When I got interested in the Transformers, I was quickly overwhelmed by how many plotlines, characters, continuities, and histories have been disrupted, displaced, put on hold, simply ignored, or sailed into a convenient sun. The name of the franchise has been owned by publishers, animators, toy manufacturers, and movie producers.

I want to write about a core group of memorable Transformers, not spend years tracking confusing, contradictory history. So my Transformer stories will always be AU, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. If it doesn't involve putting words down on paper, I have limited patience.

The title of this fic is from the first line of Emily Dickinson's poem "Hope" - "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul."

Not mine, whoever they belong to at the moment, and not for profit.


Squishy Little Organics, Anyway

It was odd, Sam Witwicky thought, clipping and replacing lines in Sunstreaker's belly, that none of the Autobots ever talked about love. Oh, they talked about who was sharing spark ... or dating ... or walking around the Ark all dewy-eyed ... but love?

And then another thought altogether struck him.

"How come you adopt us squishies so easily?" Sam said to the room at large.

"Squishies," Ratchet said, up to his elbows in Sideswipe's insides. The Lamborghini twins had, with unerring symmetry, managed to get both of themselves mauled on separate missions.

Ratchet carefully clipped off the last of some damaged lines and prepared to replace the pump they were connected to. He continued, "Where did you learn that disgusting term?"

"Don't remember," the boy said. "Somebody said it to me prob'ly last month, told me I was 'organic' too." The kid turned a little pink here and there, most notably around the ears. "My fault. I overtightened - "

Sunstreaker said, "Ouch! Will you watch what the frack you're doin'?"

"What is wrong with you?" Ratchet said, momentarily turning his head from Sunstreaker's twin. "You're practically civilized lately."

"Must be having Mikaela around," Sideswipe said. He was also online at the moment, although Ratchet thought it was pretty likely he'd end up shutting the red twin down before he was done. "And we don't adopt you easily. It's only on some planets that we meet people who - fit."

"Dare you to adopt the Mayor of Portland," Sam said. His voice was muffled by Sunstreaker's workings.

"Nah, he isn't much fun."

Sideswipe said, "You remember Gunz? She was a lot of fun. Only thing with you squishies is, you don't last long enough."

Sam saw Sunstreaker actually smile a soft and nostalgic smile, without a sneer tagged on at the end.

The kid had wondered for a while if Sunstreaker actually loved anybody but himself. He was possessive of Sideswipe when he wasn't completely irritated by him, but was that love?

"We don't last long enough?" He stopped to suck a bloodied knuckle.

"No, not nearly long enough," Ratchet said, head still down in Sideswipe's insides. "Unlike some people I could mention." Sideswipe grinned.

"Well, tell me about this Gunz. She must've been something special." Sam went back to work on Sunstreaker.

His patient's smile, a rare creature as well, widened. "We met when she saved my life."


Findings

She did that on another world, one the Autobots had found less than a vorn before the spot of lifesaving, Sunstreaker told Sam, very long ago and very far away. The inhabitants were not unfriendly either to Autobots or Decepticons until blood, as it were, came into the equation. Then they rapidly saw that nothing but total war against the Decepticons would save them, and that nothing at all except the help of the Autobots would allow them any hope of victory.

Not that Sunstreaker cared a rat's skidplate about that. A Decepticon was fair game any place and any time he saw one, so far as he was concerned, and they'd already got so much blood on their hands that any more was superfluous. He did not, in short, need a reason to kill Decepticons.

Of course, the obverse was also true: Decepticons did not need a reason to kill Sunstreaker. This equality pleased him, somewhere deep within the corroded recesses of his spark.

On this world, double suns chased each other in circles across the sky, and a Decepticon jet far below the suns and far above the surface cruised wasteland that offered the best access to ores that could be processed into energon. The twins had split up to search, new sensors attached by Ratchet before they left.

Odd, Sunstreaker mused, how gentle he'd been. For once, he hadn't belabored the red 'bot about the head and shoulders with any handy hard metal object. Sunstreaker could see in his twin's eyes that Sideswipe had wanted to say, "Don't you love me any more?" but the faraway look in Ratchet's eyes must have stopped him ... the sensors had to be hard-wired in quite close to the spark casing, and Ratchet's whole being was currently subsumed by that task.

Sideswipe, who would certainly have had to look up the word "subsumed" had it bitten him in the aft, respected dedication to one's craft. So he kept on respiring shallowly and not moving as instructed, and wondered if they would have to be restarted to allow the new systems to come online.

And then Ratchet, with no warning at all, shut him down cold.

When he came back online, Sideswipe's first words were, "What the frack, Ratchet?" But he was immediately distracted by the worst odor ever to pass his olfactories. The red warrior gagged. "Primus, what is that ... stuff?"

His twin, he saw, had a look of idiotic bliss on his face. "Yes, what is that, Ratchet?" Sunstreaker said.

Ratchet faced them both, and gave Sideswipe a wholly pleased grin. "That's what your new sensors are set to pick up," he said.


Fate Gives Sunstreaker the Bird, and Is He Glad to Get It

The bracken fen of their search area was mostly yellow, but it was not Sunstreaker's yellow and only about half Sunstreaker's height, so he stood out like a sore thumb. Brush and stunted trees lined the road, such as it was, but gave no cover adequate to hide him in either of his forms. His brother, quartering his own assigned area, was miles away, over his head among tall spires of something red-leaved. He had perfect cover.

There was a taint of their search substance everywhere, as it lay close to the surface here in the wasteland. Sunstreaker might've been just a little high from it. Sideswipe was trying to figure out a way to shut down his own nose.

The Decepticon overhead made a lazy one-eighty in the sky, and then made arrow-straight for Sunstreaker.

First pass would be just to look, to determine whether Sunstreaker was alone. Sunstreaker waited for the second, getting into some taller trees that still wouldn't do the job. His yellow paint was the visual equivalent of a big mouth, and he had just optically smarted off Skyscream. Who, thank Primus, seemed to by himself.

Skyscream ripped a salvo past him on the second run, not missing by much, and came around in a steep turn, jets whining. Sunstreaker found a slightly taller, thicker stand of trees, but he didn't expect it do him much good. He got himself ready, and waited.

When Skyscream came over, guns blazing, Sunstreaker waited patiently as two lines of fire approached him, parallel and a good twelve feet to his right and about eight to his left, rat-at-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat, every rat-a-tat-tat three separate strokes of death, but in Sunstreaker's considered opinion the fool's aim was off by a good two feet. If he stayed right where he was, when Skyscream came overhead, those lines of bullets would miss Sunstreaker, and the yellow later-to-be-Lamborghini would open up Skyscream's belly for him.

It was a nice thought, but it didn't quite work out that way.

Skyscream's lines of fire came to within eighty feet of Sunstreaker, still missing him, then, just before Sunstreaker opened up, the Decepticon twisted ninety degrees in the air, so that the two lines of fire, once almost equidistant from Sunstreaker, began to plow a line of holes damned close to his midline.

Sunstreaker threw himself out of the way, almost, and Skyscream's bullets double-stitched him from left knee to shoulder, edging out as they ascended: Sunstreaker's left arm went completely limp. No time to waste, his right hand grabbed his gun from a useless left.

The yellow Autobot had been spun to his left, but his microprocessors adjusted his aim and he fired, heard the clang of shots ringing home against Skyscream's belly, heard Skyscream's engines misfire ... lifted his head enough to see the other chug away, belching rings of smoke.

Great.

He hit the subspace, said, "This's Sunstreaker, I been hit by Skyscream, I got him pretty good too" and switched it off. Because he didn't know how many friends of Skyscream's were listening and would come for them, looking to finish off what Skyscream started. And Sideswipe's presence would only endanger him, not save them both.

A rattle of abused pistons and overmatched springs (not Sideswipe, then) approached, and a door slammed. Footsteps neared.

