Hello again, all you beautiful people! For all my worries and critiques of the last chapter, you have since renewed my faith. I am deeply grateful for everyone who found the time to review and leave a few kind words. It really did mean the world to me, and helped to spur on my inspiration for the next chapter. Words cannot describe how excited I am for where this story is going. With each chapter, Prowl and Jazz are slowly changing, learning more about each other and themselves, and inevitably they are growing closer. We all know where this story is going, but it's the journey that counts, am I right? You know I'm right. =P
You know what else has me excited? That Where You and I Collide is reaching it's 1,800th review. When I started this story a little over three years ago, I never imagined it would get this far. Now that it is this far... wow. Just wow. Thank you so much to all of you for helping to make this story the phenomenon that it is! Thank you to Fianna9, brohne, Alathea2, Faecat, Camfield, VyxenSkye, kkcliffy, Chistarpax, DemonSurfer, JUNTWEI, White Aster, Gamemice, Bluebird Soaring, CNightJoy, Nikkie2010, Randomstrike, Qwertzu, Optimus Bob, renegadewriter8, Exactlywhat, Daklog73, kathy3meme, Guest, Luinrina, femme4jack, IBrokethe4thWall, Kidara, Peacewish, Jenn, Sideslip, ennui deMorte, Wanderling, and Krysala!
Where You and I Collide
"There's someone at the door."
Prowl grunted, cracking an optic open to peer at the dark ceiling. Next to him, Jazz laid on his back with his optics shuttered. The saboteur was clearly online, since he was the one who had spoken. True to his observation, there came a rhythmic thumping at the entrance to Prowl's quarters, followed by the annoying whine of the buzzer. A moment of expectant silence. And then the thumping started up again.
"There's someone at the door," Jazz said again, opening his optics briefly, frowning, and determinedly closing them again. He did not bother to move otherwise.
"You're not going to get it?" Prowl wondered, mildly bewildered but mostly groggy as he waited for all his systems to boot up properly.
A sigh breezed out his vents. "No."
"I see." Prowl rolled over to lay on his front, propped up by his one arm, able to study his companion's deceptively calm faceplate. Answering the door for the sake of shock and awe was exactly the sort of thing Jazz would have enjoyed. Not to mention, it just seemed polite for him to be the one to get up, seeing as he was laying on the outside edge of the berth closest to the door.
"Ah'm not getting up," Jazz said without even cracking his optics open.
"Then sit up so I can get the door. I am not rolling over you with only one arm."
Jazz sat up and shuffled to the side, leaning his back against the wall while Prowl manoeuvred in the open space, sliding from the low berth to the floor. He took a moment to marvel at the tenacity of his caller, who continued to knock and ring the buzzer without pause. It was early enough in the morning for it to be rude to start yelling without waking the rest of the hall, but judging from the huffing snorts and soft cursing through the door, it would only be a short time before the yelling began.
"I am coming," Prowl assured, first disengaging the automatic lock on his door before ushering it open for his guest.
"Took you long enough," Smokescreen groused, looking harried as he glanced up and down the still-empty hall.
Prowl raised his optic ridges. "How did you even know I was back?"
"The usual channels. I was in the dispensation room getting some energon just as Blaster was coming off his shift. Now everyone in that room knows you're back. I ran here."
In the awkward silence that followed, Smokescreen drew himself up, as if meaning to say the dozen things he had rehearsed while awaiting Prowl's return. He had practised each one with his reflection, playing every possible scenario over and over in his head. None of those carefully chosen speeches, none of the yelling or accusations, came out like they were supposed to. Instead, his sharp optics roamed the myriad of half-healed wounds and evidence of infection that riddled his brother. Slowly, he deflated until he was hunched in the doorway, bringing attention to his current level of personal neglect. He needed a wash badly, and a polishing, and probably a new application of gloss. Tension lined his frame, furrowed his faceplate. He was practically trembling with exhaustion.
Taking pity on the poor bot, Prowl stepped aside and gestured into the room. "Come in?"
"Thanks." Smokescreen made a move to come over the threshold, stopping short under Jazz's narrowed stare. A dagger flashed between the saboteur's clever fingers, weaving absently through the air effortlessly as he sized up their new company. Never mind that it was Smokescreen, Jazz was in a foul enough mood to be intimidating to anyone who crossed his path. Prowl sent his partner a disapproving glare, which was about as effective as a finger wag. Jazz continued to glower, channelling his brooding thoughts into the movement of his dagger instead of something more destructive.
Seeing the saboteur where he was, Smokescreen did well to cover up any surprise he might have felt. Turning to Prowl, he wondered in a cautious tone, "Am I interrupting anything?"
"No," Jazz stated flatly.
"Jazz stayed the night with me because he had nowhere else to go," Prowl explained blandly, meaning to make it seem as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. The less extraordinary it was, the less likely there would be gossip about it later. He guided his brother to the seat at his desk instead of having him stand around in the middle of the room. "It was late when we got in, and there was really no sense in waking anyone else at that time."
"Right," Smokescreen breathed, frowning, thinking. "I didn't wake you, did I?"
"You did, but that is alright," Prowl assured, taking a seat on the edge of his berth. In truth, he was still exhausted. A partial night of recharge and a single cube of medical grade energon was barely enough to make a difference in his energy reserves. He hid his exhaustion behind a cool façade.
Smokescreen scrubbed a hand over his faceplate, catching on his chevron. His doorwings moved restlessly, as did his feet and hands. Despite his obvious weariness, he had enough energy left to be anxious about this meeting.
"Sorry," Smokescreen suddenly said, delayed and lame as it was.
