The second of taralynden‛s two birthday gifts. Happy birthday again!

Mirage pulled his vanishing trick, then approached the city, walking through what was left of the western wall of Pelliquum. This was slow going because he was extremely careful not to dislodge any of the small pieces of rubble, or to raise dust with hasty pedefalls, even though it was before dawn. His lack of speed had its reward when he went unseen and thus unchallenged right past the Decepticon sentries.

Once within the city of Pelliquum, he chose one of the many dwellings abandoned by wealthy Peliquites for its size, a full city block, and its doors, one on every side, all hanging off their hinges. Visible once more, he scattered empty cubes throughout the empty home, but removed none of the accumulated dirt. He set his one necessary piece of equipment behind and below a heavy piece of built-in furniture: out of sight, but hardly out of mind.

When Mirage ventured out into the city, dawn was casting very long shadows over Pelliquum. The first Cybertronian he saw was a sparkling, showing signs of malnourishment, crouching in the dirt.

"How many are in your family?" he said, as he walked past the little one.

"Four," the sparkling said, following him with listless eyes.

Mirage unsubspaced four cubes. "Subspace these and take them home. Don't take yours on the street. Will those be enough for everyone?"

The eyes began to sparkle. "No. I forgot to count myself."

Mirage slipped him another cube."Tell your friends about me. Not the adults, just the children."

"Okay, mech!" the sparkling said, and ran off, thin legs twinkling.

Before the sun was at zenith, Mirage had handed out two hundred and fifty-four cubes. The last five of those were an unusual distribution.

Mirage was about to send the wordless ping that registered as "Job done, shutting down, returning to base," when a stranger walked, unannounced, into the middle of his new digs.

"I need to know who you are," the middle-sized femme said brusquely.

She was very thin under her plating, Mirage's sensors told him, and she did not introduce herself. Not a flighted model, and no Decepticon insignia. But Mirage's own insignia was not visible either.

"Oh, I'm just the Old Spark, mistress," he wheezed in the local dialect, showing off his faux-broken dentum.

"Like slag," the femme said. "You've been handing out energon all morning, quite a lot of it to patients I've been going without myself to keep fed."

"Patients, mistress?"

The femme made an impatient movement. "I'm the local charity medic. I've got five hundred and thirty-two patients in this city."

A charity medic was on the opposite end of the medical spectrum from Towers medics, whose donations funded, or at this point in the war had funded, the charity medics' work. Mirage wheezed, "Old Spark is doing no harm, mistress. Cubes for starving sparklings, that's all."

"Look," the medic said, moving several of Mirage's set-dressing empty cubes off the nearest piece of moldering, dusty furniture, and sitting foursquare on it, "here's the situation. I serve one hundred and forty-three carriers, two quite close to separation, and two hundred and eighteen sparklings in the first half of their development. If you can get my patients out of this city, I will give you any assistance I can."

"Designation, mistress?"

The medic weighed several things. "Polychrome," she said at last, with a shrug, laying her life in the servos of Old Spark.

It was a fair measure of her desperation, Mirage realized, that the femme would give her designation to a complete stranger, who for all she knew was a Decepticon plant. Still, she'd told him nothing at all the Decepticons could use against her ...

"Come here to see Old Spark tomorrow, mistress," Mirage wheezed. "The same time?"

"Yes, very well. If I can't, I'll send the sparkling you first helped today to tell you why, and set up another meeting time. Is that acceptable, Old Spark?"

"Yes, mistress. Thank you, mistress." He unsubspaced his last five cubes, and gave them to the startled medic.

"No," said Polychrome, sounding stunned, "on behalf of my patients, thank you, Old Spark."

"I remember her," Ratchet said. "She was in the class ahead of mine, thought to have a bright future ahead of her, to be the kind of medic whose career lies in the Towers. But Polychrome always knew what she wanted, and she took the public-health courses. Made our advisor - we had the same one - furious. He said that you get two or three students like her in an entire teaching career, and here she was throwing it away on useless poor mechs and femmes."

