[Crown the Empire] Salvage 09

Soundwave had heard rumors that the Autobot Chief Medical Officer could curse with the best of them. That he had a full arsenal of foul words to choose from, some of which held origins in various foreign languages, and he used them liberally. The more he cursed, the angrier he was, but also, the more likely his patient would survive.

So Soundwave took comfort in the amount of vitriol spewing from Ratchet’s lips even as he worked on Optimus, attaching drip lines and sensors and monitors. He moved fast, his hands a blur, practiced and calm. He’d put Optimus together more times than any of them could count. For Ratchet, this had to be common. Rote. Nothing worrisome.

Soundwave certainly hoped so.

He was wise enough to stay out of the way, though he refused to leave the room. His spark still hadn’t slowed, and still pulsed a frantic beat.

Laserbeak’s frantic pinging and calls across his comm and their bond still rang through him. She didn’t often sound frightened, but this time, she did. It was enough that Soundwave had dropped the energon he’d carefully selected for his meeting with Optimus and ran.

The sight of Optimus collapsed in the courtyard had nearly stopped his spark. He thanked Primus and anyone else listening he was strong enough to scoop the Prime up, rushing him to the medical center, even as he pinged Ratchet relentlessly. The CMO had been in recharge, but he’d been out of the berth the moment he heard who Soundwave was bringing in.

Soundwave feared it was poison. That this was Metalhawk finally making his move.

He feared worse things.

Laserbeak remained on his shoulder, refusing to return to his dock. She huddled near his helm, her optics locked on Optimus’ unconscious frame. Occasionally, Soundwave would stroke her head.

She might very well have saved Optimus’ life. Soundwave was even more glad that he’d had the foresight to have Laserbeak keep an optic on Optimus. The Prime did not know how to look after himself.

Why was Jazz not with him?

Soundwave determined that he would have words with the Special Ops Commander later. But for now, he would stand here and listen to Ratchet curse as the machines beeped a steady cadence, proving Optimus was alive.

Soundwave could not remember the last time he’d been so frightened.

“He’s going to be fine, the stupid fragging Pit-slagged excuse for a Prime that he is,” Ratchet snarled, and it took Soundwave several moments to realize that buried in all the cursing, Ratchet reassured him. “Just so you know.”

Soundwave dipped his helm. “Thank you.”

“I’m only telling you so you can stop watching me like I’m going to make a mistake or something,” Ratchet retorted with a halfway glance over his shoulder. “And so you can stop looking like someone kicked one of your symbiotes. This fragger’s going to live. I’ve brought him back from worse than this.”

“Every confidence in Ratchet’s skills held,” Soundwave replied with an inclination of his helm. “Comfort in waiting.”

“Yeah, yeah. At least you’re out of the way.” Ratchet shrugged a shoulder dismissively and then bent himself back to the task of repairing Optimus. “Fragging stupid mechs not listening to their slagging Unicron-slogged medics who obviously don’t know–”

Soundwave tuned him out once he realized Ratchet was simply cursing again, and not saying anything relevant.

Optimus was going to be fine, Ratchet said. Soundwave believed him. Though it was not enough to ease the tremor of worry in his spark. He’d left a mess outside Optimus’ quarters. He made a mental note to clean that up. He should probably contact Jazz and Ultra Magnus, but didn’t know if Ratchet had done so already.

There were many more things he should be doing than standing here, watching Ratchet work, worrying himself into illness. Laserbeak continued to shiver on his shoulder, no matter how much comfort he offered her. She had grown attached to Optimus.

He greets me like an equal! She’d chirred to Soundwave, her enthusiasm so great it had been infectious. Her delight affected Soundwave’s spark.

“That’s because you are one,” Soundwave had replied, but her excitement could not be deterred.

She’d turned circles in the sky that day, and constantly badgered Buzzsaw with her glee. He grumped at her, but her mood eventually infected him, too.

That was the moment Soundwave knew he’d made the right choice.

Seeing Rumble with Bumblebee had been the start. Sending Ravage off with Hound, her delight in finally being able to have something she’d thought she’d lost, had been the second point.

And now, Laserbeak’s unadulterated delight, they were all proof. They were relief. Soundwave had finally done something right for his cassettes. Even if Ravage and Rumble and Frenzy ended up leaving him, Soundwave had done right.

He turned his attention back to Optimus, trying to ignore the way his spark squeezed into a tiny ball. He hated feeling this helpless.