Though it was a single, simple word, Prowl felt a twinge in his spark from the resonance of it. He felt guilt and resentment and regret, and an unbidden affection for the other tactician. The first three were normal, typical emotions that he accepted as his due. The last was foreign, and would probably take some time to get used to.
"It is I who should apologize for the horrendous way I treated you during our last conversation," Prowl insisted. From behind him, Jazz snorted, reminding the pair that their reconciliation was far from private.
Smokescreen looked to the side, examining the floor. "It's fine. We can talk about it later." Meaning 'we can talk about when Jazz was not around to eavesdrop.' His optics drifted up to stare at the saboteur, and then said, "There is something different about you."
"Mah visor," Jazz grunted, his mouthplates curling into a disgruntled sneer. "Ah would have replaced it last night, but all mah stuff is gone." The dagger stopped its winding path between his fingers. He leaned forward, pinning the other bot to the spot with a hard look. "Do ya know anything about it, Smokescreen?"
"Too slow." He let fly the dagger, whistling past Smokescreen's cheek to imbed in the bare wall behind him.
"Jazz!" Prowl exclaimed, instantly up to score the blade and stash it away. He would have shoved the saboteur from his berth if he knew that would have done any good to reprimand him.
Smokescreen touched his cheek where he had felt the blade whisper past.
There was no malice on the saboteur's faceplate. He met Smokescreen's stunned stare with unerring coldness.
"Ah'm not welcomed here anymore, is that it?" Jazz growled, fists tightening at his sides.
"Maybe not after you throw a knife at my head!" Smokescreen replied plainly.
The words were waved away with a slash of his clawed hand. "Finally got tired of the ex-Decepticon wandering your halls, so ya cleared out mah room the moment ya got the chance? What were ya hoping? That Ah'd never find out? That Ah'd never come back?"
"Your quarters? What? Jazz, I hardly know what you're talking about!" Smokescreen exclaimed, pressing back in his chair until the back of it scraped the desk behind him.
"Ya know something! Don't lie!"
"It's a long story, Jazz."
"Then start talking. Ah got time."
Prowl quickly moved to his partner's side, wishing he had the two arms necessary to hold back the minibot. As it was, when he attempted to lay a hand to Jazz's knee, he was kicked away with a hiss. Worry and no small amount of concern tightened like a vice around his spark. Not concerned for Smokescreen, or what might happen if Jazz lashed out in a small space, but concern for the saboteur himself.
"Jazz, I know you are upset-."
"Upset? Ah'm not upset!" Jazz spat, somehow managing to sound the exact opposite of what he was claiming. "Ah just want mah damned stuff back!"
"And we will get your stuff back," Prowl soothed. "But first, we have to understand the situation. It is not like you to become so worked up. Let us get the facts first before we do something we will regret."
Jazz watched him, and in return Prowl kept his stare. In those startling white optics, Prowl could see what he had only glimpsed the night before. There truly was hurt in the saboteur's gaze. Vague notions of confusion, betrayal. It hurt Prowl to know that his own faction had struck out at the saboteur in such a fashion. It would have been preferable if they had attacked en mass – Jazz could have easily enjoyed himself with that. Underhanded tactics were simply... underhanded.
To have done so much for the Autobots, only to be rewarded by the theft of his possessions? To be striped of his place in Iacon after he had worked so hard to be where he was now? It was a rejection that Prowl could not fathom, especially not with Rarchet's offered confidence from last night fresh in his mind. The dirtiness of it was stunning in itself. Jazz's inability to answer for it, his impotence to do anything about it, shone raw in his exposed gaze and acted as a blade on Prowl's own confused conscience.
"I am sure there is a reasonable explanation for all this," Prowl pressed. He appealed upon his brother for assistance. "Please, Smokescreen, tell us what you know. Anything would help right now."
Smokescreen hunched in his seat, his expression cloudy. "I can't say I know much about it. You left fortnights ago – To tell you the truth, I've written over most of those memories with everything that has to do with managing the fragging Tactical Division." He scrubbed his palms over his faceplate. "Things have been busy around here and I haven't kept up on what everyone else has been doing."
Jazz took a single step forward, opening his palms in an almost pleading gesture. Much better than throwing daggers around. "Can ya tell meh anything? Anything at all? A reason for mah room ta be emptied? Something Ah did before Ah left?"
His yellow chevron glinted dully under the lights as he warily glanced back and forth between Jazz and Prowl, weighing his options like any good tactician would. Even if he had nothing to do with the mysterious disappearance of Jazz's room, Smokescreen nonetheless felt a twinge of guilt for it. This was not the Jazz he knew, and that mere fact had Smokescreen's battle computer ramping up on the defensive.
Prowl could see the flash and spin of diodes in his brother's optics, the only evidence that he was contemplating the matter deeply. Prowl wished he could offer a reassuring nod, a word or two to say that this was all a misunderstanding, but he could not manage either of those things. He did not trust whatever unpredictable temper had a grip on Jazz.
Eventually, Smokescreen heaved a disgusted sigh. "I think I remember something about Mirage."
"Ah knew it!"
"I'm not saying any of it is true, but I heard he was caught trying to break into your quarters. That's really the only thing I can think of... You've been with us for so long, I didn't think anyone had a problem with you anymore," Smokescreen elaborated carefully, measuring each word as he spoke. "I know you have bad air between the two of you, but I can't see Master Spy Mirage sinking to that level. It is likely just a rumour-"
"Stop talking," Jazz suddenly commanded.
"I said stop talking." All that contained rage suddenly turned cold. The armour under Prowl's hand drained of all warmth. Jazz shrugged away from him to make his way to the door. Immediately, Prowl scramble after him, ineffectually trying to pull him back. There was only one reason why Jazz would be heading for the hall.
"Think about this, Jazz!"
