A/N: A "vorn" is a Cybertronian year, and is approximately 83 Earth years long.

"Stop crying and hold still, you bumper-fonging, slag-sucking grease guzzler!" Ratchet snarled as he frantically fished for broken fuel lines. Wrist-deep in the young mech's chestplate, he tried desperately to stop main lines from gushing all over creation while the warrior screamed and thrashed in pain. "I said hold still!" he barked, too late. His patient convulsed one lat time; then his optics went dark, his spark extinguished.

"Great, perfect, slagging great," Ratchet snapped, shaking the excess fluids off of his fingers as he disentangled himself and rocked back on his knees. "Hardline's dead. Make a note."

"That's Doubletime," his subordinate corrected him absently from where he labored nearby on his own patient. Patch was always slagging correcting him.

"Fine, whatever," Ratchet glared, not bothering to look down at the mech who lay dead in the rubble in front of him. "Next."

"Triage line is over there," Patch gestured with a shoulder, as he worked frantically to save his own charge, another losing battle.

Ratchet glanced over toward the line of casualties, noting that most of them were dead already, and the ones who weren't were nearly done. Above him, another sonic boom sounded, and fine rain of particles came pattering down; part of some structure, or part of someone's anatomy, he didn't know. On the other side of the broken wall, the battle raged like a ceaseless storm, roaring and sending shockwaves across the plain, firestorms blooming like so many deadly flowers. They weren't safe where they were, but nowhere was safe. Not anymore.

Another boom sounded, ricocheting off the maze of walls around them, and becoming a terrible force of wind as it twisted among the tumbled ruins. Racing to throw himself over the line of casualties, Ratchet shielded them until the ripstorm had gone, only to find when it was done that the last of them was dead.

No matter. More would be along soon.

A shout sounded beyond the wall, and a roar of engines, racing at ground level. Both medics risked a look around the side of the wall, just long enough to catch a glimpse of red and yellow paint.

"The hell is that?" Ratchet growled, angry at the sight of such bright colors. Everyone else had long since gone gray.

"New recruits," Patch muttered almost tonelessly.

"Bout time," Ratchet grumbled. "Prime's been after command for new blood for ages."

Patch grunted, noncommittal.

Staring flatly, Ratchet watched while the pair of newbies transformed and launched themselves into the fray, apparently with some amount of relish. "Huh," he spat, and withdrew behind the wall to await the inevitable. "They won't last a week."

Ratchet glanced at the newcomers' medical charts, barely long enough to really take in more than the most basic of information. "Yeah yeah, blah blah," he ran his finger down the list of medical stats, then came to a halt, finger paused on one line. "Wait." He checked the other chart, then looked back at the first. He looked up. "You're twins?"

The yellow one slowly rolled his optics, while the red one's face took on a long-suffering look. "Yeah. Spark division, you know, blah blah blah. Do we really need to explain it?" The pair looked like they'd been asked this question a time or two before.

Ratchet snapped the files shut. "No you don't need to explain it, smart mouth. I know what spark division is." He glared at them, wondering just which one of them was going to randomly give up the ghost.

The red one heaved a sigh, and rolled his optics skyward. "Listen, we know what you're thinking, all right? Spark divisions leave one weak, one strong. One dies within years while the other one lives on and on, la la la." He sounded like he'd said this before on a number of occasions. "Trust us, we've been around a while. And neither one of us is cacking off any time soon."

"So you think." Ratchet glared, optics a little bleary. They'd be cannon fodder within days, a week tops. He just wondered which one would be first.

"Yeah, well," the red one replied airily, putting his hands on his hips, "I guess we'll just see about that." And then he had the cheek to flash a saucy grin.

Ratchet hated him.

"Get him in here!" Ratchet roared, swearing ceaselessly and slipping in fluids as he rushed to his next patient. Frantically, he began working on stabilizing the young idiot, and feeling like it was all the same set of internals, forever being blown to hell, forever fading away under his scrambling fingers.

"This one's stable," Patch intoned from where he was wiping his fingers over a prone patient. "He'll wait till we get back to base. You want help with that one?"

Overhead, the roaring went on, the familiar bellowing of war. Ratchet winced as something exploded nearby, then went right on with his work. "No, I'll just watch this slotting idiot bastard die by myself, thanks. Go see if anyone else needs help."

"Isn't that one of those twin clowns?" Patch asked absently as he staggered by, tripping on debris.

"Probably," Ratchet grumbled as he worked, swearing viciously the whole while under his breath. "Told you they wouldn't last a slagging week, the pig slagging sons of a smelter."

"It's been four lunars," Patch pointed out flatly.

"So?" Ratchet barked. "And stop talking like we still have moons, Primus!"

Everyone and their sodding buddy knew Cybertron had been knocked out of orbit vorns ago, but for some reason everyone just kept on referring to idiotic things like lunar time and solar orbits. Just like Ratchet kept working like a Primus-forsaken idiot on mechs who would just keep dying, and dying, and dying by the thousands.

"Why are you in here?" Ratchet ranted, throwing more tools than he was using. "Why the Primus-damned sodding holy hell are you in here again?"

The red mech shrugged, and then winced at the movement. His shoulder had been torn all to tatters. "Got fragged."

"I wish you would get fragged already," Ratchet growled, and began putting the idiot back together, without even an attempt at gentle bedside manner. "I swear to fonging Primus, I see you more often than the rest of this Primus-slagged, smelter-swilling unit put together, Primus on a glitching stick!"

"Well, at least I'm still around to be seen." There was that grin again. That hateful, glittering grin, so full of the kind of life that none of them would ever have again.

And Ratchet hated him afresh.

Elbows on the table, drinks in hand, Ratchet and Patch stared out over the makeshift recreation bay as the crowd before them cheered themselves into a froth. Up on one of the tables, the red and yellow pair -- Streaker and Swipe...something -- were putting on a grand show of idiocy. They were engaged in some form of hand-to-hand, with the obvious goal being to throw the other guy off of the table. If he were being honest with himself, Ratchet had to admit that the pair of them were actually fairly talented fighters, not that it would help them in the end. He wondered morosely which one of them he'd be seeing later in medical.

"A credit on the yellow one," Patch intoned.

With a shrug and a bare nod, Ratchet replied, "You're on."

Sadly, however, Patch turned out to be a better judge of form, and when the red one showed up for repairs later that evening, Ratchet took it out on him in spades.

"Not again, not again, NOT AGAIN!" Ratchet ranted and cursed and even aimed a vicious kick at a newly-dead mech, one he'd labored over for an hour, only to see him die anyway.

Standing off to the side, the red mech at least had the grace to wince in the face of Ratchet's wrath, but his own face was grim, and he wasn't giving ground no matter what kind of tantrum Ratchet threw. Half his leg was missing, and he was leaning against the canyon wall while an air battle raged overhead, spewing smoke and ceaseless noise. He pointed to his leg. "Can you fix it?"

