Dart's ground-covering trot came to a slow halt in the thick boughs of the pines once again. She'd run the perimeter that she'd been given once at a good clip, reporting back with as few words as possible that there was no movement by anyone in the vicinity, but she'd go around once more, just to make sure. The second circle had been admittedly an attempt to just waste time, to not think about anything but the sound of air rushing through her intakes.

Up in the wet branches of a bigleaf maple, a songbird began to twitter. Her audios amplified the brassy call of a Stellar's jay into a loud trumpet of territorial pique as the blue bird dove from branch to branch, raising his black crest in a fit of pique. A tiny red squirrel chewed on a pinecone with nervous, careful snips. Dart tipped her head back to eye the canopy around her, realizing that she had never before noticed how noisy a place a forest was. She'd walked in much of the Oregon landscape. Hiked in it. Heck, she'd slept overnight in a tent with a creature that should never ever have shared half a can of cold Spaghetti-O's with her before being zipped in for the evening. If that wasn't a time of terrifying, strange noises and possible death by canine chemical weapon, she didn't know what was.

Even so, not once had she ever comprehended how so much constant background chatter occurred in the natural world. Now, with her enhanced audio sensors, it was obvious how scant and cautious animals became when something un-natural moved through their midst. Once she'd been standing still, however, she had been rewarded by a flow of avian babble moving into the thickets around her; silence gave way to flapping wings and bobbing motion, accompanied by the low-level, constant prattle of their daily routines.

The foggy air was so damp with retained moisture that Dart found she could only take a few deep sniffs of it before having to tilt her head to the side to clear the accumulated water out of her sensors. Finally, she was forced to duck her head and snort. Droplets beaded along her upper lip. A furtive glance turned her head from side to side before she lifted her arm and quickly wiped her nose on the back of her wrist. She started to scrub that off on her thigh and then caught herself and commenced to use the leaves on the tree next to her instead.

Silence drifted down and settled back at her motion. Dart lifted her head, cocked it to one side, and a smile lifted the corners of her lips for the first time since she'd left her teammates down at the bottom of the dam. Sorry, guys... er, birds. I know, I know, it's gross, but... ha, I don't think they make Kleenex quite big enough–

Pressure locked around her throat. It ratcheted down with the biting efficiency of a wire snare.

A throttled yelp, and the courier's instincts took over as if she'd been spurred hard in the flank. The seconds that followed were a blur of snapping branches and flailing limbs. It was a mark of her assailant's skill that he adroitly avoided Dart's frantic series of backwards kicks. One strike nailed a small hemlock behind the struggling robots; it exploded into jagged bottlenecks of bark. Overhead, the canopy of leaves tilted crazily as she swung to the left, dragging her off balance. Small conifers splintered under their weight, and the shards cracked into her exposed flank. A shift of his weight shoved her nose against unyielding metal. Sharp spears of scent spiked into her olfactory sensors. They layered within, curling the sweet, coconut-flavored appeal of high quality car wax into her nose, confirming the other robot's presence. Overwhelmed, the courier wheezed as the choke-hold tightened, the joints in the his elbow working with the utmost precision to cut off the main flow of her intakes.

A coughing gurgle followed as she twisted her head to the side, struggling to catch a glimpse of the other mechanism behind her. Much to her shock she realized that there appeared to be nothing there, nothing except branches and grass and the waxy leaves of the converging underbrush. Yet, something had a grip on her; she could feel a palm against her mid-section, then fingertips dug down into her flank as they attempted to find purchase on her belly, scraping along the grey, flat plane of metal. Finally, they hooked onto the edge of one of her hip-carriers; she felt the magnetic lock snap open with bone-sharp sound. Immediately, her elbow locked stiff, her palm flat. Warnings repeated over and over, drilled into her head - Decepticon couriers who let missives fall into enemy hands would be immediately seen for what they were, fools and idiots.

Human.

Programming combined with Starscream-instilled paranoia. Dart thrust her hand down and slammed the holder shut.

Over her shoulder, the air wavered. Branches and brown-edged leaves trembled, coalescing into ice blue slits. Unlike Skywarp's air-mauling tumult of disappearance and arrival, this invisible mech's outline solidified softly and quietly out of the world around him, sketching one piece of him at a time from of the area of distortion. A shiver of light drifted downward to reveal a black fist and a white forearm, then washed back to the deep, glossy blue of his shoulder. That rich color was that was all Dart could see of him since the side of his helm was now parallel to her own.

"Where is he?"

She didn't recognize the speaker's voice at all. The words were soft, dry, and cultural, as if it should have been relaxing for the weekend in an upscale country club where the rich and famous dallied at tennis between bouts of wine and slices of imported goat cheese licked with well-aged basalmic vinegar.

"W-who–?" the courier stuttered back, grey fingers clawing at the arm wrapped around her neck in a desperate attempt to release the clamp on her throat.

"Prowl."

Molecules of odor beat themselves like porch-light moths into the network of relays lining Dart's intakes. Only then did the undertones of familiar scents cue themselves into primal understanding; her nose roughing out a picture that coalesced into her brain. Bars, lit soft with the greenish glow, long corridors, seeping, mineral laden water - and a random discussion about Doublemint gum.

Sulphur? Volcano. Cell bay. Autobot!

The girl's long leg kicked awkwardly behind her again, barely missing the mech's knee.

Mirage's immediate response to her action was a jerk that contorted her neck back. Cables and linkage strained to nearly the breaking point as the mech held her still. There was unspoken threat in his hands; it quietly informed her that he could instantly snap her main relays.

"That is the wrong answer. Try again. I don't have time to play this game with the likes of you."

The Autobot had control and leverage, which was the best place to be in these sort of circumstances, and he also understood how to use it to his full advantage. Instead of backing away, he pressed the edge of his chest hard into the small of her back. This strategy effectively lifted the girl's body up, causing her to arch in an awkward line; all the courier could do was dangle and scrabble, even though she was at least as tall as him. Her long legs churned circles of helpless motion, the edge of her toes tearing out divots of grass by the roots. In the clots of rich black loam earthworms writhed in confusion, then squirmed and dived away from the light.

As soon as the mech lifted her off the ground and she completely lost her footing, overwhelming panic shoved most of Dart's thought capacity into what resembled a tiny rubber ball and flicked it across the hollow room of her head. It bounced inside from wall to wall with it, brought icy dread.

"Let me go!" she yelped.

"No," Mirage said flatly, unimpressed with both her demand and her stupidity for even thinking he'd consider it. "Now. Prowl. Where is he. Tell me, or I'll cut your throat and drop you where you stand, Decepticon."

A pause, and then she resumed fighting to draw in air to her cooling systems.

"At- at the dam," she offered.

Mirage leaned closer, watching as the glass of the girl's optics reflected his ire.

"I don't know its name," Dart half-choked, half-babbled, her voice rising in pitch as she struggled against his grip. All she wanted right now was solid ground under her feet. The thought wiped everything out but the soundless litany in her head. Down. Put me down, put me back down.

"Not good enough," he replied curtly.

"I don't, it- it's the one here. On the river. Near - near the mountain, sort of, I think... I don't know. I don't know."

"I doubt that very much."

"But I honestly don't know! I ran here," she gasped, as if that explained everything. It did to her. She'd run it, she remembered the landmarks by sight and scent. Distance meant nothing - what she remembered along the way was the bracing, ankle deep cold of a small stream, an ancient, half-rotten cedar stump completely clothed in bracken, the acidic, musky dribble on the narrow game trail underneath the metal electrical towers where a hopeful buck was following close after a reluctant doe's company.

"Then you should be able to run back, yes?"

The courier's brain was still struggling with the fact she'd turned left at the stump and kept going straight past the deer to fully understand what direction the Autobot was pushing the conversation. "The mountain?"

"No. The dam."

"The dam? Wait, you don't want to go there, all of the Decepticons are there. They'll kill you."

Dart caught a glint of blue from around the edge of her helm. A coldly narrowed eye conveyed the mech's complete loss of any patience he might have had.

"One would expect that to be the case, and for them to try and fail miserably. However, the fact that they're all there does make me wonder why you are this far out here. Wait. You're a courier, yes?"

"Y-yes."

Mirage grunted in response and leaned against her even harder. The edge of his chest wedged itself under her spoiler, throwing Dart even farther off balance. Deliberately, he lowered his mouth inches away from her audios and quietly offered threat. "Then answer my question. Otherwise, you'll have a hard time even limping home. How does that sound?"

It was obvious that his idea was unpleasant to the Decepticon. She went stock still in his grip, shuddering. Her main pump pounded out a frightened thud within her chest; it was the only thing that could run free at the moment and it took full advantage of the situation to do so. Okay, not the only thing, Dart's imagination was right there matching stride for stride, neck and neck, wondering helpfully if they'd find all four of her limbs neatly stacked like cordwood next to what was left of her body. Maybe she'd just end up as one of those cubes they took out of the car crusher, flat enough to set a nice brass table lamp on.

"It sounds bad," she admitted.

"Good. You understand the situation perfectly. Now, I'm asking you to tell me, one last time; where is he? If you don't answer, my encouragement will consist of cutting the support rods right above your knee."

Caught between them, the girl's spoiler twitched and trembled, scratching a deep line in his paint. "Well, that sounds even worse," she stammered. Her attempt at a nervous grin only dissolved into a mouth tight with trepidation. "I told you, the dam. I swear. Cross my heart, I'm not lying. At the dam, I mean, wait, on the dam, they have him on the dam..."

"Right. Which way? How far?"

He shifted his grip. She could hear his other hand edging slowly down across her flank.

She barely held in another kick through fear of the mech's repercussion. "I don't know. I was just running back the way I came, but I looped, I don't know how far it is. Miles? Ten? Twenty?"

A rasp of metal on metal. "Well, that's unfortunate for you, then..."

As much as Mirage would have liked to have done exactly as he menaced, the Autobot merely ended up shifting the girl's weight and shoving her forward so that a swift kick behind her knee would collapse the joint out from underneath her. Once she was belly down on the ground, he'd snap a set of binders on her and leave her there for someone else to pick up and deal with. For a brief moment, the truculent thought that a single shot would be the simplest solution to this situation settled itself longingly into his mind.

Then he sighed, knowing how Prime frowned on unnecessary violence. Too bad the Decepticons didn't frown on it as well.

Dart's toe finally caught the edge of the earth. She locked her knee and plunged forward as if to break one of the tape lines at the end of a hard fought sprint race. Her sudden burst of speed tore loose the mech's grip on her mid-section; his hand flew up and smashed against the edge of his own wrist, releasing her throat. The two machines cracked against each other, him lunging to regain his hold on her spoiler; the Decepticon pitching herself from side to side and lashing out with all limbs in an attempt to escape. Mirage's hand managed to grab the edge of her chin; his fingers pressed tight into the hinge of her jaw. Expelling a yip-burst of air, she launched herself up and bucked sideways, nearly breaking free. Mirage cursed and gouged his thumb down, grinding as hard as he could.

Tight clusters of neuro-relays ran pathways close to the surface plating on a Cybertronian's face, controlling much of the slight, delicate movements of nose, brow, cheek, and lip. What Mirage had done with his thumb was to force one of the pain sensory arrays right into the rigid underlay structure of the girl's jaw supports. It was a move he'd used more than a few times to his advantage in close combat - exploiting an opponent's body against themselves often was the quickest way out of a bad situation. An unexpected jolt usually gave you enough time to regroup and regain the upper hand in a tight-quarters fight.

The Decepticon's startled yelp of pain informed him he'd succeeded.

His own yelp was equally astonished when she bit him.

Somehow Dart had managed to twist her head around enough to chomp down in the painfully inconvenient spot right between Mirage's thumb and forefinger. He heard the crunch of plating, reminiscent of Spike one afternoon crushing soda cans underneath his work-boots; the noise was followed by a sharp blossom of pain. Heels planted, the mech spun and pivoted in an awkward semi-circle, completely releasing his hold on the girl as he snapped her back and away from him, thrashing his arm in an attempt to shake free. Instead of letting go, the girl only dug in deeper; he ended up dragging her around by her jaws. He reeled and cursed, she staggered and half fell to one knee before struggling back up.

Mud spattered both machines with the earthy odor of decaying maple leaves.

The logical point in Dart's thought processes made sure she knew she was standing there chewing on some guy's hand. The illogical part pointed out that chewing seemed rightly deserved for a guy who'd tried to shove his hand - mind you, without even saying hello - into her pants pocket.

Mirage had hunted turbo-foxes for a long time, so the comparisons he had popping into his head weren't surprising. New hunters made a mistake at least once in their learning curve, in that they usually reached down a hole, feeling confident enough to retrieve an imagined carcass before the animal was actually dead. This was where the learning experience came into play, because the hunter would find himself with a vicious little scavenger latching down hard on whatever it could reach, snarling defiance from between needle-sharp fangs. Usually, after much yelling, cursing, and amusement, a hunting partner would have to plan a rescue, usually accomplished by stuffing a break-pipe behind the fox's last set of teeth, using leverage to snap it loose. Unfortunately, this often occurred long minutes after the animal had finally expired.

Bereft of a partner to set him free, the expression that fastened itself on Mirage's face wavered between complete shock and total outrage. The courier worried her jaws back and forth on his hand, creasing deeper into his metal skin.

Mirage's visage twisted completely in the direction of outrage. "Stop that!"

Obviously, this translated into Decepticon as, 'bite harder and growl even more.'

The mech struck out hard, his hand ringing off of the curve her shoulder. A second hit cracked against the flat of her ponytail. "Let go, you savage! Get your filthy mouth off of me!"