"Oh, Ah'm thinking about it alright." By the glint in his diamond hard optics, Jazz was thinking of a thousand different ways to hurt the Master Spy.
Prowl braced his forearm across Jazz's chest and pushed back with all his strength. "You have worked too hard to get to where you are just so you can ruin it with a rash decision!"
"Rash? Who's talking rash? Ah'm gonna make this nice and slow for him," Jazz sneered. "Thinks he can just break into a bot's quarters, does he? Little fragger gotta be taught a lesson – he ain't better than no one here, and he is gonna stop acting like it. Ah'll take him down a couple of damn pegs."
Feeling the express of power beneath the arm that braced against Jazz, Prowl pressed harder against it. He felt the bite of the saboteur's armour straining tensely against him. His senses sparked with the sharp awareness of the opposing electric field that flared stubbornly, the vibration of a low snarl, the press of heat and hard titanium alloy armour. In strange contrast, his battle computer was not abuzz with threat assessments.
Smokescreen rose from his seat, as if he meant to help, but then hung back warily when he could not bring himself to intercede. There was morbid fascination glinting in his shrewd gaze.
"Let meh go, Prowl," Jazz growled lowly, pressing hard against the arm that stayed him. His personal field flared, scoring against Prowl's. It did not hurt, no more than the touch of static electricity would, but it got the tactician's attention.
"I will not until I have your word that you will not go after Mirage for something Smokescreen only half remembers."
"Let meh go."
"This might not even be his doing!" Prowl exclaimed.
"Let meh go!"
The more he demanded with those petulant three words, the more Prowl wished he had a second arm to smack him with. He would even take the risk of dropping his arm just to swing around and give him a slap with his doorwing. In the end, reason won out over pettiness. "You are tired, Jazz! You are exhausted, and it is affecting your rationality! Calm down and think about what you are doing! How foolish you are being right now!"
"Ah swear ta Primus, ya let meh go right now or Ah'll break the one arm ya have left!"
"No!" Prowl snapped sharply. "I did not let you go in the Poles, and I will not let you go now. I will not let you go ever, no matter how you fight me. I will not allow you to go off half-cocked to do something that I know you will regret!"
Through the walls came the sound of angry fists thumping, demanding silence in the last moments of the early morning. There was only so much time to recharge - don't waste it! The sound of angry thumping shattered the intensity of the moment. Smokescreen glanced around guiltily, feeling as if he were witnessing something he should not. Jazz gave one last snarl before backing down, allowing Prowl to withdraw his arm and stand defiantly before his door. The relief that Prowl felt to know Jazz was calmed once more was enormous. He was not ashamed to plead with both words and expression to secure an oath from the saboteur.
"Give me your word, Jazz. Please."
The line of Jazz's mouth drew thin, nearly a scowl with a side of reluctance. How loath he was to barrel through Prowl like he fully knew he could, but equally loath was he to offer a vow he stupidly knew he would keep. It was true what Prowl had claimed; Jazz was exhausted, and more so that he was acting foolish. The sense of it was flickering in the saboteur's optics. More than that, disgust simmered that Smokescreen had seen him so riled. There was no point in losing face in front of anyone.
"Fine," he spat.
Prowl fought the urge to offer his most handsome smile, knowing it would only irk Jazz more. Instead, he was silent and waiting.
"Ya... have mah word," Jazz said slowly, through gritted mouthplates, like he were tasting something bitter.
Now Prowl let loose with his smile, though had sense enough to stay his chuckle lest he wanted a cuff upside the head in retribution. "Was that so hard?"
"Yes," Jazz sniffed, jerking his head as a means to demand Prowl step away from the door. He'd given his word; Prowl couldn't hold him.
The doorway was freed in a single sidestep, with Prowl offering an exaggerated wave into the hall. Jazz breezed past him in a silent temper, off to do whatever it was that the saboteur did when no one was around to watch him. Now that Mirage was off limits, perhaps he would scout out a new room to call his own, catch up with some of the Autobots who were closely aligned to him... or simply find some way to harass Mirage without it directly coming back to him.
Halfway down the hall, Jazz looked back at the storm-grey head watching him. Prowl pointed two fingers to his optics, then to Jazz in playful warning. I'm watching you. Jazz's reply gesture was a little more crude, but no less playful. When he disappeared around the corner, Prowl pulled his head back into the room and gave his attention to his remaining guest.
Smokescreen propped his hip on the edge of the desk, crossing his arms over his chest. "That was mildly erotic."
"Mute it." Prowl quickly reclaimed his seat on the edge of his berth, signalling Smokescreen to do the same.
"Foreplay, then?" said the other tactician, taking his seat once again. The grin on his faceplate was irritating.
"It's not funny."
"You're right. It's hilarious."
Prowl's mouthplates thinned into a line sharp enough to cut diamonds.
"And don't think I was blind to the fact that you two shared that berth last night. One of you could have recharged on the floor."
"There comes a certain amount of acceptance when two bots stay in close quarters over a long period of time," Prowl reasoned tightly. "It would not be unreasonable for you to share a berth with one of your comrades, and it is not unreasonable that I would share with one of mine."
"And what happens on the mission, stays on the- Ow!"
The sound of the butt of Jazz's dagger glancing off of Smokescreen's brow was rather satisfying. Prowl was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of his aim and the effectiveness with which the light throw had silenced his fellow tactician.
Not looking to be a target for whatever else Prowl thought to throw, Smokescreen clamped his mouthplates shut with a mulish pout. Nevertheless, he did bend down to retrieve the dagger and hand it back to his brother. Probably a stupid move, but he didn't feel like being the one in possession of the blade when Jazz came looking for it.
