Disclaimer: I don't own them.

A/N Takes place shortly after the events in "Protectobot Beginnings: Shield"

"Ironhide, I can't do this," he said for perhaps the third or fourth time, voice soft as always. Stubborn. It was like running full tilt to smash through a delicate crystalline lattice, only to discover it was hiding a solid lead-alloy wall. "I'm sorry," the medic-in-training added earnestly. A very polite, spark-rendingly sincere lead wall, Ironhide amended to himself. Groove was the other one he worried about, but at least he knew Groove could hit what he aimed at. First Aid hadn't picked up a weapon since their first training session.

Ironhide firmed his will against those blue optics. It should have been easier now that they were mostly hidden by the visor, but even covered they still made him want to simply to pat the youngster on the helm and send him on his way. Nevermind that they were here, on Cybertron, more than nine vorns too early. Nevermind that they had already nearly been killed, Decepticons attacking in what should have been the safest place on the planet. Nevermind that there was no hiding them anymore; their secret was out and even Ironhide's cannons would not be enough to keep them safe.

"Yes, you can. You will do this, Aid. You take aim and you fire." Ironhide looked at the yet-to-be-repainted scars that wrapped around First Aid's side, letting them steel his resolve. Even lead could be melted. Or shattered, under the right conditions. Ironhide wasn't aiming to do that, though. He was actually heartened to see First Aid showing signs he possessed back struts, but there was no way he was letting the kid stay on Cybertron without being able to defend himself. Why couldn't the stubborn sparkling see that? He pulled out his trump card. "One day it will be one of your brothers in danger, and the only way to save him will be to shoot. Are you just going to let Streetwise die? or Groove?"

First Aid did not answer, staring at Ironhide for a long moment, before his hands moved to grip the rifle slowly and precisely. Correctly. Exactly as Ironhide had shown him. He turned towards the shooting range, lifting the gun with a terrible tension.

Ironhide almost called it off then, something deep in his spark or processor sounding a faint, wordless alarm, but when was he going to get another chance like this, with First Aid away from his brothers, and Wheeljack and the others preoccupied? He sent the signal to activate the training drone. It was a beginner unit, large enough to provide plenty of target area, and despite its menacing appearance it was not particularly fast. Aid should have no problem getting in a least a few hits, build up his confidence a bit.

The drone darted forward, and then to the side, shooting off a few low power laser bolts in their direction. One whizzed by Ironhide's head, and he ducked reflexively. The bolts wouldn't do any damage, but they did sting. There was an answering flash from First Aid's direction and the training drone's head flew one way and torso another, red optics flickering out, the result of a direct hit on its most vulnerable target area.

Ironhide let out a whoop. See! He knew the kid could do it, just needed a little prodding in the right direction. Time to lay on the praise and encouragement.

"Great shot, Aid! That was..." Ironhide's voice trailed off as he turned to see First Aid curling up over the rifle as if he'd just been punched in his abdominal plating. Slag.

"Aid? Hey, First Aid? What's wrong? Are you hurt somewhere? Aww, come on, talk to me, kid." Ironhide's first thought was that the rifle had misfired, even though he had checked it himself before they started. After several kliks of Ironhide speaking to him and rubbing him cautiously on one shoulder, First Aid still made no response, other than to begin a very faint trembling that seemed to run through his entire frame. Frag. Ratchet was going to reformat him into a disposal unit if he'd managed to get First Aid hurt, after all he'd been through already.

"Let me see, ok?" Ironhide flicked the safety on the rifle and pried it out of First Aid's grasp as gently as he could. It wasn't easy; the sparkling was gripping the weapon so tightly he had ruptured an oil line in one of his hands, leaving a smear on the barrel, but other than that there was no sign of damage to First Aid or the rifle.

