[KHII] Comatose

The world wasn’t much different than the many others he had stumbled into and out of just as quickly as he had arrived. Even the town he’d somehow found in wandering held much the same darkness and despair as any other city. Riku didn’t mind so much. It fit in with his current mood, a stormy rain cloud drizzling cold water down the back of his spine. The glower on his face was enough to send any person eying him as easy prey scurrying back into the dank alley.

Most of the city was in ruins, the victim of some large battle it seemed. He could see the signs of reconstruction, abandoned long before his arrival and he had caught a glimpse of new structures on the edges. But otherwise, the city looked as if it were dying, little by little, slowly rotting away in its desperation.

The keyblader shoved his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders against the light film of cold rain falling down on him, peering through the fog for some sort of shelter. He didn’t relish camping out or trying to find security in one of the shattered buildings. And he had been traveling for the past week, cramped in the tiny cockpit of his borrowed gummi ship. He longed for a bed, more than anything. Spending the majority of his life on a tropical island had ruined him for harsher conditions.

A burst of raucous laughter grabbed his attention. Swiping a hand over silver locks dampened by the rain, Riku turned his head to the side, catching sight of a building that seemed to actually be inhabited. He could make out some music and lights glowing from the windows. It was a bar, he guessed, and the name Seventh Heaven was proudly displayed in the front.

It was better than nothing, he supposed. And at least it would be a place to warm up. He wondered what the drinking age on this world was, or if they would accept his munny. He didn’t want to be stuck fighting the local bestiary for the proper currency. Checking both ways before crossing an otherwise empty street, Riku headed for the bar, already contemplating just what alcohol would sate his hunger.

He had left Destiny Islands two years after successfully fending off Organization XIII with Sora and a month after graduating from High School. Sora couldn’t understand the reasons he left and frankly, Riku couldn’t explain it to him in words the ever-cheerful boy would understand. It was simply something he had to do, knowing he couldn’t remain on the islands with all the heaviness on his heart.

Truthfully, a part of Riku didn’t really understand either. He felt this incessant need to distance himself from his friends, an unnatural pull of something inside. He had learned, thanks to Mickey, how to reconcile himself with the darkness and the light within. But that didn’t mean he had accepted it. Learning to control it, learning to live with it, learning to combine the two to his advantage… they were entirely different than bearing with the truth of all of his deeds.

He had been to five different worlds since leaving, each one more different than the last. He was certain, that if he kept searching he would find the answers. Even if he didn’t know the questions in the first place. It was out there, that tangible something. He just had to keep searching.

Riku deftly avoided the stumbling gait of a drunken woman as she tittered and staggered past him, loudly singing in an off-key tone. This world is just ever so charming, he remarked sarcastically to himself as he finally arrived at the door, swung open to admit any and all, and stepped inside.

He first registered sound and smell, nose twitching at the evident aroma of alcohol mixed with some kind of home-cooked meal. Conversation fought in vain with the music to be heard and from all corners, laughter assaulted his senses. He felt many pairs of eyes turn towards the doorway as he entered, shaking his head to disperse the water that had soaked his hair. A firm glare had most turning back to their original behavior.

All except one that was.

Aquamarine’s eyes narrowed in recognition of the spiky-headed blond at the bar, an overly large sword leaning up against the counter at his side. Funny, he had thought Cloud was currently off chasing his arch-nemesis across the universe. He certainly didn’t expect to the see the Radiant Garden resident sucking down shots of scotch in a bar in some shady world galaxies away. And not staring him down with penetrating blue eyes that could have been Sora’s but for a shade of color.

Not for the first time, Riku wondered if they were related in some distant way.

He and Cloud communicated silently for all of a second before the blond turned back towards the bar, silently lifting another shot of the amber liquid to his lips. Unable to decide whether it was invitation or dismissal, Riku shrugged and raked a hand through his hair, trying to order the disheveled strands into something more orderly.

Ignoring appreciative leers, he threaded his way through the maze of tables, chairs, and drunken idiots, until he found himself climbing into a stool next to Cloud but on the opposite side from where the blond’s sword rested. Thoughts of drinking faded from Riku’s mind as he contemplated the man on the stool beside him.

“Everyone’s looking for you,” he finally stated quietly, treading carefully into a conversation with a man who might as well have been a stranger to him.

He knew of Cloud, had met the blond on perhaps two occasions before, but he wasn’t exactly friends with the swordsman. He had heard stories of the man’s strength and skill, had watched as Leon and Aeris and the rest waited in vain for Cloud to return from chasing after Sephiroth. He wasn’t quite sure why he felt it necessary to strike up a conversation, he just did.

Cloud shifted in his seat, craning his neck to the side in a quick jerk, the motion accompanied by a sharp cracking noise. “And what are you looking for?” he asked without turning to look at the keyblader.

“…” Riku was silent. He didn’t have an answer to that. Nor was he sure he would even tell Cloud if he did know.

The bartender approached, prepared to take Riku’s order, but the silver-haired man waved him aside. For the moment, his only interest lay in Cloud. And the query the man had put forth. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t asked himself often enough. But the answers were slow in coming. As slow as his journey without a destination.

The blond fiddled with his shot glass before downing the burning liquid and signaling for another. “You’re searching, aren’t you?” Cloud continued without waiting for Riku’s response, his gaze locked on something invisible, as if he were peering through some invisible fabric in space. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”

Riku didn’t have an answer for that. He leaned on the counter, folding his arms across the bar top. “Why are you here?” he redirected.

“Sometimes,” Cloud began, almost hesitantly. “Sometimes, I feel I know this place. Like a distant memory, out of my reach.”

The keyblader curled his lips into a smirk at the familiar words. “Or a far off dream?”

Cloud shifted, turning towards him with those eyes that were so similar to Sora’s yet couldn’t have been more different if they were another color. They were the same brightness, the same intensity, but they were ten times more knowledgeable. Ten times more mature. Ten times more broken. They were eyes that Riku was becoming all too familiar with every time he looked in the mirror.

“A what?”

Riku shook his head. “Nothing.” He shifted his eyes away, looking at something in the distance only he could see beyond the lines and lines of bottles behind the bar. “Just something Sora once said.”

“Sora, huh?” Cloud repeated, and just the way he said it made Riku believe he wasn’t thinking of Sora at all, but something else. Something from his own memories. His own inner darkness, or laughing broken heart.

They sat in silence for a moment, a sense of dark camaraderie developing between them, binding them by the words not being said. This silent, blond man whom Riku had only met a few times in his life was now suddenly so familiar. He had never really been comfortable around Cloud, something about the man being unapproachable and dangerous. But now… he couldn’t explain the sensation. It was strange.

“You never answered me,” Cloud said after a moment, his shot glass making an audible sound as he pushed it across the counter, just watching the liquid slosh around.

Riku frowned. “About what?”

“That thing you’re looking for.”

The keyblader sighed. “I think if I knew, I would have already found it.”

“Is that so?” Cloud paused, behind them a great burst of raucous laughter washing over their silent corner of the bar and making him wince. One finger drew a nonsensical line through a water ring left on the counter. “Even knowing, sometimes it’s impossible to find it.”

“So says you,” Riku inserted testily, disliking the feel of worry and truth and uncertainty that wormed its way into his heart, “But I’ll find it.”

The blond watched him for a moment, that same piercing glare of knowledge. He fiddled with his drink until he finally swallowed down the burning liquor in one fell swoop and slid from the stool. His boots didn’t make a sound on the bar floor.

Riku furrowed his brow. “What are you doing?”

Digging into his pocket, Cloud produced a few coins that Riku didn’t recognize. They weren’t munny. “Leaving,” he answered, laying them on the counter with audible clinks.

Aquamarine eyes gave Cloud a wary look, wondering if he had offended the man then wondering why he cared if he did. “Returning home?”

Something that wasn’t quite a smirk as much as it was a bitter smile curled up the corner of Cloud’s mouth. “Home has no meaning to me,” he responded, reaching to pick up his overly large sword and strapping it to his back.

That strange something clenched in Riku’s chest again. “What do you mean? You have Radiant Garden and Leon, Aeris, and the others.”

Cloud flinched at the familiar names and turned away, one hand subtly clenching into a fist. “I think you know exactly what I mean by that, Riku,” he said, so softly the keyblader almost didn’t catch it.

His name was said with a mysterious lilt that the other boy couldn’t identify, but made him squirm nonetheless. He watched as Cloud waved a hand at someone on the other end of the bar, a woman Riku thought, and then departed, his exit bringing in a new wave of bitterly cold and stale air.

Riku swallowed thickly, his gaze flickering to Cloud’s abandoned drink, the glass turned upside down on the counter where the blond had been sitting. Something began to squirm and churn inside of him, a darkness curling and twisting for something to feed it.

He wanted to ask Cloud what he meant, a hitch in the man’s words making him believe that he had the answers, the way to fix what was broken inside of Riku. The way to ease the feelings he was barely able to hide from his best friend, the restlessness and the guilt, a tainted poison seeping into his soul.

Riku abruptly slipped from the bar stool, causing it to screech loudly. Many of the patrons turned to look at him, drunken stares drooling as they gaped. But Riku paid them no attention, pushing his way through the increasingly larger crowd and bursting out of the front door. He jerked his head from left to right, trying to find Cloud and hoping that the other man hadn’t already disappeared into the darkness.

“Dammit,” Riku cursed under his breath, fingers clenching into a fist when he realized the blond was nowhere in sight. To make matters worse, it was raining and he could feel the water dripping down the back of his neck. He had lost his chance though he still wasn’t sure exactly what for.

“Why aren’t you at home with your light?”

At the sound of Cloud’s voice, Riku whirled, finding the blond leaning against the outside of the building, arms crossed over his chest. Those knifelike blue eyes were focused on the ground, staring at a puddle as water dripped from the sky.

Cloud had been waiting for him, as if he had known exactly what Riku would do.

The keyblader blinked. “You…?”

Lifting his head, Cloud continued as if he hadn’t even heard Riku speak. “You searched so hard, didn’t you?” he inquired, eyes unnaturally bright under the dim light of the street and looking faintly tainted with green. “Fighting your way out of the black that still resided inside of you.”

Growing defensive, Riku bristled, squaring his shoulders. “What would you know?” he demanded hotly, blinking to clear the rain from his eyes as his fingers curled into fists.

Cloud pushed off the building with an elegant movement, his hands falling to his side as he approached Riku, stepping into the corona of the street lamp. “You think that you’re the only one who succumbed?” he asked, voice almost mocking as his boots squelched on the badly cracked cobblestones. “How naïve.”

The teenager felt indignant, something inside of him incensed. But he also felt trapped by those eyes, as if caught in the gaze of a predator. He found himself backing up without realizing it, his back colliding with the street lamp behind him and causing a low dong to echo through the silent streets. In the bar, he heard rousing laughter but no one emerged to bear witness to the two men. They might as well have been alone in the fog-covered street.

“Tell me,” Riku rasped, wondering why his breath felt so short and his voice so hoarse. “Tell me what I can do.”

Cloud drew closer. “The darkness is tempting, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice barely loud enough to break the sound of the constant patter of rain. He lifted one hand and cupped the side of Riku’s face, a surprisingly tender gesture.

Too stunned to move, Riku could only gape in surprise. There was a flash in the back of his eyes, a remembrance in his mind. There were faces, all those whose trust he had broken and their blood he had spilled. It was the ways he was used and his own naivete in thinking he could bend the darkness to his will so easily.

He had been so, so foolish and the knowledge of that was suffocating. The guilt had never felt so consuming, so suffocating. And all it had taken was for Cloud to whisper one word, to give him one gentle touch.

“Is that what you did?” Riku asked, somehow finding the breath. It felt as if Cloud’s touch was burning him, a fire against the chill of the night.

Blue eyes clouded over for just a moment with some remembered emotion or event before the blond stepped closer, crowding Riku’s space. He didn’t seem that much larger or stronger until he was that close, sharing the same breath, his mere presence overbearing. Without his understanding. Riku’s heart picked up a beat, the power of the darkness banking behind Cloud’s eyes nearly suffocating, just as much as the iron will the man has over it.

“Is that why you can’t go home?” Riku whispered.

Cloud tilted his head to the side, fingers curling in long strands of silver hair. “You would know, wouldn’t you, Riku?”

There it was, the way he said his name. The keyblader swallowed thickly. “How do you do it?”

A thumb brushed across Riku’s cheek. It should have been tender, but it burned with truth. “You want to know?” Cloud’s breath washed over him, enough that Riku could scent the whiskey on his breath, the faint sweetness.

Anticipation curled in Riku’s belly, both burning cold and freezing hot as he slumped against the pole. The best he could manage was a faint nod, barely noticeable.

“Then come with me.”

Cloud abruptly dropped his hand and turned, crossing the empty street and disappearing into the darkness of the alley alongside the bar. Riku sucked in a breath, his hands feeling slightly shaky as he fought to regain his lost sense of equilibrium. It was so surreal, and yet, it felt like the most real thing that had happened to him in the past three years.

A raucous noise from the bar made him start, realizing that he was nearly missing his chance yet again. It threw him from his stupor and Riku shot forward, hurriedly stepping into the alley and absentmindedly wiping rain from his face.

He found Cloud hovering around a rather large bike, coaxing a compartment to pop out so that he could slide his blade within it. The ride looked both powerful and fast, a sheer luxury that Riku was surprised the man could afford in a world that wasn’t his own.

“How long have you been here?” Riku queried in surprise, walking up to the bike and tentatively sliding a hand over one of the leather covered seats, spattered with rain. It looked so expensive; his fingers itched to drive it.

“Someone I know lives here,” Cloud responded tonelessly, almost distracted as he popped the compartment back in place, sword safely secured. “Someone who used to be just a memory.”

Riku furrowed his brow but recognizing the note in Cloud’s voice, he didn’t push for answers. It was something that the blond obviously didn’t want to discuss. He understood that entirely. Aquamarine eyes watched as Cloud straddled his cycle, flicking the engine to life with a rumbling roar.

Both hands on the handlebars, Cloud tossed Riku a silent request as he revved the engine a bit, causing the cycle to purr. The keyblader nodded and climbed up behind Cloud, tentatively wrapping his arms around the man’s waist.

The silence that fell was both comforting and awkward. Cloud didn’t say anything more as he gunned the engine and roared out of the alley, directly into the street. The rain whipped at their bodies as they shot through side streets and whizzed down the road, Riku hanging on for dear life.

Not that he minded so terribly. He could feel the warmth of the man’s back, making his gut stir and leap with familiarity.

‘What am I doing?’ he asked himself but he knew that he didn’t have the answers.

Only the drive inside, the increasing sense that Cloud knew the answers, or at least something that would ease the bleeding of his soul. Perhaps not heal him, but put a band-aid on the wound until he could find the real cure.

He remembered leaving Destiny Islands without telling anyone. The night before his solitary morning, he had been playing games with Sora, kicking his ass at Mortal Kombat like always because they never could get enough of that old game. He had smiled and laughed like normal, watched Sora make a face as they joked about Kairi.

He had listened and he had grieved and he had said his goodbyes for the evening, Sora none the wiser that it was actually farewell. Riku hadn’t known where he was going at the time, or why, he just knew leaving was something he had to do.

He had walked out the door, resisting the urge to look back. He had nimbly bypassed getting caught up in a conversation with Tidus and even more deftly avoided Selphie. And then he was gone, disappearing into the dark of the night. He had left a note behind of course, just so they wouldn’t worry. But he didn’t tell them where he was going, why he left, or if he was coming back.

Honestly, he couldn’t answer those questions even if he wanted to.

They stopped in front of a small, squat apartment building, Cloud parking his bike in the garage before leading Riku to an apartment. He unlocked the door, gesturing Riku inside first, the keyblader unable to help his curiosity as Cloud flipped on the hall light, bathing the narrow passage in yellow light.

The teenager caught sight of a few pictures, most depicting the same dark-haired, crystalline-eyed man that bore a faint resemblance to Cloud. A brother, perhaps? Riku couldn’t even begin to guess. He knew next to nothing about Cloud’s past.

He turned and suddenly found Cloud there, his spikes sagging against his skull and managing to take away some of the intimidation he usually exuded.

“Isn’t your friend here?” Riku asked, feeling corralled against the wall.

Cloud shook his head, water droplets dispelling from his hair. “He’s on night patrol and won’t be back until the morning.” A hand, seeming too dainty to wield such a large sword, reached up and fingered Riku’s hair. He had noticed that Cloud seemed to have a fascination with it. “Are you changing your mind, Riku?”

The teen could feel his heart thundering in his ears. “No, I’m not.”

“Good.”

And then Cloud was kissing him. No, ravaging his mouth with his tongue, hungry and insistent. Riku was trapped against the wall with the aid of the weight of Cloud’s body.

Letting loose a sound of surprise, Riku opened his mouth beneath the onslaught, allowing the man to devour him with his tongue. A sword-calloused hand cupped the back of the teen’s head, directing the forceful kiss and the other wrapped around Riku’s waist, jerking him forward.

A low sound of need echoed in the keyblader’s throat, heat pooling in his belly. Somewhere beyond his sight, he knew the rain was falling. He knew they were dripping on the carpet, their clothes soaked from the weather. Yet, the chill from being wet faded in the face of the pressing heat from Cloud’s body. He wanted more, to drown himself in the blazing fire. Riku reached up, gripping Cloud’s shirt at the man’s hips and silently begging for the answers.

He lost himself in Cloud’s warmth and intensity, in the hands dragging up and down his body and the mouth devouring his. He could feel his lips, bruised and ravaged and still, he wanted more.

Everything became a blur after that. A blur of touch and sound and smell and lips on his body, his skin. They stumbled down the hall, making their way blindly through the dark to a bedroom, tripping over their own clothes as they fell to the ground in dripping piles, soaked by the rain.

Outside, Riku could hear the storm picking up in force, hear the rain beating hard at the windows, but inside it was heated mouths and the noisy smack of lips.

He should have known that Cloud wasn’t entirely straight. He had known it for himself, probably a long time ago. The questions before the darkness come, the understanding during the dawn, the realization in the brightness of morning. Things were never the same after that.

And then they were falling on the bed and Riku’s thoughts scattered to the four winds. He sprawled against cool covers and shivered, up until those hands were back on his body, roaming along his sides and leaving burning trails in their wake.

He could do nothing but moan thickly and surrender, that painful twisting still present and even more agonizing than before. But it seemed more bearable than the slow decay, more bearable than the tears on his fake smile, bitter and enclosing.

Riku felt warmth and cold, felt the cool slide of oil across his flesh. He heard Cloud’s quiet panting and the pleasure skimming down his spine as he was touched. Fingers probing him and seeking, gentle and yet determined. An edge of haste and eagerness, proving that even Cloud was losing himself a bit as well.

And then Cloud was there, lips pressed to his, hand on the underside of his right knee. A warm body blanketed his and there was pressure and heat and pain and blinding pleasure, his cries swallowed by a questing tongue. Deft fingers groped for Riku, stroking with skill that made him feel just a bit jealous for reasons beyond his knowledge.

The kiss ended, allowing Riku to breathe as Cloud worked his hips, slowly rocking and filling, deeper and deeper.

Riku found himself opening beneath Cloud’s skilled hands, giving into what the man had to offer him. Not redemption or forgiveness. Not darkness or light. Not regret or joy. But a little bit of something he needed.

It was a fog of desire and it filled him, momentarily clouding the emptiness. It was nearly overwhelming.

Riku threw his arm over his face to cover the emotion and truth daring to leak out. He wanted to hide from facing it, all those nasty little things he thought he could forget because it hurt too much.

“Don’t,” Cloud rasped, the first he had something since the whole affair began. He watched Riku with those penetrating blue eyes, seeking something in the teen’s gaze.

Riku chewed on his bottom lip. “I can’t.”

“You’re not allowed to hide,” the blond insisted in a raspy, determined tone. His hips surged forward, stroking Riku from the inside and the keyblader moaned, chewing frantically on his lips as Cloud rocked, seeking to touch deeper.

The keyblader tightened his fingers on the covers, gripping unnaturally tight. “Why not?” he demanded, half-feeling as if it were more of a plea for leniency than a desire for answers.

“Because you betrayed him.”

Aquamarine eyes flew open behind the cover of his arm and Riku fell silent, Cloud’s voice becoming a hypnotic litany.

“You betrayed all of them, didn’t you? Your family? Your friends?”

He couldn’t think, not through the fire burning in his thoughts. The pain, it was overwhelming, a mental explosion of agony in perfect counterpart to the pleasure flooding his veins and igniting his body.

“Y… you…” Riku trailed off, not knowing what he wanted to say. He just felt he was supposed to say something. A denial, perhaps. Or maybe even a confirmation.

Cloud’s fingers tightened briefly on his knee. “You think you’re seeking redemption, maybe forgiveness,” he murmured, breath coming in sharp pants. “But that’s not it, is it?”

He arched into each touch, each surge into his body. A want burned in Riku’s belly and he moaned, his hips picking up an increasing pace, need growing. He uncovered his eyes though he kept them closed, blindly groping for something and finding nothing. It reminded him of a day two years ago, when he stood in the gripping black and reached out for a something he didn’t understand.

“Riku.” There was command in that tone, a repeat of the question Cloud had already put forth.

Choking back something he didn’t dare call tears, Riku forced himself to open his eyes. “No,” the teen whispered, the admission torn from his throat. “No, it’s not,” he added.

There was a brief softening of Cloud’s gaze before the blond leaned forward and kissed him, a bit more brutally than before. Riku moaned, wrapping his arms around Cloud and arching up to meet each frantic thrust.

And it burned, searing through his flesh on a burst of ecstasy. He could hear the low rumble of Cloud’s satisfaction but it fades away to the light bursting behind his eyes as his fingers nearly tore a hole in the comforter.

Then there was silence, breaths a mere pant on the darkness and rain dripping steadily down a silver-paned window.

Riku tried to breathe slowly as his body cooled and Cloud’s warmth and weight settled over him, familiar and yet strange all the same. The blond slipped out of him with startling ease, a sound that dangerously resembled content escaping from his lips. Still, Riku was left wondering what he had just admitted to.

‘What am I searching for?’ he asked himself again.

The answers suddenly didn’t seem as far from his reach as before.

Cloud looked at him, and even in the dark, Riku could see those strangely glowing eyes. One sword-calloused hand brushed across his stomach.

“Did you love your light, Riku?”

The teen stirred from his thoughtful stupor, body still tingling. “Hmm?”

“Your light? Did you love him?” There was curiosity in Cloud’s voice but also… sadness, as if recalling his own painful memory.

Riku frowned, a vision of cinnamon-brown hair and smiling laughs flashing briefly through his mind. “I don’t know,” he replied honestly. “I thought I did but, maybe I was confusing love for something else.”

“Something else?”

The keyblader nodded. “Acceptance. Belonging. Friendship. Take your pick.” Riku sighed, raking a hand through his hair, wondering why it felt so easy to just lay there nude next to Cloud Strife. “Maybe that was why it was so easy for the darkness to find its way inside.”

“No one has a pure heart. Everyone’s susceptible.”

Riku snorted. “You don’t even believe that yourself.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Cloud leaned over, cupping Riku’s cheek with his hand and kissed the silver-haired teen again. It was a slow kiss this time, more probing but full of equal fire. “But that’s for you to decide.”

He pulled back and slid from the bed, padding naked across the carpet. He didn’t bother to turn on a light, the street lamp outside and his own enhanced vision enough. He paused only once to look at the younger man lying on his bed before he disappeared into the bathroom to grab a washcloth.

On the bed, Riku allowed himself a moment more to wallow in the aftermath and the tingling of his body before he shoved himself to his feet. That need to wander, the push to continue searching was rearing its ugly head. He hunted around for wet clothes, managing to find both his pants and his shirt. He gave up his socks as a loss and was in the process of wrangling himself into his pants when Cloud returned.

He didn’t even seem surprised that Riku was getting ready to leave.

“It’s part of it, you know,” Cloud began, a wet cloth in one hand.

Riku tilted his head to the side. “What? Leaving?”

“No, staying.”

“You know why I can’t.”

Cloud made a noncommittal noise in his throat as he tossed the rag to Riku. “Did you find what you were looking for?” he asked, watching as the silver-haired teen wiped his belly of the evidence of his release.

There was a moment of silence before Riku looked up, aquamarine eyes a bit clearer than the darkened haunt when he had stumbled into the bar just seeking escape. “I can’t have my light, but maybe, that’s okay.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

They shared a look of mutual understanding as Riku dropped the dirtied rag to the floor, shrugging into his rain-soaked shirt. He raked a hand through his wet hair, before giving up on fixing it.

He knew Cloud was still watching him.

“You should return to Radiant Garden,” Riku said quietly, gathering up the rest of his scattered clothing and accessories. “They’re worried about you.”

Cloud smirked, crossing his arms over his chest. “I could say the same for you.”

“Touche.” The small on Riku’s face was smile, and it didn’t reach his eyes, but it was a start. He paused, took a deep breath, but couldn’t think of anything to say. The words failed him when he knew they simply couldn’t convey what he intended.

With a final glance towards the blond who was a stranger and yet, a person he knew almost better than his best friend, Riku slipped out into the silent hallway. He knew he wasn’t that far from where he had left his gummi ship, thank goodness. It would be a simple matter to return to the ship and take off again, searching for parts unknown.

And still, despite his burdens, he felt lighter.

Left behind, Cloud flopped down on the empty bed, still carrying with it the faint scent of Riku and his wet hair. It was mildly chilly but he didn’t feel like getting back up to turn on the heat, or pick up the results of his mad rush to rip off clothing.

He never said thank you. Ungrateful brat.

Cloud threw his arm over his eyes, feeling just a bit insane as he chuckled lightly. “Pervert,” he teased the voice in his head, a near mirror to the stranger whose house he was sharing.

Pfft. There was a moment of thought. He’s a good kid.

“Yeah.”

A lot like you were. Those same lost eyes. Almost made a guy wanna cuddle ya, I swear.

“Too good for me,” Cloud agreed with a faint, mirthless laugh. “Too good for me.”

You underestimate yourself, Spike.

“And you overestimate me. You always have.” A fond smile flitted on the blond’s face before it was gone, replaced by the grim reminder that he had failed.

The voice in his head took on a disapproving tone. Spike.

“But that’s okay,” Cloud assured him. “Just… don’t leave.”

I wouldn’t. I think I’m stuck with you, though there’s not much space between brood and brood-some-more.

Another one of those faint smiles attacked Cloud. He uncovered his eyes and turned his head, gaze falling on the window.

“It’s stopped raining,” he commented to no one in particular.

There wasn’t a response but then again, it wasn’t as if he had expected one.

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[G1] Half-Truths

Nighttime, Earth’s equivalent of off-shift, is by far the worst. Every soft noise of the Ark makes Ratchet twitch. Every flickering light or quiet click make his spark twinge with dread.

He can look a few berths over and see Jazz’s stasis locked frame, but that doesn’t make him feel any less apprehensive. Worse that he doesn’t have anything to distract him. He’s been banned from his medbay so that he can “heal” by order of his Prime, forced to obey his apprentice in all matters related to his recovery. Not that any of them have the first clue how to handle this except for the physical matters.

The psychological matters are another cog entirely.

His only distraction is the pain. A spark is as intangible as it is tangible. Yet, it can convey pleasure in the same way it conveys agony. The sharp knife that cuts through Ratchet is felt strut-deep. It makes him ventilate shallowly, makes his circuits surge erratically. The further he is from Jazz, the worse it gets, but Ratchet isn’t going to get any closer.

He’d rather have the pain.

The quiet hours when he should be recharging are the worst. He can’t recharge, doesn’t want to, and only required systems shut down to give him a few hours peace. They are the hours when he starts to think, when his addled processor leaps from random thought to anxious wondering, when the memories decide to refresh themselves. When he can’t help but pull them up again and again and wonder what he missed, how he couldn’t have seen this coming.

He begins to wonder if he’d made a mistake.

Loneliness surges through Ratchet, overriding the vague numbness that has been the majority of his sensation lately. His spark continues to tug him toward his almost-mate, desperate to complete the bond. Sometimes, he catches echoes, lingering traces of Jazz both in his systems and in his spark.

Ratchet turns his head, staring at Jazz’s stasis-locked frame. His sensors pinpoint, identify, and catalogue every aspect of Jazz’s systems. In the dim of the medbay, Jazz still appears to gleam, as handsome as the day Ratchet first met him. He looks wrong lying there. No energy to his motions. No playful mischief in his visor.

Three days. It’s been three days. Enough time for the physical injuries to be mended, except for the agony in his spark. Time is the only balm for that particular wound.

And tomorrow is the inquest. Ratchet should be recharging, preparing for what is likely going to be a grueling affair, no matter how delicate he knows his Prime will be.

Instead, he stares up at the medbay’s ceiling, thoughts swirling over and over in self-recrimination.

Maybe he made a mistake.

o0o0o

Ratchet supposes he should be grateful that Optimus wants to keep recent events to only the command staff. These are the sorts of rumors that they don’t want spreading around. The faith that everyone has in Jazz is nearly on par with the faith that they have in Ratchet. They’re fighting a war, too, and the last thing the Autobots need is something to unsettle their comfortable base.

Worse that they have all become so close-knit over the years. No one can be impartial. Jazz is everyone’s friend; Ratchet is their chief medic. Jazz and Prowl are as close as brothers. Ratchet and Wheeljack are best friends.

The casual atmosphere Optimus tries to effect fails miserably for Ratchet. They’re in a small conference hall rather than the brig, which might be more appropriate depending on an individual’s point of view, and Ratchet is sitting at a table with everyone else. He’s not in a chair, the sole focus, which would again probably be more appropriate. But he can see the dimness in Optimus’ optics.

This sort of event is unprecedented. They are so few now with the laws and rules of Cybertronian society four million years behind them. The Autobots are a law unto themselves, governed by the inherent structure of a military unit. In the end, final judgment will be made by their Prime.

Ratchet’s spark gives another painful lurch. He winces, stifling a hiccup of discomfort, only exacerbated by the tension in the air right now.

“Ratchet,” Optimus says gently. “We don’t have to do this now. The situation remains unchanged. We can delay the proceedings–”

“No,” Ratchet cuts him off, perhaps a bit rudely than he would usually. “I’m fine.”

Optimus gives him a level look. “You are anything but fine, old friend. But I can understand the need to believe otherwise.” He approximates a sigh and sits back, optics flicking around the table to the small gathering.

Prowl to his left and Blaster on the other side. Ironhide to his right and Red Alert next to him. Wheeljack is here, too. With Ratchet across from Optimus, the sole focus of their Prime’s incisive gaze, something that can make a bot guilty without even trying.

Not that Ratchet needs it. He has enough regret, enough second-guessing of his actions. He doesn’t need them to condemn him.

“Then shall we begin?” Prowl asks curtly, sitting ramrod straight. His doors are held up above him in a tight configuration, betraying his own discomfort with the whole situation. He surely must feel torn, trapped between loyalty to his brother in all but name and his bonded. “An attack on a fellow Autobot is no small transgression.”

“Though one executed in self-defense is a different matter,” Optimus replies, giving his second a stern look. Ratchet has the feeling this is a discussion the two of them have had prior to this meeting.

Prowl doesn’t so much as flinch. “Self-defense has yet to be determined.”

“Uh, unless you’re calling Ratchet a liar, I’m pretty sure it has,” Blaster comments with a raised orbital ridge.

“One does have to question the legitimacy of the accusations,” Red Alert adds with a thoughtful click of his mouthplates. “Not that I’m claiming anyone of telling falsities, but that given the relation between the two at question, one wonders what precisely the issue is. Or was rather.”

Ratchet shifts in his chair, opting to keep silent until someone addresses him directly. They all have valid points. Why should they believe Ratchet over Jazz? Because he’s the one that’s conscious with full access to his memory core? What makes either Ratchet or Jazz more worthy of trust than the other?

They’ve been comrades in arms for eons. How does one handle something like this?

Blaster ventilates noisily, giving Ratchet an apologetic look. “Sorry, Ratch, but Red’s got a point. You and the Jazz-bot were together for a couple of years. It’s just a bit odd that you didn’t notice anything sooner, yeah?”

“Not necessarily,” Wheeljack interjects, and he sounds a touch offended. “How much of those years was Jazz actually on base? How much of it did Ratch spend in the medbay?”

Optimus lifts a hand, a gesture he’s picked up from the humans. His voice is calm but strained

“Easy, Wheeljack. The question is legitimate. Perhaps what none of us have considered yet is that this behavior is recent and the result of a virus or a glitch.”

Guilt swamps Ratchet so heavily he can’t do anything but slump. Why hadn’t he, the supposed chief medical officer, considered that? In retrospect, that should have been his first suspicion. Jazz’s behavior had seemed to come from nowhere, but he’d thought it a product of his own obliviousness and Jazz’s inherent possessive nature.

Could he have been so wrong?

“Did Hoist not scan his coding and run full anti-virals?” Prowl questions as his gaze sweeps around the room.

“He did,” Ratchet answers before anyone else can, refusing to conceal the static in his vocalizer. He knows better than to suggest himself. “But he’s not as trained for it as others. Someone else should do it. ‘Jack?”

The engineer shakes his head. “Not me, Ratch. I’m better with mechanics not coding. You know that. Maybe Prowl?”

“No.”

The lieutenant gives no other reason, just the emphatic, glyph-laden negative.

“Skyfire?” Wheeljack then suggests though it is hesitant. Rightly so, as that would involve telling more mechs about the truth of matters.

Blaster runs a hand over his helm. “Jazz’s like the absolute best coder I know, aside from a few Decepticons. He woulda known if something was off in his systems, yeah?”

“Not necessarily,” Ratchet replies with an audible ventilation. “I find it unlikely that this is a mere glitch, but I wouldn’t protest to having someone check.” He would be relieved actually, though it wouldn’t allay the guilt.

“If that’s what ya want done, Prime, I can do it,” Blaster adds though he is hardly enthused about it. “I know enough to do a proper search. When would you like me to start?”

“Immediately,” Prowl interjects before anyone else can get a word in edgewise.

Optimus looks uncomfortably resigned. “Yes, Blaster. If you can. We can’t proceed any further until we eliminate or confirm this possibility.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Since nothing more can be discussed, we’ll call an end to the inquest for today.” Optimus abruptly rises to his pedes, hands planted flat on the conference table. “It goes without saying that nothing we’ve discussed here should leave the room.”

“Bots are askin’ questions,” Ironhide finally inserts. He looks uncomfortable, though rightly so “What’re we sposed to tell ’em?”

Red Alert gathers up his many datapads. “Nothing for now. I’m sure enough rumors will spread on their own. Perhaps they will merely chalk it up to a particularly strenuous bout of interfacing and teasing will commence.”

Ratchet fails to hide his wince. Neither do the others.

Red Alert, tact knows not thy designation.

Their Prime makes a sound not unlike that of a human clearing their throat. “In any case, please do not confirm or deny anything. We’ll reconvene as soon as Blaster has something to report. Understood?”

A chorus of acknowledgment echoes through the gathered mechs. They all rise to their pedes, making for the door with the low murmur of conversation already buzzing between them. Ratchet stays seated, and Optimus too remains behind. He waits until they leave, pretending he doesn’t notice the varied glances tossed his way, before he rises from his chair with a slow and ponderous motion. It feels as though it takes greater effort to leverage himself up.

“Shall I go to the brig then?” Ratchet asks, using great effort to keep his vocalizer from wavering.

