The Day We Hailed The Heavens

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  1. Starscream600

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    DISCLAIMER
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    This is NOT my story!!! I just put it up here to help garner more feedback for the author.

    Storylink: The Day We Hailed the Heavens Chapter 1: Reason, a transformers/beast wars fanfic - FanFiction.Net

    Category: Transformers/Beast Wars

    Author: Bells of Eden

    Last updated: 09/03/2008

    Content: Chapter 1 to 32 of 32 chapters

    Source: FanFiction.net

    Summary: The greatest mystery of the war has been solved. —2007—

    The Day We Hailed the Heavens





    Story: The Day We Hailed the Heavens

    Storylink: The Day We Hailed the Heavens Chapter 1: Reason, a transformers/beast wars fanfic - FanFiction.Net

    Category: Transformers/Beast Wars

    Author: Bells of Eden

    Last updated: 09/03/2008

    Content: Chapter 1 to 32 of 32 chapters

    Source: FanFiction.net



    Summary: The greatest mystery of the war has been solved. —2007—





    *Chapter 1*: Reason

    Disclaimer: 'Transformers' and all related media, merchandise and trademarks do not belong to me and I am not making any money from using them in this fictional work. They belong to their respective companies and I am not affiliated with them in any way whatsoever. Any original characters or concepts in this story that are from other fictions are used with direct permission from the authors in question.

    D'eux les Gens Clairet

    Transformers: Deux Claret - Part II



    "The Day We Hailed the Heavens"

    by

    ~ Bells of Eden ~



    * * *



    I. Reason



    * * *



    Helm is not a particularly well-known part of Fresno County, California. It is a small, unincorporated community with a handful of residents, thirteen miles south of Kerman. Its name comes from William Helm, a sheep rancher, who settled there in in the mid-nineteenth century.

    It might not have been the most exciting place in the world — hell, sometimes it was downright boring, as were the nearby towns of San Joaquin and Tranquillity — but still, Helm was home. Mikaela Banes had lived in the house since she'd escaped the trailer park in Nashville at age eleven. There was something about it that put her mind at peace. True, she hadn't come back here for a long time — she'd spent the last few months living in the foothills of Sierra Nevada — but now she was back, she realised how much she'd missed it. She'd missed her granny flat above the garage, with its beaten old bed and the old posters of hunks and sports stars. It made her think of times when she hadn't been this — well, stressed.

    'I do not believe this.'

    Miles looked down at his single acceptance letter, bright-eyed. She looked across the room at him.

    'Believe what?'

    'Well — I never thought I'd go to college.'

    Sam was slumped on her old recliner. His letter from Princeton University rested across his knees.

    'Ivy League,' he breathed.

    Miles shot him a look. 'Don't rub salt into the wound, dude.'

    'Come on — Keller must have kissed a few asses for me. I'm not Ivy League standard.'

    'Right. Just like you're not "killing Megatron" standard.'

    'I hardly ever mention that.'

    'Sure.'

    Mikaela turned her attention back to the window, where a single mosquito struggled to pierce the frayed net. California sweltered in the heat of August, turning the ground to a barbeque grill. Outside, her old Pontiac Firebird reflected the hot sunlight, and the empty road stretched on towards the nearest city.

    On the nightstand, two rejection letters — and one acceptance — lay abandoned, half-crumpled, having been scanned once and dropped like heavy rocks. She'd never wanted to go to college. Her GPA had been okay, but what with the trauma she'd faced before Finals, even a crash-course in history from the leader of a sentient alien race hadn't saved her from dropping a few rungs on the grade ladder. She'd graduated by the skin of her teeth. Still, Sam had been insistent that she at least apply to a few colleges, given that the rest of their direct friendship group had decided to shoot for higher education after taking a few years off and getting part-time jobs. So, reluctantly, she'd researched engineering courses and applied to three colleges online.

    She wasn't surprised by the rejections — she'd been loath to sell herself, too bored by the process to paint herself in a good light — but she was tempted by the acceptance from Fresno City College. The engineering course there seemed interesting — but then, it was nothing she couldn't learn from better mentors.

    'Hey, 'Kaela?'

    She glanced at Sam.

    'Yeah, baby?' she asked, forcing a smile.

    'You okay?'

    'Sure.'

    'You've been kinda quiet.'

    'I'm fine. Just a little upset.'

    Miles pulled a face. 'The rejections?'

    'Hey, at least you got accepted somewhere,' Sam said gently. 'Carlos got stonewalled.'

    'Completely?' Mikaela asked, surprised.

    'Yep.'

    'Wow, that really sucks.'

    'If he hadn't been waxin' that damn bike so much, he would have gotten a better GPA,' Miles said sagely.

    'She's not just a bike, Miles,' Sam pointed out, rolling his dark eyes. 'She's an Autobot. I can't believe, after nearly a year of knowing them, that you still think of them as freaking vehicles. You know they turn into giant alien robots, and you still think she's a Vespa.'

    'She is a Vespa.'

    Mikaela dropped her gaze.

    'Maybe I'm being crazy,' she said softly, 'but I don't want to go to college.'

    There was a short silence.

    'You don't want to go,' Miles repeated, and she shook her head. 'But Mikaela, you might need it for —'

    'For what, Miles?'

    'Well, for work.'

    'I like my work with Ratchet. He didn't ask me for some wise-ass degree.'

    Sam sighed. 'Mikaela, I know you don't want —'

    'Yes, Sam, you're right. I don't want anyone to leave,' she said, levelling a hot gaze on her boyfriend. 'I know it's selfish and pathetic — maybe I'm being ridiculous — but if we split up, so do the Autobots. Our guardians are honour-bound to follow us wherever we go, whether it's Princeton or Harvard or Fresno City or the goddamn Moon. It's unfair on them. They'll have to spend three years of their lives sitting around as cars while we hang out in old buildings and study. I mean, where the hell did all of you suddenly get this idea that you wanted to go to college, when we have a guaranteed home with the Autobots? Do you guys really need frat parties and honour societies to be happy?'

    'No, but it's an experience.'

    'A normal experience,' Miles chimed in.

    Mikaela stared.

    'Listen to yourselves,' she said bitterly. 'You're damn ungrateful.'

    'He didn't mean that.'

    'Like hell he didn't mean that!'

    'I don't wanna sound ungrateful,' Miles amended, 'but come on, Mikaela — everyone goes to college.'

    'Well, not me.'

    There was a brief silence, during which Mikaela felt something grow very tight in her chest. She stood and walked to the open window, arms folded, jaw clenched tightly.

    'This sucks,' she said.

    Sam looked down at his letter again.

    'Now I'm not sure,' he admitted. 'I mean — this is Ivy League, but —'

    'Just go, Sam.'

    'What, you're gonna send me off with that?'

    'I'm happy for you, baby' — her gaze softened when she saw his stunned expression — 'but I don't belong in college. I belong with the Autobots. Ratchet has been more of a father to me than my biological human father has, and a million times better than that crackhead I call a mother.'

    Miles, who was fiddling with his Jesus sandals, glanced up at her.

    'What if they leave?'

    Mikaela tensed.

    'They won't leave,' she said, but her voice faltered. 'Optimus said they wouldn't leave.'

    'You gotta have a backup plan.'

    'Some backup plan!'

    'Look, you can't put on a job application that you spent two years fixing alien robots —'

    '— but I can put that I didn't waste my damn time going to some college that won't teach me jack shit about engineering.' She scraped her hair back and looked out at the sun, suddenly wishing she was at the base. 'Now I've seen something beyond that, I can't go back. I'm not doing it. That's it.'

    There was silence again. The crickets trilled outside, singing in the heat.

    The two boys exchanged glances. Mikaela stood and grabbed her keys.

    'I'm going to the base.'

    'You can't yet,' Sam said. 'They're still —'

    'We're allowed to visit in the day, Sam. We just can't stay overnight.'

    'Really?'

    'Yes! Do you listen to anything Ironhide says?'

    'Not unless he's got a cannon in my face.'

    Mikaela cracked a smile at that. 'Right. Are you guys coming?'

    'Yes,' Sam said firmly. He folded the letter and tucked it into his pocket. 'Come on, Miles — let's earn her favour back.'



    * * *



    The drive from Helm to the foothills of Sierra Nevada took would have taken an hour and a half at the legal speed limit, but Mikaela had never exactly been a law-abiding citizen. Consequently, her Pontiac Firebird skidded to a halt on the slopes near Pine Flat Lake within forty minutes of having left the driveway.

    'I hate this car,' Miles muttered.

    'Then get out of it.'

    'With pleasure.'

    'Miles, shut up.' Sam wiped his forehead. 'Damn, it's hot.'

    'No shit.'

    The three of them abandoned the car, leaving it in the shadow of a blue oak. They looked out at Pine Flat Dam, the parapet wall of which could not be approached from any direction but the one they were taking. A large area in front of the concrete gravity dam that was previously accessible had been closed off, as had the roads and trails around it, and signs warning of dangerous equipment had been posted nearby. An ancient warehouse, perched among the foothills, was just about visible to the naked eye beyond it. Mikaela looked at it with fond eyes as they walked through the faint yellow haze towards their second home, the place where she'd come to feel more comfortable than she ever had in Helm. There had been one or two incidences when kids from Avocado and Trimmer had tried to break into the dam and the warehouse — only to be driven out, screaming, by a black pickup truck and a massive ambulance.

    As usual, there was a lookout posted just beyond the safe zone. Carlos López sat in a fold-up aluminum chaise, shirtless, sunning his dark skin. His powerful chest, the product of hard training with his father, glistened with a fine sheen of sweat. He raised a hand when he saw them.

    '¿Como estáis?'

    'English!' Sam called. 'Man, I wish I'd listened to your grandma now.'

    Carlos laughed. 'Damn straight. You guys get your acceptances?'

    'Princeton.'

    'Well, holy fireholes!' He extended a callused hand to shake. 'Congrats, bud.'

    'Thanks, man.'

    'How about you guys?' he asked, directing his dark gaze towards Miles and Mikaela.

    Miles held up his envelope. 'UCR.'

    'Cool. Which course?'

    'Computer science.'

    'And I'm not going anywhere,' Mikaela said, with a big smile.

    'She's undecided,' Sam corrected.

    'I am decided.'

    Carlos grinned. 'Glad to know I got somebody to hang out with, dulzura. I was worried I'd have to make friends with Starscream.'

    'Nope. I'll be right here.'

    'Cool. Come on, let's head up — I need a break.'

    They walked across the dry, scrubby slopes towards the dam. The lake water was as blue as lapis lazuli, and looked so inviting that Mikaela had to resist pulling her tank top off and jumping right in. California heat could be ruthless. It made her miss Tennessee sometimes, where the summers had seemed a little cooler.

    The climb up to the top of the dam was hard work, but they made it with only two complaints from Miles. She swore she'd gained a pound in muscle just trekking across the hills for the past few years. Autobot secrecy was still paramount to the government. They'd wanted to move the group of eight to a more isolated place — Keller had suggested Diego Garcia, or perhaps an uninhabited island like Elobey Chico — but the Autobots had expressed a wish to stay in California with their human allies, close to human civilisation. They'd grown used to the hills, to the constant heat, to the wildlife. Mikaela still remembered when a black bear had wandered into Autobot territory, searching for food. Skyfire had spent almost an hour trying to coax it out of the area, fascinated by the mammalian predator, until finally a grouchy Ironhide had simply picked it up and deposited it back in the trees.

    Ironhide — still as grouchy as ever after two years — was parked as a truck on the other side of the dam, near the slither of water that lay between the wall and the warehouse. He flashed his headlights when they came down the slope. Mikaela waved.

    'Hey, Ironhide.' She patted the hood. 'How're you?'

    'Hot,' Ironhide grumbled.

    'Your hood's like an iron. Get in the water!'

    'I think not.'

    'Your loss. Where's Ratchet?'

    'Here.'

    Mikaela looked up and smiled at her guardian as he approached in bipedal form, having just emerged from the cool, shady interior of the warehouse. The scorching sun made his neon-yellow armour look twice as bright. He knelt down and looked at the four of them with a soft expression — rare for the medic.

    'I understand that you heard from your colleges of choice today,' he stated, analysing their expressions.

    'Princeton,' Sam said, grinning. 'I owe you my GPA, Ratch', so thanks.'

    'Ivy League,' Ratchet realised. 'Congratulations, Sam. What will you study?'

    'Astronomy.'

    'An excellent pursuit.'

    'Yeah, I'm hoping to "discover" Cybertron,' he said wryly.

    Ratchet seemed in good humour today; his faceplates lifted in a rare smile.

    'And you, Miles?' he asked.

    'Not quite Ivy League,' he said, with a nervous laugh. Miles still had trouble interacting with the Autobots. 'Computer science at UCR.'

    'University of California?'

    'Riverside campus. It's about five hours away.'

    Ratchet nodded. He turned his optics on Mikaela, who was biting her tongue. 'And you, my dear?'

    'Fresno.'

    'If you intend to study engineering there, you will do extremely well.'

    Mikaela dropped her gaze. 'Sure.'

    He looked at her intently — he could sense something was wrong, no doubt — but before he could speak, Rad White emerged from the base in swimming trunks, with a white towel slung over his shoulder. His pale skin had been scalded a few shades darker by the fierce sun, and his hair shone bright blond under the light. He smiled at them all, and his pale blue eyes crinkled at the edges.

    'Mornin', strangers.'

    Sam groaned. 'Oh, God. Just the guy we need to ruin the mood.'

    'What?'

    'You're a genius. Where'd you get accepted?'

    'Ha, not telling.'

    'Rad!' Miles protested, giving him a friendly shove. 'Come on, was it Dartmouth?'

    Rad sighed. 'Harvard.'

    'Harvard?' Mikaela gasped, awestruck. 'Wow, damn. Congratulations.'

    'I just see it as a great opportunity for the Autobots. I want to be their lawyer — you know, a liaison officer between the White House and Optimus,' he said, exchanging a pleased glance with Ratchet. 'Keller said he'd keep the position open for me and get me an internship as soon as I've gotten my degree, and the government have agreed to fund it all.'

    Sam nodded. 'They're funding me, too.'

    'Great,' Miles said darkly. 'I'll pay for my own damn degree.'

    'Did you save the world?'

    'No, but —'

    'I rest my case.'

    'You are a damn asshole.'

    'You should always try,' Rad said astutely, 'or you're guaranteed to fail. Anyway, who's for swimming?'

    The three boys agreed at once, pulling off their shirts and racing down to the warm blue water. Mikaela watched as they jumped in, and shook her head with a fixed smile when Sam beckoned her. She might have been thirsty and hot, but the last thing she felt like doing now was swimming.

    In her mind she pictured a map of America, with a red dot for each human ally. She saw Carlos and herself in California while Rad drifted to Massachusetts, his state of origin, to study at Harvard; Miles would go south to Riverside; Jade would no doubt end up at the Arts Institute of California, and Alexis would go wherever the best physics course took her. And then there was Sam — Sam, her boyfriend, the dork she'd come to love and depend on — going to Princeton, in New Jersey . . . all the way on the other side of the map. She guessed she could go with him, if the separation got too hard — they had cheap apartments for student rental there — but she just couldn't leave this place. She couldn't leave her guardian, who stood behind her and shaded her from the blazing sunlight, watching her with his small, analytical blue optics as she turned away from the water and looked back towards the warehouse.

    Ratchet gently touched her back with his digit.

    'Mikaela.'

    She glanced up. 'Have you got time to talk, Ratch'?'

    'Always.'

    Ironhide transformed — a process that still amazed Mikaela — and stood up.

    'You're unhappy, kid,' he conjectured. His small optics pierced her to the core.

    Ratchet gently extended a hand for her, and she sat in his palm. He raised her to their optic level, and they both leaned in to assess her face.

    'My life sucks,' she said limply.

    'Don't tell me,' Ironhide said darkly. 'It's that thing on your back.'

    Mikaela managed to crack a smile. The humans had gotten together a few weeks beforehand and decided they wanted to mark themselves as members of the Autobot allies — something they'd been thinking about for a long time. Some of the things they'd done were impermanent — Jade had a small charm bracelet a solid silver Autobot symbol dangling from it, and Carlos had a small cord necklace with the same mask — but Mikaela and Sam, the ones who had been with the Autobots the longest, had made a spontaneous decision to get themselves tattooed. Mikaela now had Ratchet's name written across her lower back in the Language of the Primes, marking herself as his charge, and Sam had the Chinese character for "bumblebee" on his wrist. It had hurt — really hurt, to the point where she'd been inches from begging the tattooist to quit — but it had been worth it.

    'No, it's pretty much healed up now. Scab's all gone and everything,' she said. The old warrior shuddered, but she couldn't bring herself to smile again. She felt heat in her eyes and quickly dashed the tears away, but Ratchet caught sight of it at once.

    'You are upset,' he murmured. 'Are you not happy with your college acceptance?'

    'It's that boy,' Ironhide predicted.

    'Sam?'

    'No, the ugly one.'

    Mikaela sighed. 'Trent's a drunk-ass idiot, but he's not my problem anymore.'

    'Then what is it?'

    'It's just — it's just that when we all go to college, things are really going to change around here. And I never realised how much.' She looked down at her fingers, twisted them together. 'I don't want to study engineering at Fresno. I want to stay here and carry on learning with you, Ratchet. It's not like they won't teach me anything you've already taught me about cars.' Her gaze dropped further, uncomfortable. 'Besides, it's way more than I can afford right now. I know Keller's paying for Sam and Rad to go and get great degrees and do something helpful — be liaison officers — but they're not about to give me thirty thousand dollars to get a degree in engineering, not with my GPA. I'm not a college person, Ratch' — never was. Sam and Rad have both been destined to go to college since they were in diapers, but not me.' Mikaela heaved a sigh and looked up at the two massive faces. 'If you guys will have me, I just want to stay with you. I've been happier for the past two years than I've ever been in my life, and I want it to stay that way. I never want to leave this place.'

    'You never have to leave,' Ratchet said softly. 'You are always welcome here, Mikaela. But will you not miss the others?'

    'Of course I will. But I'll have Carlos, and — well, you guys are more than human.'

    Ironhide's optics were on her face.

    'And Sam?'

    Mikaela glanced up, and she sighed. 'I guess we'll do long-distance.'

    'It is harder than it looks.'

    'Speaking from experience?'

    'Yes.'

    She smiled ruefully. 'I'm sorry, Ironhide.'

    'Hm.' He turned his head. 'I suppose I ought to congratulate Rad on his results — after all, they are my results also.'

    'What?'

    'I see you have conveniently forgotten the assistance I gave him.'

    Sam, who was demanding to know whether or not Ironhide thought Jade should go to the college in San Francisco or Florida, soon dragged the great black mech away from them, leaving Mikaela alone with her guardian. She hadn't missed the slightly despondent expression on his face, either.

    'What's wrong?' she asked him simply, and he frowned. 'Don't play dumb with me, Ratch'.'

    'It's nothing, Mikaela.'

    Mikaela gave him a hard look.

    In the two years that had passed since the warehouse incident, she'd come to know Ratchet like the back of her hand: his mannerisms, his various tones of voice, his tendency to shield his emotions. His guidance had helped her evolve from grease monkey to grease gorilla, and they talked about pretty much everything — any time she had a problem, she knew that Ratchet would listen to and understand her in a way her father never had.

    'Ratchet,' she said, 'don't be a hard-ass.'

    He gave her a look.

    'I am not,' he said, 'a "hard-ass", as you call it.'

    'Then stop being so damn stubborn and talk to me.'

    'I do not wish to dampen your mood with my anxieties, Mikaela.' When he saw her face, he heaved a wave of hot air through his costa. 'I see you will not desist. For three years now, my spark has been calling for its partner. A partner that still, after many millions of years of existence, has still not come to me.'

    She stared at him.

    'You want a girlfriend?' she blurted.

    Bombshell!

    'If you must put it like that,' Ratchet said wearily, 'then yes, I do.'

    'But — but Ratch', you're so —'

    'Territorial?'

    She smiled. 'I just figured you were happier alone.'

    'It is a façade I have had little choice but to adopt.'

    'Why the sudden need for a mate?'

    'I believe it began when the battle was over,' he said. 'When I saw all the happiness that the couples around me shared with each other. Yourself and Sam, for example. And of course, the passion that Starscream and Alexis share is enough to make anyone "green with envy", as you say.'

    Mikaela ran a hand up his thumb. 'Hey, you'll find someone. You just need to relax,' she added, bringing a faint smile to his face. 'I think we both need to cheer up. There's a girl out there, right now, that's just waiting for you to find her.'

    Ratchet inclined his head. 'As Ironhide told me once. I hope you are right, little one.'

    'I bet my bottom dollar that by the end of this year, you'll be happily settled with some gorgeous girl.'

    'I'll take that bet,' he chuckled, and she laughed.



    * * *



    Skyfire watched the paintbrush as it moved.

    It had been a reasonably ordinary day in the Pine Flat Dam base, albeit hot enough to fry a retro-rat. Ratchet had woken them all at half past five, demanding to know where his forfex was, and a search had been duly conducted by Seraphim. Much to Ratchet's irritation, she'd found it buried under a mass of spare parts in the medbay — indeed, Skyfire hadn't seen the medic so annoyed since the black bear incident. A few hoursof grumbling later, Jade had arrived in her distinctive Pontiac GTO to begin work on Starscream's wings. He'd decided to get rid of the Decepticon mask, and Jade — the artist of the group — had been the only one sanguine enough to volunteer her services. Carlos and Rad had also decided to visit, and arrived at ten to spend time with their guardians. They'd been stationed in Qatar with Jorge Figueroa and his team, but had taken leave. Rad, who'd applied to Harvard University, did not plan to return.

    Four in the afternoon found Starscream seated on the metal workbench in Skyfire's largest room at the base, which he now proudly referred to as his "laboratory" despite its rudimentary look. The massive mech glared down at Jade as she painted over the mask on his right wing, slowly coating it with a layer of dusty brown.

    'Primus, you humans are slow.

    Jade, focused on her work, ignored his moaning — she'd been forced to put up with it for almost a megacycle.

    'Really, Starscream, you ought to be thanking Jade for doing this,' Skyfire said sternly, and Starscream groaned. 'She has taken time out of her day to do this for you, and it is not particularly kind of you to be complaining about it in such a discourteous —'

    'Who said I was kind?'

    He folded his arms, throwing Jade-off balance. She grabbed his armour with a gasp.

    'Starscream!' she complained, exasperated. 'Would you hold still?'

    'No.'

    'Look, I'll be done in two minutes.'

    Starscream turned his head to look at her. 'I'll hold you to that, human.'

    Two years had done little for Starscream's manners or his hot temper, though he was certainly more inclined towards the planet's natives that he had been in his Decepticon days. He was still frequently angered and had alarming mood swings — one moment he could be content, even happy, but the smallest trigger could send him flying into a rage that he would not be torn from for hours. The only ones who had shown any ability to calm him were Alexis and — sometimes — Skyfire.

    Jade pointed the tip of her brush at him.

    'Do not call me "human", flyboy,' she said sharply. Jade had never been intimidated by Starscream's ever-changing demeanour, and had always made it clear that she was someone to be reckoned with, organic or not. 'You need an attitude adjustment.'

    'Sometimes I agree with her, Starscream,' Skyfire admitted, smiling slightly at the offended look. 'I understand your impatience, but please try to relax. You are fortunate that Jade did not want to complete the job today and paint on the new insignia.'

    'But I want you back here at eight tomorrow,' Jade cut in. 'I need to get it done before I drive to Tarpey.'

    Starscream heaved a world-weary sigh. Skyfire checked his internal chronometer.

    'Alexis must be leaving for her meal,' he stated.

    'Yes.' Starscream looked pained. 'Her maternal unit wanted them all to have some "family time", or some such nonsense.'

    'Of course she did. However is Alexis to become acquainted with her stepfather-and-stepsister-to-be if she is always out flying with you? Primus knows where her mother thinks she is every night, given the fact that after of being part of her life, you still have not made yourself known to her —'

    'Oh, good idea, Skyfire!' Starscream snapped. 'I'm sure she'd love to meet her husband's murderer.'

    There was a short, uncomfortable silence. Jade slowly painted one last stroke.

    'All done,' she said.

    Skyfire came to scoop her up from Starscream's epauliere. At once Starscream was back on his pedes. He swept his red optics towards his wings, finding no hint of his Decepticon heritage, and stiffly inclined his head to her.

    'Thank you.'

    'No problem. See you tomorrow, Starscream.'

    Clearly unable to wait any longer, Starscream briefly inclined his head to Skyfire before he was out of the door in a blur of wings and gears – he leapt into the air with the grace of a hunting predator, transforming spectacularly into an Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor stealth jet before he was gone, blasting off into the reddening sky with a great roar of his jets.

    Skyfire shook his head. 'He really is besotted.'

    'Hey, you can hardly talk.' Jade flicked in vain at the paint on her jeans. 'It's a good thing I have a good cover story, I my mom would be chewing my ass out every night about all the time I've spent away. I guess Jasmine is too caught up in her new man to notice her much, though. They're an English family, apparently,' she added.

    'Oh?'

    'Yeah. I think that's kinda cool.'

    'Culturally enlightening, perhaps' — Skyfire turned to his equipment — 'but I must say that I feel great sympathy for Alexis. It cannot be easy for her to have to accept a new male parental figure into her life after the death of her father. Have you met this stepsister?'

    Jade nodded, scraping at the paint in her long hair.

    'Rose Connelly,' she said. 'I've seen her around town: she works at the library and delivers the Fresno Bee, and I'm pretty sure I saw her washing cars down at the Chevy dealership with Bobby Bolivia. She's quite pretty — lots of red hair and model legs — but she probably knows it, too. Alexis hates her.'

    'A pity. I imagine she must have had great difficulty adjusting, too.'

    'I guess. I just hope Starscream doesn't do anything stupid — I can picture him ambushing the poor girl and strangling her to death with his holoform, or something. He may be getting the Autobot insignia on his wings, but he'll always be a Decepticon by nature.'

    'He is a scientist by nature — but yes, the war has certainly left its mark on him.'

    'A big mark,' Jade said dryly.

    'You must remember that two years is very little to us, my jewel.' He turned to the engine of a spaceship he'd been designing. 'Humans may think that Starscream has had plenty of time to change, but remember that he lived for millennia under Megatron — and we have not even been on this planet for half a decade.'

    'I know. He needs a chance.'

    Her cellular device rang from her pocket. She wiped her paint-covered hands on a cloth and answered it.

    'Carlos?'

    'Hey, chica — come outside! It's sizzlin' hot and the water's calling.'

    'Sorry,' she said, pinning the cell to her shoulder as she gathered her brushes. 'I was painting Starscream's wings. Are the others here?'

    'Yeah, minus Alexis.'

    Skyfire tried to ignore the growing tension in his lower mandible as he unrolled a sheet of coated abrasive and sliced it into a large square.

    He'd been romantically involved with Jade Diana Rivers — a human, an organic — for over two Earth years now. To his surprise and delight, he'd cherished every astrosecond of the relationship. Their mutual friendship and affection had deepened over time, like water wearing a path through rock. And it was as refreshing and satisfying as water on every level. On Cybertron he'd always been far too concerned with his scientific research to worry about femmes — the Project had been one of many things in which he'd become intimately involved — but he thanked Primus every day that Jade had somehow worked her way into his spark. True, it had been hard for her to cope with the implications of having a fifty-foot bipedal alien robot as a romantic partner, but his holoform made the physical side of things easier between them, although Ratchet still had miniature paroxysms every time he was caught using it.

    But Skyfire had never expected to experience one particular part of the love equation: jealousy.

    Jealousy of Carlos López.

    Jade snapped her cell phone closed.

    'The others are here,' she said, smiling. 'How about we go and get some sun?'

    'Mm.'

    It was not as if he could get away from the fact that Carlos was there, and always would be. He and Rad had been Jade's best friends since kindergarten, and they were her advisors and confidantes – along with Carlos's guardian, Seraphim, whom Jade had developed an almost sisterly friendship with. This was all the more disturbing, as if Seraphim and Jade were together, Carlos was highly likely to be with them. And if Carlos was with them . . . it made his suspicions deepen.

    Her voice tore him from his thoughts:

    'Sky', you're daydreaming again,' she teased.

    'It is in my nature, my love.'

    Jade tilted her head. 'Wouldn't be in your nature to help me clean up all this paint, would it?'





    *Chapter 2*: Relations


    II. Relations



    * * *



    The Hermès Birkin second-hand green ostrich handbag had been an unusually extravagant gift from her mother: three thousand dollars worth of extravagant gift, to be exact. It hadn't been a birthday gift — she'd turned nineteen in November — but a form of appeasement. She'd been told enthusiastically that it matched her eyes, and that she deserved a gift for her acceptance to major in biophysics at Duke University, North Carolina. These compliments had been followed up with an announcement that her new stepfather and his daughter were officially moving in.

    That part had really killed the buzz.

    The handbag had accompanied her tonight, two months later, to a fancy Greek restaurant called Apollo Pita in central Fresno. Which would have been lovely if she'd been alone with her mother — or with Starscream, she thought — but no.

    They'd had company.

    Alexis Paxton sat down at her small oak desk, threw the Hermès handbag at the wall, and glanced at her reflection in the mirror. Two years had lengthened her hair to her shoulders and drawn out the maturity in her olive-green eyes, but little else about her face had changed. She was still slender, still pale, but she'd started to dress a little more like a woman, swollen with sudden and intense sexuality, than the shapeless slip she'd been before. Her Capris, sneakers and matching t-shirts had been exchanged for halter necks and skinny-fit jeans: anything that showed off a little of what she'd suddenly come to appreciate — with some help — as an enviably delicate figure.

    She had someone to love it now.

    Her fingers gently sorted through the acceptance letters on her desk. She was tempted by her acceptance to the Portland campus of Linfield College, which was only a state away in Oregon — their math course was supposed to be excellent — but she knew she'd be a fool to refuse Duke.

    Still, three thousand miles was a long way to go.

    She looked at the letters again, reading each word. The decision to apply to college at all had been difficult. She'd spent the last two years living in the Autobot base near Pine Flat Lake, with a part-time job in Starbucks, pumping out crack-of-dawn espressos in San Joaquin, to keep her connection with the outside world intact. The snap of her supervisor's fingers when she served up a coffee that was too black, too white, too sweet or too bitter kept her alert, kept her on her toes, in a way that the Autobot base did not. There things were easy and relaxed, and she started to forget human faces that weren't those of the close-knit group of allies. Starbucks was her own espresso, the thing that slapped her in the face and reminded her that real life did, in fact, exist — and in spite of any world-saving or giant-alien-robot-killing she might have done (on the quiet), she was still a part of it.

    Knock, knock.

    'Alexis?'

    Her bedroom door opened. Her new stepsister stepped in, perfectly balanced on her silk Carvela court shoes.

    Alexis clenched her jaw.

    'Did you want something?'

    Rosa Leighton Connelly — otherwise known as Rose — swept her cool blue gaze around the room. Her full lips were sleek with gloss, and her dark lashes were perfectly curled. She looked down at Alexis from her statuesque height, tossed her long copper hair back, and raised her eyebrows.

    'I did,' she said.

    The crisp, audibly English accent made her feel like her IQ was dropping. She spun around in her chair, eyes hard.

    'What have I done now?'

    'My college reading list is missing from my room.'

    'And you think I've taken it?'

    'This room is like a pigsty, so you could hide something in it quite easily.' Rose nodded at the books, scribbled notes and clothes scattered all over the floor. 'Mind you, you probably wouldn't come out of it long enough to take something. Tonight is the first time I've really seen you.'

    'I come out of it all the time, thank you. It's just that when you're here, I prefer not to.'

    Rose just smiled. 'I'll be here a while, I'm afraid.'

    'I won't be.'

    'I heard. Duke University,' Rose said, leaning against the wall in such a way as to show off the seemingly endless stretch of her legs below her tight black dress. 'That's quite a way away. But you won't be too far away from me there, either. We can send each other cute little postcards.'

    'Why, where are you going?'

    'Cornell.'

    Oh, for Pete's sake!

    'Ivy League,' she forced out. 'You must be thrilled.'

    The glossy lips smiled even wider.

    Alexis took a moment out of time and space to just fume. There were few ways in which Rose hadn't irritated her. She tried to convince herself that she could have made Ivy League, too, if not for certain top-secret incidents involving giant alien robots — but she knew she was just kidding herself. Her GPA hadn't been up to scratch at all. Rose, on the other hand, had clearly been born and bred for Ivy League. She spent more time reading books than she did with other human beings.

    She could hardly remember how they'd got off to such a bad start as family, but she knew that the contempt between them had been immediate and mutual. They'd kept it quiet, fearing for the happiness of their recently engaged parents — but when Jasmine and Robert were out on one-to-one dates, the arguments between the two young women shook the walls of the house in Fairless Avenue. Rose had an uncanny talent for being able to make Alexis shout herself sore without ever having to raise her voice. Her insults were quiet and maddeningly calm, often so subtle that Alexis couldn't quite grasp whether or not they'd been insults at all, and her tongue was sharper than a samurai sword.

    Rose gave the room one last glance.

    'I'll leave you,' she said. 'Let me know if you see that list.'

    'Fine.'

    'Good.'

    She closed the door. Alexis threw a pillow after her.

    It was true that her room-keeping standards had slipped over the past two years. Living with the Autobots and their allies was distracting — obviously — and she knew in her heart that she'd be lucky if a college course could hold her attention for more than one day before she wanted to go back to California.

    The clock ticked.

    Two minutes left.

    Her whole heart swelled to bursting point as she thought of her boyfriend (or spark partner, to use the proper Cybertronian term). It was one of those forbidden romances you read about in controversial books and famous plays — the kind of passion that needed to be kept behind closed doors, but was all the more intense for the pain of keeping it quiet. Keeping their trysts a secret from her mother was hard, and would only become harder now the Connelly family had moved in, but it was always worth it.

    Starscream was worth it.

    With half a minute left, she stood up and pulled her hair from its loose ponytail. She was still in the outfit she'd worn to the restaurant — a little red cocktail dress — but she knew he wouldn't mind. He'd probably prefer it to the jacket and jeans she normally donned for their trysts, which tended to involve climbing over fallen tree trunks.

    'Three, two —'

    'One.'

    A pair of muscular arms came around her waist.

    'Surprise,' Starscream purred.

    'Right, surprise. Like I don't know you're coming.'

    'Hm. You look good enough to eat.'

    'I don't feel it.'

    His humanised eyes grew hot and dark. She shivered. They looked like red wine — or blood.

    'That girl,' he stated. His tone was sleek, dangerous. 'I will crush her like an ant if she ever comes near me.'

    'Shh. Mom's downstairs.'

    A lazy smile crossed his lips.

    'True' — he pulled her tight against his chest, running a hand up her back — 'but you are worth the risk, my beauty.'

    'I'm not worth you being put in some sort of alien zoo.'

    A roguish chuckle rolled out from his throat. 'No bars can hold me,' he assured her, moving his hands across her pale cheeks and down the sides of her neck. 'Now, are you ready to be torn from your primitive human residence and shown the world beyond your tragic human life?'

    'Spare me the tough guy act and get me out of here.'

    He grinned. The holoform snapped out of existence.

    Alexis snatched a sweater from the armchair and shoved her cell into her back pocket, then shut off her bedroom lights and locked the door. She felt the slight tremble in the ground as Starscream appeared at her window in his massive bipedal form. He blinked his big, slanted red optics with an audible click as he switched on his night vision. She allowed herself to remain rooted dumbly to the spot for a moment, gazing back at him. If his eyes were beautiful in holographic form, they were breathtaking in his robotic mode. They had the ability to look into her very soul, and she always felt as if he could see everything inside of her when their eyes met in passing — or in passion.

    A large, long-fingered servo came up to the window. She climbed up onto the window frame before lowering herself carefully into his palm. The lengthy digits bent slightly about her, securing her in his grasp, before he scanned the area and made for the trees opposite her house.

    The property on the corner of Fairless Avenue stood on the very edge of Tranquillity, in what the modest town could probably call its suburbs. It backed onto the vast open cornfields that led to the ranches further out in the valley, with a small copse of trees to separate the urban area from the rural. Though they could never stay there for very long, it was a convenient place for Starscream to transform so he could take her elsewhere. Now, he deposited her on the grass before transforming fluidly into the terrestrial form he favoured: a sleek Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the leanest and meanest fighter jet in military service. The cockpit flipped open. Alexis climbed up, slotted herself into the seat and buckled up.

    'I still can't understand why you think you need that harness.'

    She smiled at the neon-green VDU.

    'I trust you with most things' — she patted the seat — 'but not aerial acrobatics.'

    'Your loss.'

    With no further ado, all sixty-two feet of jet took to the sky.

    The trip from Tranquillity to Sierra Nevada wouldn't have taken long by car, and it took even less time for Starscream. He blasted across Tranquillity, past San Joaquin and Helm, then swung north and headed towards the Autobot base at Pine Flat Lake. She spotted Ratchet doing his nightly patrol and waved. The medic flashed his headlights in response.

    'I swear he never recharges,' Starscream muttered.

    'You're just sore over the necklace incident.'

    'Well, have you ever seen Ratchet in recharge?'

    'No, but I could say the same for Optimus.'

    'Primes hardly ever recharge. They don't have time.'

    Starscream slowly continued his descent as they headed over the foothills and into the depths of the mountain range. It ran about four hundred miles north-to-south, and about seventy east-to-west. Alexis sometimes wondered why John Keller hadn't insisted upon the base being right in the middle of the Sierra, where the Autobots were less likely to be seen or found, but Optimus had insisted that they remain on the fringe of society so that the human allies didn't have to trek for miles and miles through the peaks just to pay their alien friends a visit. She looked down at the subalpine meadows, the swathes of evergreen trees, the dazzling glaciers that caught the silver moonlight. Finally she spotted the great glittering expanse of water she'd been looking for: Lake Tahoe, one of her favourite places in the entire mountain range. Starscream angled his nose towards it, and within half a minute he'd landed just beyond the aptly named Secret Beach — the one place in the world where she felt like she could be completely and utterly alone with the man — the mech — she loved.

    Finally.

    The cockpit opened for her, and she disembarked. Starscream transformed behind her and shook his wings out.

    'Finally,' he echoed her thought.

    Alexis removed her red ballet flats. 'Bad day?'

    'Just boring,' he muttered.

    'Jade came to paint your wings, right?'

    'Yes. At least I no longer bear the mark of Megatron.'

    She smiled. 'I'm proud of you.'

    'Hm. It was hardly a tough decision.'

    His bird-like pedes carefully navigated the smooth white rocks that littered Secret Beach. Slowly, so as not to knock any overhanging branches with his wings, he folded his legs in a seated position. She felt hs optics on her back as she nimbly jumped across the clear water, barefoot, balancing carefully on a rock in the cool blue pool.

    Sometimes they would just come here and talk, or stargaze.

    Other times — like this — Starscream would want more.

    The arms of his holoform wrapped around her waist, and she felt its cool imitation of breath at her neck. She looked up into his eyes and felt her entire nervous system melt into a useless, frazzled mess. Starscream ran his fingers over her décolletage and pressed a soft kiss to her jaw.

    'Don't worry about your troubles at home now,' he said. 'If your stepsister continues to trouble you, I will eliminate her.'

    His love of destruction both amused and concerned her.

    'I couldn't ask you to do that,' she said gently, tweaking a strand of his hair. 'She's not worth it.'

    Starscream held her close. 'Hm. If you say so.'

    'I do.'

    He sat down on the white rock, planting his feet in the water, and pulled her onto his lap, running a large hand up her bare white leg. She swept her sultry gaze up to meet his. A smile touched her lips: a smile he couldn't resist, just the faintest ghost of a smile. He leaned down and kissed her, hard, as his thumb drew lazy circles on her outer thigh. Alexis grasped a handful of his black t-shirt and closed her eyes, listening to the soft hum of electricity the holoform emitted, as he nudged her mouth open and slid his warm tongue along her lower lip. A pale, long-fingered hand slid up her dress, following the line of her spine, and every tiny hair on her body rose to meet it.

    A few bluish clouds drifted across the sky, and she watched them over his shoulder as he kissed down her arm, trailing goosebumps in the wake of his lips. These were the moments she wished could last forever: just being with him under the stars, not wanting or caring for anything else in the world.

    'Alexis,' he murmured.

    'Mm?'

    'This necklace. I want it removed.'

    She pulled her head back, surprised. 'What?'

    His cool fingers found the nape of her neck.

    'It's burning you,' he said, and his voice was suddenly a low hiss. 'We must get it removed, Alexis. I should have acted upon this far earlier, when you first told me about it.' He did not look guilty, but he never did — he always carried it in silence, considering it a weakness.

    'I've tried taking it off for three years.'

    'I did not suggest we attempt to remove it ourselves. I suggested we had it removed.'

    She caught the implication at once: 'Starscream, come on! Last time I went to see Ratchet he practically tied me to the table and did about a hundred scans on me,' she groaned. 'I love Ratchet so much, I really do — if not for him, we wouldn't have met — but you have to admit, he's a real control freak.'

    'He may be the only one that can help you. Much as I hate to admit it, this is a field I have little real experience in — knowledgeable as I am on every other subject.'

    'Your arrogance will never cease.'

    'You wouldn't love me if I wasn't a little conceited.'

    He ran his fingers through her short, choppy hair and let it fall from his hands like sand.

    'True,' she breathed, relishing the touch. 'Starscream . . .'

    Only too willing to indulge her, he lowered his face and moulded his mouth around her lips, hearing her heart rate go through the roof as he gave in to his desire for her. He let her hold him for as long as she needed to before he kissed her forehead.

    'You will bring me down one day, Alexis Paxton.'

    She smiled, but it soon faded.

    'Starscream, maybe you'll just think I'm crazy' — he shook his head, looking insulted — 'but sometimes at night, I — I think I can hear it talking to me. The All Spark.' She quickly began to babble over her confession, mistaking the look on his face for disbelief: 'Okay, I know it sounds nuts, but —'

    Suddenly he had her chin in the palm of his hand again.

    'What does it say to you?'

    She swallowed. 'It's when I'm asleep. It could just be something I'm dreaming . . . I mean, I have had a lot on my mind recently, what with the new family members. I'm thinking maybe it's just my worries manifesting themselves into something — the necklace.'

    'Because your subconscious is telling you the necklace is unsafe.'

    'Maybe.'

    His hand slid from her chin and strayed to the back of her neck, where her tattoo was harsh and black against her skin. Mikaela had been forced to beg and plead and wheedle Sam into having his done, but Alexis had readily agreed to have the ink injected. She'd selected a simple black star design, flanked by the Kanji sounds for "star" and "scream". The holoform's cold, smooth fingers traced the three symbols, knowing them by heart.

    'I don't think it was a dream,' he said softly. 'Tell me what it said to you.'

    'I don't remember very much of it.' At his flat look, she sighed. 'It said something about — about you. Asking me if I knew about you and — and Dad.' He turned his face away from her, closing his eyes, and she bit her lip. 'Then I remember it saying something was coming.'

    He suddenly grew very still.

    'Coming?' he whispered.

    'It's — it's nothing, Starscream. Please don't worry about it,' she said quickly. She cupped his cheeks and pulled his face down so their noses touched. 'It was just a bad dream, okay? If you want I'll go to Ratchet and have the damned thing removed and then we can just —'

    'Yes, you will go to Ratchet — in the morning. I don't give a slag about what your mother or your stepfather have to say about it, either — you will not return home tonight, Alexis. I want to observe you sleeping and see if I can sense anything.'

    'Any ideas for how I can explain an overnight absence?'

    'You're a bright insect — think of something.' She rolled her eyes, ignoring the bug jibe. 'Now, this solid hologram is exhausting me.'

    Kissing her briefly on the lips, he dissolved into the night. His bipedal form reactivated with a blaze of electronic red.

    Alexis climbed up into his servo, suddenly exhausted. Starscream cradled her against his hot asbergo, feeling her soft caresses on his metallic frame. He would watch her through the night — and if anyone or anything disturbed their sleep, he planned to make them pay for it.

    Dearly.



    * * *



    Miles sighed deeply as he watched Mikaela Banes.

    After almost a year of knowing her, he still found it next to downright impossible not to stare at her toned stomach and long, slender legs. She hardly helped the matter, flaunting them in her tiny denim hot pants and little cropped t-shirt. He'd always felt bad for this quiet obsession — she was Sam's girl, after all — but Mikaela was so beautiful, so exotic, so utterly red-hot, that it would be a feat for any guy not to be turned on by her — especially when she was armed with a wrench and covered in engine oil.

    'So this wire goes here.'

    Ratchet, who was watching her closely, nodded.

    'You are a fast learner, Mikaela,' he said softly.

    Miles rolled a spliff, his grey eyes on the medic. For once, he didn't seem to be concentrating on his work. His optical ridges — eyebrows, keep it human, Miles — were knitted in a slight frown as he watched Mikaela repair one of Ironhide's detachable cannons. He might have asked what was wrong, but Ratchet gave him the skeevies.

    At his side, his guardian — Arcee, the only full-fledged femme — sat with her legs stretched out, having spent the last five hours in her terrestrial mode. She'd joined them once she'd finished up in Fresno. Miles checked his watch, catching sight of the dark sky through the cracked window. She'd have to take him home soon: the sun had long since disappeared, and his parents would have a fit if he wasn't through the door by midnight. Sam had returned to Tranquillity at sunset with Bumblebee, accompanied by Ironhide, who was bored of the base.

    Miles leaned close to his guardian and muttered:

    'Ratch' looks kinda agitated.'

    Arcee nodded, her optics on the medic.

    'He is in desperate need of a spark mate,' she said.

    Ew, what?

    'A mate,' he repeated. 'Can you sense that kind of thing?'

    'Not exactly, but I can see it in his optics.' She leaned in closer. 'Having a mate is not about copulation for us, but about ompanionship more than anything. I have Bumblebee, and without him I would feel incomplete — because he is my spark partner, my mate, and I am his.'

    'You make it sound kinda prophetic.'

    'Do you mean to ask me whether or not the spark knows its partner?' she inquired, and he nodded. 'The simple answer would be "yes", then. Think of it as your theory of "the one" in human culture — your idea that everyone has someone to whom they are perfectly matched.'

    'Like a soulmate.'

    'Precisely.'

    Miles scratched his head. 'I never believed in that crap.'

    'Yes — always the critic, my charge. But for us, it is unquestionably a reality. When we see "the one", as you might say, our spark will let us know. I felt it when I first met Bumblebee. I cannot describe it with words, but I can tell you that the experience is one that cannot be forgotten.'

    'Does it work the same with humans?'

    'It does. I have spoken with Skyfire regarding the matter, and he felt the same sensation with Jade. Hearts call to sparks, too, it seems. You must remember that love is the most powerful force in the universe — at least according to Optimus — and can overcome the boundaries of space and time, and even species.'

    'Does it happen, like, right away?'

    'The feeling?'

    'Yeah.' He lit the spliff. 'Does it happen right when you first see them?'

    'Sometimes, yes, but —'

    'Miles!' Ratchet barked, startling them both. 'Put that out. I will not have you inhaling illegal substances in my medbay.'

    Miles groaned. 'Dude, come on! It's practically legal.'

    'I do not care if it is as legal as bottled water — put it out, or I will put you out.'

    'I'm not a dog.'

    'Do I look as if I care, boy?'

    He sighed and flicked the spliff into a bucket of water. 'Fine, it's gone. Happy?'

    'Quite.'

    Ratchet turned back to his work. Mikaela bit back a smile before continuing.

    'You were saying?' Miles said, shooting the medic a resentful look.

    'You asked whether or not the sensation is instant,' Arcee recalled, and he nodded. 'When Bumblebee and I first met, we knew straight away, but Skyfire tells me that his spark only truly told him when he kissed Jade for the first time."

    'Huh, wish I'd get that feeling.'

    'Don't fear that solitude will be with you forever, Miles. That is how Ratchet feels, and he is wrong.' Miles lowered his eyes. 'Do you remember when we first met?' she added, hoping to lift his spirits. 'You were not this pessimistic then, young man. You were more interested in the colour of your motorcycle and keeping your friends than seeking out a female companion.'

    He grinned.

    Oh, yes. He remembered:



    * * *



    'Miles, what you're about to see is totally classified.'

    'Whatever, dude.'

    'Like, government-level classified.'

    'Your government-level shit does not impress me,' Miles said flatly. 'You can't ditch me twice and expect me to come running back, man.'



    'I've said I'm sorry.'

    'I was this close to joining DeMarco and his gang.'

    Sam grimaced. 'Like Trent would have let you join. Tranquillity Tigers rejected you twice.'

    'One less time than you've rejected me!'

    'I'm gonna make it up to you — and you'd better be grateful. I had to make some extremely long-winded phone calls to make this happen.'

    Sam walked to the two vehicles: his slick, "I'm compensating for something" Camaro and the fluorescent pink motorcycle parked beside it — Buell Firebolt, version 2006. Miles raised an eyebrow, and half-opened his mouth to say something about rubbing yet more salt into the open wound that was his existence —

    Then something weird happened.



    Both vehicles began to move. Parts shifted of their own accord, sliding across one another and realigning themselves into a new shape. The car and the bike rose up, and Miles stared in shock as legs, arms and heads began to develop. Lights flashed across the Camaro's newly sprung chest as it stood upright like a man on two massive legs, propped on two equally massive feet. In the newly configured face of this being, blue lights burned to life to study the human boy. Its hands found its way to its flanks, assessing the specimen as closely as it was being assessed.



    Beside the Camaro being, a much smaller creature stood where the motorcycle had been. Slighter and shorter, it had similar "eyes" and bore obvious resemblance to the motorcycle, with pink armour and wheel caps visible at the knees. Both of them had large feet and wing-like projections at the shoulder region.

    Sam grinned.

    'Miles — meet Arcee and Bumblebee.'

    Miles could only stare at the two giant robots.



    'Sammy, honey?'

    His frozen gaze flicked to the window of the kitchen, from which Judy Witwicky was hanging with a duster and a can of polish.

    'Oh, sweetie, you're introducing Miles to Arcee and Bumblebee? Did Mr Keller say you could do that?'

    'K-Keller,' Miles croaked. 'Sec Def?'

    'Sec Def,' Sam confirmed. 'Optimus said it was cool, Mom. And yes, Ratchet agrees too.'

    Judy beamed. 'Well, that's okay, then. Do you boys want anything to eat?'

    The Camaro knelt down in front of Miles, who staggered backward into Sam's arms.

    'I believe that Miles may need some sustenance, Judy, if that is convenient,' he called to the woman.



    Miles only quivered.

    'Back up, 'Bee,' Sam advised. 'You're scary up close, man.'

    The pink robot stepped forward.

    'Miles Lancaster,' it said, and he swallowed hard to stop himself from whimpering like a kicked dog. 'My name is Arcee, and this is my mate, Bumblebee. We are autonomous robotic organisms from the planet Cybertron, and we came to this planet searching for an ancient artefact called the All Spark.'

    Bumblebee nodded. 'Because we were forced to destroy it, we cannot return life to our planet, which was destroyed by an ancient war over the All Spark that we waged against the Decepticons, our sworn enemies.'

    'But here on Earth, our leader and three of my comrades — including Bumblebee — defeated their leader, Megatron,' Arcee continued. 'In fact, it was your friend Sam that actually drove the All Spark into Megatron's spark, overloading his systems and forcing him to permanently offline. After I landed several months later, we managed to defeat Thrust — the new leader — and his minions, with the help of a young lady named Alexis Paxton, who is in possession of a jewel infused with small but powerful fragments of the All Spark.'

    'Guys!' Sam interrupted. 'Going way too fast. There'll be time for all this later, okay?'

    'Apologies, Sam,' Bumblebee said. 'I understand this is very hard to take in, Miles, but we will not harm you.'

    Miles finally managed to form words:

    'S-so — you're like — aliens?'

    They nodded.

    'Oh my' — he gripped his hair, wide-eyed — 'this is a dream, definitely a dream. Sam, what the hell did you put in my soda?'



    "I assure you that we are not part of a hallucination or drug-induced fantasy, young man,' Arcee said.

    Sam patted his back.

    'Here's the deal,' he said. 'You forgive me for being a shitty friend, and you get to hang out with these guys. There's eight of them: Optimus Prime, Ratchet, Ironhide, Seraphim, Skyfire, Starscream, Arcee and Bumblebee. And there's a space in this little sci-fi club, if you'll just accept my apology.'

    Miles pulled a face.

    'Do I get a hot car?' he said at last.

    'Better. Arcee's volunteered to be your guardian, so you get a hot motorbike.'

    There was a long silence.

    'But — she's pink.'

    Sam buried his face in his palm.





    * * *



    'Earth to Miles.'

    Miles snapped out of his reverie.

    'Hey,' he said dumbly, coming face-to-face with Mikaela's cleavage.

    Arcee laughed. 'You're as bad as Skyfire sometimes.'

    He flushed six shades of red. 'Sorry. What's up?' he added limply to Mikaela, who raised an eyebrow.

    'We've gotta get back to Tranquillity. Your mom will flip if you're not home soon — and you know how Ratch' is with being in here after ten.'

    'Indeed. Be gone with you, child,' Ratchet said in a jocular tone.

    She stuck her tongue out at him.

    'Do you need a ride, Mikaela?' Arcee asked.

    'That'd be great, actually. Ratch' needs to tinker with that cannon for another ten hours. Front or back, Miles?'

    'What?' he blurted.

    'Do you want me to ride front or back?' she repeated, sounding each word out carefully.

    'Oh — oh, either's good for me. However you like to ride.'

    'Okay. Front then.'

    Arcee transformed into her terrestrial mode, and Mikaela swung a slim leg over the saddle.

    'See you tomorrow, Ratch',' she called to the medic. 'Don't work too hard.'

    'I never do.'

    Miles climbed onto the back of the motorcycle, only to find himself faced with the unsettling dilemma of what the hell to do with his hands. Mikaela's tiny waist was right between his knees. He nervously wrapped his arms around it and clasped his tobacco-stained fingers over her stomach, suddenly very conscious of his cigarette breath and his lank hair. He hated being put in this position — he couldn't help but enjoy rubbing skin with a girl as hot as Mikaela, but he was haunted by guilt. Sam and Mikaela were head-over-heels in love, and it wasn't like he had a chance with her, but it was nice just having her in his arms. Nice having someone, anyone in his arms.

    'Tranquillity, here we come,' Mikaela said. 'Pedal to the metal, Arcee.'

    'You got it.'



    * * *



    Note: For those of you who didn't catch the reference, the Hermès handbag is the one carried by Charlotte Mearing in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.





    *Chapter 3*: Roadkill


    III. Roadkill



    * * *



    The sky was cruel tonight.

    True, it was clear. There were stars. There was a full, swollen moon, bright and pale.

    Humans would no doubt have considered this night perfect; and not only the humans, but a certain old comrade of his who had hungered all his life for starlight. He couldn't blame Starscream for his obsession — he was a scientist in the Golden Age.

    He had floated past stars as a protoform in space. He had seen their true nature, their gaseous light — and their colours, of which there were many: red, blue, white and brown dwarfs, he'd seen them all a hundred times and more. He'd seen nebulae shaped like great pillars of smoke, scattered with stars; he had seen galaxies, little universes, swirled throughout the darkness of the cosmos; he had seen the Magellanic Clouds, and the stream of hydrogen that bridged them. He had seen wonders that human minds could not comprehend, and every astrosecond was locked away in his processor, ready to be opened and examined at his leisure. And all he could see from here were little specks of silver: meaningless, futile things.

    But something was wrong.

    It was too still.

    As he drove silently through the streets of Tranquillity — ironic name — he kept his headlights dipped. On occasion he'd been approached by humans, when they thought a crime was being committed, but he'd always reverse and drive away before they could get two words out. Fresno County Sheriff's Office had received many angry calls pertaining to the attitude of the officer driving vehicle number 355.

    The follow-ups, of course, led to nothing.

    True, he had developed an unhealthy respect for some humans, but the few he'd come across that deserved this esteem were very — well, few. He counted a mere eight of them out of several billion, and all of them lived in this one small town.

    He'd never stopped watching them.

    First — Samuel James Witwicky. The human that defeated Megatron surely deserved to be held in high esteem, fleshling or not. Standing up to a being of such frightening strength and malice — well. Need he explain the reasons for respecting the boy? He was a Decepticon and he spat on altruism, but he did admire courage. And the boy did not lack courage. Then there was that girl he'd tortured in the Sierra Nevada warehouse — Jade Rivers. He'd dangled her like a doll in front of Skyfire, threatened her, almost paralysed her — yet she'd refused to stop struggling, to stop fighting. Again, strangely admirable. Mikaela Banes, too. She was a feisty one, that was for sure — a reckless little femme, taking on Thunderblast alone, all for the sake of that idiot medic. What was the point of it all?

    Still, she was brave.

    If foolhardy.

    There had been four males, too. He was unaware of their designations, but they'd taken down Skywarp, master of disguise. And the pilots of those F-22 Raptors had managed to destroy Soundwave, a loyal disciple of Megatron.

    They had all shown exceptional courage in the line of duty, as police officers did. The police officers that he was supposed to represent, driving around in this highly recognisable, sleek, authoritative vehicle. Yet the words printed across his side proved otherwise: To Punish and Enslave. That had been his role; never to protect and serve.

    Yet now he had no idea what to do. Three years had passed. He had considered every possible option — searched every street, every corner for an answer — and here he was, still alone, patrolling the streets for no reason. Living with no purpose, no identity.

    That brought him to the last human:

    Alexis Paxton.

    Starscream had been without a place for his entire, miserable existence. Alone and vulnerable, he'd reluctantly turned to the Autobots, and subsequently betrayed them — yet after all the pain and the pressure, he'd come through the war fighting for Optimus Prime.

    And why was that?

    Why, because of Alexis Paxton. That was why Starscream was where he was now. She'd taken the king of the skies and reduced him to an Autobot — someone that could look at Optimus Prime and not want to stab him in the spark. Primus, he really was a filthy terran-taint.

    Barricade revved his engine, frightening a group of hooded youths. They'd been annoying him for some time, clustered in a corner, inhaling carcinogens through little rolls of paper. If they wanted to kill themselves, they could do it elsewhere. They shot him a dark look and walked away towards Tuttle Avenue.

    'Damn cops.'

    'Leave it, Trent —'

    'Damn, fuck cops.'

    They turned the corner. Barricade steamed in his own bitter air.

    He was alone — but he was used to it. Without a place — well, he would get used to it. It had been a mere three years since he had parted ways with everyone and everything, but what was that to a Decepticon? He would live for millennia yet. Three years was nothing.

    Nothing.

    But, still a surge of pain went through him.

    Who am I trying to fool?

    It was at times like this that he missed his partners. Frenzy and Bloodbringer had been irritating — unbearable — but they'd made him feel more complete than he'd ever felt before. He was missing something, still; a hole inside him that they'd temporarily removed.

    And now both of them were gone. Frenzy's body was likely somewhere in Hoover Dam, wired to a thousand machines, cut to pieces and dumped in test tubes full of acid — condemned to be a human experiment, nothing more. And Bloodbringer lay cold and still beneath the soil, in the shadow of a long-dead Colorado Pinyon at the lookout on the outskirts of Tranquillity. Only a stone tablet marked his final resting place.

    There was nothing — nobody — left.

    Even as he stewed in this thought, a human stepped out in front of him.

    Slag!

    He slammed on the brakes — they screamed — his wheels swung to the side — but he still hit it. He registered the cry, the sudden thump against his bumper. He stopped dead and flashed his headlights angrily, letting loose a piercing wail from his sirens.

    It was a female human, a young one. She lay on her side, visibly in pain.

    'You bloody idiot.'

    Her voice was angry, but strained. He revved his engine.

    You are the idiot, human.

    The human — the girl — huffed and stared up at him, clutching her injured hip. No doubt she was waiting for a police officer to step out of the vehicle and help her up. Well, not tonight. She'd picked the wrong car.

    She was the one that had stepped out right in front of him.

    'Officer' — she stood and brushed her coat — 'I don't want to be rude, but —'



    Her words died in her mouth.

    Barricade watched, perplexed, as her features contorted. With a soft gasp, she snatched up her handbag and clutched it to her chest, staring with wide eyes at the driver's seat. He spied copper-red hair, intense eyes, a full mouth.

    'What the hell,' she whispered, 'is this?'

    His armour seared with rage.

    What was wrong with this human?

    With a snarl of his engine, he drove around her and took off after the youths towards Tuttle Avenue, if only to escape her damning gaze. She stayed standing in the road, swaying, staring after him. It was as if she'd never seen a police car before.

    Pit-spawned fleshbags.

    He raged down Tuttle Avenue and headed west, intending to find some peace in the mountains. Only there could he transform and wander without fear of human retaliation. In his frustration he took a bend too quickly, and his tires slipped. He narrowly avoided hitting a small blue Vespa scooter as he went, causing the human riding it to shout at him heatedly, using a collection of colourful Spanish explicatives.

    It was only when he was passing the residence of Jade Rivers that he realised:

    He hadn't activated his holoform.

    Slag.



    * * *



    Jade opened her eyes.

    She'd heard something outside — the scream of brakes.

    Must be one of the jocks. Trent DeMarco and his gang had taken a real turn since they'd graduated. Bored of small-town life, they'd started smoking twice as much (and with twice as many substances), and they'd taken to roaming Tranquillity at night. She'd often hear them coming back from Fresno, where they'd go clubbing until all hours of the morning.

    The cicadas keened in the trees outside. She nestled back into the pillows and exhaled.

    Home, sweet home.

    It was unusual for her to have slept away from the foothills of Sierra Nevada. As far as her mother knew, she'd moved out with Mikaela just after graduation, and lived in a small apartment in Tarpey. Having quit her job at Mom's Drive-In, she was supposed to be taking a year out to work on her painting technique before heading to college at SFAI in the fall — which she fully intended to do, of course. It was just the part about the apartment that was a lie. She'd told her mother she'd gotten a new job, too, as a singer in a club called Kunoichi in central Fresno. Total lie, of course. She'd been to the club once or twice, spoken to its owner and some of the staff, but she wasn't the clubbing or drinking type — or the singing-to-anyone-but-Skyfire type.

    Still, she was home in Tranquillity for a few weeks. They'd had to keep away from the Autobot base: part of its structure was growing weak, and it looked like the whole place could collapse at any minute. Ratchet had insisted they all spend a few weeks at home while they repaired the roof — still weak after Starscream had crashed through it a few years beforehand — and contacted John Keller about getting a new one constructed.

    Her mother had been great — pleased to see her — but she was already getting a little tired of the patronising things she'd say. She'd forever make comments about her weight, about her style of dress, and about her behaviour in general. Thankfully her mother had gone to stay with Rad's mom, Linda White, in San Joaquin for a few days. So she had the little house in Tuttle Avenue to herself.

    Just as she was about to fall asleep again, she heard something: an engine.

    Seraphim?

    With a grumble, she swung her legs out of bed and stumbled in her pyjamas to the window. Sure enough, parked in her front yard was a little blue Vespa scooter. Seraphim transformed quietly and looked up at her with a distinctive silver grin.

    'Seraphim, what are you doing here?'

    'I need to talk to you.'

    'But it's' — she checked her watch — 'two-thirty in the morning.'

    'Psh, you're such a baby.'

    Seraphim sprang onto the wall and climbed the wild morning glory that grew up a white wooden lattice. Jade took a few steps back as the smallest Autobot ducked into her room through the window. She had to stoop to prevent her helm hitting the lamp. With a wary glance at the ceiling, she sat on the floor.

    'Hey.'

    Jade put her hands on her hips. 'Seraphim,' she said wearily, 'I am perfectly okay with you coming to my house at an hour that ordinary, sane people would come — kind of before eleven o'clock — but this is not a good time of the morning for me.'

    'Oh, puh-lease! You're such a wimp.'

    'I get tired!'

    'Well, this is an emegency. Chill out.'

    'You can't say "this is an emergency" and then tell me to chill out.'

    'I sure can.'

    Over the past three years, Seraphim had developed an oddly mixed accent — almost Southern, with a little twang of Mexican and a strong Californian overtone. Cybertronians generally seemed immune to the accents of their chosen homes, but Seraphim was Earth-born, and she seemed more susceptible to human influence. Not that it was a bad thing; she was certainly fun to hang out with. Almost human.

    Jade sat on her bed. 'Okay, fine — shoot.'

    'We got a guest first.'

    'What?'

    There was a soft knock on the door. Jade tensed.

    'Sera, this had better not be —'

    'Oh, relax.'

    Seraphim opened the door. In the doorway, almost as tall as her, was Skyfire's holoform. Jade gasped.

    'Skyfire!'

    He inclined his head. 'Good evening, my jewel. It has been too long.'

    Jade was off the bed and ushering him inside before anyone could bat an eyelid. She wrapped her arms around his waist, taking in his handsome face. As a holoform he was much taller than her — around six foot eight — but she liked it that way. It made her feel protected.

    'What are you doing here?' she asked, smiling.

    'I have come to speak to you.'

    'I figured.'

    He stroked her cheek. 'Are you enjoying your time at home?'

    'No,' she said heavily. 'I forgot how boring Tranquillity was. And' — she reached up and touched his face — 'I missed you.'

    'I have missed you, too. I should have come to see you sooner.'

    'It's cool. I know you're busy.'

    'Not too busy for you.'

    She blushed. 'That's sweet. Um — sit down, won't you?'

    'I may enter your room, then?'

    'You think I'd lock you out?'

    Seraphim groaned. 'Ya'll are too damn polite. Look, Skyfire, she's your girlfriend — doesn't that give you right of entry to her room at any hour of the day or night without her express permission?'

    Skyfire frowned. 'She is entitled to her privacy, Seraphim.'

    'Whatever. Prude,' she added.

    His frown deepened.

    'Primus — get a sense of humour, Mr Scientist.'

    'No.'

    'Fine.'

    Jade was an inch from stamping her foot. 'Would you two please stop bickering?' she asked tiredly. 'I appreciate you paying me an early morning visit — really — but I'd love to know why you're both here at this hour. You realise I've got another three hours of painting Starscream's armour tomorrow — or today, I should say,' she corrected, glancing at the clock. 'I love you both, but I need my beauty sleep.'

    Skyfire was suitably ashamed: 'My deepest apologies, Jade.'

    'I'm not mad at you,' she said quickly, hating the sad look on his face. 'Really, Sky', I don't mind — but I am pretty tired, and I'd just prefer it if you both got to the point. And Ratchet's going to kill you for using that,' she added.

    He looked down at his holoform.

    'True,' he admitted, 'but it is worth the risk to see you.'

    Jade turned red.

    Jade, stop blushing.

    Seraphim finally got to the point:

    'I just saw Barricade.'

    Jade looked up. 'Barricade?'

    'Yes,' Skyfire confirmed. 'I detected his energy signature as I was flying here. He has never strayed far from Tranquillity over these three years, you realise. I believe he is at a loss of what to do, now that all his comrades are gone.'

    'Why not join us?'

    Seraphim laughed. 'Barricade's pride won't let him stoop so low as to join the Autobots, from what I'm hearin' round here.' She turned her solar-blue gaze on the window. 'My signature was cloaked — he wouldn't have recognised me. Hell, I didn't even recognise him at first — I even swore at him when he cut me up. But — I kinda wish he'd stopped and realised it was me, you know?'

    'He'd only have caused trouble, Sera.'

    'I don't think so. I was real attached to him.'

    'So what do you want to do — convert him?'

    'Exactly.'

    Jade sank onto the bed beside the holoform. 'I guess we could try.'

    'Barricade would be a useful addition to the Autobots,' Skyfire admitted, 'and I must admit that being alone for three years must have been quite unbearable. Still, he did hurt Jade during the confrontation at the warehouse. He is unstable, at best; at worst, homicidal.'

    'I can make him see,' Seraphim said, 'but I — I'm kinda scared of him, too.'

    'I do not blame you.'

    'But I'll bet he's changed.'

    Skyfire heaved a sigh. 'You are still very young, Seraphim. I often forget that' — he ignored her bitter look — 'but you must realise that the rest of us have lived for millennia — in some cases, millions of years. Three years would be nothing to Barricade, and I doubt that they have changed him at all.' He paused. 'Then again, his behaviour was never particularly pleasant in the first place.'

    'He hated Thrust,' Jade said. 'He can't be all bad.'

    'All Decepticons are bad. They are born bad and will die bad — even those who control their malicious sides, like Starscream. I see what you mean, Jade — truly — but I fear Barricade's actions may have been based on a lust for power, as most killings between Decepticons are. Hating Thrust does not make him good. Remember that he was an exceptionally loyal disciple during the days of Megatron.'

    There was a short silence. Finally, Seraphim spoke:

    'You didn't come about Barricade.'

    Skyfire lowered his eyes.

    'No,' he said. 'I came to share my thoughts about Alexis.'

    'What about her?' Jade asked. 'Apart from the fact that she lives and breathes Starscream — she's okay, isn't she?'

    'I do not think so.'

    'She is looking thin, I guess — and she's always so deathly pale. It can't help that she spends every night with Starscream when she should be asleep . . . but I don't think it's the lack of sleep that's really getting to her, to be honest.'

    Seraphim sighed. 'Don't talk in riddles, Jade — you know I can't stand it when humans do that.'

    'Sorry, sorry. I just — I think it's something to do with that necklace she wears. You remember when she used it to suck the life out of Thrust and into Starscream, to heal his spark and stop him from dying? Surely having that much energy pass through you must have some kind of impact.'

    'Perhaps,' Skyfire said slowly, 'but I think that something graver is happening.'

    'Like what?'

    He looked at the window for a moment.

    'Jade,' he said, 'would you mind performing a small experiment for me — just for the sake of science?'

    'Sure.'

    'You have a pair of scissors on your nightstand. I would like you to make a small incision in my skin.'

    Jade gasped. 'No way! I'm not going to — '

    'I can assure you that in this form it will be completely painless, and there will be no blood.'

    'Why, then?'

    'Please. It will help me explain.'

    With a grimace, Jade reached over and grasped the scissors. She nervously rested the sharp edge of the blade against his arm.

    'You're certain it won't — '

    He suddenly moved his arm sharply to the right, causing the scissors to cut into his skin.

    'There,' he said.

    Jade stared down at his arm. A scrape was visible in the holographic illusion of skin. She could tell the cut was reasonably deep, but it looked terribly strange without any blood. It looked rather like someone had run a scalpel through dough or thick paint, causing a gouge. Then — right before her eyes — the wound slowly knitted itself back together. The mark disappeared, leaving no trace of the scissors.

    'This is how our exoskeletons work,' he explained. 'Obviously as the wound was so small, it healed rather quickly, but in reality, we do regenerate — only much more gradually. And this is just how the All Spark works.'

    Seraphim raised her optic ridges.

    'You're sayin' the All Spark is regenerating inside the necklace?'

    'Not in the sense of growing larger, you understand. The fragments embedded in the tironium would take millions of years to grow and fuse and become the size of the original All Spark. But I believe that they are getting stronger, growing in power by draining Alexis. Sustaining themselves, like leeches, on her life-blood. I am not sure what will happen' — he turned his gaze back to the window — 'but I know that Alexis must remove that necklace, and soon.'

    Jade bit her lip. 'She never takes it off.'

    'She must. All Spark is the most powerful artefact I have ever come across, and it will stop at nothing. It knows no boundaries, and has no emotion with which it can reason against harming another to heal itself.'

    The doorbell rang.

    Jade almost jumped out of her skin.

    'That must be my mom,' she said, surprised.

    Skyfire shook his head. 'I would recognise her heat signature. This one is unfamiliar.'

    'Huh. That's weird.'

    Seraphim stood. 'Want me to come down with ya?'

    Jade eyed the dark staircase.

    'Actually,' she said, 'that'd be great.'

    Two shafts of light beamed from Seraphim's optics. They outlined the shape of a tall, curvy woman in her early twenties. She was sheet-pale, with a jet-black pixie cut and the same brilliantly blue eyes as the other Autobot holoforms. She wore casual clothes: a t-shirt, loose pants and sneakers, all in the same cool colour scheme as her bipedal robot form. Around her neck, she wore dog tags inscribed with her designation. She winked.

    'Let's roll out.'

    Jade smiled. 'You've been spending way too much time with Optimus.'

    'He is pretty badass.'

    'True.'

    Skyfire kept an eye on the door. 'I will wait here.'

    The two of them went through the bedroom door, out onto the soft brown carpet. Silver moonlight cut through the windows, casting deep shadows on the crevices of the stairs. Slowly, the two of them ascended to the dark hallway. Jack, her mother's beloved white Shih Tzu, had woken up; he was snuffling around near the door, too scared to go near it. He looked up at Jade with a grumpy expression, looking remarkably like a little old man.

    'Shoo,' Jade said firmly.

    Jack shuffled away.

    Jeez, I wish we could get a cat.

    Jade squinted through the peephole, but all she could see was a streetlight.

    'It's too dark,' she whispered.

    'You're not scared, are you?'

    'Shh! You know I'm scared of the dark.'

    Seraphim grinned and twisted the deadbolt.

    Jade quickly switched the porch light on. On the steps outside stood a tall, slim girl with thick, dark auburn hair. She was pale as lilies, but her high cheekbones were dusted with patrician colour, and her lips were touched with gloss. She assessed at them both with cool blue eyes.

    'Hello,' Jade said, wary.

    'Hi. Are you Jade Rivers?'

    'That's me.'

    'Who are you?' Seraphim asked.

    'Rose Connelly.'

    The name took a while to register. Jade looked at her again, frowning; trying her utmost to place the oval face, the mile-long legs, and the strongly English accent. She'd never met anyone from England in her life.

    Rose looked at her with raised eyebrows.

    'I think you know my stepsister,' she said.

    'Oh, Rose!' Jade realised. 'Of course — you just moved in with Alexis, right?'

    'Yes.'

    'Wow. Well, um — welcome to California.'

    'Thanks. I've been living in Fresno for a while, actually.'

    'Oh, sweet.'

    'Mm-hm. Anyway, I'm really sorry to disturb you at this time of the night' — Rose glanced over her shoulder at the moon — 'but I was wondering if Alexis if was here. She didn't come home last night and her mum really isn't happy about it. They're worried she might have been attacked on the way home.'

    Oh, shit.

    Seraphim took the lead: 'How long has she been missing for?'

    'Well, she was in a bit of a huff after the meal we had. I don't think she liked me very much,' Rose said, almost cheerfully, but the dry humour soon vanished. 'Anyway, I went to her room at twelve and she was there — gave me a good mouthful of abuse, too — and ten minutes later she wasn't. Her door was locked and she wasn't answering, so Dad had to pick the lock. I searched the house and the garden with my dad and Jasmine, but we can't find her anywhere. Jasmine asked if I would go and see if she was round at any of her friends' houses.'

    Jade swallowed, hard.

    Crap, crap.

    'I'm really sorry,' she said, 'but she's not here.'

    Rose was persistent: 'Do you know who else she's friends with?'

    'Um — Mikaela Banes.'

    'Where does she live?'

    'Oh, you don't want to see her. She lives ten miles from here.'

    'I have a car.'

    'Her dad might get mad if someone calls at this hour.'

    'I'll risk it.'

    'Um, okay.' Her throat was dry. 'Well, she lives in Helm. It's a community just south of Kerman. If you take the Colorado Road through San Joaquin, past the lookout with the dead tree, and then turn right, you'll be there. Mikaela's place is down West Kamm Avenue. You'll see an old Pontiac Firebird and possibly two big trucks outside. I really don't think Alexis will be there,' she stressed, but Rose was already extracting her car keys.

    'Thanks, Jade.'

    She smiled weakly. 'You're welcome.'

    'Sorry again for disturbing you,' Rose said sincerely. 'Goodnight.'

    'Night.'

    They watched her disappear into the darkness. The streetlights caught her body as she walked.

    Jade closed the door.

    'Well,' she said, 'that went just great.'

    The holoform sighed and vanished.

    Jade rushed back up the stairs, her feet moving faster than her brain could catch up with. 'I have to warn Mikaela,' she said, bursting through the door and searching through her drawers for her cell phone. 'Crap, crap, I am such an idiot!'

    Skyfire gently took her elbow. 'Jade, please —'

    'Starscream's gonna kill me!'

    'I will not allow —'

    'Ohmygod, where the hell is my cell?'

    'Jade,' Seraphim said sharply, 'focus.'

    'Okay, right. Focus, focus.'

    She sat down on the bed, sweating. Seraphim nodded.

    'Good. I'll call Mikaela, okay?'

    'Okay.'

    Seraphim shuttered her optics, forming a connection with Mikaela's old CCD. 'You should get some sleep, Jade,' she said as the phone began to ring in through her central processor, unheard by human ears. 'You look tired, girl.'

    She stopped abruptly.

    Mikaela must have picked up. As she thought it, Jade dimly registered Skyfire pacing to and fro across the room. His humanised face was dark with concentration; he looked as exhausted as she felt. She wasn't as close to Alexis as Mikaela was, but she was still one of her closest friends — you could hardly help it when you had a group of giant alien robots to bond over — and she worried about what would happen when Rose found her missing from Mikaela's home in Helm — plus Cal Banes probably would kick up hell when he found an English redhead on his doorstep at three in the morning. Alexis was going to be in big, big trouble when she got home from the Rainbow Falls. Would she finally tell her mother about her giant alien secret; her HAL-9000 Romeo?

    The lights in the room suddenly snapped out. Skyfire gently guided her down, covered her with the duvet.

    'You must recharge, Jade.'

    'Okay,' she murmured.

    'Will you be all right?'

    'So long as you make sure I have an anti-Starscream shield by tomorrow.'

    Skyfire chuckled.

    Jade closed her eyes and snuggled into the pillows, trying to shake the thought of Starscream. He was going to be mad, but technically this wasn't her fault — he and Alexis should have been more careful, period.

    Denial.

    Skyfire's cool hand stroked her hair back. He watched as she slowly drifted off.

    Seraphim spoke:

    /Mikaela knows about Rose, but she can't think of many excuses./

    /Can you?/

    /Negative./

    Skyfire glanced at Jade. She was almost asleep.

    /Seraphim, do you not think that this is getting out of hand?/

    /How?/

    He tugged his holographic fingers through Jade's hair.

    /Three years of peace, and now all this is happening. Alexis evidently becoming sick. Starscream's exposure becoming imminent. Ratchet desperate for a mate, and Barricade appearing nearby once again, not to mention the arrival of Alexis's stepsister, who I fear will end up being involved in all this somehow./ He paused when Jade sighed in her sleep. /Something is about to happen, my friend./

    /You're imagining things. I can't sense anything strange./

    /As I said previously — with no disrespect intended — you are only young. Living for millions of years often causes you to develop . . . well, intuition. The "sixth sense", as the humans call it. Ratchet knows the feeling./

    /Primus, you talk a lot of slag./

    She stood — only to whack her helm on the ceiling.

    /Ow!/

    Skyfire smiled slightly as the femme stooped and rubbed her helm, visibly irritated. He liked Seraphim — she was plucky and mischievous, and very likable despite their frequent disagreements. She was a wonderful companion for Jade when he was not around, and he was grateful for her kindness and friendship to her.

    /Mind your helm./

    Rolling her optics, she ducked down and moved towards the window.

    /Tell me now, why don't ya?/

    /Ha. Are you leaving?/

    /Yes, sir — and so should you. That gal is dog-tired./

    /True./

    He leaned down and kissed the warm cheek. Jade looked so vulnerable when she slept.

    His CPU told him the holomatter generator had worn itself out. The human manifestation began to fade, becoming part of the air — invisible and cold. With one last look at Jade's sleeping form, Skyfire nodded to Seraphim and vanished.





    *Chapter 4*: Rebel


    IV. Rebel



    * * *



    She reached out in her sleep.

    It had to be a nightmare. She remembered falling asleep with Starscream at the Rainbow Falls.

    Slowly, like a reanimated body, she became aware of herself. She ran her hands down her sides, tracing her invisible frame. Frosty breath tickled her neck — and she flinched, frightened, searching for the spectre.

    The movement grounded her. Her legs hit solid ground, and the iron grip around her torso relaxed.

    'Starscream,' she said.

    He is not here.

    Scrambling backwards, she looked around for the owner of the voice. It was cool, impassive, genderless.

    'Who are you?' she whispered. 'Where — where's Starscream?'

    Hysteria was creeping into her voice. She wanted these questions answered, and she wanted them answered now. Starscream had once said that fear was the enemy, but she'd have to fraternise with that enemy for the moment — what choice did she have but to be afraid, when she was blind and vulnerable in a world without a name, watched by a ghost in a blind netherworld?

    It was a few seconds before the reply came:

    I am the beginning and the end.

    'Where's my necklace?'

    The necklace that you claim as yours is not yours to claim. I am the creator and the life; I am the power and the decider of fates. I am what decided that you should fall in love with a Decepticon, and I am the glow in the optic crystals of the Cybertronian race. I am energon and fuel, life-blood, water. You just so happen to be in possession of that which I am trapped within — you are my captor, and have tried to be my commander.

    'All Spark,' she croaked, remembering the voice from her previous nightmares. 'Please — I — I didn't mean to imprison you. It wasn't me, I just —'

    I know no mercy.

    She felt the hands around her again. A cold palm clamped over her lips, cut off her scream. Her struggles ended in an agony akin to swords slicing across her chest. Her heart was thumping against her ears, and her blood was running cold.

    'No!' she screamed.

    The stiffness of her lips and torso spread to every other part of her body, immobilising every limb, every vital organ. Her heartbeat slowed and her head spun. The thump of her life was fading.

    'Starscream!'

    The word barely escaped her as she froze.

    He cannot reach you in my world. You have played God, as you might call it — but I am not God.

    'No — please—'

    I am All Spark. Something is coming.

    'No!'

    Something is coming. Coming for you —

    That was when she lashed out.

    'Starscream!'

    She woke up, still screaming, still shoving at the hands that tried to still her. Arms wrapped around her torso, locking her into place — still holding her, still sucking the life from her body — and she lashed out with her fists, gasping.

    'Star — Starscream —'

    There was a grunt of exertion as she was shoved downward and pinned against the ground. She struggled wildly, kicking out with her legs and twisting her wrists in an effort to escape. She registered somebody's knees on either side of her thighs, a heavy body over hers.

    'Alexis, what on Cybertron is the matter?' Starscream's holoform shouted angrily.

    She focused, slowly.

    'Star',' she breathed.

    'What happened? You were sleeping perfectly peacefully and then — this.'

    Panting, she gripped his shirt. 'Oh — oh, Starscream — I was s-so scared,' she heaved, feeling him stiffen slightly in surprise. 'I — I th-thought it was going to — to k-k-kill me —' She tightened her arms around him, holding him as close to her as she could.

    He hauled her up onto his lap and kissed her roughly on the mouth.

    'What was going to kill you?' he demanded, kissing her again when she choked out another sob. 'Alexis, what was going to kill you? Nothing can hurt you now — I will not allow anyone to come near you —'

    'B-but you couldn't get to me there!'

    'Where?'

    'In the place — and it said —'

    'I can get to you anywhere!' Starscream said hotly. 'You were in my arms, Alexis — you did not go anywhere, and if you did I would be at your side in mere seconds! You were experiencing a nightmare —'

    'It wasn't just a nightmare!' she burst out. 'It's the All Spark — it wants me, it wants to kill me!'

    He stared at her.

    Breathing heavily, she wrapped a hand around the ice-cold gem. It felt like having a knife on her back, having this thing hung around her neck. All she wanted was to get rid of it: it was like a leech, feeding on her fear, on her anger.

    Starscream cupped her face in his large, pale hands.

    'Alexis,' he said, 'please speak rationally to me. Tell me what happened.'

    Alexis trembled in his arms.

    'I — it was d-dark,' she managed, her voice quaking. He slid his hands down to her waist. 'And — and the All Spark t-told me — said I claimed it as mine when it wasn't — mine — a-and then it said that it was the one that d-decided that I should fall in love with you —'

    'Lies,' he hissed.

    'B-but then' — she shuddered — 'it said that it wanted t-to consume me or something — and it tried to kill me, Starscream, it suffocated me! And it s-said something was coming again! What does it mean?'

    She gave him a look that conveyed pure desperation

    Rage was tightening every muscle in the holographic image, causing his true form to stiffen, even in holo-stasis. So the All Spark was speaking to Alexis from the necklace — telling her that it controlled love as well as life. He'd never heard anything so ridiculous, apart from some of Megatron's battle strategies — which, predictably, had all ended in Autobot victories on Cybertron.

    His fingers stroked across her hips.

    'I do not know,' he said, 'but we will go to Ratchet and have it removed.'

    She slumped in his arms.

    'Yes,' she said weakly, 'Ratchet will take it off.'

    'Nothing will hurt you,' he murmured. 'Not while I stand. Remember?'

    Of course she remembered. However could she forget sitting with the others in the dark of the warehouse as they awaited the attack that they knew was coming — waited like sitting ducks, knowing that Thrust and his minions were already on their way?

    'Yes,' she breathed.

    The sounds he made were so beautiful to her. She didn't understand their language — had no hope of learning it — but she could determine what they meant from the key and volume of the notes.

    'Alexis!'

    Flinching at the shout of the name, she shifted in his arms and looked out at the falls. It was Jade, picking her way across the water. She was accompanied by Mikaela, whose hair was thrown back in a chaotic bun. Starscream stared at them darkly. Jade stopped dead when she saw his hard look, as did Mikaela, but only the latter looked shocked.

    'Sorry to bother you,' Jade said, 'but Alexis, you are in such deep trouble.'

    'What?'

    'Your stepsister,' Mikaela said, by way of explanation. 'She was looking for you last night, and came to both our houses.'

    Starscream stared at them.

    'You mean to say' — he stood — 'that between the two of you, you could not think of one excuse for her absence?'

    'We weren't prepared, okay?' Jade snapped. 'You've always been careful — we weren't expecting Rose to turn up on the doorstep and ask to know where Alexis was. Don't you dare start blaming this on us, Starscream — if anything, it's your damn fault for being so careless.' She took a deep breath, then desisted: 'Okay, that was harsh — but don't be mad at us, okay? We have to think of what to do.'

    'Insolent little—' Starscream snarled.

    Alexis touched his arm. 'Star', please.'

    'Fine.'

    The holoform vanished. His true form stood up and tightened the fists on the ends of his lengthy arms. He narrowed his optics at Jade, who was at the front. Alexis shook her head at him, but Mikaela spoke up:

    'Rose came to my place at half twelve,' she reported. 'I tried saying that Alexis was asleep upstairs — it was all I could think of — but she insisted on seeing her. I looked like an idiot, and had to say that I remembered she'd left earlier and I didn't know where.'

    'I see,' he said coldly. 'And you?'

    Jade sighed. 'She came to my place before that. Seraphim used her hologram to come down to the door with me, and she asked to know if Alexis was staying over. Apparently her mom was really upset. I knew she'd want to take her home straightaway so I said no — but Alexis, you're going to need to think of a hell of a good excuse. Robert isn't going to be a happy bunny.'

    Alexis had turned — if possible — even whiter than usual.

    'Mom must think I've been kidnapped,' she said wearily.

    'I will fly you home,' Starscream told her, giving the others a nasty look. 'We will think of something.'

    'Okay, but it had better be good.'



    * * *



    Rose Connelly took another sip of water.

    'Oh God — oh, God.'

    'Jasmine, darling —'

    'Where could she be, Robert?'

    'She's just gone out for a while. She'll be back.'

    She sniffed, wrung her hands.

    'I already lost Adam,' she said, in a small voice. 'I can't lose Alexis.'

    Rose was expressionless.

    Jasmine Elizabeth Paxton was a strange little woman, a part-time receptionist at a small hospital in Fresno. Her father had been treated there after sustaining a gunshot wound in the line of duty, again. She stood at five feet and four inches in sandals. Her accent was slow and soft, that of deep rural Vermont; her movements were the same, almost ethereal. You could tell she was from the green mountain state. She could sound almost English when she said words like "cow". She would wander like a lost child around the little two-up, two-down house in the sleepy neighbourhood of Tranquillity, tidying, cleaning, pottering in and out of the kitchen. On occasion she would knit; on occasion she would read. She reminded Rose of an angel in the house, air of Thomasin Yeobright.

    As usual, her father was on the case.

    'Please don't worry so much, Jas.' He wrapped an arm around her waspy waist. 'She'll be fine. You know how teenagers are sometimes. Rose went through a phase of rebellion when she was about fourteen — didn't you, darling?'

    Rose sipped her water.

    'Mm.'

    'There, you see?'

    'But Rose is streetwise,' Jasmine said weakly.

    'Well, this place is called Tranquillity. There's no need to be streetwise.'

    He doesn't mean that.

    She would have pondered further on the matter — observed the gradual jellification of her father's "daughter desiteratum" in the presence of this dainty woman (streetwise, sensible, polite, good grades etc.) — but Rose was still sore over the first remark. Of course she'd gone through a "phase of rebellion" when she was younger — thirteen, not fourteen, she thought, a tad bitterly. When her parents had divorced, she'd been furious with everyone and everything — her parents more than anything else — and had taken to spending most of her time with her friends or on the London Underground, frequently eating and sleeping on the streets or hanging around in the dark under bus shelters. Sometimes she'd just taken the train to any distant place — anywhere to get away from home. Her mother had wanted to take her to the south of England, but Rose was a Londoner by nature. She was born and bred in the city, and the idea of living in a picture-perfect cottage in Cornwall was a close approximation to her idea of damnation.

    So here she was in America, in the aptly named Tranquillity — possibly the most banal town in the historty of the world. Nonetheless, she loved her father, and Jasmine was shaping up to be a decent stepmother.

    Jasmine sighed heavily. 'Robert, we have to find her.'

    'We will, darling.'

    'She's pissing me off,' Rose said crudely. 'It's so selfish of her to do this.'

    Robert nodded. 'Ought to be grounded.'

    Jasmine looked up, her olive eyes wide.

    'Grounded,' she repeated. 'I can't — I can't ground her, Robert. She goes out with her friends so much, and I can't stop her from that. She never used to have any friends, and stopping her — well, I just don't think I could do it, really. Do you?'

    Rose recognised this: the classic picture of an over-protective mother. It was rather how she and her father had been with each other during the initial days of their living together alone — not wanting to offend each other and unfamiliar with the one-to-one way of living, they had let each other do as they pleased, and Rose had been able to get away with virtually anything — hence her regular Underground excursions.

    Now things were different. Both of them had realised how important they were to each other, and they both reacted with concern — our plain anger — if one did something dangerous. She swore she spent half her life complaining about her father's collection of bullet wounds, and in return, she was often grounded if she breached her curfew — even by five minutes.

    It's the hard knock life.

    But she knew why. Losing each other would mean the end of the life they'd built up for themselves — the wall that they'd rebuilt from the shattered bricks of her parents' failed marriage. The wall they were just about holding together, trying to start afresh here in the States.

    She became aware of the conversation again:

    'You really should, Jasmine,' Robert said. 'It's the only way she'll learn.'

    Jasmine stared at the window.

    'Maybe,' she said softly. 'But I — wait, that's — Alexis!'

    Rose almost dropped her glass in surprise as Jasmine dashed to the door. Next thing she knew, she was watching the hysterical woman hugging Alexis as she stumbled through the door of the front room, looking tired and fretful.

    'Mom — Mom, I'm sorry —'

    'I was so worried about you!' Jasmine said angrily, shaking her. 'Don't you dare wander off like that again, Alexis Jane Paxton! I thought — I thought — oh, God, I don't know what I thought —'

    'I'm okay, Mom.'

    Robert stepped forward then. His hard, ice-blue chips of eyes fell on Alexis.

    'Alexis' — Rose recognised his bad-cop interrogation voice — 'your mother's been extremely worried about you. It was highly irresponsible of you to do that without letting us know. I hope you have a good excuse, young lady.'

    Alexis tensed. 'I'm nineteen, Robert. I can go out if I want.'

    'Don't back-chat me.'

    'I'm not.'

    'Well, it sounds like it to me.'

    Rose caught the girl's eye as she looked across the room. In a normal situation she would have sympathised — she knew very well what it was like to be on the receiving end of a Robert Connelly late-night lecture — but in this case, she didn't blame him.

    'Dad's right' — Alexis to give her a filthy look — 'but you ought to have a chance to explain.'

    'I just went for a walk, to think — is that illegal?'

    'You went out for a walk all night,' Robert said, eyebrows raised.

    'Yes,' she said. 'I didn't want to disturb you guys, so I just climbed out onto the roof and down to the driveway — it's not that difficult, and I've done it for years. I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but I didn't expect you to look.'

    'Rubbish.'

    'It's true, Mom!'

    Jasmine closed her eyes. 'Go to your room, Alexis.'

    'What?'

    'I said go to your damn room. You're grounded for two weeks — no arguments,' she added curtly when Alexis gasped, clearly shocked. 'Just go, okay? You're meant to be reading for college, and I need a moment to — to calm myself down. You don't know what a state I've been in.'

    Alexis turned red to the roots of her hair.

    'You can't ground me,' she burst out. 'I'm an adult!'

    Rose softened. 'Dad, maybe you should —'

    'No.' Jasmine pointed at the door. 'Go to your room, Alexis. Right now.'

    Alexis stared at them all — then, with a scream of frustration, she stormed out of the living room.

    Jasmine sank into the nearest armchair.

    'I think I need a drink,' she said softly. 'Rose, there's some wine in the fridge — would you?'

    'Red or white?'

    'She'll need a good strong red, Rose,' Robert said. 'Just relax, Jas.'

    'She'll be all right,' Rose added.

    Jasmine hung her head.

    'I guess.'

    'That's the spirit.' Robert squeezed her shoulders. 'What are you doing for dinner tonight, Rose?'

    Rose opened the refridgerator.

    'Spaghetti,' she said.

    'Excellent.' Robert accepted the glass of Pinot Noir, then looked down at his fiancé. 'Jasmine, come on. Just have a drink and forget about Alexis for a while. After two weeks of not seeing her friends, she'll think twice about pulling a stunt like that again. I'm sure she'll be fine once she's thought about what she's done, and —'

    'It's not as easy as that, Robert. She's been acting strangely for the past three years.'

