First, thanks to everyone for your support and encouragement over the last two years. All of you have been very kind and understanding. Second, Yay for another more rapid update. Third, I know that over the last few years, in dealing with my mother's sickness and then grieving her death I have not been very consistent in responding to reviews and such. I am going to make an effort now to get better at doing that again. Please continue to have patience.

I cannot overstate how grateful I am for all of the support and encouragement all of you have provided as I have dealt with first the sickness and then the death of my mother. I really do appreciate the lack of pressure to update along with the encouragement to keep writing and the moral support. It is truly astonishing how it felt like my ability to write just vanished in the midst of the worst of my grief. For the first year I don't think I could have written if my life depended on it. And I also wanted to thank all of you for giving me a reason to even try and write again. If I had not had a reason, an audience to write for, I'm not sure I'd have had sufficient motivation to push myself past the huge mental barricade called grief that had developed into the greatest case of writer's block I have ever experienced.

Please see the AN following the story for an update on what is going on in my real life.

Finally: Many thanks to Foxbear for helping to jumpstart my brain for writing this chapter. Nobody likes to admit that they have written themselves into a spot they aren't sure what to do with, but once again I had found myself there. But Foxbear left a review to the last chapter that just made things go CLICK in my poor, overused muse.

Ironhide let his engine rumble threateningly as he glared at Bluestreak. The young mech in his still-new adult frame was not that much shorter than he was, but Ironhide out massed him by a significant margin and he easily managed to tower over the youngling. Bluestreak's doorwings flicked outward as he hunched under the weight of Ironhide's anger.

The black weapons specialist allowed the silence to lengthen for several sparkbeats as he considered the situation. "What do you want?" He finely growled.

Bluestreak's field tightened closely to his frame as his brilliant white optics darted up to meet his briefly. "I… I just got done…" He hesitated and then hurried on in a rush of words. "I just finished talking to Prowl and, well he had a lot to tell me that I really needed to know and I realized I was wrong…about a lot of things… and he told me what happened to Bumblebee and…"

"What you did to Bumblebee, you mean?" Ironhide crossed his arm over his chassis, never taking his optics from the younger mech.

Bluestreak's field flared and his doorwings sagged further as he dropped his optics to the floor. "Y-yes sir. I…I said things I shouldn't have. I had no idea I had hurt him that badly. I never wanted to do that. Honestly Mr. Ironhide, sir, I never wanted to hurt Bumblebee…

"But you did." Ironhide heard his engine revving again as he cut Bluestreak off.

"Yes sir." Bluestreak's voice was quiet. "I… Please, Ironhide sir, I just want to apologize to Bumblebee and see if I can, um make it up to him."

"And why should I trust you to be alone with Bumblebee again?" Ironhide took a menacing step toward Bluestreak to hide the fact he was actually somewhat impressed by the way the young mech was holding his ground.

Bluestreak did not answer for a long moment, his lip plates moving as if his vocalizer was trying to form words but no sound came out. Then the Praxian covered his optics with his right hand and released a gust of air through his vents.

When he straightened, Ironhide saw resigned resolve in every line of Bluestreak's frame. "I understand." The words came out sounding strangled and Bluestreak cleared his vents, and continued somewhat more steadily. "I understand that I lost your trust. I… I won't ask to be left alone with Bumblebee. I just… I really need to speak to him, please Ironhide, sir."

It was Ironhide's turn to be at a loss for words. For the briefest of moments he could have sworn he was talking to Prowl instead of Bluestreak. But no, this mechling wore his emotions on his armor where Prowl buried them deep in his spark. He was inclined to give Bluestreak a taste of his anger at what he had done to Bumblebee. He knew Chromia had blamed Prowl, and perhaps the stoic tactician had played a role, but Ironhide lay the blame squarely on the mech standing before him.

He was speaking before he had consciously decided what he would do. He leaned over Bluestreak, his engine revving fiercely, his voice a low, threatening growl. "Traumatize him at all and you will wish for the Unmaker to take you."

Instead of trembling under the threat however, Bluestreak went completely still and his optics flicked upward to stare at him. "That's… that's the same threat you gave Prowl, back…back in Praxus. About me."

Ironhide blinked, realizing Bluestreak was absolutely correct.

Bluestreak continued before Ironhide could respond. He nodded firmly, though his frame trembled. "I understand, Ironhide."

Ironhide blinked again, straightening. That had been Prowl's answer, and Prowl had lived up to the unspoken promise in those words. It also served to drive home the fact that Ironhide had once cared about Bluestreak's wellbeing just as strongly as he now cared about Bumblebee and the black mech realized that was why he was so angry at Bluestreak. The damage done to Bumblebee felt like a true betrayal of trust.

And that understanding cooled his temper enough he was able to step back and gesture Bluestreak into their quarters. "Wait here. I'll get Bumblebee."

Bluestreak edged cautiously into the room he had once enjoyed playing in without a care as Ironhide walked to the berth-chamber he shared with Chromia and where Bumblebee had taken to spending most of his waking hours. He glanced over his shoulder once to see Bluestreak was standing in the center of the room, his hands clasped in front of him and his helm bowed, doorwings still in their dejected slump.

The little black and yellow sparking lay curled on the foot of the large berth, tiny doorwings fluttering when they sensed Ironhide's approach. The tiny engine whined, but Bumblebee did not otherwise move.

