An exceptional rare and wondrous convergence of inspiration, energy and free time brought this chapter out around a month early.
Only a Prime
1 month later
They'd found more tunnels under Sacramento. The Cybertronium growing through them was mesh-thin and easily removed, but the distance was startling. The senior officials and governing bodies had had to be informed, in part to contain the geologists who'd reported the erroneous soil readings that had flagged NEST's attention. Shockwave's creation was now a higher priority than Megatron. The main veins of the tunnels were being explored and the cybermatter transported back to Hoover. Amongst other things, the recently settled Wreckers had set up a smelt and forge to make use of the precious material so that the Earth outpost would no longer have to rely on scavenged parts and inferior native substitutes.
Optimus was regularly out in the field, joining the Cybertronium convoys as both transport and guard. Ironhide was shadowing him like a hound. Ratchet remained within the confines of the dam and was thankful that the specialist constantly had optics on their commander. As things were, he and Optimus had not spoken of the sparkling that had been, nor any potential ones, since that morning in the office.
Ratchet had finally conducted the autopsy when Wheeljack had asked for the missing report, and hadn't expected to find the mech's silent presence a comfort as he studiously picked apart the tiny frame. Finding nothing wrong with it had been far worse than the looking. Four more months and its systems would have developed enough for it to have survived on external support if the chamber had rejected it.
Wheeljack's firm stance on the uselessness of such speculation had been the only thing to stop Ratchet from obsessing to the point of agony. But under the cool professionalism and steady manner with which he dealt with routine maintenance and repairs of the bots under his care, it was painfully clear to Wheeljack that the medic was still grieving.
And doing a pretty poor job of it, in his opinion.
Optimus he couldn't do anything about; aside from the fact that he wasn't even supposed to know about this venture, they weren't close like he and Ratchet had been. So the Wrecker had plundered the 'secret' sill (the appearance of which had almost perfectly coincided with the Xantium's arrival), decreed that Leadfoot was a smart enough engineer to handle things in the Medbay for a day, and that if there was an emergency, a shot of Faradium would soak the excess charge from their systems within minutes.
Ratchet had put up far less of a fight than he'd expected, which made Wheeljack think that the mech was in far direr need of getting cratered than he'd suspected.
He'd found them a quiet place way down in the sublevels where no one was likely to wander within audio range. There was a constant hum from the power house directly above them, backed by the muffled roar of channelled and crashing water. The lack of silence was soothing in a way that only came with living for centuries on a ship. Wheeljack had settled in against the wall of the mothballed storage room and, after the ninth cube, Ratchet was similarly slumped next to him.
It was inevitable that they'd end up talking about the sparkling, and the whole mad scheme surrounding it. Only now, Ratchet's frustration and distress were in the open, which was a significant improvement in Wheeljack's book.
The inventor was staring intently ahead at nothing, his focus turned inwards and his hand gesticulating through the shimmering fuel vapours. "It's not the gestation chamber – it's just not. It's perfect across the board, and there've been no signs of rejection post-op."
Ratchet was also staring straight ahead into the gloom, but both his hands were curled around his empty cube between his knees. "I've tried extended berth rest, mineral supplements, richer energon, sustained charge – everything." He lifted the cube, tried to drain it and then threw it in disgust when nothing came out. "I cannot understand why they keep dying."
Wheeljack cracked the seal on another cube from the stack and handed it across, watching as half of it was immediately 7swallowed with mulish intent. Deciding that Ratchet had now reached that very particular balance of coherent emotion and brutal honesty, he set his drink aside and laced his fingers. He let the chug, hum and rumble above them soothe for a few minutes, then finally looked at Ratchet's profile.
"Why did you only install the chamber?"
Ratchet rolled his optics so hard that his head tipped back against the concrete wall. "I didn't want to go down the psychologically trying route of installing an entire femme reproductive system."
Any other circumstances, Wheeljack might have been impressed that the mech could say such a syllabic statement following that much High Grade. At present, his engine just growled.
