Chapter 5: Anger

"Of Rage and Remembrance" John Corigliano

Author's note: I actually listened to a LOT more music, but the piece listed above not only had the lion's share, but it reflects Flamestrike's deteriorating sense of self and rising anger the best. This chapter happens in tandem with Crystal Shekeira's "Lament" series. I have her knowledge and full permission to weave my story into her events. In fact, some of the events and dialogue in "The Stars' Lament" was used and partially rewritten for this chapter.

As always, I appreciate the comments and constructive criticism. Thank you!

A low snarl overlaid with pained high-pitched tones echoed through the large, well-lit examination room. Perceptor had finally found enough time, several days later, to evaluate Flamestrike and her still-missing antigrav generators. At the irritated sound, he stepped back from scrutinizing the irate robotic gryphon lying sprawled belly-down on the table, limbs and wings secured to its outstretched corners. He shot a worried glance towards Skyfire, leaning against the counter at the corner of the room, who shrugged and motioned for the other scientist to resume his post. Dodging the freely lashing tail, Perceptor reached the table, transformed into microscope mode and carefully peered at the severed connections lying exposed to the air along the gryphon's trilythium spine. Several long minutes passed, punctuated by Flamestrike's intermittent low growling, then he transformed, turning to Skyfire with a puzzled look.

"After careful examination of the most minute surface areas, I am reluctant to hazard a scientific hypothesis for the deficit of electrical connection and the abundance of persistent aggravation. Continuing prolonged analysis would be felicitous to procuring an acceptable solution." Perceptor leaned back over to peer into the tawny spinal ridge of his patient.

Skyfire glanced ceilingward for patience, arms crossed across his chestplate. "Meaning you have no idea what's wrong, or how to stop the pain."

"Precisely." Perceptor poked an inquisitive finger at the edge of Flamestrike's gaping generator aperture, earning another snarl of pain and a vicious swipe from the flame-colored bladed tail. Skyfire quickly hid an amused grin as the flat of the blade smacked the red scientist square in the back of his head with a resounding clang.

"Stop it; that hurts!" Flamestrike raised her head as far off the table as she could, spearing Perceptor with a murderous glare. Her eagle's beak gaped in agony and her optics clouded over as she wrenched her wedge-shaped head forward again. "If you can't fix me, let me up!" She rocked from side to side, trying to reach the restraints holding her splayed on the tabletop. Tiny flamelets rose from the top of her crest in exertion, anger, and pain.

"My sincerest apologies, Flamestrike. I keep forgetting that you're quite awake for these examinations." Perceptor and Skyfire moved to undo the restraints at each corner of the table. Once she was free, Skyfire started to pick up the still-prone gryphonic form but was halted with another irritated growl. Skyfire stepped back again, respecting the warning implicit in the angry sound. He refolded his arms and threw a questioning glance towards the head of the examination table. Flamestrike clamped her wings protectively over the exposed cavity that housed her missing generators and reflexively swished her bladed tail, causing Perceptor to sidle aside, ruefully rubbing the back of his helm.

"I will stand and walk back to my recovery room, thank you." Slowly, painfully, she braced each limb on the tabletop and levered her brown-and-flame colored body upright to stand on all four feet. She surveyed her progress and looked triumphantly at Skyfire. Just as she cast her head about to locate the easiest way down, a commotion in the hallway caught the attention of all three Autobots.

Making his entrance by thrusting the examination room door open with a grand flourish, Sideswipe entered jauntily waving a datapad aloft with an overabundance of enthusiasm. "I got 'em!" he exclaimed, flourishing the pad in front of Perceptor's nose. Jazz entered a bit more sedately, carrying several more datapads, flashing his characteristic grin at everyone present. He went to stand next to Skyfire, watching Sideswipe tease Perceptor with the ever-waving anonymous file.

Perceptor ineffectively grabbed at the proffered datapad, managing to secure it from Sideswipe on the third try. "What, exactly, did you get?" Turning the file over in his hands, he angled one shoulder to the red Lamborghini to prevent having said pad disappear again. "There are no markings on this one. I cannot imagine why you would come barging into a scientific analysis with an unmarked datapad for the sole purpose of distracting me from my examinations."

