Title: Imperium in Imperio
or An Empire within an Empire

Author: Mirage Shinkiro

Rating: M
Warnings: mech/mech, a.k.a. intimacy between androgynous and nonsexually reproducing but male-"pronoun'd" 'bots. Experimentation of styles for me, so this story will reference and/or use jack/port, plug-n-play, and spark merging. Don't like, don't read.

Pairings, major: OptimusxProwl, ProwlxJazz, ?
Pairings, minor: SunstreakerxBluestreak, SideswipexSmokescreen, various staple pairs
Characters, major: Prowl, Optimus, Jazz, Sunstreaker, Sideswipe

Disclaimer: Transformers is the property of Hasbro, and although I wish I could make money off the TF franchise so I could be independently wealthy, I am not. Alas, I remain poor and am just borrowing the lovely robots.

Thank you to pl2363 and Asher119 for betareading.

Summary: G1. Praxian mechs from Prowl's past appear on Earth, secretly endangering the crew, especially the twins. Prowl must save the twins, and while fighting the Praxians, he must face his love for both Jazz and Optimus Prime. Who will he choose, and why do the twins mean so much to him? AU elements.

A/N, units of time: nanoklik=1 second; klik=1.2minutes; breem=8.3 minutes; joor=roughly an hour; orn=a day; decoarn=ten days; stellar cycle=one year, and vorn=83 years.

A/N, explanation: Some use of rare canon characters who have yet to appear as we know them. To be more specific, I'm using some of the MicroMasters, but they haven't yet been formatted as MicroMasters and might not be the "correct" faction at this point. Mystery will be explained later. ;) Like I said, AU elements.

Chapter 1 references "Autobot Spike" and "The Immbolizer."


Chapter 1: Preteritus Fio Tendo
or The Past Becomes the Present

For Prowl, life was something that had been forced to make sense. Literally. Every orn when he awakened, his battle computer fed him order, organization, logic, rationality, and reason, and therefore Prowl moved in a world of sense and structure. And it was for this cause that when Prowl's carefully constructed world developed a twist, it seemed to explode around him.

In this case, also literally.

"What," he asked, enunciating each word sharply as a wall of fine black dust rained upon him, "may I ask, was that?"

The potential victim of his rarely-used wrath chuckled nervously, his headfins flashing blue. "You know how I wondered if a Cybertronian's essence could be transferred into a human body? I mean, if Spike's spark — uh, soul — could power a mech body, then why not the other way around?"

Primus, don't remind me, Prowl thought, his optics narrowing. He glanced around the nice, flat patch of sand, now black with soot, just beyond the Ark's external research bunker. At least Wheeljack's lab hadn't been decimated.

"Well, when I started looking into it, I began to wonder if I could fashion a metaphysical weapon that temporarily knocked a mech's essence out of his body." Wheeljack sounded terribly cheerful about it. "No physical injuries but a definite interruption in their ability to fight!"

Prowl rarely felt fear of any kind, but an icy shard lanced his spark. "And that is what exploded in my direction?" He wasn't sure which bothered him more: the idea it could have succeeded or the complication of what it would have meant for him if it had succeeded. The metaphysics of sparks was a touchy subject for him. The entire incident of Spike's being in a Cybertronian body had disturbed him even though it hadn't surprised him that such a thing was possible.

Perceptor stepped out of the bunker and rushed to Wheeljack's side. "Oh, how horribly frustrating! Just when we were getting so close, too."

"Close?" Prowl echoed, unsure when Prime had approved such an experiment. "I didn't see a request form for this."

Wheeljack shook his head. "Oh, Prowl, it's totally experimental technology. I wasn't certain if such a thing could even be built, so I asked Percy's advice. And the next thing we knew, it was eating up all our free time, but if we'd succeeded —"

Prowl held up one hand, stopping the verbal barrage. Wheeljack was just as tireless in his efforts to please Prime as he was intellectually curious. "If you want to try again, send a request through the official channels and build it on the record."

Sudden peals of laughter floated over the thin desert wind, and Prowl realized the afternoon was drawing to a close, which meant the twins would be back from patrol. He glanced toward the Ark's entrance and saw Sunstreaker shaking his head in disgust and Sideswipe bent over laughing.

