[Crown the Empire] Salvage 15

Bumblebee had trained under Ironhide, but he’d passed under Kup more than a few times when he’d first joined the Autobots. He’d gravitated toward Jazz and Spec Ops after that, and one would think that meant Kup could barely remember the scrappy yellow mech who had ended up on his aft more often than not.

One would be wrong.

Kup greeted him like they were old friends, his age-worn hands clapping down on Bumblebee’s shoulders as he looked Bumblebee up and down with a gimlet optic.

“Look atcha,” he said, pride in his voice for reasons unknown. “Not quite grown, but kicking Decepticon tail I hear anyway.”

Bumblebee, despite himself, managed a crooked grin. “Something like that.” He pointed a thumb at Rumble. “This is Rumble. A former Decepticon.”

“Reformed, eh? Those are the best kind in my opinion.” The cygar wobbled from one corner of Kup’s mouth to another, loosing a curl of smoke. “Welcome.” He shoved a hand toward Rumble, who blinked at the offer.

“Just like that?” Rumble asked, no few ounces of suspicion in his tone.

Kup rolled his shoulder. “I’ve pulled more’n a few of your kind out of the fire. Even got me one over there. When ya get as old as I am, kid, you learn to look past the little things.”

“If ya say so.” Rumble accepted the hand, which Kup shook vigorously, nearly rattling Rumble out of his armor. “And I’m not a kid.”

“Everyone’s a kid to me, kid,” Kup said with a smirk around his cygar. He loosed his hold on Rumble’s hand and removed the cygar. “So what brings ya back to my corner of the galaxy?”

“Same old mission,” Bumblebee answered, since Rumble looked like he was working himself into a fine snit. “We need to go through the Ark, and after that, meet back with Hound. Did he tell you?”

“That he might have found the locals?” Kup shrugged and replaced the cygar. “Yeah, I heard. All communication goes through this here hub.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I don’t hold much hope though. Cons can be thorough when they want ta be.”

He had a point.

They’d opted to let Hound, Trailbreaker and Ravage continue the search for the humans. The trail had gone cold when they’d found their way out of the tunnels, but Ravage thought she might have picked up the echo of a scent. Hound was eager to go chasing after it; Rumble not so much.

A compromise was made.

Bumblebee and Rumble would get to looking for the memory core, and afterward, reunite with the others. First and foremost, they needed to get their transfer approved. If a transfer was even necessary.

Kup continued, “What ya thinkin’ you’ll find in the Ark? We’ve been through it twice already, and Optimus was here a few months or so ago, too.”

Bumblebee rubbed a hand over his helm. “We’re looking for a miracle.”

“Seems like we could use a lot of those.” Kup inclined his helm. “Well, ya don’t need my permission for that. Unless ya need some of my mechs…?”

“Nope. This is just courtesy.” Bumblebee curled his lips in a grin. “Wouldn’t want you guys getting antsy about some movement inside and come in, guns blazing.”

“Antsy.” Kup repeated the word like he was tasting it. “Ya know, I downloaded the local vernacular, but it still sounds odd ta me.”

Bumblebee chuckled. “You get used to it. Thanks, Kup.”

The old mech waved them off, already turning back toward the command center, which was looking a lot more permanent than the heavy tent that had been here a week ago when Bumblebee and Rumble first arrived. They probably should have introduced themselves to Kup then, but they’d arrived late.

“Holler if ya need me. Ya’ve got my comm.”

Bumblebee tilted his helm toward the Ark. “Come on, Rumble. We have work to do.”

His partner fell into step beside him as they made for the Ark, or what was left of it to be more precise. Curiously, Kup’s crew could have moved into the abandoned ship rather than rebuild outside of it, but they had chosen not to do so. Out of respect? Perhaps.

“I’m not sure if I like him,” Rumble grumbled with a steely optic over his shoulder. His plating was fluffed, his hackles raised.

Bumblebee laughed despite himself. “Kup rubs everyone the wrong way to start. I’m sure you’ll be friends in no time.”

“Doubt it,” Rumble muttered and pushed ahead of Bumblebee. “Don’t we have work to do?”

“Yes. Though I don’t think you know where to start.”

Rumble twisted around and walked backward, somehow avoiding the debris that littered the ground as they headed deeper into the dim. Once again, Bumblebee was forced to switch on his headlights.

“And you do?” Rumble asked.

“We’ll start with Red Alert’s berth, than his office. Between the two of us and the fact the Ark is running on emergency power, we should be able to get in,” Bumblebee replied. Though ‘should’ was the operative word here.

