a/n: This story is the sequel to Dear Lies. Special thanks to Lady Azar de Tameran for the beta-work and help completing difficult scenes. Be warned that this story will have references to past noncon, past mechslash, and contains debates on moral and ethical punishments. Please enjoy.

Title: Half-Truths

Characters: Past Jazz/Ratchet, Wheeljack, the Twins, Others

Rating: M

Genre: Angst, Horror

Warnings: mentions of dubcon and noncon, bondage

Summary: G1. Sequel to Dear Lies. It's a universal constant that the best lies are half true.


Nighttime, Earth's equivalent of off-shift, is by far the worst. Every soft noise of the Ark makes Ratchet twitch. Every flickering light or quiet click make his spark twinge with dread.

He can look a few berths over and see Jazz's stasis locked frame, but that doesn't make him feel any less apprehensive. Worse that he doesn't have anything to distract him. He's been banned from his medbay so that he can "heal" by order of his Prime, forced to obey his apprentice in all matters related to his recovery. Not that any of them have the first clue how to handle this except for the physical matters.

The psychological matters are another cog entirely.

His only distraction is the pain. A spark is as intangible as it is tangible. Yet, it can convey pleasure in the same way it conveys agony. The sharp knife that cuts through Ratchet is felt strut-deep. It makes him ventilate shallowly, makes his circuits surge erratically. The further he is from Jazz, the worse it gets, but Ratchet isn't going to get any closer.

He'd rather have the pain.

The quiet hours when he should be recharging are the worst. He can't recharge, doesn't want to, and only required systems shut down to give him a few hours peace. They are the hours when he starts to think, when his addled processor leaps from random thought to anxious wondering, when the memories decide to refresh themselves. When he can't help but pull them up again and again and wonder what he missed, how he couldn't have seen this coming.

He begins to wonder if he'd made a mistake.

Loneliness surges through Ratchet, overriding the vague numbness that has been the majority of his sensation lately. His spark continues to tug him toward his almost-mate, desperate to complete the bond. Sometimes, he catches echoes, lingering traces of Jazz both in his systems and in his spark.

Ratchet turns his head, staring at Jazz's stasis-locked frame. His sensors pinpoint, identify, and catalogue every aspect of Jazz's systems. In the dim of the medbay, Jazz still appears to gleam, as handsome as the day Ratchet first met him. He looks wrong lying there. No energy to his motions. No playful mischief in his visor.

Three days. It's been three days. Enough time for the physical injuries to be mended, except for the agony in his spark. Time is the only balm for that particular wound.

And tomorrow is the inquest. Ratchet should be recharging, preparing for what is likely going to be a grueling affair, no matter how delicate he knows his Prime will be.

Instead, he stares up at the medbay's ceiling, thoughts swirling over and over in self-recrimination.

Maybe he made a mistake.

o0o0o

Ratchet supposes he should be grateful that Optimus wants to keep recent events to only the command staff. These are the sorts of rumors that they don't want spreading around. The faith that everyone has in Jazz is nearly on par with the faith that they have in Ratchet. They're fighting a war, too, and the last thing the Autobots need is something to unsettle their comfortable base.

Worse that they have all become so close-knit over the years. No one can be impartial. Jazz is everyone's friend; Ratchet is their chief medic. Jazz and Prowl are as close as brothers. Ratchet and Wheeljack are best friends.

The casual atmosphere Optimus tries to effect fails miserably for Ratchet. They're in a small conference hall rather than the brig, which might be more appropriate depending on an individual's point of view, and Ratchet is sitting at a table with everyone else. He's not in a chair, the sole focus, which would again probably be more appropriate. But he can see the dimness in Optimus' optics.

This sort of event is unprecedented. They are so few now with the laws and rules of Cybertronian society four million years behind them. The Autobots are a law unto themselves, governed by the inherent structure of a military unit. In the end, final judgment will be made by their Prime.

Ratchet's spark gives another painful lurch. He winces, stifling a hiccup of discomfort, only exacerbated by the tension in the air right now.

"Ratchet," Optimus says gently. "We don't have to do this now. The situation remains unchanged. We can delay the proceedings-"

"No," Ratchet cuts him off, perhaps a bit rudely than he would usually. "I'm fine."

Optimus gives him a level look. "You are anything but fine, old friend. But I can understand the need to believe otherwise." He approximates a sigh and sits back, optics flicking around the table to the small gathering.

Prowl to his left and Blaster on the other side. Ironhide to his right and Red Alert next to him. Wheeljack is here, too. With Ratchet across from Optimus, the sole focus of their Prime's incisive gaze, something that can make a bot guilty without even trying.

Not that Ratchet needs it. He has enough regret, enough second-guessing of his actions. He doesn't need them to condemn him.

"Then shall we begin?" Prowl asks curtly, sitting ramrod straight. His doors are held up above him in a tight configuration, betraying his own discomfort with the whole situation. He surely must feel torn, trapped between loyalty to his brother in all but name and his bonded. "An attack on a fellow Autobot is no small transgression."