"Did you have a short out? Aid? I thought you and Ratchet got those under control." The injury that had nearly taken Aid's life twelve orns ago had not only left him with scars and permanent optic damage, but also frightening and painful short outs, although they had begun abating once Ratchet had figured out they were being triggered every time First Aid used his decrystallizer cannon (He'd only used it as a tool to speed up the rubble-clearing, although in Ironhide's private opinion it would make one scary-as-all-Pit weapon if used on another mech. It was powerful enough to make even his own tough armor vulnerable, ready to shatter at the slightest impact. After Wheeljack's response to that particular suggestion, however, he hadn't dared to bring up the idea to First Aid.)

As far as Ironhide knew First Aid hadn't had a major short out in several orns, but maybe he was having a relapse? Ironhide knelt down further so he could see his face. First Aid kept pulling air through his vents in short, measured, cycles, still with the faint, all-over trembling. His faceplates seemed blank of expression, but something about that dazed blankness made Ironhide's spark twist with sudden alarm. He had seen that look before, in 'bots wounded beyond all repair, moments before they deactivated.

"Let's get you to Ratchet," he muttered, trying not to give in to panic. He heaved First Aid up over one shoulder, staggering a little. Primus, the kid was heavy. He headed for medbay as fast as he could manage, repercussions be damned. Aid couldn't be that badly off; surely he was imagining things, but something was definitely not right.


Ratchet seemed concerned, but not overly so, when Ironhide arrived at his door with First Aid, puffing air through his vents with the exertion.

"None of the remote monitors are registering any problems," he said, doing a quick scan. Although the short outs seemed to be under control for now, Ratchet was still keeping his systems under surveillance, just to be safe. "His vitals are somewhat…reduced, actually, but they're stable..." Ratchet sounded puzzled.

He had Ironhide sit First Aid down on a berth and rubbed one of his shoulders. "Aid? First Aid? Can you hear me?" The sparkling was unresponsive, not even an optic band flicker, and Ratchet's expression grew more concerned. "No, this definitely isn't a short out. How did you find him, exactly?"

Ironhide shuffled uncomfortably. "We were at the shooting range...and...he just..." Ironhide took a nervous step back as Ratchet's optics narrowed.

"He was supposed to be resting," Ratchet said, a dangerous note in his voice. Ironhide fought the urge to cringe. "Go on."

"He demolished one of the drones; it was a perfect shot, Ratch, you should have seen it!" Ratchet scowled, unamused, and Ironhide cleared his vocalizer and continued hurriedly. "Ah, anyway, then he just...curled up, like he was hurt somewhere. Just shaking a little. I can't find anything wrong, but he won't talk or...or anything."

Ratchet was already resetting his scanner before Ironhide finished talking. At the results of the second scan he muttered a few choice words and pulled out a cable to link up to First Aid directly.

"Ratchet..." Ironhide stepped forward, truly worried now. Direct linking was not done on a casual basis, not even by medics.

"His CPU stress levels are off the charts. These are the kind of readings you get with torture victims. Slaggit, Ironhide, what did you do to him?"

"Torture victims," Ironhide repeated, sounding horrified. "I didn't do anything! I was just trying to get him through basic weapons training!"

Ratchet's head was bowed in concentration with whatever he was doing through the uplink. "Slaggit," he said again, shaking his head in frustration. "I'm not getting anywhere. Aid, listen to me." Ratchet began rubbing both hands briskly up and down First Aid's arms. "You're alright. Come on, First Aid. Snap out of it." Ratchet gave First Aid a little shake, and the sparkling gave a stronger shiver in response, but the blank expression on his faceplates never altered.

Ironhide could almost feel the air sizzle as Ratchet opened up a general comm. channel. Hot Spot, Blades, Streetwise, Groove, Wheeljack. Report to medbay, stat!

"Slingshot!" Ratchet barked, and the Aerialbot, who had been passing by the medbay doors, wheeled around abruptly and entered the medbay a few steps with an apprehensive expression.


Ratchet unlinked from First Aid and grabbed the jet by one wing, dragging him over to First Aid's berth.

"You. Sit. Hold on to him until his brothers get here."

"Uh..." Slingshot's face was a study in reluctance, but one look at Ratchet's face was enough to quell any thought of argument. He slid onto the berth and Ratchet lifted First Aid onto his lap. Slingshot wrapped arms around him automatically, frowning as he felt the constant faint trembling.