"'Psychologically trying'? Frag's sake, Ratch', he's already had three miscarriages. I think Prime's psychological welfare is a moot point at this stage." He raised a hand as if to cuff the medic, but only gestured up at the ceiling to vaguely indicate the base. "You've already put in the chamber, so why not modify the valve and hook 'em up?"
Ratchet planted a hand against the wall and staggered to his feet. His hand clenched as he took a step away to look down at Wheeljack, warping the cube. "That's entirely different and you know it. Artificially inseminating into an artificial gestation chamber is nothing like linking a mech's valve to it."
There was a sort of desperateness in Ratchet's optics, Wheeljack decided, but he was too irked by the dismissal to pay it any heed. "Like that's going to have a bearing on Prime's gender identity, or whatever it is you're so scared of." He wanted to get up and shake Ratchet –physically grab him by the shoulders as if denial could be rattled out like sand- but remained on the floor instead. Because he knew Ratchet would bolt, and was close to that already.
"Stop trying to protect him and do your slagging job." The sharp remark had slipped out before he could censor it. But Ratchet didn't leave. He stood utterly still, looking at the blank wall.
Wheeljack's jaw clenched, the sensor-laden fins on either side of his helm buzzing with frustration. He settled back against the wall and lay his wrists on his raised knees, but his expression remained hard. "You're protecting yourself. All the clinical distancing, using needles and fake charges to force his spark to overload. Didn't it occur to you that you need a dual charge to make a sparkling?"
"Ridiculous," Ratchet scoffed, though he didn't meet Wheeljack's stare as he said it. "Prime's spark has been more than sufficient to permit budding and growth, and furthermore-"
"They die." Wheeljack's expression had turned pained, his hands flared out imploringly. "Primus, Ratchet, you can't make a sparkling with needles and vials."
"You're not going to tell me that sparklings can only come out of love, are you?"
"No, but out of heat." Wheeljack left his cube on the floor when he got to his feet, imploring as he closed some of the space between them. "The spark of a Prime is all power and heat and passion, and you're not going to bring one into this world without that, no matter how hard you try."
Ratchet shook his head and stepped away, arms folding in a stance that was telling. "No: I'm getting closer. This carriage lasted for months. The next-"
"If you keep at this route, they're still all going to die."
It was like a slap to the face, stopping the medic in his tracks. The Wrecker got in close, stood solid and unflinching inside Ratchet's field. He brought his face so near that it was impossible for the mech not to look him in the optic. "How many more are you going to make him lose before you take the next logical diagnostic step, Doctor?"
Ratchet's plates flattened and his jaw clenched. There was a warning flash across the refracting crystals of his optics, but it was a shield over a genuine pain.
Wheeljack felt no remorse for delivering the low blow, because Ratchet had needed it and he made sure to project that too. He eased away a little, returning some space. "Nature got it right before science did. If it ain't broke, don't go trying to fix it with something twice as complicated."
Finally, abruptly, the shield of professionalism fractured. Ratchet's shoulders dropped, and he rubbed his forehead with the corner of the cube. "It's not just that, 'Jack," he murmured through his dente, optics shuttered.
The agitation left Wheeljack's frame as quickly as it had Ratchet's, and he cycled a slow vent to absorb that admission. He lay a warm hand on the medic's wheelarch. His voice was quiet. "You can tell him that you don't want to be the other creator anymore. He'd understand, and I'm sure Ironhide or someone else would step in for you."
"No, he wants it to be me," Ratchet murmured, turning to face the shorter mech. Usually he would have shrugged off the hand, but right now, the supportive point of contact was helping. He told himself it was the High Grade lubricating his glossa, making him say things he hadn't fully confessed to himself. "And… Primus help me, I want this sparkling, too. But if we do it this way, if we …" He couldn't bring himself to say 'fragged'. It wasn't a word he could apply to Optimus. "Then it'd really be mine, and really be his."
