[Crown the Empire] Salvage 03

Of all mechs to find on guard duty, Optimus was not surprised to see Smokescreen here. He was their self-proclaimed psychologist, though he had no formal training. Jazz had, in all likelihood, assigned him shifts here as Hound was now on Earth (with Trailbreaker to serve as his nannybot) and Jazz only needed himself to look after Mirage.

Smokescreen looked up from his datapad as Optimus rounded the corner. He smiled, and even managed to hold on to his smile when Soundwave appeared behind Optimus. Smokescreen was nothing if not well-trained. He knew how to hide his dislike.

“Come to see Cliffjumper?” Smokescreen asked as he sat upright in his chair, the two legs hitting the ground with a dull thunk.

“Yes. Is he online?”

Smokescreen’s optics flicked to a viewing monitor that he turned in Optimus’ direction. “I don’t think he recharges, to be honest, Prime. He does if First Aid comes down and gives him a sedative, but he won’t initiate recharge on his own.”

Optimus frowned behind his mask. It didn’t take a genius to figure out why. Optimus himself had trouble recharging.

“I see. Will he talk?”

Smokescreen sat back in his chair, picking up his datapad again. “He’ll talk to you.” He sounded certain of it.

Optimus cycled a ventilation. He was honored by Cliffjumper’s faith in him, even if he had so thoroughly failed his soldiers. He did not deserve their loyalty.

“I understand.” Optimus turned toward Soundwave. “You’ll wait here, please. I don’t know how he’ll react to your presence. You can keep Smokescreen company.”

Oh, to be a turbofly on the wall for that conversation. Optimus did not know if the two of them ever faced each other directly during the war, but he trusted Soundwave not to incite anything. And he trusted that Smokescreen would play his mind games and get nowhere.

“Understood,” Soundwave said.

“And here I thought this shift was going to be boring.” Smokescreen’s grin broadened, though it didn’t reach his optics.

Optimus didn’t feel a second warning was necessary, though he gave them both a look before edging past the desk and stepping down the hall. It was brightly light and almost cheerful, which contradicted the miasma of misery that lingered in the air. There were several cells here, but only one was occupied.

It was the first on the right and Optimus stood outside of it, staring in at the figure seated on the berth. Cliffjumper leaned forward on his knees, his hands clasped in front of him, his gaze focused on the floor. His armor was scuffed, paint missing in huge splotches, and there were multiple, visible small dents. The kind of damage that self-repair took care of once major issues were finished.

The kind of repairs that would have been completed as an outpatient or even in medbay, if Cliffjumper hadn’t found some way to escape, steal a weapon, sneak into the Decepticon brig, and assassinate Blitzwing. It was still a marvel that he’d managed to do so.

Through the crackling of the energon bars, Cliffjumper seemed smaller. Optimus’ spark ached at the sight of him. Cliffjumper had always been the type who came across larger than life, his shorter stature never holding him back from being a danger or a threat. Not to mention the inexplicable amounts of weaponry always stashed on his frame.

“Cliffjumper?”

The minibot raised his helm slowly. His optics were dim at first, but they brightened the moment he spotted Optimus. He went still before curling into himself and turning away from Optimus as though ashamed.

“Prime,” he said, his vocals riddled with static. “I’m sorry, Prime. I had to do it. I just couldn’t… I had to do it.” His fingers tangled together, knotting until Optimus heard the knuckle joints creak from the pressure.

Optimus lowered himself to a crouch. It still left him taller than Cliffjumper, but he felt less like he loomed over the poor minibot.

“I know,” he said gently, careful to keep his tone neutral. “I understand, Cliffjumper.”

Silence. Cliffjumper’s hands wrung together further. Optimus couldn’t feel his field through the negation barrier set up by the cell, but he could only imagine how tortured it was.

Optimus didn’t need further convincing.

Cliffjumper needed help, not punishment.

“I want to release you back to the medbay, Cliffjumper,” Optimus said. “But I need to know you won’t try to escape again. Do you understand me?”

Red plating shuffled with discomfort. Cliffjumper was shaking, Optimus realized. His vents hitched as well, little snuffling sounds echoing in the cell.

“I had to do it,” Cliffjumper repeated, his vocals riddled with static. He looked up, and his optics were so bright, they were nearly bleached of color. “I couldn’t function knowing that monster lived.”

