:: Denotes comms

vvvvvvvvvv Denotes scene breaks

ooooooooo Denotes breaks within a scene

~Chapter 19~

An angry roil of emotions was his first hint of trouble, followed by simultaneous comms.

::Ironhide, your assistance please. We need access to his core protocols and they are still locked up tight.:: That was Ratchet, barely holding back a snarl.

::He's at it again, 'Hide, and Ratchet is about 10,000 percent done.:: And Jazz was no doubt keeping the medic from ripping Barricade right back down to his component parts and starting fresh.

Not that Ironhide would blame him if he did. Swear to Primus... Ironhide grumbled and rolled optics and snapped through the bond for at least the tenth time since Ratchet had begun the deep repairs three hours ago.

Barricade, stop. Stop blocking the scanners, stop blocking the nanites, stop blocking the medic's command overrides. JUST. STOP.

Anger churned back at him, along with outrage and a snarl of defiance.

The Guardian stood firm, letting the emotions buffet around him then cutting through the turbulence with a sharp reminder. YOU asked for MY help. This is what needs to be done and you WILL cooperate or I'll come out there and hold you down myself!

Anger still simmered, along with stubborn refusal and open distrust aimed at the mechs trying to help him. Not safe, Guardian, NOT SAFE.

Ah. There was the crux of the current impasse. If Barricade did not feel safe, not even the Unmaker himself could bring those defenses down. He could feel Barricade's apprehension, defiance muted and replaced with a tight whine and a plea.

Ironhide responded with infinite patience, sending a wash of guarded/protected/safe through the bond. Feel the bond, Barricade, feel me. While you are under my protection, I will not allow anyone to hurt you.

Barricade mulled those words, assessing and weighing before finally responding. Guardian, your word, our bond, no harm?

Barricade's gaps in knowledge and cognition were strange and varied, but this he understood well enough. Ironhide vented a sigh and acknowledged. I promise, no harm, Barricade. The bond protects you. It will punish me if I betray your trust. My word, Barricade, Guardian to charge, you are SAFE.

Another long pause, with the bond clearly conveying Barricade's thoughts. Simple thoughts, simple terms. Ratchet had his work cut out for him.

Guardian would not lie, Guardian was bound to him...

Barricade plucked tentatively at the bond, the silver threads stretched off into darkness but at the other end lay the source, a steady solid strength, the Guardian's promise shining like a beacon.

Guardian, I will cooperate.

Ironhide's mouthplates tightened as Barricade's presence curled into their bond and clung to him, innocent and trusting, and a part of him reared back snarling.

It took every ounce of control, aided by overriding Guardian protocols, to allow that presence to linger for a few nanoclicks before firmly disengaging and pushing a command.

Rest now, Barricade, let the medic do his work.

Ironhide barely acknowledged the faint agreement, or the grateful pings from Ratchet and Jazz, looking around with optics pinned and white-hot with anger. Barricade was ruthless, a killer, and a Decepticon. This was no innocent young spark he was dealing with, and the bond was dangerously close to making him forget that.

The Base was too far and his charges would be upset if he blew up another tree. Ironhide dropped down into Topkick mode, engine gunning with a deep-throated roar and tires churning up dirt and dust, heading for the property line to search for more appropriate targets to work off his temper.

oooooooooooo

Ironhide sat under the large tree next to the barn, polishing a canon and grimly examining his current situation. Not even a few hours of blasting boulders or the intense satisfaction of pounding them into rubble with his fists had brought any relief from his disgruntled mood.

For the life of him, he could not fathom why he had done it. Guardian coding was strong, but not that strong. Something else had pushed him into acting, and if Primus himself had suddenly appeared and declared that he had done it, Ironhide would have accepted it without question. Not liked it, but accepted it. Nothing else made any sense.