A querying ping rang across the bond – Rumble, wanting to know if Soundwave needed company.

He sent back a negative. He had Laserbeak. He would be fine, so long as Ratchet did not force him to leave.

Ratchet worked; Soundwave watched. He did not move. He had fine-tuned the art of standing still, watching and waiting. It served him well now.

He did, in fact, contact both Jazz and Ultra Magnus. The latter stated he would take over Optimus’ duties for the time being. Jazz accepted that he would help pick up the slack. Neither placed the blame on Soundwave.

‘Just look out for him for me, okay?’ Jazz said. Almost as if he knew.

But of course he knew.

Soundwave had tried to be subtle, but there were some things a mech could not hide. Especially not from someone as intuitive as Jazz. Soundwave had always admired Optimus Prime from afar, and the recent proximity to Optimus only made those feelings come pouring back.

Even if nothing ever came of it. Even if all Soundwave was allowed was a chance to remain at Optimus Prime’s side, however platonic, it would be worth it. Optimus Prime was a mech worth following. This Soundwave knew to be true.

Soundwave watched for several hours until Ratchet finally stepped back, wiping his hands with a cloth pulled from his subspace. Optimus’ vitals had stabilized, including his ventilations and his spark rate. He no longer lay on the berth tensely, as though fighting an inner battle. There was relaxation to his frame.

“He’s recharging,” Ratchet said, an exhausted cant to his voice as he dragged himself around the berth. He tilted his helm toward the door, indicating Soundwave should follow. “And if I’m half the medic I think I am, he’ll be recharging for the next several hours.”

“Understood.” Soundwave moved to follow, but Laserbeak alit from his shoulder.

Soundwave sent her a questioning ping, only to find her perched at the head of Optimus’ berth. Her gaze dropped to the sleeping Prime, her wings fluttering as she made herself comfortable.

I want to keep an optic on him, she said, and in her field was a sense of guilt. I should have been paying closer attention.

Plenty of blame to go around, Soundwave replied. He did not demand she return, and luckily, Ratchet didn’t demand she leave.

Soundwave followed Ratchet out of the private room and down the hall, to the medic’s office. It was a small space, crammed with cabinets and boxes of supplies, but Soundwave supposed it was the privacy that mattered. Ratchet signaled for the door to close and lock, but Soundwave had no doubt that Ratchet still monitored Optimus remotely.

Ratchet dropped down into his chair with the heaviness of a mech exhausted and carrying a weighty burden. “Ahhh,” Ratchet sighed with a palm shielding his expression from Soundwave’s view. “It was never the war that was going to kill me, but foolish Primes thinking they are indestructible.”

Soundwave found a sturdy chair and carefully lowered himself into it. “It was poison?”

“Poison?” Ratchet dropped his hand and snorted. “Of course not. It was idiocy.”

Soundwave stared at the medic.

Ratchet cycled a ventilation and straightened a little on the chair. “Optimus wasn’t fully recovered to start with, but he insisted on not being berthbound. I released him with caveats. He was to fuel properly. He was to recharge properly. And he was supposed to come to me if he sensed anything was wrong.” Ratchet threw one hand into the air, field flaring with aggravation. “He failed on all three counts.”

Soundwave inclined his helm. “Optimus refuels,” he said, the accusation stinging a bit as he’d made it a duty to ensure that Optimus received the proper amount of fuel every day. As far as he knew, Optimus had been consuming it.

“Yeah, he refuels,” Ratchet admitted, but it was a scowl. He tapped one finger on his desk. “But what he’s been neglecting to mention is that he’s been purging it just as much as he’s been consuming it. More than half of his daily intake has ended up in recycling.”

Soundwave lowered his helm, guilt striking him anew. “It was not sabotage then.”

“No.” Ratchet sighed and sank a little lower in his chair. “It was Optimus not getting the rest he needs. He has suffered as much, if not more, than the rest of us. But he continues to insist on putting our needs before his.”

“Optimus great leader.”

“You don’t have to tell me that.” Ratchet tossed him a hard look. “But he can’t lead if he’s not healthy.” He whipped a hand in the general direction of Optimus’ recovery room. “He hasn’t had a single night of uninterrupted recharge in weeks. The inhibitors aren’t working because he’s not slagging taking them! He passed out because his own frame turned against him. It forced a manual shutdown!”

