Author's Notes: Long chapter is long. This was a very difficult chapter to write on a technical level, and I'm still not entirely happy with it.

Building up towards the big battle ... which is going to be an interesting few chapters to write too, LOL. Sage's past identity is important, too.


Optimus drove in silence, watching Wheelie as he did. Without breaking the speed limit, the drive back to the base was going to be almost two hours, and he thought he might need that time to talk to the youngling.

Wheelie had done a good job of both recovering and patching up the sparkling. The child was stable, reasonably calm, and in no pain. Aquaregia reported that the child was asking for Wheelie, which seemed to disturb the Decepticon officer, but Optimus thought that was a very good sign that Wheelie had handled everything well. The sparkling had instinctively attached to Wheelie. It was easier to transfer attachment than to create it where none existed, as in the case of a sparkling brought online with a datapad.

Sunstreaker, he thought, with real sorrow. Sideswipe had recovered from an incredibly traumatic early life, and better than they'd hoped. While not normal, he was functional, both in relationships with others and in a job. Sunny ... was probably as good as he would ever get. It explained his behavior, but didn't excuse it.

He was inordinately proud of Wheelie, who had also been one of the many children who'd never known a mentor's love in those first critical hours - he had been strapped down to a work bench and code harshly uploaded to his processor without even a kind word to soothe his fears until days later when Fang had claimed him out of a creche. Despite that, Wheelie was flourishing, Optimus thought, as he shed his anger and his suspicion in place of hope and optimism.

He'd seen potential in the child from the very beginning, of course, but had not been sure that Wheelie would fulfill it. He was certain now. Wheelie would make all of them proud.

Unfortunately, that personal growth was not without a harsh cost. Wheelie was now huddled against Optimus's passenger side window, optics shuttered, arms folded tight across his chest. His expression was frankly miserable. Optimus waited, knowing the young mech would talk on his own when ready. It was a long drive, and Wheelie, he hoped, saw him as approachable.

"Optimus," Wheelie said, finally, "do you think he'll be okay?"

It wasn't exactly what he'd expected Wheelie to ask. It had been clear from Wheelie's body language and actions that he had cared about the sparkling. He had expected to hear something to the effect of, I want him. I uploaded his OS, I want him. He should be mine.

Optimus had prepared arguments against that. Wheelie was too young, and while Optimus thought that Wheelie would do a fine job raising a sparkling, Wheelie himself would suffer. He was only thirteen human years old. He needed time to grow up more himself. There were other arguments, some rather cold and pragmatic. They couldn't risk an incident with the Decepticons, and Aquaregia clearly didn't want a different sparkling. He wanted this sparkling, likely because he liked the sparkling's alt mode. He'd specifically requested a small flier, and had picked this one - the only one like him - out of the SOA.

Striker was Aquaregia's brother's name, Optimus remembered suddenly, a factoid he'd culled from intelligence reports on the chemist. And he had a sister who was a small flier.

Oh.

Instead of saying, I want him, however, Wheelie was asking if he would be okay. There was honest pain in Wheelie's voice, and worry, and not one trace of the selfishness that Optimus knew was age-appropriate for Cybertronian children. He was putting the sparkling's welfare before his own.

Wheelie said plaintively, "I just want him to be okay. Happy, y'know?"

"Aquaregia will treat him well." Of that, Optimus had no doubt. 'Regia was a very uncompromising black-and-white thinker, but he was not cruel. Like many people who saw in absolutes, he had a fierce sense of honor. Moreover, Fangface wouldn't tolerate harm to a child, and Aquaregia was unconditionally loyal to Fangface. Aquaregia would follow Fang's lead on how to treat a sparkling.

"He's not a good match for 'Regia," Wheelie's voice was very low as he shifted into Cybertronian. He clicked rapidly a couple of times at the end, a reminder of his own young age. Most adult mechs grew out of sparkling chitter, but he wasn't surprised to hear Wheelie sound so young even when his actions were those of an adult. He was likely feeling very uncertain, and seeking approval and confirmation that his behavior and feelings were appropriate. Young sparklings clicked like that when they were unsure of themselves, as well as the occasional adult, when seeking reassurance from a friend.

Optimus wondered if Wheelie was about to make the argument that Striker should be his now, given that the sparkling had bonded to him, but Wheelie sighed heavily, composed himself, and simply said in far more adult tones, "He needs someone who isn't so uncompromising. 'Regia will raise him like he was a little soldier, not a little child. It won't be good for him. Some sparklings would do okay, Pit knows I probably could have used some more discipline myself - Pit knows I got in enough trouble! - and some kids need that kind of a mentor, but not Sage."

"How do you know that?" Optimus asked, genuinely curious about how Wheelie was coming to that conclusion. "It's true that Aquaregia will probably be a disciplinarian, but a firm hand combined with love and affection rarely hurts a child. I've never seen him be cruel to his troops, simply stern."

Optimus had been discretely watching the Decepticon commander and had been somewhat impressed. 'Regia's troops knew exactly where they stood with the officer, they were not frightened of him, they respected him, and they followed his orders with a minimum of protest. He was fair, both in the commands he gave and the punishments he meted out. When praise was earned, he gave it. He suspected that Aquaregia would handle raising sparklings in a similar fashion, and had few concerns about the commander as a parent.

"I just ..." Wheelie shrugged his thin shoulders, and shuttered his optics. "I just know, okay? It's a personality thing."

Optimus waited, for a minute, as Wheelie thought about what he was trying to say. He was unsurprised when his patient silence was rewarded by Wheelie adding, "... Sage ... he's a bit like me, I guess. I didn't think so at first, I didn't think we were at all alike, but I could feel that he liked to think about things for himself and come to his own conclusions. I could feel the shape of his mind, Optimus, and it was the most amazing thing. He was thinking about everything I was telling him, very quietly thinking and then making his own decisions. He's not going to do good with Aquaregia because 'Regia will hate that his kid thinks for himself and examines problems from every angle he can think of."

"Most people are capable of analytical thought," Optimus said, suspecting that Wheelie had simply been surprised by the amount of intelligence the average sparkling possessed. "Sparklings less so, but most can."

"Not like this. His potential makes me feel stupid in comparison. And Optimus, you haven't served on a ship with 'Regia. You can't begin to know what a hard-aft he can be. He's not cruel and he's not violent but his word is law. He expects you to do what he says, and he is swift with the punishment if you cross him. I sorta like him, actually, because you always know exactly where you stand with him, but Boss ... not for this kid. No way, no how. He'd be great with Jazz, or First Aid, or even you. But not 'Regia."

Optimus considered what Wheelie was saying for a moment. Wheelie was so young. He was pretty sure the kid had never 'faced with anyone. He lacked experience in what another's mind felt like. It was entirely possible that Wheelie was wrong about the depth of the kid's analytical abilities ... though that was, as Wheelie had inidcated, an area that Wheelie himself was good at. It did stand to reason that Wheelie would recognize someone who outclassed him in the same area.

A faint click drew his attention back to Wheelie. He was making sparkling sounds of his own again. Wheelie quietly pulled a datacube from a port on his arm. He held it up and said softly, "... Here. You can decide for yourself what the kid's like. I know you won't believe me, but he's a special kid."

Optimus's curiosity was tweaked as well as his concern. He slid a receptacle open on his dash and Wheelie pushed the cube inside.

Wheelie was a medic, Optimus remembered immediately, as he scanned the data on the cube. What Wheelie had given him was a completely appropriate psych scan, with Wheelie's own feelings stripped out. It was simply a snapshot of the sparkling's personality and mood, spanning about a three minute interval. When Optimus felt that calm curiosity, relaxed comprehension, and quiet study, he was stunned. He'd never heard of anything like that from a sparkling before.

"You're right. That's an unusual sparkling," Optimus said, finally, resisting the urge to ask for more data. Wheelie probably didn't have that much information collected on him beyond what he'd shown. "I would wager a guess that he is a very ancient spark."

"Told ya," Wheelie smiled for the first time, a small, quiet smile. "He's something amazing."

"... Yes." Optimus agreed. "Yes, I believe you're right.

And Wheelie was exactly right about what the kid needed, too, and the likely conflict between him and Aquaregia. Optimus had no real issue with Aquaregia; he was stern with his troops, and deeply loyal to Fang, Optimus also thought he was a very good contrast to Fang's laissez-faire approach to leadership. (Jazz had summed them up recently by stating that Fang was the good cop, Aquaregia the bad cop, and that he thought this was awesome.)

The smile faded from Wheelie's face almost as fast as it had appeared. He sighed and stared out the window, saying nothing more. At least he'd stopped clicking.

"Wheelie," Optimus said gently, "I'll ... talk to Fang and 'Regia."

"Thanks." Wheelie hunched his shoulders up. "If I thought I could be his mentor I'd be fighting for him, you know. He needs someone right for him, though."

"Wheelie, why do you think you can't be his mentor?" Optimus asked, curious.

He expected to hear, 'You won't let me.'

"Because I don't know enough." Wheelie sighed. "I'm just a youngling myself."

Optimus reviewed Wheelie's behavior for a second, then told the young mech, "Wheelie, based on your behavior today, I will consider you an adult from here on out. We'll make it official as soon as I have time to send out the announcemen. Err, if you would prefer Fang to tell everyone, you can do so. You are young in years, but you've had to grow up rapidly, in a harsh environment. It would be unkind to continue to treat you as a child when you are not one."

Wheelie chuckled. "Let Fang make the announcement, or we'll all have to deal with Fang angst because he'll feel left out."

"True.

"Thanks, Boss."

"Being declared an adult is something you have earned, and worthy of a celebration. Would you like a party?" He wasn't the best person to plan a party, but all his own sparklings had celebrated their coming of age with a huge event. Perhaps he could convince Jazz to put it together. They could certainly use something to celebrate.

"I don't really feel like a big party. Thanks, though." Wheelie shuttered his optics again.

"Wheelie," Optimus tried again, "I know this is hard with Sage, though you have done a very good thing ..."

Wheelie said, sounding both tired and depressed. "It's not just how awful I feel about Sage ... Striker, as Aquaregia is calling him. Who would come to the party?"

"I don't believe there would be any shortage of attendees."

"I can count on two hands," he wiggled four fingers and a thumb in the air, "the number of people that really like me. The rest would just be there for the party, or because they feel sorry for me and don't actually object to me enough to boycott it."

"Wheelie ..."

"Boss, please. I'm really just not in the mood." Wheelie hunched his shoulders even further and slumped down in the seat.

Optimus dropped it. It wasn't the time, and Wheelie had a valid point.


