Alright, so here I am again, on time. And with potato chips! Yay! Xp

Ahem. So anyway, thanks of course go to my wonderful reviewers (whom I actaully replied to this time! ALL OF THEM! Whoa! The world must be ENDIIIIINNNG! xp) Thanks go to my sis, Mercedes Wolfcry, Autobot-Bre, Mikaela the Cat, Birgitte LP, Vivian Hale, Kir, TheDarkTulip, and Beowulf828 for their kind words and encouragements. ::thankful hearts!::

Oh! And all of you get mucho bonus points because this story has now attracked 185 reviews even and over 10,000 hits! :O That hit record has most definitely surpassed my meager dreaming. Excited writer's squee! XD Yay!

Now let's see, I don't think I have much to say, only that, as some of you may have noticed in the last chapter, the creepy reflections of the bots in the dark energon were a reference to their Shattered Glass selves! XP hee hee, I thought that was fun, other dimensions bleeding into each other. Hopefully most of you caught that as well. Of course if you did, then this explanation is rendered moot...

Oh well. Hope you enjoy this next chapter! Which I finished at 2 am! ;) And people say drinking diet coke at nine at night doesn't have any side affects. X3 Oh? They don't say that? Well then...enjoy anyway!

...

The Long Road Home

21 – The Continuing Antics of Screwballs – 21

The next morning saw Nathanial and Peg in the main room of the Hall of Records, hovering halfway between floor and ceiling.

"Alright Peg," Nathanial thought as he tightened his grip on the reigns and corrected his balance in the saddle. Now was no time for falling off. "You ready to give this another go?"

Peg neighed fiercely and tossed her head up and down. "Let's go already human!" She called out, her version of a, "Slag yeah!"

Nathanial's mouth stretched upward in a tight lipped smile. Muscles tensed as he gave the final command-

"HA Peg!" He called as he gave her the more mundane signal with his heels.

Like a bullet from a barrel, Peg shot away, wings pumping powerfully for a few strokes before their momentum was enough to carry them through the air. Almost instinctively, Nathanial guided Peg around the obstacle course he had set up with Hound's help.

Their surroundings passed by in flashes as Nathanial sent Peg commands faster then he could finish thinking them and she obeyed almost like she had thought them for herself. From the ground they were nothing but a dark gray blur as Peg's wide, leathery wings cut through the air like an overly large hummingbird.

A chair, a stylus stand, and the underside of a desk swum by before Nathanial could fully focus on them. Not that he needed too. He had been doing this since he was fifteen after all. It was easier then breathing to note their surroundings before letting the information slide away so that where they were now could take its place.

The sound of his pulse was deafening in Nathanial's ears, echoed by his tense breathing as he gave Peg commands with his legs like any other rider while at the same time giving her more details through their tether bond. Peg responded immediately to his thoughts, tossing and throwing her head forward with every wing beat.

A target, already covered in blackened score marks, flashed into Nathanial's field of vision and he acted almost without conscious thought, embedding a silver dagger in the target's boundaries. He heard it land with a solid thunk, but didn't see anything more as he and Peg flashed on through the course.

He finished the first lap with his throwing daggers. Even though he was an Equine Rider, and had all the amazing abilities that afforded him at his disposal, they were still his weapon of choice. The daggers were small, easily hidden in objects and on his person, and the small blades didn't lose their sharpness when the power shorted out.

But even though he always had two or three of the small weapons on him at all times, he still couldn't help but grin as he brought out his flash gun, probably the single strangest weapon the cavalry favored.

"Alright Peggy Sue," Nathanial thought as they came out from their first lap through the course without mishap, "let's make this more interesting."

Peg tossed her head eagerly as she stiffened her wings at an angle and circled around in one large, smooth swoop.

Nathanial let himself relax for that brief moment as they circled around to the front of the course again. Compared to the mad, breakneck speed they had shot through the maze with, the wind now was calm as it flew past his face, its noise practically a whisper rushing past his ears.

This had always been his favorite part of flying. This freedom. Of leaving all your baggage on the ground, forgetting about it for at least a little while because it wouldn't help you up here. It felt like nothing else existed but him and Peg.

But it was only a brief interlude and he made sure to concentrate on their practice run again as Peg came out of her gentle turn.

Nathanial tightened his grip on the flash gun as Peg started building up speed again. Constructed by the same minds that had studied the technology Nexus Prime had left them before disappearing off into parts unknown, flash guns were favored by Equine Riders because they were light, easy to hold with one hand so you didn't have to let go of your mount and risk falling off, and they needed to be reloaded rarely which meant you didn't have all that spare ammo weighing you down when you were trying to fly. They were also one of the few weapons that the dust devils feared.

The opening to their makeshift practice course loomed ahead of them, filling Nathanial's vision as Peg barreled toward it. He exhaled to steady himself as the walls made of outdated codex books seemed to stay directly ahead of them, but of course they sped through the gateway between them instead.

He heard Peg snicker at him through their tether.

