Done for a weekly challenge prompt on tf-rare-pairing - "Lennox/Ratchet/grief". Oneshot, DotM compliant.
Lennox knew that it was inevitable that it would eventually hit him. It was waiting, lurking, somewhere under the adrenaline and the fatigue and the rage. He'd lost too many friends and comrades over the years, he knew the process. He could keep it at bay, that eventual catch up, so long as he kept moving, and if he timed it right then his own meltdown, whenever it finally hit, could be contained to somewhere appropriate and private.
Keeping moving in the wake of the Chicago disaster - "Ground Zero", the newscasters were already calling it, sometimes with "alien" or "otherworldly" tacked on to differentiate it from the memorial site in New York - was the least of his worries. Lennox needed more hours in his day and less hours required for dropping over of exhaustion, they all did. He begrudged every minute spent inhaling tasteless MREs or wasted leaning up against wherever he'd fallen asleep because it was one more minute not spent out on the ground, recovering anything and everyone they could. It was one of the few times when he honestly and sincerely envied the Cybtertronian ability to go without fuel or recharge for far longer than frail organic bodies could.
Reinforcements arrived. The Army. The Corps of Engineers. The National Guard. The Red Cross. Volunteers of all stripes, reaching a helping hand out to survivors, and leaving the rest of them to deal with what hadn't survived. There was more help for the former and more to be dealt with of the latter.
Sometime after it all went down - the calendar on his watch told him the date but it didn't really mean anything to him, lost in a fog of work under the hot summer sun and the equally hot halogen spotlights they brought out at night - someone (dusty grey camo, but they all were uniformly covered in ash and dust by then) flagged him down and pressed a folder into his hands. Report orders; the brass had finally staked out a proper temporary base well beyond the boundaries of devastated Chicago, and had gotten through enough of the immediate crisis to want a first hand eyewitness report by a ranking someone on the ground, who just happened to be Lennox.
Lennox was sure they would have called for him sooner if they hadn't had Optimus on the line nearly every second since the dust started settling. Getting it straight from the big guy himself made piddling little things like Lennox's personal report a minor footnote. Still, the military was nothing if not fond of keeping their papers and footnotes in order, so Lennox dusted himself off, splashed a handful of lukewarm bottled water on his face, and went to find the transport that went with the keys that had fallen out of the folder. He was raging inside, bitter about everything that took him away from the work, about the uselessness of reports and paper pushers when what he needed was at least a dozen more squads of security cleared hands to shift rubble, bag and tag the bodies they were still pulling out, and put multiple rounds into any 'Con scrap that dared to so much as twitch.
He was angry, he was tired, he was in motion, and he was not expecting it to hit him when he climbed behind the wheel of the truck. He should have. It was simple, it was obvious, he should have expected it, but he didn't and it hit him after he had thumped a fist against the door and settled into the seat, the keys tossed onto the dash, one arm stretched over the back, neither hand anywhere near the wheel.
And he waited.
Nothing happened. Nothing was going to happen, because it was just a truck, a heavy, dusty, desperately in need of a wash piece of inert metal. Lennox was going to have to retrieve the keys from where he had habitually tossed them, start the ignition, and put his feet on the pedals and give it gas. He was going to have to put his hands on the wheel and work the clutch and oh sweet Jesus in Heaven, the first hysterical part of his mind screamed, he wasn't even sure he remembered how to drive. But he would have to. Because it was just a truck. It was always going to be just a damned truck.
It was late afternoon, shading into evening, and the crews were all out working on the recovery. It was the only saving grace in the entire fucked up affair, the fact that no one was there to see him break down. No one got to watch as William Lennox screamed, ripping and clawing and beating at the dash of a truck whose only offense was in being a truck. No one was there to witness their commander swearing until his voice broke, or kicking the crap out of tires that were just rubber, nothing more.
He wasn't aware he was crying until the headache set in, tense and tight behind sinuses too choked to breath through and eyes too swollen and streaming to focus. His throat was sore, chest tight, and they were probably going to take the cost of the shattered windshield out of his pay but he couldn't make himself care in the slightest. It was tempting to just set the whole damned thing on fire, but the exhaustion slipping in on the wake of the maelstrom of reaction effectively throttled his rage, leaving sucking grief in its wake.
