[Crown the Empire] Salvage 06

Of all mechs to be waiting outside of his office when Optimus turned the corner, he did not expect Grimlock to be one of them. Grimlock did not seem the type to wait, and while things between them had not been sour, they had not been friendly. Optimus couldn’t blame Grimlock. He had mistreated the Dinobots.

“Grimlock,” Optimus greeted as he juggled an armload of datapads. “Were you waiting for me?”

Grimlock moved away from the panel so Optimus could key in his code. “Wasn’t waiting for Soundwave,” he said gruffly. His field was neutral, for all Optimus could sense from it.

“Of course you weren’t.” Optimus sighed inwardly. “Come on in. Nothing’s urgently the matter, I hope.”

“I can’t show up to speak with my former commander without it being an emergency?” Grimlock asked, but thank Primus, there was humor in his vocals rather than challenge.

Grimlock was baiting him, perhaps on purpose. They were on equal ground now.

Optimus dumped his datapads on his overflowing desk and sank into the chair behind it. Grimlock sprawled into the largest chair Optimus had available for guests, the scavenged piece of furniture creaking and groaning beneath him.

“Then it’s a social call?” Optimus guessed. Though speaking of, where was Soundwave? Optimus hadn’t seen or heard from the former Decepticon all day.

“Something like that.” Grimlock folded his hands across his ventrum, the very picture of ease. “Where’s your shadow?”

“I am not his keeper. Soundwave is allowed to do as he wishes.” Optimus busied himself with arranging his datapads into separate piles based on priority. “I trust that his business is his own, or it is for the benefit of the Autobots and Cybertron.”

Grimlock made a contemplative noise. “That’s a lot of trust you’re putting in a Decepticon and a mech who used to be Megatron’s left hand.”

Optimus lifted his helm and raised an orbital ridge. “One could say the same about you. Remind me again your current position and who serves as your second?”

Grimlock chuckled. “You grew fangs, Prime. I’m impressed.”

“You’d be surprised what can make you change,” Optimus replied, though it was a lot less sharp than he would have liked. He flattened his palms on the desktop and caught Grimlock’s gaze. “What did you want to talk about, Grimlock?”

“My Air Commander.” He lifted his chin, all trace of amusement abruptly wiped from his field. “I’m going to court him.”

Optimus cycled his optics. He rebooted his audials for good measure. “I beg your pardon,” he said carefully, giving himself time to form the proper words. “But I don’t think I heard you correctly. You are telling me you mean to court Starscream?”

“Yes.”

Blunt and to the point. He wouldn’t be Grimlock if he wasn’t.

Optimus sat back in his chair and pinched his nasal ridge. “And you, what, came here to seek permission?”

“No. To keep you informed. As a courtesy.” Grimlock sat up and leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “We are on equal footing now, Optimus. I want to keep it that way. I told you as a show of respect. Something that was sorely lacking in our relationship in the past.”

Optimus dropped his hand to the arm of his chair. “I am to blame for that, Grimlock. I can only say that I allowed my ignorance to blind me, and I do apologize for that.”

“I know. I’m moving on. I don’t have time to dwell on the past, but you asked for an explanation, and I gave you one.”

“Then I take it congratulations are in order?”

Grimlock outright laughed and sat back, ease returning to his frame language. “Congratulations are premature. I haven’t informed Starscream yet. He may refuse me.”

“I don’t see why he would.” Optimus rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “But then, I can’t say that I’ve ever fully understood what motivates Starscream. I am glad to see that you two are getting along, however. It can only mean good things for the Decepticons.”

“If by getting along you mean christening every available surface, then yes, I suppose we are.” Grimlock’s visor lit up. If Optimus didn’t know better, he’d think Grimlock was smirking. His field certainly buzzed with self-satisfaction. “Though perhaps you’d know all about that.”

Optimus blinked. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Of course you don’t.” Grimlock snickered and pushed to his pedes. “You always were blind, Optimus. I wonder how long it will take for you to notice that you have an admirer or if someone’s going to have to point him out to you.”

Optimus frowned behind his battlemask. “It wouldn’t matter if there was. I don’t have the time or the inclination right now.” Nor the interest. He wasn’t keen on physical contact, and while Optimus recognized it for a perfectly valid reaction, he didn’t have the time to address it.

Optimus was fine on his own. He didn’t need interfacing to survive. He’d done fine before.

Grimlock looked at him for a long moment before he leaned forward, bracing his hands on the desk. He stopped just shy of Optimus’ personal space limits.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching, Optimus, it’s that no mech is an island,” he said in an even tone. “You can’t beat this enemy on your own.”