"Hey, sir!" Sideswipe yelled. "Don't you know better than to get too close to 'Jack's experiments!"

Prowl suspected he was so coated in ash that he looked solid black. "Don't you know not to antagonize your SIC at the end of your shift?" he asked dryly. "Especially on your so-called 'birthday'?"

Sideswipe abruptly stopped laughing and ran inside, no doubt ready to laugh again once out of Prowl's audio and visual range. Sunstreaker followed him at a more sedate pace. Prowl watched them, his optics lingering on their armor colors until they were hidden from sight. Wheeljack's voice snapped him back to rights.

"Sorry, sir," Wheeljack said, stepping up to gingerly brush ash from Prowl's shoulder.

Prowl remained deadpan. "I've suffered worse fates than ash in my intakes and suddenly all-black paint." He gestured to the chunks of metal littering the hot sand. "Do clean up your mess, though."

"Yes, sir!" Wheeljack set to work with Perceptor's help.

Satisfied all would be well eventually, Prowl strolled toward the Ark's entrance. Even though the orn had been uneventful up until Wheeljack's explosion, Prowl knew it wouldn't stay that way. Bluestreak and Blaster were in the rec room helping a mass of mechs set up a spark-date party for the twins. Prowl could only feel relieved that creation orns were only celebrated on dates involving threes, sixes, and tens. For a species so long-lived, a party every stellar cycle had little meaning, and older mechs sometimes forgot or didn't bother. Younger mechs, though, looked forward to the orns that marked their third, sixth, and tenth stellar cycles, vorns, or millennia. And for the lucky crew of the Ark, today marked the twins' sixth millennia since none of them counted the time they were in stasis.

Prowl nearly smiled when he reached the open blast doors and found a smirking Jazz waiting for him.

"It's not that bad, Prowler!" Jazz thumped him lightly on the shoulder. "Just think. Ya won't have to put up with another party like this one for 932 stellar cycles."

It was a valid point. Bluestreak would be the next one to celebrate a creation date, his sixth millennia as well, but it was still a long way off. The truth was, however, that Prowl was happy for the twins, even if he could never overtly show it. "Well, since I won't be the one to clean up the inevitable mess, it hardly matters."

Jazz chuckled. "True, true." He looped his arm through Prowl's. "But ya are goin' for awhile, right? At least long enough to wish them continued longevity?"

"Of course." Prowl tried unsuccessfully to extract his arm. "Jazz, I haven't logged myself off-duty yet."

"But it's time for ya to!" Jazz grinned up at him.

Prowl knew a lost cause when he saw one, and his concern was only for decorum. He hardly minded Jazz's touch and in fact had been secretly in love with him for ten of the eleven vorns they'd worked side-by-side. Jazz's easy grins, rich humor, and laidback attitude were addicting. "Aren't you concerned about getting ash on yourself?"

"Nah, because I'm takin' ya to the washracks." Jazz nearly had a hop in his step, which was hardly surprising since formal celebrations were rare occurrences. "Ya have to look all shiny for the party." He gave Prowl a fake pout. "You'll stay longer than a few kliks, right? Maybe even dance?"

Prowl hid well the fact that Jazz could get just about anything he asked for, within reason, when he used that silly but adorable pout of his. Not that he needed convincing in this case. "Certainly. A sixth millennium is a big deal. We can actually consider them adults now." It was a ridiculous exaggeration, but it was delivered straight-faced.

It also had the desired effect: Jazz laughed. "Give 'em ten more and they might act like it."

Prowl gave him a subtle smile, but his good mood slipped away from him. Orns like these were always the hardest. He wanted so much to be more to the twins than just a strict, stoic commander. More than the officer who punished them when they misbehaved. He didn't want to be the one they hated to see coming, and the thought that they likely only tolerated his presence never failed to make him ill.

But he dare not let them know they were special. Too much was at stake.

oOoOo

When Prowl's life, much like the mech himself, decided to get complicated, it pursued its goal 110 percent. In some aspects, though, Prowl saw that problem coming.

