Chapter 26

Author's notes:

I have the rest of the story (32 chapters total) done in rough draft. I just need to write a few more scenes to connect the dots between events, and polish up the rough edges. I should be posting the rest of the story over the next few weeks. Whew!

Steeljaw stepped into Blaster's berthroom, footsteps hesitant. Blaster was seated on the edge of his berth, clearly readying himself for recharge.


Blaster patted the berth beside him, inviting Steeljaw to join him. The cybercat did, with an easy leap. Blaster leaned back against the wall, and pulled his symbiont into his lap. He wrapped his arms around Steeljaw's small body, and held him close without a word. Although he had been trying to block his fears, Steeljaw had sensed them anyway - or, perhaps, he simply knew his master well enough to read his mind using nothing more than intuition even when their quantum bond was closed.

:You're scared for me.: Steeljaw stated this plainly.

:For all of us,: Blaster admitted. :Ah don't want to lose ya, Jaws.:

:I have no intention of bonding with Soundwave,: Steeljaw said, quietly, :If that's your concern. I like him ... but I do not think our personalities would be a good match. He's too strict and I'm too independent.:

Blaster sighed. :You know I wouldn't ever stop you from leaving. You bonded with me because I was available, and you were alone.:

:And I've never regretted it.: Steeljaw looked his master in the optics.

He stroked his hand down Steeljaw's head. :Jaws ... I know you love Frenzy. I can feel it. I would never stop you from following your spark.:

:You and Soundwave ... would share a tertiary bond, if Steeljaw and I ... would you be okay with it? Jazz told me that they no longer consider Frenzy a security risk.:

Blaster cupped Steeljaw's face in both hands. :It's okay, Steeljaw. I like Frenzy, and Soundwave's a good mech. It'll work out.:

:... Thanks, boss.:

:Thought why in the Pit they're trusting Soundwave so early ...: Blaster trailed off, as he caught a mischievous glint in Steeljaw's optics. :The good doctor and Soundwave merged?:

:Let's just say that Astrotrain's made a cosmically bad error in judgment by kidnapping Frenzy.:

:D'oh, I could have told anyone that.: Blaster rolled his optics. :Too bad Soundwave and Frenzy can't talk now.:

:Soundwave and Frenzy can't, but Frenzy and Ratchet can.: Steeljaw gave Blaster a sly look.

Blaster was silent for a long, long, moment. :More than just a merge, then?:


:Well, explains why they don't consider him a security risk,: Blaster snickered, :And ... damn, I've never been able to catch more than faint images and emotions over a secondary bond - before your time, I had a couple symbionts with love bonds, but you know that.:

Steeljaw just shook his head. :From what Soundwave told me when we were making mission plans earlier, it's a case of good compatibility in all directions. It's what made Soundwave's team such good spies. Now, as far as Ratch and Soundwave goes, that is a pure, sheer, quantum-level match.

:I would have never guessed that Ratchet and Sounders would be that well matched.:

:Me neither. But I'm happy for them. And, uh, I didn't tell you slag about this, Boss. It's so classified.:

:I'm not entirely sure Jazz expects you to keep secrets from me,: Blaster replied, with dry amusement, :But we won't tell the kids.:

Steeljaw smirked at that. "The kids" were Ramhorn and Eject, in this context. Ramhorn's processor was barely more complex than that of a dinobot, so the team seldom included him in matters that required discretion. Eject, while possibly smarter than Steeljaw, was just plain immature.

Blaster said, :You mentioned mission planning. Jazz said he was going to send you with Soundwave to retrieve Frenzy. Let's go over the details - I may want to tweak your comset and swap some of your weapons out.:

:Yeah.: Steeljaw sat up in his arms. :Set me up for close-quarters fighting. Also, some weapons for Frenzy. Jazz'll supply 'em, but I can carry 'em for him. Also, extra oxygen tanks and insulating foil.:

:Astrotrain's in orbit?: Blaster followed the reasoning behind that request easily. Symbionts weren't designed to operate independently in vacuum for long.

:Yeah. I get dumped out an airlock, I don't fancy having to run on batteries until they boil or freeze solid.:

Blaster ran a hand over his face. :How much time do we have?:

:Soundwave's snatching me and pulling a runner in 36 hours. Plenty of time for some reasonable mods. We don't want it to look like I was pre-prepared, however. The plan is that I spend most of my time in Soundwave's docking bay because he won't be able to understand Cybertronian without me or Frenzy, so hopefully, I won't need to interact with the 'cons too much.:

Blaster straightened up. Aloud, he said, "Let's go talk to Wheeljack. I don't think I could recharge now."

Steeljaw smirked without much humor behind it. "Sorry, boss."

"Risky damn mission."

"Yeah. Worth it, though. Even Prowl agrees the cost-benefit analysis falls solidly on our side."

"Heh. Astrotrain's an idiot. What was he thinking, kidnapping Frenzy of all mechs?"

"Yes. We know this." Steeljaw smiled brightly. "But I'll still take a couple packs of insulating foil, thanks."

Soundwave was frightened. It was an emotion he rarely felt; in a crisis, he defaulted to cool analysis and quick thinking. Emotions were a mere distraction.

Now, however, he sat alone in his office save for the silent presence of Hot Rod. He didn't need his destroyed telepathic mods to know that Hot Rod felt acutely awkward in his presence. Hot Rod's unease did not help his mood; it made him feel insecure about his long term future.

He wished for Ratchet, but Ratchet was literally up to his elbows in an emergency repair, and so he was alone. It was strange how instantly he had come to rely on the medic's strength and confidence, and how reassuring Ratchet's acceptance and love for him was. Ratchet was his lover, confidante, and completely non-judgemental friend, all rolled into one, and the bond ensured that Soundwave knew that Ratchet spoke nothing but the truth to him.

Primus, he wanted Ratchet right now.

For the moment, Frenzy was calm, if full of justifiably cold anger. Frenzy had a temper, but few realized that his symbiont was so very capable of controlling it. Soundwave had taught him to do so, and those had been some very harsh and necessary lessons. It was better to bide your time and unleash your anger when it was productive than waste the energy with ultimately futile explosions of fury.

When Frenzy released his berserker side, it was with calculated intent and never blind rage.

Frenzy's reputation for being a loose cannon was also carefully constructed. They had all agreed - Soundwave, Frenzy, and his siblings - that it was best if Frenzy and Rumble were underestimated.

So, for the moment, Frenzy was simmering with restrained fury but most likely presenting himself as a scared and submissive symbiont. That ability to act like a coward might help him escape. Astrotrain's mechs would certainly underestimate him. Even those who had worked directly with him, like Swindle, consistently overlooked Frenzy's sharp intelligence and devious cunning. Soundwave liked it that way, and Frenzy was willing enough to play the role of a fool and a thug when he had to.