"Though one executed in self-defense is a different matter," Optimus replies, giving his second a stern look. Ratchet has the feeling this is a discussion the two of them have had prior to this meeting.

Prowl doesn't so much as flinch. "Self-defense has yet to be determined."

"Uh, unless you're calling Ratchet a liar, I'm pretty sure it has," Blaster comments with a raised orbital ridge.

"One does have to question the legitimacy of the accusations," Red Alert adds with a thoughtful click of his mouthplates. "Not that I'm claiming anyone of telling falsities, but that given the relation between the two at question, one wonders what precisely the issue is. Or was rather."

Ratchet shifts in his chair, opting to keep silent until someone addresses him directly. They all have valid points. Why should they believe Ratchet over Jazz? Because he's the one that's conscious with full access to his memory core? What makes either Ratchet or Jazz more worthy of trust than the other?

They've been comrades in arms for eons. How does one handle something like this?

Blaster ventilates noisily, giving Ratchet an apologetic look. "Sorry, Ratch, but Red's got a point. You and the Jazz-bot were together for a couple of years. It's just a bit odd that you didn't notice anything sooner, yeah?"

"Not necessarily," Wheeljack interjects, and he sounds a touch offended. "How much of those years was Jazz actually on base? How much of it did Ratch spend in the medbay?"

Optimus lifts a hand, a gesture he's picked up from the humans. His voice is calm but strained

"Easy, Wheeljack. The question is legitimate. Perhaps what none of us have considered yet is that this behavior is recent and the result of a virus or a glitch."

Guilt swamps Ratchet so heavily he can't do anything but slump. Why hadn't he, the supposed chief medical officer, considered that? In retrospect, that should have been his first suspicion. Jazz's behavior had seemed to come from nowhere, but he'd thought it a product of his own obliviousness and Jazz's inherent possessive nature.

Could he have been so wrong?

"Did Hoist not scan his coding and run full anti-virals?" Prowl questions as his gaze sweeps around the room.

"He did," Ratchet answers before anyone else can, refusing to conceal the static in his vocalizer. He knows better than to suggest himself. "But he's not as trained for it as others. Someone else should do it. 'Jack?"

The engineer shakes his head. "Not me, Ratch. I'm better with mechanics not coding. You know that. Maybe Prowl?"

"No."

The lieutenant gives no other reason, just the emphatic, glyph-laden negative.

"Skyfire?" Wheeljack then suggests though it is hesitant. Rightly so, as that would involve telling more mechs about the truth of matters.

Blaster runs a hand over his helm. "Jazz's like the absolute best coder I know, aside from a few Decepticons. He woulda known if something was off in his systems, yeah?"

"Not necessarily," Ratchet replies with an audible ventilation. "I find it unlikely that this is a mere glitch, but I wouldn't protest to having someone check." He would be relieved actually, though it wouldn't allay the guilt.

"If that's what ya want done, Prime, I can do it," Blaster adds though he is hardly enthused about it. "I know enough to do a proper search. When would you like me to start?"

"Immediately," Prowl interjects before anyone else can get a word in edgewise.

Optimus looks uncomfortably resigned. "Yes, Blaster. If you can. We can't proceed any further until we eliminate or confirm this possibility."

"Yes, sir."

"Since nothing more can be discussed, we'll call an end to the inquest for today." Optimus abruptly rises to his pedes, hands planted flat on the conference table. "It goes without saying that nothing we've discussed here should leave the room."

"Bots are askin' questions," Ironhide finally inserts. He looks uncomfortable, though rightly so "What're we sposed to tell 'em?"

Red Alert gathers up his many datapads. "Nothing for now. I'm sure enough rumors will spread on their own. Perhaps they will merely chalk it up to a particularly strenuous bout of interfacing and teasing will commence."

Ratchet fails to hide his wince. Neither do the others.

Red Alert, tact knows not thy designation.

Their Prime makes a sound not unlike that of a human clearing their throat. "In any case, please do not confirm or deny anything. We'll reconvene as soon as Blaster has something to report. Understood?"

A chorus of acknowledgment echoes through the gathered mechs. They all rise to their pedes, making for the door with the low murmur of conversation already buzzing between them. Ratchet stays seated, and Optimus too remains behind. He waits until they leave, pretending he doesn't notice the varied glances tossed his way, before he rises from his chair with a slow and ponderous motion. It feels as though it takes greater effort to leverage himself up.

"Shall I go to the brig then?" Ratchet asks, using great effort to keep his vocalizer from wavering.

"The brig?" Prime's optics spiral outward, betraying his surprise, as he circles around the table. "I had no intention of confining you, Ratchet."

"I don't see why not. I harmed a fellow Autobot." He feels his tanks roil, the impulse to purge rising up within him. "It's the least of what I deserve."

Optimus lifts his hands, perhaps intending to comfort Ratchet in some way. But at the medic's flinch, he wisely lowers them.

"The motivations behind this matter are still under debate, but I'm certain brig-time is not the answer to anything here."

"I can't return to my medbay."

"Unfortunately not."

He resists the urge to ask where the frag else he ought to go. "I see."