There was no one better at security than Red Alert. His contingency plans had contingency plans for his contingency plans. Some called him paranoid, but it was only because they couldn’t draw a line between two unrelated events to see the chaos on the horizon. Red Alert could.

His processor bounced around in a thousand different directions, constantly providing him potential outcomes. Not unlike Prowl’s tactical battle computer, but a lot more random and disorganized. It wasn’t that Red Alert was paranoid, but that he could see every option imaginable, even those so implausible as to be impossible. When faced with that much data, was it any wonder he went a little nutty?

Red Alert knows all, sees all, hears all. That was the rumor. It was a joke. It was a whispered taunt to keep new recruits in line.

They never knew it was truth. Red Alert didn’t truly recharge. He ran four different processing systems, and only one was ever down at a time. Teletraan fed him terrabytes of data on a daily basis, from the tiniest of insignificant details, to the largest of them.

Red Alert was brilliant. Red Alert was a little off. Red Alert was both things and more, and he allowed few to see that.

Was it any wonder that he and Prowl had been close?

“Pfft. How hard can it be?”

“You’ll see,” Bumblebee said.

They started with Red Alert’s room. Not the last on the officer’s secondary hall, but close to it. The honor of the last room belonged to Perceptor. Red Alert’s door was closed and locked, the light glowing a baleful orange at them. It was receiving power, it was coded, and no, they couldn’t bash through it.

Rumble, however, swaggered forward like it should have been as easy as oilcake. So Bumblebee let him at it and walked away, examining the other doors. Some were accessible, some were locked, and ah, here was Prowl’s. Perhaps it was worth a look?

While Rumble fussed with Red Alert’s lock, Bumblebee broke into Prowl’s room, conveniently across from Red Alert’s. Grit pinged on his armor as the door screeched back into the slot, and the unlighted dim came into view. It was a mess. Some Decepticon had come in here and thoroughly tossed it.

They’d done so to all of the accessible rooms, according to Optimus and Soundwave. Red Alert’s must not have been worth the trouble.

Bumblebee cycled a ventilation and pulled on his Spec Ops mask. He couldn’t be Bumblebee right now. He had to be someone else. Otherwise the memories would make his spark stutter. Because Prowl was gone and nothing could change that.

He waded through broken datapads and datatrax. All of Prowl’s carefully ordered belongings had been scattered in a haphazard fashion. They’d ripped the padding off his berth, tore into the wall behind it. The harddrive was gone from his in-room link-up to Teletraan, not that they would have found anything on it.

Prowl had a thorough self-executing wipe program. Everything they couldn’t take with them was cleared of sensitive data.

Bumblebee searched, not entirely sure what he was looking for, but convinced he’d recognize it when he found it.

“Got it!”

Bumblebee inched out from under the berth and pushed back to his pedes, brushing in vain at the dirt on his armor. “Really?” he asked as he stepped back into the hall.

Rumble beamed at him. “Really, really.” He jerked a thumb toward the door. “I, uh, may have broken it in the process though. You weren’t intending to lock it back were you?”

“No.” Bumblebee laughed and shook his helm. The door looked outright mangled and was that an impact mark? Had Rumble broke out the pile-drivers and somehow Bumblebee missed the noise? “Come on. Let’s have a look. But try not to break anything.”

“I make no promises.”

They forced the door open – emergency power did not extend to sliding doors – and stepped into Red Alert’s immaculate hab. While the door had power to the lock, the room itself did not. Bumblebee’s headlights provided a meager glow.

“You take the computer, I’ll look through the room,” Bumblebee said as he headed toward the storage locker. He doubted anything would be hidden in such an obvious location, but he had to try.

“Got it.”

They worked together in silence. A comfortable silence. They’d always had a rhythm, and understanding. It was one of the things Bumblebee missed when they went their separate ways. Rumble had always seemed to know what Bee was thinking.

Except when he didn’t. Except that last, final argument that catapulted them to opposite sides of the war for millennia.

Bumblebee sighed.

Nothing in the locker. Nothing in the trunk under the berth. Nothing in the hidden paneling beside the berth. Nothing in the ceiling behind a loose panel. Nothing in a vent so small not even Laserbeak could fit.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

“Any luck?” Bumblebee asked as he resisted the urge to punch a hole in the wall.

Rumble’s fingers made a steady staccato across the keyboard. He hunched over the computer, his systems attached to the unit to keep it powered. The screen flickered, reflecting on his visor.

“Red Alert,” he said, through gritted denta, “was a fragging genius.”

Bumblebee’s lips curled. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“He and Prowl were fragging.”

“What?” Bumblebee joined Rumble at the computer, but all he could see were lines of code. “How do you know that?”