    'Oh?'

    Jasmine rubbed her forehead. 'She used to be so — I don't know, focused, and organised. Sensible. Even after Adam died, she was okay — she was still doing well at school and seemed fine, if a little upset, as she had every right to be. But suddenly… she changed. She never seems to be quite there — her head's always in the clouds, and her GPA wasn't as good as I expected. She was set to do much better.'

    'Does she have a boyfriend?'

    The reaction was instant and explosive:

    'No! What? Alexis has never been into — boys.' Jasmine shuddered, as if the word was cold and wet. 'She would never have had a boyfriend without telling me, especially for three years.' She folded her arms tightly, wide-eyed at the prospect. 'Maybe it's just to do with making friends. She never had friends before — perhaps it's normal. I — I just don't know her anymore. And it hurts.'

    There was another long silence, in which Jasmine took her wine back and took several deep gulps of the alcohol. Rose gave her father the facial version of a shrug before looking up at the ceiling.

    'I'm going up,' she said. 'I need to do some work.'

    'Okay. G'night, darling.'

    'Goodnight.'



    * * *



    With the All Spark gone, we cannot return life to our planet. And fate has yielded its reward: a new world to call home. We live among its people now, hiding in plain sight, but watching over them in secret — waiting, protecting. I have witnessed their capacity for courage, and though we are worlds apart . . . like us, there's more to them than meets the eye. I am Optimus Prime, and I send this message to any surviving Autobots taking refuge among the stars.

    A deep, unearthly rumble erupted from the depths of the dark, spherical shape that was one of the moons of Cybertron.

    We are here.

    We are waiting.

    A dark silver, flaming chrysalis struck the moon's surface with explosive force at that moment. A hideous screeching sound erupted from within as it skidded wildly across the terrain, sparking and smoking and leaving behind a trail of blue flame.

    It slammed into a ridge in the landscape and was thrown up into the air, spinning over and over before it landed again with an ear-splitting metallic thud. If there had been organic life, or any whisper of soil or sand, then the pod would surely have torn a path through it and killed any plants that grew there, but there was nothing.

    This place was desolate to the beholder.

    Yet so much more than meets the eye.

    With one last creak, the metal cocoon finally came to rest on its side. Within moments, it was unfolding; limb-like appendages extended, reaching out brittle fingers to scrape at the granite-hard ground beneath it with a sound like fingernails on a blackboard. It clawed itself into a standing position and staggered slightly before it opened its cat-like, violet optics and stared at the view of Cybertron from the surface of the moon that was suspended over it like a puppet.

    'Home,' it said.

    The planet was not as it had been in the Golden Age. Where multicoloured lights had once shone from every energon mine in the days when the planet had been rich in fuel, there were now dormant crevices and dull, lifeless rocks. The great buildings were shattered and demolished, lying in pieces upon the embers that still glowed from the remnants of the war that they had fought there. His home was the last reminder of what war could truly do — and, evil as he was, he could not help but feel somewhat disheartened by it.

    The ground trembled suddenly beneath the creature's feet and it snarled, crouching slightly when the rumble shook rock and dust free from the moon's surface. Long, vine-like tentacles swept up from the terrain, where they had lain dormant and invisible to the naked eye, and seized the protoform in an unforgiving grasp that would have asphyxiated any organic being.

    Squealing like a wounded piglet, the creature fell limp in the embrace.

    'My Lord, I return!' it squawked. 'Wait!'

    There was stillness for a moment — an unnatural silence that the suspected might be, to coin a human phrase, the "calm before the storm". But its fears came to nothing when it heard its name for the first time in years — a name that it had almost forgotten as it drifted through space on its way back to the planet that it had left thousands of years beforehand:

    'Sideways.'

    'Yes, yes! Please, Lord — let me down —'

    'I think not.' The metallic vines contracted about his torso. 'First you will tell me why Optimus Prime is still alive.'

    'Through no fault of mine!' he objected. 'Thrust and his soldiers were badly organised and had too many grudges to settle — not to mention that fool of a Seeker —'

    'You speak of Starscream.'

    'Yes, my Lord. How is it that you know of Starscream's betrayal?'

    'I am all-knowing and all-powerful, Sideways.'

    He bowed his head in a gesture of humility.

    'Yes, my Lord,' he agreed. 'My deepest apologies for any insinuation that I may have made —'

    'You are forgiven.'

    'Thank you, my Lord — you are merciful and powerful indeed.' The tentacles dropped him. 'Thank you.'

    Small talk was irking the soul of the moon: 'See to it that you keep to your place, Sideways. Starscream made the mistake of not knowing his, and he will pay for it — along with the little human he harbours such appalling affections for. He is pathetic and arrogant, and the death that is coming to him will be his comeuppance for it. He challenged Megatron, and he will want to challenge me. And I will show him that I will not tolerate insolence.'

    'Quite rightly so, my Lord —'

    'Relay the co-ordinates of this planet that Optimus Prime now calls home. The data in his message was disrupted somewhat, and that information was lost.'

    For a minute or so, there was a silence as the data was transferred from Sideways to the mysterious entity. Then a cruel, dark chuckling rumbled throughout the moon.

    'I have consumed planets a thousand times the size of this Earth — but the images you have given me suggest to me that it is rich in fuel.' Sideways babbled out an enthusiastic agreement. 'It will be thoroughly entertaining to watch the Autobots organise some form of rebellion against me before I bring them to their doom. Sideways, prepare yourself for hyperspace; we leave at once.'

    Being an ordinarily programmed Cybertronian, Sideways did not have the ability to enter hyperspace freely, and was intensely grateful for his leader's ability to do so. Allowing the feelers to hold him for the sake of safety, he found a nasty grin spreading across his unarmoured face as the moon began to shudder alarmingly beneath him, preparing for the leap across the universe to where Earth lay unsuspecting, far away in the Milky Way.

    They are so gloriously unaware.

    As the stars turned to darts of silver and Cybertron blurred, Sideways cackled. The entire moon pulled away from the gravitational pull of Cybertron, tearing free of its orbit and beginning the month-long journey that it was about to embark upon.

    'All hail mighty Unicron!' he screamed.

    Yes, mighty indeed.





    *Chapter 5*: Rose


    V. Rose



    * * *



    Alexis glared out the window at the yard.

    Grounded!

    How could her mother have agreed to that, let alone been the one to enforce it? How could she have sided with Robert? He wasn't even her father! The two of them were supposed to stick together — they'd had always sworn to put each other first after her father had been killed — and now this had happened.

    So much for mother-daughter bonding.

    Okay, so she'd neglected her mom over the last three years. It was true. She was so wildly in love with Starscream, and so caught up in life with the other Autobots and their allies in the Sierra Nevada foothills, that she'd become let everything else go. Life with aliens was demanding. When she did return to the quiet streets of Tranquillity, it was usually in Mikaela's car or in Ironhide, just to see her mom for a few hours. Technically she was still living at home — she'd been planning to "move out" with Jade and Mikaela to their imaginary apartment in Tarpey — but Jasmine wasn't ready to let her go yet. So while Cal Banes and Christine Rivers were satisfied, thinking that their daughters had moved away and taken up respectable work in the city, Alexis was still sneaking around, trying not to draw attention to her long absences, meeting up with Starscream at night.

    She dropped onto her bed.

    I hate Robert.

    Before she'd fallen down the ridge and gained herself an open fracture, she'd been an ordinary person — Plain Jane, the Invisible Woman. And her mother had liked that about her — although she was distressed by her lack of friends, she'd been glad that she wasn't always out partying and drinking like other teenage girls, and concentrating on her studies instead.

    The idea of her having a boyfriend would have worried Jasmine then, and it would worry her now. Especially if she discovered the rather disturbing and often frightening facts about him, like (a) he was giant, (b) he was an alien and (c) he was a robot, and (d) he was a giant alien robot, and (e) he was a bad giant alien robot and (f) he'd killed her father, and oh, the list could go on and on and on.

    Alexis looked up at the window sill, at the picture framed there.

    'I miss you, Dad,' she said softly.

    Adam J. Paxton stood in his military uniform, grinning at her. Behind him was his beloved F-22 Raptor.

    Captain Adam John Paxton, originally stationed at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, crashed in central Mission City on that day. His autopsy suggested that he suffered greatly before he died . . . His jet was set on fire when another aircraft collided with it, and it would have taken almost a minute for his Raptor to collide with the ground and end his life. Do you know who was piloting the jet that caused your father to crash, Alexis?

    Alexis squeezed her eyes closed.

    Thrust was gone. She had to forget those words — but there they were, burned into her brain.

    Would her father have forgiven her, she wondered, for falling for his killer?

    She opened her eyes, stared at the ceiling. An odd silence rang in her head after the question, but if she listened hard, she could hear Robert taking to her mother. The words "problem child" and "confused" and "counsellor" cropped up at least three times each in the minute or two that she listened. She didn't need to see a counsellor! Okay, so the warehouse confrontation had shaken her, but she could deal with it — besides, Robert didn't know a thing about her secret double life.

    Dammit, she wanted to leave the nest.

    She wanted to fly.

    Around her neck, the tironium necklace was a dark, heavy, alien presence. She ran a finger over it.

    Starscream.

    A dart shot up her legs, through her chest, and butterflies swarmed in her stomach. She'd always been uneasy around men, awkward when she spoke to them. Jasmine had wrapped her in cotton wool, stopped her from seeing boys from a young age. To her they were strange and loud and illogical; plus she was dull and plain and quiet. They'd shown as much interest in her as she had in them: zero. But then Starscream — the most unlikely person in the universe — had fallen out of nowhere and snatched her up, claimed her for his own. Made her into someone beautiful, someone special.

    The sound of a jet roared overhead. Her sharp eyes spotted the F-22 Raptor — it reflected the evening sun like a mirror. She watched as it dropped into the trees clustered near Fairless Avenue.

    Waiting for her.

    She almost reached under her bed for her CCD, to call and tell him she couldn't come. It was stupid to try it again. Disappearing for so much time would drive her mother over the edge, and Robert and Rose would give her hell for it. She hated the way they acted as if they were already a part of their family, like they knew her mother better than she did — but she was beginning not to care what any of them thought. Robert had humiliated her, and now, so had her mother. Rose had stood up for her a bit, but not much. Not enough for her to want to stay here, in this house.

    Starscream made her want to stay. Every time she visited the base, she wanted to stay — and every time Ironhide had to drive her home, she hated it. She hated watching Mikaela, Jade and Sam stay, while she had to return to Tranquillity to check in every few days.

    She wasn't a child.

    I'll show them.

    Leaving her cell phone on her desk, she laced her sneakers and opened the window. She slid her leg out, easing herself out onto the garage roof, and gripped the drainpipe. Her fingers slipped on the smooth surface, and her eyes widened when her foot scraped down the wall with a loud crunch. She fought to keep her grip on the piping, but her hands failed her. With a short gasp of shock, she fell ten feet from the roof and hit the driveway.

    She staggered to her feet and glanced over her shoulder. The garage door was closed, the curtains drawn. When no-one emerged, she clutched her twisted wrist and made a break for the trees.



    * * *



    Rose looked up when she heard sounds on the roof.

    She'd been working on her car — a cherry-red Mazda RX-8, lovingly christened Thorn — for nearly an hour. Her college prep had been boring — books she'd already covered at A-Level in London — and she'd soon lost interest in reading Jane Eyre for the seventh time. There were only so many times you could be charmed by Fitzwilliam Darcy, and the history books all looked about as interesting as a lecture on theoretical politics. Besides, ever since driving to Helm, her car had been spluttering and coughing like an invalid, and she thought she might try her hand at repairing it before she had to fork out four hundred dollars in repairs. She was going to struggle paying for her tutorial fees at Cornell as it was.

    But she was sure she'd just heard footsteps above her.

    Closing the hood of the car, she looked out of the garage window.

    No way.

    Alexis was running from the driveway.

    Rose watched as she ran across Fairless Avenue and into the trees. She wasn't about to report the breach of the rules to her father or to Jasmine — she wasn't a snitch — but she did love a mystery. And she was very, very curious about Alexis and her need to leave the house so much.

    She quickly changed into a clean blouse and put her father's tools back in their box. Her hair needed a wash, but she could shower when she got back to the house. She may not have been reporting to the parents, but she was going to find out what Alexis Paxton was up to if it was the last thing she did.

    Her father was still in the living room when she returned.

    'Dad, I'm just going to the library.'

    He looked at the clock. 'Bit late, isn't it?'

    'Mrs Krick needs some paperwork delivered — my visa, that sort of thing.'

    'All right. Make sure you're home —'

    '— before dark. I know.'

    'That's my girl.'

    She forced a smile.

    It wasn't a bad cover story. She did have a part-time in Tranquillity Branch Library. Mrs Krick, the librarian, was a stern old thing, but she'd been very kind. Aside from that job, she did occasional paper rounds around Tranquillity, tossing the Fresno Bee at people's doors from her old bike, and sometimes worked at the local car wash, rinsing people's vehicles for a few dollars — any work she could pick up to pay for her college fees and keep her baby full of gas. Money was money, after all.

    'Alexis is asleep,' she said. 'Don't disturb her, okay?'

    'Oh, I won't.'

    'She's not a bad girl, Dad.'

    'No, but she does have a boyfriend. Mark my words' — he sipped his tea — 'she'll have some punk knocking on her door soon enough.'

    'Will you have your shotgun ready, like you did with Craig?'

    'What?'

    She was out of the door before he could reply.

    Her father could be a tad overprotective.

    The late afternoon air was reasonably warm; but then, it always seemed to be warm in California, the sunny state. It certainly made a change from London. Her eyes moved to where she'd seen Alexis disappearing to: the trees beyond Fairless Avenue, and the wide open fields beyond that. She unlatched the gate and slipped through, closing it quietly behind her. Then she broke into a jog towards the trees, wondering to herself why Alexis had felt such a strong need to go there.

    Perhaps it was just a way to escape. Nature did hold a certain beauty, a relaxing quality.

    And she did feel sorry for Alexis, in many ways. Her dad had told her briefly about Alexis' father, Ajay. Apparently he'd been a pilot in the US Air Force — a very good one — and had been involved in some sort of terrorist attack on Mission City, in Nevada. He'd been killed when his plane had crashed into a skyscraper. It had happened when Alexis was only sixteen years old: a year before Rose had come to America.

    Sixteen.

    She couldn't imagine losing a parent at that age.

    When she came to the thick trunks of the trees, she walked slowly through their trunks. These trees were like a barrier between Fairless Avenue and the open fields that led to the ranches out of town; there were only so many places Alexis could be hiding.

    She heard voices straightaway:

    'I hate him!'

    Alexis.

    'He — he just steps in and acts — like he's Dad, or something!'

    There was a deep growl.

    'It is appalling that your mother agreed to such a degrading punishment.'

    'I know!'

    Rose stayed very still. That voice — that male voice — was worrying. True, it proved her father's theory that Alexis wasn't single, but there were a multitude of other things she was more worried about. The man sounded at least thirty from the tenor of his voice, and it was incredibly loud. That growl had shaken the ground.

    'I will not be apart from you for a fortnight,' he hissed.

    And possessive.

    'But what do I do, Starscream?'

    Rose frowned.

    Was that a name, or had she misheard?

    'Wait.'

    There was silence, broken only by the trill of the cicadas.

    'What's wrong?' Alexis asked.

    There was a thud that shook the ground.

    'Starscream, what's the matter? Don't be all mysterious, I'm not in the —'

    'I sense another human nearby.'

    There were two separate trains of thought running through Rose's mind when she heard this: first, that Alexis had definitely referred to the person as "Starscream" — she hadn't misheard twice — which sounded distinctly like an Internet username of some sort. This was only backing up her theory that he was a sleazy pervert Alexis had met in a chat room and, like an idiot, had agreed to meet up with.

    Second: that Starscream had said something about "another human" being nearby.

    Should she come out, or wait to be found?

    Thud.

    'Where?' Alexis sounded worried, and closer. 'Starscream, you'd better get out of here. What'll you do if someone sees you? Let's just go to the base and we can talk to Ratchet about the neck —'

    A grim chuckle suddenly came from above Rose.

    'It's all right, Alexis' — two red eyes burned into hers — 'I found them first.'

    Rose stared.

    It took her brain around five seconds to fully register what her eyes were telling her was there. Five seconds to realise what she was looking at, and what had happened. Five seconds of utter silence as she locked eyes with the monster above her.

    Then she screamed.

    She scrambled to her feet, intending to make a break for the house — but a massive hand slammed into her. Long, dextrous fingers snatched her body up and crushed her tight against a metallic palm. Before she knew it she was being held twenty-five feet above the ground.

    'Oh my — oh —'

    The fist twisted, bringing her face-to-face with her captor.

    'Rose Connelly.'

    Rose stared, trembling. 'I — I don't —'

    'Don't know who I am?'

    'Starscream, no!' Alexis shouted. 'Don't kill her!'

    The robot — at least, what seemed to be a robot — decided to ignored her.

    'I have wanted to speak with you for a while now, Miss Connelly.' Its tone was quietly murderous, and its gaze bored into hers like a drill. 'It has come to my attention that you have mistreated my charge.'

    Rose stared at the monster.

    'M-mistreated what? I d-don't — what are you —?'

    'Someone that you have angered' — he squeezed her — 'intensely.'

    Alexis smacked its foot.

    'Starscream, put her down,' she ordered. 'You're going to suffocate her — she's going blue, for the love of God. Just drop her and we'll have to explain ourselves before she goes running back to my mother!'

    There was a long, tense silence. Then the monster shrugged — and dropped her.

    'Oops.'

    Rose hit the ground with a painful thud. Gasping, she scrambled away from the machine.

    'Alexis, what the hell is this?'

    'Rose, it's okay!'

    'How is this in any way "okay"?'

    'He's not going to hurt you, I promise. Just try and calm down —'

    'What the hell is that thing?'

    'Rose —'

    'Don't you "Rose" me!'

    Starscream slammed a fist down on the ground. 'I will take great pleasure in tearing your throat out,' he threatened, 'if you do not stop that audio-receptor-destroying screaming immediately!'

    Rose swallowed, hard.

    Alexis took her by the shoulders. 'Rose,' she said firmly, 'I need you to listen to me. This is a long story, but I swear that he won't hurt you. His bark is a hell of a lot worse than his bite — yes, Starscream,' she added to the robot. 'You're soft at heart.'

    'Spark,' he corrected. 'And no, I am not. I am altogether rather hard at spark.'

    'Look, she's already terrified —'

    'Good.'

    She sighed.

    Rose, long past the point of caring about this, was on the verge of fainting.

    'Think — I'm going to' — she clutched her stomach — 'be sick.'

    'Put your head between your knees.'

    She obeyed.

    Alexis ran her hand through her hair. 'Well,' she said, 'we're screwed now.'

    'We will have to take her to the base,' Starscream said grudgingly.

    'Yeah — the last thing we need is for my mom to know. Ratchet can probably calm this one down better than I can, in any case.' She gently placed a hand on Rose's trembling shoulder. 'We'll stay here for a while. I'll call someone to pick us up — you can't fit two into your cockpit.'

    'I wouldn't let her in my cockpit.'

    'Good. I'll call Ironhide.'

    Starscream looked at her long and hard before he nodded stiffly and folded his legs in a seated position.

    'I will wait with you.'

    He folded his massive arms. Alexis nodded — then swore under her breath.

    'I left my cell at the house. Rose, do you have yours?'

    'What?'

    'Do you have your cell?'

    Rose's clouded mind took a moment to translate "cell" into the British equivalent of "mobile phone". Once the thought had been processed, struggling past the dark image of this giant robot killing her, she reached into her skinny-fit jeans and threw a small Samsung at her stepsister.

    'Here.'

    Alexis nodded. 'Thanks. Just relax, okay?'

    Without waiting for a reply, she tapped in the secret numerical code that would allow her to access Ironhide's radio link.

    /Ironhide./

    'Hey — it's Alexis. We've got a problem.'



    * * *



    'Aw, come on!'

    Mikaela grinned at Sam, who looked scandalised.

    'You are such a sore loser, Sam Witwicky.' She held up the winning card, bearing the image of a shiny red apple, and jiggled it about. 'Take it like a man, will you? What kind of self-respecting male would cry over a little game of Snap?'

    'Me, dammit!'

    'Wimp.'

    'You love it.'

    'You're so arrogant.'

    He cocked an eyebrow. 'You love that, too.'

    'Sure.'

    Miles dealt the cards a long, hard look. His chin-length hair, bleached to a stark bone-white by the Californian sun, was free of its beanie hat for once, revealing the wrinkled expanse of his forehead. He stubbed out his self-rolled cigarette — a habit he'd picked up from Carlos, and one that had earned him the dark optic of disapproval from Ratchet — and his wide, soft mouth turned down at the corners.

    'Sam,' he said, 'this is pitiful, man. We can't lose to a team of girls.'

    Carlos scowled. 'I'm not a girl, rubio!'

    'I'd never have guessed.'

    'That a challenge?'

    'Maybe,' Miles said brazenly.

    'Huh, whatever — you Americans are too slow for Snap.'

    Jade laughed from the recliner. 'You're outnumbered by Americans here, Carlos — watch your back.'

    'I'm not scared of Americans! I took down Skywarp.'

    'True.'

    It was late evening now, and the sun had scattered warm gold over the foothills of the mountains. Now, in summer, the slopes were blanketed with tiny purple flowers, and the sky outside was absolutely clear, beaming light into the hub of the warehouse: the only room that had been deemed safe enough for the humans to visit, given the state of the roof in the others. While their organic companions played card games on a set of beaten-up couches, Bumblebee and Skyfire were monitoring a large computer screen: the basic, skeletal design of what might, in a decade or two, become Teletraan II. At the moment they simply referred to it as the System. Two large blue blurs were visible on the black background of the screen, covering several rings of lime green that spread out like ripples across the monitor. These, Optimus had informed them, were two more Autobots — two more Autobots that Ratchet, for one, had not been overly amused to see.

    'Where's Rad?' Miles asked, shuffling the cards.

    Jade reached for her glass of orange juice. 'He's gone to check out Harvard with his parents before he accepts the application. He'll be away for a couple of weeks — they want to stick around the coast over there for a while, too. You were with Mikaela and Arcee at the base when he said goodbye.'

    'Damn. I'll miss that guy.'

    'I miss him already — but you know, it'll be great for us if he goes there.'

    Miles frowned. 'Why?'

    'It is Ivy League.'

    'Yeah, but why is it good for us?'

    'Well, he wants to train to be the official lawyer for the Autobots — you know, to mediate between the government and Optimus, try and get our views out there. Some of the guys at the White House are downright pigheaded. Keller is a busy man, and he needs to be pushed to listen sometimes. Considering the state of this base' — she dealt the patched-up ceiling a weary look — 'I say we're going to need a damn good lawyer, and an Ivy League student like Rad would be perfect.'

    'I guess.'

    Mikaela smiled at the three Autobots. 'How're Sunstreaker and Sideswipe doing, guys? You must be so excited.'

    Ratchet made a sound that closely resembled a grunt of pain. It came from where he was repairing one of Optimus' removable weapons — the sword that killed Bonecrusher, Bumblebee had once confided to Sam and Mikaela — and he received several looks of surprise for it.

    'Excited,' he repeated, frigidly.

    'Sure. You haven't had any newcomers since Arcee, right?'

    'I do not have to be excited.'

    'You don't like them?'

    He snorted. 'Mikaela, if you knew what these two imbeciles were like —'

    'I like them,' Bumblebee said.

    Ratchet gave him a hard look. 'That is because you share a common trait, Bumblebee.'

    'We do?'

    'Yes — you're a half-clocked imbecile, too.'

    Bumblebee flipped him the bird.

    'According to my calculations, based on the co-ordinates we have, they are likely to land in the state of Colorado in two or three days,' Skyfire said, addressing the room in general. 'Ratchet does not really hate the twins, but they do delight in infuriating him.'

    Sam grinned. 'Why do I get the feeling I'm going to absolutely love these guys?'

    Ratchet let out a dismissive Cybertronian tone.

    Miles, tired of the game, threw down his cards. 'Damn, I'm starved. Sam — come get some pizza with me, man. We'll bring some back for you guys,' he added to the other three, before the two boys got up and headed towards the small refrigerator that had been installed for the humans in the kitchen unit.

    'Ah, cold pizza and flat soda.' Carlos smiled. 'Perfect day.'

    Jade smiled sweetly back.

    Skyfire had not missed the pointed smile; it seemed designed to annoy him. His lower mandible relaxed when Jade turned to face him on the couch.

    'Aren't you bored yet, Skyfire?'

    'No, my dear. Observation is my speciality,' he said. 'Who won your game?'

    'We did.' She called over the sound of Miles and Sam's complaints: 'It was best of twenty, guys — we just won it!'

    'I am sure that Sam and Miles will accept defeat once they have satisfied their hunger,' he chuckled. Sam slumped back onto the couch without a word and crammed a cold slice of margherita into his mouth, chewing the cud of his loss. 'And if you are not too tired tonight, Jade — would you care to go for a ride?'

    Sam wolf-whistled, earning himself a slap from Mikaela.

    Skyfire kept his gaze on his spark partner, not allowing it to slip to where Carlos had slumped back on the couch. True, it was primarily jealousy that had compelled him to ask in front of the others; and yes, it had been immature. Usually he would have snatched her up later on, whisked her away for a night among the stars, but Carlos — his bold wink, his easy grin — had shaken him a little. The boy had been getting more and more audacious in recent weeks, and he wanted to make the point very clear to him that Jade was his territory. He was more than aware of how pathetic it was — how possessive — but he could not help himself. She was his spark partner; having her even look at another male was painful, even if he tolerated it. Besides, the two of them had not flown for several days, and he wanted nothing more than to return to the sky with her.

    Jade, oblivious to these thoughts, smiled.

    'Sure.'

    Skyfire smiled back, dealing Carlos a look that had just the slightest hint of a challenge behind it. Carlos leaned back on the couch, returning the hard look for a moment before turning his head away to pick up a slice of Hawaiian pizza.

    'Have fun,' he said, noncommittally.

    'We will.'

    'Good. Good for you.'

    Ironhide suddenly slammed into the room, closely pursued by Optimus Prime. All eyes turned to them.

    'Is something wrong?' Bumblebee asked.

    Optimus turned to the humans and the three other Autobots in the room, his expression grave.

    'I'm afraid there has been a complication.'

    'I really hate it when you say that, Optimus,' Mikaela sighed. 'What's up?'

    They all turned to Ironhide, who clenched his lower mandible.

    'The stepsister,' he said. 'She knows.'





    *Chapter 6*: Run


    VI. Run



    * * *



    Mikaela glanced at her boyfriend from the other side of the medium-duty pickup truck that was Ironhide's chosen terrestrial form. The weapons specialist was going at a daring eighty-five according to the speed dial, and from Sam's expression, it didn't look like he was enjoying the ride.

    'You okay?' she whispered.

    'Yep.'

    'You look a little sick.'

    'I'm good.'

    Sam might have fought it out in Bumblebee when they'd raced against Barricade through the streets of Tranquillity, but Ironhide was driving like the hounds of hell were snapping at his tailpipe. At least, Mikaela supposed, they were out of the rock-strewn foothills now. That had been worse than a rollercoaster. She grabbed a handgrip as Ironhide hit a bump, causing a Sam — who'd turned a little green around the gills — to roll down the window and hang his head out like a sick dog. Mikaela rubbed his back.

    'What's the hurry, Ironhide?'

    'Alexis needs help,' he barked.

    'I know, but they're not going anywhere. Could you slow down a little?'

    'Hm. Fine.'

    The needle drifted back towards sixty.

    Mikaela felt a spark of pity for the old warrior. He seemed to have a grudging sort of affection for Alexis, and given her regular trysts with Starscream, she hadn't spent much time with him of late. But then, she hadn't spent much time with anyone at all. She'd applied to a few colleges, but had admitted to Mikaela she wasn't particularly keen on going. Still, she was lucky. Her guardian took the form of one of the most powerful jets in existence — and, being an alien, he was highly modified to increase his speed twofold. It would take Starscream perhaps an hour to fly from California to North Carolina. She could see him every day if she wanted. Ironhide, fast as he was, simply wouldn't be able to see her that often.

    'So now her stepsister knows about you guys,' Sam stated, visibly relieved by the speed change. 'So not counting parents and the men in black, that's me, Mikaela, Miles, Rad, Carlos, Jade, Alexis and her that know now.' He paused, doing the mental arithmetic. 'Eight.

    Ironhide swerved into Fairless Avenue. 'A good six too many.'

    'I wasn't even meant to be involved,' Mikaela admitted. 'I was prying.'

    'Whilst that is true, Mikaela, we would most likely be one scout down without your involvement in the battle at Mission City — and probably a much-needed medic, too, after the siege of the base. You have brought many valuable qualities to the team. I am glad that you . . . pried.'

    'Same here,' Sam said.

    Mikaela smiled. 'Thanks, guys.' She patted the dash. 'I'm really glad I did, too.'

    Ironhide grunted.

    Not the emotional sort, Mikaela thought. Still, Ironhide was a sweetheart — sometimes.

    The truck came to a grinding halt near the two-up, two-down house where Alexis lived. A few yards behind them, Optimus braked and dimmed his lights. The two humans disembarked and stepped onto the sidewalk, watching the two mechs transform in the empty street.

    'Ironhide, can you sense any humans?' Optimus asked.

    'None awake.'

    'Good. Sam, Mikaela — up you get.'

    'Don't crush any fountains,' Sam warned.

    'I will endeavour to preserve your decorative architecture, Sam.'

    Ironhide wasted no time on small talk — instead he marched towards the trees, cannons out, optics hard. Optimus shook his head and lowered a servo for the two humans. The two of them grasped each other's hands for support as the massive mech stepped into the gloom.

    They soon found what they were looking for. The first sign of a sentient presence was a faint scream — Ironhide must have made himself known to Rose. Optimus let a small puff of air out of his vents, one that the two humans likened to a frustrated sigh, before he broke into what could only be equated to a jog. He pushed some torso-sized branches out of the way before squeezing his flanks between two trunks and delicately stepping into a small, moonlit clearing. Optimus and the Autobots didn't exactly have a great track record when it came to being incognito — Ron Witwicky's garden had proven it — but he managed not to completely destroy the trees, instead scraping several layers of bark from their trunks. Pine needles rained down and clung to Mikaela's hair as she leaned forward, squinting through the gloom, and made out the bizarre scene.

    'It's going to kill me! Get it away from —'

    'Silence, insect!' Starscream roared.

    Optimus cut in: 'Starscream, stand down!'

    He looked up and sneered at his commander.

    'Prime,' he barked, 'this human is —'

    'I said stand down.'

    Mikaela looked past the mech, down to where Alexis was crouched on the ground with another human, a redhead. She tapped Optimus's thumb, and he lowered the two of them to the ground before turning his optics back to Starscream, who was visibly seething, wings stiff and optics blazing.

    Alexis waved them over. Mikaela was first to reach her.

    'You okay, Alexis?'

    'I'm fine.'

    'Cool. Hey, Rose.'

    The girl looked up at the sound of her name. Mikaela found herself looking at a pair of large, cool eyes — cool in colour, not in temperament: a cold Atlantic blue. At present, however, they were glazed with hot fear. Long, dark auburn hair framed a soft, oval face, pale in the half-light.

    'What are you doing here?' she asked faintly.

    Her voice was hoarse, with an English accent. Sam knelt at her side.

    'Hey,' he said gently. 'I'm Sam Witwicky. Can you hear me okay?'

    'Yes.'

    'How do you feel?'

    'Like shit,' she said numbly.

    'I hear you.'

    Ironhide, in the meantime, had shoved his plasma cannon into Starscream's face.

    'What happened?' he demanded, making no effort to lower his booming voice. 'Prime specifically ordered us to practice caution when moving in populated areas, Starscream! What possessed you to be so slaggin' careless? What are you, half-clocked?'

    Optimus waved a hand. 'Stand down, Ironhide. I'm sure there's an explanation.'

    'Let's hear it, then.'

    'So you shall, you 'bot fraggin' son of a Cessna,' Starscream bit out.

    'Out with it, you great kite!'

    'I am not a kite, you fat —'

    'Starscream,' Optimus said wearily.

    'Fine. It was not due to any neglect or inattention on my part that Miss Connelly' — Starscream dealt the girl an absolutely poisonous look — 'is now aware of our existence. It was due to her disgusting, pigheaded determination to pry in matters that are none of her concern.'

    Mikaela frowned. 'Take it easy, Starscream. She was probably just —'

    '— being a busybody.'

    'No, but —'

    '— being an interfering little slag-for-brains?'

    'No, damn it! I mean —'

    'You mean what, Banes?'

    'Oh, forget it.' She looked back at the object of his abuse. 'How are you holding up, Rose?'

    Rose shook her head, eyes closed.

    'You're a figment of my imagination,' she said simply. 'I've inhaled too much engine oil.'

    'I think she's going into shock,' Alexis amended, eyebrow raised. 'She's cold.'

    'Maybe. Sam, grab the First Aid kit and get that space blanket.' Mikaela grasped the pale hands. 'Are you warm enough, Rose?'

    'You're not real.'

    'Honey, they're aliens.'

    Rose gave her a flat look. 'That doesn't make me feel any better.'

    'Sorry, it's all I got.'

    'Great.'

    Starscream suddenly launched back into English: 'No,' he snapped at the two Autobots, glaring between the commander and the weapons specialist. 'That will not work. She could still divulge the information to her ridiculous father. We should use a mind probe to remove the memory from —'

    Ironhide's reaction was explosive: 'We do not use Soundwave's tactics, Decepticon!'

    There was a short, uncomfortable silence.

    Alexis bit her lip and looked up at Starscream, who had flinched just slightly at the word. Ironhide saw her expression and clenched his lower mandible. He muttered a grudging apology before he turned away from them all and took up a self-protective stance, arms folded across his wide asbergo.

    Optimus deemed it best to intervene at this point: 'I understand your reasoning, Starscream,' he said, 'but you must understand that the mind probe used by Soundwave is by no means a simple or painless operation. In fact, it would be excruciating for a human, and would last for a very long time. It would also cause irrevocable damage to Rose's nervous system.'

    'Good!'

    'Starscream!'

    Rose simply covered her ears, eyes on the stars.

    'So you would bring her back with us,' Starscream stated angrily. 'And how exactly will you explain that to her father?'

    'We will find a way around it. In the meantime, she should remain with us so we can monitor her condition, and explain to her what is happening. She must be feeling very confused at the moment.' He looked down at Rose, and she returned his gaze with rapt fear. 'Ironhide, take her with you — and Mikaela, stay with her. Alexis and Sam can come with me.'

    'Alexis is coming with me,' Starscream snarled.

    'If that is her choice.'

    Alexis stood up. 'Okay. Sam, can you lift her?'

    Sam scooped one arm around Rose's torso and slung her legs over the other. 'Yeah — she's not heavy. Ironhide, you wanna transform so I can get her in there? Then Mikaela can ride with her and make sure she doesn't like, pass out or throw up or something.'

    Ironhide silently folded down into his terrestrial mode, still fuming over the mind probe remark. The passenger-side door swung open, and Sam made his way over. Mikaela kept a sharp eye on him, intrigued. She couldn't help but wonder whether Sam had finally developed bigger arm muscles — he looked too slight to be able to lift a girl as tall as Rose, but he had been training with Ironhide for about two years, plus pumping iron at Bally Total Fitness in Fresno (a hobby for which he was relentlessly teased by Miles). Maybe he'd gotten some tight abs of his own.

    Maybe she should check.

    Sam — unaware of her hungry gaze — carefully propped Rose in the passenger's seat.

    'Watch it, boy,' Ironhide growled. 'I am not just a vehicle that you dump passengers in at random.'

    'Sorry, man.' Sam lifted her legs onto the dash and wrapped the space blanket around her. 'It's kinda easy to forget when you're a truck. Just don't drive like that drunk-ass Trent on the way home, okay? We've gotta make sure she gets back to the base.'

    'Fine.'

    Sam hopped out of the Topkick and almost crashed into Mikaela, who gave him a distinctly sultry smile.

    'Whoa, sorry,' he said. 'You're riding with 'Hide, right?'

    'Yeah — keep the radio connection open so I can keep you updated on her, okay?' She kissed his cheek. 'See you back at the base, Sam.' With a gentle touch to his waist, she moved past him and climbed up into the black truck, leaving Sam with pink cheeks and a stammer.

    Optimus opened his door. 'Sam, please hurry.'

    Sam snapped out of his momentary trance — a trance in which he realised, yet again, what an exotic Tequila Sunrise of a woman his girlfriend really was — and climbed up into the interior of the flamed Peterbilt. He quickly fastened his seatbelt and rolled down one of the windows to wave at Alexis, who was settled in Starscream's cockpit. She wore a pinched expression, but she managed to crack a smile and wave back. Starscream gunned his jets and took off like a flame, out of their visual range in seconds.

    He leaned right out of the window as Optimus rolled out, reached out to touch Mikaela's fingertips from where she was leaning out of Ironhide's window. The two vehicles pulled close together. Then Optimus roared ahead of the Topkick and back onto the road towards Sierra Nevada.



    * * *



    High in the sky above Santa Monica, Skyfire was honouring his promise to Jade with a night flight over the whole of California. The great wings of the Spirit of Cybertron moved in total silence, cloaking their movements in absolute secrecy. The sun had sunk low over the beachfront city, and flecks of vermillion flickered over the tubular waves.

    Despite the fact that there was a minor security crisis at the base — the discovery of the Autobots by Rose Connelly — he'd felt he should still take Jade for her ride nonetheless. He had promised her, and he doubted it would help the young newcomer if she saw a robot that was a good fifteen feet taller than Optimus Prime. She would be frightened enough already, especially given the fact that her first encounter with their species had been with the hot-tempered Starscream.

    So here they were, on top of the world — in a world of their own, beyond everything. Nonetheless, he kept the radio connection with Optimus and Ratchet open: Optimus would be able to update him on what was happening with the girl, as he'd been part of the team that had gone to collect her, whilst Ratchet would let him know if anything happened back at the base.

    'The views on your planet are truly spectacular, Jade,' he remarked. 'You must be proud to be one of its natives.'

    'I never really thought about it — but yeah, I guess I am. Although,' she added with a note of envy, 'I'll bet the views on Earth are nothing like the ones on Cybertron.'

    One of the things she loved about Skyfire was that he made her think about things from different perspectives. He planted thoughts in her mind that would never have occurred had he not been there to make her think outside the box. He had a way with words that delighted her, and she loved these flights that they took alone, when she could listen to his voice and talk to him about everything and anything in the world that took her fancy.

    'They are different,' he said, 'but yours are no less impressive.'

    'Good. I'd hate to think that you were missing anything by staying here.'

    'Missing anything?' He banked to the left and began his full circle route over Fresno County again. 'Jade, you should never even think such a thing. This planet has been more of a home to me than Cybertron ever was, because it is where you are. And wherever you are is where I want to be.'

    Jade smiled, twirling a braided lock of her hair. 'Same here. You're my home now.' She turned her big, dark eyes on the blue VDU. 'Hey, Skyfire — you promised me when we flew over Alaska a few days ago that you'd let me pilot you the next time we flew, didn't you?'

    'I did, yes.'

    'Can I take you up on that?'

    Skyfire paused. 'Now?'

    'Sure. Why not?'

    'I am not sure it would be a good idea. My controls are not entirely stable, and —'

    'So if I lose control, you can just take over again.'

    He supposed that she was right on that matter, and could think of no further arguments to put forward. Flying a Spirit bomber was something that required a great deal of training, but she knew the controls off by heart and would be able to locate everything that she needed in the cockpit. And if she did make a mistake, he could just resume command, as she had pointed out. And he had promised.

    'Very well. Take the controls, then.'

    "You trust me, right?" she asked, obeying.

    'With everything, my jewel.'

    Jade nodded and took the controls, feeling the aircraft grow somehow lighter as he passed her full control. He was right about it being difficult: the Spirit was an enormous aircraft, and she could feel the weight and pressure as she steeled herself, her knuckles white around the controls. 'Can I try doing a barrel roll, or something?' she asked.

    He hesitated.

    Then she did that face — that maddening expression she pulled when she wanted something. He had no idea how she managed to mould her features into such a devestatingly tragic arrangement, but he'd heard Sam referring to it despairingly as the "puppy dog eyes", a facial expression showing credulous or unsophisticated innocence or naivety that supposedly (if distantly) resembled that of a small canine. Jade was something of an expert in the puppy dog eyes. Her eyes were huge and brown, framed by sooty lashes, and she had the uncanny ability to make them brim with tears at the snap of her fingers. And here she was, gazing at the VDU with that face.

    'All right,' he sighed.

    She rewarded him with a big smile. 'Thank you, Sky'.'

    'Mm.'

    When he put forward no further argument, she moved the plane to the right, and kept turning until they were flying at an angle. Jade almost tipped out of her seat with the change in direction, and was thankful for the harness keeping her in place.

    Skyfire encouraged her gently from the speakers: 'That's it, Jade. Keep turning — you will not do any harm.'

    'You sure?'

    'Absolutely.'

    She clenched her jaw and continued to turn, pushing the aircraft further and further until they were flying completely upside-down. Her hair hung towards the ceiling, and the blood swelled into her head. 'Wow, this is freaky,' she exclaimed. 'I freakin' love it!'

    'Really?' he said doubtfully, adjusting his vision.

    'Yes!'

    There was a colossal pull as his tipped sharply upwards again — he was helping her to return to their original position. 'Brace yourself, Jade,' he warned before the bomber rolled over completely, sending them back into an upright position. 'Very well done, my dear.'

    'That was amazing,' she said breathlessly, visibly energised. 'I want to be a pilot, seriously.'

    'There is no reason why you shouldn't be,' he pointed out, pleased by her enjoyment of piloting him. He hoped that he knew that she had control of his spark as well as the way he flew. 'With time and training, I believe that you would make an excellent addition to the United States Air Force. But what of your artistic pursuits?'

    'I'm going to go for the art as a career, I think. But I can always pilot you for fun.' She suddenly clapped a hand to her forehead. 'Oh, mother damn — I forgot I was meant to paint Starscream's new insignia today. But I guess he got distracted, anyway.'

    Skyfire chuckled. 'Yes. I cannot imagine him being too happy with Miss Connelly joining the team.'

    'I feel so bad for her.'

    'Why?'

    'Well, I know I wouldn't want to get on his bad side.'

    She jumped involuntarily when his hologram materialised in the neighbouring seat. 'Starscream would never hurt you, Jade,' he said softly, taking her gently in his arms. 'He may be a Decepticon by nature, but he is not really a bad mech at spark. And' — he kissed her forehead — 'I would never let him touch you.'

    He stood up and took her hand, pulling her up and out of her seat.

    'You've still got control, I presume?' she teased.

    'Of course.'

    She smiled and allowed him to scoop her up into his arms, reaching up to grasp his long blonde hair and pull his cool, holographic lips down to hers. The height difference between the two was quite astonishing — Jade was five foot four, whilst Skyfire in his holoform was well over six foot five. But the kiss was no less passionate as they stood in the cockpit of the bomber, in the rutilant light of the fading sun. Her small hands roved down his muscled back and over his shoulder blades through his dark grey shirt, emblazoned on both back and front with the scowling red Autobot mask. He felt a surge of warm gratitude towards this woman — this woman who loved and trusted him enough to let him hold her like this — and a vague sense of triumph that she was in his arms, and not those of Carlos López.

    'I love you, Skyfire,' she whispered.

    He never tired of hearing those words: they were the words that made his spark sing, that gave him the courage to live.

    'You will never truly understand how much I love you in return, Jade,' he murmured. 'Never.'

    /Optimus to Skyfire./

    Jade rolled her eyes and pulled away. 'Trust Optimus to ruin the moment with business,' she said lightly. 'Go on — it might be something important. In fact, it had better be something important, or I'm gonna kick his skidplate.'

    'I am sure it will be.'

    The hologram snapped off. Jade settled back in her seat, rosy and bright-eyed.

    'Optimus, this is Skyfire,' he said. 'Is something wrong?'

    Optimus sounded perfectly composed, and his tone suggested no particular emergency: /Nothing seriously wrong, Skyfire. We have collected Alexis's stepsister, Rose, and she appears to be suffering from minor shock — but other than that, she appears quite well. We are returning to the base now, but Starscream has taken wing again. If you are not engaged with any pressing matters, then I would like you to find him. The two of you should return to the base immediately so we can discuss this matter./

    Jade grinned and pressed the intercom:

    'No, Optimus, he's not engaged with any "pressing matters",' she said, laughing. 'We'll be right on it.'

    /Thank you, Jade. I will speak to you both soon./

    As soon as the connection was broken, the holoform reappeared.

    'You are a tease, Jade Rivers,' he chuckled. 'Now come — let us return to more "pressing" matters and find Starscream.'

    She tittered and allowed him to pull her onto his lap, his hands over hers on the controls. She shifted one out from underneath his large, pale fingers and reached up to touch the screen, accessing a view of the locations of all of the Autobot team.

    'Oh — he's really close.' She indicated the red blur. 'I think he might be coming to us, actually.'

    'Indeed.' His voice boomed through the speakers again: 'Skyfire to Starscream.'

    There was an extremely long wait before Starscream replied:

    /This is Starscream./

    'Optimus has asked that we return to base immediately. Request that you comply and follow my lead back to the outskirts.'

    It never failed to bemuse Jade how Skyfire spoke in such a detached manner on the radio, but she supposed that it was a wartime habit that he'd never lost. Most of the Autobots did it, most obviously Starscream: he always sounded as if he were surveying the scene of a battle when he talked through the radio.

    /Very well/ Starscream said shortly.

    The connection was severed. Jade frowned, confused.

    'What's wrong with Starscream?' she asked Skyfire, who shook his head. 'He sounds really — well, tense. He can't be that mad about Rose finding out, can he?'

    'On the contrary, I suspect Alexis might have reacted badly tohis treatment of her stepsister,' Skyfire postulated, banking to the right towards the outskirts as Starscream pulled up beside him, flying alongside at a relatively leisurely pace for the Raptor. 'I suppose she might feel angry with him because of his aggression.'

    'Oh, well' — she glanced at the Raptor — 'that's understandable, I guess . . . but he must be pretty cut up if Alexis is mad at him. I'll bet he could handle anybody else being pissed off with him, but not her. He loves her more than anything in the world.'

    Skyfire sighed. 'More than anything in the universe, my jewel. And I fear it will be his undoing one day.' When she frowned, he shook his head quickly. 'But never mind my musings, Jade. I can see the base — you'd better prepare for touchdown.'

    'Sure.'



    * * *



    The giant black pickup truck pulled up in the foothills of Sierra Nevada just as the moon was beginning to show its face. It was still full, and bright enough to light the water near Pine Flat Dam. Rose, who had been on the edge of her seat for the entire ride — largely due to her fear that putting too much weight on it would annoy the robot it turned into — looked out at it in silence, still trembling.

    'Out,' the voice said.

    The door swung open. Rose was out faster than a bullet, and was instantly caught in arms of Sam Witwicky.

    'Whoa, steady there.'

    'I'm fine,' she said hoarsely.

    'Good. Ironhide didn't kill you, right?'

    'No, but he seems to have a serious Clint Eastwood complex. Asked me if I was feeling lucky.'

    'Ha, it's kind of his thing. Come on, you can meet the others."

    Rose tensed. 'There are more?'

    'Eight.'

    'Eight,' she said, stunned. 'Are you having me on?'

    'Nope. Those three are about the biggest — Ironhide, Starscream and Optimus Prime — but yeah, there are five more.'

    Why the hell didn't I just go to the library?

    Trying hard not to think about meeting five more giant robots, she followed Sam at a slow, cautious pace, keeping several steps behind him. Mikaela remained with the pickup truck. She found herself being led across the scrubby, sun-blasted grass of the foothills, straight towards the massive dam. The incline was steep, and she found it difficult, in her frail haze, to keep track of where her feet were going. Torrey pines and half-dead hoptrees shielded them from the moon as they climbed up the hill, about four hundred feet up, to the top of the concrete dam.

    This was absurd. She'd been verbally abused for about an hour by a creature that she deduced as being some sort of technologically advanced, possibly Japanese robot. Mikaela had said they were 'aliens' — but her logical, carefully organised mind wasn't ready for that yet. She couldn't understand where these massive creatures had come from, or why they could apparently transform into vehicles, and — most importantly — why on earth ordinary kids like Sam, Mikaela and Alexis were casually spending time with them. If they weren't hostile, then why had the one called Starscream treated her like a scrap of dirt? The look in his hell-red electronic eyes had sent cold chills down her spine from the very first second. She'd been a little rude to Alexis — she admitted that — but it wasn't as if her American stepsister hadn't returned her attitude. Besides, what business was it of his?

    She blinked to clear her swimming vision. Her throat was parched. The red wine seemed like it had been centuries ago, and she was desperate for some cold water to calm her nerves and soothe her rapidly worsening headache. Her legs felt too weak to support her for much longer.

    At the top of the dam, Sam wiped his brow and looked down.

    'Welcome,' he said, 'to the PFLB. Top-secret, of course.'

    Rose slowly leaned over the edge.

    Behind the dam — just beyond the water — was a warehouse. Old and visibly derelict, it boasted several cracked windows and some dusty, low-key lights, which sent a soft glow over the water. She noticed the massive size of the doors and instantly realised who lived here.

    'PFLB,' she repeated.

    'Pine Flat Lake Base.'

    'And this is where you and the — the —'

    'Autobots, yeah. We all live here together.'

    'You live in a broken-down warehouse with giant alien robots,' she said stiffly.

    'Yeah, I know. It's messed up.'

    She was about to reply to that effect when two aircraft swept down from above. One was a jet, the other a vast bomber.

    'There's Starscream and Skyfire,' Sam said, following her line of vision. 'Skyfire's huge, but he wouldn't hurt a fly. Seriously, this one time a black bear came into this area, and he spent literally two hours trying to talk it out of their territory, thinking it might learn to understand him. He's science-crazy.'

    'What did Starscream do — try and eat it?'

    'Hey, come on. His bark is worse than his bite.'

    'His bark is pretty bad.'

    'Touché.'

    He started making his way down to the water. Rose reluctantly followed.

    Would they keep her captive here as some sort of alien experiment? Or was that too clichéd? Would she be locked up in a cage to ensure that she would not run away and tell the world about these alien creatures? Or was that too ridiculous? Or — she swallowed hard at the thought — would they just kill her in order to completely eliminate any threat of exposure to the outside world? She'd heard of it happening before, in wars and so on — and if giant alien robots existed, anything was possible.

    She suddenly knocked her hip on a low-hanging branch. A sharp hiss of pain shot between her teeth, and she clutched her side. Sam turned.

    'You okay?' he asked.

    'Yes — just a bruise.'

    'You sure?'

    She nodded, biting her lip. It was the bruise she'd gained when that police car had smashed into her on the road. It was already twenty shades of purple, with a lattice of broken blood vessels spreading out around it like a web. It hurt so badly she wondered if the bone was fractured, but she didn't like to make a fuss.

    Wait.

    Was this the key to the mystery of the police car, the police car with no driver? These aliens could turn into vehicles, and thus had no drivers — she'd seen the big truck's steering wheel moving by itself as she'd travelled in it with Mikaela.

    Had the police car been one of them?

    She didn't have time to dwell on the matter. Sam had led past the water to the open door of the warehouse. They had stepped into the harsh electrical light that illuminated the makeshift base that they'd taken her into. She wondered whether she would ever see the natural light of day again.

    Sam sat her down on a beaten leather recliner. She took a deep breath and looked around the room. It was enormous — clearly built to accommodate its massive inhabitants — and hung with those dodgy halogen lights that you always saw in creepy horror movies, the kind that were prone to flicker and made suspicious buzzing noises. Luckily none of them were malfunctioning at present. The shell of a massive machine lined the north-facing wall, and several huge wall-mounted screens hung in the corners, showing digital maps and readings in strange hieroglyphs. There were also several armchairs, a couch, a patched-up futon, piles of cushions, a circular coffee table strewn with playing cards and a chessboard, and finally a mini-fridge plugged into the wall socket.

    'Miss Connelly.'

    Her head snapped up. She stared, wide-eyed, at the tallest of the robots. Her blue eyes immediately darted to the right as Starscream entered through another door, followed by two smaller robots that looked almost flustered — well, as flustered as giant robots could look. One was a vivid shade of pink and was much, much smaller than the others, with visible motorcycle parts; the other one stood at around sixteen feet high and was a cheerful shade of sunshine yellow.

    The large one knelt down. She scrambled backwards, terrified by the sheer size of the thing. It had large, flat blue lights for eyes. They didn't look evil — not like the red ones she'd seen earlier — but her heart still thumped like a drum.

    'My name is Optimus Prime,' it said, 'leader of the Autobots.'

    Rose blinked.

    What?

    'I am aware that this must be very frightening for you,' it continued. 'We are autonomous robotic organisms from the planet Cybertron. We came here to Earth searching for an artefact called the All Spark, and this planet is now our home, thanks to the kindness of your government.'

    'The All Spark was a big cube-looking thing.' Sam made a square shape with his fingers (as if she didn't know what a wretched cube was). 'It basically gave them life, and it could make any machine into one of them. But I kind of destroyed it when I defeated Megatron.'

    Rose shook her head. 'Megatron?'

    'Yeah, he was —'

    'Sam, look — this is all going right over my head, seriously. I'm sitting here in a room with four giant robots, one of which has called me names for the past hour or so' — Starscream hissed at her — 'and the last thing I need is to hear about somebody called Megatron.'

    'We get that,' Mikaela said. 'We've been through all this, too.'

    'Megatron was the leader of our enemies, the Decepticons,' Bumblebee informed her, kneeling down to get a better look at the newcomer. 'They are a faction of Cybertronians like us, but they strive for power and create chaos, whereas we fight only for peace and justice. They wished to use the All Spark for evil, so we were forced to do battle with them here on Earth.'

    'So you're the good guys.'

    'Yes.'

    Sam grinned. 'Kinda cool, though, right?'

    'Maybe, once it's gone into my brain.' She tried to swallow her nerves. 'Would anyone care to explain to me just how Alexis became involved in all this? Then maybe I can work out why she's been bothering Jasmine so much by being away all the time.'

    Bumblebee nodded. 'Because Alexis and Starscream are in —'

    'Shut up!' Starscream barked. 'You had better keep quiet around this girl, motormouth, or I'll —'

    'Starscream, stand down!' Optimus said sharply — for the second time in one night — and Starscream recoiled, muttering incoherently. The commander turned his attention to Rose again, ignoring the death glare he received. 'I'm afraid all of us must take collective responsibility for your sister's long absences, Miss Connelly. She spends a great deal of time with us here in the foothills, as do Sam and Mikaela, as well as the other humans that we are closely linked with, such as Skyfire's charge, Jade, and her friends —'

    Rose cut across him: 'Jade Rivers?'

    'Yes.'

    'That little — she did know where Alexis was! And so did you,' she said, rounding on Mikaela.

    Mikaela grimaced. 'Sorry.'

    'I don't believe it! She let me drive my damn car all the way to Helm and back just so you could sell me a pack of lies!'

    'We didn't have any choice. We couldn't just tell you.'

    'You didn't have to deal with her mother.'

    'No offence, but it's better than dealing with pissed-off government agents.'

    They were interrupted by the sound of heavy footfalls. Rose shut her mouth, and her head snapped to face the door.

    Two more of the creatures stood in the doorway. One extremely small, even smaller than the pink one — almost the size of a human. It stood at around ten feet tall, perhaps a little less, and was a bright shade of metallic blue, edged with funky purple and grass-green. The one behind it was much larger, a bright neon chartreuse with circular lights adorning its wide chest.

    Mikaela stood up.

    'Guys, come and meet Rose,' she encouraged. 'Rose, this is Seraphim — and this is my guardian, Ratchet.'

    Rose turned her head to see which one was which. Her eyes met those of the larger one, the brightest one.

    Bang!



    There was a crack like a whiplash and a flash so bright it scalded her eyes. Mikaela raised her hand and watched as the light faded, and then gasped when she saw Ratchet leaning over, pushing two parts of his chest back into place.

    Ratchet looked back at her, and she could see something strange in his optics. He looked shocked, embarrassed — and shaken, like he'd had a real shock. Ironhide made to approach him, and the eyes of everyone in the room moved to the medic.

    'Ratchet?' Ironhide growled, the edge of a warning in his tone. 'Don't you dare —'

    But Ratchet was clearly not paying attention to what the warrior said. With a swift, fluid motion, he transformed into his Hummer form, his searchlights blazing into life and his siren whining for an instant before he roared past a stunned Seraphim and avoided Ironhide's attempt to block his path – he drove through the open doorway and out into the night, disappearing into the darkness.

    Nobody spoke for a moment. Then finally, Rose spoke up:

    'Did I do something wrong?'

    Mikaela shook her head slowly. 'No, hon'. He's just — um, had a long day. Optimus, do you mind?'

    'Not at all,' Optimus confirmed. 'Make haste, both of you — I do not want Ratchet out by himself in such a condition.'

    'Condition?' Sam repeated, nonplussed. 'What condition?'

    'Not now, boy,' Ironhide barked.

    Exchanging a look with Sam, Mikaela quickly climbed up into the medium-duty truck. Ironhide gunned his engine and reversed back a few hundred yards before he followed Ratchet's pathway outside, revving loudly when he passed Starscream and causing the dusty brown jet to let out a snarl of indignation, backing up and glaring poisonously at the truck's retreating red lights. He looked down when Alexis entered the room, followed by Jade.

    'What just happened?'

    'I have no idea,' Rose said, 'but I really need a drink.'

    é





    *Chapter 7*: Instinct


    VII. Root



    * * *



    Transforming speedily and almost tripping himself up in his haste, Ratchet fell heavily to his knees and slammed his fist into the ground, wheezing. His spark burned and throbbed viciously within its casing and he could see the light eking from between the gaps in his armour, shedding dazzling rays of vivid blue onto the grass beneath him as he desperately conducted a self-diagnostic.

    The scan told him that he was in perfect condition: his body was functioning normally, although he needed some energon to top up his supplies a little. But this was perfectly ordinary for the medic – he often sacrificed his own supplies in order to give it to others who needed it more, and he knew well enough that it should not affect him in any way, apart from making him feel a little fatigued. It was more important to have plenty of emergency backup energon, in his opinion, and if that meant less for him… then it would have to do.

    He was trembling uncontrollably and he hunched over himself painfully, clenching his fists to stop his digits from shaking. His central processing unit appeared to be running at equilibrium and he could not understand why the scanners were not picking up on the way he could no longer see properly, and the way his spark was almost exploding with energy.

    It was then that he remembered that investigating the inner workings of his spark required a different form of scanning. Mentally reprimanding himself for being such an inept medical officer when it came to his own body, he ran the appropriate program and waited for a minute or so, wishing that he could stop the shivers that racked his limbs and the hot, burning feeling of pleasure and pain that was erupting from his chest.

    Whatever the slag had happened, he did not like it one bit.

    Despite the fact that the pain in his spark was strong and, frankly, agonising, it was also sending an odd tingling feeling through him that was strangely satisfying. He put a hand to the armour that hid his life force from view, and was stunned to feel how hot it was around that area – he began to fear that the metal would be unable to cope if the temperature increased any further.

    Finally, the results of the spark scan registered in his CPU.

    Spark energy levels: optimum potential.

    His optics widened in utter astonishment and he shook his head, still quivering, before he sat back heavily and wrapped his bulky arms around himself protectively. He had suspected this development as soon as it had happened, and he had hoped on hope for this moment for millennia… and yet now he wished that it had not come.

    'Ratchet?'

    Ratchet flinched. He looked over his epauliere like a wounded, frightened dog.

    His charge was standing at the colossal pedes of Ironhide – the two of them must have followed him to the clearing – and she looked extremely concerned for him. Her aqua eyes were wide and curious, and her eyebrows were furrowed into a worried frown.

    Ironhide stepped forward and she hurried after him, rushing to her guardian's side and placing both hands on one armoured shin. "It's happened at last, then," the old warrior murmured, looking as if he might put a hand on Ratchet's shoulder before stopping himself, hating to display emotion in front of Mikaela. "You must be happy."

    'What's going on?'

    Ratchet bowed his head, his servo clamped over his grille.

    She worked her way up his leg and hauled herself up onto his thigh, slinging her leg over to secure herself before she looked up at him sternly. Both of the Autobots looked sombre, but Ratchet looked completely lost. His expression was one of utter desolation and shock, and yet she swore she could see some tiny sparkle of hope in what little of his optics she could see through the fingers that shielded his face.

    'Mikaela, do you understand the concept of a spark partner?'

    'It's a mate, right?'

    'Yes. Arcee recently explained this to Miles, but I assume he has not told you about it.' She shook her head. 'Arcee used the example of the human theory called "the one", which she said helped Miles to understand a little better. Are you aware of this idea that you humans have about one heart having another part out in the world somewhere? That each human has a soul mate, whether or not they know it?'

    'I've heard of it, yes.'

    'Our sparks work in a similar way to this. Each spark has a partner, a soul that it will cooperate with and will yearn to join as one with. Since Starscream and Skyfire became involved with Jade and Alexis, it has become apparent that sparks can call to human souls — or hearts, although I will never understand the logic in that — as well as other sparks.'

    'What does that have to do with Ratchet's chest going off like a firecracker?'

    Ironhide sighed. 'I thought you were perceptive,' he muttered.

    'Oh, thanks.'

    'Think about what happened,' Ratchet said hoarsely. 'You are perceptive, Mikaela.'

    Mikaela shook her head, thinking back. 'We answered Alexis's call for help and you stayed at the base — nothing happened while we were away — and then you came in and I introduced you to —'

    Her eyes cleared.

    'Rose,' she finished.

    Ironhide nodded. 'Rose.'

    Ironhide looked intensely at Ratchet, who was still cradling his head in his hand and looked as though all the hope had dropped out of the world. "What is it that you fear, old friend?" he asked in a hushed voice, peering into Ratchet's optics as if looking for some sign of what was happening to him. "If she is the one that you have been searching for all these years, then why do you seem so grieved by her arrival? Do you not remember what you said after the battle, when you spoke of your fear of being alone for eternity?"

    Mikaela looked rather enthused now that she knew what she was dealing with. "Then here's your chance!" she exclaimed, and Ratchet looked up at her with a dull expression. "If she's your spark partner, why don't you go for it?"

    "And if the young lady does not return my affections, should I find that she is the one?" he asked despondently.

    "There's no question of whether or not she's the one," Ironhide pointed out, folding his arms and glaring seriously at Ratchet. "Your spark has reached optimum potential. The girl is your spark partner, whether you like it or not. As for the matter of her returning your affections – if your spark calls to her, there must be a reason for it. She will coexist with you just as well as you will with her. In time, she will learn."

    Ratchet remained in his self-protective courch.

    'Ratch', if anyone deserves to be happy, it's you,' she said. 'You've done so much for us — so much for me. Give yourself a chance.'

    Ironhide nodded.

    The three of them looked up towards where the hoary moon hung high in the heavens, radiating a soft, bluish glow through the trees and down onto the armour of the two Autobots. Pale, glimmering rays flickered and danced on the paintwork with every tiny movement that they made, and Mikaela gave Ratchet a tiny smile before she rested her head on his torso. Ironhide watched as Ratchet's optics dropped to watch her distractedly, and he remembered what he had been like when his spark had reacted to Chromia's.

    Certainly it had been easier for him. His spark had chosen so very well – Chromia was a determined, hotheaded and impulsive warrior like himself, and she was of his own species. It had been easier than he had always feared it would be, and he was grateful for the path laid out for him by the All Spark.

    He turned his gaze to Mikaela. 'What do you know of this girl?' he asked.

    'Not much. I know that she's British — smokin' hot accent, Ratchet, come on! — and that she moved over here with her dad recently. I think Alexis said that she worked in a library at weekends or something, but that's about all I know about her."

    Ironhide looked at his old friend, opening a private radio link:

    /Say something, Ratchet./

    Ratchet heaved a sigh. 'Forgive my cynicism,' he murmured. 'It is only the enemy that we all know that I am up against. I am afraid — afraid of what is to come.'

    'What is to come?'

    'Change.'

    'But change is good sometimes.' Mikaela looked out at the mountains, at the soft red haze that wreathed the trees. 'I know it's hard. It was hard when I had to move to Helm from Tennessee, and when my mom went to rehab, and when my dad went to jail for stealing one too many cars. I had to throw out the trailer trash and become a new person: the jock concubine,' she said, with a note of regret. 'But you know, I'm so thankful for that, because — because I met Sam. I met you.'

    'Ratch', she's your spark partner. The one,' she stressed. 'She's Juliet to your Romeo. Now come on, you big yellow lump.'

    'What would you have me do?'

    'I want you to transform, drive me back to the base, and get going with this. I won't let you lose this girl, Ratchet — not without a fight.'



    * * *



    Alexis thumbed a shiny black pawn as she lay on the beaten couch, waiting for Ratchet. The chess pieces were scattered across the board, and a cup of herbal tea steamed on the coffee table. If anyone in the base could get the necklace off, it was Ratchet — but where was he?

    She kept hearing the voice in her head — mere echoes, but she remembered it clearly from her nightmare. The cool, impassive voice, whispering occasional words that frightened and chilled her, reminding her of the entity that had threatened her in that hideous dream.

    Unicron.

    The name suddenly appeared in her head, planted there like a bright idea. But what did it mean?

    'You are waiting for Ratchet.'

    She looked up — and immediately looked down at the pawn again.

    'Yes,' she said.

    Starscream's gaze was red-hot on her face.

    'Alexis,' he said, in a voice edged with resentment, 'you have already made your point — you made it several times whilst we were in the air, I seem to recall. I have apologised and promised no repeats. Why do you continue to torment me with this — this silence, slag it?'

    'I'm still talking to you. Just.'

    'Why "just", for the love of Primus?'

    'You still haven't apologised to Rose.'

    'I hate the girl! And it was you that came whining to me about her.'

    'I was pissed off and hurt. Cut me some slack.'

    'Cut me some slack, then.'

    'You can't use the Decepticon thing as an excuse every time,' she said, frustrated. 'You're an Autobot now, and —'

    'Is that so? I see no symbols on my wings just yet.' He spread them wide to make his point. 'The Decepticon mask has been painted over, but no Autobot red has replaced it. I belong to no one — I answer to no one. You ought to have learnt that by now, human.'

    Oh, now he'd done it.

    Now he'd really done it.

    'Maybe I haven't learned it,' she said. 'I'm just a human, after all.'

    'Ah, the famous guilt trip,' he sneered. 'I will not fall for it.'

    'You are impossible, like all your kind,' he spat. 'Why do you make this thing so difficult?'

    'What "thing"?'

    'This — this —'

    'Our relationship, you mean?'

    'Stop being so slaggin' sensitive.'

    'Oh, don't you dare try and take the moral high ground! I've never once called you a Decepticon like Ironhide did, and you just —'

    'How do you expect me to be so tolerant of your caprices?' Starscream's servo snapped out and grabbed her; he ignored her struggles. 'Do you not realise that you are everything to me, Alexis Paxton? Can you not comprehend how difficult it was for me to let somebody in, when for millennia I have known only betrayal and hatred and a lust for nothing but power?' He shook her hard enough to rattle her fillings. 'And yet you throw it all back at me!'

    'I just want you to learn, Starscream! I don't want you to go back to being a Decepticon!'

    'I am a Decepticon' — he shoved his face into hers — 'and you will never change that.'

    Alexis was stunned.

    You will never change that.

    That stung.

    Starscream's expression softened faster than slush under a blowtorch. He drew her towards him, scooping her up against his pliable gorget with his servo, and make a sort of whistle-purr that she'd come to equate with a display of guilt. Bumblebee often made a similar sound if he'd done something wrong, usually when Optimus was in the middle of trying to scold him. It would melt the mighty Prime like butter, and she knew it would do the same for her in the end. She hated seeing the big sad optics of a scolded Cybertronian, whether those optics were red or gentle blue.

    'Forgive me,' he said quietly. 'I don't — I don't know what — I —'

    'Shh. It's okay.'

    'It is not "okay", slag it. Why do you always forgive me when I don't want you to?'

    'Because I know how to get under your skin. Or armour. Whatever.' She stroked his nasal strut. 'You're not a Decepticon now — you're an Autobot. Please, just accept it.'

    He bowed his head, one long digit stroking down her back. "I do not think I can," he murmured brokenly, and he felt her nuzzling his neck with a sense of deep relief that she was speaking to him again, no matter how unpleasant the situation had become. "But no matter which faction I belong to, I will always be yours, Alexis… my spark is yours."

    'I know. I treasure it.'

    e heard a muffled giggle from her suddenly and he plucked her gently away from his neck between a finger and thumb, holding her charily. "What are you laughing at?" he asked doubtfully, cocking an optic ridge.

    "I'm just picturing Rose's face when she finds out about us," she explained, biting back laughter.

    Upon thinking about it for a moment, he found himself relatively amused by the thought, too. The young British girl would probably do the human equivalent of short-circuiting if she discovered that her stepsister was in love with the rude, gargantuan robot that had been so aggressive towards her. "Yes… it will certainly be an interesting spectacle," he smirked, "Though I wonder what your mother will make of her disappearance."

    Alexis's face fell and her features darkened into a frown. "Oh God… I keep forgetting," she murmured, sighing and pushing her hair away from her forehead wearily. "About Robert and Mom at home… it's been almost two hours now. They must have noticed that I'm not in my room – I don't know what Rose told them about where she was going."

    "Do not worry yourself over it," he soothed her, gently probing her mousy hair with the tip of a finger. "I suppose you will have to let them know at some point, but it doesn't have to be now. Prime will find some way to convince them that you need not go home for a while."

    "Good," she said softly, her lips curving into an elegant smile. "Then I can spend more time with you."

    They both looked up when Ratchet appeared, looking concerned by the fact that they were both outside the medical wing. Starscream raised his optic ridges – he was well aware of what had happened to the medic in the other room, but decided not to mention it in front of Alexis. "Alexis, Starscream," he greeted, and Alexis's eyebrows raised a little when she heard how down he sounded. "Is something wrong? Is one of you injured?"

    Starscream stood up, inclining his head a little. He seemed to have developed a strange sort of respect for Ratchet; he knew that it was due to the medic that he had come into contact with Alexis in the first place, and admired his persistent work repairing the others – including himself, more often than not.

    "Neither of us are injured physically," he said simply, glancing down at Alexis. "But Alexis wishes to ask you something… don't you, Alexis?"

    "Yes," the girl nodded, looking up at the yellow doctor-figure of the team. "I need your help, Ratchet."

    Ratchet looked from one to the other inquiringly, but when neither offered any further elaboration upon what he was supposed to be helping them with, he sighed somewhat resignedly and pushed the door to the medical bay open. "Very well. Come inside, and we will discuss this in private," he offered quietly.

    Starscream pursued him swiftly, and Alexis hurried after the two of them, attempting in vain to keep up with their huge strides. Ratchet picked up Alexis carefully in one hand and deposited her on his workbench, studying her carefully. She knew that he was giving her an initial scan to double-check that she was not physically injured in any way, but she supposed, from his mystified expression, that he had found nothing wrong with her – no diseases, broken bones or lacerations of any kind.

    She placed her slender fingers on the surface of the emerald, holding the jewel up a little to let Ratchet see it. "It's the necklace, Ratchet," she confided, and he bent down so that his head was at her level. "I haven't been able to take it off – not since I killed Thrust with it – and that didn't really bother me, but now…"

    "It is planting foul visions in her mind," Starscream muttered darkly, dealing the necklace a quick glare. "And draining her strength."

    Ratchet extended a finger slowly. "May I?" he asked politely, and Alexis nodded, raising her chin a little and allowing Ratchet to brush the gem with his fingertip. "I can feel its energy," the medic admitted, the green rock clinking slightly against the metal of his finger. "Incredibly powerful energy – the All Spark's energy. But you say you cannot remove it?"

    She nodded, turning around and lifting her hair up to expose the back of her neck. Ratchet shook his head disapprovingly when he saw the three symbols inked onto her skin, but said nothing. "I can't undo the clasp," she said, turning her head slightly to watch him study how the necklace fastened. "And the chain won't break… I've tried everything."

    "As have I," Starscream confirmed, folding his arms and watching Ratchet run a scan on the necklace. "She has been suffering from terrible nightmares, in which the All Spark tells her that something is coming, amongst other things."

    "What other things?" Ratchet inquired, still projecting bars of blue from his optics that were lacing across the jewel.

    Alexis nodded when Starscream indicated that she should continue. "Last time it told me that it was responsible for my falling in love with Starscream," she informed him, and Ratchet hummed softly to show that he was listening. "It said that I had tried to be its commander, and that I was its captor. It took me into a sort of netherworld in the dream… total darkness, and it told me that Starscream couldn't reach me where I was. And then I felt like I was being suffocated…" She shuddered at the memory.

    "I see," he nodded, finally drawing back and analysing the data he had collected in his central processing unit. "Well, it is not entirely incorrect about its role in your relationship with Starscream. The All Spark decided who will be spark partner to whom in the beginning of all time, but it is not directly responsible for love developing between those two individuals."

    "Exactly," Starscream hissed. "Its arrogance is growing by the second."

    The three of them sat in silence for a moment, contemplating what had just happened.

    Optimus entered the room during the silence and looked around somewhat curiously, concerned for his soldiers. "Is something the matter?" he enquired, and Ratchet turned to face him with his hands on his hips and a sombre expression on his face. "Starscream, Ratchet, I would like you to come and speak with Miss Connelly."

    Starscream grimaced; Ratchet panicked internally.

    Seeing their slight desperation, Alexis spoke hesitantly. "Do any of you know what… Unicron means?" she asked cautiously, wondering what reaction the word would get from the two of them.

    Immediately, the mechs stared at each other and then at her.

    'Where did you hear that name?' Starscream demanded.

    'All Spark,' she said.

    She had feared that the word would mean something to the Cybertronians, and none of them looked happy — on the contrary, Ratchet looked absolutely horrified, Optimus deeply worried, Starscream almost angry. The three mechs swapped glances; she suspected they were communicating through the radio link.

    'Alexis,' Ratchet said softly, 'if the All Spark has said that something is coming — and mentioned that name — then our situation is grave.'

    'What is Unicron?'

    'Unicron,' Starscream spat the word viciously, 'is neither Autobot or Decepticon, nor truly Cybertronian at all. He is a monster, a devil-god. But he is of the same exoskeletal type as we are, when he is in his bipedal mode. His alternate form is a metallic planet.'

    She stared. 'How big is he?'

    'Massive, even in our terms.'

    'You might have heard of Primus, our deity,' Optimus said. 'My soldiers can often be heard taking his name in vain around the base.' Ratchet snorted and turned to his workbench. 'Primus was the Lord of Light, the creator-god of the Transformers. The mega-computer Vector Sigma serves as his internal mainframe, and a portion of his life force resides within the Matrix of Leadership, which I currently carry.' He opened his asbergo and removed a cornucopia-shaped artefact, woven silver metal encasing a soft blue light. 'The spark of each Transformer is a small piece of Primus' essence. Together they form his life force, the All Spark, which you carry around your neck in four thin shards. The song the necklace sang to Starscream at this base when he was stabbed by Thrust is the so-called swan song of Primus, the most beautiful sound in the known universe.'

    Her fingers touched the necklace.

    Primus.

    'Okay,' she said, 'but what's that got to do with Unicron?'

    'Primus was almost omnipotent — godlike in every sense — but he did not go unchallenged, and he was not immortal,' Ratchet said. 'An ageless piscine-simian scientist named Primacron, an inhabitant of the ancient world of Lithone, was bitterly envious of him. He decided that Primus had no right to rule the stars alone, and set out to challenge him with another great god. With the help of his assistant — the Oracle — he created something that essentially was Primus: but a very different side of Primus. A dark and terrible essence, drawn from the very Pit.' He paused, and his optics dimmed. 'Of course, Unicron was too powerful to control. He slaughtered Primacron and the Oracle and set about destroying Primus, his natural nemesis.'

    'Like yin and yang,' Alexis mused.

    'Precisely.'

    'So did he defeat Primus?'

    'No,' Optimus said. 'So he shifted their clash to the astral plane, where he found himself faring a little better."

    'However,' Starscream continued, his optics like live coals, 'this was a sacrifice play. Primus entrapped both himself and Unicron into two barren asteroids; yet this was not the end for either of them. Unicron learnt to reshape his asteroid with his mind, transfiguring it into a planet of metal."

    Ratchet nodded. 'Primus did the same — he reformed himself as our home planet, Cybertron.'

    'Primus is Cybertron?'

    'Yes.'

    'And then we came,' Optimus concluded, 'and so did the war. The war that changed everything.'

    'If Unicron comes near this planet he will consume it without a second thought,' Starscream warned. 'It may be small, but it is rich in fuel and organic life. As well as that, you are on this planet, Prime — and you hold the Matrix of Leadership, the only thing that stands between Unicron and his dream: ultimate peace in a universe of absolute, black oblivion.'

    Alexis looked down at the necklace.

    'So the Matrix and the All Spark are both pieces of Primus,' she conjectured, 'and presumably they're at they're most powerful together.'

    'Yes. Primus is the only entity powerful enough to defeat Unicron,' Ratchet said, 'aside from Primacron and the Oracle — but they are gone forever.'

    'Okay. But if I have the All Spark here' — she jangled the necklace — 'then that means I have some kind of temporary hold over them. The All Spark needs me to move it, to be its physical incarnation. It can't get itself to Unicron. It needs a carrier. It's like a Jesus complex. God walks in flesh. Bread and wine. Transcendence.'

    Optimus looked thoughtful.

    "It is true that the All Spark's behaviour may be due to the fact that it is reacting to a threat of some sort," he mused, and Starscream stared at him heatedly. "It is not an evil being; it would not wish to harm you for the sake of malevolence. The All Spark created life, and so it wishes to protect the life it created – a natural instinct, one might say."

    'A natural instinct that involves killing Alexis,' Starscream snarled.

    Optimus gave him a hard look. 'Stand down, Starscream. Now is not the time for this.' He turned to Ratchet and Alexis. 'I would like to remain informed of how this situation develops. Alexis, if you experience any pains or nightmares whatsoever then I highly suggest that you go to Ratchet.'

    The medic nodded. 'Any hour of the day or night, youngling.'

    'Very well. It is settled, then.'

    Starscream huffed.

    If looks could kill, Alexis thought. She watched Optimus and Ratchet leave the room, talking in low voices in Cybertronian, and then approached her lover hesitantly with light, cautious footsteps.

    'Starscream, are you okay?'

    'No,' he bit out.

    He looked down in surprise when she wrapped her arms around his leg as far as she could reach. She tilted her head up to look at him, resting her chin on him to support her head, and gave him a wobbly sort of smile.

    'I won't leave you, Star'.'

    'Fate would have it so. Everyone else has left me — everyone in the world. Why would the All Spark have mercy on me, when I have destroyed so much of the life that it created?'

    She watched him struggle with himself.

    'I'm not going to die,' she murmured, and he knelt down to cradle her against his asbergo. She could feel him physically shaking, and she huddled tightly against him. 'I am not going to die, Starscream.'



    * * *



    Jade handed Rose the steaming mug of tea.

    'Here — Earl Grey, just for you.'

    Rose extended both hands. 'Thanks.'

    'You're very welcome.'

    The redhead huddled back into the blanket draped around her shoulders. Sam — seated on the opposite couch — subtly pinched Miles to stop him gaping at her long, slim legs, which were just visible beneath the blanket where she was seated on the beaten leather recliner. Miles quickly shook himself out of it, studying a section of the wall, before his eyes were drawn, like magnets, back to Rose.

    'Those legs are to die for, dude,' he breathed.

    Sam sighed. 'I know — but seriously, man. Stop it.'

    'Okay.'

    He went back to staring.

    Rose was doing a little staring of her own. She hadn't taken her eyes off Arcee, who was standing guard over the cluster of humans. Sam took a good look at her face. She was a pretty girl — very pretty. Not devastatingly beautiful, like Mikaela — but hey, few people were. She had a nice complexion with a few freckles, like Alexis, and her eyes were a clear, oceanic grey-blue. Thick copper-red hair sat on her shoulders, contrasting with her simple long-sleeved black shirt.

    And then there was her accent. Wow. So British, so classy. Pure seduction. She'd said that she was about to study History at college, and had added that she worked in the local library in Tranquillity after school. Somehow she was smart and sexy.

    This girl could be lethal.

    She still looked tired and worried, of course. The sugar that Jade had piled into the tea had kept her from fainting, at least — but she was still looking more than a little peaky, and her eyes kept darting back to Arcee, who was standing nearby like some giant Terminator cut-out.

    'Rose, are you okay?' he asked.

    'Oh — I'm fine, honestly.'

    'You sure?'

    Bumblebee cocked his head to one side. 'We will not harm you, Miss Connelly.'

    'None of us would dream of it,' Arcee agreed. 'I know that we are intimidating because of our size, and the fact that you are so unfamiliar with the idea of extraterrestrial life forms — but you have our most solemn vow that we will not harm you. We have taken it upon ourselves to safeguard and protect your race.'

    Rose managed a tense smile. 'I know — I'm sorry. I'm sure you won't. Just — just let my brain get used to the idea for a few minutes. I keep thinking that this must be some crazy tea-induced dream.'

    'Want me to pinch you?' Sam offered.

    Mikaela rolled her eyes.

    'I'm good, thanks.' Rose sat up straight. 'So — um — you mentioned something about the guy that ran away' — a frown creased her brow — 'being your guardian, Mikaela. What's that all about?'

    'Oh, yeah. Well, Bumblebee mentioned the bad guys earlier, right?'

    'Decepticons.'

    'Yeah — and their leader, Megatron.'

    'The one Sam killed with a cube?' Rose asked, one eyebrow arched.

    Sam nodded. 'With help, of course.'

    Jade flapped her hand in his direction. 'Shut up now, Sam. We're busy explaining something and you're ruining it with your vanity.' Sam smirked. 'Anyway, back to business. The Decepticons really hate humans — and I mean really hate them. They tried to take over the planet, and they would have been happy to kill us all. Sam had something that the Decepticons wanted, so Bumblebee was assigned to guard him in case they tracked him down — which they did, but Bumblebee drove the guy that attacked him off.'

    Rose nodded. 'Who was it?'

    'Barricade,' Bumblebee said. 'The hunter of the Decepticon force. He takes the form of a police car.'

    'Oh — wow.'

    Sam wondered whether or not he was imagining the hints of confusion in her expression. Her eyebrows were drawn together in a frown, and she was looking deeply into her mug as if seeing some grave misfortune in the tea inside.

    'Are you all right?' Jade asked gently.

    'Yes, I — I just have a headache. Too much excitement.'

    Mikaela stood. 'Do you want to sleep?'

    'If you don't mind. I can walk home.'

    'You can't go home, honey. You'll have to sleep here overnight.' Rose swallowed, but said nothing. 'You've had a long day — you'll pass out before you get back to Tranquillity. You can take my cot — I'll just crash on the couch.'

    'Oh, there's no need to —'

    'I insist. Sam, can you show her where it is?'

    He nodded. 'Sure.'

    Rose smiled weakly at him, and he took her arm. 'Thank you, Sam.'

    'It's no problem.'

    The two of them left the room together. Sam found he was quite able to support Rose. She was just his height, and light on her feet. He could hear the others murmuring their suspicions about Barricade — and Rose's expression upon hearing about him — before he closed the human-sized door and turned to his new charge. Rose looked even paler under the electric, halogen-white lights in the corridor; her hair stood out starkly against her skin, and her eyes seemed feverishly bright. She looked at him with a distinct sort of uncertainty.

    'I'm not sure I want to stay here, Sam.'

    He sighed. 'I know it's scary at first.'

    'How do you know they won't hurt you?'

    'Well' — he paused — 'we don't, I guess. But that's like asking how I know a human won't hurt me, you know? I don't have any guarantee, but there it is. Bumblebee is my best friend, and he's been my guardian for about two years. I trust him with my life.'

    Rose scraped her hair back.

    'Okay,' she said. She inhaled, exhaled. 'I think I should get some sleep.'

    'Sure. Mikaela sleeps in a room near the medbay, so you're close to Ratchet if you feel sick in the night.'

    'You want me to go and wake up a giant alien robot in the middle of the night?'

    'Ha, I've woken Ratch' up hundreds of times. He's a grumpy old junk heap, and he might mutter and bitch a little if you go to him at three in the morning, but he'd rather you went to him that kept quiet.' He paused. 'Speaking of which, you had a real impact on him.'

    'I noticed,' she said dryly.

    'I don't know what that was about. He's usually polite to newcomers.'

    'Must be my lucky day for pissing off giant robots, then.'

    Sam, sensing her patience was wearing thin, was quick to escort her to where Mikaela and Alexis slept, in a small "dorm" adjacent to the medbay. Neither of the girls was particularly tidy, and both cots were unmade.

    'I'll get some fresh sheets,' he said. 'Do you need anything else?'

    'I'm fine, thanks.'

    'Okay.'

    He ran down to the corridor and grabbed a stack of fresh bedding from the network of hot pipes near Ironhide's recharge chamber. They were still warm, and they smelled of the flowers on the mountainside. As he walked slowly back to the room, he wondered to himself what Rose's expression had meant — why she'd looked so confused at the mention of Barricade, the police car. He reasoned it was something to do with her dad, who worked as a cop for the Fresno County Sheriff's Office. He was stationed in Tranquillity and was also responsible for its neighbouring town, San Joaquin. But still — that look in her eyes had been fear, and there was no reason for a cop's daughter to fear the blue lights.

    By the time he got back, Rose had sat down on the edge of a coat. Sam handed her the bedding, along with one of his old t-shirts.

    'Here,' he said quietly.

    'Oh — thank you.'

    'Are you sure you don't need anything else? Glass of water, maybe?'

    'Honestly, I'm fine. I just need to rest.'

    Sam nodded. 'Okay. I'm in the room across the corridor if you need me, okay?'

    'Sure.'

    Satisfied, he left the room. All he saw before he went was Rose curling up on the blankets, shivering and pale.





    *Chapter 8*: Rime


    VIII. Rime



    * * *



    Three days after Rose's arrival at the warehouse base, Sunstreaker and Sideswipe — the notorious twins — had finally breached the atmosphere and made planet fall. They had been separated by the effects of the gravitational field, which had interfered with their navigation systems and subsequently caused them to crash several miles apart from each other – one of them had touched down in southern Oregon, whilst the other had landed in the San Joaquin River.

    Optimus had sent two groups to recover the twins: there was to be a flyer to each group and two vehicles to go with them. Starscream was the resident flyer for the first group, and was accompanied by Bumblebee and Seraphim; Skyfire led the other, along with Ironhide and Optimus himself. Ratchet had stayed to guard the base, and Arcee had volunteered to stay to patrol the surrounding area.

    Of course, Starscream had taken Alexis along with his group — the two of them never left each other — and Sam, Miles and Mikaela had decided to go along, all too eager to meet the new arrivals. Carlos had deemed to ride Seraphim, and Jade had flown with Skyfire.

    Now, as she sat Skyfire's seat, Jade couldn't help but feel sorry for Rose, who had stayed behind.

    'You think she'll be okay?'

    Skyfire was flying very low over Oregon, striking out a shadow on the ground far below. They could see the landing site even from high above. Whichever one of the twins had crashed here had certainly made an entrance, leaving a deep gouge behind them that spanned at least fifty feet.

    'Rose will be fine,' he said. 'Ratchet is there if she requires assistance.'

    Jade heaved a sigh. 'I still feel mean. I know we offered, but maybe I should have insisted that she came along. It wasn't really fair of us to leave her all by herself with two of you guys — we know you're harmless, but she didn't seem to be coping very well with that concept.'

    'She will learn. Hold tight, my jewel.'

    'As always.'

    Ironhide and Optimus were waiting for them when Skyfire finally came to a halt. The Autobot leader's armour was radiant beneath the sunshine, and Ironhide's was equally impressive: a dark, lustrous slick of black paint. Jade climbed down from the cockpit and approached them, allowing Skyfire the extensive amount of time that he needed to transform.

    'Enjoy your flight, kid?' Ironhide grunted.

    Jade smiled. 'Of course. Where's our twin?'

    'There.'

    She followed the direction of his digit — and stared.

    'Wow,' she managed.

    A lemon-yellow Lamborghini Murciélago was shooting towards the welcome party, flashing its headlights. The sun caught the paintwork and reflected across the ground as it approached. It looked like one of those commercials in which the car, somehow, became the ultimate sex symbol.

    'Who's that?' Jade breathed.

    'He would select that sort of ostentatious motor vehicle as an alternate mode,' Ironhide muttered. 'That's Sunstreaker, the vainest Autobot soldier ever to have been created by the All Spark. And he is most likely to attempt to seduce all six of the femmes that inhabit our base.'

    Skyfire laughed. 'Sunstreaker is not quite that promiscuous, Ironhide. He may be very vain and narcissistic, but he is an excellent warrior — and he does, at least, keep the mood light-hearted during our darkest hours. It is by no means a useless talent.'

    'With all due respect, Skyfire, you were frozen for most of the war — so you have no idea that the amusement tends to be either at a time when the soldiers should be training to prepare themselves for combat, or when it is at mine or Ratchet's expense.'

    'I see.'

    'Mikaela will fall on the ground and worship that car,' Jade predicted. 'Will his twin take the same form?'

    'Likely,' Skyfire said, 'although I imagine Sideswipe will choose a different colour.'

    The Lamborghini finally braked, kicking up a dust cloud before it began to transform. The Autobot that emerged was taller than Bumblebee, but not by much — he was about twenty feet in height, and had large, slanted blue optics. He gleamed bright yellow in the sun.

    'Can't stand organic planets,' he muttered before he looked up — and started, as if seeing them for the first time. 'Primus — it's you, Optimus!'

    'Hello, Sunstreaker,' Optimus chuckled. 'I am glad to see you alive.'

    'Yeah, it's — whoa, who's this?'

    Skyfire held Jade up to his optic level, and she went the colour of a ripe tomato.

    'This is my spark partner, Jade Diana Rivers,' he told the newcomer, who raised both optic ridges and glanced at Optimus and Ironhide as if seeking verification of this claim. 'One of the human inhabitants of this planet. Jade, this is Sunstreaker —'

    'The most beautiful Autobot on the team,' he finished. 'You sure know how to pick 'em, big guy.'

    'Um, thanks.'

    Sunstreaker caught her look and laughed. 'I'm only messin' with ya. Not that you're not stunning, but I'm not the sort to steal another mech's femme — as rumour would have it.'

    Ironhide snorted dismissively before folding back into his truck form.

    'What?'

    'Nothin', kid. Just get in line and follow Prime.'

    Jade motioned for Skyfire to return her to the ground and she left Sunstreaker to be briefed on the situation by Optimus. Skyfire watched her approach Ironhide, but decided to let her be — he did not want to become as possessive and jealous over her as Starscream was over Alexis, which often reached the point where Alexis had no time for anybody else. Not that Alexis minded all that much, of course — in fact, she seemed to love it. But Jade was her own person, not his alone.

    She wandered over to the Topkick and leant in through the open window on the passenger side. 'Ironhide, are you okay?' she asked, and he rumbled in response. 'Come on — I'm sure the twins won't tease you and Ratchet too badly.'

    'They shall, but that is not why my mood festers so putridly.'

    'Hm. Can I come in?'

    She received a grunt in response. Ironhide opened the passenger-side door, and she clambered up with some difficulty into the mammoth truck. Skyfire watched her enter with an affectionate smile before turning back to answer a question from Sunstreaker.

    Jade settled herself against the seat and looked at the steering wheel. The Autobot mask was emblazoned there, and she imagined that it was where he watched her from for some reason, if he was watching her at all. After a moment, the old warrior spoke:

    'I suppose you want to know why I have been so ill-disposed of late.'

    'You're not ill-disposed — it's just your personality. We all know that, you know.'

    A humourless chuckle rolled throughout the cab: 'I know you do, youngling. But there is a reason for my irritability, I assure you.' He paused, and she felt the engine rumble beneath her. 'There is something coming, youngling. I can sense it, as I have always sensed the movement of the enemy. Perhaps not as easily as Ratchet can — he was a shaman — but after so many years of being at war, you develop certain intuitions about the world, and its constant state of flux.'

    'You mean — something's coming here?' she repeated.

    'Yes.'

    'But what, exactly?'

    She wanted him to give it a name, at least: whatever it was would be all the more frightening to her if it remained faceless and without a name. Her mind ran through a thousand possibilities in a split second, picturing the rest of the Decepticon army arriving on Earth, or a meteor that would strike the planet and end all life, or some other terrible thing — an enemy of some sort. She knew she had a big imagination, too big sometimes, but he'd sounded very serious.

    'I do not know,' he said. 'But I feel it.'

    Much as he despised liars and tricksters — Sideways, for example — he decided that it would be best to keep what Optimus had told him from the thoughts of Skyfire's charge. She was such a sweet, innocent girl, all big brown eyes and long, silken hair. She did not need to know what threat was hanging over their heads.

    His spark had turned cold when the commander had relayed what Alexis had said to him. How the young woman had spoken of dreams, of nightmares, of whispered names that should never be spoken: Unicron, the chaos bringer, the Lord of Darkness, nemesis of Primus. His once-charge was suffering under the burdens of the All Spark, and now it was entirely possible that the monster was already on his way to this small, lush organic planet.

    'If you feel it, then I suppose you must be right,' Jade said slowly. 'I trust your judgement.'

    'You've more sense than I thought.'

    'I'll take that as a compliment.' Her eyes wandered out to see Skyfire beckon to her to let her know that they were leaving. She extended a hand to tell him to wait before she looked back down at the mask with an odd expression.

    Ironhide watched her.

    'What?' he said abruptly. 'I recognise that look — that is the look of a femme that wants something.'

    'You can say no if you want.'

    He sincerely doubted it, but his curiosity got the better of him. Jade had only spoken to him a few times since being with the Autobots — she was more friendly with Sam, Carlos and Bumblebee's side of the group, as well as Skyfire — and he wondered what she could want to ask of him.

