I'm not reposting all the warnings. If you didn't read them in Pt. 1, then on your head be it.

[* * * * *]

Pt. 25

[* * * * *]

"I've reviewed recordings from the incident in Ratchet's office," Red Alert said, and the room tensed.

"Here we go again," Blaster muttered, turning back to the table, and Jazz's automatic grin looked more like a grimace. Things were just calming down after Prowl's tactical processors rebooted, and Red Alert was ready to start the fight again. Fair play to the Security Director keeping them to the debriefing despite two superior officers growling at each other from opposite sides of the table, but Optimus Prime had basically needed to put his Second and Third in time-out.

He'd directed them to separate corners of the room, a hand firmly turning them away from each other before giving a small push and letting go. His exact words had been, "If you two can't speak civilly to each other, then you will sit there until you can tell me why."

"But Prime - !"

"Sir, this is not necessary."

A raised hand had interrupted Jazz, and their leader had shaken his head gravely. "I believe it is. You're both behaving strangely, and it would do us all a favor if either of you could give a reason for why you're attacking each other this way."

The discussion had derailed rather spectacularly. Prowl's momentary emotional lapse had disappeared back into a pragmatic mask, and his skepticism over the reliability of Jazz's report had returned in full force as soon as his battle computer took over again. He'd allowed that Autobot law, if not the underlying social structure that'd created it, had its flaws. The admittance had been grudging and possibly only given because Ratchet had been sitting beside him. The Executive Officer had still insisted on barring Jazz from the entire issue of tactile interfacing within the Autobot ranks.

The saboteur hadn't handled being told to butt out well at all, considering the fact that - in his opinion - Prowl wasn't mentally equipped to handle anything to do with the problem. At least the tactician made no attempt to hide that he still had massive reservations about the legal and moral connotations of interfacing in general. However, sticking an operative into a mission relying on maneuvering around a sensitive situation and then denying that operative access? Changes to vital information spelled the difference between success or failure on missions like that, and that difference meant life or death more often than not. If Prowl had tried pitching a mission with such whonky parameters at him, Jazz would be fighting him tire and lugnut over it for the sake of his operative. Putting Jazz himself in as the operative in question didn't make the situation any more favorable. He was good, but he wasn't perfect.

Oh, he was certain Prowl had his reasons, but the stoic mech wouldn't elaborate on them. Keeping mute on that kind of proposal was no way to make the Head of SpecOps happy. Any operative wanted to be involved in interpreting mission intel, but Jazz wasn't just an operative. He was the operative who was also an officer whose actions mid-mission depended on the usage of that data. Expecting him to hand over intel but not permit him to see or participate in what the other officers did with it was a recipe for disaster. He was their frontline fighter for information acquisition and interpretation in this particular battle right now. Shoving him out in front and cutting him off from support would get him killed by friendly fire even if the enemy didn't get him.

To put it simply, Jazz hadn't reacted to Prowl's demand well in the slightest.

The other officers had slammed back in their seats and watched the two black-and-whites go for each other's throats in verbal attacks that only two mechs who worked closely together could. The mood whiplash in the room had been shocking in its extremes. Nobody had known what to do, although from the increasingly annoyed look on his face, Ironhide had been inching toward just smacking their helms together and being done with it.

Their commander had put a stop to it before things got out of hand, however. The loud roar of that heavy-duty truck engine had interrupted the fight, silencing the shouting even before he'd risen from his chair. Startled, the two officers pointing fingers at each other as they argued had turned to face him. He hadn't said anything. Words hadn't been necessary. The riled engine growl had been a strut-rattling sign of his disapproval, and having him standing over them had served as a reminder that this was their leader stepping in like a sergeant calling a couple of rookies back to order. He hadn't throttled back until they were silent and standing at attention.

The wordless reprimand had stung. Worse, the interruption had calmed them down enough to see how far out of line they'd stepped. Being glared at by Prime rubbed already sanded areas down to the bare metal, and both officers had dropped the argument when his hand slashed between them as if physically cutting them apart. His orders rubbed their juvenile behavior in their faces, but neither could say they hadn't earned the indignity.

Jazz had shut his mouth on his protest the second Prime's hand went up, and he'd lowered his gaze to the table. Ouch. Weaponized disappointment: direct hit to the spark.

Prowl had met his commander's optics respectfully, but the stiff way he stood made it clear to those who knew him that he felt properly chided by the Prime's words. The two officers would obey and conduct themselves as mature mechs from then on.

Well, mostly.

Keeping his visor down, Jazz had accepted being turned around and pushed on his way. He'd grabbed his chair to take with him away from the table in order to set it in the corner, where he threw himself into it exactly like a petulant child. "He started it," he'd muttered as he slouched.

Prowl had already stalked over to his appointed corner. There, he'd folded his arms and stared holes in the wall as his CPU overclocked pouring over the onslaught of new data. "Did not," spat back before distracted processors caught up. An appalled expression had splashed over his face when they did.

Optimus Prime's exasperated sigh had helped break the thick tension. Ironhide's guffaw had freed everyone else to laugh, and the command staff had shaken their heads at the byplay. The meeting had dispersed into a loose gathering as Jazz and Prowl cooled down.

They'd been given plenty of time, according to Red Alert. The Security Director nailed Blaster with a severe look for the flippant remark but went back to arranging windows on his console screen. "It's relevant and might give us an advantage, so yes. 'Here we go again.'"

"Of course. What have you found?" Optimus Prime asked when Blaster might have said something else. The Autobot leader was settling himself into his chair, peering over at Red Alert's work as he did, and the solemn shade of his optics warned that it was time to get back to business.

