Today's my sparking-day, so I decided to give all of you who have so patiently read and reviewed a present. Unfortunately, this chapter concludes the story ...

If you were born on August 27th too, we share our birthday with Mother Theresa, Lyndon B. Johnson, and former kids' show host (until he was found in flagrante self-delicto in a pron theater) Pee Wee Herman.

Events during the creation of "Cruel," however, showed me that I write better, and certainly longer, when I do not have the Intertubes at my beck and call. (Former computer crashed. Old back-up runs Windows 2K, which is no longer supported by Microsoft, and thus not by the local Evil IPS, with a ca-runch at midnight, August 1.)

I'm still around, just not as frequently.

As for story length, when getting a file on the Tubes is a PITA, by which I emphatically do not mean the bread, it can wait. It can wait long enough to expand the story to its fullest potential, then go back and cut the rubbish out.

Stories, in my experience, are a living creature which has an optimal size. Too big, it wanders. Too small, much is left unsaid. Although there is a case to be made for both the jewel and the sprawling epic, I'm content to allow the living creature coming through my keyboard to tell me how large it should be.

And thus we reach the end of "Cruel."

Barricade was wakened from a sound recharge by a comm from Ratchet. Get down here. I've got multiple training injuries, and one of the casualties is First Aid.

He rolled off the berth and out the door of his quarters, transformed, and raced through the corridors with lights and siren working, mecha scattering in front of him as he went. Medics always have the right of way.

In med bay, Gears, First Aid, Sunstreaker, and Bumblebee lay on berths. Ratchet was bent over the much smaller figure of Sam Witwicky, but half-turned on his arrival to bark, "Start triage on the 'bots."

Gears' injuries were worst. Barricade was conscious of his lover's eyes on him as he set about doing what was needed, but beyond pain chips for all of them, he couldn't help the others now.

Broken collar strut that had pierced a ventilation chamber, bent back strut cramping two major energon lines, two fractured femoral struts, crushed ulnar strut - the port there was going to require replacement too. He clipped off the ruptured or cut energon lines, mopped up the spill, replaced the lines, replaced the ventilation chamber, got to welding. Just the critical injuries now, the collar strut and back strut. The other repairs would have to wait.

Fifty-four breem later, he moved to First Aid's berth, and began anew. First Aid wasn't conscious; otherwise, he would have found it quite difficult to treat his colleague. This pale face and broken body, though, could be divorced from the affection he held for First Aid.

Somewhere between First Aid and Sunstreaker, he was conscious of Ratchet moving to Bumblebee's berth.

He finished up with First Aid, who blinked awake and tried to get up. "I know the others were hurt -"

Barricade pushed him back down. "It's all taken care of. You just lie there for a little while, okay?"

"Okay." First Aid smiled sheepishly. "I forgot you were a medic."

"I really am, qualified last decaorn. Once everybody's taken care of, I'll show you the certificate." First Aid's optics crinkled a bit at the corners. "You going to stay on the berth?"

"Yeah. No need to show me the certificate. I'll check it for veracity once I'm on my feet."

Barricade grinned at him. "All right. I've got one last patient to see to, then I'll come talk to you."

"All right." First Aid closed his eyes.

Sunstreaker said, by way of greeting, "Took your frellin' time."

"Get hurt worse next time. It puts you higher on the list." Barricade saw his partner smile, and got things going by taking him offline. But Ratchet elbowed him aside.

"Take over with Firstie. Nobody treats family, you know that." The senior medic smiled briefly at him, shouted, "You did good!" at his retreating back.

Barricade, sinking into recharge two nights later, realized that he had left behind his vorn as a Decepticon, had in fact become an Autobot, sigil or no. More or less while he wasn't watching, but here he was.

His loyalty to Megatron was over and done, and not simply as a result of Megatron's death.

Megatron had possessed a raw charisma exceeded only by Optimus' own. Like many before and after him, Barricade had fallen down that particular rabbit hole. He wondered if, absent Starscream's plans for hm, he would have stayed enslaved to that charisma to the bitter end: the battle of Chicago.

Optimus' crew, though, was held together with more than his own charm. They shared his belief in the rights of the individual, where Megatron had believed only in his own power.

His rust-red owner, Tornado, came into his room, rubbing one fisted servo sleepily in an optic. "Can't 'charge, 'Cade," he said.

Barricade slipped off the berth. "Come here, then," he said, picked up the sparkling, and took him back to his little berth on the wall of Skyfire's quarters. He gently rubbed Tornado's abdominal plates after the little mech was arranged again, and said softly, "Nightmare?"

"No. I jus' woked up, and couldn' get back into recharge."

When singing voices were handed out, Barricade had been standing in the line for extra sarcasm. But he could hum a little, two notes up, three notes down, over and over again, his servo making small light circles on the tiny belly.

He felt it, as much as anything else, when the small body relaxed, the tensions of the day leaving it.

When Tornado was soundly in recharge, he checked out the others; they were all dreaming what he really hoped were sweet dreams.

Starscream, whom he had never liked and who was now dead, had given this to him. He didn't know why.

Optimus had power the equal of Megatron's, but the Prime's power was firmly in the service of life itself, in whatever bodies housed it. Starscream, when the chips were down, had proven himself to be an unlikely ally in that regard.

And Barricade? He was now solidly with the Autobots in the service of life itself, in the form of fourteen sparklings, and however many lives he might save or extend as a medic. In the next vorn, Ratchet was going to begin teaching him human medicine.

He smiled, climbed into his berth, and cuddled back up under Sunstreaker's arm. He'd see about getting a sigil painted next orn. Fortunately, he knew just the 'bot to help him with that.