[Crown the Empire] Salvage 10

Soundwave was not a mech prone to indecision or uncertainty. Yet, he found himself lingering outside of Optimus’ private room, wondering if he dared go inside.

He’d been gone for most of the day, attending to the duties that Ultra Magnus and Jazz could not cover. He’d made it a point to be as productive as possible, so as not to spend too much time worrying about things he could not change.

Now he’d returned, with Ratchet’s permission of course, and logically, he knew a day was not long enough for Optimus to think about what Soundwave had said. Just as he knew, logically, that if it took any longer, it was because Optimus was trying to think of a way to let him down gently.

He was not going to get any answers if he lingered in the hallway. He found himself continuing to do so anyway. Long enough that he caught some strange looks from First Aid, the young medic Ratchet had left in charge since the medic had finally left to get some rest of his own.

Soundwave cycled a ventilation, double-checked to ensure that he still carried the datapads that would serve as shield and excuse if all this visit merited was business, and rapped his fingers on the door. He ignored Frenzy and Rumble snickering at him from afar, and welcomed Laserbeak’s soothing encouragement. Buzzsaw, asleep in Soundwave’s dock, had no opinion to offer.

“Come in!”

Now or never.

Soundwave braced himself and opened the door, stepping into the private room Ratchet had arranged for Optimus’ use. Ratchet was being a most vigilant medic as well, monitoring how many datapads Optimus was allowed at any given moment, and ensuring that his Prime was not overworking himself.

Optimus was hooked up to several machines, and the sight of him as such gave Soundwave pause. It reminded him of that night, that spike of panic from Laserbeak, and the moment where he’d stepped out into the courtyard and found Optimus collapsed like a house of cards.

Laserbeak chirped a greeting at Soundwave. She remained perched at the head of the berth, unwilling to leave Optimus’ side for even a moment. Soundwave could not express how grateful he was for her persistence. Her gaze was one of knowing, though she did not leave Optimus to return to Soundwave.

Optimus looked up and though he wore his face mask – an ever present thing as of late – his optics brightened in greeting. “Welcome back, Soundwave,” he said and gestured to the chair at his berthside. “Is this a brief stopover or were you planning to linger?”

Momentarily taken aback, Soundwave was at a loss for words. Given the discomfort present in their previous conversation, he’d expected Optimus to be awkward as well. But perhaps that was only because Optimus had been taken by surprise. He’d since had time to gather his wits.

“I would stay, if I am welcome,” Soundwave said, hoping that his nervousness did not show in his vocals. Times like these, his modulator was more than useful.

Optimus’ helm tilted. “You are welcome,” he said and tapped at the datapad in his lap, sending it into standby. “There is, after all, a small matter that we need to address.”

This was it. The moment of his dismissal.

“Understood.” Soundwave stepped fully into the room so that the door could shut behind him. At least there would be privacy for his sparkbreak. “Though if more time is needed, I am patient.”

“It would feel cruel to do so,” Optimus replied.

Soundwave retracted his field as much as he was capable. He did not want to accidentally guilt the Prime into kindness. He wanted honesty.

He took the chair offered to him, seating himself without any ease. He clutched at his datapads like a lifeline. If he had made Optimus uncomfortable, what would happen then? Would they send him back to the Decepticons? Would he be sent to serve under another? Would Optimus give him a task far away from Optimus’ side?

His code thrashed at the very idea of it. His spark flickered, on the edge of panic, and Soundwave wrestled with himself, forcing his inner dialogue into submission.

“Besides, I do not need more time,” Optimus continued as he shifted his weight and looked directly at Soundwave. “I already know what I want to do.”

Soundwave nodded. “I am listening.”

There was a quiet click as Optimus’ facemask retracted, a gesture of trust that Soundwave did not take lightly. A small smile graced Optimus’ lips, though he still looked wan and tired. He’d spent barely a day in Ratchet’s custody. It would take much longer than that until he was at full health.

“I have spent the better part of the afternoon thinking how I can put this into words,” Optimus began with a cycled ventilation. “It is odd how I find a speech so much easier than speaking from the spark, but here I am. And here you are.”

Soundwave tried not to squirm. “A difference of vulnerability perhaps?”

Optimus inclined his helm. “Perhaps,” he agreed with another soft smile. “The truth is, Soundwave, that I never thought of romance. It never seemed an option. I have those I am close to, who I dearly adore, and I was content in it and considered myself lucky to have it. As Optimus, as Prime, I assumed that was the best I could hope for.”