Shrugging, the carrier mech plopped himself into his chair as the rest of the officer cadre reassembled around the table. Ratchet and Wheeljack only had to turn their attention back to the table at large, but Ironhide split off from Blaster to sit down beside Red Alert again. He tipped to the side a bit to eye the smaller Autobot's screen. Prowl kept to his feet, arms folded tightly across his hood and doors held close to his back. He walked over to stand at the Prime's left shoulder in order to see the consoles in the table, but he moved like he had a building girder lodged where it made sitting impossible.

Jazz stayed away. Orders had been to stay in his corner until he could explain why he'd lost his temper at Prowl, so stay in his corner he would. He stood and twirled his chair around so he could sit on it backward, facing the table without joining the group. He needed the space. Arms folded across the back of the chair, he set his chin behind them so they hid his face up to his visor. It gave him an armored barrier protecting him from Prowl's penetrating gaze. The mech was still watching him, and something about that made him feel defensive. His presence was setting off the Autobot Executive Officer, and the more Jazz thought about, the more his own internal alarms jingled.

The way he and Prowl had clashed bothered him, and being watched was still tweaking his temper. Yet there was no immediate reason he could find for the short fuse. Optimus Prime had been right to separate them. Jazz needed to dig out the source of the temper flares, here, and he didn't think he'd be ready to rejoin the table until he did.

In the meantime, Red Alert held the floor.

"Pardon some assumptions made to speed things along," he said without looking up from the files he was sorting through. "I'm temporarily setting aside other conclusions in order to pursue the most radical proposition made. That doesn't mean I've discarded them. It means we need to start moving on, and quickly."

"Good thinkin'. Circumstances change and scrap any plan on contact during battle, but that ain't ever stopped us from planning," Ironhide said. His forearms whirred as the weaponry tucked in them shifted, and he tapped a forefinger on one transformation seam in idle habit. His voice fell to a grumble. "Tell me you're talking 'bout contingency plans. I'm sick of theories. Hate sitting around doing nothin' like this."

Red Alert looked to the side at him. "I'm talking about assessing what information we already know in light of what we've found out so far. What we plan from here on out may need to change depending on our assessment." Ironhide's plating fluffed and settled as the older mech heaved a resigned sigh, and the Security Director shook his head at him. "Now, we've determined that we hold hardline and tactile interfacing at separate levels of importance. Whether or not that is morally right," Ratchet and Prowl subsided as he stared them down, "it's what the regs spell out for legal interpretation. The letter of the law holds the separation, even if we believe the spark of the law should be different. This is a potential weak point in dealing with any sort of alliance formed using interfacing - i.e. 'courtship' - as proposed by the Decepticons. Agreed?"

The Autobots shifted in their seats as he looked around the table at them. Ratchet nodded right away, but Prowl followed suit reluctantly. Factually, that made sense to both sides of the argument, here. Optimus Prime rested his elbow on the back of his opposite hand, bringing his free hand up to rub the fingers against his mask. His optics narrowed in troubled thought, but he nodded agreement when the Lamborghini looked to him for approval.

Jazz kept still and quiet, out of sight behind Red Alert and unwilling to attract attention.

A quick glance at the rest of the table to ensure they were following along, and Red Alert moved on. "However, the potential to turn that weakness into a strength is there. Don't think of it as a trap," he hurried to say before the Prime could object, and Optimus' fingers relaxed into a curl again. "I'm not suggesting we attempt to turn this into a weapon. What I'm suggesting is that we capitalize on our vague, roundabout method of addressing interfacing. Stop demonizing how we as a culture fail to speak about interfacing, and start using it as an advantage."

"Wait, wait." Ratchet shook his head, mouth opening for a long moment before words organized enough to come out. "How would that even work? We can't even interpret what we mean talking about fragging, sometimes."

"But they don't know that. The Decepticons may be under the impression we hold all types of interfacing at the same level." Rapidfire tapping of his fingers brought up a specific record, and Blaster's optics fastened on his own console as it pinged over. "Play that back, if you would."

"Right-e-o, Director-o." Playful as the words were, the mech was all business as he hooked his inbuilt speakers up. His voice fell into a formal cadence. "Playback of V-HQ-2, O-9/A-CMO, timestamp 20.035."

Jazz's doors perked up even though his face stayed behind the shelter of his arms. Ratchet pulled his armor tight and tried to look nonchalant, which fooled no one. Vos Headquarters, Building 2, Office 9; the recording of what had happened in Ratchet's office during the Constructicon incident. The medic was lucky there weren't cameras actually in the office, or they'd be watching the day's starting feature: Flustered Ambulances, Construction Equipment, and Sirens, Oh My!

Instead, Starscream's distinctive rasp came from Blaster's speakers. "Autobots have different levels of consent. Physical intimacy is held at the same level as data interfacing, evidently."

"That's crazy. How do they enter negotiations?" Mixmaster's voice, surprised and unsettled.

Starscream's voice was nearly clinical. "They never actually spell it out by outright saying that they'd like to enter contract negotiations. There's some kind of social taboo against explicitly signaling interest through open touching as well. It's supposed to be vague signals that the other mech will take as hints if there's mutual interest. Verbal exchanges are discouraged as interfacing is an obscene topic."

A small, uncertain voice asked, "So how do they negotiate? A blindfold and a dartboard with the terms on it?" Bonecrusher sounded odd speaking like that.

"Their social negotiations are nonbinding, as I understand it. Unspoken agreements instead of actual defined contracts."

Playback ceased when Red Alert held up a hand for Blaster to pause. "I can guarantee Soundwave has a current copy of Autobot rules and regulations, but what Starscream said in Ratchet's office indicates that his understanding of our approach to interfacing is that we leave everything we can unspoken."