"What did you do about that?" Prowl asked, curious. Because he knew Ratchet well enough, at this point, to know that the mech would have done something.

"Changed my advisor, and told the first one exactly what I thought of him. In that order." Ratchet turned to Mirage. "Look, if I give you a list of questions to ask her about what supplies, outside of the energon, she needs, will you ask her?"

"Put it on a datapad, and I'll carry it in subspace."

"All right."

"So I take it that the open-ended subspace is working well?"

"It gets hot after several transfers in a short time."

"How did you cope with that?"

"Hobbled in a circle, howling about Old Spark's sins catching up with him, by Primus, until it was manageable again."

Ratchet snorted, and Prowl grinned.

The "open-ended subspace" was actually a tiny, tiny space bridge, the largest, Wheeljack said, that he could calculate for on the march. One end sat in the camp by the well, a midpoint transfer behind and below the piece of heavy furniture in Mirage's new quarters, the terminus in Mirage's concealed subspace. It could handle six cubes of energon in a single transfer, but no greater volume. Families which needed more than that gave Old Spark's sins a burst of extra speed, and several such families in a row made them very fast indeed.

But, as would become true on Earth several millions of years later, lack of access to sparking control meant that poor families were larger, on average, than wealthy ones. But it was also true, as it would again become for humans, that if poor genitors wished to ensure that one sparkling survived to care for them in their old age they had to spark eight, and might mourn seven.

For cruelty, Mirage realized, Megatron had nothing, nothing at all, on poverty.

"No, mistress, no: not yet," said Old Spark. He'd been supplying Peliquum for three days now.

Polychrome folded her arms. "I don't see what's to be gained in waiting. Why can't you take some of my patients out with you right now?"

"Old Spark's way in and out ain't easy, mistress." Or even possible for those consigned to visibility.

Already, though, the camp by the spring had been subdivided, with half of it for the Autobots' use, and half designated for refugee care. Skyfire would be theirs for two orn in two orn from the day, for refugee transport. In one more orn, they could deal with the flood, if they could only burst the dam ...

Polychrome snorted. "All right, all right," she said shortly. "We'll play it your way. Tell your pipeline for medical supplies I'm very grateful."

"Yes, mistress."

She turned to leave, but halfway through the eastern door, was subjected to having an arm twisted up behind her back, and being propelled back into the room by a small graceful black-and-white mech, who turned his head to say to someone outside, "No, I don't need yer help. Shut the door an' stay put."

Polychrome, white around the audial fins, twisted free and backed away from the mech, his Decepticon insignia bright.

"Well," he said, coming to the middle of the room, and stopping with his hands on his hips. "Fin'lly we meet, Old Spark."

"Who be you, master?"

"Designation Jazz," the mech said shortly, holding eye contact. "Let's get one thing straight, th' two a'ya: I don' care what you're doin' ta support the population o' Pelliquum, or who y'all're in league with. I want alla th' civilians outta th' city tamarra. Can ya do that?"

'Guess we have to, master, you puttin' it like that an' all," Mirage said, his pump suddenly light. It was this easy? This mech giving the Autobots exactly what they wanted?

Polychrome said, "Why?"

Jazz looked at her and shook his head. "Th' siege is gettin' serious. There might be less'n a week before it comes ta hand-ta-hand fightin' in th' streets. I joined th' faction ta bring the Senate to its senses, not ta fight civilians, or fight guv'mint forces wit' civilians in th' middle, an' I won't if I can avoid it."

There was a silence begotten more of astonishment than anything else, and then Mirage said, "Old Spark'll pass that along to mecha who oughta know, master."

"Yeah," Jazz said, hands still on hips. "You do that." He glanced at Polychrome, then bored the red eyes into Mirage again. "You tell th' 'mecha who oughta know' that between th' fifth and th' eighth joor o' daylight tamarra, the entire civilian population'll be escorted out th' eastern gate, which I reckon will be easiest for the littlies an' th' oldies. I'll guarantee their safety between th' gates an' th' circumvallation. After they pass th' new wall, they ain't my problem anymore."

