Prowl ordered his mechs to get some rest, and they spread out a little in the studio, finding out-of-the-way places to transform into their alt-forms for some light recharge. Prowl himself stayed close to Optimus. Ratchet was still fussing over the enforcer's injuries, and Arcee wasn't about to leave her friend and her clan-leader to go bunk with the mechs who had arrested them. Optimus and StarSheen spoke softly, but in the quiet, their voices carried.
"I do not wish to discount your hospitality," Prowl formally said to StarSheen.
The femme gave him a knowing smile. "But. You question the wisdom of turning to kin in your hour of need?"
"There are two answers to that. Firstly, I have a drone back at home that I specifically designed to impersonate me."
Jazz half-transformed just so he could stare at this quirky femme.
She softly laughed at their expressions. "Being an empire-renowned artist has its drawbacks, like repeating myself a thousand times when asked the same questions by admirers and biographers. For a while, I literally spent more time in interviews than I did in the studio. It was to the point that I was hiding from unexpected visitors."
"So you programmed a drone with your answers, built her to look like you and…basically cloned yourself?" Jazz looked thoroughly impressed.
"For how long has this been going on?" Prowl demanded, and Arcee had the impression that he was filing the information so he could press charges against StarSheen later. For what, she had no clue. "And where is 'back home?' I assumed your studio would be in your residence."
"Oh, it's been going on since Optimus was still a youngling," she said, her affectionate gaze falling on him. "A couple of my close friends discovered the truth, but only a handful of mechs or femmes know. She's a drone, of course, so her ability to interact outside of interviews is pretty limited, but…" She shrugged. "The mechs who seek you don't seem the kind for idle conversation. And the fact that I went to the trouble to build a decoy drone ought to explain why I located my studio in someplace other than my home."
"And the second answer?" Prowl asked.
"Alpha Trion," Optimus retorted.
"That's a name that carries a lot of weight," Ratchet said, muttering under his breath at Prowl to sit still. "But this is Megatron."
"Our protection is in his actions, not his name," StarSheen explained. "Alpha is leading his household's security squad to Burthov as we speak."
Respect flashed in Prowl's optics, but Arcee was a bit lost. "Why?"
"As another decoy," the ancient femme said. "Burthov is a predominantly Science Division city. To all appearances, I am at home spending a day cleaning while Optimus' other kin are racing with weapons drawn to a place where you are all likely to hide." She looked again at Prowl, her optics sparkling with amusement. "You didn't think any of us achieved our respectable age by being thick-chipped, did you? Alpha and I are both old enough to have seen a couple of wars. Now take your own advice and rest. We'll have need of speed and strength soon enough."
Jazz knew a place. It became almost a joke – he always knew a secret route and a place they could hide. From StarSheen's studio, they travelled across the city using restricted-access maintenance tunnels and disused alleys. No lock could bar Jazz and that would have become a joke if their lives hadn't depended on it. He broke into a transmission relay station and Optimus' band of fugitives spent their first solar cycle in the basement, waiting for the dark.
It was there, in the silence with nothing better to do, that Bumblebee whispered to Arcee, "Can I have your comm frequency?"
She gave him an incredulous look and then burst out laughing so loud that Prowl shushed her.
Bumblebee's antenna fell back in dismay and, still chortling, Arcee pinged him. After a grudging few astroseconds, he relented and gave her access.
/Sorry/ she sent. /Didn't mean to embarrass you. It just caught me by surprise. It's such a normal question. Something you'd ask on a holiday, not while dodging assassins./
His doorwings drooped lower. /I guess it probably wasn't appropriate, huh./
/It was ridiculously appropriate/ she answered, growing more thoughtful. /I mean, if we're going to be on the run, we should at least be able to communicate silently or from a distance. Our lives could depend on it./ Out loud, she said, "Hey Prowl, can I have your comm frequency?"
