[Crown the Empire] Salvage 14

“Have I mentioned how much I hate tunnels?” Bumblebee asked.

Rumble chuckled, though it sounded strained. “Only ten times in the past hour alone.”

“Well, let me repeat it again.” Bumblebee ducked to avoid another dip in the rock ceiling and inched further into the cave.

It was a honeycomb maze down here. He didn’t know how the humans navigated it without inbuilt orientation calculations and the background program Bumblebee had running that measured and kept track of their progress, slowly but surely building a map.

Then again, he supposed if one was looking for somewhere to hide, a labyrinth of tunnels underground was a good place to start.

“Blame the humans, not me.” Rumble peered down at his tracker, which pointed them unerringly toward what they hoped were human refugees.

Bumblebee bit back a sigh and continued onward. It felt like the weight of the Earth pressed down on them. It smelled damp and musty. Something skittered in the darkness, and while Bumblebee wasn’t afraid of insects, he didn’t much like them scrambling against his substructure.

“Quiet, both of you,” Ravage called back, her voice a hushed hiss that seemed to carry further than the sound of their conversation. She was far ahead of them, biolights cut to nil, so she was only a darker shape against the black enclosing them.

Rumble sighed and cast Bumblebee a grin, one that was barely visible in the dim glow offered by their biolights. Bumblebee had cut off his headlights some twenty minutes ago, using them sparingly to conserve energon. He moved closer, dropping his voice so it wouldn’t carry.

“That’s the tone of someone who’s frustrated,” Rumble said with the air of mischief. “Hound’s not ready, and she’s refusing on principle.”

Bumblebee startled. “Rum,” he hissed, both scandalized and chastising. “One, I don’t know how you know that or why. Two, I fail to see where it’s a bad thing.”

Rumble shrugged. “Didn’t say it was. Just said that if Rav’s a bit testy, that’s why.” His gaze wandered back to the scanner, focusing on the blip that grew stronger and stronger, especially when they took a tunnel on the sharp right. “TB isn’t even interested in it at all. That’s the weirdest part.”

Sometimes, Rumble was the worst sort of gossip. Then again, considering that his carrier was Soundwave, the leader of secret-keeping and controller of all things communications, should Bumblebee be surprised.

“It’s not weird at all. That’s just how he is,” Bumblebee retorted.

“You knew?”

It was Bumblebee’s turn to shrug. “Jazz knows all. Kind of like your boss.” He stared down at his shorter lover? Partner? Mate? Eh, he’d worry about titles later. “Please tell me you haven’t been insulting him.”

“Of course not.” Now it was Rumble’s turn to look offended. His armor fluffed out, as though trying to make himself larger. “I know who ta tease and who not to. I’m not stupid.” He huffed a ventilation.

“Neither of you are being quiet,” Ravage called back to them mere seconds before the glint of her optics was caught by an echo of Bumblebee’s biolights. “You are making for poor spies.”

Rumble planted a hand on his hip. “Aren’t ya supposed to be scoutin’ ahead? Ya ain’t that great yourself.”

Ravage flicked an ear at him. “I found a door.”

“Really?” Bumblebee stared past her, toward the dark tunnels. “Is it locked?”

Ravage’s gaze shifted toward him, something flickering in her optics. “No. I opted to wait for the both of you before entering.” She rose to her pedes and turned her back on them, tail flicking. “I suspect this is not the good news we had all hoped for.”

Bumblebee’s spark dropped into his tank. He exchanged a glance with Rumble before he wordlessly followed Ravage. The feline’s tone spoke all.

Silence fell, save for the insects skittering in the dark and the bats chittering to each other several tunnels over. Sound carried all too well down here.

Bumblebee clicked his headlights on. If Ravage’s tone was any indication, he had little concern for alerting anyone to their presence.

What they found at the end of the tunnel barely qualified as a door. It was door-shaped and wedged into the rock, but it had no hinge and seemed lodged into place. A few cracks around the frame exuded a very dim, flickering glow, like that of candlelight. If there were humans behind it, Bumblebee could not hear them.

“Let’s get this over with,” Rumble said, but his tone carried none of his usual flippancy.

He walked up to the door, worked his fingers into the gap, and yanked it free. The resulting screech echoed around them, sending feedback into Bumblebee’s audials. Grit rained down on them.

The silence afterward was most telling.

Rumble leaned the door against the tunnel wall and together, the three of them ventured forth. They found themselves in a decently sized space, living quarters of a sort. There were areas sectioned off by thin sheets and supplies scattered about. The flickering had indeed come from a candle, but one of those electronic ones. It was hooked up to some kind of battery system. Bumblebee was impressed the batteries had lasted this long.

There were piles of foodstuff trash behind one curtain. Others held stacks of clothing and bedding, broken equipment and the like. It had all been rummaged through, once folded garments tossed aside.