Grimlock pushed back upright. “You look busy. Comm me when you have enough free time to spare for socializing.”

Optimus worked his jaw for a long moment. “You came here… to give me advice?”

“No. I came to tell you about Starscream. The advice was a bonus.” Grimlock turned and flicked a wave over his shoulder. “Remember what I said, Optimus.”

Grimlock left Optimus alone in his office, behind his mounds of datapads, unable to settle the confusion taking over his processor. That was not only the politest conversation he’d ever had with Grimlock, it was also the most enigmatic one.

Optimus shook his helm and cycled a ventilation. He had work to do. He couldn’t dwell on this.

He reached for the next datapad in the stack.

~

A life of living in darkness and surviving a war in the shadows left Jazz a naturally suspicious person. So when the Decepticon’s most famous loyalist and spy defected and immediately attached himself to Optimus Prime, well, Jazz got a little curious.

Granted, he’d let it slide for a little while. Only because it didn’t seem like Soundwave intended to cause Optimus harm, and surely Sounders wasn’t so stupid as to try and do something like that after a truce was signed. Especially since he’d helped the Autobots take down Megatron in the first place.

Plus, Jazz was a little distracted. He had his crew to think about first. But Trailbreaker and Ravage were taking care of Hound and had him well on the road to recovery. Bumblebee was mending things with Rumble, with Jazz’s full set of double thumbs up approval. And Mirage, well, he was better. He wasn’t going to be the same, but Jazz didn’t think any of them were.

The war had been too long. They’d lost too much. They’d suffered too much.

Right now, however, Jazz left Mirage with Bluestreak because he had something he needed to do. Namely, finding Soundwave and sussing out whatever his intentions were for Optimus.

It didn’t take him long to track old Sounders down. Soundwave made no secret of where he was. If anything, he was being so blatantly open that Jazz felt more than a little leery.

Especially since Soundwave was walking around Polyhex in plain sight.

“Hiya there, Sounders,” Jazz chirped as he intercepted Soundwave with a grin, pedes skidding to a halt in front of the former Decepticon. “Spare a minute for an old pal?”

Soundwave gave him an even stare, Buzzsaw fixed upon his shoulder opposite of his sonic cannon. Jazz wondered if the other cassettes were scampering about. Laserbeak, maybe. Or Frenzy. Ravage and Rumble, he knew, were otherwise occupied.

“State purpose,” Soundwave replied.

“Just a friendly chat.” Jazz tilted his helm and widened his grin, showing off his denta. “You know, me ‘n you, we got lots in common. We should talk about that, you think?”

Soundwave audibly cycled a ventilation. “Public location requested.”

Despite himself, Jazz laughed. “I’m not going to hurt ya. That would upset Optimus, and I’m not about upsetting OP. I suspect you aren’t either.” He lowered his helm, looking up at Soundwave from the top of his visor. “I’m on my leash for now.”

“Understood. Discussion accepted. Where?” Soundwave didn’t relax, but he seemed to trust Jazz’s word.

Which was good. There’d always been a sort of professional understanding between them, and Jazz hoped it would be maintained now that there was a truce, and they were more or less on the same side.

“Well, I’d hate to take up too much of your time. I know you were busy doing… what is it you’re doing again?” Jazz asked as Soundwave started walking. Jazz fell into step beside him.

He wasn’t lying. He didn’t need to take Soundwave somewhere private to get to the nitty-gritty. He only needed five minutes of the dock’s time, and he’d learn all he wanted to know.

“Whatever must be done,” Soundwave said as Buzzsaw alit from his shoulders and took the sky, circling above them. Jazz did not believe for a second that he would go far. “Wherever Soundwave is needed.”

“Including at Optimus’ right hand?”

Soundwave drew to a halt and turned toward Jazz, staring at him with that blank stare that tended to intimidate lesser mechs. Jazz had faced off against it before. He remained unperturbed.

“Jazz opposes?” Soundwave asked with a tilt of his helm.

“I didn’t say all that now,” Jazz said as he folded his arms under his bumper. He looked up at Soundwave, glad that there was no one around to eavesdrop. “I’m just curious. And ya know how dangerous that can be.” He grinned.

“If not opposed then… jealous?”

Jazz’s visor flashed. “There’s nothin’ to be jealous about. OP and I have an understanding. I’m where I’m supposed to be. But if ya want to give it a name, you can call me protective. That’s my Prime you’re lurkin’ around, Soundwave. And I’ve no problem killing for him. Just ask Megatron.”