"Fix --" Ratchet sputtered, fingers clawing his helmet while Patch worked unperturbed some fifty yards away on another hapless case. "I can't fix that, you slagging idiot. How the slag can I fix a leg that's not even there? You ever think of slagging bringing me the slagging pieces when you get frag blown off of your slagging body?"

"Well, give me his leg then," the red warrior jabbed an irreverent thumb at the corpse Ratchet had just finished kicking.

The medic stared, optics popping, fists clenched in the fervent desire to murder the red bastard and finally be done with him. But in the back of his processor, Ratchet knew there was a kind of brutal logic to it, and it made him pause.

"Come on, Ratchet," the warrior prodded, with a glance at the sky. "I gotta get back up there."

For one last brief moment, the medic regarded the red mech before him, simmering with bottomless anger while the other Autobot stared back at him, optics gleaming with impatience to be gone. He was a bitter fool to love battle like he did, and that fact made Ratchet resent the warrior on a level too deep to convey. But hell, what was a dead mech's leg, when all this red idiot wanted in life to was to get back to the hellstorm? Besides, if he died sooner than later, it'd get him off of Ratchet's hands.

Without another word of argument, the medic set to work.

"But where did it come from?" Ratchet heard Prowl's dubious voice, and as he rounded the corner, the medic stopped dead. Before him, in a glorious, glowing stack, was more energon than the unit had seen in half a vorn.

"Nevermind where it came from," the red mech shrugged, face blase.

Prowl frowned, his face skeptical. The brothers had been with the unit for most of a vorn now, and it had become abundantly clear that their idea of ethics was somewhat less than the Autobots' ideal. "You didn't steal it?"

"No," the red mech spread his hands. "Come on, you know I wouldn't shove off stolen goods on you."

"Then how," Prowl turned his gaze away from the hoard of energon, and regarded the mech before him with beady distrust, "did you acquire this lot?"

"Simple," the warrior shrugged, "selling parts to the Neutrals."

"What...parts?" Prowl sounded seriously not amused.

"Just stuff lying around," the warrior supplied, as though the world were obviously littered with valuable spare components.

Prowl leaned in, optics narrowed. "Parts...from where?"

"Just stuff I picked up on the battlefield," the warrior answered, and when Prowl's optics flew wide, he spread his hands. "What?"

"What do you mean, what?" Prowl barked, uncharacteristically angry. "You mean you've been picking up dead mechs and stripping them for parts?"

"Yeah?" the warrior looked honestly mystified. "So what? They didn't need 'em."

"What do you mean, so what?" Prowl was ranting now, his usually bland demeanor given for the moment to utter horror. "You've been...desecrating the dead...our dead...for PARTS?"

"Well if it makes you feel better, I typically desecrate the Decepticons, too." The warrior seemed to honestly not understand why Prowl was so worked up. "What's the big deal? You wanna waste good parts entombing someone's chassis in a mausoleum, be my guest. But from what I can see," he gestured at the pile of energon, "what dead mechs don't need keeps live mechs alive longer."

Again, the brutal logic. Ratchet supposed he should have been upset about it, too, but strangely, he found himself agreeing with the red idiot. What did the dead need with dignity anyway? The living needed to go on living, and to hell with honoring the bodies of those whose names no one remembered anyway.

Without a word, Ratchet turned around and went off to go find a drink, while Prowl continued his fruitless ranting, doggedly fighting what was clearly a losing battle.

The battle had been long; the Autobots had lost. There was nothing for it now but to mop up, one poor, screaming wretch at a time.

"Who's next?" Ratchet barked, hands dripping with fluids while he waited for the next lump of a tortured wreck to be dumped on his med table. Jazz came in, half hauling, half-dragging the red mech with him. With an unceremonious heave, the saboteur deposited the warrior under Ratchet's snarling care, and left to go find more.

"Great, this one again," Ratchet growled as he set to work. "Sun-whats-it or something?"

"Oh, stop pretending you don't know that one's name," Patch groused from the next table, where he was soldering someone's shoulder struts back into place. "Like you don't know the yellow one is Sun-whats-it."

"Sunstreaker," Ratchet corrected the other medic, before he could catch himself. He winced.

"Ha," Patch shot him a rare grin, soldering iron making his face light up in gruesome shades of green.

"Fine, Sideswipe," Ratchet relented, working quickly to staunch the red warrior's wounds. "Are you happy? I know his slagging, mother-slotting name, the fragging bastard spawn of the Inferno."

Across from him, Patch continued to grin, while Ratchet studiously ignored him.

"As if selling off the dead wasn't bad enough," Prowl's optics were all but fritzing as he glared around the command meeting, "now that idiot's opened up a cantina, and he's hawking home brewed high-grade."

Ratchet snorted before he could help himself.

"Oh, I guess you find that funny," Prowl snapped, face alight with irritation. He always did have an overdeveloped sense of morality. "I'd think you of all mechs would care about this, considering the probability that he's poisoning half the unit with that swill."

Ratchet shrugged. "What, I'm not allowed to laugh? That against the regs now too, your saint-ship? Besides," he leaned back, a smirk tugging at his features, "that swill isn't so bad."

"Oh don't you go defending him," Prowl snarled. "just because you're as crazy as he is."

"Oh, knock it off, you two," Prime grumbled from the head of the table. "We should count ourselves lucky we've gone an entire cycle without a battle. Right now, unless that idiot is outright poisoning people, I don't wanna hear about it."

"Well, you won't have to wait long," Prowl muttered, before sinking into a sulk on his side of the table.

"Come on, man," Jazz spread his hands, "what's a little moonshine? Cantina, lights, music, some 'shine in your system..." He grinned widely, hands still spread, as if that should say it all.

But that wasn't all.

Oh, it wasn't the moonshine, or the blackmarket trading (which had extended itself to more than just parts off of dead guys), or even the illicit trade of field stims and other such electro-chemical "aids". It was when the inside jobs started that the slag really hit the fan.

It was hard to point out at first. In the beginning, it was an ambush here, an outmaneuvered battle plan there. Then it progressed to the Decepticons intercepting their supply lines, tapping into their communications, ultimately knowing every move the Autobots would make, right down to the nanosecond. Prime was beside himself, and suddenly Sideswipe's little sidelines didn't seem so harmless after all.

Naturally, Mirage got hauled in for questioning first. Ratchet wasn't privy to that conversation, but he must have said something to convince Prime and Prowl of his loyalties, because he was right back at his post the next day. Which meant, of course, that he was simply gone. Even Ratchet wasn't entirely sure how long Mirage had been a part of the unit, where he had come from, or where he went when Prime sent him out on a mission. Mirage disappeared; Mirage reappeared, and that was that. He kept to himself, treated everyone around him with disdain, and received the same treatment in return. Ratchet wondered how long he would last.