There were no humans, no sign of any kind of struggle. It looked like they had packed up and left in a hurry. Though why they would leave important supplies behind, Bumblebee didn’t know.

There was a radio, however. It, Bumblebee reasoned, was the source of the transmission they were picking up. It was connected to a cord that was attached to the rock wall. He followed it with his optics. It ran the length of the wall, the ceiling, and ran toward the opposite end of the space, vanishing behind another curtain.

“Where did they go?” Rumble asked. “I mean, it’s obvious they left, but why?”

“Maybe they ran out of food. Or water,” Ravage answered as she nosed at a stack of empty plastic jugs. “It’s not like the Decepticons made much effort to locate survivors.”

Bumblebee pulled down the curtain concealing the wire and found another tunnel, this one narrower than the first. A back entrance? The wire above him continued onward, down the tunnel. Perhaps it connected to some kind of larger transreceiver outside. That would explain how they were able to send and receive signals down here.

“So this is a dead end?” Rumble said.

“Maybe not.” Bumblebee gestured toward the new tunnel, less a back entrance and more an emergency escape he suspected.

Ravage sat on her haunches. “You think we can still find them?”

“I think that I’m not willing to give up yet,” Bumblebee replied. “Humans are more resourceful than any of us know. Something tells me that this route is a lot more direct. Besides, what could it hurt to look?”

The two cassettes exchanged glances.

“What indeed,” Ravage replied and rose back to her pedes. She was the first to move past Bumblebee, delicately sniffing the air. “There is a fresher scent coming from this direction, perhaps an outside access even. It is worth a look.”

Rumble shrugged and spread his hands. “Why not?” he grinned. “Beats going back to Cybertron.”

“Then let’s go. Ravage, you’re up.”

Ravage twitched her tail at him. “Someday, I will make you the first to leap into danger while I trail behind,” she said before loping off into the darkness, leaving them to follow.

Bumblebee chuckled to himself as Rumble moved to follow her. Bumblebee lingered long enough to get another look behind him. It felt a lot like chasing ghosts, but if there was the slightest chance to find survivors, Bumblebee didn’t want to miss it.

He owed it to them all.

~

There was chaos in the outer medical rooms. Chromedome had peered into the hallway once. No one noticed him, but he’d gotten the sense that it was none of his business. The sight of a bleeding mech in black and white – Jazz, according to Metalhawk’s datafiles – had been all the information he’d needed.

So. Metalhawk had moved into stage three already.

In the madness, they’d forgotten about him. Chromedome hoped they would continue to do so. As long as he was here, under the guise of repairing Red Alert, Metalhawk would not press him for information. Which meant, for a time, he was safe.

Chromedome sank back into his chair, perched close to Red Alert for obvious reasons, and braced his elbows on his knees. He leaned forward, stared down at his hands, extended and retracted his mneumosurgery needles, over and over again.

Snikt-shunk. Snikt-shunk. Snikt-shunk.

It was the kind of rhythmic noise that would have irritated Red Alert, were he anything more than an empty slate waiting to be repaired. Something Chromedome could do, had he the right data. Not that Red Alert would ever be the same.

There would always be a shadow, shifting on his spark. Chromedome could do nothing to fix that. It was not in his jurisdiction. He hadn’t told the Autobots, of course. Not and risk what little regard they had for him.

He’d thought joining the Neutrals was a better course of action. But in the end, they were just another faction, just another set of rules to follow or break. Just another way for someone to make use of his skills for their own ends.

He’d lost count of the number of mechs he’d altered. A few had given their consent. A few had asked to forget, but most had no choice.

Forget or die. That wasn’t much of an option.

Chromedome was tired.

The door to Red Alert’s room slid open with a chirrup of override codes, and he didn’t have to look to know it was Rewind, his self-appointed escort and guide. With the medics busy trying to save Jazz’s spark, it could be no one else.

“Domey?”

His spark squeezed at the affectionate nickname. When was the last time someone treated him with such decency? Such warmth?

He looked up at Rewind and wondered if his visor showed the bleakness that had leached into his field. “Your third-in-command is fighting for his spark,” Chromedome said with a vocalizer gone staticky. “Your Prime deserves to know why.”

It might end in his death. Or incarceration. Sometimes, Chromedome didn’t know which was preferable. He only knew he couldn’t continue on like this.

Snikt-shunk. Snikt-shunk.

Rewind hovered in the doorway, staring at him. “You know who did this?”

“Yes and no.” Chromedome stayed seated, aware of their height difference, unwilling to loom or threaten. “I can guess who shot him. I know who ordered it.”

The minibot stepped inside, letting the door slide shut behind him. “I can call Optimus if you want,” he offered, and he dared come closer, despite the traitor in his midst. “He’ll want to hear this but… why?”

Chromedome cycled a ventilation and dipped his helm. It was hard to put into words the reasons behind his choices, at least, not without damning himself in Rewind’s view.

