Title: The Victims
Disclaimer: Transformers and all related characters therein do not belong to me. No copyright infringement is intended.
Summary: But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Somewhere far away, a clock chimed six in the evening.
The rain was light, barely more than a mist. With it, the rain brought silence, and stillness, moving through the forest like a cat's footfalls so that the breath of the trees—the whispered proverbs of the fungi—the fables of the earthworms—could almost be heard.
Optimus Prime inwardly shook his head, scolding himself. He never used to be this inclined towards poeticism, and such wispy, ephemeral thoughts were dangerous and useless during these critical stages in the war. Optimus knew he needed to keep his head clear, and focused, but he could not help but feel as though he was trespassing on something sacred. He had never felt entirely comfortable on organic planets; they were strange and alien in how so much life was intricately connected, nearly tangled, and it all interacted on levels completely separate from sentience. To kill these organisms, even by accident, made for an awkward, half-formed sense of guilt. Every step Optimus took had the chance of crushing some form of life, and every brush of his hand to clear the way snapped off branches, dislodged nests, and ruined habitat. Not that he could help the consequences of his body on alien worlds, but to kill life on a planet where he had no right to be anyway still scratched like burrs in the back of his mind. He was an intruder. But even with a guilty conscience, even while feeling utterly selfish for it, Optimus let himself enjoy the tranquility of a cloudy evening, the peace of a silent forest.
Optimus cursed himself for letting his mind wander when he felt a gun press against the back of his helm, felt the sharp contrast of metal chilled by the rain and the heat of a building charge.
"Who would have thought that Optimus Prime would be so easy to catch off guard," a dark voice said.
Somewhere far away, a clock, running slow, chimed six in the evening.
"Perhaps I should reconsider our discussion, if this is the mediocre example of leadership that I can look forward to," the other continued, his voice kept steady and with minimum inflection—there was no easy way to tell if he was serious or not, especially without accompanying body language to read. "Megatron would have never let someone catch him off guard."
"Megatron," Optimus spoke up, remaining in place and not turning to face the aggressor. "Would have never come out alone, much less be willing to entertain the dialogues of a traitor."
"However unlikely, he would have at least come armed."
"Mediocre I may be," Optimus countered, bringing his hand up to his shoulder as his gun slid effortlessly into his palm. The weight of it was heavy, and familiar, and while he could end up dead before he could even flinch, having his gun in his hand was comforting. "Stupid, I am not."
"Perhaps. But naïveté is just as bad as idiocy."
The pointed weight of the gun disappeared, leaving behind a faint shadow of lingering heat. Optimus waited a moment before turning slightly to look back over his shoulder and check the location of the other 'bot.
Scavenger had retreated several steps, his bulk mostly concealed by a thick cluster of ancient trees, their leaves breaking up his silhouette so that deciphering Scavenger's true size was near impossible. Optimus and the other Cybertornians simply towered over most trees, but these trees…these trees were old. Concealed as he was by forest, mist, and lightly dancing shadows, all Optimus could clearly see of Scavenger were his optics: pale yellow and watching closely. Optimus turned fully to face the bounty hunter, inwardly relaxing but careful to keep from showing his ease outwardly. Above all else, Scavenger was an opportunist—he would strike given the chance, and Optimus had learned long ago to be guarded enough so as to never give Scavenger that chance. By the way that Scavenger was watching him, the bounty hunter would notice even the slightest mistake.
So little of Scavenger had changed, then, even after his years spent as a bounty hunter for the Decepticons, and Optimus took this as a good sign. He knew Scavenger. He knew how to deal with him.
Naïveté is just as bad as idiocy.
Scavenger had used the phrase countless times before, and if he was still himself enough to be lecturing on battle tactics, then so much the better. Optimus shifted his stance—just slightly—so that he was straight and tall but turned minutely away. The posture was almost defensive, but Optimus knew that it would provoke Scavenger. The bounty hunter was notoriously hard to coax and convince into anything, so Optimus would force him into leading their discussion. While he did want Scavenger to join the Autobots, and badly, he was not going to lower himself to begging for it, which would ultimately be unproductive. If Scavenger were going to join his forces, then it would be done willingly. Convincing Scavenger was going to be difficult, but Optimus was ready. He had been taught early on to predict his foe's behavior, and he would neatly lay the path he wanted Scavenger to walk, careful to guard against inadvertently created loopholes.
