Well, I was going to wait... but then someone reminded me it was my birthday. Actually, 'reminded' is a little soft. My aunt happened to stick her head out a window and scream it down the street as I was driving away. It got the point across. I happened to accidentally forget that it was my birthday...because I am awesome like that. Because it happens to be this most fantastic time of year, I shall post this chapter that I had intended to keep for another week or two.
Also, we are approaching 2000 reviews. Anybody else starting to freak out?
Thank you so much to the readers who stuck with my story for the months that I was unable to write. I was deeply inspired and grateful to see some familiar names in the ranks, and also delighted to see a few new ones. As always, your enthusiasm and love for the story keep me going, so my deepest and sincerest thanks to yamiishot, ABundleOfDaydreams, Nikkie2010, Gamemice, 16DarkMidnight80, VyxenSkye, Chistarpax, Optimus Bob, mamabot, RagdolDark, renegadewriter8, Deathcomes4u, Autobot Chromia, ennui deMorte, AirJuvy, CNightJoy, Queen of the Red Skittle, femme4jack, guest, Camfield, guest, EmperialGem21, SweetIndigo, guest, and luinrina~
Prowl stood back and, with a critical optic, surveyed his second in command.
"Prowl..." Smokescreen intoned warningly.
"Quiet," Prowl ordered.
Though not a vain bot, Prowl knew the value of appearance. Even for a species that was not visually-oriented, appearance did have its own social importance - especially in making first impressions. There were dozens of correct social mores concerning a bot's appearance during first meetings, particularly in situations where strict social hierarchy played a deciding role. Prowl was, of course, intimately acquainted with every possible recommendation for appearance – recommendations for all twelve Cybertronian territories and both moons. He had it down to a science.
Smokescreen, unfortunately, was more vain than he was concerned with social dictations of proper appearance. He wore more polish than necessary, especially for a tactician. It made him too shiny, too noticeable. His armour was flared out on its moorings, a gesture some might take as arrogance. But it was his left audio dial that was slowly driving Prowl to distraction. It was several degrees off-centre, and all Prowl wanted to do was grab his second in command in a headlock and yank the offending dial back into place.
"I just washed this morning," Smokescreen reminded uselessly.
"I know," Prowl said, continuing his silent assessment.
"Stop looking for something wrong with me," Smokescreen pressed, smoothing his hands down his armour when Prowl's critical stare continued. "I'm good, okay? I got all polished up for the trip. I haven't looked this good in a long time." Mostly because stress and time-limitations on base had made it impossible for anyone to really focus on hygiene.
Prowl sighed and shook his head. "I want you to look presentable when you arrive in Centaurie Tetrax. Hold still." With his newly attached arm, he reached up and tweaked Smokescreen's audio dial until it sat at a proper degree to mirror its partner on the other side. "There. That's much better. It would reflect poorly on me and this base if you arrived looking like a vagabond."
"A vagabond?" Smokescreen exclaimed, insult lacing his tone. "Have you even bothered to see how the scouts show up on base? They're covered in mud, dried energon, and worse. If my audio dial is off-centre by a couple of degrees, no one is going to care."
"I beg to differ," Prowl said, reaching out again.
Smokescreen ducked away from more adjustments. "I liked the angle my dial was at. It made me look roguish."
"It made you look asymmetrical, and you know how I dislike that," Prowl chastised. "And as for the scouts, they are not my problem. They may show up at any base they wish, looking however they like, and Mirage can be the one to give a damn. You are one of my tacticians and I will not have you reflect badly on my command."
Smokescreen once again tried to shoo his commander away, who was currently acting less like a commander and more like a brother with a terrible – if not terminal – case of perfectionism. "I never see you like this with the others."
Prowl settled back with his arms crossed. "The others know how to comport themselves properly in my presence. You, on the other hand, insist on being given leeway."
"Okay, fine, you got me there," Smokescreen lamented. "I don't fall into your clearly deranged need for everything to be psychotically clean, ordered, and symmetrical. But I challenge you to name one thing about my appearance that someone normal in Centaurie Tentrax will notice." Smokescreen spread his arms wide, looked down at himself, then back at his brother with a raised optic ridge.
The line of Prowl's mouthplates thinned in displeasure, optics narrowing until they were only two glacial slits.
Smokescreen held his ground, chin raised, hoping this was not the rusted bolt that finally snapped Prowl's patience.
A long moment of tense silence followed, the two tacticians staring each other down like they were staring down the barrels of charged plasma cannons. Eventually, Prowl decided that the staring contest was useless. He looked away with a terrible sigh of resignation.
"You are... passable," he said, but the effort it took to say those words clearly pained him.
"Gee, thanks, Prowl. Your support is overwhelming."
"Don't get used to it."
Behind them, the pilot of the prepped ship gave a shout of readiness.
Smokescreen turned with a raised hand. "I'll be there in an astrosecond!" Turning back to Prowl, he opened his arms expectantly. "A hug for good luck?"
With a flat look, Prowl reached out for Smokescreen's right hand and shook it once before dropping it.
Smokescreen rolled his optics. "Any advice before I go?"
"I have enough advice for you to fill several data pads, but I will give you the condensed version," Prowl said. "You are on a temporary reassignment to Centaurie Tetrax. This is not a vacation; be sure to pull your weight while working over there. Don't get any bright ideas about permanently transferring. I will refuse to sign any permanent transfer notice that finds its way onto my desk."
"Got it. Anything else?"
"Hunter," Prowl sighed, his spark turning over in his sparkcase. "It may be difficult when you see him. He doesn't have a frame yet, so his spark and processor will be on separate life support machines. He won't know you are there, but you can be there for him regardless. As soon as he has a frame of his own and is stable enough, you will be transferred back here."
Smokescreen nodded, already familiar with the plan. "Was there anything you wanted me to say to Hunter when he does come online properly? Words of brotherly love, or is that too much to ask for?"
It was too much to ask for, if Prowl's unamused expression was anything to judge by. "If you think of it, suggest to him that he should consider transferring to Iacon." It was the closest Prowl would come to proclamations of brotherly love... at least for now.
"He won't," Smokescreen said with a shake of his head, and then turned over his shoulder to shout at the insistent pilot. "Give me an astrosecond, will ya? Can't you see I'm having a spark-to-spark with my emotionally stunted commander who refuses to publically acknowledge me as a member of his own cadre? These things take time!"
