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Optimus walked out of the Council chamber blankly. A few people tried to talk to him, but his language processor had gone offline, and the words didn’t make any sense. He kept going. There were a lot of unused rooms in the Iacon Tower; it had been built for a different time. A time of peace. He went up narrow disused staircases and along corridors until he found a large long-abandoned office on a high floor, the desk thick with dust. He managed to force open the balcony door with a struggle and went to sit outside in the high-pitched wind, his arms wrapped around his knees.

He’d actually gone to see Megatron and the other prisoners a few days ago. He’d done it to make sure the security was solid, but what he’d actually ended up doing was yelling at the guards until they took off the stasis cuffs that nobody had bothered to remove and gave the near-starving Decepticons some energon. Optimus had even had to go in and take off Megatron’s cuffs personally; the guards had all been too afraid of him, even though he was in a suppression field and his legs were locked in a neural clamp.

Megatron had just nodded to him calmly without a word of complaint, even though he’d needed three full cubes of energon before his low-fuel indicator had gone off. He’d drunk them down and said, “I thank you. I would have disliked the indignity of collapsing in public. Will you tell me what the terms of our execution will be?”

Optimus had gawked at him. He’d spluttered and said they weren’t going to just be put to death like that; they were prisoners of war—Megatron had heard him out with a raised eyebrow and a faint curve that had slowly turned up the very corner of his mouth as Optimus had gone on, until finally he’d actually reached out and put his fingers against Optimus’s lips and said, “Enough.”

Optimus had stopped talking mostly from surprise, his whole body locking into place under the firm cool pressure of those fingers, only two of them but so large, the faint smell of smoke and oil and heated durasteel rising off them. Megatron had said, “I have never looked for honor among Autobots. And I think yours does not have much longer to last. It is hard for honor to survive without company. But I will not regret having saluted it now. You have been a worthy opponent, Optimus Prime. Farewell.”

He’d taken his fingers away, but Optimus hadn’t been able to say anything else anyway. He’d wanted to say too many things, and he hadn’t been sure enough of any of them. So he’d just gotten up and gone. He’d told himself that Megatron was just judging Autobots by his own standards, or trying to get a rise out of him. No honor among Autobots, seriously? Maybe Decepticons would just shoot you in the head for nothing more than getting in their way, but Megatron was going to be put on trial, out in the open, where he’d have to answer for all the terrible things he’d done, as if he had any answer, and yeah, he probably was going to be sentenced to death, and Optimus didn’t really like the idea, but Megatron deserved it if anyone did. He thought about Prowl again, and his throat tightened with misery and anger.

Then the Council had asked him to come for the debate over what was going to be done with the Decepticon prisoners, and it turned out Megatron had been right after all. Only probably not even Megatron expected to be drugged into stasis and dumped directly into a smelter. I would have disliked the indignity of collapsing in public, he’d said. No, not even Megatron thought the Council would treat him like—an inconvenient pile of radioactive scrap. Not like a person at all. Optimus put his face in his hands.

He’d argued and he’d begged and he’d even shouted at the end, in desperation, when Sentinel Prime had said, “I just don’t see any reliable way we can keep the Decepticons secure, and we can’t afford to let Megatron escape. A public execution,” as if that was a foregone conclusion, as if they weren’t even talking about a trial at all, “would be a major security risk. Our job is to keep Cybertron safe, not make ourselves feel good. Sometimes that means making a tough decision.”

Optimus had lost it at that point. He’d just stood up again out of turn and yelled, “Shut up! Stop trying to make it sound noble to throw the Decepticons in a smelter in the middle of the night because you’re scared of them! Do you think there will ever be any chance of peace ever again if you do this—”

“What chance of peace is there now? I’m sorry you’re having a hard time being realistic, Optimus,” Sentinel had said, and Council Lord Denarius had pressed the silencer and then cut off the debate. And then the whole Council, all seventeen of them, had unanimously voted to go ahead and do it. The drugs would be put in the Decepticons’ energon tonight, and as soon as they went down…

Suddenly Optimus wondered, sick, if maybe someone had—had told the guards not to give the prisoners anything, all this time. So they’d be desperate enough to drink the energon no matter how it tasted. Except that would mean someone had been planning this. That even the Council debate had just been—for show? He could almost see Megatron smiling faintly at him again. Optimus shuddered all over.

He wanted to just fold himself into a solid block and shut off all his sensors and his frontal processing. But he couldn’t. There wasn’t enough time to spare. And he couldn’t ask anyone to help him. His friends would help him, Ratchet and Bumblebee and Bulkhead, he was sure of it, but he couldn’t put this on anyone but himself. He didn’t even know if it would work. But he knew he had to try. He’d brought Megatron in. Megatron had asked to die on the battlefield, and Optimus had said no. He couldn’t have done that just to have handed Megatron over to this. Prowl couldn’t have died for this. And there was only one way left to stop it. Optimus heaved a breath and got up.

#

Megatron just stared at him through the cell door with a strange expression and didn’t say anything. “Well?” Optimus said, half furious and desperate. He’d already knocked out the guards. “Will you promise not to hurt any Autobots escaping if I let you out?”

“It seems your honor is more resilient than I had given it credit for,” Megatron said softly, instead of answering. “Yes, of course,” he added, just when Optimus was about to start yelling. “Within limits. I will not be taken prisoner again if I can avoid it either by the death of an enemy or my own. But I will harm none who do not attempt to recapture me.”

“Fighting to disable, not kill,” Optimus said, despairingly, because he knew that anyway; he wouldn’t have believed anything else. Megatron tilted his head and then nodded, once, and that was as good as this was going to get. Optimus yanked open the cell door and went to get the neural clamp off Megatron’s legs.

“Short out the third conpline,” Megatron said.

“I can just take them off,” Optimus said.

“And then it will be obvious that we had assistance. Did the guards see you?”

Optimus looked up at him, startled. “No?” He hadn’t really thought about not getting caught. He didn’t actually have any kind of plan beyond breaking the Decepticons out, anyway.

Megatron nodded. “The third conpline will be enough.” Optimus shorted the tiny circuit—he wasn’t sure how that was going to be enough—and Megatron said, “Stand back,” and then he shut his eyes and stood there for a moment with his intake fans cycling up, and then abruptly he—

“What are you doing!” Optimus yelled, too late, as Megatron literally threw himself twisting down—he’d been standing with the clamps wedged against the bench, and even though a massive pain surge went crackling over his entire body from the system, the clamps cracked open at the same time, so he was loose as he collapsed in agony. Optimus ran forward and managed to pull away the still-sizzling and sparking clamps from his body. “Are you out of your mind?”

“No,” Megatron gritted through his teeth. “Help me stand.”

“You just got fried by a neural clamp!” Optimus said. He’d seen someone at the academy get hit by one by accident during training: the poor mech had been in the medbay for three days, and he’d washed out afterwards; it had caused permanent damage. 

“At sufficiently reduced power,” Megatron said. He gripped Optimus’s shoulder, his hand like a vise, and grabbed onto the bench and heaved himself up with a grunt. He just stood in place panting for a couple of minutes, then shook himself all over and went out the cell door. Optimus ran out after him. “Go and open the other cell doors,” Megatron said, as he ripped Lugnut’s door open and went in to get his cuffs off.

“Great and glorious Megatron! You have freed us!” Lugnut was saying exultantly, as he joined in the job of breaking out the rest of the Decepticons.

Megatron grunted. “Optimus has done that. Now then,” he turned back to Optimus as Lugnut got Blitzwing out of the last cell, “we’ll need somewhere to hide for five hours. Can you arrange that?”

“Five hours?” Optimus said, confused.

“Once darkness falls, Strika will uncloak the Nemesis,” Megatron said. “We will be able to board and make our escape.” Optimus stared at him, and Megatron smiled a little. “Did you really think we would simply go quietly to our execution? Let it comfort you to know that you have saved the lives of those Autobots who would have been in attendance when she fired upon the occasion.”

Optimus didn’t say anything, but he felt vaguely like he needed to purge fuel. He ran an exhaust cycle to clear his system and then said, “I know a place. It’s about ten klicks from here, but we can go underground.”

Megatron was frowning slightly, looking at him, but all he said was, “Lead on. Soundwave, wipe all the prison databanks and the security logs, and crash their systems.”

The Decepticons were all quiet walking through the deep transit tunnels; none of the chatting or even idle fidgeting that Optimus instinctively expected from a group walking a long distance. They just marched along steadily, each one looking around to one side or another, as if they were on a formal patrol. Megatron walked just behind him, the walls catching a red gleam of reflection from his optics here and there. A few little petromites scurried away ahead of them, but there weren’t any other signs of life or activity. Optimus had spent more than a few off-days during his Academy years wandering around through the network: most of the transit system had been shut down for lack of use. Another relic of an almost unreal time of peace, of flourishing. And now he was here with a squadron of the Decepticon warriors who’d destroyed that peace, trying to get them to safety from his own people. But that had to be better than—than letting his own people make things worse.

The tunnel ended in a cavernous switching station, also abandoned, deep in the guts of the system. There were a few dead trains here and there, nothing else. Megatron looked around and nodded and detailed off the other Decepticons each to cover one of the tunnels that emptied into the room. He himself strode to the big platform in the middle and sank down with a sigh on the flat surface and let himself stretch out, his optics going dim. Optimus went and sat down next to him. The others moved away to their respective assignments.

“Will you tell me?” Megatron said, low, after a little while. 

“What?” Optimus said, jerking his head up; he’d thought Megatron had fallen into a rest cycle. But though his optics were a thin slice of red in the dark, they were fixed on Optimus’s face. He rolled his shoulder servos uneasily and looked away.

“Your dismay did not escape me,” Megatron said. “So it wasn’t to be an elaborate public execution after all. What was it going to be, that drove you to these lengths?”

Optimus stared down at his hands. “They were going to drug your energon and smelt you all down.”

Megatron was silent. After a moment, he said venomously, “And I thought I had already plumbed the depths of Autobot disdain.” His jaw servos whined back and forth.

Disdain? They’re scared of you!” Optimus said. He was miserable and angry and sick all at the same time. “And they’re not wrong to be scared, either!” He waved a hand around furiously. “This is what Cybertron used to be! There used to be—millions of us! And now there’s a few hundred thousand, and there hasn’t been a spark harvest in a million years, and you’re going to get out of here and go right back to trying to killing all the rest of us.”

“And how many of those harvested sparks were smothered without ever seeing a protoform, because they were meant for warmech frames?” Megatron said softly. “You seem to have wandered these dark tunnels extensively. Did you ever venture far enough from the cities to come across one of the pit camps?”

Optimus found his joints locking into stillness. “The—pit camps?”

“Caverns roughly three times the size of this,” Megatron said. “The notable feature would have been the central arena, surrounded by the small chambers in rings, with the seats above. They kept us there during the Long Peace. Cybertron might someday again have needed warriors, and our masters hadn’t yet learned to fear us, so they didn’t smelt us down. Each of us was let out once a month in turn, to make up two squadrons of ten who would fight one another for our energon. It was a popular entertainment.”

Optimus got up and walked away from him in desperation. But he couldn’t walk away from his own memory banks. His fiftieth year at the Academy, he’d had a fourteen-day stretch off, and Sentinel and Elita had been busy, so on his own he’d packed a couple of canisters of energon and gone for a long walk, exploring out into the dark. He’d been excited when he’d found the great vaulted chamber, carved out of stone, with the round pit in the middle of circular seats. He’d sat in the stands himself, drinking his energon and munching a snack of fiberglass chips, wondering what kind of sports had been held in that ring, the ring whose grey metal floor was stained with dark patches, and gouged deep with scars.

Megatron didn’t try to follow him. Optimus sat on the edge of the platform, lubricant leaking from his optics as his emotional subsystem kept trying to purge the overload. He had to wipe the puddling tears out of his helm line a few times until they stopped. Finally he got up and went back. Megatron had stretched out again and was cycling air in deep steady gusts, the green flickers of self-repair nanites visible at his joints the only sign that he’d scorched all his pain circuitry a couple of hours ago.

“Did you—were you ever in one of those?” Optimus said. “Yourself?”

“Yes,” Megatron said. “I was constructed in the last wave of soldiers built for the war against the Grinakht Confederacy—each wave more powerful than the one before, as we desperately tried to outrace their own escalating power and end the war. The entire rest of my cohort died breaking the front lines. Only a minor quirk of luck saved me: another mech went down directly in front of me as I charged with the others, and I tripped over him and a disruptor shot ran straight down my spinal shaft. I fell paralyzed and remained so until the scavenger mechs came through later that day. The damage was sufficiently localized that they automatically rated me worth repairing. And afterwards I was deposited in the pits with a restraining collar, along with the rest of the surviving warmechs, to make room for you Autobots in your millions to build your cities and your transit systems and spread yourselves over our world.”

“I’m—sorry,” Optimus said, forcing the pathetically inadequate words out of his vocal unit. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t right.”

Megatron shrugged a little. “It was stupid. You would have been wiser to kill us all.”

“No, we wouldn’t have! We’d have been wiser to treat you with respect. To find a way to integrate you into society.”

Megatron snorted and pushed himself up on one elbow with a grunt. “Look at me, Optimus Prime, and tell me what role you think I could play in your peaceful Autobot society.” He waved a hand up and down the length of his massive, silvery body, the cold gleaming plates of armor and the open missile pods on either side of his head, the deep perceptible hum of deadly power running. “You said it yourself. Your Council is right to fear me, to fear my kind. That is our purpose. To intimidate and to destroy. We chafe at restraint, our tempers are short, and we feel both pain and fear far less than do you. Perhaps the warmechs of old, before the upgrades, were able to live among you without provoking terror. But I have never faced an Autobot and seen anything but fear and disgust, even if I was bound in chains.” He paused, and then looked at Optimus and said softly, “Never before.”

Optimus had an odd impulse to squirm away from the steady gleam of those red eyes. “Megatron, however big and armored and terrifying you are to us, it’s nothing compared to what the smallest and most fragile Autobot looks like to the strongest human alive. And if they could become our friends, if they could welcome us among them, then we could find a way to do the same for you. The difference with the humans is—we’re both trying. But you aren’t. You’ve given up on us.” And then he hunched his shoulders and looked away. “But—but I guess we gave up on you first.” It made his throat feel overheated to say the words. But he couldn’t pretend they weren’t true.

Megatron paused, and then he said, “I do not entirely know what to make of you, Optimus Prime. I confess I thought you only absurdly naïve—a blind optimist in more than name. And the truth of the world does seem to wound you every time you are forced to confront it. And yet so far you have not allowed it to break your hope.”

“But there’s no point otherwise!” Optimus said. “You want to kill Autobots because we hurt and killed your people, so now the Council wants to kill you back, and then—then I guess Strika would want to blow up Iacon Tower, and where does it end? We all just kill each other back and forth until there’s no one and nothing left? We’ve got to stop somewhere! And—and I’m stopping here. Maybe you’ll get out of this and just keep going. I can’t stop you. But I can stop myself.”

Megatron was silent for several moments. Then he said, “Come with us.”

“What?”

“I would have you come with us,” Megatron said. “You are worthy, and more than I knew. I will not promise to stop, but if you join us, I will consider your words, and give them weight in council. Which, I assure you,” he added, “is not a promise I give lightly.”

Optimus stared down at him, blankly. On one hand it seemed obvious: of course Megatron would be happy to have him turn traitor and join up; he’d been glad to recruit Autobots and independent mechs before. But Megatron offering to listen to him—that wasn’t obvious at all. And I will not promise to stop was a hell of a long way from I’m never going to stop. Optimus would never have imagined going with Megatron for any reason at all; it was completely inconceivable. He was responsible for Prowl’s death, for so much destruction on Earth, on Cybertron. But this might make meaning of it.

Optimus just stood there completely still for a while, all system resources going to intensive processing, his logic unit and emotional subsystem churning the options back and forth, over and over, trying to find a clear path where there wasn’t going to be one. And finally he said, softly, “I can’t. Not—not because I don’t want to, exactly. But if I go with you—then the Council will just write the whole thing off. I’ll be a traitor who joined the Decepticons for my own selfish reasons, and they’ll pretend they never did anything wrong.”

