Greetings everyone, I apologize for the delayed update. Real life strikes again, that is all I can say. That is the same reason I haven't gotten to reply to virtually anyone's review. Don't doubt that I have enjoyed every one though. Trust me, these last two weeks when I have been spend days so tired I literally got dizzy if I moved quickly, I would re-read your reviews and they would motivate me to sit down and write some more. I'm not usually that 'needy' but these have been a tough two weeks. For the same reason, please forgive me if the grammar and stuff in this chapter is a bit weaker than normal. At least it is a new chapter...

Anyway, though it was not intentional this chapter is extra long. Too long, perhaps. Doesn't matter though because the last scene doesn't fit with the next chapter so it had to go here. :D Lucky for you guys I guess.

Enough said. Enjoy…

Four orns into his new assignment, working with Smokescreen as his monitor, had Prowl starting to feel as if he were finally getting his pedes underneath himself again. Being in a routine – not to mention being back in his function – helped. Tremendously.

He and Bluestreak would wake early to share energon before the crowds would form in the rec room and then he would drop the youngling off with Chromia before heading to the tactical command. Bluestreak's demand for higher energon rations remained, though no other physical indications of a need for a frame upgrade made themselves known in that time. Prowl knew enough to know that could change at any moment and was resolved to speak to Ratchet as soon as he saw anything else.

As he entered the tactical command center this time however, it was with a hint of sad reservation. The plan he had been working on would be completed this orn and, despite what Smokescreen had said, Prowl was not sure what to expect once it was finished.

Even so, he diligently did his best to stamp down his personal concerns as he and Smokescreen set to work. They had quickly developed a system, one that worked remarkably well.

True, Smokescreen's official job was to carefully monitor Prowl's use of the data he was processing and to stay vigilant for any possible subterfuge. In reality however, he just stayed in the background and watched Prowl operate. Occasionally he would ask questions, but they were more often than not the type of questions a student would ask, not a suspicious warden. In return, Prowl made an effort to point out relevant processes and detailed how he set up each algorithm and why. Eventually, Smokescreen had relaxed enough into the activity to start suggesting input. Prowl would evaluate each suggestion and then explain why it was not appropriate or express his approval and incorporate it accordingly.

Initially Smokescreen all but glowed internally each time his input was deemed valuable even if his outward, professional demeanor never waivered. However, even that mild excitement had eventually faded into professional collaboration as they neared the end of the assignment.

After four orns, the only thing that truly served to remind Prowl that things between him and Smokescreen were still different from when they had served in the Praxian Enforcer Corps together, was the fact that their work was being done through a one-way connection rather than a tandem process.

While Wheeljack's buffered interface hub did much to blunt the pain that he would have normally felt, it could not truly block all the discomfort. The steady ache in his processor that would establish itself within a joor or so once they started, and would not fade until a joor or so after they had finished for the orn, was sufficient to remind Prowl of his true status.

Thus he knew the high probability existed that his role was finished as they completed and finalized the plan to retake the two most recently overrun Autobot outposts in the Centari-tetrax region.

It was with a heavy silence that Prowl finally disconnected from the terminal. With a resigned and somewhat weary sigh of air he reached out and touched Smokescreen's arm before his former apprentice could disconnect from the hub.

Smokescreen looked at him questioningly, but not at all suspicious or accusingly.

Prowl spoke very softly. "As I am sure you are aware, I have been storing data related to this plan in an isolated, buffered databank." Smokescreen nodded and Prowl forced himself to continue, still holding his gaze. "Do you wish for me to delete that data?"

Smokescreen's optics widened and all he could do was stare for a long handful of seconds and Prowl understood, the heat building in his frame attesting to just how humiliating asking such a question was for any Cybertronian, let alone a tactician.

Then Smokescreen quickly shook his helm. "No. You may need to defend this plan. To the others, the commanders, I mean."

It was Prowl's turn to blink, staring in surprise at Smokescreen. Seeing his look, Smokescreen shrugged a doorwing, deliberately nonchalant. "I said you were taking lead on this project. That means providing the briefing and running the on-site tactical operations."

"I doubt your comrades will accept such a proposal." Prowl said quietly.

There were certain aspects of this plan that would require a direct sensory uplink with the on-scene tactician, though he had made sure it was a task Smokescreen should be able to handle without him if necessary. Though, in truth he had briefly toyed with the idea of 'what if…'

"I know that look." Smokescreen leaned forward. "You have an idea to make your involvement more acceptable to them."

Prowl canted a look at his former apprentice, bemused to be so easily read. "Perhaps."

"Well?" Smokescreen demanded.

With the barest hint of a smirk that was hidden by a well-timed, deferential nod, Prowl told him.

Less than half a breem into his explanation and Smokescreen had to suppress a smirk as well.

… … …

The briefing room was full and boasted only limited seating. As expected, the Prime was present as was Ironhide, Jazz, Ultra Magnus, Ratchet, Blaster and Red Alert. Also present were the senior field commanders; Hardstrike, Crankshaft, and Steelbrow. Silverbolt, the Arialbot Commander and his second, Air Raid, were also there. In fact, Air Raid was standing behind and to one side of his commander in order to leave one remaining chair for Smokescreen. Nearly half of these Autobots, Prowl had never met personally and the looks on their faceplates spoke clearly that they were not happy to be doing so now.

Familiar with how situations like this played out, Prowl silently took up a similar place behind and to the side of Smokescreen's chair. The white and gray Praxian hesitated ever so slightly before sliding into it, clearly uncomfortable. Prowl thought he understood; before the war, they had attended numerous precinct briefings and it had always been Smokescreen who had stood behind Prowl.

Prowl was acutely aware he was being watched by every optic in the room and suspiciously so by most of them. However, the tactician gave no indication he was aware of, let alone irritated or discomfited by the attention.

The Prime shifted his focus to the Autobot tactician, though he glanced curiously at Prowl who continued to stand silently behind his division commander. "Smokescreen, what do you have for us?"

Smokescreen cleared his vents in a nervous manner that Prowl remembered well. "We believe it is actually possible to retake two out of the three outposts the Decepticons have overrun in the Centari-tetrax region. Specifically, Outposts 227Delta and 343Delta." He activated the display, highlighting the territory in question with the given outposts indicated clearly.

Hardstrike leaned in. "That would create a buffer and would allow further expansion in the area… if we can hold them, that is."

Smokescreen nodded. "Our thoughts exactly." He then went on to detail the strategy Prowl had developed.

The discussion continued and, as it did so, the tension in the room diminished by degrees as every mech seemed to forget about Prowl's presence as they were gradually convinced that the plan was not only possible, but actually feasible as well. Even better, it was a true offensive, not just an aggressive defense.

