"Who's that?" Rumble jumped onto his console without warning or permission, patently ignoring all signs that Soundwave was working. He squinted at the picture on Soundwave's right screen and sneered at it. "Nice paintjob. Did somebody tell him that flames are the new black? And what the- is that Jazz's history file on the left screen? You're reading it again? Why are you still obsessing over that?"
"Soundwave, merely conducting new research," he answered patiently. "A question of Jazz's past associations with this mech, unresolved. Answers required."
"For frag's sake, boss, why do you do this? You went through all this before, spent hours in the archives when we all told you to just forget about it, and what happened? You wound up with an answer that hadn't meant anything in over a thousand vorns. It didn't matter at all."
That wasn't true, for so many reasons, but Soundwave did not correct Rumble. His agitated symbiote didn't seem interested in what he had to say anyway. Restlessly he paced to the center of the console and kicked the button to terminate his cross-referencing program. Both history files disappeared from the screen, along with some considerable unsaved progress.
"Rumble, that project not finished."
"Who cares? That's ancient history, and this is the slag that's going down now. Got a surveillance upload for ya, boss, and you better get comfortable. There's a lot of complaining about the empire to listen in on. This job was a lot easier when everyone loved the Decepticons." Unhappily he huffed, then narrowed his gaze at Soundwave and cocked his head. "Speaking of which, were you interrogating someone last night? We thought we felt something."
Pounding music, Jazz's plating hot against his own, the heady thrill of dance rushing through him as he sank deep into Jazz's memories – " Not quite," Soundwave answered carefully.
"Whaddya mean, 'not quite'?" Rumble looked baffled.
"It means, not your concern."
"Well fine, be secretive! Not as if we, your loyal and hardworking symbiotes, need to know anything about it. We didn't even know you were working last night; we thought you just took Jazz out for a late walk. You really should take us up on that whole idea of taking Jazz to a nightspot, you know. It'd be awesome fun."
"Idea, will be considered."
"Better sooner than later," Rumble remarked, the scowl returning to his faceplates. "Don't know how much longer we've got before those nightspots are all gone."
Jazz laughed to hear about it, on their walk later that cycle. "So you didn't even tell him? They're going to hear about it anyway, you know, they're cassettes. It's what they do. And they're going to be slagging pissed at you when they find out they were left out of what was their idea."
"Prediction: Rumble and Frenzy will express outrage at high volume. However this also known: Rumble and Frenzy would express such outrage regardless whether news learned from elsewhere or from me. Only difference is marginal time of peace before news learned and shouting begins. Therefore, delay in disclosure optimal course of action."
"They're your symbiotes." Jazz shrugged. "You know them best. I'll just have to make it very clear to them that it wasn't at all my fault, and completely your idea."
"Soundwave, completely responsible for idea to travel into leisure district and patronize nightspot? Symbiotes will not believe you."
"Frag, I hate it when you're right. Laserbeak won't be happy with me at all." Jazz grinned in resigned sort of way, darting neatly around a laborer hauling several crates. "Maybe next time they can -"
His next step nearly carried him straight into none other than Grand Premier Shockwave, blocking most of the walkway with his vast purple bulk. It was a sight so unexpected, and so unnerving, that Soundwave could hardly fault Jazz for yelping out loud and leaping three steps back. Nobody outside his mansion had seen Shockwave for orns. And even in the time before the riots, Shockwave hardly ever ventured into the grimy and bustling street markets of Iacon. Such environments were beneath him, even if he was happy to collect taxes from the merchants that worked here, and the merchants had proved well enough that they didn't much care for him either. So to see Shockwave standing here, surrounded by haggling vendors and filthy beggars and looking painfully out of place in the process, was a shock on several levels. It was also an unpleasant one. Shockwave had no reason to be in a place like this, yet here he was standing squarely in their path, obviously informed of their habits and waiting for them. Reflexively Jazz skittered back to safety around Soundwave's massive arm.
"Ah, it's evil! Kill it, kill it!"
Taken aback by the noisy reaction, Shockwave blinked a few times and then glared hard at Jazz. "Greetings, Director Soundwave. Fancy meeting you here, of all places. I would speak with you, while you have some time to spare. Alone," he added meaningfully, with another frosty glare for Jazz. His slave returned the glare in kind and wrapped his arms around Soundwave's more massive one, hugging it tight to his chest.
"Why? Whatcha gonna do to him as soon as there's no witnesses? Eat him?"
"Jazz," Soundwave reprimanded mildly, tugging his arm out of his grasp. "Dismissed."