The little sparkling flier barely came up to Ratchet's waist, and with one wing gone and the other crumpled back behind him, he looked even tinier. He was just over Fang's height, but nowhere near Fang's mass - which was saying a lot, as Fang wasn't exactly heavy. He was designed to be an acrobat in the air, with agility favored over speed, but way more power and a good bit more protective armor than a frame like Windy had. His wings could be folded back far enough to allow for substantial agility on the ground, and he was designed for a very rapid transformation sequence.

By his behavior, which was almost eerily calm and dignified, it was easy to forget that he was a brand new sparkling. He quietly followed Aquaregia into the Autobot med bay, alert but not frightened. Optimus had warned Ratchet that they were not dealing with a normal child, though Optimus had been unusually cagey about what he suspected.

"Where would you like him?" Aquaregia asked, resting a hand on the child's back. Striker tensed, and his facial plates grew very still, set in a neutral expression. That reaction reminded Ratchet of Wheelie's response when he was upset by something and trying not to show it, and he realized that Wheelie had likely configured the child's emotional language displays based on his own settings.

If 'Regia reconfigured the child's expressive language routines to suit his own preferences it might confuse Sage. He made a mental note to tell 'Regia not to do that. The kid could modify his own responses when he was old enough to figure out how to do it.

Well, that was a discussion for later. For now, he was more worried about the physical damage.

"Have a seat on the berth on the end," Ratchet indicated the one that had a rack of surgical instruments next to it, and bright overhead lights. The repairs didn't really look like they would be that complicated, despite the somewhat dramatic appearance. Aside from some sensor arrays that had taken a good hit, it was all going to be body work. If the sparkling would cooperate, he could do most of the basic repairs needed right now without putting the kid under - he'd just sever motor functions during the delicate bits. That would be far less traumatic than knocking the kid unconscious.

Aquaregia turned to Striker, pointed at the berth, and said, "Get up on that and sit down."

Silently, the sparkling did so. He definitely wasn't a talkative kid. Ratchet wondered if he was naturally quiet or traumatized. He found he preferred Prism's chatter or Ranger's constant questions in a case like this. It was easier to tell what the sparkling was thinking if he was talking!

"Good boy." Aquaregia backed off to lean against a wall.

Hmph. Ratchet would have preferred if 'Regia had held his kid, but the sparkling seemed to be willing to cooperate. He raised the table up so the kid was almost at eye level to him and said, "I'm Ratchet. What's your name?"

"Sage."

"Striker." Aquaregia corrected, firmly. "Your name is Striker."

"I like Sage."

:Wheelie confused the kid,: Aquaregia grumbled. :He should have let me name him. Striker was my brother. It's a good name.:

Optimus had warned him this might be an issue. Ratchet explained, :Sparklings always want to know what their name is. He'd have felt rejected and unwanted if Wheelie hadn't called him something. Be persistent and he will eventually accept the new name unless he really hates it. And if he hates it that much, the name you chose probably wouldn't have stuck anyway.:

This was not, actually, the first time in Ratchet's vast experience with sparklings that the name issue had come up. Sparklings were funny. Sometimes they accepted a name you gave them without question. Other times they chose to name themselves. If the mentor had sentimental attachment to the name, the end result was often a bit of drama.

The sparkling invariably won that fight, too. Trying to convince a sparkling to answer to a name he didn't like was generally fruitless.

:I suppose.:
Aquaregia sounded unconvinced. Ratchet decided this was something he would have to learn on his own.

For his part, Ratchet liked the name Sage - 'wise one' - though it seemed an odd choice coming from Wheelie. Wheelie had said something about sensing the name 'belonged' to the sparkling, which was possible. Some sparks retained more of their sense of self than others, particularly ones with a past life that had spanned a very long time, and it was entirely possible that the kid had a spark that had been sent forth from the Well a few times before.

However, the name question could be resolved later. Ratchet pointedly addressed the child with neither name. Instead he said, "Okay, scraplet, do you hurt now?"

The kid met his gaze with a calm, level expression. "Wheelie made most of the pain go away. My foot hurts."

Ratchet crouched down and inspected the child's leg. His ankle joint was out of alignment, and several tension wires were snapped. "Bet it hurts more when you walk on it."

"It does. Wheelie said that we had walk, though, or the water would hurt me even worse."

"Wheelie was right, and you're a brave kid." Ratchet tapped the kid's knee. "Can you release this plate of armor?"

The kid frowned, then shook his head. "I don't have access."

:Wheelie probably locked access to all his motor functions, including armor locks,: Ratchet said to Aquaregia, :Which is a standard configuration. Wheelie's been studying the care and raising of sparklings - he wants one himself in several years.:

:He didn't think we might need access to the kid's internals?:

:He was probably in a bit of a hurry. You might as well jack in and update his permissions, though. I don't care if you pop the latches or he does.:

Aquaregia nodded, produced a data cable, and approached the berth. Sage watched him with huge optics until he was within a couple of strides, then said, "What are you going to do?"

Well-spoken kid, Ratchet noted, even as he put a soothing hand on Sage's shoulder. "It's okay. He's your mentor. He's going to make it so we can get your armor off. I'm going to fix your foot so it doesn't hurt."

"Okay," the kid said, sounding a bit dubious. He didn't protest when Aquaregia hooked up the cable, though he did shutter his optics and tense when 'Regia made the connection.

"Hey," Aquaregia said aloud, sounding completely dismayed, "It's okay, kid. I'm your mentor ..."

"Don't like you." The kid didn't quite recoil, but all his joints were locked in place. "Get out!"

:Pit! Ratchet, he's dang near crying. What ... what, what do I do?: The Decepticon commander stayed connected only long enough to unlatch the armor plate. He hastily unhooked the cable and stepped back. :Ratchet, he doesn't like me. He really doesn't like me.:

:He'll get over it in time,: Ratchet said, though he was a bit worried by the kid's reaction. :It's not that he hates you, it's that he's attached himself to Wheelie and you'll need to convince him to attach to you, too.:

The child was now glaring at Aquaregia, clearly resenting 'Regia's intrusion into his mind. Ratchet suspect that 'Regia's emotions had been negative, and he might have been a bit too firm. It was a bad combination for dealing with a frightened, sensitive child who needed reassurance and affection.

:But he just made it real clear he doesn't
want me.: Aquaregia sounded hurt

:He's four hours old. Give him a chance.:
Ratchet stroked Sage's arm. "Kiddo, how come you don't like Aquaregia?"

"He won't listen to me. My name isn't Striker." Sage scowled and told Aquaregia directly, "And you made Wheelie go away. I like Wheelie. You made him leave and he didn't want to go. He'd have stayed with me. He made me feel safe. He loves me. You don't listen to me. You're angry. You don't love me."

:Heh. There you have it. What are you going to do about it?: Ratchet couldn't help get a dig in at Aquaregia. If this was the worst that 'Regia ever had to deal with from his sparkling, he'd be lucky. If he couldn't handle this, he was definitely going to have problems when the kid got older!

:Slag. Ratch, why don't we just reformat him? This whole thing is a mess. Start over, clean slate, he ... Pit, Wheelie shouldn't love him. He barely knows him. We need to reformat him, start over. This is a mess I don't think we can fix any other way.:

Aloud, Ratchet said, "No." He set the wrench he'd been holding down onto the berth with a loud click. "No, I will not do that."

"Do what?" Sage said, sounding curious. "Are you mad at me for something?"

"No, kiddo. Not at you." Ratchet put his arm around the flier's thin shoulders, protectively. "Shh. It's okay."

Ratchet wasn't one for warm-fuzzy emotional displays, but he suddenly felt fiercely protective of the child. He was gratified when Sage turned into his embrace and buried his face against his chest plating. He stroked an undamaged area of the child's backplating and coldly informed Aquaregia, :Over my dead body, and I mean that literally, will I reformat this child. There is no need. None. The last sparkling I did humane reformat on bit his own hands half off when we tried to restrain him with stasis cuffs, and had no sanity left. He was terrified to the point of it being real suffering, and nothing we could do could get through to him. This child, by contrast, may be giving you reactions you do not like, but I strongly suspect he will still give you answers you don't like after a reformat. He does not even come close to meeting the medical criteria for humane reformat.:

Sage glanced up at him, then curled once more against Ratchet's chest. Ratchet glowered over the top of his head. Sage was relaxing, clearly more at ease with Ratchet than with 'Regia.

:I will take this matter to Fang.:

:Oh, that'll be entertaining.: Ratchet smirked. :I want front row tickets when you try to convince Fang that one of the sparklings he saved from extermination should be reformatted because it would be more convenient for you.:

:That's not what I meant!:

:Like slag it was. You want to win this sparkling's trust and love? It'll take work, but you could do it. You want to take the easy route. Get out of my lab.: He paused, then added at Aquaregia's retreating back, :If you're as loyal to Fang as you claim you'll let Fang catch a few hours of recharge. We'd only had about forty-five minutes of down time. He's up in my quarters crashed out right now and isn't planning on getting up until about ten AM.:

:I'll take my sparkling with me, then.:
The commander, now truly angry, spun back around. The sparkling in question cringed back against Ratchet's chest.

To his credit, Aquaregia saw the kid's reaction and smoothed his expression over. He flashed the kid a smile that showed altogether too much of his dental plating, and was patently false to Ratchet's eyes, but the kid relaxed a little and hid his face against Ratchet's arm.

:You'll do no such thing.:
Ratchet narrowed his optics. While a long way from critical, kid needed repairs and a pitload of body work, and besides that, he didn't trust 'Regia. It didn't take a medic to reformat a sparkling and Aquaregia had a background in the sciences. And the child clearly didn't trust him. The trauma would be enormous if Ratchet let Aquaregia haul the kid off, against his will.

Decisively, he growled, :I am intervening in the best interests of this child. I will call a counsel of the Primes to decide his fate. You, get out of my med bay before I call security.:

Aquaregia pulled himself up to his full height. :I'm rather starting to dislike you, Autobot.:

:That's Medic Prime. Get lost.:

As he stalked out, Ratchet slumped a bit. He hugged the kid close, careful of his injuries. Sage whimpered faintly, clearly scared by the disagreement between the adults. Fang would side with him, certainly, but he was well aware of the political ramifications of making Aquaregia his enemy. 'Regia was Fang's second in command on Earth, and Fangface really didn't need his commander warring with his lover.

He also knew that finding Sage a new mentor was going to be tricky, at least partly on political grounds. After the arrival of the army, they'd drawn lots to determine the order that mechs got their sparklings, and all of the mechs with numbers coming up soon had their sparklings selected already, based on preferences for body type and processor configuration. He supposed someone might be willing to change their mind, but nobody on the schedule in the next few weeks seemed ideal for a traumatized kid. It was going to take tact and a delicate touch to convince Sage to trust a new mentor.