“The brig?” Prime’s optics spiral outward, betraying his surprise, as he circles around the table. “I had no intention of confining you, Ratchet.”

“I don’t see why not. I harmed a fellow Autobot.” He feels his tanks roil, the impulse to purge rising up within him. “It’s the least of what I deserve.”

Optimus lifts his hands, perhaps intending to comfort Ratchet in some way. But at the medic’s flinch, he wisely lowers them.

“The motivations behind this matter are still under debate, but I’m certain brig-time is not the answer to anything here.”

“I can’t return to my medbay.”

“Unfortunately not.”

He resists the urge to ask where the frag else he ought to go. “I see.”

The Prime’s plating lifts and clamps down, once again fighting the urge to exhibit tactile comfort. Ratchet almost feels sorry for Optimus, trapped as he is amongst his many loyalties. To cause this much conflict in their already troubled Prime… well, Ratchet’s own guilt amps itself up several notches.

“Take the opportunity to recover a bit more, old friend. I’m not remanding you to quarters, but–”

“It’s best if I stay there,” Ratchet finishes for him, his spark giving a surge of discomfort.

More’s the pity as there is nowhere else on the Ark Ratchet would feel more uncomfortable, save perhaps for Jazz’s room.

o0o0o

Ratchet’s only consolation is that his quarters remain as empty as they were a week ago when Jazz took it upon himself to remove all of his belongings for cohabitation. The room looks entirely unlived in, which makes it easier to forestall any uncomfortable reminders of the chaos that waits outside the door.

In the still silence of the room, Ratchet ventilates softly. He sits in the chair in front of Teletraan One’s terminal and stares blankly at the screen. His HUD pings him, reminders that he could use a cube of energon, but Ratchet has no urge to go to the rec room.

His chronometer reminds him that now is about the usual time he’s getting off shift in the medbay. When Jazz swings by to pick him up, usually with cube in hand, and off they go.

There’s nothing in his room to remind him of that terrible night from a week ago, and yet, the utter silence is all too telling.

Rest and recover.

As though it should be so easy.

Physically, Ratchet barely suffered any damage. A few scuffs and dents from the cuffs and one on the back of his helm from whatever Jazz had done to knock him briefly online. The worst damage is to his spark, but even that shows no outward sign of injury.

Ratchet’s insides twist, and a low grunt escapes him. He palms his chest plate, feeling the thrum of his spark beneath. A consequence of the half-initiated bond; he knows this as well as anyone. It could be weeks, months, frag even years, before all the strange sensations and stray thoughts go away. If Jazz’s memory core wasn’t wiped, if he was conscious, the feedback would be so much worse…

What will Blaster find? What if there is a virus or a glitch or something Ratchet, as the most trained medic in the Ark, should have found first? Why hadn’t that thought ever crossed his processor? Why had he automatically assumed that there was something nefarious behind the scenes?

Has the war changed his conceptions about matters? So much that he first thinks the worst of mechs, even his fellow Autobots?

Ratchet slumps in his chair, slapping a hand over his face and shuttering his optics. Too much. This is too much. Sitting here in the half-dark emptiness of his quarters with nothing but the sound of his own systems echoing around him.

He wants nothing more in this moment to be with Jazz again. The Jazz who hadn’t betrayed him and shattered his trust. He wants to curl next to the mech, listen to the familiar hum of his systems, and laugh over some shared joke. He wants Jazz to tease him, to respond with empty threats, and to feel clever fingers tease at his plating.

His spark surges, sympathetic. It feels too large for his casing, stretched and sore, if something intangible can even carry such a sensation. His frame is equally tight, too small, not enough to contain him.

Ratchet curls into himself, fighting off the waves of inevitable pain. How the frag could it have all gone so wrong?

o0o0o

“It’s not a glitch,” Blaster says, his vocalizer lacking its usual infectious cheer and amusement. “Or a virus. Not any I could recognize or categorized in any of our databanks.”

“It could be something new. It’s not unheard of for Decepticons to devise new forms of viral warfare,” Prowl suggests with the air of a grounder grasping at the clouds. Utterly pointless and only forestalling the inevitable.

Prime’s noisy ventilation does more to invoke Ratchet’s lingering guilt than the dying hope in the optics of the others in the room.

“No, Prowl, I don’t think that is the case. No matter how much we wish it were so.”

The SiC’s doors drop by a fraction of an inch as Prowl inclines his head. “The only logical conclusion is one that doesn’t bear considering.”

“Yet, it is the conclusion that must be discussed.” Prime lays his hands flat on the table, fingers spread, a gesture that indicates the difficulty of the situation. “Jazz’s actions are of his own choosing, and it is them we must judge.”

Heavy silence sweeps into the room. Ratchet can’t speak, doesn’t dare say anything for fear of how his words might be interpreted.

Red Alert places a datapad on the table, the screen dark. “What it boils down to, Prime, is whether or not we restore Jazz’s memories. That is the question we must answer. Because if we do not, we only have the options of dealing with a sparkling with Special Ops instincts, complete reprogramming, or execution.”

Ratchet flinches. He’s not the only one. Execution, even for criminal behavior, has never been done amongst the Autobots. Not even their Decepticon prisoners have ever suffered such a fate. The prospect of dealing with a sparkling in Jazz’s frame is barely the lesser of two evils. Such a reprogram would never shake the stigma of its previous life.

“I need ta know what’s really goin’ on here,” Ironhide puts in darkly, gaze shifting all around the table. “We all got the basic picture, but I still don’t get how somethin’ like this coulda happened. No offense, Ratch, but it came outta nowhere.”

“Preaching to the choir, ‘Hide,” Wheeljack mutters, indicators flashing a sullen green. “None of us thought Jazz capable.”

“Capability wasn’t in question,” Ratchet says, his spark giving an unwelcome surge that makes his plating crackle. “And I don’t have the answers for you, Ironhide. I didn’t see this coming any more than you did.”

Prowl straightens, doors held up above him in a tight configuration. “You were together for years, and there was no sign? You noticed nothing?”

The lieutenant’s questions approach accusation, one Ratchet can’t be sure if he deserves or not. His own thoughts haven’t settled one way or the other. Nevertheless, a touch of his old spirit returns as he squares his shoulders.

“Of course I noticed,” Ratchet snaps, his words a whip-crack in the otherwise tense atmosphere. “I noticed lots of things. But I didn’t automatically connect mildly possessive and weirdly obsessed with my energon habits with he’s going to force me into a spark bond!” His hands slam into the table with more force than is wise, his plating rattling audibly.

Prowl’s optics cycle down. “It’s no small wonder Jazz was confused. Particularly since to him, your rejection must have come from nowhere.”

Ratchet feels heat surge through his systems. He’s angry now, but he isn’t entirely sure it’s appropriate.

“You’re treading on dangerous ground, Prowl,” he grounds out, “to imply that my repeated requests for him to stop were somehow unclear.”

Prowl just looks at him. He and Prowl aren’t brothers by creation, but it’s a fact that is so easy to forget at times. Especially right now.

“Would such a bond have been so terrible?”

Ratchet jerks backward, spark stuttering at the tone and words both.

“Prowl!” Wheeljack interjects with a horrified blitz of static. He stares at his bonded like he’s never seen the mech before, and Ratchet can’t blame him.

“It’s a logical question,” Prowl retorts, his optics a flat shade of blue that even Sideswipe has learned to fear. “Jazz brought you energon. Saw to your needs. Cared for you. Loved you and was devoted to you. Was a bond with him truly a fate worse than deactivation?”

A low thrum resonates throughout the room as Optimus leans forward.

“Freedom is the right–”

“Freedom,” Prowl coolly interrupts, “does not exist during wartime. There is a larger picture. We are, as a species, becoming extinct. Dwindling more with each clash with the Decepticons. We need Jazz.”

Ironhide rumbles ominously. “We also need our CMO.”

“It was a spark bond. Between two mechs in a previously established relationship. Hardly deactivation,” the lieutenant retorts with the same even tone as before, all pragmatism and logic. “The Decepticons still outnumber us and have the greater firepower. We cannot afford to lose any skilled mechs. Not even for a lover’s spat.”

Prowl’s optics shift to Optimus. The room is silent then. Processing. Reaching conclusions that Ratchet doesn’t even want to fathom.

“You know that I’m right, Prime.” A shudder visibly races across his frame, but he continues without pause, “This is Jazz we’re discussing here, not some sparkless drone. More than that, he cannot even speak for himself currently.”

“Mech, you might wanna watch yer tone,” Ironhide all but growls, one hand resting on the table but the other out of sight. “Because yer also sittin’ there accusing the slaggin’ chief medical officer of not only lyin’ but deliberately cripplin’ a fellow Autobot.”

“Either way, someone is the victim, and someone is the criminal,” Blaster says, his vocalizer tuned louder than usual, as though to override any other possible commentary. “I don’t know how any of us are qualified to judge either way. We’re all biased.”

“That’s enough.” The words tumble out of Ratchet’s vocalizer before he entirely knows what he’s going to say. He finds himself on his pedes in much the same manner. “This is getting us nowhere.”

Behind him, Wheeljack shifts. “Ratch–”

It takes all he has to conceal his wince at the too-familiar nickname.

“No,” Ratchet interrupts to whatever protest Wheeljack might have intended. “Give Jazz back his memories.”

He could have called himself the spark-bonded of Unicron for all the shock that his suggestion produced. Not even Prowl looks satisfied, which only serves to boggle Ratchet further.

He can hardly blame Prowl though. He and Jazz are close. Closer than anything but the sparkmated mechs amongst the Ark’s populace. And maybe even closer than that.

Someone touches Ratchet’s arm, and if not for their familiarity from over the vorns, Ratchet might have shifted straight into offense mode. As it is, he recognizes the warm press of Wheeljack’s energy field, but the contact is still uncomfortable, still holds a faint trace of Jack’s own bondmate.

Ratchet shakes off his hand, taking a decisive step away from his closest friend.

“Maybe I overreacted,” Ratchet says in the ensuing silence, while all optics are focused his way, giving him perhaps his only real chance to speak. “Maybe I didn’t make myself clear. Maybe I’m really at fault.” He doesn’t look at anyone, instead focusing on the relative safety of the wall, which stares back at him completely without judgment. “Prowl’s right. No matter what happened; we can’t afford to lose Jazz. Not just because of the Decepticons, but also because of our fellow Autobots. He’s needed.”

“He’s not the only one.” Wheeljack tosses a cutting look toward his bonded. “You’re not indispensable either.”

“We are still fighting a war,” Ratchet reminds them, as though the command staff could have possibly forgotten.

And though part of him screams that the last thing he wants is for Jazz to pick up where he left off, he knows what’s best for the good of everyone else. So he speaks, the words coming from a numb, insentient mechanical place inside of him. Like a robot without a spark.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Even medics understand that.”

Wheeljack sputters a helpless burst of static, trapped between loyalty to his bonded and his best friend. No one else speaks yet, disheartened quiet sweeping through the small meeting room.

Logic and rationality dictate that Prowl is right. And Ratchet, too. Emotion and sentiment cry for a different approach.

“We are overlooking an important detail here,” Red Alert finally speaks up, fingers rapping over the tabletop. “Yes, it would benefit the Autobots to have Jazz’s memories returned to him. But he doesn’t need them all.”

Prime straightens then, and his optics are nothing short of grateful for the lifeline Red Alert just threw him.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t claim to understand the full mechanics of how a memory core works, but it stands to reason that backups are mere data.” Red Alert pauses for a second, and his hand stills. “Data can be altered.”

Wheeljack’s indicators pulse weakly. “That’s hardly less ethical…”

“It is the only practical option,” Red Alert corrects, and his voice is practical but somehow tired at the same time. “When did Jazz last back up his memory core?”

“Right after he returned from his last mission. Roughly a month ago,” Ratchet supplies.

And right before I officially ended our relationship.

Red Alert makes a low noise of consideration. “We would have to construct a story, of course, to cover gaps in Jazz’s memory files, but it’s not impossible.”

Prowl’s doors hike backward, rigid and unyielding. “You mean to suggest we edit a fellow Autobot’s memories and carefully construct a lie all for the sake of an act we’ve yet to prove?”

“Prowl,” Prime cuts in, his voice suddenly sharp. “I understand your reluctance to believe the worst of Jazz, and it may be that there is a serious misunderstanding here, but consistently debating what ifs is not going to solve the problem we face. We need to make a choice. For everyone’s sake.”

The tactician’s energy field ripples tangibly. His fingers curl into fists, and for a long moment, Prowl looks as if he might argue before he dips his head in acquiescence.

“Yes, Prime.”

Ratchet shutters his optics for a second before turning to Prowl.

“All you have to do is ask,” he says with an embarrassing crackle of his vocalizer. “I’ll show you what I remember of that night. You can see my memories of it, my perceptions, and then you can decide whether or not I was mistaken.”

The idea of someone uplinking to him makes Ratchet’s tanks churn, but it may be a necessary evil.

“Slaggit, medic, ya don’t hafta do that,” Ironhide insists with a fierce jerk of his hand.

“I will if I must.” Ratchet’s shoulders slump, his frame feeling tight and creaky. Old. He’s tired of fighting. “Prime?”

Optimus vents noisily, hands once again spread across the table. “No, Ratchet. That won’t be necessary.” His vocal tones shift into low register. “Jazz’s memories will be returned to him. They will be edited to suit a proper cover story. Blaster?”

The communications officer shakes his helm. “The kind of editing you’re asking for… it’s complicated and a bit out of my area of expertise. I can’t do it on my own.”

Prowl’s energy field fluctuates again. His back is now ramrod straight, and his optics all but burn.

“I refuse.”

Nearby, Blaster edges away. His own energy field draws in tightly around him as though offended by the virulent nature of the bot next to him.

“I do have someone in mind, but you’ll probably object,” Blaster comments, but his voice is a twinge hesitant.

Red Alert frowns. “Who?”

Blaster’s gaze skitters around the room. “Sideswipe.”

“Are ya glitchin?” Ironhide demands with an outraged roar that makes Ratchet flinch and shut off his reflexive battle routines.

Energy crackles between Red Alert’s helm crests, a sure sign that he does not approve.

“I do not think it’s wise–”

“–more likely to leave chaos in his wake than to–”

“–and they call me crazy.”

“I know what I’m talking about,” Blaster retorts with an indignant twitch of his armor. “Sides is a genius when it comes to this kind of stuff. And Jazz’s processor is the least linear system I’ve ever peeked into. I need Sideswipe’s help.”

Optimus drums his fingers across the table, a habit he’s picked up from Sparkplug. “You are certain he can be trusted with this task.”

“Of course, boss bot.” Blaster motions to the translucent glass of his chest compartment. “I’d stake my spark on it.”

An oath that few Cybertronians take lightly, even in these days of unending war against the Decepticons. These days, all that a bot owns is his spark.

In the wake of Blaster’s confidence, Prime leans back. He is quiet for a moment. Contemplative. Optics flicking from Ratchet to Prowl and then around the table.

“Very well,” he finally allows. “Explain to him what has happened and what you need from him. Enforce memory blocks if you must.”

Prowl bristles. His field is staticky and painful to feel, and Ratchet actually has a second to think that Prowl might actually resort to violence.

“You can’t seriously–”

“Since you refuse to attend to this matter, I will rely on whomever else can complete the task,” Prime interjects, taking on a steely note, harmonics brooking no argument.

Prowl clamps his mouthplates shut, but his gaze spits fire, and Ratchet is only grateful the tactician doesn’t have laser vision.

No one else offers an argument, however. What can they say? What other choice do they have?

o0o0o
Sometimes, it happens. Sometimes, sparks just won’t bond. Maybe the frequencies are too dissimilar, the wavelengths too dissonant. Maybe there’s an integral flaw in one spark or the other that causes them to repel. Maybe it’s just not meant to be.

No one really knows why. There’s never one simple explanation. No true way to test ahead of time.

It happens. It’s rare, but it happens. Out of all the mechs in all of Cybertron, it’s not impossible for there to be another Cybertronian whose spark frequency grates against a potential mate. But it seems a one in a billion chance to end up attached to the one mech a bot can never bond.

Ratchet himself has only seen it twice: once in a singular pair early on in his career and later in a trio that intended to trine. In both instances, the relationships dissolved, fell apart. Not only could they never touch sparks to one another, but future attempts to do so brought only pain. And for a vorn afterward, all five of Ratchet’s patients suffered from twists in their spark, interrupted recharge, and acute depression.

Sometimes, bonds just go wrong.

It’s this story that they decide to give Jazz. It’s impossible to completely remove their relationship from Jazz’s memory core. Their interactions are a core part of his day to day life for years. Not to mention the fact that everyone in the Ark knew about them, and the difficulties in keeping that secret are astronomical.

Easier to acknowledge the relationship but contrive an explanation for why Ratchet doesn’t wish to pursue it any further without prompting the same behavior as before.

They don’t even have to lie. Not really. It was a bond gone wrong. They just don’t have to tell Jazz why it had gone wrong. Let him believe they simply aren’t meant to be. Let him think that there’s still love, that he never betrayed Ratchet. Let Jazz have the happy memories. There’s no reason for him to suffer the guilt.

It’s a universal constant that the best lies are half true. It’s believable, it’s viable, and most of all, it works.

Standing here, watching Blaster and Sideswipe plug into Jazz, Ratchet isn’t sure how he’s supposed to feel. There’s pain, first of all, because even though Jazz is in a private room, he is still too close. There is a viewing window between them, but it’s not enough to stop the yearning. The aching in his spark to tear open the door to the private medberth and finish what Jazz had started.

This close, he keeps getting echoes. Out of sync pulses that are Jazz’s spark and not his own, spindly little surges that reflect their partially-finished bond.

There’s guilt, too. Seeing Jazz lying there on the berth, still and silent, makes it crop up all over again. It makes Ratchet wonder if was Prowl right? Had he made a mistake? Had he overreacted?

Affection wars with horror that battles with grief. Jazz is friend, lover, and now… now Ratchet doesn’t know what to call him. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to feel, to react. He doesn’t know how he’s going to act normal once they take Jazz out of stasis.

Behind him, the door to the medbay opens and closes, the arrival’s footsteps whisper-quiet. A subtle query from Ratchet’s sensors identify his visitor. His plating clamps down against his frame.

“Ratchet.”

He doesn’t look, doesn’t need to.

“Prowl.”

Acknowledgment given, Ratchet says nothing else. He turns his attention back to the window, where the three mechs are still as stone, practically a piece of art for all the movement Ratchet sees from them. It could be hours before they finish depending on how much of Jazz’s memory they have to alter.

Prowl steps up beside Ratchet, his gaze focused on the room as well. There’s a twitching in his doors, an annoying noise on Ratchet’s sensors, but the lieutenant doesn’t speak. Yet.

Ratchet continues to watch. Eject comes into the room, less enthusiastic than usual, setting aside a few cubes of energon for Blaster and Sideswipe. They’ll need it. He peers at Jazz, peers up at his symbiotic master, then leaves again. He and the rest of the cassettes have been tasked with subtly spreading the lie that will serve as truth to the rest of the crew.

“I owe you an apology.”

The words are sudden. Unexpected. Surprising.

Ratchet shutters his optics. “No, you don’t.”

“I do.” He senses, more than sees Prowl shift toward him, discomfort radiating from his energy field. “I have behaved–”

“In a way that is completely understandable.” Ratchet performs a systems check, gets his surging emotions under control, and onlines his optics. “I get it, Prowl. He’s your brother.”

A twitch visibly flicks across Prowl’s pristine plating. “Yes, and as such, I am not blind to his… faults.”

Faults, yes. Ratchet supposes one could call them that. Perhaps the possessive behavior is how Jazz displays the depths of his feelings for another mech. Maybe it’s the only love he’s ever known. Some might consider it a fault. Ratchet calls it an irreconcilable difference.

“I know Jazz. I know what he’s capable of.” A reflection in the glass shows Prowl’s head bowing, his optics dimming in resignation. “I merely wish it weren’t the truth.”

So. The most logical bot on the Ark had reacted most illogically.

Ratchet feels compelled to say something. How twisted is this that he is the one offering comfort?

“Bias, as Blaster so elegantly put it, makes fools of us all,” he says, focusing intently on the private medbay and the two mechs still locked in their statue-like exploration of Jazz’s memory core. “I know, Prowl. I don’t hold a grudge. I’m not offended.”

Prowl relaxes by only a fraction, just enough that Ratchet’s automatic light sensors can detect it. “Nevertheless, I apologize.”

“You’re forgiven.”

It’s a waste of energy to be angry with Prowl.

“And Jazz?”

Ratchet jerks, as though the mere designation were a physical attack. He swivels his helm toward Prowl, whose optics meet his in bland curiosity.

“Will you ever forgive him?”

A question with no answer. Ratchet doesn’t carry grudges like some other Autobots, like the Decepticons. And he doesn’t loathe Jazz, never claimed hatred either. Parts of him still long for his former partner, hungering for the joy that had been their relationship. He wishes for the days before everything went to the Pit.

He turns away.

“I can’t answer that right now.”

He doesn’t know that he’ll ever be able to answer it. Can he grant forgiveness to a bot who won’t remember what he did?

“I understand.” Prowl stares for a moment longer through the glass before he moves to the side. “He does love you.”

Like a blast to the spark. Prowl couldn’t have done more damage if he tried. Ratchet lowers his head and stares at nothing.

“I know.”

o0o0o
For Cybertronians, the human measurement of time seems so fleeting. Yet, the hours and days drag into eternity for Ratchet as he waits, on bolts and brackets, for Blaster and Sideswipe to finish their delicate work.

There is little for him to do but rest and recuperate.

One day, he and Wheeljack attend to the disquieting task of retrieving Ratchet’s belongings from Jazz’s quarters. It takes every ounce of tungsten-will that Ratchet owns to walk into that room, rich with memories good and bad, and box back up the trinkets and odds and ends that belong to him.

Save for the items that Jazz had arranged on the shelves, most are still in the box. Ratchet pretends to be completely focused on removing his and adding them to the metal case. He lets Wheeljack poke around Jazz’s quarters, careful to disturb nothing else, finding other items of Ratchet’s that might have wandered out of the box.

He pointedly does not look at the berth. It’s a simple piece of furniture, but for Ratchet, it symbolizes much more. Better to pretend he can’t see it. Better to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Most of that night is a haze to Ratchet. He suspects a bit of corruption in his short-term memory banks due to the failed bond is to blame. It doesn’t bother him that he can’t recall the finer details. The broader picture is enough to make his tanks lurch.

He can still remember the way Jazz looked at him, completely perplexed. As though he couldn’t understand why Ratchet wouldn’t be thrilled for them to cohabitate. As though they are suddenly speaking two different languages, one of which is completely incomprehensible to the multi-lingual Jazz.

Ratchet remembers the moment he realized something wasn’t quite right in Jazz’s reasoning, and he ought to make himself scarce. The instant he turned on a pede and tried to leave, not once even considering that Jazz would do something drastic. Not once fearing to turn his back on his ally and friend and lover.

Overlying it all, Ratchet remembers waking on Jazz’s berth, held down by stasis cuffs with Jazz perched over him. Fingers lazily tweaking Ratchet’s sensitive circuitry, nonchalantly prodding him toward desire.

“Ratchet?”

He reaches down, hefting the box into his arms. “I’m fine,” he says stubbornly and makes for the door. All the better to leave as soon as possible.

“You’re not,” Wheeljack counters, equally stubborn as he follows Ratchet out. “But I guess sometimes it’s easier to believe a lie.”

Ratchet refrains from replying. His best friend doesn’t deserve bitter tirades and furious rants.

He begs off Wheeljack’s offer to join him for some energon. Ratchet doesn’t want any company. He prefers the emptiness of his personal quarters, boxes of his belongings stacked against a wall. Ratchet suspects he wouldn’t be much company right now anyway, and he doesn’t want to say something he’d regret.

It’s not Wheeljack’s fault that Ratchet’s spark aches on a daily basis now. Or that he can’t recharge anymore because the memory ghosts have become unbearable.

It would be easier, Ratchet suspects, if his fragged processor would focus on the unhappy, uncomfortable memories. Instead, his systems flag all the gentler, loving times. He relives them over and over in stark technicolor, full audio and other sensations.

Jazz laughing as he teases Ratchet into bristling. Jazz dragging him onto the dance floor, using moves that better resemble the human’s messy style of interfacing. Jazz handing him needed tools as he struggles to save Fireflight’s life, a silent and strong support.

Jazz curling around him much later that evening, still wordless, spark humming and sending out waves of reassurance and consolation.

Ratchet lies on his berth, staring blankly at the ceiling. His system flags important medical files, ones that explain his condition, describe treatments. Logically, he knows he could probably use a counseling session or two. Logically, he knows that his current behavior is not healthy.

The Ark feels ten times smaller than it actually is. The dimensions haven’t changed, but it’s still too confined. Blaster and Sideswipe are almost done; they’ll be taking Jazz out of medical stasis soon. Then, the Ark will be even smaller.

Ratchet shutters his optics. He’s not ready for this, despite what lies he’s told his Prime.

It’s too soon.

o0o0o
It’s his medbay, and by all rights, Ratchet should be there when they finally pull Jazz from stasis. There are many logical reasons for why he needs to be present.

For once, Ratchet obeys the lurching in his spark and ignores practicality.

“I can’t.” Ratchet stands in front of Optimus, his armor plating clamped down tight and his energy field equally enclosed. “I don’t want to be, and I can’t. First Aid is more than capable of bringing him out.”

Prime’s optics dim with sadness. This situation hasn’t been easy for him either.

“I understand. I am certain that Prowl can devise an appropriate explanation.”

“He won’t even have to lie.” Ratchet doesn’t bother to hide the bitterness in his tone, lifting a hand to rub his chestplate, where his spark continues to twist and surge. “The pain is uncomfortable now. It’ll be worse when he’s conscious.”

And he can’t say for certain that he’ll be strong enough to resist the temptation. The desire to complete the bond just to make the agony go away.

“Is there anything that will help?”

Ratchet drops his hand. “Distance. Proximity makes it worse.”

He hasn’t been in the medbay since his last conversation with Prowl. He misses it, feeling cut off from a part of his life that had become so ingrained since their crash landing on Earth. But Jazz and the memories are just as bad in that space.

Prime’s energy field tentatively reaches out. It’s flavored with the mystique of the Matrix, volunteering comfort and balance.

“The humans have something called a sabbatical where they take a long break from their work.”

He doesn’t immediately rebuff Optimus’ gentle offer. The energy between them is the most contact Ratchet has allowed anyone since Jazz’s attempt to spark-bond him.

“Are you telling me to take a vacation?”

Ratchet would be amused were it any other situation. Prime and Prowl have been trying to get their CMO to take a break for years, and he suspected they intended to recruit Jazz into their efforts if things hadn’t changed.

“It can only be a benefit, old friend.” Optimus vents heavily, betraying his unease about the entire situation. “I am certain First Aid and Wheeljack can handle things in your absence. You deserve it. I’d only insist that you do not go alone.”

Ratchet’s shoulders slump.

Alone is what he wants to be. He has no interest in listening to some mech’s idea of advice or enduring soft-sparked attempts at consolation. He wants to deal with this in his own way even if it means ignoring medical advice. He knows he shouldn’t be alone, but fraggit…

“Then I can’t take Wheeljack,” Ratchet responds, already running through a list of mechs. His closest friend is the only one he’d feel remotely comfortable with at the moment. And there are only so many bots who know the truth.

“No. He will be needed here. I had someone else in mind.” Here, Optimus hesitates, his field wavering before acquiring a flare of determination. “Sideswipe and Sunstreaker.”

Ratchet reboots his audials twice. He’s absolutely certain that he must have caught a glitch.

“The twins?” he half-asks, half-demands.

The look Optimus gives him is purely honest but also purely mischievous at the same time.

“They are aware of the situation, will provide adequate backup on the off-chance you run into the Decepticons.” He sobers then. “They also have a keen understanding of difficulties regarding bonds.”

Ratchet lapses into silence, though his plating still trembles with shock. Optimus’ reasoning is sound… But the twins? The two mechs who make a game out of seeing who can get a rise out of Ratchet first and fastest?

“I’ll have dismantled them before two days is up,” the medic mutters.

Optimus transmits a wordless glyph of disagreement. “They may surprise you.”

He could protest, suggest a different pair of escorts. Ironhide and Hound, perhaps. But for all of Ironhide’s bluster, he is gentle at spark. He’d probably treat Ratchet like a piece of breakable crystal, stuttering and stumbling about the entire time. And Hound would be even worse, especially since he doesn’t know the entire truth. They’d be a pair of nanny-bots really.

There are others, but in the end, Ratchet thinks his Prime is right. If there’s two mechs he can count on not to coddle him or offer unwanted advice and who might actually be able to treat him normal, like he wants, it’s the twins.

The fight goes out of Ratchet with a hiss of depressurizing hydraulics.

“Fine.”

Optimus has the decency to keep quiet after that.

o0o0o
They leave before dawn strikes, taking an eastern trek toward distant borders. Ratchet has no clear destination in mind, and maybe that’s for the best. Maybe some idle wandering on the open road will clear his processors, let his systems settle and give him a chance for some decent recharge.

The twins surge ahead of him, always within sensor distance, but a bit too eager to be out from under Prowl’s eagle-optics and disapproving supervision. Optimus had claimed a worry about Decepticon activity. Ratchet, however, is far from a fool. Prime wasn’t worried about what Megatron might do if he noticed the CMO was wandering around alone. Optimus was concerned about what Ratchet might do to himself if left alone.

He approximates a snort. Yes, he’s probably teetering on the edge of a consuming depression, spiraling downward. Self-harm, however, is not within his programming. He just needs time, space, a chance to let his spark recover away from Jazz’s unconscious influence.

He has to be ready to face Jazz on his return. Deal with the memories he has that Jazz won’t. He has to act normal, pretend like nothing’s wrong.

Right now, Ratchet wants to wallow. Wants to indulge in knowing that nothing is on kilter in his world and let everything tilt on its axis.

“Ratchet!” Sideswipe whines over the comms, swerving across the road a good mile ahead of him. “You’re moving too slow! I know you’ve got a higher top speed than that!”

“Mute it,” Ratchet retorts with an aggravated chuff. “And use a little encryption, slagger. I’m not eager to encounter any ‘Cons today. I put you two back together enough as it is.”

“I think a little destruction would do you some good,” Sunstreaker counters, adding in his two creds worth. At least he has enough sense to use a few levels of encryption though. “It’s the best kind of distraction.”

Ratchet transmits a noncommittal sound. Battle isn’t his kind of processor-clearing activity. Not at all.

The twins slow down a little then, allowing him to catch up. Sideswipe takes point with Sunstreaker trailing after Ratchet.

“So where are we going?” Sides asks, drifting back and forth across the road. Heedless to oncoming traffic except when he swerves to avoid with an aft-wiggle of dangerous glee.

Ratchet doesn’t bother to reprimand him. “I don’t know.”

“How long will we be gone?” Sunstreaker questions instead.

“A week. Maybe two.”

Fourteen days isn’t nearly long enough for Ratchet to feel normal again, but it’s better than nothing. It’s better than having to stand there while Jazz onlines, feeling his spark tug and tug, his chestplates parting of their own accord.

Sunstreaker makes a noise of disgust. “We better run into some ‘Cons then.”

“Don’t mind him. Tracks nicked the last of his polish, and he’s pouting,” Sideswipe puts in, and Ratchet detects the presence of narrow-band comms.

“Am not,” the ever social yellow twin retorts.

“He totally is,” Sides says with a smug tone and drops back a pace, the nose of his alt-mode gently tapping Ratchet’s. “Mind if I pick a destination then?”

Ratchet edges away. “I’m not helping you cause any mayhem.”

“Who? Me?” Were Sideswipe in root mode, Ratchet imagines he’d be utilizing his best innocent look, one that only Bluestreak can pull off effectively. “Seriously, Ratch, I was thinking about Yosemite.”

Ratchet’s flinch melts away as he manually reboots his audial sensors.

“The National Park?”

“I wanna see Old Faithful,” Sideswipe practically sing-songs.

“The Grand Prismatic Spring,” Sunstreaker adds, a quieter murmur that nonetheless proves he is also interested in visiting the park.

Color him surprised. Ratchet would have never expected either twin to be interested in Earth’s natural wonders. He can’t think of a reason not to go. Yellowstone would be a suitable distraction at least. And it’s not as though Ratchet has any better ideas.

“It’s as good enough a course as any,” Ratchet finally allows. “Lead the way.”

o0o0o

–seems to be no complication with the altered memory files. Jazz appears to accept all explanations without suspicion. He asked about you, of course, immediately after onlining. But Prowl was there, and he handled everything. He complained of pain, but after I did a scan, it seemed to be a consequence of the incomplete bond. I’ve scanned him every day since just to be sure.

He’s trying to be normal, but even Gears commented that something’s off with him. He’s depressed, obviously, and he keeps asking about you. Wanting to know when you’ll come back and if you’re in pain, too.

We had a skirmish the other day. I don’t know what Megatron hoped to accomplish with such a disorganized raid, but we stopped him with only some minor injuries. I had to weld Ironhide’s right axle again. You should take another look at it, Ratchet. Just in case.

Come back soon.

The transmission ends with a glyph that identifies First Aid. The whole report carries an overtone of sparkfelt concern and personal unease. Aid is a capable medic, but Ratchet knows that his apprentice doesn’t feel ready to assume complete control over the Ark’s entire medical operations.

Ratchet files a copy the report away, certain that there’ll be more to come. He hadn’t asked his apprentice to do so, but First Aid must feel obligated.

Venting softly, Ratchet stares at the whole of Yellowstone spread out below him. The scenery is beautiful; Hound would love it here. Acres of lush forest and endless plains, wild animals roaming. Ratchet looks at it without really seeing it.

The distance has helped, but he still knew the very moment Jazz came online. Even across hundreds of miles, Ratchet’s spark leapt in eager excitement. Spinning brightly in its chamber, making him stumble mid-step. He’d been secretly glad that the twins had bounded ahead of him, letting him recover from his stagger in solitude.

He catches echoes from time to time. Moments of stronger emotions from Jazz, such as joy or sadness. Once, there was anger, which made Ratchet curious. What could have possibly angered the usually calm bot to such a degree?

There is also amusement.

Sometimes, Ratchet gets fleeting glimpses. Images, one might say. He doesn’t know if they are because of what Jazz himself is viewing. Or if they are fabrications of Ratchet’s own aching spark. Or if it’s some mystical combination of the two. Sometimes, those are accompanied by sounds.

Jazz’s voice. His laugh.

It’s disturbing. Disturbing and depressing and disappointing, and Ratchet isn’t sure exactly how he’s supposed to feel about it. Nothing seems simple anymore. Nothing is painted in lines of black and white. Instead draped in shades of grey that leave him stumbling around wondering yet again if he’d done the right thing.

“Bonding wouldn’t have been enough.”

Ratchet startles at the unexpected voice; his sensors are tuned down to their lowest setting since the wildlife had been given them fits. He twists to the right, where Sideswipe is sitting down beside him, completely without invitation.

“You–”

“Oh, it’ll have calmed him for a while,” Sides continues blandly, as though Ratchet’s half-stuttered response hadn’t even pinged on his radar. “But I bet he would’ve wanted more.”

“You wouldn’t have been happy like that,” Sunstreaker comments, appearing on Ratchet’s other side and nearly causing spark-arrest. “Owned. Coddled. It would’ve been a cage.”

