Chapter 23

Author's notes: The OC character Killaglitch was introduced (briefly) in my back store Song and Ravage. It's not necessary to read Song and Ravage to understand this (and future) chapters, but they are related stories. Killa is Soundwave's progenitor's symbiont's child and grew up with Soundwave.

Ratchet, never fond of field operations, found he was immensely relieved to be back in his med bay. He firmly told himself that he could process his emotions later (or better yet, get thoroughly drunk); right now, he had work to do.

Soundwave, cooperative and trusting, settled onto the medical berth without hesitation. Ratchet gripped his shoulder briefly, with more tenderness and emotion than he would have shown any other mech, then got to work with his repairs. As Starscream had said, Soundwave had taken substantial structural damage in the crash.

Soundwave's operating system, somewhat to Ratchet's surprise, was still quite stable. His error logs indicated he'd suffered inertial forces of close to twelve earth G's when Skyfire had gone into a spin, which had been more than sufficient to trip some sensors. This had automatically caused a hard reboot. At a certain point, damage became inevitable when high gee forces from rapidly shifting vectors were involved. Some of that hardware damage, if timed exactly wrong, could introduce critical software errors to a live operating system. Therefore, automatic systems would put a mech into temporary stasis as it was simply better if the mech was offline until the crash was over.

When he'd rebuilt Soundwave, he had purposefully set those reboot thresholds low. Soundwave did not need any additional software errors. The only way to fix them would a hardwired connection to his cerebral cortex, and hours of writing corrections in Cybertronian trinary machine code. If a 'bot wasn't around who had the necessary coding skills, Soundwave would die.

Aside from Ratchet, that list of mecha with the knowledge needed was short: Jazz, First Aid, Wheeljack, and (surprising only to those who didn't know he coded his own security systems) Red Alert. Ratchet had a sneaking suspicion Frenzy also knew a good bit about machine coding giving his well-known skills as a hacker, but he didn't have the clock speed to keep up with a cascading crash or the networking ability to sync with a mech like Prowl or Skyfire and take advantage of their faster systems.

Fortunately, after Starscream had guided Skyfire in to a landing, Soundwave had automatically rebooted without incident. The subsequent stress of his encounter with Starscream and his undoubtedly painful injuries (which included popped welds and damaged spinal struts) had caused no new harm to his potentially glitchy operating system. Ratchet chalked that up to Soundwave's personality. Conditions that would cause many mechs (Red Alert!) to spazz to the point of glitching barely raised Soundwave's fuel consumption above baseline. He was just not prone to panic. He probably didn't see the point in panic. The mech made Prowl look neurotic.

If he were honest about himself, that absolute calm was one of the things Ratchet loved about him. Other mechs - Optimus! - were good at faking it, but Soundwave's calm was truly natural and spark deep. Ratchet remembered the night Soundwave had clung to him in terror, sobbing out grief and fear of things he had no words for, and near-silently sighed. He hadn't realized then just how badly affected Soundwave had been. Soundwave did not, without a great deal of reason, panic.

Soundwave had come a long way in a short time. That once-terrified mech had found his equilibrium, was forging a new life for himself with stubborn determination, and was far more emotionally stable than he had any right to be. If Ratchet had to sum up his feelings about Soundwave's recovery in one word, it would be respect. Very few mecha had courage and inner strength to match the carrier's. Ratchet should know; he'd watched the recoveries of too many permanently disabled mecha to count.

Ratchet's repairs of Soundwave's minor structural damage were done in short order. Ratchet booted Soundwave's systems and then removed his diagnostic cables; seconds later, Soundwave's optics flickered to life.

"Welcome back, big guy." Ratchet was unable to keep a trace of warmth from his normally curt and gruff bedside manner. Primus, he liked this mech. It wasn't just lust, or loneliness, that drew him to Soundwave. It was genuine, honest-to-Primus affection.

His words drew Skywarp's attention; the seeker was handcuffed to the next berth over. Skywarp made a sullen-sounding snort. The seeker had been a most reluctant and mistrustful patient. Ratchet, however, was ignoring him as inconsequential while he worked on Soundwave's repairs. He was restrained, and his warping abilities disabled. He didn't care what Skywarp thought.

Soundwave, by contrast, saw Ratchet, and a small smile touched his lips. There was simple pleasure and relief in that expression. Soundwave's expression, full of trust and affection, made Ratchet genuinely smile.

"Here." Ratchet offered Soundwave his visor.

Soundwave swiftly clipped it into place. Now able to speak, he asked, "Ratchet, gratitude. Status, Skyfire and Steeljaw?"

"They're fine. Skyfire's with Sunstreaker right now, getting his dents pounded out and repainted."

"... And Steeljaw?"

"Defragging. Your runt's with him - I sent them both off to get some rest." Ratchet smirked, but said nothing about other activities that had doubtless happened before the pair had "rested." While he still had misgivings about their relationship, they were, at least, still in the early stages of young love and probably having the time of their lives.

Soundwave flashed a quick smile. His battle mask wasn't closed yet.

Ratchet was used to seeing Soundwave emote. Skywarp, clearly, was not, because the seeker said incredulously, "What'd you do to Soundwave, docbot, reformat him?"

"Hnnh?" He glanced over at the seeker.

Soundwave's mask snapped shut. He turned to face Skywarp, and gave him far more attention than Ratchet had been willing to grant him. Tone impatient, he demanded, "Question, not understood. Clarify?"

"... ah." Skywarp tapped his own mouth. "I swear to Primus I just saw you smile."

One optic ridge rose from behind his visor, and Soundwave just looked at Skywarp like he'd grown a second cranium. How he managed to convey that much incredulity while wearing a visor, Ratchet wasn't sure, but clearly, Skywarp understood that look.

"... maybe I made a mistake ..." Skywarp muttered.


Ratchet recognized Soundwave's unique brand of humor as Soundwave turned back towards him. He'd left Skywarp confused, and Ratchet deeply amused. Ratchet clapped a hand on his shoulder in congratulations. "Any vertigo other than the usual?"

"Sensory status, no change previous state."

"Meaning you're still dizzy as hell and dealing with it." Ratchet slid a hand under his elbow and helped him off the berth. "You're cleared to go."

"Ratchet, require assistance?" Soundwave hesitated.

"No, but Prime wants to see you in an hour. Refuel first. We're at Vandenberg. You know where the rec is?" They were currently located at the Autobot operations center in southern California.

"Understood. Floor plan, memorized a long time ago." Soundwave grasped Ratchet's arm briefly, then limped out of the med bay. Ratchet shook his head in amusement at the absent reminder that Soundwave had once been the Decepticon spymaster. He probably knew the base's layout better than Ratchet did.

Skywarp made an incredulous sound. "He's got free run of the base?"

"Who, Soundwave?" Ratchet turned, reluctantly, from watching Soundwave leave and raised both optic ridges at Skywarp. "If Red's not watching him, I will have words with him."

That was because Soundwave was still at moderate risk of a glitch, not because Ratchet mistrusted him. He wasn't going to elaborate on that point to Skywarp, however.

Skywarp snorted in disbelief. "Whatever. Hey, you gonna fix my thrusters or just leave me to rust?"

Ratchet, walking by Skywarp on the way to a rack of parts, whacked him across the top of the head with lazy skill. "There is no rust allowed in my med bay."

"Fragging medic."

"Thanks for the invitation, but my lover might object."

"Primus, that must be a brave mech."

"That he is," Ratchet agreed, with a grin he didn't bother to hide.

There were secrets in the base at Vandenberg. Closely held, fiercely guarded. One of them, newly arrived, stood atop Prowl's desk, and looked Prowl directly in the optics with neither fear nor submission evident in his level gaze. There was simply concern written across his face. "I knew him when we were both younglings, Prowl. He was outcast for defying his sire."

Prowl regarded the aged symbiont for a long time. Prowl, once an enforcer, had known many carriers and symbionts long before he'd met either Blaster or Soundwave. This elder might be a cassette by creation, but he had the air of a leader. He wondered if he had altered his code, or if his confidence and fearlessness was a spark deep trait. Certainly, his assertive body language was not normal for his frame type.

His armor was unmarked by any faction symbol, but a clan glyph was etched on his helm. His sturdy frame bore the scars of a tough life. Old scars and dents marred the lines of his armor, and his paint was badly scuffed and faded. UV light damage had blistered and flaked it away on his shoulders, upper arms, and the bridge of his nasal ridge The war had been hard even on those who had actively tried to avoid it, and he had spent the last few centuries living a hard-scrabble existence on a nearly airless planet. Their resources had been minimal, and their lives very difficult.

However, under the surface damage, the mechling was clearly from a tough line. He was taller than Frenzy by a head, and had far thicker armor. He had been created a warrior, and had grown up with ample resources to develop his frame to the fullest. Most of his followers were smaller, shorter, lighter in frame - and younger. Prowl suspected they had all been stunted by deprivation. Only the very eldest, born before the war, has the height and weight of this symbiont.