    'Well, what is it?' he asked gruffly.

    Jade leant forward to look at the insignia.

    'If you say something's coming — an enemy — then I want to be able to defend myself. At the fight I let Skyfire get hurt by the Decepticons —'

    'You allowed both Barricade and Soundwave to harm you in his stead!'

    'That was all I could do,' she pointed out. 'I couldn't work the gun properly — it hurt my hands — and I've never been a fan of war, so I was pretty much useless. All I could do was to offer them myself in Skyfire's place.' She paused, deliberating over whether or not to continue. 'If there's another enemy on its way, then I want to be able to look after myself this time, Ironhide. I want to be able to support Skyfire when he needs me, and stay safe if he can't be there to guard me.'

    Ironhide considered her words. 'He is supposed to be your protector, not the other way around,' he reminded her, and she looked out at where the bomber was still waiting for her, 'but I understand your need to be self-sufficient nonetheless. But what is it you wanted to ask me?'

    'If you would teach me how to defend myself.'

    Silence.

    He thought about it. She had done very well during the battle, in his opinion — shot Thrust and caused him to drop Alexis's necklace, endured Barricade trying to snap her spine and Soundwave stabbing her with an electronic probe, and had insisted on helping Ironhide himself to shift Soundwave's corpse off of Skyfire when it had fallen on him. She certainly had the makings of a decent apprentice, and she wanted to learn the skills.

    However, he could not help but wonder whether it was right for him to encourage her in the ways of war. Skyfire would not be happy; Ratchet would probably blow a fuse in anger at his direct contradiction of his own peaceful ideals. Whether or not the former would even let Jade partake in the training was questionable.

    Finally, he spoke again: 'I will make a deal with you, Jade Rivers.'

    She nodded, her dark eyes intense and hopeful.

    'I will teach you how to defend yourself and those around you — but you must gain Skyfire's permission for me to do so.'

    Though her grin grew slack, she nodded. 'That's fair. Thank you, Ironhide,' she said sincerely and he mumbled something incoherent in response. 'I really do appreciate it.' With that, she opened the door and climbed back down, shutting it gently behind her.

    The radio link suddenly crackled into life. He opened a channel with its originator.

    /Starscream to Ironhide./

    /Present/ he grunted.

    /I have been unable to open a communications link with Prime, so I deemed it best to transfer the message through you. The twin that landed here has reacted somewhat less well than we had hoped to my presence among the Autobots, so I thought I'd best request permission to leave the two younglings to escort him back to the base./

    Bumblebee's indignant voice suddenly interrupted them:

    /I am not a youngling, Starscream!/

    /Bumblebee, I have told you repeatedly not to interrupt private radio communications!/ Ironhide snapped, and he felt Bumblebee leave the connection. /And you, Seraphim/ he added sternly, and the femme's faint signal soon disappeared from the line. /Starscream, I can't allow you to just leave the two of them — they need aerial cover in case of an attack./

    /Really?/ Starscream sneered, clearly angry at the refusal. /I can't begin to comprehend what you did without me, then. But I wasn't seeking your permission, Ironhide. I demand to be put through to Prime./

    Ironhide was an inch from cracking point. Starscream had become vaguely more tolerable over the past three years, but he was still quite an unpleasant character, in the warrior's opinion: especially with him. Perhaps it was due to the slight phase of competition that they had gone through when he had abandoned Alexis and Ironhide had taken over as her guardian, but for some reason the jet was always bad mannered and cocky whenever he spoke to him, and he had very nearly had enough of it.

    He took a moment before he repeated his refusal:

    /No, Starscream. I know for a fact that Optimus won't allow you to leave our smallest mech and a femme to escort Sideswipe back by themselves — especially with what Alexis had told us about the danger we now face. You should know better./

    He could hear Starscream's snarl from a state away.

    /Fine, then. The half-clocked youngling can remain in this unreasonable temper for the rest of the journey, and you will have the pleasure of explaining, upon our return, why he has been forced to travel with the Decepticon Air Commander for an hour and a half back to the base./

    /Bumblebee and Seraphim will explain. End of conversation./

    He cut the link.

    Starscream would always be that way; he knew that. But he knew that there was something like goodness in he ex-Decepticon somewhere. His words at the battle with Thrust had proved that – words of admiration for Optimus's command, and for the valour of the Autobots. He had fought to the death, for Alexis, for them all – and had very nearly paid the ultimate price for it.

    A low rumble passed through him in his vehicular version of a weary sigh. The world was so very, very difficult to live in sometimes.



    * * *



    The bird was unquestionably an albatross.

    Black-footed albatross, to be precise.

    Unlike most birds of its species, this albratross had a dark, sleek plumage, with soft white markings around the beak and below its beady eyes. The beak was sleek and elegantly curved, almost silver in the late sunset, and water rolled off its glossy feathers. It was a beautiful, calm creature, and so terribly still.

    He understood from a particular poem in human culture — The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — that the albatross represented the Christian soul, and that in that poem, it was supposed to have led a ship away from the bitter Antarctic. It was associated with good luck, and with the strong southern wind that had steered the ship to safety. Yet after the ship was out of danger, the albatross was shot with a cross-bow by the Mariner, and the crime stirred angry spirits. The ship was sent into uncharted waters, and the crew grew thirsty. As his punishment, the Mariner was forced to wear the dead corpse of the albatross about his neck, to illustrate the burden he must suffer after murdering it so cruelly.

    So the presence of this albatross — a bird native to California, but still far from its home on the shore — unsettled him.

    Not that he'd been settled originally.

    Ratchet heaved a sigh as he watched the bird fly away, back to wherever it had come from. He'd come out to Pine Flat Lake while Arcee did her rounds in the foothills. Had he stayed in the base, he would only have come face-to-face with his spark partner.

    'Hey.'

    Apparently he'd come face-to-face with her anyway.

    He slowly looked down, to where the voice had come from. And yes, there she was.

    'Can I help you?' he asked, as civilly as he could.

    The human female forced a small smile, but it did not light her intense, grey-blue eyes. They were framed by dark eyelashes. There was a distinct discomfort about her: it lurked in her eyes and in the way she held herself, with her hands behind her back like a scolded schoolgirl.

    'You're Ratchet, aren't you?'

    'Yes.'

    'The doctor?'

    'Chief Medical Officer.'

    'Oh, right. Sorry.'

    'There is no need to apologise. You must be Miss Connelly,' he conjectured, though he already knew very well who she was.

    'You can call me Rose, if you like.'

    'I am told that your full name is Rosa.'

    'I prefer Rose.'

    'Very well.'

    A silence fell between them. Ratchet pretended to look at the mountains, but the girl lingered on the peripheries of his vision.

    He recognised with some apprehension that she was beautiful. It was probably his subjective optics — the knowledge that this woman, in some small way, was part of him — but he found himself distantly reminded of Giovanni Bellini's portrayal of Mary Magdalene, a religious figure in human culture. He instantly regretted the comparison when he realised how absurd and obsequious it sounded, even in his mind. Her hair was almost the exact colour of the element called copper, though he could tell she'd used some kind of vegetable dye to achieve that particular burnished red. It rolled in thick waves down her back. She stood on long, slim legs — lengthened by her red silk court shoes and skintight black jeans — with a strange, uncertain grace that he couldn't quite wrap his processor around. It was as if she were balancing on cloud. Her nose was straight and thin, her eyes cool and intense. Most of her skin was pale, with a slight flush around her cheekbones.

    Slag it.

    Why did she have to be so easy on the optics? He'd never found humans attractive, but this one positively glowed in his direction.



    Rose — oblivious to his assessment — cleared her throat.

    'Look,' she said, 'I really came to ask if I'd offended you.'

    'Offended me?'

    'You haven't been near me since you set eyes on me.'

    He folded his arms over his broad asbergo. 'My position as the medical officer of this faction keeps me rather busy, as I am sure you understand,' he said, hating how he clinical sounded. 'My apologies if you received the wrong impression. It was not my intention.'

    'So you don't hate me,' she stated.

    'I do not hate anybody.'

    'Right.' She hooked her thumbs into her belt loops. 'Well, um. That's a start.'

    He turned away.

    'Where did everyone go?'

    So she wanted a conversation with him.

    'They have gone to meet two newcomers,' he explained, still cold as steel. 'Their names are Sunstreaker and Sideswipe. They landed a little way away from here, so I doubt that they will be back until tomorrow morning at the earliest.'

    She nudged a flower with the toe of her boot. 'Just you and me, then.'

    'And Arcee.'

    'Oh — yes, of course. But she's doing her rounds all night,' she pointed out.

    Primus.

    'Indeed,' he managed.

    'Do you think I could watch you working, or something?' she asked shyly. 'I'll be bored senseless otherwise.'

    There were two solutions to this rather portentous proposal. Either he could refuse, shut himself into the medical bay and tinker uselessly with one of Ironhide's cannons all night — as was his usual custom when there were no patients to treat and Mikaela was absent, and so unable to work with him — or he could agree to her request and allow her to watch him tinkering uselessly with one of Ironhide's cannons all night. It would be pointless, but it would please her.

    He sighed. 'Very well, then.'

    She smiled. His spark, ever determined to ruin him, positively glowed when he saw the gesture touch her eyes.

    'Thanks.'

    'My pleasure,' he murmured, hoping he sounded truthful.

    The problem was that he was being truthful, and wanted more than anything to be lying to her. But the idea of having her near to him made his spark grow hot and send sizzles of something unpredictable through his circuitry. His resolution to keep his distance was crumbling by the minute, and only a few of them had passed since she had made her first contact with him.

    He stood up, and she stumbled backwards to make way for him with a look of awe on her face. Straightening himself to his full height, he looked down at her with his small blue optics narrowed slightly and a slight smile on his face.

    'My apologies. I suppose I intimidate you.'

    'No — well, a bit.'

    A chuckle escaped him. 'You are above average height for a human female, are you not?' he reminded her. 'You must be used to being taller than others, and you know that they should not be intimidated by you just because of your height.'

    Rose laughed then: 'I think five foot eleven is a fair stretch from — what are you, twenty foot?'

    'A little over twenty-four.'

    'Right, exactly. Besides, it's not just because of your height that you intimidate people. More that you're a giant alien robot.'

    'Possibly.'

    She tilted her head. 'Definitely. Or maybe' — she swept her cool, clear-water gaze up to meet his — 'it's because you randomly run away from and then don't come near other people for three days? Or was I the only one to have that honour?'

    His asbergo tightened, but he tried to take it in his stride.

    'Only you,' he said dryly. 'Now, do you want to see me working or not?'

    'Yes, please.'

    He extended a servo. 'Up you get, then.'

    She blinked, clearly taken aback, but then her face relaxed into another smile.

    'Okay.'

    She stepped towards the proffered servo and grasped his opposor, levering herself into his palm and clinging to him like a personal barnacle. Her weight was soft and warm, sending tiny shocks through his circuitry. He he raised her up towards his left epauliere and gently assisted her in settling herself there.

    'Comfortable?' he asked.

    'Yes — thank you.'

    'Hm. Your bio-signs suggest you are afraid.'

    'You can read my bio-signs?' she asked, visibly unnerved.

    'I will desist if you are uncomfortable. I am a medical officer — it is my instinct.'

    'No, it's all right. I'm just not all that great with heights,' she explained. 'Funny, considering I'm pretty much the tallest girl around.'

    'It is strange,' he concurred. He took a step forward and felt her grasp part of his epauliere. 'But why don't we strike a bargain? If you fall, I give you my word that I will catch you.'

    'What, you have Superman reflexes?'

    'You must remember that I am not human.'

    And that is what makes the spark's decision so complex.

    'Of course — sorry, I almost forget.' She paused. 'I can understand now why the others are so comfortable around you.'

    'We are not so different on the inside, much as we differ outwardly. We are all sentient beings, and share many of the same common interests.'

    'What common interests?'

    'Peace, for one.'

    Rose smiled thinly. 'You'd be surprised. Some humans spit on peace.'

    'Do you?'

    'No, of course not.'

    'There you have it.'

    He walked through the back door of the warehouse and approached the medical bay, right at the heart of the Pine Flat Lake base. As soon as he entered his territory, he felt better about everything. Surrounded by his tools and equipment, and that wonderful air of comfort his personal space exuded, he felt suddenly that he could handle this situation far better than he could outside of it. Rose was deposited carefully on the workbench, where she tottered on her heels.

    'I strongly recommend that you sit down,' he said.

    'I'm fine, really.'

    He took a fold-up chair from Mikaela's workbench and set it in front of her. 'I insist.'

    Rose slowly lowered herself into the chair.

    He kept faceplate clear of emotion, but his CPU was circulating a medley of thoughts, of ideas, of things he wanted to say to her: Primus, you are quite literally the most beautiful creature I've ever laid optics on. Were you really meant for me? Would you ever even cast your eye towards an ancient mech like me? Is there any point in my even speaking to you, lovely as you are?

    His digits flexed into a fist.

    Stop, you old fool.

    He turned away from her to select one of the tools that Mikaela had given him for Christmas three years beforehand. The same Christmas that Starscream had received a chamois from the girls, and the Christmas that had been their last oasis of joy before the Decepticon threat had become too great for any more enjoyment. He wished that Mikaela was here now to offer him some guidance on how he was doing, and hoped that she would return swiftly.

    Two parts of his mind argued furiously with each other, battling and bantering. He should have refused her request to come and watch him. This was his place of peace and privacy, and he was breaking his oath to himself to remain impervious to her despite what his spark was telling him to do.

    Rose was watching him. He turned back towards the workbench, now armed with his preferred wrench.

    When you pay more attention to a female than a slaggin' wrench —

    He shoved the memory into a dark corner of his CPU, embittered. This was his purpose — this was what he loved and held most dear in the universe. The ability to heal and repair what damage that evil had done was the most precious gift of all time, and he cherished it. How could he let a matter like a spark partner come between him and what he was trying to do with his existence — turn it into something worthwhile?

    Rose was silent as he set to work on correcting some loose bolts on the component, longing to be able to concentrate as much as he appeared to be doing. However, after a few minutes, he reasoned that the silence was becoming a little oppressive.

    I'm afraid I know very little about you, Rose.'

    Rose smiled shyly.

    'I could say the same for you,' she said.

    'Ladies first.'

    'What do you want to know?'

    'Tell me a little of your history. I understand you are from England.'

    'Yes, I was born in London. Chiswick, to be precise.' She watched as he corrected the bolts, visibly intrigued, but continued without mentioning it: 'Not much to say about my childhood, really. My parents are both university graduates. Dad's a police officer, Mum's in the publishing industry. They divorced when I was thirteen, and my dad decided he wanted to make a change and move to America — to get away from all the paperwork, mostly, and all the shit he's been through with his job. The divorce was messy, and he has all sorts of psychological issues from his work on the homicide unit.' She sighed. 'I went with him because I didn't want to move to the country with Mum.'

    There was pain in her voice — raw, authentic pain that just touched her words, but spoke volumes.

    'Why not?' he asked calmly.

    'I can't stand the country. She wanted to take me to Cornwall, in the south, but I wasn't having any of that.'

    'I see. I imagine that having your parental units separate must be tremendously upsetting.'

    'I got over it.'

    'Did you?'

    'I had to. Besides, it's nothing next to what Alexis went through.'

    Ratchet's optics shuttered momentarily as he recalled the climax of the battle for the base, two years beforehand. Alexis's words of hatred for Starscream when she learned that her guardian — her tough, possessive guardian — had murdered her father in cold blood at Mission City.

    'No,' he said, 'I suppose not. But you must still have endured a great deal of emotional pain.'

    She smiled weakly. He returned to his work, but his attention span was distinctly lacking now.

    'Enough of your past, then,' he said, forcing an upbeat tone. 'What of your present, Rose?'

    'Good question.' She crossed her legs. 'Well, I haven't done very much since arriving here, apart from try and hold down three jobs to feed my poor car. I'm just preparing for my degree at the moment — hoping to major in History at Cornell, with a minor in English Literature. I'm so nervous, though.'

    'Why?'

    'American colleges sound scary. I'm terribly British,' she admitted. 'I'm worried I won't fit in.'

    'I see no reason why you should not. You seem intelligent and reasonable enough, for a human.'

    Rose laughed. 'Was that a compliment?'

    'Yes,' he said, perplexed. 'Did you find it offensive?'

    'No, it's fine. I take it you don't give compliments to girls very often, though,' she added, with a soft smile.

    His first instinct was to snap — to deny it — but he found he couldn't help but give a low chuckle.

    'Was it very obvious?'

    'Just a little.'

    He forced himself to be calm, to keep up appearances, but his spark had turned very cold. She already thought him an incompetent idiot. Resisting the urge to throw down his tools, curl up on the floor and saw through his own head, he cleared his vocal apparatus and made another stab at conversation:

    'You are interested in history, then.'

    Obviously. She's studying it.

    'I adore it,' she said, with feeling.

    'Are you familiar with the reign of the Tudor dynasty in England?' he asked, and she tilted her head. 'I am rather fascinated by the life of King Henry the Eighth and his descendants. I have studied worldwide history using the World Wide Web. You humans have certainly come through a great deal to get to where you are now, in the modern age.'

    'You like Henry the Eighth?'

    He nodded.

    'Wow,' she said, smiling. 'Well, Ratchet — I think we do have something in common.'





    *Chapter 9*: Crave


    Chapter Nine

    Crave



    * * *



    "GET BACK HERE IMMEDIATELY!"

    Sunstreaker, Bumblebee, Miles, Sam and Sideswipe were almost tripping over their own feet as they fled from the hopping mad medic, convinced that they were quite literally running for their lives. Although Ratchet was as much of a pacifist as one could be in the middle of an intergalactic war, the twins had both had rather bad experiences with him when he was in this sort of mood, and Sam was absolutely certain that he was actually going to do as he was threatening to do – chop at least one limb from each of them with his gyratory saw.

    "Quick men, flee!" the crimson twin shouted almost gleefully, snatching the boys up and thrusting them up into his shoulder armour without slowing his pace one iota.

    They took him at his word – Bumblebee started playing a fast, remixed song from his radio in his exhilaration as they rounded another corner in the base, hearing the footfalls of the medical officer smashing behind them with the sounds of Hell crashing down, and Sunstreaker managed to smack him on the head as they fled.

    "Silence, you aft-head - you'll attract him!"

    Sam was laughing so hard he thought he might rupture something as he clung for dear life to Sideswipe's red armour next to Miles, bouncing like a rubber ball as the quintet of pranksters attempted to shake Ratchet off their tail. He had predicted that these guys would be fun, but he had never imagined that they would be quite this fun.

    Almost three weeks had passed since their arrival, and Sam had never been more enthused about spending time with the Autobots. He and Miles had immediately clicked with the twins, who were already partners in crime with Bumblebee, and the five of them had pulled more pranks over the three weeks that had passed than Ironhide had cannons in his arsenal. As Ironhide had told Jade wearily, the jokes were usually at the expense of the grumpy soldier or Ratchet, who had proved to be the most entertaining – if terrifying – candidates.

    Skyfire, who had just stepped out of his quarters, quickly stepped back to allow the three mechs to rampage past like a herd of elephants. "Where are you five off to in such a hurry?" he chuckled, and Sunstreaker pointed wildly behind them.

    "Stop the maniac, big guy!" he almost shrieked, even as Ratchet rounded the corner with the fury of a thousand warriors in his look.

    He raised his saw and wasted no time in springing after them – Bumblebee panicked and somehow, in his haste, ended up on the floor with Sunstreaker underneath him. Sideswipe skidded to a halt and Sam and Miles steadied themselves as the crimson mech looked between his fellow pranksters and the incoming threat that was the incensed Ratchet.

    Sam put his hands in his hair in mock horror. "We can't just leave them, Sides'!" he cried with faux anguish.

    "It's okay, I've got a plan!" Sideswipe responded enthusiastically before he rounded on Mikaela, who had just entered the corridor with a packet of potato chips in one hand. "The doctor will never fail to cooperate if we follow the damsel in distress exercise!"

    And Mikaela, who had only left the safety of the human recreation area for a quick snack, soon found herself elevated twenty feet into the air and dangled in front of her rapidly approaching guardian like a tempting piece of meat. A rather pained expression appeared on her suntanned face and she twisted her neck to face her captor and give him a distinctly pitying look. "Sideswipe, please. We've tried this before."

    "And it worked!" he pointed out triumphantly. "Doc, stop in the name of the useless human commandments!"

    Miles scratched his head. "Huh? It's stop in the name of the law, man."

    "Same thing," Sideswipe sighed, raising his optics to the ceiling for a moment before he brandished Mikaela at Ratchet like a sword. "Halt sir, or the lady gets dropped twenty-one feet to the ground and crushed beneath my all-powerful foot!"

    Sam buried his face in Miles's shoulder and laughed silently until tears began to come up in his eyes. Their humour was so bizarre, but when he was on a sugar rush like this he found it hilarious. Miles was no better: the blonde was almost choking on his own mirthful tears, unable to so much as squeak due to his hysterical paralysis.

    Sam made a mental note to cut back on the donuts before he went on 'prank patrol' with the twins and Bumblebee again – he was going crazy.

    Ratchet had stopped by this time, and glared at Sideswipe. "If you drop her," he said simply, "I will decapitate you with this saw and then display your severed head as a reminder to all not to touch Mikaela Banes unless they want to die an extremely painful death."

    Mikaela gave Sideswipe a smug sort of look.

    Bumblebee and Sunstreaker, who had been trying to back away from Ratchet subtly, suddenly found themselves with the medic's face shoved into theirs. He looked between the two golden mechs fiercely, making his saw spin threateningly next to Sunstreaker's head.

    "If you ever enter my medical bay and plant those fetid items there again," he warned in a low voice, and Sunstreaker cringed away from the weapon. "I will make sure your paintjob is absolutely irreparable, Sunstreaker."

    "Yessir!" he squeaked.

    "As for you, youngling," Ratchet snarled at Bumblebee, who cowered beneath him, "Those vocal processors can always be rewired back into silence, and I assure you that I will have no problems whatsoever with doing just that during your next diagnostic if you are not very careful."

    He received a shaky nod and a single, fragmented word from a song in response. "C-cool!"

    "What on earth's going on?" a new voice asked enquiringly and Ratchet almost took Sunstreaker's sharp, angular nose off when he swung his saw away from the two fallen partners and retracted it quickly back into his forearm. Sunstreaker let out a shriek of surprise and covered his face protectively with both hands.

    "Not the nose!" he pleaded, and Bumblebee shook with laughter beneath him.

    Ratchet thought he might offline out of pure embarrassment when he saw Rose standing at the doorway to the communications room, her dark eyebrows raised and her copper hair swept up into an untidy ponytail with thick strands falling down on either side of her face. She surveyed the scene curiously, as if were an interesting Broadway show.

    "Nothing to worry about," he grumbled, mortified, before standing up and giving Sunstreaker a venomous glare. Rose tilted her head to one side and laughed when she saw the still-horrified look on Sunstreaker's face. "It is hardly funny…"

    She giggled, taking in the scene with nothing less than amusement. "You must be joking – it's side-splitting!"

    The medic frowned. "'Side-splitting'? I should hope not – your vitals would fall out."

    Mikaela could not contain her amusement at that comment, and Ratchet looked at each one of them with bewilderment as they all started to chuckle – even Skyfire, who had been watching the entire scenario from a safe distance. "Oh, Ratch'," she tittered, one hand near her mouth as if she wanted to muffle the sound, "I really do love you."

    "No you do not," he said resentfully, "None of you do. And one day, when you all come to me with your various infirmities and health complaints, I am going to kick you out of the medical bay on your afts and let you sort your own problems out."

    "Have at thee, fiend!" Sunstreaker suddenly yelled, lashing out at Ratchet's shins with the flat side of his retractable axe.

    The medic went down like several tonnes of bricks, and Bumblebee's eyes widened when he found himself beneath both Sunstreaker and Ratchet. "Primus, you two!" he complained, wriggling fruitlessly beneath Ratchet's bulk. "Lose some tonnes!"

    Rose's smile grew in width until it turned into a full-fledged grin, and her eyes sparkled as she watched Ratchet pick himself up with an exasperated huff and give her a look that was half-mortified and half-furious. "What's with the medieval lingo, Sunstreaker?" she asked with interest when she had finally controlled her smirk. "You sound like you've just stepped out of a Shakespeare play."

    "Who's Shakespeare?" Miles asked, frowning.

    Sam rolled his eyes. "Jeez, no wonder you didn't pass the literature exam, man. The man with the ruff that wrote Macbeth."

    "That's your description of Shakespeare?" Rose asked, apparently quite insulted by the idea. "He was the greatest writer in English history, thank you very much – the writer of Romeo and Juliet, for goodness sakes! I'm telling you, if a man quoted Shakespeare at me, I would be… 'putty in his hands', I think you Americans say."

    Mikaela bit her lip to disguise her mischievous grin and wondered whether Ratchet was thinking what she was thinking. That was certainly a nice titbit of information to save for a rainy day.

    Sunstreaker finally shifted his aft off of Bumblebee, who stood up hastily before anybody else could crush him. They shied away from the medic's furious glare and both shuffled off towards Sideswipe, their heads bowed as if in shame to conceal victorious grins. They had succeeded in drawing the Hatchet from his lair for the fifth time in a week – a new record, to be sure – and had managed to do without losing any vital parts or being forced into doing somebody's chores for a year.

    The young woman standing in the doorway watched as the five-man-and-mech team of jokers made their way down the corridor with Mikaela, still smiling slightly. Much as the Autobots had terrified her initially, she had to admit that she was having fun staying with them. They made her laugh like nobody ever had – Ratchet most of all.

    The ruffled medic in question finally retracted his Gyro saw back into his forearm and shook his head, muttering incoherently to himself.

    "Are you alright?" she asked through an irresistible giggle, and he looked up in shock as if he had forgotten that she was there. "Didn't hurt yourself falling on top of Bumblebee, or anything?"

    "Certainly not," he snorted. "But I sincerely hope it hurt him, the impudent youngling."

    With that, he stormed off down the corridor back towards the medical wing without so much as a second glance.

    She shook her head in mystification, wondering what was the matter with him sometimes. He was quite odd around her; sometimes he could be friendly and inviting, but other times he could be grumpy and short with her. She reasoned that it was just his personality, and reminded herself that she was still a newcomer amongst their ranks – she doubted that they could trust all that easily, being soldiers in a war of such an enormous scale. Perhaps she would gain his trust soon…

    Her stomach growled and she sighed, rolling her eyes; she knew she had forgotten to eat that morning. She turned towards the human sleeping quarters, intending to get her jacket and then beg a lift off of one of the Autobots to get some lunch for them all from a takeout.

    Ratchet had certainly been an interest of sorts to her since they had first spoken. He still had not explained his sudden flight from the base when she had first arrived, but they had spoken for a long time once they had got started on history – he was certainly very knowledgeable, and she had loved debating the innocence of the king's second wife with him. It was a period of history that she had always adored, and she was delighted to find someone who knew as much about it as she did.

    As well as his obvious wisdom, she could see that he was compassionate despite his crabbiness. Whatever he might say about it, it was clear that he was passionate about his work – healing and repairing. She admired it about him; there was something very commendable about a job like that. She yearned to know more about him, and decided to go and see if she could watch him work with Mikaela later.

    She approached the camp bed that had been set up for her in Jade's room – Mikaela and Alexis shared the other in the girl's quarters – and picked up her soft black coat, slinging it over one arm. She had not had a chance to speak with Alexis for all three weeks she had been there; the girl was always out somewhere.

    Where was a different matter. She would have to ask Ratchet or Sideswipe, whom she had befriended, later.

    As she left the room, she was not expecting to see Jade Rivers in the midst of a passionate embrace with a person she had never seen in her life, but there it was. The small brunette was holding onto the much taller man and kissing him deeply, immediately making Rose feel uncomfortable for stumbling upon them.

    She considered scooting past them with swift, silent precision, but they were right in the doorway, right in her way, and there really was no other choice but to announce her presence so that they could detach themselves from each other and remove themselves from her path.

    "Bloody hell," she muttered, putting a hand to her forehead and sighing pointedly to make herself known.

    Jade and her lover sprung apart, the former's cheeks glowing in her embarrassment. She quickly brushed her long, tangled locks away from her eyes, looking as if she wanted the floor to open up and swallow her. The man, however, remained white as a sheet, and merely smiled at Rose as if she was an innocent child that had stumbled upon kissing parents.

    "Um…" Rose said suspiciously when neither of them offered her any explanation or apology, eyeing the man with mistrust. "Not meaning to be rude, but… well, who are you?"

    The man about seven feet tall, which she would usually have found somewhat intimidating, but he had a kind face that suggested that he would not harm her if she came within a few feet of him. His skin was ghostly white – unnaturally so – and his eyes were bright blue, like gas flames. His longish, dark blonde hair was endearingly messy, but he exuded a sense of majesty nonetheless. She could see that his arms were extremely muscular, and he generally looked rather regal.

    "He's my boyfriend!" Jade announced cheerily with a smile as fake as a china doll's. "Um – yeah – his name's, um, Steve."

    Rose's eyebrow curved sceptically. "Steve," she repeated, to nods from both of them. "I see."

    After a few moments, in which the two of them continued to look at her like rabbits caught in headlights, Rose's eyes caught sight of something that appeared to be coming into the man's head from elsewhere. A thin, hair-like line of blue light. As she cast her gaze down his body, she saw more of them – they were all over him. She would not have noticed had she not been looking for them, but now she saw them she could hardly believe that she had not.

    Jade swallowed hard.

    Her eyes crept up the first ray, following its path. It extended through the open doorway of the other entrance that the two had been leaning against, and she stepped forward to see it more clearly.

    "Um, Rose… I don't know if you should do that…" Jade said slowly, looking up – rather a long way, Rose noted with amusement – at 'Steve'. He, however, remained with his cerulean cores fixed directly on Rose with a reasonably tranquil expression on his fine features.

    Rose glanced at her. "I think I should," she disagreed, and Jade looked as if she might faint with dismay.

    She leant around the doorpost, hanging out to see where the light was coming from. It was reflecting off of a window, and the young woman approached it with an intrigued expression. "Some kind of laser expert are we, Steve?" she asked, and turned briefly to face him.

    His strong, kind-looking face exuded calmness, but she could see worry lingering in his cobalt eyes. "Of a sort," he admitted finally in a voice that was deep but very gentle.

    By this point she had reached the grimy window, and she reached out a hand to touch the glass, affecting the light that was bouncing off of it. The man flickered, and her head flicked to observe it with alarm. She removed her hand and he returned to normal, and then waved her hand over the light rays once again, watching his body flicker and an almost mechanical look to appear about him. "Okay, what's going on?" she asked, her voice quavering slightly as her hand remained on the mirror.

    The two of them exchanged glances and Rose removed her fingers from the glass, allowing the man to return to his normal status. He took a step forward, prompting her to throw herself back against the glass in an effort to get away from him. "Miss Connelly, I am not going to hurt you," he murmured in a sincere voice. "But my name is not Steve."

    "I guessed," Rose said, her eyes wide. "For God's sake, I've only just gotten used to the giant alien robots – what're you, the Terminator?"

    Jade had her hand to her face, but her flush was visible from beneath it. "Sky, we can't – she won't understand –" she said weakly.

    "Understand what?" the other girl pressed, shoving her back up against the glass when the man approached her. "What the bloody hell is going on?" She stepped away from the mirror then, but interrupted the rays – the man flickered, showing obviously mechanical insides, and she gasped in shock. "What the hell are you?"

    He sighed. "Turn around, Miss Connelly."

    She stared at him for a few seconds before slowly, she turned around.

    The light rays all came to a point above her head, originating in the bright blue optic sensors of the largest Autobot she had ever seen in her life. It was absolutely colossal – she had thought that Optimus Prime was big, but this one looked too big to be allowed. It was a dark silver-grey in colour, and a cockpit made up its chest, an Autobot symbol painted to one side of it.

    Two things registered in her mind at the same time: firstly that 'Steve' was actually some kind of hologram produced by this enormous Autobot. This thought led onto the rather disturbing fact that Jade had been kissing the said hologram.

    "B-but…" she stammered, turning around and seeing that 'Steve' had taken Jade's hand tightly in his much larger one. "That would mean…"

    That Jade is having a romantic relationship with one of the Autobots?

    The man smiled humourlessly. "Allow me to introduce myself, Miss Connelly." He vanished, and Rose leapt backwards as if she had been burnt with a white-hot iron when the Autobot behind her reactivated and stepped forward with a resounding boom. "My name is Skyfire, and I am the Air Commander of the Autobot force."

    Rose stared at him with a truly stunned expression that twitched between reverential and aghast.

    "I… how would that work?" she whispered, shaking her head and feeling her back against the mirror again. Her knees suddenly buckled and she slid down the glass, unable to take her eyes off of the mighty creature before her. "Oh my God…"

    Jade was wringing her hands and looked as if she might burst into tears. "Rose, honestly – it does work!" she babbled, as Rose stared at the ground in total shock as if she could not believe what she was hearing. "It's just different – I mean, it's not as if it's a Decepticon and a human, like Starscream and Alexis –"

    "Jade!" Skyfire interrupted swiftly, but it was too late.

    Rose's head snapped up and her lips parted in astonishment as Jade gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth, flushing bright pink. Her brown eyes flicked from the other girl to Skyfire, who froze and watched as Rose slowly shook her head before she let out her first scream of the many that were about to ensue.

    "WHAT?"



    * * *



    Starscream looked down at his human form with some distaste. Using his hologram was physically demanding and drained energon from his body as easily as sand ran through fingertips, and it felt extremely uncomfortable to be human, though his holoform had many restrictions – he was not used to having such slender limbs, nor wearing clothing. That was probably the most annoying part of the whole thing: why humans felt the need to wear it was quite beyond him.

    According to Alexis, without clothes humans felt embarrassed about their bodies and shied away from exposure to each other, unless they were involved romantically – even then, she had said, it was hard to overcome the need to hide themselves away behind barriers of cotton and cloth. He could not understand why their natural forms were so humiliating to them, and probably never would.

    However, the young woman resting on his chest was a merciful distraction from his discomfort.

    He ran his long, pale fingers through Alexis's short hair and she shifted a little against him, her hand idly tracing circles on the synthetic flesh of his bare chest where his black shirt hung open. Her slender torso rested against him and he was against her all the way down to where their legs were entwined as they lay together on the couch in the communications room.

    True, it was risky being here: Rose still had no idea about their relationship, and Alexis had no wish for her to find out, but he had hidden his feelings for Alexis for months before he had finally kissed her and told her how he felt. It had taken death to give him the courage to do that, and he would be damned to the Pit if he would ever hide away from the truth about her again.

    A soft sigh escaped her and he looked down the line of his chest to see what was wrong. "Alexis?"

    "Mm?" she hummed, tilting her head back to look at him properly.

    Primus, her eyes, he thought. Why ever was she given such breathtaking eyes? "You sounded… sorrowful," he murmured, and she smiled slightly. "Is something wrong?"

    She pressed her cheek against his pale, muscular chest and ran a hand across it gently. "No… I'm fine. Don't worry about me, Starscream."

    Why was she saying that, when she looked so troubled?

    It was laughable that she thought she could fool him. He had been programmed as a Decepticon – he could sense lies as easily as he could hear her heartbeat from where it throbbed in her neck and her wrists from her heart. "You cannot fool me," he said and she looked up at him again, huddling into the arm that came around her tightly. "Tell me."

    "Nothing," she insisted, reaching a frail hand up to caress his chiselled, flawless features. "I'm just glad we finally got a moment together… what with Rose around and the twins kicking up hell on earth for poor Ratchet every five minutes, we don't get much downtime."

    "Would you be partial to a ride tonight, then?" he asked with an impish smile.

    He heard her pulse flutter distinctly when he smiled, and vaguely wondered whether he should try it more often. "Mm… yes, please," she said softly, turning her head back to rest against his chest and closing her eyes.

    Her caresses were beginning to drive him insane; she seemed to relish teasing him. He gently scooped a hand back under her chin and dragged her light body further up to his with his arm so that she was leaning over him a little, her mousy hair falling down into his face. She quirked an eyebrow at him and they both smiled slightly.

    "You are right," he admitted huskily as she leant down, her torso pressing intimately against his bare chest. "It is… good to have time together like this."

    His spark was burning up with want for her. Three long years had passed, and there had been no mating ritual between them; she had always seemed too embarrassed to talk about it, and he had been trying to be a 'gentleman', in a sense, by keeping quiet about it. But she was his spark partner – he knew that for certain – and that spark could not wait much longer.

    His sign that she was 'the one' had been far less dramatic that Ratchet's. It had happened when he had been stalking her for information on the Autobots, and had waited outside her house one night – the night before she had met them. When he had first met her eyes through the window in the darkness, when she had called out to him, wondering who he might be. He had felt the slightest flare in his chest, and had quickly returned to his true form to find his spark searing, as if pure fire had touched it.

    Ratchet's indication had been a chance in something like a billion to one.

    And, much as he respected the medic, he could not resist an internal smirk at the thought – it had to be Ratchet, possibly the most uncomfortable mech in the world around femmes, that had that happen to him.

    Alexis looked into his eyes, leaning over him with her lips lingering painfully close to his. "Starscream," she breathed, and he sat up then, both arms coming around her waist. Her slender legs were forced apart around his torso, her thighs on either side of his strong waist, and her heartbeat spiked abruptly at the motion.

    "Yes?" he whispered, his large hands sliding up under her flimsy shirt and up her back, tracing the protruding line of her spine.

    Before either of them knew what was happening, they were locked at the mouth in a fiery, rough kiss that made Alexis's heart rate hit the roof as his lips slammed into hers, knocking the breath from her lungs. He clasped her body to his in his possessive way and she grabbed the back of his shirt in return, kissing him ravenously as he had wanted her to since the last time they had shared a kiss.

    She was breathless within seconds and he pulled away quickly to let her take a breath, seeing that her eyes were feverish with desire. He looked into them with unbridled lust, wanting her more than anything else he had ever wanted in the universe, including Megatron's place as Decepticon leader.

    A chuckle rolled from between his lips as she leant forward, already impatient for more of him. "You roguish femme."

    "You started it," she pouted, but could not help but smile mischievously at his description of her.

    He felt her shiver beneath his hands as they wandered around from her back, holding her at the waist. He captured her mouth again, demanding entrance wordlessly, and she parted her lips a little to let him in, giving herself over to him.

    Fragile hands came to his shoulders and he caught her around the waist again, bringing her down to the couch so that she was beneath him and he was leaning over her with playful aggression. Locks of blonde hair fell into his gorgeously crimson eyes and he saw her becoming breathless again. Her heartbeat had never been quite so… irregular.

    Her tongue flicked over her lips to moisten them nervously, and she looked deep into his eyes as if searching for something behind them. Whatever she wanted to know, he would tell her. Whatever she wanted of him… whatever she asked of him.

    She swallowed thickly and then took a small breath to fill her deprived lungs. "Starscream…" she whispered, "Do you love me?"

    Love.

    Once upon a time, he would have been absolutely disgusted had a human asked him such a question. Starscream had never loved anyone or anything but power, and he had never known the love of another in return. Humans had once made him feel nauseous, with their flimsy organic bodies and utter weakness, but now he could not work out how he had been so callous.

    True, he was still a Decepticon. He could never escape that; he had been programmed to be that way, after all. Evil was wired into him. Corruption flowed with energon throughout his metallic veins. And yet… she had changed that.

    "What sort of question is that?" he said sternly, leaning down with his arms on either side of her and his hands just about cupping her face.

    "One I'm asking…" She closed her eyes when he leant down to brush her neck with a kiss, his teeth grazing her skin intoxicatingly. "Don't… distract me…" she tried to scold, becoming breathless again as her heart fluttered like a butterfly. "I know your game, Starscream…"

    A soft laugh escaped him. "You will never know my game. But yes," he added, almost inaudibly. "I do love you. And only you."

    A smile broke out across her face and she let out a sharp breath of apparent relief, bringing her arms up around him again and drawing him closer to her so that their bodies had no space left between them. "Good," she sighed softly before pressing her lips up against his again, her passion for him remaining utterly voracious.

    "You doubted me?" he said when they finally parted.

    "No," she whispered, shaking her head and letting her fingers trail down his neck. "But… you don't say it much."

    Starscream brushed some stray strands of hair from her eyes and kissed her briefly. "And I am sorry for that," he murmured, caressing her soft, pale cheek. "I know that I should. But…" he lowered his ruby-like eyes, "It is… hard, after so many years of never loving…"

    She pressed a finger to his lips, her heart hurting her. She had not intended to ignite such terrible memories of his past, and guilt gnawed at her for her simple request to hear him tell her that he loved her. "It's okay," she assured him in a hushed voice. "I always know it… I understand."

    "You deserve to be told," he denied, his nose touching hers. "I should not let the past corrupt the present."

    There was no chance for her to reply as she found herself kissing him again, her body tightening reflexively as he touched her with an intimacy that she had never known before she had met him. She wanted him so badly it hurt her – she would give herself over to him in heart, in body, in mind, if he so desired it of her…

    "ALEXIS PAXTON!"

    The holoform and the human both jumped apart involuntarily and Starscream could have hissed with frustration. Alexis turned her head in surprise. "That's Rose…" she said uncertainly.

    "Primus…" Starscream muttered, before his hologram vanished and his true form reactivated above them.

    Before anyone could stop her, the enraged redhead had slammed into the room, closely pursued by Sam, Mikaela and Jade. She saw Alexis within range of Starscream and immediately let out an ear-piercing shriek of fury that made Starscream wince when his auditory sensors rebelled against the high-pitched tone – the irksome female could rival Blackout's sonic booms, and they had been enough to make heads explode if he had engineered them to do so in battle.

    "So it's true!" she said almost triumphantly, her cheeks glowing with anger. "I knew there was something dodgy going on with you two, but this – how could you, Alexis? What is this place, some sort of madhouse?"

    Mikaela put a hand on her forearm, looking up and into Starscream's eyes for a moment. "Rose, listen –"

    Rose, however, was not allowing anyone to comfort her, and appeared to be too long gone into her outburst to be drawn from it. "I mean, what the hell are you doing, getting yourself romantically involved with a giant alien robot? How does it work? It's a bloody ridiculous concept – especially with that obnoxious bastard –"

    Starscream let out a deafening, feral snarl that would have terrified the wits out of any ordinary person, but Rose appeared unmoved by it, merely glaring at him with a tightly clenched jaw and her painted fingernails digging into her palms as her hands balled into fists.

    "How dare you insult him?" Alexis shot back angrily, motioning for Starscream to put her down, which he did. "He's a better person than you'll ever be –"

    Sam decided to try and step in at this point, swiftly stepping in front of Rose and holding his hands out to halt Alexis in her tracks when she looked as if she might throw a punch at her stepsister. "Alexis, calm down – Rose, you too –" he grunted, slinging an arm around Rose's waist when she tried to get in front of him. "C'mon, let's just talk like –"

    "You stupid girl!" Rose snapped at Alexis from where she was caught by his forearm, "Your mother thinks you're all Miss Innocence, doesn't she? Her lovely little girl who's never had a boyfriend – oh no, Alexis Paxton is too perfect to have a boyfriend – and here you are, doing God-only-knows-what with a God-knows-how-dangerous alien machine!"

    Alexis actually shoved Sam out of the way then, and he raised his hands in surrender, shocked by her move. The two reluctant stepsisters squared up to each other, which was a little more effective on Rose's part due to her height – she was five inches taller than Alexis, after all. However, the petite girl was absolutely seething with rage, and it showed in her stance and features quite clearly how irate she was.

    Jade stepped back, looking very upset and with her lower lip quivering dangerously; Mikaela, on the other hand, turned and dashed out of the room, looking back over her shoulder anxiously as she went.

    "He may be a machine, but he's better than any man I've ever come across," Alexis snarled, her face as near to Rose's as it could get without her standing on tiptoes. "I don't see you getting to know him before you judge him –"

    "Oh yes," Rose scoffed sarcastically. "I obviously couldn't tell what a horrible personality he has from the way he treated me when I first –"

    "That was a one-off!" she shouted back, her cheeks flushing and her eyes bright with antagonism. "It wasn't as if you didn't deserve it, anyway, following me and acting like you care about my mother more than I do –"

    Rose's look was venomous poison as she glared at the shorter girl. "I probably do!" she pointed out, planting her hands on her hips. Her already rosy cheeks remained bright, and now both faux family members were breathing harshly in their anger at each other. "You're certainly not doing her much good at the moment! Her husband died and you –"

    "DON'T YOU THINK I KNOW THAT?" Alexis screamed, and Mikaela suddenly ran back into the room, pursued by Seraphim, Carlos and Arcee. The two femmes quickly took the arms of one of the girls each – Arcee gently pinched Alexis's clothes to hold her still, and Seraphim took over from Sam's previous position with an arm around Rose's waist. "I think I might be able to notice that my dad is DEAD, don't you?" Alexis screeched nonetheless.

    "Stop this immediately," a new voice suddenly thundered.

    Rose and Alexis stopped struggling; the others looked up in shock.

    Optimus Prime was standing in the doorway, looking at them with a disappointment that was worse than his anger could ever be.

    "This is the Autobot base," he said with a quiet dignity, "A place where our peace can be kept without any threat of the Decepticons disturbing it. Why, then, do I come in here to find this room in a state of warfare – between not only allies, but sisters?"

    "She is not my sister," Alexis spat. "She's a bitch."

    Rose looked as if she might have clawed at her had Seraphim not got a hold of both of her arms. "Wouldn't want to be a relative of yours, whore!"

    Starscream sprung forward then with a Cybertronian screech of rage, and both Seraphim and Rose gasped in shock as his massive bulk came flying towards them. He looked as if he was truly ready to tear Rose apart; his crimson optics were on fire with fury, and his long fingers were hooked into claws as if he intended to tear them through her fragile human skin.

    However, as he was about to snatch her up in one hand and throttle her until her bones broke, an arm slammed into his chest, breaking the force of the spring and sending him off-course – he careered into the wall instead, snarling at the sharp pain of the impact as he slammed back to the ground with a thunderous crash that rattled the teeth of all the humans in the room.

    "Starscream!" Alexis gasped, wrenching her collar free of Arcee's hand and rushing towards him.

    Ratchet was crouched over Rose and Seraphim, his arm still extended above them as a shield. Rose's knees had given way in fear at the unexpected attack and she was hanging loosely in the femme drone's arms, but she met Ratchet's eyes when he looked down at her. His face was impassive, but his eyes told a different story.

    Why did he do that…?

    Optimus stepped forward, casting each person in the room an individual look, including Starscream, who was still reeling on the floor from the head-on collision with the wall. "I am very disappointed in you, Starscream," he said simply, and the jet glared at him. "You should know better than to try and attack one of the humans."

    "She started it!" Alexis argued with her hand at Starscream's head, pointing the other accusingly at Rose. "It wasn't his fault – she provoked him!"

    "Tranquilo, Alexis," Carlos advised worriedly from where he stood beside Seraphim.

    "He should have remained above such provocation then, Alexis," Optimus said sternly to the girl, and she looked as if she might burst into tears. "I am not angry with any of you, but I am saddened by your behaviour – all three of you," he added to Rose, who looked at her feet. "I never want to see this sort of conduct in this base again. Is that understood?"

    Seraphim saluted him smartly. "Yes, sir," she agreed, echoed by Arcee.

    "I agree," Ratchet murmured, not taking his eyes off Rose, who whispered an affirmative as Seraphim gently loosened her arms around her and let her stand unaided. She swayed for a moment and then put a hand to her face as if she had developed a migraine. "Most improper…" Upon his saying this, her cheeks turned pink beneath her fingers.

    Optimus looked at Starscream intently.

    Crimson eyes burnt back into his for almost half a minute before finally, he lowered his head to look at Alexis instead. "Understood," he muttered, and Alexis managed a stiff nod towards the commander.

    With one last look at all of them, Optimus turned and left the room, leaving a wake of silent shame behind him.

    Alexis opened her mouth at once to verbally abuse Rose but Ratchet spoke over her. "Enough, Alexis." She shut her mouth again, looking hurt, but her sharp green eyes cut like daggers into Rose's blue ones.

    Rose bit her lip, her eyes filling with tears, before she cast Ratchet one more look and made a break for the door.

    "Wow…" Sam breathed, shaking his head. "Now that was a bitch fight."

    "Hell yeah, man," Carlos murmured.

    Once it had slammed closed, Alexis stood up as Starscream clawed himself upright unsteadily. "You shouldn't have done that," she said darkly to Ratchet, who looked at her with an odd expression on his face. "You should've let Starscream teach her a lesson… you heard what she was saying! She thinks she's so much better than I am –"

    "No, Alexis," he disagreed, coming over to attend to Starscream. "Letting Starscream harm Rose was not an option. Not only would it have caused Optimus to disengage Starscream from the Autobot force – which would be extremely regretful, but necessary – but the young lady did not deserve to be physically injured in such a manner."

    "She damn well did –"

    Jade, who was still slightly pale after seeing Starscream attack Rose, shook her head. "No… Ratchet's right. She was just frightened. It's normal to us, remember. We're all used to it. I don't blame her for reacting badly – she cares about you, Alexis."

    Alexis snorted disbelievingly as Starscream reluctantly let Ratchet examine his cranium for any damage.

    "I am sorry for that, Starscream," the medic murmured apologetically, to which he replied with a noncommittal grunt. "But I had to stop you."

    As Alexis stood to one side with her hands on her bony hips and an angry expression on her face, Jade had tears in her soft brown eyes. "Starscream… Alexis… I'm so sorry, it was all my fault," she said quietly and Alexis looked at her with obvious surprise. Starscream watched her with burning eyes from beneath Ratchet's arm. "She caught me and Skyfire… um… yeah, and it sort of slipped out about both of you. I'm sorry."

    "Well done," Starscream muttered.

    She flushed and the tears became more imminent; Alexis said nothing, merely looked at her feet. "It's okay," she whispered a few seconds later.

    Carlos, seeing Jade's obvious distress, moved across the room with his casual lope and put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her into an embrace with one tanned, muscular arm. "It's cool, Jade – it was an accident, no?" he asked gently and she nodded tearfully, sniffing. "Jeez, Starscream, you can be a real a-hole sometimes."

    He glared at the angered robot, who glared right back with double the rancour. "Get used to it," he snapped at the Spaniard.

    The red eyes, however, were not on the boy's face. They were on his right hand, which was stroking up and down Jade's back far more intimately than the occasion really called for.

    Jade saw his look and received the impression that he was glaring at her for her supposed ineptitude at secret keeping. The young woman flinched away from the ex-Decepticon's toxic glare and quickly pulled away from Carlos, giving the jet one last repentant look before she ran from the room, swiftly pursued by a worried-looking Seraphim.

    Starscream stood up slowly, optics narrowing and fist tightening.

    "Where are you going?" Alexis demanded, stepping in front of him quickly as if she could stop him with her tiny, frail body. "Starscream?"

    "I will be back in a moment," he muttered, and she could almost feel the anger that was radiating from him. "There is something that I have to say to Jade first."



    * * *



    Author's Note: Unicron will be arriving very shortly, everybody… sleep in fear… anyway, I hope you enjoyed Starscream and Alexis's part. The focus will be moving back onto them more from here, as it was in "How We Seared the Sky", but there'll be plenty of time for everybody else, too! If there's anything in particular you want to see then please feel free to make some suggestions and I'll definitely consider them.





    *Chapter 10*: There Was a Time


    Chapter Ten

    There Was a Time



    * * *



    Seraphim caught up to Jade at the doorway to the human quarters, extending a long metallic arm and grasping her friend's to prevent her from going any further. "Jade, stop," she pleaded softly, and kept a firm grip around her wrist when she half-heartedly tried to pull away from the femme. "Come on, girl – it wasn't your fault –"

    "Yes, it was!" Jade insisted vehemently, turning to face her. Seraphim blinked in surprise when she saw tears leaking from her brown eyes. "If I'd just kept my big mouth shut…" She heaved a sob, one hand covering her mouth. "Oh, Sera, didn't you see the look Starscream gave me?"

    "Starscream needs his sorry aft welded to a time bomb," Seraphim growled, narrowing her optics at the doorway that led to the communications room.

    However, her expression softened when Jade continued to cry, her body trembling with her quiet sobs. She took a step forward and wrapped her arms around the small human, and Jade leant against her tearfully. Much as she found humans odd sometimes, Jade and Carlos were her best friends – closer to her even than Arcee or the other Cybertronians – and she hated to see the sweet young woman so upset.

    "N-now what'll we do?" Jade's muffled voice came from somewhere near Seraphim's waist. "Rose knows – and now Mikaela will be mad at me, because n-now Rose won't go anywhere near them and she was trying t-to get her with Ratchet… everyone's going to hate me!"

    The femme raised an optic ridge and held Jade at arm's length by the shoulders. "Jade, you may be my best friend – but you do come out with a lot of slag sometimes," she said sternly, and Jade managed a weepy hiccough of laughter. "Come on, no one will hate you. How could anyone hate you? You're the kindest person in this base."

    Jade snuffled miserably, although a minuscule smile had appeared on her lips. "Maybe, but I'm crap at keeping secrets."

    "Oh, shut up," Seraphim scolded, reaching out a large hand and ruffling her friend's long hair affectionately. "Everyone has their flaws, Jadie. You can't keep a secret too well, but you possess many better qualities than many of the rest of us do. Now, I'm going to run and get Skyfire and we're all going to go for a ride, okay?"

    The Californian summer day certainly called for a ride in Skyfire's aerodynamic bomber form, and Jade nodded, formulating a shaky smile and glancing out of the warehouse window at the blazing sunshine and brilliantly blue sky above. If there was one thing in the world that she could do with right now, it was a chance to escape from the base and the resentful looks of Starscream and Alexis – escape to the sky with her lover and her best friend.

    Seraphim winked her before she transformed into the gleaming Vespa scooter and shot off down the corridor; apparently, Skyfire's laboratory was too great a distance across the base to just walk.

    Then again, Seraphim was a total speed junkie.

    Sighing and swallowing the last of her sobs, Jade leant against the wall and looked at the floor.

    She had been more than a little foolish. True, she and Skyfire had not sat down together and planned their make-out session – it had just happened spontaneously, as such sessions tended to do – but she supposed that they should have been a little more careful, given the fact that Rose was around the base, blissfully unaware of the relationships that two of the humans shared with the Cybertronians. She had panicked when Rose had happened across them – Skyfire's holoform was human-like, but it was obviously not totally human.

    It had been embarrassing enough to be caught kissing her boyfriend by a newcomer, but she had seen the suspicion in Rose's eyes immediately. She was a sharp-minded girl, and she was not the type to be fooled by desperate lies and cover-ups. And Jade's panic had not helped her ability to lie, either – she hated dishonesty anyway, but what option had she had but to try?

    Her heart had turned cold when Rose had made the connection – she had looked so horrified! Was it really so terrible for her to be with Skyfire in that way? Starscream and Alexis were together, after all… she was not alone in her choices. But perhaps they had all been fooling themselves into believing that it was customary when it was really so abnormal.

    Looking up with more tears building behind her eyes, she let out a sharp gasp of surprise when she saw Starscream, standing silently in the doorway.

    Just… watching her.

    Uncertain of what she could say to him, she quickly dried her tears on the cuff of her denim jacket and tried to look him in the eye without her lip trembling and her eyes burning up.

    "So," he whispered silkily, and her heart almost stopped beating when she saw the look in his eyes; she was sure she was not imagining it. He looked murderous – like a lion as it sized up a lamb to be slaughtered. And she, in her brittle humanity, was most certainly feeling like the lamb in the equation – a frightened, trembling young lamb preparing to die.

    A breath burst out of her lungs and she flattened herself against the wall, trying desperately to remember how to trust him. He had let her sit on his shoulder and paint the masks that adorned his wings… he had never injured her or any of the other humans in the base. He had love for Alexis – surely he would not harm one of his lover's friends?

    Yet… if Alexis hated her too…

    She swallowed hard to dispel the dryness in her throat, and managed to get some words out. "Starscream… I'm really sorry, I swear I didn't m-mean to –" she stammered fruitlessly, the stillness of him terrifying the wits out of her.

    "That is not why I am here," he snapped sharply and she jumped, nodding hastily. "Fool you may be, Jade Rivers, but it is not worth hurting you for."

    At first, warm relief seeped through her from head to toe – it had seemed that he would not hurt her from the way he had said it. But when she stopped for a moment to think about what he had said, she tensed up again, every muscle contracting tightly and sending a spasm of anxiety down her spine. Because he was not here for what was not worth hurting her. So then… he must be here for something else.

    Something that was worth hurting her for.

    Jade shook her head when he took a step towards her. The warm sunlight that broke through the window shone onto his wings and blocked it from her view, casting a dark shadow across her and putting out any hope she might have had of his being there for an idle chat.

    "What… what have I done?" she squeaked, completely oblivious as to what he could mean. "I don't know what –"

    He suddenly brought his fist down on the ground next to her with a crash that seemed to shake the floor: she screamed and threw her hands over her head reflexively, squeezing her eyes tightly shut and preparing for the death blow. She could sense that he was serious about this threat, and she only wished that she could know why. Red eyes glared into hers so brightly that they seemed to burn her, and she swore that she could see the fires of Hell itself behind them.

    She shivered before him as his face drew extremely close to her so that he was at her eye level, and now she could see swirling reds and fiery oranges in his optics. They were only like light-emitting diodes, she was sure, but there seemed to be much more colour than she had realised in Starscream's narrowed eyes.

    "I may be a cold-sparked Decepticon," he hissed through his mouthpiece, and she cringed away from the harsh tone of his voice, "But there are certain individuals that I do have the spark to care for, and Skyfire is one of them."

    Blinking, she shook her head in bemusement. "Skyfire…?" she stuttered, petrified, and he nodded curtly, fists tightening on either sides of her and acting as barriers against any premature escape from his interrogation. "I… what do you mean…?"

    "You know exactly what I mean, girl!" Starscream roared in her face and she yelped in shock, stumbling away from him and hitting the wall again.

    A thousand possibilities ran through her mind, each more unlikely than the next – she had no clue whatsoever what he could be talking about. If there was one person in the world that she had never done anything to hurt, it was Skyfire – why would Starscream be here telling her that he cared about him? It was very unlike the ex-Decepticon to talk about his emotional attachments to others, especially to her… he might occasionally confide in Ratchet, or even Skyfire himself, but not her.

    Now with her back pressed firmly against the cold wall and her heart in her mouth, Jade felt her knees buckle and fought to remain standing. "Starscream, I don't know what you're talking about –!" she protested desperately.

    "Skyfire is the closest thing I have ever had to a friend," Starscream snarled ferociously. "I will not tolerate his being deceived like this."

    "What do you mean?" she almost shrieked, becoming more and more frightened by the moment. "I haven't done anythingto Skyfire!"

    Starscream lifted a giant hand and shoved her against the wall with it, and she choked under the massive weight of his palm against her torso. He pressed down painfully on her sternum and she found herself unable to breathe properly as he applied the pressure to her chest, effectively crushing her lungs and forcing the oxygen out of them.

    She panicked then, struggling in vain as he compressed her against the hard surface. "Lies," he spat, and she gasped when she felt something crack.

    "Please… guhh, Starscream – what –" she coughed, fighting for air against his hand, "Don't –!"

    The rodent-like features were suddenly up against her face again, but she did not have the breath to gasp or scream. "If you have never betrayed him," Starscream sneered, pressing a hard knuckle into her and causing what little air was left in her lungs to leave them, "Then why is it that Carlos Lopez feels that such intimate bodily contact with you is appropriate?"

    Jade's eyes, already wide with terror, almost exploded out of her head. "Carlos?" she wheezed, tearing a hand free of his fist and bracing her body with it, trying to wriggle free of the vice-like clutch. "What – urrgh – do you mean –?"

    "I saw him touching you!" Starscream screeched at her shrilly and she managed a faint cry of fear. "I sense his pheromone levels spiking whenever he is near you, Jade Rivers! How long will it be before you tell Skyfire about it – how long did you plan to deceive him for before someone uncovered your filthy deeds with that boy?"

    Jade stared at him.

    It had clicked.

    She took a deep, shuddering breath and her cheeks flamed up, her eyes narrowing and all fear suddenly evaporating. "I am not – seeing – Carlos!" she yelled at him, finally realising what he meant and barely able to believe that he was serious about it. "I would never do that to Skyfire!"

    "THEN EXPLAIN THAT TO ME!" he bellowed.

    "How dare you accuse me of doing something like that to him?" she shouted back, ignoring the fact that his hand was still around her torso, albeit limper in his surprise at her flare-up. "What is wrong with you, Starscream? I love Skyfire! I wouldn't betray him for the world! I would die for him! I almost have died for him in the past –"

    The hand shoved her back against the wall again. "Explain the boy's actions, then!"

    "I DON'T KNOW!" she screeched at him, fear and anger battling for supremacy. "I love him with all my heart – I would never, ever do something like that!"

    "What the slag is going on?" a familiar, accented voice cried and Jade thought she might faint with relief when Seraphim appeared at her side and clenched her hands around Starscream's suddenly tightened fingers, attempting to pry him off of the young woman. "Starscream, let go of her! What in the name of Primus are you thinking?"

    Starscream grabbed the femme with his other hand, plucking her away from Jade effortlessly. "I am investigating something," he snapped.

    Seraphim's slanted eyes moved to Jade as she dangled like a doll from Starscream's hand, and she was horrified to see her friend's paling skin taking on a nasty, bluish hue – a sure sign that she was not getting the necessary oxygenated blood that a human required. Her eyes began to flutter, yet Starscream showed no signs whatsoever of letting her go.

    "You… can't do it… Starscream…" Jade coughed feebly, using up the last of her breath as her shaking legs gave way and she slumped in Starscream's hand, fighting the blackout that was threatening to consume her. "You won't… kill me…"

    "She'll die!" the drone cried, flailing like a worm on a hook. "Starscream, please! STOP!"

    Starscream, however, was completely ignoring the femme. He looked Jade in the eyes – eyes that were watering as she fought for breath – and squeezed for the briefest instant. "Oh yes, Jade?" he said disdainfully. "What makes you think that I will not kill you? Do you not realise how many sparks I have put out in the past? How many lives I have extinguished without a second thought?"

    "OPTIM –" Seraphim tried to scream before the fist tightened around her, too, obstructing her vocalisation. A string of metallic squeaks came from her oral cavity before she stopped, kicking in an attempt to free herself.

    Jade mouthed for a moment, gasping like a goldfish as she tried to say something, and Starscream relaxed his unforgiving clasp for a moment to allow her to respond efficiently. Dragging air into her lungs thankfully, she looked up at him with tears sliding down her cheeks from the shock and the inability to breathe.

    "Because," she said raggedly between breaths, "I know there's… some good in you, Starscream. You might not…" she coughed, "Believe me, but you wouldn't hurt Skyfire by… killing me… or hurting me much more than this."

    "Starscream?" a new voice suddenly said, sounding shocked. "What are you doing? Put her down!"

    The jet turned his head to see Skyfire emerging from his laboratory, and his crimson eyes met Skyfire's navy ones with a defiant expression. He narrowed them momentarily before he opened his fist and Jade collapsed, coughing, on the floor in a heap.

    Seraphim found herself falling from the other hand a few seconds later and she landed like a cat, snarling at Starscream in Cybertronian before she dashed to Jade's side and scooped the young woman up with one arm, holding her in a sitting position and resting her back in the crook of her arm. Skyfire crossed the room, looking furious.

    "What is the meaning of this, Starscream?" he demanded, looking down at the smaller jet indignantly. "Why were you trying to hurt Jade?"

    Without waiting for an answer, he knelt down and gently extended a finger to the near-unconscious girl. She managed a dry groan and reached out a hand to touch his, the charm bracelet that he had made her clinking softly. "Sky…" she murmured, clutching her head with her other hand and blinking rapidly to clear her vision.

    "Jade... my Jade..." he murmured, shaking his head and scanning her anxiously. She did not appear to be badly injured, but he was still horrified. Infuriated by what had been done to his charge and lover, Skyfire stood up and rounded on Starscream, blue optics burning. "How dare you do that to her!"

    Starscream snarled at him like a wounded wolf, taking up a defensive stance.

    Skyfire's fist tightened and he looked from the jet to Jade with mingled anger and fear. Finally, he turned back to the beige robot and glared at him. "Starscream, come with me," he commanded angrily.

    "And go where?" Starscream muttered resentfully, glaring daggers at Seraphim when she hissed at him through her slightly pointed teeth.

    "I should take you to Optimus for a disciplinary for that sort of conduct!" Skyfire reminded him heatedly, jabbing a finger into Starscream's triangular chest. "But for the moment, you can come with me and we will discuss this matter in private." He looked down with a kinder expression at the little drone, who was quite distraught. "Seraphim, will you take Jade to Ratchet, please? I will return to see her later."

    She nodded, gathering Jade up into her arms without difficulty before taking off towards the medical wing, calling for Ratchet.

    Skyfire did not look at Starscream – instead, he took off down the corridor with a majestic sweep of his cloak-like wings. He proceeded through the open doorway and out into the sunshine; Starscream followed, eyes to the floor and head bowed.

    The sun was bright and vividly yellow in the cloudless heavens, and it reflected off Skyfire's dark silver armour as he stepped out of the shadow of the building and out onto the fresh, springy grass. Starscream barely noticed the beauty of the day as he trailed after him, wondering whether or not what he had done had been entirely wise.

    Skyfire had been his friend from the beginning: his only friend, really. Their scientific expeditions to other worlds had been the only form of companionship he had ever truly known during the Golden Age. Even before the war, he had been arrogant and had sought power, so few Cybertronians had ever gotten close to him – only Skyfire, after they had discovered their shared passion for science.

    Surely it had been his duty as a friend to confront Jade? He could not just stand by and watch that boy try to claim behind Skyfire's unsuspecting back! He had not fatally injured her, and had never intended to – he would have expected the same from Skyfire if he had suspected Alexis of such a crime.

    Then again, he mused… he would not have liked anyone hurting Alexis, even in that circumstance.

    If he had been in Skyfire's position now, he would, most likely, have already attacked whoever had hurt her.

    What would he do if Alexis betrayed him? He knew in his spark that he would be angry – angry to the point of murder, for certain – but he was uncertain as to whether he could continue to function after such an act of treachery. She was his spark partner, and he was certain that his spark would die without her. It was like a parasite that fed off of her – her beauty, the feel of her, the scent of her skin – and he knew that it could not continue to shine without her love in return.

    He was faced with Skyfire's stern stare a moment later. "Would you like to explain yourself?" Skyfire requested coolly, his arms folded over his chest, where the jet's cockpit ended up after his transformation.

    Starscream's fist tightened and he pointed his other hand at the base, one finger snapping out in an accusing point. "I did it for your sake, Skyfire!" he exploded, and Skyfire looked perplexed. "It was that human male – Carlos. I saw him – he was touching her as if she was his lover, and I thought that something might have been happening between them – so I interrogated her!"

    "You thought that Jade and Carlos might have been…" he conducted a swift Internet search and found the correct term after a split second, "'Having an affair', outside of my knowledge?"

    "Yes!" Starscream snapped. "The boy wants her. I sense it – he wishes to mate with her!"

    Skyfire lowered his optics and put a hand to the bridge of his nose, pinching it lightly and heaving a sigh. "I did suspect as much," he admitted heavily, and Starscream cocked his head confusedly. "He has always acted in such a way around her, but I admit that I never noticed any rise in his pheromone levels when she comes close to him –"

    "I sense it," the other Cybertronian interrupted sharply, throwing a disgusted look at the base as if it could burn through the walls and fry Carlos.

    There was a long silence between the two old friends.

    It was astonishing how different they were, Skyfire mused to himself as he kept his optics trained on Starscream, who was still glaring at the doorway of the warehouse. Yet despite the differences between the comrades, there were many ways in which they were similar.

    They had both been mechs of science once, although Starscream had long since strayed from that path onto the road of war and destruction. They both loved the sky and the feel of flight – Skyfire's passion was for the day, Starscream's for the night, but it was the same in theory. And, of course, they were the only two Cybertronians who had dared to take that fatal step over the line that should never have been crossed… the line that love did not know of. The line between species… between worlds.

    Finally, Skyfire spoke again, his tone much softer and warmer than it had been. "You did that for me?" he asked carefully, to which he received a brusque nod in response. "But Starscream… why?"

    Starscream turned away from him, folding his arms across his chest and looking as if he was having a brief, internal struggle with himself. "You are my friend," he ground out finally, with obvious difficulty. "My only friend. I suppose I felt I owed you as much."

    Skyfire blinked in astonishment, unfamiliar with Starscream's open expression of emotion around him.

    "Don't look at me like that," Starscream snapped upon seeing his look. "With… sympathy. Do not think for one moment that I am changing to become like an Autobot all of a sudden, Skyfire. You were my friend during my years as a Decepticon, and now, as I am caught between the factions. You always have been my friend… it has always been so."

    "You are not 'caught between the factions'," was the obstinate response. "You are an Autobot now, Starscream. You need only allow Jade to paint the new masks onto your wings, and you will feel that way in time." He paused, a slightly sorrowful look coming onto his face. "If she is not too frightened of you to do so now."

    But somehow, Skyfire doubted that it would come to be that way. He knew Jade, and he knew that she was virtually incapable of holding a grudge against anyone. She would be prepared to paint patterns all over Starscream by the time she had left the medical wing, and she would probably be chattering away to him in a coaxing manner, as she usually did, by morning the next day. His spark warmed when he realised this; she was so caring, so benevolent, that Starscream would most likely already be forgiven.

    Nonetheless, he could still see a strange look in the smouldering crimson optics that were so unlike his own, oasis-like cores. He reached out a large hand and placed it uncertainly on Starscream's shoulder, anticipating the flinch that followed the friendly action. "What is it that you fear, my friend?" he murmured.

    "I fear nothing," the other hissed defensively, stiffening and shrugging the hand from his shoulder.

    He received a rather flat look in response to this claim, accompanied by what was, to them, a subtly hinting tap of the foot – to humans, it would have been like a miniature earthquake.

    Clearly frustrated, Starscream whipped around to face him again. "Fine," he spat, "Since you are so concerned."

    "I am," Skyfire confirmed cheerily.

    Starscream glared at him before he moved his optics back towards the base, where three of the humans – Miles, Sam and Alexis – were just coming through the side entrance. Using his binocular vision, he saw that Alexis looked distinctly calmer, and all three of them were looking towards the two jets with unbridled curiosity. The two boys were talking to her and she was answering, but they kept throwing looks in their direction, and Miles was bouncing about nervously, as he usually did when he was anxious.

    "I fear for her," he finally muttered, looking down at his tightened fist and shuttering his optics for a moment. "She is so vulnerable… her body, so feeble… and yet the All Spark has marked her as its own. To use against Unicron – Unicron, the chaos bringer!"

    Skyfire watched him without a sound, merely listening.

    "And I can do nothing," Starscream hissed, his features contorting into an angry, resentful scowl. "Nothing. I am helpless… I cannot stop the All Spark, and I cannot stop the Lord of Darkness. I am a useless guardian for her – not only that, but I have torn her family apart. She loves me because she has nobody else to love anymore."

    "That is not true, Starscream," his friend denied, folding his arms. "Alexis loves you because of you. Besides, she still has her mother."

    He snorted disbelievingly. "Her relationship with Jasmine deteriorated when we fell in love, Skyfire. Because she has always been with me, she never sees her mother. I just tried to kill her stepsister, and I did kill her father."

    "You would never have done such a thing had you known at the time what was to come. You must not blame yourself for what has happened in the past… your Decepticon days are over. You are free of it."

    Starscream chuckled bitterly. "Free?" he repeated in a softer tone. "I can never be truly free of Megatron's hold."

    There was silence.

    Skyfire looked down in surprise when he detected a human within a few metres and was surprised to see Miles standing there. "Can we help you, Miles?" he asked courteously, wondering what the youngster could want. Miles tended to remain with Arcee, Bumblebee and the twins out of the Cybertronians, and always seemed jumpy around the larger ones.

    The blonde shrugged, hands in his pockets. "Not really. I was just wonderin' if everything was okay with 'Screamer, y'know? Alexis is kinda worried about him, but she doesn't wanna disturb you."

    "There is no need for her to be worried about Starscream," Skyfire assured him. "We were just… discussing something."

    Despite the reassurance, Miles did not look as if he was going anywhere.

    Starscream threw him a look. "You obviously wish to speak again, boy," he growled, and Miles looked at his sandaled feet for a moment. "Well, go ahead and spit it out – everybody may as well spill their darkest secrets to Skyfire today, as he is feeling so understanding."

    "Do speak if you wish, Miles," Skyfire concurred, kneeling down to get a better look at the young man.

    Miles was an odd young man, Skyfire had always thought. He was gangly and awkward with longer hair than the other boys, but he kept the mood light most of the time with his near-constant joking and his antics with Sam and the other pranksters. He had never really had a chance to speak to him before, but he had always had a firm belief that all of the humans in the base were trustworthy and benevolent beings.

    Except, perhaps, Carlos Lopez.

    What Starscream had recounted had disturbed him – badly. Although he did not think it had merited trying to strangle poor Jade – nowhere near it, as Jade had clearly been oblivious to Carlos's intentions – he was touched by Starscream's defence of him, and wondered whether he ought to have a word with Carlos upon his return to the base. It was about time that he let the boy know whom Jade's heart belonged to, and he was going to do it as soon as he could.

    He jolted himself back to reality when Miles heaved a sigh. "I dunno, man. I just get this feeling that you guys aren't telling us something."

    "About what?" Skyfire asked calmly, although he knew exactly what Miles was referring to. The knowledge of Unicron's imminent arrival was weighing heavily on the older mechs, and he supposed that it would have affected the way they acted.

    They had not, as of yet, informed the younger Autobots of the coming of the chaos bringer. They only had Alexis's word on the matter, and they did not want to worry the younglings until they were absolutely certain that they needed to know. Seraphim, Arcee, Bumblebee and the twins were all in the dark on the matter, as were all of the humans but for Alexis herself.

    Another shrug. "I asked 'Bee and Arcee and they totally agree with me. You and Ratchet and Optimus and the others are hiding something from us, dude – we're not dumb. We wanna know what's up."

    Starscream hissed softly through his mouthpiece. "Nothing is wrong, Miles Lancaster."

    "Yeah, there is," Miles said simply, grimacing a little at Starscream's apparent lack of respect for his knowledge. "Fine if you don't want to tell me, 'Screamer, but we'll find out." He paused and turned away. "We'll find out."



    * * *



    The soft sounds of a young woman crying reached Mikaela's ears as she entered the corridor.

    She was not unfamiliar with the sound; she had cried before, many times. When her father had been imprisoned and her juvenile record had been earned, she had cried her heart out. When her mother had fallen into depression and she had moved away, leaving Mikaela in her grandmother's care for a time, she had cried even more.

    But after a little while, she had learnt not to.

    The fact was that Mikaela had her father's genes. She was her father's daughter in every sense of the word – she had his obsession with cars, his proud and stubborn nature, and his appearance, to name but a few of their similarities. And she had also inherited his belief that crying would get you nowhere in the end – but she had to lose him to the federal system before she had truly understood that. Rather like it had taken falling off a building and killing Megatron for Sam to understand his family motto.

    She missed her parents. She had moved out of their small place as soon as she had got the money together and now, her home was with the Autobots. But Ratchet was more than perfect as a father figure: he had taught her more about mechanics than she had ever dreamed of knowing, and shown her the affection that she so desperately craved.

    One might have said that a young lady needed a mother figure, but she could deal with life without one now.

    Ratchet himself made an appearance a few seconds later, attracted from his medical bay by the sound that she was following. "Mikaela?" he asked in a low voice, stepping out of the room and peering down the passageway. "I thought that it may have been you."

    "No," Mikaela laughed softly. "I'm not a big one for crying. Is Jade okay now?"

    Seraphim had told her what Starscream had done to Jade, and she had not been impressed with it at all. The femme had been virtually inconsolable, and Mikaela had found herself feeling absolutely livid with Starscream. His anger and ardour were causing rifts between all of them, and that was the last thing that she wanted to happen.

    Her guardian closed the giant door behind him with a soft thump. "She is fine," he assured her. "A little shaken, but she will survive – trust me," he implored, as if he thought she would do anything otherwise.

    "Duh," she smiled, rolling her eyes.

    There was another muffled sob from nearby and the two of them exchanged slightly worried glances.

    "What do you think?" Mikaela asked him. "Rose?"

    "Given what just happened, I would say so," Ratchet murmured in agreement, and she raised her dark eyebrows when she saw the strange expression on his wise face. "Mikaela…" he added hesitantly after a moment, "Do you think that this plan of yours can possibly work? You saw her reaction to Jade and Skyfire's romantic relationship –"

    She stabbed a finger at him like a knife, scowling dangerously. "Don't finish that sentence if you know what's good for you, Ratch'. I am going to hook you up with this girl and that's end of that."

    With that, she marched off down the corridor towards the source of the sound. Ratchet shook his head before following her.

    As she had suspected, Mikaela soon happened upon Rose Connelly, who was sitting down against the wall with her head in her hands, trembling silently and clearly trying not to cry too loudly. "Hey," she said gently and Rose looked up, her face smudged with eyeliner and mascara that had mingled with her tears and drizzled down her cheeks like rain.

    Ratchet knelt down slowly beside the two girls as Rose sniffed, wiping her eyes quickly when she saw the two of them.

    "Well," she choked, all gallant attempts at bravery evaporating, "I messed that up, didn't I?"

    The medic's spark was doing flips behind his chest armour as he observed the young woman's distress and attempted to remain detached from it. He tried to keep his optics on his charge, who was watching his reaction out of the corner of her eye. She never gives up, he sighed internally as he folded his arms to establish his aloofness.

    Mikaela clenched her jaw to prevent herself from shrieking with aggravation at his display of superiority; instead, she tried her best to focus on comforting Rose. The poor girl had been jumped by Starscream and virtually screamed out of town by her stepsister – she had every right to be upset.

    "No, no," she tried to soothe her, "It wasn't your fault, Rose. You were just a little freaked out, right?"

    Rose's face crumpled and she shook her head, swallowing another round of sobs before they emerged. "I just… I don't know, maybe I went over the top a bit," she managed, pinching the bridge of her nose with the hand that was not supporting her forehead. "I know I shouldn't have done that. I should just… respect what she wants to do."

    Ratchet was finding it harder and harder not to intervene. The poor girl was blaming herself for all that had happened, and she should not have been doing so. Starscream had acted completely inappropriately; as he had said to Alexis, Rose had not deserved physical harm or anything even remotely like it. However, he forced himself to keep his mouth clamped shut and hoped, instead, that Mikaela would reassure her of her innocence.

    She promptly did. "Hey, you care about her really. You were only doing what any sister would do."

    "Maybe," Rose snuffled, her held-back tears making it sound as if she had developed a bad cold. She smeared her tears away with one hand before she looked up at where Ratchet was kneeling beside them. "I… um, wanted to thank you, by the way," she said to the medic. "For stopping Starscream. So… thank you."

    Fighting to break away from her gaze, he nodded stiffly. "My pleasure."

    Her oceanic eyes lingered on him for a moment before she looked down at the floor. Almost… disappointedly.

    Mikaela chewed on her lip for a moment before she stood up and put her hands on her hips. "Look," she said and Rose glanced up at her with reddened, swollen eyes, "Why don't we just get out of the base for a bit? Ratch' will take us out somewhere and you can just hang out with us for a bit and let everybody simmer down."

    Rose looked from the brunette to the medical officer.

    Said brunette gave said medical officer a death glare that would have done Ironhide proud.

    Ratchet returned her glare, but he noticed Rose's look, too. It was almost pleading; her eyes were puffy from crying, but he could see some enthusiasm that had just fired up in them like a distant star. The prospect of having friends in the base seemed to give the girl some tiny spark of merriment, and who was he to snatch that from her?

    He allowed himself a small smile when something occurred to him.

    "Further to our discussion on Thursday night, Rose," he said and she nodded, frowning slightly, "Would it be agreeable to you if I were to take the both of you to the drive-in theatre in the town centre to see the recently-released The Other Boleyn Girl? I believe it deals with the life of Henry the Eighth and his relationship with his mistress, Mary Boleyn."

    Rose gasped delightedly. "Oh, please! I didn't even realise that was out yet!"

    "Yeah, we should totally do that," Mikaela agreed, unable to help but smile at Rose's thrilled expression. "I need to get out of this place for a bit and get some shopping done, anyway. You mind taking us to the mall on the way back, Ratch'?"

    "I suppose not," he sighed, before he stepped backwards and folded down into his alternate form. "Come then, younglings, let us away."



    * * *



    In the centre of Tranquillity, a police car was parked on the road, its wheels mounting the sidewalk. It was innocent enough; cops were always patrolling the town, so nobody stopped to look. But, as with many things in the world, it was far more than met the eye.

    Barricade knew what was happening now.

    It had hit him mere hours ago: a sense of impending doom that he could not shake from his circuitry, much as he had tried to for the past several hundred minutes. True, he had felt somewhat strange and uneasy in this place for weeks, but the feeling had just spiked, making his spark turn cold.

    Then again… he was a Decepticon. His spark had always been colder than ice – he was surprised, after millennia of murder and hatred that there was still a spark left in him. Now and again, he would become so convinced of his heartlessness that he would have to peel away his outer armour and look, just to check whether there was still something in his spark casing – but there always was. That throbbing blue core of him, pulsing and burning and shining brightly, making a mockery of the darkness inside.

    But now he understood why he had been feeling like this.

    After millions of years of lying dormant in the far reaches of space, Unicron was active once again. And he was coming. He was coming here, to this tiny organic planet, his home of three years.

    He had never come into contact with the Lord of Darkness himself. That had been long before his time, but he knew of what Unicron could do. It was a myth told on Cybertron for scaring younglings: a ghost story of a terrible darkness that lay somewhere beyond the stars, that could awaken any minute and wipe out the universe with the force of a thousand armies.

    Unicron knew no boundaries. He would not take mercy on anyone – Autobots, Decepticons, and all who stood between them would die. There would be no mercy. He was deaf to pleas and excuses, and did not understand the differences between things. All who stood in his way were the enemy.

    The sun blazed down on his black-and-white exterior, lighting up the slogan on his side.

    To punish and enslave.

    Yet that was no longer the motto he lived his life by. There was no one to punish – no one to enslave. The humans outnumbered him in billions to one, and the Autobots were sworn to protect them. Even if he was able to, he doubted now that he would force the planet's inhabitants into servitude, anyhow. He was tired of life – tired of a world of solitude and endless hatred.

    He did not want to join the Autobots. Prime and his soldiers had been his enemies for hundreds of thousands of years, and he was unable to understand the way they acted. Self-sacrifice… nobility… friendship… love. His spark had never embraced that, preferring the dark world of deceit, of murder, of anger and pain.

    But he did not want to fall to Unicron's power. He, Barricade, would never succumb to the chaos bringer.

    Another vehicle suddenly caught his attention, as the colour of it seemed out of the ordinary for the dull cars of Tranquillity's residents. A bulky, neon yellow emergency vehicle – a Search and Rescue Hummer H2 sport utility truck, his systems told him automatically – driving down the road, with two human femmes in the front seat.

    Ratchet, the Autobot medic.

    He struggled with himself violently as he watched the Hummer move down the road, towards the drive-through theatre.

    Humans wandered past on the sidewalk. Some were alone, but most were with others. Holding hands, linking arms, laughing and smiling. Parents with their offspring; brothers and sisters; school friends and lovers.

    Did they not feel the darkness?

    Could they not sense what was coming?

    They were so painfully oblivious of the reality of what was about to hit them like the hand of the Devil they so feared! Did they deserve to die, merely for such naivety? Did these organic life forms really deserve to be exterminated – over six billion lives snuffed out and gone forever? Was genocide certain… or was there some way to stop it?

    He had been without a purpose for so long. His resolve and determination to be alone in life had led him down a path to nothingness to three years, and he had finally cracked under the pressure of it.

    White lights lit up at the rear of the Mustang and he reversed swiftly with a deafening screech, checking that his signature was cloaked. Then he pulled out from the sidewalk and pushed himself back into forward gear, pursuing the Autobot at the most inconspicuous pace he could and praying to Primus that Ratchet would not spot him.



    * * *



    Author's Note: I'd just like to thank my anonymous reviewer Shia, the new Harrison Ford for the suggestion of Ratchet taking Rose to see 'The Other Boleyn Girl'. I've taken you up on that, as you can see, and you'll get some insight into that next chapter:) 





    *Chapter 11*: Revelation


    XI. Revelation



    * * *



    He'd probably asked for it.

    Ratchet tried his best to concentrate on the film. The day had worn on since the beginning of The Other Boleyn Girl. The sky was dark and washed with warm, rosy colours as the sun sank low beneath the Californian horizon.

    It was a wonderful, artistic creation — that much, he had to admit. It was feeding his interest in English history quite marvellously, and it was a welcome relief to be away from the overcrowded Autobot base for a change. There was too much noise and banter there. Having a few hours away from being the butt of every prank in the arsenal of those accursed twins was a blessing.

    But he had a much bigger problem:

    Rose Connelly.

    Mikaela had abandoned him. The scheming little femme had decided to hop out of the Hummer halfway through the movie, to "get some more popcorn" and "run to the mall so I can get some stuff real quick". The devious traitor had fired those pitiable excuses at him and then skipped off to buy her new shoes in the nearby shopping centre, leaving him alone with his spark partner.

    The spark partner in question — oblivious to his predicament — was sitting in his passenger seat and delicately picking at a beefburger she'd purchased. It was a peculiar way to eat, but he supposed all humans had their oddities. Sam, for example, had "happy time" (whatever that meant).

    Rose was engrossed in the plot of the movie. He'd never seen such intense concentration on a human face. She was leaning out of his window on her elbow, eager to hear the dialogue between the characters. Ratchet had been the same when Mikaela was still in the cab — commenting on the events of the movie with Rose, asking questions about the Tudor time period, which she answered in great detail — but then his charge had betrayed him for a pair of shoes. He loved his charge dearly, but at this particular moment he wanted nothing more than to give her an extremely long lecture about the suitability of her actions.

    The drive, he supposed, had been interesting; even pleasant. The nearest drive-in theater was in the city of Madera, about an hour away from Tranquillity. Rose and Mikaela seemed to get on well. They talked about human things — "girl things" — before apologising and discussing Cybertronian history with him. Mikaela seemed keen to educate Rose in the ways of the giant alien robot, and Rose — still pale and shaken — was happy to train her curious mind on something new.

    Rose finished her burger with a wrinkle of her nose, clearly unimpressed, before she dropped her head on her arms and continued to watch the movie. He thought her eyes were shining with tears, but it might have been the glow from the street lights.

    It had been thoroughly embarrassing when two of the characters in the motion picture had become sexually intimate with each other — Rose had looked as if she had wanted the ground to open up and swallow her whole, and Ratchet had been having an inner paroxysm at the realisation that he was with his oblivious spark partner (potentially a mate) — but fortunately, Mikaela had been there to distract them. As Mikaela had saved his aft then, he decided he might not lecture her for too long upon her return — but slag it, he was still furious.

    Oh, slag this abominable situation.

    But he had to talk to her. He had to comfort her.

    But how?

    Femmes were not his field of expertise. Nothing was: only mechanics, the recreation of what was broken. Femmes were everything the medbay was not: ethereal, delicate, smooth at the edges, deep in colour and rounded and sleek, floral in their nature. There was no resemblance between a femme and, say, a wrench; nothing hard-hitting in their soft glossas and gentle optics. He'd never known what to say to them, what to do around them, even in the Golden Age. They were rare and beautiful, like the purest apple-green tironium, or a bar of raw bearnium. He'd always find his glossa in a twist if he tried to address one, even when they were virtually opening their spark casing at him.

    Firestar had been different; he recalled the day she first came into the medbay, looking for work. She was a young femme, with distinctive red-and-gold armour. She'd never worked a deca-cycle — only helped at power stations when there was a festival, and Zeta Prime had called for more workers. Ratchet hadn't been keen to take her on — she was inexperienced and, in his professional opinion, looked too squeamish to deal with some of the cases he had in the medbay — but she'd pleaded with him to give her a chance, as she hadn't two credits to rub together. Irritated, he'd agreed, not expecting her to return. The next time he went to work, she was there, waiting to learn. During the war she'd become his constant companion, patching up warriors without so much as flinching — once she'd even cannibalised her own gauntlets when he was too weak to do it himself. It was because of Firestar that he'd emerged from the war at least half-sane.

    But of course she'd gone. They all did, in the end — he would have been surprised to learn that there were many femmes left. And the irony was that Thunderblast had killed her, speared her through the spark like an angered mech might stick a retro-rat. Firestar had died in the cradle of his arms, leaving only a ghost of her data in his memory tracks. He still held them there, waiting for the day he could return to Iacon and upload them in Vector Sigma.

    He shook himself free of the memories.

    The fact remained that he and femmes were quite at odds with one another. And now he had one here, in his cab, oblivious to his thoughts. Not even a femme of his own species, but a human femme. A human femme that he was destined for.

    But why?

    Starscream, he could understand — Skyfire, certainly. They were scientists. They understood natural life in all its forms. All he had was some limited knowledge of human anatomy and a handful of observations, largely gleaned from Mikaela, about their emotional spectrum. They were, if possible, even more perplexing than Cybertronian femmes — even more passionate, and certainly more diverse. Alexis and Rose were as different as dark and light energon.

    Still, he had to try.

    'Rose, are you all right?'

    She looked at the steering wheel in surprise. 'I'm fine — why?'

    'You seem troubled.'

    'I just think it's so sad. Don't you?'

    'Indeed,' he agreed, pleased to be able to make sensible conversation with her again. 'Lady Boleyn's death was regrettable. After all, she could hardly help being unable to bear the king a son. Most likely she had a blood condition, or —'

    'And she loved him. She loved him, and he had her executed.'

    Ratchet wilted inside.

    It had been obvious that the subject of love would crop up if they were going to speak about this particular motion picture. A country torn apart by a king for the sake of his supposed love for Anne Boleyn — of course they would end up discussing that dynamic thing, love.

    But what was love?

    It was the one thing that the All Spark had no control over. It could designate spark partners to each other and scatter them across the universe, throwing partners millions of light years away from each other and placing two separate parts of a being into creatures of two different species. It could take life and breathe it back, and infuse life into bodies. But it could not control love, whatever it happened to think about it.

    He paused before he replied:

    'Do you think she really loved him?' Rose looked back at the steering wheel, visibly confused. 'Or did she just want him for what she claimed from him — the wealth and prosperity that came with being the Queen of England?'

    'No — I don't think so. I think she loved him for who he was — she loved him for being Henry, not the king, no matter how it might have started. She loved him for who he was, not what he was.'

    'But they were so different,' he said. 'So different that they destroyed each other.'

    Is this still about Henry and Anne?

    She sighed heavily. 'I know. I know that. But — I guess she thought he was worth the risk. She just didn't predict how he would change, did she? She never thought that she would end up dying for it.'

    They fell into a thoughtful silence.

    Ratchet considered what she'd said. If she thought love was worth taking risks for, then why had she reacted so badly to the idea of an Autobot loving a human being? They were all sentient beings, after all. Jade had taken a risk in loving Skyfire; Alexis had taken a far greater risk in loving Starscream.

    Would he be worth the risk?

    'Why are you here for her?'

    Mary Boleyn — younger, fairer and far more vulnerable than her older sister. Anne — stood before King Henry VIII, her clear eyes wide and pleading and her full lips set slightly apart, trembling under the pressure of what she was requesting:

    'Because she is my sister — and therefore, one half of me.'

    Rose inhaled sharply.

    The line was filled with meaning about what had just happened between Rose and Alexis. Although they were not related by blood, it was still meaningful, and said something about how sisters should act — which was certainly nothing like how the two girls had just acted. Their behaviour had shocked him deeply, but he supposed he should make allowances for the confusion and anger Rose had experienced. Nonetheless, he felt obliged to say:

    'Alexis will come around.'

    She laughed, but it was dry. 'Of course she will — not only did I call her boyfriend an obnoxious bastard, I also called her a whore and proceeded to prove to everyone how hideously narrow-minded I am.'

    'You are not narrow-minded. You were surprised — naturally — and acted out of concern for your stepsister.'

    'I called her a whore, Ratchet.'

    'You did not mean it.'

    'I did at the time. I don't want to make excuses.'

    'Rose, you just told me that Anne Boleyn loved Henry for who he was, rather than what he was. That only proves my point.'

    Rose managed to smile. 'Why are you being so nice to me?'

    Because you are my spark partner. Because you are the one. And because I am losing myself already, slag it.

    'Because — because you are a good person, Rose — no matter what you might think,' he said.

    Rose bit her lip to hide a small smile.

    'Thank you.'

    'You are welcome.'

    They returned to watching the movie in a far more comfortable silence, and a smile remained on Rose's lips. Pleased that he had made her happy — even if he didn't quite understand how — Ratchet was content to keep one optic on the screen and one on her face, feeling markedly less averse to the idea of her being in his cab now. He knew he was losing himself to this, but he was finding it harder and harder to care.

    Rose suddenly leaned forward and grasped his side-view mirror, turning it so that she could see clearly. Ratchet shuddered involuntarily when he felt it twist to face her — and she clapped a hand over her mouth.

    'Ohmygod! I am so sorry — I forgot you can feel that —'

    'No matter, Rose. Were you trying to see something?'

    'Yes.'

    She leaned right out of the window, craning to see something behind the heavy-duty truck parked just behind them.

    'Shit,' she said.

    Ratchet turned his sensors around — and saw exactly what had disturbed her. There, bold as brass at the back of the drive-in theater, was a Saleen Mustang police vehicle — Barricade, openly sitting behind a family of five in their car.

    He lurked in the shadows, lights off his signature cloaked. But he could see the Decepticon mask over the shield on the side of the car, and saw the distorted slogan painted across one side of him: To Punish and Enslave.

    He was uncertain of what to make of this. It was true that Barricade had helped them in the fight against Thrust, but he had never agreed not to harm the Autobots, or made a truce with them. He was unpredictable and potentially dangerous, and he did not want him anywhere near Rose.

