Chapter 21

-

"We've lost telemetry, sir," Blaster's voice was steady. Too steady. He sounded like he'd just edited all emotional cues from his words before speaking.

Ratchet sucked in his own dismay and turned sharply to face the carrier. "Can Steeljaw report?"

"Hard shutdown." Blaster's response was curt, and Ratchet assumed he meant Steeljaw wasn't dead but he'd suffered an unexpected loss of power to his neural processor. "Prime, I'm detecting an autonomic transmission from Skyfire's transponders. Telemetry resuming ... slag."

He burst the data at both Ratchet and Prime, as well as Prowl, and Jazz. Ratchet hissed. "He's offline."

"Flat spin," Prime concurred. "Blaster, assume control."

"Trying." Blaster had already hacked Skyfire's motor functions - this was not as difficult as it sounded, given all flighted Autobots on Earth had a quantum transceiver specifically designed to allow Blaster, Ratchet, any of the upper command, or Silverbolt to take over if they were offline. Nobody wanted an Autobot to crash if they could help it. "His engines are out. Slaggit, I can't get him out of that spin!"

Ratchet switched frequencies, :Silverbolt!:

:On it!: Blaster linked his connection to Skyfire's motor controls to Teletraan. Both Silverbolt - who had more experience with flight - and Ratchet immediately logged in.

Ratchet winced at the telemetry coming back, or rather, lack thereof. There was no data from Skyfire's left wing, engine, and left front quadrant. His higher neural functions did not respond to the medic's urgent ping.

:Slag, I've got one aileron and a rudder to work with here.: Silverbolt swore. :Ratch, I'm going to pop his left rear door for the drag. You monitor the structural stability.:

Ratchet transmitted a nanoclick of code that translated to, "Understood." He was too busy to waste syllables. However, he found some good news in among the mess of damaged or unresponsive systems. "'Bolt, his transformation circuits are online."

That got an understood back from Silverbolt.

Ratchet snapped at the room in general, "Visual?"

"Patching a feed from Cosmos." That was Blaster, who extended a cable from his arm to of of the control room's computers. "Working on access to Milsat Delta."

Cosmos was not in a good position for clear video; his current orbit was low on the horizon relative to Skyfire, and Skyfire had the sun behind him. Still, with creative use of filters, he managed a passable low-resolution video. Skyfire still had both wings attached, but it was clear from the damage to his plating that he'd been in a nasty mid-air collision.

"Aw, slag!" Blaster exploded. Skyfire was not alone; a sleek blue seeker clung to his frame. It appeared a second was actually inside the shuttle; they could see a foot-mounted thruster and extending out from an enormous gash in Skyfire's plating. The hole was big enough that the seeker had actually been able to crawl inside through it.

Abruptly, there was the sense of a new mind accessing Skyfire's motor systems. A sharp voice snapped, :We'll get him down alive. One of you lot could be so kind as to retrieve my wingmate from the ocean. This idiot rammed Skywarp.:

Starscream's voice was unmistakable, even when his radio transmission lacked the harsh screechiness of his famously damaged vocalizer. Belatedly, Ratchet recognized the blue and white color scheme of that thruster.

Prowl interjected smoothly, :Coordinates, Starscream?:

:Between here and the Pit!: Starscream snarled, but he followed with a data burst that indicated the downed flyer's location and transponder frequency.

:Silverbolt, do you have any input?:

:Fireflight's closest, but he doesn't have the ability to lift a seeker.:

Starscream snapped, :You don't need a rotary, you need a sub.:

Prowl frowned. Ratchet mentally reviewed his own knowledge of crew rotations. Prowl said, :We will see that he's retrieved.:

:Do that.: Starscream's answer was short. His thruster-clad foot disappeared from view. After a second, the Skyfire's left wing started responding to motor controls. Silverbolt automatically tried to level him out, and got kicked out of the connection completely for his efforts. :Let your betters handle this, kid.:

Silverbolt hadn't heard that last comment as he'd already been disconnected, and he pinged them urgently to be let back in when his passwords failed.

