Slag, Prime," Jazz said pointedly.

"Grimlock, then," Optimus Prime said.

"Nope."

"Snarl?" Prowl guessed.

"Nope."

"Sludge?" Ironhide ventured.

Jazz just shook his head sadly.

"Not Swoop!" Prime exclaimed.

"And how many other Dinobots do you know, Prime?" Jazz asked wryly.

"What's wrong with him?" Prowl asked before Prime could reply.

Jazz frowned. "Word is," he said with a shrug, "cascade failure. Ratchet's working on him now."

"Will he be all right?" Prime asked.

Jazz just shrugged again. "I dunno, Prime," he said. "I don't think anyone knows yet."

With that, Optimus Prime got up out of the seat in which he'd been lounging. With apologies to Ironhide and Prowl for leaving them in the middle of their "reports," he left the Control Room, breezed past Jazz in the doorway, and headed for the medical bay. He thought about the Dinobots in general, and Swoop in particular, as he walked the corridors of Autobot Headquarters.

The news of Swoop's illness was more troubling to Optimus Prime than he might have expected. He made no secret of the fact that he didn't entirely trust any of the Dinobots. They were far too strong and far too powerful for his comfort, given their often erratic, troublesome, and sometimes downright rebellious behavior. At one point, he thought he'd made a huge mistake in giving Wheeljack and Ratchet permission to create them, after he'd nearly met his end at the hands of Grimlock, Slag, and Sludge. Granted, they'd been influenced by Megatron back then, at a time in their development when they were still very new creatures, very vulnerable to suggestion. And granted, the five Dinobots had come a long, long way since then. But there was still an edge to them, a distinctly rebellious streak that arose at the most inconvenient of times, and that made Prime just a tad nervous.

So he was surprised that, upon hearing that one of the Dinobots was ill or injured, the first thing that he'd felt was...regret. And then after that, worry. And then, to hear that it was Swoop who was in danger... Well, that was just plain upsetting, not to mention surprising.

Of the five Dinobots, Optimus Prime knew that Swoop was the quietest, the least violent, the least likely to get into a scuffle. It was due, in part, to the fact that he'd been created after Grimlock, Slag, and Sludge. Wheeljack had designed him and Snarl to be slightly less hotheaded and gullible and slightly more cautious than their brethren, for safety's sake. In Snarl's case, the relative lack of aggression had ended up translating into a lack of any outwardly passionate emotion whatsoever, and he tended to be aloof and antisocial. But in Swoop's case, it had been nothing less than a blessing.

Optimus Prime harbored the suspicion that Swoop was the most intelligent of the Dinobots, more intelligent than Grimlock, although he could never physically challenge him or any of the other Dinobots. When he wanted to, he could easily speak like a normal Autobot, with correct grammar and in complete, unbroken sentences. He'd mastered that ability years ago, although it was something that the other Dinobots were only just beginning — very reluctantly — to learn. Swoop was also watchful, curious, and eager to learn, completely unlike his "brothers" in that regard.

And, when he wanted to, Swoop could learn very quickly. It hadn't surprised Optimus Prime at all when Ratchet had casually mentioned that he'd begun to hang around the medical bay. Nor did it surprise him when Ratchet told him, several weeks later, that he thought Swoop might one day be an ideal candidate to be taught the fine art of medicine. Optimus Prime knew that he could be as quick to learn in the right environment as he was quick to go for the kill on the battlefield.

So when Jazz had announced that a Dinobot was in trouble, Prime had immediately assumed that it would be Slag, most likely, or Grimlock or even Snarl. He didn't think that it would be Sludge, who was the most simple-minded of the Dinobots but who was also essentially non-aggressive unless provoked or goaded by the other Dinobots. And Prime definitely hadn't figured that it would be Swoop who was in trouble. The fact that it was Swoop, the Dinobot for whom Optimus Prime held out the greatest hope of eventually leading a normal life as an Autobot, was distressing to him. Frightening, even. Optimus Prime quickened his pace toward the medical bay. He wasn't sure why. He just felt like he had to hurry.

The main ward of the medical bay was a crowded place when he got there. Although Swoop was the only patient in the whole complex at the moment, his presence and his predicament were generating considerable interest and attention. All of the medics who were on duty at the time — and a few who weren't — were crowded around the medical berth he occupied, watching as Ratchet and Wheeljack went about diagnosing Swoop's problem and seeing what they'd have to do to resolve it and repair him.

Sensing someone's gaze upon him, Optimus Prime glanced over to one corner of the main ward and noticed that the other four Dinobots were present, too. They were clustered together, separated as usual from the gathered Autobots, and they were watching what was going on with varying degrees of interest. But Grimlock was staring at Prime in that intense, distrustful manner that was distinctly his own. Grimlock's hostility toward Optimus Prime had been tempered over the years by respect, but he still didn't completely trust the Autobot leader. The feeling was mutual.

Optimus Prime nodded with equal respect — and equal distrust — at the Dinobot commander, but decided to deal with him and the other Dinobots later. He pushed his way through the gathered crowd of medics toward the berth Swoop occupied, over which Ratchet and Wheeljack hovered like worried mother hens. They were busy attaching various monitors and diagnostic devices to Swoop's still body and clucking in distress over their read-outs. Ratchet, noticing Optimus Prime's presence, eventually looked up at him.

"Well," he said sardonically, "word apparently travels fast around here."

Optimus Prime nodded, amused. "At the speed of Jazz," he replied lightly. "What's the story here?" he asked, gesturing down at Swoop's ominously still body.

Ratchet frowned as he tapped a few notes into a datapad.

"Not sure yet," he replied with a quick shake of his head. "It's definitely cascade failure, but so far we have no idea what triggered it or where it originated. So as of now we have no idea what we'll have to do to repair him, or even if we can repair him without damaging what's left of his programming, without starting over from scratch." He looked up at the large, murmuring crowd composed of a dozen medical personnel, four Dinobots, and one Autobot leader in annoyance. "It would help," he said pointedly, "if we didn't have an audience."

First Aid, at the forefront of the medic crowd, caught the broad hint easily, and he set about shooing away the gathered medics. They slowly returned to their duties, mundane as they were after nine weeks of inactivity. Soon, the main ward was clear of medics other than Ratchet, leaving only Wheeljack, Optimus Prime, and the Dinobots.

Ratchet turned a slightly softened version of his glare upon Grimlock. He knew that the Dinobot leader was worried about Swoop's condition, but Ratchet also knew that Grimlock could do nothing to help him, that he and the other Dinobots would eventually just get in the way.

Grimlock, though, was adamant.

"Us not leave," he announced emphatically, crossing his arms over his chest defiantly, glaring back at Ratchet.

Ratchet sighed, momentarily glanced at the ceiling in supplication. He knew that it would do no good to try to convince Grimlock to go away, for Grimlock was notoriously stubborn. The only person who had a chance in hell of convincing him to go away was Optimus Prime, and Ratchet looked over at the Autobot leader imploringly. Prime sighed resignedly.

So much for delaying a reckoning with the Dinobots, he thought ruefully. While Ratchet went back to working on Swoop, Prime walked over to the corner of the room where the Dinobots were clustered in a wary knot.

"Us not leave," Grimlock repeated insistently, glaring optics-to-optics with Optimus Prime.

"Grimlock, there's nothing you can do here," Prime argued calmly, patiently. "I'm sure that Ratchet will contact you immediately if there's any change in Swoop's condition. Now why don't you—"

"Is something we can do here!" Grimlock insisted. "Us here for Swoop. He knows that."

"Grimlock, I don't think that he can possibly know anyth—"

"He knows!" Grimlock insisted again, silencing Optimus Prime with the angry urgency in his voice. "Us here so Swoop not be—" He interrupted himself, with a shake of his head and took a few moments to rephrase what he wanted to say into a carefully constructed sentence. Grimlock, after all, wanted his opinion known and, more importantly, clearly understood. "We will...stay here," Grimlock said haltingly, for the grammar was not coming easily to him, "so that Swoop...will not...be alone...when he wakes up."

"Why you, Grimlock, talking like Autobot?" Slag taunted before Optimus Prime could reply, which earned him a swift backhand on the side of his head from Grimlock.

"You shut up!" Grimlock hissed, glaring at Slag, who reluctantly quieted. Grimlock turned back to Optimus Prime, who was staring at Grimlock in wonderment.

Grimlock obviously felt strongly about staying with his fallen comrade, strongly enough to make certain that there was no misunderstanding between them. Optimus Prime could understand feeling protective of those under one's command. It was a feeling he grappled with all the time himself, one of the many great burdens of leadership. When he thought about it, in fact, Optimus Prime was surprised to discover that Grimlock was much like himself in many respects. At first enthralled with the power and the "glamour" of leadership, Grimlock was quickly becoming intimately acquainted with leadership's much darker side. The loneliness. The constant worrying about those under one's command. The way one always had to keep up a carefully controlled front of calm, of being in complete control of even the worst situations, keeping up morale in the face of often overwhelming odds. Indeed, Optimus Prime understood completely what Grimlock was going through. But he also knew that Grimlock could be of no help at all in the medical bay.

"Grimlock..." he said gently, compassionately. "I understand how you must feel, but—"

He got no further than that.

"No, you not understand!" Grimlock roared, interrupting Prime and drawing annoyed glares from Ratchet and Wheeljack that Grimlock completely ignored. He stalked around the corner of the medical bay where the Dinobots had gathered, circling the Autobot leader angrily. "You, Optimus Prime, not ever understand anything about Dinobots! You no like us, think us stupid and violent, think us belong in cage unless you need us. Well, us not stupid and us not belong in cage. Us Autobots, just like you, even though you not seem to think so. Autobots always pick on Dinobots, call us names, make jokes about us. Us not always understand what Autobots say, but us know it not nice. But Swoop smart. Swoop always understand mean things Autobots say about Dinobots, make him very sad. Autobots hurt Swoop. So now me Grimlock not leave Swoop alone with Autobots. If Autobots hurt him, then me Gr—then I—will hurt Autobots back."

Optimus Prime stared at Grimlock, shocked and momentarily dumbfounded. Besides the fact that what Grimlock had just said was the longest speech that he had ever heard Grimlock make, he'd completely misinterpreted Grimlock's motives in wanting to stay with Swoop. It wasn't mere loyalty to or concern for a fallen comrade; it was genuine fear for him. Grimlock intended to be Swoop's bodyguard while he was incapacitated. It stung that Grimlock obviously felt that Swoop needed protection, but he could also see Grimlock's point. One or two of the Autobots, Prime knew, could be downright cruel sometimes. And many others were quick to make jokes, jokes at the Dinobots' expense, jokes that they might not have meant to be cruel but could easily be interpreted that way. While Optimus Prime knew that none of the Autobots would contemplate physically hurting a Dinobot, even if they could, Grimlock obviously didn't know that. He could only go by what little he understood of what was said about him and the other Dinobots.

Perhaps we have been unfair to them, Prime thought to himself. No, strike that. It's not "perhaps." We have been unfair to them, Primus help us...

But Optimus Prime had no idea what to say to Grimlock. He could offer no comforting words, for they would be hollow. He could offer no apologies, for they would be insincere. Because Grimlock, as much as the thought disturbed him, was right. And Optimus Prime had not only condoned such insensitivity on the part of the Autobots, but he had from time to time made a few off-handed derisive remarks of his own. At the very least, he had always been indifferent to the Dinobots, for the most part. Except — as Grimlock had quite correctly pointed out — when he needed them.