Barricade pinged through their bond regularly. Perfectly normal, as expected, and just like every one of his previous charges. The pings would decrease in frequency but increase in the depth of the pulse through their link, spiraling up and then back down. There was an aching familiarity to it, which left Ironhide even more displeased because Barricade was most definitely not a normal charge.

He did not want to feel pity or sympathy for Barricade, did not want to help him and most of all, did NOT want to be the one standing between the Decepticon and Ratchet going on a rampage, a fact that soured his mood even more.

His other charges, at least, were a very far cry from Barricade. The Guardian bond with his humans had proved solid and strong and surprisingly flexible, and Ironhide hummed satisfaction. These he welcomed, cherished, claimed.

Annabelle checked in with endearing frequency. Her young organic attention span was only a few clicks, after which she would look up for him and make a soft hum with the confirmation of his presence. Will was frustratingly unable to make contact outside the comm in his dog tags, but Ironhide could tap into the man's biorhythms as often as necessary. It was no substitute for an established bond, but it was at least reassuring.

Sarah, however, remained a mystery. Ironhide still could not determine when she would come to him. He had to make do, during the times she brought Annabelle or during breaks in her training; whenever she was close by and he could wrap her in his field, strengthening the bond and soothing the little nag of his Guardian coding.

As puzzling a Sarah was, she was a treasure. While Barricade was the embodiment of all of Ironhide's poor life choices.

oooooooooooo

Brooding. That was the only word Sarah could come up with, watching Ironhide through the kitchen window. The sound of distant explosions had gone on for hours, and when he returned he parked himself under their tree, and didn't look like he would move for the next century. His optics dimmed, then flared, then dimmed again. That meant thinking, and thinking very hard with how many hours that had been going on. Little puffs of warm air escaped into the cool desert evening, she could almost hear the gears grinding. He was going to wear a hole in his canon with all that polishing, too.

With Annabelle tucked in bed for the night, now was as good a time as any to go out and poke the bear.

That phrase, even in her head, was Will's snark, and seemed oddly fitting.

Sarah stepped out onto the porch and Ironhide's helm turned towards her, optics brightening. He was halfway across the yard before she was even down the steps, and she had the sneaking suspicion he was both surprised and relieved to see her. She paused at the bottom, the ground tremoring slightly beneath her feet with his footfalls.

"Do you need something? Is everything alright?"

Even crouched down, Ironhide was a mountain of metal towering over her, but Sarah reached for the metal hand extended to her, fingers tracing a familiar path over the fine seams between plates, and then resting her palm on one large finger.

"I'm fine. I came to ask if you were alright."

Bright blue optics pinned on her, his engine stuttered faintly.

"I am fine."

Her hand petted over the fine plating of his finger.

"You're not worrying about anything?"

"Just thinking."

Sarah tilted her head. "Seems more like brooding to me."

"I do not 'brood.'"

"Really? That was an awful lot of explosions earlier."

"Just training."

"You haven't moved, and you've been polishing the same spot on your canon for hours. I'd call that brooding."

"I am not brooding."

"Then what are you doing?"

Ironhide made a low rasp and his optics flickered, but no answer in English was forthcoming.

"Ah. Of course." Sarah hid her smirk. "Ironhide, I can tell when someone is brooding." Plenty of practice at it, and this entire conversation was so much like Will. Oh yes, Will Lennox was definitely a brooder, and there was something strangely familiar in seeing some of the same similarities in their Guardian.

"You have been watching me."

Oops, busted. Sarah blushed and dropped her eyes, only to raise them again at Ironhide's hum.

"I am your Guardian, you are my charge. It is allowed."

She had to smile at that. At their last checkup, Ratchet had very loudly, and well within her hearing, told Ironhide in no uncertain terms that he'd better start exercising his mouthplates and 'fragging TALK TO YOUR CHARGE' or he would certainly bolt them shut. Since then, her Guardian had made a very sincere effort to better inform her of the intricacies of their relationship.