"Ratch, is he going to be ok?" Ironhide asked. Ratchet ignored him completely. Slingshot gave Ironhide a puzzled look, which the weapon's specialist returned for a moment with a guilty, miserable expression before turning away to pace around on the other side of the medbay. Slingshot wanted to ask what had happened, but one look at Ratchet's set face decided him against it.

"Hey, Aid, it's ok. You're gonna be alright, your brothers are on the way," he murmured instead, rocking First Aid slightly the way he did with Fireflight when he woke up out of recharge with a bad memory defrag. It was a little embarrassing with Ratchet standing right there, but that spark-twisting non-expression on First Aid's face was enough to make him ignore his pride for the moment. Maybe it was his imagination, but he thought the shivering eased a little. Ratchet nodded thoughtfully, watching them.

"Keep it up," he said. Slingshot nodded and hitched Aid a little closer, not meeting Ratchet's optics. Frag. That stupid Protectobot helo was going to catch him actually hugging his brother. There was no help for it now though.

A half-breem later First Aid was snatched out of Slingshot's arms by a blur of pale blue and black fire truck. Hot Spot gave a small moan of dismay as he cradled Aid close, pacing the length of the medbay, and then looking up as Groove, Streetwise and Blades tumbled through the medbay door together a few kliks behind him, his optics flaring so brightly that Slingshot had to look away.

"Protectobots! Form Defensor," Hot Spot ordered in a voice that seemed to resonate and echo through the entire medbay. Slingshot had to restrain himself from initiating his own gestalt transformation sequence in response, much to his chagrin. Hot Spot might be only a sparkling, but right now he was a gestalt commander by every measure and something in Slingshot recognized it.

The other three Protectobots were a blur as they charged across the medbay, transforming as they went. The gestalt being formed with a graceful and intricate shifting and melding of five, ending with the mighty form crouched in the corner of the medbay, cradling his left arm in his right, close to his torso.

"Defensor," Slingshot whispered, the normally dormant part of him that was Superion stirring somewhere in the back of his processor. The Protectobots were entirely too young to have figured out how to join in their combined form, but apparently no one had informed them of that particular fact. Bunch of overachievers that they were, this would make their fourth successful merge, although Defensor had only been online very briefly for all of the other times according to Hot Spot. Ratchet and Wheeljack had feared Defensor might have been a casualty of the disrupter cannon blast that had nearly deactivated First Aid, but it certainly appeared they were wrong on that count.

Slingshot turned his head at the squeal of tires as Wheeljack arrived in alt mode and transformed to enter the medbay.

"Ratchet, what…" The engineer's worried question broke off mid-sentence as he caught sight of Defensor. The gestalt raised his helm slowly to look at Wheeljack.

"Wheeljack," Defensor said, a faint smile present despite the pain that shadowed his steady blue optics. He turned his head slightly. "Ratchet. Slingshot." His smile broadened as he met Slingshot's gaze, the way his optics squinted around the corners holding a hint of Streetwise's merry grin.

"Defensor," Ratchet said, walking forward as casually as if the gestalt were any other patient, placing a hand on Defensor's shoulder. He had to reach up to do it. "How do you feel?"

"Everything hurts," Defensor said, shrugging a little, optic ridges drawn together. "It didn't hurt like this before, but it's ok."

"Not surprising, considering what you've been through. We were going to give everyone a little more time to mend before we tried this, but I must say I'm glad to see you're still with us."

Defensor smiled, optics brightening. "Me too. Ratchet."

"What about First Aid?" Ratchet asked.

Defensor looked down at his left arm where he was still hugging it closely to himself and sighed, brow furrowing again.

"He's back with us now. We have him and we won't let him go, don't worry."