There were a few mechs scheduled to receive their kids in a couple of weeks that might work, but Ratchet didn't want the child to do without a true mentor for that long. Maybe someone could just take unofficial custody, "babysitting duty" basically, and nobody would notice ... he mulled over the possibilities. Arcee was probably the best bet, though he wondered if she would have the patience for the job. And she wasn't scheduled to get her kid for almost six weeks.

"Did I do something wrong?" Sage asked. He was relaxing now, fingers curling into Ratchet's grill.

"No, sparklet." Ratchet stepped back and raised the table, so that he would be on eye level with the child. "You're a brave kid. I'm proud of you for not panicking. I could see you were really scared."

"I'm scared." Sage's words were very soft. "I want Wheelie and nobody will go get him. 'Regia made him go away."

"It's okay to be scared, but we will take care of you." Ratchet spoke slowly and firmly. "Any friend of Wheelie's is a friend of mine, and I understand he likes you a lot. He asked me to make sure everyone treated you right."

"Where is Wheelie? I want to see him. What if he's hurt? Is he hurt?" The child was well-spoken, Ratchet noted. Sparklings came online speaking in everything from monosyllables to soliloquies, but short, clipped phrases were most common. Eventually, most sparklings got tired of the negative social feedback for "sounding like a baby" and started using complete sentences, but sometimes that took time. However patient sparklings like this one would sound like adults.

Most sparklings had the attention span of gnats. This child was clearly a different sort of personality. Most sparklings let their emotions rule their behavior. This child had remained calm, despite being deeply frightened.

"Wheelie's fine. You'll see him later."

"You made Aquaregia go away. I didn't like him. He was mad at me and I didn't do anything wrong!"

"I think he was more mad at me than at you," Ratchet murmured.

"He got madder when I resisted him," the kid protested. "He was mad because I didn't want him connected to me. I didn't like how he felt. I don't want him to do that again. Please don't let him do that again. Please?"

"I promise," Ratchet ran soothing fingers over the child's cranial plating. "I promise I won't let him do that again."

"Thank you," the child said, clearly believing his promise. Ratchet relaxed a little at that. There was nothing wrong with this child, psychologically. If anything, he was probably in better mental shape than a few of the other kids, including Prism, and definitely Array.

As a physician he'd learned he could predict a sparkling's reactions to medical procedures, and their behavior in general, simply by how well they used language. Sage was going to be a very easy child to work with, he thought. He was the sort of kid that mentors dreamed of having: bright, obedient, insightful, with a pitload of potential. A patient mentor would be able to earn his trust swiftly.

I could take him myself ... Ratchet thought, and gave the idea some serious thought for a moment before, reluctantly, concluding that he was just too busy. A few months from now, maybe he'd have the time, but not right now. It wouldn't be fair to Sage, though he had a suspicion that Sage would handle being babysat b with far more aplomb than Prism had.

Wheelie had volunteered to work in the SOA today, after he caught a couple hours recharge. He had commented to Ratchet that he didn't think it would be good for Sage's potential attachment to Aquaregia if he hung around the med bay, plus it was completely true that Aquaregia had demanded that Wheelie stay away from his child. Wheelie's expression had been something Ratchet wasn't going to soon forget. The kid was hurting. He was trying to hard to do the right thing, to be grown-up and mature, and Ratchet couldn't help but think that Aquaregia wasn't handling his disappointment nearly as well as Wheelie was dealing with the wretched grief of giving up a child he knew he couldn't have.

"Wheelie's ... not here." Ratchet sighed. Wheelie was just too young. It wouldn't be fair to either of them, would it?

"I'm really scared. Wheelie makes me less scared." Sage folded his arms across his chest and stared at Ratchet with wide eyes. "I really want Wheelie. Please? Can you tell him I want him?"

Even frightened, Sage was going to be easy to work with, but he hated to think the kid was scared. Aquaregia was out of the picture, if Ratchet had any say about it. With patience and encouragement, Aquaregia could have won Sage's trust and love, but the mech clearly wanted to take the easy way. He wouldn't put it past the Decepticon to do a reformat himself, if the medical staff wouldn't do it.

With Aquaregia gone, someone needed to take responsibility for babysitting the sparkling until they figured out who was going to raise him. Well, at least for today, he thought he had a solution for the 'babysitting' that would make two younglings happy.

:Wheelie,: he commed, :you busy?:

:Very, sir: Wheelie included an image of a work bench covered in dozens of optical sensors. Wheelie was apparently cleaning and testing all of them. He sounded irritated, and upset, and Ratchet wondered if he should feel sorry for the sensors. Wheelie was probably slamming the repaired parts together pretty hard. He'd seen Wheelie take his anger out on inanimate objects before.

:Get your aft up to the med bay. You've got a friend who keeps asking for you.:

:Ratchet,: Wheelie said, tone completely serious, :I don't want to get between 'Regia and ...:

:Commander Aquaregia suggested we reformat the kid and I said over my dead body and kicked him out.:

:Ratch, I could kiss you.:

:Do and I'll weld your lipplates together.:

That provoked a snort of laughter over the comm from Wheelie. :Though still, is it a good idea for him to see me? You're going to have to get him to bond to someone else now, and if he's attached to me that'll be harder.:

:He's already attached to you. Maybe if he trusts you, you can help him see someone else as a good mentor.: Ratchet couldn't help but smile at Wheelie's earnest attempts to do the right thing. Had there ever been a time when he'd viewed the kid with suspicion and wariness? It seemed like that had been a million years ago. :Get your aft up here. That's an order.:

:Yes sir.:

When Wheelie walked through the med bay doors, Sage's optics lit up. He straightened up and held his arms out to the smaller mech. "Wheelie!"

That was all the invitation it took. Wheelie's own face transformed from a scowl to a genuine, open smile. He scrambled up onto the medical berth and leaned into the sparkling's relieved hug. "How ya doing, scraplet?"

"I didn't want you to leave me," the sparkling said, arms tight around Wheelie. "Aquaregia doesn't listen!"

Wheelie shuttered his optics briefly, then said, "Yeah, well, 'Regia took care of you, right?"

"He didn't like me." Sage frowned. "I don't like people who don't like me."

"Smart kid. But I don't think Aquaregia dislikes you ..." Wheelie patted him on the shoulder. "You can let go of me now, I'm feeling a bit squished here."

"Oh." Sage released him quickly. "I am supposed to say I am sorry, right? I did not mean to hurt you. If I hurt you, you might not want to be around me. I don't want to be around Sunstreaker because he hurt me. You might feel the same way about me."

Wheelie stood on the berth next to him and patted him on the arm. "'S okay. You can hug me, just not so hard. You're too big to be rough with little guys like me. And I wouldn't leave you even if you accidentally hurt me, okay?"

He's too young for real nuanced empathy, Ratchet thought. But he's making basic comparisons between himself and the feelings of others. Pit, I'd be happy if Sunstreaker would do that much without being kicked in the aft and told to think with his processor instead of his spark!

The sparkling frowned. "I would feel awfully bad if I hurt you."

Old spark, probably. Had Ratchet been human, he would have described the sensation he felt as 'hairs rising on the back of his neck.' The kid just wasn't natural.

:Kid's amazing.: Wheelie met Ratchet's eyes over the top of his head. :Boss, I'd love to see you take him as yours.:

:I don't have time right now, Wheelie, and there's others who will be a good fit for this child.: Primus, he didn't want that sort of responsibility. Not any kid, and particularly not this kid. However, he moved closer and rested a hand on Sage's knee. "Okay, sparklet, I'm going to fix your leg first, because that's the easiest, and you can see it won't hurt when I work."

"Okay."

"Do you want to watch or do you want to lay back?"

"Watch."

Ratchet nodded. "Then you can sit up, but you need to be very still. If you move I'll have to cut your motor functions and you won't be able to move. But I think you're a brave kid and you'll just sit here and watch me work, right?"

"Yes sir."

He told himself the kid was just using the behavior routines that Wheelie had provided him, and it was nothing more. However, there was an almost eerie level of comprehension in those bright red optics. It was unnerving, to say the least.

After half an hour, he had finished with the kid's leg and had moved on to removing the mangled remnants of his right wing (Wheelie had already done a good job at isolating the pain receptors for it) when he Fang slouched into the med bay.

Ratchet couldn't help it. He flashed Fang a smile. Fang looked grumpy and half-awake, with a much more cheerful looking Prism riding on his shoulder. He'd had barely two hours of recharge, his shiny armor was covered in water spots and mud from the rain earlier, and Ratchet could have simply looked at him forever. That grouchy, tired, in-need-of-a-bath mech was his. It really was the most amazing thing to know that Fang had seen his flaws and wanted him still.

Fang looked up. Smiled faintly. Said, "I just had a discussion with Aquaregia."

"I told him not to wake you up." Ratchet was not happy about that. That explained the sour look on Fang's face.

"You're not in his chain of command." Fang's snark was a palpable thing. :I told him I disapproved highly of his request to reformat the child, in terms that left it clear he disappointed me.:

:Figured you would. Wish I could have been a fly on the wall, as the humans say.:

Prism, who had been sitting silently on Fang's shoulder, suddenly sprang to the sparkling's knee. Ratchet made a grab for her, but she neatly dodged his fingers and bounded up to the kid's shoulder, also avoiding Wheelie's attempt to snag her. Sage didn't even jump, he just looked at her curiously. "Hello."

Fang rolled his optics. He also moved several steps close, every system humming with restrained tension.

:The kid won't deliberately hurt her, and I'd be surprised if he did it accidentally,: Ratchet said, and shared a clip of Wheelie's discussion with Sage earlier.

Fang didn't relax. Ratchet didn't expect him to. :That's it. I'm making her a leash today.:

"Hi." Oblivious to their discussion, Prism chewed on a finger for a moment in a gesture that was so like Fang's nervous tic that Ratchet nearly laughed aloud. He wasn't worried about Prism's safety, though Fang was probably having a silent internal conniption fit.

After a long, slow period of curious study, Sage replied to Prism's greeting. "Hello. I'm Sage."

"Prism." She cocked her head to one side, then said, "You're gonna help us."

Sage smiled at her. "Why do you say that?"

"Because you're reaaaaaaallly old." She settled comfortably on his shoulder, curling up against his helm. "You're a kid, but you're way older than anyone I've ever met."

"Kiddo, how do you know how old he is?" Fang said. He traded a look with Ratchet.

"I just know. He's old, old, old." Prism smiled happily, looking content with her position on Sage's shoulder. "Way old. Older than Optimus. Older than Ironhide. Older than Grimlock. Ancient. Older than Kup and Skyfire and Starscream. Old. Really old."

"Okay, I get it." Fang grinned. "He's really old. How old?"

"Millions and millions and millions and millions of years. And millions."

"Uh-huh. And how do you know that?"

"He feels old."

