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Foundation

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Title: Foundation
Warning: Making up Cybertronian religion. Mushing IDW history into the G1 cartoon to give it a background.
Rating: PG
Continuity: G1
Characters: Optimus Prime, Skyfire, Ratchet.
Disclaimer: The theatre doesn’t own the script or actors, nor does it make a profit from the play.
Motivation (Prompt): A collection of voter incentive ficlets for a Michigan voter.* Thanks for voting! And Shibara drew an utterly adorable picture to go with this; check her Tumblr!

[* * * * *]

 

For such a large being, Skyfire tended to fade into the background. He was there among the Autobots, reliable and always ready to offer his help, but he didn't stand out. Unfortunate as that sounded, it was honestly just how he was. Solid, perpetually supportive, but never in the spotlight. He was a foundation, not a centerpiece.

It shamed Optimus Prime how little he knew about the new Autobot. Time on Earth was scarce, his schedule eaten up in chunks by dealing with human governments or fighting the Decepticons, but Optimus still found time to sit down with Prowl to compare Portland to Praxus, to train in hand-to-hand combat with Ironhide, to put Jazz in a headlock without breaking stride as he walked down the hall. He made time to engage in the physical brawl that was diplomatic relations with the Dinobots, and to listen to Ratchet and Wheeljack gang up on Perceptor in a game of Scrabble that didn't end well for anyone. Slivers of time tucked in among his appointments were enough to stay close to the Autobots in the Ark, getting to know them until they were a close unit. Carly and Spike had invited the Autobots to the wedding as extended family, and Optimus had found the time to attend.

He could list offhand what Sunstreaker's favorite color was (Sideswipe red) and Sideswipe's happiest memory (Sunstreaker waking up from a coma even Ratchet hadn't expected to end). He knew why Bumblebee made human friends so easily, and why Gears would complain on the best day of anyone's life. He knew and would never tell why Tracks had already made the decision to stay on Earth rather than return to Cybertron. He’d seen and then pretended not to know anything about Hound’s many pets when Red Alert started getting suspicious.

Compared to all that knowledge, it was shameful how little time Optimus had taken to get to know Skyfire. If pressed, he might be able to say three things about Skyfire. He was big, which was a tad unusual among the Autobots. Maybe something about flight capability, another oddball thing for an Autobot, and he was spaceworthy. Oh, and he’d once been Starscream's companion.

Actually, that last one colored pretty much everything Optimus knew about Skyfire, even the physical things. Because, well, there were things a mech wondered, looking at that size difference.

Ahem. Anyway.

He found himself regretting his lack of knowledge the day Skyfire emerged out of the background to plant himself in the hall outside the Prime’s office. Optimus opened the door and nearly walked smack into him.

"Excuse me!"

"Sorry! I'm sorry!" Skyfire took a small step back. At a stride for someone his size, that put him halfway across the hall. "I didn't expect you to -- "

Optimus waved away the apology as unnecessary. "Bad timing, that's all. Did you need something?"

Skyfire hesitated, uncertainty crossing his face. Then he took a step closer. "I...not exactly. I don't need to give you this, but I want to."

For some reason, his phrasing sounded weirdly formal, and Optimus' brow creased in confusion as the larger mech stepped close enough the warm skirl of air from open vents blew down on the Prime. Optimus had to look up at him. It was strange feeling small beside someone, and Optimus had to sternly order himself to stand his ground when unease would have made him step back. Yet despite the vague sense of unease, anticipation stirred in his chest as the Matrix took sudden interest.

That was unusual enough that one of Optimus’ hands rose to press against his chest as if to contain the humming artifact. He had only a brief, startled moment to feel it, however.

White plating and bright red highlights shown like new as Skyfire bent down to his level. The shuttleformer was polished for a special occasion. "Prime, I offer," Skyfire said, cupping his hands before him.

Optimus blinked, looking down, and Skyfire opened his hands.

It looked relatively tiny compared to the giant hands surrounding it. It gleamed like a captured star.

Enchanted, Optimus found himself leaning forward for a closer look. "A crystal?"

