Dear everyone, I am so very sorry this had taken so long! RL and a bad case of writer's block have conspired against me. The fic is not dead, however, and here's a nice long chapter to prove it. Onwards!

A quick note about the times things take place:

Chapter One - Tuesday, Diego Garcia (Monday, Washington DC)
Chapter Two - Wednesday, Diego Garcia
Chapter Three - Sunday, Nellis NV
Chapter Four - Sunday afternoon, Nellis NV
Chapter Five - Tuesday, Nellis NV

[7am Tuesday]

The Earth had an axial tilt and rotation that, combined with an organic base, gave it diverse climates and seasonal changes in many locations. It was scientific fact, confirmed by scans, which they were all aware of, but had seen very little of in practice; the areas of the planet that the human governments were willing to cede to partial Cybertronian occupation were universally hot.It bothered them very little; a mech's systems could easily take heat or cold to greater extremes than organics could with no more difficulty than minor adjustments to their core system temperatures, but it was a hardship to their human allies and was reflected in the flushed and sweating faces of the NEST team members who were gathered on the tarmac in full gear under the rapid growing heat of the Nevada sun. Ratchet had been keeping one optic on them, particularly the new recruits, with a low level scan keeping him aware of their core heat and fluid levels compared to the absurdly fragile levels that comprised dangerous thresh-holds for humans.

The entirety of the rest of his attention was given over not to the training exercises that were being laid out, but to the officers doing them.

Optimus was as an imposing figure on the training ground as he was on the battlefield, tall and striking beneath the mid morning sun. It endlessly impressed the NEST recruits, the soldiers turning towards him like solar receptors to a light source.

To Ratchet's critical optic, he looked better than he had two days before, but it would have taken a far less attentive medic than Ratchet for it to have been otherwise. After the day of the raid a night of uninterrupted medic-induced recharge coupled with hours of a gradual direct-to-tank fuel feed had put the large mech back on his pedes. If not quite back into fighting trim he was at least substantively improved from before and had stood through the required meetings of the next day with something approaching his usual aplomb. Ratchet himself had skipped recharge entirely the first night and only caught a fractional cycle the night after but it was far from the first time a patient's care had been the priority over his own upkeep and it wouldn't be the last. His systems were built to be able to run on minimal defrag, never mind skipping the partial cycles that compromised their current planetary night rotation.

No, Ratchet was far more concerned with watching Optimus - or in watching those around him.

Two nights of forced recharge and fueling - the second only because Ratchet had argued that combat exercises were more strenuous than diplomatic talks and had then pulled medical rank and threatened to ground their leader for the duration of the exercises if he didn't comply - had put the Prime on his pedes but hadn't done a slagging thing otherwise. Ratchet, with his sensors flung wide and ramped high, was hyper aware of not only their organic allies but of their own troops and the dips and flares in the systems of each. Optimus, though he was walking the length of the line on the tarmac with the outward appearance of his usual ease, had pulled his field so tightly into himself that it barely skimmed the surface of his armor, the big mech passing between his troops with an unnatural 'silence' that barely skimmed their sensors. Medical scans tracked blooms of flaring heat that was painfully slow to disperse in the big mech's frame, swirling in gradual drifts along primary system lines, and Ratchet ground his dente together, clicking softly to himself in the depths of his vocalizer.

The effect on the line was nearly as bad; Jolt had nearly flinched when the Prime passed too near him, armor tightening, only to quickly pull himself to attention again with a sheepish shake. Sideswipe hadflinched, half a step back, plates rippling, and Ratchet had broken the line to gruffly shove his own bulk in front of the young frontliner. Sideswipe had hissed protest, glyphs snarling, and Ratchet had brought the weight of his pede down on the other's wheel rim until Sideswipe had winced and given way with something that might almost have passed for respect for a senior officer. If one were half blind and squinting, but from Sideswipe it could pass.