Ironhide sat on the edge of the berth and put a hand on the tiny frame. "Bluestreak is here." Bumblebee shivered but did not respond. "He wants to apologize for hurting you."

Bumblebee blinked up at him and then turned away, curling into a tighter ball.

"Now, now." Ironhide chided him gently. "You are looking to upgrade into your adult frame within a vorn or two. Adult mechs face these things."

The tiny head shook back and forth rapidly.

"Look at it this way. You can listen to what he has to say and if it isn't enough you can yell at him."

Tiny doorwings flicked at that idea and Bumblebee uncurled enough to look at him. He opened his lip plates, but then shook his head.

"Okay, if it isn't good enough I'll yell at him for you. Would that make you feel better?" Ironhide's lip plates twitched in a tiny smile.

Bumblebee's frame shook weakly in silent laughter and Ironhide felt his spark lift. It was the first time he had seen even a hint of the mechling's former merriment. A part of his processor was troubled it was generated out of a promise to verbally berate another young mech, but the other part did not care, so long as he saw his adopted sparkling smile.

"Come on." He held a hand out and, after a brief hesitation, Bumblebee stood up and stepped into his arms to be carried into the main room.

Bluestreak was still where he had been left, though he lifted his helm when the door swished shut behind Ironhide. Blue and silver doorwings flicked downward to the lowest position his frame allowed and he took a tiny step forward.


Despite his earlier reticence, Bumblebee glared openly at Bluestreak, letting his tiny engine rev. He pointed at Bluestreak with the hand not grasping Ironhide's armor and shook it, his vents stuttering as his engine made tiny hiccupping noises somewhere between a mute scream and a tortured sob.

Bluestreak flinched backward as if struck physically and he dropped his optics again. His field tightened and his frame heated as Bumblebee continued his wordless accusations. "I'm sorry, Bumblebee…"

Bumblebee wriggled out of Ironhide's arms and crossed the short distance to Bluestreak and proceeded to swing at the young adult's shin plating. Then he struck again and continued to do so. Ironhide started to intervene, worried that Bluestreak would out lash out, but the adult-frame Praxian just took the youngling's temper-induced outburst passively.

Only when his outburst waned and Bumblebee fell, his vents heaving, against the armored leg he had just been trying to beat did Bluestreak react. He knelt, reaching tentatively to put a finger on Bumblebee's shoulder. "I deserved that, I know. I'm so sorry, Bumblebee. I… I was so angry with Prowl. You were right; I was wrong to be angry with him and I should have gone to him and listened to his explanation before driving to conclusions, but I was just so hurt and… and I wanted others to hurt too because I didn't think it was fair. But you were right and I was wrong. Prowl is a fantastic guardian and I hurt him by acting as I did. And I hurt you too. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have treated you like I did and I… Is there anything I can do…?"

Bumblebee sat back and crossed his arms, his optics glittering and he warbled out a reply in sparkling jibber, pointing up at Ironhide. Ironhide's vents caught. Though not spoken standard cybertronian, that sparkling warble was the first attempt at actual vocalization Bumblebee had made since the incident with Bluestreak. He hid his surprise and fledgling hope in a deepening glower and crossed arms as Bluestreak glanced up, following Bumblebee's gesture.

Bluestreak's doorwings flinched and his armor flattened even further over his frame at seeing Ironhide's expression and posture. He looked back at Bumblebee. "You want Ironhide to…to hurt me for hurting you?"

Bumblebee crossed his arms again and beeped indignantly.

"Will that really make you feel better, Bumblebee?" Bluestreak asked softly, his hands trembling before he clinched them into fists.

Bumblebee hesitated then gestured at where his own attack had only scratched the paint on Bluestreak's leg, whistling and trilling.

Ironhide stilled his vents as Bluestreak silently looked at the sparkling. This was more verbalizing of any kind than Bumblebee had even attempted in some time. He looked at Bluestreak and saw the young adult heave a sigh of air through his vents and nod in resignation.

"I understand. I owe you that much at least, I guess. I am sorry, Bumblebee. I hope… I hope this helps you." With that, Bluestreak stood with sober deliberation and took a couple of steps toward Ironhide. He looked up at Ironhide and the older mech saw undeniable fear in those white optics but also determination. "Bumblebee wants you to, to punish me for hurting him."

"Yes, I heard that." Ironhide somehow managed to keep all trace of emotion out of his own voice.

"It's only fair." Bluestreak's frame trembled but then he drew himself up. "I hurt him, even if its all internal and, I looked up how bad a regression can be and… I know I deserve a beating. Go ahead, sir."

Ironhide blinked as he looked down at the bowed helm of the young mech, momentarily thrown off. Who was this youngling? Whatever had happened between Bluestreak and Prowl had changed something in Bluestreak. A glance at the yellow and black sparkling showed Bumblebee was back on his feet, likewise staring at Bluestreak with wide optics.

"Yes, you do." Ironhide heard himself telling Bluestreak. "You deserve the beating the femmes gave your guardian."

The silver and blue helm jerked upright. "Prowl?"

Irohnide harrumphed, nodding. "They assumed that, as your guardian, he had failed in his duty to you since you did something so hurtful and cruel to a sparkling."