He mentally sighed, and asked, "Killaglitch, can you and Glit work with Soundwave now? I understand that he was cast out of your society, but that was a very long time ago. He is important to our cause."

"He had not even reached his majority when he had outcast." He folded his arms across his chest, and stared at nothing for a moment, clearly thinking. He then shot Prowl a covert look, and Prowl suspected he was being sized up in turn. "I cannot hold the past against him. His father's punishment was excessive. And, he was family. I don't know how much you know about what happened ..."

"Just what you've told us in the past." Killa and a few other surviving badlands symbionts were their chief source of intel on the Decepticon communication officer's early life. Based on the substance of those reports, Jazz had, more than once and not entirely jokingly, speculated that they could change the course of the entire war by going back in time and assassinating Soundwave's sire. If Soundwave had never been cast out of his clan for remarkably stupid reasons by an exceedingly abusive sire, Soundwave most likely would have been nothing more than an (exceptionally intelligent) clan warrior.

He might have left his clan to go to the Iaconian university for studies in communications. He'd earned a rare academic full ride scholarship that his sire had refused to allow him to accept. However, he almost certainly would have returned. Carrier mecha were tied to their clans in ways that most people simply couldn't understand.

The humans had a proverb that started, "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost ..." that Prowl found appropriate when they looked at Soundwave's history.

The mechling continued the story that Prowl knew, but Prowl didn't stop him. Perhaps he would hear something that hadn't been mentioned before. "So you know he bonded to a cybercat against the wishes of our elders. The clan didn't think he was strong enough to handle Ravage, so they outcast him when he directly disobeyed his father's edict on the matter. His sire was the clan's leader. It didn't help that Ravage mauled Soundwave's sire - Fallsky - with fairly minimal provocation. However, they were wrong about Soundwave's ability to handle Ravage. Soundwave probably saved Fallsky's life when he successfully called Ravage off."

"Mmm." Prowl made an encouraging noise. He'd never had a chance to speak to Killaglitch directly before. Killa had known nothing current, as he had only known Soundwave as a youngling. Therefore, he'd been interviewed by field operatives and not special ops or tactical officers.

Picturing Soundwave as a child was enough to make Prowl's cortex threaten a glitch, he hoped talking to Killaglitch now would give him some useful data about Soundwave's core personality. While Soundwave had offered to be a liaison, there were other areas in which he might also be useful. The Autobot commanders had some decisions to make in the next few days regarding the carrier, and Prowl was in full information-gathering mode at the moment.

"The whole thing was a hot mess." Killaglitch huffed another sigh, but didn't volunteer anything else, to Prowl's disappointment.

Prowl rubbed at his forehead with two fingers. He was better at battle analysis than personnel decisions. He would need to discuss his findings with Jazz and Prime later, but for now, to make sure he had the facts right, he summed up, "In the end, despite his clan's misgivings, it seems as if Soundwave's bond with Ravage was a good one, by the standards of your culture. They were together a very long time, and all our intelligence indicates that theirs was a very good working relation. He should have fallen apart when he was outcast, but he survived and thrived. And from what you've told us, that doesn't surprise you."

Killaglitch shrugged. "True enough. And if Fallsky and the rest of the clan had treated Ravage with respect, I think Ravage would have been content to wait until Soundwave reached his majority to bond with him. However, Fallsky didn't have his son's best interests in mind. The truth was, he wanted Ravage for himself - even though Ravage wasn't interested in him, and Soundwave and Ravage were a good team from the day they met. Still, a naive youngling and an old and battle-hardened cybercat would not seem a wise match, if you didn't know the personalities involved. It would be as if a youngling were given command of a division of your best warriors. Sounds like a bad idea, unless the youngling was someone like Prime and the warriors accepted his leadership while still guiding him in his decisions."

Prowl nodded understanding. He would need to discuss this with Jazz, but it sounded as if Soundwave's early life - raised by an unsuitable sire who was also his clan's leader - might be an element of his personality. Was Soundwave accepting of an abusive and tyrannical commander because his own sire had those characteristics? If so, could the mech ever feel comfortable with a leader such as Optimus, who led by persuasion and charisma?

On the other hand, it did say something about Soundwave's acceptance of Ratchet. While Ratchet wasn't in any way abusive, Prowl knew the CMO quite well and had no illusions about Ratchet's temper or the sheer force of his personality. He'd also noted long ago that most of the mecha that Ratchet gravitated to as friends and colleagues were far easier going than he was: Prime, First Aid, Wheeljack, Jazz, and himself. He wasn't surprised that Ratchet had fallen hard for Soundwave's quiet dignity.

Killaglitch added, after a moment's quiet, "Only in this case, the youngling in question was wiser and kinder than his elders, and the ancient warrior - Ravage - had been through the Pit and back, and really needed someone who would just accept him for who he was. I used to correspond with Laserbeak before the war, though don't tell Soundwave about that - 'Beak was doing that behind his back. She filled me in on some of the details. She always hoped he'd return to his clan someday. She told me he missed them, even if - as you said - he thrived in the city. He might have come back, after Fallsky died, but then the war began, and everything went to slag. Beaky and I were actually plotting ways to convince him to return when Praxus fell. That's when he joined the 'cons. He could see the writing on the wall and he thought the Decepticons offered the best chance of surviving the war to the end."

"There are a few symbionts from his clan besides yourself among the survivors, correct?"

Killaglitch nodded. "We've discussed him at length. He may have been outcast once ... but he is still family. We look forward to reuniting with him."

"You were his progenitor's symbiont's child, correct?"

"That's right. We were very close as younglings."

"Well, I hope your reunion goes well."

His optics brightened and he nodded. Clearly, Prowl's early fears that mixing Soundwave with the last survivors of his clan were wrong. By Killaglitch's expression, he wanted a reunion.

"I'm working with Grapple on Soundwave's office. If you don't mind, I'd like to surprise Soundwave when it's done."

"It should be done by tomorrow, correct?"

"That's right." Killaglitch nodded.

"May I ask you a blunt question?" Prowl steepled his fingers on the top of the desk for a moment. When the mechling nodded warily, he said, "One of my major concerns is Soundwave's emotional stability. Optimus wants to put him to work for us, but it occurs to me that if anything happens to Frenzy, he would have nothing to live for. So. This may be inappropriate to ask, but it would help the war effort. Would you consider courting Soundwave now? I am aware that he is … damaged … and Ratchet can give you the medical details with Soundwave's approval. However, he also seems to be an excellent provider and a devoted guardian of his cassettes."

Killaglitch held a hand up, stopping his explanation. "Soundwave's damage would not eliminate him from my consideration. I'm old, Prowl. I've been bonded before - twice. I would also like to keep the option open for him to bond with some of our younglings, as they have few options to find carriers."

"One of our concerns," Prowl said slowly, "is that because he was so young when he bonded to Ravage, and because Ravage and Frenzy were barely of legal age, he may be more inclined to court very young symbionts."

Killaglitch frowned. "There's a difference between coercing a sparkling and courting a youngling who's mentally an adult and close to legal age. However, we could introduce him to a sparkling in a controlled setting. It would give you useful data on his current psychological status. I think I know the youngling for the task."

"You refer to your daughter." Killaglitch's child could take care of herself. She was tiny, but she had formidably good aim and a very keen mind. Bluestreak was going to have competition on the gunnery range.

"Yes." The old mech's gaze softened. "I have been briefed on Soundwave's damage by Blaster. Based on his remaining skills, he has great potential to succeed and prosper despite his disabilities. From Steeljaw, I have had confirmation that he remains the kind and caring mech I knew as a youngling. He would be a very, very good match for my child. She has a brilliant mind and an atypical personality that is offputting to many who do not know her well. However, she is too young now and if he attempts to court her, you will have your answer about his proclivities. Sandflower, meanwhile, would quickly put him in his place if he stepped out of bounds."

"She's twenty vorns and has a vorn to go before she is legal to bond, if my data is correct on your laws."

"Your data is always correct." The mechling chuffed a soft laugh. "She is too young. Even when legally of age, I would like to see her wait a few more vorns, as she had a rough start on life and her development was slow. However, she will grow up quickly enough. There are also others, slightly older, who might also chose him, and who would make good siblings for my daughter. She is ... unusual ... but she has a kind spark and a brilliant mind. She never got along well with her peers her own age, but she is much loved by those a few vorn older than her."

Prowl smiled faintly. He suspected that Killaglitch's words could be translated to, 'the kid's an awkward genius.' He'd been an awkward genius himself, once. "I have inferred that Soundwave currently sees himself as undesirable, to the point that he fears Frenzy might leave him. Steeljaw tells me that is highly unlikely. If you decide you are not interested in him yourself, will you speak to him, and ensure he understands that symbionts will be courting him?"