Sideswipe, undeterred by Perceptor's irritation, gave the scientist a hearty thump on the back before turning to Flamestrike, still perched unsteadily on the table. "Wheeljack's notes! Sunny and I managed to break into Wheeljack and Ratchet's files, and copy down the notes for our grounded gryphon's generators onto that datapad." With a glance to the corner, he added a bit reluctantly, "with Jazz's help." After answering Jazz's smug grin, he scritched Flamestrike between the ears before she could duck, snatching his fingers away from her half-irritated snap and strutted out of the room. "Sunny, we're done here. Stop torturing Gears!" was clearly heard through the closing door. Sunstreaker's answer went unheard as Skyfire congratulated Jazz on a successful retrieval mission.

Jazz demurred his involvement. "Now, Skyfire, y'know there isn't a place around that can keep me and the Twins out when we wanna get in." He gestured to Flamestrike with the pile of datapads in his arms. "Okay babydoll, time to review some more reports!" He waited while the femme carefully clambered down from the table and made her painfully unsteady way out the doors to her own recovery room before his jaunty mein sobered. Making sure Flamestrike was out of earshot; he jerked his head towards Perceptor, who was already buried in the notes recovered from Wheeljack's files. "Is he gonna be able to fix 'em?" he asked Skyfire, a slight worried crease appearing at the corner of his visor.

"I believe with the original notes, we should be able to repair the generators. I just hope they do not require anything too exotic as the supply run from Cybertron is halted indefinitely." Skyfire mused thoughtfully, glancing over at his colleague. "I don't know what will happen if we cannot fix them. Flamestrike has not only completely adapted to her new aerial form, but we don't have the ability to reformat anyone into a new alt-mode until we get more technicians." He spread his hands in defeat.

"I know what Flame would say. She won't even consider reformatting. After all, it was Solarflare and Prowl who convinced her to take that alt-mode in the first place." In this semi-private location, Jazz could allow a fleeting look of sorrow cross his features. Rubbing his face and slouching, he dropped his voice another notch. "How's she holding up here? I've been tryin' to distract her with paperwork." Jazz waved the datapads carelessly. "She's good at takin' little bits of seemingly unrelated data and figuring out what really happened. Better yet, she's pretty good at anticipating how to counter the offensive tactics the Decepticons used."

Skyfire stood up from leaning against the counter. "We will do our best to restore her physical capabilities, Jazz. As for her spark…" the tall white scientist shrugged and moved forward, turning slightly so the saboteur couldn't see his expression. He stepped behind Perceptor, pretending interest in the murmured babblings and intense note taking. Out of the corner of his optic, he saw the Porsche cross his arms casually, cocking his head to one side. Realizing that Jazz would not be satisfied without some sort of explanation, Skyfire continued. "It… suffered damage. We don't know how. Based on reports from Cybertron, Chromia and Elita-1 reacted when Ironhide and Prime passed, but not to this extent. It's apparently affecting her personality circuits."

Jazz nodded thoughtfully at this information, and shifted slightly. "What can you do about it?"

Skyfire turned to face Jazz fully, taking in the too-relaxed posture, the slight tapping of one black finger against the crossed arms. The datapads were lying in an untidy heap on the countertop. Skyfire felt his words fall into the silence between them as they were reluctantly dragged from his vocalizer, "I don't know."

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Flamestrike made her careful way down the spacious corridors of Autobot city, gritting her dental plates against the jabs of pain with each deliberate step. Her anti-gravity generators were still in the possession of the medbay team, a week later, and she would never admit to the extent of agony and vertigo she experienced from their absence. Their bulk not only shielded some of the more delicate internal circuits, but they also apparently were a major factor in her cat-like balance. She couldn't use them in her primary mode to hover or fly, but evidently they played a larger part in her equilibrium than anyone guessed. Despite the disorientation and pain, she insisted on getting out of the medbay and eventually managed to browbeat First Aid into reluctantly allowing her some freedom. Her fingers clutched convulsively as another stab jolted her circuitry.

What's another source of pain, anyway? she mused, taking another careful step. Even with her feet spread like an hour-old foal's, she was frequently reduced to grabbing at protrusions from the wall and spreading her botmode-shortened wings to keep upright. At least with physical pain, I have something real to focus on. Her thoughts sheered away from the descending spiral that was all too easy to fall into. Every day since she had awaked back into herself was a struggle to keep going. Sometimes, the simplest things would set her off and threaten her hard-won sense of self. Grief and anger were her constant unwanted companions, shoving aside her knife-thin emotional balance to demand primary lodging rights. Why they saved me, I don't think I'll ever know. She paused for a moment, examining that bitter thought, her tail swishing unconsciously.