:Ratch, what's his spark date? Out of curiosity.:

Ratchet sent a quick query to the sparkling's medical file and frowned when he discovered the lack of a spark date in the records. First Aid, who'd done the kid's overhaul, had noted 'date not found.' :I'll check. I need to access his internals to disconnect a few sensor nodes anyway.:

:Need to take him offline?:

:Nah, I'll just disconnect his motor functions. I don't believe I need to tell you what sparklings think of being taken forcibly offline. I think he'll stay calm if Wheelie stays with him.:

He turned to Sage, who said promptly, "I'm six point four hours old. She's giving you wrong data."

Ratchet laughed. "Prism likes you. What do you think of Prism?"

"She's silly. I'm not old."

"I am not!" Prism objected. "And you're old!"

"I like silly," the sparkling said, without anything but honesty in that voice.

"Okay." Prism grinned. "I'm silly."

Ratchet caught her and handed her down to Fang, who headed off towards one of the work benches, very likely with 'leash fabrication' in mind. "Sage, I need to work on your wings and I need to access some of your internals. What I'd like to do is temporarily cut access to a bunch of sensors. You won't feel any pain at all after that, but you also won't be able to move."

The child stared at him with wide eyes.

"Wheelie will stay with you and I'll tell you everything I'm doing before I do it. I'll be as quick as I can."

That got him another moment of thought before the sparkling nodded.

Wheelie tugged at his arm. "You're going to need to lie down. On your back first, then we'll turn you over."

"Okay." The sparkling's voice was very soft and hesitant, but he did as he was told. Wheelie took a seat cross-legged by his head.

"Can you see me okay?" Wheelie said.

The sparkling whispered, "Yes."

"Good. I'm gonna stay right here. Are you scared?"

"Yes."

"Well, that's okay. It's okay to be scared. I would trust Ratchet to work on me, however, and if he hurts you I'll make him stop. Then when you're all fixed we can do something fun."

:Odd kid.: Fang commented from his position seated on a work bench stool. Then he added, :Wheelie, I hope you didn't give him your social rules.:

:What was this I heard about Mikaela's ankle?: Ratchet asked.

:Primus. I will never live that down. And he has the standard social behavior guidelines. You know, don't cuss people out, respect your mentor, and follow adult orders.: Wheelie's grin was enormous. :Basically, he has all the rules I never followed.:

Fang laughed and put an arm easily around Wheelie's shoulders. The sparkling looked up at both of them, optics very wide. Fang chuckled, :You weren't that bad.:

:You can say that now.:

Fang grinned at him and said something on a private comm channel to Wheelie that made Wheelie snort a brief laugh, point a finger back at him, and probably respond with a mock threat. Fang's optics grew wide and an expression of faux terror crossed his face. He backed up, hands held up defensively, pretending to cower in fear. Ratchet watched the two of them with a bit of amusement. It was very good to see Fang and Wheelie getting along.

Then he turned his attention back to the sparkling, who was observing the byplay with wide optics and no comments or questions. Ratchet wondered if the child realized they were just playing. Did he have the ability to tell teasing from truth yet? Probably not.

Wheelie realized that the child was alarmed. He leaned over and murmured something low, and stroked his fingers over the kid's back. Sage shuttered his optics.

Accessing his internals went easy, surprisingly so. Ratchet had dealt with adults who'd fussed more over repairs. The sparkling simply lay quietly with his head in Wheelie's lap while Ratchet worked. Wheelie kept him distracted by telling him about the other kids - names, descriptions, funny stories. Fang interjected with a few tales of his own. The child didn't laugh, but he did smile occasionally.

The sparkling's memory core and processor had dates stamped on them consistent with one of Megatron's army of midget minions. However, as First Aid had noted in the sparkling's medical file, his spark chamber had no date stamped on it. He checked thoroughly, using a fiber optic camera to reach areas he couldn't easy see. It wasn't in any of the usual, or unusual, points.

He could have assumed it had simply been a rare production error. The technicians assembling his protoform might have simply forgotten to stamp the chamber. Mistakes did happen. However, careful scrutiny that this was not the child's original spark chamber. He flicked his optics over to several times magnification and studied the attachment points. There were scuffs and scratches around the bolts, and the protoform itself had been altered to retrofit in a new spark chamber.

Ratchet frowned, and ran a quick spectrographic analysis of the spark chamber.

It wasn't a modern alloy.

His optic ridges rose. Aside from specialized applications such as Fang's exotic protoform, they'd been using the same alloy for spark chambers for millions of years.

He looked up at Fang. :Your kid's psychic.:

:Tcha! I'd begun to suspect that. How old is he?:

:Spark chamber is truly ancient. Damned if I know what it means.: Ratchet dug a small laser scalpel out of his kit. He trimmed off a piece of metal no larger than a human's pinky nail and dropped it into a sterile sample bottle.

Fang's usual detail of Autobot guards was outside the door. Ratchet summoned Beachcomber inside the med bay and handed the sample to him. "Run this up to Percy. Ask him to date it and bring his report to me personally on an encrypted datapad."

After Beachcomber had left, Ratchet got back to work. He would need to fabricate new wings, but that wasn't urgent. The sparkling wouldn't be allowed to fly for a good long while, not until they were assured he could follow directions and handle the responsibility. For now, Ratchet just rolled him over onto his front and carefully removed the remaining wing and the damaged circuits and sensors from his back. While he worked, Fang moved to the forge and shaped a couple plates of duryllium to cover the holes that removing the wings left.

By the time Ratchet was done with the temporary repairs to the kid's back, Fang had the armor plates completed. They bolted them in place, then Ratchet reconnected his motor functions.

The child sat up, tucking his legs to his chest. He said softly, "Thank you."

"Aww, you were great." Wheelie sat down next to him, in a more relaxed position.

"I'm very tired," the sparkling replied, in the same quiet tone.

:I'm amazed he hasn't fallen into recharge spontaneously after all the excitement and stress. - Wheelie, I don't think you've had close to enough either.: Ratchet thought that the sparkling wasn't the only young mech who looked exhausted.

:I'll be okay, I'm not having any errors yet.:

:Hnnh. We can spare you for now. Go take Junior here up to your quarters and put him down for a nap. You take one too. When he wakes up do a scan of his processor and make sure there aren't any major errors.: Ratchet frowned. :Stay right with him. Don't let him out of your sight, don't let anyone else babysit him even for a minute. If you need to go do anything without him comm me or Fang or one of the other Primes. We'll take over.:

:He ... me? You want
me to jack in and do the scan?: Wheelie looked puzzled by the orders.

:If he doesn't have a mentor, one of the medical staff has to do it. Young sparklings need to be scanned frequently for hardware or software glitches, but you know that. You've been studying this, right? Time you got some hands on practice.: Ratchet felt his expression soften as he saw Wheelie's consternation. He sighed across the comm at him. :Wheelie, he trusts you. Let's not confuse him any more than we have to by having multiple people poke around in his mind.:

:I know he does. It'll just make it harder to give him up, the more I mess around with him.: Wheelie wouldn't meet his gaze, or Fang's either. :I do ... I do want him, as mine. I can't help wanting and it's gonna hurt like the Pit already to let someone else be his mentor.:

Ratchet really was sympathetic. :Wheelie, I know it hurts. However, until we decide who will get the privilege of raising him, I want you to take care of him. He is comfortable with you, and that level of comfort and trust is important. I know you don't want to get too attached, but making sacrifices on behalf of the kiddies is part of being an adult, yes?:

Wheelie made a face, mouth turning down in a frown and optics rolling. :I know, you don't have to tell me! Just ... don't mind me if I mope about a bit. 'Cuz I like the kid and I'm gonna hate to see him go on to someone else.: Then he slid off the table and then held a hand up to the sparkling. "C'mon, Sage. Let's go."

Fang made an exaggerated wince and shuddered, rattling all his armor plates, after they'd left the med bay. "Primus. What are we dealing with, Ratch?"

"That sparkling's just plain not normal." Ratchet shuttered his optics and rubbed his nasal ridge. "Prism, kiddo, how did you know he was old?"

She frowned. "I just did. He felt old."

"His spark did?"

"Yah."

"You can sense sparks?"

She shrugged, and wriggled out of Fang's arms. While scampering away under some machinery she said, "Can't you? He felt really old. New and old at the same time."

"I can't feel them like I suspect you can." He and Fangface traded a look. Such gifts were not unheard of - Soundwave had been notoriously telepathic - and could be explained and defined by quantum mechanics. It had to do with the quantum resonance of a mech's spark and various dimensional mumbo-jumbo that Ratchet could explain only after a refresher review of some very esoteric research papers. It was, however, a rare gift, granted quite sparingly by the Allspark.

"Well, no duh!" She stuck her head out from behind his work bench. "You guys just don't listen right."

:Primus, that's the last thing I need, a psychic Prism.: Fangface facepalmed. :I have way too many problems as it is.:

:It's not always a problem.:

:Not if you don't mind never keeping a secret from your kid.: Fang groaned. :Nevermind what it does to their social life and their general psychological development. I wonder what her range is? Pit slagging hell. She's enough of a handful as it is. I love her dearly, but ... Pit! How am I going to keep ahead of her if she can tell what I'm thinking?:

:You're not alone in dealing with this.: Ratchet pointed out, softly, gently. They were alone in the med bay except for Prism. He decided a moment of mush wouldn't kill him, particularly since Prism was distracted for the moment with a crayon she'd just found under one of the tables. He accompanied his words by kneeling and reaching out for Fang. :If you're my partner I am her secondary guardian.:

:Pit. She could be listening in to our thoughts right now ...:

Ratchet doubted that. The crayon was a lot more interesting to Prism than anything the adults in her life might be thinking about. Over Fang's shoulder he could see that she was trying it out on the leg of a table, and normally he would have scolded her, but he supposed it was good she was distracted just now. Fang willingly leaned into his embrace and he said firmly, :Focus on how much you love her rather than rejecting her because of a gift Primus gave her.:

:I'm not rejecting her!: Fang said, sounding a bit frantic. He stiffened, trying to push away. :Pit, I wouldn't do that, I wouldn't! Never again, never!:

:And she's gonna know that, if she gets good enough to read thoughts rather than mere feelings. It will be okay. You love her, and you want her, and she'll know that.:

:I know that.: He scowled, then his expression lightened and he relaxed. :You're right. She'll probably be okay.: Ratchet's spark soared at Fang's willingness to take comfort from him. Though he would never admit it aloud, he knew he had very nearly lost Fang forever - and he considered Fang's decision to trust him unconditionally a minor miracle.