He paused and rolled his shoulders before continuing, “Well, actually, you can’t because he’s a pool of dreg at the bottom of a smelter right now. Maybe Overlord instead… except he’s an empty shell, lucky that his spark is pretty much a bomb. Ya see where I’m going with this?”

“Soundwave agrees that Jazz is dangerous,” he replied, and Jazz politely pretended that he didn’t hear the hitch in Soundwave’s ventilations, however slight it was. “Respect given, but threat unnecessary. Soundwave intends no harm.”

Jazz leaned forward, bobbing on the tips of his pedes before sinking back. “Yeah, the thing is, I actually believe ya about that. Which brings me to wonder why? And before you even try to pull that card, yeah, it is my business.”

Soundwave shifted his weight. “Optimus Prime belongs to Optimus Prime.”

Jazz’s stared at him. “You know very well what I meant, Sounders. He’s a free mech, but he’s ours. And your madmech of a leader might have taken Ironhide and Prowl from him, but I’m still here, and I’ll do what Optimus can’t. Tell me I won’t.”

Soundwave went silent.

Jazz stood his ground.

Just give me a reason, he vowed. He’d held himself back before. He wasn’t going to do so now. He had all the respect for Soundwave; they had a sort of professional respect over the centuries of war. But Jazz wouldn’t hesitate to take him down and hide the empty frame if he had to.

Finally, Soundwave’s shoulders drifted down by minute increments. His head tilted, gaze looking over Jazz’s helm. “Threat unnecessary,” he repeated. “Soundwave wishes no harm on Optimus Prime. Soundwave wishes only…” He trailed off, pausing, and of all things, Jazz did not expect to see Soundwave fidget.

Holy Primus on a pogo stick.

“…Friendship,” Soundwave finally said though with a huff of frustration, as though he had sought a better term and settled only for what emerged.

Friendship. Jazz had a feeling there was a lot more to it than that, but now he suspected not even Soundwave was sure what he wanted and was trying to figure it out in a kind of clumsy, suspicious manner. The logical reason to stick close to Optimus aside, there was something personal there, too.

Just how long had Soundwave admired Optimus?

“Friendship,” Jazz repeated and let his lips slide into a more friendly grin. “Well, that’s all right then. We could all use a bit more of that right now. Fostering good relations and such.”

“Interrogation over?”

Jazz laughed and unfolded his arms. “That was me being nice, Sounders. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Prefer Soundwave.”

“I’m sure you do.” Jazz dimmed half his visor in a version of a wink. “I’m really glad we had this talk, Sounders. Contrary to what you might think, I really do respect you.”

Soundwave’s helm tilted back down, his visor focusing on Jazz again. “Jazz’s behavior contrary.”

“Yeah. I know. It’s part of my charm.” Jazz’s lips curved. “Just don’t hurt my Prime, and we won’t have to have this conversation again, yeah?”

Soundwave’s visor rippled with light, his field touching Jazz’s briefly, as though in acknowledgment. “Intentions were never to harm.”

“Then we understand each other.” Jazz grinned and patted Soundwave on the shoulder, noticing that he flinched. “Good talk, Sounders. Glad we had it.”

“Soundwave doesn’t share Jazz’s opinion,” Soundwave replied, wariness thick in his tone.

Jazz didn’t blame him one bit. That had been his intention all along.

He chuckled. “I know. You’ve got time though. Hopefully, we won’t have to repeat this conversation.” He flashed half his visor in a wink. “Catch ya later, Sounders.”

He made himself scarce, whistling as he strolled off without a backward glance. He didn’t know where Buzzsaw was, but that didn’t mean the winged cassette wasn’t around.

Jazz wasn’t bothered. He’d learned what he wanted to learn. The rest was up to Optimus.

So long as Soundwave behaved himself. Besides, Jazz had a certain combiner team to find. He had a job offer, and it was about time they contributed.

Finding the Combaticons was no harder than finding Soundwave. They’d taken to residing in a bunk near the Space Bridge Command Control. As a purely Neutral party, they often took shifts guarding it from “potential threats.”

As far as Jazz was concerned, the biggest threats were a) sitting in the Decepticon brig and b) squatting in Nova Cronum, plotting a way to take Cybertron from the united Autobots and Decepticons.

That was the topic du jour Jazz wanted to address with Onslaught. Jazz’s own team couldn’t do this task. Mirage had been making noise about retiring. Bumblebee had sparks in his optics over Rumble, and Jazz couldn’t fault him for that. Smokescreen had his hands full trying to be a fully-fledged psychiatrist without the credentials to back him up.