His third blow finally seemed to whack home the thinking part of whatever sensibilities were still rattling around in the Decepticon's helm. Wrenching herself backwards, Dart tore her mouth free of his hand. A thin strand of fuel leashed her lips to his fingers before the viscous thread of fluid snapped back and spattered across his palm.

Mirage backpedaled, quickly getting out of range in case she kicked out towards him again.

Feral as a junkyard turbo-hound who'd lived its life on a short length of rusting cable, the Decepticon's slanted optics glared up at him as she lifted her head. Chewing reflexively, she brought her hand slowly up to her mouth, rubbing the back of her hand across her lips, half-curling her fingers as if she was trying to paw the taste of him away. Slowly, she backed up a step, then another, toe to heel as her baffled expression made way for a gaze that dived towards the woods and shot towards the hills.

Seeing the flight response settle on her face, Mirage smoothly drew his rifle out the magnetic clips that anchored it across his back, his uninjured hand secure on the weapon's grip. He braced the barrel on his forearm to steady it. His fingers throbbed, but his voice was low and steady, perfectly calm. "Stand still, you. Now."

The courier stared back at him. Her throat spasmed twice, as if she was trying to swallow her fear. Slowly, she lowered her foot back to the ground, the spoiler across her shoulders clacking and rattling.

Suddenly, she tilted her chin and glanced upward. Mirage's rifle never wavered. It was an obvious, pathetic bluff; his sensors didn't relay anything except the two of them... wait, no, now it registered, a mutter of sound that became a thin snarl in the distance, the sound of a jet rushing through the air.

Mirage noted it. Decepticon flier. Moving away from us, though... in a big hurry.

The girl's unease became apprehension. One foot dug into the ground behind her, and then with a lunge that sent a spray of dirt into the air, she whirled and fled.

Finger snapping down at the first indication of movement, Mirage pulled the trigger, silenced rifle coughing out the liquid-fuel driven projectile. Dart bounded away in a furious drive of speed; however, it was only the fact that she flattened herself down to the left to avoid a small stand of maples that Mirage's shot didn't drill home dead center of her back. Instead, a sparking crease appeared on the curve of her shoulder. She bit back a yelp as she ducked her head down, elbows pumping as she dived desperately into the thick woods. Half-yellowed leaves whirled, caught in the updraft as the courier threw her arm up in front of her face, wincing with anticipation of what she was about to do a second before she slammed herself into the leading edge of the forest with its tightly packed trees. Branches cracked and shattered, slapping against her flanks. Pine needles rattled and flew off of her chest plating with the sound of rapid gunfire; with a final desperate leap that carried her over a fallen snag, the courier flattened out into stride, leaving an avenue of shattered boughs behind her.

The astringent smell of pine sap drifted back into his face.

Mirage drew a deep suck of air past his intakes and composed himself. He thumbed the safety back on his rifle, not bothering to fire off a second shot. It was obviously futile - the girl was fast, long gone, and he hated to waste ammunition. You never knew when a burst sent off in a pique would end up costing you your life later. Carefully, he shifted the stock of his rifle into his hand, automatically checked the firing chamber for any sign of damage, and then hefted it up. Underneath his plating, the network of circuitry that controlled his light-bending abilities worked towards his silent directive; they melded his bright sky colors back into the green and brown landscape as his long strides carried him towards the path the girl had torn gracelessly through the woods.

His comm beeped softly.

"Mirage."

"Mirage here, Prime."

"Sideswipe's got a lock on Skywarp."

A dry chuckle escaped the mech.

"Knowing how he is, I'm sure it's a headlock."

"Most likely," was the Autobot leader's amused reply. "We're following him in now, and we need to get there as soon as possible. Once Megatron realizes we're here, he'll react accordingly."

"Badly, is that what you're trying to say?"

"Yes."

Mirage eyed the mangled swath of tree branches before him. The jagged, white-bone end of a stripped fir branch dripped reddish resin; he adroitly avoided getting any of it on his plating. The gooey substance was notoriously hard to get off of finish. Mirage didn't relish the thought of spending hours with a turpentine soaked rag to scrub it free."Understood, Prime. I think I've found a fairly direct route there myself. I'll meet you at the dam. Mirage out."

There was a soft click as the open comm line faded into silence.

So did Mirage.

Fog curled through the woody stems of the weeds; steam rose from the black warmth of the churned earth. A small flock of chickadees trickled down through the branches, sifting cheerily through the mud where the robots had struggled.

Everything returned to normal.

Well, nearly everything, except for a tiny black curve of metal that bobbed along in mid-air. The Decepticon's bite had crushed the delicate cloaking hardware in that spot on Mirage's hand. One drop of half-processed fuel welled up from the damaged area and filmed the edge of the wound. Invisible optics glanced down, and the Autobot offered up a low huff of frustration in the back of his throat before he slapped his hand over the damage and concealed it from sight.


Grey sky shredded and peeled away from a vortex of black and violet.

One second later, the sharp tip of Skywarp's nose tore through the hole and ripped him free of the dark blot above the river. The deafening screech of jet engines poured itself across the forest; Canadian geese, swimming placidly in the current eddies, serpentined their necks in a rigid curve of surprise. Simultaneously hissing and honking at the overwhelming onslaught of noise. Their primary feathers slapped the water into froth before they half-ran, half-flew into the reeds for safety.

Injured and angry, trailing oily smoke from his underbelly, the Decepticon lunged in short, sharp jerks, still desperately trying to dislodge his unwanted passenger. He'd thought that the power-surge created when he teleported might be disorientating to the mech on his back, but apparently, Sideswipe's reinforced plating had been able to keep any jolts from reaching his main synapses; the Autobot was unaffected. So unaffected, in fact, that he was still perched between the dark jet's tail fins with ease.

Ratchet cursed Sideswipe's thick head on a regular basis. Oddly enough, for once it had saved him from a lot of extra work.

A rivet on the jet's wing worked loose and shot past the bridge of Sideswipe's nose, narrowly missing his optic. The Autobot didn't even flinch. However, he bent his knees and crouched low over the plane's back before he shifted his grip and cuffed one of Skywarp's stabilizers. "I thought you Decepticons were supposed to be tough."

Skywarp rolled to the left. Wind tore ragged white noise into Sideswipe's audio receptors. The Autobot buried his face into the rush of air, his mouth open in a smile as wide as a dog's out for a Sunday drive, optics squinting as the grey curve of the hills rocked on the horizon. Another rivet shook itself out of a seam and bounced off of the red mech's thigh. It flaked off a huge chip of paint, leaving behind a deep pit of exposed metal.

"Hold together a little longer, will you?" Sideswipe complained, eyeing the damage to his finish. "Hey, and where's my in-flight movie? And don't say shoved up my-"

Skywarp muttered. Sideswipe cocked his head, shifted his grip, and cheerfully slammed his fist into the Decepticon's tail fin.

"I told you, don't."

Metal quivering with the blow, the plane clapped its flaps down, long licks of exhaust flame searing the damp air into steam as the nose rose nearly perpendicular in an angle of rage. Continuing on with his motion, the black jet tipped itself backwards, engines bellowing as he heaved itself left and right in the air. Sideswipe felt his feet being dragged out from underneath him; his fingers hooked deep into the gaps in the other mech's plating. Grunting, he arched his back, locked the rotors in his shoulders and tried throwing his weight forward, hoping it would drop Skywarp's nose down and level him out.

It didn't.

Sidewswipe's feet lost purchase. His heels drummed a line of dents along the black mech's engines before he slipped, the Autobot's entire weight snapping his elbows taunt. Yanked around, his lower body swung out and wrenched his hips until his main relay cable network threatened to snap apart, humming metallically with the weighty drag of his own limbs. Underneath him, the Decepticon felt the sudden scrape, and then the jolt of Sideswipe's bulk twisted his tail flap to the left.

Bellowing with triumph, sixty-three feet of robot disguised as a fighter aircraft whipped around like a rank bucking bull. The same low wing-loading that allowed a human built F-15 to turn tightly without losing airspeed came into play. Sideswipe took one look at the fact that there was a very good chance that the wash of the engines was going to melt him in half; with a rather petulant grumble, he let go and allowed himself to be swept into the slipstream. Luck played a huge part in the fact that not only did he not get a swath burned out of his mid-section by the blue-white flare of Skywarp's jets, but that the Decepticon's nose didn't connect and send him crashing off in another direction.

Immediately, Sideswipe tried firing up his rocket pack. It sputtered, choked, and the Autobot's puzzled frown met free-fall.

Dart's dash back through the woods had been slowed by both tightly spaced trees and muddy terrain. A glance behind her, one of a hundred she had thrown in the last few minutes was all she had time to do before the river bank appeared and she was knee deep into the cold water. Slippery with brown patches of algae, the rounded rocks beneath her feet snatched her off balance. Water splashed up around her knees, white and frothy with the current as she snap-slid to a hard stop.

Which way do I go, which way do I - it's faster going up the river, back to the dam. This is the right river, right? I don't know, it's a river, and it's not that big, so it has to be the one. Oh, where's that stupid map readout when I need it? Where's the on switch?

Hallelujah!

Praise boomed in her audio receptors, and it was loud enough to make her wince and clap a hand to the side of her head. At least her radio was kind enough to cut instantly to a commercial instead of another hour-long Jimmy Swaggart marathon, but it wouldn't turn off. In fact, she must have found the internal volume knob again because the airwaves were ordering her to go and join the Air Force, right this instant. Ironic, sure, but not funny. Dart was tempted sorely to rip the stupid tuner out of wherever it was residing within her, toss it on the ground, and then stomp it as flat as three week old road-kill for good measure.

A shriek of frustration battered the air around her.

The radio clicked off.

Blessed silence. Well, okay, perhaps it wasn't quite so blessed, but that was just fine with Dart.

It took her almost a full second to realize that the cry hadn't come out of her throat. With that understanding came the next two seconds of thought where her mind tried to work out where the noise had actually originated from. When the third second of thought remembered the fact that she was probably being pursued by an invisible - and likely rather angry Autobot - the courier decided that now probably wasn't the time to stand in place in the middle of an open river.

Floundering her way against the sluggish current, she geared back up to a trot. A fish slicked itself along the metal of her leg, then swept off downstream. Nervously, her head turned from side to side and focused on the thick woods she'd just torn out of; across her upper back, the black strip of metal chattered out worry as if it were a particularly vociferous squirrel. However, even though she tried as hard as she could, she was unable to find a whiff of metal in the air. There was nothing around her but the deep mineral smell of clay and decaying water weed.

Had the blue and white Autobot beaten her here? Her fuel pump slammed against the confines of her chest as she scrambled upstream. He's invisible and he can run, too? Oh, I am so d–

The river less than ten yards in front of her exploded, accompanied by the sound of a car crashing at sixty miles an hour into a rock wall. Sheets of spray thundered into the air. Froth and loose stone smashed outward from the point of impact. Dart threw up her hands instinctively to protect her eyes. Her awkward leap backward landed badly, ankle twisting as her weight rolled over on the arch of her foot. She teetered back and forth until finally she tipped forward and splashed down in the stream, elbows locked in an effort to keep herself from crashing chin first into the rocks. A gout of water reached up and smacked her in the face, sluicing icy wetness down inside of her throat guard.

Sputtering, shaking her head, the courier scrubbed her hand across her optics in an attempt to see what was happening. Vision hazed into a streaky blur by the water, she scrabbled to her feet and lunged for the brown blur of the riverbank, diving for the nearest stretch of solid ground.

Water rushing outward from the sheer velocity of the crash smashed into her broadside. It tumbled the courier head over heels, easily snatching up a couple of tons of robot like a kid who'd found the one missing toy they'd needed to complete their collection in the sale bin. Obviously, the water also had a hard time transforming Dart into her Trans-Am alt-mode with no instruction booklet. The onslaught gurgled through the gaps in her helm, sounding as if it were old flush toilet choking down a wad of paper towels. With a drunken belch, it slopped her precariously halfway up on the opposite bank and left her, happily rushing down the draw in the hopes of finding something more interesting to play with.

Snatching at the switches of willow trailing over the river, Dart tangled her fingers in the branches and used them to heave herself up on her hands and knees. She pawed her way up the incline, coughing and snorting. Wheezing, she hung her head between her locked forearms, gulping air in an attempt to re-calibrate her systems before she was able to stagger into the relative safety of a patch of aspen saplings. Bent at an awkward, hunched over angle, she folded over her haunches, supporting herself on the flat of her palms. Her flanks heaved, and the courier stretched out her neck and hacked up foamy mouthfuls of water, intakes trying to purge out the worst of the impromptu flooding. It took all of her raw courage to peer back towards the river; with what she was fast learning about giant robot battles, she fully expected to see a vapored crater where some massive ordinance had slammed into earth.

The speckled rainbow trout flew into the air and fluttered its fins against the grey sky as if it was striving for the next step on the evolutionary fish-ladder.

True, it sort of resembled a missile. It did have fins to stabilize itself, a torpedo shaped body, a pointed nose. A gaping mouth popped open and shut as the overcast light shone blue off of its back and light colored sides, pink band flashing from gill to vent. Mid-air, it whipped left and right, curled in on itself as if fighting a hook. Gravity decided to be kind and drag the animal back into its natural environment, and the fish belly-flopped back into the stream.

Sideswipe rose from the hole he'd created, sitting up as water slithered down the gloss of his red paint. Moisture beaded up and flattened as it made contact with layers of wax and polish. The mech spat, grimaced, and rubbed the back of his hand across his lips, smearing fishy slime and tiny scales across his chin. Strands of Elodia weed trailed from the sides of his helm to drape across his shoulders in tawdry emerald curls. Right now, he resembled the unholy offspring of stunned surfer dude and sports car.

