Ratchet knew before everyone else and said nothing. He hadn’t felt his spark stir in vorns, and so the first time it gave a small flutter, Ratchet knew why.
He offlined his optics, palmed his chestplate. He wasn’t ready. A thousand more years could pass, and he still wouldn’t be ready.
Ratchet waited for the basewide comm to sound. He’d known for days, an ever-growing awareness that had strengthened with time. He had told no one. He hoped to prepare himself on his own and failed.
The announcement came. A new arrival. Singular. Ratchet didn’t have to read the ident code to know who it was.
He looked around his makeshift medbay, his sanctuary.
He wasn’t ready.
The ache in his spark claimed otherwise.
Footsteps on concrete alerted him that he was not alone. Ratchet knew he was being watched. Optics had been on him from the moment he volunteered to join the quest for the Allspark and hadn’t taken no for an answer.
“Estimated time of arrival?” he asked, hands busily doing nothing as they roamed the contents of his work station.
“Twelve hours.” Too soon and not fast enough.
Ratchet nodded and distracted himself with repairing a solar array. “Reinforcements will be nice. I can’t trust the Decepticons won’t become a nuisance.”
They had won, yes. But they had won before. Megatron might be offline, but his allies were not. There would always be danger, another battle to fight.
“Prime wants you there. In case of… complications.”
Ratchet scoffed. “My presence will cause one. I’m staying here.”
His screwdriver hit the table. “No, Ironhide. Just… no.” He cycled a ventilation, trying to calm the rapid flurry of thought and emotion.
His spark yearned, reaching for both the empty connection and the atrophied one. It ached, a wound millennia old, but suddenly as fresh as though it had been dealt yesterday.
Ironhide moved closer, their field edges brushing together in a manner that had almost become comforting over the millennia. “You still love him.”
He gritted his denta and looked away from Ironhide. “I have work to do.”
Ironhide slid in front of him, forcing Ratchet to meet his gaze. “Haven’t you punished yourselves enough?”
Ratchet folded his arms and shuttered his optics. It was better, he thought, to go silent. Because it had never been that simple. It was not about forgiveness. And love had never been enough.
“Unless I am required to be there, I will remain here,” Ratchet bit out. “You can’t force this, Ironhide.”
A beat. Silence.
Ironhide sighed, a whuff of ventilation that he’d acquired from Lennox. “Whatever you say, Ratch. I’m just looking out for an old friend. All three of them.”
Ratchet’s sensors tracked Ironhide’s departure, and his field withdrew from the comfort Ironhide had offered. All that remained was the pain, an ache that hadn’t eased with time.
He shuddered and resisted the urge to destroy all of his hard work. It would only be counter-productive.
Sideswipe didn’t need Optimus’ message to guide him. There was a pull on his spark, one he hadn’t felt in vorns, that lead the way. It helped him find the planet from across the universe, and told him where to arrive.
When he landed, there were six Autobots to greet him. Not a one of them was Ratchet.
Sideswipe knew he wasn’t dead. He could feel the faint, strained pull of their bond.
But Ratchet hadn’t come.
Sideswipe faked a smile to the others, accepted their welcome. He expressed sympathy and shared their pain when they told him of Jazz’s death, but inside, he was relieved.
He thought, in a way, it was fitting. Jazz had only been living for Prime and the Autobots. He had been in so much pain. The other half of his spark had been taken from him long before the Allspark mission.
The war had taken something from them all.
Sideswipe was not the mech he used to be. Not even before Sunstreaker. They couldn’t none of them be the same.
Optimus’ hand on his shoulder attempted to encourage, as did his murmured aside.
“Ratchet’s in the medbay.”
Sideswipe shook his helm, gesturing to his chassis. “I’m not damaged.” At least, nothing that self-repair couldn’t handle.
“It’s standard protocol.” Optimus’ field was heavy with grief, with fatigue. The war had stripped much from him as well. “He’ll want to see for himself.”
Sideswipe’s smile was a broken shell. “I doubt that. I’m still alive.”
Disappointment rang through the Prime’s field before he drew away, his optics shielding his inner turmoil. “It wasn’t a suggestion.”
At least he could hide behind the command. When Ratchet bristled, Sideswipe could point in Optimus’ direction. For now, he swallowed a sigh.
“That is a horrible color.”
Ratchet stiffened, his ventilations stalling. He had to pause before he could turn around, his spark suddenly come to life within the confines of his chamber. A yawing need loomed and it was all he could do not to turn and sprint across the medbay.
He had more respect for himself than that.
“It serves its purpose,” Ratchet said, words sharper than he meant but too late to retrieve them.
Thousands of years and there was a chasm between them. Sideswipe was as beautiful as Ratchet remembered. Different, of course, because how could he not be? Thousands of years of mystery.
