[Crown the Empire] Salvage 17

The sound of a key code being inputted into a lock preceded the noisy rattle of a pressurized door opening. Jazz didn’t look up as it did so, pretending instead to concentrate fully on the datapad in his possession. It contained some rather incriminating data, and he wouldn’t want to miss a single databyte of it.

“What in the– What do you think you’re doing here?”

Metalhawk’s outraged voice could not have sounded sweeter to Jazz’s audials.

He let his lips pull into a gradual smirk and slowly looked up, swiveling a little in the chair behind Metalhawk’s desk. He lounged in it, pedes propped up on the desk, flakes of grit leaving a mess on Metalhawk’s collection of very important datapads.

“Makin’ myself at home,” Jazz said cheerfully. “Bein’ as I’m goin’ to be in charge of the Neutrals from now on, I thought I’d try out my new chair.”

The door closed behind Metalhawk. He glared at Jazz, optics glittering, and one hand drifted to his right panel.

Jazz shook his helm. “Nah, mech. I wouldn’t do that. Cause ya shoot me, then ya gotta explain how a mech who was lying in critical condition in the Autobot medbay somehow found himself in Nova Cronum with another gunshot wound.”

“What do you want?” Metalhawk hissed, anger making his optics bright, his plating bristle.

He was kinda hot when he was angry. Too bad the rest of him was as slimy as a Quintesson, and as free with his affections as Jazz was, he wasn’t about to touch that with a twenty foot pole. Gross.

“Ta talk.” Jazz tossed the datapad onto the desk and crossed his arms behind his neck, leaning back fully in the chair. “Mostly about why this desk is now mine and what yer goin’ to do for me.”

Metalhawk folded his arms, cocking a hip. “And why would I do that?”

“Chromedome.” Jazz’s smirk turned razor-sharp. “Among many other reasons. Tell me, Metalhawk, do your subordinates know how many of them have scars on the back of their necks? Course you need some ultraviolet light to spot them, and who has one of those handy?”

The Neutral leader froze, but his expression betrayed nothing. “I do not know what you mean.”

“Ya can try and lie yer way out of this, if ya want. Deny and pretend and when the truth outs, we’ll all know what happened, won’t we?”

Jazz wiggled one of his pedes, nudging a datapad beneath it. “Now this here, this datapad is very interesting. Just how many have ya sold out over the millennia, hm? Cause I’m seein’ a lot here. Includin’ somethin’ about a mech named Zetca. Now who was he?”

If it was possible for a mech to shoot lasers from his optical sockets, Metalhawk was certainly attempting to do so now. “How did you even get in here?”

Ah, misdirection. Jazz knew that ploy very well.

He shrugged. “I’m Jazz.”

“You’re supposed to be dead,” Metalhawk said, taking a measured step closer to the desk. “Barring that, you should be in the Autobot medical center.”

“Got bored. Felt like talkin’ a walk instead.” He scratched at the side of his nasal ridge, loving how Metalhawk squirmed. “Don’t wanna talk about Zetca? All right then. Let’s talk about Acid Storm and Starscream? Or Skids and me? Or, or. I got a better idea. Let’s talk about what happened on Abrasux Seven.”

Jazz tilted forward, his pedes hitting the ground with a firm snap. “It was a terrible accident that left Zetca behind, wasn’t it? You had no choice but to leave in a hurry, with the Decepticons tryin’ to roast yer thrusters. Ain’t that right?”

“I am the leader of my crew. It is my duty to protect them. Sometimes, sacrifices have to be made,” Metalhawk gritted out. But his plating drew tight, his field even more so.

“Sure, sure. I know a thing or two about that. Been there myself.” Jazz tilted his helm. “But ya know… interfering with the treaty, tryin’ ta create dissension, that kind of thing, it’s a breach of trust. A blight on the signature ya gave.”

Metalhawk sniffed. “That treaty is a farce in itself.”

“Even so, it’s a farce ya signed and a farce everyone is takin’ seriously. Including, I’ll bet, the Galactic Council.”

Gold optics narrowed at him. “They care nothing for what the Cybertronians do.”

“Ya really want ta test that theory?”

Silence. Metalhawk had to be considering it, but even he wasn’t that stupid. Sure the Galactic Council hated the Cybertronians. Sure they didn’t care so long as the Cybertronians were killing each other. It was the massacre of unrelated species that had earned the Cybertronians their black mark.

But if a truce had been made? A genuine one? Well, in the best interest of the universe, the GC might just flock on over to make sure it stuck. Or might just decide that the blight called Cybertron was no longer worth the effort and blast them all out of the universe. Given their low population, Jazz wasn’t even sure any of the factions, even if they worked together, could stop them either.