“One made of love maybe but a prison all the same,” Sideswipe adds in that usual eerie fashion the twins sometimes employ when they complete each other’s thoughts.

It’s tempting, but in the end, Ratchet decides not to ask. Despite their annoying tendencies, their berserker tactics on the battlefield, and their aggravating codependence on one another, the twins have always had an odd and unique way of seeing to the core of a problem. Ratchet doesn’t know how, and he prefers not to delve too deeply into the particulars of it. All he does is fix things.

He vents, shifting so that his optics capture the view again rather than look at either twin.

“You believe me.”

A sound of metal ringing on metal as Sides taps his helm. “Been in Jazz’s head.”

“Would’ve believed you anyway,” Sunny mutters on Ratchet’s other side, and his arm brushes the medic’s, field a tentative flicker of concern. “Jazz is as fragged as the rest of us; he just hides it better.”

“We think it’s better this way, too. We like going into the medbay without fearing for our plating,” Sideswipe insists. “Aside from your wrenches, of course.”

“Who else could we get to put us back together?” Sunstreaker questions, but there’s genuine affection in his tone.

“We can’t do it ourselves.”

“Yeah. Remember that time Sides put his left leg on backwards?” the golden twin asks. “He never got anywhere.”

The red twin chortles, hands lifting in great caricature of his own actions back then. “I just kept going forward and backward at the same time.”

“It was embarrassing.”

Ratchet shakes his helm. He’ll never understand the twins, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I do have an apprentice, you know. Aid is more than capable of reattaching missing limbs and fixing the both of you.”

Sideswipe jostles him with an elbow. “Yeah, but he doesn’t know how to do the tough love. He’s all about hugging.”

“And those optics!” Sunstreaker does a fair exaggeration of a shudder. “They’re dangerous! I can’t argue with those optics.”

Amusement threatens to wheedle its way past Ratchet’s defenses. “You two are impossible sometimes.”

“Yeah, but ya love us anyway.” Sides smirks and leaps to his pedes, planting his hands on his hips. “C’mon, Ratch. Sitting here moping is boring. And Sunny’s getting dirt on his finish.”

“I am not!” Nevertheless, the other twin jumps up as though an Insecticon took a bite out of his aft. “There’s not a scuff on me!”

The two dissolve into their usual squabble, which is sure to end up in the exchange of blows. Ratchet shakes his helm, climbing slowly to his pedes. This so-called vacation isn’t quite what he had planned, but it is a useful distraction.

Optimus was right in the end. The twins are a good choice.

o0o0o
Returning to the Ark makes Ratchet feel at once uneasy and relieved. He’s happy to be home again, to recharge in a berth, drink fresh energon, and get back to work in his medbay. He doesn’t feel quite right unless he’s surrounded by his tools, the hum of the Ark, instant access to Teletraan One and most of his friends within scanning distance.

That he and the twins arrive not long after Jazz has left for a patrol with Smokescreen is no coincidence. Ratchet doesn’t feel up to confronting him yet. He doesn’t know what he’ll say, doesn’t know how he’s supposed to feel about it, and not even a few weeks have taken the sting out of his spark.

The ghostly images are starting to fade. And the times of experiencing Jazz’s emotions are coming less and less. But Ratchet honestly doesn’t know long it’s going to take before it all goes away. Before he can feel like himself again and not some half-amalgamated version.

Wheeljack is waiting for him at the front entrance.

“Hey, Ratch.”

He considers the fact that he doesn’t flinch at the friendly nickname a step up from his earlier behavior.

“Hey, Jack.”

“Feeling better?”

Ratchet approximates a snort. “Somewhat.” He pauses, glancing back at his escorts and guardians. “Your duty is done, brats. Scram.”

Sideswipe grins, executing a playful salute. “Our duty is never done, Ratchet. You still haven’t reforged us into toasters.” He laughs as he skips past both engineer and medic, entering the Ark.

“Come see me later,” Sunstreaker says, his optics performing a quick sweep from Ratchet’s chevron down to his pedes. “Your paint is a disgrace.”

“Sunstreaker!” Wheeljack sounds horrified, his indicators flashing a shocked purple.

The yellow twin rolls his shoulders in a lazy shrug. “What? I’m being honest.” He too disappears inside then.

Ratchet now has no buffer between himself and the lengthy, scrutinizing look Wheeljack is giving him.

“What?” he barks.

“How are you doing?” his friend asks, all soft tones and gentle glyphs. Like one might speak to a feral turbofox or a terrified and weeping human.

Ratchet stomps past his best friend. He feels the weight of the past months on his shoulders, and now, there’s no welcoming lover to ease the burden.

“Like I’m ready to be useful again,” he finally decides.

Wheeljack follows. “Is that a good idea?”

“Yes, it fragging is.” His words are sharp, testy, and Ratchet performs a systems check just to calm himself down. “I need to get my hands busy. I need to do something. I can’t sit around and think anymore.”

“Stubborn aft.”

Wheeljack’s mutter is just loud enough for Ratchet to catch. He refrains from commenting.

“Ratchet!” In the hallway ahead of them, Bluestreak grins at the medic. “Welcome back!”

He grunts something that is more or less a greeting. Bluestreak, however, is unfazed, continuing on his merry way. A few others looks up and give similar greetings as Ratchet goes by. They don’t seem to mind his gruffness either.

“Prime’s gonna want to talk to you,” Wheeljack says, drawing up beside Ratchet as Fireflight wanders away. “Make sure you’re okay and all that.”

Ratchet expected as much. He doesn’t look forward to that particular conversation. But he dreads encountering Jazz even more. Speaking of…

“How’s Jazz?”

“Better than you. He doesn’t have the truth glitching up his memory core.” Wheeljack’s tone borders this side of bitter.

Ratchet whirls on a heel. “Jack, this isn’t easy on anyone.”

“Easier for him.” Wheeljack tilts his helm upward, unperturbed by Ratchet’s frazzled energy field. “He’s got Prowl to help him. And plenty of bots who don’t know a slagged thing. While you wandered into the wilderness for two weeks. So yeah, he’s doing a lot better than you.” Jack leans closer, indicators flashing a sour yellow. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

To do so would be a lie. And Ratchet’s done enough of that today.

“I’m tired,” he says instead and starts back down the corridor. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Jack.”

Wheeljack doesn’t follow him. Ratchet can feel his optics anyway.

o0o0o
The first time he sees Jazz is nearly a week later, when Ratchet wanders into the rec room for a cube of midgrade before he slips into early recharge. Wheeljack hovers at his side like an overprotective caregiver, practically welded to his hip.

Ratchet spots Jazz immediately, as though the saboteur has some sort of homing beacon connected to Ratchet’s body. Jazz is sitting at a table, surrounded by members of his team, smiling through the fatigue evident in his clamped plating, dim optics, and drooping doors. His paintjob and wax have suffered, leaving him looking scuffed and dull, and his smile is lopsided.

Ratchet lurches mid-step, spark whirling eagerly, and nearly tips over. Wheeljack’s quick reflexes are all that saves the engineer from being knocked to the ground.

Ratchet stares. He stares at Jazz like he’s never seen the saboteur before, his chest aching and his vents stalled. He gropes at his chassis, fingers finding the invisible seam in his chestplates and tracing it. As though considering how much effort it would take to coax them open, to reveal his wildly spinning spark to the room at large but most importantly to Jazz as well. Heat cascades across his sensory net, cooling fans kicking on with a quiet whine.

Jazz looks up then, their optics meeting, and Ratchet swears the world does this strange tilting, tunnel-vision sort of thing. His spark surges, a bright flush of expanding energy, and a keen escapes Ratchet’s vocalizer before he can stop it. Before he can so much as get a grip on himself.

He’s incapable of moving, of accessing higher processor functions. He can only stare, his spark responding of its own accord. A hundred images coasting through his active memory.

All conversation in the room has stopped. Everyone’s staring. How can they not? This is obviously a spectacle, the sight of sharp-mouthed Ratchet made speechless.

Someone touches his arm. No, grips his elbow.

“Ratchet?” Wheeljack. He’d know his best friend’s voice anywhere even if it is spoken subvoc. “You’re scaring me.”

He’s scaring himself. He’s never felt so weak.

The sound of a chair scooting backward is all too loud in the silence. Jazz is rising to his feet, doors high and tense behind him.

Ratchet’s not ready for this. He won’t ever be ready for this.

He whirls, all but knocking Wheeljack out of his way, and leaves. Not fleeing. Ratchet would never call it running away. But he’s definitely making haste, heading straight back to the medbay because his personal quarters are no solace either.

His office is his best option. He can lock the doors with a code only the Prime and Prowl can override. Well, Jazz could probably hack it if he wanted to, but Ratchet hopes there is a sliver of propriety left in his ex-partner.

The medbay is quiet. Empty. Perfect.

Ratchet goes into his office, shuts the door, and sinks into his chair. His spark thuds within the chamber as he buries his face in his hands, struggling to get himself back together. It’s a losing battle. There’s a distinct rattle in his plating, and his hands won’t stop shaking.

His office isn’t soundproof. So he knows when someone else comes in, and not long after, a second pair of steps follow. A brief scan identifies the mechs, not that Ratchet needed more than a single guess for each of them.

“Now’s not a good time, Jazz.”

“Is he all right?”

Anxiety. Worry. Sparkfelt, not a lie.

“It’s still too soon,” Wheeljack says consolingly, no doubt planted between Jazz and the door to Ratchet’s office.

Primus, just the sound of Jazz’s voice is too much. Ratchet swears it’s echoing around his spark chamber, setting the energies into a chaotic frenzy.

“But…” A resigned sigh. “Can ya do somethin’ fer me then? Tell ‘im I’m sorry.”

“Of course.”

Wheeljack’s vocal tones are wary, but not condescending.

“Thanks.” A pause, a shifting of gears. “And here. Since he didn’t get any. Just… I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

Steps fade, the medbay doors open and close. A faint tapping on Ratchet’s door is Wheeljack’s soft request to be let inside. Ratchet allows him.

He looks up as the engineer enters and his tanks lurch. Wheeljack’s carrying a cube of energon, which he then sets on the corner of Ratchet’s desk in easy reaching distance.

Ratchet groans at the sight of it. Just like old times, eh, medic? Jazz taking care of you like he used to. Like he wants to.

Wheeljack’s field fluctuates with uncertainty. “Ratchet…”

“What am I supposed to do?” he demands, fist thumping the desk. “Was I wrong? Did I overreact?”

It hurts. By Primus! Like someone’s scouring his spark chamber with acid. He’s getting push-pulls of emotion, worry-affection-guilt-love-remorse, and Ratchet can’t be sure if they are his or Jazz’s or some combination of the two.

Wheeljack drags a chair over, sitting down in front of Ratchet. “Do you want to rekindle your relationship with him?”

The question is tentative, soft. As though Wheeljack almost doesn’t dare voice it. By contrast, Ratchet’s tone is laced with static.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to uplink with him?”

Alien sensation of someone sifting through his systems without his permission. Unable to access his own subroutines, unable to shove the invader out. He’s helpless, like he’s never been helpless before and not even a violent scrub will ever get him clean.

Ratchet’s tanks churn, rumbling on fumes. And eager even to expel those.

“…I couldn’t.”

Wheeljack vents audibly. “Ratchet, all Jazz can remember is the good times. In his processor, nothing ever happened except for a failed bond. He won’t understand why this is hurting you.”

It’s too much effort to raise his head.

“Is Prowl right then? Should I have just let the bond happen?”

Jack lets out more air. Long and low.

“Only you can answer that.”

Ratchet shutters his optics. He doesn’t know that he can answer that. Not when all he can see are shimmering images of that betrayed look on Jazz’s face and all he can hear is Jazz’s voice.

This’s supposed ta be a good thing! Yer supposed ta love me!

Love. What a twisted, foolish notion.

Ratchet doesn’t have an answer. And he doesn’t say anything when the engineer presses the cube into his hand either. He just drinks it in silence, wondering if he’s ever going to feel normal again.

o0o0o
Weeks pass.

Ratchet’s life settles into a sort of routine. Maintenance checks and supply requisitioning and medbay overhauls and recharges spent staring at the ceiling and energon consumed quickly without pleasure because his system needs it and no other reason.

He doesn’t see Jazz except in brief glimpses. Ratchet’s dignity is saved from overreacting as he had earlier. It’s easy to avoid the saboteur who seems to be making his own efforts to stay away in return. The half-lie, half-truth that proximity only prolongs the pain seems to be enough incentive.

Busy work keeps Ratchet just that. Busy. He heals a bit more, the pains easing into a dull throb that worsens with fatigue and exertion but only then. The flashes of Jazz’s daily life have all but ceased, though he still catches echoes of stronger emotions. It’s a minor improvement but still improvement.

Wheeljack has finally stopped trailing him around like a second shadow. Prowl is most grateful for this as he’s happy to have his sparkmate around again. Even so, Ratchet is hardly ever alone. The twins come by daily to needle him, bring him energon, and so that Sunstreaker can nag Ratchet about his scuffed paint. Aid is a constant presence, eager to learn more, eager to distract. And of course, Gears and his regular complaints about his various creaks, leaks, and discomforts.

It’s a familiar sort of busy, and Ratchet embraces it gladly.

Early one shift, however, Mirage and Bumblebee come to call. The look of gravity on Mirage’s face is not uncommon, but Bee’s solemnity is worrisome.

Ratchet puts down the tools he’d been cleaning and immediately scans both for possible issues.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” he asks even as his scans come up clean, though Bumblebee could stand to have a few worn circuits replaced.

The two mechs exchange a glance. But it’s Bee who speaks, probably volunteered for the act.

“We wanted to apologize.”

Ratchet reboots his audials. “You… what?”

They can’t mean what he thinks they mean. Right?

“Apologize,” Mirage repeats, his clear vocals a deep trill. “First, for not coming forward sooner. And second, for not helping to prevent the current… ah, circumstances.”

Ratchet retreats a step. He knows that they know then. It really doesn’t come as a surprise. They’re Spec Ops. Same as Jazz.

But they really don’t have anything to do with the current mess.

“I’m not sure I follow,” he states with confusion, but an inkling of wonder and worry both shoots down Ratchet’s plating. “This isn’t your fault.”

“Of course not,” Bumblebee says with a bit more bark than Ratchet would have thought him capable of.

“However, we feel that apologies must be made.” Mirage shimmers a bit, as though fighting to stay visible. “We always suspected something like this might happen. Not if but when.”

“Though to be fair we didn’t think he’d go so far.” Bumblebee runs a hand over his helm. “Jazz always gets possessive, but…”

Ratchet’s hands are fists now, and his tone is too cold.

“Who told you?”

The two exchange glances again, and Ratchet detects the low vibrations of narrow-band comms between them.

“No one,” Bumblebee assures.

“We figured it out for ourselves. It wasn’t hard,” Mirage adds. “He’s our commander. We know him better than anyone.” A wry smile curves the noble’s lips. “We’ve felt the brunt of his nature before.”

Bumblebee shutters his optics. “Red Alert will never ask to borrow either of us for a mission ever again.”

Mirage steps closer. His field tentatively seeks Ratchet’s, a contact that the medic slowly accepts.

“So we understand, and we think it’s better this way. Safer, too. For everyone.”

Ratchet stares. “You can’t mean–”

“We do,” Bee cuts in, and he doesn’t look the least bit innocent or young. “We know Jazz.”

“We know how he is,” Mirage explains, and his tone says nothing and everything. “We know him better than any save Prowl. Or now perhaps you.”

His optics are dark and glittering. Ratchet wants to step back, to not feel Mirage so close. To have his energy field full not of sympathy or pity but sorrow. Understanding.

“We are sorry, Ratchet,” Mirage repeats. “More than you will ever know.”

Ratchet offlines his optics but says nothing. After all, there’s nothing more to say.

o0o0o
Megatron can never stay silent for long, and if he is, Ratchet can bet it’s because he’s cooked up another hare-brained scheme to obtain galactic domination. Whatever nonsense the Decepticon leader concocts, however, Megatron is still dangerous. As is his army. And all Ratchet can do is put the broken bots back together again.

They win, sending the ‘Cons scurrying about to their leaking, underwater lair. But it’s not easy. It never is, and sometimes Ratchet wonders if they are all just fighting for the sake of fighting now. Because they don’t know any better.

The medbay is the picture of chaos. Scanners screaming data, mechs comming him with updates on their patient’s status, the smell of scorched metal thick in the air. The frantic scamper of pedes across the floor. Yelling for supplies, for help. Energon and coolant making footing treacherous.

Ratchet recalls it all clinically, even as he struggles to fix Sunstreaker, the twin’s spark guttering before his eyes. Sideswipe is no help on the matter, hovering over his brother anxiously, getting in the way more often than not. Ratchet doesn’t have the spark to throw him out.

First Aid is bent over Smokescreen, frantically patching up scores of pierced energon lines from some kind of shrapnel-based projectile. Wheeljack’s unconscious, unable to help anyone much less himself, but at least he’s stable. Perceptor has his hands full with Warpath, and Bluestreak is doing his best to help Skyfire repair Grapple. Hoist, meanwhile, has Air Raid, and even Prime is here, helping weld Mirage back together.

It’s a madhouse.

Ratchet doesn’t have enough hands. He doesn’t have the tools, and there’s only one of him and too many bots to fix. Too many close calls.

Sunstreaker’s frame jerks beneath his hands, monitors screeching out their distress, and Ratchet curses. An energon line starts spurting bright pink into the air. Sideswipe hyperventilates, caterwauling, energy field a dizzying press of anxiety-fear-pain.

Ratchet needs a clamp. A clamp and a micro-welder and another pair of hands, and he’s ashamed of himself. Because as Sunstreaker’s vitals are stuttering, for the first time, Ratchet feels normal. He gropes around his tool tray, scattering his equipment everywhere, and that’s when a micro-welder appears in front of him. As if summoned.

He half-glances over his shoulder with a grateful look and sees Jazz standing there, silently offering the needed tool. Their optics meet, and a shiver races through Ratchet’s spark. He doesn’t speak, can’t speak, just takes the micro-welder and gets back to work.

“Grab a clamp,” Ratchet orders as Jazz shoulders Sideswipe out of the way, nimble fingers already reaching into Sunstreaker’s chassis. “Before Sunny bleeds out everywhere.”

“Whatever ya say, Ratch.”

To his credit, he doesn’t flinch.

It’s an improvement, one Ratchet latches onto gladly. He bends over Sunstreaker again, micro-welder moving into place. The yellow twin is going to live, fraggit. Primus help them all.

o0o0o
It’s late, near dawn by the time everyone is stable enough for Ratchet to sit down and let his processors settle. No one’s going to offline; they’ll all live to fight another day. It’s another small miracle, pulled from who knows where, and Ratchet feels the fatigue of it settle down to his struts.

The medbay is still, only the sound of monitoring systems piercing the quiet. Sunstreaker’s still here, Sides curled up next to him on the tiny berth. So are Warpath and Smokescreen, but they are all under a medically-induced recharge.

The doors swish open, Ironhide stepping inside like a mech with a mission, a cube in each hand. The iridescent magenta of the energon identifies high-grade. Ratchet’s tanks give a thirsty gurgle.

Ironhide smirks. “Thought ya’d be interested.” He wiggles one cube in Ratchet’s direction.

“Give it here,” the medic grumbles in response.

Ironhide settles down beside him. He hands over the cube and pops open his own.

“Don’t I get a thank ya?”

Ratchet grunts. “Thanks.”

He quickly downs about a third of the cube, cringing as it goes down thick and oily. Rife with impurities sure to leave behind a kick. He’ll online regretting it tomorrow. But it’s worth it.

“Ya did good today,” Ironhide says then, fiddling with his own cube. His field is tangible, but his emotions are closed off. “Everyone’s alive thanks to ya.”

Ratchet makes a noncommittal noise.

“Noticed ya didn’t act up when Jazz appeared.”

He slants a look sideways. “What’re you getting at, old mech?”

“Yer one ta talk.”

Ratchet sucks down another third. He shudders as it hits his tanks.

“You’re the one who showed up in here with something on your processor.”

Ironhide nudges him with an elbow. “Talk ta me, Ratch. Yer strugglin’. Tell me, and I can help.”

Ratchet waves him off automatically. He thinks to finish his energon but holds off for a moment.

“You can’t.”

“I can try.”

Ratchet’s vents stutter, and he balances his elbows on his knees. He needs more high-grade. He really does.

“I don’t know how I’m supposed to fix myself much less tell anyone else the answers.” He finishes off his cube before tossing the empty container over his shoulder, where it dissolves into nothing before hitting the floor.

Ironhide pushes another one toward him. “I guess it really depends on what the questions are.”

There is only that has taken prominence in Ratchet’s thoughts lately.

“Did I do the right thing?”

“Would ya have been happy bonded ta him?” Ironhide asks with a surprising amount of intuition.

Ratchet lifts the new cube, admiring the less-magenta, more-mauve color of the energon. There were good times, lots of them. He remembers being happy with Jazz before all the craziness started. He remembers being comfortable and challenged. Laughing and teasing, soft touches interspersed with welcome rougher edges. He remembers long nights and early mornings.

Most of all, Ratchet recalls affection. Perhaps in his more dangerous, illogical times, he might have even called it love. That sort of emotion can’t be easily tossed aside. Ratchet hasn’t immediately shifted into loathing. He doesn’t even despise Jazz.

“Maybe,” Ratchet admits, and it’s the sort of admission that makes him ache deep down. “If he’d asked. In the far, far future.” He pauses, spark fluctuating weakly. “If he’d asked.”

Ironhide makes a rumbly noise of contemplation. “If ya ask me, Ratch. I don’t think yer angry enough.”

Ratchet looks up from his cube, startled.

Ironhide swigs his high-grade as though it has less kick than gasoline. “Sure, Jazz is our friend, ally, we all trust ‘im. But you trusted him the most.” He peers intently into his empty cube before tossing it. “It’s just not right what he did. When a mech says no, that should be it. Ya don’t press the issue.”

“But–”

“But nothing.”

Ironhide pulls another cube out of subspace, cracking it open. Ratchet only tangentially wonders where he got them from.

“We ain’t like the humans. Spark-bonding’s nothing to chuff at. It’s permanent, Ratchet.”

He scoffs loudly. “You don’t have to explain that to me.”

“I think I do.” Ironhide sits up, turns toward Ratchet, and pins him with those bright optics with the same unerring intensity he gives a battle. “Ya ask me if ya did the right thing like ya weren’t attacked. Cause ya were. And from a military standpoint, ya were fightin’ fer yer life.”

The draws the medic up short.

Ironhide has a point. One Ratchet has only considered in passing but never put much weight into. The spark is a bot’s life. If it’s no longer his own, if it’s taken from him, what then is his life?

Ratchet’s fingers twitch around his cube. “It’s not the worst fate to be bonded to that devoted of a partner.”

“And if Jazz hadn’t forced it, I could give ya that point.” Ironhide rolls his shoulders. “But if he was willin’ to force that, what else would he decide is necessary? What else would you have to give up?”

He tips back half the high grade. He feels his systems stutter at the influx of ultra-rich energon.

“You make a compelling case,” Ratchet admits very slowly.

“I know that I do.” Ironhide throws back the rest of his cube and climbs to his feet, looking down at the medic. “I like Jazz. I do. He’s one of the best ‘bots ta have at your back and at your side. But even I can see when some thing’s just aren’t meant ta be.”

With that little nugget of wisdom, Ironhide takes his leave. Ratchet is left with third a cube and more burning conflicts in his processor. He lifts a hand, absently rubbing at his chestplates.

He’s beginning to wonder if there’s no real answer to be had.

o0o0o
His personal quarters hold no appeal for him. The raucous and always-busy nature of the rec room even less. And not even Ratchet is enough of a workaholic to spend all of his online hours in the medbay.

He finds himself in Wheeljack’s lab. Probably not the safest place to be but the better choice out of all the other options. Being here keeps his processor occupied, keeps him from thinking about things.

More time has passed. The initial buzz and gossip about his relationship with Jazz has faded to background murmurs. Mechs don’t give him that pathetic consoling look much anymore. Things have, for the most part, become closer to this side of normal.

He still doesn’t talk to Jazz. It’s not a matter of actively avoiding the mech as much as it is the rest of their fellow Autobots In the Know are doing a fair job of keeping them apart. He only sees Jazz in passing, peripherally. They haven’t talked since then.

Ratchet supposes he should be grateful for the relative normality. It’s better than the alternative.

“Argh.” Wheeljack huffs in aggravation and shoves at the clutter on one of his many desks, sending bits and pieces to rain down upon the floor. “That’s it. I need a break.”

Ratchet smiles, bending back over his own little project: rewiring a phase conductor.

“Of course you do. You’ve been at it for hours.”

“You’re one to talk.” Wheeljack approximates a snort. “I’m going for some energon. Bring ya back some?”

“Sure.”

Wheeljack leaves, and Ratchet is now alone. He doesn’t mind. The lab is nothing like his quarters. Nothing here is silent. There’s always some project in progress to stare at, and Wheeljack has a lovely orrery depicting Cybertron and her moons that’s in constant motion. Plenty here to keep his processor occupied.

Ratchet is just turning back to his work when hears the doors to the lab open again.

“That was quick.”

“It’s me, Ratch.”

His hands falter mid-wire at the familiar voice. Ratchet performs a systems check, drawing upon eons of calm gleaned from times of great stress. He carefully sets aside the conductor, withdrawing his hands, and turns to greet his visitor.

“Hello, Jazz.”

The saboteur looks as uncomfortable as Ratchet feels but determined as well.

“Wheeljack said you were here. I hope you don’t mind.”

Mind?

Ratchet’s not sure what he’s supposed to think. Maybe there is a shred of relief. It’s the confrontation he’s been dreading. Perhaps it’s better just to get this over with. See what comes of it.

He keeps his distance though, safer that way.

“I…” Ratchet falters, words failing him, and settles for something less conflicting. “How are you?”

It’s a testament to how far they’ve come that his spark doesn’t instantly assail him with acidic pain and torture. There’s only a faint spinning, an interested lurch, but none of the usual torment.

“Better.” Jazz wanders toward one of the occupied tables, examining a project in progress but wisely not touching anything. “My memories are still a bit glitched. Aid says there’s nothing he can do.”

Ratchet vents audibly. “They probably won’t come back. Because…”

“Because of the failed bond. Yeah. I know.” Jazz’s optics are inscrutable thanks to the visor, his field tightly contained. “What about you?”

A certain measure of honesty will be easier to bear than a full lie.

“The pain comes less and less.”

Jazz winces, ceasing his meandering circuit and coming a few paces closer to Ratchet. Close enough that if either of them were less tense, their energy fields might brush.

“I never meant to hurt you.”

Ratchet wants to laugh bitterly, but this Jazz doesn’t know what his previous self had done. Has no clue what it is that’s really hurting Ratchet. This Jazz thinks that they were both intent on sparkbonding and that it had failed.

“Sometimes, these things happen,” Ratchet says, proud of himself for not saying something else, something less than tactful.

Jazz shakes his helm. “They shouldn’t have. I’m sorry, you know. Sorry about us. Sorry about hurting you.”

Ratchet’s spark twinges, and this time, he knows it’s not because of the failed bond. His ventilations hitch.

“You don’t have to apologize. It’s not your fault.”

He doesn’t even have to lie. He often wonders how much of this whole situation is of his own making.

“I’m still sorry.” Jazz lifts a hand, as though intending to reach for Ratchet, before thinking better of it. He closes his fingers and drops his hand back to his side. “We can still be friends, right?”

His vocalizer crackles with static.

“I’m not sure when we stopped,” Ratchet replies and hesitates.

He shouldn’t. He really shouldn’t. But to let things drift away like this. He can’t do that either.

He lurches forward, crosses the distance between him and Jazz, and pulls the saboteur into an embrace. It feels… He doesn’t know how it feels. He’s not quite repulsed nor relieved. The thrum of Jazz’s systems is familiar to him, the gentle buzz of Jazz’s energy achingly intimate. He wants to let go, and he wants to hold on, and Ratchet suspects his feelings when it comes to Jazz will never be cut and dry again.

Jazz is, at first, stiff in his arms. His field ripples with surprise and then… relief. He returns the embrace, his hands pressed flat against Ratchet’s dorsal plating.

By some unspoken agreement, they break apart a few moments later. Ratchet doesn’t have any words; he’s used them all. And Jazz… he doesn’t know how to describe Jazz’s expression right now.

“Thanks, Ratch.”

“You needed it.” Ratchet pauses, his faceplates threatening to heat. “We needed it,” he corrects and flounders. What else is there to say?

Something like a smile curves Jazz’s lips. “Yeah. I guess we did.” He taps a pede against the floor, easing toward the door. “I guess I’ll see you around then.”

“Always.”

More static than glyphs, but Ratchet’s response trails Jazz out the door. The saboteur leaves, and the lab feels measurably abandoned.

In Jazz’s absence, Ratchet’s legs no longer seem fit to keep up his weight. They buckle, and he sinks to the floor, frame immeasurably heavy. He had known it wouldn’t be easy, but he couldn’t have imagined it would be this hard.

 

He hangs his head, shutters his optics.

Primus.

He feels heavy and light all at once. Isn’t sure what to think. Closure, is that what they call it? No, not quite. It’ll never be over, but maybe… maybe they can start to move forward now. Just a bit.

“Ratchet!”

Wheeljack’s panicked tone fills his lab. He hurries to Ratchet’s side, energy field flaring concern and regret.

“I’m fine,” Ratchet replies a bit irritably, resisting his best friend’s attempts to haul him up. “Honestly, you nanny bot. There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Wheeljack holds up his hands. “Could’ve fooled me, the way you’re sitting on the floor like that. I saw Jazz leave. What happened?”

“Nothing,” Ratchet snaps, only to pause, reconsidering.

The tremors in his frame ease away. He corrects himself.

“Everything.”

o0o0o
“Almost done,” Sunstreaker says. “Hold still.”

Ratchet forces himself not to shake his helm. “Oh, how the tables have turned.”

Sideswipe snickers, kicking back where he watches with intent interest, the slow and steady glide of cloth and oil over Ratchet’s plating. Sunstreaker has spent the last few hours, stripping, repainting and waxing Ratchet’s frame. Just as he demanded Ratchet let him do months ago.

It isn’t unlike the human female’s tendency to cut their hair after ending a relationship, come to think of it. Though Ratchet will never reveal the comparison upon pains of offlining. He could just imagine what hilarity Sideswipe could make of it.

“I swear, you’re worse than Sides,” Sunstreaker mutters, crouching to examine a streak on Ratchet’s calf plating with a frown.

“Hey! I resemble that remark!”

Amusement spills out of Ratchet’s energy field. “I am only here because you insisted. I am perfectly capable of my own maintenance.”

“Not from where I was standing,” the yellow twin retorts and rises to his feet, planting his hands on his hips. He gives Ratchet a critical once-over. “I declare you finished.”

“Much obliged, your majesty,” Ratchet retorts, but there’s no real heat to it.

Instead, he goes to the mirror on the far wall. An obvious contribution by Sunstreaker. But it’s at least handy to have around. Especially now.

Ratchet stares at himself in surprise. He’s still red and white. That had been his one request. But the placement and pattern are different now. There’s far more red than there had been before, and a few other colors have snuck in. Stray shades of blue and green and even yellow that Sunstreaker used for accents.

Altogether, it’s… nice. It’s different. But still good. Refreshing almost.

“You look good,” Sides declares as he comes up to Ratchet’s left. “You really do. Great job, Sunny.”

Sunstreaker offers a smirk from Ratchet’s right. “Naturally. With my talent and Ratchet’s looks, you couldn’t get anything less.”

Sideswipe laughs but doesn’t argue. Instead, he smiles, watching as Ratchet’s optics take in his new paint once more. His hand finds Ratchet’s shoulder then, and the medic isn’t surprised when Sunstreaker’s somehow sneaks to the other one. Their touch is somehow welcoming and familiar as they stand there.

Ratchet allows himself to gaze into the mirror a minute longer. Allows himself to wonder what Jazz will think of this. If he’d appreciate the new look as much as he had the old one. He’d often commented that he’d like Ratchet’s appearance as it was. And Ratchet knew that he liked all the white paint because it showed color transfers so easily. It let everyone know just what Ratchet had been doing and with whom.

A wordless way of possession. Of ownership.

But Ratchet doesn’t belong to anyone but himself. Not now. Not ever. Not unless he allows it and never before that.

This just goes to prove it.

He nods then and turns to the twins. They look at him like the know exactly what he’s been thinking, but they say nothing. They both just grin and follow him out the door as he turns to leave.

“Thank you,” Ratchet says before they go.

He doesn’t have to explain what he really means.

[G1] Dear Lies

The quiet hours after a battle are simultaneously the worst and the best. Good because they are quiet. Terrible because they leave Ratchet with nothing but silence and time to think. Time to ruminate on the injuries he’s recently treated, to worry about what he might have to fix in the future, to fear that next time he might not be able to save one of his patients. His friends.

He fills those hours with scut work. Cleaning the berths and spilled energon, along with his many tools and pieces of equipment. Restocking his cabinets with much-needed supplies. Taking stock of what was used, what can be refurbished, and so on. He updates medical files and ignores the fatigue tugging at every strut, every hydraulic line, and has so much practice ignoring the warning pings for recharge and a cube of energon that he doesn’t hear them anymore.

Behind him, Ratchet does notice the chime for the medbay seconds before the door whooshes open. The absence of footfalls identifies his visitor as one of three mechs. Fortunately, Ratchet doesn’t need those three guesses.

“I’m almost done.”

“Wrong!” Jazz says cheerfully, swinging into the edge of Ratchet’s vision. “Yer done now.”

For a teetering moment, Ratchet considers defying him. He’s never been one to be cowed into anything before. But Jazz isn’t one to be ignored. He can be slaggin’ relentless when he puts his mind to it. And right now, Ratchet doesn’t have the energy to put up a resistance.

With a sigh, he sets down his tools. Even as he silently promises to finish organizing first thing tomorrow.

“Very well,” Ratchet allows with all the dignity he can muster and turns around. “As you say, I’m done now.”

Jazz breaks into a grin, visor brightening with his glee. “Good. Then ya can come with me.” Agile fingers curl around Ratchet’s hand as the shorter bot pulls him from the medbay without so much as a by-your-leave. “Ya work too hard, Ratch mah mech.”

“Someone’s got to,” Ratchet retorts. “You accident-prone slaggers aren’t going to fix yourselves.”

Jazz laughs. He hooks an arm in Ratchet’s elbow and escorting him down the hall like the humans do in all those movies.

“I try not ta get slagged too often,” he says, and his voice is so mild, so calm.

Ratchet all but snorts even as he hears it.

“It’s not you so much as those pit-born twins,” he grumbles.

But by now, no one takes him seriously anymore. It’s an inevitable truth with this war now. Frontliners get slagged; medics fix them. A never-ending cycle.

Jazz chuckles softer this time, then rounds the hall toward the officer’s barracks, deftly steering Ratchet to his own quarters. They’ve only been dating, as the humans call it, for around two Earth years. Cohabitating has yet to really permeate Ratchet’s mind; he’s too stubborn to cross that line. Not yet. Not this early.

He’s not like Prowl for sure. Prowl who, against all logical odds, took Wheeljack to berth one month and bonded him the next. That had certainly been something to power the gossip mill at the Ark. Mechs talked about it for weeks, months even, afterward.