Defensor sounded mostly like Hot Spot, Slingshot decided, a deeper, more deliberate version of him. Then Defensor raised his head to look at the far side of the medbay and spoke Ironhide's name, and now his voice held all of First Aid's gentleness. Before Ironhide could respond however, Defensor shuttered his optics.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, before he separated into his five components with another intricate dance and shifting of parts. Slingshot was fascinated—he'd never seen the process from the outside like this before, at least not this close. It was…awesome, truthfully. He understood now the expressions of wonder he sometimes saw on the faces of other mechs after they watched Superion combine (only since Superion was bigger, his combination was probably even more awesome. Slingshot felt a glow of smugness at the thought.)

The Protectobots ended up in an exhausted-looking heap on the floor. First Aid was no longer blank, Slingshot saw with relief. He was blinking and looking around a little dazedly. Hot Spot engulfed him in his arms again, and the other three piled close around.

"Hey," Hot Spot said distinctly over First Aid's helm, and laughed. First Aid, Blades, Streetwise, and Groove looked at him for a long moment and then began giggling helplessly while everyone else watched with varying degrees of amusement, confusion and concern. Ratchet clearly thought they had all blown a gasket somewhere.

First Aid squirmed up a little higher to rest his helm against Hot Spot's. "Spot," he murmured, followed by a few more weak giggles that sounded suspiciously close to becoming sobs.

Wheeljack edged over to Ratchet. "What happened?"

"Ironhide decided Aid needed a little target practice," Ratchet replied shortly, sending Wheeljack the data file of First Aid's readouts when he'd first arrived in the medbay. Wheeljack sat down on a stool rather abruptly. Slingshot looked over at the back of the medbay where Ironhide was shifting uneasily, looking torn between coming closer to see how the Protectobots were doing and running for his life.

"Ratchet?" Blades looked up at them with optics a bit hazy with laughter or optic fluid. "Can you give him some painkillers? It really hurt him to transform like that."

First Aid made a protesting noise and lifted his head. "I'm ok. It's not that bad."

"Let me be the judge of that," Ratchet said, giving Groove a pat on the shoulder as he leaned over him a little to run his scanner over First Aid. "Up on the table where I can reach you."

The Protectobots unrolled and got up from the floor in a stiff and careful way that suggested that First Aid wasn't the only one in discomfort. First Aid was moving very slowly, and Wheeljack came around to help him.

"That's three near-death experiences since you've been on Cybertron," Wheeljack said, rubbing him on the helm affectionately once he and Ratchet got him on the berth. "Do you think you can give me a break before the next one, kiddo? I don't think my spark can take much more."

"Tell me about it," Hot Spot said, slumping against the berth where Slingshot was still sitting and giving Slingshot a weak smile. Slingshot blinked. Near death? He'd known it was serious, but still...what the frag had Ironhide done to him?

"Sorry, Wheeljack," First Aid said, his soft voice beginning to blur with weariness. "I didn't mean to scare you."

Ratchet readied an injection of painkiller and opened a panel on First Aid's arm to access one of his energon lines. First Aid looked down and sighed unhappily.

"I know," Ratchet said. "It's pretty heavy duty, but you've developed a resistance to anything milder. Now," he continued, as he closed up the panel, "do you remember what happened?"

First Aid nodded. "Ironhide was right, I couldn't let them die," he murmured sadly. Ironhide made a small sound from the back of the medbay. "I'm supposed to mend, not harm, but I had to…" Aid shivered suddenly, and Hot Spot moved forward to wrap an arm around him again.

"Ratchet…" he said worriedly. Ratchet nodded.

"It's ok, Aid. That's good enough. Stay awake for me," he added, as First Aid's visor began to flicker. "I know you're tired but don't go into recharge just yet, ok? I need to run a few more tests to make sure you're alright." First Aid nodded and sat up straighter with an effort, drawing some deep breaths through his intakes. Ratchet asked him to perform some simple calculations and describe treatment for a few different types of injuries. First Aid answered everything correctly and without hesitation, but midway through the second treatment description he suddenly switched from talking to singing the answer. His brothers regarded him with mingled concern and amazement.

"Side effect of the painkiller," Ratchet reassured them. "It happens sometimes. Ok, Aid, that will be sufficient," he added as First Aid softly crooned something about checking oil filters and magnetic pulse therapy.