“Entirely likely. How do you imagine you can stop them from doing so if you stay?” Megatron said, raising an eyebrow in what looked like sincere interest.

Optimus shivered. “I have to…I have to go tell the Council what I did. And why.”

Megatron paused. “They’ll put you in the smelter for that.”

“Maybe,” Optimus said after a moment, low. “But if I don’t try, then I’m giving up on them. And I can’t do that.”

Megatron lay back and was silent for a long while himself. The minutes ticked away and faint whistling gusts of wind came through one tunnel and then another like sighing voices far away. Optimus folded himself down sitting after a while, trying to shove away the cold crawling fear routines that wanted to take over his whole system. He really kind of wished that Megatron hadn’t forced him to figure this out until it was time to just do it. Now he was going to have to sit here for another hour just thinking about it until the Decepticons got away. And Megatron was right, of course. The Council had just voted to drug six prisoners and shove them in a smelter. Why wouldn’t they shove Optimus into it instead? Even Sentinel wouldn’t say a word, probably. Or maybe he’d say the first word.

Abruptly Megatron said, “I will not take you with us by force.”

Optimus refocused on him. “Glad to know you’ve considered all the options!” he said, half indignantly.

Megatron gave a small shrug. “It displeases me to contemplate the waste of your spark, which seems certain given your course. But I have learned to value your judgement. I would not trust my own fate or that of the Decepticons to it, but I will not usurp your decision.”

“Well, uh, thanks,” Optimus said after a moment, a little dismally. It was kind of flattering, he guessed, only now a small scared part of him was wishing pretty fervently that Megatron had picked him up and tossed him over his massive shoulder and carted him off over his loud protests.

Megatron himself sighed. Then he said, “An hour yet remains. It would give me pleasure to have you once before we go, if you were willing.”

“To have me what?” Optimus said, confused.

Megatron pushed up on his elbow again and frowned at him. “To have you. I would taste your spark at least this once, when it seems likely there will be no other opportunity.”

“Lgnfedszt?” Optimus said, by which he meant what the fragged-up slagging scrap and not in a million years and taste my spark??!? and I could at least try it before I die and I could at least stop thinking and I bet he knows what he’s doing and wait what am I thinking? and about ten other things, all of which tried to come out at the exact same time.

Megatron just chuckled softly, amused, and then he reached out and caught Optimus by the waist and literally pulled his entire body over the platform to him as easily as if he was made out of tinscrap and kissed him.

“Mndgztdsaz,” Optimus tried again afterwards, somewhat desperately, while Megatron tipped him down to the platform firmly and without the slightest hesitation, as if he did indeed know exactly what he was doing and was going to do it very, very well, and also Optimus was roughly a quarter of his size so how exactly was this going to work, not that it was going to work in any way because he was going to stop it, only Megatron was stroking his panel cover open, and it was, in fact, opening.

“You’re sealed,” Megatron said, rubbing his fingers lightly around the pull tab which, yes, Optimus had never actually removed; he’d read possibly too many stories of having the system initialization done by a partner—a skilled, loving, experienced partner, who’d tenderly activate the hardware and then expertly trigger all the pleasure subroutines one after another before thoroughly exercising the whole system with a satisfyingly large and well-wielded spike that in Optimus’s wildest imagination had been roughly a quarter of the size of the gleaming monster that Megatron was extending.

“That is not going to fit,” Optimus squeaked out, managing coherence because this was one fact of which he was extremely certain.

Megatron made a vaguely disappointed noise and then said, regretfully, “Not in the time we have,” and bent down and nuzzled at Optimus’s jaw as he stroked around the tab some more. “If only I had a full day to linger, how I would make you writhe with pleasure beneath me as I opened you by slow and sweet degrees to my complete possession…”

“Nfztsuh,” Optimus said, as coherence went straight by the wayside again and not going to work slammed right into take me now please.

“But I will not leave you with a memory of undue haste and pleasure half-achieved,” Megatron said. “Savor the thought of it instead, what I would have given you.” And he gave a faint grunt and shifted his weight, and his spike transformed, sinking back into itself and rotating away to—to reveal his equally gleaming valve, and Optimus stifled a yelp as his own valve abruptly and without exactly conscious volition transformed to bring out his spike.

“I—I’ve never,” he strangled out, before stopping in mortification because that was pretty obvious; there were some mechs who went exclusively for spiking without ever getting around to unsealing their valves, but his spike was actually extending and retracting in the initial diagnostic routine; he’d only ever brought it out before for the Academy med exam.

Megatron only smirked. “Do you fear hurting me?” he said, with a purr. “I assure you, Optimus, I expect you to work very hard to try.” And then he reached down and gripped the shaft between his thumb and fingers and pulled it out to its full extent in a single firm stroke. Optimus whined helplessly, hips jerking forward into his grip, and Megatron reached under and heaved him bodily up and onto him, and it turned out that actually spiking came pretty naturally. Megatron hummed with approval when Optimus slid into his slick, well-lubricated valve, and there were these amazing connection points scattered like starbursts throughout, and he couldn’t hit all of them with his spike at the same time, but he slipped two of his fingers inside next to it and managed to generate a small electric field that covered them all and connected them into a single mesh. Megatron groaned and bucked under him like an earthquake, and a wave of pleasure came sizzling back over the connection and made Optimus’s vision unfocus.

Some ten minutes later he was pounding Megatron wildly, throwing his entire body into it, and Megatron was sprawled back and shuddering for it, spread out like a feast, his air intakes roaring and his optics dimmed as he focused on his internal sensory input, a living monumental statue streaked with lubricant where Optimus had left messy fingerprints all over his armor, his silver-white thighs, and abruptly he groaned again and his entire valve spun down, contracting into a ferociously tight grip, and Optimus cried out as his whole body convulsed in frantic gasps.

He fell forward onto Megatron’s body as his spike retracted. They were both shuddering, but before the waves of overload had even stopped, Megatron rolled them over, his eyes blazing, and he shrugged his massive chestplate up and aside, and Optimus drew in a full intake and opened his own, the panel splitting into two wings down the middle and swinging apart. Megatron came down onto him, taking his mouth and swallowing his cry as his surging, crackling spark pressed into Optimus’s and all the edges of self blurred, a deep thrumming note ringing through Optimus’s whole body, a sudden presence within him of ferocity and boundless violence leashed by will and determination.

The sheer power of him was intoxicating. It had never occurred to Optimus before that Megatron was—restrained, every single moment of every single day; that any instant he didn’t spend fighting was itself a battle for control. All Optimus could do was open himself up fully, letting it come surging through him and shuddering wildly with the pleasure of it, an ocean rocked by tidal forces, and he blindly clutched at Megatron’s helm and kissed him back desperately, overwhelmed and not wanting it to end, wanting it to go on and on forever.

Megatron fell off him with a final massive clang, Optimus still clutching his hand, and they lay next to each other, both of them wheezing loudly for breath and twitching with stray electrical impulses that didn’t belong to their own bodies. “Oh, Primus,” Optimus said, drunkenly; he’d only ever overenergized once, and it had felt like this but rotten; he’d hated feeling dizzy and out of control and unmoored. But this time he wasn’t: Megatron was right there next to him, a vivid blazing anchor, and Optimus pressed his cheek against the hot breastplate and breathed in time with him, humming wordlessly in gratitude and pleasure as Megatron’s massive hand cradled his head.

Megatron ground his jaw after a moment. “Say but a word, and I’ll take you from here forever,” he grated out. “I’ll take you back to New Kaon and make you my consort—”

Optimus shoved his face hard against Megatron’s shoulder, his whole spark chamber contracting with a sudden unexpected surge of grief and longing. He’d tried so hard to be a good warrior, a good leader, a good friend. A good Prime. But he felt as if all he’d done was fail in one way after another. He’d lost Elita, and Sentinel would never forgive him, and he’d disappointed Ultra Magnus, and Prowl was dead, and the Council were going to put him to death, and he’d just undone the one thing he’d ever really done right: he’d captured Megatron, and now he was letting him go, and now he couldn’t even regret doing that. He was glad, he was so desperately glad that Megatron was going to get out of here, and that felt like a betrayal all its own.

And an even worse one, that it felt like a sacrifice to stay. That what he wanted more than anything was to say that one word and go with Megatron to a world where he would be trusted, and respected, and—loved; that was what Megatron was offering, as unbelievable as it seemed, to love him and to be loved in return, and what else in the universe was worth anything compared to that?

“Don’t,” he whispered, his voice cracking. “Don’t. It’s too hard—I can’t—”

And he knew if Megatron pushed just a little; if Megatron said don’t make me leave you behind, and put his own feelings on the scale, that would tip it over. If he just said no, I won’t leave you, and did carry him off—

But Megatron, who’d once been a slave chained in a pit, only breathed out and then leaned over and kissed his helm, wordlessly. Oddly, it wasn’t a surprise. Optimus curled in as close as he could get to wait out the last ticking minutes in silence.

#

It seemed unreal to walk back into the Council chamber. The room was in an uproar, people shouting at each other from opposite ends, half a dozen of the members shouting down at Ultra Magnus and Sentinel Prime. The escape had been noticed an hour after the prison break, and twenty minutes ago the planetary defense network had picked up the trail of the Nemesis leaving the system, and now they knew that Megatron and the other Decepticons had made it clear away. “How could you permit such lax security?” one of the councillors was howling down at Magnus. “A defective clamping unit should have been caught at a dozen points in the process—”

Optimus charged up his amplifiers to maximum, then boosted his voice over all the noise to say, “The clamping unit didn’t fail. There was nothing wrong with the security.”

All of them turned to look at him, Sentinel frowning. “What the hell, Optimus, what do you know that I don’t?” he barked. “And where the hell have you been?”

“I broke them out,” Optimus said loudly, and all other conversation went dead. The Council members turned to gape down at him, Ultra Magnus and Sentinel staring shocked. Even old Alpha Trion in the corner stirred and sat up a little, his optics flickering blearily as he peered across the room. Optimus had to push down an instinctive fuel-line purge. “I broke them out,” he repeated.

“Are you—what—” Sentinel choked out, and ground to a halt in a crackling of static.

“Optimus Prime,” Council Lord Denarius said after a moment, “are you saying that you deliberately committed treason—that you released Megatron, the worst criminal in our history, and set him free to kill again—”

“I’m the one who caught him!” Optimus shouted back at him. “And yes, I let him go. Once it was that or let you turn us all into murderers. Because if all we’re fighting for is to win, then we don’t deserve to. And if you’d rather kill Megatron than talk to him, I don’t see what difference there is between us and the Decepticons at all.”

The shocked stares went on for one last moment, and then Sentinel was yelling, “Guardsmen, seize him,” and all the Council members were shouting at him at the same time, a cacophony of voices that only fritzed out after Denarius activated the silencer.

He roared out, “Optimus Prime has openly admitted an act of high treason against Cybertron. I move that he be convicted and immediately executed for the crime. All Council members, how do you vote?”

He shut the silencer off again, and the whole room was a chorus of ayes and guilty and one member yelling, “He should be thrown in the smelter himself with his eyes open!” The guards had come forward and grabbed Optimus’s arms, and Sentinel was standing in front of him, his face twisted with rage and his hands clenched. Ultra Magnus was the only one not visibly seething with hate, and even he was staring at Optimus with a shocked and horrified expression.

Denarius slammed his fist down on the dais to quiet everyone down. “Optimus Prime, you are hereby found guilty of high treason, and sentenced to death. You will not be permitted to speak further in your own defense. Guards—”

“Pardoned,” Alpha Trion said, his high thin voice piercing through Denarius’s hoarse rage like a bright needle.

Everyone in the room jumped and stared around at him, including Optimus. He’d never seen Alpha Trion speak before; in fact he remembered learning in the Academy that he hadn’t issued a proclamation in over nine thousand years. He’d been the Herald of Primus for more than twelve million years, since even before the Great War. He barely even twitched in his seat anymore. “Alpha Trion, I think perhaps you are unwell,” Denarius said.

“My health is perfectly fine,” Alpha Trion said. “The accused is pardoned. That means you have to let him go, young ones,” he added to the guards, in mild tones.

The guards darted uncertain looks to one another and up at Denarius, who said through his teeth, “Herald, you are making an unwarranted intrusion into a civil matter—”

“I am not,” Alpha Trion said. “But you are coming perilously close to the other way around. Now heed the will of Primus and let him go,” and his voice became a strange, hollow-echoing roar that filled and shook the room, as he turned his eyes on the guards suddenly blazing with an almost painfully bright light. Optimus wobbled as the hands gripping his arms all fell away at once: the guards were throwing their arms up to shield their optics as if the light was painful, stumbling back; even Sentinel and all the Council members were jerking their heads away, their shoulders hunching. Optimus caught his own footing and stared blankly across the room at Alpha Trion, at the shocking blaze of light coming from his terrible and stern face, wondering what was going on and what he was supposed to do about it.

Then just as quickly, it was over. The light faded, and Alpha Trion’s face relaxed back into a kind and faintly muddled expression. He gave Optimus a single gentle smile, and then sank back down into his huddled posture with a small sigh, even as everyone else in the room cautiously uncurled and looked at him, nervously. He didn’t move again. It was almost like he’d never even stirred in the first place. After a few moments, everyone turned to stare at Optimus instead. He stared back, helplessly, with no idea what to do at all.

#

Nobody else seemed to have any idea what he should do either. But they also definitely didn’t want to provoke Alpha Trion to say or do anything else: Denarius and several other Council members all opened and shut their mouths a few times, then looked over at Alpha Trion and shut them again. Ultimately, for the lack of any better ideas, everyone more or less independently seemed to agree at the same time that they were going to pretend that none of it had happened and possibly that Megatron had never even been captured in the first place. Denarius just abruptly got up and said, “Ultra Magnus, if you would join me,” and left the room, and the rest of the Council all draggled out after him.

Optimus even went back to work the next day, because nobody told him not to. He did his best to ignore everyone eyeing him sidelong. He didn’t overhear anyone telling anyone else, there hadn’t been a word of it on the newsnets, he sure hadn’t told anyone, but somehow everyone seemed to know all about it. They didn’t talk about it, but they—they looked at him. Especially when they thought he couldn’t see.

The only person who did say anything to him was Ratchet, who came by his office at the end of the day and said grouchily, “All right, come on, I need a drink,” and led him back to his own private apartment a few klicks away where he pulled out a big jug of delicious special-blend oil and poured Optimus three tall glasses one after the other—a little way into the third one, Optimus vaguely realized the blend was high-grade energon and he was getting drunk—and finally said, “Well, go on, tell me about it.”

“I spiked Megatron,” Optimus blurted. It was the part that he was thinking about.

Ratchet was totally silent for several minutes. “Well,” he said finally, “I guess I’m impressed by the scale of your ambition. Also, what the hell is wrong with you, don’t tell me about that. Tell me about the breakout.”

“Oh,” Optimus said.

The breakout wasn’t his problem, though. He wasn’t even really all that confused about whatever weird thing had happened with Alpha Trion. He hadn’t expected to get saved, but he’d known he was doing the right thing. The thing that had to be done. It had been hard, and he’d known he might have to die for it, but he had felt the clear sharp rightness of it from the beginning. It was the only thing that had carried him through.

And as for Alpha Trion, well, the Herald of Primus was supposed to guide the Council towards the will of Primus—towards the right. Optimus just didn’t know why Alpha Trion hadn’t said something back while the Council had been voting to murder the Decepticons in the first place, but once he thought about it a little more, he felt as though he understood that, too. Primus didn’t just swoop in and save your aft for nothing. You had to do the heavy lifting yourself, and then maybe Primus would gently put his finger on the scales to give you a hand. Alpha Trion hadn’t said anything before because the entire Council was deliberately choosing to do the wrong thing, the obviously wrong thing, a selfish scared act of cruelty and violence. He’d only been able to say something after Optimus had stopped them. Once someone was doing the right thing, he’d been able to say it was the right thing, the thing Primus had really wanted.