Jazz leaned back again, looking up at Metalhawk as he folded his hands over his abdominal armor, and purposefully, over the static mesh that helped protect his wound. Like it or not, Skids had honestly shot him. He had been deeply wounded, and yes, he’d needed Ratchet to keep him alive.

He’d knew he’d survive it, however. He always did.

“Now you and I both know that breaching the treaty is only gonna go so far,” he continued as Metalhawk twitched and fumed. “It’s not enough to oust ya or arrest ya. At most, it’s an inconvenience that will probably result in reigniting tensions among the three factions.”

“Your point?”

Jazz cycled a ventilation and resisted the urge to roll his optics behind his visor. Honestly, some mechs just didn’t understand the importance of a good dramatic reveal.

“Let’s pretend that it is enough, shall we?” he proposed with an even stare. “When they come for you, keep your dignity. Step down and claim that ya feared the war and only did what ya thought was best. Be willin’ to pay fer your crimes, of which there are oh so many.”

Metalhawk arched an orbital ridge. “Or?”

Jazz gave him a wicked smile. “Or I can show these mechs who ya really are.” He propped one pede on the edge of the desk, pushing himself back and forth in the swivel chair. “Barring that, ya can have an accident.”

“You’ll kill me,” Metalhawk stated.

“No, no, no. Ya misunderstand. Killing ya would make ya a martyr,” Jazz said, shaking his helm. “I’m not causin’ another war in yer name.”

Metalhawk blinked at him, confusion poking holes in his outrage. “And yet you did just threaten my life.”

“I said you’d have an accident.” Swivel went the chair before he sat up, both pedes planting on the ground again. “No one said you hafta be dead. Why don’t you ask Tappet or Steelfist? Or don’t they remember anymore?”

Metalhawk stared at him. A light of comprehension began to form behind his optics.

Jazz rose to his pedes, braced his hands on the edge of his desk, and stared up at Metalhawk. “Yer gonna be my puppet either way, Metalhawk. Yer only choice now is how hard I tug the strings.”

Metalhawk’s denta ground so hard Jazz could hear the metal shrieking. “I could kill you,” he hissed.

Jazz laughed, and it was not at all faked. “Been there. Done that. Got the scar.” One hand tapped the static mesh around his midsection. His pedes were starting to tremble a little. Thank Primus Metalhawk couldn’t see them.

But he needed to hurry up and give in to Jazz’s demands soon. That way ‘Tex could stroll in and give Jazz a hand cause he was on the last of his energy reserves.

Metalhawk stared at him. His plating rattled, rage incandescent in his energy field. His mouth opened and closed, but he couldn’t seem to offer up any kind retort.

Jazz grinned at him. “So tell me, Hawk. What’s it gonna be? You got, I’d say, ten minutes before Optimus and Ultra Magnus storm in here in a righteous fury.”

Jazz flicked one of the datapads on the desk, one of many copies of all the damning evidence he’d gathered against Metalhawk. With Onslaught and his team’s help of course. Broadside and Octane both had been very helpful.

Jazz couldn’t have smiled broader if he tried.

“What’s it gonna be, Metalhawk?” he asked again. “Tick-tock.”

~

Optimus hadn’t realized, until he did so, how long it had been since he’d used his alt-mode. There were the few times he’d shifted after Ratchet repaired him, in order to make sure the surgery had taken the refurbished cog, but after… never. Optimus had seen no need. In fact, he wouldn’t be surprised if he’d forgotten he could.

How quickly he’d gotten used to the lack of it while under Megatron’s control.

He hadn’t realized, until he put tires to bumpy road and headed toward Nova Cronum, how much he missed the freedom to drive. Or the rush of atmosphere against his windshield and the crackle of the road beneath him. His engine purred happily.

The crumbled spires of Nova Cronum were fast approaching. He tried not to let their impending political nightmare disturb his enthusiasm. He fought a losing battle.

“Are you all right, Optimus?” Ultra Magnus asked over the wideband frequency they were using to communicate. He drove next to Optimus, his alt-mode much larger, nearly over-shadowing Optimus.

“I am fine,” Optimus transmitted back. He leaned on the accelerator a little harder, his aft axle rattling as his aft tires hit a particularly mountainous bump in the road. “Only ready to get this completed.”

Laserbeak chirped a protest at the rough ride from within Optimus’ cab, and he forced himself to slow so she wouldn’t get tossed about. Soundwave had not been allowed to come, for obvious reasons, but he insisted Laserbeak accompany them. Optimus was hard-pressed to argue otherwise.

“It will be a relief to have Metalhawk handled,” Ultra Magnus admitted. “I am glad Grimlock added his confirmation to the accusation. It will help our case carry more weight.”

“Indeed.”

They arrived at the gate to Nova Cronum, recently rebuilt as it had been crushed during the war. Now it functioned less as a defense and more as an active warning.

