[Crown the Empire] Salvage 05

He couldn’t move.

He was getting used to being on his knees. He hated that he’d acclimated. His wrists had been shackled behind his back. That, too, was so commonplace as to be almost comfortable. His shoulders no longer ached.

This, however, was new.

Megatron’s spike in his mouth was almost familiar. But usually it had a purpose. One of many overloads the warlord demanded. One of many humiliations.

Megatron wasn’t after an overload, however. He’d called Optimus over, he’d extended his spike, and he’d demanded Optimus service it. Optimus had bent to the task with a sigh, a sense of resigned fatigue.

He’d bent with no ceremony, sucking Megatron’s spike into his mouth and working him quickly. He’d used several tricks he’d learned, including prodding at the transfluid slit with his glossa. Usually, Megatron left him to do it. He didn’t bother Optimus so long as Optimus did what he was told.

This time, Megatron looked down at him with burning optics. Amusement glimmered in his field. Mischief, too, was present, and it was that which made Optimus uneasy.

Megatron’s hand rested on his helm. This, too, wasn’t unusual. Optimus offlined his optics, resigning himself to Megatron taking the lead, using him however he wanted. It was easier that way, sometimes, as Megatron often overloaded faster when he did that. Then Optimus would be pushed aside where he could cough in peace.

Both of Megatron’s hands rested on his helm now, a heavy, noticeable weight.

“You look so good with a spike in your mouth,” he said. His grip became heavier. He pushed.

His spike sank deeper into Optimus’ mouth.

“You almost look comfortable, Optimus. Like you’re enjoying yourself.” Megatron ex-vented, a wave of heat rolling over Optimus.

He pushed again, and kept pushing, until Optimus’ lips were flush with Megatron’s panel, and Megatron’s spike was down his intake. His intake fluttered with discomfort. He diverted his ventilations so as not to overheat.

“But that’s not the point of this,” Megatron said.

One hand lifted from Optimus’ helm, and Optimus made a small noise. He tried to pull back, but Megatron’s remaining hand pushed hard against him. Fingers dug into his helm, keeping him in place.

Optimus’ intake squeezed. It convulsed. His tank roiled. His hands drew into fists.

Megatron didn’t move, didn’t thrust. His spike pulsed and swelled on Optimus’ glossa and against his intake. His engine rumbled.

“Stay,” he said. His free hand groped the tabletop.

Optimus onlined his optics. Megatron dragged a datapad closer and flicked it on. His attention shifted to the datapad and its contents. He didn’t seem to care about Optimus at all.

Heat built in Optimus’ chassis. His intake spasmed again. His tank flipped. Warnings cropped up in his processor. There was something lodged in his intake.

Optimus squirmed. Megatron’s fingers dug in harder. Optimus’ helm creaked. Red optics flicked to him. Megatron shifted as though to make himself more comfortable, and kept Optimus pinned against his array. His lips and denta pressed against Megatron’s panel. All he could smell was Megatron’s scent, his arousal, the heat of his plating.

Humiliation burned. Sometimes, he forgot he was supposed to feel like this.

“That’s better,” Megatron said, the amusement ripe in his field. “Can’t let you get too comfortable, can I? Else you might think you’ve earned it.” His optics darkened. “And your comfort has never been a part of this.”

His words echoed in Optimus’ audials. His intake rippled again. His tanks churned, torn between evicting the paltry energon Megatron had granted him, and keeping it.

Self-preservation won.

It was a long time before Megatron made an effort to overload.

His optics snapped online. His tank convulsed, and Optimus had a moment of blind panic. His entire frame shook, but more important was the rising surge of sickness. He flailed and tossed himself out of the berth, landing hard against the floor. His gyros reeled. His processor spun.

He shoved himself to hands and knees and managed a few unsteady, crawling steps away from the berth before his tank clenched again. A low moan escaped Optimus as the lingering memories of nausea overwhelmed him.

He had only a moment to brace himself before his tanks initiated a purge, and he expelled all of the energon he had yet to process. Drinking half a cube before recharge was apparently a bad idea as it splattered on the floor beneath him. He cycled his optics shut, fingers scraping against the floor, as his frame heaved, and his tank continued to clench.

Primus!

His temperature climbed upward. Warnings cascaded down his HUD. But his frame wouldn’t settle until every last drop of unprocessed energon emptied itself. He swore he could still taste Megatron on his glossa, beneath the sourness of his own spill.