Optimus worked his intake. He, too, had born the brunt of Astrotrain and Blitzwing’s attention. But Optimus was almost of a size with them. He’d survived the encounter, albeit with more than a few joints misaligned, his lining torn, and his valve aching. He couldn’t imagine what Cliffjumper had suffered.

“And anyone else?”

Cliffjumper’s fingers untangled. He looked down at them and squeezed them in and out of fists. “Do you know what they did to me, Prime?” he asked, his vocals perfectly clear all of the sudden, though there was no emotion in them.

They were so dead they sent a shiver of dread down Optimus’ backstrut.

“Every day,” he said. “Every night. Every second they didn’t leave me tied up in some corner, starving and broken.” His fingers trembled. His ventilations grew more rapid. “And if they weren’t fragging me, then they were renting me out to Decepticons who didn’t want to bother taking care of their own pet.”

Optimus’ tank churned. “Do you–”

“Remember who they were?” Cliffjumper’s engine growled. His hands balled into fists. “I remember every last fragging one, Prime. And you can bet your aft that if I see them again, and I’m armed, the last thing I’ll be is in a forgiving mood. So maybe it’s better you leave me here to rot. Because I’m not going to work with a Decepticon, no matter how nice they think they are now.”

Optimus’ spark ached. The connectors where the Matrix had once been reminded him of their emptiness as though the old Primes called to him, telling him to fix what had been broken.

“Is that what you want?” Optimus asked. He still believed Cliffjumper needed help, not prison.

But he couldn’t condone outright murder the likes of which Cliffjumper spoke. Because such a thing would catapult them right back into war. Decepticons still outnumbered Autobots, and were Grimlock and Starscream to be killed, Optimus did not know who would take their place. Nor did he know whether that new leader would care for the details of the truce. They could find themselves right back where they started, and he doubted Metalhawk would care enough to provide the Autobots aid.

Optimus couldn’t take that risk.

Cliffjumper’s intake bobbed. He stared at Optimus without really seeing him, his optics bright, but blank of emotion.

“I want to be free,” Cliffjumper hissed out, his vocals torn from his intake like a wounded animal. Optimus was glad, in that moment, that he could not sense Cliffjumper’s field. “But whether it’s these walls or the memories I can’t forget, I won’t be. Not ever again. I’m done, Prime. I’m done.”

He looked away, such a sharp turn of his neck that Optimus heard the grind of his gears. His jaw clenched.

“There are ten names on my list,” Cliffjumper gritted out, and his engine became a grinding pitch. “No one will tell me if they live or not. If you let me out, I guarantee you, I will hunt every last one of them down, Prime. And nothing will stop me.”

There was a finality in his tone that Optimus knew could not be reasoned with. Nor was he sure he wanted to. How could he convince Cliffjumper to lay aside his anger? He had every right to be this furious, this vengeful. He had every right to hate the mechs who had used and abused him.

It wasn’t healthy, but Optimus couldn’t blame him. If Grimlock had not killed Megatron, Optimus was not so sure he wouldn’t have done so himself. The opportunity had been stolen from him, and perhaps it was better that way, but Optimus understood.

It was frightening how well he understood.

Optimus pushed himself to his full height. “I will discuss with Ratchet and Jazz and Ultra Magnus what we can do for you, Cliffjumper. In the meantime, is there anything that you need? I would like to send someone down here to take a look at your injuries, if you’d like.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Cliffjumper’s tone returned to that dull, dead pitch. The vibrancy present in his death threats had abandoned him. “I’m broken, Prime. There ain’t no fixing me.”

Optimus’ hands curled into fists. Apologies bubbled to his lips, but he swallowed them down. He couldn’t ask for Cliffjumper to forgive him. He had failed his soldiers. He deserved every ounce of his guilt. He deserved Cliffjumper’s hatred and blame.

“Even so,” Optimus murmured. “I will do what I can.”

Cliffjumper said nothing further. He only drew into himself, until he was a tiny, huddled frame on the berth, his red paint dulled. He did not at all resemble the brash soldier Optimus remembered. He was but a shadow of the mech he used to be.

Truthfully, they all were.

Optimus excused himself, his spark heavy and unable to hold his helm up high. If he ever needed a reminder about how much he did not deserve this title of Prime his soldiers had given back to him, Cliffjumper would serve as a poignant example. He had failed to protect Cybertron, he had failed to protect his soldiers, and he had failed to stop Megatron.