Bluestreak stared at him, his frame rigid and then every piece of armor sagged at once. "I never… Prowl did not say anything about that…"

"Because the pit-spawned fragger believed he somehow deserved what they did too, I'm sure. The glitch." Ironhide's engine was growling again, his own hands falling to his sides, clenching into fists. "I don't know exactly what they did to him, he hasn't told anyone and neither have they. But I'd wager a week's worth of energon he didn't deserve any of it. He didn't, but you did. You are an adult now, even if only in frame, and are therefore responsible for your own actions. Prowl did his best by you, and then you go and…"

"He did." Bluestreak interrupted him this time, lifting his gaze again. "Prowl did do everything he could for me. And I betrayed him as much as I betrayed you and Bumblebee when I hurt him. I know that." Doorings quivered. "Please, Ironhide, just… get this over with."

Ironhide clicked his vocalizer off and lifted his chin, considering the young Praxian standing before him. Then he sighed a gust of air, suddenly not wanting to cause Bluestreak any harm at all. He nodded, answering heavily. "Very well."

He drew back an arm to strike Bluestreak and saw the younger mech shutter his optics, though he did not otherwise flinch. Damn.

He was just about to make that strike when a tiny voice broke in. "No! Wait!"

Ironhide froze, his optics dropping at the same time that Bluestreak's snapped open to where Bumblebee was running to stand between them.

"What did you say?" Ironhide whispered, staring at his charge in shock.

"W-wait." Bumblebee stammered, as if struggling to get the words out. "I d-don't want you to h-hurt him."

"But…" Bluestreak began though he fell silent as Bumblebee whirled to face him.

"Y-you were v-very mean. I… It hurt me, here." He rubbed a hand over his spark. "Y-you were my best f-friend." Lubricant welled in Bumblebee's optics and spilled down his faceplates. "Friends d-don't stab friends in the spark. Decepticons do."

Bluestreak flinched openly at that. "Bumblebee… I… You're right. I behaved like a Decepticon would. I just did not want to hear what you had to tell me and I just said stuff, untrue and very cruel stuff, just to get you to be quiet. It was… wrong. Very wrong and I am so sorry. I… " His voice dropped to a whisper. "I meant it. If a beating will help you, I want Ironhide to…"

"I d-don't want Ironhide to b-beat you." Bumblebee shook his helm, his tiny engine revving. "T-that would m-make me like a Decepticon too."

Ironhide managed not to wince as that stammered declaration rebuked his own earlier urge to wipe the deck plating with Bluestreak's aft. He watched as lubricant welled in Bluestreaks optics as well. "I'm sorry. I just… I want to make things right."

"You can't take back w-what you said."

"No." Bluestreak's engine whined pitifully as he knelt to be closer to Bumblebee's level, his doorwings dipping so low Ironhide could hear the hinges straining. "I can only ask your forgiveness…and for another chance to be your friend."

Instead of answering directly, Bumblebee looked at Bluestreak, optics running over the older mechling's frame. "Prowl h-hurt you? Y-you did not seem d-damaged."

"I wasn't, not really. I just thought I was. I felt like I had been stabbed in the spark too." Bluestreak bowed his helm. "I thought he had been responsible for killing my creators and had lied to me all this time. But he wasn't. Bumblebee… Megatron had tried to kill him in that attack on…on our home. Prowl lost his home just as much as we had and I called him a monster and accused him of murder because I jumped to a conclusion about why he felt guilty all because I just…"

"And w-when I said he was a good g-guardian, you lost it." Bumblebee had crept toward the adult-frame Praxian and had laid a hand on the same shin plating he had been trying to dent earlier, peering at his friend. "You h-hurt both of us. H-have you apologized to Prowl too?"

Bluestreak nodded miserably. "Yes, but he didn't blame me. He blamed himself and wanted me to forgive him. I've been so mean to both of you but Prowl still wanted to be my guardian, even after I was so cruel…"

"He is a g-good mech. A good guardian." Bumblebee stated simply.

Bluestreak nodded again, more vigorously this time. "Yes he is. A very good mech and the best guardian. You are absolutely correct. And you were just as correct the last time you told me that. I was stupid and blind not to see it then."

"Y-you were hurting." Bumblebee shrugged his doorwings and stepped back. "Even if you didn't have a real reason to hurt, you t-thought you did and so you were hurting."

Ironhide found he was gaping at Bumblebee. He dropped to one knee as well, putting a hand between yellow doorwings. "Bumblebee, you don't have to make excuses for Bluestreak. He was wrong and it is natural to be angry at him."

"But he is sorry he hurt me." Bumblebee looked up and back at Ironhide. "How can I be m-mean and not believe him? That would make me like a Decepticon."

Ironhide had no words for a long moment, unable to do anything but stare at Bumblebee. "But… you were angry at him earlier."

"I was." Bumblebee nodded, his stammer suddenly growing worse. "I d-didn't realize how a-angry I was until I saw him here. But…I was w-wrong to be angry. Decepticons g-get angry and I d-don't want to be like Decepticons… I j-just…" His stuttered words dissolved into sparkling beeps and whistles. Then his optics widened and he lifted a hand to his vocalizer, and more lubricant spilled from his optics.

Ironhide gathered the youngling into his arms and thrummed his engine soothingly.

