Cybertron was full of ghosts.
It always had been, in a way. Millenia of war had left its mark, and he had long since grown used to the flashes out of the corner of his optics; Remembered images drawn up by landmarks still standing amidst the ruin, or words that were an echo of the past, leaving his processor to paint the likeness of the faces that should have accompanied them.
Experience had taught him those painful memories bled away into fond recollections with the passage of time, tinged by grief, yet no longer drowning in it. But there was no time to dull the edge of this tragedy, Megatron had seen to that. In one fell swoop he had nearly destroyed everything the Autobots had spent eons trying to protect, and what he had left standing in his wake Unicron had trampled over roughshod, creating a waking nightmare for those fortunate enough to see the cumulative aftermath.
'I'm pretty sure that terminal never did anything to you.'
'It is an inanimate object. It is incapable of doing anything.'
"Well, then, what gives?"
'Something... is wrong.'
'Something? That's a bit vague for you, ain't it?'
A soft glare, more frustration than irritation. The other officer hated it when the numbers were solid but honed instinct said otherwise.
He hadn't set foot in Iacon for what seemed like a lifetime. The Autobots may have returned to Cybertron some time ago, but Megatron had hardly invited them back through the front door of their old stronghold. His memories of what it had been then were as much a lie in the present as the mechs he imagined brushing shoulders with as he paced deserted corridors, passing doors that would never open to the same faces again. Some of those faces had been lost before the Ark fled Cybertron, others whilst their fellows slept for far too long on a foreign world, and far too many in the short span of time between a seemingly innocent shuttle run and the near annihilation of their home world.
It had been a long, long time since the Autobots had suffered losses like this. He had almost forgotten what it felt like. The suddenly empty spaces. Suddenly missing friends. Sparks snuffed out like so many candles and nothing to do but rage against the cruelty of fate. It pulled him back to the beginning of the war, when Optimus had still been more Orion than Prime, when the Decepticons had won every battle, and entire cities had fallen as the Autobots scrambled to protect too many with too few.
There hadn't been this much senseless destruction on Cybertron since Praxus crashed and burned.
'You've run the calculations, haven't you? It's probably just O.P. assigning so many senior officers to a single mission that's got you twitching.'
'Perhaps... It is an incredible mismanagement of resources.'
The fires of that tragedy had been what forged them, in the end. Optimus' command crew. His elite. His friends. They'd come away from Praxus with more anger than grief, and if Megatron had meant to break them he had not succeeded. Praxus had given them purpose, unity, and the sort of singleminded determination that came with knowing you could not afford to lose. If any one of them had doubted the cause was worth the price they were being forced to pay they doubted no longer, and their shared desire to never see such a thing happen again turned them into the driving force of the Autobot's war effort.
They were Prime's vanguard, and they made sure the Decepticons knew it.
Sheer determination could only carry them so far, of course. There had been other losses. Other battles where the inanimate frames dragged from the field had outnumbered the living. The bad days. They'd all coped in their own ways: Ironhide would disappear into the shooting range for longer than any mech should. Ratchet would work himself into near stasis, refusing to recharge until every last mech in his repair bay was stable or dead. Red Alert would shut himself in his security centre, trolling through every camera feed he had to try and find the spy he believed had betrayed them. Prowl would run analysis after analysis, mentally flaying himself for whatever he thought he'd missed, whether or not it was something he was aware of when the strategy of the day was first conceived. Ultra Magnus retreated into the comforting distance of battlefield reports and administrative duties, pushing the losses away through a mire of official words. Optimus recoiled, ever doubtful in those early days, second guessing himself, the High Council, and the Matrix for the choice it had made.
And Jazz? Jazz wandered. From one end of Iacon to the other, past every mech still living and amongst those who were not. He found time for all of them, reminding himself that this was why he fought, why he let himself cross lines that veered beyond grey into black, because better a taint on his own spark than so many others extinguished altogether. If he'd only been willing to go a little further, push his own morals aside a little more, then maybe...
'For all that he's a commander of armies, he still relies on the same old friends when it comes down to it.'
'All the more reason to avoid shoving them all on the same shuttle.'
'Hey, it worked with the Ark, didn't it?'
'If by 'worked' you mean we all nearly died together, then certainly.'
Mirth he tried to cover, without success. 'Well, so long as you refrain from crashing into any mountainsides, you can't do any worse this time around.'