“Optimus?”

Smokescreen cut through his thoughts and Optimus paused as he stepped back into the main room. Smokescreen was still behind the desk, visibly relaxed though there was a tension beneath his armor that belied it. Soundwave remained near the corridor entrance. He hadn’t moved since Optimus left them alone.

Optimus shook his helm to shake off the melancholy. For right now, he would have to be Prime. He could chastise himself later.

“Has any medic been to see him? Other than First Aid to offer sedatives, that is,” Optimus asked.

Smokescreen sighed and scrubbed his face. “He refused further treatment. Unless you want to legally declare him incompetent, we can’t force it on him.”

Which would enter all kinds of ethical and moral discussions. Optimus did not want to force anything on Cliffjumper he didn’t want. It would be assault of a different kind, no matter how well-meaning.

“And his list?”

Here Smokescreen sighed again, fatigue suddenly etching itself into his faceplate. “Half of them are confirmed dead,” he said, his vocals soft enough not to carry to Cliffjumper’s audials. “Two are in the Decepticon prison with no possibility for parole or release. Two more have petitioned for temporary release and are under consideration. One is already out on probation.”

“You have the names?” Optimus asked.

Smokescreen nodded, pulling one of the datapads out of the desk and sliding it across the top to Optimus. He reached for it, and raised an orbital ridge when Smokescreen didn’t immediately let the datapad go.

Smokescreen looked at him, holding his gaze. “In my not accredited professional opinion, Prime, he’s competent. He’s hurting, and his anger is justified, but that doesn’t make him, for lack of a better word, crazy. If you take that choice from him, you’ll be doing more harm than good.”

“I know. I had already discerned that much.”

Smokescreen released the datapad, and Optimus tucked it into his subspace for later perusal. He would ask Soundwave about the relevant Decepticons and Starscream if necessary, especially if it prevented someone likely to repeat offend from being released.

“Do you think we can help him?” Optimus asked, casting another glance toward the hallway and the branching cells.

Smokescreen rubbed at his chevron. “There’s only so much you can do for someone who doesn’t want help, Optimus. If he is willing, if he accepts treatment, if he talks… yes. Theoretically, it’s possible. But until he makes that choice for himself, no. There’s nothing we can do.”

It was a sobering conclusion. He would, of course, seek a second opinion, but Smokescreen had always been skilled at reading mecha and their intentions. He was probably right.

“I see.” Optimus bit back a sigh. “Thank you, Smokescreen. Please let me know if there is anything Cliffjumper asks for. Within reason.”

Smokescreen nodded and made himself comfortable again. “Will do, Prime.” He tilted his helm toward Soundwave in acknowledgment and picked up his datapad again.

Optimus gestured for Soundwave to follow him and together, they left the makeshift brig. Fatigue made itself known, though Optimus had done very little since returning to Cybertron. He knew he should go directly to the medcenter and ask Ratchet about Cliffjumper, but considering that Wheeljack had returned, he doubted Ratchet was there.

“Destination?” Soundwave asked as Optimus drew to a halt in the command center lobby.

Optimus paused to consider. Perhaps it would be better to send a comm. Ratchet could redirect him or maybe First Aid was available.

“One moment,” Optimus said, and accessed his comm.

He dialed Ratchet first, but received the chief medic’s busy message. He skipped over Wheeljack’s comm on assumption and dialed First Aid instead. The junior medic answered, but his voice lacked the usual good-natured cheer Optimus had come to recognize in him. It was understandable, given his loss, but it still made Optimus ache to hear.

“I hope I am not interrupting anything,” Optimus said, careful to modulate his vocals to sound as soothing as possible. “Is Ratchet otherwise occupied?”

A hint of humor graced First Aid’s words. “Yes, sir. He and Wheeljack are in their quarters. Should I interrupt…?”

“No, that’s all right, First Aid. This is nothing that can’t wait. I only wished to discuss Cliffjumper with him.”

“Ah.” There was a wealth of understanding in First Aid’s voice. “Do you need me to come down and see him? Is he finally consenting to medical care?”

Optimus sighed and rubbed his faceplate. He seemed to be doing that a lot lately. “It is my dearest wish that he does eventually, but at this time, he is still refusing it.”

A light of an idea suddenly lit through Optimus.