Optimus spat, trying to clear his mouth of the foul taste.

He backed away from the mess, and pushed himself back against the berth. He stayed there on the floor, legs and knees wobbly, unwilling to try standing. He swiped the back of his hand over his mouth, wiping away a few drips of sticky oral lubricant. He drew up his knees, resting his elbows upon them and buried his face in his hands.

His armor clattered. His field was a wild frenzy. He was hot all over. It wasn’t sickness, he knew.

His energy levels hovered at thirty percent, relying only on the energon he’d managed to process overnight.

Ratchet would be appalled.

Optimus cycled a ventilation. He couldn’t stop trembling. Heat cascaded through his system.

He realized, all too late, that it wasn’t entirely because of the unexpected purge. Both of his panels were wide open. His valve leaked. His spike was half-pressurized. He shook because his lower half thrummed with arousal.

Primus.

Optimus groaned and pushed the heels of his palms against his shuttered optics. He tried to will the unwelcome arousal away. Megatron had trained his frame all too well apparently.

Megatron liked to use him and then make him overload afterward as a reward. His frame quickly learned to associate humiliation with pleasure. Every time Megatron debased him, his frame responded. He learned to be ready, to ease the pain. It left him in a constant state of mild arousal.

He hated no longer being in control of his own frame. He didn’t know how to fix it.

The floor was chilly beneath his aft. The vents pumped cold air into his suite. Optimus tried to focus on the cold sensations. He refused to self-service. He forced his panels to close, ignoring the arousal still pinging him notices.

His chest ached. He ignored that, too.

Optimus was old enough and wise enough to know that recovery was a long process. He knew that nights like these were going to be common until he could figure out how to process what happened and move on from it.

Logic, however, did not help him when it came to moments like this. When recharge only made things worse and he woke up both purging and aroused and sick to his core. When he loathed himself and Megatron both, and knew, logically, that none of this was his fault, but still feeling as though he should have prevented it anyway.

Primus, but he wished Ironhide were here. Or Prowl, even. He desperately wished to have their counsel.

Optimus curled into himself, covering his helm with his arms and tucking it against his knees. He thought if he made himself small enough, he could block out the world. He could find his center.

He missed the counsel of the matrix. More often than not, it was a silent weight in his chest. Occasionally, he could tap into its wisdom if he was fully centered and seeking guidance. But all that remained was a raw ache where Megatron had yanked it from his chassis. Ratchet had repaired him, but he still hurt.

Ghost pains, Ratchet called it. He spent so long with the Matrix attached that his frame would need time to adjust to its absence.

Optimus focused on ventilating until the rippling in his tank ceased and the tremors in his armor eased. He watched his internal temperature cycle down, degree by degree; the slow count of it helped him center himself. He took the memory of the purge and shoved it down deep.

The arousal ebbed away, leaving him drained and exhausted. So much for a whole recharge cycle and the requisite defrag. Optimus felt worse now than he had when he laid down last night.

Time, Ratchet insisted. Time was all they needed.

Optimus sighed.

He did not return to recharge. He managed to unfurl himself when he felt marginally better. He sought out cleanser and rags to clean up the mess he made, missing cleaning drones in that moment. His tanks pinged him for more fuel.

The idea of consuming energon left him ill all over again.

He was at thirty percent. He could survive a little longer. Certainly, it was a luxury compared to what Megatron allowed him.

Optimus spent longer than he should have in the washracks, the temperature near-scalding. He should have been more conservative, but he wanted to scrub away all traces of the unwanted memories. He thought if he scrubbed a little harder, he might scrub away the memory of Megatron’s hands on his plating, Megatron’s spike in his valve, and Megatron’s spark rasping against his.

Ugh.

Optimus shuddered.

He forced himself out of the washrack when he could no longer justify lingering. He checked his chronometer, but it ticked far too slowly toward first shift.

Optimus tried to busy himself with the stack of datapads that he’d brought back with him from the office. Ratchet didn’t have to know about these either.

The chime to his quarters rang ten minutes before first shift was due to begin. Optimus cycled his optics in surprise. No one visited him this early and Soundwave had an unusual talent of only pinging Optimus precisely on time, not a minute too soon or too late.

Optimus tucked the more immediate datapads into his subspace and rose to his pedes. His legs were still wobbly, he noticed, but he hoped his visitor didn’t. He opened the door and was once again surprised.

“Jazz?”

