[Crown the Empire] Salvage 07

It pained him to stand here, an ache that was as internal as it was external. To stand in front of his Autobots, next to plaque with a list of all those they had lost to the Decepticons, and know that he was partly to blame.

If he had not been so eager to bend to the whims of the humans, perhaps this would not have happened. If he had been a little more demanding, if he’d let Jazz go on that mission, perhaps this could have been avoided.

If he’d been a little more willing to do what was necessary, perhaps these mechs would still be alive today.

He could look out now, at something that could only generously be called a crowd, and count the Autobots he had remaining. Even Cliffjumper was present, firmly emplaced between Smokescreen and Mirage.

Grimlock had come, but for the most part, the Decepticons kept their distance. It was, Optimus believed, better that way.

Starscream had sent his condolences, but refused to attend. Again, given that many blamed Starscream as equally as they blamed Megatron, it was a wise choice.

But to many, Grimlock was the hero, despite the Decepticon badge he now wore.

Grimlock was the hero, and Optimus was only a Prime without a Matrix, who had become the enemy’s fragtoy, who could only watch helplessly as Megatron murdered, tortured, and mutilated his soldiers.

Optimus was not a hero. He barely counted as a leader. But they somehow still looked up at him, looked at him to lead them.

He did not deserve their loyalty.

Optimus’ intake worked. He gripped the edge of the podium. He needed to speak. He needed to get himself together.

“My fellow Autobots,” Optimus began, feeling his spark shrink tighter and tighter, his field matching it. “Welcome guests… I stand before you now without a speech. Truly, there are no words I can offer except my deepest apologies and my heaviest condolences.”

He paused and cycled a ventilation, forced himself to look into the faces of those who had survived. “We have lost more than fellow soldiers,” Optimus continued, gripping the edge of the podium. “We lost friends, family, loved ones. We lost brothers-in-arms. We lost pieces of ourselves.”

He tried, in that moment, not to think of himself and let his own grief overwhelm him. He tried not to think of Ironhide’s craggy voice, and Prowl’s determined clip, or the look of anger in Grimlock’s visor when he told Optimus about Sludge. He desperately tried not to recall Tracks’ look of surrender, the smoking remains of Omega Supreme, or the way Inferno had stood defiant even with Megatron’s fusion cannon pointed at his helm.

Optimus worked his intake over an unavoidable lump. He knew his voice wavered, but it wasn’t in him to fight for control.

“I am certain I am not the only one who thinks of the Allspark in times like these. Or the Well. It brings me little comfort to know we will see them again, not when there are empty places beside us, in our recreational centers, in our staff.”

“We stand here today to remember, to remind ourselves of who we have lost, to promise to never make the same mistakes again.” Optimus lowered his gaze. “I make that vow to you. I will not fail you as I have our fallen. I have much to answer for, and this is not the least of it. But know that I grieve as strongly. Know that I will do whatever it takes to ensure that their losses are not in vain.”

His spark ached. Optimus tried not to think of it, to the echoes of those who were gone, who he’d never speak with again.

“We will make Cybertron whole again, for their sake if not ours. We will be as one people united. We will be strong. And we will not forget. Thank you.”

He stepped back and aside. Optimus had promised himself he would not let his voice be the only one heard. He wanted as many who wished to speak do so. Very few took him up on the offer. Their grief was too fresh. He did not blame them.

This monument, this obelisk standing in the courtyard of Autobot headquarters, was a paltry offering. It was not surrounded by beauty, but construction. The view around it was bleak, lifeless. It didn’t offer celebration.

Optimus could not look at the designations branded into the steel surface without hurting. He knew it would only be a harsh reminder to everyone else.

But he also felt such a reminder was necessary. To remember the mistakes he had made and how much he owed his Autobots. He needed to be reminded to put them first.

Optimus joined the crowd, mixing with his fellow Autobots, united as they were in their shared grief. No one here had escaped the war unscathed. Everyone had lost someone, and Optimus felt the weight of that loss keenly.

One by one, they went to the podium. Some had only a few words to say, a name or a promise. Others had more, echoing Optimus’ statements and building upon them. Some chose not to speak at all, their silence all the proof of their grief.

He made it a point to speak to everyone, to let them know they weren’t alone, to promise that he would do whatever it took to make sure war would not happen again. Ultra Magnus’ Wreckers hung back, more or less providing a protective circle for the Autobots grieving in the middle.