"Primus, is Starscream doing in-flight repairs and hacking the base computer at the same time?" Jazz said, disbelieving. Booting Silverbolt from the chat required direct access to the base's AI.

"Not any more." Prowl's hands flew over the controls. Starscream had jacked into the base computer. This was not a terminal to Teletraan, fortunately, but it did connect to one of the auxiliary AI's they'd installed at strategic human bases. "I've firewalled him off. He's not able to do more than be a pest."

"And a hero," Ratchet murmured, as he watched the telemetry and the video. With one aileron, a rudder, two functioning flaps, and two elevators, and a hydraulically controlled door strategically deployed for drag, Starscream brought Skyfire out of the spin and slowed his descent to near stall speed.

"If he hadn't attacked Skyfire in the first place, I'd be more inclined to congratulate him." Blaster vented an aggravated hiss.

Ratchet ignored that - it went unsaid - and demanded, in his best matter-of-fact CMO voice, :Starscream, burst me a medical report on the casualties.:

Aloud, unheard by Starscream, Blaster said, "I can regain control of Skyfire's motor functions, if need be."

"Negative, Blaster." Optimus had his fists balled, sure sign of frustration. "Let Starscream guide him down. He is in a better position to do so safely."

Prowl added, "Primus only knows what Starscream would do if you interfered. We may regain remote control, but he has physical access to Skyfire's frame."

"Point." Blaster shifted uneasily in his seat. "Steeljaw's still out, guys. I mean he's down. I'm not getting nothin' from him but spark resonance."

Starscream's response to Ratchet's request for medical details, after a long delay, was, :Bit busy, here. And mine or yours?:

:Skyfire first.:

:Full stasis lock. Neural cortex and spark containment within acceptable parameters.: Starscream then burst a credible medical report at them.

Ratchet's optic ridges both rose. He had not expected cooperation, much less competence.

:Skywarp ditched and sank. He's going to be pissy when you pull him up. Don't offline him if you want my cooperation later; he may be a slagging glitch, but he's my glitch.:

:Understood.: Ratchet said, as Starscream sent them a burst of medical data on Skywarp that implied considerable structural damage, but nothing life threatening. :He's a tough slagger, isn't he?:

:Skyfire isn't reinforced for combat,: was Starscream's absent response.

:And Soundwave and the symbionts?:

:Damned if I know.: Starscream's response was unconcerned. :He hasn't moved. I'll be in touch. Ta, mechlings!:

The connections - both audio, and to Skyfire's motor controls - were abruptly replaced by the hissing snarl of electronic intereference.

"SLAG!" Blaster slammed the palm of his hand down on the desk. Ratchet was impressed it had taken him this long to lose his composure.

The only reason Ratchet didn't throw a tantrum of his own was hyperfocus on the medical issues. Repairing both Skyfire and Skywarp was going to require depressingly large amounts of rare alloys. Of course, they knew of a few dead Cybertronians scattered about the city. He sent a quick, encrypted, request to Ironhide to scavenge the corpses before the Decepticons did.

Not that he really wanted to use the Slagmaker's struts to repair Skyfire, but beggers couldn't be choosers.

Jazz had somehow moved to stand beside Blaster, even as Ratchet sent a second message to First Aid with a request to send parts for the cassettes.

First Aid responded with, :What happened to the symbionts?:

:Slag if I know. Just send everything we have.:

:Understood. 'Aid out.:

-

Frenzy woke slowly to a world full of pain and critical error messages.

Reserve energon levels 4.68%.
Stasis lock imminent.
Engage voluntary stasis protocols? Y/N

No, he instructed, for now. He would go into involuntary stasis when his reserve energon hit .5%, like it or not. However, he probably had leaks. If nothing else, he needed to try to patch the leaks before shutting down again.