Cliffjumper and Smokescreen both sniggered at that and Prowl shuttered his optics in surprise. Jazz looked at her quizzically before sudden understanding flickered in his visor.
Prowl answered, "Of course. We should all exchange frequencies."
Another night was spent furtively making their way out of the city. With the dawn of a new solar cycle, Jazz broke them into an academy that was empty for the weekend, and Moonracer joined them, led there by her sister-bond with Arcee.
Optimus, Ratchet, and StarSheen knew her already, but Arcee quietly introduced her around and had her exchange comm frequencies with everyone. "This is Bumblebee," she said when they got to the yellow mech, smirking as she added, "He arrested me."
"I pulled her out of the rubble," Bumblebee corrected, crossing his arms but not quite able to hide his grin. The little femme was cute. Likeable.
Arcee brushed aside his comeback. "He owes me – which means he owes us."
Bumblebee's antenna fell back in dismay (because he didn't want to pick a fight with the new femme) and Moonracer giggled. "Don't worry, Bumblebee. I'll play nice. If you arrested Arcee, she probably deserved it."
'Bee grinned as the two sisters moved on to Smokescreen, and he realized that their banter was a sign of their affection for each other. Suddenly he didn't resent Arcee introducing him as "the one who arrested me."
The next night's journey brought their first real hint of danger. They had just exited a maintenance tunnel when Ratchet paused. /Do you hear that?/ he asked the group.
Jazz tilted his helm and nodded slowly. /Pursuers./
/Fall back, Optimus/ Prowl ordered him in a private comm as he transformed his hand into a gun. /Lead them to safety./
In answer, Optimus unsheathed a dimly-glowing energon sword. To all of them, he sent, /I am oath-bound to protect you./ Looking at Arcee, he added, /Sister of my mate, I ask you in her stead to lead these 'bots to cover./
/And leave you to be overrun?/ she hotly answered.
/We'll back you up/ Moonracer insisted.
/Your aim is just as accurate from behind cover/ he retorted, impatience plain in his tone. /Go!/
Arcee and Moonracer exchanged a glance and Arcee nodded to the mechs around her. /Any of you without melee weapons, come with me./
Moonracer fell in step with her, followed by StarSheen, Bumblebee, Cliffjumper, Camshaft, and Smokescreen. Arcee placed Cliffjumper and Smokescreen in the doorway just to the left of the tunnel they'd just existed, with Camshaft protecting StarSheen and Moonracer behind a refuse receptacle to the right. /Bumblebee, you're with me/ she told the yellow mech, crouching down beside a set of stairs opposite and just to the left of the tunnel where their pursuers were. He nodded and stood behind her, cannon at the ready. She transformed her hand into a vicious-looking subsurface probe that Bumblebee was all too familiar with.
/The rest of us stand by the Prime/ Ratchet firmly sent.
Optimus tilted his head in reluctant acknowledgement of the title and turned his attention to the doorway. Soon all of them could hear the scuff of footsteps, which halted just short of the low light filtering down the alleyway. For a long tense moment, pursuers and pursued waited for the other to make a move. Eventually a voice from the darkness said, "Brothers?"
Jazz perked up. /Trailbreaker. And that'll be Hound with him – no one else could have found us./
The Science Division 'bots relaxed at this news, but Prowl and his team remained alert.
"Step forward slowly," Optimus ordered. "If you come of your own volition, you are among friends."
Trailbreaker and Hound walked out into the night, and Jazz put away his weapon. "Drop the shield, Trailbreaker," he said and extended his hand, exposing a data transfer connection. "Report."
Hound was surprised to have so many weapons pointed at them. "Come on, mechs, it's us."
"Even bond brothers have betrayed each other in these dangerous solar cycles," Optimus pointed out, and Hound nodded, sobering.