The Prime's plating lifts and clamps down, once again fighting the urge to exhibit tactile comfort. Ratchet almost feels sorry for Optimus, trapped as he is amongst his many loyalties. To cause this much conflict in their already troubled Prime… well, Ratchet's own guilt amps itself up several notches.

"Take the opportunity to recover a bit more, old friend. I'm not remanding you to quarters, but-"

"It's best if I stay there," Ratchet finishes for him, his spark giving a surge of discomfort.

More's the pity as there is nowhere else on the Ark Ratchet would feel more uncomfortable, save perhaps for Jazz's room.

o0o0o

Ratchet's only consolation is that his quarters remain as empty as they were a week ago when Jazz took it upon himself to remove all of his belongings for cohabitation. The room looks entirely unlived in, which makes it easier to forestall any uncomfortable reminders of the chaos that waits outside the door.

In the still silence of the room, Ratchet ventilates softly. He sits in the chair in front of Teletraan One's terminal and stares blankly at the screen. His HUD pings him, reminders that he could use a cube of energon, but Ratchet has no urge to go to the rec room.

His chronometer reminds him that now is about the usual time he's getting off shift in the medbay. When Jazz swings by to pick him up, usually with cube in hand, and off they go.

There's nothing in his room to remind him of that terrible night from a week ago, and yet, the utter silence is all too telling.

Rest and recover.

As though it should be so easy.

Physically, Ratchet barely suffered any damage. A few scuffs and dents from the cuffs and one on the back of his helm from whatever Jazz had done to knock him briefly online. The worst damage is to his spark, but even that shows no outward sign of injury.

Ratchet's insides twist, and a low grunt escapes him. He palms his chest plate, feeling the thrum of his spark beneath. A consequence of the half-initiated bond; he knows this as well as anyone. It could be weeks, months, frag even years, before all the strange sensations and stray thoughts go away. If Jazz's memory core wasn't wiped, if he was conscious, the feedback would be so much worse...

What will Blaster find? What if there is a virus or a glitch or something Ratchet, as the most trained medic in the Ark, should have found first? Why hadn't that thought ever crossed his processor? Why had he automatically assumed that there was something nefarious behind the scenes?

Has the war changed his conceptions about matters? So much that he first thinks the worst of mechs, even his fellow Autobots?

Ratchet slumps in his chair, slapping a hand over his face and shuttering his optics. Too much. This is too much. Sitting here in the half-dark emptiness of his quarters with nothing but the sound of his own systems echoing around him.

He wants nothing more in this moment to be with Jazz again. The Jazz who hadn't betrayed him and shattered his trust. He wants to curl next to the mech, listen to the familiar hum of his systems, and laugh over some shared joke. He wants Jazz to tease him, to respond with empty threats, and to feel clever fingers tease at his plating.

His spark surges, sympathetic. It feels too large for his casing, stretched and sore, if something intangible can even carry such a sensation. His frame is equally tight, too small, not enough to contain him.

Ratchet curls into himself, fighting off the waves of inevitable pain. How the frag could it have all gone so wrong?

o0o0o

"It's not a glitch," Blaster says, his vocalizer lacking its usual infectious cheer and amusement. "Or a virus. Not any I could recognize or categorized in any of our databanks."

"It could be something new. It's not unheard of for Decepticons to devise new forms of viral warfare," Prowl suggests with the air of a grounder grasping at the clouds. Utterly pointless and only forestalling the inevitable.

Prime's noisy ventilation does more to invoke Ratchet's lingering guilt than the dying hope in the optics of the others in the room.

"No, Prowl, I don't think that is the case. No matter how much we wish it were so."

The SiC's doors drop by a fraction of an inch as Prowl inclines his head. "The only logical conclusion is one that doesn't bear considering."

"Yet, it is the conclusion that must be discussed." Prime lays his hands flat on the table, fingers spread, a gesture that indicates the difficulty of the situation. "Jazz's actions are of his own choosing, and it is them we must judge."

Heavy silence sweeps into the room. Ratchet can't speak, doesn't dare say anything for fear of how his words might be interpreted.

Red Alert places a datapad on the table, the screen dark. "What it boils down to, Prime, is whether or not we restore Jazz's memories. That is the question we must answer. Because if we do not, we only have the options of dealing with a sparkling with Special Ops instincts, complete reprogramming, or execution."

Ratchet flinches. He's not the only one. Execution, even for criminal behavior, has never been done amongst the Autobots. Not even their Decepticon prisoners have ever suffered such a fate. The prospect of dealing with a sparkling in Jazz's frame is barely the lesser of two evils. Such a reprogram would never shake the stigma of its previous life.

"I need ta know what's really goin' on here," Ironhide puts in darkly, gaze shifting all around the table. "We all got the basic picture, but I still don't get how somethin' like this coulda happened. No offense, Ratch, but it came outta nowhere."

"Preaching to the choir, 'Hide," Wheeljack mutters, indicators flashing a sullen green. "None of us thought Jazz capable."

"Capability wasn't in question," Ratchet says, his spark giving an unwelcome surge that makes his plating crackle. "And I don't have the answers for you, Ironhide. I didn't see this coming any more than you did."