That had been the early days, though. When unity of purpose had not yet become the unbreakable bond of brothers-in-arms. He could not have said when that change occurred. When they stopped chasing their demons around their own heads and began pulling together instead. It had been eons ago, long enough that he had forgotten what it was like to be alone with his own black thoughts. Long enough that habit had drawn him to where he would once have stood, even if that right was no longer his.
The medbay was quiet now, the number of survivors pouring in having slowed to a trickle as the lost buried beneath the rubble began to outnumber the living. First Aid was still online regardless, possessed of the same stubborn streak as had driven his mentor, even if Ratchet would have noticed him lurking in the doorway long before his protégé did.
"Hey, Aid." He let a brief smile break through his melancholy as the young medic wove his way through the many occupied berths to join him just inside the door, then lapsed into uncertain silence. The medbay wasn't typically an area that required his attention. Prowl and Prime had always handled Ratchet when the need arose, but they were both... And Ratchet too... "How're you holding up?"
It sounded weak, even to him, but he could hardly take the words back now. First Aid watched him quietly for a moment, expression hidden behind his visor and mask, and Jazz had the distinct impression he was being evaluated.
His answer, when it came, was delicately worded. "We're... managing."
Jazz let his gaze sweep the crowded bay, taking in the extra berths and the numerous, recharging mechs in residence. There were less than he would have thought, but then, with as many injuries as there had been, anyone who wasn't in immediate danger of dying had probably been slapped with a patch and told to come back later.
Then another thought occurred to him, and he frowned. "We?"
"Rodimus and Springer have been lending a hand." That perplexed him for a moment, but then he remembered that both of the bots in question had been part of a unit that had no full time medic before they arrived on Earth. No doubt they knew enough between them to act as at least semi-competent assistants. "And the Junkions have been an invaluable help."
Which probably meant they'd been reconstructing frames and reattaching limbs whilst First Aid took care of the truly critical damage. No small feat, considering even Ratchet had always had Wheeljack or Hoist to help him out before First Aid entered the picture and was promptly kidnapped by the Autobot CMO. Though, perhaps it had more to do with necessity than anything else in this case. Hoist was still on Earth, and Ratchet and Wheeljack...
"Still..." Stopping that train of thought before it could go any further, he fixed a searching glance on the young medic. "If you need anything, Aid..."
It was an open offer, not that he was quite certain what he was offering. He couldn't conjure up fresh medics out of thin air, nor replace the mentor First Aid had lost. Right now the subdued Protectobot was all they had, and he knew it just as well as Jazz, if the fact he was still here whilst all his 'assistants' had been banished to their berths was any indication.
"I'll let you know." Soft gratitude infused the young medic's voice. "I will need a security team down here at some point, but I've already sent a request to Kup for that."
"A security team?" He... couldn't quite wrap his head around that one. Unless some of the injured were combative? They all seemed to be resting easily enough now.
"Yes." First Aid stiffened slightly, suddenly wary. "I've been treating all the injured the rescue teams find."
Suspicion growing, he swept the rows of berths again, more thoroughly this time, turning back to the medic in something close to outrage. "You're treating Decepticons?"
"I'm treating the wounded." Setting his chin, First Aid called upon that streak of adamance Ratchet had so carefully cultivated. "Unicron attacked Cybertron. Do you have any idea how many were caught in the crossfire?"
"How many Decepticons, you mean. Last I checked, they were the main fighting force on Cybertron "
"A force that has been left all but decimated by Unicron's assault."
"So? They decimated us when they attacked Autobot City. I didn't exactly see them offering a helping hand in the aftermath."
"That was different."
"That was... We were at war, and-"
"We are stillat war, First Aid. You think they're going to thank you for saving them? You think anyone is going to thank you? Do you have any idea how many Autobots they have killed?"
"And letting them die won't bring any of those Autobots back!" First Aid snapped at last, voice rising from his usual, soft tenor, though it never quite made it to a shout. "So many have already died, on both sides... I'm a medic, Jazz, an Autobot, I'm not going to let a single mech die who doesn't need to. Not if I can help it."
Jazz's voice dropped low. "Not even if they deserve it?"
"That is not for me to decide," First Aid answered, quiet again. "My job is to save lives, and I won't apologise for doing just that."
"No." He hesitated, gathering himself. "No, I suppose you won't. Doesn't mean I'm happy about it... or happy about you being alone in here with a bunch of 'Cons."