"I have carriers who will separate very soon," Polychrome said.

"If that happens while we're escortin' ya out, separate 'em in th' med bay at the base. When they, and you, can walk outta here, y'all will do it." Jazz smiled at her. "Or if you kin get somebody to carry a stretcher, you can take 'em with, if that seems safe. Up ta you, medic."

"Thank you," Polychrome said faintly. "Separation will be much safer in the bay."

The mech, a head shorter than Polychrome, Mirage noted, nodded. "That's how it'll be, then. By my reckonin'," Jazz said, taking his hands off his hips, "you earned some credit for helpin' us th' way ya did, medic. Ya made it clear there was a price involved, but it didn' go inta yer own pockets, or even inta yer own belly, and ya continued to help those o'us who needed it even when we couldn't pay ya."

"I'm grateful that you're giving us this chance.."

"No need ta be," Jazz said. "Favors run in an' out like th' tide." The black-and-white shifted his red eyes back to Mirage. "An' you, Old Spark, I don't know yer angle either. I don' think I care ya might be an Autobot." (Polychrome's orbital ridges raised; she hadn't even thought of that.) "Just - get 'em out, an' keep 'em safe."

"Old Spark will, master."

Jazz scowled. "I ain't yer master, an' no mech should be." He turned away from them, and went out the door.

After they both picked their mandibles up off the floor, Polychrome said, "What do we have to do?"

Old Spark said, "Send word to all your people to be ready to leave their homes, mistress."

"You can't do that?"

"Old Spark cannot, mistress. It falls upon Old Spark to tell the people who will shelter the refugees that they're a-coming. But the sparkling Old Spark fed first when he came upon Pelliquum - his designation is Updraft - might help you there." He unsubspaced the last of his precious cargo, gave her two cubes. "His payment." A third joined them. "And for you, mistress, as you have a surgery to pack. Let them know that Old Spark will be here tomorrow, before dawn, to distribute cubes to all for the journey."

"Very well," Polychrome said. "Thanking you might be impossible tomorrow, Old Spark, so I will say it now."

"Fare you well, mistress."

She nodded, turned and left.

Mirage invisibilized himself, and escorted Polychrome back to her surgery, though she did not know that. Thereafter he went immediately back to camp.

"Perfect," Prowl said.

Mirage raised a questioning orbital ridge. Ratchet did too.

Prowl shrugged. "I don't like inflicting civilian casualties," he said. "They're who we're fighting for, not against. Get them out of the equation, and Pelliquum is ours."

His life would not be back to boring for a day or two yet. Oh well.

"Can you get me into the city tomorrow?" Ratchet said.

"Ratchet," said Prowl, "you're too easily identified, and too valuable to us. You can't go. You can be at the circumvallation tomorrow, though. Once the last of the refugees are well beyond the city gate, I'll send a force against the western walls. That'll keep the 'cons busy enough that you and the twins can go out and pick up the ones who need help." He watched that penetrate the stubbornest helm in the Autobot army. "That do you?"

"Yes, very well," Ratchet said. "Thanks, Prowl."

By the time the sun hit zenith, all the western wall of Pelliquum lay in ruins, and hand-to-hand fighting was taking place in the city's devastated center. Campaign Pelliquum was almost complete.

The Autobots were at a slight disadvantage, in that the 'cons knew the city much more thoroughly than they did, even after an upload of the city map.

Official maps don't ever have all the information, and the 'cons had had time to discover all the hiding places and shortcuts. So for the Decepticons, the streets were a known quantity. For the Autobots, a battlefield full of unpleasant surprises: shortcuts, blocked alleys, the occasional underground passage.

Prowl had managed to neutralize this advantage somewhat by taking, and successfully defending, a guardhouse tower on the edge of the western wall. Then he had Grapple and Hoist level a section of southern wall beyond it. Thus isolated, the guardhouse became his own base of operations: his, Bluestreak's, and Mirage's (once Mirage was done being Old Spark).