"It was the conflict." Bluestreak spoke softly into the silence, looking up at Ironhide beseechingly. "Prowl… it was the conflict that…" he stopped himself, frame heating "I mean, maybe it is the conflict of thinking he is acting like a Decepticon and a spark-deep desire to never be anything like a Decepticon that caused…" White optics darted down to Bumblebee and Ironhide understood.

Ironhide nodded once and held Bumblebee tighter. "You may be right. You need to leave now, Bluestreak."

Bluestreak jerked back, worried optics flicking down to Bumblebee, then his frame sagged. "Yes sir. Bumblebee… you aren't anything like the Decepticons. Decepticons wouldn't be upset at all at being angry. I…" He looked up at Ironhide and stood quickly. "I'll leave now."

Ironhide waited until the door to his quarters closed before he considered the sparkling in his arms. "He's not wrong you know." He stroked Bumblebee's back. "No Decepticon would give a second thought to being angry and cruel and wanting to hurt another mech. And… being angry doesn't make you a Decepticon. There are a lot of us who get angry and we aren't Decepticons."

Bumblebee leaned away and pawed at his vocalizer, trilling desperately.

"You will be able to speak again." Ironhide said firmly, with more conviction than he really felt and saw the yellow frame relax. Then understanding hit him like a blow to the helm. "Is that why you haven't tried to speak at all? You didn't want us to hear you like this?"

Bumblebee hesitated then shook his helm before nodding and then shaking his helm again.

"You didn't want to hear yourself." Ironhide guessed and got his answer in the way Bumblebee's frame heated. "Well, now that we know the cause, maybe Ratchet can do something to help. What say we go to the medbay and see?"

Bumblebee hesitated for a sparkbeat and then nodded.

Jazz kept every cable and plate on his frame frozen as he pressed himself to the ground on a promontory overlooking what Mirage had confirmed was the previously abandoned Decepticon base. Definitely not abandoned now. Jazz cursed silently to himself as he scanned the area with his optics and his sensors. It looked like at least a division was stationed here, but that was only on the ground level. According to Mirage, there was evidence of recent excavation and underground construction compared to the spy's last visit to this place.

And pit, but there was no way to know what was going on down there from what he could see on the surface.

With another mental curse, Jazz scuttled backward to rejoin Mirage in the dubious safety offered by the natural metal landscape.

"That is not an encouraging expression." Mirage observed quietly after a moment.

Jazz shot him a sour look. "It ain't an encouragin' situation. I can't get a single sensor reading about the underground sections of the base."

Mirage nodded, his expression turning grim. "That only makes sense. Whatever is going on, Megatron obviously wants to keep it as secret as possible. Probably the same reason he doesn't have any seeker patrols."

Jazz nodded. "That would attract attention to tha place." He frowned. "So, that just means we gotta find out what he's hiding."

Mirage was pensive for a long moment, staring at the ground before looking at Jazz. "If you reenabled my cloak I could get inside and…"

"No way." Jazz cut him off. "I ain't trustin' you that far yet. Bad enough as it is."

Mirage winced, his field and armor flaring before both pulled tight to his frame. He nodded silent consent to the observation and Jazz studied him. True, the cloak Mirage spoke of was an internal system that, theoretically required a medic to reactivate, he also knew he could probably hack the hardware enough to jury-rig the system into functioning. Maybe. It was new technology to him and while Jazz trusted his skills, he did not want to stake both Mirage's life and his own on such a gambit unless absolutely necessary.

Besides, he really did not want to put that much faith in the white mech just yet.

"Please tell me ya know how to sneak around without that cloak." Jazz arched an optic ridge behind his visor.

Mirrage hesitated and looked away. "I've had it since that fragging Shockwave put me in this frame. I… I don't really know. I've never done an operation without it."

"Well, frag." Jazz rubbed a hand over his faceplate. "Unfortunately, this isn't the situation to teach ya. You, stay here and watch my back. I'll go in." His visor glinted dangerously as he eyed the former Decepticon. "And if ya aren't here when I get back…"

"You will assume I've betrayed you and the Autobots and you will return to base without me." Mirage was glaring at him now, his armor held tight to his frame.

"No. I'll track ya down and kill ya."

Mirage stiffened then looked away again. "Fair enough."

Jazz watched him for a second longer and then nodded and slipped away, angling not over the bluff but around it. He checked his spark dampener again then headed for outermost defensive shield protecting the Deception base.

He watched the mechs around the guard post for nearly a jour, learning the pattern of activity before slipping through the ebb and flow. Sidling up to the central communication building at the post he effortlessly hacked into the system. Immediately he realized there was way more activity on the comm. channels than he had expected.

He quickly got a snapshot of the network traffic for later perusal even as he set about looking for a point of entry.

/There is a patrol team approaching your position from 22.63 by 91.336./ Mirage's voice suddenly broke into his concentration. /They look like they are looking for something important. You may have tripped something./

Slag. Jazz was fairly confident he had not, but he dared not take that chance. Silently he disconnected and slithered into a more concealed spot across the narrow street from the comm. terminal.

However, two mechs in identical black and purple frames marched into view and headed directly to where Jazz had hacked into the network. They scanned the terminal, one of them syncing with it the same way Jazz had done, while the other began a methodical scan of the physical surroundings.

There was something…off about the two mechs that tickled Jazz's processor as he watched them work. It was more than the eerily identical frames, which looked to be basic models with no customization at all. It was the way they moved. While efficient, their actions lacked the indefinable element that made every mech or femme more than just a sparkless drone.