Jazz was going to have to outsource, and he couldn’t rely on Soundwave loaning him his cassettes. Besides, Metalhawk would be suspicious of anyone with a brand on their chest right now, and everyone knew Onslaught and his team had scrubbed theirs off the moment the truce was signed.

Jazz strolled up to the bunk and hit the chime, shifting from pede to pede as he waited for someone to answer. As far as he knew, they were none of them on-shift right now, but Jazz was also not privy to the Combaticon schedule. They were obligated to report to no one, not even each other.

They were, in fact, the only group of Cybertronians right now who were truly Neutral. Metalhawk’s group counted as a faction in its own right. But the Combaticons had identified themselves as entirely separate.

It’s a smart move, one worthy of a brilliant tactician, the same Megatron had never properly utilized. Well, Jazz wasn’t going to make the same mistakes as Buckethead. As much as he called Optimus his Prime, Jazz wasn’t letting him call all the shots either.

He’d tell Optimus about recruiting Onslaught when it became relevant, but not before.

The door opened with Onslaught standing in the frame, his expression hidden behind mask and visor.

“Now,” he drawled. “What could Prime’s pet spy want with us?”

Jazz grinned. “Got a job offer for ya, if you’re interested.”

“All of us?”

“All of you who can be spared.” Jazz bobbed on his heelstruts, at ease despite the baleful nature of Onslaught’s stare.

The Combaticon Commander did not intimidate him. It didn’t matter that Onslaught was twice his size and mass. So was Ironhide and Jazz still beat him four spars out of five. Ironhide never held back either.

It was all about leverage.

Onslaught made a noncommittal noise and stepped aside, gesturing for Jazz to enter. “I’ll listen,” he said.

“Great!” Jazz chirped and strode inside, taking in the barren nature of the place, though the Combaticons had made some effort to turn it into a home.

Not much of a one. No doubt Onslaught ran his gestalt like the military commander he was sparked to be. At least each member had a room of their own, Jazz noticed as he passed closed doors before finding himself in an open room, probably a gathering area for the team given the large screen.

Brawl was nowhere in sight, but Jazz heard a rumor he was hanging around Dinobot headquarters so that came as no surprise. Unfortunately, however, Vortex wasn’t around either which put a wrench in Jazz’s gears. Vortex was the one the most trained. Then again, Vortex was also unappealing to many, many Cybertronians so maybe it would be better if he didn’t participate.

Rumor had it he had his visor set on a certain talkative sniper, which situation Jazz intended to monitor very, very closely.

Blast Off and Swindle, however, were present. The former of which stared intently at some datapad, and the latter of whom aimlessly cycled through the limited programming on the vidscreen. Some enterprising Autobot had made an effort to upload human programming to the planet-wide servers. Selection was still limited, though.

“So,” Onslaught said as he leaned against the massive couch where Blast Off sat, clearly subspacing some serious mass to fit on it. “Talk.”

Jazz planted his hands on his hips. “Got a job for you, if you’re interested and up to the challenge. How do you feel about infiltrating the Neutrals?”

The screen paused. Swindle looked up from his datapads. Blast Off half-turned to stare at Jazz as Onslaught tilted his helm.

“And this will work how?” Blast Off asked with a visible frown. Or a glower, rather. “Metalhawk has a distinct distaste for Decepticons.”

“Ahh.” Jazz lifted his hand and waggled a forefinger. “But none of you are Decepticons anymore. You are brand-less. You loathed Megatron. You are his kind of mechs.”

Swindle snorted and leaned his chin against his fist. “You actually think that’ll work?”

Jazz lifted his shoulders. “It’s no secret that Megatron was controlling you. And you’ve not shown any inclination to work with the Cons. Besides, you gonna tell me you can’t be convincin’ when ya need to be, Swindle?” He gave the conmech a pointed stare.

Swindle grinned, his purple optics brightening. “Well,” he drawled. “That depends on what kind of compensation you’re offering.”

“And that depends on what ya want,” Jazz replied. “We’re short on credits and resources right now, but if it’s in my power to get it, I will.”

Blast Off tilted his helm. “You don’t have to ask the Prime?”

“Oh, I probably should. But I’ll save that for when I really need it.” Jazz smirked and shifted his visor toward Onslaught. “Metalhawk’s up to something, and all of my team is down for the count. I don’t have anyone else to send.”

Onslaught crossed his arms. “Did you intend to betray that weakness to me?”

“Just layin’ all my cards on the table.” Jazz spread his hands. “We’re all thin and understaffed, and the Neutrals outnumber us. I gotta know what he’s up to before he succeeds in kicking us off Cybertron.”