Sarah hummed back and leaned against his hand. Guardian and charge. She liked the sound of that, and the warm feeling it gave her, inside and out.

That warmth curled around her now, the sensation tangible, comforting and reassuring, like a bearhug from Will or Ironhide's hand around her. But she was certain something was bothering him. He'd been a little off, a little quieter with Annabelle, more subdued with her in training. The sound of his cannons blasting away in the distance this morning was certainly a big hint.

Brooding. Definitely.

One hand pet against the plates of a large finger. "So, what are you brooding about?"

Ironhide looked ready to argue again, but then another puff of warm air escaped into the night, along with his familiar exasperated huff.

"I have taken on a responsibility I would rather have shoved into the nearest smelting Pit."

Sarah hummed again, stroking gently. "Talk to me, Ironhide, maybe I can help."

Optics turned down to her. A long pause and then he opened his hand and Sarah settled herself on his palm, silently thanking Ratchet. Talk to me had become the three most important words between her and Ironhide.

When he began to lift her to optic level, she shook her head.

"Cannon?"

Ironhide paused, helm tilting, but Sarah made that gentle clicking sound he used so often to encourage Annabelle and was rewarded with a softening of his optics. He carefully placed her next to the large cannon and she took the square of polishing cloth he offered. Ironhide resumed his own polishing, and Sarah began moving the cloth in slow circles over gleaming metal. Another little trick she'd learned. Reformatting, redesigning, tinkering or just plain old polishing, Ironhide seemed to open up more easily when he was occupied with his cannons.

His plating had relaxed and the low growl of his engine had smoothed into a deep hum when Sarah spoke again. Doubts still plagued her. Did Ironhide truly want to be here, be their Guardian?

Time to take the bull by the horns.

"Is it us? Me and Will and Annabelle? Are we the responsibility you don't want?"

Dead silence greeted her words, Ironhide's hand paused on his cannon. Either her aim was true or she'd missed by a mile. Sarah held her breath, almost afraid of the answer.

Pleasant shivers traced over her skin and that warm feeling snugged in around her. She heard his long vent of air and breathed out with it.

"Never," came the rumble above her, soft and deep, and she leaned into the large hand closing around her.

Sarah would have been more than content to stay that way, forehead pressed to warm plating, his finger gently stroking her hair, but Ironhide still wasn't talking.

He was really really good at that.

Sarah hummed and looked up to softly glowing optics, her own hands wandering in little soothing pets. "Talk to me, Ironhide. Please?"

Another long sigh of air vented out, then his optics pinned on her, sharp and cold, his engine growled.

There was a time when that look had made her shake in fear, the sound of Ironhide angry, absolutely terrifying.

But his touch on her was infinitely gentle, that warm feeling snugged in even tighter. She was warm and safe, and wanted.

Cherished.

Ironhide cherished her, she was protected by her Guardian's promise, and that was everything.

The thought was startling, but it fit. The warm glow of it sat in her chest and Sarah soaked it up, a little part of her that had shriveled up with Will's departure starting to expand again.

There was a rightness to the sudden impulse to reach up a hand as he leaned down to her, spreading her palm over the large center seam of his chestplates. The metal was warm beneath her hand, vibrating with a steady rhythm. The glow in her chest expanded.

She almost missed Ironhide's reply, content just to bask in that glow, his deep rumble blending into that warm feeling, until his finger nudged her gently back to reality.

"Sorry?" She blinked up at him and the glow faded, the sensation of something very carefully disengaging as he moved back and her hand fell away.

Before she could protest the loss, the usual warm reassurance swaddled her up in layers of comfort. Ironhide hummed, tones a little amused, but his optics on her were intent.

"I said, my problem is Barricade."

vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

It began as a tickle, the slight ripple of a field that caught Barricade's attention. The little one murmured and sighed, turning restlessly on the small berth beside him. It wasn't humming at him, or making the usual soft sounds it used while working on him. Barricade tended to ignore those, focused as he was on repair. They were nonsensical but made for a pleasing background soundscape.

