A/N: set directly after the events of DOTM; in the aftermath of the final confrontation between Autobot and Decepticon, Lennox and his team struggle to pick up the pieces and put their lives back together as they grapple with the grief of those they have lost.
Enjoy! Please R&R, it would make me ever so happy!
"Even the most terrible of acts are not necessarily the product of malice."
(Hannah Arendt "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil 1976)
In the fading light of the evening, Epps coughed, clearing his lungs as best he could in the city's air that still tasted of ash, smoke and other bitter debris. Every step that he and Lennox took now was careful and respectfully timid; in the eerie gloom one could not be certain if their steps fell upon harmless gravel, splinters of human bone or shrapnel from a fallen friend and ally. Keeping pace with Epps, Lennox hung his head for a moment, endeavoring to blink away the image of Ironhide—or rather of what was left of the great weapon's specialist—that had arisen, unlooked for, in his mind's eye. Just hours ago, he and Epps, along with Ratchet, Stuart, Bumblebee, Sam, Optimus Prime and Olsen had all gathered together as much of Ironhide's remains as they could salvage. Placing those now brittle and rusted pieces in a large crate—the best they could come up with for a make shift coffin—had hurt beyond words. Nailing it shut, had been nothing short of agonizing and hearing Bee's one wailing keen as Epps placed the last nail in the lid—no one else could bring themselves to do it—had cut them all deeply.
There had been no blood, no bone or other humanoid gore, but for Lennox it had been one of the most gruesome tasks he had ever undertaken. Whether it was because he had spent so many years with the Autobots or perhaps because he was beginning to loose sight of the difference between Cybertronians and humans, Lennox was rapidly coming to see little distinction between their pain and human pain. Energon pooling on the ground sent his stomach into knots now just as much as human blood would; seeing fragments and pieces of metal paneling was just as unnerving as finding human remains for him, especially if he could recognize the paint.
"Aw man…"Epps breathed softly as he slowed to a stop. As if conjured by his very thoughts, Lennox could only numbly watch as his friend knelt to gingerly scoop up two pieces of metal plating. Even though the coming night made visibility poor—electricity had yet to be restored to the city—Lennox was still able to discern the cheerful yellow paint on one piece and brilliant red and blue flame designs on the other. Both panels were blackened and twisted terribly. Damn. It.
"We should probably hang on to these," Lennox heard himself say, "Just in case Ratchet could…"his voice faltered, suddenly sickened at the notion of Ratchet reattaching the pieces to their friends. Swallowing thickly, Lennox accepted one of the metal pieces from Epps; his friend had already taken up a terrible burden today, no need to make it heavier. Though the metal was cool, it burnt Lennox's fingertips, making him instinctively recoil from the fact he was carrying a piece of one of his friends. No, a quick glance down corrected him; he was carrying a piece of Bumblebee. The darkness hid his shudder as Lennox recognized the ghostly gleam of energon on one side of the panel. Again, his mind regurgitated another memory from earlier that day, this time Bee's mournful cry echoed in his ears again.
Suppressing a sigh and swallowing his heart that had leapt up into his throat, Lennox continued forward, watching his steps and determinedly avoiding looking at the metal panel he carried with him. He and Epps had left the makeshift camp they and the others had set up in order to find a reprieve of sorts. What was left of NEST, along with Sam, Carly and the Autobots had spent the last week in the remains of Chicago, searching for survivors and collecting the dead. Now, with the daylight gone, they had all gathered together, clustered around bonfires, struggling to find solace in each other's presence, seeking a respite from all of the death and destruction in the sound of a friendly voice. Even now, through the thickness of the air, Epps and Lennox could hear a chorus of laughter from the impromptu camp accentuated by inhumanly deep grumbling—had to be Ratchet and was that lilting voice Dino?—and a refrain of chirrups and whistles from Bumblebee. Truly, Lennox was glad that they all had found a way to detach themselves from their grim surroundings. But right now, Lennox couldn't bring himself to fake a smile, let alone a laugh. He knew he was beginning to break under the strain of the past few days, and instead had yearned for the comfort to be found in solitude. Well, not quiet solitude, he thought as he glanced over to the friend he considered as a brother. Once Epps had realized Lennox's intent, he had stubbornly declared that he wasn't going to let him wander around in the city alone, not with only the darkness and destruction waiting for him beyond.