"The first sprout of a seedling I started long ago. Like me, neither cold nor time have killed it," Skyfire said softly. "Tended right, it will grow to your height in less than one of Earth's centuries. In two, it will sprout off more seedlings. In a thousand of this planet's years, you will have a garden."

Oddly enough, the first thing that jumped to Optimus' vocalizer was, "Don't tell Wheeljack or he'll feed it fertilizer." And it would likely grow explosively right before actually exploding.

That would be a crime. This was a living treasure, a tiny, shimmering piece of Cybertron's extinct flora alive in Skyfire's hands. Perceptor would love to study it. Beachcomber would sell his left lugnut to get one of his own. Optimus Prime was utterly fascinated. He remembered crystals on Cybertron, remembered hearing about the Helix Gardens, but he’d never gone to see them. Grubby dockworkers hadn’t been welcome in the nicer public areas where carefully-tended gardens were displayed. This was the first time he’d ever seen one up close, and it was so pretty.

Skyfire let him bend over it, and Optimus cocked his head from side to side as he tried to decide if the light dancing in the crystal’s short, chubby spires was reflection or internally generated. The facets twinkled from every angle. He knew one of the great differences between Earth's crystals and Cybertron's were the fact that Earth's crystals weren't alive, but it was one thing to know and another thing to see. The crystal’s light fluxed from a soft glow to a sharp glitter depending on how near he was. It was mesmerizing. He was reaching to touch it before he thought.

Optimus jerked his hand back, embarrassed at his own behavior. He knew better than to touch a scientist's work! "My apologies, it's quite beautiful."

"I'm glad you like it," Skyfire said. He freed one hand to reach out and grasp one of the hands Optimus had snatched away, and Optimus, to his surprise, found himself holding the tiny sprout as Skyfire firmly transferred it to his open palm. "Prime, I offer," the shuttleformer repeated in that formal tone, stilted phrasing no more explained this time, but this time Optimus Prime heard what he was saying.

Optics round, he stared up at the mech in front of him. A dozen jumbled answers flew through his mind.

He didn't know anything about growing crystals.
He wasn't worthy of any offering, much less a precious, priceless gift.
Offering to the Prime was an ancient practice.
Skyfire didn't have to be bound by old rites.
The temples were gone, and there were no priests left to say the prayers.
Iacon had burned before Optimus had become Prime.
No one had ever given him an offering.
He didn’t know what the proper reaction was.
He was going to get this wrong and offend both Primus and Skyfire.
He was a Prime of war, not blessing.
Religion had fallen out of favor among the Autobots.
Someone was going to get angry at Skyfire for his faith.

This wasn't necessary.

It all boiled down to that, and wasn’t that the point? Mechs offered to Primes what they wanted to give, not what was demanded, for the Primes were a conduit to Primus. Primus never demanded sacrifices from His followers, only willing gifts of belief and adoration. The politics of the Primacy had corrupted the ritual in Iacon, but Skyfire was resurrecting a faith older than the material greed that had come to mark it by Zeta's time.

With that in mind, Optimus was obligated to complete his half of the rite. His personal worries and panicked thoughts were secondary to the duty of a Prime to act on Primus’ behalf, accepting the gift with all the love of their god for His children. To refuse Skyfire's gift would be as though Primus scorned His follower's sparkfelt offering.

Honored and deeply touched, Optimus held the tiny, starbright crystal to his chest, where the Matrix's anticipation had become a tender warmth filling him to the brim. Every word he said formed slow and careful in his throat, as if speaking them in haste would spill the bright emotion inside him. "I accept, and in the name of Primus, may His blessing and love be upon you. May He guide and protect you, Skyfire."

Skyfire smiled, optics crinkling at the corners in unfeigned happiness. He gracefully knelt to bow his head under the hand the Prime raised in awkward mimicry of rites read about but never performed. War had prevented Optimus Prime from ever performing his religious role as Matrix Bearer. The blessings he recited were stiff, impersonal things said by rote, and shame hunched his shoulders as he struggled to remember a single thing about Skyfire to personalizing them with.