Jazz doubted they’d all survive the exodus. Because Autobots and Decepticons would fight to stay on their home planet, and despite claiming to be non-combatants, Jazz had no doubt the Neutrals would shoot to kill. Not to mention the lack of resources they’d face stuck out in the universe on whatever crowded shuttles they found.

“Hmm. All of us?” Onslaught asked.

“As many of ya as ya think ya need,” Jazz replied. He spread his hands. “I’ll consult if ya want. Help build a profile.” He knocked a fist against his helm. “I’m good at it.”

“Yes, I know,” Onslaught said.

Swindle laughed and sat back in his chair. “Well, I’m in. Though it’s going to cost you. I’ll ponder a sufficient payment.”

“There is a shuttle among the Neutrals,” Blast Off said, though he turned his attention to the screen. “Perhaps therein lies my welcome. I am quite certain, also, that Vortex might object. He is busy courting.”

“So I’ve heard,” Jazz drawled. He slapped his palms together and rubbed them. “All right, my mechs. Then let’s create a plan of attack, shall we?”

“I can hardly wait,” Onslaught drawled.

~

Optimus tugged harder at the restraints, despite the pain lancing up and down each arm. He’d broken something in his shoulders, could feel the harsh grind of components together and the sticky slick of seeping fluid, but the urge to resist compelled him.

His entire frame shuddered and shook. Half his cooling vents were blocked. He couldn’t pull in air. Heat rippled through his entire infrastructure. His vocalizer spat static.

Still the glossa lapped at his valve. Denta scraped over his throbbing anterior node, a sensation that was so far removed from pleasure, it was agony. Yet, it still left him cycling higher and higher toward another overload.

This was as much torture as Barricade’s acid.

“Come now, Optimus,” Megatron purred as he gripped Optimus’ thighs harder, thumbs pressing between a seam and bruising the cables beneath. “You should be thanking me for serving you.”

His vocalizer spat another blat of static. He’d smelled smoke earlier, and suspected he’d burnt out the components. Another tremble wracked his frame.

Megatron latched onto his anterior node between his denta and gradually applied pressure. Optimus threw his helm back, trying to twist away, but Megatron’s grip was made of steel and there was nowhere to escape the agony of it. His node throbbed. His array sparked charge into the air.

Another overload stripped him raw, sent his thoughts into the red.

Optimus screamed and writhed, his engine weakly revving a tune of distress. Megatron’s pressure on his node didn’t ease. He flicked his glossa on the nub trapped between his denta, and Optimus’ hips jerked beyond his control. His spark shrank with fear and pain. He gasped, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, had no vocalizer to beg for freedom.

Optimus startled online, his optics flashing online and his spark strobing shock. There was a warmth on his helm and his right hand, and he jerked away from it.

“Whoa, whoa, Prime. Calm the frag down!”

“Frenzy, desist.”

Optimus rebooted his optics and audials. The smear of colors and shapes in front of him coalesced. He was in his office, his new office in Polyhex. He was at his desk, or slumped over it to be precise. There was mess everywhere, his desk clear of all items. He suspected he’d find them on the floor.

Soundwave knelt next to him. He had Optimus’ hand in one of his. The other was gently pressed to Optimus’ forehelm, but he removed it the moment he realized Optimus was more aware.

“That musta been some nightmare.” Frenzy’s vocals again.

“Frenzy!” Soundwave’s chastisement was sharp. Optimus heard a scoff and a subvocal mutter, but nothing further.

Soundwave’s visor shifted toward him. “Optimus caught in memory loop. Soundwave unable to waken without telepathic measures. My apologies.”

Optimus shook his helm and straightened, feeling exhausted to his core. “No, I understand. Thank you, Soundwave.” He looked down. Soundwave still held his hand.

Soundwave startled as though he’d realized it as well and let go of Optimus hand. “Apologies,” he said, again.

He missed the warmth almost immediately which was an odd feeling Optimus tucked away to carefully examine later. Or perhaps it was that he was so unused to comforting, friendly touches that he was desperate for them. Cybertronians were not meant to be so isolated.

“No need,” Optimus reassured as he pushed back from his desk, rubbing a hand down his face and over his battle mask. Sure enough, his desk accessories were on the floor. “Rather I appreciate the assistance.”

“Gratitude unnecessary.” Soundwave straightened, but he also took a step back, as though making sure not to loom. “Apologies, also, for prior processor invasion.”