The pilot was unimpressed, and shouted back his thoughts on the matter.
Prowl ignored the exchange, as well as the ensuing laughter from the Autobots present milling around the hangar. Focusing on said member of his cadre, he asked "Why not? Iacon would be an excellent advancement for him."
"He's in Intelligence & Espionage now, Prowl. Not tactical like us," Smokescreen pressed.
"Your point being?"
"I got one word for you: Mirage."
Prowl paused, then inclined his head. "Yes, I can see how that would be a deterrent to transferring to Iacon." He coughed into his fist. "At least tell him not to hesitate to call on us if one of his assignments takes him near here."
Smokescreen landed a hardy clap on his brother's shoulder. "Prowl, take your own advice. Don't hesitate to call while I'm there. You could talk to Hunter, even if he's nothing but a little glowing ball of lightning. It's the thought that counts." He let go, taking several steps back. "Behave yourself," Smokescreen joked, but then flicked his gaze to the silver figure lurking in the background. "Take care of him."
"Ah will," Jazz assured.
With a grin, Smokescreen turned on his heel and hurried up the ramp – ducking when the pilot aimed a whack to his head. Once beyond sight, the ramp snapped up and the hatch hissed closed. Lights around the docking bay flashed in warning. The Hangar Master shouted to some nearby drones, causing them to scatter away from their last preps.
Prowl stood back a safe distance, watching the undocking procedures. His optics swept the area, taking in every detail, and his battle computer ramped up to calculate every possibility for Smokescreen's journey. The chosen ship that would take Smokescreen to Centaurie Tetrax was less opinionated than Putter-Poof. A quiet, obedient ship capable of several times the speed of the lacking ICOM-7. In the best case scenario, the ICOM-10 would deliver Smokescreen quickly and without incident to their intended destination.
Before he could begin to consider the multitude of worst case scenarios that were vying for attention in his mind, a silver hand clapped down on his newly reconstructed shoulder.
"Ah, brotherly love," Jazz teased.
Prowl shot him an annoyed glance, ducking out from beneath the hand. "I would not go so far as love."
"Affection?" Jazz offered, grinning in good humour.
"Not quite," Prowl dismissed
"Acknowledgement?" Jazz said, then waved a hand. "No, wait, Ah got it. Brotherly annoyance."
"Close enough," Prowl sighed.
"Seems like the best fit," Jazz said, glancing about himself at the activity that continued unhindered around them. "Never had no siblings ta ever know the feeling. Don't think it's worth it, really. Just seems like a lot of nothing ta meh."
"Family is-." Prowl stopped himself before he said 'overrated', deciding that the usage of that term would be inaccurate. Worse, an outright lie. He decided instead on, "Interesting." A much safer term that did not betray any of his inner thoughts on the matter.
"Yeah?" A vague smile played at the corner of the saboteur's mouthplates. Mischief sparked in his diamond visor, playing across his handsome features. He could read between the lines more easily than anyone, and could read Prowl best of all.
"Personally, I am just becoming reacquainted with the idea, so do not consider me an expert on the matter," Prowl warned needlessly, hoping Jazz did not persue the subject in such a public setting. "When I was in Simfur, I was never particularly fond of referring to any of my cadre as family. I learned to harbour affection for most of them, but even that seems distant to what I seem to be developing now."
Jazz leaned in. "That's the EMO in ya, remember? Even if ya started feeling the same things ya felt when ya were young, it would be a thousand times more powerful this time around."
Prowl grimaced at the reminder.
Always able to see more than he was meant to, Jazz saw Prowl's expression and gave him a nudge. "Come on, let's get out of here. Ah got a surprise for ya down in the holodeck. Something ta taka our mind off of things."
Prowl watched his partner start off with his usual loping grace. The invitation felt strange, the delivery way too sudden and vague. When the saboteur paused to look back, Prowl frowned at him. "I have work to do."
"Ya have the orn off," Jazz replied airily, as if Prowl had forgotten.
"When did that happen?" Prowl wondered pointedly. "Also, how did that happen without my express knowledge of it happening?"
"This morning," Jazz replied, "and it happened because Ah arranged it ta happen. Now come on, let's go. Ah could only schedule so much time down there. A team from armouries are in after us and they aren't likely to wait patiently if we accidentally go over our time."
Intrigue and suspicion tickled through Prowl's mind, distracting his battle computer from its previous calculations so that it could focus on this new mystery. "Why did you schedule us down in the holodeck?" He stepped closer, close enough to be able to see the fine detail of Jazz's faceplate – the way the handsome slates of metal fit together, the way they twitched and shifted with every subtle movement. But, as ever, Jazz was a master of hiding what he didn't want seen.
"Ah'll show ya when we get there," he said, jerking his head toward the door. From behind his visor, his optics roamed warily across the hangar, scouting the shadows. He backed closer towards the door. Prowl failed to follow, watching the saboteur's every move in fascination.
"Fine, be that way. Go work if ya want. Ya know where ta find meh if ya smarten up."
Not about to let Jazz off so easily, Prowl was immediately on his heels. "Not so fast. Now you have my attention. Take me to the holodeck and let me decide for myself if I want to stay."
It was not even an astrosecond after the words were out of his mouthlates that Prowl realized he had fallen into a baited trap. A trap that, in hindsight, was ridiculously obvious.
"Idiot," Jazz laughed, before grabbing Prowl by a wing and yanking him out of the hangar. It was not the most dignified exit any commander had ever made, but unfortunately escape was nil. A couple dozen witnesses in the hangar looked up in time to have a good laugh at Prowl's expense, watching as a hunched storm-grey figure was bundled out by a laughing streak of silver. All of Iacon would soon know.
"Wait!" Prowl ordered, digging in his heels. He found no purchase in the smooth metal floor. "Let go of my doorwing!"
Jazz did not heed either order, not to wait nor to release his prisoner. He was at the advantage, able to bend his prize to his demands by a mere twisting of the wing he held captive. Prowl was forced to clamp his mouthplates shut, girding himself against the flashes of hot and cold that rushed through his neural circuits. Jazz was too clever, too quick and nimble with his fingers, to cause lasting damage; he only bent and twisted so much to keep Prowl moving, not to hurt him. What Prowl girded against the most was the way Jazz's manipulations, annoying as they were, were the opposite of painful. In any other setting, the touch might have been erotic.