Dart blinked.

The Autobot lifted up his hands and glared at them briefly. Then he slapped them down into the water, palm first, following his gesture up with a few choice words; the kind that were normally scrawled in black magic marker on seedy restroom walls.

"Ha. You got dumped."

Sourly, Sideswipe swatted at the river again as his brother's jab crackled into his audio receptors.

"Nah, I jumped."

"Jumped, dumped, you still got tossed right on your skidplate, no difference," was the yellow mech's reply.

"Sure it does, it's all in if you bail off or get thrown off."

Black vapor roiled overhead, manifesting into solid metal. Snapping on its heels came the boom of displaced air rushing into the hole in the sky.

"He's 'ported back in over me."

The banter from his brother became instantly serious. "Right. I'm on my way."

Sensors locking on target to the object of his hate, the dark aircraft slammed itself into a dive, the sharp point of its nosecone focusing the angle of its attack dead center on the Autobot's chest. In a rapid whine of laser fire, the middle of the river cascaded upwards into an offset row of geysers. Dodging the blasts, the red mech lunged onto his feet, gun in hand, squeezing off one shot after another at the jet's underbelly. Two strikes scored smoking welts of bubbling metal, the third missed as Sideswipe dived face-first into the water to narrowly avoid being decapitated by the leading edge of Skywarp's wing. He rolled head over heels and came up firing again.

Dart barely held in a stuttering whine as she crunched down between the spars of the trees. Leaves scattered around her as she twitched nervously, spoiler pressed tightly against her back as if she was hiding underneath the metal strip. She sunk her fingers into the tangled roots and steadied herself. Great, she didn't know what she was more worried about at the moment; the invisible mech who was no doubt going to hear this confrontation and arrive rather shortly, or the red mech who'd knocked her to kingdom come back in the canyon.

It ended up being neither.

Tree limbs exploded into a rain of toothpicks as Skywarp powered his way his way into a wide turn, banking back for another pass. In his fury, he was slamming through the branches, rushing by so low to the ground that Dart fully expected the airplane to scythe the tip of his wing into the dirt and flip end over end in a fireball of destruction. He didn't, firing his thrusters to roar past, but to the courier, it seemed as if there was no grace at all in that motion. He heaved himself into the air and clawed through the sky with heavy handed see-saws of flap and rudder, as if he had flopped to his belly and was rolling in setting concrete. Then again, maybe that was how a plane operated this close to the ground; she admitted that she honestly had no more inkling of flight dynamics than a corpulent kiwi bird.

Skywarp swung around in the air, canted underside over back, corkscrewing down at his opponent again as he drove towards him. Furious, the jet poured a blaze of firepower down at Sideswipe. Laser beams hissed as they struck damp soil, fused the neat holes with veins of newly minted glass. Smooth river rocks crackled and groaned with heat, blazing cherry red.

Well, at least on a high note, it hadn't been Starscream overhead like she'd feared earlier...

There was a whoop from mid-river. She glanced back in time to see Sideswipe roll and kick off of the rocks. His jet pack stuttered once, then twice, and then he kicked his foot out in a half-circle while he flared his jump-boosters in a blaze of blue. Water sheeted around him, and steam roiled up to obscure the red mech in clouds of thick white vapor. The plane screamed into it.

Jaws clenched tight in anticipation of the collision that seemed inevitable, Dart's legs took control. With a surge of fright, she bolted out of her hiding place. She bounded through a tangle of interwoven blackberry vines, then cleared a deadfall of two maples with the high and tight knee of a steeplechaser before dashing back into the tall trunks of the pines.

Skywarp emerged from Sideswipe's cover right into the sights of Sunstreaker. The yellow mech braced his rifle barrel across his forearm, optics slit in a concentration of angry blue as his finger squeezed the trigger. Shots rang out, two thunked deep into the jet's exposed flank. Opaque fuel sprayed into the air as the jet howled.

Purple fire limned the Decepticon, then his outline guttered into nothingness as if he were a candle exposed to a sudden draft.

A few moments later, the fading steam seemed to coalesce into an equally white grin. Sideswipe rose to his feet, water pouring out of every gap in his plating. He coughed, hacked, and spat all in the same efficient motion.

"Nice hit," he offered. "Glad I lined him up for you."

"You're more likely to line up the planets," Sunstreaker scoffed.

Sideswipe laughed and limped out of the river. Steam still twisted into the air from the exhaust ports of the jet-pack on his back. He shook out one leg at a time, sloshing out the river water, tracking huge puddles up onto the slippery clay bank. "Well, fine by me. If he had to mess with me, means he's used up a lot of his energy and time teleporting randomly around like a moron."

"How many times does it take for that classification?"

"What, moron? Just once if it's Skywarp."

"Heh," Sunstreaker chuckled. "That's why your rocket pack didn't work?"

"What, the teleporting? Think so. Scrambled the ignition mechanism, I bet. It's working fine now, though."

"Good, because we're going to have to haul tail to get to the dam before the party starts without us," the yellow Autobot said, jerking his thumb before he turned and started to jog up the side of the river. Ferns crushed into the mud under his weight, releasing the smell of anise. "Come on, we're out of here... unless you want to take another swim?"

"No thanks. Lucky that river decided to show up and break my fall," Sideswipe replied, loping alongside his brother. "You think they'd be nice and wait for us to show up before they kick some Decepticon tailpipe. I mean, I straddled a moron ten miles and kept him occupied. You think I'd get something for it."

"I want you to know you always set yourself up for this joke - but isn't that sort of like your last date?"

"She loved it all the way, baby," the red mech grinned.

Sunstreaker rolled an optic, pushed aside a branch. It sprang back with a loud whack and slapped the red mech right in the head.

"What was that for?" Sideswipe wondered as he tried to run and peel off a leaf that was stuck dead center of his eye at the same time.

"Me."

Sideswipe grinned again. "You can't handle my love life."

"I don't want to, not even with lead tongs. Shut up and run."


"I'm done waiting, Swindle."

The Combaticon nodded quickly, fingers twining nervously in front of him. His thumbs tapped restlessly against one another before he pinned his left one under his right and hurriedly stilled the motion. "Understood, boss."

There was no point in arguing with Megatron when he was like that. Not that Swindle would have ever even considered doing so. Heck, he was more surprised that the Decepticon leader had managed to restrain himself this long. It was now going on forty five minutes since the last call, and the news crew still hadn't arrived. Not that Swindle really cared if the reporter was out of luck; he didn't feel that under the circumstances he had to give any of the money back. The story wasn't going anywhere except to the bottom of a river. Although, maybe he could stick around and point out the location of the body for an extra hundred or two...

At least two. A hundred wasn't worth waiting another forty five minutes. Time was money to him, and all this time wasted here he could have spent fussing around with his stockbroker; which was what he would have much rather been doing than hanging out and watching a dying Autobot nailed up to a dam.

Even if the Autobot he was seeing there was Prowl, who had cost him a lot of money over the last few years. Hey, dumping nuclear waste off the Washington coast was a downright easy task - no one noticed, no one cared, and the humans in charge of cleanup did a wonderful job of looking the other way when everything on the record looked perfectly legit.

The mech eyed the Autobot again, his systems souring with an irritated surge. On second thought, the Autobot could stay up there for the next decade. That had been a heck of a lot of money. It would take a hundred reporters to equal one quarter of that revenue.

His jaw tightened. Not to mention whatever Autojerk came up with the idea of breaking into that account and diverting my hard-earned payoffs into the Watershed Fund needs some serious payback. That thank you card that those ecological fish huggers had sent to his post office box... insult to injury, right there. What could he do, debate that his illegally gained money had been illegally donated? Right, and he had a bridge to sell someone on Cybertron. And as I well know, that only works about five times before someone catches onto it and they hire someone to show up on your doorstep with things that make you go owch. Usually there's two of them, they're twice your size, and they throw a wicked right hook. Not worth it.

"So, that means we can kill him now, right?" Rumble wondered, visor bright and eager with the prospect of violence. Hand balled into a fist, he smacked it into the curve of his palm with a resounding crack of metal on metal.

At the sound, Frenzy pitched back his own strange noise. High-toned and coming in fits and starts, it went three or four notes, giggling past the Decepticon's lips in maniacal glee before Rumble frowned and whacked him across the back, open-palmed as if he was attempting to loosen up his brother's vocalizer. Frenzy sputtered, the noisemakers buried deep in his flat chest blasting out, scalping up the vegetation around him with the sheer power of sound.

Megatron was silent, but the ruddy glow in his eyes had fastened onto Prowl. A cold, thoughtful smile shifted itself onto the angles of the Decepticon leader's jaw. Long strides of deliberation carried the huge grey mech forward until his feet broke the edge of the pool. Thick with bacterial froth and fragments of rust, the water licked slavishly at the tips of Megatron's toes before it twined around them in scummy adoration.

The barrel of his plasma cannon lifted. With exaggerated care, the Decepticon leader sighted down his arm, aligning the massive weapon on the center of the fuel-spattered ruin of Prowl's chest.

Eagerly, the surrounding Decepticons sucked in a collective draw of air past their intakes. One by one, they broke off their individual conversations of boredom, becoming attentive as Megatron pointed death towards Prowl.

Starscream eyed his leader, then the rust-streaked dam. Optics roving warily over the crumbling concrete, he took a step back up the embankment.

"You're going to shoot him?" he muttered, wing flaps flicking restlessly, as if the wedges of metal were urging him to loft himself into the air.

Megatron didn't even glance back. "Why not?"

"You'll blow right through the dam!"

"Why would that matter?"

"It'll collapse," Starscream warned, eyeing the unkempt span.

"Why does that matter? You can fly, can't you?"

With a chuckle, Megatron's hand slid back into his wrist, metal scraping along metal with the tone of a sword being slid back into a steel scabbard. A humming noise echoed from within his plating; and then there was the clink of chains, the hum of energy, and then the glowing mace twisted itself out of his arm, spiked ball falling down to swing in tight circles of pent up rage.

"I'm not going to shoot him," he said. "Not because of your fear of getting your precious feet wet, Starscream, but because it will give me great satisfaction to crush his head with my bare hands."

"You're using a mace," Starscream sneered as he crossed his arms and shifted his weight enough to allow a jet of flame to burst out the back of his heel.

Megatron laughed as he swung the weapon over his head. Immediately, Starscream took a step back, giving ground to the dangerous circumference of the ball and the chain. One spike barely cleared the curve of the cockpit in the center of his chest before the Decepticon leader whipped it around and slashed at the air right in front of Starscream's optics. This time, the jet mech cringed and leapt back, spitting out a curse when the gaggle of watching Decepticons echoed their leader's mirth.

"That I am," the grey mech agreed, rubbing his chin in a thoughtful way as he lazily continued to swing the weapon in a deadly circle in front of him as he admired the purple trail of light it left behind its passing. With a push of his foot, he lifted his grey bulk silently into the air and hovered over the water.

"Oh just kill him already," Starscream snapped, tossing his head. A dark stain in the grey sky caught his attention for a moment; he didn't bother to continue to glance up. He knew the energy signature by heart, and dismissed it as Skywarp teleporting in at the edge of his range before he made the final jump back to the group. Well, at least I won't have to listen to him whine for days about how he missed the party.

Megatron gathered himself and erupted upwards, water spraying up in arcs from the force of his passing. Over his head, the mace continued to whistle, brutally slapping the wet air aside he approached Prowl.

When the Decepticon leader was within striking distance, the shriek of the flailing chain seemed to cut through the Autobot's stupor of pain and exhaustion. Slowly, the injured Autobot lifted his head. One optic had completely stopped working, and the faded glass was as dull as death. The other was a feeble pinpoint of light. The ruin of his left door strut twitched, drawing a trickle of feeble sparks behind it as it ground against the side of the dam. As his weight shifted, the concrete behind him let out a deep rattling groan as the binders on his wrist suddenly supported the full tonnage of his body. Grey dust spat out from the support pegs, drifting across his shoulders and the side of his face.

Megatron hovered, the murky water inches from his massive feet. Grungy froth flecked itself across his ankles and dripped off of the ends of his toes.

"Any last words you'd like me to relay to Prime?" the Decepticon leader offered magnanimously, voice booming over the water to include his troops in the humor as he swept his free arm to one side. "Please. Feel free to speak."

The tactician lifted his head and nearly choked before he gurgled up an ugly slurry of fuel and metal shavings.

Megatron feigned a look of concern.

"What, does the cat have your tongue? Or is it in shreds down the back of your throat? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, seeing how many other parts you're missing after you met his proton bomb."

Howls of laughter echoed off the face of the dam; the rest of the Decepticons were now ringing the shoreline. Knowing they weren't invited into the range of their leader's moment of triumph, they thronged at the water's edge, eagerly slamming their elbows into sleek, polished flanks like a group of demented bridesmaids awaiting the final lines of the ceremony as they jostled for position. Prowl's failing eyesight could barely make them out individually; he recognized Starscream of course, standing off to the side, arms crossed haughtily, and beside him stood the ramrod straight, deep blue box of Soundwave, flanked by Rumble and Frenzy. Behind them were Thundercracker, Dirge, and the oh so unflattering lime green and violet blur of the Constructicons, but...

