Round 5

It was two days later when there came a knock at Prowl's door. It was late in the day, well past the supposed end of the tactician's duty shift, and he had been doing a comparative analysis of the day's scouting reports, a task which to him was like an elaborate and deeply interesting puzzle, the perspectives, observations and even personal nuances of each scout telling him far more than the simple facts of the report might have indicated. Tactical work was a game to him, a many-layered riddle which was so engrossing that quite often, Optimus Prime had to actually force him to take a break and power down. Prowl's mental capacity put him at the savant level, even for a Cybertronian. The Praxan Academy of Mathematics and Logistics had labeled him a rare level of genius; the Autobot Jazz Academy of Endless Snarkery had labeled him an incurable and categorical nerd. If Prowl were being honest, he had to suppose the truth lay somewhere in between.

The knock sounded again, and reluctantly, the tactician looked up from his work. "Come in."

The door hissed aside, and the bulky form of the Chief Medical Officer hovered there for a moment, as if struggling with some last minute indecision. But after a pause, he let himself inside, and as the door hissed shut behind him, he settled himself ponderously into the chair opposite Prowl's, all the weight of his years like an invisible cloak across his shoulders. There was an ageless quality to the tactician, a serene facade that almost perfectly hid the scars borne of so long a war. But not so the medic. Though there was no outward sign to mark his metal frame, there was a heaviness to him, a burdened quality that seemed to bend him under its weight just a little more with each passing year.

Eying the tactician briefly, the big medic pressed his mouth shut, optics narrowed in momentary disgruntlement before the settled at length against the chairback, and stretched his legs out in front of him. He did not often make an appearance in the tactician's office, and he sat now like a landed trout, vastly uncomfortable and out of place. But to his credit, he did not look away.

"So." Ratchet drummed his fingertips once against the armrest.

"So." Prowl set his datapad aside, and laced his fingers together atop his desk.

Another moment passed, in which the big white medic regarded Prowl with a decidedly beady expression. They did not dislike each other, but there was no love lost between them either, and they all too often found themselves at odds with one another. By Ratchet's reckoning, Prowl was too straitlaced; from Prowl's view, Ratchet was far too sloppy. He was a brilliant medic, and orderly in all things related to his profession, but his attempt at any form of military bearing could be called rickety at best. He made a wretched officer, and Prowl would admit that this ruffled his proverbial feathers, if only a little.

"So," the medic said again.

"So," Prowl repeated, and wondered if they would be at this all night. He had things to do.

Ratchet heaved a (rather unnecessarily dramatic) sigh, shifted his bulk, and said, "So, I'm guessing that words like 'got carried away' and 'probably took things too far' might be a good opener here."

"To which," Prowl said dryly, "I might respond with words like, 'vast understatement,' and could counter that the use of the word 'probably' is a massively unnecessary adverb in this context."

Ratchet glanced sideways, biting his lip. "At which point, I might supply words like, 'had implanted a homing beacon on you,' and 'knew Sideswipe had plans to rescue you after he'd made his point."

"In which case," Prowl replied in clipped tones, "I might not have to use words like 'gross breach of ethics,' 'courts-martial,' and 'bust you down so far in rank you'd be saluting the floor buffer.'"

Ratchet shifted, drummed his fingers once more. "If you did," he said, "I might also use words like, 'had triple-reinforced titanium shielding around your spark,' and 'was monitoring your location at all times.'"

"To which," Prowl shot back, "I might respond with words like, 'have you lost your damned mind?'"

Ratchet sighed sharply, and ran a hand over his face. "You know I lost my damned mind ages ago."

Silence fell at that, though it held a little less tension than the one which had blanketed the room moments ago. Prowl stared down at the desk, his optics tracing the faint scratches and indents etched out from years of use, while Ratchet looked away toward the tactician's book shelf, his optics roving the neatly organized datatracks, probably without seeing them at all. Apologizing was something Ratchet almost never had to do, first and foremost because the medic's tight reign on his own emotions meant that he rarely allowed himself to be sorry about anything. He had an overdeveloped sense of compassion, something which perversely made him act the opposite. He could not afford his own empathetic nature, not in the operating room, not in the field with the bullets flying and the mechs dying beneath his fingers, so he took special care to be as abrupt and matter-of-fact as he could. The fact that he was a particularly brilliant field medic did not mean that he was meant for war, and Prowl understood that the Chief Medical Officer's gruff manners were simply the defenses he put up to survive the war.