Core temperatue 365K
Coolant levels 10%
Switch to battery power? Y/N

Yes, he instructed, and his power plant idled itself. That would also help conserve energon. He only had enough battery power to last about an hour, but that should give him time to replace the coolant and patch whatever was leaking.

His optics were offline. He pinged them, and got garbage code back. With a groan, he reached up to touch the damage ... and a warm hand caught his arm. He recognized Soundwave's field as if it were an extension of his own, and started to relax. Soundwave would repair him. He relaxed trustingly into Soundwave's hands.

Then, belatedly, he remembered that Soundwave was permanently damaged, they had been attacked by seekers, and neither he nor Soundwave were technically armed. (The laser scalpel and six foot length of angle iron in his subspace didn't count. He had a perfectly legitimate reason or ten for having welded the butt of the laser scalpel to the end of the iron beam, and it wasn't to make a spear. He sometimes needed a cutting blade with more reach than his short arms could provide. That was the story, and he was sticking to it.)

He tried to reach into his subspace for the weapon even before fully booting. Soundwave caught his wrist, warning flaring across the bond between them. Soundwave's fingers probed at his optics when he reluctantly slumped back to the ground, and he smelled hot solder. There was a brief burst of heat/pain/connection, and suddenly he could see.

"Thanks." He touched his face gingerly, but found little other damage. "Slag, you lost your visor."

Soundwave tapped the side of his face, indicating his bared optics, and pulsed frustration/irritation/anxiety through their bond at Frenzy.

"Where is it?" Frenzy asked, then automatically started to repeat himself slower. "Where ... is ... " he caught himself, and slapped a hand to his face. "Fuck me running. Sorry, boss."

Soundwave caught Frenzy's chin, and held his face still, inspecting his work. He nodded in satisfaction, ignoring Frenzy's words in favor of checking his repairs.

"So he's not totally glitched," Starscream's voice made Frenzy jump. He spun free of Soundwave's grasp to see Starscream standing silently a few feet away, arms folded over his chest, systems in quiet mode.

Starscream, stressed, tended to forget the cultured Iaconian accent he tried to assume. His voice would become reedy, nasal, and full of clipped tonalities. He'd been raised until his legal majority solely as a warrior and had spoken Vosian exclusively as a mechling. Coupled with his damaged vocalizer, the effect was a harsh voice that had well earned him his name.

Frenzy had overheard Starscream speak pure Vosian only a few times; technically, it was a dialect of Cybertronian, but the idiomatic phrasing and altered timing and tonalities had rendered it incomprehensible at first. Only after he'd replayed recordings over and over, and used his imagination to decipher unfamiliar idioms, had he understood what Starscream was saying.

However, at the moment, his voice was reasonably smooth and calm. He sounded almost perfectly upper class. In reaction to that indication of Starscream's mood, Frenzy relaxed. "Hey, commander."

"Lord, now." Starscream corrected, though a databurst that accompanied that correction rendered it purely informational. He wasn't being rebuked for using the wrong title.

"You shot Skyfire down?" Frenzy asked, for lack of anything else to say, "I thought ya were buddies."

Starscream's lips twisted into a thin smile. "The plan was to force him down, not shoot him. The crazy glitch rammed Skywarp."

"Oh." He digested that. "Skywarp's got better armor, but Skyfire's got a lot more mass. Who won?"

Starscream laughed, genuinely amused at his question. Frenzy had intended that. He knew Starscream very, very, well, and that included how to bring out his good side. "They tied. - You didn't answer my question about your master. He's doing better than I expected, but not talking, correct?"

Frenzy shrugged. "He talks."

"Over the bond between you?" Starscream seemed truly curious.

Frenzy lifted a shoulder up in half a shrug, unsure how to answer that. The plan had been to discretely translate for Soundwave, not give a medical status report in the first five minutes. He finally said, "He's a communications specialist. Give him some credit!"

Belatedly, he realized they were short a mech. Two mechs, really. He was rattled, Frenzy realized. The crash, and hard shut down, had fragmented his files. He was processing at a woefully inadequate speed while his systems attempted to do a live defrag. He also had a number of automated diagnostics operating in his RAM, slowing his data processing down further.