Once clean again, Prowl reported to Prime's office. He'd technically logged himself off-duty before showering, but with a crew this small, he was never truly free. 'On call' was the definition of his life. Besides, he felt that Optimus should know about Wheeljack's experiment sooner rather than later, and he also suspected Prime was overworking himself again, something Prowl planned to stop posthaste. As much as he admired his Prime — his dedication, his idealism, his care — Prowl also worried that he tried to carry too much and would become spark-weary.

"Prowl," Prime greeted him warmly. "Do you need another lecture about working while off-duty?"

Hearing rather than seeing Prime's grin, Prowl returned the smile. "You, sir, are a hypocrite." He supposed they were each other's watchdogs, always trying to ease burdens, take care of needs, and force rest and relaxation upon one another.

Optimus chuckled and leaned back in his desk chair, setting down his datapad. Prowl could only assume he was pondering the implications of President Reagan's request for technology sharing. "Indeed I am."

Prowl shifted back into his officer mode. "I feel that you should know Wheeljack is pursuing, on his own time and with Perceptor's help, an experiment related to the transfer of Spike's soul into Autobot X's body." Once again he felt a chill flash through his frame and ripple across his spark, as though a ghost in his past had attempted to rise and assert itself. "Apparently he wishes to find a way to displace a mech's spark temporarily."

"I sense disapproval." Prime crossed his arms over his chest.

"Sparks are not predictable in the way physical mechanics are." Prowl felt his doorwings tense. He could never fully explain his bias against experiments involving the quantum mechanics of sparks. "And, as our experience last decaorn with Wheeljack's Instant Immobilizer proved, such technology can easily be turned against us." He paused, knowing his dissent would be given weight since he usually espoused Wheeljack's projects. He was normally a vocal supporter of Science and Medical's experiments. "If you choose to let him continue, I suggest extreme caution, sir."

Optimus nodded. "I will most definitely take that under advisement." He logged himself off-duty, then pushed his chair away from his desk, angling it slightly. "Prowl, my friend, come here." He gestured with one arm.

Even knowing the complication his compliance would cause, Prowl wouldn't refuse. Being keenly aware that his calm presence soothed Prime's daily stress, Prowl wanted nothing more than to help, to return Optimus' affection with his own — not to mention that Optimus made him feel special, safe, and cared for. Without hesitation, he walked around Prime's desk and stopped by his chair. "Sir?"

"No 'sir,'" Prime admonished him, wrapping one arm gently around his waist and pulling him a touch closer. "I was partially serious about your overworking yourself. You are attending the twins' creation celebration, aren't you? You need to take some time to relax."

Therein lay the nature of Prowl's predicament. Why settle for something as simple as being in love with one mech when he could defy all logic and be in love with two? He'd realized the nature of the dilemma almost immediately. Once he'd recognized his thrumming spark meant he was in love with Jazz, he'd felt the same sensation around Optimus, who had still been dating Elita at the time. With Elita now reported dead, however, Prowl could no longer pretend there might be an easy solution.

Not that there had ever been an easy solution.

Prowl leaned into Prime's one-armed embrace, watching Optimus' posture relax faintly at even the simplest contact. The warmth, the care, the affection radiating from Prime's every look, every word, and every action pulled on his spark. "Yes, I'm attending the party."

A large hand pressed gently against the small of his back. "I hear there will be traditional dancing." Optimus' voice was low, quiet. "Would you save me a dance?"

The thought of being held close in Prime's arms was utterly intoxicating; half of him was attracted to Optimus' broad shoulders, strong arms, and powerful frame. "As you wish." Such a neutral answer for something Prowl sometimes dreamt of.

But what of Jazz? whispered Prowl's other half, needling him with an opposite desire, a different attraction. It wasn't a question Prowl could ignore, and after a moment's consideration, he realized Jazz would find it unremarkable that the Prime would dance one round with his SIC. Formal occasions often called for such measures. However, that did leave the opposing concern as well: if Prowl spent most of the night dancing with Jazz, Optimus would think his feelings were one-sided.

Prowl bit back the urge to curse. He actually couldn't entertain a relationship with either of them for several reasons, both simple and convoluted. The best he could do was dance once with each and then escape.