Well, that's not exactly logical. They saved you. They had lost so many already. Prime, Ratchet, Wheeljack… Prowl. Again, her thoughts threatened to descend into the calling darkness that drew her spark. She ruthlessly wrenched herself back into a more calculating mindset by main force of will. Everyone is needed for something. Even you. After all, with …Prowl- another quick wrench -gone, I'm certainly better at strategizing than anyone else here. A smug thought came unbidden to her cortex. I was trained by the best. The hint of loving pride in that admission lasted only a microsecond as the realization that she'll never have another training session with her bondmate overcame her. She sank down into a crouch, hunched over save for her hands which practically crushed the ornamental rail decorating the wall. Small flames flickered from her helm in emotional reaction as she fought to stem the tide of overwhelming grief.

Long moments passed before the flames receded and the brown and grey femme pulled herself upright. One step, then another- slowly, deliberately: each pace an inexorable path to her destination and her future. The orange hallway seemed to stretch forever, leading away from medbay towards the offices and quarters for the City's residents. As she took each careful stride, thoughts swirled in her cortex, forming into a brief moment of lucid clarity.

Why is this so hard? Everyone else seems to be doing just fine. The original Ark warriors had their own memorial service after the official one. Word had spread about the near-brawl that had ensued as the Earth-homed crew came to terms with the change in leadership. Rodimus Prime has a monumental task ahead of him. We were left here to fend for ourselves, and that kind of betrayal is hard to explain away. And then, and her flame jets sputtered in reaction, not only did Rodimus collect private data files on all the warriors, but he pulled that stupid stunt by disconnecting Solarflare from the communications console. Slagit, he knew better! He's not thinking things through like a leader; he and Ultra Magnus are stepping on a lot of toes. Her thoughts scattered back into fragments as a shaft of pain lanced up through her spark. Willing herself to concentrate, Flamestrike focused her sights on traversing the next section of the orange hallway, leading to the offices and strategy room.

She started to round the junction leading to the corridor containing Prowl's office when unusual activity, a lot of it, alerted her sensors. She froze in place, bracing against the wall with her arm before slowly peeking one optic around the corner. What she witnessed made her circuitry burn in slowly rising rage. Ultra Magnus, leading a small line of mechs carrying boxes, had just unlocked the door to Prowl's office. He gestured to the group to precede him into the room. "Pack everything up and take it to the storage facility in "B." Don't leave anything behind, we'll need the room."

He wouldn't dare, she thought before she was temporarily overwhelmed with a surge of ferocity. White-hot rage fountained up through her cortex, hazing her optics sensors in a red wash. Her tail lashed angrily and she grabbed it before it could smack against the wall and alert Ultra Magnus to her presence. The motion unbalanced her and she slumped to the floor, bracing herself with one hand, the other still grasping her tail. Flames rose from her helm as she fought to get her anger under control. Slag it! That's my office, too! Who the Hell does he think he is?

She knew she wasn't physically able to stop Magnus in her current condition. If she tried to barrel down the hall in righteous fury, she'd fall flat on her chestplate within three steps. For long moments, Flamestrike agitatedly pondered her options, crest flames and tail flicking restlessly. Every few seconds, she would peek her head around the corner to indignantly watch the progress of the group. From the loud bangs and thumps echoing through the corridor, it was obvious the detail was working for speed, not caution. Torn in anger and indecision, her cortex working frantically against the swamping tide of heated fury, Flamestrike finally stumbled upon a possible solution.

"Red! Red Alert!" she called on a tight-band private channel. She knew the Security Director would answer…eventually.

"This better be good," came the sardonic reply. Despite their amazing conversation the day of the memorial ceremony, Red Alert had never shown Flamestrike any acknowledgement of his startling understanding. She gritted her dental plates at his tone and organized her chaotic thoughts.

"Red, check Prowl's office! Magnus is here with a squad of mechs…they're clearing it out. I- I can't stop them." She clenched her hands into painful fists, grinding the end of her bladed tail tip into her thigh. Please believe me, she thought. Please…

For an agonizingly long time, there was no reply. Flamestrike was just about to try and get up to confront Magnus herself when Red's voice crackled back along the private com channel. "Primus! How long has he been there? No, nevermind. Flamestrike, get out of the area. I'm calling Jazz. We can't let them get away with…" his voice cut off from the channel midsentence.