    'That's Barricade, isn't it?' she asked.

    'How do you know that?'

    'He hit me once. I was on my way to Jade's to find Alexis and I stepped out into the road without looking — and that car hit me. There was no driver.'

    There was a flicker to her left.

    'I will not be making that mistake.'

    Rose stared.

    His holoform had taken the wheel.

    Ratchet felt distinctly uncomfortable under her wide-eyed gaze. His human manifestation was a man in his mid-thirties, careworn and rugged. It was muscular and broad-shouldered, like his true form, and wore a chartreuse-yellow shirt, half-buttoned. The pulse symbols of SAR were drawn in red across the sleeves, and the Autobot symbol was emblazoned on the breast pocket in the same colour. A mop of thick, intensely dark brown hair sat on his head, threaded with grey, and a few strands fell past his eyebrows and into his small, solar-blue eyes. He had a slight goatee and a square jaw, and a scar above his left eye from where Sideways had struck his faceplate the year before. Rose swallowed, and her eyes ran over every part of him — doubtful, even frightened.

    'Ratchet?'

    'There is no need to be afraid,' he said. 'It is only light.'

    'Is this your hologram?'

    'Yes.'

    He analysed her face. There was a hint of colour in her cheeks.

    'I — I know this is probably a silly question,' she said, 'but Skyfire — well, he was . . . making out with Jade when I found them together. I don't understand how he was able to do that, if he was just a hologram.'

    'He was using a holoform, not a hologram.'

    'Can you all do that?'

    'Yes, but it wastes power. I would have to activate my matter generator.'

    She nodded, not taking her eyes from him.

    Ratchet quickly snapped out of his trance, irritated with himself for staring at her.

    'We must make haste,' he muttered.

    'Oh — sure, okay.'

    The Hummer reversed slowly as the credits of the movie began to roll, trying not to draw the hunter's attention. Rose clipped her seatbelt on and tensed when she felt it tighten around her securely of its own accord — then she threw Ratchet's hologram a grateful glance. He managed a gracious smile in return, keeping his eyes on the rear-view mirror.

    What does he want?



    He backed up and drew away from the other cars, to which people were now returning from where they'd been seated on the hoods to watch the movie. Turning out of the drive-in theater, he made his way towards the shopping centre.

    Madera's nightlife was beginning to appear as Ratchet made his way down the street: neon lights were flicking on in stores, as were the street lights, and the sun had given way to scattered stars. The moon was a mere sliver, and the darkness made the medic even more apprehensive about Barricade — he was not a fighter at spark, and would fall easily to the adaptive hunter if he chose to attack. The only advantages he had were height and bulk.

    'He's following,' Rose said.

    Her adrenaline level was rising, and her heart rate was growing faster by the moment: she was afraid. He turned his head to look at her and saw that she was very pale, and perspiration had appeared across her forehead.

    For a moment, he considered what he was about to do.

    Then he reached a hand out — and touched her.

    Rose turned in surprise when she saw his large, holomatter hand on her forearm. She looked up at him without a word, frozen.

    'Do not be afraid, Rose,' he said. 'I will protect you.'

    Turn it off.

    She kept her eyes on his hand.

    'You feel so real,' she said, very softly.

    Ratchet looked away. 'I am real.'

    'I mean the holoform. It's so warm.' She passed her fingers over the back of his hand. 'It's almost like being touched by satin.'

    He withdrew his hand, tense.

    'I have never felt it.'

    She looked up at him. 'I'm sorry,' she said, visibly embarrassed. 'I — shouldn't have —'

    'No. Forgive me.'

    'But —'

    'The holoform drains my strength. I will need it to fight Barricade.'

    'Yes, I know. I'm sorry.'

    'There is nothing to forgive, Rose. Hold on tight.'

    She fell silent.

    Her seatbelt caught around her suddenly as he came to a halt, wheels mounting the sidewalk and jolting her in her seat. The hologram disappeared, and the driver's door flew open — Mikaela had just stepped out of a candy store, carrying several bags.

    'Good movie?' she asked slowly, confused.

    'Get in, Mikaela.'

    A glint of fear sprang into her eyes. She handed her bags to Rose before she pulled herself up into the Hummer; she knew the drill by heart. The door slammed shut behind her, and a seatbelt whipped out to lash itself firmly around her waist.

    'Ratch', what the hell?'

    Ratchet was already building up speed, moving quickly through Madera and heading for the road that would take them back towards Tranquillity. Mikaela looked over at Rose, who returned her anxious gaze.

    'It's Barricade,' she said. 'He was at the drive-in.'

    'Well, I doubt he was there to watch The Other Boleyn Girl,' Mikaela said, with an uneasy laugh. 'Ratchet — what do you think he wants? Do you think he wants to hurt us?'

    'I do not know, Mikaela. That is why I am taking you both away from him — until I am sure of his intentions, I will be suspicious of him. After all, I am carrying precious cargo, am I not?'

    'We know we're safe with you, Ratch'.'

    Rose nodded.

    Ratchet's spark almost sang with joy — much to his irritation.

    The Mustang was gaining on them. Ratchet began to push the speed limit. He did not like driving beyond it on the roads, as he feared the repercussions if a human were to step out in front of him, but he was becoming extremely nervous about the hunter behind him. If Rose and Mikaela were caught between a fight, they would most likely be badly injured or even killed — and he would be unable to bear that happening to either of them.

    His patience wearing thin, Ratchet finally established a radio connection:

    'Ratchet to Barricade — please state your intentions,' he requested, allowing Mikaela and Rose to listen in.

    'I wish to negotiate a deal with you, Autobot Ratchet.'

    Rose flinched at the unfamiliar voice.

    'What manner of negotiation do you intend upon using?' Ratchet asked doubtfully. 'I assume you would like to speak with Optimus Prime rather than myself if you plan to make a deal with the Autobots.'

    'Indeed, medic. That is why I am following you.'

    Mikaela rolled down the window, leaning out to get a better look.

    'Let's just take him there, then, Ratch',' she said. 'He's nothing Optimus can't deal with — right?'

    'You may be right, Mikaela.' He accessed the radio link again: 'Very well, Barricade. Follow my lead.'



    * * *



    Jade groaned her way back to consciousness.

    'Ow — urgh, what the hell . . .'

    Everything ached: her head, her throat, and her lungs — it all felt as if someone had taken her entire body and thrown her around the room like a doll. It was a similar feeling to the one she'd had after the siege of the base and their defeat of Thrust. She'd taken a sound pounding from both Barricade and Soundwave during that fight, and now she felt almost as bad.

    I hate Decepticons.

    She turned over painfully — only to find herself nose-to-nose with —

    'Seraphim!' she shrieked.

    Seraphim grinned.

    'Sorry,' she said. 'Ratchet said keep an optic on you.'

    Jade took several deep breaths. Stabbing pains shot through her torso. Lifting her shirt, she found that she'd been virtually mummified: her torso was covered in starchy white linen. She was surprised she was even able to breathe with so much bandaging. But just beneath the neat edges of the crisp cloth, she could just about see the edges of some horrible bruising eking from beneath. What little she could see of it was a ghastly shade of purple, latticed with red. She quickly pulled her shirt down, feeling sick to the pit of her stomach.

    'Yeah,' Seraphim said heavily. 'Starscream got you pretty bad, kid.'

    'What'd he do, break my ribs?'

    'Kinda. Luckily the Hatchet's not going to keep you in for much longer — he said you could go out as long as you were careful not to strain yourself, whatever the hell that means — but I didn't realise Starscream could be like that. It gives me the skeevies.'

    Jade sighed. 'Nor did I. Where's —?'

    'Skyfire?'

    She looked up, wide-eyed, and smiled.

    'Hey,' she managed to say. 'We've caused quite a scene again, haven't we?'

    Skyfire chuckled. 'Yes, my jewel. How are you feeling?'

    'Like I got strangled by a crazy-ass jet.'

    'I hope you kicked his miserable aft, the son-of-a-glitch,' Seraphim said darkly to Skyfire, who raised his optic ridges. 'He had no right whatsoever to accuse Jade of messin' around with Carlos! That poor damn boy, too — Carlos would never do something like that. I know him — I'm his guardian!'

    A small nod was all she received from Skyfire, but Jade nodded keenly:

    'I know, right? Carlos doesn't think of me like that, does he?'

    'Hell, no.'

    'Exactly. Anyway, how Starscream could think I'd do something like that to you, Sky' — I just don't believe it.'

    'Half-clock idiot,' Seraphim muttered.

    'Language,' Skyfire admonished her for the thousandth time. 'Now, where is Ratchet?' he added curiously, looking around as if expecting the medic to materialise from under the workbench.

    'He and Mikaela went out with Rose,' Seraphim said, showing her pointed mandenta. 'Taking her to see a movie, no less! Ratchet's got the hots for that girl, I'm telling you — about time as well, the silly old prude.'

    Jade clapped her hands. 'Oh! Do you mean — when Ratchet's spark flared up that time —'

    'Yeah!'

    'Seraphim,' Skyfire interrupted wearily, 'if you please, I would rather that we did not discuss this matter. It is Ratchet's business, and I am sure he would not appreciate you talking about it without his permission.' He paused. 'In fact, I sense Ratchet's signature — would you be willing to go out and greet him? I would like him to examine Jade again, if he will.'

    'Ya just want to get rid of me. Well,' she said haughtily, 'point taken, amigo.'

    With that, she leapt off of the workbench, transformed in mid-air, and screeched out of the room as a Vespa.

    Skyfire sighed.

    'You love her really,' Jade said, smiling — but soon her face turned serious. 'Sky' — you don't really believe what Starscream was saying, do you? You know I would never, ever do something like that to you — not in a million years. I'd sooner die than —'

    'I know, Jade. I did not doubt you for a moment.'

    He picked her up with care, minding her bruised ribcage, and she leaned against his warm asbergo. Her small hands reached out to his armour, fingers splaying out to touch the metal. His spark was warm and welcoming beneath her palm.

    A sharp pain crossed her left side, and her hand snapped to her ribs. Skyfire ran a finger down her spine.

    'Starscream fractured one of your lower ribs,' he murmured.

    'It doesn't hurt too much,' she lied, and then saw his look. 'Well — okay, it hurts like hell. But it's done now.'

    He smiled warmly. 'You are compassionate indeed, Jade. Despite Starscream's crimes, you still find it in your heart to forgive — that is one of the many things I have always loved about you.'

    Jade shrugged. 'He was raised as a Decepticon — it's no big deal. But thank you.'

    'Hm.'

    They fell into a comfortable silence, but she could sense that he was holding something back. There were certain things she could tell with Skyfire after three years, and one of them was when he was trying to keep a secret from her.

    He tilted his head. 'Is something wrong?'

    'Yes,' she said, with a playful smile. 'There's something you're not telling me, mister.'

    To her great surprise, she saw fear flare up in his optics. It disappeared as if it had never been there, but she had seen it — a flash of momentary horror on his face, instigated by her enquiry.

    What did I say?

    'Sky', are you okay?' she asked.

    He cleared his vocal processors, visibly nervous.

    'Jade' — she sat up straighter to listen — 'please do not be angry with me for not informing you of this earlier, but even now, you are not supposed to be aware of this. If Optimus finds out he will be most unhappy with me.'

    'No secrets, Sky',' she reminded him in a low voice.

    'I do not wish to frighten you.'

    'You won't frighten me! You know that, Sky'.' He bowed his head. 'Skyfire, please tell me. It can't be that bad —'

    He looked up at her.

    Seeing his expression, she added: 'Can it?'

    The silence between them was broken when there was the sound of a Cybertronian transformation. The two of them looked down to see Seraphim at Skyfire's feet, who looked torn between dread and exhilaration.

    'Barricade is here.'



    * * *



    Her eyes flew open to meet the blackness.

    'No' — she struggled — 'please, no. Just send me back.'

    She was a prisoner of her prisoner, captured by the one she had involuntarily captured, and she could not escape.

    Three days.

    'What?' she whispered, hot tears in her eyes. 'What do you mean?'

    Three days.

    Her wrists were burning as if there really were manacles dragging her down, but she still felt as if she had no body to be bound to her place with. She was heavy and bodiless, weighed down by the burden of tironium. She was uncertain of whether or not she was going to die this time, but she prayed that it would at least let her open her eyes to the real world and look at Starscream once before the end.

    It spoke again:

    Let three days pass; then he will be here.

    'Unicron,' she whispered, and felt the radiant affirmative. 'Unicron will be here in three days?'

    Yes.

    It was impossible. She'd expected to wait a week — a month — perhaps even a year for Unicron's arrival, but three days — it was so close! Three days to prepare themselves for another war — three short, swift-passing days that would fly past as they fought to ready themselves for the attack that was sure to come. She had to get back to the world — she had to warn them.

    The Lord of Darkness comes to slay your lover and consume your planet.

    'Why does he want Starscream?'

    He is bound to the Plan.

    'What the hell are you talking about?'

    She was terrified now — not for herself, but for Starscream. There was fear for herself, somewhere deep inside, but it was a small spark that could be extinguished easily with the correct control. But Starscream was different. There was no world without him.

    The presence emanated no sympathy, but she could feel that it was somewhat regretful:

    I feel no emotion, but my logic tells me that by draining your strength, I will end your life — and that is life that I put inside of you when you were conceived. Life that has powered you since you grew in your mother's womb, and since you entered into this world. Destroying what I have created would be deplorable.

    She tried to move again, finding that her hands were still bound.

    'Let me go back,' she pleaded. 'I want to go home.'

    When the Chaos Bringer comes forth from the hyperspace jump, this will be your world forever.

    Yes, she remembered now — remembered Starscream's words from before. About Unicron's goal of the ultimate peace that came with oblivion, and the clearance of all life that might bring corruption. Was this place — sheer darkness — a sign of things to come?

    'If you use my strength,' she whispered, 'will you be able to fight him?'

    Silence. Then:

    Yes. Your are strong despite the weakness of your body. Whether or not I will be able to defeat him if a different matter, but I shall seek to do so — and your strength will aid me, Alexis Jane Paxton.



    'Why me?'

    You have the necklace. You have the companionship of the Autobots. You have Starscream.

    It was the first time that it had ever said Starscream's name, and it surprised her. But she suddenly felt the invisible tentacles around her again, piercing her nonexistent skin, wrapping around her lugs and ribs, covering her mouth to stop her screams. She could not sense any maliciousness, but she knew the All Spark was doing what it had to do. But she didn't want this — she'd never once, in all her life, asked for this. She was being used as a weapon, a tool of destruction against destruction itself.

    'No!'



    She woke up, soaked in cold sweat. Starscream's fist was closed around her body.

    'Alexis — you are all right!'

    'God, no — let me down —'

    He lowered her to the floor. and she staggered out of his palm, brushing her hands down her body frantically.

    'Oh — shit, it's inside me —'

    Starscream watched her, optics alive with confusion, as she wrapped her arms around herself. He'd watched her fall asleep in his arms, worried that she never seemed to recharge for more than four or five hours on end, when humans of her age required eight or nine. They'd hardly discussed the incident with Rose, both of them wishing to forget it had happened for a little while — instead, she'd waited until he'd finished speaking with Skyfire and then returned to the base with him. She'd slept peacefully against his asbergo for two hours or so, and now she'd woken from another nightmare instigated by the tironium necklace. He wanted nothing more than to destroy it, but they had tried that — without success.

    'What did it tell you?' he asked softly.

    She calmed down faster than she had on previous occasions. Now she looked broken, not afraid.

    'Unicron's coming,' she whispered. 'Three days.'

    He stared at her.

    'Starscream' — she touched his bucca with trembling fingers — 'he wants to kill you. He wants you.'

    'Three days,' he repeated.

    'Star', listen to me! It doesn't matter how soon he's coming — he'll kill you! It said that he wants you above all the others —'

    He shook his head, a thin smile in his optics. 'If Unicron comes here he will kill everyone, Alexis. Whether or not I die first is irrelevant.' He saw that she was struggling to stand and quickly extended a digit to support her. 'Did it tell you what it plans to do with you?'

    What little colour there had ever been in her cheeks drained out of them. She wrapped her arms tightly around his finger, breathing deeply. He carefully lifted her chin with his opposor, forcing her to look at him.

    'What is it?'

    Her lip trembled. 'It — Starscream, listen to me —'

    'Alexis, for Primus' sake —'

    'Okay, okay — look, it said that it doesn't want to kill me, but it needs me. It needs my strength to defeat Unicron, or else he'll destroy everything in the universe — make it dark and empty, like you said.'

    'Why does it need you?'

    'It said that I'm strong inside — that I was the one because I had three things: the necklace, the friendship of the Autobots, and — and you.' She looked up at him again. 'Your spark is mine.'

    Starscream was taut, shaking.

    'It'll kill me, Starscream.' Her face was white. 'I — I think I'm going to die.'





    *Chapter 12*: Threaten


    Chapter Twelve

    Threaten



    * * *



    Rose glanced over her shoulder uneasily as she exited the Hummer, almost tripping over the laces of her shoes as she did so. Barricade's lights were visible through the open door, and she could feel the cold fear clenching around her heart like an iron fist. Mikaela jumped down after her and grabbed her arm, dragging her out of the way so that Ratchet could transform safely.

    She watched in awe as the Hummer's grille detached from the front of the hood and the entire vehicle began to unfold, shifting and reshaping itself back into the bipedal form of the medical officer. Being new to the world of the Autobots and the Decepticons, she still retained the initial wonder of them that the others had lost after several years of seeing daily transformations, and she could not stop looking at him even when the last few gears and gizmos had slid into their appropriate places.

    "Quickly, both of you," he urged them, beckoning with one hand. "Stay behind me; I will not let him harm you."

    Beside her, Mikaela nodded and made her way forward without hesitation. "Careful, Ratch'," she warned him as she took up her place behind his leg, Rose following hesitantly. "You'd better call Optimus out here. You don't want to be by yourself if he makes a move."

    He nodded, establishing a radio link with the commander. /Ratchet to Optimus./

    Optimus was only in his office, so the response was speedy and clear. /Optimus to Ratchet. Is something wrong?/

    Ratchet crouched a little in a defensive position over the two females, uncertain of whether he ought to arm himself for their protection. /Barricade has followed me back to the base; I do not believe he has hostile intentions, but he has expressed a wish to speak with you directly. Request that you come to negotiate with him./

    To his credit, the commander barely seemed to be affected by the worrying news. /Very well/ he agreed simply before the link was broken.

    Nodding to reassure himself, the medic glanced down at the two females. "Are you both alright?" he asked concernedly, noticing Rose's pale face and Mikaela's erratic heartbeat. "There is no need to be afraid. Barricade is outnumbered eight to one – what harm could he possibly do by himself?" His voice was persuasive, and Mikaela looked as if she was comforted by it.

    "Got'cha," his charge nodded, taking a moment to steady her breathing before she gave him a smile to show that all was well. "I'm good."

    Rose's eyes were a little feverish, fixed on the doorway with a glaze of fear across the irises, and Ratchet remembered what she had said about being unintentionally hit by Barricade's vehicular form.

    "Rose?" he called lightly, and she looked up at him as if he were a ghost. "Your bio-signs inform me that you are still afraid."

    Her cheeks coloured a little under the scrutiny, but she did not make a fuss of his analysis of her internals. "I'm… I'm okay," she murmured, shaking her head and managing to form a weak smile. "Don't worry about me, Ratchet."

    Optimus appeared at the exact moment that Barricade transformed in the doorway, shifting himself from police car to bipedal Decepticonin all of five seconds. Sunstreaker, Sideswipe and Ironhide all appeared from their quarters, too, Ironhide apparently having been attracted away from the disciplinary he had been giving the twins by the movement of Optimus and Ratchet's signals on their internal radars. Their shamefaced expressions vanished when they spotted Barricade.

    "Barricade!" Sideswipe exclaimed, and Sunstreaker tightened his fists. "What are you doing here, you slagger?"

    "Ugly slagger," Sunstreaker added in a saccharine tone, prompting Ironhide to smack both of their heads with a metallic thunk. "What was that f - ?"

    "Stand down, all of you," Optimus murmured, motioning them away with a slight movement of his hand. His sapphire optics were on Barricade, who had a cold, tight expression on his dark face. "Barricade. You wished to speak with me?"

    The Decepticonclenched his jaw, glaring daggers at everyone in the room with his deep-set, scarlet optics ablaze. "I did," he said in his low, grinding voice, his eyes finally meeting the commander's from where he stood immobile in the doorway. "I am here to negotiate a truce of sorts, Optimus Prime… for I know of the threat that approaches."

    Unseen by any of them, Seraphim snuck away from where she had been hiding to inform Skyfire and Jade of Barricade's arrival.

    Sunstreaker cocked an optic ridge doubtfully. "What threat, you repugnant fraghead?"

    This time Ironhide raised a cannon. "Stand down, kid," he growled, causing Sunstreakerto pull a face and shove the weapon's mouth away from his glittering, golden paintjob.

    Mikaela, on the other hand, had felt Ratchet's body stiffen from where she had a hand on his shin. She looked up at him concernedly, and saw that his face was tight with apprehension. Upon glancing to her right, she saw that Rose, shying away from Barricade's direct line of sight, was staring at the hunter from behind the safety of Ratchet's bulk in apparent horror.

    Barricade's face twisted into a smirk. "You have not told the younglings, Prime?" he muttered, causing Optimus to look away for a moment. "Nor the humans, I would assume. Do you intend to inform them now – or shall I?"

    "Whatdid you just call us, punk?" Sideswipe snarled angrily, putting his fists up as if for a fight. "What does he mean, Optimus?"

    Mikaela looked up at the commander, too. "Yeah, Optimus – what does he mean?"

    Optimus looked pained; his blue optics flicked from one face to another uncertainly before he met Ironhide's azure cores. "Perhaps," he said slowly, "It would be better for everybody to be here for this announcement." He looked down at Mikaela. "Mikaela, would you be very kind and fetch Sam and the others? Leave Alexis be – she is already aware of this, albeit sworn to secrecy."

    The brunette blinked before she raised an eyebrow and nodded, ducking out from Ratchet's protective shadow and darting towards the human quarters, glancing over her shoulder hesitantly as she went.

    Optimus paused for a moment, sending a message to the other Autobots that were present at the base.

    Rose, in the meantime, kept her hand on Ratchet's leg and peered out at Barricade from behind it, trying to control her breathing. Barricade was more intimidating than she had realised, and she was disturbed by the fact that he had once collided with her on the road.

    The medic glanced down at her with his jaw clenched tightly. The feeling of her warm, soft hand against him was far more pleasurable than he would ever let on, and he knew he should probably be shaking her off – or at least asking her to remove it – but he found himself completely unable to do so. The girl was wriggling her way right into his spark, and there was, apparently, nothing he could do about it.

    "Ratchet…" she whispered finally and he leant down slightly to hear her, "He won't – he won't hurt anyone, will he?"

    "I doubt he would be so foolish as to try something, Rose," he assured her in a low voice. However, upon seeing her petrified expression, he immediately found himself caught up in some sort of internal turmoil again.

    She was frightened. She clearly needed a sense of fortification and security that he was not giving her by merely standing in front of her – she was vulnerable at ground level, and despite her fear of heights, he sensed that at the moment she needed to feel safer. So there were two main options – he could leave her, as was the sensible, non-conforming-to-the-All-Spark thing to do. Or, of course…

    "Could I maybe sit on your shoulder?" Rose suddenly blurted out in a rush, before she looked as if she sincerely regretted asking the question, her eyes widening in shock at her own daring. "Only – like, if it's okay, of course, I wouldn't want to –"

    Ratchet, however, was staring at her in complete shock. It was if she had read his mind at that moment.

    She trailed off, obviously confused by his stare.

    He shook his head quickly and offered her a brief smile. "Certainly, if that makes you feel more at ease," he agreed, extending his hand to her.

    The young woman visibly wilted with relief and gave him a grateful smile that warmed his spark; she proceeded to clamber into his palm, and he raised her to his shoulder, where she nestled herself amongst his bulky armour. Although, he noted with amusement, she still grasped one of his components rather tightly as she did so.

    Primus, he could feel her so intimately when she was up there! Her heat… the scent of her… things he had never really noticed about humans before that his spark was picking up on in an exasperatingly detailed manner.

    Any chance of concentration that might have existed is slag now, he thought to himself with an inner sigh.

    Turning his gaze back to what was happening, he saw that Skyfire, Seraphim and Jade had come in, as well as Arcee and Miles. He looked between them and saw that they all looked extremely confused, and Barricade was eyeing each of them with open contempt. Sam, Mikaela, Carlos and the remaining Autobots soon appeared, although Starscream and Alexis were not among those present – he is probably taking a leaf out of Skyfire's book, Ratchet reasoned with an uncontrollable smirk.

    Then again, in Mikaela's opinion, that was what he should be doing.

    "What's going on, Optimus?" Sam suddenly piped up, looking at Barricade mistrustfully. "Mikaela said you wanted us."

    "I did call for all of your presences here, yes," the commander said softly, glancing at the young man out of the corner of a radiant blue optic. "There is something that… I must inform you of."

    Carlos shrugged easily. "Shoot, capitán."

    Carlos, at least, did appear to have been too badly affected by what had happened. He was standing with his brown arms folded, one eyebrow raised in a slightly inquisitive manner over his dark eyes, and looked perfectly at ease; he was clearly unaware of Jade's earlier predicament.

    Jade herself was standing nearby, and Ratchet eyed her suspiciously to check that she was still wearing the bandages. He could see a slight edge of the white linen where her shirt ended and nodded slightly, satisfied by what he was seeing, before he turned to face Optimus. Rose clung to him tightly, her adrenaline spiking again.

    Putting a large hand to the bridge of his nose, Optimus shook his head.

    "I am aware," he said slowly, "That I should have told all of you this earlier. But I was hoping to spare you the knowledge until the time came."

    There was a general exchange of confused glances and shrugs. "I'm not following you, Prime," Sunstreaker admitted, and his twin nodded his agreement. "It's not like we were sparked yesterday, you know. We've all proved ourselves in the field on several occasions – you know we can take it, whatever the frag it is."

    "I mean, what's the worst it could be?" Sideswipe grinned, rolling his optics. "Unicron?"

    The younger ones laughed incredulously, and the boys joined in somewhat uncertainly; Mikaela, Rose and Jade, however, had all sensed the differing reaction of the older mechs. "What's… what's Unicron?" Jade asked tentatively.

    Bumblebee looked down at her kindly. "An old legend told by the likes of the elders on Cybertron," he explained light-heartedly. "Or as a story to scare us all. The tale of a monster that lurks at the edge of the universe, awaiting a time to emerge and consume the entire galaxy – erasing all life in the conquest of a strange kind of peace."

    "All absurdity, of course," Arcee said pointedly, and he nodded quickly in concurrence with his mate. "There is no such creature."

    Miles shook his head disbelievingly. "Sounds like a weird kind of peace to me, man, with nothing left in the cosmos…"

    Mikaela's hand found its way into Sam's and she swallowed, looking between Optimus, Ratchet and Barricade. "Optimus… Arcee's right, yeah?" she said softly, seeking his confirmation. "It's something else…"

    "C'mon, big guy!" Seraphim complained, throwing her hands up in frustration. "What is it? Is Megabutt back from the dead, or something?"

    "Seraphim…" Skyfire muttered warningly.

    Optimus shook his great head quickly. "No – Megatron still lies deep in the Laurentian Abyss, out of harm's way," he reassured his troops. Seeing Barricade's tense expression, he looked hard at Sunstreaker. "Sunstreaker… I know that you have all done more than enough to show your worth as Autobots, and I have no doubt that you could deal with virtually anything that I told you. But… you will wish that I had not told you once you understand the truth."

    Sam was growing increasingly aggravated by his elusiveness, and he grasped Mikaela's hand tightly. "What truth?" he demanded, looking up at Bumblebee and then back at Optimus. "I destroyed Megatron, Optimus – you owe me the truth!"

    There was a short, strained silence.

    Then Optimus sighed heavily. "Yes, Sam Witwicky, you are right… I owe you the truth. I owe all of you the truth." He began to pace, and all optics and eyes followed his movement as he did so. Then he stopped, and looked at each of them individually. "The legend of Unicron was told to all of you as younglings… a story intended to frighten you, but all told in jest."

    "That is all it is," Arcee insisted, pouting as much as a lipless being was physically capable of and narrowing her large blue optics a little at the challenge to her personal belief. "An asinine… fairytale, as the humans might say."

    Optimus looked long and hard at the small, svelte femme. "… No, Arcee," he finally murmured. "It is true."

    There was an immediate outbreak of alarmed, disbelieving sounds from all of the Cybertronians present but Ironhide, Skyfireand Ratchet, as well as some frantic babbling from the humans. Barricade glared at them all from the doorway as they began to panic, his crimson eyes as red as blood.

    "No way!" Sunstreaker exclaimed, shaking his head. "Optimus – you can't be serious!"

    "It was an embellished myth!" Arcee cried, staring between her leader and her mate. "I – I cannot believethat you would say something like that, Optimus – it was a mere sparkling's story, told by pranksters seeking amusement in their fear!"

    Sideswipe nodded, his mouth open in shock. "Yeah, we were just… 'seeking amusement in their fear" he nodded, knowing that it was to the twins that the femmehad been referring. "You're telling us that Unicron – Unicron, the chaos bringer, Lord of Darkness, supreme force of evil and various other names that we gave him – he's factual?"

    Every single person looked back at Optimus.

    The commander clenched his jaw tightly, fighting to keep his composure, before he nodded stiffly.

    Mikaela's fingers were white around Sam's, and she shook her head. "How long have you known this for?" she asked, to expectant looks from the others. "And… and what does it mean for us if he is real? Are you saying that… that there's some sort of monster coming here?"

    "I do not believe it," Arcee muttered, and Bumblebee looked torn.

    "We have known since it became apparent that Alexis's necklace has more significance than we previously believed," Ratchet said, looking hard at his charge and her consort. "She and Starscream came to me, with claims that the All Spark fragments within the jewel she carries have been causing her to experience extremely frightening dreams."

    "Alexis?" Rose repeated abruptly, turning to look at him from where she was still perched on his shoulder. "What necklace? What in the name of God has she got herself into now?"

    "I will explain later," he assured her quietly before he looked back at the others. "In these… dreams, the All Spark has spoken to Alexis. It has claimed her as its own, and wishes to use her as a tool, by which it will attempt to destroy Unicron when he arrives. He has been awakened after millions of years of dormancy, and we must assume, from Alexis's experiences, that he is heading to this very planet… and will be here sooner than we think, to consume it for its organic bounty."

    Barricade finally made a low growling sound. "Which is why I am here."

    Arcee, who was now tightly in Bumblebee's arms and looked stunned by Ratchet's words, looked up. "Why, Barricade?" she asked stiffly, clearly displeased by his arrival. "You wish to join us?"

    "Because the only way to defeat the might of Unicron," the hunter said, stepping forward, "Is to unite as one under the Matrix."

    "'Till all are one," Optimus recalled in a low voice. "The ancient axiom of the Prime dynasty. Legend told that Unicron is the Lord of Darkness, the highest commandant of malevolence… and that whilst there is conflict and judgement amongst people, there can be no defeat of his evil."

    Barricade straightened himself, his fiery eyes glimmering darkly. "I havelost all sense of purpose since Thrust and his followers were defeated here," he told them, glaring proudly from one face to another. "There is nothing left for me in patrolling the streets alone, day after day – my solitude has gained me nothing of value, and I am tired of such an existence. Unicron will have no mercy – he will destroy Autobots, Decepticons and humans alike, with no middle ground or pity."

    Mikaela gripped Sam's fingers so tightly that he was certain that the circulation had been cut off, but he did not care; like her, he was rooted to the spot by Barricade's predictions.

    "Thus," the Decepticon finished, "I offer my services to you –" he extended a hand, "As a soldier."

    Nobody moved.

    Optimus scanned the room to see the reactions of the others. The twins had identical expressions of revulsion on their faces; Jade looked sympathetic, as did Seraphim; Skyfire, Ironhide and Ratchet looked equally passive, whilst Sam and Mikaela seemed uncertain. Miles and Carlos, on the other hand, looked openly suspicious of Barricade's intentions.

    He inclined his head. "Very well, Barricade," he murmured, taking the proffered hand and shaking it firmly. "I accept your offer."

    There was a colossal crash and everyone turned in surprise when Starscream crashed into the room, looking torn between being distraught and enraged. Completely ignoring – or possibly missing – Barricade's presence, he blazed over to Ratchet and shoved the medic into the wall with a screech of fury.

    "Ratchet!" Mikaela gasped, running towards them.

    Ratchet stared at Starscream in bemusement. "Starscream, what the Pit are you doing?" he demanded, and Rose clung to him in panic at Starscream's close proximity. "If you are trying to get to Rose again, be aware that I will not let you harm her whilst she is with me."

    Starscream hissed at the young woman in apparent disgust. /It is not her that I am here for," he snarled, opening a private radio link with Ratchet as his fists tightened. /Would you like to explain to me, Ratchet, why Alexis has just confessed to me – after another nightmare from that accursed necklace – that she believes that she is going to die?/

    The girl in question dashed into the room at that moment, wide-eyed and white as a sheet. "Starscream," she protested breathily, shaking her head.

    "What are you saying to him?" Sunstreaker demanded of the jet as his twin attempted to subtly hack the link.

    Ratchet looked from Alexis to the bloody eyes a mere half a metre before him. /This is not the place to speak about this, Starscream," he told him firmly. "We havejust let the others know about Unicron, and it will do no good to tell them that Alexis feels this way. Come with me to the medical bay with her and we will discuss it further./

    "Sideswipe!" Ironhide snapped at the twin when he sensed the attempted hack, and the crimson robot drew out reluctantly.

    Mikaela quickly ran to Alexis's side, stopping in front of her friend. "Alexis, are you okay?" she asked worriedly. "Ratchet just told us about – well, he said something about the All Spark using you as –"

    "Could I… talk to you about it later, Mikaela?" Alexis cut in quietly, touching her friend's arm to reassure her. "I think Ratchet needs to talk to me."

    Surprised, the brunette glanced over her shoulder to see both Ratchet and Starscreamlooking pointedly at Alexis. She turned back to the other girl and gave her a supportive smile, nodding. "Okay – but make sure you do, alright? I'm getting really worried about you – come see me tonight when you're done. Promise?"

    Alexis nodded. "Sure, Mikaela – I promise. Don't worry about me," she added before she made towards her guardian and the medic.

    As the small, frail-looking girl followed the two mechs out of the room, Mikaela looked after them with a concerned expression. She could sense that there was more to this than met the eye; Starscream had looked really panicked, and she was certain that she was not imagining how thin Alexis seemed to be getting – there was less and less meat on the girl with each passing day, and she was beginning to look quite dangerously underweight. As her best friend, it was her duty to find out what was wrong… but whether or not she would tell her was a different matter.

    Jade suddenly rounded on Ironhide unexpectedly, her hair swinging around and almost whipping her in the face. "You knew!" she said heatedly, and the old warrior frowned in bemusement. "You knew, when you said you could feel something coming – you lied to me, Ironhide!"

    Ironhide visibly tensed. "I only wished to protect you from such horrifying information," he scowled, folding his massive, cannon-bearing arms.

    "What, you didn't think I could handle it?" the usually even-tempered young woman demanded, fuming. "Our planet's about to be eatenby some giant monster and you didn't think that I might need to know about it? I wouldn't lie to you about something like that, Ironhide! We're all adults now – you should have told us earlier!"

    "Ironhide was right to do what he did, Jade," Skyfire murmured gently, his eyes to the ground and a sombre expression on his face. "I, too, knew of Unicron's coming. but felt it best not to tell you. And I am sorry for that," he added when her jaw dropped in shock.

    She glanced between Skyfire and Ironhide before crossing her arms, pinching the bridge of her nose.

    Skyfire sighed heavily. "Dear Primus, Unicron… coming here…" He shook his head. He had been deeply troubled by the idea before, but now it had finally struck him just how serious the situation was. "However will we defend against him?"

    "There is virtually no chance of victory," Barricade said cynically. "We either lay down our arms and die, or we die fighting for our lives."

    Rose, who had been replaced on terra firma when Ratchet had left with her stepsister and Starscream, turned and spoke in a near-hysterical voice. "Why is this Unicron thing coming here?" she asked angrily, annoyed by her lack of knowledge. "And could somebody let me know what he's got to do with Alexis, please?"

    Barricade narrowed his eyes, assessing her.

    She noticed and froze like a stunned rabbit, meeting his gaze indecisively.

    "I know you from somewhere, human," he growled in his deep, harsh tone and she nodded stiffly, the little colour in her cheeks draining from them as she took a small step away from him. "Do… enlighten me."

    The young woman drew in a quavering breath, but stood her ground. "You hit me, remember?" she said, her voice coming out at a slightly higher pitch than she had intended. "One night when I was out looking for Alexis – near Jade's house – I walked into the road without looking and you hit me. And it bloody hurt," she added sullenly.

    Barricade smirked. "My deepest apologies, fleshling." He cast his critical gaze over all of the humans present. "It is unfortunate indeed that I will have to be working alongside you miserable organics."

    On the other side of the room, Sam snorted. "Uh, miserable organic that killed Megatron," he pointed out, putting his thumb to his chest.

    "Samuel Witwicky," the Decepticon remembered, raising an optic ridge and suddenly earning the look of a predator about to kill an unsuspecting deer. "Yes… I remember you very well… LadiesMan217."

    Sam flushed.

    Optimus turned to them all with a disapproving expression. "Enough," he said firmly, and Barricade stood down reluctantly. "The fact remains that Unicron could emerge at any time. We must begin preparations immediately for his arrival – and I must contact the American Secretary for Defence, John Keller. Our forces alone will never be enough."

    "You are saying that you want the humans to aid us?" Barricade scoffed. "Useless. Their weapons will be completely ineffective."

    "There is a great deal of strength in numbers, Barricade," Optimus said wisely. "But I agree that even the entirety of the United States Air Force will not be enough." He looked towards Rose. "Miss Connelly – I understand that you may not have any experience of warfare, but do you think that your country would come to our aid? Do they have an air force?"

    Rose bit her lip before she replied. "We have the Royal Air Force, and the British Army," she said. "I suppose they would help you; America have always been our allies, after all. But I doubt they'll believe what you tell them."

    "That is good news," Optimus murmured. "And you, Mr Lopez?" he asked Carlos.

    The young man nodded. "Yeah, the Ejército del Aire. I guess they'd help you, big guy, but they'd probably want some kinda proof."

    Barricade chuckled grimly. "Do you think that it will be proof enough when Unicron makes his appearance over Earth, boy?" he asked darkly, and Carlos shrugged, admitting that he had a point. "I thought so. But no matter how many of your pathetic air forces come to provide assistance, it will haveno effect on Unicron."

    "But possibly on his followers on Earth, if they come," Ironhide pointed out. "The slagger will send troops down here, mark my words."

    Optimus nodded slowly before he turned back towards his office. "I will contact the Secretary for Defence immediately. They will need time… time to prepare themselves for what is to come."



    * * *



    "Three days?"

    Ratchet looked between Starscream and Alexis with a look of utter horror painted onto his wizened features. Neither of them replied; both the jet and his spark partner stood together silently after making their announcement, looking equally despondent. It would have been quite comical to behold how they were so in love, but so different in height – Alexis barely reached Starscream's first leg joint – but this was hardly a time for amusement.

    The medic put his hand to his forehead and shook his head. "Please, for the love of Primus, tell me that this is a practical joke," he muttered, his free hand clenching. "What I would not give for one of Sunstreaker and Sideswipe's foolish pranks now."

    "I think we'd all appreciate that, Ratch'," Alexis admitted softly. "But it's true."

    Turning away from the both of them, Ratchet attempted to retain his composure. Behind him, Starscream looked down at Alexis to see her reaction to the medic's own; her head was bowed, thin strands of light brown hair falling into her eyes, and she glanced up at him out of the corner of one of them.

    He clenched his jaw tightly. Today he had shown his anger at everything in the world on several occasions – now, there was still so much rage inside of him that he felt as if he might explode at any moment. Alexis was in danger – grave danger that even he had no power to stop, and he would be damned to the fiery Pit if things would stay that way. Clearly there was only so much that could be done before Unicron's imminent arrival in a mere seventy-two hours, but there had to be something.

    His voice broke a little when he spoke next. "What must I do?"

    Alexis bit her lip.

    Ratchet turned to look at him, looking markedly more sympathetic, and heaved a sigh. "There is nothing you cando, Starscream. If the All Spark wishes Alexis to be part of its resistance to Unicron's power, then there is nothing any of us can do to stop it."

    "There must be something!" he insisted lividly, his features twisting into a resentful scowl. "We cannot let this happen to her!"

    He felt the gentle touch of her hand against his leg and glanced down to see her looking up at him with a strangely calm expression. "Star," she said softly, and he blinked in surprise when she used the rare nickname, "I'm not… certain that it'll kill me when it uses me. It was just a feeling I got…" She trailed off, clearly unable to finish.

    "You are lying," he spat, glaring at her angrily. "I am insulted that you think you can fool me with that, Alexis. The All Spark told you that you were going to die, and you think you can hide it from me? I think not."

    She shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes for a moment when a brief, lancing pain shot across her forehead.

    The motion did not go unnoticed by Ratchet, who had shot across the room like an arrow within five seconds of her movement. "Alexis?"

    "I'm okay," she breathed slowly, opening her eyes slowly despite the nausea that was threatening to overtake her. "Seriously, Ratch' – I've just got a bit of a headache…" A horrible, dizzy sensation was overtaking her and she braced herself against Starscream's leg to prevent herself from slumping in a dead faint at their feet, swallowing hard.

    Starscream growled deeply. "You see?" he snarled at the medic, leaning down and picking her up. "There is something happening to her."

    "I've got a headache," she sighed frustratedly, sitting in his palm with her fingertips pressed to her temples. "I'm not dying, Starscream. It's really no wonder I'm getting a migraine after so much excitement in one damned day…"

    "I would normally recommend several hours of recharge," Ratchet admitted quietly, folding his arms and assessing the young woman intently. "It would appear that going to sleep is not your best option, Alexis, but humans require rest as part of a healthy lifestyle. Please… just try your best to recharge. Forget what you have learnt and sleep for a few hours."

    She gave him a strained smile. "Okay. Thanks, Ratchet."

    Starscream clenched his jaw and inclined his head stiffly to the medical officer before he stalked from the medical bay, still holding her carefully in one hand as if she were made of glass.

    Ratchet watched them leave and then lowered his optics with a heavy groan of mingled despondency and strain.

    As if he had not had enough to cope with, with his spark partner's arrival to the base – Unicron was coming to Earth. Not only was the chaos bringer coming to this planet, but he was arriving in three days, and their only hope was a tiny, fragile human female with a gem that was barely bigger than a sparkling's optic.

    Certainly, they could fight off Unicron's followers on Earth. The humans had powerful forces, both in the air and on the land; he had no doubt that the United States Air Force would provide ample assistance against whomsoever Unicron chose to send to the planet's surface… but they would be no help against the actual being. Unicron was power and might itself – a Cybertronian big enough to transform into a planet, for Primus's sake! What use would their weapons be against such a force?

    "Ratchet."

    He turned to see Optimus Prime standing in the doorway, with Ironhide and Skyfire just behind him. To his surprise, Rose was sitting on Optimus's shoulder, looking scared stiff by the enormous drop that she would plunge down should Optimus make a sudden movement. Jade was with Skyfire as usual, looking daggers at Ironhide.

    The medical officer shook his head. /Three days, Optimus/ he murmured via the link. /Three days until he comes./

    Optimus's azure optics went wide for a moment before he clenched his jaw, nodding stiffly. /Alexis told you this?/ The yellow Autobot nodded in response. /This is unexpected news indeed. But we must not let the younglings know yet./

    /Don't you think we have kept enough from them?/ Ratchet pointed out softly.

    Blue eyes met with resolution before Optimus looked down at the floor silently, breaking the link without a commander scooped Rose from his armour and deposited her carefully on the worktop, where she stood with a frightened expression and looked worriedly at Ratchet.

    "Pleasetell me what this all has to do with Alexis," she begged of the three Autobots, tears springing up in her eyes. "Look, I know it looks like I hate her, but I really –"

    "We do not think that at all, youngling," Optimus assured her gently. "But we will explain nonetheless."

    Rose looked at the five of them expectantly. "Well?" she said impatiently, planting her hands on her hips in a manner that suggested that she would not be moved from her position until she received a satisfactory answer.

    Optimus looked over to his medical officer. "Ratchet – Starscream and Alexis have both confided in you about her condition," he reminded him quietly and the yellow Autobot clenched his jaw firmly, turning away slightly and picking up a tool. "You know more about what is happening to her than any of us do. Will you tell us?"

    "It is not my place to do so," he said stubbornly, but weakened when he saw Rose's angry glareand the plea in Optimus's optics. "I am… uncertain as to what will become of Alexis. The All Spark is slowly draining her of energy, but not to the point that she is unable to function – however, if it is to use her against Unicron, whatever energy it will channel through her will surely kill the poor youngling. Her body is weak… I do not know whether she would survive such a thing."

    "Then we can do nothing?" Ironhide growled, his giant fist tightening.

    Jade gasped from Skyfire's shoulder. "Ratchet, there must be something we can do for her!" she protested, looking horrified. "We can't just let her die… what will Starscream do without her?"

    "I do not know," Ratchet said angrily, turning around and glaring at the others. "I am an expert of field repair, not the nature of the human body! Certainly I can provide assistance based on Internet-based knowledge, but I am not a doctor – nor am I a tactician or a fighter. I am not a miracle worker." He paused, looking down. "I cannot save… everyone."

    There was a stunned silence.

    Skyfire, who was looking at Ratchet with utmost sympathy, placed a hand on the medic's shoulder. "We understand that, Ratchet," he murmured understandingly, and Jade nodded. "But we look to you for guidance where our own knowledge is lacking."

    Ratchet put a hand to his head, looking ashamed of himself for his outburst. "I apologise," he said softly. "I just feel so… incompetent."

    "You're not incompetent," Rose denied quietly from the workbench.

    He cast her a somewhat perplexed, but undoubtedly grateful look. "I thank you for that, youngling," he said, and she returned his gaze with her eyes scintillating with tears. "But you cannot deny that I have… failed my purpose here. My reason for existence is to heal and repair… and now, it seems I will be unable to do so."

    "Through no fault of your own, Ratchet," Optimus reminded him gently, blue eyes meeting Ratchet's with resolution. "You were the best medical officer we had on Cybertron, and you always will be here on Earth. What is happening is being determined by a force far beyond your power – beyond any of our powers. Even mine," he added, almost inaudibly. "Only time will tell what will come to be."

    Skyfire glanced at him. "What did the Defence Secretary say, Optimus?"

    Optimus turned to face his Air Commander. "I was able to contact Mr Keller directly," he told them. "He wishes for us to travel to the state of Virginia and meet him at the headquarters of the United States Department of Defence – the humans call it the Pentagon."

    Jade's mouth dropped open. "He wants us all to go to the Pentagon? When?"

    "As soon as possible," the commander clarified, glancing at Ironhide, who grunted noncommittally. "We must all go, for our own safety. There, we can make plans with the military to prepare for Unicron's arrival."

    "Bloody hell," Rose whispered, paling. "Are you taking this monster thing that seriously?"

    Skyfire nodded slowly. "I fear we must, Miss Connelly," he admitted. "Our best chance is to unite with your human forces; we will need extra assistance against an entity such as Unicron. However," he added, turning to Optimus again, "I feel that we really ought to be letting Alexis's mother know about this now, and possibly the parental units of all of the other humans here."

    "Sam's parents already know," Optimus murmured, nodding slowly. "Jade, would you want to tell your parental units?"

    "No way," she said, shaking her head. "My mom and dad are really over-protective… they wouldn't let me go if I told them the truth. I'll just tell them I'm going on a camping trip with some friends for a few weeks, or something. I'm not leaving Sky."

    Optimus cast his gaze to Rose, who had her arms folded protectively across herself as if she feared that she was about to fall apart. "Miss Connelly," he said gently and she looked up, her eyes slightly red, "I am sorry if you did not want this to happen, but we are going to have to let your father know about what is happening. Alexis's mother can no longer be oblivious to what is happening to her daughter, and I cannot see any way of letting her know without your father finding out."

    Rose put two fingers to her temple wearily. "Fine, then… on your head be it when he goes all overbearing on me," she muttered, closing her eyes.

    "How long do we have to get ready?" Jade asked, alarmed by the suddenness of the announcement.

    "Tomorrow," Optimus said simply. "We leave the day after for Virginia. I suggest you spend your last day here doing something that you enjoy… for who knows when we shall return to Tranquillity again?"



    * * *



    Author's Note: Thank you so much to all of you who have been reviewing. :)  Updates from here onwards will be slowing down considerably due to the fact that my exams are creeping closer by the day, but I promise that I'm not abandoning this storyline! Just keep your eyes open.





    *Chapter 13*: Relax


    XIII. Relax



    * * *



    The next day found Alexis on the roof of the base, staring out at the foothills of Sierra Nevada. In springtime they were thick with grass, and tiny purple flowers had sprung up all over the mountainside closest to the corrugated warehouse.

    California.

    They were leaving tomorrow. This was her last day on the Golden Coast; her last day in the state that had given her life. It wasn't her birthplace — not her point of origin — but still, it had been home to her. A refuge after the death of her father.

    The sun scalded her shoulders as she sat on the edge of the hot tin roof, gazing at the soft vestiges of cloud, taking the heat deep into her skin. Virginia wouldn't be anywhere near as hot as the Sun Belt. She would miss the sweltering summer, the palm trees topped with dark, lush green. She would miss the places, the hangouts, the well-worn paths through Fresno County: the Autobot base, her home away from home; the lake where she'd first met them; the rock-strewn ridge overlooking the Rainbow Falls, where she and Starscream would spend their stolen moments in the sunset. Most of all she would miss flying with him over the spectacular lakes and valleys of the mountain range, hidden from all other human eyes.

    The necklace hurt.

    She rubbed at the base of her neck. It frequently became stiff, paralysing her head. She was exhausted by carrying it, but she had long since given up on trying to remove it — she had no choice but to accept its decision.

    It was strange to lose control of one's own destiny.

    She thought of her mother, happily engaged to Robert. As she was with the Autobots so much, she rarely considered her true home — her biological family. It was something she'd never quite shaken: the guilt, the niggling doubt. She'd abandoned her mother for the past three years, only coming home now and again to show her face for a few hours before she left again — mainly in a medium-duty pickup truck.

    Neglected as it was, she would miss the little house in Tranquillity. She would miss the smell of lasagne in the kitchen — the photographs of her father that lined the walls in the front room — her once-organised bedroom that had disintegrated into disarray when all sense of normalcy and order in her life had disappeared — and her mother on the armchair in the evenings, reading Far From the Madding Crowd.

    'Hey.'

    Alexis glanced up to see Mikaela stepping up from the ladder that led from the ground to the roof.

    'Hey,' she said. 'You're up early.'

    Mikaela shrugged and sat down. 'It's ten already.'

    'Oh.'

    'Yeah. How long have you been out here for?'

    'Couple of hours, I think. I couldn't sleep.'

    'I figured.'

    Silence fell between them. Mikaela was fidgeting, tensely tugging at a loose thread in her jacket.

    'Alexis,' she said slowly, 'what — what did Ratchet mean when he said that the All Spark has "claimed you for itself"?'

    Alexis smiled thinly. 'He meant what he said: it wants to use me to kill Unicron.'

    'I don't understand it.'

    'Nor do I, but it's happening. I just have to accept it now.'

    Mikaela stared at her. 'Accept it?' she repeated. 'Alexis, you do know how the All Spark is going to use you, don't you? Why won't you tell me?' She paused, looking at her face, before she added: 'Have I done something wrong?''

    No — no, Mikaela. You've been the best friend I've ever had.'

    'So tell me.'

    'You've got enough on your mind.'

    'I don't have that many worries. Please?'

    'You do have worries,' Alexis said firmly. 'What are you going to say to your mom and dad about going to Virginia? If I know your dad, he won't let you go without a fight — he was separated from you for years when he went to prison, and I can't picture him being happy about you leaving the state.'

    'Dad will have to let me go in the end.' She lowered her eyes, flexed her jaw. 'I don't know if you feel the same way, but I don't feel like they're my family anymore. I love my dad so much — I really do — and I love my mom . . . but I think my place is with the Autobots now.'

    There was a short lapse in conversation before the reply came:

    'I feel that way, too.'

    Mikaela nodded slightly, her jaw still clenched as she stared out at the cool blue mountains. She tilted her head, so that her cheek was resting against her knees, before she spoke again: 'In a way, Ratchet's way more like a dad to me. I love him so much — he's taught me a lot about myself and everything else, and he's always there for me. And I know that Dad was in prison and so he couldn't be with me — but he was a criminal.'

    'He did it because you guys needed money.'

    'But he could've just gone and got a job in a store or something,' Mikaela said bitterly, clenching her fist. 'He didn't have to steal cars. It wasn't right. And mom could've babysat me instead of him taking me with him, but she was too busy drinking and taking crack and — and not being a good mom.'

    Alexis shook her head.

    Mikaela scraped a hand through her hair. 'I don't care any more. They've got each other now, I guess — now mom's outta rehab — and I have been living with the Autobots for two years. It's not like I'm still living at home and I'm suddenly leaving.'

    'But don't you think you should tell them the truth? I know they've gone wrong in a few places with their parenting, but I still think you owe your dad some kind of truth, if not your mom. Just tell him you're in safe hands, or he'll never forgive himself.'

    Mikaela glanced at her. 'You think?'

    'He's a good man.'

    'I know.' She wiped her face on her sleeve. 'Maybe — maybe I should go and introduce him to Ratchet.'

    'Definitely. How's it going with Ratchet and Rose?'

    Mikaela sighed. 'Okay, I guess — I don't think she's as scared about the whole robot-human thing now, at least. But I doubt she realises he has any kind of feelings for her — she's too focused on her worries over her dad, and your mom, and what they'll say about all this.'

    'You really do care about Ratchet, don't you?'

    'Well — yeah. Like I said, he's like the dad I never really had. And I just hope — and pray that she'll make him happy. 'Cause if there's anyone in the whole world that deserves happiness, it's him.'

    Alexis returned her gaze to the mountains. 'Yes, he does.'

    There was another silence that lasted several minutes. When the light of the next day faded, they would be in Virginia — in the Pentagon, hub of the United States military system. For Mikaela, it would not be a frightening journey — her family had travelled all around America, back when people still called them "trailer trash" — but the idea of being in such an official, military place sent a shiver down her spine.

    'How's Starscream taking all this?' she asked.

    'Badly.' Alexis twisted her fingers together. 'I — I'm just so afraid for him, Mikaela. Yesterday he just about lost it — you saw what he did to Ratchet — and I'm terrified of what he'll do if anything else happens to me.'

    'He did kinda flip out,' she admitted. 'He's got a lot of frustration in him. But he was a Decepticon for God-knows-how-many years.' She paused and turned her head to look at her pale friend. 'But he loves you so much.'

    Alexis hid behind her hair.

    'I love him,' she said. 'I love him so much — I need Star'. I never thought I'd feel that way for anyone.'

    Mikaela smiled. 'Star' . . . that's sweet.' Seeing tears in her eyes, she wrapped her arm around her friend's slim shoulders. 'Alexis, honey — look, don't cry. There's no need for it, okay? Everything's gonna be alright. I promise.'

    'Thank you.'

    'Anytime.'

    'Hey — you two okay?'

    Mikaela glanced over her shoulder to see Sam hauling himself up the ladder.

    'We're good,' she said. 'Are you okay?'

    'I guess. 'Screamer sent me up here — he wants to talk to you, Alexis.'

    'How'd he know we were here?'

    'No idea. He was actually kind of civil for once, though, so I thought I'd do it. Want me to go down with you, Alexis?' he asked her when she passed him, taking her gently by the elbow. 'You look kinda like you might pass out. Not to sound rude, or anything, it's just —'

    'I'm all right, Sam. I'll see you guys later.'

    She climbed down the ladder. Mikaela watched her go, moving to stand next to her boyfriend, who gave her a weak smile.

    'She's not doing so good,' she confided to him in a low voice.

    Sam shook his head, putting one hand into the pocket of his jeans. 'We all are, 'Kaela,' he said heavily, 'but I guess we'll just have to trust Optimus with whatever he's got planned. He's never led us wrong yet, right?' He looked to her as if for confirmation, his brown eyes seeking hers with resolution.

    She nodded slowly. 'Yeah.'

    Her hand found her way into the one that was free of his pocket, and she squeezed it tightly.

    'It'll be okay,' he murmured. 'We'll be okay, Mikaela.'

    'You really think so, Sam? You think that every single one of us is going to come out of this alive — that every single one of us will survive Unicron, and that all of us will be totally okay at the end of it?'

    He paused, considering. Then he replied:

    'No. I don't.'



    * * *



    Starscream's optics roved aimlessly around the room.

    He had requested that Sam go up to the roof to fetch Alexis — in a politer manner than he'd ever requested anything in his life — and the boy had agreed without argument, darting off to where he knew that Alexis and Mikaela were talking. He'd sensed that Alexis was up there, taking in the California sun. After three years of spending every moment possible with her, he'd become oddly attuned to her presence; he would receive vague inklings that she was in a certain direction, and he'd awoken to the distinct feeling of her being above him. Given the fact that Skyfire had been in the communications room, there was no way that she could have been airborne, so he had assumed that she was up at the human's lookout on the roof.

    His life had turned itself upside down overnight — and he despised it.

    In all of a week, the All Spark had systematically stripped away every small joy in his life — and now, it had taken away his home of three years. They were leaving California for a state called Virginia, and he had no wish to go. He did not want to leave this familiar place, with its blazing sunlight and exquisite night sky that was forever peppered with the stars he loved.

    But wherever Alexis went, he would follow.

    Loyalty had never become him. By nature, he had always been a traitor and a turncoat — Megatron had known of his untrustworthiness since the very beginning of his role as his Air Commander and second-in-command. Everyone had known the drill when he was around: to keep an optic over their shoulder at all times, lest they find one of his wing-swords in their spark. Power had been the dominant desire of his life, and he would have done anything for it — bled energon, traded his soul, bow to the feet of any dark lord for a smidgen of respect.

    Now, here, he'd been driven to the one thing he had never known — loyalty — by a human.

    A squishy. A fleshbag.

    A weak, insignificant organic.

    The All Spark made strange decisions indeed.

    Why, at the origin of all things, had it chosen to take his spark — his spark — and infuse its partner into the heart of a human?

    He could sense they were being driven apart. Fear and anxiety had got the better of both of them, creating a schism of doubt that neither of them could overcome. And it was slowly, painfully, and torturously breaking his spark. He wanted to be with her, to spend time with her, but it was hard — harder than anything, when his spark twinged every time he saw her.

    But he would set things right.

    I will make it right.

    A loud, cheery song suddenly erupted from somewhere near his right audio receptor:

    Hey! I'm looking up for my star girl,

    I guess I'm stuck in this mad world —

    Shocked, Starscream leapt up and swung his Vulcan cannon at the perpetrator.

    'Bumblebee!' he snapped. 'What the slag are you doing?'

    'You looked like you needed cheering up.'

    'So you thought the best course of action was destroying my audio receptors?' he demanded, before he raised an optic ridge at the smaller mech's look. 'Oh, for Primus' sake — what is the matter with you? You look like the medic just gave you a fraggin' diagnostic.'

    Bumblebee shuddered. 'No — it's Sunstreaker's turn.'

    'Primus be with him, then.'

    'Yes.'

    Starscream eyed him. 'Well — come along, youngling — clear your processors of it. What do you want?'

    Although he looked slightly riled by the use of "youngling" to describe him, Bumblebee continued as if it had not happened: 'Well — it's about Alexis, really. I — feel as if Optimus has not told us something about her role in this, and —'

    'You were wondering if I would?'

    'Yes.'

    'Why do you want to know?' he asked brusquely. 'These matters are none of your concern.'

    And — astoundingly — Bumblebee cracked.

    'Yes, they are!' he said angrily, his raspy voice almost breaking into a squeak with the unfamiliar volume. 'Why is it that you older ones all feel that we should be kept in the dark about all this, Starscream? This planet is our home just as much as it is yours — Primus, even the humans were not informed of Unicron's coming, and this is their native world — their home!'

    Starscream stared at him.

    'And if that was not enough' — Bumblebee squared up to Starscream has best he could, being only sixteen feet tall where Starscream was at least thirty — 'you then decide that we should all be completely unaware of everything that is happening! How are we to prepare for this fight, if we don't know all of what we are —'

    There was a strange squealing sound and a string of clicks, followed by a screech akin to that of fingernails on a blackboard. Bumblebee clutched his neck with one hand in alarm, his round blue optics widening distinctly in surprise.

    Starscream sighed. 'Now you've gone and fragged them.'

    Bumblebee glared, trying his utmost to reboot his vocal processors. He hadn't shouted like that since Mission City, when his voice had been restored — Ratchet had always warned him to be cautious with his volume — but in his frustration with the older mechs, he'd completely forgotten his caution with his voice. Frightened by the thought of being permanently mute again, he took a step back, his mouthpiece quivering dangerously as confusion swept over his features.

    Starscream clenched his lower mandible.

    'Bumblebee,' he said, 'calm yourself. Ratchet will be able to repair your vocals — go on.'

    He pointed in the direction of the medical bay. Bumblebee dashed off, still grasping his neck.

    Idiot.

    Starscream glanced up at the roof impatiently. The Witwicky boy had probably been distracted by the prospect of one of those disgustingly unwholesome "donuts" that he and Miles favoured, and completely forgotten about his request to bring Alexis to him. If Alexis ever so much as touched one of those ridiculous things, he would gladly burn every donut on the planet.

    'Starscream.'

    He looked around to see Alexis at the doorway, looking unreasonably small beside the enormous door.

    His spark flared at the sight of her, making his asbergo burn as if something inside it had combusted. The morning breeze had brought the tiniest flush to her cheeks, and her eyes seemed a little brighter than usual.

    'Alexis.'

    He extended a servo for her. She stepped up into his palm.

    'Sam said you wanted me,' she said, one arm wrapped around his opposor. 'Are you okay?'

    'Yes. I felt I should speak with you regarding today. Is there . . . anything in particular you wish to do?'

    'I don't mind — I just want to be with you.'

    'Good,' he murmured, trailing a finger down her spine. 'I believe we are long overdue for some time alone — and without fear.'

    Alexis nodded.

    'Please' — she looked up at him — 'fly me away somewhere, Starscream.'

    'With pleasure.'

    He gently deposited her on the floor. She followed him out into the searing morning sun.

    Starscream looked out at the faint haze on the mountains, just the softest breath of wisteria. It was a beautiful location they were leaving behind, here in the footfalls of Sierra Nevada. He would miss being able to fly so freely. Here he'd been able to rise with the sun and fly unhindered over the mountains, brushing his underside on the snow-bound peaks, before diving into a cool, reflective lake and letting water burst and run over his wings. Flight had been abandoned for far too long. Their moments had always been stolen at the Rainbow Falls — secret, silent — but he'd thought her sick, too unwell for the pressure of G-Force. Now he realised that keeping her from flying was like keeping her from breathing.

    The cockpit flipped open. She climbed up into the seat, not bothering to fasten her harness.

    'Living dangerously, are we?' he asked.

    'I've nothing to lose.'

    The feeling of her hand trailing down the side of the cockpit made him tremble involuntarily (stop it, stop it), but the tremor was masked by the vibrations from the jets. He moved forward with sudden speed, keen to take wing with his spark partner. Yet even as the wind caught his wings — as he felt the familiar rush of air over his form — he could not help but feel distinctly troubled by her words.

    When they were high in the air, with the whole of Fresno County spread out beneath them, he settled headed towards the destination that he had in mind — a surprise for her — and turned his attention to the woman in his cockpit.

    'You should not think that way.'

    Alexis sighed, her eyes raised to look through the glass at the faint wisps of cloud and the brilliant sunlight.

    'What's the point in pretending?' she asked softly, stroking the side of the aircraft again. 'You know what's going to happen to me, Starscream. Optimus won't say it straight out, but he thinks I'm going to die.' She pressed her forehead against the cool glass, causing a white blur to appear on the transparent surface. 'Everyone just thinks I'm too — too damn weak.'

    'That is not true — I do not believe that —'

    'Look at me, Starscream. I am weak.'

    He was looking at her — staring at her — and all he could see was what he wanted. He could see the bright green eyes that had calmed his unpredictable temper a thousand times; the pale skin that he longed to caress; the soft, pale pink lips, like two blooms on a snowy mountain.

    'I am looking at you, Alexis.'

    She glanced up at the VDU. 'And what do you see?'

    A soft, frustrated growl made the plane tremble beneath her.

    'I see a star.' She continued to watch the monitor, knowing he was looking at her from there. 'I see a lone star in a midnight sky — an exquisite one, perfect and silver, that has a light far stronger than any other.'

    The tears were growing hot behind her eyes, threatening to spill.

    'Your body is weak — that, I will acknowledge,' he murmured. 'You are human. It is to be expected. But I can fully appreciate why the All Spark believes that your will is so strong, much as I loathe its verdict — and its cruelty.'

    'I don't feel strong.'

    'You are the strongest creature I have ever known, Alexis. You fell in love with me — and to this day, you stand by that decision. Through all of my unpredictability — my betrayals — my hatred — you never turned back.'

    She frowned. 'I would never turn back.'

    'There you have it.'

    Neither of them spoke again.

    Starscream spied their destination, a glint in the corner of his optic. He made a gentle descent; ensuring a soft landing, since Alexis was without her harness. Once he'd touched down, he allowed her to leave the cockpit and then transformed, glancing down to absorb her expression.

    She looked stunned.

    'What is this place?' she said, awestruck.

    'Glass Beach.'

    His research had come to fruition, and his asbergo swelled with pride. He had thought of many places to take her, but this seemed perfect. The vast expanse of coast spread out before them was dazzling — quite literally. Millions of fragments of glass coated the golden sand, sparkling in the sunlight and creating an abundant, glittering blanket of crystalline shards. Multicoloured light danced across the covering, making the entire shoreline glow with the crystallised colours of a rainbow. Over the decades the waves had pounded and cleansed the beach, wearing down the glass into smooth, gem-like trinkets.

    He had scanned the area before landing and found, to his pleasant surprise, that there were no other humans for a mile; there was no risk of being seen, and that was what he wanted. It had been so long since he had given her the gift of seeing Earth from space, and as this place was in California — Fort Bragg — it would be a last memory of the state's beauty to treasure. And she deserved this time — their last, precious hours before they would have to depart.

    'Mom told me about this place,' she recalled, stepping forward. 'She said she'd take me here one day — but she never got round to it, I guess.'

    'Perhaps she did not have the chance.'

    He flexed his powerful wings as the sea breeze touched them. Alexis sighed.

    'Maybe,' she said softly. 'God, I don't even know my mom any more.'

    He sat down, making the ground tremble, and opened his palm. She climbed up into it, and then onto his epauliere.

    'She will understand why,' he murmured, 'when it is explained to her.'

    'Oh, yeah — she'll understand.' She put on a slightly high-pitched voice. '"Like, oh my God — hey, Mom! How wonderful to see you after I flouted my grounding rule and ran away from home, taking my estranged stepsister with me! Oh — by the way — this is my boyfriend, Starscream! He's a giant alien robot! Oh, and while we're on the subject, did I mention that he killed Dad?"'

    Starscream tensed.

    'She'd never understand,' she said bitterly. 'She wouldn't even listen to me.'

    He was silent, deep in thought.

    He killed Dad . . .

    Alexis looked up at him. When she saw his expression, she touched his bucca.

    'Oh, Star' — I'm sorry.'

    'You have nothing to apologise for.'

    Alexis wound her arm as far around his neck as she could reach. 'No — I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry.' She pressed her face against the cool, silver-brown metal and exhaled. 'It's just that I — I'm not sure what she'll say to you, and I don't know how to tell her.'

    Starscream looked back toward the colourful shoreline, watching the dappled sunlight on the water.

    'Indeed,' he said. 'However can one express this connection in words?'

    She was silent, stroking his nasal strut.

    He had been hurt at the mention of Adam's death at his hand — it was a sting that would never fade — but now he understood why she had said it. And he did, for some unexplainable reason, dread the time when he would meet Jasmine Amelia Paxton. He was aware that it was common among human males to experience these feelings about meeting the parental units of a mate, but his panic was so irrational — what could she do, after all? Like the other humans, there was no way that she could harm him physically — but could she separate him from her daughter?

    The thought of being parted with Alexis terrified him, much as he hated to admit that weakness. She was his life, and the thought of her dying in exchange for the death of Unicron made his spark twist itself into tight knots. But what would happen when she told her mother about their relationship? There was no way to hide it forever, after all.

    A horrible image of the petite woman formed in his mind; her ire, her grief at being told that her husband's murderer — a cruel, red-eyed machine — was the one that had stolen her daughter from her for three long years. He could already hear her words.

    Monster!

    Worthless, treacherous scum . . .



    Or was that Megatron?

    'Starscream' — he looked up at her again — 'will Unicron have an army?'

    'Without doubt,' he said. 'Legend tells of how the chaos-bringer created a great army of drones, which reside within him — like bees in a hive — and gain energy from the worlds he consumes. They will wreak unbelievable damage on your cities.' His face suddenly tightened, and he shuttered his optics for a moment. 'And, of course, there is the fact that Unicron — like Primus — had the power to give life.'

    'What does that mean for us?'

    He moved his head to nuzzle her.

    'It means,' he murmured as she stroked his armour, 'that he can resurrect those who have fallen.'

    It took about six seconds for what he was saying to sink into her mind. Then she whispered it:

    'Megatron.'

    He lowered his gaze. 'Perhaps.'

    'But — but that's impossible! He's in the Laurentian Abyss, for God's sake — the pressure —'

    'Unicron will not care for any of that. He is not bound by the laws of nature.' He looked at the sky. 'To him, your oceans are like drops of rain. It is entirely possible that he will simply bring the body forth from the Laurentian Abyss and ignite Megatron's spark again. Megatron would be a powerful disciple.'

    'He wouldn't be such a kiss-ass.'

    'We are Decepticons. We do what we must.'

    She was now so pale that she looked exsanguinated.

    'What will he do to you if he finds you?' she asked. 'I mean — I don't know a lot about your history with him, Starscream —'

    'Then I will tell you.'

    'Are you sure?'

    'I trust you with everything, Alexis. I do not fear your ill-judgement.'

    Alexis nodded. He looked out at the glittering surf.

    'Megatron and I were rivals since the beginning,' he recalled, very softly. 'I first joined the Decepticons when Optimus refused to rescue Skyfire from the ice planet he crashed on — a bitter, snow-bound world called Lithone. Skyfire was my friend, my mentor, and his loss was more than I could handle. Optimus was different then — logical, and pressured by the weight of Autobot casualties in the war. I was full of rage, full of bitterness . . . I had nothing to offer the Autobot forces. So when I heard of Megatron's faction — warriors that were ruthless and emotionless, using nothing but logic to fight — I joined them immediately. To me, rescuing Skyfire had been an obvious, logical choice, because he was my friend. Optimus had taken — to me — an illogical, even selfish course.'

    She kept her hand on his bucca.

    His large fist tightened. 'I caught Megatron's attention almost at once. I was highly ambitious and a skilled flyer. He was impressed with the way I used my hatred to my advantage, killing Autobots with no remorse whatsoever as I slipped further and further into some form of insanity. After watching me fight for a long time, he promoted me to the position of Air Commander, and made me head of the Seekers of Cybertron — and that was my first true taste of power over others. Power over my trine — Skywarp and Thundercracker. They were my underlings.'

    Memories flashed before him as he told her his story: memories of times long since past. He could see the towering spires of Cybertron's cities again — feel the heat as he flew over the energon mines at Iacon . . .

    'It soon became apparent that I was too ambitious,' he said. 'I had never kept my desire to be Decepticon leader a secret; he was always aware of it, yet never worried by the threat I posed. In his opinion, I was far too weak to have the ability to destroy him — and, of course, he needed my skills in the air to keep control of the flyers.'

    'Did they respect you?'

    Starscream snorted. 'Hardly. Thundercracker — my second-in-command — was constantly boasting about how he would be Air Commander one day, the fraghead. There was a strange sort of companionship between us, I suppose . . . but none of them would have the courage to make their aspirations known to Megatron, as I did. I was foolish.'

    Alexis tapped his nose. 'Trust you to get yourself into trouble.'

    'Don't flick me, girl. Now let me tell the tale.' She settled back, still smiling. 'Megatron was not always tolerant of my deceitful ways. He' — he trailed off, looking uncomfortable — 'hurt me sometimes. Severely, on occasion.'

    You pathetic wretch, Starscream.

    'Starscream . . . I didn't realise —'

    'I would not have expected you to realise,' he said, not quite meeting her eyes.

    'What did he do to you?'

    No, Lord Megatron, please!

    'No — I must stop,' he said softly. 'I brought you here to escape the fear, and I have only brought it with us.'

    'It's okay.'

    'No, it is not.'

    'Fine, so let's be optimistic.' Alexis raised her eyes to the bright sky. 'Okay — say, by some insane stroke of luck, we do survive this' — she motioned towards the sky in reference to what would soon be above them — 'what do you want to do with the rest of your life?'

    'I wish to spend it with you — nothing more.'

    'I will be with you," she pointed out. 'While I'm alive, I'm not going anywhere. But is there anywhere you'd want to go, or do, or see? Come on, Starscream — I know you've got some hopes and dreams somewhere in that spark of yours.'

    'Yours.'

    She flushed.

    A wave crashed over the rocks. He glanced at it, observing the spray of the water catching the light and making a rainbow ripple across its surface before the tide drew back, dragging fragments of sand and glass in its wake. He would miss California and its beautiful sights: this was his home now, and he prayed to Primus that they would return some day. But he would never come back without her — she was the other half of his spark, of his life.

    He shrugged, pushign air through his costa. 'I suppose I would like to see more of this planet. We are to be here for a long time yet; I admit to wanting to know more about it. I have not completely forgotten my hunger for discovery that I had before the war. Places like this one intrigue me, and I know your planet hides further sights of splendour — like this one.' He glanced at her. 'And you?'

    She chewed on her lower lip.

    'I've got three main things I want to do,' she finally decided, ticking them off on her fingers. 'One — have you take me up to see Earth again. If there was one truly amazing thing in my whole life, that had to be it.'

    Starscream nodded. 'And you shall have it.'

    'Two — have the boys and the twins pull some outrageous prank on you, purely for the pleasure of seeing how you react.'

    'That wounds me.'

    'Liar.' She trailed a finger down what sensitive filaments in his neck that she could reach. He trembled just slightly in response to the touch, trilling softly in the Cybertronian equivalent to a purr and turning to face her again. 'And three' — she continued to play with the wires — 'well . . . I'd love to see you with the Autobot mask on your wings.'

    Her gentle tugs on the cables were driving him insane.

    'If you wish it,' he growled, 'then it will be done. I will grant you everything within my power.'

    'I know.' She kissed his bucca lightly. 'Thank you for bringing me here, Star' — it's beautiful.'

    'You are the star. Stars are beautiful, full of light — I am not.'

    'That's not true.'

    'You know it is.'

    'No, I do not. Anyway' — she smiled up at him — 'if I'm the star, what would you be? The scream?'

    He chuckled slightly, which made her grin. Starscream rarely laughed, but it warmed her heart when he did — it was wonderful to hear him sound so carefree for once, especially when they were facing a time of such darkness.

    When he answered, however, it brought tears to her eyes:

    'I am the sky. The dark sky that embraces the star, and lets her dance in it.'





    *Chapter 14*: Up and Away


    Chapter Fourteen

    Up and Away



    * * *



    "For Primus's sake," Ironhide groused. "Where the slag is that jet?"

    He watched as Jade wiped her brow on the cuff of her shirt and glanced up at him with a slightly raised eyebrow. "I'm sure he'll be back soon," she panted, hauling the strap of her enormous bag a little higher on her aching shoulder. "I doubt he took her very far, Ironhide – he knows we've got to leave at seven-thirty sharp."

    He gave her a hard look. "And you believe that he cares?"

    Jade stuck her tongue out at him before she threw all four of her sports bags down on the grass, groaning in discomfort. "Jeez, I can't believe how much stuff I've crammed into that base over three years," she grumbled, eyeing each bulging bag and trying to catch her breath – lugging the four of them from the base to the field had clearly taken it out of her. "Do we have to take everything along with us? It's not like any Decepticons are going to attack this place whilst we're –"

    "Not Decepticons," he interrupted, his cobalt-blue optics burning as he assessed the young woman. "Drones."

    As soon as they reached the Pentagon, Ironhide had every intention of beginning Jade's combat training. He had left it rather late, but there was no reason that the young woman should not receive the best crash-course in basic self-defence that he had to offer. He was a specialist, after all – he was the best there was to offer.

    He still had not told Ratchet about his intentions to train her up and pitch her into the battlefield, fearing the medic's almost-certain explosion of rage at the suggestion, but Skyfire had not objected – and that was what counted when it came to Jade.

    However, the Air Commander had made Ironhide swear by Primus himself that he would not let her come to harm, and the old warrior had every intention of honouring that promise. He had been a poor guardian to Alexis, provisional or otherwise, and he would not fail as Jade's interim warden during her training or the true battle.

    "Oh, drones-schmones," Jade scoffed, rolling her eyes and getting back up again with some difficulty. "Now will you give me a hand with these bags, or are you just going to stand there complaining about Starscream's crappy timekeeping?"

    Ironhide heaved a world-weary sigh and scooped all four of the bags up into one hand before straightening up and stomping towards where Skyfire was sitting in his plane form in the centre of the grassland, ignoring Jade's plaintive cry of 'hey, wait up!' behind him. If the girl wanted her bags carried, she would get her bags carried – the deal did not include a free robot-ride, after all.

    Sam was just coming down the entrance hatch when Ironhide reached the Spirit aircraft. His favoured baseball cap controlled his untidy hair, jammed down low over his brown eyes and casting half of his face into shadow.

    "Hey, 'Hide," he yawned, glancing up at the slowly sinking sun. "Are they Jade's things?"

    "Hmm," Ironhide grunted before he dumped the sacks at the boy's sneaker-clad feet. "Any word from Starscream?"

    It was Skyfire who replied to the question, just as a breathless Jade finally caught up with Ironhide. "He is on his way back now, Ironhide," came the deep voice from within the plane. "He just sent me a message; I believe his ETA is five Earth minutes from now." He hesitated before adding, "He is rather unhappy about Optimus's orders for the humans to ride within me."

    Ironhide glared at the cockpit. "Well, that's his problem. Prime's leader; Prime gives the orders; he follows 'em. If he doesn't like it, he can take it up with Prime himself… otherwise Alexis is riding with you, same as the others."

    He knew he was being harsh on the troubled jet, but he could hardly help it. He and Starscream had certainly been subject to a mutual feeling of enmity since the initial betrayal: the day that Starscream had snatched her necklace and taken off to the Decepticons, leaving Alexis to pick up the pieces of the life he had destroyed.

    And Ironhide had been the one who was there for her – Ironhide had been her pro-tem protector – Ironhide had offered her consolation when she needed it. He cared about her like Ratchet cared about Mikaela, and it had affected him deeply when she had tried to commit suicide.

    He would not allow that to happen again.

    Ratchet, who had been standing beside Skyfire's streamlined form, took a moment to throw a weary look in his direction. "Ironhide, you really must stop this," he said with quiet authority, hands on his hips. "Starscream is not our enemy now."

    "Doesn't mean I have to like him," Ironhide argued resentfully, studying his cannon in an attempt to avoid the medic's gaze.

    The medic rolled his optics at his comrade before glancing up at the warm hues in the sky in a vain attempt to spot the jet.

    Starscream had left without a word with Alexis during the early hours of the morning, and had not returned since: he could take a logical guess that he had taken her to a place where they could enjoy their last day in California together, but wished that the stubborn ex-Decepticon would get a move on. In his opinion, the sooner they were at this Pentagon, the better.

    He clenched his jaw when he sensed Rose's unique heat signature, and glanced down when she appeared from the hatch that led to Skyfire's cargo hold that he had incorporated into the bomber to carry the humans.

    Optimus's plan was that instead of riding on the ground, all of the humans would fly above cloud level with Skyfire for safety purposes. The Autobots would be travelling fast throughout the night, and the ride would be unbearable for the humans – they had no time to stop for refreshments or recuperation. So Skyfire would fly his fastest to get them to Virginia, with Starscream acting as his defence in case of attack.

    He was pleased about the decision, but some small part of him was… disappointed. Rose might have ridden with him, had she been given the option to do so… he was beginning to enjoy her company far more than he let on, even to her.

    She readjusted her thick, coppery hair in its plait before she looked up at him, smiling timidly. "You guys need any help with the bags?"

    Sam, who was straining to carry all of Jade's baggage, was the one who replied. "Yeah, thanks," he grinned weakly, thrusting a heavy, baby-blue sports bag in her direction and knocking virtually all of the breath from her lungs. "Seeing as you've got an arm free."

    Staggering slightly under the weight, she rolled her outlined eyes. "'Course, Sam. Come on – are you a man or a mouse?"

    Sam made a high-pitched squeaking noise in response and a smile tweaked at her lips.

    "I would have thought the answer to that was obvious," Ironhide muttered before he stalked off towards where Optimus, Sunstreaker and Seraphim had just appeared at the door of the warehouse.

    Ratchet shook his head, watching as Sam threw the three remaining bags up onto the ladder and began forcing them through the loading hatch. Rose hung back, swinging the weighty sack by its strap like a pendulum and looking around idly, deliberately avoiding Ratchet's gaze – just as he was trying his utmost to avoid hers.

    He turned away to avoid the silence, ignoring Ironhide's pointed glare and opening a link with Starscream. /Ratchet to Starscream./

    The flyer did not respond for a time. After about ten seconds, he received a short reply. /This is Starscream./

    /Good/ the medic nodded, a little irked by Starscream's cold attitude on the radio link. Perhaps it was a Decepticon habit./What is your present ETA? Optimus is keen for the humans to be airborne by seven-thirty – the Defence Secretary wishes us to be at the Pentagon as early as possible tomorrow morning, and I know I certainly want to get there sooner rather than later./

    Starscream's voice was tense. /I will be there on time. ETA one minute./

    The connection was severed before Ratchet could register Starscream's response, and he sighed internally, deciding to let it go. He did sympathise with Starscream's attitude; they all felt uptight about leaving their home of three years on this planet, especially as they did not know when they would return to it – or even if they would return to it. It was not quite as hard as leaving Cybertron on the search for the All Spark that had led them here, but it still hurt to depart from such a stunning place.

    "Ratchet?"

    He looked down at Rose, attempting to control his spark's energy output when he saw that she had snuck up on him and was now only a metre or two from his right foot. "Yes, Rose?" he asked courteously, folding his arms and tilting his head to one side a little.

    She was dressed differently today – with more of her body covered, to his mingled relief and reprehensible disappointment. Custom-ripped denim jeans covered her long legs, and her black, strapless shirt exposed her collarbones to the cool breeze of the coming twilight; a similarly dark cardigan was wrapped tightly around her waist for use when she became too cold.

    Primus… she's beautiful.

    He shook his head a little, aggravated by his own ineptitude with control when it came to this girl.

    She raised her eyebrows slightly, clearly having noticed his action, but chose to ignore it. "Do you know when we're leaving?" she asked the medic, hooking her thumbs into her empty belt loops. "Are we just waiting for Starscream?"

    "Yes," he confirmed. "He will be here in approximately one minute from now."

    "Cool," she said quietly, looking towards the great, streamlined aircraft that they would be travelling in. Jade and Sam were boarding, and Ratchet knew that she would have to join them soon. "How long will it take us all to get there?"

    Ratchet put a hand to his chin thoughtfully. "Judging by Skyfire's speed, I would say that you humans, Skyfire and Starscream will be there by dawn, if not earlier… as for us, I think we should be joining you by midday tomorrow, or possibly late afternoon. Our technology enables us to travel faster than standard vehicles, but we cannot hope to make the same speed as a Raptor or Spirit – I believe that Starscream's maximum speed is above Mach 2."

    Their moment was shattered by the deafening roar of Starscream's engine over their heads, and the Raptor jet soared into their sight over the trees to land gracefully next to Skyfire, the force of his passage ruffling the strands of hair that had escaped Rose's haphazard plait. She swallowed when she saw him and took a neat step backwards.

    "He will not harm you, Rose," Ratchet assured her gently.

    She folded her arms. "Maybe not, but I'm not risking it."

    The two of them watched as Starscream's cockpit opened and Alexis climbed down to ground level, looking resigned. Rose was somewhat shortsighted, and thus could not quite see how despondent her stepsister looked, but Ratchet's enhanced binocular vision allowed him an in-depth look at her drawn expression and downcast eyes.

    Poor girl, he thought sorrowfully. Such a young life… to be wasted.He observed her as she said something to the jet and ran a hand over the silver-brown armour that covered him before she turned away and headed for the Spirit. She was greeted by Carlos as she approached, who was carrying her bags, and the two of them boarded together – leaving Rose as the last human still on the ground.

    She sighed, not looking forward to a journey with Alexis. "Alright," she said softly, turning back to Ratchet. "So… I guess I'll see you tomorrow, Ratchet?"

    "Most definitely," he agreed, his optics smouldering down on her. "Have a safe journey, Rose."

    Rose glanced over her shoulder at Starscream nervously before shooting Ratchet a quick – but stunning – smile. "You too," she said seriously before snatching up Jade's sports bag and dashing over to Skyfire. She swung herself up onto the ladder and clambered up into the cargo hold, dragging the heavy pack behind her.

    The hatch closed and Skyfire's engines powered up, just as Ironhide and the other Autobots transformed into their vehicle forms. Ratchet followed suite, awaiting Optimus's command as the great red-and-blue semi drew up at the forefront of the assembled land vehicles.

    /Optimus Prime to all Autobots. Please confirm your status./

    Ironhide went first, clearly impatient and raring to go. /Ironhide – ready and waitin' for the word, Prime./ The Topkick revved its engine loudly, drawing up next to the Hummer form of Ratchet, who was next to speak.

    /Ratchet – ready for departure./

    /Arcee to Optimus Prime – all set, sir/ came Arcee's edgy, feminine tones.

    Ratchet spied the humans at the window of Skyfire's cockpit, his spark stinging when he spotted Rose's face next to those of Mikaela and Carlos. They all looked upset to be parted from their Cybertronian friends, even for a night, and Alexis had one hand pressed up against the window. Her bright green eyes rested on Starscream as he made his response to Optimus.

    /Starscream – standing by for takeoff./

    /Seraphim to Prime – let's kick ass, hombre!/ Seraphim exclaimed from where she was astride Arcee; it had been deemed that her Vespa form would be too slow to keep up with the others, as she was Earth-born and could not keep up with the swifter Cybertronians.

    Sunstreaker and Sideswipe responded in perfect unison. /Twins to Optimus – let's get this show on the road!/

    /Barricade – standing by/ the Decepticon said shortly, his siren already screaming. He and Ratchet were flanking Optimus, prepared to clear a route for the convey with their lights and sirens if the occasion called for it.

    Bumblebee, who was between the twins, sent a quick song snippet over the radio. /I've got my bags packed, baby, and I'm ready to go…/

    Despite Ratchet's best attempts, he had been unable to repair Bumblebee's vocal processors in the limited time that they had before leaving. To put it simply, they were completely fragged and probably always would be – the damage done to them at Tyger Pax had been enormous. He had no doubt that he could have Bumblebee speaking again before the battle begun, but for the moment it was a lost cause.

    Bumblebee had still not told Arcee, and Ratchet could sense her bewilderment from where she was just behind him. He almost reassured her, but decided to leave that task to Bumblebee – she was his mate, after all.

    The last response to Optimus's call came from Skyfire, and the bomber's great turbofans activated with a thunderous roar. /Skyfire to Optimus Prime – ready for launch, and may Primus be with you all until the sunrise./

    /Adios, ladies!/ Carlos chirped across the line before Optimus finally started his own ignition, blazing off in the direction of the freeway.

    /Autobots – roll out!/

    And Ratchet took one last, longing look at Rose's apprehensive expression behind the glass before he activated his siren and roared after Optimus at Barricade's side, heading into the sunset.



    * * *



    It was one o'clock in the morning when Jade awoke from her doze in Skyfire's cockpit. The clouds had gathered thickly and there had been a brief rainfall for half an hour – a sure sign of doom in the middle of summer, in Miles's outspoken opinion – but the vast, waxen orb was clearly observable above the cloud layer, gleaming and brilliant as it lit the sea of white mist beneath them with a hoary, supernatural radiance.

    Every cloud has a silver lining, she thought to herself with forced optimism.

    She remembered her mother telling her that as a child; every time it rained, she had been there with a smile and that saying to brighten the day. Even when Jade had blossomed into near-adulthood and left home, it had always stayed with her.

    It was true that she was, perhaps, one of the most positive of the group. She was more than aware that she smiled too much and was quite ludicrously sanguine about damn-near everything; she had never been able to help it. Jade was a naturally cheerful person, and her general satisfaction with life had been amplified hugely when she had admitted her feelings for Skyfire and embarked on her relationship with him.

    Yawning, she patted the upholstered seat out of habit. "How are you doing, Sky?" she asked with a sigh, rubbing her eyes.

    She could hear the smile in his gentle voice. "I am perfectly well, my jewel. Did you enjoy your rest?"

    "Yep," she nodded, stretching to take away the stiffness from her back and neck. There was a dull throb from her torso where her ribs were still healing, but she chose to ignore it; Skyfire had enough to worry about with trying to get them all to Virginia safely. "Hell, I really needed it. How long have we been flying for?" she added, glancing through the glass again.

    "Six hours," he informed her.

    She blinked in surprise. "Wow, I slept all that time… Where's Starscream?" she added inquisitively, noticing that he was not flying alongside Skyfire.

    "Starscream has fallen behind to ensure that we are not being pursued – he will return to my side in ten minutes or so, I am sure," Skyfire explained, reading Starscream's energy signature and projecting it onto the monitor so that she could see. The bleeping red dot on the blue screen before her showed that he was weaving to and fro a mile or so behind them, scanning the surroundings.

    Jade reached forward and tapped a different section of the scene, dragging a virtual square onto a map of America and finding the signatures of the ground-based convoy approaching the border of Colorado. Eight blinking blue dots and one red one, moving closer and closer to the line between the states.

    Skyfire's holoform materialised beside her in the pilot's position, arms folded and an easy smile on his colourless face. "I estimate that they will be joining us in Virginia sooner than anticipated; understandably, Optimus is in a great hurry."

    "Uh-huh." She leant back and sighed, looking down at the charm bracelet on her wrist. "So… what's the plan?"

    His shimmering, navy-blue eyes were fixed on her face as he responded. "I believe that Optimus intends to negotiate with as many human air forces as possible to organise a multinational strike against Unicron when he arrives," he told her solemnly. "As Air Commander, I would assume that I will be leading the aerial assault – then there will have to be a large team on the ground to deal with Unicron's drones."

    "What about Alexis?"

    Her simple question made the corners of his mouth turn downward and he grimaced, looking up at the Moon with a despondent sigh. "I do not know what will become of her," he admitted sadly. "There are only two artefacts in the universe that are powerful enough to defeat Unicron – the Matrix, which is in Optimus's possession… and the All Spark."

    "So… Optimus is in danger, too?" Jade said hesitantly, her heart thumping.

    "With the Matrix… I should say he would be a prime target," Skyfire confirmed reluctantly, not wishing to dash any hopes she might have had. "Not that he was not already, but Unicron will want to eradicate the threat that he presents as soon as possible… as well as the danger that Alexis has the potential to release with the power within her necklace."

    Jade put her head in her hands, vaguely wondering where all her hopeful vigour had disappeared to since the start of their conversation. "Is there any hope, Sky?" she asked bluntly, her voice low. "Is there any way that we can all come out of this alive?"

    Skyfire touched her forearm with a large, elegant hand. "There is always hope. You must never let go of that conviction and trust in fate that you have always had, Jade. It is something that I have always loved and admired about you… faith is something that the rest of us are severely lacking in, especially after so many years of warfare."

    She leant her head on his shoulder, nodding. "I know. It's just… hard to stay positive in times like these, even for me."

    "You must," he said, gently but firmly. "If you lose faith in our chances, what will I do without your confidence to cling onto? You are the one that keeps me hopeful, Jade… you must promise me that you will always believe in yourself, and in life." He paused. "In me."

    An arm came around his neck, making her charm bracelet clink softly as she leant heavily into his embrace. "I'll always have faith in you, Skyfire."

    The young woman smiled contentedly when she felt his kiss the top of her head. "Good. Then I will perform quite spectacularly against the likes of Unicron – mark my words. He is nothing when I have you at my side."

    She pouted then, her lower lip creeping out slightly as she looked up at him. "I won't be, though, will I? You'll make me stay on the ground with the others… I know you," she added good-naturedly when she saw his eyebrow rising. "Well, I'll show you what I can do when Ironhide's got me all trained up – I'll kick some serious drone ass."

    "Of that," he assured her, chuckling, "I have no doubt whatsoever. But you will still need me to protect you sometimes, little one."

    Grinning at the nickname in spite of herself, she laughed and gave him a playful push. "Hey, I'm not that little!"

    "Yes, you are," Skyfire teased back, clasping his pale hands over her shoulders and drawing her into a firm hold against his chest. "If my calculations are correct, I believe that I dwarf you by almost two feet, my jewel. But humans do say that 'good things come in small packages', do they not?"

    "You're mean," she giggled, trying to squirm her way out of his tight embrace.

    He caught her mouth up in his before she could move again and her chocolate-brown eyes widened in surprise and delight as he kissed her deeply, his embrace strong and unyielding around her body. She kissed him back fervently, reaching up to clench his long, dark blonde locks in her hands. It never failed to stun her how wonderful it was to be with him in this way, alone and above the clouds – to have a moment like this, even in the midst of the troubles around them.