Fang then admitted, quietly, :Ratch, I'm so tired, and it puts me in a really nasty negative mood when I get this way. I don't just mean the physical tired. I just wish we could catch a break for a bit. There's too much going on and it would be nice if we could just make the universe stop until I got caught up.:

Ratchet sighed. Fang was the eloquent one of the two of them. He kept his response simple and practical. :I can't make the universe stop, but I can make sure nobody disturbs you unless it's an emergency. Do you want to try again for a nap in one of the exam rooms?:

:You haven't had any sleep either.:

:I have a bigger processor and it doesn't need to be defragged as often. I'll be fine.: Actually, he felt like living slag, but he wasn't about to tell Fang that either. It would not be the first or last time he'd worked while severely deprived of recharge. His role in the clusterfuck of a battle coming up was routine. Fang's part wasn't nearly as simple, and Fang didn't emotionally or physically deal with stress and exhaustion anywhere near as well as Ratchet did.

Therefore, Ratchet had decided, he'd make sure the damned little glitch got a nap, for all their sakes.

Fang studied his expression for a moment, then nodded quiet acceptance. :Thank you, Ratchet.:

:Mmmhmm. Go.: He could hear people - several people - approaching in the hall. :Room number four. It's got soundproofing. Turn the lights down, put some music on, and take a nap. You've damn well earned it. I'll watch Prism until Percy can take her.:

Fang stretched up to his full height, which, since Ratchet was crouching as low as he could without actually sitting, put them at eye level. He leaned over Ratchet's bumper, and pressed his forehead to Ratchet's shoulder. Fang stroked the Ratchet's jaw for a second and then whispered, "I love you, you know."

"Yeah, likewise. Now, get." He suddenly wanted nothing more than to curl up in a berth with Fang, but that would have to wait until later. Fang did need the rest, and Ratchet did not have time.

He raised a hand from Fang's slim hips to Fang's shoulder, intending to push him away. Instead, when his sensitive fingers touch the body that he'd repaired so many times, he turned the gesture into a gentle caress. He just didn't want to let go, slaggitall. So much for 'Get!' - an order to get lost that Fang was completely ignoring.

People were coming. It might be an open secret, but flaunting their relationship was a bad idea. They needed to be discrete. He knew he should push Fang away. Fang had a tendency to hyper-focus during emotional moments, and he probably didn't even know someone was coming ... Fang's optics were focused on his face, his mouth slightly open, and a smile on his lips. Fang started to lean into him.

Before he could shoo his lover away, however, the door slid open. With the secondary optics mounted on his back, Ratchet identified Starscream, and an accompanying pack of Autobot guards. He groaned mentally. Fangface stiffened and hastily retreated from the intimate touch, eyes narrowing at Autobots and seeker indiscriminately. "Breathe one word of mockery and I will have your plating," Fang promised all and sundry.

Starscream smirked at him and held both hands up, imitating defensiveness. "I'm not feeling suicidal today."

Ratchet mimicked Fang's earlier facepalm.

Fang's expression morphed from indignant embarrassment at being caught in an unguarded moment straight to real, honest worry for Starscream. Ratchet could read him like a book; Fang was thinking about those horrible memories Ratchet had shown him. Ratchet, by contrast, was relieved by Starscream's snarky comment. A long recharge and time to think about what had happened and replay a few memories had probably done the seeker a world of good. Starscream being Starscream, he was now trying for a reaction.

Fang being Fang, Starscream probably wasn't going to get the reaction he was angling for. Ratchet was pretty sure that the Starscream thought he knew Fang, having commanded him for many years. However, Fang had been keeping his head down and his nose clean, intent primarily on survival, for most of that time. He had not been carrying a Matrix. His priorities were different now, and Starscream was going to need to adjust his assumptions.

After flicking a glance at the Autobots accompanying him, Fang simply said, "Starscream, we need to talk."

Starscream blinked at the complete lack of irritation or defensiveness from Fang. He gave Ratchet a narrow-eyed suspicious look, most likely correctly assuming that Ratchet had discussed the events of yesterday with Fang, then demanded, "Why?"

"Follow me," Fang said, making it a firm order. He padded off into the exam room that Ratchet had previously indicated had a privacy shield. Starscream scowled, but followed.

Ratchet thought the reaction of the guards was interesting as the two disappeared into the room. It said something about Starscream's reputation that Grimlock was leading the security detail, and every single Autobot on it was of the large, heavily armored, viciously aggressive type. All six of them ... twitched ... when Fang disappeared into the room and the door slid shut. By their expressions and body language they didn't like leaving Fang alone with Starscream.

For his own part, he wasn't concerned about Fang's safety. Starscream wasn't armed, and Fangface could rip him apart in a physical fight.

Ratchet looked up at Grim when the big dinosaur shifted his weight slightly. Grimlock grinned toothily but didn't say a word. Ratchet snorted.

Grimlock then said, in the brightest, perkiest voice that Ratchet had ever heard come out of the crusty old warrior's vocalizer, "Me, Grimlock, think Fang cute."

There were lots of mechs he'd expected to be teased by. Grimlock was not on the list. Ratchet stared at him in frank surprise.

Grimlock grinned, baring many teeth.

"Angling for permission, are you?" Ratchet recovered swiftly. Never let it be said he couldn't give as good as he got. "I've never minded threesomes and if you think he's cute I'd be happy to set you up."

Grimlock's smile disappeared. He observed in his usual grumbling tone, "Pit slag. Ratchet scary." His eyes narrowed. "You not share. Grim not want scrawny nervous glitch for mate, but you not share. You lie."

Grimlock was far more perceptive than he usually let on. Amused, Ratchet replied, "Me, Ratchet, really scary if any of you lot utter a word of this in gossip. All of you, get!"

At least Autobots obeyed orders better than Fang did. They headed for the door en mass, even Grimlock. Grimlock stopped in the doorway, however, and said over his shoulder, "Ratchet, are you sure you can trust him?"

Not a trace of the speech impediment in that question, Ratchet noted, even as his annoyance flared that Grim still didn't trust Fang. Grimlock had his reasons, but the constant paranoia was getting irritating. "Yes, I'm sure. Now get out of here!"

Grimlock exited with what looked like an irritated swish of his tail. You had to sort of know him to read the satisfaction in his body language. He didn't trust Fang, and he apparently thought he'd made some sort of point.

Ratchet wondered what the Primes whispered from Grimlock's Matrix.

:That he needs a girlfriend,: Vermillion Prime said to Ratchet, with a loud cackle of amusement. :And that every time he thinks 'damn predacons' he needs to remember he technically is one now.:

:Hello, Vermin,: Ratchet managed to respond calmly, as if he hadn't just booted half his combat routines in surprise. Of course, Vermillion knew he'd been startled by his unexpected voice, but Ratchet was proud that he'd kept his voice level.

:What, I am curious to know, would you have done if he'd taken you up on that offer?:
The ancient Prime asked. Vermillion sounded deeply, deeply amused.

Ratchet thought Vermillion Prime was a lot less like Optimus and a lot more like Sideswipe. That observation earned him a cackle of laughter. Ratchet said, :I would have forwarded the proposition on to Fang just to see the Snowflake glitch out. - You got anything to tell me, Prime, or are you just here for the chuckles?:

:I was eternally grateful when the Matrixes accepted you lot, you know. Optimus is a wonderful mech, but he takes himself so seriously even inside his own processor that he's a bit boring. Between you and Grimlock and Rodimus, I don't believe I've laughed as hard over the last few weeks as I have in millions of years.:

:I'm glad I amuse you. What do you want?:

:Healer Prime,:
Vermillion Prime said, sounding serious now, :It would be nice if you treated me with the respect due my position.:

:Riiiiiight. You just admitted to giving Grimlock dating advice. If Primus himself ever deigns to speak to me, I'll polish off my manners. It'd piss you off if I called you 'sir'.:

Peals of laughter from the ancient Prime made Ratchet smile. He liked Vermillion, and his affection only grew when the ancient Prime said, :Healer Prime, you were accepted as a Prime due to your empathy, your strength of character and your leadership abilities. Tact is not actually a job requirement.:

:Thank Primus for that, or you'd have to fire half of us. What do you want, Vermillion?:

:Aside from some personal respect? I wish to plead to you to make sure that Sage's best interests are looked out for.:

:Vermillion?: Ratchet said, surprised that the child was that important. With a sudden, growing, sense of anticipation he asked, :Who is he, then?:

:A simple child.: Vermillion's normally cheerful voice tone turned serious once more. :He was something more, once. Ratchet, I did know him, personally, when I was young and he already had lived a life spanning several million years. He was the most selfless and humble mech I ever knew. I asked him once, however, if he had any selfish wishes. I was teasing, mind, but he answered me honestly.:

Ratchet found he was standing very still. Who was the child?

:He ... said he would like to return someday, after he died, and live an ordinary life in the society he helped create. To be a part of it, rather than an observer, an outsider ... In his first life, he was created into a time of chaos and savagery and madness, and he gave us the seeds to become one of the greatest civilizations ever to grace this reality. All he wanted ... the only selfish wish he had ... was to live someday as just another mech, and to enjoy the fruits of the world he had created. He was always set apart, always treated as a holy relic of a time long gone. He helped create our world, but he was never a part of our world.:

:He wanted to enjoy the fruits of his labor?: Ratchet shook his head in disbelief. :Who, Vermillion? Who is he?: His eyes narrowed. :The eighth Prime. Slaggit, he's been under our noses!:

Vermillion laughed. :No, the child is not the eighth Prime.:

:Then who is that Prime? I've been scanning every mech who comes in this facility for a Matrix.:

Vermillion snorted. :You can stop doing that.: The ancient Prime seemed to think for a moment before adding, :Actually, technically, Sage would be considered a Prime. Once you have been a host to a Matrix you do not lose the title even if you have passed the Matrix on to another. However, weren't referring to young Sage when we decided to tease you with that puzzle. Besides, if he had a Matrix, he'd be able to recover his memories from the Matrix's core and he would be no sparkling at all.:

:Can't you just give me a straight answer?:

:It's not nearly as much fun.: Vermillion giggled. Ratchet scowled. Ancient dead Primes were not suppose to giggle like an overclocked Jazz. :However, since you asked so nicely, he has the spark of one of the thirteen original Primes.:

:... Sent by Primus himself to lead our people from darkness.: Ratchet breathed. Oh, the child represented such hope. They needed a child like that, a leader like that, someone that their people could truly rally around and follow. He could be the symbol that their world needed. And his memories ... if one of them carried his Matrix, he could be given his memories back.