But Optimus Prime had no idea how to start making amends. So he just stared at Grimlock while Grimlock stared back and the other Dinobots looked on in awe. Sludge blinked, and was the first to break the silence.

"Me Sludge not let Autobots hurt Swoop, too," he proclaimed, and he advanced a step forward to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Grimlock, who still glared at Optimus Prime.

Slag, meanwhile, snorted disdainfully.

"Me Slag not care if Autobots hurt Swoop," he said snidely. "Swoop big baby. Swoop weak. Swoop should get hurt."

Without warning, Grimlock turned on Slag again, snarling at him in a dangerously low voice.

"You, Slag, stupid! You always stupid. Slag never think, never learn. Slag only care about fighting. Slag only care about Slag. Well, you Slag go away before me Grimlock hurt you, too!"

Slag snorted.

"You Grimlock not scare me Slag," he said with a contemptuous sneer.

Grimlock had had enough. With a strangled roar, he got a hold of Slag and slammed him head first into the wall with enough force to dent the wall. Slag growled low in his throat, but, momentarily dazed, he could only slump against the wall, sliding down until he ended up huddled on the floor, staring up at Grimlock in surprise. Grimlock rarely resorted to physical violence to keep the other Dinobots in line, after all.

"If you Slag not scared, then you Slag even stupider than me Grimlock think," Grimlock said scathingly. "Go away, Slag. While you still can."

Mustering up as much dignity as he could, under the circumstances, Slag picked himself up off the floor and left the medical bay, heading for who knew where. Grimlock didn't much care where he went so long as it was far away from him. He returned his attention to Optimus Prime, who was still staring at Grimlock.

"Us not leave," he repeated calmly. "Us stay here, stand guard for Swoop. At least one of us here all the time, until Swoop OK."

Optimus Prime sighed resignedly. He felt compelled to grant Grimlock this one relatively small request, felt as if it was the least that he could do.

"Very well, Grimlock," he said solemnly. "But you are not to interfere with Ratchet or the other medics, do you understand me?"

Grimlock nodded grudgingly.

"Understood, Prime," he said. He turned to the two remaining Dinobots as Prime went off to break the news to Ratchet that he would have to endure a constant Dinobot presence in his domain. "Me Grimlock stay here."

"No!" Sludge uncharacteristically protested. "Me Sludge stay!"

"You Sludge go back to Romper Room and stay there," Grimlock ordered in a tone that brooked no argument.

Sludge frowned, but did not protest further. He was obedient to a fault, after all. Grimlock turned his attention to Snarl, who'd been silent since arriving in the medical bay, staring off into space, in his own little world. Grimlock decided it was time to give him something to do, however little Snarl might like it.

"You Snarl find Slag," Grimlock said. "Make sure he not hurting anybody."

"Me Snarl not care if Slag hurt everybody," Snarl replied indifferently. "Me Snarl not care about anything."

"Me Grimlock not care if you Snarl not care! You do what me, Grimlock, say. Now go!"

Reluctantly, Snarl scowled and pushed away from the wall against which he'd been leaning, and, without a word, headed for the exit door. Sludge followed him, giving Grimlock one last imploring look over his shoulder, which Grimlock ignored, before the doors slid shut behind him.

Grimlock sighed as he watched them go and then cautiously approached the medical berth where Swoop lay, where Ratchet and Wheeljack were working on his. They were murmuring back and forth to one another, uttering rapid-fire technical jargon that Grimlock had no hope of understanding. He stood next to Optimus Prime, who was also silently watching the medic and the engineer work.

After a moment or two of standing silently, shoulder to shoulder, Optimus Prime looked over at Grimlock as if he was just noticing the Dinobot's presence.

"Keep me informed, would you, Grimlock?" was all that the Autobot leader said.

Grimlock stared at Optimus Prime for a long moment, and then he nodded.

"Yes, I will do that," Grimlock said solemnly.

"Good," Optimus Prime replied. Then he headed for the door and was gone before Grimlock could say anything else, leaving him alone with Ratchet and Wheeljack, who both ignored all but Swoop.

After a moment or two, Grimlock went back to standing against a wall, leaning his weight comfortably against it. He watched Ratchet and Wheeljack working, although he wasn't really seeing what they were doing. He was going over in his mind the past few days, the past few weeks, trying to remember if there was something that he had missed, some clue that Fate had been about to strike down Swoop. He couldn't remember anything in particular. He supposed that he would just have to wait for Ratchet and Wheeljack's discovery of the cause of Swoop's illness. He had a bad feeling that it was going to be a long wait, indeed...

* * * * * * *

Rage burning its way through every circuit in his body, Slag pounded through the corridors of Autobot Headquarters at a full run. He had no idea where he was going. He was just running, and putting all of his concentration into that single purpose. Rage powered his legs, and he hurtled down the corridor at a speed that was breathtaking to behold for someone of his size. He only peripherally noticed the Autobots who scooted out of his way in alarm, and he certainly didn't hear the curses that they spat at him as he flew past.

Slag had only one thought in mind: He had to get away. He had to get away from all of the Autobots, away from the other Dinobots, away from everyone and everything. He had to find someplace where he could vent the awful, pent-up fury that was eating away at him like a cancer.

Rage was a normal condition for Slag. He thrived on rage the way other Cybertronians thrived on energon. Rage was Slag's energon — Rage at the Decepticons, rage at the Autobots, rage at his fellow Dinobots. It didn't matter. Slag just lived to be angry. Every once in a while, it bothered him that he was always angry. Every once in a while, a little rebellious inner voice in his head would whisper, Why can't you be calm like Swoop? Why can't you be happy like Sludge? Why can't you just not care like Snarl? He would quickly silence that annoying voice, but it was always there, all the same.

Slag knew that he wasn't well liked. He knew that he was the least-liked, the least-trusted of the already untrustworthy Dinobots, as far as the Autobots were concerned. It never bothered him, really, except on odd occasions. Like when he'd see Swoop and sometimes Sludge happily bantering with some of the Autobots, always edging ever closer to acceptance, as if what they were wasn't good enough, as if they felt they had to pretend to be something that they weren't...as if they were ashamed of what they were. It made Slag angry, and his anger had a way of outweighing everything, he knew. And when his anger took over, his only recourse was to get away from everyone, or otherwise run the risk of killing someone.

And when rage burned out of control for Slag, the best place to get away was outside of Autobot Headquarters. And without really realizing it, outside was where he was headed now. He found that he was making his way toward the exit of Autobot Headquarters, out into the bizarre, alien world that the pitiful humans called home. Moments later, still at a full run, he burst out into the great outdoors. It was a beautiful, cloudless late spring afternoon on Earth. The air was warm, clear, and sweet-smelling, a light breeze blowing. Flowers were blooming, insects were buzzing among the flowers, and birds were singing joyfully in the air.

Slag noticed none of it. He continued to run, heedlessly smashing a wide trail through the dense woods that surrounded Autobot Headquarters until he found himself facing an imposing, almost sheer rockface. He finally stopped running, and somewhere deep down he realized that this had been his unconscious destination all along. He craned his head back and squinted into the intense afternoon sunshine, glaring up at the top of the steep cliff looming hundreds of meters above his head, as if to challenge it to a fight.

Anger still boiling away, Slag did the only thing he could think to do. Using his vast Dinobot strength, he set about punching and kicking a foothold into the dense, sheer rock near the base of the cliff. He wedged one foot into the small foothold he made, worked the fingers of one hand into a small crack in the rock above his head, and pulled himself up. Balancing precariously, he worked on smashing another foothold into the rock when he couldn't find one that he could reach and then a handhold above his current one with which to pull himself up again. He repeated the same sequence over and over: Pull up, then carefully find or make the next hand and footholds and then pull up again. In this way, he slowly worked his way up the rockface.

Rock-climbing was, of course, something Slag had done before. Many times before. It was, in fact, one of his favorite pastimes. He'd climbed this same rockface many times already, as he'd climbed many, many others around the world in his relatively brief existence, usually when he was angry. Rock-climbing was a purely physical endeavor, one that required all of his considerable strength and all of his concentration. As such, it was an activity guaranteed to clear his mind of any troubling emotion for at least as long as it took to make it to the top of his chosen rockface. That could be anywhere from minutes to several days.

This one was a small rockface, as they went, and it only took him about an hour to get to the top. Pulling himself up over the edge of the cliff, he sat there with his legs dangling over the edge, reveling for a moment in the light breeze, the sunshine. His limbs felt pleasantly heavy from the exertion of climbing, but his head was aching where Grimlock had smashed it into the wall, and his audios were buzzing slightly, annoyingly. He rubbed at the side of his head, frowning. There was no dent, he discovered, but the ache wasn't going away. Grimlock hadn't been kidding around.

Slag scowled at the thought of Grimlock. He hadn't meant to think about Grimlock again. He replayed the scene in the Romper Room over and over again in his mind, watching Grimlock charge to Swoop's rescue dozens of times, and it made him angrier every time. Grimlock fawned over Swoop as if he was a pet. Grimlock, it seemed to Slag, cared only about stupid baby Swoop and even stupider Sludge. He didn't care about the other, more worthy Dinobots. Real Dinobots like Slag. No, Grimlock wanted to make the Dinobots just like the Autobots: weak, cowardly, afraid to stand up to the Decepticons, attacking them only when the Decepticons attacked first. And Grimlock wanted the Dinobots to be just like them! He wanted the Dinobots to talk like Autobots, think like them, act like them. It was disgusting.

Slag was proud to be a Dinobot, and always would be. He was proud of what he was and never tried to be anything else, as the others did. He didn't want to be anything like the Autobots. He didn't want to hide from the Decepticons; he wanted to bash their brains in! He loved being powerful and aggressive, being fearsome. He loved nothing more than to see the look of terror on a Decepticon's face as he ran them down. And sometimes — in his daydreams at least — he did the very same things to some of the Autobots, those that scornfully called him stupid and clumsy and overly violent. But Slag knew better. Slag knew they were afraid of him, jealous of him, that they called him names as their only weapon against someone who could beat them all to a pulp, if he chose to do so.

But Grimlock, the leader of the Dinobots, wanted to take all of that away...He wanted the Dinobots to learn stupid things, to give respect to the Autobots when they had, in Slag's opinion, done nothing to earn his respect. In fact, Grimlock wanted the Dinobots to be more like Swoop, who spent his days, lately, in the servitude of Ratchet, doing menial tasks in the medical bay, running errands for the medics, and learning stupid, useless things from Ratchet about fixing those too weak to prevent themselves from getting hurt.

And he bragged about it! Swoop bragged about being Ratchet's little slave! He bragged about becoming a doctor one day, like Ratchet. As if that was something to be proud of! He bragged about one day having a "real purpose," as if he didn't already have a purpose! And Grimlock encouraged him! And stupid Sludge worshipped him as if he was some kind of god. And Snarl...Well, at least Snarl had enough sense in his head to be indifferent about Swoop's oddities. And Grimlock wanted Slag to be like Swoop? Not if Slag had anything to say about it. He didn't need to learn anything that he didn't already know, and his "real purpose" was to beat the crap out of anyone stupid enough to plaster a Decepticon symbol on their body. It was that simple.

It was infuriating to Slag that Grimlock was trying to force Slag to be something that he didn't want to be. If he was the Dinobot leader...but Slag immediately put such thoughts out of his mind. Right now, Grimlock was the leader and, for all of his odd ideas, he was a powerful one, physically stronger and — Slag admitted it — smarter than Slag was. But that could change. If Grimlock wasn't careful... Absently, Slag punched the palm of his left hand with his right fist, imagining for a moment that the palm of his hand was Grimlock's head. He'd never forgive Grimlock for what he'd done to him in the medical bay, humiliating him in front of the other Dinobots and Optimus Prime. Never.