"Of course." Killaglitch nodded, gravely. He sighed through his vents, and added softly, "I want to get to know him before I decide if I'm interested. We've both been through a lot. That changes mecha. However, regardless of my decision, he will need all our support to recover his confidence. Carriers always think they have to be perfect in body and mind to attract symbionts. The truth is, most symbionts don't want the biggest and the best carrier - they want a carrier who will be their partner for life, treat them well, and ensure their safety and happiness. Soundwave has the type of personality that we find most appealing, from everything I've heard from other symbionts, including Laserbeak. He's devoted to his symbionts. They are the center of his world."

"Mmm. Would you like me to arrange an … encounter … with him and your daughter today? You're right that his reaction to a neutral youngling, with no outside influence, will give us some of the data we need."

"Of course. I'd also like for them to get to know one another. The best bonds are between friends. And she has been asking about him - and about Frenzy - since they arrived." Amusement twinkled in his optics.

A faint smile turned Prowl's lips upward. He would make a point of recording the video footage when they revealed to Soundwave just who some of the new symbionts were; he knew at least a few mecha who would take pleasure in seeing Soundwave's reaction to finding members of his clan alive. So few mechs had any surviving family. "Of course."

Soundwave found the closest rec room without difficulty, working from maps committed to his memory long ago. It was mid-shift for most of the 'bots, so the room was deserted.

The humans had provided the Autobots shelter in the form of ubiquitous metal aircraft hangers. The Autobots had promptly dug hardened bunkers and connecting tunnels beneath them. Metal hangers provided little protection from anything other than the sun's rays. Non-essential facilities, including this rec room, were above ground in the hangars. Their real base at Vandenberg was deeply buried and the tunnels and bunkers were heavily reinforced. Nothing short of a tactical nuke could have touched it.

This rec room occupied a full hanger, and the metal panels had been replaced on the west side with windows. The expansive glass windows gave a beautiful view of the coast. It was late afternoon, and the sunset would probably be stunning, later. He paused for a moment, automatically scanning the sky for trouble, then continued across the room.

An energon dispenser was situated against the opposite wall. He picked up a cube and realized he was faced with a choice of flavors, something that not even the Ark offered. Energon had simply been energon for as long as he could remember. One consumed it for survival.

He could pick, according to the labels, between copper, sodium, steel, or magnesium flavored - all trace elements that Cybertronians needed, and all tasty. There was also a sweet carbon additive, which was notorious for plugging filters, but was beloved by many mechs in the same way that humans loved candy. Someone (probably Steeljaw, as he recognized the handwriting) had put sticky notes with the flavors written in English on the dispenser.

He hoped Blaster realized what a treasure he had in Steeljaw. The only reason for English text flavor labels on the energon dispenser was for Soundwave's benefit.

He poured himself a cube of magnesium flavored fuel, added a little carbon, and then turned to discover he was being watched.

... By a mech he'd never seen before.

... Who appeared to be a sparkling.

He blinked, and stared. His surprise at seeing a sparkling was replaced with disbelief when her real frame type fully registered.

He'd estimated her age based on her very small size. However, the child was older than 'sparkling' as she was a symbiont. She appeared to be in late adolescence. She was at that stage where she was all long legs and arms, and oversized hands and feet. However, she had lustrous, healthy-looking armor and her systems were humming with good maintenance. His spark seemed to freeze in his chest as he stared. He half expected her to prove to be an illusion, a hologram, or a hallucination.

He hadn't seen a strange symbiont in decavorns. He hadn't seen a symbiont youngling in far longer than that.

She clicked something curious.

He couldn't respond in kind. His spark spasmed in pain at the thought. "Apologies. Unable to speak Cybertronian. English understood?"

"Yeah." Her voice was soft. "Blaster gave me the files today. I understand that you are Soundwave. Prowl and Blaster and my progenitor said I should say hello."

He crouched down. "Please, your designation?"

She crept closer, nervous but also instinctively drawn to him. "Sandflower."

"Name, beautiful. You are young."

That got him an uncertain click, then a softer, "... Yeah. They named me after attractive vegetation on the world we sought refuge on during the war."

"Where come?"

"I don't understand."

"Where ... source of journey?" He balled his fists. He had to sound like a complete moron to her. "Apologies, difficulties with language."

Her optics scanned over his frame. "Prowl advised I should not judge you by the way you talk. He said that you had very high intelligence, but your language centers were damaged in combat. I understand; my sire's mate is a medic and has been training me."

He crouched to be on eye level with her, hardcoded instincts firing online. She was young, vulnerable, and he was instinctively protective. She was also educated and would be a very desirable symbiont once she reached her majority. "Sandflower … other symbionts here?"

"Yes. There are twenty of us here, and more scheduled to arrive soon. Cosmos is ferrying them to Earth."

His fiercely protective urges settled a little. So, the Autobots had a secret and they'd decided to include him in it. He was charmed that Prowl had decided to send the youngling out to meet him first. Still, he was worried about her safety. She was so very small, and could be harmed by anyone - even a human. The top of her head would have only come up to the shoulder of the average human. While shiny and free of dents, her armor was so thin it was effectively only decorative. He asked, "They permit you wander, unsupervised?"

That got him a giggle. "I'm not that young, sir. I also think Prowl's probably watching us right now."


He suspected Prowl had engineered this meeting to study his reaction to the symbiont. His character was being measured by his interaction with her. It was a logical reason for Prowl to handle the introduction this way, and he found he didn't mind. He had nothing to hide, yet the Autobots were wise to worry about his behavior. There were many carriers who would react ... improperly ... to an unattached, and very desirable, young symbiont. If he were a different mech, he could promise her the stars themselves in exchange for her spark, and flatter her with indecent intent, and she was young enough to believe him.

"Almost twenty." She bit her lip plate. "Vorns."

He was surprised by her age. She was almost an adult, by law, despite her very slight stature. He thought she massed about half what Frenzy did and twenty vorns meant she was nearly done with her structural growth. Certainly she was old enough that she could be expected to behave herself in mixed company, and not get into trouble if left alone. He was accustomed to thinking of Frenzy and Rumble as younglings, even though they had been born millennia ago. To see a true adolescent of his species was a shock. He made a mental note to treat her appropriate for her age, and not as if she was a young sparkling!

"Fuel needed?" He indicated the dispenser. She was too short to reach it herself.

"Please. With carbon?"

"Do your guardians allow you carbon?"

She scowled, clearly unhappy with the question, but it was a playful frown. "Busted! My sire only allows me to have two grams per earth week. I think he's being overly paranoid."

Soundwave tended to agree with her; that was an inconsequential amount of carbon. It was barely enough to flavor one cube of energon - Frenzy got more than two grams from Ratchet per day in the form of his special sweetened, warmed, energon and Ratchet was highly unlikely to give Frenzy anything that would cause him permanent harm.

"Respect for guardians' rules, important."

She stuck her lower lip out in a pout. "We starved when I was little, and now they're obsessive about what I eat. I'll always be a runt, but they think if I just eat enough I might grow taller." She huffed an aggrieved sigh. "I'll just have a cube with some selenium and Cybertronium, then."

He reached for the dispenser. "Selenium, excellent flavor combination solar made energon."

"Yeah, I guess." She accepted the small cube he handed down to her. "So Prowl says you got a symbiont and he's not very old, right?"

"Frenzy. Yes. He is adult, but was created shortly before the war began."

"That's not a youngling!" She snorted.

"Frenzy, often acts younger than his years." Soundwave said this with great fondness, though the limits of his visor-based communication couldn't fully convey his feelings.

"Oh. Can I meet him?"

"Certainly. He will be pleased to meet you. Blaster, other carrier, also has young symbionts. Eject, closer to your age."

He knew he was being generous in his assessment that Eject was closer to her age. He wasn't certain of Eject's date of creation, but Blaster's little biped had been mentioned in intelligence reports dating back centuries. Emotionally, however, Eject seemed far closer to 'youngling' than Frenzy did.

"Yeah, that's what Blaster said. I can't wait to meet them!" She grinned in the most delightful way. She was truly charming.

"How long, here?"

"Our ship arrived a week ago." She scrambled up onto a mech-sized chair and he pulled another chair up so he could sit facing her. He leaned over a bit so he wasn't looming so far above her head. Primus, she was tiny. He could have held her easily in the palm of his hand!

She continued, "We don't have any carriers with us. I have not seen a carrier since I was really little. But my creators have told me lots about them. My sire's been bonded twice. Both his carriers died before I was created."

"Carriers and symbionts, both rare." He wished he could express himself more fluently. "Carriers, symbionts, need to be together. Bonded, not-bonded, both. Same culture. Understanding of programming. Mutual assistance. All required. Distressing, no carriers with symbionts. You are too young to bond, but I will assist you, if needed. Not because I am courting. Because you are my kind. We must help each other."

She smiled shyly. "I can't wait to have a carrier of my own. My progenitor says it's the most wonderful feeling in the world to be bonded to a carrier. But there are so few carriers, I don't know if I'll ever have a chance. I think the elders should be bonded first - they have more to contribute to a carrier."