Rumble smirked at him, though his fingers never ceased. “Intuition.”

Bumblebee leaned hard against him, making his armor creak. Rumble’s typing slowed as he struggled to keep the proper angle.

“Bee!”

“Don’t give me some scrap answer like intuition,” he said, a note of irritation flickering through his spark.

Rumble fluffed his armor. “Well, that and a few seemingly innocuous internal messages that are the closest thing to flirting those studious types got.”

Bumblebee cycled his optics. “Oh.” He straightened and folded his arms over his chestplate. “I knew they were close, but they were also pretty private. Never would have guessed they were together though.”

“Frag, we didn’t even know, and there’s not much that happens on the Ark that the boss didn’t know,” Rumble said with a quick tap-tap of his thumb. “Soundwave had a ton of secrets that he never told Megatron.”

“Why?”

“Leverage. You never know when you might need it.” Rumble sighed and pushed back from the computer, his fists hitting the edge of the desk. “I can’t get in.”

Bumblebee patted him on the shoulder. “It’s all right. We’ll think of something.”

“Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

Bumblebee straightened, whirling toward the door as the sound of someone shouting his designation echoed through the corridor. He didn’t recognize the voice.

“What in Unicron’s Rusted Undergarments was that?” Rumble demanded, shooting to his pedes.

“Good question.” Bumblebee made his way to the door and peered out into the hallway.

He jerked back inside just as quickly as a blue blur went racing past him, nearly taking off one of his sensory horns. Bumblebee cycled his optics and looked again, with caution this time, as said blue blur skidded to a halt, nearly impacting the wall at the end of the corridor.

He whipped around, the Autobot symbol on his chestplate as visible as the bright white and blue biolights that accented his frame. He had a crest on his helm. He looked vaguely familiar. One of Kup’s mechs perhaps?

“Bumblebee!” His optics lit up, and he jogged back toward Bumblebee, his plating flared and his cooling fans running at max. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Comms don’t work in here or something, I don’t know. Point is, you’ve been recalled to Cybertron.”

“What? Why?” Rumble popped out from under Bumblebee’s arm, looking the blue mech up and down. “And who’re you?”

The fast mech popped off a sloppy salute. “Blurr,” he answered, and then dropped his hand. “Though I don’t think that’s really important right now. Commander Jazz is.”

Bumblebee’s spark fluttered. “What do you mean? What about Jazz?”

“I don’t know the details,” Blurr said. “That’s above my pay grade. They just sent me to find you and deliver a message. We’re prepping the space bridge for you right now.”

Rumble and Bumblebee exchanged glances. The work they were doing here was important but… Red Alert could keep. If Jazz felt the need to call them back, or even Soundwave, it had to be for a good reason.

They would have to return to Cybertron.

“All right. Let’s go.”

~

Ratchet ached.

He’d felt like this before. He’d felt like this often. It was a welcome pain compared to what he endured under Constructicon possession.

That didn’t mean he wanted to languish in it. For once, Ratchet didn’t want to push himself. He wanted the rest he was owed.

He keyed open the door to the hab he shared with Wheeljack and lurched inside. He didn’t drag his heels intentionally. He could barely move.

“Ratch?”

He blinked at the sight of his mate sitting at the main table, a disassembled something spread out in front of him. Wheeljack was always tinkering. It was how he relaxed, how he let his mind wander.

“Weren’t you monitoring Jazz?” Ratchet asked.

“Percy’s got him in hand.” Wheeljack stood, throwing a sheet over the pieces, no doubt to protect delicate internal components from settling dust. “You’re back early. Meeting short?”

“More like I said my piece and escaped as soon as possible.” Ratchet stepped fully inside, and almost stumbled.

“Good. You need to rest. When was the last time ya recharged?”

Ratchet rubbed beneath his chevron. “I don’t remember.” It wasn’t even an exaggeration. He might have caught a few snatches of a stasis nap, but he couldn’t fully relax in Decepticon territory, especially Constructicon territory, and couldn’t power down.

Wheeljack’s indicators flashed a worried blue at him. “Ratch…”

“Don’t worry. I intend to recharge now.” Ratchet’s smile was lopsided, but genuine. He headed for their berthroom.

“Let me grab you some energon first. I can tell you’re low.”

“Thanks.”

“What’re mates for?”

Ratchet’s spark hummed with affection. Their bond pulsed warmly. He inched his way to the berth and collapsed on it with little grace. He groaned from sheer relief as the tightness in his backstrut loosened. He knew he needed a wash but honestly, that could wait.