"I'm in no danger," First Aid asserted softly. "Only the seriously wounded were brought here. Anyone who was still functional is being seen to by the Junkions down in the detainment centre. Rodimus' orders."
A deliberate inclusion, which meant First Aid wanted him to know their new Prime was involved. More than involved, perhaps... "He approved this?"
"Yes." First Aid set his chin again, somehow managing to convey defensive stubbornness quite eloquently despite his face remaining hidden. "He did."
Right. Apparently he had a naive, idealistic, sparklingof a Prime to talk to. And the sooner the better, if for no other reason than to get away from the temptation that was a half a dozen Decepticons in stasis within his reach.
"I guess I'll take it up with him, then." He turned to leave, then belatedly remembered he had not just had a fight with the Autobot CMO known for driving the belligerent from his domain with a flurry of blunt instruments. "And Aid?" First Aid froze mid motion, warily shifting his attention back to Jazz in silent question. "You done good, kid. Ratchet would be proud."
Without waiting for a response, Jazz ducked out of the room, wishing he could not so easily imagine Ratchet standing before him, face twisted into that particular scowl that denoted reluctant approval. He didn't have time for ghosts right now. He didn't want to have time. Better to focus on the next impending crisis than to remember...
'Still got the heebie-jeebies?'
The shuttle ramp was not the best place to have a conversation, particularly not when his choice of words earned him a full halt and a look of complete and utter bafflement.
'I beg your pardon?'
'Yknow.' He waved a hand idly, sidestepping a scowling Ironhide, complete with crate. 'Your bad feeling?'
'It is irrelevant. There is no data to support-'
'Forget the data. I trust your instincts more than any stack of numbers , and so do you.'
The pause was weighted, heavy, and the words that followed it carried a palpable dread. 'Something is wrong.'
He wasn't entirely sure how he came to be standing in front of Optimus' old office in the Iacon command centre. Lost in memories, this was simply where instinct had led him. Where he had learned to come when the bad days took their toll, and the revered Autobot elite drew together to try and figure out how they were going to inspire courage with the losses they had suffered. The door wasn't locked, it never was, and he had palmed it open before he even had time to think the action through.
For a horrifying moment, past and present merged before his optics and he saw Optimus sitting before him, head tilted in casual enquiry at the unheralded invasion of his privacy. Then reality reasserted itself, the old Prime gave way to the new, and the sense of loss that had been dogging his every footstep crashed over him anew.
"Rodimus." The words cracked on the way out, grief and anger fighting for dominance. "I didn't think anyone would..."
He'd thought the room would be empty. Like all the others in Iacon. Except they probably weren't, were they? New faces had likely already begun to replace the old, filling in the empty spaces, erasing what had come before. First Aid in the medbay, Rodimus here... Jazz just hadn't noticed. Had chosen not to.
The new Prime grimaced, as if sensing some part of his inner turmoil, then he spoke. "Ultra Magnus said there were protocols in place for this sort of... " He trailed off, reading something in Jazz' expression, then shrugged helplessly. "It just seemed easier than trying to change old habits in the midst of a crisis."
Belatedly, Jazz took note of the stacks of data pads strewn haphazardly across the desk. Of course it would all be sent here. To the Prime. Half the Autobots on Cybertron probably didn't even know Optimus was dead yet, never mind those on Earth who had not been part of the battle for Autobot City.
"Well, I didn't mean to interrupt." He had meant to, but that wasn't important . Now that he was here, face to face with a mech who had just been another young warrior under Prime's command only a few days before, he found himself at a loss as to how to proceed. "Where is Magnus?"
"Coordinating the recovery effort on the ground with Kup. They both have more experience at it than I do."
"Arcee? And Springer?"
"Recharging, I assume. They were on the first shift pulling survivors out of the rubble."
So were you, Prime.He could practically hear the bite in Prowl's words. See Optimus' wary acknowledgement. But that was then. This was now.
"And the rest of the officers?"
"I believe Perceptor was down helping to get the security grid back online, and Grimlock took the Dinobots along as 'protection'. I'm not sure about the Cybertronian contingent. We're still getting conflicting reports on who is and isn't alive."
"So you just decided to tackle this mess yourself?" He waved a hand broadly at the desk's contents.
Rodimus winced. "Someone has to."