Two mechs stood guard at the gate. Optimus and his entourage – which really consisted of Ultra Magnus and Smokescreen, any more would have seemed like an invading force – transformed once they arrived. Optimus moved forward to address the guards, both of whom were rather large mechs.

Optimus did not recognize either of them. Metalhawk had neither introduced his entire crew, nor provided a crew manifest. The terms of the treaty stated that he wasn’t required to do so, but it should have been a common courtesy. In order to ease potential tensions, both Optimus and Grimlock had offered a crew list.

Granted, they’d left out important tidbits like duties, skills, et cetera. But still, they’d offered a list.

Which mean that not only was Metalhawk’s crew something of a mystery, they had no idea the true size of Metalhawk’s forces.

“I have a meeting with Metalhawk,” Optimus informed them. “Please let us pass.”

The two soldiers exchanged glances, and Optimus detected the buzz of narrow-band comms between them. He was too polite to decode their conversation though he was sure Smokescreen had no such qualms. If they said anything worrisome, Smokescreen would let him know.

“Very well,” the largest of the two said as they both stepped aside. The gate started to rise. “Metalhawk is in the main center in his office. He said you agreed to meet there.”

“That we did. Thank you for your prompt response,” Optimus replied with a tilt of his helm. “Ultra Magnus, Smokescreen, let’s go.”

It was a short walk from the gate to the central building the Neutrals claimed for a command center. Even so, it was enough for Optimus to see that while they were attempting to rebuild, they weren’t making much progress. Most of the efforts were concentrated on fortifying the central building. Perhaps they were still living in the shuttle they’d used to get to Cybertron?

“Is it just me or do they look like they are gearing up for war?” Smokescreen transmitted across the private comm. Opposite Ultra Magnus at Optimus’ side, his optics skittered from one Neutral mech to another, who regarded the three Autobots with nothing short of suspicion, and no few mechs radiated hostility.

Optimus chose not to respond.

Metalhawk had arranged for this meeting. He’d asked for Optimus to come to Nova Cronum rather than meet on more neutral grounds. He’d made no attempts to disguise his building efforts either.

What game was he playing?

It was a question Optimus asked himself again as they arrived at the central building and Metalhawk stood just outside the front doors. He was not waiting inside his office as his guards claimed. He stood there, face devoid of expression, arms folded behind his back, waiting with a patience he had never displayed before.

“Optimus.” He tilted his helm in greeting. “Ultra Magnus, and I do apologize, but I do not recognize you.”

“Smokescreen,” Optimus supplied while he immediately put himself on guard. He hoped Ultra Magnus and Smokescreen did the same. “He is serving as the recorder for this meeting. I hope you understand.”

Metalhawk’s smile was every inch that of a politician’s. “Of course. It is only expected. I do regret that we will not be able to meet in my office as I had planned. There is something wrong with the vent system. The odor is ghastly.”

Optimus hoped his skepticism didn’t show in his tone. “Perhaps it is better we conclude our business in the open then,” he said. He didn’t intend to play too long with pleasantries. “So as not to seem as though we are hiding something.”

“I wish to be as transparent as possible.” Metalhawk fully descended from the ramp, taking him further from the front doors. “I had something important to discuss with you, Optimus, but it seems as though you have come to me with an important matter as well. Shall I be polite and first offer you the floor?”

“If it is talk of a means to defend ourselves from the Decepticons, I am afraid I must decline,” Optimus said, and he carefully cycled a ventilation. “I have come to confront you on a matter of most importance. I have come across some disturbing information indicating you have been behaving in a matter that is to the detriment of the entirety of Cybertron.”

Metalhawk arched an orbital ridge. “That is a bold statement, Optimus Prime. I do not know what you speak of.”

“We have it on good authority you are the one who gave Acid Storm the virus to infect Starscream,” Ultra Magnus said before Optimus could get a word out. “We also have a signed confession from Chromedome detailing several other misdeeds, including the assassination attempt on Jazz.”

Metalhawk stared at them, still as stone. “As I said, those are bold statements. Perhaps Chromedome is confused.”

Optimus shook his helm. “Do not play these games, Metalhawk. I am not here to have you twist words, but to get the truth. Did you or did you not supply Acid Storm with a virus?”

“Whatever a mech does with a gift is no concern of mine,” Metalhawk said smoothly. “And whatever I have done, it was for the good of Cybertron, to keep it free of those who have already destroyed it countless times before.”

It was close to a confession. But would they be able to get anything else out of him?

Optimus exchanged a glance with Ultra Magnus who shook his helm. He was no surer of Optimus as to what to do next.

“The Autobots and the Decepticons and their war have ravaged Cybertron, destroyed our two moons, pillaged the colonies, and made us outcasts in our own universe,” Metalhawk continued, something burning behind his optics. “Even now, our planet hurtles endlessly through space because the most brilliant minds we had to offer Cybertron are either dead or too busy thinking of the next, greatest weapon.”

