A Matter of Values
They'd used satellite images to scout the place for privacy, and only once the beach was deemed secluded enough had Optimus allowed himself a GroundBridge. Rolling out in full truck mode onto a mix of sand, salt, and gravel, he prepared to wait. He was early, but that gave him time to simply park and enjoy the scenery.
He'd chosen a spot by the ocean and the quiet sound of the waves was something both novel and calming. Nevada was a landlocked state and Cybertron hadn't had oceans either; or at least not ones that weren't immediately corrosive on contact. There were also few reasons for the Autobots to ever venture out to any coasts, so this particular geography wasn't something Optimus often had a chance to appreciate. Not the way he would have liked, at any rate. Letting himself settle but keeping all scanners at their highest setting, he turned off his headlights and simply watched the stars and their weaker reflections on the water. It was easier to see them out here away from the light pollution of any major human developments, and there was something humbling about seeing the sky this way, wide open and uninterrupted by mountains or buildings. This was as close to their old home as he could get these days, and most nights the sky was locked away by the Jasper missile silo ceiling. Somewhere, light years away, lay Cybertron, waiting for them – as much a birthplace as it was perhaps to be a grave for them all.
Out of nowhere a memory was triggered, unexpected and belonging to someone else. As Orion Pax he'd always meant to catalogue the constellations he might've been able to see from the roof of his small apartment. If possible, he'd even have liked to have eventually expanded that list to encompass a larger swath of sky – maybe even all of Iacon, if he could have. It was a simple pet project he'd wanted to work on during his off-shifts, but Orion had never gotten around to it, nor had he ever managed to actually make it up to his apartment roof. The archivist had just been too busy to track down and fill out the required permits for a recreational trip skyward. Besides, soon after that he'd met Megatron; and trying to stargaze had seemed like such a trivial thing in the face of the larger injustices he'd become aware of.
With a pang, Optimus realised he couldn't even remember if he'd truly ever been able to see the stars from his home. After all, the cities of Cybertron had produced much more light than even those of the most populated ones on earth, but surely Orion hadn't gone his entire short life without properly witnessing them?
The matrix pulsed around his spark and then both the memory and question receded. Neither had much bearing on the present, and the hobby – failed before it had even begun – belonged to a young archivist, not a Prime. Optimus mentally shook himself and turned his attention back to the sky, wondering in which direction Cybertron hid.
Eventually a proximity sensor pinged him with the approach of another Cybertronian. The signature was Autobot; Wheeljack. Optimus blinked his headlights once, and then returned them to dark. It wasn't a full minute later that Wheeljack appeared, coming from over an off-road ridge. The angles of the vehicle mode he'd chosen were attractive and aerodynamic, its shape just a little foreign and not altogether of human origin. He and Bulkhead had taken their time deciding on a vehicle, and now Optimus saw that the Wrecker hadn't chosen a single model but many, incorporating the designs of various into this final choice. The moon glinted off a shape built for speed, and distantly Optimus was glad that at least Wheeljack's paint job wasn't as flashy as their newest recruit. It was a mark in his favour, a much needed step towards discretion, albeit a tiny one given Wheeljack's propensity toward ... explosive statements.
The Jackhammer didn't help with their efforts to remain disguised within human society either, but as of yet it still proved more an asset than a liability. That could very well change though, and Wheeljack's latest revenge-fuelled mission indicated a dangerous disregard for both his own safety, and the safety of a team he clearly was not comfortable being a part of. But so long as the fiasco did not happen again, and so long as the humans neither got wind of, nor complained, Optimus was willing to focus on more pressing matters.
Wheeljack was still speeding forward, very much on a collision course, but Optimus felt he knew enough about Wrecker entrances to calmly stand his ground. At the last minute, sand spraying from under warm tires, brakes slammed, and Wheeljack slid to a stop beside him, not even a metre away.
Wheeljack spoke first, even before he'd fully parked. "I see you didn't bring the big guy. So what is this? A personal call?"
"Wheeljack," Optimus greeted, no intention to start off on the wrong foot and kindle more animosity then necessary. "How are you? It has been some time since your last status update."
"If it's all the same to you, Prime, I'd like to cut to the chase. This is about business, I get that. What d'you need?"
