[Crown the Empire] Salvage 08

The notice was the first thing Optimus saw when he onlined the next day. It was not something pleasant to wake to, and he sat on the edge of his berth, dully reviewing the contents.

More Decepticons had come to Cybertron.

As far as Optimus could tell, it was only a single spacecraft and not a warship, but still, he could hear Metalhawk’s rant already. The last thing the Decepticons needed, in Metalhawk’s opinion, were reinforcements. Optimus, meanwhile, could only hope that they weren’t dangerous. Or Megatron loyalists.


Optimus pushed off the berth and paused when dizziness struck. He swayed on his pedes and waited for the vertigo to pass. It came more frequently as of late, and he was reluctant to pay a visit to Ratchet. Only because he knew what Ratchet would say, and those solutions weren’t doable at the moment.

The dizziness passed.

Optimus cycled a ventilation and inched toward his desk. He gathered what datapads he thought would be relevant for the day, and there were far too many of them for his comfort.

In the middle of debating between an accounting report and a list of proposed rebuilding sites, Optimus’ door chimed. Would it be Soundwave or Jazz this time, he wondered.

Well, to be fair, Jazz would probably walk right in.

Optimus sent the command to open the door and looked up to find Soundwave entering, carrying a fresh cube of what looked to be mid-grade. Optimus’ tanks clenched at the sight. He was rather surprised because for the first time, he felt a stir of interest in the energon.

“Good morning,” Optimus greeted with a tilt of his helm. “Thank you for the fuel.”

“Optimus welcome.” Soundwave set the cube on the counter by his hand. “Recharge optimal?”

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “As well as can be expected.” He tucked his datapads under one arm and scooped up the energon with the other. “You?”

Soundwave shifted his weight. “Recharge optimal,” he replied, but he sounded unsure.

He was also, Optimus noticed, without a single cassette this time. Usually Buzzsaw or Laserbeak could be found on his unarmed shoulder. More often than not, Laserbeak would abandon him for Optimus.

“Is everything all right?” Optimus asked as he triggered his blast mask to open. He took a long sip of the energon.

“Soundwave functioning within optimal parameters.”

Optimus squinted at him. “Which is not the same as everything being all right. Is something wrong? Are you being harassed?”

Soundwave shook his helm. “Appreciation for Optimus’ concern, but no issues exist.”

Yet, there was something in the way he held himself, a distance he hadn’t invoked before, that seemed to prove otherwise. Optimus frowned. Soundwave kept his field close, however, and with the mask and visor, it was impossible to read his expression. Optimus had no way of telling how he truly felt.

He lowered his tone, careful to keep his vocals soothing. “You were acting a little strange yesterday. Is Jazz doing something I should know about?”

He was aware Jazz and Soundwave held something of a rivalry over the course of the war. Optimus hadn’t observed them having any altercations, but he wasn’t so foolish as to assume they didn’t happen. Jazz was sneaky, and Soundwave as well.

“Jazz protective of Optimus,” Soundwave said with zero inflection, more a statement of fact. “Optimus and Jazz endurae?”

Optimus blinked. That was not quite the question or direction he expected.

“No.” He took another sip of his energon. “Jazz is a very dear friend and yes, he can be quite protective. I have come to value that trait of his greatly. If not for Jazz, I…” he paused, trailing off. “Well, you were present. I owe my freedom to Jazz as much as I owe it to you and Starscream.”

Soundwave shook his helm. “Actions intended to right a wrong whereas Starscream’s motivations uncertain. Gratitude toward Jazz accurate.”

“For that and other reasons,” Optimus agreed. He tilted his helm, giving Soundwave a curious look. “You never answered my question, however. Has Jazz done something?”

“Negative. Merely an observation.”

Optimus wasn’t so convinced. He made a mental note to speak with Jazz later. Because even if Jazz wasn’t involved in subtly making threats toward Soundwave – something Optimus knew him fully capable of doing – there could be other Autobots who were making life difficult for Soundwave. While it was understandable, fomenting resentment would not help anyone right now.

“Optimus has endurae?” Soundwave asked.

Optimus blinked out of his thoughts. “No,” he admitted with a shake of his helm. He finished off his energon and dispersed the cube, sliding his battlemask closed. “The role of Prime doesn’t often leave room for such indulgences. Or niceties. You?”

This was perhaps the oddest conversation he’d had first thing in the morning in quite some time. And with Soundwave of all mechs.

“Negative,” Soundwave replied. His visor flashed, there and gone again before Optimus could interpret it. “Cassettes to consider.”