It sounded terribly lonely. And it explained the shadows behind Optimus’ optics, at least in part. The life of a leader was often one of solitude, and Soundwave’s coding and spark called to soothe that feeling of isolation. All the better that it was for a mech he found attractive in mind, frame, and spark.

“Prime is meant to stand alone,” Soundwave commented quietly.

“That is what I believed,” Optimus confirmed with a quiet cycle of his ventilations. “But a lot is different now. Those old structures are gone. The Matrix is gone. And perhaps clinging to the old ways is only going to set us down another dark path.”

Soundwave’s spark dared quicken. Was Optimus circling around to the sort of answer he wanted to hear?

“Support is offered,” Soundwave replied as he found himself leaning a bit closer, though he still kept a polite distance. “No matter what Optimus decides.”

Optimus’ smile gentled. “Yes, I know. That is why I find this so strangely easy.” His hands tangled together before he rested them in his lap. “I do not know whether or not I am suited to a relationship or if I can even sustain one right now, but I would be willing to explore it. With you, to clarify.”

Soundwave’s visor brightened and as much as he wanted to wallow in his excitement, the practical side of him was suspicious. “Because of convenience?”

Optimus’ optics widened. “No, of course not!” he said without so much as a hesitation. “I already considered you a friend. That you are attractive to me was the deciding factor.” His faceplate visibly heated, and he sagged a little, coughing into his palm. “I only ask that we take it slowly.”

“Speed determined by Optimus,” Soundwave reassured. He debated quickly, and then offered his hand to Optimus. “Slow, also, preferred.”

Optimus’ gaze dropped from his face to Soundwave’s hand. He steadied himself, cycled a ventilation, and then reached back. The warmth of his palm against Soundwave’s was worth more than a bucket of high grade. That he could accept the touch, welcome it even, was a massive improvement.

“I would know you first, before anything,” Optimus murmured, his thumb sweeping over Soundwave’s palm as he focused on Soundwave’s hand. “I suspect there is much we could learn of each other.”

Soundwave disengaged his modulator with an audible click. “Optimus may ask me anything,” he said without hesitation. “I have nowhere else to be.” And nowhere he’d rather be.

The faint heat that touched Optimus’ faceplate was charming. “I would appreciate the company,” he said, though it was with a sideways look in the direction Ratchet was known to haunt. “That is, if my physician allows it,” he said with a wry chuckle.

Soundwave’s lip curved. “I have snuck out of worse places than Ratchet’s domain, should the need arise.”

Optimus’ laugh was genuine and rich. “Then I will trust in your skills.” His thumb swept another path over Soundwave’s palm, igniting a wave of heat. “Just as I have learned to trust in you.”

Soundwave’s spark throbbed. He almost wondered if he had dreamt this moment, because it didn’t feel real. But the weight of Optimus’ fingers against his was undeniable, as was the first tentative push of Optimus’ field.

Trust.

Few mechs trusted Soundwave. Even fewer did he trust in return.

There was a time, he had offered such to Megatron. There was a time he might have believed Megatron returned that trust.

But the way Optiimus looked at him, spoke with him, treated his symbiotes, Soundwave believed in it again.
~

Jazz, for the record, hated paperwork.

He’d do it, if necessary, but this was what he’d always foisted off on Mirage. His second had taken great pleasure in writing mission reports, often using the most poised language possible, and as a result, he’d been Prowl’s favorite. Jazz hadn’t minded at all.

So he let Mirage do his paperwork. He let Bumblebee manage stock. And he let Smokescreen make sure their entire team was as sane as they could be, given their occupations. Smokescreen, after all, knew that Spec Ops was measured against different parameters than the average soldier despite Ratchet’s insistence that he wasn’t a real therapist.

Pfft. Real enough for Jazz’s purposes.

Still that was the set up. And it worked. Now… now Jazz did it all.

Mirage was never coming back. Even if he said he wanted to, Jazz wasn’t going to allow it. His head was no longer in the game. He’d lost too much, and Jazz couldn’t blame him. Besides, Spec Ops in peace-time had a different flavor than Spec Ops in war-time. All of his mechs deserved the chance to enjoy this peace.