Not the end result of a fluid donation, which was the most superficial difference. Wheeljack nodded with a thoughtful sound. "But would that be so bad?"
"If it failed then-"
Now Wheeljack did shake him, just a little, and with a dry sort of smile. "You'd have each other. And trust me when I say that it's better to have a friend in grief than a rank and profession."
After the holoform pocketed the third ball in a row, Lennox rapped the blunt end of his cue against the floor. "Honestly, now: you've gotta be cheating to be pulling that in your second game."
The tone was good natured, but Optimus still regarded the man quite seriously from where he'd bent to line upthe next shot. "I assure you, Major Lennox, there is no subterfuge. Even if my sensors were able to penetrate through the interferences designed to prevent the Decepticons discovering us to calculate the vectors, they're currently offline."
Not wishing to suspend a surprisingly enjoyable game, he slid the cue through the slim bridge of his holoform's fingers and nudged the white ball forward. The pink billiard rolled towards the pocket, but nudged to one side and didn't sink. Optimus arched a brow at it, much as he would a sheepish Bumblebee with a parking ticket stuck to his windscreen. "I'm relying on the view relayed through this form's optics, which, as you can see, is not sufficient for a perfect game."
Lennox grunted a laugh and put the blue cube of chalk to one side on the pool table. "Or just you're taking pity on a man years out of practice. And it's Will off-duty, remember?"
Optimus took a few steps back from the table as etiquette required. Whilst Lennox studied the layout, he looked across the rec room to where Sam and Bumblebee's holoform were playing a videogame together. They were sat close enough for their arms to constantly be touching, and when Bumblebee ruffled a hand through Sam's hair in mocking victory, his fingers lingered on the teen's neck.
The sharp clack of the billiards striking drew Optimus back, and he caught himself fiddling with the hem of his vest. The holoform's stomach was as flat as a human abdomen could be, but he continued to wear the heavy NEST jacket to obfuscate the curves of his body as if there was still something to hide.
Lennox had managed to ricochet the cue ball off the far cushion and score the pink. Optimus watched him set up his next shot. "Ironhide told me that Epps plays this game regularly."
"Yeah, he calls it playing. I call it absolute destruction." Another pocket, and Lennox came past the holoform to the other end of the table. "Our dear Bobby Epps was a regular pool hall rat and hustler before he joined up. Fun for him, not so much for me. Give it a few weeks and you might be able to knock him down a peg or ten."
Optimus folded his arms, the cue tucked between breast and bicep. "We shall see."
As Ratchet had said when he'd advised against forcibly altering his avatar, he'd become comfortable with this form. It had provoked a few strange looks amongst the humans at first, and fewer questions, but the novelty had quickly passed.
Instead of taking the next shot, Lennox looked at Optimus with a similar expression to when he'd first seen the female holoform. The confusion was married with concern, though, and it was clear in his voice. He'd just made the connection between the last year of medical interventions and Optimus's earlier comment.
"Why's your sensor suite off? Are you hurt?" His hand was a fist around the top of the cue, thumb hooked around the chalked tip. "The real you, I mean."
Optimus held up a hand, arms still crossed. "No, quite the opposite." He regarded the table as he spoke, running the likely outcomes of his opponent's next shot and pondering how he may proceed. "My frame is currently undergoing maintenance and cleaning, and whilst the crew is very proficient, my sensors are unaccustomed to the little force they are using."
"You mean it tickles?"
The woman's mouth pulled to one side in a wry sort of smile, the alien brightness of her eyes glinting. "In places I could never hope to reach."
Lennox grinned at the admission, the tension that had gathered across his shoulders vanishing. "Fair enough. At least it's tickling and not, y'know."
Millennia old, the cultural and spiritual leader of his people, and having been around soldiers for the majority of his life, Optimus did not rise to Lennox's eyebrow wiggle. He raised his chin, the picture of dignity. "I would have still deactivated my sensors if that were the case. It would be highly inappropriate to do otherwise."