Optimus was grateful for that.

Optimus scanned the crowd again and frowned behind his mask when he did not see a familiar face. Of all mechs he expected to not be in attendance, Ratchet was not one of them. Anytime the Autobots had taken a moment to honor the dead, Ratchet had been there. Perhaps silent and in the background, but he’d been present.

Optimus looked again and had to concede that Ratchet was not, in fact, attending. Wheeljack was, however, so Optimus made his way to the engineer’s side, where he was in quiet conversation with First Aid and Perceptor. Both of them looked well.

Perceptor had always been a quiet mech, but there was a greater sense of silence around him now. But of those taken by the Decepticons, the only one in greater repair than Perceptor, was Bluestreak. He was also in reasonably good spirits, his sorrow more related to the fate of his friends rather than his own experiences.

First Aid, at least, had improved. His field was no longer a sickly mix of anger and fear and longing. There was fatigue, yes, and a heavy pall of grief. But he held together, and if he gripped Wheeljack’s hand tightly, Optimus was polite enough to pretend not to notice.

“You look like a mech on a mission,” Wheeljack commented as Optimus arrived, though given the light pulse of his indicators, it was meant in jest. “Need an answer, Prime?”

“I do have a question, yes,” Optimus replied, careful to keep his tone warm. “Perceptor, First Aid, you both look well.”

“Thank you, Prime. I find it comforting to be back in a lab, doing that which I know best,” Perceptor replied with a thin smile. “Though if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go offer my condolences now.” He dipped his helm and excused himself.

First Aid cycled a ventilation. “Every day is new,” he said, his vocals clear and strong, though his field wavered. “I’m told it gets easier. I suppose I’ll just have to keep going to find out.”

Wise words. Optimus would do well to heed them himself.

“A brave endeavor. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help,” Optimus replied.

First Aid nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Optimus shifted his attention to Wheeljack. “I noticed that Ratchet is not present. Is everything all right?”

Wheeljack rubbed his free hand over his helm. “He didn’t want to leave the permanent residents, you know, the twins and Red. He said someone needed to look after them, and he wasn’t gonna make First Aid miss this either.”

“I told him we could swap off, but he just waved me away,” First Aid said with a little sigh. “He insisted that he’d rather keep an optic on the others himself.”

Insisted, Optimus guessed, rather forcefully. Something in Wheeljack’s field shifted toward an exasperated sort of agitation, mixed with resignation. Surely, he’d learned when to pick his battles.

“I see.” Optimus shifted his weight, his frown deepening, though thankfully neither could see it.

He had not had the chance to speak with Ratchet privately since they were freed from Decepticon custody. It had all been such a flurry of activity, that it was one necessity Optimus had pushed to the backburner. Physical demands had taken precedence, as had solidifying political ties and treaties.

“I admire his dedication,” Optimus continued, trying to offer reassurance in his field and knowing that it fell flat of his former strength. “I only wish he could have been here.”

“Maybe you can convince him otherwise,” Wheeljack suggested and ex-vented audibly. “Primus knows he’s not listening to me.”

“If you do, comm me. I’ll take over monitoring them,” First Aid added with a hopeful gleam to his visor.

Optimus nodded. “Of course. In fact, I’ll go speak with him now.” There was nothing more he needed to do here.

Everyone lingered for reasons of community, not because there was more ceremony.

Wheeljack ex-vented relief. “Thank you, Prime.”

“You are welcome.” Optimus paused, awkward, but then dipped his helm and excused himself.

Once upon a time, he would have rested a hand on Wheeljack’s shoulder, perhaps offered the closeness and heat of his own frame. He almost did so now, on instinct alone, but put himself in check a mere nanosec after the impulse struck him.

He did not want to think that Megatron had broken him, tainted him inside and out, but it was the little things that reminded him of how much he had changed. Optimus sighed and eased his way out of the crowd of Autobots.

The only one who noticed his departure was Jazz, but all he did was tilt his helm and make a little shooing motion before he turned back to his conversation with Bumblebee.

Optimus made his way to the medbay with ease. The hallways were deserted as all of the Autobots were at the honoring, save apparently for Ratchet and those incapable of attending. The group currently stationed on Earth would be spelled by a team from Cybertron so that they could view the monolith as well.

Optimus entered the medbay and heard a low dong as he stepped through the sliding doors. He cycled his optics in surprise. That was new.