He forcefully did not think about Grimlock worrying over Starscream or Jazz lying comatose on a medberth. He did not let himself dwell on Optimus’ tenuous good health, or Red Alert locked forever in stasis, or the Twins who flipped when they were more than five feet apart.

He could not let himself fret over Cliffjumper, alone in the cell, trapped by his anger. Or First Aid who stared into space, rubbing his chestplate. Or Mirage who was nowhere near fit for duty, but pressed into it all the same.

Because if he did, if he stopped to think about all of the patients he felt he was failing, he knew he could not grant himself the rest he needed to repair them.

Wheeljack appeared in the doorway, a cube of mid-grade in one hand. “I can hear you frettin’ all the way out there,” he commented as he approached the berth, offering the cube to Ratchet.

Sitting up to drink it felt like too much effort. In fact, he didn’t even want to savor. So Ratchet propped himself on an elbow just enough so that he could down the cube in one quick swallow. He dispersed it with a flick of his fingers and sagged back onto the berth.

“It comes with the territory,” he sighed, and sank into the berth, which was neither plush nor soft, but suddenly the most comfortable piece of furniture he had ever discovered. “Thank you.”

Wheeljack’s indicators glowed back at him. He reached for Ratchet’s hand, gently taking his fingers and squeezing them. “Anytime. Rest well, Ratch. Holler if you need me.”

He turned to go, loosening his hold, but Ratchet had come to many conclusions in the past twenty-four hours. He tightened his own grip, halting Wheeljack in place.

“You don’t have anywhere to be,” Ratchet said as Wheeljack faced him once more and their optics met. “And I could use the company.”

They’d shared a berth multiple times since reuniting. But it never lasted. Ratchet often excused himself, or shoved Wheeljack away, usually without conscious thought. He couldn’t bear the weight or warmth of another frame too close to his.

Loneliness, however, was a worse pain, a worse ache. One Ratchet was tired of forcing onto himself.

His mate’s field flashed with surprise, and then, hope. “Are ya sure?” Wheeljack asked as he moved closer, his thighs touching the berth. “I mean, I don’t want ya to feel like ya hafta or–”

“Jack.” Ratchet squeezed Wheeljack’s hand and gave it a light tug toward the berth. “I’m sure. I missed you. I missed recharging next to you. I missed the strength of your arms.” It was poetic, sure, but Ratchet was tired enough that it didn’t embarrass him.

Besides, he knew how much Wheeljack loved the romantic slag.

“I missed it, too,” Wheeljack said as he moved with Ratchet’s pull and slid onto the berth into the space Ratchet left for him, shifting to his back so that the foam could accommodate his winglets. “I just didn’t want to push something you weren’t ready for.”

“And I love you for it.” Ratchet snuggled into Wheeljack’s side, throwing an arm and a leg over his mate, knowing how much Wheeljack enjoyed being pinned. “For other things, too, but this especially.”

Wheeljack cupped his face with a free hand, thumb gently sweeping the curve of Ratchet’s jaw. “I promise not ta be offended if ya kick me off in the middle of the cycle again.”

Ratchet chuckled. “Good. Cause I can’t promise not to flail, or online suddenly and not remember where I am.” He dipped his helm, pressing a kiss to Wheeljack’s thumb. He was a long road from wanting to try anything involving his interface array, but a little harmless snuggling should do fine.

“It’s all right if ya do.” Wheeljack’s indicators pulsed a slow flicker of pale pink. “Recharge well, Ratchet. I’ll guard ya.”

He smiled against Wheeljack’s thumb and rested his helm on Wheeljack’s shoulder. “I know you will.”

Ratchet ex-vented and shuttered his optics. He turned his focus to the familiar sounds of his mate’s frame. To the measured ventilations, the idle tick-tick of his components, the thrum of his spark. Wheeljack’s field surrounded him like a second warm embrace.

Recharge came easier than he could have hoped.

~

No one objected to him walking into Iacon.

No one noticed him sneak into the medical center, find Jazz’s room, and invite himself inside. They hadn’t noticed the first time either. Back then, he hadn’t questioned why he was supposed to meet his contact in an unconscious mech’s recovery room. Spec Ops were mysterious for a reason.

Perhaps he should have questioned. Because walking into a room where he expected a Jazz in stasis, only to find a very much awake Jazz and Soundwave too, had been more than a little startling. Jazz was supposed to be in a critical-state recuperative stasis. Instead, he’d been online, alert, and a little snappish.

Then again, Vortex had started out rude, so maybe he was to blame.

“Good. You’re here.”

There was a dim glow behind Jazz’s visor. He still played the part of an unconscious patient, despite evidence to the contrary.