He ignored her and focused instead on the first target coming up. His dagger still had half the blade buried in the bundled up paper Prowl had reluctantly let him use. Flash guns weren't exactly precision weapons so Nathanial didn't need as much time to aim as he had needed with the daggers. Now he focused most of his attention on keeping his balance even as he held the gun away from both his body and Peg's and fired at the stationary target.

There was the familiar spark, flare, THWOOM! as lightening igniting in the flash gun's concealed circuitry and, fast as, er…itself, collected in the main glass chamber before traveling down the pathways laid out for it and leaping out to close the distance between Nathanial and the target. Like two ends of a magnet, the miniature lightening strike automatically went for the metal dagger buried in the target before it was released to the rest of the material surrounding it.

Nathanial didn't have time to look back, but he could feel the sudden heat as the paper target abruptly caught fire with a sharp crack, but a crooked smile appeared on his face anyway.

Peg sorted at him. "Secret pyromaniac." She jibed.

Nathanial's smile didn't shrink any. "It's a poorly kept secret then."

They took the next turn a little too fast, nearly running into the wall of the desk, but Peg gave a powerful stroke downward, turning herself horizontal and running along the wall before she managed to correct their course.

Peg tossed her head and let out an excited horse-scream.

Nathanial wasn't as pleased. Actually he felt a little like his stomach was trying to crawl out his throat.

"Peg! What have I said about sideways?" He shouted at her as he fired off another shot at the up coming target. Even the lightning's attraction to metal didn't keep his shot from just barely clipping the side of the paper target, making it smolder more then burst into flames.

Peg just gave him another horsy laugh and threw herself into the next part of their practice.

Nathanial shoved down his irritation and his unsettled stomach when he realized Peg wasn't about to feel sorry for her fun. He didn't need any distractions as Peg started activating her transwarp programming, unless he wanted to end up getting swallowed by all the different conflicting energies and never be seen again. That would make for an especially rotten day since he and Aria had another date tonight.

Nathanial leaned low over Peg's neck, the short bristles of her mane poking his unprotected face as he did his best to flatten out and give the charged winds of the transwarp portal a smaller target.

They were through in an instant, Nathanial tapping into Peg's faster sensors to process the more mundane things like where they were in the course as he locked on to the closest target with his eyes and fired without a second thought. The electric bolt barely cleared the flash gun before the two were diving through another portal. Nathanial flattened himself against Peg again as mass amounts of information from the sensors in her mane was dumped into both their minds, Nathanial relying on Peg to process the data and Peg relying on him to tell her what it all actually meant in the grander scheme of what they were doing.

They came out the other side of the transwarp jump and Nathanial saw the target briefly before firing reflexively. Then they just repeated the process. Flatten out. Jump. Fire. Flatten out. Jump. Fire. Hop scotching to different parts of the practice course at random to create the closest simulation to battle they had available. Well, without stepping outside at any rate. This was supposed to be a simulation after all.

"Thirteen." Nathanial counted as he leaned over Peg's neck again, feeling the static rush as they stepped through another portal and came out halfway across the course. "Fourteen." He thought as another bolt left the flash gun's mouth and they jumped. "And that makes fifteen."

Peg slowed just enough that Nathanial saw the last target burst into red orange flames before they jumped through the last portal and rematerialized in the clear air outside of their practice course.

Nathanial straightened up, breathing hard, feeling Peg's sides rapidly going in and out as she did too. They circled around, allowing their gathered momentum to bleed off as they glided over the top of the course, avoiding the slight smoke as the targets finished burning down to nothing.

"So," Nathanial said before taking another deep breath as his heart rate settled, "what's that look like to you? Thirteen out of fifteen?"

Peg shook her head as she swung around towards her regular take off/landing desk. "Yes, but you clipped that one near the exit. Not a solid hit so-"

Nathanial rolled his eyes. "Yes, alright so it's twelve and a half instead. I know the rules Peg." He told her somewhat snappishly.

Peg rumbled in her chest. "Just reminding you." She told him as they glided calmly, the wind noise lessening in their ears.

Nathanial frowned as their altitude began to shrink. "Twelve and a half out of fifteen though. Not the best we've ever done." He pointed out with a slight grimace. "We could definitely do better."

Peg's ears swiveled around towards him indignantly. "Excuse me? We? What is this 'we' business? My jumps were beautiful!" She told him defiantly. But then she settled a little. "Well, all of them except for that one next to the quill stand. That one was messy." She admitted sullenly.

Nathanial reached forward and patted her neck, knowing how hard it was for Peg to admit something like that. "True, but you're right. The rest were spot on. The 'we' is downsized to an 'I'."

Peg rumbled a bit more happily, but then perked up right away when she caught sight of someone standing on her landing desk.

"Oh good! Aria's here already." She said with a delighted whicker.

Nathanial looked over Peg's side to see that Aria was standing on the desk, waving up at them. He smiled and waved back with one hand, putting his score out of his head before guiding Peg in another quick loop before heading toward the desk.