Ratchet only eyed him skeptically when he tried to explain it, but it made sense in Optimus’s head, anyway. Him sharing sparks with Megatron made no sense. None of it did: Megatron wanting it, him wanting it, the two of them actually doing it—except Optimus was spending his every free minute furtively pulling up timeslices out of his memory banks and feeling the terrible glorious ferocity of Megatron’s spark and Megatron’s armor cool and firm under his hands and the heat of Megatron’s valve around his spike and Megatron purring “Savor the thought of it,” and he kept having these painful and painfully embarrassing jolts where his spike tried to extend behind his access plate and banged against it from inside, and he didn’t know how to stop them—

“I’m too old for this slag,” Ratchet muttered despairingly into his own drink. “Optimus, please tell me this wasn’t your first time doing any of whatever it was you did, which you should not tell me about at all.”

“Uh,” Optimus said.

“You’re five thousand years old! Why the hell did you pick now to start?”

“It’s not like I planned on this!” Optimus said. “It wasn’t even my idea! He asked!”

“Uh huh, and what was wrong with no?” Ratchet said. “No is a very fine word.”

“It’s…complicated,” Optimus said lamely.

“Well, that’s not gonna change any time soon,” Ratchet said, and he was even more right than he knew, because two weeks later, the Decepticons sent a terse message inviting the Autobots to open diplomatic relations, specifically by sending Optimus to New Kaon along with an embassy, which made Sentinel and Ultra Magnus and the Council all start furiously debating what it meant and whether it was a trick, while Optimus crept away to the abandoned room upstairs and put his head in his hands and actually cried a little because he was so overwhelmed between gratitude and hope and, well, frantic seething lust, if he was perfectly honest.

“I don’t believe for a moment that the Decepticons actually want to start peace talks,” Ultra Magnus said finally, in the afternoon session, “but whatever their actual purpose, they’re offering to let us send people to New Kaon. Even just getting into orbit around the planet would give us vital intelligence about their war readiness; putting feet on the ground would be invaluable, much less in their actual headquarters. It’s worth a shot.”

“And I’m coming too,” Sentinel informed Optimus coldly, “to keep an eye on you. If you even think of—” He paused, hesitating, and then just dropped the sentence there. Which was unfortunate, because there were a lot of possible endings to that sentence and Optimus was thinking of several of them, although to be fair probably not the ones that Sentinel had in mind.

Also, he probably shouldn’t have confided in Ratchet, because the old medic somehow talked his way into the mission. “Forget Sentinel,” Ratchet growled. “I’m coming to keep an eye on you. You’re half out of your mind. Putting you anywhere Megatron can get his hands on you is a recipe for disaster—and don’t think I’m letting him get you alone, either, not for one fragging second.”

“Oh,” Optimus said.

“Yeah, that’s right, oh,” Ratchet said. “Do you want to go over to their side?”

“No,” Optimus said. “No!” he added, as Ratchet’s optics went narrow and squinty at him.

“Right,” Ratchet said even more grimly. “Then no more panel popping with the damn leader of the Decepticons for you.”

Which was obviously right, and Optimus had to face facts, which didn’t stop him from fidgeting like a newspark in the back of the delegation when their ship landed at the New Kaon spaceport. He straightened his shoulders and tried to look calm and resolved and in control of himself as the doors slid open—to reveal a welcoming committee of Strika, Lugnut, and Scrapper, and no sign of Megatron at all. He trailed along behind the others as they were led into the stronghold, telling himself firmly that he was relieved, and of course the supreme leader of the Decepticons wasn’t coming down to the spaceport to greet the Autobot delegation; probably only Ambassador Torque would be meeting with him at all, even if he’d requested Optimus come along as a gesture of gratitude.

They were shown into individual quarters—small ascetic cell-like rooms without much more than a crude recharge slab, except each one had a wall that was just one massive window that could be easily opened, looking out over a cliffside into a spectacular valley of jagged stone below. Optimus was peering over, fighting a wash of vertigo, when the door opened and Lugnut boomed out behind him, “Optimus Prime! Our great and glorious lord summons you!” and Optimus jumped, windmilled wildly, and fell over the edge.

He was really wishing for his jetpack when Lugnut caught him with a jerk, about halfway to the ground, and flew him back up. “You must not be so careless!” Lugnut said severely. “If you had destroyed yourself, Megatron would not be pleased!”

“Yes, that would certainly be the most terrible thing about it,” Optimus said, as Lugnut flew back into the room. Lugnut just set him down and nodded earnestly. Optimus sighed. Then he noticed Lugnut hadn’t actually let him go; he was towing him along towards the door, and Optimus realized—“Did—did you say—Megatron wants to see me—now?” he said, a little squeakily.

“At once!” Lugnut said, pulling him through the door. “We must not keep him waiting!”

“Oh, uh, right,” Optimus said, a sudden wash of heat rolling through his circuits, and then jumped about a meter into the air when Ratchet popped out into the hallway right behind him and said loudly, “Hold up, I’m coming too.”

“The great Megatron has not sent for you!” Lugnut said.

“The great Megatron can stuff it in his cannon. If Optimus goes, I go,” Ratchet said, glaring at him. “Both or nothing, you pick.”

Lugnut’s motivator visibly stalled out for a minute as soon as Ratchet made it his choice, but finally decided that his priority mission objective was delivering Optimus as ordered, so he turned around and kept towing Optimus down the hallway. Ratchet stumped along scowling behind them the whole way, which involved climbing up several levels to a massive door guarded by no less than ten Decepticons, each of them bigger than Megatron himself and bristling with more weaponry than Optimus had ever seen even on a Con. All of them were doing something weird that felt familiar and yet Optimus couldn’t place it at first; then he realized they were all not-looking at him in exactly the same way that everyone else at work had been not-looking at him for the last month. They were pretending to keep their optics forward, but he was their actual focus point.

While he was still wondering why, the doors slid open, revealing a huge chamber whose entire wall was open to that same cliffside. Megatron was standing at the edge looking out with his hands clasped behind his back, and Optimus had to manually restart his air intakes when they just stopped working on a wild surge of incoherent emotions. “Great Megatron, I have brought Optimus Prime, as you commanded!” Lugnut said, not mentioning Ratchet, who was still on their heels.

Megatron turned around with his optics flaring, and Optimus didn’t actually mean to go to him, except Megatron was coming towards him, and some kind of mysterious magnetic field towed him in, and they met in the middle and Megatron caught his shoulders looking down at him and said harshly, “If they had hurt you,” and then bent down towards his—

Optimus flailed as he got unceremoniously yanked stumbling back right out of Megatron’s grip. Megatron jerked up straight and glared furiously at Ratchet, who reeled Optimus in several steps more with his clamping hooks and then stepped up and put a blockading arm in front of him and pointed at Megatron. “Not a chance, Megatron. You know how close he came to getting slagged for letting you out? Not a finger on his chassis.”

Megatron actually growled, a deep angry rumbling of his engines. “I should never have left him behind in the first place, in the hands of your Council of cowards and fools!” he said savagely. “But their opinion no longer matters. Optimus is safely here now, and he is never going back.”

“Uh,” Optimus said.

Ratchet folded his arms and raised his chin with a glare. “Yeah? Gonna chain him to your recharge unit and lock him up? Sounds just like you, come to think of it. Wouldn’t bet on it holding Optimus any length of time, though.”

Then he darted a sudden narrow look back at Optimus as if he thought he needed to make sure about that. Optimus glared back at him as he finished prying the clamps off his arms and stepped forward, holding out a hand. “Megatron—I can’t tell you how glad I am that—that you’ve opened diplomatic relations. I’ll do anything I can to help make peace between our people. But I can’t just—”

“Optimus, the offer of diplomatic relations was a ruse,” Megatron interrupted in tones of faint impatience, waving it all away with a hand. “I only invited the delegation in order to get you here safely.”

Ratchet gaped, while Optimus stared at him with a sharp horrified clenching in his chest. “You—this was all just—you didn’t mean—” He choked off.

“The situation has altered materially,” Megatron said. “I am carrying sparklings.”

Optimus’s entire conscious brain function crashed to a screeching full-system halt: the rising wave of disappointment and anger collapsed completely out of his frontal processing and everything went haywire. His information processing system started tearing through his archives looking for any and every piece of information about sparklings—which as far as he’d ever known only came from the Allspark?—and meanwhile his logic unit wanted all that information to help evaluate the probability of Megatron telling the truth, and his emotional unit was stuck in an internal deadlock over whether this was miraculous news on the order of Primus himself reappearing or whether his entire life had just fallen into a smelter. All of them wanted access to full system resources, now, and his motivator couldn’t prioritize—

Megatron was just sailing right on. “The Council would never have permitted you to come once they learned the truth—which cannot be concealed for much longer. Already too many Decepticons know. I could not permit you to become a hostage in their hands.”

“Oh, Primus, as if this situation needed to be any more fragging complicated,” Ratchet said in a moan. “Wait—did you say sparklings? Plural?”

Megatron looked at Ratchet narrowly. “Do you trust this mech?” he demanded of Optimus.

“Yes?” Optimus said, confusedly, after a moment of struggle to get the answer to that question out of the mess of his conscious processing.

Megatron nodded and then said to Ratchet with enormous smugness, “There are five.”

“Five,” Ratchet said flatly. “Right. And given the amount of expertise in sparkling formation these days, I’m going to take a wild guess that you’ve got them all daisy-chained to your internal reactor?” Megatron paused, frowning deeply. “Wonderful. Come on, lie down and open up.” Megatron stiffened, his optics flaring. “Or don’t, and have the fun of seeing what happens to the ones on the end when they get closer to maturation and they start competing for access to power. Well?”

Megatron scowled and looked at Optimus. “Even this far?” he demanded.

Optimus stared back at him blankly. “Yes?”

Megatron muttered under his breath and did lie down on the enormous recharge slab, and Ratchet popped off his chestplate and then took out literally five more layers of armor plating one after the other—Optimus couldn’t quite see how all of that had fit—until he lifted out the last one and a shimmering glow rose out of Megatron’s chest, full of flickering and shifting colors. Optimus involuntarily drifted closer and stared down into a small dark hollow just beneath the bristling spark chamber where five tiny glowing knots were now nestled together, each one clinging to a small power port at even intervals along a coiled thick cable.

He stared down at them. He’d seen vids of the last spark harvest—eons ago, before the Great War, everyone smiling as they reached out containment units and carefully and tenderly captured the sparks floating gently up out of the Well of Primus. The sparks in the vids had been a lot bigger and pulsing more energetically. But these were definitely the same thing. Even Ratchet was just staring at them blankly. “Enough gawking,” Megatron growled, his optics narrowing. “If something needs to be done, do it.”

“How did this even happen?” Ratchet said, but he pulled out his toolkit and started whipping together five individual cables, carefully braiding the wires in some kind of complicated pattern. “What did the two of you do exactly? I know that the earth moved and the stars turned in their spheres, but I didn’t think that was literal, so I didn’t ask for the details.”

“We have been attempting to understand ourselves,” Megatron said. “Hook suspects it may have something to do with Optimus having an intact valve seal.”

Ratchet grunted. “Everybody wants the damn valve seal to mean something. No! It’s just there to keep the connection nodes from oxidizing without the lubrication they don’t get in a mech who hasn’t had the valve routines initialized! It hasn’t got a single other function except for inspiring holodrama writers. I need to put in five more reactor tap lines. And an input line, while I’m at it, probably; with five sparklings, you’re going to need auxiliary power by the end for sure. What’s your maximum power output, anyway?”

“Nine hundred twenty-three terawatts,” Megatron said.

“Okay, uh, I’ll skip the input line,” Ratchet said after a moment. “Damn,” he muttered under his breath. “All right, this is going to pinch. Ready? One, two, three.” Megatron grunted faintly, but didn’t twitch. “Can you take another?”

“I can take all of them,” Megatron said. “Stop wasting time with this nonsense of counting and just finish it. I dislike having the sparklings exposed this long.”

“Stoic bastard,” Ratchet said, and then he just went in and did whatever probably-horrible-and-agonizing thing he was doing four more times—Megatron didn’t even grunt—and then he took the braided cables, sheathed them in insulation, and reached back inside to hook them up. “Come on, that’s right, over you hop,” he said afterwards, apparently talking to the sparks, and Optimus peered back in and watched Ratchet coaxing each one of them onto a separate cable before he clipped the original cable and brought it out. “They all look good. Vibrant color, lots of motion, responsive to power. Six tendays before they’re ready for protoforms. Uh—have you got protoforms ready?” He started putting the paneling back in.

“Yes,” Megatron said. “Lugnut will take you to inspect them when you’re finished.”

Ratchet scowled down at him, then shook his head and muttered, “Fine,” and went on putting the rest of the armor back in, as sullen as Optimus had ever seen him, which was saying something. “Tell me the rest,” he said bitterly. “Optimus spikes you, a good time and overloads had by all—did you touch sparks?”

 Optimus wanted badly to transform into a solid inert block of mortification as Megatron said, sounding even more smug, “We merged.”

“You—” Ratchet looked around long enough to glare violently at Optimus, who cringed away. “How thoroughly?”

“Completely,” Megatron said. It was a drawl of deep satisfaction, and he swung himself sitting upright and caught Optimus by the waist—it was hard to remember just how far his reach was—and pulled him in close. “You bore it magnificently,” he murmured, bending in towards him. “Not even the greatest Decepticon warriors have endured the full force of my spark merging with their own.”

Optimus grabbed Megatron’s head and pulled him down to a kiss; he couldn’t help it, even with Ratchet right there saying, “No! Optimus! Stop that! Don’t—oh, for Primus’ sake, what’s the use,” in despairing tones, and then he was just stomping off, his mutters dopplering away as he said to Lugnut, “All right, I give up, take me to the damn protoforms, I’m sure not sticking around for this,” and Megatron was lifting Optimus up bodily and spreading him out on his back on the recharge slab, warm welcoming circuitry coming alive beneath him and feeding a steady flow of power to his systems as Megatron bent over him with a glittering, dangerous smirk.

“Do you remember what I promised you, if I had more time to my leisure?” he purred, and Optimus’s panel slid open and his valve transformed out so fast the metal squealed faintly. “I see you do.” Megatron stroked one finger delicately all around the seal. “It’s just as well your medic is so convinced it can’t be the seal. I doubt I could restrain myself even if it were.”

“Megatron, please,” Optimus said, or possibly whined.

“Impatient already?” Megatron said. “You’ll be more impatient before I’m through with you,” and then he pulled the tab straight out.  

Six hours later, Optimus tried to punch him in the head in wild desperation. Megatron just caught his arm and then brought his hand to his mouth and kissed the wrist, and sucked one of Optimus’s fingers into his mouth. Optimus snarled weakly, and groaned, “You monster.” He was lying in a puddle. Megatron had nuzzled and teased his valve without stopping the entire time; he’d even coaxed Optimus to unjoint his hips to spread him wider, and he still wouldn’t

“Perhaps it is time to make an attempt, after all,” Megatron said, and Optimus moaned in relief, right until Megatron climbed between his wide-open legs and pressed the head of his spike inside.

“Oh,” Optimus strangled out, a squawk, his optics going wide. But the spike did actually go in, he was so lubricated and spread wide that Megatron managed to push it into him, and then it was there, just barely inside but hitting every single connection point he had all around the valve ring and making some others spontaneously generate.

Megatron gave a deep luxurious sigh of triumph and said, “Well, my brave one, too much?”

“Nnnh,” Optimus said. There were odd distortions buzzing through his visual field. He blindly reached his own hand down and touched Megatron’s spike, just sort of felt over it where it was—going in him—and Megatron groaned and shuddered above him, a shudder that traveled right into Optimus’s body, oh Primus, crackling along the inner surface of the valve channel, everywhere they were touching. “More,” he gasped out, trying to edge himself onto it further.