He wasn't wrong. But Jazz had seen one Prime, new to the role and green as could be, fumble his way through this in the most painful way. He wasn't about to let another stumble blindly in his footsteps. Even an idiot sparkling who thought saving Decepticons was a good idea.
He wasn't aware he'd been standing in silent judgement for a moment too long until Rodimus spoke again.
"Look, Jazz," he started, clearly uncomfortable. "I know you don't think I should be here. Believe me, we agree on that much, but Optimus... Optimus isn't here, and everything is a mess, and someone needs to take charge. To at least try to get us back on our feet. I'm far from the best person to do that, I know, but so long as the Matrix insists on me as its bearer I have to try, even if... why are you smiling?"
"You just remind me of someone." Jazz shrugged slightly, gliding back across the room to pull up a seat and flop down on it. "And you're wrong, Roddi. I got no opinion either way as to your being here, behind that desk. I've fought in this war too long to think anyone is irreplaceable."
Rodimus stiffened, voice rising in alarm. "I'm not trying to replace him!"
"Good. Because that's a homemade recipe for disaster right there. If you're gonna do this it's gotta be as you, not as Optimus."
"Why are you... I just... I don't understand. Why aren't you angry about this?"
He was. He was angrier than he had been in a long, long time. He wasn't quite sure what to do about it, though. He could chew Rodimus a new one, sure, but would that really help? Either of them?
"What's the point?" he said at last, bluntly. "What's happened has happened. Can't do anything about it now."
The young Prime looked taken aback by that, and Jazz used the silence to address the matter that had brought him here in the first place.
"I talked to Aid on the way here."
"Oh?" Rodimus was wary now. Apparently someone else had raised this matter already.
"Yeah. You wanna tell me what's going on there?"
"With First Aid?"
Huh. Nice try. But Optimus was better. "With the Decepticons."
Jazz considered that a moment, repeating it with all the dry sarcasm he could muster, "Negotiations?"
"You wanna elaborate?"
"Cybertron is a mess. So is Autobot City. So are we. So are the the Decepticons." All solid facts, Jazz admitted, but not really an explanation. Not yet. "We're on equal footing right now, or as equal as we are going to get. Shockwave is missing, Galvatron too, so for the moment they're leaderless. It's the best chance we are going to get."
Jazz frowned. "To do what, exactly?"
That stopped him dead in his tracks, disbelief momentarily robbing him of the ability to respond. Make peace. Just like that. As if it were so easy. As if Optimus hadn't spent millenia trying to do just that. As if suddenly having a new Prime changed everything. It was arrogance at best, idiocy at worst, and he was more than ready to say as much.
"Are you out of your fragging mind?"
Rodimus cringed, but he didn't waver. "No, I'm not. And this probably won't work. I know that, Jazz, I'm not blind. But Unicron changed everything, for everyone. If there's even one good thing we can pull out of this mess, we have to try."
"And you think a peace treaty with the Decepticons is that one thing?"
"What else is there?" Gone was the calm facade, such as it had been. He was looking at the youth now. The bright eyed youngling Optimus had singled out for reasons he had never fully explained to anyone. Reasons that seemed painfully obvious now. "We've lost most of our command structure! You and Ultra Magnus are all that's left of Optimus' vanguard. Autobot City is in ruins, Cybertron is little better, and nobody can tell me what I should be doing about any of it! We don't have the strength or the resources to take the upper hand in a fight right now, and that's assuming the Decepticons are as bad off as we are. We may not have lost the battle for Autobot City, or for Cybertron, but we've lost everythingelse."
And that, right there, was every truth Jazz had diligently been avoiding. Tossed back in his face like one of Prowl's acid pellets to fester and burn until it had melted through his pitiful defences. He had lost friends before, but never like this. Never so many...
'We can call it off. Let me send in an agent or two. See what ol' Megs is up to.'
A negative shake of his helm. 'We're on the brink of ending this war. I can't ask the Prime to put it all on hold for a hunch.'
'Sure you can. He trusts you.'
'And I trust you to deal with whatever Megatron is brewing behind closed doors. I have every confidence you can hold the fort until we return, no matter what any 'hunches' may say to the contrary.'
'Course I can. I may even throw in a Prime with all limbs still attached just for kicks.'
'That would be preferable, Jazz.'
'Safe journey.' A grin as he clapped the other mech on the shoulder. 'Don't be late getting back. Wouldn't want you to miss the victory parade.'
