It's done, and I'm happy with it. I hope you are too.


Chapter 8

Sam and Mikaela were already waiting in front of the house when Bumblebee pulled up at the kerb, settling down on his suspension in a proxy sigh. The teens jogged across the lawn to the Camero, dropping their bags of just-in-cases into the back and allowing the mech to draw the seatbelts across their bodies. Each strap pulled a little in what they could only guess was a hug before easing again.

"How're things at the Base?" Sam asked as the idling engine slipped into gear and eased back onto the road. Bumblebee had called them an hour ago and asked if they could come across to help today, a request that they were both only too keen to fulfil, though it had left them worried.

The radio flickered as Bumblebee 'spoke', using his natural voice rather than an amalgamation of indicative sound clips. "Busy and crowded. Didn't know the Decepticons outnumbered us by so many until they were living with us."

Mikaela exchanged a silent look with Sam, agreeing that that wasn't as bad as they'd been fearing. It reminded her of how things were only a week ago, travelling around the sites Optimus had given them to find a suitable place to build the new Base. "I guess things were already getting cramped for you guys. I mean, you were looking for a new home."

"And we still will. Prowl has been stressing that we need a purpose-built Base now more than ever." A beat as Bumblebee flicked his wipers to knock off an insect, humming a dry sound of amusement. "Stressing and stressing out, actually."

No doubt, Mikaela affirmed with a wry smile. She doubted that the number of times she'd actually seen Prowl calm were far outweighed by the times she'd seen him tense and deliberating. "Any more news from Optimus and Starscream?"

"Not yet. Last I heard, Ironhide was trying to talk to Prime over their sparkbond," Bumblebee replied, not pausing as he negotiated a fast junction and got onto the highway. Ironhide had been in the same state all night, unable to be left alone as he tried to find and speak to his sparkmate. The scout had volunteered to take a shift helping to regulate the older mech's systems later out of morbid curiosity as much as a want to assist. "The Nemesis should be in orbit tomorrow evening, though."

Hands folded in his lap out of the way of the shifting steering wheel, Sam breathed a relieved sound and rested his head back in the seat. They'd found out late last night about the communication, and it had eased a sickly knot in his stomach that had been swelling exponentially for days. As he often found himself, he directed his next question to the radio. "So how can we help you guys out?"

"Ratchet thinks, and everyone agreed, that the new bots need to get used to you as as much a part of the Base as the refectory, and none of us are small enough to sand the symbols off the minicon's armour." Though his face was hidden away in his alt form, Bumblebee couldn't help a wry smile as he thought of how keen their former enemies had become to lose their brands. It wasn't entirely unexpected, though, given how spectacularly hopeless their defeat had been. Magnus suspected that they wanted to be recognised as unaligned now that the Decepticon faction was no more before Prime himself made them Autobots. Theoretically it was something they could do themselves, but the minicons weren't able to and the older warriors had elected to be more ceremonially stripped.

"They're getting rid of the symbols already?" Mikaela asked, her voice high with disbelief. It seemed like such a rapid decision about an emblem that had been the defining part of their identities for millennia.

"No one's making them," Bumblebee cut in quickly, feeling from how Sam's weight shifted in the seat that the thought perturbed him as well. His engine whined in thought. "But they're fragging scared of Tempest, so mabe they think he'll make them if they don't do it themselves sooner rather than later."

Sam sat forward again, elbows on his thighs. "They're scared of Tempest?"

"He offlined Soundwave with an axe to the face," the mech replied flatly as if it were obvious. "The cassetticons won't go anywhere near him. Keep hiding under my pedes. I think they like me..."

Patting a hand on his guardian's dash, Sam gave a sideways smile. "Well, what's not to like, hey?"

The conversation in the Camero turned jovial for the last hour of the drive, lightness coming naturally in the wake of several dark and dangerous days. It had actually been Bumblebee's idea to bring them to the Base, in part because he needed someone to talk to who wasn't a defeated and displaced 'Con or a stressed out superior. Deep down he missed the young Seeker, but Tempest was as embroiled in the bureaucracy that the first days of peace necessitated as Ultra Magnus and Prowl were.

More than anything the former Decepticons needed reassurance that nothing would happen to them and that they were not prisoners, a full time occupation that everyone was pitching in with. In his spark, however, Bumblebee knew as well as any of them that that couldn't be guaranteed until Optimus returned. The final say was his, and he could decide that the most heinous warriors were beyond rehabilitation to peace and would act as reparation for war crimes. More than one Autobot was calling for the trial and punishment of all the Decepticons now living amongst them, particularly given the recent discovery of the heinous transgression against their own commander.

When they finally arrived at the Base, the humans finally grasped the full extent of Bumblebee's description of 'crowded'. There were bots of all shapes and sizes everywhere, many of which they had never seen before. A cluster of minicons, the youngest of the Decepticon ranks and spawned by the All Spark on this planet, were huddled around cubes of energon in the shadow of the Medbay, chittering and watching the larger bots cross the Yard between buildings and warehouses. Sideswipe and Thundercracker were leading the most senior in some kind of tour, followed by two jeeps full of NEST soldiers whom looked less than comfortable with this turn of events.

Bumeblebee rolled to a stop close to the briefing hanger, opening his doors for Sam and Mikaela to get out before transforming up into his bipedal mode. Immediately there was a flurry of activity behind him, and he found himself surrounded and being clambered upon by cassetticons. Irritation was quickly replaced by concern when he heard the larger commotion behind them which the cassettes were clearly hiding from. Signalling for the humans to wait outside, Bumblebee made his way into the hanger and stopped in the doorway.

There was no other word to cover what Skids and Mudflap were doing to Shockwave, antagonising in body language as much as voice. The Twins were skirting about his feet, keeping him from leaving and waving their weapons in vague warning against the disarmed mech at the far end of the structure.

"Don't care what you want, lugnut," Skids crowed with a sweeping gesture. "You ain't having this hanger."

Mudflap nodded and jabbed a finger towards the ground, sidestepping close to his brother to keep the gap between them closed. "Yeah, this is the Boss Bot's room, ya dig?"

Bumblebee took a further half step into the hanger but stopped with a whine when the cassettes mobbed his pedes. The silently urged him to stay back and protect them, their optics bright with the frenzied fear that being disconnected from their symbiote mech had brought. Having always recharged inside Soundwave, their first full twenty-four hours after the battle had been spent awake and uncertain, roaming all over the Base in search of a haven. The scout couldn't help but appease them, though made no move to leave the Twins and Shockwave alone.

The green mech pointed behind them to the protrusion of the Base that made up the washracks, a high-roofed structure surrounded by pipes and grates. "And you can't have that one, neither. That one keeps the sun outta our optics when we're training."

Shockwave's restraint was an audible hiss beneath the rumble of his engine, and Bumblebee had to remind himself that all the Decepticons had been stripped of ballistic weaponry. "I do not want it – the younglings need-"

Skids's optical ridges shot upwards, thumbing to the gathered Minicons on the other side of the Yard. "Them little Retro-rats?"

If Shockwave had an optical shutter he would have closed it in a prayer for patience, highly aware of the Decepticon's precarious position within the Autobot Base. They couldn't make demands, but he could not see how pushing for shelter for the most fragile of them necessitated such a hostile response. "They-"

A hand splayed across the green mech's chestplates as Skids took a step back. "Them harmless, vulnerable little things? Them ones that've taken out more squishies than we got digits? Yeah, they need a roof so they don't get cold viruses."

Mudflap shunted a loud sniff, drawing a finger beneath his right optic. "I think I'm gonna cry."

Folding his arms, Skids shared a matching look of disdain with his brother. "One-eye's so sensitive."

Shockwave resisted the urge to wring both mechs out like wet rags, his hand clenching into a fist and the powerless laser cannon on his right trembling with irritation. He had only been scouting the hanger when the pair had come in, and several minutes later he still hadn't concocted a way to leave without physical force which the Autobots had zero tolerance for at the moment. Finally, he murmured in low, tight tones, "the humans having nothing to do with this."

Nodding, Skids' voice fell into a high pitch of dubious agreement. "No, you're right, man."

Oblivious to Bumblebee, Mudflap folded his arms and took a step forward in pace with Skids. "Sure are, this time."

Skids flexed his fists so that his joints cracked, shoulders shifting into a readily aggressive posture. It was still a foreignness for him to think that he and Mudflaps would never fight like they had again, and that strangeness was breeding heavy scepticism in this peace. "Let's stick to Autobot History 101: How many of us have you fraggers taken out and torn up?"

Mudflap threw his hands up helplessly. "Honest to Primus, I had to give up countin'."

A new note of contempt slid into Skids's voice as he pointed at the larger mech. "And now that you've lost you just expect us to treat you glitches like nothing ever happened?"

Mudflap echoed the more sombre tone. "That's not cool, dude. We remember."

The battlemask had slid into place before Bumblebee had realised he'd drawn his weaponry, though his target was ambiguous. There couldn't be any physical combat on the Base at the risk of jeopardising an already precarious peace, but equally the bots had to learn self-restraint with each other on their own. He waved a calming hand over the cassetticons, silently promising to stay with them.