“Sorry I had to interrupt your date with Blue,” Jazz continued, his tone surprisingly chipper for a mech who was attached to several machines that didn’t seem to notice he was conscious. “Don’t worry. You’ll get another.”

“Ya know, you’ll heal faster if ya stay in stasis,” Vortex pointed out as he dared approach the medberth. Jazz could kill him just as easily near the door as he could with Vortex a few steps away.

“I know. I just don’t wanna be.” Jazz grinned at him and gestured toward the empty stool. “Have a seat. We should get down ta business before Percy comes by on a round.”

Vortex looked over his shoulder to the viewing window. The Autobots were hilariously short-staffed in the medical department. He’d only seen the sniper-cum-scientist in the main room, and he was typing away at a workdesk.

“Don’t worry. We got about ten minutes or so,” Jazz continued airily.

Vortex turned back toward Jazz. “What th’ frag am I doin’ here? I’m supposed ta be investigatin’ your attempted assassination. Like ya told me. Last time.”

“Skids did it,” Jazz chirped. “There. Mission complete. Though ya already knew that. Now, on to what I need ya for. And sit. Yer makin’ me dizzy.”

Vortex’s processor spun. He sat. “Yer not makin’ any sense.”

“I will. Soon. Promise.” Jazz half-lit his visor, a parody of a wink. “All ya gotta know right now is what I tell ya. Remember that yer on loan to me.”

“Fine.” Vortex sat back, though mindful of his rotors. “What do ya want and when do ya want it.”

Jazz’s smile was razor-sharp and dangerous. “Now that’s the kind of cooperation I like to hear.” His glossa swept over his lips, visor taking on a dark gleam. “So let me tell ya how ta play the game. Ya might wanna take notes.”

In that moment, Vortex understood just what kind of monster Optimus Prime had kept leashed.

~

His sitter for the afternoon was Laserbeak, per the usual. As much affection as she might have carried for him, she had no qualms about tattling if he didn’t consume energon as he was supposed to, and take regularly scheduled breaks. Not only that, she had perfected her guilt trip.

Optimus refueled properly. He rested when needed. He took walks around his office rather than stay chained behind his desk. There was a stack of paperwork that needed his attention, but under Laserbeak’s watchful optic, he didn’t allow himself to get buried in it.

That it also served as a fantastic distraction from the worry that hovered on the edge of his processor was a plus.

The knock on his door was expected. Laserbeak chirped at him, her comm telling him who was on the other side, not that Optimus didn’t already know.

“Thank you, Laserbeak,” Optimus said as he remotely unlocked the door and let his visitor inside.

Grimlock stepped through the door, as imposing as ever, his helm dipping in a respectful nod. “Optimus.”

“Grimlock, thank you for coming.” Optimus gestured him inside and to a large chair he’d had Soundwave move here earlier this morning. “I apologize for asking you to meet here rather than on neutral ground.”

“I am aware of your ill-health, Optimus,” Grimlock said as he accepted the seat, carefully lowering himself down to it. “Let’s consider it a polite courtesy if anyone asks. Decepticons do have manners.”

Optimus’ lips curved despite himself. “That they do. This may get you in some trouble with Metalhawk.”

Grimlock barked a laugh. “The day I fear that overgrown crow is the day I join Megatron in the Pits.”

“Glad to see you are so confident.” Optimus folded his hands on the desk. “I hope you don’t mind my assistant.” He gestured to Laserbeak, who raised her wings and ruffled her feather-plating.

Grimlock slumped comfortably into his chair. “Is Soundwave possessive or concerned?” He tilted his helm, the light behind his visor shifting to Laserbeak. “Methinks both.”

“Or just the latter, given the rumor I’ve been hearing about you and a certain Seeker,” Optimus replied with a raised orbital ridge.

“Mm. You have a point.” Grimlock rested his hands on the armrests. “Very well, Optimus. Enough chatter. On to business. How is your third?”

Optimus rubbed his forehelm. “Recovering. He will live, thanks to Ratchet. Speaking of, I’m told your second is on the road to recovery.”

Grimlock’s engine growled. “So it would seem. If Shockwave wants to live, then he had better.”

“I didn’t know Shockwave was responsible.” Optimus frowned. This was news to him. The going theory was to blame Metalhawk.

“He wasn’t. But he did code the quote-unquote cure. If it turns out to be anything less, he will learn what Megatron didn’t until it was too late.” Grimlock’s visor flashed, his field briefly filling the room with restrained anger. “As for who is responsible, it was Acid Storm.”

Optimus cycled his optics. “But… he is a Seeker?”