Peg snorted and gave another quick flap to lightly jolt the man sitting on her back.

"Show off." She said, turning her head to look at him with one round eye.

"Like you're one to talk." Nathanial said, slanting her a quick look before they skimmed over the desktop, wings flapping shallowly as Peg strove for balance. Peg's sharp hooves hit the surface at a gallop as she smoothly transformed, her wings settling into their usual places along the sides of her narrow body. They slowed to a canter and then a trot before finally walking over to the water bucket where Nathanial had left Peg's brushes and halter.

Peg shook her head with a sigh, the motion traveling down her body before flicking out the end of her tail. Nathanial swung himself off of her back and gave her a reassuring pat on her shoulder before undoing the girth and heaving the lightweight battle saddle off of her back.

Peg lowered her head and sighed in relief as cool air hit her sweaty back. "That's much better." She told Nathanial as he put a saddle pad on her back instead before walking over to her head with her rope halter. After another minute her bit and bridle were on the ground with the saddle.

Peg was stretching her jaw, trying to get rid of the phantom bit feeling still in her mouth, when Aria finally reached them.

"Now that," she said with a bright smile, "was impressive."

Peg wasn't too tired to lift her head and say, "About time you noticed."

"Peg," Nathanial admonished half heartedly, but Aria just laughed quietly and rubbed at Peg's forehead where the bridle strap had been.

Peg sighed in relief as Nathanial picked up the lead attached to Peg's halter. She didn't even try and argue when they started walking around the edge of the desk to cool down.

"So when did you get here?" Nathanial asked Aria over Peg's shoulder as they walked. "And why are you on that side instead of over here with me?" He asked with a slightly crooked grin.

Aria smiled back at him cheekily. "Oh," she said with a sly smile, "no reason. And about five minutes ago. Just in time to see you pull out the lightning bolts. What is that anyway?" She asked, jerking her chin over at the flash gun that Nathanial had left with Peg's saddle.

"A flash gun." Nathanial told her simply.

Aria looked over at it again. "But it shoots lightning yeah? Man you guys have all the good stuff." She told him, sounding slightly envious.

Nathanial shrugged one shoulder. "Don't be too impressed. Like many, many things on Atala, the technology was left to us by Nexus Prime. So we didn't actually discover it the hard way."

"It's still pretty cool." Aria said with a shrug of her own. "Even if it does look like a child's overgrown toy."

Nathanial smiled as he looked at the gun behind them. It was all twists and loops of metal wrapped in a special non conductive material that wouldn't melt whenever the gun was fired. At its center was a globe about the size of softball, made out of glass that had been specially tempered to withstand the fierce winds and drastic atmospheric changes that came with flying Equines. Even across the desk Nathanial could still see a few bright yellow sparks that had been trapped in the globe after he last fired it.

He grinned at Aria again. "Yeah it does look pretty funny." He admitted. "But it packs a pretty powerful punch."

Aria looked over at where the smoke was still lingering over the obstacle course. "I noticed." She said, turning back to him with a wide smile.

Nathanial forgot how to walk with the force of that smile. For a second it was all he could do to remember how to breathe as the unassuming beauty of the girl next to him overwhelmed him.

Peg snorted somewhat amused at him and then oh so gracefully bumped him with her shoulder.

"Hopeless." She muttered as she slowly started walking again.

Aria and Nathanial glanced at each other over her back and blushed. They had both heard her.

Nathanial cleared his throat as they started their second lap. "So, er…speaking of funny looking weapons," he stumbled for a new subject as he readjusted his hold on Peg's lead, "Hound tells me that you actually used to use that grapple-lasso thing out on the battlefield, and with some success." He added, letting his surprise show. "I mean, I thought it was mad when you were only jumping out of the ceiling," he told her with a somewhat forced chuckle.

Aria shrugged but Nathanial noticed that her smile had wilted around the corners of her mouth. "It was what I knew how to use." Aria told him. "And after Prowl taught me their pressure points and because it took Wheeljack some time to figure out how to shrink one of their guns down to the size I could use without losing so much power that it would only tickle a Decepticon…it just sorta made sense."

"So why'd you stop fighting with them?" Nathanial asked innocently enough. "Did you finally realize you were fighting something that could just as easily squish you by accident as on purpose?" He asked, teasing her.

But his smile disappeared when he saw Aria staring at the floor, one hand resting limply on Peg's shoulder.

"Aria?" Nathanial asked worriedly, stopping Peg and coming around to her other side to stand in front of the other human. "Aria, are you alright?" He asked her softly, reaching up and, hesitantly, touched her cheek.

Aria seemed to shake herself when he did, making him draw back uncertainly. She looked up at him, a small smile on her face, but he didn't miss the guilt in her eyes or the hasty way she cleared her throat before she said anything, as if it had been too tight for a moment.