There wasn't going to be a parade. Not for this victory. Not for Jazz. There was nothing to celebrate. Not when that shuttle had been the end of his dearest and closest friends. He hadn't even been able to protect his Prime in the end, left behind to manage their defences on the moonbase, as if any of that mattered when Optimus was gone.
And now Rodimus wanted to make peace with the very beings that had extinguished the only family he had left. Maybe, in the wake of all the death and destruction that had already been rendered upon both sides, it was the right thing to do. Maybe it was even the logical thing to do, something Prowl would have approved of, no doubt. Jazz just didn't care anymore. The Decepticons had stolen what mattered most long before Unicron had waltzed into the picture, and he wanted them to pay.
"Please, Jazz," Rodimus was pleading now, oblivious to his growing ire, or simply uncaring. "I need your support in this. You're one of Optimus' commanders. People trust you."
"Exactly. They trust me. Which is exactly why I can't support an effort to make peace with that pack of killers."
"We can't fight this war forever. It'll wipe us all out."
"Then we just have to win it."
"Prime could've... would've."
It was a double blow, both an insinuation that Rodimus in no way measured up to his predecessor, and a declaration that Optimus would always be Jazz's Prime. He regretted the words almost as soon as they were out of his mouth, knowing the kid didn't deserve his venom. Especially not now, with the weight of his homeworld's future weighing him down.
Prowl would have been disappointed in him.
So would Optimus.
"It was my fault."
"The reason I'm here and he's not." There was something dark in the young bot's optics. "I got in the way. I cost him the fight. I cost the Autobots their Prime. There's nothing I can do to change that now, no matter how much I wish I could. I'd trade places with him in a nanosecond, but that's not an option, so I guess you're all stuck with me. I know I'm not Optimus, I'm not your Prime, but until the Matrix chooses someone else I'm all you've got. I know I can't win this war for you, so I have to try and fix what I can in my own way, and hope I don't invite disaster in the front door in the process."
There was altogether too much guilt and loathing in that bitterly uttered diatribe, and Jazz took a moment to stuff his own churning emotions back into their box, because this? Yeah, this was a ticking time bomb. He didn't know what Magnus and Kup were thinking, leaving the kid alone to stew in his misery, but maybe they'd simply been too wound up in their own grief to notice. Just like he'd been. Magnus had been part of the vanguard too, after all, before the Ark set sail, and Kup had fought alongside Ironhide and Ratchet long before Jazz had met them.
"Roddi..." He stalled, falling silent, knowing he couldn't leave it there but not certain how to proceed. This wasn't Optimus, or even Orion, whom he'd known as a friend long before he'd become a Prime. This was a young warrior, lacking the age and experience even his data clerk predecessor had possessed, who had been lumped with all the responsibilities of a renowned and beloved leader he believed he was at least partially responsible for killing. How the slag was Jazz even supposed to start? "I don't know how Optimus died." There hadn't been time for anyone to do anything but break the news. "But I do know that nothing you did could possibly have made such a drastic difference to the outcome of the fight." He saw the protests forming, and quickly forestalled them. "Optimus was an extremely skilled fighter, a crack shot, and built like a titanium brick. If Megatron did enough damage to end him, you can be damn sure it wasn't inflicted in the brief time you were on the same battlefield."
"But I let Megatron use me-"
Jazz snorted. "The old hostage routine? Megatron's aft is too big to use you for cover, Roddi. Or did you miss the part where Optimus can shoot out an optic from the other side of Iacon?"
"I... He... But..."
"You didn't kill Prime, Rodimus, Megatron did. And I'm happy to slap anyone who tries to tell you otherwise upside the helm. Including you, if need be."
The young leader did not look convinced, but Jazz didn't expect him to. He was still trying to reconcile himself to the fact that if he'd only been a little more insistent... if he'd taken Prowl's concerns to the Prime himself... then maybe... maybe...
"Thank you." The quiet gratitude yanked his attention back to present, and he noted that the sentiment was sincere, even if Rodimus remained unconvinced as to the veracity of Jazz' analysis of the situation. "For not..."
The new Prime gestured vaguely, and Jazz wondered again at who had spoken to their freshly minted leader before he had. Ultra Magnus and Kup weren't the sort to point fingers, but there were no doubt some who would. Such was the nature of grief and pain; rarely did it care where it found an outlet.