As for Jazz, well, he couldn’t enjoy his peace until he was certain it was going to stick around. Sure Grimlock had Starscream well in hand, and Shockwave was in a Decepticon dungeon. But there were other terrible Decepticons still roaming the universe. Metalhawk was a pain in everyone’s aft, and Cybertron remained unstable.

Jazz couldn’t relax until the shadows were gone from Optimus’ optics. And if that meant he was on his own, well, he’d been in worse straits.

He still had Bumblebee sometimes. He borrowed Smokescreen when he could. He told Trailbreaker to stay with Hound, now and forever, so both of them were out. But maybe if he was lucky, Jazz could borrow a cassette or two. He caught Buzzsaw grumbling about how boring things were, and Frenzy was the third wheel on the Brumble bike, so maybe he wanted a job, too.

None of these mechs, however, wanted anything to do with Jazz’s paperwork. Now he had part of Optimus’ on top of his own. Which, okay, he was fine taking on some of Optimus’ load. He’d taken a peek at Ratchet’s report when Ratchet wasn’t looking and honestly, Jazz was surprised Optimus hadn’t dropped before now. He was in bad shape.

Forced rest and recovery could only do him some good. Jazz fully supported Ratchet’s decision and so did Ultra Magnus. With all three of them in agreement, Optimus couldn’t protest. He had no choice but to get better. Which was what Jazz wanted.

It still left him with a lot of paperwork, even after dumping half of it on Ultra Magnus.

Jazz sighed and put down his stylus, slumping in his chair. He removed his visor temporarily and rubbed his faceplate, feeling an ache building at the back of his optics. What he ought to do was send half of his half to Soundwave. Let him do it. He was always up Optimus’ aft anyway. Surely he knew more about this than Jazz, and he had more help than Jazz did.

Except that he probably shouldn’t disturb Soundwave right now.

Jazz leaned on his desk, propping his helm up with his fist as he snapped his visor back on. The last thing he wanted to do was interrupt whatever cute little interlude was going on between Optimus and Soundwave.

Jazz never thought he’d see the day when he was encouraging Megatron’s most loyal lieutenant to pursue Optimus. But here he was. Encouraging it. So long as Soundwave was sincere which of course he was. Soundwave didn’t do anything by halves, and he would have never betrayed Megatron if Megatron hadn’t betrayed him first.

A mech like that, he’d be good for Optimus. He’d keep an optic on him and treat him the way he deserved to be treated, and well, Optimus would be good for Soundwave, too. Poor Sounders needed a mech who wasn’t going to take advantage of him.

They needed each other.

As for Jazz?

He needed to get this damn datawork done so he could call it a night.

Jazz groaned and shifted his attention back to his paperwork. He shuffled the half-dozen or so datapads on his desk, searching for one that might capture his interest, at least for a little while. One of them was labeled “Search for Natives.” Jazz squinted at it before dragging it closer.

He powered it on and skimmed the introduction before wriggling in his chair. This was Hound and Ravage’s report! Why wasn’t it at the top of the stack? Why wasn’t it in Jazz’s stack to begin with?

Maybe he’d need to have a word with Ultra Magnus about the proper distribution of mission reports. Hound was clearly in Spec Ops, even if his mission was determined by Optimus. This was obviously Jazz’s jurisdiction. Hmph.

He went back to the report, which was classic Hound, heavy on the details and observations, almost to the point of detriment. But observation was kind of Hound’s thing. Smokescreen was the one who picked apart the observations to find the truth behind them. Mirage was the one who could get into places no one else could, but Hound? He was about details. He sniffed them out.

And, apparently, he sniffed out the humans, too. Or at least, he thought he had.

Jazz’s grin widened.

Trailbreaker had found a signal. They’d tracked it down to what appeared to be an underground bunker somewhere deep in the Rockies. Not government issued, thank Primus. Jazz really didn’t want to deal with a surviving human government. He wanted to deal with real people, not bureaucracy.

Ravage got close enough to tell there was some kind of human presence, but short of breaking in, they weren’t able to establish contact. Unless they wanted to announce themselves through the radio signals they picked up.

They waited for further orders.

Optimus was going to be ecstatic. The death of the native species on Earth had been one of the things that weighed heaviest on his spark. Boss bot took on too much as it was, and while yeah, their crash-landing on Earth had brought the Cybertronian war to the planet, they’d done the best they could.

Anyway. Hound needed orders.