The tickle came again, stronger now, and he rerouted a few sensors to focus on it. Repair nanites protested even that small decrease in their efficiency, but Barricade was interested now. The little one was still a mystery. 'Us/Not Us', the most basic of categories, and nanites and sensor sweeps had placed it firmly as 'Not Us.' That too was nonsensical, and Barricade's logic processors had turned that over and over until he finally gave up. The little one was HIS, that much was clear. Guardian had told him he was damaged, perhaps that accounted for the confusion.

Soft sounds were coming from the little one, not the usual noises. These were lower, the sounds trembling out. The small berth vibrated with its movements, the tickle of energy grew.

Barricade was intrigued enough to stretch out his field, much stronger now since Guardian had come to help.

An unusual odor was spiking the air, one he had detected before but always associated with the other, another like himself but that one drew his ire and disgust. He had taken pains to scrub that signature off his little one. Mine!

Now the little one's marker stood alone, strange and exotic, spreading along with its glowing biofield. The small berth creaked rhythmically, the soft sounds rising, insistent and pleading.

Barricade could not resist that call. He was stronger now. Whatever the little one needed, he would give.

His field reached out, tentative at first, tendrils exploring along the boundaries and edges of the glowing white field. Not nearly as strong as his, but beautiful. There was hunger there, need, luring him in deeper, but what did it want?

Tell me, little one…

Rhetorical, the little one never heard or heeded his many attempts at communication.

Frustrated, Barricade scrambled repair priorities and pushed his field, driving it in hard.

At last. The glowing field lit up with his strike. He stroked and caressed it, satisfaction purring through him at the familiar lightning branch pattern of connecting fields.

I am here…I am here…you are beautiful, my little one...what is it you need?

The small berth stopped its movements; the little one froze.

Barricade hummed, field coaxing, tendrils teasing and stroking the small form.

A sharp inhale from the cot, and the glowing field pulled away, rebuffing him sharply when he tried to follow.

The connection faded. Barricade snarled silently, his field lighting with sullen purples and angry reds.

He was so close, so close, to communicating, understanding…

He gathered what energy he could scavenge, readying his tattered field, when a command echoed through his processors.

Stop now, Barricade.

Calm and clear, Guardian's voice, Guardian's command.

Barricade was angry enough to contemplate disobeying, and then Guardian's voice was gently reminding him.

You will hurt the little one. You must be careful.

He mulled that, processors gathering what little data they had on the little one. It was small and weak, with a field to match. Perhaps his field, damaged as it was, was still too strong. Perhaps it had pushed him away because he was hurting it.

Protect the little one, Barricade, keep it safe.

This too, Guardian had commanded, and Barricade hummed agreement. The little one belonged to him. He would protect it and keep it safe.

oooooooooooo

Shit, he was awake. More than that, he was awake and aware.

Mikaela, turned over in the cot, blushing hotly, body shivering and practically crying out for moremoremore.

There had been the most delicate of touches, sliding over her body, touching her everywhere, and then her entire body lit up like a livewire.

Never, not even with Bumblebee. This was nothing like what Bumblebee had done.

What the hell just happened, what did he do?

Because as sure as she was lying here next to him, that had been Barricade.

She had felt him before, but never like this. She'd already been close and that brief touch had her body bucking, nearly enough to…

Mikaela muffled a moan into her pillow, body humming with pent-up energy.

She could feel his presence on the berth next to her, intent and focused on her.

Mikaela sighed. "Barricade, we need to talk."

Ha. Good luck with that. They had never talked, not out loud anyway. Up until five minutes ago, she didn't even think he was awake.

No answer, as usual.

But he was awake. Aware. Her body still shivered with whatever it was he had done to her.

She needed to finish or she'd never get to sleep, and she sure as hell wasn't doing anything here.