Megatron actually laughed out loud, and that shivered through him, too. “How magnificent you are,” he said, and then he leaned in and began to slide in deeper, the hot length of his spike gliding past Optimus’s fingers before it plunged into him. It kept coming and coming, and Optimus was whining for breath and trying to keep himself coherent as his whole body opened up for it. He put his other hand blindly down on his own abdomen: Megatron was in there, all the way up, settling into the very end of his valve channel.

“Oh, Primus,” he groaned, sliding his fingers over the exposed length of the shaft. There was still so much of it left, Megatron had barely gotten halfway in and Optimus was completely filled up.

“Optimus Prime. Look at you,” Megatron murmured in oddly wondering tones, his optics glowing fiercely, as if he was seeing something—amazing. Optimus almost wanted to squirm under his gaze, except he couldn’t; he was pinned. Megatron stroked the back of a knuckle along the line of his jaw, actually smiling down at him, still with that fierce intensity.

And then he rotated his shaft, and Optimus gave an incoherent yell of pleasure and instinctively clenched down the tiny amount he could, his whole body jerking and clamping tight around the glorious solid presence inside him, and Megatron groaned just as deeply and shuddered, bending forward over him. Optimus stretched up to kiss him urgently as Megatron reached down and gripped his hips firmly with both hands and started to—move him, just slide his whole body back and forth on the shaft, each stroke pressing at the full limit of the channel. A wash of heat flooded through Optimus’s circuits; Primus, Megatron was handling him as easily as a minibot, and that shouldn’t have been wonderful but it was.

“I could have you so every day,” Megatron was murmuring, kissing along the line of his jaw, full of fervor. “Every hour.”

“Fine by me,” Optimus said dizzily. “Oh. Oh. Megatron—” and he lost his grip on his processing and fell into a spiraling whirl of pure pleasure that went on and on, timelessly, until he came up gasping and still shuddering in Megatron’s arms. Megatron was already sliding open his spark chamber, and Optimus opened his own and reached up for him, hungry beyond words for the joy of connection, and Megatron bent over him and pressed their sparks together in a glittering firework shower of light.

#

Optimus drowsed off on the recharge slab and woke up alone. He cautiously pushed up—he felt wobbly and loose-limbed at the moment, in a way that made his sensory system hum with remembered pleasure and his emotional system glow with something between embarrassment and smugness—and got off the bed. The sun was setting outside the window: his chronometer said he’d been out for a good six hours. Optimus winced faintly. He’d missed the mission briefing Sentinel had ordered—granted, that was probably the least of his problems at the moment.

Lugnut was hanging out there with about half the guards. “Optimus Prime, you awaken!” he boomed. “Glorious Megatron commanded that you be allowed to rest. Several recalcitrant Autobots attempted to disturb you despite his orders, but they have been dealt with!”

“Uhh,” Optimus said. “Please tell me you didn’t shoot anyone.”

“No,” Lugnut said, sadly. “Megatron commanded that they not be destroyed. I only returned them to their quarters.”

“Great,” Optimus said. “I’m sure going to have fun explaining all this.” He rubbed a hand over his face and set off down the hallway. He realized about thirty seconds later that Lugnut was following him. “I—can find my way back to my quarters on my own?” he tried, although he already had a bad feeling rising. 

“You are Lord Megatron’s chosen consort! The progenitor of his glorious sparklings!” Lugnut said. “You must be guarded and protected! I will permit no harm to come to you, noble-but-tiny Autobot!”

“I—uh—that—right,” Optimus said, despairingly.

Sneaking back to his room was a lot harder with a Decepticon the size of a small mountain clanking along behind him. Optimus winced as he reached the ambassador’s quarters and heard Sentinel inside shouting furiously that traitor went straight to Megatron’s quarters, he’s probably giving him the codes to the Cybertron planetary defense shield as we speak. As he crept past, Optimus started to give serious thought to just going back to Megatron’s chamber and pretending he was a helpless sex slave of the evil Decepticon lord for the rest of his life. There seemed to be a lot of advantages to that plan.

Before he could really think it through, Ratchet’s door opened and he got grabbed by the arm and yanked inside. “And you can just wait right out there,” Ratchet snapped at Lugnut. “This room is not big enough for three if one of them is you.” Then he slammed the door in Lugnut’s face and whirled on Optimus. “When you were telling me far too much about your feelings for Megatron, you didn’t mention you’d lost your slagging mind and sparkmerged with him!”

“Uh,” Optimus said, writhing. “Ratchet—look, I can—I can explain—”

“No, you can not explain!” Ratchet said. “This is far beyond explanation. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?

“I saw them, Ratchet!” Optimus said.

“This isn’t about five sparklings!” Ratchet said, and then groaned and covered his face. “Oh, Primus. Five sparklings. He’s going to pop out a blasted combiner team! And even that barely matters. You’re fertile. There hasn’t been a fertile couple on Cybertron since before the Grinakht War.”

Optimus had been about to ask what the hell a combiner team was, but that distracted him. “Since—before all the warmechs got upgraded?”

“Huh?” Ratchet stared at him.

“The warmechs,” Optimus said. “Megatron said that their designs were upgraded to fight the war against the Grinakht Confederacy. And given what they look like now, I’m guessing that the warmechs who used to look more like the rest of us—didn’t make it.”

Ratchet was silent. “A lot of warmechs did die fighting the Grinakht,” he said finally, slowly.

“Right. Any chance that those fertile couples used to be civilian-warmech pairs?” Optimus said.

“Hnnnh,” Ratchet muttered. “Not sure…but that would make it worse, kid, not better. You think the Decepticons would bat an eye at grabbing Autobots to toss into their quarters, like it or not?”

“What I think is that maybe we don’t need Primus to put up a sign in letters of flame before we figure out that it’s wrong for us to be divided like this!” Optimus said.

Ratchet pointed a finger at him. “Don’t even start with me. What you really mean is it’s wrong for you to not get laid by Megatron on a regular basis!” Optimus cringed in mortification. “Yeah, you think I rolled off the line yesterday. Look, kid, this is bad news. Any one warmech is worth five of us in a fight, easy. The only reason the Decepticons haven’t just steamrolled us is we outnumber them ten to one. But we don’t have any damn sparks coming anymore on our side, so it doesn’t look good for us if Megatron starts popping them out five at a time! You heard the mech say it himself. He doesn’t actually want to open peace talks, he just wanted to get his hands on you! So he could keep on breeding you!”

“Yes, fine! Megatron hasn’t turned into a different mech overnight. But isn’t peace worth trying for?” Optimus said. “This is the first time we’ve had any kind of movement in millions of years. I don’t care if his reason is he wants more sparklings! He still has to talk to Ambassador Torque if he wants me to stick around.”

“Or else he just has to rev up his engines a few times and wink his panel at you,” Ratchet growled.

Optimus glared at him. “I’m not totally incapable of self-control!” Ratchet just stared at him in open disbelief. “I’m not! I—look, I—I hadn’t seen him in a while, and—” 

“In a month!

“A month where I thought he and I were both going to die!” Optimus said. “And I just found out he’s got sparklings going! It’s been—a little intense, all right?”

Intense was one word for the atmosphere in Ambassador Torque’s chambers when Optimus finally mustered up his courage and went in. Sentinel was literally ready to throttle him: he actually lunged at Optimus, except Lugnut had followed him in, so instead Sentinel ended up getting thrown straight across the room—and out the window. “Lugnut!” Optimus yelled, running to the window. “Save him!”

“Save the treacherous mech who attempted harm to Optimus Prime?” Lugnut said. “Never! I would rather tear his limbs off!”

“Oh, for—” Optimus said, and shot off a grapple behind himself as he dived out the window, firing his heel thrusters to catch up and grab Sentinel by the ankle, just in time. Moments later, he hit the limit of the grapple line, and they swung smashing into the wall of the cliff. Sentinel started trying to get upright and grab his throat still yelling at Optimus about how he was a traitor and a liar and a Decepticon-lover. “Cool off your vocal unit for thirty seconds and let me get us back in the room, will you?” Optimus said, reeling himself back up. Lugnut grudgingly started hauling them in, which thankfully sped things up, although he scowled ferociously at Sentinel as soon as he got over the edge. Sentinel flinched back, and Optimus realized in dismay that all the Autobots were flinching back, practically plastered up against the walls and staring at Lugnut as if they thought—well, as if they thought he might at any moment without warning throw them out the window, which was fair enough.

The conversation didn’t really go very well. Megatron had totally ignored all the other Autobots’ presence entirely so far—Optimus sighed—and they were all talking on the encrypted back channel about just collecting as much information as they could and then leaving again. “Minus anyone who feels like staying,” Sentinel added with pure venom, staring directly at Optimus.

“Megatron doesn’t want to talk to us because he doesn’t believe we want peace,” Optimus said.

“Oh, yeah, we don’t want peace,” Sentinel said sarcastically.

“Optimus Prime,” Ambassador Torque said, breaking in, “You have spoken with him. Do you have any insight why he bothered inviting us here in the first place?”

“Uhhh. It’s…complicated?” Optimus said, but the problem was he just didn’t see any way around having to tell them. “Oh, Primus,” he muttered and then gulped a breath and said, “He—he did it to get me here—”

Sentinel’s eyes widened. “I knew it!” he broke in snarling. “I knew you were a traitor—”

“He’s carrying sparklings, you dumbass!” Optimus yelled at him.

Everyone started to say what and how and then Sentinel barked at him, “What the hell does that have to do with you?” and then even as the words came out of his mouth he figured out the extremely obvious answer of exactly what it had to do with Optimus, and just stopped with his mouth hanging open, staring at him.

The whole room went silent. Everyone was staring at him. Optimus fought a deep instinctive desire to just put his face in his hands and stop looking at them; maybe then he could convince his reality matrix that he was alone and nobody else was here and none of this had happened.

“Look,” he said, a little desperately. “The point is, since we want peace—right?” he added, shooting a look at Sentinel, “maybe we should try a little longer before just giving up and going home.”

Ambassador Torque was still looking at him with a hard, expressionless face; he was on the Council himself. Optimus made himself look back at him, steadily. “One month ago, you voted to put Megatron in a smelter. Now look where we are.” He waved his arm around the room. “On New Kaon, in his stronghold, under a flag of truce that he’s respecting. And yeah, he’s done that for his own reasons, but so what? We came for our own reasons, too. But we’re here. And now Megatron has an incentive to want peace, too.”

Sentinel snarled, “Megatron has an incentive to put your traitorous aft in his—”

“What exactly do you propose?” Torque interrupted. He hadn’t looked away from Optimus.

Optimus stared back at him, half surprised. He hadn’t actually gotten as far as specifics. “I—I want to go and ask him to meet with you,” he said after a moment. “To really open the peace talks he offered. And I want to be able to tell him that you’re really here to talk, too. Will you let me do that?”

“Let you? Like you’re letting anybody stop you from just doing whatever the hell you want!” Sentinel said.

“Sentinel Prime, I appreciate your sentiments, but not now,” Torque said. “Optimus Prime, I think we must first be clear upon one specific point. The incentive you refer to is that Megatron would like to maintain this…liaison with you.” Optimus’s shoulders tried to cringe up to his helm finials. “I will forgo an explanation of the…circumstances in which it began, but I trust you understand that any future…interactions will no longer be a matter of…personal preference.”  

His every pause was thickly laced not just with incredulity but with disgust, and by the time he finished talking, Optimus wasn’t embarrassed anymore; he was mad. “I didn’t rape a prisoner in his cell, if that’s what you’re wondering,” he said flatly, “and aside from that, the circumstances aren’t any of your business. As for future interactions, I’m not going to be jetting over here for visits while we’re at war, if you need me to spell it out.”

Torque’s mouth pressed into a hard line. “As you prefer a blunter style, allow me to spell this out: If we were able to obtain a peace treaty on condition of handing you over to Megatron, would you cooperate?”

“What?” Optimus stared at him, and had to fight off more embarrassment and also a squirming hot surge of eagerness in the back of his head going yes yes yes. “Megatron’s not going to give you a peace treaty in exchange for me!”

“What Megatron will do is a question only the talks themselves can answer,” Torque said. “I am asking you. Are you prepared to make such a…personal sacrifice?”

Optimus had vivid memories of encountering the occasional Earth canine who would get overexcited and start jumping at his knees in wild bounds, scrabbling and yelping. The voice in the back of his head yelling yes now sounded just about like that. He shoved it down hard. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t give, including my life, for lasting peace,” he said. “I think you’re better off trying to come up with real compromises instead of offering Megatron, what did Sentinel say, my aft as a bribe, but you’re the diplomat, not me.”

Torque gave him a very wintry smile. “Indeed. I’m glad to have clarified this matter. Very well, Optimus Prime. Arrange the talks if you can. Please make clear to Megatron that if they do not begin within three days, our entire delegation will be returning to Cybertron forthwith. Aside from that, I think we will leave the forms of…persuasion to your own…inclination.”

#

So that had been a really great and fun conversation. Optimus went out so mad he could barely see straight, literally: Lugnut had to grab him by the head and physically turn him in the corridor to keep him from running into a wall. Optimus only distantly even noticed it. He didn’t consciously plan to go back to Megatron’s quarters, either; he was just moving, and then he was storming in—the guards didn’t so much as bat an eye except to open the doors for him—and then Megatron was there in front of him, standing at a console, and he looked back at Optimus and Optimus stared at him and, uh, somehow that ended up with Megatron lying sprawled back on the recharge bed, his legs like mountains on either side of him and his optics a thin, heavy-lidded gleam as Optimus thrust into him.  

Megatron was watching him with a small, pleased curve of his mouth, an oddly somehow gentle quality, and then he said tenderly, “Come, surely you can spike me harder than that,” and the remaining half of Optimus’s brain went offline and he shoved Megatron’s legs back and started using his entire body to slam into him. Megatron laughed, a little breathless, and then groaned in satisfaction; after about ten thrusts, his entire port compressed down and started to pulse, and Optimus moaned and couldn’t help it; he went stuttering into overload all on his own, and crumpled down gasping over Megatron’s abdomen. “Sorry?” he groaned out, faintly. He didn’t really feel sorry.

“Oh, don’t be in the least,” Megatron said, and then he sat up, grabbed Optimus by the thighs and heaved his whole body up. Optimus clutched at his shoulders with a yelp.  Megatron brought his legs together under him, seated Optimus in his lap and took hold of his thighs, pushing them wide apart, then leaned in and murmured demandingly, “Give me your valve.”

“Oh,” Optimus said, with a gulp, and transformed his spike away. His valve came out already running hot, slick with lubricant, and Megatron slowly and carefully just extended his spike directly into him. “Oh, Primus.” Optimus let his head fall back, staring at the strangely blurry ceiling and panting as the enormous head steadily pressed in. The port management subsystem still had the subroutines it had worked out last time very much in main memory, and it shifted into the wider configuration, with an effort but smoothly, keeping pace until Megatron got as far into him as he could go.

Except he got that far and kept going, one gentle small nudge after another, and with each one Optimus’s port gave a little shivering jerk and managed to give a little more, until his whole body was shaking and Megatron had managed maybe an extra sixty centimeters over last time. Megatron stopped there and shuddered all over, then tilted Optimus’s head back and kissed him devouringly. “Each day I’ll work you a little further,” he growled, between kisses. “I’ll have you fitted to my whole length in six months.”

“Yes, please,” Optimus said, kissing him back desperately and badly, his equilibrium systems completely down for the count, and oh sweet Primus, Ambassador Torque could trade him to Megatron for a bag of energon goodies and some used copper wire, or for that matter offer him as a host gift just to start the negotiations out on a positive note, that would be just fine.

Megatron nuzzled a few more kisses over him, a low hum of approval, and then he murmured gently, “Has your port configuration settled?”

“Yes,” Optimus said urgently, “yes,” or anyway close enough; the whole subsystem was pretty much in a state of wild confused delight, but that wasn’t stopping anytime soon.

Megatron gave him a last nuzzle of approval, then took him by the hips and started retracting and thrusting the spike in and out of him so hard that Optimus would’ve fallen off the bed if Megatron hadn’t been holding him so firmly and inescapably in place to take it, to take it over and over until he was writhing and moaning and begging Megatron shamelessly for more. They hadn’t even overloaded again when Megatron pulled him in close; Optimus’s chest opened without even a conscious effort, and they were pressed spark to spark even as the physical climax surged gloriously into him.