Sunstreaker's vision was beginning to fade. He was losing fluid from all of the places he'd been hit. He was most worried about what those bullets had done to his pumps; his shoulder might have to be replaced, but the arm itself hadn't been hit ...

He raised his head to see one of the natives, an upright feathered biped, approach him.

"Get out of here," he croaked. "That one's coming back." His head fell back without his permission, and his optics didn't so much close as shut down.

"Untranslatable expletive," said his language programming, "you're sentient."

"I'm ... not enjoying that much right now."

"No. You wait right here."

He must have blacked out, because when he came back, she, to judge from the voice, had his chest plate off, and from the feel of it was replacing hydraulic and fuel lines.

"You're a ... mechanic?"

"Yeah. Why don't you not talk for a little while, eh? I've gotta get some more fluid in you, I think."

"I think so too. That bastard scrag up my finish much?"

"Twenty or so neat little round holes on your left side, from your knee on up."

He opened his eyes to watch her busily use a dirty funnel to replace some of his fluids with those probably used to run her own vehicle. She followed this up by finding, clipping off, and replacing parts of his innards whose function he really wished he didn't know, but Sunstreaker was a post-doc fellow in the subject of How Best to Kill Decepticons and By Extension Autobots: Lab and Field Studies. So he did know, and wishing would not undo it.

The depth of his knowledge wasn't something he'd tell friends, but then Sunstreaker hadn't any.

He focused on this creature about twice the size of an ostrich, and built roughly along the same lines as an owl. She was jointed like an Earth bird, and her hands were sited at the second joint of her wings ... although at this point, the Autobots had not been to Earth yet, and had no idea what a bird looked like.

Further, it was outside the bounds of politesse, even for Sunstreaker, to say, "Man, you are weird," when the weird one has just saved your aft. So he settled for, "How come ... you carry that?"

"I don't. I was making a run for my boss at the garage I work for, picking up supplies. Your lucky day."

He said, hearing a crescendoing engine noise approach, "He's coming back. Get away from me; no need for you to die too."

"No need for you to die either," she said, and threw a camouflage net over the recumbent Autobot, flicking the four corners into place. Then she put her arms over her head, crouched beside him, and flared her wings into a point out in front of her.

It was pretty good camouflage. Skyscream strafed the trees once, halfheartedly. His half-dozen bullets hit Sunstreaker once, this time in the left pede, and the female once, just below the right shoulder. It knocked her down, and Sunstreaker's audios responded to her outburst with a string of "Untranslatable expletive!"s.

"You okay?"

"Untranslatable expletive broke my arm. Not much more I can do for you now, not one-handed."

Skyscream came around again, making chuff-putt noises and pretty, from Sunstreaker's point of view, black smoke rings. But about the same time Sunstreaker heard the Decepticon, he heard his brother's unmistakable engine noise, and then his brother's unmistakable choice of epithets, and then his brother's guns ... then there was a descending whine and maybe ten seconds later, Skyscream's curses interspersed with yelps, against a percussion backing of eighteen million dollars' worth of technology bouncing from impact to impact with the ground.

Sweetest music he'd ever heard.

"Sunny?" said Sideswipe, still on the comm link.

Except for that. "Yeah, here. Friend rescued me. She's hurt."

This exchange had been in Cybertronian, inaudible to the female.

Sideswipe poked his red self into the copse. "Geez, Sunny, you okay?"

Sunstreaker finished pulling the net down to his shoulders, then as far as his hips, then glanced at his savior, and froze. The female had used her left knee to immobilize her broken left ... wing, Sunstreaker realized ... and was pointing quite a large-caliber hogleg whatever-it-was at his brother with her right. "Hey, no, friend! He's my brother! Ally! Ally!"

Sideswipe had frozen in place, and now he blinked his optics. He was not expecting someone who could sit in the palm of his outstretched hand to offer him significant physical violence. "I'm his brother," he said, aware of how lame they both sounded. "He's Sunstreaker, I'm Sideswipe."

"I am Gun'z-illagh-Keruntz," they would later find out she said. Untranslated, it sounded like birdsong. She lowered the projectile-thrower.

Sideswipe swallowed, and said with a calmness he was far from feeling, "Let's get you guys out of here."


Sam said to Ratchet, both of them still working on their respective patients, "Do you do that on every planet you - live on, for a while? Learn medicine for the native life, I mean?"

"Just the sentient ones. I'm a doctor, not a veterinarian."

"How many so far?"

"Don't know. I download the information when we leave a planet."

They went back to work.


Optimus Prime Gets the Bird

Of course it was Ratchet who came to pick them up.

The van slammed to a stop beyond the female's vehicle. He transformed, and said to Sideswipe, standing guard, "Can't be much wrong with you. You're conscious."

"It's Sunny," said Sideswipe, with a jerk of his head in his brother's direction. He was using audible language instead of Cybertronian.

They found that Sunstreaker, as ever, had little to say. The feathered one had said her name patiently until the brothers christened her "Gunz," which she said was close enough, and had then grown pale and silent from her injury.

"You let an organic in on this?" Ratchet said, running a scanner over Sunstreaker.

"She helped me," Sunstreaker said.

"Did she now. That her vehicle down the lane?"

"Yes. Don't start it. It's in pain."

Gunz said, "It's not mine to maintain, or it wouldn't be."

All three of them turned toward her. Then Ratchet refocused on what he was doing, gently opening Sunstreaker's chest plate. "You repair these lines?"

"Those and the ones in his shoulder. After that I ran out of clean line."

"And you gave him fluid?"

"If I could identify what he was using by smell or color, yes. I ... didn't have a clean funnel."

Sunstreaker saw a fleeting respect in Ratchet's eyes. "What did you give him?"

"Oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid ... "

Ratchet actually smiled.

Ratchet summoned Optimus, and together the leader and the red Lamborghini-someday stripped the female's vehicle of supplies and the planet's form of processed energon. After pushing the gutted heap out of Optimus's way, they placed Sunstreaker in his trailer, and then Optimus said gently to the feathered thing, "We can't leave you here."

"No. I can't drive myself like this. Drop me off at a hospital?"

Ratchet said, without raising his head from Sunstreaker's exposed guts, "If you'll come with us, I'll take care of you. I know enough about your species to offer basic medical care."

From his recumbent position on the floor of the trailer, under Ratchet's busy hands, Sunstreaker said to Gunz, "Please."

Every Autobot in the trailer turned his head to the wounded yellow racer. Who flushed.

"Thanks," Gunz said, making light of both the offer and Sunstreaker's uncharacteristic grace. "I'll take you up on that."

"If you'd like to come to my cab," Optimus Prime said, "you can stretch out and be comfortable. Sideswipe, you come give her a hand up."

After Prime had transformed, Sideswipe said to Gunz, "Er. How will this work best for you?"

Because to them, at twelve feet tall from crest to toe, she was tiny. Some of the bigger lines she had worked on inside Sunstreaker were, in circumference, half her own height.

"Stick out one finger and put it on the floor," she said.

His thick finger came to her chest. Birds, as a species, jump well, but not when trying to avoid jarring a broken wing.

"Excuse me," Ratchet said. He closed his surgeon's hand with exquisite gentleness around Gunz, carefully avoiding the injured wing, and lifted her, holding her above Sideswipe's finger until he felt her legs take her minuscule weight.

"Thanks," she said.

"My pleasure," he said, and actually smiled before he went back to his patient.

Sideswipe had seldom felt as silly as he did approaching Prime's driver's side door. He was holding one hand out in front of himself, index finger extended, the rest folded into his palm, with a tiny feathered creature who had saved his brother's life perched on that outstretched finger. He rather hoped his reputation as a hardass could survive this fluffy-birdie crap.

Then he remembered that gun pointed right at the chink in his frontal armor, and rather hoped that some of the 'bots he liked wouldn't call her "fluffy" to her face.

Gunz was in pain most of the two-hour ride back to the Ark, but did her polite best to answer Prime's questions about her people.