Soundwave tried to tell himself that Frenzy would be fine. Frenzy knew the players involved, and exactly how to play them to his advantage. They also didn't want him dead. They wanted him alive, to use as leverage to control Soundwave.

Soundwave mused he himself was not the prize that Astrotrain thought that he was. However, if they made the details of his damage known, Astrotrain would not simply release Frenzy. He would be angry, and he would take that anger out on the little mechling.


Soundwave managed not to jump, but only barely. His power plant cycled up into a higher gear then, when he identified that the speaker was Killaglitch, immediately idled again. He'd been lost in thought and had not heard Killa enter. That was at least partially because Killa was modified to run quiet, a survival skill for a badlands born mechling, but he still should have sensed the approaching electrical field.

"Do you have a moment to talk in private?"

Hot Rod spoke up, "I'm done here anyway. See ya, mechs."

Killaglitch snorted after the brightly colored young warrior had retreated. "He's scared of you. Is there a story there I should know?"

"He threatened Frenzy," Soundwave explained, absently. "Defenseless, I am not."

"Heh. How badly did you hurt him?"

"No permanent damage. Soundwave, used physical intimidation. Extenuating circumstances involved. Hot Rod not bullying, or maliciousness."

"... I'd have loved to have seen that 'physical intimidation.'" Killaglitch patted Soundwave's knee. "Lift me up. You're so fragging tall, I'm talking to your aft even when you're sitting down."

Soundwave smirked, and lifted the sturdy old mechling up to his desk. His hand lingered a little longer than necessary on Killa's shoulders. There was nothing but platonic interest there, of course, but symbionts and carriers were tactile by nature and what he really desired to do was to pull Killa into his lap, wrap his arms around him, and hold him like he had when they were both younglings. His natural dignity prevailed, however, and he refrained.

"Soundwave, how are you holding up?"

"You know about ...?" Frenzy's kidnapping was classified, under the simple premise that controlling the news might be strategically important.

"Sandflower was pretty upset. She told me all about it." Killaglitch sighed deeply. "Soundwave, she's so young, and anyone who bonds to you will always be in danger, won't they?"

"Soundwave, likely to be potential target very long time."

He needed to talk to Sandflower about the meaning of operational security. She was old enough to know to keep her mouth shut.

"Yeah, figured. I told her to keep her trap closed about what happened, and not tell anyone else." Killaglitch folded his arms across his chest. "I assume the 'cons took him as a hostage. And I can guess they'll send you in after him because it's the most logical way to handle things, assuming they trust you enough. You'll go anyway, even if they say no. And you're gonna need help getting Frenzy back."

"Steeljaw, going. And Soundwave is trusted."

"... that's a surprise. About Steeljaw, I mean." Killaglitch shuttered his optics in clear confusion. "Is he breaking his bond with Blaster?"

"Negative. Steeljaw and I will not bond. He is loyal to Blaster."

"He's Frenzy's lover, though." Killaglitch tilted his head sideways, clearly trying to puzzle out the social aspects. "Blaster's cool with it?"

"Blaster, trusts Steeljaw. Steeljaw, has worked with me before. We are friends."

"Ah, I see." Killaglitch reached out and put a small hand on Soundwave's arm. "Song, I know you've been through a tough time recently and it's awfully soon after you lost your symbionts, but I wanted to offer ... even if Steeljaw's going, you'd be better off with more help. If you want to bond ... well, shortest courtship ever, but I'm proposing. I love you as a brother and I'd like to love you as a master too."

Soundwave blinked at him from behind his visor. Now he did indulge in his desire to embrace the little one. He pulled Killaglitch to his chest, up against the clear slice of Praxillite crystal that protected his docking bays. He could feel the warmth and hum of Killa's spark close to his own, even through many layers of armor and internal systems. For a moment, a long moment, he was very tempted.

He pressed a kiss to Killa's helm. "Not a negative, but not now. Approval needed, Frenzy, Ratchet."

Killa said quietly, "They'd be fine with it. I'm sure of it. And you're not bonded to Ratchet."

"Rudeness, to assume they would be approving. I know you. They do not." He didn't correct Killaglitch's assumption regarding his lover; even though he would trust Killa with his life, he knew that his relationship with Ratchet needed to remain classified.

"But I could help save Frenzy's life!"

"Other issues. Killa, lacks security clearance. Lacks combat experience ..."

Killaglitch made a scoffing noise. "C'mon, you know my aim with a rifle was better than anyone else in the clan and it's only gotten better over the years!"

"... difference, hunting versus fighting very big." He stroked Killaglitch's back, trying to take the sting of the rejection away. "You avoided war. Frenzy, Steeljaw, myself, we have fought for thousands of multitudes of vorns. Your choice, valid, but you do not have skills I need now."

"I can handle myself!"

Soundwave nodded. "Perhaps. You also have daughter, mate, you are leader of symbiont community. Your value, better here. When I return ... we will talk again. Killaglitch is loved by Soundwave. Offer to bond, accepted. Just not now. And not without all in agreement."

"And what if something happens to you?" Killaglitch demanded. "What if I could have prevented it if I was there?"

"If something happens to Soundwave," Soundwave said very gravely, "Killa ... will speak for me, for my wishes? This, you can do for me."

Killaglitch blinked at him, obviously confused.

Soundwave elaborated, choosing his words carefully, "I need someone to make decisions for me, if I am hurt or otherwise unable to speak for myself. It is unfair to ask Frenzy to make decisions about my fate, and Ratchet is my lover. He may be compromised if I am injured. I trust you to follow my wishes and make wise choices."

"I ... don't know what to say."

He was frustrated by the time it took him to compose a reply that was unambiguous and grammatically correct. Killaglitch waited patiently, however, until he finished untangling what Frenzy called his 'word salad' into proper English. "I will give you a file with my directives before I go on the mission. If something happens, you are strong and wise. Please, accept this responsibility."

"I ... of course." Killaglitch sighed. "Glit's a medic. I get what you're asking. I just think I could help you avoid getting hurt if I could go. And I'm a symbiont. I'm not supposed to make big decisions for my carrier - and I'm gonna hold you to that agreement to court."

"There are no assurances of my safety, regardless of if you go or not." He smiled at Killaglitch, and was glad of his earlier decision to bare his mouth and his expressions to the world when Killaglitch smiled tentatively back. "Do not feel guilt if the outcome is negative. It is my choice to go, and my choice to decline your offer."

Killaglitch nodded. "I'll ... I'll try to remember that."