“Wow,” Optimus said faintly afterwards, sprawled on his back.

“Indeed,” Megatron said. He rolled up on one elbow to survey Optimus, radiating a vast, smug satisfaction that would’ve been annoying in virtually any other situation. At the moment, Optimus was pretty willing to endorse it. Megatron slid a knuckle along the line of Optimus’s jaw, brushed the pad of his thumb over his lips, little touches that sent shivers of excitement flickering through him, even now; excitement and something else he couldn’t quite let himself name, something terrifying. He reached up himself and caught Megatron’s hand and kissed it, and Megatron’s internal turbines purred against him.

“I, uh, did actually need to talk to you,” Optimus said, a bit ruefully. On the bright side, he wasn’t actually mad anymore at all. In fact he was mostly feeling pretty smugly sorry for Torque and Sentinel and basically everyone else in the universe, because none of them were ever going to get to do this, at least as far as he could help it by making sure Megatron was too busy doing it with him.

“Then I regret distracting you,” Megatron said.

“I’m—ninety-nine percent sure that’s a lie,” Optimus said, eyeing him. It was a really good deadpan.

Megatron actually laughed out loud, a sound of real happiness, and it made Optimus’s spark chamber give a small joyful pulse in his chest. Megatron bent down and took a little nibble of his lip that didn’t seem like it should feel amazing. “Only ninety-nine percent? Perhaps I must distract you a little more, then.”

 “If you distract me any more I’m going to need my coolant lines replaced,” Optimus said. He took a deep breath. “Megatron—I talked to Ambassador Torque.”

Megatron’s optics instantly narrowed and flared. “You told him?” he said sharply, a faint whine of power rerouting inside his chest—three guesses what systems it was going to.

“Okay, step it down!” Optimus said. “You said it yourself that the secret couldn’t keep for a lot longer, and they were on the verge of packing it in because you haven’t actually talked to the ambassador—”

“Then it could have kept until they were gone!” Megatron snapped. He got up from the recharge bed in a single fluid movement—Optimus had no idea how he moved that fast when he was that big—and stalked across the room to the very large rack of oil dispensers.

Well, he’d known it wasn’t going to be easy. Optimus took a deep breath and got up—not without a slight wince—and went after him. Megatron didn’t look at him. There was a shimmer of heat coming off his neck vents, only a little short of actually putting off smoke. “Megatron,” Optimus said, trying to find the words, “I—I’ve never met anyone who makes me feel the way you do. And don’t get me wrong,” he added, trying to make it wry, “that includes terrified out of my motivator and insane with rage,” but Megatron turned with his optics flaring, fixed on him like he was already hearing what Optimus hadn’t said yet, and it made all the words spill out in a rush. “And even if it doesn’t make sense for a million reasons—I’m—I’m—falling in love with you.” His chest heaved in a desperate, half-panicky gasp as soon as he’d let it out, because he had the bad feeling that it wasn’t really in the present tense anymore. “If there were a way, I’d want—I do want—to build my life beside yours. But I’m still an Autobot. And I can’t betray my people.”

Megatron said softly, “Would you ask me to betray mine? To accept exile, surrender Cybertron forever—”

“No!” Optimus said. “No, I don’t want that! It’s wrong and it was always wrong. You and the Decepticons have as much right to Cybertron as we do. It’s your home too. But if you come as invaders—” He stopped, because his head just went blank; he didn’t even know what he would do. Was he going to fight? To shoot at Megatron, at Lugnut—maybe at his own sparklings? He shuddered all over. “If you come as invaders,” he whispered, “I guess the only thing I’ll be able to do is go and put myself in the front ranks and hope someone shoots me quick. Because I won’t be able to shoot back. But I won’t be able to let it happen, either.”

Megatron took a step towards him, his eyes flaring red. “Do you truly think I will ever let you leave—”

Optimus reached up and put his hands on Megatron’s face, his thumbs closing his lips, stopping him the way Megatron had stopped him, back in the cell on Cybertron. “Go ahead,” Optimus said softly. “Look me in the face and tell me that you’d lock me up and keep me in a cell against my will because I’m useful to you.”

Megatron went jaggedly still, his optics fixed on Optimus and his mouth a hard downturned line. Optimus found himself smiling, a little brokenly. It felt wonderful and horrible at the same time. “Megatron, I don’t get to have this—I don’t get to have peace—unless everyone gets to have it.”

Megatron was silent. Then he breathed out, under Optimus’s hands, and reached up and took hold of them and kissed them one after the other. “What terms do you think your Council would require to let us come back home, when they were so terrified of me, even as their bound prisoner, that they would have smelted me like a mindless hulk? Are we to let them put restraining collars on us, or clamp our power supplies, and trust them not to make us into slaves as they did before?

“And yet, if they demanded such measures, they would not be fools. In the final battle of the Great War, I personally slew forty-six Elite Guardsmen, including four Primes, trying to reach the Allspark launching platform. Yes, I imagine they do not show you the vids of that battle in your Academy,” he added, dryly, to Optimus’s open-mouthed stare of horror. “It might have a discouraging effect. We are meant for war, Optimus. And you are not. You personally have been able to thwart me in the past through your mastery of collaborative tactics and making brilliant use of your surroundings and your tools—but you survived our encounters primarily because killing you was never my direct objective. If your leaders allowed us back within Cybertron’s defense systems, you could not stop us if we chose to crush you.

“So to reunite our species, either Decepticons must trust you to leave us free, or you must trust us not to kill you. And I find the prospect of either—remote.”

“It sure won’t happen if we don’t try,” Optimus said, after a long moment, his spark chamber feeling tight in his chest. “You spent four million years looking for the Allspark. Give me that long before you give up on the possibility.”

“Yes,” Megatron said, very dryly. “I spent four million years looking for the Allspark, all so I could ensure the continuation of my kind. And now that I have an alternative in hand, which not incidentally involves a great deal more personal satisfaction, you are asking me to surrender it.”

“If it helps, I, uh, really don’t want you to?” Optimus said, feebly.

Megatron sighed. “Tell your ambassador we will have our first meeting tomorrow morning.” And then he looked at Optimus, his eyes narrowing. “And if you want these talks to have a chance of success,” he added, “I suggest that you give him the very strong impression that I will not be allowing you to return to Cybertron. Because the only reason he’ll offer me terms I can accept is if he thinks I’m coming anyway—with an army of newsparks behind me.”

#

Lugnut tromped along behind him as Optimus went back downstairs slowly, trying to decide what to do. He didn’t like the idea of deceiving his own people, but—he had the really bad feeling that Megatron was right. He already knew the Council was scared enough of the Decepticons to do one wrong thing after another. Ambassador Torque wasn’t really disgusted by the Decepticons. He wanted to be disgusted, because that beat being terrified. Optimus could even understand it. He still remembered the sheer, spark-clenching terror of Megatron tearing into the side of their spaceship as easily as if it was a canister of flavored energon, the desperation of knowing he had to find some way to stop the unstoppable. And he couldn’t expect everyone to decide that “twice your size and powerful enough to rip your limbs off” was actually a massive turn-on. Most Autobots didn’t want the Decepticons back. Their idea of peace was the Decepticons stayed away forever and left Cybertron alone.

Except if he told Ambassador Torque that Megatron was going to keep him here as a prisoner, unwillingly breeding an army of sparklings to conquer Cybertron—well, the Council would believe it, because it was just the kind of thing they expected Megatron to do. And they might even agree to some kind of treaty, because that was better than getting invaded. But that wasn’t going to fix the actual problem. The Council would still be negotiating out of fear the whole time. So everything they offered would just be—a lie, a temporary measure to buy time to find a way out. If you put a gun to somebody’s head to make them sign a deal, you couldn’t expect them to stick to it. Optimus didn’t think that you could get anywhere good that way. 

He hesitated a moment outside Ambassador Torque’s door, and then went on to Ratchet’s instead. “Hey, you have a minute?” he said in a quick private-channel message, pausing with his hand on the door panel.

There wasn’t a response. He didn’t even get back the automatic receipt confirmation. “Ratchet?” he said, out loud, leaning towards the door, and then tried the panel. It didn’t respond.

“Optimus Prime wishes to enter the room!” Lugnut said. He punched his entire fist through the door, grabbed it, and peeled it right out of the wall.

“Uh, okay,” Optimus said, wincing. “I guess whoever does the maintenance around here can take it up with you if they want.” Then he looked inside, and forgot all about it in a sharp clench of fear. The room was wrecked, a complete disaster; scorch marks from blaster fire dotted the wall, and there were clawed gouges where he could tell Ratchet had tried using his clamps to fight. And—the recharge unit was smashed, with a heavy dent in it roughly shaped like the old mech’s body.

Optimus whirled around to Lugnut. “Do you have surveillance coverage of our rooms? You’ve got to! What happened—who did this?” He sent an urgent high-priority alert out over the Autobot back channel. “Sentinel! This is Optimus. Ratchet’s been taken—his room’s been wrecked—”

“We will go at once to the surveillance center and learn who has harmed the grumpy medic!” Lugnut said, looking around the room in outrage. “Retribution will be swift for those who have dared defy the orders of the great and glorious Megatron! Come, Optimus Prime.”

Optimus stood in the middle of the room. Sentinel wasn’t answering him. But it wasn’t because he hadn’t gotten the message. The confirmation had come right back from him. Nobody else was responding either, even though he’d spoken on the shared line. A strange, awful sensation was churning up out of his lower-level processing. “You go,” he forced out of his vocal unit. “I’m going to start—looking for clues.”

“Remain here, then, Optimus Prime!” Lugnut said. “I will return swiftly!”

He turned and disappeared out of the room. Optimus waited until he was gone, and then he opened a private encrypted channel to Sentinel. “Where’s Ratchet, Sentinel?” he said, flatly.

“Smart little mech, aren’t you. Good job ditching your babysitter,” Sentinel said, over the line—so there was a spy-eye somewhere planted in the room. “Now get back to the ship, unless you feel like watching your traitor buddy flame through re-entry when we kick him out the side on our way up. What’s it going to be, Optimus?”

It felt like getting carved open down the middle. “You—you’re threatening to murder Ratchet?” Optimus said, his voice cracking. “He hasn’t even done—Sentinel. Sentinel. You—you can’t mean it. You can’t—take it back. Take it back.”

“Shut up!” Sentinel snarled. “You started this, you slagging traitor! You popped your spike for Megatron, you set him loose, you gave him sparklings, and you’re still trying to act like you’re on some kind of moral high ground?”

“If I am, it’s because you’re jumping into a flaming pit!” Optimus shouted at him. “Primus, what are you doing?

“What needs to be done to keep our people safe,” Sentinel said, coldly. “And I’m not giving you a chance to come up with any more clever moves, either. We’re taking off in five minutes, Optimus. Get moving now. And if we see any Decepticons coming, we’re just taking off no matter what.”

He cut the channel. But his spy-eye was still in the room watching, and anyway five minutes would be barely enough time to get back to the landing pad. Optimus stood a single moment, shaking, and then he turned and transformed in the corridor and rolled for it, as fast as he could go, thankful that Decepticons were so much bigger: he could go top-speed down the hallways the whole way straight to the big entrance. The guards on the doors did a double-take when he went flying past, but he just accelerated even more: he could see the landing pad in the distance up ahead, billowing clouds building as the ship prepared to launch.

There weren’t any Decepticons gathering overhead. The others probably hadn’t had any trouble getting away: Optimus bet that Megatron had told the Decepticons not to stop the Autobots if they tried to leave. He’d wanted the others to go. But as Optimus got closer, he saw Lugnut appear in his rear-view sensory array, bursting out of the citadel in hot pursuit. He’d probably already told Megatron—told him—Optimus didn’t know what he’d think; he couldn’t guess. He couldn’t let that stop him.

But he didn’t need to. Megatron would figure it out. He wouldn’t even be surprised. He’d only be furious that he hadn’t guessed at the possibility of threatening Ratchet. He’d assigned Optimus a bodyguard; it hadn’t occurred to Optimus until now that the point really had been to protect him from—Sentinel. From his own people.

The ship was lifting from the ground, thrusters rotating down, getting ready for the launch. Optimus threw everything he had to his engines, roared up the last ramp and didn’t even stop, just transformed as he flung himself into the air, firing his grappling hook and getting the locking handle on the rear entrance; he reeled himself in with his shoulder servos screaming as the ship fired off and began to blaze away into the atmosphere, the whole world blurring around him. The air was getting thin and cold enough to build layers of ice over his helm and shoulders by the time he managed to get up, and he banged on the airlock door, wondering distantly if they’d even let him in, or if they would just kick him off to burn up—

The door slid open and he fell in, gasping. Sentinel was there with two of his guardsmen, grabbing him as the door slid shut. “Bring him,” Sentinel said coldly, turning his back, and Optimus surged up, slammed an elbow into one guardsman’s midsection, bending him over with a whoosh of venting air, grabbed him by the bent shoulders and shoved his entire body into the other one, knocking them both into a heap against the wall, and then he lunged at Sentinel and crashed him straight through the open door into the corridor and into the wall, banging him against it violently.

“Tell me you were lying!” Optimus shouted at him. “Tell me you wouldn’t have—”

Sentinel tried to make a midsection gut-punch; Optimus pivoted, grabbing his wrist, and swung him crashing through the two guards scrambling out of the airlock behind him, knocking them back flat, and he let Sentinel go sliding down the hallway.

“Stay down!” he snarled at the two battered guardsmen, and then he ran full-tilt down the hall and tackled Sentinel hard as he staggered up, slamming him to the ground again. Sentinel tried to slug him; Optimus grabbed his arm and punched him in his own face with it, knocking his head back into the floor with a clang, then let go and used his own fists, punched him again going the other way and again, bashing Sentinel’s head from one side to the other. Optimus was crying while he fought, choked sobs coming out of his throat, lubricant running sticky down his face, and he grabbed Sentinel by the chest panel and slammed him down one more time.

“Tell me,” he said, his voice ragged and distorted. “Please. Please tell me.”

One of Sentinel’s optics was cracked, and lubricant was oozing from the side of his mouth. He stared up at Optimus, his mouth wavering, and then he looked away. He didn’t say anything. Optimus got up off him and staggered to lean against the wall, a hand over his face. A few minutes later, Sentinel slowly staggered back up to his feet. Optimus said dully, “Take me to Ratchet,” and after a moment, Sentinel turned, his head lowered, and walked back towards the brig area.

Ratchet was lying unmoving on the floor of a cell. Two guards were standing on either side. They darted uneasy looks at Sentinel’s battered face. Optimus went to the supply closet in the far wall. Ratchet had handled stocking the medical supplies, so there were repair kits here, too. He took a couple and turned around. “Open it,” he said flatly. The guards hesitated. “Open it, or I’ll take you both down and do it myself. Besides, you’re not getting me in a cell any other way.”

They darted one more look at Sentinel, who still hadn’t said anything, and then one of them uneasily opened the field. Optimus went in, and they closed it after him. He didn’t pay attention. He knelt down next to Ratchet’s side and started pulling up his archived files on field repair.

Ratchet groaned and woke up after about half an hour of work. “Ah, hell, kid,” he said, when he saw Optimus.

“Just lie still and rest,” Optimus said. “Tell me what I should do.”

“Only wish I had any damn idea,” Ratchet said.

#

Ratchet was back on his feet, if limping, by the time they landed back on Cybertron. Sentinel came back with a team of six guards to get them out of the cell. His face had been glazed with temporary patch to stop the leaks; it looked flat, almost like a two-dimensional painting. He didn’t meet Optimus’s eyes as he tossed in the stasis cuffs. “Put them on,” he said.

Optimus picked them up, but when he tried to put them on, his system locked up, flashing high-priority alerts. He frowned and tried again, tried a manual override, and it wouldn’t let him.

“Just put them on already!” Sentinel yelled, his voice going shrill.

