Hound cringed as Autobot City shook from missile impacts and carefully knelt on the floor by the sparklings' playpen. After the Hate Plague incident, Ratchet and Hoist had experienced trouble getting the parts to replace his knee, leaving him barely mobile and unable to transform. If he couldn't fight, he'd figured the least he could do was watch the sparklings. But now three tear-streaked faces stared up at him, along with two sets of overly-wide optics and one overly-bright visor.
"Primus," he muttered, feeling almost like crying with them. "It's okay!"
Silverstreak and Kimi cowered in one of the pen's corners, hugging each other tight while Joyride clung to the edge. As Autobot City shook under the ferocity of the assault, they all shrieked, coolant running down their cheeks. Hound reached into the pen, stroking their backs, trying to calm them if only a little.
"Sounds worse than it is," he said, running a hand over Silverstreak's trembling doorwings.
"Da," Silverstreak cried. "Daaaaaa!"
Knowing their vocalizer programming was currently limited, Hound assumed Silverstreak was calling for his 'dad,' and that likely meant Jazz since he had been his carrier. "You'll be back with him before you know it," he promised Silverstreak.
Wide, wide blue optics stared up at him. "Daaaaa!"
Kimi's visor flashed as she hugged her brother. "Fa! Faaaaa!"
"Oh, boy." Hound rubbed her head, careful not to irritate her sensory horns. "Your father can't be here right now, either." Yet even as he said the words, he opened a comm. link to Jazz. ::Hound to Jazz. Do you read me?::
The whine of laser fire echoed through the link. ::I read ya. What's up?:: He sounded tense, jumpy.
::Your sparklings are getting increasingly upset. I'm beginning to think they need one of you here.:: Hound transferred his attention to Joyride, tracing her red chevron and then wiping the coolant from her grey cheeks.
::Slaggit . . . I know! I can feel how upset they are.:: A pause. ::Where are ya?::
::Medbay, in that reinforced closet.:: Hound grimaced as a thundering boom shook the fort. The sparklings whimpered.
Jazz cursed again. ::I'm comin'! Jazz out.::
Relieved, Hound smiled at the twins. "Your 'dad' is on his way."
"Boo?" Joyride asked.
Hound wasn't sure he wanted to know what 'boo' was supposed to mean. "Boo?"
Joyride smacked her hands together. "Boo!" She tilted her head, staring at him with wide optics.
You call 'Jack "Boom"? Hound thought, horrified. "He's just outside the door." He pointed to the closed closet door. "He's helping others, okay?"
Joyride seemed to ponder this, then chirped and nodded her head once. "Daaa?"
"Also helping others." Hound hoped he could keep them distracted until Jazz arrived.
However, Joyride suddenly grew stiff, her optics flaring brightly. She gripped the pen's edge brutally. "Booo!" she screamed. "Boooooo!" She burst into tears, wailing loudly.
Hound did not like what that portended. He picked her up and hugged her closely, rocking her and rubbing her back, but her tears didn't stop.
Ratchet raced through the halls, emergency repair kit in hand. Something was wrong with Wheeljack; he could feel it. The sensations he'd gotten over the bond had been odd at best, but there was no mistaking it: Wheeljack had done something dangerous.
He skidded into the command room just in time to see Wheeljack fall to the floor. Perceptor was already kneeling at his side, exclaiming something about Soundwave. Ratchet ignored it as his entire universe narrowed to Wheeljack's unconscious body.
"Primus!" He raced to his side, dropping his kit to the floor as he knelt opposite Perceptor. He pulled a scanner from his subspace and ran it over Wheeljack's head and chest. "Coding errors. A virus. Low energy. What did he do?"
"Saved us," Perceptor whispered.
Ratchet handed him a coding machine without acknowledging the comment. "Jack this straight into his central processor and start fixing that code. I'll work on the virus." How many emergencies had he had like this one? Millions? How many times had he been forced to do repairs and surgery on his bondmate?
But now it was different: it wasn't just that Ratchet would be crushed by grief and then die from the breaking of the bond. Joyride would be orphaned. And yet it was what he'd wanted. He'd gone out of his way to convince Wheeljack, he remembered.
"Us? Have a sparkling?" Wheeljack had laughed. "I can just see that! I'd blow it up. You'd throw wrenches at it. It'd cuss out adult mechs ten times its size and probably be scary enough to terrorize the twins."
"See?" Ratchet had smiled. "That's a good reason all by itself."