“But perhaps there is someone else I can send to convince him,” Optimus said, shifting gears. “I will let you know. In the meantime, if you could give Ratchet a message when he’s free. Let him know I want to discuss Cliffjumper’s treatment.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll do that. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “You can take care of yourself, First Aid.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, sir.”

The comm ended and Optimus rolled his helm, his shoulders feeling an intangible weight. So many of his Autobots grieving and hurt. It was worse than the war had ever been. Frag Megatron to the Pit and back.

“Query?” Soundwave asked.

Optimus startled, forgetting that Soundwave had been beside him. He shook his helm and turned toward his makeshift office, which they’d put on the same hall as their makeshift command center and conference room. It was ridiculous to hope for speedy stability, but nevertheless, Optimus longed for a fully-functional base of operations, something they could all comfortably call home.

Currently, he didn’t require that all of his Autobots reside within arm’s reach of the command center, but no one seemed eager to branch out on their own. He suspected that would change with time, but for now, everyone appeared content to bunk nearby.

“Cliffjumper’s not talking to Ratchet, First Aid, or Smokescreen. I know better to think he will seek counsel from me,” Optimus explained as Soundwave fell into step beside him. “The minibots have always been a close-knit group which is probably what’s contributing to his grief. He and Bumblebee are the only two who survived.”

He pinged Bumblebee, but received another busy message. Either he was occupied with Rumble or he was busy with one of a thousand tasks that the mobile Autobots were struggling to accomplish. They had a third the soldiers of the Decepticons and had to start their rebuilding from scratch. They were all scrambling to catch up, even with Grimlock offering support.

Optimus didn’t think he would ever be comfortable with looking out his window and seeing a guarded Constructicon at work.

Guarded for their safety, not an Autobot’s, because while the Constructicons behaved themselves and meekly built as they were told, no formerly enslaved Autobot could forget what they had done. The Autobots were particularly angry because of Ratchet, and Optimus couldn’t blame them. He didn’t need another incident like Cliffjumper’s.

It made him wonder if that was a good reason why Soundwave remained in his proximity. While Soundwave had owned no slave, and the worst he’d done was obey Megatron’s commands, he was still Megatron’s favored and a high-ranking Decepticon. Brand aside, his defection would not be easily received by the rank and file.

Truth be told, Optimus sometimes startled to look up or look behind him and see Soundwave standing there. Soundwave’s very image was so synonymous with the Decepticon cause that even without the brand, Optimus’ danger-alerts still triggered. He had to tell himself not to cycle up his weaponry or engage his self-defense protocols.

So it was understandable.

Optimus left Bumblebee a message. There was little more he could do for Cliffjumper at the moment, which meant he had nothing left to use as an excuse to not do his paperwork.

“Nothing left but to go to my office,” Optimus said, barely refraining from sighing. “Paperwork waits for no mech.” He gave Soundwave a sidelong glance. “Are you coming with me?”

“Affirmative.”

This was quickly becoming a habit, not that Optimus was at all opposed.

One floor down and a few hallways over deposited Optimus into his sparsely furnished office, but whoever constructed it had left a spare chair. One appropriately sized for a mech of Soundwave’s size, interesting enough. Optimus wasn’t going to complain, but he did find it curious.

He sat down, staring with dismay at the stack of datapads that waited for him. His only consolation was that they didn’t contain reports concerning the direction of the war. They only contained information regarding rebuilding and recovery, which apparently was a lot more complicated.

Soundwave sat in his own chair, pulling out the datapad Ultra Magnus had given him. Laserbeak tilted her head against his, nuzzling him for a moment, before taking flight and choosing Optimus’ shoulder instead.

He smiled and tickled under her chin, a gesture he had learned she found comforting. Laserbeak butted her helm against his, a show of affection.

–Mind if I borrow your shoulder?– she asked with a hint of mischief.

“Depends on what you need it for?” Optimus replied with a soft chuckle.

Soundwave made a noise that could have been chastisement, and Laserbeak ducked her helm. Her claws shuffled on Optimus’ shoulder as though she intended to alight again.

“It’s all right,” Optimus reassured with a glance toward Soundwave. “She’s welcome to sit here if she likes.”

“Laserbeak: intends to recharge.”

Optimus’ fingers stroked over the crown of her helm, her softer energy field butting against his own with pleasure. “If that would make her comfortable, I am not opposed.”

Laserbeak chirped and settled herself more firmly. Her feet clamped down with – Optimus noticed – a small magnetic burst that would keep her from slipping free. It was kind of nice to serve as a sleeping perch.