Of course, Mirage's lack of friends should have ensured that Sideswipe would nail the blame on the spy as soon as he himself was hauled in for questioning. Prowl and Prime went at him for hours, Sunstreaker too, and Ratchet thought sure the red mech would start handing out names, whether they were legitimate or not. Everyone generally felt sure that if Mirage himself wasn't the culprit, then either Sideswipe was, or he would know who was. Or, failing that, he would try to frame someone to get the heat off of himself.

But the curious thing was, and this made Ratchet really take note, Sideswipe did none of the above. He said he didn't know anything about an inside job. He offered to try to track down who the snitch was, but he said he had no idea who was turning colors. They pressed him, threatened him even, but his story never changed. And that was the interesting thing: when another mech might have named anyone to get the heat off of himself, Sideswipe simply maintained that he knew nothing about it. It was the first sign Ratchet had seen of any streak of morality within him. He would obviously cheat, indefinitely borrow, bend a set of ethics or rules to suit his whims, but it seemed that he would not, even under pressure, lie.

The medic found that interesting. Prowl did not. So the questioning went on for days, mainly because they lacked anyone else without an ironclad alibi, and because by now, Prowl was extremely biased against the warrior. He didn't like him, didn't trust him. And now he refused to let either Sunstreaker or Sideswipe free until they confessed.

Ratchet supposed, later, that Prowl had a point. Logically, these two were the best suspects, given Sideswipe's rather flexible view of ethics, and Sunstreaker's completely sociopathic nature. But in the end, it turned out to be someone from the Communications division -- a tape who thought he could gain a pardon from the Decepticons in exchange for information. It wasn't an uncommon story; the Autobots were losing back then, and every once in a while someone made a bid for the other side. Too bad for this guy; he got caught, and his spark was immediately downloaded into storage. If he got a trial, Ratchet never knew about it.

Sunstreaker was livid about being wrongly accused, and after that things never really were right between him and Prowl. But Sideswipe took the whole thing in stride, and though Ratchet was sure the warrior filed the incident away in his mind, he didn't seem to hold a grudge. Good thing for the command element, because Ratchet recalled that the brothers saved both Prime's and Prowl's skidplates pretty regularly after that. They almost seemed to make a point of it, as if to say, "See? You suspected us, and here we are, saving your asses, you ungrateful sons of slag."

Which only served to make Prowl extremely annoyed.

Dawn seldom came to Cybertron anymore. The planet spun madly through the cold vastness of space, speeding desperately past systems and stars it might have called home. Sometimes, once in a great, long while, the planet would pass close to a star. And just for that brief moment, dawn would spill across the planet, warming it, lighting its paths once more to gold.

Sideswipe was on duty that morning, standing sentry in the endless chill. Ratchet had come off of twenty straight hours of operating, and as he staggered out into the star-strewn night, he saw the warrior silhouetted there. The medic stood for a moment, utterly numb with exhaustion, his defenses at their lowest ebb. And then, almost fantastically, there came a rising sun.

What had been endless gray bloomed into silver and blue; what had been soot sprung now into life, rosy around the edges. Sideswipe didn't move, but at once he took on a fiery gleam, as though coming alive for the first time in his life, and Ratchet could only stare as the warrior was transformed from the grim, sly, hard-bitten mech he'd always known into what Sideswipe could have been -- what he should have been all along -- a living statue of vitality, of spirit, of fire. Dazzling, the world spread around them both, the golden plain, the broken spires glittering nonetheless in this brief, shimmering gift of a dawn, and in that moment Ratchet truly saw the warrior. He saw what he could have been. He saw Sideswipe unbroken, unbent by the ages of war, filled with life. And in that moment, irrationally, hardly knowing why, he began to love the warrior like his own creation, like a phoenix, like a meteor, simply for being.

The star slid away, taking the surreal dawn with it. But something in Ratchet had been rekindled.

The day Patch died was like any other. The battle raged, the engines tore across the blistered sky. Patch was working madly to save another hopeless charge, and then quite suddenly, he wasn't.

From what Ratchet was able to remember later, a bomb had come through just at the wrong place. The field medics were suddenly overrun, and it was all Ratchet could do to keep himself together long enough to evacuate with as many casualties as he could take with him. Pragmatically, he took only those with the best chance of survival. He had no time to mourn his friend.

In fact, he didn't mourn at all. Instead, he worked himself ragged, too busy even to rage. And then he found out what Sideswipe had done.


"What?" Sideswipe backed away from him, hands up as he backpedaled. "I've been selling parts for ages now. What the --"

The warrior ducked as Ratchet hurled a chair with all his might, denting the bulkhead. He was beyond rage, beyond hate, beyond words. He only wanted to kill.

"Hey, he was dead, ok?" Sideswipe ducked another projectile -- a toolbox this time. "What the hell, Ratchet!"


That actually seemed to click with the warrior. But now Ratchet wasn't interested in a conversation. His entire intent was to kill, to really, honestly kill, and if Sideswipe hadn't been so skilled a warrior, the medic might just have managed it.

Ratchet didn't speak to Sideswipe again for a solid vorn. Strangely enough, he didn't mourn either. He simply went on.

He and Wheeljack had always known each other, and gotten on well. With Patch gone, it just seemed natural that the two of them would gravitate toward one another. In fact, over the years, Ratchet began to rely on Wheeljack more and more for a dose of sanity, which is what a true friend is for. True friends help you find north when no one else can. Of course, it should have clicked with Ratchet that he should go to an insane person for a sanity check. It should have clicked with him that he himself had lost his check on reality centuries ago.

But insane people don't think they're insane. And no matter what, that's always been true.

Then out of the blue, after a vorn had gone by, Patch showed up again. It was very quiet that morning, which was a blessed relief, because it was never quiet. But that morning, when Ratchet walked into his ramshackle medical bay, it was to find Patch laying on one of the tables, his hands clasped over his chest, his face peaceful, as though he were merely cycled down to sleep.

For a full minute, Ratchet stood staring. There was no sound. Then he stepped forward, and saw a handwritten note, which read:

It took me almost a vorn, but I tracked down all of his parts

and had him put back together again.

You can check -- every piece is there.

Sorry it took me so long.


Ratchet sat down next to his friend's body, the note clenched in his hand. For a long minute he stared at nothing. Then at last, he bent his head and he mourned.

"No, no, NO," Ratchet barked, "not like that!" He threw down his tools, bulldozing his way around the table to push the new medic aside. "You keep that up, and you'll fry his neural net!"

"I thought it was going fine," First Aid -- or whatever his name was -- replied.

"Fine? I'll give you fine, with my arc welder up your skid, you slagging whelp!" Ratchet shoved the newbie medic over toward the other table. "Go help Wheeljack with that one!"

"But --"

"No buts," Ratchet snapped, and commenced with repairing the red warrior, who had once again managed to mangle himself nicely. "This one's got a tricky system. Just let me handle it."