“And one apparently dissatisfied with Starscream’s return to Cybertron. He was last seen speeding toward Nova Cronum. I suspect Metalhawk got in his helm.” Grimlock sighed with the resigned air of a leader sharing his grievances with another. “If there is one thing Metalhawk does better than both of us, it is whisper lies as sweet as truth.”

“Unfortunately, you are right. I believe he is responsible for Jazz’s condition as well, especially considering I am certain you and yours are not.”

Grimlock spat a blat of static at Optimus. “Of course not. I may act dumb, but I’m not as stupid as I pretend to be.”

The guilt returned, clawing at Optimus’ spark. As did the shame. It was the worst. There were many things Optimus regretted. He felt he could never make up for the way he had treated the Dinobots.

“I only wish I’d had the decency to notice sooner.”

Grimlock shook his helm and waved a dismissive hand. “I didn’t come here to assuage your guilt, Prime. What did you want to discuss?”

Optimus cycled a ventilation. “Fair enough.” He sat back in his chair as Laserbeak made an untranslatable sound behind him. He pulled a nearby datapad closer. “Metalhawk is making an effort to turn us against one another. Perhaps he’ll think this meeting is an intended confrontation, perhaps not. But it is my belief we will need to handle him sooner or later.”

“And by handle you mean?”

“Arrest, preferably. I do not believe any other response would be treated kindly by the surviving Neutrals or the Galactic Council.”

“Pfft.” Grimlock straightened a leg, looking more than a little uncomfortable in the chair. “You’re still soft, Optimus.”

He cycled another vent, slower this time. “Only because I need to be in this instance.” If Jazz had not survived, Optimus did not know how much softer he could allowed himself to be. “I do not wish for another war even if it becomes that of us versus them.”

“I suppose you have a plan.”

“Something like one.” Optimus slid the datapad toward Grimlock. “We are gathering evidence: anecdotal, copies of transmissions, that sort of thing. Anything that will stand up in the Galactic Court or to examination by whatever secondary leadership there is for the Neutrals.”

Grimlock accepted the datapad, but he didn’t power it on. Instead, it was stowed in his subspace.

“From what I hear, the Galactic Council doesn’t give a slag what Cybertronians do. We’re black-marked.”

“Unfortunately, yes.” Optimus rubbed at his forehelm, feeling an ache building. Laserbeak chirped concern; he offered a quiet reassurance. “But needs must.”

“Then we need another–” Grimlock cut off, sitting up straight. “Hold on a moment, Optimus.”

He rose to his pedes and turned his back to Optimus, one hand rising to his comm. He spoke internally, probably a private Decepticon matter. Optimus did him the courtesy of not trying to speculate, turning instead to offer Laserbeak an energon treat. She remained miffed about Grimlock’s presence.

Grimlock’s field abruptly spiked with alarm, prompting Optimus to whirl back around. The Dinobot’s armor clamped tightly to his frame. Optimus heard a low whine, like that of defensive protocols automatically activating. Grimlock’s engine revved, and his hand dropped.

“I apologize,” he said, the light behind his visor a fierce gleam. “Something’s come up. I have to go.”

“Is everything all right?” Optimus asked, pushing to stand, a sense of alarm drizzling through his spark.

“No. But it’s a Decepticon matter, not yours.” Grimlock started toward the door, his pace hurried and a touch frantic. “We’ll talk about Metalhawk later.”

He left before Optimus could form a response or offer his assistance. He had never seen Grimlock look so rattled. Not afraid, but certainly alarmed.

Optimus turned back toward Laserbeak. “Do you know what is going on?”

–A ship landed in Iacon,– Laserbeak replied, her optics dimming as they often did when she communicated internally with Soundwave. -It’s… oh, no.–

“What? What is it?”

She shook her head, her feathers ruffling before drawing tight to her frame.

“Laserbeak?”

Optimus’ door opened, and if it was possible for a sliding door to slam, his certainly did. Soundwave appeared in the frame, harried for all that he wore his mask and visor both. Laserbeak immediately rose from the back of Optimus’ chair, landing on Soundwave’s shoulder opposite his shoulder cannon.

A soothing sound echoed in Soundwave’s chassis as he petted her helm. She still shifted closer to his intake, as though begging to take shelter in his dock.

A chill raced up Optimus’ backstrut. “What is going on?” he demanded. “Laserbeak is frightened, and Grimlock ran out of here as though Megatron’s ghost wreaks havoc in Iacon.”

“Optimus’ observation not far from truth,” Soundwave said. He stepped entirely inside, letting the door shut behind him. “It is the DJD.”