"We can use that," Prowl mused. "If nothing else, contact with the…bluntness of the Decepticons can be used as an excuse for why we may choose now of all times to set our own legal matters in order."

"Heh. It's all their fault." Ironhide pretended to scroll through an invisible datapad, shaking one fist at imaginary Decepticons like they were skateboarding on his lawn or something. "'Look at all these fraggin' rules you got. Well, slag. Now we gotta write down our stuff so all ya'll ignorant Decepticreeps can see how we do it over here.'" Red Alert's elbow jabbed into his side in disapproval of the faction slur, but he didn't repent. He did scoot his chair out of reach of another hit as he dropped the act. "Yeah, we can paint it up like a choice instead of a mistake. Also gives us an excuse why we ain't sure how to play by their rules. Or even if we want to play their game."

"Let them persuade us?" Wheeljack wavered a hand indecisively. "That still lets them take the lead. Do we want to keep giving them that much control over this?"

"But it gives us a solid base instead of startin' in the wrong," Ironhide pointed out. Ratchet's engine growled, and the Weapons Specialist held up his hands in defense. "Not sayin' we're not! Just sayin': advertising a weak spot's a good way t' get shot."

"This isn't battle," Optimus Prime said, so softly that half the table didn't hear him speak. Jazz's visor flicked to him for a moment. The Prime was often quiet in debriefings to absorb the processed information fed to him by his staff, but the utter stillness he'd adopted this time made Jazz wonder what he was thinking. Was he staying out of things in order to allow the officer cadre to talk without his influence, or was he keeping his thoughts to himself for another reason?

Prowl's optics caught Jazz's visor as it left the Prime, and concern zipped between Second and Third for a split second before the saboteur looked away. Wariness swelled in the back of his mind. He didn't trust Prowl, and he didn't know why. The flashes of temper weren't getting any easier to understand.

"I thought of that, but that's not the only reason why I brought this up." Red Alert opened his hand up toward Prowl as if offering an idea for consideration, and the tactician's attention snapped to him. The Security Director's sat forward on his seat as he peered at his superior, and his voice took on a canny tone. "His interpretation of our laws is that we hold hardline and tactile at the same level. Think about that."

"That's interesting," Wheeljack said, which were words to alarm anyone inside the blast radius. Or outside it, depending on how excited he was. At the moment, he seemed more thoughtful than inventive. He set his elbows on the table and tucked his knuckles under his chin while he pondered. "Blaster, play that again."

The officers listened to the short playback a second time, and pale yellow lit the table as the inventor's audio indicators brightened. "Listen to what he's saying about the Decepticons. He's saying that it's a foreign, Autobot practice to not negotiate, to not form a contract, and to settle for an unspoken, vague agreement over physical and data exchange." After ticking off a finger for each point, Wheeljack pulled them back under his chin. His indicators dimmed to a somber blue. "The implications from that and everything else tonight," he nodded in Jazz's direction, "is that tactile interfacing is part of negotiations among Decepticons. He's saying that the 'Cons have different levels of consent than we do."

Ironhide hiked his elbows up over the back of his chair, splaying his hands in a So What? gesture. "We knew that."

"Ah, we knew that, but." Wheeljack raised one finger to wag at the Weapons Specialist. "But! What that means on their side is that they don't hold the two kinds of 'facing at the same level. One is done only after a drawn-out process of negotiating a contract - and the other isn't." Rolling his head to rest the side of his jaw on his hand, he pointed his finger at Ratchet next. "We've been so weirded out by their aversion to hardline and preference for tactile that we haven't stood back and seen how tactile's a means to an end for them. Starscream - scrap, the Constructicons, right there in the office with you! - pretty much laid out that trickery is par for the course in negotiating favorable terms in a contract."

"They really hyped up consent in tactile fragging from where I sat," Jazz put in, but part of his attention stayed locked in his own head. There had been an instant surge of defensiveness that wanted to make that statement aggressive, argumentative, and it tugged on the part of him that wanted to defend the Decepticons' approach to interfacing. Out of nowhere, he felt a distrust toward Wheeljack that he hadn't felt before. What by Primus' rusty crankshaft was going on, here?

He chased the wariness back through his processors. Where had that come from?

"They would." Ironhide rolled his head back to look over his arm at him. "Autobot watching? Better change the game plan so's to make the audience cheer f'r the home team."

That hit a whole symphony of chords in Jazz's head suddenly, and his visor widened. That. That was a key to something. He gave it over to information assessment to track down in the background of his thoughts, because he was finding this discussion too important to tune out.

Red Alert took the floor back. Resetting his vocalizer, he glanced around the table at the other officers. "That's possible, or the Decepticons have created a system of different consent levels that we simply don't have anything within our own laws to compare to. We keep attempting to match our ethics to a faction that's proven to have their own moral rules, twisted to fit their own ideals."

He spared a look over his shoulder as if double-checking, but Jazz had nothing to say contrary to that. The Decepticons had no problem killing 'lesser' beings to harvest energy for Cybertron, or slaughtering any Autobot that'd gotten in their way before the cease-fire went into effect. They believed they were doing the right thing, too. Trying to justify that in Autobot terms didn't work. It never had. It was one of the fundamental differences between the factions that nobody quite knew how to bridge. So far, the Autobots had put themselves between the Decepticons and vulnerable races as representatives in the cease-fire and treaty, but it was a collective effort the Decepticons seemed to be going along with to avoid setting off more violence.