She waited until that presence slowly faded away, then quietly slipped off her cot and headed for the shower.

They really, really needed to talk somehow. And set some goddam boundaries.

vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

::Request for directive: Priority for tonight?::

Even with the considerable resources the AI had to call upon, Phase IV was proceeding slowly. Depending as it did on the responses of the subjects, this was not unexpected. It did, however, produce an unknown variable in the experiment, and the AI could no longer calculate a timeline with any certainty.

Not the stated goal, therefore it was shunted into a low priority and set aside while the AI focused on the query.

Both subjects had just crossed the minimum threshold; conditions were approaching favorable. But to meet the parameters of the experiment and the stated goal, conditions should be optimal.

The Cybertronian's query was met with the usual response:

::More time.::

oooooooooooo

Jazz was outside the Base prepping for his evening with Maggie, his mood alternating between impatient and pensive.

A lot of tonight had depended on his AI's answer, how to spend it, what to prioritize. Jazz had been cautiously hopeful, right up until the AI responded.

'More time' was not much of a directive, but it was all his AI was willing to cough up. Jazz was pushing it to give up even that much, but his impatience was growing by leaps and bounds. Why the delay, what was the hold up?

When he had unthinkingly reached for the data files, his AI had swatted him firmly away with a prim reminder: That data was still off limits until he chose to end the experiment. Then the AI followed up with a pointed query.

::Terminate experiment?::

A chill went through his spark. His visor rippled with reds and purples and then darkened. Jazz stared up at the brilliant night sky.

Terminate it… kill it… call it… time of death…

The stars used to excite him, a billion glowing lights in space, glittering sparks strewn across the heavens, each with the hope and promise of new worlds, new life.

Now, they left him cold.

Terminate…time of death...

He wanted to transform, drop into his alt-mode and race across the desert, bury himself in the sights and sounds and smells of the night, of the entire planet.

Time of death...

Even that paled compared to what he really wanted.

Warm hands, warmer breath, a heartbeat that lured and sang to him, more beautiful than any star.

Maggie...

Her hands traced the seam of his chest, and then her head lowered. Jazz's frame twitched and shivered with the barest touch of her lips; mouthplates quirked, listening to her pleased chuckle, utterly delighted himself; and the moment he would finally open chestplates was close, so close now. He wanted those hands on him, her lips pressed to his spark, wanted her immersed in his sparklight as he buried himself in her heat and life.

His spark flared with that familiar empty ache. Something wrong, something missing. He ran fingers over chestplates trying to soothe it.

Maggie

The AI was pinging, asking for a response to its query. Jazz dragged himself back to reality.

No, not terminating yet. He wasn't ready to give her up without a fight.

::Negative, do not terminate. Continue as directed. Inform when experiment has successfully concluded.::

The AI acknowledged and withdrew, leaving him alone again.

Jazz tweaked the holo display and looked it over with a critical optic, his mind busy with that directive.

More time. More time for what? Time to get closer, time to get more comfortable, time to put Maggie completely at ease?

Or maybe more time meant it was time to ramp things up. The faster they went, the sooner they would get there, right?

He had an hour before Maggie got off monitoring duty. Jazz returned to his quarters, rummaging through cabinet drawers and his own subspace, and then began a leisurely stroll through the Base.

He put the finishing touches on the last trinket with fifteen minutes to spare. Jazz grinned to himself and opened his comm to Maggie.

::Hey, lovely, got a little surprise for ya. Start in your quarters and follow the trail of breadcrumbs, then meet me at our usual spot outside the Base.::

Maggie's delighted agreement was music to his audials. He might not be able to spark her up, but a beautiful night like this should not go to waste.

oooooooooooo

A petite box of truffles was hiding in a drawer at her monitoring station. A steaming to-go cup of her favorite latte waited for her in the Rec Room. The hints and clues leading to little gifts were scattered all over the Base. Maggie had to stop and coo over the exquisite crystal flower she found in Jazz's quarters, brushing a pink nail over a delicate glowing petal.