The rest were only garish colors, jumbled into a faceless morass of metal and delighted, cackling laughter, waiting impatiently for the moment when Prowl's head would leave his shoulders and rise into the air. It would become merely a gristly trophy ready to be caught in a mad scrabble of metal and passed overhand from one mech to the rest; a fragrant if gruesome bouquet of dripping fuel and black, crisped wires.

Megatron cleared his throat as he swung the mace closer and closer to Prowl's face. Each pass bridged the spikes closer between the tactician's cheek and the massive weapon until they were millimeters from his nose. If the Autobot flinched, if he coughed, if the crumbling concrete caused him to slip in the slightest, the mace would embed itself into his head with a crushing blow. The Autobot had seen it happen millions of years ago, back in the Arena, and he'd watched Megatron with the dawning realization that most of the shrieking patrons of the games standing next to him had no idea what was taking place down below...

No, most of them hadn't understood that they were watching a mech whose cruelty was seeped with so much charisma that he could drive a weapon into the back of an innocent mech with one hand and then make everyone around him believe he'd done it for the greater good of Cybertron. Until Megatron controlled nearly all of the cities and crushed anyone who opposed his reign under the strides of his vast army. Then they started realizing exactly what they'd trap they'd been led into. But by then, it had been too late.

"Again. I ask you. Any last words?"

Prowl glanced past the blur of the mace, searching the shoreline, his one good optic fighting to keep his focus steady in between each pass of the weapon. Megatron's hand rotated faster and faster; the weapon's promise roared in his audios, the whirr and whistle stabbing into broken transmission pathways and causing the tactician so much pain that he was forced to shutter his optics and concentrate on keeping conscious before he found what he was searching for...

He cleared his throat and pushed a gob of black liquid past his lips, careful not to spit it anywhere towards Megatron's direction.

"Y-yes," he said quietly.

"Well?"

Slowly, Prowl reopened his working optic. A sliver of blue shone out, glowing with mirth as a faint smile drifted to the corner of his mouth. The mace was shrieking with speed now, chain rattling, glowing so bright it burned a brilliant lavender line into the darkening grey sky above the massive, shadowy bulk of the Decepticon.

"Just this. I can... always count... on the... illogical and foolhardy behavior of my friends."

Sound smashed around the basin with the echo of a huge truck hitting a metal traffic pole head on. The mace slammed into the concrete of the dam, imbedded deep, and the chain quivered taunt before it snapped in two and broken links sprayed up the side of Glines, missing Prowl's head by mere inches, nearly stapling the corner of his chevron back along with the rest of him. Water exploded upwards, churned into greasy froth as Megatron's body disappeared, driven down to the bottom of the lake.

Dumbfounded, the Decepticons on the shore had one long second while their processors informed them that they were in fact seeing exactly what they thought they were seeing.

Within that second Skywarp finally teleported over them, tearing apart the air into a tattered banner of black and violet. "Autobots!" he roared. "Incoming!"

The dark jet's warning was lost in the ensuing explosion as a missile hissed its way down into the center of the Decepticons and exploded into a sheet of flame. Frenzy and Rumble careened into the air, legs and arms pinwheeling frantically before they crashed into the water. Soundwave stepped easily aside as another barrage exploded nearby, knocking Dirge and Thundercracker off of their feet. The brunt of missile's force blew Mixmaster's left leg off of his body. Immediately Long Haul and Scavenger grabbed his arms and took off running, dragging him along the ground and out of range as Bonecrusher, Hook, and Scrapper returned fire at the Autobots charging towards them.

Thundercracker heaved himself standing just as Windcharger lifted his hands over his head. Mixmaster's leg lifted off of the ground on its own accord and kicked the blue Decepticon right in the skidplate, knocking him over on top of Dirge, who'd just started to scramble upright.

"That's giving him the boot!" Trailbreaker laughed, giving the red Autobot a thumbs up.

Windcharger grinned back and swept his hand around to use the detached leg on Soundwave, but the boxy blue mech merely eyed him and showed no emotion. Casually, he raised one hand, and suddenly Rumble and Frenzy were immediately front of him, plating still hissing with steam.

Frenzy whirled to face Windcharger.

Optic band shining red with battle lust, the small mech opened his mouth and shrieked out a challenge as the drums in his chest spun in frantic counterpoint. Windcharger changed tactics like a pitch-hitter faced with the bases loaded and a fly ball; he struck out with the the limb towards the smaller robot; it got within ten feet before it faced the full onslaught of Frenzy's power and was torn apart into shards of garish green and purple that rained down like metal confetti around the area as Windcharger dropped his magnetic field.

"Lovely," Scrapper muttered to Hook, backing up as he narrowly avoided a burst of laser fire. "Frenzy the idiot has just blown apart Mixmaster's leg."

"Oh, just grand, grand," the other Constructicon groused back, ducking as Thrust went roaring into the sky, landing gear barely missing the side of his head. "You know what this means, of course."

"We won't be forming Devastator when Megatron bellows?"

"Well yes. But worse, his linkage module was completely torn off of him with that hit. It will be weeks before we can calibrate all of our systems back so we can combine."

Scrapper sighed. "I suppose we could think of it as a vacation."

"Hmm, that's much better than thinking of all of the repairs to come," Hook agreed.

"Exactly."

Bluestreak, still chasing down the hill after Hound and Ironhide, swept his rifle up and over his arm to steady it, digging his heels into the ground for a split second. There was a bright flash from the muzzle of his gun; a crackle of azure energy as the projectile launched itself in front of him, whizzing inches from the nose of a startled Thundercracker, who'd finally managed to scramble upright. It found its mark and thunked deep into Starscream's shoulder, where it promptly exploded.

With a shriek of pain, the mech clapped his hand over the open wound, then whirled and threw himself into the air, already transforming into his jet mode as he roared up and over the edge of the canyon just as the rest of the moss covered rocks on the bottom of Glines shifted up into a charging wave of brightly colored Autobots.

Hidden previously by both Hound's holographic talents and both Blaster's and Windcharger's abilities of sonic and sensor disruption, they'd also relied heavily on the fact the Decepticons were concentrating so much on the scene in front of them. It had worked.

"The Autobots are here!" he cried into the airwaves.

"That's what I said!" Skywarp yelled back.

"You should have said it sooner, you idiot!"

Megatron's head broke the water with a roar of fury. One of Prime's arms was wrapped around his throat, the other had a death grip on the Decepticon leader's cannon barrel. The weapon was full of water, and twisted to the sky. It bubbled like a geyser, spouting useless steam into the air with each clench of Megatron's fingers.

"Decepticons," the grey mech bellowed, thrashing like an iron reptile in Optimus' grip, "to the air! Return fire!"

Prowl eyed the struggle before him as he sagged against his bonds. "Logic dictates that mounting a rescue mission for one individual is foolish," he transmitted weakly as he shoved all of his remaining power into his communication systems in the hope that Prime could hear him.

"Yes... But logic gets tossed aside sometimes when it comes to friendship. Good to see you're still alive."

"It's good to see you as well, Prime."

The Autobot leader laughed before Megatron's struggles dragged him down once again into the depths of the lake, sluggish waters churning into a whirlpool for the first time in years.

An explosion rocked the area, instantly sizzling the misty air hot and dry. The cinder laden wind whipped upwards, carrying with it a cloud of searing smoke towards the left side of Glines where the moss covered stones jutted out from the wall, shadowed by the dam itself.

The flicker of a thoughtful amber optic was followed by Ravage rising to his feet. He stretched and shook himself from nose to side missile. Head slung between his shoulders, he glanced up and down the canyon before he turned and gathered himself. Springing upward, his low-slung flanks arched as he touched lightly off each rock in turn, leaping from shadow to shadow, using the darkness to veil his ascent.

At the top of the canyon, he curled his forelimb underneath his chest and stood still, observing the row of Autobots on the ridge.

Well, well... they've flanked us, half down there, the rest up here waiting to pick us off as we take to the air. One might have hoped without Prowl's help that they might have fallen tactically short.

A slight odor of fuel caught his attention, but that wasn't what held it. No, it was another scent, muted by time and distance; his sensor arrays picked up on it immediately and placed it for what it was, metallic scurf that had followed a struggle, transferred from one mechanical body to another.

The girl, and...

Ravage froze, haunches gathering underneath him as his head turned from side to side. There. One drop of half-processed fuel, spattered on a half-buried stone. A few inches away was another drop, and then his nose led him upwards from that until he saw a black sliver in the foliage about ten feet up from the spatters.

A burst of light seared into his optic sensors. The cat recoiled with a hiss of pain, jaws snapping wildly at nothing, completely disorientated. One paw swiped itself over his eyes as if to block out the horridly painful intrusion into the back of his metal skull as the missiles on his flanks raised automatically and trained themselves on the waver in the leaves. Even before the weapons had fully cleared the curve of his shoulders, there was the cough of a hunting rifle. Ravage staggered back a few meters, paws crossing over each other gracelessly as his hindquarters sagged from one side to the other and then lopsidedly collapsed underneath him, his weaponry rendered completely useless.

Mirage materialized, his body slowly painting itself into view. His rifle was held one-handed, but the barrel didn't move as it trained itself on a spot between the Decepticon's golden eyes.

"Don't move, Ravage."

The dark cat's ears flattened ruefully back. Slowly, he lowered his head between his paws and let a sigh seep out of his mouth. "You have me at a disadvantage," he agreed.

Mirage's hands twisted out a length of filament wire from a compartment in his wrist. One loop casually tossed itself over the animal's nose; he flicked his wrist and pulled hard, clamping the Decepticon's jaws shut before he approached.

"And you'll stay at one, if I have anything to say about it."

Ravage chuckled quietly as the Autobot knelt down to loop the wire around each black limb in turn. His paws flexed on the earth, and the moss on the stones beneath him tore back, leaving deep gashes that oozed an inky, sticky substance.

"I would expect no less," the Decepticon rumbled politely, the words forming deep in his throat and drifting past the tiny gaps his fangs provided. However, his slanted yellow optics were brittle and cold. His tail slashed angrily at the earth as he sucked drafts of air through his intakes, whistling softly in a high-pitched echo of discomfort.

His gaze sidled to the mark on the white mech's hand.

"You should get that nasty little nip looked after, Mirage," he advised, his muffled voice silky and sly. There was no true concern in his statement, in fact, it sounded as if the black beast was laughing to himself, delighted at the Autobot's small injury. "Things like that have a terrible tendency to go septic and rust out, don't they?"

Mirage glanced down at his hand, then shrugged.

"I don't think you should worry about me," he grunted as he pulled the lines together tightly and finished hogtying the cat. Quickly, he stood up, dusting off each hand in turn on his thighs. He'd never set his gun down the whole time, palming it from one hand to the other. "Worry about yourself. I'll be back for you later."

With that, the Autobot quickly slid his foot under Ravage's flank and kicked the Decepticon deep into the undergrowth.


Dart's fuel pump was surging so hard she felt as if it was going to rip itself out of her chest as she headed for the edge of the woods. Flattened out, still sprinting, she bolted through a patch of blackberry vines. They wrapped around her leg, but her speed ripped the weeds out of the earth and lashed them back against her plating, the long thorns furiously scratching out their useless punishment against metal. Without breaking stride, she kicked the vine off to one side and dodged another patch that bristled up in her vision, anticipating the challenge put forth by a running robot brush mower.

The last of the tree-line shot by in the corner of her eye and she dashed out on exposed ground.

Less than fifty feet above her head, the black underbelly of a jet slashed the air apart. She yelped, and flung herself back under the edge of the trees as it roared by. Skywarp's engines blared out his distress as he rolled and thrashed in the sky, trailing a long spiral of oily smoke behind him. Once again, Sideswipe was braced behind his cockpit, whistling happily as he slammed a pile-driver cheerfully into the Decepticon's plating.

"Don't you ever give up?!" Skywarp howled. The two machines slammed into the ground less than fifty yards from where Dart crouched, the jet's wing bent back at a painfully awkward angle. Skywarp transformed, and Sideswipe wrapped himself around the Decepticon's throat as he twisted the taller mech's head back. Skywarp grunted and kicked sideways, dragging the other mech with him along the torn up ground.

Whoa. I'm actually agreeing with Skywarp... well, that's a first, isn't it?

"Agreeing with who?!"

"Huh?" Dart said out loud. Usually, when she talked to herself, it didn't sound quite so - er, screechy. Maybe some tuner component had been knocked loose with the struggle with the Autobot earlier...

"Your internal comm!"

Whoops. Hopefully she'd hadn't said that screechy part out loud.

"Oh! Sorry, I forgot... oh, no, I totally forgot about it. I didn't remember the comm link, I didn't call - I forgot it, Starscream, the Autobots know we're here."

"I can see that!"

Starscream's shrill retort caused Dart to wince and duck back a few steps into the brush.

"Right," she replied, watching as Skywarp threw himself over backwards, using his full weight to crack Sideswipe's head against the ground.

"Listen to me! I want you to–"

Jet engines roared overhead again, drowning the mech's words in decibel; this time it was Thundercracker and Dirge, passing so close to the earth that Dart could count every single rivet in their plating. As they swept by, sound battered itself against her sensors; the timbre of Dirge's engines sent chills up and down the courier's relay circuitry. Spoiler stiff and still across her shoulders, she fought to get air into her cooling systems. What she wanted to do was bolt, turn and fling herself back the way she'd come, but the sonically induced terror surged in waves, battering her first from one side and then the other. All she could manage though, was to stumble back a few steps, her fingers clutching the sides of her helm. Head twisting from side to side, Dart finally protested the onslaught of noise by throwing her nose at the sky, howling like a dog whose kennel was stationed directly underneath a tornado siren.