"Carrier-symbiont relationship, very important," he agreed. "Trust, protection, affection, many more things very good. Before war, a good team helped with economic status of each other, entire clan, both. Do not discount odds finding carrier yourself. Many carriers like younger symbionts, easier to bond with."

As much as he had loved Ravage with all his spark, he'd learned that truth the hard way. It was rare for a carrier to successfully bond with a symbiont much older than themselves. He and Ravage had made their bond work, but it had not been easy in the beginning. Ravage had been opinionated, stubborn, and not always willing to cede authority to his young master.

"You!" An aggressive voice barked, causing both of them to jump. "You, leave her alone!"

He turned in time to see Arcee stalking in his direction. Her plating was flared with outrage, and an ugly snarl marred her features. "She's too young for what you want, you bastard!"

"Arcee!" Sandflower protested, "We were just talking!"

"Accusation, assumption, regarding Soundwave plans, untrue." He rose, alarmed. He had no desire to fight with her. "Sandflower, too young to court."

Sandflower added, with a laugh and a toss of her head, "He's not a bastard, either, 'Cee. According to my folks, his pedigree's damn good. His sire was a clan leader. But don't worry. I ain't interested in being courted yet. I'm just checking my options out for someday."

She winked saucily at Soundwave, then sauntered out, unhurried and unafraid. He watched her go, unable to keep the appreciation from his expression - and very glad he was wearing a mask and visor. Arcee would doubtless mistake a carrier's simple and natural appreciation of such a brilliant young symbiont for a desire to possess and enslave the little one.

Arcee glowered. He held up both hands in an 'unarmed and harmless' gesture. "Soundwave, lacking threat. Child young. Soundwave, protect. Protect equals wait better-older-age bonding. Child needs meet others, not chose quickly. Chose best, not first. Bond forever."

The older femme relaxed a little. "You keep repeating that, you hear? I'll personally make you eat your own interface equipment if you touch her."

His optics widened as soon as he'd deciphered the meaning - and innuendo - of her words. "Soundwave, not want symbiont that way. No attraction. None."

He couldn't put quite the growled outrage into his synthesized voice that he wanted to. While there was no taboo against symbiont-carrier relationships, and he'd known more than one mixed-race mecha in his life, he'd never personally been interested in symbionts that way. And he'd never been drawn to children!

He took a step towards Arcee, who stood her ground. She crossed her arms over her chest and snapped, "Forgive me for being skeptical of the intentions of any 'Con. You haven't exactly inspired confidence in your motives."

Anger thrummed in his circuits. It was enough to wake Frenzy, whose sudden consciousness felt alarmed. There was a buzz of static in his head representing Frenzy's startled words, and a scant few seconds later, Prowl appeared in the rec room's entrance. He wasn't sure if Red Alert had warned Prowl, if Frenzy had, or if Prowl had been watching all along.

"Arcee, desist." He stabbed a finger at the exit. "You're confined to quarters. We will have a discussion, later."

With a hot glare, she stalked off.

Prowl blew out a sharp sigh through his vents. "My apologies, Soundwave. Arcee has reason to be suspicious of Decepticon motives, but your history implies no threat from you towards younglings. To be perfectly honest, we set this meeting up with you and Sandflower."

He relaxed. Prowl, as the Autobot's head tactician, had access to every bit of intelligence on Soundwave. Prowl's assessment - and choice to introduce them - was very reassuring. "Thank you. She is very young. Pleasure to see her. Reminder, happier life."

Prowl nodded. Soundwave knew he'd passed a test, in that moment.

"Mmm. You're going to be up to your knees in symbionts, soon enough. We've been keeping the knowledge classified, but now that we've moved them and the entire colony is transferring to Earth, we don't need to be so careful. The short explanation is that there was an Autobot-allied civilian colony that had a small but viable population of symbionts - all mechling frames, like Frenzy, except for one cybercat medic. The medic happens to be Sandflower's progenitor. They will be safer here and, from a cultural standpoint, should mix well with humans."

"How many?"

"Symbionts? A few hundred, total. Cosmos is bringing them down from Mars Base twenty at a time. There are no carriers with them."

His emotions spun at that reminder. Somebody needed to protect them. Were they safe? How were they fending for themselves? Symbionts were capable of independent function - he was well aware Blaster's Rewind had lived as a single mech for the bulk of his operational life - but they were hardcoded to seek a relationship with a carrier. In lieu of that, they would attach themselves emotionally to strong 'normal' mechs and could be very vulnerable to abuse and enslavement. There was a difference between a carrier bond and slavery.

He suddenly felt helpless and very alone. He could personally protect a handful of symbionts, but how did one manage hundreds? He certainly couldn't bond to all of them, even if they wanted him. The thought was ridiculous.

Blaster's assistance, required. The thought raced through his mind, followed by, Blaster will outrank Soundwave and will certainly demand to be involved.

Getting along with Steeljaw's master had suddenly taken on a whole new importance. If he wanted to be involved with the new symbionts - and he desperately, eagerly wanted to be - he would have to be very careful. If he angered Blaster, it could affect his chances to help with the symbiont colony.

"Prime's making sure they're treated right," Prowl said, softly. "We only know of eight carriers living, Soundwave, including you and Blaster. The symbionts have been asking us to contact them. They've expressed a strong desire to rebuild their culture. Soundwave, many of the survivors that we've found were from the badlands, and avoided the worst of the war by literally going underground until the fighting was over. They are your people."

More carriers would make things much easier. He was very pleased to hear that the Autobots were thinking of reuniting the last surviving carriers with the band of refugee symbionts.

"Know fourteen certainly; four maybe living - live, dead, status unclear." He gestured at one of the nearby tables. "Symbionts, here to earth? Suggest invite carriers, also. Soundwave, talk with Prowl? Identities, contact information, some known"

Prowl drew himself a cube of plain energon, then joined Soundwave at the table. "You understand we can't tell you what we know about the locations of other carriers. Not yet."

"Understood." He pulled a datapad from his subspace and started listing what he knew. Prowl could match up his data to the Autobot information. In this matter, he trusted the Autobot command. Their intentions were good, and Prowl would treat this data with the care it deserved. "Two other Decepticon carriers known. Low ranking enlisted mecha. One bonded four symbionts: one cybercat, three fliers. Additional note: Soundwave aware of only six pure-CNA cybercats remaining, and only three fliers. All designations, here."

He printed their names in neat, blocky English script, adding commanding officers and last known locations. He would be relieved to get them all off the front lines on distant worlds and bring them to the safety of Earth. His kind were so close to dying out that any loss of a carrier was tragic.

He wondered if they could be persuaded to defect, or if a better arrangement could be made. Amnesty at the end of the war, perhaps.

There were hundreds of symbionts alive ... for a moment, the thought of that true wealth of cassettes was overwhelming.

... And then despair slammed into his spark. Would the best want him? Would any want him?

Prowl, oblivious to the uncharacteristic anxiety that was making Soundwave's fuel pump spin faster, hmmed. "We'll make contacting Decepticon carriers part of the negotiations with Starscream, then."

"Why symbionts to Earth? Soundwave express curiosity." Not that he was complaining. If they set the colony up somewhere else, he would be very torn between staying at Ratchet's side and going to the symbionts.

Prowl gave him a sideways look, then sighed. "Large frames are expensive, Soundwave, both to build and to fuel and maintain. Our near future plans to rebuild our race will focus on establishing a viable civilian population of minibots and symbionts. There is a place for larger frames, but that is not here, on Earth, at present. We can build a population of larger mecha, when we have the infrastructure and fuel supplies."

"Symbionts, need carriers. Carrier numbers, insufficient. Carriers, very large and heavily armored."

The thought occurred to him that he, himself, would need to reproduce ... symbionts needed carriers. The idea was daunting. Would he even be able to find a mate willing to bond and procreate with him, as damaged as he was? Certainly, Ratchet had better options, if he decided he wanted to sire sparklings ... and they'd never even discussed offspring. He wasn't even sure how to bring it up. Anyway, how would Soundwave raise children, given he couldn't even speak Cybertronian? Would they expect him to foster his offspring with others? He couldn't imagine letting anyone else raise his sparklings.

He set that miserable line of thought aside for later analysis.

"Mmm. I'm aware of that. Carrier racks are a dominant CNA trait, fortunately. And for all your size and mass, you don't use much energon - you don't have a vehicle mode, so your powerplant isn't much bigger than the average minibot." Prowl steepled his fingers together for a moment, then sipped his energon. "You were going to tell me about the others?"

The rest of the carriers he knew of were neutrals. Information on them was trickier, though he provided what he had, quickly writing notes out in blocky English print. When done, he added, "... Frenzy can give visual files, Cybertronian designations."

His mind was spinning. He would need to reproduce. He had never had a child. The thought of a child of his own was overwhelming. He had never even considered it for the duration of the war, and now all logic implied he would need to begin bearing sparklings very soon. While he was confident he would make a good progenitor, would Ratchet be interested?

Prowl rustled his armor, drawing Soundwave's attention back to him. "This neutral trader, the one you said has a trade route to Nebulos? Did he have a previous route in the Orion sector?"

