"Yo, it's Miko! Can't get to the phone right now, probably 'cause I'm doing something awesome. If you really gotta, leave a message at thebwaaaaannnngg!" The answering machine sounded Miko's pitiful imitation of an electric guitar, followed by the sound of the real deal. Raf had replaced the regular beep with a screeching guitar riff at the energetic girl's insistent request. The message was rarely heard by anyone other than her host parents since they were the only people she tended to ignore.
Jack didn't bother saying anything, only hanging up with a slow exhale. Raf had been watching Jack hopefully, but the expression on the teenager's face made his own expression fall. "Nothing?"
Jack shook his head. "Nothing."
Raf slumped against the couch with a furrowed brow before straightening his back and returning his attention to his laptop. Neither public forums nor security feeds were out of reach for him, and he was looking through them all. He wasn't having any luck on his end, either, but he wasn't giving up. The destruction Miko caused in her wake on a normal day had Raf certain that she would leave them some sort of clue, intentionally or not. If not her, then Optimus would.
Raf looked to the base's entrance. It had been a while since Bumblebee had left for the forest again to search for the two missing members of Team Prime. It was likely that he was spending extra time looking into every nook and cranny, every possible place there might have been a sign of them. He had yet to report back. That would have meant that there was nothing to be found. Regardless, Bumblebee was still searching, and Raf wouldn't give up, either.
Bulkhead had left, June and Fowler had left, Arcee had left, Bumblebee had left. Ratchet was still there. He worked away at his own station, computers endlessly searching for a signal.
Ratchet had been trying to track down Miko's phone since the moment the team had returned emptyhanded, but he couldn't detect the faintest trace. It was either left unused or broken, and both of those possibilities left them all with a feeling of dread. Ratchet paused movement for only a moment to let his optics scan the streams of data flooding the screens, from Earth signals to Cybertronian. He had gone so far as to cycle through hundreds of other frequency wavelengths in the slim chance that their leader had been damaged to a point where his signal was beginning to malfunction, but the time he had spent hoping for a positive spike in Optimus's vitals was wasted when he was unable to detect any sign of life.
It didn't make any sense. He didn't understand how Optimus could have blocked his signal from them uninhibited when the base's scanners had the ability to detect neutral distress signals, even Decepticon signals when they were left out in the open. The distress signals were usually Decepticon traps, granted, but the fact that they were able to detect them in the first place meant that there shouldn't have been a way for Optimus to hide when he had been right in front of them just an hour before.
Then, there was Miko.
Half of him was adamant that she was an obnoxious, troublemaking hooligan and it had been only a matter of time before she would have ended up in that situation anyway, but since her recklessness was so predictable his other half told him that he should have known. He should have kept a closer optic on the children, he should have kept better watch over the GroundBridge, he should have known that the past would repeat itself again and again with a girl who sought out dangerous situations as often as she took a breath.
And she was in danger now.
The remaining children were far better listeners. They couldn't leave the base, so they did what they could from within. Ratchet watched Jack make another attempt to call the missing phone, knowing the result from the teenager's expression. Rafael looked up at Jack. Jack shook his head. Raf looked away. Nothing.
Ratchet wanted so badly to go out and look for their leader, but he knew that his request would fall on deaf ears. He was needed in the base, in case they needed backup, in case they needed repairs.
In case he decided to search for Optimus by himself.
He wasn't foolish. He understood risks, but there were none, because Optimus would never do what the team was insisting he did. He had risked his life and the safety of his own team just to prevent human casualties in a war Earth never asked to be a part of. He wouldn't have sacrificed so much just to throw it all away. Optimus had defended them when he didn't even remember them. There had to have been another explanation. But, no matter how hard he tried to convince the team, he could see their belief falter, even if it was clear that they were desperately trying to hold on.
The panel on Ratchet's arm slid open and he looked over the vital signs of the team. Optimus' was still offline. Ratchet's arm returned to his side, and his optics returned their faded glow to their endless search. "Optimus, where are you?"
"What was that, Ratchet?" Jack asked.
"Nothing," Ratchet said, replying with the word he had already heard too many times that day.
Ratchet was just about to place his servos on the controls when squares of text written in Cybertronian popped up all over the screens, freezing whatever progress he had made, and Ratchet growled, clenching his hands shut against his sides in an attempt to keep himself from slamming his fists down on the console. "Of all times-"
"I've got it," Raf called, setting his other project aside and preparing to synchronize his connection to the base's computers.