Optimus inclined his helm. “I understand your motives, Metalhawk. But just like Megatron, your methods leave much to be desired.”

“I did what I thought was necessary,” Metalhawk said frostily. “There have been countless cease-fires and truces. All have been broken at one time or another. I cannot be blamed for disbelieving in this one.”

“Perhaps not. But you can be blamed for attempting to reignite the war to suit your own ends,” Ultra Magnus said, his tone firm and commanding. “You signed the very same treaty we did, Metalhawk. You agreed to the laws we all put in place. Threatening the security of the truce merits punishment.”

Metalhawk tilted his chin. “So be it. I do not regret my actions. I am certain that there are others who agree.”

“That may be true,” Optimus said quietly. “And if it is, we will let their voices be heard. However, we cannot condone your actions. This peace is precious to every last one of us.”

Metalhawk stepped closer, unfolding his arms and offering his wrists to Optimus. “If you are seeking an apology, you will have to wait for far longer. For when your flimsy truce falls apart, and the war begins anew, you will look to me, and you will wish I had been wrong.”

Optimus sighed inwardly. There was something in Metalhawk’s tone that felt a farce, a performance for the benefit of the crowd they’d gathered. But beneath it all was an echo of truth.

Metalhawk hadn’t trusted in the truce, and Optimus could not fault him for that. He was right. Countless ceasefires. Countless truces. Countless attempts to help Megatron see reason and every last one of them for naught.

That did not excuse Metalhawk’s actions.

“Very well.” Ultra Magnus stepped forward, slipping a light pair of cuffs around his wrists, more for appearance than restriction. “Metalhawk, by approval of Optimus Prime, Lord Grimlock, and Lieutenant Skids, you are being placed under arrest under suspicion of violating the terms of the treaty. You are being remanded to Autobot custody until such time as an expedient trial can be arranged.”

“What in Primus’ name do you think you are doing?”

Optimus turned to see Sky-Byte storming toward them, his pointed denta bared. The outrage in his field far preceded his arrival.

“Release him at once!”

“I cannot do that,” Optimus said, placing himself between Metalhawk and his second in command. Smokescreen stood alongside him, creating a secondary barrier. “He has violated the terms of the treaty and must face judgment for it.”

Sky-Byte snarled. “You need approval from a member of his own cabinet to press charges!”

“I have it from Lieutenant Skids.” An unexpected addition to their litany of proof against Metalhawk, to be honest.

They’d been prepared to argue, that majority ruled in this case, until at Chromedome’s insistence, they spoke with Skids. He admitted to arranging Jazz’s attack upon Metalhawk’s insistence and agreed to co-sign the arrest warrant.

Sky-Byte startled, his optics widened. “What?”

“Sky-Byte, stand down,” Metalhawk said, his tone sharp, but dismissive. “They are perfectly within their right to do so. For my sake, I simply ask that you obtain the necessary items to defend me when the time comes.”

The former Decepticon straightened, though the suspicion did not leave his field. “Very well,” he said, and his gaze shifted to Optimus. “But know this. If any harm should come to him, you will learn how mighty a force the Neutrals carry.”

“That is fair,” Optimus said. “But I assure you, we wish this to be performed properly.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” Sky-Byte’s engine growled.

“I take no offense that you do,” Optimus turned back toward Ultra Magnus and Smokescreen who had Metalhawk between them. Ultra Magnus would transport Metalhawk back to Polyhex. “Very well, gentlemechs. Let us return home. We have judicial proceedings to prepare.”

~

When Ambulon walked into the medical center, First Aid could not help his surprise. Given Metalhawk’s recent arrest and imprisonment, he hadn’t expected Ambulon would show today. Or ever again.

He said as much.

Ambulon shook his helm. “I knew it was coming, arguably long before Metalhawk did. He could never come to terms with the truce. He was so certain it would break.”

“And you?” First Aid asked as he gestured Ambulon to come with him, back to the small room that served as First Aid’s office. “What did you think?”

“I didn’t care so long as we weren’t fighting anymore,” Ambulon replied with one of his enigmatic smiles. “And I believed Lord Grimlock would be a far more trustworthy leader than Megatron.”

“He is that. Though I don’t think anyone ever expected it. Not even me.” First Aid offered a small smile. “I am glad you came.”

“As am I.”

They took a seat on the low futon First Aid preferred rather than the single chairs. Ambulon produced a datapad from his subspace and handed it over.

“I have run the numbers on Sunstreaker and Sideswipe’s spark damage,” Ambulon said by way of explanation. “I think I have a solution, or at least a temporary one.”

“Really? That’s great news!” First Aid’s field spiked with excitement before he could remind himself to have some poise. Shockwave’s advice, so far, was all they had to work with.