Even Med Bay held a gift. She ducked in through Mikaela's entrance just long enough to snatch a tiny box tied up with silver ribbon, then ducked right out again. Barricade still gave her the cold shivers.

The box held a charm on a chain, a miniature Rubik's cube, and Maggie fingered the tiny square of silver metal with a soft smile.

The last clue on her list led her to a perfect pink rose in front of her own quarters. She breathed in the fragrant smell, heart melting and eyes half closed. No, she wasn't falling for him, of course not, this was an experiment, for science. But her heart wouldn't stop fluttering and excitement was settling butterflies into her stomach.

Almost time to go meet him. Tonight felt special, and she took the time to put up her hair and change into the pink lingerie that always brought a purr, and the little black dress that first caught his eye. The tiny Rubik's cube on its chain she fastened around her neck.

Maggie nibbled blissfully on a truffle as she left her quarters, stilettos-his favorite-clicking on the smooth concrete floor.

::All done, love?::

::"Yes, on my way."::

He was waiting. She turned the corner in a hurry and muffled a squeak as she nearly ran headlong into large metal feet.

Prime, standing in front of the Medbay. The large mech-sized doors were closed; Ratchet always kept them closed since Barricade's arrival.

Maggie murmured an apology and detoured around him. Deep in thought, he didn't appear to hear her or even see her. Strange, for Optimus.

At the outer door, she paused to look back. He was still standing in front of the Medbay doors. His hand lifted, fingers rubbing absently at his chestplates.

Distracted, a little lost. Mikaela had mentioned seeing him like this before; so had Jazz. Always at the door but never going in. That seemed sad, somehow.

Maggie hurried along the path, stiletto heels barely marking the hard packed earth. More impractical footwear out in the desert she couldn't imagine, but Jazz had long ago smoothed the path and pounded it to firmness, setting the edges with tiny dancing wisps of light.

She followed the firefly lights to the end, where Jazz's visor glowed a welcome to her from out of the darkness.

Maggie rested a hand on her hip as she was treated to a surprised whistle and a slow once over. His deep appreciative purr was sheer delight, and Maggie smiled.

"Thank you for my presents, Jazz. I love them."

"I was savin' 'em for a special occasion. Seemed like the right time, and the right person to share 'em with."

Maggie blushed a little, fingers touching the little silver cube, then held out the box with the tiny glowing crystal flower.

"This is lovely, where is it from?"

"Ah, that one's very special. Comes from the Crystal Forest outside of Iacon, our capital city."

Jazz patted the large blanket beside him. "There's a legend behind it, 'bout one of the ancient Primes and his Consort. Take a seat, lovely, and I'll tell ya all about it."

Jazz tapped his holo emitter. A huge city filled the horizon. Towers raised lofty spires of gleaming precious metals; burnished skywalks and arches connected the enormous buildings all up and down their heights. Thousands of vehicles filled the air above and the roads below, winding through giant hubs, then branching out like glittering silver spider threads. Order and chaos somehow wove together into a vibrant pulsing whole. Before the city gates, a large, imposing mech stood alone.

Maggie watched, enthralled, as the story played out in vivid color, larger than life.

During the First Age of Cybertron, the Prime cast his optics upon his vast harem and his court of thousands until his gaze fell upon a tall mech with graceful lines and fair of frame. So beautiful was this mech, it was said the stars themselves had been summoned down to adorn his frame. Instantly enamored, the Prime raised him up and declared to the High Council of Cybertron that this was his Chosen, his Consort for all time.

For a thousand vorns, the Prime's Consort stood by his side, in battle and in peace, bringing joy to his spark and the favor of Primus upon their union.

Peace reigned and the city prospered, the jewel of all Cybertron, until the neighboring city-states grew envious, daring a vicious attack to claim Iacon's treasures for their own.