Whereas Ratchet and Jazz’s burgeoning relationship had started so quietly that it still shocked some of the bots to see the two of them together in any capacity. Even casually walking down the hall, as they are now.

“This is getting to be a habit,” Ratchet comments, memory core flagging several files and bringing them to the front of his cortex. As a matter of fact, he’d have to actively search to find a shift where Jazz hadn’t escorted him back to his quarters afterward. At least, when he wasn’t out on a mission of some kind.

“What is?”

They pause in front of Ratchet’s quarters, and he keys in the code, the door sliding open to admit them.

“You bringing me home, so to speak.”

Deft fingers tease at a gap in his hip plating, stroking briefly over buried cables. “How else am I gonna get ya outta that medbay?”

Ratchet shivers as a wash of heat floods his systems. His systems are well-accustomed to Jazz’s all-too-skilled touch.

“I can think of a few methods,” he replies, though the fatigue in his struts seemed to belie the tease.

“Yeah?” Jazz grins at him again. “So can I. Sit.” His tone brooks no argument, though amusement glimmers in his visor as he points at the berth.

Shaking his head, Ratchet does as he’s told. His frame relaxes almost immediately when he does.

“You staying?” he questions, pulling a half-empty cube out of his subspace. It wouldn’t hurt to top off before heading into recharge.

He lifts the cube to his lip components, but before he can so much as catch a whiff of the energon, Jazz whisks the cube away from his hands.

“Don’t drink that.” He promptly plops a full cube into Ratchet’s hand. “Use this one instead.”

Ratchet huffs. “What was wrong with the one I had?” he demands but takes what Jazz offers anyway. It tastes no different than the one he already had though.

“It’s not mah special blend,” Jazz responds almost dismissively and tucks the half-empty cube away in his subspace. He smiles then, approaching directly, hands reaching for Ratchet’s thigh and ghosting upward.

It shouldn’t feel so good, but it does. Ratchet’s a medic and not even programmed to be a war-time one at that. His armor isn’t built to withstand heavy damage, so even the soft scrape of Jazz’s hands over his plating sends pleasant buzzes of sensation through his sensory net. His fingers curl tighter around his cube, a rumble of appreciation building in his vocalizer.

“Poor Ratch,” Jazz all but purrs, stepping even closer, perched between Ratchet’s legs. His hands slide a tantalizing path over metal and wires, fingers dipping into grooves. “Ya look exhausted.”

Ratchet’s fans kick on with an interested whirr. He hastily drinks another third of the energon Jazz had given him.

“Are you trying to get me to relax?” he inquires and surprises himself with the edge of static his voice has adopted.

Jazz chuckles and leans closer, nuzzling against Ratchet’s windshield. His mouth components track downward and over the Autobot symbol displayed so prominently. Ratchet has to fight not to arch into the touch completely, even as he feels Jazz smirk.

“I dunno,” a seductive voice whispers. “Is it workin’?”

One deft hand slips into a gap in Ratchet’s back armor, tweaking several wires that make him cry out. He arches forward, free hand flailing a moment before landing on Jazz’s helm, finding and stroking his sensory horns. Jazz’s engine gives an appreciative rev.

“I’ll that as a yes,” the Porsche replies mischievously, and his glossa traces over Ratchet’s headlights.

The medic groans, fingers threatening to shatter the energon cube. Heat rushes through his systems like a tidal wave, setting every circuit aflame. Fragging Special Ops mechs knowing just when to take advantage! He’s always more sensitive when he’s in need of a good recharge and a serious defrag, and Jazz knows it. Conniving slagger!

“Finish your energon,” Jazz orders, but it’s almost covered by the sound of an engine revving further. His hand is now buried in Ratchet’s cabling, tweaking and stroking mercilessly. “Wouldn’t want it ta go ta waste, would we?”

It’s almost an automatic response to do as Jazz says, and Ratchet gulps down the cube, shoving it aside the instant he finishes. As if approving, Jazz dips his head. His mouth attacks a seam in the medic’s side, glossa barely brushing a bundle of wires buried beneath.

Ratchet shouts, arching forward, a heavy charge crawling across his circuits. His free hand clamps down on Jazz’s shoulder, fingers digging into hydraulic lines. If he’s going down, he’s going to drag Jazz with him. He feels a shudder race over Jazz’s plating, the saboteur’s engine giving another heated noise.

“Mmm. Good try,” Jazz teases, drawing back with a parting nip to Ratchet’s plating. “But I’ve a few tricks up my sleeve.”

His free hand snaps out, grabbing Ratchet’s own from his shoulder, and before Ratchet can so much as speak, a warm glossa snakes out over his index finger. The heat swamping his systems flares brighter, electricity snapping across his frame. Jazz is merciless, the fragging tease, drawing each and every finger into his mouth. Denta grace over sensitive paneling, glossa teasing at the tiniest gaps between each point.

A wordless burst of static escapes Ratchet’s vocalizer as the charge in his systems snapped, sending him into a cascading overload. He jerks and writhes, Jazz’s glossa relentless on his fingers, his circuitry crawling with bright sparks of electricity. His fans struggle to cool his heated frame, and he sags, twitching as lingering pleasure sparks his body.

Jazz, looking terribly smug about it all, drags his denta one last time over Ratchet’s fingers before letting them slip from his mouth. He looks at Ratchet then. Visor unreadable. But the smirk is all too obvious.

“Nice.”

Ratchet, systems frantically trying to cool him down and HUD pinging him for long overdue recharge, makes a noncommittal noise. Like Jazz needs any more stroking of his ego.

Jazz frees his fingers from Ratchet’s plating and pats him on the aft. “Don’t fall inta recharge on meh yet, Ratch. We’re not through.”

Primus! So it’s to be one of those nights then. Ratchet groans, torn between dragging Jazz on to the berth beside him for a night spent fragging each other’s pedes off and rolling over, sliding into a wonderful, relaxing recharge.

“I’m not,” Ratchet mutters and drags himself fully onto the berth, not at all surprised when Jazz deftly and immediately straddles him. “Are you trying to interface me into an early grave?”

Jazz laughs. His fingers find Ratchet’s windshield. His aft grinds down against Ratchet’s hip with a teasing slide of plating on plating.

“Would be a pit of a way ta go, wouldn’t it?”

Groaning, Ratchet can only surrender as the low burr of pleasure starts to build within him again. This time, however, he sets his own hands to work. If he’s going down, he’s going to take Jazz with him. For certain.

It’s going to be a long, exhausting night. But oh, so worth it.

o0o0o

He emerges from recharge the next morning feeling like he’d spent the night before guzzling gallons of high grade. Like he’d been trampled by Grimlock and then run over by Astrotrain for good measure. Every circuit aches from being subjected to delirious amounts of pleasure, and his systems are pinging him alerts, energy levels dipping into a low thirty percent.

Primus! Jazz was insatiable!

Groaning, Ratchet rolls out of his berth, every move sluggish and achy. He has to be on-shift in an hour. Which is enough time to grab a cube of energon in the rec room and try to prod his processor into something more coherent.

His quarters are empty. No surprise there. Jazz recharges little, rises early, and isn’t one for lingering around idly. Ratchet has grown used to waking alone. Not all the time but often enough. Also, to no surprise, there is a cube of energon waiting for him on his desk. Which means he won’t need that trip to the rec room.

A message has been left on his terminal access.

Ratchet slumps heavily into the chair at his desk, dragging the cube toward him and downing it in several gulps. He has to reboot his optics twice before they agree to focus on the message Jazz left for him. Slag but he’s getting too old for this.

He quickly scans the datapad. Jazz is going to be on a mission for the next couple of days. And he’s been ordered to not be lonely in his lover’s absence. Ratchet chuckles softly and tucks the datapad away.

He drinks the cube Jazz left for him, luxuriates in the meditative silence in his quarters, and only rises from his seat when his HUD pings him with a shift reminder. Ratchet rises to his pedes, flicks the cube into a recycle chute, and heads for the door. He reaches for the panel, and notices the scrape of black paint on his arm.

Frag.

He looks down. Streaks are all over his thighs and hip, too.

Double frag.

And he doesn’t have enough time to stop by the washracks now. He’ll have to try his best to buff them out in the medbay. Slaggin’ stupid lover. Might as well have painted “Property of Jazz” on his aft if the saboteur wanted to stake a claim.

Ratchet shakes his helm. Point of fact, he wouldn’t put it past Jazz to do such a thing, mildly possessive bot that he is.

Ratchet sighs. Wheeljack’s going to tease him mercilessly.

Oh, well. A few carefully aimed wrenches should take care of that.

o0o0o

Fatigue tugs at his strut, at every hydraulic line, as Ratchet drags himself to the rec room. All he wants is a quick cube before he retires to his quarters for a much needed break. He swears that he can’t remember what it feels to be properly energized. If it’s not the Decepticons causing carnage, then it’s the Dinobots being clumsy or Sideswipe’s prank gone awry. Or on the rare occasions such as earlier this afternoon, Perceptor accidentally mixing chemicals together and causing an explosion of Wheeljack proportions.

Perceptor of all mechs!

And to think, Ratchet had always thought the soft-spoken scientist the careful, logical one amongst them all. Perceptor is supposed to be one of the few Ratchet doesn’t have to worry about.

Instead, he’s spent most of the afternoon putting a very embarrassed, very apologetic microscope back together. ‘Jack had been inappropriately ecstatic for the simple fact that it wasn’t him in pieces for once.

It had been a long day for everyone.

On the bright side, Jazz would be returning from his mission any hour now. He’d have to deliver his report to Prowl, get cleaned up, and see Hoist in the medbay for a quick systems scan, but afterward Ratchet can be assured that the saboteur will seek him out. It’s nearly always the first thing Jazz does once the official business has been handled.

It’s somewhere between the end of the second shift and the beginning of the third, which probably accounts for the fact the rec room is so slaggin’ packed. Ratchet groans, wishing not for the first time they had energon dispensers in the officer barracks. He can only hope the two banes of his existence aren’t somewhere in the crowd, just waiting to pounce and annoy the slag out of him.

Ratchet attempts to slip unobtrusive through the crowd, aiming to grab a cube and leave before he can be roped into socializing in his exhausted state. Unfortunately, stealth is neither in his programming nor one of his acquired skills. Before he makes it three steps toward the dispenser, Smokescreen spots him. The tactician smiles and immediately comes Ratchet’s direction.

Scrap. He’s been caught.

“Ratchet!” Smokescreen greets, clapping a hand to Ratchet’s shoulder with a companionable squeeze. “You look exhausted. Having trouble keeping up with the Jazz-man?”

If he weren’t so tired, Ratchet probably could have come up with a sufficiently witty and barbed reply to that. Instead, he offlines his optics with a huff.

“Jazz is on a mission,” he says. “And my systems have been pinging me for energon for an hour, so if you don’t mind…”

Smokescreen pushes a cube at him. “Here. Take mine.” He slings an arm over Ratchet’s shoulders, tugging him close. “Got it before I realized I didn’t need it. Come on. Bee was just telling us an interesting story about Perceptor. He fragged up all of the betting circles around here.”

Ratchet tries to dig in his heels, knowing that if he gets dragged into their friendly, conversational circle, it’ll be awhile before he can excuse himself free. And then someone will mention high grade, and he’s never been that good at self-control – case in point his numerous trysts with Jazz. Next thing he knows, he’ll wake up tomorrow with a processor-ache, very little useful recharge, and an unpleasant gurgle in his tanks.

Better not to be lead into temptation.

“Actually,” Ratchet inserts, trying to duck out from under Smokescreen’s arm, “I’m thinking to head back to my quarters.”

That earns him a grin and gleaming optics.

“The better to wait for Jazz?”

“Wait? I’m already here.”

Ratchet half-turns, and Smokescreen looks over his shoulder. Both of them see Jazz standing there, a mere half-pace behind them. He has an odd expression on his face, one Ratchet can’t recall seeing before, but in another moment it’s wiped away, replaced with his usual smile.

“Jazz,” Ratchet greets warmly. And no, he’s spark doesn’t give a happy tremble. It doesn’t!

“Hey, Ratch.” Jazz beams, but it fades a tad. “Smokey.”

“Welcome back,” Smokescreen replies and gives Ratchet a little shake. “We were just talking about you.”

“I noticed.” Jazz deftly slides into between them, an interesting feat of physics that dislodges Smokescreen’s arm as the saboteur slides his own around Ratchet’s waist. “Missed me, did ya?”

Smokescreen gives them some space. “Only because you’re always the life of the party.”

“Smokey! Leave the lovebots alone!” Sideswipe suddenly calls out, much to Ratchet’s mortification and a small scatter of laughter from the room. “No one likes a third wheel.”

Smokescreen holds up his hands, backing up another step as he shifts toward the group he’d left earlier. “He’s got a good point. Don’t let me get in the way.”

He grins mischievously, and Ratchet can practically see the wheels turning in Smokescreen’s processor. How can he work this to his advantage? What kind of bets can he get the bots to place?

“Two years later and they still haven’t run out of jokes,” Ratchet says and pulls the cube Smokescreen had given him toward his lips. He’s still running low after all.

He reboots his optics as the cube is plucked from his fingers and whisked away, only to be replaced by another. Again.

“This one’s better,” Jazz says and deftly steers Ratchet toward the door. “Who knows what Smokescreen put in that one?”

Ratchet gives his lover a pointed look. “Spiking the energon? He doesn’t hang out with Sideswipe that much. Besides, I’ve enough secondary and tertiary systems that one cube would hardly affect me.”

They leave the rec room, nodding a greeting to a pack of minibots that is just entering.

“Not the point.” Jazz’s hand strokes along Ratchet’s back. “Mech’s gotta learn some boundaries.”

“Boundaries?” Ratchet pauses in the hall. “What in the pit are you talking about?”

That odd look is in Jazz’s face again, though it can be hard to tell with how inscrutable his visor makes him.

“Nothin’,” he replies, fingers curling around Ratchet’s hand and tugging the medic closer to him. “Don’t worry ’bout it. Been a long day is all.”

Ratchet can agree with that much. “Tell me about it,” he grumbles with a sigh. “How did your mission go?”

Jazz’s visor lights up. “Ya won’t believe the cracked up plan Megs is cookin’ up this time.”

“Another brilliant scheme from the Decepticon commander, Primus forbid!” Ratchet sips at the energon Jazz brought him.

Chuckling, Jazz tugs his hand and they pick up the pace again, heading no doubt to either of their quarters. Which is a good end to the night in Ratchet’s opinion. Though Jazz’s behavior does nag at the back of his processor, he shutters it away. Jazz always was a bit tense after returning from one of his infiltrations.

o0o0o

Jazz was right of course. Not but two days after his return from scoping out the Nemesis, the Decepticons attack with their most recent weapon of mass destruction. It’s some kind of matter eradicator to the best of Ratchet’s estimation, but it works as well as one of Wheeljack’s least successful endeavors. That is to say, it explodes the first time Starscream tries to use it.

Admittedly, part of Ratchet wants to attribute that to operator malfunction rather than an error in the weapon’s design.

Megatron, infuriated by yet another failure, attempts to take out his anger on the Autobots. With two gestalts at his command, the battle is fierce but thankfully brief. Still, the injured are carted into Ratchet’s medbay with wounds raging from laserfire to a missing limb in Ironhide’s case. Ratchet is kept quite busy, though that doesn’t keep the idiot twins from annoying him, which is their usual standard when only one is injured.

“Ratchet, I’m in need of some attention over here!” Sunstreaker complains loudly, the dent in his chestplate hardly even worth the effort in Ratchet’s opinion.

Ironhide’s still clutching the remnants of his leg after all, and though his pain sensors have been shut off, it’s unsettling for anyone to be lacking a limb. The rebuild and reattachment is also among the lengthier repairs, but since ‘Hide’s not in any pain, he and Sunstreaker both can be dealt with later.

“Your slaggin’ paint job can wait!” Ratchet growls and bends over Sideswipe’s flank again, continuing the delicate process of removing bits of splintered shrapnel from the red twin’s innards.

Sides chuckles, arms folded behind his head. He’s as relaxed on the medberth as someone might be on a beach vacation.

“He just wants you to kiss it and make it better,” he teases.

Sunstreaker, very unamused, seethes at his twin. “Suck my tailpipe,” he snarls.

Smiling sweetly at his brother, Sideswipe drags the back of his knuckles over Ratchet’s arm. “Ignore the surly sunflower, Ratch. What do ya say? Everyone says a quick overload cures all that ails a bot.”

“Everyone?” Ratchet snorts, tweaking a frayed wire with a bit more force than necessary. “Try another one.”

The red twin chuckles. “You wound me in my very spark,” he says, free hand groping at his chestplate and making him twitch under Ratchet’s ministrations. “And with me being so free with my affections.”

“Yeah, we all know how free ya are, Siders.”

Ratchet startles, jerking out a piece of shrapnel in his surprise and making Sideswipe yelp. He hastily puts a clamp on a suddenly spurting line and then glances over his shoulder.

“Jazz!” He divides his attention between his lover and Sideswipe’s quickly patched leak. “I thought you were in ops.”

“Prime sent me ta check on ‘Hide,” the saboteur answers, but he’s not even looking at Ratchet. His focus seems to be on Sideswipe and Sunstreaker, who are both suddenly much quieter than before.

Ratchet huffs. “He could have commed me and saved you the trip. Primus save me from guilt-struck Primes!”

If not for his proximity sensors, he would’ve startled again when Jazz placed a hand at the small of his back. It’s rare that Jazz gets so close when Ratchet is in the middle of performing repairs after a battle. In fact, it’s even rarer that Prime would send Jazz of all mechs on a courier run. He’d normally grab Bee or Grapple or pits, even Mirage.

Jazz makes a noncommittal noise. His fingers rap over the berth, mere inches from Sideswipe’s knee.

“Nasty wound ya got there, Siders.”

“It’s what I get for standing too close to Megatron’s latest weapon of doom,” Sideswipe replies with another chuckle, but it sounds forced. Nervous even. His optics don’t meet Jazz’s visor. “Guess I should be more careful from now on.”

“Haven’t I been saying that all along?” Ratchet demands, tugging out the last of the shrapnel and leaving only patches left. Well, those and a few dents but Sideswipe can bang those out on his own, and Ratchet’s quite sure Sunstreaker will see to the scratches in his brother’s paint.

“Yeah,” Jazz agrees, and his fingers rap over the berth again, almost contemplative. “Ya should really watch where yer goin’.”

Final patch applied, Ratchet straightens. He snags a cloth from his subspace and wipes the fluid spatters from his fingers. There’s a tension to the air around him, but he ignores it like usual. The twins are always good for making things uncomfortable anyway.

“You’re good to go, Sideswipe. And Sunstreaker, not a word about your slaggin’ dent, or I’ll give you another one!” he hastily adds just as the yellow twin opens his mouth to complain again.

Ratchet turns toward his lover, who’s watching Sides slide from his berth and hobble after his brother out of the medbay. Amazingly, neither of them have further argument or complaints to give. Ratchet half-expects them to linger, if only to offer up more aggravation on his part.

“Ironhide’s going to need that joint reconstructed. It wasn’t a clean tear,” Ratchet says when they don’t and glances at the mech in question. “You can pass that on to Prime.”

Jazz stirs, finally turning to look at him. “What?”

“Ironhide. Leg. Long time to fix?” the medic arches an orbital ridge. “Prime wanted you to check on him, remember?”

A smile curves the saboteur’s lips. “I’ll deliver th’ message. I’m sure it’ll relieve poor Prime.” He leans closer, brushing his helm and hand over Ratchet’s shoulder. “Comin’ over tonight? I got time b’fore mah shift.”

“Mmm. If I can.”

Ratchet’s optics sweep through his medbay, automatically cataloging all the repairs still in need of attending. Wheeljack almost has Cliffjumper good to go, but there are still so many others. Huffer, Air Raid, Gears, Powerglide. Bluestreak would probably need his entire arm rewired, but that could wait until the next day. And Skyfire has already moved on to help weld Hound back together.

Jazz squeezes Ratchet’s hand then. Which effectively distracts him as surely as if he’d leaned in for a human kiss.

“I’ll be waitin’,” he say in a low and seductive voice. He offers a smile before whisking an energon cube out of his subspace like magic. “Here. I’m sure yer gettin’ low.”

Primus! Does Jazz keep a dispenser in his subspace or something? Every time Ratchet turns around, there his lover is with a cube or two.

Nevertheless, Jazz is right. Ratchet simply hadn’t noticed the alerts popping up in his HUD until now. Strange that Jazz should know. Or perhaps by now he’s gotten familiar with the parameters of Ratchet’s frame and his general lack of self-care.

“Thanks,” Ratchet says with a wan smile of his own. “See you tonight. Hopefully.”

“Count on it.” Jazz tosses Ratchet a cheery, playful salute and bebops out of the medbay like it’s nothing.

Shaking his head, Ratchet turns toward his next walking wounded, who happens to be a very surly-looking Gears.

“It’s about time,” the minibot huffs. “I think my arm’s about to fall off.”

Ratchet rolls his optics. Some mechs never change.

o0o0o

Despite Jazz’s earlier declaration, the moment Ratchet steps out of the medbay, he finds the saboteur waiting for him. His position seems nonchalant, head tipped back against the wall and arms crossed, but Ratchet knows better. Jazz is always ready for action at a moment’s notice.

“Tired?” the Porsche asks, straightening as the door slides shut behind Ratchet.

“Not as much as you’d think,” the medic replies with a wry grin. He looks down at his chassis, brushing at a splatter of energon and some sooty residue. “More like in desperate need of a good scrubbing.”

Jazz chuckles. “I can help with that.” His visor brightens in a pointed look, one that sends a tingle of arousal through Ratchet’s circuits.

“Don’t you have to be on shift soon?”

“I’ve enough time fer this,” Jazz all but purrs and pulls out a cube. “Here. Brought this fer ya, too.”

Ratchet shakes his head but takes it anyway. “You spoil me too much. I can get my own, you know.”

“Better if I bring it to ya.”

There’s a stubborn set to Jazz’s mouth. One that means they could spend hours debating this and in the end, neither of them will concede.

Ratchet decides just to let it go. Jazz constantly bringing him energon is hardly a bad thing, and it seems to make the saboteur happy. Ratchet’s not complaining, though it means his trips to the rec room happen less and less. Just last week ‘Hide had teased him about being sequestered in the medbay too much or “tied down ta Jazz’s berth” as he’d so elegantly put it.

The washracks are surprisingly deserted when they arrive. Jazz herds them toward the back corner, out of view of the door, and Ratchet can read the intent in his body language. Can already feel the tension sizzling between them.

Ratchet cuts on the spray, stepping under the warm solvent. He reaches for washrag – amusingly something the humans use on their non-sentient vehicles. However, Jazz gets there before he does, snatching it out from under his hand.

“Allow me.” One hand strokes down Ratchet’s side as he steps around the front, swiping the damp cloth over the medic’s windshield.

He can hardly argue with such an offer. Instead, Ratchet shutters his optics and surrenders to the sensation of the warm water pattering over his plating and Jazz’s deft, sure strokes.

The saboteur leaves no inch of his plating untouched. His fingers dip into tiny crevices between his joints and armor, each teasing tickle building a slow heat in Ratchet’s systems. His fans kick on with a whirr that echoes in the empty room, and Jazz chuckles, sounding smug.

“Good?” he questions, vocalizer soft and purring.

Ratchet lets out air unsteadily. “You know that it is.”

Jazz sweeps around to Ratchet’s back. Slowly. So slowly.

“Lean forward,” he murmurs, vocals still soft and seductive. “Put yer hands on the wall.”

“What if I want to touch you?” Ratchet asks, his fans kicking on louder.

He does as Jazz wants though. Lifting his hands. Succeeding in opening up some gaps in his armor. Allowing the solvent to seep into every nook and cranny.

“Maybe I jes wanna touch ya right now,” Jazz replies, and his hands sweep over Ratchet’s back, a place not crowded with sensors but evoking a pleasured response nonetheless.

Heat creeps over Ratchet’s circuitry. His entire frame buzzes with rising charge.

“Here? Where anyone can walk in?”

“Not like everyone doesn’t already know yer mine.”

Jazz presses himself against Ratchet’s back, revving his engine hard. The vibrations travel through his frame and into Ratchet’s, igniting a thunderstorm of sensation through plating already sensitized from Jazz’s thorough cleaning. The medic gasps, arching against his lover, fingers scraping the metal of the wall.

He wants to argue against Jazz’s blatantly possessive tone, but his thoughts bounce back and forth inside his processor, scurrying away from any coherency with every broad sweep of Jazz’s hands. With every tweak of skilled fingers and the rhythmic patter of the solvent spray over his body.

His sensor net is aflame with pleasure, energy crackling across his circuits. Ratchet’s overload takes him by surprise, and he jerks in Jazz’s arms, heat crashing through him. He twitches, legs turning useless beneath him. Ratchet sags, only to be caught by Jazz and gently lowered to the damp floor.

“This is hardly conducive to getting clean,” Ratchet manages after several ragged ventilations.

Jazz laughs against the back of his head, fingers lazily caressing his hip assembly. “What’s the use of getting’ clean if yer not dirty in the first place?”

Ratchet laughs himself and eventually grows quiet to the feel of Jazz looking at him. But Jazz doesn’t say anything further. He just keeps stroking Ratchet with the cloth. Slowly. Possessively.

Ratchet lets him.

o0o0o

“Have you noticed anything… odd about Jazz lately?”

Beside him, Wheeljack arches an orbital ridge. His indicators flash an incredulous yellow.

“You’re his lover. Shouldn’t you know better than me?”

Ratchet huffs. “You’d think that, right?” He bends back over the solar panel they’ve been working on all afternoon. “But you’ve known him longer than I have.”

‘Jack seems to consider the question for a moment.

“What do you mean by odd?” he finally asks.

This is hard to put into words. Ratchet doesn’t have anything tangible to cite. Just… little things. Impressions. Strange tics, one could say.

His hands pause as he searches his databanks for the right explanation. But there isn’t one.

“He’s… always there.”

Wheeljack looks at him, confusion in his optics.

“Is that a bad thing?” he muses aloud. “It’s kinda what happens when two bots are in a relationship, you know?”

“I know that!” Ratchet snaps and vents air out of frustration. “I mean that he always shows up out of nowhere. I swear whenever I need energon, he’s there with a cube. Or when I want to go the washracks, he’s there with a helping hand. He comms me the exact moment before I go into recharge. Like he knows. Like we’re already spark-bonded or something.”

“And that’s weird?”

Wheeljack seems honestly confused. But then, he would be. He and Prowl live that weird wonderland of theirs where it’s all rainbows and overloads and the experimental gone wrong.

Ratchet tosses him a cross look. He stubbornly picks up his soldering rod again.

“Now you’re making me feel like I’m paranoid,” he mutters and tries to concentrate on his work again.

But the whole situation is nagging at him. He doesn’t quite know why it strikes him as off, but it does. Ratchet hasn’t made it this far as the Autobot’s CMO without knowing when to listen to his instincts, and right now, they are telling him that something’s not quite right. Either that or he’s losing his processor.

That’s also a distinct possibility.

“You know,” he says after a long moment. “I honestly can’t remember the last time I drank a cube he hasn’t brought me or left for me or given me. I’d have to actively search my memory banks to find it, and I’ll bet you, it was only when he was on a mission.”

Wheeljack looks at him. “Ratch–”

“And yesterday, Bluestreak brought me a cube after I finished his arm, but before I could so much as look at it, Jazz was there. Telling me to take his instead.”

“So he’s a bit possessive.” Wheeljack shrugs, turning back toward his work, indicators flashing softly. “Everyone knows Spec Ops is wired a bit differently. And Jazz is the best at what he does.”

Ratchet shakes his head, abandoning his own tinkering and leaning back against the table. “Possessive, I get. Possessive, I can handle. This… I don’t know what to call this.”

That is, of course, when his comm chooses to ping him. He doesn’t need more than one guess to identify the originator, and there’s a weird stutter in his systems when Jazz’s transmission comes across the line.

–Ratch?–

“Speak of the mech,” Ratchet mutters.

“Hmm?”

“Nothing.” Ratchet waves his best friend off. “Give me a moment.”

He turns his attention to the comm just as Jazz pings him again.

–Where are ya?–

He’s surprised Jazz doesn’t already know.

–In the lab with ‘Jack. Why?–

There’s a noticeable pause as though Jazz is distracted.

–No reason. Just wonderin’. Ya comin’ to the party tonight?–

–Party?–

A trickle of amusement filters through the transmission.

–Vorn majority fer th’ Protectobots.–

–Oh, that.–

Primus, how had he forgotten? He swears he’s getting out of touch with the goings on around the Ark these days.

–I’ll be there. First Aid will give me that pathetic look if I don’t at least make an appearance.–

Jazz laughs.

–Kid looks up to ya like a creator.–

–I noticed–, Ratchet replies dryly. –I’ll meet you later, Jazz.–

–It’s a date.–

The comm ends with a cheerful chime, and the normal conversation only adds to the other nagging belief that he’s maybe being paranoid. His processor is of two minds about it. Part of him feels that he should be concerned, that this just isn’t normal behavior. But then Jazz is nothing if not devoted. Loving. Doing nothing but taking care of Ratchet at every turn, and how can he find that worrying?

“Jazz, I take it?” ‘Jack drawls, amusement making his indicators flash a happy blue-green.

“Yeah.” Ratchet picks up his soldering rod and stares resolutely at the unfinished solar panel. “Let’s just get this done.”

Maybe Wheeljack’s right. Maybe there is nothing to worry about. So Ratchet will push that all aside for now. There’s work to be done.

o0o0o

Unlike humans, Cybertronians have nice little alerts in their HUD which tell them when they’ve reached their high grade limit and increasingly noisy, aggravating warning pings after that informing said bot of impending danger. Though like humans, despite having those warnings, there are plenty of mechs that simply ignore them and keep on chugging down the good stuff. Especially when friends are there to goad them along.

Ratchet is thoroughly convinced his current overcharge can be blamed entirely on Jazz. Jazz who kept pressing cube after cube into his hands tonight, encouraging him to drink, drink, and drink some more. It’s the only explanation for why Ratchet has allowed the saboteur to drag him onto the dance floor where Ratchet is quite sure he made a stumbling fool of himself.

Well, the Protectobots are delighted and amused, so Ratchet supposes that is all that matters. The party is in their honor after all. Vorn majority is a pretty big deal, symbolizing that they are considered adults by their fellow bots now. And though the Protectobots don’t have the physical years behind them, they’ve certainly matured fast enough here on Earth. Ratchet ascribes it to the fact that they’ve have all but adopted the humans’ way of measuring time.

Still, Ratchet isn’t sure which exactly it was that finally does him in. Whether it’s the ninth cube or the tenth. Either way, he’s finding it a little difficult to keep his pedes beneath him. He stumbles, the floor rolling and tossing beneath him. His gyros refuse to stabilize, and all he’s getting from his HUD are error messages.

Huh.

“Easy there, lover.” Jazz puts a stabilizing hand against Ratchet’s chest. “Don’t fall over on me now. Yer a bit heavier than I am.”

Ratchet outright laughs and sways to the right, hitting a wall and deciding that it’s a good place to rest for a minute. “If I were human I’d accuse you of calling me fat.”

“But I like ya just the way ya are,” Jazz says, his voice dropping low as he wraps an arm around Ratchet, pressing their frames together.

Ratchet can feel the heat radiating from Jazz’s plating, sure to match his own. Both of them are overcharged, both of them running hot. Jazz’s visor is bright with charge and desire. His mouth is oh-so-tempting. If only they didn’t have so much kibble. Ratchet has wondered a few times what the deal with kissing is.

Clumsily groping at his shorter lover, Ratchet tries to hook fingers under Jazz’s plating, reaching for a sensitive wire bundle that’s sure to make him moan. But his hand scrabbles at thin air as Jazz suddenly drops down onto one knee, nuzzling against Ratchet’s pelvic area.

What the frag? That’s not sensi–

Ratchet hisses, bucking up against Jazz as a deft glossa traces slow circles over his pelvic paneling. Jazz slides his glossa to the left, hands pushing Ratchet’s legs aside and widening the gap between his armor. Pleasure bursts across Ratchet’s sensory net as Jazz’s glossa traces rarely touched wires and cables.

Primus! He hadn’t even known he could be sensitive there!

Laughter floats to Ratchet’s audials, and his optics unshutter with a snap. He turns his head, mortification biting at the edge of his desire, as Smokescreen and Blaster round the corner in the hallway. Both bots draw to a halt, optics wide as they stare at the scene in front of them.

“Jazz!” Ratchet hisses, clumsily groping at his lover’s helm.

Jazz’s only response is to amp up his pleasurable torture. That makes Ratchet moan and twitch against the wall before he can stop himself.

“Sorry, mechs,” Blaster quickly inserts, holding up his hands and backing away. “We’ll take another route.”

“Never knew Ratchet had it in him,” Smokescreen comments, but he lets Blaster drag him off anyway.

Embarrassment wars with arousal, and Ratchet isn’t sure what he wants to do first. Yell at Jazz or cry out in pleasure. His fingers scrabble over Jazz’s helm in indecision. Should he let loose his fearsome temper or –

Primus!

Ratchet moans, curling forward. Jazz’s fingers dig into his wiring harder, the sharp edge of pain only sweetening the pleasure. Charge shoots through his systems, sweeping like wildfire, and another staticky sound escapes Ratchet’s vocalizer.

He shudders, overload crashing down over him. His mouth locks open on a silent cry. He shakes from head to toe, electricity crackling over his plating. The edge of his vision goes white and then black, and his fans work furiously to cool his heated frame.

He comes to barely a minute later according to his chronometer with Jazz holding him close. His revving engine is an indication of his still-present arousal.

“That was the hottest thing, I swear ta Primus,” Jazz murmurs, his hands roaming over Ratchet’s hot paneling.

Ratchet groans, lingering charge making him over-sensitive. He grabs Jazz’s arm, squeezing.

“It was embarrassing,” he argues with every intention of getting up, moving. But he feels limp and lifeless. Limbs don’t want to respond, too overcharged by the high grade and relaxed by his overload. “You could’ve at least waited until we got back to my quarters.”

Jazz’s visor darkens. “What fun is that? Mechs got ta learn ta keep their hands off.”

His mouth is already moving for Ratchet’s neck.

“What the frag are you talking about?”

Ratchet wonders if his bewilderment is as clear on his face as it is in his processor as Jazz pauses. The Porsche just lifts one hand, fingers stroking across Ratchet’s chevron before sliding gently down the side of his cheek. His visor lights up then, but it isn’t a bright as it should be.

“I guess ya wouldn’t see it. Ya can be pretty oblivious sometimes.”

Jazz’s tone is playful, but there’s an edge to it. Sharp beneath the teasing.

Ratchet stares at his lover. “You’re not making any sense.”

“That’s just th’ high grade talkin’.” Jazz works himself free and rises to his feet with a graceful motion that completely belies how much energon he’s consumed. “To the berth, yeah? I’m not done with ya yet.”

o0o0o

It starts to nag on Ratchet, all the little things that paint a larger, more worrisome picture. He likes Jazz; he holds a deep affection for the saboteur. Maybe even loves him. But he’s beginning to think that they aren’t on the same datapad. That what he wants and what Jazz wants are two entirely different things.

It would be easier, he supposes, if he could just talk to Jazz about it. But if there’s one thing that Jazz excels at better than anything else, it’s keeping his secrets. He’s a pro at changing the subject, producing vague answers, or distracting Ratchet with a processor-blowing interface that leave him pleasantly achy and still lost.