Prowl straightens, doors held up above him in a tight configuration. "You were together for years, and there was no sign? You noticed nothing?"

The lieutenant's questions approach accusation, one Ratchet can't be sure if he deserves or not. His own thoughts haven't settled one way or the other. Nevertheless, a touch of his old spirit returns as he squares his shoulders.

"Of course I noticed," Ratchet snaps, his words a whip-crack in the otherwise tense atmosphere. "I noticed lots of things. But I didn't automatically connect mildly possessive and weirdly obsessed with my energon habits with he's going to force me into a spark bond!" His hands slam into the table with more force than is wise, his plating rattling audibly.

Prowl's optics cycle down. "It's no small wonder Jazz was confused. Particularly since to him, your rejection must have come from nowhere."

Ratchet feels heat surge through his systems. He's angry now, but he isn't entirely sure it's appropriate.

"You're treading on dangerous ground, Prowl," he grounds out, "to imply that my repeated requests for him to stop were somehow unclear."

Prowl just looks at him. He and Prowl aren't brothers by creation, but it's a fact that is so easy to forget at times. Especially right now.

"Would such a bond have been so terrible?"

Ratchet jerks backward, spark stuttering at the tone and words both.

"Prowl!" Wheeljack interjects with a horrified blitz of static. He stares at his bonded like he's never seen the mech before, and Ratchet can't blame him.

"It's a logical question," Prowl retorts, his optics a flat shade of blue that even Sideswipe has learned to fear. "Jazz brought you energon. Saw to your needs. Cared for you. Loved you and was devoted to you. Was a bond with him truly a fate worse than deactivation?"

A low thrum resonates throughout the room as Optimus leans forward.

"Freedom is the right-"

"Freedom," Prowl coolly interrupts, "does not exist during wartime. There is a larger picture. We are, as a species, becoming extinct. Dwindling more with each clash with the Decepticons. We need Jazz."

Ironhide rumbles ominously. "We also need our CMO."

"It was a spark bond. Between two mechs in a previously established relationship. Hardly deactivation," the lieutenant retorts with the same even tone as before, all pragmatism and logic. "The Decepticons still outnumber us and have the greater firepower. We cannot afford to lose any skilled mechs. Not even for a lover's spat."

Prowl's optics shift to Optimus. The room is silent then. Processing. Reaching conclusions that Ratchet doesn't even want to fathom.

"You know that I'm right, Prime." A shudder visibly races across his frame, but he continues without pause, "This is Jazz we're discussing here, not some sparkless drone. More than that, he cannot even speak for himself currently."

"Mech, you might wanna watch yer tone," Ironhide all but growls, one hand resting on the table but the other out of sight. "Because yer also sittin' there accusing the slaggin' chief medical officer of not only lyin' but deliberately cripplin' a fellow Autobot."

"Either way, someone is the victim, and someone is the criminal," Blaster says, his vocalizer tuned louder than usual, as though to override any other possible commentary. "I don't know how any of us are qualified to judge either way. We're all biased."

"That's enough." The words tumble out of Ratchet's vocalizer before he entirely knows what he's going to say. He finds himself on his pedes in much the same manner. "This is getting us nowhere."

Behind him, Wheeljack shifts. "Ratch-"

It takes all he has to conceal his wince at the too-familiar nickname.

"No," Ratchet interrupts to whatever protest Wheeljack might have intended. "Give Jazz back his memories."

He could have called himself the spark-bonded of Unicron for all the shock that his suggestion produced. Not even Prowl looks satisfied, which only serves to boggle Ratchet further.

He can hardly blame Prowl though. He and Jazz are close. Closer than anything but the sparkmated mechs amongst the Ark's populace. And maybe even closer than that.

Someone touches Ratchet's arm, and if not for their familiarity from over the vorns, Ratchet might have shifted straight into offense mode. As it is, he recognizes the warm press of Wheeljack's energy field, but the contact is still uncomfortable, still holds a faint trace of Jack's own bondmate.

Ratchet shakes off his hand, taking a decisive step away from his closest friend.

"Maybe I overreacted," Ratchet says in the ensuing silence, while all optics are focused his way, giving him perhaps his only real chance to speak. "Maybe I didn't make myself clear. Maybe I'm really at fault." He doesn't look at anyone, instead focusing on the relative safety of the wall, which stares back at him completely without judgment. "Prowl's right. No matter what happened; we can't afford to lose Jazz. Not just because of the Decepticons, but also because of our fellow Autobots. He's needed."

"He's not the only one." Wheeljack tosses a cutting look toward his bonded. "You're not indispensable either."

"We are still fighting a war," Ratchet reminds them, as though the command staff could have possibly forgotten.

And though part of him screams that the last thing he wants is for Jazz to pick up where he left off, he knows what's best for the good of everyone else. So he speaks, the words coming from a numb, insentient mechanical place inside of him. Like a robot without a spark.

"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Even medics understand that."

Wheeljack sputters a helpless burst of static, trapped between loyalty to his bonded and his best friend. No one else speaks yet, disheartened quiet sweeping through the small meeting room.