Jazz rapped his fingers on the top of the desk. He needed a liaison. Someone to make contact with the humans who wouldn’t frighten them. Someone they saw as a friend, perhaps someone who didn’t look dangerous, at least to a human.

Hound and Trailbreaker were nice enough, but they were big, Trailbreaker especially. Ravage was an overlarge black cat and had become something of a celebrity amongst the humans as a Decepticon.

And just like before, Jazz knew who would be perfect for the job.

He leaned back in the chair and pinged his favorite organic liaison. “Bumblebee? Got a new mission for ya, and it’s non-negotiable.” He paused, his visor catching the headline for another datapad – something regarding Red Alert. “Two missions actually. All in the same place. Ya can even bring Rumble if ya want.”

This would work, Jazz decided as he started putting together the mission parameters. Plus, Bee had been missing Earth, and while there wasn’t much to see over there now, maybe it would help him out.

Jazz wouldn’t recall Hound and ‘Breaker though. Hound wasn’t ready to come back to Cybertron, and maybe he never would be. Jazz didn’t know. He would leave that up to Hound and not push.

They weren’t at war. Not anymore. Jazz didn’t need all the soldiers he could get. And he definitely didn’t need soldiers whose heads weren’t in the game. Those kinds of spies got themselves killed.

So what if he only had Smokescreen anymore? He’d worked with less before. He’d make do. He’d figure it out.

He was Jazz.
~

He was nervous.

It was an emotion Vortex was unaccustomed to enduring. At least, not for millennia. Before he was a Combaticon, before he was an Interrogator, before he’d been given an assignment… he used to be anxious. He used to be uncertain.

All of the above had rather quickly and ruthlessly stripped his anxieties from him. He couldn’t survive if he indulged in that flavor of weakness so he’d buried it deep. He built another Vortex on top of the fragile one, and locked the gentle Vortex away.

Gentle Vortex would get him killed.

But now, he dared dip past the mask. He peeled back the layers, slowly, slowly. Gentle Vortex had taken one look at Bluestreak and tried to claw his way to the surface. There was a longing there, a desperation to be something more than survival had made him.

If Brawl could do it, why couldn’t he? If Soundwave could court Optimus Prime and succeed, if Starscream could be happy in a non-fragged up relationship, then there was hope for Vortex. Not Interrogator Vortex, but the Weak Vortex.

He could do this. He believed he could. He just needed the weak half of himself to be strong. He needed to keep the learned instincts buried. He needed to not look at Bluestreak and imagine how pretty he would be if he screamed.

Vortex cycled a deep ventilation. He could do this. He would do this. He recited a calming technique he learned ages ago.

I am who I want to be. I am not what I was made but who I want to become.

And then he stepped out into the main square of Polyhex, in the shadow of the obelisk that served as a memorial for the fallen Autobots. He didn’t question why Bluestreak wanted to meet here. Everything they had chosen was for Bluestreak’s comfort. Vortex didn’t want to fail before he even started.

He wanted whatever it was his spark longed for in Bluestreak, and if there was even the slightest chance that Bluestreak might return the interest, Vortex wanted to try. That was the hardest part, wasn’t it? The trying.

It was a mission he couldn’t fail.

Bluestreak was already waiting, his posture reading tense and distracted, a touch unsure. A dark side of Vortex could easily read his frame language, from the minute twitches of sensory panels to the exact tautness of his plating. But he pushed that side down and focused on the positives.

Bluestreak had come. He hadn’t required an armed guard. He’d said yes. It was a start. It was a good start.

Bluestreak turned as Vortex approached, perhaps sensing his field, perhaps hearing the deliberate scuffs of pedesteps Vortex had made. His plating shone in the street lighting. He’d gotten himself polished, probably Mirage’s doing. He had a smile on his face, taut though it was.

“You’re early,” he said.

“So are you,” Vortex replied. “Not that, uh, it’s a bad thing. Just an observation. I hope you weren’t waiting long, I mean.” Great. He was babbling.

Weak Vortex in action. The babbler. The one who gave away too much.

Bluestreak calmed a little. His armor relaxed. His smile deepened. “No. I was early on purpose. You can probably guess why.”

Probably. Was he going to try? Nope. That was the dark Vortex. Dark Vortex wanted to read everything, know everything. Dark Vortex didn’t understand the joy of finding out naturally.