Prowl decided that enjoying the saboteur's touch was probably the worst of any evil. He blocked out the sensations as best he could. "Let me go this instant! You are causing a scene!"
"Too late," Jazz teased, whipping Prowl into a lift and pinning him to the far wall.
While Jazz easily dismissed the gaping bots in the hall as the automatic door hissed shut, Prowl felt their astonished stares like damning spotlights. Thankfully, the lift he and Jazz landed in was empty. A small blessing, or it would have been unbearable for others to witness the personal humiliation of the Head Tactical Adviser. The moment the door slid shut, Prowl twisted and incited a scuffle. It wasn't a full blown fight. Neither invested much, unwilling to scrap it out in an enclosed space. They devolved into slaps and flailing arms, ducking and twisting – one attempting to get away, while the other fought to keep his tenuous hold.
It was, perhaps, the most immature activity Prowl had ever participated in. It might have been Jazz's as well, if his dazedly bemused expression was anything to go by. Their scuffle came to a draw when Prowl managed to get his hands on Jazz's horns, threatening to twist them from the saboteur's head; Jazz grabbed hold of Prowl's chevron, threatening a similar fate.
When the lift dinged to a halt and doors to the proper floor slid open, a member of security was standing there. Two sets of laser-sharp optics landed on him, each from a slightly awkward angle... given that the possessors of the optics were tangled on the floor together. Clearly not knowing what to do, the security officer kept his gaze averted and asked if there was anything he could do. Red Alert had sent him, ever watchful of the cameras on base, and had been under the impression that Prowl was being kidnapped.
Prowl and Jazz finally managed to release each other, dismiss the security officer, and made their way to the holodecks in as dignified a manner as possible. They arrived at the deck Jazz had scheduled, slipped inside, and Jazz locked the door behind them.
Nearly violent in his need to correct everything on his frame that had been set askew, Prowl took hold of parts of his armour and jerked them back into place. As he occupied himself with that, he landed a flat glare on his partner. "Do you mind telling me what that was about?"
"Fun?" Jazz offered, seemingly surprised at himself to have considered that option.
"Do you even do fun?" Prowl asked.
"Do you?" Jazz countered.
"Touché." Now given the chance to stand freely on his own without the threat of his wings being grabbed, Prowl stretched to his full height. It was with deep satisfaction that he felt his spinal column snap back into place. He flexed his wings, sighing in relief with the movement. Neural circuits were still warm and vibrating from the touch of clever fingers plucking at them. Prowl's new arm, when he moved it, was not such a comfort, causing him to grunt as he rotated the new appendage in its newly reconstructed socket.
Jazz leaned back against the wall next to the door. "Arm still bothering ya?"
"It's stiff, that's all," Prowl admitted. "It will be for a few orns more before it is fully integrated with the rest of my frame." Nevertheless, Ratchet had done a fantastic job with the reconstruction and reattachment surgeries. New limb stiffness was to be expected, a simple matter of working the mechanical kinks out while waiting for his spark to accept the new limb and integrate it as part of his living tissue.
"Once the scarring fades and ya get some paint on it, no one will be able ta tell it's a new limb," Jazz said.
"Until then, I will simply have to deal with my appearance." Prowl glanced down at the matte grey of his new arm, bare metal exposed for the whole world to see. One large, blazing imperfection for him to see every time he looked at his reflection, and for him to think about every other moment of the orn.
Jazz looked away and haltingly said, "It's not that bad..."
"Don't lie to me."
"Okay, it is that bad." In mock-helpfulness, the saboteur offered his services: "If you're feeling bad about it, Ah could pluck your optics out so ya don't have ta see how ugly ya are."
Prowl's answering look said everything that words couldn't.
Jazz grinned with devilish delight, his deep laughter ringing through the cavernous space of the empty holodeck. When he could finally contain his mirth, he asked, "How's the interface hub?"
Prowl's expression failed to change when he answered. "I am under Ratchet's express orders not to strain my interfacial capabilities until everything is fully integrated. I could blow the whole thing out and need it replaced again if I try to do something stupid."
"Is that so?"
"Yes, that is so," Prowl replied, optics narrowing on his silvered company. "And, before you ask, no, you cannot interface with me. Not even when I get a full bill of health from Ratchet."
"Who? Meh? It never crossed mah mind!" Jazz exclaimed with innocence that no one would ever believe.
"Business only, Jazz," Prowl pressed warningly.
"Business before pleasure makes Prowl a dull bot," the saboteur admonished, wagging his new finger. He was in rare form, polished to shine and claws sharpened to fine points. "Damn lucky ya got meh around. At least Ah still got mah skills or we'd be outta luck in here."
That being said, Prowl stood back to watch as Jazz's interface panel popped open and the black cable unfurled. Without a second thought, he hooked himself up to the console of the holodeck and downloaded a new program. The lines of his faceplate tightened with concentration, hinting that it was a large program he was dealing with, a complicated one that needed careful handling to keep data streams from tangling.
An unbidden flash of anticipation lanced through Prowl. Was he about to see another hint of his partner's past? What sort of scene was Jazz about to share with him? Would it be a painful memory, like all the ones that featured Xerxia? Or would it, for once, be a memory without pain? Prowl was not even sure Jazz possessed any memories like that. It felt like eons since the two of them had last been in a holodeck together. Granted, the last time they had been anywhere near a position like this, Jazz had been in Prowl's head and exposing an intimate moment of Prowl's past he had not been ready to face...
Above them, the emitters whirred to life. Images began to take shape, solidifying, sharpening. Details came into focus, the depth of the scene slowly expanding. Prowl focused on his surroundings exclusively, trying for a hint of what was taking shape.
His optics shot upwards as the ceiling above disappeared behind a sudden wash of black velvet, its depth suddenly soaring back in an optical illusion of dizzying heights. Prowl staggered back, snapping his mouthplates shut when he realized he was gaping. One by one, pinpricks of light appeared in the dark canvas. More appeared, by the dozens, washing across the sky in a tide. Soon, the sky was more stars than space. A star-encrusted sky so full and bright that it shone nearly as bright as sunlight.
"Jazz..." Prowl breathed, transfixed to the unfolding sight.
"Just wait," the saboteur murmured. "It gets better."
