[G1] What Lies Beneath

Jazz wakes to the medbay ceiling and the horrible sensation something is missing. He lays perfectly still, millennia of training forcing that behavior into his coding. He scans his most recent memories for an answer, but his short term cache is distressingly empty and for the rest…

Nothing.

Dim, fuzzy memories. Scattered images. Distorted sounds. Pain. Dismay.

His chronometer functions but without a reference, Jazz doesn’t know if he’s been out for hours, days, or worse, weeks.

His spark hurts. A lance of pain shoots through his chassis, and Jazz groans, flopping to his side and curling into himself. What in the name of Primus?

“Jazz?”

The lights come on. Quick, light-footed steps hurry into what must be one of the medbay’s private rooms.

First Aid. Not Ratchet because Ratchet’s much, much heavier. Wheeljack always smells off, like chemicals. Not Hoist either, because he walks with an arrhythmic pace due to a worn hip joint. So definitely First Aid.

“Aid?” His visor flickers in and out before it settles on functional, and Jazz gets a look around. Yes, he’s in the medbay. Yes, it’s the isolation ward. “What…?”

He feels a wash of ions prickle over his armor. A scan. A medical scan.

“I’m sorry,” First Aid says, stepping into view, one hand holding a cube of energon. “There’s not much I can do for the pain. Refueling should help.”

Jazz sits up, the sharp ache fading into dullness but still present. He accepts the cube, glancing around the isolation ward. Something isn’t right. He frowns.

“Where’s Ratchet?”

Anxiety spikes in First Aid’s field. “What do you remember, Jazz?”

His gaze whips toward the apprentice medic, fear lancing through his spark far worse than the pain. “When mechs start with that kinda question, it means bad news. So where th’ frag is Ratchet?”

Aid flinches, and Jazz feels the guilt, crashing over him. He tries in vain to reach for amiability, but beneath the pain and the fear, he can’t find it.

“He’s fine,” First Aid blurts out, his visor dulling. “Relatively speaking. He’s alive, on sabbatical, but alive.”

Jazz’s confusion grows. “Sabbatical?” Ratchet hasn’t taken a vacation since they crashed on this planet. Jazz would know. He’s been trying to convince his lover to go away on leave for months. Ratchet’s been resisting him for just as long.

“It’s like a vacation only a bit longer.” First Aid pulls up a stool and sits with a heaviness that hints of bad news. “Prime ordered it.”

Jazz’s frown deepens. “Why?” His tone edges into a growl, and Jazz has to remind himself to throttle it back.

This isn’t Aid’s fault. It’s Prime’s. If Jazz has to have a talk with Optimus, then he will. Making Ratchet take a vacation doesn’t mean he’s going to relax.

First Aid cycles a ventilation. “That’s why I asked you what you remember. Though given your behavior, I’d reason the answer is nothing.” His hands scrub down his thighs, his plating clamped tight, and Jazz knows what that means.

First Aid is nervous. Though why, Jazz hasn’t got a clue.

His fingers tighten around the cube. “What the frag’s going on, Aid?”

First Aid can’t meet his gaze. He may be wearing a visor, but Jazz is fluent in tracking a mech’s optics behind them, and he knows First Aid is looking over his shoulder, staring past him.

“A week ago, you and Ratchet attempted to bond,” First Aid says, his vocalizer crackling with static before he audibly reset it. “There were complications.”

Jazz presses a hand to his chestplate, feeling the frenetic whirl of his spark and the nagging pain. There’s a distant sense of loneliness, of hurt and despair. He’d thought it a strange sensation for himself and maybe, that’s because it is.

“What do ya mean?” he demands even as his senses turn inward, to the presence of the spark and the presence of the other who should be on the other side.

Nothing. Nothing but pain.

First Aid cycles a ventilation. “Your sparks are incompatible. It’s rare, but it does happen. When you tried to bond, the backlash was severe.”

Severe he says. Jazz thinks it an understatement given the fuzz in his memory core, the lingering echoes of glitches and error codes, the pain in his spark, and the aching yaw of loss.

“Attempted,” Jazz repeats. “Tried. Ya keep using these words.” He looks at First Aid, his visor a flat shade. “Why?”

“Because you failed. You can’t form a bond with Ratchet. It’s physically impossible.” First Aid’s field hums with sympathy. “You two can no longer have any further spark contact. Field contact, as it currently is, would be painful.”

Jazz works his intake, his processor trying and failing to understand what First Aid is saying. “We can’t be together.”

“No.” First Aid lays a hand over Jazz’s; he stares at it dully. “I’m sorry. Right now, you can’t even be within ten miles of each other without pain.”

Jazz frowns, detachment making him feel numb but not also not. Why isn’t he in pain? Why doesn’t he hurt like First Aid says he should?

“I want ta see him,” Jazz says, his ventilations stuttering. He rubs his chestplate. “I want ta talk ta him. He has ta know. He has ta–”

“Ratchet’s not here,” First Aid says. “For both of your sakes, he took a vacation. To Yellowstone.”

“Alone!?” Jazz rips his hand free of Aid’s as he jerks to his pedes. “Has Prime lost his mind?”

First Aid shakes his head. “He’s not alone. He took the twins.”

Jazz is at a loss for words until anger flushes through him, sharp and bitter. “The twins,” he hisses, hands folding into fists. Those opportunistic, bottom-feeding, berth-hopping, little–

“You know he’s safe with them,” First Aid says, either oblivious to Jazz’s sudden rage or choosing to ignore it. “Prime wouldn’t have ordered it otherwise.”

“When’s he comin’ back?”

First Aid stands and retrieves a scanner, which he directs at Jazz. “Prime didn’t give him a limit. Ratchet, of course, doesn’t plan to be gone longer than two weeks.”

Two weeks. Fourteen days of wandering the wilderness with only the twins for company. It is unacceptable, but also, beyond his control. Of course they would do this when Jazz is unconscious and unable to offer a comment.

Jazz pinches his nasal ridge. “I understand. Am I discharged?”

First Aid checks the status of his scanner. “You are physically in peak condition. Though I’ve recommended light duty for as long as possible. No prowling around on the Nemesis. I can’t guarantee your spark won’t fluctuate.”

“I’m sure you’ve told Optimus that.”

First Aid’s optics brighten with something like a grin. “Would you have obeyed my recommendations otherwise?”