"I am not a traitor," Scavenger said. His voice was quiet, but not wispy, not defensive.
"Traitor to neither Decepticon nor Autobot," Optimus conceded. "But you are traitor to conviction. Should you receive any less scorn for that?"
"Conviction. I never had any of that. It was a miracle you walked away from my tutelage with as much conviction as you did, despite all of my attempts to beat it out of you. Yes, you are my miracle. Or rather, my monumental failure, if you prefer. Either is correct."
Behind his mask, Optimus frowned. His earlier assessment that Scavenger had not fundamentally changed still appeared to be correct, but something was different about Optimus's former instructor—something he had missed when he first gauged Scavenger's character. There was no immediate need to change his approach to this conversation, but Scavenger's peculiar behavior bothered Optimus on a more personal level. While Scavenger had never been shy about expounding upon an individual's flaws, including his own, he had always been direct about it—so rarely did he deviate into rumination, even by a little. Scavenger was still recognizable, yes, but something was different about him, though Optimus could not quite figure out what. He would have to wait, and prod, until Scavenger revealed himself.
"Why did you join the Decepticons?" Optimus asked. Oh, how he needed to know the answer, and on so many levels. The question was intensely personal and invasive, but Optimus knew he could justify asking it. If he knew why Scavenger joined the Decepticons, he could find out why he, at this point, wanted to join the Autobots. This would help Optimus lay his snare, and bring Scavenger's talents to a more dignified and noble use. Doubtless Scavenger would recognize the trap, and balk at it, but Optimus felt the desperate need to ask on a deeper plane: part of him still stung at the memory of Scavenger rejecting Optimus's plea for assistance on the front lines, instead opting to grab at scraps from Megatron's table. While Optimus was willing to admit that Scavenger had never borne the Decepticon insignia as an active soldier, Scavenger had allied himself with Megatron, worked for him, had preyed upon the weak and dying—those that had been left behind—and had cashed in on the meager rewards for it.
In Optimus's mind, that was worse than if Scavenger had been Megatron's second in command. Such an existence was shameful.
"Because the Autobots are cheap," Scavenger answered, calm and unflinching under Optimus's hardened, golden stare. For a moment, Optimus felt a lick of anger coil through his fuel lines at Scavenger's ability to remain so dispassionate in his dishonorable occupation, but Optimus forced it back. He would confront Scavenger about it later, when Optimus had him under an Autobot roof. Scavenger continued. "The Decepticons had the highest payouts, even on low-ranking soldiers. With resources being low, I had to take what I could get. Believe me when I say that had the Autobots been more generous, a little more ruthless in the bounties they placed, the shimmering baubles would have attracted more than a fair share of scoundrels and pirates willing to denounce their principles."
That is what it is, Optimus realized suddenly. Scavenger had not changed, just as Optimus suspected. Rather, Scavenger had been worn raw, like land eroded to its bedrock by drops of water. Whatever life Scavenger had been living during the war had stripped him bare, and he was calling for help.
"I am without conviction," Scavenger added softly. "But not without morals."
"That, I do not believe," Optimus countered, inexplicably angry. "No one with morals would spend the war picking at crumbs, taking advantage of the injuries of those people who actually had the courage to stand up and fight—"
Optimus was decidedly unprepared for Scavenger's sudden movement, him one minute wrapped in the shadows of leaves and mist and the next mere feet from Optimus, with one arm striking out to connect against the side of Optimus's head. Optimus staggered under the blow, audio sensors ringing as the circuitry folded from the sheer force. He remained still for several moments, head turned to the side with both his face and pride smarting. Scavenger had hit him with an open hand—a smack—rather than a full fisted attack. So while there was anger in it, there was no aggression. It was not meant so much to physically hurt, but humiliate—Optimus's statements were not worth a fight; they had earned the dishonor of a pulled punch, a smack, an admonishment meant for an—
"Insolent child," Scavenger spat, forcing the words through bared dental plating. "How dare you stand there and judge so harshly. What gives you the right…"Scavenger continued, barely able to speak in his fury, practically boiling with resentment. "I cannot believe that you have the gall to condemn my life, when you are the cause of it! You and Megatron both—he mocks me. Mocks the others when we bring him his wanted criminals and laughs at our desperation as we take payment at his feet for energon and shelter and protection from his army's tender mercies."
Here, Optimus turned back, resuming his former position, his momentary humiliation and regret twisting as he took offense.