"System's not any different than the others," he heard First Aid mutter under his breath, but Wheeljack intervened.

"Don't argue where that one's concerned," he advised the young medic. "He's sorta the doc's pet."

"He is not," Ratchet snarled, his face savagely contorted as he gently and methodically put Sideswipe back together again.

"Hey, look," Prowl widened his optics in mock surprise, "Sideswipe and Sunstreaker top the disciplinary list again! What a shocker. Anyone interested in the details?" The tactician swept his sardonic gaze around the command table, and Ratchet mused that it was the rare mech who could inspire the tactician to sarcasm. The twins really had a gift.

"Can we just stick to the highlights?" Prime asked with a weary sigh. "We don't have all day."

"Ooooh, sure," Prowl leaned back, head tilted sideways as he held the datapad out in front of him. "Let's just see here...oh, infighting." He peered over the top of the datapad, optics once again widened in pretended shock. "Seems like we're up to three KOs this week alone. Ratchet?"

The burly medic crossed his arms. "True. Sunstreaker got into it with Mirage, Tracks, and Blaster."

"Blaster?" Prime knitted his brows. "Seriously?"

"Apparently," Prowl explained, "he was playing annoying music. Or so I was told."

Prime indulged in a long, slow blink. "What else?"

"Oh, that's not enough?" Prowl asked, twiddling the datapad. "Ok, I have more for you. How about the attempted sale of a minibot on the Neutral underground?"

This time, Prime closed his optics and didn't open them again. "I'm guessing Cliffjumper," he surmised.

"That would be correct."

"Well, it was gonna be him or Gears," Prime put in reasonably. He opened his optics. "Dare I ask where Cliffjumper might be at the moment?"

"Oh," Prowl raised both metal brows, "he's fine. Mirage rescued him, something about, oh, I dunno, indentured servitude being wrong and all. Even Mirage knows that. Trouble was, Sideswipe didn't give the guy his money back, claiming it wasn't his fault Cliffjumper was stolen by a third party. Naturally, pyrotechnics ensued..."

"Look, did Sideswipe kill the guy or something?" Prime interrupted. "Because I'm not really sure I care about this, unless there's somebody's carcass out there I need to go scrape up."

Prowl slammed the datapad down. "Are you listening to me, Prime? Pranks, selling illicit substances, infighting, blackmarket trading, slave trade --"

"Well, I wouldn't call it slave trade, exactly," Ratchet muttered. "Cliffjumper is just that irritating."

"This is not a laughing matter!" Prowl pounded his fist on the table, making everyone's energon drinks jump and slosh. "The infighting alone, Prime --"

Prime sighed, effectively forestalling Prowl's tirade. "Yes, Prowl, and I'm not dismissing your concerns. All I'm saying is they're some of the best warriors we have --"

"--and at what point," Prowl cut in, "are we acting exactly like the Decepticon regime we're fighting so hard to destroy? Allowing this slag, looking the other way --"

"Yes, I know, Prowl," Prime put in patiently, answering once again the ages-old argument. "It's not ideal. But you have to remember, they chose to become Autobots."

"Yes, but why?" Prowl fumed.

No one knew.

It was right after the failed peace talks that the Decepticons captured Sunstreaker. Ratchet never really liked the yellow warrior, to be frank. In fact, sometimes he was downright scared of him, and that was saying something, since Ratchet was far past being scared of much of anything. But he wouldn't have wished enemy capture on anybody, not even on that nasty, sociopathic piece of work.

It was probably because Sunstreaker was so nasty, or maybe it was just because he was such an efficient killer. Either way, the Decepticons treated him brutally. And when the Autobots got him back, there wasn't much of him left to put back together again.

Ratchet himself oversaw repairs, and when the yellow warrior was stable, Sideswipe was allowed in to see him. It wasn't a sure thing that Sunstreaker would survive, but the only thing they could do now was to let him rest, and allow his internal repairs to finish the job. Time would tell whether he would ever wake again.

Sideswipe sat and stared. His face looked far away, his optics dimmed, as though he were seeing something else entirely. He wore no expression; neither peace nor anger. He simply sat, as though looking at something he had long ago accepted as a normal part of living: that war should roll on inexorably, that savagery was simply the most basic and honest form of currency. Blow must be traded for blow, and gains could only be taken, never earned.

Ratchet wondered if he had ever known peace, and reasoned that he most likely had not. What would he know of peace, of rights, of civilization? Civilization, to him, was merely his own passing existence, to be defined and defended by force, nothing more or less. It was a straightforward way to look at things, honest in its way, and Ratchet wondered if the warrior could really be faulted for his creative interpretation of ethics. Of course ethics would be an interpretive subject to him; morality was only what the latest tyrant defined as right and wrong. He had never known anything except rule by Might.

And yet, here he was, sitting quietly by his brother's side, an Autobot symbol emblazoned on his chestplate. Why?

Leaning his arms on Sunstreaker's table, his optics still far away, Sideswipe rested his cheek on his forearm, one hand on his brother's shoulder, and he settled in to wait.

"Would you watch it with that thing? Primus almighty!" Sideswipe griped and winced as Ratchet sent sparks flying up from his knee.

"Shut the slag up and hold still!" the medic shot back, and cuffed Sideswipe upside his head, making the warrior snarl in protest.

"I was holding still until you did that! Primus on a piston!"

Ratchet jabbed a finger in Sideswipe's faceplate. "Watch your glitching mouth!"

"Watch what you're doing!" Sideswipe protested, throwing up both hands as Ratchet took his optics off of the welding job.

"Shut the slag up, I know what I'm slagging doing," Ratchet growled, though admittedly he put his optics back on the job. An unwatched torch in the knee wasn't good for anybody.

In the doorway, he could just make out the sounds of an audience over his own argument.

"Credit on who wins this one?" That was Jazz.

"Are you kidding?" Smokescreen's voice sounded politely incredulous. "These two have been at each other for how many vorns? I'm past betting on who wins onesies."

"Credit on the finale then?" Jazz amended.

"Yeah, my money's on Ratchet," Smokescreen answered smugly. "The doc's gonna beat the warrior to death one of these days. You mark my words."

"Yeah, ok, me too," Jazz agreed, "though make mine two credits. Ratchet ain't no joke." The two shared a chuckle at that. "An' what about you, Prime?"

Obviously, Optimus had wandered by, not that Ratchet could turn around to see, as he was busy with both welding and bellowing back and forth with Sideswipe.

"Nah, put me down for Sideswipe," Ratchet could just make out the sound of amusement in Prime's voice. "I like an underdog."

Then with another round of chuckles, the group disappeared, presumably to find more takers. Ratchet had no doubt they'd get a few.

He was going to kill him. He was really going to kill him this time, no joke, and Prowl would finally, blessedly, wonderfully get his wish.