“I would’ve at least considered it.” Jazz manages a grin, forced though it is. “Thanks, Aid.”

“You’re welcome. And for what it’s worth, Jazz, I’m sorry.”

He bows his head. “So am I.”

Jazz leaves First Aid in the medbay but then doesn’t know where to go. He is off-duty for now, soon to return to light-duty in a day or two. Ratchet is gone for at least two weeks. And Jazz… can’t escape the sensation that something is missing.

He should go to his quarters. Jazz aims himself in that direction. He doesn’t stumble, but he lacks his confident stride. Not that it matters. The hallways are empty.

He checks his chronometer. It’s the middle of the day. Most are on duty, yes. But there aren’t so few Autobots that he won’t have passed one or two.

Ratchet would have been on duty in the medbay by now. Ratchet doesn’t know the meaning of “off-duty.” Jazz has tried so hard to get him to relax, to enjoy what they do have outside the Decepticon threat. But Ratchet is stubborn. Will always be stubborn.

Jazz pauses, the pain rising within his spark, something that cannot be eased, First Aid says. There’s no temporary patch or sedation coding. Their best ally is time.

First Aid ordered him to rest. But Jazz doesn’t want to be in his quarters right now. He doesn’t want to be alone.

He changes course. Prowl’s on duty. Prowl’s like Ratchet, he’s always on duty.

Prowl’s in his office. He usually is when he’s not on the command deck, but Prime’s there now so Jazz will find Prowl in his office.

The corridors are still suspiciously clear of Autobots. First Aid hadn’t mentioned a major attack that would explain this. There’s an eerie pall hanging over the Ark, something in the air. His plating twitches.

Prowl’s door is open, this new policy he’s trying, per Sparkplug’s suggestion. Inside, he’s plugged into his console, optics dim as he’s deep in the digital world, tac net burying tendrils in every tasty bit of data that could spell the Decepticons end.

Jazz raps his knuckles against the frame and then invites himself inside. He waits for Prowl to surface from the waters of plotting, cycling his optics as he returns to reality.

“Jazz.” Prowl’s door panels flutter, not quite pleasure, but something Jazz can’t identify. “First Aid didn’t tell me he was releasing you today.”

Jazz drops himself into a chair. “I got out on good behavior.”

“Of course you did.” Prowl smiles at him, a bare curve of his lips. “I am glad to see you looking well.”

“On th’ outside.” Jazz taps his chestplate. “Not so much in here.”

Prowl’s optics dim by a fraction. “Yes, I know.” His vocals soften and behind Jazz, Prowl’s door closes, locking with a quiet click. He’s offering them privacy. “I am sorry, Jazz.”

He manages a shrug, though it’s less nonchalant than he would have preferred. “Luck of the draw, I guess.” His grin is crooked. “Can’t really do anything ’bout it but move on and try ta pick up the pieces.”

Prowl sets aside his datapad, giving Jazz his full attention. “Tell me what I can do for you, Jazz, and I will do it.”

The ache rises. It swells in his spark, like it’s capable of swallowing him whole. Jazz’s ventilations skip a beat. He sags in his chair.

“Ain’t nothin’ ta do,” Jazz says.

His vocalizer glitches, and he resets it. He folds his hands over his bumper and reaches for another smile. It slips off his lips just as quickly.

“It’s over,” Jazz says. Saying it aloud does not make it any more real.

Prowl’s head dips. “I have read First Aid’s report. You are correct. It is over.” He, too, sighs, his door panels rustling.

“We don’t have to be intimate,” Jazz says, but his hand scrubs down his face. His visor dims, unable to meet Prowl’s gaze. “But even as I’m sayin’ that I know it’s not gonna be the same. It can’t be.”

“It cannot.”

He hears Prowl stand and circle the desk. Jazz looks up to see Prowl coming to crouch in front of him, his hands laying gently over Jazz’s. The soft contact of Prowl’s field is a balm to the ache, like a sip of coolant after a long drive. But it’s not nearly enough.

“You are not alone,” Prowl says. “I want you to know that. You can take as long as you need. I will support you.”

Jazz’s vents hitch. He wants to say thank you, but something catches in his vocalizer, locks up the mechanism. He doesn’t want to call it a sob because Cybertronians don’t weep like humans, and Jazz certainly doesn’t. But in that moment, he does envy the humans their ability to do so. It feels like there is a lump in his chassis that he can’t seem to remove.

He bows his head, crouches forward, and feels the warmth of his best friend’s embrace enclose around him. Prowl is somewhat larger than him, though not to the same degree as Ratchet, and it’s a start, but it’s not enough.

He’s not Ratchet.

All Jazz has ever wanted is Ratchet.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there, vocalizer clicking and ventilations catching on nothing, an intense need to react swelling up within him. His spark stutters and throbs, and there’s a lingering ache that won’t leave him be. He’s forgotten something that doesn’t have a name. He’s lost someone he can’t remember.

He can’t chase down the loose threads. Buried even deeper than that, further away than he can sense, is Ratchet. The barest sensation of him. The only reason Jazz even thinks to call it Ratchet is because he knows it’s not himself.

Echoes, probably. Jazz holds onto them.

Wherever Ratchet is, whatever he’s doing, he’s in as much pain as Jazz. There’s something else there, something deeper. Something Jazz has no name for.

“It will not be better today,” Prowl murmurs, his field caressing Jazz’s with soft, soothing strokes. Like a caretaker might, Jazz imagines. “It may not be better tomorrow or next week or next month or a year from now. It is a process. One earned by the next minute, or second, or spark beat.”

Jazz listens to his words, absorbs them, pins them within his processor. Gradually, the tension within him eases to a tolerable level.

“Dunno what I’d do without ya, Prowl,” he murmurs.

Prowl, briefly, stiffens, but it’s gone so quickly Jazz is almost sure he imagined it. “Likewise,” he murmurs.

Jazz leaves minutes later. Prowl has work to do, and Jazz is supposed to be resting. But he extracts a promise from his best friend that they’ll meet later and that’s good enough. Jazz knows he has some high grade stashed in his quarters.

Maybe it will help dull the pain.

He swings by the rec room for a cube, wanting to wash the taste of medical grade out of his mouth. To his surprise, the rec room is as deserted as the hallways, and it’s an eerie detail. It almost makes him want to spin on a heelstrut back toward Prowl’s office and ask him what the frag’s going on.