"I appreciate your directness," Optimus said honestly, "I'm here to speak with you about the time you and Miko spent together."
"That human girl? What about it? I figure she told you what happened."
"She did, yes."
"So what's the problem?" Wheeljack asked, somewhat indulgently.
Optimus could tell this wasn't going to be an easy conversation, but he'd already known that before he'd left. "You let a young girl participate in your quest for revenge–" he started patiently.
Wheeljack interrupted with a rumble of his engine. "Hey, don't give me that. She wanted it just as bad as I did. Hell, Prime, it was her idea."
"That does not change that you acted with very little concern for our human companions. You should have known better; we cannot risk ourselves for things as small as revenge." The heart of these words were old and Optimus was more than tired of having to repeat himself to new faces.
"That wasn't a 'small thing' Hardshell did to Bulk and you know it." Wheeljack's countered accusingly. "Doesn't matter now though, does it? I put it right." His tires rotated in place. "I even let the kid help out. Good PR and all that."
Optimus sighed, frustrated with this talk that was going nowhere. "You willingly endangered Miko."
Wheeljack scoffed. "She was fine. Did you see her? Not a scratch on the kid, and she handled that bug like a pro!"
Optimus said nothing. He would not repeat himself.
Eventually, with no trace of shame, remorse, or apology in his voice, Wheeljack asked, "How is the kid anyway? You ever get around to telling Bulk she took care of the guy that got the drop on him?"
"We haven't seen Miko since Bulkhead's admonishment on her behaviour..." here Optimus paused, but deciding on frank honesty, continued with, "and for her accompanying you."
Wheeljack seemed to shiver in his vehicle mode, the individual panels of different components resettling. "That would be Bulk's problem then," he said, "and it sounds to me like it's a personal one."
"This extends beyond just one individual, Wheeljack," Optimus growled softly. "You allowed a child to take the life of another sentient being. The fact of the matter remains, but I cannot allow you to be a part of this team if your actions will continue to endanger our youngest and most vulnerable members."
"Yeah?" Wheeljack challenged, "I thought this was your darkest hour or whatever. Thought you'd need every 'bot with a targeting system and a functional pair of arms."
It was a point, yes, and one that was more than valid but, "Not at the risk of the children," Optimus said. On this he would stand firm.
"That–" Wheeljack started, voice snapping, but whatever he'd been about to say collapsed before it was vocalised, and instead, tone heavy with some darker thread of past history, muttered, "We all gotta grow up someday. Sometimes wreckin' someone's the shortest path there."
Optimus allowed a taste bitterness for just a moment before forcing himself to address the real issue at hand. He wasn't here solely to reprimand the Wrecker; he was here to assure the safety of his team, and the integrity of the Autobot cause. If the situation had been different, or if this had been a different 'bot, perhaps one day they would have been able to share with one another, possibly discuss what it was that drove Wheeljack to join the Autobot's most dangerous wing of battle. But Wheeljack was a Wrecker, and among other things, Optimus knew the other did not feel as if he'd earned his respect yet. Personal questions or compassionate concern would have been inappropriate. Any further rebuke was interrupted as Wheeljack recovered from whatever memory he'd touched upon.
"So, Miko's gone?" Back was the Wrecker's casual disdain. "Sounds like I did you guys a favour then, if you're so worried about endangering the kids by having 'em hang around."
"That was neither your intention, nor your call to make. We guard the children because it is safer than the alternative, and the best current solution. We cannot ensure their safety if we do not know their location or status." It was true; Miko's sudden disappearance was both uncharacteristic and unsettling.
"Give it a rest, Prime," Wheeljack huffed. "You're angry I let her tag along; so what? Big deal. We got the job done and no one's hurt in any way that a little time won't heal. And yeah, I involved her, but she's small, the 'Cons wouldn't – and didn't – see her coming. She was an asset. A Wrecker's gotta know how to use whatever he's got on hand. Ask Bulk, he'll tell you the same."