Optimus frowned. A cold chill danced down his strut. “I thought they were myth.”

“No myth.” Soundwave hurried toward him, only to draw short of actually touching him, ever conscious of Optimus’ boundaries. “They are dangerous, and they are here.”

Laserbeak nuzzled at Soundwave’s helm again, until finally he took a step back and opened his dock, allowing her to slot inside. Optimus watched her, this brave cassette who had never feared anything, and the chill in his back worked deeper.

“What do they want?”

Soundwave folded his arms over his dock, as though a secondary guard for the cassette – possibly cassettes as Optimus did not see Buzzsaw – within.

“Tarn and crew loyal to Megatron, not the Cause,” Soundwave said, his monotone edged with static. “Grimlock undoubtedly on List. Along with Starscream and any Decepticon defectors.”

“Including yourself I gather,” Optimus said.

Soundwave nodded.

“But there are only five of them. Surely between the two of us, Autobots and Decepticons, we have nothing to worry about it.”

“Five,” Soundwave repeated, and his gaze bore into Optimus’. “Five murdering outliers without a kill code.”

In other words, five mechs with extraordinary abilities that could possibly not be countered. Only without the convenient code which would wipe them, as Soundwave and Jazz had done to the Phase Sixers currently in Decepticon cold storage. Even so, they were outnumbered by the combined forces of Autobot and Decepticon.

Provided that no Deceptions currently willing to serve under Grimlock wouldn’t change their minds if presented with a potentially better offer.

Optimus rubbed his forehelm. “I must contact Grimlock and offer assistance. Political lines matter very little in such a matter as this.”

“Assistance rejected.”

“What?”

Soundwave cycled a ventilation. “Pride,” he said. “Decepticons value strength. Grimlock must defeat Tarn on his own, or he loses that support. It is Decepticon law.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Optimus said, staring at Soundwave. “There is no shame in seeking assistance for a matter beyond your capability.”

“It is law,” Soundwave repeated.

“Would the Decepticons follow Tarn?”

“Negative. Only because Tarn would not lead. He would locate suitable candidate.”

Optimus’ engine growled. It might be Decepticon law, but surely Grimlock would have dismissed such ridiculous notions.

Optimus raised his hand to his personal comm only to hesitate. Yes, Grimlock might have ignored said laws, but the Decepticons he led had not. While they respected his strength and his ability, it would not take much for his soldiers to turn on him. Optimus could not afford for the Decepticons to find new leadership. He suspected whomever rose to the top – once Grimlock and Starscream were ousted – might not be so amenable to the truce.

Especially if it were Tarn.

Optimus lowered his hand. “I have every faith in Grimlock’s abilities,” he said, though it pained him to do so. He gave Soundwave a sidelong look. “Hypothetically speaking, were Grimlock to be overcome, what would happen next?”

Soundwave’s weight shifted. His field buzzed into the room, distressed. “Traitors on List to be handled first,” he said. “List compiled by Kaon.”

“Traitors?”

“Defectors.” Soundwave tapped his chestplate, where the Decepticon badge had once rested. “Then, those against Megatron. Starscream. The Seekers. Any who support Grimlock.”

Optimus folded his arms over his chestplate. His spark was a mad flutter within his chassis. “Do the DJD come after Autobots?”

“No.” Soundwave’s field dipped, flattening Optimus’ hopes. “However, Optimus betrayed his master. Autobots defied Megatron. That alone is worth punishment.”

Optimus stared at him. “Tarn will attack simply because I used to be Megatron’s slave.”

Soundwave inclined his helm. “Slavery suitable punishment of those responsible for Autobot oppression.”

“That… that is ridiculous.” Optimus’ tank churned. He turned away from Soundwave, sweeping a hand over his helm. “He sees us as Megatron’s property? As belonging to the Decepticons? That’s not a loyalist, that’s an extremist!”

“Yes.”

One word, one confirmation.

Fanatics were the worst. They could not be reasoned with. They would not bargain. They saw only one truth and could not be dissuaded.

If Grimlock fell, though Optimus did not want to even consider a universe where Grimlock could not defeat one such as Tarn, then the Autobots had to be prepared.

Optimus was the commander on call. Springer was off-shift. Ultra Magnus was in recharge. Blaster was in the command center. Ratchet was supposed to be resting. Jazz was still in stasis lock.

“Send out an alert,” Optimus said as his hands drew into fists. He had thought they were done with war.

He had not known Megatron had one more hand to play.

“Call everyone to standby,” Optimus continued, his processor already working to plot a best course of action. “Summon leadership to an emergency meeting. I do not know how long we have, but I refuse to be caught unawares.”