Ratchet rounded the corner, fists balled, rage enveloping him like a hazy cloud. "SIDESWIPE!" he roared, his entire frame like a stormcloud of hate. "Where the SLAG is that SLAGGING RAT BASTARD'S SON SIDESWIPE?"

Striding into the rec room, Ratchet caught the son of hell in the very act. Mid-pose, Sideswipe froze like a turbodog in the headlights, just long enough for Sunstreaker to sweep him off of the tightrope, and send him crashing to the ground.


Mouth open, pugil stick still in hand, Sideswipe seemed frozen to the floor. In fact, he seemed too frozen to the floor. Actually, it looked for all the world like he'd injured himself again...

With a wordless roar, Ratchet launched himself on the warrior, and commenced with murdering him. It took six Autobots to pull him off.

Fast forward several vorns.

Fingers clawing at his helmet, Ratchet didn't even bother screaming.

Before him, Sideswipe merely offered him a wretched look.

Ratchet emitted a tiny, keening sound, halfway between a screech and a sob.

Mutely, Sideswipe gestured to the remains of his left leg.

Ratchet felt the last, feeble shreds of his sanity crumbling.

Fast forward again.

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES." Roughly, Ratchet pushed the warrior back onto the table, and glared at him fiercely. "You will submit to bed rest if I have to rivet you to the table."

"But Ratchet --"

"But Ratchet NOTHING." The medic got out his rivet gun, and to Sideswipe's horror, made good on his promise.

Vorns passed, vorns upon vorns. Slowly, Ratchet's grip on sanity shredded into something far more amorphous; what had once been a fractured grip on solid ground had become more like bits of flotsam and jetsam, adrift on an endlessly churning sea of absurdity.

Now when Sideswipe grinned Ratchet wanted to hit him in the face until he couldn't hit anymore. But not because he hated him.

He restrained himself though. Somehow.

Faces came and went, lads without names as far as Ratchet was concerned. But there were a few constants.

Another day in med bay. Screaming wordlessly at the top of his vocalizer, Ratchet spent at least good ten nanoclicks indulging in a tantrum. Banging his wrench over and over on the table, he roared himself nearly hoarse, while the red warrior merely looked on and waited for it to pass.

"Why," Ratchet grated when he'd managed to become verbal again, still banging his wrench to punctuate each word, "do you NOT just HAVE the GRACE to DIE?"

Infuriatingly, Sideswipe shrugged, completely unfazed by the medic's hysterics.

"Why can't you just die?" Ratchet repeated, and flung the wrench as hard as he could at the wall. Clawing the air, he let out a snarling froth of mangled curses, his optics fritzing slightly as he staggered under the weight of his own losing battle for sanity. "Twelve dead Autobots this morning, and why are you not one of them?"

"I dunno, Ratchet," Sideswipe shrugged again, sitting patiently on the table while he awaited repairs. He usually had to sit through tantrums like this now, but he didn't seem to mind. Which only served to enrage Ratchet even further.

"You," Ratchet stabbed a finger in the warrior's face, "are in here more often than the entire unit combined, and yet you STILL MANAGE TO KEEP ON LIVING!"

Face thoughtful, Sideswipe nodded. "True."

Ratchet flung his hands through the air. "Even WITH that Primus-sodding glitch-humping jetpack of yours!"

Sideswipe's face took on a fond look at the mention of his favorite piece of gear. "Oh, yeah, that took a hit, too. Would you mind taking a look at --"

"GRAAAGGH!" Ratchet went back to screaming, this time hitting the warrior about the head and shoulders as he raged.

It was a decision he made every day. One wretched soul had a thirty percent chance at making it; another had twenty-five. Every time, Ratchet chose the thirty-percenter. It was called triage, pure and simple. It was brutally straightforward, cold, and logical; Prowl would have said so. But Prowl didn't have to live with the consequences. Prowl didn't have to live with the crawling black sickness that stole over Ratchet in the odd hours. It made him feel evil, doling out death to some and life to others. Which was why he eventually just learned not to feel for any of his patients.

Then there was the day Sideswipe and Highball were brought in all shot to hell. Highball was still semi-conscious and moaning; Sideswipe was offline and mangled almost beyond recognition. One had a decent chance, the other almost none. There was no doubt who should be saved.

And yet, for once, Ratchet felt no sickness as he turned his back on Hardball. He didn't even remember making the decision. He only came to himself hours later, after he'd stabilized Sideswipe enough to take stock of his surroundings, and he saw that the other Autobot was dead.

For a quiet moment, he stared at the poor soul, musing distantly. Then, hardly thinking, he pulled the body closer and began to strip it for parts.

It was after the collapse of the third golden age that Ratchet took up serious drinking. Late one night, as he sat alone in the rec room nursing a bottle of high grade, Prowl walked by.

Face serenely composed, the white tactician tipped a bit of a frown in Ratchet's direction. Taking in the bottle-strewn table top, and the dangerous tilt of Ratchet's posture, he said evenly, "You may want to consider that you drink too much, Ratchet."

To which Ratchet replied by hurling a bottle with all his might at Prowl's head. "YOU THINK?" he roared, watching Prowl duck in time to let the bottle shatter against the wall behind him.

Without another word, face bland as ever, the tactician made his exit while Ratchet laughed until he was sick.

The vorns passed. There were distractions in Ratchet's life. But not many. Mainly, he'd say his entire life was one long, painful stint in the operating room, with most of his patients bleeding away gracelessly into the drains below. Sometimes Ratchet wondered where all the life went, and he had dreams of thousands upon thousands of young mechs bleeding into the planet, until the heart of Cybertron's very core was nothing more than a reservoir of blood.

Where did the energon go? Where did the sparks go? To where did the vitality drain away? What reservoir held it all? One minute, there was life pulsing under his laser scalpel, and the next minute, there wasn't. Where did it go?

Then one day the core ran dry. Ratchet supposed they must have run through the supply of blood, and when there was no more energon to be tapped from Cybertron's heart, the Decepticons decided to search off-world.

What was the point of fighting eons of civil war over a planet that was now nothing more than a husk?

That's when the shipbuilding started. The Autobots were down to a ragtag crew, but there were enough engineers left to design a ship. Well, there were engineers anyway, nominally speaking. Ratchet couldn't promise that most of them were working on all cylinders. You had to hand it to Wheeljack; he was brilliant, slagging brilliant. But he could also blow the entire unit to hell with one misplaced wiring pathway.

But he tried. And anyway, underneath the cracked processor, he was still brilliant after all. Plus, he still had his indomitable enthusiasm.

So Wheeljack oversaw the construction of the Autobots' ship, mostly because Grapple and Hoist's minds were still in stasis, awaiting rebuild. Parts were hard to come by now, even with Sideswipe scavenging the dead. It seemed everyone scavenged the dead now, even Prowl. Hell, just the other day Ratchet saw him wander back from patrol with a dead mech's drivetrain slung over his shoulder. Maybe Prowl was losing it, too.