"Your job," he'd said to the younger gunner, "is to take out anyone who looks as if they are directing others. Anyone."

Blue had taken him literally. The lieutenants, then the sergeants, then the corporals ... now he was down to any soldier in the Decepticon army who motioned to others to fill a gap in the line. Occasionally he got a shot at a higher-up.

Cut off the head, and the worm dies. But this head, in the person of Jazz, was canny enough to stay out of Blue's sights, or to appear in them briefly, and then, tantalizingly, to move out of them, always in swift and surprising ways. "Sometimes," Blue said to Prowl, frustrated, "it's as if he vanishes."

Still, Prowl's strategy of attrition took a toll on the Decepticons. At first they had outnumbered the Autobots two to one. At this point, the numbers were much more even, and most of the Decepticon sergeants, the most invaluable members of any large force, sprawled sparkless on Pelliquum's cobblestones.

The Decepticons, always a force consisting of each one for himself, were more than usually beyond the control of their upper echelon. Each squad was on its own, and none of them were willing to have any part of a sacrifice which might enable the others to succeed.

Four joor later, the sun, perverse bastard that it was, shone brightly down on the fall of Decepticon-held Pelliquum.

Mirage climbed to the ledge beside Prowl, unsubspaced his rifle, and said, "Reporting as ordered, sir."

"The refugees are all out of Pelliquum?"

"Yes, sir. Polychrome got two stretchers for the carriers about to separate, and the last of the refugees crossed the circumvallation just before I left."

"Good. Blue's taking out the officers. Your job is a little more complicated. Watch squads until you can pick out the non-com or enlisted in command of that squad, and take him out. I don't care if he's got rank insignia or not: anybody the others listen to is fair game."

Jazz was out on the battlefield by the time Mirage arrived, here, there, everywhere, agility itself in getting off a shot or two (he winged Sunstreaker, whose twin retaliated with a hearty cannon-blast), speed incarnate when Blue or Mirage had him dead to rights. The two sharpshooters took to having a back-up 'con in their sights when they finally took a shot. The secondary targets fared quite badly, but Jazz himself showed no betraying flinch of hurt.

Pockets of half-a-dozen Decepticons were reduced in numbers, then wiped out completely. Forty-two, thirty, twenty-four, nineteen, fifteen, twelve, nine, four.

Suddenly Prowl, still on the edge of the city, found fewer than twenty Decepticons between his forces inside Pelliquum and his guards at the eastern gate. Jazz' mecha were attempting to make it back to the base, located at a point about a quarter of the way along the eastern wall whose midpoint was the gate.

Prowl said, "Sunstreaker! Report to Hoist and Grapple, and tell them to level the garrison!"

"My finish - "

"That's an order, Sunstreaker!"

Sunstreaker, grumbling, went down the outside staircase, and headed toward the western command outpost.

Most of the 'cons had reached the safety of the base with its shooting emplacements twenty breem after Sunstreaker was dispatched. Jazz was still outside, giving cover fire to the last of his retreating forces, when the base itself vanished in a cloud of dust and a spatter of debris, followed by an audio-blasting "Whaaaaarooomph!" The explosion was lethal to the building, but did not bring down the wall behind it.

Hoist and Grapple, on the western side of the town, grinned and high-fived one another, and then Wheeljack.

Want it blown up? Tell 'Jack to experiment on it. Want to save the surrounding countryside, or the wall behind your target? Get Hoist and Grapple to shape the explosive charge.

Sideswipe leapt into the dust, and stumbled over prone bodies until he found Jazz'. He took stasis cuffs from his subspace, and shackled the 'con.

The dust cleared a little. Other forms, kneeling or bent over other prostrate 'cons, were revealed; some shook their heads, and moved on.

Jazz stirred, and groaned. Sideswipe pulled him to his knees, using one pede to cross the 'con's ankles behind him, and then placing that foot between Jazz' pedes. To rise, Jazz would first have to uncross his ankles, which Sideswipe's pede made impossible.