Flamestrike knew that Red Alert would make sure Magnus was stopped. However, there were some serious misconceptions about the departed warriors and those left behind in Autobot City that needed straightening out right now. Taking a few shaky steps backwards from the hallway intersection, the infuriated femme painfully transformed to her gryphon form. Four legs could move much faster than two, no matter how sensitive the gaping openings on her back were. Clamping her lengthened wings protectively over the cavity, she staggered quickly down the hallway, making a beeline for the new Prime's office in Central Command. Once outside the door, she transformed back into her primary mode and detached her tail-spear to use as a brace for her failing equilibrium.

Rodimus Prime looked shocked to see Flamestrike enter his office. What was even more alarming to him was the glowing nimbus of heat rising from the crest on top of her helm, matched by the naked fury in her flashing green optics and the grim set of her shoulders as her hands fiercely gripped her tail-spear. The new Prime was still trying to sort out the massive pile of datapads on his desk. The large, untidy mess in the center sat surrounded by neat smaller stacks taking up every available inch of surface area. Rodimus had two more datapads clutched uncertainly in his hands as he looked up. "Flamestrike, uh, what's wrong?"

Gathering the shreds of her composure with an obvious effort, Flamestrike had just opened her mouth to answer when a deep roaring echoed down the hallway into Prime's office. The roar increased in volume and proximity as a stream of Cybertronian oaths became discernable amid the noise. Flinching, Rodimus dropped the datapads back into the central pile and stood up just as Ultra Magnus blasted into the office. He barely noticed Flamestrike standing there, pushing her off-balance as he stormed up to the front of Rodimus' rather substantial desk.

"Prime, I insist that you call Jazz in here at once! I don't have time for this kind of insubordination!" The new second-in-command was waving his arms furiously. "He's endangering our whole mission!"

Rodimus tried to make sense of Magnus' ramblings, "What did he do?" Sneaking a quick peek around his lieutenant's shoulder, he saw Flamestrike tottering forward a step, using her tail-spear as a brace. The planes on her face were frozen in a cold, hard expression overlaid with agonized pain.

Ultra Magnus forced Rodimus' attention back to him. "He interfered with the reorganization and threatened me with bodily harm if I tried to secure Prowl's files!"

"And what made you think," asked a low voice, rich with controlled fury and spark-wrenching torment, "that Prowl was the only one who used that office, or those files?"

Ultra Magnus whirled around in complete surprise. "Flamestrike! I didn't…" his words tapered off as he caught the expression of cold outrage on her face. Holding up his hands, palms forward, he shook his head. "You misunderstand…" Behind him, Rodimus made the all-channel call for Jazz to report to Central Command.

"Oh, I think I do understand." Her voice remained low and steady, matching the cold glare she leveled at the stunned Autobot second-in-command. Her crest, however, flickered erratically, betraying the rush of anger that she kept under firm control. "You," and her gaze swept both rigid forms, "are forming the unfortunate habit of acting before thinking." She leaned forward, resting a fraction more weight on the hands firmly clasping her flame-spear as she continued, refocusing on Ultra Magnus. "You abandoned us here at the City with no means of contact or escape. Optimus Prime placed command of all the Autobots in your hands, Ultra Magnus, and the first battle decision you make is to leave your missing and wounded behind. To the tactical mind, your departure could be viewed as a strategic ploy to lead the Decepticons away from the City, but," her voice hardened, "your actions after your return show that you care more for your small squad of close friends than for the Autobot troops as a whole."

Flamestrike shifted her attention to Rodimus Prime. "I try to see things from all perspectives. Maybe you should do the same." She took one unsteady pace forward, leaning heavily for balance against her spear. "For one moment, take a look at events from, oh… say, my viewpoint." Her voice stayed low, but the angry, sarcastic tones were nova-clear to the new Prime. "Your search for personal records, privacy-sealed by the medical team," and she saw him wince in embarrassment, "as well as demanding Perceptor's exclusive attention any time you or your team visit medbay distracts him from being available to repair my generators. Add to that," and her gaze strayed to pin Ultra Magnus, "clearing out the office I shared with Prowl without my permission or knowledge…"

Ultra Magnus straightened up at these words, "Prowl's office," and he stressed the singular possessive noun, "is where a lot of sensitive information was kept. It is not a place for knick-knacks!" He would have continued, but a nudge from Rodimus Prime stopped him. Flamestrike gritted her dental plates angrily, but kept her voice soft.