Optimus patted her helm indulgently and returned his attention to his paperwork. He felt the weight of Soundwave’s gaze on him, but when he looked up, Soundwave was focused on his datapad.

He probably wasn’t used to seeing others treat his cassettes with kindness. Something Optimus was sure was lacking in the Decepticons.

They settled into a comfortable silence. Optimus’ first datapad was a summary of injuries and recovery rates, courtesy of Ratchet, and it was mostly good news. Though Red Alert’s prognosis was despairing without Metalhawk’s help, and Ratchet was unsure about Sunstreaker and Sideswipe’s condition. Everyone else would be released soon, until all that remained were maintenance checks.

The next datapad was a summary of all the reconstruction completed in Optimus’ absence, which included this shiny new office and the medbay Ratchet had made his own. They would be focusing on barracks next and had already picked out two apartment complexes that would be rebuilt.

There was a petition to allow the Constructicons a continued presence in Polyhex for faster construction. Optimus frowned, stared at it for several minutes, and then set it aside. He didn’t know if it would be worth the discomfort their presence would cause multiple Autobots.

He would have to ask first.

At least one datapad didn’t have bad news. Energon production was not only steady, it increased, even given their greater consumption. Earth was invaluable because of this. Optimus feared that if they did manage to find the humans, he wouldn’t be able to convince his fellow Cybertronians to return the planet to its rightful owners.

Even his own Autobots would be reluctant, especially considering that it was human betrayal which was partly to blame for their loss to the Decepticons, and wholly to blame for Prowl’s death. If they hadn’t given him that infected datapad….

Optimus cycled a ventilation.

Losing Prowl was the first tragedy.

Optimus knew now that the humans responsible had been controlled by Bombshell under Megatron’s orders and because of Starscream’s plan, but that did not make the anger any less. Despite Starscream’s aid in deposing Megatron, it was still difficult to look upon him with favor, no matter how helpful he had become.

A lot of Autobots had died. Too many Autobots. Too many humans. Megatron had effectively wiped the human race from existence, unless Hound’s team was successful in locating them.

Another datapad was an updated roster and list of all the Autobots currently present and accounted for, their current status, and their current assignments. Optimus was rather pleased to note that there were approximately forty Autobot survivors so far. With any luck, there might be more in the cosmos, hearing the call to return home.

That they were still outnumbered by the Decepticons was disappointing, but at least for now, both Autobots and Decepticons outnumbered the Neutrals.

Soundwave stirred, his visor flickering. He tilted his helm in a way that suggested he was receiving a comm. Optimus waited for him to speak, welcoming the distraction.

“Received notice regarding call for action concerning space bridge,” Soundwave said, a touch of testiness to his vocals, despite the modulation.

Optimus only needed one guess. “Metalhawk is being pushy again?” Because while Starscream could and would be pushy on occasion, Grimlock was doing a fair job of reining him in to what was socially acceptable.

Metalhawk had no such compunctions.

“Affirmative.”

Optimus sighed and rubbed his hand down his faceplate. “When?”

“In two hours. Unless there is protest, in which case sarcastic suggestion to reschedule has been offered,” Soundwave replied, audibly losing a touch of his calm. Frustration wrote itself into his frame language.

Metalhawk made all of them tense.

“Fine,” Optimus said, and swallowed down any complaint he might have had about being exhausted or done with politics for the day. “Tell him we’ll be there.”

“Understood.”

Optimus watched as Soundwave did as he asked. He waited for Soundwave to finish and composed his own quick note to send to Ultra Magnus. His second responded within seconds with an affirmative which made Optimus wonder if Ultra Magnus had even taken the rest he asked for.

And speaking of overworked subordinates…

Optimus leaned forward on the edge of the desk. “You don’t have to be my secretary, Soundwave. Aren’t there other tasks that are better suited to you?”

Soundwave audibly cycled a ventilation. “Prefer this,” he said, at length.

“Why?”

“Duties similar,” Soundwave answered and shifted his weight, setting his datapad down across his folded leg. “Starscream refused. Shockwave on Cybertron. No one else patient enough. Often performed same duties for Megatron.”

Optimus tilted his helm. “You were not only his communications officer, but Megatron’s assistant as well,” he said. “Just how much of the Decepticons were truly under your command?”

It made sense. Megatron seemed to type to give orders, but then not pay attention to how they were carried out.