And he refused to step into that medical bay again until the whole situation with Swoop was settled, one way or another. Grimlock wanted the other Dinobots to be there for Swoop. He'd said as much. So Slag was determined that he would not be there. If Slag had anything to say about it, he'd stay out here, away from Autobot Headquarters, until Swoop was back to his normal, disgusting self or until he was dead. It didn't much matter to Slag which way. He'd stay out here, alone, until the situation was resolved.

At least, he thought he was alone...until the spring breeze carried to his audio sensors the sounds of grunts of exertion from far below. Slag hastily scooted back from the edge of the cliff. Slowly, carefully, he went down on his belly and crept forward, peeking cautiously over the edge of the cliff. There, clinging to the side of the cliff like a huge metallic spider, was Snarl. He was laboriously climbing the rockface, following the hand and footholds that Slag had made or found. Despite himself, Slag watched with some amusement as Snarl labored to scale the cliff.

Slag realized that he probably should have been angry that Snarl was apparently intent upon disturbing his solitude. But for some reason, he wasn't. Grimlock was always rebuffing Slag and Snarl for their endless arguments, but the truth was that, of his fellow Dinobots, Snarl was the only one that Slag actually liked without reservation. They argued a lot. They insulted one another a lot. But what Grimlock apparently didn't realize was that their arguments, for the most part, were a pastime. It was something they did for fun, the same way that Swoop and Sludge sparred. It was like a competition, seeing who could come up with best insult. Granted, once or twice their...discussions...had gotten out of hand, but that didn't happen very often. Slag and Snarl were actually sort of friends. That is, if either of them — one a Dinobot who hated everyone, the other a Dinobot who hated no one, but only because he didn't care about anyone — could actually be said to have friends.

Whatever the case, Snarl was probably the closest thing Slag had to a friend. So now, instead of...dissuading Snarl from coming any closer, he just watched silently as Snarl carefully climbed the rockface. He resisted the urge to laugh when Snarl lost a handhold and slid halfway down again, just managing to grab onto a rock outcropping — the only one between him and the hard, unforgiving Earth below.

But eventually Snarl made it to the top of the cliff. Slag reached down and hauled Snarl up over the edge and there the two of them sat, shoulder to shoulder, in almost companionable silence for a few moments.

"Why you Snarl come here?" Slag finally asked, breaking the silence.

Snarl shrugged. For a few moments he busied himself with tossing small rocks over the edge of the cliff, leaning forward to watch them plummet to the ground hundreds of feet below. He sat up straight again and looked at Slag.

"Grimlock told me Snarl to find you Slag," he said blandly. "Me obey. For once."

Slag snorted disgustedly.

"You learning from Sludge?" he chided.

Snarl just shrugged, letting the mild insult slide off his back. He'd heard far worse from Slag, after all. Slag sighed, disappointed. He'd been hoping for a fight. He was much calmer since climbing the cliff, but he was never one to pass up a good fight, verbal or physical.

"How you find me?" he asked instead.

Again, Snarl shrugged.

"Trail you left easy to follow," he said, jerking his chin in the general direction of Autobot Headquarters. "Me Snarl just followed broken trees. But me Snarl also knew you would come here, even without trail."

Slag was surprised at that.

"You did?" he asked, optics wide.

Snarl nodded.

"When Slag mad, Slag always find biggest, closest rock and climb it," he asserted. "Just like when Snarl mad, Snarl find biggest, closest desert. And Swoop fly into nearest city and sit on top of tallest skyscraper and throw things at humans on ground when he mad. And Grimlock, Grimlock watch humans' soap operas when he mad. Make him laugh all the time. Optimus Prime lock himself in his office when he mad and not come out for very long time. Ratchet throw things when he mad, like Swoop. Wheeljack punch things. Jazz listen to opera when he mad, and Ironhide—"

"How you know all this?" Slag interrupted incredulously.

"Snarl watch. Swoop not only Dinobot who watch."

"Me Slag thought you not care."

"Me not care," Snarl replied, shrugging indifferently. "Me just like to watch other people sometimes... Why you so mad now?"

The change of subject was abrupt, unsettling. Which was typical of Snarl. Intentionally or not, he was always doing things that unsettled Slag. But Slag found himself actually thinking about Snarl's question for once, and for once he wasn't angry about being asked why he was angry.

Why was he so angry today, Slag found himself wondering. Why was he so angry all the time? He'd always thought that it was just the way that he was, that anger ruled him the way that cheerfulness ruled Sludge. But what if that was only because he let anger rule him? What if he was angry because he made himself angry...? Shaking his head abruptly, he put such ridiculous thoughts out of his head. He looked over at Snarl, who was watching him expectantly.

Slag shrugged.

"Not know," he said grumpily.

Snarl made a non-committal grunt and then tossed some more rocks over the cliff. Leaning dangerously far forward to watch them fall, he said casually, "Me Snarl know."

Slag just stared at Snarl in shock as Snarl straightened up again and stared back at Slag.

"You Slag jealous of Swoop," Snarl asserted.

Slag's reaction was immediate. He leaped to his feet and stomped a few dozen yards away, to prevent himself from tossing Snarl over the cliff as Snarl had been throwing rocks.

"Not jealous!" Slag protested vehemently. "Not, not, not! Me Slag not ever jealous of stupid, weak, baby Swoop! Not ever!"

Snarl, infuriatingly, just shrugged again, and when he answered, his voice was exceedingly calm.

"Then why you get angry when anyone pay attention to Swoop, when anyone talk to him nice? Why you get so angry when Grimlock helped him today? If you not jealous of Swoop, then why that make you so angry? Why you care?"

"Not jealous!" Slag insisted again. "Me just not like it when Grimlock..." Slag's voice trailed off as he searched his limited vocabulary for the word he wanted. "...when Grimlock...coddle Swoop all the time. Like he something special. Like he better than other Dinobots. Make me, Slag, angry."

"Everything make you Slag angry," Snarl observed calmly. "And Swoop is special. He different. He smart and he help Dinobots fight. He...air support, Wheeljack say. He not better than other Dinobots, but he is Dinobot. Dinobots must help each other, because we all we have. So me Snarl not understand why you not like Swoop so much. He like you!" Snarl asserted.

Slag just stared at Snarl, aghast.

"Swoop no like me Slag. Nobody like me Slag!"

"Because you Slag not let anyone like you," Snarl answered calmly. "You Slag push everyone away, make them angry, make sure they not like you. But Swoop like you, even when you not nice to him."

"Then why he — What is word? — why he bait me all the time?"

Snarl shrugged.

"He tell me Snarl once that he bait you to 'give you a taste of your own medicine.' You bait everyone to make fight, so he bait you back."

Slag was silent.

"You Slag should come back to medical bay," Snarl said quietly, watching Slag intently. He was busy kicking angrily at the ground, sending clods of dirt flying everywhere and clouds of dust billowing up into the air. He looked up sharply at Snarl's suggestion, though.

"Not come back," he said grumpily, although not angrily. "Me Slag stay here. Need to think. Need to be alone."

Snarl frowned at that. He'd done his duty, he decided. He'd followed Slag, at Grimlock's request, told Slag what he thought, and now Slag was telling him to go away.

Fine. He'd go away. He was always happy to go away, always happy not to get caught up in the lives and troubles of anyone else. Everyone — the other Dinobots and all the other Autobots — thought that Snarl's indifference was just the way that he was, the way that he always would be. Snarl wasn't so sure. Sometimes, he was certain that indifference was his lot in life, that he was destined not to care about anyone or anything, even himself. But sometimes...sometimes he found himself caring, sometimes too much. And that was when he used exaggerated indifference as a shield. After all, if he could get everyone else to believe that he didn't care about anything, then maybe he could eventually convince himself of the same thing.

The situation with Swoop was a perfect example. Snarl always told himself that he didn't care about what happened to Swoop. But when he was truthful with himself, Snarl realized that he did care. He felt a kind of...kinship with Swoop that he didn't quite feel with the other Dinobots. It was partly due to the fact that they'd been created together, at the same time, a while after the other three Dinobots. But it was mostly because he sensed that both he and Swoop were different than the other three Dinobots, especially Slag and Grimlock. Those two were much more aggressive and hot-headed and were much quicker to anger than Snarl and Swoop were. It was probably why Slag and Grimlock were always butting heads, because they were inherently alike.

But Snarl and Swoop were different. Snarl didn't feel passionately about anything. It was difficult for him to get truly angry — except sometimes at Slag — but it was also difficult for him to get truly happy, too. Snarl wished it wasn't that way sometimes, although sometimes it made life easier. If he didn't care about anyone, after all, it was much more difficult to be hurt by anyone.

In fact, when he was in the right frame of mind to think about such things, Snarl often realized that he wished he could be more like Swoop. Swoop didn't get angry easily, either, but he was usually happy. It was something of which Snarl was almost jealous. He sensed that it was something of which Slag was jealous, too, which was why he'd pointed it out to him. That Slag didn't want to believe it...well, that was his problem. Snarl felt that he'd done his duty.

So, instead of arguing with Slag, he did as Slag had asked. He heaved a preparatory sigh and scanned down over the edge of the cliff. He hadn't climbed very often, only a few times with Slag, but he knew that the climb down was often tens of times more difficult than the climb up. Cautiously, he lowered himself down over the edge of the cliff, feeling around for a foothold. As he found one and gingerly settled his weight onto it, he happened to look up to see Slag's expression. It was a rare one for Slag, one of thoughtful contemplation.

"You Slag think all you want," Snarl said as a parting shot. "Me Snarl see you later."

And then all of his concentration was consumed by a treacherous downward climb, with nary a thought to spare for Slag. Or, thankfully, for anyone else.

* * * * * * *

Except for the quietly beeping devices that monitored Swoop's condition, the medical bay was silent. Except for Swoop and Grimlock, it was also currently empty. Ratchet and Wheeljack had moments ago retreated into Ratchet's office. They'd been deep in discussion as they'd left, and their voices had been worried.

Grimlock sighed to himself. The quiet and the solitude were actually rather nice, he realized. He could think when it was quiet, when he was alone. Quiet and solitude were rare commodities, two things that he wasn't completely used to having. Usually, he was around his boisterous comrades who, even when they weren't arguing, all had a tendency to be noisy. All except for Swoop.

Grimlock pushed away from the wall against which he'd been leaning and approached Swoop's medical berth. Standing next to his still form, he folded his arms across his chest and looked down at Swoop appraisingly. Monitors and dozens of circuit bypasses were attached to his body in dozens of locations. Various panels and access ports on his body were open, with frayed ends of damaged circuits sticking out of them at odd angles. But if Grimlock didn't know better, then he might have just been recharging. He was so still, so quiet, his body and his expression so relaxed.

Then again, Grimlock reflected, Swoop was often still and usually quiet. Unconsciously, Grimlock had attached labels — fairly or unfairly — to all of the Dinobots, himself included. He was "The Leader," Slag was "The Bully," Snarl was the "The Loner," Sludge was "The Happy-Go-Lucky Idiot," and Swoop was... Swoop was "The Watcher." When he wasn't goofing around with Sludge or baiting Slag, he was watching, always watching something or learning something, even if it was just a documentary on the humans' TV. He could usually be found perched in a corner somewhere — usually above everyone else, if he could help it — taking in everything and remembering what he learned. He didn't often say much, but he knew a lot. Grimlock knew that Swoop knew more than he did, that he was, in general, smarter than Grimlock was, but Swoop never challenged him. Not that he could, of course. Grimlock sometimes thought it ironic that the smartest Dinobot mind had been caged in the weakest Dinobot body.