"I am not like Megatron," he began, but Scavenger cut him off, laughing. The sound was dry, and crackling, like rain on parched savannah soil.
"You are just as bad," Scavenger said. "He mocks us, you condemn us from atop a righteous pedestal. When neither of you has any right to even speak to us! Neither of you, neither of you, has ever been a civilian in this war!"
Optimus paused, reining in his counterargument before it had a chance to form in his vocal processors. Scavenger, as was so typical of him, had managed to unfoot Optimus. Optimus stopped, held his anger, and looked at his former instructor. The statement should have sounded bitter, but there was no hurt in Scavenger's pale yellow optics. He was presenting an argument, and Optimus politely, obediently, waited for Scavenger to continue. Of all the complaints he had heard against his and Megatron's fight over the Minicons, this one was new. Around them, the forest held its breath, leaves folding under the heavy dew drops and darkening sky.
"You warmongers have never considered the civilian's position in a war," Scavenger said, anger diminished but replaced by something that Optimus could not quite define. It was almost Scavenger's lecturing voice, but slightly…different. "You declare and wage war without any regard to the civilians, except to use them as propaganda. Should civilians be killed, you use their deaths to extol the evilness of the enemy. It's the soldiers who really matter in a war, while the civilians are used for justification. And while you declare war and spill your brothers' life forces, you never once look at the common citizen, who cringes and cowers in confusion while you monologue about brighter futures."
"I don't—" Optimus felt the need to defend himself.
"You have never been a civilian. Wage war all you like, Optimus. Destroy the Decepticons. Save the galaxy. The universe. Bring that sadistic bastard Megatron to his knees—he deserves whatever hell he ends up in. But do not presume that you are fit to criticize the frightened and the weak from doing what they have to to survive. You and your soldiers may be able to take a stand against the Decepticons, you may be able to fight back, but you would do well to remember that not all of us are so fortunate to be as strong as you are. We all are pulled about in your wake."
"This war," Optimus said carefully. "Is so that the Minicons can live their existence freely."
"This war," Scavenger replied, as equally deliberate. "Is exactly why children should not be allowed to play with dangerous weapons."
The lines of Optimus's optics narrowed, compressing downwards so that all that could be seen were thin crescents of gold, gleaming oddly in the gray-green world.
"What would you have me do, Scavenger? Let Megatron take control of the Minicons? Shall I stand aside and watch with the rest of the neutrals?"
"To Hell with the neutrals!" Scavenger suddenly shouted, anger flaring brightly once more. His voice shattered the surrounding raindrops. Optimus took a step back before he realized it. "May Primus forsake the souls who live in apathy! I'd rather the rest of my life be spent as the most shamed of beggars and a fool among thieves than in indifference. You insult the integrity of many when you say that a civilian has no personally held beliefs, whether they are for ill or good. The flaw lies in the perception that we are powerless to do anything about it."
"But you said—"
"I never said that I held the war against you, Optimus Prime," Scavenger cut in. "Nor did I say that I thought you weren't in the right. What I have said, you have failed to hear entirely."
Scavenger took a step back from Optimus and fell into a relaxed, familiar battle stance. With perfect calmness, with perfect clarity, Scavenger held Optimus's gaze.
"Fight me," he said.
Optimus flinched, his battle instincts honed from millennia of war causing him to automatically reach for his gun. He stopped himself, though, confusion threading its way through his body like energon. Optimus was apparently doomed to be continuously taken by surprise this night, and he disliked the idea immensely. Indignation settled itself alongside his confusion, his uncertainty, almost enough to make him angry. He had come here to talk to Scavenger, to entice him to the Autobot side, and a fight seemed counterproductive, at best. Childish at worst. Optimus had been expecting negotiations, not combat, and he would refuse the demand.
"No," he said simply. Scavenger smiled at him, but it was dark, and unfriendly. The expression did not suit him at all.
"Why not? Afraid that I can still beat you like I used to? I would hate it if you made me call coward," Scavenger replied. Optimus clenched his fists, recognizing the provocation for what it was and he would not let himself rise to it.
"I will not fight you because there is no reason for it," Optimus paused, looking pointedly into his former instructor's optics. "I have nothing to gain by defeating you."
The corner of Scavenger's mouth quirked, his expression almost amused, before he lunged. Optimus had seen it coming, however, and he stepped aside, bringing his arms up as defense, but he still refused to draw his weapon.