“I can. But I won’t,” Vortex said, and then almost smacked himself because that was creepy, and he knew it. “I mean, are you sure you want to do this? You didn’t just say yes because you were afraid to say no?”

Bluestreak tilted his helm. His sensory panels drifted down by a fraction, a motion of subtle relaxation. “I was a prisoner in your compound for the better part of six months. You never once touched me. Was that on threat of Onslaught or did you restrain yourself?”

Vortex snorted on instinct. “Pfft. I obey Onslaught because I want to. He can’t make me do anything,” he scoffed. He didn’t even have to think about the answer ’cause it was true.

He obeyed Onslaught because he respected Onslaught. But even if Onslaught hadn’t, Vortex wouldn’t have done anything. What fun would that have been? What would’ve been the purpose?

“That’s what I thought,” Bluestreak said and he lifted his chin, a light entering his optics that gave hint to a quiet strength, something deeply inward, that he let few see. Maybe, a little bit like the weak Vortex that he couldn’t let others see. “And that’s why I wasn’t afraid to say yes. Curious. But not afraid.”

“Curious?” There was still the space of five mech strides between them. Vortex didn’t dare cross it. He hadn’t been invited.

He was a threat. He knew he was a threat. He didn’t want to come across as a threat. He wanted whatever his spark sensed in Bluestreak’s.

Bluestreak grinned, genuine this time, and scratched at the side of his nose. “Cause if there’s anyone I’d guess you’d go after, it’d be Smokescreen, not me. He seems, um, more your type?”

Vortex tilted his helm. “My type?” He didn’t know why he asked. He already knew the answer. Mechs looked at him and they just saw the Vortex who survived. They never wondered if there was another Vortex underneath.

“Oh.” Bluestreak’s face heated. “That’s rude, isn’t it? To assume you have a type. I should know better.” His orbital ridges drew down, his gaze sliding to the side. “Assumptions are annoying, aren’t they? People make their judgments of you at first glance and that colors the rest of their observations. After that, it doesn’t matter what you do or say. You’re forever painted that color.” His tone flattened, but beneath it, a lingering sense of annoyance.

Ah. There it was. The reason Vortex’s spark had throbbed an extra beat. Bluestreak understood.

“It happens,” Vortex demurred, his spark spinning with joy. “But that you’re here proves that people don’t always keep that first impression, right?”

Bluestreak’s optics slid back toward him, brightening. “Right.” He nodded and planted his pedes. “So let’s get this date started. You. Me. And whatever it is you have planned.”

Vortex stared at him. “You trust me to decide?”

Bluestreak stepped closer, until their fields were close enough to touch. “Sure,” he said, looking up at Vortex with a genuine smile this time. “Why not?”
~

“Yes!”

Bumblebee watched as Rumble did a little dance and pumped both fists into the air. He looked far too excited to be on Earth.

“Why?” he had to ask, because Bumblebee himself was having trouble working up any kind of enthusiasm.

What he saw before him resembled a barren wasteland. The forest was gone, the mountains barren as though laid to waste. It was too quiet, except for the occasional chirp of the rare insect. It was nothing like what Bumblebee remembered.

“Because Frenzy didn’t come with us,” Rumble replied with a large grin. He bumped shoulders with Bee. “And now we can finally get some alone time. I love my twin, but Primus-on-a-pogostick he’s a nuisance.”

Bumblebee managed to dredge up a chuckle. “Then lucky for you he and Eject seem to be striking up a friendship.”

“Lucky for both of us,” Rumble corrected, and he reached for Bumblebee’s hand, tangling their fingers together. “You gonna be okay. Ya kinda look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Bumblebee sighed. “I didn’t think it would be this hard. Coming back here.” They started toward the temporary-now-permanent station that Kup and his team had built. “I don’t think I ever realized how attached I was to this planet.”

“Sorry. I forgot, too.” Rumble squeezed his hand. “Earth wasn’t much fun for us so I was glad ta leave. But you had friends here.”

Friends.

Bumblebee’s spark squeezed.

He remembered their human friends asking them not to leave. Sparkplug had insisted the American government had no right to force them out. He’d actually asked that they go to a different country if they had to. Carly was certain that the Decepticons couldn’t be gone; she begged them to reconsider. Spike had said nothing, only looked at Bumblebee as though they’d all broken his heart. Chip made them promise to try and return.

He didn’t know if any of them had survived.