Maybe, Grimlock thought cynically, that was the idea. A smarter Dinobot leader might more easily challenge the almighty Optimus Prime...

Immediately, Grimlock put all such uncharitable thoughts out of his mind. It was true that at one time he had not been all that fond of Optimus Prime — and he still wasn't. It was true that he'd thought Prime unworthy of being the Autobot leader at first because he wasn't aggressive enough, wasn't nearly as aggressive as Grimlock himself. It had taken Grimlock a long time to learn that it wasn't just the physically strongest person who should lead, but the wisest, the mentally strongest. Grimlock was physically very strong. Very few could challenge him in that regard. But he knew that he wasn't wise. Not yet, anyway. Grimlock had long ago learned that Optimus Prime had the right to hold his position of power. But Grimlock also realized that Optimus Prime largely ignored the Dinobots except when he needed them, something that often infuriated Grimlock.

But Grimlock had seen the look on the Autobot leader's face when Grimlock had at last vented his long-pent-up anger at him. Optimus Prime had looked stunned, even chastened. He'd had no idea that Grimlock felt so strongly or that Swoop was so often cruelly rebuffed by the Autobots and that it hurt him, so much so that Grimlock felt an overwhelming need to protect him.

Grimlock sighed to himself. Of course Prime had had no idea! No one would ever tell him, after all. None of the Autobots would want to admit that they'd been less than charitable to anyone and the Dinobots...Well, they all had too much pride to admit that anything that a mere Autobot could say could hurt them. But now that Prime knew...well, maybe Grimlock had given the Autobot leader something to think about.

And perhaps there was a chance that one day the Dinobots and the Autobots would come to understand one another, and that the divisiveness between them would dissipate with that understanding. Grimlock hoped so. And he also knew that the foundation of that potential understanding would rest upon open-minded Dinobots like Swoop and upon open-minded Autobots like Wheeljack. And maybe upon Optimus Prime himself, Grimlock reflected, remembering Optimus Prime's stricken face, his request that Grimlock personally keep him informed about Swoop's condition and not Ratchet or Wheeljack.

That was why Grimlock felt that it was so important to protect Swoop from any harm, physical or mental. If he was to be the eventual bridge between the Autobots and the Dinobots then he had to be protected, treated and handled carefully, as one would handle a delicate glass sculpture. Grimlock had already failed on one count. Swoop was ill, could very well die if he had correctly understood any of the rapid-fire medical jargon that Ratchet and Wheeljack had been spewing at one another during the past few hours. Swoop's physical condition was precarious and there was little to nothing that he could do about that. But Grimlock would be damned before he'd allow his mental well-being to be so endangered as well. He was determined that he would stay with him until he awakened and fully recovered. Or until he died.

He put that last, unpleasant thought out of his mind, too. He couldn't allow himself to think that Swoop might die. Ratchet and Wheeljack apparently thought that he could already, so Grimlock had to be doubly sure in his conviction that he wouldn't die. As he'd said to Wheeljack a few hours that now seemed like a few days ago, he wasn't allowed to die.

With a tired sigh, Grimlock settled himself on the edge of Swoop's medical berth. He gazed down at his face, which was peaceful, composed, and relaxed in his unconsciousness, turned to one side.

"You not worry, Swoop," Grimlock murmured softly to him, as if Swoop could hear him. "You will be OK. Me, Grimlock, promise you."



* * * * * * * *

On his one hundredth circuit of it, the Romper Room looked exactly as it had on his first. Not that Sludge really expected it to change. He was just hoping that it would. Nothing he did, it seemed, alleviated his boredom, much less assuaged his worry about Swoop.

Sludge again found his gaze wandering to the chronometer mounted on the wall and he stared at it dully, as if he'd never seen it before. Six hours, it had been. Six hours since Swoop had gotten sick, since he had fallen to one knee, lost consciousness, and not woken up again. It had been the worst six hours of Sludge's life so far, stuck as he was in the Romper Room, waiting for news from Grimlock that didn't seem to be forthcoming any time soon.

But being there to watch Swoop get sick...That had been even worse, one of the worst sights Sludge had seen in all of his brief life. He kept replaying the past morning in his mind, from the time Swoop, who'd tired of listening to Slag and Snarl arguing, had suggested a sparring match until the moment that he had fallen ill. He kept trying to determine whether or nor he should have seen it coming, whether or not there'd been some sign, however subtle, that Swoop was in trouble.

There had to have been a sign, Sludge's mind insisted. But there hadn't been. The sparring match had progressed the same way that they always had, with no sign of trouble. No sign that Sludge could remember, at least. No sign that he could recognize.

Sludge sighed. Recognition was, of course, the problem. Swoop hadn't shown any sign that Sludge could recognize that he'd been in trouble. But that didn't mean that he hadn't really shown any signs. Someone else — someone smarter — might have recognized them easily, but that had apparently been an ability beyond Sludge's grasp.

As usual, Sludge thought bitterly.

Sludge often felt that he had gotten the short end of the stick, as the curious human saying went. He always seemed to catch on to things just a little slower than everyone else did. Leaps of logic or intuition that seemed so easy for Grimlock or especially for Swoop to make seemed to Sludge far beyond his reach, took him more than a few minutes to understand, and sometimes he never understood, even when Swoop tried patiently to explain. Facts that seemed to stick easily in Swoop's memory seemed to slip through Sludge's brain like water through a sieve, no matter how frantically Wheeljack and often Swoop sought to stuff knowledge back into his head. Sludge, it seemed, was always struggling just to keep up — and the truth was that he couldn't always keep up, no matter how hard he tried. Sometimes he had no hope of doing so. And Sludge, of all people, was all too aware of that fact.

So Sludge had settled into a pattern in life. He wasn't particularly aggressive like certain of his "brothers." He wasn't smart like some of them. He wasn't graceful or agile or particularly skilled at anything. But he was strong. No one could deny that. And he was loyal to a fault. And his psychological makeup was such that he found himself drawn to those who could use his strength and his loyalty to their own advantage. As such, he was the perfect follower. And Sludge sought to be the best follower he could possibly be, if only to justify his existence. He was never happier than when he could use his abilities in the service of someone who knew how to use them, when he felt as if he was part of a team and not just some moronic fifth wheel. He was happiest when he could obey and serve and, most of all, belong.

There were times, however, when he found it difficult to obey. Like this morning, when Grimlock had ordered him to leave the medical bay when he must have known how much Sludge had wanted to stay. Sludge had, in fact, surprised himself when he had initially protested the order, something that, as far as he could remember, he had never done before. He pondered for a moment why he had done so.

Certainly, there was nothing that he could have done for Swoop in the medical bay. He was in the best possible care — Ratchet and Wheeljack were his creators, after all, the creators of all of the Dinobots. If anybody could fix Swoop, it would be the two of them. Sludge could certainly contribute nothing to that effort.

But he felt as if he needed to be there, anyway, as if he needed to be there for Swoop. Swoop, after all, was always there for Sludge when he needed him. He always came to his defense. On the battlefield, when Sludge found himself overwhelmed, it was often Swoop who noticed first and didn't hesitate to help him. In the Romper Room, when Sludge found himself besieged by Slag's often ceaseless taunts, it was Swoop who usually came to his rescue. He would deftly counterattack Slag with a few choice insults of his own, which would serve to shift Slag's attention away from Sludge and onto Swoop, who could handle such things much better than Sludge could. Swoop always defended Sludge when he was in trouble, when he couldn't come to his own defense; Sludge felt compelled to do the same for Swoop.

Except that Grimlock wouldn't let him! He'd ordered Sludge back to the Romper Room and there Sludge had remained ever since, following Grimlock's order to the letter. He'd tried to distract himself, tried to get his mind off of his worry for his best friend. He'd paced around the Romper Room dozens of times, becoming intimately familiar with every scratch on the floor and every minute dent in the walls. He'd sat down at the computer, attempting to lose himself in an absorbingly violent computer game. It didn't work. He'd even thought about shutting down for a recharge cycle, but found that the idea was somehow abhorrent. He couldn't help thinking about the possibility of Swoop waking up while he slept, that he'd miss the moment when he recovered. Or worse, Sludge thought about Swoop dying while he slept — except that thought was too terrible to contemplate.

But nothing that Sludge did could seem to distract him. Nothing diverted his thoughts from the worry that was eating away at his insides, and which was being made worse by isolation. He was pacing again. Sludge hated pacing. He decided that he'd had enough of pacing. He decided that he'd had enough of sitting in the Romper Room, waiting for news. And for once, he decided that he'd had enough of obeying.

Sludge sighed a resolute sigh, and stomped to the Romper Room's exit. He was going to the medical bay. He discovered that he no longer cared if he was supposed to be there or not.



* * * * * * *

A scene that was almost as disturbing as Optimus Prime's rambling thoughts was being played out on Teletran One's huge vidscreen when he made his way back to the Control Room, hours after leaving the medical bay. He found himself staring at the screen in horror, frozen in place a step or two inside the doors of the Control Room. He didn't really want to watch the drama that was playing out upon Teletran One's screen, but he found that he simply couldn't tear his gaze away from the screen, no matter how hard he tried.

On the screen, two garishly painted cars, their engines screaming like banshees, hovered side-by-side, mere tenths of a meter away from each other. And then one of them swerved slightly, bumped ever so lightly into the other, and then suddenly careened away, spinning out of control toward an ominous gray concrete barrier. Sickeningly, the scene switched to slow motion as the back end of the car slammed into the barrier, crunching the car like a tin can. And then the car skipped along the barrier as if it was a pebble skipping across the surface of a pond, impacting with it another half a dozen times. Pieces of the car flew everywhere for long, drawn-out seconds before what was left of the car finally, mercifully, came to rest. But then, as if to punctuate such a horrific crash, the entire back half of the car exploded into roiling flames and a billowing cloud of black smoke.

The scene made Optimus Prime faintly...nauseated. But he was apparently alone in that reaction.

"Boooooooom!" Jazz's distinctive voice crowed with what sounded suspiciously and disturbingly like delight.

At almost the same instant, Ironhide drawled, "Oooh, that's gotta hurt!"

Another voice — Prowl's, shockingly — commented, "You know, if the back end of the car had initially hit the barrier at a 42.6 degree angle instead of a 67.9 degree angle, then the whole car would have burst into flame immediately after the initial impact instead of after the seventh."

"Awwww, that woulda been so cool!" Sideswipe's voice bemoaned, while on the screen a rescue crew arrived at the scene of the crash. A small swarm of humans erupted from the rescue vehicles and set about putting out the fire and tearing the human driver out of the mangled wreckage of his car. "Too bad the dumb human screwed it up."

"That 'dumb human' is gonna be charbroiled if those guys don't get him outta there soon," Ironhide observed with a chuckle.

"Cool!" Sideswipe crowed.

"You are sick, Sideswipe!" Jazz pronounced, but his tone didn't sound at all disapproving. "Sick, sick, sick!"

Sideswipe snorted.

"Oh right, Jazz," he scoffed. "You just try telling me that you weren't thinking the exact same thing."

"I didn't say," Jazz pointedly informed Sideswipe, "that I wasn't sick. I just said that you were."

"Smooooooth comeback, Jazz," Prowl murmured admiringly.