Hundreds upon thousands upon millions of stars. Billions of stars came to life. The blackness of space was squeezed between the glittering diamond-bright lights until it was only a black thread weaving between constellations. Through the centre of the sky, a densely packed arch of stars stretched impossibly high, seeming to reach up into the endless abyss forever, like a distant bridge between worlds. With no small amount of awe, Prowl recognized the arch as the whirling outstretched arm of a star-rich galaxy. Light and colour so densely packed together that it was nearly impossible to tell one star from another. A giant sparkling banner that stretched from one dark, twinkling horizon to the other. The light from legion of stars was so bright that the blackness of space was nearly indigo blue; the stars themselves came in a rainbow of magnificence. Reds, blues, yellows, purples. The most stunning of all were the piercing white ones, so austere and powerful, beaming light so sharp and bright that it was nearly cutting.
Even to look away from the great arch of stars, there were whirling galaxies in their full forms hanging heavy and bright in the sky. Spiral galaxies, pinwheels spinning through space. The giant eyes of distant gods watching from afar. Bright bursts of colour and activity. Nebulous clouds of gas painted the night sky in a wash of stunning colours, reflecting in rainbows under the spotlights of burning bright stars. Nebulae of nameless beauty, stretching in every direction, forming every possible shape. They were larger than any single mind could ever comprehend, distant but beautiful. A sky full of impossible wonder, not a single space wasted with the dark.
Prowl had never seen such a densely packed sky. Stunned, speechless, he felt dizzy to stare up at the sky and not know what to focus on first. Even his battle computer, notorious for being the hardest part of himself to impress, stuttered to a sudden halt when it failed to comprehend the true number of stars, the size of the galaxy, the immense stretch of the universe to contain all of this within. He was frozen to the spot. Left gaping, silent, in awe.
"Well?" Jazz asked from what felt like a great distance.
"I..." Prowl did not even realize he failed to answer, feeling as if the words had been sucked from him and lost out in the crowded light-bright sky.
No sight on Cybertron had ever been so stunning. Prowl's sheltered life in the capitol of Simfur became painfully sharp, to have never seen a night sky full of stars. He had lived a stunted life in lacking, to have never even wanted to look up at the sky and see something like this. But even if he had wanted, there would have been nothing to see. Cybertron's majority had once been too light-polluted to have even caught a single star amongst the artificial glare. Now that all the lights of the planet had gone out, there still was no sight as breath-taking as this.
So distracted was he by the awe-inspiring image, Prowl failed to notice that he no longer stood alone.
"Ah can't remember the name of this place," Jazz murmured quietly.
Prowl jumped, turning to his company. "It is real?"
"A long time ago, it would have been."
Forcing his optics away from the sky, Prowl noted the strange settings that had taken shape much closer to him. The ground appeared as if it were uneven but solid, not metallic but hard. It was black and shiny under the starlight, reflecting the sky as a giant obsidian mirror. The sound of gentle lapping guided Prowl to a massive natural basin nearby, filled to the brim with a dark liquid substance that ebbed and flowed peacefully. Shining metal shapes gleamed under the starlight, twisting statues of various fantastical shapes and designs. Crystal accents also bejewelled the land, adding their natural geometric perfection to the already fantastical scene. Directly beneath Prowl's feet, a large mosaic of coloured tiles had been formed. It was a large, flat stage of a near-perfect circular shape, leading out to two tiled pathways, each that stretched out to opposite sides of the lake where they met again on the other side.
"Sometimes, when Ah try ta remember things, Ah think of this place," Jazz continued, staring up at the holographic sky.
"Do you know where it is?" Prowl wondered. He was no astronomer, but not even a cursory glance of the stars made any of the formations recognizable.
"No," Jazz sighed. "It looks like its a colony of sorts, probably a resort colony for rich bots."
Intrigued, Prowl studied Jazz from the corner of his optic. "What would you have been doing on an off-planet resort colony for rich bots?"
"Ah don't know. Probably nothing good." Jazz continued to stare into the night sky as if it held the answers for him. It held only ghosts, reflections of his imperfect memories, smudges of time without context, beautiful but empty without meaning. Evidence of the hollowness inside Jazz.
Prowl felt a pang of regret in his spark, of pity for his partner who was just beginning to wonder who he was. "I cannot imagine what it must be like in your mind with so many memories and so few answers for them."
"Imagining it doesn't change anything." The words were quiet, subtle longing hanging from them. "Ah just know that Ah was here once, a long time ago. Ah looked up at the sky and Ah saw something that Ah had never seen before. It made enough of an impression that it stayed with meh."
Prowl bumped his hand against Jazz's, letting his fingers wrap around the warm palm, fingers twining. "Thank you for sharing this with me."
Jazz's visored gaze dropped from the sky, shining on Prowl with a vague smile. "Ah thought this would be a good place for the two of us ta escape for a little while."
"Two of us?" Prowl wondered, tugging gently on the hand he held. "What do you need escaping from?"
Jazz grimaced, clearing his vents. He pulled his hand away, needing space, though he did not shoo Prowl away when the tactician followed.
"Well?" Prowl pressed lightly.
"Everyone. No, not everyone..." He revved deeply, causing his armour to vibrate with the sound. "Just the commanders. Yeah, the commanders... some of them, at least," Jazz sneered. "Ah haven't figured out who's all in on it."
"Commanders?" Prowl repeated, his brow furrowing. "Like myself?"
"Obviously," Jazz snorted. "Elita One is definitely in on it, but the others... Ah can't get a fix on it, but it's been driving meh insane."
"I haven't noticed any unusual behaviour," Prowl said, strolling to the edge of the mosaic dais. Beneath his feet, he listened to the click and shift of each individual tile. Under the silver-white light of the stars, the formed image of the mosaic was both entrancing and foreign. Perfect circles inlaid in each other, over and over, accented by crescents, dots, and straight lines. It was not random, but hauntingly meaningful. Glassy inlays glittered like jewels. Jazz had surely invested a good amount of time into the details of this program. Meeting the edge, Prowl peered down into the darkly glittering depths of the lake. A distorted reflection of himself stared back.
"It's hard ta describe it," Jazz admitted, watching Prowl's every movement. "It's mostly just a feeling Ah've been getting."
"Your feelings have proven accurate on more than one occasion," Prowl cautioned, rocking back from the beckoning lake. He came to Jazz's side once more, offering comfort in the form of his close presence.
Jazz bowed his head, shaking from side to side. "Which is what has got meh all tense lately."