Finally, nearly a joor after it began, the briefing was winding down. The looks of excited expectation and grim determination something Prowl was satisfied to see.

A moment of silence elapsed once Smokescreen was finished laying everything out. Then Ultra Magnus looked at the young tactician with a pleased glint in his optics. "This is impressive, Smokescreen. But it will require a tactician in the theatre of combat to help manage the flow of battle. Do you have someone who can actually do that effectively?"

There was generalized agreement and echoing concern from the other commanders.

Smokescreen cleared his vents again, doorwings shifting in suddenly renewed nervousness. "Um, yes. The same mech who developed the plan actually. In addition there will be a skeleton back-up staff of no more than two mechs."

Ultra Magnus blinked. "This is not your plan? Your offensive team didn't develop this?"

Optimus Prime, Ironhide, Ratchet and Jazz were already looking at Prowl as Smokescreen released a snort of air through his vents dismissively with an accompanying, almost derisive, shake of his helm. "Pit no. The committee approach is what results in disasters like the debacle that happened just under a decaorn ago. No. This is his.

Smokescreen gestured back at Prowl and absolute silence fell upon the conference room as everyone took that in, processing what it meant. Then there was an explosion of protests and objections. Only the four senior commanders who had suspected the plan's origins did not participate in the outburst.

Even as the fervor of the outcry became heated, Prowl's only response was a brief flick of his doorwings and a slight increase of his internal temperature. He was not surprised by their reactions and, while the continued lack of trust was frustrating, he understood it and the reasons behind their distrust. Especially now. In fact, it was exactly the reaction he had anticipated. For that reason he could not bring himself to be overly upset by any of it.

Smokescreen, however, was not handling it quite so well. His frame started trembling in agitation, his vents heaving as his armor flared angrily as the protests continued.

The outburst started to settle down, punctuated by a comment from Air Raid. "You know what he is, Smokescreen. We've already made the mistake of following his advice."

Knowing Smokescreen well enough to know the younger mech was, at that moment, too emotional to respond effectively, Prowl rested two fingers on his arm, forestalling his heated reply. Prowl turned his frustratingly serene gaze onto the arialbot in question, though he knew he was addressing the concerns of all the mechs in the room.

"Smokescreen himself monitored the development of this strategy and was meticulous in reviewing each step."

The fact that that review had been that of a learning exercise more than a security screen did not need to be widely advertised.

Even so, an uneasy silence returned as they took that in and processed what it meant. More than one of the commanders present looked at Prowl with surprise at how nonchalant he appeared. Thankfully, that bought Smokescreen the time he needed to calm down sufficiently and Prowl felt safe removing his restraining hand.

After another handful of seconds, Red Alert shook his helm. "This is too risky. There are too many ways this could go wrong. Not to mention it requires an on the ground tactician…"

"That is what an offensively trained tactician does, Red." Smokescreen interrupted, glaring at the bright red security director. "We finally have one and we should use him."

"No one is going to accept orders from him." Ironhide spoke slowly though, surprisingly, not accusingly. Rather it was said almost as if it were just another logistical problem that needed to be resolved. "Not now at least."

Smokescreen nodded. "That is why I will be on the ground as well. I'll be the one actually issuing the orders."

Crankshaft frowned. "There is no way to do such a thing in a responsive enough manner to actually affect the battle."

Smokescreen allowed a tiny smile to tip his lip plate, taking confidence in Prowl's continued silence, knowing it meant his mentor was sure in his ability to handle the situation. "Yes there is, if I am in his head."

Crankshaft's optics widened as they darted up to Prowl. "A direct interface?"

"Through a hub, but yes." Smokescreen nodded once, sharply.

Ratchet was frowning now, pinning his sharp cobalt gaze on the older Praxian. "For the entire battle?"

"If that is what is necessary." Smokescreen affirmed.

The fiery CMO's optics snapped back to Smokescreen, accusation clear as they bored twin holes through the mech's CPU. "That is totally…"

"His idea!" Smokescreen quickly defended, frame shivering under the medic's threatening glare.

At Prowl's confirming nod, the medic stumbled to a stop as every mech in the room devolved into more stunned staring. Taking the opportunity, Smokescreen spoke into the silence, penning each officer with an almost withering look of his own. "Before you knew of its origin, all of you were praising this plan as innovative, aggressive and so on. Either it is still those things or it never was. We can go back to rework it, if you wish, scale it back if you refuse to work with something this bold. Just know that any offensive tactics will be done by Prowl because that is what he does. Likewise, the primary tactician on the ground will also be him… at least until he can train someone else."

"Wait just a…" Hardstrike began but Smokescreen cut him off with a sharp wave of his hand.

"No. What happened last time was because I did not let Prowl do the work he was programmed and trained to do. I double-guessed him just like you are doing now. We decided to keep him in Tactical because of the tangible asset he represents and because we know it was not his fault." Smokescreen's optics sharpened. "But he is only an asset if those skills are properly utilized."

If Prowl did not like, or was uneasy, about being discussed as if he were not there in the room, he gave nothing away. Even as every mech's optics slowly flicked from Smokescreen to him until he was again the focus of everyone's regard.

Instead, Prowl found his own gaze drawn to the Prime's and he found himself meeting those fathomless oceans of calm. He was able to draw a measure of peace and strength as the Prime spoke the first words directed toward him in this briefing.

"You realize there will be no escaping responsibility if this plan proves to be untenable."

Prowl nodded, amazed that his awareness of the other, borderline hostile, presences in the room faded as he focused on the Prime. "I will not attempt to escape responsibility."

"You are that confident in this?"

Prowl dipped his helm again. "In the soundness of the strategy? Yes."

Optimus quickly reviewed the data once more and, realizing he was not finished, no one spoke. Finally his optics refocused on Prowl. "The timeframe on this plan does not allow for training of the troops. This is different than anything most of them have done before."

"For a mission such as this, that should not be a problem." Prowl countered calmly.

" 'A mission such as this?' " Ultra Magnus interrupted, sounding put out.

Smokescreen spoke before Prowl could. "This is a simple, straight-forward offensive. But only on two fronts and against relatively minor defenses. Do you remember the Octerix Offensive early in the war?"

Ultra Magnus' engine growled and the angry noise was echoed by numerous other engines. "You mean the mass, unified assault on our forces by the Decepticons the second vorn into the war? The one that decimated our forces? Of course. You came onboard shortly after that, because we realized we needed an actual tactician since Megatron had managed to snag himself one who could mastermind such a thing."

Hot blue optics glowered at Prowl from more than one mech at the reminder of the devastation Prowl had been able to deliver to their forces.