Jazz's processor froze as it replayed that last thought.

The saboteur's optics flicked back and forth between the two mechs, cataloging everything, processing every little detail as he realized the implications of what he was seeing. These two mechs were clearly not just drones in that they were communicating with each other and making independent judgment calls – and he could detect no telemetry data that would indicate a remote controller - and yet their behavior was unmistakably drone-like.

Horrified, Jazz slipped further into the shadows, watching as the two mech's conferred with each other and then came to the conclusion that whatever had been detected was a glitch in the system. And Jazz was still at a loss as to what had given his intrusions into the system away.

Irritated, he skirted the base until he found another communication node. He tried again to access the system and again he was detected, quicker this time than before. It was an adaptability in the detection subroutines that was not possible in mere programming.

And that was when Jazz understood what was going on. Only Soundwave or Shockwave was his match in the deadly game he was playing. One or both of those Decepticon masterminds must be present. He suspected it was Shockwave rather than the creepy telepath or his physical presence would have already been detected as well, not just his attempts at electronic intrusions.

As good as he was, Jazz knew his limits and knew it would be foolishness bordering on suicidal to attempt another hack on the base's systems without at least one other mech as back up. He thought fleetingly of bringing in Mirage, but no. The young former Decepticon was still unproven and this situation far to dangerous to take the risk on his betrayal.

Instead, Jazz scouted the perimeter of the base looking for holes in the detection grid that would let him slip inside to physically reconnoiter the enemy facility. But, not really to his surprise, there was no easily accessible weakness. He could, however, with long range scanners and due diligence, get a good idea of the base's firepower and how many mechs were stationed there. Prowl would need to know that to plan a siege of the place.

Cease fire not withstanding, Jazz had that tank-deep feeling that whatever was going on here, they would eventually need to take it out.

/Jazz, there is increased activity at the entrance to the underground portion of the base/ Mirage reported, jerking Jazz's attention back to the current situation. /It looks like... slag. I think they know we are here./

Prowl looked across his desk at Fusion as the copper colored Praxian studied his datapad. Prowl was patient, letting the younger mech take his time as he studied the intelligence reports. They were not new reports, but several vorns old. Nor were they Autobot intelligence reports. Rather they were Decepticon intelligence reports about the Autobots. They were part of the blocks of data Jazz had taken from him when he had first been captured and interrogated. As a junior tactician, Fusion had not seen these reports before as they had been classified to senior level staff and above.

Fusion's frame had gone completely still, even his doorwings giving only the tiniest flick. "Um." He cleared his vents. "This is surprisingly… This is why we made all those sudden changes a couple vorns ago isn't it?"

"Indeed." Prowl confirmed, still watching Fusion.

"That was about the same time that you were…" Fusion's vocalizer stalled and he finally looked up at Prowl. "Um, I mean…"

"Yes." Prowl cut in smoothly, "In fact, those reports are from those I provided during Interlligence's first interrogation."

Fusion winced at the blunt reminder of how Prowl had come to join the Autobots. Or perhaps it was at being reminded of his own antagonism toward Prowl. Prowl snorted at the futility of trying to determine what other mechs were thinking.

"Regardless of how the information was obtained, what is your analysis?"

Fusion started to speak, then stopped, clearing his vents again. "How did the Decepticons have intelligence this accurate?"

Prowl cocked an optic ridge. "They have their spies, just as we have ours. Some are very skilled including some deep cover agents."

"Like Barricade?" Fusion's tone grew dark.

"Like Barricade." Prowl agreed. "And others. Thankfully, Jazz was able to neutralize most of them based on the information in those reports."

"Information you provided, you mean." Fusion's helm had come up, his blue optics flashing.

Prowl's lip plate quirked into a tiny, barely-there smile, accepting the oblique acknowledgement that he had intentionally cooperated with Autobot Intelligence even back then. "Indeed. Your analysis?"

Fusion took in a deep vent of air before nodding and eyeing the datapad again. "Based on this it would seem prudent to alter patrol patterns and routes by a random factor of… at least 1.6. Likewise encryption of all wireless communication needs to be randomized on a more frequent basis and code complexities increased by a factor of 4… All of which was done… Smokescreen implemented the same changes. I remember that now. That was in response to this wasn't it?"

"Yes." Prowl nodded, not letting onto the pride he still felt in Smokescreen's defensive capability. "Now that approval of your plan to protect the AllSpark is in the hands of the medical and scientific experts, I have another assignment for you."

Fusion straightened a fraction. "Sir?"

"This is as much a critical analysis as it is an exercise in learning to process like – and therefore anticipate the actions of – the enemy. Based on the type of information in those reports and current intelligence on Decepticons, I want you predict when, what and how the Decepticons will be adapting their intelligence gathering."

Fusion's optics widened and his mouth fell open and Prowl continued, not giving him a chance to speak yet. "Keep in processor, I am not asking you predict the intelligence they will gather, I am asking you to step into their armor and evaluate the Autobot's current weaknesses and how you would seek to overpower those weaknesses, were you a Decepticon tactician."

"I've never done an analysis quite like that, sir." Fusion's sudden formality indicated his discomfort with the assignment.

"Which is exactly why I am asking you to do such an analysis." Prowl stood, indicating the meeting was over and Fusion hurried to stand as well. "I am not looking for perfection, Fusion. Not this time."