Prowl turned, offering a rare smile that he knew would be appreciated. "Well, it is just the two of us here. I am not plotting anything against you. We should be safe for the time being." He gestured to the exotic setting. "And I do appreciate you digging through your memories for this. I have never been off of Cybertron before. I never knew places like this existed."
After a moment of contemplating his own feet, Jazz set aside his thoughts. Whatever it what that the Autobots were doing, it would come to a head soon enough. There were few secrets in the world able to be kept from him for long. So a rakish smile appeared, handsome all the more for the faceplate it settled on, and Jazz slid in beside his friend.
"Allow meh ta show ya around?" he offered.
"I would like that," Prowl said, allowing Jazz to nod in the direction they would travel.
They started off at a languid pace, following the tiled pathway around the whispering lake. Though the program was extravagantly detailed, it was not overly large. The physical space was limited around the lake only, and not only because making the program any bigger likely would have blown out the computers running the simulation. Prowl knew, with only a sidelong glance at his company, that this small window of the past was all Jazz remembered of this moment.
"How long have you been working on this?" Prowl heard himself asking.
"A while," Jazz said. "Before we left for Shockwave. Ah wanted ta show ya something special in reward for the improvements you were making."
Flattered, Prowl revved quietly. "Will I see more of your past if I improve further?"
Jazz chuckled. "Maybe. It all depends on what Ah can remember."
It was only distantly that Prowl recognized that he had been thoroughly distracted from all his many concerns. Even when he acknowledged that he was not thinking of work, of Shockwave, of Smokescreen, he felt no driving need to steer his thoughts in that direction. He was content to be as he was, exploring this extraordinary place that existed inside of Jazz's head.
When their stroll returned to them to their start, it was on unspoken agreement that they return to the familiar motions that had brought them to this point. The martial art form that had originally been meant as the springboard to their training. Prowl, as the student of the pair, inclined his head to the master, who in turn gave a nod. They moved fluidly into position, the tiles beneath their feet shifting to their weight. The ancient form of circuit-su had changed little through time, and both practitioners were intimately familiar with the style.
Jazz, confident in his stance, made the first move – slow, steady, and languid in its travel. A testing tap, an invitation. Happy to accept, Prowl met his partner's outstretched hand, blocking it lightly, turning and following through with a leisurely counter. This would not be a proper fight, nor would it be like their comedic scuffle in the lift. This was comfort, enjoying the moment as two bots who were deeply satisfied to be in each others company.
Their impromptu session also served the dual purpose of loosening the kinks in Prowl's new arm. He need not worry about the usual tension he kept while around others, nor the straight-backed posture he maintained while in his office. Here, there were no optics to watch him. None except for the holographic stars, which Prowl was sure would keep his secrets for him. Tension became replaced with soothing calm, a focus that was intense but unstressful. Movements became as fluid as the ebb and flow of the tide. When their frames touched, it was in such gentle synchronicity that the tapping of their armour was no louder than the hum of the holographic generators above them.
"Well now," announced an unwelcome intrusion. "Is it just me, or is it getting hot in here?"
Startled by the sudden voice, Prowl whipped around to note their new company. Firestar, in all her gaudy glory. Under the starlight, she was both stunningly beautiful and horrifically frightening. Her cranial crests were cocked in all directions, looking as if she had just rolled from her berth after a vigorous session with both her lovers. Her armour laid artistically askew across her frame. She was fanning herself, her optics agleam with a light that set Prowl's nerves on edge.
"You're late," Jazz admonished, stepping away from Prowl. The sudden loss of warmth between them was not lost on either bot.
"Only fashionably so," Firestar replied, slinking closer. Her fingers twitched like she meant to sink her claws into them.
"How did you get in?" Prowl wondered.
"Through the door," the femme answered airily, with no intention of revealing her secrets. Her lustful gaze travelled over the pair of them before settling definitely on Jazz. Always on Jazz. "You are just full of surprises, now aren't you, Jazzy?"
"So are you, and if you're not careful, Ah'll let the whole base know them all," the saboteur warned.
Fury passed over the femme's faceplate, marring her delicate features. "I thought we had a deal."
"We do, but ya haven't made good on your part, so Ah don't have ta make good on mine."
Prowl backed away, gaze swinging between the two bots. He settled a suspicious glare on his partner, seeing as he was the one to orchestrate this little interlude. "Care to explain?"
Jazz cast one last glare on the femme before focusing his full attention on Prowl. "This is gonna sound crazy, but Ah was inspired ta try something while down in Shockwave's lab."
"That is all I needed to hear. Goodbye." He turned on his heel and headed for the door, skidding to a halt as silvered hands grabbed him tight and yanked him back.
"Hear meh out," Jazz said, hands turning to vices to prevent escape. "It's not like Ah'm about ta go all mad scientist on ya. It's simple idea, one that Ah think might work and nobody has ta get hurt."
"It would help if you told me what your simple idea happens to be, because, as it stands, I have absolutely no faith in whatever might have inspired you in Shockwave's labs." Prowl gave a testing jerk on his restraints, finding his arm was not going anywhere. Firestar's avid gaze made the situation worse. "If this plan has anything to do with Firestar, you better start explaining quick."
"Psychometric field generators," Jazz said in a rush. "Ah think ya know what Ah mean when Ah say they got us good. The right kind of field can make any victim experience anything – fear, rage, madness. It's a purely psychological attack. A useful sort of tool in the right hands, right?"
Grateful for his sharp mind, Prowl instantly caught on to what the saboteur was saying. "So instead of the need of interfacing with me and dragging up specific memories to induce an emotional episode, the field will simply induce the episode sans the memories."
"Yes. It's so simple, Ah can't believe Ah never thought of it before."
Prowl's optics swung back to Firestar, hanging back a safe distance while absorbing the conversation. She made no demure about shamelessly eavesdropping. "And her?"
"Me?" Firestar purred, her grin sending shivers of unease down Prowl's spinal column.
Jazz snorted. "Ah couldn't very well drag in Thundercracker or Soundwave, now could Ah? And Ah don't have field generators of mah own. The only psychometric field user on base is her. A remnant of her pleasure bot orns."
Firestar shined her claws and inspected them with a flourish. "It gets the job done, you know? Makes bots comfy, makes them stupid – oh look at the pretty little femme, she's so harmless, she's so little, what could she possibly do to me?" Her expression turned poisonous. "They never notice when I climb into their heads and start plucking away the things I want. In the morning, they won't even know I was there." Her finishing grin was truly devilish.
