A/N: YAY, the world is larger than Prowl and Lockdown! Whod'a thunkit? This world-fleshing-out exercise will involve... lesse, I've got MegatronxStarscream, Oilslick, SentinelxBAxOptimus, Blitzwing, LugnutxStrika, Blurr, and a lot of BumblebeexSari lined up. Maybe some Swindle? And I'm totally open for ideas! Most will be drabbles or snippets, no story arcs, and will hopefully be alluded to in Odd Couple. No more OCs, just good ol' canon bots. ...Unless I can finagle Anicon trying to hit on Rodimus Prime (mistakenly cruising a gay club in a very pink shirt) or something, which would be hilarious. HEEHEE.

Ooh, I love Ratchet. He's just so weathered and has been through so much. I love this 'verse a little too much, yes? Twisting all those relationships around...

Ratchet, for sake of the imagination, looks exactly like his Human Error counterpart, crew cut and all. This is happening sometime during the Lockdown debacle, where Ratchet was getting grumpier and grumpier and sadder and sadder without my knowledge. He asked me for a reason, I gave him one. Let's see if you can guess who it is.

I'm pulling Autobots in by the truckload in Odd Couple, so here's my niche for a 'Con or three. I'm so looking forward to this! Enjoi.

Old Wound

She came walking up the sidewalk without a trace of a bounce, each Mary Jane step executed with care—then stopped a few strides from the stairs and waited with a bird's flickering gaze until Optimus jingled his industrial-size keys out of the Project lock.

"Um. Excuse me?"

The Prime looked over with his hand on the door-handle, thick brow creeping up bemusedly. He hadn't even seen her until she spoke. She was a tiny fifteen with big blue eyes. Curly brunette buns on either side of her head and a pink sweater for the cold Detroit day.

"Can I help you?" he asked after a moment, as kindly as he could. He wasn't accustomed to seeing children around this portion of town, much less ones without parents grasping each china-doll hand. She carried nothing, stranded on the side of the road with nothing more than an intent expression and laced fingers.

"Does… I'm sorry, I know this sounds strange," she murmured, eyes dropping towards the clean sidewalk for a moment, "but does anyone by the name of Ratchet live here?"

Optimus started, staring at her—trying to fathom her connection to their oldest and crabbiest housemate. A moment later he regained movement, an uncertain smile tugging at his sculpted mouth.

"Yes, he—er, one does," he said with a chuckle, returning his keys to his pocket. He backed off from the door a bit, one foot propped on the top step. "Guess that's not a very common name, though, huh?"

Her candy-pink lips quirked shyly, as though she couldn't find much more to say in front of the handsome Prime. His smile widened, charmed.

"Do you need to see him, miss?"

"Please," she said softly. "Please, I would like that very much."

He opened the door and his mouth, about to ask her where her parents were, but she had already passed under his chin and into the unlit house.

Part of him hated the Prime. Hated him for letting her in without even telling him. He screened his calls, why the hell wouldn't he screen his visitors? Not that he'd ever had visitors before. Or many calls.

Optimus wouldn't have known what to do in any account, but that didn't make Ratchet forgive him in the slightest: not when a beautiful, expectant creature was standing in front of him with her mary-janes kissing like little black turtles, hands twined together so tightly the knuckles were cream.

"Arcee," he said, trying to make the name fit the dainty young woman. His voice was so gruff, it hardly did her any justice—in fact, with those two clunky syllables, he knew he shouldn't touch her or be near her, like he'd rub that rosy glow off like sandpaper. He was too rough, too old, too cantankerous. She wasn't supposed to be here.

He'd started smoking since… back then. Quit, though. He wondered if she could tell.

"Mr. Ratchet."

"Y'grew up. Real… nice," he added dully, finding it hard to fit words together with her looking at him: just his name in her dainty voice, that shy mister tacked on the front like a flag that marked the distance between them, made his stomach flop. She smiled nervously and looked down at the floor, fingers turning to fret with the hem of her sweater.

"Thank you," she whispered. He nodded and turned towards the big window in the Project commons, old face crumpling slightly in the bright winter sun. He searched for words. Questions. None came. Then:

"M'surprised you remember me."

"Of course I do. You saved me," she said simply—or as though it should be simple, but she couldn't fight off her awe of it.

"Someone told you that," he chuckled blankly after a moment. She looked down at her feet again, lips puckering as she shook her head.

"I was—"

"Too little. I know." He nodded brusquely, then grunted past his teeth: "Practically pulled you out of that house by your jumper-straps. So covered in soot, thought I'd snagged a doll."