Even the organic members of NEST could feel it, sensorless as they were. Prime's steady pace hid an underlying charge that the officers next to him had picked up on; Ratchet watched as Lennox shifted restlessly from foot to foot with uncharacteristic impatience, Epps' voice ringing louder and more stridently in the desert air than audible projection required.

Ratchet straightened just enough to glance over the head of an unconsciously hunched Jolt. On the younger mech's other side - as far from where he shouldhave been as possible, their entire rank and ordering mixed around and neither of the younger mechs daring to say a word about it - Ironhide was standing with a rigid attention pose borrowed from their human allies that was as foreign to him as respectful salutes would have been on Sideswipe.

The pitslagging coward wouldn't even lookat him, not even when Ratchet jabbed him, hard, with a ripping line-of-sight comm circuit. Jolt ducked down further, the flicker of half-hearted protest glyphs skating barely formed across his pulse. Ironhide, slag him to the Pits, never so much as cycled an optic, or took said optics off of a vague distant point on the horizon. His field was a muddy mess of barely restrained vibration and impenetrable layers of half formed glyphs that went nowhere and meant nothing, a white noise static of temper and frustration that Jolt had been steadily edging away from, one tiny weight shift at a time, until the younger mech was practically inside Ratchet's own field.

Ratchet kept his growl deep in his engine, nearly sub-audible, and settled deeper onto his pedes as Lennox took over for Epps, the NEST commander laying out the details of the training scenario. The medic spooled that information into a temporary cache, his focus more on his own data feeds than the human's voice.

[36 hours earlier - 7pm Sunday]

"So I ask again, my Prime - where is your Lord Protector?"

Optimus had to reboot his vocalizer to clear the static, not once but twice, the telltale click of it too loud in the quiet of the medbay. Ratchet never moved, optics bright and steady, nothing but autonomic systems in motion as he waited. "That is hardly rele..."

The flat of the medic's hand met the edge of the berth with a sharp, vibrating clang that touched off reflexive responses which Optimus grimly throttled back, unwilling to give the other the satisfaction of a flinch. Ratchet's optics were steady, bright pinpoints of unwavering focus, his uninhibited base field - and it was that which made Optimus' ventilations catch, not the surprise of motion or sound - rolling over the Prime with a thick wave of demand. "Wrong," he said, and the firm but cool tone was worse than all of the snarling and swearing that usually kept their frontline troops subdued. "It is veryrelevant. Once more, my Prime - where is your Lord Protector?"

The glyphs underneath the words, flooding through his field, tore into Optimus like shrapnel. Unmuddied, sharp and clear and old, the oldest meaning of Prime, underscored with Ratchet's base function and the subservience and authority duality that went with it. 'Lord Protector' was threaded through not with his former First's designation but with the root glyphs of drone and mate and guard and sire, chain woven into a single whole that was half of the Prime, the two spun into each other to form a single overarching glyph that Optimus could feel the shape and desperate vibration of deep in his innermost mass.

His vents were wide open, sucking air through his internals in erratic flows as his plates shifted, flaring and tightening. He couldn't feel the berth beneath his grasping hands, could only cling to the edges of it by shape and visual confirmation. Another reboot, vocalizer clicking harshly, and the voice he could force from it equally embedded in gravel. "Megatron..."

Ratchet reached up, fingertips hooking into the flanges at the crux of Optimus' mandible, just strongly enough to force the larger mech to meet his optics with a little shake. "No," he said. "Unless you can honestly tell me that you know precisely where Megatron is, right this very moment, then that is notwhat I asked. Can you?"

The last was said almost curiously, as though Ratchet were posing a minor question about some triviality. Optimus swallowed the heavy, foul taste of fossil fuels, watched his tank gauge drop another .01 percent despite whatever was in the line hooked into his side, and shuttered his optics. "...No, but..."

Ratchet clicked softly deep in his thorax. "You haven't been able to since Mission City, I imagine. Hardly surprising..."

"Enough," Optimus growled. "What you're implying..."

The medic cut him off, exventing, derision streaking his field in a handful of irritated glyphs that felt much more like his usual tenor. "Are you seeing anything else, here? Because I'm not."