Logic and rationality dictate that Prowl is right. And Ratchet, too. Emotion and sentiment cry for a different approach.

"We are overlooking an important detail here," Red Alert finally speaks up, fingers rapping over the tabletop. "Yes, it would benefit the Autobots to have Jazz's memories returned to him. But he doesn't need them all."

Prime straightens then, and his optics are nothing short of grateful for the lifeline Red Alert just threw him.

"What do you mean?"

"I don't claim to understand the full mechanics of how a memory core works, but it stands to reason that backups are mere data." Red Alert pauses for a second, and his hand stills. "Data can be altered."

Wheeljack's indicators pulse weakly. "That's hardly less ethical..."

"It is the only practical option," Red Alert corrects, and his voice is practical but somehow tired at the same time. "When did Jazz last back up his memory core?"

"Right after he returned from his last mission. Roughly a month ago," Ratchet supplies.

And right before I officially ended our relationship.

Red Alert makes a low noise of consideration. "We would have to construct a story, of course, to cover gaps in Jazz's memory files, but it's not impossible."

Prowl's doors hike backward, rigid and unyielding. "You mean to suggest we edit a fellow Autobot's memories and carefully construct a lie all for the sake of an act we've yet to prove?"

"Prowl," Prime cuts in, his voice suddenly sharp. "I understand your reluctance to believe the worst of Jazz, and it may be that there is a serious misunderstanding here, but consistently debating what ifs is not going to solve the problem we face. We need to make a choice. For everyone's sake."

The tactician's energy field ripples tangibly. His fingers curl into fists, and for a long moment, Prowl looks as if he might argue before he dips his head in acquiescence.

"Yes, Prime."

Ratchet shutters his optics for a second before turning to Prowl.

"All you have to do is ask," he says with an embarrassing crackle of his vocalizer. "I'll show you what I remember of that night. You can see my memories of it, my perceptions, and then you can decide whether or not I was mistaken."

The idea of someone uplinking to him makes Ratchet's tanks churn, but it may be a necessary evil.

"Slaggit, medic, ya don't hafta do that," Ironhide insists with a fierce jerk of his hand.

"I will if I must." Ratchet's shoulders slump, his frame feeling tight and creaky. Old. He's tired of fighting. "Prime?"

Optimus vents noisily, hands once again spread across the table. "No, Ratchet. That won't be necessary." His vocal tones shift into low register. "Jazz's memories will be returned to him. They will be edited to suit a proper cover story. Blaster?"

The communications officer shakes his helm. "The kind of editing you're asking for... it's complicated and a bit out of my area of expertise. I can't do it on my own."

Prowl's energy field fluctuates again. His back is now ramrod straight, and his optics all but burn.

"I refuse."

Nearby, Blaster edges away. His own energy field draws in tightly around him as though offended by the virulent nature of the bot next to him.

"I do have someone in mind, but you'll probably object," Blaster comments, but his voice is a twinge hesitant.

Red Alert frowns. "Who?"

Blaster's gaze skitters around the room. "Sideswipe."

"Are ya glitchin?" Ironhide demands with an outraged roar that makes Ratchet flinch and shut off his reflexive battle routines.

Energy crackles between Red Alert's helm crests, a sure sign that he does not approve.

"I do not think it's wise-"

"-more likely to leave chaos in his wake than to-"

"-and they call me crazy."

"I know what I'm talking about," Blaster retorts with an indignant twitch of his armor. "Sides is a genius when it comes to this kind of stuff. And Jazz's processor is the least linear system I've ever peeked into. I need Sideswipe's help."

Optimus drums his fingers across the table, a habit he's picked up from Sparkplug. "You are certain he can be trusted with this task."

"Of course, boss bot." Blaster motions to the translucent glass of his chest compartment. "I'd stake my spark on it."

An oath that few Cybertronians take lightly, even in these days of unending war against the Decepticons. These days, all that a bot owns is his spark.

In the wake of Blaster's confidence, Prime leans back. He is quiet for a moment. Contemplative. Optics flicking from Ratchet to Prowl and then around the table.

"Very well," he finally allows. "Explain to him what has happened and what you need from him. Enforce memory blocks if you must."

Prowl bristles. His field is staticky and painful to feel, and Ratchet actually has a second to think that Prowl might actually resort to violence.

"You can't seriously-"

"Since you refuse to attend to this matter, I will rely on whomever else can complete the task," Prime interjects, taking on a steely note, harmonics brooking no argument.

Prowl clamps his mouthplates shut, but his gaze spits fire, and Ratchet is only grateful the tactician doesn't have laser vision.

No one else offers an argument, however. What can they say? What other choice do they have?

o0o0o

Sometimes, it happens. Sometimes, sparks just won't bond. Maybe the frequencies are too dissimilar, the wavelengths too dissonant. Maybe there's an integral flaw in one spark or the other that causes them to repel. Maybe it's just not meant to be.

No one really knows why. There's never one simple explanation. No true way to test ahead of time.