"And so," the Autobots' leader said, doing about two hundred and thirty through a deserted stretch of highway, "there are eight sentient species in all."

"Some debate there," said Gunz. A long stretch of silence ensued, but Prime, who thought the female was going to speak again, didn't break it.

"Seven for sure," she said finally. "Nobody quite gets whether the eighth is a stand-alone species or a sub-species of number seven. My feeling is, in three more generations it won't matter. They won't be able to interbreed anymore."

"Interbreed?"

This is how Optimus Prime, traversing a long, narrow road at two hundred and thirty miles an hour during the planet's night cycle, got sex ed, or at least that part of it relating to a two-gendered egg-laying species.

When she got to the part about eggshells, he realized it was an awful lot like decanting a spark into a chassis. How very strange, he thought, to have that in common with a species so fragile he could crush one of them between thumb and forefinger.

Fifteen minutes out from the Ark, Optimus said, breaking a half-hour silence, "We're about there, Gunz."

She had found, after trying most of the surfaces available to a bird that could no longer fly, that the best perch was the driver's seat, and there she had not perched but gingerly lowered herself to the leather, more or less dozing, while Optimus did his best to make tiny corrections at high speed and not jostle either of his passengers.

He'd long ago settled for the springs that gave him the best weight-and-speed equation, one that left his trailer heavily sprung as well; good not just for transporting his injured troops but also for many other things.

Optimus could, and did when transporting the injured, fetch heavy thick padding out of subspace to line the floor. He also spent quite a lot of time in the wash racks afterward, spraying the padding down. Of course the leader of the Autobots never cried, of course not, and the droplets on his face came from the spray ... of course they did. Of course Ratchet refilled his windshield spray after, and never told anyone. Of course the leader of the Autobots never cried.

Prime felt the avian stir in his driver's seat. "Good."

"Not long now. I'll need to get Sunstreaker to med bay first."

"Of course."

Prime clicked to comm, left it on audio. "Ratchet? How's he doing?"

"Sunstreaker's stable. Our guest did a great job. Sideswipe is a candidate for medical malpractice."

Prime chuckled. His guest put her head under her uninjured wing.


Sideswipe Gets the Bird from Optimus Prime

"Gunz?" said Sideswipe.

She raised her head. "We ready?"

"Yuh." He put his finger down level with the edge of the seat, and she stepped onto it.

"Hold me up to your - your shoulder," she said.

He understood what she wanted, and he held her up to the edge of his chestplate. She stepped daintily onto it, and he no longer had to walk into the Ark looking like ... somebody with a bird on the end of his finger.


Ratchet Gets the Bird from Sideswipe

Once Sunstreaker was stable, Ratchet accessed the database, and stood as if thinking for a moment. Then he went to the small box Sideswipe had found somewhere, lined with new polishing cloths (Sunstreaker was in no condition to protest the misappropriation of his property, and besides, he had a gazillion of the things), then placed on top of the heating vent nearest Ratchet's desk.

Gunz wasn't quite dead when Ratchet picked her up. She had a better than sixty percent chance of recovery when, two hours later, he put her back in the box, and made a tent of another box to keep the warmth in.

Then he routed Sideswipe out of his post-mission my-brother-got-creamed trance.

"Worms? I have to go dig worms?" The red twin flashed a wary optic at Ratchet. "What did I do this time?"

"You didn't do anything, but Sunstreaker can't go dig worms for the organic who saved him, so you get to."

"She eats worms? Ick."

"She eats worms. She also saved Sunstreaker."

Sideswipe got a shovel, and went to dig worms.


"My brother's a decent guy, if you give him the opportunity," Sunstreaker said.

Ratchet said, "Yeah. What happened to you?"

Sam might have seen Sunstreaker get a little orange over the face plates if he'd been looking, but he was absorbed in his work.


A Second Can of Worms

Ratchet absented himself while Gunz breakfasted, offering as excuse that he needed to monitor Sunstreaker, which he did not. He would have said he was used to every idiosyncracy any being could demonstrate, and of course he didn't pass judgment on any of them, but really: ick.

When he came back she was drinking, bird fashion, from a small container of water he had set out for her: bill in, slurp, head back, swallow.

Ratchet took the can of worms and replaced the lid, not something he could usually do in the rest of his life, he mused, to put back into the sickbay refrigerator. Gunz was doing some cautious wing-stretching when he returned.

"Things okay?" he said. He'd never had an organic patient before. He supposed they weren't all that different from mechs ... maybe.

"It's going to be. Thanks." She flashed him a look from eyes much larger proportionately than any Autobot's, and folded the wing down. "Before I faded, last night, I listened to you and ... your helper. Can you teach me to do what you do?"

"Uh ... why?"

She shrugged an impatient uninjured shoulder. "I work as a garage mechanic in a tiny little one-horse town that no other mechanic will live in. I get enough to live on, barely, because I'm female, and females of my species are not supposed to be capable of being mechanics. But machines are the only thing that fascinates me, and you guys use them in interesting ways, or at least that's what I saw when I helped out ... Streaker? I can't remember his name."

"Sunstreaker, or Sunny," Ratchet said with a grin. "He doesn't take kindly to 'Streaker.'"

"Sunstreaker. Is he okay?"

"He's fine. Offline at the moment, to get his self-repair cycles to finish. You did very well, good diagnostics and great triage."

"Thanks." She tilted her head on one side. "For you, it's not a fix-and-you're-done thing? It is for our cars."

"We're a ... little different."

She smiled.

While Gunz' face was not quite that of a bird, and the Autobots had yet to meet their first human, she was inalterably Other to Ratchet. She had, for one thing, very heavy stiff lips, which came to a sharp hooked point below the center of her eyes as a beak would, and she had no nose, only two nares immediately above the lip structure. Like owls, she lacked external ears entirely. Her species hunted, so her eyes pointed forward, as Ratchet's own did ... but she was covered in barred light-buff feathers which were small and delicate in her facial area, making discs around her eyes like Earth owls have, somewhat coarser through the rest of her body, small again down the long legs, ending in fluffy silk over her talons, and flight-sturdy along the wings. Her short tail was composed also of large feathers, and was sufficiently stiff that she could not sit in a conventional chair. She could sit on one, tail straight behind her and legs dangling over the seat, if she wished; but why? It was easier to perch.

Her leg-feathers ended just above what, for lack of a better word, Ratchet defined as talons. Gunz' bare feet were four-toed, two forward, two back, and those four toes were long and muscular, tipped with long sharp broad nails. She most resembled Earth's great snowy owls, those great birds of the northern tundra.

"Yes, you are different," she said, using a medical wipe (which she could have pitched as a tent) to clean her hands, five-fingered, and if Ratchet ever had to repair them, he'd use ninety-gauge wire, he thought to himself.

Then he realized that if he were thinking that, he'd already found a use for an assistant who could do micro-surgery without an electron-microscope add-on, which didn't allow for normal vision simultaneously, and that made sense ...

Gunz continued, "It startled the hell out of me to hear Sunstreaker speak to me, when I found him. I thought the damned jets had run down an animal. They do that sometimes."

"What do you do about that?"

"Take it to a vet if possible. Put it out of its misery if it's not." She grimaced. "I'd shoot down the damned jet if it were possible, which I know it's not. Damned cruel things. It's only the purple-shield ones, though."

"They're Decepticons. We're Autobots. That's why you had the gun? Scared the enamel right off Sideswipe."

"The red one."

"Yeah. He said you picked it up and pointed it right at that little aperture at the base of his throat. It's the only vulnerable point in his front armor."

Gunz tilted her head to one side, and said in the precise voice they would come to learn was hers in times of stress, or when she was discussing anything medical, "Actually, there are four on the body."

That was supposed to be a secret. Ratchet narrowed his optics. "Where are they?"

She described them accurately. Then she looked down, and said diffidently, "I'm of a raptor species. We hunt by sight. My eyesight is accurate for distances from about twice my own height, to seven miles. I use glasses for close vision. Right now, you're a bit of a blur."