Ratchet pulled out the tube for an energon feed while the anti-viral machine synched with Wheeljack's systems and launched its program. "Live, slaggit!" He hooked the tube into the fuel line in Wheeljack's arm. I need you to live. We both do.
But it was worse than that, really. Perceptor could likely fix the code and stop Wheeljack from being permanently deactivated, but the virus might do lasting damage to his processor, memory banks, or systems. Live and be healthy! Ratchet thought, horrified.
"I have it." Perceptor typed in several lines of code, then unattached the machine. "Do you have the virus?"
Ratchet frowned, watching the file names flash across the tiny screen. "Not yet." Seventy-four percent of the files had been scanned. Seventy-five percent. Seventy-six. "Why hasn't it detected it yet?" Seventy-seven. Seventy-eight . . .
The screen flashed red: Virus detected. Damage threat: alpha. Quarantined.
"Primus." Ratchet couldn't be relieved until the virus had been destroyed. With a few typed commands, he initiated the cleaning sequence. "How did this happen?"
"Soundwave." Perceptor frowned. "By the looks of it, Wheeljack went into the system and purged Soundwave himself."
Ratchet stared at him in shock. A beep drew his attention to the screen's display, which was now green: Virus removed.
Wheeljack groaned, his optics slowly lighting. "Did I stop him in time?"
Unable to help himself, Ratchet leaned into his face. "Quick trying to be a fraggin' hero!"
However, Wheeljack simply chuckled.
Wheeljack sat propped up in his berth, relaxing in the quarters he shared with Ratchet. His bondmate sat on the floor, playing a game with Joyride, Kimi, and Silverstreak. As far as he could tell, the game involved matching color-coded patterns of numbers together, but having just awakened from recharge, he couldn't be too sure.
"I can tell you're Prowl's," Ratchet murmured as Kimi held up her completed puzzle. Silverstreak looked more like he was plotting something nefarious than concentrating on the game, but Joyride held up her finished datapad as well. "Good job!"
"This is going to blow your intimidating reputation to pieces," Wheeljack said.
Ratchet jumped faintly and glanced at him. "Sorry. I was so involved with them I didn't realize you were awake. How do you feel?"
"Fine. Normal, basically." Wheeljack smiled, momentarily awed by their long history together. They'd met when Ratchet had treated his injuries from a classroom experiment gone wrong. Millions of stellar cycles later, they were bonded and sparked . . .
And Ratchet was still putting him back together regularly.
"Ain't that the truth," Ratchet said, smirking.
"No cheating through the bond," Wheeljack said, much amused.
The door comm. buzzed, and Prowl and Jazz entered as soon as Ratchet triggered open the door for them.
"How're my favorite lil' sparklings?" Jazz asked, kneeling and swooping up Kimi and Silverstreak, who giggled and hugged him.
Prowl nodded to Ratchet. "Thank you for watching them. I know three are a lot at once."
"I plan to collect on it." Ratchet snickered.
A small smile bent up one corner of Prowl's mouth, but when Jazz stood up, Prowl's smile actually bloomed. Silverstreak held out his arms for Prowl, who took him and hugged him tightly. "Were Kimi and you well-behaved?" he asked softly. "Or did you plot evil strategies and cause trouble?"
"Evil strategies?" Wheeljack asked, wondering what he had missed.
Jazz was chuckling. "Oh, poor Hound an' Mirage. They still haven't gotten all that green paint off their floor."
Wheeljack decided he didn't want to know.
Once Prowl and Jazz left with their sparklings in tow, Ratchet picked up Joyride and joined Wheeljack on the berth.
"We really did make it," Wheeljack murmured as Joyride stretched across their laps.
"We did. I'm glad you wouldn't let us give up." Ratchet ran his hand down Joyride's back, urging her to take a nap.
Wheeljack sighed as he and Ratchet leaned against each other. "Now if we can just avoid harrowing 'Con attacks and hate plagues for a few orns . . ."
Ratchet snorted. "And if you can manage not to blow yourself or our sparkling up . . ."
". . . but then it just won't be life among the Autobots." Wheeljack laughed.
Postscript: I hope I never again have a story get snagged in the middle like this one did.
Thank you to pl2363 and Sslaxx for beta reading!
Thank you to the following for reviews: Shizuka Taiyou, Kaeda Akira, OrianPrime92, Sergeant Duck, Vigatus, and Dvana. I appreciate everyone's patience.