Out of view of the encampment, no cheerful bonfire to reflect off of stone and shattered glass here, Lennox and Epps found themselves hemmed in by tomb like silence. Nothing moved, not a whisper of wind, not a sign of life. Pressing forward, determined to keep moving though not quite sure why, Lennox was beginning to find the silence suffocating rather than comforting. Even as he began to question his decision to wander away from the comfort of friends and light, the night was broken by the sound of glass shattering. Muscle reflexes reacted before his brain could; in unison, they had dropped their grisly discoveries as guns snapped up to the ready, trained on the pressing darkness beyond. Wordlessly they advanced at a crouch, adrenaline singing through their veins and their heartbeat drumming in their ears. One, two, three steps brought them to yet another abandoned street corner. There was nothing, nothing to aim at, nothing to find but more ruins. His muscles tense and aching, Lennox reluctantly holstered his weapon, Epps following suit.
"We're just jumpy," Epps tried to rationalized, "Probably nothing, maybe just a bird or stray dog knocking something over."
Lennox was inclined to agree, lingering on the curb with the night filling his ears; he was just beginning to convince his muscles to relax when another sound broke the stillness. This time, not the jarring crunch of glass reached them, but the breathy sigh of gears and servos shifting. Lennox didn't need to even glance at Epps as he reacted, his weapon seeming to materialize in his hands as his legs pitched him forward, moving wraith like toward the unmistakable sound of Cybertronian movement. Fear coiled in their stomachs as they drew closer to the source of the sound, each hoping they weren't about to stumble upon a surviving Decepticon. Lennox's concern shot up a notch as he began to recognize their surroundings: this street led to not just one of the city's many bridges, but one in particular. But a few moments more and they turned another corner and found themselves heading towards the bridge where Sentinel, Optimus and Megatron had their final clash of wills, of steel and of weapons. Here no skyscrapers obscured the surface streets from the sky, moonlight raw and hollow poured over the scene, bleaching everything of color. Slowly, cautiously, Lennox and Epps approached the bridge, once again finding everything enveloped in stillness. Beside themselves, there was nothing on the bridge but Sentinel and Megatron's remains. As they drew nearer to the broken forms, there was no need to wonder what crunched beneath their steps now: no inanimate gravel, but countless shards of metal cut and torn to fine ribbons, here energon stained the ground, and was even splashed on the thick metal railings. The taste of bile rose in Lennox's throat at the sight; he knew whose energon was seeping into the concrete and had been sprayed across the bridge.
"Someone moved them!" Though Epps spoke barely above a whisper, his voice reverberated though the air, a comparative whip crack shout.
"Sentinel and Megatron. Someone moved them, they weren't like that before." Motioning with his gun, Epps glanced from Lennox then back to the monolithic forms. Tearing his gaze away from the metal supports, Lennox moved to stand beside Epps, realizing he was right. Sentinel was no longer splayed against the side of the bridge, nor was Megatron thrown in haphazard pieces. Now both lay side by side, arranged respectfully with Sentinel's arms crossed over where his spark used to be. Even Megatron's head had been carefully placed atop his broken body, his own claw like hands similarly folded. Someone had moved them.
"What do you think? A Decepticon?" Epps looked questioningly at Lennox, even now unwilling to lower his weapon. He hated to admit it, but he was damn tempted to let off a round or two into either of those hated countenances. So much destruction, so much suffering, so much undone because of these two. Inwardly he cringed just thinking of what could have happened if Big Man hadn't been there, if he hadn't—
There it was again. The soft, shuddering sigh of servos and gears shifting, the unearthly cadence of metal plating rattling in tune with titanic footfalls. Both Lennox and Epps froze, their weapons at the ready, as they realized the breathy echoes were coming from behind them. There was still a whisper of a chance that even standing on the bridge as they were they hadn't been seen. Both of the remains cast long moon shadows of their own; Lennox could only hope that such shadows obscured them from view. With the barest of nods to Epps, Lennox signaled his companion to hold. With every passing heartbeat the steps grew louder as they came closer; both Lennox and Epps would only have one chance once they opened fire. They had to wait until those steps brought the being close enough for them to attempt shooting out their foe's optics. Once blinded, the Decepticon would be, if not helpless, then certainly stymied, giving Epps and Lennox the chance to run for cover, and more importantly, for help.