A hundred yards away, a red and white Autobot also shrieked counterpoint to the audile assault. Red Alert clapped his hands over his audio sensors and collapsed on the ground, shuddering. Beside him, Inferno immediately reached down and grabbed his friend's arm, attempting to heave him over his shoulders for a fireman's carry even while he continued to sight down his forearm to aim a missile at the jets.

In unison, the two planes bore down. Machine gun fire ripped chunks out of the ground, tore up green blossoms of turf; bullets struck sparks off the half buried stones. Scattering Autobots ducked and covered, then gathered themselves up and returned the attack, weapons spitting out bursts of color. Caught in the crossfire, Dirge executed a strange half-flip in the air, nose rising to the vertical as his engines both cut power and his flaps lowered. The terrible noise echoing through the area abruptly ceased as the plane pushed forward, angled as if it was a giant palm trying to give a signal to stop. The aileron struck by the projectile was now wreathed in tendrils of vomit-yellow gas; the substance slunk into every open gap it could find, curling tendrils of before it finally dissipated, revealing a brittle, shattered area on the edge of the Decepticon's wing.

Dirge crashed into the ground, nose cone crumpling. His landing gear snapped off; it whistled through the air a good two hundred feet before embedding itself into a large Douglas fir.

Starscream's shadow darkened the area as he ripped through the sky overhead. Cluster bombs scattered, blowing craters in the earth. Inferno took a direct hit, the greasy fireball of the explosion wreathing his plating, but he merely shook it off, grinning and flexing his fingers as he returned fire. The Air-Commander swooped easily out of range. In the meantime, Dirge managed to climb to his feet and stagger into the airweaving erratically from side to side as Thundercracker swept by again, his guns whirring with heat.

The sound of the landing gear's travel still lingered in Dart's audio sensors, but at least there was no longer the sound of Dirge's engines wracking out their bloodcurdling keen. Spoiler rattling, intakes heaving, she brought up her hand, fingers loosely curled, and pawed at the side of her helmet.

"Dart?"

The courier blinked, dropped her hand back to her side.

"Ravage?"

"I need your help. Come."

"Where are you?"

"Getting a rather annoying view of the bushes on the north side of the dam, I'm afraid."

"Are you all right?"

"I would say not. Actually, I'm literally a bit tied up at the moment. And, I'd rather not spend my free time in the Ark's cell-bay. I'm sure you can relate."

Dart winced, her spoiler lifting over her shoulders.

"Yeah, sure can. I'm on my way,"

Ducking her head, she dived through the lattice of pine branches, already zig-zagging from side to side before she bolted across the open space. Bullets whizzed past her flank, buzzing like furious hornets; she dove and twisted, fully expecting at any moment to be trying out a new method of cooling her internal systems. The sort where the wind whistled through great big holes in your chest.

Skywarp finally had shaken off Sideswipe, and the Decepticon was now rolling to his feet. Sighting down the rifle on his arm, his lips pulled back, offering his opponent an ugly sneer of triumph. The Autobot was fighting for his feet as well, doors digging ruts in the moist earth as he reached for his own weapon, but Skywarp had gotten the draw on him. As of this moment, the Decepticon had a perfect bead on Sideswipe's head, and no way that he was missing that shot.

Red Alert, now somewhat able to form a cohesive thought, was desperately trying to pick out the largest threats to the Autobots around him. His behavior was automatic; his systems were completely calibrated to focus in on anything with sudden sound or motion. Right now, a hundred different sensors were screaming warnings about both sky and ground; they couldn't decide what was more of a danger until the courier vaulted past Jazz and ended up within a body length of him.

Immediately, his rifle swung out to intercept her. Dart reared back, her processor registering the weapon in an odd sort of freeze-frame motion. Driving her heels into the earth, she changed direction with a perfect reining spin and plunged away from the Autobot. Red Alert squeezed off a shot, his finger pulling back so hard it jammed itself into the trigger guard. The blast narrowly missed the girl's calf and kicked up a spray of dirt.

Skywarp's outstretched arm appeared, blocking her path. The courier yelped and leaned forward as hard as she could, diving underneath his limb. She cleared his elbow easily, sliding aside with meters to spare.

Startled, the black mech clenched his fist, and his rifle obeyed his involuntary command. It clicked back into the safety mode.

"What the--"

That was exactly the extra second needed for Sunstreaker to get between Skywarp and his brother. Fist swinging, his knuckles slammed deep crescents into Skywarp's jaw. The Decepticon went down under the assault, cursing. Laughing, Sideswipe gathered himself up, spat out a greasy mouthful of fuel into the dirt, and then eagerly leapt back into the fray.

Water frothed up, swirling counter clockwise like foam on a bucket of fresh milk. Prime's head broke the surface of the lake again; he'd managed to fight his way back up from the stony bottom, pulling Megatron after him. Silt and sand swirled in the water as the Autobot leader scissored his legs, treading to keep himself at the surface. Megatron's elbow lashed viciously towards his faceplate; Prime managed to duck, countering the strike with an uppercut that sent the grey mech arching skyward in a similar arc to the hapless trout that had met up with Sideswipe earlier.

Somehow, Megatron managed to heave himself up into the air right before he crashed back into the water. With a snarling, dismissive glance at his opponent, he flung himself upward, flying towards the top of the dam.

Prime wiped the water out of his optics and glanced over his shoulder.

"Prowl?" he called.

No answer to his query came from the mech on the dam. Immediately, Prime turned, swam half a stroke towards him. The tactician was sagging against his bonds again, head sunk against his chest. Even the bare strut of his damaged door hung low, peeking out from behind his back. Even from where he was, Prime could see that the face of the dam wall was crumbling and cracking away from the load points. He was amazed it had held together this long and that Prowl hadn't tumbled into the water... or worse, that the dam had given way.

Luck was on his side so far, but Prime knew better than to trust it completely.

Static crackled into his audio receivers. For a brief moment, he thought might be Prowl. It wasn't. Ironhide's drawl smoothed its way onto his comm-link.

"Prime? You okay?"

"I'm fine. Prowl isn't. He needs Ratchet down here now."

"Megatron's just arrived up here. Won't be able to get Ratchet past until he's occupied... wait, well, now the twins are on him, but I don't think they'll hold him long."

"Stall him, I'll be there shortly. Tell Grapple to go with Ratchet as well- he needs to evaluate the safety of this dam. I'm not sure it's safe to remove him without additional support to the structure, but we have to get Prowl stabilized as soon as possible, or we are going to lose him."

"We haven't come this far to do that, Prime," Ironhide replied. "I'll send down Hound and Blue to cover and clear for them - most of these Decepticreeps are lickin' their wounds and on the run, but if Megatron looks like he's winnin' they're going to get enough courage between them to come back."

"That's the last thing we need right now."

"No kiddin'. So, let's send 'em packin'."

"Right."


"I'm sorry. This thing's awfully tight."

Ravage pinned one ear back slightly as Dart struggled to unknot the filament from around his muzzle. Briefly, he shuttered his optic as a weedy stem scraped along the yellow glass. It snapped off, and he reopened it cautiously, half -lidded as he idily watched her fumble with the restraints. "Yes, well, you need to hurry, he'll be checking in to make sure I haven't moved."

"I'm trying, honest."

"You did remember that you carry a knife, correct?" he chuckled softly.

Fingers picking at the twisted loop of wire, Dart would have rolled an optic if she'd dared take it off of the forest around them. "Yes, but seeing uh, how I'm about as good with that knife as I am at remembering to use my comm link..."

The cat considered this as well. "Point taken."

Expecting at any minute to be ambushed by the invisible mech, the courier ducked her head and tried to focus all of her concentration on getting that wire off faster. As she muddled, the cord sprung back and sliced into the side of Ravage's jaw. The cat growled out a pneumatic-sounding complaint.

Dart winced in empathy and stuck her finger underneath the line, lifting it off of his jaw as she struggled to bend it back on itself. Ravage braced the rounded edge of his shoulder against the ground as she tugged and pulled; finally he wrenched his neck back. The wire snapped apart at the tie-off, the filament whipping around.

She flinched and ducked reflexively, but not fast enough. The wire unraveled, popped back, and lashed her across the ridge of her cheek. Dart swallowed a yelp, rubbing the back of her hand on her face where it had struck.

Ravage was already ripping at the bonds on his legs before she straightened up. His fangs caught the remaining wires; a few quick snaps of his jaws and he heaved himself onto his front legs. Hind paws limply hanging behind him, he dragged himself forward a stride length or two before he was able to stand. Splaying his legs, he swayed uncomfortably from side to side and dropped his head between his shoulders if the bombs on his flanks were dangerously close to toppling him over with their dull silver weight.

"Are you all right?" Dart asked him.

"I will be shortly."

Another explosion, this one closer than the others caused him to growl and shift his weight. The outline of the cat seemed to tug on itself, trying to pull his body into the leafy shadows of the underbrush. His flanks vanished into the background. Strangely, it left his head and hindquarters remaining, as if the cat was a magician's apprentice who had been sawn in half and was now quizzically peering at the place where their belly had wandered off to.

"This battle is going to end rather poorly," he told her, raising a paw as he sniffed in deep gulps of scent, eyeing the woods. So far, so good, Mirage was nowhere close by. He intended to keep it that way. Unless, of course he got a chance to detonate one of his bombs underneath the Autobot, in which case... he'd make an exception.

"I'd... I'd sort of figured that out," Dart winced.

Ravage swung his head to eye her with obvious amusement. "Good girl. Now, I'm sure you've figured out something else, which is; it is time for me to find cover, and I would suggest you do the same."

"Yes sir," she said. Without thinking, she brought up her hand and touched her brow in a quick salute.

Satisfied, the cat flicked an ear back, nodded, and vanished into the undergrowth.

Thundercracker's wings twitched in silent agony. Well, one did. The other was hanging askew, attached only by a strut that was slimed from one shattered end to the other in black fluid. The mech groaned, biting his lip as he braced himself on his hands and knees. He shook his head from side to side, spattering fuel.

Okay, that had hurt. Crashing was not high on his list of ways to stop suddenly as an aircraft.

Now as he looked up, he realized that Brawn was charging towards him, winding up his fist like a pitcher ready to throw a serious fastball.

Okay, this was going to hurt even more.

The jet mech's fingers snatched at the earth to anchor himself as he braced himself for the hit. Not that it was going to matter, he knew he'd go flying. Brawn punched like a freight train. Correction, he'd seen things hit by freight trains, mostly stupid humans on the evening news. Brawn's fists passed those results off as a minor fender-bender. Thundercracker's made the appropriate, anticipatory wince as his mind sunnily predicted the pain to follow. The blow would crash into his chin, smash into his side, dent and tear his plating. If he was lucky it wouldn't damage anything internal, but hey, he was never that lucky in these situations.

Fast, sudden motion in the corner of his vision grabbed his attention. Great, right on time, here went his luck... wait, no, it was just the courier, jittering nearby as if she didn't know which way to run, ducking under her forearm as a rocket whistled overhead.

On a high note, she wasn't a Dinobot, and probably wouldn't stomp on him for good measure after he was flattened by Brawn... so that was sort of lucky, he supposed.

The Decepticon shuttered his optics, awaiting the crunch of metal.

Slowly, after the silence had gone past expectation, he allowed himself to creak open one optic. Amazingly enough, neither he nor Dart hadn't been punched into one of the nearby pines; she was still standing there and looking at him. Her brow lifted in confusion and what appeared to be a bit of concern. Brawn was nowhere to be seen.

"Hey, wait, what– where'd he go?"

"Who?"

"The Autobot," Thundercracker said as he pushed his palms into the damp soil beneath him. Dirt oozed up from between his fingers and crumbled into the gaps in his joints as he rocked back onto his knees. He turned his head to the left and then to the right, eyeing the area around them. "The guy that was right here, going to punch my lights out."

"Actually, uh... he turned off and ran the other way. You okay?"

"Well, better now that Brawn's fist isn't going to be imbedded in my face," he grunted. "Wonder what's going on, because I sure didn't scare him off. And we're not even going to even go there about you, ha ha. He ran the other way, huh? Wonder what's up with that?"

"I have no idea, he just - oh, whoa."

"Whoa?" Thundercracker echoed. "What's the ... oh, that whoa."

Megatron had landed less than a hundred and fifty yards away from them. Water poured out of every gap in his plating, and the ground around his feet had already churned into thick black mud. Several Autobots had warily surrounded him and were feinting in at the massive mech.

Steam curled off of the Decepticon leader's body, winding around his legs in heated, twisting columns of vapor. Right fist clenched into a hammer of rage, he smashed Sideswipe into the air with a ferocious uppercut, and the Autobot sailed through the air before crashing head-first into a boulder. The red mech convulsed twice, his heels drumming up splotches of mud before he went deathly still, slumping off to one side.

Snarling, Sunstreaker flung himself on Megatron's back. His arm locked around the Decepticon leader's throat as yellow fingers clawed at the grey mech's shoulders and sliced off deep curlicues of torn metal. Immediately, Megatron snapped himself around, swiveling on his hips, and grabbed Sunstreaker, his palm engulfing the top of the Autobot's helmet as he wrenched the mech off of his back. Sunstreaker's hands and heels drew long lines of sparks as the two metal bodies scraped against each other.

Holding him at arm's length, Megatron let the mech dangle there for a second, watching with cold interest as Sunstreaker's hands clenched and fumbled at his massive forearm. Then, with an ugly, calculating smile, the Decepticon brought his free arm up, centering Sunstreaker's chest dead center in the barrel of his fusion cannon. His fingers tightened as the Autobot struck out; the yellow mech's feet slammed deep dents into Megatron's shin.