First Aid smiled up at Ratchet. "Side effects can include dizziness, lethargy, blurry vision, depressed spark rate, ringing of the audios, and siinging," he sang to the tune of 'I Left My Spark in Praxus.'

Slingshot snorted. At least the kid could carry a tune.

"Yes, thank you, Aid. Good to know you've been studying." Ratchet smiled down at his apprentice. "Now lie down and recharge."

"Ok, Ratchet," First Aid said agreeably. He curled up on the berth, humming quietly to himself, and powered off his optics.

Ratchet sighed and looked up at the other four Protectobots, clustered as close as they could get to First Aid without getting in Ratchet's way. "How are the rest of you doing? Pain or soreness from the transformation?"

"Some," Hot Spot answered for them all. "It's bearable."

Ratchet eyed him doubtfully, but nodded. "All right then. Let me know if that changes. Streetwise, how's your engine?"

"I'm ok, Ratchet," Streetwise answered. Wheeljack put a hand on his chassis, checking anyway.

"He's cool," Wheeljack confirmed.

"All right. Stay with Aid for now and take it easy; I want to run some scans on all of you in a moment, but first"—Ratchet glared at the back of the medbay—"I need to have a word with Ironhide."

"I have a few things I'd like to discuss as well, Ratchet, if that's ok," Wheeljack said in a pleasant voice that wasn't really pleasant at all.

"Certainly. My office, Ironhide. If you would be so kind."

Slingshot blinked his optic shutters a few times. Ratchet talking polite like that was even scarier than when he yelled. He wouldn't trade places with Ironhide for all the credits on Cybertron.

"What the Pit did Ironhide do to Aid?" Slingshot asked the question that had been burning a hole in his processor since he'd been dragged into the medbay. "Did he use him for target practice or something?" That's what it sounded like Ratchet had said, though Slingshot could hardly believe it. Ironhide could be strict, and he didn't put up with any nonsense when he was trying to whip stubborn youngsters into shape, but—and it wasn't until he was older that Slingshot truly appreciated the skills and discipline Ironhide had given him—it was always for their own good. He hid it well sometimes, but underneath it all Ironhide cared for the creations he'd helped raise every bit as much as Wheeljack.

Groove climbed up on the berth to sit next to Aid. "No, nothing like that. And it wasn't really Ironhide's fault; he was just trying to help," he said, as he arranged his legs in some strange intricate fashion on the berth. Sometimes Slingshot almost envied mechs without wings. Almost. They had a lot more options when it came to things like sitting, and fewer protrusions to bang painfully into door frames.

"Aid told him he couldn't do it," Blades said, frowning. "Ironhide should have known he wasn't just…" he waved an arm angrily, "trying to get out of it or something."

"Get out of what?" Slingshot asked waving his arms as well, beginning to feel exasperated. Someone just give him a freaking answer already!

Hot Spot sighed. "Weapons training. The first time Aid shot at a drone it just about tore him apart, and this time…." Hot Spot shook his head, looking almost on the verge of crying for a moment.

"Aid decided Ironhide was right, that he had to do it. For us," Streetwise continued for Hot Spot. "So he forced himself against every nanobyte of his programming and he did it. And it nearly…." Streetwise's voice wavered, "it nearly deactivated him."

"So he shot…a drone?" Slingshot asked, not quite sure he understood.

"It had optics," First Aid mumbled, rubbing sleepily at his visor.

"What are you doing awake?" Hot Spot said, hastily scrubbing at his face and going over to stand by First Aid's berth. "You're supposed to be recharging."

"Mmm." Aid sat up and blinked at them a little woozily.

"Aid…" Slingshot said, slowly. "It's a drone. It can't feel anything." He remembered how he and Air Raid had laughed at First Aid's tender-sparked treatment of any damaged equipment they came across when they'd been clearing the rubble-strewn areas of the base together. It didn't seem so funny now.