“Understood.” Soundwave turned away from him, one hand rising to his comm.

The urge to act made Optimus jittery. He despised waiting around for something to happen. He would prefer to meet the DJD head on, standing alongside Grimlock in a show of solidarity. It felt as though he were throwing Grimlock to the wolves, so to speak.

Optimus’ comm pinged. He expected it to be Ultra Magnus, either confirming he would be at the meeting, or confused as to why it had been called.

Irritation overcame Optimus before he could tamp it down. Metalhawk. Of course. The timing of this could not be a coincidence.

Optimus cycled a ventilation and answered the ping. “Metalhawk, I am in the middle of something important, so I pray that this is as well.” Did he sound terse? A part of him didn’t care anymore.

Metalhawk was working very hard to undermine everything Optimus struggled to rebuild. It left him testy. It left him unwilling to play along.

It left him a lot less polite than he used to be.

“I apologize for interrupting,” the Neutral claimed, though he didn’t sound sorry at all. “I have heard of your recent ill health. I called to inquire about your current condition and whether you were available for a meeting.”

Optimus ground his denta. “Thank you for your concern. I am fine. As far as meetings go, however, there is a matter of greater importance at the moment. Surely you are aware of what is happening in Iacon?”

“The Decepticons have a new arrival. That is hardly anything that should concern me,” Metalhawk replied blandly. “The terms of our agreement state that we are all under no obligation to report any Cybertronians who wish to return home.”

Optimus twitched. “They are not mere arrivals, Metalhawk. There are the Decepticon Justice Division. I am sure you have heard of them.”

“Only tales meant to frighten.” Metalhawk could not have sounded more dismissive if he tried. “We are Neutrals, therefore we have nothing to fear. Though I can see where you might be concerned, given the Decepticon defectors who have joined your ranks.”

“I understand you have a defector as well,” Optimus reminded him. “Horri-bull, correct?”

“It is curious how you know that.” Metalhawks’ tone took on a sharper cant. “Regardless, yes, I do have a Decepticon defector. But compared to what waits for the DJD in Iacon, and also Polyhex, I am not concerned.”

“Would that we could all be so confident,” Optimus replied before he could stop himself. He paused to regain his control. “So you can see, I do not have the time for a private meeting regarding…. I apologize, what was it you wanted to discuss?”

“I never said.” Metalhawk went back to sounding gleefully sly. “But it does seem like you have far more important matters at hand. I’ll ping you again later.”

The comm ended before Optimus could so much as retort or argue otherwise. He could, of course, dial Metalhawk back and seek more information, but he was loath to do so.

“Optimus?”

He shook his helm and turned back toward Soundwave. “That was Metalhawk. He wanted a meeting. He mentioned my ill health but said nothing of Jazz’s. Perhaps his operative has not reported back to him yet.”

Soundwave made a non-committal sound. “DJD greater concern.”

“Yes, of course. Have you contacted the others?” Optimus moved to his desk, hurriedly gathering up what datapads he thought might be important.

“Affirmative. Blaster relayed orders to all involved. Proposed contacting Earth.”

“Hmm.” Optimus shifted a stack into his arms and headed for the door, Soundwave falling into step beside him. “No. Earth may be our only escape, should the need arise.”

He did not want to abandon Cybertron again. But he liked the idea of dying even less. Better to survive and fight another day.

“Understood.” Soundwave slid in front of him before Optimus could key the door open. He raised his hands, which hovered out in request, his field echoing it as well.

There was room aplenty for Optimus to ignore the request and slide beyond Soundwave. He was not trapped. An offer had been made. That courtesy made it so easy for him to accept.

Optimus’ own field relented as he shuffled his plating. Silent acceptance. The warmth of Soundwave’s hands fell on his shoulders before sliding down to cup his elbows. Soundwave stepped into his inner field space, his forehelm tilting to press against Optimus’.

Optimus could read his concern as easily as he could feel his own worry. “It will take a lot more than Megatron’s pet enforcers to kill me,” he murmured.

“Soundwave aware,” the former Decepticon replied. “Caution still requested.”

“I could say the same for you. No unnecessary risks, do you understand?” Optimus replied as Soundwave drew back, though he kept his hands on Optimus’ arms.

“Affirmative.” Soundwave’s visor glowed a dim crimson. “Preference to remaining near Optimus.”

He managed a smile. “That would be mine as well. I cannot promise anything, Soundwave. But I will do my best to try.”

“My thanks.”

“None needed.” Optimus lifted a hand, resting his fingers over Soundwave’s gentle hold. “Now let us form a course of action that protects all of us, shall we?”

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