He’d been unconscious for a week, Aid said. Maybe there’s been a battle. He can’t find a report when he gently pings Teletraan, but maybe the data hasn’t been uploaded and encrypted yet. He probably has a datapad in his office, probably an entire stack of them in fact.

Ugh.

Jazz takes his ration and heads to his quarters. Paperwork can wait for another day. He’s supposed to be resting after all.

The empty hallways continue to bother him. An uneasy feeling rests at the base of his spinal strut, and it stays there, all the way until he closes himself into the static silence of his quarters. The air is stale, despite the room appearing recently cleaned.

His own organization style is a mixture of chaos and order. Datatrax are carefully arranged on shelves, but there are piles of assorted belongings shoved into corners. He leaves his berth cover rumpled, and his weapons case locked. In that regard, nothing is different.

There is an empty shelf on his bookcase. It used to house the physical copies of some of his more obscure musical collections.

Jazz frowns. He doesn’t think they’ve been stolen because he doubts there is anyone who could hack his lock, save Sideswipe, and that fragger knows better by now. He searches his quarters and eventually finds them in a box under the berth.

Had he done this?

His memory is a fractured mess right now. He can’t imagine a reason why he’d store them away. Or why he’d clear a shelf. It’s not like he and Ratchet ever decided to move in together or anything. Why would they do that? Ratchet has the bigger room.

But then, he can’t remember agreeing to try for a spark bond with Ratchet. Perhaps they had decided for both at once?

The lack of memory disturbs him.

Jazz hauls the box out and puts them back. The mindless task lets his thoughts wander. The emptiness in the halls had been odd. Prowl had been behaving strangely. The whole Ark feels like it’s in mourning, but if someone had died, wouldn’t First Aid had mentioned it?

Very strange.

Music tracks restored, Jazz folds up the box and stores it back under his berth. He grabs his ration, finishes it off quickly, and sits at his private console. He listlessly presses a few buttons, and it isn’t until he looks down that he realizes he’s rubbing on his chestplate. Rubbing at the seam, as a matter of fact.

His spark still aches.

He pushes to his pedes, restless and uneasy. He paces back and forth, his spark throbbing. He tries to concentrate, to reach for the distant threads of Ratchet, but they slip through his fingers. He feels like he’s scrabbling on the edge of a cliff, and no one is there to help pull him back up.

His personal washracks are tiny, but given that they are private, he can deal with the confined space. He is clean, but it’s the mirror that’s of more importance to him.

Jazz doesn’t know what he’s going to find when he looks, but he decides to do so anyway.

He braces himself, cycles a ventilation, and triggers his chestplates to open. Primary and secondary armoring slides aside. He has to input another override code for the locked casing to grant him access and when it does, there’s a grating ache in the gears. As though they’ve been forced open or shut as of late.

Jazz gnaws on his bottom lip. He stares at his reflection, the pale white of his spark glowing in the mirror. There’s no indication of damage, no sign of his failure to bond with Ratchet. Even his chamber is unmarked. He’d half-expected to see scorch marks or something equally telling.

But there’s nothing.

Jazz leans closer, tracing a finger around the edge of his spark chamber. His spark fluctuates, pulses brighter. There are scratchmarks around the housing, scrapes where his locks come together, evidence that they’d forced him open.

There are no answers.

Jazz sighs and triggers his casing to close. He watches the many layers of protection shield his spark once more.

He’d taken so many efforts to protect himself from the war, from battle and hacking and time spent in Decepticon’s tender care.

And it had taken a moment of vulnerability between himself and his lover to damage him beyond repair.

Jazz leaves the washracks and flops onto the berth. It smells as stale as the rest of his quarters.

It feels like much longer than a week. It’s a strange experience, to have so much time missing and yet, nothing to account for it. He hates the empty spots in his memory core. He hates the shadows and the distorted images.

He contemplates pinging Ratchet’s comm, just to hear his voice, just to talk to him, see if he’s okay, see if he’s healing better than Jazz. The urge rolls up and over and through him. It nearly takes him over.

In the end, he chooses not to. He fears if he hears Ratchet’s voice, he won’t be able to stop himself from peeling out of the Ark and giving him chase. He misses Ratchet with a physical ache, and he doesn’t know if the failed bond is to blame or not.

Jazz rolls onto his side and stares at the wall. He curls his arms around his frame, remembering the times he shared a berth with Ratchet. His warmth. The weight of his arms. The sensation of his field.

He often recharged without Ratchet. This time feels different. Final.

Lonely.

Jazz cycles an unsteady ventilation.

First Aid told him he needs his rest.

Recharge it is.

~

There are holes in his memories. Dark and shadowy places. Sometimes, Jazz sits in the silence of his quarters and goes poking around in his own processor. He follows lines of codes and trails of referencing trees and they all go back to the gaping emptiness.

Jazz doesn’t like it. He feels as though he’s missing a piece of himself. He knows answers are in those holes, those gaps, if only he could read them.

His backups are useless. There’s something corrupted in those storage sectors. Even if he could duplicate them, he’d only get a read access error.

Once upon a time, they could have fixed that, Hoist had told him with a sad look. But after millenia of war and all the necessary equipment destroyed? It is not to be. He has to learn to live with the shadows.

Jazz drifts through his duties with a keen sense that something is lacking. He misses Ratchet with every bolt and bracket in his frame.

He asks First Aid for progress reports when he visits the medic for daily scans, to ensure he is healing properly. First Aid always says the same thing.

“He’s doing well. Sideswipe and Sunstreaker are taking care of him. He’ll come back when he’s ready.”

There are battles, minor skirmishes really. The starving Decepticons desperate for a scrap of energy in some newfangled scheme or another.

Jazz worries about Ratchet all alone out there, with only Sideswipe and Sunstreaker for company. Have they driven him crazy? Is he recharging enough? Is he consuming energon properly? No one else knows how Ratchet likes it. The perfect temperature, consistency, flavoring. Without it, who knows what Ratchet is consuming?

Jazz tries to distract himself. He requests a mission, even draws up a plan that Prowl would approve of. But Optimus refuses to sign off on it, and Prowl backs him up.

He’s in no state to go venturing into Decepticon territory. He has to pass both missions off on Mirage and Bumblebee. They tell him he needs to recruit, to start giving Smokescreen the training he’s been needing for years.