    Her small hands came around his torso and clutched the shirt he wore – a dark grey one that matched his true form's armour. She could feel her heart thumping in her ears like a war drum; Skyfire was everything to her, the very reason for her existence and happiness… and yes, she thought; as long as Skyfire was alive, he would always keep her hopes high and her dreams more than alive.

    Just as she took a breath from their kiss, Skyfire's true form rocked wildly: his right wing dropped sharply towards the ground and there was an incredible jolt that threw Jade from her seat as his holoform disappeared. She landed in a sitting position with a shocked expression, managing a surprised 'oof' at the impact.

    She heard the surprised cries of all of the other humans in the aircraft – there was a nasty sounding 'thump' from the cargo hold, and she imagined that someone had taken a tumble when Skyfire had lost control.

    "Mierda!" came a heated curse, and she guessed that the someone had been Carlos.

    Jade pushed herself upright, wincing when her ribs protested. "Sky?" she called uncertainly, using the chair to pull herself back into a standing position. "Skyfire, what's wrong? Have we been hit – has somebody found us?"

    Skyfire did not respond for a moment, then he muttered an embarrassed response. "No, my dear… I was merely… distracted by you for a moment."

    "Oh my God, what'd I do?" Jade laughed, unable to believe that she had managed to cause Skyfire to lose control of his flight. The hologram flickered back on again, and his regal face wore a rather sheepish expression. "Are you ticklish, or something?" she wondered after a moment, thinking of what they had been doing beforehand.

    He smiled warmly. "Perhaps so…"

    Sam's voice came from the doorway just as he appeared there, his eyebrows raised. "Skyfire? You okay, man?" he asked bemusedly. "We haven't run into anything already, have we?"

    "No, Sam – all is well," Skyfire assured him quickly, nodding to the young man. "There is nothing to be concerned about."

    "Man, you just totally screwed up my sleep cycle," came a second voice, just as a lethargic Miles shuffled into the cockpit, his bleach-blonde hair looking rather like a bird's nest and his eyelids drooping tiredly. "Carlos ain't that happy, by the way – he just fell over and whacked his elbow real hard. You got a med kit around here, Jade?"

    She shook her head. "Nothing for that kind of thing… I'll come and see him."

    Skyfire raised his eyebrows and she gave him a reproachful stare, folding her arms over her chest pointedly. It bothered her that Skyfire was still suspicious of Carlos's intentions; he knew that she wouldn't be trying anything with him, so why he was still uptight about her going within a few metres of him was quite beyond her. He and Rad were still her best friends, after all – it was hardly fair of him to make her stay away from one of the boys that had been like a brother to her since kindergarten.

    He lowered his midnight-blue cores for a moment before he gave her a small, concurring smile. She returned it with relief, pleased that he was not about to take on such an attitude, and followed Sam and Miles back into the cargo hold.

    She found the others in a state of drowsy confusion when she entered. Mikaela was curled up on the floor with a blanket over her lower body and her head resting on a badly-folded sweater; Carlos was sitting down and muttering in Spanish, with one hand clutching his injured elbow; Alexis was leaning against a crate with her head lolling tiredly and one hand clutching her gemstone pendant. Rose, on the other hand, was bundled up in one of Mikaela's ski jackets and was still half-asleep, resting on a pile of bags.

    "How's everyone doing?" she whispered, not wanting to wake any of the dozers.

    Carlos gave her a feeble grin from where he was sitting, waving her over. "I tripped over my own feet and hurt myself, chica – you got any medical supplies in that cockpit?"

    As she approached him, Miles collapsed back into the haphazard nest of blankets and clothes that he had built for himself to sleep in. Sam, on the other hand, went to sit next to Mikaela and stroked her dark hair idly as she slept.

    Jade extended a hand for Carlos's elbow and saw that it was already beginning to bruise. "Ouch," she winced, chewing on her lip uncertainly for a moment. "I'm sorry, Carlos – we don't keep anything in here except for bandages and stuff like that. I can't get you anything except an ice pack, really; take it or leave it, 'cause it's all we've got."

    "Nah… I'll leave it," he shrugged, cupping the area tightly with his other hand. "You've made me feel better, anyway."

    She frowned. "How?" she asked, perplexed.

    He winked at her. "A good-looking girl like you could make any guy feel good." Before she could respond, he had hunkered back down into his sack and turned away from her. "Buenos noches, Jadie."

    She stared at his back for several seconds before she finally murmured, "Buenos noches, Carlos."

    Were Skyfire and Starscream really right about Carlos's feelings for her? At first, she had thought it was paranoia on the parts of both Cybertronians, but now she was beginning to wonder – and she didn't like it one bit. The last thing she wanted was for Carlos to like her romantically; not only was she utterly devoted to Skyfire, but she did not want to lose Carlos as a friend. He was like a brother to her - was it so wrong that she simply could not think of him in that way?

    Granted, she had once had a huge crush on the charming Spaniard... but she had been a young girl then, full of childish puppy-love. Now she had found her soul mate – the one. Things were different.

    Turning away with a feeling of unease, Jade stood up and looked around the room. Miles had already fallen back into a dead sleep, so she decided to go and see how Rose was getting on – the British girl did not look overly well, and was frowning slightly as she dozed lightly on the accumulated belongings dumped in one corner.

    She knelt down beside Rose and put a hand on her shoulder. "Rose?"

    She may have been sleeping lightly, but Rose was clearly having a vivid dream of some sort. Words slipped from between her lips repeatedly as her face contorted in her visions, and Jade could clearly discern two names that she was saying over and over again, mingled with others, as if she was trying to learn them by heart.

    "Ratchet…" she groaned, twisting away from Jade's hand. "No, Ratchet… Barricade… please…"

    Concerned, Jade gave her a quick shake. "Hey, Rose – it's okay. You're still with Skyfire… everything's fine –"

    However, she still refused to wake. She seemed to be caught in her light slumber, the dream keeping her welded to the subconscious, and Jade did not particularly want to disturb her. She took a thick blanket and wrapped it around the other girl's shoulders instead, listening carefully as Rose's expression went from one emotion to another.

    The same names were being said. "Barricade… I – I can't… Ratchet… Ratchet, help me…"

    Unnerved, Jade glanced over at Alexis, who was staring at her intently.

    "Maybe she'll understand what I go through now," she stated dully, her bottle-green eyes on her sleeping stepsister. "Maybe she'll know how it feels to go to sleep every night fearing what might happen when you do… just in case another nightmare comes."

    Jade frowned, looking from Rose to Alexis with confusion. Alexis's expression was creeping her out a little; there was something in her eyes that was deeper than she could comprehend. "You get nightmares from the All Spark, don't you?" she asked quietly, and Alexis met her eyes. "What's going to happen to you, Alexis?"

    Alexis looked down at the gemstone that rested between her jutting collarbones, fingering it indecisively. "Who knows?" she sighed. "Like I said to Starscream earlier… my fate isn't in my hands anymore."

    The brown-eyed girl tilted her head to one side before she shifted away from Rose to sit nearer to Alexis. "Maybe it'll be okay."

    "How?" Alexis asked quietly. "How can anything be okay when I am the only thing between Unicron and Earth? How can anything be okay when I might never…" her voice wavered dangerously and her eyes filled up with tears, "N-never see Starscream again? How would you feel if you had to leave Skyfire, Jade? If you might never see his eyes, or hear his voice… feel his touch again…?"

    The words had their impact on Jade. The thoughts were unbearable; the idea of being separated from Skyfire was appalling, and she could not even comprehend such a parting. Skyfire was… her world.

    And despite Starscream's foul temper and temperamental disposition…he was Alexis's.

    The two of them looked up when they heard the sound of another aircraft; Starscream had obviously rejoined Skyfire, most likely having found nothing pursuing them. None of the teenagers could work out what all the fuss was about – there were no Decepticons, and Unicron had not yet arrived – but the Cybertronians were clearly taking their roles as guardians very seriously.

    Heaving a sigh, Alexis glanced at Jade again and managed to draw a small, weak smile from somewhere inside of her. "Hey… if we survive this, will you help me out with something?"

    "Anything," Jade promised, patting Alexis's fragile hand.

    She had been expecting something grim or meaningful, but Alexis's request surprised her with its nature. "Will you help me pull some kind of prank on Starscream?" the emaciated teenager asked seriously, a tiny glimmer lighting her eyes.

    A small snort of laughter escaped Jade and she raised her eyebrows, a grin spreading across her face. "Are you for real?"

    "Yep," Alexis nodded, resting her chin on her knees. "I think it's about time he learnt how to have fun."

    Sam's voice cut into their conversation. "We should do it," he encouraged, and Jade turned to face him, nodding. "I mean, he'd probably shoot us – actually, he'd definitely shoot us," he added after a moment, pulling a face, "But it'd be worth it, I think. What should we do to him? We really need to get hold of the Twins…"

    Jade tilted her head to one side thoughtfully. "I dunno… pour hot-pink paint all over him, or something?"

    "And feathers," Sam chuckled. "That'd be freakin' fantastic."

    It occurred to Jade that they were imagining doing this to preserve their hope; to think of the future in order to have some courage for the present. It was something to do to forget themselves for a moment – doing something as simple as planning a practical joke on Starscream – and something that was making her smile, even in the midst of the darkness and danger that was wrapping itself around them like a bleak, forbidding shroud. She hoped… and prayed… that they would live to see it done.

    She stood up, brushing some dust from her Capri pants. "It's set, then," she announced. "If we survive, Starscream's going to get a new paintjob."

    Alexis and Sam smiled, nodding.

    The brunette nodded and turned back towards the cockpit. "Call if you guys need anything," she said to them gently before she walked through the door, closing it quietly behind her and leaving her friends to sleep.



    * * *



    "Mr. Secretary?"

    Defence Secretary John Keller raised his head wearily from where it had been resting in his hands. "Yes, Tom?" he asked tiredly in a voice that was hoarse from giving so many commands to his people in such a short amount of time.

    Since he had been contacted by Optimus Prime – leader of the alien freedom fighters that had aided them at Mission City three years beforehand – his world had virtually collapsed into a fiery hellhole of panic, frustration and a frantic need to keep the atmosphere at the Pentagon calm and controlled. So far, only a few select officials knew of the reason that the aliens had contacted them again, and he wanted to keep it that way; God forbid that they find out what threat they were facing.

    Tom Banachek raised his eyebrows when he saw how exhausted Keller looked, but made no comment. "We've just received word from Optimus Prime," he informed his superior, folding his arms. "Apparently they've sent two of their flyers ahead with some kids that have been staying with them – Samuel Witwicky and Mikaela Banes included."

    Keller remembered the two youngsters: a pair of ordinary-looking teenagers that had somehow become involved in an extraterrestrial war that they should never have been a part of. They had boarded a helicopter back to California after the battle, pursued by the Autobots, and he had never seen them again since.

    "Right," he nodded after a moment, rubbing his face. "What's their ETA?"

    "Their Air Commander just contacted us – name of Skyfire," Banachek explained. "He estimates that they'll be about two hours, with the ground-based Autobots taking longer."

    A frown creased Keller's sweating brow. "'Air Commander'?" he repeated, peering at Banachek. "I don't remember the Autobots having any aircraft."

    Pulling an upholstered chair up, the taller man seated himself in his quietly dignified manner and placed his clasped hands on the desk. "They didn't," he confirmed, looking intently at the perspiring man before him with his greyish eyes. "There have been a few newcomers since Mission City, Mr. Secretary… four, according to the officer that spoke to Prime. They have two flyers now."

    "And those are the ones that will be here first? What about these kids that they're bringing – who are they?"

    Banachek shook his head. "We haven't been made aware of that yet. Apart from the ones from the Mission City incident, we know that there are five others coming; I've got an officer trying to contact Prime again for further information."

    "Good," Keller muttered, unbuttoning his shirt and moving his tie away from his throat. "I don't want them involved in this."

    Although Optimus Prime had been wary of giving him too much information over a phone connection, he had understood the general gist of what the robotic commander had been saying. There was something – a something that Prime had refused to name – heading towards Earth, with highly hostile intentions for the planet and its people. Luckily, he had hinted that it was nothing to do with the 'Decepticon' faction of their race – Keller prayed that he would never see one of those again.

    The one in the hangar had disturbed him. The Autobots did not look particularly dangerous once one had recovered from the initial shock of seeing them; their blue optic sensors reminded Keller of the blue that was associated, in the military, with allied forces. 'NBE-1', on the other hand, had actually looked like the terrifyingly effective weapons system it – or he – was.

    A strange look had appeared on Banachek's moustached face. "They… may not like that, Mr. Secretary," he said quietly, prompting Keller to look up at him with a surprised expression. "Witwicky and Banes both seemed rather… attached to the aliens. I think that these youngsters will be just the same."

    Massaging his throbbing temple, Keller looked up at the ex-Sector Seven operative with his mouth turned down into a grim, determined scowl. "I don't care. Both of those kids were nearly killed at Mission City – several times over, in fact. I'm not going to be seen as allowing seven vulnerable children to fight a threat of this nature, Tom."

    Banachek looked at him for a moment before he nodded. "Very well. I'll leave you to discuss it with Prime."

    He placed his slender Apple laptop on the desk and flipped it open, tapping a few keys and frowning slightly. Not particularly interested in what he was doing or why, Keller leant back in his seat and closed his eyes for a moment.

    In a few hours, he would have eleven creatures from outer space in the building – eleven of them, each of them towering above any man and armed to the teeth with weapons that even he, the Secretary for Defence, could never hope to have an understanding of. There had only been five Autobots at Mission City – where had they all come from?

    How many more would come?

    "I've contacted Maggie Madsen and Glen Whitmann," Banachek murmured, his eyes never leaving the screen of his computer. "We may need their help when we're communicating with the Autobots – Whitmann seems to know how to decipher their hieroglyphics electronically, which will be a help when we're co-ordinating a strike with them."

    "Right…" Keller murmured, pinching the bridge of his nose before he squinted through the darkness of the office at the other man. "What about Commander Lennox and his team?"

    "Done. They're on their way."

    Banachek's efficiency never ceased to amaze him, but he did not say so; he was never been the kind of man that offered praise easily, and he had exceptionally high levels of expectations for those working at the Pentagon. "Fine. Good work," he added after a moment, deciding that he probably should commend people for their efforts more often.

    A brusque nod was all he received in response to his praise. "I'm off to see if I can speak to Prime myself; I'll report back ASAP."

    Keller watched him leave in silence.

    He was worried about these kids coming to the Pentagon. Two, he could deal with – Witwicky and Banes were already aware of the seriousness of the military network – but seven? The Autobots were not being as careful as he would have liked with their disguises, and it made him uncomfortable. What did their parents think, for God's sake? Witwicky's parents had been informed of his role in the battle, but the others…

    He sighed when his office phone rung shrilly through the silence of his office, interrupting his thoughts. "Keller," he said abruptly when he picked it up, knowing that it could be something important.

    "Mr. Secretary? Hallam here."

    Sitting up a little straighter at the sound of the communication officer's voice, Keller nodded. "Yes? What did you find out?"

    "I just spoke to the alien commander, Optimus Prime – he didn't seem to want to talk too much via radio, understandably, but he agreed to send full electronic profiles of the kids that they're bringing to the Pentagon's computer system. I'm transmitting the data to your computer now, sir."

    "Excellent. Thank you, Hallam."

    "Oh, and sir – there are seven profiles, but White isn't coming. He's on vacation in Massachusetts and isn't even aware of the threat."

    Welcome relief washed through him and he nodded again, encouraged by the fact that he would be dealing with one less adolescent than he had the potential to be dealing with.

    He put the phone back down and quickly tapped into his computer to access his email account. A new message had arrived from the relevant Pentagon department and he opened it swiftly, entering the necessary passwords impatiently. He suspected that the message had been encrypted in whatever strange language the aliens used, but Glen Whitmann – a genius, Keller admitted to himself reluctantly – had installed a system that automatically broke these encoded emails within ten minutes.

    The only reason that he wanted Whitmann and Madsen back at the Pentagon was that the two of them could break codes faster than the program could – and they would need to be cracking codes extremely quickly if they were going to be working with the Autobots on a military level. There just would not be time to sit around waiting for a computer to do one code in ten minutes when they could probably break ten codes per minute.

    Apart from that, the two of them were a nuisance, but he would have to put up with it.

    There were seven sections in the message – one for each of the eight young people that were closely linked with the Autobots. He scanned the names with a slight frown on his face, his chin in one hand.

    Banes, Mikaela

    Connelly, Rosa L.

    Lancaster, Miles

    Lopez, Carlos A.

    Paxton, Alexis

    Rivers, Jade D.

    White, Bradley

    Witwicky, Samuel J.

    Of course, he recognised the first and last of the names on the list; he had never heard of Jade Rivers, Bradley White, Miles Lancaster, Rosa Connelly or Carlos Lopez, but something was bothering him about the name directly in the centre of the list – Alexis Paxton.

    Paxton… Paxton… he was certain that he recognised that name from somewhere. True, there were probably hundreds of people in the world who had that surname, but he knew in his heart that he had known someone with that surname. He was absolutely determined to find out what it was, or he knew that it would trouble him for the rest of the night.

    He studied the girl's photograph and profile for a moment. She was a sickly-looking young woman of nineteen; thin, mouse-brown hair fell around an unnaturally pale face that was graced by a pair of huge, almond-shaped green eyes. Apart from those eyes, she was not a particularly attractive girl – pretty in a plain sort of way, with thin lips, a sharp chin and a long, slender neck.

    It only served to vex him further, because he recognised her face as well as her name.

    Exiting the email programme, he opened another window on the screen and accessed the database of all those who had ever been employed by the United States Army, Air Force, or any other part of the defence network.

    The name Paxton came up with one direct match.

    Paxton, Adam J.

    His small eyes widened and he stared at the display for a moment. Of course – Adam Paxton had been one of the F-22 pilots that had been shot down by the one of the airborne Decepticons at Mission City. A brave, enthusiastic and honest man that had been incredibly skilled in the air but admirably modest about his talent. Keller had met him several times on routine visits to American airbases, and he realised now that the reason he remembered him so clearly was because of his distinctive green eyes.

    So Adam Paxton one of the men that had been killed in the first strike between the Autobots and the humans against the Decepticons… and now his daughter, Alexis, was about to enter the battle for Earth against another threat.

    Chance? he wondered to himself, returning his head to his hands. Or fate?





    *Chapter 15*: Rules


    XV. Rules



    * * *



    'Wake up, everybody! We've just touched down.'

    Rose turned over. She cracked one eye open to peer at her wristwatch — 02:06AM.



    She sighed, closed her eyes, and turned over.

    Her peace lasted approximately half a minute before a warm hand grasped her shoulder.

    'Rose?'

    Please go away.



    Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. In the semi-darkness of the cargo hold, she could just about make out Sam Witwicky, a silhouette in a Misfits hoodie.

    'Kill the lights, please,' she said vaguely.

    'Sorry. We've just landed in Virginia.' He swung the white beam away from her face, and she spied the glint of sweat on his brow. 'Mikaela's having a hard time waking Miles up, too — but I think Jade's going to keep up with that speaker until we manage to drag ourselves outta the cargo hold. She loves mornings.'

    'I'm not particularly enamoured with them myself.'

    'I hear you.'

    He held a hand out, and she grasped it. Between the two of them, they managed to get her back on her feet and into her ski jacket. Still, the small of her back was sore, and her neck ached. She glanced down and saw that she'd bedded down for the night on a bulky pile of suitcases and backpacks. None of them looked particularly comfortable — the one that she'd been resting her head on looked as if it had a stiletto shoe sticking out of it. It was only when she got used to the gloom that she realised that it was her bag, and her killer stiletto.

    Jade sang through the speakers again:

    'Wake up, sleepyheads!'

    'No' — Miles moaned when the torch was turned towards him — 'Megan, come back to me.'

    'Shut up, Miles.'

    'But she's so beautiful.'

    'Miles, please. Don't embarrass me, man.'

    'You're the one with Busty Beauties.'

    Rose rubbed her eyes, exhausted. 'I hate to interrupt your porn discussion, but does anyone have caffeine?'

    'ProPlus,' Sam offered.

    'That would be amazing.'

    Sam tossed her a packet of caffeine pills, and she popped one in her mouth. With difficulty, she swallowed. Anything was better than having fatigue hanging over her. Leaving Sam to try and haul Miles from his fantasies, she made her way over the piles of clothing that had been acting as makeshift beds and knocked quietly on the airlock door to the main cockpit. She was greeted a few moments later by a pristine Jade, who gave her a smile so bright that it could have outshone the Californian sun.

    'Hey, Rose. Good sleep?'

    'Not really,' Rose said. 'You?'

    'I'm okay. But come to think of it, you do look kind of — um —'

    'Rough?'

    'Well, I wasn't going to say' — Jade smiled, flushing a little — 'but I guess so. You look really tired.' She paused. 'Were you having nightmares last night? I heard you talking in your sleep when I came in to see everyone and figured you must be.'

    Rose frowned. 'What was I saying?'

    'You — well, you were talking about Ratchet and Barricade. You just kept saying their names, over and over.'

    A sharp, unwelcome something stabbed at her chest.

    'Ratchet and Barricade?'

    Jade nodded.

    Rose paused, uncertain. She remembered the dream now — the nightmare that had plagued her throught the night, filled with sirens and flashing lights and games. She'd been standing on a chess board, one foot on black and the other on white. Ratchet and Barricade — two kings — had been battling to the death. She was the pawn, one of several that stood, dumb and still, on the squares. She'd screamed at them to stop, to end the game, but they'd ignored her. Checkmate was the only end. Ratchet had continued to carve at the Decepticon with his gyratory saw, and Barricade had been beating back ferociously with his wheel-blades. She could see a great hand, clothed in a white glove, and a conductor's baton waving above them, like someone was organising the game as a symphony. She'd run from square to square, but she couldn't choose a colour. And then the great white hand had descended, ready to pluck her off the board.

    And she'd screamed a name:

    Ratchet.

    'Strange,' she said, trying to smile. 'I must be over-excited.'

    'Probably,' Jade agreed, zipping up her jacket.

    Skyfire walked into the cockpit as a hologram. Rose quirked an eyebrow.

    'Morning, Steve,' she said, and he laughed.

    'Good morning, Rose.'

    His clothes were different from how they'd been when she'd last seen him. When he'd been kissing Jade, he'd worn a grey t-shirt coupled with long, pressed jeans of the same colour, and his medium-length hair had been loose. Now the casual clothes had been transformed into a starchy grey suit and tie, and his golden locks were slicked back from his inhumanly white face. She half-expected him to whip out a briefcase and start reciting plans for the American economy.

    'You're looking suave today, Skyfire,' she said, indicating his suit. 'Are you off to a conference, or something?'

    'I am accompanying you to the Pentagon.'

    Rose tilted her head. 'Are you sure they'll believe that it's you? I mean — you do look very realistic —'

    'But he doesn't have to be solid,' Jade said. 'They won't be able to touch him.'

    'True,' Rose said. 'God, I'm so underdressed.'

    Skyfire chuckled. 'I am sure Mr. Keller will understand.'

    She scraped her hair into a braid. 'Do they know we're here?'

    'I just spoke to one of the Pentagon's employees, Charlotte Mearing. The Secretary for Defence is expecting us now. We must go via the Pentagon Transit Center — it is not too far. I was unable to land any closer due to space restriction, but the others will be able to stay in the parking lot.'

    'And where did our beloved Starscream land?'

    Sarcasm crept in despite her conscious effort to stop it. She was still sour about the whole secret-relationship-with-a-robot thing.

    'You will see him when you disembark,' Skyfire said gently.

    'Oh, thank God. I wouldn't like to think he'd died, or anything.'

    She wandered back into the cargo hold, finding that the others were dragging their belongings down through the hatch. Alexis was already gone — that's it, love, run off to your darling aeroplane — and Carlos was midway through kicking his suitcase down the ladder.

    'Cristo!' He kicked it through. 'Ah — there ya go.'

    Rose pulled a face. Crazy, the lot of them.

    She collected her rucksack and checked her pockets before following them down the ladder. It was still the crack of dawn, and she was suddenly grateful for the ski jacket that she was wearing — the exposed parts of her skin were telling her that it was damn-near freezing, especially after the heat of the Sun Belt.

    'Well, hello.'

    Rose turned — only to find herself face-to-face with a beautiful man.

    It was such a shame that she could tell — by that grating, shrill voice — exactly who this red-eyed Adonis was.

    'Hello yourself, Starscreech,' she shot back. 'Must you really impose your face on me at this time of the morning?'

    'Trust me — I have no wish to go within visual range of you, girl. You make my optics hurt.'

    Like Skyfire, he was wearing a suit for formality, but his was a simple black-and-white affair that made him look as if he was off to a funeral service. His flaxen hair was sticking up at all angles, and his skin was inhumanly pale. He was also in possession of a defined jaw, a small scar running along the top of his cheek, and muscles that were actually bulging through his suit.

    The guy was hot.

    His personality was — well — not.

    'At least I don't look like a rat,' she said.

    'At least I don't look like Thunderblast.'

    Mikaela winced. 'That's a serious insult, Rose — don't take that. Thunderblast was ugly as hell.'

    'I'll bet she was' — Rose forced a big smile — 'but I actually have more important things to do with my life than stand around talking to you, Starscreech.'

    'Like what? In fact, I take that back — you could learn my name. It's Starscream, you dim-witted organic.'

    'Why are you called Starscream? Are you under the deluded impression that you make people scream in terror when they see you? Well, I've got news for you — they're screaming because they're actually gouging their eyes out in order to avoid looking at your repellent visage.'

    Sam whistled. 'Whoa, that was comeback gold.'

    Starscream's eye twitched. Lip curled, he leaned down and locked his burning gaze on hers.

    'You know,' he breathed, 'I pity the medic, having a spark partner like you.'

    Rose blinked. 'What?'

    A slim arm suddenly slid around Starscream's powerfully built torso and Alexis's ashen face appeared from behind his arm, looking at her stepsister coolly as she gently pushed back on his upper body, encouraging him away from Rose.

    'Come on, Starscream. Don't waste your time.'

    Starscream looked as if he might argue, but then his expression softened just slightly when he glanced down at the near-skeletal young woman. 'Very well,' he muttered before he turned away from Rose and stormed off in the direction of the Pentagon, shadowed by his paramour.

    Rose felt her eyes grow hot, but curiosity negated the bitter tears.

    What's a spark partner?

    And did it have anything to do with her dream — a dream of games and kings?





    * * *



    John Keller marched down the corridor, radiating authority. Behind him was a cluster of formally dressed politicians, military officials and aides. As of yet, there was no sign of William Lennox, nor of Maggie Madsen and Glen Whitmann. Two V-22 Ospreys had been dispatched to collect them. The parents of some of the youngsters were due to be collected by helicopter within a few hours, too — Jasmine Paxton, Robert Connelly and the Witwicky family had been summoned from their homes in California at the request of Optimus Prime, and Keller had obliged him. He was already having to deal with a group of pubescent teenagers running riot in the Pentagon — adults would be a blessing.

    'So who am I expecting here, Charlotte?'

    His right-hand woman, Charlotte Mearing, glanced down at the clipboard on her arm. She was a fiercely intelligent creature, just about twenty-seven, but with the wisdom and cynicism of someone twice her age. Her tank-like personality was reflected perfectly by her severe outfit: spectacles with thick black lenses, steel-grey pantsuit, blue shirt and necktie. Her red lipstick stood out like a sore thumb against her bone-white complexion.

    'Their Air Commander — Skyfire — and the kids,' she read.

    'Sam Witwicky?'

    'Yes, he's one of them.'

    'Anyone else?'

    'Prime called earlier and said there would be another flyer, too — didn't tell me his name. He was in a rush. He said they'd be using holograms to speak to us, as they're simply too big to get in here. As for the other teenagers' — she pursed her lips — 'well, I have no idea.'

    Keller shook his head. 'Holograms. Incredible, really.'

    Tom Banachek, who was on his left, nodded: 'Yes. Beyond comprehension, unless you were part of Sector Seven. NBE-1 really opened our eyes during our years of research.'

    'Well, I would've been delighted to join in with that research, Tom, had I been informed of its existence,' Keller said tightly as the throng of aides rounded the corner.

    Banachek was silenced.

    They were met in the Pentagon Transit Center by a group of eight people, flanked by four armed men — two on either side of the gaggle. They sported M4 carbines, and seemed oblivious to the discomfort of their guests. Keller spied Sam Witwicky and Mikaela Banes among them, and he raised a hand in greeting as he approached.

    'At ease.' The soldiers stepped away. 'Sam, Mikaela — great to see you both again, really,' he said warmly, taking the boy's hand in both of his own and giving it a firm shake before he did the same for Mikaela. 'You've both been keeping relatively well, I take it?'

    Sam managed to smile. 'Never better, sir.'

    'Excellent.'

    Keller turned to face the man who looked to be the group's leader — and found himself having to look up a hell of a long way to see him properly.

    'Skyfire, I assume?' he managed.

    'Yes,' the man said, with a gentle baritone. 'A pleasure to meet you, Mr Keller.'

    Nodding, Keller extended a hand to shake his before he remembered himself – holograms, according to what science-fictions books he had read in the past, tended not to be solid. 'Well, you're certainly lifelike,' he remarked, retracting the hand. 'Can you all project these holograms?'

    'Yes, we can.' He stepped aside. 'This is Starscream, my second-in-air-command and aerial surveilla —'

    'Starscream?' Banachek exploded, ripping a pistol from the inside of his jacket. He pointed it at the colourless, muscular man before anybody could react, as did two other men in the collection of officials behind Keller. 'What do you mean, Starscream? Starscream was one of the Decepticons!'

    'Whoa, whoa!' Sam raised a hand. 'Calm down, people!'

    Keller waved a hand at Banachek and the other armed men. 'At ease, all of you,' he ordered. Banachek glanced at him, jowls quivering. 'Tom, put the God damn gun down. We're on a hair-trigger here. How the in God's name do you know what the Decepticons were called?'

    Banachek stared the hologram down for another ten seconds before he lowered his M9.

    The older man stared at him, still waiting for an answer.

    'Sector Seven did manage to break some of the codes that we found encrypted in NBE-1's memory banks,' he explained. 'It took us ten years, but we managed to decipher one file that listed all of the designations of the highest-ranking Decepticons. It wasn't in English, of course, but we cracked it in the end.'

    Feeling a headache coming on, Keller turned to face the hologram.

    'Is this true?' he asked, and the man actually glared at him. 'Are you the Decepticon called Starscream?'

    'I am.'

    'Starscream is not a Decepticon any longer, you understand,' Skyfire interjected. 'In fact, he has been an Autobot for almost three years now. He has fought excellently on our side, and is guardian to one of our human allies, Alexis.'

    There was a murmur of speculation. Keller peered at the youngsters.

    The nearest of them was a fresh-faced redhead, tucked up in a ski jacket. She stood next to a tall Hispanic boy wearing regulation Army pants and a beige t-shirt. There was an awkward blond boy, and a smaller girl wearing a kerchief. Keller recognised the four of them from the profiles that Prime had sent to Mearing: Rosa Connelly, Carlos López, Miles Lancaster and Jade Rivers.

    'Alexis Paxton, I assume?' he said. 'Is she here?'

    There was a moment's silence before the last arrival stepped out from behind Starscream.

    He was taken aback by how frail this young woman looked when compared to her healthy-looking companions — indeed, one of the female secretaries behind him actually gasped upon seeing her. Her photograph had shown her as being quite delicate, but in reality she looked sick. Dangerously sick, in fact. She stood at average height, but her frame was so slight that Keller wouldn't have been surprised if she'd been completely invisible from the side. Thin, spindly arms were folded across her chest, visible thanks to the cut-off sleeves of her red t-shirt, and her white Capri pants seemed incredibly baggy; he was surprised that her tiny waist could hold them up.

    Two green eyes — her father's eyes — came to rest on him. They were framed by long, fair eyelashes.

    He cleared his throat, extending a hand with a brusque nod.

    'Miss Paxton.'

    Alexis took his hand. He could feel every bone, and feared for a moment that he might break it.

    'Hello, Mr. Secretary,' she said.

    She stepped away, so she stood close to Starscream. Keller blinked when he saw them exchange a glance.

    Maybe he was getting old, but — well, he could have sworn he saw something there. Something deep — something dark — in her eyes as she looked at the hologram from behind a curtain of thin, light brown hair. When he looked again, they were no longer looking at each other, but — well —

    No — damned stupid thought. Getting old, John.

    'You said 'guardians'?' Mearing said. 'Are you all guardians?'

    'Not quite all of us — but most, yes.'

    Banachek looked from one face to another.

    'We should probably record which one guards which,' he suggested to Keller, who nodded. 'As well as any other data not included in the documents that Prime sent you. He didn't mention that the Autobots took Decepticons into their ranks.'

    Rosa Connelly interrupted him:

    'You should probably know there's another Decepticon, then,' she said, with a strong English accent. 'Barricade.'

    'Any particular reason for Prime taking in Decepticons?' Keller asked.

    'Starscream joined our faction several years ago on account of certain — uh — personal matters,' Skyfire said, forcing a smile. 'Barricade has offered to work with us against the threat that we are here to speak with you about, Mr. Keller. But for the moment, I request that they all be allowed to have a few hours of rest before my comrades arrive.'

    'And have you got any food?' Miles Lancaster asked. 'We haven't eaten for hours.'

    'Or tea?' Rosa added, looking hopeful.

    Keller smiled. 'I doubt we have tea of the fine British standard, Miss Connelly, but we certainly have tea. As for food, son, there's a snack bar in the central plaza or a food court. Let my men show you to your accommodations, and then you're free to go.'

    'Thank you,' Skyfire said sincerely.

    'My pleasure. Oh, and Hallam?' he called.

    'Yes, sir?'

    'Call Simmons. I have a feeling we may need his help.'



    * * *



    /Ratchet, slow down./

    Ratchet did not decrease his speed one iota, even when he heard Ironhide give the gruff advice — or order — from somewhere behind him. In fact, he only pushed himself to move more rapidly as they raced down the freeway, with he and Barricade spearheading the convoy. Traffic parted like the Red Sea to make way for the line of mismatched vehicles.

    They had not stopped once since leaving California. The fierce orange sun was beginning to rise over the horizon, and Optimus planned for them to be at the Pentagon by midday at the latest — but for once, the Prime's orders were not the driving force behind his speed.

    This sunrise marked the beginning of the second day. That left what was left of it, and one day after that, to prepare for Unicron.

    Yet even that was not why he was driving at a speed that he would never consider in a normal situation, even under cover of darkness. It was not the reason why he was matching the speed of the police cruiser on his left, and that was not the reason why he was completely ignoring Ironhide.

    His reason had a name:

    Rose.



    He had considered his actions when he and Barricade had first blazed ahead of Optimus and taken the lead — considered his recklessness, and thought about why he was doing it. And he had found, upon an hour or two of thought, that the reason he was driving faster even than Sunstreaker — or even what Blurr might have been like on high-grade, had he been on Earth — was because he was driven by a desperate, burning desire to be with Rose again. He wanted to see those water-blue eyes level on his, to hear her talking about history, and to see the sun glint in her auburn hair.

    Sparks were mutinous things. Here he was, driving like a wild youngling and risking crashing into a human vehicle in his haste. It just was not what he did. And she was making him do this. Somehow, in some strange way, his spark — its desire for her — was making him do this.

    He hated it.

    But he loved it. He wanted it, desperately.

    But does she want me?

    Barricade suddenly opened a private channel with him via radio:

    /You're in a hurry, medic./

    /Indeed I am./ He made a conscious effort to get in front of the cruiser, and he heard a dark chuckle. /Does that amuse you, Barricade?/

    Mikaela was forever telling him that he should learn to take things less seriously, but Decepticon humour had always troubled him — and would trouble her, too, if she'd seen some of the things they'd done for amusement on Cybertron.

    /I just find it rather tragic that you have fallen so hard for that human femme./

    Ratchet paused. Better to feign ignorance.

    /What human femme?/

    /Rose, of course. My spark partner./

    Ratchet slammed on the brakes so hard that he ended up in near-agony when the rubber of his tires burned with friction. The brakes of three vehicles screamed he narrowly avoided a collision with Sideswipe, who was forced to perform a full three-hundred-and-sixty degree turn to avoid him and, consequently, almost collided with Arcee.

    /Primus, doc, what the Pit are you doing?/

    /Shut up, slag you./

    /I nearly hit Arcee! And you actually reprimanded me for speeding earlier!/

    /Don't you remember Cybertron, bro?/ Sunstreaker added, sounding vaguely impressed. /He used to chase us all over Iacon!/

    /Enough!/ Ratchet snapped.

    They both fell silent, surprised.

    /Please — stand down, all of you/ Optimus said wearily. /We will reach our destination in a few hours. I beg of you to maintain some form of order until then. As it is, none of you should be speeding in a commonplace situation, but this occasion calls for it. Ratchet, if you are planning to brake at random again, I would ask that you warn us beforehand so that we can diverge ourselves from you./

    /Yes, sir./

    Impatient, he left the public connection and pulled up the private one.

    /Surprise/ Barricade said, sensing his presence.

    /What did you mean by that, Barricade?/

    /Mean by what?/

    /Rose is my spark partner. What right do you have to declare her yours?/

    Anger had flooded his conduits, turned the catalysed energon stone-cold. On Cybertron it had been absolutely taboo to make a claim over another's spark partner, even in jest. The union of sparks was a sacred form of symbiosis, and making such a claim showed a grave lack of respect for the All Spark's decision of whom should be partnered with whom. Its wisdom was infinite, and to challenge it was criminal. As a politician and ambassador on the Cybertronian Senate — before his retirement and progression into the medical field after the selection of young Orion Pax as the new Prime — he had dealt with several such incidences, and the perpetrators had been severely disciplined. He had a vague memory of one of them being strung up in Iacon in chains for days on end, condemned to be publically mocked by the embittered Sentinel Prime, who just about spat on those who challenged the All Spark.

    Barricade paused, no doubt remembering the same incident.

    /You received the sign?/

    Ratchet, ruffled, replied: /The moment I saw her./

    There was no reply for a while, but Barricade increased his speed. What, did he hope to race him to the Pentagon in order to get to Rose before he did? He may have been in a hurry, but he was not foolish enough to rise to such immature bait.

    /Hmph. I despise the fleshlings — take the little glitch./

    He severed the connection, leaving Ratchet torn between anger and confusion.

    What had Barricade meant by that? How could Rose possibly be his spark partner, when she was certainly — without a doubt — his? His spark had reached optimum potential; there could be no argument over that. Rosa Leighton Connelly was, whether he liked it or not, the woman to whom he was destined to be bonded.

    /Optimus?/

    Optimus sounded worn out: /How can I help you, Ratchet?/

    /Is it possible for a spark to have two partners?/

    For a long time, there was no response.

    /It is a very, very rare occurrence/ Optimus said carefully. /The Matrix has recorded it happening only twice before since the origin of all things — but yes, it is possible. The All Spark has the ability to split a spark three ways rather than two. Nobody has ever quite understood the reasons behind it, least of all myself. No doubt the information was lost in the destruction of Iacon./

    His spark turned cold.

    /Primus./

    Optimus paused. /What troubles you, old friend?/

    Ratchet pulled back — away from the speeding Barricade — and drew close to Optimus. Ironhide flanked him, and Ratchet widened the connection to include him.

    /Barricade believes Rose is his spark partner./

    Ironhide sounded like he was choking: /What?/

    /I know, Ironhide — but I do not believe that even a Decepticon would declare such a thing without it being the truth. Megatron would have done, perhaps, but the other Decepticons always did have a strangely uncharacteristic sense of honour towards our creator./

    /Frag that. He's encroaching on your territory. Tell him to shove it up his tailpipe, or I will./

    /Indeed. But Barricade was fiercely loyal to Megatron in his time./

    /But it is against our laws to claim another's spark partner!/ Ratchet argued. /Faithful to Megatron or not, it is utterly forbidden. You know that the punishment for such a crime was banishment from the capital city, or even the extinguishing of the spark. Do you truly believe that Barricade would risk such a thing, purely out of allegiance to Megatron?/

    Another long pause.

    /Perhaps not. Only time will tell./





    *Chapter 16*: Ground Zero





    Chapter Sixteen

    Ground Zero



    * * *



    Sam's brown eyes were misty as he took another bite of his sandwich.

    It was just so… weird. Normal kids his age never experienced anything like this – they just went about their daily business. Going to school, getting Saturday jobs, hanging out with friends… the most exciting thing that ever happened to nineteen-year-olds in Tranquillity was probably when Trent threw a drinking party and all those popular enough to be invited got high and had sex with each other, which those who were not popular enough then talked about in the canteen over some soda and Twinkies.

    He had been like that. He had never been part of the popular clique – hell, Miles had been his only friend back in those days – but he guessed he had always wanted to be like the muscular, strapping jocks that got all the prettiest girls in school.

    Now it all seemed so God damn superficial.

    Here he was, sitting outside the Ground Zero café in the courtyard of the Pentagon, munching on a New York sub and awaiting the conclusion of Optimus's meeting with Keller and the military guys so that they could all prepare for the arrival of a planet-sized monster.

    Yeah – that was normal.

    It was almost midday now, and they were parked in the courtyard waiting for the others to return from the food court. Optimus had come to them upon arriving with the other Autobots and had explained that he was taking Skyfire and Ironhide into the meeting with him; Seraphim had managed to convince him to take her after ten minutes of whining insistently at him until the poor guy had been forced to give up out of annoyance, and eventually Mikaela had persuaded Optimus to take her and Carlos along to represent the Autobot allies on the human side.

    Both ex-Decepticons were equally furious to be denied allowance to come to the meeting – Starscream had thrown a complete temper-tantrum in rage before storming off in a huff, with Barricade doing the same. Optimus had patiently explained that he didn't want the humans not to trust them because of their Decepticon allegiance – he had been of the opinion that it would easier to let the leaders cope with the Autobots first.

    "But honestly, Starscream, I will make certain that your opinions are represented," the commander had said persuasively.

    Starscream had still stormed off in a huff.

    Until he had stormed back to the courtyard, still in a huff – probably because he didn't have any other actual friends to hang out with. Everyone here looked daggers at all the newcomers, and Sam was completely empathetic for that reason.

    "What are they all staring at?" the hologram groused petulantly at that moment.

    Sam sighed, looking over towards where the tall, blonde image of the Cybertronian was standing with his arms folded and giving everyone who looked at him the wrong way a haughty glare. "They're staring at you, man," he informed him dutifully, running his free hand through his hair beneath his cap. "No offence, but you kind of stand out."

    "How?" was the heated response. "I look like a human, don't I?"

    Grimacing, Sam looked pointedly at Starscream. "Yeah," he agreed slowly, "But not really. You look too pale to be alive, for one thing – you look like you just stepped out of Dawn of the freakin' Dead."

    This only added to the utter bizarreness of the situation. It was strange enough that he had been thrown into the first war – the quest for the All Spark – and befriended giant alien robots, as well as scoring the hottest girl in the school and the hottest car on the market. Now, not only was he in the midst of a second massive-scale extraterrestrial confrontation, he was also sitting with the ex-Decepticon Air Commander, eating a sub and making an effort not to inform him that the reason he was being stared at because his muscles were as nearly as big as Schwartznegger's.

    What actually happened to my life?

    "And I should probably tell you, Starscream," Jade added casually from where she was sitting next to him and picking at a carton of fries, "The reason that the women are staring at you is because your hologram is really, really hot."

    She just told Starscream that he was hot.

    He loved that girl's attitude sometimes.

    Clearly frustrated, Starscream snarled quietly and gritted his pointed teeth. "Well, if that's their reason for staring, then they should be made aware that I'm not interested in any of them. I find it insulting that they are indulging in such disgusting thoughts."

    Starscream and Jade appeared to be making a mutual effort not to talk about the whole strangulation-over-Carlos incident – they could no longer afford rifts within the team, and Jade wasn't the sort to bear a grudge. However, Starscream appeared to be having way more of a problem with Rose – the two of them seemed to spit hatpins with hatred whenever they saw each other.

    Really, the jet was as bad as a woman sometimes – he bitched like hell about Rose, whether or not she was around. But with Starscream, he was brawny and daunting enough to carry if off quite well.

    "Aw, c'mon," Jade soothed the temperamental ex-Decepticon. "They don't know about Alexis, right?"

    "And I would like to keep it that way, if you can try keeping your mouth shut this time," Starscream said darkly, causing Jade to shrug innocently. "I mean it, girl, and I encourage you to do the same for your relationship with Skyfire if you want to be allowed to fight with him."

    Sam took another huge bite of his sub to give himself a reason not to be the one to fill the ensuing silence.

    He was never the first up in the morning, but he had been unable to sleep in the military-grey room that he, Miles and Carlos had been shown to. Miles had been dead to the world as soon as he hit the pillow – typical Miles – and Carlos appeared to have fallen into a doze, if his drowsy murmuring in Spanish had been anything to go by, but sleep had been a lost cause for him.

    The fact was that there was a freaking monster coming to eat Earth, and it looked like their only shot was the tiny gemstone that Alexis had used to kill Thrust. Who the hell could blame him for having trouble sleeping?

    Jade suddenly put a hand to her ear. "Yeah, Sera?" she said softly, appearing to speak into midair. "What's happening now?"

    Sam leant in keenly, as did Starscream.

    A few years beforehand, Skyfire had created this nifty little gadget for his charge – a Bluetooth-style earpiece that Jade could use to open a personal radio link with the Autobots and other Cybertronians, just as they could with each other. Currently she was using it to converse with Seraphim and find out what was going on in the meeting.

    /They're getting kinda tense, girl…/ Seraphim's voice came as Sam and Starscream both listened carefully at Jade's left ear. /They've sorted out all the shizz about Unicron with the American guys – Optimus explained it all, and their plan is that they're going to call over all the air forces they can for a standoff at one of the major cities with his minions or whatever. But now they've gotta actually tell all the reps from Russia and China and so on. They're all poppin' up on screens now, and they all look sooo boring…/

    "So they are bringing foreign air forces here?" Jade asked, wincing at the fact that Seraphim was clearly an inch from actually falling asleep in the middle of the meeting. "Stay awake, Sera… you're our only link!"

    /You could call Ratchet and get him to tell you everything – or the scientist spectacular!/ she pointed out sullenly. /I'm bored rigid!/

    Sam snorted, tossing the rest of his sub into a nearby trashcan. "Hatchet?" he repeated, shaking his head. "No way would he tell us anything." Jade relayed this opinion to Seraphim, who appeared to agree with him.

    /Yeah, I know – he's such an old killjoy. He needs to mate with Rose – like, right now./

    It took a moment for the statement to sink into Sam's brain, but when it did he stared at Jade before the two of them burst out laughing. He saw that Starscream looked appalled by what Seraphim had said but if he was frank with himself, he didn't give a damn – he only wished that Sunstreaker and Sideswipe had been there to hear that. "You genius of a kickass drone!" he managed to laugh, close to choking on his own saliva out of mirth and leaning on Jade's shoulder for support.

    Starscream's lip curled. "Mature," he remarked almost pityingly.

    "Look, I'm easily amused."

    "Clearly," was the sneer in response. The hologram stood up, making towards the building. "Slag this - I'm going to find out where the others have got to… Primus forbid that they go any faster…" he muttered.

    /Hey, you punk, I'm not a slaggin' drone!/ Seraphim suddenly said hotly from Jade's ear and Sam grinned guiltily at her. /Drones can't make holos, okay! But I'll forgive you. In answer to your question, Jadie - they've already called the British and Spanish governments and informed them. Carlos convinced them about the Spanish lot, and America is allied with the Brits anyway. They're agreeing to send aerial support. Optimus and Keller are talking to the screen dudes now – I'll check back later./

    Sam groaned and put his head in his hands. "This is gonna be a long, long day…"



    * * *



    Optimus Prime faced the multitude of officials from the countries that Keller had chosen to contact with a tense expression.

    It hardly helped his frazzled circuitry that all of them seemed to be just as anxious as he was, if not more so. Not only did the humans look stressed, but his fellow holograms also looked rather strained – Skyfire in particular seemed very uptight, and kept shooting indignant looks at Seraphim's smaller hologram from where she sat with her arms folded at Ironhide's side.

    He knew why, of course; Seraphim had been talking to Jade via her radio since the beginning of the meeting, and since it was fairly simple technology, it was very easy to hack – he had been listening to them himself, and supposed that Skyfire had been doing the same. The dark-skinned hologram's bored look was a little irking, especially as she had wheedled him for almost quarter of an hour just so that she could come – and there were a few he could think of that wanted to be in her place.

    The little drone was a spirited one, Optimus reflected as he listened to her exchange with Jade. He was pleased that she was on the team – being Earth-born, she appeared to be able to interact with the humans on a far more intimate level than the others could ever hope to, including himself. Certainly the younger generation seemed to 'click' with the humans more effectively than the older, war-hardened veterans of the group did… yet they were the ones with the human partners.

    The spark's call… how strong and strange it truly is.

    "So you're saying that there is a… monster coming to Earth," an accented voice suddenly said, jerking him from his reverie – much to his relief, as Seraphim had just said something rather inappropriate about Ratchet and Rose.

    It was the President of China who had spoken: a bespectacled Oriental man wearing a black suit and coloured tie like most of the other leaders on the screen were. Optimus nodded in response to what he had said, looking at each of them men on the screen and hoping that none of them would simply think that the American government were playing a large-scale prank on them.

    "Unicron is an entity of enormous power," he murmured, and the man pursed his thin lips. "I would estimate that he is around twice the size of this planet, and will be able to consume it very easily in a matter of hours."

    "What hope is there, then?" was the response. "Is there hope, Mr. Prime?"

    Optimus folded his strange, human hands on the table in front of him, locking his fingers together and giving the Chinese leader what he hoped was a beseeching look. "My good sir, I believe that there is always hope when there is unity," he implored, and he was not interrupted – though the man did not look convinced. "Fortunately for us, we have two artefacts in our possession that I believe can stop Unicron. One is the Matrix of Leadership, which I currently have… the other is the All Spark, which is owned by one of our human allies."

    Keller shook his head then, rubbing his head. "All Spark? That thing was destroyed."

    "Some small fragments were left over, Mr. Keller. Fragments taken from the original and infused into a small jewel."

    "You say that this All Spark is owned by one of the humans with you?" another of the men on the screen said – this time the Russian president, who had a softer expression on his face. "Is it one of you two, Miss Banes and Mr. Lopez?"

    Carlos shook his head. "No, sir… another girl called Alexis Paxton."

    Optimus was surprised by his confidence; he had proven to be quite an adept politician, and spoke to the older and wiser men as if he had done it all his life. He was also refraining from using mingled Spanish and English, as he frequently did during conversation. Mikaela, too, had been informative and helpful, though not as confident as Carlos.

    "Okay, so I'm assuming we'll be using the… Matrix, was it?" the British Prime Minister interrupted in an accent akin to Rose's, raising his thick, dark eyebrows. "If one of the children with you has the other artefact, we shouldn't use it. We can't endanger a young girl like that, can we?"

    He sensed Mikaela and Carlos reddening at being called 'children', but ignored it. The British leader had sent for the Royal Air Force – they were already on their way towards America – and Optimus was so grateful for him for that honour and kindness that he was not about to complain because he had slighted their human allies a little. However, his spark was sinking at the thought of telling these men that their only hope was to condemn both himself and Alexis to death… how would they take it?

    "I'm… afraid it doesn't quite work like that, Prime Minister," he murmured, causing the grey-haired man to frown slightly. "The Matrix and the All Spark must be used together in order to defeat Unicron. The Matrix is joined with my spark – an integral part of me that cannot be removed. And the All Spark, I am afraid, is now dependent upon Alexis to gain strength."

    The British man's dark eyes widened. "So… there's no choice but for the girl to be involved?"

    "We all want to be involved!" Mikaela suddenly piped up, looking desperate. "Look, I know that we're just kids. I know that – I get that you don't want to put us in danger and that it'll look bad and everything. But we're willing to do whatever it takes – just let us fight with our friends."

    "We've already discussed this, Mikaela!" Keller groaned, looking weary. "There's nothing you kids can do but get in the way!"

    Optimus lowered his eyes. This was going to be a far more difficult meeting than he had originally predicted.



    * * *



    "You know your parents are gonna be here soon, Alexis?"

    Alexis looked up at Miles, who had spoken, with a dull expression etched onto her milky-white face. "Mm," she mumbled, glancing down at the untouched plate of food that Ratchet had forced her into buying from the food court that they were now sitting in. "Rose's and Sam's, too."

    There were five of them gathered around one of the tables together, the lone newcomers in a sea of feasting military personnel – Ratchet, Miles, the twins and herself. All the soldiers and air pilots kept glancing at them and muttering, which was about the most distracting thing that Alexis had ever been forced to deal with. Her stepsister was still waiting in line to buy something with two more newcomers, Maggie Madsen and Glen Whitmann - and her absence was giving the twins ample time to tease the medic about her in the time that she wasn't there to hear them, as well engage in general banter amongst themselves.

    "Sideswipe, your hair's sticking up," Sunstreaker snickered quietly from her left.

    "I don't have any hair, genius," his twin retorted drolly before he reached up to his head and felt the spiky, unkempt black mane of hair that now covered it. "Oh – my bad, bro. Keep forgetting that we look like organics now." He paused for a moment before adding in a wounded tone, "And it's not like yours isn't sticking up, too!"

    Alexis couldn't help but smile at Ratchet's exasperated expression.

    "Will you two please, for the love of Primus, shut your oral cavities for a moment?" the medic's hologram hissed cantankerously, leaning forward and dealing both of them a hard, angry sort of glare from his blue eyes. "We've only just arrived and you two are already engaging in your habitual repartee. I cannot stand any more of your Pit-spawned, superfluous banter."

    "Ooh, Hatchet's mad," Sunstreaker mocked almost affectionately, leaning around the chair to one side of the strained Ratchet's brown-haired, goateed hologram whilst Sideswipe took the other. "What's the matter, doc? It's not about Rose, by any chance?"

    Sideswipe clasped his hands and looked at the ceiling lovingly. "Oh, Rose – my spark's flower!" he crooned, and Ratchet's jaw tightened.

    "My love!"

    "My much-needed interface-to-be!"

    "That is enough!" Ratchet finally snarled in an undertone, seizing Sunstreaker's adolescent hologram by the ear and causing the yellow-clad twin to yell silently in protest, wriggling. "If you younglings want to say anything that unbelievably crude about Rose, then you should say it to her face as you should with anybody. Now leave off, both of you, or I'll give you an untimely diagnostic."

    A curious voice interrupted them from somewhere above Alexis. "What about me?"

    Upon looking over her shoulder, Alexis saw that Rose was standing there with a tray of food, one eyebrow raised slightly and a smile pulling at her lips. The two people behind her – a tanned blonde woman and a stout African American man – looked quite bemused. Ratchet, on the other hand, looked as if he might die on the spot.

    "We were just saying how unbelievably slaggin' hot you are, Rosie," Sideswipe grinned casually. "Care to join us?"

    "Oh, pick on someone your own species, why don't you?" Rose sighed, although she was still smiling. She placed her tray as far away from Sideswipe as was humanly possible in quite a deliberate way, and Sideswipe exchanged a grin with his twin. Clearly two of them were trying to provoke Ratchet into doing something drastic – if his clenched jaw and narrowed eyes were anything to go by, then they were reasonably close to succeeding.

    Maggie Madsen, the blonde, parked herself between Ratchet and Sunstreaker. She had proven to be a confident woman, and was apparently not too bothered by the fact that she was sitting with aliens – then again, she hadn't actually seen them in their true form except for once, as far as Alexis knew from Ratchet.

    "You two are absolutely crazy," she informed Sideswipe and Sunstreaker seriously, picking up her plastic spork. "I didn't think aliens were this… well, normal. I always thought of them as being kind of green and disinclined towards humans."

    "You describe those two as 'normal'?" Ratchet scoffed. "You must be mentally unstable."

    "Yo' kiddin', Magster," Glen Whitmann said thickly through a mouthful of hot dog. Urgh, just looking at the food made Alexis feel queasy… "Didn't you ever see Star Wars or nothin'? Those movies were absolutely awesome, man… they weren't all green 'n' stuff."

    Maggie rolled her eyes. "No, Glen."

    They had proven to be lovely people, if a little eccentric, and Alexis hoped that the other man they had summoned – Will Lennox, they had said his name was – would be the same. They were surrounded by hostile looks in this place, and she couldn't help but be tired of it… she was suffering enough with this damned necklace without a load of soldiers giving her evil eyes every time she turned a corner. Starscream was absolutely seething about not being allowed to go the meeting, too, and she couldn't stand it when he was angry.

    Miles sighed and slumped against Glen's shoulder, yawning widely. "Dude… I'm dead beat."

    "You slept like a baby, from what I heard," Rose smirked, pronging at her plate of salad with her fork.

    The blonde shook his head. "Babies don't sleep, girl," he reminded her through another yawn before he looked between the British girl and Alexis. "So what are you guys gonna tell your parents when they get here, huh? Are you gonna tell your mom about 'Screamer, Alexis?"

    "Ha, ha," Alexis said dryly. "I think not."

    As she had pointed out to Starscream, her mother would hardly react well to being told that her daughter was wildly in love with a giant, transforming alien robot from a distant planet that had killed her father and originally hailed from the evil side of their race. She imagined it would be horrific enough trying to get her mother to understand her being friends with the Autobots, let alone being in love with one of them… and trying to convey the fact that she was likely to die in pursuit of saving the world.

    That conversation would be just swell.

    Rose pulled a face. "God, my dad's going to positively detonate when he finds out I've been with aliens for the past few weeks. Any idea when they're supposed to be getting here, anyone? I missed out on that little titbit of information, you see," she added sourly.

    Sunstreaker shrugged. "So did we. And I'm not going to try interrupting Prime now… he'll have enough on his hands."

    "Yeah… wonder how it's going," Maggie sighed. "Keller doesn't even know that Glen and I are here yet – we don't know what we're supposed to be doing. But I doubt we're actually meant to be sitting around in a cafeteria with you guys… it just doesn't seem right that we can just randomly come and talk to the resident aliens of the place."

    "It's not as if we're going to eat you, or anything," Sunstreaker snorted. "You'd taste disgusting. All meaty and fleshy… yeurck."

    "'Meaty', huh?" Rose repeated, the eyebrow rising again. "Wow, Sunstreaker – thanks. You know, we're about to go and fight some giant, planet-sized being – risking our lives as we do so – and the only thing you can do is describe us as 'meaty'." Way to boost our morale, you absolute arse of an Autobot."

    She didn't like Rose, but Alexis had to admit that she was clever with her comebacks. Better than she was, anyway… She remembered that appallingly bad retort she had come up with after Starscream had insulted her once during one of their first conversations - "Why don't you just go and… and… plan some evil… plan, or something?"

    That had been painful.

    "Ouch," Sunstreaker responded meekly, wincing. "Uh… yeah. Sorry."

    Ratchet suddenly slammed a fist down on the table, although given the fact that it made no sound – having not, in reality, connected with the surface – made the movement a little less dramatic. "Primus, I'm tired of all this waiting," he growled, looking frustrated. Alexis didn't miss Rose's gaze lingering on his muscular forearms as he folded them impatiently. "They've been cooped up in that room for four hours now – I'm going to attempt a radio link with Ironhide or Seraphim."

    "Please do," Maggie encouraged. "I need Keller to get out of there so I can ask him what the heck Glen and I are meant to be doing."

    A tall man who must have been in his fifties suddenly appeared behind Sunstreaker and they all fell silent, staring at him expectantly. He looked from one face to the other, a stern frown pasted across his face. "Which one of you is Alexis Paxton?" he asked abruptly, folding his arms. He had dark, greying hair and large bags under his eyes that aged him by about ten years.

    Alexis felt her heart turn cold.

    "That's Alexis," Miles volunteered, pointing her out willingly and looking quite delighted to be speaking to an actual military operator. "Right there."

    "Good," the man nodded curtly before grabbing her by the arm and yanking her to her feet. "You're coming with me, kid."

    Alexis immediately panicked, gasping in shock at his action; what had she done wrong?

    Then suddenly… Oh my God, oh my God, they know about Starscream! Her mind screamed at her to run, shrieking in her ears at full pitch, but she was frozen in terror, stumbling into the soldier's hold before she could stop herself. What would they do to her? Who cared what they did to her – what would they do to Starscream? Would they lock him up and chain him down like a dog, like he had been during the battle at the warehouse three years beforehand? She couldn't take that again! Oh Christ, no, no!

    Run!

    Surprise registered dimly through her paralysing fear as Rose stood up, almost knocking her tray to the ground, and glared at the offending man. "Hey – let go of her!" the older girl demanded angrily, and Ratchet stood up too, looking equally outraged if not more so. "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing with her?"

    "None of your concern, ginger," was the only reply, and Alexis bit her lip to stop herself from crying.

    Just as Ratchet began to protest, looking outraged – possibly at the way he had spoken to Rose as well as the fact that he was trying to take Alexis away – there was another voice. A familiar, rasping tone that made Alexis weak at the knees with relief despite how icy and quietly incensed it sounded.

    "Put her down," Starscream's hologram said frostily from where it had appeared. "Now."

    She shot the strapping blonde image of her lover a frantic look as the officer tightened his grasp on her upper arm. Star, run… she begged internally, shaking her head at him and widening her eyes pointedly. What if everyone were to turn on them now – how many people knew? Who had been told – and who had told them? Oh God, please – please let it not be about Starscream, if you're up there…

    Her captor ground his teeth for a moment before he rolled his eyes and gave Starscream an annoyed glare. "Look, buddy, I'm an ex-Sector Seven operative. You aliens don't scare me one bit, okay? Anyway, I'm not actually authorised to communicate with you – except to tell you that I can't communicate with you. Now move outta my way, or I will lock your extraterrestrial ass up – forever."

    Ratchet suddenly looked at the man with recognition, understanding dawning over his ruggedly handsome visage. "Agent Simmons," he stated, frowning.

    "No shit, Sherlock," the man, Simmons, shot back dryly. "Now you wanna tell your pal here to shift his ass before I do it for him?"

    Alexis used his momentary distraction to push his arm away and she made a desperate attempt to twist out of his grasp, but he grabbed her around the waist and held her there firmly. "What do you want?" she demanded in near-hysterics, causing several nearby diners to look up curiously at the spectacle. "Why can't you just tell me?"

    "I might ask the same question, Mr. Simmons," Starscream said in a dangerously soft voice. "Let go of Alexis at once."

    "What did I just say to you, you idiot?" Simmons snapped, and Alexis cringed inside. This guy was stubborn… and being stubborn around Starscream was never a good idea when he was in a mood like this…

    "I'm giving you five seconds, human."

    Simmons gritted his teeth, tightening his grip on Alexis's arm. He probably didn't really care about whether or not he let her go, Alexis reasoned through her dread, but he had obviously dug his heels in because he was pissy about being ordered around by an alien. "Read my wrinkled lips, you thick-headed punk: it's – none – of – your – damned - business!"

    " – five," Starscream began coldly.

    "Why are you so God damn neurotic about where she's going, anyway?"

    "– four."

    "I'd really let go of the girl, man," Miles warned from his seat, looking at Ratchet as if he expected the medic to somehow make the entire confrontation disappear with a wave of his hand. "'Screamer will pawn your ass if you mess with Alexis. He pawns everyone else's, anyway…"

    "– three."

    "Simmons…" Maggie warned nervously, also standing up.

    " – two."

    Alexis squeezed her eyes shut tightly, preparing to hear the sound of Simmons's entire face breaking under the force of one of Starscream's punches if he didn't give her arm back within the next two seconds. She could sense the agent faltering; he kept trying to interrupt the counting and ended up babbling in an outraged manner, but she could tell that he was worried.

    " – one –" Starscream threatened, a little louder.

    "Alright, alright!" Simmons finally said angrily, dropping Alexis and shoving her away from him, though not too harshly. She stumbled a little, trying to catch her breath – which, she realised, she had been holding for the duration of the countdown. "Jesus! I swear to God, you aliens are the most pissy sons-of-bitches I've ever come across in my life…"

    Rose snorted. "That's rich coming from you, twat-arse."

    Alexis felt Starscream steady her by the arm, though she knew that he couldn't be seen as being too close to her when they were in the middle of a food court filled with watching soldiers. She hated the way they had to hide from the world… it was utterly unbearable having to act so distantly. She looked up into his dark red eyes and he gave her a look that she knew meant he wanted to know whether she was alright: she nodded just slightly in response before turning away from him, looking back at Simmons.

    He looked ruffled by his defeat, but still determined. "Right," he scowled, jabbing a finger at Starscream. "Since you're so desperate for an explanation, pretty boy, I'll damn well give you one. Keller wants to see her so that she can speak to the Chinese president and the others, okay? Do any of you aliens have an issue with that, or am I free to go?"

    "Why do those guys wanna speak to a kid like her?" Glen asked bemusedly, his hand still clutching the slippery hot dog.

    "I don't know, Wolverine!" Simmons snapped, causing Glen to look quite wounded. "I'm just the delivery boy here. Now can you please, for the love of God, just let the girl come with me so I can damn well find out?"

    Starscream clenched his jaw.

    Alexis looked at him uncertainly, wondering what he would do or say. It didn't look as if Simmons did know about them… maybe it wasn't about that…

    "Fine," was the curt response from her lover. "But on your head be it, human, if I find her in distress upon her return."



    * * *



    "May I just ask a question, Mr. Prime?"

    Optimus turned his gaze to the French President, inclining his head. "Certainly."

    The issue with the humans had, mercifully, been put to one side for a moment: at least until Alexis appeared. After Mikaela had argued her case fiercely for five minutes, the world leaders had reluctantly agreed to consider what she was saying – on the condition that they could meet and speak to Alexis first. Most of them seemed very concerned by the fact that a nineteen-year-old girl was representing fifty per cent of the world's hope for victory, and Optimus could hardly blame them.

    The man on the screen had a deep frown puckering his brow. "In the instance that the Matrix and the All Spark are used successfully against Unicron," he said with a strong accent, "Is he likely to crash into the planet? Will there by any kind of fallout whatsoever?"

    "I am… uncertain of the answer to that," he admitted. "The means by which the two artefacts will destroy him is unknown to me."

    Sarkozy shook his head, sitting back slightly and looking to Keller. "Well, what are we to do, then?" he asked tiredly, pinching the bridge of his long nose. "There is hardly any use to obliterating a threat, only to have it destroy the Earth by throwing it out of its orbit – or simply crushing it under the weight." He paused. "Yet… I do not see any other way."

    "Nor I," the Prime Minister of Spain concurred. "It appears that we have no choice in this matter. We must take the chance."

    There was a sharp knock on the door and Optimus pursed his lips when Agent Simmons marched in, half-dragging Alexis behind him. He was not pleased to see the ex-Sector Seven operative again, but he said nothing. "Got her, sir," Simmons said in a low voice to Keller before depositing Alexis firmly in a seat before the numerous screens.

    She quailed under the stares she was receiving from the various presidents and rulers, shrinking back in her chair.

    Primus… she really is so very vulnerable, Optimus thought remorsefully, watching her carefully. This should not be happening to a youngling like her…

    "Gentleman, this is Alexis Paxton," Keller introduced her with his no-nonsense attitude, speaking loudly and clearly. "The All Spark's owner."

    There was suddenly a very low, very quiet rumble and the lights in the room flickered spasmodically. The screens wavered, too, causing the leaders on them to look bemused and murmur amongst themselves as the electricity was interrupted for a moment. Alexis shifted uncomfortably in her seat, closing her eyes; a look of intense concentration passed over her face and her hand wrapped around the gemstone as the tremor passed. The screens returned to normal, leaving everyone looking mystified.

    "What happened?" the American president demanded. "You got a technical difficulty over there, Keller?"

    Optimus looked at Alexis and she looked back at him, her eyes betraying her fear. The Autobot leader knew exactly what had just happened – the All Spark did not like being 'owned', and it had shown its displeasure through that indiscriminate surge of power that had affected the electricity. Keller observed the exchange with an impassive expression before nodding. "Must've been, Mr. President."

    The British Prime Minister peered at Alexis curiously. "So you're the lass that we're laying the fate of the world on, are you?" he asked her and she nodded, her lip trembling and her green eyes wide and feverish. "You don't look like a soldier, young lady."

    "I must concur," the Chinese president commented cynically. "How old are you?"

    "I… I'm nineteen," Alexis whispered, clearly petrified.

    The Oriental man sat back, studying her from behind his thick, wire-rimmed lenses. "A schoolgirl, then…" he sighed, sounding disappointed.

    Mikaela, who had been positively bouncing on her chair since Alexis had come in, took the opportunity to speak up. "She's stronger than she looks," she said imploringly from her place beside Skyfire. "Please, sirs – we all are. We'll train – we'll stay with the Autobots – we'll be safe. Just please… don't make us stay here. We want to fight for our planet, too."

    "You're asking a great deal of us, Miss Banes," another of the men said quietly, leaning forward into the screen. "If one of you is killed…"

    "We've got guardians!" Mikaela insisted, her face reddening again in her frustration. Her fear of speaking to these powerful leaders had evaporated with time, leaving her very exasperated. "All of us have guardians – mine's the Autobot medic, Ratchet, for example. They'll protect us – anyway, we fought at Mission City and did just fine. Sam brought Megatron down, and he's just a kid! If not for him, Earth would just be one great mechanised hellhole!"

    There was a short silence, in which each of them looked to be considering what she was saying.

    "I… think, perhaps, that we should give them a chance," the man who had spoken directly to Mikaela said hesitantly. "After all, it is their decision – they are old enough to fight if they choose to." He raised his hand slightly. "Those to let the youngsters fight?"

    Another silence. And then hands began to rise. The majority.

    Keller shook his head before heaving a sigh of defeat. "Very well. They fight."

    A triumphant grin spread across Mikaela's face and she slapped Carlos's palm under the table. Optimus couldn't help but smile, too; despite how worried he was about their safety, he was oddly thankful for the fact that they would be there. It might be better them to be out assisting the Autobots than sitting like ducks in the Pentagon feeling useless. They both glanced at Optimus and he nodded, given them his unspoken permission to take their leave – they had achieved their goal, and would rightfully want to inform the others.

    Once they were gone, Optimus turned back to see all eyes on Alexis. She was looking uncertainly from one unfamiliar face to another, one hand still clutching the gemstone on her neckline.

    "Who is your guardian, Miss Paxton?" the Russian president suddenly asked.

    She swallowed. "His name's S-Starscream, sir…"

    "Ah, yes – you mentioned him earlier, Mr. Prime," another man remembered, folding his arms. "Regarding the command of the British Air Forces. Could you explain your exact battle tactics for the fight against this… Unicron?"

    Optimus nodded. "My intention is that there will be one team – Alexis and myself – that actually enter the bowels of Unicron and use the artefacts to defeat him. My Air Commander, Skyfire –" he waved a hand at the holographic projection of the flyer, "Has been working on a ship with which to do this for the past few years, which is now complete. It is called the Axalon."

    "Where is this ship?" Keller questioned, raising an eyebrow.

    "I am afraid it is still at our base in California, Mr. Keller," Skyfire explained. "Its size necessitated my constructing it underground."

    The Canadian Prime Minister looked baffled, as did most of the others. "So… how are we supposed to get it?" he enquired slowly. "Do you plan on returning to California for the takeoff?"

    "Oh, gracious, no," Skyfire chuckled, shaking his head and looking amused by the thought. "As it happens, I devised a way to transfer it to virtually anywhere through a dimension gate when I first built it – it is already on its way here, particle by particle. I am certain that it will have appeared fully by the time Unicron arrives."

    None of them spoke; the technology of it, Optimus reasoned sympathetically, was obvious beyond their human understanding.

    "… Right," the Canadian finally said. "That's… good. Do continue."

    "Very well." Optimus met the eyes of each of them, one by one. "Once Alexis and I have departed, dealing with Unicron's forces on Earth will be up to my soldiers – and all of yours." He paused. "The British, Spanish and American air forces will gather at a specific location, which I hope will draw Unicron's attention away from the rest of the world – however, each of you must have your defences up and prepared for anything. He is completely unpredictable, and I urge you to ready your troops at once for battle."

    They all nodded.

    Optimus mirrored the action, pleased by their response. "As my soldiers will need to liase with the air forces, I would like to place Skyfire in command of the American air forces and Starscream – Alexis's guardian – in charge of the British and Spanish flyers. With the help of the Pentagon's code breakers, this should make things easier for everyone."

    Both the British and Spanish leaders nodded their agreement to the request. "Fine by me," the former consented. "Whatever it takes, Mr. Prime."

    "But…" the Prime Minister of Japan suddenly interrupted cautiously, "What will become of yourself and Miss Paxton?"

    Alexis was seeking Optimus's gaze and he met it with resolution. Her eyes were scintillating with tears and her lips and hands were quivering, but she clenched her jaw and stared him down. "We…" Optimus murmured, shaking his head. "I… I am afraid that it is highly unlikely that we will return. As I said earlier, the artefacts are dependent on us… thus, their obliteration of Unicron will destroy both Alexis and I in the process."

    The silence was agonising.

    "What about your guardian, Miss Paxton?" the lone woman amongst the leaders, the Chancellor of Germany, asked Alexis in a low voice. "What does he think of this?"

    Alexis's shoulders shook for a moment and she shook her head, her face crumpling. "I… he… we haven't told him our plan yet," she whispered, clearly mere inches away from bursting into tears. "He d-doesn't know the truth…"

    Silence again.

    Then the Chinese president spoke up once more. "So you will both die for Earth," he said in a soft voice. "For all of our countries. Despite the fact that you –" he motioned to Optimus, "Are not even from our world… and you are an American schoolgirl." A tear rolled down Alexis's cheek. "You are prepared to die not only for your country… but for China. For everyone."

    Optimus looked at the young woman with pain filling his spark from deep within and pushing through every part of him with a cold, tingling surge of resent and bitterness. She did not deserve this.

    Starscream did not deserve this – even for all his crimes of the past. He had changed. He had learnt to love Alexis.

    He watched as she raised her head, meeting the eyes of the men that were many times her age and power with tears spilling down her pale cheeks from the eyes that still burnt brighter than any star, magnified by the tears that should never have been hers to weep. And his spark swelled in pride when she spoke, her voice unsteady but strong.

    "Yes," she said softly. "… Yes, I am."



    * * *



    Author's Note: Okay, after summing up all of your opinions I decided to do the meeting this way – so you got to see some politics but not as one huge great lump of technical, tactical stuff. There were more countries involved - the ones mentioned are just the ones who spoke up during those parts of the meeting. I hope it was up to scratch, and I'm very much looking forward to writing the next chapter with the parents arriving (grins) – however, this may take a little longer than usual, as studying has officially hit critical levels now. Anyway, please leave a review if you will, and I'll try and write as much as I can between schoolwork. Thanks!





    *Chapter 17*: A Qualified Guardian





    Chapter Seventeen

    A Qualified Guardian



    * * *



    Jade was sleeping.

    That was good… if Jade was asleep, she wouldn't be able to argue with his just being with her for a minute. If she was asleep, there was no way that she could try and deny what he was feeling for her; she wouldn't be able to back away from his affections out of her weird fixation with the biggest Autobot, Skyfire. It wasn't fair that an alien had a cute young woman like Jade when he had freaking nobody…

    His shadow was cast across her soft features as she slept, and he closed the door behind him to block out the light – if she woke up, he was en la mierda big time. He wasn't going to do anything – he just wanted to be with her, as he hadn't been able to since that oversized idiota had come into things a few years back. Skyfire had stolen Jade.

    And Jade had stolen Carlos's heart.

    After the meeting, he'd gone to find her and been told by Sam that she'd gone back to bed out of pure overtiredness. Alexis had run to find Starscream, and Mikaela had gone to tell the others the news about what was happening… leaving him pretty much alone.

    Man, it wasn't fair!

    Since he had come over from Spain as a baby, he had always been with Rad and Jade. From kindergarten until their late teens, the three of them had been a team – close as close could be. Best friends forever, and all that jazz. Hell, she'd even persuaded them to make friendship bracelets for each other when they were in fifth grade… they had both complained about having to do something so outrageously feminine, but they had done it, because they loved her. You couldn't help but love Jade.

    He looked down at his right wrist as he thought of this. Seeking out the frayed, plaited scrap of leather that was still wrapped around his suntanned arm… still holding on to something that was disappearing all too quickly. Their friendship.

    What could have been.

    Carlos watched as she slept on, blissfully ignorant of how miserable and annoyed he felt with the world right now. What was with the Cybertronians and girls? How was it that a mean, bitchy guy like Starscream could have a girlfriend when he didn't? What about Skyfire – what was so great about him? Yeah, he was huge. And okay, his hologram had muscles – like, a lot of muscles – but so did he! What was it about the guy that Jade loved so much… and why had she never loved him?

    Where had the relationship got her? Starscream had attacked her over Skyfire, so Miles had told him! Something to do with Starscream thinking that she liked someone else… Seraphim had said that he had actually broken one of her ribs. That just wasn't… right. They were supposed to be protecting Jade, not putting her in danger.

    What was going to happen when she wanted marriage? Or kids? Skyfire couldn't give her any of that!

    … but he could. Hell, he would.

    Sighing, he cast his dark, intense gaze over her as she slept. She was in one of her really deep sleeps; there was no way she'd be woken from a slumber like that, unless an atomic bomb went off in the vicinity. A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he watched her… she was adorable when she was sound asleep, with her long hair tousled and her face tranquil and serene. Not that she wasn't adorable when she was awake, but she looked like an angel like this.

    He knew that he shouldn't be doing this, but he couldn't resist any more. He had been forced into watching her with Skyfire for three Goddamn years… three years in which she could have been with him, and in his arms.

    Lying down beside her on the small, hard cot, he wrapped an arm around her waist and drew her close to him, breathing in the thick, vanilla scent of her perfume that clung to her clothes even when she wasn't wearing it. She sighed again, sounding content, and snuggled closer to him. She probably thought he was Skyfire, but he didn't care about that.

    Dio, she was warm. Her lethargic weight in his arms stirred so many emotions in him that he couldn't even begin to comprehend… feelings that had lain in forced dormancy for three years, and were awakening again in full strength. The feel of her body against his was just divine. What the heck had that lumbering oaf of an Autobot done to deserve her? She was a gorgeous girl… and yet she was making out with some giant alien robot every day. Where was the logic in that?

    He sighed, making her squirm a little in her sleep when his breath ruffled her hair, and he grinned. Sometimes he forgot how ticklish she was. He ran a hand over her stomach, keeping his arm firmly around her waist. "Te quiero, Jadie," he murmured in her ear and a small smile pulled at her lips as he pressed a kiss against her hair and laid back down on the pillow.

    And he must have fallen asleep, because soon he found himself being woken up… kind of aggressively.

    "Mr. Lopez, get up this instant!" came a low, irate hiss in a very familiar voice, followed by someone shaking his shoulder.

    Ah, so the imbécil had found him!

    Estupendo!

    He cracked one eye open warily and found himself face-to-face with the massive form of Skyfire's hologram. The tall, pale guy looked so out of place in the dark room that it wasn't even funny – because the holo was made of light, Carlos figured, the darkness and shadow had no effect on him. However, the fact that he was so illuminated only served to make his furious expression all the more foreboding.

    "What?" he demanded nonetheless, glaring at the hologram. "What'd I do?"

    Before he knew what was happening, he had been grabbed by the arm, hauled away from Jade, shoved out of the door of the girl's dormitory and stood up in the middle of the harsh, electronically-lit Pentagon corridor, with Skyfire standing in front of him with his hands on his holographic hips and a livid look on his fine-featured face.

    Okay, Carlos thought to himself, trying to control his smirk. There were a few possibilities here. There was no way in a million years that Skyfire would beat him up – he just wasn't like that – but he guessed he was about to get a serious telling-off, and maybe a shake if the idiot was really pissed. And there was always that lurking background worry that Starscream might appear – and he knew from what had happened to Jade that Starscream would be more than happy to beat him to a pulp.

    "You have some serious explaining to do, young man," was the Autobot's severe response to his question, his face twitching in a visible effort to control his temper. "What do you think you are doing, acting so intimately with Jade when she is powerless to stop you?"

    Carlos folded his arms. "She's my best friend, man. What's your problem?"

    Wow, the guy seriously had his panties in a twist, he grinned to himself internally. Skyfire was so mad that the hologram was actually flickering at the edges. If he didn't cool his afterburners or whatever he was going to end up short-circuiting and blowing himself up… and wouldn't that just be the most terrible shame…?

    "My problem, Mr. Lopez," Skyfire said angrily, clenching his fists, "Is that you do not seem to know how to control your urges, and I have had it up to here with your behaviour. I do not condone violence – in fact, I despise all violence – but if Starscream were to defend me against you again, I truly do not think, on this particular occasion, that I would complain if he were to try and harm you."

    "Ooh, that cuts me real deep, man," Carlos sighed, rolling his eyes. "Shame 'Screamer did it to Jade first, huh?"

    He could have sworn that the hologram reddened for an instant, but then the sheet-white pallor was back. "Starscream was wrong to do that to Jade – it should have been you in her place," was the dark response. "But it was a mistake on his part. Jade is innocent – she does not understand your intentions. She cannot read your body's outputs, as I can."

    Carlos clenched his jaw. What an idiot! What, could he tell when Jade turned him on, or something? "Yeah, right, big guy. What, am I not allowed to spend time with her at all now? Is she just yours?"

    "I am not trying to keep her to myself," Skyfire insisted in a quietly fuming tone. "She is a free spirit and can do whatever she pleases. It is you that does not understand your limitations, Mr. Lopez. Rad interacts with Jade regularly and manages to keep himself under control, but you have crossed the line this time. On our native planet you would have been executed for that action."

    "It is kinda bad, Carlos," another voice admitted, and he whipped around, his jaw dropping.

    "Sera?" he exclaimed, staring at his guardian. Seraphim was in her robotic form, being small enough to fit into the Pentagon, and was standing a little way down the corridor, looking rather worried. "Why the heck are you backing him up?" he demanded, jabbing a finger at her and trying not to show that he was hurt by what she had said.

    He couldn't help but feel kind of betrayed. Seraphim was his guardian and best friend along with Rad and Jade – the two of them always stuck up for each other, no matter what the situation was. And now here she was, defending Skystupid and making him look like a complete idiot.

    She put her hands on her hips and cocked an optic ridge at him. "Hey, y'know I wouldn't usually. But Jade is Skyfire's spark partner… it'd just be wrong."

    "What, more wrong than her being with a giant freaking alien freaking robot?" Carlos exploded, knowing it would hurt her – but she deserved it! She scratched his back, he would damn well scratch hers… "I'm sick of this, man! I was her mejor amigo – I could've been with her, given her marriage and kids and whatever she wanted – I would've given the world, vale? And yet I'm the one with no-one – Jesus Cristo, I'm the one who can't even look at her without getting a mouthful of mierda now!"

    He was slipping further and further back into Spanish and sounding like an idiot talking in gibberish between the two languages, but he didn't care. He was absolutely seething… the nerve of them!

    "Carlos!" Seraphim snapped, looking shocked. "Sky's not trying to take her –"

    "Seraphim, please… I can fight my own battles," Skyfire said gently and she backed down, looking annoyed. Then he turned his dark, blazing blue eyes back on Carlos, his jaw clenched. "Mr. Lopez, Jade is my spark partner. I am sorry that you feel something for her and it cannot come to fruition, but it ends – here and now."

    "Vete a tomar por culo, cantamañanas!" Carlos swore violently, infuriated. How dare this guy say when he did and didn't see Jade? "Starscream broke her ribs over you! All you've done is brought her suffering – I saw that big guy Soundwave torturing her in the warehouse because she stood up for you! If you guys hadn't come to Earth, she'd be fine!"

    "She's fine now, you punk!" Seraphim shouted, narrowing her bright blue optics. "There are other girls, okay? Get the –"

    "Excuse me."

    The three of them turned around in unison, and Carlos gritted his teeth when he saw Jade standing in the doorway of the improvised dormitory. Her long, dishevelled hair seemed to be electrified with anger, her cheeks blazing scarlet and her small fists clenched at her sides as she glared right at him, looking uncharacteristically infuriated.

    Skyfire looked ashamed of himself, inclining his head a little. "Jade… my apologies for waking you…"

    "It's fine, Sky," she said, shaking her head and holding a hand up to cut him short. She turned her hard gaze on Carlos, and he felt himself shaking with a mixture of want and frustration. "Carlos, if you ever say something like that again, I don't know what I'll do – but it'll be drastic."

    Carlos tensed, firing up before he could stop himself. "He's stealing you, Jade! What do you –"

    "No, Carlos." Her voice was distinctly cool, and he couldn't stand hearing it without its usual upbeat note and optimistic, cheerful tone. "What happened with Starscream was not Skyfire's fault – it was yours. You know I'm with Skyfire and yet you still keep up with all this flirting – and it's so obvious!" Her eyes were shimmering slightly and he knew that she was feeling bad for speaking to him like this, but she pressed on anyway. "You're just doing it deliberately to rub Sky's nose in it, and I've had enough of it, too."

    Each word was like a carving knife in his chest, and he could only stare at his friend as if he had only just realised that she was there. How could Jade… his Jade, his sweet little sister figure… how could she be saying this?

    "You liked me once," he finally choked out, torn between anger and pain. "I know you did – on your book –"

    He remembered that day in fifth grade, when he had found one of her calculus workbooks with a doodle of a heart with his name in the centre. He had sensed it from her… that hidden attraction. And back then, he hadn't wanted it… and now he did, it was too Goddamn late!

    "That was the past!" Jade said desperately, the tears shuddering on the edges of her eyelids. "This is now, okay? We're about to fight something so huge… so serious… and all you can do is cling onto the past, and what might have been. Yes, I did like you – but it was just a crush. Sky's my soul mate – you can't understand a spark bond, Carlos!"

    Carlos smirked bitterly. "No, chica… I can't," he said simply. "All I know is that if I died in the fight against Unicron… you wouldn't care now."

    Jade's tears spilled over and down her cheeks, and she shook her head. "I can't believe you would say that, Carlos Lopez," she said, her voice trembling. "I guess we're not as close as I thought – because if you really knew me, you'd know that what you just said could never be true. I love you so much – but as a brother. No more."

    There was a deathly silence.

    "Now, if you'll excuse me," she said stiffly, brushing past him, "I've got an appointment with Ironhide."



    * * *



    "Where's my daughter?"

    "Ma'am, please – I'm asking you, with all due respect, to just stay calm –"

    "Where's Alexis, you stuck-up asshole?"

    Alexis winced as she lurked near the helicopter pad with Rose, detecting her mother's temper and feeling pained already. The woman wasn't exactly a fan of violence, but she did get pretty upset over the state of the planet and that sort of thing… she remembered going with her on a Greenpeace march for whale rights one time when she was a child, and it had not been pretty.

    As well as that, she had to stand here with Rose, of all people. She still hadn't forgiven her nauseating stepsister for calling her a whore for being with Starscream – that had hurt Alexis, and badly. She had enough troubles to cope with to be with the one she loved without some lanky Brit slighting her for it. That would just add to the long list of problems that she had… as if it wasn't enough with being Earth's last hope, having a Decepticon as a lover, and still having to tell said Decepticon lover that she was going to die.

    Wow, she thought dryly, life really is getting fantastic.

    She had been so happy for the last three years. She had the romantic attention of someone that she didn't deserve… someone she loved in return more than she could ever describe or explain. And now it had all been snatched away from her in the space of a few weeks by a thumbnail-sized gem and a planet-sized monster.

    "You think we should make ourselves known?" Rose's voice suddenly cut into her thoughts.

    Alexis turned her head a little and raised an eyebrow. "What do you think?"

    "Well…" the taller girl mused after a moment, pulling a face when Robert Connelly demanded to know her location again, "They're only going to get more pissed off if we leave it much longer… we might as well just do it now and get it over with. No point leaving it –"

    "I AM A POLICE OFFICER, AND I SWEAR TO BLOODY GOD –!" a furious roar interrupted her, and Alexis winced at Robert's angry shout.

    Rose swallowed, visibly paling and looking as if someone had just told her that she was about to be executed. "… is there?" she finished feebly.

    Sighing heavily, Alexis ran a hand through her hair in a vague attempt to look more presentable and glanced down at her attire before she nodded her agreement. "Fine… let's do it, then," she muttered before she took a step towards the Chinook, with Rose following with a slightly hunched gait. "You can't exactly hide behind me," Alexis couldn't resist pointing out wittily.

    "Oh, shut up, you midget."

    Alexis spotted her mother before her mother spotted her, and she shuddered when she spotted the irate look on Jasmine's face. Her delicate features were screwed up into a hideous scowl, her teeth gritted with rage as she attempted to square up to Agent Simmons, who was taller than her by about a foot – it wasn't working, but her anger seemed to make up for it. The grey-haired man had his hands up slightly to keep the pair away, and looked as if he had half a mind to reach for his sidearm.

    After a moment, Alexis cleared her throat and the five adults turned to face her, wide-eyed. "Um… hey, Mom," she greeted limply, raising a hand in a half-hearted attempt at buttering them up with friendliness.

    There was silence.

    Aaaaand then it came.

    Jasmine actually took a deep breath before she started. "ALEXIS PAXTON!" she screeched, her face flushing to an even darker shade of purple than it had been before, "YOU ARE SO BEYOND DEAD, YOUNG LADY!"

    Next thing she knew, Alexis had been seized in a fierce, furious embrace that completely knocked the breath from her lungs as her mother threw her arms around her. Even as she tried to register what had happened through a numbing wave of shock, she heard Robert let out a kind of animalistic war cry and, if her shriek was anything to go by, do to Rose what was currently being done to Alexis.

    "Mom!" she managed with what little air she had left to use, "Seriously –"

    Jasmine, however, did not seem to take kindly to this – she suddenly thrust her away and held her at arms length before she shook her aggressively by the shoulders, causing Alexis's teeth to rattle in their places. "You stupid, stupid girl!" she shouted at the top of her voice, her mousy hair falling down from its loose ponytail and her cheeks still flushed with fury. "How dare you leave for all that time without so much as a word of explanation? How dareyou? I thought you'd been killed, or kidnapped!"

    "Mom, I –" she tried to interrupt desperately, knowing she would only get worse if left to rant.

    But God, she felt so guilty. Tears were springing up in Jasmine's eyes even as she verbally berated her for what had happened, and she knew that she had hurt her mother… badly.

    Oh God… what will happen when she finds out about Starscream…?

    The woman's only response to her attempt at heading her off was another jarring shake of the shoulders. "Do you know how I felt, Alexis?" she shrieked, looking more than prepared to slap her daughter senseless for her behaviour. "Do you know what Robert and I have had to deal with – with you and Rose just vanishing, and then having some snob of a military guy tell us that you've got yourselves involved in some – some kind of – alien war?"

    "Hey!" Simmons protested, looking wounded.

    "Mom, Sam's parents –!" Alexis wailed, at the end of her emotional tether. This had to be the worst day of her entire life so far.

    But it was hardly fair that she should get rebuked for being part of the Autobot team! She had her allegiance to the faction… Sam's parents hadn't reacted like this, according to what he had told her. They had been completely freaked out, of course, but they hadn't yelled at him – his dad had needed a drink and Judy had apparently swooned over Ratchet, but he had claimed that he didn't get so much as the tiniest reprimand after they were informed that he had saved the world.

    Too bad she hadn't saved the world. But she was about to… that counted, didn't it…?

    Jasmine snorted dismissively. "Those two have their heads stuck in la-la land!" she snapped, her face inches from Alexis's. "They may be happy about their child being thrown into some kind of Star Wars robot battle, but I most certainly am not – and dear God, you've lost so much weight!" Her lower lip suddenly trembled and her dark eyes filled up to the brim with tears before Alexis had even registered the mood swing. "Oh, Alexis… what's happening to you, honey…?"

    The now-distraught woman hugged her tightly and she gave her an awkward pat on the back. "It's okay, Mom…" she whispered, uncertain as to how to begin telling her mother all of what was happening to her. "I'm alright… I've just been, um, a little sick…"

    "'A little sick'?" Jasmine sniffed thickly, pinching Alexis's fleshless sides disbelievingly. "Alexis, there's nothing of you! How much do you weigh?"

    "I don't know," she admitted honestly. It wasn't as if she'd had the time or energy to get on the scales… she didn't really care how much she weighed, anyway. She could tell just by looking in the mirror that she was underweight. "Mom, really… I'm alright…"

    She could hear Rose repeating something similar to her father, minus the issue with being too thin. Not that Rose was overweight – she had a nice figure, although she, like Alexis, lacked body in the cleavage department – but she was certainly more than the skin and bone that Alexis was. Then again… everybody was. Nobody else, after all, was having all of their energy sapped away by the All Spark.

    It was painfully hard to quell the resent at that thought.

    Simmons suddenly poked his long nose into the conversation in the most literal way possible – when Alexis withdrew from her mother's arms, she found herself about two inches away from where he had been lurking behind the two of them and eavesdropping. He cleared his throat pompously when Jasmine dealt him a cold glare, and nodded briefly towards something over Alexis's shoulder. "Think your buddy boys want to say 'hey'," he said brusquely, his eyebrows rising.

    Alexis took a moment to process what the agent was saying. "… Huh?" she managed dumbly, looking over her shoulder.

    She immediately wished she hadn't.

    "Oh – shoot!" she almost shouted, whipping around and grabbing her mother's upper arms. "Mom, listen to me… I don't want you to panic…"

    Jasmine's face had gone from a nasty, ruddy shade of puce to completely sheet-white in all of six seconds. Her mouth had dropped open, her beady eyes were as wide as dollar coins, and one of them was twitching slightly as she gaped, in perfectly understandable disbelief, at the three giant robots that had just stepped out of the trees that the Autobot air vehicles had disguised themselves amongst. Starscream, Bumblebee and Ratchet, all of whom were looking equally pokerfaced.

    How could they look so deadpan at a time like this? And why was Starscream there? Had she given him permission to be there?