Well, he would be; he was sitting across a narrow table from her. "So - you'd use them to do micorsurgery for us."

"No. I can depth-focus for things like that. It's a trick I learned years ago." She smiled. "Not ideal. But the best I can give you."

"So you'd like to work with us?"

"Do you think that might be possible?"

"I can pitch it to the boss, see what he thinks."


There's No Treatment For That

"How very odd," said Optimus Prime, twiddling his thumbs as he sat back in the chair behind his desk, optics fixed on Ratchet.

"How so?"

"You don't like organics."

Ratchet's external temperature rose slightly over his helmet side panels; he flushed. "I hope I'm broad-minded enough to make exceptions for worthy individuals."

"You're just enamored of Gunz because she can run a wrench." Ratchet grinned; Optimus smiled back at his CMO. "But I was impressed with her too. Explain to me how you think you'll use her."

Ratchet talked about triage and microsurgery.

Optimus nodded. "Alright. Temporary contract, you can pay her as a junior-of-three mech for the indenture period, then we revisit her performance and pay scale."

"Thanks, Optimus."

"Welcome," said Optimus Prime, reaching for papers from his in-basket. "Now get out of my office."


Really, How Weird Is It Around Here?

Gunz proved surprisingly adept at triage, grasping at once that an injured mech with a thirty percent chance of survival had to be treated before one with a twenty-five percent chance.

"There're two exceptions to that rule," Ratchet said about two weeks into her residency aboard the Ark, showing her how to operate the viewscreen for the database. "Well, not exceptions so much as – " he found he had talked himself into a corner, and settled for saying, "Sunstreaker and Sideswipe get twenty percentage points added to their triage score."

"Oh? Why?"

"They're linked twins. Medical history tells me that we lose one, and we likely lose the other."

"I thought you hated Sideswipe."

Ratchet's face contorted. "I'd love to have the opportunity to hate Sideswipe. He seems to have absolutely no idea that he is, in fact, mortal. After every battle, I dread seein' him come in here, shot to slag, because he did some damn' stupid heroic thing. And it gets worse when there isn't a fight. That mech is - hard to keep entertained, and not, um, very cautious about his choices in entertaining himself. Remember the last time we treated him?"

"Yeah - jarred his computer linkage loose, and crushed a back structure. It took us three days to get him fully back online, during all of which Sunstreaker was in here crowding up the joint" - she'd been around Ratchet for quite a long time every single day at this point - "and if I recall correctly, on the fourth day, you had Ironhide handcuff Sides to one bed, Sunny to the other."

"Sideswipe wouldn't stay down. Handcuffing Sunny, that was actually Ironhide's idea. –You know how he did that damage to himself? Sideswipe?"

"I didn't think to ask."

"He and Sunstreaker were having a wrestling match, in full view of eighteen other Autobots, to see who would have to clean their quarters. They weren't in a ring; they were on top of a tower that's two pedes on a side, covered in scoria for disguise, and sixty feet off the valley floor. Sunny, who has a modicum of sense, didn't throw Sides off; he fell."

"I begin to see," she said thoughtfully, "why a sane person might begin to hate Sideswipe."

Ratchet snorted. "Yeah, well, don't ever mistake me for a sane person. I'm well past beginnin.'"


"Why do you hate him so much?" Sunstreaker said. "He actually likes you."

"He makes my job harder. He thinks that bein' a hero is what it's all about. It's not. It's about surviving, about living to the end of a war."

There was no answer; Sunstreaker had given up that hope long ago.


With a Song in Your Slagging Heart ...

Optimus Prime stuck his head into med bay. Gunz, still recovering, was reading databases with the interface recently designed for her by Wheeljack, which meant that she didn't have to jump up and down on the arrow keys to navigate anymore, and singing.

Hers was not an especially beautiful song, like a passerine's, although her voice was sweet. Her species' music was more complicated than an owl's cry: eight descending notes, four ascending; two-note coda; begin again.

Optimus sometimes heard the music that came growling and thrashing out of the twin's quarters, but more often listened to the classical Iaconian airs which crept politely out of Prowl's office. Truth be told, he didn't care much for either, but this ...

Twenty minutes later, the comm link went off. "Optimus? We're waiting for you," Prowl said.

Oh slag. He was late for a meeting.

"Gunz?" he said, and she turned, startled. "Will you come and see me tomorrow morning?"

"Yes, Optimus."

Shortly after, the morning wake-up call, a klaxon, was replaced by a recording of birdsong.


... Or Stuck Up Your Slagging Tailpipe If You Give Me Any Lip About It

"Huh," said Sam. "Always wondered about that. You guys are so ... macho, and then you wake up to birdsong."

"Macho?" said Sunstreaker. Sideswipe said nothing, as Ratchet had put him off-line to initiate internal repairs and recharge.

Sam opened his mouth, but Ratchet waved a hand, wanting the kid to survive a little longer (and trying to tell Sunstreaker he was doing something that wasn't macho was a very sure, if not a very good, way to get extensively creamed). "Tell you later, Sunny. Finish the story."


Dirty Work

Ratchet had sent Sideswipe out to dig worms for Gunz for two and a half weeks, and the red Lamborghini-to-be executed his task with a grace that earned him some points in the medic's book. When Gunz took an experimental turn aloft around the med bay with success on day nineteen of her recovery, she told Ratchet that she wouldn't need worms that much longer. A week and a half tops; her wing still wasn't back to strength.

Then, because within two days she had Ratchet figured out, she flew to the lounge, to which Sunstreaker had carried her one day, and found Sideswipe. She wouldn't put it past Ratchet to send Sides out on a task he didn't like doing even after it was no longer necessary.

"Hey, you," he said in surprise, when she landed on the table in front of him in the lounge. Day shift was almost starting, and the other Autobots milling around stopped to stare at their feathered guest.

"Hey, me," she replied. To Sunstreaker, energon cup suspended halfway to his intake, she said, "Hey you too."

"Gunz," the yellow twin replied, with an almost-smile.

"A word in your ear?" she said to Sides. He nodded.

She flew up to his chestplate and perched on the shoulder nearest Sunstreaker.

"Hey! You're flying again!"

Sunstreaker rolled his eyes. For a smart 'bot, old Swipe could be particularly dense.

The red twin tried to focus on the bird, but she was so close it crossed his optics to do so. She looked away so he could too, and said, "Yeah. About that ... I can't quite hunt yet. Another week, I think. So don't let Ratchet send you out for worms after that, okay?" She glanced at Sunstreaker. "Either one of you."

Sideswipe grinned, huffing a laugh through his airscoop. "You've been with us how long, and you got him figured out?"

"Long enough to figure him out," Gunz said precisely, and waited until they stopped laughing. "Thanks, guys, for diggin' worms for me."

"Welcome," said Sides.

"D'you actually like worms?" asked Sunny.

"No." She wrinkled up her tiny nose. "They do the job, but they taste like - well, dirt."

As neither twin had any idea of what dirt tasted like, they looked at each other. "What would you like better?" Sideswipe said.

"Mice or frogs or snakes or fish or small birds or even big insects. But there aren't any big bugs in season right now."

"Birds?" said Sideswipe.

She shuffled a shoulder impatiently. "There're wild birds around here. Not related, not sentient."

This was how, for the next ten days, Sunstreaker included a little hunting in his physical therapy. He discovered that catching frogs was a very muddy business, but the look on Gunz' face when he brought her three of them that first time sent him back to the ponds, and the washing racks, repeatedly.

Sideswipe refused absolutely to hunt birds, but proved himself adept at getting inside the minds of moles.


Ovation

"You're what?" said Ratchet.

Over the two sun-cycles of her planet that Gunz had been an ersatz Autobot, she and Ratchet had developed almost a, dare he say it, friendship. Despite the fact that she was an organic, and a bird, which was sort of an ultra-squishie: fragile in ways he could neither expect nor anticipate.

"Eggbound."