A foaming jet of superheated water flung itself out of Megatron's weapon. It struck Sunstreaker with such force that it caused the Decepticon leader to lose his vice-grip on his victim; the Autobot went flailing back across the clearing and cracked into the ground, tumbling over and over until he came to rest near his brother. Megatron shook out his hand with a baleful glare. It betrayed the fact that he'd fully expected Sunstreaker's head and torso to be vaporized, not just pressure washed.

Brawn took that opportunity to plunge forward, slamming his shoulder in a linebacker's tackle into Megatron's knee joint. The massive mech didn't move even an inch. Annoyed, Megatron only glanced down at the clinging, punching Autobot before he casually flipped the edge of his toe underneath the green mech's flank.

A moment later, Brawn was sailing through the air, propelled by the sort of dismissive kick that mailmen gave tiny, yapping dogs.

Sideswipe and Sunstreaker had shaken themselves to their feet. They stood side by side; the red mech had one hand pressed to his flank. Sunstreaker turned and spit out a mouthful of blue-green fluid, then slowly wiped his lips clean with the back of his hand. Silently intent, the twins watched Megatron, warm air slipping out of their intakes. It turned to mist, drifting slowly upward as the two robots eyed the Decepticon leader.

Megatron surveyed them in turn, simmering with rage. The barrel of the fusion cannon sizzled as water droplets danced along its length and rolled off the lip of the weapon and pattered against the leaves of the crushed vegetation around him.

These two could do nothing, the Decepticon knew. Actually, all of the Autobots slinking around him like cowardly turbo-foxes waiting for scraps could do nothing to him. Not even if the whole craven lot of them managed to dredge up enough courage between them to charge. He doubted they would. Who, the yellow spy? Or the old red braggart who was hauling Brawn to his feet? No, none of them. Not the black one, the orange one, or the green, barrel chested one. Oh, yes, here and there they might get in a lucky blow, but hurt him? Not really. Destroy him? Laughable.

Black fingers knotted into a fist again. The fusion cannon gargled and gurgled. Immediately, his targeting systems lined out a damage reminder in the corner of his optic, the coded system specifications glowing red as they looped past. Both the deuterium and the tritium gas chambers entwined within had been breached; tiny hairline fractures spiraled within the chambers. What hadn't escaped was no longer enough to be compressed within the cannon's series of snap-valves for the explosion. All the weapon was able to do was strobe x-rays back and forth inside the charging area of the reaction chamber; the remaining sludge within slurped and boiled like a mudpot.

Ironhide's optics narrowed.

"All we want is Prowl, Bucket-Head."

The Decepticon leader parried the old mech's demands with a poisonous smile. "That's all you wanted? Well, why didn't you say so?"

"Just did."

Megatron's hand swept out in a magnanimous gesture. "Go pry your tactician's body off the dam, then."

There was a darkly collective mutter from the Autobots. Someone offered to pry Megatron's head loose from his shoulders with a rusty screwdriver. Someone else said they'd rather be doing it with their bare hands.

Ironhide chuckled at Megatron and rocked slowly back on his heels. "Workin' on it. Hey, figure since you've offered us advice, be a right polite thing for me to do the same. Might as well yell 'retreat' right now. Save you some time later."

"I never retreat."

"Huh. Could've fooled all of us."

Megatron flexed his fingers into the shape of Ironhide's throat. His knees bent, the gears in his legs creaking and clicking as he brooded down, nesting into his fury as he pinpointed where his fist would strike the old robot.

One hit would flatten the ancient mech to the ground. After that, he'd lift a foot, and slowly allow his weight to crush down, feeling the pressure change as the helm changed shape and flattened. It was something Megatron had always reveled in; the creak of a jaw twisting on itself, overwhelmed by weight, the death-rattle as intakes closed off, and finally, the pop of an optic as the glass warped and flew across the ground.

It was a delicious moment, and one he'd savor right now to the fullest extent.

With a bellow that shattered off the surrounding mechs, the Decepticon swung his arm back and lunged.

Highbeams flashed, accompanied by the answering challenge of a massive engine as the Autobots in front of Megatron fanned out in a controlled scatter.

Prime's blunt-nosed automotive mode had hurtled over the edge of the ravine, executing a jump more often relayed in cheesy car movies by tiny scale models and thin wires. As he hit the ground, his huge front tires smashed down nearly flat under the weight, deep tread bulging like the veins of a flexing bodybuilder. Prime's rear axle bounced off on the ground, lightened by a lack of trailer, but he was completely in control of himself, spraying crushed grass and loam behind him as he charged forward. The front grille of the truck aligned on the grey form of Megatron towering over the surrounding Autobots. Headlights brightened, then the inset beam narrowed into glowing slits, exhaust billowing out of the twin stacks on either side of the cab.

Gleaming chrome reflected a hundred different reflective views of the two robots closest to his path; one kneeling, the other with her hand outstretched. Thundercracker stared up into a panorama of churning tires and immense truck. He immediately decided not to bother with any extra help from Dart about getting to his feet. Instead, the jet-mech scrabbled on the ground, flailing like a hamster on a greasy exercise wheel before he stuffed his legs under himself and managed to claw his way into the air. He wobbled over the low pines as his engines listed him back and forth like a ship helmed by a drunk captain.

"Get out of here!" he yelled at Dart.

Overwhelmed by sheer noise and fury, Dart's fingers were still outstretched to help up a mech that was no longer there. Instead, she was now staring up into the flare of the oncoming truck's lights. The blue glass of her eyes was as frozen as her stance.

Prime's horn blasted a warning.

Sound tore towards the girl and bounced off the service towers of the concrete structure behind her. It assaulted her audios and swept away her awe at the hurtling wall of steel and chrome.Sense took over where sensors had failed, and Dart did what any other intelligent, sensible being would have done under the circumstances.

Whirling in a blossom of dirt, the courier bolted past the truck, so close that his mirror nearly clipped her side as she hightailed it for the edge of the dam. Prime's horn echoed again, muted by her speed, but she didn't even look back as she frantically hurtled over the edge of the sharp embankment. Her knees buckled under the weight of her body as she landed hard on the slope. Immediately, she tossed her head back and drove heels down, fighting in an attempt to keep from flying head over heels. Somehow, she managed to keep her balance, leaping awkwardly as she slid downwards in a spray of soil and rumbling stone.

Gravity dragged her down the incline. It then shoved her into the scattered trees and brambles on the bottom with all of the leggy, graceless, flailing panic of a mule on a water slide as the boom of metal on metal echoed down from above.

Crouched in the brush, she flattened against the rough rock of the carved back wall. The weight of her body pressed water from the thick moss layering the stone. It dripped down the curve of her spoiler and down her back, trickling down to the small of her back. Dart squirmed; the sensation on her plating was as unbearable and ticklish as a hard sweat. She started to twist to wipe off the moisture with the back of her hand, but went instantly still as attention was abruptly riveted by a rattling cascade of pebbles and soil rolling down the path she'd bounded up earlier.

At first the courier wondered if it was a rabbit or an animal panicked by the heated battle above, one that had wisely decided like her that it was better to take chances of breaking its neck on the steep terrain rather than be blown up or stomped on.

A flash of silver metal was followed by a very familiar smell, bringing with it scent-induced memories of dripping water and Doublemint gum.

Hound and Bluestreak were hurriedly picking their way down the cliff, following the awkward, zig-zagging angles between the twisted, scraggly trees and the slick, weed-draped shelves of stone. The outcropping of decaying concrete shielded them from the observation of those fighting above.

Worried, Dart watched the scout lean back on his heels to keep himself steady in his decent to the base of Glines. Hopefully, no one would spot her where she hid- she was on the other side of the area they were coming down into. Biting her lip, she eyed the escape routes, and realized with a sinking feeling that most of the ones she could probably scale up quickly were on the side where they were coming down. Great. I avoid getting hit by a semi, but stand a good chance of getting shot again, instead. Okay, I need to start thinking faster and running slower... or something.

It was quickly obvious that the green Autobot was familiar with negotiating rough terrain, however, his companion was having problems. The gunner slid to his knees at least twice, leaving long ruts behind him in the dirt. Even though he hopped and dropped like a silver fish bobber, the rifle in his hands remained steady and perfectly level, the barrel pointing out to cover a cone of area in front of Hound and himself.

Scraggly plants slapped against the Autobot's shins, leaving rusty smears of spores on metal as they finally achieved the rocky base. Dart got a sharp whiff of crushed fern; it smelled like a bag of licorice left on a car seat in the hot sun.

"What's the best point to take for you to cover, Blue?" Hound asked, his comm-link hissing with static.

"Are you going to get to him from the water?"

"Yeah, that's probably the quickest route. I could get over those rocks fast but you guys would have some problems..."

"That works. I can cover all of you guys and the top of the dam, I mean, it's not a problem, clear shot no matter what it is, would rather shoot up into the open though, not that I'm not good enough to shoot in the brush but it's clear so far and hopefully it will stay that way–"

"Don't you dare take a chance of a stray shot angling near that dam until I see exactly what is going on from ground level," Grapple interceded, quickly chopping the sails out of Bluestreak's ramble.

"Calm down," Ratchet grumbled as he heaved his leg over the concrete retaining wall and followed down after the orange mech. "The only stray thing hitting that dam might be you if you don't look where you're doing on this hill."

Hound chuckled. "Don't worry. I don't think any of us want to take a chance on hitting Prowl or collapsing this dam. One second, we're at the lake. My scans say the deepest part of the area is right in front of us. I'm going to see what's the easiest way for you guys to get in, and make sure there's no sharks, Decepticon or otherwise."

"Have fun swimming," Bluestreak interjected, switching to a private frequency to tease his friend.

"Swimming? Wait, who said anything about swimming?"

"Well, how else are you going to get there?"

"Hmm. I was going to ask if I could borrow your surfboard," Hound laughed as he slipped into the foam-encrusted water, using his the tips of his feet to feel the way before him. Slick with algae, the river rock underneath him shifted treacherously, and he spread his hands to the side for balance.

Bluestreak shook his head, flashing a sheepish gaze out from under the planes of his chevron as he eyed the air above the dam before quickly scanning over the spot where Ratchet and Grapple were inching downward.

"What is it going to take for me to get you to never mention that ever again?"

"Oh, way more than you have, trust me," Hound replied, continuing to wade forward. "All right. I'm heading out. Got my back?"

"Yeah... Hound?"

"What?"

"Do -do you think he's still alive? Prowl, I mean."

Hound continued forward, the water splashing up over his hips as he made his way forward, easing himself into the depths of the lake. His foot left the bottom of the bed for a moment, and he kicked, easily sending himself forward, swimming easily and naturally through the water. Briefly, he frowned, but shook the expression off and replaced it with his typical expression; an easy, hopeful smile.

"Sure. Prowl's tough."

"But... but, he's not answering me. I keep trying to call him, and he's not answering, Hound. I mean, what if he's... I mean, we've gotten this far, and he's dead on that dam? I mean, what if, not that he's dead, because we don't know he's dead, but what if he is, what do we do, what are we going to do?"

"Bluestreak?"

The gunner hesitated. "Yeah?"

"I'm going to need that surfboard after all. You don't happen to have it handy, do you?"

"Uh. No."

"Darn. Guess I'll have to continue to swim it. Keep an eye on the air; there's nothing in the water reading anything, but if the Decepticons see me or the others getting close, they might decide it's worth a last-ditch cluster bomb to kill a whole bunch of birds with a big concrete wall."

"I've got it covered."

Grapple and Ratchet soon reached the gunner's sideBluestreak was shifting his weight from one foot to the other, rifle sweeping the sky over and over. Grapple eyed the scummy edge of the water with obvious distaste. Ratchet, however, had already started to wade out into it. His gaze slipped around the scout in the distance, now standing beside Prowl, and concentrated on the mangled form of the tactician hanging off the dam. The medic lowered his head, fury spilling out from under the red slash of his chevron.

"Hound? Any traps, or are we clear to come in?"

"None. You're clear. I've scanned and double checked the whole area just to make sure. But... I think you guys need to get over here, fast. Just follow the path I came in on - the rocks are pretty stable, and it's the least amount of swimming."

"Right. We're on our way."

"This structure is worse than I thought," Grapple groaned as he splashed in next to Ratchet. Cold water seeped into his knee joints, and he fretted at it with his hand. The last thing he needed was silt in there; he already had enough problems with his systems not liking the grit Earth deposited within the gaps of his plating at every opportunity. "I've been taking multiple readings and I'm afraid-"

Ratchet lifted his hand and shoved it between them, palm flat. "Stop. Stop right there talking about it, and stop taking readings on it, already."

"I thought that was my job."

"It is. But quit being a pessimist."

"Goodness, I hope you're not comparing me to Red Alert."

"No. I said to quit being a pessimist, not a neurotic mass of circuitry."

The architect made a face as Ratchet's splashing sent a sheet of water up and over his chest. "Well, it's a structure in bad need of repairs. I wish we could have gotten Hoist to come down here; I can tell you how it was built and how that relates to the general deterioration it now has, but..."

"True. So, when we're done, how about you and I go chat to the Decepticons about shooting our damn engineer?"

Grapple actually managed a smile. "If I thought it would do any good, I would gladly go with you to do so. I think we'd be speaking because of different reasons, though."

"Damn straight we would. Do you know how long it's going to take me on his repairs?"

"Unfortunately, I feel I have at least a good idea. For the record, I would like to state that I warned him about engaging in close combat."

"Warn him better next time," Ratchet grunted as he kicked off the bottom and started to swim.