Optimus frowned behind his mask, looking up at the former Decepticon. “You act as though you had a choice, Soundwave. To refuse would have earned you or your cassettes punishment. I recognize that.”

There was a difference, Optimus knew, between those who hurt him because they could, and those who hurt because they had no other option. Besides, of all the violations Optimus experienced while in Megatron’s possessions, Soundwave’s almost gentle exploration of his processor was the least of them.

“Apology still given,” Soundwave insisted.

“You’ll have ta accept it. He ain’t gonna stop until you recognize he feels bad,” Frenzy said with a cocky smirk as he crossed his arms over his chest.

Soundwave turned toward him, and though his expression was hidden, Optimus imagined there was chastisement in it. Though all Frenzy did was smile brighter, the picture of innocence.

Bah.

Optimus knew very well Frenzy wasn’t innocent. Was it not he and Eject who painted the face of Autobot Headquarters in brilliant splashes of color? While Optimus was glad to see the two getting along, the mess was unacceptable. Though neither had complained too much when Ultra Magnus punished both of them by requiring they clean up after themselves.

“Apology accepted,” Optimus replied. “But I reiterate that there is no need.” He looked down at the mess under his desk and sighed, slipping out of his chair to attend to it.

Soundwave knelt beside him, reaching for a scattered pile of datapads, two of which Optimus could see were broken.

Helping without being asked. As he’d been doing from the beginning, since requesting to defect.

Optimus frowned behind his mask and stared at Soundwave. “Is that what this is about?”

Soundwave looked up at him. “Query: clarify?”

“This.” Optimus gestured between himself and Soundwave. “Your assistance. The way you help me and serve as… as an aide. Is that your way of apologizing? Of trying to make up for what happened?”

Frenzy groaned and slapped his face. “Of all the– are all Autobots as dumb as you, Prime?”

“Frenzy, desist,” Soundwave snapped, his visor flashing.

“But–”

Desist.”

Frenzy’s visor darkened. “Fine.” He spun on a heelstrut and stomped toward the door. “I’ll go find Rumble then, since you’re being mean to me.”

How could a little mech make so much noise, Optimus wondered, as Frenzy slammed his palm on the panel – which he should not have been able to open – and stormed into the hallway.

Silence rose behind him. Optimus blinked and directed his attention back to Soundwave. After all, Soundwave had not answered the question.

Soundwave cycled a ventilation and continued to pick up the datapads, though with greater care. “Soundwave has much to answer for,” he replied, a touch of tightness to his vocals, despite the monotone. “However, actions not entirely due to guilt.”

“You can’t tell me you enjoy taking on a duty best suited to interns,” Optimus replied as he gathered the last of his items and pushed to stand. “Your talents lie beyond personal assistance.”

Soundwave rose as well, carefully stacking Optimus’ datapads on the end of the desk where he always kept them, though Soundwave left out the two that were damaged. He fiddled with them instead of looking at Optimus’ face.

“Soundwave… serves,” he said, a noticeable pause between the two words as though he searched for the right answer. “Position optimal.”

It wasn’t the first time Soundwave reassured Optimus. He doubted it would be the last. Knowing the position Soundwave had carried with Megatron, Optimus struggled to believe that Soundwave didn’t feel marginalized or set aside.

Optimus dumped his belongings on his desk, telling himself he would reorganize them later. Or sweep them into a drawer.

“You’ll let me know if you wish to do otherwise?” Optimus asked.

“Affirmative.” Soundwave stared hard at the broken datapads as though they would provide all the distraction he needed. “Soundwave would present offer.”

Optimus tilted his helm. “Offer?”

The communications mech lifted his helm and reached with his free hand, tapping his forehelm. “Memory removal within Soundwave’s capabilities,” he explained. “If Optimus trusts.”

Optimus cycled his optics, the full implications of Soundwave’s offer striking home. He leaned against his desk, bracing his hands on the edge. Soundwave could potentially remove the memories of his time spent in Megatron’s possession. Did that mean he would instantly be recovered?

Of course not.

What the processor forgot, the spark remembered. Only, he’d be left without the context. He’d be afraid without knowing why. He’d be disgusted without a reason. He’d avoid those around him and then be struck with paranoia because he couldn’t pinpoint a reason, save for the blank spaces in his memory.

Was that a better alternative?

Optimus shook his helm. “I appreciate the offer, Soundwave. But I must deal with this, not wipe it away.”

“Offer remains,” Soundwave said, and then, as if to hurry and change the subject, he held up the two damaged datapads. “Soundwave will repair and retrieve data.”