Birds don't blush, or Ratchet would have been able to tell that Gunz was upset and embarrassed by her appearance. But they had, at this point, worked together long enough that he knew she wasn't happy about what she had to tell him. "You'll have to explain that to me, Gunz. There's no data available."

She said rapidly, "I'm carrying eggs, eight in all. The first one seems to be the largest. I can't lay it. If it's not gotten out of me, I'll die."

"Oh dear Primus." Ratchet looked at his morning energon. He was not quite awake yet. Gunz, being a bird, got up at first light and went hunting, and Ratchet, being a highgradeoholic, didn't get out of the rack until he absolutely had to.

The energon cup contained no information. He rallied. He had to be practical about this. "Well, what's best to do?"

"Ratchet, there are things about myself I haven't told you."

"I've seen your security dossier."

She was still and silent for a long moment, reminding him eerily of Prowl, or even Mirage. "What," she said eventually, "do you know about me?"

"You are the First Daughter of House of Keruntz. Normally, you'd be expected to mate to your House's profit, but you are so strongly motivated to have a life of your own that you left a House of considerable privilege, and spent what would have been your dowry on getting a mechanic's education." He paused, scrolling down the data file. "Your egg-brother's furious with you, your mother mourns you as if you were dead, and your clutch-sisters are quite happy to have taken your title for themselves. The Family Council had you declared outlaw after your father's death. If you go back to your city, you'll be imprisoned. There are some out there who would turn you in for the reward."

"Nice bunch of people I come from," she said eventually.

Ratchet offered, "I'd have used another word for them. Anyway, we can help; let me run this through Prowl."

Prowl shuffled it off to Mirage. Later that day, Ratchet and Gunz found themselves in Optimus Prime's office, on one side of a conference table, with Optimus, Mirage, and Prowl on the other.

"We've come up with a doctor among your people who will help you, and not report you," Optimus said. "He's got a very good reputation, and he's something of a feminist."

"Feminist?" said Gunz blankly.

Autobots are all the sons of a single father, so to speak; sexism is a totally foreign concept to them. So when Mirage said, "He said to tell you that he suffers from the radical notion that hens are people too," no one was prepared to hear her laugh, a musical trill that Optimus wanted to hear again, and in fact made a note to self to use it for their version of "Taps."

Mirage smiled, a thing that happened so rarely Optimus felt later he should have amended the meeting notes to reflect that, too. "He can also get your fledglings vaccinated, and registered."

"To do that last, I'd have to reveal their fathers, and I don't want to. It would put them ... at risk."

Prowl shifted in his seat. "We are quite resourceful," he said.

Optimus flew an optic ridge at him. You can bet you'll be explaining this later, buddy.

"Can you guarantee my fledglings' safety, and that of their fathers?"

"Ninety percent," said Prowl.

Gunz sat brooding for a minutes-long stretch of time. "Good enough," she said finally, raising her head to look Prowl straight in the eye. "Thank you."

Prowl inclined his head.

"That settled," Optimus said, "you're on leave until your chicks can hunt for themselves."

Gunz was a little startled. "Thank you, but that's really unnecessary. I'll only need six weeks after they hatch, which will be within another fourteen dawns, and I can do emergency duty until they're out of the egg. After those six weeks their feeding cycles will stabilize, and start to lengthen."

"Fair enough," said Optimus.

Never before, in the history of the Ark, had any staff member been put on maternity leave.

Oh well, Optimus thought, filling out paperwork. If they didn't change with the times, where would they be?


Sam, hands still busy, laughed. "Maternity leave. It's another thing I wouldn't have expected of you macho types."

Sunstreaker glared.


Second Career as a Blankie

"Wow," Sideswipe said.

He and his brother were peering into the nest box they had built for Gunz with Wheeljack's help.

This was a lie the brothers told themselves. Wheeljack had done the work from Sunstreaker's designs, mostly because, while willing, the brothers were built for combat. Under Wheeljack's tutelage, Sideswipe was mostly The Thick-fingered Guy Who Held Things While the Glue Dried, and Sunstreaker was mostly The Slightly Less Thick-Fingered Guy Who Put Thin Stripes of Glue Down Accurately (he could draw with pencil, pen or charcoal stick, and found there was little difference between that and a glue dispenser).

"Take the roof off," Gunz said. "That way you can see them all."

They looked like scraggly little bits of naked, blind, skinny, extremely unprepossessing birdhood.

"Did you look like that when you were this young?" Sideswipe said unbelievingly.

"Yes," said Gunz. "You wanna make something out of that?"

"It's just ... they're so ... and you're so ..."

Gunz looked at Sunstreaker. "Can you stop him before he chokes on his own wheel?" she said.

The red twin ignored them. "Can we hold them?" said Sideswipe.

"Let them get some feathers first. A week or two. Right now, I'm working pretty hard to keep them warm," Gunz said, settling in over her family.

The brothers were back to hunting for her. She hadn't said she needed it, hadn't asked them; the doctor had told Prowl, and Prowl told Sunstreaker. Who, Primus bless him, was using the wash racks twice a day every day again. Sideswipe hunted for her too, and between them, Gunz had hopes of raising all eight of her chicks.

Ten days later, Sunstreaker was in the med bay while his brother got put back together. He went to see the kids, after asking permission of Gunz, who was doing triage.

"Want to give them their feeding?" she'd said, doing whatever she did to the fluid-spewing mech, who stopped oozing up the joint in response. Ratchet, on the other side of Sideswipe's recumbent form, gave him the fish-eye.

"Yes," he surprised himself by saying.

That is how Sunstreaker found himself pulling a very nasty-looking dish of - organic something - out of the med bay refrigerator, heating it briefly, taking it to Gunz for temperature testing, which, since she couldn't touch it, she performed by laying her cheek against the dish.

Mole tartare approved, he pulled the roof of the nesting box off, and was rewarded with open-mouthed hisses from the two oldest chicks, and wide-eyed apprehension from the other six: all of them now little white fluffbits with great big eyes.

Sunstreaker was not a mech to whom the word "cute" was ever, ever allowed to occur. On seeing the chicks, however, he had to work unusually hard to keep it out of his CPU.

He followed instructions: found the shaped wire, laid eight strips of meat over it, dangled it within beak-reach. Eight little maws opened wide and scarfed down the first course.

The two youngest chicks lost interest after six strips. The two next largest, after eight. Ten ... twelve ... the largest chick took one last strip, and blinked sleepily at him when he offered the next. No thanks, I'm full.

The next day, to his delight, they remembered him, and welcomed him with gaping maws.

The day after that, Gunz told him to put his finger up to the edge of the box, and the largest chick stepped up onto it without hesitation.

"Woah," he said.

Gunz smiled. "Put him up to your chestplate," she said.

The owlet hopped onto his armor, then did a head-first dive into his chest cavity.

"What? Heeyuck! Get him outta there! He'll get hurt! I'll get hurt! I've got machinery in there!"

"It's okay," Gunz said. "He'll cuddle in around one of your pumps, for the warmth. I'll come get him if he doesn't come out. Okay? You'll be fine. He will too."

Sunstreaker looked at her askance, but calmed down a bit. "Okay."

"Sit down," Gunz said. She pushed a dose of high-grade at him. "I've been saving that for an emergency. You might be it."

He popped the top. "Thanks."

She didn't tell him she didn't think he was too sane at the best of times, and lost a step or two when his brother got banged up. She said instead, "Thanks yourself. You do know that if you weren't doing what you do, I couldn't get more than half of these guys to maturity?"

"No," he said, high-grade suspended on its journey to his intake. "I didn't know that."

"Well, it's true." She smiled, birdwise. "So thanks."

"Guess we're even," he said, and took a polite gulp of high-grade.

"Nah, I think I owe you guys. Take it out in triage?"

He grinned, not something she saw every day. "Sure."