“In a parental capacity?”

Soundwave cycled a ventilation. “Difficult to explain,” he admitted. “Traditions complicated. Soundwave, many friends, but never endurae.”

Much like Optimus then. There was never time during the war, and given what he knew of Soundwave’s past before the war, it did not surprise he had no one prior.

“Desired, however,” Soundwave said, his vocals softening. “Wondered, always.” His field opened, by a small degree, and a sense of longing rose in it, one that resonated with Optimus’ own.

Optimus’ comm buzzed before he could respond, and given that the request had come from Ultra Magnus he could not ignore it. After all, new Decepticons had just landed on Cybertron.

“Excuse me a moment,” Optimus said as he half-turned away, accepting the comm. “Good morning, Ultra Magnus. Aren’t you off-duty this morning?”

Yes, but I cannot ignore the situation,” his second in command replied. Unlike Optimus, he didn’t sound the least bit tired. He’d probably been awake since dawn. “I believe a staff meeting is in order, however brief.”

Optimus rubbed a hand down his faceplate. “I don’t think we have anything to worry about. The Decepticons are not plotting to use these new arrivals against us.”

I know that, but you can be certain Metalhawk does not. If he has not already contacted you out of concern, I am sure he will shortly.”

He had a point.

“Very well,” Optimus replied with a cycled ventilation. “I can be in the conference room in a few minutes.”

Jazz is already on his way. I’ll be there in moments. Magnus, out.

Sometimes, Ultra Magnus could be so much like Prowl it was painful. That necessary practicality was so very similar. Optimus rubbed his faceplate again, fighting down a rise of grief. Things had changed. He needed to come to terms with that.

“Prime’s work is never done,” Soundwave commented after a moment.

Optimus lowered his hand, offering a wan smile. “Indeed. Now you know one of the many reasons I do not have an endura.” He waved his free hand toward the door. “And now we are off to a staff meeting.”

“Ultra Magnus’ concerns justified.”

“Yes, I know. I only wish they weren’t.” Optimus sighed as they left his quarters, and Soundwave fell into step beside him. “Peace is terribly complicated.”

“But preferred.”

He looked over at Soundwave. “Yes,” Optimus agreed. “I will take the political wrangling and headaches over the stress of war without second thought.”

They stepped out of the residential building and passed the memorial obelisk. It was all the reminder Optimus needed that peace was a much better prospect, no matter how much of a headache it gave him. Besides, if they were still at war, he would have never made a friend of Soundwave and that was a disappointing prospect.

“Optimus suited for politics,” Soundwave commented.

Optimus chuckled. “Funny you should say that. When I first became Optimus, the high council bickered over my ascension because they were convinced I was as ill-suited as they come. Maybe they were right. I am built for war, Soundwave. I am not a Prime meant for peace.”

“Current circumstances would indicate otherwise. Support given from all Autobots,” Soundwave pointed out.

“And for that I am grateful.” Little did they know he made it up as he went, relying on instinct above all else. “Besides, right now, we are technically a military unit. We haven’t gone full civilian yet. When that day comes, I hope to appoint someone better suited.”

It was more than a hope, it was a longing. Optimus was proud to lead his Autobots. He was proud to be the one they turned to. But he didn’t want to do it forever. He was tired. And perhaps that was what Cybertron needed, to turn leadership over to a new generation.

If only they could figure out how to make new sparks.

“Opportunity exists now. May come sooner than hoped,” Soundwave said.

Optimus nodded. “That is my wish,” he said as they arrived at the conference room, the door already open for them. No doubt Ultra Magnus had been the first one here.

“Optimus.”

He paused just before he entered the door, realizing how close Soundwave suddenly was, though his field nudged gently against Optimus’ own.

“Request private conversation?” Soundwave asked.

Optimus blinked. “Yes, of course. When?” Perhaps Soundwave had finally decided to tell him whatever caused him distress.

“After shift? Before recharge?”

“Barring no complications, yes. I’ll be available.” Optimus offered him a warm smile. “We can share evening energon.”

Soundwave shifted his weight. “Appreciation offered.”

“None needed. But you’re welcome all the same.”

Soundwave inclined his helm and edged past Optimus, entering the conference room ahead of him. He didn’t seem any more relaxed, however, and for the first time, he did not take a seat next to Optimus. Instead, he sat on the other side of Ultra Magnus who gave him a long, confused look but said nothing.

Springer was not present today, but Kup was, and Optimus grinned at the sight of his old mentor. They clasped hands, and the weight of Kup’s scarred hand on his shoulder was surprisingly welcome.