"What? No! Soundwave, you can't be alone with him, he'll try to kill you!" Although there were hundreds of languages Jazz could have spoken in that Shockwave would not understand, Soundwave wryly noted that he stuck to plain Cybertronian and didn't bother to lower his voice. In the corner of his vision he saw Shockwave bristle. Soundwave bent forward to better face Jazz, and took Jazz's chin in a firm hold.
"And, Jazz thinks I would lose to him?"
"Then Jazz, dismissed. Amuse yourself in market; remain in sight."
"Can I have a snack?"
"Purchase allowed, consumption forbidden." He dropped a few credit chips into Jazz's hand and stepped back, watching Jazz expectantly. His slave was clearly unhappy with the arrangement, but his hand closed obediently over the money and he backed away. For some reason, he tapped two fingers against the edge of his visor and pointed them at Shockwave, in a vaguely threatening manner, then turned and flounced away.
A tiny huff escaped Shockwave. "So he is your bodyguard, as well as personal performer. Curious." He saw the way Soundwave looked at him and added, "I still have a controlling interest in most of the enterprises here in Iacon, Director Soundwave. I miss very little of what goes on in them. I wonder what Lord Megatron would think, if he could have seen that display by the dance floor."
"Of likely greater concern," Soundwave replied, not missing a beat, "what Lord Megatron now thinks of you."
Shockwave scowled. Not that it was visible on his lack of face, but the hunch of his shoulders and darkening optic made it obvious enough. "Shall we… retire to somewhere more comfortable? My little mixing venue here serves a well-cultivated high grade." He indicated a small two-story establishment at the edge of the street, well outside the price range of anything the surrounding mecha could afford.
"Preference, to remain on street."
"I would rather have some privacy."
"Shockwave, welcome to visit my office in Decepticon Headquarters during usual work shift."
Shockwave flinched at the mention of Headquarters, and hunched his shoulders again. "Very well. Will you at least sit with me?"
Soundwave spotted a small vendor's cart a few steps away, manned by a merchant selling canters of tangy coolant. A smattering of tables and stools filled the space, all of them currently empty. "That venue, acceptable."
"I suppose." Shockwave followed Soundwave and seated himself gingerly on one of the rusted stools. The owner rushed to serve them drinks, which Shockwave took one look at and refused to touch. Patiently Soundwave settled himself, and waited.
"Director Soundwave," Shockwave managed, after some hesitation. "I -"
He stopped when Soundwave held up a hand, then snapped and pointed straight at Jazz. His slave thought he could get away with hovering behind another stall, just close enough to eavesdrop, but Soundwave knew Jazz too well for that. Authoritatively he gestured for Jazz to move further away, and when Jazz pouted at him he commanded the aerial twins to eject.
"Objective," he ordered, "occupy Jazz, keep him out of auditory range." The twins' curiosity and apprehension shot up at the sight of Shockwave, but they both clucked in the affirmative. Soundwave waited until they had herded Jazz to a safer distance, then turned to Shockwave once more.
Shockwave looked slightly nonplussed, and cast a look back at Jazz that advertised clear disapproval, but at Soundwave's prompting he shifted his attention back to his purpose.
"I… have some concerns about the current state of the empire, and I find myself needing to share them. Lord Megatron is, ah, still justly upset with my performance and will not receive me. I know that will end someday, but I do not think my concerns can wait until then." He paused, as if expecting Soundwave to respond, but when Soundwave remained silent he continued. "I have, of course, noticed the increase in price at energon wholesale centers – as has everyone. If Lord Megatron felt it necessary to raise the price then I am sure it had to be done, for our Lord Megatron is never wrong. But, there are ways to introduce price changes in a manner that is not quite so noticeable to the general population. I fear some of the empire's subjects will develop undue resentment for our lord."
Again he stopped, watching and waiting, and this time Soundwave spoke. "Reason for relaying this?"
"Because, Director Soundwave, he listens to you still. I know we have had our differences -"
"Shockwave, attempted to subsume my department and status. Attempted to demolish my home."
"Er, but I did not actually do any of those things." Delicately Shockwave cleared his throat. "And remember, it is only because of me that you became such a successful officer in the Decepticon ranks. Where would you be now if I had not introduced you to Lord Megatron?"