Fifteen minutes later, she did some Sunny-diving, and fetched her chick. The yellow twin went back to watching over his brother feeling relieved ... and somewhere, deep down inside, he had a new feeling, quite unusual for Sunstreaker: he was happy.

Gunz never did tell him about the droppings. She just cleaned them up the next time she put him back together.


Intruder Alert!Fail

It was just before mid-dayshift break on the Ark, and unfamiliar birdsong rang through the corridors.

"The slag's that?" said Mirage, rubbing his head; he'd jumped at the noise, and thoroughly whacked his helmet on the new framework he was brazing onto the interior of the Ark.

"Uh ... birds?" said Gears, whose duty today was to take the excavated rock from Mirage's project and relocate it outside the Ark.

Mirage shrugged, and thought no more about it.

In the main bay, most often open to the sky, Ironhide was less than pleased. "The slag is this, some kinda zoo? We gotta get 'em outta there."

Ratchet turned to Gunz, who rode his shoulder most places, even though she couldn't help unload or transport supplies; a big shipment, not all of it medical, had arrived. "Can you help?"

"Sure." The bird transferred her large eyes in their facial disk of feathers to Ironhide's. "I'll be around enough to scare them away, with one exception: if I find a nest up there, mom stays until the kids are grown. I'll clean the nest site when they leave."

A hundred and thirty decibels of bird-screech sounded through the cavern.

"I think we must insist," Prowl said quietly, "that the loud ones go."

Gunz looked thoughtfully at him. "Yes, sir. Can I request some help to move the nest, if that's needful?"

"Had you someone in mind?"

"Sunstreaker and Sideswipe, most likely," Gunz said. "They understand baby birds."

Everyone took a moment to visualize the resident badasses understanding baby birds. Then Optimus Prime smiled, and said, "Very well, Gunz. A most Autobot solution to the problem, I must say."


Sunstreaker snorted. Sam, wisely, did not pursue his curiosity regarding this phenomenon.


Warrior Dressed in Feathers

"You worked out so well we hired another bird as messenger," Ratchet told her. "He'll deliver stuff inside the Ark."

Gunz sighed. "Can you tell me what he looks like?"

Ratchet popped an optic at her. "Why is that a problem?"

"I'm a raptor. I can hunt other birds, if I have to. If he's of prey species he might freak out when he sees me."

Ratchet hadn't seen him yet, but made it his business to do so. "Taller than you, about the same shape, bright blue with a green crest on top of his head, black beak and legs, feathers stop at the ... knee?"

"Close enough," said Gunz. "Is the beak short and curved in an arc, very heavy, comes to a point?"

"Yes."

She smiled. "Gonna be interesting," she said.

Buruntz was in fact a prey species, but so big that Gunz said that if they came from the same region, which they did not, her species would have learned to leave his alone in sheer self-preservation.

He looked a lot like a parrot, and talked a lot like a Dinobot, the Autobots would find out some four million years later. (Earth's birds are, after all, descended from dinosaurs.) Get him excited, and his first utterance was always an audio-breaking screech; the rest of his speech was less fluent than Gunz', but equally understandable.

Buruntz would not come near the medbay after that first time she flew in, bloodied from her morning hunt, as he made delivery. Gunz shrugged and took it in stride, adding twice-daily message-fetching to her list of Stuff To Get Done Today.

Shortly after Buruntz came to them, a few battles were more difficult than they should have been, and one was a near-route at the Decepticons' hands.

Prime said heavily at that week's meeting of department heads, "I want to know what's changed in the last five weeks."

Prowl said, "New supplier for energon. New supplier for raw rubber. Same old supplier for power, but they raised the rates."

Fifteen minutes later, it was Mirage who said, "We hired Buruntz."

Everybody looked at each other.

Wheeljack and Mirage exchanged a more lingering glance. "We've been talking about that," Mirage said. "Since we evicted the nester from main bay with Gunz' help, we don't even track avian access into and out of the Ark; she said she'd made the entrance less inviting, but she didn't say how she'd done that."

"Ratchet, do you know?" Prime said curiously.

The medic spread his hands. "Yeah. Bird thing, not usable by us. Depends on scent."

"Oh." Prime nodded for Mirage to continue.

"Since Gunz told you, Prime, that there are seven or eight separate sentient species here, Wheeljack and I have been talking about avoiding infiltration by them. We might have come up with something."

Prime inclined his massive head. "Go on."

As a result of that conversation, Ratchet was now saying to Gunz, "It's just for a day. You want to take the kids to my quarters?"

Gunz' fledglings were about half-grown by now. The eldest, Nickerm, was taking short glides; the rest were still standing and flapping on the edges of anything handy. Ratchet's chestplate was a frequent choice.

"Actually, if you wouldn't mind, Sunny and Sides have been asking for a visit." Gunz continued to sort washers, mixed by Ratchet in the heat of triage. (Washers? Autobots? Nothing better ever invented? Nope.)

Ratchet relaxed. It meant he wouldn't have to hide his collection of recently-emptied highgrade containers, or his porn. There was something about seeing Gunz' people's version of a car stripped down to its chassis that ... "Okay. And like I said, it's just for a day."

"Okay," Gunz said, without much interest.

"And you'll come in for just a minute when I want you?"

Gunz gave him a flat look. "I love the twins. I also love my children. Did you know that Nick's first word was 'slag' - and do you know who taught it to him?"

"No, but Sideswipe would be my first guess. What did you do about that?"

"I didn't coach Nick to get beyond calling him 'Wipe.' It was a glorious six weeks." She paused, washers strung on her fingers. "Of course, he also called Sunstreaker 'Reek.' I did work with him on that one."

Ratchet snorted.

"So yes, I'll come in, but it has to be for just a minute. I don't trust either one of those guys to have any sense."

"Knew you were smart."

"My species has a reputation for wisdom," she said, put the washers into their proper bins, and flapped away to the twins' quarters.

The day came, and med bay, evacuated by Gunz, was filled with a light fog of bird anaesthesia. Buruntz, assured of Gunz' absence, flapped in, sat down with a bundle of memos, handed them to Ratchet, and keeled over.

Ratchet ran a scanner over the bird, flushed the bay, and called Gunz.

"I see it," she said calmly, peering into the scanner. "I'll follow him off-duty tonight. I'll make it look like he got eaten: leave the skull and the microchip for the 'cons to find."

"The twins will go with you as escort. I'll watch the kids."

The twins, when they reported afterward to Prowl, were in Sidewipe's case a little brown under the eyes, and in Sunstreaker's chartreuse across the cheekbones.

"What happened?" the tactician said, with his usual quietness.

Sideswipe said, looking at his hands, "No problems. It was just - "

He couldn't articulate the rest of the thought. Prowl turned to Sunstreaker, who was methodically wiping the finish on his hands with waterless cleanser, over and over and over again.

"Gunz," the yellow 'bot said, with uncharacteristic lack of ire, "stooped on him from about twenty-five hundred feet. She hit him so hard that the impact broke his back, and blew a lot of his feathers off. And then, though he was still alive" - he swallowed - "she put out his eyes before he could see her, and started tearing strips of meat off him, until there was nothing left but the bones, and all the while he was screaming, but she didn't kill him. He didn't stop screaming until almost all the flesh was gone" - Sunstreaker swallowed, and Sideswipe gulped - "and then we could see his heart beating - and then it - it stopped when she broke his rib cage, and - and bit into it. Most of the bones she crunched up into tiny little bits. She put all of it except the tiny scraps and the skull into a plastic bag, so the 'cons could find it if they went looking for him, and when we got back here she told us to put it into the converter. She watched while we did that." Sunstreaker swallowed again.

Sideswipe stopped using Prowl's wastebasket for something for which it was never intended, sat back, and wiped his mouth. The smell of egested energon filled the room.

"Why does this have you so upset?" Prowl said, looking from one twin to the other.

Sunstreaker looked at his superior officer briefly. "She said it was like making sure his soul never existed."

Prowl blinked. "Like smelting a prisoner of war."