Pressure.

Prowl could feel it on his shoulders. He struggled dully against the hands on him, listless and exhausted. He vaguely remembered that Prime had been there, or at least he thought he remembered that. Perhaps it was just something his mind had made up to help him accept the fact that he was deactivating, that the Decepticons were pinning him back up against the cold curve of concrete, pressing his injuries into the rust and the dirt, and that at any moment, his head would finally leave his shoulders.

The steady roar of the water pouring from the dam cut through his audios. Or maybe it wasn't that at all, but Megatron's mace, heavily thumping apart the air. He attempted to crack the shutter-plates over his optics, but the sliver of blue lens only revealed a world spinning with shadow, and then garish with bright and unnatural colors of orange, white, and red.

Was he moving? Flying? Was that sound of water or mace actually the snap of helicopter blades, slicing apart the air as they lifted him and pinned him to a dam? Wait, no, that had already happened, and that blur came from his own sensors, trying to compensate for so much damage.

Fingers fumbled at his wrist, jarring the naked strut that jabbed out of his back.

"Prowl? Come on, say something already. I've been here four minutes, the least you could do was answer me. Prowl?"

"R-Ratchet?"

"About time you woke up. I was starting to think you were faking because you didn't want to come back from your nice vacation with this fantastic view..." the medic grumped, but his voice was at odds with his wide, relieved smile.

"D-Decepticons?"

"Running with their tails between their legs," Hound supplied with a wry grin, carefully supporting the wounded strut gently on his palm.

"They... they've scattered, then?"

"Yep. Screaming out 'retreat,' as usual," Ratchet chuckled. "Hold still there. Grapple's almost done cutting you down."

Prowl barely had strength to nod. His words slowly picked through the choking pauses where he had to clear out the fluid pooling in the back of his throat. "Probably a good... idea. I'm amazed... that this dam... has held as long as it has. I think someone needs... to report its instability... I've had first hand experience, now. I'll volunteer to take my findings to the state..."

Ratchet looked up at him. "Wait, was that a joke?"

"Was it humorous? Wasn't meant... to be."

"Hmmph. Good, because for a minute there, I thought for sure they'd gotten Bombshell to stick a controller into your processor."

"No... of course not."

"Good. I was going to start grumbling about how much of a pain in the 'pipes it was going to be to get it out. I really want a break from med-bay."

"I am truly sorry for the inconvenience," Prowl apologized as his left wrist fell free. His arm slapped limply against the concrete wall behind him.

"Wonderful," the medic replied with a twitch of his upper lip. Carefully, he shifted his hands under Prowl's arms. "Hound, get under him, take some of the weight off of that last restraint, will you? I don't know if the left rotator in his shoulder can handle any more stress before it snaps, and I don't want to repair one more thing."

"Already there."

"Good job."

"This dam is in terrible shape," Grapple noted aloud as his hand traced a delicate crack in the straining concrete. Grey powder coated his fingertips. The crane arm on his back twitched as if what he wanted to be doing was repairing the damage. "Not surprising for a structure built in nineteen twenty seven and badly maintained. It's most definitely a good thing that it is scheduled for removal."

"As long as it holds until we get him off of it, I don't care what happens to it after."

"It should."

"Should?" Ratchet growled as he whipped around his head so fast to look at the architect that Hound was worried the medic would pop a relay cable in his neck. "Yes or no, give me a straight answer. I don't feel like treading more water on top of everything else today."

The orange mech flattened his palm slowly on the concrete. His fingertips spread, and he rubbed gentle circles on the rough material, as if he was pulling out the knowledge of the structure itself with the touch of his hand. "Yes. But I suggest we be quick about it. I'll need to continue to reinforce the wall as I pull out the restraint pins."

"Oh, even more wonderful."

On the shoreline, Bluestreak watched the huddle of Autobots, working on releasing Prowl, rifle still on point up towards the top of the dam. He'd nearly fired as the last of the jets went streaking overhead, leaving trails of greasy smoke across the damp grey sky. The sound of their engines unnerved him, they had ever since the Bridgeway's collapse. He fidgeted, his doors swinging back and forth, betraying his silent agitation as his finger squeezed and released the trigger guard of his weapon.

The rattle off to the side of him was close and unexpected. Instantly, he swung around to see the courier scrabbling up the side of the hill. Bluestreak's rifle stock rested against his shoulder as he steadied the weapon in his hands, watching as the Decepticon frantically bounded up one slick shelf of slick rock to the other. He focused his targeting scope on the point just underneath the middle of her spoiler and waited for her to catch the top of the slope. Experience had taught him that was exactly where someone hesitated when climbing, and that often would be the only chance you had at a clear shot. She wouldn't escape this time and blithely lead someone else that he cared about into a trap.

"Bluestreak... hold your fire."

Startled by the unexpected transmission, the gunner's rifle jumped in his hands just as the girl scrambled over the edge of the concrete retaining wall.

"Prowl?"

"They're retreating. Our priority is... safety of the humans. Don't want... to bring them back to bomb the dam. Flooding."

"Yes sir. Understood."

Bluestreak wasn't surprised when the courier paused briefly at the top of the rise, one foot lifted off the ground as if she was unsure where to place it down. However, the gunner did find himself startled when she turned her head and glanced over her shoulder back the way she had come instead of the way she was going to run. Her gaze flicked down over the path she had taken up the hill. Briefly, their optics met.

Angrily, he flared his doors and lowered his head, glaring at her before he slowly let his rifle slide down in his hands and pointedly looked away, back to where Prowl was being gently peeled away from the concrete.

The strip of metal across the girl's shoulders quirked slightly she followed Bluestreak's view to where the tactician leaned heavily against Hound and Ratchet. Then, it sagged against her back as she hurriedly eyed the woods below.

When the gunner bothered to scan up again, the Decepticon was gone, replaced by the deep rumble of Prime's idling engine. Ironhide and Jazz were there as well, framing the Autobot leader. Prime had an interesting dent in his bumper; suspiciously, it appeared to be shaped like Megatron's skidplate.

"How's he doing?"

"Alive, and stable at the moment," Ratchet called back. "But we could use a hand getting him out of here."

Jazz's grin was as wide as his visor as he slapped Ironhide on the back. "Let's go find us an elevator. Unless you have a parachute handy?"


Fifty miles away, there was nothing left of the rain forest. Ground exposed by quick and dirty logging was at the mercy of the wind and the rain, which had eroded big pits into the footing that were red and slippery with bands of porous clay. The grass tufts poking up through the poor soil were dead and brown. Remnants of the large trees that had once towered here remained merely as splintered stumps. Twined into the sparse undergrowth was rusting tread of a bulldozer, shed off of a broken truck like a plated, tattered snake-skin.

Standing here, surrounded by the chemical laden scents of the wounded, Dart shifted her weight from one foot to the other and tried to clear her nose. The trees on the edges of the clearing were grey skeletons, twisting bent spines towards the equally grey sky above.

The mood of the Decepticons that had regrouped in the cut seemed equally matched with the hard-logged desolation of the landscape. Most of them sported some sort of injury. Huddled in a circle, the Constructicons supported Mixmaster between them, the green bulk of their bodies facing outward towards any incoming danger like a herd of oxen as they grumbled and muttered to themselves.

Starscream was ranting and raving about nothing and everything, pacing in circles while Megatron appeared to be about three seconds from bending the Air Commander in half and shoving his head up his afterburners.

"That sucked," Thundercracker muttered.

"No kidding," Frenzy echoed, holding his hand to his head. His cracked visor peeked out from between his fingers, and the small robot groaned at the multiple, fractured images drilling into his head.

"Second that," Swindle replied, rubbing at the deep dent in his side.

"Third," Dead End offered in a morose chorus.

"What happened, anyway?" Thundercracker said peeling a long tatter of metal off of the edge of his damaged wing. He held it between his thumb and forefinger before he flicked it away.

"I'll tell you what happened," Skywarp sputtered at Thundercracker as his pale face twisted into a rictus-mask of fury. Wings rattling, the mech's hands balled into fists as he stalked forward towards his fellow jet.

Rumble glanced up at the flurry of motion, eyed Frenzy, then shrugged at him before he went back to picking out slivers of metal from the crease in his shoulder. Fuel welled; the small Decepticon groaned and stuck his finger under a crisped wire, wrenching it free. On Soundwave's forearm, Laserbeak clacked his serrated beak and rattled his wings as if he was the reflection of the silent blue mech's inner thoughts. The bird dipped his head and rubbed it against his side, then went back to glaring at everyone nearby, optics burnished with frustration.

Dart found herself shifting from foot to foot, sniffing the air and casting glances at the woods behind them. She more than half expected to hear the Autobots driving in, gunning their engines for another assault.

Exhausted, and recognizing that it was going to be a long run back to the base, she forced herself to try and relax, to take advantage of this brief breather and cool down her systems. Slowly, she cocked her toe and eased her weight over her right foot, stretching her ankle until the joint popped.

Her nose itched, and she brought up her fingers to scratch the spot.

A sharp, gasoline-familiar scent shoved past her intakes. Reflexively, she sidestepped to the left again and glanced nervously around before she realized that the odor was caused by the fact her nose was inches from the thin gash in her forearm. Drawn towards the smell, she angled her jaw and sniffed along the torn edges of the metal.

It was fuel. Dart's nose traced the greasy latticework of trails nearly to her elbow, patterned by speed. Hovering over the wound again, her sensors attempted to explain to her the severity of the damage through scent. Gingerly, she nosed at the ripped plating. Oozing dampness caught her attention; absentmindedly, she mouthed it off to get a better view of the cut.

Deep, but apparently superficial. Dart flexed her hand, touched her thumb to each fingertip at a time. Metal clicked softly; her index joint was hesitant to bend at first, but then it smoothed out and everything seemed to work just fine. Thank goodness. At least she wouldn't have to hear about how she was wasting more valuable time in the repair bay...

A quick glance towards Starscream followed this thought, but he was now merely kicking around a tree stump, swearing under his breath. Damn the Autobots, damn them all, once again, they'd had a chance to get the upper hand, but no, all this for pomp and a stupid idiotic waste of time. They should have just killed him back at base and tossed his head in the ocean.

Well, at least they were gone, not hunting down each and every Decepticon, bent on revenge.

No, his friends just wanted to get him out of there safely. They came back for him... I'm glad, he didn't-

A lavender hand slapped down hard into the center of her chest. Caught off guard, Dart was knocked off balance; she threw up both hands with a high-pitched yelp that echoed around the brooding pillars of the wounded. Someone laughed, and there was a note of eager delight in the sound; apparently, once again, it was funny when someone was hurting and it wasn't them.

"This thing!" Skywarp snarled, glaring at Thundercracker. "Her."

Immediately, Dart glanced around and found herself half expecting for some stupid reason that some other female Decepticon would waltz her way out of the group. Oh, wait, no... Her. Right.

Skywarp's finger jabbed her in the chest again. Carefully, she backed up a few more steps, ducking away from his reach.

"Don't even deny it," he growled.

"Deny what?"

"Deny what?" he simpered girlishly back, shifting his weight over his hip and flicking his fingertips into her face. "You nearly got me killed, you moron. Wait, you nearly got us all killed, now that I think about it."

Dart managed not to ask if she needed to run and find him his purse in case he wanted to go out later on tonight. Wow. I hope I never sound like that, being a girl. Slowly, she dropped her hands down to the panniers on her hips, resting her palms on the edge, her thumb apprehensively clicking the magnetic lock open and shut.

"Huh?"

"You led the Autobots right back to us. You might want to think about something called evasive maneuvers!"

"I was running away," she offered. "I thought that was being pretty evasive."

Thundercracker looked from one black mech to the other, and then he shook his head, frowning. "Yeah. Dragging old Prowly out here and stapling him right to the middle of the dam had nothing to do with them finding us, 'Warp. Those Autobots never figure that sort of thing out all on their own, no way."

Skywarp glowered at Thundercracker. The blue Decepticon merely shrugged, his forefinger scratching listlessly at a scorch mark on his arm.

"Come on, it's the truth," he said after a moment.

"Look, I don't care what the truth is. What it comes down to is what she did is not how things work around here. You know, if we screw up we just don't get to say, 'oh, it's over now, doesn't matter, ha ha'."

Dart eased her weight from one foot to the other. Thundercracker shook his head and shrugged slightly. The courier continued to hesitate, and then looked up at Skywarp. Her optics met the taller mech's, then immediately slid away and focused on the grey line of clouds shrouding the hills. "What do you want me to say?"

There was a brief moment as the dark mech rooted around in his processor for a response. He threw one arm over the other, crossing them over the shattered glass of his cockpit. There was the slow, deliberate creak of metal as one of his wing-flaps rocked back and forth. Red optics narrowed as he glared at her, working his jaws from side to side.

"'Sorry I ruined the execution' might be a real good start," he threatened.

Dart scuffed her toe into the ground, digging a hole in the dirt. Robot or human, it didn't matter; it was hard to say you were sorry for something that you honestly didn't feel that sorry about. Her gaze wandered back around and finally settled on the distant tree line. There, the pines rustled, branches feathering softly in the rising wind. Ravage sat with his back to the Decepticons, ears pricked to the green woods. A jay fluttered over the cat's head, hopping stiff-legged from stripped branch to branch as it cawed down curses at the robots who'd dared to invade his territory.

The courier's spoiler flattened down, one incremental, cautious click at a time. All she wanted right now was to go home; well, back to that submerged spacecraft and find a quiet place to get out of the way for a while, tucked away in the corner. Right now, she didn't even care if it was in that filthy, watery storage room. Hey, at least no one else would bother following her down there.