Trailbreaker uncovered his own data transfer port and clasped Jazz's forearm, networking their processors. Both mechs' optics dimmed as Jazz searched Trailbreaker's memory files. For another long, tense moment, all waited for Jazz's judgment. Eventually his optics brightened and he nodded his head decisively before breaking the connection with Trailbreaker. "They come alone. And Hound of all mechs would know if anyone followed 'em. We're safe."
Vented sighs of relief echoed through the dark alley, and Optimus laid a gentle hand on a shoulder of both the newcomers. "You should not have come. We are hunted. Megatron will extinguish any he finds standing with me."
Trailbreaker steadily met his leader's gaze. "Our own kin have turned, Optimus. They've all aligned with Megatron, along with many of the other commerce clans. Our clan leader wanted Hound to find you and he refused."
Prowl narrowed his optics at this news.
"I told them I needed to think about it," Hound explained. "Megatron's words didn't ring true, and I…I sensed danger. I told Trailbreaker and so that night, we blocked our other bonds and left. Half of Thetacon's commerce clans openly support Megatron, and all of Polyhex wears his symbol."
"Megatron controls two of the three most powerful factions," Trailbreaker softly said, "and the Science Division is in tatters."
Optimus bowed his head at the news.
"We gotta get ya out of here," Jazz insisted, a new urgency to his voice.
The large mech nodded in agreement, straightening his shoulders. "I cannot let Megatron finish what he began in attacking us. Roll out."
The next night, they made it all the way beyond the limits of Thetacon to the sparsely-populated solar farms. Dawn found them in the middle of a collector field, recharging and sheltering under the broad, low panels until dark. Halfway through the solar cycle, Lancer and Prowl's brother Nightbeat found them there.
"Megatron has publically denounced you as a traitor," he told Optimus. "Polyhex's leadership is calling for a trial in absence, and the Council is convening tomorrow to consider it. Soundwave approached me about denouncing my own brother there."
"He contacted me, too," Lancer added, "about denouncing Arcee, but the Science Division hasn't abandoned you, Optimus. My sister Comet and her mate are quietly finding out who of their kin don't support Megatron."
Standing nearby to hear their report, Jazz nodded. "My brothers Jackpot and Ricochet are doing the same."
"You still have friends," Lancer earnestly said to Optimus.
Pointedly meeting first her gaze and then Nightbeat's, he said, "Yes. I do. Thank you. Now recharge if you can, the both of you. We must be on the move again as soon as it's dark."
As Arcee and Moonracer introduced Lancer around, 'Bee couldn't help himself.
The pink femme said, "This is Bumblebee, and he –"
"Pulled her out of the rubble. She totally owes me," he said conspiratorially to the orange femme. "But don't worry; I won't hold that against you."
Moonracer giggled and Arcee slugged his arm. "No, he owes me. He's the one that arrested me – and Optimus. Watch him, Lancer. Don't let him get away with anything, the slagger."
Lancer gave him an appraising look. "Arrested her, huh? And Optimus? You're a brave mech."
"Or he's not very bright," Arcee added, narrowing her optics at him. "You remember him, don't you? Career criminal, this one."
"Hardened," Bumblebee unabashedly agreed, not even trying to hide his grin. "Most dangerous mech here. Can I have your comm frequency?"
"Yeah. I could tell by the cheerful yellow," Lancer sniggered as she pinged him and was given access. "I'm glad somebody was making Arcee toe the line. Keep up the good work!"
Bumblebee snapped a smart salute. "Yes ma'am!"
Three more night's journey brought them to Jazz's destination – an area of cliffs and gorges too rugged for solar collectors and too isolated for much else. But more importantly than that, the composition of the stone masked spark signatures. "I used to come here with my brothers," Jazz reminisced as he led them underground. "Jackpot and Ricochet and me would hunt each other all through the tunnels. Jackpot has the better luck, 'a course, but Ricochet has better senses."
"What about you?" Prowl asked.
Jazz cheekily grinned. "I'm their younger brother – I got the best of both of 'em: luck and a good processor for finding places and people."