The red frontliner steadied the 'con until Jazz' eyes focused.

Five of the 'cons outside but closest to the building had been deactivated by the force of the blast; no one inside the building had survived. Seven others were injured; Ratchet was working them over one by one. By the time the dust settled, Polychrome joined him.

When Prowl got down to the site of the last battle, he noted that the cuffs in use on Jazz were Ratchet's medical stasis jobs, and raised his eyebrows.

"He got out of the standard-issue cuffs," Sideswipe explained. "Twice."

"Jazz?" Prowl said.

"Yes, sir." The 'con made eye contact, but didn't try to rise.

"I have your surviving forces under medical restraint. Will you surrender, sir?"

"Guess I don't have much of a choice, sir."

"Tomorrow you can fly out of here in chains, or out of them. It's your choice, sir."

"Oh," said Ratchet, coming up on Prowl's left, "there's another option."

Jazz tilted his helm up to meet Ratchet's gaze. "An' that would be?"

Ratchet continued to hold Jazz' eyes. "My colleague Polychrome has been kind enough to tell me that you often entertained the children of Pelliquum with acrobatics and escape stunts. The third option is that I'll put you into stasis and keep you there until we get to our brig, at which point I'll weld one ankle to the opposite wrist. Or you can give us your parole not to attempt escape. Your choice."

Jazz merely said, "An' how do you know I'll keep my word?"

"Polychrome says you do. But for added motivation, I'll dole out pain relief to your injured troops. You don't keep your word, I don't do the mech-of-mercy act."

Jazz burst out laughing, which took all of them aback. But he sobered immediately, and said, "Guess ya called my bluff, medic. Ya got yerself a deal." He turned to Prowl, and said, "I form'lly surrender my troops to ya, sir, an' I give ya my parole that I will not attempt escape while in yer custody."

"Thank you, sir," Prowl said, although he had not missed the slight emphasis Jazz placed on "yer." "If you please, Ratchet?"

Prowl saw Jazz, who had been hit by a shot of Blue's early on and had been leaking energon internally ever since, crumple into the dirt just as the medic reached for him. Ratchet knelt beside him and started swearing, which was always a treat: better than boredom any day.

The retreat from conquered, ruined Pelliquum offended Prowl's sensitivities. It lacked any significant flavor of boredom. Despite his very best planning, it was ... messy.

Skyfire, Polychrome, Hoist, and Grapple flew the first flight out with the largest number of refugees possible. This load consisted of the carriers, and all families which had a sparkling still unable to speak. With about a third of Skyfire's cabin space still available, Polychrome used a system known only to herself to load younger sparklings and their families, although it seemed to Prowl that some sparklings of comparable age were held back.

He didn't miss, though, that the sparklings held back possessed elder siblings. And Ratchet, consulted, said that it made sense. "Usually just the youngest ones and their genitors are out first - all the sparklings who require lots of servos-on help. The ones who are left will keep their elder siblings out of trouble. We haven't got a lot of people to watch them, or a lot of things to do, and they're getting bored. Bored sparklings are trouble, Prowl. Take it from me."

Oddly enough, it was the highest-ranking Decepticon captive who solved that problem for them, quite possibly because he was a bored (ex-)sparkling himself.

"Hey, Prowl, c'mere a minute. I need ya."

Bearing up mechfully under the shock of hearing himself familiarly addressed by a Decepticon POW, Prowl approached the pool of sparklings in which Jazz was a rock above water line. "Yes?" he said, willing to play along.

"Think I lost my whatchamacallit."

"Your whatchamacallit?"

"Yeah. Now it could be here" - Jazz touched Prowl's left audial fin, and brought forth a child's soft Xinca ball, which he tossed to a sparkling, who immediately pelted off, pursued by Xinca-obsessed peers - "no, that's not it. It could be here" - the right audial fin - "no, that's not it." An object a human child would have recognized as a teddy bear (Jazz had spent part of his recovery crafting it from used shredded energon cubes) was handed to a young femme. She squealed and ran off with it. "It could be here" - Prowl's left elbow proved to contain a set of cut-out femme and mech silhouettes, and a pair of fraternal twins gathered a small subset of friends as they took the figures and departed - "no, that's not it. It could be here" - left elbow" - "no, that's not it." A set of building blocks made from the various-sized energon cubes was presented to a lingering set of sparklings. They took the set, and adjourned to a corner of the cave to re-build Pelliquum.