Soundwave did not bother to give any answer to that but stony silence, and Shockwave tried another course. "Well, regardless of what's happened between us since the war's end, the fact remains that we two are Lord Megatron's most loyal soldiers. We've always had more in common with each other than Commander Starscream, who spends all his time scheming how to take what's not his. He's a lying, thieving traitor, and right now he is more dangerous than he's ever been. His popularity is growing unchecked; you know this better than I do, I'm sure. The soaring price of energon has come to be associated with Lord Megatron's rule, while Commander Starscream is seen as a hero to the commoners. If he were to openly rebel against Lord Megatron tomorrow, how many mecha would flock to his banner?"
"This prediction, extreme."
"Perhaps now, but not forever. We know Starscream too well for that. Director Soundwave, I know that you are loyal to Lord Megatron; your loyalty is second only to mine. Rather than being at each other's throat cables, we should unite to thwart Commander Starscream. We're the only ones that can stop him!"
"Megatron, well aware of current political environment, and Starscream's popularity. Megatron, capable of keeping Starscream in check."
Shockwave clenched his claws in a brief show of frustration. "Director Soundwave, we both know that Lord Megatron's temper tantrums do not last forever. My return to Decepticon Command will come, and when it does, I can be a powerful friend to you. You would do well to consider that. Better to cast your lot with me than to trust that cyberviper of a Seeker to not stab you in the back. I am certain that I can make it… well worth your while."
His clawed hand dropped off the edge of the small table and onto Soundwave's knee, which immediately brought all of Soundwave's thoughts to a very startled halt. Hundreds of vorns working beside Shockwave, and not once had he ever been propositioned by him. Soundwave had never even considered the possibility, knowing well that Shockwave loathed him and envied him his standing with Megatron. For the premier to make such a gesture now meant he was desperate indeed, not to mention well out of his depth. Shockwave possessed all the charm and good looks of a nonsentient calculator. Even if the prospect of bedding him was not thoroughly distasteful, his clumsy execution of the offer was almost laughable. Shockwave was just about the least-suited mech on the planet to make such an offer.
He was about to push Shockwave's hand off when Jazz burst out of the market crowds and launched himself at full sprint into Soundwave's lap, the twins in hot pursuit. Shockwave's hand was knocked off his knee and Shockwave flinched back, retreating to his own side of the table.
"Master," Jazz announced, loud and clear, "I've chosen my snack. Will you feed it to me now?" His engine revved menacingly, while a hot blue glare pinned itself to Shockwave. Dumbfounded, Shockwave stared at them, and Soundwave let escape a tiny sigh.
"Slave, too fast," Buzzsaw complained, perching next to his sister on the back of an empty chair. "Permission for physical force, not given."
That was true, and though Soundwave should have been angry at Jazz, he decided that his intervention had served as a useful tool for interrupting Shockwave's advances. He took the small candied energon treat that Jazz gave him and inserted it into his mouth. It was a matter-of-fact action as far as he was concerned, but Jazz closed his lips sensuously over Soundwave's fingertips, rolling a small noise of pleasure down his throat along with the candy, all the while shooting Shockwave snide looks of triumph.
Shockwave glowered. "Director Soundwave, your slave is unacceptably insolent. I cannot understand why you tolerate it. Were I his owner, I would have welded his mouth closed a long time ago."
"Ah, but Soundwave likes his partners to have a mouth," Jazz said maliciously, "or didn't you know?" Suggestively he licked his lips. "He enjoys the things I can do with it… but you wouldn't know anything about that. Because, you know, you don't have a mouth."
Shockwave's lone optic turned a shade that was nearly orange in both fury and embarrassment. "Director Soundwave, I demand that you dismiss that obnoxious creature at once so we may continue our discussion."
"Shockwave, in no position to make demands," Soundwave reminded him calmly, absently stroking Jazz's helm. Shockwave may dismiss this slave as a mere irritation, but Soundwave knew better. Again those mumbled words flashed through his memory: tricked the three of them into hating each other, then they killed each other.
Depressingly enough, Soundwave decided that he was going to have to help Shockwave after all. Not for any promises of future friendship, which he knew would be conveniently forgotten, but because it was what had to be done to thwart Jazz. Soundwave would not allow him to use their feuding against them. The thought of helping Shockwave left a foul taste on his glossa, but as Shockwave himself said, the empire's future mattered more.
"Soundwave, willing to assist Shockwave," he spoke up, eliciting a surprised glance from Shockwave. On his lap, he felt Jazz stiffen. "Soundwave, often now tasked with work of your jurisdiction, and extra responsibilities not enjoyed. However, Megatron still determined in his anger, and not receptive to my opinions. If Shockwave desires return to Megatron's favor, advice: offer gift of apology."