[3pm Sunday]

“What happened when you were sparring?"

“Nothing," Ironhide had replied, far too sharply for what should have been a routine report, specialist authorized work relayed to medical. Ratchet narrowed the focus of his optics as the weapon specialist looked away. "Like I said - code degradation from that obsolete seeker. Optimus was running hot, overworking to compensate for errors, that’s all..."

“Ironhide." Ratchet let the tone of his interruption alone carry the unspoken threat, rumbled on the growl of his engine.

The black plated warrior jerked as though struck, his optics flickering. "He said it was a false reading, just an error, something in his vent system. Could’ve been, I was running him hot, trying to get him up to speed-"

Ratchet clicked sharply and Ironhide twitched, hands coming up, palms open and spread wide as the heavier mech ducked his head, taking half a step back. Ratchet stilled himself, venting heavily, and forced himself to wait.

"Don’t," Ironhide said at last, raggedly, optics still trained on the ground, his own pedes, the other side of the base - anywhere but at Ratchet. "Pit, medic, back off. I can’t... He was running hot, alright? I can’t fragging say it, Primus, there was a time I’d have been scrap metal just for thinking it, Hewould’ve ripped out my optics just for looking..."

It took a fraction of a klik for the meaning to come through, the word ’hot’ so habitually underscored for battle readiness that it took Ratchet a moment to parse that it wasn’t underscored at all, the meaning left open in the lack of a clarifier, and the last pronoun overlaid with rank glyphs so long unused that he barely recognized the warrior’s cant. It all came together in a cascade tree of rapidly ticked off points, the whole pinging, sharp and hard, off of protocols so old they were near archived. Packed under vorns of medical code and function threading, it was overwritten easily and quickly, shunting it harmlessly away.

Harmless, except for the sudden unfurling complication of what had been a fairly routine patch and weld job, Ratchet thought in dismay. And Ironhide, like most base coded warriors, had no such buffering layer to fall back on. "Single threaded glitch," Ratchet grumbled, and when the warrior snapped up in surprise he put a hand against his chest plates and shoved, knocking the other mech back a step."Straighten up, weapon specialist."

The underscore of specialty, overlaid with the crispest military glyphs of respect-for-superior-rankthat Ratchet could form, jolted Ironhide into doing exactly that, his field unfurling in a static rush."Ratch’..."

"It might just be those old codes from Jetfire. It might be nothing," Ratchet said, but he couldn't put solid belief-in-truth into his field and Ironhide's dimmed optics said the warrior knew why.

[7am Tuesday]

The day's exercises laid out, the men broke ranks, peeling off into squads. The Cybertronians mostly stayed still - the newer of the human soldiers didn't yet have the knack of knowing when and where a pede would come down, compensating for a size differential that put their smaller and infinitely more fragile allies at risk. There hadn't ever been an accident, not yet, but there had been a few close calls that had done more damage to Cybertronian dignity and inanimate property than anything else. It certainly didn't hurt to give their human companions time to adjust.

So Ratchet, Jolt, and a fidgeting Sideswipe stayed still as the men dispersed around their knees. Ironhide, however, broke away to help Lennox chivvy up the new group of soldiers that the human head of NEST had taken on for the day's exercises. Ratchet, optics narrowed, watched him go. The large black mech made a beeline across the tarmac for his human partner, all unstoppable force and solid strength, but to anyone who knew what to look for it was there.

It showed in the way he pulled up at the opposite side of the group Lennox was barking orders at, instead of circling to Lennox's side. It effectively put the humans between the weapons specialist and the Prime, who was bent down to discuss last minute details with Lennox. It showed in the way Ironhide's optics flickered, there and back, and the minute flare and flex of his dorsal plates. Ratchet, cycling through scanning wavelengths, bit back a low, aggravated sound at the pattern and rhythm of the heavy warrior's internals.

Optimus, finished with Lennox, straightened with more haste than was his usual want and stepped back. Ironhide shifted his weight, very nearly stepping forward, but caught himself.