"And we will court, when I return." Soundwave smiled at him again. "I will welcome you as my symbiont, if my family has no objections."

Killaglitch's face broke into a broad smile that brightened his optics and transformed his worn and battered features so that he looked far younger and more innocent. "Awesome. Wait'll I tell Glit - say, you wouldn't be interested in a cyberkitty, too, would you? He's got a great resume and I think you'd like him. He's all for me bonding with you, by the way."

"Question, to be answered later." Soundwave chuckled. "But, perhaps."

He knew Glit better than Killaglitch seemed to know. The Decepticon defector had been a medic for a very long time. Ravage had viewed Glit with suspicion. Ravage had been a warrior since the day he had been sparked. Glit was a medic, and probably the closest mecha in temperament to Ratchet that the Decepticons had possessed. Ravage's and Glit's personalities had been distinctly incompatible. Soundwave had considered courting him, a very long time ago. Ravage's response had been a very firm hell no, and that had been the end of that idea.

Ravage was dead. He didn't get a vote anymore, Soundwave thought with somewhat snarky, if fond, remembered exasperation. And Soundwave liked cybercats.

Killaglitch threw his arms around Soundwave's neck. "Primus, you'd better come back or I swear I'll dive into the Well itself after you!"

"Ya sure you're up to this?" Jazz asked, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet.

Soundwave sized up the smaller mech without wasting any movement - or energy - on his own end. He asked, "Training or the mission?"

"The mission." Jazz circled Soundwave, moving with silent and deadly grace. Soundwave turned to follow him, using his staff for balance and watching dispassionately. "Ah know ya've been practicing with Ratch."

"Time to practice, limited." Soundwave let a faint smile touch his bared face plates. Even now, faced with a training match to test his skills, he had chosen to keep his face bare. Among the Autobots, it felt right. They were more friendly towards him when he let them see his expressions.

"Heh. Ya know ah can probably get someone in and get t' get t' runt out. It just won't happen right away. In the meantime, he's in a good position t' feed us intel."

"Risk assessment: Friendly fire high probability."

"Not from us." Jazz shook his head. "Not as long as Astrotrain's in low orbit with a nuke in his hold."


"Heh, yeah, we've asked him to hold off, but he's never been the soul of discretion."

"Plan: We will disable device as a priority." Soundwave tilted his head slightly, watching as Jazz paced back and forth in front of him. "Query: Do you want the core?"

"The uranium? Yeah, ah'm sure Ratch or Skyfire or the other nerdbots could use it for something. We just won't tell Wheeljack it's on base."

"Wise decision."

And then Jazz moved, in a swift attack that targeted Soundwave's greatest weakness in a fight - his lack of balance. Jazz tried to sweep Soundwave's feet out from underneath him. Soundwave let himself fall, right on top of the saboteur, with the full kinetic energy of his greater mass transferring to Jazz's smaller frame. Jazz went flat with an oomph of air expressed from his partially full fuel tanks, and Soundwave efficiently pinned him.

"Yield!" Jazz said, sounding surprised.

In a real fight, Soundwave suspected that Jazz would have been able to break free. However, Jazz was just testing Soundwave's ability to spar, not trying to harm him.

"Ratch said ya weren't helpless," Jazz said, rolling to his feet and then offering Soundwave a hand up. "Ah'm impressed. Another round?"

"Practice, appreciated." He inclined his head. This time, Jazz used a completely different tactic and, in a quick and efficient flurry of blows and flying kicks, put Soundwave down on the ground. However, Soundwave managed to grab his ankle, twist with surprising agility for his frame type, and swipe a kick at Jazz's midsection from his position on the floor. Jazz leaned back to avoid being dented, Soundwave yanked on his foot simultaneously, and the Autobot officer hit the ground hard.

This time, it was Soundwave who ended up pinned, to his irritation. "Yield."

"When ya come back," Jazz said, sitting up, "you and I are gonna have to spend some time sparrin'. Ya've had some real formal trainin', yeah? Beyond just the usual hand t' hand they teach all the 'cons."

"Affirmative." Soundwave rose. "You have been trained in both circuit-su and metallikato."

Jazz tipped his visor at Soundwave in acknowledgment. "That'd be Prowl's influence. Lots of scrappin' on the streets in there, too. I don't recognize your school an' it's not in yer file."

"Vosian Battle-dancing," Soundwave said.

"Bit modified for a grounder, then?" Jazz's visor lit with comprehension. "And, uh, the wrestlin' moves ain't Vosian, fer sure."

"Soundwave, has thrusters," Soundwave pointed out. "However, complete mastery impossible due to frame type. Concessions were made in my training. Soundwave, has advantage on the ground over most Seekers."

"Huh." Jazz scrambled to his feet, hooked Soundwave's cane with his toe, and tossed it to the mech with his foot. Soundwave caught it out of the air easily. "Whatever possessed you to learn Vosian battle-dancing?"

"They said I couldn't do it." Soundwave flashed Jazz a very quick smile.

Jazz threw his head back and laughed. "Soundwave, m'man, that's the best reason ever. C'mon, let's get some fuel before your lover gets off shift. Ah have t' hear the whole story here."

Frenzy sat sullenly in his cell, far more pissed than scared, and silently added nasty subroutine after subroutine to a particularly evil virus that he was writing in a securely firewalled sector of his processor. He might not have the fastest clock speed, but he'd been trained by Soundwave. Given time, he could program as well as any mech alive. It just took him longer to produce the same results.

The sound of footsteps jerked him back to awareness. He rose, fists balling, and acutely missing his pile drivers. They'd constructed a cell for him in Astrotrain's small cargo hold, and the approaching mech stomped down the ramp and approached the cell with a sour expression that matched Frenzy's own mood. He had a half-full symbiont sized cube of sludgy, off-color energon in one hand.

"Hi, asshole," Frenzy said, faking cheer, and using the human insult simply for the variety.

Swindle glowered at him. "Your master coming?"

"You think he won't?"

Swindle's dark look grew even more glowering. "A bond doesn't mean you're buddy-buddy with your bond mates."

"Yeah, I understand your brothers have reason to hate you," Frenzy said, with a nasty sneer back.

"Watch it, runt ... your boss gonna be willing to cooperate?"

Frenzy shrugged. "He's Soundwave. You offer him a good enough deal, maybe. Yeah, you pissed 'im off by messing with what's his," he hooked a thumb at his chest, "but he's logical."

"Huh." Swindle deliberately took a sip from the cube of energon, which wasn't all that large to begin with.

Frenzy's tanks were low enough to light a few early warnings in his HUD, but he smirked. "You should see the damage that fuel does to your internals."