Lennox waited until he could feel the vibrations of the Cybertronian's footfalls before he started counting down. A rustle of metal plating, damaged no doubt as it scraped against a whining gear. Three…the crunch of the concrete under the weight of the unearthly being. Epps clenched his teeth, C'mon you Decepticon bastard! C'mon and get some! Two…Another servo groaned in protest. One!
With a cry stirring emotions of hate and anger at all that Megatron and Sentinel had stood for, Lennox and Epps simultaneously spun, dropping to the ground as their weapons came up seeking a target. Even before their backs slammed against the unyielding concrete, both fired, and the sound of the gunfire ripped open the darkness.
A pair of burning blue optics looked down at them as their rounds blessedly ricocheted harmlessly away. The bullets deflected by a battle mask that had been held seamlessly in place for days. Another cry tore from Lennox's throat, this one voicing dismay rather than anger.
"Oh mai gawd Big Man!"
With his one remaining arm, Optimus reached out, endeavoring to help both Lennox and Epps up. "Forgive me, I did not mean to startle you. Are you both all right?" Catching hold of one great digit, while Epps grabbed another, Lennox allowed Prime to help pull him to his feet. Bitter and acrid, Lennox tasted bile yet again in his mouth; after all that Optimus had done, all that he had sacrificed, Lennox had gone and shot him. He had just shot at Optimus Prime. In the face.
"Optimus, I…I'm sorry. We didn't mean…"
"We thought you were a 'Con!"
"We didn't hurt you, did we?"
"Big Man, we're sorry…"
Slowly Optimus straightened, "You have no need to apologize, the fault was my own. It was foolish of me not to announce myself."
"Did you see us?"
'Then why the hell didn't you say sumthan, Big Man?"
Slowly, Optimus blinked down at Epps, "I did not wish to interrupt, for I assumed both of you were conversing. I did not realize that either of you had your weapons ready."
Mutely Lennox nodded as he and Epps holstered their weapons, trying hard not to stare at the gaping wound in Optimus' shoulder, at the yawning tear where his arm should have been. As his gaze drifted over the damage, another wave of anger rose in Lennox, taking him by surprise. But this emotional surge was borne out of frustration rather than hate. A full week had elapsed since that fateful clash, seven full days and Ratchet still hadn't repaired Optimus!
Epps wasn't so tactless, "What the hell, Big Man? Why hasn't Ratchet helped you? Why the hell hasn't he reattached your arm?"
"There has been more pressing matters at hand, my friends."
"Bull. Shit!" Epps wasn't going to back away from this.
"Please—" Lennox winced at the weariness in that thick tone, instantly flashing back to the moments when Sentinel had pinned Optimus to the ground. Having already torn off Optimus' limb, Sentinel had let him struggle futilely, impaled through his one remaining shoulder upon Sentinel's blade. Lennox swallowed thickly, hearing again that broken tone uttering, "Sentinel…please…" Optimus' one remaining hand reaching up, grasping onto the armor that concealed Sentinel's spark; one Prime pleading to another, not to be spared but rather in a desperate cry for the other to come to his senses, to cease the bloodshed, to save the lives of the innocent.
Suffering from no such flashback, Epps barreled on. "Bull. Fucking. Shit!" He cut Optimus off, "I aint gonna buy that lame ass excuse."
Before Lennox could stop him, Epps launched into a fairly fierce tirade, "—You think you can pull crap like this—" Knowing the man, Lennox recognized that it was a façade fueled by a tempestuous mix of guilt and fear that he and Lennox could have very well have inflicted lasting damage on the one being who had sacrificed so much for the preservation of a relatively thankless race. "—I don't fucking think so! You can't be falling apart on us now! And don't you even dare start to think about kicking off! You wanna see someone mad, I'll tell you—" But as Epps seemed to be working to an impressive crescendo, Lennox took the opportunity to watch Optimus' expression. Or rather, what he could discern of it given that Prime still had his battle mask firmly in place. Epps had only embarked a handful of sentences into his rant ("—I'll drop kick you back into the gawd damn stone age! What are you gonna transform into then!—") when Lennox noted how Prime's optics shifted, no longer focused on either of them, but rather they settled upon Sentinel and Megatron's remains.