But that didn’t mean Ratchet ever stopped wanting him.
“If you say so.” Sideswipe kept his distance, but his gaze was curious as he looked around. “The natives are stingy. I remember your free clinic being less shabby.”
“We make do.” Ratchet shifted his weight, echoes of Sunstreaker even stronger in Sideswipe now. It was as if he’d taken the memory of his brother and incorporated it into a re-frame. And maybe he had.
By Primus, it hurt.
Sideswipe made a noncommittal noise, pausing to examine one of the many tools Ratchet had made by hand. “I guess you’ll be wanting to update my file.”
Ratchet worked his intake. “Sides–”
“It’s been millennia,” Sideswipe said, before Ratchet could manage to produce words. His expression was distant, as though he’d gone elsewhere in his mind. “Centuries since I’ve been the lone survivor of my squad. I spent a lot of time imagining this moment. Wondering what I’d say when – if – I ever saw you again. I’ve rehearsed this more times than I can count, but I still…”
He trailed off, physically shaking his helm and rebooting his optics. “I never thought I’d actually make it here.”
Silver plating clamped so tightly he must be overheating. His field was withdrawn, gray if it had a color. He was hurting, Ratchet knew, because the same pain was harsh and raw within himself.
“We’re a small unit,” Ratchet said, a tightness in his internals, one that had no relief. “But we need only interact as much as business dictates.”
Sideswipe barked a bitter laugh. “You’re that happy to see me, I guess.”
Ratchet gripped the edge of the table behind him. “You’re alive,” he said. “And I’m…” It was his turn to trail off, to work his intake as he groped for words. “I’m not certain I know how to be. I…”
He’d learned many things.
How to recharge alone. How long he could function without refueling. How to lock away memories and ignore the pain in his spark.
But he still hadn’t learned the answers. He still didn’t know how to repair this.
He didn’t know how to live without Sunstreaker. He didn’t know how to be Ratchet and Sideswipe. He barely knew how to be himself.
A hand covered his, and Ratchet startled, almost jerking away. The touch of Sideswipe’s field was as alien to him as Sideswipe’s presence.
“I’ve died so many times,” Sideswipe said, his words thick with static. “Sunstreaker wouldn’t let me stay.”
“Don’t.” Ratchet pulled away, pain like acid in his lines. “Don’t, Sides. I can’t.”
“I’m sorry.” His field hummed against Ratchet’s before it withdrew without any indication of what it meant. Sideswipe bowed his helm. “It should’ve been me.”
Ratchet’s optics widened, horror striking him like a bolt of lightning. “You think it would be better if you had?”
“Tell me I lie!” His shout echoed in the medbay.
“You pitslagging aft!” Ratchet whirled on him, slamming his palm against Sideswipe’s shoulder, forcing him back a step. “I loved you both. I bonded you both. Together and separate. You or him? There’s no choice. If anyone, it should’ve been me. Then you could’ve had each other.”
Sideswipe tilted his helm, meeting Ratchet’s gaze. “Because we didn’t, did we? We didn’t have each other’s backs.”
Ratchet’s vents heaved. “No,” he gritted out, a painful admission. “We didn’t.”
Silence swelled with the weight of battle-expectation. They stared at each other, pain the only vibration they shared.
Sideswipe blinked in that he was the one who turned to leave, his plating a slick line that screamed of defensive protocols.
It was the past all over again.
Ratchet’s hands curled into fists. He’d desperate. What did he have to lose?
“Can’t we…” He started to speak and then faltered.
It’s enough that Sideswipe paused. He didn’t turn, didn’t acknowledge Ratchet’s mutter, but he wasn’t leaving.
Ratchet cycled a ventilation and offlined his optics. He thought of Jazz, ghosting through existence, waiting until the moment he could finally join Bluestreak.
He didn’t want that for Sideswipe or himself.
“Can’t we start over?” Ratchet ventured.
Sideswipe said nothing, but didn’t leave either. And the thinnest, most opaque thread of hope dared linger.
“We can’t go back. That past was gone. We can never be what we were but maybe… maybe…” He let the words fall away.
“Maybe we could accept what we are,” Sideswipe finished for him.
A sense of triumph overcame him.
Ratchet nodded. “I still love you,” he admitted. “I never stopped.”
Sideswipe shuddered a ventilation. “Neither did I,” he said and this time, he did leave.
It wasn’t, precisely, an answer. But it was better than silence. It was better than the raw ache of loss lingering between them.
It might be a start.
Ratchet slumped, fatigued to his struts. He found he was shaking, but couldn’t seem to stop. One hand lifted, rubbing at the seam of his chestplate, feeling the off-rhythm beat of his spark through his dermal layer.