"Got nothing better." Swindle finished the cube, which Frenzy suspected had been meant for him. It was just like Swindle to consume a prisoner's rations out of spite.

"Autobots do." Frenzy boasted. "Pit, they got more than they know what to do with. They're sharing it with Starscream, too. You should see - and smell - the sludge we've been cleaning out of Starscream's troop's tanks."

Swindle crushed the cube in one hand. The shards tinkled to the floor. If Astrotrain noticed the mess there would be Pit to pay, but Swindle could always blame it on Frenzy. Frenzy knew from past experience that Astrotrain didn't monitor his internal cameras very often or very thoroughly.

"And Astrotrain thinks he can get Soundwave to side with us." Swindle spun angrily on one heel and stalked back towards the ramp. "Pit-slagging idiot."

Frenzy quietly smiled to himself, well pleased with the game he was playing. Sowing dissent and creating chaos could only help them in the long run.

Ratchet entered the rec room, following the warm thread that led to his bondmate's spark. It was so very odd to always have the awareness of another in your mind, but not unpleasant. Soundwave was so steady and solid, so reliable, that Ratchet felt as if his own spark had been given a new, rock solid, foundation.

He was a little surprised to find out who Soundwave was dining with. He'd expected Steeljaw, and perhaps Killaglitch. However, while Killaglitch was seated crosslegged on the table at Soundwave's elbow, Steeljaw was nowhere in sight. Instead, Soundwave was consuming his evening ration with Jazz, Prowl, Starscream, Thundercracker, Prime, Bumblebee, and Skyfire.

:Keeping him distracted?: He asked Jazz, with a tight smile at the bots' unofficial morale officer.

Jazz nodded, expression unexpectedly serious. :Yeah. Soundwave's about as sane and mentally steady as they come, but even he's got to be worried about the kid. I figured we could keep him busy until we're ready for him to, ah, defect back to the dark side.:

:Hnh. Thank you.:

:Don't thank me. Ah'm doin' it for him, not ya.: Jazz flashed him a grin. :Ah think ah'm starting to like the mech, Primus help me.:

The rec was otherwise sparsely populated - Mirage was off in a corner by himself, Wheeljack and Sideswipe had their heads bent together over a diagram of a jet pack, and Sunstreaker was sketching something. Hound, who'd spent two days straight in the field, had fallen into recharge across the table from Sunstreaker.

Ratchet expected that the object of Sunstreaker's drawing was the slumbering Hound. However, as he walked past, he realized that the frontliner was drawing the table of mechs with Soundwave. He supposed the gathering was unusual, even historic, by the standards of a very long war.

"Is this a private party or can anyone join?" Ratchet inquired aloud, as he grabbed a chair from a neighboring table. Soundwave, mouth bare to the world, flashed him a very brief but welcoming smile. Skyfire and Prime both scooted their chairs sideways so he could fit between the tall shuttle and Soundwave.

"Finally done, doc?" Jazz asked, aloud.

"My work is never done." Ratchet rolled his optics, and addressed the head of the Decepticons. "Starscream, I think I had less work before the treaty. Your mechs are a mess. I'm running out of filters!"

"Yes." Starscream agreed. "I am ... grateful ... that you detected the corrosion in Dirge's fuel tank in time."

Ratchet grunted. "Just doing my job."

"A job which took you most of the day, and well past the end of your shift, if I am not mistaken." Starscream persisted. "You could have had your subordinates do the work ..."

Soundwave spoke up, "Procedure, complicated. Ratchet, best qualified. Starscream, query: see benefit in alliance?"

"Damn, he likes to come to the point," Jazz said, with a laugh.

"That's Soundwave for you." Starscream waved a hand dismissively. Ratchet noted that Starscream didn't answer the question; instead, he turned to the medic and said, "I hope you've got thick plating. Soundwave has a remarkable talent for being ... blunt."

"A talent we share," Ratchet said, with a grin. "It really does make a relationship much simpler."

Starscream turned to the others. He rolled his optics. "How much you want to bet they'll be at each other's throats within a vorn?"

Prime smiled. "I highly doubt it."

"Anticipated friction with Ratchet, minimal," Soundwave said, mildly.

"This is Ratchet we're talking about, right?" Bumblebee said, teasingly. He addressed Ratchet directly, "You know, maybe Soundwave doesn't know you as well as he thinks he does."

"I'll have you know ..." Ratchet started to respond with an indignant protest.

"Eh, the docbot's too busy fragging him to fight with him," Jazz said, with a smirk.

"Hey!" Ratchet protested on general principles.

"He might be right," Starscream said, in a conspiratorial stage whisper to Soundwave. "Is what they say about medics and berth skills true?"

Soundwave lifted an optic ridge behind his visor. "I have no complaints."

Jazz snickered. "And ah can't complain about his lack of complaints. Anything that makes 'Ratch easier to work with ..."

"I'll remember that comment," Ratchet glowered at Jazz.

"No, you resemble that comment," Bumblebee put in, with a cheeky grin.

"Why did I even bother joining you mecha if this is the treatment I get?" Ratchet growled.

Soundwave said, serenely, "Because, Soundwave present."

"Oh, don't you start." Ratchet facepalmed. Even his bondmate was picking on him.

In confusion, Starscream said, "Start what?"

Ratchet looked back up at the seeker. "You really don't understand Soundwave at all, do you?"

"Does anyone?" The seeker retorted.

Wordlessly, and with perfect synchronization, every Autobot at the table pointed at Ratchet. Prime then added, "With multiple meanings of the word understand. Despite their many and vast differences, Ratchet and Soundwave have become quite close. Do not underestimate the strength of their relationship. While we may tease them in jest, we should not belittle their love for one another."

The table fell silent for a moment, then Starscream snickered. With a significant glance at Skyfire, he said, "Whatever. Love is so overrated, anyway."

Skyfire had not said anything so far, but now even his fans stilled. He was completely motionless, and Ratchet wondered why he was even at the table. More than a few of the Autobots, and Thundercracker, glanced at him with alarm.

Prime said, "Skyfire, I believe you have late shift covering the med bay tonight, do you not?"

"Yes sir," the shuttle rose, looming over the table, then silently turned and left. Ratchet shot Prime a relieved glance. Skyfire's shift didn't actually start for an hour, but Optimus had provided the mech a graceful escape.

Optimus turned cold, angry eyes on Starscream. "Starscream. You will curb your tongue around Skyfire. He is my advisor and an oathsworn Autobot, as well as a personal friend. I will not tolerate any further attempts to upset him."

Starscream's optics widened. Clearly, Starscream hadn't been aware that Skyfire had recently become part of Optimus's very small inner circle of confidants. "What are you talking about?"