“There’s something wrong with them,” Optimus said. “My system won’t let me.”

Ratchet drew a sudden sharp intake of dismay. “Oh, scrap,” he said, and Optimus stared at him. “It’s not the cuffs.”

“What?” Optimus said, and Ratchet looked at him and said, low, “Check your diagnostics. Are your power-flow readings elevated in your chest region?”

“Yes,” Optimus said, after a quick lookup. “What does that—”

He stopped, dizzy for a moment with horror as he understood. Sentinel, staring in at him, looked almost as stricken. Ratchet put a hand on his back, a small and useless comfort.

They were locked into a prisoner transport together for the ride from the spaceport to Iacon Tower. It wasn’t a long trip, but long enough for Ratchet to do a quick inspection. “It’s just the one,” he said, quietly. “Looks…looks good. Healthy.”

“Ratchet,” Optimus said, “can you tell if it’s an Autobot or a Decepticon yet?”

Ratchet was silent. “There’s a way to check,” he said finally, and sent Optimus a small subroutine. “Run that through your fuel system. The sparkling will pulse differently depending on…” His voice trailed off, staring into the chest cavity, and then he said, “Although—this early—it’s easy to make mistakes—”

“Ratchet,” Optimus said.

The old medic’s seamy face was crumpling into misery. “Looks like a Decepticon.” Optimus shut his optics. How many of those sparks were smothered because they were meant for warmech frames? Megatron had asked him softly.

“You shouldn’t’ve come after me,” Ratchet said, his voice cracking. “Optimus. I should’ve—if I’d just—”

“It’s not your fault,” Optimus said, reaching up and closing the panel over his chest. “I’m not sorry I came after you, Ratchet.” He meant it, he wanted to mean it, but his hand wouldn’t move away from his chest panel, spread wide, trying to put another layer of armor over the fragile life inside. Ratchet had said he wouldn’t be able to feel the sparkling consciously for another few weeks, not until its power draw got high enough, but his system was running the diagnostics in almost a constant loop, and there was a strange sensation beneath his spark chamber, a cloud of low-level activity being promoted to conscious attention.

“They’re gonna make you sorry,” Ratchet said.

Optimus didn’t say anything. He knew it was true. His emotional subsystem was shutting down almost everything so he could keep functioning, a strange calm descending that made the whole world terribly and strangely clear. “And then Megatron’s going to make them sorry,” he said softly, desolately, and shut his optics.

Sentinel still didn’t look at him when they unloaded him, in a loading bay deep in Iacon Tower. He’d turned off the actual power on the stasis cuffs, and just locked them manually. The cuffs weren’t really necessary anyway. There were too many guards, and Optimus couldn’t fight all of them, much less get off the planet. He was expecting to get dragged up to the Council chamber again, but instead he and Ratchet were taken down to the special prisoners section: where he’d brought Megatron in, what felt like a million years ago. “Why is Ratchet being locked up?” Optimus said to Sentinel’s back.

“Collaborating with a traitor is treason,” Sentinel said without looking around.

“How exactly do you figure he collaborated?” Optimus said.

“I told them about rewiring Megatron’s feed line, kid,” Ratchet growled from behind him. “Providing medical services to sparklings counts as treason now, apparently. Anyway, it’s not like they can let me outta here when they’re keeping you. This isn’t anything the Council wants to hit the newsnets.”

Sentinel’s head bowed forward a little bit more. He didn’t say anything more. He put them in cells across from each other; shortly after he put up the forcefields, Council Lord Denarius came down the corridor, with four other senior councillors along, including Torque.

“He’s definitely carrying?” he said to Torque, even while he was staring in at Optimus like someone looking at a lab specimen in a cage.

“The medic examined him during the transport, and our scans confirmed. A Decepticon spark, unfortunately,” Torque said, his voice thick with disgust.

Optimus looked at them. Most of his emotions were still suppressed, only a single thread of sorrow running deep and strong beneath an iron wall of calm. Whenever he’d come before the Council before, he’d always looked up at the circle of faces, respected administrators, and he’d seen it as a single body, a sum of wisdom and eons of shared experience united in the service of Cybertron and its people, like the legends of the Matrix. He’d thought it was one of the things that separated them so clearly from the Decepticons: they were guided by many voices, ever changing.

Only, with the five of them picked out for him, seeing their faces and remembering their designations, Optimus suddenly saw the pattern that had been hidden from him before. They were the longest-running members of the Council. Most Council members were appointed to a thousand-year term and retired after one or two. There was supposed to be steady turnover. But Denarius had been on the Council for—a few million years, now. The other four had all been on for at least five hundred thousand, except Torque, who’d been on for a hundred and ten.

They didn’t sit together in the Council chamber. They weren’t even obvious allies: Corvidion’s record showed he voted directly opposite Denarius almost all the time, except for the occasional nail-biter and for unanimous votes. Denarius had been Council Lord twenty-eight times. The others had divided the position between themselves the rest of the time. And the Council Lord had the power to reappoint standing Council members, and his own successor, subject to the approval of the rest of the Council. Which was easy to get when the opposition leader was actually your ally.

“Tell me something,” Optimus said to Denarius quietly. “Why did you do it, at first?” Denarius glanced at him, frowning. Optimus waved a hand at the others. “Did you think you had a good reason when you set up this scheme to control the Council?”

Denarius stiffened, his mouth hardening. “Do you think a grotesque perverted traitor deserves any explanation?” he spat out.

Optimus shook his head in desperate frustration. “Do you think that calling me names actually changes what you’re doing? If there was a reason, if you had any good intentions in the first place, please, listen to me.” He took a step closer to the bars. Denarius was staring at him almost startled, as if he couldn’t believe anyone was talking back to him. “I understand being scared of the Decepticons. Do you think I don’t? I’ve had Megatron’s hand around my throat, and I thought for sure I was going to die. Do you think I don’t understand being angry at them? I lost—I lost a good friend because of them, one of the bravest mechs I’ve ever known. I’ve had to put my own life on the line over and over to stop them, and I’ve had to ask my dearest friends to do the same. I was never going to give Megatron an army of sparklings to conquer us with, if you really were scared of that. I’d offline myself first before I’d let that happen. That’s not what this is.” He spread his hand over his chest. “This is us, Denarius. Our people. All of us. Not Autobots and Decepticons, but Cybertronians. And if we don’t find a way to—to forgive each other, to go on together, then none of us will go on.”

They were all staring at him. For a moment, Optimus even thought maybe—maybe he’d gotten through to them. Allocator and Vintatorius looked uneasy, glancing around at the others. But Denarius’s face hardened back to coldness out of surprise, and Torque said, his voice a little too determinedly loud, “Forgiveness, is that what the young mechs call it these days? Certainly no one could fault your enthusiasm for the peace process.”

“Better than sabotaging it!” Optimus said. “Don’t you see where this is going to end up?”

Denarius snorted at that. “We know where you imagine it’s going to end up. That your beloved Megatron is going to somehow blaze his way through the planetary defenses to ride to your rescue and make us sorry.”

Optimus put a hand over his face a moment, shutting his optics in despair. “You think I want that to happen?” he said, his voice cracking. “That—that you could do anything to me that would make me want Megatron to throw the Decepticons at us in one last blaze of rage? Slaughter tens of thousands on both sides until whoever has more mechs left standing butchers what’s left of the other side, and then the survivors just die off, little by little, and leave our planet a dead husk? I’d die by torture a thousand times to stop that happening if I could, and instead you’re going to make me the cause.”

Denarius’s face twisted in anger, like Optimus was insulting him. “Allow me to reassure you, since you feel so very passionately about our survival,” he hissed. “You’re not going to be the cause of our destruction, but of our final and complete victory. Do you really think we’ve been sitting idly by all these years while our stores of newsparks dwindled? Efforts have long been underway to find a solution. We’ve been trying to find a viable carrier for eons. There’s a complex set of neural changes involved, and we’ve never managed to induce it.”

He made a grimace of distaste. “It is indeed a regrettable discovery that the process seems to require the participation of warmechs. Fortunately, however, it is quite easy to induce warmech bodies to provide the generative components of spiking. Consciousness and even functioning personality is not required. And any undesirable results can be dispensed with after the fact. So you see, you need have no fear. You will not carry an army of sparklings for the Decepticons. You’ll carry them for us.”

Optimus stood blankly. Ratchet’s face in the cell across from him was a mask of horror, but he couldn’t seem to feel it himself. Denarius stared at him challengingly, as if he wanted Optimus to say something, but—there wasn’t anything to say. After a moment, Denarius turned away. “Corvidion, inform the heads of Project Generation to prepare for the first induction immediately. They’ll need to clear out the current—contents, but I’m sure they can manage that.”

He strode away down the corridor without looking back, one brief glance at Sentinel along the way before continuing on. Torque and Corvidion fell in behind him at once. The other two hesitated, their optics almost unwillingly darting at Optimus, but it was only a moment, and they turned and went, too. Optimus turned and went back to the narrow recharge slab built into the wall and sat down. His spark chamber was tight and clenched. The diagnostics kept checking on the sparkling, the tiny light within. He hoped it couldn’t feel pain.

“This—I didn’t know about this,” Sentinel said abruptly. He was standing in front of the cell. He wasn’t looking at Optimus, staring down the hall, into the dark. “I didn’t…” He stopped.

Optimus said quietly, “I’m glad.”

Sentinel flinched and shot a look at Optimus, a flat, desperate one. He looked away again. “There’s…there’s guards at all the…”

Optimus shook his head a little. He’d seen that watchful look from Denarius; he was pretty sure the Council Lord wasn’t going to take another chance on an important prisoner escaping thanks to the help of someone on the inside. “No. Sentinel, I need you to do something else.” Sentinel darted another look at him—scared of what he might ask. “I need you to get a message to Megatron for me. I need you to tell him—that I ask him to choose peace. No matter what. Will you do that?”

Sentinel stared at him. “You think he’s going to listen?”

“I don’t know,” Optimus said. “I hope so.” He bowed his head and added quietly, “Tell him they won’t have me. Once they take out the sparkling, I’m not going to let them—do the rest to me.”

“I don’t think they’re planning to ask,” Sentinel said, looking away.

“I don’t need their permission,” Optimus said. “I’ve been one with the Allspark before. Just for a little while, but…it left a pathway. I can go back. I don’t think it matters, anyway. I’m pretty sure—all of them would be warmechs.” Ratchet drew a sharp breath, and Optimus looked up at him. “Am I right?” 

 After a moment, Ratchet said slowly, “You might be. I didn’t check Megatron’s sparklings, but it would make sense. There’s some pathways that have to be formed mirror-image. Easier if it’s the opposite of the carrier. How did you guess?”

Optimus smiled a little, painfully. “It makes sense anyway. There should be more civilians than warriors. And they’re the ones with the size and strength to carry multiples. So I’m carrying a warmech. And Megatron’s carrying…Autobots.” He looked back at Sentinel. “If that’s it—then he can choose peace, no matter what Denarius and the Council do. He can just take the sparklings and the Decepticons and go. Find somewhere far away, somewhere safe, where they can start again.”

Sentinel stared at him. “You really think he’ll give up Cybertron?”

“Cybertron matters,” Optimus said. “It’s important. It’s our home. But a home doesn’t matter as much as the people who live in it. And—Megatron knows that. He didn’t spend millions of years trying to conquer Cybertron. He spent the time trying to find the Allspark. So yes. He’ll listen.” He stood up again and came up to the field, a deep urgency in him. He couldn’t save this sparkling, but he could try to save the rest. He could try to save the Decepticons, if he couldn’t save the Autobots. “Please, Sentinel.”

Sentinel stared at him through the field and blurted, “But—if you’re right about this, then if the Decepticons go—if they all go, then it means—”

“Yes,” Optimus said. “It means the Autobots here on Cybertron will die out. But after the Decepticons are gone, as the fear of the war fades, maybe things will change here, too. Maybe they’ll change their minds and reach out, try to find the Decepticons after all. And if not, at least there’s still a chance that some day, maybe a long time from now, some of our people will come back home. And find it waiting for them.” He looked at Sentinel. “It’s not what I want,” he added. “But it’s better than what Denarius would do. Better than all of our people gone into the dark together, in pain and rage and hate.”

Sentinel was looking at him stricken, his face open in a way Optimus hadn’t seen it in what felt like forever. Not since they’d been fresh cadets together, both of them trying so hard to be heroes. To make themselves into warriors, against their own programming; trying to be strong and tough and hard, and convincing themselves that was the definition of bravery. Except this was what it really meant to be brave: to choose something that terrified you, to give up everything you cared about, to keep going towards a small struggling spark of hope. It—was a lot harder. Optimus reached out and put his hand flat against the forcefield, wishing suddenly that he could reach through, take Sentinel’s hand, pull him into a hug. “All I can do is ask,” he said softly. “All you can do is try. Sometimes that’s all there is to do. To save something, even if we can’t save everything.” 

Sentinel jerked his face away, but there were tears leaking from his optics, and he was gulping for breath trying not to break into sobs. He turned back suddenly and put his hand on the other side of the field, aligned with Optimus’s, and he said in a gasp, “I will. I’ll try. I’ll—Optimus. I’m sorry. I’m so—”

“It’s all right,” Optimus said. “I’m sorry, too. Go.” Sentinel jerked his head in a nod and turned and was gone down the hall, fast, breaking into a heavy clanking run that faded away slower, even after he was out of sight. Optimus watched the empty hallway for a long time, straining to hear any sound of anyone trying to stop him. He was afraid that someone had been listening in, but maybe Denarius didn’t want any low-level soldier hearing whatever Optimus might say; it might be just a video pickup, or even just an automated monitoring routine in case someone tried to lower the forcefield. But he stood listening a long time. No sound of blaster fire or combat came echoing back down, and finally he breathed out and turned away, only to find Ratchet staring at him from across the hallway, tears leaking down his face, too.

“Ratchet? What is it?” Optimus said.

Ratchet said hoarsely, “I don’t…it’s not…” He stopped and looked away and shook his head. After a moment he said gruffly, “Never thought I’d be rooting for Sentinel to help Megatron against the Council of Elders.” It came out half wavering, like he was putting on the gruffness to cover something up, but Optimus let it carry him into a small huff of laughter.

“I guess things don’t always work out—the way we expect,” he said.

“Yeah,” Ratchet said, but his voice broke at the end, and he put his face in his hands. There was a faint clanking sound in the distance, footsteps approaching.

Optimus turned away. He shut his optics and put his hand over his chest one more time. I’m sorry, he thought silently, towards the sparkling. I would have loved to meet you so much. Megatron would have loved—

He did gulp a sob, then. They’d had so little time. He had more of his memory store dedicated to fighting Megatron than loving him. And he couldn’t be sorry to have it; all of that was part of who they both were, now. They’d had to get through it to reach the other side. But it still hurt not to get more. To know how it was going to hurt Megatron, when he learned what had happened. And then Sentinel was going to ask him, with Optimus’s voice, to give up the one comfort Megatron would most desperately want, the comfort of vengeance, of unleashing all his power in retribution, since he hadn’t been able to use it in defense.

Optimus wiped his face, pulling himself together, and turned to face the front of the cell, squaring his shoulders. He wasn’t ashamed of crying, of being hurt and afraid, but he didn’t want to maybe see it turn into pleasure in their faces, when they came for him.

But there weren’t enough steps coming, and there was something odd about them, too; it wasn’t an even gait, but an irregular tapping. He took a step closer to the field and peered down the corridor and stared. It was Alpha Trion, coming down the corridor leaning on his stick of office. It was making the third tap. “Herald? What—what are you—doing here?” Optimus said, staring at him as he finally came in front of the cell. Half-unwilling hope was trying to rise in him. “Are—are you here to get us out?” He almost didn’t dare say it out loud.

“Get you out?” Alpha Trion peered at him from under his eyebrows. “No, Optimus Prime, I’m afraid not. I’m here to take you further in.” His eyes came suddenly alight, blazing, and all the lights overhead flickered; down the hall, many of them burst, showers of sparks raining down, and with a sharp buzz, the forcefield in front of his cell and Ratchet’s deactivated. Optimus stepped slowly out of the cell as Ratchet did too,  both of them staring.