"Why, thank you, Prowl," Jazz answered.

Watching and listening unbeknownst to the four other Autobots, Optimus Prime sighed exasperatedly to himself, suddenly realizing what was going on. It was a Sunday afternoon. It was June. That meant that it was a NASCAR race day. Jazz had somewhere, somehow discovered NASCAR and had subsequently infected Ironhide with an intense passion for it. Now, apparently, the infection was spreading.

Too bad this is one infection that Ratchet can't cure... Optimus Prime thought ruefully to himself.

He stared at the back of the U-shaped bench seat that had been shoved in front of Teletran One's screen, imagining the four bodies that were no doubt sprawled languidly across it as they hungrily drank in the despicable blood sport on the screen in front of them.

Optimus Prime cleared his throat loudly enough to get the race-engrossed foursome's attention and then calmly asked, "Why do you insist on watching that garbage?"

Instantly, four heads poked themselves up above the back of the seat, regarding the Autobot leader with varying expressions on their faces. Ironhide and Jazz just grinned at him impudently, the former chuckling. Prowl and Sideswipe at least had the grace to look like two human children caught with their hands in the cookie jar. But Jazz spoke up first.

"For the same reason humans watch horror movies, Prime," he proclaimed calmly. "That's why."

When Prime didn't immediately answer, Ironhide clarified, "'Cuz we like to see little bits and pieces flyin' everywhere."

Optimus Prime shook his head ruefully while the rescue operation continued on the vidscreen.

"'Little bits and pieces' of cars or of humans?" he asked sardonically.

"Both!" Ironhide answered cheerfully. "Preferably at the same time."

"Yeah!" Sideswipe agreed.

Prowl, wisely, kept his mouth shut.

"You're all sick," Optimus Prime decided, and, to Ironhide's trained audios, he sounded tired and a bit...upset about something. Ironhide frowned over at the Autobot leader, narrowing his optics searchingly.

"What's up, Prime?" Ironhide asked solicitously, all joking suddenly put aside.

The others, too, quickly grew serious, picking up on the look that passed between Ironhide and Optimus Prime. Prowl even had the good sense to turn off the race, studiously ignoring the scowl that Jazz shot in his direction when he did so. Optimus Prime, meanwhile, sighed and then headed over to the seat to join the others. With a groan, he settled his big body down on one side of the "U" and crossed his arms over his chest while the others looked on in concern.

"What's wrong, Prime?" Ironhide asked again when Optimus Prime said nothing for a full minute.

"What makes you think that there's anything wrong, Ironhide?" Prime asked tiredly.

"You look like you just lost your last friend," Jazz declared. "And since Ironhide's here and I'm here and Prowl's here and even sick-o Sideswipe's here, we know that's not true. So what gives?"

"Swoop?" Prowl guessed before Optimus Prime could answer, making a logical deduction.

"Partly," Prime answered with a nod.

"But not totally...?" Jazz prompted.

Optimus Prime heaved a troubled sigh.

"Have you ever gone through life thinking that you know a person," he asked thoughtfully, "only to suddenly realize that you really don't know them at all?"

Ironhide snorted.

"Oh, yeah!" he exclaimed. He leaned back in his seat, stretched out his legs in front of him, and folded his arms across his chest. "Happened to me when a certain person I know changed his name and decided that he was Primus' gift to Cybertron."

Jazz started to chuckle but then, upon seeing the look with which Prime speared Ironhide, he stifled it. Even Ironhide looked chastened, which was a rarity.

"What's wrong, Prime?" Prowl asked, cutting to the heart of the matter, as usual. "Who are we talking about here?"

"Grimlock," Prime answered dismally.

"Grimlock?" Ironhide echoed, surprised. "What could be so profound about Grimlock? He's just a—"

"He's just a what?" Prime asked almost bitterly, interrupting Ironhide. "What is he, Ironhide? You were about to say that he's a big moron, or something like that, weren't you?"

"Yeah! So?"

"So how do you know that, Ironhide?"

"Whaddaya mean how do I know that? Everyone knows that, Prime."

"Ah, yes! Of course! Everyone knows that! Everyone knows that Grimlock and the other Dinobots are irretrievably stupid, don't they?"

"Of course," Ironhide agreed with a nonchalant shrug, but he got the distinct feeling that he'd given the wrong answer when Prime aimed another glare in his direction.

Bzzt! Wrong answer, Ironhide, but thanks for playing! he thought sourly.

And Ironhide was certain he'd given the wrong answer when he heard Prime's uncharacteristically sarcastic retort.

"You know, that's quite an amazing presumption for you to make, Ironhide, considering that you never so much as talk to Grimlock or the other Dinobots unless you have to," Optimus Prime shot at his second-in-command. And then he looked across at Prowl, who was frowning in thought, staring at the floor. "Wouldn't you agree, Prowl, that that was an astounding leap of logic for Ironhide here to make?"

Prowl looked up sharply then, with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look on his face. He glanced helplessly between Optimus Prime and Ironhide for a moment. And then he opened his mouth to say something, realized that he didn't know what to say, and then closed it again.

"What about when they were first created? When they tore this place apart?" Jazz said, speaking up in Ironhide's defense when Prowl didn't say anything. "I wouldn't consider that a hallmark of genius."

"That was ten years ago, Jazz," Optimus Prime asserted quietly. "Are you going to try to convince me that no one ever changes, that no one can ever learn over the years?"

Jazz frowned, his expression troubled, but he didn't answer.

"What about when Grimlock tried to kill you, Prime?" Sideswipe offered tentatively. "And how 'bout the way they talk?"

"Again, Grimlock tried to kill me years ago, Sideswipe," Prime said, shaking his head. "And that was under mitigating circumstances. And the way the Dinobots talk is not their fault and it's not necessarily a sign that they're stupid."

Prowl finally found his voice, not liking the forlorn undertone of Optimus Prime's voice.

"What's this all about, Prime?" he wanted to know. "What brought all of this on?"

"Yeah!" Ironhide seconded. "Did Wheeljack brainwash you while you were down in the repair bay or something?" he added sarcastically.

Optimus Prime aimed yet another withering look in Ironhide's direction.

"You're really pushing it, Ironhide," was all that he said, was all that he needed to say.

"Well, I'm sorry!" Ironhide responded immediately, although he didn't sound at all repentant. "Yesterday, you were quite happy to keep Grimlock and Company safely secured and out of your sight, even though Wheeljack was always bitching and moaning about it. Today, you're practically jumping down my throat just for calling Grimlock stupid. I think it's fair to ask you what changed your mind so suddenly."

Optimus Prime nodded tiredly.

"You're right, Ironhide," he conceded contritely. "And I'm sorry that I snapped at you."

"Accepted," Ironhide said quietly, mollified for the moment.

"So..." Jazz said tentatively, after an uneasy moment of silence. "What gives, Prime? Why this sudden turn-around?"

Optimus Prime sighed heavily.

"I had a very interesting...conversation...with Grimlock down in the medical bay earlier. He said some things to me that...well, they made me think. In fact, I've been able to think of little else since..."

"A conversation?" Sideswipe questioned doubtfully. "With Grimlock?"

"Well...it was more like a very loud lecture from Grimlock, actually," Prime said ruefully.

"A lecture? From Grimlock?" Prowl said disbelievingly. "From our Grimlock?"

"No, Prowl. From Grimlock's evil twin," Optimus Prime replied with a weary sigh. "Of course from our Grimlock! It was as amazing to me as it is to you. Because, you know, I never talk to him unless I have to, as well... And what really bothers me is that he was basically right about everything that he said..." His voice trailed off while the others waited for Prime to continue, which he did after a long, contemplative moment. "Did you know that Grimlock's down in the medical bay right now, protecting Swoop?"

"Protecting him from what?" Jazz wanted to know, frowning in confusion.

Optimus Prime snorted.

"From us!" he said succinctly.

"What?" Jazz responded.

"Grimlock's protecting Swoop from being hurt by an Autobot while he's incapacitated," Optimus Prime explained.

"That's crazy!" Sideswipe declared. "Who'd want to hurt him? Who'd want to hurt any of them?"

"Well, let's see, Sideswipe..." Optimus Prime said. "Let's think about that one for just a minute. What was that long-winded joke I heard you and Sunstreaker telling yesterday, something about the main difference between a Dinobot and a Decepticon? What was the punchline of it?"

"That you'd only get in trouble for shooting one of them," Sideswipe answered without hesitation. But then he belatedly realized what he'd just said and slapped a hand over his mouth, his optics wide above his hand. He would have blushed profusely if he were human. "Oh!" he exclaimed, his chastened voice muffled by his hand. "Oh, Primus! I didn't mean it that way!"

"Of course you didn't mean it that way!" Prime said sympathetically. "And probably everyone who heard you yesterday thought the joke was funny and knew that you didn't mean it that way. Everyone except for Swoop, that is, who was sitting not five meters away from you, talking with Ratchet. And you didn't even realize it. And you certainly hit home, judging by the look on his face! In fact, you were lucky Ratchet didn't have a weapon on him, judging by the look on his face. I wouldn't be making any visits to the medbay any time soon, if I were you."

Sideswipe gulped.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled.

Prime snorted.

"I'm not the one who should be hearing your apologies," he said. "In fact yesterday I thought it was funny, too. Scary, isn't it? Now imagine that going on for years — the jokes, the snide remarks, the innocent comments that could easily be taken the wrong way. Add in the fact that very few Autobots willingly associate with any of the Dinobots, that very few Autobots really know them at all, and that most generally tend to ignore them. What would you think, if you were Grimlock?"

"I've...never thought about it," Sideswipe admitted reluctantly.

"My point exactly," Optimus Prime said. "No one ever thinks about it. Least of all me."

"But you've been thinking about this a lot now, haven't you, Prime?" Jazz asked quietly.

Optimus Prime nodded.

"I left the medical bay a long time ago," he said. "I've been wandering around Headquarters, thinking about what Grimlock said, trying to come up with a way to explain myself and all of us, to...apologize to him." He paused, heaved a long sigh. "Everything that I came up with sounded very unconvincing."

"You can't blame yourself," Ironhide asserted. "All of us are equally guilty of the same thing."

"No," Optimus Prime answered, shaking his head sadly. "You're wrong, Ironhide. There's at least one Autobot who's always tried to make me see how unfairly the Dinobots have been treated over the years. But I've just never really listened to him. I never wanted to listen to him."

"Wheeljack," Prowl said with certainty.

Prime nodded.

"Yes," he said bleakly. "Wheeljack. And he's been right, all this time."

"So what're you gonna do about it, Prime?" Ironhide asked.

Prime slumped down in his seat, shoulders hunched.

"I'm going to do two things that I really hate to do."

"What's that?" Sideswipe asked, optics wide with awe.

Optimus Prime sighed.

"I'm going to admit that I was wrong. And then I'm going to apologize. To Wheeljack and to Grimlock and the other Dinobots."

All was silent for a moment after Optimus Prime's admission until Ironhide snorted, nodded for some reason, and then suddenly bounced to his feet. He headed for the door, stopping only when Optimus Prime asked him a bewildered question.

"Where are you going, Ironhide?"

Ironhide halted, turned around to face the Autobot leader with a somber expression on his face.

"Well, you just admitted to being wrong, Prime," he deadpanned. "So I'm going to go mark this day on a calendar somewhere as an historic occasion." And then as soon as he'd said it, he turned again and left the room, giving him the last word, as usual.