"It's uh…it's not exactly something I like to talk about." She told him quickly, not quite making eye contact. "Let's just say that, like everybody else here, I remember things that I…sorta wish I didn't."

She gave a half hearted kind of nod and looking away, rubbing her arms as if she was cold. She tried to smile at him, and failed.

"So…yeah." She mumbled like she was hoping Nathanial would just forget this whole conversation had happened and they could go on with their day without further incident.

Except he didn't. Actually, he stepped forward and pulled her into a hug, as if he understood what she meant without hearing the whole sad story.

Aria stared in surprise at his shoulder for a second, caught off guard by the sudden sympathy. Or maybe- it was more empathy? Nathanial acted so…normal most of the time that sometimes it was hard for Aria to remember that he had fought for most of his life too. Which probably meant he had his own fair share of regrets and sad stories to go along with it. Just like her.

Aria wriggled her arms free and wrapped them around Nathanial's neck, soaking up the comfort he offered.

They stood there for a long moment before pulling apart. Aria sniffed loudly and wiped the corners of her eyes, not bothering to try and hide the fact. But when she gave him another small smile it wasn't forced like before.

Nathanial kept a hold on her hand just in case as they walked over to where Peg's saddle sat at the other end of the desk.

It turned out that wasn't the only thing that was waiting for them at the other end of the desk. Elita-One was standing there, watching them with interest and not bothering to pretend that she wasn't. Nathanial felt his face start to burn as he realized that the femme was looking between Aria, him, and their clasped hands. He also had the sneaking suspicion that that probably hadn't been all she'd seen.

"Hey Elita," Aria said as they reached the end of the desk where she was waiting. Aria gave Nathanial's hand a quick squeeze to let him no she was okay before she let go and walked up to her friend. Nathanial hung back, stroking Peg's nose as he surreptitiously tried to look over at the femme only to find her staring back. Her bright gaze was cool, telling him nothing definite about what she was thinking. But he couldn't help but get the feeling that she was sizing him up.

He also couldn't help but get the feeling that if she saw something she didn't like, she'd be more dangerous to his health and sanity then all of Aria's brothers put together.

He swallowed hard and tried not to look like he'd enjoyed annoying his mother and elder brothers as a small child. It wasn't like she'd approve of someone that might pass on his general annoying-ness to any kids they might have and-

And sweet Well of AllSparks he should not have thought that when he was trying to look charming and above any suspicion the femme commander might have about him.

Elita raised one optic ridge at him, probably because Nathanial's face looked like it was about to burst into flames. He coughed and hoped that she never found out why as he turned back towards Peg and led her over to the water bucket.

Peg had noticed the strange staring contest between her human and the new boss mare, but she didn't pay them any other attention aside from an ear flicked in their direction. In her head Peg knew that this bright pink femme wasn't her boss mare, so she didn't technically have to pay her any sort of mind, but instinctually she couldn't help it. It was never a good idea to cross or ignore the female in charge of the herd, especially when she owed you nothing. Peg had no desire to be tossed out on her tail thank you so much. Especially on account of her human being sweet on the boss's sister.

But then the boss femme made a noncommittal, "Hm," in the back of her vocal processor and turned her attention to Aria. Peg just flicked her ear and buried her nose and mouth in the watering bucket, determined to not pay anymore attention to the strange courting rituals of humans for the rest of the day. Unless they got really good.

Nathanial just patted Peg's neck as she drank. Peg thought he was still in shock.

"So what're you up to Elita?" Aria asked, breaking into the tense silence that had appeared as soon as Nathanial had realized the femme had been staring at him.

Elita smiled at her small friend as if she hadn't just been sizing up her love interest. "I could ask you the same thing Aria." She said with a meaningful glance over at Nathanial where he was staring off into the middle ground next to Peg.

Aria coughed, surprised by Elita's teasing. "Nuh-nuh-nothing. Why do you ask? I just came by to watch Nat practice for awhile."

Elita gave her a knowing look, as if she knew exactly what had gone through Aria's head when she'd gotten down here.

Aria's face turned pink just under her eyes and she bashfully scuffed a foot against the desktop. "Well, that's all I had time to do with him anyway before you got down here…" she trailed off looking everywhere but at Elita, but that didn't keep Elita from keeping her own level stare pinned to her friend.

"Uh-huh, that's what I thought." She said, eyeing Aria one more time before giving her a small, playful grin. "If you've got it this bad then maybe it's a good thing Val sent me looking for you."

Aria immediately sighed. "Val huh? How does he even know I'm down here at all?" She demanded, propping both hands on her hips and glaring lightly at her brother, even if he wasn't there.

Elita laughed lightly at her. "He asked me to tell you that Prowl has asked to see you. Ultra Magnus asked to see him though, which is why Val didn't deliver this message to you himself." She explained.

Aria frowned, somewhat appeased. "Oh. Well that actually sounds legit then. Did Prowl say what he actually wanted to talk about in this elongated game of telephone?" She asked, looking up at Elita.