“They are probably dead,” Bumblebee said as he drew to a halt, not ready to face Kup’s crew at the moment. “I tried not to think about that before, but now that I’m here…” He shook his helm and cycled a ventilation. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin looking.”

Rumble shifted in front of Bumblebee and took his other hand. “Then let’s do it.”

Bumblebee cycled his optics. “Do what?”

“Look for your friends. We can ask for a transfer here, work under Kup, and look for ’em.”

Bumblebee worked his jaw. “But you hate Earth.”

Rumble stepped closer, until he looked up into Bumblebee’s optics, his lips curving in an oh-so-familiar smirk. “Don’t hate it. Not really. Just hate being underwater and cramped quarters. Besides. I’d be with you. Isn’t that what it’s about?”

Sometimes, he looked at Rumble and saw the mech he knew from before the war, the one who pulled him out of the gutters and helped turn his life around. Sometimes, he saw the Rumble who’d hurled insults and grenades at him during the course of the war. And then there were times he saw Rumble presently, a mech who was determined to make things right, and who loved Bumblebee fully and honestly.

“We should see what information Kup has to offer before we make any plans to stay,” Bumblebee said as he squeezed Rumble’s hands. “Plus, we do have another job to do first.”

“Yeah. Finding the memory cores. I remember.” Rumble leaned in and stole a kiss before Bumblebee could react, and never mind the heat in his faceplates at the thought someone could have seen them. “So let’s get that over with so we can look for your friends, all right?”

Bumblebee nodded. “Sounds like a plan.” He paused, squeezing Rumble’s hands before his partner could wander away. “Thank you.”

Rumble leaned in for another kiss, this one softer and sweeter and who cared if anyone saw them? They had a lifetime of being at war with each other to make up for.
~

“Thank you for coming,” First Aid said as he met Ambulon outside the Autobot medical center and escorted the Neutral medic inside. “I am actually surprised Metalhawk approved your visit.”

Ambulon’s smile was thin around the edges, his shoulders hunched, his paint an oddly mottled swath of pale colors and bright spots. “He said, and I quote, that he intended to foster good relations and offering medical aid to those in need was something of a given.”

“I see.” First Aid wasn’t sure he trusted that, but he would go along with it for now. “Still, I appreciate the assistance. Spark specialists are rare.”

Ambulon’s smile thinned even further if that was at all possible. “The specialization evolved as something of a necessity.”

“How so?”

Ambulon’s hands tightened around the datapad he carried. “Decepticons,” he said tightly. “And their fascination with combiner technology. It’s a product of spark mechanics as much as it is frame compatibility.”

The door to the medbay proper swung open ahead of them, and First Aid dimly registered the low dong that announced their arrival. Being as he was the on-duty medic, he would have been the one to respond.

Ratchet, finally, was getting the rest he needed since he’d been hovering over Optimus nonstop, not that First Aid could blame him.

“You were a Decepticon?” First Aid asked, unable to hide his surprise. Most of the Neutrals had been Neutral from the start. The rest tended to be former Autobots. Rarer still was the mech who left the Decepticons for a non-combatant role in the Neutrals.

Ambulon would be the first that First Aid had ever met who lived through the war. The Decepticons tended to take defectors personally. Or at least Megatron did. First Aid had heard the horror stories of the DJD.

“Yes.”

The terse answer spoke volumes.

First Aid didn’t press for more. He understood not wanting to talk about things. After all, he had three patients in his medbay who might never get to leave. Though that also explained what brand had been on the scrupulously clean section of Ambulon’s paint, opposite of his medic’s marks.

He gestured for Ambulon to follow him to the small room they used for patient records. Ambulon wanted to sift through all the data on Sideswipe and Sunstreaker before he could make a judgment call, and First Aid wasn’t comfortable data-bursting it to him. He didn’t want the Neutrals to have a copy of Sideswipe and Sunstreaker’s medical records for any reason.

“I’m sorry the room’s so small,” First Aid said as they squeezed into the narrow space, which had enough room for two chairs, a slender table, and two bookshelves piled with datapads. “Data storage is low on the list of priorities.”

“I’ve endured smaller. It’s fine.” Ambulon pulled out a chair and sat himself at the table. First Aid retrieved Sideswipe and Sunstreaker’s files. “Is there any equipment that you are lacking? Perhaps we have spares.”