"Negative. Previously, Cybertronian native."

"And this mech, who you said still resides on Cybertron - has he ever lived anywhere but Kaon?"


Prowl steepled his fingers, scrutinized the data for a moment longer, then said quietly, "There is some obvious overlap in our knowledge. However, I would estimate that there are at least twenty-six living carriers, with a margin of error of three, indicated by our combined data."

He inclined his head. "Thank you."

Thank you, he meant, for sharing even that small morsel of data. Over twenty carriers was not nearly enough, but it was far better than none. Perhaps some others would surface once the war was over, but he wasn't optimistic that they would find large numbers of his kind. Carriers had not fared well in the war. They were large targets who lacked mobile alt modes.

It took about twenty-one vorns for a carrier to reach reproductive maturity, same as a symbiont. A healthy adult carrier could produce a sparkling every two years. He did the math in his head, and, assuming maximum breeding potential was realized, found he was vaguely relieved. Given an earth century or so, they would have enough carriers to have clans again.

They could vastly increase the number of carriers if some carriers sired offspring on grounder framed mecha, but that would be a discussion for another day. He had a suspicion Prime would disapprove of the idea of a planned breeding program, and Soundwave had his own misgivings. A bonded pair could produce at least two sparklings every two years - one from each mech in the bond - if the conditions were right. That should be enough.

Symbionts took as long as a carrier to reach adulthood, but they reproduced much faster. Twin or triplet births were common, and a healthy symbiont could produce offspring approximately twice a year. In the old days, that rapid rate of reproduction had been a practical adaptation to harsh environment. Symbionts had lived hard lives, and had often died young. Plus every carrier needed several, so it made sense that they bred faster than their hosts. They might need to encourage the symbionts to control their birth rate a bit, but within several tens of vorns, the number of carriers and symbionts could be brought into a more normal ratio.

His kind had a future.

"I believe Prime wishes to speak to you now. Starscream is with him." Prowl's words brought him back to the present.

"Understood." He rose. They still had a large surplus of unbonded symbionts for the near future. He would need to bring this up to Ratchet and Prime. Symbionts needed carriers, in ways that other mechs just couldn't fully understand. If they didn't have carriers, they would emotionally attach themselves to non-clan mecha. This was something that would need to be planned for, and worked around or potentially with. Gestalt bonding code was very similar to carrier code, and could be installed, along with docking port mods. He could foresee carefully selected mecha being encouraged to form teams with symbionts.

"And Soundwave, we will talk about ... what happens after the war ... again later. I will be very involved in post-war planning." Prowl, also rising, smiled a very small smile at him. Soundwave, once a telepath, had long ago learned to match Praxian wing-language to Praxian moods. Prowl's doorwings were relaxed.

"Soundwave, pleased to discuss. To help."

Prowl nodded. "You are part of my plans for the future. You are valued by us."

He smiled behind his mask. That brief statement meant more to Soundwave than Prowl could ever appreciate. He fumbled for words that would be dignified. "Gratitude, expressed."

"Soundwave, Prime trusts you. I have never known him to be wrong about the nature of a mech."

Soundwave felt he'd also passed a test today. Prowl was calm around him for the first time since his arrival. He wasn't entirely sure what had changed the tactician's mind, but he was pleased. He would do anything to be involved with the symbionts. Even as damaged as he was, surely he could be of use to them!

It was on that high note that he headed for Optimus's office. Halfway there, Frenzy joined him, trotting at his heels. "Boss, boss, there's other symbionts here, boss!"

"Soundwave, aware."

"Yeah, yeah, but there's this kid. We get to show her the ropes! Jazz asked us to include her in stuff!"

"Sandflower, child. Frenzy, ordered: protect." He had some concern about the young femme's safety. Frenzy could, and would, keep his hardware packed away around the kid. Steeljaw would also behave himself, as would the rest of Blaster's family. However, there was a whole base full of other young mechs, some more scrupulous than others. Size was only a limiting factor to those who lacked imagination.

"Of course I will protect her!" Frenzy banged Soundwave's thigh with a fist as Soundwave paused to orient himself. They were in a windowless tunnel somewhere beneath the base's buildings, and it wasn't on any of the maps he'd covertly acquired. "Ya don't have t' order me t' do that. Primus, I'm glad she's with the Autobots. Can you imagine keeping her safe with the 'cons?"

"Theorized situation, inadvisable," he agreed.

"Ya think? - Anyway, Optimus's office is this way. It's totally cool. You should see his television! It's huge! And it's got a touch-screen!"

"Optimus, have large screen many needs. Conferences, maps, calculations."

"Yeah, yeah, I know he needs it, but it's still totally cool. His desk is gi-nor-mous! And he's got this sound system - now that ain't just business, ya can't tell me it is. Jazz designed it, and it totally rocks, and I mean that literally. It's like being right there at a concert. Big boss bot loves music, you know that."

"Affirmative." Before the war, Optimus had been a highly respected patron of the arts. He'd had his own box at the Vosian theater, and had regularly attended concerts worldwide, generally with Jazz, Elita and Ratchet. "Starscream, present?"

"Oh, yeah." Frenzy giggled. "Speaking of music, Optimus is playing him like a harp."

"Starscream, not easy fool." It took him a moment to decipher Frenzy's pun, but Frenzy was patient and waited for his answer.

"Yabut, the thing with Prime is, he means what he says." Frenzy smirked up at Soundwave. "He just uses prettier words than most mechs, and Starscream's eating it up."

"Chemistry, predicted."

He'd known that Optimus, given a chance, could charm the wings off Starscream. Optimus's natural charisma had been honed by a lifetime of politics. Optimus also knew Starscream from before the war. He vaguely remembered some sort of gossip involving intoxicated flying by Optimus and the seekers, long before Optimus had become a Prime.

However, Starscream was nobody's fool and, while he loved flattery more than most mechs, he would ultimately make decisions based on facts and hard data. That dichotomy was something that Megatron had never understood about Starscream - and this had led to some of the most fiery fights between them. When Starscream had inevitably metamorphosed from a flirtatious playboy to a shrewd, and shrewish, genius, Megatron had always, always, taken offense.

Despite frequent attempts by Soundwave to counsel Megatron that that Starscream was simply playing games when he flirted, Megatron had taken Starscream's mercuric changes in mood personally. Soundwave had found their relationship to be immensely frustrating. Things would have been so much simpler if both of them had stopped their games and simply worked together.

Soundwave found his own stress level was vastly lower among the Autobots simply because the commanding officers got along so well. Their bickering was good natured, and they clearly liked and trusted one another. He did not need to watch for literal crossfire between the command staff.

As expected, he found when he stepped through the door into Optimus's office that Starscream looked like he was having a very good time. Starscream's optics were bright, a smile played about his lip plates, and his body language was almost sultry.

Soundwave didn't miss the subtle cues, however, that told of Starscream's true mood. It was a good mood, and Soundwave was not surprised. Starscream's wings were relaxed, his clawed hands were not clenched into fists, and his thrusters were stone cold. He was comfortable around Optimus, and felt unthreatened. Optimus had that effect on people.

It had been millenia since he'd seen Starscream in Megatron's presence with his thrusters off. He suspected Starscream kept them primed to fire even when Megatron was interfacing with him. There was no trust between the two Decepticons, and hadn't been for most of the war. It bemused him that Starscream trusted the leader of the Autobots more than he ever had Megatron.

It seemed that Optimus felt comfortable with Starscream, as well. Optimus's face plate was retracted, baring a smile. His optics, ever expressive, were lit with warmth and pleasure.

When that smile turned his way, Soundwave straightened up. Pleasure flooded his spark. There was just something indescribably warm about being smiled at in approval by the Prime himself. Frenzy's spark warmed as well; he knew without looking that Frenzy had returned Optimus's smile with a real grin.

"Soundwave, Frenzy, thank you for joining us." Optimus rose as he entered, and Starscream did the same a beat later.

"Soundwave: express willingness assistance Starscream, Optimus, both factions with administrative minutia. Goal: Facilitate better relations." He winced at the tangle of words, knowing he was mangling the language. He wished Frenzy and Steeljaw were both safely nestled in their docks, so that they could help him sound competent.

"Ya, man, no thanks needed. I'm sick of fighting Autodorks. Glad ta help ya end all the shit." Frenzy scrambled up onto Optimus's desk.

Soundwave hissed a blat of shocked, and annoyed, static at Frenzy in rebuke. Frenzy's language was unacceptable in the context of this meeting! Optimus, however, grinned, and Starscream's wings betrayed his bright amusement at Frenzy's trademark teasing insults.

Starscream chuckled, "Soundwave, your brats always were so very good at diplomacy. - How are you feeling?"

He blinked at the polite question. Starscream had never shown an interest in his welfare before. Starscream had actively conspired against him on many occasions. In fact, just weeks ago, Starscream had misled Megatron into believing him to be damaged worse than he was, causing Megatron to attempt to ... euthanize ... him. Very warily he said, "Soundwave: functional."