At the same time, Optimus felt lucky he recalled any of the blessings under pressure. This was his first time saying them out loud instead of holding them as half-formed hopeful thoughts in the forefront of his mind before battle was joined.

At the close of the short rite, Skyfire gave him an astonishingly sweet smile. It held joy and gratitude in equal measure, and it struck Optimus straight through the spark. "Thank you, Prime."

"You're welcome," Optimus said, struggling not to sound breathless as his fans abruptly stalled. Formality was a refuge, at the moment. His processors teetered on the edge of shock, frozen on the image of that smile, and he couldn’t think of anything more friendly.

Skyfire was gentle, generous, and close to Primus. Optimus stared after the shuttleformer. What else didn't he know about Skyfire?

He held the offering to his chest, close to the content hum of the Matrix, and his other hand cupped protectively over the little fragment of something old and something new. Tended right, it would grow.

Like the list of things he knew about the newest Autobot.

[* * * * *]

Skyfire had amazing optics.

A devout Prime probably shouldn’t be thinking that in the middle of a rite, which made Optimus terribly self-conscious. He already felt like he was doing this all wrong. Bad enough he was scrambling to research whatever scraps of religious information Teletraan-1 had lurking in its databanks, but breaking out of his role to stare at Skyfire was rude on top of amateur.

He really wished there were other believers among the Autobots. There was an entire liturgical calendar of holy days and specific rites he was performing for the first time with Skyfire as the sole attendee, and it was incredibly awkward. Honestly, Optimus didn’t know why it flustered him this much. He'd led the Autobots for millions of years. Millions! Why would leading one mech in prayer leave him overheated and embarrassed, hiding in his office until his fans stopped whirring?

The blessings and solemn ceremonies seemed terribly pompous to Optimus, who'd never stood on ceremony. He’d been spending every free moment he had lately questioning Mirage for step-by-step tutorials on the dull ceremonies the Towers used to put on for the temples. They'd been nothing but lengthy opportunities to put on a lavish display of wealth for the Prime, currying favor in return for government power. Priests had droned on and on for hours, apparently just to hear themselves talk. Mirage looked bored describing it.

Optimus listened closely, however, and tried to pull out the important parts to use. His tanks shrank in sheer embarrassment while practicing the words and motions, but he did it anyway. If Jazz ever saw him, the saboteur would laugh until he fell over. Ratchet would glare, if he found out Optimus was doing anything remotely religious, then likely give him a cold shoulder for weeks. Blaster would probably find the schematics of the Popemobile to scan for his next altmode.

Regardless of their reactions, it was the duty of a Prime to keep the faith. Keeping the faith included attending to the faithful. Not much faith had survived the war, but Skyfire had missed the war.

Which might have contributed to how amazing his optics were. The shutters framing them weren't worn from suspicious squinting, or grooved from a sniper's scope. The backblast from firing a rifle hadn't left microscopic pitting across the glass. Clear, blue, and untainted by war, those calm optics looked up at him from where the shuttleformer knelt, and Optimus knew he was staring.

The pressure in his chest built up, an effervescence like light bubbling out of the Matrix, and on automatic, the Prime raised his hand over Skyfire's head. The incredible depths of blue dimmed to black, and Skyfire bowed his head. The blessings poured out, and they didn't feel like window-dressing words on a ceremony more show than a gathering of the faithful. They felt like words truly meant, and what Optimus felt reflected in optics of clearest blue as Skyfire looked back up at him.

[* * * * *]

"I offer," Skyfire said, a solid foundation of background life until he was suddenly an active support, and Optimus was simply too tired to resist.

It hadn't been a good battle. They never were, but some battlefields could be walked away from victorious. Some had to be limped away from. Afterward, maybe, the Autobots could find jokes to tell, smiles to share. Tonight wasn’t a time for those, not yet. It hadn’t been one of the battles that ended easily or well. It had dragged on, the sound of screaming filling the air with sooty smoke, and Megatron had drawn it out to ridiculous lengths just to make it hurt, to make the Autobots pay, for the pain he took sadistic joy inflicting on anyone who resisted him.