"Shall we get down to business?" Prowl prompted, leaving 'business' open to his second's interpretation. He was anxious to see what Smokescreen wanted to address first, and it felt only right that their conversation be directed by the offended party of whom Prowl needed to apologize for acts most heinous and impolite.
Smokescreen acquiesced with an inclination of his head, the corners of his mouthplates turning down. He rubbed his brow absently, though it wasn't even scratched. His first order of business was to address the single most obvious trait about his brother. "You are an aft."
"Yes, I am." No sense in denying it.
"Do you have any clue how out of my mind I was when you ended that call?"
"I have a damning suspicion, but I imagine it falls short of reality."
There came a deep, restrained rev from the other tactician. "I'd punch you right now, but it doesn't feel right to punch someone who only has one arm." He kicked Prowl in the shin instead.
Prowl directed his gaze to his dinged shin, then back to his brother. "Because kicking me is so much better?"
Smokescreen shrugged. "It was something."
Knowing he deserved much worse, and appreciating Smokescreen for not meting out more than he did, Prowl nodded quietly. "I am sorry for what I did that night. I never should have said the things I did, never should have delivered the news in the manner it was delivered. It was callous, and a grievous tactical miscalculation on my part. I cannot imagine what you went through afterwards."
"Probably no worse than what you've been through," Smokescreen murmured, his gaze transfixed to the open hole in Prowl's shoulder. It was tender from Ratchet's investigations the night before.
"I felt nothing at the time," Prowl reminded him tightly.
"By the looks of things, you felt a pit of a lot before and after. You usually need a damn good reason to turn off your emotional centre – it's not like you turn it off whenever you get bored of being a feeler like the rest of us."
"This is very true."
Smokescreen leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands in a mirror of Prowl's pose. "If I were a lesser bot, I would still be furious with you. I would have done a pit of a lot more than just give you a tiny little ding on the leg. You are so lucky that our programming is enough alike that I could understand where you were coming from... as soon as I calmed down enough to think about it. Two fortnights is too long to be mad at you. I stopped being mad after the first. After that, I just wanted you home."
Prowl still kept his shamefaced expression downcast.
The sound of Smokescreen scraping his chair to get closer to the berth was obscenely loud. They both flinched at the obnoxious screech. Smokescreen's hand was warm and steady when it set down reassuringly on Prowl's knee. He was surprised not to have it pinched between his brother's fingers and guided away, the usual dismissal when it came to physical contact.
"I have been doing everything in my power to find out what happened to Hunter," he said. "Took some calling around, but I finally found him."
To this, Prowl looked up and met a royal blue gaze.
"After he spent a couple of orns at Tyger Pax's main Autobot stronghold for a couple more surgeries, he was transported back to Centaurie Tetrax. Their facilities are a little stretched right now, but it's not like they could turn down one of their own. They are furious with him for going AWOL, but are happy to have him back. He is still in serious condition, awaiting a frame for a full reformatting, but his spark is stable on life support for the time being."
Prowl let out the drag of air he had been holding.
"Hunter is going to be just fine," Smokescreen assured. "He always was my favourite." He winked playfully.
"And Kingpin..." Prowl hedged uncertainly.
The smile disappeared from his brother's faceplate. "I'm glad he's dead."
"That's a horrible thing to say," Prowl sighed.
Smokescreen shrugged. "So what? You've said as much throughout the vorns. Something like 'his affiliations are a stain on the reputation of our cadre' – that sounds familiar, doesn't it? It's not like you held any affection for him. You should be relieved he's dead. One less Decepticon for us to worry about."
The reminder caused Prowl to flinch. He hated that he had such an irrational guilt towards a bot who would have spared no guilt if he had murdered Prowl and Jazz and left them there in the wastelands. He had no affection for Kingpin, few good memories. The impetus for his guilt was in seeing Kingpin's death, and thinking one should feel more for the death of a cohort, yet failing to feel what he thought he should. Complicated indirect guilt.
"It was his decision to turn Decepticon," Smokescreen pressed. "He's the one who turned his back on everything we were ever programmed to do. Even before he turned, he was an aft. I don't imagine he was any better when you met up with him."
"No, he was no better. In fact, he was much worse." Psi ex Machina. The mere thought of it put a bad taste in Prowl's mouthplates. "Jazz put a blade through his head to stop him."
"And I bet Jazz had a very good reason to do it. I don't blame him for killing Kingpin anymore than I blame you." He eased up from his seat, turned, and sat next to Prowl so their doorwings touched. Not so close as to make Prowl uncomfortable, but close enough so that he did not feel so alone. Smokescreen's elbow as coaxing as he nudged him in the side. "Are you going to tell me what you were doing in a place that required your partner to kill our brother, or are you going to make me guess? Worse, are you going to make me read the report?"
To his ultimate surprise, Prowl gave a low chuckle. "No, I will tell you. It is the least I could do."
It was foreign and strange to sit back with Smokescreen and recount his harrowing experiences of the last six fortnights. Some details were carefully edited. The nature of Shockwave's labs was curbed, and the experiments within were not mentioned at all. Prowl made up for it by detailing the Poles, the energy surges that nigh drove him to insanity, his suspicions of the Decepticons able to set up an outpost so far down south unnoticed. Smokescreen listened attentively throughout, nodding in some places, grimacing in others. When there were no more words, they sat quietly on the berth and stared at their hands.
"That is going to be the least boring report you've ever written," Smokescreen commented absently.
"Perhaps," Prowl replied. It was also going to be the most edited report he'd ever written.
"I can't believe that Hunter followed you all the way out there."
"He always had a much more tenacious personality than the rest of us."
"And the rest of it, about Shockwave..."
"He is a bigger threat than we first anticipated."
"That only means Jazz will be more determined to go after him. I take it you will be assisting him in any way you can?"