Instead of being reassured, however, they cried out in unison and bolted into the closest corner, Ravage arched and hissing. Tempest strode purposefully past Bumblebee without a word, red optics narrowed and wings high as he made his way around the human's speaking platform towards the gathered mechs. Retracting his weapons, Bumblebee shifted his hands onto his hips and watched with a low warble.

Shockwave took a step forward, his optic dimmed as he used his full height to loom over the smaller mechs. "Neither of you have the authority to-"

Immune to being overshadowed by larger bots, Skids pointed with a canon to Shockwave's chassis. "Do us all a favour and go reformat yourself with a pipe wrench, blinky.

Without missing a beat, Mudflap jerked his head to indicate the minicons. "And take them scraplets with ya."

Another step and the Twins blocked him again. With an engine growl, Shockwave raised his laser canon though held back the swipe. "Move - I'm going to find someone who doesn't share one microchip for a processor."

Skids' optics narrowed and his systems warmed, ready and keen for Shockwave to initiate a fight. "Shove it up your afterburner, ya half-clocked hood ornament."

Mudflap's added remark was cut off before he could speak by a cracking impact atop his head, the sound followed by the concussion bo swinging into Skids' helm with equal, significant force. Tempest stood over the stunned mechs with the weapon clenched in one fist, bringing the tip to rest on the floor. His optics slid across them both, lined with a tense weariness that had only deepened a pool for anger.

"That is –enough-," he finally spat, the hue of his optical lights flashing to a shade synonymous with death amongst the Decepticons.

The Twins didn't even begin a grovelling apology, remaining still and silent as they waited. They'd never been on the receiving end of Tempest's anger before, and were both uncertain about just how badly this could go. Though the Seeker was an Autobot, they could presently see a lot of Megatron in him, and they had always known better than to goad that particular mech.

A few seconds passed before Tempest finally shook his head with an exasperated rumble. Gritting his dentals, he swung the bo out to point at the hanger entrance. "Swindle and Wheelie are on the verge painting the grass green – go join them."

Skids and Mudflap shared a stunned look, mouths opening to speak but jogging out of the warehouse instead when the Seeker took an ominous step forward. Bumblebee was already retreating back to the teens waiting outside when they passed, optics narrowed on them to convey his own disapproval.

Alone with Shockwave, Tempest collapsed the bo and rehoused it against his wing to fill the silence. It was a conscious effort not to pinch between his optics or rub the back of his neck, both give-aways of uncertainty and weariness that Magnus had highlighted to him.

The older mech had not left him until the signal had come in from Optimus, and then Tempest's emotional state had plateaued on a more contented level. Though still anxious, the young Seeker's relief at his Sire and guardian's safety was enhanced by the feeling that all they had to do here was to maintain until they returned. Neither he nor anyone else needed to absolutely solve anything, nor was it their place to.

Whilst Skids and Mudflap were reaching the Yard and transforming to drive to the verge, Shockwave took a moment to scrutinize the pensive Seeker. He had not met Tempest until now, though had tracked his progress with interest as many of them had within the Decepticon ranks. It was a thoroughly unexpected ending to what had been a neat and promising scheme. Megatron had sired a powerful mech for the sole purpose of defeating Prime, only to be offlined along with his second by him instead. As far as he was aware, Tempest was also at peace with the killings. The human's Frankenstein story came to his processor, and he tucked the thought aside for later consideration.

When the Seeker still did not speak, he cocked his head and stated as a prompt: "The younglings require shelter."

Dragged from his reverie, Tempest gave a short nod and gestured for Shockwave to walk with him towards the hanger entrance. He did his best to ignore the casseticons cowering from him, troubled by their abject fear of him but trying to remind himself that rectifying it was low on his list of priorities. "I know, and they're going to be put into the refectory for the time being. Sam and Mikaela will be removing their brands for them and making sure that they are comfortable."

Shockwave paused at that, straightening as he regarded the shorter mech. The names were familiar from their involvement in Optimus's resurrection and subsequent destruction of the Fallen, though he couldn't see their usefulness. "The humans?"

Stopping as well, Tempest turned a little and met the waiting stare levelly and unapologetically. "We have a close alliance with the humans. You all need to become used to contact with them."

The scientist considered that before nodding fractionally, taking a step forward to underline his assent. He knew well that Tempest's existence was barely a blip in time, but his processor was beyond his years and his body grown directly beneath the legendary Matrix. Just as Optimus's had after he was transformed from Orion Pax, the Seeker's presence exuded quiet, wizened power and warranted respect.

"As you wish, Prime."

"My Sire is Prime, not me," Tempest corrected quietly, though without exasperation. More than a few bots had addressed him recently with that title, though primarily Decepticons. "I am only acting in his stead."

Shockwave could not wholly accept that given his knowledge of the Seeker's progenitors, but it had become a natural habit not to challenge superiors over such fine details of definition. He silenced his initial remark, turning his processor instead to something many of them had been wondering. "When will Optimus and Starscream be recovered enough from the fight to address us?"

Tempest's features gave nothing of the lie away, not breaking his stride. "Two more days, according to Ratchet. We are all to be patient until then."

At the cool order masked as a statement, Shockwave hummed agreement and unconsciously tried to forward the estimation on to the rest of the Decepticons. Their personal comm.s had been taken offline with their weapons, however.

Stepping into the shaft of sunlight coming into the hanger a little way from the entrance, Tempest dropped his voice with a slanted smile. There were some things that had to be said privately, and he was grateful for how easy the mech's deference was making things. "Thank you for not offlining those two."

Also keeping his voice low, Shockwave shook his head and flared his hands in a subtle, helpless gesture. Bemused irritation flowed into his words. "I fail to understand how the Autobots have not already done so."

"You'll ask yourself that at least once a day, now," Tempest assured ruefully, optical ridges arching as he flared his sensors outwards to confirm that the Twins were on the verge and painting. "They're good warriors. Loyal to a fault."

Shockwave nodded slowly, understanding the precariousness of mechs whom were invaluable in battle but frequently wished to be absent outside of a fight. Particularly Starscream, though things hadn't been the same amongst the ranks since the Seeker had defected – quickly followed by his wingmates. Life had certainly been more interesting with his antagonism around.

The corner of his processor that had been searching for what he'd presumed to be a euphemism flashed that it had finished and was unenlightened, and Shockwave nodded to indicate the direction the Twins had left in. "Painting the grass green is a euphemism for a punishment?"

Tempest couldn't help but grin, giving the slimmer mech a sidelong look to gauge his reaction. "Not a euphemism. Captain Lennox put me on to it. Cans of green paint and a field are a good incentive to behave without the need for violence."

Shockwave found that he quite simply had nothing to say to that, surprised by the literalness but impressed by the effectiveness of the tactic. Outside the hanger and looking down on Bumblebee and the waiting teens, he spoke without shifting his gaze from them or alatering his matter-of-fact tone. "These are the humans?"

"Sam and Mikaela," Tempest confirmed by way of gesturing an introduction.

When Sam did nothing more than stare openly at the looming, lens-shifting optic, Mikaela raised a slim hand and waved a little. "Hi."

The mech considered the physical gesture for a moment before simply motioning to himself. "I am Shockwave."

Mikaela nodded smartly. "Good to meet you." After a beat, she nudged Sam's elbow with her own.

Pulled out of his thoughts trying to pin the mech from one of the many battles he'd seen, Sam shook his head apologetically. "Sorry, Shockwave - I don't recognise you."

Shockwave's optical ridge lifted a little. "I am a scientist, not a grunt."

Sam blinked, uncertain as to whether he'd offended the bot. When nothing else was said for several seconds, he cleared his throat softly. "Ah, okay then."

Deciding that that was enough awkwardness and as good a Decepticon/human introduction as he could hope for, Tempest stepped forward to capture their attention. "Sam, Mikaela, could you lead the minicons into the refectory, please? I've asked Arcee to meet you there with some sanders." A pointed look to Shockwave. "I'm sure that Shockwave wouldn't mind watching over the procedures."

Mikaela twisted to look at the small Cybertronians, few any larger than an average sized dog. "It won't hurt them?" she asked, knowing that those bots were covered with armour but not completely unable to see them as infants.

Sensing her concern, Tempest smiled a little. "Not at all, but bribe them with rust sticks anyway."

He waited until the three of them had moved off before he barked the laugh he'd been holding back. Apparently Shockwave wasn't immune to the draw of rust sticks, either.

I've spent most of the journey to Earth slipping in and out of recharge, and seen nothing of Prime. The chemical bath has been providing everything my systems need and keeping up with the energon drain from Tink. If she's not recharging she's feeding, and though I know it's normal I still find myself worrying that she's harmed in some way, that I didn't shield her enough from the transmission. Being alone with my processor and these anxieties for hours on end has done little to bring them down to any reasonable level. I haven't dared to seek out the other mech since he left me.

It's something that's going to have to happen sooner or later, though, and I already know that he will not harm either of us. There's nothing left for either of us to say, but we'll have to act as if my attack on him didn't happen when we get back to Earth, and the sooner we clear the air enough to project that the better.

Tink chirps as I slowly climb out of the bath, holding her to my chassis. She quiets when I begin to walk, and is soundly back in recharge by the time I reach the bridge several minutes later. They weren't exaggerating about the walking, it seems.