Jazz tells himself they aren’t looking for a replacement. Yet, he feels as though he’s on the outside looking in.

Prowl gives him more work to do if he’s that bored. But sitting in his office with stacks of paperwork doesn’t help. He fills them out, but doesn’t have the wherewithal to doodle in the margins for once.

He’s listless and restless. Somehow, both at once.

Sometimes, his spark surges. He gets an echo, a hint of Ratchet, however he is, whatever he’s doing. Jazz thinks, if he offlines his optics and concentrates for a moment, he can be there with him.

Then the moment is gone. Jazz is left alone in his quarters, or his office, feeling more alone than he did before trying.

~

Work is not enough.

Jazz tries to return to his other pursuits. There are a million and one ways to be entertained on Earth, whether it’s enjoying some human form of it, or through his fellow Cybertronians.

Ironhide, however, is too busy to train. Dismissive even. He’s gruff when he declines Jazz’s request for a sparring session. Says he’s got his hands full with a round of weapons upgrades for the minibots. He doesn’t meet Jazz’s visor. His refusal is perfunct.

With Sideswipe out of the Ark, no one’s interested in the video game system in the main room. It sits there collecting dust while Gears listlessly clicks through infomercial after infomercial. He’s not interested in a racing challenge.

The communications net needs an overhaul, Blaster says apologetically when Jazz finally finds him. He’s buried under the secondary console in their communications closet, wires spilling around him like a multicolored nest of snakes. His vocals are muffled from where his upper half is invisible within the internals of the console.

He won’t be available for a concert or a drive-in movie, Blaster says. He sounds disappointed, but Jazz can’t see his face. He can’t read Blaster’s field either. Blaster is missing his verve, and maybe it’s cause he’s tired. He says he’s been messing with wires for days now.

Bluestreak’s been moved to an opposite shift. So has Smokescreen, where he’s been set to train under Hound for the time being, a decision that was made without Jazz’s input.

Jazz feels he should argue about it, but the unease creeps in. The ache returns. He nods and turns away.

He’s even bored enough to go to the security office and see if Red Alert wants some company. It’s a long shot, but Jazz is desperate.

Red Alert only spares him enough attention to decline Jazz’s offer. He claims he functions better in solitude and silence, and Jazz is most certainly not the latter.

Prowl’s the only one who doesn’t turn Jazz away. Who isn’t involved in something suddenly important. Except he keeps gesturing to stacks of paperwork. Jazz looks at it with disdain.

There’s nothing else to do.

He sits in a corner of Prowl’s office, pulls the first from a stack of datapads, and sets to reading.

It’s better, at least, than the agony.

~

Something is not right. There is an oddness, a lie, and it hangs in the air around him. It exists in the way Wheeljack is muted around him, not as bright and colorful as he had been. How he comes up with excuses to leave the room when Jazz is in it, or to decline an offer to go catch a movie.

Blaster has turned him down to go see a concert twice.

He has caught Ironhide glaring at him when the old soldier thinks Jazz isn’t looking. Ironhide is many things, but stealthy is not one of them. When Jazz feels a shiver creep up his backstrut, he’s learned it’s probably cause Ironhide is sending him a death stare.

He reports to the medbay daily, and First Aid tells him that he’s recovering slowly, that time is his best ally. He flinches whenever Jazz asks about Ratchet. His answers are stuttered, and then smoothed over with apologies about how he’s not used to being in charge yet.

It all smells fishy, as Sparkplug would say, and it nags at Jazz.

He thinks that Prowl has to be part of it. Prowl has to know. Because he’s acting as though the world is normal. He is kinder, gentler with Jazz. Walking around him like a mech creeping over broken glass.

His offers of comfort are genuine, but his field is less open than it had been. He greets Jazz with a smile that doesn’t reach his optics. He buries himself in work even more than before.

No one will talk about Ratchet.

Well, no member of command anyway. A few have come by to offer their sympathy, but their visits are always brief, free time clashing with scheduled shifts. None of Jazz’s closest companions have time to spend with him anymore.

The heaviest proof Jazz has, however, is the way Ratchet reacts to him. Not with disappointed longing, but confused fear. Like he wants to both flee far from Jazz, but also hold him close.

They don’t tell Jazz that Ratchet’s back. He has to find out from Bluestreak of all mechs. Even then, it’s a week before Jazz sees Ratchet in person, and it is across the length of the recreation room.

Ratchet freezes like a deer caught in headlights, and then he flees. He runs away as though the entirety of the Decepticon army is chasing him.

Worry forces Jazz into action before he thinks it through. He chases after Ratchet, an apology on his lips, even though he knows he’s not to blame for their spark incompatibility. But Wheeljack is there, barring the way, a hard stare in his optics that Jazz has never seen the engineer carry before. Wheeljack has always been so easygoing, hard to rile.

Now, he’s a heavy barricade between Jazz and Ratchet.

Jazz doesn’t need Wheeljack to say it to know that the engineer isn’t going to let Jazz pass. So he bows his head, offers the energon, and apologizes. He isn’t willing to push, to hurt Ratchet further.

Jazz leaves, but not without the nagging thought that something is not quite right. If it were a simple matter of them being incompatible, then why would Ratchet run? Why would Wheeljack look at Jazz as though he is a terrible monster come to call?

Why?

Jazz needs answers. He knows Prowl isn’t going to give them to him. Because if he was meant to know the truth, Prowl would have told him from the beginning. Whatever is going on lies deeper than the truth Jazz knows.

There’s only one place Jazz can go where he might get real answers.

He seeks out his team. Or more precisely, he calls them to his quarters, under the guise of discussing mission parameters. Jazz’s suite is one of most secure in the Ark. They often discuss missions here.

By the time they arrive, Jazz is pacing. He’s going over his interactions with the rest of the Autobots one by one, and he’s arriving at a conclusion. An awful one. It’s as though he’s woken in some alternate universe, and without his memories to guide him, he’s lost.

“What’s the mission?” Bumblebee asks cheerfully, every inch of him screaming of false ease. He’s a good actor, but not that good.

Mirage doesn’t bother to try. He looks at Jazz, his expression blank, but the reserve in his field, and the tighter than usual clamp to his armor, speaks volumes.

That’s it.