The tunnels let them hide from prying optics, but little else. The mechs and femmes made do with what they happened to have in subspace when they fled from Megatron's thugs. Solar energy was fuel enough for them, but energon could not be subspaced. None of them were low on energon, though, and so they were safe enough for a while.
Two solar cycles later, Optimus made his way back down to the flatlands and the solar fields, sensing his mate approaching. As eager as Arcee was to see her sister safe and sound, she let him go alone. Arcee was well aware of how Optimus had taken their separation, and he was beating himself up with worry about Elita. Arcee sat on a rocky outcropping that provided an excellent view of the flatlands and watched the reunion with a little smile. Yeah, sparks would be flying tonight, if Elita's feelings over the bond were any indication. With a heavy sigh, Arcee realized that her sisters were safe – all but one.
'Arcee,' Elita said over their bond, and her too-casual tone instantly put Arcee on alert. Something was wrong. 'Is there a cave or someplace where I can lock myself in with Optimus?'
'I'm missing something,' Arcee answered.
'She was followed,' Optimus explained, his fury roaring across the bond.
'Don't alarm everyone,' Elita said, exasperated. 'He thought he detected something, but I've been on the run all this time and I haven't seen anyone. Just to be safe, though, we don't want to go straight up to you and potentially give away our location.'
'I'll ask Jazz.'
'Bring a mech or two for back up,' Optimus growled.
'A femme or two,' Arcee teasingly corrected him, and then she went in search of the silver mech. She found him flirting with Lancer and heaved a sigh. Apparently love was the in the air, which meant nothing would get done this solar cycle. "Hey Jazz," she interrupted, ignoring her sister's annoyance. "Elita finally made it, but she wants to hole up somewhere so she can 'face Optimus senseless for a few solar cycles. She wants to lock him in. Don't suppose you know a place?"
He chuckled. "Yeah, there's a cavern..." he sent her the coordinates. "It's got a narrow entrance and it'd be a tight squeeze for Optimus to fit, but he should be able to make it through and the ceiling's high enough he could stand upright. Once he's in, Elita would have him good and cornered."
Arcee relayed the information to Elita, and she was tempted to drag Lancer down to the cavern with her. But Lancer would demand to know why, and with how enthralled she was with Jazz right then, Arcee knew 'Optimus is twitchy' wouldn't cut it. Ratchet was still fussing over some of the processor damage Prowl sustained in the ambush, and Arcee didn't exactly have confidence in the medic's ability to be stealthy anyway. Sneaky, yes; quiet, no. No way was she putting Moonracer in harm's way, even if the chance of facing danger was slim to none. Same with StarSheen. That left one 'bot.
She found him in the next cave over, playing a strategy game with Cliffjumper against Trailbreaker and Hound. "Hey, Bumblebee," she said. "Come walk with me?"
He shuttered his optics once in surprise. "Why?"
"Because I'm feeling cooped up in here. Aren't you?"
"Come on, femme!" Cliffjumper protested. "We're winning!"
"So rope Smokescreen or Camshaft into it," Arcee retorted, rolling her optics. Then she reached over and grabbed the edge of Bumblebee's doorwing, putting just enough pressure in just the right place to make him willingly cooperate when she hauled him to his feet.
"Uh..." he unintelligently said.
Arcee scolded herself for playing with the mech's sensors that way, but really, she needed to be down there now. Taking him by the hand, she hauled him into the tunnel. They were outside and scrambling down the slope before Bumblebee had his wits together enough to demand, "What is going on, femme?"
"A hunt," she crisply answered. "Optimus thinks something followed Elita here and we're blocking the entrance so it can't escape."
"The entrance to what?"
"The interfacing cavern."
Bumblebee half-laughed. "Naturally." Then he narrowed his optics at her. "If you just dragged me away from a winning play so you can prank your sister, you'll owe me double."