Meanwhile, there was Starscream who, recent events aside, always looked for a way to backstab Megatron or sabotage Megatron’s efforts. Shockwave on Cybertron was no help. Megatron had gone recruiting for the biggest and the baddest, but the fact remained, most of the civilians had gone Autobot, and when it came to organization and leadership, if you weren’t a military commander, you wanted a civilian manager.

How much of the Decepticon command structure was done from the shadows?

“More than acknowledged,” Soundwave answered.

“Why were you his third then? We never understood that.”

“Command position never sought.” Soundwave lifted a hand, touching the clear glass of his dock. “Leadership unappealing.” He paused, his visor flickering, a flash of his field indicating a level of discomfort. “Core coding incompatible.”

Optimus inclined his helm. “You mentioned it once,” he said quietly. “That you despised slavery.” He rested a hand on the desk. “Were you a slave, Soundwave?”

Core coding was a tricky thing. Slave coding was even trickier. If Soundwave had been created with it, no amount of stripping and re-wiring could completely remove it. There would always be an unconscious urge to support and serve. Even if he could choose his master, the fact remained, it was written into his very being to serve.

Silence slipped into Optimus’ office, not that either he or Soundwave were loud mechs to begin with. Soundwave’s helm dipped. His visor darkened.

“Soundwave was–” He paused, shook his helm, and leaned forward. Optimus heard a faint click as Soundwave’s pedes flattened on the floor and he braced his elbows on his knees.

“I was one of many,” Soundwave continued, and Optimus realized that the click must have been him disengaging his vocal modulator. “Megatron was recruiting. He needed soldiers. He found us, the slaves, the oppressed, the broken, the beaten. He told us he wanted nothing in return, but when you have nothing, it’s easier to throw it all away for a chance to be free.”

Optimus nodded and shifted his weight, reaching to adjust Laserbeak, but the cassette hadn’t moved. She was firmly in place, and still recharging.

“So you joined him?”

Soundwave tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair. “The other options were unpalatable. Back then, he was someone to admire. His goals would have meant an end to what I had escaped.”

Admire. Optimus repeated the word to himself. Soundwave had always been touted as Megatron’s most loyal supporter. While everyone else had been called into question at one point, Soundwave had never been one of them. There was a dedication there which had always spoken of something deeper than that of leader and supporter.

Optimus folded his hands on the table.

“There was a time when Megatron was charismatic. He was a mech worth following, I don’t doubt that,” Optimus said, recalling the broadcasts, Megatron’s speeches, the way he had so easily worked the crowds into a frenzy. “He would not have been able to keep leadership so long without it.”

Soundwave made a noncommittal noise. “Megatron’s ideals were not wrong,” he said. “It was only when his goals changed from revolution to domination, that I began to get uncomfortable. Especially when he made pets of the Autobots, despite knowing how a good many of us despised slavery. After that, my faith in him whittled away.”

Optimus looked at Soundwave, trying not to squirm outwardly as much as he was squirming inwardly. He recognized this was none of his business, but he couldn’t help his concern.

“Were you and Megatron ever…” He trailed off, trying and failing to find the proper term that didn’t come across as juvenile.

“No,” Soundwave answered before Optimus could finish, and the finality in his tone left no room for confusion. “Megatron had favorites, those who bowed, and those he could force. I was, thankfully, not among them.”

Optimus burned to ask why not, but this was already a sensitive subject. He trod the lines of propriety as it was.

“And no one else?” Optimus asked before he could stop himself. “On the Nemesis, I mean. You left no one in the Decepticons behind?”

Soundwave shook his helm. “No. Solitude, I found, was best.”

Optimus frowned.

If Soundwave was a slave before Megatron found him, and he joined the Decepticons after, and had no lover amid the Decepticons, did that mean…?

“I can understand that,” Optimus said carefully. “Forgive me if I overstep but have you ever–”

“Yes,” Soundwave answered, again before Optimus could finish. He shifted his weight in the chair, his battlemask immediately snapping shut.

Conversation concluded.

Optimus leaned back and dipped his helm. “Thank you for soothing my concerns. You were under no obligation to answer those questions.”

“No apology necessary,” Soundwave replied, though the return to his monotone suggested an undercurrent of discomfort. “Optimus’ concern for all is boundless.”