The door to Ratchet’s office opened and he appeared in the entryway. “Optimus? Shouldn’t you be at the honoring?”

“I’ve finished my speech,” Optimus answered as he crossed the floor in a few swift strides. “All that’s left is socializing. I couldn’t help but notice my CMO’s absence.”

Ratchet snorted and turned back into his office with a tacit invitation for Optimus to follow. “Sideswipe and Sunstreaker are stable, but I don’t trust it. They could crash at any time.”

“And Red Alert?”

“Still in stasis. Chromedome claim he’s stripped all of Trepan’s programming out, now we just need something to replace it.”

The door closed behind Optimus. He watched Ratchet ease his way back behind a desk that was already overflowing with datapads and various accouterments. His office was also crowded with boxes of what looked to be scavenged parts.

“Any luck on locating a memory copy?”

Ratchet lowered himself down to his chair with a heaviness that was greater than his actual mass. Optimus knew that heaviness. It was more emotion than physical weight. It was the weight of a millennia spent at war.

“No. If Smokescreen is right, then the only one who had a copy of Red Alert’s core was Prowl.” He waved Optimus to an empty chair in front of the desk, one that didn’t look stable enough for Optimus’ frame. He risked it anyway, wincing as it creaked, and sighing when it held his weight.

“Though it’s not like Red to only have one contingency plan,” Ratchet continued with a tired cant to his voice. “I don’t know. Maybe there’s something we missed in the Ark. Maybe I can convince Starscream to let me rifle through Trepan’s quarters. Maybe he kept trophies.”

Trophies. Optimus’ tank churned at the very idea.

Optimus rubbed a hand down his faceplate. “Maybe it’s kinder to let him start over.”

Ratchet cycled his optics. “You mean a total reset? Wipe his memory core completely?”

“And let him decide for himself what he wants to be?” Optimus proposed with a nod of his helm. “That is exactly what I am suggesting, Ratchet. Primus knows there are things I’d prefer to forget. There are things maybe we are all better not remembering.”

Soundwave had made the offer, and Optimus refused him, because he’d known removing those few memories wouldn’t have been enough. They were in his spark now, in his core. Even if he’d had a core wipe, erasing all his experiences, everything that made him both Orion Pax and Optimus Prime, his spark would have remembered. He still would have been an echo of the mech he had been.

In a sense, that would hold true for Red Alert. He’d still have an echo of memory. He’d recognize his friends without knowing why. He’d be anxious without the context. But he could grow. He could repair. He could live in a world where the war wasn’t a threat.

Sometimes, Optimus wondered if that might not be better.

“That is an extreme option, Optimus, but it may be our only one,” Ratchet said at length. He sighed and leaned back in his chair, pressing his palm to his chevron. “I’ll keep trying, but I’ll keep that in mind, too.”

“We do what must be done,” Optimus agreed. He reached out with his field, gently testing Ratchet’s own, and worried when he found it completely withdrawn.

Ratchet cycled a ventilation, though it was shaky. “Primus, what a mess. There are times, too, I wonder if maybe that’s not the easier road, too.” He lowered his hand, the light of his optics bleak and dim as his gaze fell to the desk. “All the wrong choices I’ve made. My mistakes. I could wipe them away.”

Optimus leaned forward, closer to one of his oldest friends. “If anyone is to blame, Ratchet, it is me. For not ending the war sooner.” He reached out with his field again and was relieved to find that Ratchet opened to him, just a little. “You have nothing to apologize for. I want you to know that.”

Ratchet shook his helm, sinking in his chair, burying his face behind one hand. “It was easier, Prime, to think that when it was war. When I recognized the reality of needing to repair soldiers. When I couldn’t bear to see my friends hurt, despite knowing they would only be sent to battle again.”

He paused, cycled a heavy ventilation, a wealth of grief and self-loathing in his field. “It was not so easy afterward. I couldn’t save Beachcomber. I repaired Hound only to watch as he was sent back into the hands of more monsters. I repaired you so many times I lost count. I stood there, helpless as Megatron– as he–” He stuttered, trailed off, vocalizer glitching.