His third in command grinned at him, bouncing on the tips of his pedes. “Good morning, OP. Or… is it?” He tilted his helm to the side, as perceptive as always. “Ya look terrible.”

“Thank you for your honesty,” Optimus said with a sigh. He gestured for Jazz to go ahead and come in. “I didn’t recharge well. Has something happened?”

Jazz all but danced in, carefully balancing a cube of energon in each hand. “Not bad news. Metalhawk finally sent his mech over, the one with the mneumosurgery skills, and Ratchet thought you might like to meet him.”

“That I do.” Optimus shook his helm as Jazz offered him a cube. “No, thank you. I am fueled enough.”

“Not according to my sensors.” The light behind Jazz’s visor dimmed. “You okay?”

“Nothing that won’t heal with time.” Optimus returned to his chair and wasn’t surprised to find Jazz hop up on the table, folding his legs to take up less space. “I am sorry if I seemed rude. I wasn’t expecting you.”

Jazz popped open his own cube and sipped at it. “I know. Ya were expectin’ Soundwave. But he’s off in Iacon playin’ nice with his old friends today.”

“Oh, I see.”

“You sound disappointed, OP.” Jazz drummed the fingers of his free hand over his knee. “I know he’s been keeping pretty close to you, but I figured ya were bein’ too nice to tell him to get lost.”

Optimus cycled his optics. “He’s been inordinately helpful. True, I found it a bit odd at first, but now I find myself in a position where he has become irreplaceable.”

Jazz tilted his helm and finished his cube. “Huh. Now isn’t that somethin’.”

“What?” Optimus asked. He leaned forward, peering at his third in command. “I know that tone. What is it, Jazz?”

He leaned forward, elbows braced on both his knees. “Somethin’ goin’ on I should know about, Optimus?” Jazz asked, his tone taking on an edge of seriousness. “Because Soundwave is awful close to ya all of the sudden, and now you’re talkin’ like you don’t mind.”

“Because I don’t.” Optimus leaned back in his chair, resting his elbows on the arms of it as he laced his fingers together. “He is no longer a Decepticon, and his behavior has been exceptional. I see no reason to believe he isn’t honest in his intentions.”

Jazz waved a dismissive hand. “Never said he wasn’t. Just said that it was interestin’ how close he’s stickin’ to ya. Don’t ya find that a little odd?”

“Why would I?” Optimus rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Soundwave is simply pragmatic. He knows that he’s safest close to me. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if I was in a similar situation.”

“Yeah. I get that. But I’m sayin’ it’s more than that, too.” Jazz’s lips twitched toward a smile. “And you don’t see the way he looks at ya.”

Optimus sighed and rubbed his forehelm. “Perhaps because there is nothing to see. Now, do we not have somewhere to be? Since it appears I need an escort without Soundwave present.”

Jazz chuckled and hopped off the table, stretching his arms over his helm. “I know a desperate bid to change the subject when I hear one. And, yes. If Metalhawk’s mech isn’t already there, he’ll be there soon. Ratchet won’t start without ya unless I tell him to.”

“Good. I want to be there.” Optimus rose to his pedes as well, briefly swaying as a spat of dizziness attacked him. He paused to regain his balance and pretended that Jazz wasn’t giving him a concerned look. “And how is Ratchet?”

“Doc seems to be doing okay.” Jazz led them out of Optimus’ quarters and started down the hall. There was less pep in his step than earlier. “He and ‘Jack took in First Aid since Perceptor started bunking with Blue. They’re making sure the kid takes care of himself. Ratch’s cranky, and he don’t like anyone touching him, but he’s got a wealth of support. I think he’ll be okay.”

Optimus managed a small smile of relief. It was good to know that he hadn’t completely failed his Autobots. “And Mirage?”

“He’s… not good.” Jazz glanced up at him. “You knew he and Tracks were partnered, right?”

“Given that Mirage is still alive, I assume not spark-bonded.”

“No. But they were close.” Jazz audibly cycled a ventilation. “I don’t know that he’s ever going to come back to the army, boss. He’s angry. He’s bitter. And if Cliffjumper hadn’t gotten to Blitzwing and forced us all to tighten our defenses, he might have been the first to murder a Decepticon.”

Optimus’ tank churned again. He was glad he had consumed this morning’s ration, no matter how much he needed it. “The Stunticons?”

“Well, the three-fifths of them that survived.”