"That is more than I ever needed to know about your function," Prowl replied tightly.
"It's not for everyone, but I like it." She shrugged, her every movement calculated to be as entrancing as possible. Even the movement of her mouthplates as she spoke was inviting. "Lucky me to find a job that lets me use my natural talents."
Jazz crossed his arms, landing Firestar with a censoring look. "Ah've made a deal with her. She comes down here and uses her wiles on ya ta see if it will work, and Ah've promised ta stop randomly deleting pieces of her memory and then leaving her outside base limits to find her way home."
"It was the kind of deal I couldn't pass up," Firestar sighed.
"And what about me?" Prowl demanded. "What of my say in this? I won't have you privy to my private life. Jazz is bad enough, but you, Firestar, is a step too far."
"Ah got that taken care of," Jazz assured. "She won't remember a thing about this meeting, Ah'll make sure of it."
Prowl glared suspiciously at the femme. "You are okay with this?"
Firestar's shoulders arched up. "If it's the only way to prevent me from waking up in the middle of nowhere again without any clue how I got there, I'm game. I've had more than a few customers in the past who wanted my memories deleted so I didn't have the chance to say they'd been with me. It's nothing new." She came forward, just as Jazz backed off.
Prowl eyed her like she was a poisonous beast, bristling as her hands came toward him. Too close. Nearly touching. Her personal field brushed against his, the sensation it elicited screaming wrong! He felt the electric charge in the air, aware of the unnatural prickle down his spinal column. She was charging up her field generator. Hands extended to lay against his armour-
"Do not touch me," he ordered tersely.
She jerked back, optics flashing. "It works better if I-."
"Okay..." Defeated, she slunk around him, concentrating her efforts into generating the right kind of field.
Prowl remained tense, his mind working on overdrive. Scenarios flew by, possibilities... He knew the importance of this experiment. If it worked, it meant he was one step closer to gaining control of himself. No more worrying about being in situations that could possibly overwhelm him, no more fearing a backlash if he ever had to shut down his emotions. He could be normal...ish.
"Relax, Prowler," Jazz murmured, leaning back against the invisible wall hidden behind the holographic illusion. "She's just doing her job."
"I am as relaxed as I will ever be," Prowl replied through gritted mouthplates, desperately trying not to glare. The air flexed around him, caressing gently, temptingly. Heat rushed through him, senseless warmth that had no reason to exist. Exotic and captivating, the foreign heat worked its way through his tense frame from the inside out. One full-frame caress, tweaking neural wires, making the energon in his lines swim.
Tension leaked from him. Arms falling limp, knees relaxing apart. Firestar circles around, her optics aglow with a hypnotizing blue light. She smiled up at him, one delicate finger raising to the centre of his faceplate. She moved left, his optics followed without his express direction. She moved right, he followed again. Her smile took on a deeply satisfied lilt.
"There now?" she purred. "Doesn't that feel better? Just let the field do its job. You're going to feel nice and relaxed..."
Physically relaxed, perhaps, but nowhere else. Mentally, he was in a tailspin. Panic roiled up, raging with revolt and rejection. He didn't want this. Not like this. The heat of passion, clawing wants and desires firing from deep within him – all false, leaving a bitter aftertaste. His vision swam, becoming hazy until the stars above were nothing but a foggy white cloud. Wildness brimmed inside him, remembered lust from a past when he was not ashamed of the feelings, when they had been new and delightful; now there was shame. Disgust. Loathing.
"Shall we turn up the dial?" Firestar hummed, pressing so close that the air out her vents brushed down Prowl's side.
A strangled sound escaped his mouthplates, unrecognizable to him. His head flew back, frame bristling with the sudden intensity of sensation that rocked him. Liquid heat roiled inside of him. Molten. Melting his insides, setting him aflame. Electric impulses overpowering internal reserves; bursts of lightning flickering from between his armour plating. New tension was building. The kind of tension that built into a crescendo.
His mind resisted, pulling back, drawing the reins so tight that it felt like they might snap. The more he drew away, the more fire lit through his frame. Frissons of where pain met pleasure licked fire through his neural circuits. He could not stop the impulses of his frame, physical control stolen away from him.
Wrong! Prowl's mind screamed. This is wrong! He did not want this. None of this. For once, he was in perfect control of his mind, of his emotions, rearing back with all his might against the pleasure being forced upon him. And yet, for all the control he had of his emotions, it was his physical self that was being dragged from his grip, thrown under a tide of false passions that burned black with horror rather than the natural heat of lust and mutual desire.
"Stop!" Jazz called out, snatching Firestar away.
She squawked, rattled around by the sudden yank. "I nearly had him!"
Jazz shut her up with a hard look. "His mind wasn't in it."
"This was an exercise of the mind, not the frame." He let her go like he couldn't stand to be touching her anymore. His support instantly went to Prowl.
Without the field generating a forced sense of heat, Prowl was left bereft. Suddenly freezing and shaken inside. There was nothing to prop him up, except for the steady hands that came to him, wrapped around him, gave him the support he needed. Prowl's gratitude in that moment could not be shaped into words, so he let his weight be ferried by Jazz, his frame propped against the wall. The coolness of Jazz's knuckles briefly brushing down his faceplate was placating, soothing.
In the ringing silence of the holodeck, Jazz swung around on the lone figure huddled nearby. "No mind, no deal."
"No deal?!" Firestar wailed in horror. "No! Let me try again! I'll get it right this time!" She backed away, hands up to ward off the approaching saboteur. "He wouldn't relax his mind! If he doesn't let me in all the way, it doesn't work!"
"If it didn't work this time, it's not worth trying again," Jazz said, snatching the femme before she ran.
Prowl lacked the strength to look away. He saw the hardness in Jazz's expression as he pinned the small, squirming creature against him. There was no pleasure as there might have been at one time, holding Firestar against her will, possibly hurting her. This was purely business to him now. With a magnetic pulse, he popped open Firestar's panel and without ceremony he connected with her mind. She didn't stop struggling until Jazz took root in her mind. She shrieked, optics flashing bright, and then she was hanging loose in his arms, staring aimlessly at the floor.
A moment later, it was over. Memories deleted, Firestar fell to the floor in a clatter. She laid there like a forgotten toy, her blank expression haunting and surreal.
"Ah'll go dump her somewhere," Jazz said, hefting her weight over his shoulder.