"—Its not that complicated, Big Man! How hard is it to find your damn arm, sit Ratchet's ass down and tell him to fix it! It couldn't possibly be—"
But Lennox knew that Optimus was no longer really listening; there was a growing distance in his expression that clearly told the solider that Prime's thoughts were far, far away from them, traversing paths dark and deep. With every passing sentence, Optimus' expression seemed to become further and further etched in grief, and Lennox had no doubt that it had nothing to do with whatever Epps was saying to him ("—Don't tempt me, Big Man! I'll go get Elena and her clipboard! You just watch—"). So, Lennox decided to take a risk, well that and he didn't want to give Epps the chance to ask a question that required Optimus to give an answer. Clearing his throat, Lennox shuffled his feet loudly, deliberately grinding his boots into the concrete, though wincing as he stepped on something unmistakably metal. But the motion served its purpose, for just as Lennox had intended, at the noise Optimus' gaze immediately flicked back over to them, all distance flown from his expression as his optics became sharp and focused, searching for the source of the sound.
"Optimus…"Lennox spoke softly, gently in the lull that formed when Epps paused to catch his breath, "You moved Sentinel and Megatron, didn't you?"
Epps tripped over his own words, "Hang on here, wha—"
"Even our opponents deserve our respect."
Lennox took that as a yes.
Optimus blinked once, slowly, and when he spoke Lennox truly believed that he could hear the very weight of the world resounding in that velvet timber, "Neither of you knew Sentinel or Megatron as I did, before they became…lost." Heavily, Optimus stepped forward, gears and servos shuddering as he knelt down beside both broken forms, "Megatron was once a good and honorable leader. He was my brother, my friend whom I trusted above all others. There was a time when we stood side by side, he and I, fighting for the preservation of justice as we sought to protect the innocent. But time and ambition change many things; so it was with Megatron. And I watched as he slowly became consumed by a desire, an unquenchable thirst, for power and control of Cybertron."
"I always knew that Megatron had a dangerous and passionate temper, and that one day it may lead to our undoing. But Sentinel…Sentinel made me what I am. He forged within me the same principles that I came to place so much faith in, that I was willing to sacrifice so much for. Even now, I do not doubt that before Sentinel fell victim to his doubt and fear, he was the true and rightful leader of the Autobots. He was the leader that the Autobots have always deserved and that I could never be."
But Epps shook his head, pacing irritably back and forth, refusing to do anything but vent his anger. "No." He began simply. Optimus fell silent, tilting his great countenance ever so slightly as he regarded Epps. Feeling strangely detached from it all, Lennox could only mutely watch as Epps shook a fist in first Megatron's direction, then Sentinel's, "Look at all that Megatron has destroyed! That bastard killed this city! He tried his damnedest to kill humanity, to kill our whole planet! He killed Jazz! He even killed you and Sam at one point! And look what Sentinel did! He killed Ironhide! He killed the twins! And he helped Megatron, worked with him to destroy our world!" Here Epps gestured brusquely to the yawning wound in Optimus' shoulder, "Look what Sentinel did to you! He betrayed you, the Autobots, all of us! There is no way that you can look me straight in the eye and tell me that you're square with that. You're going to try and tell me that you're going to show either of them the respect that they never gave to you, to the Autobots, to Cybertron, and humanity? No. Fucking. Way. Big Man. " Epps now shook his fist at Optimus, "And damn you if you do! Damn you, Optimus!"
In that moment, his optics burning bright and bitter, Optimus Prime did something that neither soldier had ever heard him do. Deep within his throat, gears ground together, the sound barely audible at first but then building to a brief but poignant crescendo in a low but menacing growl. The distinctive sound ghosted through Lennox, inciting memories of Megatron. Not so long ago, he had heard such a sound issue from Megatron as a wrathful snarl, resounding through the air, a klaxon that declared both warning and challenge. Hearing something so uncannily familiar now, forcibly reminded Lennox of the indelible bond that existed between both Megatron and Optimus. But where Megatron's comparative bark promised violence, what Lennox now heard was more akin to the deep and authoritative growl of thunder, commanding yet somehow gentle in its ferocity.