“Do you know how long we were in orbit around Cybertron before Metalhawk decided it was safe to land?”

Rewind’s field was like a flash-fire filled with shock as it bounced around the room. “I suspect I’m not going to like the answer.”

“Months.” Chromedome tangled his fingers together, pressing his palms, fighting back the urge to extend his needles. “We watched. Waited. Surely, Metalhawk rationalized, we would have an opportunity.”

Because that was what Neutrals did. They watched while the Autobots and the Decepticons squabbled. They swooped in to pick up the pieces and congratulated themselves on being too righteous for war. After all, whatever the two factions were fighting for, it had nothing to do with them.

All they wanted was Cybertron back the way it was.

And so they waited for the Autobots and the Decepticons to kill each other. To wipe one another out. Because Megatron would never lay down arms, and Optimus Prime never seemed willing to do what was necessary. There would be no peace, no truce, in this war. There would only be the dead and those who escaped it.

Metalhawk preached a bright, hopeful future. But there were more Neutrals than a single mech could hope to control. There would be compromises, far too many compromises, and Chromedome knew that the single unifying factor – we are unwilling to risk our lives for this war – would not be enough to sustain peace amid the Neutrals for too long.

What Metalhawk wanted… it couldn’t be done. Or it could, but it would be no better than the Cybertron they’d left behind.

A Cybertron where mechs like Rewind were lesser beings, lesser creatures, because they could and did depend on the kindness and strength of another.

The Autobots and the Decepticons would destroy each other, and all that would be left were the cowards unwilling to fight for their own freedoms. They’d willingly bow to Metalhawk’s rule because it had to be better, didn’t it, then whatever they’d left behind.

Chromedome’s tank churned.

“We received every broadcast Megatron issued,” he continued, his armor drawing in tight, Rewind’s stare feeling so much like judgment. “He wasn’t taking care to hide them after all. He wanted the whole galaxy to know his strength. Metalhawk told us to wait. That we’d only be getting ourselves killed if we interfered. We were Neutrals. And so we did. We waited.”

Rewind moved closer. “How long?” he asked. There was nothing in his tone that suggested anger or disappointment.

Chromedome’s plating creaked. “Since he captured your medic.”

Rewind’s swift intake of ventilation was like a blaster shot in the silence of the room.

“Well,” he said, after a long moment, ripe with his struggle to comprehend the magnitude of what Chromdedome had revealed. “Metalhawk certainly takes the definition of Neutrality to its outright end, doesn’t he?”

Chromedome shook his helm. “In the end, we’re just another faction. Don’t let anything he says fool you.”

Rewind crouched down in front of him, his hands resting over Chromedome’s with a gentle warmth. “It was war,” he said, as though that should be all the reason, all the excuse Chromedome needed.

He cycled a ventilation and dimmed his visor. “Call Optimus Prime. I have a lot to tell him.” He gave a sidelong glance to Red Alert. “I may never be able to fix Red, but maybe I can at least make a difference in this.”

Rewind’s fingers squeezed over his. It felt like a comfort he didn’t deserve, but Chromedome leaned into it nevertheless.

~

The ‘Round Table’ as Jazz had once jokingly called it, had looked empty as of late, and it felt even emptier still without Jazz’s personality to fill his spot. Mirage was there, acting on behalf of his former commander this one last time, but he did not have the energy Jazz seemed to carry despite the circumstances.

Optimus ached, and worried that he was not effective at concealing it.

Prowl and Ironhide were not here. In their places were Ultra Magnus and Springer, both good, decent, and honorable mechs. Optimus trusted them with his spark. He trusted they would do well to fill their seats.

Yet, he could not look at them without seeing the ghosts of the mechs Optimus had relied upon for so long.

Red Alert, also, was absent, though still alive in a manner of speaking. In his place sat Soundwave, not their director of security but the closest thing to it. Looking at the former Decepticon filled Optimus with warmth, but he was ever aware of the lack of Red Alert’s presence.

They had all balanced one another. Learned to tolerate or tease one another’s quirks. They’d had centuries to get used to one another, to trust one another.

It felt like all of that had changed in the shutter of an optic.

Optimus cycled a ventilation and focused on finishing the cube of medical grade Soundwave had brought him, more than aware of the affixed stare a very tired Ratchet was pointing his direction. Ratchet had officially, and with much reluctance, released Optimus from his confinement in the medical center. But it was with the caveat he take care of himself according to Ratchet’s standards. He’d then turned around and appointed Soundwave to make certain Optimus did just that.

Once upon a time, their concern would have felt like a burden, another way for Optimus to disappoint. Now it was comforting.

The conference room door opened again, Blaster slipping inside before it shut behind him. He took the last seat between Mirage and Springer, a bright red buffer between the cold noble and the irascible Wrecker. Optimus inwardly thanked him for recognizing a potential issue in the making.