Despite himself, Optimus Prime laughed out loud. He couldn't help it. It was so typical of Ironhide to yank him out a foul, self-pitying mood with a single smart-ass remark. Jazz, sitting next to him, was chuckling as well.

"Man, he's got you pegged, doesn't he?" Jazz commented, amused.

Prime sighed.

"So it would seem, Jazz," he said ruefully, staring at the door through which Ironhide had made his dramatic exit. "So it would seem." And then, after a long, contemplative pause, he turned back to Jazz. "Care to join me while I humble myself?" he asked lightly.

Jazz chuckled.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world, Prime," he answered and, getting up from his seat, he followed Optimus Prime out of the Control Room.

* * * * * * *

Reflexively, Grimlock looked up when the medbay doors slid apart and was surprised to see both Sludge and, of all people, Snarl striding through them. Snarl wore a mask of indifference on his face, as usual. Sludge, on the other hand, gave Grimlock a narrowed-eyed glare full of surprising defiance. Defiance was something that Grimlock could never recall seeing on Sludge's face before. He had never had reason to be defiant since he'd always seemed perfectly happy to obey every command tossed his way…

First time for everything, was the thought that crossed Grimlock's mind when he saw Sludge's expression. He pushed away from the wall against which he had been leaning and watched as Sludge marched up to him and looked him straight in the optics.

"You Grimlock not send me Sludge away again," he said without preamble, before Grimlock could say anything, and his tone brooked no argument. "Swoop friend. Swoop help Sludge all the time. Sludge stay here for him now. Sludge not leave."

Grimlock just stared at the other Dinobot for a moment, dumbfounded. He never expected in his life that Sludge would disobey a direct order, regardless of the circumstances. Yet here he was, standing in the medbay even though Grimlock had ordered him to stay in their quarters. It wasn't that Grimlock had issued that order out of heartlessness. He knew that Sludge cared about what happened to Swoop perhaps more so than any of the Dinobots, himself included. But Grimlock also knew, however, that Sludge had just the slightest tendency towards clumsiness, partly because of his size but mostly because that was simply the way that he was. He was massively strong, but sometimes that strength had a tendency to backfire on him and he would inadvertently break things or just get in the way, in general. Grimlock had feared a disaster if Sludge had stayed in the medbay and had gotten in the way of one of the hustling medics…

Still…At the moment, things were quiet in the medical bay. Ratchet and Wheeljack, after stabilizing Swoop as best they could, had retreated to Ratchet's office, no doubt to formulate a plan of attack against whatever it was that was ailing Swoop. They had been in there for hours. Grimlock, truth to tell, had become bored. There was nothing that he could do for Swoop, but he felt compelled to stay with him, regardless. And then suddenly Snarl and Sludge were there…And Grimlock realized that Sludge was staring at him. The expression of open defiance that he'd worn like a shield had transmuted itself to nervous hopefulness in the face of Grimlock's extended, appraising stare.

"You Sludge may stay," Grimlock finally allowed and smiled inwardly at the look of relieved joy that flooded Sludge's face when he said the words. Sludge happily went off to stand by Swoop's medical berth while Grimlock slid his gaze over to Snarl, who merely stood impassively, returning Grimlock's searching gaze with one of studied indifference.

"What you Snarl doing here?" Grimlock asked, genuinuely surprised that the loner of the Dinobots would deign to show his face at what had become a vigil for a fallen comrade. He was never one for solidarity, after all, and he usually preferred to be by himself.

But Snarl merely shrugged and asserted, "Me Snarl have nothing better to do."

"Where Slag?" Grimlock asked, suddenly remembering the task which he had assigned Snarl.

"Climbing rocks," Snarl answered succinctly, which was not surprising as far as it went with Slag. "Said he needed to think," Snarl added…and that was surprising.

"Slag? Thinking? Slag?" Grimlock responded, shocked.

Snarl shrugged again. "Today just full of surprises, isn't it?" he said tonelessly.

Grimlock stared at him for moment, wondering precisely what — or who — Snarl was talking about. He was about to ask when he was suddenly visited with an even greater shock. The medbay doors parted again and Optimus Prime, with Jazz in his wake, strode into the room. Like Sludge before him, Optimus Prime approached Grimlock and looked him straight in the optics. Grimlock almost felt the need to wince and ask what he'd done now, but there was...something...in Optimus Prime's somewhat limited expression that stayed him. There was an...uncertainty...there, perhaps? But Grimlock had never been a wonderful judge of facial expressions, and it was especially difficult with Optimus Prime. So he merely stared back at the Autobot leader and waited.

And waited.

It took quite a while for Optimus Prime to say anything...and when he finally did say something, it was uncharacteristically hesitant.

"Grimlock," Optimus Prime said after clearing his throat...nervously? "I've...been thinking about what you said before about...about we Autobots not understanding you Dinobots."

"Yes?" Grimlock said when Prime paused for a long moment. It was half acknowledgment and half prompt.

"And...what you said...Well, you did have a point, I admit, and, well..."

"What he wants to say," Jazz suddenly interrupted, "is that he's sorry for being a jackass when it comes to you guys. And, for what it's worth, so am I." When Optimus stared at him with optics widened in shock, he exclaimed, "What? You know I hate it when people beat around the bush, Prime. So I just went and said it for you." He slid a glance over at Grimlock, who was stunned into silence and had his gaze fixed upon Jazz as well, and added, "Great! Now I've got two of 'em starin' at me!" And with that, he threw his hands in the air in a gesture of frustration and went to stand by Swoop's medical berth, joining Sludge in watching over him.

Optimus Prime blinked then, shook his head to clear his thoughts, and stared at Grimlock.

"Yes," he said, finally finding words. "I meant what Jazz said, Grimlock. You and the other Dinobots have been treated unfairly over the years by myself and by many of the other Autobots. Please believe me when I say that most of us were not being intentionally cruel toward any of you. It's just that...well, as shameful as it is to admit...we just never really thought about your feelings and needs. I...I hope that this is something that both of us can work on, that maybe the Dinobots and the Autobots can one day be a real team with no barriers of misunderstanding and distrust between us. And I hope that you and the others can forgive us for our indifference and, in some cases, for our thoughtless dismissal of your feelings. I'm...sorry. For everything."

For a long time, Grimlock was silent, to the point that Optimus Prime found himself wondering if any of his words had sunk into Grimlock's skull. But just when he was about to say something else, if only to end the awful, uncomfortable silence, Grimlock finally spoke up.

"You Optimus Prime not only one who is sorry," he said quietly. "Us Dinobots not always try to be part of team because us sometimes get tired of being noticed only when us needed to pound Decepticons. And then us get angry. So us can be...what is word?...rebellious, me think? Yes. Rebellious. Even when us not need to be. And us not always try to understand Autobots, either."

He paused and his gaze slid over to Swoop's medical berth, where Sludge and Jazz were actually smiling at each other and talking quietly, probably about a shared memory of Swoop. Grimlock watched them for a moment and added thoughtfully, words emerging from his throat with correct syntax without having to think about it, for once.

"But maybe," Grimlock continued softly, "one good thing can come out of this bad thing with Swoop. Maybe it will make Autobots and Dinobots both try to understand the other side. Maybe we can meet in the middle...eventually."

Optimus Prime stared wonderingly at the Dinobot leader. He had never given Grimlock credit for being capable of such deep thought. And yet this was the second time in a single day that Grimlock had opened Optimus Prime's eyes to a side of Grimlock and the other Dinobots that he never knew existed. It was enough to make him regret ignoring the Dinobots for the past ten years... They stared at each other for a long moment, optics-to-optics, truly as equals for once.

It was then that Ratchet and Wheeljack emerged from Ratchet's office, announcing that they had a plan of attack against Swoop's condition and telling everyone, Autobot and Dinobot, to get out of their way...



* * * * * * *

"You are out of your ever-lovin' mind, Wheeljack!" Ratchet exclaimed, slamming a fist against the desk in front of him in exasperation.

"I am?" Wheeljack responded mildly.

"Yes!" Ratchet answered. "You are! We have no idea if it'd work. And even if it did, do you have any idea what this might do to him, assuming that he survives?!"

Slouched tiredly in a chair across the desk from Ratchet, Wheeljack glared at the medic.

"Um, hello? I seem to recall spending many hours designing his circuit pathways in the first place! I think I have just the vaguest inkling of what this might do to him!" he retorted. "And I have yet to hear any ideas from you, oh great medical master," he added sarcastically.

Ratchet snorted, but didn't answer for a moment. Despite the fact that he was exhausted and had a headache the size of Manhattan, he pushed himself up out of his chair and paced around his office, taking a few moments to cool his temper.

Wheeljack watched Ratchet pace for a moment, sympathizing with the medic's obvious feeling of helplessness. He sighed, slouched further down in his seat, and added tiredly, sadly, "Besides which, the alternative is losing him forever, anyway. You, uh...you do know that, don't you, Ratchet?"

Ratchet paused in his pacing by the window mounted in his office's wall, the one that looked out onto the main ward. At the moment, it offered only a depressing view of their ominously still Dinobot patient. Gathered around him was an interesting mix: Sludge, Snarl, and Jazz. They all appeared to be getting along well; Sludge and Jazz were even smiling. Optimus Prime and Grimlock, meanwhile were off in a corner, staring at one another. Ratchet idly hoped that an argument was not about to ensue. The last thing they needed was more tension between the Autobot leader and the Dinobot leader.

Without turning away from the window, Ratchet sighed and said quietly, "Of course I know that, Wheeljack. It's just that..."

"That what?" Wheeljack prompted gently when Ratchet's voice trailed off into a long moment of troubled silence.

"I don't know, Wheeljack," Ratchet answered dismally after a moment. "I'm so damn tired. And I just...I feel like I don't know anything anymore."

"Mmmm," Wheeljack murmured in wordless agreement.

Ratchet sighed again, turned away from the window, and paced back to his desk, settling himself once again into the chair behind it. It had been a very long twelve hours, Ratchet reflected. And in those long twelve hours, Ratchet felt as if he and Wheeljack had accomplished precisely nothing. Swoop was in just as much danger at the present moment as he'd been eleven hours and fifty-nine minutes before. In fact, he was in even more danger, since the circuit bypasses that were keeping the failure cascade out of his central operating programs could not hold out forever against the endless onslaught of systems failures that were the calling card of his condition. They had three or four hours, at the most, to stop that onslaught, before the bypasses failed, at which time the Swoop that they all knew would be gone forever.

It was a daunting task, one that had taxed his frustration threshold to the breaking point. Wheeljack's, too, apparently. He and Wheeljack usually worked very well together, their areas of expertise overlapping nicely. They didn't often snipe at one another, but they'd been doing so, on and off, since Swoop's crisis had started.

That was only twelve hours ago...and Ratchet realized it was a wonder, really, that Swoop was still alive at all, twelve hours later. It was largely the result of a series of happy coincidences more than anything else. Swoop was lucky that the initial onset of his condition had occurred while he was in the presence of others. He was lucky that Grimlock had been clear-headed enough to send for help as quickly as he had. He was lucky that Ratchet had been so close by. And he was lucky that, having gotten an inkling of what was wrong with Swoop from Wheeljack's vague description, Ratchet had brought the right equipment with him to the Romper Room. He'd been able to halt the failure cascade in its tracks long enough to get him to the medical bay. There, he'd been able to bypass just about every one of his vital circuits before the failure cascade could irrevocably damage them. All in all, it was truly a marvel that Swoop was still alive twelve hours after the onset of a failure cascade that was so acute and so devastatingly persistent.

And it was also utterly baffling.