Tartly, Vermillion snapped, :I said I want you to look out for his best interests.:

:But we need ...:

Vermillion had clearly been observing Ratchet's thoughts. He said sharply, sounding annoyed, :You need no such thing.:

:... Vector.: Ratchet repeated in disbelief, a guess fueled by a quick query of his own Matrix. Vector Prime was the only one of the thirteen unaccounted for. Though long presumed dead - at least in their reality - his body had never been found. He'd disappeared while visiting another, parallel, reality. He repeated, :You're telling me Vector-slagging-Prime is here, with us?:

:Nice guess. And no. I'm telling you his spark is. Vector-slagging-Prime died almost a million years ago. The Decepticons found his ship in orbit around an alien star, his spark a bare flicker maintained on this side of the Well only by the hand of Primus, his Matrix gone before his death. His shell, his spark, were stranded there for millions of years.:

:Primus.: Had he been human and a follower of certain flavors of Christian Ratchet would have crossed himself. As it was, he very nearly dropped to the ground, to one knee, to bow in reflexive humility. Only the fact that he was already seated, and he wasn't sure in which direction to bow, stopped him.

:Indeed. Primus.:

Ratchet recovered his composure after a couple of system resets. :Vermin ... Vermillion ... but what of our interests?: He shook his head. :I can do the math. We are perilously close to dying out as a people. If he saved us once, he could do it again. They started with thirteen people gifted by Primus with sentience, and the Allspark, and a horde of mechs with no more than machine language for an operating system that they had to civilize. From that raw beginning they built a society, a world, in a few scant generations. The spark gifts ... the spark gifts Vector must have ... oh, Primus. Primus. We need him so bad.:

:Ratchet, you do not need him. Not as a leader, and not even as a figurehead.:

:But ...:

:Optimus, Ironhide, Grimlock, Rodimus, Bumblebee, Fangface and yourself. Seven Primes. Seven heroes, leading the last remnants of our people to a new world, a new way of life. Seven who will lead us back from the brink of the Pit.:

:Then why ... why would Primus save him, keep him alive, I assume you literally meant that Primus intervened ... but if he's not needed ...:

:I cannot speak for Primus or his reasoning. However, I made him a promise.:

:A promise?:

:Yes, Ratchet, a promise. Would you like to see a memory I have of him?:

:I ... yes. Of course.:

He expected a memory file. He didn't anticipate that he would to suddenly find himself standing, unobserved, in a room on Cybertron. He was home, in one pulse of his spark. Out one window he could see the spires of a Cybertronian city. On the opposite side of the room, Cybertron's sun was rising over the mountains. It felt incredibly real - he could smell the chemistry of Cybertron's thin atmosphere, feel the heavier gravity, and sense the cool bite of temperatures close to the freezing point of water. His internal heater kicked on, and his hydraulics adjusted to his increased weight.

Traffic noises hummed up from a street below. It was as if he'd suddenly been transported to the Cybertron he'd known and deeply loved before the war. Only when he looked closely did he recognize that, while the skyline was very different, but he could see the mountains beyond the city limits. Those were fairly unchanged, and he'd viewed them every day from his apartment a block from the Senate building and five minutes from the university, in those long-lost pre-war days. Iacon was his home, and he'd never expected to see it again.

:When?: he asked, when he could speak without fuzzing his words with static. It hurt to see it so very real, and to know this was an illusion. He knew, logically speaking, Iacon was gone. All that was left was a bombed-out ruin, the remnants of the famed towers now jagged, twisted, blackened stumps. Multiple nuclear strikes with the dirtiest weapons that the Decepticons could produce had left Iacon a radioactive no-go zone, hazardous to even hardy Cybertronian life.
He could never go home. There was nothing to go home to.

He firmly told himself that this didn't exist, even though every sensor he possessed insisted that it was real.

:This is from a time about six million years ago.:
Vermillion said, then added in a rather too-controlled tone, :It was my home too, Ratchet. We are not immune to feeling strong emotions, even when we pass on to the Well.:

Two mechs stepped into the room, in the illusion that Vermillion had cast. The render was so detailed he could scarcely believe it. Renders could typically duplicate tactile and auditory information, but not temperature or scent or gravity. He wondered how Vermillion was achieving the last ... he couldn't conceive of a rational explanation. He clamped his plating tight to his body in a reflexive reaction to the unease this line of thought created. It was strange. Supernatural.

One of the mechs who had entered was tall, elegant, Optimus's height but that was the only resemblance. He was all golden armor and long limbs, elegant and lean, and Ratchet knew his alt mode was a sleek golden jet. Ratchet recognized him immediately, gasped, and then froze, half afraid the mech would hear him. It was only a memory, and the two figures did not react to his presence, but he felt as if he was in the very room with them.

Never
had he seen such a realistic holographic render. He could sense the faint vibrations through the floor as the big mech moved, could detect the trace exhaust products from his power plant, could feel a slight eddy of air as the ancient one walked past him. He had green optics, a face that was still and quiet, though not inexpressive: a small smile played around his lipplates, and his eyes seemed calmly amused. His wings were backswept and elegant, and Ratchet knew he transformed into a sleek fighter not unlike a seeker.

So realistic ... so very, very realistic.

Dryly, Ratchet commented to Vermillion Prime, :Hnh. Bet you could give someone one hell of a nightmare if you wanted.:

:Can. Have.: The ancient Prime snickered. :The Fallen hated me.:

:Good for you.:

:Optimus has been less than pleased a few times too.:

:Good for you.: Ratchet had wanted to smack their fearless leader upside the head with a clue bat occasionally. He was pleased to surmise that the Order had taken care of this need for him. The ancient Prime promptly responded to either his words or his assumption with a gigglefit that would have done a sparkling proud. Ratchet fought the urge to roll his optics. He was unimpressed by the snickering.

Meanwhile, in the render, the ancient golden Prime was completely serious when he said to Vermillion's much younger image, "Vermillion, I must thank you."

"Not a problem, boss." In contrast with the golden mech's formal cadence, the holographic Vermillion's response was cheerfully informal. Ratchet wasn't the least bit surprised. "You looked like you needed a save, there."

The golden mech's lipplates tilted up with just a little more of a friendly smile. He wasn't unwelcoming of the other's casual cheer, but his own demeanor remained reserved. "Indeed."

Ratchet turned his attention briefly to the smaller mech, whose paint was a brilliant red shading towards orange. The young Vermillion was shorter than Ratchet had mentally envisioned. This was definitely a young Vermillion, before he ever became Prime. Aside from being about Jazz's size, his appearance suited his personality: cheerful, energetic, playful. He'd clearly added some height later in life, as most of the memories of him in Ratchet's Matrix and in the ancient history files that Ratchet had studied were of a taller mech.

His optics were as green as the Ancient One's, which was probably a deliberate choice as a sign of affiliation.

In the render of that time long ago, Vermillion had the raised insignia of the Iaconian Senate on his chest plate, with embossed modifiers indicating he was a high-ranking oathsworn servant. Even as Ratchet watched, Vermillion produced a polishing cloth from his subspace and made a twirling motion with his fingers. "Turn 'round, Boss. You've got scratches on your back."

The golden mech smiled a little more and did as he was ordered by his underling. Vermillion stretched upwards and attacked the marks with efficient fervor. "Spiral's a nitwit, Vector. You know that."

Vector Prime, Ratchet thought. The realization caused a rush of disbelief and awe. Even though he knew this was an illusion, he felt as if he was in the presence of that ancient hero.

"Spiral worries." Vector sighed to his servant. "There is nothing I can do to assuage his concerns, and some of them are valid. His method of presentation of those concerns is perhaps not ideal, but he does have a very good point."

"Still, he didn't have to express that point at such length."

"Which is why I thanked you for manufacturing an incident to draw me away from the meeting." Vector half turned to look down at Vermillion. Ratchet was surprised by the twinkle of amusement in those green eyes now.

"Hold still," Vermillion chided. "I'm almost done here." He was industriously buffing out nearly invisible scratches.

Vector ignored the request, and turned the rest of the way around. Vermillion took a step back, polishing cloth hanging from his hand, and gazed up at the ancient Prime. "Sir?"

"I just wanted to make sure you knew how fond I am of you," Vector said. "It is moments like your actions this day, when you act out of personal concern for me, that remind me why."

"Yeah, yeah, I know I'm your favorite." Vermillion seemed embarrassed by the praise. He shuffled in place. "Never could figure out why, but ..."

Vector corrected sharply, "You are not my favorite, inasmuch as your usage of that term would imply preferential treatment. I do not have a 'favorite' among the staff. Have I ever treated you differently than any other sworn to my service, despite my fondness for you?"

"No," Vermillion sighed, frowning. Now his embarrassment was a clearly lot more genuine. "No, you don't. I'm sorry. I .. it was wrong of me to imply that you do."

Vector touched Vermillion under the chin, urging him to look upwards and meet his gaze. Ratchet saw the first hint of a break in his poise, however, as Vermillion's posture shifted ever so slightly towards the defensive. The mech said, "However. Unlike many, I consider you my personal friend, Vermillion. Were it not ... if not for for who they think I am ... if I had another life ... I would ..." he trailed off.

The tall golden mech's self-assurance had completely vanished, making Ratchet want to laugh. He'd never expected in his lifetime to see Vector-slagging-Prime flustered. Very clearly he was, and he'd stumbled to an awkward halt, optics suddenly wide and startled. He apparently had no idea what to say, though both Ratchet and the young holographic Vermillion had a good idea of what he meant.

Young Vermillion's optics were wide and bright, but also dancing with merriment. He gazed up at his leader with awe. "... Vector Prime? What are you saying to me?"

Vector Prime shuttered his optics and did a systems check, centering himself and regarding his poise before speaking. He said, more coherently, "If I were another mech, I would ... have made my interests clear to you a long time ago. I fear that what I would like to say to you would be ... unfair. I do not ever wish to pressure you, or make you feel obligated by anything I want of you beyond the purely professional."

"Unfair?" Vermillion flared, sudden anger rising to the surface. "How do you figure it's unfair? What are you saying?"

"They think I speak with the word of Primus." Vector stepped away from Vermillion and walked to one of the windows. There, he stood with his hands behind his back, gazing out at the city. "They hang on my every word as if our God himself uttered it. I am a mere mortal, Vermillion, imperfect and flawed, with both gifts and weaknesses inherent in my Spark, as with any other mech. I was created with gifts that make me a good leader and a better researcher and explorer. Yet they do not acknowledge my flaws, only my strengths."

Vermillion folded his arms in irritation. "I get it. You like me, you're afraid if you make an overture they'll harass me about it. Slag that. You're too isolated, too lonely. Frankly, you need somebody. Not necessarily me, but someone."

"I do not believe that they will think negatively of you, though I suppose some may be jealous, and try to prove you unworthy. However, if I chose a partner," Vermillion bowed his head, "then I fear the majority of mechs will imbue traits upon that partner that he does not possess. Surely, the partner of Vector Prime must be as perfect as he supposedly is ... you would find such assumptions quite stifling."