“Are we waiting for anyone else?” Ultra Magnus asked, ever brisk and professional, and the echoes of Prowl swirling about him like a punch to the senses.

“No,” Ratchet said and slumped further in his chair, rubbing at the base of his chevron. “And if we could make this as quick as possible, that would be great. I haven’t recharged in days.”

Once upon a time, Ratchet wouldn’t have admitted how tired he was. He would have worked himself right into glitching with poor Wheeljack having to drag him to berth. They had all of them changed.

Optimus gave Ratchet an apologetic glance. “Please update us on Jazz’s condition, Ratchet.”

The Chief Medic rubbed harder at his chevron. “He’s going to live,” Ratchet said, his optics dimming. “It’ll be a day or two before I can risk bringing him online, but he’s going to live.”

“You really are as good as they say,” Springer commented.

Ratchet’s optics slid toward him balefully. “I had a lot of help,” he corrected. “If not for the quick response in getting him to the medbay, and First Aid knowing exactly what to do, he wouldn’t have made it. That shot breached spark containment which wouldn’t have been so bad, save it clipped an old weld I’d done centuries ago. One that’d gone brittle.”

Optimus cycled a startled vent, and he wasn’t the only one. Mirage went as still as stone. Blaster squirmed in his chair. He and Jazz were close.

“Lucky shot?” Ultra Magnus asked.

“For Jazz, yes. I’d say the sniper missed but…” Ratchet rolled his shoulders in a shrug and spread his hands. “I’m not a ballistics expert. Either whoever did this just isn’t very good, or they are too good.”

Blaster cleared his vocalizer. “So good that they missed?”

“They did not miss,” Optimus corrected, his short-term chip bringing up images of Jazz, limp and lifeless under Ratchet’s hands.

“Oh, they missed,” Ratchet said, stirring himself into a proper wroth. “A few micrometers to the left and they’d have punched through his spark core.”

Ultra Magnus leaned forward, his stylus flying across the datapad. “An assassin who is a very good sniper. How many do we know who fit the criteria?”

“At least two dozen,” Springer said with a languid sprawl into his chair. “Some of ours. Some of theirs. I don’t know enough about Metalhawk’s crew. He’s, unsurprisingly, not forthcoming with the details.”

Optimus’ gaze slid to Jazz’s stand-in. “Mirage?”

The former noble stirred, though the ice in his gaze did not ease. “No trace. The vid feeds have been scrubbed. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Jazz did it himself. Or one of Soundwave’s minions.” He paused and tilted his helm. “That was not an accusation, Soundwave, but a compliment.”

“Understood,” Soundwave replied. Nothing in his posture suggested offense, but Optimus was aware that something of a rivalry had developed between his Special Ops Unit and Soundwave over the course of the war.

Blaster twitched and held up a hand. “Hold on a sec, all. I’m thinkin’ our answers are about to walk through the door.”

Optimus straightened. “What do you mean?”

Blaster gave him a lop-sided grin. “Looks like one of Metalhawk’s cronies wants to come in from the cold. Should I give Rewind the okay to bring him in?”

“Please do.”

They all, as one, turned their attention to the door, which had to be disconcerting to whomever stood on the other side of it. The door slid open, Rewind entering first, but in his wake came Chromedome, the very same mech they had entrusted with Red Alert’s recovery.

Chromedome hovered in the doorframe, but inside enough that the door slid shut and nearly clipped his back tires. He stared at them, visor and battle mask making it difficult to discern his emotion, save for the nervous way he tangled his fingers together.

Optimus leaned forward against the table, bracing his elbows against it. “Chromedome, I understand there is something you wish to share with us?”

The mneumosurgeon nodded. “Yes, sir.” He paused and audibly cycled a ventilation. “Your commander was shot on Metalhawk’s order.”

Silence fell. Optimus doubted there was anyone in this room who had believed otherwise, but were only laboring under the burden of proof. Optimus didn’t for one moment think Grimlock and the Decepticons were involved, but to an outside spectator, he could see where that conclusion could be drawn. Especially considering Starscream’s current condition.

It took all Optimus had to maintain his composure. “Go on.”

Chromedome untangled his fingers and tucked them behind his back. “I volunteered to come here because I wanted to help Red Alert. Metalhawk only approved it because he wanted an inside look at your operations.” He inched away from the door, but he kept his back to the wall, a defensive posture. “He’s angling to get both Autobots and Decepticons off Cybertron. He doesn’t want you here.”

Ultra Magnus leaned back, his expression devoid of opinion. “What of the rest of the Neutrals? How do they feel in the matter?”

“Some of us just want to be home. Some of us are tired of running. Some of us are desperate to believe in the truce.” Chromedome’s visor briefly dimmed. “Some of us don’t know what to think, and all we know is how to follow.”