Prime is in the command chair, where I expected him to be, though not in recharge. Instead he's gone into a powered down system- state around an active processor. His optics are dim but his hands are still twitching with residual energy. I make a slow path across the bridge and touch his wrist, mindful that he may startle. His optics online soundlessly and I frown when I detect the thin trace of smoke that surrounds him. "Is your coolant system working?"

He looks at Tink first, unreadable with the mask, before meeting my stare. "80% efficiency." Shifting fractionally at the fact that I've noticed, his optics brighten in a quick internal scan. "I missed some of the gel."

And now he's running hot trying to work around it as his lines have had more than enough time to spread it everywhere. Suddenly I'm not anxious. I'm not sure why, but I'm angry with him, and I seize on to that gloriously familiar feeling with both hands. "You idiot - you should have been in the bath this entire slagging time." More smoke, and my sensors point out a recent burn. "And what the frag did you do to your hand?"

I notice the open console and have worked it out by the time he's moved his hand into his lap, out of my line of sight. He shakes his head and stares fixedly at the console, dismissing me. "It's nothing. Go back to the repair bay."

Like that's going to work. The fact that I'm holding a newspark in no way makes me feeble or in need of cosseting. "You're running hot. You go get in the bath."

Prime arches a sidelong brow at me, expression dry. "Childbirth beats a temperature, Starscream," he utters with more force than before, resting a hand against the console to stand and likely walk me back down there. Before he can rise, though, something in his system finally gets the better of him and he eases back, a fist pressed into his abdomen near his ruined side. Ultimately giving up on his plan to get rid of me, he taps the screen to summon the navigation display in the centre of the console. "Besides which, we're almost back."

Between the fight at the harbour and labour my internal chronometer is fried, and I'd lost track of how long we've been sharing this paradoxically small ship for. "Yes, I've been thinking about that," I begin, leaving the remark hanging to adjust Tink and look over his console at the coordinates. Thirty-five hours, give or take an erroneous gravity well. "How do you propose we get down on to that mudball? No spacebridge, no shuttles, and unless they've radically rethought their policy on how much of a secret we are, we can't land either."

Reaching across the console, Prime brings up a screen that he was obviously working on earlier. "All true, so unless we want to wait however many weeks it takes for NASA to authorise, design, build and launch a shuttle large enough to accommodate us, it'll have to be an orbital drop."

My stare speaks greater volumes than my vocal processor ever could. He's submitting that we transform into our transitory shells and hurl ourselves through an atmosphere at sixteen thousand degrees centigrade with a sparkling who is barely dry of my umbilical fluids to impact on solid land. Primus, I actually drove him insane. "With a newspark?"

His facial plates shift at my tone, though he only taps the screen again to display a set of overlapping schematics. Ours, to be precise. "If we configure ourselves in this way, we'll be able to shield her completely with our bodies."

I study the model for a minute, turning it on every axis until I'm as grudgingly impressed as I am wary. He's managed to find an arrangement for our landing-flared armour to spread and interlock in such a way as to make a living cocoon with a small cavity in the middle. Apparently he now knows my physical dimensions as well as I know his. Like this, we'd be protoform to protoform with Tink pressed between us. Slag it, we've already merged processors – might as well just sparkmerge and have done with it.

Surely there's a limit to all of this. "Prime, are you-"

"I'm certain it's the only way," he breaks in sharply. The hand he raised to interrupt me goes to his chassis, however, clutching over his spark. "Frag…" That the utterance is audible only makes it more troubling.

"Come on," I snap, taking a step away to give him the room to stand. "Repair bay – now. You're getting in that bath, and you're staying in there until we're in orbit."

His engine makes a low sound at me, and he'd have looked intimidating if he didn't also look so exhausted and fragged. "It's the bond – nothing will help that."

And if he weren't this slagged it wouldn't be bothering him. Still, there's nothing I can do about his mood, and I'm done apologising. A line has been drawn by Prime's distancing himself from me. It's not 'forgive and forget', but it's certainly a sign that he's done talking about everything that's happened. I consider the schematic again, frowning at how close our sparks are going to be for the drop. "And you're sure this is it?"

A pause as he seems to give his processor another chance to come up with an alternative, and it's a resigned nod that he finally gives. "Positive. If possible we should also aim for the lake closest to the Base to reduce the force of the impact."

Wise, but I don't think it'll make a significant difference. Ordinarily I wouldn't care either way, wet or dry, but with Tink I want this to be as gentle as possible, even if the scale isn't wide. Stepping away, I lean my weight into the console that runs the width of the room ahead of the command chair. "With your chassis like that it's still gonna fragging hurt. Might need to rescan alt forms."

Prime sits back with a hand pressed to his side, switching the screen back to navigational. "The least of my worries." The comment is soft and wearied, and not one I feel comfortable getting involved with.

Silence stretches out between us and Tink falls completely still in recharge, her systems humming quietly. There's nothing more for either of us to say to each other at the moment, and I suspect he's close to ordering me to stay in the repair bay. To take that order from him, and with the hope that I can make him more bearable, I wave towards his marred chassis and step towards the door. "I'm going to look in the repair bay. See if there's anything I can do for the gel or the pain."

It's a weak excuse and we both know that it is only meant to get me back off the bridge, but Prime nods as if believing the fallacy. "That would be appreciated, thank you." He pauses with his optics on me, as if trying to make up his processor about my nonchalance. "A mild sedative for Tink for the drop may also be prudent. Nothing strong, but something to keep her from going into system panic."

Prudent indeed. I may be having a vat of that myself.

It had been to Ratchet's immense relief that Ironhide had settled into the disconnected state without any problems, and with bots taking it in turns to monitor and tweak his body's systems whilst his being was isolated to his spark, the medic was left with time to do the plethora of other jobs that needed doing. Brand removal was being done by multiple bots, including former Decepticons, and the repair and maintenance work on the new mechs and femmes had fallen into a slow but productive rhythm.

He'd cordoned off the semi-partitioned part of the Medbay the morning after Ironhide had gone into spark-state, in part as a place to work without any traffic should something go disastrously wrong, but largely because there was a sparkling due to be delivered. Luna's progression had been clockwork thus far, and he was satisfied to find her arriving on the day he'd expected her. He motioned the femme and her partnet to the farthest, screened-off berth without urgency, antitipcating this to be wholly routine.

Femme births were infinitely easier than mech; the rearrangement of parts that had already shifted during carriage coming naturally and almost painlessly to their systems. Mechs, by comparison, endured a more forced and improvised labour, a fact that had been playing in his processor with Starscream absent so close to his due date. Though as he watched Luna guided up onto the berth by Bluestreak's hovering hands, he was imagining Starscream. The Seeker was due in days, and nightmare scenarios of him not returning in time ran as frequently through his processor as the hopefully images of bringing their child safely into the world.

Discarding the thoughts for now with cool professionalism, Ratchet placed a hand on her abdomen to make a preliminary scan. "Good, the seal's already broken," he remarked softly, pleased. It was very likely that Luna hadn't noticed given how she touched at the slippery fluid now, though Ratchet quickly saw that her optics were watching something over his shoulder.

Arcee was lingering near the partition's edge, having crossed the Medbay quietly to wait at the screen for permission to come closer. That in itself wasn't unusual – femmes who had yet to carry often attended the births of their friends to learn from the experience, and it was something that Ratchet always encouraged so long as he was left the space he needed to work. What tightened his lines now was the human in Arcee's arm, apparently being cradled with as much dignity as possible. Swanson's expression was a mixture of interest and unease.

The scrapyard clicks escaped before he could stop them, though the expulsions helped to even his tone when he finally slipped into English. "What is she doing here?"

Luna touched his arm to turn him, smiling faintly even as she fidgeted to ease mountings pressure. Her slim frame was leant against Bluestreak, who sat on the berth behind her and pressed skilled fingers into the worst points of tension. "I wanted her to see, Ratchet. It's important to the Prime that she understand this about us. Please."

The medic looked to Bluestreak, who shrugged with an expression that conveyed that this wasn't his idea but that he was going along with it. This was Ratchet's domain, though, and his priority was safety over the advancement of human/Cybertronian understanding. She goes the microsecond I tell her to. There were pings of assent from all three bots, unknown to Swanson, and he finally grunted permission for the human's behalf before returning to work. Whilst he set up an energon drip, Arcee came to stand a close but respectful distance away. From her arms, Swanson watched silently with neither her clipboard nor the cool, scientific detachment that her post entailed.

It was quiet work, more taxing and uncomfortable than painful. Bluestreak watched Ratchet's hands with a sniper's focus, hands moving of their own accord as his spark fluttered with worry and his processor struggled to think of anything helpful to do or say.

"The seal opened a few minutes ago," Luna spoke suddenly, optics bright on Swanson. She arched a little when the medic's hand circled to her backstrut, feeling the new placement of parts and confirming the lines' stability. She hissed a quick cycle when he pressed on a sharply sore point before she turning it into speech. "The equivalent in a human would be the 'waters breaking', I believe." She gave Ratchet a pointed look, quirking a smile.

"Er, yes," Ratchet murmured after a beat, glancing to Swanson before fixing his optics on the task at hand. "The fluid release is due to the umbilical lines detaching, which have until now been delivering the materials for growth that Luna has been producing. Open for me, please."