It was good. Best she didn't remember the fire—too bad if he and his grasping hands and his gravelly curses as she wailed in his arms got caught in the orange-edged void as well. He was a full-time paramedic then, working with the fire department. The rest of her family was gone in the fire--they got the bodies out--but he heard her crying over the ruckus. They'd missed her during the run-through: she'd buried herself in stuffed animals to escape the heat. Stripping a lackey fireman of his flame-retardant jacket and ignoring all the curses and warnings, he ran in and pulled the sole living thing out of that perfect white house seconds before it crashed into a pile of black, crackling rubble.

And now, here she was.

"I remember you visiting me," she said quietly. "At the orphanage."

He stayed silent, staring out the window at the distant buzz of traffic along the expressway. She remembered that. That made two of them.

He should've just left her alone. He didn't have a thing to do with kids, never had, but they'd wrested her tiny form from his arms and he felt it like he was having a piece cut out of him. He watched her dangling smoke-marbled legs disappear into the back of the van—his van—before he coughed himself down to the black ground. Someone pushed an oxygen mask over his mouth and he didn't have the strength to smack it off. A burly fifty-three year old veteran and he couldn't even growl out that he was fine, fine damnit because that weightlessness of his empty arms spread and he lost consciousness the next black second, feeling his head smacking the sidewalk as nothing more than a ball bouncing against a lacquered gym floor. Crack.

After that, Ratchet was unable to resist the lure of seeing his rescue alive and healthy, but the first few visits, full (or empty) of thick glass and IVs, did him no good. Perhaps hoping for a scrap of the happy finality he never got to see, he'd dropped in to the orphanage a few weeks later—she was alone, now. No one left to take her in. He tried to watch her from afar. Just to see those baby blues open and not gummed shut by tears and smoke. Just to close the book.

He didn't make it across the playground. Functioning on that strange, beautiful intuition that enabled children to feel people, she toddled up to him and begged to be picked up. A nod from the warden let him bend down with his ever-sore back and heft her insubstantial white-legged weight into his massive, bandaged hands. He held her warily, like one would hold a Faberge egg that had still weathered far worse than simple touch. She touched the scar over his right eye, where a bit of her burning house had stuck into him. Then her soft arms twined around his neck, skin scraping his eternal five-o-clock shadow, and he felt something flicker in his weathered chest.

When he got home, he realized a toy—the toy, her only toy, an itty bitty pink and white car—had fallen into his coat pocket. So he came back again.

On again, off again, for five years. Toys in his pockets, the same puzzled look from the warden when he handed back the same little pink car to the same ecstatic little girl. Think he would've wised up after the first five visits, but for a coot as old as he was, five years was a blink—especially when lured in, visit by visit, by a blossoming little beauty who squealed when he tossed her. He smiled, grizzled but honest, every time he saw her. Every time.

Now, here, he didn't know whether they'd told her everything. The fact that he'd been… offered a chance to adopt her.

But he couldn't raise a kid. Not him. Didn't have a lady. Didn't have a house. Just a single, middle-aged workaholic locked in his apartment, most family gone except for a debt-drowned sister in Vermont. Never married.

Visits, visits, visits. Reading to her. Rough voice, but she smiled all the same. Clapping when she cart-wheeled, then gruffly tugging down her calico-print dress afterward, already eyeing the snot-smeared little boys kicking each other off the jungle-gym like animals.

Three years in, they offered again. Adopt her? No. He couldn't teach her what she needed to know. A little gal with a bear like him? No. Wouldn't be proper.

Primus, but she roped him in. Little thing like that. Just… had him, down to his last grisly heartstring. Hadn't been played in a while but she made his battered insides sing for her, the way she slept in his arms, nose against his neck. He was a gruff old man, inconsiderate to a fault; he never stopped for anyone and his favorite hobby was telling people to get their rears in gear, but when she quieted and stilled in his arms and curled her fingers around the collar of his paramedic jacket in a slow, sleepy shuffle of limbs, he couldn't move until she woke up. Just couldn't.

Back in the present, the young woman said something. He didn't hear, too busy retracing the complex warmth of a little girl against his barrel chest. He turned around, making a gruff excuse for however long he was stranded at the window.

Lost on what to say, holding her breath, Arcee (all big blue eyes and curls, look at those curls) shuffled forward and held something out for him. Ratchet looked at the flier uncomprehendingly, taking it from her and holding it up to his not-as-good-as-they-used-to-be eyes. He scanned through the first few lines, then smiled. It was a flier for an awards ceremony—and the special guest of honor was standing right in front of him, practically quivering for approval. He chuckled.

"You're a… regular little genius, aren't you?"

