Chapter One

Author's Notes: Still working on Masks. Actually have close to 40K words for Masks not yet posted. Should have a new chapter up shortly. However, this story has been growing in my heart for a bit, and I decided I should tell it. This one is for all my friends who have varying disabilities, and who have ever been treated as less than an adult because of other's assumptions.

I'm going to give some very stern warnings for character deaths, slash (between technically non-gendered robots who use male pronouns), occasional explicit scenes, graphic description of injuries, macabre humor between soldiers who are a bit too used to violence and gore, and a fan-favorite character dealing with the equivalent of a fairly severe head injury. (If you're used to the usual fanfic bonk-on-the-head-with-amnesia form of a story about a head injury? This ain't that sort of story.)

Oh, and unlike Masks, these robots have male bits. It's appropriate to the theme to address the subject of intimacy, so ... yeah. They're a bit more humanoid in the relevant areas than my mechs in Masks.

Should I warn for hurt/comfort? 'Tis hurt/comfort, blatantly so. And a story about redemption and rebuilding one's life and finding new meaning and direction when everything you ever valued has been taken away from you.

Story's G1 influenced, with AU elements, and is not based on the same same pseudoscience I'm using for Masks - this story's a lot closer to more typical fanon.

Cold rain thrummed down out of a grey cold sky as Ratchet slogged through sloppy mud. The field of battle was a mess in more ways than one: muddy, wet, just below the freezing point of water but not quite cold enough to solidify the mud. The fight had taken place in a junk yard of automobiles that spanned a couple dozen human acres, and the chaotic piles of metal were the biggest mess, because they made scanning for fallen mechs impossible.

Jazz was unaccounted for. Somewhere in this chaotic tangle of scrapped human automobiles, the commander might be buried. Alternately, he could have been kidnapped by the retreating 'cons. They didn't know, and there was too much metal to make scans reliable. Ratchet wasn't panicking yet, but he was hurrying in his search.

Wary of surprises from Decepticons who might have been left behind, he shoved aside a pile of rusted out hulks, revealing only more wrecked and stripped chassis. "Jazz!" he shouted, his voice muffled by the weather. :JAZZ!: he called on his comm, at maximum power.

He could hear the others calling and searching. Optimus. Prowl. First Aid. Hound. Wheeljack. Others, anyone who wasn't wounded, or was at least walking wounded.

:Anything?: Prowl asked Ratchet over the comm, though it was illogical. Whoever found him was sure to announce it clearly and loudly. The only question would be if that comm call would be one of triumph having found him safe and sound, or one of panic or grief if he was injured or worse.

They'd been looking for an hour. Ratchet personally feared he was a prisoner. He was even more afraid that Jazz might be critically injured, unable to respond to their calls, dying as they looked. There were just so many slagging wrecked human vehicles that one small Autobot sports car could be so easily lost in their midst.

:Nothing,: he said, curtly.

And then he saw it ... a Cybertronian hand, flung out from underneath an old, hoodless pickup truck. Ratchet's processor seized with hope for just a click of time before he realized that the hand was far, far too small to belong to Jazz. He ran through the possibilities rapidly, mentally verifying that all of Blaster's symbiotes were accounted for before settling on Soundwave's cassettes. Which one?

Wary - because even the little Decepticon symbiotes could be dangerous - he crouched and reached for the hand. It moved far too easily when he tugged on it. It was just an arm. There was no symbiote attached. He recognized Rumble's mods, and noted that the arm was charred badly, and bent and distorted. They'd been throwing some heavy ordinance around and it looked like Rumble must have taken a direct hit.

He subspaced the little limb, though he was grimly doubtful that Rumble would ever need it again.

Jazz was a priority. By the condition of the appendage, Rumble was probably slagged past the point of repair. Still, they were so small ... Ratchet sighed, cursed himself for a fool, and looked around for sign of the casseticon as well as Jazz, now paying attention to spaces too small to hide Jazz.

... There. A foot, much larger, was visible in amongst a tangle of old pipes and assorted pure slag. He could see from a hundred feet away that the foot was charred and damaged by a blast. He was half afraid that it wouldn't be attached to anything either, but when he hurried over, the foot was dangling from the end of the leg and the leg led to ... a large, blocky torso that was not Jazz's at all.

:Prowl, get over here,: he said.

:Did you find him?: Hope bloomed in the SIC's voice.

:No. Downed 'con.: Ratchet picked his way over, and then shoved aside some of the crap. As he did, someone growled with an almost feral tone. Soundwave's chest was blown open, and the sound had come from inside it.

Prowl appeared at a jog, and stopped short, just as whatever - whoever - was inside Soundwave's chest growled wordlessly. "That," Prowl said, voice measured and calm as ever, "Is somewhat creepy."

Ratchet produced Rumble's arm and casually handed it to Prowl. "Here's creepier. I'm willing to bet that Rumble was in Soundwave when he got hit."