He probably should have held a grudge against Starscream for that betrayal, except that he suspected Starscream hadn't intended for Megatron to go so far. Starscream wasn't a cold-sparked murderer. On the other hand, Soundwave had trusted Megatron and Megatron had broken many promises that day, both formal and unspoken.

Optimus's voice held a wry chuckle. "Your position as liaison is official, and accepted by both of us. We both agree that your personal preference to end the war, and your obvious willingness to extend forgiveness to former enemies, make you an excellent choice."

"Soundwave doesn't bear grudges." Frenzy snorted "I'm not sure that there's much he'd ever take personally."

Soundwave mused silently that Frenzy, on the other hand, never forgot a slight.

Starscream grinned, bearing sharpened dental plates. "Oh, I'm reasonably sure if I harmed you, runt, he'd take it all sorts of personal."

"... true." Frenzy met Starscream's bright red gaze with fearlessness that wasn't matched by the turmoil that Soundwave could sense coming from Frenzy's spark. Boldly, Frenzy asserted, "But that's assumin' ya could actually hurt me, seeker-freaker."

"Frenzy, desist." He put a hand on Frenzy's shoulders. His symbiont was unarmed, other than a laser scalpel welded to an iron rod that he was hiding in his subspace. He approved wholeheartedly of that nasty little tool, but it was no match for the Decepticon Air Commander. "Your words, rude."

Starscream, fortunately, was merely amused. With dark humor lurking in his keen optics, Starscream suggested, "Frenzy, you could learn something from your master. If you brag about being a tough guy, you lose the element of surprise."

Frenzy opened his mouth, likely intending to snap something insulting. Soundwave clapped a hand down on his shoulder and gripped his shoulder with force that was just shy of painful. "Data Starscream needs: Frenzy, is needed to assist speak Soundwave. Soundwave, difficulty assemble vocabulary coherent. Frenzy, no embellishment Soundwave words."

"And just how do you know that he's not changing what you say?" Starscream purred. "You can't actually know what he said if it's in Cybertronian."

The thought that Frenzy would alter the meaning of his words hadn't even occurred to Soundwave. He turned the grip on Frenzy's shoulder to a stroke of his back plating. "Frenzy, trusted."

"Yeah, I'm trusted." Frenzy grinned at Starscream. "It's a great feeling. But you wouldn't know that, would you?"

He must have missed a nuance of meaning. The words didn't seem to be that inflammatory - at least, not compared to what Frenzy could come up with. However, Starscream hissed and leaned forward, "I don't need to trust anyone, you little scraplet."

"I said being trusted, not trusting. Nobody trusts you, Starscream. You ain't earned it. You really want to work with the Autobots? Stop expecting 'em to act like Decepticons." Frenzy shrugged free of Soundwave's touch. "'Cons are all about who's got the nastiest guns. Autobots build circles of trust and friendship. Their culture's built on a foundation of mutual support and protection and affection."

Starscream opened his mouth, then shut it. Soundwave, though worried for Frenzy's safety around the Air Commander, thought Frenzy's ire had been earned. Even if Soundwave was willing to overlook Starscream's past treachery, Frenzy would never forget or forgive.

"While he lacks diplomacy, he is not wrong about the differences between our factions." Optimus surprised Soundwave by agreeing with Frenzy. "However, I would observe that Seekers have a similar relationship with each other, Commander. You must truly miss your people."

He'd never noticed the similarity between Seekers and Autobots. He wasn't good at analysis of emotional dynamics. That had always been Ravage's strong point.

Starscream, who generally never knew when to shut up, was utterly silent. Suddenly, sharply, he looked away from all of them. The Decepticon Air Commander blew out a short, sharp, deliberate ventilation, and stared at a wall for a long moment. "Well played, Prime."

"In this, I am not trying to manipulate you." Optimus rose from his chair and walked the two strides to Starscream. Starscream tensed now, for the first time, but Optimus simply crouched to be on his level. "I would see you as Cybertron's Air Commander once more, Starscream. You were chosen by Vector Sigma himself as guardian and leader for a reason. I will not question the wisdom of the Primes, my friend. You are leader of not just the Seekers, but all those sparked to fly."

Starscream smirked. "If I'm a leader of all those sparked to fly, it's a good thing you fly like a brick with a rocket pack attached."

Frenzy barked a laugh. Optimus flashed Starscream a quick smile. "Truer words have never been spoken regarding my flying skills, as you well know."

"Oh, such humility. You know, I could teach you to fly a little better - maybe like a brick with wings." Starscream suddenly bit his lip and averted his gaze. "Not that you'd want to do anything such as that with the likes of me. I know you're being charming and kind because you need me to play nice."

Optimus rose, stepped around his desk, and offered Starscream a hand up. Uncertainly, he accepted it. Optimus drew the shorter seeker to his feet, so that they were standing mere feet apart. "Regretfully, we have more important things to address first. Once the immediate crisis is resolved and you are securely in power, however, I believe I will take you up on that offer for flying lessons."

Starscream's optics widened. He drew in a vent of air, then froze, fans stilling. His crimson optics stared up at Prime with an utterly unreadable expression.

Soundwave found he was silencing his systems, and holding perfectly still. He was seeing something almost magical, he thought. Starscream, bitter and violent, vindictive and vicious, was standing a mere handful of feet from Optimus Prime. They were so close that they were in each other's fields, and could certainly feel the heat of each other's systems. Starscream's reactions, for once, were honest and not feigned. He knew the seeker well enough to know when he was playing calculated emotional games and when he had been startled into a honest reaction.

And then Starscream looked away. "Nicely played, Optimus."

Optimus cradled the side of Starscream's face in one enormous hand. Starscream froze, then allowed Optimus to guide his face back to optic contact with the Prime. "I am not playing you, Starscream. If you so choose, you will play a tremendously important role in the restoration of our people to our former glory. I truly believe in you."

"Liar." Starscream's sneer was faked. The set of his wings indicated deep insecurity.

Frenzy made a small, worried sound next to Soundwave. That word, liar, could be seen as a mortal insult. Starscream's frame was now tensed, and he clearly expecting to be struck. Megatron would have backhanded him into the wall.

Starscream was, Soundwave thought, testing Optimus. His calculating, suspicious nature was resurfacing. Starscream truly expected to be assaulted, and that if Optimus hit him, it would cement their relationship as master and subordinate. Starscream would follow Optimus for his own personal reasons, but would never trust him if Optimus struck him now.

"No, Starscream. I am not a liar." Optimus slid his hand around so that one large hand cupped the back of Starscream's neck. He tugged, gently, and then Starscream let out a soft sigh. He stumbled one stride forward, features suddenly sagging with exhaustion and optics clicking off.

The Prime pulled Starscream into hug, saying as he did, "I believe in you, Starscream. Together, we can do this."

Soundwave was motionless in disbelief. He gripped Frenzy tightly, hoping that his symbiont would have the sense to remain silent and not interrupt. He gave a warning squeeze to Frenzy's shoulder. Frenzy, for his part, simply reached up and rested a much smaller hand over Soundwave's fingers, quelling Soundwave's fears that his outspoken symbiont might say something unwise.

Contrary to popular belief, Frenzy's mouth did not run on autopilot. Soundwave relaxed a little bit.

There was something magical, and supernatural, about Prime's ability to earn the trust and love of others.

"Even my own ... my own seekers ... they stopped believing." Starscream's voice was a quiet whisper, broken with spurts of static. "I tried ... I tried to give the title back. Vector Sigma wouldn't take it. The ancient Primes ... they said I was still chosen to lead. I was Air Commander of a dead world. What irony!"

"When was this?" Optimus as quietly, with Starscream still held close to his chassis.

"A few earth years ago."

"It seems I am not the only Prime to believe in you."

"You ... you're not just saying that?" Starscream sounded younger and more vulnerable than Soundwave had ever heard. "... You do need my cooperation."

They had known each other before the war. Optimus - then Orion - was a little older than Starscream, but they had both attended the same university, at the same time, albeit with vastly different majors. How well had they been acquainted? Soundwave had no idea.

Optimus said quietly, "I do need your help, Starscream. However, I also believe you have the strength, resilience, and courage to work with me to end this war. From there, we can forge a new future. I want you to stand by my side as we do this."

Starscream looked up at him again. His optics were bright. He was well and truly captured by Prime's charisma now. "Really?"

"You have my word." Optimus released him, and stepped back.

Starscream folded his arms across his chest, then remembered his audience and snapped at Soundwave and Frenzy, "If either of you say anything about this, I'll peel your plating off your protoforms myself."

"Discretion, assured." Soundwave wondered what it would feel like to be embraced by Optimus in comfort. He felt no carnal attraction to the Prime, but even standing across the room he could feel the sheer power, dignity, and nobility of the mech's field.

"I've been keeping secrets since I was sparked. Ya think I don't know when to shut my trap?" Frenzy grinned. "Though you two look so cute together."

