Chapter Ten

It was a rather new experience for the tactician – sneaking out of a night rendezvous' quarters. How many times had he walked the halls of the City and disciplined the teenage progeny of the humans who worked there for their illicit affairs? How many couples had he caught hiding in the Autobots' shower facility? Too many – and now he was, effectively, one of them.

Logic dictated that he should be feeling no shame, for he was an "adult" and entitled to his privileges as an officer. Then why did he slowly disengage himself from Flamestrike's rangy form so as not to bring her online? And why did his optics flicker right and left as he carefully palmed the door open? I do believe they call mechs like you a "fool", he thought with wry sadness, glancing over his shoulder before stepping into the hall.

"Good morning, Prowl."

Casually, the black and white cruiser swung to his left; there was Hound, walking towards him, a cart of spare parts idling behind the green Jeep. Normally, Prowl would have been wondering why the mech had a hovercart on the dormitory level; this morning, he was only concerned with what Hound had seen. "Good morning, Hound," he returned smoothly. "Today's your day off, isn't it?"

The tracker shrugged, a tic above his upper lip component betraying his outer calm. "Yeah, but Hoist needed some help refurbishing one of the old berths. Figured I'd give him a hand."

There was truth behind the statement, but underneath his words, there was something more. Prowl noted how the tracker's sensors swept to Flamestrike's door, then back to the Datsun. They locked optics briefly, deep blue meeting cold cerulean, and that one moment between them told Prowl all he needed to know. With a friendly nod in Hound's direction, the cruiser made for the elevator. First Solarflare, now Flamestrike, Prowl found himself ruminating as he rode the lift to the bottom and stepped out into the lobby. The morning receptionist was arranging things on her desk when he walked by, and he gave the young woman a polite nod in response to her greeting and good wishes.

Could he really fault the green tracker? Prowl had found himself slightly interested in the grey femme many years ago, just has Hound had been – and who was to say that Hound still carried a plasma-flame for Solarflare, even today? Logic dictated otherwise for Prowl (helped along, no doubt, by Mirage's not-so-subtle suggestion that he look elsewhere), yet now he had become involved with another winged femme. One who was not attached – but the object of Hound's affection, regardless.

And you can't even bring yourself to say that Hound is welcome to her, he murmured, surprised. Because … you want her for yourself.

The cement was warm under his tires as he transformed and drove along the bridge that housed the City's powerful turbines for the second time in two days. The admission did not surprise him; it was the same conclusion to which he had come to last night.

Then, Prowl, why are you running?

No, there is no running, only time for reflection, he was quick to counter as he swung through the gates.

Hypocrite, came the wry rejoinder.

Sun-warmed blacktop radiated soothing heat into his Cybertronian tires; it threaded along his trylithium axels, throughout his metallic skeleton. Prowl gave a casual flick of his windshield wipers, as a human would have contentedly blinked. I suppose … it can be done, he considered thoughtfully, before a speeding tan Chevrolet Lumina crossed his sensors; it was then his inner law enforcer took over, and he momentarily forgot about the femme he'd left in her quarters.


She wasn't surprised to find him gone. Despite his words during the dark hours of the day, a small part of her core processor was preparing her in the event that he would leave. Flame would have preferred that they mutually part, if that was his decision – but to sneak away? Well, that went against every logical circuit in his metalloid body. It rallied against everything she had come to associate him with – the partner she had come to know over the Earthen months.

And that left her rather disappointed.

Popping shoulder servos, Flamestrike rose, flicking her tail back into place. Several items in her small room had been … rearranged during the course of the night. Setting servos, springs and hydraulics to her recharging bed, the gryphonic femme angled it back into place along the wall. Settling the cup of styluses back on her desk, she grabbed a low-grade mug of oil, two ion sticks and left her room. The orange tile chimed gently under her feet, ringing counterpoint to the miasma that was her thoughts. You promised that you would let it go, if it came down to this, she told herself, hunching her shoulder plates with determination. But, it's always easier to make promises.

Regardless, she had a job to do. And doing a job well was what she had been rebuilt for.

The ion sticks were closely followed by the lukewarm oil. Wiping her lip components with the back of her wrist, Flame tossed the cup into the nearest recycling bin, her system reacting to the low-level power boost with an increase in her step. As she waited for the elevator, Hound plodded up to her, stopping so suddenly that the empty grav-bed he was totting slammed against his knee supports.

"Mornin'," the femme greeted the Jeep. Hound looked at her, his facial planes drawn downwards; lines that were invisible when he wore a carefree, expressive mien suddenly appeared, crafting his grey face into a craggy parody. Though she didn't know him too well, as he spent much of his time in the native woodlands of Earth, Hound was fast friends with Flare and Mirage, and Flamestrike knew that this was not his usual attitude. Surprised, she peered at the tracker. "Are you all right?"

A shadow slipped across those grey planes. Between one nanoclick and the next, Hound switched his posture, slipping with a shrug into the easy stance he was known for: "I will be," he said at last, giving her a nod. Bypassing the brown and flame-colored femme, the Jeep took his grav-bed around the corner, to the next available transport. Flame watched him go – then her attention was caught by the chiming of the lift.

The elevator swung open, displaying two EDC officers; they noted Flamestrike and politely stepped into a corner of the lift. Flame inclined her head and hit the code for Prowl's office's level.

Hm, Flamestrike noted to the ceiling, dismissing the encounter and turning her thoughts elsewhere. The elevator discharged the two EDC personnel and dropped Flame off at hers.

Flamestrike stepped out, her tail swinging behind her in a lazy arc. Her wings rustled lightly at her shoulders, the only outward indication of uneasiness in her trylithium frame.