Prowl took the arm by reflex, stared at it, then hastily tried to give it back, but Ratchet was already approaching Soundwave with his gun out. And smirking. He'd thoroughly distracted Prowl from worrying about Jazz, which was his intent. He didn't think there was much of a threat here - Soundwave was clearly down for the count, and quite possibly dead. He'd taken a direct hit to his torso, and there was little left of his internals from his spark chamber down to his pelvic girdle. That included the docks for his symbiotes. The ground just past him was littered with bits and pieces of dead cassetes - a wing here, a jaw there, a paw, a head so crumpled by the blast that he couldn't identify who it had belonged to.

Again, somebody keened, then sobbed bitterly. "Rumble, Rumble, Rumble, Rumble ..."

Ratchet crouched and peered into the dark, dripping void that was Soundwave's abdominal cavity. He smelled energon and oil, and something electrical sparked and arced with a sizzling snap. There was a real chance of a fire. Whoever was in there had to come out now.

"Excuse me," Ratchet said, "Can you hear me?"

Rumble's optics appeared, smeared with soot and Soundwave's bodily fluids. The little mech growled, suddenly fiercely agitated, "Get back! Get back, I won't let you kill him, get back!"

"Kill him?" Prowl snorted. "I think we already did that."

Frenzy growled, low. His optics were wild with grief. "That's my brother's!"

He launched himself out of the cavity and directly at Prowl, teeth bared, hands clawed, clearly intending to kill Prowl with his bare hands or die trying. Prowl dropped the incriminating limb, caught Frenzy in one hand, and promptly got bit. He ripped Frenzy off his left hand with his right, then, like a magic trick, Frenzy disappeared from view.

Ratchet stared. "Did just subspace that Decepticon?"

"He's not very big," Prowl said, voice mild but vaguely challenging. "It seemed the best way to deal with him."

Ratchet barked a surprised laugh. "I suppose he'll keep in there."

"Dirty trick I learned from Jazz," Prowl said, and his optics grew shadowed again as he thought about his missing friend and fellow officer.

Ratchet was still a bit distracted by the fact that Prowl had just subspaced another mech. He earnestly hoped that Prowl had nothing dangerous or breakable in his subspace. At least Ratchet didn't think they needed to worry about treating him immediately. By the way Frenzy had moved he didn't think the mech was hurt at all. Likely, he'd not been inside Soundwave when Soundwave had been shot.

Ratchet couldn't help but point out, "Getting him out might be interesting, if he decides to fight."

"And you can help me with that problem later," Prowl's response was very dry. "Medic."

Ratchet snorted. At least it was Frenzy and not Ravage. However, aside from the probability that Frenzy would still be full of fight when they went to retrieve him, Frenzy's brother and the other symbiotes were almost certainly dead. He was actually more concerned that they might be extracting a dead Frenzy whose limbs had locked up in a position that was wider than the diameter of the subspace gate to Prowl's storage space, but he'd enlighten Prowl on that possibility later. In that case, they'd have to cut him into pieces.

If Frenzy was going to follow his brother to the pit, there wasn't much Ratchet could do to stop him. It was his choice to make; living with a broken quantum bond was so painful that some mechs did not find life worthwhile.

He glanced at Prowl, wondering, not for the first time, if the two officers had a relationship beyond close friendship ... obviously, Prowl would know Jazz's status if they'd gone so far as to bond themselves, and Prowl, at least, was responsible enough to tell Ratchet under medical confidentiality. However, it was entirely possible that they were lovers, and Ratchet worried about Prowl's mental health if anything truly bad happened to Jazz. Even if they had not gone that far, they were so damned close.

"Are the rest of them dead?" Prowl asked. To his credit, he reached down and picked Rumble's arm back up. Ratchet wasn't actually sure why, though - the only reason he'd kept it initially was in case Rumble might need it later. Then he'd handed it off to Prowl because it had distracted Prowl from other problems, like the missing SIC. Nothing like a gruesomely detached limb to focus a mech on the now rather than the later. It was probably disrespectful to the dead, but Ratchet couldn't summon up all that much concern over dead Decepticons. He'd say all the right words later when they held an obligatory Optimus-decreed service for the dead, but for now, he just didn't give a damn.

He answered Prowl's question, "The cassettes definitely are." He didn't have to scan the body parts blown from Soundwave's chassis to know that. "What hit him?"

"Something Wheeljack has been working on. Sideswipe said something about taking Soundwave out, so I presume he's responsible for this."

"Hnh. Tell Wheeljack it worked, and that I never, ever, want to see it in battle again."

"We are at war," Prowl pointed out.

"And if Sideswipe had been captured?" Ratchet knelt down next to Soundwave. The Decepticon officer looked as dead as his symbiotes, but he wanted to make absolutely sure of this. They'd had too many enemies come back and plague them again after they were declared dead. He waved an aggravated hand at Soundwave's shattered body after his knee contacted the miserable cold mud. "Next time, this damage could be to Optimus."

"Point taken, medic." Prowl sighed.

"Also, as soon as they know something's possible, they'll have Starscream working on creating his own version of it."