Scavenger was fast. He seemed to change direction mid-stride, bringing his hands up underneath Optimus's defenses to roughly connect with the reinforced plating of his torso. The blow did not hurt so much as it shocked—so few had ever been able actually land a hit on Optimus in hand-to-hand combat.
"Old tricks, Optimus," Scavenger murmured as he dodged a retaliating strike. "I had hoped that you would have learned some of your own by now."
Optimus recovered quickly from the surprise, twisting sharply away from his opponent and bringing his foot up in a way that almost made him lose balance, but had the reward of solidly connecting with Scavenger's outer thigh. They were awkward movements, but they gave Optimus momentum, and Scavenger was forced to momentarily turn his back to Optimus as Optimus dropped—his wrist his fulcrum—and tried to sweep Scavenger's legs out from underneath him. Scavenger, sensing his disadvantage, quickly distanced himself from Optimus in order to regain his orientation and stability.
"Don't take me for granted," Optimus retaliated, knowing that while he still was not interested in causing Scavenger any pain, Scavenger would do well to realize that his former student had picked up a few techniques over the years. A smirk met his statement, and Scavenger came forward again, but Optimus was ready for him this time. They traded light blows easily, neither really trying to cause any serious pain but rather trying to best the other. Optimus noted with small, dark satisfaction that, even after all this time, Scavenger's fighting style had not changed. It was not poor, by any means: it was precise, deadly with the correct force behind it, but it was old, and familiar. Optimus knew this style backwards, and with a little effort, Optimus would have Scavenger quickly beat. Millennia of battle against the galaxy's most ruthless villains had given Optimus experience that Scavenger did not have. Optimus was, all in all, the better fighter.
As such, Optimus was perplexed when he heard a chuckle next to his audio sensors, and he was unprepared for his foot to slip out from underneath as he stepped on the edge of a steep mud bank. Scavenger did not even have to try: all that was needed to cause Optimus to fall was a light push. Optimus shifted his weight onto his hip aligned above the bank, and the ground slid down the incline. Optimus's own misplaced center of balance sent him sliding down with the mud, causing him to tumble through the brambles and heavy tree branches. He came to a stop in a tangle of raspberry bushes, flat on his back. The mud and leaves packed in between his armor plating was decidedly uncomfortable.
Worse, the defeat was embarrassing, particularly when he heard Scavenger make his way down the small cliff. Without him saying a word, Optimus could nearly hear Scavenger's self-satisfaction.
"Why did I win, Optimus?"
Optimus remained on his back, staring up at dark clouds, just barely visible through the canopy, their sheeted, low hanging forms moving silently in the breeze. Night stirred on the unseen horizon, slowly threading its way across the landscape.
"Answer me, Optimus."
Optimus considered the question—it was one he had heard countless times before, several times a day at one point in his training. He knew the answer he was supposed to give, so he said it, even without really understanding why it was right.
"Because I did not know myself."
A spider crawled across his hand, looking for a new place to build its web. Scavenger waited for him to elaborate. Somewhere far away, a clock chimed seven in the evening.
You have never been a civilian. Scavenger's words echoed in his head. Optimus's own smarting pride added the tone of derision to them.
You warmongers have never considered the civilian's position in a war.
Civilians are used for justification.
You never once look at the common citizen, who cringes and cowers in confusion while you monologue about brighter futures.
You insult the integrity of many when you say that a civilian has no personally held beliefs. The flaw lies in the perception that we are powerless to do anything about it.
Wait…to whom does the flaw belong? Whose perception? Theirs, or…
Optimus froze, fingers curling slightly in the soft soil as the epiphany slid into place. Civilians. There were no civilians left from Cybertron. All innocence had been stripped away eons back. No, Scavenger had been talking about others. Civilians. The Minicons.
The flaw lies in the perception that we are powerless to do anything about it.
That flaw belongs to the Minicons. And it belongs to us, as well. To me. No one is powerless to counter what they feel is an injustice onto themselves and others.
Somewhere far away, a clock, running slow, chimed seven in the evening.
"Now he understands," Scavenger whispered, his voice gentle and pensive as he mused to himself. "Liberty finally hears the pleas of the poor, the tired, the huddled masses—"
"Yearning to breathe free," Optimus finished for him. "I underestimated you," he said, answering Scavenger's question. "I am the better fighter, and so did not think that you had other ways to bring me down."