Prime ran a hand over his face. "Don't, Starscream."

Starscream opened his mouth, shut it, then reopened it. Ratchet cringed, expecting biting words, but Starscream huffed a sigh. "I'll apologize. I was ... out of line."

"Yes. You were. This was a civil and friendly gathering until you chose - and it was a choice you made - to change the tone." Prime's tone held sharp censor.

"I apologize to all of you." Starscream started to rise. "I'll find Skyfire now."

"No." Optimus's tone of voice was one no one, not even Starscream, would argue with. "Send it to him in writing. Leave him alone, otherwise, unless he wishes to speak to you."

Starscream huffed. "Fine. But you know there's history between us."

"I am aware." Optimus rose. "Now, I believe we have some reports to review. Starscream, Thundercracker, Jazz, Prowl, I could use your input. Let us move to a secured conference room."

After they left - and Bee had also departed, saying something about a poker night with the Witwickys - Ratchet found himself alone with Soundwave and Killaglitch. Killa unexpectedly commed Ratchet to comment, :Pit, that's a nasty mech.:

:Who, Starscream? He's complex, to say the least. Prime has a good handle on him, but let me know if you have any problems from him or his mechs.:

:I will.:

Soundwave stroked a hand down Killaglitch's back, and Killa leaned into the touch. Ratchet watched the exchange with a smile. "So, you two are courting?"

"Ratchet's approval, necessary," Soundwave said, voice turned down to its lowest volume.

Ratchet glanced up at Soundwave. "I won't stop you from something that important. And you like him and you have a history together."

"Good to know." Killaglitch reached out and rested a small hand on Ratchet's arm. "Ratchet, you're important to Soundwave too. I wouldn't ever do anything to come between you. I want you to know that."

"You know, I really hate mushy stuff," Ratchet glowered at the symbiont.

Killaglitch's grin was unrepentant. "I can see we're going to get along wonderfully."

Optimus was exhausted after several hours of talks with the Decepticons. While considerable progress had been made towards a final treaty, dealing with Starscream was mentally taxing on the best of days. All he really wanted to do was return to his quarters and crawl into his berth.

He was beginning to think that Megatron's notorious ill temper had a one-word explanation: Seeker. The mech could go from pleasant and professional to poisonous in the space of a klick, then immediately turn flirtatious as if he hadn't just said said something mean enough to singe someone's spark.

Even Optimus, who prided himself on his tolerance and patience, was beginning to second guess his decision to ally with the Air Commander. Starscream was like a force of nature. If he didn't know better, Optimus would have sworn that Starscream was an aspect of Unicron, the chaos bringer, himself. He certainly knew how to devastate even the kindest and most noble mech's spark with a few razor sharp words.

Optimus hesitated at the junction of two hallways. Turn right, and he could go to his quarters. Turn left, and ... there was a mech who probably needed a friend, not a Prime. A mech who didn't have many friends among the Autobots, and who was not gregarious or social by nature. Jazz would probably have a few words with him in the morning, Jazz being Jazz, but Optimus knew that Jazz didn't click very well with Skyfire. They were just too different.

At his very core, Optimus was a compassionate mech. He simply couldn't leave Skyfire alone without knowing that he was alright. :Teletraan, is Skyfire still awake?: he asked the AI.

:Affirmative. He is alone in his quarters.:

That was what Optimus had expected.

:Is he sober?: Skyfire was known to drink small amounts of flavored high grade when alone, though not to the point of intoxication. Still, it was wise to ask.

:I do not detect any high grade fumes emanating from his quarters.:

Good enough. Optimus sighed and turned left, down the broad and high corridor that led to the quarters meant for the base's largest mechs. He passed Silverbolt's room, and then door to the combined quarters for all the dinobots before reaching Skyfire's room. Politely, he pinged the mech and waited for a response.

:Prime, sir?: Skyfire said, sounding shocked. :Is something wrong?:

:May I come in?:

:Yeah, sure.: He heard a rapid shuffling and a few metallic thunks - likely the sound of Skyfire hurriedly hiding clutter and any small messes - and then the door slid open. "Can I help you?"

Optimus stepped into the room. Skyfire's quarters were spartan, with few personal possessions. A potted cactus grew in a bowl with a few Praxian crystals. Two cubes of shimmering, violently pink, high grade also sat on a shelf, untouched. Optimus recognized the exact hue of Sideswipe's very best home brew, which was very good indeed. Clearly, Skyfire was not concerned about Prime seeing his stash of technically-illegal high grade. Whatever he'd hidden had not been the booze.

Skyfire was new, having been with them only a few years, and his first few months he'd tried hard to be the perfect soldier. He'd followed every regulation with efficient precision. Recently, he'd started to relax a bit, and Optimus was glad to see that. Skyfire had good judgement and if he was figuring out which rules were important and which regulations the command staff overlooked, it meant he was settling in and feeling more comfortable in his position as an Autobot.

Optimus really didn't worry if his soldiers drank, as long as it was off duty, not to excess, it didn't result in brawling, and it was not during times of high alert. He chose his battles, and that was not one he could ever win. Skyfire's drinking habits didn't worry him in the slightest.

Prime was known to indulge himself, anyway, on the right occasion.

Aside from the high grade and the Praxian crystal garden there was a hot plate for warming energon, four cut crystal drinking cubes, a crystal bowl that Optimus suspected was for Steeljaw (who occasionally hung out with the science staff - Steeljaw was friends with everyone), and small jars containing flavored additives. There was also a sound system with decent speakers on a shelf, and a Cybertronian instrumental piece was playing very softly on it.

The only furnishings were two chairs sized for large mecha, an equally proportioned dining table, two medium sized chairs, and Skyfire's oversized berth. He wondered, briefly, what Skyfire had shoved under his berth, since that was the only hiding place in the room.

He then realized could smell solder and hot metal. Skyfire, he concluded, must have been working on a project that he'd hastily hidden. It was against regulations to work in one's quarters, though that rule primarily applied to Wheeljack. Skyfire might not have picked up that nuance of unspoken Ark rules and had hastily hidden an after-hours project from his Prime. Alternately, he could be working on something secret of another nature- most likely, Prime thought, a prank. Skyfire had recently fallen victim to a bit of hazing related to his status as a relatively new mech on the Ark, and Optimus was well aware that Jazz's unofficial advice to Skyfire had been to retaliate in kind.

It didn't really matter what he'd hidden, Optimus decided. He trusted Skyfire implicitly, despite his newness to the Autobots. The Matrix adored the shuttle, and sometimes Prime wondered if the ancient semi-sentient artifact wasn't considering Skyfire as a possible future Prime.