The last was a problem Optimus knew far too well. The inability to do anything unless there was leadership behind the prompting. He had to wonder if much of it stemmed from something in all of their base coding, so base that every Cybertronian carried it. Perhaps it was some sort of holdover from their creators back at the dawn of Cybertronian life.

But that was a wondering for another time.

“Why come to us now?” Springer asked. He wasn’t the first to think of it, but he was the first to speak it.

Chromedome sighed and his plating clamped down tightly to his protoform. “I can’t do it anymore. I want to believe in peace. I want to remember what it means to help others. I just…” He unfolded his arms, spreading his hands as though in surrender. “Even if it means I end up in a brig somewhere, I’d rather be there knowing I told the truth.”

“You seek to defect?” Ultra Magnus asked.

Chromedome nodded. “I know the truce states that any mech can petition to join another faction, but it is up to the leadership to approve it.”

“But it’s not just that Metalhawk tried to have Jazz killed,” Rewind said, speaking up for the first time. His gaze shifted to Optimus. “The Neutrals had been here for a while. They watched while Megatron tortured the Autobots, and they did nothing.”

No words could have sucked the air out of the room more effectively.

“To… to be fair,” Optimus said, struggling to speak. He didn’t want to see tension boil over, resulting in the assault of potentially innocent mechs. “They were under no obligation to render aid to an outside faction, or get involved in what appeared to be an intra-faction squabble.”

“Not by Cybertron’s laws, no, but by the Galactic Standard?” Ultra Magnus’ grip on his datapad tightened, the casing creaking under the strength of it. “The laws set by the Galactic Council are clear in this matter. The moment Megatron declared victory, the imprisoned Autobots were considered prisoners of war. There are certain standards of behavior.”

Springer shook his helm, his face blanched of color. “The Galactic Council ousted us eons ago. After the second planet Megatron destroyed in his hunt for an energy source. All Cybertronians are blacklisted.”

“That does not matter,” Mirage said, an unholy glint brightening his optics. “It’s about perception. Metalhawk claims he is better than we who chose to fight. Yet, he ignores the laws of common decency?” He turned toward Ultra Magnus. “When you came to our assistance, how did you know it was needed?”

“I picked up Megatron’s broadcast.” Ultra Magnus shifted into his seat, as though coming to a slow realization. “It gave distressingly little information in terms of origin. We had to hunt for it. Soundwave’s communication later assisted us in mounting an offensive and told me where to look.”

“Exactly. Even if Metalhawk hadn’t wanted to risk himself or his crew, he could have arranged for assistance using other means. He after all, did not have his communications blocked,” Mirage said. The fire in his optics brought new life to his frame, made his field for once tangible and energetic.

Optimus inclined his helm. He had to admit that Mirage had made a very good point. There was not getting involved, and then there was watching from the shadows, like a scavenger to pick up the pieces so as not to dirty one’s own hands.

He rapped his fingers on the table top and looked at Ultra Magnus. “Is that enough cause to confront Metalhawk?”

“Perhaps.” Ultra Magnus set down one datapad and picked up another. “I’ll need to review the laws. Something tells me that while I consider myself an expert, Metalhawk has memorized everything applicable, down to the last semi-colon.”

“For now, we should concentrate on gathering evidence against Metalhawk.” Optimus laced his fingers together and bracing his elbows on the edge of the table. “There is some truth to his threat. We are outnumbered by the Neutrals. If we can’t prove he was actively working against peace, we will find ourselves ousted from Cybertron.”

Springer’s engine rumbled. “I will be damned if I get tossed off a planet I risked my spark for a thousand times over.”

“Then we will do this correctly,” Ultra Magnus said.

Ratchet shoved his chair back and stood. “Seeing as this is all political nonsense and things that don’t concern me, mind if I excuse myself to the berth?”

Optimus waved him along, glad that his mask hid his smile. “Enjoy your rest, Ratchet. Do let me know when Jazz can receive visitors.”

“Will do.” Ratchet nodded at each of them before spinning on a heel strut, wobbling toward the door. He must have been exhausted to not even bother with a pretense of alertness.

He did pause, however, to speak to Chromedome. Whatever he said was for the mneumosurgeon as it was spoken only loud enough that an eavesdropper would have to strain to overhear. It did, however, seem to relax Chromedome to a degree. He nodded, some of the tension leaving his armor.

Ratchet left, Chromedome gingerly slid into the seat Ratchet vacated, and back to business it was.

“We will need to speak with Grimlock,” Optimus said, once the door had closed behind Ratchet. “Undoubtedly the rumor mill has already begun, and I wish to show a solid front.”

“Speaking of the Decepticons, you should know Metalhawk was responsible for Starscream’s accident as well,” Chromedome said. “Though again, the how and the why, I don’t know. I just know it was the first stage, an attempt to sow discord between the Autobots and the Decepticons.”