"I know," First Aid said, wrapping his arms around his knees. "I know that in my processor, Slingshot, I do, but…I can't convince my spark." He shook his head, leaning to the side a bit until Groove propped him up. "It doesn't matter. They're not going to let me help if I can't even use a weapon. Optimus thinks we're too young as it is; what if he changes his mind and sends us back? I'll figure out a way to do it."

"Aid, no!" his brothers protested simultaneously.

"It's not fair," First Aid responded, looking back at them calmly. "It's not fair if you have to always defend me, and I can't do the same. And what if I have a patient and he's killed, because I couldn't....Ironhide was right."

"Fair!" Blades all but exploded. "Aid, we don't care about fair!"

Hot Spot's optics were burning bright. "I know what you went through, Aid, and that was just a drone. I'm not going to let you ever be in that position again, I swear it. You're not touching another weapon for as long as my spark beats."

"Hot Spot…" First Aid said, calm expression faltering. His visor flickered and he dropped his helm until it rested against his knees.

"I swear it, too," Groove whispered, pulling his brother close and tucking his helm under his chin. Aid remained curled in a stubborn ball for a moment, and then relented and uncurled, hugging Groove back. "I'm willing to use a gun if it means you don't have to."

"No," First Aid said, with a little sob.

"Yes," Groove returned, soft but firm.

Blades and Streetwise sat on the berth and put arms around Aid as well. "We swear," they said together. "You're not ever going through that again," Blades added. First Aid made a quiet sound into Groove's neck, pain or protest or sorrow, Slingshot wasn't sure which. He didn't say it aloud, but Slingshot found himself making his own private vow.

Hot Spot sighed and sat next to his brothers on what little space remained on the berth, placing a hand in the middle of the silvery-grey scars on Aid's back. "I'm the gestalt commander, you know. You have to do what I say," Hot Spot said with a faint smile, winning a muffled laugh-sob from First Aid.

"Now recharge. That's an order. We can talk about this more when you're not exhausted and drugged to the vents."

First Aid lifted his helm and squirmed around in Groove's embrace to blink up at Hot Spot with weary optics. "Can we save Ironhide first? Please?"


Ironhide's standard operating procedure, in times of emotional stress, was to go to the practice range and take out his frustration by blowing as many drones as he could into smithereens. That wasn't going to help anything right now, however. And after what had happened the thought actually made him feel a little ill.

"For Pit's sake, Ironhide, we just got his short outs under control and you had to pull a stunt like this!" Ratchet was saying, and Ironhide bristled. He'd started out vowing to keep a tight rein on his temper; it was his fault after all, but he was reaching his limit. How the slag did Ratchet expect him to know First Aid would react like that?

"So what, you think we should send him out there, a sparkling!" Ironhide's voice was rising, despite his best effort to stay calm. "Primus Ratchet, they're not even a full vorn! And you think he should go out there completely unarmed?"

"Processor lock, Ironhide," Ratchet replied, completely ignoring his point. "If he wasn't in it, he was well on his way. And there would have been nothing I could have done!" Ratchet yelled, brandishing his welder for emphasis. "The gestalt link is probably the only thing that brought him out of it!"

"I asked you to lay off the weapons training where he was concerned." Wheeljack was doing slightly better at maintaining a reasonable tone, but not by much. "Did you think I was just being soft on him?"

"What was I supposed to think! Ratchet, you carry weapons, for Pit's sake. I've seen you take down a 'Con or four, never seemed to bother you."

Ratchet narrowed his optics. "Do not presume to know what bothers me, Ironhide," he said dangerously. "First Aid was pre-programmed to be a medic. I wasn't. Without Vector Sigma we knew the effects could be...unpredictable, sparking them directly from the Allspark, but we really didn't have a choice."

"That would have been nice to know!" Ironhide bellowed, the guilt he felt for the pain he'd caused the gentle little Protectobot to whom he'd been guardian, caretaker, teacher and friend from the very first cycle he'd been ensparked boiling over at last in a kind of helpless rage. "Before I nearly deactivated the kid!"

"We didn't know either!" Wheeljack shouted back. "We were only guessing! You should have trusted us Ironhide!"