Dragging his hands across his aching eyes made him aware that he'd ripped hell out of his hands as well. That, at least, made him push himself upright and moving - God knew, he had been out combing through the rubble all day, and his hands were covered in dust and grit and probably asbestos and fuck all knew what that was now scrubbing into his raw knuckles and dozens of bleeding cuts. Days of yelling at younger recruits about the need for basic first aid sent him stumbling off in search of something preferably antiseptic to wash his hands in, even if all he wanted to do was collapse right there on the broken concrete and howl until he couldn't anymore.
Lennox expected to find Ratchet in the space that had been set aside as a temporary on-site medbay for Cybertronians and humans alike. That was good, that was perfectly fine - the Autobot medic would ask fewer questions, file 100% less reports, and undoubtably had a bottle or a barrel of antiseptic wash somewhere readily on hand.
He had lost track of how many days had passed by in a haze of frantic activity and barely napping and that, really, was his only excuse for how badly his expectations failed to line up to reality for the second time that day. He'd expected to find the medic in the medbay, hopefully up to his elbows in scavenged Decepticon parts just like he had been every other time Lennox had seen him if no one in the work crews had managed to get themselves hurt in the meantime.
He was partially right. The medbay - nothing more than the hollowed shell of a mostly intact warehouse - was empty, generator lights on, and the near skeletal remains of a picked over 'Con chassis spread in heaps and pieces across the makeshift worktable that Ratchet had pieced together from sheetmetal scrap. The medic himself was there, alone.
The medic was there and not working. He was kneeling on the ground, hands held limp against his knees, armor clamped tight to his frame, and almost no light in the dim pinpricks of his optics. The soft droning sound coming from him was barely audible and nothing like anything even remotely human.
Lennox knew what recharge looked like. NEST had been his life for so long that he knew what the Autobot equivalent of concussed, or drunk, or stoned looked like. He knew the assorted ways they all signaled pain or other ailments. He had seen them angry, seen them celebrate, seen them grieve, and he had thought he was pretty much an expert on alien body language.
He also thought he had a pretty good idea what he was looking at, even, but there was no way in hell he was even remotely qualified to deal with it. He should, he thought dimly, call someone. Optimus. Bee. Sideswipe, or even one of the Wreckers.
What held him back was his own gratitude that no one had been there to see him break, and calling any of the other mechs would be to take that same forgiving grace away from Ratchet. Lennox knew how much the medic hated displaying 'weaker' emotions, knew how long and patiently the big black mech they had shared in their lives had waited to provide a solid rock for the medic to lean on when all of that bottled up suppression finally broke, and a man just didn't do that to a comrade, not unless he had to. A man - or mech - had a right to their own coping in their own time. Ratchet wasn't harming himself, or anyone else. He was just… grieving. Not the public 'respect for their fallen comrades' that was for human eyes, or the lashing out and screaming kind that Lennox tended towards, but his own unique grief, and Lennox wouldn't have disrupted it for the world.
That option scattered to the winds when the scrape of his boot on the concrete made the medic's head jerk up, a deep, almost gasping intake of air whistling through his frame as his optics brightened. "Lennox?" Hydraulics hissed as the medic forced himself into motion, pushing himself up on his knees in preparation for standing. His voice thicker than normal, laced in static. "What's wrong?"
"No, it's okay, it's nothing," Lennox told him hastily. His own voice was just as thick, if not worse, throat raw from crying and screaming. He held up his hands - regretting it as it brought the injuries right into line of sight for the medic's scans - and cleared his throat before trying it again. "Nothing major. See? Just came to get some wash. I'll get it, okay? Just… stay put."
"Don't tell me what to do," the medic rasped, but it had barely a whisper of his normal sharp tempered force. Shoving himself to his feet, he crossed to a palette of supplies and dug around in it. When he returned to crouch down beside Lennox he had a small cardboard box in hand - which, when ripped open with one metallic fingertip as easily as shredding tissue paper, revealed four industrial sized bottles of hydrogen peroxide. "I trust you can manage," Ratchet told him roughly, setting the box down at Lennox's feet. "Personally, I think it might be more expedient to just crush the whole thing and pour it over you."
That close, Lennox could hear the metal on metal scrape of the medic's armor and nearly see the closely held vibration through the mech's plating. He was close enough to read the tension lines in Ratchet's facial plates, the way it narrowed the light of his eyes and tightened everything through his mouth until you could all but hear the grind.
The Army had taught Lennox plenty, but some of the best lessons were things that never showed up in rule books. A man didn't intrude on a friend's grief when that friend needed to be left alone, and he didn't leave a friend hurting when that friend needed help, even if the friend swore he didn't. To NEST the Autobots, for all that they were giant mechanical beings from a distant planet, were, first and foremost, comrades. Friends.