Soundwave flinched. He had a passing knowledge of medical engineering. He was a field medic at best. But even he knew that when the frame forced a manual shutdown, it was not good.

Ratchet rubbed at his chevron, looking old and tired. “I shouldn’t even be telling you this,” he admitted in a gravelly voice. “But frag it, Optimus needs looking after and both me and Jazz have our hands full. You seem like you want the job so here I am, offering it to you.”

Soundwave tilted his helm, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m not blind, Soundwave. And neither is Jazz. We know why you’re sticking close to Optimus, and it’s not just for political reasons. Though at least it shows you have better taste than we all thought you did.” He lowered his hand, looking Soundwave straight in the visor. “My advice? He’s never going to realize it unless you say something.”

“An unwise action,” Soundwave said quietly.

Ratchet snorted. “Why? Because you used to be a Decepticon? The rules aren’t that simple anymore.”

“Reasons more complicated,” Soundwave said with a shake of his helm.

“Reasons like fear, I’d imagine.” Ratchet squinted at him but then waved a dismissing hand. “Whatever. I’m not here to tell you what you should do. If you don’t want to, fine. I’ll find someone else to make sure Optimus stays in that berth where he belongs.”

Soundwave cycled a ventilation. “Medical leave?”

“If I have to,” Ratchet said darkly. “We’re settled enough that the Autobots will survive without Optimus looking over their shoulders. I’m not losing him because he won’t take care of himself. Frag that.”

This was no idle threat, Soundwave realized. Ratchet was serious. Every inch of his energy field was firm and unarguable.

Soundwave shifted his weight on the chair. “Task accepted,” he said. “Optimus in need of care,” he added with a touch of humor. “Even before end of war.”

“You have no idea.” Ratchet ex-vented a heavy sigh and leaned into his chair, the fatigue pulling down on his frame. “When he wakes up, he’s not going to be happy. But he doesn’t have a choice. I’m putting him on berth rest for several days. I trust you’ll help me keep him there.”

“Affirmative.”

“Good.” Ratchet hid his optics behind his palm again. “Primus, my spark can’t take this.”

“Apologies for startling you.”

Ratchet’s free hand waved dismissively. “Of all the things that happened today, none of it is your fault. Instead, I’m grateful Laserbeak – and by default, you – were there.”

Some of the tension eased out of Soundwave’s frame. If Ratchet could be so relaxed, then so could Soundwave. It was a relief to know that Optimus was in no real danger, though he still chastised himself for not paying better attention. He’d known Optimus was still exhausted, but assumed that Ratchet was monitoring it.

At the time, Soundwave had not thought it his place to question Optimus’ health. But Ratchet had given him permission to do so and so Soundwave would.

Optimus was needed. And not just because he was their Prime. Sometimes, Soundwave wondered if maybe Optimus lost himself in the title, that he forgot he was also dear friend to his subordinates. That they would miss him as Optimus and not just Prime if he was gone.

“Rest, also, suggested for Ratchet,” Soundwave proposed. The medic looked in better repair than Optimus, but exhaustion still sat heavy on his frame. “Until Optimus onlines?”

Ratchet’s lips quirk toward a smile. “Medic, heal thyself? How true.” He gave Soundwave an amused look. “Don’t worry. I intend to get some rest. I’m monitoring Optimus’ vitals as it is. Might I suggest you do the same? You can’t do anything more for him now.”

Soundwave nodded. “Suggestion understood. Will return later.” He rose to his pedes, the tightness in his frame almost fully gone. “Laserbeak to remain, if allowed.”

“Yeah. She can stay.” Ratchet waved another dismissing hand. “I owe her one anyway. Lemme know what she likes.”

“Laserbeak partial to rust sticks.”

“Junk food, hm? I’ll get Jack to whip up some.” Ratchet shifted in his chair as though getting comfortable, his expression turning sober. “I’m serious, Soundwave. Thank you.”

Soundwave tilted his helm in acknowledgment. “Appreciation unnecessary. Welcome all the same.”

He took his leave of the office, though he stopped by Optimus’ private room first. He paused at the viewing window, looking in at the sleeping Prime. Laserbeak remained at the head of the berth, ever vigilant.

Optimus would be safe. He would recover.

Ratchet was right. There was nothing Soundwave could do here at the moment. But he could see to cleaning the mess he’d made and ensure there was nothing of immediate importance in Optimus’ paperwork. He would also need to contact Grimlock and Metalhawk, informing them to direct their queries to Ultra Magnus for the time being.