"Sure thing," he quipped, slipping back into the familiar persona of the Ark's self appointed morale officer. "And, look, about the Decepticons- "
"I'm not suggesting we just blindly trust them," Rodimus hastened to assure him. "But if there is a chance for peace without further bloodshed..."
"We have to take it. I know. You're right. And Optimus would say the same."
Primus knew his leader had tried enough times to secure a lasting peace. If Galvatron and Shockwave were truly out of the picture, maybe they would actually have a chance this time. Jazz doubted it, but negotiations, no matter how short lived, would give the reeling Autobots a chance to get themselves back in the fight.
"You're willing to back me in this, then?" Trepidatiously, the new Prime sought confirmation.
"Willing? No. But necessity is a thing I understand too. Make your peace talks, Roddi. Me and mine will have your back when it all goes to the Pit."
"You don't think it will work."
It was a statement, not a question. He answered it anyway. "Always expect the worst. Then you won't be surprised when it happens."
If only he'd followed his own advice, instead of letting their latest string of victories lull him into a false sense of security. Prowl had been uneasy, once upon a time that would have had him jumping through hoops to find out why. Instead he'd let the strategist rationalise the feeling away, and cheerfully waved his best friend off to his death. He had yet to see the security footage from the shuttle, if it had even survived the subsequent crash, and a part of him didn't want to know how Megatron had waltzed in and ripped Optimus' command staff to pieces.
Another part firmly insisted he didn't have a right to blissful ignorance.
"It's already happened," Rodimus uttered quietly, staring at the pile of reports on the Prime's - on his - desk. "We're just dealing with what's left."
Jazz didn't have an answer for that one. No words of wisdom to guide their path forward, no lighthearted quip to beat back the shadows for just a little longer. The room felt horribly empty with just the two of them here, and Jazz was only one part of a whole, flailing around in the dark without the rest of his limbs. He didn't know how to do this without the friends and the comrades upon whom he had come to rely, and their loss crashed over him anew even as he strived to keep any such thing from showing on his face.
Rodimus needed him right now, just as Orion had needed him back then. He didn't have time for...
Impulsively, he reached for one of the datapads on the Prime's desk, either a damage report or a casualties list, most likely, and only belatedly thought to wonder if he still had the right to do so. Optimus had appointed him as Commander of the Cybertronian contingent prior to leaving for Earth, just as he'd named Magnus his successor on the human world, but Rodimus was Prime now. With little enough of the old command structure left to begin with, would he bother to preserve the ranks of those who had survived, or wipe the slate clean and start again?
Truthfully, Jazz wasn't sure which of those options he preferred. He'd grown used to his rank as TIC, to being a trusted confidant of his Prime and a natural, emotive counter for Prowl's more logic driven counsel, but they were both gone, and the solid ground beneath him seemed suddenly shaky. He could work alongside Magnus if that was what was asked of him, they'd always had an amicable enough working relationship, yet he wasn't sure he wanted to. He'd fought in the war because he didn't have a choice, taken a command post because Optimus asked him to, and stayed because his friends made the never ending drudgery of war worth it somehow. He didn't know if he had a reason to carry on as he had before now that those friends were one with the Matrix.
The Matrix that currently resided in the keeping of the young bot before him, its Chosen bearer. He wondered whose decision that had been. If Primus really cared so little for the lives he destroyed when he appointed his envoys. Roddi was a child, Wisdom of the Ancients or not, and Jazz knew for a fact that the Matrix wouldn't change that. It hadn't changed Orion, his experience had been hard won, and Jazz doubted his successor would have it any easier.
"You don't have to stay." Startled, he glanced up from the datapad he had never powered on, meeting the lightly concerned gaze of the new Prime. "If you'd rather not be here."
'With me instead of them' went unsaid, but Jazz heard it all the same. Apparently he hadn't been doing as good of a job at hiding his thoughts as he believed. Or Rodimus had inherited that Pit-spawned ability of Optimus' to see far more than any bot had a right to. With Jazz's current streak of luck, it was probably the latter.
"I think the real question is whether you want me here," he retorted faintly, placing the pad back on the desk. At the Prime's look of confusion, he added, "You're the boss now, Roddi. Whose advice you seek is entirely up to you."
"But... But you're... You're the TIC."
"Optimus' TIC, not yours. Don't take that the wrong way, it ain't a matter of loyalty to any one Prime. Optimus chose the people he trusted most to stand behind him, you gotta do the same or you won't last the distance."
"You think I don't trust you?"