Brown and flame-colored, she idled at the security panel by Prowl's office. She knew the codes – one of a handful of Autobots who did. But her cortex was not on the codes; she could punch them in her offline hours. Everything was as she had left it the night before: the chess set with its beautiful pieces sat in the center of the strategy table. With a sigh, Flame packed them away and stowed the box under the holotable. Perching on her stool, she wrapped her tail around her waist, dangling the tri-bladed edge between her thighs. Arms folded on the table's edge, she powered the unit; deft grey digits tapped the long pad sitting at her right, calling up a program that she and Prowl had been working on for a week.

As she ran the program through a fourth set of alterations, a soothing chime rang. Jerking her head from where she pillowed them on her arm bracers, Flamestrike spun around. "Yes?"

"It's me," a familiar femme voice echoed. "Are you busy?"

Flame punched the door open so suddenly that Solarflare's crest banged against the top of her helm. Her golden optics swept the room for Prowl's presence before entering. The grey avian walked around to the other side of the planning table, perching atop the other stool. She looked down at the expanse, her head tilting as she studied the maneuvers. "So …"

"Prowl and I spent the night together," Flamestrike stated matter-of-factly over the top of her bracers, eying the holographic strike and not liking the outcome. The admission was hollow to her audios. She paused the program and redesigned the maneuver. Her optics flickered over Solarflare's face; her alabaster facial planes twitched in mild surprise.

"Really? Well, congratulations. But … he's not here …"

The program ran smoothly; Flame saved it and filed it away for the next strategy meeting. Flare's face was set with open honesty and confusion. "No, he left. I guess it wasn't meant to be, despite the things said."

The grey communications officer sighed with sympathy. "I'm sorry, Flamestrike. We thought it would have worked out."

We?

Flare's crest twitched with the knowledge that she let something slip. Flamestrike voiced her query and across the table and Flare's optic shutters flickered. "Mirage and I." She shifted, paused and then shrugged, as if she had gone too far and preferred the truth instead of hedging. Her wings chimed over her shoulder struts as she lay her hands on the table. "Well, mostly me. Anyway, he and I were out on Lookout Point the other night when Prowl came up. Mirage asked me to leave and when I returned, he told me that Prowl had asked him for some advice. That being unusual in of itself, I figured that it had to do with you."

Flamestrike nodded absently, toying with the keypad. "Well, I had my night. It's time to move on." In a show of how much she had acclimated to Earth and humanity, she cleared her metallic throat, listening to the rattle of her vocalizer against the hollow chamber.

"I'm sorry …"

Before the gryphonic femme could remonstrate her friend for the surplus sympathy, the office doors swung in with a sweet pneumatic hiss. There was Prowl, his doorwings slightly askew, chevron riding high on his brow. Her olfactory sensors caught the scent of pavement rolling off of his warm tires, which idly spun over his shoulders and at his feet.

"If you do not mind, Solarflare, we have work to do."

Rising from her crouch over her bracers, Flamestrike's lip components parted in a soundless exclamation. She looked from Prowl to the junior comm officer; Solarflare was staring at the white and black cruiser, resting pointed chin on taloned hand. And she was smiling. "Aye, Prowl." With a flickering wink in Flame's direction, Solarflare pushed herself to her feet and practically skipped out the door.

Slowly, Prowl shook his head and walked across the room to take up the seat vacated by Solarflare. He said nothing, merely going through the program she had just saved. Flamestrike watched his face, but it was set into its usual impassive mien. She could not read him – not today.

"This will work amazingly well with the new intelligence reports we received concerning Terrorcon activity in Florida," he murmured at last, rewinding one scenario and setting the program to view the data from another angle. With a thick forefinger, Prowl banished the image. Without looking at her, though Flamestrike had risen in her seat, he leaned under the table and pulled out the chess set. "I never gave you the chance for a rematch," he said quietly, placing the carved box on the edge. With his usual precision, he unpacked the contents, turning each over in his hand before allocating their positions.

Long association with the cruiser did not help her fluctuating central processor. "What do you mean, Prowl?" she asked, keeping her vocalizer as neutral as possible.

He looked at her with those half-shuttered blue optics. "I never thought I would put myself in this situation again," he began quietly, pushing a pawn forward. Leaning across the table, she automatically did the same. So, as he spoke, they played. "I didn't want it, and I certainly didn't need it – until you came. And as illogical as it sounds, it is the truth. You are my partner and I realize now how, well, lonely this job has become since we increased operation here on Earth." He swapped her knight with his own and looked at her. "I spent a lot of time out there, just thinking. Not planning, not strategizing … just, thinking."

"And what conclusion did you come to?" She faced the admission as she would have a Decepticon stronghold – with determination and a spine of pure trylithium. Unwavering, unyielding – never giving ground while she had it.

Prowl slipped his knight forward, blocking her advancing front. "I didn't come to just one," he told her, meeting clear blue optic to emerald green.

"And that is?"

Optics hooded by that blood-red chevron, Prowl paused in his decision. His huge white hand wavered over the board. "I need you. And I want you. Conflicting emotions on the battlefield – and necessity must always take precedence over wanting. But …" he sighed, "I find myself wanting both. And … desiring both."

Flamestrike's optics widened until her servos could no longer perform. She reached for her one remaining pawn and found her slim grey hand caught in his thick white one. "If you can put up with me." And he grinned softly, almost shyly.

Slowly, her world stopped spinning; it coalesced into something solid, more cohesive. Reaching out, she plucked his hand from hers and moved her pawn. "Checkmate." And smiled. "Only if you can put up with me, commander. If so, we will have an … interesting … partnership."

"I think we will," he agreed. "Rematch?"

OoOoOoOoO

It is the year 2005. The treacherous Decepticons have conquered the Autobot's home planet Cybertron. Now from secret staging bases on two of Cybertron's moons the Autobots plan to take back their homeworld …