There was work to be done, and Soundwave would see to it. Optimus could not recover if he was concerned about the Autobots and the daily running of Polyhex. The least Soundwave could do was support him. Besides, it would be an excellent distraction if nothing else.
~

He found her on a ridge, staring out over the ravaged landscape the Decepticons had left behind. She was seated, running on silent mode, even her field completely withdrawn. Below her, the land went on for miles, bleak and brown and empty.

“What’s wrong?” Hound asked.

Ravage’s tail twitched before she turned her head up to look at him. “Soundwave. Felt a spike of fear and worry from him before it was gone.”

“Do you think something happened?” Hound asked as he lowered himself down beside her. He gently rested a hand along her back.

“I don’t know. At this distance, only the sharper emotions come through.” Ravage sighed and leaned against him, the warmth of her frame a wonderful counterpoint to the cutting chill of the wind this high up. “It was not a fear for himself. I know this much. And it was not one of the others. I would have felt their pain.”

Her field finally opened to him, letting him inside. There was worry there, but it was nice to know she was comforted by his presence.

“We check in soon,” Hound replied as he let their fields tangle. “We can ask for news then. And if you want, we can go back.”

“Are you ready to return?”

He opted for silence rather than answering that question. It was a loaded one, and to be fair, Hound wasn’t sure he knew how to answer the question. Cybertron was full of memories, more painful than not. While being on Earth hurt, it was still a lesser agony than the dead husk of Cybertron.

“Hound?”

He shook his helm. “I will return if you need to,” he said. “And I will go where you go. Here, at the end of the war, where I want to be is wherever you are.”

Affection rose in Ravage’s field. Her engine purred, vibrating against his armor. “How romantic of you.” Her vocals were thick with humor. “But don’t think I didn’t notice you sidestepping the question.”

He made a noncommittal noise.

Cybertron was still home. It made him no more uneasy to be on Cybertron than it did to be on Earth. But the idea of casually going about his business, only to look into the sky and see a Conehead flying freely? He did not like that idea at all.

Jazz told him that the remaining Conehead was still imprisoned and right now, unlikely to see freedom anytime soon. It wasn’t as much of a comfort as Hound hoped it would be. Not when he still couldn’t be intimate with his partner without breaking into a cold shiver and rolling with nausea.

He needed time.

Luckily, Ravage did not mind spending his self-imposed exile with him on Earth. Luckily, Trailbreaker did not mind guard duty. Hound was lucky for many things.

So no. If he had the choice, he would not return to Cybertron yet. But he would go for Ravage, because he would not let fear hold him back for her sake. For his own, yes. But not for hers.

“We will see what is necessary after we check in,” Ravage said, once it became obvious Hound was not going to answer her question. “For now, I will try not to worry about it.”

“Soundwave can take care of himself, and your siblings are nothing if not resourceful,” Hound replied. “I am quite sure there is nothing to worry about.”

Ravage’s head rubbed against his chest again. “Your optimism is one of many reasons I love you.”

“And I cherish you as well.” Warmth filled Hound’s spark, chasing away the lingering chill of the crisp winter air.

“Hound! Ravage!”

Trailbreaker’s shout carried to them easily in the thinner air. Ravage didn’t stir, but Hound half-turned to see their escort-slash-guardian huffing his way up the narrow trail. He had more grace than many gave him credit for, not so much as disturbing the gravel-like bed of the trail.

“I found something!” Trailbreaker said with an excited wave of his arms.

“Primus, not another mushroom circle I hope,” Ravage murmured without cracking open an optic.

Hound chuckled. “You have to admit, that was a fun detour.”

“Detour. Exactly.” Ravage harrumphed.

Hound’s grin widened, and he shifted to see Trailbreaker better as the other mech came to a halt behind them, somehow managing not to loom despite being the largest of the three.

“What is it?” Hound asked.

“I think,” Trailbreaker said with the widest grin Hound had ever seen. “I think I’ve found the humans. Or at least some humans. I’ve picked up some chatter buried in the AM bands.”

Hound tried not to get too excited. The last clue had led to a dead end. “Are you sure it’s not just a repeat transmission? Or a cycling playlist from an abandoned radio station?”