"I ..." Prime hesitated, unaccountably at a loss for words. There were so many thoughts in his head about the shuttle. He sighed, and came right to the point regarding his specific reason for this visit. "Starscream said some unkind things to you. I felt that I should apologize for subjecting you to his venom."

"Not the first time, Prime." Skyfire vented a matching sigh. "And it's hardly your responsibility."

"Nevertheless, he is here at the base by my permission - and was at the table earlier by my invitation, as well."

"You were all attempting to distract Soundwave," Skyfire said, a smile touching his lips. "Well, most of you. Starscream was just there because he's Starscream, and I was there because I was worried he'd say rude things to Soundwave and I hoped I would make a more tempting target. Soundwave doesn't need to hear it from Starscream, right now. Trust me, I know how vicious and sneaky he can be - I know him better than most."

"You knew him." Optimus shook his head. "The war has damaged us all, and Starscream more than most."

Skyfire's mouth twisted into a hard, and uncharacteristically bitter, line. "Yes."

"You have every right to be angry at him." Optimus looked up at Skyfire, meeting his suddenly hard gaze. "You are not wrong to feel betrayed by him. What he did to you, after he dug you out of the ice, was wrong."

Skyfire blew out an angry vent. "I just don't want anything to do with him. I can be polite and professional in public, but he's unwilling to return the courtesy. It makes me furious. I don't like being this way- in case you haven't noticed, I'm a large mech and it makes people nervous when I lose my temper."

"You have a perfect right to be angry, but I appreciate your discretion." Optimus, also a large mech, reflected he was a lot less cautious about displaying his anger. Skyfire was possibly too sensitive about what others thought, and had too little sense of his own self worth. There were times when a display of anger was wholly justifiable and appropriate!

He'd never seen Skyfire in this sort of mood before. The big shuttle was usually friendly to a fault, with a good nature and an even disposition that made him consistently pleasant to work with. Radiating wounded anger, as he was now, Optimus found him surprisingly formidable. Skyfire wasn't wrong about how threatening he appeared when he was mad. Though they massed about the same, Skyfire's wings and height made him appear a good bit bigger than he really was.

Skyfire folded his arms across his chest. "I suppose I should mention that Starscream tested my patience on the best of days before the war, when I was actually in love with him, and there is little I find attractive about him now. I will be polite, in the interest of peace between our factions and an end to this damnable war, but I will never call him 'friend' again. And if he cannot return the favor I may have difficulty remaining polite. You may wish to have someone speak to him before I see him again."

Or, Optimus thought, perhaps Skyfire just had more patience than he possessed. There was ringing conviction of his own self-worth in his words now.

"Skyfire, I must apologize. I came here to offer you a few placating words and to try to convince you to tolerate Starscream's behavior for the good of our people - but you are correct. Starscream has no right to treat you badly. I will have a discussion with him on this issue. If he cannot control his words around you, it is proof he is not taking this peace seriously. I believe he cooperate. He's been ... surprisingly reasonable ... for Starscream."

"Prime." Skyfire's voice dropped in volume and pitch as he asked very softly, "Are you attracted to him?"

Optimus looked up sharply, guilt crossing his features. He admitted, with a short laugh, "I always have been. Even before the war. I am trying very hard to keep my personal feelings from affecting my decisions, however, insofar as the peace process goes. I am only a mech, Skyfire, and he is very good looking."

"He is quite attractive," Skyfire conceded, with a smile. "But I would advise against a relationship with him. Speaking from experience."

"I have no intentions of acting on my attraction." Optimus ran a hand over his optics. His voice was wry now. "I am not so foolish. He would not be sincere or honest in a relationship with me. It would be entirely for his own gain. Just as minding his manners will also be only for his own gain, not out of any actual care for your feelings. - Not to say you were foolish when you were his lover, of course. He was a different mech, then."

Skyfire snorted. "Oh, he hasn't changed that much, and I think you know it. Personal gain was the only reason Starscream befriended me, all those eons ago. I already had a grant for interstellar exploration, and had the backing of the Iacon science council. Starscream, however brilliant, was a Seeker and the Iaconian academia never did take him seriously. He's more intelligent and a better engineer than I will ever be, but they never saw that. They were aware of his tendencies towards ... self glorification, shall we say, and that hurt his prospects, as well. Partnering with me, both professionally and personally, was to his advantage."

"He does care about you, you know. He was not purely using you. I spoke to him, when he returned after you were lost on Earth, and I could tell he was truly grieving and distraught."

Skyfire waved a hand dismissively in the air. "Oh, certainly. He's not a complete drone. But I'd daresay you love me more than he does, and with you it's just the love of a Prime for his people. You love all of us alike, and sometimes more than you should."

Optimus sucked in a sharp invent, and looked up at Skyfire. His blue optics softened and he asked quietly, "Is that what you truly believe?"

"You can't." Skyfire shook his head, denying the implication of Optimus's words. "You have to treat all of us alike."

Optimus folded his arms across his chest and crossed the room in a few long strides. He stared at the potted cactus - a large barrel cactus, ferocactus wislizeni - surrounded by Praxian crystals. Skyfire was silent, motionless, behind him.

"I am allowed to have friends, Skyfire," Optimus said, unable to keep a little annoyance out of his voice. "Yes, I love all Cybertronians. I am reasonably sure that is one of the criteria for being a Prime. However, that does not mean I cannot have personal friends, and I'd like to think you are one of them. It is why I chose to come here tonight. I am your friend and I knew you were in distress after what Starscream chose to say to you. I am not here in any official capacity. If I simply felt you needed a counselor, and not a friend, I could have had someone else stop in to talk to you. "

Skyfire's heavy footfalls announced his approach behind OPtimus. A large hand, bigger even than Optimus's, rested gingerly on Optimus's shoulder. "I did not mean to offend you."

"You didn't." Optimus couldn't look at him. His words had been more barbed than he had intended, and now he felt shame.

Skyfire removed his hand almost as quickly as he'd placed it there. Optimus turned, and the big shuttle was shifting awkwardly in place while staring at his own fingers. "Sorry," Skyfire said.

"You did not offend me." Optimus repeated.

"Not that ... I ..." Skyfire made a fist with the hand that had touched Optimus. "I think I overstepped some boundaries there, and you're too nice to call me on it."

Optimus blinked in confusion, then when Skyfire's meaning dawned on him, he said gravely, "If I objected to your touch, I would have said so."

Silence fell between them, awkward and clumsy. Optimus felt a lot more like a very young Orion Pax in this moment than he did the Primus-chosen leader of Cybertron. Skyfire's optics, a few shades lighter than Optimus's, searched his expression questioningly. Then Skyfire turned away, movement almost violent. He said savagely. "You are the Prime."