One little sparkling was left. He (or she; it was sometimes difficult to tell) put a digit into her, or maybe his, mouth, and gazed up at Jazz with worshipful eyes.

"Prowl, bend down a minute."


"Bend down a minute. You got something on th' top of yer helm."

Prowl bent, feeling foolish. If the 'con tried anything he, Prowl, would make a dead 'con, and then play with the sparkling until the kid forgot all about it. Or maybe the second one first, and the first one later.

All he felt, though, was a tickling on the top of his helm, and then as he straightened the sparkling squealed with glee. Jazz said, "That's it! You got any use for a whatchamacallit?"

The littlie said, "Oh, yes, thank you so much! Thank you, Prowl!"

Prowl watched her run across the campground to a friend, and begin skipping rope. "How'd you get the line?" he said, puzzled.

"Make one continuous cut around a cube from top ta bottom, an' that's what you get," Jazz said, and smiled at him. "Thanks for playin' along."

"Jazz!" Ratchet bellowed. "Get back over here! You're supposed to be resting, mech!"

"Watch out," Prowl said with a grin of his own. "I'll go referee the Xinca game."

Around them sparklings were playing jacks (cut from energon cubes; Ratchet had contributed several ball joints' balls, and coated them in elastomer to get them to bounce); hopscotch (cube bottoms as marker); Xinca; felgrin, which required two cubes to be dissected into flat plates, and thrown a distance, whereupon points were scored if a rival's plate was touched or covered; tag; hide-and-go-seek; and that perennial childhood favorite, running and screaming for no apparent reason.

The camp, in short, was a gleeful madhouse.

But the sparklings were all much happier than they had been two hours ago, before Jazz rose from what was supposed to be a sickbed, and escaped Ratchet to work his magic.

Skyfire returned about the time the kids were taking somersault lessons from the former Decepticon commander, a little pale in the extremities, after last refueling. Polychrome had not returned with him; Grapple said one of her carriers was separating.

Ratchet went among the 'cons and offlined them for transit, Jazz last. The POWs were taken aboard and strapped in, and the compartment in which they were stowed sealed. Then the remaining refugees were taken aboard, and most of them were soundly in recharge by the time Skyfire had achieved altitude.

Finally, Prowl thought, relaxing in Skyfire's co-pilot's seat, it was boring again.

A day later, Prowl entered his office. He was, whenever his battle computer was not engaged, quite bored, and quite glad of it. He liked boring.

He seated himself at his desk, and sent the command to boot up his computer. Today he'd finish writing up his report on Pelliquum, and -

Jazz dropped from the ceiling onto his desk, landing in a crouch.

Prowl bolted up from his chair, which went over backwards, and had an ulnar-sheath saber in his grip before the chair got to the ground.

His opponent began to laugh, and pound his desk. "Mech, you shoulda seen your own face! Oh, that was priceless!" Jazz rocked back onto his heels, and clasped his hands together in front of himself, elbows on knees, broad grin on his face.

"You're supposed to be in the brig!" Prowl snapped. He sheathed the sword, righted his chair rather crossly, and sat.

"Gave my parole to you, not Ironhide," Jazz said.

Prowl helmdesked.

"Y'know," Jazz said, "when you do that, a lotta cables runnin' down the back o' yer neck're exposed. Just sayin' yer vulnerable in ways ya might notta thought of," he said, hands at shoulder level and palm-out, as Prowl raised his helm to glare.

"Jazz. Why are you here?"