Optimus sighed and looked up into the sky as they stepped out of the Xantium. Bright stars shone against the dark. The haze was gone for now. It would return soon enough.

“I had the opportunity to save him,” Optimus said as his spark clenched with regret. “Tracks did not want to be saved. After being in Shockwave’s custody and then being passed to the Stunticons, I can’t say I blame him. But I now wonder if honoring his request had been the wrong choice.”

Jazz’s field bumped against his, a bare brush that was an invitation Optimus had only to accept. “We had to decide a long time ago to stop wasting resources on mechs that didn’t want to be saved, remember?”

“This is different.”

“Not really.” Jazz swept a hand over his helm, his visor darkening. “Honoring Tracks’ request was probably the only time he was able to choose anything for himself since the Decepticons took us down. I don’t think Mirage can be angry about that.”

Optimus made a noncommittal noise. He wasn’t sure he could believe Jazz. Perhaps it would be best to speak with Mirage himself.

“The honoring ceremony will help,” Jazz continued as they hooked a left toward the building Ratchet had claimed for a medbay, or medcenter as he planned on calling it. “The chance to honor the fallen and let ourselves grieve is something we all need, I think. Closure is important to the healing process, according to Smokescreen.”

Optimus nodded. “Just don’t tell Ratchet it was Smokescreen’s idea.”

Jazz managed a light chuckle. “I won’t. Doc doesn’t see optic to optic with Smokescreen on this. It doesn’t matter that none of us know what we’re doing.”

“We are all doing the best we can,” Optimus agreed. “And what of Hound, has he checked in yet?” He meant to check the communication logs first thing this morning, except that Jazz intercepted him. Perhaps it was better this way as Jazz would give him a more accurate presentation of his mech’s mental state.

Jazz rubbed a hand down his faceplate. “He did and he’s… better. They haven’t found the humans yet, but Ravage thinks she’s caught a fresh trail. Hound ain’t recharging like he should, but he’s letting Ravage cuddle with him, and ‘Breaker ain’t nothin’ but a cuddle bear so I think he’ll be all right.”

“You do whatever you think is best, Jazz. I trust your judgment. And be sure to tell Hound that I fully support him.” Optimus allowed a bit of fondness into his field. “He and Ravage have a history, as I understand it, and I don’t wish to stand between him and any measure of happiness.”

Jazz tilted a grin toward him. “Boss, they had a history during the war, you just didn’t know it. Don’t think Sounders knew it either.”

Optimus cycled his optics and stared at his third in command. He paused in front of the medcenter, unable to believe his audials. “They were fraternizing?”

“If that’s what ya want to call it.” Jazz shrugged, but it was far from casual. “Look, boss, things happen. What it was had nothing to do with faction. I knew about it. I was watchin’ it. I never had anythin’ to worry about. Otherwise I would’ve said somethin’. Trust me.”

“I do,” Optimus said automatically, because it was true. He trusted Jazz with his spark. “I am merely surprised. I never would have thought it of Hound.”

“He’s loyal. He wouldn’t have betrayed us. Just like Ravage is loyal to Soundwave.” Jazz offered another grin, this one softer than the other. “It’s kind of lucky things ended this way. At least for them.”

Something good had come out of the horror. Optimus supposed he could be grateful for that. There was always hope. He wasn’t sure he could pinpoint the exact moment he let himself forget that.

“I believe you,” Optimus murmured.

He stared up at the medbay. Ratchet would know, from the moment he scanned Optimus, how poor his health truly was.

Was it cowardly to hesitate? Ratchet had become even more of a mother hen since the defeat of the Decepticons. He’d taken their health as a personal crusade, convinced he couldn’t rest until all of them were optimal, physically and mentally, perhaps even at the cost of his own.

“I know ya do. C’mon, OP. You know the doc don’t like to be kept waitin’.” Jazz entered the medbay ahead of him.

Optimus gathered his courage and followed. If Ratchet wanted to fuss over him, Optimus wouldn’t complain. Too much. He knew a coping mechanism when he saw one. They all had their ways.

When they entered the main service area, Ratchet was deep in conversation with a tall, gangly mech, wearing both visor and face mask. He was a grounder, judging by the tires on his shoulders and legs. He had long, thin fingers and Optimus wasn’t sure why he noticed them except for the fact the mech had six rather than the standard five.

Ratchet noticed them first. “About time you got here!” he said, just short of a growl. The other mech turned to greet them. “This here’s Chromedome. Metalhawk sent him.”