“I’m sure.” Trailbreaker was all but wiggling with glee. “So come on, you two. Stop snuggling. Get off your afts, and let’s go. This is the break we’ve been waiting for!”

Ravage looked up at Hound, her amusement ripe in her field. “Is he always this painfully enthusiastic?”

Hound chuckled. “Sometimes he’s worse.” He patted Ravage on the back. “He’s right, though. No use in sitting around admiring the view. We are, technically, supposed to be working.”

Ravage huffed but rose to her feet with a stretching arc of her backstrut. Hound took a moment to admire her, the gleam of her plating in the rising sun, the little puffs as her ex-vents hit the cooler air, the curve of her spinal strut. She was beautiful, and he wanted to touch her, to listen to her quiet sighs as he offered her pleasure.

An idea occurred to him. There was one thing they hadn’t tried. Perhaps he would bring it up at the next opportunity. But for now, Trailbreaker was right. There was work to do.

Hound pushed himself to his pedes, brushing off the dirt that stuck to his aft. “All right, Trailbreaker, show me what you have,” he said.

Trailbreaker grinned and offered a data-chip. “You’ll believe me when you hear it.”

Ravage harrumphed. “We’ll see about that.”
~

A week’s worth of enforced berth rest. Maybe less if he consumed his energon properly, reported his symptoms as they occurred, and managed at least two cycles of proper recharge – and all of this to Ratchet’s standards, not his own.

Optimus tried not to pout, but the desire to do so was strong. He did not want to be berth bound. There was work to do. He did not want time to think. He wanted to be active. He did not want to be confined to berth.

It rankled. But the look on Ratchet’s face shamed him before he could argue otherwise.

“Do you have any idea how it felt to be startled online by a frantic call from Soundwave because you’d collapsed?” Ratchet demanded, pacing back and forth by Optimus’ bedside, his plating clamped tight, his energy field a maelstrom. “I trusted you to tell me when something was wrong. I trusted you to take care of yourself. And all you’ve done is proven how much you don’t trust me!”

Optimus flinched. “Trust was not the issue,” he replied quietly.

“Yes, it was, and don’t tell me it wasn’t!” Ratchet near-hissed. “You don’t trust me to help you. You don’t trust anyone to do it. And believe me, I understand why.” He whirled toward Optimus, his field turning bleak. “I understand, I honestly do, Optimus. But working yourself into stasis? That’s not a solution either!”

His spark ached. And right now, he couldn’t even be sure if it was an emotional reaction, or a symptom of what Ratchet called a survivor’s stasis.

Optimus’ shoulders sagged. Even now, despite succumbing to it and spending the last half-day in stasis, Optimus was exhausted. It was as if all the fatigue he had pushed aside for the last month was now crashing down on him.

He wanted to get out of this berth. Right now, he didn’t know if he was capable of doing so. His limbs were heavy; his frame felt twice as massive. He had to ventilate shallowly.

Ratchet had him on an energon drip. He couldn’t trust Optimus’ system to accept energon orally. Optimus could see his energon levels rising, slowly but steadily, and for once, the thought did not fill him with nausea. But he knew, logically, he couldn’t survive on an energon drip for the rest of his function.

“It wasn’t a solution,” Optimus said at length. He sighed softly. “It was a stop-gap measure. I could not take the time. I did not want to take the time. I did not want to think.” He pressed the heel of his palm to his optics, guilt building a sludge inside of him.

Ratchet scraped a hand down his face and ex-vented. He ceased his frantic pacing and sat down on the edge of Optimus’ berth. “And you didn’t want to be a burden. I get it. I understand. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit here and watch you hurt yourself.”

Optimus sighed. “I can’t sit on my aft right now, Ratchet. The political balance is still too unstable. There’s work to be done.”

“And you may not have your original command staff, but you have a very capable crew who is willing to step up and help you.” Ratchet dropped his hand and looked at Optimus, something pleading in his optics. “Won’t you just let us support you?”

Optimus bowed his helm.

It was not an enticing prospect, but he knew that Ratchet was right. The lack of recharge, the inability to keep down his energon, the constant anxiety – none of it was healthy. He was not improving.

He could not serve his Autobots properly if he could not keep himself together. And it was worse to see Ratchet hurting, to see him blaming himself.

“I remain humbled by your faith in me,” Optimus murmured as he lifted his helm and reached for Ratchet’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “I promise to do my best to recover, so long as you promise to release me when I improve, and don’t prevent me from at least doing my paperwork.”