“It’s not much. But it’s a start. It’ll at least get them out of the medbay in short intervals,” Ambulon said.

“Still. It’s better than no news.” First Aid clutched the datapad, his visor lighting up with his enthusiasm. “Thank you for this. And for helping. I know that you didn’t have to.”

Ambulon tilted his helm. “Well, according to the vow I took when I accepted my medical credentials, I did. But I understand your point. Besides, I wanted to. I know how hard it can be when you have a patient you want to help, but you can’t. Besides, I earned a valuable friendship out of it. Didn’t I?” There was something hopeful in Ambulon’s gaze, something the stoic Neutral rarely showed.

First Aid leaned closer, letting their shoulder touch. “You did,” he murmured. “Which means you won’t mind explaining this to me, right? I never finished the spark mechanics module.”

Ambulon plucked the datapad out of his hand and powered it on. “I would be happy to do so.” His field shimmered against First Aid’s, strong with affection, and just a taste of the broken bond First Aid knew so well.

First Aid didn’t fight his smile this time.

Friend or more, it didn’t matter which. It was simply nice to feel less alone.

~

Smokescreen helped him get down here without incident, but Jazz waved off further aid. If he was going to do this, he had to be in total control, or at least look like he did. Metalhawk would capitalize on the slightest ripple of weakness.

Cliffjumper had been moved elsewhere, a private room in the medcenter as they tried to find a solution that would help him.

Metalhawk was the only resident of the Autobot brig currently, kept here because it wouldn’t have been good for his safety to join the brigged soldiers in Iacon. Unanimous vote said imprisonment in Polyhex was in Metalhawk’s best interest.

That it put him within easy reach of Jazz made it all the better.

Jazz strode into the dim hall with confidence, ignoring the ache in his abdomen. He’d done too much too soon, but he was almost finished. Just one last order to issue.

Metalhawk sat stiffly on the bare berth in his new accommodations. He stared straight ahead, through the energon bars which kept him caged. He noticed Jazz immediately, his gold optics widening briefly before going as cold as the Arctic.

“I have done as you asked,” he said in a dull tone, his gaze sliding away. “What more could you possibly want?”

Jazz flashed him a grin. “Nothing,” he chirped. “I just wanted to say thank you and let ya know that ya made the right choice all around.”

Metalhawk snorted a ventilation. “I am sitting in an Autobot cell. Nowhere does that constitute a good choice.”

“Coulda been a lot worse.”

Metalhawk said nothing. He pressed his lips into a thin line, and Jazz was lucky he could not sense the Neutral’s field. He was quite sure it would be vile.

“Look on the bright side,” Jazz continued as he bounced on the heels of his pedes. “Ya spend some time in jail. Ya admit yer wrongdoing. And sooner or later, Optimus will let ya out. He’s kind-sparked like that.”

“He’s a fool,” Metalhawk bit out.

Jazz’s heelstruts hit the ground with a firm snap. “Ya see, it’s that kinda talk that got ya in here in the first place.”

Gold optics slanted at him. “If I recall correctly, I was arrested for attempting to cause a division that would free Cybertron of both Autobot and Decepticon alike, pests and parasites who will only lead to further destruction.”

“Pretty words those’re,” Jazz said and approached the bars. “But we both know ya did it because a peace ya didn’t control was a peace ya didn’t want.”

A ripple rolled over Metalhawk’s plating.

“Ya know, it’s pretty sad that all ya had to do was wait. Ya’d have seen that we meant peace, that Grimlock is not the stupid beast ya think he is. But then, I guess that wouldn’t have mattered either. Ya wouldn’t have been happy unless it was you on top. Am I right?”

“I am not going to dignify that with an answer,” Metalhawk said frostily. “If you came here to taunt and berate me, then know I will not rise to such bait.”

Jazz chuckled. “Nah, mech. That’s not why I’m here. Just wanted to point out a few things is all.”

Metalhawk tilted his helm, only a hint of gold optic visible now. “You berth within a few hour’s travel from Decepticons, mechs who have killed Neutral and Autobot alike during the course of the war. How can you stand it?”

“Because I’m fragging tired of fighting.”

“Hah. One wouldn’t know it given your threats upon my person.”

Jazz moved closer, until the electrical energy of the bars hungered for his plating, but couldn’t cross those last few millimeters.

“Ya threatened Optimus,” he said, and he dropped all cheer from his voice, all sense of ease. “Or did ya think I didn’t know?”

Metalhawk went stiff.

“What was yer plan?” Jazz asked, or hissed rather. “Was it to lure him to your office and let Chromedome do yer dirty work? Just as you’ve done countless times before? And then Optimus would be under your wing hinge and the Autobots in the palm of yer hand. I’ll bet Grimlock was next. He’s simple, ain’t he? Shouldn’t be too hard to trick him.”

Metalhawk’s arms twitched. His plating flexed and clamped as though in response to the venom in Jazz’s tone.