The femme shook her head. "No, I'm afraid not. Just that Prowl wanted to talk with you. But this is Prowl after all. He doesn't like to waste time."

"More like he has a conniption fit if he even thinks about it." Aria grumbled, then sighed, raking a hand through her hair. "Alright," she groaned, "I'll go see what the stickler wants. Just uh," she shot a nervous glance at Nathanial where he was taking a curry brush to the sweat and dirt that had dried in Peg's short black hair.

She leaned in closer to Elita and lowered her voice. Elita crouched down so her head was on level with Aria's small frame so she could hear her.

"Just don't be too hard on him okay? Val and 'Bee are already going crazy on me and I'm not sure if he can deal with them much longer without someone going nuts, and to be honest, I think it's gonna be me." She poked herself in the chest, already looking a bit frazzled by the whole thing.

But then she rubbed at the spot. "Ow…" she mumbled.

Elita laughed at her softly.

"Anyway…" Aria said stubbornly, trying not to pout too much, and then giving up altogether and going for full blown puppy eyes instead as she clapped her hands together, begging now, "just please oh please oh please don't scare him off!" She hissed-whispered-begged. Hisperegged. Yeah, that was it.

Elita smiled and laughed again. Then without warning she scooped up her little friend and smacked her loudly on the head, making Aria shriek loudly in surprise as an electric current sped from her crown to her heels using her spine as a conduit.

"Eeeheeheehaaaa!" Aria shrieked, but Elita was already talking so she didn't hear.

"Don't worry Aria," she said too loudly to put Aria at ease. She just knew Nathanial could hear them now. "We won't kill your love life off so soon!"

But then she slanted her friend a sneaky look. "Yet anyways."

Aria groaned pitifully to herself as Elita snuggled her and giggled to lovingly annoy her further before finally setting her down on the desk.

Aria stood here, shoulders slumped as she sulked. She glanced up and groaned when she saw she had an audience.

Peg and Nathanial just stared at her. Aria groaned again when she saw that Nathanial was trying to bite back a smile. Peg wasn't even bothering to hold her horsy laughter in. She just laughed so hard that she ended up rolling on the ground. Nathanial stepped back so he wouldn't catch a hoof in the face.

Aria groaned again and slumped off towards the door, ignoring Elita's smile.

She only turned back once when she reached the edge of the desk. "You gonna be okay here for awhile?" She asked Nathanial with little to no inflection.

Nathanial just smiled understandingly at her. "I think I can manage. Good luck with Prowl."

Aria grunted noncommittally and hopped down to the floor to leave the room.

Elita put a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud at the little human as the door slid shut behind her. She just made it too easy sometimes.

Another, deeper, laugh reminded her that she wasn't alone in the room.

Elita carefully collected herself, not wanting to let this other human know what she was thinking so easily. And if her cool, neutral features set him on edge a bit too, well, she wouldn't complain.

He certainly looked on edge when she finally turned to face him. He had been grinning after Aria, amused by her sulking, but the expression disappeared when he saw Elita staring coolly at him. He tried to busy himself with his animal, probably hoping she'd leave him alone because of it, but Elita wasn't about to let him off that easily.

"I don't believe we've been properly introduced," Elita started, walking over to him with calculated steps, "I am Elita-One, femme commander and spark mate of Optimus Prime." She introduced herself, not skipping on any of the formalities this time. Usually she didn't attach everything like that to her name, but in this one instance she wanted to make sure that this man knew she was a force to be reckoned with. "I'm also a close friend of Aria's." She told him with a meaningful tilt of her head.

The new human straightened up, fist jumping to his heart in what she thought was a salute as he politely inclined his upper torso towards her in a bow.

"Nathanial Hawthorne, Equines rider of the Council's Cavalry and son of the House Hawthorne. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance ma'am."

Nathanial's creature whickered unhappily and nipped at his shirt sleeve.

"Oh, and this of course is Peggy Sue-" he added quickly.

"Peg." The creature interrupted.

Elita's optic ridges drew closer together in surprise. "Pardon?" she asked the creature, somewhat surprised it could talk.

The four legged beast stamped a hoof agitatedly. "My name's Peg. No one calls me Peggy but Miss Miriam and him," she swung her long head to indicate her human, "and that's only when I do very well at not listening to him." She clarified firmly, tossing her head up and down for emphasis.

Elita had to force the smile away from her face at the creature's bluntness. "Of course then. Peg."

Peg's ears turned forward, making her look alert and pleasant.

Elita turned back to the human, cool expression returning. "So tell me human," she started, taking one final step closer towards him, closing the distance between them, "just what are your intentions towards our Aria?"

Nathanial swallowed hard and tried not to flinch. He had sorta been expecting something like this when he and Aria had started spending more time together. But then they had made it past three official dates and no one had stepped forward and Nathanial, foolishly, had started to hope he wouldn't have to have this talk with anyone.

"So much for that…" Nathanial thought as he tried to think of a way to answer the femme currently staring him down that couldn't be construed as wrong in any way, shape, or fashion.