Prowl slanted him an arch look. "Of course."
"Which means Tactical is going to want to help in any way we can." Smokescreen said confidently. "Primus, the two of you. Before you left, you could barely stand to be in the same room without starting a fight. Now it looks like I wouldn't be able to pry a crowbar between you."
Prowl revved uncomfortably, shifting his weight, refusing to take a sidelong glance at his second in command.
Smokescreen was the one who slid him the sidelong glance, lingering long enough on Prowl's faceplate. "I'm not saying it's a bad thing that you're moving on, Prowl."
Startled, Prowl jerked away. "What do you presume I am moving on from?"
"I might not know you as well as I would like, but I do know there's only been one bot in your life worth holding on to for so long." There was a sad chuckle as the other tactician shook his head, only to stop when his gaze was caught by the holopic on the desk. His chuckled stopped abruptly. "That picture..." He leaned up across the narrow space, snagged the data pad. His thumb circled over the image, touching each familiar faceplate. He lingered over Evasia's smiling form. "I remember when this picture was taken."
"As do I."
Smokescreen sat back again, staring down with fondness glinting in his optics. "You ever miss her?"
"Yes," Prowl admitted, finding that he croaked on that one word. His cleared his vents, steadying his vocal processor. "I used to try and forget about her."
"I know. You never talked about her. You withdrew into yourself. After she died, you just...shut down," Smokescreen sighed. "Hunter and I were so worried for you – everyone was, actually. Evasia was the only bot who could ever coax you to come out of your shell. Captain Raven worried for you the most. You were always his favourite."
Prowl shook his head. "Thinking about her hurt more than I wished to feel. Now I see that not thinking about her made everything worse." He took the data pad in hand. "I find I am thinking about her more frequently as of late, and it does not hurt as much as it once did."
"It was not always my choice to think of her." Jazz delving into his head for memories. Hallucinations brought on by ambient EM energy. At night, his memory files played scenes of the past. "Now I remember that I have fond memories of her as well as painful ones."
"Like I said, you're finally moving on," Smokescreen said warmly, offering his brother a pat on the back. "It's healthy and natural, and it's a damn long time coming. Evasia would have wanted you to move on a long time ago."
Not quite as in control of his fickle spark as he would have liked, Prowl felt a twinge working its way up from his sparkcase and shifted uncomfortably. "Can we talk about something else?"
"Sure." Smokescreen slid to his feet and propped the data pad against the light fixture where he had snagged it. His expression was a mixture of sad fondness for a dead past and a subtle pride that Prowl was not the same bot as he was in the picture. That Prowl never would have posted a personal picture around his berth in the dorms.
"Come on, now it's my turn to show you what you've missed." A hand was extended, and Prowl quickly accepted the invitation to stand. "I've kept your office how you like it."
They travelled out into the hall together, finding that it had come the proper time for Autobots to be rising for their morning shifts, or otherwise returning to their berths after a graveyard shift. Their optics passed easily over Smokescreen, landing on Prowl with laser focus. Without fail, there was first surprise to see the Head Tactician, and then a form of abject delight and relief that Prowl had rarely seen before.
"Prowl!" Trailbreaker exclaimed, hurrying through the throng of Autobots. "Thank Primus you're back!"
Startled by the boisterous greeting, Prowl fought the urge to rear back and chastise the other Autobot for being disruptive.
Trailbreaker came to a puffing halt, seemingly ecstatic to see the proper Head Tactical Adviser standing before him. He then lifted an arm and pointed squarely at Smokescreen. "He is a monster!"
"What?" Smokescreen exclaimed, jaw dropping. "What did I do?"
Trailbreaker ignored him, pushing closer to Prowl, though not close enough to seem overly familiar. His mien was almost worshipful, which was something particularly foreign to Prowl. Fair to say that fear or irritation were more common expressions around him.
"When can you get on the schedule?" Trailbreaker asked. "It's been a fresh kind of pit around here with Smokescreen on it. Do you know he's been scheduling me in the mornings? In the mornings, Prowl, and on monitor duty!"
Prowl cast his second an amused look before arching his optic ridges at Trailbreaker. "That is quite unfortunate."
"It's been happening to everyone! Pathfinder got stuck working with Beachcomber, Firestar was scheduled on inventory by herself, I even saw Perceptor get stuck in the armouries! When can you fix it?"
"As soon as you allow me to get to my office and find out what other damages have been done," Prowl drawled dryly.
Appeased, Trailbreaker stepped aside and ushered Prowl along with a promise to check the roster every joor until it was updated. The encounter was not unique on their way to Prowl's office. Around every corner, there was a delighted shout from an eager bot, followed by exclamations of what had gone horribly wrong without him there to keep order. This was usually followed by demands for him to fix it right away. Scheduling, off-duty times, inventory records, drone programming, mediating disputes, meting out fair and proper punishments. In a short amount of time, Prowl was reminded of the dozens of responsibilities he had with Iacon - over and above the duties he would be regularly assigned as Head Adviser – and doubly reminded of how much he had missed his home.
In the commanders' hallway, lined with the offices of all resident commanders in Iacon, Smokescreen finally deigned to show his disgruntlement.
"I didn't think I was doing such a bad job."
In reply, Prowl cast him a pitying look. "Trailbreaker is most productive during evening shifts, least productive in the mornings; he is dismal at monitory duty, works best with Pathfinder doing perimeter runs. Beachcomber is distracted too easily while running perimeters, and he is too slow; monitor duty suits him best, preferably alone where he cannot incense anyone. Firestar should never be placed on inventory – she has no motivation when left to her own devices, and the counting is always off. It goes without saying that Perceptor should never be placed anywhere near Ironhide or his armouries under any circumstance, no matter how desperate." Prowl shook his head. "I have this all noted in everyone's personnel files under 'Miscellaneous Notes Concerning Personality Evaluations and Aptitudes for Duty'. I even have a chart logging everyone's productivity compatibility to consult when the roster is being difficult."