On Ratchet's other side, Sideswipe jerked, an involuntary movement that shuddered through his plates. The medic planted a pede solidly on the younger mech's wheel stop, this time bearing down with the entirety of his reinforced mass until the warrior was flinching back from himand not from anything going on across the tarmac. "Slaggit, you old fragger, watch what you're doing!" Sideswipe hissed, field lashing angry and affronted and confused all at once.

Ratchet leveled a flat, unwavering stare at him. "You have your orders," he barked, underscoring the words with his own rank and a sharp, clipped reprimand. Sideswipe grudgingly ducked, plates half heartedly lifting a fraction, seething with sullen temper. Ratchet ignored it and gave him a shove against one wheel. "Go on."

On his other side Jolt was still right where he had stood all morning, the blue mech's armor flared outwards in silent supplication, optics darting nervously between the rest of them. Ratchet kept his glyphs gentler, pressing apology and reassurance into the younger mech's shoulder plate with a brief touch. "You too," he instructed, and Jolt ducked his head, flashed a glyph of acknowledgement, and went to collect his own team of humans.

Ratchet, according to the recorded directives, was to ride back up and support and preferably keep any of their allies from keeling over in the Nevada mid-day sun from their own enthusiasm. Ratchet filed that away as a secondary concern and, plotting the multiple trajectories of organic movement across the tarmac, stalked after Ironhide.

[34 hours earlier - 9pm Sunday]

The crack of Ironhide's fist against the dirt was muffled into a loud, indistinct thud, like the human's construction machinery impacting earth. The black plated warrior pulled his fist back, sandy dirt streaming from his finger joints, and slammed it back into the same cratered hole once more. "Scrap," he rumbled, and what his vocalization lacked his glyphs made up for, an ugly dark tangle of blasphemies rolling off his field. His optics, when he raised them to Ratchet, where bright blazes of blue in the darkness. "You are fragging kiddingme."

"Believe me," Ratchet had replied heavily, twisting to loosen a tightened linkage in his lines, "I wish I was."

Optimus had been, mercifully, deep in medically induced recharge, every dent and scratch from that afternoon's battle patched, and an energon line fed directly into his tanks. Ratchet had put the scans on automatic, linked the feed directly to his own processor, and was watching the slow fill of the Prime's tanks with a grim optic. Done with everything that could easily be rectified, he had left the larger mech in the quiet of the medbay and ventured out to find the other piece to his dilemma.

That had gone about as well as he had expected, which was to say not at all.

Ironhide leaned heavily on his knuckles for a long moment, his glare all but demanding Ratchet retract the words. When the medic didn't he finally vented, a slow expulsion from the depths of his systems, and pushed himself heavily back upright to his pedes. "How long?" he asked gruffly.

"Mission City would be my best guess," Ratchet answered promptly. He didn't say any more; didn't need to, the events of that battle seared into the long term banks of every mech who had been there to witness it. Ironhide shifted uneasily, hands curling and uncurling at his side.

"That long?" he asked, surprise blurring the edges of his glyphs. "The code breaks - those were new..."

"New Jersey," Ratchet supplied, watching the other mech flinch at the sound of the human municipal designation. "And Egypt. The symptoms started then."

Ironhide had mastered himself with difficulty, the rough feel of it shuddering through the heavier mech. "'Symptoms'?" he asked, voice crackling at the edges. "That what you're calling it, then?"

"I call it," Ratchet had snapped back, sharp and aggravated, "a Prime withouta Lord Protector."

That had earned him the full weight of the weapon specialist's glare and the black, blistering rage was back, flaring through Ironhide's field in jagged spikes of threat and warning. "No," he snarled and one quick step had him in Ratchet's proximity, close but not quite touching, leaning in to where the full wash of his fury surged over the medic's sensors and almost forced him back. "Slaggit, medic, I will not stand silent if Prime goes back to him. I won't. I can't." Deep in his resonance, beneath the anger, was a grim undercurrent; challenge and sure deactivation, and Ironhide's implacable steadfastness to see both through if necessary.