Luna did so, though in a vertical divide across her swollen abdomen rather than her chassis. He worked as he spoke, touching the outermost ports where the nest of lines connected individually to the femme's systems had come away. "These lines form a conveyance nest, which also serves to protect the sparkling from its creator's parts. After delivery, I will manually remove them."

"Like an afterbirth?" Swanson asked, shifting to stand on Arcee's bent arm to see better.

Ratchet gave a short nod, only looking up to check the parent bots' expressions. Both were watching and listening, Luna as a distraction from the tightening bands of pressured pain and Bluestreak from genuine interest. His explanation gave a narrative quality to the event, a sense of safe continuity that would lead to an established conclusion in the form of a safely delivered sparkling. He didn't typically talk his patients through procedures as he was now, but he knew the merit of doing so and the reassurance it could bring. Content that everyone present was comfortable with this arrangement, he began to push apart the limp silver bundle and reveal the sparkling. It reminded him of teaching new medbots, only aloud rather than over a private comm. and far more simplified. "She's fully disengaged from your systems with a strong spark-pulse."

Swanson squinted as she picked out the small body appearing in slivers between the cables and thick fluid. The engine smell of the room was cleaner than she'd been expecting despite the exposure of the femme's mechanisms. "Is that a heartbeat?"

"Soul," Ratchet corrected, deftly removing a handful of silver cords into a waiting tray. His fingers grazed the sparkling's back and side, and Luna's systems twitched with readiness. "Our sparks are a physical manifestation of our selves. Our consciousness as separated from our systems. They're the first thing to appear at conception."

The pains abruptly spiked and Luna trembled with shuttered optics, mouth a hard line. Her hand clutched in a fist about Bluestreak's when it was offered, their fingers twitching and clenching together in a private exchange of support and love. Swanson found herself watching their mingled fingers for a long moment, so similar despite the vast differences in their species.

Ratchet adjusted a part at the top of the space made for delivery, forcing it upwards an inch so that it could retract back as it had been trying. "Just a little longer. Keep cycling, Luna – you won't purge with the drip."

Up until now the sensation of parts twisting and folding back, compressing into as small a space as possible, had been primarily uncomfortable with only momentary bursts of pain. This was now consistent, unending and concerning. "It hurts."

"I know - you're very close," Ratchet replied with a small, reassuring smile. There were no obstructions left between the sparkling and the outside world. All that needed to happen now is for the last connections to be cut off and for the small body to be pushed up and out. "Your systems are open –dilated, they just need to let her go."

Silently grateful when Arcee took them a step closer, Swanson's tone was soft. The pain she could see was very real, sharpened with anxiety and uncertainty. It was not the straining of a poorly lubricated but unfeeling engine that she had been expecting. "Are all Cybertronian births this fast?"

"Not always. This is a textbook delivery, Luna – the sparkling is close to the surface and will emerge when your systems release her." There was nothing more he could do but wait the few minutes that this last stage would take, and Ratchet fixed his gaze on the watching human. "In a mech, the sparkling would be buried beneath parts that would take hours to figure themselves out and move aside."

Swanson thought of Forge, the only other infant to be born on this planet to her knowledge, from two of their species' strongest warriors. His black and red colouring seemed fitting, though she hadn't quite pinned down why. "Is that how it was for Optimus Prime?"

Ratchet grunted a short, humourless laugh, shaking his head. "Prime was a glitch of a thing – a combination of a big mech and the Matrix, which only cluttered his chassis up more. It took seven hours just for his systems to make the space for a birth canal, whereas it's taken Luna something closer to two. Mechs aren't designed with carrying in mind, but they can do it."

Unbidden his processor leapt back to Starscream, assessing that his delivery would likely be just as straightforward as Luna's. Everything about the Seeker build was designed for efficiency and lightness, similar to femmes whom typically compacted an equal number of parts into a smaller frame. The sparkling would be high in his chassis but closer to the surface plates than it had been for Prime, making the birth that much easier.

Luna shifted again, systems whining from strain though her vocaliser was silent. Bluestreak curved against her body to look, still gripping her hand. "I can see her, Lu'. Primus, she's beautiful. She's perfect."

His sensors picking up on the soft click of disconnection, Ratchet brought his hands to the femme's chassis in preparation for guiding the sparkling out. "Deep cycle, Luna, then you're going to push as if transforming."

Her head bowed, feet sliding up on the berth to raise her knees and tense her backstrut in a hard curl. Without instruction Bluestreak placed his free hand on her shoulder, keeping her from curling entirely as the pain was urging her to. Luna's vents shunted a hard exhale before drawing in again, gathering the cool air into her systems for the moment they had been so anxiously waiting for.

Arcee unconsciously took another step forward, offering strength through sheer proximity. Her optics were on Luna, not the sparkling, marvelling at what was happening. "We're right here, Luna. Relax and listen to your systems. Let them work."

Bluestreak sensed the tremble of effort, kissing Luna's helm before pressing his cheek to her temple, drawing her close. "Now?"

The yellow femme gave a short nod, optics narrowed in concentration as her lines jerked. "Now."

Ultimately the delivery was quick, with seconds spent easing the small femme out before Ratchet placed her into the curve of Bluestreak's arm. He only needed fingertip contact to run a full scan, and retreated his hand back to grant the intimacy of the first few seconds of the new family. "She's fine - perfect."

Bluestreak was stunned, his vocaliser filled and clogged with emotion and words too shallow to possibly convey what he felt at that moment. The sparkling was a mix of dull silver and pale lavender, with large optics and a small, hesitantly chirping mouth. Luna watched with a warm and weary gaze, her internals still exposed for the umbilical lines to be cleared. The only things left to do were cleaning.

"Thank you for permitting us to watch. She's beautiful," Arcee said, her voice quiet and unobtrusive to the scene. She waited for Swanson to thank them as well before moving back along the partition and through the Medbay to leave.

Ratchet wasted no time in beginning to remove the rest of the redundant lines, which would allow Luna's chassis to close and the parts inside to reformat and recover. It was sore work, and the best time to do it was in these minutes whilst both parents were engrossed with the new life they had brought about.

The sparkling's quietness was becoming unsettling, and Bluestreak held her closer to Luna and watched the femme cup the infant's face with a slim hand. "Is she okay?" he asked, addressing Luna's instincts and Ratchet's knowledge equally.

"Flawless," Ratchet murmured, quickly followed by Luna's hum of agreement.

Shunting a relieved sigh, Bluestreak held out a finger to the sparkling and grinned when her hand bumped and finally grasped it. "Hi Fortran. I'm your Sire, and that beautiful femme right there is your Creator. We've been waiting to meet you for a long time."

Optimus became aware that something was happening in the bond when the pain stopped. The cavernous ache gave way to something closer to comfort, though it was still unlike the secure and easily overlooked feeling of nearness to his sparkmate. At first he had put it down to the pain suppressants that Starscream had administered only minutes ago, but he knew that those chemicals were only effective on his physical systems, not the intangible energy of his spark.

Alone on the bridge and with hours of time before he would need to begin making preparations for the orbital drop, Optimus shuttered his optics and powered down as much as he dared. Focussed entirely now on the ember of warmth that had appeared in some indeterminate place in his chassis, he made a longshot gamble.

:Ironhide? Is that you?:

Whilst on the same planet, feelings could be shared as easily as words when they had both opened the bond wide to share to such depths. Even without such conscious lapsing of personal barriers, there was always an underlying sense of mood that flowed quietly between them. Ironhide's voice now was disconnected, words floating up isolated from any background sentiment and weak with distance. But it was there.

:Primus, it's good to hear you. Yeah, it's me.:

Optimus mentally seized on the bond, diverting all his focus and energy into it to hold on to the precious connection. :How is this possible?"

Even without emotion being transmitted, Ironhide's tone was tellingly dry with mirth. :Ratchet set us up with a long distance line.:

His processor was tempted for a fraction of a second to work out 'how' before deciding that that wasn't important. :For how long?:

Sitting on the floor of their quarters, synched up to Bumblebee through regulating lines and a battery of external portable pumps, Ironhide tried to force strength into his words. It felt like an entirely alien way of communicating through the bond without a background sense of presence, like throwing letters down to another out of the window and not seeing if they were found. :Until you get back, if you want. It's up to you, love.:

The dark mech faltered, abruptly finding that after so long of wanting to be able to speak to Optimus he didn't know what to say. There was too much and not enough, and he was very wary of harming his sparkmate. Without any sense of feeling, he couldn't judge how the mech was behind his words. Finally, with the knowledge that they would have to have this conversation in the end, he forced himself to ask the aching question. :Are you okay? I mean-:

:I'm alright: Optimus assured quickly, compelled by the need for secrecy and to protect the older mech from his awful worries. If they didn't speak of it, nothing could slip out, but reassuring Ironhide that he was okay was going to be a tough battle. He resented Starscream anew for having to lie to his sparkmate now, though he knew well that the truth would be infinitely worse for all concerned. :Better now, I must admit.:

That was an honest answer, Ironhide conceded, if not a detailed one. There was time to talk about that later, as for now he was the Base's only contact with the Nemesis. It was impossible for him to be communicated with outside of the bond to pass along messages, but he could take information back with him when they finally closed the connection and he came back to himself. :And Screamer?:

Optimus paused at the name and everything associated with it, feeling a cool burn that Ironhide spoke it with the familiarity of a push-shove friend and on behalf of a loved comrade. Ironhide cared because Ratchet cared, and he was another mech to protect in all of this. :Fine: he replied at last with a warmth he did not feel. :He's delivered a healthy femme.:

A barked laugh came through, pleasure at some private joke. :Ratch' owes us some sparkling-sitting. Prowler's been looking after Forge whilst I'm here, though, and it might take some prying to get 'im back.:

There was a chirp from the navigation system that caused Optimus to straighten, looking over the controls. It was nothing of consequence – a gravity well that the ship was already compensating for, and he rested back in the chair again with shuttered optics. :Tempest?:

Ironhide had spent less time than he'd liked with the young Seeker after the battle, hours lost between two spells in the Medbay and preparing to make this work. He took some peace from Ultra Magnus's interest in the mech, but a part of him worried that Magnus would treat Tempest as more of a soldier and a commander than the youth that he was. Then, of course, he could be being overprotective. Instead of conveying this tangent, he simply surmised, :Better than he was. Everyone is. Megatron's in pieces, Soundwave's offline after 'Pest put your axe in his face, and the 'Cons have surrendered. The war's over.:

Optimus could only repeat the words, an affirmation and consolation. :The war's over.:

It was a massive statement; one that every Cybertronian had hungered to make a reality for millennia, and yet it seemed the least important thing to say at that moment. Ironhide's mental voice turned thick with grief, helpless and frustrated and so very, very sorry. The bond ached with guilt. :I love you. So much.:

Smiling a little behind the mask, Optimus reflected on how powerful a gesture it was that Ironhide would hold his wellbeing at the front of his thoughts over a war that had until now encompassed their lives. It was a needless hurt stemmed from a lie that he should have been able to deny outright, to assure and promise his sparkmate that he was okay because nothing really happened. But the repercussions of that admission were overwhelming and would affect so many so deeply. There was a medium ground to be found in all this, but it would take time. :I love you, and you don't have to say anything.:

Ironhide read his words as flat dismissal, a refusal to credit what had been tearing at his and all of the Autobot's sparks with the remorse and pain it deserved. He wouldn't allow his sparkmate to cheapen the transgression by shrugging it off, making it incidental, and his determination to prevent that were rooted in frustrated anger as much as love. :Don't, Optimus. Don't make out it was nothing.:

:It's not as bad as you think: Optimus broke in quickly, the words forming before he'd thought them through. There was a half-truth here, or perhaps even a whole truth from a different perspective. Starscream was right in that Tempest had been forced on him even if the inception had been as clinical and desexualised as conceivably possible, and Starscream had supplied his mind with the vivid and terrible events that had enraged the Autobots to end the war. Just as there was no smoke without fire, the Seeker couldn't have orchestrated his lies if there hadn't been nuggets of truth already in existence. Downplaying the exaggerations was all he could do, now, and he could only hope that that would be enough for everyone.

:The fluxes were embellished: he went on, composing his words with slow care. :What happened wasn't as bad as you all believed. I did not hide that much violence and hurt from you, Ironhide, and I'm alright.:

:I'll believe that when I've got you home.:

Optimus sighed a little at the comfortable, familiar tone. :I sincerely look forward to it. We'll be making an orbital drop close to the Base.: He passed on approximate coordinates.

:We'll be waiting: Ironhide promised, securing away the figures before hesitating. A part of him wanted to leave this encompassing state to tell the others, check the landing zone, and generally make sure that absolutely everything that he could do in preparation was done. But another part of him was relishing this contact too much, though he was wary that his sparkmate would find it a struggle after a time. :Do you want me to leave you?:

Just having Ironhide's voice present was taking all the ache from his spark, and he could feel parts and lines that had been harshly tensed for days relaxing despite the pain in his side. It would be selfish to keep Ironhide from the hundreds of things that needed to be done on the Base, though, however much he wanted this contact. :No, but if you need to, I'm alright.:

It was inevitable that he would feel guilty after breaking this link and isolating both their sparks until Optimus reached Earth, but Ironhide took comfort in the assurance. It was somewhere between permission and an encouragement that he would not break if Ironhide left him, and the dark mech sighed with it. He could stay a little longer before he reassured Tempest and Ratchet. They weren't selfish often, and he felt no shame in keeping his universe confined to Optimus for a time. :There's time before anything needs doing. I'm all yours.:

Prime came down to get me when we arrived above the planet, fixed at such an angle to the Base that we'd land nearby with little effort. I've taken his advice and given Tink a mild sedative to keep her in recharge for the next twenty minutes, though I ultimately left my own systems untouched despite a strong urge to drug myself into oblivion. I'm not looking forward to going back under the conditions of his sentence, though it's the best outcome I could have hoped for given that the plan of his believing the flux as fact has been blown to the Pit.

Cradling Tink firmly against my chassis, I follow Prime through to the bottom of the ship and into the loading bay. The Nemesis will stay in geosynchronous orbit whilst we step out of the hold's entrance and make the drop. If he's any sense, he'll have taken the command codes with him to control it from the surface. It's not something I'm going to bring up whilst he's securing the airlock, though, ready to open this room to space.

"Don't worry, Starscream, we'll be on the ground inside of minutes," he tells me as he checks that the equipment in here is secured to the walls. "And she'll be fine – sparklings are sturdier than they appear."

I look down at the tiny creature slumped against my cockpit, noting that some of her largest parts are equivalent in size to my smallest. "I'll take your word for it."

Once he's satisfied with the state of the place, he moves to stand directly opposite the door and waits for me to join him. We stand facing each other, glaringly aware of our differing heights and widths. His schematics must have taken hours, and I wait for him to signal us to begin the transformation.

Stepping close to me, Prime puts his hands over my forearms and bows his head towards mine, optics shuttering. A slight nod before the whines and snaps begin, his armour splitting and flexing outwards just as my own plates do. I hear as much as see the parts in his side stick and grind, unwilling to move from where they've been welded together, and I put my hand over the metal scab to protect it. When both our armour is flared he initiates the next step to close all space between us, his chassis almost touching Tink's back and his pedes on either side of my own. Her head is framed by the Matrix now laid bear, and glowing in the light of his spark. I bring my cockpit down to close the space more, bringing Tink deeper into me and Prime closer by consequence.

It takes us five minutes of shuffling to overlap and slot together our parts, all done in silence as we work by the schematics without drawing attention to what we're going back to. We are coiled protoform to protoform, caged in by a structure of our own bodies that probably couldn't be pulled apart without our help. I can feel his spark as a point of power and life, though thankfully with Tink between us there's no risk of our energies mingling and trading more than we already have. Finally we stand as a precariously balanced cocoon, the inside of which is rapidly overheating due to our combined engines. Magnetic pulses in his pedes keep us rooted and make my own itch.

"Are you ready?" Without working comm.s he has no choice but to speak aloud to me through the hot blackness that we've made.

My hands had to move during the sequence and it is only our combined forms that hold Tink up between us. Now I wish I could pull her closer into me, make her real and safe and mine. "No. But let's do it anyway."

A few seconds pass before I feel him transmit a signal to the control panel, quickly followed by a hissing and pulling gust across our external panels. Once the air has left the temperature drops dramatically, though the core of us remains hot. I'm certain I'm only imagining hearing him counting down, waiting to make sure that everything that could be sucked through the doorway has gone before he disengages the magnetic locks and lets us move. My sensors track the doorway passing us and the planet's gravity drawing us in. I feel his thrusters adjust our trajectory one way before mine adjust it the other. I hear residual moisture on our bodies burn off, and Tink chirp a long low sound between us.

Starscream didn't remember falling. It was only minutes of data missing from his processor, but after making sure that Tink was unharmed it was all he could think about. They'd missed the water by scant feet and landed in a spin that had drove Optimus's side of the cocoon impacting into the ground first. The Seeker could only assume that he'd lost consciousness immediately as there was no give in the shell, and no way he could extract himself without Optimus's co-operation.

"Prime?" Nothing, though he could hear something beginning to drip. He could only hope that it wasn't gel-contaminated energon from the larger mech that could harm Tink through contact alone. The sparkling was a dead weight against his cockpit, but in perfect condition according to his scanners. Still, the longer they were strapped together like this the harder it would be to come apart. "Prime? Optimus. Snap out of it."

There was a dull squeak as a line flexed followed by another, consciousness returning in dribs and drabs as Optimus's processor catalogued damage alongside restoring system operation. Something significant in size had dented but otherwise the armour lattice had worked. Pressed so nakedly close, he didn't need his sensors to detect Stascream's relief and that the sparkling between them was unharmed. The energy surge from the Nemesis had already begun to wear off before the drop, and now his mind felt muzzy and dim. "Starscream?"

"Who else?" the Seeker groused back, already jerking and flexing parts trying to disengage his body from the other mech's. "Get off or out of me. Whichever this is."

Not a suggestion Optimus was going to disagree with as this configuration was far from comfortable, not to mention their combined weights was only pressing his split panels harder into the ground. "I'm trying, but this is going to take longer than it did to get into," he murmured amidst a litany of creaking metal and metallic pings as parts snagged, clipped or simply snapped. A building vibration in the ground made him pause, and he hushed off Starscream's protest before it could form. "Do you feel that?"