"No," Ratchet snapped, and he spun around to face him almost angrily. Raf's eyes darted up to meet the medic's optics, startled and confused. At the child's gaze, Ratchet's expression slowly softened. He turned back to his work, voice low. "No. I have it under control."
Rafael didn't say anything in response, instead nodding in understanding even though he knew Ratchet wasn't looking at him anymore. It made sense why Ratchet was so possessive over his work. It was the only thing he had any control over by that point.
Rafael watched Ratchet work, looking over the strange Cybertronian signals that made basic sense to him. The errors attacking the base's computers always seemed to have a strange form, one quick to erase, but the source was never found. The other errors, few and far between, were just regular glitches within a barely compatible machine, two alien systems trying to merge with one another. Friction was inevitable.
The stressful environment was only feeding Raf's worry and uncertainty. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and he looked to Jack and Ratchet for some sort of reassurance. "Do you think they're okay?"
Ratchet scoffed in a humorless manner. "Until the rest of the team regains their senses, there is a slim chance we will find the two of them unscathed."
Rafael looked away.
Ratchet debated internally for a moment before he let out a resigned vent and he faced the two children fully. "Bumblebee has already informed you. Miko did not appear injured. Optimus was the only one who looked even remotely damaged."
Jack placed a hand on Raf's shoulder and forced a smile. "Optimus is the strongest 'Bot there is. They'll be fine."
Raf quirked an eyebrow, obviously detecting the uncertainty in Jack's voice, but he sent Jack a grateful smile back nonetheless. Jack gave Raf's shoulder on last pat before picking up his cellphone again, dialing, listening and hoping. Raf's eyes drifted across the room, over Jack's once against disappointed face to Ratchet's distressed posture as the medic finished removing whatever malfunction was preventing his work. Raf looked to the hallway. It had been a long time since anyone had entered or left.
Until someone found something, the only thing he could do was continue searching. Raf began looking into another security feed. He hoped that someone he was looking for would show up on the recordings soon.
Bulkhead halfheartedly threw his lobbing ball against the wall, creating a dull thud that echoed down the hall. He had been tossing it for so long that he had nearly formed a crater. It wasn't doing much to vent his frustrations, but it was a distraction, however temporary.
Miko was still missing. He had watched her get taken away. And he couldn't do anything.
Not only was Miko missing, but when he finally found her he wouldn't even be allowed to spend time with her. He had heard June's voice travelling through the empty halls, following after him as he moved deeper into the base. No matter how far he got from the main chamber, he could still hear the mother's words stirring through his processor. He drowned them out by tossing the ball until the banging brought him silence.
The only noise left was the echo, missing the laughter he should have found when he had first returned from that boring scouting mission.
June had made her claim once before, and she came back. She had experienced firsthand the danger that could occur without an Autobot guardian by her side, but the circumstances had changed since then. An Autobot had saved June's life. An Autobot was risking Miko's.
Bulkhead had tried to convince his human charge to go with June before, though he hadn't wanted to see her leave. When she had refused to listen to him, he was both relieved and scared. He was supposed to keep her safe, but it would have been at the expense of keeping her happy. Somehow, Miko was happy with him.
Bulkhead always thought he might have been too dangerous for her, but she proved him wrong over and over again. She was tough. June didn't know what she was talking about. Ratchet didn't know what he was talking about. Wreckers didn't call for back up, but Bulkhead needed someone to back him up.
He had tried to reach Wheeljack, something he knew Agent Fowler would have voiced strongly against if he were informed of that plan, but by that point Bulkhead really couldn't care less what humans thought about an unidentifiable ship flying low over a frosty forest. It wouldn't have mattered, anyway. Wheeljack didn't answer his calls. That wasn't unusual. He was probably busy dealing with 'Cons or exploring the planet they had no choice but to call a home. Bulkhead only wished that Wheeljack would explore the world a little closer to the base.
Bulkhead only started thinking of the base as a home when he first shared the space with Miko.
Bulkhead was pulled from his thoughts when he realized that the ball had never bounced back. It was lodged into the hole it had made, only a few steps away, but Bulkhead didn't feel like there was any point in retrieving it. He had waited for someone to contact him and tell him that they had found something, some sort of sign that Miko was all right, but he heard nothing. He didn't want to keep wasting the time he should have been spending doing something, but he also didn't want to turn around and have to face Arcee.