And there was the wise crack that Soundwave had feared from his symbiont.

Starscream said, "Merely cute? Frenzy, I am disappointed. Surely, you can come up with something better than that."

"... Nah."

"Slag." Starscream said, eyes alight with mischief. He trailed a single fingertip down Optimus's chest. "Want to inspire Frenzy into more suitable adjectives?"

Optimus caught his hand, folded both his larger hands around Starscream's fingers, and looked him in the optic. "We have much to discuss at a later date."

"That wasn't a no," Starscream noted, boldly. "Are you playing me, or tempted, Prime?"

Optimus inclined his head, looking a little confused. "I would not toy with your feelings. I have known you, both as an enemy and a friend. I would prefer to call you friend and trusted ally. I believe we need to become better acquainted before we become ... tempted."

Frenzy's jaw was hanging open. Soundwave, who saw the teasing light in Optimus's blue eyes, was almost equally flabbergasted. He'd never imagined that the Prime would be willing to flirt with Starscream, to meet him at his own level.

Starscream, for his part, looked surprised, then a bit wary.

Ravage would have said, Idiot's scared to death to let his real self out to play. Prime knows the fastest way to shut the pervert down is to tell him you want to know him better.

Soundwave was pretty sure that Ravage would have been right.

"Well. Back to business. You said you would send Soundwave to me with a proposal, as soon as the Nemesis is secure?" Starscream, true to his nature, recovered quickly.

"Correct. Soundwave," Optimus turned to him, and Soundwave was very glad for his mask, which hid his continuing expression of surprised amusement, "will you be comfortable with the idea of traveling to the Nemesis with Frenzy, Steeljaw, and a small entourage of Autobots?"


"You would trust me with your Autobots? ... I could use them as a hostages." Starscream seemed surprised. "We discussed using Soundwave ..."

"I am certain that you will treat all of the mechs involved with courtesy and due care, including Soundwave and Frenzy. They are officially under my protection. None of them are expendable. And ... you are not Megatron. You will abide by your word to me - and to them."

Starscream's tone turned sneering and harsh. "And you know this ... how?"

Soundwave found himself standing motionless again. He knew Starscream, and recognized this reaction. Starscream trusted no one, and had been bitterly disappointed too many times in his life. In order to avoid the agony of another failed plan, and the far worse pain of being betrayed by those he trusted, he would prefer to stand alone. A good portion of his abrasive personality was an unconscious attempt to keep people from liking him. It hurt too much when those who might be friends later betrayed him.

He was testing the Prime. Again. It would be something he would do again and again. Soundwave hoped that Optimus's near-saintly patience would be sufficient to handle Starscream's abrasiveness and paranoia.

He made a mental note to discuss Starscream's psychology with Optimus in the very near future. Soundwave, however, had far less patience than Optimus when it came to Starscream's issues - and considerable experience dealing with him. He said bluntly, "Starscream: Motivated ending war, correct?"

"Yeah." Starscream folded his arms, looking suddenly very ill at ease.

"Starscream: Willing alliance Autobots, work together?"

"Yeah." Starscream sounded sullen.

"Prime, decision good trusting."

"You're slagging hard to understand, you know that?" Starscream shot him a dirty look. "Link with the kid or something so I know what you're trying to say."

Frenzy interrupted, "He means it's a good decision to work with Prime. You can infer he assumes you'll make good decisions. Soundwave knows you're not stupid. So does Prime. But hey - Soundwave's pretty vulnerable, too. We gotta protect him. He's being smart in letting you know his limitations so you can cover for him if you need to, but the rest of the Decepticons shouldn't know. They might make trouble if they think he's weak."

"Starscream, rationality level ... acceptable," Soundwave added. "Issues unlikely from Starscream. Others, dangerous."

"He means you're rational about the important slag, but ya gotta admit that there's some other 'cons who'd try to make trouble just for shits and giggles." Frenzy boldly met Soundwave's optics. "We'll translate for him in public so nobody knows, but you need to know his weaknesses so you can help cover for him too. Soundwave's mind's intact. He's a damned good asset."

Starscream glanced from Soundwave down to Frenzy and then back to Soundwave. He huffed a sigh. "Fine. You're all not completely slagging crazy, I suppose. Prime, I'll comm you after I get a chance to beat my staff into submission. Which will be after I assemble my staff. Or in some cases, reassemble them, given the injured list."

Frenzy snorted a laugh. Prime smiled a dignified smile.

Optimus reached a hand out and rested it on Starscream's arm. Firmly, he said, "Let me know if you need anything. I mean this literally - please ask me if you need energon, military backup, political intervention with the humans, medical care or supplies, or any other aid for your troops."

That earned him an optic roll from Starscream. "You don't know what you're offering. I might take you up on that offer."

"I will assist you in any way I am able." Optimus triggered his office door open with a burst of code. Ratchet was waiting in the hall with Inferno and Ironhide backing him up.

Starscream tensed, mouth opening to protest what he doubtless thought was a surprise ambush. Before he could say anything, however, Optimus rested a reassuring hand on his back. "Starscream, before you go, Ratchet has offered to give you a check-up and perform any repairs that you need."

"And this requires two of your heaviest hitters for backup?" Starscream rolled his optics a second time. "I was under the impression that the medic was able to handle himself as well as any warrior."

"Take it as a compliment." Ratchet advised, with a smirk. "You're such an amazing fighter that it takes three Autobots to keep you in line."

Starscream shut his mouth with an audible snap. He'd probably been about to say something rude and insulting. Instead, after a moment of suspicious analysis of Ratchet's words, he said, "If I really wanted to kill you lot, you'd need more than three grounders to take me out. Though granted, the medic probably counts twice. He's got damn good aim."

"Well, then, take it as a compliment that we trust you to behave." Ratchet clapped a hand on Starscream's back with considerably more force than Optimus had used and steered him down the hall. "Frenzy, why don't you tag along with me? Lord Starscream'll scare half my staff into glitching. I need an assistant who's not afraid of anyone."

"Sure thing, boss."

Soundwave mused that Frenzy was actually reasonably wary of Starscream. However, his symbiont's machismo wouldn't let him show it. The door slid shut as soon as Frenzy scrambled after them.

Optimus let out a long, slow ventilation, and ran a hand over his face. "That went far better than I had hoped."

"Optimus," Soundwave said, warning, "Starscream contains treachery."

"Yes, I am aware he can be treacherous."

"Meaning ... different. Starscream spark, contain treachery. Given, received. Often. Trust, slow. Betrayal, possible."

"You mean he's received treachery from others - it would be better to say he'd been betrayed, and has betrayed others." Optimus's smile was gentle. "Your language skills improve every day, but we will need to be careful that what you mean is truly understood. English can be as treacherous as Starscream. I am well aware that he is testing us to see if we mean to keep our word to him, or to find out if he can provoke me into violence. I believe, with patience, we can win his trust and loyalty."

He parsed that for a second, then nodded. It seemed he would not need to warn Optimus about Starscream's nature. The Prime already had him figured out. "Assessment of Starscream, correct. And Frenzy, translation skills excellent. Will assist."

"I know. His work is impressive." Optimus arms folded, expression thoughtful, regarded Soundwave for a long moment. "How are you doing, anyway?"

He wasn't entirely certain how to answer that. He finally settled on a literal, "Medical status, stable."

Optimus smiled. "Good to know. "

He realized his answer had been incorrect. He analyzed the question again, this time searching for the whole phrase. He finally realized that Optimus was asking about his emotional status.

He said, "... emotional status, positive."

"Good." Optimus sounded happier with that answer. "I'm glad to hear that. You're getting on well with Ratchet, then?"

"... Ratchet, excellent master."

Optimus's smile didn't lessen. "I am aware your relationship with him is more than that. Soundwave, I want to make sure you know that Ratchet doesn't see you as a servant. To him, you are a lover, friend, partner. You are his equal in all areas but rank in the med bay. I ... am proud of him in this."

He blinked. "Intent, to please Ratchet ..."

Optimus leaned back against his desk. "That may be your plan, but how do you feel about him?"

His logic centers promptly crashed, causing a cascade of brilliant red errors across his HUD. For a brief instant, nothing in the world seemed to make sense. They rebooted themselves after a few panicked nanoklicks of time, and then he blinked in surprise at Optimus. Ratchet warned him he would probably experience glitches and it seemed the strong emotional response to that question had just triggered his first one.

Optimus, oblivious to Soundwave's consternation, said, "He ... touched minds with you, when he healed you. He's hacked his fair share of mechs for both medical reasons and interrogation. I've never seen him react like this before to anyone." Optimus folded his arms over his chest and looked down at the ground between them. "But you also saw into his spark."

"Affirmative. Soundwave ..." he hesitated, unsure if he should admit to this. However, Optimus was a Prime, with all the wisdom that implied. "... desire ... everything. Cannot have, understand this. But desire."

"You've been bonded before. Ratchet confirmed who she was." Optimus glanced up. There was guilt in his gaze, Soundwave was certain of it. Once, Optimus had not believed in the truth of that bond.