Smokescreen nodded. "Right, because you needed help dealing with him." He gestured back at Prowl. "That was not just his strategy. Don't forget, he was also the field tactician for all but two of the eight battles."

Once again, Prowl was the center of attention for twelve sets of optics.

Hardstrike recovered first, speaking slowly, almost dangerously. "And which of those weren't you the field tactician for?"

Without obvious hesitation Prowl answered. "The battle at the Tyger Pax borderlands and the one at your northern outpost here in the Iacon territories."

"The only two we won." Steelbrow breathed and Prowl nodded. "But you could not be in all those places at once."

Prowl confirmed that simple fact of physics. "Sensory uplinks with the on-scene commanders allowed me to process the data real time. The commanders at Pax and Iacon refused to allow the uplink and I was unable to assist them."

In the now tense silence, Prowl began to doubt Smokescreen's wisdom in bringing up the Octerix Offensive. However, he had no time to contemplate the matter before Smokescreen continued, though his voice was subdued as if he too was belatedly thinking along the same lines.

"It would be more efficient if said uplink was directly with Prowl, but…"

Ironhide cut him off, his intense gaze boring into Prowl, though the tactician had the impression he was speaking more for the sake of the other field commanders than himself. "That is how you managed to help Hound and his team defeat, what twenty-something 'Cons when you didn't have your doorwings."

Prowl nodded slowly, cautiously. "Yes. And I deleted their access codes as soon as hostilities ceased." He gestured with two fingers to Ratchet. "A fact that is easily confirmed."

Ratchet nodded, never taking his own stunned optics off the Praxian. "He is correct."

Prowl continued. "That is one option. So is Smokescreen's suggestion, which is for the sensory up-link to be with either him or the tactical computer."

"What type of time delay are we talking about with either of those?" Ironhide asked, his engine giving a gentle rev.

"Approximately one hundred and eighty seconds, roughly one fifth a breem, for the interface to be with the terminal." Prowl supplied immediately. "Slightly less if it is with Smokescreen."

"That is a significant delay." Crankshaft pointed out, frowning and Prowl simply nodded.

He had delivered the options, now it was their decision as to whether they would trust him. He added softly. "It is significant enough that if you do not wish to allow me direct access to the uplink, we will need to re-conceptualize the strategy into something significantly less aggressive as I highly doubt it would be achievable otherwise."

The response was not what Prowl anticipated.

Ironhide growled, his engine revving loudly. "Well, I'm tired of not being able to take the battle to the 'Cons." He slammed a hand down on the table and looked at the field commanders. "I'm willing to do this." Then he looked hard at Prowl. "I'll even give you access to my sensory uplink. But I want them gone as soon as it is over and Ratchet will be checking that they are. If they aren't…"

"Ironhide…" Optimus rumbled warningly.

Prowl merely ducked his helm, still outwardly unperturbed. "If I fail to delete them, I shall expect disciplinary measures commiserate with disobeying a direct order."

Prowl held Ironhide's stormy gaze as that simple statement sank into the larger mech's understanding. Around them, the others shifted. Optimus's gaze bordered on amazement that, after what had been done to him so recently, Prowl would put that much faith in receiving fair treatment.

The other field commanders were glancing at each other, gauging, judging, communicating without words as they came to a mutual consensus on the matter.

Finally, Hardstrike looked back at Prowl, his tone a quiet challenge. "Failing to obey a direct order in times of war is punishable by death." At Prowl's nod he released a gust of air through his vents. "Well, with that type of motivation, I too am willing to give you my uplink codes."

Following his lead, the other two nodded as well, though with considerably more hesitation.

Optimus looked at his commanders and then back at Prowl. "Will that be sufficient?"

Smokescreen looked up at Prowl and they considered one another for a brief moment. It was more than they had hoped for.

Prowl was the one who answered. "Yes, sir. Two from each theatre is sufficient. One more from each would be ideal, but is not necessary at this juncture."

"You can handle all that?" Blaster asked, awe mixing with incredulity in his voice.

Prowl looked at the smaller communications expert, surprised he had addressed him directly; it was a first. "Yes. One of the most important roles of a field tactician is the rapid analysis of a great amount of simultaneously incoming data. I have an entire auxiliary processor-setup reserved for that task alone. It is a necessary upgrade for all senior tacticians and… "

Prowl trailed off, glancing down at Smokescreen who had put a hand on his arm. It was a silent request for him to stop explaining. An order. Not understanding the reason, but relinquishing to the younger mech's authority, Prowl gave him a short nod and remained silent.

No mech could have missed that silent byplay, even if they had missed it earlier in the briefing session when it had been reversed.

Smokescreen looked at Blaster and then swept the room again, landing finally on Optimus. "Prime, not only can Prowl 'handle' this, he has done so in the past and he will handle it now. Give him the chance and he'll show you."

This time the hush that claimed the briefing room was not one of shock or muted hostility, but that of tense expectation as every mech waited for the Prime's decision.

The Prime's expression was indefinable, it was almost as if too many weighty thoughts vied for his attention. Even so, he never lost that unfathomable calm. It was matched by an echoing calm that likewise radiated off the former Enforcer, though the later was also tinged with resignation. It was clear to everyone present that Prowl would accept whatever the Prime's decision would be, taking it in stride regardless of whether it favored him or not.

At length, Optimus spoke. "You have yet to betray the trust we have given you, Prowl. Smokescreen is correct; it is useless to keep you in the tactical department if we are not willing to take advantage of the skills and abilities you bring with you. You have presented an opportunity to us that we will seek to take advantage of."

That rich cobalt gaze slid over to his senior field commanders. "Prepare your troops, mechs. We leave in less than one orn."

Hardstrike, Crankshaft, Steelbrow and the two arialbots stood and took their leave. Once they were gone, Optimus shifted his attention back to Prowl, who straightened under the intensity of it though, much to his surprise, he felt no desire to even want to hide from that attention regardless of what it might bring.

Once more his focus narrowed and he was able to mostly ignore the other witnesses in the room.

Optimus spoke again, his voice solemn. "As an on-scene tactician, you will be in a position to do us much harm."

It was an understatement and Prowl knew that. And he knew they had probably never allowed any other defector that much authority. He nodded with equal sobriety. "That is true." He acknowledged quietly.

"We would be foolish not to take steps to ensure that cannot happen." It was spoken softly, as if the words pained the Prime.

Prowl frowned minutely, not at the words but with concern as to how they had been spoken. "I would not expect you to do anything less." He paused, continuing to meet the Prime's gaze. Yes, he was intimately aware of the risk they were taking.

With a release of air, Prowl lowered his gaze and forced his frame to relax into a more submissive posture. "I will not contest or resist any measures you chose to take to prevent such a thing from happening, Prime."