Ratchet’s lips quirked toward a grin. “Deal.” He squeezed back before releasing Optimus’ hand and pushing to his pedes. “Now, there is someone else who’s here to visit before I let in the rest of the mob.”

Optimus chuckled. He had no doubt there were many well-wishers out there, and he was glad that Ratchet’s rather draconian temper protected Optimus from being overwhelmed.

“Thank you, Ratchet.”

“You can thank me by resting, Optimus,” Ratchet said as he left, the words a tease, but his tone serious.

Optimus smiled despite himself and shifted a bit, making himself comfortable on the berth. Or as comfortable as he could be given the monitors that were attached to his frame, and the energon drip shunted into his left wrist port.

The door opened again, admitting Soundwave, who held an armful of datapads tucked under his left arm, and Laserbeak balanced on his unarmed shoulder. She chirped a greeting and lifted from his frame, choosing instead to land on the head of the berth behind Optimus’ right shoulder.

Optimus is well? She sent along the private channel, offering a hugging emoticon and one that indicated concern.

“Yes, thank you,” Optimus replied as he gave her a smile. “I hear you were my guardian angel whilst I was in stasis. I could not have asked for a better guardian.”

Laserbeak ducked her head, her field flushing with a mix of pleasure and embarrassment. I was worried, she sent. Please don’t be so careless again.

“I shall do my best to try,” Optimus replied as Soundwave handed him the datapads. He accepted them and tucked them next to his side.

“Optimus looking well,” Soundwave commented.

“I’m told I have you to thank for such a rapid response,” Optimus said as Soundwave lowered himself into the chair, sitting upon it stiffly. “If not for you and Laserbeak, I do not know how long I would have lain there.”

Soundwave inclined his helm. “Optimus neglects self.”

The tip of Optimus’ audials burned. “Yes. I’ve been told that as well.” He ex-vented softly and gathered what little poise could be had when he was berthbound. “I also had my optics opened to something I had not seen before. And I wanted to ask if it was true.”

Soundwave shifted on the chair. “Have I offended?”

Optimus shook his helm. “No. Nothing of the sort.” He performed a systems check, steadying himself. Why was this so awkward? “Jazz is under the impression that you desire to remain in my proximity is about more than political protection.” He met Soundwave’s visor with his own. “Is he right?”

“Jazz not wrong,” Soundwave admitted. His hands sat flat on his thighs, his plating drawing tight to his frame. “Optimus is good mech. Kind. Intelligent… Attractive.” He cycled a ventilation. “I have always admired Optimus.”

His spark throbbed with warmth. “Admiration,” Optimus repeated as Soundwave’s visor focused on him. “Is that all it is?”

“Negative.” Soundwave tilted forward as though he meant to rise, before he second-guessed himself and sat back in his chair. “Interest carried for Optimus. No reciprocation expected, however.”

That was terribly sad. Optimus honestly didn’t know how he felt about Soundwave. He saw the former Decepticon as a friend, a welcome one, and here lately, as a great source of support. Did he view Soundwave in a romantic light?

Optimus didn’t know. He was so used to pushing those types of interests aside, he wasn’t sure he could recognize genuine attraction if he felt it.

Though attraction wasn’t the problem. If Optimus had a type, Soundwave was it. They were of a similar size and mass. Soundwave was caring, at least to his subordinates. He had a code of ethics. He was quiet, compassionate and intelligent.

He was the exact kind of mech Optimus could see himself falling for.

Optimus worked his intake. “I do not know that as I am, I would make a good partner, Soundwave. I am…” he trailed off.

He did not want to say broken. He did not want to say damaged. He was both, but admitting it aloud was not something he wanted to do. But it was true that he couldn’t take care of himself right now. Optimus did not want to enter into a relationship where he had nothing to offer.

You are you, Laserbeak transmitted with a soothing warble. And what you are, Soundwave likes.

“You mean the mech I was,” Optimus said.

I meant what I said. Present-tense.

“Optimus strong,” Soundwave said, perhaps heedless to Laserbeak’s comments or because of them. “But strength not always physical. Also, Soundwave patient. Wish nothing but friendship.”

Optimus inclined his helm. “I understand. But I regret I do not have an answer for you right now. This is a lot to have happen all at once.”