"Trusted you!" Ironhide found himself on his feet, ready to do something, maybe punch Wheeljack, maybe run full tilt at the wall and batter it until Ratchet knocked him offline for messing up his office, he wasn't sure which, but at least it would be better than the wrenching pain in his spark—when suddenly there was a firm knocking on the door.

Ratchet ripped the door open with enough force to cause it to make an unhealthy squeal, and then stood there with air still heaving through his intakes, gaping in complete astonishment at Hot Spot as he supported a wobbly looking First Aid in front of him.

"He won't recharge unless he can hug Ironhide," Hot Spot stated composedly, with a wry, slightly resigned smile.

"You…what…how the Pit…" Ratchet shook his head sharply, pulling himself together. "You heard the mech," he said curtly, turning to glare at Ironhide. "Hug. Now."

Wheeljack sat down and dropped his helm in his hands, shoulders shaking as he laughed a little hysterically. Ironhide didn't move, looking at the two Protectobots with a confused expression.

"'Hide?" First Aid said, his voice static-raspy.

Ironhide got up and walked over to them slowly. "Hug you," he murmured, looking down into Aid's visor as it flickered dimly. "I was plannin' to let your brothers rip apart whatever was left of me after Ratchet and Wheeljack were through."

"Sorry to disappoint you," Hot Spot said with a slightly cheeky but still sympathetic grin. "We know you didn't mean for this to happen, Ironhide, it's ok. Now are you going to let him hug you or not?"

"Primus kid," Ironhide knelt down and First Aid half fell into him as Hot Spot let him go, wrapping arms around Ironhide as far as he could and burrowing in close. He hummed happily as Ironhide returned the embrace, squeezing him tightly. "I'm so sorry, kiddo. I'm so sorry. I just wish you would have told me," he said, rubbing a hand on First Aid's helm with rough affection.

"He didn't even tell us, Ironhide," Hot Spot said. "I'm not sure he even could have."

First Aid's visor went dark and he went limp in Ironhide's arms. "Aid?" Ironhide said, looking worried. Ratchet came over and checked him briefly.

"He's just in recharge. He's fine. Why don't you put him back on the berth," Ratchet suggested, the not-quite-coldness in his voice letting Ironhide know he was far from forgiven where Ratchet was concerned.

Ironhide hefted First Aid up and carried him out to the medbay proper, carefully positioning him on the berth where Groove was still sitting. Groove patted Ironhide's hand with a small, peaceful smile, which Ironhide returned weakly.

Wheeljack, following out behind him from Ratchet's office, leaned against the end berth and rubbed at one of his vocal indicators uneasily. "I'm sorry, Ironhide," he said. "We should have done a better job keeping you in the loop."

Ironhide shook his head. "I probably wouldn't have paid attention anyway." He looked up and met Wheeljack's optics in unspoken mutual apology.

Streetwise got up and went over to lean against Wheeljack, who put an arm around him. "Are there any other Autobots that don't carry a weapon?" he asked.

"Not that I know of, Streets," Wheeljack answered. "Even the science and research teams are armed, though most of them don't have to be in direct combat." Wheeljack might be an engineer, but Slingshot had seen him in action often enough to know he was fairly well-armed himself. Explosively so. Especially if he was defending his creations.

"Can you…" Slingshot hesitated for a moment, but he couldn't think of a better way to say it. "Can you fix him?" he asked Ratchet. The other four Protectobots bristled defensively.

"Aid's not broken," Blades said with a growl, giving Slingshot an unfriendly glare. "He's just…who he is."

"No," Ratchet answered Slingshot's question. "Maybe if we'd figured it out sooner we could have worked around it gradually, but at this point I'd have to make direct adjustments to have any effect, and this is core programming, or even deeper. I can't tamper without changing who he is on an essential level, and at his essential level…he's already shaping up to be a remarkable medic." The other four Protectobots straightened with pride for their brother. "I refuse to do anything that might jeopardize that."

"As long as he makes it to his first vorn," Wheeljack murmured, watching as First Aid snuggled in closer to Groove, curling his hands up under his chin.