Eventually, they wouldn't be able to dodge talking about it. Everyone hoped the cease-fire would survive broaching the topic when it happened, because there was bound to be conflict between 'Freedom is the right of all sentient beings' and 'Peace through tyranny.'

The Security Director nodded and turned back to the table when Jazz only shrugged at him. "The idea of using physical molestation to influence consent to tactile 'facing is wrong to us. We see it as coercion, but yet that's exactly what Vortex did during interrogations, when he was apparently given free rein in his methods. The idea of Vortex going after someone outside of his official function, however, skewed Acid Storm's reactions toward unease, even revulsion."

The saboteur burrowed further behind his arms as everyone looked to him. "Add Motormaster and Skywarp to that, and he was ready to call out the cavalry," he confirmed softly. "Though thinking back on it, I'm not sure if he was asking 'bout rape in terms of inappropriate tactile or hardline attempts. He asked 'bout anything other than verbal harassment, so I'm thinking either would've had him up in arms. But Acid Storm said something 'bout Vortex's cables being locked down, and from what I heard 'bout Skywarp's contract, he's kinda in the same shuttle. There's…" Information assessment had its subprocessors whirring away on six separate problems, but it forked over the connection he'd been chasing. "It sounds like there's internal controls slapped on that kinda behavior. Like mechs know who's prone t' throwing their weight around in dubious consent territory, so their commanders…suitors?...fellow 'Cons take steps t' yank 'em up short."

"It seems at least somewhat frowned on prior to contract. Listen." Red Alert swiftly pinged table consoles with a file record for review.

Blaster played it out loud for Jazz's benefit. "It was kinda a dirty trick, but it's just courtship. We're not at agreement of contract yet!" Bonecrusher sounded adamant, but Mixmaster's "We'd never take a mech into contract against his will!" was frankly indignant.

"They admit that it's a 'dirty trick,' but also that they wouldn't do it to apply pressure to take a contract." Red Alert shook his head. "I'm inclined to say their dividing point between acceptable and not is when coercion to influence a minor decision becomes coercing contract terms."

"That's an extremely fine line to draw," Ratchet said into the silence as they thought that over. The medic's optics narrowed with thought and no little embarrassment. "They had me on the verge of overload, but my agreement to allow things to progress that far had nothing to do with the contract?"

"Starscream said permitting him to court me allowed him 'physical intimacy,'" Jazz said slowly. "What if we're looking at their different levels of 'no-means-no' being strictly bound up in courtship? Like, whether or not negotiations are in progress determines how hard they can push. He said courtship was a commitment on his end, an acknowledgement on mine, and he leaned on me t' get me to agree. Once he got me to say yes, he was far more int' putting his hands on me - but he also kinda backed off on the pressure."

"That was backing off?" Blaster laughed incredulously. "Bolt me, mech! I saw that footage. You two set the floor on fire. I've fragged with less passion than he dances!" Half the room went stiff with shocked embarrassment, but Wheeljack laughed out loud and Optimus shook his head, amusement in every line of him. Blaster's optics popped wide in embarrassment that he'd spoken without thinking again despite the laughter.

Jazz lifted his chin up to set on top of his arms so he could grin at the boombox. "Trust me, Screamer's been taking this slower than slow if what I saw tonight's a typical courtship." That thing with Thundercracker and Soundwave had been erotic, violent, and fast. A well-oiled machine of courtship, negotiations, and contract agreement, which made sense if it was a standard process in the Decepticon military. And unless an Autobot knew what he was looking at, the rough frag looked absolutely nothing like a formal proposition and acceptance of anything, much less something important. "We haven't hashed out terms or anything leading to swappin' cables, but give us a break. We've been busy with other things." He shook his head and tipped a nod toward Ratchet. "My point is, it sounds like the Constructicons fudged hearin' what you said in order to...influence whether or not you gave permission to court. And then they backed off once they got that."

"Securing permission is worth any cost?" Wheeljack hummed to himself a bit as Jazz gradually sank behind the shelter of his arms once more. Ratchet looked through the files Red Alert had sent to his console, frowning, but Wheeljack didn't open anything on his own screen. He leaned back in his chair, wiping one hand down his face mask as he thought. "Asking permission, you aim for loopholes and skid around rules, but permission granted implies you're both committed enough to relax? Or it binds you to certain rules of behavior, perhaps? Cue a changeover in tactile, heh, 'tactics.'"

"Outside of courting, anything goes? Could be. Might be." Information assessment subprocessors puzzled over the theory, fitting bits of intel to it. "It fits. It's like the real crime in the 'Cons is hardline, but dabblin' in foul play to get you to agree t' go for a spin is fine and dandy. So long as it doesn't go t' cables." Jazz narrowed his visor into a thin blue line above his arms. "No hardline. That's out of bounds."

"So they'll tactile-frag ya even if ya don't want it, but only how you want it when you've agreed to talkin' 'bout the nitty-gritty." Ironhide pushed his hands against the table edge and drummed his fingers on the surface. "Reeeeal fine line. But…I kinda get it all th' same." Prowl and Ratchet both looked at him sharply, Wheeljack's curious gaze next in line, and the old Weapons Specialist shrugged. "Goes back to a buncha warbuilds tryin' to get along. If this's how warbuilds got along inside their own kind," he cocked his head with a crooked smile, "and believe me, I'm still pullin' up archived memories on the Enforcers dividin' frametypes, so I'm gettin' this crazy idea they're over there lookin' at our set-up the same way we're doin' to them." Dismissing that sidetrack before they could roll down it, he went on. "I can see how it coulda translated to the 'Con ranks. Their 'might makes right' slag shoulda had the whole faction infightin' straight t' the Pit long ago. This contract scrap's gotta be controllin' it, or they wouldn't work at all. Put it as a larger picture over the backstabbing and nasty Pitslag we've seen close-up, and it starts makin' sense of why they ain't collapsed into chaos."