Ratchet dared to raise a hand between them, dermal sensors brushing just microns above the larger mech's chest plating. "You won't have to," he said softly, the pronoun underscored with an older form of warrior - protector-guardian-submission - wreathed in glyphs for absence and need that wove together as a whole to paint the glyph for possibility. Candidate, it said. Protector-elect.

Ironhide jerked back as though shot, optics spiraling wide, field blaring an inarticulate burst of static. Ratchet let him go, waiting. It took several deep vent cycles and the audible reboot of systems before the black mech found his voice again, gruff and edged in roughness. "You're kidding, right?"

Ratchet sank back on his pedes, arms folded across his chassis. "Already told you I wasn't," he said. "I haven't changed my mind in the last klik."

It was the weapon specialist who dropped his gaze first, plates unconsciously tightening. "Primus."

The vibrations in his own field were old and rusty with disuse, ancient and archived, but the feel of them was as familiar as his own spark. Ratchet half dimmed his optics and threw open his vents, feeling the resonance sink into his struts for the first time in countless vorns. "And from Primus the Primes, and from the Primes, embodiment of Primus' gift, life." His voice wavered on the last word, too long unsaid, the multi-tonal layered glyph that, at it's oldest root meaning, stood for their very race.

Ironhide's unvocalized flicker of respect and response was just as old, a reflexive acknowledgement even as he was physically shaking his head in a gesture they had all picked up from the humans. "I can't," he said, the protest underscored with pleading, as though he might, by tone alone, force Ratchet to see reason. "I can't. Pit, I'm not even ranking..."

"You're our second in command," Ratchet pointed out ruthlessly. "I fail to see it getting much higher than that."

"You slagging know what I mean," Ironhide growled back, the expansive gesture of one hand taking in his own frame with a dismissive flick.

"You're also a warrior," Ratchet continued relentlessly. "How many of those do we have, exactly?" He waited a beat for that to sink in, waited until the other mech dropped his gaze once more. "Precisely. So, unless you're willing to throw this open to the 'Cons..."

"No!" It came out snarled on the bass crescendo of Ironhide's engine, the sound growling through the still night air. "Never!"

"Then I suggest," Ratchet snapped back, unflinching from the other's anger, "you get over your Pit slagging traditions and step up.."

There was silence between them for several long minutes, broken only by the slowing rhythm of Ironhide's ventilations and the steady tic of Ratchet's. Finally the black plated warrior looked away, rubbing a hand over his helm, fingertips sliding with a dull scrape over his faceplates. "Don't mean to buck medical authority," he rumbled quietly - an outright falsehood so blatant that Ratchet could only bite back a burst of laughing static - "but in case you didn't notice, I'm a grounder."

Ratchet's hand came up at an oblique angle from the warrior's anterior sensors, faster than he could duck. The resulting clang rang dully in the quiet. "In case youdidn't notice," he pointed out acidly, "so is Prime. This isn't a virgin flight."

Huffing a low, irritated vent, Ironhide sidled a step back on pretext of resettling his weight, putting an arm's length between them. "Then what am I supposed to do, Ratch'? Walk up and proposition him?"

"You could," Ratchet replied blandly, mostly just to see the other mech give a startled jerk, field flaring a jumbled mix of overlapping glyphs that came through as a burst of static. Ratchet suppressed his own amusement. "It's not like you have any real competition; Sideswipe's too young." He tilted his head and let his optics dim, feigning thought. "Or you could use both of your primary modes of transport. I'm sure a good, long, no holds barred drive would serve to get his engine revving hot just as well as a flight would. The key components are that you chase him and catchhim, not what venue you do it on." He inclined his head slightly. "There is precedent, you know. Megatron is hardly the first Lord Protector to die before his Prime."

Ironhide's field flickered disbelief-amazement-consternation-inadequacy underscored, sharply, with heavy glyphs for incredulous longing that bled at the edges into shadowy half formed sigils of desire. Ratchet reached out and patted him, much gentler, on the shoulder. "That's what I thought," he said, satisfied.