But acting the bear was not something that worked on all fronts, and that was what had brought him here tonight. Prowl had angered Ratchet by putting Sideswipe on triple shifts. Ratchet's legendary temper had flared to its usual extremes, and instead of just reacting, this time he went too far which, to be honest, Ratchet sometimes did. The trouble however, was that even though the medic's growling front usually kept the crushing weight of his own compassion at bay, each time his bullying went too far, it all came crashing back down on him in the form of remorse. In short, Ratchet felt bad about what he'd done. Except, when Ratchet felt bad, he felt terrible. And to further compound the problem, Prowl knew that each time Ratchet faced how bad he felt, he ended up facing not just the instance in question, but all instances, back to the very beginning of the war. The landscape of his own compassion was a battlefield to Ratchet, and Prowl knew that with each passing year, the medic was losing the war.

Ratchet shifted again, his optics swinging back to Prowl's desk, though they traveled no higher. "I suppose," he said at length, "that the words 'I' and 'sorry' should probably be strung together in some form of a sentence."

"Well," Prowl replied quietly, knowing that this was the most the medic could give of himself, "I'd add a verb in there just to be safe. But otherwise I'd offer words like 'apology' and 'accepted.'"

Ratchet quirked a tired half-smile, just a hitch to his mouth, then looked away at the book shelf again. For another long minute, he considered the neat rows, the tired lines of his face easing a bit, his optics a dim, faraway gray, like the sea under a winter sky. At length he asked, his tone mild, "I suppose Prime will have something to say about this?"

But Prowl merely shrugged, and answered, "About what?"

Ratchet's optics snapped toward Prowl's at that. "What do you mean, about what?"

Again, the tactician shrugged. "Well," he replied, "according to the Executive Officer's log, it seems I was down for repairs during those two days." The medic narrowed his optics, clearly puzzled, if not a little suspicious, so Prowl tacked on, "I place a high value on a certain medic and his pet warrior, and I see no reason why there should be any further investigation at this time, particularly into a matter that has no record of taking place."

"You," Ratchet deadpanned, sitting up a little. "See no reason. You of all people."

Prowl offered a wan smile. "Well, let's just say that if Prime were to become involved, words like 'righteous warpath,' and 'overzealous moral fury,' and 'punitive overkill' might have to be used."

Ratchet favored him with a most incredulous look. "You do realize," he said, "that this is serious case of the pot calling the kettle black."

"Well yes," Prowl did not disagree, "but if one looks at my moral obligations as executive officer, one might realize that once justice has been served, it is unjust to serve it any further. Also, tactically speaking, it would disrupt my feng shui to have to deal with one of Prime's temper tantrums just now, when my time could be better spent thinking up ways to make Megatron cry. So that is, as they say, that."

Ratchet stared back at him for several seconds, then uttered a snort, and settled back again in his chair. A smile had begun to play about his mouth, not to mention a dawning expression of surprise, though he was clearly trying to hide it. "And you," he said slowly, almost rolling the words around in his mouth, "think justice has been adequately served. In my case, that is."

"In the optic-for-optic sense, no," Prowl answered readily. "But in the sense that the words 'I' and 'sorry' were used genuinely, I'm willing to let it slide. Besides, I can assure you that if I ever feel the need for true payback, I have no qualms about having First Aid rebuild you into a My Little Pony, and selling you off to the first little girl who clicks 'Buy It Now.' If I were you, I would take my leniency and run."

Now Ratchet's mouth stretched into a true smile, the gray in his optics leaning now toward blue. "What color?" he asked, after a moment.

"What color what?" Prowl queried, his fingers still laced on his desk.

"I mean," Ratchet explained, shifting to sit up a little, "what color pony?"

"A rainbow unicorn, of course," Prowl replied, completely straight-faced. "With sparkles."

"Sparkles, tuh," Ratchet rolled his optics, and waved the tactician's threat away as he levered himself out of his chair, clearly trying to keep up his grumpy facade, though Prowl could tell he was amused. It was rare that the tactician and the medic saw optic-to-optic, and Prowl could tell that their little moment of peaceful coexistence was ruffling the medic's feathers somewhat. Which of course made Prowl all the more happy.

On his feet now, Ratchet heaved a sigh and stretched a little, before digging around in a compartment on his arm. Withdrawing a bottle, he set it casually down on Prowl's desk, and said, "Thought I'd bring along some insurance. Not that bribes work on you or anything, but...well, there you go."