Maybe the problem isn’t Jazz but is in fact Ratchet himself. That thought has also crossed his mind. Any normal mech would be thrilled by all the loving affection, the energon every morning, and the complete usurpation of his free time and attention. Maybe Ratchet’s the one who’s changed and is acting a bit odd.

Except…

Except a week later, he bursts out of recharge halfway through a defrag cycle and finds Jazz watching him.

That, by itself, wouldn’t be so unusual. Ratchet has woken a few times from recharge to find his lover curled against him, hands softly stroking his plating, perhaps Jazz is even humming one of his favorite tunes. When Jazz doesn’t leave early, he usually wakes Ratchet with caresses and some cuddling. Those instances are common enough to be comforting even. Those instances are also, however, preceded by the fact that Jazz had been in his quarters with him when he fell into recharge in the first place. He’d been invited then.

Jazz, by virtue of his vocation, can probably hack the lock of any mech’s quarters on the Ark with the possible exception of Red Alert or possibly Prowl. Point of fact, he doesn’t do it. Why should he? They none of them are enemies. Ratchet has invited Jazz into his quarters enough time that hacking isn’t necessary.

Except apparently, for the times when Jazz wants to visit and Ratchet isn’t alert to let him in. They haven’t exchanged door codes; that’s akin to moving in together. And that… that step Ratchet just isn’t ready to take.

It’s unnerving, and it shouldn’t be. There’s an unsettling feeling somewhere in Ratchet’s spark. He can feel Jazz’s gaze on him, the saboteur’s head tilted thoughtfully as he leans back in his chair. The unwavering gaze makes something in Ratchet’s plating crawl.

But why should it? This is his lover. More than that, Jazz is a friend, an ally, someone Ratchet has trusted with his very existence on more than one occasion.

“It’s the middle of th’ night,” Jazz says, casual as he pleases. “Ya should go back ta recharge. Ya got shift in the mornin’, remember?”

Ratchet has to cycle his vocalizer twice before he can make himself speak. It still fritzes a bit too much.

“I remember,” he says softly. “What are you doing here?”

Jazz shrugs. “Got back from my mission early. Wanted ta see ya.”

Any normal mech would be flattered by such an admission. Ratchet isn’t sure what to think.

“Oh,” is Ratchet’s rather lame reply. “You didn’t get yourself fragged up, did you?”

“Not a scratch. Promise.” Jazz leans forward, fingers stroking over Ratchet’s helm. “So go back ta recharge.”

The uneasiness doesn’t leave no matter how much Ratchet tries to bury it. It’s several long minutes before he manages to power back down. He can’t shake the sensation of Jazz’s optics on him. And he wonders. Wonders just how often has this happened without him noticing before?

o0o0o

“I think I’m losing my mind, ‘Jack.”

The door slides shut behind him with a definitive thud, announcing his presence with as much noise as his words. Wheeljack startles, nearly dropping a stabilizer from the newest invention.

“You… what?” He hesitates, peering at Ratchet. “Is something wrong?”

Ratchet ventilates loudly and runs a hand over his face. “Yes. No. I don’t know. Maybe I’m the one who’s going crazy.”

“Ratch, calm down. Talk ta me.” Wheeljack swivels around in his stool, facing him directly. “What’s going on? Is this about Jazz?”

“Yes.”

He can’t help himself. There’s an uneasy surge in his spark, and he starts to pace, feeling unbalanced.

“He… I don’t know. Fraggit!”

He snarls, more at himself. It sounds silly when he tries to put it into words. It sounds like he’s majorly overreacting. And maybe he is.

Wheeljack raises his hands. “What happened?”

Ratchet’s shoulders slump. He can feel himself curling in on himself.

“You’re going to think I’m crazy.”

“You came here because you want my opinion,” Wheeljack inserts. “I can’t give ya one if I don’t know what’s going on.”

Shaking his head, Ratchet continues to pace. “It’s probably nothing.”

“Ratchet.”

He throws up his hands, the unease in his spark traveling to his plating. Where a shudder of discomfit races over his frame.

“He was staring at me. I woke out of recharge, and there he was. Staring at me.”

Wheeljack doesn’t say anything. Again, Ratchet feels like a mech who’s crossed a few wires or who has a glitching processor. By Primus, he feels like Red Alert!

“We haven’t exchanged door codes, Jack. I didn’t let him in. And I know, I know, that it’s sparkling play for him to crack any lock, but it was… I don’t know how to put it.” He abruptly stops his pacing and turns to face his best friend. “Help me, Wheeljack. Something’s got to be wrong. I’m glitching or something.”

“You’re not glitching,” Wheeljack says firmly, though there’s a thread of worry in his voice. “Sit down. I’ll scan you, and we’ll get to the bottom of this.”

Ratchet sits, a bit heavily at that, feeling like he’s losing control. It doesn’t make any sense really. Jazz is his friend, his ally, his lover.

He feels a slight tingle spread over his sensor net as Wheeljack starts the scan, and Ratchet sits as still as he possibly can. If he has to, he’ll demand that Wheeljack plug in and page through his coding, too. Something must be wrong.

“Huh,” Wheeljack comments as he completes the scan. “Weird.”

Ratchet straightens. “What is it?”

“Hold still.” ‘Jack leans closer, his face mere inches from Ratchet’s windshield as he peers at Ratchet’s plating.

One hand lifts, finger shifting into something like tweezers, which he then works into the gap at Ratchet’s helm. There’s a tickling sensation before Wheeljack draws back, something glinting between pointy tips. It’s tiny. So tiny. Too tiny. Barely visible.

Ratchet reboots his optics. “What the frag is that?”

“Near as I can tell at first glance… a tracker and transmitter.” Wheeljack shifts, giving him an uncomfortable look. “It’s Spec Ops design. And I don’t mean Decepticon.”

Ratchet’s spark lurches. “Are you telling me…?”

He can’t even find the right words. His processor stutters at the mere idea of it. He can only look up in horror as Wheeljack completes the thought for him.

“Unless Mirage or Bumblebee suddenly want to keep tabs on you… then yes, I’m telling you that Jazz put it there.” Wheeljack turns toward his desk, sweeping aside some clutter to set the transmitter near a magnifier. “Let me take it apart to be certain, but… I’m pretty sure I’m not wrong.”

Ratchet tries to say something. It comes out as static. He waits for a minute and tries again.

“Why… why would he do that?”

Wheeljack glances over his shoulder. “You tell me. I mean, you’re right. Being possessive is one thing. Putting a tracker on your lover?” His indicators flash pink. “That’s beyond weird.”

Strangely, it doesn’t relieve Ratchet one bit to know that the issue isn’t one of his own devising. It means something else he’d rather not consider. To be fair, the Autobots as a whole are one grand collection of glitches, issues, and barely sane mechs.

Ratchet doesn’t wish to think the worst. He doesn’t. But he can’t help himself.

There’s nothing left to do but talk to Jazz. He can’t allow the Porsche to squirm out of the questioning this time either. No more distractions. No more subject changes.

Ratchet wants answers. Now.

He straightens. “Let me have the transmitter, ‘Jack. There’s only one thing I can do: ask him.”

Wheeljack gives him a look that’s almost apologetic.

“It may be nothing, Ratch,” he tries, but it’s weak. So weak. “He might just be paranoid and worried, wanting to keep an optic on you to keep you safe.”

“Yeah,” the medic finally allows, taking the tracker into his subspace. “Maybe.”

But Ratchet doesn’t really believe it. And neither does Wheeljack.

o0o0o

A ping to Teletraan 1 informs him that Jazz is in his personal quarters, which is a good thing as Ratchet doesn’t want to make this confrontation public. Standing outside the door, Ratchet hesitates, but the tracker in his subspace spurs him to ping Jazz for entrance.

Unsurprisingly, he’s immediately granted entry, and Ratchet steps inside, greeted by the strains of a piece of music from Cybertron. A pang of homesickness grabs his spark like a vise. Earth is decent, but it’ll never the same as home to him.

“Ratch!” Jazz greets, turning the music down to a more tolerable level. “Thought ya were on shift?”

“Something came up,” Ratchet replies, and his optics wander around the room before settling on his lover. “Jazz, we need to talk.”

The saboteur tilts his head. “Sure. What about?”

Before he can convince himself otherwise, Ratchet pulls the transmitter out of his subspace and tips the tiny thing into his palm. He holds it out.

“This,” he says. “What is it, Jazz?”

To his credit, Jazz doesn’t betray an ounce of surprise or guilt. He’s too good for that. And maybe that worries Ratchet more than anything.

“A transmitter.”

“I know that,” the medic snaps and forces a ventilation to calm himself. His famous temper will do him no good here. “Why was it on me?”

Jazz rises to his pedes, plucking the tracker from Ratchet’s palm and examining it. “How else was I supposed to keep an optic on you?”

“Keep an…”

Words fail him, and all he can do is splutter. He can only make staticky noises as seconds stretch to minutes.

“You’ve been watching me?” he manages to demand sometime later.

Jazz just looks at him. Visor bright but unreadable.

“Do ya want ta sparkbond?”

The frank question throws Ratchet off guard.

“I… What?” He shakes his head. “No. No, I don’t want to sparkbond.” He stares at his lover like he’s a complete stranger. “Have you lost your Primus-be-damned mind?”

Jazz’s visor doesn’t so much as flicker. His smile doesn’t even twitch.

“Then yeah, I was watching ya.” He shrugs like he hasn’t a care in the world. “Can’t trust anybot these days. I’m surprised ya found it.”

He almost sounds proud, too. As if it were just a game and he’d wanted to see how long it would take Ratchet to play.

The medic resets his audials, only because he’s certain they must be glitching. This conversation isn’t going at all the way he thought it would. Isn’t going at all like sanity should.

“Wheeljack helped me,” he admits. “But that’s not the point, Jazz.”

The Porsche frowns a bit then, but it isn’t quite directed at Ratchet.

“Ya know, I don’t think ya should spend so much time with Wheeljack. Mech is after yer affections,” Jazz replies, tapping his chin as he shifts his weight to one hip. “Bad enough I gotta watch out fer the other ones, too.”

Ratchet’s mouth works soundlessly. “You… He’s bonded to Prowl!” He makes a gesture that means everything and nothing. “To your best friend! And… What do you mean the other ones?”

The saboteur’s shoulders lift in another dismissing shrug, but he ignores the last part entirely.

“That doesn’t stop him from spendin’ too much time with ya.” Jazz tilts his head thoughtfully. “Mebbe I better warn Prowler, too.”

Bewilderment battles with anger, which is too busy fighting shock while a hint of fear creeps up behind. Why isn’t Jazz getting this?

“Wheeljack is not after me, and he’s certainly not cheating on Prowl!” Ratchet snaps, patience reaching its limit. “What the frag is wrong with you?”

Jazz pauses and looks at him. “Nothing. Why?”

He’s honestly puzzled. Like Ratchet isn’t making any sense at all. Like this conversation is about nothing stranger than their usual banter.

Ratchet sighs then. He’s suddenly very, very tired.

That’s it. He’s had it with this. With them. He can’t do this anymore. It’s too much. It’s all too much.

“Jazz… I’m not… I’m not doing this anymore,” he murmurs and gazes right into the saboteur’s visor. “You’re a great mech, but you need something from me I can’t give.”

“What’re ya sayin’, Ratch?”

There’s a strange tone to Jazz’s vocalizer. Almost but not quite disbelief.

His shoulders sag and he lowers his hands. “I’m saying that this is over. Our relationship is over. You need to find someone who needs you. I don’t think I’m that bot.”

Jazz stares. He’s surprised. But he really shouldn’t be.

“Are ya serious?”

He takes a step closer. Ratchet takes a step back.

“Yes, I am.” Ratchet moves closer to the door. “I’m sorry, Jazz. But it’s over.”

He leaves before he can convince himself to stay. Before he can go back to trying to understand. Before the look Jazz gives his back persuades him to change his mind.

He leaves before he’ll let himself admit it’s a mistake. Before he can truly wonder if it isn’t.

o0o0o

Ratchet onlines the next morning feeling out of sorts and off balance. It’s logically improbable for his world to feel so different so soon, and yet, it does. He’s starting to second guess himself already. Maybe he overreacted?

“Good mornin’!”

Ratchet nearly leaps out of his plating, and he does slide off his berth with a loud slap of pedes on floor. Jazz is standing there, smiling, holding out a cube of energon.

“Recharge well?”

For a moment, Ratchet wonders if he’s been trapped in some sort of memory purge. He looks at Jazz. Checks his memory files. Rechecks them. Runs a quick self-diagnostic just to be sure.

“What are you doing here?” he finally asks.

Jazz pushes the cube of energon toward him again. “I brought you some energon.”

“Why?”

“Because I knew you’d need it. You do every mornin’.” Jazz tilts his helm, looking more confused by this reaction than the bewilderment Ratchet himself feels. “That’s what lovers do.”

Ratchet retreats a step before he can convince himself there’s no danger to be had here. “I ended things yesterday, Jazz.”

The mech waves a dismissing hand. “Ya didn’t mean it.”

“I… what?”

His vocalizer fritzes on the last syllable, his incredulity making his words too sharp. Yet, a part of him wonders… had he not been firm enough? His decision must have seemed to come from nowhere considering how long they’d been together. Not too long by their standards but long enough.

“Ya didn’t mean it,” Jazz repeats and finally sets the energon aside on Ratchet’s desk. “Besides, I can tell ya miss me.”

Part of him wants to scream out “No, I don’t you psychopath.” Another part of him remembers how long it had taken him to fall into recharge last night. How echoing and empty his quarters had seemed, despite the fact Jazz only shared them two nights out of seven.

“I miss a lot of things that aren’t good for me,” Ratchet hisses. “That doesn’t mean I want them back!”

“Ya were just angry. Ya always say things ya don’t mean in a fit of temper.” Jazz’s visor flickers amusement at him. “I mean, ya haven’t actually turned Sideswipe into a toaster yet, have ya?”

For the second time in as many days, Ratchet splutters.

“This and that are two different things, Jazz! I meant it. We’re over. Don’t bring me anymore energon and don’t sneak into my quarters.”

Jazz actually has the gall to look offended. “I wasn’t sneaking.”

“Out!” Ratchet points toward his door, insides a knotted mess of emotions he can’t possibly sort with Jazz standing right there in front of him. “Right now!”

An audible rev of Jazz’s engine is all the indication Ratchet has of the saboteur’s own irritation.

“Fine. But we’re not done.”

“Yes, we are!” Ratchet’s argument, however, is spat at a closed door.

Of all the stubborn, delusional–

Primus! Ratchet throws up his hands, stomping over to his desk and snatching up the energon. He downs it in three quick gulps before it occurs to him that he’s doing exactly what Jazz wants. Letting the bot take care of him.

A growl of irritation escapes him, and he turns, whipping the empty cube at his closed door. It shatters into bits, raining down upon the floor. He stares at the broken pieces for several long moments, vents echoing in his room, before he moves to clean up the mess he made.

It’s only then that he notices his hands are trembling.

o0o0o

Ratchet has never considered himself a coward. But it’s no coincidence that he all but runs to the rec room at the end of his shift, glancing over his shoulder uneasily as though Jazz is going to pop out from around the corner with a cube of energon. After all, that has been the routine. Ratchet gets off shift; Jazz brings him energon and takes him to either of their quarters.

Primus! Why hadn’t he noticed it before?

He steps into the rec room and it feels a bit odder than it did before. Like he should have someone latched onto his side. There’s a crowd of mechs spread around the room and it’s almost too much.

It’s also exactly what Ratchet needs. He needs company. He needs to stop acting so slagging paranoid.

“Ratchet!” Bluestreak notices him lingering in the doorway. Beaming, he bounces over to the medic with all the exuberance of a youngling, though it’s been vorns since he’s had his majority. “Wow! Feels like I haven’t seen you in while. You look tired still. Not getting enough recharge? Where’s Jazz?”

For the sake of his sanity, Ratchet ignores the last question. “I’m permanently tired, Bluestreak,” he answers, and heads for the dispenser, Bluestreak on his heels. “How’s your arm?”

The sniper rolls his shoulder, optics bright. “Better than before it got slagged, I promise.” Some of his enthusiasm dies a bit, concern overriding his good humor. “Maybe you should ask Prime if you can take a vacation? I mean, I’m sure ‘Jack and Hoist and Grapple and Perceptor can take care of us for a few weeks. And if I ask nicely, I’ll bet Sides won’t prank anyone so you can relax for a bit, too.”

“Sideswipe not prank anyone? Primus forbid!” Ratchet actually manages a light chuckle, taking his cube and stepping out of the way, following Bluestreak toward the group of mechs he’d been chatting with earlier. “That would be too good to be true.”

Bluestreak laughs. “Prowl would be pretty happy, too. He’d think it a vacation for himself as well.” His doorwings lift perkily. “Hi, Jazz! We were just talking about you!”

Ratchet stiffens, plating clamped tight to his frame. He almost doesn’t want to turn around, but he can already feel Jazz’s gaze burning into the back of his helm. And he’s not a coward.

The saboteur slides up beside him, taking the cube from Ratchet’s hand and replacing it with another, like so many times before. “Really? I hope it was only good things,” Jazz replies with a playful flash of his visor. Then he turns to Ratchet, sliding a palm down his arm. “Was lookin’ fer ya, lover. Ya must’ve left the medbay early.”

Bluestreak chuckles, clapping Ratchet on the shoulder. “Guess that’s my cue to leave, huh? Wouldn’t want to get in between two lovebots. Unless you want me to, of course.”

He leaves them with a teasing flutter of his doorwings that would have enticed any other mech, the twins especially. Ratchet watches him go with no small hint of longing, if only because Bluestreak would be a nicely shaped buffer between he and Jazz.

Jazz who is actually doing a fair approximation of a feline-like growl with his vocalizer.

“Stop that,” Ratchet hisses in a low tone, whirling on his former lover. He pushes the cube Jazz had given him back toward the saboteur. “We’re not together anymore!”

“Ya need me, Ratch,” Jazz says, trying to push the energon back toward Ratchet. “Ya need someone ta take care of ya and I’m the perfect bot. Ya can’t deny that.”

“I already have!” Ratchet forces a systems check, trying to rein in his temper. “Look, Jazz, it was good while it lasted, but it’s over. I’m done. We’re done. You have to understand that.”

Jazz’s lips form a thin line of obstinance. “No.” He shoves the energon toward Ratchet and then lets it go, forcing Ratchet to catch it or spill it over the floor. “This isn’t over.”

“It is!” Ratchet snaps, his patience reaching its limit. He spins on a pede, heading for the door, for the moment not caring that the other mechs will notice.

Ratchet has a temper. Everyone knows this. And he hopes that it is what they will all assume.

He can’t shake the sensation, however, of Jazz’s visor on his back plating, watching him leave, and he doesn’t fail to notice that he’s still carrying the cube Jazz gave him, which he now has no choice but to consume.

o0o0o

Recharge becomes frag near impossible.

Ratchet finds himself laying on his berth, staring at the ceiling, wondering where he’d gone so wrong. He starts taking on extra shifts, if only to exhaust himself until a forced shutdown becomes necessary.

Jazz is making this harder than it needs to be.

Ratchet has never been a fan of making his personal affairs public. He feels no need to announce to the gossip mill that he and Jazz have ended their relationship. Which makes things rather awkward when Jazz continues to act like nothing has changed. Bringing him energon while he’s in the medbay, knowing Ratchet won’t make a scene and refuse. Offering to give Ratchet the Cybertronian version of a massage courtesy of his magnetic pulses. Genuinely being nice and cheerful and the all-around fun mech that everyone loves and adores.

Genuinely being the mech that Ratchet fell for in the first place. If it weren’t for the fact that Jazz’s stubborn refusal to accept the termination of their relationship is so slaggin’ creepy, Ratchet would’ve regretted his choice. There is still a part of his spark that does regret his decision. A part of him that remembers many, many nights of pleasant recharge, playful interfacing, intelligent conversation, and simply connecting with another mech on such a level.

At least Jazz hasn’t crept into his quarters without permission since that first day. Which makes Ratchet wonder if perhaps he had overreacted. And Wheeljack has been no help on the matter, preferring to defer to whatever Ratchet wants for himself. Easy for the slagger to say. He’s got Prowl, and that bot wouldn’t know an irrational action if it jumped up and punched him in the face.

Whereas Jazz is the verifiable king of the unexpected and illogical.

Sighing, Ratchet keys in the code to his quarters, preparing himself for another long night of staring at his ceiling, contemplating why on Cybertron Grapple had chosen such an awful color for the Ark. He’ll be glitching soon if he keeps this up. He hasn’t had a full defrag cycle since he made Jazz leave.

The lights are low, and Ratchet sends a ping to the systems. As his quarters brighten, Ratchet resets his optics and then his sensors, too.

Maybe he’s glitching already.

Because there’s nothing here. His berth is folded back up into the wall. His desk has been swept clean. His shelves are empty. The room has been dusted, cleaned, and polished. Like no one has ever occupied it since they crash-landed here on Earth.

Silently, Ratchet turns around and leaves. He stands outside of his quarters and looks at the door. His name isn’t exactly on it, but his title is. Chief Medical Officer. Definitely his room then. For a moment there, he thought perhaps he’d entered the wrong room using his overrides while in a slagged-circuit fog.

He goes back into his quarters. They are still empty of all his personal possessions. Something is not right.

Ratchet brings up the current shift schedule and then comms Red Alert.

–This may sound like a trick of Sideswipe proportions, but I have reason to believe that I’ve been robbed. —

It sounds ridiculous even to him, and Ratchet winces as he says it.

–Nonsense.– Red Alert uses his familiar, practical tone. A sure sign that Ratchet was right about how he sounded –Jazz informed me that you two agree to cohabitate. All of your belongings have been shifted to his quarters per your agreement.–

Ratchet’s entire frame goes still.

–I see. Thank you, Red Alert.–

He waits until the line has completely closed before letting the growl escape his vocalizer. He never thought Jazz would go this far. Had he been that misunderstood? Had he not been clear?

Whirling on his heel, Ratchet strides from his quarters, making a beeline for Jazz’s. The schedule indicates that Jazz should be on base and his next shift isn’t for another few hours. He had better be in his quarters because Ratchet is ending this. Today. With no room for misinterpretation or error or confusion.

Three doors down the hall, Ratchet doesn’t bother with the politeness of a gentle ping. He raises his hand and pounds on the door, at the same time sending a barrage of demanding pings at the stubborn saboteur. There is no verbal acknowledgment, but the door does open, and Ratchet storms inside without any ceremony.

Sure enough, Jazz is in the middle of unpacking a box of Ratchet’s belongings, carefully setting them out on a shelf that has been cleared. He looks up as the medic enters, smiling, cheerfully oblivious to the stormcloud of fury spitting fire in all directions.

“What the slag do you think you are doing?” Ratchet demands, stomping across the room and snatching the box from the saboteur’s hands. His belongings rattle and clank inside, precious mementos all that he has left of Cybertron.

“I thought it would be easier if I just took care o’ all this fer ya,” Jazz replies with a shrug and reaches for the box again. “I was tryin’ ta be thoughtful.”

Ratchet’s fingers grip the box so tightly that the metal crumples. “We’re not together anymore! I don’t want to move in with you, Jazz! I don’t want any of this!”

Seemingly realizing that Ratchet’s not going to give up the box, Jazz reaches for the items already on the shelf, casually rearranging them. His voice is even, reasonable. His words aren’t.

“Ya say that now, but I know ya don’t mean it. We’re meant ta be together, Ratch. Ya just don’t see it yet.”

A flutter of unease tugs at Ratchet’s spark at Jazz’s rather frank tone. He takes a step backward, still holding the box.

“Jazz, I do mean it. I’m absolutely serious. We’re over. We have been for weeks. And nothing’s going to change that. Nothing.”

Jazz stills, going so very motionless that for a moment Ratchet wonders if the saboteur’s pumps are even working. Like the truth is finally hitting home, penetrating through whatever mulish block he’s set on his processor. His hand drops from the shelf, and he half-turns, visor a bare glow as he looks at Ratchet.

“Nothing?” he repeats, and his vocal tones are softer than Ratchet would expect. Not exactly broken or disappointed but shuddering somewhere in between.

Another cautious step backward takes Ratchet closer to the door. “Yes,” Ratchet confirms and performs a systems check because this kind of unease in his spark is certainly unwarranted. “I’m sorry. But that’s the way it must be.”

He waits, but Jazz says nothing else. It’s eerily silent in the room, and Ratchet suspects that now is the time to beat a hasty exit. Perhaps he’ll even comm Blaster or Bluestreak once he leaves. Surely, Jazz will need some comfort, and either of the aforementioned mechs will be willing to provide it. And afterward, Ratchet will comm Wheeljack. The need to lose himself in a batch of high grade has suddenly become overwhelming.

“Nothing?” Ratchet hears Jazz repeat yet again, as though stuck on an infinite loop. “Ya see, Ratch, that’s where yer wrong.”

Something cold drops into Ratchet’s spark. He turns, battle systems suddenly screaming into bright alerts, and all he sees is a black-white blur before his world fades to nothing.

o0o0o

Ratchet onlines with a cloudiness in his processor and a distinct sense of unease. Half of his systems remain muted to him, some of his motor functions off-line and his external sensors tuned down. His comm systems are out as well, and there’s another person connected to his systems. He can feel the alien entity rifling through his coding and systems, blithely applying blocks and dancing through firewalls.

A bit more clarity cuts through the fog, and Ratchet lurches, battle systems telling him to flee, fight, get away. There’s a dull clank as his frame refuses to obey his commands. His legs aren’t listening to his commands at all, and his wrists have been bound to the berth above him. There’s also a noticeable weight on his hips.

Finally, Ratchet’s optics online. It takes a perilously long time for his vision to sharpen, but he doesn’t need the black-white blob to focus to know that it’s Jazz. It’s Jazz paging through his command codes, and it’s Jazz who has plugged into him.

In all likelihood, Jazz is also the one who cuffed him down to the berth as well. There can’t possibly be any other perpetrators.

The saboteur is humming, Ratchet belatedly realizes as his audials are the last thing to start functioning. He’s humming, and one hand is gently stroking over the windshield on Ratchet’s chassis, a finger tracing the seam of his chestplate.

“Jazz,” Ratchet says, vocalizer fritzing and glitched. “What are you doing?”

He has to be calm because panicking is not going to help him. No matter how frenzied his spark is right now, twisting and churning inside him.

For a moment, Jazz says nothing, his fingers drumming an off rhythm on Ratchet’s plating. Then he straightens, both palms flat on Ratchet’s abdominal armor.

“Do ya know what I was before th’ war, Ratch?”

Okay. Better to play this game with Jazz. Better to let him talk while Ratchet figures how the Pit he’s going to get out of this.

“Your file says you were a systems analyst,” Ratchet hedges and glances to the right.

They are still in Jazz’s quarters, no surprise there. He sees his internal weaponry sitting on an end table. Jazz must have removed it all when he was unconscious.

Jazz smiles. “Yeah, somethin’ like that. I was a hacker. Systems Analyst is just a euphemism the Enforcers cooked up for those in their employ.”

Ratchet casually checks the restriants on his wrist again. Magnetic cuffs, he thinks. Hard to tell since Jazz took his fraggin’ scanners offline, too.

“Hacker?”

“I was paid ta break codes. Ta punch through firewalls no one else could. Ta get inta places with all the best securities.” Jazz’s hands continue a soft caress over Ratchet’s plating, easily stimulating all the sensitive areas he’s grown to recognize over their period as lovers. “Prowl’s the only one who knows. He caught me. Gave me a choice. Work with them or get slagged. It’s pretty obvious which one I picked, isn’t it?”

Ratchet shifts his optics back to Jazz. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I love ya, Ratch. Always have. Always will.” He confesses so boldly, as though
It’s no difficult thing for him to admit. “I can’t have ya leavin’ me,” he adds, and one hand returns to Ratchet’s chassis, a finger dragging down the nearly invisible seam in his chestplate. “Ya don’t understand. I want ya ta understand. So I’m gonna show ya.”

For the first time, Ratchet admits to himself that it is fear and not just apprehension clawing at his spark. Surely, Jazz wouldn’t do this.

“Show me?”

Jazz’s smile is softer this time. Gentle and full of affection. Also, quite possibly tinged with insanity, but Ratchet may be biased in thinking this. He leans forward, both hands cupping Ratchet’s helm, thumbs stroking over his cheek.

“We’re gonna sparkbond. Ya’ll belong to me forever. Just the way things’re meant ta be.” His engine gives a soft purr of anticipation. “Then, I’ll never have ta worry about ya leavin’ me again.”

Yes, it seems… Jazz really would do this. There is nothing but determination in his visor and his voice.

Frantically, Ratchet starts shoring up the defenses around the commands for his critical systems – namely his spark and processor protocols. He uses all the firewalls he has in his arsenal, the ones Perceptor has given him, one Wheeljack created himself, and even one Prowl had devised in that scheming, logical processor of his.

Ratchet’s starting to run hot. He can feel the heat in his plating. But nonetheless, a sensation of icy-cold starts to run through his lines, and he knows that’s only an imagined sensation brought upon by his sudden fear.

“Jazz. You can’t do this.”

If he’s pleading, close to begging, no one else has to know. Spark bonding is permanent! Ratchet is nowhere near ready to make that kind of commitment, especially without his consent!

Jazz leans closer still, lips brushing over Ratchet’s chevron, before he draws back again. Ratchet can’t see his optics, and for once, he’s glad.

“It’s not a matter of can’t,” Jazz declares then. “I have ta. I can’t let ya leave me.”

The datastream that is Jazz’s presence within Ratchet’s systems suddenly starts to actively rifle through Ratchet’s coding once again. He heads unerringly toward Ratchet’s spark chamber protocols, slicing as easily through most of the medic’s firewalls as though they were mere suggestions rather than layers and layers of protective commands.

“Jazz!” Ratchet hisses and starts to struggle in earnest as much as his limited mobility will allow him. He lurches his upper body upward, straining at the magnetic cuffs. “Stop!”

His words and actions have no effect. Jazz simply shifts his weight, pinning Ratchet down firmly, leaving little room for the medic to leverage him off. He says nothing either, awareness obviously turning inward as his datastream balks at Ratchet’s last defense – Prowl’s protocols.

“Prowler’s work, huh?” Jazz says with an amused, approving chuckle. “He’s good; there’s no doubt. But not as good as me.”

“Jazz, please don’t do this.” Ratchet’s vents kick on with a panicked whirr, sucking in air to dispel the heat clouding up his frame. His thoughts feel so slagging slow and sluggish from whatever Jazz must have uploaded to him. “Please.”

Jazz cups Ratchet’s cheek with one hand and makes a shushing noise. “It’s okay, Ratch. Promise. This’s gonna make everythin’ better. Ya’ll see.” He pauses, and then, his smile brightens. “Got it.”

His announcement is accompanied by the telltale click of Ratchet’s chestplate cracking open, completely without his permission. The soft glow of his spark starts to illuminate the room, and Jazz gently coaxes Ratchet’s plating to completely split. His fingers gently stroke over the thinner, translucent material of Ratchet’s spark chamber, the last yet meager line of defense.

Jazz’s visor brightens, and he strokes the chamber lovingly.

“C’mon. Open up fer me pretty.”

As if Ratchet has any choice with Jazz jacked into his systems, overriding any commands Ratchet might personally send and turning his firewalls to useless dead code.

Ratchet’s vocalizer spits static. Jazz doesn’t listen, deactivating the last barrier and commanding the casing to slide aside. Ratchet’s spark flutters, energies surging through the opening, eager as they spill over Jazz’s talented fingers. Pleasure teases itself over Ratchet’s circuits, and he shudders. If from fear or unwanted desire, he can’t be sure.

“See?” Jazz purrs, dipping deeper, caressing the inner corona of Ratchet’s spark. “Yer spark knows better than yer processor about these things.”

Ratchet’s frame arches toward Jazz, autonomic systems eager for more of the pleasure-inducing touch. “Involuntary reaction, you glitch,” he manages to grit out, straining at the magnetic cuffs again. Heat pulses across his circuits, static energy crackling across his frame.

The saboteur makes a humming noise of content. “All I want is fer us ta be together,” Jazz says, and his vocal tones take on a measure of hurt of all things.

Horror wars with arousal as Jazz’s chestplate splits open, the blue-white of his spark illuminating the space between them. It would be beautiful to Ratchet’s optics, if he weren’t so repulsed by Jazz’s actions.

The saboteur leans closer, casing sliding aside to let the energies of his spark spill out, impatient tendrils licking out, brushing over the very edges of Ratchet’s own spark. In that brief moment of contact, Ratchet gets a glimpse of Jazz’s feelings for him.

Love. Or obsession rather. The desire to possess. That there is no cruel intent does not make this any easier to bear.

At the first gentle pulse of Jazz’s spark, Ratchet tries to resist. He thinks of all sorts of unpleasant things, anything to keep the exchange of energies from beginning. Anything to forestall the pleasure Jazz’s fingers are wringing from his plating and the incredible sensation of near spark-to-spark contact. Primus! Ratchet can’t remember the last time he merged for sheer pleasure. Surely before they ever left Cybertron.

“C’mon, Ratch,” Jazz murmurs at him, his soothing tones doing little to calm the increasingly frantic medic. “Don’t be like that. I don’t want ta hurt ya.”

“Then stop!” Ratchet all but shouts, the last syllable crackling with static.

It hurts; it truly does, to resist the call of Jazz’s spark. His memory core is being unhelpful, dragging up vidfiles of past merges and the unimaginable pleasure that can be had.

It won’t be so bad, a part of him whispers. Jazz would be devoted.

But it’s not what Ratchet wants!

“Ya know I won’t do that,” Jazz replies without a hint of regret. Determination lights his visor. “Yer goin’ to be mine, Ratch. Mine and no one else’s.”

An interface cable snakes out of Jazz’s open chassis, heading straight for the port in Ratchet’s own frame, to one side of his spark chamber. A one-way connection isn’t enough to initiate the bond, but that won’t stop Jazz. He simply breezes through Ratchet’s systems like he has the rest of them, triggering Ratchet’s own interface cable to link into Jazz’s interface port.

Arousal and pleasure slam into Ratchet’s systems. He writhes on the berth, trapped between the solid frame beneath him, and Jazz’s weight above. It feels so fragging good, for all the revulsion that swamps his thoughts, and he’s nothing but a bundle of contradictions. He wants to beg for more. He wants to beg for Jazz to stop.

Jazz presses closer, the outer edges of their sparks coming into terrible contact, and an onslaught of pleasure-pain sends a hot charge through Ratchet’s circuits. He keens, frame lurching upward. His resistance is crumbling. Jazz is still talking to him, crooning, encouraging. He pulses love and possession into the half-merge, trying to coax Ratchet into letting him in. Into making it easier.

He can do it. He can force it. Too many years in Spec Ops means there are a lot of things Jazz can do and has done before. Forced spark merges are only a drop in the bucket.

He’s not going to stop. No matter how much Ratchet begs. No one is coming to rescue him. No one knows he needs to be rescued.

Ratchet knows what he has to do. What other choice does he have?

Ratchet keens again; this time out of sheer grief. Jazz is his ally, companion, loyal friend. The affection is still there, hard to ignore.

He onlines his optics, wondering when he’d offlined them, and sees Jazz over him. Their spark energies lashing together, starting to pulse in sync. Their interface connections are exchanging data at a rapid rate. Ratchet’s going to lose his chance. It’ll be too late.