He pointed out, "Bonding with Ratchet, unwise."

He didn't even know if he could merge successfully, given the damage to his CPU. If he did, what sort of communication would follow?

Optimus was silent for a long, long, long moment. He seemed to gaze out at nothing, and Soundwave's suspicion that he was thinking of the past was confirmed when he said, "I owe you an apology, Soundwave. For what happened, back then, so long ago."

He shook his head. Optimus was referring to old, old, history. "Decision correct, following analysis information available Prime. No blame."

"Slaggit!" The sudden, sharp obscenity, mildly profane though it was, was a shock coming from Prime. He'd never heard Optimus swear before. "It was the wrong decision. I was new, and young, and stupid. It cost you so much ..."

"Material things." Soundwave sighed. It didn't matter now. "End result, same, over time. Soundwave, lose fortune either way. War came. Iacon, destroyed. Industries, gone. No income. Inflation, destroy savings. Even if case won, inheritance still lost."

"Even so, you should have won that court case." Optimus sounded as tired as Soundwave felt. His momentary flare of anger was gone. Voice somber, he admitted, "My instincts said I was missing something, but I was so naive. I could not believe that anyone would lie before Primus over, as you said, material things."

Soundwave stood silently, unsure if he'd understood correctly and even less certain of how to respond. Finally, he said, humor flaring to the forefront, "Optimus, experienced now. Trust less. Lesson learned, made better Prime. Yes?"

Optimus's chuckle was unexpected, but also a relief. He didn't want Optimus treating him like he was a personal burden to bear. The Prime leaned against his desk again, posture casual, arms folded across his chest, blue optics a bit distant with old memories. "Very true, my friend."

Friend. Optimus used the word casually, but to Soundwave, the meaning was anything but simple.

"Prime," Soundwave mimicked Optimus's casual stance by relaxing his shoulder struts a bit, letting his armor hang loosely, and shifting more weight onto his good leg. "Soundwave ... partnered above, greatly, social station. Fairwind family resented. Opportunities lost for Fairwind's family. Alliance for business, not love, encouraged. Bonding in defiance of family wishes done. When Fairwind die, retaliation inevitable. Legal system abused. Inheritance lost. Soundwave, not nobility. Soundwave, born lowest of castes. Soundwave, born barbarian. No allies, no influence. Carriers discrimination common against. Carrier culture misunderstood often. End result, inevitable. Soundwave unable to prevail against beliefs of others, even if beliefs untrue."

"That's a terribly jaded viewpoint, though I'll concede you're speaking from experience." Optimus dragged a hand over his face. "You should have won that legal case. She left everything to you and they stole it from you. For what it's worth, there's no statute of limitation for false testimony to a Prime."

Soundwave considered this. Fairwind's family - lying thieves that they were - were nearly all dead, but some of their servants still lived and those servants had testified. As he'd indicated, the fortune was long gone. The factories were slag, the banks that held his inheritance had defaulted, and the companies he should have owned no longer even existed. He had no idea of the status of the physician who had committed blatant perjury and stated that Soundwave had never been bonded. Did he want to pursue a case, if he ever had a chance?

His only possible motive to do so would be revenge.

He had kept his true relationship with Fairwinds very quiet, telling few. It had certainly not been common public knowledge, though the gossip among the noble classes had been vicious and vile. Few mechs realized there was a profound distinction between a partner bond and a symbiotic bond, and the frequent implication was that Fairwinds had allowed herself to become bound in a submissive relationship to a common carrier. 'Carrier' being interchangeable with 'slave master' in most Cybertronian circles, this was a profound insult to both of them.

When she had died, her will had left every bit of her substantial fortune - factories, trading ships, vast financial accounts, investments on and off world, art collections, multiple estates, indentured servants - to Soundwave. The will had, unfortunately, also described him as her bondmate, not her aide de camp, as was his official role.

The family had hired - bribed, presumably - a well known physician to examine Soundwave and declare that he had never been bonded. On those grounds, and with various other falsified evidence, the will was deemed fraudulent. It was voided, and her wealthy, noble family had inherited everything. He had been left with only the contents of his savings account.

Over his many years of service as her assistant, he had carefully set aside a sum each month from his salary. He had also made a select few cautious investments. The sum total of his personal funds had been just enough to buy the contracts for two young twin symbionts from the estate at full market value ... after the twins had run away.

He was not bitter. In the end, he was the only one who'd retained anything of value. The estate was long gone to the ravages of war. But he'd won the sparks of Rumble and Frenzy, purchased from the estate with his savings, and he would not have traded the two of them for ten times the inheritance that he had lost.

He missed Rumble. His fierce, desperate desire to protect Frenzy and ensure his safety at all costs surged in his spark.

Optimus said, gently, "Soundwave?"

"No. No prosecution." He was uncomfortable with the idea, for reasons he could not have articulated even before the damage to his language centers. "Soundwave preference: Forget past, focus future."

Optimus's gaze turned suddenly sharp. "You truly believe that, don't you? You're focused on the future, not the past."

"Affirmative." To bring up the past was to remind himself of so much pain. The future was a bright place - it held the promise of the end of a war. And Ratchet. Ratchet, who wanted him as an equal partner in a relationship, not as a servant to a master.

"I ... believe you will do very well in the role of liaison between factions. We all need to focus on the future and forgive the past. It is the only way we will end this war." Optimus gave him a quick flash of a smile. Then he sobered.

"Soundwave, I would also point out that there is a critical difference between your relationship with Fairwinds and your relationship with Ratchet. While I have no doubt that Fairwinds loved you deeply, you had no other allies but her and your symbionts. When she passed, you were utterly alone save for Ravage and your avian twins, correct?"

"Affirmative." He had not bonded with Frenzy and Rumble until well after her death. He had purchased them only to free them. It had been vorns before he had located the pair and told them they were free; they had even lived as fugitives unnecessarily until he had found them.

"You have a place among us, Soundwave, and my support and backing. Ratchet is one of my closest and oldest friends, and I find no reason to object to your relationship with him - and many reasons to encourage both of you. You have a home here."

His logic center was threatening to glitch again. "Soundwave, enemy. Optimus trusts now?"

"Would you betray us?"


"Then I have no reason to mistrust you. You have had ample opportunity to do us harm, and you have not. Ratchet has seen into the very essence of your being, and vouches for you. Prowl and Jazz have jointly analyzed your behavior and motives and they have given me a positive report. Most importantly, however, the Matrix speaks for you. You are not my enemy, and I would be honored if you would consider me your friend."

He digested that for a long, silent moment. Elation soared in his spark, mixed with anxiety. Was Optimus telling the truth? Of course Optimus was telling the truth; the mech did not have a single molecule of deceit in his spark. Elation, because even Megatron had never quite trusted him. More, he inferred that Optimus valued him.

And ... friends? He'd had so very few true friends in his life.

Soundwave said quietly, "Statements ... appreciated. However, Soundwave unable to wear Autobot sigil now. Starscream react badly. Soundwave preference being Autobot, if not political problems. Optimus, worth loyalty."

Optimus's smile was genuine, and bright. He extended a hand to Soundwave, and Soundwave - after a nanoclick of puzzled scrutiny - realized that Optimus wanted to shake hands. He extended his own hand, and they grasped wrists. Optimus squeezed his shoulder with his free hand and said firmly, "It is not necessary for you to become an Autobot for you to be my friend, advisor, and ally. If this works and we make peace with the Decepticons, there will be no need for you to become an Autobot. I would have you among my circle of advisors, many of whom will necessarily not be Autobots. If it doesn't, and we war again ... I will accept your oath, and gladly."

"Thank you."

Perhaps he could not become an Autobot, but something shifted in Soundwave's core coding. If Ratchet was his equal, his partner, he needed a leader. Before him stood the Prime, tall and proud, regal and powerful. Optimus was a mech he could trust, and who would accept - without question - his loyalty.

Soundwave would serve him. If Optimus didn't want to make it official, it didn't matter. He would serve quietly, but with loyalty, oaths unspoken but all the more real because he didn't need to say anything. Optimus trusted him. And Optimus would not object to leading him. Unlike Ratchet, the Prime had been created and chosen by Primus himself to lead their people. Soundwave could be loyal, could commit his servitude, to no better mech than Optimus.

"You should see Starscream off, and Ratchet's shift is also ending soon," Optimus said, releasing him. "I shouldn't monopolize any more of your time. I'm glad we could talk, however."

"Thank you, sir."

"Thanks, big boss!" Frenzy, who had been silent and watchful, suddenly piped up.

"Of course." Optimus's response was grave, but his optics were smiling at both of them.

Then, feeling more optimistic and hopeful than he had in eons, he headed for the door. He did want to have a private word with Starscream, and he found that he was longing for Ratchet's company later.

But at the forefront of his thoughts was the realization that Optimus Prime truly had faith in him. It meant more than he could ever express, even had he not been damaged.