"Where's Steeljaw?" Frenzy blurted. "And Skyfire?"

"Why do you care about the Autobots?" Starscream's gaze turned sharply calculating.

He had no good answer to that. He just wasn't thinking fast enough. His dismay must have shown in his expression, because Starscream barked a sharp laugh. "The cat's scrap. And since you're not, I'm going to go work on Skyfire. Welcome back, bitlet."

Welcome back.

Back to the 'cons? Had Starscream just welcomed him ... had Starscream been worried about him?

He glanced up at Soundwave, wishing he could ask Soundwave for his opinion. Soundwave stared after Starscream for a moment, then scooped Frenzy up. He carried Frenzy several long strides down the beach and then deposited him next to Steeljaw.

Steeljaw was wrapped in a tarp from Skyfire's hold and Frenzy couldn't even sense his presence until he was next to him. The Autobot was motionless, lights out, all systems apparently offline. Dead, Frenzy thought, but training took over from horror, and he pulled the fabric back and crouched to do a closer inspection. The feline's spark still warmed his chest, and he could feel the slight hum of basic life support systems.

He had taken damage, but it seemed to be repaired. Steeljaw's neck was missing several plates of armor, and Frenzy could see that Soundwave had welded broken spinal struts back together. Brand new neural wiring was brightly colored, and not yet faded from heat and operational grunge.

Soundwave reached into his subspace and produced a datapad. He wrote on it, "Damage, repaired. No reboot."

When Soundwave handed the datapad down to him, Frenzy produced a stylus from his own subspace and questioned, "Boot sequence errors?"

"Probable."

"Stable?"

"Negative."

Slag, he thought, as Soundwave crouched next to him. Soundwave stroked a hand over Frenzy back struts gently, then took the datapad back. "Frenzy, attempt repair. Order."

"You don't need to order me to do this, boss," Frenzy said aloud. He was already pulling data cables out of his subspace. Ratchet could do this sort of repair with his optics off, and while calculating fractals with the majority of his processor, but Frenzy didn't know when - or if - the Autobots would get here. Since Soundwave couldn't do it, and he didn't trust Starscream any farther than he could throw him even if he'd had a reason to help Steeljaw, that left Frenzy.

He sat down on the sandy tarp next to Steeljaw's still form, resting his back against Steeljaw's shoulders. Intimate experience with his lover's frame let him find the ports he needed by touch alone. He connected the cables, and then plugged in himself.

Steelie's processor was completely offline except for the most limited of autonomic functions. He triggered a boot sequence and winced as a crazed collection of errors assaulted his own processor.

Steeljaw, it seemed, had crashed badly.

Frenzy aborted the boot sequence, and brought up a diagnostic menu. He had to hack through a primitive firewall to activate the options. However, that was simple enough to do.

It seemed Steeljaw's boot files had become corrupted. He found the audit trail, and backtracked, looking for the source of the problem.

There.

One of Steeljaw's sensor mods was throwing an unexpected hardware error, and this had caused a cascade failure of the boot sequence. His operating code autorepair had attempted to correct for the damage, but a bad driver for another mod had aborted the autorepair's routine correction. It was ridiculously simple, and, at the same time, a startling reminder that they were at war. This was the kind of idiotically stupid hardware crash that got mechs dead.

Steeljaw's autonomic systems were running on batteries. When the batteries ran out, there would be nothing to tell his power plant to kick on. He would simply die of energy starvation, with a full tank of energon.

Factory-original frames would never have errors like this. Unfortunately, modifications introduced new variables. Once upon a time, custom modifying of factory frames had been done only by the most elite engineers, and only after exhaustive testing of both the hardware and matching code. It had been very expensive, and generally done only by the very wealthy or the military.