"Exactly like that. Only she said it was personal."

The practice of smelting POWs was cruel, but impersonal: both sides understood that if a prisoner had no exchange value for the enemy, and could not be turned, he could not be sustained indefinitely, nor even spark-saved. A last trudge to the smelter, and at the Ark a good shot of highgrade that contained a powerful tranquilizer, five minutes to make peace with Primus, and ... the limp body was placed on a moving belt, and sent to smelt.

At Decepticon HQ, highgrade and tranquilizers were not involved.

It couldn't be personal, not for the Autobots, and not for the Decepticons. But it was for Gunz and her nestlings.

The twins stayed away from her for a while, but when sufficient highgrade had been uptaken, they realized that if they had sparklings to defend ... it would have been personal for them too.

Some months later, the incident was far enough in the past to be discussed in off-time. The twins played a game like chess, but four-handed, when they had off-time with Prowl and Mirage. Sunstreaker said curiously to Gunz, "Did you think about eating him?"

The raptor fixed him with her big optics. "No," Gunz said. "First, I thought he might be poisoned, you know, carrying a sleeper in his system, and then I thought the anaesthetic'd probably make me sick if I ate him." She dropped her eyes from his, shuffling on her perch (AKA Sideswipe's left chestplate). "And even if I hadn't thought those two things ... I didn't ... a traitor ... I couldn't eat a traitor."

"You wouldn't have become one from that," Prowl said quietly, picking up the game pieces Sideswipe had dealt; the red twin was a little brown over the cheekbones from turning green.

"No. But I couldn't."

"I see."

"Could we change the subject?" Sideswipe said.

They heard from Mirage that the gadget implanted in Buruntz' skull had recorded and transmitted every detail of his execution. He'd watched the Decepticon brass watch the tape. They never sent a bird against the Autobots again.


Flight and Fight

All of Gunz' fledglings took wing within a nine-dawn cycle of one another, and suddenly med bay was filled with wheeling, screaming, dodging, playing birds.

Until Ratchet said, or rather shrieked at top volume, "Gunz!"

"Ratchet?"

"When the gurneys start comin' through the door, what are you gonna do about the kids?"

For answer, she gave a startling shriek of her own, and a half-nanoklik later, the med bay was still and quiet. Ratchet figured later that he should have known.

She began to take them out flying with her in the mornings, a lap around the Ark, two, five, farther distances, started to teach them to hunt.

When an aerialbot came voluntarily into the med bay, and asked if the kids could come out to play tag, Gunz sat down with Silverbolt, and had a chat with him.

Mornings after that found her taking the kids out to the Aerialbots' training port, and teaching them how to stay clear of jet intakes, which fortunately they understood without practical demonstration.

Once Buruntz' line of information was shut down, the Autobots had a much easier time of battles. Gunz actually took the kids along with her to a light skirmish; they sat on Optimus' hood and watched their friends fulfill their destiny.

"You have a beautiful family," the leader said to her quietly, as they watched Silverbolt make mincemeat of Skyscream's finish for him. Sideswipe limped up, injured as always, but simply stood beside Ironhide and watched the battle for a time; Ratchet being busy with others more badly dinged.

Gunz followed the line of his gaze. "They are, aren't they?" she said with quiet pride. "I'm not quite sure how much I really had to do with it, but they've all turned out well. In another lunar cycle they'll be off on their own."

"They will?" he said, startled. "We won't have them circling my office every morning, when I first open the door?" He had never said directly to anyone, even Prowl, who just once watched with him and smiled, how much he liked the irruption of flash and feather and movement and birdsong into the beginning of his workday.

Gunz, hard to fool, smiled at him. "No," she said. "They'll be off on their own adventures."

That's when Skyscream came hurtling in, followed closely by Silverbolt. Sideswipe said quietly, "Excuse me a minute," and stepped away to fire his jetpack.

When Ratchet had drunk enough that night to actually see the horror movie on continuous replay behind his eyes, he watched the tall red Lamborghini launching himself, as Skyscream began to take final aim at the Autobot commander; he watched Silverbolt overtaking Skyscream, forcing him to turn; he watched Bluestreak and Sunstreaker both aiming at Skyscream, and shouting over the comm to Silverbolt to get the slagging way out of their line of fire so they could slag this bastard; he watched Ironhide interposing himself between Skyscream and Optimus, and raising his watergun; he watched Gunz getting her chicks into line and preparing to lead them out of harm's way; he watched the eldest chick, Nick, looking up to see Skyscream bearing down on Gunz instead of Optimus, as Silverbolt had been successful in deflecting him but couldn't overtake a last burst of speed; and then he watched Nick shooting up out of the line of birds following their mother, and making a dead-bang-straight run into Skyscream's air intake. Not being sucked in, going for it.

Ratchet somehow fetched Gunz right out of the air as she streaked desperately past him, trying to get to her chick, but it was too late, too late, too late. He watched as Skyscream, only one engine on-line, limped in the direction of the Decepticon line, Silverbolt harrying him. He watched as Sideswipe landed, collapsing the leg that Ratchet would treat shortly. He watched as Sunstreaker and Bluestreak 'spaced their weapons, and Ironhide returned to his commander's side.

He watched as, out on the plain in front of them, the battle ended in a route of Decepticons by Autobots. He watched as Skyscream went helplessly down, and Gears fetched him back to Autobot lines, shackled.

The feathered being in Ratchet's fist said helplessly, "No! Oh no! No! No! No!" and began to weep, shrieking, screaming, and sobbing, fluttering helplessly against his fist, closed lightly around. He tightened his grip just a bit, just a little, just enough to prevent her from hurting herself.

Ratchet heard Sideswipe saying, "Yeah, guys, come on," and knew that the surviving chicks had taken refuge inside the red twin's chestplate. Sunstreaker approached him, and held out his hand, and Ratchet put Gunz into it.

Gunz squatted down and furled her wings over her head, so that they met in front of her in a point, and sobbed as if her heart would break. Sunstreaker bent his head over her, and said softly, "I'm sorry."

Gunz gave a shattering sob, leapt in one bound to his chestplate, and then dived down behind it, just as her chicks had taken refuge inside Sideswipe.

And after that, the injured came rolling into their little clearing in a tide, so Ratchet got busy. Very busy, as Gunz wasn't beside him. Sideswipe was low on his list of priorities; the red twin's injuries weren't, for a change, serious.

Once Sideswipe was lying down on a med-bay berth in the Ark, the chicks deserted him for their nest box, each of them wiping its small face briefly against his, in a gesture of bird-greeting. He was wondering why that made him feel better when Sunstreaker came in, and stopped beside Sideswipe's bed.

The yellow twin said to his chest, "We're here."

Gunz hopped to his chestplate, rubbed her head against his chin, and said briefly, "Thanks, Sunny." She repeated the greeting to Sideswipe, and then she pulled the plates off his injured leg, and began to repair him.

She did not mention her loss again, but occasionally that spring and summer, Ratchet would look across at her as they labored together over some fallen mech, and see sorrow spread like a mantle across her.

He had no idea how she felt. He thought Sunstreaker and Sideswipe might, and in fact he knew that she was spending more time with them than usual.

It took a while, but eventually the remaining chicks began to play with the Aerialbots again.

Two months later, all the chicks left Gunz' nest, and she moved into the twins' room.


"Wow," Sam said. "Nick had a lot of courage."

No one answered him.


The Quality of Mercy

For many sun-cycles, the war went on.

One night in the lounge, after a particularly ugly battle, Gears looked up at the twins, and said with a curl of his lip, "Which one of you gets the bird-service up his tailpipe?"

It took Ironhide, Jazz, Prowl, and Mirage to pull Sideswipe off Gears. Ironhide cuffed him to a strut and left him, and waded back in to get Sunstreaker.

Gears was much the worse for wear. When Ironhide carried him into med bay, he didn't tell Ratchet what had been said, and Gunz started work on him.