"You don't even know what those measures will be." Optimus pointed out, still speaking softly.

"Regardless." Prowl returned, then he looked at the Prime even more closely and realized the other mech was actually at a loss as to how to best safeguard against such a possible threat in this situation. It was a reminder that the Prime was not necessarily intended to be a military leader.

His optics narrowed as he spoke, addressing Optimus' concern. "It was very rare, though not unheard of, even in relatively peaceful precincts, for a field tactician to, I believe the common idiom was, 'berserk.' The reasons were seldom understood and usually attributed to a critical systems failure, nor were the episodes ever expected. In critical situations. . . eventually it became standard for all precincts to keep in reserve the ability to physically eliminate such a possible threat should it be necessary, though only the most senior tacticians ever knew of this fact."

"They did?" Smokescreen's horrified, whispered question garnered only a faint nod from the older Praxian.

Seeing the Prime's widening optics Prowl dipped his helm. "Such a precaution is never wrong to take, and would not be a precedent. Nor would it be something you should hesitate to consider."

After a long moment Optimus bowed his own helm in acknowledgement of the former Decepticon's recommendation. "Know that, due to the dramatic leap of trust this is requiring, another processor scan may be called for once it is over."

Prowl hid a wince at the recent memory that warning brought instantly to mind, refusing to look at Jazz as he nodded, though with noticeably more stiffness. "I agreed to the terms of my parole, I will abide by that agreement, Prime."

The two mechs continued to regard each other silently. Then the Prime nodded again; a dismissal. "Then we understand one another. We will speak again following the upcoming battle."

With that Prowl and Smokescreen stood and, with a bow to the Prime, walked out of the briefing room.

… … …

The makeshift field tactical station was set up in a well-secluded and hidden, virtually dilapidated, shack: the best fit for their needs according to intelligence reports. Not the best conditions Prowl had ever worked in… almost the worst, actually... but it would do. Prowl would make it do because there were too many lives depending on it.

Walking in beside him, Smokescreen grimaced. "Well… its cozy at least."

Prowl released a snort of air and, shooting his department leader an almost jaded look, he moved further into the humble excuse of a mobile command center.

"Look at it this way," Smokescreen continued in an effort to be positive. "Once we prove this works, I think the Prime will be willing to invest in a more appropriate set up."

"So… Smokey…" Trailbreaker asked hesitantly as he walked in last, carrying the portable computer terminal. "You sure this is place secure enough?"

"This location's security is in its secrecy." Prowl responded automatically, still investigating the perimeter of the small room.

"Hmn. Yeah, well, I wasn't talking to you." Trailbreaker huffed, though it was clear to Prowl that the sharpness in the other mech's words was born more of nervousness than antipathy.

Of course, none of the mechs in Smokescreen's command had any experience with field operations. Keeping that in mind, Prowl did not allow himself to take offense. "My apologies."

"He's right though." Smokescreen said with a grin tossed to the other Autobot. "If the enemy knows where we are, it would take the entire army to keep us safe so… anonymity is our only real defense."

"That is not exactly comforting." Trailbreaker huffed again, though he proceeded to set up the equipment.

Deeming his survey complete, Prowl moved to help but hesitated when the mech shot him a warning glance.

"Can I assist?" Prowl asked gently.

Trailbreaker blinked and then gave a tiny shrug and handed him a cable. "Find a power-conduit access for this thing."

Prowl frowned. "Does the system not have a self-contained power supply?"

"Of course it does, but why waste the juice when…" He trailed off, looking suddenly aghast. "Right. The diversion in power might give our location away. Never mind."

The cord was snatched out of Prowl's hand and the mech went back to work, not acknowledging his presence again.

Prowl frowned, but a private ping on his communication's system from Smokescreen drew his attention. He accessed it, still looking at Trailbreaker.

/He's a little overwhelmed right now. Don't be too harsh with him./

Prowl released a vent of air, but after checking that the mech was making acceptable progress with his task of setting up the equipment, stepped back, out of the way. /It is not my place to be harsh with him, even if I believed he deserved it./ He replied without inflection.

Smokescreen winced. /That's not what I meant. He's never done anything like this before./

/That is clear./ He looked at his former apprentice even as Trailbreaker finally powered up the terminal. "Are we ready to begin?"

"Yes." Smokescreen gestured him over to the main interface, handing him the data hub.

Without comment, Prowl took the hub and connected it to his port then nodded to Smokescreen. With smooth motions that spoke of both tacticians' professionalism and experience, Prowl began initiating the uplinks with the field commanders as Smokescreen connected to the hub and then synched it with the terminal.

Prowl began an automatic network check to make sure each connection was strong and stable when restless movement at the peripheral of his vision caught his attention. He paused momentarily in his preparations to look at Trailbreaker, aware that Smokescreen continued to play his fingers over the terminal's controls. Now that his primary task was completed, Trailbreaker looked rather lost and out of his element.

"Trailbreaker." His softly spoken word caught the mech's attention. "If you wish, another processor to review the data is always helpful."

Trailbreaker looked down at the hub Prowl was pointing to, something like horror written on his face. Prowl released a vent of air. "It is a one way connection, there is no danger for you. However, if that makes you uncomfortable, connecting with the terminal will also grant you access to the data."

Trailbreaker hesitated for a moment. Connecting with the terminal would give him a slightly outdated view of the data and they both knew it, as the sensory feeds were coming directly to Prowl. However, it was apparently better than sitting around with nothing to do because he nodded hastily and stepped forward, connecting to the computer.

/That was kind of you to offer./ Smokescreen noted as Prowl refocused on the task at hand.

/Feeling useless is not a pleasant existence, even if only for a short period./ Prowl said and then accessed all the data streams simultaneously, his processors instantly whirring up to full combat speed. "The first wave will begin in less than one breem."

"Acknowledged." Smokescreen said out loud, though he frowned at the cryptic nature of Prowl's commed statement.

With a final, guarded look at Smokescreen, Prowl willingly lost himself in the ebb and flow of the bourgeoning conflict, taking the data as it came in, classifying it, processing and analyzing it and then prioritizing any changes that might be needed. All of this was done with swift efficiency that would have stunned any mech who had not already witnessed it. He felt Smokescreen almost seamlessly slip into place. It was a somewhat deeper mental contact than when the younger mech had been simply monitoring his work, in that it had to be deep enough to allow the younger tactician to immediately know when an order needed to be issued.

That fact alone increased the pressure within Prowl's processor, but Wheeljack's modified data hub helped blunt what it would have otherwise been.