Megatron's pride would kill them all, someday. It couldn’t be negotiated with. It had to be destroyed. Optimus knew that. The dull thought pounded in the back of his aching helm as he sat on the floor of his quarters, back against the wall, but trying to focus on the thought went nowhere. His mind ran in circles, dazed by the pain. Three separate times, he shook away the thoughts and made an exhausted resolution to get up and rinse the grime off before it caked in his joints.

He didn't get up. He didn't rinse.

Skyfire came to him.

"I offer," the gentle giant said as he knelt at Optimus’ side. Hot water sloshed as he put a basin down. Dipping a fluffy sponge half the size of Optimus' chest in, he wrung most of the water out before starting the slow process of cleaning the weary Prime.

"You don't have to do this," Optimus protested in a mumble. What he meant was that Skyfire shouldn't do it. Skyfire shouldn't feel beholden to the head of a nearly-dead religion, shouldn't offer to and serve a Prime unable to lead the Autobots to win a war that was killing them. There shouldn’t be obligation between them. Duty shouldn’t compel service.

"No, I don't have to," Skyfire agreed with the finality of a debater making his closing argument. The shuttleformer didn’t stop, and water dripped in low, hypnotic patters to the floor as he ran the sponge down Optimus’ arm. He picked up the Prime's hand and held it draped over his palm as he pushed the sponge back and forth on Optimus' forearm. The water turned brown, suds swirling white in the puddle growing under them. Skyfire dipped the sponge in the basin again, squeezed the excess water out, and drew a clean streak through the filth on red and blue armor.

Optimus rolled his head back against the wall and dimmed his optics, wanting to protest more, but he was tired, so tired. The Matrix stirred inside him, oddly fulfilled, and he wanted to tell it no. This wasn't necessary. This wasn't what his Autobots should do for him. He didn't want servants. He didn't want to be a pampered figurehead fawned upon by his subordinates. He wanted Grimlock to growl at him in strategy meetings. He wanted Prowl to do that subtle sass thing he did where Optimus didn't realize he'd been insulted until three hours later. He didn't want any of them to forgo their own needs and come to tend him, their armor streaked with burns even as they washed the dirt from his.

Yet he didn't push Skyfire away. It was an offering, freely made, and to turn it away would insult Skyfire’s intelligence and spurn his faith. Really, if Starscream couldn't make Skyfire do something he didn't want to do, Optimus couldn't imagine anything capable of doing so. Not even devotion to Primus.

"How is the crystal?" Skyfire asked after working around to Optimus' other side.

It radiated light from over beside Optimus’ berth. Red Alert had booby-trapped the table it rested on, since half the Ark had gone ’ooo shiny’ in a disturbingly intent way when Optimus had made the mistake of showing it off in the common room. Perceptor and Beachcomber, as predicted, had developed an unhealthy interest in the little gift, but they followed orders to leave it alone. Jazz, on the other hand, swore he was going to outright steal it someday, orders or not. Optimus took comfort in the fact that Bluestreak would whimper piteously until Jazz surrendered to the power of sad optics and forked it over. He didn't know how he'd get the crystal back from Bluestreak, but at least he knew where to find it if it disappeared.

Optimus blinked out of the daze he'd fallen into and looked over at it. Just the sight soothed part of the aching pain inside him. "It's growing," he said. The rasp in his voice surprised him. He sounded as exhausted as he felt.

Skyfire glanced up, but he didn't look at the tiny crystal. His optics met Optimus’, and the tenderness in his gaze had nothing to do with an offering. "It is."

After a minute, he went back to slowly bathing the Prime.

Optimus couldn't, for the life of him, tell if the shivering warmth in his spark came from the Matrix or not.

[* * * * *]

"You," Ratchet ordered, "with me. Now."

Optimus Prime looked up from Teletraan-1, surprised by the irritated bark. Ratchet wasn’t know for taking people’s heads off without good reason. "Is something wrong?" A few quick strides caught him up to the medic, and he studied the set of Ratchet's shoulders, concerned. "My friend, what's happened? You seem upset."