It happens. It's rare, but it happens. Out of all the mechs in all of Cybertron, it's not impossible for there to be another Cybertronian whose spark frequency grates against a potential mate. But it seems a one in a billion chance to end up attached to the one mech a bot can never bond.

Ratchet himself has only seen it twice: once in a singular pair early on in his career and later in a trio that intended to trine. In both instances, the relationships dissolved, fell apart. Not only could they never touch sparks to one another, but future attempts to do so brought only pain. And for a vorn afterward, all five of Ratchet's patients suffered from twists in their spark, interrupted recharge, and acute depression.

Sometimes, bonds just go wrong.

It's this story that they decide to give Jazz. It's impossible to completely remove their relationship from Jazz's memory core. Their interactions are a core part of his day to day life for years. Not to mention the fact that everyone in the Ark knew about them, and the difficulties in keeping that secret are astronomical.

Easier to acknowledge the relationship but contrive an explanation for why Ratchet doesn't wish to pursue it any further without prompting the same behavior as before.

They don't even have to lie. Not really. It was a bond gone wrong. They just don't have to tell Jazz why it had gone wrong. Let him believe they simply aren't meant to be. Let him think that there's still love, that he never betrayed Ratchet. Let Jazz have the happy memories. There's no reason for him to suffer the guilt.

It's a universal constant that the best lies are half true. It's believable, it's viable, and most of all, it works.

Standing here, watching Blaster and Sideswipe plug into Jazz, Ratchet isn't sure how he's supposed to feel. There's pain, first of all, because even though Jazz is in a private room, he is still too close. There is a viewing window between them, but it's not enough to stop the yearning. The aching in his spark to tear open the door to the private medberth and finish what Jazz had started.

This close, he keeps getting echoes. Out of sync pulses that are Jazz's spark and not his own, spindly little surges that reflect their partially-finished bond.

There's guilt, too. Seeing Jazz lying there on the berth, still and silent, makes it crop up all over again. It makes Ratchet wonder if was Prowl right? Had he made a mistake? Had he overreacted?

Affection wars with horror that battles with grief. Jazz is friend, lover, and now... now Ratchet doesn't know what to call him. He doesn't know how he's supposed to feel, to react. He doesn't know how he's going to act normal once they take Jazz out of stasis.

Behind him, the door to the medbay opens and closes, the arrival's footsteps whisper-quiet. A subtle query from Ratchet's sensors identify his visitor. His plating clamps down against his frame.

"Ratchet."

He doesn't look, doesn't need to.

"Prowl."

Acknowledgment given, Ratchet says nothing else. He turns his attention back to the window, where the three mechs are still as stone, practically a piece of art for all the movement Ratchet sees from them. It could be hours before they finish depending on how much of Jazz's memory they have to alter.

Prowl steps up beside Ratchet, his gaze focused on the room as well. There's a twitching in his doors, an annoying noise on Ratchet's sensors, but the lieutenant doesn't speak. Yet.

Ratchet continues to watch. Eject comes into the room, less enthusiastic than usual, setting aside a few cubes of energon for Blaster and Sideswipe. They'll need it. He peers at Jazz, peers up at his symbiotic master, then leaves again. He and the rest of the cassettes have been tasked with subtly spreading the lie that will serve as truth to the rest of the crew.

"I owe you an apology."

The words are sudden. Unexpected. Surprising.

Ratchet shutters his optics. "No, you don't."

"I do." He senses, more than sees Prowl shift toward him, discomfort radiating from his energy field. "I have behaved-"

"In a way that is completely understandable." Ratchet performs a systems check, gets his surging emotions under control, and onlines his optics. "I get it, Prowl. He's your brother."

A twitch visibly flicks across Prowl's pristine plating. "Yes, and as such, I am not blind to his... faults."

Faults, yes. Ratchet supposes one could call them that. Perhaps the possessive behavior is how Jazz displays the depths of his feelings for another mech. Maybe it's the only love he's ever known. Some might consider it a fault. Ratchet calls it an irreconcilable difference.

"I know Jazz. I know what he's capable of." A reflection in the glass shows Prowl's head bowing, his optics dimming in resignation. "I merely wish it weren't the truth."

So. The most logical bot on the Ark had reacted most illogically.

Ratchet feels compelled to say something. How twisted is this that he is the one offering comfort?

"Bias, as Blaster so elegantly put it, makes fools of us all," he says, focusing intently on the private medbay and the two mechs still locked in their statue-like exploration of Jazz's memory core. "I know, Prowl. I don't hold a grudge. I'm not offended."

Prowl relaxes by only a fraction, just enough that Ratchet's automatic light sensors can detect it. "Nevertheless, I apologize."

"You're forgiven."

It's a waste of energy to be angry with Prowl.

"And Jazz?"

Ratchet jerks, as though the mere designation were a physical attack. He swivels his helm toward Prowl, whose optics meet his in bland curiosity.

"Will you ever forgive him?"

A question with no answer. Ratchet doesn't carry grudges like some other Autobots, like the Decepticons. And he doesn't loathe Jazz, never claimed hatred either. Parts of him still long for his former partner, hungering for the joy that had been their relationship. He wishes for the days before everything went to the Pit.