Smokescreen offered an entirely disbelieving look. "Are you serious?"
Prowl shot him a patented When am I ever not serious? look.
"Do I have one of those in my file" the other tactician asked uneasily.
"Your productivity is at its lowest during the earliest shifts, highest during mid-orn shifts to evening, but sinks again during graveyard. You work best with members of Intelligence & Espionage – scouts, not spies – as well as with members of your own division. You work poorly with any of the femmes – they distract you; you should never be scheduled with members of the engineering division. You are cerebral, they are more physical. Things exploded last time. Literally."
Once done with his perfect recitation, Prowl left Smokescreen gobsmacked on the threshold while he entered his office. He made a beeline for the familiar desk and immediately eased down into the seat as if it were a throne. He then mumbled, readjusted the chair for his height, and then sighed contentedly.
Smokescreen finally stepped into the room and let the door close behind him. "You are scary good, you know that?"
"I have missed you so much, you and that scary processor of yours."
Prowl stared down at the organized piles of data pads on his desk, then clicked on his computer to consult what was lined up in the wings for him to do. It was... not the absolute worst it could have been. But, it was not necessarily the best either. He frowned, turned away from the computer to consult the data pads in front of him to figure out what sort of order Smokescreen was intending. Most pressing to least pressing? Chronological order? By division? Rank? Alphabetical order, even?
"Those are things I left for you until you got back," Smokescreen intoned, pointing to the pile nearest the computer. "And that pile right there are all the things that I had no idea what they were doing on your desk, but apparently you deal with them, so they're yours." He pointed to the next pile over. "I have one for finished reports that need to be logged, and another of invoices from supply convoys."
"And this pile?" Prowl wondered, pointing to a sad collection of pads sitting at the far corner.
"Sideswipe has been busy."
Smokescreen reached over and picked the top pad up, and the seven below it went with it. Every one of them had been glued together. "You have no idea how busy. It was just the buildup, though. Both of them finally exploded a couple or orns ago."
"I saw them in the med bay."
"Yeah, not a pretty sight." He rubbed his hands together, looking more than a little tired. "You think you remember your way around here?"
"I think I can manage. As I understand things, there is a schedule that needs desperate revising."
Smokescreen chuckled wryly.
"I am alright here," Prowl assured, dismissing with a wave of his hand. "You are exhausted and deserve some rest. I can take over from here."
"Yes, of course. I do not imagine you could have done any more damage than the last time I was away for an extended period of time." He paused, inclining his head. "And as soon as I get my arm back and am deemed fully functional in all capacities, I will be putting you in for a temporary transfer."
Surprise made the other tactician jolt in his seat. "A transfer? Where?"
"Centaurie Tetrax," Prowl replies firmly. "We have... er- family there currently recovering from an ordeal. I had my time with Hunter, I imagine you would like some as well. Not too much time, but I can arrange for some."
What came next was wholly unexpected, at least by Prowl. Smokescreen shot up from his seat and came around the desk in a flash, his arms wrapping tight around Prowl. A hug. A very tight hug that said a lot more than words ever could between them. Prowl felt the sudden urge to return the gesture, even raising his arm with that very intention, but could not bring himself to do it.
He ended up patting Smokescreen on the head.
Jazz was not sure where he thought he was going when he left Prowl's quarters. All he knew was that he could not hunt down Mirage to hurt him, either directly or indirectly. That limited his options severely.
He settled on fulfilling one personal need and go from there. Recharge was out of the question, having no room of his own at the moment and Prowl's room being occupied. Energon was the safest bet. Though he could definitely go for some high-grade, he was only going to find the regular stuff in the dispensation room. It was better than nothing.
So he found himself standing in front of the dispensation machine, peering at the controls and ignoring the stares he felt boring into his back. He blinked when the flickering lights appeared to blur together. A hand scrubbed over his faceplate, but it did little good. He snarled a low curse, wishing he had his visor to cover his faceplate. After a moment of consideration, he selected energon heated to just below incendiary temperature, and spiced with the hard kick of arsenic and cyanide.
"Hello, Jazz," Moonracer murmured cautiously as she sidled up to his side.
He peered down at the Neutral femme, offered a scowl, and then jerked his chin in greeting. When he turned for a table, Moonracer readily turned and sat across from him. Aside from her first greeting, she remained silent, waiting for Jazz to make the next move. Her nervousness was obvious. Jazz didn't look at her right away, choosing to indulge in his cube until his foul mood dissipated somewhat.
Elsewhere in the room, groggy bots stirred. Too early for their shifts, but too disturbed by whatever their memory files had replayed through the night for them to go back into recharge. It was a common enough occurrence. They hunched over their cubes, murmuring to their companions or else silently mulling over the orn to come. Most were in too deep a stupor to realize Jazz was among them.
When half his cube was gone, and the rest had cooled to a point where it no longer burned when he swallowed, Jazz finally acknowledge the small femme at his table. She wasn't the biggest femme he had ever seen, as Chromia held that distinction, nor was she the smallest, or the most beautiful. He still regarded her with the same opinions that had been shaped during their first encounter – she wasn't completely useless, but not quite as useful as he'd like her to be. Only thing decent about her was her never-ending list of random things she could do moderately well.
"So, Ah checked out what the bot with the yellow optic was doing with those Neutrals he was taking."
At this, Moonracer jerked straight, instantly hanging onto his words.
"That was some mission ya sent meh on."
Her gaze darted down to his missing finger, guilt clouding her expression.