[7am Tuesday]

The slagging Chaos spawn wasn't looking at or acknowledging him in any way, Ironhide's optics flickering right past Ratchet as though the medic were invisible. The humans were mobilizing quickly, clustering with their assigned Cybertronians; Jolts' group, who had drawn the swift strike role, were already circling the mech like an over excited group of sparklings on light armored terrain vehicles. The Prime, who had taken the role of adversary for his own group (with a sparkling-like enthusiasm that the humans never noticed, hidden in pleased harmonics of glyphs beneath the perfectly measured tones of his vocalizer) was crouched down at a distance with his assigned squad clustered close around him, probably devising last minute surprises for the rest of them. The base betting pool was split between Optimus, with Graham, or Lennox and Ironhide's team for last-one-standing, while Sideswipe and Epps held favorite odds for highest kill count.

Ironhide, who was standing uncharacteristically motionless and quiet while Lennox finished briefing their group on tactics, a large black wall behind his favored human partner whose attention, Ratchet would be willing to bet every last chit he ever hoped to own, was on anything but the training exercises. Just because his primary optics were fixed on the humans around his pedes didn't mean his sensor suite was and Ratchet watched the other mech's internal systems flux, matching the spikes on his scan with every time he could visibly see Optimus so much as twitch.

Primus. It was like waiting for a red giant on the verge of fusion collapse - you knew it was coming, but it might be in two kliks or it might be a few hundred vorn and the unaided optic wasn't much going to help you determine which.

Ratchet didn't have a few hundred vorn to wait for the weapon specialist's processor to sort itself out. Their Prime didn't have a few hundred vorn - scrap, he didn't have a few hundred days. None of them did, not with the 'Cons hovering just out of atmo, where neither they nor the humans could take the fight to them.

The medic had run the variables of another encounter like Mission City or Egypt too many times in the last two days, and none of the projections had been either reassuring or favorable. He hadn't been able to linger on them; the idea alone pumped nitrogen through his lines and poured acid into his tanks. They couldn't risk it. Not again. Not now.

Time was a luxury they didn't have.

Lennox was barking last minute orders, his team dispersing in orderly fashion to collect their gear. Ratchet diverted his own steps across the tarmac, cutting across and over the heads of several of the men, who ducked and slid out of his way. Ironhide was trailing after Lennox, his systems fluxing as he brought his weapons online in a systematic check. The black mech's optics landed briefly on Ratchet as they passed each other, then just as quickly slid away.

Ratchet exvented hard, brought his own weapons up in a cascade of flickering system response checks, and sidestepped, deliberately, to crash his shoulder against the weapon specialist's. "Hurry up," he snapped in English, then, in sharper Cybertronian, "or I will."

The warrior's cant glyphs - urgency-imperative-need, overscored with certainty and underscored with possession - made alien feeling shapes in Ratchet's protocols, but they did what he intended. Ironhide pulled up sharply, rocking back on his heel spurs, and the sudden whip crack of the other mech's field - disbelief-falsehood-furycrackled almost painfully against his own in a harsh demand for retraction. Ratchet met the other's optics unflinchingly, engine growling an insubordinate refusal.

Ironhide hissed, his own engine growling back on a deeper note. "You wouldn't..."

In answer, Ratchet threw his weight against their clenched shoulders, reinforced medical hydraulics putting enough force into the gesture to drive the warrior back half a step. Turning sharply, he marched across the tarmac towards Optimus. His spark was spinning furiously, combat systems whining into life, his dorsal plates nearly twitching with protocol needs that screamed never to turn his back on a potential conflict. He could feelIronhide's optics on him in a near palpable way, itching across sensor suites.

The first heavy footstep behind him didmake him flinch, but whatever half formed expectation he had never materialized. Ironhide stalked right past Ratchet, ground eating steps bringing him abreast and past in a crackling charge that washed over the medic's sensors, a crashing wave that all but physically pushed him aside.