Optimus sighed and rubbed at his forehelm. “We are fortunate that Metalhawk knew nothing of Grimlock, otherwise he would have realized such tactics would have never succeeded.”

“Onslaught still active in Nova Cronum,” Soundwave pointed out, the first time he had spoken since the meeting began. “Possibility of retrieving proof?”

“Good point. I will contact him as well. Anyone else?” Optimus asked. Primus knew there were dozens of other topics to discuss: the reconstruction, finding a stable orbit for Cybertron, the Autobots still in need of recovery, the humans on Earth, et cetera.

But one crisis at a time.

“What about Chromedome?” Rewind asked. He’d moved to Chromedome’s side, standing next to the Neutral as though protecting him. “Can he stay?”

“If he fills out the proper paperwork,” Ultra Magnus said.

Optimus, despite everything, smiled internally. Say what they did about Ultra Magnus, but he was not one for the nuances of things. While his second might grumble a little about it, Ultra Magnus was one to see the world for what it was – complicated.

“Yes,” Optimus answered. “From what I’ve seen, you’ve made a genuine attempt to restore Red Alert. Though my concern is Metalhawk. You realize you need his approval to leave? At least, if you wish to do so without causing an incident.”

“I am certain Metalhawk would use such a thing to his advantage. Especially given how much time Chromedome has spent here,” Mirage said, with Blaster nodding in agreement. Mirage’s interlaced fingers and slow nod were purely noble politics. He knew how to play the game.

Soundwave inclined his helm. “Metalhawk initially refused Tailgate’s defection to Decepticons,” he said, though how he knew that, Optimus had to wonder. “Metalhawk underestimated Starscream, however.”

“Don’t we all,” Blaster commented with a shake of his helm. “I say petition anyway. If Metalhawk is sincere like he claims, he won’t raise a stink. If he tries to contest, he might stumble and give us more ammunition. Especially since Domey here has a sponsor.”

Optimus straightened in his chair. “A sponsor?” While one wasn’t necessary, the treaty did dictate that an individual could acquire a sponsor from the faction they wished to join. Said sponsor would expedite their transfer and defection request, as well as take responsibility for the actions of said mech during his probationary transfer.

Rewind lifted a hand. “I kind of… volunteered?”

Optimus cycled his optics. He knew he wasn’t the only one. He knew that Rewind had been tasked with keeping an optic on Chromedome, but he hadn’t realized that a friendship had been born from it.

“All the better,” Ultra Magnus said after rebooting his vocalizer with a loud crackle. “That brings further legitimacy to the petition and puts Metalhawk in the awkward position of questioning your intentions.”

Springer leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms above his helm. “Given the rate of mechs flocking from his side, you’d think Metalhawk would realize the problem isn’t us.”

“We are blind to our own faults,” Optimus said, thinking of his own, of course. He had made many wrong choices over the course of the war and the unrest leading up to it. “I suspect he either does not have a diverse cabinet to advise him, or chooses to ignore their advice.”

“It’s a bit of both actually,” Chromedome offered. “Sky-Byte is like Metalhawk, he hates Autobots and Decepticons equally and is fully on board with the plan to get rid of both factions. Skids has been petitioning for patience, but Sky-Byte is a lot louder when he gets riled up. They feed each other.”

“Good to know,” Ultra Magnus said, and jotted down something on his datapad. “Would you be inclined to speaking with me in private? I feel that even the smallest detail could help us build a case against him, one that is liable to stand up not only in the optics of Cybertronian refugees, but the eyes of the Galactic Council as well.”

Chromedome nodded. “Sure. It’ll be nice to do some good for a change.”

There was something ominous in that statement. Optimus made a mental note to investigate it further, though he suspected Ultra Magnus would do the work for him, giving the notation he just made.

“Then if there is nothing further, I will call this meeting to an end. We can return at a later date to compare notes and form a firm plan for Metalhawk,” Optimus said. “Is that acceptable?”

No one disagreed. Dismissed, they rose and left the room, though Chromedome and Ultra Magnus gravitated together, with Rewind lingering nearby. Blaster, however, didn’t seem bothered by the attachment, so Optimus would defer to his judgment in this instance.

The only one who persisted was Soundwave, rising from his seat further down the table to switch for one nearer to Optimus. “Tired?” he asked.

Optimus shook his helm. “I have had enough of resting.” He lifted the now empty cube of energon. “Thank you, by the way. I am sure Ratchet is relieved someone is monitoring my intake.”

“Anything for Ratchet,” Soundwave replied, a reward of his rare humor.

Optimus huffed a laugh. “Indeed.” He let Soundwave’s field wash over and through him. He leaned into the comfort it offered.

“Jazz will recover,” Soundwave said.

“Yes, I know.” Optimus cycled a ventilation. “But I had dared think such things were behind us. It frustrates me that we are still fighting the same old fights.”