Optimus chuckled, his first laugh in a long time. "You always did have unorthodox methods of teaching." There was the sound of heavy, metallic steps, and Scavenger suddenly appeared in his range of vision. A friendly smile had curled his lips upward.
"Unorthodox methods for a most unorthodox student," he replied, lowering his hand for Optimus to grab as a lift up. Before Optimus could grasp the offered assistance, Scavenger pulled his hand just out of reach.
"Who are you, Optimus Prime?" Scavenger questioned. Optimus returned his gaze steadily.
"A mediocre leader who has idealistic fools for followers," came the answer. Scavenger reached down and helped to pull Optimus up, their hands remaining clasped even after both were standing on level ground.
"I never did understand how you were always able to pick out my flaws so quickly," Optimus said. "Are they still that obvious?"
"My personal failings are too numerous to count. It's how I can so easily spot them in others," Scavenger replied, releasing Optimus's hand, but he did not step away. To have this moment of familiar camaraderie felt good, and Optimus almost took it for granted before he stepped away from that trap. Scavenger had not agreed to anything yet.
"Will you join the Autobots?" To be straightforward was probably best, and to be honest, Optimus was getting tired of the delicate, Machiavellian games in this war. He had his fill of that with Megatron and the other Decepticons.
"Yes," Scavenger stated, so simply and quickly that Optimus needed a moment to process the answer. The sincerity was refreshing, if almost bizarre in its unfamiliarity, and it was almost hard to believe. That Scavenger was being honest, Optimus was willing to trust. However, despite the truthfulness—so rare nowadays—it still was not enough.
"Why?" Optimus pressed. This was the first time he had ever asked 'why' of anybody. Others in the past had joined the Autobots, and never had Optimus had to ask them why. They came freely, offering their own reasons without any prompting. Optimus had always believed that asking why one joined was intrusive: for a person to fight, there had to be something hurting inside, deep in the core of their being that would never let them settle for passiveness. There had to be passion, a little pain, and fear. Fear of the danger to one's safety, to the integrity of their beliefs and of seeing their world fall apart.
That fear belonged to the individual, and Optimus had no right intruding upon such personal grounds unless it was given to him unreservedly. And even then, he held those truths tightly, reverently.
But this situation was different. Scavenger was different—he was no ordinary soldier, no ordinary fighter. He was a citizen, a civilian, and if he was going to join the fight, Optimus needed to know why. That way, he would know why Scavenger might leave. Dangerous indeed was the civilian who stood up to challenge the way things were done. Opinions spread. Optimus was not truly worried that he would be overthrown, though if the Autobots wanted a new leader, he would step down. No, that was not the threat. The threat was that the war could change, and Optimus was not yet sure of how, or if he would be able to keep up. Things had been going the same way for a long time.
The thought of change, even a little one, was…invigorating.
"Because I realized what I can do," Scavenger answered at length. "I realized what I can do to help."
To help do what is right. In this, I believe.
Optimus nodded. This was going to take some time. Scavenger was still damaged, still hurting, and his example would not be noticed by others for a long time. A long time would pass before the Minicons realized that even if they could not, would not fight, there were other ways to be heard.
"Then I welcome—"
"But not yet," Scavenger interrupted. I have a quota on leading Megatron to Minicons. I'll come as soon as I have completed the assignment. I'll come to you."
He turned to leave, but Optimus reached out, stopping him by laying a hand across the wide treads of Scavenger's forearms. Scavenger obediently paused in anticipation. At their feet, a few fireflies were braving the threat of the oncoming thunderstorm, and their lights were like dim halos in the fog.
"If you wish to join the Autobots, you can begin now. Megatron has been extremely secretive lately, and I want to know why. I think he's planning something. Find out what it is."
Scavenger laughed, but this time, the laugh had a note of true delight in it. He turned and looked at Optimus. Optimus returned the gaze, standing by his request. Just because Scavenger had brought in a new perspective, Optimus was still the general, still the Autobot Commander. He would be his part, and no one else's. Scavenger smiled at him.
"Finally, Optimus Prime, you are learning how to play your hand. Fine. I will do ask you ask. I will come when I am done."
Optimus let him go, remaining in the small clearing until Scavenger disappeared, his shape swallowed by up by the evening and the mist. This, he knew, was good. Nothing had really changed, but this did not especially matter. He had his friend back, and Optimus would not give Scavenger up easily. But for now, Optimus knew that he needed to head back. Nighttime was arriving, and a heavy rain was coming.
Best to be inside for something like that.