Ratchet slowed his steps to let the other take the lead, but didn't stop. It put him a perfect mech length behind the other when Ironhide strode up to the team clustered around Optimus, the humans scattering before the black mech like glitchmice.

The Prime, optics flickering uncertainly between his two senior most officers, rose slowly to his feet as they approached. "Ironhide," he said, the English sounds underscored with Cybertronian query. "Ratchet. Is there a problem?"

Ironhide didn't stop, taking the last step into the heart of the Prime's field, his own flaring almost visibly bright, engine rumbling deep and low as he slapped the palm of one hand directly onto the broad chest plates of his commanding officer. "Drive," he growled, and the sound-glyph, in Cybertronian, was challenge and victory all at once.

Ratchet was close enough to see Optimus' optics flash near white in surprise, and to hear the almost hiccuped stutter of the larger mech's systems. The tarmac around them had, he realized distantly, gone strangely quiet as optics - mech and human alike - turned towards the scene. Optimus knew it too, optics flickering away and back, and to Ratchet's trained scans there was nothing calm about him, no matter how rigorously he controlled the smooth tones of his modulated voice. "I do not know what you..."

"Start. Driving," Ironhide snarled, bodily shoving the larger mech back a step. Optimus half stumbled, then took another step, and another. Ironhide echoed each, stalking forward, field anticipatory and tense. "You've got two breems advance once we're off base. Go."

Optimus looked past Ironhide to Ratchet, possibly hoping to find some glimmer of reliable intervention there or a speck of support. Ratchet cut off his own ventilations, wrenching protocols from one track to another in mid-stream with a suddenness that put a pained undertone note to his field as he opened it up, harmonic vibrations countless vorn unused filtering up through strut and mass to ring from every plate.

It wasn't the answer Optimus had wanted and it drove him back another step, one that Ironhide closed with a swift, decisive motion. "Drive," the weapon specialist repeated, the word painted in glyphs of challenge and command. "NOW."

They hung there, poised in a tableau, the push and pull of fields between them hanging static and thick in the air. One nanoklik. Another. Another, and then Prime broke, something indescribable surging through his field and up, into his optics, in the split moment before he turned, took two long, stumbling steps back from the black mech confronting him... and threw himself into his alt, transformation sequence still clicking into place as his wheels hit the tarmac and peeled out with a shriek of rubber on asphalt, tearing away for the base exit. Ironhide took four steps, running, and dove onto his own wheels, engine a howling roar as he raced after.

Every optic, every organic eye, and ringing dead silence. "Stay here!" Ratchet roared, underscored with the sharpest and heaviest glyphs of authority and third in command that he could form, and then, belatedly, repeated it in English. "Stay here, I'll take care of it!"

His spark was spinning, hot and fast, whole systems vibrating with the shudder of it. Now. Throwing himself onto his wheels, Ratchet switched on the wailing cry of his sirens and sped after the other two.

Lennox realized his mouth was hanging open, slack jawed and nothing short of stupid looking, but he was at a loss as to what to do about it. Raising his hands didn't help; it only put the fabric of his cap within reach, the hapless material twisting in his grasp as he dug his fingertips into his scalp. "What. The. Fuck?"

No one answered. Epps, he was dimly pleased to see, look just as gobsmacked as he felt. Snatching his cap off, Lennox scrubbed a hand through the sweat soaked stubble of his hair and then down, over his face. "No," he demanded. "No, really.What the FUCK?"

Still no answer. Pulling his gaze away from the open mouths and deer-in-headlights looks of his men, Lennox tipped his head back to turn his glare on the two remaining Cybertronians in their midst. Jolt ducked his head away, blurting something that sounded like a cross between an old dial-up modem and a kid's tricycle bell. Sideswipe met his glare head on, so it was the silver frontliner that Lennox focused on. "Well?"

Sideswipe shifted his own glare to his fellow Autobot, snarling the unfortunate union between a sink garbage disposal and a junk compactor swallowing a grand piano. Jolt shifted uneasily, snapping something back that was part fax line on speaker phone and entirely alien.