Via Teletran One, Ratchet had accessed all of the old medical records on Cybertron that pertained to cascade failure. He'd looked for a case even remotely similar to Swoop's, to no avail. The old records rather unhelpfully told Ratchet only what he already knew.

Cascade failure was something that usually occurred in only much older Cybertronians, in those who were nearing the end of what to the humans was a staggeringly long life span. But it was usually not nearly so...cataclysmic as Swoop's case, not even remotely as acute. In every record that Ratchet had accessed, the patient's cascade failure was a comparatively slow, gradual, but ultimately irreversible process. The patient's systems failed one by one over the course of several of the humans' weeks until it finally affected their vital, primary systems and claimed their lives. Cybertronian physicians through the ages had come to regard cascade failure as the natural end to life, the same way that humans viewed death due to old age.

Now, of course, the war often precluded Cybertronians from dying of old age. It was now a dismal fact of Cybertronian life that many Cybertronians no longer lived long enough to die of old age, thanks to the unforgiving ravages of a seemingly endless civil war. So cascade failure was now a relatively rare occurrence.

And it was even rarer that such a young Cybertronian should fall prey to it. Swoop, in comparison to all of the other Autobots, was a mere infant, was only ten of the humans' years old. That was but a blink of an eye to a Cybertronian, whose life span humans measured in eons, not mere decades. And his condition was not something that was going to kill him over the course of a few weeks or so; he had gone from the perfectly healthy vigor of extreme youth to dangerously near death in the space of a few minutes. And, unless Ratchet and Wheeljack could find a way to stop it, cascade failure was ultimately going to kill him in less than an Earth day.

And it hadn't helped Ratchet's confidence in devising a treatment for Swoop when he'd learned, through looking at the records, that there were no recorded cases of such an acute case of cascade failure anywhere in anyone, young or old. This was a condition completely new to Cybertronian medicine. Which meant that he and Wheeljack had to come up with a completely new treatment.

And they had to come up with it quickly.

And it had to work the first time. There were not going to be any second chances. They didn't have that luxury.

And now Wheeljack, looking at the problem from an engineering perspective, had thought of something to try. They were contemplating taking Swoop completely off-line, quickly rerouting every circuit pathway in his body, down to the smallest and most insignificant microcircuit, and then getting him back online again — hopefully! — and hoping for the best. It was something that was dangerously unprecedented, something that might result in his death if they couldn't finish the procedure fast enough or if they couldn't convince him to come back online afterwards. Wheeljack was convinced that with himself, Ratchet, and the dozen or so medics under Ratchet's command they could reroute his circuits quickly enough. Reviving him afterwards was another question...But the "treatment" was also something that very well might be Swoop's only chance for survival, at least insofar as the Swoop that they all knew and — in one or two cases — loved was concerned. Ratchet knew that. Much as he didn't like taking chances such as the one that Wheeljack was suggesting, Ratchet realized that there were times when there was no other choice but to rely on dim hopes, faint chances, and untested procedures.

This was one of those times. There was no time for tests, no time for waffling, no time for soul-searching about the medical ethics of doing what Wheeljack had proposed. Ratchet knew that, even as his training as a physician screamed at him that to sanction a treatment that might put his patient in more jeopardy than he already faced was unjustifiable in the extreme, that to abandon traditional and safer procedures in favor of something untried and untestable was unconscionable. He argued back with himself that, sometimes, the rigid rules of medical ethics had to be bent when a life was at stake. And, as Wheeljack had pointed out, if they didn't do something Swoop was going to die anyway...

Resolutely, he turned away from the window, faced Wheeljack with a grim expression on his face.

"Let's get to work," he said.



* * * * * * *

The stark light of a full moon filtered through high, wispy clouds glared down upon Slag, leeching all color from the landscape like a vampire sucking the lifeblood from his victim. The splashy, watercolor hues of late spring, and the bright, primary colors of Slag's own body were all washed down to dismal shades of gray, shades that matched Slag's mood. A chill wind carrying a damp promise of rain blew its way down the cliff face upon which Slag was still sitting, motionless.

Rain, he thought bleakly as he stared up at the thicker clouds that were just beginning to gather around the moon. Just what I need... It was just one more bleak thought wedged within a stack of others. Hunching his shoulders against the wind, Slag settled into his thoughts once again.

He'd been up on the cliff, alone, for...hours now. He'd long ago lost track of how many hours it had been since Snarl had left him alone to ponder his situation and his emotions about Swoop. Part of Slag was glad that he'd been left alone, that everyone — Autobot or Dinobot — had chosen to leave him to his own devices. He preferred to be alone. He was Slag the fierce, the bully, the meanest of the mean and violent Dinobots, after all. He didn't need anyone else in order to survive. Not the Autobots, not the other Dinobots. In fact, on several occasions during the time that he'd been up on the cliff, he had considered leaving, walking away from Autobot Headquarters and never returning. A small part of him had even considered heading off and knocking on Megatron's door to see if he was hiring, but...something...stayed him. It was something that Slag didn't like, something alien to him. It was only a small, faint voice in his head, to be sure, but it nagged at him. It whispered to him to follow the Autobot party line not because he wanted to, necessarily, but because it was the "right" thing to do.

And, oh, was that phrase was familiar, indeed! Swoop was always telling him to do things whether he liked it or not simply because it was the "right" thing to do. Right for whom was what Slag had always wondered, and sometimes he'd even asked. "Rightness" was apparently of importance to Swoop, certainly, who cared about such things. Slag didn't care. As Snarl had pointed out to him, he cared about only one thing in life, and he had mastered it. He had mastered the art of war and of death and, to him, those were things of which to be proud. Those were the things that mattered, that were valuable in the current state of Cybertronian affairs...but it had occurred to Slag over the past few hours that he had not mastered the art of life, the art of peace, the art of contentedness, of happiness. Were they valuable as well? Maybe they were in the bright, happy future that those more optimistic than Slag predicted. Well, Slag would worry about such a thing if — and that was a big "if" — it came to pass.

But Swoop had taken such things to heart already. Peace was what he seemed to live for, now. He'd put war and violence behind him, he claimed. Slag had always retorted that that was nothing of which to be proud. And he'd always looked contemptuously upon Swoop. He was weaker, physically, than Slag was. He questioned the need to fight at times, sometimes seconds before an imminent battle. The tendency angered Slag to no end, and he had no compunctions about letting Swoop know it. Swoop, in turn, had no compunctions about telling Slag that he was an idiot. In turn, Slag would call Swoop a coward, and the argument would go on from there. Slag, at times, almost looked forward to such a confrontation. He loved nothing more than a good fight, after all, physical or verbal.

But was it more than that? That was the question that Slag found himself pondering now. Was his tendency to put Swoop in his place indeed, as Snarl had suggested to him, a symptom of jealousy? Did he envy his lack of aggression and, he granted, his superior intelligence? Slag had been quick to dismiss the notion out of hand when Snarl had suggested it...Once alone, however, Slag had continued to think about Snarl's suggestion as he'd sat on the cliff, as he'd watched the sun set in a fierce display of heavenly fire, as he'd watched the moon rise, as he now sat and watched that moon riding high over his head, slowly being overtaken by the gathering clouds of an approaching storm. He had yet to reach a conclusion one way or the other.

But he did know one thing: Whatever the truth was about whether or not he was jealous of Swoop, he would never admit to being wrong about the issue. If he was jealous, he'd never admit it. After all, what was he to do about it now? Go groveling to Grimlock, begging for forgiveness for thinking Swoop contemptible and weak?

Of course not! Slag scoffed disgustedly to himself...even as he began to descend the cliff, searching for hand- and footholds strictly by feel in the moonlit midnight darkness. As he descended, random thoughts and memories came to him even as he concentrated mostly upon his descent. He even chuckled wryly as he recalled the first encounter he'd had with Swoop — when Swoop and Snarl had been trying to kill or at least incapacitate Slag because he and the other Dinobots had temporarily defected to the Decepticon side. And then Slag recalled all the times when some Autobot or another — usually Wheeljack — had attempted to teach the Dinobots to behave like civilized beings. Swoop had lapped up the lessons like a starving Earth cat with a bowl of cream all to himself, while Slag had resisted the lessons with every fiber of his being. Slag shook his head ruefully. He and Swoop were diametrically opposed forces of nature forced to work together in order to achieve a common goal. It was, Slag reflected, like trying to force the like poles of two magnets together: it could be done, but the end result wasn't likely to last.

And in that split-second lapse of concentration as he focused more on memories and less on what he was doing, Slag lost a foothold and then, in short order, a handhold. And then, before he realized what was happening, he had begun to slide down the cliff face, toward the point where the more gently inclined section of the cliff ended in a sheer vertical drop to the ground far below. Desperately, Slag tried to grab something — anything — to stop his slide, but if was as if the cliff face had suddenly turned into a smooth sheet of glass. There was nothing to grasp and, in a few seconds, Slag plummeted into a sheer drop, falling five hundred meters, at least, to the hard gray Earth below.

The fall seemed to take forever, yet it could only have been a few seconds at most. It had happened so quickly and was so unexpected that Slag made no sound, only a grunt when he'd initially lost his hold in the rocks and a few more grunts as he'd violently collided with the cliff face a few times as he fell. And fell. And fell...

A resounding crash and a terrible, all-consuming numbness were all that accompanied Slag's eventual, flat-on-his-back impact with the ground. For a long moment afterwards, he lay there, completely unable to move so much as a fingertip. There was no sound other than a horrible buzzing white noise that droned in his audios. And all that he could see was the moon, which loomed so huge in his field of vision that Slag would have sworn that it was hanging but a few centimeters over his nose. It appeared to be laughing at his pathetic condition. But then even that faded ever so slowly to black...

The first few blobs of rain splashed down onto his face, as if Primus was spitting on him, as Slag finally and mercifully lost consciousness.


* * * * * * *

Medics were hovering and buzzing over Swoop's berth like flies over an organic corpse when Slag staggered into the medical bay.

The world was spinning around him. He'd felt during his long hike back to Headquarters after regaining consciousness that the hike would never end. Dizziness had consumed him. He'd found himself staggering from tree to tree, pausing often to regain his equilibrium and renew his determination to get help, no matter how weak it might make him appear. Something was wrong with him. Many things, in fact, were apparently wrong with him. Frantic and dire messages from his internal diagnostics flashed in his field of vision as he'd stumbled toward Autobot Headquarters in the dark. Slag hadn't understood most of them, had never bothered to learn what such warnings meant. And the ones that he did understand he ignored. All he knew was that he had to get to Headquarters, had to get to the medical bay. It was as if some force of nature was dragging him there, leaving no room at all for Slag's personal feelings on the matter.

And it hadn't been easy. His equilibrium was way off, had been damaged, probably, in the fall. His sense of direction was dulled by the darkness. It was unnaturally quiet after the storm that had apparently passed over while Slag had been unconscious. The rain had stopped, but the moon had set and the sun had yet to make any hint of an appearance, which left only a murky, humid, dank-smelling darkness. Slag had no idea what time it was. He had no idea how long he'd been out. All that he knew was that he had woken up, that the almost-pleasant numbness that had accompanied his initial impact after the fall had transformed into a screaming cloak of pain that enveloped his entire body, and that he was drenched and lying in a sea of mud. He'd managed to flip himself over and push himself up to his hands and knees. He'd crawled to the nearest tree and then, using the tree for support, had managed to claw his way to his feet and set off on his trek, limping heavily. He'd tripped often over underbrush, over the trees that he'd toppled on his way out of Headquarters, a trip that to Slag now seemed to have happened years ago. He'd slipped in patches of mud and on slippery, moss-covered rocks, landing flat on his back — which sent painful echoes of his previous, much longer fall ricocheting through his body. He'd smacked into trees face-first more times than he wanted to count.