“Jazz. Stop. Please.”

His former lover’s answer is to pulse harder with his spark, bring them closer together. Until the taste of Jazz is all that Ratchet knows, both with spark and data cables.

Resignation swamps Ratchet from head to toe. He grits his denta, a shudder wracking through his frame.

He has no choice.

With what little control over his own body Ratchet has left, he taps into his emergency protocols. Ones he created for himself long, long ago, when Megatron first put out that capture order on all high-ranked medics and scientists of the Autobot army. Perceptor and Wheeljack have it, too. He’s been planning to load it into First Aid and Skyfire as well. It’s a contingency plan. A last resort on the possibility of capture by the enemy.

They’ve told no one else. Not even Prowl. Not even Prime.

It’s a virus. It won’t kill. But it’s almost a fate worse than deactivation.

With Jazz connected to Ratchet as he is and completely open to the medic, he’s defenseless to it. Ratchet might not have the hacker experience to break through Jazz’s firewalls and take over his motor functions – even with his medical overrides. He doesn’t need it; this virus will do all the work for him. It’s the most insidious thing Ratchet has ever seen. It’s more Decepticon than Autobot.

It’s the only option he has left.

Between one pulse of pleasure and the next, Ratchet uploads the virus and hides the action by easing back on his resistance. He moans, letting himself feel the pleasure, letting some of the heat suffusing his frame make his circuits tingle. It isn’t even pretend because it does feel good.

He only needs half a minute, perhaps less, before the virus is so rooted Jazz will either be forced to stop in order to counter it or will be unable to do anything to remove it.

Half a minute, however, may still be too long. Jazz is as skilled in the berth as he is everywhere else. He knows Ratchet’s frame too well. Knows how to make him cry out with pleasure, how to set his circuits ablaze. The charge in his frame translates to brilliant arcs of static that leap between his and Jazz’s frame. Their spark energies twine and weave together.

Ratchet moans, a sound that is in no way reminiscent of pleasure. Is it too late?

Above him, Jazz suddenly goes very still. His visor dims.

“Ratchet?”

His tone is uncertain, wavering.

Sick to his very spark, Ratchet turns his head. “You didn’t give me a choice, Jazz.”

Disbelief and betrayal pour from Jazz’s spark, twisting Ratchet’s own emotions until he’s seeded with guilt.

“Ya… this… Why can’t I stop it?”

“I can’t even stop it,” Ratchet says, unable to hide his misery.

Jazz’s hand slams into the berth, and he tries to pull back, cables snapping taut between them. “What’s it doin’? Ratch?”

Fear. For the first time, Ratchet hears fear in Jazz’s voice.

Jazz’s free hand starts clawing at his own open chest as though he can rip the intangible virus out by his fingers alone.

“I don’t understand,” he cries, voice approaching a keen. “This’s s’posed ta be a good thing! Yer supposed ta love me!”

His terror and agony transmits across the link between them, chasing away the pleasure, infecting Ratchet’s own systems. He grits his denta, turns off his audials, but it doesn’t help. He can still feel Jazz’s panic and confusion.

Jazz shrieks, loud enough that Ratchet can feel the vibration, and then his weight shifts. He jerks backward, snapping cables from their ports, their sparks breaking apart so quickly that a violent, stab of pain slams into Ratchet. He jerks on the berth, mouth opening in a pained scream of his own. Too much, too much, too much–

His world turns black all over again.

o0o0o

Ratchet onlines with none of the muzziness of the last time he came to awareness. His thoughts are clear, his motor functions are his own again, and there are no foreign entities leafing through his processes.

There is, however, a strut-deep fatigue that he just can’t escape. He’s achy in all the wrong places, his spark is twinging with off-rhythm pulses of discomfort. There’s a lingering sense of loneliness hovering over everything. He’s aching from more than just physical loss, though Ratchet can’t place a name to it.

His proximity sensors register the presence of another mech. One who is approaching slowly, like one might a grounded Seeker.

“You’re online,” Hoist observes.

“I feel like slag,” the medic grumps and tries to get up from the berth, but his arms and legs won’t rise. They’ve been secured down. “What the frag?”

Hoist steps into Ratchet’s view, reaching for the restraints on his right wrist. “You fought us. When we tried to pull you away from Jazz.”

That doesn’t make any sense. Then again, Ratchet can’t remember anything beyond Jazz’s betrayed confusion and his own horrified regret. He remembers Jazz jerking away from him, battling against the malignant virus. After that?

Nothing.

Ratchet’s spark gives another lurching pulse of agony. The loneliness returns again, clawing at his energies. The urge to keen rises within Ratchet, but he forces it down, locking it behind medical protocols. His spark feels like it’s reaching, straining for something, but there’s nothing there.

“My spark…”

Hoist pats him on the shoulder and moves to Ratchet’s other side, undoing that restraint as well. “The feeling will pass in time. It’s a residual effect. Consequence of the–”

“–interrupted bond,” Ratchet finishes. “I know.”

He slumps against the berth. Jazz had very nearly succeeded.

“Jazz?” he manages to ask.

From the end of the berth where Hoist is removing the leg straps, the engineer glances to his left. At another berth. Ratchet follows his gaze. He almost wishes he didn’t.

Jazz is lying there, motionless and obviously offline. He has been repaired, cleaned, and polished. Much like Ratchet himself has.

“He’s not deactivated. But he’s not the same anymore.” Hoist unlatches the last strap, which gives Ratchet room to sit up. “My scanners indicate that his memory core’s been wiped clean. He’s practically a sparkling. At least in mind.” His optics are too blue and worried. “What happened, Ratchet?”

What happened?

Ratchet’s head dips, the memories too fresh. His spark aches, calling to finish the incomplete bond rather than keep the pain of it slowly dissolving. He can still feel the echoes of Jazz’s shock and despair, the utter desolation. His fingers curl around the edge of the berth, tightening until it dents.

“I didn’t have a choice,” Ratchet whispers at last. “He didn’t give me any other choice.”

Hoist puts a hand on Ratchet’s shoulder but hastily removes it when Ratchet flinches away. “What did you do?”

“I think that explanations can wait, Hoist.” Optimus Prime’s voice cuts into the tension-filled atmosphere, the door sliding shut behind him.

Ratchet’s scanners hadn’t even sensed Optimus approach. But now, his spark does, lurching toward the calming presence of their Prime, eager to be soothed. Healed even.

“At least until his spark is not so damaged,” Optimus adds, coming to a halt near to Ratchet’s berth but not close enough to touch. His gaze is unreadable, expression hidden behind his battle mask.

Damaged? Yes. Ratchet can agree to that. Broken, too. He feels strained, too large for his frame, and part of him wants nothing more than to collapse back into recharge. Another part of him wants to leap off the berth, cross the floor, and join Jazz on his. He’s torn in too many directions, spark churning indecisively within him.

Ratchet’s shoulders slump. “I don’t know what to say, Prime.”

“Right now, you need say nothing,” Optimus replies with his unfailing calm and patience. “This matter will be looked into, and the circumstances will be investigated. But for now, rest. Rest and recover.”

He sounds tired then. Tired and very sad. Ratchet doesn’t blame him.

“If such a thing is even possible.”

Ratchet shutters his optics then. He doesn’t look at Hoist. Or at his Prime. Certainly not at Jazz.

He just keeps them offline and looks at nothing. Says nothing. Feels nothing.

Or at least, he wishes he didn’t.

[JL] Nine-Tenths

Why is it, Superman wonders, that villains never learn? What drives their single-minded determination? What convinces them that this time they’ll succeed? Even when it’s painfully, pathetically obvious that their most recent contrived and pointless plan has been ill-fated from the start.

If there’s one thing that Superman can always count on, it’s that Lex Luthor will come up with something devious, and vow retribution upon his defeat. It’s practically a cosmic rule at this point, though that doesn’t make the tediousness of facing Luthor one more time any less tiresome.

And, as usual, Superman and the rest of the Justice League have been drawn into the villain’s typical Saturday afternoon and have banded together to put an end to Luthor’s nefarious plot. It has something to do with an elaborate mechanism that is supposed to further his goal of world domination and defeat Superman in the process.

Glancing askance at the smoking heap of wreckage, courtesy of Hawkgirl, Superman is not entirely sure what Luthor’s Weapon of Doom used to be before she smashed it to pieces. It may have once contained Kryptonite, but Batman has already nullified that particular threat, his snarled demand that Superman “stay out of it” really just a charming bonus. This whole plan had been of Batman’s making, since he had overridden Superman’s original plan to go in and bash everything to pieces on his own.

Wonder Woman is handling crowd control, Green Lantern is disposing of the other radioactive bits, and the Flash is doing what he does best, regaling the media with the ins and outs of their heroic exploits. J’onn, up on the Watchtower, is their eye in the sky.

In the background, Luthor’s noisy rant about meddlesome superheroes and how Superman will pay some day rings in Superman’s ears, but he’s grown pretty adept at tuning out Luthor’s whining over the years. He barely pays any attention to it anymore. Amusingly, neither does the media.

“Are you going to help with the clean-up or are you too busy posing for the cameras?” Batman asks, his words sharp, but his tone hinting of amusement rather than disdain.

Superman’s lips twitch. “I’m supervising.”

“I see.” Batman’s gaze flicks past him, to the pile of scrap that is Luthor’s newest robotic adversary recently brought low by Superman. Well, Wonder Woman helped. “Let me guess, lasers from the eye sockets?”

Superman twitches his right arm, where his suit is singed. Possibly. “It tingled.”

He can see the play of emotion on Batman’s face, for all that only his lips and chin are visible. He’s trying his hardest not to make light of Luthor’s defeat, but sometimes, it is quite ridiculous.

“He must be getting desperate,” Batman finally says, and turns, staring in the same direction as Superman, both of them watching smoke curl from the smashed remains of the weapon meant to kill Superman. “I’ve seen better plots from the Mad Hatter.”

Ouch. Harsh.

Superman chuckles. “Sooner or later, he’ll realize he can never outwit the Batman.”

“My hope is for sooner rather than later.”

“Maybe he’s losing his edge?”

Batman glances at him. “Or maybe he’s gearing up for something that we all should fear. I wouldn’t put it past Luthor.”

Flash wraps up his recap, and Green Lantern has most of the wreckage contained, which means that the need for the Justice League’s presence is nearing its end. Time to head back to the Watchtower until the next moment of Earthly peril.

“And another victory draws to a close,” Superman says and shifts toward Batman. “I’m heading back. Need a lift?”

Batman reaches for his utility belt. “As much as I love the idea of you carrying me, I have it covered.”

Superman hears the Batwing’s approach before he sees the aircraft appear in the sky above them, out of thin air like the rest of Batman’s seemingly endless array of specialized equipment. Superman often wonders why the rest of the world hasn’t connected Batman’s many toys with Wayne Enterprises’ advanced technology and science. But then, Superman’s only disguise is a pair of glasses and a change in his outward demeanor. Fool ’em with the obvious, he supposes.

“Clean up that robot before you go,” Batman says, and before Superman can so much as protest, he grapples up into the Batwing and speeds off into the bright afternoon, leaving the rest of them to deal with what remains of clean-up duty.

Superman snorts. Hypocrite. But he’s not really offended.

He watches Batman until the Batwing is little more than a dark speck on the horizon, and then turns to do as he’s been ordered. He had planned to dispose of the robot anyway. Fair is fair, and he can’t expect Green Lantern to take care of all the mess. Luthor is Superman’s archenemy, after all.

He passes by Wonder Woman, who is giving him an odd look, her expression a mixture of curiosity and amusement, as though she knows something he doesn’t.

“What?” Superman asks.

She shakes her head, lips curving into a smile. “It’s nice when teammates get along, isn’t it?” she asks enigmatically, and then leaps into the air, joining Hawkgirl in the sky, the two of them likely headed back to the Watchtower now that the crowd is dispersing, the citizens returning to their daily routines.

Honestly, sometimes Superman doesn’t understand the other members of the Justice League. For all that they are fighters for justice, they are also a motley assortment of personality quirks that can try the patience of any Boy Scout, as Batman so helpfully calls him.

Shaking his head, Superman puts aside Wonder Woman’s odd comment and sets himself to cleaning up the rest of Luthor’s mess.

o0o0o

Superman is the last to return to the Watchtower, and though he wants to make a beeline for the showers, he stops in the main monitor room first. Washing away the stink of scorched metal and frayed wires will have to wait until he checks in with J’onn, on the off chance that some other supervillain has decided to make a nuisance of himself now that Luthor’s been taken care of.

He rolls his shoulders to ease out some kinks and heads to the main hub, passing the Flash as he does so.

“Batman’s already here,” the Flash says as he lifts a hand in greeting, but doesn’t stop to chat.

Superman blinks. “Thanks,” he replies, though he’s not entirely sure why Flash feels he needs to know that.

Filing away the second weird statement of the day, Superman continues to the center of the Watchtower, looking to the platform just above him where a huge computer and numerous screens take up the majority of the space. Unsurprisingly, J’onn is in the middle of it, eyes fixed on the monitors as he easily keeps track of current events. Batman is standing next to him, also focused on the screens.

There is a third person as well, perched on Batman’s right side, and Superman draws to a surprised halt.

Stark. Iron Man. What on Earth is he doing here? Shouldn’t he be in Los Angeles chasing after loose women and occasionally taking on whatever villain is brave enough to don a mask?

Instead he’s here, face plate lifted as he chats with Batman, who doesn’t appear to be paying him a bit of attention. Instead, Batman’s attention is solely focused on one of the monitoring screens, which is replaying the recorded events from the earlier battle.

Superman’s eyes narrow.

As if he has some sixth sense, Iron Man turns and spots Superman standing there. A big grin takes over his face, and he lifts his hand in a wave.

“Superman!” he exclaims with glee, hopping down with a clank of metal on metal and strolling toward Superman as though they’ve been lifelong friends. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. “Just the man I wanted to see!”

“Why?” Superman asks, unable to help his suspicion. Stark’s never come here looking for him before. And he isn’t the sort to ask for help.

“I thought we could have a chat.”

“A chat.”

Stark nods. “I watched the footage of your fight with Luthor’s robot earlier today. It went down pretty easily, didn’t it?”

Stating the obvious, much? “Yes,” Superman replies, and glances around, wondering if there’s anyone who can take Stark off his hands. He can’t really explain his dislike for Iron Man; there’s just something about Tony Stark that rubs him the wrong way. “Which is a nice change of pace.”

“I’ll say.” Stark leans in closer, as though sharing some secret that only the two of them should be privy to. “You and Bats make a pretty good team, you know. Nice little balance there.”

Superman feels a tic developing behind his left eyebrow, though he’s not sure why. Where is Stark going with this? “So I’ve heard.”

Stark laughs, too loud, the sound echoing around the open space of the Watchtower’s main room, loud enough that both Batman and J’onn glance down at them. “You two have a thing, right?”

Superman blinks, for a moment utterly speechless. “I… what?”

Stark winks at him, jabbing Superman with his elbow like they are old buddies. “Don’t play dumb with me, Superman. You know exactly what I mean.”

On the outside, Superman works his jaw with every attempt to reclaim his composure. Inwardly, Clark Kent can’t get past his speechlessness. He and Batman – Bruce Wayne – in a relationship? The idea of it is absurd, improbable, impossible. Where in the world would Stark get a crazy notion like that?

“It’s a stretch to say we’re friends, Stark,” Superman finally manages, allowing himself only the briefest glance up at an oblivious Batman. “To imply anything more is… well, it’s rude.”

“Yeah, Bruce likes to play the block of ice card,” Stark replies, tapping his chin with one metal-covered finger. “Then I guess you won’t mind if I make my move.”

His move? He can’t be serious.

Superman straightens to his full height, which admittedly, is shorter than Stark while he’s wearing the Iron Man suit. “I’m not the one you should be asking. That’s Batman’s decision to make.”

“I have your permission, then? Good.” Stark grins, looking like Superman’s just handed him the world on a silver platter. “I’d hate to step on anyone’s toes. Especially yours. I’m not sure Iron Man can stand up to the Man of Steel.”

He claps his hand on Superman’s shoulder, metal a noticeable weight that Superman glares at, half-tempted to use his heat vision to remove the offending appendage. Luckily, Stark offers no more inane comments. Instead, he pats Superman companionably, and then strolls away, whistling, of all things, with a strut in his step.

Superman doesn’t have to watch Stark leave to guess where he’s going, but Superman does so anyway. Sure enough, a quick leap upward and Stark returns to his position at the monitoring station above, perched next to Batman’s clueless side. No doubt to flirt and wheedle and generally make his interest known.

Superman isn’t sure what to think about that, though it’s not his place to have an opinion either way. If Batman actually takes Stark’s flirtations seriously, it has nothing to do with Superman. No matter how much he doesn’t like Tony Stark.

o0o0o

A week passes and Superman all but puts his conversation with Tony Stark behind him. It’s easy enough. He has little contact with Iron Man as it is, and he certainly has better things to do than waste time pondering Stark’s sudden interest in Batman. Clark Kent has articles to research and write; Superman has petty crimes to handle.

Of course, a week is too long for any supervillain to remain quiet or for the world to be safe from possible destruction or domination. When the call comes from Batman – currently on monitor duty – that Grodd is wreaking havoc in Washington DC, Superman is more than happy to respond.

By the time he extracts himself from a meeting with Mr. White and arrives on the scene, the other members of the Justice League have the situation well in hand. Like Luthor’s pitiful attempt a week prior, Grodd’s plot to take over the United States by hijacking the nation’s power grid is just as easily foiled.

Honestly, it’s like the villain’s aren’t even trying anymore. Which makes Superman wonder if that means the universe is only setting up the Justice League for a battle twenty times as difficult, where more than Earth is at stake. It has happened before, and if there’s one thing Superman wants, it’s to never face Darkseid again.

With nothing left to do, either against Grodd or as Clark Kent, Superman hitches a ride with the rest of the Justice League on the Javelin back to the Watchtower. The sound of Tony Stark’s laughter greets his arrival. A twitch races through Superman’s frame as the raucous sound grates in his ears.

Once again, Iron Man has made himself comfortable where he has not been invited. How does he keep getting up here?

“Oh,” Wonder Woman says. “It sounds like Iron Man is visiting again.”

The Flash snickers. “I guess he doesn’t have anything better to do than bother Bats.”

Superman chooses to ignore both of them, easing away from the other members of the league, making a beeline for the monitor hub, where he can make out the flash of gold and crimson metal as it stands next to the shifting shadow that is Batman. Stark’s metal-covered feet make a staccato of noise as he keeps changing position, nearly circling around Batman.

Whatever he’s saying is a blur of words to Superman, who doesn’t care so much for the content as he minds the fact that Stark is here to speak it.

“I think it’s better this way,” Stark is in the middle of saying as Superman approaches. “I don’t have to deal with trying to hide my identity and when I have to leave a meeting early, I just have to claim superhero duty.”

“Convenient,” Batman replies, and try as he might, Superman can’t detect much of anything in Batman’s tone. Is he bored? Interested? It’s so hard to tell with Batman!

“Very.” Stark nods sagely and with that same weird sixth sense, notices Superman coming toward them. “Hey, Supes. Looking good out there.”

“Why are you here?”

Well, Clark, good job. Dart straight through anything polite (or subtle for that matter) and head right for the rude demands. Ma Kent would be ashamed of him.

Stark, however, is nonplussed, doesn’t even blink at Superman’s abrupt query. “I just thought I would keep Batman company.” He tilts his head, mischief glinting in his blue eyes. “Why? Am I not allowed?”

“Don’t you have a company to run?”

Stark smirks. “That’s what Pepper’s for. She’s an invaluable asset.”

A cowl-enclosed head turns, giving Stark a sideways look. “You are incorrigible,” Batman says.

Does Superman detect a hint of fond humor there?

“Aww, I know you love me anyway.”

A twitch develops in Superman’s right shoulder, travels down his arm, and makes his fingers spasm. “If you have no true business here, then maybe you should return to Los Angeles. Here, we actually have work to do.”

Stark gasps in that fake way that people do when they’re pretending to be contrite. “Why Superman, I would never waste the Justice League’s time.”

“Really.” His tone is flatter than a sheet of paper.

Stark shrugs with a creak and groan of metal and gears. “But I can see you have things to discuss, so I’ll be on my way. Bats? Catch you later.”

Stark waves one hand through the air and then walks past Superman as though he hasn’t a care in the world, whistling all the way. Each metallic clank of his stride seems to echo in Superman’s ears, like the annoying buzz of a mosquito in late summer.

“I didn’t realize the Watchtower was by invitation only,” Batman says, his low-pitched voice breaking through the aggravating echo of Stark’s footsteps.

Superman shakes himself out of his irritation and shifts his attention to Batman. “That’s not what I meant,” he says, and takes up a position at Batman’s side, ironically where Stark had just been standing. “But if he’s spending all his time here, I can’t see where he’s making himself useful anywhere else.”

Batman makes a noise in his throat, a cross between a thoughtful hum and a disbelieving snort. “You really don’t like him, do you?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to.” Batman’s lips twitch as though he’s holding back his amusement. “I never thought I’d see the day the world’s biggest Boy Scout would dislike someone without good cause.”

Without good…? Superman clenches his jaw. It’s safer to just change the subject. He can’t remember the last time he won a discussion with Batman, so it’s better just to cut his losses and move on.

“Anything interesting happening down there?” Superman says instead, perfectly casual as he leans forward and scans the surrounding monitors.

Batman doesn’t comment on his evasion of the previous topic. “For once, all is quiet.”

“It won’t last for long.”

“Good thing we’re watching then.”

Some of the irritation bleeds away; Superman grins.

o0o0o

True to form, the quiet lasts only as long as it takes for the world to get comfortable again. For some broken cities to rebuild, some innocent citizens to breathe a sigh of relief. Clark manages to visit Smallville, spend some time with his folks, and turn in a few of his assignments without racing the clock.

Superman, in a rare moment of a city safe from peril and a planet not under the threat of an alien invasion, decides a trip to Gotham is in order. Batman had mentioned something about improvements he made to the Batcave, and now is as good a time as any to check them out. Batman’s ingenuity never fails to impress, after all.

Like the Fortress of Solitude, the Batcave houses an eclectic collection of artifacts, villain memorabilia, outdated Bat weaponry and equally outdated Batsuits, framed newspaper articles, photos, and more. Superman could easily spend hours wandering from one glassed enclosure to the next, slowly taking in the history of the Dark Knight, and never find himself bored.

Today is no exception. Superman lets himself in by way of the Batwing’s concealed outlet and flies through the twisting corridor straight into the Batcave. He passes a flock of bats, but they barely stir, probably used to the comings and goings by this passage.

Anticipating the conversation soon to come – sure to be rife with plenty of snark and wit – Superman grins and heads for the Batcomputer, the place he’s sure to find Bruce whenever Batman is not on patrol or relentlessly subjecting himself to some sort of training. Where the rest of the Batclan is, Superman can only guess.

Batman, however, is not alone.

This is starting to occur with annoying frequency.

“My offer stands, you know,” Tony Stark says from where he’s perched atop one of the Batcomputer’s consoles, feet swinging like a child’s. “I could build you a suit.”

Batman snorts, swinging around in his chair and scooting over to a different keyboard, pulling up some kind of spectrographic image. “If I needed one, I’m sure Wayne Tech is capable of providing one.”

“Not like mine.”

Batman tosses Stark a look, one that Superman well-recognizes – barely concealed humor. “And so modest.”

Red and gold-plated legs kick out again. “Well, I try.”

Superman clears his throat noisily, anything to cut out the inane banter. “Am I interrupting something?”

Stark’s head whips toward him, faceplate snapping closed. “Nope. I was just leaving.” He hops down from his perch and waves at Batman. “See you at the charity dinner tonight, Bruce.”

Batman makes a noncommittal noise of agreement. He doesn’t appear to notice or really care that Stark is leaving, ironically using the same path Superman had taken to enter.

He watches Stark leave, fighting to keep his heat vision from searing the Iron Man suit on it’s way out. Never has the phrase “glare hot enough to shoot lasers” been so true.

“Superman?”

He blinks, Batman’s query capturing his attention.

“Did you need something?”

“You let Stark into the Batcave now?” he asks, tearing his gaze away from the exit and striding toward both the Batcomputer and Batman, the latter whirling around in his chair to look at Superman. The fact that he has his cowl pushed back is somehow icing on the cake.

Clark is well aware that Stark knows Batman’s true identity, and he suspects Stark knows Superman’s, as well. It galls him that Bruce thinks the flighty egotist is capable of keeping such a secret when he hasn’t bothered to conceal his own identity. Besides, Clark is the only member of the Justice League who knows Batman’s alter ego.

They trust each other like that. They are friends and battle companions. They are the World’s Finest, their relationship something special to Clark. He likes it that way.

He does not like Tony Stark sashaying in where he’s not wanted. Why? Well, Clark hasn’t been able to put a finger on the reason for that yet.

“Last time I checked, it was mine to offer,” Bruce says, his voice rich with humor and succeeding in dragging Clark out of his conflicting thoughts.

“Yes, but I didn’t think you’d be so quick to invite just anyone,” Clark retorts, folding his arms over his chest.

Bruce arches a brow. “I invited you, didn’t I?”

“Oh, ha ha.” Sometimes, Bruce’s humor chooses to make an appearance at the most inconvenient of times.

Drumming his fingers over his bicep, Clark tries another tactic, peering at Bruce pointedly, as though his X-ray vision can see more than just blood and muscles and bone. “I didn’t think he was your type.”

“Type?” Bruce frowns, elbows settling on the arms of his chair as he laces his fingers together. “We’re merely friends, Clark.”

Friends? Since when does Bruce, much less Batman, admit to having friends? It was hard enough getting him to acknowledge that he and Superman had something like a partnership!

Is Bruce truly interested in a lazy playboy like Tony Stark? Honestly, Brucie might play the role, but Stark literally lives it.

Clark’s thoughts spin with impossibilities, and he grasps for logic. “You’re not actually considering a suit, are you?” he asks, because that would just be another straw to break the camel’s back. Truly.

Batman doesn’t need special powers or advanced technology suits. Gotham doesn’t need an Iron Man. Gotham needs Batman exactly the way he is.

“And if I was?” Bruce asks.

Clark stares at him. “You aren’t serious.”

Bruce shrugs and lowers his hands, whirling back toward his computer console. “It’s a valid option. Did you come here for a reason?”

Typical Bruce. Clark might as well consider the conversation closed. There’s no point in pressing Bruce about it. If he doesn’t want to talk, he simply won’t.

Clark sighs as he unfolds his arms and steps up beside Bruce. “I can’t visit?”

“You have a city to look after.” Gloved fingers execute a tapping cadence over his keyboard, numerous scrolls of information appearing on the screens. The one closest to Bruce has a twenty-four hour news cast with the captions on.

“So does Stark.”

“So do I.” The keyboard tapping pauses as Bruce’s head tilts toward the newscast, something catching his eye. A contemplative noise rises in his throat before he swivels the chair around and stands, hands lifting to secure the cowl over his face.

Ah, trouble in Gotham. Superman would offer to help, but he’s learned his lesson on that front. Best to render aid only when asked, when it comes to Batman and his city. He’s rather possessive about Gotham. In fact, Bruce is possessive about a lot of things.

He still hasn’t allowed Clark a ride in the Batmobile. So what if he can fly anywhere he wants to go? It’s not the same thing as riding in the famous Batmobile. Not at all.

“If you need me, you know where to find me,” Batman says as he heads for the Batmobile, doors and such opening automatically for him.

Superman watches him leave, tearing out of the Batcave with a roaring rumble of powerful engines.

He has time to sit and chat with Stark, but a friendly conversation with him is too much? Since when did this start becoming the norm?

Superman shakes his head, fighting back his frown. There’s no reason for him to be so bothered over this. So why is he letting it get to him?

o0o0o

He’s here for business, but all that Clark can focus on is the sight of Stark hovering next to Bruce all evening. They walked in together, they stood on the dais together, and Stark stood at Bruce’s right elbow as Bruce gave his speech. Then they switched, with Bruce never far from Stark for the man’s entire address.

Clark knows he should be paying attention, taking notes on what they are saying, committing them to memory so he can write his piece for the Daily Planet later, but his mind is everywhere but on work right now. He hovers on the edge of the crowd of the rich and pretentious, glad for his height, and watches Bruce and Stark with eagle eyes.

They each have a glass of expensive wine in hand. Stark has been downing them one after another all evening. Bruce makes a show of drinking, playing up his Brucie persona, but Clark is probably the only one who realizes he hasn’t drank a drop. They’re smiling and laughing together and though Clark knows that this is Playboy Bruce and not the real Bruce, something inside of him clenches nonetheless.

Clark mindlessly reaches for one of the delicate appetizers on the buffet table, nibbling on a cracker slathered in a pungent cheese. Too strong for his tastes, really. He grabs something else – fresh, cubed fruit. Simple, yet effective. Clark nibbles, deftly avoids crashing into one of the partying few, and never takes his eyes off Bruce.

Stark is laughing as he says something, leaning in close to Bruce. His hand is on the small of Bruce’s back, his other hand gesticulating wildly with his empty wine glass. He doesn’t need to hear them to guess that Stark is relaying some wild story or another.

Bruce is leaning in toward Stark, completely at ease, completely comfortable. And while it is Playboy Bruce present right now, Clark still expects to see Bruce subtly edging away, putting distance between himself and Stark’s wandering hand.

But Bruce doesn’t.

“And why, pray tell, are you lurking behind the cream puffs?”

Lois’ voice, suddenly in his right ear, makes Clark startle in surprise, prompting him to drop his plate of nibbles. He adds in a stumble, for the sake of Clumsy Clark, and mourns the loss of his careful selection.

“L-lurking?” Clark repeats, adjusting his glasses with one hand as he crouches to clean up his mess.

Lois smirks. “Yes, lurking. As opposed to mingling which we both should be doing right about now. Fluff piece, remember? Since we’re both in the dog house with Mr. White.”

He remembers. “I’m observing,” he says, rising to his feet with the gathered remains of his plate and snacks. “You can learn a lot from standing on the sidelines, Lois.”

She snorts inelegantly. “Not as much as you can learn from being in the middle of the action, Smallville.”

Oh, how he knows. She has a knack for putting herself in the middle of danger. And rarely is she repentant about it.

“Right,” Clark agrees. “I’ll just go… mingle then.”

Lois pats him on the shoulder. “You do that.” Her reprimand delivered, she dives back into the crowd with a sway of her hips and her eyes locked on her next prey – ahem, individual for interviewing.

Shaking his head, Clark gets rid of his trash, grabs a drink to occupy his hands, and looks into the crowd. Stark and Bruce are noticeably missing. When did that happen? Where did they go?

Not the buffet. Not the dais. They aren’t shaking hands with any of the movers and shakers that Clark can see. He can’t imagine that they visited the bathroom together.

There. On the balcony. Together. Alone and together.

Clark feels a tremor run through him.

The door is open a crack, as though the want to listen to make sure no one starts looking for them, but for the most part they are isolated together. Bruce is leaning against the railing, elbows braced on the edge as he looks out at the city. Stark stands beside him, uncomfortably close in Clark’s opinion, arm pressed to Bruce’s arm.

Once again, he could easily listen to what they are saying, but part of him balks on blatantly eavesdropping on their conversation. Bad enough that he’s watching them through the glass. If Bruce is serious about this… well, he’d never forgive Clark the breaching of his privacy.

Stark leans in closer, lips brushing Bruce’s ear as he says something, and the sound of shattering glass echoes around Clark. Something cold drips over his fingers. He blinks, looks down, and realizes that the noise had been him. Fine glass tinkles to the floor, wine dribbling after it, and now, people are staring at him. Great.

Also, Lois is now heading his direction.

“Clark,” she says as he drops down to his knees to once again clean up his mess, “I said go out there and mingle, not make a mess and attract attention to yourself.”

The burn that spreads into his cheeks is only half-faked. “I know,” Clark says, dabbing at the wine with a napkin and carefully gathering the bits of broken glass.

“What is with you tonight? It’s like you’re not even half here.” Lois pauses, tapping her chin with her finger. “Then again… sometimes you’re so out there it’s like you’re on another planet so maybe this is normal behavior.”

Clark ignores her, disposing of the broken bits of wine glass and smiling sheepishly at the curious bystanders. Fewer people are staring than before, but still, they act like they’ve never seen someone break a glass before. Granted he’d crushed it with his fingers but they don’t know that.

“Clark?”

“I’m fine, Lois,” he says, sweeping a careful hand over his hair. “Go interrogate someone or something.”

She eyes him curiously. “And you?”

Well, perhaps it’s about time he gets to actual work. Glaring through glass at Stark is obviously not doing him any favors.

“I think I could provide Mr. Kent with an interview, if he’s so inclined,” a voice announces from behind Clark. He stiffens; he knows that voice.

Lois leans to the left to look past him. “Mr. Stark,” she replies sweetly. “You’ll give my clumsy comrade the scoop, but not me? I’m disappointed.”

Clark shifts and sees Stark flashing Lois one of his million-watt smiles. “I have it on good authority that Bruce is willing to answer your questions.”

“Well, in that case…” Lois lifts a hand, wiggling her fingers in farewell. “I’ll be on my way. Try and keep things professional, Clark.”

She vanishes into the crowd, seeking out Bruce, whom Clark sees by the stage, speaking with one of the contributors. And now Clark is left alone with Stark, who’s watching him with nothing short of amusement, hands casually in his pockets.

“Enjoying the party?” Stark asks.

“I’m here for business,” Clark replies. “I was under the impression that you were, too.”

Stark arches a brow. “Pardon?”

He steps a bit closer, lowering his voice so that no one can overhear. “You’re lucky I’m the only one who saw. You need to be more careful. The last thing Bruce needs is a scandal in the form of your faces splashed over a magazine.” Also, Bruce doesn’t need Stark pawing at him either. In any form.

“Were you watching?”

Clark shifts, unwilling to lie but equally unwilling to tell the truth. “You know, I’m starting to think that this isn’t a good idea. Bruce doesn’t need the distraction right now.”

Stark lifts a hand, briefly rubbing at his forehead. “Let me get this straight: you want me to back off?”

“Yes.”

“After you gave me permission?”

Clark’s shoulders sag. “I didn’t need to give you permission in the first place.”

“Exactly.” Stark snaps his fingers in agreement. “Don’t worry. I’ll be more careful. The last thing I want to do is ruin Bruce’s reputation. I don’t want to end up on his bad side after all.”

He really doesn’t want to see Stark on Bruce’s good side either. But Clark also doesn’t have a good reason to convince Stark otherwise. Inexplicable jealousies don’t count.

“Unless,” Stark continues, giving Clark an odd look, “there’s another reason you want me to stay away.”

“No,” Clark replies, perhaps a bit too hastily if he was going for nonchalant. “I’m looking out for Bruce is all.”

Stark grins. “Well from now on you can leave that to me.” He gives Clark a thumbs up. “Now about that interview…?”

Gritting his teeth, Clark forces himself to focus on his job and not the pending romance between Stark and Bruce, if indeed there is one.

o0o0o

 

“Where’s GL?” Superman shouts as he twists to avoid a blast from Sinestro’s Power Ring.

Wonder Woman grunts as her fists slam into the nose of her own opponent, driving him back several paces mid-air. “He was called away by the Green Lantern Corp. Some emergency off planet.”

“We’ll just have to do this without him then,” Superman says and twists around, nailing Sinestro in the chest with a blast from his heat vision.