He shifted, hands leaving the table to close into fists as if fighting an imaginary foe. "Fight me into a contract I don't want, and I ain't gonna honor it. Plus, this contract stuff's all leadin' up to crossin' cables t' seal it, right? So you bust my aft up t' get me to agree to your slag, and I'm gonna do everything I can to wipe the floor with ya when I get in your head. So if you wanna get another warframe int' a binding deal, you gotta get him oiled up and happy. Make him want t' cooperate. Do what he likes, how he likes, and the stuff he agrees to is gonna be the bargain ya both agree on. We're all equals in hardline." His fists flattened out on the table. "Well, 'less they twist that up, too."

"No idea," Jazz admitted freely when the older mech turned to him for input. "But it makes sense, going along with Red's ideas." Barely moving from behind his defensive fort of forearms, he nodded to Red Alert,. "Screamer's saying we call tactile and hardline equal 'cause we don't negotiate how they do. So the 'Cons look at us and can't see when our version of their fine line goes into effect. All they've probably picked up from spyin' on us is that everything's hidden and private, nothing's talked about, and we blur the line between business and friendly fragging in a way they don't."

"So they have rape," Ratchet said quietly, feeling the idea out as he said it. "They have the attitude that rape is undesirable and pursuing an unwanted 'face is repulsive, but they also take what they want because those with the strength can have anything they can keep. Yet the concepts of negotiation and consent are deeply ingrained into them via their - what? Military structure? I don't…" Resetting his optics, the medic massaged thumb and forefinger against his chevron. "I can't say I even remotely understand how the two ideas can exist side-by-side. Rape can be done by the strong, but the Decepticons don't accept anything less than consent at the same time? That can't possibly work!"

"Dudes, wait, no. I can see this clear as day." Blaster threw his hands up in surrender when everyone goggled at him. "Not, like, everything, but c'mon. I got responsibilities you guys just don't. My Cassettes, mechs. Yeah? I don't own 'em, but we got this symbiosis that's half our bodies and minds all the rusted time. We can't let it go, y'know? Ain't none of us ancient, but we didn't wake up one day, like whoa - " he wiggled his fingers, miming shock, " - bam! Insta-team! There's history and some tradition every carrier mech an' Cassettes fall back on, at least when we're gettin' up and going. Helps make sense of how this stuff works even outside the dependency thing. It's a structure we were part of even 'fore we sorted our own deals around being separate peeps. You seein' the parallels here? Naw, we don't got a contract quite like," he wiggled his fingers, "all this, but me and my buds've had to work out agreements, folks. We've talked stuff over nobody wants to, but - yep. What we got? It's a legit solid body/mind thing that pre-dates us joinin' the 'Bots."

He cast a searching look around the table as if hoping they were following. A plaintive tint entered his voice when he didn't see what he was looking for. It was obvious he couldn't quite dumb it down enough for them to understand his explanation. "Get it? When a carrier mech takes in a Cassette he didn't start with, that structure's still there for us to use. We take this thing we're made in and build it up to what we are now using our words, mechs. It works. The history and traditions are there already, and it works, so you don't mess with what works 'less you gotta modify it to fit some kinda huge change." Prowl was still blankly staring at him from further up the table, and Blaster fuffed his vents in frustration. "It's like what Screamer said about transplanting Vos' social structure to the 'Cons, okay? The framework's there to be set up, and then you just…plug new mechs in. Show 'em the ropes, tie 'em up, and they're as caught as you are. Doesn't matter how awful the new guys are. Stuff pulls both ways once you're in, see?"

Jazz sat up, visor fixed on the Communication Officer. The others exchanged speaking glances, information shuffling about as Blaster's idea kicked a new perspective onto the floor. A Cassette-carrier bond wasn't the same as a cable connection, but the Decepticons did seem to regard the severity of a contract on the level of a semi-permanent legal bind.

"I'm suddenly picturing the Decepticons as a collection of Cassette carriers," Optimus Prime said, optics a thoughtful shade of blue. "Far more interconnected, but...hmm."

"That interconnectedness would explain why it has been so difficult to predict whether or not a unit would collapse after taking out the perceived 'leader,'" Prowl added. His own optics were vacant as he evidently scanned something on his HUD. "The 'carrier' is not as easy to pick out as it would be with actual carrier mechs." He shut down whatever he'd been reading and blinked to refocus. "In addition, without knowing if the contract is, perhaps, a social or business contract, it is impossible to know if someone could step into the opened military position or if the dead mech had created stronger interpersonal bonds than could be easily renegotiated."

"You sure don't mess with Soundwave's Cassettes," Wheeljack joked. "You know how that connection works!"

"Nah, mech, you're still not following!" Blaster looked up at the ceiling as if rolling his eyes, heaved a sigh through his vents, and squinted at Wheeljack. "Cassettes are small. Throw them into the Decepticons, and apply some of that ol' 'might makes right' you're talking about." He flung a hand at Ironhide. "What'd you expect to see? Huh? You'd expect Soundwave to be three little glitches down in four hours, right? And downhill from there, am I right? Any smaller, weaker mech thrown into the 'Cons should follow that formula, but that's what I'm talking about - we don't see that! 'Cause you put a buncha carrier mechs together, and all the Cassettes and carriers walk on glass around each other. We got our old structure in place. New carriers, new Cassettes? Don't matter. You don't do scrap to me or my buds without askin' first, because there's code covering my right to call in help if you're too strong for me to go up against on my own. That's, uh, like contracting for defensive purposes." The red-and-gold mech shrugged. "'cept us 'Bots don't set those terms down. I know I've got friends to call on here, but the 'Cons got it all formalized an' scrap."