“Ya look like slag warmed over, Optimus,” Kup said with that unfailing honesty of his.

Optimus blinked and then chuckled. “Yes, I know.” He squeezed Kup’s hand in return. “But don’t tell Ratchet or he’ll have me aberth before the hour is done.”

“Maybe that’s where ya need to be.” Kup tilted his helm, giving Optimus a knowing look. “Ya got a capable staff here. Maybe ya should think about handing over the reins fer a day or two.”

“Later, perhaps,” Optimus said as they drifted apart and found their chairs, moments before Jazz strode into the room.

“Morning!” he chirped, the only mech with a bounce in his pedes and the widest of grins on his face. He tossed himself into the chair at Optimus’ right and made himself comfortable. “So what’s the emergency?”

Ultra Magnus’ optics narrowed, and the click of a systems check echoed in the room. “It is not an emergency by definition of the term, but this is a matter that needs to be discussed.”

Jazz waved a dismissing hand. “Did it not occur to people that mechs from all three factions would eventually start returning to Cybertron? Especially since Megatron broadcasted to the entire universe that the Decepticons won the war?”

“Of course it did,” Kup replied, slumping into his chair to get comfortable in much the way Jazz had. “But we all know that the only one gonna throw a hissy fit, is Metalhawk.”

Jazz laughed. “And I used to think Starscream was annoying.”

Optimus powered on his main datapad and blinked when he found two messages waiting for him in the queue. They’d been sent across the official channel, which meant they were official communications. Curious.

He tapped the icon and brought up the details. One was from Grimlock, sent not long after Optimus retired yesterday. The other was from Metalhawk, sent first thing this morning.

Well, at least the items dictated by the treaty were being put to good use.

Optimus opened Grimlock’s message first and skimmed the contents. It read like a press release or a statement of intent.

Six Decepticons had arrived, all of whom were willing and eager for peace, one of which who debated defection to the Autobots. They were considered low risk for trouble and unless Optimus had any objections, their ship would be repaired and refurbished for the sake of supply runs and space exploration.

However, there was a second matter that Grimlock would like to discuss with him, in private, at a time of his convenience.

“We are not to worry about the Decepticons,” Optimus said, cutting into something between Jazz and Kup that seemed to consist of poorly worded jokes about former Decepticons. “Grimlock says they are nothing to worry about.”

“I’m not worried about the individual Decepticon,” Ultra Magnus said, pulling out his own datapad. “But that the Decepticons continue to have an advantage over us in numbers.”

Kup leaned forward, bracing his arms on the edge of the table. “But they aren’t the concern. The Neutrals are.”

Speaking of… Optimus tapped the icon for Metalhawk’s message and sure enough, it was a thinly veiled accusation about the threat of new Decepticons and whether or not they should be concerned that the Deceptions were rebuilding their army. It was almost laughable, considering that once the Neutrals started rolling in, it would be Metalhawk with the advantage.

Clearly Metalhawk did not understand the ties that had already been sown between the Autobots and Decepticons. Though, to be fair, Grimlock was a new addition to the command ranks. Metalhawk had never known or heard of him prior to Grimlock taking control of the Decepticons.

“None of this is a problem,” Jazz insisted. He tilted his helm, tossing Kup a cocksure grin. “Trust me. Grimlock’ll keep his Cons in line and don’t you worry yer pretty helm about Metalhawk. I got ‘im covered.”

Optimus wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that.

Neither did Ultra Magnus, whose frown deepened to the point of a scowl. “I do not recall approving any missions for Special Operations. I wasn’t aware you had a fully functioning unit.”

The light in Jazz’s visor went flat as his chair hit the floor. He sat up properly. “One, I don’t remember needing to ask for your permission. Two, I have all the team I need, and I don’t need your reminder about their functioning, and three–”

“Jazz,” Optimus interjected before the coiled violence in his third could be unleashed. “Perhaps you might be willing to share with us exactly how you mean to counteract Metalhawk.”

It was times like these that Optimus was reminded how very little Ultra Magnus and Prowl were alike. Jazz and Prowl had respected each other. Right now, Ultra Magnus and Jazz had very little reason to do so.

Ultra Magnus thought Jazz too reckless and ill-behaved. He didn’t conduct himself as a member of high command ought to do.

Jazz thought Magnus followed the rules to the point of his detriment. That he couldn’t see the larger picture and because of that, he missed what was important.