Ironhide went back to the lounge, and stood looking down at the two 'bots he'd cuffed together, red leg to yellow arm, red arm to yellow leg. "If I let you up," he said, "will you behave? Gunz is treating Gears right now."

They wouldn't meet his eyes. Eventually, Sideswipe offered a cold, "Yeah."

"You won't lay into Gears again, either." This was not a condition of freedom, as the security chief had already taken off one restraint, and was removing the other. It was an order.

"Scum-sucking rat bastard sunova - "

Ironhide sighed. "Yeah, Sunny, that's my opinion too, and you can be damn' sure I'm gonna share it with Gears, once he's back on-line. You two, both of you - " he glared at Sideswipe, getting to his feet - "are not gonna say squat to him about it. You understand? I will take care of this. You will not."

Having been given a direct order, they did not. But Gunz had other friends who did.

Ratchet treated Gears for this fresh set of injuries. Gunz would have, and given him good care, and Ratchet knew that; it's just that he wanted a few words with the slagging little scum, himself.


End Game

Ratchet noted one day, with a queer constriction around his fuel pump, that Gunz' feathers, once a pale buff, were now almost entirely white. She was getting thinner too ... her beak was worn down.

"Hey, kiddo," he said, as the last of the walking wounded staggered out the door, "you doing okay?"

She shrugged a wing at him. "'m gettin' old, Ratchet. Before spring I'll have to ask the twins to help me hunt."

"You feel okay with the repairs, though?"

"So far. Good thing, hunh." Which was Gunz' way of shutting down the conversation, but letting him know she'd monitor her own work, and be truthful about reporting to him.

It was all he could ask.

When the winter set in fully, she had trouble keeping herself warm, and spent much of their recharge time behind one or the other of the twins' chestplates. If they were on a mission, she sometimes bunked with (in?) Ratchet.

And then, one day, the twins raced in with Gunz' nest.

"What's up?" he said, turning from doing something unimportant. Sideswipe, who had the nest clutched next to his fuel pump, put it into Ratchet's hands, and with all of his belief that Ratchet could fix anything showing in his eyes, said, "We can't wake her."

Ratchet sighed, holding a friend's body yet again in this lousy war. Cursory examination showed him that nothing, in fact, could be done. "Sorry, guys. She died during the night, and now ... she's been dead long enough that her body's almost at room temperature. Even if I could start her up again somehow, she'd be brain-dead. The person we knew as Gunz is gone."

He did not think he would ever forget the look in Sideswipe's optics. They had all lost friends before; in the war, you got used to it, stopped letting people in close. Sideswipe had lost his distance with Gunz, let her in close, and then she died ... leaving him alone again, with only his brother.

He was not prepared for the devastation painted on Sunstreaker's visage as he placed the nestbox back in Sideswipe's hands. The yellow warrior, more volatile and much less affable than his brother, seldom bothered to show his emotions. But Ratchet knew he'd lost his distance as well, if he'd ever had any: and Gunz had saved his life, while he couldn't save hers. That, to Sunstreaker, was a violation of the warrior's code. He'd hate himself over it, Ratchet knew.

What he didn't know was what to do to help the yellow twin.


Here and Now

"Yeah, shut up," said Sunstreaker. "Wasn't like you weren't crying when you gave her back to us."

"No. I missed her too, for quite a long time." Ratchet gently shut Sideswipe's chestplate, and hooked him up to the monitors. "He can go when he wakes up," he said to Sunstreaker. "Light duty for two weeks."

"Are you going to have to shut me down?" Sunstreaker said to Sam.

"Nah, I'm about done here. You'll have to be on light duty, too. –So how long did she stay with you guys?" Sam thought, wiping his hands, that all during that long story, he hadn't heard the word "love" once. But a glance at Sunstreaker's face showed him that the yellow warrior's silence on the subject was misleading.

The two Autobots looked at each other for a moment. "I think a little less than a vorn," Sunstreaker finally said.

"Seems about right," Ratchet agreed.

"Sixty years or so?"

"Fifty-some of their planet's cycles, yeah. I don't know how long their year is compared to yours."

Sam disconnected the sensors from Sunstreaker, and shut his armor. "There you go. Maid'll be by with a mint and turn-down service. –She was here about as long as I'll be, then."

"That's why we don't like you squishies," Sunstreaker scowled. "You leave us too soon."

Sam said, "We keep companion animals. What we feel for them probably ain't like what you felt for Gunz, but we grieve when they leave us, too, and pretty often, we have to wait a little while to get another one."

Sunstreaker cocked his head. "You get another one?"

"Yeah. I've had two dogs so far. I expect I'll have two or three more before I'm done."

Sunstreaker narrowed his optics at Sam, who, not impressed, took a step back only because he was done. "You can get up if it don't make you lightheaded, Sunny."

When the yellow twin had taken up his customary post by his brother's side, the two medics escaped (Sam's word) into Ratchet's office.

"Whew," said Sam, flopping down into a chair. "Why do I get the feeling that Sunny almost creamed me twice or six times out there?"

Ratchet smiled. "First, you let him know that our Gunz-song wakeup isn't what you'd expect of us macho types." Sam grinned. "Second, you let him know that when your short-lived companions die, you find another to love. Sunny hasn't been able to do that since Gunz died. Sunny doesn't like it when somebody else has more guts than he does."

Sam's eyebrows went up to meet his hair. "Guts? Neither one of them lack for guts."

Ratchet snorted. "Sides's got courage, but mostly he's just rash. Leaps first, says 'Oh slag' after." Sam laughed, and the hot-tempered medic grinned and continued, "The ones that Sunny looks up to for guts are Mirage, and now you."

"Woah ... me and Mirage? That's some stiff company to keep."

"Different kinds of guts."

"Yeah, Autobot and squishie."

"I wish you'd quit sayin' that. And it ain't what I meant, anyway. Mirage has the kind of guts that takes him into Decepticon HQ again and again on missions, knowin' that if they catch him, they might very well send him to smelter. But Mirage's another one can't love again." Ratchet sighed and went on, "You, you and Mikaela, you both got the kind of guts that lets you love and lose, and then love again. The only love Sunny's been able to hold on to is Sides. That's the reason they get those twenty points added to their triage scores. I think Sides might make it if Sunny dies. If Sides goes, I know Sunny will follow him."

"Woah," Sam said again. "That's given me a lot to think about."

"So it should." Ratchet put his feet up on the table. "Your shift's over. Go say hi to Mikaela for me."

The next time he came to work, Sam brought with him two large birds in a cage, small versions, it seemed to Ratchet, of Buruntz.

"Don't look much like Gunz," he said.

"They're African gray parrots. They live a long time for an organic, three or four vorns. If you have one of these," Sam said, "and you're a human, you have to leave it to somebody in your will, 'cause it lives longer than you do."

Five days after the birds came to the Ark, the male of the pair took a hesitant step up onto Ratchet's outstretched finger.

It took Sideswipe four weeks of patient coaching to teach both the birds to say "Primus on a slagging pogo stick" in Ratchet's voice.

About six months after that, Sam was mopping out the four-acre med-bay storage area, the walls of which were covered in something that looked a lot like stainless steel, and provided a fine reflective surface. He caught a flash of yellow, and stopped to watch.

Sunstreaker put a finger near the cage, and the female bird stepped up. He raised the tiny feathered thing to his breastplate, and she stepped onto his armor, looking at him curiously, and then taking one more step to stand on the ridge that opened into his chest.

She caught her balance, Sunny standing absolutely still and quiet. Then she poked her gray head into the space behind his chestplate, gave a little wiggle, and disappeared, going on her first Sunny-dive.

If that wasn't some form of love, he didn't know what was. Gunz might be gone, but she'd taught them that wearing feathers, love could come and go through Ratchet's, and Sideswipe's, and Sunstreaker's lives, and maybe that would be enough. Maybe that would be enough to get them through this war.

Sam smiled to himself and turned away, before the irascible yellow twin caught him staring.