Prowl watched his partner disappear, disturbed by what he had seen. It was too long before Jazz returned, still frowning. How much time had passed? Had Jazz dumped her outside of base again? His hands felt so steady as he helped Prowl to sit on the floor. The holographic simulation ended with a shattering of pixels, leaving them in a cavernous room of hard metal and stark, unfriendly lights.
"Did you hurt her?" Prowl wondered absently.
"No," Jazz replied. "Ah overwhelmed her neural net so she'd stop struggling. It's a temporary thing. She's stuffed in a drone alcove right now; she'll come online confused, but she'll know Ah put her there."
"No, she won't remember any of this happening."
Prowl was silent for a while, leaning his head on the shoulder next to him. He looked down at his hands, chagrined to find them trembling. "Will you honour your deal with her and stop hurting her for fun?"
A sigh sounded, and Prowl felt the frame next to him shifting. "Yeah. Ah was getting bored with her anyways." Jazz scrubbed a hand over his faceplate. "So Ah guess this was a bust."
"Yes. This was unequivocally a bust."
Jazz cursed softly. "Ah really thought it was going ta work. It seemed like such a simple plan."
"Nothing is ever simple with us," Prowl said wryly.
"Mind if Ah ask what ya think went wrong?" Jazz asked.
"My honest opinion?" Prowl leaned away, staring up at the exposed ceiling. "Psychometric fields are only effective when they capture the mind. Even minds like ours are capable of being taken under if we are unaware of the attack coming, but only if we are unaware. We are too strong otherwise to succumb fully."
Jazz's head bobbed knowingly. "Ya knew the attack was coming. Ya didn't want it."
"No. I did not want to give in."
"Why not? Ah mean, Ah know it was sudden, but it was meant ta help ya." In a quieter voice, Jazz murmured, "Ah've only been trying ta help ya, Prowl."
Prowl nudged the silver bot with his shoulder, as affectionate as he could be given the circumstances. "I know that. You look out for me as I look our for you. I am grateful for it."
"Thanks." Jazz braced his arms behind him, managing a deceivingly nonchalant pose. "Minus the personality, Firestar is one hot little piece of crazy. Plenty of bots wouldn't mind getting attention from her. Why couldn't ya let her in?"
Deciding that he owed Jazz a proper explanation after all the effort the saboteur had gone to to set the stage, Prowl gathered his thoughts and properly considered his answer. As he contemplated, it was with great relief that he slowly felt his internal processes returning to normal. It was bad enough to suffer when his emotional went out of control. To be physically out of control was a whole other matter of utterly disturbing proportions.
"The reason my mind was not engaged with Firestar was because have no attraction to her," Prowl answered simply, feeling that it was fullest truth he could give. "There is no detail about her that I find charming, no iota that is in the least bit decent. Her frame design, while well chosen, is not to my taste. Her psychometric field might have been able to hijack my mind's processes insofar as manipulating my physical responses, but she could not engage my interest otherwise. Indeed, there is a deep part of myself repulsed by her."
A soft laugh of disbelief drifted from Jazz. "Wasn't your last exclusive a femme?"
"Yes, Evasia was a femme, though that hardly matters," Prowl admonished with a shake of his head. "She had a plethora of attributes that I found commendable. Her frame type factored little in my attraction to her."
"You don't strike meh as one of those 'no preferences' types. You're too picky for that."
"This is true," Prowl agreed easily, letting out a shaky whoosh of air. "While I value cerebral engagement over physical condition, that does not mean that I do not have my physical preferences. Evasia fit what I find attractive. Firestar does not."
Jazz's sly sidelong glance was full of meaning, though all of it hidden behind that diamond visor of his. "What do ya find physically attractive?"
"That is easy. I would have thought you could guess it. I believe I told you once." When Jazz said nothing, Prowl smiled wider. "Symmetry, Jazz. There is nothing so handsome to me in this universe as perfect symmetry."
To this, Jazz quietly gasped, but then laughed softly.
Prowl pushed to his feet with a grimace, deciding they had wasted enough time in the holodeck.
"And besides," he said as he helped haul his partner to his feet, "this interlude with Firestar was doomed to fail because of one simple thing."
"That being?" Jazz wondered.
Prowl shrugged. "I have never had that much luck with pleasure bots."
Evasia squirmed in her seat, barely able to contain herself in the booth she shared with Three of Five. Too nervous to sit still, she strained up to spy the staircase on the other side of the room. It had been a long, agonizing process of deciding this specific booth to sit in, one that gave them a perfect vantage of that all important staircase without making it look like they were anxious about viewing it.
The floor above was where the private rooms of the establishment were kept.
Smokescreen watched the femme's antics laughingly. "Calm down, Five."
She hardly heard him, dancing on her toes as she craned over the crowd. Too short to see over the likes of minibots and mechs, Evasia huffed a disgusted note. Her frame dropped back down into her seat, drumming her pointed fingers anxiously across the tabletop. "He's been up there for a while."
"These things take time," Smokescreen reasoned. "The first time I came here, I caught on real quick. I stayed up there for a full joor."
Evasia rolled her sharp optics. "Go figure that that is the one thing you decide to overachieve in..."
Smokescreen laughed, catching the attention of nearby patrons. As two Security Response officers sharing a table in a pleasure house, they made a handsome pair. Perhaps not for their physical looks, for they each possessed the standardized form of Security officers of Simfur – a famously uninspired design – but the power their functions imbued, and the respect that followed, was something to be admired. Tacticians in particular, a breed that put Simfur on the map as The Best, were an attractive lot indeed.
"I'm being silly, aren't I?" Evasia sighed, shaking her head. "I know I am. But Prowl is special. He's my personal pet project and I don't want anything to set him back." She twined her fingers together. "You know how sensitive he is. He's discouraged so easily! He's having such a hard time catching on... It's like he's afraid to feel. Every time he learns a new emotion, he acts like it exists to hurt him."
Smokescreen cupped Evasia's hands in his own, squeezing them in support. "I agree with you on all those points, dearspark, except for the one concerning Prowl and sensitivity. Just this morning, he informed me that my left audio dial was seven degrees off kilter, which is apparently hideous to him. He then proceeded to yank my dial back into place – none too gently, I might add."
"Oh Smokescreen!" Tugging a hand away from him, she reached across and gave him a teasing whap. "Why did I ever bring you here? I should have brought Hunter!"