For a moment, Prowl simply stared, for once without words. It was a bottle of Praxan wine, something he had not seen in more years than he could count. Faintly luminous, the bottle not much more than a slim vial, it was a reminder of a place he had once called home.

A fleeting expression crossed his face, half-wistful, half pained. He tried to hide it, but Ratchet saw it. "Been holding onto that for years," the medic told him quietly. "Thought you might like to have it."

Prowl nodded, and smiled a little, though he could not quite meet the medic's optics. "Thank you, Ratchet."

"Sure," Ratchet said, hovering, as though he'd have liked to say more. But the battleground of his own emotions was only just now beginning to go quiet, and anyway, no more words were really necessary. "So," he said after a pause, "I better go check on Blaster. He's setting up movie night, and the last I heard, that bastard's planning to show Anaconda. It's my medical opinion that he might live longer if he comes up with another option."

Quirking a smile, Prowl met Ratchet's optics, and nodded. "I would concur with your medical advice, and order you to dispense all remedies forthwith."

Ratchet matched his smile and, backing away, said, "Night, Prowl."

"Good night, Ratchet," Prowl nodded again, and after the medic was gone, he sat for a long time staring closed door, and wondering. Then at length he looked down at the bottle, and wasting no thought for the future, poured himself a glass of wine, and dreamed for a time, and drank to memories of home.

The next morning when he walked into the command center for the staff meeting, Jazz took one look at him, and actually fell out of his chair laughing. Ironhide's reaction was slower, his mouth drawing into a wide, crusty grin, while Ratchet contented himself with looking darkly amused. Prime merely stared at him with deep suspicion.

"Why," the Autobot commander asked in disgruntled tones, "are you pink?"

For about one tenth of a second, Prowl paused to consider the situation, not having realized his condition until now. Then he said as he took his seat, "Well I imagine it is a condition brought on by something I drank last night."

Actually, literally on the floor, Jazz's gulping laughter had Prowl wondering if the saboteur were going to be sick. He sounded like a wounded sea lion.

Prime regarded Prowl with narrowed optics as the tactician ordered his notes for the meeting, the commander's expression somewhere between incredulous and powerfully annoyed. In truth, Prowl didn't blame him; things had been rather a bit of a goat rodeo around the Ark lately, and he had not he notion that Prime was beginning to suspect he'd been left out of the loop on a few key events. "And how long," the commander asked, "do we suppose this condition will last?"

"Oh, I'd say maybe another few hours," Ratchet supplied, his voice tight. He was having trouble keeping a straight face. "This evening, tops."

"That's it!" Prime slapped a hand on the table. "I don't know what's going on with the lot of you, but it ends with this. Am I understood?"

"Of course, Prime," Prowl nodded serenely.

"Oh sure," Ratchet emitted, then bent over in that sort of silent laughing fit that's largely made up of helpless wheezing, and which never fails to make a mech look like a gasping carp.

Ironhide just shrugged, nonplussed; Jazz was nigh-on hysterical.

"Because I've had it with this crap," Prime went on, glaring at all of them in turn. "I expect this donkey farm stuff from Sideswipe and his herd of degenerates, but not from my own lieutenants. Whatever this is," he proclaimed, sounding dire indeed, "it stops HERE and NOW. Am I understood?"

"Yes, Prime," Prowl replied evenly, meeting the commander's gaze with a smooth expression, which was just as well, as he was the only one capable of response. Ironhide looked simply stymied; Jazz and Ratchet had lost the ability to speak.

"Good," Prime grumbled, not sounding like he thought anything was good at all. "Because I've had it. HAD IT." With that, he bent his head over his own notes, though he probably wasn't reading a one of them. Most likely, he was the most peeved over being left out of things, though Prowl figured he'd just have to suffer on that account. The tactician just had things wrapped up too neatly to open up this can of worms all over again.

"And get up off the floor," Prime added after a pause, actually bothering to haul Jazz up when the saboteur didn't respond, and dump him like a sack of rocks into his chair. Once there, Jazz simply wilted over the table, and laughed for another good ten minutes.

But pink or not pink, Prowl was happy with the balance of things, and order now restored to his world, he set himself to the task of droning through the meeting minutes as was his usual wont. The world was right again, and though his home may have been a million miles away, there were days when Prowl was content in his place as executive game warden of the Autobot zoo, first mate of the interstellar madship called the Ark.

Besides, the word home was truly relative, wasn't it? Just a matter of semantics in the end.