The initial assault began with virtually no fanfare and, much as expected, caught the Decepticons completely by surprise. Outside, the Autobots' plasma fire lit up the night, but the three of them were sheltered by the thick metal walls surrounding them. Relatively close, explosions rocked the ground, but, tucked away in their little hideaway, the physical evidence of the battles were but a minor distraction.

On the edge of Ironhide's sensory field at the eastern-most target, Prowl noticed a flight of seekers struggling to pull themselves together enough to take off. Instantly, Smokescreen directed Air Raid – the one in command of the Autobot seekers flying cover for that detachment – to take as many out as they could before they could take to the air.

Simultaneously, Steelbrow's sensors detected a handful of Decepticons at the second installation who were attempting to repair one of the perimeter defenses the Autobots had taken out in the opening strikes. That would give them enough of an advantage to decimate the Autobot troops. But Prowl's warning, passed on by Smokescreen, gave the large cobalt and green mech enough time to redirect some of his forces to take them out.

Something about the way two mech's moved on Hardstrike's scanners hinted at a possible gestalt. Prowl singled them out and Smokescreen's directions had multiple plasma strikes homing in on those targets only astroseconds later. Twelve Decepticon soldiers fell the moment one of them was taken out.

The battle continued in this manner, with Prowl identifying priority targets and enemy threats. As expected, there was little resistence to Smokescreen's orders. Such would not have been the case for Prowl and the older tactician knew that. Yet the part of his processor that was just glad to be able to finally help, the part that was so wrapped up in his job that it did not have time for hurt feelings, ensured that he was not offended by that reality.

Suddenly Prowl realized that three of the Autobot front liner's were in trouble deep within the western target base, two were seriously wounded and the third was desperately trying to fight a loosing battle with the Decepticons who had managed to cut of their retreat back to the Autobot lines. Instantly Smokescreen redirected sufficient forces to come to their aid.

Explosions reverberated through the ground beneath them again as the battle raged on. It took two and a half joors before the surviving Decepticons chose to retreat, leaving the mutilated bases back in the hands of the Autobots.

The were just starting mop-up procedures when Trailbreaker spoke up suddenly, though a little unsure. "I think… I think Outpost 227Delta is trying to send a drone."

"Slag." Smokescreen breathed.

Prowl did not waste time on expletives, but rapidly reviewed the data. Drone curriers were not uncommon in that the lack of spark signatures helped them avoid detection and thus helped ensure the survival of their message. They were slower, perhaps, then subspace transmissions, but one of the first things the Autobots had done was destroy their communications array.

Taking the dataset Trailbreaker forwarded him, Prowl had it analyzed and Smokescreen had the orders issued within ten seconds. Using the same algorithm, Prowl managed to detect evidence that at least two additional drones had also been sent, one from the same outpost and another from the second. All three were successfully hunted down and destroyed, and their memory cache retrieved for possible intelligence.

"I doubt Outpost 343Delta only sent one drone." Smokescreen intoned quietly.

"Doubtless." Prowl agreed. "If they sent another one, it probably got through."

"Not much we can do about it now." Smokescreen shrugged with his doorwings as he confirmed the final active combat stand-down orders, allowing the on-scene commanders to begin securing the outposts they had just retaken. At least what was left of the outposts.

Once done, Smokescreen disconnected from the hub and the terminal, allowing Prowl to do the same. He smiled at his former mentor and Prowl merely released a sigh of air through his vents. Then, rubbing a hand over his faceplates, Prowl straightened, nodding to the younger tactician, Well done, the gesture told Smokescreen.

"That was awesome!" Trailbreaker enthused, seemingly oblivious to the silent byplay, though the look he cast Prowl were still somewhat uncertain. "An operation like that with only five fatalities and only a dozen critical injuries? I didn't even know that could be done."

Prowl let his lip plate quirk slightly, though he allowed Smokescreen to answer his subordinate, not wanting to risk making him uncomfortable again.

"It is possible. At least sometimes. And Prowl happens to be one of the best at it."

Trailbreaker sobered. "That's why we were getting our afts handed to us before, wasn't it?"

Smokescreen snorted. "Unfortunately. But now he's on our side and, as…"

Prowl tuned out the rest of Smokescreen's answer as he took the time to make sure the four sensory uplink codes he had been given were deleted, including his memory of the codes, making sure he had no way to initialize them again on his own. He blinked as something tickled the fringes of his doorwings' upgraded sensors, but it was gone just as quickly and he brushed the sensation aside as attributable to the ache in his processor caused by what they had just done. Speaking of…

Prowl looked at Smokescreen again, formally dipping his helm. "I believe that process worked admirably."

"Not as well as a true tandem process would." Smokescreen countered with a small grimace, looking at him again, carefully evaluating. "Are you alright?"

Prowl nodded. "Sore, but no more than would be expected."

Smokescreen nodded. "Yeah. Um, sorry about that. If I…"

Prowl gently cut his former apprentice off with a gentle finger to his gray shoulder as he stood to help Trailbreaker dismantle the portable computer terminal. "You know as well as I that, for security and safety reasons, a true tandem process is prohibited with either Decepticons or any former Decepticon defector still on probationary status."

"I know." Smokescreen's frustration bled through those words like energon through a sliced main line. "But most 'Con defectors aren't head cases like you, having to do so many processes that should be tandem. Most are just grunts who are sent right back out to the front lines, usually in rather remote locations were they can't really hurt anything because the only reason they defected in the first place was out of self preservation…"

Smokescreen cut himself off with a shake of his helm, then he forced a smile as he looked at Prowl again. "Still… you did good. And yes, since this is the only legal process we have at our disposal for now, I too think it worked rather well."

Together, the three tacticians made their way back to the carefully concealed ship that had carried them out to their makeshift base of operations.

… … …

Because their tiny ship carried no wounded soldiers returning from the battle, they were placed in a holding pattern above Iacon until all the troop transports were docked and unloaded. None of the three tacticians complained, each of them more than willing to let the wounded have priority. Trailbreaker actually took advantage of the time to quiz Smokescreen about what he and Prowl had just done. The rapid verbal torrent incongruously reminded Prowl of Bluestreak and it suddenly hit him how much he actually wanted to be back in Iacon.

Despite everything that had happened to him since he had arrived, the Autobot base held two of the only things that truly mattered to Prowl: the little youngling who somehow trusted him implicitly and his only hope of defeating Megatron so that young mechlings like Bluestreak had a future. Iacon might not be 'home' per se – in that it was difficult to equate the positive aspects usually associated with that word to the base in which he was still a prisoner of war – but it was the closest thing he had left to what that word represented.

Prowl was still pondering that line of thought as the Smokescreen took the ship down for its final descent into the hanger.