Their'bots - an unfair distinction, but it was how Lennox privately thought of the ones who had been there the longest, the ones who he and the founding members of NEST had fought with and sometimes died for and had the closest knit ties to - were usually careful, or at least unfailingly polite, about keeping to human languages in the presence of their allies. He wasn't sure if they spoke their own language amongst themselves - he assumed that they, like most ESL speakers, did - but they didn't subject human ears to it.

The newer crowd that had landed since Mission City either didn't have the same unfailing manners that Prime's original team did - excluding Bumblebee who had a legitimate excuse and stillmanaged to use sound bytes from pop culture media more than he spoke Cybertronian - or else they just hadn't gotten that memo and didn't care. Lennox had found himself grudgingly fascinated even while his ears were ringing - they all sounded distinctly separate even in alien machine noises, and it sometimes had nothing to do with their adopted human voices that NEST was familiar with. He was willing to bet that Sideswipe, who had a middle to low voice when speaking English, was actually the Cybertronian equivalent of a light tenor, and he was still trying to think of a way to ask if the frontliner's heavier use of what registered to human ears as musical notes - however heavy rock and machine garbled - was some sort of a dialect or accent.

Epps had a lot less patience for it but he'd had to deal a lot more with the Tweedle Twins, as they'd been dubbed, and Lennox considered that fair cause. "No, no, don't give me none of that alien shit - what the motherlovin' fuckwas that all about?"

Another spatter of Cybertronian, hiss-click-beep-modem, but Jolt's hands had come up into it now and Lennox didn't need words when he could read the body language well enough - angry, a frustrated slash through the air and a jab at Sideswipe, which the silver mech returned with interest. He'd seen the same dance between his nephew and niece enough time to recognize it, even pantomimed on eighteen foot tall alien robots - You tell dad! No, YOU tell him! Drawing a deep breath, Lennox pushed it into a drill sergeant roar. "Will you two shut the fuck upand SOMEBODY tell me what the hell just happened!"

Jolt spat another modem-carwreck mashup hybrid at Sideswipe and resolutely turned away, walking off. The gesture he flung back was one the 'bots had learned from the NEST soldiers, and unmistakable no matter how many digits they actually had on each hand. Sideswipe barked something after him, half an orchestra falling down nine flights of stairs while someone ripped apart a train in the background, but when Lennox focused angrily on him the silver mech's snarl faded somewhat. He chuffed, clearing his vents, wheels shuffling uneasily back and forth. "...Don't know," he finally admitted.

"You don't know," Lennox repeated, deadpan. It got him another, more muted spat of Cybertronian, probably concerning his mother and his personal sexual habits. Your mother was a toaster!a singularly unhelpful part of his mind supplied but long habit kept any kind of humor out of his face.

"You heard me," Sideswipe snarled. "You ask me, they're glitched. Ironhide's been off his code all morning, itching for a fight, and Ratchet's just as bad." He shrugged, another borrowed human gesture, sharp and insolent. "You heard him. Whatever it is, he'll take care of it." The silver mech hissed out through his vents, the sound managing to convey a scoffing huff. "He tells me to stay, in that tone, I'm staying. Youcan do as you like. Have fun explaining it when they get back." And with that, the mech spun in an easy twirl on inlined wheels, skating away.

Epps, when Lennox glanced his way, was rubbing a rueful hand over the smooth curve of his skull. "What'd ya think? Bad news?"

"Bad news, good new, no news," Lennox shot back. "Aliennews. If their own don't know them I'm fresh out of ideas." He sighed. "Hope to fuck it's not some glitch in the Big Guy."

The other man snorted. "You ever known Big Budda to run from anything?" He shook his head sharply. "No, scratch that. If Ratchet was tellin' meto suck it up and take it like a mech, don't worry, this ain't gonna hurt and it's for my own good... I'd be running too."

"Damn straight," Lennox muttered. "Alright, we interrogate 'em when they get back. Meanwhile, round the men up, we've still got a full day and the schedule's gone to hell in a handbasket..."