They would get along eventually. They had that luxury. And unlike Prowl and Jazz, Jazz and Ultra Magnus did not have the millennia of working together to draw from. They would have to start from scratch.

Jazz tossed him a razor-sharp smile. “Of course I would, Prime,” he chirped. “And the answer to that question is Onslaught.”

“The Combaticons?” Now Optimus was the one who was confused. “How do they fit into this?”

“Well, since I am understaffed at the moment, and Soundwave’s bits are off the market, I had to outsource,” Jazz said and this time, it was accompanied by a glare in Magnus’ direction. “Couldn’t get Vortex, which is probably for the best, but Onslaught and Blast Off have agreed, and all I had to do was wave a few creds at Swindle before he leapt at the offer.”

Kup snorted. “And you think a buncha former Cons are gonna get closer to Metalhawk than anyone else?”

“Onslaught badgeless,” Soundwave pointed out, the first he’d spoken since the meeting began. “History of despising Megatron. Vocally outspoken against Autobots, also.”

“Exactly!” Jazz grinned and half-lit his visor in a wink. “Couple that with the fact I know Blast off has been doing some freelance engineering work in Nova Cronum, and Swindle’s already agreed to do some trading on their behalf, and we have our in.”

It was better than nothing.

“Very well. But I want to speak with Onslaught first,” Optimus said, careful to hide his frown. He didn’t like treating the Neutrals as enemies, but he suspected that they were already doing the same toward he and his Autobots.

It was why he had insisted Ratchet keep an optic on Chromedome. And why there was someone from Ultra Magnus’ unit always around whenever a Neutral came to visit for whatever reason.

“Of course, Boss. I’ll set up a meetin’ for this afternoon.” Jazz’s visor glinted with humor. “Unless you’re busy, of course.”

Optimus shook his helm. “I will make time. This matter takes precedence.” He made a mental note, also, to key a reply to Grimlock. If it was important enough for Grimlock to publicly request a private meeting, then Optimus wanted to ensure he did not miss it.

“In the meantime, are there any other matters that need to be addressed?” Optimus asked.

The moment of panic, such as it was, passed. No one had any other concerns and Optimus called the meeting to an end. Soundwave was the first mech out the door, as if the fires of Unicron nipped at his aft.

Ultra Magnus departed next, after Optimus gave him a stern reminder to enjoy his off-duty time and not return to work. There was nothing that needed to be done today that couldn’t keep until tomorrow.

They were no longer at war, after all. They should all indulge in a bit of peace and quiet.

Kup promised to make sure he did so, and went off after Ultra Magnus, leaving only Optimus and Jazz behind. Unsurprisingly, Jazz didn’t seem in a hurry to go.

“Speaking of mechs who need to rest, sit yer aft down,” Jazz said as he nudged Optimus’ chair back toward him. “Don’t think I can’t see ya swaying on your pedes.”

Optimus obeyed, but only because he meant to do so. The dizziness had returned, but like before, the spell was brief. “Have you become Ratchet then?”

“One of us has to get through to ya. When are ya gonna take yer own advice and get some rest?”

“The moment I feel it is safe enough to do so.” Which given the current situation, might be months from now. There was a tension in the air, one Optimus could not explain, but felt he could not ignore.

Jazz made a noncommittal noise. “But Sounders is acting a little odd, ain’t he?” he asked as he leaned against the table and looked up at Optimus.

“You noticed, too?”

“I’ve made a habit of watching him over the decades. Old habits’re hard to break.” Jazz gave him a lazy grin. “Want I should have a look see?”

Given the way Soundwave reacted whenever Jazz’s name was brought up? Primus, no. “He’s an ally, not an enemy,” Optimus said. “I’ll speak with him.”

“Sure, sure.” Jazz straightened, stretching his arms over his helm, a languid roll of his frame to ease kinked cables. “Hound is supposed ta check in today, so I’mma head to the space bridge control, see what he has to say. I’ll comm ya when I hear from Onslaught?”

“Please do.”

One less problem to worry about was one thing Optimus greatly appreciated.

~

It was a novel concept to be alone, Bluestreak thought. Though he wasn’t entirely alone. Mirage was here, too, though he was in the washracks, undergoing his second wash of the day.

It was technically improvement. He used to spend half a day in there. It was a compulsion at this point. His cables would start to itch, he claimed. Or his paint wasn’t perfect. Or there was dust.

Bluestreak understood. He didn’t intervene, unless he felt Mirage had been in there too long, or he scrubbed too hard. For now, it was one of the many ways Mirage coped. So Bluestreak let him have it.