She let a sigh bubble out of the gap between her lips. Oh well, hopefully they'd pump out the worst of the water sometime.

Skywarp's shadow loomed and dragged her attention back to him.

"Say it," he encouraged her in the way that normally proceeded a thug sliding on a pair of brass knuckles, eager to drive his point straight into someone's face and knock out a few teeth on the way in. Leaning forward, he grinned as he exhaled a large gust of air from his cooling systems.

It reeked of overheated metal and rubber. Dart brought up her hand automatically to her nose and made a jerky, pawing motion, as if she was trying to wipe his smell out of her olfactory sensors; scrub it out with force. The side of her wrist scraped against her cheek.

"Okay," she mumbled finally. "I ruined it, if that's what you want to hear. There. Are we done now?"

"Not hardly," he insisted, grinning down at her.

Her jaws clamped tight as her hand dropped back to her side.

"You know, I didn't think so, but I couldn't help but hope."

Immediately, the grin glowered away.

"You making fun of me?"

"Y- no."

Thundercracker's cough grated in the background. She glanced over, and then realized that he had his knuckles pressed against his throat and there was an uncomfortable look on his face; apparently, he'd damaged his vocalizer in the battle. Dart glanced up and over at him. Maybe if she just politely backed off, he'd offer some assistance... no, he honestly seemed to have focused completely on the discussion happening not too far off between Starscream and Megatron. Okay, it was a yelling match, but that often seemed to be their idea of a discussion.

She pawed at the ground with her toe. Dirt scuffed aside, driven by restless motion.

"You know, there's nothing more to really talk about. They're gone. We're going. It's done."

"Oh no, that's not how things work around here."

Dart groaned softly to herself. Great. Here it comes.

"You already said that once. I remember it from the first time."

Tight-lipped, she sidestepped warily to the left to skirt around him, ankles crossing over one another in a restless jig of motion and nervous tension.

Skywarp shifted his weight over his heels and put his fingers up to his mouth as if he was stifling a yawn of boredom. The slit of his left optic watched her until she was nearly past him, and then he turned abruptly into her path. The leading edge of his wing clashed against her wounded shoulder.

Dart yelped and ducked aside. Her fingers came up to clamp against the ragged tear, protecting it from another hit. Fuel welled up between her fingers.

"Heh. Whoops. But hey, you're right. It's over now, we can move on. Sure, you bet."

"Yeah. Me with my running and you with your teleporting, sounds good," Dart gritted. Slowly, she lifted her hand away from her shoulder and glanced down at the smear of greasy shine clinging to her fingers before she quickly wiped it on the dust-streaked grey metal of her thigh.

The jet-mech's mouth wrenched itself into an even uglier expression, if that was possible. "What are you implying.?" he snapped.

Dart honestly hadn't thought to imply anything until that moment. To her, it had just been an offhanded comment, something to say to prove to him that she could ignore all the bullying he could dish out towards her. However, with his response came dawning realization. Wait a minute...

"They were here when I ran in from my patrol," she said slowly. "They were already here and fighting when I got back. So I couldn't have led them here - they already knew where you guys were."

The side of Skywarp's face twitched back into a sneer. "Don't even think what you're thinking. This was your fault. Just because they were here first means nothing, you understand me? It's all your fault."

"That's not my fault," she replied, her voice low as she rushed through her words. "It has nothing to do with me, but you're trying to make it have something to do with me. I mean, I'll take the blame for dodging under your arm, that was totally my fault, I didn't see you there. I was just trying to avoid getting a bullet to the head or worse."

"Can't blame her there," Thundercracker agreed. Apparently he was somehow managing to listen to both conversations at once.

"Shut up, 'Cracker. So, what, it's okay for her to dodge a bullet if it leads to me being punched in the face?"

Thundercracker shrugged. "Hey, I'm sure there's more than a few of us who've done it. Even accidentally, like Dart there, of course." His remaining wing flicked lazily back as he turned his attention back onto Starscream and Megatron.

"I didn't mean it that way. All I meant was that the Autobots here wasn't my fault," Dart replied cautiously, unsure what else to say. "Look, I've apologized, okay? Just leave me alone."

Optics narrowed. "Why, what are you going to do if I don't? Run away?"

The black mech thrust his palm towards her, ready to shove her off her feet, knock her back down.

"Don't touch me," she snapped. Her foot lifted on its own accord. Support rods in her knee flexed and chattered with tension.

Skywarp eyed her leg. He flinched back a step, remembering just how it felt to have her kick out the side of your knee. Embarrassed by his reaction and furious that she was the one who had caused it, this skinny, useless, ground bound mechanism, he snapped his wings forward and lunged toward her with an angry, challenging grunt.

Instantly, Dart countered his driving motion with a rumble curling out of her throat. It sounded as if the engine of her alt-mode was being given slow gas to raise the rotations per minute to a rattling over-idle. She backed up a step, stiff-legged, spoiler bristling over her shoulders.

Skywarp bullied past her warning, and as his fingertips grazed the sharp-edged sigil on her chest, Dart instantly swung her shoulders and slapped his hand away as hard as she possibly could.

"I said, don't."

Skywarp shook his hand out and glowered. Someone laughed again, probably the same someone who'd laughed at her yelp earlier. Dart felt herself thinking an ugly little thought that she wished that they were in her position, because she would have been more than willing to point and laugh at them instead. Jerk.

"You were the one who led them to us," Skywarp reiterated, as if he was pointing out to a small child that round pegs didn't go into square holes, no matter how much you pounded on them with a plastic hammer. "And this time, even Screamer can't cover up for your incompetence. You understand me, girly?"

Cornered by words and pinned down by the vicious intent of his body language, Dart felt herself go from apologetic to irate in the sort of quarter-mile numbers her Trans-Am alt mode would have appreciated. The girl narrowed her optics into slits of sharp blue. She'd had enough of the situation, every last bit of it, starting with the fact that Skywarp was a jackass, continuing on with someone out there thought it was really funny to watch her get berated, and then came down to the checkmate, which was that it didn't matter what she thought anymore. What was she going to do about it? Complain to Megatron? Ha ha. She'd get right on that and then scrape that mass of wires and pipes that now passed for her guts out of the floor boards.

"God, Skywarp, I'm not entirely stupid," she snapped, tossing her head as she weaved back and forth from foot to foot, jittering in place; motion and movement attempting to physically drive away her frustration. It failed miserably, and Dart's brain gathered up reins of resentment and smashed them against every intelligent thought the courier might have had about shutting her mouth, calling it quits, and trotting away. "I totally understand. You're covering up for the fact you dropped Sideswipe in the riv-"

There was enraged shriek of a jet engine powering up to full throttle.


Rainwater drooled from the limbs of the pines as if it was a dog on a hot day, lying in the middle of the road.

Crab-grass blades magnified this close had serrated edges, slim green steak knives made out of cellulose and chlorophyll. A drop of water trickled slowly down from the tip. A crane fly curled itself up out of the thatch, and through the transparent shimmer of its wings, Dart could see dark grey sky.

Her chin hurt horribly. When she shifted her head slightly, her audios shrieked with feedback and overload. Dazed, she walked her hand to her jaw and realized by touch that it was obviously askew; a jolt of pain confirmed the damage.

A shadow loomed over her. She flinched before realizing that it was red optics gleaming out of a vaguely robot shaped black hole in the tilting horizon.

"Are you on-line?"

Dart hesitated, not completely sure before she nodded vaguely in what she thought was an upward direction.

"Ah. Good. Can you stand?"

Wing-flaps flicking, Starscream's voice echoed his body's impatience.

Right. Moving. Electronic relays re-booted her last directive, the snap of impulse and thought combining to drive her forward. For a frightening second, Dart lost control of her body and thrashed about on the ground, legs churning the air. Systems insisted that she move, keep running, remember that the safest place to be was on her feet, but it took her a few times to calibrate them before she was able to direct her limbs enough to roll onto her hip. Arms outstretched, palms flat on the wet ground; she sat and panted. Three long draws of air later, she became a flurry of metal and scattered grass, heaved herself back on her feet. The tattletale spoiler muttered out an angry complaint about being wedged underneath her weight for an extended amount of time.

"Anything you'd like to tell me about what happened?"

Dart thought long and hard about this question.

"Ow."

There, that summed it all up in one simple word. Which was good, because talking required that she open her mouth. Right at this moment the hinge of her jaw felt like she'd jammed a mechanical pencil between her teeth and tapped out the lead until it forced its way underneath a molar and broke off. Not that she'd ever done that before. Or ended up waiting in the nurse's office for two hours before they'd sent her home.

Well, not that she'd done it more than once. Really.

"Besides the obvious?" Starscream pressed.

"Not really, no," she mumbled back.

Starscream started to shrug, hissed in a breath, and instead, he lifted a browplate slightly at her response. On his left shoulder, a deep puncture wound sizzled blue sparks. A rivulet of black fuel wound down his arm and slunk to ground off the end of his fingertips. The wet, crushed grass smell of the clearing was drizzled thickly over with the odor of cordite and burning wires. Dart snorted and resisted the urge to press her face back into the ground to scrub out her intakes with the musky smell of dirt.

With a sigh that rattled his internal framework, the Air Commander shook his head.

Dart's hand came up to the back of her neck, and her fingers rubbed gingerly at a spot under the edge of her helm. Deciding not to chance any more words, she merely dropped her chin to her chest in a slow echo of a nod before she realized that moving her head hurt worse than speaking after all.

Starscream shifted his weight onto his left hip and sighed. "It's not broken, you know. Merely out of alignment. Shift."

Flinching her spoiler back, the courier started to crouch down in the flattened grass, fingers spread for balance.

"Oh, for the love of – not transform shift. Just move your blasted jaw."

Foolishly, Dart pushed herself back up and stood still, working her mouth slightly as if she was chewing the air. There was a sharp pop, and the courier crow-hopped as the hinge of her jaw slid where it belonged. She brought her hand up to the side of her face, rubbed at it with the ball of her thumb. There was a creak as her spoiler sagged down, the curved tips nearly flat with relief.

"Better, yes?" he asked.

"Yeah... thanks," she replied, turning her head from side to side. "Where– wait, everyone's gone?"

A soft grunt escaped him as he glanced around the area. "Yes. The orders were given to return to base. You do know, that by carrying you with me partway, I took a dangerous chance with Megatron. If it wasn't for the fact that he's too ashamed to face me over this entire fiasco, I have no doubt that he would have tossed off the comment to leave you behind again."

"Oh."

"Not that I would have," he said quickly, appearing thoughtful.

Dart shifted her weight onto her other foot as she offered up a blink of surprise that faded into a grateful nod. "Thanks. Really."

He nodded back, slowly. "What happened with Skywarp, Dart?"

"Uh... I'm not sure after that first punch."

"I meant before that."

The courier stiffened slightly and ducked her head. "Oh. Yeah, well, he tried to shove the blame for the Autobots showing up onto me, that's all. I didn't. I swear, I didn't, that's all, and then it just got out of hand, I guess. I know, I know... me and my death wish, right?"

She managed a rueful grin as she rubbed her jaw with the back of her hand.

Starscream shook his head. A wheezy chuckle escaped him and rattled the bent frame of his chest canopy. "For once? No. Although, running out in front of Prime wasn't exactly an amazing display of intelligence."

Dart couldn't help laughing, even though it hurt. "Running away from him was though. It should balance itself out, right?"

"Perhaps," he agreed. "Oh, yes, as for Skywarp, there was a, ah - discussion. He's to leave you alone from now on."

Dart glanced up, unsure, and trying to equate an emotion with his tone, but Starscream had already turned away from her and she knew that conversation was over. Maybe she'd get an answer later, but she wasn't expecting one.

"We need to get back to base," he informed her, glancing nervously at the horizon as he paced off a few steps. Under his heels, jet exhaust wavered, torching the wet grass into crisp black lines. Surging upwards, he lifted ungainly into the foggy air. Thrusters wisping and hissing off moisture with yellow heat, he listed to the left, then regained his balance, hovering.

"I can't carry you any farther," he said, pointing to his injured arm. "You'll have to run it."

Dart hesitated. Sore and exhausted, the prospect of trotting across the landscape and then diving into the freezing Pacific Ocean was daunting, to say the least. But, the fact that Starscream had stayed and waited for her, and... well, everything else?

"Well?"

"I can run it," she said, pulling herself upright as she laced her hands behind her back. "Back to base, right?"

"Yes. Let's go home," he said. A second later, he'd swept himself into the air, leaving behind only the echo of his transformation.

Watching as he disappeared into the haze, she hesitated, then shook her arms down to the fingertips and she stretched out, flexing down on one knee and then the other. Then, she redirected her weight forward, crouched down as if she was setting herself up for a sprint down a red cinder track. Dart's foot pressed into the wet earth, her calves tightened, and she drew a long, rattling pull of air down into her intakes, held it within her chest.

"Right," she said quietly again after a moment. Her words slipped out and curled along the heat of her cooling systems. In her shoulders, the rotators clicked and whirred as her fuel pump surged, spurred on by anticipation and electrical impulse. "Back to base."

Sullen and grey, the Pacific Northwest sky above finally gave into its promise of rain. The first drop spattered across the curve of her shoulder right before the second splashed into the bridge of her nose. Dart stood up, pausing to listen to the cool sound of the water as it chimed down across her plating. Then, with a laugh and a wry grin to herself, the courier broke into a trot before easing swiftly into a ground eating lope that carried her into the fir trees and out of sight.