Arcee had joined him a short while before without speaking a word to announce her presence, but he had known she was there. If she was trying to be stealthy, he definitely wouldn't have noticed her arrival, but her lack of hiding meant that she wanted to be seen.
She didn't talk. Bulkhead didn't reply. They were in a standoff, both waiting for the other to make the first move.
Bulkhead didn't make a move to show he heard her. Bulkhead stood still, his vents audibly circulating and giving away that he had not calmed down. Arcee waited patiently, standing close to the wall, giving him his space. Her patience was rewarded a few moments later with a voice ground through clenched denta. "We're not doing enough."
"We're doing everything we can," Arcee tried to assure, but her response only seemed to frustrate him more. Bulkhead grumbled something that Arcee was glad the children weren't around to hear. Arcee gave an unimpressed hum, placing her hands on her sides. "Who am I kidding? There's a lot we haven't done. You haven't spoken in over an hour, Bumblebee hasn't returned from scouting the forest for a third time, Ratchet-"
"Can't seem to get it through his thick helm that Miko is in danger," Bulkhead finished, finally moving to face the two-wheeler. Miko was in trouble, and though that was nothing new, before he had always been there to get her out of it. He was no longer with her. She was gone and he was frustrated at his inability to help her. He needed to direct his anger towards something, and Ratchet's constant rebuttal of every word that came out of his mouth made him the perfect target.
Arcee narrowed her optics at his response, but her tone remained steady. "We've already covered the area we've been permitted to scout. Bumblebee's practically been doing laps around the perimeter just in case there was something we missed. Optimus's tire tracks led to an empty warehouse. Wherever they went, they didn't leave a clue for us to follow."
"And none of you find that at all suspicious," Bulkhead said sarcastically. Arcee had verbally disagreed with Ratchet, but she never outright dismissed his argument that Optimus might not have been in the wrong. The conversation had gone the same way with Bumblebee, and it made Bulkhead furious. "If Optimus isn't working against us, then why hasn't he tried contacting the base?"
"I don't know, but this is Optimus we're talking about. He's hidden his plans from us before," Arcee said, and her mind flashed back to Vector Sigma before she shook that thought from her head.
"Sorry for stating the obvious, but you don't know why Optimus took off, and you can't ask him because he's not here," Bulkhead grabbed the lobbing ball and yanked it out of the crevice with more force than necessary, preparing to try to ignore Arcee with his previous distraction. "The last time he left, he switched sides."
"He had forgotten who he was," Arcee corrected forcibly, her frown deepening. Arcee knew the impact Optimus' absence was having on everyone, and she was trying to be some sort of solid ground, but she was losing her footing. She had wanted to be civil, but Bulkhead's stubbornness quickly ate away at whatever formality she had prepared. She crossed her arms, sending Bulkhead a pointed look. "We're all worried, Bulkhead. Don't act like you're the only one who cares about what happens to Miko."
Bulkhead sneered and threw the ball to the floor, leaving a large crack that drew itself sporadically in different directions. Bulkhead spun around and stepped forward to loom over the smaller femme. "Ratchet obviously doesn't. He keeps trying to make up reasons for Optimus kidnapping her!"
"He's defending Optimus because you're accusing him of being a Decepticon," Arcee pressed on, her own frustration showing through. Her expression darkened. "The kind of mech that killed Cliffjumper. The kind of monster that tried to kill Jack."
"What if Optimus had taken Jack instead?" Bulkhead asked, almost demanded.
Arcee faltered at that, but returned as stern as ever. She refused to back down, even as Bulkhead stood nearly over top of her. She jabbed a finger towards the former Wrecker accusingly. "You're acting like you actually think Optimus is playing both sides."
"Maybe he is," Bulkhead spat, but even he knew his words were empty.
Arcee heard the lack of confidence in his voice, but still she tensed, arms falling to her sides. She eyed Bulkhead with a shocked expression which soon turned almost sad, looking genuinely offended on the missing leader's behalf. She already knew the answer to the question she was about to ask, but she knew that she needed to ask it anyway. "You don't really believe that, do you?"
"Yes," Bulkhead said firmly. The last moment he saw Miko replayed in his mind, from her joy to her fear. He didn't believe his duty to protect human life. It was his duty to protect her.
And she was gone. He had watched Optimus take her away.
It wasn't as if he wanted to believe it. Bulkhead knew that he wasn't the most intelligent mech, he was made to build and break, but he was not stupid.He had tried to think of legitimate reasons for his leader to even remotely harm Miko only to chuckle darkly at the sheer ridiculousness of the thought. There was no reason. The only conclusion was deception.