He needs to know.

Jazz sighs and scrubs a hand over his head. “There’s no mission, Bee. I need yer help. Both of ya.”

Bumblebee cycles his optics. “For what?”

“I need Ya two ta tell me the truth,” Jazz says as Mirage and Bumblebee stare back at him, their expressions betraying nothing.

Just as he’d trained them.

“I need ya ta tell me what no one else will,” Jazz continues and huffs a ventilation, scraping his hand over his head. “Because I know when I’m bein’ lied to.”

This is hard. Harder than he thought it would be.

“And I need… I need ta know.” He works his intake and stares at them, his visor glinting with a hard edge. “Did I hurt Ratchet?”

There is a moment’s pause. He watches them exchange a glance, as though trying to decide whether or not to share the truth. Jazz’s engine revs in warning, and it’s far more telling when they flinch. It’s subtle, but Jazz knows what to look for.

He knows to recognize the way Mirage’s plating clamps down and the way Bumblebee angles himself into a defensive stance. They’re afraid of him.

Frag. Frag. Frag. Frag. Frag–

“Yes,” Bumblebee answers, in the middle of Jazz’s internal litany of shame and confusion. “You did.”

His knees wobble. Jazz locks them and squares his shoulders. “What did I do?” he demands, feeling at once dizzy. His ventilations are coming too sharp for his comfort.

“It… you…” Bumblebee fumbles for words.

Mirage reboots his vocalizer. “You argued. Ratchet ended the relationship. You took it badly.”

Jazz works his intake. His hands form fists. He’s staring at them, but through them. “Define badly,” he grits out.

They exchange glances again. Mirage is the one to nod, and Bumblebee steels himself.

“It’s not a lie. Not entirely,” he says, and he shifts. “You do hurt because of a failed bond. Just not due to incompatibility.”

Oh, Primus.

Jazz’s tanks heave.

He whirls away from them, hunches into himself. His hand covers his mouth, the world spinning dizzily.

Dots connect. Realization hits him like a punch to the face.

His knees wobble and this time, Jazz lets them. He feels like he’s going to purge as his entire frame turns ice cold and then blazing hot.

He’d… He’d…

“Ratchet used a virus,” Mirage explains, his voice coming from a distance, down a narrow tunnel. “Something he’d developed, meant to incapacitate but not kill. It wipes your memory core, leaves nothing but autonomics.”

He used a virus to protect himself. From Jazz. From his partner. His lover. Someone he should have trusted.

There’s a dull, clattering sound somewhere. It takes Jazz too long to realize that it’s coming from himself. That he’s shaking and he can’t make himself stop.

He swallows, again and again, and his first attempt to speak results in static. He has to reboot his own vocalizer.

“Why am I alive?” he demands, hoarse.

“It’s complicated,” Bumblebee says. “They didn’t tell us. We’re not even supposed to know this much except…”

That they did what Jazz had trained them to do. They got curious. They investigated. Then they kept the secret from their own boss.

Jazz buries his face in his hands. His field, he knows, has completely left his control, but he can’t seem to reel it in.

He’d hurt Ratchet.

He’d raped Ratchet.

How could he do that? He can’t even remember why. He can’t look back and see what had driven him to that point. What made him think it was the only option he had. What made him think it was reasonable. How could he even consider causing harm?

How could he?

“Boss?”

“Don’t,” Jazz says, his vents heaving. “I don’t… Ya should go.”

Please. Please, go.

Mercifully, they don’t argue. He barely hears the door click shut behind them, locking him in the silence of his quarters.

It all makes sense now.

By Primus, how Jazz wishes it didn’t.

~

He tells himself to keep his distance.

It’s better this way. Ratchet has no interest in being near him, and Jazz has no interest in hurting him further. He can’t remember what happened, but the implication is enough to guess.

Jazz goes about his daily duties pretending that everything is fine. There’s nothing wrong. He makes an effort to avoid Ratchet, timing his own schedule around Ratchet’s. He goes to the medbay only when First Aid is on duty. He sits between Prowl and Ironhide when there’s a command meeting, and tries not to look too closely at Ratchet, the few times he does attend and doesn’t send First Aid in his place.

The isolation suddenly has new meaning. Ironhide’s anger toward him. Blaster’s sudden unavailability. Wheeljack’s absence. Sideswipe and Sunstreaker’s cold disregard. Bluestreak and Smokescreen’s shift change.

Jazz stops fighting it. He stops trying.

Alienation is only a portion of what he deserves.

Keeping a distance from Ratchet gets a little easier, as the days go by, but the Decepticons never stay quiet for long, and for the most part, they always return louder than before. This time is no exception.

In the noise and madness, Jazz pushes aside his personal problems and focuses on the mission. For the first time in weeks, he doesn’t think about Ratchet or his own mistakes, or the pain he’s caused. He turns his anger and his helplessness onto the Decepticons.

The Autobots claim victory, but not without cost. The medbay is crammed with the injured, from mild to severe, and while Jazz isn’t a medic, he’s had his hands in enough internals to help out. He’s watched Ratchet enough times that he can slap on static bandages, or seal torn lines, or hold a mech down when he needs it.

So when Ratchet shouts for a tool and no one is there to hand it to him, Jazz steps up. He does it almost without thinking, caught in the middle of battle-mode still.

The moment their optics meet, a shiver of something ripples through Jazz’s spark. He’s not sure what to call it. Regret. Longing. Despair.

Ratchet looks away, back to Sunstreaker, his hands moving with surety and confidence. But there’s a tremor in his energy field, a downturn to his lips, and Jazz eases away. He puts distance between them.

He doesn’t know if he can keep this up.

He goes to the only mech in the Ark who might be able to help.

~

“A transfer?” Prowl repeats. He leans his elbows on his desk and folds his fingers together. “Barring the fact that you are the third in command, and the head of Special Operations, therefore making the request impossible… might I ask why?”

Jazz paces back and forth across the floor. “It’s hard,” he says. “Being around Ratchet and knowing I can’t be with him the way I want to. I’m hurtin’ him, too, just by bein’ here. So maybe I should just go.”

Prowl stares at him. “Jazz, you have never been one to give up because something is too difficult. First Aid reassures me that your sparks are healing, that you should barely be able to feel each other anymore.”

“Well, maybe he’s wrong.” Jazz rubs at his chestplate, his armor slicking down further, tight to his protoform.