He wondered if he dared hope they could have a start.
Of all planetside mechs, Ironhide was not the one Sideswipe expected to come find him. Maybe it had something to do with the fact he was wreaking havoc on Ironhide’s favorite and only gun range.
But without any Decepticons to kill, Sideswipe had to settle for this.
“What did those targets do to slag ya off?”
Sideswipe fired another round, the rapport echoing through the range. “We can get more.”
“Not the point, Sides.” He heard the creaking of old hydraulics as Ironhide lowered himself to a perch on a nearby crate.
Sideswipe lowered his blasters to inspect them and debated giving them over to Ironhide for the best clean-up a weapon could get. “I know you didn’t come for a friendly chat. You came to talk about Ratchet.”
“He’s stubborn. I figure I’ll have more luck with you.”
Sideswipe barked a laugh. “And what is it you think you can convince me to do? Or say?”
“Nothing.” Ironhide spread his hands as Sideswipe turned to look at him. “Call it curiosity. Millennia of separation and you’d still prefer to be apart.”
“Preference has nothing to do with it.” Sideswipe sighed and approached the weapons specialist, offering him the double blasters. “There is no easy solution.”
Ironhide took them with a grin, already eying the modified weapons. “Maybe you don’t need a solution. Maybe you need to start over.”
Sideswipe shifted his weight. “Ratchet suggested that, too.”
He looked away, toward the ramshackle base they called home. “I’ve already betrayed Sunny once. I can’t do it again.”
“No one’s saying you have to forget Sunstreaker to make it work with Ratchet.”
“No. But it feels that way.” He reached for his blasters, but Ironhide wrapped fingers around his wrists instead, encouraging their gazes to meet.
“Loving Ratchet is not separate from loving Sunstreaker,” Ironhide said, his vocals taking on a grieving note. “And I know he’d hate to see you like this. Both of you.”
Sideswipe hunched his shoulders. Sunstreaker’s silence in his spark had never been easy to accept. Not even the loss of the ghostly echoes. From the moment he and Ratchet went their separate ways, it became that much harder to hold on to Sunstreaker.
It wasn’t fair, he thought. It wasn’t fair at all.
“Prime thinks Earth was going to be a bit more than temporary,” Hide continued, letting Sideswipe go and focusing his attention on the blasters. “That it’s as good a place as any to start over while we think about saving Cybertron. The war’s over, Sides.” He adjusted something with a satisfied grunt and then returned Sideswipe’s blasters. “Think about it.”
Ironhide rose with a creak of old hydraulics, his hand briefly resting on Sideswipe’s shoulder. “You couldn’t hate each other any more than you hate yourselves.”
Ironhide left him with the smoky remains of targets and battle-drones, his words echoing in Sideswipe’s audials.
He had three more hours until the need for recharge reached a critical level. And then he had another two hours until his emergency systems forced a shut down.
Ratchet eyed Bumblebee’s reconstructed vocalizer and figured that it was just enough time for him to finish the major repairs. The tiny, minute welds would have to wait until after his enforced recharge, but maybe, within a couple days, Bee could talk again.
He hunched over the table, tools in hand, and started to work. He ignored the ache in his backstrut; my but he missed furniture. His hands were shaking, but that was an easy fix. How many different overrides had he learned to use over the centuries?
Ratchet only half paid attention to the timer in the corner of his HUD. He knew precisely how long he had.
And he knew that Prime would ping him long before Ratchet actually submitted to recharge. He also knew that he would ignore Optimus.
What did the humans say about pots and kettles? Because Ratchet could count the gears in one hand for how many times Optimus had gotten an optimal amount of recharge. And that included how long it’d been since the war began. Eons upon eons.
I’m proud of you.
Ratchet went still, even his ventilations pausing. He offlined his optics, bowed his helm, and put down his tools.
“It wasn’t enough,” Ratchet murmured, to himself and not the ghost on the edge of his awareness, the ghost that had been silent for so long that Ratchet almost hated himself for regretting his return.
I’m glad you have each other.
Ratchet had nothing to say. On the edge of his awareness, a warning about necessary shutdown hovered, flashing at him in bright orange. He could feel the static discharge of fritzing circuits.
There was a ghost of something across his haptic net. A chill danced up his backstrut. Ratchet shivered.
When are you going to forgive yourself? It whispered through his audials.
Ratchet’s hands clenched into fists.
Obviously, he needed more recharge than he thought.
He logged himself off-duty, turned off all unnecessary equipment, and headed for the warehouse he’d claimed as his own. It was barely more than a shed, but it was a measure of privacy, even if he did sleep atop crates of supplies.