Optimus planted friendliness into his field and greeted the mech. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “Metalhawk said you may be able to help one of my Autobots?”

“Red Alert,” Chromedome acknowledged as he gripped Optimus’ hand, two of his fingers oddly tapping at Optimus’ wrist before he drew back. “I studied under Trepan. If there’s any hope of undoing what he did, I’m probably the best chance you have.”

“And since you’re here, we can finally get started,” Ratchet said as Chromedome backed off a pace. “I suppose you’re staying, too?” He added with a glance toward Jazz.

He stepped back, holding up his hands. “I can always leave if you like.”

“Or you could go talk to the Twins. They could use some company,” Ratchet retorted with a roll of his optics.

Optimus blinked, startled. “The Twins are online?”

Ratchet sighed and scrubbed at his chevron. “There was no reason to keep them in stasis if I didn’t have to. As long as I don’t separate them, they can be online. Though if they persist in being irritating, I may have to put them under again for the sake of my sanity.”

“Shockwave’s suggestion for repairin’ them is nothin’ any of us want to use. But we might not have a choice,” Jazz added.

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “Why haven’t I heard about this?”

“I was going to tell you after we took care of Red Alert. I still am.” Ratchet spun on a heelstrut and waved over his shoulder. “Come on. Red first, Twins later. Jazz, you know what to do.”

“Sure thing, doc.” Jazz tossed off a friendly salute. “We can do the rounds when you’re done, OP,” he said as he walked away, to the room that had been designated for Sideswipe and Sunstreaker.

The rounds? Apparently, Jazz really had appointed himself as Soundwave substitute. Did they think Optimus needed an escort?

Optimus rubbed at his forehelm and fell into step beside Chromedome and Ratchet. The former was actually taller than Ratchet, but the medic was more than twice his mass. Chromedome’s field was unreadable, Optimus noticed. It was present, he could sense it, but Optimus couldn’t read into it.

They stepped into the smaller room Ratchet had set aside for Red Alert, and Optimus couldn’t quite hide his shiver of disquiet. Red Alert lay on a berth, painfully still, his optics offline, and his energy field as empty as it had been the first Optimus saw him again. If not for the brightness of his color nanites, Optimus would have thought him deactivated.

Ratchet stepped aside, giving Chromedome room to stand next to Red Alert’s berth. He lifted his right hand, thin fingers twitching restlessly.

“You might not want to stay,” Chromedome said as his left hand rested on Red Alert’s helm. “The sight of mneumosurgery tends to make most mechs uncomfortable.”

Ratchet folded his arms over his windshield. “I don’t know you from Prima. I’m not going anywhere. I’m a medic, I think I can handle it.”

Chromedome shifted to stand at the head of Red Alert’s berth, both hands now on Red Alert’s helm as he looked in Optimus’ direction. “Prime, sir?”

Optimus shook his helm and took up a position next to Ratchet. “I will remain as well.”

“Then don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Chromedome bent over Red Alert, nimble fingers tracing the seams of Red Alert’s helm before there was a tiny click and a protective panel lifted up and away.

Optimus’ optics cycled wide as Red Alert’s processor module came into view, the heavy protective plate being set aside. Chromedome tilted his helm to the side, one hand hovering over the exposed component, fingers twitching as though tracing some invisible lines.

“Trepan’s so sloppy for someone who invented this,” Chromedome commented, more to himself than to them.

One hand rested on Red Alert’s forehelm as the fingers of his other hand twitched and long needles emerged from the tips of them. Optimus’ tank churned at the sight. Next to him, Ratchet shifted, his field going still.

Chromedome glanced at both of them. “Last chance to leave.”

“We’re not going to,” Ratchet growled. “Fix him.”

“Please,” Optimus amended.

“I’ll do what I can.” Chromedome cycled a ventilation, his needled fingers twitching in the air before he pressed the tips of them against Red Alert’s processor.

Optimus cringed as Chromedome’s needles sank into Red Alert’s module. His tank wobbled with unease. No wonder Chromedome had suggested they leave. It was an unsettling image.

Next to him, Ratchet was as steady as a rock. He watched, his lips pinched into a thin line, his field thick with worry.

Optimus wasn’t sure if speaking aloud would hurt Chromedome’s concentration. So he picked Ratchet’s comm instead.

How long do you think this is going to take? he asked.