That earned him another sigh. He didn't think that Prowl saw things his way. The tactician just wasn't emotional enough about stuff like this. He'd appeal, strongly, to Optimus later ... and hopefully Jazz would be around to back him up. Jazz would see this his way, he was certain of it.

A wild, terrible fear bloomed in his spark. What if Jazz was gone? Jazz was so important. He liked Jazz.

So many dead. So many friends, dead. He wasn't sure he could deal with another loss of that magnitude ... Jazz had to be okay. It made him want to snap and snarl and break something just to think about finding a still, cold corpse crumpled into the mud. Instead of allowing himself to imagine that scenario further, however, he turned his attention to the gruesome sight before him.

Soundwave's entire torso was distorted by the force of the explosion, with a huge cavity blown into his abdomin. However, he was picking up a residual power signature. It was most likely simply capacitors and power cells that hadn't fully discharged yet as his body powered down for the last time. However, as Ratchet tried to pop the plates open with his hands, Soundwave's hand curled into a fist.

Prowl's gun appeared, whining as it charged.

"Oh, put that away. Probably just residual reflexes." Ratchet really didn't expect to find any actual life signs. The mech's chest was slagged. Not only that, his cranial case was cracked, and he could hear the occasional fizz and snap of dripping rain water shorting out neural circuits. The whole side of his head was caved in, actually; it appeared he'd hit the ground head first at a high rate of speed.

Ratchet figured out that the reason he couldn't get the chest plates open was that Soundwave's clavicle strut had been blown out of place, disconnected from the shoulder, and shoved over the top of one of the plates by the force of that impact. He produced a crowbar, levered the strut back off the armor plate, then popped the plates with the bar.

The spark chamber beneath ... was not empty. When he put a hand on the sealed metal case he could feel a weak thrum of energy and a low vibration, a pulse of static electricity. Where there was spark, there was life.

His optic ridges rose upwards, as he rocked back on his heels in honest surprise. The mech was probably going to offline at any minute, and he'd probably have significant neural circuit damage if he survived, but he was alive.

He turned to Prowl and said sourly, "Alive. I doubt he'll even survive until we get Skyfire here for transport."

He almost resented this. He wanted to look for Jazz, not waste his time on a dying Decepticon.

Prowl held a hand up, and listened for a moment to an encrypted transmission to Optimus. Then he said, "Megatron just advised they have Jazz."

"Slag," he said, with feeling akin to relief as much as worry. Jazz was alive, then, and where there was life there was hope. They could rescue for him, or bargain to get him back. Jazz was a survivor. Jazz might even free himself before they could retrieve him.

Prowl's face was unreadable, his voice cold. He simply said, "We will need Soundwave alive as a bargaining chip."

"I don't even know where to begin," Ratchet complained, running a hand over his faceplates. Swapping a live Soundwave for Jazz would certainly work; Megatron valued him deeply as one of his most loyal officers. However, he could identify at least six different specific points of damage that could kill the mech in the next few minutes.

"... I have complete faith that you will figure that out." Prowl regarded the limb in his hand with frank distaste. "Do you need this?"

"No." He decided that stopping the energon leaks was priority number one, simply because a leak could cause a fire. They didn't need that complication on board Skyfire.

Prowl started to subspace the limb again, then remembered who was in his subspace, and carefully set it down on top of a junked car. The rain was washing the mud off it. Prowl said, "I'll send a team to deal with the bodies later. Skyfire's twelve minutes away."

"Great." Ratchet retrieved his tools. He shoved a bottle of solvent and a wad of rags in Prowl's general direction. "You sop the mess up after I seal each leak. Got a lot of welding to do here. Don't fancy explaining to Megatron why we're trying to exchange a jar of ashes for Jazz if I ignite the energon."

Twenty-six hours later, Ratchet stumped out of his surgery. He smelled of ozone, fuel, soot, and solder; he had scraped the paint off his forearm while attempting to reach deep into Soundwave's shattered chassis, and he still had mud from the battlefield caked to his knees. Optimus smiled at him as he emerged; Optimus was the only mech in the med bay, and had clearly been waiting for him to emerge.

"How is he?" Optimus asked.

Ratchet shook his head, "He will live, assuming he doesn't chose to follow his cassettes to the Pit out of grief,and because ... well, we need to talk about this in my office. Have we any news on Jazz?"

Only after the door was shut did Optimus say quietly, "Jazz is confirmed alive. Megatron wants Soundwave back badly. He let me talk to Jazz for a minute. Jazz says he's not being badly treated."

"He telling the truth?"

"Prowl thought so. And for what it's worth, Megatron is personally fond of Soundwave. He's expressed a certain degree of eagerness to have him back."

"Good." Ratchet ran a hand over his face, then reached into a cabinet behind his desk and poured himself and Optimus two generous cubes of the best high grade in his stash. Optimus accepted the serving with one lifted optic ridge, but he didn't object. "We probably won't want to give Megatron a full report on Soundwave's degree of damage until he brings Jazz for the exchange."

Optimus frowned. "The agreement with Megatron is that we return him in good working order after repairs - Megatron is well aware that your talents far exceed those of his medical staff."