"You owe me, remember?" she absently said, then held a finger up to her mouthplates, motioning him for quiet. When she pulled a crossbow out of subspace, Bumblebee finally believed this wasn't a prank.
/Are you always armed to the denta?/ he sent.
/I hunt turbofoxes/ she tersely explained, moving almost silently now. /Look sharp./
He crouched down and followed her closely.
'Physically block the entrance,' Optimus instructed Arcee. 'I don't want him slipping out between you.'
Arcee shifted to using her comm with her kin so Bumblebee could hear, too. /Okay...?/
Elita was more edgy by now, though. /He thinks my stalker is invisible./
Arcee glanced at Bumblebee, who shrugged and gave her a 'Don't look at me!' expression. /I gave up invisibility orbital cycles ago!/
She snorted and together they moved to block the entrance.
Optimus' lights flooded the cave with brilliant white and stark shadows, and he announced, "You can reveal yourself."
A disembodied voice answered, "Getting shot is not high on my list of priorities today, Optimus."
A chill ran under Arcee's armor to realize a mech really was there. She leveled her crossbow, searching the shadows for any sign of the speaker.
"You will not be shot, Mirage," Optimus assured him, "not unless you attempt to harm me or mine."
"But the harm a spy can inflict is often...invisible until it is too late."
Elita's hand transformed, a narrow, fine energon blade sliding forward to take its place. She stalked forward to where she'd last heard him speak. "Show yourself!"
"Being stabbed isn't on my list, either," he calmly said from behind her.
Elita whirled, brandishing the blade. "You followed me!"
"What is on your list?" Bumblebee demanded.
"Survival comes to mind," the invisible mech dryly replied, this time much closer to 'Bee.
The yellow mech's hands balled into fists as he realized just how close Mirage was. "Then stop provoking us and just show yourself!"
"But my mere existence is a provocation," he murmured. "I provoke my father and his father by disdaining Megatron, and I provoke you by being the son of my father and his father."
Optimus visibly relaxed. "Is that all you're afraid of, Mirage? That we'll judge you by your kin?"
"It is inevitable," he quietly answered. "I am always judged by my kin."
"Megatron was my bond-brother," the big mech reminded him.
"But the rest of your kin stand by you..." Mirage retorted, this time near enough to Arcee that the femme lashed out with the stock of her crossbow, hoping to strike him. It whistled through the air.
"...and my kin unapologetically stand with Megatron."
"What do you want?" Elita demanded. "Why are you here?"
For a long moment, silence fell over the cavern. "I don't know," Mirage finally whispered.
Optimus vented hard in a sigh and then walked forward a few paces. He stood, staring down for a moment, and stretched out his hands. "Yes, you do," Optimus said, and Mirage's cloak fell away. The large mech's hands were resting on the noblemech's shoulders. "You saw Elita in Polyhex."
"I heard the blast," Mirage admitted. "I was worried for her."
"And you followed her to see her safely here. But you were undecided what you would do then."
He nodded his head, staring at the ground.
"Whatever your options were," Optimus continued, "you decided your place was with us. Otherwise you would not have let me detect you like that."
"And you led me into a trap," he pointed out.
"I couldn't be certain it was you," Optimus answered, almost apologizing. "And I gave my word to protect those who stand with me."
Mirage's pale blue optics looked up, trying to read the towering mech. "And if I stood with you?"
"If you swore your allegiance, I would be oath-bound to protect you, too."
He glanced around at Bumblebee and the femmes. "And the rest of your followers?"
"Hound and Trailbreaker have been accepted," Optimus assured him. "They are not descendants of Trypticon's commerce clan, but they are kin."
"Few beings trust what they cannot see," Mirage said, and though it was said matter-of-factly, Bumblebee thought he saw a weary droop to the mech's door-capes.
Optimus lowered his head to be optic-to-optic with the younger mech. "I see you."