“Or maybe there’s something else going on.” Prowl’s doorwings go rigid, an angry vee behind his shoulderblades. “Sit down.”

He feels too jittery to do so, but Prowl’s stare is not one to ignore. He respects Prowl too much to disobey.

Jazz sits.

“Now,” Prowl begins as he unlaces his fingers and cycles a ventilation. “Who told you?”

Jazz tries an easy smile. “Told me what?”

Prowl leans back and rubs a hand down his faceplate, looking more tired than Jazz has ever seen him, his field frazzled around the edges. “We have known each other too long for you to pretend with me, Jazz. Who told you the truth?”

Well then.

“I didn’t give them much of a choice,” Jazz admits, and slumps into his chair. He lifts a hand, taps his head. “Ya did good work, whoever it was, but ya can’t fool a spy. I knew somethin’ was up.”

“You aren’t angry?”

“At myself? Yeah.” Jazz hunches his shoulders, his gaze falling to the desktop. It is safer than meeting Prowl’s optics. “I can’t remember what I did. But Ratchet looks at me with fear. That’s all the answer I need.” He grips the seat of the chair, fingers curling around it.

“How long?”

“Only a couple weeks,” Jazz admits. He gnaws on his bottom lip. “I had a few moments of anger. I mean, what right did ya have ta take my memories from me? But then… I’m guessin’ I trampled over some rights, too.”

Prowl’s doorwings flicks. “That would be putting it lightly, Jazz. You tried to force Ratchet into a spark bond.” He pauses, cycling a long ventilation. “Frankly, you are lucky that you are back online at all.”

He shrinks into himself. “I know.”

Prowl pinches his nasal ridge. “Does Ratchet know?”

“No. I didn’t tell ‘im. I didn’t know if I should or not.”

“Then what are you going to do?” Prowl demands, his tone the sharpest Jazz has ever heard it. “Because if you think you are going to reclaim Ratchet, and start a new relationship with him–”

Jazz is shaking his head before Prowl can continue. “No. No, not at all. That’s not what I’m thinkin’. I just… wanna apologize or somthin’, I dunno.” He sighs and buries his face behind his hand. “I can’t remember what I did, Prowl. I can’t remember why. I’m just gettin’ told I did this terrible thing.”

The chair creaks as Prowl rises to his pedes, all but looming over Jazz despite the desk between them. “You understand that you cannot be with him,” he says, his tone soft, but his words carrying a hard edge.

Jazz’s fingers tighten on the chair, aching from the strain. “I know.” He looks up, forcing himself to meet Prowl’s gaze. “Will you tell him?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” Prowl’s doorwings settle against his back. He braces his weight on the desk, his gaze wandering away. “No, I will not.”

“Why?”

“Because right now, I need you both.” His head turns back toward Jazz, his optics suddenly like ice. “But know this, Jazz, if it comes down to it, I will side with Ratchet.”

Jazz swallows thickly. “You mean…?”

“Stay away from him,” Prowl says. “This is not an opportunity. This is not your chance. Leave him be.”

Jazz has never heard Prowl use this tone before. It is alarming.

“I know,” Jazz says, his voice oddly small. “I’ll keep my distance. He doesn’t need me in his life.”

“See that you do.” Prowl nods and then leans back, lowering himself back into his chair. “You may not remember what happened Jazz, but Ratchet does. I will not have you further harm him, do you understand?”

“Yes.”

What else can he say? What else can he do?

Jazz excuses himself, feeling the weight of Prowl’s judgment on his shoulders. But most of all, he feels the weight of his own shame.

~

Distance.

That’s all Prowl asked of him.

Jazz tells himself it’ll be easy. He’d been staying away on purpose, to keep the spark-pain down to a minimum. All he has to do is continue down the road.

Guilt gnaws at him.

The behavior of those around him makes sense. He can no longer tolerate the sympathy of the Autobots who have been fed a lie. He feels as though those who know the truth are watching him, tracking every move he makes. He can no longer disappear, become invisible.

Mirage and Bee watch him. They think he doesn’t notice, but he does. Jazz eyes the cameras with suspicion, wondering if Red Alert is monitoring him, too.

It crawls up and down his spinal strut like a zap of electricity. It makes him antsy, eager to get away. Every saboteur instinct crawls, tells him to flee.

Transfer is not an option, Prowl says. Jazz wonders if maybe he should go straight to Optimus instead. Surely they could use him on Cybertron. Or anywhere else.

This is too hard.

He destroys the mirrors in his quarters, and makes up a lie when Wheeljack catches him disposing of the broken glass. He can’t bear to look at himself. He certainly can’t bear to look at Ratchet.

Sideswipe and Sunstreaker lurk, everywhere he looks, always around Ratchet, when Wheeljack isn’t. Jazz tells himself he isn’t bothered, that he has no right to froth at the mouth, or linger with jealousy. He tells himself that he does not own Ratchet, he never did, and it’s not his choice to make.

It gets harder and harder to listen to reason. Ratchet had been his to hold, to cherish, to support. Jazz loved him, still does. He wants nothing more than to be with Ratchet again.

His own guilt claws at him. He watches Ratchet from a distance and longing mingles with shame.

He can’t continue this way. He has to tell Ratchet. He has to let him know, even if without the full truth.

Opportunity rises. Ratchet is in Wheeljack’s lab, a place not monitored by Red Alert because the cameras keep getting destroyed.

He’s alone.

Jazz watches Wheeljack leave, and then he steels himself. He promises, one last time, and he creeps into the laboratory.

His spark aches at the sight of his former lover. Ratchet is working on something, Jazz can’t identify what in the clutter of Wheeljack’s lab. But he’s standing a bit straighter. His shoulders are not as hunched as they had been.

“That was quick,” Ratchet says. Probably thinking Wheeljack is back.

“It’s me, Ratch,” Jazz says. It’s a miracle his voice doesn’t break.

Ratchet is there, so close, and Jazz doesn’t dare get any closer. Not yet. He hovers near the doorway, because he doesn’t know if he can stop himself from touching.

Ratchet turns slowly as though bracing himself. “Hello, Jazz,” he says, his tone mild, cautious.

“Wheeljack said ya were here. I hope ya don’t mind.” Jazz tries for a tentative smile, but he can’t seem to get his lipplates to cooperate.