“Same, but different,” Soundwave corrected. He reached for Optimus’ hand, and Optimus did not hesitate to offer it. The warmth of Soundwave’s hold was welcome. “Grimlock intelligent, not quick to judge. This is not war.”

“Mm.” Optimus leaned back into his chair, cycling a ventilation. “Which reminds me, I do need to contact him, to both inquire into Starscream’s condition and to set up a meeting. Off the books.”

Soundwave squeezed his hand. “Company desired?”

Optimus shook his helm. “No. As much as it would be welcome, I hope to draw as little attention to this meeting as possible.” Which meant the fewer involved, the more likely it was to stay under the radar.

“Understood. Soundwave to continue investigation into Jazz’s attack then.”

“We already know Metalhawk is behind it,” Optimus said, confused. “What else is there to learn?”

“Who and how. Security breach worrisome.” Soundwave rose to his pedes after another squeeze to Optimus’ fingers. “Safety a priority.”

Optimus gave him a gentle smile. “You would make for a good Director of Security.”

“Negative. That position Red Alert’s.” Soundwave’s field pulsed with affection at the offer however. “Compliment appreciated, however.”

“You’re welcome.”

Soundwave’s helm bobbed, a dip of respect. “Company offered presently.”

Optimus chuckled softly. “Yes, I would welcome Laserbeak’s company if she wishes to offer it.” He’d grown quite fond of Laserbeak’s presence. There was something soothing about her charm and her quiet humor.

Soundwave’s dock popped, freeing said cassette. Laserbeak spun into the air above both of their helms, chirping with delight, before she moved to land on Optimus’ shoulder. Her helm butted Optimus, her beak nuzzling against his audial.

“Pleasure to see you, too,” Optimus murmured as he scratched under her chin.

She chirred at him.

“Soundwave will return tonight?” Soundwave asked, drawing Optimus’ attention back toward him.

“Tonight,” Optimus confirmed. He was glad that his battle mask hid the ridiculous smile on his face. “I will see you then.”

~

“I see ya got my message.”

Soundwave did not startle visibly, but inwardly, his spark did lurch. Jazz still managed to surprise him, even after all these centuries.

He stepped further into the recovery room, letting the door slide shut behind him. Soundwave input a code into the panel to lock it and set up a privacy screen. He suspected that discretion would be the better part of valor here.

“Knew I could trust ya,” Jazz added with a lop-sided grin that was degrees off from his usual saunter.

Soundwave approached the berth. “Chromedome confessed this the result of Metalhawk’s plan,” he said with a gesture to Jazz’s current berth-locked condition. “Inaccurate?”

“That depends.” Jazz chuckled, a sound wreathed in static. “Metalhawk certainly gave th’ order, but the plan was mine.” He tilted his helm, the plating around his now-visible optics scarred and scorched. “Say, mind helpin’ an old friend out and grabbin’ my visor for me? Doc-bot thinks I don’t need it if I’m rechargin’.”

“Ratchet assumes you to be in stasis.” Soundwave turned, hunting around for the aforementioned object and finding it on a nearby table, along with a plethora of equipment that he was not surprised Jazz had been carrying.

“Pah. I learned how to override that ages ago. It’s only pain.” That lop-sided grin lingered, even as Jazz lifted his helm a fraction to aid Soundwave in slotting the visor back into place. “Mmm. That hits the spot. Thanks, Sounders.”

He cycled a ventilation and lowered himself to the chair at the base of Jazz’s berth. “Designation: Soundwave.”

“Is it?” Jazz’s visor bloomed to life after a reboot, adding light to his mischievous expression. “Yer lookin’ after Optimus good, I hope.”

Soundwave narrowed the light behind his own visor. “Jazz avoiding more important topic.”

“Just gearin’ up, mech. Calm your dock.”

Sometimes, parsing Jazz’s mannerisms was more helmache than he was worth. Soundwave resisted the urge to rub at his forehelm.

“Yes,” he said, if only to speed this along. “Optimus in good health, recharge, and fueling state.”

“Good, good. That’s what I want to hear.” Jazz wriggled a bit on the berth, though not without disturbing any of the sensors attached to his frame. They all still displayed a mech at rest, rather than one online and alert. “Now, ya got my message and yer here so that tells me you got an inklin’ of what’s goin’ on. Care to share?”

Soundwave folded his hands into his lap. “Jazz simulated attack. Why?”

“Cause I couldn’t risk Metalhawk gettin’ it in his fool helm to aim for someone else,” Jazz replied still with that damnable grin. “Soon as Starscream went down, I had Metalhawk’s angle all figured out.” He hummed in his vocalizer. “It’s classic misdirection, mech. Coulda worked if someone less smart were in charge, too. But he underestimated alla us.”

Soundwave made a non-committal noise. “Why?”

“In case ya haven’t noticed, I am lackin’ in recruits.” Jazz’s smile melted away. “Mirage is doin’ a good job of pretendin’, but he ain’t fit fer duty. Neither is Hound. Right now, yer all I got. And like it or not, yer good at what ya do.”