He smiled briefly at the implied compliment. "Oh, the mechanical mess I've fixed. He's in better repair than he was to start with." Ratchet pressed his lips together for a moment. His opinion of Decepticon medical staff wasn't exactly high. "You saw the damage to his cranial case though, correct?"

Optimus winced. "I feared that was not good."

"Some medics would have let him die." Ratchet tossed back the cube of high grade in one long gulp. It burned going down, and then settled into a pool of unpleasant, churning heat in his tank. He hoped it didn't come back up - he wanted to get thoroughly drunk.

"Can he be repaired?"

"Four million years ago, in a Cybertronian hospital, with the best surgeons in the universe? Yes, mostly. Now ... no. We don't have the equipment or the parts. Nobody does. Not any more." He twisted around to grab the bottle of booze, and poured himself another drink. Then he held the bottle up and looked speculatively at Optimus's cube.

Optimus shook his head, and took a small sip.

"Optimus, he's never going to be the same. I honestly don't know how much auto repair can do ... there's hope, but it'll be hope for a partial recovery. It will not be complete."

"How bad?" Optimus asked.

"There was some physical damage, blunt force, as well as shorting caused by water, to sensory centers. What's gone is gone, and he'll never get it back." He glanced over his drink at Optimus. "Includes the motherboard for his comm circuits and some pretty sophisticated mods that were damaged beyond repair, and I took the liberty of keeping. We can't duplicate 'em now, but maybe someday ... so he won't have an internal comm and I can't replace it because I don't have the parts or the tools."

There were ways around the lack of a comm, and Soundwave would still be able to communicate with Frenzy through their quantum bond, but. However, he didn't miss the irony that Soundwave, the Decepticon's preeminent communications expert, was now effectively deaf and mute to radio frequencies. That was news that would delight Prowl, as it was tactically significant. The 'cons didn't have anyone of anywhere near his skill on Earth to replace him.

"Telepath," Optimus murmured. "Those modifications also?"

Ratchet snorted. "Not any more."

Optimus sighed. "Megatron will blame us."

"Let him," Ratchet snapped. "Point out that they fired the first shot, and the point of having a battle is to slag each other's soldiers up. As far as the remainder of the damage - well, it's a good thing Megatron likes Soundwave. Maybe he'll treat him well. He's going to need constant care for a long time to come ... his reasoning abilities should remain intact, but ... I'm not sure how well he'll function. I've got some experience with dealing with this sort of injury, and communicating to the mechs with it. I doubt the 'cons do. They'd normally offline someone with his level of injuries."

"Ratchet?" Optimus asked, voice softer. "How bad?"

"Behind the sensory arrays is the language center, and if you think about it, that makes sense. There's a thousand tiny connections between his motor relays and auditory and visual systems and the language modules for input and output. The water dripped through and fried those connections pretty nigh completely." He drank half his new cube of energon in one long pull. "So what we have is a Decepticon scientist and top commander who cannot understand nor communicate with language - not spoken, not visual - he won't be able to read or write - not comms, not telepathy. He's pretty much slagged, the poor fragger."

"Nothing?" Optimus, predictably, looked utterly appalled. Then he frowned. "How can you think without words?"

Ratchet shook his head. "That's the beauty of this injury - and I have seen it before, by the way. Long war." He stared into his energon for a moment. swirling it around in his cube. "He can think. There's nothing wrong with the language modules themselves. He just has no language input and no verbal output at all, at least, not until his systems autorepair or rewire around the damage. And like I said, those sorts of repairs tend to be imperfect at best."

Optimus frowned. "But couldn't he just ... write something, if he can't talk?"

"To do that, the sensors in his hands need to talk to the language centers to find out how to shape letters with a stylus, and he needs to be able to visualize letters - by the way, he won't be able to understand his head's up display or his data files or system readouts, either." he drained the rest of his cup, and reached for the bottle. This time, he just took a pull from his bottle. He was going to get thoroughly wasted, as quickly as possible. Injuries like this were his worst nightmare. To be conscious, sane, intelligent, and to be unable to speak or even understand your own system reports?

The last mech he'd known with this sort of injury had killed himself within the first month. Ratchet had never been able to communicate to him that he might improve some over time. At least Soundwave had the background education to understand what was going on, if Ratchet could convey to him what the problem was somehow. Maybe a visual display of some sort ... pictures and diagrams. Soundwave had an engineer's training. He'd get it.

Optimus rubbed his forehead with two fingers. "And his symbiotes?"

"Frenzy's in the brig. He's not injured. The others are all dead."

"... get him out of the brig." Optimus couldn't bear to think of the young mech alone, having lost so very much.

"Optimus, he's a 'con." Ratchet had no illusions about just how dangerous they could be. Frenzy'd almost bitten Prowl's finger off when Prowl had removed mech from his subspace storage.

"I have observed that Soundwave is deeply fond of his symbiotes. Perhaps he even loves them. He has lost all but one, and Frenzy has lost them - including his spark twinned brother." Optimus's level blue gaze, full of compassion and worry, met Ratchet's.

