THREE JOOR LATER
Prowl had set himself to rouse after two joor fifty breem, knowing that was enough time for a full recharge cycle (a "darkorn's recharge" for most Cybertronians consisted of three to five cycles. Cybertronians had in common with humans, or rather would have in common with humans, both upright featherless bipedalism and the basic sleep/recharge cycle structure. Who knew).
Optics still shuttered, and with no real urge to wake fully, Prowl could hear a conversation taking place, not nearby, but relatively close: the words indistinguishable, the voices rising and falling in amicable discourse.
The other small noises of the medical bay had fallen to silence, excepting those of his own monitors.
He stretched, and yawned, and simply idled for a time, not even listening to the muted, far-off conversation, until the sound of his own name yanked him to full awareness.
"– chose to allow the stronger links to the ethical component of his processor, which means that ethics were an active concern for him before the installation. He's been awake now for a short period. I'll see if he's up again."
"Don't wake him on my account," said a deep, pleasant voice.
"All right." Footsteps approached. "Prowl, it's Ratchet. You with us?"
"Yes," the Praxian said, on a yawn.
The lights in med bay came up slowly, as Ratchet and a very large mech approached Prowl's berth.
Ratchet said, "Optimus Prime, Prowl of Praxus. Prowl, Optimus Prime."
"Sir," Prowl said, and sat up with Ratchet's help, less swimmy this time, he was glad to note. Ratchet stood behind the Prime, a step or two away in case of trouble.
That was wise. Ratchet too had been on the 'cons "Shoot on Sight" list, with the addendum "Extremely dangerous" attached to his name. If Prowl were a sleeper - he didn't think he was, but the point with Soundwave was that you did not know you had been made into one - he would not be able to carry out an assassination with the dangerous Ratchet so close by.
Perhaps it was just as well that the Prime wasn't privy to these thoughts of Prowl's. He smiled pleasantly, and said, "Just 'Optimus,' please. It's my understanding that you wish to defect from the Decepticons."
"Yes, si- Optimus, that's correct."
The tall mech drew a chair to his bedside, and sat; Ratchet remained standing to his right, and a little to the rear of the chair. "If you have the energy," Optimus said, "I'd like to know how you came to be a Decepticon, and why you've decided to leave them."
Prowl exhaled, glad that the medbay was empty, except for himself and these two. Bad enough to have to lay your spark bare to a perfect stranger. Although the Prime's bearing and energy were both - supportive? Was that the word he wanted? Well, he was the Bearer of the Matrix, unique among their race because of it.
Prowl took a deep breath, and said, "I felt no need to choose between factions until my battle computer was installed, and Praxus fell, although as a citizen I'd been disgusted for some time by the Senate's more - egregious - excesses."
Optimus nodded slowly. "Call it what it was," he said. "Feeding at the public trough, to the detriment of the citizens of Cybertron. I was slow to call them on that, slow to believe what I saw."
Prowl nodded. "They presented it so credibly that no one protested for far too long. Even when they began to, I was an Enforcer of Praxus, Optimus, and it served me best to set politics aside when I was dealing with the public. Autobot, Decepticon, or neutral, I had to treat the all according to the tenets of the law. I found it best to remain only peripherally aware of the politics of the time. But when I calculated the chance of your success against those of Megatron using the new battle computer, it returned long odds against you. I wanted to survive the war, so joining the Decepticons made more sense."
The Prime looked at him with an expression Prowl would come to know well. It said, "That's so logical it's completely insane." But what the big mech himself said was simply, "I see."
Prowl continued, "It was brought home to me that I had made the wrong decision when, as part of my training, I was told to deactivate a drone. Not shut it down, deactivate it. This drone had been my best friend before he was decorticated." Prowl shifted, and broke eye contact, unwilling to let a stranger see his pain. "That was after the Enforcers had been told they could safely surrender to Megatron. Escalade was an honorable mech, and he would have taken them at their word."
Optimus gave him some time. Then he said, very calmly, "What did you plan to do about that offer?"
"It was made while I was on duty, so I didn't have the option to respond."
"What did you decide to do as a result of your encounter with Escalade?"
"It happened the day before Iacon, so I didn't have time to do much planning. I was thinking that perhaps I could simply desert from the battlefield, if it became chaotic enough, or go missing as a sentry. But then I was part of a small squad going into Iacon, and neither opportunity presented itself before the building fell on me."
Prowl wondered if he had just sealed his own fate with those words. But he had taken their energon, and he owed the Decepticons loyalty.