They disembarked, Trailbreaker eagerly taking the lead, clearly wanting to join the celebration that he claimed would soon begin. Prowl and Smokescreen followed him, speaking quietly to each other, comparing notes and deciding on possible ways to streamline their next engagement, as well as other possible operations Smokescreen had in mind. It was pleasantly enough like their interactions before the war that Prowl found himself relaxing.

Only to stiffen as five mechs moved to intercept them as they crossed the large hanger. Ironhide, Hardstrike, Crankshaft and Steelbrow with Ratchet in the middle of their group. They moved with purpose, five sets of optics focused unwaveringly on Prowl.

Smokescreen's engine revved with frustration, knowing, just like his mentor what their intention was.

Prowl tore his gaze away from his 'welcome committee' as the heavily built warriors came to stop some distance away and looked at his former apprentice. He spoke softly enough only Smokescreen heard. "This was part of our agreement with them. We knew this. I knew this."

Smokescreen hesitated for a moment longer, his armor flaring as his processor battled briefly with an instinctive desire to defend his former commander. Then he nodded resignedly and continued for the hanger door with an equally quiet and almost apologetically whispered, "I know."

Prowl watched him go for a couple of sparkbeats and then turned resolutely toward the five mechs waiting for him.

The four warriors shared a determined confidence that was almost intimidating, though it was also tinged with hints of the same excitement that had radiated off Trailbreaker. Even so, Prowl did not doubt that determination would turn swiftly to retaliation if provoked. Ratchet was almost unreadable and that alone was not a very comforting thing.

As he closed the distance between them, Prowl considered several ways to begin what was promising to be a rather awkward, if not downright uncomfortable discussion, at least for him.

As it turned out, he was saved from having to make a decision as Ironhide did it for him. "I have to admit. I wasn't sure you could pull that off. I see now why Smokescreen wanted you, even after that safe-house fiasco."

Prowl fell back on well-ingrained, professional politeness. "Thank you for being willing to give me the chance." He looked at Ratchet. "I know your time is limited, medic so I shall not waste it. Will you be checking only for the uplink codes or are you performing a full scan?"

Ratchet's engine made a tiny coughing noise before revving in warning. "Does it matter?"

Prowl nearly flinched away at the almost nervous sharpness in the question. Why would Ratchet be nervous? Then he remembered the usually temperamental mech's hesitant approach after Jazz had fragmented his processor. That in itself told him what this was to be. While he was curious as to why it was not Jazz, he could not deny he was not at least a little relieved.

He ducked his helm, averting his gaze submissively. "No, it does not matter as I agreed to submit to both. I was merely wanting to know what to expect. I did not mean to challenge you."

With that, Prowl slid the cover to his data port aside and waited, very much aware of the mutedly startled reactions Hardstrike, Steelbrow and Crankshaft shared, even if Ironhide did not. Still appearing somewhat hesitant, Ratchet stepped forward and, pulling his cable out, slid it home.

Prowl stiffened subtly at the sudden invasion, having grown used to having the sensation buffered through Wheeljack's hub. Then he regained control and, still not sure exactly what the medic was after, he took in a tense vent of air and lowered his firewalls.

Ratchet's optics widened at the clear open invitation that mirrored almost exactly what he had done back in his cell the orn he had been offered the opportunity to defect. It struck home with enough force to weaken the tension cables in the medic's legs. Prowl had agreed to that scan decaorns ago and had then agreed to submit to any other scans the Autobots had deemed necessary.

Like this one.

Whereas the first time Prowl had been cuffed and magnetically locked to an interrogation stool, this time he was standing under his own power. Ratchet had seen his fighting ability and knew there was no way he could force this interface. The only reason it was taking place was because Prowl was allowing it.

And that was exactly what Prowl had done in dropping his firewalls as he had. It was not the same as it had been in the immediate aftermath of having his processor fragmented. Prowl had been in no position to resist at that time, now it was totally and completely voluntary. Even if it was only his ethical programs that bound him to do it, he had willingly made the offer, and thus affirmed his commitment.

Still in somewhat of a daze in the wake of that epiphany, Ratchet transmitted a request to see the files associated with the mission as well as evidence that the uplink codes had been deleted.

Prowl's acquiescence was instant and the pathways lit up.

To the Praxian's great surprise, the medic's mental touch was gentle, almost soothing as he proceeded in that way unique to medics. He was quick and efficient, but not cruel, and amazingly he stayed to the illuminated pathways. Within moments, the scan was complete and Ratchet was disconnecting.

Ratchet stowed his cord, looking over at Ironhide. "They're gone; deleted before he even boarded the ship to return to Iacon."

At that announcement, Hardstrike allowed himself to grin at the tactician who was doing his best to conceal an uncomfortable grimace that was threatening to mar his faceplates. "You did it. You did everything you said you would. If you keep doing it, we might finally be able to turn this blasted war around."

Prowl gave him a solemn nod. "I hope that is the case."

"You aren't what I expected, that's for sure." Crankshaft murmured. "And I'm glad for that."

"Me too." Steelbrow intoned.

Prowl acknowledged their comments with a polite bob of his helm and then watched as they walked away, moving to exit the hanger.

Prowl had just remembered that the hanger was one of those locations that he was still prohibited from being in without an escort – and the fact that he was being left alone in said area – when a familiar spark signature registered on the edge of his range.

No, it was not on the edge of his range. Rather it was well within it but was somehow masked. Dampened.

Recognition mixed with incredulity as he turned toward the signal. "Jazz?"

The silver minibot came sauntering around the hull of a large troop transport, nimbly dodging the drones that were working on cleaning and maintenancing the craft. "Heya Prowler."

Drained as he was quickly becoming, Prowl could not keep himself from frowning minutely at the name. Then the memory of that hint of something at the edge of his scanning range, that resonance he had brushed aside while out in the field came back to him and he straightened, his optics narrowing. "It's Prowl. Why were you at the field tactical command post?"

The saboteur froze, even his vents stalling, momentarily in mid intake with clear hesitation about divulging that information. That alone gave Prowl enough to make an educated guess. But then the other mech gave an almost visible mental shake, though he never broke optic contact. "Um… Ta keep an optic on ya. Was supposed ta kill ya quick if ya turned against us in there."

Prowl jerked back a fraction at the blunt and speedy delivery. However, well ingrained caution, and his innate tendency toward careful calculation, had him cautiously considering Jazz. The silver mech stood his ground with an almost defiant air, yet it felt more like a pretense. Something about the small saboteur actually screamed 'concern.'

After the shock of his initial reaction wore off, Prowl realized he was not even that surprised Jazz had been tasked with such a duty. As the head of Special Operations, such a task would normally fall within his purview. Prowl knew that no one could do as much harm as an on-site tactician who either went rogue or broke down mentally. Pit, he had all but suggested such a stratagem. What surprised him was that Jazz admitted to his role so freely.