"Hunter is on duty," Smokescreen said. "Besides, it is best that you brought me. My knowledge of the pleasure houses is more valuable than any witty repartee Hunter might share with you."
Mouthplates pursed, tiny olfactory sensor in the air, Evasia said, "Remind me again of your value? I have a hard time recalling it exactly. All I seem to get is static in my audios."
He tweaked that haughty olfactory sensor, delighted with the tinkling laugh that followed. "You have a terrible memory. Allow me to refresh it." He waved a generous hand over all they surveyed. "If not for my extensive knowledge of nearby pleasure houses, however would you have known about this one? The pleasure bots here are trained to deal with creatures such as us, bots who are learning the scope of emotions and are interested in... ah, shall we say broadening our horizons."
"Nicely done with the optic ridge waggle."
"Thank you. I thought it was a nice touch." Smokescreen flashed a perfected smile that had lured more than one, or a dozen, to his berth. "But, of course, what I mean to say is that Prowl is in good hands here. I would never steer you wrong, especially not when it comes to our mutual morbid fascination with poor Four of Five."
"It's not morbid fascination!" Evasia gasped. "I am honestly concerned with him! I want him to be a healthy, normal, functioning bot with all the joys and happiness he deserves."
Smokescreen merely laughed. "Prowl is not the first Simfurite to come here in search of personal exploration. Although... he probably is the first one to have a fellow officer fluttering around him in a panic." He grunted when a tiny foot found his shin beneath the table. He continued dutifully without further teasing. "Pleasure bots here are well programmed, well trained, and most of them have exemplary tenured experience. There are no better hands you could have turned Prowl into than the hands of the bots here. The establishment itself is one of the highest rated around. You are practically guaranteed a quality experience."
Though Evasia still wanted to fret, logic prevailed. "You are right, of course."
She flicked a glance at the staircase again. "It is terrible of me, but I keep considering the worst case scenarios. What if he doesn't like it? What if he's not ready! It is awfully soon to be guiding him into this particular realm of intimacy... What if he gets embarrassed or disturbed? We should be up there with him!"
"He's a pre-program, not a youngling!" Smokescreen exclaimed, horrified and yet laughing. "You don't need to hold his hand for everything!"
"I should have just introduced him to this myself!" Evasia said, slapping the tabletop determinedly. "Who better to ease him into it than someone of his own cadre? We have the same core programming! It would be less awkward for him. I would know exactly how to deal with him! He would be comfortable with me!"
Smokescreen honestly wanted to gape down at Five of Five for such a ludicrous suggestion. "Trust me on this, Evasia, sometimes it is easier to do things in front of a stranger rather than someone you have known your entire life. Pleasure bots know what they are doing. This is what they are trained to do. Just keep reminding yourself that you did Prowl a favour by putting him in the hands of a professional. It will all work out in the end."
She narrowed her gaze, about to issue a counter-warning in case everything came to a bust, but stopped when she saw movement on the stairs. She was on her feet in a flash, eagerly watching two frames descend until she knew for sure it was Four of Five and the pleasure bot he had gone up with. Evasia locked on to Prowl's faceplate, searching for any hint. Prowl had yet to perfect the art of facial expressions, so he faceplate remained uncannily blank.
The pleasure bot, on the other hand, was all smiles and cheer as he took up Prowl's hand and squeezed it tight. A simple gesture meant to convey funds from one account to another, but this one was unaccountably affectionate. A good sign! The two leaned together to hear each other properly over the loud music pumping from the speakers, exchanging brief words with each other before parting ways. The pleasure bot still wore a broad smile as he made his way back up the stairs.
Prowl turned on the stairs and surveyed the gyrating crowd of Cybertronians milling chaotically on the floor just below him.
Evasia stood on her seat and waved desperately to catch Prowl's optic. He saw her, frowned at her, then nodded. No one had ever made a more efficient cut across the dance floor. A near-perfect straight line. Dancers just seemed to jump out of his way. Both Smokescreen and Evasia were on the edge of their seats when Prowl finally joined them at their booth.
"Well?" Smokescreen pressed, eyeing his fellow cadre member up and down as if he might be able to spot a change, a sign even, that Prowl was now one of the initiated, a bot who knew the carnal joys of interfacing.
"Well what?" Prowl asked flatly. Vague questions were never his forte, especially the kind formed of a single word with no indication of direction or topic.
Evasia leaned in, shuffling too close to his side. "How did it go with the pleasure bot?"
He blinked as he considered the question, frowning. "It was a satisfactory meeting."
"That's good!" Evasia exclaimed excitedly."How wonderful that you enjoyed yourself! I was so worried that it wouldn't work out!"
"I was invited back," Prowl intoned, noting the suddenly shocked looks on the other officers' faceplates.
"Invited back?" Smokescreen repeated, stunned."Are they even allowed to do that?"
"Are you sure?" Evasia questioned.
"Of course I am sure," Prowl replied simply, failing to see what the confusion was about. "A date and time have already been set for my return. The pleasure bot I was with requested that I meet with other pleasure bots of this establishment. He informed me that my talents would be much appreciated here. There was discussion of the possibility of making my visits a regular matter."
Evasia felt her jaw drop nearly to the table. She seized Prowl's hand, squeezing it tight. Shock and awe were prominent on her features. "You must tell us all that happened up there!"
Smokescreen's grin was lecherously wide as he said, "Spare no detail."
A moment of hesitation marked Prowl's consideration of the request before acquiescing to it. "The pleasure bot you selected for me was, indeed, an experienced and friendly service provider. When we arrived in his room, he noted my inexperience and suggested we become more acquainted before engaging in anything more intimate. During our brief exchange, I learned of his account books being in disorder. I offered to organize his finances, which took up the majority of our time together. His accounts were in a horrendous state." He shook his head over the regrettable matter. "I balanced everything for him. It was a simple matter compared to dealing with the finances of our precinct."
"You... balanced his accounts?" Evasia asked dumbfounded.
Prowl could not understand the tone she was using, or else he would have recognized the dawning horror.
"Yes, and I was asked to balance the accounts of the other pleasure bots here. As a Security officer, we serve the bots of this city and I thought it a part of my duty to help them."
Without warning, Smokescreen burst into gales of hysterical laughter.
Evasia wailed, horrified. How could things have gone so terribly wrong?
Prowl gazed on blankly, unaffected by either of their emotional extremes. "I thought the meeting went rather well."