Such was the inevitable outcome of his failures.

oOoOo

Like a true perfectionist, Prowl's life decided that two-dimensional complication was simply not anal enough. And so it was that Prowl found himself being tracked by Jazz the instant he entered the rec room. Recently, Jazz had engaged in random visits to his office or quarters, showered him with extra touches to the arms or hands, and graced him with cryptic, smiling comments. Prowl suspected that his vorns-long love for Jazz was being returned, which was both gratifying and complicated. It also meant that Prowl would have trouble extracting himself from the celebration after only one dance.

Blaster already had soft background music playing, and most of first and third shift were present, although a few second-shift mechs, namely Jazz and Smokescreen, had traded shifts because they were the party's official sponsors and organizers. Prowl had approved the changes without fuss. Since he was dating Sideswipe, Smokescreen was an obvious choice for sponsor/planner, just like Bluestreak, who was dating Sunstreaker. Unsurprisingly, the four of them were standing by the guest of honor's table as all the entering mechs stopped by to congratulate the twins. How ironic the twins' choices of lovers are, Prowl thought, fighting the urge to shake his head.

In the thirty astroseconds it took for Prowl to size up the room's occupants, Jazz made his move.

"Heya, Prowler." Jazz slipped his arm through Prowl's for the second time that orn and pulled him toward the refreshment table. "We've arranged to do the traditional aspects first before turnin' the room into a club scene." He grabbed a small cube of high-grade and handed it to Prowl. "So I gotta ask. Will ya save a dance for me?"

Prowl gazed at Jazz and his impish, flirtatious grin. The thought of holding Jazz close in his arms, listening to his musical voice and laughter, was equally intoxicating as the idea of dancing with Optimus. "Certainly."

Jazz's grin widened as he picked up a high-grade for himself. "Cool."

"Let me go give my well-wishes before the celebration officially begins." Giving Jazz his cube to hold on to, Prowl extracted himself and joined the line behind Hound and Mirage. Oftentimes mechs acted nervous or stifled when Prowl joined a party, and he sincerely hoped that wouldn't be the case this time. The crew would never know the true depth of his care. Prowl cherished each and every one of his comrades and fellow Autobots and took private joy in nurturing the younger mechs through their difficult vorns. It helped salve a too-raw wound deep within his spark, and Prowl warred at times between the distance required of his position and the pull of his emotions and soul.

Hound and Mirage moved on, and Prowl gave the twins a small smile as he stepped forward. "Congratulations. I'm very happy to see you celebrate your sixth millennia." Allowing himself to act upon an impulse he rarely followed, he reached out and squeezed one of their shoulders each.

An answering small smile bent up the corners of Sunstreaker's lips, and Sideswipe stepped forward, clapping Prowl on the shoulder in return. Prowl could feel a moment's pull, an indefinable tugging, and a part of him screamed out.

"You came to our party!" Sideswipe grinned, his optics brightening at their shared touch. "Nice to see you emerge from your office and join in a bit of the fun."

Prowl gazed up at him a moment too long. Were there even words for what he needed to say? "Of course. You only celebrate a spark-date like this once."

"Awww, you hide it, but you can be really sweet sometimes." For all the universe, Sideswipe seemed to be joking.

How much Prowl wished he weren't. "Well, if you thought I had a weakness, the Ark would never be safe again." He said it lightly, although his humor was always deadpan. He wondered if Sideswipe would be able to detect it, but thankfully he laughed. At the sight, faces and names he hadn't thought about in millennia filled his processor, flooding his spark with dissociated emotions. The curve of Sideswipe's smile, the glint in his optic; it was all too familiar and far, far too painful.

"The mech shows a bit of humor," Sunstreaker remarked dryly, cocking his head. "The universe will end now."

Prowl felt his lips twitch upwards in response, his optics tracing over Sunstreaker's features. The strong jawline, the jutting chin, the strength behind the stoicism. Faces from the past, returning to haunt him. "Perhaps I may use the shock of it as a weapon against the Decepticons?"

Both twins chuckled at that, and from either side of them, Bluestreak and Smokescreen did as well. Prowl chatted with them a moment more before nodding and moving on, and unsurprisingly, Jazz was awaiting him. Optimus arrived shortly thereafter, and the three officers chatted and sipped high-grade until the celebration officially began.