I don’t know, the medic replied as he shifted his weight. I know of the procedure in theory, but it was a very small field before the war broke out. There were rumors, of course, that the council was forcefully reprogramming mecha.

You never believed it?

Ratchet cast him an askance look. Would you? It sounded like a sparkling tale. Something to convince mecha to behave. Luckily, Megatron started the war in earnest before it became common. He must have recruited Trepan along the way, probably convinced him with freedom to experiment, like he did Shockwave.

Disgust rippled through Optimus’ field. He frowned as he watched Chromedome work, the Neutral absolutely still, save for the flickering in his visor.

It made Optimus wonder. If Megatron’s rebellion had never found its footing. If Megatron had never started the Decepticons, what kind of world would they inhabit? What would the council have done? Would this procedure have become commonplace? Would they have simply reprogrammed any mech too outspoken for their tastes?

Such thoughts sent another surge of nausea through Optimus’ tanks. He was thankful for the berth behind him, as it provided something for him to brace against.

How is Perceptor? Optimus asked, desperate to change the subject.

Ratchet tossed him a knowing look. He is well. He and Wheeljack are currently trying my patience right now. They’ve claimed the building next door and are attempting to turn it into a lab.

They’re going to share one?

Ratchet shifted his weight. For now. Though I’m sure it won’t last long. Perceptor is particular about where things go and Wheeljack’s lack of concern for what he considers outdated and superfluous safety practices tend to irritate Perceptor.

And yet, despite all of that, they were best friends. All three, in fact, were close. For the longest time, Optimus had thought they were all romantically involved, until Ratchet clarified matters.

Then you’re not worried about him?

Ratchet snorted and then cast a guilty look Chromedome’s direction, not that the Neutral noticed. He didn’t so much as twitch, though his visor continued to flicker.

I’m worried about all of us, Ratchet said, correcting him. But in terms of those who were rescued, no. Perceptor is one of the ones I worry the least about.

And the most?

We’re looking at him. Ratchet audibly sighed, drawing into himself. Other than Sideswipe and Sunstreaker. Shockwave claimed that the only way to help them is to encourage them to bond.

Optimus frowned behind his mask. They are already bonded.

They need a third spark to balance them. I don’t know what Shockwave did, but it set them perpetually off-balance. That’s why they can’t be far from each other. They are drawing on each other’s spark to keep themselves from slipping out of oscillation.

Optimus’ optics narrowed. And that’s the best solution?

It’s the only one. Ratchet palmed his face, fingers pinching at his chevron. I’m not a spark expert. I don’t know that there’s a medic alive who was one. Shockwave was messing with things we never fully understood.

Shockwave was touching things he had no right to touch. Optimus’ only consolation was that Shockwave currently sat in the Decepticon brig, and he highly doubted Grimlock was inclined to set him free anytime soon. The sight of Swoop was enough to convince Grimlock otherwise.

The Pit hath no fury like an angry Grimlock. He was and had always been protective of his subordinates.

A low click dragged Optimus’ attention away from their internal conversation and back toward Chromedome. A small shiver worked its way across the Neutral’s frame before he lifted his helm. The fingers buried in Red Alert’s processor module gradually retracted until Chromedome was free and able to take a step back.

“Well?” Ratchet prompted, just short of a growl.

Chromedome’s visor brightened and turned toward them. “I’ve identified the changes Trepan made. I believe I can undo them. Do you have access to Red Alert’s back up memory cores?”

“Of course I don’t!” Ratchet snapped. His plating clamped tight toward his frame. “They were left behind on the Ark with everything else we couldn’t carry.”

And Megatron had quite thoroughly destroyed anything he perceived to be of value in the Ark.

“Can you not help him without them?”

Chromedome stepped away from the berth and rubbed his forehelm with one hand. He twitched the wrist of the other, prompting the needles to slide back into his fingertips and out of sight.

“I can remove the programming Trepan installed. The only problem is that in order to do so, Trepan wiped his operating system. So if I remove it, there won’t be anything left. All he’ll have are his spark memories and spark traits.” Chromedome’s tone was apologetic, even as he grabbed a stool and slumped down into it. His knees visibly wobbled. “Trepan kept some of the core programs, basic parameters like his security training, but everything that made him Red Alert is gone.”

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “Red Alert was very cautious. He always had a contingency plan. I can’t imagine that he would keep his back ups in a single location.”

“You think he hid other copies somewhere?” Ratchet asked.