He took a deep breath and let it out a moment later in a loud whoosh of air.

"Look Elita-One," Nathanial said, striving for polite but honest, "I like Aria. I like Aria a lot. She's beautiful, funny, and not afraid to speak her mind. And I know she has close relationships with pretty much every bot in the city, yourself included, and you all seem to have many," he made a face, "many opinions on my spending time with her. And quite frankly, I'm a little sick of it. I'm sorry," he quickly held his hands out in front of him as if to stem any objections Elita might have, "but it's just difficult dealing with a," he stumbled over the best choice of word, "family as big as yours, er, hers.

"And to answer your question," he said more tentatively as Elita listened calmly, "I really just want to get to know her better, spend some time with her. Truly." He told her firmly, then went on a little too quickly, "And I don't know if we're soul mates or bond mates or whatever the heck you call it when you find out two of you are the a whole," he told her, fidgeting slightly before shaking himself and meeting Elita's stead gaze again. She watched curiously as most of the anxieties he'd shown since he'd seen her disappeared as he straightened up and met her head on, so to speak. "But I would like to find out."

Elita waited a moment. "Are you done now?" She asked with a slight tilt of her head.

Nathanial's eyes darted away uncertainly before going back to her. "Um…yes, that was about it." He said, clearing his throat.

Elita-One nodded slowly. "Just making sure…" she said thoughtfully. She watched him another cycle, turning his words over in her processor.

Eventually she knelt down to the human's level, catching his attention again.

"Human," she began, but then reconsidered, "Nathanial, my goal was not to put you ill at ease, or talk you out of pursuing our Aria." She said. Nathanial noted the way that even now when she wasn't trying to intimidate him, Elita still used the 'our Aria'. He was beginning to think that it should be added as another case in the Cybertronian language.

Elita went on, unaware of Nathanial's thoughts. "However you must understand that Aria," she paused, "Aria is…precious to us. To all of us. I can't properly explain it-" this obviously bothered her, "but if Aria isn't your sister then she's your friend."

"And if she isn't your friend?" Nathanial asked curiously.

Elita-One smiled like he had just said something fairly ignorant. "I don't believe there is a bot in the city that doesn't think of Aria as their friend. She has made sure of that. She's insisted on getting to know everyone here and, well," she shrugged sweetly, "you know her well enough to know that once Aria sets her mind to something she doesn't give up until it's finished."

Nathanial nodded. "I suppose I have noticed that about her." He said with a slight grin, feeling more at ease around the femme bot now.

Elita grew serious again, making Nathanial think that maybe he wasn't out of the woods yet.

"However because she is precious to us all, we want to protect her, keep her safe. And while I understand that relationships like yours can be," she rested her clasped hands on her knee and looked away briefly in an all too knowing look, "difficult, if you ever hurt her intentionally," she rose to her full height again and looked down at Nathanial, "then you and I will have more then words between us."

Nathanial knew she meant what she said, but it didn't frighten him exactly. Rather, he thought he understood what she meant.

He nodded sharply to her. "I understand," he told her, then spread his hands earnestly, "I only wish I could promise that things will go smoothly between us but-" he ran out of words.

Elita nodded slowly. "But love can be difficult." She said again, somewhat sadly.

Nathanial nodded and didn't speak.

An aggravated sigh broke their heavy silence.

"Ugghhh…" Peg snorted in a maximum state of boredom now, "why must you two be so serious all the time?" She asked them, head sunk half to the ground.

She immediately perked right up. "Can we have carrots now that you're done? You are done?" She looked between the two of them. "Right?"

Elita-One lightly laughed at the foreign creature. "Yes Peg, we're done. Now perhaps you would care to enlighten me about your," she held out a slender digit to Peg, who obligingly stepped on like a trained bird, "fascinating existence."

Peg swung her head slowly to the right, her version of a shrug, and gave a deep rumble in her chest. "Well my existence is very straightforward Boss-Femme. I get up in the morning and it goes on from there."

Elita laughed, genuinely amused by the strange creature's way of thinking. "Of course, how silly of me."

Peg nodded. "Yes, I'm glad you noticed. Now can we go find those carrots? I worked hard this morning and my stomachs are empty!" She complained.

Elita couldn't help but grin at the creature in her palm. "Well I'm afraid I don't know what a 'carrots' is or where to find one, but I could go for some energon myself."

Peg's ears immediately perked up and her nose quivered in excitement. "Forget carrots! I'm having what you're having!" She rumbled again in excitement and anxiously shifted her weight from hoof to hoof.

Elita turned to Nathanial. "Do you mind if she and I go find something to eat Nathanial? I'll make sure she stays out of trouble." She promised.

Nathanial laughed slightly and raised a helpless hand. "Honestly I think she's probably going to listen to you better then me anyway. Go for it."

Elita smiled and thanked him before returning her attention to Peg as she walked towards the door.