Frenzy scowled. Wheeljack, with all his expertise and creativity for raw design, was definitely not good at the lateral thinking or critical analysis needed for safety. He was very much a linear thinker - he had ideas, and goals, and worked with singe minded focus. Frenzy, who had been taught to evaluate the personalities of mechs with an eye to strengths and weaknesses by his master, had already noted that Wheeljack tended to overlook potential problems associated with those ideas.

He'd created many of Steeljaw's mods. He'd done a good - even remarkable - job, given war time conditions. However, he had missed some faults in the design. Ratchet, who oversaw his work, had also missed the possibility for problems here.

Frenzy, who - with his brother - had repaired, modified, or built-from-scratch any number of communications installations. Though a comsat was nowhere near as complicated as a Cybertronian, they'd generally used scavenged or repurposed parts. They'd spent as much time debugging as building things. He shuttered his optics for a moment, suddenly missing Rumble for a whole new reason. Frenzy was good at debugging once a problem was identified. Rumble had been good at seeing flaws. Together, with Rumble making things break, and Frenzy finding fixes, they'd built some kick-ass machines.

Soundwave, crouching next to him, touched his arm. The emotions in his spark were painful to feel. Soundwave felt helpless and frustrated and depressed. Before he'd been injured, Soundwave could have fixed Steeljaw's systems in a klik.

"I can fix it. Give me a minute to think this through." He examined the code closely, then backed it up and made several obvious changes. Then he scanned the whole mess of drivers and boot sequences for any other lurking problems. He found one more conflict between Steeljaw's optics and a thermal sensor, and wrote a work-around.

Frenzy sighed, and rubbed the pliable metal under his optics with his fingers. His own systems were lagging, and pointed messages suggesting immediate shut down and defrag kept popping up in his HUD. He had no doubt that Steeljaw needed a more complete overhaul of his operational code, and equal conviction that he didn't have the free RAM right now to do so. Besides, it would be invasive. He needed Steeljaw's permission - and likely the permission of the Autobot commanders - to delve that deep into Steeljaw's coding.

They wouldn't grant that permission.

That was a bitter, painful realization. He was not an Autobot, he had security clearance of nil, and it was one small step from repairing code to hacking memories and data. Frenzy represented a risk that they couldn't take. He doubted there would be any repercussions from his emergency repairs to Steeljaw's code, but they would find somebody else to do the in-depth analysis his drivers needed.

'Somebody else' would be Wheeljack himself, Perceptor, Skyfire, or Ratchet, Frenzy supposed. Wheeljack lacked the lateral thinking abilities. Perceptor certainly had the ability, but not the experience. He was a scientist, not an engineer of either hardware or software. Skyfire had the same issue, compounded by eons of slumber. His knowledge of current programming protocols was vastly out of date.

Maybe Jazz or Prowl could help, Frenzy thought, allowing himself to think outside the box a bit. Neither were medics - or engineers - but Jazz was special ops, and had started out as a scout and spy. Frenzy knew for a fact that Jazz could hack his way through a mech's defenses with frightening speed and skill. Prowl, by contrast, had an impressively advanced processor and at least some coding experience. Frenzy didn't know how much.

Ratchet was very, very, very good at coding. Frenzy didn't understand why he hadn't fixed Steeljaw's drivers himself. He should have caught the problems and corrected them before Steeljaw was ever released from the medbay after an upgrade.

He sighed aloud. He'd bring the problem up to Prime and Ratchet, and let them figure out what they wanted to do. Hopefully, the answer wouldn't be 'nothing.' He had a nasty suspicion that Ratchet just had too many things to do and not enough time, and had a bit too much faith in Wheeljack's engineering skills.

Steeljaw's boot sequence went smoothly this time. After a moment, Steelie's optics lit and he sat up abruptly, looking around. It was almost dawn on this lonely beach. In the morning half-light, his plating gleamed and his expression, alive though it was with confusion, was most welcome.

"Welcome back," Frenzy said, softly.

Steeljaw suddenly winced, ducking his head. His ears flattened out and his armor clamped flat. Aloud, he said, "How long was I out?"