Optimus inclined his helm. “Why wouldn’t he? I did. My main backups were kept in the medbay with everyone else’s, but Jazz has a smaller copy of my core and so did Ironhide.”

The smaller copies were his core programming, his core memories. Such things took up less storage space, and relied heavily on his spark memories to supplement, but it meant if anything happened to him, he could be mostly restored. Optimus had done so on Prowl’s suggestion that it never hurt to have a contingency plan.

“Who would he trust?” Ratchet asked, his expression solemn but his field speaking of a delicate hope. “Was there anyone he was close to?”

Optimus folded his arms. “Not that I am aware. But you know how Red was, he kept to himself.” Much like Prowl had. They were two of the more controversial Autobots. Sometimes, the crew did not understand why they made the choices they did, because the crew couldn’t see the larger picture.

It was why Prowl had so few friends. Red Alert was the same way. Their social interaction was limited to the command staff. They couldn’t mix into the crowd like Jazz and Ratchet and Wheeljack and Ironhide could. They couldn’t shake what made them part of the command staff.

Worse, even if there was someone Red was close to that they weren’t aware of, in all likelihood, that mech was dead. Megatron had been quite thorough in executing the Earth-based Autobots.

“It won’t hurt to ask,” Ratchet said as he crossed the floor, a scan dancing over Red Alert’s frame. “I’m not going to give up on him just yet.” He grabbed Red Alert’s limp hand, giving it a squeeze.

“If you can find even a copy of his core code, I can return him to a semblance of who he was,” Chromedome said, fatigue thick in his vocals. “I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

Ratchet gave him a sideways look. “You’re a Neutral. Why would you even care what happens to one of us warmongers?”

“Metalhawk might be our leader, but he doesn’t speak for all of us. Besides, I can’t stand seeing this used for something so cruel. I learned mneumosurgery to help mecha, not break them.” Chromedome inclined his helm, the gleam of his visor coming across as earnest. “I want to live in peace on my home planet. I’m tired of running and hiding.”

“If only Metalhawk believed as you do,” Optimus murmured. He dipped his helm and pushed off the berth, offering Chromedome his hand. “Thank you for all your assistance, Chromedome. We very much appreciate it.”

A taste of Chromedome’s field escaped, ripe with relief. “Whatever I can do to help. Would you like me to wait until you find a core copy?”

Ratchet shook his helm. “No. If we find it or not, I won’t let Red Alert live like this. He deserves more than being a drone. Even if it means I let him offline at peace.” He squeezed Red Alert’s hand again and spun away form the berth. “You stay seated. I’ll bring you a cube before you start again. Optimus, come with me.”

“Yes, Ratchet.”

Optimus knew better than to argue. Apparently, so did Chromedome, as he planted his aft back down and nodded.

Optimus followed Ratchet into the main room and stood to the side as Ratchet filled a fresh cube from the dispensary.

“You trust him?” Optimus asked.

“I trust his intentions,” Ratchet replied with an askance look. “If I didn’t, you can bet your aft I would have tossed him out already.” He spun toward Optimus, a cube in each hand. One he thrust toward Optimus. “You, however, I’m learning I can’t trust. Drink.”

Optimus cycled a ventilation and reluctantly accepted the cube. “I had no appetite this morning,” he said. Truthfully, he had very little appetite now. His tanks remained unsettled, and hearing about Red Alert and the Twins had not helped.

“And if you let your energy levels dip too low and you collapse on your rounds, what then?” Ratchet asked. His field reached for Optimus, so thick with concern it was almost cloying. “You’re already not recharging properly. If you stop refueling properly, too, I’ll have no choice but to admit you here and confine you to the berth. And you and I both know that such inactivity isn’t going to help.”

Optimus lowered his helm. Shame licked at the edges of his field. He stared at the energon Ratchet had given him – alas, back to medical grade. It wasn’t so much that it tasted foul but that it had no taste at all. It was thick, slimy, and unpalatable for the texture, not the taste.

But his tanks reported a baleful twenty-six percent, and Ratchet had worked very hard to get him to an optimal level. Optimus couldn’t function like this and he knew it. He’d been fighting off dizziness for a long time now.

Optimus forced a tentative sip and waited for it to settle in his tanks. When an immediate purge didn’t follow the sip, he dared a second one and then a third.

“Have you considered talking to Smokescreen?” Ratchet asked, his vocals oddly soft.