"Thank you," she said, quite unexpectedly, before she left, "for being honest with me Nathanial Hawthorne."

Nathanial met her gaze and nodded. "Of course."

Peg didn't really care about their pleasantries. "And don't you worry Boss-femme. I keep my human on a short reign so he won't do anything…" she swung her head around to shoot Nathanial a sharp look, "stupid." She whuffled.

Nathanial rolled his eyes and didn't answer her, although he did hear Elita laugh again.

"I feel much better already knowing you're looking after the two of them Peg." She said.

The door closed before Nathanial could hear Peg give anything other then a pleased nicker.

With a shake of his head at his silly Equine, Nathanial turned around to gather Peg's saddle so he could head back down to the storage room-

-and came face to face with an unhappy Wrecker staring down at him.

"What the heck?" Was the first thing that shot through Nathanial's mind as he jumped. What was it about today that made all these bots wanted to sneak up on him like that?

Nathanial blinked up at Val, somewhat surprised he had managed to get in here so quickly, not to mention quietly. It wasn't like the young mech was exactly known for his stealthyness, but he figured Val must have snuck in when Elita and Peg had left. Which probably meant he had been listening at the door too…

Val for his part stood still, towering above him with his strong arms cross imposingly over his broad chest. His irritated scowl never changed as he stared down at the human suddenly standing by himself, no friends around to help him, or to run off and give Ratchet some heads up.

A moment of silence passed where Nathanial held his breath and Val didn't move.

Nathanial finally drew in an unsteady breath when dark spots began to appear in front of his eyes.

"You heard all of that," he asked levelly, "didn't you?"

Val didn't even blink. "Yup." He answered, sounding unusually calm about the matter. "And to be honest, I've got half a processor to squish you for it human."

Nathanial didn't see any reason to disbelief the furious mech.

Slowly, the bot cocked his head to the side, eyeing the human.

"But I'm not going to." Val said, a nerve rattling smirk starting to appear on his faceplates. "No, if only because it'll be so much more fun to passively torture you in the future-"

"Great." Nat thought, only imaging what Val would consider to be 'passive torture'.

"-and because even I've got enough patience to wait for you to fatally mess things up with Jie Mei."

Nathanial gave Val an all out glare at that.

"So here's what I'm going to do," Val said before slowly leaning down to Nathanial's eye level. Nathanial crossed his own arms and waited, mirroring Val's stubborn defiance perfectly. Despite how he felt about the man that was stealing his Jie Mei away from him, Val still couldn't help but give him grudging credit for that. Maybe he wasn't as much of a wimp as he had first thought.

Val took another minute to look Nathanial up and down before going on.

"Here's what I'm going to do," he said again, "I am going to do…nothing."

Nathanial's pose loosened. He certainly hadn't been expecting that. "Excuse me?" The words were startled out of him.

Val smirked, knowing he had caught the man off guard. "I'm going to do nothing. For now at least. For one, I'm still waiting for your inevitable screw up to show Jie Mei what a mistake she's making and, for number two, Arcee and Bluestreak, for some reason, like you. And since we're the only four young bots here, the decision came out even."

Nathanial raised an eyebrow at him. "Even?" He asked skeptically.

Val shrugged one shoulder. "Yeah, we took a vote."

Nathanial honestly had no answer to that.

"So…" he said slowly when he remembered their original problem, "you're not going to stalk me anymore?"

Val shook his head. "Nope."

"And no more glaring at me whenever I'm taking Aria out?"

"Eh," Val waggled a hand, "I reserve the right to glare at you."

Nathanial thought about that. "Alright," he conceded, "alright fair enough. But no more trying to blast me with paintballs either?"

Val's tone lightened to something that was almost friendly. "You know you should really reconsider that one. We can always use an extra player and I'm pretty sure Aria would let you borrow her equipment." Val said, pointing at him with both forefingers.

Nathanial's brow creased. "Uh…right. I'll, um, think about it." He gave Val another uncertain look.

"So that's it?" He asked, just to be sure.

Val grinned and nodded. "Yup. That's it."

For some reason this did not make Nathanial feel any better. "It's seems too simple."

Val shrugged one massive shoulder. "Eh, I'm a simple guy."

Nathanial slowly nodded. "True enough I suppose…" he trailed off.

Val just looked down at him, still grinning amiably, like he had truly meant every word.

The anxiety knots in Nathanial's back loosened just the slightest bit. "Well, alright then."

Val continued to smile.

"I'll just-" Nathanial jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Peg's tack, "I'm just gonna take this stuff back to the storage room then."

Val nodded. "Alrighty then."

Nathanial peered up at him, scrutinizing his reactions. "And then get ready for my date with Aria."

Val's optic ridges didn't even twitch. "Okay then. Have fun."

"…right." Nathanial finally said, taking a careful step backwards, "well…see you later then. I'm, er, glad we had this talk."

Val nodded once. "Me too man." He waved two fingers in a farewell. "Later."