Besides, it was kind of nice, for once, to be needed.

Bluestreak was aware that he was one of the lucky ones. While he’d been a prisoner, he’d been treated well. He’d never once been harmed. He’d been fueled. He’d been repaired. He’d been left alone, for the most part, except for the training.

Then again, they never worked him any harder than they worked themselves. It felt so natural, once the battle began, to take up arms again. It felt like a return to normal, and Bluestreak had never felt so justified than when he stood beside the Combaticons and fought to free his friends from Decepticon control.

Bluestreak knew that compared to Mirage, he’d been lucky.

Mirage… had not been.

First, he’d been caught by the Stunticons, which had been a miscalculation on his part, he admitted. Usually in halting sobs while he and Bluestreak sat back to back, their fields embracing.

But he’d been injured, Mirage whispered. He’d been injured and low on energon, and his invisibility cloak had been damaged, and there were five of them. He’d tried to hide, but they found him anyway.

They found him and celebrated their victory by enjoying his frame.

Four mechs, he admitted with staticky vocals. They weren’t great at sharing or patience either.

There are five Decepticons, Bluestreak remembered saying, confused.

But only four rapists, Mirage corrected.

When they were done, they brought Mirage back to Iacon and Megatron. They thought for sure they’d get to keep him. On the journey back, they told him in detail all the filthy and humiliating things they intended to do to him. How he could earn his energon. How it would be the only thing that gave him worth.

It wasn’t relief when Megatron gave him to Shockwave instead, Mirage admitted. It was trading one horror for another.

Shockwave didn’t violate him sexually, but there was nothing sacred to the mech. His coding, his frame, his spark – all of it was laid open for Shockwave’s cold-opticked perusal.

His only consolation was that when he wasn’t on the examination table, he was left alone, in the silence and darkness of a tiny cell. Sometimes, he could hear others. Sounds of pain, sounds of horror.

Mirage had known that after Shockwave was done with him, he’d be passed to someone else. He didn’t know who it would be, but he dreaded it.

Several times, he contemplated one last free choice. He could take his own spark. He had the protocols. He could do it. There was nothing left to protect but himself.

It was thoughts of his endura, Tracks, that kept him living. As far as Mirage knew, Tracks was still alive. He clung to that hope.

A hope that would be for naught as it turned out.

There was so much pain in Mirage’s voice when he spoke of Tracks that Bluestreak felt his own spark ache. He offered as much comfort as he was capable. He didn’t know what it was to lose an endura, but he had experienced loss.

He missed Prowl more than words could tell. He missed Ironhide, his mentor. He missed his friends, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker who were stuck in the medbay, and Smokescreen who was always busy, and Beachcomber, who the Coneheads had killed, and Hound who was on Earth now.

So many gone. So many hurting. Bluestreak did the best he could with what he had.

He no longer had nightmares of Praxus. They had been replaced with a new horror.

The door chimed.

Bluestreak cycled his optics. A visitor? While that wasn’t highly unusual, he knew that Smokescreen was on-shift, and Jazz was at a meeting, which narrowed the pool of candidates.

Bluestreak turned away from the balcony and answered the door, surprised when it slid open and revealed Vortex.

“Afternoon!” the rotary said with a tone that Bluestreak dared call cheerful.

Bluestreak worked his jaw. “Afternoon,” he replied automatically. “Um, not to be rude or anything, but why are you here?”

Vortex shifted his weight from pede to pede. “Came to see you,” he said, his visor gleaming a little brighter. “Hadn’t, you know, since the end of all things. Was kind of hoping we could talk?”

“Talk,” Bluestreak repeated. “About what?”

“You,” Vortex said, and he cycled a ventilation. “And me.”

This was only getting weirder.

Bluestreak tilted his helm. “But there’s not a ‘you and me.’”

“I know.” Vortex rifled about in his subspace and produced a box wrapped in ribbons, which he presented to Bluestreak. “I was kinda hoping there could be.”

Bluestreak took the box, because he couldn’t think of a good reason not to. It had a weight to it, which suggested either energon goodies or waxing supplies.

“I don’t understand,” Bluestreak said, not with a frown, just with confusion. “Why me? And no offense, but you’re… you.”

Vortex looked to the left and right, up and down the hallway. “I’m me,” he confirmed. “But I’m not only me. It’s kind of hard to explain, but I could, if you wanted me to. Only not out here? I feel like I have a target on my rotors.”

Of course he did. He was Vortex, well known crazed interrogator, standing in the hallway of a residential area for the Autobots. How many other mechs had he passed who watched him warily, wondering why the frag he was here?