His comlink crackles in his ear. ‘Batman to air support. I could use a little help up here.’

Batman asking for help is enough of a rarity that Superman whips around mid-flight and scans the skies for him. He finds the Batwing careening toward the ground, belching smoke and tilting erratically. Seconds later, Batman ejects from the sparking aircraft, and not a moment too soon as it bursts into flame on its steady descent toward an inevitable impact.

And Batman is left free-falling.

This looks like a job for Superman. In fact, it sort of is.

‘On my way,‘ Superman says into the comlink, and slams his fist into Sinestro’s face, driving him down into an abandoned building. He turns, aiming straight for the free-falling Bat, when a rope of energy lashes around his foot, yanking him backward.

“I don’t think so, Superman,” Sinestro drawls and Superman slams into the pavement, concrete splintering beneath him. The blow does little more than briefly knock the air out of him, but it does take crucial seconds.

Superman shoots upward, heat vision shooting outward in a defensive spiral as he streaks toward Batman’s plummeting form. That’s when a red-gold blur appears out of nowhere, snatching the Dark Knight from a splattering end.

Stark.

Why can’t he be rid of that metal-encased nuisance?

Out of nowhere, a bright yellow mallet smashes over Superman’s face, driving him back into another building with a crash of stone and a tinkle of glass. Ugh. No time to waste glaring at Stark now. After the battle then.

“No more playing around,” Superman says and leaps out of the crater he’d made, more than a little irritated.

It’s impolite to attack Stark for no good reason, but Sinestro is in need of a lesson in manners. And it’s time that Superman ended this.

He dashes out of the way of another yellow ring construct and barrels into Sinestro, hooking him around the midsection and slamming him into concrete. A Kryptonian fist pummels a high cheekbone, knuckles grinding, and Sinestro’s head snaps back.

Sinestro’s down for the count. Oh, he’ll wake up with the headache of the century later, but he’ll live. In police custody, of course.

Bending a metal pole around Sinestro’s wrists in a pair of makeshift handcuffs, Superman takes stock of the situation.

Unsurprisingly, Wonder Woman has already subdued Giganta, wrapping her up in that ever-so-useful lasso. Hawkgirl is dragging the unconscious body of her opponent by the ankle, having barely broke a sweat. And Flash is quickly collecting the pieces of the weapon he had dismantled in the blink of an eye. To keep it out of the wrong hands in the future, of course.

“That was a bit more of a challenge than usual,” Wonder Woman observes as she dumps Giganta next to Superman’s handcuffed foe. She dusts off her hands, a small cut bleeding on her cheek.

“It always is when they decide to join forces,” Superman replies, and watches with a wary eye as Stark and Batman arrive together, the former landing and setting the latter down gently.

Batman doesn’t even bat Stark’s hand away or give him the glare he usually gives Superman when he decides to pluck the Dark Knight from certain doom.

“Here ya go,” the Flash says, zipping up to Superman and handing him the newest danger to Earth and all humanity.

It’s deceptively light in Superman’s hands. “Thanks.”

“I was bored!” Superman hears Stark say in the background, face plate snapping open as he grins and playfully taps Batman on the shoulder with a fist. “Besides, you looked like you could use a hand.”

Superman waits for the snarled rebuff. For Batman to sneer and mutter about how he can handle things. Except that it doesn’t come. Granted, Batman doesn’t exactly thank Stark, but he doesn’t give Iron Man the cold shoulder either.

“Huh,” Flash says, fingers rubbing over his chin. “I was wondering why we were seeing Iron Man so much. Looks like Bats has a new partner. ”

Superman gives Flash a sour look, punctuated by a deep frown. He does not appreciate the commentary.

Flash’s hands lift, as though warding off a blow. “Just making an observation, big guy.” He backs away slowly. “Oh yeah. Hawkgirl’s calling me. Gotta run!”

Before Superman can so much as blink, the Flash is gone in a streak of red. His words, however, remain, ringing in Superman’s ears.

Batman’s new partner, huh?

It sure seems like it. What with the way Stark’s got his arm slung across Batman’s shoulders and Batman hasn’t so much as grimaced. He doesn’t seem to mind that Stark’s hanging all over him.

Unlike the last time someone dared do that and Batman gave them a look so frosty that the whole Watchtower shivered. Poor Flash hasn’t tried since.

“Superman.”

He turns at the sound of J’onn calling his name, the Martian standing over Shade’s device thoughtfully.

“Come and take a look at this,” J’onn adds.

Anything is better than watching Stark paw Batman.

“What is it, J’onn?”

“As best I can tell it is an incomplete mind control device. Batman was right.”

He always is. Except on the matter of Stark. Clearly, Batman has suffered a leave of his senses in that regard.

Superman fights back a sigh. “And whatever they were going to steal here completes it?” Though how Shade could have acquired such an item or even devised one leaves much to be investigated. Perhaps there is a new leader of the Secret Society?

J’onn nods, fingers wandering over the unlit screen and buttons as though able to divine the machine’s purpose by touch alone. “You can probably infer their target.”

“Us?”

“Or you.” J’onn glances at Superman sidelong before diverting his attention to the nearly-complete Device of Doom. “We should keep this at the Watchtower.”

Superman makes a disinterested noise in his throat as he shifts his weight, the change in position putting him in perfect view of red-plated fingers playfully tugging at Batman’s ears. And the fact that Batman’s allowing it. By all that is good, if he sees Iron Man grope Batman, he will not be responsible for his reaction. It doesn’t matter that there is layers of iron and Kevlar between skin contact.

“Superman?”

“We should just destroy it,” Superman finally replies. Among other things. “Who invited Iron Man?”

“If you are asking whether or not we called for his assistance, then the answer is no.”

Great. Now he’s appearing on his own, to continue his quest to… how had he said it? Put the moves on Batman? At the time, hen had thought Stark’s interest a lost cause. He hadn’t thought Batman would even give Iron Man the time of day. Nor for Bruce to allow Tony Stark to get within touching distance while wearing the cape. (In the guise of Bruce Wayne is an entirely different matter. He is aware that they are business partners, of a sort.)

Apparently, he was wrong.

“It would seem he is after something,” J’onn continues, though Superman hasn’t asked anything further. “I’m sure once he has achieved his goals – or failed to, for that matter – he will return to Los Angeles and leave us in peace.”

Except for the fact that what he’s after is to get under Batman’s cape.

Superman barely represses his snarl. “We can only hope,” he says, and whirls on his heel, turning away from the nauseating sight of Iron Man pawing at Batman. “Come on. I’ll help you get this onto the Javelin.” Not that J’onn needs the help, but it’ll at least give him something else to do.

o0o0o

Iron Man is damned lucky that he doesn’t follow them back to the Watchtower. No one else seems bothered by his presence, and J’onn seems confused as to why Superman keeps sending heated glares in Stark’s direction.

Thankfully, however, J’onn doesn’t pry and they are all able to return to the Watchtower, sans Stark, but with a seething Superman.

He helps J’onn store the incomplete mind control device in one of many triple-locked storage rooms they have on their base, and with no other emergency calling their immediate attention, Superman decides it’s time to deal with some issues of his own. Namely, Tony Stark and his sudden decision to make himself a nuisance in the Justice League’s business.

His first stop, of course, is Batman’s little used personal quarters on the Watchtower. Batman likes to pretend that he’s only a part-time member of the Justice League, but since he’s here just as often as everyone else, and makes sure he has a say in every decision the Justice League makes, Superman calls bullshit. Batman likes to cling to his illusion of solitude, when the truth is the complete opposite. Why else would he have a whole Batclan?

Arriving at the door, Superman lifts his hand and raps his knuckles on the steel. A brief check with his super-hearing ensures the sound of movement inside and Batman knows good and well that he can’t pretend to be out.

There’s a click as the door unlocks remotely, which is pretty much an invitation to come inside. Superman does so, stepping into the dim interior. Batman rarely sets his lights to full illumination, preferring a half-light with the requisite shadows for him to skulk about. His quarters are also spartan, with none of the elements that give it a sense of personality, unlike J’onn’s meditation chamber or Diana’s Greek themed room.

Of course, one could easily argue that the fact Batman’s room is so stark and impersonal is a distinct trait in unto itself.

Batman himself is standing at the end of the little used bed, an expensive suit laid out across the pale grey blanket. His cowl has been pushed back, hair sticking up sweaty and out of place, as though he’s contemplating a change of attire. Superman knows better than that, however, as Bruce guards his identity religiously.

Blue eyes shift toward Superman with incisive curiosity. “You needed something?”

He must approach this delicately. While Bruce can, on occasion, appreciate honesty, he tends to clam up when anyone mentions his personal life. So he must be clever. He must somehow out-talk the same superhero who easily manipulates supervillains without straining a brain cell. He must go about this very, very carefully.

It would also, perhaps, be better if he thought of this as something outside the capes.

“So, when are you going to tell me what’s going on?” Clark asks, which isn’t quite how he intended to start this conversation. Internally, he winces. So much for delicacy.

Bruce scrapes a hand through his hair, trying to finger-comb the cowl-mussed strands into some semblance of order. “What are you talking about?” he retorts, and he sounds defensive.

Not a good sign.

Clark grapples with himself for all of thirty seconds. To ask or not to ask? Risk the rise of the Bat’s wrath for the sake of his own inexplicable irritation? Or let sleeping bats lie?

He works his jaw and finally grits out, “Stark.”

Bruce’s attention is no longer solely on Clark. Instead, he removes his gloves and starts carefully folding the clothes he has laid out. “What about him?”

“He’s not a member of the Justice League.” Well, duh, Clark.

And look at that, Bruce is giving him a look that pretty much says the same thing. “Not for lack of trying on his part.”

Clark taps into his meager stores of patience. “He doesn’t have the dedication.” And why does this feel like a conversation they’ve had before? Probably because it is. Granted, at the time, Iron Man hadn’t been pursuing Batman in a romantic manner. Because that makes all the difference in the world.

“So you’ve said before. I haven’t forgotten, so why are you reminding me now?” Bruce sounds impatient.

Clark inhales slowly. “He shouldn’t be here.”

“We’ve established that.”

“So why does it seem like I’m always tripping over him?”

Bruce turns away from the bed, moving to the dresser where his belt has been laid out flat, a few of the pouches open. “Honestly, Clark. You have better reflexes than that.”

A joke? Clark really doesn’t know if this is a good sign or not. Bruce’s heartbeat is nice and even, so he’s not furious or panicked or any other blatantly obvious emotion.

He peers at Bruce, who seems to be randomly poking through his equipment, rearranging the items perhaps. “Not the point.”

“Then would you get to it already? I do have a schedule to keep.”

Clark’s eyes flicker to the gleaming digital clock on the wall. “It’s almost dawn.”

“And?”

“How many times have you told me that Batman operates only at night?”

Bruce arches a brow, and Clark’s not sure he can identify his expression. Amusement? Exasperation? In any case, it’s not anger, so Clark’s safe. For now.

“Batman’s done for the night. But Bruce Wayne’s day has just begun.” He always refers to himself in third person like that, as though the two are separate and have nothing to do with the man standing in front of Clark right now.

If he doesn’t consider himself Batman or Bruce Wayne, thenwho is he? Clark has always wanted to ask that, but it’s another question he’s carefully filed under the category of off-limits. Not a safe topic, that one. Besides, it’s not like Clark doesn’t understand. Clark Kent is as much a mask as Superman is. He doesn’t even know what to call himself when he isn’t playing either role. And Kal-El is not an adequate substitute.

“And,” Bruce adds as he starts snapping the pouches closed before securing the belt back around his waist, “I have a meeting with Stark Industries soon.”

Ugh. Him again.

“Stark,” Clark repeats, his tone flat. “So it is true.”

Bruce pauses in the middle of pulling on his gloves. “That I have a meeting?”

He’s being purposefully impossible. This is Bruce’s usual tactic when he’s trying to either avoid a topic, or irritate the other half of the conversation into abandoning their line of questioning. Well, not this time, Brucie.

“No,” Clark says, surprising himself with his own reserve. “That you and Stark are… involved.” It’s the most polite way he can put it.

Bruce shakes his head, adopting a long-suffering look as he snaps on his last glove, flexing his fingers in the form-fitting leather. “Didn’t we already talk about this? Tony and I are friends, Clark.”

“He takes an awful lot of liberties for friendship,” Clark says darkly, before he can think to censor himself.

Stilling, Bruce shifts his gaze from Clark’s reflection in the mirror, to facing Clark himself. “Liberties?”

Clark’s mouth clamps shut, and he can feel his face heating. It all sounds so stupid, now that he’s trying to find the right words for it. He wants to yell, point out all the times Stark has been lingering around the Justice League uninvited. How Iron Man has somehow insinuated himself into a position at Batman’s side. How Stark even managed to finagle an invitation to the Batcave in a matter of days when it had taken Clark months for Batman to allow him to set foot in that dank cavern.

He folds his arms over his chest and huffs. Bruce is staring at him, demanding clarification, and Clark can’t seem to force his own ridiculous behavior into the light.

He wants to know why Batman doesn’t seem to mind Iron Man touching him all the time. Or why Bruce doesn’t care either. Why he seems to invite it, even.

And it all sounds ridiculous to Clark, without him vocalizing his thoughts. It sounds juvenile. It sounds like he’s complaining because someone took away his favorite toy. It sounds… like he’s jealous.

Wait a minute. Jealous? Of Tony Stark?

No, Clark decides, that’s impossible. He has no reason to be jealous of Iron Man or Stark. It’s a well known fact that Superman and Batman are close friends. Everyone in the Justice League knows that Superman is Batman’s back up and even Batman should know that he is Superman’s closest friend. After all, hadn’t Stark asked permission? Hadn’t Clark given it?

Except, that he couldn’t have seen this coming. Never in his right mind would Clark have believed Bruce would actually fall for someone like Stark. It’s just… anathema to Clark. He actually thought nothing would come of it. Not that it was Clark’s permission to give in the first place, except where it was.

Because Superman and Batman are the World’s Finest. Not Batman and Iron Man. Not Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark.

It was Superman and Batman long before it was anyone else. Long before the Justice League. And certainly long before Iron Man ever thought to don flashy red-gold armor. Who does he think he is anyway, barging in on someone else’s territory? What gives him the right to move in where he’s not wanted?

Where does he get off thinking that Bruce belongs to anyone but Clark? That Batman should be beside anyone but Superman?

Wait a minute.

Belongs?

Oh, Clark, you’re in a heap of trouble now. This is certainly crossing into a different sort of territory, one that overpowers friendship and takes a right into something very, very complicated.

“… Clark?”

He blinks, and finds that Bruce has approached him and is now peering at him curiously. “What in the world is going on with you?” Bruce asks, sounding bewildered, leaning toward irritated. Which is Batman’s default setting, really. Perhaps Clark should be worried, if Bruce is leaning more toward Batman right now.

Clark opens his mouth, prepared to say something not at all embarrassing and witty enough that Bruce will be charmed out of his steel-toed combat boots. Instead, what comes out of his mouth is “Tony Stark.”

“Pardon?”

One of Clark’s hand waves through the air wildly, completely of its own accord, of course. “I changed my mind,” he declares, heart thumping in his chest faster than is normal as he breaks into a sweat. “I rescind my permission.”

Bruce gives him a look of absolute bafflement. “Have you lost your mind?” he asks, and then his head tilts with suspicion. “Has your Boy Scout brain been usurped again?”

Clark can’t fight the flush that takes over his cheeks. He may be Superman and damn near immune to all physical attacks, but fighting against mind control is a whole different ballpark. And Batman never fails to remind him of this.

“No. I’m in my right mind.” If one can even call this rampant, ridiculous jealousy a sane reaction on Clark’s part.

He lifts his hands, plants them on Bruce’s shoulder, and crows internally when Bruce neither flinches nor immediately bats him away. Ha, take that Tony Stark!

Bruce’s unflinching gaze flinches by a fraction, so little a change that Clark wouldn’t have noticed if they weren’t standing so close. “Is that so? Then care to explain what in the world you’re doing?”

“Stark is not your partner,” Clark says, and the strangest sense of victory rings through him, at finally declaring what’s been hammering him across the head this whole time. “He’s not because you’re my partner. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

There’s a moment of silence that sweeps through Bruce’s quarters. Somewhere, something is beeping, a little chime to attract their attention. Clark, however, is completely ignoring it, his attention focused on Bruce. Bruce who’s looking back at him, blue eyes suddenly dark and coy, his lips curving into an amused smirk that makes Clark wonder if maybe, possibly, he might be in danger.

“Damn flyboy,” Bruce says, his voice dropping several notes in pitch, nice and husky. “For someone who’s faster than a speeding bullet, you can be really slow on the uptake.”

Clark blinks; Bruce reaches up and grabs hold of his costume, right over the brightly emblazoned S. He fists blue material and jerks Clark toward him, their lips crashing together. Clark’s mind bleeds white as Bruce’s lips move against his, not slow and gentle, but hungry and claiming. And Clark responds with a lurch in his belly and a heat sweeping through his veins. A low rumble vibrates in his chest and something deep inside unclenches with a sense of rightness.

Yes. This is why Stark has to go. Because these lips belong to Clark.

He growls in the back of his throat, and his right hand slides from Bruce’s shoulder to curl an arm around Bruce’s upper shoulders, crushing the other man against him. He wants to feel Bruce pressed to every inch of him, feel the push and pull of their bodies, the beat of Bruce’s heart. He wants to taste Bruce, and so he does, his tongue teasing at the seam of Bruce’s lips.

Only, Bruce does not stand for teasing. His lips part and he sucks Clark’s tongue into his mouth, battling with his own tongue in such a way that hints of talents that could be used elsewhere. Clark groans, blood draining steadily southward. He wants… well, he wants to drag Bruce over to that conveniently placed bed and divest him of his new attire, that’s what he wants to do.

Of course, Clark’s luck being what it is, that’s the moment when Bruce breaks off the kiss, only to glance at the clock. “Oh no,” he says, with obviously fake surprise. “I have to get going or I’ll be late for my meeting.”

Clark stares, slack jawed, as Bruce effortlessly extricates himself from Clark’s arms and fixes his cowl back over his face, though it does nothing to conceal the kissable nature of his lips. “We’ll talk about this later, Clark,” he says, with an all business air as he gathers up his carefully folded suit. “Goodbye.”

And then he leaves, just walks out into the corridor like he hasn’t spent the last minute kissing Clark out of his senses. Clark knows he ought to chase after Bruce, but he’s rooted in place. He’s standing there, staring at the place where Bruce had been standing, his thoughts ping-ponging inside his head like an old arcade game.

He just kissed Bruce Wayne. Superman just kissed Batman. More, he wants to do it again. Often. Right now.

When on Earth had he decided he wants more from Batman than just their friendship? When had it shifted into needing more?

Superman turns on his heel and strides out of the room. Standing in Batman’s quarters, that still smells of him, practically breathes of his residence, is not helping matters. But standing in the hallway doesn’t give him room to think either. His brain is spinning a mile a minute, and of course, it’s just like Batman to walk out, leaving the Kryptonian to stew in his sudden sexual identity crisis.

Footsteps in the corridor announce the arrival of another member of the Justice League. “Superman?” It’s J’onn. “Is something troubling you?” It’s like he planned it or something.

Superman lifts both brows. “Can’t you tell?” Surely his confusion is wafting out from him in palpable waves.

“It’s generally considered rude to pry without permission,” J’onn says, with his ever impassive calm.

His shoulders sag. “But you do already know.”

“… Yes.” J’onn’s eyes flicker past him to the door that Superman appears to be guarding, Batman’s door, as a matter of fact. “I assume that recent events are what is causing you distress?”

If there’s anyone who could possibly serve as a capable confidante on the Watchtower, it’s J’onn. Of this, Superman is certain. He supposes he could also return planet-side and swoop on down to Smallville for some of Ma Kent’s good old fashioned advice. Right now, that’s his back-up plan.

“I wouldn’t say distress, exactly,” Superman replies, feeling like a child as he shifts in place. “Confused, perhaps?”

“Your confusion is not unexpected,” J’onn says. “Abrupt changes in what we take for granted as the norm can often be off-putting.”

Superman scoffs. “You’re telling me. Since when has Batman been interested in Iron Man?”

“You believe there is genuine attraction there?”

Arms crossing, Superman frowns. “I hope not. Batman has far better taste than that.”

A red blur announces Flash’s arrival as he skids to a stop in front of them, gaze swinging from J’onn to Superman to Batman’s door and back to Superman. He then grins and gives Superman two thumbs up.

“About time, Supes,” Flash says. “I didn’t think you’d ever get the picture.”

Superman’s jaw drops, but it seems this pearl of wisdom is all Flash wishes to provide, because he’s gone again, off to do whatever it is he was intending to do in the first place. He is far too old and experienced to blush, but a bit of heat creeps into his neck and face anyway. Did everyone know?

“Would you honestly like me to answer that?”

Superman’s gaze shoots accusingly to the Martian. “I thought it was rude to read minds?”

“Apologies, but you were projecting rather loudly.” Funny, because J’onn doesn’t really seem contrite. In fact, if Superman were to push it, he’d say that J’onn seems… amused, perhaps even a touch smug. As though he knows something Superman doesn’t, as though it wasn’t a coincidence that he happened to be passing by as Superman wandered out of Batman’s room in a confused state.

“Superman… might I offer some advice?”

He huffs, but it’s hard to hold onto his irritation. J’onn means well. “Sure.” Frankly, right now Superman can use all the advice someone’s willing to give him.

J’onn’s lips twitch, as though he’s struggling to hold onto his amusement. “You know where to find the answers you seek. And I believe he’s no longer on the Watchtower.”

Hmm. J’onn is absolutely right. Why is Superman standing here, stewing over the change in his relationship with Batman when he could just be asking said billionaire? He ought to head to Gotham right now, corner Bruce after his little meeting with Stark and demand answers. That’s exactly what he ought to do.

Superman firmly nods to himself. That’s what he’s going to do. “Thanks, J’onn,” he says, flashing the Martian a brilliant smile.

“Good luck, Superman,” J’onn says, his words chasing Clark as he heads down the corridor.

It’s time to get some answers.

o0o0o

He arrives in Gotham with time to spare and hovers outside of Wayne Enterprises waiting for Bruce’s meeting with Stark to draw to a close. To Superman’s utter relief, it really is all business, though he does have to endure seeing Stark throw his arm over Bruce’s shoulders as Stark jokes with him about something that happened in their past. Well, after today that won’t happen again.

After Bruce shakes hands with Stark and heads back toward his office, Superman invites himself inside by way of an open window. Like Bruce planned it that way or something. And when Bruce appears, secretary in tow, Superman makes his presence known.

“You and I have unfinished business, Mr. Wayne.”

Taking the papers from his secretary, Bruce inclines his head. “So we do,” he replies, and half-turns back toward the young woman. “Hold all calls, Miss Arrington.”

“Yes, Mr. Wayne.” Her eyes flicker from Superman to her boss and back again before she quietly excuses herself from the office, a touch of awe on her face.

The door closes and Bruce drops the papers on his desk with a noisy slap. “You were saying?” he prompts.

Clark stares at him. How on Earth can he act so nonchalant? “You were never really interested in Stark, were you?”

“Did you honestly think I was?” Bruce circles around the desk, hooking a finger in his black and grey-striped tie and loosening the knot..

“This was all part of your plot, wasn’t it?”

“What makes you think I planned all this?”

“Because it’s always you. You’re the one several steps ahead of everyone else.”

Bruce smirks, leaning against the front of his desk, one leg crossed over the other. “I should be flattered you think so highly of me.”

“Every member of the Justice League knows that you are the tactical genius,” Clark replies with a snort. “I’m just the one-man wrecking crew.”

“Perhaps. But you are so good at what you do.”

Clark’s jaw nearly drops. Did Bruce just purr at him? That’s it. He’s getting some answers. No more dancing around the issue.

“All right,” Clark says with a huff, striding forward and pinning Bruce between himself and the desk, leaving the escape artist with no room to run. “Now I know something’s up. What, exactly, were you hoping to accomplish with all that acting?”

Bruce looks at him, bright blue eyes darkening with another emotion, one that matches a steady increase in his heart rate. “You haven’t figured it out yet?”

Clark leans forward, placing his palms on the desktop to either side of Bruce, until their faces are mere inches apart. “I think I’m starting to get an idea.”

“And I can assume by your presence here that you aren’t opposed to the idea of it.”

His mouth waters, for some unknown reason. “There are a lot of reason this is a bad idea.”

“You won’t hear an argument from me to that end,” Bruce agrees, and tilts his head, somehow managing to look even more inviting. “It’s just like you, Clark, to make me break my own rules.”

“You have so many; it’s hard to keep track.”

Bruce shakes his head. “Clark?”

“… yes?”

“Are you going to banter with me all day or are you going to help me make use of this desk?”

Heat floods through Clark, blood flowing southward and making the tight confines of his suit distinctly uncomfortable. His fingers tighten on the desk with an ominous creak. “On th–” His voice cracks and he clears his throat. “On the desk?”

“You really are a Boy Scout, aren’t you?” Bruce chuckles and coils his fingers in the suit like he had earlier that morning, pulling Clark in for a steamy kiss that puts the one they previously shared to shame.

Clark groans, their bodies colliding and sending a frisson of heat down his spine. All of his earlier arousal returns full force. He rocks forward, grinding against Bruce and driving an equally hungry groan from Bruce’s lips, echoing in the kiss. Bruce is as hard as Clark is, beneath his expensive and classy suit.

All sorts of thoughts percolate in Clark’s brain, accompanied with images in glorious technicolor. Images of Bruce sprawled over his desk, clothes a mere memory, his hair mussed and his lips moist. Images of himself subjected to Bruce’s skilled fingers, to Bruce smirking over him, to the feel of Bruce’s lips on him.

Clark wants it all and then some.

Bruce ends the kiss, breathing heavy, his lips curving into a smirk as Clark tries to follow his retreating mouth.

“What…?”

“Allow me to show you my intentions,” Bruce says, and his hands slide down Clark’s chest as he ever so slowly lowers himself, down to his knees in his expensive suit.

Clark stares, breath caught in his throat, impossibly hard within his reinforced costume. Bruce’s fingers tease at the hem of his pants, fingers brushing against Clark’s abdomen with tantalizing closeness.

“You’re–”

“We can’t leave a mess in my office,” Bruce says, peeling down said pants and drawing free Clark’s rigid arousal. “What would my associates think?”

Clark swallows thickly. “I think the fact that Superman is in your office is providing enough fodder for the rumor mill as it is.”

Bruce chuckles. “I’m pretty sure I can guess what they are saying.”

Anything witty Clark has hoped to say in return promptly flies out the window as Bruce chooses that moment to lick a wet stripe up his length. He bucks forward, eager for more of the moist heat, but Bruce’s firm grip on his hips keeps him from poking out an eye or something equally unpleasant (and amusing, but only in retrospect. Not so amusing now).

Clark hunches as Bruce sucks him into his mouth, lips and tongue working over sensitive flesh and dragging strangled noises from Clark’s throat. His grip on the desk tightens, wood creaking warningly.

“Don’t you dare break my desk, Clark,” Bruce growls before swallowing Clark once again, taking him deep, tongue stroking down throbbing flesh.

“Not… making any guarantees,” Clark gasps out as he dares look down, feeling his arousal spike as he watches his cock slide past sinful lips, taut flesh moist with spittle. His fingers dig scores into the wood.

There is something indeterminably erotic about the sight and Clark feels a shiver wrack him from head to toe. His legs wobble as he struggles to hold himself in check, trying not to choke Bruce despite how much he wants to thrust.

Bruce’s mouth feels perfect and Clark’s eyes slide shut of their own accord as he surrenders to sensation. To the feel of lips working up and down his arousal. The tight suction. The pressure of Bruce’s mouth. The flexing of his fingers on Clark’s hips. The stroke of Bruce’s tongue.

A garbled sound that is neither name nor word escapes from Clark’s throat as his hips snap forward, his shoulders hunching. Bruce’s mouth works him just so and Clark comes, just like that, heat cascading through his body and pleasure tap-dancing down his spine. He shudders, fingers digging down, and the sharp crack of defeated wood fills the air.

Clark tries, but he can hardly feel contrite. Not when he looks down and finds Bruce pulling back, his lips wet and red, his face flushed. Not when he’s casually tucking Clark’s sensitive flesh back into his suit as though this were a common occurrence. And not when Clark reaches down and all but hauls Bruce to his feet, mashing their lips together in a hungry kiss.

He tastes something bitter on Bruce’s tongue – himself – but again, Clark’s not bothering to care. Not when Bruce is squirming against him, hands clutching at Clark’s shoulders as though encouraging some form of reciprocation, which is the polite thing to do of course. And Ma had always told Clark to be polite.

Though he’s quite certain this isn’t what she meant.

Regardless, Clark wastes no time in fumbling at Bruce’s buckle and zipper, reaching in through layers of expensive fabric to find the solid, throbbing heat of him. Bruce groans lowly, hips bucking into Clark’s hand, the spongy tip seeping moisture that Clark strokes over hard flesh, slicking the way.

Clark can hear Bruce’s rapid heart-rate and the quickening of his breathing. He squeezes gently, eliciting another groan from Bruce who jerks into his grasp.

“Don’t tease,” Bruce growls warningly, fingers clamping down on Clark’s shoulder, hard enough to bruise anyone but a Kryptonian.

Clark huffs a small laugh. “What? Like you teased me for weeks?” Playing around with Tony Stark when he doesn’t even want the billionaire? That’s the definition of being a tease in Clark’s book.

“That was strategy,” Bruce grits out, trying and failing to give Clark the famous Bat-glare. It loses it’s effect, however, when Bruce is flushed with arousal and his eyes are dark with need and he’s thrusting into Clark’s hand needily.

Clark catches Bruce’s gaze, looks him fully in the eyes. “Call it what you want,” he says in a low tone that he’s pleased to discover makes Bruce’s arousal spike. “Just admit it. This is what you wanted.” And by this, he means his hand on Bruce’s cock, stroking him to climax, watching the pleasure flutter across Bruce’s face, hearing his low moans, while Wayne Enterprises’ employees are just beyond the doors, ignorant of their boss’ unprofessional activities.

“This is a start,” Bruce growls, his tongue swiping quickly over his lips. “If you think I’m going to be satisfied with only a taste, Clark, then you are mistaken.” His breath hitches and his hips work in rhythm with Clark’s strokes, his length pulsing in Clark’s grip. He looks up and their eyes meet in a ridiculously erotic tandem. “I want it all.”

Did Clark ever mention that Bruce is possessive?

“You never do anything by halves,” Clark breathes and leans down, crashing his mouth over Bruce’s, tongue thrusting hungrily inside, eager to lay claim.

Bruce seems to share his desire, teeth and tongue working with the same urgency. His body is a flush of heat, his pulse racing faster until release overcomes his impressive willpower.

He shudders in Clark’s arms, spilling liquid heat all over Clark’s fingers and still Clark wants more. This is hardly the place, but oh, it’s a start. It’s a damn good start.

Bruce sags against his desk, looking quite pleased with himself, and digging into his expensive suit to produce a handkerchief. Clark snorts a laugh as he accepts the navy cloth and wipes off his fingers. In the meantime, Bruce carefully tucks himself away, trying to appear as though he hasn’t spent the last ten minutes doing inappropriate things in his office with Superman.

“So,” Clark says, not bothering to fight back his grin as he holds the damp handkerchief, wondering where he should put it. “What now?”

Bruce plucks the cloth from his hand and tosses it over his shoulder and to the left, managing to land it in the trash can next to his desk. “Now you tell me whether this was a curious one-off built upon your general possessiveness or if you’ll give me everything and I can start expecting Kryptonian roses by my bedside.” His lips twitch.

“You wouldn’t want roses.”

“How true.” Bruce makes a contemplative noise. “You will have to woo me in some other fashion.”

Clark laughs. “Woo? I was under the impression that I had already passed that hurdle.”

“Batman can’t be won so easily.”

“Nothing involving Batman is ever easy,” Clark retorts affectionately.

See this? This right here is the way things are supposed to be. Friendly banter between he and Bruce. Other, more pleasurable things a bonus. And no Tony Stark to interrupt and put his hands where they don’t belong.

Clark shakes his head and shifts the conversation back to the starting point. “Why Stark?”

“Why not?” Bruce shrugs, but there’s a calculating look in his eyes. A most Batman-like look. “He seemed the one most likely to gain the reaction I sought.”

It figures. And judging from everyone’s behavior as of late, the other members of the Justice League probably had a fair idea of what was going on, too.

Superman.”

J’onn. Great. There must be some issue of worldly peril.

Clark half-turns from Bruce and activates his comm. “Yes?”

Though I am most reluctant to interrupt, Grodd and a small assortment of villains are stirring trouble in Central City. Flash would appreciate some back-up.”

Again? Hadn’t they just defeated Grodd, like, last month? That damn gorilla is as tenacious as a cockroach!

“I’ll be there shortly. Superman, out.”

“Let me guess: you’re needed somewhere,” Bruce says before Clark even has a chance to turn around.

“A hero’s job is never do—mmph!”

Well. Sending him off with a steamy kiss. Clark can certainly get used to this. To the feel of Bruce pressed against him, the warmth of his mouth, the tantalizing skill of his tongue…

He hopes that there is more where this came from. Lots more.

“Go save the day, Clark,” Bruce murmurs against his lips. “I’ll tell Alfred to set an extra plate out tonight.”

All in all, Clark thinks he must look mighty ridiculous as he flies out of Wayne Enterprises, grinning like a fool and unrepentant about it.

–Epilogue–

“It is this one time.”

“Yes, I know, Bruce.”

A growl forces itself out of Batman’s throat before he can stop it.

Iron Man holds up his hands. “Sorry. Batman.”

Behind the cowl, Bruce sighs. “Just get in the damn car, Stark.” Iron Man, at least, doesn’t have to worry about his secret identity.

“You mean Batmobile.”

Batman glares.

Iron Man lifts his hands again, ducking his head. “Right. Your car. You can call it whatever the hell you want.” Batman can’t see it, but he just knows Stark is grinning like a damn idiot. “Gonna let me in now?”

Feeling like he’s going to regret this, Bruce signals for the doors to open and slides into the driver’s seat. He huffs as Stark all but dives into the passenger seat and hops up and down like a schoolboy.

“Be still,” Batman demands. It’s like the first time he let Dick into the Batmobile; they have the same level of enthusiasm.

“Yes, sir!” Stark says with a mocking salute. “Fire this baby up, Batman. I wanna see what she can do.”
Clenching his teeth, Batman starts the engine with a satisfying, powerful rumble. Stark cheers. The Batmobile roars into the night.

And with that, Bruce repays Tony’s favor in full.

[Bleach] For Your Entertainment

Kisuke fights off a yawn as he steps into the unnatural silence of his shouten. Even the atmosphere is free of lingering reiatsu. Tessai’s off visiting Hachi, and the children remained in Seireitei, getting to know Kusajishi, much to the rest of Seireitei’s vexation.

Kisuke snickers. He wonders how much of the city will be destroyed by the time he sees fit to return tomorrow? And he won’t feel a bit of guilt about it. None at all.

Because tonight… tonight, he will get some peace and quiet, both of which are rare to come. He’ll have the shop all to himself. He could’ve stayed in Seireitei if he wanted. Yoruichi-san had offered him a room, and his exile’s been lifted, but honestly, Karakura has become something like home. He suspects he’ll be spending an equal time in Soul Society and the living world from now on.