He turns away.

"I can't answer that right now."

He doesn't know that he'll ever be able to answer it. Can he grant forgiveness to a bot who won't remember what he did?

"I understand." Prowl stares for a moment longer through the glass before he moves to the side. "He does love you."

Like a blast to the spark. Prowl couldn't have done more damage if he tried. Ratchet lowers his head and stares at nothing.

"I know."

o0o0o

For Cybertronians, the human measurement of time seems so fleeting. Yet, the hours and days drag into eternity for Ratchet as he waits, on bolts and brackets, for Blaster and Sideswipe to finish their delicate work.

There is little for him to do but rest and recuperate.

One day, he and Wheeljack attend to the disquieting task of retrieving Ratchet's belongings from Jazz's quarters. It takes every ounce of tungsten-will that Ratchet owns to walk into that room, rich with memories good and bad, and box back up the trinkets and odds and ends that belong to him.

Save for the items that Jazz had arranged on the shelves, most are still in the box. Ratchet pretends to be completely focused on removing his and adding them to the metal case. He lets Wheeljack poke around Jazz's quarters, careful to disturb nothing else, finding other items of Ratchet's that might have wandered out of the box.

He pointedly does not look at the berth. It's a simple piece of furniture, but for Ratchet, it symbolizes much more. Better to pretend he can't see it. Better to pretend it doesn't exist.

Most of that night is a haze to Ratchet. He suspects a bit of corruption in his short-term memory banks due to the failed bond is to blame. It doesn't bother him that he can't recall the finer details. The broader picture is enough to make his tanks lurch.

He can still remember the way Jazz looked at him, completely perplexed. As though he couldn't understand why Ratchet wouldn't be thrilled for them to cohabitate. As though they are suddenly speaking two different languages, one of which is completely incomprehensible to the multi-lingual Jazz.

Ratchet remembers the moment he realized something wasn't quite right in Jazz's reasoning, and he ought to make himself scarce. The instant he turned on a pede and tried to leave, not once even considering that Jazz would do something drastic. Not once fearing to turn his back on his ally and friend and lover.

Overlying it all, Ratchet remembers waking on Jazz's berth, held down by stasis cuffs with Jazz perched over him. Fingers lazily tweaking Ratchet's sensitive circuitry, nonchalantly prodding him toward desire.

"Ratchet?"

He reaches down, hefting the box into his arms. "I'm fine," he says stubbornly and makes for the door. All the better to leave as soon as possible.

"You're not," Wheeljack counters, equally stubborn as he follows Ratchet out. "But I guess sometimes it's easier to believe a lie."

Ratchet refrains from replying. His best friend doesn't deserve bitter tirades and furious rants.

He begs off Wheeljack's offer to join him for some energon. Ratchet doesn't want any company. He prefers the emptiness of his personal quarters, boxes of his belongings stacked against a wall. Ratchet suspects he wouldn't be much company right now anyway, and he doesn't want to say something he'd regret.

It's not Wheeljack's fault that Ratchet's spark aches on a daily basis now. Or that he can't recharge anymore because the memory ghosts have become unbearable.

It would be easier, Ratchet suspects, if his fragged processor would focus on the unhappy, uncomfortable memories. Instead, his systems flag all the gentler, loving times. He relives them over and over in stark technicolor, full audio and other sensations.

Jazz laughing as he teases Ratchet into bristling. Jazz dragging him onto the dance floor, using moves that better resemble the human's messy style of interfacing. Jazz handing him needed tools as he struggles to save Fireflight's life, a silent and strong support.

Jazz curling around him much later that evening, still wordless, spark humming and sending out waves of reassurance and consolation.

Ratchet lies on his berth, staring blankly at the ceiling. His system flags important medical files, ones that explain his condition, describe treatments. Logically, he knows he could probably use a counseling session or two. Logically, he knows that his current behavior is not healthy.

The Ark feels ten times smaller than it actually is. The dimensions haven't changed, but it's still too confined. Blaster and Sideswipe are almost done; they'll be taking Jazz out of medical stasis soon. Then, the Ark will be even smaller.

Ratchet shutters his optics. He's not ready for this, despite what lies he's told his Prime.

It's too soon.

o0o0o

It's his medbay, and by all rights, Ratchet should be there when they finally pull Jazz from stasis. There are many logical reasons for why he needs to be present.

For once, Ratchet obeys the lurching in his spark and ignores practicality.

"I can't." Ratchet stands in front of Optimus, his armor plating clamped down tight and his energy field equally enclosed. "I don't want to be, and I can't. First Aid is more than capable of bringing him out."

Prime's optics dim with sadness. This situation hasn't been easy for him either.

"I understand. I am certain that Prowl can devise an appropriate explanation."

"He won't even have to lie." Ratchet doesn't bother to hide the bitterness in his tone, lifting a hand to rub his chestplate, where his spark continues to twist and surge. "The pain is uncomfortable now. It'll be worse when he's conscious."

And he can't say for certain that he'll be strong enough to resist the temptation. The desire to complete the bond just to make the agony go away.

"Is there anything that will help?"