"Unknown. But recommend it difficult, expensive. Megatron, appreciative of subordinates' sacrifices."
"Is this the extent of your support?"
"More than Starscream likely to give," he could not resist pointing out, which provoked an annoyed hiss. "Soundwave, willing to encourage Megatron's forgiveness, but initial overture must be made by Shockwave."
"Fine. I will take your 'suggestion' under consideration. Please also remember my offer, if it will result in any other helpful ideas. Good day, Director Soundwave."
Shockwave stood and graced him with a haughty nod before marching away. "Finally!" Jazz gasped, and extended his open hand toward the twins. "Laserbeak, the salt!"
On cue, Laserbeak unspaced and dropped into Jazz's palm a packet of Earthian minerals. With enthusiasm he ripped it open and scattered liberal handfuls of it around the table and on Shockwave's empty seat. "Foul demon, be gone! Away, away, and cast not your evil shadow upon us again!"
"Jazz, Shockwave now gone. Display, unnecessary."
"Call it extra insurance. Some of us remember what he's like." Gracefully Jazz swivelled off his lap and stood before him, fists planted on hips. "How could you even speak to him? Offer to help him? After everything he's tried to do to you? He deserves his new home at the bottom of the Decepticon heap, and you should let him rot there."
"Jazz's advice, not requested in this matter."
His words were a little curt and Jazz flinched, looking hurt. "Oh. I get it. He's the next political bedfellow; you scratch his back and he'll scratch wherever you want. Well don't mind me - I'll just go back to sleeping on the floor while you two are busy. Let me know when you're done."
"Jealous?" Jazz spluttered, piquing the interest of Soundwave and both aerials as well. "Jealous? Of that... ugly bucket of bolts? Of that sad sack poster child for Missing Optic Awareness? Shockwave couldn't seduce his way out of a one-way sewage pipe, and he'd have the personality to match it. Take a good look at me, Soundwave. I am Jazz." He lifted his chained hands over his head, turning a slow circle to show off his svelte build. "I am the hottest piece of real estate on the Ark, can have any bot that I choose, anytime, anywhere. My league is so far out of Shockwave's that he couldn't shoot to hit it - even if he could shoot. Shockwave wishes that I were jealous of a thing like him, but I'm not and never will be."
Laserbeak muffled an amused chirp. Soundwave kept his expression as emotionless as ever, in contrast to his increasingly flustered and hot-tempered slave, whom he was not quite sure was upset about the prospect of Shockwave regaining support in Decepticon HQ or upset about Shockwave's hand on his knee. Interesting.
"Naturally," he agreed, when he realized Jazz was waiting rather defiantly for a response. "However, it must be understood by all that no interfacing intended with Shockwave."
"Really?" In spite of himself, Jazz's posture relaxed. "Then why are you being so nice to him?"
"Reason already given: Soundwave, disinclined to to carry governing responsibilities that should be Shockwave's." It was certainly, if not completely, the truth. "Now come, our walk still unfinished." He stood, and grasped Jazz's chin with a brief squeeze of affection. "Jazz, provides no end of amusement."
Curiously, Rumble turned out be exactly right in the end. Soundwave's cross-referencing program ran its course, thoroughly scouring both history files from one end to the other, and came back with a result of zero possibilities for a meeting. That garishly painted neutral from the refinery was so young that he hadn't even been sparked until well after the Autobots had been forced from Iacon. He'd barely been assigned a function before the Ark vacated the planet. The chances of Jazz and this young mech – this bothersome, insignificant young mech that had now wasted so much of Soundwave's time – were so infinitely small that even his sophisticated program couldn't calculate them. Jazz, for whatever reason, must have been mistaken.
Annoyed, Soundwave vented heavily and sat back in his chair. He closed out the first history file, but hesitated when his fingers moved to do the same for Jazz. Answering that question should have brought some relief, but Soundwave still felt uneasy. There was something… not right about this history file, which had begun to nag at him more insistently while the program did its work. Something didn't fit, like before, when he caught Jazz's slip about the destruction of his club. If it was anything that obvious again, Soundwave couldn't see it, but the uneasy feeling persisted anyway.
It was something Jazz did, he knew that much. Or just something he'd said, maybe. Whatever it was, he couldn't remember the circumstances, only that it had troubled him and that it had something to do with this history file. Helplessly Soundwave scrolled through it again, though he'd long ago memorized it.
[274v - 471v] First known location: Iacon. Pre-war era occupation, owner of local nightspot, designation Sparkbeat. Multiple citations of popularity within Iacon.