"Speaking of inappropriate," Lennox said, the rush of his words suggesting that he'd been trying to find a segue for some time. "Some of the juniors walked in on Wheeljack and Bulkhead in the corridor the other day." He bent to line up the cue. "I believe from 'Hide that the expression is 'trading paint'?"
Optimus had only been peripherally aware from the grapevine of the relationship between the two Wreckers. Recently he'd been spending large periods of time in the field with NEST, and the remaining time he had left in the Hoover dam was focussed upon confidential and decidedly non-personal matters. He'd not spent any time in the rec room, or talking casually with his team.
He was not avoiding Ratchet.
A missed pocket. Lennox picked up his coffee from the corner of the table without looking at Optimus, relaxed.
"We are thinking, feeling beings, Will, and in some ways no different to your kind," Optimus finally replied in a soft utterance, neither apologetic nor lecturing. Without him really noticing, his holoform had turned to look towards Bumblebee and Sam again. The clink of the coffee mug being set back down called back his attention. "But, I will have a word with them about discretion."
"Thanks. 'cause it raised a lot of questions I'm not even sure I have the vocabulary for," Lennox admitted with wide eyes, looking off to one side as if having a vivid recollection of something strange and unpleasant.
One of the pluses of the holoform, Lennox was finding, was that Optimus's human face betrayed emotion far more clearly than his Cybertronian one. In the Prime's natural form, he'd never have seen that tiny smile bordering on a smirk that was more in the eyes than the mouth. Optimus didn't show humour much, and it had become something of a mission to some of the NEST crew to get the big guy to laugh.
Lennox tapped the butt of the snooker cue into the floor as Optimus bent to make his next shot. Out of ingrained polite habit, he looked at the table and not the exposed swell of the hologram's breasts.
"Think it was good for them, actually, to see that same-sex relationships aren't anything unusual to a race of highly advanced aliens. Too many soldiers come out of basic full of horseshit ideas." Lennox paused with a frown, which he then rubbed at with thumb and forefinger. When talking to their new holoforms, it was particularly easy to forget that they were genuine 'from outer space' aliens with alien customs, cultures and biology. "That is right though, right? Not to get into the specifics, but Wheeljack and Bulkhead are male and someone like Arcee is female?"
Optimus abandoned the shot, stepping around to the other side of the corner to consider an alternative vector. He did so slowly, analysing the Major's question and considering how best to answer concisely. Ratchet was used to these sorts of questions, and had projections and slideshows already prepared to educate their organic cohort. Interesting as Optimus usually found conversations about their differences and similarities as races to be, he discovered he did not have the mental energy to engage in a protracted dialogue on this particular subject.
"There is more… nuance to our biology in that respect. We do not have binary genders as you understand it, but rather a spectrum based on spark frequency and frame type. 'Mech' and 'femme' are categories within which many others lie." It was a poorly calculated shot, the white ball skimming its target and moving it an inch to the side. Optimus stepped back from the table and met Lennox's gaze. "However in the most equivalent terms – those of reproduction, you are correct."
Lennox nodded, but summarised to confirm: "Femmes have the babies?"
The lines around the holoform's mouth shifted, replicated jaw clenching spasmodically for a moment. "They did."
"I'm sorry," Lennox said, holding Optimus's stare as that somehow felt the right and respectful thing to do. The Autobots did not shy from the harsh realities of their lives, nor the devastating impact of their long war. That did not mean that it didn't wound them to reflect on it.
Optimus accepted the unnecessary sympathy for the gesture it was, making a soft sound that came out high from his human-female voicebox. "We can only hope that, somewhere, there are Cybertronians who felt it safe to have sparklings." He curled his other hand around the cue, looked over the table again, and for a moment couldn't remember whose turn it was. A synthesised sigh, then he added, "And that the war will end before we are unable to greet another generation."