"Hours. Total shut down."

"Hold on a sec - Blaster's glitching out." Steeljaw flashed Frenzy a quick grin. "Not to mention the rest of my sibs."

Frenzy smiled faintly. Blaster, normally cool and collected, could easily have hit a state of irrational panic by now. Carrier instincts to defend their symbionts ran deep.

"Whew." Steeljaw finally said, looking up. Mischief sparkled in his optics. "I think he was worried. Where are we?"

Frenzy shrugged. "A beach, somewhere. Starscream's around. I'm guessing there's nowhere close to go because he's not trying to hold us prisoner, exactly."

"Where's Skyfire?"

Frenzy shrugged. "First concern was you."

"You hurt?"

"Not badly."

"And the big guy?" Steeljaw looked up at Soundwave, who was standing impassively by. "He's okay?"

"He's calm. Lost his visor somewhere."

Steeljaw flared his nostrils and inhaled a long draught of the cool morning air. All Frenzy could detect was the salty, decay-laced scent of ocean shore and a faint residual hint of noxious paint fumes, but Steeljaw rose and padded unerringly over a dune. Frenzy stood up to follow, but before he could take more than a few steps, Steeljaw returned with the visor in his teeth. "Starscream buried it."

"Why would Starscream bury ..." Frenzy shook his head. "He's playing mind games with us."

"Probably." Steeljaw inspected the visor, powered it on and off a few times, then passed it off to Soundwave.

Soundwave was silent, looking both pensive. He clipped the visor into place, then said quietly, "Starscream: Unplanned encounter."

"No shit." Steeljaw agreed, then started to explain define the slang for Soundwave, "Err, I mean ..."

"Ratchet: teach profanity." Soundwave's amusement was reflected by a quick flash of a grin from Frenzy.

"Did he, now?" Frenzy chuckled. Steeljaw relaxed a little, relieved that Soundwave at least understood the context.

"Affirmative. Profanity, fascinating subject."

"I would have loved to be a fly on that wall ..."

"Suggestion: Continue discussion need docking. Situation, unsafe. Planning, required. Private conversation, preferred."

Steeljaw nodded. "Blaster's pretty much ordering me into your dock anyway - I scared him pretty bad."

Soundwave knelt, rested one hand on Frenzy's shoulder, and looked Steeljaw directly in the optics. "Information to Blaster: Soundwave die prefer to harm coming symbionts. Steeljaw, Frenzy friend. Steeljaw, Soundwave friend. Assumption of protection, understood."

Frenzy made a noise somewhere between a snort and a laugh. "He means that, too, Steelie. I think if he'd met you earlier, before you bonded to Blaster, we'd have defected just so he could have a chance at your spark. You have a fan."

Apparently embarrassed, Steeljaw looked sharply away. "I'm just a cassette, guys. But - thanks, Soundwave. It's comforting to know I've got friends. I didn't, once."

"Frenzy, same. Commonality, Frenzy, Steeljaw."

"Eh. I had my brother and a pack of rejects to hang with. My situation was different than his, boss. Steelie almost died because he had nobody who cared."

Soundwave's docking door opened. "Come. Safer."

Frenzy forced down the terrible memories of violence and loss and forced himself into the warmth of Soundwave's dock. It didn't feel safer. On the other hand, Steeljaw nestled trustingly beside him. He could feel the warmth from Steeljaw's systems, and Steeljaw's confidence helped him draw his shattered nerves together.

Soundwave, he could sense, had a potent longing for Steeljaw. He would not act on that attraction, for many reasons. Frenzy would have sighed had he not currently been folded into cassette form. If not for so many obstacles, Steeljaw would be perfect to join their family. However, he also knew that Steeljaw wasn't interested. He would never belong to Soundwave.

It hurt. It would be the easy answer to all their problems, but Steeljaw's bond with Blaster was obvious, unwavering, and fierce. Frenzy knew to the depths of his spark that if Steeljaw had to chose between Frenzy - via a bond with Soundwave - and remaining with Blaster, Blaster would win. Frenzy knew he was just not that important.