    Turning back to her mother again with her heart thumping, she mimicked the woman's earlier action and shook her roughly by the shoulders. "Mom, snap out of it!" she said sharply, causing Jasmine's eyes to flick to her for an instant. "It's… it's really, um… complicated… but really, I swear to God, they're not going to hurt anyone…"

    "Robert…" Jasmine squeaked.

    Swallowing, Alexis looked over to where the strapping policeman was engaged in what appeared to be a fierce argument with Rose. "Mom, please…" she said in a last, weak attempt to stop the inevitable.

    But then the scream came. "ROBERT!"

    Robert immediately diverted his attention away from his redheaded daughter and was at Jasmine's side in the blink of an eye. "What is it, Jasmine?" he demanded when she flung herself into his arms, shrieking. "Jasmine, what –" He stopped mid-sentence when he spotted the three Autobots standing there, his greyish eyes becoming as circular as his partner's. "Oh – good God –" he stammered, dragging her away from them. "What the – what the hell is this –?"

    Simmons, on Alexis's right, heaved a world-weary sigh. "Ms. Paxton and Agent Connelly," he said, the latter with some antipathy – maybe he doesn't like other people challenging his superiority, Alexis figured vaguely through the dread that was threatening to overwhelm her – "Allow me to introduce the Non-Biological Extraterrestrials. Or, as I prefer to call 'em… the aliens."

    Jasmine and Robert stared. Alexis began to wish fervently for a yawning hole to disappear into.

    "Aliens…?" Jasmine finally managed to whisper. "They're… they're robots…"

    Ratchet stepped forward with a drained expression on his wizened face. "Jasmine Paxton and Robert Connelly," he greeted tiredly, "My name is Ratchet, and I am the Chief Medical Officer for our faction, the Autobots, as well as official guardian of Miss Mikaela Banes. We are autonomous robotic organisms from a distant planet called Cybertron." Alexis didn't blame him one bit for sounding worn out; he must have done this speech a hundred times before to every human they came into contact with, at least when Optimus wasn't around.

    She supposed that Optimus himself was preparing for their departure on the Axalon. The departure she feared with all her heart.

    "I'm Bumblebee," the black-and-gold mech managed to grind out hoarsely, and Alexis winced when she heard the grating of his barely-repaired vocal processors. "Autobot… eeeek… scout, and guardian to Sam Witwicky."

    Starscream, on the other hand, folded his long arms in a recognisably self-protective manner and looked as if he was trying extremely hard to keep control of himself. "Starscream," he introduced himself shortly to the frozen couple, eyeing them guardedly, "Air Commander-in-second and guardian to your daughter – or stepdaughter, as the case may be – Alexis."

    Silence.

    Then Jasmine managed a faint, "Guardian t-to… Alexis…?" in the jet's direction.

    Ratchet raised his optic ridges. "I recommend that you sit down and place your head between your lower extremity joints, Ms. Paxton. Your bio-signs suggest that you are liable to lose consciousness if you remain in your current position."

    Jasmine slid to the floor obligingly, staring at Starscream with her mouth wide open in absolute shock. Robert remained standing, although he was swaying a little dangerously. "Wait… one second," he managed, sweat beginning to break out on his brow as he gawped at the mechanical trio, "You're – you're alien robots. Aliens. Not some bizarre Japanese experiment, or something…"

    "No, Agent Connelly," Ratchet responded jadedly. "We do not hail from this planet, as I said earlier."

    "There's… no such thing… as aliens," Jasmine insisted blearily from her position. "No such thing."

    Rose, who had come to stand by her father's elbow, smiled almost pityingly and rolled her eyes. "Sorry, Jasmine, but the proof is right before your eyes," she remarked, extending a hand towards the three Autobots. "Seeing as there's three of them right there."

    "You keep quiet, missy!" Robert snapped at her, although his anger seemed to stem from his clear alarm and unease rather than Rose's deeds in getting herself involved in this situation. He ran a trembling hand across his mouth before he glared at the nineteen-year-old girl darkly. "You're grounded for the rest of your life when we get home, Rosa Lee Connelly – mark my bloody words, alien robots or not, I will –"

    "Agent Connelly," the medic interrupted, and Alexis cocked an eyebrow. "Rose's involvement in our present state of affairs was entirely accidental and completely out of her control. Seeing as she has no guardian at this moment in time, I have come here with Bumblebee and Starscream to speak to you regarding your daughter where a guardian would normally fill that role."

    Yep, Alexis thought with an uncontrollable smile, He's in deep. There was no way in a million years that Ratchet would tear himself away from his involvement with the planning for Unicron to help anyone unless it was Rose. And, much as she disliked Rose… it was sweet.

    "Well, why hasn't she got a guardian?" Robert demanded, still sweating. "Why aren't you her guardian?"

    "Father," Rose said long-sufferingly, "As Ratchet has already explained, he's our friend Mikaela's guardian. I don't have a guardian because no one can be arsed to be my guardian. Plus the fact that I probably don't really need one, given the fact that you've given me all the know-how I need on self-defence and all that. Please don't make a fuss over it –"

    "I will be her guardian."

    Alexis blinked in surprise when she saw Barricade. She hadn't even noticed him approaching.

    Robert and Ratchet had identical expressions on their faces; shock, doubt and, in Ratchet's case, a shadow of anger. "You will need to take that matter up with Optimus, Barricade," the medic said stiffly, and Alexis spied his hand curling into a fist. "For the moment, I will deal with Rose."

    The girl in question merely looked from one to the other with a stunned expression, quailing a little under Barricade's intimidating stare.

    "Just – just wait a minute," Jasmine suddenly stammered, waving a hand and making to get back to her feet, only to be pushed back down insistently by Robert and Simmons, "Oh, for goodness sake, Robert… I don't understand this… " She shook her head. "We get called to the Pentagon for reasons completely unknown to us, and then we get told that giant alien robots are guarding our daughters… what are you meant to b-be… guarding them from? Are you qualified to be Alexis's guardian?" she added uncertainly to Starscream, who looked riled by the question.

    "I would sooner my own spark be put out than have Alexis come to harm," he muttered, glaring.

    Alexis's cheeks grew hot when she heard that, and caught the look he shot her a moment later. It was beginning to be like a permanent dagger in her chest, having to act as if she barely knew him when she wanted nothing more than to be in his arms… but, once again, she could only give him a thankful look and hope it conveyed her gratitude.

    "Harm from what?" Jasmine insisted, a little colour coming back to her cheeks. "What are you supposed to be protecting my child from?"

    Ratchet glanced at Alexis, who looked back at him with a resigned expression. They would have to be told eventually… Starscream would have to be told eventually… and she supposed that if Ratchet wanted to be the one to drop the bombshell, then he could. The medic inclined his head to her very slightly and Starscream looked between the two of them with a deep frown.

    "Ms. Paxton," Ratchet said slowly, "There is something coming towards Earth… arriving in a mere day, in fact… that poses a severe threat to the planet. An entity called Unicron that wishes to consume it for its fuel and biological richness."

    "Consume?" Robert yelped. "Consume?"

    As Ratchet and Bumblebee soothed him, the necklace began to burn abruptly at Alexis's neckline again and she wrapped a hand around it, which sometimes helped to suppress the unpleasant sensation. However, something seemed to be happening slightly differently from its usual, erratic reactions… the edges of her vision were beginning to blur, and she could suddenly hear the voice in her ears. The genderless voice of the All Spark… but instead of its usual impassive tone, she could hear emotion. Terror.

    Starscream spied her faltering before anybody else did. "Alexis?" he said sharply.

    UNICRON! UNICRON! UNICRON!

    Everything was beginning to spin; the dusty brown paintwork of Starscream's armour blended with the yellow shades of Bumblebee and Ratchet, and within seconds she couldn't tell one from the other. She was dimly aware of her mother calling her, but before she knew what was happening her legs had given way. She felt Starscream catch her in his hand before she could hit the ground, but she couldn't stay conscious a moment longer.

    She struggled to keep her eyes open for the briefest instant before her vision darkened to black.



    * * *



    "Hold it higher. Not that high – you won't hit it."

    Jade clenched her jaw and nodded determinedly as Ironhide instructed her on how to use the M203 grenade launcher that Alexis had been given at the battle against Thrust three years beforehand. It was a heavy piece of equipment – she marvelled at how a skinny girl like Alexis had managed to hold it upright, let alone use it – but she was coping with it better than she had anticipated. Although it was probably her barely-hidden irritation that was giving her the strength to fire.

    The grenade flew through the air, exploding on impact when it came into contact with one of the human-shaped targets that were adorned with red-and-white bull's eyes. She knew that the enemies she would be aiming at would be way bigger, but, as Ironhide had pointed out dryly, the Pentagon didn't exactly keep Decepticon-shaped targets.

    The smoke cleared slowly and she could sense Ironhide's approval when he saw the mangled marker.

    There had been a time when she had been completely against war and weaponry. The way that the Army spent more on weapons than they did on providing food for the starving; medicine for the sick; help for the needy. Africa was rife with disease and poverty, and yet millions – billions, even – were spent of tools of warfare and death.

    But she had accepted that sometimes, rules needed to change. Principals could bend. Being with the Autobots had taught her that, and she'd be damned if she was going to lie down and watch them all get killed without lending a hand. Lending Skyfire a hand.

    Ironhide's grizzled hologram stepped forward and gently plucked the gun from her unresisting hands. "That's enough for now, kid. Go get some fuel."

    She nodded, deciding not to argue with the weapons specialist, and gave him a small smile. "Thanks, 'Hide. Same time tomorrow?"

    "If you like."

    As she left the room, she felt tears spring up in her eyes again and shook her head, wiping them away on the back of her hand. She couldn't believe that Carlos could have been so… so wrong about her. How could he possibly suggest that she wouldn't care if he died? He and Rad were like her brothers, and they knew that – she would be devastated if either of them were to die. She was finding it hard enough to cope with Rad's absence without Carlos going crazy over a crush that had been left behind years ago.

    She loved Skyfire. It wasn't fair that Carlos had to be so jealous and resentful when she was finally, finally happy with someone. Skyfire was her world… everything about him made her smile. He was her guardian and her lover, and she could no longer imagine being able to exist without him. And yet Carlos had to cause this trouble, right before the battle that would change their lives.

    Leaning against the wall, she kept her eyes averted from those of the soldiers and military officials that walked past her with raised eyebrows. A teenaged girl in a kerchief and Capri pants hardly fitted in here, but she wished they wouldn't stare at her.

    They stared at her even more when her cell phone rung shrilly.

    Quickly flipping it open and giving the disapproving passers-by an apologetic smile, she put it to her ear without checking the caller identification. "Hello?" she said hesitantly, hoping it wasn't one of her parents.

    "Jade?"

    "Rad!" she almost shrieked before remembering where she was and lowering her voice considerably. She would recognise that voice anywhere. "Oh my God, Rad… I've missed you so much!"

    It was amazing to hear from him again, especially after she had just considered how much she missed him.

    He sounded worried, but still pleased to hear her. "Yeah, Jadie, I've missed you too," he confessed, laughing a little breathily. "Carlos just called and told me what's going on with this whole Unicron thing. I'm on my way to Virginia right now – I'm not letting you guys fight without me, especially not Optimus. I'm meant to be his charge – I want to help out and fight. "

    "Carlos…?" Jade repeated timidly. She hoped on hope that Carlos had called before their fight and that Rad was blissfully unaware of it… the last thing she needed was for Rad to have to choose sides. And, considering what he had said to her before his departure before the fight with Thrust and his Decepticons… he would probably side with Rad and say that she shouldn't be with Skyfire.

    And she couldn't bear that any more.

    "Yeah, he rung a couple hours ago."

    Breathing a sigh of relief, Jade smiled. "Okay. When are you going to be here? And how was Harvard?" she added curiously.

    "Pretty soon I think. And it was awesome. But my parents aren't coming to the Pentagon – they're still in Massachusetts." He sighed heavily. "I had to tell them that Carlos was really sick and I had to fly home and visit him… I know Carlos's dad knows about the aliens already, so it's cool if my folks ring up to ask how he is or whatever. Do your parents know where you are?"

    "No. Nor about Skyfire, before you ask." He grunted in response. "But Alexis, Sam and Rose's folks are here."

    "Rose?"

    She shook her head, remembering herself – Rad had left for his vacation before Rose had even come to the base. "Oh, sorry – Alexis's stepsister. Her dad and Alexis's mom are here – I'm pretty sure they just arrived, actually. And Sam's parents already know, but Keller sent for them anyway… I guess he thinks they should be involved."

    Rad sounded pained when he spoke next. "Jeez… Alexis's mom is gonna go crazy when she finds out about Starscream."

    "She'll go more crazy when she finds out about the necklace."

    "Necklace?" He was beginning to sound like an echo, and she grinned in spite of herself. "That old gem that she used to kill the squidhead guy back in the warehouse? What the heck's that got to do with Starscream, or anything else? Has it got some more powers that we didn't know about?" He sounded pretty excited when he said 'powers'… typical boy.

    She sighed, scuffing the sole of her shoe against the floor. "Ooh, yeah. Way more." Glancing down the corridor, she spotted Ironhide's hologram emerge from the practice room looking extremely bothered by something, and she spoke to Rad again with a small frown. "Rad, I've gotta go, but hurry up and get here – okay?"

    "Sure, Jadie. I'll see you soon."

    Even as she hung up, Ironhide suddenly broke into a run and sprinted past, and she looked up in confusion as the immense, burly man made down the corridor at top speed, knocking soldiers out of the way as he did so. "Ironhide, what's the matter?" she called after him, and he looked over his shoulder at her with his unshaven, scarred face twisted into a worried grimace.

    "It's Alexis."



    * * *



    Author's Note: Guys… this is the last update before the big exam period. :(  I'm afraid I'll be offline until mid-June due to these, and that means no more updates! (sobs) I'm so sorry, but they're so important. However, don't you dare think I've abandoned you – come summer I'll be updating like crazy to make up for my absence! Hope you can wait for me till then, and sorry for leaving you on the worst cliffhanger in the world! Best wishes, Blackwing. x





    *Chapter 18*: Here We Go Now





    Chapter Eighteen

    Here We Go Now





    * * *





    "Is she going to be alright, Ratch'?"

    Ratchet glanced up at his charge tiredly, meeting her concerned eyes and offering her a small, strained smile. "It appears so, Mikaela," he murmured, casting his gaze on where the insentient Alexis was lying in her bed at the Pentagon, guarded over closely by the medic, Mikaela, and the holograms of Ironhide and Starscream. "Her heart rate and other bio-signs seem stable, although I admit that her temperature is above what I feel entirely comfortable with… she is developing a fever."

    He wished to Primus that Ironhide and Starscream would get a grip on themselves. They both had their arms folded and were glaring at each other from either side of Alexis's bed, leaning over her unconscious form and positively burning each others eyes out with silent rivalry. He had enough to deal with without Ironhide's paternal feelings for Alexis coming through and making Starscream feel threatened.

    /Ironhide… please, stop./

    Ironhide's blue-black eyes flicked to his for a moment and a dark scowl twisted the old warrior's scarred visage. /Stop what?/ he demanded gruffly, but Ratchet merely shook his head in response. He knew very well what.

    He understood that Alexis's own father was dead and that Ironhide had always aspired to fill that role for her, but right now it was just creating tension and competition amongst the ranks that they didn't need as they stood at the edge of oblivion. Although… he could hardly talk, as was evident from his annoyance towards Barricade for his insistence upon being Rose's guardian.

    Which Optimus had agreed to, the fraghead.

    Mikaela, frowning slightly, extended a hand to Alexis's forehead and her lips parted a little when she felt the other girl's skin. "God… you're right," she said worriedly, turning her hand around as if the temperature would differ on the other side. "Can't we bring it down somehow?"

    "This is the All Spark's doing," Ratchet explained gently, putting a hand on her free one in what he hoped was a comforting way. "We cannot do anything to help Alexis now, Mikaela. She must do this of her own accord if she is to survive… and we must assume that the All Spark wants to keep her alive in order to fight off Unicron."

    "Don't talk like that!" Starscream snarled, his lip curling in rage. Then he narrowed his eyes. "Did you know of Prime's plans for her?"

    Dropping his head into one hand, Ratchet shook his head. "No, Starscream. I was aware of the fact that Alexis presented a way to defeat Unicron, but Optimus did not tell anyone exactly what the two of them were planning to do when he came… I would have at least attempted to talk him out of such an action." He paused. "Optimus has not even elected a second-in-command to take over from him when he is gone… he appears to have planned this in an uncharacteristically hasty manner."

    Starscream snorted. "Well spotted, medic. He condemned my spark partner without so much as extending the courtesy of asking my slagging opinion on the matter – 'uncharacteristically hasty' indeed." His large fist tightened and his jaw clenched tightly. "And I will not forgive him for it," he added, sounding somewhat choked.

    He was more distressed than he appeared, Ratchet observed in silence as he mulled over what the flyer had said. When Alexis had passed out, many things had been put into place – Optimus had come and explained to Starscream, as well as Jasmine, that he and Alexis were going to die in the pursuit of saving Earth. The reaction had not been anything like pretty – Jasmine had screamed hysterically for half an hour before being dragged to the medical bay in tears, and Starscream had sworn and shrieked in Cybertronian at Optimus for almost two hours before his hologram had stormed back into the Pentagon to be with his spark partner.

    They had sent her to the human medical staff on duty at the Pentagon at first, but they had been of the opinion that Ratchet would understand more about what was happening to her. So she had been sent to her own bed in the girls' dormitory, and Ratchet had set up his own makeshift medical bay around her.

    Mikaela's brow was furrowed in distress, and she looked quite helpless. "Starscream… Optimus must know what's best," she whispered hesitantly, and he threw a furious glare at her. "I – look, I know it hurts, I know… she's my best friend. I don't want to lose her either."

    "Mikaela…" Ratchet murmured, seeing tears spring up in her eyes. He hated to see his charge in such distress, but what could he do?

    Starscream's face twitched out of its angry mask, and they were given a sudden glimpse of the raw agony beneath when he looked at the brunette with rare desperation. It made Ratchet's spark ache just to look at it. "Why is it always me?" he asked, and Mikaela bit her lip. "Is she being punished for my crimes? She has done nothing wrong."

    "No, Starscream…" she sniffed thickly. "It's just… what happens. Humans die… her time's just come a little sooner, right…?"

    Humans die.

    This was why he was so loath to fall for Rose. Still clinging, at the edge of the cliffside, to the fact that humans and Cybertronians were not meant to be together, whatever the All Spark said. Because humans were so painfully, inexorably fragile… their lives so diminutive and fleeting.

    As a medic, he had seen many friends and comrades die – in his arms, on more than one occasion. Coughing out their last desperate words; struggling uselessly, or waiting in acceptance; their bodies sparking as their sparks flew into overload, far beyond his control. He had watched their optics dim and their resistance expire… watched them all go to join the well of all sparks as their bodies fell limp in his arms. The lives that he couldn't save. The friends that he had failed.

    And what if that happened to Rose?

    What if he had to watch Rose Connelly die in his arms, powerless to stop the inevitable as her spirit left her broken body? How would his spark recover… how would he survive such an agonising blow? He wouldn't! Perhaps giving over to Barricade was best… for all of them. Perhaps it would be better for Rose to have a guardian, whether or not it was him. Besides… he had to concentrate on Mikaela in the heat of battle. To fail her would be a terrible taint on his honour, by which he was bound to protect her.

    Sitting back and visibly trembling as he looked down at Alexis's comatose form, Starscream clenched his fists over his face and shook his head. "No. This is all my doing… if I hadn't come to Earth… if I hadn't fallen in love with her… she would live. She would have had a father, and a life!"

    Mikaela clasped Ratchet's hand forcefully in her own and he squeezed it comfortingly.

    "But what has brought this on?" Ironhide suddenly demanded, turning to Ratchet. "Why now? What's happening to her?"

    Casting his gaze on Alexis – whose fragile hand was now resting in both of Starscream's – Ratchet shook his head. "I can only imagine that the parasitic nature of the necklace is finally taking its toll on her. She was uncannily resilient for too long… now it has left hardly anything of her, and that has had a highly detrimental effect on her health."

    How he hated having to speak so distantly. But that was his job… to remain distant.

    Alexis suddenly moaned in her sleep, sounding upset, and all heads in the room snapped up to stare at her. She was frowning, murmuring to herself incoherently in an undertone as Starscream and Ironhide leant closer to her at top speed, almost banging their heads together as they did so.

    "Don't overcrowd the poor girl!" Ratchet snapped, and they sprung back slightly at his sharp tone, looking daggers at each other. "Oh, for Primus's sake – are you two mechs or younglings? I have had enough of your immature behaviour towards each other. Why is it so hard for you to accept that you both care about Alexis, if in different ways?"

    "Because he did do this to her," Ironhide muttered resentfully. "He's killed her – just like the Decepticon scum he is."

    There was silence. Starscream looked absolutely stunned by Ironhide's words for a split second, but then his face darkened into a medley of anger, acceptance and… pain. Pain that Ratchet had never seen on Starscream's face, holographic or otherwise, before that moment.

    Then Mikaela shook her head, her face crumpling upon seeing Starscream's expression. "That was a seriously low blow, Ironhide," she said tearfully before burying her head in her hands and letting out a gut-wrenching sob that made Ratchet's spark jerk excruciatingly. "For God's sake! We're about to face death, and all you guys can d-d-do is fight!"

    Ironhide was scowling, but Ratchet could see the shame creeping in, softening his determined insensitivity. He knew Ironhide better than anyone, and he knew that the armaments expert had not meant his words to sound quite that harsh.

    /Come now, old friend/ he coaxed softly across a private link. /You did not mean that./

    There was a pause. /Maybe not/ was the brusque confession in response.

    /It isn't too late to apologise./

    But before he could get a reply from the stubborn old mech, Alexis, without any warning whatsoever, sat up abruptly and let out a high-pitched shriek of utter terror.

    Starscream was immediately alert, forgetting his shock and catching her as she flew into his arms, screaming at the top of her lungs. She struggled wildly against him, apparently unaware of where she was or what was happening, and did not cease in her shockingly loud and panicked screaming as Ironhide let out a cry of surprise.

    "Alexis!" Ratchet was on his feet in seconds, as was Mikaela. The girl was so panicked that she was likely to hurt herself if she continued to thrash about so violently against her lover. "Primus – Starscream, hold her!"

    "Easier said than – done –" Starscream managed to snarl over the young woman's screams as she writhed in his grasp. "Alexis, calm down!"

    "NO! NO!" she screeched frantically. "HE'S HERE!"

    Ignoring Mikaela's dismayed look, Ratchet took Alexis by the shoulders and attempted to pry her away from the desperate-looking Starscream, whose holographic shirt was almost being torn apart by the force in the girl's grasp. "Primus, where has she got all this strength from?" Ratchet gasped as he felt the power in her; he was finding it nearly impossible to get her off Starscream's chest. "Must be – the All Spark – Ironhide, don't just sit there like a fool and gawk, you slagger –!"

    Alexis managed another strangled scream and Mikaela gasped; Ratchet didn't blame her one bit. She sounded like the women in the childbirth documentaries that he had looked up in order to gain better knowledge of the human species – all pain and agony was forced into the sounds she was making, and Starscream had frozen in horror.

    "Star – urggh, oh my God – oh GOD, it's him, he's HERE!"

    As Ratchet heaved her away, her head whipped round to face him, and he almost dropped her in shock when he saw the green glow emitting from her irises. The necklace, too, was throbbing with a matching emerald light, and Ratchet blinked in surprise. What in Primus's name…?

    "Ratchet… help her…" Starscream hissed, his eyes alive with angry distress.

    "IT'S UNICRON!" Alexis screamed, tears cascading down her face.

    Sideswipe's hologram suddenly burst into the room, and Ratchet looked at him from where the three holograms and Mikaela were still trying to pin Alexis down. His untidy black locks were ruffled and his electric blue eyes wide with complete horror. "Sideswipe –" the medic managed to grind out, growling as Alexis lashed out at Ironhide, "What –"

    "He's here," Sideswipe said, terror carved into every tightened line of his youthful face. "Ratch'… Unicron is here."



    * * *



    Why had he offered to be her guardian?

    Barricade stood with his arms folded under the shadow of the trees, repeating the question to himself in his CPU as he stared darkly at nothing in particular. Starscream and Skyfire's jet forms were also hidden here, and it was the only place, apparently, that he was permitted to be anything but a hologram… just in the case the whining humans made a fuss of seeing an extraterrestrial life form in the vicinity.

    And yet he had just offered to protect one of the said organic life forms.

    His incontrovertibly, unavoidably human spark partner.

    Why had this had to happen to him? He couldn't stand humans – he hated everything about them, from their high-pitched voices to their pathetic, brittle organic bodies and repulsive, squishy hides. Their mating process disgusted him. Their waste removal process disgusted him. Each and every one of the infirmities that they could suffer from disgusted him. Every single last miniscule thing about the Homo sapiens species repulsed him to the very core of his being, and yet this had happened.

    Not only that, but the rare three-way spark partition had shown itself. He was bound by his life force to the Autobot medic and to Rosa Lee Connelly, drawing the three of them together in an indestructible web that he could not escape from.

    Slag it. Slag everything.

    "Hi, Barricade."

    Snarling in surprise, he whipped a spike out from his wrist and aimed it towards the source of the sound – only to find himself pressing the razor-sharp tip against Rose Connelly's exposed throat. To her credit, she did nothing but flinch, but her heart rate leapt and he could see her muscles tightening in response to the threat.

    Drawing the weapon away from her neck, he narrowed his optics at her. "What do you want?" he enquired curtly.

    Urgh… these organics are sickening, he noted yet again as he scanned her frame with disapproval. She was taller than the average human female, and he could detect traces of various dyes in her medium-length hair. She had copious amounts of the cosmetic called 'kohl' around her eyes, and had a questioning expression on her face.

    "Um… nothing much," she shrugged, her thick accent grating on his fuel passages as she canted a dark eyebrow. "I just thought I should… thank you for offering to be my guardian, I guess…" The eyebrow crept higher. "Any particular reason for that?"

    Curse this wretched femme.

    Turning away from her, he folded his massive, black-and-white arms again and glared at the ground. "You needed one," he muttered.

    He couldn't offer any better answer, because he did not truly understand his own actions himself. All he knew was that despite how much the idea of being partner to a human… mating with a human… revolted him, he felt this undeniable sense of competition against the medic over her. The fact was that the two of them were now facing the solution to the three-way partition – contest. In the case of the All Spark choosing to do this, the two males would have to fight for the female… and the strongest mech would win her.

    And he was not about to lose to Autobot scum.

    Not in a million years.

    "Yeah…" she admitted from behind him, sounding slightly annoyed, "But Sideswipe or Sunstreaker or one of the others could have done it. You're a Decepticon… I didn't think you were quite the type."

    "I could be," he said darkly, glaring at her with such strength that he could see the red glow on her skin. "You know nothing of me, fleshling."

    He had assumed that the insult would make her go away, but his luck had clearly taken a trip to deep space. Instead, she folded her arms and pursed her lips – but remained exactly where she was. "No… you're right," she said brusquely. "I don't. I probably don't want to, now I think about it. From past experience with Starscream, I know Decepticons can be pretty… unpleasant."

    Clenching a fist to stop himself from murdering her, Barricade suddenly thrust his face down to her level and bared his extensive teeth at her threateningly. "Yes," he growled in an undertone as she stumbled back in surprise, "We can. Hence the name… Decepticon."

    Though she swallowed and her heart rate jumped again, her grey-blue eyes hardened. "You don't scare me," she informed him coldly.

    "Really?" he sneered, eyeing her disbelievingly. "Then –"

    He stopped dead.

    Something had just registered on the human satellite navigation system that was wired up to his vehicular form. All satellite communications had just gone down – the navigation system had completely blanked out, and he did not like it one bit. Ignoring the girl's enquiries as to what was the matter with him, he stood up and made back through the trees so that he could see the sky, a feeling of dread welling up in his spark before he could make any attempt to stop it. He could sense Rose following him, but did not bother to try and stop her as he stormed ahead.

    He stopped when he was out from the cover of the trees, staring up into the sky. As he searched the bright blue heavens for some sign of the interruption, he accessed the radio system that covered all of the American wavelengths.

    "All satellite communications down –"

    " – Receiving messages from drivers all over America that their GPS systems have just failed –"

    The girl finally caught up, slightly breathless from having run after him. "What's wrong with you?" she demanded, fanning herself with one hand as he glanced down at her. "Bloody hell, I seem to have a talent for making you lot run away at the sight of me…"

    "Do your human satellites often fail?" he asked abruptly, narrowing his optics at her and extending a blade again with a sharp ring. "Answer me!"

    Jumping at his sharp tone, Rose took a step away from him and held a hand out. "Keep that thing away from me, will you?" she snapped, although her voice wavered a little under his hard glare. "Not as far as I know… you get the odd minute where the satellite channels go down, but it doesn't happen very often…"

    But it was too late.

    The ground suddenly began to shudder. It happened slowly at first; a tremor passed through the earth, and Rose looked surprised as the movement threw her balance. "Are we having an earthquake?" she wondered aloud, and Barricade looked back up at the sky, frozen.

    Primus…

    The trembling suddenly became a deep, juddering vibration, and he had snatched the girl up in one hand before he could consider his actions. Ignoring her deafening shrieks of protest, he broke into a sprint, heading for the Pentagon as the cars that were parked around the building began to shudder with the ground. Their security alarms began to wail as Barricade tore past them, his massive feet smashing the ground beneath it to smithereens as he crashed towards the building.

    He skidded to a halt when he saw the holograms of Bumblebee and the twins, who looked too unnerved to give him their usual glares. "One of you get Prime - NOW!" he roared at them and Sideswipe nodded swiftly, dashing into the building. "You two – deactivate those holograms and get back to your true forms!"

    "Who died and made you leader, fraghead?" Sunstreaker snorted, although he looked alarmed by what was happening. "What's going on?"

    "Yeah, what the hell is going on?" Rose demanded, wriggling in his palm and whacking it with her tiny fist. "Put me down, you stupid twat – you can't just go around picking people up like that! It's degrading!"

    She stopped prattling at once when the light appeared in the sky.

    It was small at first; a bright red spot, like a scarlet star in the daytime. It looked out of place in the dazzling blue firmament, but Barricade knew what it was as soon as he saw it. That was the first sign that a hyperspace gate had been opened… and something was about to come out of it. Something was here. Someone was here.

    Unicron was here.

    "What is that?" Bumblebee asked hoarsely, just as Sunstreaker's hologram flickered out and the golden Lamborghini in the parking lot unfolded and stood up. "It looks like… a hyperspace gate."

    The burning, crimson speck began to grow larger, spreading out strange, cloud-like tendrils as it did so. Within seconds it had spread across all of the sky that was within Barricade's visual range, creating a wispy, reddish web and casting a purplish glow across the previously azure expanse. Meanwhile, the scarlet blotch was growing larger and larger.

    Sunstreaker came to stand beside the Decepticon, accompanied by Bumblebee, who had also returned to his bipedal mechanical form. "Skyfire told us about these," the latter murmured huskily, his blue optics shimmering. "Is this… it?"

    Barricade clenched his jaw and looked up again, silently cursing everything in the universe. "It appears so."

    The wisps of cloud suddenly began to darken, becoming thicker and thicker as if they were thunderclouds. A deep, purple-black colour was engulfing them, creating a tornado-like shape around the rapidly expanding, fiery mark above them. The sun's rays were blocked out within seconds, choked by the black-and-red whirlpool that was beginning to take over the sky above Virginia. The land was cast into shadow as the light gave way to the darkness, and Barricade sensed Rose's heart rate skyrocket again.

    "Oh… Jesus Christ…" she whispered, and he could feel her body shaking. "What the – what the hell is that –?"

    More car alarms went off as the ground began to quake again, and Barricade handed the quivering organic to Sunstreaker. "Hold her," he growled, and the golden mech nodded obediently – surprising, Barricade thought dryly. "Where the slag is that mech…?" he muttered, wishing that Sideswipe would hurry up and get Prime out.

    /Ratchet to Barricade/ the medic's voice suddenly came across his link.

    No longer registering the fact that he was supposed to be against this mech in a spark-war over the girl, he answered promptly, keeping his optics welded onto the ever-darkening sky. /Barricade here./

    /Is Rose with you?/

    /Yes, for Primus's sake!/ Barricade snapped back irately, unbelievably infuriated by the fact that the old fool was worrying about something like that at a time like this. /The girl is absolutely fragging fine, medic! Now get out here, all of you – where the slag is Prime? He needs to be made aware of this! He is here!/ he roared to get the point across.

    /On our way/ was the swift response before the connection was broken.

    Suddenly, the rumbling stopped. Silence reigned… a silence so still that no sound shattered it.

    Barricade clenched his fists, allowing his revolving blades to emerge from his wrists for no apparent reason – it was not as if they would be any help against the might of Unicron. He had said himself that all weapons would be insufficient. But this silence was unnerving… it was abnormally quiet. Not a single organic bird sung, nor any other beast.

    And then suddenly… he appeared.

    From the great torpedo of churning, opaque cloud, something began to emerge from the obscurity. It became visible so very slowly, and yet Barricade's ever-cold spark froze over when he beheld it. The side of an almighty globe – a sphere that was a dark, silver-black in colour and alight with magma fire at the cracks that ran over its surface, which poured out the black smoke that was creating the terrible darkness above. Using his binocular vision, he spied hundreds of thousands of tiny Cybertronian symbols, seeming to be written in fire.

    It was the ancient form of their hieroglyphics that he was unable to understand, but he already knew the dark story that those words would tell.

    He whipped around at the sound of giant footsteps and saw that Ratchet, Prime, Ironhide and Sideswipe had all returned to their original forms in the parking lot and transformed. Upon glancing back to the trees, he spied Starscream and Skyfire coming, too.

    "Barricade, Sunstreaker, Bumblebee –" Prime almost shouted, his battle mask drawn over the bottom half of his face.

    The bright yellow medic had snatched Rose from Sunstreaker before the golden mech could protest, and he held her tightly in one hand against his chest. Barricade narrowed his eyes; he was her guardian now, and it was not that old fool's duty to interfere… but there was no time or space for rivalry now, with this monster above them.

    The sound that was coming from Unicron was immense; the deep, sonic roar was fragging Barricade's audio receptors so badly that he could hardly hear himself think, and the others looked as if they were experiencing the same problem. Rose had her hands clamped over her ears and her eyes squeezed tightly shut; her copper hair, glowing red under the fire of Unicron, was being whipped around wildly as a gale blew up without warning. The wind howled an angry lament as it tossed the branches of the trees, and military personnel began to spill out from the building to see what was happening.

    "NO!" Barricade heard Prime call as the soldiers gasped and shouted, "GET INSIDE! Ratchet, take Rose –"

    The sheer size of Unicron was clearly terrifying the humans, and Barricade, for a change, could empathise with them completely. What they could see was simply massive, and yet this was only a small part of Unicron's full form. In planet mode, he was twice the size of Earth – and the part of him that was over America was now covering most of the sky.

    He saw Ironhide shouting something but could no longer make out the words. Every sound was mixing and blending with the repercussion of Unicron's interstellar hyperspace leap, and the warrior's words were so distorted that they made no sense. But when he followed his line of sight, he saw that Mikaela Banes, Sam Witwicky and Jade Rivers had emerged from inside the Pentagon.

    Skyfire leapt forward and snatched his mate and her friends up in one hand, shielding them from the force of the aftermath with one hand. The soldiers, meanwhile, were equipping themselves with their pathetic human weapons and aiming their miserable guns up at Unicron's scintillating underside.

    They would have no effect. Nothing but the All Spark and the Matrix could stop him now.

    And then, suddenly, it was all over.

    The winds died down; the ground ceased in its trembling; the intense sound faded out. A hush followed – yet it was a hush that could never be perfect. Not with Unicron's blazing, smouldering form still dominating the firmament. The humans exchanged glances and lowered their weapons, but the car alarms still whined in the parking lot.

    Jade was the first to speak. "… That's Unicron," she whispered feebly, huddling against Skyfire's armoured chest. "He's… he's here."

    "My deepest gratitude to you, human," Barricade ground out through his teeth before he could stop himself, "For stating the obvious."

    "Do not speak to Jade in that manner, Barricade," Skyfire said angrily, his navy optics flashing. "I will not tolerate it, whether Unicron is here or not. Besides, she has every right to be surprised – Unicron has come earlier than we anticipated. So, if you would be so kind, you will treat her with nothing but the highest respect from this moment onwards."

    Barricade raised his optic ridges. Clearly something had got the gentle scientist's circuitry in a twist.

    Prime stepped forward, his battle mask retracting to reveal a grave expression. "Stand down, Skyfire," he commanded softly, waving a hand. "This is not the time for disputation." He cast his intense gaze up to Unicron's eerily silent form. "I believe it is about time that you were all on your way to your next destination, and it appears that you must leave sooner than I had planned."

    Sideswipe appeared to do a double take, his mouth dropping open. "What do you mean 'you', Optimus?" the crimson Autobot demanded. "Don't you mean 'us'? We're not going anywhere without –"

    "Sideswipe," Prime said lightly. "I am afraid that where Alexis and I am going… you cannot follow."

    Several pairs of eyes locked onto the Autobot leader.

    Finally, Bumblebee broke the silence. "Another secret you have kept from us, then, Optimus," he muttered bitterly, turning away from the larger mechs and burying his face in one hand. "You are going to use the Matrix against him… and Alexis will use the All Spark…" He shook his head, and Barricade saw his wing-like shoulders trembling. "You are leaving us. Forever," he added croakily, sounding quite wretched.

    Ratchet attempted to put a hand on the smaller Autobot's shoulder, but he was shrugged off. "Bumblebee," the medic murmured, "It is… for the best."

    "In aid of a greater good," Prime concurred quietly, seeking Bumblebee's gaze. "I must sacrifice myself… in order to bring peace to this planet. This planet that we have come to, and is clinging to the very edge of oblivion."

    "'Greater good'?" Starscream snarled, curling his long fingers into fists and sounding disgusted. "For this 'greater good', Prime, you are sacrificing yourself – leaving us without a commander – and my spark partner. My spark partner," he repeated, and Optimus lowered his optics for a moment. "For me, there is no future without Alexis. I should take the Matrix to Unicron. I should go with her."

    "No, Starscream," the red-and-blue mech said firmly. "This is my burden… not yours. My 'cross to bear', as the humans would say. Besides… the Matrix is a part of me. One cannot survive without the other."

    Mikaela, who had climbed up onto Skyfire's shoulder, was openly weeping. "This isn't – fair!" she choked, tears spilling down her face. "I – Optimus, what will we do without you? Who's going to be the leader, if not you?"

    "That, Mikaela Banes," Prime answered softly, his eyes softening when he saw Mikaela's distraught appearance, "Will become apparent soon."

    Silence again.

    A single fork of lightning flashed in the silent sky, illuminating everything for the briefest instant as rain began to fall from the substantial cloud. Rain that was no doubt… acidic.

    Grinding his teeth, Barricade narrowed his optics intently in Prime's direction. "You say that we must leave for our next destination." He was rewarded with a glance from the commander, and continued after a moment. "Where exactly is it that we are heading, Prime? Where are we to battle this monster's armies on Earth?"

    It was a few moments before Prime responded. Then he heard the quiet response.

    "Mission City."



    * * *



    Oh, God, the pain.

    The pain.

    Every single part of her body was ablaze. Each skin cell seemed to burn with vicious fire, setting every limb and vital organ alight with a relentless agony that stripped her to the bone and left her in the netherworld as a wreck of her former self. She was a ghost torn apart by the torture ravaging her frame, and she wasted no time in calling out for help.

    "All Spark!" she screamed.

    She heard her own voice echoing into the darkness, bouncing back at her from every angle. But it was not long until she heard that quiet, impassive response from the blackness.

    I am here, Alexis Paxton.

    Sobbing and shaking, she reached out into the void with desperate hands, longing for some comfort in this terrible torment. "P-please," she begged, almost choking on the dryness in her throat as she sought the loving touch of another human being… or the holographic hands of the lover she could barely remember the name of… "Just k-k-kill me, All Spark… I can't stand the p-pain… it's everywhere…"

    She fell to her knees and clutched her head in her hands, tearing at her hair to distract herself from the other pains in her body. Knives seemed to stab at her slender form, yet she did not bleed. She was just… existing. But as someone other than Alexis Paxton.

    Alexis Paxton was a nineteen-year-old American girl from the small town of Tranquillity in the state of California. She was about to do a college course in mathematics at Tranquillity Lake, and she was content with her life. She had a guardian and a forbidden lover whom she loved more than life itself, and she had a collection of friends that were so close to her that they were like the family she had never truly had. Alexis Paxton loved everything about her life, and there was nothing that could bring her down.

    She had become someone else… something else. A host. A weapon.

    There was a long silence before… she could have sworn she heard a sigh before the All Spark spoke. Then a great and mysterious sight appeared in the sky… and then war broke out in heaven… for the Devil has come down to you, and he is filled with rage, because he knows that he has only a little time left. Pause. Just like you, young one.

    "Just kill me!" Alexis shrieked, ignoring the words that she could not understand. "I want to die!"

    … what about your beloved Starscream?

    The tears came up so thickly in her eyes and throat that she thought she might drown in them, and she let out a grieved cry. "I – I can't –" she gasped out, her chest heaving as she fought to formulate words. "I love him – I love him s-so much it hurts worse than this –" She moaned weakly, wrapping her arms around herself. "Why me, All Spark? Why him?"

    Destiny.

    She clenched her fists. "Then I hate destiny."

    "Alexis?"

    Her eyes flew open in the real word and she sat up with a short gasp, looking around with wide eyes. A large, gentle hand rested on her shoulder, and turned to look into the holographic Ratchet's bright blue eyes. His brown hair hung into them slightly as he leant towards her, moving his hand to her forehead to feel her undoubtedly blazing temperature, and he gave her a small smile that was the saddest gesture she had ever seen in her life. It was such a hopeless, meaningless smile.

    Breathing as slowly as she could, she shook her head and lay back on her pillow. The back of her hair and neck were soaked with icy sweat, as were the blankets that were twisted around her body. "You're going, aren't you?" she asked huskily.

    She didn't know quite how she knew that. But she could sense the medic's sorrow. "… Yes. Tomorrow."

    "And he's here," she whispered, closing her eyes and letting herself exhale slowly. "He's here."

    The silence that stretched between the two of them seemed to be perpetual, and she could sense that Ratchet was even more saddened than he appeared by the tragedy unfolding all around them. Once, everything had been bright and full of hope; they had all been together happily, and there had been a dazzling future to look forward to.

    Now there was nothing. Merely a path of broken dreams, shattered sparks and fractured hearts.

    "Where's Starscream?" she finally asked.

    Ratchet said nothing for a long time. Then, "I… I don't know, Alexis. He could not stand to see you like this any more. I do not know whether you remember, but when Unicron appeared earlier, you attacked him." She shook her head, but she was not surprised… nothing surprised her any more. "He loves you so much, Alexis. He does not mean to offend you by leaving your side – I imagine there is nothing he would not do to be by your side forever – but he cannot bear your suffering."

    Tears seeped out from beneath her eyelids as she shook her head again, her face crumpling. "I need him," she croaked. "Have to… find him…"

    She had expected him to argue with her. She had expected him to act as the overbearing doctor he had always been; push her back down, and insist that she stay where she was until she recovered from her latest bout of nightmares. But she supposed that he knew that she would not recover now. She would never recover from this.

    "As it is," he murmured, "That may be a good idea."

    "Why?" she asked tiredly, suspecting some ulterior motive. "Aren't you going to try and stop me, Ratch'?"

    She heard the slight rustle as the medic folded his arms. "Alexis," he said slowly, and she opened her aching eyes to look into his. "I know that you have not yet… sealed your bond with Starscream."

    Her clouded mind was tipping her senses and she shook her head groggily. "Sealed the bond," she repeated dully. "I don't understand."

    He sighed heavily, leaning forward in his seat so that his face was closer to her. She could see the sympathy on his wise face as he sought her eye contact again, and returned his gaze with a dead sense of impassiveness. The pain had become so great that it had become a part of her; there were no more tears to cry now, and nothing more that she could do to save herself. She could only accept the inevitable and treasure the hours that she had left before the battle begun.

    "Starscream is your spark partner, Alexis." His jaw flexed for a moment before he continued. "But not, as of yet, your mate."

    It took a few moments for what he was saying to sink through her skull before her eyes widened. Does he mean… she thought as she stared, But… but how could he know that Starscream and I haven't…

    Upon seeing her shocked look, Ratchet reached out a large hand and placed it over hers. "I know that speaking of such things is often taboo for humans," he assured her understandingly, and she nodded dumbly in response. "But I do care for you, Alexis, just as Ironhide does. If there is any chance that I can ease your burdens, if only a little, then I will take that chance."

    What was he talking about?

    "But… Ratchet, how did you know?" she whispered, her eyes never leaving his. She ignored what he was saying about 'easing her burdens' – she wanted to know what he was insinuating before she considered anything else. "I mean… is it obvious to you guys…?" She could feel herself blushing, her cheeks growing hot.

    "No. Only to me," he explained kindly. "As a medical officer, my senses to such things are far more attuned."

    The idea of Ratchet being a sex detector would have had the old Alexis Paxton in hysterics.

    But not now.

    "Okay…" She sat up a little, wincing when she felt the dull throb in the base of her neck. Running a hand through her hair, she put her head in her hands and sighed heavily. "So you can sense stuff like that. What about it?"

    He sighed again, sounding exhausted. "The spark bond is a deeply complex thing in itself, Alexis. The idea of the spark being separated into two… or three…" She spied his fist tightening. "… pieces… is intricate enough as it is. Once the two sparks come into proximity of each other in a romantic relationship, both individuals involved will feel its power. But the true goal of each half of the spark is to join with its missing half… to become whole." His eyes burnt into hers. "To become one."

    One.

    Nodding slightly, she looked back up at Ratchet. "You think it'll help me?"

    "With all my spark, my dear," he murmured. "Once the spark is joined with its partner, the two individuals will share… well, most aspects of their being. You will know virtually all that Starscream knows… share his memories, his feelings, his strength. And it is the strength that you need, Alexis. You need the strength to make the journey."

    The idea of becoming that close to Starscream both thrilled and frightened her. She loved him more than she could truly comprehend, but he was so many years her senior. A warrior. A soldier. She was uncertain as to whether she would be able to handle such a closeness… knowing every secret he had hidden from her. Lives he had taken. Things he had done.

    But… she wanted it nonetheless.

    Tears prickled in her eyes unexpectedly and she sniffed thickly to dispel them, exhaling shakily. "I've never done it before," she whispered.

    Ratchet looked pained for her; his brows were drawn into a worried frown, making him look unbelievably like his true, robotic self often did. "If you do not wish to do this, no one will force you to," the medic said softly. "It is just my advice, Alexis."

    "I want to." She looked down at the necklace with her vision swimming. "I'm just… scared I'll do something wrong."

    "I highly doubt that," he smiled gently, patting her delicate hand. "It is understandable that you should be nervous, Alexis, but Starscream will understand that. You know how much he loves you, as do we all." His smile faded suddenly, his expression becoming far more serious. "But I promise you that I will not speak of this to anyone. It will be between you and I – no one else will be aware of it, if you do not want them to be."

    She laughed softly. "You can tell Mikaela if you like… I don't mind. But I guess I don't want it being public knowledge." Brushing her tears away with the back of her hand, she pushed her blankets off of her legs to find that she was still fully clothed in jeans and a blouse.

    Ratchet stood up swiftly and extended a hand to help her out of bed, which she took in hers and allowed him to help her step into an upright position. Her legs ached and her back was sore, but she was used to that now. It didn't matter. None of it mattered.

    She had to find Starscream… for the last time.

    "Do I look okay?" she wondered aloud in a low, toneless voice.

    The medical officer chuckled. "In Starscream's eyes, Alexis… you have, and always will be, as beautiful as any star."

    A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth and she felt the tears well up in her eyes again as she looked up at the tall, blue-eyed hologram. "Thank you, Ratchet," she said, her voice wavering as a lump twisted its way into her throat and around her voice box. "Thank you so much… for everything." The tears spilled over when she saw his cheerless expression. "I'll miss you so much."

    He extended his well-developed arms to her and she came into them, finding that she could not stop the tears from falling. "And I you, youngling," she heard him murmur, feeling the vibration of his deep voice in his chest. "It will never be the same without you."

    "You'll be fine," she said in a muffled voice, pressing her face against his yellow shirt and letting it soak up her tears. "You'll have Rose."

    His next quiet laugh was edged with something that sounded a little like bitterness, and she took a step back to look up into his suddenly darkened face. "I suppose so," he smiled, although there was little joy in the gesture. "Thank you."

    Something's wrong. She knew it, but there was no time to enquire. Starscream…

    Clearly sensing her thoughts, Ratchet extended a hand towards the door. "Go," he encouraged quietly. "I will cover your absence."

    Her heart filling to the brim with gratitude for Ratchet's constant friendship and counsel, both now and through all the other years of their companionship, she nodded and offered him one last, weak smile. "Thank you," she whispered once more before she turned and left the room, beginning her journey through the labyrinth of corridors towards the Pentagon's entrance door. Where she would leave the building… leave the safety of the five walls… and enter the shadow of Unicron.

    And find Starscream.

    Yes… find Starscream.



    * * *



    Author's Note: WOW. I know I said I wouldn't be back until June, but I was going through my documents and found that I'd actually typed half of this up a while ago – so I only had to add a little more to finish it! And seeing as my mother is forcing me to take a night's break from studying (with the excuse that I look 'exhausted'), I thought I'd surprise you all :)  I've done three exams so far, so only… 11 more to go… whoop. Anyway, enjoy the surprise chapter, and good luck for all your finals!





    *Chapter 19*: Pax Deorum





    Chapter Nineteen

    Pax Deorum



    * * *



    Warning: The chapter ahead involves a sexual situation, and is rated M for safety. Pairing: Starscream/Alexis.



    * * *



    The song.

    He remembered it so clearly from his younger days. Younger days that had been full of aspirations and hopes – the days of the Golden Age, when all had been at peace and there had been nothing to his life but science and discovery. It was true that he had never had too many friends, but Skyfire had been his close companion and that had been the only important thing. As long as there had been someone there – anyone – he had been content with his world, if nothing else.

    At that time, the All Spark – in its full, cube-shaped form – had been mounted at the capital city of Iacon in a building erected in its honour. Every once in a while, a Cybertronian would be offered a chance to view it; rumour had it that occasionally, it would speak to those who were destined for great things in the future.

    He had been called up during the time just before he and Skyfire made that fatal mistake and he lost his comrade to the ice planet. At this time, he had still been young and relatively naïve, and it had instilled such wonder in him when he had beheld that glorious cube. It was covered in hieroglyphic writings – an ancient form of Cybertronian that he had come across once when he and Skyfire had explored an unknown world, but had never learnt to read. Only the older mechs knew the secret of the language.

    He had not been expecting it to speak to him. He was a mere explorer; he was neither soldier nor leader, and had assumed that these were the only ones whom their beloved creator would sanctify with its words. But he remembered stepping up with the other three who had been called… and he had heard the song.

    His song.

    The words had been so painfully harmonious that he had felt as if his spark would break in the face of it. It had spoken of his future… told him that he, Starscream, was fated to become a great warrior. That he, Starscream, would be the object of great jealousy and the possessor of immense power, such would be his success in years to come.

    Yet, woven into the words of the chant, there had been a warning. A warning that glory and splendour could sometimes lead a person down a dark path… and that with all joy, there would be suffering.

    And he, Starscream, was intended to suffer. Far more than most, it had warned.

    Now, as he sung it into the darkness created by Unicron, he understood what it had meant. For he had achieved authority as Decepticon Air Commander and second-in-command; been the object of jealousy from his subordinates, and the soldiers hungry for power; he had fought as a powerful combatant against the Autobots; he had, in a sense, achieved success.

    But as a monster. As a murderer.

    And he had suffered for it more than he cared to think about.

    Yet through his darkness had broken a dazzling, radiant light. A sunbeam so unfamiliar and beautiful that he had scorned it at first, doing everything in his power to try and put it out. A light encompassed in a brittle organic body and given to him to protect and guard… a light that went by the innocent name of Alexis Paxton.

    But was that name so very innocent – so insignificant? He had wondered that to himself a thousand times, and a year or so beforehand is curiosity had driven him to research it using the World Wide Web. He had found – deftly avoiding several web-borne computer viruses along the way – that there was meaning to her name, as there apparently was to the name of every human. But the significance of what he had discovered had actually chilled him – him, the supposedly fearless Starscream.

    Alexis… defender. Paxton… settlement. Alexis Paxton… settlement of the defender?

    She was the renewal of all that he had lost – the flame that set his very spark alight. A partner and equal thrown millions of miles across the universe, and yet somehow, by the mercy of some miracle in time… he had found her. He was the defender… and she was his settlement.

    "Starscream?"

    His head snapped up.

    And… Primus… there she was.

    The All Spark had drained his Alexis of her strength; indeed, it had taken almost everything from her. Her skin was pale and tinged with grey; her clothes seemed looser than ever after such rapid weight loss; her hair hung lifelessly on either side of her face. Only her eyes remained as bright as ever, though he swore that he could see tears behind them.

    Yet… she still looked beautiful to him.

    He tried to hide the pain that he knew was lurking in his optics; mingled emotions that he did not want to impose upon her. There was so much rage inside him, and her catching him unaware meant that she had probably seen the undeniable fear – the raw, irrefutable terror that he had always tried to hide from her in an attempt to be strong for the both of them. For why should she – a fragile human – have to bear the burdens of a creature so many times her age and power?

    They faced each other in silence for a moment. The girl and the jet. The human and the Decepticon.

    Romeo and Juliet, Starscream thought dryly, remembering what he had overheard Ratchet telling Ironhide about Mikaela's description of what Ratchet and Rose could be like – using himself and Alexis as an example. How miserably ironic.

    It took him a little while to speak as he struggled futilely with the emotions that Megatron – during one of his angry rebellions – had once claimed had overtaken him. Seeing Alexis standing there… so small, and fragile… it stirred so much within him that was beyond his control. Everything aside from her slipped out of focus as he finally managed to speak her name.

    "Alexis," he stated with audible effort, his mouthpiece quivering with the exertion of forming the single word.

    She took another few steps forward on her painfully slender legs, walking towards him across the grass that was dappled with faint orange light. "Don't run," she implored, and her bottom lip trembled dangerously. "I can't stand you being like this, Star… I don't want to go without saying goodbye tomorrow."

    Star.

    He had never understood how she could compare him to a star. True, he knew that humans often gave each other nicknames for convenience and out of affection – Sam always shortened Mikaela's name to 'Kaela', for example – but to call him 'Star' was just so… unbefitting. He was nothing like a star, much as he longed to be.

    He turned away from her with his fist tightened, unable to keep control over the anger that was filling him from the spark. Perhaps Megatron had been right… "I cannot say goodbye," he hissed acrimoniously. "I cannot just... let you go."

    "What, you'd really do that to me?" she asked softly. "You just want to ignore me and hope that I'll be able to stay?"

    He threw a heated glare in her direction, but remained silent. Perhaps the look was a deliberate act of defiance; then again, it could also have been because he knew that she was right, and he suspected that it was the latter. He would never admit to being wrong – it was one of his many downfalls, and it had led him into trouble a thousand times. Trouble that usually involved Megatron hurting him… beating him to the ground… and his hands tearing at his wings…

    He shuddered. Now wasn't the time for thoughts of Megatron.

    "I can't stay, Starscream," Alexis continued, unlacing her minuscule fingers from around each other and letting her hands drop to her sides, bowing her head a little. "There's no other choice but for Optimus and I to die tomorrow… else all of you will, too."

    Before he knew what he was doing, he had thrust himself down to her level and was glaring into those implausibly emerald-like eyes. "I'm tired of being told there is no choice," he snarled, more aggressively than he had intended to, and she stared at him in silence. "I would rather die than see you perish for the sake of our war!" He slammed a fist down in anger and she flinched away from him. "Don't you understand how I feel, Alexis? You are going to die – and who will I have left then? You are my spark's partner… I… I…" he trailed off, his expression twitching.

    Slag it, he couldn't even verbalise the way he felt about her.

    Alexis swallowed thickly, tears wobbling on the edge of her lower eyelids, and it was only then that he realised that his sudden, violent action had frightened her. His spark tugged slightly upon seeing her startled look and he shook his head, his expression softening. He did not want her to see… that side of him.

    "Don't fear me, Alexis." His rough voice had a hint of petition to it, and he saw the surprise in her eyes. "… Everyone else fears me."

    Her thin eyebrows knitted together in apparent bewilderment and she shook her head, reaching out a hand and placing it against the bridge of his nose. "That's not true," she scolded him quietly, her voice cracking a little as a tear rolled down her cheek. "You know that's not true, Starscream."

    He clenched his jaw and turned away from her. Once upon a time, he would have crushed a human for daring to question him… but not Alexis Paxton. Not anymore. "Yes, it is." He glanced at her out of the corner of his optic and spied the downcast look on her pale face. Her hand was still trailing over his silver-brown armour. "I just scared you."

    "No."

    "Yes."

    "Starscream!" She seized the rim of each one of his cheek plates and looked right into his optics, her eyes narrowed. "Will you just – just – accept the fact that you're not a Decepticon anymore? I am not afraid of you."

    The strength in her voice surprised him; she had been an inch from tears moments beforehand, and she hadn't spoken quite so forcefully to him for a very long time. Her hands seemed stronger as they gripped his face, as if she could hold him there in front of her. How easy it would be to pull away. How painfully effortless it would be to break that fragile hold of hers.

    He would have done once.

    Oh, she was so unlike him. She was everything warm, and soft… everything beautiful and delicate and compassionate. He was a machine. Programmed as a Decepticon; constructed from metal and gears; cold as hoarfrost in body and spark. He had lived his life in the shadow of hatred and fear; she had been a mere schoolgirl in the midst of a blissfully ordinary life before he had landed in her life – quite literally - and turned her world upside-down.

    Transformed her, both for better and for worse.

    A deep sigh escaped him, a rush of warm air escaping his vents as her tiny hand trailed down his nose. "I wish I could tell you how grateful I am for that," he murmured, opening his optics to look into her eyes. "But I… I can't express how I feel about you with simple words, Alexis. There is no language or code intricate enough. Not Cybertronian, nor English… nothing in the universe."

    "Try," she whispered.

    He regarded her for a moment, and the scarlet radiance from his optics danced in her irises as they held each other's gaze. Her eyes were wide and deep, her head tilted slightly to one side as she stroked her hand across the armoured parts of his face.

    He didn't know why, but he just couldn't say those three words. According to the World Wide Web, they were the hardest words for humans to say – and he, for a change, was no different. Besides, they simply weren't – good enough! Humans said that they loved family members and friends, for Primus's sake… there had to be a better way to show her how he felt besides I love you.

    Glancing back at her, he held her gaze when she sought it. "… May I show you?"

    Something unfamiliar sprung up in her eyes and his spark actually warmed when he saw it. He could see the same sparkle of childish glee that he had seen when he had shown her Earth from space… the very first gift he had ever given to her. A hesitant smile pulled at her thin lips. "… One last ride?" she whispered hopefully.

    "If you want it, you will have it. I told you that."

    Where is the invincible Starscream? The one that bowed to no one?

    The elated smile that broke out across her face at his agreement made those thoughts evaporate in an instant. She nodded, pressing herself up against his face for a moment and dropping a kiss on his nose. "Yes, please."

    A soft rumble of concurrence resonated through his cockpit-shaped chest and he stood up straight, towering above her. She took a few steps back to give him room to transform, and he instigated the transformation after giving his wings a shake to prepare himself for flight. He folded down into jet form effortlessly, and opened the cockpit for his charge. "Your Decepticon awaits," he informed her, unable to resist the dry remark. Well, he was Starscream… renowned for his sarcasm.

    Some things never changed.

    She laughed lightly in response. "I wouldn't ride any other way."

    As she climbed up into the cockpit, he reflected on what she had just said with a heavy spark. With the breaking of the dawn, she would be riding very differently… riding in the Axalon towards Unicron's maw. Towards… death.

    He couldn't think of that now. He wanted to treasure these last moments with her… not think about the sunrise.

    Turning his scanners to the inside of the cockpit, he observed her as she settled herself into the seat, ignoring the harnesses. Oh, that trust… "There is something you can use for warmth in the compartment under the seat if you are cold."

    She frowned slightly and reached a hand under the seat.

    Oh – Primus – Her fingers had brushed the bottom of the cockpit as she searched for the mystery item, and his jets fired up randomly, sending sudden, gentle vibrations through his aerodynamic frame. She clearly didn't think it had anything to do with the physical contact, as she didn't say a word about the accidental activation.

    Her expression changed from perplexed to delighted when she pulled out the brightly coloured, haphazardly sewn chamois. "Oh my – Starscream, you actually kept this thing?" she gasped, holding it up for her inspection and smiling as she hadn't smiled for years.

    "Of course."

    It was ridiculous, but he had never quite had the spark to dispose of the old polishing rag the younglings had given him that Christmas before the Decepticons had attacked the warehouse. They had all worked so hard – even Sam, whose fingers had been peppered with needle marks – just to make that for him, when he had just betrayed them. That strange, illogical kindness they had shown him had touched something in his spark that he hadn't even realised existed, and he had always kept it in that compartment from then on.

    Alexis slung it around her shoulders as he began to move out from between the trees for the takeoff, tugging her short locks from beneath it and letting them hang loosely on either side of her face as she huddled into the cloth. "That's sweet of you."

    He snorted. "Sweet? Me? I have asked you before and I will ask you again, Alexis – are you mentally unstable?"

    Wrapping the chamois around herself tightly, she patted the side of the cockpit. "Yes," she informed him seriously. "I think I am."

    The sky had darkened to a deep blue, although Unicron's blazing bulk still cast a black-and-red fire across it and the cloud had blocked out the stars. The lights that lined the bank made the Potomac River glisten as it flowed, black and opaque, across Starscream's path. A grassy expanse led the way to it and he flexed his wings again, analysing Unicron with odium.

    How he hated that beast.

    Alexis's eyes, too, were drawn to the sphere. There was so much smoke and conflagration and activity around Unicron that one could not help but look at him, despite the unnaturally silent way in which it happened. "How is the Axalon going to get through that fire?" she whispered, pressing a corner of the chamois against her cheek as if for comfort.

    "The same way that I am going to break through that cloud."

    He pushed himself forward rapidly, his jets blazing behind him as he sped along the grass, heading for the river. "Don't drive into the water," she warned him playfully, sounding as if she was only half-joking. "I can't imagine the almighty Starscream swimming…"

    "Just what are you insinuating about my aerial prowess, human?" he quipped, and she grinned at the memory.

    He continued to go forward as if he really was going to plunge into the Potomac, but just as the bank gave way, he lifted off from the ground, taking to the air with a bird-like grace that should only have been achieved by a dancer.

    His sensors picked up on Alexis's accelerated pulse rate as he headed towards the cloud; he swooped low and skimmed the surface of the black water instead, letting it caress the Raptor's underside as spray erupted on either side of his body and in his wake. The cool water sprinkled over the glass cockpit cover, showering his wings and reflecting the light in the sky, causing every colour of the spectrum to glitter, like an elaborate canopy, over Alexis's head and all over his previously dull armour.

    And she looked… so… beautiful in her enchantment with the multicoloured rainfall.

    Pulling up and away from the Potomac, he angled his nose upward towards the place where the cloud was thinnest, and Alexis leant her head against the headrest drowsily. "You're tired," he stated as he flew upward, away from the Pentagon.

    "As always," was her sour reply, her anger darkening her waxen face for a moment as if joy had never existed there. The green light cast onto her skin from the VDU made the resentment all the more obvious in her expression, and he didn't like seeing it at all. "But it doesn't matter. I'll be able to sleep forever soon enough."

    She has no hope left.

    He growled softly, with the edge of a threat. "I told you not to talk like that."

    She sighed and dropped her head into her hands. "I know… I know," she whispered, sounding choked, and he suspected that she was trying to hold back tears. "I… I just… it's not fair." When she looked back up at the screen, her eyes were slightly reddened. "I d-don't want to leave you…" Her bottom lip quivered again, and she pressed the makeshift blanket to her mouth to muffle the impending sobs.

    "You need not hide your tears, Alexis."

    Alexis sniffed and shook her head tearfully. "I d-don't want you t-to see me crying… it's not fair…" She bowed her head, thin strands of mousy hair falling into her eyes as a single tear seeped from each of them. "I'm sick of being weak…"

    "None of this is fair," he snarled, unable to keep the bitterness from his own voice. "And you are not weak, slag it! How many times do I have to tell you these things, Alexis? Tomorrow you're going to give your life for the sake of your people – and for us, even though we brought this upon you by coming to this planet. That is not weak."

    "And you are not responsible for this," she said cogently, her tear-filled eyes looking up at the monitor. "Don't you dare think that, Starscream."

    Starscream flew on in silence for a moment, and her face crumpled, a shuddering sob escaping her. He felt the warm contact of her feverish skin as she leant her head against the glass cockpit cover, and felt his spark surge in response to her proximity and musky, mammalian heat. Primus… how am I going to resist it…? he thought tensely, trying to quell the feeling of arousal radiating from his spark casing. But if my spark does not complete itself now… it never will. Do I act, before it's too late?

    He sighed. "Alexis."

    Dabbing at her eyes with the chamois, she glanced up at the display through a red-raw glaze over her irises. "… Yeah?" she squeaked, her voice too broken by her tears to formulate the words properly.

    "I'm sorry."

    She shook her head, cuddling against the pilot's seat and curling her legs up like a feline beneath the patchwork mantle. "Don't be. You're right…" Her hand stroked down the padded backboard, her dextrous organic fingers probing every ridge and… oh, Primus… not there… "I guess I have to just… accept what's happening. There's no point being bitter about it… I can't stop it."

    "Mm," he managed through the stimulation pumping through his energon lines.

    Furious with himself for being so susceptible to her, he put every inch of his concentration into his flight. They had passed into the murky, vaporous black cloud now, and it was causing his armour to tingle uncomfortably. He conducted a scan and saw that the accursed material was over eighty percent carbon dioxide – the acidic effects would be detrimental to his armour if he remained in contact with the smoke for too long. He pushed himself to the maximum speed he could without causing Alexis to pass out, pressing on determinedly.

    Her bio-signs displayed her fear as he ascended, and he couldn't blame her. The smoke was so thick that he could barely see where he was flying, and her human eyes were nowhere near as efficient. "Don't be afraid," he said. "I will not let you come to harm… I am your guardian."

    "My qualified guardian," she smiled, her heart rate slowing a little. "I know."

    Starscream made a click of disapproval, still wondering at Jasmine Paxton's strange enquiry. "'Qualified'…" he muttered. "Ridiculous." He paused, observing the slender young woman intently whilst simultaneously concentrating on his path of flight. "She reacted rather… badly to the news about your fate. As did I," he added darkly.

    "It'll be worse when she finds out about you and me," Alexis sighed, her eyes downcast. "And I won't be there to defend you."

    "I can defend myself. I was Decepticon Air Commander and second-in-command."

    Alexis shook her head. "Trust me – if you'd have seen Mom during the march of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament a few years back, you would have quailed in terror – Decepticon Air Commander or not." He grunted disbelievingly. "No, really. She clubbed this one guy round the head with a placard and he was out cold for six hours. She'll get you somehow."

    Primus.

    It was another ten minutes before the smoke began to thin out, and Starscream caught sight of the first faint glimmers of starlight as he entered the upper atmosphere. He broke through the last remnants of the black cloud, and Alexis gasped when she saw the rest of Unicron that had been hidden by the inferno around him.

    "Oh…" she managed weakly. "He's… he's pretty… big."

    'Big' was hardly an adequate word to describe Unicron's sheer massiveness. The planet of steel and fire was hovering above Earth like a grim guardian angel, casting a terrible shadow over both of the Americas and a vast part of the Atlantic Ocean – the substantial smoke had all but blocked the continents from Starscream's visual range, and the organic planet looked agonisingly small and insignificant when compared to this great mechanical abomination. He could just about see the serrated entrance to it and a cold feeling of loss and inadequacy went through him.

    His Alexis… the only thing he held dear… would enter that mouth tomorrow, never to return.

    Alexis herself appeared to have frozen in terror as she stared at Unicron. Perspiration was beginning to bead on her clammy forehead, and her breathing became ragged and uneven as she clenched her fists spasmodically, her heart rate erratic. The necklace glowed slightly on her neckline, glimmering darkly at the sight of its nemesis.

    Now he loathed Unicron more than ever. This last flight had been to show her the heavens, and it only served to reveal all of Hell to her.

    "Curse you, Unicron," he muttered with vitriol, but angling his left wing away from the smouldering fiend. "Curse you to the Pit."

    He hadn't intended to say the hate-filled words out loud, but Alexis's sudden touch on his side made him realise that he had. "He'll be gone soon," she reminded him gently, stroking her hand down the right side of the cockpit… Oh, Primus! Make her stop… don't make her stop… "You'll never have to see him again in about two days."

    "But I will have nothing to live for after that," he muttered. Rage welling up inside of him at the fact that Unicron had even stolen the sky… his sky… from him, he snarled and banked, turning back towards the cloud. "You don't need to see this yet… I will take you elsewhere."

    "Alright," she agreed quietly, turning in her seat to look back at Unicron with unease. "… Good idea."

    He cleared the cloud cover in a much shorter space of time this time around, fuelled by his frustration and wrath. He couldn't stand Alexis seeing the Decepticon lurking inside of him, but he couldn't help it… Unicron seemed to have sucked everything in the world from him now. If snatching his cherished spark partner, his new home, and the leader he had come to… respect… hadn't been enough, the slagger had destroyed the beauty of the stars for him, too. Without the stars… his very name was worthless.

    Alexis drew her knees up to her chin and tilted her head to one side, gazing at the display. "Where are we going?" she enquired quietly, and he could see the mingled uncertainty and anticipation written all over her colourless face. Her fingers probed his side again and he tensed up, electrical current crackling through him.

    "Back to the trees," Starscream responded shortly, catching the wind and banking back towards Virginia as her nails raked his insides gently.

    Her touching was beginning to drive him haywire, and he knew he had to land before he crashed. He could feel his sleek frame wobbling precariously and struggled to keep flying straight, focusing on the five-sided shape of the Pentagon building and the black, glistening line of the Potomac.

    She looked a little thwarted, pouting slightly as if he had offended her. "What, no barrel rolls?" she exclaimed. "No fancy tricks for my last ride? I'm disappointed in you, Starscream." Her tone was both teasing and challenging, and he felt that irresistible, competitive Decepticon urge rise up inside of him at her audacious dare.

    "You don't think I'm capable of it?" he asked in a dangerous tone.

    Her bottle green eyes narrowed just slightly and she smirked, challenging him and leaning forward in her seat. "What if I don't?"

    Oooh, she had just made the wrong move…

    He gathered speed at once, rocking her in her seat and making her gasp in a combination of shock and enjoyment. "Put the harness on," he advised her and she nodded in agreement, fastening it across her narrow chest and clinging to the straps tightly. "Now, Alexis Paxton, I will show you what happens when you dare to challenge the ruler of the sky…"

    "Arrogant much?" she grinned, her eyes alight with exhilaration.

    "I'm Starscream. Of course I am."

    With that, he launched himself forward, jets screaming with noise as he shot across the sky like a bullet. Alexis closed her eyes for the first few seconds, seeming to need a moment to become familiar with the speed, before she cracked one of them open and peeked at what was through the glass – the sky, rushing past at a speed that her human eyes could never register. He pivoted with one wing before stopping and hovering, showing his superiority as a Cybertronian by pushing the aircraft to limits that it should never have been able to achieve.

    "Oh," Alexis managed to say, her breathing and heartbeat already becoming erratic – apparently she had realised what he was planning to do. "Should I be begging for mercy, Lord Starscream?"

    He chuckled darkly, drawing on the harnesses and clutching her tightly with them. "… Go on."

    She tilted back into the grasp of the straps as they constricted around her slender body. "Well… how… should I begin…?" she breathed, and he smirked to himself complacently when he picked up on her rapidly increasing pheromone levels. "… Is 'please spare my life, great and powerful leader' enough…?" she tried, her fingernails digging into the edge of the seat and sending a chill through him…

    Focus, he berated himself. Or at least slagging land…

    "Not quite," he answered smugly nonetheless before angling his conical nose downward and blasting back towards solid ground.

    He heard her scream and knew from the look in her eyes that she loved it just as much as he did. The wind rushing past him… the thrill of speed… he had been sparked as a Seeker for a reason. He threw his weight to one side, sending himself into a corkscrew spin that made Alexis shriek again and squeeze her eyes tightly shut, although she was laughing through the protests.

    He pulled up above the Pentagon, barrel rolling once before righting himself and landing on the same stretch of land that they had taken off from, bumping Alexis in the pilot's seat. He skidded across the bank, bringing up half of the ground as he did so, before coming to a halt at the water's edge.

    Alexis clutched her chest, grinning as she tried to catch her breath. "As Rose would say," she managed to gasp, "Bloody hell."

    "Oh, please… don't mention that little glitch…"

    He released the harnesses and she stood up precariously, folding the chamois over one arm carefully before she swung herself out of the cockpit and climbed back down to the ground. He gave her a moment to give him some space before he transformed, standing up on his avian legs and stretching his wings to get them used to their new position.

    Turning to Alexis, he lowered a hand to her level and she seated herself in his palm, holding onto his thumb as he straightened up and scanned the surrounding area before he headed for the coppice.

    He didn't know what this night would lead to. All he knew was that tonight would have to be something… unique. It was Alexis's last night of life… his last night of life, in his eyes… and it was his last chance to show her that she was his. His last chance to show her how she had changed him… what she had done to him… what he had admitted to feeling for her, after so many years of never caring for any other being but himself. There was only one gift great enough. One gift.

    One spark.

    Manoeuvring himself around the trees so as to avoid smashing his colossal wings against them – slag this organic foliage – he made for the place that he had been before she had come in the first place. It was the clearing that he and Skyfire had chosen to hide their true forms in, but Skyfire was absent – he was patrolling the sky with Jade, watching for any threats.

    He almost short-circuited when Alexis's fingers found one of the more sensitive wires at the back of his neck.

    Stopping dead, he clenched a fist as the electronic surge shook his entire frame, rushing up through his wings and making his spark burn viciously. He felt her hand loosen around it before he heard her curious, concerned voice near his audio receptor.

    "Starscream…?"

    "I'm fine," he hissed through his mouthpiece, his fist curling so tightly that it could have crushed pure diamond to a fine dust. "Just… don't touch that wire…"

    She sounded puzzled when she spoke again, and yet he could detect some trace of mischief in her tone. "What… this one?" she enquired puckishly. She tweaked the cable with her hand again and he snarled out loud, his entire frame pulsing with electronic energy that racked his body and made his vision fuzz for an instant. "What's it for?"

    Slag it, she wasstill holding the Pit-spawned thing… "Nothing," he muttered, trying to ignore the increase in the rate of energon flowing through his fuel lines. "It's… Primus… Alexis, just drop the wire…"

    He was almost certain that he would fall to his knees when she rolled the slender cord between her fingertips, doubling the amount of energy pumping around his body and making his wings tremble. "Why does it bother you so much?" Alexis asked quietly, her free hand trailing down his cheek plate and across his metallic jaw line. "You look like you're about to faint. Or short-circuit…"

    Primus, was she trying to provoke him into something?

    "Drop the wire, then."

    She sighed slightly, but did as he commanded, releasing the metallic connection. Relief, frustration and disappointment shot through him all at once as his energon levels returned to something like equilibrium again, but his spark was still scorching the inside of its casing in its desperation to make itself whole. Every component was quivering; vibrations were juddering across his armour as he struggled to control himself, but the fire inside of him was growing hotter with every passing second.

    He came to the centre of the clearing and glanced up at the sky. Unicron wasn't quite visible in what little of it that he could see; instead, there was just red-and-black cloud. It was hardly a befitting place to…

    … to mate with her?

    His wings seized up once more when her devious little hands started caressing him again, this time at the seam where his left wing met his shoulder. She definitely knew what she was doing now… there was no way she would be touching him there unless she was trying to incite his spark. And… Primus… she was succeeding…

    He snarled deeply, the sound resonating through his chest. "That's it," he snapped, reaching up and plucking her off his shoulder before depositing her on the ground as gently as he could in his current state. She still landed rather hard, her knees giving way under the force of her own weight.

    Looking slightly winded by the impact, she tilted her head. "What did I do?" she asked softly, her almond eyes earnest.

    "You know what you did," he growled accusingly.

    "Really… I've no idea," the young woman objected, but he could tell that she was lying. Lying! To a Decepticon! Yet the shadow of a smile was curving at her mouth, and she drew her knees up a little, leaning back on her hands. "I didn't mean to do anything you didn't want…" she apologised, although that infuriating smile remained on her lips. "I'm sorry."

    Starscream narrowed his eyes at her, springing forward and putting a hand on either side of her so that he was hovering over her tiny body. She pushed herself back in surprise, her breath catching as his face came down to her level. "You haven't done anything I don't want."

    She raised her chin and her eyes widened, her secretive smile slipping.

    He watched the transformation in her look as their eyes locked, something crackling between them as he scrutinized her expression. The faintest hint of red had flushed into her cheeks; her eyes seemed brighter than ever; her lips remained just slightly parted, as if begging for him to come and take her hot, organic mouth in his. She shifted slightly in her position, her eyes never leaving his as he looked right back at her, no longer bothering to hide the yearning that he knew was clear in his optics.

    "Really?" she said softly, looking up at him.

    A low rumble passed through his chest and vocal processor and he reached out a long digit to her. "Yes," he confirmed in a hiss, tracing the line of her jawbone with its claw-like tip and making her heart rate skyrocket as her eyes fluttered closed. "Really."

    He could feel the thick throb of her pulse against her skin as he trailed his finger down her long, graceful neck, and he sensed her pheromone levels fluctuating as they had during the flight. She took in a deep breath, her small hands balling into fists on the ground and her heels digging into the soil as he ran his fingertip through her thin hair.

    "Put your hologram on…" she pleaded, sounding choked.

    Primus forgive me…

    He stood up, towering above her and casting a shadow across where she remained sitting on the forest floor before putting a hand to his temple and activating the holomatter generator. Two blinding, crimson beams seared from his optics and marked out the shape of the hologram before his true form locked down into holo-stasis.

    The ex-Decepticon shook himself off, taking a moment to adjust to his new form and the differing balance of weight. The heavy feel of his wings was gone, and all of his limbs felt lighter. He hated being human… but if Alexis wanted it…

    Alexis herself appeared to be unable to move. She had the look of a 'deer caught in headlights', as the humans said, and was breathing very unevenly… a little too unevenly to be normal for her. She swallowed hard, her eyes roving up and down his holoform as he folded his arms, quirking a dark eyebrow at her slyly as he got down on his hands and knees to be at her level.

    She let her knees drop from where they had been drawn up to her chin and shifted towards him, sliding her legs underneath his body and making him clench his fist when he felt her knee brush against his muscled torso. He reached his large hands down to hold her at the waist, running them down her sides and realising, for the thousandth time, how little of her there was left… she had wasted away over the last three years, and he had done nothing to stop it. Nothing…

    The guilty thoughts seemed to melt away when she wrapped her slim arms around his neck, her eyes boring into his and seeming to look into the very depths of him. Her warm breath touched his synthetic skin as her lips lingered before his, mere centimetres apart, and he held her closer as he spoke.

    "… You don't want to do this, Alexis."

    It broke his spark to admit it, but… he had to warn her, at the very least. She was offering him her body, offering to join herself fully with him in the spark bond… the unpredictable, volatile spark bond… and it had never been performed with a human before. Now that he considered the risks, he wondered vaguely whether it was the best idea he had ever had, but… how to resist her…

    Alexis blinked, the fingers of her right hand caught up in his flaxen hair. "Why?" she husked, drawing herself so close to him that he could feel the swell of her small breasts pressing warmly against his chest.

    That wasn't helping the situation.

    "Alexis," he said aggressively, trying to get the point through to the wilful girl by scaring it into her, "If you do this, there is no turning back. You and I will be bound to each other… we will become one in all things, until the end. You can never break a spark bond." He paused, his fingers flexing at her waist. "And… there are things… memories… in me. Things that you won't want to see."

    She shook her head, leaning forward and running her hands over his wide shoulders. "I know," she confessed, lowering her eyes for a moment. "But… I want this, Star. I want to be yours… before it's too late."

    "You will be mine whatever you choose," he growled.

    Her fingers clutched his holographic clothing and her eyes hardened determinedly. "Then it's my choice – and I choose this," she informed him vehemently before slamming her lips up against his in a passionate, ravenous kiss.

    Oh, Primus…

    The heat of her oral cavity on his was indescribable. He caught her up at the waist before he could stop himself, lifting her fully to his lips and tightening his domineering embrace around her waist, crushing her body against his. His spark had waited for far too long and now… now, in the shadow of Unicron… he would take her as his own at last.

    She grabbed his head in her hands in response to his movement, clenching her fingers around his white-blonde hair and moulding her mouth around his in such a way that caused his spark to burst into vicious flame, roaring with a flame that burnt hotter than wildfire. He hadn't expected her to be quite so passionate – usually he was the dominating force, but tonight she was aflame with desire, and it showed in every one of her vital signs. And he relished every lingering second of it.

    In his true form, he knew his spark would be illuminating with the proximity of its goal, and he wished that he could bond with her in the way that was more natural to him, but given their differences in size it would be impossible. He would have to use the human way to seal the union of souls.

    Her mouth was hot and soft on his holographic lips, and he raked his hands down her back through her shirt, tearing down the line of her spine and making her gasp through their kiss before she pulled herself up onto him, slinging her slender legs around his waist to hold herself up to his level. He scooped an arm around her to stop her falling, protective of her fading body.

    He teased at her tongue with his, exploring her organic mouth with nothing less than absolute yearning. He had been with Decepticon femmes once or twice in the past out of boredom or lust, but this was insanely gratifying. The bond was something of choice, and he had never entrusted his spark to anyone – he had given his body, but never his soul, for they had only been after power… no one had ever wanted him. No one except this human girl.

    It was illogical.

    Forbidden.

    He was aware of her hand at the front of his dark shirt, unbuttoning it little by little as he slipped both of his own hands beneath her shirt and ran his palms up her back, feeling her obtruding backbone and her thin, delicate flesh. The warmth her body carried was exotic to hands that were so used to the realm of cold, harsh metal, and he could not quell his enchantment with the heat she radiated. The feel of her… the scent of her… everything about her was perfect…

    The holographic clothing dropped to the ground and disappeared as he let go of the energy needed to create it.

    She drew away from him for a moment to catch her breath; her face was a hair's breadth from his as she reached down to his heavily scarred chest, the pale skin of which was almost illuminated by the amber twilight, and slowly trailed her small, fragile hand down his sternum, tracing the lines of the scars that had followed him into the holoform.

    Scars… scars inflicted by Megatron.

    But no… Megatron wasn't here now…

    A shiver passed through him at the contact of Alexis's hand as she marked out the lines of a particularly vicious weal that split part of his upper chest… that was too close to where his spark should be…

    He nudged her flushed cheek with his nose and she tilted back slightly, her eyes fluttering closed and an arduous breath escaping her. His fingers wandered down the sides of her neck before he explored her décolletage with his lips, causing her heart rate to spring up to an incredible pace and her entire body to quake in his embrace.

    Her body's temperature was climbing and her pheromones skyrocketed as he traced the lines of her jutting collarbones with a tantalising tenderness that conveyed his absolute adoration of her body. He wanted this girl – this human girl – like nothing he had ever wanted before.

    A dry groan came from between her trembling lips. "Star…"

    She clasped his head with her fingers again, drawing him back up to her lips. "You're too impatient," he husked against her ear before nibbling at its edge roguishly and drawing a soft moan from her as a deep shudder went through her body. "Wait, Alexis…"

    His spark screamed with energy, building up into a fiery crescendo in his true form – he could feel it even as a hologram, causing his chest to feel as if it were alight with the fires of his love for her. It craved the moment of connection, but he had waited for hundreds of thousands of years to give his spark to another, and he would not let it become a cheap moment that would disappear as quickly as sand through his fingers. Their moment was now… and he needed it to last.

    Alexis Paxton was the one that had been chosen for him – thrown across the universe and far away from him, but he had found her. And she was here, in his arms, and willing to take him.

    Impatient, he grasped the edge of her red shirt and pulled it over her head, throwing it to one side and massaging her shoulders with his hands as he did so. His crimson eyes surveyed her upper body, taking in her hollow abdomen and brittle, slender frame. She had lost so much weight in the last few months that her ribs were protruding painfully, and there was virtually nothing of her.

    But that he had of her was more than enough…

    However, she did not seem to feel the same way about herself; she suddenly lowered her gemstone eyes, biting her lip in a classic sign of shame and turning her face slightly away from him, her slight fringe disguising her expression.

    What was she ashamed of? It was maddening that humans should be like this, but he supposed that it was the same as exposing one's spark to another, which was hard to do unless there was absolute trust in the one you were showing it to. But she looked so… reluctant to show herself to him, as if she thought that she was not good enough.

    He gently lifted her chin with a finger, tilting her head back to face him. "You are beautiful," he told her almost aggressively, needing her to understand; tears sprung up in her eyes again, her lip quivering dangerously.

    "No," she whispered. "You are."

    Beautiful?

    She was delusional…

    He stared deeply into her eyes, an expression of disinclination on his face, before he nodded slowly, taking the hand that rested on his cheek. She leant back into his arms and kissed him deeply, covering his mouth with hers.

    His hands roved over her exposed skin of their own accord, sliding the strap of her upper undergarment midway down her thin arm before he leant to kiss her bare shoulder, slowly working his way up her pale, swan-like neck. Her own nimble fingers worked at his black jeans, but they were gone with the simplest command; her own soon followed when he slid them from her legs, moving the clothing to one side and pulling her to him again, unwilling to be parted from her for an instant.

    She can't be ready for this.

    He felt his fingers sliding up her ribcage of their own accord, tracing the brittle, protruding bones… and then he was working his way higher… his slow ascent made her pheromones spike again, but he was hesitant.

    She was only nineteen. He was hundreds of thousands of years her senior. How could she be ready for this?

    His fingers traced her upper body warily, still worried that she was not prepared despite the desperation that he had for her. She stiffened for a moment as he cupped his palm around a small breast, but then relaxed almost immediately, her eyes granting him her unspoken permission to touch her with such intimacy. The trust she had in him was a wonder that he had never been exposed to before – no one had ever trusted him, with very good reason – and he cherished it more than he would ever let on to anyone but her.

    Their bodies were drawing so painfully close… her bare skin was hot and silken on his, intoxicating as rain after a drought. Millennia of solitude, of bloodshed and of revulsion for the world had all come to this, and he no longer regretted it. For everything in his past had led him here – to Earth – and into her arms.

    He leant her back in his arms to press a kiss against the hollow of her throat, feeling her heart's erratic pulse beneath his lips and the rush of warm blood through her veins as she grew more and more desperate for him, the tension rising inside of her and building up everywhere, waiting to explode. Her fingers pulled through his hair and pushed against the sensitive skin of his scalp, sending shivers throughout his body as he kissed her again, hungry for more of her.

    Should they do this…?



    * * *



    Alexis swallowed hard when she felt Starscream's artificial heat against her, giving herself over to him as their lips locked together again in an unbreakable tie. She knew very well that the absolute trust she had in him was more precious to him than anything he had ever known, and that he would not fail her by breaking that trust again… yet, even now, she was afraid that she was going to mess this up.

    She had never understood the ways of the world. Her mother had shielded her from men and from anything that might have harmed her; she had been cosseted and doted upon, and it had done her no good in the end. Life was a learning curve, and she had never been allowed to learn.

    In the end, it was her father's death that had changed it all.

    Through Adam Paxton's fall at Mission City, Alexis had been… awakened. The flame – the spark – resting inside of her since birth had been ignited by the shock to the system that she had never had… the first sign of the cruelty of the world that she had ever received. And through his death, an angel had been sent to guard her.

    She had been empty for sixteen years, and now she understood why. Because half of her had been a thousand light-years away across the universe, throbbing within Starscream, as half of him had been within her… here, on Earth.

    Seconds. That's how long she had until those half-sparks united – until the flame burnt as brightly it had always meant to, before they had been torn apart. She had mere seconds… mere moments to wait until her starved, unfinished heart was set alight with the fire of Starscream as she had longed for it to be for three long years…

    The moment was earth shattering when it came; he pushed into her swiftly, releasing the spark's energy with an impassioned groan.

    Alexis gasped, falling into his arms as he clutched her tightly against him, terrified of falling over the edge of the brink of sensation that she was skimming the edge of. His intimacy both startled and thrilled her, but the latter most of all; she tried and failed to catch her breath when he made his way deeper, making her whimper with gratification.

    A hot, throbbing sensation built up between them as he moved with her, his lips still on hers between the ragged inhalations she drew in when she remembered how to breathe. She fell limp in his embrace, but he held her upright with the naked, muscular arms that were around her, keeping her dancing with him on the wave of passion that threatened to pull them under. She felt sick with desire, unable to comprehend separation from him now that they faced the union.

    He was everywhere: inside, outside, on every part of her burning skin. He was a tangible fever spreading through her that she could not stop, seeping into her blood and setting it aflame in her veins as he took her, transferring the raw energy of him into her body.

    "Oh, God… Star…" she croaked.

    His growl in response made her tremble; it sounded so longing andmasculine. "Alexis…"

    He was shaking with the pressure of the force rushing between their bodies, flowing from one to the other like water, and his nails bit hard into her shoulder, making her draw in a sharp hiss of pain through her teeth that satisfied her even more than his ardent kisses on her lips did. Burning lines were searing across her skin, but she paid them no heed, too lost in her infatuation to care.

    His raspy voice was deep and husky with need when he finally managed to formulate words, whispering them against her ear. "Alexis… are you certain…?" he growled, attempting to control himself as she moved her hips against his, forcing him deeper.

    "Yes," she groaned pleadingly, her entire body begging for him to join fully with her. "Please, Starscream…"

    Clearly satisfied with her acquiescence, Starscream summoned every ounce of energy that his spark had built up over the past three years. She could feel it burning beneath his holographic skin; throbbing with her heartbeat, it blazed like wildfire in a forest fire, racing through every part of him and to its decisive, final goal… her…

    And suddenly she was seeing things that she had never seen, living a life that was not her own…



    * * *



    The feeling of wind racing along a streamlined body as she soared over the scorching combat zones of Cybertron, raining destruction down upon the battling inhabitants of the planet. She heard her own cruel laugh ride the wind, and she spun with deadly grace through the sky like an eagle, swooping low to crush another spark with well-placed missiles, deadly in their accuracy.

    "I will have enough power to rule the land and the sky!" she declared.

    New things – brightness, a distant star – and there was the All Spark, just out of her reach, disappearing into the unknown as the Autobots launched it from the surface of the planet and into the depths of space.

    "You will never be the Decepticon commander, Starscream," a brawny Decepticon cackled scornfully. "You're not strong enough!"

    "Weak, insignificant worm…" a second voice hissed in her ear.

    Rain was pouring down from above, and she turned to and fro in utter misunderstanding as lightning flashed brightly, illuminating the stormy firmament. They had left her – all of them had left her here to die – "Why have you all abandoned me?" she screamed to the sky, feeling utterly wretched and alone. "WHY?"

    "Just looking at your ignorance repulses me to the core," a voice growled at her. "You're a disgrace to the Decepticon race and you deserve to be destroyed!"

    A blinding, agonising pain as something struck her harshly across the face and she hit the ground with enough force to make it tremble beneath her. "N-no, Megatron – please – don't!" she pleaded and screamed with a voice that was not her own, struggling to escape the blows from her attacker. "Please… I'm sorry! I only meant to – I was just following your orders, sir – that's all –"

    The agony was terrible – pain raining down everywhere, on every part of her body. Red eyes burnt above her, but not the passionate orbs of Starscream; no, these eyes were full of the purest hate, unrefined and unbridled. Sharp, silvery teeth glinted in the grin of a serrated maw, leering down at her with the cruellest intentions.

    "Are you too pathetic to even fight back?"

    Suddenly there was a blade in her hand; red as blood, bright as the midday sun. She swung it around with an avian screech of rage, and then screamed when a hand clenched around her throat.

    "Megatron, don't kill me…"

    "You fail me yet again, Starscream…"



    * * *



    And then… it was over.

    She was back in Starscream's arms, and a cobalt light was just fading at the edges of her vision.

    Trembling, Alexis lay against him in silence, breathing deeply and sweating all over. She registered his powerful arms around her slender waist, and she could feel his holographic form shuddering against her as they lay on the soft woodland floor of the thicket, holding each other close and entwined with each other in every sense of the word.

    They lay there for a long time, catching their breath and slowing themselves down. Starscream teased his fingers through her damp hair, probably listening to the gradual slow of her heartbeat as she regained control of her body.

    Finally, Starscream managed to speak. "Alexis… I must return to my true form… my energon levels…"

    She swallowed to dispel the aridity in her throat and nodded, feeling him shift out from beneath her body and leaving her curled up on the earth, worn out. He dissolved into non-existence a few seconds later before the fiery red optics of his robotic form flared back into life like smouldering coals.

    Alexis had no strength left to so much as shiver, but she sensed him behind her and smiled when his giant metallic hand covered her exposed body protectively, like a blanket. He lay down on the ground, curling his enormous form around her, and she managed to find the strength to turn over beneath his hand to face him.

    Her eyes were already drifting closed, but she could see the difference in him already. He looked… happy, for once in his life.

    "I love you, Starscream…" she slurred with an exhausted sigh before she succumbed to slumber, unable to remain awake for a moment longer.

    And Starscream, who watched her fall into a deep sleep with his garnet eyes burning with pride and adoration, was able to return the words without the slightest trace of the fear that usually tainted them. "I love you… Alexis Paxton," he whispered. "For what time we have left… and beyond it."