Bluestreak and Smokescreen, as both party-sponsors and lovers, called everyone to order, and Blaster turned down the music. Following Cybertronian tradition, instead of everyone giving the twins gifts, the twins would be giving their loved ones thanks for having seen them through the previous three millennia since their last official spark-date celebration. Sideswipe stepped forward and grinned at the guests, and Prowl suspected that he would be speaking for both Sunstreaker and himself.

"Thanks for coming, everybody!" Sideswipe bounced faintly on his feet. "Sunny and I could probably give a shout out to most of you for what you've done for the last three million stellar cycles, but I know you want to get to the high-grade and dancing."

A murmur of laughter raced through the room. Prowl kept his Official Event Polite Small Smile on his lips, but it was as much as mask as his stoic façade. He wished he would be one of the mechs to make the twins' thank-you list, but he knew that would never happen.

Sideswipe gestured to his sides. "First of all, thanks to Smokey, Blue, Jazz, Blaster and Bee for helping to organize the party and get it set up." He turned toward Smokescreen. "Specifically, I'd like to say how awesome you are, Smokey. You've kept me laughing for vorns now and even looked out for me when I needed it." His grin grew lopsided. "I'd say more, but no way am I getting mushy in front of everyone."

In what Prowl suspected would be his only contribution to the 'gifts', Sunstreaker spoke up. "Yeah, Smokey, thanks for keeping my idiot twin sane and alive." He paused as more laughter flitted through the room, then turned to Bluestreak. "You talk more than any mech I've ever known, Blue, but you keep things light and cheerful. We all need a bit of that, me included. So thanks."

Prowl wondered if anyone other than Bluestreak and Sideswipe could tell that Sunstreaker was being genuine in his compliment. It almost qualified as a private joke, since Bluestreak had once confided in Prowl that he didn't feel the need to talk nonstop when Sunstreaker was around.

Pointing at Jazz, Sideswipe resumed center stage. "Jazz, man, we don't even know where to begin. You're constantly building up everyone's morale, not just ours, and you always give us good races out in the desert. You—"

Letting the words wash over his audios, Prowl stopped paying attention to the specifics as Sideswipe continued. Prime, Blaster, Ratchet, Bumblebee, and Ironhide were all singled out as special, and it twinged Prowl's spark to know he could never make that list. Not if he kept the most important promise of his life. However, he had fought for millennia to keep the twins safe, even at the cost of his own desires and very nearly his sanity. No matter his wishes, he could never be more to them than the SIC.

Whispers teased at Prowl's audios, ghosting across his sensors. Prowl shifted, glancing over his shoulder, but no one was there. He shook his helm, trying to rid himself of the sensor echoes, but they continued unabated. He clenched his jaw, cables and gears flexing, and he tried to ride the wave of cresting sensations as the whispers solidified into laughter, light, cheerful and young, then a scream, and finally names: "Night!" "Maverick!"

"And now it's time for the traditional dancing!"

Sideswipe's exclamation startled Prowl out of his spark's madness and his maudlin thoughts. He gasped faintly, his doorwings hitching, and then he immediately had a Prime standing at his right elbow.

"I believe it would be proper to claim my SIC for the first dance," Optimus said, a light teasing undercutting the formality of his words.

Jazz, who was standing to his left, just smiled graciously. "Second dance is mine, then!"

Tradition was an easy thing to fall back on. "Certainly," Prowl said, encompassing them both with his answer.

Optimus held out his arm, and Prowl took it, allowing himself to be led onto the makeshift dance floor. Multiple couples took their places around them — Sideswipe and Smokescreen, Sunstreaker and Bluestreak, Hound and Mirage, Inferno and Red Alert — but Prowl was suddenly deaf and blind to them as Optimus pulled him close. Prime's hand was warm as he grasped Prowl's, and Prowl's armor seemed hypersensitive where Optimus rested his other hand on the small of his back. He could hear the quiet but powerful hum of Prime's engine, and he felt engulfed by his strong embrace.