"Rape…doesn't happen because of power dynamics?" Ratchet scowled. "That's twisted. It's a house of…" He cast about for the word. "A house of cards. The paper kind. Vent on them wrong, and the whole structure falls over!"

"Not if the foundations are as old as a city-state, and upheld by a large population who knows and lives by the rules," Jazz said suddenly, and silence struck as that hit.

Prowl met his visor and nodded slowly. "Carry over the established structure of an entire city, and it might serve to support even the rot and dregs of whatever criminals get recruited to the Decepticon Cause," said the tactician.

Blaster barked a laugh. "Told ya! See? Now you get it. You wanna know why the 'Cons are all up in consent even when they're grabbin' for all they can get? Take it outside the official channels, where it's about mechs and their fists." His hands closed into fists on the edge of the table, and the cheerful boombox sobered as he looked down at them instead of at the other officers. "My bunch has had their share of flings, lemme tell ya, and I've always kinda known I'm the only one who's got their backs in this stuff. Never thought about it like that, really, but yeah. Yeah. We've had to lay out what is and isn't allowed when somebot frags my Cassettes t' Praxus and back. We've got down what's too far, just in case." His voice rose. "Whoa, hey! It's cool, nothing's happened. It's all good! Honest!"

Ratchet sank back into his chair, relaxing down from sudden alarm, and even Wheeljack had to take a moment to cycle air. Prowl frowned at Optimus, who gave him apologetic look as he handed back one of the datapads he'd just knocked into disarray. Ironhide closed his vents and transformed his gun back into his left hand.

Lowering his arms from waving their concern away, Blaster tapped his fingers on the table before giving a Why Not? shrug. The amiable Communication Officer tipped his chin down. "It's just, y'know." He looked like murder incarnate as he smiled, pretty as a picture and completely unhinged. "I'm more conscious than most that if slag goes down on my buds, I'm not waiting for any trial. Wouldn't surprise me in the least if the 'Cons are the same way."

Even Optimus Prime lost his calm façade and stared down the table. Ratchet's mouth dropped open slightly as he bent forward a bit to see around Wheeljack, who'd turned in his chair to gape. Ironhide and Red Alert both sat up ramrod straight in their seats, heads turned toward the end of the table.

"Blaster!" Prowl recovered his wits first. Jazz could practically see him scrambling through incident reports for any evidence that Blaster might have taken the law into his own hands on behalf of his Cassettes.

"You go, Master Blaster," Jazz said softly, and that too-wide smile turned to flash, crazy and vicious, toward him.

"Jazz!" Clearly, Prowl could not be any more scandalized by the notion that the Third-in-Command of the Autobots might support vigilante justice.

"Prowl!" Jazz mimicked. He waggled his doors at the tactician. "They're part of him. With the way our laws are set up, the only one who might believe anything happened would be him. Can't blame a mech for acting to protect his own." Not that he wouldn't have intervened if he'd known anything happened, but at the same time, he might not have. He knew what he would have done if someone went after one of his operatives that way, after all.

"Nah, y' still ain't listening," Blaster interrupted again before the two black-and-whites could go at it. "That's my point. It's a dependant bond, not a contract, but it's got some of the same stuff attached. A real…I don't know." His hands worked, trying to pull a concept into words they'd understand. "A tangible thing, not like me and you," he said, gesturing between Wheeljack and himself, then Ironhide and himself as he turned to the other side of the table. "Friendship's not a measurable thing. Mechs, I'm imaginin' a whole army - slaggit, imagine a city! - based off of measurable, binding agreements between peeps instead-a, I dunno, emotions. Feelings. Stuff we can't quantify. I mean, think about it like a battle! You shoot Skywarp down, who y' gotta worry 'bout?"

"Until tonight, Thundercracker. Starscream as well, although it always seemed incidental that he might interfere," Optimus Prime said thoughtfully. He'd sat back in his chair as he looked down the length of the table at the boombox speaking so passionately at the other end. "On a wider scale, the other flyers as well."

"Right! And Dirge?"

"Thrust and Ramjet," Prowl answered this time. "Then the rest of the flyers."

Blaster winked one optic at the tactician still eying him warily. "Got it in one. Shoot an Insecticon, and you know to watch out for the others. Constructicon? Look out for the rest of th' bunch. But combiners aside, how many 'Cons we know that don't bunch up in units that somehow get nicknamed? You know if you down one mech, 'specially one of the officers, you gotta watch out for the rest. They swarm, mechs! It's not real obvious down in the grunts 'cause they're cannon-fodder and tend t' group up for protection, and we don't mark 'em like we do officers, but look at the wider groups. Y'know exactly which 'Cons are gonna gun for you if you take out a Seeker, or a shuttle, or, frag, a Cassette. Scrap iron and metal - look at us!" He made a wild gesture with his hand that Wheeljack dodged. "We get a bunch of us together, and we're still individuals. Shoot me, and you know who to keep an optic out for. Shoot you," he pointed at Wheeljack, who gave him a friendly Why Me? glare, "and there ain't nobody definite to watch out for. We don't have the bonds in place that the 'Cons do. Not contracted, laid-out-an'-signed-on bonds. We already know what t' watch for on the battlefield, but now we've got context outside of units and war for it!"