But he had survived the journey.

And he had never been quite so happy to see Autobot Headquarters in his life. Mellow, welcoming light spilled out from beneath the section of the old Autobot ship that jutted out of the side of the volcano in which it was currently housed, as if it were a beacon guiding Slag home. He had practically sprinted the last quarter of a mile to the base, despite the pain that pounded through his body because of it.

Those who were on night watch at the base gave him a few odd looks as he'd entered the base. Slag imagined that he looked a sight — caked in mud, his outer armor hideously torn in a few places and dented in many others, his circuitry sparking in a few places through the rents in his armor — but he didn't care. He had one destination in mind, and a million odd glances from each of a million random Autobots were not about to deter him from it. The medbay was calling to him like a siren, for more than one reason.

Certainly, he needed medical attention. That was patently obvious. Under normal circumstances, Slag would rather suffer in silence than actively seek out the help of an Autobot physician. Under normal circumstances, lately, Swoop — sensitive, perhaps, to Slag's preference to avoid any appearance of needfulness, especially where the Autobots were concerned — often patched him up when he needed patching. But Slag could not deny to anyone that he needed help this time…and Swoop, of course, was unavailable.

Which, when Slag was candid with himself, was the main reason that he found himself drawn to the medical bay. It was because he'd experienced an epiphany during his long, pain-filled hike back to Autobot Headquarters. Perhaps it was only because he was injured and had therefore been thinking with a part of his brain that he often kept tightly closed off in order to avoid it. Perhaps the fall had simply jarred something in his brain. But, for whatever reason, Slag had realized that, as obsessed with war and fighting as he often was, life and the freedom to live it in peace were still the more precious and desirable commodities. He'd realized that war and fighting and killing, while sometimes unavoidable, were not always preferable, that sometimes simply living and enjoying life and allowing others to do the same were the things that mattered, if only because life could be so terribly brief. It could end at any moment, whether in battle or because of a mysterious physical ailment or because of a stupid, inattentive error that subsequently caused a fall from a very high cliff. Long-lived creatures such as Slag's own species sometimes lost sight of the fact that life, no matter one's normal lifespan, could be a very fragile, ephemeral thing. But that lesson had been brought home to Slag not just once but twice in a single twenty-four hour span of time. He felt as if someone was trying to tell him something. And for some improbable reason he felt a strong urge to heed the message.

Fighting, Slag had realized, should not be his sole concern and certainly not his only joy in life, because there was so much more to do in what could be a very brief existence. That didn't, of course, mean that he couldn't enjoy fighting on occasion; it just meant that it shouldn't be all that he was. And, upon realizing that, he felt the need to make his peace — if only temporarily — with everyone, the Autobots, Grimlock…and Swoop.

Assuming, of course, that Swoop hadn't died in his absence. That was the thought that relentlessly drove him toward the medical bay even as his body screamed at him to stop, to shut down, to cease the effort that he was demanding of it. Slag ignored his body's complaints. He had come so far that he'd been determined to make it all the way to the medbay under his own power.

And he had. Barely, certainly, but he'd made it. Some unconscious part of his brain took in the scene as the medbay doors parted in front of him and he staggered through them, smashing one shoulder into the doorjamb. As he leaned against the jamb to gather the last remaining shards of his strength, Slag noted the half-dozen medics working with quiet urgency on Swoop. He noted the other three Dinobots huddled in one corner of the room, oblivious to Slag's ungraceful arrival. And he noted Optimus Prime and Jazz watching the medics from another corner of the room. Slag watched with odd detachment as Jazz turned an alarmed gaze on Slag himself and started to move toward him. Determined, Slag pushed away from the supporting doorjamb and lurched, heavily limping, a few steps into the medbay, where, completely against his will, he collapsed down onto one knee. It was a collapse that some part of his mind noted was eerily similar to Swoop's initial collapse at the onset of whatever it was that was plaguing him...The thought brought an ironic smile to his face as Jazz, Grimlock, and Optimus Prime all knelt down near him at roughly the same moment.

"What happened?" all three of them asked in almost perfect unison, as if they'd practiced for the occasion.

With an effort, Slag raised his head to look squarely into the optics of Optimus Prime, simply because he was the one who had chosen to kneel directly in front of Slag.

"Fell," he said succinctly and was horrified at the weakness of his voice. The word sounded more like a pathetic moan... Still, he continued haltingly, "Me Slag...was angry...so me Slag climbed cliff... Was climbing down again when me fall...Fell hard, too. Fall...very bad." Pausing, he tried to stand up again, only to sink down again with an involuntary yelp of pain. "So...so dizzy," he moaned and collapsed still further, down onto his hands and knees, his elbows locked to support his upper body, preventing him from falling flat on his face. His arms were shaking terribly, though...and blackness was again eating away at the edges of his vision, the strain of the hike to Autobot Headquarters catching up with him...Despite his best efforts, his arms began to buckle...

And at that moment, to his utter shock, Grimlock grabbed him from behind, pulled him back so that he was half-sitting and half-leaning against the Dinobot leader. Grimlock supported at least half of Slag's weight with his own body, just as he'd done for Swoop earlier. Slag tried to crank his head around to stare in shock at Grimlock but found that it hurt too much to do so.

So instead, he muttered under his breath, "Thank you, Grimlock."

If Grimlock was at all surprised by Slag's appreciation, it didn't show in his voice.

"You Slag welcome," he said, equally quietly and then, to Slag's further shock, he added sincerely, "You Slag always welcome, but you just too stubborn to realize it."

"I'll get Ratchet," Jazz was saying meanwhile, unaware of the exchange between the two Dinobots. He started to rise, only to be halted by Slag, who stopped him by the simple expedient of reaching out a hand with lightning-quickness and wrapping it firmly around Jazz's forearm.

"No!" he said determinedly. "Swoop need all the medics now. Me Slag...I...will be fine...until...until they finish with him...and he OK again..."

And then, finally, the blackness finally did overcome Slag once again, and he melted down into the warm, dark embrace of unconscious oblivion. As his big body went limp, Grimlock, Optimus Prime, and Jazz exchanged a wondering glance. Self-sacrifice from Slag? Concern for Swoop from Slag? It was difficult for all three of them to comprehend...

Grimlock broke the silence that followed Slag's black-out with an explosive snort.

"Fall must have caused brain damage," he said wryly.

And as Optimus Prime and Jazz both chuckled at the comment, Grimlock managed to lever Slag's big, dead-weight body up into his arms. Grunting with effort all the way, he carried Slag to the nearest medical berth, leaving behind him one Autobot leader and one of that leader's dearest friends to marvel anew at the surprising nature of the Dinobots' interrelationship, one that they both had never taken the time to notice before...


* * * * * * *

A most improbable sight greeted Slag's optics when they came back online, a day or two later. Swoop's face hovered over his, blue optics alight with mischief and a wide, insufferable grin plastered onto his face.

"It's alive!" he exclaimed lightly. "Run for your lives!"

Ignoring Swoop for the moment, Slag frowned, trying to remember what had happened. Slowly, recollection came back to him...and when it did, he could come to only one conclusion.

"Me Slag dead?" he asked, sitting up and looking himself over, as if to make sure that nothing was missing from his body.

Swoop, meanwhile, laughed.

"Not dead," he said. "You have headache that make you wish you dead, but you not dead."

"But...you...me..." Slag's voice trailed off in confusion. He shook his head as if to clear it out, winced at the pain wrought by the motion — Swoop was right about the headache — and continued, "You Swoop were sick. And me Slag—"

"You fall down, go BOOM!" Swoop interrupted in his best Tweety Bird imitation. "But you OK now," he continued more seriously. "And me Swoop all better now, too." Swoop proclaimed. "Ratchet and Wheeljack and other medics fix both of us."

"Then why you here?" Slag asked.

Swoop was quiet for a moment, perhaps thinking about his answer. And when he finally spoke, all joking was suddenly put aside.

"Because me Swoop should be here," he asserted seriously. "It right thing to do."

Slag groaned and flopped back down onto his back again with a clang that made his head ring.

"Why you Swoop always say that?" he asked exasperatedly.

"Because it's true," Swoop said with a shrug. He folded his arms over his chest, narrowed his optics, and stared down at Slag with an expression of mixed amusement and worry on his face. "Because to do right thing is good," he continued. "And when friend hurt, it right that me Swoop is here for him."

It took a moment for Swoop's words to sink into Slag's foggy brain, but when they did he stared up at Swoop wonderingly.

"Me Slag...friend?" he asked.

Swoop chuckled. "Of course, you idiot!" he exclaimed. "You Slag always try to push others away, but no matter how hard you Slag try, you can't push me Swoop away. Or them, too," he added, jerking his chin over toward the other side of the room.

Slag blinked in confusion, and slowly turned his head to see Grimlock, Snarl, and even Sludge there, staring at him with varying expressions on their faces. Almost as one, they walked over to join Swoop at Slag's bedside, clustering around him. Slag looked over at Swoop again, a bewildered expression on his face.

"Life is too short to be mean to fellow Dinobots all the time," he said before Slag could say anything, consciously putting aside the odd Dinobot syntax. Slag gasped quietly as he heard his own unexpected realization echoed all unwittingly by Swoop. "You and I both learned that this week, didn't we?" he continued gravely. When Slag didn't reply, he held out one imploring hand, palm up, to Slag while the other Dinobots looked on curiously. "Friend?" Swoop asked with a small, hopeful smile on his face.

Sitting up again, Slag stared at Swoop's offered hand and then up into his face, indecisive for a moment. But only for a moment. Before he thought the better of it, he found himself clasping Swoop's hand and hanging onto it with desperate strength, as if he was drowning and Swoop was offering him a lifeline.

"Friend," Slag confirmed with a nod and a squeeze of Swoop's hand. He watched Swoop's small, hopeful smile bloom into a triumphant grin that threatened to split his face in two. At the same moment, the pit of coldness that had always festered and clawed at his core began to warm by just the tinest amount. He smiled back at Swoop tentatively. After all, he didn't smile very often, so he wasn't sure if he was doing it right...

And that was when Grimlock laid a hand over Swoop's and Slag's intertwined ones, drawing a startled gasp from both of them.

"Friend," he said gravely. It was an admission that he could be more to his fellow Dinobots than just their commander, and it was an admission that they meant more to him than simply being individuals under his command.

And then Snarl, shockingly, added a hand to the pile in a surprising show of emotion.

"Friend," he said quietly, almost uncertainly. It was as if it pained him to say the word, as if the thought of having friends — and the accompanying worrying and caring about them — was a daunting one to him. And perhaps it was...but he was apparently willing to meet the challenge and just then felt the need to proclaim his resolve to do so publicly.

And finally, Sludge added both of his hands to the pile—one atop the pile and the other below it, cradling the back of Swoop's hand—and crowed, "Friends, all of us, even when us not always get along. Friends...allllllllways!"

After that enthusiastic declaration, all was silent for a moment. It was a silence broken only by a small, affectionate snicker from Swoop, which then translated into a louder guffaw from Slag, which was then transmitted as a full-throated laugh to the other three Dinobots. The room, for the span of a few minutes, echoed with the entirely new sound of five Dinobot voices raised in laughter and cameraderie and — for the first time in their entire existence — complete solidarity. They would, perhaps, never be the same again…