Red hands drew into fists at Ratchet's sides. The medic stomped down the hall, absolutely fuming, but he had the audacity to grind out, "I'm fine. Just peachy.” Air whistled as he sucked in a deep breath through his teeth as if to brace himself. "I’m happy. For you."

"For me? What's happened?" This was strange behavior for Ratchet, and Optimus nearly called for Wheeljack. If anyone could calm Ratchet down, it would be Wheeljack.

"Nothing's happened! Stop asking me that!" Ratchet snapped, whirling to face him, and Optimus actually stumbled back from the snarl on the medic's face.

Ratchet had the decency to wince, looking slightly ashamed.

"Have I angered you in some way?" Optimus asked quietly. He held his hands out from his sides, palms open. "I assure you, whatever it is was done in ignorance. I never meant you offense, or to hurt you. Please, tell me what's wrong. I'll apologize at once."

The medic gave him a stare of complete and total disbelief. "You have no idea what you did, but you'll just -- " He waved a hand. "Take blame. Just like that."

Ah, so he had done something. "I'm sorry," Optimus said, humble. "I've obviously done you some wrong. How can I right this?" More than owning up to whatever he'd done, it was his duty as commander to ensure the smooth functioning of the officer cadre. Ratchet's fury would upset everyone.

The stare continued. Optimus bowed his head before it.

After far too long, Ratchet gave an annoyed harrumph. "Unbelievable."

"My friend -- "

"Stop, just...stop." The medic pinched his chevron, looking as though he was consciously stapling patience to the forefront of his thoughts. "You...ugh. You don't even know you're doing it, do you?"

Well, now he felt terrible. "Doing what?" Optimus dared ask. Dread prickled at the base of his tanks. What had he done to make Ratchet frown like this?

Without dropping his hand, Ratchet spun to continue walking toward the medbay. Sour muttering trailed in his wake. "Frag. Do you know how hard it is to stay angry at you when you don’t slag me off on purpose? You've been bouncing around the place like a cadet rating his first hashmark, and you don't even know you've been doing it."

He had? "I have?" Optimus meekly followed the medic. "I...suppose I've felt more upbeat than usual. This winter was rather bland, not to disparage Earth, and I've been enjoying spring."

The medbay door hissed open, but Ratchet didn't stop. He went straight for one of the back rooms. "Prime, I enjoy spring. Ironhide enjoys spring. Everyone enjoys spring. You notice how nobody else is a ray of sunshine indoors 24/7? You radiate good humor. People have been fighting over the seat next to you in the common room. Even the Decepticons are inspired by your speeches lately, for pity's sake!"

Oh, now hold on, there. That was taking it a bit too far. "Ratchet," Optimus started, but the medic cut him off.

"Don't think I don't know what's going on!" Ratchet grabbed one of the tools set up on the sidebar of the examination room, and Optimus backed up as it was shaken at him. "I'm old enough to recognize the hymns you’ve been humming under your breath, and I've seen more Primes than anyone but Ironhide. Not all of them were rusted-out shells puppeteered by the Senate and their own greed. Some of them had genuine belief tucked somewhere in the cesspits of their sparks, and that's what you're doing! You're -- you're -- " Frustration shook the old medic. He couldn’t dig up scathing enough words to express his anger.

Which suddenly made a lot more sense. "I'm a practicing believer," Optimus said, stepping further away to give Ratchet some room. He'd been crowding his friend, pressing in to offer comfort, but this wasn't about friendship or making amends.

This was about a medic who'd had so many patients die on his table he'd gone beyond atheism straight into an outright hatred of Primus.

And Optimus was the Prime.

Ratchet shut his mouth into a narrow line, all but biting his lips closed. He turned his head to the side to glare at the wall for a long moment, and Optimus respectfully kept his silence. He still didn't know what was going on, but Ratchet obviously needed to compose himself.