He shook his head, amazed but still smiling. "The stuff I'd do outside the law would be legal, in that camp, 'cause everybody's got a contract protecting 'em. You negotiate the frag, any type of frag, because you ain't pushing some scared loner in a dark alley who don't dare go tattlin' to an Enforcer. You're pushing someone bound t' somebody else, who's probably got another contract to a higher officer, who'll probably get called in t' whale on your aft for darin' to take what wasn't willingly offered. How far you're willing to take dirty tricks and duckin' rules depends on how far y' think the others he's contracted to will let it go, and probably depends on how far your backers will cover your aft."

Ratchet stared at the Comm. Officer, and Jazz could almost see him re-evaluating what had happened in his office. Probably much the same way Jazz himself was. "They couldn't backtrack fast enough the moment Jazz stepped in as reinforcements," the medic said.

Jazz picked that up. "And they looked to Screamer for support before they figured out he was behind me. Whaddya bet they don't toe the line again because they know you've got back-up ready to call 'foul' and step in?"

"I would wager that is why Starscream chose you." Prowl set one finger on the table as if pinning a point down as he caught Jazz's gaze. "You have a whole division behind you in military terms, but he is gambling that you will not call for their support if he challenges you professionally or provokes you personally. You won't call for anyone's support. He will push you until he finds the point he is called out on his - how shall we call it - 'rude' behavior. He does not know exactly whom or when someone will come to your defense, but he can manipulate you into lowering those defenses for him. Then, he will use you as the example for how far and hard the other Decepticons can twist this courtship to their advantage because none of us dare protest for fear of offending them. After all, you allowed it."

A defensive swell of emotion bubbled up Jazz's intake, half-formed words and ideas, but he reset his visor as his visor bleached pale. Prowl's optics went the same sky blue as the same thing blindsided him. Sudden realization smacked them in the back of their helms in a realignment of events that clicked their vents in protest against the nearly physical yank down another path.

Jazz blinked again. Prowl blinked back at him.

As one, they looked at Optimus Prime.

Who didn't notice, lost as he was in his own epiphany. Their leader stared at the table without seeing the console screen.



"Cybertron to Prime?" Blaster added, and both black-and-whites shot him identical suppressive looks. "Whoa, hey!" He lowered his voice to an unnerved mutter. "It's eerie when you guys do that."

"It fits what Megatron's done," Optimus said without acknowledging any of them. He sounded deep in thought but a tinge off-kilter. "I don't want to see what he's done as suspicious or harmful on the surface, but the potential is there. He has not pushed me into anything I haven't found…" His optics glanced up abruptly, and away as fast as they rose. "Pleasurable." Tires spun, although the Prime didn't squirm. "He's kept our, ah, interactions within nominally acceptable behavior. He has grown bolder, however, as I've adjusted, and the potential is there to use our closed-door meetings as permission to conduct Autobot-Decepticon courtships in private, open to exploitation, under our own social pressure to keep interfacing of any kind as secret or shameful."

"Anything th' 'Cons do can be turned against us." Ironhide reached past Red Alert to knock the knuckles of one hand against Optimus' forearm. The Prime looked up at him, brow furrowed, and the Weapons Specialist shook his head at the disturbed look. "Anything. That ain't new. This ain't the end of the world."

"Now that we are aware of it, we can turn it around on them." Prowl nodded and tapped a new window open his console. "I am going to need you to detail everything Megatron has done to - or with - you, sir. I apologize if it this is a personally embarrassing process," he added when his commander looked absolutely taken aback. "It is necessary to catalogue what we will need to counter in the future."

Red Alert was opening up his own set of files across the table from him. "Blaster, how would you go about identifying the, umm, network. The network surrounding a strange, possibly hostile Cassette or carrier?"

"What, besides just askin'?" Blaster blew a puff of air out when that got him a Duh look. "Hostile. Right. Prrrrrrrobably get them to identify the bonds themselves? So a trick of some kind."

"Identifying a Cassette carrier mech is easier than sorting out this mess," Ratchet grumbled. "I doubt it's as easy as matching Cassette to Cassette dock."

Wheeljack raised a hand to get attention. "I'd like to point out that we've fallen right back into the mindset that this is war. Just saying," he said when Prowl and Red Alert glared in his direction. "I've got nothing against precautions or making sure our afts are covered, but you're all talking like the Decepticons are the enemy and trying to get around the cease-fire to attack us. Right or wrong, I'm pointing out that there is zero trust," he looked away from the disgruntled tactician and Security Director to nod to Jazz, "or faith entering even our best-case scenarios."

Ironhide's helm rocked back, he scoffed so hard. "Strangely, I'm alright with that." But Optimus' smokestacks slumped a tad, and the red mech saw it. "Aw, f'r Primus' sake - Prime! No!"

"Where is it to start, if not with us?" their leader asked, optics shadowed and troubled.

"It can start when the Decepticons are trust-worthy," Prowl answered immediately.

"So approximately the end of, oh, never," Ratchet said, voice dry as his deadpan expression. "Realistically, I'd trust a 'Con as far as I could see, if not less, but let me ask a question, here." He cocked his head at everyone's attentive looks. "Is there any reason the courtships have to happen right away? According to Starscream himself, his current contracts don't end and open him up for binding any new contracts until the treaty is officially signed. That gives us some time to work out our 'example' courtships." Jazz and Optimus Prime sat up on cue, glancing over at each other as if wondering what the other thought as the medic nodded to them. "No one's said anything about making us accept their proposals if we don't feel we're ready."

"A control group!" Wheeljack exclaimed, delighted, and Jazz cracked up.

Ratchet gave his friend an irritated sidelong look. "A control group implies it isn't an experiment just forming it."