Fusion's optics bulged as he stared at Prowl and then he chuckled uneasily clearly caught off guard by the subtle joke. Prowl let his doorwing flick in restrained humor and Fusion relaxed a little more. "Yes sir."

"If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask them."

"Thank you, sir."

Prowl had just returned to his desk when his doorwings picked up two spark signatures that did not normally belong in the tactical department. He frowned, not appreciating this development but stayed at his desk as his sensors informed him the two individuals were walking toward him.

Sure enough, within moments request for entry sounded. Prowl granted the request and started to stand in respectful greeting but stopped himself. Instead he settled back into his seat more fully as both Ironhide and Chromia entered.

Though the lack of formal respect was doubtless noticed by both of them, neither commented. As Senior Tactical Commander, Prowl did out rank both of them in the technical sense and so was not required to show such courtesy even though he usually did. Besides, his pride still smarted from Chromia's treatment of him that he saw no reason to offer more than the professionalism required.

Instead, Prowl studied his two visitors closely. Ironhide was pensive, his expression set in a stern countenance, though for what reason, Prowl was not sure. Chromia on the other hand… her armor was flat against her frame, her field held even tighter still. She shifted away from Ironhide just enough to indicate that perhaps the weapon specialist's ire was directed at her.

Prowl gestured them both to a seat and silently they both moved to do so. "Ironhide, Chromia." Prowl greeted with a formal, polite nod. "How may I assist you?"

Ironhide's scowl deepened and Chromia shifted uneasily. "I… I just wanted to let you know that… " Her voice dropped to a bare whisper. "Bumblebee's problem was not a regression. He can still speak but was choosing not to."

Prowl's relief for Bumblebee's sake momentarily overshadowed the realization that Chromia and the other Femme's claim of the ancient Guardianship Laws had been premature in the extreme. So much so that his doorwings dipped before he could catch the motion. For a moment that seemed to last the span of several joors, Prowl nearly gave into the temptation of using that as a proverbial club against the clearly shamed femme. But he did not give into that temptation.

He offered a tiny nod and another dip of his doorwings. "That is good to hear Chromia."

Ironhide narrowed his optics while Chromia looked up at him in open surprise. Then her expression turned rueful and she looked away. "We are… much relieved."

"As am I." Prowl studied her, feeling the scar carved into his protoform burn at the reminder of what she had done to him. "I trust then that Bluestreak has mended his relationship with young Bumblebee?"

"He made a good start." Ironhide rumbled, still regarding Prowl through narrow slits of cerulean light. "Seems we have you to thank for that."

Prowl gave them the hint of a smirk. "Bluestreak has a good spark. He is merely young and needs to be reminded that he has responsibilities to others through his actions." He shifted his gaze back to Chromia.

Her armor flared at his regard and she did not meet his optics. An uncomfortable silence settled over the three of them and Prowl felt no need to break that silence. Chromia had put herself in this situation and Prowl knew that the femme was poignantly cognizant of the fact that he was not hurting her physically in any way despite what she had done to him.

"Dammit Prowl!" Chromia finally exploded, still not looking him in the optic. "You aren't going to make this easy for me are you."

"Why should he?" Ironhide demanded coldly.

Chromia winced at that, then turned her discomfiture into a glare at her sparkmate. "I've already admitted I shouldn't have hurt him."

"To him?"

"Yes!" The two sparkmates glared at each other, tension snapping between them like electricity.

Prowl let the discomfort stand for exactly seventeen seconds and five astroseconds before clearing his vents. That quiet action brought the his two visitor's attentions back to him. "I am glad to hear both that Bluestreak has taken responsibility for the unintended consequences of his actions and that Bumblebee is not as damaged as was assumed."

Ironhide and Chromia glanced at each other again but Prowl continued before either one could say anything, nodding formally. "And I am grateful you came to notify me of these developments."

"That's it?" Chromia was staring at him, her field rippling with some ill-defined emotion. "That's all you have you say?"

"What more would you have me say, Chromia?" Prowl looked at her coolly but not hostilely, keeping voice and expression perfectly neutral and inflectionless.

"I don't know!" She leaned forward, slamming a hand on the desk. "That you told me so. That you were right and I was wrong. That I'm a pit spawned glitch. That I'm a fragging Decepticon wannabe. That I should be strung up by my dorsal plating and welded to the bulkhead. That… that you forgive me…"

The last was static laced and she looked away again, slumping, her armor sagging on its mountings. Ironhide hesitated then reached over and lightly put a hand on her shoulder but she shrugged him off. His engine revved and he looked at Prowl.

Prowl had a momentary urge to curse, though whether it was at Chromia or his own akwardness with interpersonal communications – especially when strong emotions and volumes of unspoken subtext were involved – he did not know. Instead, he sighed air through his own vents, realizing only then that in coming to see him in his office, they were granting him the metaphorical advantage of being on his turf. Against his will, his next words were noticeably less cool. "Chromia I already told you that what is done is done. Continuing to dwell on the matter is illogical, as doing so will not undo what was done."

She looked back at him then, emotion still roiling in her blazing optics, and Prowl allowed his doorwings to dip fractionally as he continued. "However much I may…dislike what was done, it was completely legal under the Guardianship Laws and therefore I have no cause for redress, either legal or personal."