Prime cocked his big head on one side. "And how did you fight that battle before you were trapped?"
"To wound, between the armor plates, instead of to kill, into the spark casing." Prowl looked down. "I made that choice partially because of Escalade, and partly because I had met Jazz. I couldn't be sure I wouldn't meet him again on the battlefield, and in my first skirmish I realized that there was very little time to aim. So I chose always to wound, never to kill. I might have if I'd had no other choice, but I was never put in that position."
"I see." The Prime looked at him for a moment or two, all scratches and new welds around the processor, and that damned insignia proudly front and center on his chest. A 'con. Who might be a 'bot. Optimus wasn't going to make it easy, though; it would not be easy for any of them to trust an ex-'con, so the 'con would have to prove himself first.
And that strategy had worked out exceptionally well with Ironhide, and then with Jazz. "So what swayed you to the Autobots, Prowl?"
"First it was Jazz' actions when the 'cons bombed Iacon Council Center and null-rayed a crowd of Autobot supporters in front of it. He helped me to carry survivors inside, and then treated one who was bleeding. That was after I'd stasis-cuffed him to a pipe, when I found him standing over my superior officer in the Enforcers. She was dead. He was cleared, of course; the knife was 'con make, but had none of his paint on the handle."
"Yes," Optimus said neutrally. "I remember that report. You said that was first?"
"Yes. That spoke better of your forces than the 'cons'. Then I had a conversation with Ironhide while we were trapped together. He said that he had left the 'cons himself when Megatron gave the order to deactivate any sparkling found on the front." Prowl's hands worked; the Praxian didn't notice. "I won't work for or give any assistance to a mech who would take such a step. That's – obscene."
"If you join us, you'll be working against him, but also against those you fought with."
"I had neither friends nor acquaintances within the 'cons, si - Optimus. Just squadmates, and only for a single orn and a single battle. I had neither time nor opportunity to bond with any of them."
"You've no competing loyalties."
Optimus sighed, and folded his servos around one knee. "I have Ratchet look at every defecting 'con's programming: hack him. It's never been done to me, but I'm told it is not a pleasant procedure. It's required, if you join us after having been a 'con. Are you willing to allow it?"
Prowl blinked. "I thought Ratchet already had; if he needs to do it again, yes I am. It's only logical."
"Logical, perhaps. Necessary, certainly, as we will never have a Soundwave in our ranks."
"Tall mech, with a drawer or something in the middle of his chest?"
"That's Soundwave, yes."
"He was present at my intake interview."
"Was he now," Ratchet said, and hove to beside Prowl's berth.
"Yes. I didn't know that was important?"
"Oh," said Ratchet, with a smile even Optimus was a little frightened of, "it's not critical. But if Soundwave's been in your processor, I'll have Red Alert come in and back me up when I hack you. Soundwave's left nasty little surprises here and there before."
Optimus raised an eyebrow.
"Subtle stuff," Ratchet said, looking from one to the other. "After Sideswipe had been in their clutches once, he couldn't shoot straight with any accuracy. Either he was right on target, or just a critical amount off, and you could never tell which until the bullet was on its way. I finally went into his processor, and Soundwave had done some fairly sophisticated tinkering with his sighting subroutines, linked to a random-number generator. Came up odd, he shot true. Came up even, he didn't. Easily fixed, but you've gotta know it's there. Once when Sunny was wounded, he left a trap specifically for me that almost got me, which is why I use backup now."
"I remember that," Optimus said. "Sides hadn't been with us very long when that happened."
"No. Within his first two vorn here, as I remember." Optimus tilted his head to one side, and addressed Ratchet very directly. "I wonder why it is I don't remember the report concerning Sunny?"
"I don't know," Ratchet said, with perfectly straight faceplates. "Shall I run a processor scan on you when we're done here?"
"Oh, I don't think that will prove to be necessary, Ratchet. Particularly if it doesn't happen again."
Their optics met, and held, and then Ratchet's dropped first. He said, "Well. Ever since then, if a mech tells me Soundwave had at him, I get Red in here to watch over the process. He can pull the plug if he has to."
"On ... whom?" Prowl said.
"Oh, either one of us. Don't worry about that," Ratchet said dismissively. "I'm not talking about permanent offlining, just a quick slap into stasis lock."
"I see," Prowl said. "How will tomorrow go if there are no surprises?"