“I…” Ratchet falters and then seems to gather himself. “How are you?”

Even in the middle of his own pain, Ratchet is focused outward. It is one of the many reasons Jazz fell in love with him.

“Better.” Jazz edges toward one of the tables, looking at one of the projects but definitely not touching. He’s learned not to put a finger near anything of Wheeljack’s. “My memories are still a bit glitched. Aid says there’s nothing he can do.”

Ratchet cycles a ventilation. “They probably won’t come back. Because–”

“–of the failed bond. Yeah. I know.” Jazz looks at Ratchet, careful to keep his face blank when presented by something he knows to be a lie. It’s for Ratchet’s sake. “What about you?”

Is he okay? Is he recovering? Has Jazz permanently harmed him? How much will he have to carry?

“The pain comes less and less,” Ratchet answers softly.

Jazz winces. It’s hard not to. Which pain, he wonders. The pain of betrayal? The pain in his spark?

He circles around the table, closer to Ratchet than he ought, but he needs to know. He needs to feel Ratchet’s field, the truth in it. And he can, but just barely. Ratchet is closed off to him.

“I never meant to hurt you,” Jazz says.

At least, as he currently is, he can’t fathom meaning to hurt Ratchet. His previous state of mind? Jazz doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what led him to do something so terrible.

“Sometimes, these things happen,” Ratchet replies, just as gentle. Soothing. As though Jazz is a patient, and Ratchet is trying to reassure.

Jazz shakes his head. “They shouldn’t have.” By Primus, they shouldn’t have. “I’m sorry, you know. Sorry ’bout us. Sorry ’bout hurting ya.”

Ratchet twitches as though intending to take a step back, but choosing instead to stay in place. “You don’t have to apologize. It’s not your fault.”

Oh, but it is.

“I’m still sorry.” He lurches forward, reaches for Ratchet, but Prowl’s warning lingers in the back of his mind, giving him pause. He closes his fingers into a fist and tucks his hand at his side, to cut down on the temptation. “We can still be friends, right?”

Can he have at least this much?

Ratchet’s glossa flicks over his lips. “I’m not sure when we stopped,” he says, voice littered with static.

And then there he is, he moves faster than Jazz can register, sweeping Jazz into a warm embrace that he never could have hoped for. His spark pulses a fast beat as he freezes. This is not distance. He told Prowl… he promised… but Ratchet.

But Ratchet…

It’s okay if Ratchet wants it, right?

He carefully, so carefully, raises his own arms, returning the embrace. He lets himself relax, just a little, soaking in Ratchet’s warmth, the feel of his field, the hum of his frame. He converts it all to memory, something to light his darker moments.

This will be the last time.

Jazz soaks in the moment for as long as he dares, and then he stirs, signaling to end the embrace. Relief and guilt tangle together.

“Thanks, Ratch,” he says. He knows he doesn’t deserve it.

“You needed it.” Ratchet pauses and amends with, “We needed it.” His lips twitch toward a smile, but don’t quite make it.

Jazz echoes the attempt. “Yeah, I guess we did,” he says and retreats a step. Wheeljack is going to be back soon, and he can’t be caught here. “I guess I’ll see you around then.”

“Always.”

He doesn’t flee, but it’s a near thing. Outside the door, however, Prowl waits for him. Jazz startles, optics widening behind his visor. He opens his mouth to speak, but Prowl holds up a hand, cutting him off.

“Come with me,” he says, his tone as frosty as the Arctic sea.

“Prowl, I–”

Now, Jazz.” That is very nearly a hiss, and Jazz leaps to obey, falling into step beside his best friend as they walk down the hall, away from Wheeljack’s laboratory.

Jazz gnaws on the inside of his cheek. Unease curls through his internals, though he refuses to let it show anywhere else.

“How did ya know I was there?” he finally asks, just to break the silence.

“Red Alert informed me.” Prowl moves at a rapid clip, though his steps are silent, and leading Jazz not toward his office, but the medbay of all places.

Jazz works his jaw. “Yer watchin’ me?”

Ice-blue optics briefly find him. “Yes. We had an agreement,” Prowl says, too soft for anyone else to hear.

“I had ta apologize!” Jazz insists, perhaps a bit too loudly, and he forces himself to quiet. “Even if he didn’t know what it was for. But that was it. The last time.”

Prowl’s doorwings flick. “I wish that I could believe you.”

They walk into the medbay where Hoist is on duty. He looks up at the door chime, but waves them on through at a single look from Prowl. Maybe he’d commed ahead of time. Jazz doesn’t know. A sense of unease continues to grow in his spark.

Prowl’s never been this cold to him. This is the chill he gives Sideswipe when he performs a vicious prank or when Gears’ complaining starts getting personal, or Optimus goes one another one of his self-sacrificing escapades, putting the entirety of the Autobots in danger. This is Prowl’s business temperature, and he’s never had to use it on Jazz before.

They go to a back room, a storage area, and the door locks and shuts behind them.

“Sit,” Prowl says and Jazz obeys before he can think twice about it, his aft plopping down into the only available chair.

Prowl opens a locked cabinet and withdraw a data crystal and a handheld viewer.

“What are you doing?” Jazz asks.

“Showing you the consequences of your actions.” Prowl inserts the data crystal into the viewer and hands it to Jazz. “Watch.”

Curiosity compels him. Jazz swallows thickly, drags his gaze to the viewer, and realizes that what is playing on the screen are memories. Not his, of course, because those had been deleted by Ratchet and further edited by Blaster and Sideswipe.

No. These are Ratchet’s memories.

Jazz’s gaze snaps up. “Prowl, I can’t–”

One finger taps the screen. “You will.”

His hands tremble around the viewer. Jazz forces his attention to return to the screen, where he sees himself, looking confused as Ratchet thrusts what appears to be a small transmitter at him. There’s no audio. It’s a purely visual feed, but that’s enough.

This, too, is edited. It rapidly cycles through moments, pockets of Ratchet’s memory.

Waking up to find Jazz in his berth, the experience colored by the shape of his emotions, pale blues for fear. Canary yellow unease. A sickly green nausea.

The emotions carry through Ratchet’s day to day life, as Jazz sees himself popping up everywhere, when Ratchet least expects it. When he sees Ratchet try to avoid to no avail. He can’t hide from a Spec Ops mech.