He had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for self-control, but Ratchet pulled a thin mask of professionalism on. "I," he bit out, sounding as if the words were sandpaper on an open wound, "am happy for you. You're happy. I'm happy that you are happy."

"Ratchet..."

"Sit down," the medic grated out. "I know what's coming up on the calendar, and I know whatever worshippers are inspired by the mystical Day Glo crystal ball in your chest," he glared at Optimus' chest like the Matrix had personally insulted him, and for all Optimus knew, that's exactly what he believed, "are going to offer for the Rite of Communion soon. It won't even occur to you to refuse, so sit your aft down on that table while I check your ports and make sure all your firewalls are in place. Won't do scrap-all for a spark merge, but nobody around here has any spark ailments. You’ll be fine."

Optimus started to say something, changed his mind, and sat on the table.

He waited until Ratchet was hooked up and busy scanning before asking. "Ah...what's the Rite of Communion?"

The scan paging through his processor stopped. Ratchet slowly raised his optics, fury clouding his gaze, only to congeal as rage met earnest inquiry. The medic blinked. He blinked again. He almost visibly combed through his memory files. Optimus could actually see the flashes on Ratchet's HUD as the medic desperately unpacked archived files from the beginning of the war to check.

Ratchet abruptly sat down on the stool beside the table. "You're not a temple Prime."

"No, Ratchet."

"You've...never even been in a temple, have you."

"No, Ratchet." Technically, he'd attended the dockside chapel, but that wasn't a temple. Dockworkers hadn’t been welcome in the fancy temples closer to downtown.

Ratchet's voice went hollow, all the anger drained out of it to leave a sort of dumb shock. "The priests died in the temples. Nobody ever trained you, did they?"

"No, Ratchet."

"Don't you 'no, Ratchet' me," Ratchet said on automatic. He shook his head, still processing. "How...what have you been doing? Making things up?"

Optimus shyly looked away, one hand coming up to press to his chest. Given Ratchet's anger earlier, ee felt a little defensive of the Matrix. "I did some research. I asked Mirage a lot of questions. And...love has been a fairly easy guideline to follow." Primus loved His children. Optimus could feel it every time Skyfire made an offering, those guileless blue optics smiling at the Prime as Optimus blessed him in return for weekly, sometimes daily offerings. Small things, usually, the kind of mundane tasks and special gifts that always stirred the Matrix in his chest and left Optimus’ spark oddly excited.

Ratchet opened his mouth. It took him a minute, but he shut it again. Swallowing, he tried again, "...love?"

"Yes."

Medic and Prime stared at each other.

Optimus could see his friend trying to be angry, and he understood. He did. Ratchet had long ago turned against Primus, blaming Him for the casualties of war, and he responded harshly to the few rare religious Autobots in the ranks. To his mind, Primus had betrayed them all. Optimus had known the medic had accepted him as Prime partially because he’d never practiced, and he accepted Ratchet’s anger as the price he’d have to pay for choosing to believe.

There were questions he couldn’t answer, accusations burning in Ratchet’s glare. How could a god love the children He took so often and brutally in this war? How could divine love possibly fit into reality as Ratchet knew it?

"Even you," Optimus said softly. "Even though you hate Him, yes, Primus loves even you." In his chest, the Matrix waited, sad and waiting, but his own spark felt the painful stretch of friendship. He stood up, gently tugging the cables from his ports. An exam might be necessary by Ratchet's standards, but he didn't think it was worth distressing his friend over. He would schedule an appointment with First Aid or Hoist later.

Hesitating, Optimus stopped as he passed Ratchet. He almost put a hand on his friend's shoulder, but he didn't. Some comforts, some topics, even though they were friends, couldn't be brought out into the open. There were consequences.

"Prime," Ratchet said when Optimus opened the door. The medic still sat facing the exam table. "The Rite of Communion is about love. It's about showing the vessel love, a sort of offering to the Prime so he can have something of what is given to Primus. It's only done by believers who feel a deeper connection to you than normal."