Jazz leaned forward, shifting his hand so his missing appendage was not so obvious. "Just because Ah did this for ya this one time don't make meh your friend. Ah ain't gonna drop everything just because ya come calling with some sad story. Shockwave is the only reason Ah went."
"Don't make meh out ta be some hero, because that ain't meh."
"I won't say anything."
Moonracer shifted in her seat, casting an anxious gaze around the room as if to find some sort of strength. A friend, perhaps. There was no one in the immediate vicinity, no one to catch her optic. She sighed, ducked her head.
"He took them all the way down ta the South Pole," Jazz intoned in a low voice.
Moonracer's optics grew wide. "I've been to the Pole once – the north one, in Crystal Territory."
"Yeah, and how was it?"
"Horrible. You and Prowl really made it down there in that dinky ship they gave you?"
"Had ta be done," Jazz shrugged, swilling his cube before taking another draught of it. "We ended up going down into the gorge between Kaon and Tyger Pax, heading south as far as we could go. It's not a nice place down there."
"No, it's not."
"Shockwave set up a lab down there."
A shudder passed through the femme, her shoulders curling inward as a means of protecting herself. Her fists clenched in her lap. In a hoarse voice, she croaked, "How many labs could one mech possibly have?"
"Too many," Jazz replied darkly.
"Were... were you able to get into this lab?"
"Ah was." Jazz watched every subtle detail about the femme, from the way she started to shiver in fear to the hard clenching of her jaw. He felt terror radiate from her as if from a nuclear reactor, and he felt her desperate efforts to tamp down that fear in order to hear what had happened to the other Neutrals. There was strength there, but nothing Jazz could use. He imagined someone like her would be more useful to someone else.
When his observations carried on too long, Moonracer shot him a desperate look.
"Did you find the Neutrals?" she pleaded, searching his faceplate for any hint. Jazz could read each failed hope like they were stamped across his forehead. Maybe he found them and was able to drop them off at the nearest Neutral camp. Maybe he rescued them, but they were too hurt and he had to drop them off at the nearest Autobot base. Maybe he got there and the Neutrals had already escaped on their own. Each one was a hope that Jazz knew he would have to dash out with the truth, and what a horrible truth it was. The nightmare that Shockwave had turned reality, what he had done to those poor bots... No one deserved to have that hanging over their heads.
"They were already dead, Moonracer," Jazz sighed, suddenly hating the stricken look in the femme's optics. He shuttered his optics and looked away. "By the time Prowl and Ah got there, Shockwave had already done his damage. None were left."
Shaking hands clamped over trembling mouthplates, muffling the choked cry that escaped.
Jazz wondered why she suffered such an intense reaction. The Neutrals had not been part of her group; she had come only because of rumours that had been passed through the camps. Then he remembered than not everyone was as callous as himself. Some bots cared about others simply for the sake of caring for them, even in death. Perhaps Moonracer felt for them because she knew a fraction of what they went through.
"Ah'm sorry," he mumbled.
She did not seem to hear him. Her optics shuttered, shoulders shaking. She cried silently for the dead she could not save. More victims of the war she hated so passionately.
Jazz finished his cube while she cried. There was nothing else for him to do, and it did not feel right to simply get up and walk away. When the last dregs of his energon were gone, his energy reserves were blessedly looking a little better, but the energon itself soured in his tanks while the poor femme sobbed alone. He really wanted to tell her to stop it, because crying never did anyone any good. Crying didn't bring back the dead.
He thought of the feeling of Blackarchnia's head cradled so gently in his arms, the feel of her rotted skin grafts and rusted, pussing metal brushing against his armour. The moment of tension when he jerked in one sure movement, one smooth slash across her neck. Warmth of life rushing away, slippery fluid quickly turning cold. Jazz never cried for her, or for any of Shockwave's creations. Jazz had never cried for anyone in a very long time.
After a time, Jazz looked over at the femme and saw that she had finally gotten a grip on herself.
"Thank you for going, Jazz," she said thickly, her gaze downcast.
"Ah didn't do it for ya," he replied.
"But you went, and that's enough." She pushed away from the table, taking to her feet in one slow movement. The new deaths hung off her as if turned into physical weights dragging her down.
"There's still a matter of payment," Jazz intoned to her back, watching as new tension straightened her spine.
"You just said you didn't do this for me," Moonracer said tightly.
"True, but ya are the one who brought it ta mah attention. Ah don't like doing stuff for free." Plus, in a way, it was Jazz's way of cheering her up. He had nothing positive to tell her to make this any better, so he would give her something else to take her mind off of things. If that meant making her angry, then that was the best he could do.
Slowly, she turned back to him with a soured frown. "What do you want?"
Startled, she jerked back with actual fear in her optics.
Jazz snorted, shaking his head. "Not like that. Ya ain't mah type by a long shot."
He leaned forward on his elbows, resting his chin on his knuckles. "You're that special kind of useful useless that the Autobots seem to be teeming with. They could always use some more. Enlist."
Stunned, she stared with her mouthplates gaping.
Jazz cocked a haughty optic ridge. "Enlist."
"Ah just said why." He sat back, staring down the length of his olfactory sensor at her. "Ya have ta pay meh sometime, or else Ah'll come back ta haunt ya. Do as Ah ask now, or Ah might ask for something worse later."
Visibly shaken by the veiled threat, Moonracer stumbled back a step. Anger and indecision warred in her gaze, but at least there was no sadness. Her chin went up, chest out. Now she was remembering what a horrible bot Jazz could be. He really was no one's hero.
"I'll think about it," she announced tightly, spinning on her heel and marching away.