"Initially, I'll put you under fairly heavy sedation, but you won't be completely out. If I have to go in and remove Soundwave's work, you'll be out for that, all right. Let's hope it won't come to that. Do you remember what he did while you were together?"
"Yes," Prowl said, and did not miss that the medic relaxed slightly at those words. "He stood at Megatron's shoulder, and during the whole interview I had a buzzing in my ears. They obviously commed one another at several points in the conversation."
"But you remember all the time you spent with them."
Prowl accessed his data. "Yes," he said eventually. "There are no time-stamp gaps in those memories."
"That's very good news." Ratchet looked at Prowl, still sitting on his berth, then to Optimus, then back to Prowl. "As I said, I'll give you a sedative before the hacking, although I can't put you completely under for it. We'll do it tomorrow morning, and then, unless we have a Soundwave-occasioned detour, we can plan from those results."
"All right," Prowl said, and to his own embarrassment, yawned. "Sorry."
The Prime rose. "You'll comm me?" he said to the medic.
"Immediately when I've finished."
"Thank you. –Prowl, thank you for talking to me."
"Nice to have met you, Optimus."
The Prime smiled, and turned away. Lights dimmed in the med bay, and Prowl, helped to lie back down by Ratchet, was asleep again in seconds.
But not before he remembered that they had promised him nothing.
Prowl had been given that heavy sedative, and then a sedating drip carefully dialed back down to almost nothing, to prepare him for the hacking. This process had generated its usual feeling for Prowl of being stuck in a slow-motion film underwater, when the twin frontliners burst into med bay, one carried, as was often the case, in the other's arms.
Ratchet saw this, and strung together a series of curses so fluent and imaginative that Prowl blinked (very slowly. His reaction time at the moment was approximately that of glacial retreat).
"Sorry, buddy," the medic said, running a last quick eye over the arrangements, "but I've gotta take care of this. You just hang, okay?" He ran up both side rails on the berth with the speedy rasp and clang of long experience, and took off running, pointing and shouting, "That berth, there!"
"Oooookkaaaay," Prowl said, but the medic was already gone.
He was actually too far out of it to check the wall chronometer, his own having been disconnected. All he knew was that time had passed to the accompaniment of repair noises and curses, and the occasional clang of wrench-to-helm impact, when a face suddenly popped into his visual field and a voice he vaguely remembered said, "Hey, Prowl. Howya doin'?"
"'Mooookkaaaay," he said. " ... Jaaazzzz?"
"Th' one an' only. Came by t'see how you was doing, but Ratch's distracted at the moment. I'll check back later."
He prepared to leave, but Prowl said, "You're ... the onnnnne ... said I ... was cuuute," and blinked, very slowly.
Which was, in itself, cute, Jazz realized. "That's me. Still true, even when yer's high as the towers of Iacon." The small black-and-white looked down for a second. "As they used ta be, anyway."
This last was too much for Prowl to cope with; he couldn't, at the moment, even find the signpost that pointed toward Memory Lane, let alone canter down it.
Right now the present was soft and fluffy and he was happy to be here ... wherever "here" was. So he dismissed the statement as irrelevant, and addressed another item on his agenda. "You're ... pretty cuuuuuuuute ... too."
There was another clang of wrench to helm in the background.
Jazz sat back down, a thunderstruck look on his face. "You think so?"
"Yes. I doooooooooooooo." A goofy grin came out of hiding, and camped on Prowl's features.
Another clang, a noise of hasty pedefalls, and a series of rapid statements and questions.
"Well, how about that," Jazz said, a look of wonder on his faceplates. "It's mutual."
"Jazz," said Ratchet, arriving at speed, "get out of my med bay right now." Another mech followed him, in red paint.
"Ratchet, this is th' least opportune time in th' history of th' world for you to kick me out."
"Don't care. Do your flirting later. He's not competent to enter any kind of social contract at the moment."
Jazz backed away, servos up and palms out. "Put th' wrench away, Ratch. I'm leavin'." The small mech smiled at Prowl, whose heavy optics were still locked on his face. "I'll see you later, gorgeous, an' we'll talk."
"Oooooooookkkkkkkaaaaaaaaay, cuuuuuuuuuuute onnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnne," said Prowl.
Even through the heavy haze of the drug, he felt the poke of embarrassment wanting his attention. But Jazz grinned at him before he left, so it went away, clearly knowing when it was unwanted.