Content to overlook this opportunity for double meaning, Starscream listened and felt in silence before humming an agreement. "The cavalry, no doubt. Not far away, so do us both a favour…"

Tired, exasperated and deeply relieved to be home, Optimus squashed down his initial retort and instead steeled himself to yank them apart. Both their bodies had been affected by the impact, and it took painful seconds of twisting and backtracking to free themselves from one another, but when the sound of engines reached them they were sprawled apart and recognizable as themselves. Exposed to sunlight and crushed against Starscream's chassis as he fought to stand, Tink let out a long, plaintive wail. It was answered by a burst of sirens that only made her cry harder.

Whilst Starscream stood to face the incoming vehicles Optimus remained on the ground, semi kneeling and bracing a hand to his ruined side. The landing had damaged his femoral strut and now sent lances of pain through his hip and into his chassis. When he saw that Ultra Magnus was part of the group, and towing a trailer, he visibly sagged in relief. He hadn't been relishing the thought of walking or trying to drive back to the Base.

Lennox jumped from Ironhide's cab before the mech had come to a stop, allowing him to start transforming on the move. The soldier jogged towards the two mechs, vaguely disbelieving that he could see Starscream and feel as relieved as he was for seeing Optimus. "Overshot by five miles, otherwise we'd have met you," he shouted, funnelling his voice through his hands as Ratchet and Magnus spun apart into bipedal modes.

Ironhide overtook him in two steps and skidded to his knees in front of Optimus, one hand covering his against his burnt side and the other cupping his helm in a brief, loving touch. "Good job," he murmured roughly, pressing a rough kiss to the mech's helm before returning to Optimus's watery optics. "Scared the slag out of me."

"Missed you too," Optimus murmured back, resting his hand about his sparkmate's wrist and trying not to move too much. The bond had exploded back into life between them, warm and fluid, and he wanted nothing more than to bask in it for a few minutes before trying to stand.

Ratchet reached Starscream with similar anxious relief, optics glowing fiercely with a myriad of scans before he'd come close enough to see the sparkling. Ironhide had told him, but he hadn't quite believed it. He didn't notice when Starscream braced a hand on his shoulder, his world contracted to the small being. Tink had stopped crying when his shadow fell across her, and now curled shy and uncertain into Starscream's cockpit.

He touched her cheek, grinning when she clicked a giggle. "Primus, she's beautiful."

"Went with Tink – hope that suits you," Starscream replied roughly, his hesitance evident more in his averted optics than his voice.

"Very much so." The medic lifted her in both hands, holding her up to his face. "I love you already, Tink."

Ultra Magnus came to stand between both united couples, mindful of Lennox at his feet. Though he was as relieved as Ironhide and Ratchet were at the bots' safe return, he was very aware that they both needed to be in the Medbay and put in a state where they could deal with the fallout of peace. The former Decepticons couldn't be stalled any longer. "Prime, it's good to see you safe. NEST have supplied a trailer to return you to the Medbay."

"Which you ain't got a choice about riding on," Ironhide added with a thin smirk, shifting to wrap his arms around the taller mech and ease him to his feet. It felt good to have his sparkmate here to be fussed over, cared for and protected after days of helplessness.

Lennox took his cue to jog to the waiting flatbed, hoisting back the reels of fabric and locks. "Got straps and everything to keep you still."

"I have no objections with using the trailer," Optimus assured with a thin, unseen smile. He allowed Ironhide to help him stand and walk him to the platform. :Where's Tempest?: he asked over the bond, his optics narrowing with concern onto his sparkmate's profile.

:Holding the fort: Ironhide replied with a shunt of hot air. :The 'Cons really listen to him, and we needed Magnus out here for towing. He's waiting on ya, though. All three of ya.:

Ratchet appeared at their sides with the fixed expression of a medic whose concern for time was roused. "Alright Prime, on the trailer. I'll need you offline to keep everything you've done to yourself from slagging you more before we get back."

"I'll be there when you wake up," Ironhide rumbled softly, releasing the slim mech and watching him sit on the edge of the trailer with bright, scrutinising optics.

Starscream lingered beside Magnus as the straps were arranged and tightened over Optimus's reclined form. He could feel Ratchet's apprehension in sedating him, saw everyone hold a living or mechanical breath as they waited for a flux to come, and shuttered his optics at the palpable relief when nothing happened. They feared for him just as he'd feared for Tink, though as he looked at her in his arms he found a myriad of feelings trumping over the guilt. Optimus was going to keep his vow of silence, and he was going to live by that sentence.

Ratchet's hand against his wing snapped his processor out of its reverie. "Can you fly back?" the medic asked gently, optics captured on Starscream with the same loving devotion that he'd shown Tink.

The Seeker flexed his wings experimentally before humming a yes, allowing Ratchet to scoop the sparkling from him. Fear suddenly leapt about his spark that Ratchet knew about the lies, and that now he had Tink in his arms he would offline him without hesitation. Ratchet gave no such impression, however, only turning to look over Lennox's work in securing Optimus's body for transit.

"Ironhide will take her with Lennox in his cab," he explained as an afterthought, looking back to the stiffly stood mech. "I'm sure Tempest will be all over you both when we get back and I'm sorting his sire out."

Another meeting that Starscream wasn't looking forward to, and he could only nod in acknowledgement of Ratchet's apt assessment. These meetings of affected parties were all hurdles that needed to be cleared before he and Optimus could settle into their arrangement of silence. So far, so good.

Optimus became aware of the medic's presence before anything else, the warm tingle of a close scan washing back and forth across his chassis and helm. He shifted, finding himself mercifully unrestrained this time and in significantly less pain. He onlined his optics to Ratchet's hovering visage. His side only ached now, though he deducted from the chronometer that that was because Ratchet had had time to carry out a thorough repair. He touched one hand to his helm as he marvelled quietly at not having an exhaustion-induced processor ache.

Ratchet bent closer, brow knitted as his hand moved to the larger mech's wrist. He didn't need to touch to enable a close neural-line scan, but the contact helped. For him at this moment, at least. "Fluxes?"

He dreaded an affirmative. It had been the medic's only reservation against forcing Optimus into recharge based purely on his foul energy after landing from the Nemesis. It wasn't surprising, though, given everything that just a cursory scan had shown up. The acid had come dangerously closed to searing open an energon tank, which had made the task of picking apart the mech's brutal cauterisation job an absolute nightmare. But the repairs were done now, and all the Prime needed to do now was recuperate enough to address the Cybertronians filling the Base.

To the medic's concern-rich question, Optimus shook his head. Starscream had removed the data and freed him from that particular torment, though there was a chance that he would have fluxes about the fake fluxes he'd been given. Nothing was ever easy, he reminded himself. "How are they?"

Ratchet gave a curt nod, stepping back and watching as Optimus sat himself up and brought his legs over the side of the berth. "Everyone's fine," he replied flatly, still scrutinizing his patient as he recited in clipped tones. "War's over. No casualties on our side. Magnus is ready and waiting to give you all the details. Tempest and Forge want to climb all over you; Ironhide too, and not for the usual reason. And believe it or not, I'm done with you, but I wanted to talk to you before you went anywhere.

Optimus knew that this had been coming and held up his hand, halting the inevitable question before it could be asked. Everyone knew, which meant that everyone would have such questions and concerns about him lingering in the backs of their processors – possibly forever. The thought perturbed him to say the least. "It's not as bad as you think."

The medic 'harrump'ed and folded his arms, shoulders shifting outwards without conscious thought to create a physical wall should Optimus try to leave. "Famous last words."

"How's Starscream?"

It was the only topic that would deflect Ratchet for now, and he sighed a little into his stance. "Being in the chemical bath for so long did a better job than I could or repairing him down to the microscopic level." He shuttered his optics for a moment, his spark contracting as he thought of the Seeker he'd left resting in their quarters five hours ago. Though Starscream was home and safe, had been checked over meticulously by his own scanners, he still felt anxious having him out of sight. A ridiculous fear, he knew, and hopefully transient. It brought evermore weight into his words now, though, as he straightened respectfully before his Prime. "Thank you, for taking such good care of them. Tink's in perfect shape. If it couldn't have been me to deliver her..."

"It was an easy birth. Fast."

Ratchet shunted a proxy laugh having expected nothing else. "Everything seems to be fast with the Seekers."

Yes, they alter their scruples at light speed to suit their own goals, Optimus thought to himself with a low, telling thrum from his engine.

Ratchet didn't miss the sound, and his voice turned pleading with a soft urgency. "Frag, Prime, stop this and talk to me. You can't suppress it. We found that out the hard way."

"It wasn't…" Optimus caught himself to consider his words. "It wasn't as bad as what Tempest saw. That flux was grossly embellished."

The medic's eyes hardened though not with anger. It was a reflection of the emotions that had driven all of the Autobots to the harbour. "Embellished or not-"

"I know," he interjected, and on a deeper level Optimus honestly did. What happened between himself and Megatron was not rape in his mind but could be reasonably construed as rape, and that was something he had failed to address with anyone thus far. It had only been when Starscream had hurled the notion at him mid-tirade as he defended his manipulations that Optimus considered that that was what the Autobots may have suspected. What Ironhide may have thought and feared. Not all of this was Starscream's fault. Most, but not all.