“Ratchet–”

His oldest friend shook his helm almost violently and dropped his hand, staring back at Optimus, bleak and tormented. “I was the one who removed your t-cog. I installed the system that Megatron used against you. I welded on the cuffs and the collar. I might as well have raped you myself!” His vocals edged toward a hiss, his plating clamped down, as though keeping in violence in check. “Except I did, didn’t I? Knowing all that monster had done to you, I took your valve anyway. So don’t you dare sit there and tell me I’m not to blame for anything, Optimus. Don’t you dare.”

Optimus’ spark squeezed.

It had never once occurred to him to blame Ratchet for anything. Not once. Not a single time had he woken to Ratchet beside him and thought, “How dare Ratchet repair me? How dare he do whatever it took to live? How dare?”

Optimus worked his intake as Ratchet’s helm bowed, his gaze falling to the floor. He was shaking, Optimus noticed. His field, whatever block had been on it before, had fallen. It filled the room, so thick with self-reproach that it was nauseating.

Optimus had left him like this for weeks. No wonder Wheeljack had looked lost.

No.

Megatron would not win. Optimus refused to let even the ghost of Megatron count anything as a victory.

Optimus rose to his pedes, spark aching further when he saw that Ratchet flinched. He cursed Megatron internally with every force of his being. He circled around the desk, but Ratchet would not look at him, had turned his helm away, his misery like a cloak about his frame.

A frame, Optimus noticed, that was in dire need of maintenance.

He reached for Ratchet’s hand, taking carefully the scuffed red fingers that, yes, had once touched him upon Megatron’s orders and had been forced into causing harm. But, also, Optimus remembered much more than that, how often these hands had been gentle and kind and comforting. Those times far outstripped whatever Megatron had made Ratchet do.

“Optimus, please don’t,” Ratchet murmured.

“Don’t what?” Optimus asked, careful to keep his tone gentle as he let his field slide against Ratchet’s own. “Forgive you for something that doesn’t need forgiveness?” He gently squeezed Ratchet’s hand and lowered himself to one knee beside Ratchet’s chair. “Ratchet, my friend, what makes you think I would ever blame you for doing what you had to do?”

A shudder wracked Ratchet’s frame. He buried his face in his free hand, his vents hiccuping.

“I don’t deserve your forgiveness.”

“The only thing you don’t deserve is the guilt you are carrying,” Optimus retorted, though he kept it gentle. He pushed more affection into his field, doing fierce battle against the loathing that had gripped Ratchet’s spark. “I have lost so much already, Ratchet. No matter what I endured, I am grateful that I can still have you in my life.”

Ratchet shook his helm, his hand curling around the one Optimus had rested over his, threading their fingers together. “I should have let Megatron kill me.”

“No, you should not have,” Optimus said firmly. “Wheeljack lived. So did First Aid. For that alone, you had reason to endure. We do what we must. At the point Megatron won the war, survival was all we had. And you had reasons to survive.”

Ratchet dragged in a shaky ventilation. His helm turned back toward Optimus, though his gaze remained lowered. “I am sorry, Optimus,” he said with a squeeze to Optimus’ hand. “More than you will ever know.”

Optimus reached up, gently cupping Ratchet’s helm. “And I reiterate that you have no reason to do so. But I accept your apology nevertheless. You are forgiven, Ratchet.”

The last of the shields around Ratchet’s composure crumpled, his field wide open and embracing the comfort Optimus offered in his own. It was only natural to rise and take Ratchet into his arms, embracing one of his oldest friends as he had done so often, long, long ago.

This, too, he would not let Megatron take from him. He had made the conscious choice. He had offered. Ratchet was tentative, careful, but still open to it. He returned Optimus’ embrace with a low ex-vent, the tension in his frame softening out.

Something within Optimus eased as well. One of the many tensions he carried.

“Thank you,” Ratchet murmured, barely audible.

Optimus made a low noise of assent in his vocalizer. His free hand stroked the back of Ratchet’s helm.

He did not know how long they stood there. It did not matter in the end. He would stand hours more if it meant he could mend the rift Megatron had crafted.

He heard Ratchet’s door slide open and was unsurprised to find Wheeljack all but tiptoeing inside, something of relief etched in the gleam of his optics.

Ratchet’s shaking had calmed and he drew back from Optimus, his vents occasionally clicking. “Jack?”

“Is this a two-mech love fest or can I join in?” Wheeljack asked, just enough humor to suit the occasion as Ratchet chuckled, though it was soft and raspy.

“Get over here, you idiot,” Ratchet said. “I know you’re the one who sent him here.”