"Do you know how many of our side they've killed?" Ratchet normally wouldn't have spoken so frankly to Optimus, but he'd downed at least three cube's worth of high grade.

Optimus leaned across the desk and plucked the bottle out of his grasp.

"Optimus!" Ratchet protested.

The Prime examined the bottle, then observed, "If you want to pass out, there's far less wasteful was of doing it. This is four million years old."

"Slag." He slumped in his chair and ran both hands over his face. The world was spinning a little, but he wasn't as drunk as he wanted to be. "I couldn't begin to count the number of deaths that sparkless fragger's responsible for. And now he's helpless, in my med bay, and I feel sorry for him. I feel sympathy for him."

"Your compassion is one of your strongest traits, Ratchet." Optimus subspaced the bottle. "Would you like me to tell Frenzy what has happened to his master, or would you prefer to do it?"

"I'll do it. It's part of my job." Ratchet gritted his denta for a moment, not looking forward to that discussion. It wasn't fair to shove it off on Optimus, however, who had far too many other duties as it was.

Frenzy was curled up in a ball, all alone in a large cell. His optics were off but Ratchet could hear soft sobs coming from his vocalizer as he approached. The symbiote could surely hear Ratchet's footsteps, but he didn't move.

He palmed open the cell door, any anger he'd felt towards the symbiote vanishing as he did. They were so tiny, and they were subject to the whims of their masters. He just couldn't hate symbiotes. They did not have true free will, not when they were spark-bound. He could hate Soundwave with a cold-sparked passion, but not his cassettes.

"Frenzy," he said, and was unsurprised when the little mech didn't look up. He tried again, "Frenzy."

No answer.

He sighed and sat down next to the mech. He asked roughly, "You gonna follow Rumble?"

Frenzy slowly brought his optics online and whispered, "I can't. Not until Soundwave goes. I don't want him to be alone."

"You know he's still alive then?" He wasn't sure, with Soundwave being in deep stasis, how much Frenzy would be able to tell.

"He's gonna die, though. I saw that damage." Frenzy shook his head. "The others are all dead. It's over. It's over."

The raw pain in Frenzy's voice made his own vocalizer skip a bit and spit a little static when he tried to respond. He finally managed to say, "Soundwave's going to live."

"What?" Frenzy blinked in surprise.

Ratchet shrugged. "I'm good, what can I say?"

"You shoulda let him die. Without us ... Now they're all dead. It's just me. And him. It's ... not complete." Frenzy let out a soft, ragged sob. He had his arms tightly around his chassis and his optics off again. "I'm not enough. And they're all gone. It's just me. I'm so alone."

Ratchet had been expecting spitting vitriole and vicious insults from the normally scrappy little Decepticon. Frenzy - and his brother - had always seemed to be almost stupidly aggressive. They had delighted in creating violence and mayhem, and okay, issues of free will aside, maybe he could hate them just a little. However, there was none of that nasty little fragger in evidence here. Instead, Frenzy just sounded broken.

"I'm still here for him," Frenzy rocked back and forth. "Until he goes. He'll want to follow them. I'm not enough to keep him here. I'm just one. He's lost the other five of us. He'll follow them, you watch. And then I'll go too. I just ... I don't want him to be the last, I don't want him to wake up alone. It's ... it's horrible to be alone. I'm alone right now. I've never been alone. Never."

Ratchet shook his head, understanding the words, but having no real idea of what it was truly like to be quantum bound to six other mechs - Soundwave and the other five symbiotes. Before being bound to Soundwave, he'd had his brother from the day he came online. With Soundwave in stasis, and the other five dead, he was alone in his head for the first time in his life.

He looked wretched.

Ratchet didn't know what to make of the sort of devotion that Frenzy seemed to have for his master. He had assumed that the casseticons were the equivalent of slaves, and yet Frenzy clearly, truly, loved Soundwave. He didn't know if was as a lover (the cassette was of legal age and had been for awhile - though there were interesting issues of consent therein) or if it was platonic or even a parent/child relationship. But it was clear that Frenzy loved his master beyond all expectations, and he hadn't known many cons who loved others like that.

Tentatively, Ratchet reached a hand out. Frenzy didn't flinch away. He said quietly, "I've repaired what I can. Soundwave has significant neural damage, Frenzy. I need to prepare you for what he will be like when he wakes. You may be the only person who will be able to communicate with him - you are quantum bound to the point of true telepathy with him, yes?"

"Yeah." Frenzy reached a hand out and tried to shove Ratchet's hand off his shoulder. "Don't touch me, Autobot. You'll give me rust."

Ratchet ignored the insults. "He ... suffered significant damage to his language centers. He will not be able to speak, he will not be able to understand speech, including, I suspect, over your quantum bond. The same goes for reading and writing. He has some other damage, but it is minor compared to that. You may be his only link with the world - he will be able to feel your emotional state."

"Shoulda let him die, then," Frenzy repeated. "I wouldn't want to live that way. Would you want to live that way?"

"He may get some function back, over time. It will help that he is bound to you. You can provide him reassurance and contact."