The song began, a loping beat reminiscent of a waltz, and as Optimus swept him sideways into the first step, Prowl realized he'd been pulled closer. They were still at a polite distance rather than an intimate one, meaning any lookers-on wouldn't be suspicious. However, Prowl was quite aware that only decorum was stopping him from leaning his head against Prime's chest, and he could feel the warmth of Prime's armor on his frame. He lifted his face to meet Prime's gaze and nearly stalled out when he saw the affection there.

Hyperaware of Jazz's presence, Prowl waited until his back was to Jazz before giving Optimus a gentle smile. "Are you enjoying the party? You needed the relaxation as much as I."

"Very much so." Prime's hand squeezed his. "I realize I've been fairly quiet this evening, but while I listened to the twins' thank-you speeches, I fell deep into thought."

Knowing him, that could be good or bad, Prowl mused. "About what, if I may ask?"

"I've been wondering what I would do without you," Optimus murmured. "I rarely tell you just how much I appreciate your steady, calm strength and dedication. It's more than just your hard work; it's the hidden care you pour into it as you strive to keep us safe." He paused. "It will be a long time before I have a celebratory spark-date in order to say such things, and I realized I needed to say so now."

Prowl could hear the smile that Prime's mask hid, and for a moment he was so flustered he nearly tripped. He rarely received acknowledgement or praise for the exceptional time and effort he poured into his job. "I — that is, it's only . . ." He hesitated, realizing it warmed his spark to know Prime not only saw him and what he did, he cared. To Optimus, he was special. "Thank you, sir." He could feel the smile blooming on his lips.

"Don't call me 'sir.'" Prime's voice was gentle, loving. "We're not on duty, and we're . . . friends."

Prowl suddenly became aware of how close they were dancing. The Prime's chest armor pressed against Prowl's bumper, and for a moment, he had the sensation he might be kissed if Optimus only retracted his mask. Prowl's feelings split cleanly down the center: half of him wanted to be kissed, audience be damned, but the other half didn't want to hurt Jazz. Preoccupied with that problem, Prowl almost missed the final notes of the song and stopped dancing only because Optimus led him to a standstill.

"Thank you for the dance." Optimus stepped back and sketched a bow.

Prowl returned the bow, already missing the strong arms that had held him. "You're welcome."

The words had barely passed from his lips, and Jazz was already at his side. "My turn!" He grinned, clearly playful despite his underlying determination.

Optimus nodded to Jazz and headed off the dance floor. At moments like these, Prowl thanked Primus that one of his skills was acting. Specifically, in this case, erecting a stoic mask. Optimus' facial expression was always muted by his battle mask, but his body language made up for it. He had stiffened when Jazz had appeared, and although he was too polite to deny Jazz a chance to dance with Prowl, he was jealous. That made Prowl uneasy, even if he understood why Optimus would feel that way, but he hid his reactions under his own 'mask.'

Jazz, though, showed no reaction to Optimus' having gotten the first dance. He was trained to be a premier actor and could lie through not only his words but also his facial expression, body language, and even the pitch of his engine and systems. "What's this? Our overworked SIC ventures outta his office and ends up with a whole line of mechs wantin' to dance with him?"

"I do?" Prowl was genuinely surprised. Still, he took Jazz's hand in his and looped his arm around his waist, pulling him close. He rested his hand on the small of Jazz's back as Jazz rested his free hand on his shoulder. The arrangements in dancing were decided by individual inclinations. Although Cybertronian frame designs were based on organic creatures, their so-called genders didn't extend to physical sexes. Without sex roles to complicate their lives, they simply operated on personal preferences. Jazz seemed to alternate between being courted and being the courter. With Prowl, though, his flirting clearly indicated he wanted to be pursued, and Prowl had no trouble stepping into that role.

"Ya sure do." Jazz stepped as close as Optimus and Prowl had danced. "Apparently Bluestreak wants a turn with ya, and ya dance so nicely that Mirage does, too. He's always lookin' out for talented dance partners since Hound's not that interested in it. Optimus asked ya, and I'll be back for seconds."

The music began, this song with a wistful tone, and Prowl swept Jazz sideways. Being so close in height, they were able to nearly melt into each other as they moved, becoming a picture of swirling grace. Had he been a touch more daring, Prowl would have pressed their cheeks together, and as it was he cherished the feel of Jazz's warmth on his frame. The feel of Jazz in his arms was exhilarating and seemed to resonate in his very spark. He wanted to hold him closer, and he suspected Optimus must have felt the same while holding him.