A great battle was waged. His troops were driven back almost to the gates, but the Prime and his Bonded rallied a charge that broke through the enemy line. Victory was at hand, but then a weapon pierced the Consort's armor. His Bonded fell. The Prime turned and raised his sword, cleaving straight through the spark of the enemy, but it was too late.

The battle raged on. Back and forth across the great plain in front of the City they fought, and in the struggle, the Prime became separated from his wounded Consort. Finally, beneath the very walls of the city, the enemy was defeated. The troops collected their own honored dead and burned the shells of the invaders, while the Prime set out to find his Beloved. Driven by grief and led by the pain of his spark, the Prime searched across the vast battlefield for his Bonded. Finally he reached the place where they had made their stand. There, in the midst of a thousand empty shells and broken weapons, he found the body of his lover.

The stars darkened, their very light dimmed by the mourning of the Prime. Keening the ritual song, he reached into the shell of his Consort to retrieve his spark and found instead a handful of crystals inside the casing, glowing with all the colors of his lover's corona.

The Prime returned to Iacon with the crystals, and placed them on the hills outside the city where his Bonded had loved to walk. It was said that the Prime whispered words of love and eternal vows over the crystals before raising his hand and scattering them like falling stars. Perhaps some arcane chemistry between the crystals and the metal of Cybertron was responsible for the miracle, but barely a decacycle had passed before a forest of crystals had sprung up to mark the Consort's passing.

"The Crystal Forest." Jazz pointed up, projecting another holovid. Maggie was awestruck. The entire sky filled with towering pillars. Branches and cascades of smaller shimmering gems twined down their length. Light danced between the crystals and grew, each flash of light multiplied into dozens of tiny starbursts, spreading into a brilliant corona of shimmering light.

It was gorgeous, breathtaking, more beautiful than any starscape Jazz had ever shown her, and deeply poignant. Easy to imagine that long ago Prime, helm bent over the crystals in mourning then letting the shower of bright shards fall from his hands.

She could feel that longing, the deep emptiness, a love lost forever.

"Maggie?"

A gentle fingerpad traced the single tear tracking down her cheek. She turned her head to see Jazz, his visor shimmering with the colors of the Crystal Forest, an Aurora Borealis displayed just for her.

Hunger, need, longing. She wasn't sure where it came from but it filled her up, drove out every hesitation and doubt, every thought except for him.

Her eyes never left him as she slowly unzipped the little black dress and let it pool at her feet. Sheer pink bra and panties followed. She stepped out of her stilettos and stood before him, pale skin glowing, the tiny silver cube resting between her breasts.

His visor brightened, watching her, utterly delighted by this newfound boldness, and then completely taken aback when she began climbing his frame.

Jazz groaned, hands cupping and boosting her up, shivers wracking his frame when warm lips touched his chestplates.

They couldn't, not yet, and Jazz had never regretted it more than tonight, but there were other things they could do, and Maggie was whispering them, urging him to lie back, move his hand up higher, touch her. His field was a swirl of confused desire, and then her field reached for his and they connected firmly.

Confusion vanished under a frenzy of hunger and need, Maggie's hunger, for him. His armor loosened, lifting in a preen. Her hands buried into exposed cables and wide open joints, tugging and twisting. His field drove in fiercely, taking the brilliant white biofield, marking it as his.

Maggie!

Her mouth moved over him, breath warm, tongue licking and sliding along his chest seam until he shook with the effort to keep it closed.

She lapped his plates and whispered to him again, wicked tongue, wicked suggestion, and a tidal wave of lust broke over him.

Jazz growled, moving his hand between her legs. A single large finger pushed in deep.

Maggie rolled her hips and sank down on him, shivering and moaning his name, and Primus help him he could almost feel her breath right over his spark.

Hands gripped wires and pulled, hard. Nails raked his cables. She shook her hair loose and let it fall into joints and seams, the silken touch undoing him.