"He's going to join the others." Frenzy predicted. "And then I'll follow."

Ratchet sighed. He felt almost numb as he said by rote the same words he'd said to far too many mechs with broken bonds. "I can't stop you if you decide to deactivate. I hope that you'll think about it, though, because every life is precious. I know it seems hard now, but ..."

"Don't give me fucking sympathy," Frenzy tried to pull himself away. "You slagging Autobots are the ones who killed them! This is your fault!"

"I'm sorry," he repeated. The anger was familiar. They always screamed he didn't understand. The words were expected. He was Autobot. Enemy. A target for blame, even though he resented that blame a bit. The Decepticons had started that fight. He rose, and then when Frenzy made no move to get up, he simply scooped the cassette up into his arms. "Come. You'll want to be in the room when I wake Soundwave."

Once upon a time they would have done everything in their power to save a bonded mech who'd lost the other half of his life. A long time ago, in what felt like another world, as a medic in training, Ratchet had once spent three months tending one young soldier for a half shift every day. That poor sod had been tied to monitors, his spark artificially stimulated, a feeding tube inserted, his hands and feet restrained. He'd been supervised a hundred percent of the time. Ratchet's job had been to keep him from figuring out a creative way to kill himself; to provide companionship and counseling; to sit with him until he found a reason to live again.

That reason had never come. He was very glad that he had not been on shift the day that the mech had simply ceased to function, systems failing from sheer, endless grief.

Now, in this war-ravaged present, they just didn't have the resources. He didn't have the staff, the equipment, the resources or time, to fight like that for the life of an enemy soldier. If they decided to die, he just couldn't stop them.

Frenzy started to fight Ratchet's arms, which Ratchet had expected. Then he just went limp and unresisting. He turned his face towards Ratchet's chest plates, and didn't say a word during the long walk up to the med bay. Ratchet couldn't help but hold him a little tighter, and with a little more care, than he normally would have an enemy soldier. The mech's pain was just so raw.

Soundwave woke to an incredible array of errors. He knew they were errors by instinct, but the scrolling display of text itemizing the errors across his vision made absolutely no sense. Somehow, he thought, something in his textual representation files had been glitched to the Pit and back.

Automatically, he checked the status of his symbiotes ... and found more errors that he couldn't read. But as consciousness became more clear, he could feel an awful, aching, terrible emptiness where once there had been five lives intertwined with his.

:AsIfd?: A small, miserable voice said across the bond. He recognized the tone, if not the words.

:Frenzy ...: He lifted his head from the berth, looking about for his symbiote. His only symbiote. The others were gone, and he was frankly surprised, by the upwelling pit of miserable aching grief from Frenzy, that Frenzy had stayed this long and not followed them. Frenzy and Rumble were as close as bonded twins could be, sharing not only the symbiotic connection but their own private bond as well. Sometimes it had been hard for him to tell them apart, to tell where one ended and the other began, and now there was only half ... only Frenzy.

The little casseticon was standing on a chair beside the berth. He said, :Asif1ds 54igl!ta.:

Soundwave sighed, and said, "Frenzy, reset language module."

Or ... at least he tried. What his own auditory sensors heard was a random string of nonsense sounds.

Frenzy whimpered. Soundwave couldn't quite manage to control his own worry, and when a flash of his fear and concern crossed the bond between them, Frenzy started sobbing. Soundwave tried to sit up, and found he was strapped to the berth. He had never heard Frenzy cry before - swear, curse, scream, and snarl with anger yes, but not cry.

And then there was an Autobot, moving into his field of view, white and red. It was the medic, Ratchet, and he realized belatedly that they were in the Autobot med bay. Why hadn't he recognized that before? He tensed, expecting abuse, but the Autobot simply rested a surprisingly gentle hand on Frenzy's shoulder for a moment. Then he scooped the kid up and dropped him on the berth next to Soundwave.

Frenzy latched onto Soundwave's chestplates, fingers curling into the armor, crying for all he was worth. Soundwave, confused and more than a little frightened, wanted to put his arms around the kid ... but he was strapped down.

Then the Autobto was releasing his straps. Soundwave considered making a break for it, but he wasn't entirely sure how bad his damage was - he was trying to figure out how to debug his readouts, but it was somewhat hard to work on his own systems when he couldn't understand what alphabet the data was being displayed in. It had to be a clever, nasty Autobot hack, rendering all text in a mystery alphabet. He couldn't read his own system files and reports. Anger started to replace the fear. He'd been hacked. Violated.

The Autobot caught his hand and Soundwave tried to yank it away. How dare they. When he got done with them, when Lord Megatron found out ... oh, he would exact his revenge. He was not one for excess emotions, but he was truly, absolutely, furious.

The medic's grip was immovable. He couldn't free his hand. Frenzy was saying something he couldn't understand. The medic ignored Frenzy's apparent protests, and pressed the palm of Soundwave's hand against the side of his head.

He felt ridged metal, recently welded, and not quite perfect. His visor was gone, not just retracted.