“Strong accusations from a hypocrite.”

Jazz laughed. There was no joy behind it. “Ya threatened Optimus,” he repeated. “And mech, that’s a line ya don’t cross. There ain’t nothin’ I won’t do ta protect him. Just ask Megatron.”

He stared at Metalhawk, the light behind his visor, dim and malevolent. It was a stare that had unnerved many a Decepticon, and apparently, it worked on Neutrals, too.

Metalhawk sat back on the berth, huffing indignantly, but it lacked the force needed to make it believable. “He’s gotten himself a Decepticon lover, or didn’t you know?”

So. He still had some fight, did he?

Jazz inclined his helm. “Mech, you really wanna go there right now? Ya still got somethin’ left to lose after all.”

Metalhawk twitched a winglet. “Just leave me in peace.” It was concession.

Good. Even injured, Jazz could still cast a shadow.

“I thought as much.” Jazz smirked and spun on a heelstrut, waving a dismissive hand. “Enjoy your stay.”

Metalhawk’s engine revved. “What about my strings?” he demanded.

Jazz paused long enough to cast a sidelong look over his shoulder. “When I give them a pull, ya’ll know,” he promised, and left Metalhawk to his simmering.

He’d have to keep a close optic on Metalhawk. Mechs like that, they could be slippery, think they could worm their way out of their corners. If need be, Jazz would find a more permanent solution, but for right now, Metalhawk was more useful alive.

He was Neutral through and through. Too much nobility and poise. He didn’t even hurl insults at Jazz’s back, or promises of retribution. Tch. So boring.

Jazz emerged from the brig and waited until he was fully out of sight of Metalhawk’s cell before he collapsed against the wall. His knees were like jelly, his ventilations had quickened, and his internal temperature had skyrocketed. Humans would call it a fever, and damn, but he had one.

“Jazz?”

Smokescreen was there in an instant, hands patting over Jazz’s frame until he swatted them away.

“M’fine,” Jazz said with a roll of his optics behind the visor. “Just pushed myself too hard is all. Give me a moment to catch my vents, and I can go.”

Smokescreen backed off and folded his arms under his bumper. “You know, any one of us could have played this part,” he said with a frown.

Jazz shook his helm. “Not this time,” he said, and braced himself against the wall, processor spinning a bit. “This’s personal.”

He hated the knowing look in Smokescreen’s optics. Always trying to get into someone’s processor, Smokey was. But nope. Not Jazz.

“And don’t look at me like that,” Jazz insisted as his cooling fans clicked on, the right one betraying a rather audible rattle. “I ain’t here for ya to pick apart my motives.”

“Uh huh.” Smokescreen gave him a knowing look. “Far be it for me to question anything you do. I’m just the last full member of your unit. No one special.”

Jazz sighed and pressed a hand to his forehelm. He ached. “I’m hurtin’. I’m annoyed. And I’m tired of playin’ the game. Can I just go back to my medical berth now?”

“You sure that’s what you want?”

Jazz held out a hand, wiggling his fingers. “Yeah,” he said with a genuine smile this time. “I think I oughta go ahead and wake up now, don’t you?”

Smokescreen shook his helm and tucked Jazz against his side. “Yes, I do.”

~

Today was a day of good news it seemed.

Optimus could not hide the leap of joy in his spark when First Aid commed to let him know Jazz was online and eager to take visitors. Jazz had even asked for Optimus personally, though oddly, he’d asked that Optimus bring Soundwave.

Then again, Jazz was an unrepentant matchmaker.

Optimus threw all need to rest out the door and hurried to the medical center, Soundwave in his wake and Laserbeak fast asleep in Soundwave’s dock next to her brother. The release of tension regarding Metalhawk had left them all exhausted, but Optimus felt a new wave of energy overcoming him.

“He’s pretty tired,” First Aid admitted as Optimus arrived, but there was a light behind his visor. He was as relieved as Optimus. “It’ll be at least a few days of berth restriction before I can release him to light duty.”

Optimus smiled and nodded to First Aid. “Then I shall do my best to make sure he is adequately occupied. I know how bothersome a bored Special Ops Mech can become.”

First Aid chuckled. “Yes. The only ones worse had been the Twins.” He gestured Optimus and Soundwave toward the room with a gentle flick of his hands. “Now you better go see him so he stops pinging my comm. I have never seen a mech whine so piteously before.”

Yes, that sounded like Jazz all right. It meant he was in high spirits rather than in pain, which was a very good sign.

Optimus rapped his knuckles on the door to announce a visitor and then let himself inside, Soundwave on his heels.

Jazz was still aberth, surrounded by numerous monitoring equipment, but the static mesh around his chassis looked fresh and clean. There was a sense of animation to his frame, despite him being berthbound, and his bright smile was the first thing to greet them.