A sigh and Optimus softened his tone a little, sympathetic to the concern where he had been resisting it before. "I will deal with it. But not right now, and not with you. Go be with your family, Ratchet, and allow me to be with mine."

Ratchet held his gaze for several seconds of assessment before jerking his head in a nod. As he sent a ping to Ironhide and Tempest to come in from where they had been waiting outside, he motioned with one hand towards the door. "I believe you also need to being thinking about sorting out the extended family as well. 'Dysfunction' doesn't cover it."

Optimus smiled a little behind the mask, already weary but also looking forward to the task. Throughout the war he had longed for the day when he could see the Decepticons and Autobots united in peace, with neither under Megatron's rule. It would be difficult to combine the values and individuals that had created enough momentum to perpetuate the war beyond the lifespan of most civilizations, but it was a challenge he had longed to undertake.

"I'll address them," he affirmed at last, his vocals ready to say more but cut off by the Medbay door opening.

Tempest lunged into his Sire's lap in a metallic blur, keening instinctually as he tightened his arms around the broad chassis and pressed his head beneath the prow of the mask. There had been times over the last few days when he'd doubted that this would be possible, and though he'd given much thought to this reunion to keep going, he now found his processor blank of words. Optimus was also caught speechless, merely holding his son with shuttered optics.

Ratchet's snapped remark quickly onlined them again.

"What are you doing with her?"

Ironhide came to stand between the medic and the berth with an armful of sparklings. Forge was curled alongside Tink in near-recharge, both clutching a feeding line to their mouths though they neither of them drew on energon. "Racking up favours," the dark mech replied smartly, his optics narrowed and bright. "'sides, you've got a Seeker you need to talk into bonding."

Ratchet refused to break his stare though he could feel Prime and Tempest's optics fix on him. Finally, he slipped into his comm. You remember that?

A quirk of a grin, easy as everything felt right again in Ironhide's world. Most of that trip I don't remember, but that stuck out. Go. Spark. Fight his demons for him 'cause it's worth it. Trust me – you'll love this family gig.

They'd know each other since before Ironhide had met Optimus and Ratchet had never seen such happiness in the dark mech. The war was over, his family was safe and he had no directive overriding that to love and heal his sparkmate. Ratchet saw the naked contentment in the set of his shoulders, the gentle scoop of his hand about the sparklings – the mech's and his own, and felt a pang of want. They could have this. There was no reason why they couldn't, and his spark had begun to ache for want of the bond.

Ratchet finally touched a hand to Ironhide's shoulder, the 'thanks' implicit. "We're both getting soft in our old age."

"Good job we're at peace now, hn?" Ironhide murmured with an arched brow, stepping in closer to Optimus and resting his free hand against the slim mech's backstrut above Tempest's fingers. "Go on – ain't nothing for you to do here right now."

Tempest withdrawing from the embrace brought about Optimus's attention from watching the medic leave, though he kept his hands on his son. There was a shadow in his frame now that would never leave, and he had aged in a way that couldn't be pinpointed or measured. The mech had been conceived by Megatron for war, and he had excelled at it.

"I'm so proud of you, Tempest," he said, cupping one hand to the mech's jaw. "You've done what I could not."

The Seeker shuttered his optics, the smile that pulled at his mouth a tangled mix of happiness and anguish. There was much to be inferred in that statement: that he'd helped end the war; had avenged his Sire for what Megatron had done; and brought about a peace with his own identity that he hadn't know was so lacking. He wrapped it all about his spark and held it there, warding off the images of Soundwave's collapsing helm, the mutilated remains of his Creator and the trepidation that bordered on cowering recently shown by many of his own kind. "Thank you, Sire."

"Did us all proud," Ironhide affirmed, his voice falling back into its regular timbre.

Tempest ducked his head a little and touched a hand to his elbow, optics on the floor. The diffidence was momentary, though, and he quickly motioned with both hands to the sparklings that Ironhide held. "Let me take them for a while? They're recharging, and I think you and Sire need to, um…"

Ironhide didn't turn down the offer, arranging both sparklings into the mech's arms and watching with warm optics as Tempest retreated towards the rec room. Forge had nuzzled with a chirp at the comfortably familiar spark, and Tink had relaxed against the sense of a fellow Seeker. Fuelled, safe and dozing, they would need little more than something to rest against for some time.

Alone in the Medbay with one another, Optimus indulged instinct and simply pulled Ironhide against his chassis beside the berth. Their disembodied contact whilst on the Nemesis had only made his spark long more for the specialist's presence, and now the love following through the bond and the relieved peace was delirious. There was a persistent niggle, though, and it had to be clarified to relieve it. "Ratchet wants to bond with Starscream?"

A hummed affirmative as Ironhide sat himself up on the berth, taking full advantage of its width to draw Optimus down alongside him into the warm cushioning. He hadn't recharged effectively in days though he had no intention of doing so now when he felt a need to watch over his sparkmate, even if only laying quietly. "Yeah, surprised me too. Sparklings make a bot want to do stupid things on pure feeling, though."

Optimus's vents skipped a cycle in agreement, adding the summation to everything else that had been brewing in his processor regarding Starscream's recent behaviour. He hoped that Ratchet would fail to have the Seeker bond with him, but he could not worry about the disastrous potential of such a sharing of sparks when he had two armies to address and appease. Though he was home, things were far from over.

Ratchet hadn't expected to feel so charged and raw by the time he arrived at the door to their shared quarters, though it was nothing like lust that energised his lines and pulsed in his spark. It was a want, a need to make Starscream understand that he was as loved and cherished as their sparkling was, and that there was no weakness to be found in the domesticity of a family. It was something he would be proud to be a part of, and it had seemed that the only thing in the way was Starscream's anxiety of letting him in that much. Of inviting dependency.

They would both be making themselves vulnerable, yet also stronger. They could thrive with the bond, the commitment, and they could do so selfishly. There were no longer factions or battles, no higher duties of death to devote themselves to. There was family and life for their future, and he wanted to seize it with both hands.

Starscream was up when the medic came inside, sat at the desk and reading Prowl and Thundercracker's logs of the last few days. He stiffened when Ratchet laid a hand on his shoulder. "Ironhide came and took Tink. I presume he sent you here as well."

"He did," Ratched confirmed, frowning a little at the flatness in his voice. "I wanted to talk to you."

The Seeker rolled his optics back to the screen though he didn't see it. He was drawn back when Ratchet took his jaw in both hands to bring his face back to look at him. Any remark he could have snapped withered at the intensity in the other mech's features, the resolute seriousness that brightened his optics and tightened his mouth. A cold wave of fear started at the base of his spark and began to swell up. "What-"

"I love you," Ratchet murmured, the soft volume of his voice deducting nothing from the note of conviction. "And I'm not so myopic that I don't know that you love me. We're a family, and even if Tink weren't here I wouldn't leave you."

Starscream eased his head back out of the touch though didn't break optical contact, which stopped Ratchet's hands from pursuing him. Anxiety and shame fought for supremacy in his spark, a nauseating concentration that he hadn't anticipated the pain of. "You want to bond," he finally iterated, inwardly cringing at the dejectedness ringing loudly in his voice.

Ratchet bit the tip of his glossa for a moment, seeing past the dark tone that tried to drown the words in his vocaliser. "I do." When Starscream shuttered his optics as if to block him out, he realized anew just how much he needed to say this. "I want this as much as you fear it."

"You don't want me," Starscream hissed back before he could catch himself. Once the assertion was out, though, he ran with it, rising from the chair and taking a step back from the medic. "You don't understand a fraction of what I've done, of what I'm capable of. I was the Decepticon second and there is little of what I did that I regret. You do not want to permanently tie your spark to that."

A pause as Ratchet absorbed that, though it was more of a demonstration for Starscream than an actual necessity to digest what had been said. These were things that had already occurred to him, and even plagued him at the start of their relationship. Starscream was far from 'good' and largely at peace with himself because he was unrepentant. The Nursery was the only thing that he knew of from the Seeker's past that truly tormented him, and though he'd been witness to the aftermath of that massacre, that Starscream did feel guilt over those sparklings had brought him somewhere close to forgiving him for what had happened.

Honesty on both their parts was the only thing that would get them past this impasse, and Ratchet knew that he'd have to be the one to start it. He took a step forward though didn't reach out to touch, merely standing close to the Seeker watching him with mounting unease masked with a thin and unconvincing sneer.

"I'm not a gullible Autobot who thinks that you've been misjudged and are fundamentally uncorrupted and pure at your core," he began, his tone lacking in both apology and pretence. "You've been in this war from the beginning, just like I have, but you've been a warrior first where I have been a medic. You've been led by Megatron to new depths of cruelty and depravity. I am neither ignorant nor depreciating of this. I knew that you would be a challenging partner, and that there would be some fragging difficult times for us. But I'm in."

He chanced another step forward to underline his words, encouraged when Starscream didn't back away or withdraw when he linked their fingers. "I'm asking with a full awareness of what I'm asking for. Neither of us are stupid enough to believe that love conquers all, but I'll always try to meet you on some middle ground. I won't hold events over you, and I'll help you across the bridges you burn. All I'm asking is that you love me back, be a family with me, because no one else could have us after all of this."