"That makes me strangely popular, I suppose," Prowl finally answered. "I don't mind dancing with Bluestreak, of course, and I don't even mind dancing with Mirage, given how talented he is. But I admit my true interests are narrower."

A beautiful smile lit Jazz's face, his visor shining brighter as well. Nothing was more beautiful that Jazz smiling, although Optimus relaxed and carefree was an equally gorgeous sight. "Then I'll be back for thirds and fourths, too," Jazz said, squeezing Prowl's hand.

Oops. That wasn't quite the effect Prowl had intended, but then again he'd never been good at flirting. He hid a grimace, wondering how he'd balance the requests between Optimus and Jazz without being too obvious or hurting either of them. Primus, how do I get myself into these messes? he wondered, exasperated with himself. He also couldn't deny that he wanted to dance with the twins once. Not that it would ever happen.

"Really, Prowler." Jazz's smile was soft. "It's good to see ya enjoyin' yerself this way. I'm glad ya stayed to dance."

Prowl returned the smile, touched. "So am I." His gaze seemed to catch on the brilliant blue of Jazz's visor and the grin that quirked his lips, and he suffered a nearly unstoppable urge to lean down and capture those lips with his. Once again, his spark seemed to split between two impulses, one begging him to give in and the other warning him that Optimus was watching.

A distant part of Prowl's processor nudged him with the awareness the song was ending, and he led them to a stop. With some effort, he released Jazz and stepped back, bowing. "Thank you."

Jazz returned the bow with a grand flourish. "Why, yer welcome, kind sir." He'd thickened his accent into a playful poke at the formalities.

Prowl chuckled, but before he could say anything further, Bluestreak had already made his way over. Prowl accepted his fate graciously, having developed a bond with the gunner after rescuing him from Praxus' ruins.

"Would you dance with me?" Bluestreak asked, a small, shy smile quirking his lips.

Sunstreaker glanced Prowl's way, sticking his nose in the air; Sideswipe frowned at his brother but wouldn't look at Prowl. Bluestreak's request wasn't odd, given that Prowl had taken him under his figurative and literal wing after the fall of Praxus. Was Sunstreaker actually jealous of Prowl? His spark clenched at the thought, and he forced his attention back to Bluestreak, pushing the burning emotions aside. "Certainly."

Prowl pulled Bluestreak into his arms, putting his hand on the small of his back, and led him through the next song, letting Bluestreak chat happily. As soon as they finished, more dancing partners awaited Prowl, and so he took a turn with Mirage and Tracks, both of whom were drawn by his graceful dancing skills. In between his impromptu partners, he danced a second time with Optimus and Jazz, and Prowl could only feel grateful when an impressed Blaster asked him for a turn. At this rate, the crew wouldn't be able to detect any favoritism toward Jazz or Optimus, and said mechs wouldn't be able to feel jealous of each other, either. Two more breems, according to Blaster, and the music would be switched to Cybertronian club hits and Earth rock songs. If Prowl could only survive until then, he assumed he could escape unscathed.

Fate, however, had a far different goal in mind.

Prowl had been halfway through his third dance with Optimus, already plotting to balance it with a third dance for Jazz, when his comm. link beeped. The way Optimus halted mid-step told Prowl he was receiving the message as well.

::Optimus, Prowl,:: came Wheeljack's voice over the channel. He was taking a two-joor shift on the Command Deck to help rotate the command staff through the party. ::Cosmos indicates an Autobot short-range shuttle has entered our air space. Identifies as friendly with current security codes. He's escorting them in.::

Optimus and Prowl exchanged puzzled looks. No one had sent them a message requesting an approach to Earth.

::Does Teletraan show a ship in space?:: Prowl asked, wondering why their satellite hadn't detected anything.