He lagged. Several systems pinged back errors. His sensors reported conflicting truths. He staggered, caught himself, tried to reboot his equilibrium gyros, but they didn’t respond.
And then he rebooted his optics because Sideswipe waited for him outside his pseudo-door.
Great. Now Ratchet was hallucinating both twins.
“You’re late,” Sideswipe said, his vocals sounding real. “But from what I hear, that’s not uncommon.”
Ratchet paused, the space between them measured in miles, and gestured all around them. “You see our conditions. I have a lot of work to do.”
Sideswipe inclined his helm and cycled a ventilation. “Right.” He shifted his weight, but then pulled a cube from an arm compartment. “Bee said you’d need this.”
“And you volunteered to bring it?”
“I needed the excuse.”
Ratchet’s optics were having trouble focusing. He didn’t understand. He groped for words, emerging with static.
“I…” He swayed on his pedes and grabbed the wall to keep from falling.
There was a sound, something shrieking on the edge of his awareness.
In the streetlight, silver turned to gold. Helm vents framed a perfectly sculpted face, one stricken with grief and concern.
Ratchet choked on a ventilation, heat creeping through his internals. So close, he thought. He could reach out and touch him. Save him. Fix everything.
The vision blurred.
The world tilted.
His spark stopped.
Ratchet dropped as though something shot through his spark except there was no discharge, no proof of violence. The light went out from his optics. He hit the ground with a raucous clatter that Sideswipe was too slow to prevent.
He shouted for help on all channels, not caring who heard so long as someone came. Because when their only medic collapsed, what were they supposed to do?
Sideswipe crossed the ground in a blur, sliding to his knees beside his fallen bondmate. His field scans begged for a spark pulse. He could do that much. His hands skittered over Ratchet’s frame, helpless and unsure.
He cupped Ratchet’s face, so familiar to him, spars and all. Still a hideous color, but the core of it remained the same. He’d imagined words so many times. He’d practiced speeches. But this moment, right here? Never.
For all that he thought the war would destroy them, he never expected it.
His plating grew colder. The minute sounds of life, the tiny clicks and whirrs of gears and hydraulics and pumps, started to slow.
No. Please, don’t leave me.
For the second time in his life, Sideswipe was afraid.
And then there was shouting. Running.
Prime arrived, a tidal wave of dizzying concern.
Ironhide was behind him, cursing about stubborn old medics.
Bumblebee skidded to a halt, clutching two scared organics.
And there was Sunstreaker behind Ironhide’s shoulder, plating pitted and scorched, helm dented, energon caking his frame. But his optics were bright. His lips were moving and Sideswipe couldn’t hear him at all.
Ironhide moved, blocked out the sight, and then Sunstreaker was gone and Sideswipe hiccuped a sob.
He couldn’t lose Ratchet, too. He couldn’t do this again. He couldn’t be this again.
Words trickled through.
“Damn it, Sideswipe!”
A hand on his shoulder and Sideswipe reacted, smacking it away, defense protocols springing to life. But Ironhide was faster and older still. He had Sideswipe pinned before he could do any damage, his vents huffing against the dirt, his helm turned toward Ratchet in entreaty.
“He’s alive,” Ironhide said, growled into his audials. “It’s just a forced recharge. He went too long without – again – and glitched.”
Sideswipe worked his intake. “Alive?”
Ironhide let him up and planted his hand on Ratchet’s chestplate, where beneath his haptic sensor he could feel the heat and thrum of Ratchet’s spark. Now that he paid attention, he could even feel it across their strained bond.
Relief made him stagger. “Ironhide, I…”
“You’re both idiots,” the old mech grumped. “Come on, bratling. You need rest, too.”
Sideswipe’s shoulders slumped. “Yes, sir.”
He obeyed. What else could he do?
He was first aware of warmth, of systems that reported back to him cheerful updates of a fully-fueled and functioning frame. He’d been in recharge for an Earth day, a long day for him. Ratchet knew he didn’t need quite that much to function.
He wasn’t used to waking up warm either. Why would a metallic mechanism need blankets? He ex-vented enough heat to keep him more than warm.
He onlined his optics, pressure sensors registering weight. Scanners detecting the presence of another. He expected Optimus, sitting by his berth with that same look of understanding and disappointment. Especially since he’d promised his Prime he wouldn’t let himself glitch again.
Well, none of them could have expected Sideswipe’s return.
The field nudging gently against his was not Optimus’, but Sideswipe’s, recognizable only because it was unfamiliar. That and a blur of silver focused in front of Ratchet’s optics.
The voice in his helm was silent. He couldn’t decide if that was a mercy.
Sideswipe faced him, an achingly familiar position. Ratchet felt he could offline his optics, concentrate, and maybe remember the sensation of Sunstreaker at his back, warm and welcome and always guarding their rest.