"Our office," and the bitter inflection Flamestrike placed on the plural was unmistakable, "was where we planned the strategies the Autobots have been using in battle for the last five years." At Magnus' incredulous snort, she snapped her jaw closed. The two Autobots locked optics, green against blue. The only movement was the increasingly agitated flickering of the flames on the smaller Autobot's helm. Neither of them broke optic contact, for doing so would yield the argument.

Rodimus Prime stepped between the two officers, placing his hands on their chestplates and giving a slight pressure to each in order to break the angry tableau. Ultra Magnus straightened up; looking slightly offended and turned his head to one side. Flamestrike flinched away from the touch, nearly unbalancing before she reset her stance using her spear. She looked back up at Rodimus Prime, totally ignoring his second-in-command.

"When you disregard your troops, even in the smallest ways, it shows the new command team in a very dim light." She paused, looking at her clenched hands for a moment before raising her head; her face fleetingly suffused with pain before settling into hard, angry lines. "How can you expect to lead us when you have shown you don't respect us?"

Ultra Magnus snorted again and started pacing the length of the Central Command area in front of Rodimus Prime's desk. "Lead by giving orders that are followed," he commented to no one in particular. He made another circuit, steps jerky with suppressed frustration. "Where is Jazz? He should be here by now!"

Rodimus Prime had been unpleasantly stunned by Flamestrike's words. He stared numbly at the infuriated infiltrationist-turned-strategist and realized with a fleeting, blinding flash of cortex synapses that she was an untapped, forgotten resource of Prowl's expertise. Prowl trained her, why couldn't I remember this? Just as quickly, the impulse disappeared as sorrow for his lost comrades warred with the need to respond to Ultra Magnus' agitated pacing. His second-in-command won out, and Rodimus Prime stepped away from the now silent femme. Approaching Magnus at the far side of the room, Rodimus asked quietly, "What do you want me to do when Jazz gets here?"

Still agitated, Magnus paced from one end of the room to the other, his fists clenched. "Remind him of his duty," the City Commander growled, throwing a glance at the other end of the room where Flamestrike stood like a frozen statue, her flame jets quiescent. His voice vibrated deep within his chestplate, "We cannot tolerate these little 'hissy fits' anymore. This is war and by Primus, we will move on!"

The new Prime looked down at his hands, the hands that held command over all the Autobots, not just his friends as Flamestrike had so caustically reminded him. "I never authorized you to remove Prowl's things," he murmured, low enough to not be heard by anyone other than Magnus. "Why?"

"Because," Magnus began heavily, as if to convince himself, "we need the room. That, and the information Prowl had in his possession needs to be kept under tight hold. Every memorial placed on his desk is another opportunity for something sensitive to disappear. I sympathize with them, but they cannot be allowed to mourn for an extended period of time." Magnus paused, and both mechs surreptitiously regarded the motionless Flamestrike. "Primus knows how much I miss Optimus, Rodimus!" the City Commander declared, his vocalizer crackling slightly from suppressed emotion, "but I know that there is a time and place for everything! That's why we held a memorial service."

Silently, Rodimus considered. Some warriors bounced back more quickly than others, he knew. Bluestreak was a perfect example of a warrior who never completely recovered from the loss of his city at the beginning of the war, and now had to deal with the loss of his mentor and friends. One couldn't set a time limit on grief, but Magnus had a point. When should a leader expect his soldiers to cease their public mourning, to carry on with the mission?

Magnus continued more vehemently, unaware of the new Prime's conflicted emotions. "Do they even realize that Galvatron is still out there somewhere? That there are Decepticons still on Earth who want our heads?"

"Everyone remembers, Magnus," Jazz said quietly from the door. "In case you forgot, Blaster an' Flare have been running deep-space scans twice a day. Hoist and Grapple go through the City every week, continuing their repairs on the structure in case of another attack. Bluestreak and Smokescreen are practically livin' in the armaments hold, keeping stock. Mirage and Hound come back covered in dirt and Primus knows what almost every day. Flamestrike," at his words, the previously motionless femme lifted her head, "and I go over the reports, daily." He paused, leaning up against the doorframe. "Need I go on?"