As the sound faded away into the darkness, Optimus narrowed his optical lenses at Epps, pinning him in place under the sheer force of his gaze. "You do not need to list neither Megatron nor Sentinel's crimes for me." Optimus spoke in a voice that both soldiers felt in their bones rather than heard. "You forget, while your world was still being birthed, before your race had come into being, Megatron and I had already plunged our race into the unmerciful throes of war." As he spoke, Optimus seemed to be filled with a new, unparalleled fierceness that lent a potent fire to his gaze, keener edges to his armor and made him seem suddenly so very, very alien and…ancient. Lennox had never before feared Optimus, even when he had first beheld the Autobot leader amid the chaos of Mission City, Lennox had never been afraid. Yet, under that powerful gaze, feeling that ire practically radiating from the titanic being that knelt before them, Lennox felt afraid.
But then, as quickly as it had come, in the span of a handful of human heartbeats, it was gone. Once more Lennox and Epps could discern Optimus' familiar countenance among all the hard planes and angles of metal. No longer did he tower above them threatening and dangerous, but rather his shadow was protective and reassuring. Prime's optics dimmed, no longer brilliant and burning, that ferocity that filled him had vanished, leaving behind just the same, weary, battle worn Optimus that they knew so well. "My friends…"Optimus regarded them, his timber soft, apologetic, "If I did not honor them, if I did not give them the respect that they did not give to me, to you and to our races, then we would be no better than the individuals they became. We too would fall victim to the same misguided ideals that enslaved them, and that led them to commit so many evils." As if the movement pained him, which Lennox had no doubt that it did, Optimus slowly stood up, his gaze still focused largely on Epps, "Damn me if you must, but I have forgiven them. Not because it is the right or noble thing to do, but because it is the only thing I have left to do. It is the only way that my race and yours can ever begin to heal. The seeds of peace cannot be sown in hatred." For once, Optimus bowed his head, those great shoulders seeming to give way under a terrible weight, his resilient frame bent and defeated, "Damn me if you must, Epps. I will bear your hatred if it means that you and the rest of humanity may heal, and survive."
"I'm sorry, Big Man." Epps fisted his hands on his hips, shaking his head, "I'm not like you. I can't just forgive them, not now, maybe not ever. I just can't." His soft brown eyes flitted apologetically to Lennox before he turned away from both man and machine. Pushing past Optimus, Epps fisted a hand, lightly punching at a panel on the Autobot's ankle as a way of goodbye before he walked off the bridge and back the way they had come. Lennox could only watch his long time friend depart, feeling helpless and suddenly so very, very tired. He let Epps walk away then, not just because he was confident that Epps would head back to base camp, but also because he knew that his brother-in-arms needed time for his temper to cool.
Lennox tilted his head back, feeling the night breeze rise up to whisper across the back of his neck as he looked up at the Autobot leader. Resolutely, Optimus' deep cerulean gaze met Lennox's, and for a moment each studied the other, openly recognizing the foreignness of the other. In that great, alien countenance Lennox read many things, foremost among which was the evidence of the passage of ages that had been weathered into every scratch and scar, into every angle and edge that had been worn down. Of anyone he knew, Optimus was the one who would understand, who would know what it was and what it meant to bear the weight of eons, more so than Lennox or any human ever could.
"I'm sorry, Optimus…He just needs…" Lennox's voice trailed away under the scrutiny of such a piercing gaze.
Optimus bowed his head ever so slightly, blinking his optical lenses once, the movement striking Lennox as suddenly so very, and oddly human, "He, like us all, needs time." Such a tempestuous commodity time was; it could be everything and anything, for it played a myriad of roles, each as apt as the last. Time could be a cruel mistress, harsh and biting, as it was cold and calculating, just as it could be fickle and flighty, playing favorites or none at all. While, between the two of them, Optimus alone probable knew each of time's facades best, even Lennox could recognize that, right now, time was their best and perhaps only chance they—both human and Autobot alike—had.
A/N: For now I've listed this as completed, unless this either catches my attention again and demands to be continued or you, dear reader, would like to see/ read more.
See the review link? W.W.O.P.D.? (What would Optimus Prime do?) I'd bet he'd click it! So you should too! ;)