Optimus nodded and lowered himself back to his chair. “Thank you. There’s nothing classified on there. Not that I believe there is anything left to be classified.” He leaned back, bracing his weight against one chair arm. “No Special Ops divisions. No factional lines. We shouldn’t be concealing anything from Grimlock or Metalhawk.”

“Optimus still has faith,” Soundwave said as he circled around the desk and took the other chair available.

It occurred to Optimus that Soundwave still did not have an office of his own. He knew that Soundwave had quarters somewhere, but he did not know where. He never thought to ask.

How could he know so little about the mech who had become his right hand?

Optimus shook himself out of his musings as Soundwave’s comment filtered through. “Of course I do,” he said, though he could understand why it wouldn’t seem so obvious. “Otherwise I would have chosen to gather up the Autobots and leave Cybertron entirely.”

“Soundwave grateful Optimus did not.”

“You would have stayed on Cybertron?” Optimus asked, confused. If Soundwave did not wish to stay with the Decepticons and had no interest in Metalhawk’s Neutrals, what would he have done?

Soundwave rested his hand over the datapads. “Cybertron home,” he admitted. “But leaving an unfortunate necessity.”

“Mm. Fortunately Grimlock stepped in, making peace with the Decepticons less of a burden,” Optimus said with a tilt of his helm. “I do appreciate all of your assistance, Soundwave. It surprised me how much I noticed your absence.”

Soundwave’s visor flickered. “Apologies,” he said, his field flickering out, but then drawing back before Optimus could sense the emotion in it. “Soundwave interviewing potential candidates for defection to Autobots.”

Optimus leaned back in his chair, resting his hands on the arms. “How many?”

“Three, two denied. Petitioners sought to circumvent Grimlock’s authority.” Soundwave’s visor darkened in determination. “Soundwave refused to allow. Two unwelcome.”

Optimus considered those he knew still in the Decepticon’s brig without parole. Necessity had allowed the Constructicons a small measure of freedom, but there were others gathering dust in the jails. Motormaster and Barricade, for example. Dirge was another.

This sort of underhanded move sounded like something Barricade would do. He supposed he owed Soundwave for taking care of that issue before Optimus was required to address it.

“And the third?”

“Potential exists. Will forward request. Identity: Breakdown.”

Optimus tilted his helm. Not the designation he would have expected. He didn’t think combiner teams could or would separate. Certainly the Protectobots and Aerialbots had never indicated a desire to do so. Though First Aid no longer had a choice. Gestalt members could survive without their teammates, though it was an uncomfortable and painful existence.

Then again, such was the same for Breakdown. Of his brothers, only two still lived.

“I’ll take a look at it,” Optimus said, making a mental note to contact Mirage. He’d been in Stunticon custody and if he was willing to discuss it, Optimus would get his opinion on Breakdown’s potential rehabilitation. He would not force Mirage to suffer seeing Breakdown if it was at all possible it would harm Mirage.

All apologies to Breakdown, but Optimus’ own Autobots came first. He was no longer going to consider the greater good. At least, not immediately. He had learned his lesson. If Breakdown truly wanted to leave his team and the Decepticons, he had the option to go the route of the Neutrals, though Optimus doubted Metalhawk would be any more welcoming.

Then again, Metalhawk did have Chromedome, Trepan’s former associate. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think Metalhawk might use him.

Times like these, Optimus wished he had some insight into Metalhawk. He didn’t trust Metalhawk’s motivations.

“Thank you,” Optimus said, “For taking on that task for me.”

Soundwave inclined his helm. “You’re welcome.”

Optimus smiled behind his mask.

~

Chromedome slumped as he disengaged from Red Alert and sat back in his chair. The tenth session had gone well, but it left him drained.

He was getting a little tired of cleaning up after Trepan’s messes. He didn’t know whether to thank the Autobots for putting an end to Trepan’s madness, or curse them out for not keeping him alive to fix his own mistakes.

Chromedome was of mixed feelings about the situation. Metalhawk hadn’t given him much choice in the matter. While Chromedome was willing to help another victim of Trepan’s, he was loath to do so with skills he had sworn to abandon. He also didn’t like that his aid was being used as a means to spy on the Autobots.

For all that the Autobots and Decepticons had set aside their differences to end the war, Metalhawk was the one who seemed determined to cling to it. He didn’t see it that way, of course. But there was a bitterness inside Metalhawk. One that no amount of goodwill could dissipate.

“Here.”

Chromedome startled, hand whipping upright and to his chagrin, nearly impaling the poor minimech who was trying to hand him a cube of energon. In his exhaustion, he’d neglected to retract his needles. Primus. Trepan would have ripped him out for his negligence.