So basically in an effort to continue a war for a broken planet, they were leaving said planet to go ravage another planet for resources. And while they were at it, they were assuredly going to ravage each other in the process, which would further decimate the Transformer population until...what? Until they were a few ragtag bands battling each other on principle? And would Ratchet get to be the last one of those, battling vainly to to prevent the life from draining away from the second-to-last known Transformer in the universe?

Would that Transformer be Wheeljack? Prime? Prowl? Sideswipe?

And when he was the last, where would Ratchet's spark go?

"We're going down! Ratchet, get --"

The world went white, as an explosion rocked the ship, threatening to buckle the hull. The wind whipped by, burning white hot as they hit the atmosphere, streaking into the blue like a ferocious gale. The roaring wouldn't stop, kept rattling the ship, making the metal scream in the fire.

Then there was a terrible jolt, and then nothing.

"Everyone checks out fine, Prime," Ratchet said almost boredly. The command center was nothing more now than the five of them -- Prime, Prowl, Jazz, Ironhide, Ratchet -- gathered around Teletran. The taller Autobots had to be careful not to hit their heads on the stalactites.

"Fine," Prime nodded, apparently still a bit stunned at their turn of fortunes. "And no more Decepticons?"

Jazz shrugged. "Nada, Prime. I checked the Ark over three times. Nothin'. Hound and Cliffjumper are out on recon as we speak."

Prime sighed. "I suppose it's too much to hope the Decepticons just didn't make it."

Ratchet supposed the Decepticons hoped the same about them. He wondered who would be the last mech standing. After four million years in stasis, he wondered if Cybertron still existed,or if their two warring bands were the last of their race.

"Probably," Prowl answered, four million years having done nothing to change his crisp demeanor. "My assumption is that they're already looking for energy supplies."

"Got some one track minds, I guess," Jazz grinned. "Four million years snoozin', and they wake up rarin' to go."

Prime grunted. "That's Megatron for you. One vorn, and this place will be stripped bare."

"Not if we can help it," Prowl put in testily.

Four million years. So why didn't Ratchet feel very well rested?

"Oh, you wouldn't know a micro chip from a potato chip," Ratchet groused at the human. The squishy little thing had some nerve thinking he knew anything about mechanics.

"Aw, cool off, Ratchet," Sparkplug waved a hand vaguely in the medic's direction as he brandished a pair of pliers. "I can handle this."

"Wow, he's kinda crabby," the kid -- Spike -- muttered in a low voice, though not low enough that Ratchet couldn't hear.

"Aw, don't worry 'bout him none," Ironhide drawled, while Sparkplug worked on his fuel compressor. "Underneath all that, Doc Ratchet's just an ol' softy."

Oh really.

Another day, another tantrum.

"Shit damn sucking goat shagging bloody mother!" Ratchet bellowed, shaking a pipe wrench at the red warrior on the table before him.

Sideswipe seemed seriously impressed. "You know Earth swears now?"

"Yes," Ratchet snapped, "It's the only damn slagging dog-mouth good thing about this pig-blowing mother shitting mudball rock."

"Uh...I don't think that's right, actually," Sideswipe pointed out with a frown.

Ratchet drew back, suddenly electric, and puffing up like a stormcloud rising. "Are you...grammar-checking...my...cursing?"

"Well, I'm just saying," Sideswipe replied with a shrug. "It doesn't sound right."

At which point Ratchet hauled off and beat Sideswipe with the pipe wrench, undoing the hours of repairs he'd just painstakingly conducted.

One time, the Decepticons managed to slip a reprogramming element into the Autobots' recharging system. It made everyone hateful, vengeful, and utterly willing to do anything Megatron ordered them to do -- Prime included. It was only after Sparkplug's attitude exchanger restored everyone to sanity that they stopped tearing up airstrips and office complexes.

Naturally, Prime was beside himself, and a long discourse on free will was begun. Were the Autobots truly good if they could be reprogrammed so easily? Did they even have free will? Was their bravery and nobility a choice, or was it just a sub-routine, a product of random programming?

"Well, I dunno," Sideswipe said quite seriously, after overhearing the gist of it. "I antagonize Ratchet by choice, and if that isn't free will, I dunno what is."

"You know," Prowl's optics widened slightly, "he makes an excellent point."

Prime felt better after that.

Ratchet had forgotten about seasons. Once, Cybertron had had seasons, before it was blown out of orbit and wandered away from its sun. But Earth still had seasons, and it made Ratchet remember that there had once been a time without war.

One day in spring, a bouquet of blue wildflowers showed up on his desk, their natty stems sitting in an oil can filled with cloudy water. Immediately, Ratchet launched into a tirade on the sanctity of a sterile environment, and the horrors of organic infiltration into the delicate electro-mechanical systems of the Autobot anatomy. But secretly, he thought the flowers were kind of nice, and he didn't bother throwing them out.

If anyone noticed this fact, they didn't have the manifolds to say it. Not within audio-shot of the medic, anyway.

The trouble was, he just couldn't bring himself to care about his own creations. Wheeljack never said as much, but Ratchet knew it bothered the scientist.

"I know the Dinobots were my idea," Wheeljack said, "but don't you wanna help with their training?"

"Not really," Ratchet groused. Most days he was sorry he ever helped Wheeljack build the monsters, what with all the infighting they caused. They almost made Sideswipe and Sunstreaker look like amateurs. Almost.

"Well, if you change your mind..." Wheeljack offered, even though they both knew Ratchet wouldn't. "...I'll be in Dinobot bay. Maybe if I just read to 'em or something, might calm 'em down..."

The scientist wandered away down the hall, and Ratchet wondered vaguely how long he'd keep up his attempts to civilize the brutes. Probably indefinitely. Wheeljack cared about them very much, probably to a fault.

And Ratchet didn't, probably to a fault.

He didn't care much for the Aerialbots, either. Sure, he'd helped to create them. He'd done what Prime wanted, and put together a few shells so Vector Sigma could download some personalities into them. What a bust that was, too. He couldn't have bothered to make them nice?

But anyway, nice or not, Ratchet just didn't have much of an affinity for the lot of them. He liked them, sure. Or at least he liked them about as much as he liked any other headache-inducing Autobot, which was to say he liked to use them as targets for his temper tantrums. Slingshot in particular took especially badly to having an arc welder thrown at his head.

Which only served to make Ratchet's day. Amusement at the expense of these morons was about all he had anymore.

Ratchet stared at the sickly wretch before him.

"You ingested what?"


Ratchet merely continued to stare. "What in the name of Primus' butt cheeks are tacos?"

"I dunno," Sideswipe shrugged, "it was a bet."

Ratchet's face began to contort. "You don't even know what you ate?"

"It was a bet!" Sideswipe spread both hands. "What? I won a hundred bucks." As though that explained it.