“Good that he did,” Optimus said as Wheeljack crossed the room and circled behind the desk, wedging himself into what little space there was remaining to notch in at Ratchet’s other side. “This conversation was a long time coming.”

Ratchet grumbled, “Yeah, well, some of us are slower to realize things than others.”

Wheeljack pressed their forehelms together. “It’s okay, Ratch. I still love ya.”

“And I do as well.” Optimus squeezed Ratchet’s hand before letting him go, leaving room for Wheeljack to take his place.

The two conjunx embraced each other, their enduring love something that had always been a balm to Optimus’ aching spark, even before they lost the war. He didn’t think he could have that connection for himself, but it was comforting to know that others could.

Optimus excused himself, politely turning down their offers for him to remain.

Jazz waited for him outside the medbay, casually leaning against the wall with his arms folded. He pushed himself off when he noticed Optimus, giving a short whistle.

“You look like you’ve just gone through a battle.”

Optimus nodded, rubbing a hand over his faceplate. “I’ve spoken with Ratchet. We had some unresolved issues to address.”

“Good, good. About time. Maybe now Doc will finally start to heal,” Jazz said as he nodded. He fell into step beside Optimus. “Where ya heading?”

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “I am honestly not sure.” He did not want to return to the Honoring. He was far too shaken. While speaking with Ratchet had been cathartic, it had reminded him of things he didn’t want to remember. “Perhaps my office. There is work to be done.”

“Pah. You and your work. Want some company?”

Optimus offered Jazz a gentle smile. “I would not say no if you feel you must look after me.” He actually wasn’t surprised. Whenever Soundwave wasn’t around, Jazz seemed to attach himself to Optimus’ side.

He started down the hall, and Jazz fell into step beside him.

“It’s not lookin’ after. Maybe I just miss hangin’ with my Prime.” Jazz’s grin widened as he reached out with his field, tangling affection and good humor. “A certain quiet comms officer seems to have usurped my position.”

Optimus lifted his orbital ridge. “I don’t know what you mean. As I recall, you never made yourself into a glorified secretary.”

“That you know of,” Jazz chirped. Half his visor flashed in a wink. He lifted his hands and wiggled his fingers. “I am a sneaky-sneak after all.”

Optimus chuckled, some of the weight on his spark lifting. “That you are.” They arrived at his office, and he keyed in his code, gesturing Jazz in ahead of him. “And while we’re on the subject–”

Jazz waggled a finger at him, cutting him off. “Nope. Ain’t nothin’ goin on yet that I’m free to tell ya. Though I got some strings out, so to speak.”

“Please reassure me that you are not antagonizing Starscream,” Optimus said as he sat down behind his desk, noticing warmly that his inbox was much emptier than it had been when he left. Soundwave must have come by.

“Not this time.” Jazz flopped down into the other chair and propped his pedes up on the edge of the desk, crossing his ankles. “Got bigger fish to fry.”

Optimus tilted his helm. “You mean Metalhawk.”

Jazz’s grin never wavered. “Someone’s got to keep an optic on the slippery fragger. You know he asked for a secret meeting with Grimlock?”

Optimus frowned. “I did not. When was this?”

“Recently.” Jazz waved a dismissing hand. “They haven’t met yet, but we don’t have anythin’ to worry about. Grimlock don’t like ‘im anymore than we do. But it’s still something to note.”

Optimus leaned back in his chair and drummed his fingers on the desk. “To what end?”

“If ya ask me, Metalhawk ain’t stupid. He knows the easiest way to get us all out of his way is if we go back to killin’ each other.” Jazz lifted a hand and pinched his forefinger and thumb together. “It only takes an ounce of suspicion before we start looking for reasons to fire again.”

“Then it’s a good thing we are not so easily manipulated,” Optimus replied. He grabbed the first datapad from the stack and flicked it on. “I trust you to manage the situation, Jazz. And I trust you’ll involve me when it becomes relevant.”

There was a stomp as Jazz dropped his pedes and leaned forward, folding his arms on the edge of the desk. “It warms the spark that ya trust me so much, OP. Glad to know I haven’t fragged everythin’ up.”

What a curious thing to say.

Optimus tilted his helm and lifted his gaze. “What do you mean?”

Jazz shrugged; it was anything but nonchalant. “Ratchet has his guilt, and I got mine. I shoulda seen this comin’. I shouldn’t ‘ve let you listen to the humans. I shoulda done a lot of things sooner.”