Nathanial had backed up to his equipment and after one more uncertain look at Val, hefted it up on his hip. The mech didn't say anything as he took the leathers and dropped them over the side of the desk. He just followed the human with his optics as he slid down to the floor, picked up his tack, and headed towards the door.

Nathanial only looked back once he was at the door, a safe distance between him and the young Wrecker. Val hadn't moved. Just smiled and waved again when he saw Nathanial looking at him.

Nathanial's hands were too full of Peg's tack to wave back, so he just nodded his head before going through the door.

"Well that was weird." He mumbled once the door was safely shut behind him. He waited a moment to see if Val would come after him yet, but there was no sound of giant footsteps from the other room.

"Huh," Nathanial said with a shrug, "well what do you know? I guess he really meant it after all."

He started walking in the direction of the med bay. Hopefully Ratchet wasn't in too bad a mood so Nat could-

SNAP!

ZIP!

SWOOSH!

"AHHHHHHHHHHH!"

Nathanial yelled as the world abruptly turned upside down and flew past him with dizzying speed. He dropped the saddle in surprise as he was flung into the air, something strong biting into his right ankle.

He remembered a brief, terrifying freefall before bouncing at least once and sailing through the air again and finally coming to a tenuous stop, the whatever-it-was biting harder into the area above his foot.

He hung there for a moment, heart about to explode out of his throat as he breathed too fast. With all of the blood rushing to his head, it took him a minute to realize that he was hanging upside down in the middle of the hallway. He managed to lift his head to see that the thing biting into his ankle was a metallic rope. Disbelief flooded Nathanial's mind. He had just walked straight into a freaking snare trap!

And a familiar pair of blue optics were now staring at him as their owner cackled gleefully.

"Dude!" Val crowed as he came up, his optics on level with Nathanial's dangling form, "I can't believe you bought all that!"

Nathanial had enough presence of mind through the blood banging in his ears to glare at Val.

Val just shook his head and heaved a happy sigh as he admired his handy work.

"I can't believe that worked." Bumblebee said as he came out from his hiding place around the corner.

Val looked up at his partner in crime. "Well it just goes to show that some humans are as gullible as they look." He reached out and pushed Nathanial in the stomach, making him swing like a human pendulum.

Nathanial's frown deepened as the faces of Val, Bumblebee, and then the nearby stretch of gray, colorless wall swung past his swaying field of vision.

"I can't say that this surprises me coming from you Val," he said slowly, resigning himself to the inevitable gloating, "but you Bumblebee? Here I thought you were one of the good ones."

Bumblebee actually looked ashamed of himself for a moment, nervously touching his forefingers together as he looked away. "Well…" he mumbled under his breath.

Val threw an arm over Bumblebee's shoulders with a wide victorious grin. "Well I guess this means you're about as great at judging character as you are watching where you step." He laughed.

"Oh, I don't know," Nathanial said in mock thoughtfulness as he swung, spinning a little, "I think I got you pegged pretty well."

Val actually glared, stiffening up next to his friend.

"This is strike one human." Val told the human, holding up a digit to reiterate his point, "And if you insist on any more of this funny business with our sister I'll be forced to take more…" he pretended to think about his next words and then shrugged, smirking smugly all the while, "drastic measures."

Even dangling upside down, swinging at least a story off of the ground, Nathanial looked less then impressed.

"Oh dear," the human said, voice dripping a flat kind of sarcasm, "whatever shall I do? I am so terrified. Ee."

Bumblebee had to resist the urge to snicker at Val. He looked about as happy as Nathanial did.

"The sarcasm is not appreciated human!" The brownish-gray mech shot back, pointing a pillar sized digit at the man.

Nathanial's face didn't change from his unimpressed, unamused expression. "It wasn't supposed to be." He told him.

"Alright that's it!" Val shouted, making Bumblebee look over his shoulder to make sure no one had heard him. "Bee!" Val shouted, making the yellow bot jump again.

He turned and scowled at Val. "What?" 'Bee snapped.

"It's time for plan B!"

Confusion seeped into Bumblebee's scowl. "We have a plan B?"

Val just vented a sigh, shoulders slumping. "Yes Bee, we have a plan B."

The alliteration made Bumblebee lean back, slightly nervously. "It's not anything to do with me is it? Cuz I'm not giving you that kind of help ever again." He said obstinately. He had learned his lesson the first time thank you so much.

Val smacked a large hand to his face. "Oh for Primus sake..." he muttered. Then he brought two distinctly recognizable objects out of his subspace. "This is Plan B!" He all but shouted, shaking the objects at the other mech.

Bumblebee stared at them. "Oh." He said slowly. "Well that's different."

Nathanial just stared, wide eyed, at the things in Val's hands.

Val smirked victoriously at him. "And just think human; I have even more in subspace." He said, happy as a kid that's about to color on the walls.

He took a menacing step towards Nathanial's dangling, exposed, form.

"Oh Pit no-" the human managed to say, beginning to struggle, however futile it was-

And then they were on him!