He retracted them with a quiet snickt, expecting the other mech to flinch, except that he didn’t even flare his visor at the sight of them.

The black and white mech – who on closer inspection was probably small enough to be a cassette – stared back at him. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No. It’s okay. I was just thinking.” Chromedome winced. It was a bit of a lame reply. He directed his attention to the energon instead. “You brought that for me?”

“You look like you could use it. You’ve been sitting still for six hours.”

“That long?” Chromedome rubbed the back of his neck as he accepted the cube. “I didn’t even notice.” He should have checked his chronometer.

Chromedome pulled out his autoinjector and plunked it down in the cube. He peered at the mech who, in turn, peered back at him.

“You’re not the mech who was here earlier,” he said with a tilt of his helm.

Unsurprisingly, the Autobots made certain he had a guard every time he plugged into Red Alert, not that they could do anything to stop him once he engaged. Nor would they be able to recognize a problem if there was one.

“No. That was one of my brothers.” The cassette clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heelstruts. “I’m Rewind. And you’re Chromedome, the Neutral who is going to fix Red Alert.”

“I’m going to try,” Chromedome corrected. He glanced at his patient. “I never could match up to my mentor, but I will do the best I can.”

Rewind tilted his helm, and that was when Chromedome noticed the light shining from the side of it. He cycled his optics behind his visor.

“Are you recording me?” he asked.

Rewind chuckled and tapped the side of his helm. “I’m always recording. It’s kind of what I do. I’m a data archivist.”

“But you’re a cassette.”

“I’m not just a cassette though. My dock’s Blaster.” Rewind rocked up and down on his heels again. “If it bothers you, I’ll stop.”

Chromedome leaned back in his chair. “But it’s your function.”

“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I’m interested in the Neutrals and Blaster says I can’t go over there, and Metalhawk probably wouldn’t allow it so all that’s left is you.” He paused and something like distaste entered his field. “Or Ambulon but, he’s cranky all the time. You looked like you’re more interested in talking.”

Chromedome laughed a little himself. “What on Cybertron gave you that impression?”

“Instinct.” Rewind turned and grabbed the only other chair in the room, dragging it closer. He plopped himself down and folded his hands in his lap. “So,” he continued. “Will you talk to me? If you’re too tired, you don’t have to, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask. Blaster says I should always ask.”

“Asking is important,” Chromedome agreed. He dragged a hand down his faceplate, feeling the fatigue as it crawled into every strut and cable. “But maybe another day? My datastream’s sluggish, and I can barely process.”

Rewind smacked his own forehelm. “Duh. What am I thinking? Of course you’re exhausted. You’ve been in Red Alert’s head. Even on a good day, that’s a minefield.” He slid down from the chair and held out his hand. “Come on. I’ll take you somewhere you can rest.”

Chromedome stared at him and the offered hand. Most mechs didn’t blindly offer such to mneumosurgeons. They thought he could access their thoughts with a flick of the wrist, no matter how many times Chromedome explained that he didn’t use wrist dataports.

“I expected to go back to Nova Cronum.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re helping Red Alert. You don’t have to go all the way back there to rest.” Rewind wriggled his fingers and then paused, tilting his helm. “Unless you want to, I mean. I’d understand if you weren’t comfortable here.”

Metalhawk would tell him to go for it, to take every chance he could to learn more about the Autobots and their potential weaknesses. Chromedome was supposed to find something to exploit. He simply didn’t want to. But he also didn’t want to go back to Nova Cronum. The terrain was rough, he was exhausted, and he was more likely to crash than he was to make it back safely.

Plus, Metalhawk’s suspicions made it an unpleasant place to be.

Did it count as defecting if he left the Neutrals to be an Autobot?

“Thank you for the offer,” Chromedome said as he rose to his pedes, towering over the cassette by twice Rewind’s height. He took the small hand, still marveling over the fact it had been offered to him. “It would be nice to recharge here.”

Rewind’s visor lit with happiness. “And when you wake up, maybe we can talk?” His camera light glowed up at Chromedome, still recording.

“Sure,” Chromedome said. “I don’t see why not. There’s a lot we don’t know about each other.”

Metalhawk, I don’t want to do this.

Rewind beamed at him and started to tug him from the room, not that Chromedome was at all resistant. Another few sessions, maybe Red Alert would online, and they’d all trust him. Then he could spill the truth about Metalhawk and maybe, they’d let him stay here.

His fingers flexed in Rewind’s grip.

Maybe.

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