    * * *



    Author's Note: I lost count of how many times I wrote and rewrote this, so I hope it was okay for you. / I think it's about the seventh version, but it was the only one that I was pleased with. Drop me a review if you will and I'll update when I can, although it definitely won't be until after my exams now.

    This chapter is dedicated to Lady Gryphonia, who waited patiently for it, even through constant setbacks and my writer's block. Thank you so much! :) 

    Pax Deorum (Latin): meaning 'peace of the gods'





    *Chapter 20*: Axalon


    Chapter Twenty

    Axalon



    * * *



    Skyfire managed a faint smile as the last, glimmering particle materialised.

    The Axalon was, perhaps, the most magnificent piece of aerial machinery that he had ever constructed. It had taken him three years to build – three years of working in his laboratory at the Californian base on a nightly basis, slaving over the gears and the turbofans and every other component that made up the bravura, moon-white vessel. The Autobot insignia was emblazoned in red across its gracefully curved nose, and he patted it tenderly with a giant, dark silver hand.

    True, he had never meant it to fly an innocent human and his own leader to their deaths at the maw of Unicron. He had intended to use it to continue some of his scientific pursuits with Starscream – perhaps to explore Earth's moon, or a nearby planet – and to show Jade the wonders of space. This purpose… was a terrible one indeed.

    He sighed heavily, turning to the stout, grey-haired man at his feet. "That is the last of it, Mr. Keller."

    Defence Secretary Keller nodded, stepping forward and eyeing the mammoth ship with an approval that made Skyfire swell in pride. "Magnificent," he remarked, staring up at the giant spacecraft and folding his arms. "You're a very talented engineer, Skyfire."

    "Huh," Agent Simmons muttered, swigging from a paper cup of coffee before he spoke again. "It sure ain't small."

    "I think it's beautiful," Jade smiled, stepping around the man neatly and extending a small hand to touch the spaceship's snow-white armour. She caressed it with reverence, staring at the pearly hue with nothing less than absolute wonder. "You're awesome at this kind of thing, Sky. It looks like you before you got your armour changed…"

    Skyfire smiled warmly, and she returned the gesture. /You are far more beautiful, my jewel/ he returned through her headset, and she blushed.

    It was true. Dressed in the slightly oversized but very much official uniform of a US Air Force pilot, Jade looked braver and more full of life than she ever had before. Her extensive hair was plaited tightly and held back from her face, and although he could hardly get used to her without her kerchief and dolphin pendant, she still looked breathtaking to him.

    And his smile grew when he saw that his charm bracelet was still around her wrist.

    Ratchet, who was standing to one side of the stretch of grass where the Axalon had appeared through the dimension gate, gave Simmons a rather dark look – probably because the man never seemed to say anything even remotely benevolent. However, the medical officer seemed distracted – he kept shooting glances at the metallic bulk of Unicron, his expression troubled. As Keller and Simmons spoke in low voices, he opened a link with his comrade.

    /What is wrong, my friend? You appear… anxious./

    The yellow Autobot looked surprised to have been caught out and folded his arms, looking up at the Axalon. /Nothing/ he responded after a moment, catching Skyfire's optic across the room. /I just feel a great sense of melancholy for all of this, Skyfire. Prime and Alexis are departing in a mere hour… and then we make for Mission City. Our time has run out so fast./

    /It has/Skyfire admitted. /And Optimus still has not chosen a new leader./

    /He said it would become 'apparent'. But I cannot see his logic in this./

    Skyfire sighed again, unable to keep from expressing his sadness. /Do you know where Alexis is?/ he enquired after a moment, seeking the medic's eye contact, which he had lost to Ratchet's dejected look. /She should be preparing herself – and Starscream must ready himself for the flight to Mission City. He has a great responsibility in commanding the British forces. I saw them out flying last night, but I lost track of them./

    Ratchet seemed to hesitate before he responded. /We must let them take their time/ was his slow reply. /She and Starscream need this time to say their last farewell. Imagine if you were forced to give up Jade to the Lord of Darkness himself, Skyfire… can you imagine the agony of losing your spark partner to such a terrible evil?/

    Glancing down at Jade, who was still admiring the Axalon, Skyfire shuddered at the thought of being without her. /… No. You are right./

    Jade was everything to Skyfire… his spark partner, and all that he had ever dreamed of having. Now that he placed himself in Starscream's position, he realised the torment that his old friend must be suffering… what he had suffered for three years as Alexis had, slowly and surely, wasted away as the All Spark drained her energy and her life force. He could never have borne the pain of seeing Jade's life being lapped away like that, and he suddenly wished he could offer Starscream some comfort.

    Perhaps he could offer Ratchet some, instead.

    /Ratchet…/ The medical officer looked up questioningly. /Jade tells me that Rosa is still unaware of your mutual spark./

    /Typical of the youngling/ Ratchet commented, his optics twinkling affectionately as he looked down at Jade. However, the shadow of joy was soon gone from his wizened face and he sighed. /There have been… complications, Skyfire. Barricade and I have been subject to a threefold divide./

    /No/ Skyfire denied, staring. /But that is such a rare occurrence…/

    In all his years as a scientist, he had never been able to pinpoint the cause of a three-way spark partition. He had studied the All Spark for many millennia, and still he could not understand what made it act in the way it did, and how the individuals were chosen for it. All he knew was that he had wanted to end it, as it was the cause of great conflict when it made its appearance.

    Ratchet smiled grimly. /Indeed. It appears I must battle for dominance against Barricade if I am to have a hope of winning Rose's affections./

    /You will have her, Ratchet. Have faith./

    /Faith?/ His companion shook his head. /There is no faith for a veteran like me, Skyfire. Perhaps Jade gives you that optimism, but for the moment… I am devoid of any kind of hope. Without Optimus, this team can never truly function. He is what holds the Autobots together. And with Alexis gone… who knows what Starscream will become in her absence?/

    Skyfire blinked at the portentous words, shaken by what Ratchet was suggesting.

    He supposed that in a sense, the medic was right to be fearful of Starscream's rage after the departure. Even after three years with the Autobots, his old friend was still moody, temperamental and unpredictable to the extreme – yet Alexis, as his spark partner, had almost always been able to soothe him. When she was no longer there… when her voice would not be there to pacify him, nor her hands to calm him… would he be too vengeful to remain on the right side of the fine line between sanity and madness?

    A shudder passed through him, moving down his long, cloak-like wings and making Jade glance up curiously at him, looking concerned. He kept his gaze away from hers, fearing that she would see the dread that was beginning to clutch at his spark like a vice. He remembered all to well how Starscream had fired on him when he had pursued him from the base, on the night that he had betrayed them.

    I care for NOTHING, I bow to NO-ONE, and I DO NOT LOVE!

    He bowed his head, pushing the echoing memories of Starscream's words to the back of his central processor. He had to have faith in Starscream… else after Alexis went, who would?

    They were interrupted when Optimus entered the room, and both Ratchet and Skyfire inclined their heads to him respectfully. Jade's chocolate-brown eyes filled up with tears upon seeing him, and Skyfire scooped her up in one hand, cradling her in his palm. She was right to be upset at the sight of him.

    Their leader looked exhausted beyond all reasonable belief. His optics were a pale, muted shade of blue, and his mouth was turned down at the corners; his shoulders had lost their strength and were slumped, giving him a very unusual look of defeat that Skyfire had never seen from Optimus before. All of his pride and magnificence seemed to have evaporated, and everyone in the room could feel it.

    It was Keller that broke the silence. He cleared his throat loudly before nodding to Optimus. "Mr. Prime. You're ready for departure?"

    "Yes," Optimus murmured, his optics flicking to rest on him. "Have any of you seen Alexis?" he added, directing the question mainly towards Skyfire, Ratchet and Jade. "The others wish to bid us farewell and watch the takeoff, and I would like her here now."

    "Starscream took her for a ride last night, Optimus," Jade informed him thickly, sniffing. "We saw them at about eleven when we were on patrol."

    "I see." The commander paused, assessing Jade as she huddled against Skyfire's chest armour. "Don't cry for me, young Jade. All will be well in the end… when all are one." He met Skyfire's eyes for a moment, and the scientist hoped that his look conveyed his gratitude for comforting her. "And you and Skyfire have begun that. You have taken the first steps on a path to a better world… and for that, I am eternally in your debt, Jade Rivers." He paused and gave her a weak smile. "Come now. Where is the smile we all love?"

    Jade gave him an unsteady smile, but fresh tears still came as she did so. "I'll miss you, Optimus," she said softly.

    "As we all will," Skyfire concurred in a low voice, stroking her back with one fingertip as she muffled her sobs on her baggy sleeve. "Very much, Optimus," he added, meeting his leader's gaze.

    "You have been an exceptional soldier and friend to me, Skyfire." Optimus inclined his head. "And I thank you, truly, for those things."

    Skyfire's spark ached at his words. Although the recognition was appreciated and he was pleased by, and proud of, the fact that Optimus thought these things about him… it made it hurt all the more that they were going to lose their leader forever.

    Even Agent Simmons looked vaguely moved by what was happening, if 'moved' involved choking on his Americano and turning away from them to cough in a manner that suggested he might be a littleupset. Or, quite possibly, disgusted. "I'm gonna… load up my SUV," he muttered, marching towards the door. "Gotta get ready to roll for Mission City." He glanced up at Optimus as he went. "Uh… see you later, big guy."

    The Autobot commander nodded. "Farewell, Agent Reginald Simmons… and thank you for all of your help."

    Simmons mumbled something incoherent before he strode off in the direction of the Pentagon's parking lot.

    Optimus's gaze followed him as he left. Then they dropped to the floor, and air hissed from his vents in an exhausted sigh as he rubbed the bridge of his nose with one hand, his optics shuttering.

    "Skyfire," he murmured, "I wish for the humans to travel with their secondary guardians to Mission City – I don't want any of them in the air. It's too dangerous now. With the risk of Unicron sending drones from above, it is far too risky to have the humans above ground level. And keeping them with their secondary guardians will confuse our enemies."

    Jade bit her lip, and Skyfire knew that she was likely to be upset by the fact that she wouldn't be with him during the journey, but he could hardly refuse Optimus's last request. "Yes, sir. What of Jade and Sam, though? Arcee and Seraphim's vehicle modes are not suitable for such a long journey."

    He paused, clearly thinking of an alternative plan. "… Sam can travel with Sideswipe," he commanded after a moment of deliberation. "And Jade, would you mind riding with Ironhide? I understand that he has been training you."

    She did not reply for a second, her eyes on the charm bracelet, before she sighed and nodded. "Okay. I don't mind."

    "Thank you," Optimus said sincerely. "My apologies, but I simply cannot risk your lives by exposing you to Unicron in the air."

    As he spoke, Skyfire's keen optics spotted the other humans making their way to the departure area. Sam, Mikaela, Carlos, Miles and Rosa were among the crowd, and they were followed by Robert Connelly, the Witwicky family and a multitude of soldiers, pilots and other military officials that had come to see their saviours leave. Skyfire caught Optimus's optic and nodded slowly, pressing a finger to his temple and turning away from the encroaching throng of humans.

    /Starscream… it's Skyfire./

    The wait was absolutely excruciating. When Starscream responded, his voice sounded rough and hoarse. /Yes, Skyfire?/

    Skyfire canted an optic ridge, wondering what had happened to Starscream's vocal processors – and poor manners – overnight, but he did not mention it. He hated to be the bearer of this sombre message, but he was Starscream's first friend and partner – even now, an infinity of light years away from the world where their friendship had been forged. It was his duty to do this. His duty…

    /It is time, old friend/ he said softly. /I am so sorry./

    The seeker did not reply for a very long time. Then he heard Starscream's quiet, resigned reply. /I… I will bring her./



    * * *



    The soft pink glow of dawn's first light broke over the dark horizon and spread like warm honey across the dewy grass, making the beads glitter brilliantly with every rainbow colour of the light spectrum. As the fiery crimson sun began to rise, what little radiance that had escaped Unicron touched everything beneath it, sparkling on the surface of the Potomac River and casting a coral blush across the land; long, dark shadows spread across the forest clearing where it could not penetrate the trees, casting a cage of darkness over the greenery.

    This was the sight that Alexis awakened to when she opened her eyes, the shroud of slumber slackening its hazy embrace around her as she returned to something like consciousness, a soft sigh escaping her.

    Sometimes sleep took away the troubles of the daylight. Sometimes, if she had a fleeting dream in the night, she would forget it by the time she woke up in the morning. But the first thing she thought of as she opened her eyes was the fact that her time had run out. The doomsday clock had finally stopped ticking; the sands of time in her hourglass had run dry.

    She was… leaving.

    Now.

    It took her a few moments to remember where she was. She shifted slightly and realised that the feeling of warmth around her was due to the fact that there was something wrapped tightly around her body; when she glanced down, she saw that it was the patchwork chamois. Then slowly, she became aware of the fact that she was lying on Starscream's chest, his hand cupped over her curled-up, slender form as she tried to move her limbs. A deep ache had settled itself into her bones, and she failed quite miserably in her feeble attempt.

    "Alexis?" his voice said almost inaudibly, the sound resonating through his chest and sending a pleasurable tremor through her.

    Trying her best to keep her heavy eyelids from drooping, Alexis managed to drag herself into a sitting position, keeping the chamois around her shoulders as she looked into his eyes. His fingers remained bent slightly around her as she did so and she leant against his palm, one small hand curling around a clawed digit. In her exhaustion, she felt the strange need to hold onto something; a vast, empty expanse was filling her up from the chest and making her feel as lonely as if they were already apart.

    She took a deep breath in through her nose, pinching its bridge before she looked up at him and tried, out of a desperation to shield him from any further suffering, to drag a smile from somewhere inside of her. "Hey."

    It was only as she came to her senses properly that she became aware of something completely alien to her invading her mind. Emotions that were not her own; fragmented images that she could just about grasp, but slipped away moments later. A sense of profound, melancholy resentment was flourishing in her chest – something that she was certain hadn't been there before.

    Starscream's optics were a dark, bloody ruby as he observed her evidently obvious bewilderment.

    "That's the connection," he explained in an undertone. "You're feeling what I feel, just as I feel what you feel. You can learn to control it." His fingers wrapped around her possessively as he glared up at the sky with resentment. "And now you can understand just how… bitter I feel about this."

    She cleared her throat before she spoke, knowing that her voice was likely to be rough at this hour. "I don't want to control it," she whispered, tears welling up in her eyes as she glanced up at Unicron's fiery underside. "I want to feel you… b-before I…"

    The simple word die eluded her tongue.

    He looked down at her, his agonisingly beautiful crimson optics narrowed infinitesimally as she wrapped her arms tightly around his thumb and leant her cheek against his armour, a tear sliding down her face before she could make any attempt to stop it. There was no point in trying to stop it. "I swear that I will be thinking of you then… and long after," he pledged. "And I swear that I will never take another, Alexis."

    Alexis looked up at him.

    She confessed that the thought had occurred to her when Optimus had told her of their plan. Her death would leave Starscream without his rightful spark mate, but she had known from the beginning of this that she couldn't condemn him to an eternity of solitude in her absence. It killed her – literally ripped her apart inside – to think of Starscream with someone else… in someone else's arms… making love to someone else as he had done to her the night before… but God, she loved him too much to deny him that.

    That would be selfish.

    "Don't even think about it," he hissed at her as he hadn't for years, and she stared at him, her heart stopping for an instant. "I know what you're thinking. You think that it's too much to expect of me to remain alone for the rest of my immortal existence."

    She blinked, genuinely thrown by how he had managed to know exactly what she was thinking. "H-how did you –?"

    Although he continued to quiver with rage for a moment, he settled back and tilted his head before providing her with an answer. "The bond doesn't give telepathic abilities," he explained shortly, "But the two beings that are part of it can usually sense what train of thought that their partner is on. And I received an exceptionally strong feeling that you were thinking about who I would be with when you're gone."

    "I… I was," she admitted hesitantly, and fury flared up in his optics again. "Star, please listen to me. I'm not expecting you to spend the rest of your life by yourself – you're going to live for billions more years – I j-just don't want you to be unhappy…"

    The quaver in her voice betrayed her mind and heart's rejection of what she was saying, and his expression told her at once that her efforts were futile. In a sense, this saddened her – he was, after all, damning himself to being alone for the rest of time – but she could not help but feel immensely relieved by it nonetheless. Hideously self-centred as she knew she was being, the thought of Starscream loving anyone but her made her feel sick to the stomach… they were spark mates now. It wasn't… right.

    "You are my spark mate now, Alexis Paxton," he said softly, his anger seeming to evaporate. "I will never love anyone else in the universe, or may Primus damn me to the Pit."

    Tears pricked at her eyes again and she leant her head against his hand, trying with all her might to rein them in. It was so terrible that he should damn himself to such a life, but… if she was perfectly honest with herself… she was grateful for it.

    He suddenly paused, frowning a little and putting a hand to his temple, before his temporary look of reluctant contentment melted to give way to one of perfectly palpable pain – his optics shuttered, his wings sunk with his shoulders, and he shook his head very slightly as the hand that was not keeping the communication line open tightened into a fist behind her. She could tell that he was receiving a radio transmission from one of the others, and her stomach twisted in anticipation.

    Optimus wants me now, she realised, watching Starscream's face carefully.

    Slowly, he lowered his hand and looked towards the trees. "That was Skyfire," he muttered. "He… he said that… it's time."

    Something jerked like a hook in her abdomen as he spoke.

    Alexis bit her lip hard as an unnaturally cold stone dropped in her heart, and she felt the tears in her throat knotting into a thick, taut lump as she tried, once again, to keep them from coming into her eyes. She could feel her bottom lip quivering under the pressure of trying to hold it all in, but… she knew that it was useless to try. If she could feel him… he could feel her. He knew her fear just as much as she knew his anger; they were one in all things, until the bitter end.

    The bitter end.

    "Okay," she whispered, barely able to force the word from between her trembling lips. Her heart was beating so hard that she could hear it in her ears; her breath was finding it hard to leave her lungs; everything seemed to be closing down on her.

    She hadn't asked to be a heroine. She hadn't asked for any of this. She had never, in her life, claimed that she was brave, or that she was anything like her father. Her valiant, heroic father, who had gone down in his plane for the sake of saving the planet. Whether or not Starscream had killed him was irrelevant – he had died a hero, and now she would have to do the same.

    But she wasn't a hero… nor was she brave.

    She was petrified.

    Oh, please, God. Let this be a mistake… I don't want to die… I don't want to die!

    Starscream suddenly extended a long finger and lifted her chin with its tip, forcing her to look at him. "You're afraid," he murmured.

    "Of course I am," she choked out, all resistance against her tears collapsing as they began to pour out of her eyes like the Niagara Falls. She could feel more and more of them clogging up her throat and forcing themselves into her tear ducts, and she didn't have the heart to stop them now. "Wouldn't you be? Or am I just b-being pathetic?"

    "But I am, Alexis." He stared into her eyes, burning the backs of them with his fierce, red-hot gaze. "I am afraid."

    She was so shocked that she stopped crying.

    She had known Starscream for three years, and even now – even now that she was bonded to him – she couldn't decipher all the secrets and obscurities of his past. Try as she might, she had never been able to work him out completely; he was simply too complex, too intricate, for her to do so. But one thing she had always been certain of was that Starscream never, ever admitted that he was scared. He had always liked to think of himself as being invincible – and he would never let anyone think otherwise.

    Not even her.

    "Y-you are?" she managed to blurt out.

    "Yes," he confirmed in an undertone, sounding tense. "I am."

    Before she could ask him what he meant – or what was wrong with him – his optics snapped to something behind her and he snarled softly. She turned around – only to see Mikaela, who was standing between the trees that hid the clearing from sight and was already turning bright red in embarrassment under Starscream's dark, annoyed glare.

    "'Kaela?" Alexis enquired bemusedly.

    "Oh my God – I am so sorry," her best friend apologised profusely, her tanned face reddening. "I didn't realise – I mean, I did, but – they said you might be here, and they sent me, and – sorry," she finished limply, biting her lip.

    Still glaring at the blushing brunette, Starscream gently lowered Alexis to the floor and she stepped from his hand, clutching the chamois around herself self-consciously. She imagined that Ratchet would have taken her at her word and told Mikaela what she and Starscream had been doing the night before, and she didn't mind her closest friend knowing, but she still wasn't keen on flaunting her barely-dressed form around.

    Mikaela continued to chew anxiously on her lip for a moment before she looked up at Starscream. "Starscream, I'm sorry. Really. It's just… Optimus figured that Alexis might want a second to get ready, so he asked me to take her back to her room so she can change or whatever." She looked back at Alexis. "Is that okay?"

    "Fine by me," Alexis said with a sigh, wishing she sounded more enthusiastic.

    "Hmph," was Starscream's only response, though she could sense that he wasn't really angry with Mikaela. "I will wait with the Axalon, then." With that, he stood up and leapt into the air and blasted towards the open sky without another word.

    Alexis swallowed. This was what she had been afraid of.

    Starscream didn't know how to deal with emotional pain. Now that she had access to some of his memories, she could just about grasp – with what little skill she currently had with this bond – that Megatron had been extremely abusive towards him, both verbally and physically, and that he had dealt with it by numbing himself of all feeling. He had tried everything to make himself hollow – he had severed his pain processors, killed others to force his agony onto someone else, and had even, on one occasion, tried to put his own spark out.

    And now he was doing it again. He was trying to distance himself from her, hoping to make himself dead to her at the last minute to save himself a little of the pain of losing her.

    She had almost forgotten that Mikaela was there until she felt the other girl's hand on her forearm. "Alexis?"

    "Yeah?" she replied, looking up into Mikaela's aqua eyes.

    "I'm gonna miss you."

    That was it. That was all she needed to break. The tears starting spilling once again; her heart cracked down the middle; everything in her world collapsed in on itself as Mikaela said those four simple words. Because she was going to miss Mikaela, too. She would miss Ratchet, Ironhide, Sam, Optimus, Jade, Skyfire, the Twins, Bumblebee, and everyone else.

    She would miss… Starscream.

    Sobbing, she felt Mikaela's arm come around her shoulder and buried her face in the brunette's oversized military shirt, hugging her tightly. "I'll miss you too, Mikaela," she choked out, and Mikaela stroked her hair comfortingly as she burst into inexorable, burning tears. "I'll miss you too."



    * * *



    Why is this happening to me?

    Starscream let out an ear-splitting shriek of wrath as he spun through the air as a jet, putting all the resentment and hatred and ragethat he felt into the deafening, sonic screech that exploded from his vocal processors with all the power of a nuclear weapon. He was going faster than the speed of sound, soaring up and down and in all directions and not caring where in the Pit he was going – as long as it was as far away from the Autobots and the others as it was possible to be.

    He knew he wasn't going to go far. He wasn't intending to leave her, in spite of how much he wanted to – if only to spare himself the pain. But he needed to fly – he needed to explode with fury, and he didn't want to do that in front of Alexis.

    His spark mate…

    Throwing himself into a rapid barrel roll, he blasted towards the ground at top speed, daring himself not to pull up. The idea of smashing into the ground at such high speeds, crushing his central processor and extinguishing his spark in an instant, was sorely tempting at this particular moment in time. If only he could – but Cybertronians took more than a high-speed impact to die.

    And he was a coward. Megatron had been right all along, the son-of-a-glitch – he was a disgusting, good-for-nothing coward! He didn't have the hardware to just crash into the ground, because he was slaggin' terrified of the pain – what a cringing, snivelling piece of scum he really was! Why did Megatron always have to be so maddeningly right about everything – everything derogatory he had ever said about him was true! He was a disgrace to the Decepticon name – not only that, but to the name of every Cybertronian that had ever existed.

    "CURSE YOU, MEGATRON!" he screamed to the emptiness of the air as he pulled up, finding himself near the Potomac River again. "I HATE YOU!"

    He was glad he was dead. The slagger. The hideous, sadistic bastard!

    Oh, but he hated Unicron even more than he had hated Megatron. Because Unicron, slag his very name, had stolen the one thing – the one, solitary thing – that he had ever felt something for. He had finally made his spark whole – something that Megatron had laughed at the idea of – and now it was all going to be gone forever.

    Alexis would be gone forever.

    He realised that he had come full circle when he saw the Autobots gathered around Skyfire's Axalon beside the river, and snarled so irately that the very molecules in the air seemed to tremble with the odium in the sound. He didn't want them to be near him. He didn't want anyone near him – he didn't want to be online any longer! But they had seen him now… they were beckoning him back down to them.

    /Starscream, what are you doing?/ Skyfire's infuriatingly calm voice came across his comlink. /Calm yourself, my friend./

    Oh, that was it!

    He transformed in mid-air and used his thrusters to control his descent, but he slammed hard into the ground nonetheless; one giant fist smashed into the grassy earth with enormous strength, making a deep crater as he did so, and the cars in the nearby parking lot trembled under the force of the impact. A few of the humans gathered around the ship scattered in surprise and fear of him as he stormed up to Skyfire and grabbed him by the shoulders, glaring into his navy optics with pure vitriol.

    "Calm myself?" he hissed into Skyfire's shocked face. "Calm myself? Would you be able to calm yourself, Skyfire, if your precious Jade was the one going up into that monster's jaws?"

    Skyfire stared at him, but he could see some spark of – slag it, that was sympathy in his old friend's optics! He didn't want Skyfire's slagging sympathy – he didn't need anyone's sympathy! Just because he was losing his spark mate, it didn't – it didn't make him weak– nothing made Starscream weak! Nothing! He was not weak – he was above what Megatron had told him he was!

    But he wasn't.

    He wasn't.

    "I… apologise, Starscream," Skyfire murmured understandingly. "I was only thinking of your welfare."

    "Slag my welfare," the incensed jet snapped, giving the larger mech a shake for good measure. "Slag everything about me. I don't need your sympathy, Skyfire – I don't need anyof your sympathy!" he added angrily, glaring at the assembled Autobots and Barricade.

    Bumblebee looked as if he might actually leak from the optics. His mouthpiece trembled dangerously and his huge optics looked from Starscream to Skyfire and back again with a melancholy expression.

    "Oh, stop it," Starscream muttered irritably.

    But something about the smaller mech's plaintive look did touch his spark – whether he liked it or not.

    "No one said that they sympathised with you," Rose pointed out heatedly from where she was standing at Barricade's feet. "We all do, of course, but it's not like we're all standing here rubbing your face in the fact that Alexis is about to leave – so shut up and pipe down so we can give her a reasonably nice last goodbye, not one when we're all arguing over your hypersensitivity!"

    Starscream narrowed his optics at her. "Don't test my patience, girl."

    Dear Primus, what was wrong with that insufferable little whelp? How was it that she dared to be so impudent around him, when he was nigh on burning with ire and detestation for everything and everyone in the whole miserable universe, including himself – and her?

    He was working himself up into a frenzy that he was finding it difficult to haul himself out of. He recognised his old self – the Starscream that had been controlled and mistreated by Megatron – in what he was becoming now, but it seemed that he could do nothing to stop the landslide that he was being pulled back into the past by. Something in the back of his central processor told him to stop… to control himself… but he was beginning to lose his grip on the self-control he had managed to exercise since joining the Autobots.

    Rose held his eye contact for a few moments until she clenched her jaw and looked away, folding her arms. "Wouldn't dream of it, love," she assured him through gritted teeth, ramming her hands into her pockets.

    Starscream glared at her once more, just for the satisfaction of it, before he mimicked her stance and shifted his glare to the ground.

    Curse everything.

    Sam's parental units and Rose's father were standing to one side, and had observed the entire exchange with curious and uncertain expressions. Sam's mother – a dark-haired, wide-eyed human female in her late forties – approached him unexpectedly, and he glowered at her.

    "Yes?"

    "Judy, get back from that thing!" Sam's father exclaimed, making to grab her arm and completely missing. Stupid human. "It's got red eyes – red eyes mean bad, Judy. You know what Jack says about –"

    Ignoring her mate's insistent commands and ranting, Judy Witwicky tilted her head at him and, to his complete shock, patted his lower leg armour. "There now, sweetie," she said gently – to him! "I know it's hard to see someone you love pass away. And I know for a fact that Bumblebee wouldn't cope nearly as well as you have if – God forbid – anything happened to my Sam."

    Bumblebee looked confused as to whether to be offended or not by this statement, and shrugged at Starscream.

    "Oh, yes," Starscream said sarcastically, looking daggers at the ridiculous human woman after taking a moment to roll his optics at Bumblebee, "I'm sure you know exactly how it feels to lose a ma – I mean, ah, a charge. You can't understand something like that, human."

    Primus, he had come far too close to revealing the truth then.

    "But I do, honey." The woman looked right at him with no trace of the fear that her mate held of him, and it unnerved him distinctly as she said her next few words. "I lost a child."

    She had said it far too quietly for Sam or her husband to hear, but Starscream certainly heard it. "You – you lost a sparkling?"

    She smiled a little, but he could see the barely concealed pain on her prematurely lined face. "Yeah," she murmured forlornly. "Ron and I had been trying for years to have a baby, but nothing ever seemed to happen. The doctors said that I probably wouldn't be able to conceive… and that broke my heart. I'd always wanted a baby… and then, one day, I got one. I took a test and I was pregnant."

    The ex-Decepticon stared at her as she recounted her tale, and then glanced up to see Bumblebee with an identical look of horror written all over his faceplates.

    Sam's mother sighed heavily. "I was thrilled; I really was. Ron swore it was a miracle… he thought that God had given us this wonderful gift."

    Starscream let out a small 'hmph' of incredulity; humans and their idols were absurd. "And where is your God now, Judy Witwicky?" he enquired curtly, pointing up at Unicron's globular form in the sea of black cloud. "Why isn't your deity here now – why is he taking Alexis so soon, when she has done nothing – nothing – to deserve it?"

    "That's just what I asked myself when I lost my little girl." Her stare was becoming slightly glazed as she remembered. "I started bleeding… a lot. I knew it wasn't normal, and I was petrified." She looked down at her clasped hands, and Starscream spied her shoulders shaking.

    "What happened?" he muttered, although he already knew the answer.

    She pushed her thick, dark hair back from her face and gave him another weak, humourless smile. "Ron and my brother Charles rushed me to the hospital, of course," she remembered, her eyes sparkling with saline. "And the doctors tried so hard… they really did. They tried their best, but… well, their best wasn't quite good enough. They told me I'd miscarried her… that I'd lost my little girl. My miracle." She looked up and into Starscream's optics. "And now that's how you feel… right?"

    "That I'm… losing a miracle," Starscream repeated, considering what she was saying. "I… suppose… that is how I feel."

    "Exactly," she nodded. "When Sam was born – as a healthy, strong little one – I swore to myself that I would never, ever lose him as I'd lost my first child. That's why Bumblebee –" she motioned towards the listening mech with her hand, "Is so important to me. He's protecting my baby… he's protecting what I worked so hard to gain."

    Bumblebee, whose voice had deteriorated again, clenched a large fist and nodded determinedly instead of speaking. His battle mask snapped down and a fierce look came into his optics, making Judy chuckle at his display of protectiveness over her son.

    "I know, Bumblebee. I trust that you'll take care of him." As Bumblebee backed down, she looked back up at Starscream. "You're losing a miracle today, honey. I understand that, and I can see the same look about you that I saw in myself every day after I lost Samantha. But that doesn't mean that things won't look up… that you won't get something back in return for your loss."

    "I don't want anything back," he muttered darkly. "I want Alexis."

    "But you'll have Alexis," she told him lightly. "She'll always be with you… Starscream. You'll find her in others… in yourself."

    In himself? The woman was even more foolish than he had first thought… there was nothing of Alexis in him, even now that they were bonded together. Alexis was appealing, compassionate and utterly perfect in his eyes – the opposite of all that he had become, and exactly what he had once striven to be. And yet Judy Witwicky had, somehow – like Bumblebee's innocent expression earlier – caught him off guard and touched the most sensitive part of him. The part hidden beneath millennia of murder and bloodshed.

    His spark.

    "Look," Sam suddenly said from his father's side, pointing. "There they are."

    Starscream's head snapped up from where he had been looking at the boy's mother and he saw what Sam was talking about. Approaching from the Pentagon, making their way across the grass, were five figures: John Keller, Optimus, Jasmine Paxton, Mikaela and… Alexis.

    The multitude of soldiers and other people that had gathered all stepped apart, forming a pathway for their heroes to walk down when the time came. Starscream searched for the more familiar of them out of the mass of people, and picked out the young people that he had spent the last three years in the company of.

    Alexis, who had moved towards the front of the encroaching group, stopped and looked around at the staring people. As if she was… surprised by it all.

    Why does she have to look so beautiful before she goes? Starscream thought bitterly.

    She was completely clothed now; the soft flesh that he had touched with his holographic hands was covered and hidden from him, but she still looked stunning to him. Her short hair was combed and clipped out of her eyes; her slender form was accentuated by a fitted white blouse, and a pair of denim jeans covered her slender legs. The shirt hung open at the neckline, revealing the bright green gem that was lying innocently on her décolletage, reflecting the fire of Unicron.

    Although many of the onlookers looked away out of respect for her, some did not. He couldn't blame them. He couldn't.

    She went to each of her friends in turn, embracing each one. She wished Carlos good luck and warned him not to get into too much trouble, causing him to grin and ruffle her hair; she bade Miles farewell, and expressed her hope that he would do well in the physics course that they had both been planning on taking. She hugged Jade and both of them cried a little, with Jade repeating how sorry she was for what was happening and Alexis assuring her that it was alright, and that she hoped the rest of her life with Skyfire was wonderful.

    Which, undoubtedly, it would be.

    Mikaela shared another hug with her best friend, and dissolved into hysterics when the gravity of the situation hit her. Ratchet knelt down to console her, and exchanged his own farewells with Alexis, as did Bumblebee. Sam was next, holding the thin young woman close and promising, when she asked him to, that he would take good care of Mikaela.

    Starscream's spark was shattering in its casing as he watched each exchange. This is… not happening… he told himself aggressively in his central processor, over and over and over, as if he could drum the message into himself. It's not real…

    But it was!

    Alexis stopped when she came to face Rose. The two of them regarded each other for a moment, and Starscream watched them suspiciously. If the girl even thought about saying anything spiteful now… there would be a terrible price to pay.

    Then, without any prior warning, Rose put her arms around her stepsister, and the two of them burst into tears.

    "I'm so sorry I called you a whore, Alexis," he heard the redhead say in a muffled voice through her sobs, and Alexis nodded, her lip trembling. "And I'm so s-sorry I was so awful to you – you didn't deserve it – and you don't d-deserve this, you really don't –"

    "It's okay," Alexis said in a tearful undertone, "I'm sorry I called you a bitch –"

    "I am a bitch," Rose managed to laugh disconnectedly through her tears. "But I get what you're saying."

    Alexis clutched Rose tightly around the waist, her head on the slightly older girl's shoulder. "You would have made a really great sister in the end," she managed to force out between her whimpering, "I'm just sorry we didn't start off so great… but I hope you have a g-great life, Rose… and I'm sorry I c-can't be there for your history g-graduation after college."

    "Don't worry, love," her stepsister said quietly, her voice hoarse after crying so much in such a short space of time. "Just go knowing that we all love you, and that we'll miss you."

    Starscream said nothing.

    But suddenly… he respected Rose Connelly. It would take him time to like her, but… yes. He respected her for her admission of guilt.

    Alexis turned away then and her mother held her close for a moment, saying something to her that even Starscream, with his excellent auditory receptors, couldn't quite catch. Jasmine's face was twisted with bitterness, much as his was, and her eyes were red with tears, but she still managed to kiss her daughter's forehead and bid her farewell before she stumbled into the arms of Rose's father, coughing out angry, tearless gasps of anguish as Alexis stepped away from her.

    He could feel her agony through their connection. Feel the sense of isolation that was already descending upon her.

    Optimus Prime approached him as Alexis turned to say goodbye to Maggie Madsen and Glen Whitmann – the latter of whom immediately seized her in a crushing bear hug and wept 'see ya, shorty'– and he glanced up at the taller Autobot with what he hoped was a courteous expression – although with all the negative, black emotions that were raging through him, he doubted that they were entirely absent from his face.

    "Goodbye then, Starscream," the commander said softly, placing a hand on his shoulder. "And thank you, from the bottom of my spark, for three years of loyalty and service. I only wish that we had overcome our differences earlier."

    How were you supposed to respond to these overdramatic, poignant… speeches that Optimus came out with?

    "Uh… that's… fine…" Starscream replied with discomfiture, completely stumped on what sort of reaction to give the leader.

    "I will take care of her until the very last second," Optimus continued in a low voice, blue optics burning into crimson with strength and promise behind them, despite their washed-out hue. "You have my word as the last member of the Prime dynasty."

    Now he had something to say. "You had better keep to it."

    Optimus managed a thin smile, his faceplates turning up in a tiny gesture of reassurance. "I see that we understand each other."

    As the Autobot commander turned away from him, Starscream's optics remained on his retreating back as he approached Ratchet and Ironhide, his oldest friends among the group, to say his final farewell to them. It hadn't really occurred to him that Optimus would be the last person with Alexis when she… he shook his head, cursing the thoughts and mentally damning them all to the Pit with every profanity he could think of. He didn't want to picture the terror in her eyes… had no wish to hear her last screams as Unicron exploded, taking her with him…

    He looked down with a jolt of shock when he felt someone touch his armour again.

    Alexis.

    It was his turn to say… goodbye.

    Every single pair of eyes was upon them, but Starscream couldn't have cared less about them. He no longer cared whether or not they knew… though he knew that they didn't. To the eyes of the watching crowd, he was her guardian alone… a guardian that shared a close friendship with her, but no more.

    If only they could understand the previous night. The union of two such different beings: male and female, as nature determined; human and Decepticon, as nature forbade. The divine light that had shone in him through the young woman that stood in front of him… the nineteen-year-old school girl carrying a burden that was billions of years old.

    He knelt down to be at her level, looking intensely and hungrily into the emerald eyes that he would never see again.

    Alexis's pale face was blotchy with tears now – even the strands at the front of her hair were soaked with them – and they were still flowing freely from the torment of her many farewells. The shades of green in her eyes were sparkling and scintillating like the fractured glass of a broken bottle, and she was clenching her fists to stop her small, bony hands from quivering.

    They stared at each other in silence for longer than Starscream remembered, but with so much more in their gazes that time could bind. But he could think of nothing to say.

    Words could not express his regret.

    But hers could. In his central processor, each and every word that she had ever spoken to him was waiting for the moment to be released at a time such as this… and now he let them flow through him, savouring the sound of every syllable.

    I am not afraid of you!

    Come on, Starscream, I know you've got some hopes and dreams somewhere in that spark of yours…

    "Well… I guess… this is it," Alexis choked out, although she came no closer to him than she already was. It was as if she understood the hurt that he was suffering… the agony that would explode inside if she should touch him. He could barely keep the previous night from awakening in his memories, and he didn't want it to… he didn't want to remember, when in mere seconds, it would all be gone. As if it had all been a dream.

    I didn't… feel… whole. Not without you.

    "Yes," he muttered. "The end."

    She bit her bottom lip, and two more tears escaped her eyes. "I…" She seemed to want to say something and then thought better of it, looking away from him and at the ground as the tears rolled down her cheeks.

    I know they won't hurt me… you'll protect me…

    "Alexis? It is time."

    Alexis looked up when Optimus spoke, and then looked back at Starscream with a desperate expression. He could sense her confusion, her distress, and her internal struggling; clearly she, too, had no idea what to say. It had never been like this between them – Alexis was the only one he would talk to, apart from Skyfire on the odd occasion – but what was there to say? Was a simple 'goodbye' enough to convey the agony ripping his spark apart? Was 'I'll miss you' enough to tell her that her death was stealing the half of him that he had only just recovered?

    People were still looking at them. Murmuring amongst themselves in speculation, no doubt, as their teenaged saviour faltered in front of the particularly vicious-looking alien robot.

    "Goodbye, then," he murmured at last. "For the last time… Alexis Paxton."

    She took in a deep, trembling breath and nodded, tears pouring down her cheeks in a relentless flow. "G-goodbye Starscream…"

    I love you, Starscream…

    Optimus turned around, and so did Alexis. Those who had strayed from the pathway that they had made towards the Axalonquickly stepped back again; humans and Cybertronians alike clearing the way for their redeemers. Alexis glanced over her shoulder, her look one of frantic uncertainty, but Optimus was on his way, and she was following…

    I love you…

    He had never had such a glorious thing as her; such a blessing had always been a distant dream for a seeker under Megatron's constant control. To have someone to hold, and someone to tell you that they loved you. Even if you were a murderer. Even if you had sacrificed all chance of friendship or honour for a pathetic, unrealistic position of power that would never have brought happiness to him anyway. And then Alexis had come… crossed his sky like a shooting star… before disappearing into the night.

    "Attention! Present… arms!"

    Starscream's optics flicked to the assembled soldiers. They all sprung to a smart salute as Optimus and Alexis passed them; those carrying weapons presented the underside of their firearms to the two of them, and Alexis looked as if she might pass out with shock.

    Sam, Miles and Carlos all joined in with the salutation too, and the girls followed suite a few moments later.

    Skyfire pointed a control device at the Axalon and an entrance bridge emerged from within, coming to rest against the ground at Optimus's feet. The commander looked back over his bulky shoulder, gazing at all of the humans and Cybertronians.

    /Till all are one, my friends/ came his radio call on every channel. /May Primus keep you until the end of all things./

    But Alexis was frozen in her position, staring at Starscream.

    "Alexis?" Optimus encouraged gently.

    Alexis looked up at him. She looked back at Starscream. She looked from one to the other, her face indecipherable.

    Then she broke away from the Autobot leader's side, sprinting back through the parted crowd; past the soldiers and the spectators, and past all those that she was leaving; she tore past Jade and Seraphim, Skyfire, all of them – and then suddenly she was back, and she was there – and she flung her arms around his neck, right in front of everyone.

    "I love you, Starscream," she whispered against his armour. "I love you… and I'll m-miss you…"

    Some had heard. Others had not. Whispers passed through the crowd; whispers and rumours, already forming in their chrysalises before they would explode into ugly moths of lies and flutter about on the wind, spreading the fabrications and stories that they would undoubtedly make up about what they had seen and heard.

    He didn't slagging care about what they thought.

    He didn't speak the words aloud; despite the fact that he couldn't care less what the humans had to say about his feelings for her, he didn't want to taint the memory of her in her mother's mind until the time was right. He was far older and more experienced than she was; he knew the power of their connection, and he forced the words into her mind, along with all the strength that he could muster up to offer her. He pushed it all through her body with an iron will, making her gasp softly in surprise.

    I love you, Alexis – never forget. Never let that go.

    "I won't…" she whispered. "I won't."

    Then she stumbled away from him and ran back towards Optimus, like a frightened child fleeing to a parent after a nightmare. The commander scooped her up and placed her on his shoulder before inclining his head to all of them.

    "Farewell," Optimus said simply. "And good luck… to you all."

    With that, he raised his head proudly and walked up the bridge into the Axalon's gleaming form…

    … and he did not look back.

    The entrance gangway withdrew on Skyfire's remote-controlled command, and the pearl-coloured doors sealed themselves with a soft whirr as the turbofans of the vessel fired up with a deafening roar. Hot air was blasted from the giant ship's jets with a spurt of blue fire, and the humans with longer hair found themselves blinded as it blew it around their faces like a gale.

    At Starscream's feet, Rose and Sam's mother each put a hand on his armour… as if they hoped to comfort him.

    Nothing could comfort him!

    Slowly, the mighty aircraft began to rise on the spot like a hovercraft; its alien wings extended and angled themselves to the wind, and the curved nose tilted upward to face Unicron.

    No. Don't make her leave me. NO…

    They watched the Axalon disappear. All of them together… and yet they were all so far apart.

    She was gone.

    She was gone… forever.



    * * *



    Author's Note: OH MY GOD I'M FREE! EXAMS ARE OVER! I'M SO HAPPY I COULD EXPLODE! So you get a really super-long chapter to make up for lost time! :D  I'll be cutting them down a little after this so they're more manageable, but I had a lot to say in that chapter, as you can tell… I hope I managed to convey the pain that Starscream and Alexis are going through, and that you enjoyed the chapter in general. Next up… the journey to Mission City! And, for a change – I will be updating SOON! :) 





    *Chapter 21*: Blood Price





    Chapter Twenty-One

    The Blood Price



    * * *



    Primus… what a pitiful scene.

    Barricade eyed the miserable humans and equally gloomy Autobots warily as they began to be grouped into pairs by Ironhide, who appeared to have declared himself Supreme Ruler of the Universe in Prime's absence and was ordering everyone around as if he was back on Cybertron with a team of sparklings. Skyfire, the obnoxiously nice Air Commander, was hardly helping matters – he was chivvying the humans along, chivvying the Autobots along, and generally grating on Barricade's fuel passages.

    "Right," the cannon-wielding buffoon announced ostentatiously. "We're splittin' up into groups of two – and no more than two. One human per Autobot. You're all going to be with your secondary guardians, not primary – Prime's last orders, so no arguments."

    Secondary guardians?

    A deep, angry frown distorted Barricade's features, all four of his crimson optics narrowing suspiciously as he picked his charge out among the group of humans. What did the imbecile of a weapons specialist mean by that? Why would the humans had to travel with their secondary guardians – Rose was riding with him. This was the perfect opportunity to slate the medic's name to her and try and wheedle her into giving her half-spark to him; to have this opportunity stolen would be disastrous for his plans.

    Rose, who appeared to be oblivious to his fury, raised her eyebrows; her eyes, he noticed, were still rimmed red from her tears over her stepsister's departure. "What do you mean, secondary guardians?" she asked perplexedly. "I only just got a primary guardian, mate."

    He knew he was supposed to be trying to frag this human at some point, but her accent was infuriating.

    … And why did she insist on calling everyone 'mate'? What did it mean to humans – it couldn't possibly mean the same as what it meant to Cybertronians, or she would be spark mate to just about every male Autobot and human amongst the group. It was absolutely absurd. Rose Connelly in general was absolutely absurd.

    "Yeah, kid, secondary guardians." Ironhide motioned towards Ratchet with one of his cannons, which were activated for no apparent reason that Barricade could see. "There's yours – go on."

    Barricade's expression twisted into an angry scowl when he saw it.

    Had he just said that the medic was the girl's secondary guardian?

    Anger began to wind its shadowy coils around Barricade's glacial spark as Rose turned around inquisitively, her lips parting to some extent when she saw who Ironhide was talking about. He didn't miss the slight rise in her adrenaline levels, and was immediately suspicious of it – what had that slagger been telling her? She quickly closed her mouth and tried to look casually interested, but he could tell that she was affected by the news in some way. He would be damned to the Pit if she was going to Mission City with him…

    "… Oh," Rose said quietly, and he grew even more livid when he saw her smile at him. "Alright."

    And Ratchet smiled back.

    Oh, you devious slagger, Barricade thought wrathfully, his fists tightening as he glared at the Autobot with absolute disgust. Rage was boiling up in his spark and burning the inside of its casing with fury, and he snarled softly to himself. So much for your Autobot lies about fighting with honour… no one pulls a sly move like that on me, Autoscum…

    It was glaringly obvious what had happened, and Barricade cursed himself for not considering the threat earlier. He knew that the humans had each been appointed secondary guardians – some quite unknowingly – but had never paused to think about the fact that Rose had still been in need of one. Of course, leaving an opportunity open like that had been foolish, and he had paid the price for it when Ratchet had seized it… but it wouldn't happen again. You did not cross Barricade and live.

    Fine.

    If the medic wanted to play dirty, then so would he.

    Trying to resist smirking, he began to scan the World Wide Web for a human image that a female would find overpoweringly attractive. The hologram he was currently using was a moustached, middle-aged police officer that he had chosen for its simplicity and ordinary appearance… that would not do. He needed something… irresistible.

    Slowly but surely, he pieced his new image together. As the humans began to move towards the Autobots that they would be travelling with, Barricade was downloading the required information that he would need to project a hologram of a tall, arresting and powerfully built man of an indeterminable age, with jet-black hair and the scarlet eyes that he would be forced, by his Decepticon heritage, to keep. Accessing several websites that dealt with clothing, he selected a simple black-and-white attire and, on a whim, a number of ear and lip piercings.

    An additional thought occurred to him when he spotted Robert Connelly talking to Ratchet – presumably about his daughter. He let his self-satisfied half-smile show on his face as, with a mental flourish, he added his customised police officer's badge on the suit's pocket.

    It wasn't a police uniform, but the badge made it look him look just a little more like a guardian than Ratchet did.

    Watch me be the victor, medic.

    Barricade's true form locked down into impermanent holo-stasis as he transferred his consciousness to the hologram, shaking himself off and grimacing in disgust. Being a hologram was absolutely hideous – he had only done it once or twice so as not to attract unnecessary attention to his driverless vehicular form, and each time had been a short nightmare.

    He gritted his faintly pointed teeth for a moment, clenching his fists and waiting for his body and mind to adjust to the new form. Then his bloody eyes narrowed and he stormed over towards where Rose was turning to say her goodbyes to her father.

    Robert Connelly spotted him first, and cocked an eyebrow. "Who's this, Rose?" he asked sharply.

    "Who?" Rose questioned irritably, turning around – and then the hologram's striking appearance took its toll.

    At once, her eyes grew wide; her heart rate jumped from sixty-six to one hundred and nine beats per minute; her breath caught and her temperature began to rise as colour flushed into her cheeks. Barricade smirked as he approached her, delighted with the effect the masculine image was clearly having – the crooked smile only served to make her heart rate increase by a couple more beats. He quirked a pierced eyebrow at her and she swallowed, putting a hand against Ratchet's leg to steady herself.

    That, he reasoned, could be interpreted as being good or bad.

    Rose's father looked between the two of them, looking annoyed. "Well?" he demanded, and Barricade cursed his bad luck for having a British spark partner. These accents… "Would anyone like to inform me, or shall I just –"

    "Greetings, Agent Connelly," Barricade interrupted shortly. "I am Barricade."

    For a moment, he dimly wished that he didn't have the deep, discordant voice of the interrogator that he was. In hologram form, the Cybertronian voices remained distinctly mechanical and exactly the same as they were before – which made the human image look strange in comparison – and Robert Connelly stared at him in shock. "Y-you're who?" he stammered.

    "Barricade, Dad," Rose explained, her own voice wavering a little as she gaped at him. "M-my guardian, you know… the one that turns into a police car…"

    Bingo, Barricade thought victoriously as the human male's entire expression changed from one of suspicion to one of something close to delight. Ratchet seemed to catch on to what he was doing and glared at him coldly as he continued to smirk to himself from the medic's shin level.

    "A police car? Well, that's marvellous," the man raved optimistically, patting Rose on the shoulder. "I didn't notice before… I suppose I was concentrating on the fact that he was a giant alien robot… but that's wonderful, love. I couldn't have chosen a better guardian myself. He's even got a police badge!" he commented approvingly, clearly missing the Decepticon mask. "Why don't you ride with him to Mission City, Rose?"

    Oh, you foolish, naïve human. You are too trusting…

    "Yes," Barricade agreed pointedly, glancing at Ratchet with a wicked grin. "Your paternal unit is correct. It would be better for you."

    Rose frowned, looking uncertain and rather torn. "But – but Ironhide said that we had to travel with our secondary guardians," she protested hesitantly, shrinking back against Ratchet and pressing a palm to his neon-yellow armour. "I don't think I'd be able to, Dad… I have to go with Ratchet. That's what Optimus wanted…"

    Barricade folded his arms over his massive, muscular chest and narrowed his eyes infinitesimally, glaring into hers with the authority and force that he was determined to exercise over his obstinately mutinous charge. She was his – she belonged to him, whether she liked it or not. She was clinging to the medic like a space barnacle, and he didn't like it one bit… in fact, he was starting to lose his patience with the insubordinate little adolescent. And with the insufferable slagger that had her touching him…

    "I am your guardian," he snarled through clenched teeth, resisting the temptation to grab her and give her a shake. "You're coming with me."

    She gave him an angry, confused look in response, but Ratchet intervened before she could speak again.

    "Rose will be travelling to Mission City with her secondary guardian, just like the other humans," he said coolly, directing his words both at Barricade and Rose's father. "My apologies if either of you have any concerns about the matter – I suggest, if you do, that you take them up with Ironhide."

    "What authority has he to deem whom she travels with?" Barricade spat. "He is not the commander."

    The fact that he barely reached the medic's knee was starting to really infuriate him now, and he folded his arms irritably. It was bad enough that even in his true form he wasn't as tall as the accursed Autobot – Ratchet was almost eight feet taller than him, exasperating as it was – but being a criminally undersized human was just humiliating for a Decepticon hunter.

    "He is the best we have at the moment, and I believe that he will do excellently," was Ratchet's sharp comeback to his statement, and Barricade sneered at him before he could stop himself. "I suggest, Barricade, that you go and report to him directly for your orders."

    Wrath was filling Barricade to the very brim, boiling over like the molten metals mined from Cybertron as he clenched his massive fist and snarled at the disgusting piece of Autoscum, angry beyond belief. The nerve of it… Robert Connelly took a tentative step backwards when he saw his infuriated glare, joining his daughter in cowering behind the medic like frightened animals.

    Pathetic. All of them were pathetic.

    In an instant, he snapped back to his true form, the hologram fading out of existence as he stood up as a Cybertronian again.

    /You will pay for that, you conniving son-of-a-glitch/ he threatened over a private link, and Ratchet looked unimpressed. /You may have won this battle… but you will not win the war. The girl will be mine – enjoy your time with her. Soon you will be watching me steal her away from you./

    /I will, Barricade/ Ratchet assured him in a maddeningly unruffled tone. /I treasure her for who she is… not for the power that she holds for me. Unlike you./

    /Get slagged, Autoscum/ he hissed with vitriol, giving him one last glare for good measure before he turned and began making his way over to Ironhide, shaking with rage. /I will not be defeated by you, you useless old scrap heap!/

    /Don't get your tailpipe in a twist, Barricade…/

    It was extremely lucky, in Barricade's opinion, that what was happening on the other side of the parking lot was at least dimly interesting to him – else the pathetic son-of-a-glitch would have found his own tailpipe rammed up his aft and his head on the other side of the universe in a Junkion scrap heap.

    "That ain't fair!" Seraphim was shouting at Ironhide, her hands on her hips as she stood in front of her charge protectively. "He's my charge!"

    "And your alternate form is not suitable for this trip, kid!" Ironhide argued back, jabbing a thick finger at the tiny femme. "Carlos is ridin' with Sunstreaker – Prime's orders to Skyfire directly. No arguments!" he snapped when she opened her mouth again. "D'you want him to get so exhausted that he falls off you and smashes his skull open?"

    Arcee looked shocked at his brutal description. "Ironhide!"

    So this was another 'secondary guardians' case. Barricade was sorely tempted to join in with the verbal assault on Ironhide – he was just as irate with the decision as the diminutive femme was – but he didn't want to appear desperate for this human. The only reason he needed the little glitch was to complete his spark and reach his full power potential… he didn't share the medic's charming opinion of 'treasuring her for who she is, not for the power that she holds'. Ridiculous Autobot niceties.

    Seraphim turned around, folding her arms and clenching her jaw. She looked as if she might leak from the optics if she didn't control herself, but managed to hold it back. "I'm a good guardian," she muttered.

    Starscream suddenly laughed scornfully from where he was preparing to transform; the sound was incongruous and sour, and made his angular face twist into a bitter grimace. "You're about as much good as a guardian as Megatron would be," he sneered at the small, proud drone. "Remember when you tried to defend your friend against me and I held you up like a rag doll when you tried to free her? You're pathetic."

    And, for a moment, Seraphim looked truly hurt.

    Barricade couldn't help but be surprised, even in his blistering anger with the medic; Starscream had sounded even more heartless than he had in his Decepticon days. And back in those days… Starscream had been empty. Certainly he had wondered, in the past, whether or not he had a spark… but Starscream… he certainly hadn't had one. Or he had done a spectacular job of hiding it, if it had ever existed. The murder… the slaughter… no spark could have survived that carnage.

    Yet there must have been a spark there… for that human girl, Alexis, had awakened it.

    Skyfire's charge, Jade Rivers, let out an insulted gasp and clenched her small fists from where she was standing at Ironhide's feet. "Seraphim is not pathetic!" she shouted at Starscream, reddening in fury. "You take that back right now, Starscream!"

    But the femme's face had already contorted into a indignant scowl. Ignoring Jade, she narrowed her cobalt optics at the massive jet. "I may be a shitty guardian, you fraghead," she spat poisonously, "But at least my charge ain't fuckin' dead!"

    Silence.

    Barricade couldn't help but be impressed by Seraphim's bravado, suicidal as it was. She had always been far smaller than the others – even when she had been a Decepticon fighter drone, she had been smaller than her fellow drones – but even then, she had been gutsy. As a Decepticon, she had attacked Starscream quite fearlessly; later, as an Autobot, he had seen her battling Soundwave at the base, despite how tiny she was in comparison to the Communications Officer. Strangely, he found that he vaguely admired it.

    Vaguely.

    Starscream's resentful expression twitched immediately, the antagonism giving way to a pain that Barricade had never seen from him before. He knew that the once Air Commander had suffered under Megatron on Cybertron, but he had never shown weakness in front of his subordinates. It just wasn't done among Decepticons.

    "You're right," he finally snarled. "Evidently, your guardianship is superior to mine. Thanks for the reminder."

    With that, he transformed into a jet and blasted into the sky, pursued at a slightly more tranquil pace by Skyfire and two human Raptor aircraft. Barricade spied Jade looking miserable as she watched the Spirit bomber take to the air, and tried to repress a feeling of irritation. It was pitiable how humans and Autobots became so dependent on each other.

    Or humans and Decepticons, as was so blindingly evident with Starscream's reaction to Seraphim's taunt.

    "Sera… he didn't mean it," Jade said gently, putting a hand on the drone's metallic arm. "And you didn't really mean that, did you?"

    Although her arms remained folded stubbornly over her chest, Seraphim's stiff look slackened and she cast her optics downwards. "No," she admitted, her voice wavering slightly. "That was pretty out of order of me…" She glanced at the human female. "I'm okay, Jadie… you go with 'Hide. Stay safe, yeah? And you, Carlos."

    Her charge nodded, pressing his fist against hers for some unknown, but undoubtedly ludicrous reason. "You're the best freakin' guardian ever, Sera," he told her in a stern voice, and she nodded almost tiredly as he patted her on the back. "Don't you let that hijo de puta tell you different, vale? You rock." He wrapped an arm around her in a brief half-hug and she looked slightly comforted, but still troubled.

    The head buffoon interrupted their sentimental farewells at that moment.

    "Right. Autobots, Decepticons, humans – transform and get going," the Autobot weapons specialist announced dryly before transforming into a hefty pickup truck and allowing Jade to climb in on the passenger's side.

    Barricade smirked sadistically as he followed suite and folded back down into the Mustang police car, his siren whining to life as he started his engine and roared past Ratchet within five seconds of doing so.

    Ironhide obviously couldn't bring himself to say transform and roll out.



    * * *



    Carlos glared out of Sunstreaker's open window from behind his dark sunglasses and puffed on his cigarette determinedly as they sped down the freeway.

    This absolutely sucked. He really liked Sunstreaker, and he was glad that he had such an awesome secondary guardian, but it would have been so much more fun if he'd been riding to Mission City with Seraphim. She was his best friend, apart from Rad and Jade, and it would have been great to try and race the others on the Vespa – 'try' being the operative word. That was the kind of pointless fun that they usually had together, and he loved it – hanging out with her had always been great.

    He felt sorry for her, too. It had been really cruel of Starscream to say that to her – sure, he had just lost his novia, but he didn't have to take it out on a little 'bot like Seraphim. Mind you, she had been pretty harsh in return… she was small, all right, but she had the mouth of someone at least three times Skyfire's size.

    Sighing heavily, he took another drag from his heaven-sent cigarrillo and leant his chin against the window's edge.

    He wasn't technically meant to be smoking – he had been trying, after Jade had begged him, to give them up – but he couldn't be bothered now. Dio, he was in the middle of an alien war; he was about to fight alongside his padre and the Ejército del Aire; and, just to top it all off, Jade still wasn't really talking to him properly. He was way too pissed with her to listen to her about not smoking now – he needed a freaking break!

    But he wasn't pissed with her.

    He couldn't be pissed with Jadie. His Jadie.

    "Hey, Carlos… you okay?" Sunstreaker's voice suddenly came through the speakers, interrupting the feel-good tune that had previously been playing on the radio. "I mean… I wasn't going to say anything… but you look like you're about to kill somebody. And you should probably put that deathstick out before the Hatchet self-destructs."

    Carlos almost choked on his cigarette. "… 'Deathstick'? Man, where the heck did you hear that?" he snorted, grinning in spite of himself.

    "Ah, I dunno… maybe from Rose?" was the impish response. "Her British talk cracks me up – she's great. But seriously, kid, why are you puffing on that Pit-spawned thing? I'm no medic, but I can tell that the chemicals aren't exactly human friendly. And they're making me stink like a slag mine."

    "Sorry, hombre."

    He guessed that Sunstreaker was right – he hadn't sounded annoyed, but it was kind of selfish to smoke in a sentient car. He flicked the offending cigarette out of the window, and winced when he saw it connect with the windscreen of Agent Simmons's SUV. The man gave him an infuriated glare and shook his fist out of the window, and Carlos grinned guiltily at him through Sunstreaker's back windshield, giving him a sloppy salute before twisting back around in his seat and praying that he would have forgotten by the time they got to the city.

    Sunstreaker sounded satisfied when he spoke again. "Hey, good man. That'll save me a beating from Hatchet."

    Carlos chuckled. "No hay problema, buddy. What's your action plan for Mission City?" he questioned inquisitively when the thought occurred to him. "You're gonna be with Sideswipe, right?"

    "Oh, yeah. My bro and I stick together wherever we go, battle or not," Sunstreaker assured him proudly. "It's always been that way, since we were sparked a few hundred million years back. It's pretty rare to get twins on Cybertron, but the All Spark created us at the exact same time… it's never happened again since us, either. The universe can only cope with one dose of us. You got any brothers, Carlos?" he added curiously, sounding genuinely interested.

    A sense of cold, unfamiliar homesickness suddenly washed through Carlos and he folded his arms, clenching his jaw.

    He didn't often think about home now that he had his new life in America, but when he did… he always wished that he hadn't. Remembering his former life with his mother and younger sister in his hometown, Morelia, always cut him up inside. It had all been so simple back then… true, he loved his Californian lifestyle, but he missed that exotic taste of home from time to time.

    "No," he admitted slowly in answer to his secondary guardian's question, rubbing the back of his head. "But… I got a sister."

    "Oh yeah? What's she like?"

    The young Hispanic man leant back in the upholstered seat, almost putting his mucky, booted feet up on the dashboard before he remembered himself and kept them where they were. "Her name's Leiana, but we call her Lala," he remembered affectionately, smiling to himself at the memory of his spunky little sister. "She's such a tomboy… I swear, man, she would actually beat up guys in her high school. One of 'em had a bruise the size of Mexico City on his ass once she was done with him… you don't mess with her."

    Sunstreaker whistled. "Sounds like a chick to contend with, my friend. "

    "She is, dude," Carlos grinned, shaking his head. "But I love her to bits. I miss her a lot… but y'know. This is too big for a kid like her."

    "It's too big for any of you kids," Sunstreaker reminded him in a jokingly stern tone, but he didn't sound serious. Sunstreaker never sounded serious, Carlos reflected with an amused smile. "Ah well. It's too late for you punk-aft teenagers now – we're stuck with you, slag the lot of you."

    He laughed incredulously. "Whatever, man – you love us!" he pointed out almost accusingly, knowing without a doubt that he was right.

    "What, you blame me? I haven't got anything else to love – I remain, to this day, stubbornly mateless." He sounded quite annoyed, and Carlos couldn't help but grin behind his hand – he could just sense that this was the beginning of a three-hour long rant about Sunstreaker, as told by Sunstreaker. "I mean, what's not to love about me? Back on Cybertron, femmes were fawning over my paintjob – seriously. It was hotter than it was here on Earth – no offence, but your paint here sucks tailpipe."

    "Uh… none taken, man…"

    "I mean, Arcee's taken by Bumblebee, and Seraphim… well, I like her and all, but she's kind of weird sometimes. And I swear she likes you."

    Carlos snorted with laughter. He had already been over this a thousand times with pretty much everyone on the team: Seraphim was his best friend, but she would never be more than that, for reasons that he swiftly voiced to the narcissistic Autobot. "Sorry, buddy… I don't quite dig the alien robots. Unlike some," he added sullenly, narrowing his eyes and squinting out of the window again as he reclined in his seat.

    There she was. Jade, leaning out of Ironhide's window.

    Her long, dark hair was blowing about in the wind as she looked ahead, the strands barely held in place by the blue kerchief she always wore. She had a slightly worried expression on her sweet, softly featured face, and the force of the air rushing past was making her cheeks glow a rosy, fresh shade of pink as she scanned the fiery sky, chewing on her lip tentatively. Carlos eyed her grouchily, a mixture of annoyance and adoration pushing its way through his veins and making his vision turn red in frustration.

    Looking for the big bastardo, no doubt.

    Sunstreaker paused, clearly trying to work out what he meant, before he let out an astounded cry and veered slightly to the right, prompting Carlos to seize the edges of the seat to keep his ass from sliding off of it. "You like Jade?" he exclaimed, ignoring Carlos's exhausted shushing motions. "But – Carlos, seriously, man –"

    "I know, I know!" Carlos complained, aggravation surging up in his chest before he could stop it. "'Spark partner' and all that mierda."

    Cristo, even Sunstreaker was getting all pissy about his crush on Jade. He'd hoped that the Twins, at least, might be okay with the whole thing – that they might not flare up like freaking flamethrowers at the mere mention of his outlawed attraction to his closest female friend – but his hopes, once again, were dashed.

    ¿Mi vida es muy mal en este momento, no? he mourned blackly, resting his tanned cheek against his hand.

    "Well… I don't want to be a killjoy, buddy, but it's true," Sunstreaker admitted, sounding a bit winded by the mere suggestion. "I mean, I get why you like her – she's good-looking for a meatbag, I guess -" Carlos raised an eyebrow. "But you don't want to mess with the spark bond. Back on Cybertron they used to execute 'bots that looked the wrong way at another mech's femme… we never got told how they did it exactly, but a couple of friends of mine were arrested by the Elite Guard for that. Never saw 'em again."

    Jeez! Were these guys savages, or something?

    Carlos grimaced, rubbing the back of his head. "Estupendo. I'm doomed," he muttered, sliding down in his seat.



    * * *



    Oh, this planet.

    This innocent, glittering jewel in the depths of space… just waiting for obliteration.

    Sideways allowed himself a pitiless smirk as he scanned the planet Earth once again, his mauve optics mere slits of callous satisfaction as he took the planet's sheer exquisiteness in. Even as it was choked by smoke, this world was a beautiful one – it was true, sickening as it was to admit – but beauty meant bounty. Organic bounty: fresh fossil fuel for the taking, and life for his master to draw into himself and become even stronger.

    And six billion insignificant human lives to extinguish in the process.

    In a way, he supposed that it was a pity. The humans would have made rather an admirable workforce – there were enough of them to make them relatively useful, and some of them were adequate when it came to strength – but Unicron had no interest in recruiting slaves. His purpose was to consume every last one of these trivial worlds; to suck every breath of life that they hid from the outside; to destroy, to obliterate, to achieve his goal of ultimate peace in the universe.

    His master's aspirations were good.

    His methods… were less so.

    Turning back to the solitary, hellfire-crimson optic that was looming behind him, he swept his upper body into a deep bow of absolute adulation. His master was so… powerful. He deserved only the greatest reverence from mere subordinates such as himself… "My Lord," he said softly, keeping his optics lowered as he spoke out of respect. "The troops are ready for battle. Should I give the command?"

    Behind him, there came the soft, delicious hum of Unicron's battle drones as they waited impatiently for the moment to come. The moment that Unicron would give His assent and they could fall upon the Earth in a hailstorm of protoforms; the moment that they could fly down and tear their claws into the hides of Autobots, Decepticons and humans alike. There would be no mercy… not for any of them. They were all pathetic and inadequate. Their war was worthless. They had no place in Unicron's perfect, idyllic universe.

    The metallic ground rumbled beneath his feet as Unicron spoke, and the drones shrieked excitedly at hearing their master's voice. "They have sent Prime and the All Spark…" Unicron seethed, the colossal optic burning so red-hot that Sideways could feel it scorching on his armour like the Sun. "PRIME!"

    The drones screeched louder, basking in His rage. Baying for blood.

    Sideways wheeled around, his own optics darkening as he scanned what little of the planet he could see through the smoke and flames that surrounded His glorious form. "What do you mean, my Lord?" he questioned, shaking his head.

    Then he saw it.

    From the thick, black smog that was slowly spreading through Earth's atmosphere, there was a small, dazzlingly white light. It was like a pearl in the deepest part of the ocean; its sparkling illumination looked out of place and unfamiliar in the hot, filthy conflagration that cloaked his master, and he snarled softly when he focused with his binocular vision and tried to recognise the winged, aerodynamic shape that was slowly approaching from the continent of America.

    … a ship?

    Then, with a wrenching jolt of horror, he realised.

    "The Axalon!" he cried out in outrage, frenzied ire pulsing in his spark as he clenched his fists and let out a roar of recognition. "SKYFIRE!"

    He remembered the stupid oaf of an Autobot telling him about his plans for a ship in the brief period that he had been with the Autobots. During that time, none of them had been particularly inclined to associate with him – for perfectly good reasons, he supposed – but Skyfire had always been far too trusting. He had indulged a little information about his plans for an exploration vessel, but Sideways had never suspected that it might come to anything. Now, it seemed… it posed the only possible threat to his master.

    How… infuriating.

    "SILENCE!"

    The drones cowered and whined before Unicron as His vast optic narrowed and blazed in fury, and Sideways felt a slight twinge of fear when he saw how infuriated He truly was. He was more than aware of His power, and had no wish to be at the receiving end of it.

    The tremors slowly subsided.

    "Sideways…" Unicron growled, and he swiftly dropped into a second bow. "I will deal with this ship. Even the Matrix and the All Spark have no power against me." He paused. "The humans and the Autobots are gathering an aerial and ground-based resistance force in the place called Mission City in North America. You will lead the troops there and destroy everything you find. Leave none alive… but bring the seeker, Starscream, to me. I want to see his face before he dies."

    "Ah, yes," Sideways purred in concurrence, smirking beneath his battle mask. "Starscream."

    The dawn of that pitiable coward's death was finally breaking on this blood-red horizon. Sideways remembered all too well how Megatron had treated Starscream in the past… and now, on this glorious day, it would happen again. Every layer of protection that Starscream had built up would be stripped away… every ounce of hope would be gone when Unicron destroyed him. Sideways could only sigh sorrowfully at the fact that he wouldn't be there to see that burning, over-confident light finally fade from Starscream's optics.

    "He will be the last to die," Unicron rumbled. "I will tear his mate to shreds before his very optics…"

    "An excellent plan, my liege," he congratulated wholeheartedly in response, admiring Unicron's wonderfully evil genius. He truly was a master of planning, even if he was a little excessive in his determination to obliterate the entire universe to achieve peace. "Alexis Paxton will die today."

    Unicron chuckled darkly. "They all will, my loyal Sideways. Each and every one of them will be gone… as if they never were."

    Sideways narrowed his optics victoriously, his mouth twisting into a cold smirk beneath his ever-present battle mask. They deserved to die, slag them all. Their war had torn entire galaxies apart, and now Unicron would annihilate them as a punishment. And, although he wasn't absolutely certain that a universe of nothingness would be pleasurable to exist as a part of… at least it would be at peace.

    Which was right.

    Suddenly, Unicron's patience seemed to disappear, and the surface of the planet-sized Lord of Darkness began to shudder alarmingly beneath Sideways's feet. "GO, my minions!" He bellowed, the sound reverberating through his metallic form as Sideways leapt up into the air obediently, transforming into his protoform and propelling himself forward – away from his master, and towards the organic planet that he had hoped never to step foot on again after the battle with the Autobots. "RISE for your master!"

    "TO EARTH!" Sideways screamed, and the drones immediately transformed into their metallic pod forms and followed him, screeching. "TO VICTORY!"

    They would pay. Each and every human would pay for battling with each other so violently and ending so many innocent lives of their own kind; the Autobots would pay for every Decepticon they had killed, and the Decepticons would pay for every Autobot they had killed. They had all succumbed to chaos and combat, and had tried to be greater and darker than Unicron… and now He would make them pay for disturbing the peace of his slumber.

    And Ratchet would pay for what he did to Thunderblast.

    He would pay with blood.



    * * *



    Author's Note: Sorry that not a great deal happened in this chapter, and it's shorter than usual… it's a bit of a fill-in between Virginia and Mission City, but I hope you still liked it. Thanks so much for reading and reviewing – I really value all your feedback! Next chapter… things will start to look up a bit in the action-battle department… and you'll see how Alexis and Optimus are doing on the Axalon. See you next time :) 

    PS: I know I've always said, in previous chapters, that Carlos was Spanish, but I've been corrected by several people – in Armada, he was apparently Mexican, so that's what he is now. Sorry for any confusion! :( 





    *Chapter 22*: Road


    XXII. Road



    * * *



    Rose glanced down at her wristwatch.

    She hadn't quite been asleep, but she hadn't exactly been awake, either, if the way that the day kept replaying in her head was anything to go by. She'd lost count of the number of times that she'd watched Alexis and Optimus boarding the Axalon.

    Ten minutes to midnight. She shifted in her position, remembering that she was in a car when she felt the seatbelt around her waist. Ratchet had wrapped it around her in such a way that enabled her to remain lying across the seats, but would keep her safe in the unlikely event of a crash.

    Outside, the world was dark and quiet. No moonlight could cut through the cloud encircling Unicron, but the street lamps still worked. They were rolling down yet another stretch of anonymous American freeway, heading for the state of Nevada. The Autobots had been carried by cargo planes to Kansas, but after a shock from above that rocked the planes, it was decided that travelling on the ground would be safer. So here they were, having just breached the border of Colorado, still driving towards Mission City.

    'Are you well, Rose?'

    The voice came from the radio.

    'Fine, thanks.' She retied her ponytail. 'You must be exhausted after all this driving.'

    Ratchet chuckled. 'I have driven further in my time.'

    'Okay.' She paused. 'Ratchet, maybe this is a stupid question, but . . . when did you become my secondary guardian?'

    He was silent for a moment.

    'Not too long ago,' he said. 'All of the humans must have a secondary guardian in case the primary guardian falls in battle. When Barricade enrolled as the primary, I offered to act as the secondary.' He paused, then added: 'Would you rather have had someone else?'

    'Oh — no, no. I was just wondering.'

    They fell into a tense silence. Rose prayed she hadn't sounded unappreciative of his offer — she'd just been curious. She was interested in why Barricade had offered to be her primary guardian, too, but Barricade wasn't exactly an approachable guy.

    Or a guy, period.

    But the two of them had been acting so strangely. The way they'd been looking daggers at each other the entire time — the way Barricade had been so heated and possessive — why ever would he have such a problem with her being with Ratchet for the journey? They'd acted like children fighting over a plaything.

    Simmons interrupted:

    'Hey, Docbot?'

    Ratchet sighed. 'Yes, Agent Simmons?'

    'Look, the President's just called for an all-out evacuation of Mission City to get the civilians outta the way. It can only be a good thing for us, but just to give you a heads-up, there's gonna be a lot of civilian vehicles coming in the opposite direction. So . . . blend in, all right?'

    'A wise decision,' Ratchet remarked. 'And how does your President plan to explain Unicron's presence?'

    That was something that hadn't really occurred to Rose. The rest of the world must be in absolute hysterics with this massive, smoking sphere looming over the planet, and none of them knew or understood what was going on. People all over the world would be cowering in terror — and probably locking themselves into nuclear bunkers — and wanting someone to tell them what was happening. People in her own country. People in America. People everywhere on the planet, in every city and country.

    Simmons seemed to hesitate before he replied:

    'We've decided that it'd be best for him to do an international television and radio broadcast, explaining what the hell's going on. This is just too big to ignore. We'll have to tell them that there are aliens on Earth, and they're helping us fight it off. Bribes won't be enough to stop the witnesses this time.'

    'So every human on the planet with access to a television or radio system will be aware of our presence on Earth.'

    'Yup.'

    'And if we win the battle?'

    'Well, you'll have to lie low. Same with your human buddies. It shouldn't be too much of a problem — you've lived on the West Coast for three years, right?'

    Rose raised an eyebrow. She hadn't had an inkling, since she had been in California, that she was sharing the neighbourhood with alien robots — not until Starscream had given the game away, anyway. It could work, so long as the Autobots were willing to spend the rest of their lives on Earth as cars.

    'I suppose,' Ratchet said, noncomittally.

    'That's the spirit. Listen, we're pulling over at the service station on the outskirts of the city for some provisions. Dunno about Ginger in there, but I'm starved.'

    Rose narrowed her eyes. 'It was called "warm red", actually.'

    She was ignored by both of them.

    'Very well,' Ratchet replied to the agent. 'I will follow you. Rose can purchase whatever victuals she requires for the rest of the journey.'

    Victuals?

    Simmons clearly didn't understand either, if his puzzled response was anything to go by:

    'Right. Uh, over and out.'

    Now she came to think of it, she was pretty hungry. The last time she'd eaten had been very early in the morning, and she was starting to wonder if she'd imagined the tiny bowl of cornflakes at five o'clock. Apparently she had, because Ratchet informed her so when he spoke again.

    'Rose, my scanners indicate that you have not consumed sustenance for thirty-one hours,' he stated. His tone was stern. 'I am surprised that you have managed to stay conscious for this long. Why on Cybertron are you ignoring your basic human need to eat?'

    'I just . . . forgot?'

    Ratchet made a low hum of disapproval. 'Do you have the necessary funds with which to purchase fuel?'

    'Um' — she dug into the pocket of her shorts and grasped a fistful of small change — 'I think so. Enough for a sandwich, at least.'

    'You will need more than that. I will ask Agent Simmons if one of his men will provide you with additional tender. I doubt that they will mind, and I insist that you eat something more nutritious than some form of dairy or meat product wedged between two slices of baked flour and water.'

    Rose cracked a smile.

    'Mikaela's right,' she said. 'You are pretty funny sometimes.'

    'Then the two of you are equally abnormal.'

    'Watch who you're calling "abnormal", you.'

    She lay back down across the seats, listening to his unintelligible muttering in the background as she fell back into her light doze. Ratchet was strange — no doubt about it — but she was starting to like him nonetheless. And even if he didn't admit it, she thought he might be starting to like her back.

    Success.

    She was woken up about ten minutes later by a voice through the radio:

    'Ratchet, it's Jade. You should probably wake Rose now — we're gonna be there in a minute.'

    'Thank you, Jade,' Ratchet responded. 'I don't suppose you would be kind enough to lend Rose some money upon our arrival? Agent Simmons is being rather parsimonious, and she does not have enough to procure anything more than a . . . sandwich.' He said the last word with some disgust, and Rose had to quell a smile.

    'Of course. I know Sam and Carlos are planning on going to get a burger, but I don't mind going somewhere else, if she wants.'

    'She is not having a "burger", and nor is Mikaela.'

    'Um . . . okay. It's the next turning on the left.'

    'Thank you.'



    Ratchet followed the convoy of Autobots and human vehicles, driving between Ironhide and Simmons. Indicators flashed through the dim light of the early morning. They made towards the small service station's parking lot, where there were advertisements flashing in neon-bright letters for the many restaurants the building boasted. Rose looked out of the window hazily. She gave Sam a small smile when he went past in Sideswipe, which he returned — though he looked just as drained and hungry as she felt.

    The Hummer came to a halt.

    'Are you awake, Rose?'

    'Yes.' She rubbed her neck. 'So I'm scrounging off Jade?'

    'Jade has agreed to lend you some money, yes.' His voice took on a reproachful note. 'I expect you to return with an abundant amount of wholesome food.'

    She kicked the blanket off her legs.

    'And what will you do,' she said, 'if I come back with a sandwich?'

    'Then, Rosa Connelly,' he growled, 'you will discover exactly why they call me Hatchet.'

    Rose blanched and hopped out of the Hummer.

    Bloody hell.

    The trip into the service station was a brief affair for the group. Jade came to lend both Rose and Mikaela some money before they headed for a small, multi-purpose store and purchased all the food and drink that they needed for the rest of the journey to Mission City. Mikaela insisted on using the bathroom — "I'm nervous, okay?" — before they all returned to their prospective vehicles, carrying plastic bags full of provisions and bidding each other slightly tearful, if temporary, farewells.

    Ratchet greeted her with a question:

    'Well?'

    Rose settled herself back into the cab. 'I got a small, takeaway cappuccino in a recycled paper cup' — she held up the steaming coffee — 'along with a bar of milk chocolate; a plastic pot of pasta salad with tomato and chicken; some weird American cake called a "Twinkie"; some kind of pre-packed Chinese wrap — oh, and three cans of Coke for later. All okay with you, Ratchet?'

    'Very well. Make sure you eat it all.'

    'Yes, sir.'

    'Hm.'

    As they waited for everyone to return to their vehicles, Rose picked half-heartedly at the pasta salad. There was something wrong, something different — a sense of emptiness, right in her chest. Not only was there an Alexis-shaped hole in their group, but they were also leaderless — struggling on without Optimus Prime, whom the Autobots, to her knowledge, had never known a time without. He was the Prime, the spiritual leader, the Alpha and the Omega of everything the Autobots held dear.

    They were paper dolls, and two had been cut out.

    Her own words played on her mind, allowing her no rest: the fight that she'd had with Alexis when Jade had let on about Starscream. She had called Alexis a whore, for God's sake — hardly sisterly affection. Even if she'd been forgiven, it was still a sting to remember.

    She glanced up when Starscream soared overhead.

    She'd been on good enough terms with him to keep a reassuring hand on his armour as he'd watched the Axalon leave. But he had stormed off as soon as the Axalon was out of sight — not a word had come in her direction. She, for one, feared for his mental stability. Losing a loved one might have pushed him over the edge of reason, of sanity.

    And sanity was something they needed if they were to survive this battle.

    She'd almost forgotten that Ratchet was there until he spoke again:

    'Rose?'

    'Oh — sorry, Ratchet. I was miles away. Yes?'

    'You should not continue to remind yourself of what you and Alexis might have said to each other in the past.'

    She smiled tiredly. 'How did you know I was thinking about that?'

    There was a long, long silence. Then:

    'A lucky presumption, it appears.'

    Rose rubbed her temple. 'I was awful to her. And to Starscream. I just — I didn't . . . understand.'

    'Come now, Rose . . . you parted with Alexis on good terms. And it isn't too late to apologise to Starscream for what happened between you — although I believe he owes you an apology in return. From the very beginning he has treated you with unnecessary vitriol.'

    'He hates me.'

    'There is not a member of this faction that hates you.'

    'He does — and with good reason.'

    Ratchet heaved a sigh. 'You are far too stubborn. Although I am told that the British have a reputation for being rather obstinate when the need arises.'

    'You're being unreasonably nice to me again.'

    'To make you believe in yourself, young one.'

    She looked at the wheel, and she found herself caught by the eyes of the mask in the centre. He made no further comment, but she could sense, somehow, that he was returning her gaze through his optical sensors. Something about Ratchet was really starting to . . . unsettle her.

    He spoke again:

    'Rose, would you do something for me?'

    'Okay.'

    'Look under the seat.'

    Rose quirked an eyebrow. Without question, she leaned down and looked below the upholstered leather seat.

    'What am I meant to be' — she frowned — 'oh, hang on.'

    Her hand had found something in the small compartment beneath her seat. Something smooth, slender, and cylindrical. Manoeuvring herself into a slightly more manageable position, she grasped the heavy thing in both hands and dragged it out and onto her lap.

    'Wow,' she said. Two identical, sheathed weapons lay across her knees. 'It's . . . they're —'

    'Swords, yes.'

    Swords?

    She tugged at the handle, and it slid from its encrypted, alien-looking sheath. The sword beneath was shining, clean-cut, and silver in colour; she could see her own reflection in the flat of it, and swallowed hard before glancing at the wheel again.

    'What — what am I supposed to do with swords?'

    'Fight with them, of course. They are from Cybertron.'

    'Your home planet?'

    'Yes.'

    Her fingertips mapped out the glyph on the blade. 'I'll only lose or break them, you know.'

    'I highly doubt that,' he said. 'Ironhide ordered that each of the humans fighting on the ground should be given a pair. Your human guns will have little real effect on the drones if you become separated from the rest of the American forces, so that M9 pistol will not be much use.'

    'I'm telling you, I'll take my eye out.'

    'Humour me.'

    'I'll humour you in terms of making you laugh, but —'

    'Rose, I beg of you to have a little confidence in yourself. The blades are made of furmanite and bearnium from the mines of Iacon; as such, they are virtually indestructible. They were owned by my first assistant, Firestar. I understand that you have not received any prior training in this form of combat, but I would like you to take them nonetheless.' He paused. 'Will you oblige me?'

    Guilt tactics from an alien.



    She laid them back across the seats.

    'Okay,' she said. 'Just this once.'



    * * *



    'Till all are one.'

    As Optimus Prime spoke the four words of the historic aphorism aloud, he considered — though not for the first time — exactly what the phrase meant for him, and for his soldiers back on Earth. Would the humans ever truly stand as one with the Cybertronians — even against Unicron?

    Can two worlds collide?

    The Autobot commander returned his gaze to the thick, impenetrable smoke that the Axalon was finally beginning to clear. He had been standing here at the forefront of the vessel since the journey had begun; Alexis, on the other hand, had been sound asleep on his shoulder for the entire journey. Occasionally, the youngling would murmur in her sleep — usually fragmented words such as Starscream, All Spark and Unicron — but she refused to wake, no matter how many times he spoke her name.

    But of course she was tired. Of course she was afraid. Once they were in the air, she had stopped crying, but her silence was worse than her tears. Her wide eyes had still been shimmering, and her lips still quivering, but she had not spoken another word. She had just stood and watched America grow smaller and smaller until the cloud and smoke had covered it up.

    It was far too comparable to his own departure from Cybertron so many years beforehand . . . when he had lost Elita, just as she had lost Starscream.

    Elita.

    Elita's absence weighed heavily on him; it always had, since the moment he was parted from her. She had been his world — everything about her had been perfectly, flawlessly beautiful in his unworthy optics, and he had always been dependent on her support to get him through the countless Autobot meetings, trials, conventions, tactical discussions and debates that had been part of his life before the war as well as during it. And then he had been forced to leave her. Forced to leave her behind, to the pleasures of fate.

    He remembered all too well how she'd looked in her battle armour. Sunstreaker had been one of those responsible for its design, mapped out in the Artist's Quarter of Kalis. The way she'd looked under the sun, glistening with beautifully whittled tironium.

    One of those tironium pieces was here, now, on his shoulder, with the girl.

    Elita had begun it all.

    Even after three years of being an Autobot, Starscream had still never really lost his Decepticon heritage. He was hot-tempered, arrogant, and frequently aggressive; he was still rather averse to all humans but Alexis; he was still the same old Starscream that he had despaired over during the Great War as the Air Commander had ruled the skies of Cybertron, laughing as he murdered Autobot soldiers.

    Yet something had changed inside of the formerly disloyal flyer. There was something… different about him, observable in those ever-red optical sensors. He wasn't the Starscream he had been once… Megatron, after all, was gone. That Starscream – the Starscream of Cybertron – was dead, though not in entirety.

    Optimus put a hand to the bridge of his nose when he considered the many dreadful things that Starscream must have suffered under his brother. He had received many a report from his double agents among the Decepticons that Starscream had received recurrent beatings from Megatron, often leaving him virtually offline and causing him to have to drag himself, barely alive, to their medical officer; not only this, but Starscream was usually the target of considerable amounts of verbal abuse. Of course, no Decepticon had been bold enough to help him – they would have been injudicious to do so.

    Alexis, he supposed, had been the first person to show Starscream a different side of himself. True, he himself had set the chain of events in motion by making Starscream her guardian, but the young woman had taken it from there. And Primus, how her love had changed him. She had instilled hope into him… taught him to believe in himself, and to let go of his corrupt and unpleasant history.

    It was a beautiful thing to see two worlds collide.

    He wanted so much for his soldiers to be content. He could see so much anguish amongst them, and he begged Primus that it would end. Ratchet's situation was a deplorable one indeed, and he doubted very much that his best medical officer – his oldest friend in the group, with Ironhide – would be thinking much of him at this particular moment in time, given the fact that he had agreed to let Barricade become young Rose's primary guardian. But this was something preordained – something that he sensed, from the Matrix, needed to be done.

    'Optimus?'

    Optimus glanced up from his deep musings. 'Yes, Alexis?'

    'Where are we?'

    'Close.'

    She nodded, rubbed her eyes. 'Okay.'

    His spark ached for the fragile organic. This was not her burden to bear — it never had been. This terrible war should not be happening here . . . it should have been confined to Cybertron, to the planets that surrounded it. But what was done, he supposed, was done.

    The only atonement was sacrifice.

    'Alexis, I must inform you of our plan for when we reach our destination,' he said, and she nodded again. 'We will exit the Axalon once we have passed into Unicron's maw, and must fight our way past whatever drones and guards we find. With most his army on Earth, this should be fairly uncomplicated. Once inside his innermost chamber — his spark chamber — you and I must link the All Spark and the Matrix, forming Vector Sigma. We must then pitch the amalgamated artefact into the depths of his spark.'

    'So . . . abandon ship, fight our way through, join the two things and throw it into Unicron.' She paused, looking at her feet. 'And then what happens?'

    He could only tell her the truth:

    'I do not know, Alexis.'

    'Okay. I'll assume that we die.'

    There was no way that he could respond to that statement without destroying every last inch of optimism that she might have had, so he chose, instead, to maintain a stiff silence.

    Something suddenly came to his attention. Although the human radio signals had become disjointed and warped by Unicron's interference with the satellites, one was still quite clear. He could make out a voice that was familiar to him: that of the President of the United States. From what Optimus could make out, he was speaking to the world — telling them what was happening.

    'Alexis,' he said slowly, 'perhaps you ought to listen to this.'



    * * *



    'Citizens of the world; this is the President of the United States.'

    Around the globe, every man, woman and child with access to a radio or television was tuning in to a fuzzy emergency broadcast that was interrupting their regularly scheduled channels and clogging up every radio wavelength. This message was loud and clear, no matter how bad the stereo system was and despite the fact that the thing above them had disrupted most communications; the President was speaking with a voice of authority. A voice with comforting power behind it that the frightened, angry and bewildered people were drawn to listen to like moths to a flame.

    'There is a threat facing our planet.'

    In India, hundreds of thousands of people gathered before the Taj Mahal. The smoke was finally touching the country, smothering the sun. The population locked their hands together in silent prayer, their eyes facing the black cloud as they began to chant.

    'For three years, we have hidden something from you. We, as an organisation, chose to keep something a secret from you — and now we have paid the price for it. For three long years, there have been extraterrestrial beings among us — hiding in plain sight — watching over us in secret in the state of California, and fighting for us in the depths of Mission City.'

    In Massachusetts, a woman peered at the Internet broadcast on the laptop computer perched on her lap. That was where Jade was. That was where she'd left her daughter, when she had finally moved out and she, wanting the peace of the country, had moved back to their hometown.

    'I'll try her cell again,' Christine Rivers murmured.

    The brown and white shitzue that shared the property with her whined quietly in the corner, and she beckoned it with one hand. It laid its head across her booted feet dejectedly, whimpering, and she lowered a hand to stroke its head. Jack could always tell when something was wrong.

    Alan White shook his head as he watched her. 'It's no use — there's no signal.'

    'We should never have let Rad go back there,' his wife wept from behind them, clutching herself in a tight embrace as she stood in the house that was not her own, in the place that had never been her home. 'Oh, God — he's on his way there now, Chris! My son's going back to that place — he could have been here! Why the hell did we let him go, Alan?'

    'He wanted to be with Carlos. It was his choice, Lisa.'

    'We told you it was terrorism. In a sense, it was.'

    At the Pentagon, Maggie Madsen glanced up from the extraordinary hieroglyphics on the monitor of her computer to watch the full-screen broadcast. Her grey eyes shifted to watch the Witwicky pair, Robert Connelly and Jasmine Paxton as they stood together before the vast television.

    Glen nudged her arm. 'You think they'll all be okay?'

    'I don't know, Glen. I just don't know.'

    'We were threatened by a technological civilisation far superior to our own when this race of alien robots came to this world, searching for an ancient artefact. Most came to destroy us; some, to protect us. Now this artefact is gone . . . but today, other enemies have come.'

    In Northern Mexico, a woman and her daughter sat outside their spacious house on a whitewashed wall. Although the adult's gaze was on the portable radio that the two of them were sharing with the neighbours to listen to the translated American broadcast, the young girl's dark eyes were fixed on the place where the blazing sun had once hung in the sky.

    'Bueno suerte, Carlos,' Leiana Ló pez whispered.

    Her mother glanced at her, her eyes red and sore.

    'Don't you start that, Lala,' she choked. 'Your brother will be fine, you understand me? He's not getting involved in any battles — Jorge promised me — '

    A cell phone rang. Telephone communications had been down for hours; there must have been a temporary return of signal. Catalina Ló pez looked at it for a long moment, with eyes of darkest bistre, before she took it up in a worn brown hand and held it to her ear.

    '¿Digame?'

    There was a long silence.

    'Fig – ¡que te jodan! There some kind of monster hanging over the country and you don't even — '

    She stopped. Then let out a cry of horror.

    Leiana jumped as her mother began to screech abuse down the line. '¿Qué le pasa? Mom, what — '

    'You let him fight?'

    'But we will fight them.'

    In the suburbs of London, Helen Rees was rocking back and forth in her tiny kitchen, a sodden tissue pressed against her lips as she watched the television broadcast with her new partner. As she held her thick brown hair in her hands, she could only repeat one question:

    'Why did I let Robert take her?'