“That is the benefit of hindsight, Jazz,” Optimus said gently. He pushed the datapad to the side. “Everyone is so eager to blame themselves for things they could not have prevented. By that argument, I am the guiltiest one of all. I made many mistakes, many wrong choices. And I feel the weight of those deaths every day.”

He paused and cycled a ventilation. “That you all continue to look toward me for guidance is humbling. I do not deserve that honor, and yet here I am, still daring to call myself Prime.”

“You are Prime because you are the only mech I’ve ever willingly followed, Optimus,” Jazz said, nothing disingenuous in his tone. “That’s not gonna change. I still believe in yer spark and that’s what matters.”

Optimus gave him a fond look. “Your faith in me is enduring, Jazz. I must admit that I cling to it in my darker hours.”

Jazz offered him a soft smile. “Yer worthy of it, Optimus. That’s all I care about.” He cycled a ventilation. “And I know, logically, that the only one to blame for all this mess is Megatron.” He paused and chuckled darkly. “Yeah, okay, and a bit Screamer, too. But he’s making up for it. Anyway, my helm knows logic but my spark…”

He rested his chin on his arms and looked up at Optimus, “My spark still remembers seeing you on my display in the hands of those monsters. My spark can’t forget Hound or Ratchet or all the other shows Megatron put on. Those are the things that haunt me.”

“And yet, if not for you, we would have all remained in Megatron’s thrall, until the end of our sparks.” Optimus reached across the desk, touching Jazz on the arm. “Something for which I am exceedingly grateful.”

Jazz’s visor brightened. “No way was I gonna let Buckethead win, even if it killed me, OP. Now look at us. We got Cybertron. We got somethin’ like peace. We gotta chance to try again. Make things right this time.”

“That we do.” Optimus smiled warmly and returned his attention to his datapad. “Granted we have a lot of work ahead of us, but it is one challenge I am too happy to accept.”

Jazz grinned. “Me, too, Boss.”

Optimus’ door chimed. He cycled his optics and looked up. That was unexpected. Weren’t most of the Autobots still at the Honoring? Before Optimus could send the codes for the door to open, however, it slid aside, allowing entrance to Soundwave. The former Decepticon was as surprised as Optimus and Jazz, coming to a halt just inside the office.

“Apologies,” he said, the light behind his visor traveling from Optimus to Jazz. “No one expected.”

“No apologies needed, Soundwave. This was an unplanned stop.” Optimus smiled at the mech who had become a staple in his life as of late. “Did you need something?”

Soundwave looked at Jazz again but then gestured with a handful of datapads. “Reports processed and ready for approval. Datapads also repaired.” He approached the desk, giving Jazz an oddly wide berth, handing the datapads over.

“You didn’t have to do that, but I appreciate it,” Optimus said as he accepted them. He chanced a glance at Jazz who was giving them an inscrutable look. “Why don’t you grab a chair? Join us?”

Soundwave shook his helm and retreated a few steps. “Apologies. Much work to be completed.” The light behind his visor shifted to Jazz again before he backed toward the door, though it didn’t look so much like a retreat. “Next time, maybe,” he added, and then he was gone and out the door.

It slid shut behind him.

Optimus cycled his optics. Well, that was strange.

Someone was laughing. Optimus turned his gaze upon Jazz, who had buried his face in his crossed arms and was laughing himself silly.

“What on Cybertron is so funny?”

Jazz snickered into his arms. “I’ll tell ya when yer older, Optimus.”

He tossed his third an unamused look. “You and your inside jokes.”

“Nothing so serious.” Jazz leapt to his pedes and stretched his arms over his helm, pulling off a full-frame stretch. “Well, I think that’s my cue to leave, too. Gotta check on the crew, make sure no one’s getting drunk and maudlin and thinkin’ about causing trouble.”

“Thank you for looking after them.” Optimus looked down at the stack of datapads Soundwave had brought him, most of which only needed a signature of approval. “Though to be fair, Ultra Magnus is there, too.”

“Pfft. Magnus.” Jazz twisted his torso, stretching out his abdominal cables as well. “He’s a good mech, Optimus, but he doesn’t have an ounce of personality.”

Optimus chuckled and looked back up at his third. “Give him a chance. You may find that there is more to him than meets the eye.”