"Well," said the black-and-white Decepticon, "I got released from med bay and put inta th' brig, but after talkin' ta Ratchet about it, I wanted ta talk ta somebot else about joinin' up. Ironhide won't talk ta me, and since it's ta you I gave my parole, seemed like a good idea ta come see ya. So if yer free, will ya come an' have a cube wit' me, an' we can talk?"

Prowl sighed. It had been so boring just a short while ago. He liked boring, large fluffy helpings of boring with a nice side of completely unseasoned tedium (slightly overripe, not peeled, and he'd deal with the pits himself, thank you).

Jazz, however, had a way of evaporating every last trace of those qualities from any room he occupied.

Prowl said firmly, "We'll stop to see Optimus Prime on the way back to the brig. When you're free, I'll have that cube with you."

"Deal," said Jazz, grinned, leapt to the floor, and held his wrists out for Prowl's stasis cuffs.

Prowl snorted. "A fat lot of good that would do. And I still have your parole."

"Yeah, you do," said Jazz. "Always."

Jazz calmly and neatly described for Optimus Prime his distaste at having to incur civilian casualties, his dislike of Megatron's management policies, and his original reason for becoming a 'con. He stated the facts, and did not give excuses.

Whereupon Optimus said, "It's one of my greatest regrets that I did not stand up sooner to the Senate. They were wrong, and I saw it; I simply failed to believe myself, instead of mecha who told me they were older, and therefore wiser, than I."

"Wasn't just that, a'course. A lot of 'em had their snouts in th' public trough, which meant that they weren't gonna give up that privilege without a fight."

"Unfortunately, it wasn't they who fought it." Optimus began to fiddle with a sculptural representation of the Matrix as he thought, his eyes unfocused.

Neither Jazz nor Prowl spoke. Prowl was silent because he knew his Prime occupied hands and mind this way to reach conclusions; Jazz kept quiet because he'd said all he had to say.

Prime's hands stilled, the unMatrix was returned to its original place, and the leader of the Autobots raised his helm to say, "We would very much like to have you join us, Jazz. You do understand that, for reasons of security, it'll be a while before we can send you on missions of true urgency, and a shorter period during which it will be necessary for us to treat you as a prisoner: you'll be restricted to base, your comms and your transformation cog will remain inoperable."

Jazz, his eyes on Prowl for a longer moment than necessary, shrugged. "'s only sensible," he said. "I got no problems wit' it."

"All right. Your first test of loyalty is this: report alone to Ironhide, and show him how you got out of the brig. In the morning, at shift change, I'll meet with you. Be waiting here for me." Optimus folded his hands across his belly and smiled.

Jazz rose, saluted, and said, "Yes sir, I'll see you tamarra."

Security cameras showed the Decepticon walking directly back to the brig, nodding to Sideswipe on the way by.

Sideswipe, to give him credit, turned and followed the 'con all the way back to the brig with his shoulder cannon charged. The cameras had no audio, and thus did not record the 'con saying, without turning his head, "You gonna shoot me, Sides?" as the cannon powered up with its distinctive whine, nor Sides' reply of "Not in the back, 'con."

Those same tapes showed Prowl walking back to his office shaking his head and chuckling.

He was chuckling at Optimus.

He was shaking his head at himself.

As much as Prowl liked being bored, as fond as he was of the non-flavor of tedium, he realized they had limited appeal while he was in Jazz' company. He thought (quite logically, of course) that he should therefore arrange to spend time with Jazz often, and to extend that time as long as possible.

Yes, that was logical. If not boring.

Once back in his office, Prowl seated himself at his desk, and completed the report on Campaign Pelliquum by returning to the original five-paragraph summary.

Final Mission Report: Campaign Pelliquum

Situation: What's the problem? The Decepticons are in Pelliquum, possibly to secure the town itself and the transport routes it's located on, possibly to secure the natural resources around it, possibly both. Resolution: Pelliquum itself has been destroyed with heavy Decepticon casualties. Survivors have been taken into custody. The commanding mech, designated Jazz, will be recruited as an Autobot.

Mission: What's our strategy for resolving this problem? We will re-take Pelliquum, re-establish control over the transport routes, and secure the resources for ourselves. Resolution: Mission 100% successful.