"I make good grades," she said shyly, fingers twisting together in a lattice-shape. "I like numbers."

He looked at the flier again, tracing the curly numbers and letters with fond eyes.

"You've come real far, Arcee. Real far. Anybody'd be proud of you." He shook his head and muttered, smile edging on bittersweet, "You did good. Didn't need me to begin with."

It just came out. He realized it the second it hit the Project's concrete floor like a clattering chair and cleared his throat, pretending to continue studying the flier. He heard Arcee take a deep breath. Heard his insides creak to a halt.

"Why did you… stop?"

"I… I, uh," he stuttered, making several gravelly noises, breathing out and clearing his throat. Why had he left her, all alone? He could hardly feel his lips, much less his forebrain, where he kept the fragments of the answer he was always afraid he would have to give her. That one that implied that she wasn't worth it, when really it was all his fault. All his goddamn fault that he couldn't—and shouldn't—have honestly stepped up for her.

"I dunno," he finally muttered over the roil of his nauseated insides. He took another breath. "Didn't wanna… kept askin' me to adopt you. Didn't wanna make you think the wrong thing."

He wasn't a religious man, but it was God's sin, to deceive a sweet little girl like that. Would've been. He felt guilty he couldn't give her a better life than what she had there, so he just exited, quick and clean. Left one day and didn't come back the next week. The next week. The next.

She weathered it. Trusting, strong little tiger, she weathered it for three weeks, then four weeks, then more—because sometimes he didn't show for a month, then visited three times in two days. She always knew he would come, so she just smiled and waited by the playground gates.

He heard she cried when he didn't show, that second month. Got a call from the warden—on a first name basis by now—asking him if something had happened. Had to drink a little that day to keep from getting in the car. Told Alert it was best for the kid then hung up before she could say any different.

All because Arcee, nuzzled into his oversized paramedic jacket like a curly-haired kitten, had called him papa.

Maybe because 'Ratchet' was too hard to say, or maybe because papas were supposed to make kids smile and tug their dresses into place and Ratchet made her laugh like nobodies business, she called him papa and he had to leave. Little kids didn't understand what was best for them. It was up to old, hard people to make the tough decisions for them and weather their crying and be mollified by that gilded fact that they had done the right thing even if it didn't look the same from the bottom of a glass of bourbon. Even if it still left their arms empty at the end of the day and no one was smiling.

Ratchet closed his eyes, but it only spread the sting to every part of him.

"I missed you," she whispered after a long, long silence, absorbing the measure of her own worth.

"Missed you, too," he managed, choking on the words.

Of course he missed her. He missed everything that had gone on in that gap that left him with this bright-eyed young lady instead of the baby he'd left behind. There was a lot to miss—and how it had whipped by him, sitting alone in his cramped apartment living room and then in this sad factory. Too scared of failure to take a chance.

"I want you… to come," she said carefully, from left field. He opened his eyes, confused. "If you don't—if you're not busy."

Ratchet looked down at the flier again, pulling apart the noble-looking text for what she was talking about. Then: admit-one at the bottom. All he had to do was cut it out. It was next week. He looked up at her, brow furrowed.

"It's in the Detroit stadium. I know you… like baseball so it shouldn't be too hard to find."

In his opinion, it was the only sport with any skill left in the world. She knew. He smiled, a gruff jerk of his mouth.

"Been there a few times," he grumbled. He nodded to her, gesturing with the flier. "Thanks."

And that was all there was to say, after twelve years.

After simply looking at him a moment more—memorizing the sticky pink scar above his right eye, the jacket that wasn't so big anymore, his gruff face--she nodded jerkily and started outside. Out to her ride. But Ratchet hadn't heard a car running, he realized, and she was too young to drive. Orphanage was all the way across town.

"You take the bus here, kid?" he asked suddenly.

"Yes," she said quietly and waited, her blue eyes shining, because there was the twelve-year, split-second chance that he would grumble and dig for keys and let her trail behind him to his old emergency van. All she wanted was more of him, more time, more anything. Proof. A second chance. The slightest bit of passenger-side affirmation, the choice of a radio station. He should drive her back. He should.

Breath catching, Ratchet's throat closed and his eyes followed suit for a moment, shutting out the hopeful young woman who wanted nothing more than time.

"Be careful on the way back," he grunted, folding the flier up and putting it into his pocket.

"Yes, sir," she murmured after a moment, pretty face falling. She left. Ratchet stared after her, one hand to his tired heart, the other deep in his pocket, thumb sliding haltingly along the edge of the curly-lettered risk an old man couldn't afford to take. Not after so long.

No one could leave a girl like that twice.