Ratchet kicked up the drip a notch - mech shouldn't even be making sense at this point! - took a deep respiration to center himself, strapped Prowl to the berth, and raised all his firewalls. "Red Alert, Prowl of Praxus, Prowl, our Security Director, Red Alert."
Prowl gave Red Alert a grin about half as goofy as the previous one, and said, "Hellllo."
"Hello, Prowl. You ready for this?"
"Firewalls up?" Ratchet said to Red Alert. "Okay, here we go." Opening Prowl's chest armor, he began to hack the Praxian.
SEVERAL JOOR LATER
Jazz put his head around the med bay door. "Ratchet? Okay if I come in?"
Ratchet put a tool he had been cleaning down, picked up another, removing flakes of dried energon with a ruby cloth. "Maybe. He's still pretty far out of it, so you can't take anything he says too seriously. And you can stay for maybe ten joor. He's got a ferocious processor ache, and I can't give him anything for it. If he's asleep and you wake him up, it will be an act of great unkindness."
"Congratulations on your promotion." The second tool was laid down, and a third picked up. Jazz didn't even want to think about what Ratchet was patiently scraping out of its crevices.
"Thanks," said the new Head of Special Operations, "but I wish I'd gotten it another way. Oversight was a good mech, an' I'll miss him."
Ratchet held his work up to the light, turned it this way and that, was pleased by the result, and moved on to another tool, even scarier than the last. Metal shavings were stuck in the dried energon, and he picked them out delicately, dropping every one into the recycling bin as he went.
Of course, he dropped the dried flaked energon into a separate recycling container of its own, too. Waste not, want not.
"I will too. And at some point, I'll have Starscream in this med bay, whereupon I shall be able to demonstrate to him how displeased I am by his habit of using null-rays on those who are already down."
"Ratchet," said Jazz, after a long moment, "you scare th' Pit outta me."
"Jazz. In the first place, that's too much a part of your core programming for it to leave you entirely." Jazz grinned. "In the second place, you're a smart mech, and that shows it. Go sit with Prowl. If he isn't awake, hold his servo and just be with him. Patients know, even if they aren't responsive. The first moment he was coherent enough to be understandable, he asked for you."
Jazz hadn't asked Ratchet if Prowl was going to be an Autobot. He knew the medic would refuse to tell him; it wasn't personal. Medical data was medical data, and thereby private even if it pertained to a 'con the Autobots might decline to allow to join them. So he went to Prowl's bedside, and held hands with a mech he hoped, but was not sure, he would see again.
Jazz looked at the medic again, from across the med bay this time. "They're wrong about you bein' mean, you know," he said.
Ratchet snorted. "No they aren't."
"So, if he's comin' on board, how we gonna work him into the command staff?" Ironhide said.
"The usual way. Throw him on the ground, see if he hits running." Optimus shrugged. "Since he has a battle computer, I'm going to assign planning non-strategic, as well as battle-based, enterprises to him. You - " the Prime turned to Ratchet and Red Alert - "were sure he has no tag-alongs, nothing to link him back to the 'cons."
"Yes. As well, his experience with them was what he said it was: two orn, the second orn spent on a battlefield as frontline troops. He had minimal contact with them, really, and his impetus for joining them was exactly what he described."
"Which was?" said Red Alert, almost casually. He had been back-up, but it was Ratchet in Prowl's processor.
Ratchet shrugged. "He wanted to survive the war, and joining the 'cons seemed to give him the best chance of doing that."
"Let's hope that his participation will make that decision in our favor easier for others," Prime said. "When will he be out of med bay?"
"Late this orn, or tomorrow morning at the latest. At Red's suggestion, I installed a tag-along without Prowl's knowledge. It has a useful life of two vorn. If he undertakes any planning against us in that period, it's programmed to send the data to Red."
"Good thinking. Let's hope it's an unnecessary precaution. - Send him to my office when you discharge him. When we're done," the Prime said to Jazz, "I'll comm you, and you can get him settled."
"Why is Jazz doing that?" Red Alert asked, not unreasonably. Orienting new recruits was not the sort of thing the Head of Spec Ops was assigned to. Ever. Spec Ops troops were expected to be able to orient themselves, in any situation, so where to berth and where to eat? Those should be simple questions, and any Spec Ops mech who needed help to answer them wasn't going to last long.
And Prowl was not, was never going to be, Special Ops.
But Optimus smiled at Jazz, then transferred his attention back to Red. "Because," Optimus Prime said with that smile deepening, "unless I'm very wrong, I think he'd like to."