Execution: What tactics are we going to use? We will surround and isolate Pelliquum, cutting off supply routes to the Decepticon troops inside, and carry the fight to them inside Pelliquum itself. Note to self: Minimize damage to civilian holdings, optimally minimize (zero) civilian casualties. Resolution: Execution 80% successful. Pelliquum itself received damage sufficient to render it almost uninhabitable. While the city's systems (energon well and pump, lighting) are intact, most buildings are almost completely ruined. To recover the trade routes and take advantage of the radiastone and energon deposits nearby, at some point, Pelliquum must be rebuilt.

Support: What are the logistics? We will need fewer than 100 troops to take Pelliquum by siege. We may have need of explosives and a small space bridge. Pelliquum was taken by siege with 97 troops. No fatalities were suffered among the Autobots, and only 14 mechs were wounded, none severely. The space bridge was critical to minimizing civilian casualties. Explosives were used to render a covert supply route to Pelliquum inoperable, and demolish the Decepticon base within the city. Decepticon casualties numbered 420 (est.); seven Decepticons were taken into custody, and the commander of Pelliquum, designated Jazz, has applied to work with our forces, citing repulsion at being asked to ignore civilian casualties among other reasons to change his allegiance.

Command: What resources will we need for Execution? Wheeljack and Perceptor, as they are our best siege warriors; the scouts and Mirage; Grapple and Hoist, because sieges always mean engineering; frontliner troops. Resolution: All the above personnel played critical roles, as did Bluestreak and the frontliner Sideswipe. Please see detailed mission report, paragraphs 8, 14, 27, 38, 41,56, 61, 73, and 92.- Prowl, his chop. Date stamp 959.200

That complete, Prowl sighed, and pulled a locked personal datapad to himself to write another five-paragraph summary.

Preliminary Mission Report: Campaign Jazz

Situation: What's the problem? I want to spend as much time with Jazz as possible.

Mission: What's my strategy for resolving this problem? To court him.

Execution: What tactics am I going to use? Whatever works, up to and including outright spark-seduction. Note to self: agreed-upon acceptable compulsion?

Support: What are the logistics? He and I will both have duties that must be carried out. Then we can play.

Command: What resources will I need for Execution? Once he's committed to us and known to be loyal, I should probably talk to Optimus about this.- Prowl, his chop. Date stamp 960.189

Final Mission Report: Campaign Jazz

Situation: What's the problem? I want to spend as much time with Jazz as possible. Achieved.

Mission: What's my strategy for resolving this problem? To court him. No issues arose in implementation.

Execution: What tactics am I going to use? Whatever works, up to and including outright spark-seduction. Note to self: agreed-upon acceptable compulsion? No issues arose in implementation.

Support: What are the logistics? He and I will both have duties that must be carried out. Then we can play. Our absences are rarely coincident and often lengthy. However, we have found that the first time we spend together after such absences is extremely rewarding.

Command: What resources will I need for Execution? Once he's committed to us and proven to be loyal, I should probably talk to Optimus about this. Jazz and I continue to debate bonding, and to take the necessary precautions to avoid it. We are both equally torn between wishing to spark-bond, and knowing it unwise, at least with the war ongoing, to do so. - Prowl, his chop. Date stamp 972.284

Hey, Prowl? "Campaign Jazz." Yer so funny. Oh, an' when you gonna get around to that "agreed-upon acceptable compulsion"? Jazz, his chop.- Date stamp 0122.844

What? Jazz! You weren't supposed to be able to find this, let alone crack the password! And it was encrypted! - Prowl, his chop. Date stamp 29013.202.314

Babe. Special ops, ya know? But since it bothers ya, I won't look again. Congratulations, by the way, on carryin' out a successful campaign. Love ya. Jazz, his chop. - Date stamp 0222.455

No casualties were incurred on either side during Campaign Jazz. However, it should be regarded as fought to a draw, as each side captured and subsequently held the other's spark; to date, neither has retreated from that position.