“Understood.” Soundwave’s palms scrubbed down his thighs. “Soundwave will wait. Optimus take time.” He rose to his pedes and gestured to the datapads he’d brought. “Ratchet approved work. Soundwave to return later?”

Optimus offered him a smile. “Please do. I would welcome your company.” Perhaps by then he would have sorted out his own thoughts and could give Soundwave a proper response.

Soundwave’s field leaked free for the first time, and Optimus sensed the relief in it. “Laserbeak to remain if no objections?”

“None at all.” Optimus looked at the avian cassette, who tilted her helm against his in something he recognized as a show of affection. “I am honored that she would spend her time with me.”

“Laserbeak fond of Optimus.”

“I’m quite fond of her, too.”

Soundwave’s field hummed with appreciation. He gave Optimus another long look, and then he excused himself, departing from the room much as he had a few days prior, when he’d walked into the office while Optimus and Jazz were talking. He understood better now Soundwave’s reaction.

To the outside observer, it probably did look like there was something intimate between Jazz and Optimus. He relied on Jazz for many things and counted his third among his closest friends.

And speaking of sneaky spies…

“Knock, knock.” Jazz helm popped into view as he grinned and rapped his knuckles on the door frame. “Hey, boss bot. Got some time fer an old pal?”

Optimus gestured his third inside. “Come into my cell, Jazz. I’ll not be leaving anytime soon.”

Jazz chuckled and threw himself into the chair Soundwave had abandoned. He kicked back, crossing his pedes on the end of Optimus’ berth. “Did I just see Sounders stroll out of here?”

“You did.”

“And did he say what I think he was gonna say?” Jazz’s grin couldn’t have been cheekier.

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “He did,” he confirmed. “And yes, before you prod me, I concede that you were right.”

“I’m rarely wrong.” Jazz lit half his visor in a wink. “Go on then. What’s the gossip? Me ‘n Ratch have something of a bet going on.”

Optimus pulled one of the datapads into his lap. “I should not be so surprised.” He cut it on, finding that it was a financial report, not that anyone had much of a credit-based economy anymore. “There is nothing to say. I need to do some thinking.”

“So you don’t want to talk about the dashing former Decepticon who has a crush on you?”

Optimus gave his third an exasperated look. “No, I do not. I need to figure it out for myself, Jazz. So why don’t you tell me how you and Ultra Magnus have decided to divide my duties for the foreseeable future?”

Jazz sighed loudly, his field spiking with visible irritation. “Are you sure we can’t replace Magnus with someone with more personality?”

“Quite sure,” Optimus replied without looking up from the report. “If you would simply speak with Ultra Magnus without antagonizing him, I’m sure you’d see that he is more interesting than you give him credit.”

Jazz made a noncommittal noise and wiggled his aft, getting more comfortable on the chair. “If you say so.”

Optimus smiled to himself.

They would learn to get along eventually.
~

Rewind met him at the perimeter, excitement in his field and in his frame language as he shifted his weight from pede to pede. His optical band lit upon sight of Chromedome, and he waved wildly to get Chromedome’s attention.

He was also alone, which concerned Chromedome. Did his carrier not know how dangerous that could be? That Metalhawk just waited for an opportunity?

“Welcome back!” Rewind greeted as Chromedome transformed, looming over the smaller mech without even trying.

Because Rewind was tiny. So tiny that Chromedome feared harming him, even though Rewind was three times his age. Rewind was one of the oldest Cybertronians Chromedome had ever met, which was odd, considering his twin was Eject. Eject, by contrast, still acted like a youngling.

“Thank you,” Chromedome said. “I’m surprised you are greeting me. I would have expected one of the medical staff.”

Rewind shook his helm. “No. They’re all busy with Optimus. I volunteered.”

“Why?”

“Because I still have questions,” Rewind chirped as he reached up and tapped his camera. “I mean, that is, if you still have answers.”

Chromedome chuckled. “I do. And I don’t mind your questions.”

They headed toward the medical center. Rewind, however, skipped ahead of him, turning to walk backward so that he faced Chromedome.

“You’d be the first,” he said. “Why is that though? Most people get aggravated after the first couple minutes with me?”

“Maybe because I find you charming?”

Rewind stumbled and fell. Chromedome cycled his optics behind his visor, stopping by the downed mech and offering a hand to pull Rewind back to his pedes. The little mech let himself be lifted up and rubbed at his now scuffed aft.

“Walking backward is not the best choice, I guess,” Rewind said, trickles of his field suggesting embarrassment.