“Come along, now,” Alpha Trion said. “We’ve got quite a ways to go.”

He turned and started off down the corridor—away from the exit. Further in. Optimus looked at Ratchet, who shrugged helplessly. At least it was better than here. Maybe Alpha Trion knew some way to get out from the lower levels?

He at least did seem to know where he was going, or at least to be very decisive about it. He led them through one narrow corridor to the next, taking abrupt sharp turns and occasionally opening a door that turned out to lead to a different corridor. At some point they had to have left Iacon Tower, but the transition was gradual enough that Optimus didn’t notice when it happened. The only consistent thing he did notice was they kept moving down.

But even that was so gradual that he gave a start of surprise when he followed Alpha Trion around another corner and saw the true pitch black of the innerworld ahead: they’d hit the cutoff point below the surface where the planetary grid had been completely turned off to conserve energy. It was lower than the transit system tunnel network he’d explored, a lot lower.  

Alpha Trion sailed right on towards the dark without any hesitation. “Uh, hang on a second?” Optimus said, a little nervously. “Herald? Maybe we should try finding another way back to the surface.”

Alpha Trion turned to look at him, his eyes still illuminated with that strange light. “I told you, Optimus Prime. I am not taking you to the surface,” and a crawling chill ran involuntarily along Optimus’s dorsal column.

“Where—where are you taking us?” he said, a little warily.

“Further in, as I said,” Alpha Trion said. “As far in as there is, really.”

Well, that sounded alarming. “Look, Herald,” Optimus said after a moment, “I’d gladly go anywhere you wanted me to, but—I don’t know what’s happening up there right now, and if the Decepticons are on the way, it’s a safe bet it’s not good. I really need to get back. Is there any other way?”

Alpha Trion’s eyebrows went up. “Another way? Yes, many. There is no coercion possible here, Optimus Prime. You may turn aside if you wish, and seek a way to the surface. But the greater hope lies below.”

“Why do I get the feeling we’re having two different conversations,” Optimus said under his breath.

“I am having the important one,” Alpha Trion said, with an unexpectedly amused tone that oddly didn’t sound senile at all. “You youngsparks are always in such a hurry. I’m afraid you’ll have to exercise a little patience this time. You can’t expect him to recognize urgency on such a small timescale.”

“Uh, who?” Optimus said, totally lost now.

“Primus, of course,” Alpha Trion said. He turned around and started onward. He didn’t look back to see if they were following.

Ratchet raised his hands when Optimus looked at him. “Don’t even ask, kid. This one’s all on you. I think I’m just along for the ride. So what’s it gonna be? In or out?”

Optimus took in a deep breath and let it cycle through his systems at a deliberately slow pace, picking up extra exhaust particles and purging it out. He still didn’t know where they were going, but he was getting the idea. There was another way. There was a way to save the Autobots, too, and not just the Decepticons. “In,” he said, and followed Alpha Trion into the dark.

It felt endless after that, walking on and on with only a tiny sliver of tunnel illuminated ahead of them at every step. The planetary hum got louder as they went deeper, and it began to resonate through the floor and the walls around them. Optimus trudged on, pushing down the occasional alert from his system reminding him that he hadn’t had any energon in a pretty long while and he’d been expending a lot of resources and also hey he could really use some recharge time and while he was at it, a giant bag of those silicon snacks Bumblebee was crazy about.

“The spark formation unit’s making new circuitry,” Ratchet said. “Here, try chewing on this,” and gave him a chunk of medical-grade quartz, which helped.

He managed to grind up the entire piece, and they still hadn’t stopped going. The light from Alpha Trion’s optics now gleamed on strange panels etched with circuitry that followed patterns larger and more elaborate than anything Optimus had ever seen, and they passed doorways that let him glimpse vast halls with walls covered in murals and glittering mosaics, towering figures and runes so old he didn’t recognize them. “What are all these places?” he asked in a hush. “Herald, have you ever been down here before?”

“Twice,” Alpha Trion said. “Once when Arcadia Prime first brought me…I wasn’t much older than you are now. And once more after she died, to bring back the Matrix.”

He said it so prosaically that it took a moment to penetrate, and then Optimus stopped short in the tunnel. “Wait, did you say—the Matrix?” he said incredulously. “Are you—” He had to start over again. “You’ve seen the Matrix. With your own eyes. It exists? And you—you brought it down here and just left it?” Alpha Trion hadn’t slowed down, or so much as glanced back. Optimus took a couple of fast jumps and caught up, a sharp pang of anger in his chest. “Why? If you hadn’t—” Alpha Trion finally stopped in the hall and turned to him, his expression unchanged, as if he wasn’t talking about—hiding away the greatest treasure of their entire civilization, the guiding light that should have prevented everything going wrong in the first place. “You must have seen what Denarius was doing. You were Herald even before the war with the Grinakht! You saw what they did to the war mechs. If we’d had the guidance of the Matrix—if you had just—said something! Done something!”

Alpha Trion looked at him and said gently, “That is not my task, Optimus Prime. I am Herald. It is my duty not to act, but to wait.”

“Wait for what?” Optimus said, almost shaking with anger, and then a light began to shine around and through the cracks of a pair of massive doors set in the wall next to them, outlining them in liquid gold, and Optimus turned and stared as they swung inward, and inside at the end of a narrow walkway, a massive globe of metal was cracking open, to reveal the vast pulsing glow of an impossibly large spark, its surface coruscating and surging like the corona of a sun.

“For the next Matrix-Bearer,” Alpha Trion said. “So that when they came, I could guide them here.

Optimus stood staring at it, the spark chamber slowly continuing to open, half mesmerized. “The Matrix Bearer?” he said, not quite listening to himself, half-mesmerized by the impossibility of it. “The Matrix is meant to guide the Council. To keep Cybertron safe—”

“It is. But the Matrix and its power cannot be freely accessed,” Alpha Trion said. “One individual, chosen of Primus, must bear it upon their heart, and carry it for the good of all. And I have been waiting—he has been waiting—a very long time.” He gestured to the walkway. “Go on.”

Optimus jerked back around to stare at him wildly. “What—me? You want me to—” He looked down the walkway and back: Alpha Trion was only just standing there with that same unchanged, almost prosaic expression, mild as a gentle breeze. “But that’s—that’s insane,” Optimus managed. “No one person should have that kind of power!”

“That is why it cannot be granted by any other will,” Alpha Trion said. “And it is given only to one who has love foremost in his heart, for all of Primus’ creation. For only such a one can endure contact with his spark. And through this long, bitter age of civil war and division, there has been no Cybertronian whose heart was truly open to all of Primus’ children, and whose will was strong enough to bear it.” He paused and added, more gentle and also somehow absolutely terrifying, “The Matrix is not a gift you are being offered, Optimus. It would not be given to any who would find it so. It is a burden you are being asked to bear.”

Optimus swallowed hard, a shiver of fear running up his back; he believed it suddenly, without question. He’d felt so agonizingly guilty, so many times, when he’d piled one mistake on another, blundering around trying to do the right thing. And he knew he’d keep doing it, even with the Matrix, because that was just life: you screwed up and you tried to make it better and then you screwed up some more, except now he’d be doing it with the power of Primus behind him, and the mistakes he’d make would be so much worse. And the guilt worse along with them.

Alpha Trion said after a moment, quietly, “I meant what I said before, Optimus. There is no coercion possible here. You must accept the Matrix willingly, or not at all. And there is, as you asked, another hope. You have already found it. You may indeed go back up to the surface and go to Megatron. That far, I can act: I can assure you of escape. You will turn him from the course of vengeance, and together you will lead the Decepticons away, a force strong enough to protect the new lives you carry with you. You will make a new home for our people. And Primus’s love will still go with you, even if his Matrix does not. And perhaps one day a Matrix-Bearer will come back, born of your lineage. Or perhaps not. But your future will not be evil for the lack of Primus’s guidance. If indeed you feel in your heart that it is the better way—that you do not feel capable of carrying the burden, or that you do not want the weight of it upon our people—then that is the choice you should make.”

Optimus shut his optics tight. He wanted to say yes. He wanted to—escape, just like Alpha Trion had said. To get away from that light shining so hard that it was leaking into his visual sensors even with his optics covered; he could even register it as heat on his skin. But if he did—he’d be leaving the Autobots behind. He’d be—giving up on them, after all. He shuddered all over, and turned with one last sudden jerk of desperation to Ratchet, who was standing there staring at the opening spark with lubricant leaking out of his optics in glistening trails that caught the light and shone like silver. “Ratchet,” he said, hoarsely, and the old medic stared at him, blankly. “You—you know me. I need to ask you if—” He stopped abruptly: it wasn’t fair to ask Ratchet whether he’d pick him; that was like putting the decision on him. “If you say no,” Optimus tried instead, “then I won’t. If you think I wouldn’t do a good job.”  

Ratchet gave a loud snuffling snort and wiped his face, looking away. “Ah, hell, kid,” he said hoarsely. “I’m sorry. I wish I could.” He paused and then he said suddenly, fiercely, “But you don’t have to. You don’t owe it to anybody. The way the Council treated you—Ultra Magnus, Sentinel—dammit, all of us are in this, Optimus. We’ve all known, anybody older than the young punks like you and Bumblebee, that something was rotten on the inside. I saw you beating your head against it, and I didn’t say a thing. You had to yell at me to get me to even think about peace again like something we could have. And you don’t owe it to Primus, either,” he added, with a defiant glare at Alpha Trion. “He wanted things different, seems to me that he could’ve done something more along the way. It’s not fair for him to ask you to take on his mistakes, much less everybody else’s. Far as I can see, the only mech who actually listened to you was Megatron. So you got every right, every right, to walk out of here and go take off with him and the sparklings.”

It hurt, but it helped, because it wasn’t true. Optimus knew it wasn’t true. Prowl, giving his life to save the rest of them; Ratchet himself muttering and grumbling as he rewired the lines for the sparklings inside Megatron’s chest; even Sentinel, listening to him in the end, making the hard choice. Optimus looked at Alpha Trion, and asked, slowly, “Why didn’t Primus do anything?”  

“Do you know how old Cybertron is?” Alpha Trion asked.

“It’s—fourteen billion years, is the—estimate…” Optimus said, his voice trailing off.  

Alpha Trion nodded. “Primus loves us. But he does not truly see us. He does not understand our lives. He is too distant from us, and too powerful. He cannot act directly without destroying more than he would save. That is why he acts through the Matrix-Bearer only. And though I have been waiting twelve million years to find you, and I am weary to the core, still all that time to him has been but the span of twelve great dreams traveling through his spark.”

Optimus nodded a little. “I understand.” He turned to face the walkway. The spark chamber, even all this time they’d been talking, still wasn’t completely open. It was the sphere of an optic cracked just a little: someone not quite waking from a dream. The walkway led directly towards where the pupil would have been, and the distant end of it was washed out with light, impossible to see. “Will—will it hurt the sparkling?” Optimus asked, with a hard gulp.

Alpha Trion paused. “I do not know,” he said finally. “I do not believe there has ever been a Matrix-Bearer who was carrying before. I can only tell you that Primus willed for me to bring you. But it may be that he does not perceive the sparkling yet.”

Optimus put his hand over his chest, shutting his eyes. In the end, it was the same choice. He couldn’t choose himself, and he couldn’t even choose the sparkling, this glimmering of life that meant more to him than even his own, so much more, over all the Autobots. He had to hand them both over. “I’m sorry again,” he whispered to the sparkling. “I’m sorry I have to choose for you.”

Then he stepped out onto the walkway. The light kept getting brighter and brighter as he came closer, but somehow it didn’t register as painful, even when the whole rest of the world began to disappear in the glare, until even the walkway under his feet vanished, and he had to keep moving forward just mechanically, placing his feet in a plotted line. The planetary hum—which he realized suddenly was Primus, the hum of his spark itself—was a deep thundering roar all around him, swallowing sound. Soon he couldn’t even see his feet or his hands, all of him vanishing out of his own perception, and then abruptly a faint wisp of something brushed against him, and he reeled back so hard he sank gasping to his knees with a clang he only felt instead of hearing, and then it came and stroked gently at his chest again, a request.

Opening his spark chamber to it was the single most terrifying thing he’d ever done, and he had a moment to spare to be wildly and desperately grateful to Megatron for taking him through something a little bit like this, so he’d had the chance to feel it in his body as love; Optimus opened his chest and thought desperately please, please don’t hurt the sparkling, over and over, trying to keep it foremost in his mind, a single prayer to his dreaming god, and then Primus said

so small little one love love love hello so bright yes

and Optimus tried not to scream, but he wasn’t sure if he wasn’t screaming; there wasn’t any place for him. He tried to move his hands to cover where he thought the sparkling was, tried to wrap his own spark around it desperately trying to shelter it, trying to find somewhere for them to be, straining

don’t be afraid careful gentle

but it was still reaching for him and it was so big and he was terrified, he couldn’t help but be terrified, and the only way out he saw anywhere was a tiny channel that ran out of him to somewhere else, and he tried to back down it, pushing the sparkling ahead of him in a panic to safety, and felt something on the other end of that channel startle all at once and then reach back to him, full of its own fear and urgency and a deep intensity of rage, and in a surge of gratitude Optimus realized it was Megatron, Megatron was here with him, and he desperately reached out, help me, help us, and felt Megatron trying, only

i am here i am with you love you love you all oh angry sad hurting sorry sorry

Primus said, in there with them, and Megatron shuddered away with absolute horror: he couldn’t bear the sympathy, he didn’t want it. He wanted to be strong, and he was instinctively trying to fight it off, wrapping his entire enormous strength around Optimus and the sparkling, around all the sparklings together, trying to protect them from something that couldn’t be resisted. Optimus shivered in fear and sent a burst of his own love and then pushed back out through the sheltering wall and forced himself deliberately to reach back, to put himself out in front of them all, and

so sorry love them stop them hurting take it stop hurt fix love take it TAKE IT

and Optimus did scream, he was sure he was screaming, it hurt, it was pushing into him, and it loved him and didn’t want to hurt him but it was hurting him anyway, it was making room inside him where there wasn’t room and the only single tiny relief was he could feel it being very careful to avoid that place where Megatron was still making a shield of himself, but it was forcing into him and still thinking about doing more, maybe he needed more room, more strength; he had a brief vision of himself mapped against a massive figure turning to look at him from down a long shadowed road, Arcadia, a tall war mech with guns mounted on her shoulders and glowing red eyes, much bigger than him, and Optimus shuddered and a little pitifully tried to say please no, I don’t need it, I have Megatron, and it sighed out and settled back down already drowsy and

goodbye little one love you love you go now stop hurting grow learn love goodbye

and he was lying on the walkway curled over himself, sobbing unashamedly in love and fear and pain as the great spark chamber before him slid shut again. He lay there shuddering, and then footsteps were coming towards him, hesitant at first and then running, and Ratchet’s hands were on him. “Optimus,” he said, and oh, it was a voice, a normal ordinary voice, and it sounded so good that Optimus sobbed again in relief. “Come on, kid, let’s get you out of here, okay? Come on, can you stand up?”

He could, barely, with Ratchet’s solid shoulder under him. “The—the sparkling,” Optimus whispered, threadily, as they limped awkwardly down the walkway together, staggering.

“One step at a time,” Ratchet said, and when he got them to the hallway outside the doors, he eased Optimus down onto his back on the ground. “Okay. Let’s have a look,” he said, gently, and Optimus gave a sigh and opened his chest, and Ratchet froze so palpably that Optimus craned his head up in alarm, worried—and stared at—the odd cagelike thing in his chest, big and golden, crammed in about as tight as it could go from one side of his chest wall to the other, with a blue light gleaming inside. There was a painting of the Matrix in the entry of Iacon Tower, a monumental sphere supported in the hands of a towering figure, radiating light: the globe in the middle of the cage looked a little like it.