Besides, Karakura is where Ichigo is, and frankly, Kisuke’s not ready to cut those ties. In fact, given the chance, he’d love to strengthen them. But the time hasn’t come to push those boundaries yet.

Kisuke bypasses the main rooms – the kitchen, his lab – and heads straight for his bedroom. Tonight is the night for relaxation. Perhaps he’ll even pick up that book he’s been trying to read for half a decade. Other things kept interfering. Things like Aizen’s war and training Ichigo.

He slides open the door and palms the wall, reaching by memory for the light switch. With a flick of his fingers, light floods the room, and Kisuke nearly leaps into the air out of sheer surprise.

Well, speak of the devil…

Perched on Kisuke’s futon as though he belongs, having made himself at home, is none other than Kurosaki Ichigo. He’s leaning up against the wall, one leg drawn up, the other stretched out. A jug of sake is tucked against his side, and one hand toys with a small cup. His expression is unreadable, his reiatsu wound tightly about his body, which explains why Kisuke hadn’t sensed him.

He blinks, sliding completely into the room but wisely leaving the door open behind him.

“Kurosaki-kun?” the blond questions.

He’s unable to keep himself from raking a hungry gaze over his former student. Years have only matured his looks, turning him from a gangly youth to a handsome young man. A very handsome, very desirable man. Who’s currently lounging on his bed.

Kisuke swallows.

“This is a… surprise.”

Gee, understatement of the century there Kisuke.

Ichigo shrugs. He leans to the side and sets his jug on a nearby table, cup soon joining.

“This has been a long time coming.”

Curiosity battles with confusion.

“To what are you referring?” Kisuke asks.

Since really, as much as he racks his brain, he can’t come up with a reason why Ichigo would sneak into his room, only to wait for him to come to bed. And with a bottle of sake at that.

Ichigo rolls his shoulders, shifting so that his legs fall open just a bit. “Don’t play blond with me, Kisuke.”

His voice is a dark purr as his gaze focuses on Kisuke and Kisuke alone. Eyes dark, reiatsu brimming with intent, not dangerous, but focused.

The ex-captain has to fight to shiver. It’s a heady thing, being the focal point of that intent.

“Are we so informal now?”

Rising from the bed, Ichigo crosses the floor on silent feet, his stride better described as a stalk. A lazy stalk, like a hunting beast, a panther or something equally amazing.

“I think we passed formal a long time ago,” Ichigo replies. He approaches with the weight of his reiatsu hanging around him. Not so much oppressive as patently tangible, coaxing Kisuke’s own out to play.

He stops, however, when there’s little more than a foot between them. His expression is yet unreadable. That they’re nearly the same height now becomes all the more apparent.

Kisuke swallows again, licking his lips with a suddenly dry tongue? Is this fear? Far, far from it. He tilts his head to the side, aiming for nonchalance and hitting the target off center.

“My, Kurosaki-kun, have I done something to upset you?”

“Countless things,” Ichigo returns with a low chuckle that dances down Kisuke’s spine and makes heat pool in his groin, makes him throb and ache in ways that he knows he oughtn’t. “But not the one thing I’ve actually wanted.”

Kisuke laughs, arousal curling through him, battling against disbelief and hope. Ichigo can’t really be here, implying these things. But he is! And suddenly, Kisuke’s glad that he’s chosen to linger in Karakura.

“And what would that be?”

Ichigo takes another step forward, completely closing the distance between them, and when had he gotten that close? Close enough for Kisuke to feel the buzzing of reiatsu against his skin, catch the scent of sake and laundry soap and whatever cologne it is that he wears. Close enough for him to touch if he so desired.

Brown eyes are smoldering, and a smirk curves the corner of Ichigo’s lips.

“This,” he says.

And before Kisuke can react, can think to come up with witty repartee, Ichigo is kissing him.

Their mouths lock, a tongue brushing against the seam of Kisuke’s lips, warmly requesting entrance, and he doesn’t deny. He parts his lips, moans as Ichigo’s tongue invades his mouth, and slinks back a step. His back collides with the wall, Ichigo following him, trapping him there. Arms come up, hands bracing on the wall above Kisuke’s shoulders, Ichigo crowding in on him.

Only their lips are touching, but somehow, that makes it all the more arousing. Desire blooms to life inside Kisuke. His heart thuds in his chest, just like in those sappy romance novels; it feels like someone’s turned up the heat in his room. His face is flushed, his clothes are too heavy, and Ichigo’s tongue explores his mouth with talented sweeps. Tangling with Kisuke’s and dragging need from the pit of his belly.

Until Ichigo ends the kiss, pulling back so that mere inches separate them. His breath a is heated wash over Kisuke’s mouth. Ichigo looks at him, his eyes dark and rich with promise.

“Well…” the blond puts in with a weak chuckle that completely betrays his utter loss of composure. “You should’ve said something sooner.”

Ichigo licks his lips. “Any sooner and Isshin would’ve blown a gasket.”

Ah, yes. The tiny matter of age and consent. A neon bright reason as to why Kisuke had yet to make his move. Well, that and the fact he – like everyone else – thought Ichigo in love with Rukia-chan or at least adorable Hime-chan.

“There is that,” Kisuke admits, and his breath hitches as Ichigo shifts his weight, making no effort to hide the leisurely rake of his eyes over Kisuke’s body.

Frankly, the blond’s beginning to wonder if he should fear for his virtue. And Kisuke didn’t even know he had any virtue left.

“Mm hm.” Ichigo hums in his throat, gaze lingering. “You don’t protest then?”

“Protest?” Kisuke snorts pointedly. “I am the furthest from protesting a man can possibly be right now.”

Ichigo’s eyes drop to Kisuke’s groin. One hand falls from the wall and traces the same path, a palm cupping Kisuke without hesitation.

“So I see.”

By the gods…

Kisuke’s head thunks against the wall as he bucks into Ichigo’s grip. Nerves spark with pleasure, and he bites back a moan. His arousal is already throbbing within his pants, eager for the touch of Ichigo’s fingers.

“You … you just rush headfirst into everything, don’t you?” he demands.

Ichigo laughs, the sound echoing in the room. Low and heavy. Intoxicating.

“Works out better that way,” he comments with a squeeze of his fingers that threatens to steal Kisuke’s breath.

He arches again, hands scrabbling for purchase as he fists Ichigo’s shirt with one and grips Ichigo’s hip with the other.

“So you thought you’d just… stroll in here and take what you want?” Kisuke asks, voice little more than a gasp. The idea burns through him of Ichigo indeed bending him over and taking what he wants.

“Why? Do you mind?” the Vizard asks as he leans forward and nuzzles into Kisuke’s throat. His lips are a mere brush over his sensitive flesh, fingers deftly massaging Kisuke’s hardened length.

“Actually, I’m rather partial to it right now,” the ex-captain finds himself admitting. His fingers stroke Ichigo’s hip, sliding under the hem of his shirt and glancing across warm skin.

Ichigo nips at his throat, making Kisuke jerk against him.

“Good,” he says and strangely backs off a pace, dislodging Kisuke’s hold on his hip. “Then you don’t mind if I take the lead.”

Heat surges through Kisuke. “Not one bit,” he manages.

Approval dances in Ichigo’s eyes. He swoops in for another kiss that makes Kisuke moan, twisting his fingers tighter in Ichigo’s shirt; surprise of his soon-to-be-lover’s skill rises in the back of his mind. So much for thinking his former student an untouched prude.

The kiss is all too brief. Ichigo pulls away from it to look Kisuke in the eye, his gaze dark and hungry.

“Clothes,” he growls. “Off.”

Another shiver dances down Kisuke’s spine. “Are you going to return the favor?” he inquires teasingly, hands already raised to strip. He’s all for getting naked as soon as possible.

Ichigo’s answer comes in the form of him tugging off his shirt and throwing it over his shoulder, where it lands somewhere on the floor promptly forgotten. Kisuke’s eyes roam over his bare chest, tracking down to where Ichigo’s jeans hang low on his hips, a noticeable bulge behind the zipper.

“I approve,” he says huskily.

“I’m glad,” Ichigo replies, humor rich in his voice. “But you’re still not naked.”

“Oh, I can remedy that,” Kisuke shoots back and quickly divests himself of every article of clothing he’s currently wearing. Nudity has never been an issue of him, and he has to admit, the way Ichigo’s eyes burn hotter as they leisurely rake his frame makes Kisuke’s arousal triple. “Do you approve?” he purrs.

Ichigo’s tongue drags over his lips. “Yes.” One hand dives into his pocket, pulling out a tube which he then hands over. “Hold onto his for me.”

Kisuke obliges and watches hungrily as Ichigo shimmies out of his jeans – no underwear beneath, how bold! – and the denim pools on the floor. There’s a hint of red to Ichigo’s face, but he still stands straight, lifting one hand to twirl a finger in the air.

“Turn around.”

Kisuke’s heart leaps in his chest. “Giving commands are we?” he asks huskily, already moving to obey.

“I know you like it,” Ichigo retorts, and Kisuke can practically feel the heat radiating off his body as he steps closer. “Hands on the wall.”

A thrill races through Kisuke’s being. There’s something simultaneously erotic and humiliating about being ordered around by his former student, but Kisuke is leaning more toward the former. Or at least the lower parts of him are, demanding his attention as much as he wants Ichigo’s.

He lifts his hands, palms flat against the wall. Ichigo presses up against him from behind, plucking the tube of oil from his fingers.

“I think I like you this way,” Ichigo all but purrs in his ear, hands roaming over a bare body.

Ichigo presses against him, heated chest pressed to Kisuke’s equally heated back, his length nestled against Kisuke’s ass. The blond gnaws on his lower lip, trying to contain his wanton noises.

“Like what?” Kisuke questions, fighting for composure, hoping his voice comes out even.

“Obeying,” Ichigo replies and pinches Kisuke’s right nipple between thumb and forefinger, a sharp pain that makes him cry out.

The Vizard chuckles. “I think it’s a first.”

Kisuke scratches his nails against the wall. “Are you implying that I misbehave?”

“Only when it suits you,” Ichigo retorts and pulls back a pace, a chilly waft of air brushing against Kisuke’s back. Until a hand drags down his spine and pauses at the crest of his backside. “And does this suit you?”

Kisuke does not consider himself someone capable of begging, but he’s quickly approaching that action.

“If you don’t hurry, I’ll have to take matters into my own hands.”

Ichigo’s laugh echoes in the room. “We can’t have that.”

Hands vanish from roaming Kisuke’s body, and the sound of a bottle snapping open fills the room. The blond shivers from anticipation as he glances over his shoulder, watching Ichigo pour oil into his hand and drop the bottle to the floor. Kisuke licks his lips as Ichigo first coats his own arousal and then reaches for him, dragging oil-slick fingers over his skin. The tease.

Ichigo presses closer, heat radiating from his body. “You’re not facing the wall,” he says, his voice low-pitched with desire.

“You and your orders.” Kisuke huffs, but he does as Ichigo bids only because it does suit him and the note of command in Ichigo’s voice is turning him on like nothing else.

Ichigo’s left hand plants itself on the wall next to Kisuke’s left, fingers splayed as he braces himself. He leans forward, fingers of his right hand tickling Kisuke’s skin, teasing him with a more intimate touch soon to come.

And he hasn’t even needed an ounce of instruction. How… interesting.

Kisuke chews on his bottom lip. Breathing ragged as Ichigo traces his cleft, circling his entrance with oil-slick fingers.

“You seem – ah – like you know what you’re doing?” he observes in an attempt to gain control of himself. All while his arousal beads at the tip, one drop falling to the floor.

He can practically hear the smirk in Ichigo’s voice. “No, pervert, I’m not a virgin.”

Ichigo’s fingers quit teasing, finally pushing inside in one smooth, slick thrust. Kisuke gasps, back arching, his hands scraping against the wall.

“It was merely an observation,” he argues.

Ichigo leans over his back, heated chest pressed to Kisuke’s bare back. “No, you’re burning with curiosity, aren’t you?”

Kisuke shivers at the voice in his ear, dark with promise.

“Only–”

He gasps as Ichigo curls his fingers, easily finding that special spot and rubbing it mercilessly.

“–Only if you’re so inclined to share.”

Ichigo adds another finger, one which Kisuke doesn’t really need. But he supposes Ichigo’s only trying to torture him, trying to delay the inevitable.

“Shinji’s a good kisser,” Ichigo murmurs, punctuating his words with a nip to Kisuke’s neck. “Tatsuki has a wicked tongue and talented fingers.” Ichigo’s free hand slides around, grasps Kisuke’s length and gives him a firm stroke. “And Jyuushiro taught me everything I know and then some.”

Kisuke sucks in a shallow breath, only to release it with a groan. His mind has just supplied him with all sorts of naughty ideas. Ones his body begs him to try.

“What’ve I been missing?” he breathes.

Ichigo’s fingers vanish from inside him in the same moment that he releases his hold on Kisuke’s length, leaving him thrusting into empty air. Both hands settle on Kisuke’s hips, Ichigo’s arousal dragging erotically across Kisuke’s skin.

“I’ll show you,” the younger man says huskily and positions himself at Kisuke’s puckered entrance.

Breath caught in his throat, Kisuke’s entire body tingles with anticipation. His fingers curl against the wall again, limbs trembling.

Ichigo’s hips rock forward, and he slides into Kisuke tortuously slow. So that the blond feels him inch by inch, filling him to the brim. Kisuke groans, low-pitched and soft, and Ichigo thrusts into him. His insides clench, and he drops one hand. Curling fingers around his length, squeezing himself mercilessly. Ichigo’s barely begun, and he already feels like he’s going to embarrass himself.

“Ichigo,” he groans, pauses to give himself a moment to compose his words, and then continues. “There’s a time for slow and loving and a time for fast and furious. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you which this is.”

The fingers on his hip gripped tighter. “Oh, I’m sure I can guess,” Ichigo says, and his hips jerk forward, sliding to the last inch inside Kisuke with a dull smack of flesh against flesh. “But don’t say it wasn’t what you asked for.”

A feeling that mixes anticipation and concern winds its way through Kisuke’s belly, but it’s not enough to chase the blistering heat of desire. Or the realization that Kisuke is about to get something he’s only ever fantasized about.

“I can take it,” Kisuke challenges.

Reiatsu swirls in the room as Ichigo’s unusual, if not potent, blend flurries and mixes with Kisuke’s own. The walls rattle around them both as Ichigo withdraws and then thrusts forward quickly. Snapping his hips, slamming inside of Kisuke with a slap of skin on skin. The blond is driven forward, a gasp pushed from his lips, as his palm smacks against the wall in effort to keep himself from smashing his nose against it.

Behind him, Ichigo chuckles without repentance and does it again. A sharp withdraw and an even sharper thrust forward, a slam of his hips that makes Kisuke rise on his toes and fall back again. Makes every motion stand out in stark relief, makes heat and desire swirl into an endless eddy within Kisuke.

“Yessss,” Kisuke hisses through gritted teeth.

Ichigo without fail thrusts into him again and again. Over and over, his fingers flex on Kisuke’s hips with each body-shaking thrust. The older man squeezes his own arousal, but self-restraint fails him. He curls his fingers, strokes his shaft, smearing the copious dribbles of fluid all over himself. He pulses in his own fingers, rock hard. Heat throbs around he and Ichigo, and sweat paints Kisuke’s skin, the temperature in the room skyrocketing.

It’s a chilly, damp autumn evening outside. But Kisuke wouldn’t know it from the heat emanating from Ichigo’s body. From the sweat gathering on his brow.

Once more, Ichigo slams into Kisuke, only this time he pauses, deep inside. He shudders, and leans against Kisuke, pressing their bodies together as he grinds, hips in slow circular motions that make Kisuke’s hair raise. It shouldn’t feel so damn good. But it does, it does. Kisuke all but whimpers, Ichigo’s cock doing a lovely, grinding dance against his prostate.

Ichigo mouths the back of Kisuke’s neck, lips and tongue tracing a hot path over bare flesh and a thin layer of sweat. Teeth nip at the back of his shoulders, barely present, and with increasing pressure. A slight edge of pain that makes Kisuke’s fingers curl against the wall, scraping paint and causing a few flecks to flutter free.

One hand loses its hold on the blond’s hips, sliding around the front of him to tangle with Kisuke’s fingers and curl around his cock. He groans as Ichigo starts to stroke him, in tandem with his own grip, a thumb swiping over his leaking slit as Ichigo squeezes rhythmically. He grinds against Kisuke’s ass a few more times, panting against the back of his neck before he shifts gears once more.

Ichigo pulls out, barely a fraction, and then pushes back in again. Over and over, the sound of skin slapping together fills the room. Each tiny movement sends a blast of heat down Kisuke’s spine, makes the coiling in his belly threaten to snap. Makes his knees wobble and a broken moan fall from his lips.

Ichigo sucks in a breath. “Gonna make you come,” he says in a ragged voice that does little to curb Kisuke’s approaching release. “Wanna feel you come.”

The blond groans, wordless. The sound of Ichigo purring in his ear, promising dirty things, is enough to be his undoing. His back bows as he pushes back into Ichigo’s tiny thrusts, clenching down, heat rippling through him.

He comes with a choked cry, pleasure roaring through him. He erupts in their combined grip, soaking their fingers, splattering his poor, defenseless wall. His body trembles, muscles tightening. Behind him, Ichigo moans in tandem, his pace renewed as he resumes thrusting with increased vigor.

His hips rock forward, back to the unforgiving pace of before, and Kisuke can only groan and hold on as Ichigo shoves into him, chasing after his own release with single-minded determination. A mouth traces a wet, biting path over the back of Kisuke’s shoulders, mouth clamping down and exhaling heatedly over his flesh.

Panting, Kisuke slumps forward, drained of energy, and clings to his grip on the wall to keep from falling. Ichigo’s reiatsu is a frenzy of need around him, and the words “so close, yes, so close” are being panted in Kisuke’s ear. He groans at the sound, cock giving a twitch in their combined grip but little more than that.

Legs wobbling, Kisuke focuses, drawing his reiatsu tightly around himself. Only to suddenly flare it out in a wave of heat and energy. To Ichigo, it must feel like a cascading tingle all over his skin, prodding at every erogenous zone, sending him into fits of pleasure.

Ichigo all but whimpers, slamming into Kisuke with a final thrust before he stills, release flooding through him. His fingers clench down on Kisuke’s hip, certain to leave marks behind, as he locks their bodies together and loses the last of his control.

Ichigo sags, and Kisuke abandons his tedious stance. They slump together to the floor, bodies bathed in sweat. Ichigo slips out of him in the process, but he still nuzzles into Kisuke’s damp hair, pressing a kiss to the crook of his neck and shoulder.

“Nnnn,” he says, ever intelligibly.

Ichigo makes a sound like laughter. “I’ve made you speechless. A first.”

Kisuke reaches back, tangling his fingers in sweat-damp orangish hair. “Relish it now. I can’t guarantee it’ll happen again.”

“Oh really?” Ichigo’s fingers flex where they are entwined with Kisuke’s, a rippling motion against his sated length. “What about right now?”

“What about a bed?” Kisuke shoots back. “Like the one that’s about fifteen feet away?”

Ichigo’s lips wander a path across his shoulder again. Tongue tracing the light impressions of bite marks.

“Old men and their comforts,” he teases.

“I’m not that old,” Kisuke protests and tries to rise to his feet; his muscles protest the movement, and his legs are wobbly. Nevertheless, he does manage it, slumping against the wall once he does. He’s a sticky, sweaty mess, and a bath does sound appealing. But even more so is the thought of stumbling over to his bed with Ichigo and getting sticky all over again.

Ichigo chuckles, rising to his feet as well. “So you say,” he counters and reaches out, dragging a hand down the planes of Kisuke’s chest, stopping just below his belly button. “Care to prove it?”

Kisuke’s breath hitches. “Gods, Ichigo,” he mutters, tongue swiping over his lips. “You’ve gotten brazen all of the sudden.”

Ichigo shrugs, shoulders lifting and dropping. But at last, there’s a hint of a flush to his cheeks and not just one of arousal either.

“Maybe I was tired of acting like a kid.”

“Whatever the reason, I can’t say I’m disappointed,” Kisuke says and finally feels himself standing a bit on solid grin. He manages a cocky smile, more a leer, and lets his gaze rake openly down Ichigo’s body – well-muscled and a perfect shade of bronze. “Though why you chose today to pounce, I do wonder.”

Fingers weave through Kisuke’s own. Ichigo’s not subtly backing toward the bed and tugging the other man along with him.

“A certain someone let it be known that you were coming back today, but everyone else wasn’t. I knew you’d be alone.”

A certain someone? Kisuke shakes his head, affection rising up within him. It could have only been Yoruichi-san, as she is the only one that Kisuke had told. That devious cat. She’s always known of Kisuke’s attraction to his student. She’s always teased him for it as well, but apparently, in the back of her mind, she’d also been plotting.

Kisuke owes her a saucer of cream, he does.

“I see,” the ex-captain muses aloud and lets his gaze roam over Ichigo’s backside, a nicely built backside at that. “Will you be staying then?”

“If you’ll let me.”

Let?

By the gods, Ichigo will be lucky if Kisuke will allow him to leave.

Ichigo reaches the bed. With a tug, he topples them both onto it, and they quickly become a mess of naked limbs and rumpled blankets. Kisuke, much to his delight, executes a move that he learned in the second division and emerges on top, pinning Ichigo beneath him with several flavors of erotic plans building in the back of his mind.

“Oh, I’ll let you,” the blond purrs and drags one finger down the planes of Ichigo’s chest. “So long as we both agree it’s now my turn.”

Ichigo reaches out, catches Kisuke’s hand and drags it toward his mouth. Tongue flicking across the tip of Kisuke’s index finger.

“Whatever you want,” he says, nibbling at a fingertip.

Oh, he should know better than to give Kisuke that much freedom. A wicked smirk curls his lips.

Kisuke has years of fantasies to work through, and he’s about to introduce Ichigo to the first of many.

[Bay] For All I Lack

Red fingers are similar but not enough.

Together they are two, but the balance is off.

Something is missing, something irreplaceable. It’s not the same, won’t ever be, just a patch over the wound, just WD-40 on a rust stain.

“He’s still alive,” Sideswipe says fiercely, shuddering on the edge of overload, his vocalizer emitting static.

Fingers scramble over a chartreuse frame, dipping into seams, tugging on cables, pressing hard, the edge of pain, and it’s everything Ratchet needs.

He wants to keen in agony, his energy field a flaring mixture of want and grief and need and pain, all collapsing inward, extending outward, twining with Sideswipe’s own misery and loneliness and longing.

Together, they aren’t enough. He’s not here but they’re trying to hold themselves together regardless, even as their energies strain for a third that’s not present, looping back toward them without the other to balance out the ecstasy-agony.

Sideswipe’s going to get himself offlined, pelting into battle the way he does, blades afire and with little regard for his own safety. As if each destroyed Decepticon is a balm to his pain. Anything to outpace, outrun, outfight the pain in his spark.

Ratchet’s going to work himself until he offlines, fixing every last dent and ding and scratch. Worrying and worrying over the fate of their kind, over Cybertron and their dwindling population. Over injuries he doesn’t have the supplies or the means to fix. Over a Prime who’s spark was extinguished, only to rekindle. Over their dead second (third) in command. Over a friend of millennia betrayed by one of their own.

And all the while reaching, spark calling out for the last resonating beat that could make him feel whole again. Could make Sideswipe more than a half.

Sideswipe ventilates, hotter, harsher, cooling fans kicking into overdrive. Ratchet’s fingers scrabble over silver armor, one hand wedging itself under loose plating and gripping, pulling, adding an edge of pain. Sideswipe roars, staticky, their bond pulsing so unevenly Ratchet can’t tell the difference between pain and pleasure anymore.

Alone, alone, missing, gone.

His free hand hooks around Sideswipe’s helm. “Connect with me,” Ratchet half-snarls, half-gasps. Anything to feel less broken.

Sideswipe moans, slamming Ratchet harder against the wall of their makeshift home. The stone gives an ominous crackle. “Shouldn’t,” he says, mostly incapable of coherent speech. But his half-hearted denial is undercut by his fingers struggling to withdraw data cables.

Ratchet irises open the ports on either side of his abdominal armor in welcome, letting go of Sideswipe’s helm to direct quaking fingers where they should rightfully be. The soft click of cables sliding home into ports seems to echo loudly in the hangar that serves as Ratchet’s medbay. And Ratchet’s entire frame jolts as Sideswipe’s desire and loneliness intermingle with his own.

Electricity crackles over his plating, and then crawls onto Sideswipe’s, stirring them both into a higher frenzy. The air reeks of overcharge and ozone and old energon.

It’s more than Ratchet can take and still not enough. He yearns, a cry rising in his vocalizer, craving Sunstreaker’s presence, his charge to balance it out. The desperation within him is strong enough to startle, but also echoed by Sideswipe, who arguably misses his twin more than Ratchet could ever match.

Together they are two. And it will never be enough.

Sideswipe pulses through the hardline connection, fast, abrasive throbs of pleasure and need and want, want, want. Ratchet can’t keep up, doesn’t want to, and drags Sideswipe closer to him, as physically as possible, their plating overheated and crawling with electricity.

Overload comes without warning, slamming through Ratchet’s circuits and making him writhe, trapped between Sideswipe and the concrete wall of the hanger. He can feel the stone scratching into his dorsal plating, can feel the creak and groan of strained gears, but it’s all a white noise to the consuming pleasure that still isn’t enough to chase away the agony of a fractured bond.

Sideswipe’s grip on his hip spurs is hard enough to dent as he buries his face against Ratchet’s chestplate, fans whirring. Ratchet’s overload pours into Sideswipe’s systems, aided by the hardline connection, and Sideswipe shudders as his own crests over him.

And for a single, blissful, aching moment, Ratchet can feel Sunstreaker, wherever their golden twin is, lightyears away and too far to be heard or touched. Sideswipe all but cries out in longing, and Ratchet feels the urge crowding on his own vocalizer.

But then, the moment’s gone, their overloads waning as the electricity dissipates, leaving behind frames frantically trying to cool themselves with overworked fans, and the sluggish exchange of data across the hardline.

Ratchet sags against the wall, grateful for the chill of the stone. The tremors begin in his feet, but he locks his joints, keeps himself in place.

“He’s still alive,” Sideswipe says in the ensuing silence, his vocalizer crackling into static on the last word.

“Yes, he is,” Ratchet replies, confirmation given in that single moment.

But it’s not enough, won’t ever be. Together they are two, but they were always, always meant to be three.

[Num] Second Meeting

“What do you think would appeal to him?” Superman asks, completely stumped over the issue that has taken up all of his free time.

Namely Batman and how to encourage the Dark Knight to join the Justice League. Superman is convinced he’d be a valuable addition to their crew. They need someone like Batman to help balance out the pool of abilities. And Superman can’t help but admire someone like Batman, who is arguably one of the first superheroes to have ever existed.

On the other side of the table, Green Lantern looks up from his sandwich, head tilted with confusion. “Who?”

“Batman.”

He watches as Green Lantern exchanges glances with the Flash, J’onn, and Wonder Woman. Silent communication passes between them, and Superman knows that he’s the rookie here, the last to join the league of heroes. He hasn’t managed that connection just yet, but he’s working on it. They all work well together after all.

Wonder Woman’s lips twitch with her own confusion. “Appeal to him… how?”

The Flash snorts, fingers curling around a glass of lemonade. “You’re still trying to get dark and gloomy to join?”

“He’d be a great asset,” Superman insists. It’s a discussion they’ve had so many times before. No one has actively rejected the idea of Batman joining them. More, they’ve all been convinced it would never happen, so accepting or rejecting him is a moot point. In their opinion.

Superman, however, thinks quite differently.

“Or the rain on our parade,” the Flash retorts, deadpan. The grin that pulls at his lips proves the joke.

Green Lantern shoots Flash a quieting look, returning his attention to Superman, always with that military focus. “Batman has always been a loner, Superman. I don’t think there’s anything you could offer him.”

“Why not?” Superman asks.

Green Lantern blinks. “I don’t know.”

“Have you asked him?” Superman presses.

He’s answered by an array of blank looks around the table. As though talking to Batman is completely anathema to them. Like the thought has never even crossed their minds. Even Wonder Woman looks surprised at the mere suggestion of it.

“Asked?” Wonder Woman repeats as though seeking clarification.

Superman can’t decide if he’s appalled, baffled, or amused. “As in talked to him,” he says, as though he hadn’t been obvious before.

Flash bursts into laughter. “Definitely a rookie,” he comments, with a head tilt toward Superman before he swings his gaze toward the newest hero to grace Earth. “You don’t talk to Bats. You can talk at him, but it’s like banging into a brick wall at 200 miles per hour. Gets you nothing but a headache.”

Spoken as though from personal experience, but in his limited interaction with Batman, Superman gets the feeling he wouldn’t tolerate even spending five minutes in the same room with Flash.

Still…

“He is a bit… grumpy,” Superman concedes.

Grumpy?” Green Lantern repeats, shaking his head. “That’s a kind way of putting it.” He gets up from the table, taking his empty cup with him, no doubt to rinse it off in the small sink placed in their equally small kitchen as part of their even smaller base.

Someday, Superman hopes to have a real base of operations, other than this makeshift rented out – under an alias, of course – warehouse in the middle of Metropolis. They’d chosen Metropolis as a central location for the simple reason that recent experience had proven all the really super-powered villains tended to come after Superman first.

Smart planning on their part? Perhaps.

Of them all, J’onn is the only one who actually lives in their pathetic excuse for a headquarters. But then, Superman supposes none of them are, in their real identities, a billionaire with nothing better to spend their money on. Such is the way of things.

Anyway, back to the conversation at hand, which is his insistence that Batman be included in the ranks of the Justice League.

“I’m still of the opinion that his addition is necessary,” Superman says, with an argumentative note.

Wonder Woman taps a perfectly shaped fingernail against the table top. “What makes you think you can convince him?”

This gives Superman pause. He actually has to consider it. What makes him certain? After all, he has no idea what would intrigue Batman. He doesn’t know why Batman isn’t interested in the first place. He doesn’t know anything about Batman, which really is the problem now that he thinks about it.

“I’m determined,” Superman finally answers. If there’s one thing he has in bundles, it’s his stubbornness. And a bit of patience, as well.

Flash cackles, shoving back his chair and leaping to his feet with a red-blur of movement. “You’ll annoy him into joining us?” he says, with another laugh, and claps Superman on the shoulder, only to wince and shake his hand. “Good luck, brave soldier.”

“No man is an island,” Superman insists, with that aforementioned stubbornness. “There’s got to be something that’ll interest him.”

J’onn nods, ever supportive. “Of course, Superman,” he says. “I hope you succeed.”

It can’t be that hard, Superman thinks. He’ll just have to do some research. Find out everything he can about Batman, perhaps even figure out the Dark Knight’s secret identity. Seems only fair, after all, since Batman knows his. And research is one thing Clark Kent is quite used to.

Defeat, on the other hand, is something neither Superman nor Clark Kent can stomach. Operation: Recruit Batman is still a go.

o0o0o

A week later, Clark Kent adds the final words to an article, zips it off to Mr. White via the Internet, and quickly changes into Superman. He leaps out a window and is a red-blue blur in the sky before his keyboard has managed to cool. In a matter of minutes, Superman is flying over Gotham, scanning the dusk-streaked streets and rooftops for Batman.

Which is something much easier said than done. Part of Batman’s signature is to keep to the shadows, to use the darkness to hide and skulk about. He is a creature of subtlety. Superman, however, is nothing if not tenacious.

He performs several sweeps over Gotham, using his x-ray vision when necessary, super-hearing tuned to the sound of possible altercations or that familiar gravelly and obviously disguised voice.

An hour later, he finally locates Batman near the docks, and Superman banks around for a closer look. He finds Batman and one of the local thugs, and it would appear that Batman is interrogating the man. Only, he’s using a less than traditional approach.

Somehow, Superman doesn’t think that dangling the hapless man by one foot at a twenty story drop is particularly ethical. In fact, it seems downright dangerous and cruel. Superman knows that Batman employs unconventional methods but this… isn’t quite what he imagined.

Without thinking of the consequences, Superman decides to intervene. Squaring his jaw, he swoops in and snatches the hapless thug from thin air, rescuing him from an untimely demise. The poor criminal quickly becomes a babbling, weeping mess of fear that clings to Superman’s chest, gibbering on about monsters and bats and how afraid he is of heights.

He also reeks of booze and smoke, but Superman pretends his enhanced senses aren’t being offended right now.

With the thug now attached to his chest like a quivering octopus, Superman lands on the roof near to Batman, ready to ask the caped crusader just what on Earth he’s thinking, pulling that kind of dangerous, unethical interrogation.

However, in a strange show of initiative, Batman is for once the first to speak. And he has nothing kind to say.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Batman demands, voice pitched low and nothing less than a growl, his hands moving jerkily as he reels in the line he’d been using to suspend his victim twenty stories up.

For a moment, with a criminal gibbering in his arms like he’s been attacked by the devil himself and Batman approaching with a malevolent aura, eyes thin slits in his mask, Superman is a bit intimidated. He always thought himself fully capable of taking down Batman but suddenly… he’s not so sure.

There are too many unknown factors for him to be absolutely certain.

Superman’s careful script of convincing recruitment flies out the window and off his tongue. “I–”

He suddenly has a face full of dark black mask – lined with lead damn it – and narrowed brown eyes. Were they brown before?

“That’s my informant,” Batman snarls in that gravelly voice of his, sounding two steps from a physical altercation. “I don’t care how things work in Metropolis, but here in Gotham, you don’t interfere in my business!”

Superman gapes before managing to collect himself. “You were torturing him,” he argues, before realizing that perhaps arguing with the man he’s trying to convince is not the best course of action.

“I wasn’t going to kill him,” Batman huffs, dismissively.

Yet, Superman careful notes that he doesn’t deny torturing.

The smelly thug sniffles pathetically. “You weren’t?”

Batman’s gaze swings back to the criminal. “Yes, I was,” he growls warningly before reverting his attention to Superman, his eyes hot and bright. “What. Do. You. Want?”

Superman works his jaw. “I–”

“If this is about your happy band of superheroes,” Batman interrupts with a thinly disguised sneer of disgust, “I’m not interested.”

He turns away with a sharp huff, a clomp of his reinforced boots, and a sweep of his dark cape, anger in every rigid motion.

“But–”

Any protest Superman might have made is whisked away by the wind as Batman jerks out his grapple gun, fires it, and leaps from the building, swinging away on the end of a thin line. Not an inch of fear in him for the heights.

Superman is left alone. He has nothing but a whimpering thug to show for his efforts. No more insight into Batman and how he works. No clue how to proceed from here. Nothing.

This hadn’t gone well at all. The Flash is going to laugh himself sick, if Superman decides to share the whole bungled up encounter. The only bright side is that he managed to get Batman to talk to him. Kind of.

Superman sighs, glancing at the thug in his arms, who is more than likely a criminal. Batman doesn’t terrorize the innocent after all. Might as well drop him off at Gotham PD on his way back to Metropolis, Superman supposes.

He’ll just have to try again. Another time, but not today because Batman is already rather torqued at him, and Superman doesn’t think making him angrier will lead to an agreement.

With that in mind, Superman once more takes to the sky, mind already spinning with possibilities. Batman both deserves and needs to be a member of the Justice League. He just doesn’t know it yet.