Optimus looked back at him. It sounded fake, a made-up explanation for a real holy day. At least, it didn't sound like one of the rites Mirage described. It wasn't elaborate enough. It was too blatantly selfish, whereas the decadent Primes had always clothed themselves in pious terms even while greedily taking handfuls of material gain from the temples.

But he wanted it to be true. More than that, he wanted Skyfire to stand outside his door with spark in hand, saying the formal words, "I offer."

Optimus Prime wanted nothing more than to accept.

[* * * * *]

To be fair to Optimus Prime, it wasn't as though he'd ever had any formal training on being the Matrix Bearer. Zeta Prime died spectacularly at Megatron's hands, Alpha Trion disappeared with the Matrix, Orion Pax nearly died on the dock during a Decepticon attack, Alpha Trion saved him, and boom, Optimus Prime ascended. There hadn’t been any formal training involved in waking up a Prime. He'd gone from being a dockworker to leading the Autobots in less than three days.

And he'd had a lot on his mind, okay? Religious and political hierarchy had sort of stopped being important to the Autobot army when the temples burned and the Senate died. Optimus had been more interested in keeping his people alive than figuring out what he ‘should’ have been doing.

Staying alive had occupied him so much he’d nearly forgotten what it was like to have a personal life. There was nothing like a war to really get in the way of romance. His relationship with Elita One had been more nostalgia and a working alliance than passion by the time he left Cybertron on the Ark, and he’d had the distinct feeling she was relieved he showed up to save her but wasn't all that happy to have him back. Fair enough. He wasn't going to hold it against her if she taken interest in someone while he was gone. He’d been presumed dead, after all.

Plus it would be highly hypocritical of him, considering the fact that he spent most nights on Earth wrapped up in the arms of someone who'd stopped being simply one of the faithful about the time Optimus started showing up outside his door.

Oh, Skyfire still made offerings and asked for Primus' blessings. The Matrix warmed in Optimus' chest every time, too. It's just that, afterward, the warmth didn't subside. If anything, it heated.

Their involvement had changed what little of Optimus’ life wasn’t consumed by war.

Red Alert, of course, had known all along about Skyfire’s faith, and he’d probably been watching the security cameras the day Optimus accepted the latest offering as Prime, set it down, and taken Skyfire’s hand as Optimus. His silence on the affair was as good as approval. Blaster had been the next to witness their shy courtship, and he’d loudly whooped and given them a thumbs-up from down the hall, surprisingly enough. Perceptor, being Perceptor, had deduced that they were involved with each other by an analysis of their behavior. He’d stopped by Skyfire’s lab and the Prime’s office to offer his congratulations. It had been polite but rather nice of him. They appreciated the well-wishes, as not everyone had taken the news so well.

Ratchet avoided them, which hurt Optimus more than Skyfire, but the medic also sent the Prime long, quizzical stares from across the meeting table. Optimus didn't know what the medic was looking for. He didn't know if Ratchet ever found it. He chose not to bring it up, sticking to safe, professional topics that didn’t touch on their strained friendship.

Jazz and Prowl, however, found more than they were looking for and were welcome to see, and their reaction had been completely inappropriate. Optimus had them both on their knees scrubbing the Ark entrance clean with human toothbrushes for daring to threaten Skyfire. Optimus didn’t need his friends scaring away his lover, much less telling Skyfire what they'd do to him if he didn't ’treat their Prime right,’ whatever that even meant. He hadn't forgiven the two of them that for that, still. Prowl, at least, had dropped the defiant act and started looking ashamed of himself sometime last week. Ironhide assured Optimus Jazz would crack soon enough under the pressure. Apparently, going one step past disappointed looks into just plain staring through the glitches as if he didn't even see them had gotten his point across.

Punishing his lieutenants had effectively announced the new relationship to the entire crew. Ironhide’s amused, “About time, Prime!” reaction had set the standard for almost everyone else.

Almost.

Cliffjumper had the audacity to demand, "What's he got that we don't?"

"We?" someone wondered from the other side of the room.

"The more the merrier," Cliffjumper shot back, and Optimus hurriedly excused himself to seek Skyfire's arms for a hug. It was either that or laugh in one of his Autobot's faces, and that would be awfully rude.