Silently, Rodimus turned his head to look at the massive Autobot next to him. Pointedly, Ultra Magnus turned his back on the saboteur, forcing the Prime to go at it alone. "Jazz. Magnus tells me that you ordered him to leave Prowl's office today." Flamestrike started angrily, but Jazz moved forward and stilled her with a hand on her shoulder. He paused a moment before answering the Prime.

"I did."

"Even though he is a superior officer?"

Jazz stayed cool in the face of Prime's interrogation. "He had no right to be packing up everything when Prowl's bondmate…" An incredulous exclamation from Ultra Magnus stopped him. "Somethin' wrong, Magnus?"

Ultra Magnus paced back to stand within a few steps of Jazz and Flamestrike. He regarded the shorter, slighter officers with a superior manner. "Prowl was too logical and dedicated an Autobot to have a personal relationship. I can see him training an assistant, but bonding?" Magnus shook his head. "No, I don't believe it for an astrosecond."

Had Jazz not had his hand on Flamestrike's epauliere, he couldn't imagine what terrible fate Magnus would have suffered for that remark. Fortunately, Jazz was both faster and stronger than the injured gryphonic infiltrationist. Before she had time to do more than shift her weight prefatory to a fatal strike, Jazz spun her around in a full circle, disorientating her. Her tail-spear fell to the floor and she stiffened in sudden agony. Before she had time to recover, the saboteur locked her up, wings against his chest, arms pinned to her sides, knees sagging. She struggled furiously, yet her flame-jets never lit to blast Jazz's face. After a brief moment, she relaxed, shaking, still held fast.

Jazz dropped any pretense of Earth slang, addressing Ultra Magnus from slightly behind Flamestrike's helm. "Prowl was one of my best friends, my brother-in-arms. Not many knew him as well as I did." He took a moment to allow Flamestrike to gain her footing, but still kept his lock-hold on her. "I'm telling you, Prowl and Flame bonded about five years ago, while you were still learning the ropes as Autobot City commander. They mostly kept things private. Believe what you want, but the spark-bond was there." He brought his chin down over Flamestrike's folded wing joint, pressing down apologetically. "I'm sorry, babydoll," he murmured. She made no move, optics glued to a spot on the floor near Rodimus' foot, frozen silent.

Ultra Magnus turned away from Jazz, pointedly addressing Rodimus Prime with his stance. No apology was made for his callous remark.

The white and black Porsche shrugged, his regular demeanor back. "Y'know, I get all this power shiftin' and changing in ranks," he began softly, giving the trembling Flamestrike a squeeze on her, arm, "but what I don't get is the stompin' on people's feelings. Sure, there was grief and resentment when Optimus Prime first took over near the start of the war, but not like this. I get that ya gotta do it your way, but let us do it our way, too."

Rodimus paused, thoughtful. That was twice in a very short span of time that brash decisions and lack of respect for his troops was brought up. He looked back at Ultra Magnus, who had finally turned around to face Jazz. Magnus had a set look on his facial planes that left no hint to the internal workings of his programming.

Flamestrike finally shook off Jazz's grasp, turning to Rodimus. "I don't know the changes you plan to make, but I stay right here." Her firm, emotionless tone brooked no argument from the new Prime. She coolly retrieved her tail-spear from the floor. "I will resume my duties as strategist for the City, and return to… my… office." Her vocalizer sputtered very slightly, but she quelled Jazz's attempt to console her with a look. "And my quarters." A hint of her formidable rage returned, held in firm control by the iron will she had used for so many successful infiltration missions and tempered by the coldly calculating mindset she used so effectively in formulating battle plans. She glared murderously at Ultra Magnus. "Primus save you if you have so much as opened the door my quarters." With that last caustic barb, she turned with all the dignity she could muster and stepped out the door, her stately pace masking the pain and vertigo. The conversation inside the room continued after she walked out of sight, but was still faintly audible in the hallway.

"You're going to let her get away with that?" demanded Ultra Magnus, outrage at Flamestrike's perceived insubordination plain in his voice.

"Yes," replied Rodimus quietly, "She's right, and she's the best we have for the City. But," and his voice sobered as he addressed the saboteur, "she cannot let her emotions interfere with her duty to the Autobots stationed here. She did okay just now, but I expect her to be professional in all her work, no matter who she's working with…or for."

She didn't hear Jazz's reply as anger seethed through her systems, fueled by the overheard criticisms. Don't worry, I will be.