He didn't really have to think it through; it was reflex, pulled from too many memories of seeing his big, gruff black truck tug the acerbic medic close, or the rare times Ratchet had allowed himself to lean on Ironhide's solid strength. Memories of catching the two of them just sitting together, the medic's head resting against the weapon specialist's shoulder as Ironhide curved a heavy arm around Ratchet's shoulder, black armor plates flared wide to shield the fitfully recharging medic from sun and rain alike.
They had, all of them, practiced safely scaling their towering allies until Lennox could easily scramble his way up a moving, fighting, living metal frame while in the dark, half asleep, with his eyes closed, and not get any fragile fingers or limbs caught in the process. It was simplicity itself to catch the lowest rung of the solid grille of the medic's chest and swing himself upwards, leaving dirty boot prints on equally dusty metal as he climbed, his feet steady enough that he barely needed his hands.
His jacket was as filthy as the rest of him, thrown on in a halfhearted attempt to hide the even more disgusting state of his t-shirt. It was only cloth, nothing at all like metal, and it barely covered the top of Ratchet's head when Lennox stripped it off and threw it over the medic. When he tugged it forwards the tiny bit of shade it created, cast over the upper portions of the mech's face, made the Autobot's optics glow twice as brightly. "Sorry," he told Ratchet softly. "I don't have armor."
Ratchet's optics flickered, dimming and brightening, shuttered to mere slits that were still, each of them, easily as wide as Lennox's hands. Lennox had seen an Autobot 'cry' - the vid clips of a dramatically sobbing Bumblebee, optics spilling over with wiper fluid, had made the rounds of everyone's phones on base. Ironhide (and oh, Jesus, it hurt to think of him, it hurt to say the mech's name or remember the sound of his voice and Lennox's chest was too tight and his eyes blurring) had laughed when he'd seen it. "He's just pretending," the weapon specialist had said, and had gone on to tease the younger Autobot mercilessly about his mimicking and acting abilities. Bumblebee, in good spirits, had taken the teasing with an acceptance speech worthy of an Oscar. Real grief among the mechs, Lennox had thought, looked more like when they commemorated their own dead or stood at attention for the deaths of the humans that served with them - solemn, sober, silent.
He should have known better. He should have recognized soldiers at attention, saluting the casket as it passed, standing in formation around the graveside, and how little that had to do with real grief and the display of it in private.
Ratchet shuttered his eyes completely, air hissing out in a sharp ventilation all over his frame, and his hands came up to steady Lennox against the cage of his chest as he shook. "Slag," he whispered roughly, the word vibrating through Lennox's boot soles on a rough spike of static. "Frag it to the Pit." Lennox caught at the hands around him, holding tight to them as the medic hunched down, curling.
The sound was a hundred times louder and clearer at close range, utterly alien and utterly recognizable. Sustained by a being who had no need to breathe, it was one continuous sound that rose and fell, rose and fell, crackling through static and electric noises that Lennox remembered best from the dial-up modems of his youth. It went on and on, shaking through his bones, every hair on his body raised by inaudible sounds on frequencies he couldn't even hear, with none of the regular intonation of what he knew of Cybertronian speech.
Keening. It was keening, a wordless howl of pure, private emotion, pain embodied in sound. This was Cybertronian crying. This was the reality of grief. Lennox caught another handhold, scrambling further up, and the hours and days of practice were worth it because he couldn't see a damned thing through his own tears, finding the medic's shoulder by muscle memory and touch. Ratchet, freed of the need to hold him, dropped his face into his hands, curling into himself as he shook, the vibration rattling the teeth in Lennox's head.
He caught his jacket before it could fall, tugging it back into place across the back of Ratchet's head, and steadied himself there as well, his weight draped across the side of the medic's helm as he held on, inside and out. "It's okay," he whispered, knowing Ratchet could hear him, his own voice breaking. "Let it go. He'd want you to."
It was his own undoing as well, the sobs wracking through the tightness of his chest and deep into his bones, where he was vibrated clear through by the raw, electric wail of Ratchet's grief. There was a time and a place for solitude and a time and a place when grief was best shared. Curled together, then and there, was sharing, for everything lost and the friends not with them, and Lennox knew, deep in his blood and bones, that 'alien' was only a word the news anchors slung around - what the 'Bots were, most of all, was people.