-

Blaster wadded up a ball of paper and threw it in a high arc into a trash can in Prime's office. "He's fine. Scared to death, but otherwise fine. Sounders and Frenzy fixed him up."

"Tell him we'll get him back," Prime rubbed his forehead with two fingers. "We will get all of them back."

The latter was said with a significant glance in Ratchet's direction. Ratchet was silent, too quiet, arms folded over his chest. He looked sullen, but Prime thought he was more likely terrified. He'd let himself care, not just on a professional level, or a friendly level, but on a personal level.

Prowl shifted his stance slight, door wings pinning in tight to his body. Long experience drew the attention of the others towards him; Prowl's body language was always subtle, but to those who knew him well, it was clear he had something he wanted to say. Prowl pressed his lips tightly together for a moment, then said bluntly, "And what if the 'cons want to stay with Starscream?"

"Oh, please." Ratchet rolled his optics. "Soundwave's made his new loyalties clear. He'll be back. Or dead, trying."

:I swear to you, Ratchet. I will do everything in my power to prevent his demise.: Prime, always sensitive to the individuals under his command, spoke privately to Ratchet. His concern was real, but also, Ratchet felt, misplaced.

:Don't.: Ratchet glanced in Prime's direction, with optics that were cool as ice. :Don't risk Autobots lives. Not just because I ...: Ratchet's fans stuttered briefly with an emotional hiccup, making Prowl, Jazz, and Ironhide look curiously at him. :not because he's my lover. I can't ask for that level of sacrifice from the others. He's still the enemy, y'know? And I get that.:

Prime said aloud, and not just for Ratchet's benefit, "Neither Frenzy nor Soundwave are Decepticons. I have granted them asylum, and with that comes certain assumptions. One of those assumptions is that, in exchange for their cooperation and their very needed assistance, they fall under my protection. They are not Autobots, but we are responsible for their welfare. We will rescue all four captured mechs. Is that clear?"

The Prime's brilliant blue optics seemed to pierce through to Ratchet's spark. He realized he'd disappointed Optimus, somehow, and worse - he'd disappointed himself.

Ratchet had always believed in the sanctity of all life. All mechs had worth. Yet he had just suggested his own lover was not worth the same level of sacrifice as the two captured Autobots. Confusion shifted to dismay. When had his ethics and his morals become twisted? He had, for a moment, believed his own words. He had thought that Soundwave and Frenzy did not deserve an equal effort to rescue as the Autobots.

He had been wrong.

He didn't say much as the rest of the officers discussed the situation. His mind was racing, shame and confusion and bitter darkness all mixing together to render him near speechless. Grief welled up. He'd lost so many friends. He couldn't bear to lose more.

And when had his spark become so hardened, so cynical?

His processor was looping his conscious thoughts around the horribleness of losing Soundwave, and the shamefulness of his momentary assumption that Soundwave wasn't worth the life of an Autobot. He barely heard Optimus dismiss the others, and then he rose to shuffle after them.

"Ratch."

He turned. He couldn't remember the last time that Optimus had called him by a nickname. Once upon a time, Optimus had been younger and far less reserved. Once, Optimus had any number of affectionate names for him. Those times were long past, however. Optimus had become a Prime, dignified and regal.

However, he couldn't help but think that it wasn't Prime looking at him now, but Orion Pax, his oldest friend. The change in Optimus's bearing was subtle, but unmistakable.

Optimus crossed the room with two long, leggy strides. Ratchet stiffened his back struts, not wanting the comfort that he knew Optimus would insist on pushing upon him. He would not shove his friend away, but he couldn't bring himself to welcome Optimus's comforting embrace, either.

Prime generally - but not always - respected his space. Orion had been far more likely to drape an arm around his shoulders, to tackle him in an exuberant hug, or to respond to Ratchet's sorrows with a comforting embrace. He had been irritated by the constant touching; he would never admit how much he sometimes missed the irritatingly and disarmingly friendly youngling that Optimus had once been.