Jazz snorted. “Good one, boss.” He spun on a heel and waved a hand over his shoulder. “Imma check on ya later, make sure yer not sleeping at your desk.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“Well, just ta be sure.” Jazz palmed the panel and opened the door, only to pause in the frame, keeping it from closing. “Or maybe I’ll send Sounders to check instead.” He winked and stepped out the door before Optimus could provide a response.

He narrowed his optics and glared in his third’s general direction. Sometimes, Jazz could be as inscrutable as Soundwave. Harrumph.

Shaking his helm, Optimus directed his attention back to his work. Might as well get something done today. There was always more work waiting in the wings.

~

His chronometer chimed him several hours later, reminding him both that he hadn’t refueled lately, and that it was getting late. Any longer, and Jazz would follow through on his threat to drag Optimus out of his office.

He rose to his pedes and stretched, feeling an ache seep into his cables and struts. He knew it was a compounded ache, built from lack of proper recharge and overworking himself. If Ratchet had his way, Optimus would soon find himself on medical leave.

The difference is that when I wake up screaming, I have Wheeljack to reach for.

Optimus sighed and scrubbed a hand down his face. He was not about to seek out a lover for the sole purpose of comfort. That felt disingenuous at the least. Besides, physical contact was still touch and go at this point.

What he needed was time. Until then, a distraction would do.

Optimus arranged the datapads on his desk in order of importance, tossed the completed ones into his outgoing box – which Soundwave would pick up in the morning and distribute as needed. He grabbed the only one he’d need for tomorrow’s meeting and turned to go, but as he did, he glanced out the window by habit.

Optimus blinked and paused, getting closer. He peered down into the courtyard, his window offering him a view of the remembrance obelisk, something which had been done a-purpose. Optimus wanted to be able to look out and remind himself what he was fighting for and why he couldn’t be as merciful as he’d been before.

He needed to remember to take care of those who mattered first.

It took a moment to recognize who it was. Starscream, of all mechs, was down in the courtyard, staring up at the obelisk. Until he crouched to lay something at the base, something Optimus couldn’t identify from this distance.

A fellow mourner was acceptable. Optimus was just glad to see it wasn’t a vandal.

He tagged the button to close the window shutters and headed downstairs. He’d have to pass through the courtyard to get to his habsuite. Perhaps Starscream would still be there, if not, Optimus would move along.

He had a suspicion as to why Starscream was there in the first place.

Optimus took the lift two floors down, passing by other empty offices and rooms, some yet to be occupied, and others who belonged to members of staff who took Ratchet’s orders to rest seriously. The Autobots were still small in number. Optimus despaired that they might ever meet living Autobots again.

He emerged from their ‘command center’ and descended the front steps. Starscream was still present, and his wings twitched as Optimus approached. He turned to acknowledge Optimus’ arrival.

“Working late, I see,” he commented, his tone free of emotion, but his field wreathed in it. Grief hung heavy around him.

“Always,” Optimus replied as he came to a halt beside Starscream and looked up at the large, dark obelisk. “That is the perils of leadership.”

“Mm. You don’t have to tell me.” Starscream shifted until he faced the memorial once again, everything in his frame language speaking of taut discomfort. “Am I not welcome here?”

Optimus shook his helm. “All those who wish to honor the fallen are welcome.” He paused and amended, “but I do appreciate that you waited until after the ceremony itself.”

“I do know something of tact,” Starscream remarked in a dry tone. His wings twitched again and he sighed. “Even if I had just as much reason to grieve.”

Optimus made a noncommittal noise. He assumed that Starscream was talking about Skyfire. He couldn’t imagine any other Autobot that Starscream would grieve for.

“Sometimes,” Starscream continued, his melancholic vocals a surprise because Optimus found it hard to believe Starscream was willing to be that honest with him. “Sometimes, I wonder if it might have been better if we never found him in the ice.”

“What do you mean?”

Starscream’s gaze fell. “When I think about the world he woke to, I cringe. It was no better than the world we left.” His field flared, flickering with grief. “He woke to war, to strangers, and we pushed him into the middle of it. And I was just as much of a stranger to him as everyone else.”

Optimus tilted his helm. “Killing him wasn’t part of your plan?” That had always confused him. It had been enough for Optimus to consider that perhaps Starscream was not of his right processor.