Vermillion snorted. Ratchet could see that he wasn't taking the discussion quite seriously, perhaps because it was too much for him to process.

The younger mech said lightly, jokingly, "Nah. Such assumptions would only last until the first time I lost my temper and cursed someone out. You know me, Vector. Nobody would have illusions about my supposed perfection for long. They'd just have to deal with the real me - probably be good for the whole slagging lot of 'em, our whole world, to be reminded nobody's perfect." He made a flipping gesture with one hand, as if shooing away the concerns. "Nobody's ever gonna think I'm perfect."

Vector was very, very silent for a very long moment. Finally, softly, he said, "Because I am mortal, because I have the real desires and needs of a real mech, because I am very fond of you and think perhaps it is love and it has been a very long time since I have known anyone with the strength of character and the courage to be my partner... then I ask you, would you consider it?" He added wryly. "As evidence of my own imperfections, I am asking you this knowing that it will not be easy for you to be my ... lover."

The smaller red mech took a startled step backwards. He stared up at his leader, mouth hanging open, eyes wider than they had been before. "... Me? I didn't expect you to really ask for real. I didn't think you were serious about this ... I'm sorry, I thought you were flirting or something weird ... you don't flirt, I shoulda realized ... I'm sorry ..."

"You are one of the few people in this world who treats me as an equal," Vector said, quietly. Ratchet could see the nervousness in Vector's stance, but he was a medic, trained to look for subtle cues. He wondered if Vermillion could read the tension.

Vector continued, "I have suspected for a long time that you may feel love towards me. I wish you to know that the feeling is reciprocated, Vermillion. I ... ask knowing you will need to make sacrifices for this relationship. I ask this knowing it will not be easy for you, but ... I want you as more than a friend. I ... can see you were not expecting this. Perhaps you should think about what I am offering before answering."

He added, with a ghost of humor, "I still won't treat you with favoritism compared to the others, outside of our private lives."

Definitely nervous, Ratchet diagnosed. Vector probably had not been planning on propositioning - perhaps proposing might be a better word - his servant, but Vermillion's impulsive words had given him an opening.

Vermillion shook his head, suddenly, somewhat to Ratchet's disgust. If Vector-slagging-Prime asked you to be his partner, and you loved him, the answer you should give was pretty damn clear to Ratchet. However, the young mech protested, somewhat desperately, "Vector, no. It's not the sacrifice! I'd lay my life down for you, and what you represent, but be your partner? I'm not worthy!" The red mech stepped backwards again, tripped over his own feet, and went clattering to the ground with an enormous crash of metal.

Vector's expression stilled. He made a swiftly aborted movement to offer Vermillion a hand up, thinking better about reaching for the younger mech when his hand was halfway extended and Vermillion continued to stare at him in complete disbelief.

Ratchet couldn't read a thing about the ancient Prime's emotions now; the mech's famed reserve and dignity were very clearly in evidence, and were also probably a complete act. Ratchet pegged him as being a lot like Prowl, in that the only way you could tell he was truly upset was that he was showing no emotion at all.

He stood tall, cool, unexpressive, and asked in a voice that held no emotional modifiers, "That is your definitive answer, then?"

Ratchet thought if he'd been in Vector's shoes he'd have tried to do a little more convincing. However, Vermillion's fall and the noise it had generated were bringing guards at a run. Several large, heavily armed soldiers burst into the room without hesitation or invitation.

"I fell," Vermillion said, stiffly, to the guards, as they rushed to the pair. Vector now moved to offer him a hand up but two of the guards inserted themselves between Vector and Vermillion, one murmuring, 'Allow me, sir,' to Vector as he pulled Vermillion back to his feet. The other, not particularly discretely, stayed alert to any possible threat, with a special and blatantly suspicious focus on the servant. Vermillion was almost certainly known by the guards, but it was very clear that they trusted no one with Vector's safety, not even his most closely trusted servants.

Given Vector's legendary fighting prowess, Ratchet figured the guards were redundant, but as any good medic knew redundant systems were sometimes very necessary. Still, he was surprised by the swift reaction. Vector's famed energon sword, supposedly a gift from Primus himself, hung from his hip. He had cannons mounted on both forearms, a plasma knife strapped to one leg, and - if the legends were true - a near legendary ability to reformat his alt mode in mid fight, in a blink of an eye.

Why were they so paranoid? He didn't understand.

"My Prime, sir, what happened?" The biggest of the guards asked, sounding worried. "Did he assault you, or was there trouble?"

"No trouble," Vector said, "I trust Vermillion completely. He simply was surprised by something I said, and tripped. You may go."

"Yes sir," the guard said, dubiously. "My Prime, if you're sure there is no issue ..."

"None. I was having a private conversation with Vermillion, and would like to resume it."

It was a clear dismissal. The guards saluted, then left swiftly. When they were gone, Vector turned back to Vermillion, and said with a small smile, "They worry about me too much. You are trusted, and they know that, but their job is to be paranoid of everyone and everything."

Ratchet thought there was just the faintest hint of bitterness in those words, a ghost of resentment. That suspicion was confirmed when the tall golden Prime seated himself on a bench, and said in that same soft, calm tone to Vermillion, "Will you sit with me?"

"Sir?"

"Sit with me, please." Vector held a hand out to the younger red mech. "Just for a little bit."

"I ..." Vermillion blinked, but took the hand that Vector was offering. The Prime pulled him forward, and Vermillion squeaked in mild protest as Vector slipped his arms around him. "Your plating, sir, you have an audience with the senators later, and I'll scratch it ..."

Good for you, Ratchet thought, with approval, about Vector's actions. He had no doubt that Vector would let Vermillion loose if he really protested. Vermillion's objections didn't look like they were all that sparkfelt.

"Shh." Vector swept an arm under his legs and pulled him into his lap. This created a clatter of metal on metal and, inevitably, the door opened again.

Vermillion froze and for a terrible moment Ratchet thought he was going to start struggling. Vector, however, simply looked over Vermillion's head at the guard and said, in a tone that was definitely bordering on annoyed, "Please make sure nobody disturbs us, Silverstrut."

"I ... ah ... YES sir." The guard retreated rather hurriedly. By his poleaxed expression, this had not been a scenario he had ever envisioned.

Vector turned his attention back to the mech in his arms. "Shh. Relax."

"Sir, I'm just a servant, we can't, why me? You ... you could have anyone you want, I'm not ..." Vermillion still wasn't fighting for freedom from the older Prime's arms, but he was clearly ready to now. "Sir, the appearances, sir ... are you trying to seduce me?"

"I am not." Vermillion answered the last question with a slight slackening of his arms. "I ... believe you love me, though, is that not correct?"

Slagger, Ratchet thought, irritated against all logic, Vector, you should have answered 'yes' - you might not be planning on 'facing the little glitch until he trips every breaker in his frame right now, but I'm betting that's in your plans.

"But I'd never act on that love!"

"I thought you saw through the illusion others have cast around me," Vector tightened his grip again. When Vermillion started to speak, Vector interrupted him to add, "Shh. It's okay. I am not trying to seduce you, Vermillion. However, it has been a very long time since anyone has dared to, as you pointed out, to scratch my plating. If you love me ... will you indulge me in this, just for a little bit? Please?"

Oh, for crying out loud! Ratchet rolled his optics. Just grope his damned data ports until he gives in. If he really wanted loose I don't think he'd be shy about telling you, not Vermillion ... mech hasn't known how to shut up since the day he was onlined.

Vermillion Prime cackled in Ratchet's mind, and Vermillion-the-servant from so long ago subsided, and relaxed, leaning into the tall golden Prime's chest. Vector held him close, arms around him, hands spread across his back. He leaned back and shut off his optics and just sat there for a few minutes. Finally, the ancient Prime spoke, "... this is not how I envisioned this admission to go, Vermillion."

"... But ... I do, I know you're just a mech, you've told me that, but this isn't ... I couldn't possibly ..." Vector stammered.

"Shh. I've heard, and I understand, your stance. I did not read you correctly. You were interacting with me as an equal not because you saw yourself as my peer, but because you knew it pleased me. It was all an act, albeit a very good one." Vector stared off at nothing, primary optics unfocused. "You will use that ability to act with such convincing realism to do great good in your life, I believe. There is no maliciousness in your spark, no evil."

The words had a ring of truth to them, Ratchet thought, but Vermillion squeaked some sort of protest that ended with, "... but I'm not your 'peer' and you asked me to be informal with you and I wasn't really faking it, I do like you, and ...!"

"Shhh." Vector stroked the other's fiery plating. "It's okay. I understand."

The ancient Prime's expression was terrible to see. Lonely. Bereft. Heartbroken. Ratchet again thought that he should have tried a little harder. In Vector's tracks, he would have seduced the little slagger - he would have turned the platonic embrace into a lover's clench, murmured reassurance and asserted his feelings until the mech in his arms believed his words were true. Once two people met mind to mind, Ratchet knew, it changed everything - and if the two loved each other, there would be no more confusion about their true feelings for each other. He knew better than most that this didn't magically solve all relationship issues in a twinkling, but he strongly suspected that young Vermillion simply didn't believe that Vector Prime had fallen in love with him.

Ratchet believed it. You didn't look that sparkbroken without there being true feelings involved. Plus, he could see the appeal. If not for millions of years of temporal distance and the obstacle of one of them being dead, and one neurotic predacon who'd never forgive him, he could totally see the appeal in Vermillion Prime. The ancient Prime made him smile.

:Now that,: Vermillion Prime responded, in Ratchet's head, :Is one of the basic differences between you and me. You've never once doubted your self worth, have you, Healer Prime?:

:Not particularly, no.: Ratchet purred, :And you know, someday we will meet face to face when I join the Well ... it's not totally hopeless between us. If Fang and I don't work out ... some millions of years in the future when I finally kick off, we could always start something ...:

:Pit, Ratchet! You're truly scary, and just for that I'm going to make sure still you're alive when the universe dies of entropy.:

:Thank you, I try.: Apparently, Vermillion Prime was not immune to teasing. Ratchet was absurdly pleased to detect a faint note of flusterment from the ancient Prime.

Vermillion-the-servant, meanwhile, simply looked confused, though by the way his hand slid up to rest over Vector's spark, Ratchet was pretty sure he did have feelings he didn't want to completely acknowledge.

:Yeah, I loved him.:

:Dimwit. You shoulda groped his data ports, then.:

:Would you have dared if you were in my tracks? He was Vector Prime.:

:... Yeah. I'd have dared.:

:Yes, you probably would have.:

Vermillion-the-servent had shuttered his optics and slowly relaxed into the Prime's grasp. Finally, he murmured, "I ... do love you, Vector. As more than just my Prime. But you know that. It's just that I'm a servant, and before I was a servant, I was an uneducated laborer."