    Her partner could only cradle her and try, for the hundredth time in an hour, to contact the stepdaughter he had never met.

    'Before the Second World War raged through Europe in the 1940's, a great man by the name of Winston Churchill spoke to his people in an attempt to let them know that the leaders and governors of this world will defend their people. And let this be a promise to you that we will never keep such important secrets from you again. Know only that it was an attempt to keep panic from spreading — to keep the peace — but that was a mistake. Peace has eluded us, and war, once again, is thriving in the world. But today, I swear to you . . .'

    In Romania, a family of four hunkered down in the tiny underground bunker that they had built in case of another nuclear attack like Chernobyl, listening to the radio. Four sets of hands were clasped in the gloom, unwilling to stop their pleas for mercy.

    'We will go on to the end.'

    Back in Tranquillity, Jack Lancaster slammed the phone down.

    'Why isn't Ron answering his God damn cell phone?'

    His wife, Matilda, only wept. His expression softened.

    'Tilly, don't cry — look, sweetheart. You're upsetting Duke.'

    'He wants Miles,' Matilda said, vaguely. 'He wants his boy.'

    'We will fight them on the beaches.'

    As he flew above the convoy of Autobots and humans, Starscream tuned into the broadcast that had just come to his attention with little real interest. He listened to what the President of the United States was saying in troubled silence, feeling more alone and confused and angry than he ever had in his life — even when Skyfire joined him on his right, he wanted nothing more than to break free of the cloud and take back what was his from the great evil that had put out every miniscule light he had ever known.

    Alexis . . .

    'We will fight them in the hills.'

    'Carly, listen to me!'

    Carly Banes wasn't listening to her husband's protests as she hurled another plate at his head, screaming at the top of her lungs. 'You let her go!' she screamed. 'Fucking low-life criminal! You knew she was going to the Pentagon — you saw one of these fucking aliens — you lost our daughter!'

    Cal Banes could only pray that the one called Ratchet would keep to his word and protect his child.

    'We will fight them in Mission City; in China; in Russia: wherever they are, we will fight them.'

    The silhouetted spires of Mission City were coming into visual range against the amber horizon as Rad White pushed his violet motorcycle to the very limits of its speed, his teeth clenched tight beneath his helmet as he narrowed his eyes against the glare of the rising sun. Jet planes were beginning to soar overhead. He had to get there before the enemies did. He had to help Optimus, and Jade, and Carlos, and all the others. There was no way he was just leaving them to fight without him now.

    He wasn't ever going to do that to them again.

    'We will never surrender.'

    The President paused. The world held its breath for the moment that he stopped speaking, before he looked directly into the camera and spoke clearly, once more, to the planet:

    'Perhaps it's fate that today is the fourth of July, and we will once again be fighting for our freedom — not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution . . . but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: "We will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight. We're going to live on. We're going to survive." Today, we celebrate our Independence Day.'



    And every person in the world that had heard him called out in united concurrence as the sun rose over Mission City.





    *Chapter 23*: To the Sky





    Chapter Twenty-Three

    To the Sky



    * * *



    Bumblebee watched Mikaela in his forced silence as she slept at the wheel, listening to her steady breathing and slow, tranquil heartbeat.

    The feeling of guilt that was beginning to overtake him refused to stop gnawing at his fuel passages; the sense of culpability that came with the many responsibilities of being a guardian to this young woman, whether secondary or not. The fact was that Mikaela Banes, magnificent and brave as she undeniably was, was still only nineteen years old – not even old enough to consume alcoholic beverages, or be named a full adult in the eyes of her country. She was vulnerable… as was Sam.

    It had been terrible enough the first time when the two of them had become involved in the original clash at Mission City. Seeing Sam in such danger, and his being lame and unable to help him… it had been utterly excruciating. He could only thank Primus for the fact that they had both come out in one piece, and had taken their experiences in their stride in a way that his concise studies on human psychology had told him was quite extraordinary.

    But the law of averages decreed that at least one of their number would die today… if not more.

    Jazz had proven that.

    Bumblebee had seen his fair share of battles – not as many as the older mechs like Ratchet and Ironhide, but he had certainly seen and experienced what conflict could do. Having his vocal processors ripped out; seeing so many of his friends and comrades fall at Tyger Pax on that very same day; feeling the sudden emptiness as Jazz's vivid and powerful energy signature suddenly vanished without a trace, and seeing his brutally torn body lying in Ironhide's arms, inactive and lifeless.

    He had indicated, through disjointed song lyrics, where Mikaela's sword was – one of the swords that she, Rose, Miles and Sam had been given for the battle. Swords from Cybertron that the smallest femmes had wielded against their much larger enemies. The perfect size for their equally fragile human allies, they were a blessing that Bumblebee would be eternally indebted to Ironhide for giving them.

    If he was frank with himself, Bumblebee was not as worried about Sam and Mikaela as he was about Miles and Rose. Both of his charges had, at least, a little understanding of battle – but the other two had never come into contact with weaponry, and had no prior experience in the horror of war.

    Mikaela stirred when Ironhide's voice came through the radio. /Autobots, we're stoppin' here. Wake the kids and get 'em on their feet./

    There were a few murmured affirmatives from the others, but Bumblebee had neither the spark nor the voice to respond to his old mentor as he braked gently and pulled over on the sidewalk of one of Mission City's central blocks. Ratchet and Sunstreaker stopped behind him, and the other Autobots and the army vehicles parked nearby.

    Mikaela dragged herself into an upright position, running a hand through her dark hair as she blinked traces of rheum from her eyes. "Are we there, 'Bee?" she asked quietly.

    "So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I'd run to the end of town," Bumblebee sent back forlornly in a drawl that was nothing like his own voice, wishing beyond anything that his vocal processors would come back to life and that he could offer the young human that he loved so much the consolation that she needed. As such, he could only use the reasonably fitting words from an old motion picture, but her nod confirmed that she understood what he meant.

    "Cool."

    Perhaps Mikaela couldn't express her thoughts and emotions in words, either.

    There was a silence between them, but Mikaela did not move from her position – even when her eyes shifted to his rear-view mirror to see the other humans climbing out of their respective Autobot carriers. Starscream and Skyfire slammed down to terra firma from above, but she barely managed to glance in the direction of their flyers. She just stared down at the long, unsheathed sword in her lap, chewing on her lip in a classic human expression of anxiety and hesitation.

    Humans frustrated the scout from time to time. He found it so exasperating that they couldn't just say how they felt – they sat in their uneasy silences, and yet they had the ability to speak… and he, at this time, did not. He tried to coax it out of her using another movie quote, hoping she would be able to decipher it.

    "My patient's a mute. I can't find out what's wrong with him… the man's a mute."

    That brought a smile to her lips, if a weak one. "I got'cha, Bumblebee. I'm sorry… I'm just scared." She tapped the weapon with one finger, chewing her lip. "I've got no idea how to use this thing, and I'm almost as bad with a gun."

    Bumblebee managed a feeble whine of disagreement, but even that tiny sound made his vocals grate together and burn up unbearably, as if they needed oiling. He could feel the impatience with it beginning to take him over, but he tried not to show her how difficult he found his muteness – after all, she had burdens enough without his on top of them.

    "Yeah, yeah, I know… I did kill that drone at the warehouse, I guess…" Mikaela sighed in defeat at his unspoken protest, sheathing the sword with a metallic ring. It never ceased to astonish Bumblebee how she and Sam could pick up on his thoughts so easily, even when he was unable to explain them to her. "I guess I'll probably stick to my pistol, but I doubt that'll do much good either." She patted his seat, as if to reassure him. "But don't worry about me, okay? You've got to look out for Sam when we're out there – Ratchet will take care of me just fine."

    "Oh, you know it!" Bumblebee agreed wholeheartedly with a voice that was, rather embarrassingly, female.

    Mikaela grinned, and his spark warmed to see it. "See? I'll be okay."

    She looked up when Sam tapped on the window gently, beckoning her outside with one hand. She gave him the 'thumbs-up' sign that his two favourite humans often used before she turned back to the steering wheel and looked at it long and hard, her head tilted to one side.

    Bumblebee looked back at her, meeting her blue-green gaze with a resolution that he hoped she could feel without words behind them. Losing Sam or Mikaela… or any of the young humans he loved… was a thought that made his very spark revolt in protest, and he wanted her to realise that he wouldn't fail them. He had been a poor guardian to Sam at the first battle of Mission City – getting his legs torn off by Starscream's missile and leaving him completely helpless against the Decepticons – but not this time. He would prove himself.

    He was the first of the guardians.

    But that didn't mean he would be the first to fall.

    "Good luck, 'Bee," Mikaela said quietly, extending her hand and patting the dashboard reassuringly. "You're gonna be okay… right?"

    She was seeking comfort for him, and Primus could damn him to the Pit if he wasn't going to give her the consolation that she needed. He worked his vocal processors as best he could, and Mikaela visibly winced when she heard the horrific screech that tore through his internals before he managed to get the words out. "Yes… eerrk… Mikaela. I will be… screek… watching…" It hurt so badly, but he had to say the last three words… "Good luck… goodbye."

    The female bit down on her quivering lip and nodded, her eyes suddenly overflowing with fluid – crying, as humans tended to do when they were miserable. "Bye, Bumblebee…" she managed before she pushed the door open and climbed out, audibly sniffing back her tears.

    Bumblebee waited in silence as Sam put an arm around her and began to console her in an undertone.

    It wasn't fair that these wonderful children should feel the need to stand with them in this battle. No one had forced them to fight… yet still, they had chosen to. They had chosen to out of love and loyalty to the Autobots – allegiance to a faction that they had never seen the beginning of. They could never truly understand the intricacy and horror of the age-old grudge between Autobots and Decepticons, and between Cybertronians and Unicron… but they would fight nonetheless.

    They were a remarkable species, humans.

    Once Sam and Mikaela had stepped out of range, he instigated the transformation process and was soon standing up on two legs and shaking himself off, his vocals aching dreadfully. He put a hand to them and made a weak coughing sound, trying to clear whatever was blocking them up, but he knew that only Ratchet would have the ability to repair them in the end.

    He watched as the others transformed, allowing their humans to bail out before they did so. Rose, Miles and Sam weren't dressed for battle at all, he noted with some concern – Rose, for example, had her long legs completely bare and barely covered by the denim shorts she was wearing. He was surprised that Ratchet hadn't complained. Miles was wearing a baggy t-shirt and equally loose-fitting jeans – Sam, at least, had long sleeves, but it would hardly be much use against metal blades. Only Mikaela had borrowed an army jacket and cargo pants, and thus was less exposed.

    Casting his gaze to the others, he spied Carlos and Jade approaching. To his surprise, they seemed unable to look at each other: Jade was flushed, with her arms folded across her chest, and Carlos had his jaw clenched and eyes narrowed. They were walking a fair distance apart, with Jade hanging back with Seraphim as the male steamed ahead.

    Ironhide came after Jade, and looked around at the transformed Autobots with a hard expression.

    "What are we doing now?" Sunstreaker enquired in a bored tone, flicking jadedly at some kind of indiscernible mark on his paintjob. "Just standing around and waiting for the drones to come down?"

    "We're assembling with the humans," Ironhide corrected him darkly, scowling at the younger mech. "Then we fight."

    Skyfire stepped forward and looked down at the others. Bumblebee couldn't help but marvel, sometimes, at the Air Commander's sheer massiveness – he'd always been one of the shortest mechs, and could never imagine being that huge. "I have just received radio orders from Mr. Keller that Starscream and I are to take to the air now," he informed them forlornly. "The Spanish and British Air Forces are approaching, along with the Americans."

    Ironhide grunted an affirmative. "Yeah – some of the American jets are already here." He gestured at the sky – and, indeed, a single Raptor had just blazed overhead. "Time for us to go our separate ways."

    Bumblebee felt his spark constrict.

    The human army vehicles had parked up, and soldiers were beginning to disembark. There were so many of them… but Bumblebee knew that the organics would be outnumbered by hundreds and completely overcome by the strength of their metallic counterparts. He didn't want this conflict to begin – he didn't want to see Skyfire and the others leave them now.

    "… Wait!" he sent across his radio desperately, using another quote and prompting all of the Autobots and teenagers to look at him. "Please, you don't have to do this… you could let it go. We could leave here together."

    There was a short, pensive silence.

    Starscream glared at him after a few seconds. "It's too late for that, Bumblebug," he snapped petulantly. "Don't be the useless insect you're named after. We can't just throw down our arms and hope that Unicron won't kill us all – and I, for one, intend to fight until I am thrown back to the ground in flames." He narrowed his optics. "If I can overcome the need to run like a snivelling coward, you should have no trouble."

    Bumblebee could only stare at the giant, silver-brown flyer in surprise. That was the most encouraging thing Starscream had said to him for since his introduction into the Autobot faction. Starscream shifted uncomfortably under the gaze, turning away to inspect his Vulcan cannon.

    "Starscream is right, Bumblebee," Ratchet said heavily. "We cannot turn back… there is nowhere to hide."

    "But we'll be fine, Bumblebee!" little Jade piped up from his shin, and he turned his rounded blue optics to her. The angry glow had left her cheeks, and she was looking up at him with her sweet, chocolate-brown eyes wide and reassuring. "Everyone's going to be fine. At least you've got energy cannons and stuff – think of us poor little humans!"

    Jade was such a pleasant girl.

    "Thank you, thank you… you're wonderful, you're wonderful," he responded honestly, feeling somewhat heartened by her brightness. She giggled at the praise and patted his armour with an affectionate smile.

    Agent Simmons suddenly appeared and Bumblebee took an uneasy step back, shifting himself behind Ratchet nervously. Even though he had forgiven the human race in general for his agonising treatment at Hoover Dam, he still had no liking for the self-important male. At his side was a tall, spiky-haired and middle-aged soldier that Bumblebee recognised from the first fight at Mission City – Captain Lennox, who had argued with Mikaela over her staying to keep him safe when he had been strapped to the truck.

    "Ah – Lennox," Ironhide greeted approvingly, inclining his head. "Good to see you again."

    "And you, buddy," the man responded, giving the old warrior a quick salute and a grin. "Annabelle's missed you."

    Simmons cut across the reunion impatiently with an irritable glare at Lennox, prompting Ironhide to look at him with as much disgust as if he were Megatron himself. Bumblebee wouldn't have liked to be in his position at that moment… "Right – for those of you who don't know, this is Captain Lennox," he announced pompously. "He's in charge of the troops. Got any problems on the ground, then he's the one you get in contact with – he's got a radio channel that you can access."

    "And who are we reporting to, Agent Simmons?" Skyfire asked courteously, indicating himself and Starscream. The latter was glaring at Simmons, and Bumblebee remembered the incident where the two of them had fought over his trying to take Alexis somewhere without permission.

    "Technically, no one," Simmons replied with a shrug. "You're the leaders of the air assault. Basically, if you wanna give orders, give 'em."

    "And if we need to speak to Mr. Keller?"

    "We've got Maggie Madsen and Glen Whitmann stationed at special analysis computers back at the Pentagon," the grey-haired agent explained edgily, glancing back at the assembling troops. "If there's any problems, get in touch with them. Same goes with any communication issues between you and the other pilots – their computers can crack your lingo in seconds, so there really shouldn't be any problems. If your girl and Prime can blow up this bastard soon, I reckon we can hold off whatever he throws at us."

    Bumblebee spotted Starscream's fist tightening, and supposed that he wouldn't want his mate to be called something as unbefitting as 'your girl' either. Especially someone as brave and selfless as Alexis.

    He was reminded of this when there was a soft touch at his elbow.

    Arcee was standing there, her blue optics glowing and her head cocked to one side. /Good luck, Bumblebee/ she whispered in their native language. /Primus be with you, my spark mate. No matter what happens, my spark will always be yours./

    At that moment, Bumblebee realised, for the umpteenth time, how fortunate he was that this beautiful femme had chosen him, out of all the mechs she could very easily have had. Through everything they had suffered – being separated by the war, each thinking the other was dead, and his intermittent muteness over the last three years – she had remained by his side. He ground his vocals doggedly, knowing that no human words could ever express how grateful he was for her.

    /And mine yours/ he managed hoarsely, and she nodded understandingly.

    There was a long silence between all of them before their Air Commander broke it once again.

    "Very well, then," Skyfire murmured, and the two mates broke their hushed gaze to look at him. "Goodbye, my friends. Look to the sky if you have need of me." He looked down at his young mate. "Jade?"

    Bumblebee watched as Jade nodded, her eyes welling with tears, before she turned to Seraphim and threw her arms around her best friend's metallic neck, hugging her tightly. "Bye, Sera," she whispered, and Arcee's hand strayed to Bumblebee's as if for comfort. He couldn't blame her, when faced with this spark-breaking sight – it was horrible to see this departure. "Stay safe…"

    "And you, lil' shorty," Seraphim responded softly. "I'll be waitin' for ya at the end. Go kick some aft for me."

    Once she had released the electric-blue Autobot, the other humans descended upon Jade in one huge, crushing embrace, each of them throwing their arms around their smallest friend. Mikaela and Rose were in tears again, and Bumblebee could have sworn he spied Sam's eyes scintillating with them as Jade hugged them all back, openly distressed. Only Carlos did not join in, remaining at Sunstreaker's feet and dragging deeply on a cigarette as he watched them with his dark eyes narrowed.

    Whatever could be wrong with him?

    Bumblebee was sure that he was one of Jade's closest friends… could he not find it in his heart to say goodbye, when there was the chance – the tiny, but ever-present chance – that they might never see each other again?

    The brunette was finally released with great reluctance by her human friends, and she proceeded to bid each Autobot farewell – she even took a moment to wish Starscream and Barricade good luck, to which they both responded by muttering something incoherent and looking at their feet. It was a classic example of Jade's forgiving, benevolent personality, and Bumblebee admired the little female greatly for that quality. It was a rare and spectacular thing to find in a person, but Jade was a human that was simply brimming over with unconditional and comprehensive love.

    "Bye, Bumblebee," she smiled up at him when it was his turn, "And you, Ratchet – and Arcee. You guys are awesome – you'll do great." She shot the medic a guilty look. "And Ratchet… sorry for all the pranking. I guess I should have tried to stop them."

    "I am sure that you will fly magnificently, young Jade," Ratchet told her seriously. "And make a wonderful pilot yourself one day." He winked an optic at her – a rare sign of forgiveness from the usually cantankerous medical officer. "And you know… in reality, the base would never have been the same without the twins plotting against me and wreaking havoc every hour of the day and night."

    Jade grinned, looking reassured. "Thanks, Ratch'."

    Arcee smiled gently at the girl. "Goodbye, Jade. Have a good flight."

    "I will… I hope," the teenager assured them in a reasonably upbeat tone, but her apprehension was beginning to show on her face. She glanced at each of them again and gave them a last, wavering smile. "I'll see you guys when I get back, okay?"

    "Goodbye," Bumblebee sent from his radio, using the voice of a soft-spoken male from an old movie.

    Jade nodded and turned away from them then, making towards Skyfire, who had just finished his long and protracted transformation into a B-2 Spirit bomber. She walked with a purposeful stride, looking small and defenceless in her oversized pilot's uniform as she headed for Skyfire's entrance hatch. Next to the Air Commander, Starscream had already transformed and was gunning his engine impatiently as more American jets began to soar overhead. Ironhide watched her go with a frown, and Bumblebee knew that he was worried for her safety… as they all were.

    As she made her way up the ladder, Bumblebee saw Jade turn her head to look at Carlos. The young man glared back at her, but his face was twitching out of its impassive, cold-hearted mask.

    She didn't come back.

    Skyfire's hatch closed once she was safely inside and the Sprit bomber's turbofans fired up with an almighty whirr. He took to the sky magnificently, the Raptor that was Starscream shooting ahead of him within a few seconds. "Till all are one!" Skyfire called back as they headed for the heavens, and all of the Autobots but Bumblebee echoed him simultaneously.

    "TILL ALL ARE ONE!"

    Bumblebee could only nod in concurrence and let his battle mask fall down to show the determination and loyalty that he could no longer vocalise.

    Once Starscream and Skyfire had disappeared from their sight, flying above the buildings that obstructed their view of the firmament, Ironhide turned to the remaining Autobots and Barricade. "Autobots, this is it," he muttered, looking at each of them intensely. "We fight until the end. We never give ground. And we never surrender."

    "Message from Starfleet, Captain," Bumblebee pronounced then, his spark burning with a new resolve as he clenched a fist determinedly. "Let's get to it."



    * * *



    The mouth of Unicron was one of the largest and most horrifying things that Alexis had ever seen in her life. Vast beyond all reasonable belief, it was lined with long, jagged teeth that were ten times larger than Skyfire, and hot smoke poured from within the great maw in a thick, dirty cloud of smoke and ash. Even through the walls of the Axalon, the young woman could feel the blistering heat as they passed through the fire and dust, and she fiddled with the jewel nervously as the ship approached the enormous orifice.

    Fear not, young one. The voice sounded as if it might be trying to sooth her, but she ignored it. It will be over in due course.

    Alexis gritted her teeth. "Thanks, All Spark," she muttered under her breath, crossing her arms over her flat chest and clenching her fists tightly. "That makes me feel so much better."

    No need for sarcasm.

    "'No need for sarcasm'?" she hissed, glaring down at the emerald-like gem and narrowing her eyes at it in disgust. "There's plenty of need for sarcasm, thanks. You've been sucking the life out of me since I started wearing you; you took me away from my home, and my friends; you took me away from Starscream, and you still think there's 'no need for sarcasm'? You bitch!"

    She stopped suddenly, realising how insane she must sound. Ranting away to a necklace, and calling a genderless entity bad names. Tears sprung up in her eyes and she shook her head, her heart aching.

    Perhaps she was insane.

    You are not insane, the All Spark murmured in what it probably thought was a comforting tone. You were chosen to be a heroine, young one. I would not have chosen someone who was mentally unstable to be my carrier to victory and salvation.

    "Shut up," Alexis snarled, her voice rising. "You've made me mentally unstable by doing this to me, okay? I was just fine before my stupid grandmother passed you down through my family and you ended up on me. You only chose me because I was the Paxton wearing you at the time that the Autobots and Decepticons came down – if they'd have come earlier, it would have been my mother."

    Not so. Your mother does not have the strength of character, and would not have won Starscream as you managed to.

    Are you mentally unstable? Starscream's amused tone suddenly cut through her head when the All Spark spoke his name, and she flinched. "Don't you say his name to me," she choked, tears blurring her vision. "Leave me alone…"

    The All Spark paused before she sensed its concurrence. As you wish.

    Alexis slumped back against the wall that she had been leaning against as she felt it withdraw from their connection, sliding down its smooth surface and onto her knees. Her lip quivered and more tears slid down her hollow, pallid cheeks, but she didn't make another sound. Though her slight frame trembled as she fought to contain her raging emotions, she refused to cry out for help as she wrapped her thin arms around herself in a friendless embrace, wishing on everything she knew that it was Starscream's arms holding her close.

    Through the waves of nausea and fear that kept racking her frame, she wondered what the others were doing on Earth. Probably preparing themselves for battle, both in the air and on the ground. Starscream would be at the front of the British and Spanish air forces… leading them to a questionable fate, when they had seen so many drones pass by in protoform earlier on…

    There had been so many of them. She had stood with Optimus at the head of the Axalon after she had heard the President's broadcast through Optimus's radio, and they had watched hundreds of the flaming comets passing into Earth's atmosphere, heading towards North America. Towards Mission City. Optimus had pointed out several larger protoforms among the multitude of them, and had voiced the concern that Unicron might be in league with a few Decepticons… including, he had been quite certain, Sideways.

    A tremor suddenly passed through the floor.

    Alexis glanced up, her lips parting in surprise when a second shudder rocked the vessel. Climbing to her feet unsteadily, she kept a hand on the wall as she peered down the passage towards the control room. "Optimus?" she called uncertainly.

    Then the Axalon began to vibrate.

    The juddering built up faster than Alexis could register, and within seconds she was fighting to keep her footing. She threw her hands out as she was thrown towards the wall, her palms smacking into the cold metal harshly as she panicked internally, wondering what the hell could be happening now. Was something attacking them?

    "Alexis!" Optimus's voice came, sounding urgent, and she stumbled towards the sound. "Quickly!"

    The girl broke into an unsteady sprint, keeping her hand near the wall in case she fell. Rushing down the passageway, she darted through the doorway at top speed and almost ran into Optimus's ankle in her haste. Within seconds of her arrival she found herself scooped up in the commander's hand and deposited gently in a trembling heap on his left shoulder. "What's going on?" she asked desperately as Optimus clasped a hand around a pipe of some sort, his expression set.

    "Unicron is pulling us in," the Autobot explained grimly, his blue optics narrowing to some extent as he looked through the large, grime-encrusted cockpit window. "In a sense, this will make it easier for us to make our way through, but his being aware of our presence means that we will be at a disadvantage once we are inside."

    "Oh, God…" Alexis whispered, biting her lip.

    She had been afraid before, but now that entrance into Unicron was so close, fear was beginning to get the better of her. Fear is the enemy… fear is the enemy… she repeated to herself internally, clasping her clammy hands together and huddling against Optimus's armour, but Starscream's words brought little comfort now. She was going to have to run for her life once she was in there, and then she was going to be blown up, along with Optimus. There wouldn't be enough left of her for a funeral.

    I will see you through to the end, the All Spark assured her. My power will make short work of the guards. But is up to you, Alexis, to reunite me with the Matrix and pitch me into the spark of Unicron.

    "I get it, I get it," she muttered through gritted teeth under her breath, squeezing her eyes shut as the vibration became worse, hurting her ears.

    Cracking one eye open, she gasped when she saw how much closer Unicron suddenly was. The Axalon jerked harshly as they were drawn towards the serrated maw, and Optimus grunted with exertion, hand clenched around the piping. "Here," he called over the noise, reaching his free hand up and holding something towards her. "Take this, youngling!"

    Between his finger and thumb, Alexis spotted a helmet of some sort. Reaching out a shaking hand, she took it from him and shook her head. "What is it?" she asked, leaning close to his auditory receptor so that he could hear her.

    "Oxygen headgear," he informed her, steadying himself by changing his footing a little. "Primus –"

    She threw the thing over her head without argument as the Axalon rocked wildly, jamming it down over her face. Immediately, it tightened about her neck and sealed her breathing space off from the outside, and a quiet hissing sound came somewhere inside it as the precious gas was pumped in. Another of Skyfire's ingenious inventions, she supposed dimly as the ship began to jolt up and down, rattling every component and making several sirens go off. Red lights flashed through the cockpit, and a cool voice began to repeat an alarm.

    "Alert. All systems failing. All systems failing."

    "Full report!" Optimus bellowed over the noise as the Axalon was sucked between Unicron's jaws. Alexis grasped his shoulder so tightly that her knuckles turned white, her eyes wide with dread beneath the visor of the helmet.

    There was a brief pause before the answer came. "Navigation system offline. Energy shields offline. Piloting systems offline. Fuel levels –"

    The ship was suddenly yanked to the right, its right wing dropping down unexpectedly. Alexis screamed in spite of herself when a tearing screech came to her ears over the deafening vibrations, and Optimus almost lost his footing again as the Axalon was thrown forward abruptly, plunging them deeper into Unicron's mouth. A blinding explosion caught her eye through the giant, transparent, screen, and sparks skittered over the surface of the viewing window with small pieces of debris.

    "Right wing no longer functional," the alarm warned, and Alexis realised, with dread, that it must have been caught on one of Unicron's teeth.

    "What do we do, Optimus?" she screamed frantically at the Autobot leader as the curved nose of the spaceship began to move downwards, towards the gaping black hole that would lead them into the bowels of this monster. "Oh – oh my God – oh my GOD!"

    "Hold on, Alexis!" he shouted.

    The Axalon tipped forward, the remains of its right wing blazing with orange fire as its balance was thrown by the inescapable pull. Alexis saw the cavernous opening coming closer and closer before the control room's white halogen lights and warning systems finally failed, sparking into nothingness and plunging them into complete darkness as the ship went into sudden freefall, its previously aerodynamic bulk no longer supported by its broken wings or deteriorating turbofans.

    Darkness… falling… falling…

    Starscream…

    And then they crashed.



    * * *



    "Pilots of the United States of America, this is your Air Commander speaking."

    Jade listened in silence as Skyfire addressed the American airmen and women that were flying behind them in a mass formation, briefing them on what was going to happen and informing them of the kind of enemy that they would be facing. According to the information he gave them, the flying drones were likely to be fairly weak, but well-armed and not to be taken lightly – with Unicron behind them, they would be still be incredibly dangerous. His voice was strong and encouraging nonetheless, and they seemed to support his command.

    "So what do we call you, sir?" a male voice enquired curiously over the radio connection.

    "My name is Skyfire," he returned willingly, and Jade smiled at his kind tone. "Do not hesitate to contact me if you require assistance at any point during this battle. That applies to any of you."

    "Man, I still can't believe we've got an alien as chief," another man, sounding younger, commented excitedly. "I'm psyched!"

    A woman laughed. "You seem like a nicer alien robot than that other guy with the Brits and Spaniards," she remarked, to chuckles from her wingmates. "No, really – Collins was saying he doesn't exactly have the patience of a saint. He's already giving them a lecture on what they can and can't do in the air, and told them not to disturb him unless it's an emergency."

    "My apologies for my comrade," Skyfire sighed, sounding quite worn out by the information. "He recently suffered a devastating loss, and is in a bad temper… but I will speak with him."

    "Ah, we're not worried about them!" a Texan drawl assured him from a nearby Raptor. "Those stuck-up RAF idiots need some sense scared into 'em!"

    There were a few amused laughs from the other pilots, and Jade pulled a face. She couldn't stand it when people from different countries were so averse to each other – even though the pilot had been joking, she was aware of the underlying sense of competition between the three air forces that were fighting today. They didn't seem recognise the gravity of the situation, and it worried the teenager immensely. Once they were in the air, teamwork would be essential – they couldn't afford division.

    It was time for humankind to stand as one.

    She fiddled with a lock of soft hair as she considered what would be happening on the ground, teasing her fingers through the blonde highlights. Her friends had their swords, but none of them had been trained in swordsmanship – only Carlos would know exactly what he was doing, having trained as an army cadet since he had come of age.

    A resentful frown darkened her usually bright and breezy countenance when she thought of Carlos and she bowed her head, her eyes closing. He hadn't even found the heart to say goodbye… was he really that much of an asshole?

    Apparently so.

    Jade hated being hurt by people she loved, just as anyone else did. But for her, it had always been so much worse when someone close to her had betrayed her trust. Like Skyfire, her major flaw was that she was too forgiving… too naive… but she could never change that. It was something that was written in stone; an integral part of her personality that could never be erased. She had put her trust in Carlos – thought of him as a best friend and a brother figure since before she could remember – and she had paid a price for her foolishness.

    Yet even now, she was certain that he was not a lost cause. His only error was that he had fallen in love with her – it was hardly a crime, as much as she wished it hadn't happened – when she had already found her soul mate. His jealousy and bitterness were reasonable… if he had been a little earlier, she knew she would have loved to be with him.

    But it was too late now. Skyfire was the one… and that, like her trusting disposition, was unalterable.

    "Jade, my jewel… are you alright?" Skyfire asked quietly, leaving the pilots to talk among themselves in the background about the imminent fight and discuss what tactics, weapons and manoeuvres they would be using. "It is not too late to return you to the ground –"

    "Sky, please," Jade halted him gently, holding up a hand. "You know I'm not going anywhere."

    He chuckled, but his spark clearly wasn't in the jovial sound. "True, but I thought it prudent to ask."

    The brunette nodded understandingly, her heart warmed by his concern in spite of how serious the current situation was. "We're going to be okay, Skyfire," she reassured him, offering the blue screen a smile and patting the upholstered seat with one hand. "I think all of us will be okay… in the end," she added with a sigh, glancing up at Unicron through the cockpit glass. Alexis and Optimus were up there in the depths of that thing… and they wouldn't be coming out.

    They wouldn't be okay.

    "Indeed," he murmured, and she felt the harness tighten slightly as if to embrace her. He couldn't activate his holoform on now, much as she would have loved him to – he needed all the power he could get for facing the drones, and the young girl realised that – but she appreciated his gesture immensely. "In the end."

    She managed another smile before she looked down at her hands, fingering her charm bracelet in thoughtful silence. Much as she was trying to keep up with the optimism that usually came naturally to her, the magnitude of their position was starting to weigh on her shoulders and dampen her spirits – even in spite of her determination not to give in that easily to the evil that was surrounding them. Happy and brave as she was, Jade was still only eighteen… and she had never wanted to be a soldier in a war.

    But here she was.

    And every cloud has a silver lining, Jadie, her mother's voice assured her again.

    That was it. If this was happening, she would make the most of it. She was fighting with Skyfire no matter what happened, and she reasoned that if they went down in flames today, then at least they would go down together. No matter how bleak the circumstances, she would find that silver lining… for her parents, and for Skyfire.

    For Earth.

    /Starscream to Skyfire/ came a familiar rasp through the speakers, interrupting her thoughts, and Jade couldn't help but feel terribly sorry for Starscream; he sounded so downcast. /I've detected a very large number of comets heading for the city… numbers in the hundreds./ He paused. /As well as some Decepticon signatures./

    "Decepticons?" Jade exclaimed before she could stop herself, shocked. "Which ones, Starscream?"

    Starscream didn't reply for a moment, and she figured he was probably miffed because he hadn't been speaking to her. /One of my old comrades, Thundercracker, is part of the group/ he responded after a while, clearly having expressed his displeasure long enough. /Sideways is there, of course, and so is that complete lunatic, Blitzwing./

    "Blitzwing?" Skyfire groaned, sounding exhausted already. "Thundercracker is bad news too, of course, but I simply cannot bear that Decepticon. He is a triple changer, Jade," he added to his charge, who admitted to being confused by the new names. "Similarly to what you humans call schizophrenia, he has multiple personalities, as well as the ability to have up to three alternate forms."

    "A schizophrenic Decepticon?" she repeated, raising a dark eyebrow. "That sounds… um… interesting."

    /Don't underestimate Blitzwing, Jade Rivers/ Starscream put in forebodingly. /I know your attitude. Even if you could tempt out his less… heated… side, he is still incredibly ruthless and unpredictable. I imagine that you will have to deal with him in the air – Thundercracker will be the one wanting to deal with me. You won't be so positive when he's shooting at you./

    She shook her head, smiling slightly as she adjusted the kerchief that she had replaced over her locks. "Sorry, Starscream. I'll make sure I'm not too optimistic, you know… just in case it annoys you."

    /You annoy me anyway, foolish girl…/ the seeker muttered darkly, but at least he hadn't exploded with annoyance or anger. He stopped suddenly, and Jade glanced out at where she could see his sleek form flying at the head of the other air forces, a little ahead of the other planes. /Skyfire, the comets are within my visual range./

    Skyfire paused before he responded in a low, apprehensive tone of voice. "Yes… I see them too, my friend."

    "Where?" Jade enquired worriedly, leaning forward in her seat as far as her harness would allow and peering up through the glass. "… Oh, jeez…"

    A scattering of glowing, orange-and-yellow marks had appeared across the smoke-laden heavens like burning stars, all of them heading for the city that they were flying back towards with the British, Spanish and American air forces. They were getting larger and larger at an alarming rate, descending like deadly fireflies, and Jade's heart almost stopped beating in horror when she realised that their numbers must be in the hundreds. The soldiers probably outnumbered them, but the drones would be far, far stronger.

    And, she realised with a jolt of dismay, the comets were heading straight towards them.

    Her guardian had clearly recognised this too, if his reaction was anything to go by. "Evasive manoeuvres, all of you!" he called out with authority, just as the first of the flaming protoforms shot past, plummeting towards the city below.

    The Spirit bomber banked to the right swiftly, and Jade held onto the edges of her seat as her eyes moved to Skyfire's monitor, which was routinely cycling through the cockpit views of each of the pilots in the American squadrons. She watched as the planes parted in unison, each of them ducking and diving to avoid the hailstorm of red-hot metallic pods as they dropped down from the skies, and saw Starscream and his air forces following suite.

    /Slag it!/ Starscream cursed over the link as several Spanish planes were hit by a group of them, causing them to fall out of the sky like flies.

    The Americans and British pilots looked, to Jade, to be faring a little better due to their position – the drones seemed to have come mainly from above where the Ejército del Aire had been flying – but Jade could still hear their panicked cries as she braced herself.

    A strangled yell came as a silver-brown blur spiralled past, with Skyfire barely avoiding the falling plane.

    "Primus…" he murmured, sounding as shocked as Jade felt. The smoking Raptor smashed on the roof of a building, undoubtedly killing the pilot in an instant as pieces of the aircraft were thrown up by the impact far below. "Jade, quickly – put the oxygen helmet I made for you on. I have incorporated a G-force compensator into my form so that you do not pass out during the fight, but I would rather have you wearing it to lessen the risk."

    Jade nodded immediately, reaching under her seat and pulling out the smooth, bright blue helmet. She threw it over her head and felt it activate itself before checking her safety harness. "I love you, Skyfire…" she whispered, wanting to tell him before the conflict truly begun.

    "I love you too, Jade," he murmured. "Always."

    The picture on his monitor suddenly changed, showing the place where the humans and Autobots had assembled – Skyfire was using his binocular vision to show her what was happening. It appeared that the comet shower had missed the army, but she could just see Ironhide assisting a group of soldiers out of a burning vehicle that must have been hit by a protoform. The visual shifted to one of the smoking pods, and Jade leant forward, her eyes narrowing to see it unfold.

    /Skyfire – above!/ Starscream suddenly roared, and Jade looked up abruptly. /Those weren't the flyers – they are!/

    Jade's brown eyes widened when she saw them coming.

    On the bloody horizon, a great host of silhouetted planes were coming towards the human air forces. They were not in protoform, as the ground-based drones had been – instead, they were already fully transformed, and coming at them at unbelievable speeds. At the front she could see an F-22 like Starscream, but in a darker colour, and a second human-based jet that she didn't recognise. According to the data flashing up on Skyfire's monitor, however, it was a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 interceptor and reconaissance aircraft.

    There were so many of them… Jade's hands clenched around the harness tightly, and she swallowed hard as sweat began to appear on her brow. She didn't see a silver lining amongst all of them…

    "Primus be with us," Skyfire muttered. "Here they come."



    * * *



    Author's Note: Happy fourth of July to my American readers! I hope you all had a great day, and that you enjoyed this special Independence Day update… let's see how the same day will go for our heroes… (gulp) Do take a moment to vote on my profile for which characters you think are destined to die… it's great seeing what you guys all think (and knowing whether or not you're right…)! Thanks so much for your continued reviews and see you next update for the battle to truly begin. :) 





    *Chapter 24*: Sidewinder





    Chapter Twenty-Four

    Sidewinder



    * * *



    "Optimus? Please… please, wake up…"

    Vector Sigma…

    Optimus groaned as he came back online, and was faced with total darkness as a tight, agonising pain clutched at his central processor like a vice. He remembered what had happened immediately – the Axalon had been drawn into Unicron's mouth by the Dark Lord's power – and alarm took him at once. How long had the ship been down for? Every moment was valuable in a mission such as this one… every second they wasted was another second of fierce battle for his Autobot soldiers and the humans still on Earth.

    His night vision flickered on after a few moments, and he found himself face-to-face with a very frightened-looking Alexis. The green hue that the night sensors cast over his visualisation made her face look even eerier than before, darkening the shadows under her eyes and casting her already pale skin into a gaunt, sickly light beneath the covering of her oxygen helmet.

    "Alexis…" he ground out, reaching up to his head and wincing when he felt how tender it was. "What… how long have we been down here for?"

    "N-not too long," the girl stammered, visibly shaking. A bluish contusion was darkening on her forehead and her shirt was torn in several places; otherwise, however, she appeared to be unharmed. "About ten minutes, I think… y-you went offline when we crashed…"

    Ten minutes… not as long as he had feared, then. But there was still no time to lose.

    Optimus hauled himself into a hunched sitting position in the gloom, looking down at his body armour and running a succinct self-diagnostic. Everything was still functioning well; the source of his blackout was impact trauma to the cranium, but the minor damage had already been repaired by his recovery systems in the ten minutes that he had been offline. His red-and-blue paintwork was covered in a thick layer of rock and dirt, but it was nothing that a dab of Jade's paints couldn't have corrected… if they had been returning to the planet.

    He looked around the room, appalled by the damage that had been done to the Axalon's control room. The front window, which had been exceedingly large – a good fifty by fifty feet – had been completely shattered during the crash, and the remains were scattered around the crushed room, along with broken fragments of the controls.

    All of Skyfire's work… gone.

    "Are you injured, Alexis?" he asked the female worriedly, looking down at her again. It was a wonder that her helmet hadn't cracked and let all the oxygen out – now that they were no longer sealed within the Axalon, she would have died almost instantly. "And the All Spark – you still have it?"

    She nodded quickly, indicating the necklace. "It's fine… and no, I'm n-not hurt… just my head, a bit…"

    Optimus nodded and extended a hand for her, which she climbed into readily and settled herself on his palm as he slowly climbed to his feet, ducking his head to avoid it colliding with the caved-in roof of the control room. Curling his fingers around the trembling girl, he moved forward carefully and manoeuvred himself through the open space where the ship's viewing glass had once been, extending a foot and making contact with what appeared to be a fine dust of some sort on the uneven metallic ground.

    Scanning the surroundings, he saw that the Axalon had crashed in what appeared to be a cavern of some sort. He found that he no longer needed his night vision; not only was the crushed wing of the spaceship still smouldering and lighting the place with a soft, orange glow, but purple and green illumination seemed to be emitting from the many tiny Cybertronian symbols etched into the craggy walls.

    Just glancing at one of the hieroglyphs was enough to put him off reading the others… the ancient Cybertronian sign for death.

    "Where's Unicron's spark chamber?" Alexis whispered from his hand.

    "I do not know, young one," he admitted in an undertone, searching the room with his optics and spying a passageway hidden behind the Axalon's ruins. "I suppose we must venture as far as we can, and hope that fate leads us in the right direction."

    Even as he spoke, Alexis let out a tiny cry of apparent surprise and her hand flew to her neckline, where her shirt was now missing a button. Looking down curiously, Optimus saw that the emerald-like jewel that hung from the chain was pulling away from the young woman's neck, straining towards the passage that he had spotted and evading her fingers when she tried to hold it back down.

    "I think it wants us to go that way," she told him timidly, looking up at the opening he had seen. "Down that passage."

    Optimus glanced up at the mouth of the passage again – this time with far more certainty – and made the decision in the ensuing second. If he did not act now, he knew perfectly well that he would be too busy worrying over the pros and cons of the verdict to actually go through with it once he was finished: it had always been his way, and his main weakness when planning out battles against the Decepticons on Cybertron. He knew the grave consequences of taking risks… but the end, for them, had always been inevitable.

    All he could hope for was that Primus had mercy upon the brave, yet unbelievably delicate human that was holding the key to salvation in her fragile hands; that He would spare her a painful death, and let him bear the agony in her place.

    "Very well," he murmured, fixing his optics on their objective and narrowing them determinedly. "We must trust in the All Spark, Alexis."

    A sour look darkened her pale, freckled face and a grim smirk appeared on her thin lips as she stared at the passageway, a spark of something icy and strange in her brilliantly green eyes. "Yes," she agreed, but her tone was even colder and deader than this shadowy, twisted place that they were trapped in. "We must always trust in the All Spark."

    He was uncertain as to how he could respond to her cool, impassive concurrence. So, as any logical being would do, he chose not to.

    Placing her on his shoulder once again, he stepped forward onto the steep incline of the Axalon's less damaged wing, crushing a few tongues of flame into ember as he did so. The metal creaked ominously; the metallic appendage had caught on a rock projection of some sort, but Optimus highly doubted that it would take his weight for much longer. He glanced down and observed, with scarcely concealed trepidation, that if the wing did give way beneath them, he and Alexis would be subject to what appeared to be a bottomless drop through a cavernous crack in the floor.

    If Alexis's skyrocketing pulse rate was anything to go by, she, too, had picked up on this unpleasant fact.

    "Be careful, Optimus…" she cautioned him nervously, her breathing becoming shallow. "Earth's pretty much screwed if we fall down there…"

    She had obviously recognised the reality of the situation, just as Optimus already had. One wrong step here could lead to the senseless deaths of all of his Autobot soldiers, their painfully young and helpless charges, and a horrifying number of completely innocent and unknowing human beings. It was imperative to preserve those lives, and that sentience.

    Optimus Prime would not fail them now.

    He had failed them in the past… but not this time. Not this time.

    The wing held out creakily as he took several careful steps forward across its surface, and he managed to get to the other side of the drop without it giving way. The first step onto solid ground again made him let out a rush of air through his vents in relief, and he heard Alexis let her baited breath out near his audio receptor as her heart rate slowed a little. He peered around the passage's ragged entrance warily, observing the long, metallic projections that looked so similar to the Earth formations that humans called 'stalactites'.

    The darkness was deeper down there, certainly, but the necklace was still emitting an ethereal, emerald-green light – not only that, but there were many more Cybertronian symbols glittering across the uneven walls of the tunnel, scintillating gently and lighting their way. His night vision, too, allowed him to see a little further down the passage, but not all the way to the end.

    "We have to, Optimus," Alexis reminded him quietly from his shoulder, as if she had read his thoughts. "We have no choice…"

    The Autobot commander sighed heavily, nodding in response to her statement. "I know, youngling… we can only hope that our path, with the All Spark, will be one that allows us to enter into Unicron's spark chamber before there are too many fruitless deaths on Earth."

    He ducked slightly to avoid his cranium receiving further damage as he half-crawled through the entrance, grunting in mingled annoyance and exertion. Unicron, he was certain, was enjoying every second of seeing Optimus Prime on his knees as if to worship him…grimacing at the displeasing thought, he straightened himself when he had cleared the passageway's mouth and looked around at their surroundings guardedly, his blue optics scanning the glittering walls.

    Taking a step forward, he tested the ground with a foot, unsure as to whether Unicron had any kind of movement-triggered defence mechanisms; it was, however, an experiment that led to nothing. Putting his full weight on the ground again, he began to move down the tunnel, with Alexis's shallow breathing and his heavy footfalls the only sounds in the dominating silence.

    After several minutes of cautious movement, Alexis suddenly put a hand on his cranium to gain his attention. "Optimus… look…"

    He glanced to his left to look at her, and saw that the necklace was tugging on her neck again, towards the far wall of the passage. Following the direction of its indication with his optics, he frowned deeply when he saw a protuberance of some sort distorting the metal – a large, out-of-place bulge that was enveloped by gnarled, knotted tendrils of some sort. Using his binocular vision, he scanned the symbols that were glowing on the vines and saw that they spelt out words of death and imprisonment, as well as warnings to all those who dared to enter Unicron.

    Alexis gasped sharply when he stepped towards it, and her pulse began to rise again. "Don't, Optimus – I don't like it," she pleaded, as the All Spark continued to throb around her neck. "Let's just carry on…"

    "My apologies, Alexis," he murmured, peering at the engorgement curiously. "But I feel that it would be best to know our enemy."

    "We do know our enemy!" Alexis insisted, sounding as if she might be on the edge of hysterics. "He's a massive evil guy that floats around in space and eats planets, okay? We know that – we don't need to know what this thing is – what if it's a trap, Optimus? If we get caught down here, the others are dead – we're they're only chance!"

    But Optimus had already seen it.

    A hand. A long-fingered, armoured Cybertronian hand, extending from between the strange tentacles… as if reaching out for help.



    * * *



    Starscream was beyond furious. He had already lost almost an entire squadron of Mirage jet fighters from the Spanish side of his air forces in the unexpected comet shower, and now there was an enormous legion of flying drones headed in their direction. In the lead was Thundercracker – using the same alternate form as he did, the impertinent slagger – and flying at his side was Blitzwing, designed as another form of aircraft. He would recognise that loon any day, Earth form or not.

    There were hundreds of them, all of which would need to be defeated. Already, the odds were against them.

    Alexis…

    He shook himself out of his fleeting trance, incensed with his inability to concentrate on the battle at hand. He was Starscream – the obvious Lord of the Sky! The heavens belonged to him, and they were in his territory. He had the advantage here… on the ground, he could, perhaps, be challenged, but in the sky… he was invincible!

    /Good luck, Starscream!/ Skyfire called before the first jet-drone shot through the ranks, causing several Harriers from the Royal Air Force to bank wildly to avoid it destroying all of them with its superior speed.

    Primus, he didn't need Skyfire's accursed well-wishing! The fool knew just as well as anyone that he was unassailable in air-to-air combat – he had been in enough aerial battles with the Autobot in the past, whether they were in training or Cybertron or against each other on Earth on the night when he stole the necklace, for him to be more than aware of his fighting ability. And he would have said as much to his old comrade… had Thundercracker not found his devious little way onto his radio channel.

    /Hello, Starscream/ the other seeker's voice suddenly crackled darkly his auditory receptors, and Starscream hissed softly in anger as he watched him glide past. /Or perhaps I should call you 'traitor'…/

    /Traitor?/ Starscream snorted disbelievingly, turning his conical nose towards the navy Raptor as it took down a British Tornado with a well-placed missile within two seconds of speaking. He wasn't as rusty as he had hoped he might be, then… /I may have been a traitor on Cybertron, Thundercracker, but I'm not the one flying for Unicron here./

    Thundercracker laughed. /Unicron isn't all that bad, 'Screamer. If you can't beat 'em… join 'em./

    /Yes/ he agreed bitterly, rage steaming beneath the surface of his sleek form as he gave chase, dodging past several friendly jets and keeping on Thundercracker's tail almost effortlessly as the other Raptor soared across the sky. /I'm sure that's your sentiment exactly, you wretched slagger. You only flew with me on Cybertron so that you could get your filthy servos on my position as Air Commander… and I suppose Unicron gave you exactly what you wanted, didn't he? Or was he stupid enough to put Blitzwing in charge of the drones?/

    /Come on… no one's that stupid./

    As if to prove his point, the plane that was Blitzwing suddenly shot past on Starscream's left side, cackling manically as if he had just seen the most comical thing in the universe. From that little display of lunacy, he gathered that the triple changer was in the grip of his more excitable personality.

    The aircraft he was disguised as, according to Starscream's rapid scan of the World Wide Web, was out of service in most air forces and far inferior to the Raptor model that he favoured, but it was still a very high-speed and well-armed plane – and, with added Cybertronian technology, nothing to be taken lightly by the human flyers. He could only be thankful that he was more animated than angry at this moment, and vaguely sent an undoubtedly wasted appeal to Primus that it would remain that way.

    "Hello, Skyfire!" the psychotic jet shrieked elatedly, his voice carrying a heavy accent. "Vat a long time it has been zince I last saw you!"

    /See?/ Thundercracker snorted as Skyfire hastened, understandably, to get the slag out of his way. /You think an evil genius like Unicron doesn't know His soldiers well enough to know that Blitzwing couldn't lead androids to a picnic – let alone His drones to victory?/

    For a moment, Starscream could remember what it was like back on Cybertron. Flying without restraint across the star-struck sky of their home world with Skywarp and Thundercracker… the matchless Seekers of Cybertron, feared by every Autobot in Iacon. Apart from Skyfire, they had been the closest things he had ever had to having… friends.

    But both of them had failed him.

    /True/ he spat back to the blue jet's remark. /But he must be equally idiotic to think that a fool like you can defeat me./

    /See, there's your problem/ was the smug response, just as Starscream was forced into a dive to avoid a team of drones that were shooting at him as he pursued their leader./You've always been an egotistical glitchead, Starscream… and today, arrogance could kill you. Remember that I have Unicron's power within me – it might just save your miserable aft./

    /You truly think to take on your obvious better in my territory?/ he snarled, riled.

    Thundercracker snickered, performing a lazy barrel roll and casually taking down an American jet as he did so. /The sky isn't your real passion now though, is it?/ he sniggered. /Unicron tells me that you've been so disgusting as to join sparks with a human… could you sink any lower, or do you want me to give you a servo and blast you out of the sky?/

    /SHUT UP!/

    The antagonism that had been boiling within him exploded like an atomic bomb when he bellowed his irate reply at Thundercracker, rage pumping through his fuel lines as he let out a scream of anger into the sky. Sonic waves pulsed through the air, tipping the balance of several drones as they flew past, and his entire form seemed to fill to the brim with a hot, furious agitation as he gunned his engines threateningly, propelling himself towards the rival jet and letting loose with his Vulcan cannon, not caring who or what he hit – as long as Thundercracker got a taste of his wrath.

    Thundercracker was obviously surprised by his sudden, frenzied attack – it took him longer than it might have done to move out of his way, and his next sarcastic remark was edged with unease. /Primus, 'Screamer, what's the matter with you?/ he laughed as Starscream spun around in midair for a second attack, bullets clattering from the mouth of his cannon. /It's not like a meatbag could mean anything to –/

    Starscream screeched with vitriol, barrelling back towards him with wrath fuelling his movement. /Frag you, you son-of-a-glitch!/ he roared, and he heard Thundercracker snarl when his bullets made contact with the other flyer's armour. /I will KILL you for that slight on my mate!/

    /You pathetic slagger!/ Thundercracker taunted disgustedly, ducking the missile he sent easily. /Where's your fleshy bitch now, Starscream? She can't love you that much if she's left you alone – or is she down on the ground with all the other little insects and pieces of insignificant Autoscum that dare to challenge the might of Unicron?/

    /No, you piece of scum/ Starscream sneered. /She's in the depths of your master with what remains of the All Spark – and today, she will destroy him!/

    There was a pause, and Thundercracker seemed to slow down a little in the chase. /What?/ he snapped.

    Smirking internally as his rage began to cool a little, Starscream caught up easily and flew alongside the navy Raptor as if they were wingmates again. /You heard me/ he said softly, his voice low and sinister. /My mate is the carrier of the last pieces of the All Spark, and she has gone with Prime to join it with the Matrix and annihilate your precious Unicron. You ought to show a little more respect for one who wields such an implausible power, Thundercracker… and I don't think 'meat bag' is quite the term./

    Thundercracker hissed. /You liar./

    /Oh no, Thundercracker… no lies./ He shifted to the left sharply, the tip of his wing making contact with Thundercracker's with a rattling clang and inciting a growl of annoyance from the other jet. /Her name is Alexis. You would do well to remember it./

    There was a long pause as the two Raptors shot across the sky, their wings barely touching, and Starscream allowed himself a victorious moment of private triumph as he realised how astonished Thundercracker must be by the revelation that his mate – a mate that all of the Decepticons had claimed would never come to him – was to destroy Unicron. His mate… his Alexis…

    Finally, Thundercracker grunted his response. /Not to worry, 'Screamer. I will./ But he could hear the malice in his old comrade's voice when he hissed out his next, barely audible threat. /But I'll send you down in flames before she can come back again./

    Starscream faltered.

    As Thundercracker's words sunk into his central processing unit, he was reminded, for the thousandth time, of what could have been. What might have been… had things been different. He could have left this life of war and hatred behind him; he could have stolen Alexis and fled to another planet. Away from Unicron… away from the Autobots, the Decepticons, and all that stood between… he could have found a world with breathable air for her, and they could have made it their own.

    But being with the Autobots had changed him. He despised admitting it, but it was the candid and inescapable truth. Being part of them… with them… one of them may not have changed his personality to a great extent, but it had certainly changed his spark. He was seeing things the way they saw things – the way he had never seen before. Understanding their morals – morals he had never understood before.

    He was… an Autobot.

    Autobots had a sense of honour; they were sworn by the Matrix itself to protect life, and to cleanse the universe of all its evil… evil embodied in beings like Thundercracker. Autobots knew justice. Autobots did not give ground.

    And Autobots did not surrender.

    /Of course she won't be coming back again/ he muttered, ignoring a drone as it missed him by a hair's breadth. /But nor will Unicron./

    /Don't bet all your high-grade on that one, Starscream/ Thundercracker sneered, dipping low and snagging the wing of a Harrier as he went – the inferior, Earth-made metal gave way at once before the advanced Cybertronian potency of the other flyer, and it lost its balance immediately when the flimsy material bent and ignited. /Unicron is eternal. The Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end./

    A cruel, dark snigger rolled from Starscream's vocal processors before he could stop it, and he found himself smirking on the inside as he responded. /Perhaps/ he confessed quietly. /But your end, Thundercracker, is NOW!/

    And he did not waste another second before he launched his attack.



    * * *



    "Kill human femme! KILL HUMAN FEMME!"

    Mikaela barely managed a gasp of shock before she was forced throw herself to one side, the scissor-like blades of the drone's extraterrestrial weapon singing over her head with a flurry of hot, rushing air. The things just didn't seem to die – the city-scale fight had been raging for ten minutes at least, and she hadn't even managed to bring one drone down. Ironhide and the Autobots didn't seem to be having quite as much trouble, but they had still been overwhelmed when she had last spied them among the viciously battling drones, soldiers, and out-of-place teenagers.

    Hitting the ground with a force that was sure to severely bruise the shoulder she had landed on, she rolled to the left without stopping and the multi-bladed appendage crashed into the sidewalk, instead of her skull, with a deafening clatter. It hurt her ears so badly that they rung, but she would rather come out of this completely deaf than stone dead.

    She scrambled to her feet, with half a mind to reach for her sword and the other for her borrowed revolver. Neither would do much good; she was crap with the gun, but even crapper with the sword.

    Seriously, the brunette managed to despair through her panic. What was Bumblebee thinking?

    The gleaming revolver was out before she was even consciously aware of making the decision to arm herself with it; she clutched it tightly in her sweating hands as the drone tore its weird thing from the concrete and spun around to face her with a shriek of rage, its optics tiny slits of hatred as it took a threatening step in her direction.

    "Die," it commanded her hoarsely, baring a mouthful of jagged teeth. "Kill human femme…"

    She suddenly realised why this whole situation was freaking her out so much. Okay, so she was an average, run-of-the-mill jock concubine stuck in the middle of an alien war – enough to freak any sane person out, for sure – but what was really giving her the creeps was that she had heard those exact words before, back at the 'Battle of the Base', as they had all dubbed their fight with Thrust three years beforehand. The fight that now seemed like a skirmish compared to this nightmare.

    Kill human femme… kill human femme…

    To hell with that! She had killed one of the drones back then – there was no reason why she couldn't take down a few of these suckers now. Mikaela Banes was Ratchet's fighter to the bitter end – and she wasn't going down without one ugly bitch of a fight.

    "Come and get me then, big boy!" she beckoned the six-foot machine boldly, glaring at it. "Show me what'cha got!"

    It let out a weird, booming flurry of sounds in response – probably some scandalous Cybertronian insult, she thought darkly – before the mismatched hunk of metal and gears came running towards her with unexpected speed, knives spinning out from its weapon. Standing her ground, Mikaela set her jaw and concentrated, narrowing her eyes as she aimed for the weak armour under its chest.

    She ducked when she left the shot too late; the drone charged past her, having built up too much momentum to stop dead when it realised it had missed her. Taking advantage of its physical handicap – the one thing she might be able to use to her advantage against it – she cocked the hammer and raised the gun again, keeping her eyes on her enemy as it came to a skidding halt, knocking one of its fellow drones over and saving a young soldier from being crushed as it did so.

    The cylinder on the gun revolved to align the round with the barrel as the leant forward, preparing itself to charge as if it were a bull. Mikaela clenched her jaw determinedly, holding it up with both hands and hooking her index finger over the trigger.

    As it launched itself forward again, she realised, with a mild sense of dread, that she was going to have to get really close to the drone for the bullet to penetrate its protective shell. Sure, this revolver was pretty badass for a human weapon, but there was no way it was going to cut it with Cybertronian body armour. She was going to have to put herself within range of its weapons to kill it.

    She swallowed, her grimy hands suddenly trembling around the firearm.

    And then Sam's timid, yet unwavering voice came to her from the back of her mind, and from four years beforehand. It floated from her memories like a butterfly, bringing her some comfort in the heat of this danger and fear.

    No sacrifice… no victory.

    He was right.

    With a scream of battle fury to rival any Cybertronian's, Mikaela lunged forward unpredictably, throwing herself onto a head-to-head collision course with the incoming threat. Lifting the revolver as they drew closer and closer together, she squeezed the trigger hard – and again, and again, putting round after round into the robot's chest until the gun's chamber let out a resounding click.

    It was at that point that she jumped.

    Flinging her body into the air with a grace achieved from eight years of daily cheerleading practice, she leapt out of the drone's path like a ballet dancer – but not before a blade sung out of nowhere and slashed her across the hip, cutting through her clothes and into soft, vulnerable skin.

    The subsequent pain was bad enough to make her landing go awry, but not enough to make her cry out. She slammed into the sidewalk again with considerable force on her uninjured side, very nearly cracking her chin on the ground, and drew in a sharp hiss of pain through her gritted teeth as the revolver clattered from her hand, emptied of bullets.

    There was a deafening crash from behind her and she craned her neck over her shoulder to see what had happened. The drone was sprawled across the ground, its optics dead and colourless.

    Yes!

    It was a small victory, admittedly, but a victory nonetheless.

    Panting as she grinned weakly to herself, she glanced down the length of her slender body to see what damage had been done to her side. Her jacket was torn from the waist to the hem, as was the tank top beneath it; a thin, shallow gash could be seen running diagonally across her hip, but it was nothing that Ratchet couldn't deal with once the fight was over. If anything, all she risked was getting a little grit in it – there was no way that she was going to bleed to death, when it was hardly bleeding anyway.

    Reaching somewhat painfully for the fallen revolver, she shifted her weight off of her sword side and dragged herself upright with a groan, blinking sweat out of her eyes. Her wounded side stung slightly, but it was nothing unbearable.

    "Oh my God – Mikaela!"

    The voice that stood out from the raucous background clamour of screaming, screeching and shouting was one that she recognised immediately from its thick British accent, and she sighed with relief when Rose's face appeared in front of her, looking whiter than a sheet and incredibly worried. The redhead's tone and expression were full of anxiety, and she peered at Mikaela with obvious concern.

    "Are you okay?" she demanded, looking quite frantic. "What happened to your hip?"

    "It's nothing," Mikaela brushed her off hastily, allowing the taller girl to give her a hand in getting up back to her feet. "I just got in the way of Edward Scissorhands's evil twin – it doesn't hurt that much. Are you okay?"

    She could see that Rose chosen to use her double swords more than her pistol – the gun was still neatly in its case, strapped to her thigh, whereas the twin weapons were clutched tightly in her hands as if they were welded to her palms. "Oh, I'm alright," she assured her, offering a quick smile as some form of evidence. "I think the Autobots are struggling, though…"

    Whipping around with her heart thumping in dread at Rose's tidings, Mikaela's blue-green eyes searched the warring hordes, wishing she could have a bird's eye view of Mission City. Although they were in the central part of the conurbation, she was aware that the fight was happening all across the city – in the back streets, the side streets, the main streets, the park, and in the sky – and that not all of the Autobots would be within her visual range. Mainly, however, she was searching out Ratchet and Bumblebee.

    After a moment, she turned back to Rose and grabbed her by the shoulders. "Rose, where are Ratch' and 'Bee?"

    "I – I don't know," Rose fretted, her own eyes roving across the plaza and the surrounding streets, which were strewn with drones and soldiers in the throes of battle. "I saw Bumblebee earlier, with Sunstreaker – they were fighting a big group of drones – and Ironhide was with Lennox near the park, but I haven't seen Ratchet since the beginning –"

    Mikaela's eyes widened, dread clutching at her chest. "Then we've got to –"

    "TAKE COVER!" a soldier suddenly bellowed from the other side of the street, interrupting her worry for her guardian.

    BOOM.

    The sidewalk shook beneath Mikaela's feet and she clutched Rose's arm in shock, letting out a cry of surprise as a powerful vibration rocked the ground with all the jarring strength of a major earthquake. Rubble flew from every angle as a fireball streaked into her field of vision, bits of rock catching her across the forehead – she knew that more would have bruised her face had Rose not pulled her into a painful crouch behind an abandoned GMC Envoy, putting them both out of harm's way as the tremors slowly subsided.

    Gasping for air, Mikaela glanced up at her friend and grinned. "Ratchet would be proud of you, hon."

    Rose managed a breathy laugh in return, one fist clenched over her heart as well as her sword's hilt. "I'm sure he would…" she panted, looking somewhat shell-shocked in spite of her smile. "I haven't poked myself in the eye with my sword yet, either…"

    "What, you thought you would?"

    "You don't know me like I do, love."

    There was no time to drop any more subtle matchmaking hints, much as Mikaela would usually have revelled in mentioning Ratchet at every possible opportunity. She guessed she could work on her little project – getting Ratchet with Rose – once the battle was over. For the moment, however, she would have to give her full concentration to surviving the day. And finding Ratchet, so that she would have the ability to get him with Rose…

    God… I hope he's okay.

    Her second-long amusement waned very quickly when she saw Rose's horror-struck expression. The British girl had peered around the side of the SUV, presumably to see what had caused the explosion, and had just drawn back with a sharp gasp, pressing her back against the passenger door. "It's a Decepticon," she fretted in a whisper, as if it could hear her over the general commotion that surrounded them. "I can't see it clearly… but it's bigger than the drones. It must be…"

    Grimacing at the thought of a Decepticon as well as all the drones – considering it had taken her such a long time to kill one of Unicron's minions – Mikaela crawled around the vehicle to look around the back end. "Hold on a sec… I'll see…"

    Keeping as low as she could, the brunette got down on her stomach and commando-crawled past the rear bumper, narrowing her eyes against the dust that was beginning to drift through the air in the aftermath of the explosion. Soldiers were running past, away from the impact zone – one almost booted her in the head unknowingly as he raced past with his figurative tail between his legs – and it took her a little while before her eyes could make out a huge, dark silhouette against the charcoal smoke that was spewing from the crash site.

    She recognised the horns at once.

    Sideways.

    A stab of alarm hit her harder than she had expected as she remembered, with a shiver, the way that Sideways had looked at her when she had shot out his optic with her sniper rifle at the base battle. All that hatred… as if he had truly wanted nothing but to watch her die… useless organic that she was, she supposed he would still like to watch her die, and a pretty gruesome death at that.

    "Mikaela!" Rose's voice hissed insistently from behind her. "Who is it?"

    Breathing in through her nose to control her suddenly quivering inhalations, Mikaela shifted backward and crouched behind the Envoy again, pressing her upper back against its comforting bulk and closing her eyes. "Sideways," she murmured, not looking at Rose for fear of seeing her expression. "We figure he's Unicron's right hand 'bot."

    She heard Rose's breath catch. "Unicron's… oh, my God…"

    A vibration passed through the ground.

    "Shh…" Mikaela whispered, her mouth drying in an instant as her eyes snapped open. "I think I heard him moving…"

    A tiny, petrified squeak was heard from her left, and she brought herself to glance at Rose out of the corner of her eye. There was no trace whatsoever of the rosy flush that had once filled her cheeks and made her name seem so appropriate; nothing left of the young woman that had squared up to Alexis back at the base, and refused to back down when Starscream had expressed such contempt for her. All Mikaela could see on Rose's face was what she felt like on the inside – a frightened, trembling teenager whose courage had evaporated.

    At least someone else felt the same way that she did.

    A heavy boom sounded from behind the Envoy they were crouching behind, making Mikaela's legs quake as vibrations passed up through her feet. Another followed it, and she bit her lip to stop herself from whimpering.

    They had three major choices here. Firstly, they could run for it – just get up and sprint for the nearest building, and hope that the Decepticon missed when he shot at them, which he would; secondly they could sit here and await rescue, which, from the looks of how the Autobots were doing, was very unlikely to come; and then there was the third choice. To sneak away like the cowering fleshlings they were – crawl towards the pawnbroker's, which she was within a few metres of the sidewalk, and try and get in without attracting his attention.

    Screw it, she thought angrily, holstering her revolver and wincing when she heard Sideways take another stride. We might be squishy cowards… but at least we'll be living squishy cowards.

    "Rose." Her voice was hushed as Sideways came closer, and Rose glanced at her agitatedly. "C'mon…"

    But her plan – as usual – went straight to hell.

    She found herself screaming immediately when the enormous vehicle they had been sheltering behind was picked up and hurled away, as if it were nothing more than a child's plaything – it smashed into a building on the other side of the street with a crash that shook the ground, bursting into flames as it did so. Completely thrown by the sudden exposure and so terrified that she could no longer breathe, Mikaela grabbed a handful of Rose's clothes and yanked her aggressively into a full-out sprint, throwing herself and her companion away from the looming shadow of Sideways.

    "RUN, ROSE!" she shouted frantically, not daring to look back. Rose kept pace easily with her extensive legs, though she remained a split second in the rear as a deep, threatening snarl rumbled from behind them. "Oh, God –!"

    A squeal of brakes suddenly pierced her eardrum like a knife; she grabbed Rose on impulse and stopped in spite of herself, gasping.

    However loudly her mind was screaming at her to run for it, she couldn't suppress her body's basic reflexes when it came to the sound of a car coming. From the day she had learnt to toddle, her parents had taught her road safety – whose parents hadn't? – and when she heard a vehicle approaching, her legs would damn well stop moving. It was what they had been taught to do.

    When she saw the blur of neon yellow, however, she snapped back to reality with a delighted grin, relaxing her grip on Rose's arm and almost choking on the unspoken words of gratitude when she saw who had come to save them.

    Ratchet.

    The massive Search and Rescue Hummer skidded to a halt on their left, angling himself in front of them protectively with his sirens wailing and his blinding searchlights burning a pathway through the haze of ash and dust that was thickening in the air. Rose coughed out what sounded like a sob of relief as Mikaela held onto her arm instinctively, clutching so tightly that her knuckles turned white under the pressure. Yet still, she found that she was smiling – she'd known that Ratchet would come and get them! He'd never leave anyone behind – least of all his charge and his spark partner – and today was no exception.

    Looking up, her loyalty to her guardian swelled like an ocean wave when saw that Sideways had taken a number of steps back, growling in a low tone and giving the emergency vehicle a very wide berth. Ratchet gunned his engine deafeningly in response, his headlights flashing several times – an obvious warning to the Decepticon to keep away.

    "Rose – Mikaela – GO!" his voice commanded them from inside, sounding angrier than Mikaela had ever heard him before. "NOW!"

    Reacting at once to his insistent, angry order, Mikaela nodded and turned on her heel, hauling Rose after her like a rag doll and keeping a firm hold on her bony wrist. "You heard him - go!" she yelled at the other girl, even as Ratchet began to transform into his bipedal mode.

    She almost stopped in her tracks when she caught sight of the appalled look on Rose's pale, dirt-streaked countenance: her ocean blue eyes were as round as dollar coins, and she looked as if someone had just told her that a nuclear bomb was about to hit the city and obliterate them all. The deafening noises in the air from the battling jets were hardly helping matters, Mikaela had to admit, but they had no time to lose – Ratchet would need to concentrate as he fought Sideways, not worry about crushing them in the process.

    "Wait – Mikaela – we can't just leave him!" Rose protested nonetheless, pulling back against Mikaela's insistent grip as if they were playing tug-of-war with her arm. "There must be something we can –"

    "We have to!" Mikaela called back, putting all her remaining strength into dragging the headstrong Brit away from the two of them. "Come on!"

    Rose shook her head, looking close to tears. "But –"

    Sudden frustration welled up before Mikaela could think about keeping it in check – she seized Rose by the shoulders, giving her an angry shake as she glared right into her wide, confused eyes. What wasn't getting through to this girl? "Listen!" she shouted up in the stubborn girl's face, grasping her shoulders tight enough to hurt her and digging her nails in to get the point through Rose's skull. "He can't worry about us, okay? He says run – we damn well run!"

    "I don't want to – to leave him –" Rose objected desperately, but she was clearly weakening in the face of Mikaela's rage. "What if he –"

    "He WON'T!" the incensed brunette insisted vehemently, her stomach twisting in fear when she saw Sideways lunge at Ratchet, both of them letting out thunderous Cybertronian battle cries as they slammed into each other with enough force to make the ground shake again. "PLEASE, Rose! He'll be fine – but we need to get out of here, NOW!"

    For a moment, Rose looked torn.

    Mikaela stared at her… willing her to believe that this was the right thing to do.

    "Trust me," she implored, tears springing up in her eyes. "Please."

    The two of them locked eyes – and finally, mercifully, she saw something change in Rose's distressed expression. The redhead nodded, swallowing her tears, and Mikaela grabbed her arm again, pulling her away.



    * * *



    Author's Note: The poll is getting really interesting on who you guys think will live or die… I didn't realise it was possible to be so incredibly close, and yet so far away! bounces in chair I hope you're enjoying the battle now that it's finally got started… I'm so sorry for making you wait so long for the action, but there should be plenty of it for a while. Reviews are very much appreciated. See you next chapter! :3





    *Chapter 25*: Wrath of Pandora





    Chapter Twenty-Five

    Wrath of Pandora



    * * *



    "SAM!"

    He might have answered Miles, if he had been a different time, place and situation, in a slightly more respectful way. The operative word being might; right now, he was way too busy getting his ass pawned by a seven-foot-tall, knife-wielding, cannon-firing, six-eyed drone, which seemed intent on kicking the crap out of him, to give his friend much more than a strangled bawl in response to the near-hysterical shout of his name.

    Jeez, the battle had been on for what, twenty minutes? Half an hour? And so far he'd only managed to kill three of these walking piles of garbage. He'd taken about ten minutes on each one, hitting them with everything he had – his M16 machine gun, the short Cybertronian sword that Sideswipe had given him, even his fists at one point – and yet still, they really took it out of him. He guessed it was to expected… the drones being powered by a planet-sized monster, and so on… but seriously.

    The ugly thing bared its teeth, growling. "Target: human male. Mission: annihilation."

    The little bastard sounded so much like Soundwave that it sent a chill down Sam's spine, but he was getting really pissed now. All he wanted was to kill these drones and get himself and all of his friends out of here in safety, and they were standing in the way of that goal. "Yeah?" he yelled, his voice cracking a little and taking him back to his high-pitched freshman days for a single, would-be-embarrassing second. "Come and annihilate me then, idiot!"

    Oh, who the hell was he kidding?

    He was absolutely shitting himself!

    Three drones may have gone down at his hand, but each one had been a fluke – due to good luck and excellent timing rather than actual skill. He sucked with weapons, and he had a sinking feeling that this was going to be a really long battle. His arms were already killing him from his occasional attempts to stab something with the sword, and the pain in his hands indicated that he still wasn't using the machine gun properly… kind of sad, when he had had three years to learn how to do defend himself properly.

    C'mon, Optimus, he thought frantically as the drone extended its massive hand towards him, looking as if it was going to rip his entire face apart in true, grotesque Saw style. Hurry it up, man… we're losing this…

    And Alexis… was she okay?

    Backing away from the drone, Sam glanced up anxiously and saw that Starscream and Thundercracker – or so Jade had told him that he was called, from her position in the air – were having some kind of aerial death match, both of them hammering the other with bullets. Skyfire, on the other hand, was higher up across the other side of the city, dropping the occasional bomb where the drones were thickest in their throngs – but mainly struggling to fight off a Decepticon interceptor jet that Sam didn't recognise.

    He was brought back to the ground with a jolt when the drone suddenly charged at him, looking as if it was going to ram him with its shoulder. He threw himself out of the way immediately, landing in a crouch and bracing himself for a blade in his back.

    Nothing came.

    Instead, a mechanical screech cut through the air from behind him; he craned his neck to see Bumblebee holding the drone high above his head, glaring at it from beneath the eyeholes of his battle mask. "Greater than man," a dark voice came from his guardian's radio system before he took the smaller robot by the legs and hurled it overarm towards a fast food shop – it smashed through the window, screaming, and Sam's eyes bulged in awe as it disappeared from sight.

    "Bumblebee… that was awesome!" he called over frankly, grinning and shaking his head in wonder.

    Bumblebee, ever the modest one in their partnership, merely shrugged his wing-like shoulder projections and gave Sam a cheerful thumbs-up. "My dear, sweet child… it's what I do!" a woman's voice reminded him, and Sam grimaced at the fact that he was using a Disney quote.

    Then he grimaced again when he realised that he recognised the Disney quote.

    He knew that there was no time to have a chitchat – Bumblebee took off again at once, charging back into the thick of the battle to assist a beleaguered Seraphim with his energy cannons out and ready to fire. Sam watched him go before he scanned the rest of the battleground worriedly, searching out any more of his friends among the soldiers and drones.

    Apart from Bumblebee and Seraphim, the only one of their group that he could see was Barricade. The black-and-white Decepticon was swinging his weird, bladed hands like giant pendulums, knocking drones out of the way as he powered about the central park that Sam was standing on the edge of. Whenever he wasn't narrowing his scarlet quadoptics at his enemies, he was looking around the area as if searching for someone – probably Rose, now Sam thought about it.

    Where the heck was Rose – hell, what about Mikaela? The two of them had gone into the battle together at the beginning, and had become separated from Sam and Miles within five minutes; he hadn't seen them since, and he was panicking about it more than he let on. He needed to concentrate on the fight… but how could a guy help but worry about his girlfriend?

    Then again, he hadn't seen Ratchet for a while, so he was probably keeping an eye on the girls.

    The walkie-talkie that was hooked onto his belt suddenly crackled noisily and he made a grab for it, shifting himself behind an forsaken lorry to avoid any more drones attacking him. "Hello?" he shouted into the mouthpiece over the commotion that surrounded him.

    "Zzzzz… Sam… zz… Starscream…!"

    Sam's heart seemed to stop for a second as he felt the shock boot him in the stomach harder than a drone could have done. Starscream was calling him? Looking up and across the skies for any sign of the jet among all the others, he yelled a response back into the portable device. "Starscream? You okay, man – what's up?"

    What's up. Jeez, what a response to the all-powerful Starscream… he was going to get his ass kicked if they both survived this.

    Starscream sounded urgent, not to mention pissed, when he replied. "… friend… the boy… zzzz… Thundercracker! Get the…"

    "What about Thundercracker?" Sam hollered over the high-pitched squeal of a drone as it smashed an unfortunate soldier against a nearby wall with a horrific, bone-breaking thud of a human hitting a hard surface. If the numerous cracks that followed the move were anything to go by, then the poor man had just had pretty much every bone in his body snapped.

    Then the God-awful realisation hit him full in the face as he repeated Starscream's words to himself in his mind.

    "Starscream, are you talkin' about Miles?" he almost screamed down the line.

    The static suddenly cleared – Starscream had probably gotten in contact with Maggie or Glen at the Pentagon to sort the interference out. "Yes, you outrageously stupid boy!" the ex-Decepticon roared at him, and Sam nearly dropped the walkie-talkie in panic at his furious tone. "Thundercracker has disengaged me – probably afraid, the unsightly coward – and he's heading for the park that you are currently situated in. Your friend needs to move his worthless human aft, NOW!"

    Sam didn't even stop to think about the hideous reality of Starscream's revelation.

    He just turned tail and ran, full-out, back towards the place from which he had heard Miles calling his name.

    His feet pounded on the sidewalk as he raced past the broken remains of the soldier – he didn't even look, knowing full well that what he would see would haunt his nightmares forever – and past the warring drones, ducking a slash from a particularly large one as he cleared the hard ground and sprinted across the grass of the open park. He could see Miles now – he was standing by himself at the top of the stone steps, where there was an ornate fountain at the head of the green.

    "Miles – DUCK!" Sam yelled at the top of his lungs, thrusting a finger towards where Thundercracker was blasting towards his best friend from the sky, his jets roaring hot and orange as he rocketed towards the point where Miles was standing, vulnerable and oblivious to the massive threat from above as he gaped right back at him, his face contorting in total horror.

    "WHERE?" he screamed quite hysterically, looking around wildly at the raging battle.

    Oh my God – even in the middle of a Goddamn battle, he's still completely freaking retarded! Sam despaired inside, staring helplessly at the massive F-22 that was screeching down with the deadly accuracy of a heat-seeking missile.

    Did he seriously think that there was an actual duck coming to kill him? Some giant friggin' mallard?

    "No, you idiot – ABOVE YOU!" he roared, ducking himself when a drone came out of nowhere and threw a death punch in his direction.

    A metal fist sailed over his head as he threw himself to one side, kicking out violently with his legs to push himself away from the encroaching threat – and, preferably, give said threat a kick in the nuts and bolts. All four of the drone's violet optics were narrowed, its teeth bared as it lunged at him with some kind of knife blade that it had pulled out of nowhere – he let out a cry of shock that bordered on a shriek when it whipped close to his head, almost giving him the crew cut that his father had always recommended for him.

    Still reeling from the proximity of the slash, he scrambled to his feet as the drone tried to regain its temporary loss of balance – not caring what the damn thing was doing, he took off at top speed, racing towards the place where Miles had been yelping like an ornithophobe on crack.

    He took the steps that led up to the plaza three at a time, catching sight of Carlos, who had appeared out of nowhere and was rattling off bullets at three of the smaller drones that looked to be trying to surmount him. Sam wanted to help him – hell, he needed to help the poor guy, by the looks of his exhausted expression – but Miles could be dead. Thundercracker had left the entire square at the front of the building in ruins: the elaborate water fountain had been shattered, and rubble was all over the place.

    Clutching a stitch in his side, he looked up and at the exact place where he had last seen his best friend.

    Miles was gone.

    A sense of raw and unfamiliar panic clutched at Sam's chest as he stared around neurotically, shaking his head. "Oh no, no, no…" he muttered frantically, all sorts of horrific mental images springing to life in his head. "No… Miles, c'mon…!"

    Oh, God… what would he do if Miles was dead? How the heck would he go back to Tranquillity and tell the guy's parents that he had lost their hippy, happy-go-lucky-yet-dorktastic son – just stood there and watched as a stealth jet with the ability to obliterate something several miles out of visual range had smashed their kid to oblivion in the middle of a battle he wasn't meant to be a part of? Oh, shit – was he about to see Miles's brains and limbs splattered all over the floor, too?

    "Oh, jeez… can't deal with this…" he spluttered, cramming his hopeless pistol back into his belt and gasping for breath as he began to run forward again.

    Arcee suddenly appeared from nowhere, knocking a drone aside with a metallic elbow as she raced towards Sam, her optics wide and frantic. "Sam, where is Miles?" the femme cried as he came to a skidding halt at her feet, completely breathless. "Thundercracker – I – I couldn't get to him –"

    She sounded absolutely distraught, and Sam looked up at her uneasily. The last thing he needed right now was for some giant alien robot woman to start crying lubricant all over him, or something – his best friend was missing, his girlfriend could be anywhere, and his friends were scattered all over the city in various states of disrepair or desperation. "It's gonna be okay, Arcee," he appeased her as best he could, his eyes still darting around the square – on the alert for any sign of Mies's bleach-blonde tresses. "He can't have just gone –"

    An engine suddenly snarled from behind them and Sam whipped round, fearing a Decepticon approach – only to see Sunstreaker skidding to a dramatic halt a few yards away, kicking up a massive dirt cloud of dust and debris. His passenger door flew open and a dishevelled Miles tumbled out and onto the ground, groaning.

    What the heck? the logical part of Sam's mind demanded, but the feeling of total relief overwhelmed the annoying little voice.

    "MILES!" he shouted, breaking into a sprint and throwing himself down next to his winded friend. Miles looked up at him, gawping like a deer caught in headlights. Blood was spurting from his nose like a waterfall, but he seemed too dazed to notice. "Miles, you complete idiot – what the hell just happened, man? What the heck is up with your nose?"

    "I just saved his fleshy aft," Sunstreaker's well-known, egotistical drawl came from inside the showy Lamborghini.

    Sideswipe pulled up next to him, revving his engine. "And now…" he announced importantly to the area in general, "We're gonna pawn his."

    As he said this, Sam caught sight of a sapphire flash overhead and looked up to see Thundercracker performing unfeasibly speedy barrel rolls as he blazed after two piloted Raptors, which looked as if they were having tremendous difficulty in throwing him off of their tails. The teenager couldn't help but stare in total, captivated awe as a two air-to-air missiles exploded from the superior fighter, each of them hitting their mark and colliding, with a force that shook the ground, with the other jets. They were thrown out of the sky immediately, spiralling towards the ground and causing drones and soldiers alike to scatter for fear of being hit.

    "You coward!" Arcee screamed up at him, pointing her energy cannon in his direction but making no attempt to actually shoot at the Decepticon. Sam realised that she must be loath to fire when there were so many friendly aircraft dominating the air. "Come down and fight us!"

    Miles managed a feeble moan of something like pain from Sam's elbow, which he was leaning against. "Nod us, man…" he mumbled, his broken nose making him sound oddly nasal.

    "Yeah – come on, fraghead!" Sunstreaker taunted intrepidly, transforming into his magnificent, gleaming bipedal form with a series of grinding whirrs and whining gears. "Come and get a taste of our jet judo!"

    He must have misheard that. He must have done.

    Jet friggin' judo?

    Thundercracker obviously felt the same way, if his sonic screech of wrath was anything to go by. Sam felt his heart begin to thump like crazy yet again as the immense stealth jet came flying towards the five of them, wings seeming larger than ever as he grew closer and closer to the boys, the mechs and the solitary femme that were right in his path of flight. Arcee stepped in front of them protectively, putting her fluorescent pink body between the Decepticon and the two teenagers.

    "Sam, Miles – get away from here!" she urged as Thundercracker swooped towards Sunstreaker, still screaming a terrible war cry as he made directly for the golden mech's cherished paintjob. "Assist young Carlos if you can, but keep away from Thundercracker!"

    Sam couldn't have agreed more.

    Lurching to his feet as Sunstreaker launched his entire body onto Thundercracker's aerodynamic form with a horrific crash, he grabbed Miles by the scruff of his neck and made towards Carlos and his drone opponents, dragging his troublesome friend after him.

    Sometimes, being best friends with Miles Lancaster was harder than it damn well looked.



    * * *



    "Ooh, zis is such fun!" the deranged, accented voice announced to the sky. "Come now, Skyfire – ve could be friends!"

    Skyfire mentally clenched his jaw in agitation as he banked towards the tallest building in Mission City, trying his utmost to shake a highly amused and excited Blitzwing off his tail. He had been swerving to and fro among the human jets, hoping to draw the jet away from Starscream, who was already having enough trouble with Thundercracker – now, however, he was beginning to wonder if leading the Decepticon away from his comrade had been such a well-thought-out scheme.

    He could sense Jade's restrained fright in spite of the brave face that she was putting on – probably for his sake – but could do little to comfort her in his current position. He couldn't afford to waste energy on a holoform; nor, indeed, could he divert his attention away from this aerial dogfight without crashing into a building – or worse, another aircraft.

    At least, he supposed, he had managed to keep Blitzwing away from the throes of what they had called his 'hothead' personality back on Cybertron. If he became angry, he would be much harder to deal with than he was now.

    "Sky' – why don't you call someone for help?" Jade suddenly shouted over the noise from inside the cockpit.

    "Starscream has enough on his servos with Thundercracker!" Skyfire called back anxiously to his lover, angling his nose downward before taking the opportunity to drop a Mark 82 bomb into the heart of a horde of drones on the ground. The explosive detonated on impact, causing drones to go flying away from the point of the explosion and leaving an unsightly crater where it had hit.

    He tried his best to restrain his regret at so much mindless destruction, but there was still an ache in his spark as he flew onward, away from his unstable and frankly maniacal pursuer.

    Jade sounded bewildered when she replied. "But Starscream's not fighting Thundercracker now! He's over there, helping the RAF guys!"

    Skyfire scanned the surrounding sky and saw, almost at once, that Jade was absolutely right. Thundercracker's energy signature had shifted to another part of the city entirely, while Starscream was leading a perfectly aligned arrowhead formation of British Harrier jets towards a swarm of drones heading straight towards his squadron. The two groups look dead set on a direct collision, but if Skyfire knew Starscream – which he did, and very well – he had something planned for this drone team.

    As the drones bore down on the nine-man formation, Starscream ducked unexpectedly, rolling over in midair so that he was flying completely upside-down. His team followed suite, twisting into their new position with fluid grace. The drones flew onward, but soon found themselves falling as the upturned planes let loose with their weapons, ripping the other jets apart from below.

    "Whoooo!" a British man yelled across the intercom; presumably, he was piloting one of the victorious Harriers. "Bloody hell, mate – that was the best plan ever! You aliens are Goddamn fantastic at this game!"

    "Too right," one of his comrades agreed. "Now I'm sorry we didn't listen to you at first, noble Sir Starscream!"

    "It's LORD Starscream, you dolt!" Starscream snarled, but didn't sound quite as inconsiderate as usual. "But I suppose you all did well."

    Jade laughed stridently from the cockpit at their elated whooping, and Skyfire found himself fuelled by the melodious sound as he ducked a smattering of bullets. He was going to get out of this battle intact to share many more sunsets and flights with her, and he was certainly keeping Jade alive. He could not afford to make mistakes – he was carrying the most precious cargo in the cosmos, and he would deliver her back to the ground in one piece if it was the last thing he ever did.

    He was jerked from these thoughts by the realisation that the bullets he thought he had avoided were continuing incessantly – and, to his horror, he realised that they were coming from Blitzwing's direction. Fearing the worst, he accessed the Decepticon's radio channel to check whether his intuition was accurate.

    /Blitzwing, my friend, why are you firing at me?/ he asked in a pleasant tone. /I thought you desired my companionship./

    His spark turned cold when he heard the response.

    /I am no friend of yours, Skyfire/ came Blitzwing's infuriated sneer. He was spitting out his words in short, guttural bursts, sounding utterly irate. /You deezgusting piece of Autoscum – I vill destroy you and your little human! I vill vatch and laugh as she falls out of ze sky and her meatbag corpse explodes on ze ground!/

    It was as he had feared, then. Something had triggered the dangerous side of Blitzwing's personality: the one where he was not only calculating and vicious, but also completely out of control. He could handle the intimidation towards himself quite easily – he was quite confident that he could deal with a smaller and less advanced jet without a great deal of damage to his form – but it was the menace that Blitzwing had expressed towards Jade that made him so uncomfortable with the threat.

    /You will do no such thing. Jade will never fall whilst I am the one carrying her/ he replied coolly nonetheless, tightening the harness about Jade's tiny form a little. She looked confused, as she could not hear their private conversation, but made no complaint.

    /You had better not count on zat, Skyfire!/ Blitzwing roared before he blasted forward, straight towards the Autobot.

    Instinct kicked in and Skyfire swerved swiftly to avoid Blitzwing's ram assault, his wing just missing his opponent's nose as he dodged the furious onslaught. Blitzwing's anger was radiating from him with a heat that Skyfire could almost feel, but he remained as calm as he could as the interceptor turned around for a second attack, clearly unfazed by his miss.

    Jade's pulse and breathing rates had skyrocketed since their radio exchange, and Skyfire suspected that she might have guessed what had happened. "He's changed his personality, hasn't he?" she asked fearfully as he hastened to change direction again.

    "Indeed he has," he confirmed, wondering what weapons he ought to use against his enemy. "But I will not let him harm you, Jade."

    "I know," she assured him, her chocolate-coloured eyes fixed on the blue screen that he watched her from.

    Deciding to employ his original Cybertronian weapons, he brought them out and angled himself towards Blitzwing, more determined than ever to bring this mentally unstable Decepticon down. Two long, brilliantly white machine guns extended from either side of the cockpit, looking quite out-of-place next to the dark silver of the Spirit bomber's exterior. This was the only way to dispose of Blitzwing quickly: the human Mark bombs were effective against the drones, but using his native inventory would aid a speedy extermination.

    When Blitzwing tried another brute force attack, Skyfire retaliated with a volley of machine gun bullets, pummelling the metal into his foe's multi-hued armour. Blitzwing roared in annoyance, throwing an air-to-air missile back in Skyfire's direction and causing the larger Cybertronian to grunt in pain as it seared across his right wing, barely missing its mark.

    He considered hailing Starscream for support, but soon realised that his old friend, once again, was engaged in combat – this time with a particularly large drone and its partner. Assisting him were two Spanish planes; it seemed that his interesting topsy-turvy tactic had earned him the respect of his human subordinates from both countries.

    Besides… Blitzwing had threatened his spark partner.

    This fight was his, and his alone.

    Firing unpredictably as the jet came blazing towards him for another attempted slam collision – he certainly doesn't have much imagination, Skyfire observed dryly – the silver bomber managed to land several excellent hits to Blitzwing's right wing, causing sparks to fly from the holes that they created. The scream of antagonism that followed made Skyfire wince on the inside, but he had little choice but to gun down the Decepticon flyer, lest he wreak further havoc on the city below.

    /Are you having trouble there, Skyfire?/ Starscream enquired condescendingly as he blazed past, pursued by three drones.

    /Oh, none whatsoever, my friend…/

    Despite the fact that he had allowed a little sarcasm to sneak into his response, Jade still flushed on his behalf and glared through the glass at Starscream as he flew on superciliously, barrel rolling without needing to. He felt the push of her finger against the intercom, and tried to suppress a shudder at the intimate contact. "Why don't you stop showing off and help him, Starscream?" she demanded heatedly. "Blitzwing's gone totally insane on us!"

    /And that's my problem, girl? Deal with the idiot yourselves! I'm busy!/

    The connection broke before Jade could reply, and she was left looking rather affronted. "Arrogant asshole," she muttered under her breath, adjusting her oxygen helmet with a hard look on her face. Primus, she must be angry indeed if she was insulting someone outright like that… "Whatever, Sky' – we don't need him, right?"

    "Although Starscream's assistance would be welcome," Skyfire managed to grunt out in reply to his courageous charge as he moved to avoid another missile from Blitzwing, "I suppose it is not – entirely – necessary –"

    Jade's face fell at once; he supposed he hadn't sounded convincing enough to satisfy her, and regretted it. "We're screwed, aren't we?"

    "Of course n –"

    His words were cut off before they had left his vocals when a blinding, white-hot pain exploded on his left side, making him groan in agony as it spread along his wing and threw his balance completely, flaring up like an unstoppable forest fire. Jade cried out in shock as alarms began to go off in the cockpit, lights flashing and bleeping as a schematic of his bomber form flashed up on the blue screen, indicating the areas of injury for her to see as Cybertronian symbols scrolled across the monitor.

    Condu