Optimus managed a thin smile. “It is one of my more annoying traits, I’m afraid.” He cycled a ventilation. “That being said, Soundwave, I do hope you understand that you’re not required to work with me. You can do anything else for the Autobots that you wish.”

“Prefer this,” Soundwave said with a flash of his visor.

“You’re certain?”

“Without doubt.” Soundwave inclined his helm. “If subordination required, then I would rather serve a mech worthy of my talents.”

There was compliment in there. Optimus smiled, his spark stuttering an unexpected warmth.

“I am honored to be worthy of your trust,” he said and cycled his vocalizer, forcing his attention to the datapads stacked on his desk. “I don’t suppose that extends to finishing my paperwork for me, does it?”

An echoing rasp that could only be a chuckle rose from Soundwave’s chassis. “Negative. Optimus’ paperwork his own.”

“Can’t blame me for trying,” Optimus said as he reluctantly dragged the first of the stack closer.

His only consolation was that in two hours he would have to meet with Metalhawk and the Decepticons regarding use of the space bridge.

Compared to that, he almost preferred the paperwork.

0o0o0

Ratchet startled online with the unmistakable realization that he wasn’t alone. He tensed, respiration quickening as a quick scan flashed through the room, demanding the identity of the intruder. His spark pulsed in the next second, offering reassurance, just as his scan pinged back a familiar, and welcome presence.

It was Wheeljack.

Ratchet sighed and sagged. He onlined his optics, still feeling groggy from his impromptu nap, one First Aid insisted he take.

“If you can insist that I get some rest then I can do the same for you,” First Aid said with that stubborn look of his, only to tack on a belated ‘sir’ as if that made up for him all but bullying Ratchet into some much needed rest.

He would make a fine CMO someday.

Ratchet hadn’t told anyone yet, but he was already considering replacements. He didn’t want to be Chief Medic until he offlined. At some point, he wanted to hand the reins over to a younger generation. Hopefully, First Aid wanted the task. If not, Ratchet would have to wait a while longer yet.

Possibly forever, if they couldn’t figure out how to repopulate Cybertron.

“Jack?” Ratchet called out as he turned onto his side, searching with his optics this time. Their shared quarters, just off the medbay, were still dim.

Wheeljack shuffled into view, rubbing the back of his helm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you. I only wanted to grab a datapad.”

Fatigue clawed at Ratchet, but he shook his helm anyway. “I don’t mind that. Come here. You just get back?”

“Yeah. Space bridge is up and running.” Wheeljack’s indicators lit up, perhaps in attempt to show his excitement, but his field didn’t quite match it. Wheeljack was as exhausted as Ratchet, and the soot and dirt clinging to his armor only highlighted that.

Ratchet forced himself upright, every joint and hydraulic creaking noisily. Primus, he felt old. “That’s good news, I guess.” He squinted at his conjunx, who stayed well out of reach.

Granted, that was partly Ratchet’s fault. Most days, he didn’t want to be touched. Most days, the feel of another mech’s field was enough to send him spiraling downward. Most days, he was a poor excuse for a conjunx. He couldn’t blame Wheeljack for keeping a safe distance.

“Are you expected anywhere?” Ratchet asked.

Wheeljack shook his helm. “No, but you should get some rest. If Aid sent you here, I’m sure it’s for good reason, Ratch.”

He beckoned Wheeljack closer. “I’d get better rest if you were here. You were gone for two weeks, ‘Jack. I missed you.” Romantic words, suddenly much easier to say now than they had been months and months before, when the Autobots were still on Earth and the war was still going strong, but so many of their friends were still alive.

Back then, Ratchet had taken so much for granted. He’d taken Wheeljack for granted. He didn’t want to make that mistake again.

Wheeljack’s indicators flashed a muted blue, an indication of his happiness. He came further into the room, finally letting the door shut behind him.

“Missed you, too, Ratch. Earth, it… it ain’t the same. The ‘Cons really did a number on it.” Wheeljack set an armful of stuff down on already overloaded table and came closer, daring to sit on the edge of the berth.

Ratchet did him one better; he pulled Wheeljack into his arms – dirt and all – as Wheeljack squawked in surprise. Their fields smacked together, jarring at first. It was taking them a while to find their rhythm again, but soon enough, their fields knitted at the edges.

“I’m glad I didn’t have to see it. And sorry you had to,” Ratchet said as he fell backward and dragged Wheeljack with him, his smaller conjunx falling over him in a sprawl.