There was a compliment buried somewhere in there. Soundwave acknowledged it, tucked it away, but refused to let it influence him for now.

“Jazz has plans?”

“Of course.” A steely glint entered Jazz’s visor. “And since he thinks I’m outta commission, I can move around freely.”

Soundwave leaned back in his chair. He gave a pointed look to the mesh wrapped around Jazz’s mid-section and the fact that he couldn’t get out of the berth. Like it or not, plan or not, Jazz was not mobile.

The saboteur chuckled. “I meant he thinks he doesn’t hafta worry about me right now. I’ve got ya to walk around fer me.” Jazz lifted a hand, wriggling his fingers. “I mean, unless yer not into workin’ with me. I understand if I scared ya.”

Soundwave huffed a ventilation. “There is no fear.”

“Sure, sure. So I take it that’s a yes, then?”

Soundwave was not keen on the idea of lying to Optimus. Obviously, Jazz could quite effectively pretend to be in a recuperative stasis when it suited him. Which meant the only ones who knew the truth would be Soundwave, perhaps Mirage, and definitely whomever Jazz had convinced to shoot him – if not Mirage himself.

But… if somehow the truth were revealed too soon, Metalhawk might decide a better impact would be felt if Optimus were attacked instead. That was something Soundwave could not allow.

“Affirmative,” he said, though it was with some disappointment. “However, burden of blame to fall on Jazz after.”

“Ya mean with Optimus?” Jazz’s smile returned, though it felt genuine this time, soft and almost indulgent. “Yeah, mech. I got ya. If he’s mad, I’ll take the heat. It’s too cute to watch ya’ll snuggle. I’d hate to ruin that.”

Snuggle.

Soundwave wrestled with the idea Jazz had been spying on him, realized it was inevitable, and then buried the discomfort down deep. Optimus was more than a friend to Jazz. This he had known from the beginning. Optimus was precious to his Autobots, to his followers, his friends. It was understandable that they be worried about his close proximity to all the horror that Soundwave was.

Still, he didn’t have to like it.

Soundwave leaned forward. “Task to give?” he asked.

“In a tic, mech. We’re just waitin’ on one more player for th’ game,” Jazz said with a little laugh. Half his visor dimmed in a wink. “And he should be here right about…. Now.”

No sooner had the word passed Jazz’s lips then Soundwave heard the distinct noise of someone hacking the doorlock. He whirled toward it, annoyed that someone had bypassed his lock so easily, only for the irritation to melt into exasperation. Vortex. Of course it was Vortex.

“Uhhh, am I at the right party?” Vortex asked as he eased inside, the door sliding shut behind him and locking itself. With Soundwave’s own security code no less.

Frag it all. He’d have to reset everything.

From a distance, Laserbeak laughed at him. From within his dock, even Buzzsaw was amused. Soundwave firmly told both of them to be silent.

“Depends. Didja bring me a welcome gift?” Jazz asked with something near a wiggle.

Vortex gave Soundwave a long look and a wide berth. He eased around the other side of Jazz’s medberth and dug something out of subspace. The small box was passed to Jazz who opened it with glee.

Inside were candies. Just what the healing patient did not need. Ratchet was going to have a conniption if he found out. Soundwave took an image capture. For reasons.

He might need the blackmail down the line.

“Yep. Yer definitely at the right place,” Jazz said as he popped one candy into his mouth. He grinned and tipped his helm from left to right. “Tex, you know Sounders. And vice-versa.”

Vortex dipped his helm in the barest of nods. “Commander.” His rotors jittered, an action Soundwave had never quite learned to read.

“No longer serving same faction,” Soundwave replied stiffly. “Respectful addresses not required.”

Jazz groaned. “Aw, you two. Don’t start. We got work ta do, remember? We’re all gonna have to get along and cooperate. Tex, have a seat.”

“You aren’t my commander either,” Vortex bit out, but he did take the empty stool, perching upon it stiffly.

“I am fer this mission,” Jazz shot back, a dark edge to his tone. “Don’t make me tattle and contact yer boss. Right now, yer mine.”

Soundwave loudly cycled his vocalizer, hoping to forestall any further debate between the two. He had plans with Optimus later which he did not want to miss. “Task to give?” he prompted again.

“Yeah. For both of ya,” Jazz said. He shot a warning look Vortex’s direction before his grin turned sly, and his visor brightened to an Earth-sky blue. “First things first, we gotta get that rumor mill startin’ so Metalhawk can bathe in his misplaced glee.”

The worst part, Soundwave reasoned as Jazz began to detail his plan, would be interpreting every one of Jazz’s mannerisms. Subterfuge and political manipulations would be easy.

He only hoped he didn’t pay for it by losing Optimus’ trust in the process.

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