Leaning forward, Ratchet placed both hands on the table, and brought his face level with the warrior's. Ignoring the noxious cloud of chili fumes, he asked, "And just how many...tacos...did you eat?"

"A hundred. A buck a taco. WHAT?"

It took the Protectobots five minutes to pry the medic's fingers from around the warrior's throat. But not because Ratchet wasn't trying.

Ratchet's tantrums had become more than just par for the course. They had become familiar now, to both the medic and the red warrior, to the point that neither one of them felt quite right unless there was at least a little bit of yelling.

For Ratchet, it was more of a tension reliever than an expression of anger. For Sideswipe, the medic suspected, it was something of a fond routine, one which often resulted in a few knocks to the warrior's head, but which ultimately meant that Ratchet cared about him. It was also a relief to him, Ratchet thought, something Sideswipe could count on in a war long ago gone crazy.

Then again, maybe it was Ratchet's way of trying not to care. How far into Ratchet's spark could Sideswipe get when Ratchet was constantly beating him back?

The years seemed to speed up and slow down at once. Maybe it was because there were seasons. Maybe it was seeing a blue sky again that made Ratchet begin to notice things like time. He hated this planet for its mess, its organic muck and sloppy inconvenience. But he also found himself growing fond of it, simply because it was alive. Earth had a vitality to it that raised Ratchet's spirits, even if he didn't openly admit it.

Spring now meant bluebells and daffodils; summer, daisies or black-eyed susans. Fall was a mix of any sort of colorful bracken, and Christmas just plain got out of control. He may have secretly felt a bit touched by the gesture, but he had to draw the line at having the entire medical bay turned into a Christmas snow globe, five tons of styrofoam popcorn included.

Of course, Ratchet knew Sideswipe meant these things as a sort of mockery. Flowers and snow globes for the raving, lunatic medic -- it was a lot like poking the bear, to use a human phrase.

But secretly, the bear didn't mind.

Once, the Autobots were tasked to guard an art show. Out of boredom, (or so Ratchet thought), the brothers took a stroll through the exhibit. Both seemed unusually quiet.

Sideswipe stopped for a long time in front of an unlikely piece. It was a Chinese brush painting of bamboo blowing in the wind.

"Looks like home," he muttered, after Ratchet had observed him for a few minutes.

"It looks like bamboo," Ratchet answered dryly.

Sideswipe walked away, and the medic leaned in, frowning. Then he saw it: the stalks turned to spires, the leaves to ancient causeways, the wind to life rushing in.

"What are you two doing here?"

"Prime sent us to the back," Sideswipe answered flippantly, as he and his brother skidded expertly down the slope, landing with an unnecessary flourish at the bottom of the ravine. "Prowl thinks the 'cons might try to capture our pet medic."

"Pet?" Ratchet's optics narrowed as he screwed up his face.

"But not to worry," Sideswipe added further, completely ignoring the dark look on the medic's face, "we're experts at the job. We're the van guard." At that, he offered a cheeky grin.

"Yes," Ratchet shot back, and pointed toward the front lines, more than eager to be rid of the irritating pair, "and the vanguard goes out there."

"Nah," Sideswipe waved a hand, "We were the vanguard, and now we're the van guard. Get it?"

"See, you're a van," Sunstreaker explained, a grin spanning his face, and making him look cheerfully and unusually deserving of his name.

"And we guard the van," Sideswipe added.

Ratchet sighed explosively, finger rubbing between his optics.

Sunstreaker jerked a thumb in the medic's direction, and said to his brother, "You know Side, he's like the Autobot soccer mom, bringing band-aids to the game."

Sideswipe's optics lit up. "Soccer Mom Ratchet...cuz he's a van."

"Soccer mom Ratchet..." Sunstreaker's optics were positively sparkling.

Ratchet could feel his temper rising to the breaking point, but fortunately for everyone involved, Starscream showed up just then, and the twins had someone new to harass. Ratchet almost pitied him.

It was three days later when Hound casually asked, "So, you a sports fan now or something?"

"Huh?" Ratchet knitted his brow. "What are you talking about?"

"Well," Hound shrugged, "you've had a soccer ball decal on your rear bumper since last Thursday."

Ratchet picked up a tire iron and strode from the room.

It was raining hard that morning. Sideswipe was shadowing Ratchet back to base when the dog ran out onto the lonely highway. Skidding into a hydroplane, Ratchet tried to stop, but too late. He hit the dog head on at sixty-five miles per hour.

Leaping into robot mode, both Autobots hurried to where the dog was thrown. Splintered bone and entrails gleaming brightly against the mirrored surface of the road, the dog thumped his sodden tail once as they neared.

"He's alive," Ratchet breathed, stunned.

"Yeah," came Sideswipe's flat reply. He knelt down to scratch gently behind the animal's ears, a vast pool of red blooming beneath the warrior's knees. Again, the feeble wag.

"Well hey, I can't fix this," Ratchet pointed out, "so let's get him to a vet."

Sideswipe didn't move, and only went on stroking the dog's head.

"I said I can't fix this," Ratchet growled as the rain hammered his helmet. "So pick him up and let's get him in my back seat, now."

Still Sideswipe didn't move. The blood had spread to both sides of the road now.

"I said I can't fix this!" Ratchet shouted, the rain pelting them all and raising a mist off of the asphalt. "I can't fix this, Sideswipe!" He was raging now. "I can't fix this!"

"I know," Sideswipe said quietly, his voice just audible over the thundering rain. Then he reached down, and very quickly and humanely broke the dog's neck.

"What...what did you..." Ratchet stared, utterly stunned. For one long minute, the only sound was the rain, rushing down on them like a waterfall, shielding the trio in silver curtains of mist. The medic took an unsteady step, back or forward he hardly knew. Then at once he lost his grip on reason, and he began shouting the foulest and meanest things he could think of at the warrior before him.

Without a word, one hand still on the dog, Sideswipe simply took it. The medic screamed, and he hardly knew why. He exhausted every blasphemy in his vocabulary; he called down hate and poison on the warrior's head, raving and cursing and saying things he regretted for years after. He raved until he could barely see straight, all the while the rain roaring down and dancing back up from the pavement, the backspray a thick cloud of white, halfway obscuring the warrior where he knelt and listened without reply.

And then at once, underneath the black hate, was the pain. And Ratchet dropped down to sit in the center of the highway, the slick yellow lines just visible below him in the hissing cloud. Transformers didn't really have the capacity to weep, and the medic had certainly never wept for a lost patient. And yet, somehow, he wept for a dog.

Sideswipe never told a soul.

"Think he'll make it?" Sparkplug asked after he and Ratchet had labored to put Sideswipe back together again for the billionth time.

"I'm sure he will," Ratchet snorted as he wiped down his fingers.

Sparkplug gave him a narrow look. "Don't sound so pleased."