“Ratch!” Wheeljack spluttered, flailing to find a more comfortable angle.

It was amusing enough that Ratchet cracked a smile. Relief struck him when Wheeljack didn’t squirm free, but instead shifted to lay in Ratchet’s arms, their plating notched together in the perfect configuration they’d discovered over the centuries.

“I was trying to give ya space,” Wheeljack said.

“I know. And I appreciate that.” Ratchet tilted his helm, resting it against Wheeljack’s. “But right now, I don’t want space. I just want you.”

Wheeljack audibly cycled a ventilation. “Whatever ya want, Ratch. I hate that I wasn’t there for you.” A small shudder raced through his frame. “Every time I remember that we got separated, that I shoulda been there, it makes me so angry.”

Ratchet stroked a hand down Wheeljack’s back, fingers briefly flirting with his winglets. “It’s not your fault, Wheeljack.”

“I know that. I still wish it could have been different.” Wheeljack curled an arm around him, his hand resting against Ratchet’s side as though with caution. “I should have killed every last one of them,” he added with a quiet fury.

Ratchet gnawed on his bottom lip. “I know.”

Silence fell between them, their fields mingling such that Ratchet couldn’t tell where his own ended and Wheeljack’s began. Wheeljack was warm against him, his frame softly thrumming, and the sense of his mass was a welcome one.

Ratchet had often recharged with a Constructicon on top of him or around him, but they were so massive he felt smothered and trapped. Wheeljack was smaller, lighter, and he was comfort, like a familiar blanket. His field pulsed nothing but love and calm, rather than lust and possession.

He never pushed; he always asked.

Ratchet stroked Wheeljack’s back, tracing the path of his spinal strut. “Tell me about Earth?” he asked, careful to keep his vocals soft. He didn’t want to spoil the moment.

“It’s a ruin.” Wheeljack’s reply was bleak and despairing. “Megatron destroyed every sign of civilization, save that which he could use. If there are any human survivors, Hound hadn’t found them by the time I left. There’s nothing green anymore. It’s as dead as Cybertron is, Ratchet.” He buried his face against Ratchet’s intake. “I hope I never have to go back.”

“You shouldn’t have to,” Ratchet said. “But if you do, I’ll go with you next time. I’ll have to face it eventually. Better to do it together.”

Wheeljack made a noncommittal noise. His engine purred. “I hear we have a new roommate.” He lifted his helm, optics bright with humor. “Empty nest syndrome, Ratch?”

“Pah. Enough of that!” He idly swatted Wheeljack’s aft, though it was nothing more than a light tap. “Kid needs someone to look after him. He’ll work himself into stasis if not.”

“I know.” Wheeljack folded his arms under his chin so that he could better see Ratchet. “But meanwhile, our other children are all grown up and ruling the Decepticons.”

Ratchet snorted. “Our children,” he repeated. It wasn’t exactly true, but the Dinobots had always treated the two of them as their parents.

“Yep. Ours.” Wheeljack beamed at him and where their chestplates notched, Ratchet could feel their sparks pulsing in sync. “We did good, Ratch. Aren’t you proud of them?”

“I am.” He curled around his conjunx, stroking Wheeljack’s back. He tried – and failed – to dredge up any arousal. He would have to settle for this closeness for now.

Wheeljack understood. But Ratchet hated that he’d allowed the Constructicons to damage him so much. He felt he should be stronger than this.

“When all this settles, we should go see them,” Wheeljack murmured. “Let ’em know how proud we are.”

“We will,” Ratchet said and dimmed his optics, soaking in the moment, taking comfort in Wheeljack’s presence.

Wheeljack’s engine purred. His systems started to settle. He shifted to make himself comfortable. Ratchet knew if they lingered much longer, the both of them would succumb to the pull of recharge. But Wheeljack was a mess, and Ratchet didn’t feel like scrubbing the berth later.

“Come on.” Ratchet gently patted Wheeljack’s aft again and nudged him with his other hand. “You need a wash, and I need to get up out of this berth. So how about I help you with one to encourage the other.”

Wheeljack laughed, his optics sparkling. “Fine by me, Ratch.” He leaned up, pressing their forehelms together. “You know I’d do anythin’ for ya, right?”

“I know.” Ratchet pressed a kiss to Wheeljack’s blast mask. “Come on. Up and at ’em.”

It didn’t take much more convincing than that.

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