Optimus recognized the reaction for what it was: denial of hope. He felt a possibility in his own spark, and the Matrix whispered serene agreement and encouragement. It was, however, very much Orion and not Cybertron's leader who said with a sigh, "A title I sometimes wish to forget. I am mortal, Skyfire. And I am free to pursue my desires - if I so choose. And if my interest is reciprocated."

Skyfire's backstruts straightened.

"I have very few friends who know me as a mech, not a living representative of Primus." Optimus started to reach out towards Skyfire's stiff frame, then balled his fist up and let his hand drop. The mech was hurting. It wasn't the right time. But oh how he wanted to touch.

"Ratchet. Jazz. Prowl." Skyfire said, quietly, listing off the names of those he knew to belong to Prime's inner circle. "Ultra Magnus. Elita. Ironhide. But why me?"

"There are a few others I would consider close friends, but you are very perceptive." Optimus, as a mech, had no idea how to answer Skyfire's question. For a moment, he felt awkward and uneasy.

The Matrix stirred. The wisdom of scores of Primes before him warmed his spark. Images passed before his optics of a nearly infinite number of lovers, partners, friends, belong both to those ancient Primes and witnessed through their optics.

Quietly, voice gentle now, Optimus asked, "Do you ... desire me, as a mech?"

Skyfire spun about, surprisingly agile despite his towering height. Embarrassment was clear in his posture and the set of his strong jaw. "You are the Prime."

"I am aware of my title," Optimus chuckled softly. The answer to his question was clear in the guilt in Skyfire's expression, and the defensive tone of his answer. Oh, yes, Skyfire wanted him. It was clear to Optimus that he also thought that his desire was wrong, forbidden, and unrequited. He had Optimus way up high on a pedestal, one far too high for a lowly junior officer and science geek to ever touch.

"You loved Starscream," Optimus said, voice still gentle. "You loved him. However, he did not treat you well. Despite everything you tried, despite all the time and energy and effort you put into the relationship, he did not truly reciprocate your feelings in kind. In time, you came to realize this. And yet you hoped that if you just tried a little harder, loved him a little more, he would change. In the end, you realized he would never truly love you, and this made you feel unlovable. Am I close to correct?"

Skyfire shuttered his optics and tilted his face towards the ceiling. "Primus, yes. I tried so hard and for so long and he was just using me ... it felt like I was the crazy one, the broken one."

Optimus reached out now, fingers brushing Skyfire's arm. He had to reach up and a tiny part of his processor noted how unusual it was for a mech to be taller than he was. He said quietly, "With Starscream, I believe something is fundamentally damaged either within his spark or with the very core of his base coding. He is not capable of truly empathizing with another, or caring for someone else more than he loves himself. He does care, but not the way most mecha do. He sees others through a filter of what they are worth to him, and how they benefit him." The tall shuttle looked down at Optimus now. His optics were dim with grief. "I know. But I thought if I tried hard enough, I could change him. He wasn't evil, not then, perhaps not even now, and I had so much hope that with time enough I could prove myself to him. And then he would love me as I loved him."

"Starscream, unfortunately, is what he is." Prime could not keep the real sadness from his voice. "I am doing what I can to settle his spark and grant him some degree of stability. The kind of damage he has is generally caused by early childhood trauma, if it is not a processor defect."

"From what his Thundercracker and his creators have told me ... I would guess it is a processor defect exacerbated by maltreatment as a sparkling. He's apparently always been a manipulative glitch who only faked caring for others from a very early age, but he was also badly bullied as a sparkling. I suspect the other children sensed he was different, and rejected him. I realized how damaged he was the first time we merged, but I thought I could help him. He lived for those merges, because he reveled in the love he felt from me ... but he never reciprocated. He liked being my lover, but it was always selfish on his end. However, he's not evil. It was as if we weren't even speaking the same language."

Optimus nodded slowly. "No. He's not evil. I wouldn't want to be his lover - and I commend you for trying so hard to help him - but he's not evil. Not really. He's damaged."

Skyfire snorted. "You know, mecha think Soundwave's crippled. But I think Starscream's got it worse. He will never know what it's truly like to love another. He knows what it's like to be loved unconditionally, because I gave him that, but he'll never know the joy of complete trust and love in another. He's always worried about what others think of him, or how to manipulate or charm them into doing something for him. He puts so much effort into pleasing his superiors, only to backstab them without hesitation, if he thinks it's to his benefit. And he's miserable, nearly all the time. He's always anxious, always worried, always watching his back for others to betray him. He doesn't realize, not truly, that other mecha don't think the way he does. He'll never truly trust anyone, not even his own trine. Not even ... not even me. Not even after we merged a hundred times did he trust that I wouldn't betray him. It didn't help that, when he failed to come to trust me, he could sense I was distressed and unhappy, and he knew I would eventually reject him. He craved love, almost like it was a drug."

"He hurt you." Optimus said, voice soft again.

Skyfire snorted, an inelegant sound. "He hurts everyone around him, eventually."

"He hurt you." Optimus's hand gripped Skyfire's arm with a little more strength. "Skyfire, look at me. You know why Starscream hurt you, and you know you aren't at fault. It was his problem, not yours. That you tried so hard to teach him what love was, even when I'm certain you knew your love was not reciprocated, says a great deal about your character. You, my friend, are empathetic, forgiving, and deeply caring."

"Didn't do me much good in the end," Skyfire noted. He met Optimus's gaze, and shifted a little uneasily. His plating was clamped tight to his heavy frame. "Prime ... thank you, for talking to me about this. I didn't think anyone else understood."

Optimus smiled gently. "I understand a great deal more than most believe, including the answer to my question."

"Your question ... oh!" Skyfire took a step back when he remembered that the Prime had asked him if he desired him. "Um, I'm sorry."

"Why are you apologizing?" Optimus's smile grew just slightly mischievous. "Skyfire, I'm mortal, and anyone who knows me as a mech knows I am attracted to winged mecha. This is particularly true when the spark between those wings is one I wouldn't mind getting to know better. Starscream is attractive. You are someone whose spark calls to mine."

"Umm." Skyfire took another step back. The back of his legs bumped into the table.

"I don't believe I am misreading your interest." Optimus's smile slipped from his face at Skyfire's obvious distress. "But if you do not wish to reciprocate ... I understand this. There are many valid reasons for you to tell me 'no' even if you return my interest. I will be more than content to simply be your friend. It is ... pleasant ... to spend time with another scholar. We have more in common than I believe you realize, and all my other friends, as much as I love them, are warriors at spark."