That took guts.

Bluestreak shoved the box into his subspace and stepped forward, urging Vortex to back up a step. “Actually, that’s not a good idea,” he said as he let his door slide shut behind him, just as he heard the click of the washracks cutting off. “Coming in my suite right now, I mean.”

“Oh. I see.” Try as he might, there was no disguising the disappointment in Vortex’s tone. “I understand.” He turned as if to go, and Bluestreak found himself moving forward before he could ask himself why.

“No, I only meant – Mirage is in there,” Bluestreak explained and offered Vortex a tentative smile. “And I don’t think he’d be comfortable with you there, even if you aren’t a Decepticon anymore.” He gave a pointed look to Vortex’s badgeless chest.

Vortex’s visor darkened. “Mirage, hm? Yeah, you’re probably right. Think he’s been on my table a coupla times.” He chuckled, like it was a fond memory.

A chill crept down Bluestreak’s spinal strut. “Right. So…”

Vortex shifted, and then his field flashed as though panicked. “I only meant that was the other me, the one that is me, but not the me in front of you right now. Oh, frag. I’m screwing this up.” He ex-vented loudly and swept a hand over his helm.

In that moment, Vortex reminded Bluestreak a lot of Smokescreen. Or maybe Red Alert. A cross between the two? And honestly, Vortex had been nothing but polite and respectful to him while the Combaticons had ‘owned’ him for lack of a better word.

That Vortex could be awkward, well, Bluestreak had never known that. But he knew it now, and it was strange but also… kind of cute?

What could one little talk hurt?

“You’re not,” Bluestreak said, offering him a smile. His door wings flicked. “We could meet later? Somewhere else?”

Somewhere public, the rational side of his processor offered. He was willing to give Vortex a chance, but he wasn’t going to be stupid about it. Seeking Jazz’s advice would be a good idea, too. Bluestreak wanted to hope that Vortex was genuine, but also, he wasn’t an idiot or a fool.

Vortex lit up and his field did as well. So either he was a very good actor, or that was genuine relief and excitement he showed.

“Wherever you want,” Vortex said and his rotors wiggled, which was too adorable for words. “I’ll comm you?”

“Sure. I’ll be looking forward to it.” Bluestreak grinned and watched as Vortex backed down the hallway with a little wave.

And then he was gone, capping one of the strangest things to happen to Bluestreak in quite some time. He shook his helm and went back into his shared suite with Mirage, already dialing up Jazz.

Time to build some bridges, he supposed.

~

Onslaught was nothing if not prompt, though Optimus realized once the necessities were taken care of, he would need to see about obtaining a larger office. It didn’t seem so small when only he was in it, or just himself and Jazz or himself and Soundwave.

But the addition of Onslaught made it appear smaller, cramped, and Optimus couldn’t help feeling trapped between the cabinet behind him and his desk in front of him. Perhaps Onslaught’s presence was partly to blame, though Optimus had no reason to be uneasy with the mech.

Onslaught had done nothing to him. He didn’t bear a Decepticon badge, and neither did Optimus associate him, at a glance, with the Decepticons.

The size of his office had to be to blame.

“Thank you for coming,” Optimus said as Onslaught lowered himself into a chair that noisily protested his mass.

“It’s in my best interest to cultivate a good relationship with potential employers,” the Combaticon Commander said. His gaze shifted to Jazz, who had taken to perching on the edge of Optimus’ desk, though there was a chair available for his use. “Though if this assignment is to work, this should probably be our last direct meeting.”

Optimus inclined his helm. “Yes, of course. I only wanted to be sure you understood the risks, and that you were accepting this of your own accord, without outside influence.” He gave Jazz a pointed look.

His third grinned back at him.

“The benefits are worth the risks,” Onslaught replied as he folded his arms in his lap, effecting a posture of ease. “As are the rewards. I don’t think there is a single non-Neutral mech who does not consider Metalhawk and his ilk a threat.”

“Ilk.” Jazz snickered. “Mech, since when did you start talking like that.?”

Onslaught’s field flickered with humor. “Metalhawk is a mech of nobility, one from a particularly high caste. If I am to gain his confidence, I must appear to be the same.”

“Am I correct in assuming you have a plan already?” Optimus asked.

“Yes, of course. Blast Off has a former associate who is among the Neutrals. He intends to reestablish contact,” Onslaught explained as he made a vague gesture with one hand. “Swindle, of course, has contacts all over the galaxy and unsurprisingly, has worked with the Neutrals before. I will formally ask Metalhawk for a meeting, explaining to him our Neutral status and ask how we can be of assistance to him.”