In a way, Prowl found he appreciated that blunt honesty. Far more than he would have thought possible.

Jazz had violated his mind in one of the most painful ways possible not even a full decaorn ago and that had made it difficult to believe his promise not to do so again. And, while Prowl knew that complete honesty in this case did not guarantee that promise would be kept, it did, at the very least, lend credence to the possibility. Especially when he knew Jazz had taken a chance by admitting such a thing: most mechs, after all, do not respond very favorably when they are told the mech in front of them was prepared to kill them less than a joor previously.

Debating the possible options for his own response, Prowl found himself nodding to the saboteur, his wings lifting fractionally in a minute shrug. "I see. Thank you for telling me the truth, Jazz."

The two continued to stare at each other; Jazz apparently in just as much shock at Prowl's nonplussed answer as the tactician had been with the saboteur's frank honesty.

Reasoning that their rather awkward interaction was over as Jazz just continued to stare at him, Prowl nodded formally and started to turn away, but a silver hand reached out to snag his arm.

"Energon?" Jazz asked softly, hesitantly hopeful as he searched Prowl's face. It was the first time Jazz had touched him since he had fragmented his processor and the contact seemed just as awkward for the saboteur as it did for the tactician

Prowl froze, having to replay the question through his processor as it was not at all something he expected to hear, his systems hitching so quickly it threatened to momentarily disrupt his balance systems. What an unusual thing to ask, especially after the candid nature of their previous exchange.

Jazz must have seen his incredulity, for he released his arm and stepped back , clearing his vents. "Ya don' have ta. I promised ya as much… but I know ya need it after all a that." He waved his hand toward the exit Ratchet and the others had left through.

Prowl remembered no such promise, though it had been strongly implied that Prowl would not be required to share energon with Jazz if he did not want to. However, Jazz was right, his systems were stressed, his energy levels lower than they should be allowed to remain for any length of time. Not to mention that the rec room was bound to be crowded, if what Trailbreaker had said was accurate, and Prowl remembered how being with Jazz had kept most of the unwanted and uncomfortable attention of the rank and file Autobots at bay on a handful of previous occasions.

Right now, that benefit would make up for the awkwardness of being casual with the mech who had fragmented his mind less than a decaorn previously.

Finally, Prowl nodded his acquiescence and Jazz's sudden grin caught him completely off guard, making his balance systems protest again.

They walked together to the rec room and, as Trailbreaker had predicted, they could hear the sound of the young celebration several dozen meters before they reached the door. Prowl hesitated, his intense dislike of crowds – and the negative attention he generally attracted – making him seriously consider retreating to the safety of his quarters. However, a brief but gentle nudge to his arm from Jazz kept him moving. He braced himself for any number of possible reactions, from smug gloating about their victory over the Decepticons to snide, cutting comments as he followed the smaller mech into the room teeming with Autobots.

He was not fully prepared for the reaction he actually received. He was all but ignored.

Outwardly, at least. He could not miss how mechs would tense at his presence and then relax when they saw he was being escorted by Jazz. Actually, it seemed as if everyone were simply choosing to not let his presence dampen their good spirits. Seeing he would be free of harassment for the moment, Prowl allowed himself to relax a fraction in return as he retrieved his own cube of energon.

Settling into a chair at the corner table Jazz led him to, Prowl continued to examine the masses of mechs around him. There were more smiles, more enthusiasm and more excitement than he had ever seen. It vaguely reminded him of the party the precinct Enforcers had thrown for their Department Chief on his 700th vorn. He had not been as nervous in crowds back then, though he had never enjoyed them either. Large groups of randomly congregating mechs usually meant a loss of order and a loss of order meant an increase in undisciplined behavior, which typically resulted in additional processor aches.

Prowl took a sip of his energon, struggling free of the memory that was suddenly made painful knowing his choice to join Megatron had betrayed much of what he had claimed to believe as an Enforcer, he glanced at Jazz. "Everyone appears to be rather upbeat."

Jazz nodded. "Yeah. It's been vorns since we've had a victory like that." He paused, glancing at Prowl with a devious smirk. He continued, his voice louder than it necessarily had to be. "And it was all possible 'cause of ya, Prowl."

Prowl stiffened as that comment drew immediate attention, proving that the apparent disinterest in his presence was just that; a thin façade. One of the mechs nearest them, a bright red frame with a build somewhere between that of a scout and a front line warrior, spoke up.

"You mean whatever juicy secrets you got outta his head gave us what we needed to slag serious 'Con tailpipe today?" He lifted his energon cube and grinned widely. "That's awesome, Jazz!"

Jazz grimaced, noticing how Prowl went completely stiff at the boastful words and intentionally demeaning tone. He shook his helm, noticing how even though the party continued, most were paying at least some attention to the interaction.

Even so, Jazz's reply was delivered with his usual air of jaunty casualness "Nah, Cliffjumper. I meant that he was the one who planned the attack and he was the one managing the battle."

Dead silence settled on the rec room, even the soft sound of air moving through vents paused momentarily as every optic instantly snapped to the amber-gazed Praxian.

It was all Prowl could do not to shoot Jazz a nasty look at making him the center of attention like this and his processor fought back the ache that Ratchet's scan had made worse as he tried to find a way to diffuse the situation.

A small green and gray minibot broke the silence first. "That isn't possible, Jazz. We heard Smoky on the comm."

There was general agreement as affirming murmurs spread through the crowd.

Jazz merely smirked. "Smokescreen was hardwired to Prowl 'cause they knew no one'd follow his orders directly." Jazz nodded in Prowl's direction. "But I was there."

A dark gray mech with orange highlights shook his helm in disbelief, optics flicking back and forth between saboteur and tactician uneasily and he pointed at Prowl. "So… if he was calling the shots out there, is he running the whole tactical department now?"

Prowl cut off the beginnings of horrified whispers with a quick, definitive. "No. Smokescreen is. I am merely an offensive tactician working under his command."

The mech in question flinched back at Prowl's sharp tone and glanced at Jazz, but the saboteur was simply looking at Prowl, that irrepressible and indefinable smirk plastered on his lip plates. It was enough for Prowl to realize that Jazz had accomplished whatever it was he had set out to accomplish.

The tactician released an irritated and yet relieved huff of air as the celebrating mechs slowly started to go back to their high-grade. Still discomfited by Jazz's expression he looked down at his own cube of blessedly plain energon and took a sip.

He stiffened again as Jazz leaned close, whispering almost conspiratorially. "Ya know, keep this up an' ya just might be running the tactical division some orn."

Prowl shot Jazz an indulgent if somewhat bemused and long suffering look. "I am not even an Autobot yet, Jazz."