"You were a historian. An archivist." Skyfire blinked, recalling that bit of trivia. "Before ... before the war."

"I would have been happy to spend the rest of my existence within the stacks of the libraries of Iacon," Optimus confirmed, "had not a revolution interfered with that contented existence. We met, a few times, when you needed data from the archives, though I am not certain you remember me. You were distinctive enough that I have never forgotten you. I found you attractive even then, but you were taken and even if you were not, I was very shy as a young mech. Also, Orion was smaller, and often went unnoticed."

"I don't remember," Skyfire confessed, then his brows pinched together as a memory that felt only a few years old due to his eons in the ice surfaced. "Wait. You were the research assistant from Iacon for Ratchet's senatorial campaign. Your colors are the same, and features. Primus, you were so young then. I remember, now that I think about it. Oh my ..."

Optimus watched, a bit surprised that Skyfire remembered at all, for he had been Orion then, with half the mass and a head and shoulders shorter than he was now, and with an insignificant role as Ratchet's researcher.

Skyfire, however, clearly did remember him. He added, somewhat to Optimus's bemusement, "Oh, Primus! Starscream hung out with you, uh, flirted with you, to try to find out information about Ratchet's campaign for Megatron. You were furious when you realized what he was up to - he replayed a recording of you scolding him to us. He thought you were hilariously naive. Shy my aft, Optimus!"

Optimus laughed, amused, even as Skyfire's mouth shut abruptly after his outburst. The big mech as still so unsure around him. "Oh, I had a temper. I always have, always will. It took a lot of courage for me to respond in kind to what I thought were genuine advances from Starscream, and I was truly angry when I realized what his game was. I've since forgiven him, but at the time, I would have wrung his neck if I could have caught him."

Optimus wondered what sort of first impression that scene had made on Skyfire. He had lost his temper and given Starscream a piece of his mind, in full volume, but also in the privacy of his quarters. He wasn't aware that Starscream had shared the memory with anyone, and in any case, he had been Orion at the time.

"That was a very long time ago, before I was Prime. I was very young, and I was naive. When I found out he was in a committed relationship with you, and that he was using me for intelligence, he's lucky all I did was shout at him." Ruefully, Optimus ran a hand over the communication antenna and sensory fins on the top of his head. "I was never cut out for politics. The Matrix chose me because a war was brewing and it wanted someone with a fighting spirit and a sense of justice and honor more than it desired a politician or diplomat."

Skyfire laughed genuinely. Daring to tease Optimus a bit, he said, "You? A temper? I would never believe that."

The Prime's hesitant smile turned into a real grin. "I am, as I noted, mortal. Ratchet, believe it or not, was the one who talked me down after that fiasco with Starscream. I wanted to kick Starscream's aft from one end of Iacon to the other. Ratchet pointed out that espionage was all part of the political game at the time, and convinced me to use Starscream's behavior as a learning experience. Now, after all these years, I can laugh about it - and Ratchet certainly doesn't let me forget it - though there are very few other mecha who know the whole story of how Starscream and I met. Now you're one of them."

Skyfire rolled his optics. "And yet you're willing to work with him."

Optimus's laughter was low, but amused. "You can't say he's not predictable. And working with him doesn't mean I have to bed him. He is important to the peace process."

"Unfortunately, I know you are right. Does that mean I can't kill him if he pisses me off?" The normally gentle pacifist asked, with a slightly malicious tone, brows crinkling together, mouth setting into a hard line.

"I'll make you a deal. I won't kill him if you won't." Optimus sounded completely serious but there was a playful twinkle in his optics that Skyfire had never seen before.

Skyfire's mock-evil expression vanished with a bubble of laughter. Then he sobered, just as swiftly, and he studied Optimus keenly. Slowly, hesitantly he took a step towards the Prime.

Optimus opened his arms and Skyfire embraced him. Optimus was quick to hug others, but few hugged him. It felt awkward, and wonderful, all at the same time. Skyfire was strong, tall, and empathetic.

Skyfire said, "You're a good mech, Optimus."

"Part of the job description."

"I ... you asked if I desire you. I do, Optimus, but I want to take things slowly."

"I have no desire to move swiftly myself." Optimus rested his head against Skyfire's solid shoulder, then stepped back. Skyfire's hand rested on his arm. "Just knowing you see me as more than just an avatar of Primus is enough, for now. I am a mech, Skyfire."

Skyfire transferred his hand to cup Optimus's cheek. The big shuttle smiled shyly, and Optimus returned the smile very briefly. "You have the kindest spark, Optimus, and I think that was true even before the Matrix chose you."

Optimus shuttered his optics. "Thank you."

"And ... thank you. For coming tonight." Skyfire withdrew his hand. Optimus regretted the loss immediately. The side of his face felt cold, now that Skyfire's touch was gone. Skyfire said. "I ... feel better. I didn't think anyone else understood about Starscream, particularly you. I was afraid you were going to become involved with him."

Optimus shook his head. "I am not attracted to him, except for admiration of his frame type. I wish to help him, but he doesn't need me as a lover. I am not sure his damage could be repaired without edits to his code, at any rate, and he would need to consent to that sort of work."

"He'd never agree."

"No, he wouldn't." Optimus said, with resignation. "And ... he is functional as he is, even though he is profoundly unhappy. I will do what I can to mitigate his frustration and anger and build his confidence, but I don't believe he'll ever be without anxiety or misplaced fear because he does not understand the feelings of others."

"Prime," Skyfire said, "Could edits to his code help him?"

"That would be a good question for Ratchet, or even Jazz or Smokescreen, but I believe yes." Optimus's mouth turned down in a frown. "Unfortunately, it would need to be his choice."

"And he'd be more likely to play catch with scraplets than let someone inside his processor," Skyfire sighed heavily. "Prime ... thank you for coming to talk to me. It helps to know I'm not alone or crazy when it comes to dealing with Starscream."

Optimus nodded gravely. "He does have a way of making you question your sanity."

"Pit yeah. There were times when I wondered if I was the crazy one, not him."

Optimus reached out and rested a hand on Skyfire's arm. "I'll let you rest now. But if you need to talk later, my door is always open, my friend."

After he'd stepped back out into the hall, Optimus twisted back to look at Skyfire's closed door. That had gone ... differently ... than he generally expected. He was used to being the wise leader, counselor, and Cybertronian equivalent of clergy. Even among his friends, he was their leader, without question, benevolent though that leadership was. Talking to Skyfire had felt like speaking to an equal, not to a subordinate. It was an odd feeling, but not unpleasant.

This war needs to end, Optimus thought, with weary exhaustion that seemed to be strut deep and all-encompassing. I want to be able to pursue my own desires, someday.