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"Here's the last of them," announced the recently promoted City co-commander Mirage as he and Solarflare entered the ruined strategy office later that same evening. Flamestrike, Hound, and Trailbreaker, the other co-commander looked up from inside the room, where they were working to put things back in order. The newly arrived pair each carried one box, contents haphazardly poking out in all directions. "The team Ultra Magnus assembled apparently hadn't really cared where they shoved these."

Trailbreaker grunted dryly, pointing out a bare spot on the strategy table. "Well, we'll just go through these and figure out what's supposed to go where." He matched action to statement and picked up the top datafile from the box Solarflare set in front of him. "At least Jazz stopped them before they got to Wheeljack's locker. Though maybe we should have let those fumble-fingered mechs handle some of the more, ah, volatile of his experiments." Peering at the smudged file in his hand, he called over to Hound, "Hey Hound, where are we putting terrain maps again?"

Hound's voice rose up from behind the desk by the far wall. "They go in the second drawer to the right under the strategy table. Should be a few in there already with my sigil on them." Trailbreaker located the indicated file drawer and reached for another datapad.

Flamestrike sat in the space in front of the desk where Hound was working, sorting boxes of miscellaneous material. She hadn't spoken much since returning to the office and seeing its disheveled state. Her hands worked mechanically, sorting out the memorial material from duty rosters, strategy plans, and other official files. The few mementos Prowl had collected in his 20 years on Earth were separated out, no matter their condition, into a separate, sturdy lockbox. This area is where Mirage headed with the last box from storage room "B." He set it down within easy reach of Flamestrike's working area and walked back to the untidy mess of boxes piled on the strategy table.

Solarflare was still angry with the mess in the usually tidy space. She sorted files vigorously, working out her frustration by setting things back to rights. Each empty box thrown out into the hallway was a minor victory over the haphazard clutter. All five Autobots worked with quiet industry for a while until Solarflare heard Hound ask, "Flamestrike, are you okay?"

The green tracker had come out from behind the office desk and was crouching down to peer intently at the silent brown-grey form. One hand rested on her motionless shoulder, shaking her gently. Flamestrike's attention was focused intently into the very bottom of the box Mirage had brought over. All its other contents had been emptied out into sorted piles. "What is it," asked the tracker looking inside, "a chess set?"

Mirage started and looked up. He walked over to Hound and Flamestrike, bending down to tip the side of the box in order to get his own look. Solarflare and Trailbreaker stopped what they were doing to observe the three in the corner. Whatever Mirage saw, it affected him. His optics flashed for a moment, blanching his aristocratic facial planes. In a very quiet, gentle voice, he asked, "Flame, is this the chess set you gave him?"

"…was," came the nearly inaudible reply as she slowly reached into the box, holding up the black onyx king piece, Anubis. The ears were broken off; his muzzle cracked lengthwise, large chips missing from its elegant sweep. A collective shocked vocalization echoed in the room. Reverently, she caressed the figure before placing it gently back into the box with the rest of the broken pieces. It was fitting, she supposed, the chess set that had finally kindled their budding romance should be shattered just like her own existence. Viciously, she schooled her outward reaction, though her internal thoughts were swept up into a maelstrom of rage and despondency. Her vision receptors faded.

She felt herself pulled into a comforting embrace. After a moment, another presence supported her other side, gently patting her still painful shell. Flamestrike froze. She almost shrugged off the comforting arms in irrational anger, and indeed, her whole body was shaking with both irritation and pain. Gritting her dental plates, she very slowly, carefully disentangled herself from the pressure threatening to overwhelm her self-control, finally kneeling upright. Mirage and Hound still looked concerned, so she half-shrugged in apology and ducked her head to hide the pain in her optics.

When Mirage would have taken the box containing the broken chess set out into the hallway, she stopped him with a hand on his arm. "I'll… take care of this, thank you." He glanced at her curiously, her flat tone at odds with the emotional tension in the room. She pulled the box closer to her knees in reply, noting the time as her gaze swept across the computer display on the wall. "I think we'd better stop for now." She deliberately placed the chess box next to the sorted mementos and levered herself to her feet, Hound lending his arm as a brace.

The Autobots departed for the barracks, lost in their own solemn thoughts. Flamestrike meticulously locked the door to her office, now solely hers. With an assist from the ever-courteous Hound she slowly returned to her achingly empty, but reclaimed, quarters.