"Oh, sorry, let me try again." Ratchet put on a brilliantly fake smile, and crowed happily, "I'm sure he will!"

"Well, now you're just being sarcastic." Sparkplug smirked.

Ratchet shrugged as he carefully put his tools away. "And that's a shock how?"

The two of them worked in silence for a while, wiping down the tools before stowing them in neat rows, bundling cables and leftover wire, sorting extra pins and screws into the proper bins.

After several minutes had passed, Sparkplug said, "You know, last week I saw Air Raid try to fit himself through a four-by-four hole on a bet."

"Hmm," Ratchet nodded over a coil of fiber optic cable, "did he make it?"

"Oddly enough, yeah," came the bemused reply. "Had to get First Aid's help reattaching his wings and cockpit afterward, but yeah. And then," he added, "there was that lot playing a game of 'Statue' last Saturday. The front lawn of the Ark looked like the galaxy's weirdest gnome garden."

"Oh, I heard about that," Ratchet offered a wry smile. "Heard Snarl won. Fell asleep in the sun."

"Huh," Sparkplug snorted, "try telling that to the bunch of guys contesting the outcome. They say he 'won' by cheating and shutting down. I mean, who the hell bets on a game of 'Statue', anyway? And for that matter, what the hell are a bunch of alien robots doing playing 'Statue' in the middle of the Oregon desert the first place? And then," he rolled on, seeming to be perfectly enjoying his own tirade, "there's Wheeljack's newest invention -- the Dryadimator or some such."

"Oh yeah," Ratchet offered a fond grin.

Sparkplug stared at him, deadpan. "You do realize he's serious with that thing. You do know that."

The medic shrugged. "He's always serious about his inventions."

"Seriously nuts," came the reply. Sparkplug gave him a beady look, "Seems he really thinks he can animate the trees of Earth into a dryad army."

Ratchet pulled a frown, thoughtful. "Has its benefits."

"Sure, for all of twelve seconds until everyone realizes trees can't fly." Sparkplug had knitted both brows, and was watching Ratchet keenly, apparently wondering if Ratchet was seriously in favor of this contraption. Personally, Ratchet couldn't see the harm, but there wasn't much use telling the human that. "You do know," Sparkplug pointed out, "that an army of trees against a bunch of bomb-dropping jets would be like fish throwing kleenex at angry elephants."

At that, Ratchet quirked a bit of a grin. "Good analogy."

"And then," the human put in shrewdly, "there's this medic who routinely just about bleeds out the optics putting a certain red Lamborghini back together again, and then turns around and gets all crabby when it turns out the guy's gonna pull through."

He let that hang in the air a minute, while Ratchet blithely sorted bits of scrap into recycling bins. The human had wondered for years about Ratchet's attitude toward Sideswipe, though Ratchet never humored him with any answers. And he wasn't about to start now, either.

"You know," Sparkplug added when Ratchet obviously wasn't going to reply, "I been around a while -- a pretty long time for a human, anyway -- and I've met a lot of mental cases. But you know, even with the nut jobs I've met, I have to say I think when it comes to crazy, humans are just amateurs. You people," he leaned in, meaning it completely, "are professionals."

At last, he was catching on.

The years passed after that, and Ratchet kept waiting for it all to end, but it didn't. He supposed, somewhere deep down, that he was waiting for answers too. But those never seemed to surface either.

There came another day, another repair. Sometimes the repairs went on with mechanical indifference; sometimes they were a desperate, fevered struggle. Sometimes the two extremes blurred together, like he was only going through the ages-old motions, but urgently, as though his fingers knew what his mind no longer could: that losing another life was unthinkable, that saving just one more life was fighting back against death, soul by soul, piece by little piece.

And what was Death, anyway? The absence of Life, he supposed. And struggling between those things, he thought sometimes, at least in the glimmering depths of his subconscious, that he knew what the point of it all was. He knew without thinking, perhaps on an instinctual level that could never be put into words, what the purpose of creation had been. His fingers knew why they fought against Death, even on those days when his mind rebelled. He knew, in the very depths of him, that the essence of being was, very simply, the opportunity to love.

He supposed, in some respects, that he'd always known. It was why he kept fixing the broken, long after it had seemed to become futile.

"And you would know about that," he mused out loud to the unconscious warrior, who the medic had laid out once again on the recovery berth after a long and arduous repair.

Before him, Sideswipe simply lay still and said nothing. His chestplate, freshly painted, gleamed red as embers under the lowered lights, while the edges his black helmet just caught the gleam of the monitors. His face was serene in repose.

"A worthy reply," the medic stated wryly, as though the warrior had said something. In the face of all things, Sideswipe's reaction had ever been constant: a shrug, a grin, and an uncanny ability to come out on top. Here he was, after all.

Behind him, Ratchet heard a soft tread, then the quiet voice of the tactician sounded from the hall. "Hey, you coming?" Prowl asked, popping his head in the door. "Prime's waiting on that post-op report."

"Yeah, be there in a minute," Ratchet nodded, though he didn't move from his seat next to Sideswipe.

Instead of leaving, however, Prowl wandered into the room, and came to stand by Ratchet's shoulder, his face smooth as he looked down at the offline warrior. "Will he be all right?"

"Of course he'll be all right," Ratchet retorted, though his voice was more tired than annoyed. "I fixed him, not some two-bit hack."

"Indeed," Prowl murmured, and when Ratchet looked over at him, he saw that the tactician was wearing the ghost of a smile. His face looked ageless in the half-light. "He has ten thousand lives, I swear," Prowl nodded toward Sideswipe.

"I know," Ratchet groused, "I've given them to him."

At that, Prowl's smile solidified. He put a hand on the medic's shoulder, and said, "I don't doubt you have."

They stayed that way for a moment, the medic sitting with the tactician standing beside him, gazing down at the uncharacteristically quiet form of the warrior. It was a rare thing to see him like this, so peaceful and still. He was normally so alarmingly energetic, and Ratchet knew the second he was awake, he would be a force in constant motion, a charismatic tempest blowing through the poor, hapless Autobot population like an ill wind. He was magnetic, unscrupulous, diabolically clever, and unfortunately utterly charming. Few were immune to him, and even those who were seemed to like him anyway. It was maddening.

"Well?" Prowl said after a moment, and gave Ratchet's shoulder a final pat. "Prime's waiting."

"Yeah," Ratchet gave himself a shake, and levered himself to his feet. Stretching, he knuckled his back, then heaved an expansive sigh. With a last look down at the warrior, he straightened a few monitor cables, and gave a final passing glance toward the readings. Everything was perfectly normal. "Ready then?" he grunted, a little tired as he began his shuffle toward the door.

"As ever," Prowl replied mildly, though he kept his smile as he ushered the poor old medic out into the hall, where the pair made their way together toward the command center, toward the war, and the never ending duties that awaited them.

But somehow, just for once, Ratchet felt like it would all turn out ok.