A half-sparked smile tugged at Mirage's mouthplates. "You're the only one – ever." Nodding in decision, Mirage stepped away from Optimus' hands and dropped to one knee. He solemnly intoned, "Forswearing my clan and the privileges of my birth, I, Mirage, heir to all the lands of Polyhex and its vassals, do give my oath of fealty to you, Optimus – "
"Prime," Arcee interjected. "He's Optimus Prime here."
Optimus felt a flash of betrayal that Arcee sensed over their kin bond, and she whispered, 'You can't hide from it anymore.'
The noble continued, "...Optimus Prime, and offer my allegiance, to stand at your side as a weapon in your hand in war and as a servant to you and yours in peace until the end of my functioning."
Bumblebee shot a glance at Arcee. He'd never heard someone talk like that except in a holoprogram. She just shrugged.
"And I, Optimus...Prime," he hesitated ever so slightly as – for the first time – he called himself by that title, "do hear your oath of fealty and accept your allegiance, swearing..." He again hesitated, then seemed to choose his words carefully, "to stand before you in war and beside you in peace, and in all things to serve you as one brother to another...until all are one."
"Until all are one," the yellow temple guardian ritually repeated, and the others in the room also echoed Optimus' words. It was a prayer in itself – their only prayer, really. It was recited at the creation of new sparks as their bonds wove lives together in unity. It was spoken as solace for the grieving in hope of reunion. It was an acknowledgement that even the greatest among them were mere cogs of something greater than themselves. In this moment, Bumblebee reflected, it meant all of the above.
When they climbed up to the main room in the caverns that had become their base, Prowl wasn't exactly pleased. "The heir of Polyhex?" he demanded of Optimus.
"He is bound to me by oath," the big mech answered.
"Spark-bonds don't mean anything anymore," Cliffjumper growled. "So why should we care about oath-bonds?"
StarSheen frowned at him. "For shame, Cliffjumper. Spark-bonds mean as much now as they ever have. And oath-bonds have even more value than before. Sibling privilege is an oath-bond," she reminded him. "You came to me, a ragtag gang of fugitives, and I sheltered you despite the danger for the bond's sake and for the love of my spark-sister and her son."
Gears ground in Cliffjumper's engine.
Through it all, Mirage looked on indifferently.
"He's not rooming with us," Smokescreen belligerently declared, referring to himself and Camshaft.
Cliffjumper added, "And he's not going to be just wandering around, spying us out so he can run back home to his clan-leader."
"No?" Mirage asked, and everyone looked at him…or at where he had been standing.
"Invisible again," Bumblebee grumbled.
"Why do you keep doing that?" Arcee demanded.
'Because he doesn't want to be trusted,' Optimus whispered to both Arcee and Elita. 'Trust isn't exactly considered a virtue in the commerce clans to begin with. His cloak alone arouses suspicion, and his younger brother wanted the heir's portion. Their father pitted them against each other, trying to make Mirage shrewder. Or maybe he was trying to groom two potential heirs. But Mirage and his parents have never been close. He hides behind that indifference.'
'That's why he was so willing to just throw it all away,' Elita realized
'I'd been wondering about that,' Arcee said.
"Put your weapons away," Optimus commanded, since the others had pulled them out of subspace in alarm. "He stays. There are rooms enough in these caverns. His upgrade has uses for us, too."
"Come out from under that cloak and I'll show you around," StarSheen gently said, and then she turned to her sister's son. "Now shoo, both you and your mate. Go find a deep cavern and don't come out until the next solar cycle."
Elita grinned, already taking Optimus in hand and leading him toward the tunnels.
Author's Endnote: In case you're wondering how Optimus knows so much about Mirage, in the Botosphere Optimus was the architect who master-planned the towers of Polyhex. It was while he was in the employ of Mirage's family that he first met the mech as a youngling. Optimus learned then how to see through the cloak. (See chapter 17 of The Tie That Binds for more.) Also, for more about StarSheen, please see chapter 5 of The Tie That Binds.