“Optimus! Sounders! Finally, two visitors who can entertain rather than warn me to take it easy.” Half of Jazz’s visor lit in a wink. “If ya ask me, Aid learned a little too much from his mentor.”

Optimus chuckled and took the stool at Jazz’s right. “We all have our sights set on a successor, Jazz. First Aid is learning from the best.”

“Still kinda miss that sweet kid who blushed if I pinched his tire though,” Jazz said and his gaze shifted to Soundwave. “Ya just gonna stand there or take a seat, too?”

“Preference to stand,” Soundwave said stiffly.

Optimus sighed and gave them both a warning look. “Is there ever a time you two won’t be this awkward around each other?”

“Sounders just needs ta warm up ta me is all.” Jazz chuckled, but Optimus didn’t miss the look – whatever it meant – that passed between them. “Once ya get past my good looks and charming personality, ya can’t help but fall in love with me.”

Optimus gave him an askance look. “When did you start channeling Sideswipe?”

“Defense mechanism.” Jazz patted his chassis, and the underside of his bumper which still looked scorched. No washracks for him yet. “Sorry, boss.”

Optimus reached for his hand and was relieved when Jazz offered it, allowing Optimus to squeeze their fingers together. “I am glad you are recovering, Jazz.”

“So’m I, OP. I didn’t mean ta scare ya.”

He shook his helm. “It wasn’t your fault. We should have known Metalhawk would soon make his move. It was only a matter of guessing the target. I assumed, perhaps out a grand sense of my importance, he would choose me.”

“He better be glad he didn’t,” Jazz retorted, with a sharpness that belied the honest fatigue in his field. “Else he’d be suffering a lot worse than a little alone time in the brig.”

For once, Optimus could not bring himself to chastise Jazz or remind him of the benefits of mercy and diplomacy. It seemed shallow and selfish in the wake of Jazz’s injuries and all that had befallen the Autobots after the Decepticons defeated them.

Optimus squeezed Jazz’s hand again. “Hopefully, it is a moot point. Metalhawk will learn from his mistakes, come to recognize the peace we are working toward, and with any luck, become a support rather than a hindrance in the future.”

“Nice ta see yer still so optimistic, OP.”

“Trait appreciated,” Soundwave commented. He currently stood just behind Optimus’ left shoulder, placing Optimus between himself and Jazz. It was as if he believed Jazz would leap right up off that berth and knife him in the intake.

Well, to be fair, they had been rivals and enemies for the better part of several millennia. With time, perhaps they would become good friends.

“I’ll bet it is. Ya’ll two make a cute couple,” Jazz said with a lazy grin, the light in his visor a bit hazy, as though they’d given him the good pain blockers. “I’ll bet ya snuggle all the time.”

Optimus cycled a ventilation of amusement.

Soundwave’s field fluttered with something Optimus dared call embarrassment. He shifted behind Optimus, but didn’t comment.

“Jazz,” Optimus said warningly. “Please don’t tease Soundwave. He isn’t used to your charming personality.”

“He will. With time.” Jazz winked again and gently retracted his fingers from Optimus’ grip. “But ya know OP, Ratchet-in-training might be meaner than he ought, but he’s right about one thing. I guess I need my rest.”

To be fair, Jazz did look a bit peaked. The light in his visor kept flickering and his vents snuffled, all clear signs of fatigue. And given that he’d been near-death, Optimus didn’t want to push it.

“I understand. I’m just glad you’re all right.” Optimus managed a smile, as fragile as it was. “I don’t want to lose anyone else.”

“I promise, Optimus. I’m not goin’ anywhere,” Jazz said, unexpectedly solemn, only to break it up with one of his usual crooked grins. “Yer stuck with me, like it or not.”

Optimus pushed to his pedes. “I just so happen to like it. Rest well, Jazz. Take care.”

“You, too, OP. But hey, mind if I borrow old Sounders for a second there?”

Optimus peered at his third in command, not for a single moment falling for the wide, innocent smile. “You don’t intend to threaten him, do you?”

“Of course not–”

“Or interrogate him, or taunt him, or–”

Jazz’s laugh cut through Optimus’ list. “Nope. Just wanna talk. Promise. Cross my spark and hope ta die.” One hand flittered over his bumper, but the motion was not as graceful as it ought to be.

“I am going to hold you to it then,” Optimus said. He turned toward Soundwave, who inclined his helm in a nod.

“Discussion intended only,” Soundwave said, his field brushing against Optimus’ own, approving of his concern, and touched by it.

“It had better be,” Optimus murmured.

He excused himself from the room, but he did linger in front of the window once he was through the door. Not that he expected Jazz to leap off the berth and attack Soundwave or anything, it was simply a peculiar request. Or perhaps it was the first steps toward a mutual understanding.

Optimus certainly hoped so.