Optimus arched an orbital ridge. “I thought you said he wasn’t accredited.”

“He’s not,” Ratchet retorted, but he audibly cycled a ventilation. “But he’s the best we have right now and as much as I hate to admit it, I’m powerless here, Optimus. I can’t help you.” His optics dimmed as his lips pinched together. His field was a wave of helplessness and misery.

Optimus’ spark hurt to feel it.

“I am fine, Ratchet,” he tried to reassure. “All I need is time. Once the Autobots are better established, and I am convinced of Starscream’s sincerity, and Metalhawk’s commitment to peace, then we can all relax. Myself included.”

Ratchet scrubbed a hand down his face. “Sometimes, I really hate that part of you.”

Optimus cycled his optics. “Beg pardon?”

“The part that insists you put everyone else first. When are you going to learn to take care of yourself, Optimus?” Ratchet demanded.

Optimus tilted his helm, unable to hide the affection in his field. “I could ask the same thing of you, my friend.”

Ratchet peered back at him, planting one hand on his hip. “The difference between us, Optimus, is that when I wake up screaming in the middle of a recharge cycle, I have Wheeljack to reach for.”

Optimus hid behind his cube, taking another long sip. “I am accustomed to solitude, Ratchet. No matter what I may have endured.”

“That’s not the point.” Ratchet rubbed harder at his chevron and then moved past him, still carrying Chromedome’s energon. “I just wish you’d let us support you, even a little bit.” The last was muttered, to the point where Optimus wasn’t sure if he was meant to hear it.

“He’s right, ya know.”

Optimus turned at the unexpected comment, which distracted him long enough that Ratchet escaped into Red Alert’s room. Jazz was behind him, leaning against the wall outside the room the Twins shared. He didn’t look ruffled, but then, that was par for the course for Jazz. He was as steady as a rock, just like Ironhide.

Primus, but Optimus missed him. Every day reminded him of how many he had lost. Every empty seat at his command table was another knife to the spark.

“We all want to help ya,” Jazz continued as he pushed himself off the wall, unfolding his arms from under his bumper. “Ya just won’t let any of us close enough to do it.”

Optimus shook his helm. “There are others who need your attention more.”

Jazz sighed and scrubbed over his helm. His field pushed at Optimus’, heavy with affection and exasperation intermingled. “I know why yer sayin’ that and for right now, Imma let it slide. We do have work to do.”

“What about Sideswipe and Sunstreaker?”

Jazz waved a dismissing hand. “They’re in recharge. Interaction takes a lot outta them apparently. Sideswipe was droopin’ like I’ve never seen before, and Sunstreaker flat out refused to talk.”

Sunstreaker wasn’t very chatty even on the best of days, but Jazz could often get through to the Twins when no one else could. If he said they behaved out of character, Optimus believed him.

“Do they know of Shockwave’s solution?”

“Yeah. Not that they’re happy about it. Who would be?” Jazz headed for the medcenter door and Optimus followed. “They haven’t decided whether or not they’re going ta try lookin’ for a volunteer. Fortunately, they have time.”

Optimus cast a look over his shoulder, but Ratchet still hadn’t emerged from Red Alert’s room. Optimus would have to either return later or comm Ratchet for an update.

“Do you know if Red Alert had a friend or lover? Someone he might have trusted with a copy of his core coding?”

Jazz’s visor flashed with surprise. “Not that I’m aware of.” He frowned, sadness tinting his field. “Prowl probably would have known. They were close.”

“In all likelihood, it probably was Prowl who he trusted,” Optimus said with a sigh. He rubbed at his aching forehelm.

Prowl was one of the frames Megatron had pulled from the wreckage of Omega Supreme and smelted down. Perhaps he feared a miraculous recovery, Optimus didn’t know. It didn’t matter because anything Prowl might have carried, was melted down with him.

“I’ll ask Smokescreen, though,” Jazz said with a soft ventilation. “He tends to know all the little secrets. I take it we need one to help him?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” Optimus’ shoulders sagged. Today was full of bad news, it seemed. “Shall we see to Bluestreak then?” Perhaps the sight of Bluestreak thriving would restore some of the hope he seemed to be lacking as of late.

“Whatever you want, boss bot.” Jazz patted him on the elbow, the nearest part he could reach, and Optimus was rather proud of himself for not flinching. The bare brush was actually rather nice.

See, Ratchet? Optimus was healing fine on his own.

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