The Autobot turned to monitor on the wall. It snapped on, displaying a graphic photo of the side of his head before the repair - visor blasted off, head crumpled, cranial circuits visible through a tear in the metal.

Oh, Primus.

Soundwave knew a fair bit about medicine, and more about neural circuits. He was a hacker by training, a communications expert by inclination, and that meant understanding the hardware engineering as well as the programming. He knew exactly what was underneath that damage.

His arms tightened around Frenzy. He couldn't speak. He couldn't understand. Was the damage total, or were their good circuits in there that he might recover later? He didn't know. But for now, he knew why nothing made sense. His tank churned.

Five of his six symbiotes were dead. He was injured, perhaps permanently disabled ...

The medic was showing him more pictures of the damage, with cutaway illustrations showing details. There were good circuits there for language, but his comm motherboard was gone. The connections between his audio and visual sensors and his language center were fried, but he did have a decent chance of healing somewhat. Given time, given care, he might recover. Hope bloomed, mixed with awful misery. His comm circuits were gone. Gone. His career was over.

His thoughts spun back to the awful grief in his spark. Ravage. Ratbat. Laserbeak. Buzzsaw. Rumble. Five lives intertwined with his since before the war, each precious to him in ways few could ever understand. He loved them more than life itself.

The other 'cons had no idea, no comprehension, of what it was like to have symbiotes. He'd been careful to keep that knowledge hisd secret. He had lost nearly everything but them. They were his, and he was theirs, and now they were gone but for Frenzy.

He summoned his dignity and stroked Frenzy's head, trying to sooth him - though he doubted there was much he could do. Even had he been able to effectively communicate, there were no words that could ease Frenzy's inconsolable grief. He felt a deep, dark, overwhelming pit of despair blooming around his own spark. If not for the youngling in his arms, he would have simply followed the others. However, he knew in his very spark that if he succumbed to that overwhelming darkness that Frenzy would follow. He wanted to die ... but Frenzy was young, and had so much to live for.

He'd lost symbiotes before. It hurt. But never five at once. Never like this. Never in a place and a time where everything else was so desperate. They were starving, they were not winning (though neither were the Autobots), they were a very long way from home and home was devastated and destroyed. Never when he'd lost ... he glanced up at the monitor ... never like this.

Frenzy lifted his head up, looked him in the optics - a rare thing, he always wore his visor, even in recharge - and then slowly drew a finger across his throat. It was a human gesture, but easily understood. Death.

Frenzy smiled faintly, and then stared off into the distance.

He tried to say, Frenzy: No!

It came out with a spurt of static, random nonsense syllables, and choking emotion that he didn't want to express. It was a violation of his dignity and pride to be emotional! He could feel the need for release in the casseticon's spark. Frenzy wanted to go to the others. He wanted to go to his twin. However, would leave Soundwave all alone, entirely bereft, without even the ability to talk.

If he goes, I follow. At least he could feel Frenzy's emotions. If Frenzy left him, he would be devastatingly alone. At the moment, they were so painful they almost physically hurt as they seared across the connection.

And ... there was a sense of waiting.

It took him a minute to remember just how loyal Frenzy was. Oh, he professed to be rough and edgy, he pretended to be a tough guy, but Frenzy would die for him. Or, in this case, live for him. Frenzy wasn't going to go to join the others until Soundwave went. Likely, he wanted Soundwave to go first, intending to follow. He was waiting for Soundwave to make the first move.


He thought of Frenzy laughing. Of the pranks he played. Of his bright intelligence and clever hands. He thought of Frenzy's nascent talent for art, not yet trained or practiced into true skill because there was no time nor supplies, but the kid had a real gift. He had a clever mind and a mischievous sense of humor that Soundwave delighted in. How many times had he felt Frenzy's dark, playful delight across their connection and responded with a better mood of his own?

Frenzy was young. He an adult, true, but so young. He'd grown up during the war. He had so much to live for that he didn't even know about ... and while he would always grieve for his twin and his fellow symbiotes, he could go on. Maybe someday the war would be over, and they could even have a happy life.

Except ... except would Soundwave's life be worth living?

Yes, he decided, tightening his grip ever closer around his symbiote, until Frenzy squirmed a little in discomfort. Frenzy, happy again, would make it worthwhile. Frenzy was all he had left, and he would see Frenzy through this and out the other side.

Soundwave eyed the monitor on the wall. He could see how bad the damage was with his own eyes. His gratitude for the medic's actions in showing him the pictures startled him; he wished he could thank him. Ratchet had not assumed him stupid, and he already knew that there were those who would. Ratchet knew what his education level was; had known he retained enough faculties to draw his own conclusions.

He didn't know, and likely Ratchet didn't either, how much he would get back. To be unable to speak, or understand, or read, or write ... to not even be able to comprehend his own system files ... it was a living nightmare. Horror rose, warring with grief. It would be so easy to give up. It was overwhelming. Terrifying. And even in a best case scenario he'd never be normal again.

Frenzy was looking at him, optics soft and wide and a little desperate. He could feel that Frenzy wanted to go.