Besides, Skyfire gave the best hugs. Optimus invented excuses to get hugs. Grimlock was large enough to put him in a bear hug, but usually he was attempting to wrestle Optimus when he did so, and no way in the Pit was Optimus asking Megatron for a hug. Omega Supreme, sadly, was far too large. Everyone else was too small. Skyfire was just right.

Optimus could nestle in close to the taller mech's chest, tucked safely into the safety and peace of a space made just for him. Skyfire smiled whenever he burrowed his face into the shuttleformer's cockpit. Sometimes, Skyfire would sit down on the floor and pull him into his embrace, surrounding him in legs and arms and chest and usually a cheek laid on top of his helm, too, and Optimus could just go limp and let himself be held. He'd never felt so at home, not even on Cybertron.

Skyfire had no problems with his authority, not even once their relationship came out. He followed the Prime. It was part of his religion long before he was part of the Autobots, and it was his choice. Optimus knew how much of a choice it was, and it honored him every time he remembered the gentle giant chose him. It woke something tender in him as he cuddled close to Skyfire's chest, and the shuttleformer rumbled as he curled further around him like a shield.

Like a protector.

"When are you going to make it formal?" Ratchet grumped out of nowhere, two years down the line, and Optimus blinked at him.

"Pardon me?"

Ratchet drummed his fingers on the meeting table and refused to release the Prime from his glare. "Skyfire. When are you going to formalize it?"

"Awkwaaaard," Blaster said, looking up at the ceiling.

"They're happy, that's enough," Ironhide said gruffly, elbowing the medic.

Jazz put his hands up when Optimus shot him a suspicious look. "Hey, don't look at me, I ain't touchin' your personal life no more!" He wore a nervous, slightly petrified grin. Obviously, the Fear Of Prime had been installed in him after the last incident. Clear and present threat in his mind was the floor in the Dinobot's cupboard, as they still needed to be cleaned.

"The question had crossed my mind," Prowl said slowly when Optimus looked at him next. "I was not going to raise it, seeing as it is your business and our input has been...unwelcome."

Orion Pax had started life as a dockworker. Prowl's attempted dressing-down of the Prime for the inappropriate nature of an affair with ’someone like him’ had resulted in an extremely colorful, profane, and above all loud reminder of Optimus' origins. The language used had singed Prowl's chevron. Ironhide had come in midway through to take notes and applaud.

"I can't tell you what kind of security nightmare it would be, shuffling a Lord Protector into the ranks," Red Alert said flatly. "It’s out of the question."

Optimus turned to look at him. "Lord Protector? What's that?"

Everyone blinked at him. Prowl’s mouth fell open slightly.

Left optic twitching, Ratchet got up and left the room.

It wasn't fair to Optimus to expect him to know. Zeta's Lord Protector had died off-world in the same year he'd ascended, many people had said under suspicious circumstances that were well in line with Zeta's unwillingness to share power. Down on the docks, nobody spent much time talking about temple politics, split leadership, or the defender of the Prime. Everyone defended the Prime, right? Wasn't that what all the guard were for?

"No," Skyfire whispered into Optimus audio later that night, long after Red Alert stopped yelling, "No! No! No!" at the top of his vocalizer while Ironhide explained anyway. "The Lord Protector is the guardian of the faithful. The Prime is the keeper of the faith, but someone must defend him. Traditionally, the Prime isn't meant to be involved in violence in any way. The Lord Protector is there to protect and defend." He paused, and Optimus felt him smile against his helm. "I, ah, I've been filling the role without the title for quite a while, now. It's not something that needs acknowledgement."

His arms tightened around Optimus Prime. "Love never does."

 

[* * * * *]

 

[A/N: If you don’t know what the voter incentive ficlets are, they’re me offering fic in return for people voting in the American Presidential primaries. If you’ve voted, you can send me a Tumblr Ask with your state and claim a ficlet or ask for the writing time to be applied toward an actual fic. Until the curtain rises next time, m’dears.]