"A future control group?" The inventor's fingers open and closed over nothing, eager as always to work and tweak and do things. Ratchet and Blaster eyed him and leaned away. "It's a brilliant idea! Keep the experiment small enough to be contained if something goes wrong. Limiting the number of participants will allow for observation and ensuring everyone has the same starting knowledge. Better propose a change to the experiment parameters soon, or the Decepticons in charge of running it on their side of things will let it grow out of control before we can set our own lab up."

"That's a very good idea," the Prime said, and Prowl nodded agreement. "I will bring it up with Megatron in the morning. It may be best to allow the Decepticons to draft a proposal of what Autobots they are interested in approaching first." Prowl's nodding stopped cold, and he gave his superior a narrow look. "We don't have to agree, but offering a small concession on participants will give me something to bargain with."

The Executive Officer was most unimpressed by this logic. His mouth pressed into a thin line.

"Noted," Blaster said, still eying Wheeljack like he'd explode. "It's on the To-Do list for tomorrow, now will you please stop talking about us like we're one of your thingamajigs?"

The inventor had begun humming with contained energy as his CPU flipped over into regarding this whole situation as an ongoing experiment. Prowl's engine revved protest on Ratchet's other side as the medic invaded his personal space to escape the growing SCIENCE! bubble surrounding Wheeljack. The tactician didn't otherwise protest, however. In fact, he let the heavy weight of wary ambulance against his side inch him further toward the head of the table.

Wheeljack didn't even notice how everyone was pushing back, away from him. "What we're already seeing are instances of political maneuvering within the Decepticons surrounding the courtships. For instance, the Vosians fighting over even the possibility of an open contract with the Air Commander." He leaned forward, hands open like he wanted to grab their minds and shake them until they were as excited as he was. "But think about it! This is our opportunity to observe their current contracts at work in a contained situation! If we limit who or how many courtships can be in progress, we can watch the Decepticon officers determine who can propose by who has priority, or maybe even by who's considered important enough to court us knowing that we're putting them under scrutiny. Giving them a limited choice of whom they can court means that we're allowing their attempt at peace while giving us the opportunity to study their social structure!"

"A trick," Blaster said softly. "Find the network by tracing it through their infighting now that we know what to look for?"

"Do we have to make it subtle?" Jazz asked suddenly, and he grinned when the officers turned to look at him. "We don't have to make it a trick. Put some of it out in the open. Make 'em explain their connections to us in the plainest terms possible."

"How do you propose we do that?" Prowl asked flatly. "Ask nicely?"

His grin grew. "How many Constructicons asked permission to court you, Ratch'?"

The medic started to answer, caught himself, started again, and stopped again. Surprise flickered briefly across his face before a thoughtful look replaced it. "…two."

"How many did we assume asked him?" The saboteur threw his arms wide and cackled in glee for seeing the logic gap. The officers stared at him, Blaster shaking his head and Red Alert muttering a vicious oath. "We didn't even spot it! We think of the 'Structies, and we think six mechs right away! But why? We assumed!" He draped his arms over the chair back, and his grin grew fangs as he set his chin on them. "And they assume we've assumed, too. Problem is, we shouldn't assume anything. If it's not laid out for everyone to see, we could be assuming wrong. They wanna make a big deal about openness and consent and whatnot, we just gotta call 'em on that."

The fingers of one hand described a delicate question in midair, and the Head of Special Operations put on his most innocent expression. "So. Only two Constructicons asked permission to court..?"

Ratchet sat back in his seat and folded his arms, meeting Jazz's angelic smile with his own smile. Although his had definite overtones of the Unmaker lurking behind it. "And I only granted permission to two. So who's going to be making an assumption, now?"

There was a beat of silence. Ironhide broke it by snickering. "I'd love t' see their expressions when the other four show up and ya say y'r not interested in them courtin' you."

"I would like to see them attempt to explain why you are or are not obligated to accept suite from the combiner as a whole," Prowl said.

His voice was less prim-and-proper than Jazz had expected, and he looked at the other black-and-white curiously. The low level wariness he felt toward Prowl still simmered in the back of his mind, but that was a tone that interested him. "What's up?"

The tactician seemed to be reading something on the console before him. When Jazz spoke, he looked up, but only to glance at him before turning his head to give the Prime a considering look.

His commander gave it right back. Jazz stared at them both, visor widening. Sometimes, those two could communicate on a level constructed entirely on eons of experience working together, mutual trust, and deep respect. There were some slagging good reasons the Decepticons feared the Prime and his Second working together as a team. Add in Ultra Magnus and Elita One, and Megatron would move armies to keep them occupied while his own officers scrambled to sort out what plot had been hatched.

Without looking away from Prowl, Optimus asked, "Blaster, do we know where Bonecrusher and Mixmaster are right now?"

"Uh…" The Comm. Officer looked up into thin air, where all facts were stored. "Not right off the bat. I'd say they'd be tending Starscream, but First Aid's tellin' me the medbay at HQ's empty as anything, so they could be in Tarn or back at the Decepticons' hideyhole here in Vos workin' on him."

"Sideswipe says they drove off at shift end," Red Alert reported. "Direction's right for a return to the Decepticon base. Should I," he swallowed distaste, "ask Soundwave for their location?"

The corners of Prowl's mouth turned up. "No. Ask him for their personal comm. frequency."

Optimus' optics smirked just as effectively as a visible mouth as he set his forearms on the table and folded his hands together serenely. "Ratchet, how do you feel about asking nicely?"

[* * * * *]

End Pt. 25

[* * * * *]

[ A/N:This part was commissioned by Raditz Wyvern.Again, I really don't have words for how much it means that someone wants to see how this story progresses.

Check out Ao3 for the joke image Shibara drew for the ending of this chapter.]