No, he thought, a firm denial. No words, just a swift rebuke.

Frenzy recoiled, looking hurt.

He tightened his grip again, and pressed the younger mech's head down to his chest. No, he thought. No, no. Live, Frenzy. Live. Frenzy, all I have left. Frenzy, my only symbiote. Frenzy, mine. Frenzy, live. Frenzy, stay with me. I need you. Soundwave needs you. Frenzy, all I have.

Something of his emotions must have reached the kid, if not his words, for Frenzy's tears changed in pitch. He nodded, and Soundwave felt acceptance and agreement. Frenzy would stay, for him. He would not join his brother.

A hand touched his arm. He nearly snarled, an unseemly and undignified reaction to the medic's touch, but he managed to check himself in time. The medic had two cubes of energon on a tray, one small and one large. The big red and white mech clipped the tray to the railing on the edge of the medical berth.

Soundwave picked the smaller one up, and then sipped from the bigger one just as he felt Frenzy's flare of surprise. The medic had his own cube, and saluted them both with a wave of it. High grade, Soundwave realized, and not a bad vintage. Best he'd had in a very long time, in fact. As medically approved anesthetics went, it was probably a lousy choice, but maybe this was about more than just a little judicious light sedation.

There was communication in the choice of drink.

At that moment, he could have kissed the Autobot with gratitude. Ratchet's choice of beverage said as clearly as any words - You're slagged, I know it, but I acknowledge you're still an adult. And so's your cassette.

His expression was sympathetic. The Autobot started to actually reach out and touch him again, to put a hand on his shoulder in a gesture of sorrow and empathy that transcended factions. Soundwave, who generally didn't appreciate being touched by anyone but his symbiotes, tensed on pure reflex, and the Autobot made a fist and lowered his hand to his side.

Ratchet studied him with an odd expression for a long, long moment, a frown touching his lip plates. The Autobot's gaze moved from Frenzy (who was, oblivious to the subtext, downing his drink) and then back up to Soundwave's face, then down again to Soundwave's hand. Soundwave was stroking Frenzy's plating as Frenzy curled against him.

Then the Autobot turned back to the monitor and made it display a string of images: Megatron holding Jazz by the arm, then Jazz running to Optimus while Soundwave and Frenzy returned to Megatron. And then a picture of a sunrise, with the sun moving up above the horizon, then a human clock showing a mid-morning time.

The latter was clever, Soundwave thought. He couldn't read his own chrono, because the data from it was pure text. (And the sudden realization that he didn't know what time it was gave him a whole new sense of disorientation.) Image recognition went through a different set of circuits than language, however. Thankfully, he could recognize images - and human clocks, the kind with sweeping arms went through his image processor and not his language processor.

Apparently, he would be traded for Jazz tomorrow morning.

Home. He didn't especially care for his fellow Decepticons, but he'd served Megatron well over the years. He was Megatron's loyal and trusted servant. Given time to heal, he thought he could be useful again - and Megatron had made it clear over the years that he genuinely liked Soundwave. If he couldn't function as his communications expert he knew he could still be quite useful as a general tactician and science officer.

He was very relieved that Megatron found him still worthy of an exchange for Jazz, even with his damage. It validated everything he knew about his relationship with the leader of the Decepticons. Unlike Starscream, Megatron personally cared about him.

He looked forward to that exchange. He could go home to his quarters, take care of Frenzy, and ... and Megatron would give him time to recover. He was sure of it. He could be useful again. He would be. He had to be.

Had that small, frightened sob come unbidden from his vocalizer?

He summoned up his pride, and his dignity, and refused to whimper ever again, even as embarrassment flushed through his circuits. He wasn't a sparkling, to cry over unrealized fears. He was a soldier, he was the Decepticon Third in Command, and he would be strong.

The Autobot was looking at him with that funny expression again.

"Soundwave, fine," he tried to snap, but the words came out as a rush of garbled nonsense sounds that ended in a spit of static.

The Autobot medic ran a hand over his face. Then he seemed to slump in place, and he turned, and he left the room. The door clicked locked after him, but not before he saw that there was a guard just outside. After a moment, the lights in the room dimmed. He supposed they should sleep. It must be night time.

Frenzy was done with his energon. Soundwave popped open the cassette compartment on his torso in invitation to the little mech to rest in safety and comfort.

The little symbiote hesitated for a long moment. Rather than leaping into his slot he reached a small hand into Soundwave's chassis and traced the socket belonging to his brother. Then, mutely, he shook his head, and curled up against Soundwave's side. He felt agitated, hurting, grieving, frightened, worried ... Soundwave wasn't sure if he was refusing to recharge in his slot because it reminded him too much of the others, or if he was remembering how they'd died ... inside Soundwave.

They had died in him. He had opened his compartment, thinking they would be safe as they retreated, and then there had been an awful impact and they had died within his own body. His tank churned in reaction to that realization.

He would not show weakness. He would be strong.

He could present an appearance of cool control, but he wasn't fooling Frenzy.

He would be strong.

He would.

He did not cry.

But Frenzy was crying enough for both of them.