"It's okay to love him." Optimus pulled Ratchet against his chest.

"Optimus ..." Ratchet wanted to push himself away. He didn't need this, and didn't want it. And yet, he could hear the confident, steady pulse of Optimus's spark and the surrsurrations of his systems. He didn't need comfort, but slaggit all, he wished he was the kind of mech who could accept Optimus's touch. Their was nothing sexual in it; Optimus's love for him was purely platonic. Still, he was not comfortable.

Despite his discomfort, however, part of him wanted to collapse into Optimus's arms and bawl. He would not do so.

"Everything will turn out fine," Optimus repeated.

"Is that Orion talking, or Prime?" Ratchet demanded, a little crankily. He just couldn't bring himself to submit to Optimus's comfort without prickling a few spines out.

Optimus tensed for a second, then answered in a subdued tone, "Orion, with an educated guess from the Matrix."

Ratchet sighed out his vents, a soft pfft sound that held less derision than his words would have otherwise implied. "Save your 'educated guesses' for the troops. We both know you're mortal, Optimus. You want things to turn out right, but sometimes they don't. We're just as likely to get all four back as spare parts. If we get them back at all."

He rested his helm against Optimus's chest, since Prime showed no signs of letting go.

Once upon a time, Prime might have reacted with an inspirational speech. They were long past that point. Optimus loosened his arms enough that Ratchet could take a step back, and Ratchet found his gaze drawn inexorably upwards to Optimus's blue optics. Optimus said firmly, "Ratch, don't ever change."

"Hnh?"

"Your grasp of reality is sometimes necessary, and you are one of the few mechs willing to speak the truth we all need to hear. However - why do you follow me?"

"You're my friend."

Prime smiled a little. "And if you didn't like my plans or ideas?"

"I'd have told you where you could stick that Matrix." Ratchet felt a faint smile tugging at his lips. "You're my friend and I believe in your ethics, your morals, and your dreams. So yes, I follow you. You haven't steered me wrong yet."

"You have faith in me."

"Yes." His spark spun a little faster as he said that. What was Prime up to? His loyalty to Optimus had always been unspoken, but assumed by both of them to be unshakable. To say he had faith in Prime aloud prompted a more profound reaction than he'd anticipated.

"You trust my judgement and intuition."

"Generally speaking, yes. As long as we don't mix you with high grade and Starscream."

And that was a reminder of a very different time, and a far younger mech. He had still been Orion then, and Starscream had been, well, Starscream. Optimus's optics widened in surprise, and then a smile teased around his lips. "I'd like to think I can handle my intoxicants better, now."

Ratchet snorted. "You don't. You just don't get drunk."

"And that, my friend, is the wisdom of the Matrix." Optimus's low chuckle was rueful. "And speaking purely from my own spark, those were enjoyable days."

"Heh. You could always invite Starscream over for old time's sake." Ratchet was half-joking, half testing. He wanted to know what Optimus's near term goals were.

Optimus finally released Ratchet entirely. Ratchet took a step back and folded his arms over his chest. Optimus knew him well enough not to be offended by his quick retreat, he hoped. He could only take so much warm-fuzziness before he choked on it.

His friend, now leader of Cybertron's last, best hope, and all that slag, said with great dignity, "That is an excellent idea. I will imbibe less, however. I am too old and my schedule far too full for inconvenient after-effects."

"Look at it this way: there's nobody who could throw you in a cell to sleep it off." Ratchet flashed him a grin.

"If I ever become so intoxicated that borrowing a jet pack and playing tag with seekers in a residential sector in the early AM hours sounds like a good idea ... I trust you to lock me up until my sanity returns." Optimus clapped a hand on his shoulder and steered him towards the door of his office. Before they reached it, however, he said one final time, "Ratchet, I will do everything in my power to get them back. This, I swear to you."

"... thanks."

There wasn't much else he could think to say.

-