The sudden accolades, even as cautious and obliquely delivered as they had been, were unnerving, as was the celebratory atmosphere. Such excitement following such a relatively simple battle would have been unheard of in the Decepticon ranks. He had only done his function, as had they. It should not be such a novel thing as to warrant such a unified response.

He pondered that as the rec room door slid open again and the familiar, regal form of Optimus Prime strode in. He watched as the Prime greeted the mechs under his command with warmth and affection, even if he maintained that hint of reserve that served to elevate him beyond being simply another mech to party with. Seeing him like this, surrounded not by his most senior officers but by the rank and file soldier whom he commanded, reinforced how naturally he carried the authority and power of his office.

Optimus' mere presence made even slightly overcharged warriors sit straighter, those who usually tended towards impertinence spoke with more care and no one could help but be aware of what the Prime said or did even if it was not directed toward them.

It was much the same way mechs reacted to him, Prowl realized, except the opposite. Where they stiffened with tension or animosity, here they straightened with respect and deference. Where with Prowl they watched him suspiciously, with the Prime they watched with reverence…

It was then that Prowl realized even the Prime seemed almost… lighter… than he had before and he recognized that for what it was. Optimus himself was not immune to the generally more upbeat atmosphere. His doorwings flicked unhappily. It was wrong that victory should be such a foreign thing that it would have this much of an affect on morale, especially victory in a relatively uncontested battlefield.

But then, it had been nearly a decavorn since the Autobots had had any offensive victories. They might have been able to hold onto installations the Decepticons had tried to take, but at least as far as back as Prowl had been with the Decepticons, they had never bested them in any offensive manner….

Right. Because he had been doing for the Decepticons what he had just done for them.

Of course.

That painted a whole new picture of the possible underlying meanings of what Jazz had meant when he claimed this was all because of him and Prowl felt his core temperature inch upwards.

Prowl straightened as it became clear that the Prime was walking their direction.

He stood respectfully as the Prime stopped in front of their table, his actions mirrored by Jazz. He was aware that he was once again the center of the room's attention.

"Congratulations, Prowl" Optimus spoke warmly, but in such a way that indicated he fully intended the others to hear.

Prowl cleared his vents, distinctly uncomfortable and not completely able to hide that fact. "Congratulations are hardly necessary, Prime. I merely fulfilled my duty."

Optimus smiled as if he expected such an answer. "Still, success should be acknowledged."

Prowl looked up at the Prime's rich blue optics briefly and suddenly felt unworthy of such public praise, not here, not when it had been his actions while under Megatron's command that had ensured many of their comrades were not here to celebrate this victory with them.

He found himself shaking his helm, averting his gaze. "No tactical plan is better than those who carry it out. If you wish to acknowledge success, let it be to those who actually risked their sparks to make the victory happen."

The rec room was again eerily silent as the Prime considered the Praxian standing before him with faintly quivering doorwings. The silence stretched for a long, uncomfortable moment before the Prime obligingly lifted his cube and acknowledged those in the rec room with them.

The, albeit slightly subdued, cheer that action generated helped thaw the tension of the moment.

When the Prime spoke again it was with softer tones, though there was no escaping the fact that everyone nearby heard what he said. "You risked your own spark, in a way. Despite what you said, there were many ways things could have gone wrong out there. If they had…" he trailed off, looking unhappy.

Prowl lifted his gaze back up. "If they had gone as poorly as the last time, I have no doubt what the fallout would have been. It was a necessary risk."

"To prove yourself?" Optimus asked with a hint of challenge in his words.

Prowl's doorwings flinched minutely. "To help win the war and save lives. If that is accomplished, it is irrelevant whether I ever, as you say, 'prove myself.'"

Jazz snorted air through his vents at that but the Prime merely smiled, taking a sip from his own cube. "Smokescreen is already pushing me to end your probation at the earliest possible moment."

Prowl frowned ever so slightly, troubled by that as well as by the subtle increase of tension in the mechs around them who were diligently trying to appear as if they were ignoring them.

"Smokescreen is biased because of our previous working relationship." Prowl stated cautiously.

Optimus actually chuckled gently at that, giving a tiny shake of his helm. "Indeed. Initially he wanted you stasis-locked indefinitely. He rattled off a whole list of reasons why it was the most logical thing to do. Somehow you have managed to gain his confidence."

Prowl groaned softly, as the ache in his processor only grew. With a sigh of air he gave up trying to deflect the praise regardless of how unnecessary it was and settled for trying a different approach: strategic withdrawal "Prime, with your permission, I would like to go recharge."

The almost mischievous glint in the Prime's optics sobered instantly, replaced by compassion. "Yes. I imagine you must have a sizable processor ache after all of that. This might help, courtesy of Ratchet."

Prowl blinked, but gratefully accepted the pain chip the Prime held out to him. He fingered it for a moment then slipped it into a wrist port. The vent of air that hissed through his systems was one of pure relief as the pain ebbed immediately. "Thank you, sir."

"You are welcome." Optimus was still considering him thoughtfully. "You may take the next orn off Prowl."

Prowl's doorwings flared with alarm at the thought of that much time to sit and think. "Sir, that is not…"

"That is an order." Optimus' tone was firm but not unkind.

Prowl's mouth opened to object but he caught himself, stiffening. His place was far to precarious to risk questioning such a clear-cut order, especially one he knew was intended as a kindness to him "Yes, sir."

Feeling his frame heat as the Prime and Jazz continued to look at him, now with unreadable expressions, Prowl stood. Suddenly wanting out of the rec room, which was feeling almost claustrophobic, he bowed to the Prime. "By your leave, sir?"

Optimus nodded regally, though Prowl thought he might have seen the hint of something in the Prime's optics. "Of course."

Prowl straightened and hastily retreated, glad to put the bustling celebration behind him. He was completely unaware that, nor would he have cared much at that moment, the Supreme Commander of the Autobot forces and his Head of Special Operations watched him the whole way.

Once the former Decepticon's spark signature no longer registered on their proximity scanners, Jazz canted a look at his leader. "That was a low-blow, Boss; using that coding against him like that."

Optimus said nothing for a long moment, though his battle mask was up when he returned Jazz's look. "One thing I have learned since becoming Prime, is that sometimes extreme measures are necessary."

Just a heads up: the absolutely ridiculous work schedule that helped lead to my being so absolutely exhausted for the last two weeks is going to continue for another two weeks. For that reason, please do not get discouraged if the next update is also delayed. Yes, I enjoy the extra income, but I can't wait till the new person starts and I'm not trying to do the job of two people.

In the mean time, I do appreciate hearing from you guys. Thank you for making this such a fun story to write and update!