"This is not about being a Wrecker, Wheeljack, this is about–"
Wheeljack cut him off. "See, that's the problem with you leader-types. You think you can keep everything in your neat little boxes, all within your tidy little rules of conduct. Well I've got news for you; war doesn't play by any set of rules!" Wheeljack sounded furious. "And neither. Do. The. Wreckers." Each angry word was punctuated by an emphatic rev of his engine. "That's why while you're all holed up under your mountain, playing nice with the humans, I'm out getting things done."
Optimus's patience began fracturing faster. "We offered you a place among us," he pointed out, voice sharper than he had anticipated.
"Yeah, sure you did," Wheeljack scoffed, "A place to park, rations worse than standard grunt fare, and enough rules to gag ol' Starscream himself."
Optimus felt his temper flare in the face of this Autobot who complained about their lack of supplies yet could so casually destroyed a fully stocked energon mine. Still, he fought to keep his voice under control. "I did not come here to discuss the state of our resources."
"I know. You want me to cuddle up with the humans, and you want me to say I'm sorry for letting some squishy little organic press a button. And for the record, I didn't even ask her to. In fact, I specifically told her to get out of there."
"You still allowed her to be put in a situation where she had to make the choice to take a life in order to save yours."
"You sayin' she made the wrong choice?" Wheeljack demanded, snarling.
"No," Optimus replied firmly, "We – all of us – are more than glad you still remain online. Nevertheless, the cost of that was high. Miko is still just a child and I had hoped to spare the children this reality of our war."
Calmer now, Wheeljack said, "You can't keep the humans out, Prime. You saw what those – what were they called again? That team... right, M.E.C.H – you saw what they did when they got their greedy little paws on Breakdown. And I knew the guy – a real piece of work – but if the humans can bring him down, you think the ball stops there? You think more won't come a knockin', tryin'a get their own portion of... whatever it is they wanted with the big blue lug? You're getting too cozy with the natives. All of you are. I think it's time to remember who you're really fighting for."
Optimus's voice was sombre, "We've already lost our home. I will not condone we actively let the same fate fall upon another planet."
"Now you listen to me, Prime." Wheeljack barked, anger still close to the surface. "This is about war. I dunno what you're dressing this up as, but that doesn't change what this is. When you finally get that, you give me a call, but until then I'm not going to play nice just because you're caught up in all your delicate Primely sensibilities. Let me know when you're ready to get serious and make the real decisions. 'Til then, don't call me. I'll call you."
With that Wheeljack tore off, engine igniting in one powerful motion, and then he was just a pair of resentful red taillights disappearing over a sandy ridge.
Optimus neither went, nor called after him; the Wrecker had made his intentions more than clear. Suddenly his vision bisected, an encrypted message popping up in his HUD, sent via personal Autobot channels. It was Wheeljack again, but this time a text only note accompanying a set of coordinates.
Location's to a liberated energon store. Consider it a gift for your cozy little family.
That was all there was to the message and an inquiring ping returned a dead signal. Sighing again, Optimus nevertheless transmitted the coordinates to Ratchet.
Alone once more in the dark, he turned his attention back to the ocean. With only the distant starlight the water was an oily black. Rotating his mirrors back as far as they would go, Optimus allowed himself one more moment to watch the stars behind him, and then focusing on the glow of a far off beach-town, watched that small knot of humans existing within their little bubble of light. None of them knew him and he did not know them in return, but as Optimus watched the steady brilliance produced by that small town, brighter and so much closer than any distant planet, he knew he would protect the species, and protect their home.
He was a Prime, and though he might not be their Prime, he would not allow undue harm to come to any that did not deserve to be caught up in this war.
I'm posting this before "Regeneration" episode 51 of TFP airs. Now personally, I trust the TFP writers MUCH farther than I can throw them, and I'm sure they'll explain where Wheeljack and the kids have been lately. That said, this short fic is dedicated to all the people that felt like this strange lack of Wreckers and humans was a problem.
Anyway, this is my first time writing both Wheeljack and Optimus, so if you've got a crit or a comment I'd love to hear it!
** And to the Anon that reviewed, asking if I was disappointed by the Regeneration episode: I'm not at all! It was a fun episode, the kids are back (like I knew they would be!) and I still trust the writers. If Wheeljack doesn't show up at the end of season two, I'm sure he'll be around right near the beginning of season three. I ain't disappointed, and I ain't worried one bit. :)