"I can keep him locked in the medbay," Ratchet offered, and Hot Spot laughed.

"I might almost take you up on that," he said.

Streetwise laughed too, but shook his head. "Nice plan, but it'll never work. He's a field medic, and we'll need him. And I highly doubt you'll be able to order him to stay behind." Hot Spot sighed and nodded in rueful agreement.

"We'll help keep an optic on him," Slingshot offered. Hot Spot gave him a warm smile.

"Thank you, Slingshot," Hot Spot said sincerely. Blades frowned and crossed his arms, but gave Slingshot a reluctantly grateful nod.

"What do you think Optimus will do?" Streetwise asked, worried. "If we won't let Aid carry a weapon…" Wheeljack raised an optic ridge at Streetwise's phrasing, but didn't comment. Ratchet frowned.

Slinghot shifted uneasily, not willing to admit that he was worried as well. It wasn't like he would miss them, if Optimus decided they couldn't stay, that they had to go back to their secret planet until they were older as had been originally planned. Stupid sparklings, thought they could fix anything. Injured as they were they'd swept through the ruined base like a reverse tornado as soon as Ratchet had cleared them for any sort of duty, and they'd had actually had fun, enthusiastic joyful fun doing it. It had annoyed Slingshot to no end; no one should have that much fun clearing rubble and sorting through debris. It was unnatural. Silverbolt would miss them, though. Probably Air Raid and Skydive too. Fireflight would be sparkbroken.

"I doubt he's going to renege on what he told you at this point," Ratchet said reluctantly. Slingshot knew Ratchet had had several strong objections to the Protectobots staying on Cybertron, but he hadn't challenged Prime's decision. It was the Protectobots' choice, and they had convinced Optimus they knew what they were choosing. Optimus was big on that kind of thing. "He'll break his spark over it if you get yourselves deactivated, however, so please keep that in mind," Ratchet added, neglecting to mention any probable damage to his own spark.

"Weapons aren't the only way to defend yourself," Ironhide rumbled, looking at Ratchet significantly. "I know you have some tricks up your armor."

Ratchet eyed him as if deciding whether or not to take offense to that statement. "True," he nodded after a moment. "I have a few things I could teach him that shouldn't conflict with his programming too much."

"I wonder if we could find someone to get him started on Circuit-Su," Wheeljack said, rubbing his face mask speculatively. "It's mainly defensive, and it wouldn't damage his hands like regular unarmed brawling; I think he might take to it. Maybe for Groove, too." Ironhide made a scoffing sound but didn't argue.

They all looked at the peacefully recharging subject of their discussion for awhile. Their supposedly peacefully recharging subject. Groove giggled suddenly, while Hot Spot sighed. The non-Protectobots gave them puzzled looks.

"Aid's thinking the Circuit-Su might come in handy if he has a combative patient," Streetwise enlightened them.

"How the frag are you awake again?" Ratchet said in exasperation.

"Everyone keeps talking," First Aid mumbled sleepily.

"That does it! Everyone out but Protectobots so I can check them over and they can all get some recharge," Ratchet said, grabbing Slingshot and Ironhide by the arms.

"Geez. You're welcome," Slingshot said sarcastically as he was shoved out the door.

"Thank you, Slingshot," Hot Spot called from inside the medbay.

Wheeljack held his hands up in mock surrender as he exited the medbay, edging around Ratchet with exaggerated caution and laughing as Ratchet growled at him. Ironhide walked a few steps down the corridor, and then returned to linger, watching quietly from the door as Ratchet muttered and ran his unfathomable tests and scans and then harried the Protectobots into recharge in his own brusque-but-caring fashion.

"You're still here?" Ratchet asked mildly, after Hot Spot's optics finally flickered off.

Ironhide nodded. "Could you do me a favor?" he asked hesitantly.

Ratchet eyed him for a moment. "I'm listening," he said at last.

"If I go get that drone Aid shot, do you think you could help me put it back together?"

"I can do that." Ratchet did not smile, but something thawed in his expression.

"Good," Ironhide smiled in relief. "I'll be right back."