His spark ached.
Ratchet quietly performed a systems check. A message waited on his personal comm. Two of them actually, one from Ironhide blessing him out for letting himself fall into another glitch. The other from Prime, letting him know that he was off-shift today, no exceptions. He was to rest and recover. Implicit in the order was to take the opportunity to fix things.
He nudged their bond, something he hadn’t touched since… since Sunstreaker. It lashed back with pain and betrayal, but it opened to him as well. It was enough to stir Sideswipe from recharge, for the soft signs of onlining to spill into Ratchet’s berth.
He braced himself.
Sideswipe’s optics dimmed before brightening and focusing. His ventilations quickened, but he didn’t jerk away.
Ratchet didn’t wait. He had to speak before he lost what little courage he had left. They couldn’t keep on like this. Something had to give.
It was impossible to fix what was broken. Sometimes, it was better to give up before they failed again.
Ratchet didn’t know if he could live through another failure.
“We could break the bond,” he said, the words grating out of his vocalizer as though it’d been damaged.
It was an option that’d always been present, but Ratchet had never considered. But there was no point in continuing if they couldn’t work through this, if they couldn’t be together, if they couldn’t function without Sunstreaker beside them. What use was there in prolonging the agony?
Sideswipe flinched as though he’d been struck. His mouth opened, but it took several seconds for words to emerge. “That’s what you want?”
“It is the furthest thing from what I want,” Ratchet snarled, his frame fraught with anxiety. “But it might be all we can do. I’m out of options, Sideswipe. I don’t have answers. I love you, but frag it…” He huffed a ventilation and rolled over, away from Sideswipe and off the berth. Sideswipe’s proximity dizzied him. He couldn’t think straight.
His knees wobbled as he stood. One hand braced his weight against the edge of the berth.
“Jazz is dead,” Ratchet said, his plating clamping down, the grief still too sharp and present. “And Prime’s calling him a hero because he took on Megatron alone, to buy Prime some time, but we all know that Jazz did it for himself as much as he did it to protect people. We all knew he’d been waiting for the right time to die. And I don’t want that. I don’t want to end up like that.”
He lifted his helm. In the dim lighting of his den, the shadows took shape. In the corner of the room, he swore he saw Sunstreaker. Silent this time, but standing there. Judging him. He was in perfect shape; he always was when Ratchet imagined him.
He was perfect. Undamaged. He was what he would be if Ratchet’s hand had been faster. If that blaster shot had been a few millimeters to the left.
He shuddered a ventilation. “I can’t do this alone. I can’t do it without you. It has to end, one way or another.”
The makeshift berth creaked as Sideswipe shifted. “I don’t know how to start over,” he admitted, and his vocals were as raw as Ratchet’s own. “But when you collapsed… I don’t want to break the bond. It’s all we have left of him.”
Ratchet bowed his helm. “And what do we have of each other?”
“I don’t know.” Sideswipe slid off the berth, circled around Ratchet until he stood in front of him, field for once quiet rather than chaotic. “Maybe that’s where starting over comes in.” He lifted a hand, hesitated, but then placed it on Ratchet’s chestplate. “I should have been watching his back.”
“And I should have saved him.”
Sideswipe nodded slowly. “It’s both of our faults,” he said and then he cycled a ventilation. “It was neither of our faults.”
Ratchet wanted to believe it. He didn’t know if he could.
“We won’t break the bond,” he agreed, his vocals tight and aching. “And we’ll… try.”
Try. It was the best he could offer. The best he could do. For the specter behind Sideswipe’s shoulder, whole and hale, shining like new.
“All right,” Sideswipe said, a ripple of unease in his field, but his expression full of painful hope.
The distance between them still felt too wide to measure.
Ratchet feigned exhaustion.
Sideswipe pretended to believe him. Well, the exhaustion was real. Prime wouldn’t have given him the rest of the day off if Ratchet hadn’t been working beyond his capability already.
But Ratchet would have never used fatigue as an excuse before. He clung to it now. Just like Sideswipe clung to the idea of a duty shift, even though he didn’t have anything more important to do than spar with Bee or Ironhide.
Unease lingered in his struts, his lines, his spark.
Start over. Try again. Sideswipe didn’t know how he was supposed to do that. He didn’t have any answers.
He wanted to go back to Ratchet’s warehouse, curl up beside his mate, with the shadow of Sunstreaker watching over them.
He wanted to run the other direction and never look back, because he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t look at Ratchet and see the afterimage of the love they’d lost.
He never wanted to see Ratchet collapse again.
Sideswipe sought solitude. It was hard to find on this base, here on this island in the middle of a giant sea of hydrogen dioxide. The coast was one of gritty sand, easily slipping through the meager guard of his open plating and into his gears and lines.