Optimus nodded. “And you think this will work?”

Onslaught rolled his shoulders. “The worst Metalhawk can do is decline our request and the ops comes to an end. Which means we’ll have to find another means of keeping an optic on him. The point is to try.”

“And I have the utmost faith that it will work,” Jazz said as he swung his legs playfully. “Metalhawk is suspicious, yeah, but he’s also proud. If Onslaught plays his cards right, he’ll find himself in Metalhawk’s cabinet. Plus, I got an ace up my sleeve that could work in his favor.”

Sometimes, Optimus swore Jazz held more secrets than a puzzle box.

“What kind of ace?” he asked.

Jazz grinned. “A certain former associate of mine who happens to be among Metalhawk’s crew. He doesn’t want to come back to the Autobots officially, but he’s also not too fond of the murmurs he’s been hearing from Metalhawk.”

“Precisely.” Onslaught tilted his helm toward Jazz. “So we have this well in hand. Metalhawk knows that the treaty prevents him from doing anything untoward to us. At worst, he can bar us entrance into Nova Cronum. Really, there is little risk.”

“Very well.” Optimus cycled a ventilation. “Jazz, I will approve this mission. I leave the delineation of it in your hands. If Ultra Magnus gives you any trouble, let me know.”

“Sure thing, boss.” Jazz grinned.

Onslaught rose to his pedes and offered Optimus a hand, which he took. “Pleasure working with you, Prime. Jazz has my comm if you need me. As it is, from now on, there will be a visible distance between us.”

“Which is to be expected. Good luck, Onslaught.”

“Luck is for those who need it.” Onslaught’s visor glinted, and then he depared, leaving the office that much larger.

“Told ya there was nothin’ to worry about,” Jazz said cheekily.

Optimus rubbed a hand down his face and gave his third a long look. “Prowl would have given you a long lecture for that, you know.”

Jazz’s smile lightened. “Yeah, I know.” He hopped off the desk and stretched his arms over his helm. “Kinda wish he were here to give me one now.”

“As do I.”

“Go get some rest, boss,” Jazz said with a warm pulse of his energy field. “I worry about ya.”

Optimus’ spark hummed. “I have one more meeting and then I will. I promise.” He would lay down at the very least, though whether his recharge would be beneficial remained to be seen.

Jazz tilted his helm. “Another meeting? You should be off-shift, OP.”

“This is a private matter. For Soundwave,” Optimus clarified. “Perhaps it will explain his strange behavior.”

Jazz paused and looked up at him. “Soundwave?” he repeated, and thumbed his chin, sounding thoughtful. “Wow. Look at ‘im bein’ all impatient. I guess I rattled him more’n I thought I did.”

Optimus sighed and palmed his forehelm. “Jazz, what did you do?”

“Nothin’.” Jazz rolled his shoulders. “Nothin’ like what you’re thinkin’ anyway. If he got rattled, it’s cause he’s assumin’ things without fact-checkin’. Terrible behavior for a former spy, if ya ask me.”

Optimus dropped his hand and stared at his third. “That is not an answer.”

“I know it ain’t.” Jazz beamed up at him and planted his hands on his hips. “But that’s only cause ya can be so dense sometimes, Optimus. Soundwave is attracted to you.”

He blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

Jazz sighed and shook his helm. His field was a mix of exasperation and humor. “It ain’t recent either. I’d guess he’s been interested for a while, but ya know, there was a war and everythin’.”

Optimus shook his helm. “No, it’s not like that. I cannot go into the details without betraying his trust, but Soundwave is only responding to me as the new leader he has accepted. Whatever else you might think is happening, is not.”

“This has nothing to do with coding, Optimus.” Jazz waved a dismissing hand, sounding frustrated. “He likes you. The mech you are. And have been. And always were. And you just don’t notice, which I can’t tell who it frustrates more, him or me.”

Optimus was at a loss for words. He stared at Jazz, groping for something to say, but he couldn’t think of anything beyond another denial. Surely Jazz was wrong.

Jazz cycled a ventilation. “So I guess now the only question is: what do you think about him?”

Optimus honestly had no clue how to answer that. He’d not given any thoughts to romance or love or intimacy. He’d long ago given up on allowing himself a relationship in that respect. He’d been content to share his berth with those closest to him, taking the burden of being Prime as the only permanent berthmate he’d ever have.