Soundwave was head of Decepticon Intelligence. He'd gotten there not just because he was good at seeing what others had missed, but because he could see what wasn't there at all. Whole stories could be found hiding between the lines of a boring paragraph, for those who paid attention. And right now, Soundwave was paying very close attention to the words on the screen. Something here was important.
[472v] Sparkbeat destroyed in Decepticon attack on Iacon. Location of Jazz, unknown.
His comm buzzed to life, blaring with the noise of angry twin voices hollering that he'd taken Jazz to the leisure district and not included them. Soundwave shut the transmission down without bothering to answer.
[553v] Intruder captured in Decepticon camp; identity unconfirmed. Appearance matches Autobot Jazz. (Probability, 75%) Intruder escaped before interrogation could begin.
These were not mistakes. He'd checked this file against independent sources, run every kind of crosscheck that he could think of back when investigating Jazz's secret origins. So if everything here was the truth, then what was he looking for? What was the real story between the lines?
[844v] Captured by gestalt team Combaticon, along with Autobot sniper Cliffjumper [deactivated]. Escaped before interrogation could begin.
Without being aware of it, Soundwave leaned forward in his seat, gaze fixed on the screen.
[845v] Attempted sabotage attempt on Decepticon headquarters, Cybertron. Minor explosions, no fatalities. Intruder escaped, suspected agent Jazz. (Probability 64%)
That word kept coming back, over and over again: escaped, escaped, escaped. Again that night by the dance floor flashed through his mind, dark and hot and nearly deafening in its music. It wasn't so loud, though, that he hadn't heard Jazz say that one peculiar comment. One of the charms of being me, he'd said so easily, his voice light and carefree. I never get caught.
[845v] Confirmed sighting, battle on Cybertron. Reported injured by Combaticon, designation Brawl, but successfully escaped with other Autobots.
Soundwave could feel his sparkbeat beginning to accelerate in his chest, generating more energy for the weapon protocols now demanding activation. His head whipped around to the monitor screens lining his office walls, where he could see Jazz back at home playing on his datapad. All those times he'd slithered out of captivity, always managing to get away just in time. Jazz never gets caught. The one time, the only time he'd been unlucky was the very last time. Or was it really unlucky?
Soundwave's hands flew across the console keys, pulling up all files on the last official battle of the war. He hadn't thought about this battle in years, and now that he was looking, the details of it were frustratingly vague. Starscream's report, as usual, gave an exhaustive account of his own genius, but his account of the Autobots' actions were sparse. An explosion in their bunker resulted in four corpses: Prowl, Ironhide, Wheeljack, and Cliffjumper. Then Skywarp had returned to his trine, dragging along with him a new Autobot prisoner in chains. The elusive spy Jazz, caught at last. After all those centuries of clever escapes, why did Jazz fail to get away the one time that it mattered the most?
I never get caught.
Soundwave watched Jazz on his monitor, still idly playing his game without an apparent care in the world. Was that a slave in his home, or an enemy? What was real and what was not? Did those Autobots in the bunker really die? Did Jazz wait for Skywarp that day? Distantly, Soundwave noticed that his hands had begun to tremble. The answers to those questions could change everything, including and most importantly whether this war was really over after all.
Panic brushed Soundwave's spark, but then his logic protocols kicked in. Why would Jazz ever allow himself to be captured on purpose? That was a bizarre plan even by Jazz's standards. If he had the ability to elude Skywarp that day, surely it made more sense to remain free. He could have bided his time, returned to Cybertron in secret, and begun his work to free the Autobot slaves without the hindrance of chains and a collar. Why subject himself to the constraints of slavery, not to mention the humiliation and pain, if he had a choice? And as for those other Autobots, the Seekers had brought back what remained of their blackened and fragmented frames. Identification had been verified by Hook. And even if it were possible to fool the medic, the war had now been done for six years. Why hadn't they done anything? They would not just vanish and leave their fellow Autobots to languish in slavery.
No, they had not been heard from because they were dead, and that Autobot in his home was a slave, not enemy. Hook had even double checked his collar and slave coding. Relieved, Soundwave talked himself out of his agitated state and felt the weapon protocols go dormant, his sparkbeat even and slow. Rumble actually was right, this obsessive rereading of Jazz's history file had only led him into a circle of paranoia. Time to turn it off, and go home to take his slave on a walk.
Soundwave stood up, and did exactly that.
Disclaimer: I do not add these characters