He sat down anyway.
He left Sunstreaker’s shadow with Ratchet. Or maybe Sunstreaker decided where he wanted to go. Or maybe, more likely, Sunstreaker didn’t exist at all, and his appearance was a manifestation of Sideswipe’s own guilt.
He heard the crunch of pedesteps on sand behind him. Sideswipe didn’t turn to look, already guessing who it would be.
“Shouldn’t ya be snugglin’ with Ratch about now?”
“He needs his rest,” Sideswipe replied. He patted the sand next to him, trying not to grimace as pieces of grit trickled into his gears.
Sunstreaker would have hated it here.
“I ain’t sittin’ in that crap. Are ya tryin’ to slag Ratchet off?”
“Now there’s a thought.” Sideswipe offered a half-sparked chuckle and peered up at the massive weapons master. “You here to give me some advice again?”
“Don’t know that there’s anything I can say to either of ya that I ain’t already said,” Ironhide grumbled, but he lowered himself to a crouch, not quite sitting, but not looming either. “What’s goin’ on, Sides?”
He cycled a ventilation and returned his stare to the ocean. There, in the distance, farther than the human eye could see, was a fishing trawler. “How do you start over?”
“Depends on what I need ta hit the reset button for.” Ironhide rocked forward on his pedes, but his gaze followed the same direction as Sideswipe’s. “Slow and careful would be my guess. Without assumption. Pretendin’ like there weren’t nothin’ before.”
Sideswipe frowned. “I can’t pretend Sunstreaker was never a part of us.”
His frown deepened as Sideswipe reached up and rubbed at his helm. Ironhide had flicked him of all things.
“I didn’t say forget about Sunny,” Ironhide huffed with a roll of his optics that he was far too ancient for. “But you and Ratchet, ya can start over, pretend like ya don’t know each other, because really ya don’t anymore. Right?”
“Right,” Sideswipe echoed, not that he could seem to make himself believe it.
“It ain’t gonna happen right away,” Ironhide continued as he nudged Sideswipe with his shoulder, nearly sending Sideswipe sideways into the sand. “But that’s where hard work and patience comes in. Now, I know neither of ya are any good at the last bit, but if this is what ya want, ya gotta try. Understand?”
Sideswipe rubbed at his shoulder, where a streak of black paint now marred the silver. Sunstreaker would have pitched a fit, calling Ironhide all sorts of unkind words.
“Patience,” Sideswipe echoed. “I’ll try and remember that, Hide.”
The old mech pushed to his pedes, ancient gears and hydraulics making a cacophony of noise, which had to be on purpose. Ironhide could be quiet when he wanted to be. He’d been known to sneak up on Jazz once or twice.
“Just so ya know, I’m rootin’ for both of ya,” Ironhide said. “And if ya ever need someone to talk to, or holler at, even about that stubborn old mech, ya can come to me. Get me?”
Sideswipe nodded and tilted his helm, directing a smile at his former instructor. “I do. Thanks, Hide.”
“Yer welcome, kid.”
He watched Ironhide leave, occasionally shaking his pedes to dislodge some bits of driftwood. Maybe Ironhide was right. Maybe that was the way to do things.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Sideswipe returned his gaze to the ocean, a fishing trawler tossing on the waves in the distance, and tried to ignore the looming presence at his back. The ghost-like warmth of a mech who no longer lived, and the judgment Sunstreaker seemed intent on passing.
It wasn’t that easy.
Please, Sunstreaker whispered. Please try.
He didn’t know who would to be the first to show up, but he should have known it was going to be Optimus.
Ironhide would have been more likely to drag Ratchet by an ankle strut, out of the berth and into Sideswipe’s arms. Or the other way around. Optimus was a tad more diplomatic about it.
“You are alone,” Optimus pointed out, ever the master of observation.
Ratchet refused to roll over and acknowledge his leader. He was older than Optimus. He had the right to be petulant if he wanted.
“You can’t force a rusted wheel to turn, Optimus.”
“No,” Optimus agreed and he sat on the edge of the berth, the heat of his armor and the gentle press of his field almost enough to soothe. “But you can clean it, oil it, and give it a second chance.”
Ratchet snorted. He offlined his optics. His armor clamped down tighter. “You can disguise a rusty wheel all you want, but in the end, it’s still old. It’s going to fail eventually.”
“Ratchet, I do believe you are being unreasonably stubborn about this,” Optimus replied, though it was with the air of someone who had infinite patience. “Why do you deny yourself the comfort of your loved one?”
He had an answer for that.
Ratchet did not want to admit it.
He opted for silence.