“No. I wouldn’t think so.”

Their hands were still touching, Chromedome realized. It was such a novel thing that he delayed letting go. Mechs tended to be afraid to take his hands, or let them touch him, as though all he needed was physical contact.

He’d tried to explain, but there was a stigma attached to mneumosurgery. Given Trepan’s reputation, Chromedome couldn’t blame them.

Rewind cycled a ventilation. “Did you mean it?”

“Mean what? That walking backward isn’t a good idea? Because recent events should be proof of that,” Chromedome said with a little laugh.

Something in Rewind’s posture sagged, and he took his hand back. “No. Never mind.” He turned around, clasping his hands behind his back. “So. What are you going to do today? I thought your work on Red Alert was done?”

Chromedome tilted his helm, but decided not to push the issue. “There’s a little bit of clean up left to do. After that, yes, my work is done until they find his back up memory core.”

“And if they don’t?”

“They’ll have to start anew.”

Rewind made a non-committal noise. “You mean, he’ll be like a sparkling.”

“But with the instincts of a spark that has survived a millennia long war.” Chrome cycled a ventilation. He couldn’t imagine a worse fate. “If it were me, I do not know that I would want that.”

“You’d rather die?”

Chromedome scrubbed a hand down his face. “It was a long war.” There was a reason he had chosen to become Neutral. “I would not want to be burdened with painful shadows of a past I couldn’t remember. Or have to carry the burden of those around me knowing who I was and having difficulty reconciling that.”

“Oh. You have a point.” Rewind touched his chin, looking thoughtful. “Well, I know Optimus planned on sending someone back to Earth to see if we could find a memory core for him. That’s our last hope.”

“I will pray they are successful then,” Chromedome replied. He wasn’t particularly religious, but it couldn’t hurt to put good thoughts out into the universe.

They arrived at the medcenter with Rewind still cheerfully in the lead. It was Chromedome’s fourth time strolling into the Autobot medbay, and it still surprised him how quickly they accepted his presence. After the first day of suspicious looks, they welcomed him.

He could easily sneak around and explore, like he’d been told to do. But Chromedome didn’t. He returned the Autobot’s trust. He kept to his assigned areas.

He lied to Metalhawk. He told his leader that the Autobots always kept him under guard, and he didn’t have the opportunity to snoop into their affairs.

And he wondered – he hoped – that if he could speak with Ratchet, he could convince the medic to expedite his petition to defect to the Autobots.

It was sad that while the Autobots and Decepticons worked together to ensure their peace was successful, Metalhawk was convinced the war needed little urging to return to the status quo. Chromedome didn’t want to go back to war. He wanted to live without looking over his shoulders. He wanted to settle down and not worry about where his next cube of energon was coming from.

He followed Rewind to the private room reserved for Red Alert, noticing that another one of the private rooms was occupied. The door was open as he passed, and Chromedome peeked in, ex-venting in surprise when he realized that it was none other than Optimus Prime in the berth.

What did Metalhawk do?

“Something wrong?” Rewind asked as he palmed the lock, giving Chromedome entrance to Red Alert’s room.

Chromedome cycled a ventilation. “Did something happen? To Optimus Prime?”

The door closed behind them, and locked with a beep. “Nothing untoward, if that’s what you’re asking,” Rewind replied. “He just needs some R&R.”

Chromedome looked down at the smaller mech. “You’re sure?” Because that sounded like Metalhawk’s tactics – sneaky and underhanded and untraceable.

Metalhawk claimed to be a peace-loving Neutral, but he wasn’t above getting his hands dirty if he thought that was what he needed to obtain said peace. He might not be the one out there starting battles and fomenting war, but he wasn’t any less guilty.

Chromedome didn’t want to think about the number of times he’d used his skills to adjust some prisoner Metalhawk had caught, in an attempt to alter their wicked ways. Or even, he thought with a churn in his tanks, mechs who were members of their own faction.

In Metalhawk’s hands, Chromedome had become a monster. One he feared no amount of goodwill could cure.

Fixing Red Alert was about far more than earning good regard with the Autobots.

“Very sure,” Rewind said though he tilted his helm and stared at Chromedome. “Why?”

“No reason.” Chromedome shrugged it off and shifted his attention back to Red Alert. “Time to get to work, right?”

He still had time. He could prove he was a good mech.

All he needed was a little more luck.

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