He offered the two mechs some privacy and went in search of First Aid. He couldn’t very well pace outside of Jazz’s room like a worried genitor, could he?

He found Ratchet’s apprentice in the main room, perched behind a desk and nearly hidden by a massive stack of datapads. He was hard at work, stylus scribbling fiercely.

Optimus coughed a ventilation to get his attention, and smiled when First Aid fumbled his stylus, startling in his chair. His visor flushed pink as he scrambled to catch everything, nearly tumbling over the stack of pads in the process.

“I did not mean to startle you,” Optimus said.

Vents working madly, First Aid shook his helm. “You didn’t. Well, I mean, you did. But I know you didn’t mean to. I was just concentrating. A bit too hard I guess.” He chuckled self-deprecatingly, righted the stack of datapads and then pushed to stand. “Is there something you need, sir?”

“Only a moment of your time, if you can spare it.” Optimus folded his hands behind his back.

“Of course I can. Paperwork can always wait.” First Aid gave the datapads an askance look, one Optimus knew all too well. “Is it about Jazz? I promise he’s on the road to recovery. He’ll be back to his old self in no time.”

Optimus smiled gently. “I’m sure he will be. I’m told it is thanks to your quick thinking that his spark was saved.”

First Aid’s visor pinked again. “I don’t know about that…” he trailed off and then gathered himself, drawing a ventilation. “I appreciate your faith in me, sir.”

“You are worthy of it, First Aid.” Optimus stepped closer. “But actually, I was curious about our other patients, and to be honest, you.”

First Aid’s visor blinked. “Me?”

“Yes.” Now it was Optimus’ turn to shift uncomfortably. “You are doing well? Recovering well?”

“I… Oh.” First Aid ducked his helm and scratched at his battle mask. “Yes, sir. I am recovering. Ratchet and Wheeljack look after me. It’s hard, but I know they would have wanted me to be happy.”

Optimus unfolded his arms, resting one gently on First Aid’s shoulder. “You are absolutely right. Your brothers would have wanted you to be content above all else. Never forget that.”

First Aid’s field shimmered with nothing short of delight. “Thank you for saying so. I’ve actually, um, made a friend,” he said, and then loudly coughed a ventilation. “Speaking of which, Ambulon has been working with me to help Sunstreaker and Sideswipe.”

Optimus lifted his hand away. “Do we have good news?”

“That depends on your definition.” Some of the glee faded from First Aid’s field. “Spark merging with another mech could temporarily stabilize their sparks, but a permanent solution would be a spark bond. Finding someone they trust and like is a bit of a challenge.”

Just as Shockwave suggested then. It was good to have confirmation from elsewhere, even if the solution was less than ideal.

Optimus hummed in his intake. “I imagine so. Have we asked for volunteers?”

First Aid gestured to one of the datapads behind him. “I figured we’d have a smaller pool if we let the Twins pick who they wanted to ask first. I’ve got their list there. I’ll start contacting mechs tomorrow.”

“Good. What about Red Alert?”

First Aid’s fidgeting increased in earnest. He sighed, this time a lonesome and disappointed sound. “Without a copy of his memory core, we’ve few options. Complete reformatting or…”

“Or letting him offline in peace,” Optimus murmured. “The question one wonders is which would be kinder.”

“We don’t have to decide right away. He could be in stasis for a long while yet. And who knows… maybe the solution will come to us, given time.” First Aid released another soft sigh. “He did not deserve this.”

“None of us did.”

Megatron was dead. Somehow, that still failed to come across as a relief. Megatron was dead, but the echoes of his actions remained, and all Optimus could do was salvage what was left.

Optimus rubbed at his forehelm. “Thank you, First Aid. You and Ratchet are doing great work here. I know the both of you have gone above and beyond your best.”

First Aid’s optical band brightened, the closest he had to a smile. “With every flicker of our spark,” he said.

“I’ll leave you to your work now,” Optimus said with a long and unjealous look at the stack of datapads. “Primus knows I have enough of my own.”

First Aid chuckled. “Don’t we all? Have a good afternoon, sir.”

Optimus excused himself and headed back to Jazz’s private room. As he arrived, Soundwave stepped out, gently closing the door behind him. At first glance, he did not appear rattled, but then, Soundwave generally could appear composed even in the most dire of circumstances.

“Everything all right?”

Soundwave inclined his helm. “Affirmative. Jazz wished to offer appreciation.”

“For what?”

“Assistance in arresting Metalhawk.”

“Ah.” Optimus nodded and held out a hand to Soundwave. “Well then. Would you be interested in joining me for midday energon?”

Soundwave took the offer, tangling their fingers together with a light squeeze. “Yes,” he said. “Invitation welcome.”

Optimus squeezed his fingers back, a warmth flooding his spark.

Moving forward, inch by inch. It was about time.

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