"That isn't the same as forgiving me for being so pit-spawned cruel." Chromia murmured as Ironhide shifted his weight.

Insight struck Prowl in that moment that Chromia was feeling guilty, even guiltier than she had been immediately following the incident in the observation deck. He shuttered his own optics, wincing as another sharp pain lanced through his processor. When it did not go away he absently rubbed a finger over the sensor node imbedded in his temple in an attempt to ease the ache.

"Chromia… I have committed to not holding the incident against you or any of the other femmes involved…"

"Professionally." Chromia spat the word, leaning forward again. "You promised not to hold it against us regard to your position as Senior Tactician and Tactical Commander. That doesn't say anything about personally…"

"You can't demand the mech just forgive you, Chromia." Ironhide growled.

Chromia's engine revved but she continued to stare at Prowl.

Prowl stared uncomprehending for several sparkbeats, then irritation replaced surprise. His doorwings flicked back into their stiff, upright position. "You know as well as I that for me, any such promise is binding regardless of how I might feel regarding the matter." Slag his revamped ethical coding.

He saw both Ironhide and Chromia's optics widen at that pointed reminder and he shook his helm. "Were I given to extremes of emotion I would still be quite… perturbed… by how you handled that whole situation." Prowl spoke bluntly. "However, I am capable of understanding how your deep care and concern for Bumblebee would cause you to act rashly and illogically in response to damage perceived to be as serious as a regression. That, and the legal backing by the Guardianship Laws are the primary reasons I submitted to your assault."

Chromia blinked her optic shutters at him several times then glanced at Ironhide. "Rash and illogical?" He just looked back at her, face and optics carefully blank and she nodded. "Yeah. I guess so."

Ironhide just snorted air through his vents, at which Chromia's engine revved. Then she looked at Prowl again with cautiously hopeful optics. "So, you can forgive me?"

Grimacing at the sharp pain in his helm and again trying to ease it with his finger, Prowl sighed a gust of air. "I will not hold it against you. Please do not ask me for more than I can give you."

"Oh." She deflated again, then sighed dramatically. "Maybe, over time… Don't worry, Prowl. I've learned my own lesson through all this. Maybe, some orn, I'll be able to prove that to you and you will be able to forgive me and see that you can trust me."

She stood up, fidgeted with her hands momentarily and then dipped her helm in polite greeting. "Thanks for hearing me out." Then she spun around and left Prowl's office so precipitously it was a second before either mech did more than look at the closed door.

Ironhide exhaled a long gust of air and shook his helm. "When she told me she was coming to see you I didn't think it was a good idea…" He looked at Prowl intensely. "For all that you claim not to be good with interpersonal matters, you handled that better than I would have expected."

Prowl eyed the big black mech. "That sounds suspiciously like an insult."

Ironhide actually chuckled. "Not at all. Well… not exactly. Never mind. Thank you for not just throwing her stupidity back in her faceplate."

Prowl felt his own optics widen. "Chromia is far from stupid, Ironhide. Rash at times and quick to judgment as I said, but not stupid."

Ironhide harrumphed. "You are kind, Prowl."

Prowl tipped his lip plates in an infinitesimal smile but decided to change the subject. "Bluestreak behaved adequately then?"

Ironhide eyed him for a moment, but then decided not to comment on the change of topic. He nodded. "Yes. Accepted full responsibility and gave a spark-deep apology. He even had insight into the true nature of Bumblebee's problem. He…"

When Ironhide fell silent Prowl cocked an optic ridge. "Yes?"

Ironhide hesitated a moment longer then shook his head. "That young mechling is too fragging much like his guardian for his own good." Ironhide's voice grew significantly gruffer as he stood. "You did good with him, Prowl. You did good."

Ironhide left as precipitously as his spark made had moments before, leaving Prowl staring at the place he had just been. What was it Ironhide had refused to say? Perhaps he should ask Bluestreak. No, Prowl decided after an astrosecond's consideration. If it had been bad, Ironhide would have told him, he was sure of that, but the weapons specialist had clearly deemed the matter personal. Bluestreak was obviously maturing into his adult frame and thus deserved his privacy for now. He would just have to wait and see if someone deigned to tell him at some later date.

"You okay boss?" Smokescreen stuck his helm into Prowl's office.

"Why would I not be?" Prowl asked, annoyed at the surprised twitch his dorrwings betrayed.

"Well… Those two were obviously gunning for you at the last briefing and I just…"

"Their antagonism was obvious?" Prowl's doorwings twitched again. Was it possible that what the femmes had done to him was not quite as private as he had assumed?

Smokescreen shrugged and stepped fully into the doorway. "Well, obvious enough. In the subtle, if-looks-could-kill and politeness-could-maim type of way."

"I see." Prowl murmured, not sure he saw anything but not wanting to invite any more curiosity. "However, in answer to your question, I am fully functional, all systems operating within expected parameters."

"Uh, uh." Smokescreen shook his helm and stepped inside his office, letting the door close. "You always use more words than necessary when things aren't going well. Want to talk about it, sir?"

"That is an unwarranted assumption based on conjecture and supposition."

"You make my case, Commander." Smokescreen slid into the chair Ironhide had just vacated, his gaze openly concerned. "Seriously, sir, are you alright?"