“Cause my guess is, that’s what he wants to talk about,” Jazz continued with another shrug. “Maybe so he can tell himself to move on. Maybe cause he’s tired of waitin’, I don’t know.”

Optimus shook his helm slowly. “That is unexpected,” he admitted, and he scraped a palm down his faceplate. “I… thank you for telling me, Jazz.”

“Ya needed to know.” Jazz peered up at him. “Ya gonna be okay, boss? Want me to make up an excuse for ya?”

“No. This isn’t a problem.” Optimus cycled a steadying ventilation. He was too stunned to examine his own feelings. He still felt Jazz was wrong somehow.

“Ya sure?”

Optimus nodded. “Yes.” He offered Jazz an unsteady smile. “I’m quite capable of managing my romantic entanglements, but thank you for your concern.”

“I’ll never stop worryin’ about ya, Optimus. It’s in my nature.” Jazz grinned and rolled his helm, another one of his stretches. “Good luck with Soundwave. I’m off to see if Mirage needs some company tonight.”

Optimus blinked. “You and he…?”

“It’s not like that.” Jazz shook his helm. “Mirage don’t like recharging alone, but he’d never admit it, so we all swap off. But Smokey’s got shift tonight, and I’m pretty sure Blue has a date, so it’s up ta me. Great tragedy that is.”

“Bluestreak? A date? With whom?”

Jazz smirked. “Vortex.”

Optimus rebooted his audials, quite sure he hadn’t heard correctly. Wait. No, he did remember Vortex asking if he was allowed to court an Autobot some time back. He’d meant Bluestreak?

“I see,” he said faintly.

“Hey. You were the one that said we needed to build bridges.” Jazz patted him on the shoulder, a mere wisp of contact that was miles away from the full-fledged hugs he used to give. “I’m just offering out the tools.” He winked and turned away. “Catch ya later, Optimus.”

“Good night, Jazz.”

He watched his third go with lingering confusion, but affection as well. Bluestreak and Vortex? Who would have guessed?

All that remained to be seen was whether or not it worked out.

Optimus shook his helm and left his office. It was time he headed back to his quarters. He was expected to meet Soundwave shortly and now, it was doubly-important he did not miss this meeting.

His internal comm chimed. Optimus slowed his pace as he recognized the ident code attached to the instant message which read Permission to land? He smiled softly and looked up, even as he sent an affirmative.

Laserbeak was above him, but the moment she received his permission, she came down for a landing. Optimus paused, giving her a stationary target, and smiled as she landed on his shoulder gracefully, without a single scratch to his paint. Her field buzzed with pleasure, and her helm tilted against his. He had come to recognize that as a show of affection.

“Good evening, Laserbeak.”

Evening, Prime, Laserbeak replied as she shifted and settled, making herself comfortable. Jazz is not wrong. Master does hold feelings for you.

Optimus’ spark stuttered. “Oh, I see,” he said, vocals faint as he forced himself to keep moving, heading toward home.

If he is not welcome, he will understand, Laserbeak said with a gentle, audible chirr. It is the not-knowing that haunts him.

“Yes, I can understand why.” Optimus cycled a ventilation, feeling as if his worldview had shifted quite alarmingly. “And what of you and your siblings? How do you feel?”

I like Optimus. Laserbeak’s field flushed with amusement and humor. Buzzsaw grumpy, but he always grumpy. Others approve, too. Even Ravage. She said something about the Autobots corrupting us. She added a laughing emoticon, and then chuckled aloud, a rolling chirp right in Optimus’ audial.

Optimus smiled despite himself. “Yes, it would certainly seem so.”

He passed the memorial, the shadow of the obelisk falling over him. He paused, as he always did, to take a moment to remember, to grieve. Abrupt motion, however, didn’t suit him.

Dizziness attacked again. Optimus swayed on his pedes, his vision glitching.

Optimus?

“I am fine,” he said, though all evidence seemed to prove to the contrary.

His ventilations stuttered. His knees wobbled. The dizziness did not pass. Instead, it only worsened. But he was fully fueled. He was fully repaired. He had been feeling fine.

Laserbeak shifted on his shoulder, the motion of her limbs grating in Optimus’ audials, ringing louder and louder. He winced, gripped at his helm, and it took two tries to even touch his helm. He kept missing.

The world spun.

Optimus?

Laserbeak alit from his shoulder and took to the sky. No, she wasn’t flying. Optimus was falling. His helm spun, his thoughts scattering in all directions. He couldn’t ventilate.

He never felt himself hit the ground.

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