Optimus’ field leaned on him a bit harder. “Have you not suffered long enough?” he asked and then paused, his field rippling as though with sudden comprehension. “Or is that the issue? Do you feel you need to suffer more?”
“I don’t know what makes you think I want you to come in here and give me advice I don’t need,” Ratchet huffed, his plating clamping down so tightly he’d soon receive overheat warnings if he wasn’t careful.
Optimus leaned back, enough that their backplates came into gentle contact, and Ratchet could feel the steady rumbling of the Prime’s massive engine. “Would you like me to send him away?”
“Of course not. Aside from the fact he has nowhere else to go, it would be pointless.” Ratchet pushed himself upright, legs draping over the edge of the berth, his backplate still pressed to Optimus’. “We agreed to try again, you nosy fragger. So there. Problem solved.”
“Solved,” Optimus repeated. His field rippled against Ratchet’s, still offering comfort. “And yet, you are here alone.”
Ratchet offlined his optics again and bowed his helm. “Things are never as easy as we want them to be.”
“Especially when you wish to make them as difficult as possible.” Optimus cycled a ventilation. “I understand loss, Ratchet. I understand that you never fully recover, that the echo of it stays with you.”
Optimus shifted and Ratchet heard a low thunk, as though he had tapped his chestplate. Yes, Optimus did understand loss, perhaps better than if not equal to Ratchet, though he could sympathize with Sideswipe even more.
“The solution is not to draw away, but reach for the hands reaching back,” Optimus said and Ratchet could tell that he’s gearing himself up for an Inspirational Speech, and as much Ratchet adored his Prime, he didn’t want a speech right now.
“That’s assuming the hands are reaching in the first place,” Ratchet grumbled, and his field flexed against Optimus’ with a cautionary tale. “I know what you’re trying to say, Optimus. It’s just never as simple as you make it out to be.”
“Nothing worth having ever is.” Optimus eased away from Ratchet and rose to his pedes. Ratchet immediately missed the warmth of his frame.
He’d forgotten what it felt like to not be alone. He’d woken up next to Sideswipe, and had immediately been reminded what it was like to have someone to lean on. He missed it. He craved it as much as he craved having Sunstreaker back with them.
“You have punished yourself long enough, old friend,” Optimus said gravely, his field one of comfort and apology. “I wish only for your happiness, and it pains me to see you deny it.”
Ratchet sighed. “I’ll try. We’ll try. But I can’t promise anything.”
“That is the most I could ask for. Rest well, my friend.”
Optimus left. The silence of Ratchet’s private quarters became too heavy and overbearing. He immediately missed the sounds of another mech. The sounds and the warmth.
You’re so stubborn.
Ratchet bowed his helm.
They moved on.
It was really all they could do.
They moved on, not together, not with each other, but circling their peripheries. Sideswipe didn’t know how to cross the line, and neither did Ratchet. So they just… didn’t.
He wondered who was more exasperated of the two, Optimus or Ironhide. Bumblebee tried to form a bridge, to be a happy, dancing buffer. But he had duties that kept him off base more often than not.
They talked sometimes. Usually after Ironhide sent Sideswipe to the medbay for some reason or another.
But it was hard to bridge that gap. Sideswipe didn’t know what to say, how to start over. It still felt too much like trying to forget Sunstreaker, and that he couldn’t do.
They recharged in separate berths.
Sideswipe thought he’d gotten used to the cold over the centuries of being alone. But with Ratchet being so close, his field and his spark knowing the medic was near… the berth felt colder than ever. He onlined from recharge abruptly, memories and purges mixing into a tangled morass. It was as though Sunstreaker was haunting him, calling him a fool.
And maybe he was.
“Talk to him,” Ironhide insisted.
“I am,” Sideswipe retorted.
“Not with the words that matter, ya dumbaft,” Ironhide retorted and then he dragged Sideswipe to the target range and told him to practice, practice, practice.
It wasn’t quite punishment, but maybe it made Ironhide feel better, helped him work out his own frustrations.
Optimus tried to talk to him, too. They had similar experiences, but still vastly different. Sideswipe shook his helm and offered his Prime a wry grin.
“I see where you’re coming from, Prime,” he said. “But in the end, your brother started a war. And I failed to protect mine.”
Optimus rested a hand on Sideswipe’s shoulder and gave him a grave look. “I failed as well. Because if I had protected Megatron, perhaps we would have never found ourselves down this path.” His optics were dim, a wealth of sadness.
Something in those words struck a chord with Sideswipe, though he couldn’t put a finger on why.
“Do not make the same mistakes I did, Sideswipe,” Optimus said with a pat to Sideswipe’s shoulder, before he withdrew his hand and his field. “And don’t deny yourself a future because you refuse to leave the past.”