First Aid set the two datapads down in front of the Neutral. “How much time do you have? Our list is endless,” he said with a sigh. “Most of what we have is taken from the Xantium or has been scavenged from Polyhex or in some cases, built by hand out of scrap parts.” Though he’d heard Ratchet scrounging together some items worth enough to trade with Swindle in hopes to acquire their more dire equipment.

“Then I’ll see what all we can spare and have it sent here,” Ambulon said, but his tone was absent as he clicked on the datapads and started to skim the available data. “This is up to date?”

First Aid leaned against the wall near the open doorway, unwilling to try and squeeze down at that table. The room was tiny and reminded him too much of the cell where he’d spent a good portion of the last several months.

“Yes. The most recent scan was taken this morning after recharge and before energon consumption.”

Ambulon nodded, though again it was with a distracted air. “They have very unique sparks. No wonder Shockwave was intrigued. Twins are something of a rarity. I have only studied two pairs in all my functioning.”

“What happened to them?”

Ambulon sighed and scrubbed a free hand down his face. “One pair died not long after splitting. Spark instability. But that’s what happens when you force the fissure.”

“And the other?

Ambulon lapsed into silence. His field drew inward, tight to his frame, and his fingers tightened around the datapads. “They died as well. With the rest of their unit.” There was grief in the way he carried himself. A personal grief that felt somehow familiar.

Despite himself, First Aid gravitated toward the available chair and lowered himself to it. “Together?”

“No. That much is myth.” Ambulon shook his helm and glanced at First Aid. “Mechs often confused the two. The difference between a branched spark and a split spark.” He lifted Sideswipe’s records pointedly. “They are split. They are separate mechs. Branched sparks are connected. When one falls, so does the other.”

First Aid hadn’t known that. He assumed all twins were alike. After all, the only ones he’d ever met were Sideswipe and Sunstreaker. Ultra Magnus’ Wreckers had once had a set, a pair named Rack ‘n Ruin, but they died. Together. First Aid assumed that the same would happen to Sunstreaker and Sideswipe.

Ratchet hadn’t even known this. Granted, he was more of a general physician than a specialist, and he’d admitted that the particulars of spark mechanics were not his strong suit but still…

First Aid peered at the Neutral medic. “How do you know so much?”

Ambulon sighed. “I used to be part of a gestalt.”

First Aid’s visor reset. He stared at Ambulon, not expecting that answer. “You did?”

The Neutral nodded. His gaze wasn’t directed at First Aid. Instead, he seemed very focused on the datapad in front of him, but something in the way his plating clamped tight to his frame was familiar.

There was pain in his posture, an old pain, an old grief.

“Eons ago,” Ambulon said, his fingers fiddling with one of the buttons. “My team was part of an experiment. An attempt to make a combiner team that hadn’t been sparked together.” He paused and gave First Aid a long look. “That research would later help craft the Combaticons, you know.”

“I didn’t know.” First Aid put down his scanner and dragged himself onto a stool. “What happened to your team?”

Ambulon’s gaze drifted away. “They died,” he said, and his armor shivered. His shoulder, where a brand had once been, seemed all the brighter. “One by one. To this day, I’m still not sure how or why I didn’t.”

“I know what you mean.” First Aid rubbed at his chestplate. “You don’t ever forget, do you? That moment when you felt them offline.”

Ambulon set down the instrument and looked at him, his optics dim. “No, you don’t. The pain doesn’t go away. It feels like they’re still inside you.”

“Talking to you,” First Aid added, his shoulders slumping. “Offering commentary even though you didn’t ask for it. Fooling you into thinking they’re still alive somewhere.”

“Yes. That.”

“Is that why you joined the Neutrals?”

Ambulon audibly cycled a ventilation and set down the datapads. “I left the Decepticons without a plan. My escape shuttle broke down. I was floating in empty space waiting to die. Metalhawk’s crew saved my life.”

“You went by a different name then, didn’t you?”

“The mech I was before, he died with the rest of my team. Ambulon wasn’t a better choice but…” He shrugged, giving First Aid a wry look. “All the best names are taken.”

First Aid chuckled despite himself. “Left arm,” he said, tapping his shoulder. “You?”

“Right leg.”

First Aid cycled his visor, and then laughed louder, more genuine this time. “And you picked Ambulon on purpose?”

The Neutral medic shrugged again. “Made it a little bit easier to laugh at myself.” His lips curled toward a gentle smile. “I wasn’t Scalpel anymore. I knew I couldn’t forget who I was, but I hoped changing my name would at least help me move on.”