Prowl started to answer but caught himself, realizing the detailed explanation of how Smokescreen was mistaken would only add conviction to the other mech's concern. Instead he released a vent of air and met Smokescreen's optics. "I appreciate your concern, Smokescreen, but the issues between Ironhide, Chromia and myself have been resolved – at least to my knowledge – and this meeting was not negative in any way."

"Alright." Smokescreen nodded. "You don't have to talk to me, I understand that. But if everything were as great as you say, why does all the evidence indicate otherwise?"

"Evidence?" Prowl asked but, seeing Smokescreen about to reply waved the answer away. "Regardless. No, this meeting was… positive. I merely find the emotional responses of…certain femmes somewhat incomprehensible."

"Ah." Smokescreen brightened, though he did not look completely convinced.

Before he could pursue the matter further, Prowl asked about the results of the recent intelligence assessment he should have been working on. Smokescreen's doorwings twitched and his frame heated as he stood.

"They should be completed within two joors, Commander."

"Very well. Dismissed." Smokescreen hesitated and his frame heated a fraction further, though he did turn away. Feeling the pain in his helm spike at recognizing the hurt in the other tactician's body language, Prowl called his name just as he reached to door. "Smokescreen…"

Smokescreen froze, doorwings flicking again as he looked back at Prowl. "Sir?"

Prowl stood and walked close enough to put a hand on Smokescreen's shoulder. "Thank you for your concern, Smokescreen. But I truly am doing fine."

Internally Prowl winced at using such a poorly defined word as 'fine' to describe his combined physical, mental and emotional state, but that seemed to be what Smokescreen needed to hear. The other Praxian's frame relaxed and his doorwings flicked back into a fully upright position.

"Now I believe it when you say that." Smokescreen gave him a broad grin. "I'm really glad to hear that. And, it doesn't hurt that I put my credits on you coming out of that meeting unscathed."

Releasing Smokescreen's shoulder, Prowl rubbed at his temple again. "Smokescreen…"

"Just a little harmless fun, Commander. Chromia came in here optics all ablaze and her field flaring something fierce, we were all waiting for the shooting to start. That was even odds against her ripping one of your arms off and beating you with it." His grinned turned cheeky. "No one else bet you'd escape unharmed. I swept the field!"

"Smokescreen, I have so far allowed your departmental gambling pool to operate, but you know that if it interferes with you or other members of the department satisfactorily performing their duties I will need to put an end to such activities."

"Yes, sir." Smokescreen acknowledged, not looking the least bit apologetic. "I understand sir."

Then he was gone and Prowl could only shake his helm as he returned to his own desk. Smokescreen was usually far more circumspect in regards to his betting pools as they were strictly non-regulation and in return Prowl generally allowed them to go on un-harassed. It was only as several breems passed and Prowl realized, his growing consternation had given way to contentment, that Smokescreen's reckless words had not been thoughtless after all: They had been deliberate indeed.

Shaking his helm again, Prowl tried to focus on the datapad in his hand only to have his long distance communication systems ping him with an urgent signal.

Prowl answered automatically, encrypting the secure signal yet again out of engrained habit. /Prowl here./

/Prowler!/ Jazz sounded relieved to have reached him. /Mirage and I are on our way back to base…./

/You took Mirage to investigate the Helix Septum?/ Prowl interrupted, processors immediately whirling to calculate the risk Jazz had just admitted to taking.

/That ain't tha point. Look, you'll get a full briefing when we get back. It's gonna be a little tricky, the Cons figured out we are here. I just…I can't keep this signal open for long or that fragging cyclopse will probably track it. I just wanted ya to know if something happens…/

Prowl's engine revved, his armor flaring in alarm and guilt. Jazz was in danger because he had requested additional information on Decepticon activity in Helix Septum. Prowl immediately pushed that feeling aside, focusing on what Jazz was saying, knowing he had done his own duty to request information on a potential threat and that Jazz was doing his duty by investigating that threat. Guilt had no place in this situation.

/…that there is a Decepticon base in Helix Septum and there is something glitchy going on. Something my tank says we need ta put and end to or its gonna blow up in our faceplates.

Prowl's field flared in increasing alarm. /Shockwave is in Helix Septum? Get out of there, Jazz./

/That's what we're tryin' ta do. But he's got way more forces here than we coulda possibly guessed and now he's mobilized them ta find us. Look I…/ There was a flare of static before Jazz's transmission stabilized again. /Frag! They've detected my signal. I've got to go. Prowler, whatever you do, whatever's goin' on here, it ain't right, it ain't…normal. Cease Fire or not, ya got ta put an end to it./

Then the signal ended in another squeal of static, leaving Prowl staring blankly at the data pad in his hand.

Yes, I know that was an evil, evil place to stop it. But so much has happened this chapter, I want to stop this one here as a sort of (tortured) breather before all the excitement starts and the overall plot starts rolling faster. *Innocent grin*


Shortly after I posted the last chapter my dear, sweet, handsome boyfriend proposed. Naturally, I said yes and we will be getting married in February of next year. While I do mourn that my mother did not get to see me finally find the man who will be my husband and will not be at my wedding, I am confident she is nonetheless aware and is rejoicing with me.

I wish I could invite all of you guys to the wedding, but alas… the logistics of that would be utterly mind blowing and probably cost more than I'd ever make in my entire life, so this announcement will just have to do.