Starscream tossed him a sharp look. “Of course it wasn’t. You think all of this was my plan?” His engine revved with frustration, field sharp and incisive. “Megatron took what I had and pushed it to the extreme. I never would have advised slaughtering the flyers, and especially not Skyfire.” His mouth twisted into a grimace. “The slagger did that just to spite me.”

“And yet you continued to play obedience.”

“Lucky that I did!” His optics flashed. “If he’d killed me, do you think Soundwave alone could or even would have arranged a mutiny?”

Optimus inclined his helm. “You honestly think Megatron would have ever killed you?”

“I think that he’d lost enough of what little sanity he had left to try.” Starscream sneered and stalked toward him, wings rigid. “He beat Soundwave, there at the end. And if that doesn’t tell you how insane he was, I don’t know what will. If you’re looking for an apology from me, Optimus, you won’t find one.”

Optimus stared at him. He didn’t blame Starscream for his own fate. Megatron would have found a way to ruin Optimus with or without Starscream’s help. Starscream’s death would not have saved Optimus. He would have always been Megatron’s obsession.

“I do not want an apology. I recognize that you made a decision.” He cycled a ventilation, trying to contain his anger. “I recognize that the war made it so that your only option was an act of desperation. I recognize that some, if not all, of the blame rests on my shoulders. But if you are expecting gratitude, that I cannot offer.”

Starscream snorted. His wings flicked, and he stepped back, shoulders tight with pride. “A thank you from an Autobot? I won’t hold my vents. I did what I had to do, and thanks to me, we still have a Cybertron left to repair, and some semblance of a species left to rebuild with.”

It was this willpower, Optimus reasoned, that kept Starscream reasonably sane no matter how many failed coups he had attempted before, and how often Megatron had beat him into scrap. It was ironic, however, that only in working with Megatron, had Starscream succeeded in defeating him.

Optimus cycled a vent and shifted his gaze back to the obelisk, to the carefully inscribed names already present, and the vast swathes of smooth metal. Plenty of room remained for the rest, for the thousands upon thousands of Autobots who had died over the course of the war.

All of their energon rested on his shoulders alone. He couldn’t blame Starscream for any of them.

And Starscream did have a point.

How long, he wondered, would they have gone on fighting each other, neither gaining ground nor losing it. Autobots and Decepticons, chipping away at each other, until there was nothing and no one left. Oh, there would have been the Neutrals, and maybe eventually they would have returned to Cybertron.

But there would have been nothing and no one of the Autobots or Decepticons.

Would it have been Optimus and Megatron alone in those final days? Would they have fought to spark-death, to the end of each other. Would they have each landed a mortal blow with nothing to show for it? Would one have survived the other?

Optimus did not know. He suspected, however, that there was merit in his dark thoughts. Without Starscream’s push, there was no other way for the war to end. Megatron would never have bowed; Optimus would never have surrendered.

“Regardless of your methods and the unexpected outcome, you are right,” Optimus conceded at length. He looked directly at Starscream. “We are all better off now than we could have been.”

Starscream tilted his helm. “That was almost a thank you. I suppose it’s the best I’ll get.” His lip curled up, toward a smirk. “You’re welcome, Prime.”

Perhaps it was that arrogance which had caused such strife between he and Megatron.

Irritation dared make itself known, but Optimus was careful to withhold it. “And since you and Grimlock hold court over the Decepticons, then perhaps this peace will continue. For that, and that alone, I am grateful.”

Was it worth it?

Optimus did not know.

There were times, during the war, he couldn’t even say he’d made the right decision to stand against Megatron as he had done. In his captivity, in the long nights he spent chained to Megatron’s berth or Megatron’s spike, Optimus dipped toward self-chastisement even further.

His humiliation. His pain. Was it worth what they had now? This tentative peace with so few survivors.

He did not know. Only time would tell.

Optimus cycled a ventilation and turned away from Starscream. “Stay as long as you like. All are welcome to mourn here. Grief sees no faction lines.”

“Some might argue differently.”

Optimus inclined his helm. “It’s not their call to make. Good night, Starscream.”

“Good night, Prime.”

He left Starscream there and wasn’t surprised Starscream lingered. He continued to stand there, staring up at the monument, his expression as unreadable as before.

For the first time, however, Optimus felt he finally understood the querulous Seeker. Whether it was because Starscream was changing or Optimus already had, he didn’t know.

He was simply glad for it.

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