In the back of Starscream's stunned processor, the small part that offered a continual and comforting undermining of Megatron offered that Ratchet had clearly been spending too much time listening to the Prime make speeches. The thought evaporated instantly, though, as his keen mind searched the medic's body and words for any dishonesty. He found none – only acceptance in totality. Good and bad.

It was more of a black feeling in the pit of his spark than a thought that this was a truly stupid idea, but Starscream nodded regardless and stepped into the waiting embrace.

Ratchet met him hungrily, joyously, infecting the Seeker with the same blind want for the full potential of what their sparks could be to each other. The medic found himself backed into the desk and sending various items clattering to the floor. Starscream crawled onto him as if a dam had burst, putting one knee between his thighs and leaving their chassis and mouths no space for air. Ratchet stroked and pulled at his wings, sending him higher and inviting more touches to the places on his body that Starscream had spent many hours dutifully scouting.

They'd sparkmerged so many times now that it felt familiar, plates snapping apart and prying open to expose the core of themselves to one another without pretence. The watery lights were brighter this time, however, throbbing with anticipation and readiness. It trumped over the feelings of pleasure, reduced the pursuit of overload to an incidental by-product of a more glorious act. The came together and came apart, splintering and mingling and taking from one another as much as they gave. Feelings first, and then a torrent of memory and thought poured instantaneously into one another's minds.

A stall, a lurch, but the sparkbond was already there. It dragged them on, leaving no room to flinch or hide. Ecstasy fell away to leave Starscream's defiant fear and Ratchet's cold astonishment at the fore. Their minds continued to collapse against each other, thought and feeling bleeding into one another as before but with suddenly serrated edges. They were, briefly, one mind. It was tremendous and aching, full of rage and terror and a cloying want to understand, but first to deny.

It's not true. It can't be true. You wouldn't. I would. You didn't. I did. And I'd do it again, for her, for you, for us. I know. I know. I'm so sorry. Not for yourself. Not for myself. I had to. You didn't. I had to. So scared. I am. You're a monster. I am. Megatron was worse. He was. I had to. Don't leave me. I can't. I can't. He forbade us. To punish? To protect. To protect. You, them, everyone. They can't know. I know. You shouldn't. Our choice. Prime. Doesn't matter now.

The ultimate expulsion of energy, inevitable and dazzling, was distantly pleasurable but primarily exhausting. They fell against each other and slid in a hard crash to the floor, lying tangled and gasping. Ratchet's optics were bright and wide on the ceiling, Starscream's on his profile, and both their vents sang in high, desperate whines. A sense of presence and an unfettered channel of emotion ran between them both, overwhelmed by the terrible knowledge that lay between them because of the joining that had been forbidden.

Starscream shuttered his optics and laid his helm back against the floor. Either Optimus or Ratchet were going to offline him, or at least want to, but now Ratchet couldn't. He waited for the frustrated rage to come barrelling across the bond into his spark, growing more and more anxious when the heat didn't come. Instead there was a steely detachment that increased dramatically as the seconds passed, the medic drawing him into himself even as their plates finished closing after taking a fragment of one another into their sparks.

Ratchet was the first to move, bracing a hand to the floor to push himself upright. He felt he had to see the Seeker's face. His sparkmate's. Feeling the gaze, the anticipation, Stascream onlined his optics to a dull glow and watched.

The medic clicked a false start at first, averting his optics to silently mouth a dockyard curse. Finally, he forced his gaze back to Starscream's resigned one and resolved himself to honesty. His vocaliser was raw from screaming. "Prime is right – the others can't know."

Starscream thought of Tempest, then the others followed. Ratchet's influence, he suspected.

Ratchet's hands slid into fists, the hard pressure on the delicate components and parts housed inside grounding him somehow. "I should slag you," he growled, though his anger was at himself as much as Starscream. He cycled a breath, then another, still watching the waiting optics of the other mech. He had to shutter his own in the end. "But you're already going to punish yourself for the rest of your existence. Genuinely."

The Seeker stiffened at the diagnosis, pushing himself up on his elbows with a frown. "I don't regret taking Tink out of danger. I won't ever punish myself for that."

Optics snapped open, invoking silence. "No," Ratchet said with more gentleness than either of them had expected. "You feel guilty for the pain you've caused, what you saw as the necessary evil." It was an easy distinction to miss, but the sparkbond underlined and clarified as much as it drowned and confused. He forced the ghost of a smile, meant to reassure more than anything else. "That's good enough for me. If you didn't feel like that, and if it was for anything other than Tink, it couldn't be. But this is who you are."

Starscream's optical ridges rose fractionally, disbelief registering clearly. "That's it?" he murmured, his voice a mixture of hope and scepticism that grated at his own audios. There was no room for pride in this room at the moment, though, and he swallowed it accordingly. "Do you understand what I did?"

"Yes," came the immediate reply, strong and even. "From all angles. If I hadn't felt it as well, just had you confess what you've done, I couldn't. This is still difficult. But you did this terrible thing out of love and fear, not spite. And I can't condemn you for that. Prime had every right to, but I won't."

A hesitant nod and a long pause, as if granting time for the medic to change his mind, before Starscream sat up fully. When Ratchet didn't move he laid a hand atop his, applying gentle pressure until their fingers wove together as they had done before. Drained in ways he didn't understand, he cycled a breath. "I love you."

It was the first time he'd said it and it was backed with the warm impressions of its meaning. Ratchet hadn't realized that he would have doubted the profession before now, vaguely startled by the certainty in his spark.

"More than we thought," he replied at last, and they both knew that he referred to both their feelings. They came together again, slowly and without urgency, testing and tasting the bitter and the sweet. It wasn't absolution or completion, but they would have trusted neither anyway. What lay between their sparks now was so much more.

Prime finds us all waiting in the Yard, the only place on the Base large enough to hold our entire assembly. The humans are nearby, watching with barely a degree of the appreciation this event demands. Some of the old Decepticons still have their insignia, though it is not in defiance. The symbols have been our identities, our values and our battle masks for so long that their shedding can only follow something immense. For me it was Tempest's potential. For them, it's whatever Prime says now.

The practical decisions have been made already. It was decided yesterday that the Nemesis is going to be brought down and its cloak repaired before it's overhauled into the Cybertronian Base. We may or may not leave this world. Some of us know this sphere of filth and water is a better home than the ship if Prime leads us to find a planet of our own.

There's a rumour our numbers will be divided. There're a dozen more threatening execution. Ratchet and I have a shared apprehension of what Prime will say in light of what I had him suffer, and what I had the Autobots believe him to have suffered. Just because he gave me a sentence instead of offlining me doesn't mean that he won't lash out now. We, my sparkmate and I, exchange a look from where we stand to one side of the crowd. Tink is recharging in the curve of his arm, and it suits him. The families here look right. Promising.

Prime does not need to speak louder than normal for us all to hear him. When he stops to address us and his weight settles across his pedes, the silence becomes somehow quieter. Dead air.

"A new age for the Cybertronian race has begun, and it must be begun on clear ground." He lets the statement settle into us, conveying patience and will enough to watch a star until it dies. "We will not forget those who have fallen and the misdeeds that all of us have committed and suffered, but war is a lifestyle radically different from that of peace and is not comparable to peace's laws. Actions and events that had taken place between the two factions cannot be dwelled upon now if we wish for peace to succeed, and there are too precious few of us to level the punishments that war fosters."

He looks across us all in an even sweep, but his optics are hot and knowing when they meet Ratchet and I. He knows. He sees it. We straighten, defiant. His expression doesn't change and I feel Ratchet brush my hand.

"We will not forget." His optics narrow, turning momentarily inward. "But too much remembering only embitters. To make peace is to reconcile. This is not sparklessness but necessity for our survival. We draw the line today. For all our sakes, no more lives will be lost by our own hands. As Prime, I issue a blanket pardon. The Cybertronian race will go on united or it will disappear. We are all a part of something greater than our own grievances."

The finality in Prime's words causes the humans to raise their hands, though they mercifully stop short of slapping them together. Applause is not native to us, and a response just as suited to trivial fleshie games and wordless sarcasm would be an insult here. Instead, there is a ripple of shuffling through the assembly as bots look at bots, twitching heads and flashing optics at one another.

Tempest stands in a tight pose between Prowl and Ironhide in the front row, Magnus at his back with a similar sense of presence. As Prime crosses the dozen yards of space between them, there's a shrill cheer from the back that I can only hope is from an Autobot. The inanity spreads, goaded on by Bluestreak's shouts and fleshie music abruptly beginning to blare out of all of Bumblebee's speakers. The humans slap their hands at last in a madly paced chorus, their fingertips pointed at Prime as he lays both hands on Tempest's shoulder. One Prime to another.

Then the leader of our race, by unanimous agreement, twists his helm enough to look at me. It's not a smile, nor forgiveness, but something that we can both live with that is emanating from him.

I think I see peace.

I hope you've enjoyed this series, whether you've read on all the way from 'Equilibrium' or joined in at the beginning of this fic. Any and all feedback will be treasured. I hope that this is a satisfactory ending for what feels like my most ambitious story to date.

Thank you so much for reading. I've enjoyed putting this out there for you.

~ Borath