"Not like you need to, maybe. I dunno. That's a question you need to ask yourself. Who you want beside you when it all goes to Pit, and who you need beside you, cos it ain't always the same thing."
"I can't just go around demoting Optimus' old crew," Rodimus objected, looking pained.
Jazz let out a bitter laugh. "What's left of it, you mean? Besides Magnus and myself, there aren't any high ranking mechs left."
"Which is why you're needed," Rodimus said earnestly. "You're experience will be invaluable. Unless... unless you'd rather not stay?"
How to even answer that? He didn't know what he wanted, besides the ridiculous, childlike wish to reverse time and stop this mess from ever happening. To stop Prowl, Ironhide, and Ratchet from ever getting on that shuttle. To stop Optimus from leaving him behind when he chose to face Megatron. To not be the last.
Bleakly, he tilted his head, a humourless smile accompanying his next words, "Where else would I go?"
Whatever he might have been before the war, that mech was gone now, and a life outside of fighting would never sit well with him whilst the battle was still ongoing. He knew himself well enough to know that much, even if his will to go on had shrivelled up and died a slow death along with his comrades. He'd be damned if he didn't keep on marching until he joined them.
Of course, there was the off chance Rodimus' plan would work, and the Decepticons would choose peace. He doubted any such arrangement would be more than a temporary reprieve, however, a stalemate whilst the Decepticons recovered from their unheralded beating. And that's if there was enough cohesion in their forces to make a treaty that more than ten of them would uphold.
Although, with a power vacuum like that, maybe there were other ways to tackle the problem...
And therein lay the other reason he couldn't just ditch and run. Regardless of whatever other position he held, he was head of Special Operations, without a ready successor picked out. He couldn't abandon his people like that, not when their particular skill set would be so desperately needed if Rodimus was to have any chance of securing peace.
"I don't know," Rodimus admitted, answering the question Jazz had nearly forgotten he'd asked. "But I'm not going to order you to stay, or to leave. You, or any of the others."
Jazz considered that declaration for a moment, then made a guess, "You want me to pass that message on?"
"They might believe it coming from you."
Primus, they were a mess. Jazz hadn't even considered what the change in command would mean for him personally, but apparently others had, and weren't willing to accept their new Prime's assurances that they weren't in danger of being bumped off to some backwater outpost. Considering they were still waist deep in the wreckage of the battle of their lives, Rodimus couldn't have sent anybody offworld even if he wanted to.
But maybe that was the point. Maybe getting angry over things that might happen in the future was easier than dealing with the present right now. And Rodimus was here, where Optimus should have been. A lot of bots would be angry over that fact alone.
He... didn't know how to fix this. How to bridge the yawning gaps already forming in the Autobot ranks. Optimus had held them together through some of the darkest times Cybertron had ever seen, and Jazz didn't know if Rodimus was up to the task of filling the void Optimus' death had caused. The Matrix might have chosen him, and he might have been able to stop Unicron, but one single act of courage in the heat of battle was nothing compared to the loyalty Optimus had won during his long tenure as their Prime.
That didn't mean he didn't deserve a chance, though. Optimus had seen something in the kid, even if it had only been the draw of the Matrix to its future bearer, and Jazz trusted his Prime's instincts. He trusted the mystical powers of the ancient relic currently thrumming beneath Rodimus' chestplate less so, and, guessing that he was not the only one to feel that way, he made a mental note to do the rounds later and make sure everyone remembered that the Matrix wasn't the only one who thought Hot Rod had potential.
Nodding to himself, satisfied to have a plan of action, even a very poorly formed one, he let his attention drift back to the room's other occupant. Rodimus had apparently elected to leave him to his musings, and was currently frowning at one of the many reports inundating his desk. Jazz brightened at the sight, familiar and foreign all at once, then took a silent moment to laugh at himself for getting excited over a report.
"You need a hand?"
It was more than an offer to help sort through the madness of this current crisis' aftermath, and Rodimus seemed to understand that, if the gratitude on his face as he handed the pad over was any indication. Jazz immediately began scanning its contents, trying not to think too hard about how many times he had sat in this room with Optimus doing exactly the same thing in those early days. Prowl and Magnus had taken over his role with time, and hopefully Rodimus would find his own officers to do the same, but for now he was content to bury himself in the mundane side of command. To just forget.
Cybertron was full of ghosts, but he wasn't one of them yet.