“Did it?”

Ambulon’s optics – a Neutral gold shade – dimmed even further. “Some days are better than others,” he admitted.

“And some days are worse,” First Aid agreed. He folded his arms over his spark, concentrating on the familiar pulses of it. “I don’t think I could give up my designation. It’s all I have left that connects me to them.”

Ambulon tilted his helm. “We all grieve differently. There’s no right or wrong way. And that’s after I’ve had centuries to get used to feeling this lonely…” He trailed off as though admitting his inner pain had been a mistake before offering First Aid a wan smile. “It is nice, however, to know I am no longer the only one.”

First Aid’s visor brightened in agreement. “It is.” It would be nice, too, to have a friend. Wheeljack and Ratchet were invaluable to him, but he’d been so close to his team that First Aid struggled to form a connection with anyone else. “Would you… be interested in exchanging personal comms?” he asked, but was quick to add. “Please don’t feel obligated to say yes. I only thought—”

“Yes,” Ambulon said, and his expression softened. “I would enjoy being able to have a conversation with you that isn’t being monitored.” His field opened to First Aid, just enough that he could sense the offer was genuine. “Especially since we should probably get to work. I have permission to be here, but too long gone and I’m sure Metalhawk will become anxious.”

“Good point. Back to work then.” First Aid made shooing motions. “We’ll have plenty of time to talk later.”

Ambulon’s optics glinted at him. “Yes, we will.”
~

Soundwave pressed a kiss to Optimus’ fingers before he left. It was an action so chaste that it should not have caused a wave of warmth to spread through Optimus’ frame, and yet it did.

Optimus swore that his fingers tingled, though only the truly romantic believed such a thing happened. He stared out the door as Soundwave left, his spark lighter than it had been in weeks.

It was not what he could have expected.

He was glad, at least, that Laserbeak had stayed. That she perched even now on the head of the berth beside him and nudged her helm against his.

He would return, if you asked, she sent to him, a smiling emoji attached to the purely text communication. Her field pushed at his, warm with affection and amusement.

To his dismay, Optimus’ face heated with the beginnings of a blush. “That is not necessary,” he replied. “I should be recharging anyway. Ratchet would insist.”

And you always obey Ratchet, Laserbeak commented with another trickle of amusement. She shuffled over on the head of the berth as though making herself more comfortable. Are you sure? All it would take is a little nudge.

Optimus chuckled despite himself and turned his helm so that he could look at Laserbeak, her optics glinting back at him. “You are a menace,” he said teasingly. “I can tell I am going to have to watch you closely.”

You and Master are a good match, she replied with a touch of smug superiority that was Soundwave through and through. I am only encouraging what is obvious to everyone else.

She had a point. Optimus remembered the knowing looks Ratchet kept giving him, and the ones Jazz echoed, though his with a touch of amusement. He wondered if Jazz harassing Soundwave had a secondary intent other than sussing out Soundwave’s intentions. Optimus supposed he would have to have a chat with his third tomorrow.

But you are also right, Laserbeak continued with that same mischievous edge to her text she had earlier. You need rest and if I keep you awake, Ratchet will come in here and yell at me.

“He wouldn’t. Not at you. I would bear the brunt of his displeasure,” Optimus said with a gentle smile.

He thought he wouldn’t be able to recharge. Given the nightmares that usually haunted him when he was most vulnerable, Optimus expected to spend half the night cycle staring at the lights on the equipment around him.

Laserbeak’s presence was a surprising soother.

Optimus settled himself into the berth, surprised also by how much of a comfort the thin metalmesh blanket Ratchet had provided gave him as well. There was something about the barely-present weight and warmth of it that calmed him.

He sent a ping to the lights so they would dim, and the room draped itself in pockets of shadow intermingled with bright orange and red and blue lights. As far as he could tell, all the machines monitoring him were reporting back positive results.

Recharge well, Optimus, Laserbeak sent, a smiling emoticon and a hugging one transmitting to him. Recharge in peace. I will guard your rest.

And not a better guardian could he ask for. “Goodnight, Laserbeak,” Optimus replied aloud and he offlined his optics, cycling long, slow ventilations as he attempted to initiate recharge.

It came to him swiftly and for the first time since the Autobots had been liberated from Megatron’s tyranny, Optimus did not dream.

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