He had a moment to look down, to drink in the sight of her wreathed in Crystal Forest hues and blue lightning curls of energy, and then overload struck and all the colors blended into blazing white.

oooooooooooo

The AI observed the subjects, scans and sensors collecting additional data. System surges and field intensity mapped; chemical and hormone spikes catalogued. Every physical response, from the softest moan to the lightest spark flutter, assigned a data point. New parameters were calculated and established, following the Cybertronian's directive.

The experiment now required a successful conclusion. Therefore, 'optimum threshold' was no longer simply desirable, it was a necessary condition.

vvvvvvvvvvvvvv

"So, you're Barricade's Guardian too?"

"Yes."

Sarah watched Ironhide scrub his faceplates for the 10th time, listening to the growl of his engine.

"And you don't want to be?"

"No."

"But you did it anyway."

"Yes."

"Does that make us like... family?"

Ironhide's engine snarled.

"He is not coming near you."

That wasn't a 'No.' Oh dear.

Sarah had by now lost track of which bull needed taking by the horns, but the one in front of her was twisting himself into knots, while Barricade was barely mobile.

"Barricade is almost helpless, you said so yourself. But you don't trust him."

Another engine snarl. "Would you trust a rabid dog not to take your hand off?"

"But you chose to help him, you... bonded with him. Would you have done that if it was Megatron, injured and needing help?"

She startled at the roar of his engine. The very air prickled around her, charged and dangerous.

"If I had found Megatron wounded, I'd have finished the job."

"Then you do have some control over it." Sarah patted the canon next to her, trying to soothe him and amazed she wasn't ducking in terror, but a little thread of safety kept her anchored and secure. Guardian's promise, Guardian's protection.

"Have you ever chosen badly? Any of your charges?"

Ironhide simply shook his helm this time, looking completely frustrated. Sarah soothed a palm over warm metal.

"Then there's no reason to believe you have this time. Ironhide, even in fairy tales, monsters can have a purpose. Maybe Barricade does, too."

Her Guardian merely snorted at that, optics flashing. "I swore I would never help a Decepticon after-" Ironhide broke off, engine growling.

"After what?" Sarah actually got up and walked across his arm, reaching out to hold one of his crashbars. "Ironhide?"

"Nothing." Something changed in the air, like a door shutting. Ironhide looked down at her, optics pinned. "This is personal, femme. I will not forgive or forget. I swore I would never help a 'Con and I will not start with Barricade."

Sarah gripped his crashbar, stubbornly pushing back against that invisible door. "Ironhide, you're not making sense. You already ARE helping him. What's changed, why was it okay to help him before, but not now?"

Ironhide never moved, never changed expression, but between one moment and the next, Sarah felt that invisible door ease back open, felt Ironhide's surprise, the sudden thought like a murmur in her ear. That she can even do that...

And then Ironhide was shaking his helm, still frustrated but sounding a great deal more thoughtful. "He is- broken, in a way that is difficult to explain. I sensed it, and simply... reacted. Now, I see a Decepticon, an enemy, and I react to that, too."

Sarah reached up, slipping her hand through bars to touch that place on his chest. "Ironhide, you are his Guardian. Can he hurt you or anyone else, as he is right now?"

His chestplate thrummed beneath her hand. Something strong and vibrant was behind it, not his engine.

"No, he cannot."

Her fingers traced a small glyph etched in his armor and his helm dipped lower. "Can he hurt me?"

His optics unpinned, softening. His engine quieted down to its usual low rumble.

"No, he cannot hurt you."

His hand closed around her, steadying her, and Sarah rested her cheek against warm metal, the air around her once again comforting and secure.

"Then trust that, Ironhide. That's all that matters right now."

tbc

A/N: A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! A million thanks to you, lovely readers, for your continued likes, faves and follows. And thanks to the constant support and encouragement of my beta, Quidamling, another chapter is down and the story continues. So much love, hun, this would not get done without you.