Ratchet managed to jerk his eyes away from it, and then his hand on Optimus’s side relaxed enough that Optimus was already sinking back in relief even before Ratchet said roughly, “Looks like the spark’s okay, kid.” Then he paused and muttered, “Huh.”

“What?” Optimus said, trying to crane up enough to see it; he couldn’t, the Matrix was blocking his view. “What is it?”

“Nothing, it’s just…got a little blue in it,” Ratchet said. “Not a problem,” he added. “Yellow and green are the only colors that are a bad sign.”

“Are you sure?” Optimus said warily.

“Don’t worry about it,” Ratchet said firmly.

That wasn’t completely comforting, but Optimus’s own diagnostic routines were coming back online, a little cautiously; his system was behaving a little oddly and also there was this thing inside him, and every time his system tried to check it out, it instantly shot back really alarming results like offering to hand over 10,000% of his total power requirements or take total control of his low-level sensory inputs. “No, thanks,” Optimus said, under his breath, but once his monitors went around it they were able to confirm the sparkling’s presence, still returning his gentle pings, and he sagged back to the floor and shut his eyes with relief.

He let himself just lie there for a full ten intake-exhaust cycles, and then he rolled over and pushed himself up to his feet, cautiously at first, but he felt…completely fine. Great, in fact. He felt like he could arm-wrestle Omega Supreme. Optimus shuddered; he didn’t like it at all. He turned back to Alpha Trion. “I—don’t exactly want to thank you,” he said. “But—thank you anyway.”

“You are welcome, Optimus Prime,” Alpha Trion said, “and I hope also that you will forgive me.”

Optimus took another completely unnecessary deep intake. “We need to get back,” he said. “Can you show us the way?”

“No,” Alpha Trion said. “I am not coming back with you.” Optimus stared at him, but Alpha Trion only smiled. “My task is accomplished. You will find the next Herald someday, when the end of your own task draws near, and you will bring them here, to take up the staff of my office. But you will not need me anymore, either to go or to come back. You are the Matrix-Bearer now. You need only ever look within to find your way. Now, go,” he added. “You are not yet ready to speak with Primus again. But I am. Goodbye, Optimus Prime! I am so very glad to have met you at last.”

He turned away and went out onto the walkway, and the doors swung shut behind him. Optimus shivered away from them as they clanged shut, because he could hear the low deep grinding of the spark chamber beginning to open again. “Come on,” he said to Ratchet. “Let’s get out of here.”

“You said it,” Ratchet said, emphatically.

#

The way back went a lot quicker. “Yeah, I needed to be patient for Primus, sure; he just didn’t want to climb stairs!” Optimus muttered a little indignantly, when he found the first massive staircase going what seemed like ten klicks up in a straight line.

Ratchet grunted, from some distance down behind him. “He had a point, too. We’re not all spry youngsters.” But when Optimus reluctantly asked if he needed to take it slower, he waved it off. “Nah, I’m not that decrepit. I get it, kid, you’re practically shooting off your thrusters. Keep going. I want to get back up there too.”

Urgency did have hold of Optimus’s entire emotional subsystem, building on itself with every processing cycle. It almost felt like the way opened up for him in answer: he turned with a startled jerk of instinct again and again and kept finding new passages or stairs, or doors that opened onto long maintenance-shaft ladders that took them straight up, and by the time they got back to the illuminated levels, he had learned to trust the deep thread running below conscious thought, almost like memories surfacing from deep archives. He was moving faster and faster, sure that he had to, and Ratchet was struggling by then, but they had to keep going. “Only a little further,” Optimus told him, in apology, and Ratchet just nodded, saving his energy, until they came up through another maintenance shaft right onto one of the old subterranean highways.

Optimus transformed instantly. “Let me give you a tow,” he said.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Ratchet wheezed without even an argument, and soon as they were hitched up, Optimus just let himself go as fast as he could, ignoring the slightly alarmed squawk Ratchet gave at the acceleration. He had to get there, something terrible was happening, the most important thing in the world was in danger, and he didn’t know exactly what was wrong, but he felt a visceral panic that built and built until suddenly, as he sailed off the exit ramp into an old abandoned sub-basement of Iacon Tower, he felt a burst of rage, too, and realized in a swelling wave of relief and love that it wasn’t his panic at all. It was Megatron, who’d felt Optimus reach out to him in agony and terror and then felt him slip away, and who had no damn idea what was happening and thought the Council had him and was doing something unspeakably horrible to him and the sparkling—

The relief dropped out of Optimus’s gut for dismay instead: oh, scrap, he had to get up there right away.

The Tower had a spiraling passage that went from the bottom all the way to the top, and Optimus went screaming-fast around the corners, trying to reach for Megatron down the channel between them while he did. But he couldn’t quite make it through when they weren’t connected a second time, through Primus; Megatron was blasting so much violent determination out that it was hard to get anything in from the other way. There was probably some way to use the Matrix to do it, but Optimus couldn’t concentrate enough to do that and keep driving this fast—especially with poor Ratchet clinging on for dear life muttering nonstop under his breath that he was never ever ever going to take a tow from Optimus ever again, he’d just have to be late—and it was more important to just get there.

And then, finally, he was there. The Elite Guard soldiers on duty at the Council level turned in alarm as they heard the oncoming roar of his engines, and they raised guns and took aim at him. Without actually thinking about how, Optimus pushed his low-level component shielding field out into a full-strength forcefield and barreled right through them, knocking all four of them away into clattering heaps on either side of him: he’d have to apologize later. He took out the ten guards on the doors to the Council Chamber, too, and went right on through without even slowing down, smashing the two massive panels open and askew as he came through. He let go the tow cable and hit the brakes to come to a tire-squealing halt just in front of the massive screen with Megatron on it snarling, “—patience for your lies has run out, I will begin with the destruction of Kalis and—

He stopped as Optimus transformed and gasped out, “I’m okay!”

Megatron surged to his feet with a look of something between relief and absolute horror, even as Denarius stood up and shouted, “Guards! Guards, seize them both! If he resists, shoot the medic immediately!”

“Lay one hand upon him and I will rip your circuitry apart with my teeth!” Megatron howled at him.

Hey!” Optimus yelled, waving his arms. “Megatron, calm down. It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.” Megatron paused, staring at him in desperation from the other side, and Optimus gave a small helpless laugh and said, “Trust me, all right? Trust me. And whatever you’re about to do—whatever ten things you’re about to do—just, stand it down. Please,” softly. 

Megatron’s hands were slowly flexing and clenching at his sides, but his gaze never wavered from Optimus’s face, and abruptly he said, “Strika, halt the countdown. Power down the Star Smasher.” There was a noise of protest from somewhere off the screen, but Megatron said sharply, “Do as I say.”

Ultra Magnus exclaimed abruptly from where he was standing at the defense console, overseeing a couple of Guards. “They just powered down the quantum weapon,” he said, and abruptly pushed a button and a muting signal appeared over the screen. “Council Lord, we’ve got an opportunity; our strike squadrons can hit the ship—”

“No,” Optimus said, turning to him. “We need to stand down, too, Ultra Magnus.”

Ultra Magnus did a double-take at him, and Denarius said, “You seem to be under the mistaken impression that you are giving orders here, Optimus Prime. Take him!” he snapped at the Guardsmen from the door, who were picking themselves up wincing, but weren’t exactly racing to come after him; Optimus recognized the two he’d beaten up in the airlock among them. One of them did have Ratchet by the arm, but Ratchet was mostly just leaning on her with an expression of deep relief.

Optimus told her, “Get Ratchet a seat, will you? He’s had a rough day.” And then he turned to face the Council. “Council Lord Denarius, I’m here to relieve you of duty. Actually, I’m here to relieve most of you, I’m pretty sure,” he added, looking over their faces.

Denarius stared down at him in baffled rage. “To relieve—and under what supposed authority are you acting?” he hissed.

“This one,” Optimus said, and opened up his chest panel. Light our way forward, he thought silently to the Matrix, and saw the Councillors’ optics all come wide in the one instant before the light erupted from his chest.

A few of them flinched back, their faces open and terrified; others cringed away completely from it, hiding their faces. Denarius screamed, a short terrible noise, crumpling to the floor huddled in on himself as the power intensified, and then broke scrabbling desperately across the floor, trying to get out of the seats and to the door. Corvidion and Torque were also whimpering, stumbling after him, and Allocator and Vintatorius had collapsed huddled to the ground with their bodies curled up.

It wasn’t anything as terrifying as actually touching Primus. That was the only degree to which it wasn’t terrifying. The power came to him with swift, generous speed, asking no questions, just putting itself directly into his hands. Optimus could have kept it on them full-force and obliterated their minds. He shuddered, sick, from the very idea; instead he told the Matrix softly, enough, and let the light die away, closing his chest gently over it again.

He looked around the room. Some of the Elite Guards were collapsed too, and others cringing in visible pain, but many of the others were just shaking, and Ultra Magnus was staring directly at him with his mouth open and tears streaming down his face, stunned. Optimus turned back to the Council.

“Under the guidance of the Matrix, I am temporarily assuming control of the Council.” He looked at the five who hadn’t gone down cringing, and he somehow knew their names without having to think about it. “Councillors Wheelwright, Multihex, Retrosling, Tenebrius, and Quatriona, I ask you to please remain. The rest of the Council is hereby dismissed.” He turned. “Ultra Magnus, please have those Elite Guards who aren’t overcome take Councillors Denarius, Corvidion, Torque, Allocator, and Vintatorius into custody to await trial.” He paused and added, “Any Elite Guards who were overcome should be taken into custody as well. They aren’t as responsible, but they still need help to get back to where they should be.”

Ultra Magnus stared at him, and his mouth worked a few times, and then he croaked out, “As—as you command.”

The Guards had let Ratchet go. He came over to Optimus, mostly to get out of the way: the Councillors who’d just been dismissed were all making a pretty urgent dash for the door. “Five out of seventeen? Pretty ugly,” he said grimly.

“It’s hard for honor to survive without company,” Optimus said. He turned back to the screen: Megatron was still standing in front of his command chair staring with mingled relief and wary disbelief, and in the back of the control room behind him Optimus could see a whole bunch of Decepticons peering in, craning their heads over each other, obviously trying to get a good view. Optimus smiled at him a little waveringly and looked over. “Redshift, right?” The one Elite Guard still left at the security console jumped a little and stared at him wide-eyed. “Please unmute the transmission.”

“Y-yes, sir,” she said. It was kind of a squeak.

“Sorry about that,” Optimus said to Megatron. “We, uh, had to do some house cleaning.”

“It wasn’t a hallucination, was it,” Megatron said, low, ignoring the words, his eyes fixed on Optimus’s face. Optimus shook his head. “Are you… well?”

“Yes,” Optimus said. “We both are.” Megatron shut his optics a moment, and breathed out.

“I am glad,” he said briefly, and Optimus did try to reach for him again, and just about made it: a great wave of relief flowing in, a more personal standing-down as Megatron managed to bring down systems that had been instinctively trying to erupt without a target in reach. Optimus sent love and gratitude through the channel, and Megatron twitched just a tiny bit and stared at him half-doubtfully as if he wasn’t sure what he was feeling. Optimus grinned at him.

Megatron frowned back repressively and said, “Your housecleaning seems to have been very thorough. What now, then?”

“Just a little bit more to do,” Optimus said, and turned and said gently, “Ultra Magnus, I need to relieve you of the position of Protector of Cybertron.”

Ultra Magnus bowed his head in visible grief. The Elite Guards left around the room all murmured protests, but he held up a hand. “I understand, Optimus Prime,” he said a little hoarsely. “I—I only now begin to see—how much I have failed.”

“It wasn’t you,” Optimus said. “It was the job. You had to fight your own heart to do it, so you couldn’t listen to your heart when it was telling you something was wrong. Because it’s not a job for a civilian. It’s a job…for a warrior.” He turned back to Megatron. “Will you accept the position?”

Megatron tilted his head thoughtfully. “You’d have to let me actually land on the planet before I could protect it.”

Optimus smiled and looked at Ultra Magnus. “Please lower the defense shields.”

Ultra Magnus stared at him miserably, along with everyone in the chamber except Ratchet, who just snorted and muttered something under his breath like, “Can’t let anything stand in the way of getting another round,” which Optimus firmly ignored; this was not about that.

Ultra Magnus said a little desperately, “Optimus, if they—if we let them through—you have no idea what they’re capable of.”

“Yes, I do,” Optimus said. “And—I also know what we’re capable of.” Ultra Magnus flinched and stared down at the ground. “I know it’s scary. But they are Primus’ children just as much as we are. They have a right to come home. Otherwise—we don’t have a right to be here ourselves.”

After a moment, Ultra Magnus slowly turned and bent over the console, entering what looked like several different codes and multiple confirmation sequences. On the screen, someone off to one side was faintly telling Megatron the defense shields were down. Megatron looked at Optimus almost bewildered and Optimus smiled at him, a little wobbly. “Come home,” he said softly. Then it occurred to him belatedly—“Er, is there anywhere for them to land…?

On the screen, Megatron chuckled slightly. “We have locations already scouted and prepared,” he said. “In the ancient Decepticon cities that you abandoned: Tarn, Kaon, Polyhex, Vos. You haven’t done a very good job monitoring them; we’ve got outposts established in all of them.”

Most of the Elite Guard looked fairly disturbed, but Optimus said, “All right. That’ll work for now. We’re not going to stay in separate cities, but we can give everyone a little while to get used to the idea.”

Megatron glanced off the screen, nodding to someone else, then turned back. “Then under these…altered circumstances, I believe I can accept the post,” he said. “The Nemesis will be landing in Kaon in ten minutes.”

Optimus discovered he couldn’t stop smiling. “I’ll—see you there,” he said, trying to sound not at all like someone who really wanted another round. Okay, maybe it was a little bit about that.

Megatron’s optics gleamed, and he inclined his head. “Very soon, I trust,” he said meaningfully, and cut off the connection.

Optimus turned back to Ultra Magnus, who’d sagged into a seat and had his head resting in his hands. “Thank you. I know that wasn’t easy.”

“I hope you’re certain this is the right thing,” Ultra Magnus said, low.

“I’m not,” Optimus said, and Ultra Magnus lifted his head. “I’m only certain it’s the closest I can get right now. I’m not infallible. Primus isn’t. He just loves us. That doesn’t mean he can’t get things wrong. But we’ll get things wrong a lot less if we’re at least trying to get them right. Do you think you could help me with that?”

Ultra Magnus paused and said, “You—but—”

“As head of the Council,” Optimus said. He gestured to the almost completely empty seats. “We’ve got some vacancies to fill.”

Ultra Magnus just stared a moment and then burst out, “But I—I’ve supported Denarius all this—”

“We all have,” Optimus said. “I did too. And the Decepticons have done their own terrible things. And our punishment is we have to spend the rest of our lives trying to fix what’s broken, whether we broke it or not. I’m not asking if you deserve a reward. I’m asking if you’ll try to do this job.” He smiled wryly. “It’s not a gift. It’s a burden. Also,” he added, “I’m pretty sure anyone else I asked would scream the first time they had to deal with Megatron face to face.”

One of the Council members actually gave a scream out loud, apparently at the very idea. Optimus eyed him and said to Magnus ruefully, “As I was saying,” and then realized that Magnus was staring over his head, as was everyone else in the room, and he turned around and found Megatron looming behind him, having literally disintegrated a neat section of the wall out to the open air.

“You’re here,” Optimus said stupidly. Megatron almost didn’t look real, standing there in all his towering scale, more like a monumental statue than a person, and suddenly more than anything Optimus wanted to just jump up into his arms and possibly burst into tears and possibly get carried away somewhere and, uh.

Megatron’s optics glowed fiercely, and he cupped Optimus’s face in his hand. “You are hurt.”

“No,” Optimus said, his voice distorting a little, putting his hand over Megatron’s. The sun was coming up somewhere on the other side of the tower, limning all the buildings of Iacon in gold against the deep blue-green sky, and in the distance he could see broad contrails being drawn in pale pink cloud: the Decepticon ships, all coming home. “No. I’m all right. I think—everything’s going to be all right.”

# End