Deception from the mech Bulkhead had left the Wreckers for because he believed that the Prime was the real deal. Deception from the mech who had risked his own life just to save Bulkhead's from a bomb. Deception from the mech who placed Miko in Bulkhead's protection in the first place.
"That's not- I don't-" Bulkhead let out a defeated sigh, shoulders slumped and optics cast downward. He brought his hand to his head. "This is so messed up."
That response seemed to satisfy Arcee well enough. She closed her optics and took a moment to collect herself.
"You're right," She finally said.
Bulkhead's attention snapped back to her and anger immediately shifted to surprise. "I'm what?"
"If it was Jack, then I would be doing exactly what you're doing. Lashing out. Pushing others away. Probably more recklessly," Arcee admitted, gesturing to Bulkhead himself. Her stance relaxed slightly, and she slowly stepped closer to Bulkhead, placing a hand on his arm. She looked him in the optics, hers glowing strong as if trying to light his own with its fire. "Whether we agree with each other or not, if we're going to find them, we need to work together. We found Optimus last time by working as a team."
Bulkhead didn't reply right away, spending a long moment processing what she said. It was another moment before he let out a short, somewhat forced laugh. "Is this why you've been having a staring contest with my back tires for over an hour? To show off your best Optimus impression? Miko does it way better."
"No," Arcee replied with a smirk, and she sidestepped to reveal two full cubes of Energon set on the floor behind her. Bulkhead blinked. He hadn't even noticed that she'd brought them with her. When Bulkhead continued watching her without making a move, Arcee had to resist rolling her optics as she picked up both cubes and held one out to him. "You never had the chance to refuel before. No better time than the present."
Bulkhead realized she was right, and that realization caused his tanks to suddenly feel dangerously empty. He took the cube from the offering servo with a quick thanks and began to drink it down. Arcee watched with amusement as Bulkhead practically inhaled the Energon, emptying the cube with only a few gulps. She gently swirled her own and took a small sip at the same time Bulkhead set his down. The silence from before returned, though without being spaced between the repetitive sound of a large metal ball attacking the building.
It took a few seconds for Bulkhead to become visibly more energized, power coursing through his frame. Though, he was admittedly not at his peak. He wasn't at full strength, but that one cube was the perfect pick up. Even his jumbled thoughts became clearer, and he found himself regretting almost half of the things he had been saying and thinking about mere minutes before. His sights returned to the damage he caused and he winced. He knew that somehow Ratchet was going to insist he needed that wall.
Bulkhead's spark sank when he ran his argument through his head. Optimus would never willing join their enemy. It was either a trick, a trap, or the result of a missing memory. Anger had clouded Bulkhead's mind, as if he was the one who had forgotten everything. As if he was the one who had forgotten who Optimus was. Bulkhead had left the Wreckers, knowing what Wheeljack would think of him if he did, all because he knew that Optimus could finish the fight. Optimus had risked his life for the team more times than he could count, long before Earth had even formed itself around Unicron's sleeping husk.
Optimus would never hurt Miko. Not intentionally. Optimus himself had given the order that humanity's safety was the priority. He had refused the assistance of human military intervention even when it would have certainly helped them gain the upper hand, just to avoid casualties of a race that never asked to be at the center of another world's war. Even if their leader was gone, even if he didn't remember the order he gave, they would continue their mission. It was what he would have wanted, at least at one time.
Whether or not the times had changed, if Optimus did attack them, then they would have to defend themselves. If Optimus tried to hurt Miko, if they couldn't find any other way to stop him, Bulkhead would be filled with remorse, but he wouldn't hesitate to send the final blow.
As if sensing Bulkhead's thoughts had returned to a dark place, Arcee brought a hand to the side of her helm, activating her comm line.
"Bumblebee, you can return to base," Arcee said, giving the impression of an order with the option for refusal left in the open. She wasn't their leader, after all. "We need to determine our next course of action."
Bumblebee replied with a low and tired buzz, a sound of resigned acceptance, before the line was dropped. Arcee let her servo drop back down. She picked up both of the cubes she had brought, stacking them on one hand to keep her other free to regain Bulkhead's attention as she again placed it atop his.
"We will find them," Arcee said once again, and Bulkhead was beginning to believe her.
They began walking down the empty hall to plan their next move, though Bulkhead couldn't help but take one last longing glance back through the corridors where Miko should have been waiting for him.