Then the day Ratchet comes home to find his private quarters empty of his most precious belongings. The angered stomp through the corridor, straight to what Jazz recognizes as his own door. Said door opening to see himself, happy then confused then… angry.

The memories dart forward, to a scene striped in panic, flashes of white surrounded by ocher. It glitches around the edges. Ratchet looks to his left and right, finds his arms bound, his limbs, horror painting everything in crimson as Jazz leans over him.

The image trembles.

No, Jazz’s hands are shaking and so is the viewer. He tightens his grip, so hard the metal shrieks alarmingly.

His mouth moves on the screen. Jazz can read lips. He knows what he’s saying.

You’re going to be mine, Ratch. Mine and no one else’s.

Jazz’s tank clenches.

Ratchet’s memory is a blinding cast of scarlet, blue fire around the edges. It darkens to despair when his chestplates open, the reflection of his spark light echoing on Jazz’s armor.

He shudders and shoves the viewer away, offlining his visor. “Enough,” Jazz says, cycling rapidly to keep the purge down.

“No.” Prowl taps the end of the viewer firmly. “Keep watching. All of it, Jazz.”

He shakes his helm. “Prowl, I can’t. I–”

Prowl’s finger forces the viewer closer, his frame looming over Jazz’s. “Ratchet did not have a choice in this matter. Why should you deserve one now, Jazz?” he demands, his vocals just shy of a hiss.

Jazz stares at him in disbelief. His visor is bright. His entire frame shakes. He knows that Prowl is right, but he doesn’t want to look down. He doesn’t want to see the rest.

His lips move, shaping a plea. “Prowl–”

“Watch. It.”

There is no mercy in Prowl’s stare. He’s furious, and only the quivering of his door wings betray his anger.

Jazz works his intake. He forces himself to look at the screen, his spark shrinking into a smaller ball. The memory had never stopped playing.

The onscreen images trembles. Ratchet is shaking, or his helm is. He’s tugging on the restraints, looking left and right. All the while, Jazz’s past self smiles down at him, fond and crazed.

Static glitches the recording.

Black-blue sorrow creeps in at the edges, seeping into the details. Regret streaks in jagged waves across the image, distorting Jazz’s past self’s face into shadows and valleys, cracks and scars, something monstrous and ugly.

Everything stills. A moment, frozen in time, black and white. Jazz is smiling, crooning words Jazz can’t make out.

Poison green and grey mists across the image. It floats in like a cloud of noxious vapor. The world begins again, and now, it’s agony. Now it’s regret and despair as Jazz howls on screen, and the rest is static black.

Jazz shakes so hard he feels his armor rattle. His tank squeezes, squeezes, and only sheer force of will keeps the purge down. He feels it burn the back of his intake.

The datapad clatters to the floor. He covers his mouth with his hands. Stares in horror at the cracked screen as the memory starts to play again.

A shadow falls over the recording. Prowl crouches and picks up the viewer. He flicks it off with a single finger, and it vanishes into his subspace.

Primus forgive them, for they know not what they do,” Prowl says as he stands, his field gone, his posture tense. “I do not think that applies to you anymore.”

Jazz bows his head. “I get your point,” he mutters from behind his palm.

“Do you?” Prowl is so still, he might as well be carved out of stone.

Jazz can feel the steel heat of Prowl’s glare on the top of his head. He works his intake. His mouth is dry. His spark aches.

“Yeah. Ya don’t even gotta say it.” The memory replays in the back of his mind, crystal clear despite being distorted. “I’ll keep my distance.”

“Will you? Because what I saw in Wheeljack’s lab was not distance,” Prowl says tightly.

Jazz tangles his trembling fingers together.

He knows Prowl’s right. He also knows he’s wrong. He also knows that there’s something seriously fragged up inside of him, but he’s beyond fixing.

He still wants Ratchet. He still needs Ratchet. He craves to be near him again. He craves the solace of Ratchet’s presence.

“I miss him,” Jazz admits.

“That does not answer my question.”

His fingers tangle so tightly that they ache. “I don’t know what to do,” he finally whispers.

Prowl drops to a knee in front of him, the fury gone from his field, but his expression one of disapproval. “I understand, Jazz. The war, it’s ruined us all. But I will not allow you to harm Ratchet further.”

His head snaps up, alarm brightening his visor. “I don’t–”

“I know.” Prowl cuts him off, but he’s more gentle this time. “I will not take that risk. So you tell me now, and you had better be honest. Can I trust you to leave Ratchet alone?”

Jazz gnaws on his bottom lip, hard enough to taste energon. “Yeah.” His voice crackles; it’s the hardest thing he’s had to say. “But, y’know, if ya want to watch me, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”

Any time he even contemplates contacting Ratchet, he need only remember the horror-terror-despair that had colored Ratchet’s vision, and the look of madness in his own visor.

Jazz cycles a heavy ventilation. He rubs the back of his neck. “And then, I dunno, when the war’s over, I can go away somewhere. For both of our sakes.”

Prowl rests a hand on Jazz’s knee, his field enclosed, but what he does allow is sympathy. “We’ll cross that bridge when the time comes. For now, I will trust you.”

“Trust but verify,” Jazz says with a twitch of his lips. It’s the closest he’s come to smiling in weeks.

“Indeed.” Prowl pushes back to his pedes, standing over Jazz. “For now, I do believe there is a mission that requires your absence for the better part of two weeks.”

Jazz cycles his visor. “Mission…? I don’t remember–” He cuts himself off at Prowl’s long, flat look.

Oh.

Jazz grips the back of his neck. “Yeah. Yer right.” He ducks his head and cycles a long ventilation. “I should probably take care of that.”

“See that you do.”

Prowl leaves, and Jazz is alone.

Alone except for the memories playing actively in the back of his processor. He feels sick. He feels damaged.

He feels shame. The weight of disgrace. He can’t come back from that.

He doesn’t know if he deserves to do so.

Jazz clasps his hands and offlines his visor.

Prowl is right to watch him. He’s not sure he deserves Prowl’s trust. He ought to leave and never come back, but Prowl is right. For now, Jazz is needed.

He will take the two weeks. Perhaps longer. But he will return. He will do his duties. He will keep his distance. He will prove Prowl’s trust.

Or he will let Prowl end him.

Whichever comes first.

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