Sideswipe cycled a ventilation. “Yes, sir. I’ll… keep that in mind.”
The words stayed with him.
Or maybe it was the influence of the cold chill at his back, the brush of ghostly fingers at his side, the whispers echoing in his audials.
I’m still here. I’ll always be here.
Fatigue crawled over and through his circuits. His backstrut ached. His reminder alarm had been pinging him for ten minutes about the need for a break and some energon. He was under strict orders not to overwork himself.
Ratchet sighed and put down the soldering iron, rubbing a hand down his faceplate. His recharge was haunted and fruitless, his berth too large and cold.
Sideswipe was within reach and too far away. Maybe, there were some chasms to large to cross.
A low chime echoed behind him – someone entering the medbay. “I’ll be there in a minute,” Ratchet said as he cycled several ventilations. He’d deal with this and then he’d take his break, that way he wouldn’t have to listen to Ironhide nag or endure another one of Optimus’ guilt-laden stares.
“I don’t actually need anything,” a familiar voice said, albeit with evident hesitation. “I came to see if you did.”
Ratchet turned around, his spark flaring at the sight of Sideswipe, a pang of longing hitting him so strongly it stole a ventilation. “Ironhide send you?”
Sideswipe shook his helm, his gaze on one of instrument tables. “Not this time.” He poked at one of the scanners, battle-scarred fingers flicking over latches. “I, uh, wanted to talk.”
Was this it? The moment when they realized trying and doing were two separate matters?
“I see.” Ratchet steeled himself.
“It’s not bad, it’s just…” Sideswipe sighed and stared harder at the tray of instruments before he picked one of them up and waved it at Ratchet. “What’s this?”
Ratchet narrowed his optics. “It’s a micro welder,” he answered flatly. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” Sideswipe shrugged and it was anything but offhand as he turned the welder over and over in his fingers. “I can’t be a soldier forever.”
“So you want to be a medic?” He couldn’t help his skepticism.
“I want to learn something,” Sideswipe said and fiddled with the micro welder some more, making Ratchet wince. “Because maybe I need to. Maybe I need to start looking toward the future instead of burying myself in the past.”
Ratchet cycled a ventilation and stepped closer, into the thinnest reach of Sideswipe’s field, gently laying his hand over Sideswipe’s. “I only have one micro welder,” he said gently. “Maybe we should start you off on something easier.”
Their hands were warm where they touched, and that warmth seemed to spread straight through to Ratchet’s spark. Sideswipe was near now, intoxicatingly close, and Ratchet wanted to pull Sideswipe into his arms and never let go.
A tremble raced across Sideswipe’s frame and he looked up at Ratchet. “You’ll teach me?”
“You know the basics. I could give you some modules, build on the field repair you know already,” Ratchet replied. Basics he had taught Sideswipe himself, Sideswipe and Sunstreaker both as a matter of fact. “It would mean spending time with me though,” he added, and his fingers tightened over Sideswipe’s.
There was a moment, a ventilation, and then Sideswipe’s field opened to him. Tentative at first, but gaining in transparency, the edges of it knitting with Ratchet’s in soft acceptance.
“I’d like that.” A soft smile, so much like Sunstreaker’s, pulled at Sideswipe’s lips.
“So would I.” Ratchet squeezed Sidewipe’s hand. “But first, energon. If I miss my scheduled break time, Optimus will have my helm.” He was reluctant to let this moment pass and well, if Sideswipe could take the courage to walk in here, Ratchet could return the courtesy. “You could join me?”
Sideswipe’s field hummed with relief. “Yeah. I could use a break, too.” He turned his hand, fingers tangling with Ratchet’s.
About time you both got your heads out of your afts.
“I hear we have solar-filtered today,” Ratchet said as he took the microwelder from Sideswipe and set it aside. “Which is an improvement over the hydro-filtered.”
I’m proud of you.
“Maybe I can convince Prime to let me set up a still for the good stuff, ya think?” Sideswipe asked, their fingers lingering together before drifting apart.
It didn’t feel at all like letting go.
Ratchet chuckled. “I’ll let you try and convince him.”
“I think I can do it,” Sideswipe said brightly as they left the medbay, Ratchet for once doing so willingly. “I can be persuasive when I want to be, you know.”
Ratchet’s lips twitched toward a smile. “Yes. I remember.” His spark hummed, his field still gently entwined with Sideswipe’s.
It wasn’t an instant fix. It wasn’t an immediate solution.
But it was a start. It was more than Ratchet could have hoped for.
It was the beginning of something new.
And if, on the way out the door, he happened to look over his shoulder and see Sunstreaker in the shadows, smiling at both of them, well, maybe he could take that as approval, too.