"I'll expect ta hear the good news soon!" Jazz sneered at her back, stopping abruptly the moment she was gone. He sighed at himself, deciding that he had taken his foul mood out on her in the end. He found himself resenting Smokescreen for coming so early in the morning, before Jazz could get his proper bearings and be prepared for the orn. More energon was necessary.
By the time he returned to the dispensation machine, there was a small line. The time was now upon the base for bots to start rising en mass for their shifts. Some were still in their groggy stupor, barely able to see a silver serpentine creature out of the corner of their optics. Others brightened upon spotting the saboteur, offering warm welcomes that were totally at odds with the empty quarters Jazz had come home to.
When he turned to move back to his table, he froze. The table was no longer empty. Danger whispered in Jazz's audios.
Teeming from one end to the other, over-ridden with chairs stolen from all surrounding areas, were the femmes. Perhaps a dozen of them, nearly the whole role call of the small but elite collection. They sat with obvious intention, waiting, their sharp gazes upon him like predators targeting prey. Firestar was there, her mad grin on display as she offered a beckoning wave. Even more surprising was Elita One and Chromia sitting among their subordinates, a rare sight – and an unnerving one. Elita One sat in the seat Jazz had just left, and she did not look like she would leave it for him.
With the utmost caution, Jazz approached.
"Sit," Elita One invited with deceptive sweetness.
Chromia kicked out an empty chair for him.
"Ah'll stand," Jazz said, sipping from his cube.
Elita sipped from her own cube - where she got it was a mystery. Where the whole lot of them came from without Jazz seeing was another mystery he was not sure he wanted answered. They were watching him too closely, like a toy they wanted to take apart to see what made it tick. There was nothing more dangerous than a femme who decided to invest her interest in a single thing.
"Your recruiting technique could use some work," Chromia scoffed.
"Hard ta pitch a gig Ah've never worked," Jazz dismissed flatly.
They all seemed to find that funny, twittering in a way that made the saboteur's hackles rise. He started calculating if he had any chance at all of escaping. No escape – femmes were designed to be fast and agile, out-ranking his own frame design. Fight them? Not too many to fight, but he didn't like his chances against Chromia.
"We never heard anything about your return," Elita One intoned. "It would have been nice to hear that you were coming."
"It'd be nice if Ah had a table all ta mahself without it crawling with femmes, but we can't all get what we want."
"So sharp in the mornings," Elita One chastised lightly, undaunted. "Maybe if you finished your second cube, you wouldn't be so ornery."
"Don't bet on it."
"Oh, I've missed you, my crazy Jazzy!" Firestar cooed fondly, looking for all the world like she would enjoy it very much if Jazz lashed out at her and threw her across the room. Crazy, stupid femme.
"I think we've all missed you, Jazzy," Chromia sneered meanly – which seemed to be the closest thing she came to being nice. Not that Jazz was interested in nice.
"Too bad Ah can't say the same about any of you," he replied flatly. "Ah guess Ah'll go enjoy mah energon elsewhere before ya all make meh purge it."
He nearly made it out the door before Elita One called him back.
"Where do you think you're going to enjoy that energon, hmm?" she wondered lightly. "You would need a room for that, and you don't have one."
Jazz rounded on her, containing the instant flare of rage. "What would ya know about that?"
Silvered optic ridges rose delicately beneath the arch of rose-painted armour. "I may know a thing or two more than you know."
As if reading his mind, Chromia said, "Mirage had nothing to do with it. Red Alert caught him picking the lock on your room and I stopped him."
Jazz's white gaze flared, and then narrowed to laser precision. "It was you."
"I won't take credit," Chromia snorted. "I was just there for the heavy lifting. Elita One cracked the lock. You're an impressive coder."
"Ah'll try not ta let the praise go ta mah head," Jazz sneered, nearing the table with deadly grace. "Where did you put mah stuff?"
Elita rose from her seat, causing the rest of her division to rise immediately after. She came around the table to Jazz's side, fearlessly threading her arm around Jazz's as if she were not taunting a very dangerous beast. In moments, Jazz was surrounded on all sides by creatures who were either his height or smaller, all of them quick and mean, with sharp optics that knew more than they were willing to say. Chromia was the only one taller than him, the only one who was a shade more vicious than she was sneaky. Realizing they had him surrounded, Jazz put himself on high alert.
"Come," Elita One bid, tugging the saboteur to the door. He followed because he had no other choice.
They left behind a stunned roomful of Autobots who could not decide if they were watching a single bot off to his death by a pack of femmes, or a pack of femmes off to their death by a single bot.
Jazz was guided back through familiar hallways, feeling incensed all the way. He glared down at the delicate arm that held him more effectively than any restraint, then glared at the femme attached to it. He felt Chromia's glare boring into the side of his head. He ignored Firestar's purring as she rubbed up against him, and the rest of the femmes as they twittered amongst themselves with their mean optics glittering like shards of ice.
They passed Prowl's room, but it was empty.
Beyond that familiar doorway, Elita pressed Jazz onward. Around a corner, another corridor, down a flight of stairs to the second level of the barracks. Their small parade finally came to a halt at the far end of the hall, in front of a nondescript door.
"What do you think?" Elita One wondered, tightening her arm around Jazz's, leaning into his side with a knowing smile.
"It's a door," Jazz observed dryly, suspicions starting to sneak their way past his defences.
"If we knew you were coming, it would look a little more appropriate for the occasion," Elita replied, commanding Chromia to unlock the door with a flick of her fingers. "The truth of the matter is, what you had was wholly inappropriate for the position that you hold here. You needed something a little more in line with the value of the work that you have been doing for us. This is the least we could do."
Before him, the door hissed open and a light flickered on. He suddenly discovered where all his missing stuff had gone.
Elita One leaned her head against his arm fondly, her smile true and affectionate as she said, "Welcome home, Jazz."