"Do not forget that I, too, am a servant. I serve all of our people." Vector said, slowly, as his hands continued to stroke Vermillion's armor. Vermillion's optics remained closed. He seemed to be focused completely on Vector's touch.

Vector continued, speaking steadily now. He had been flustered earlier, but now he sounded calm. "You know, I just want to be one among many. I want friends, and family, and a lover. Children. I want to enjoy this civilization I helped forge ... and part of me feels it is selfish to wish so badly for such a life, yet it is what I want."

Vermillion started to speak, but Vector interrupted him to continue. "You should be far more than a servant. When I am gone you will have the funding to attend the best university and upgrade your form to whatever you wish to become, for you are wasted in your position now."

"When you're gone?" Vermillion planted one hand in the middle of Vector's chest and pushed back, sitting upright so he could look him in the optics. "Vector?"

The mech gave him a crooked smile. "Nobody lives forever, Vermillion. And I am the oldest of our people living."

"Feh. You'll probably outlive me. Particularly the way that the guards watch over you, and the way the medics obsess over you," Vermillion snorted, bringing his optics back online. Vermillion-the-servant suddenly looked at Ratchet and said softly, directly to him, "... I so wish I'd been right, of course, but it was not to be, Healer Prime. We ... lost him ... only a scant few years after this. I will never forget the wish he admitted to ... and though we were never lovers, I was very close to him. I know what he wanted."

The vision faded out abruptly and a familiar voice called his name. "... atchet? Ratchet, answer me, slaggitall!"

First Aid's very worried features suddenly filled his view. First Aid was trying to hook a datapad into Ratchet's dataport, clearly thinking he'd glitched out. The younger, and normally mild mannered, medic growled, "Slaggit, you glitch!"

Ratchet realized his joints were locked tight, as if he'd been in recharge. He blinked, trying to figure out how he'd been unaware of First Aid's presence. Even if he couldn't have seen him, he should have felt First Aid touching him. He didn't move, assessing the situation, and not entirely sure that this was a real scenario. For all he knew, Vermillion was still screwing with him.

"Slaggit!" First Aid reached into his subspace, came up with a laser scalpel, and reached for the hinges of Ratchet's chest plating. Ratchet knew that drill - First Aid was clearly intent on cutting a path to Ratchet's processor the hard way, and uplinking to Ratchet's processor through one of the internal ports. Ratchet's external ports were locked tight under heavy-duty covers that he'd designed himself.

Ratchet drilled his staff mercilessly on the techniques, using the corpses of the dead, until any of them could get through an average warrior's plating in under fifteen seconds. Ratchet figured his specially reinforced plating might slow First Aid down for a few seconds at most. He wasn't inclined to wait and see if that was a holomatter First Aid or the real thing when there was a scalpel headed for his armor!

He caught 'Aid's hand with a swift grab, startling First Aid into a squeaky yelp. That noise, so unlike First Aid's normal calm competence, convinced him this was real. They stared at each other, First Aid looking more than a little frightened. Only when Ratchet was sure he could talk without sounding unnerved did he say calmly, "I am fine."

"Fine?" First Aid demanded, "You weren't responding, and your vitals were all strange! Hydraulic pressure too high, you were running your heater and it's eighty slagging degrees in here, and your were watching something I couldn't see!"

"I'm not glitching," Ratchet growled.

"You spent all night with Fang," First Aid snapped. Ratchet wondered how he knew that - then he spotted a frightened silent Prism in the background. Prism knew where he'd been, because she'd woken in the next room, and she was still here because he had volunteered to watch her. 'Aid added, "If you've caught a virus you may think you are okay and you are not ... it could be fragging up your processor as we speak and, with all due respect sir, we cannot risk losing you!"

"... huh?" Then, offended, he growled, "If Fang tried to infect me with a virus, I'd win." He didn't let go of First Aid's hand until he added, "And I'm irritated that you mistrust my judgment in partners. Or my powers of observation. If Fang was secretly Unicron's First Disciple, I'd have figured it out by now."

First Aid pulled his fingers free, and glared right back, showing a rare flare of temper. "Fine. You were also in Starscream's head yesterday. If you try to tell me Starscream couldn't match you byte for byte in processor power I will hit you with a wrench.." First Aid pressed his lip plates together in a thin, angry, frightened line. He added, "Optimus is on the way with Smokescreen and Elita."

Ratchet was pretty sure, at least, that Elita could take out his firewalls. Not that he'd disobey a direct order from Optimus Prime to submit to a scan. However, all of this was rather unnecessary. :Vermillion, you made this mess. You'd better clear this up or I'll use my Matrix as a paperweight.:

After a second, he belatedly realized just what Vermillion had done to give him that vision. He growled, "Slag! The Matrix has a direct link to my processor core and he used it to bypass my sensor input." Ratchet heaved himself to his feet and gave his subordinate a wary glance after he was standing.

"They don't usually do that, do they?" First Aid's voice held an annoyed growl that Ratchet figured he'd learned from the best, namely one older cranky medic. He definitely wasn't bothering with his best bedside manner; Ratchet was getting a dose of the same assertiveness that First Aid had learned to employ when dealing with the likes of Ironhide or Grimlock. However, with Ratchet's somewhat reasonable explanation, First Aid looked like he was relaxing a little. "Do we have problems?"

"It was a plea for my sympathy complete with surround sound." He tried to sound reassuring now that First Aid wasn't threatening to carve him up with a laser scalpel, but he suspected First Aid could tell he was shaken. Ratchet had not been aware that the Order of the Primes could hijack his sensors. He'd assumed Vermillion had simply cast a holographic render, but if that was the case, First Aid would have seen it too. First Aid obviously had seen nothing of the kind and Ratchet had been totally unaware of First Aid's presence.

Ratchet ran a hand over his face. He wasn't sure he liked anyone having that much power over his systems. He wondered if they could firewall his Matrix off a bit. It would be a good question for Elita ... the pathways that the Matrix used to sync with his memory core were hard wired, however, and the programming was probably part of his base machine language. It would take an interesting modification of his operating system to alter the level of access.

What he'd seen in the memory that Vermillion showed him, however, left him wondering wondered how things had turned out Vector and Vermillian. The information wasn't in his Matrix, though Bumblebee - who bore the same matrix Vermillion had - probably knew. He felt shaken, and suddenly very, very tired.

:I will always regret that day,: Vermillion said, quietly. :He was very special he was to me. To all of us, really, but it was personal between was my friend, and I want what is best for ... what remains, the child reborn with his spark.:

:Sage.:

:Sage, yes. Brilliant name, by the way. Wheelie has the spark of a poet.:

Ratchet sighed. He heard what Vector was saying, but he thought the bigger picture was what the child could mean to their people. :Vector, if we could find his Matrix, you know we could restore his memories. The 'cons won't follow Optimus readily and Fang is going to have an uphill battle to keep control over his own side without alienating ours. Now, Vector Prime? they would follow. He could unite us, Vermillion.:

:I am shocked you would suggest that,: Vermillion's tone turned genuinely angry. It was a cold, hard anger. :You! You who have championed Ranger's right to exist. You, who just defended Sage himself from Aquaregia's misguided but well-intentioned plans for him. You would erase this child?:

:This is different,: He responded, more than a little defensive. He knew it was a wrong answer even as he stammered, :It's - it'd be for the greater good.:

:Would it?: Vermillion snapped. :You try to reformat that sparkling and you will find yourself ranked with the Fallen, Healer Prime, for betraying not only your own beliefs and your oath as a healer, but Vector's, as well, and for ignoring the very teachings of Primus.:

It wasn't an empty threat. Ratchet rocked back on his heels, aware of First Aid's silent scrutiny. Shamed, he started to apologize, but Vector interrupted him.

Merciless, furious, Vermillion growled, :Vector would be devastated by what you and your counterparts have done to our people with this ceaseless, senseless war. Everything he worked for and believed in is gone.:

Ratchet snapped, :- Slag take it, Vermillion, I'm sorry. I'm old, I'm tired, I've seen too damn much. The life of one child didn't seem to be too high a price to pay for unity. Call me a cold-sparked drone, but I've just lost too much.:

When so many other millions of children had already died, ending one sparkling's existence didn't seem a high price. He had never raised a child himself, but he thought of all the sparklings who had been his patients, the younglings of friends, Optimus and Elita's children ... a whole planet of Nebulans ... the loss of one more life barely begun seemed scant price to pay to end it. He knew to heart of his spark that the Cybertronian people would unite around Vector Prime.

:You listen to me, Healer Prime. You can either raise the dead in the hope that one mech - who was nothing other than mortal - can solve the problems you as a race have brought down on your own heads. Or you, Healer Prime, can look that child in the optics and tell him you will build a future for him so that he may grow up and live a life that Vector always dreamed of. Vector Prime devoted his life to our people. You would honor him best by making sure that Sage can live the life that Vector wanted.:

"I ..." Ratchet's vocalizer fritzed with static when he tried to speak aloud. He reset it. "Yes sir."

:Good. We understand each other.:

Vermillion's presence disappeared just as Optimus stepped through the door. Ratchet sat back down in the chair, covered his face with both hands, and sighed.

Make a better world for the sparklings. End the war. Rebuild. Create a future. A tall order indeed. Vermillion had said that between them they had all the strength and skills they needed. He found it impossible to believe that they could really do it without a miracle. He didn't believe in his spark that they could really engineer a peace, lay down their arms and rebuild from the ashes of the past.

That realization - his lack of faith in himself and his fellow mechs - shocked him through to his core.

He'd been operating under the cynical subconscious assumption that the war would last until there was literally no one left to fight. That they'd passed the point of no return long ago. Oh, sometimes he felt glimmers of optimism, but in his spark ... hope had died.

He glanced towards the room that held Fang, and felt almost dizzy when he realized what this meant in terms of his relationship with Fang. Fang was the Decepticon Prime. Peace was very much in Fang's hands ... and Fang gave him hope. Fang was restoring his dreams for the future.

Optimus was kneeling beside him, hydraulics hissing and gears whining as he descended down to Ratchet's seated eye level. Ratchet met Optimus's concerned gaze and said gruffly, "I'm fine. I'll be fine, Optimus."

His leader's gaze was a little too knowing. Optimus said wryly, "Vermillion is not very subtle, is he?"

"Do you know about ...?" Ratchet asked. He was wary of even speaking this secret aloud.

"I have some suspicions." Optimus rose. "We should discuss this later. I believe that the Primes should meet urgently to determine who shall mentor the sparkling that Wheelie saved. We can share the information Vermillion provided with the others then, as well."

He nodded curtly. "I'll get Fang and meet you. Optimus - the Primes aren't always right."

Wryly, Optimus observed, "That goes for us and them."