::There is a fuzzy reading, sir,:: Wheeljack replied. ::The solar flare from this afternoon is still making for spotty reception, though. I keep losing the connection, but Teletraan managed to snap a shot of its ID. The image is blurry, but it looks like AAC A-19.::

Prowl frowned at Prime, then glanced across the room, catching Jazz's gaze. He tilted his head toward the door, and as one they all three headed for the hallway, trying to slip from the party without disrupting it. Prowl opened his line to include Jazz in the conversation before asking Wheeljack his next question. ::Does A-19 check out?::

::Yes, sir. A-19 hasn't been reported captured, and he hails from our Tau Ceti research base.::

"Tau Ceti?" Jazz murmured aloud, clearly curious.

Once they were in the hall, Optimus rushed toward the Ark's entrance, and Prowl and Jazz had to jog to keep up with him. ::Who's on sentry duty?:: Prime asked.

::Cliffjumper and Brawn.:: Wheeljack's pure professionalism wiped out his usual cheerfulness. ::I gave the shuttle permission to land, but I've ordered Cliffjumper and Brawn to meet them and to help Cosmos retain them at the main blast doors.::

Prowl nodded once to himself. As scatter-processored as Wheeljack could be in his lab, he was collected and logical when he had the con. ::Good. Send Ironhide as well, and keep trying to get a better reading on that ship.::

::Acknowledged, sir. Wheeljack out.::

Footsteps rang on the deckplates behind them, and Prowl glanced over his shoulder, realizing they were being followed.

Sunstreaker glared at him as he caught up with them. "Hey, who's crashing our party?" He paused, then added as an afterthought, "Sir."

"We're not entirely sure," Prowl admitted. "They identified as Autobots, but we're not expecting anyone. Prepare yourself for an altercation."

He nodded once, sharply.

Jazz gave him a small smile and clapped him on the shoulder. "Sorry about this, Sunny. It's yer party and all."

"Well, whoever it is will pay," Sunstreaker muttered, although he sounded a touch distracted.

Optimus, Prowl, Jazz, and Sunstreaker stopped at the closed blast doors and waited until Ironhide joined them before opening them. Brawn and Cliffjumper had already gone out to meet Cosmos by the parked mini-shuttle, and Prowl watched their sentries escort three mechs to the Ark. When they were close enough for Prowl to make out their faces, he couldn't stop the gasp that came to his lips. They were mechs he hadn't spoken to in millennia: Blackjack, Tailwind, and Detour.

"My apologies for causing such a stir, sir," Blackjack drawled, his gaze landing on Prime. His broad black frame seemed to rival Ironhide's. "We'd have given you more forewarning of our approach had we not been assaulted by the Decepticons just outside of the solar system. We still haven't gotten our communications back up."

Prowl frowned, not buying it for an instant. Even if they were Autobots and allies, they should have asked Prime's permission to come to Earth at all.

Detour, his blue optics narrowed, was smirking at Prowl. "It's nice to see, ah—" His yellow doorwings flicked upward. "—another fellow Praxian, though."

Tailwind, who to Prowl's surprise was now navy blue instead of the silver he remembered, was openly sizing up the silent twin at Prowl's side. "Sunstreaker, is it not? Of the famous split-spark twins?" He rubbed his chin with his forefinger, seemingly deep in thought.

The universe stopped.

Prowl glared at the three intruders, all of them Praxians he'd hoped to never see or meet ever again. An entire ice planet seemed to form in his spark chamber, and for a scant moment, he wanted to kill them on sight. He hated everything about them: their hidden agendas, their audacity in calling themselves Autobots, and most of all the death and destruction they represented. Sadly, no one present, not even Optimus, understood what danger had just entered their base. As far as Prowl was concerned, he'd rather have Megatron breach their parameter, but the others would innocently welcome them as comrades.

The Praxus Special Forces have caught up with me, Prowl thought, mortified, and wondered how in Primus' name he would ever be able to save the twins.


Postscript: Mood music for the chapter is "I'm Alive" by Disturbed and can be heard here, just take out the spaces in the address: http : / www .youtube. com/ watch # ! v = WJ-2J0b1uS0 & feature = related

"It's my obligation
to never again allow this to happen.
Where do I begin? [. . .]
The thing I treasure most in life cannot be taken away;
there will never be a reason why I will surrender to your advice
to change myself. I'd rather die.
Though they'll not understand,
I will make the greatest sacrifice.
You can't predict where the outcome lies.
You'll never take me alive."
~"I'm Alive," Disturbed