Ratchet drops his hand. "Distance. Proximity makes it worse."

He hasn't been in the medbay since his last conversation with Prowl. He misses it, feeling cut off from a part of his life that had become so ingrained since their crash landing on Earth. But Jazz and the memories are just as bad in that space.

Prime's energy field tentatively reaches out. It's flavored with the mystique of the Matrix, volunteering comfort and balance.

"The humans have something called a sabbatical where they take a long break from their work."

He doesn't immediately rebuff Optimus' gentle offer. The energy between them is the most contact Ratchet has allowed anyone since Jazz's attempt to spark-bond him.

"Are you telling me to take a vacation?"

Ratchet would be amused were it any other situation. Prime and Prowl have been trying to get their CMO to take a break for years, and he suspected they intended to recruit Jazz into their efforts if things hadn't changed.

"It can only be a benefit, old friend." Optimus vents heavily, betraying his unease about the entire situation. "I am certain First Aid and Wheeljack can handle things in your absence. You deserve it. I'd only insist that you do not go alone."

Ratchet's shoulders slump.

Alone is what he wants to be. He has no interest in listening to some mech's idea of advice or enduring soft-sparked attempts at consolation. He wants to deal with this in his own way even if it means ignoring medical advice. He knows he shouldn't be alone, but fraggit...

"Then I can't take Wheeljack," Ratchet responds, already running through a list of mechs. His closest friend is the only one he'd feel remotely comfortable with at the moment. And there are only so many bots who know the truth.

"No. He will be needed here. I had someone else in mind." Here, Optimus hesitates, his field wavering before acquiring a flare of determination. "Sideswipe and Sunstreaker."

Ratchet reboots his audials twice. He's absolutely certain that he must have caught a glitch.

"The twins?" he half-asks, half-demands.

The look Optimus gives him is purely honest but also purely mischievous at the same time.

"They are aware of the situation, will provide adequate backup on the off-chance you run into the Decepticons." He sobers then. "They also have a keen understanding of difficulties regarding bonds."

Ratchet lapses into silence, though his plating still trembles with shock. Optimus' reasoning is sound… But the twins? The two mechs who make a game out of seeing who can get a rise out of Ratchet first and fastest?

"I'll have dismantled them before two days is up," the medic mutters.

Optimus transmits a wordless glyph of disagreement. "They may surprise you."

He could protest, suggest a different pair of escorts. Ironhide and Hound, perhaps. But for all of Ironhide's bluster, he is gentle at spark. He'd probably treat Ratchet like a piece of breakable crystal, stuttering and stumbling about the entire time. And Hound would be even worse, especially since he doesn't know the entire truth. They'd be a pair of nanny-bots really.

There are others, but in the end, Ratchet thinks his Prime is right. If there's two mechs he can count on not to coddle him or offer unwanted advice and who might actually be able to treat him normal, like he wants, it's the twins.

The fight goes out of Ratchet with a hiss of depressurizing hydraulics.

"Fine."

Optimus has the decency to keep quiet after that.

o0o0o

They leave before dawn strikes, taking an eastern trek toward distant borders. Ratchet has no clear destination in mind, and maybe that's for the best. Maybe some idle wandering on the open road will clear his processors, let his systems settle and give him a chance for some decent recharge.

The twins surge ahead of him, always within sensor distance, but a bit too eager to be out from under Prowl's eagle-optics and disapproving supervision. Optimus had claimed a worry about Decepticon activity. Ratchet, however, is far from a fool. Prime wasn't worried about what Megatron might do if he noticed the CMO was wandering around alone. Optimus was concerned about what Ratchet might do to himself if left alone.

He approximates a snort. Yes, he's probably teetering on the edge of a consuming depression, spiraling downward. Self-harm, however, is not within his programming. He just needs time, space, a chance to let his spark recover away from Jazz's unconscious influence.

He has to be ready to face Jazz on his return. Deal with the memories he has that Jazz won't. He has to act normal, pretend like nothing's wrong.

Right now, Ratchet wants to wallow. Wants to indulge in knowing that nothing is on kilter in his world and let everything tilt on its axis.

"Ratchet!" Sideswipe whines over the comms, swerving across the road a good mile ahead of him. "You're moving too slow! I know you've got a higher top speed than that!"

"Mute it," Ratchet retorts with an aggravated chuff. "And use a little encryption, slagger. I'm not eager to encounter any 'Cons today. I put you two back together enough as it is."

"I think a little destruction would do you some good," Sunstreaker counters, adding in his two creds worth. At least he has enough sense to use a few levels of encryption though. "It's the best kind of distraction."

Ratchet transmits a noncommittal sound. Battle isn't his kind of processor-clearing activity. Not at all.

The twins slow down a little then, allowing him to catch up. Sideswipe takes point with Sunstreaker trailing after Ratchet.

"So where are we going?" Sides asks, drifting back and forth across the road. Heedless to oncoming traffic except when he swerves to avoid with an aft-wiggle of dangerous glee.

Ratchet doesn't bother to reprimand him. "I don't know."

"How long will we be gone?" Sunstreaker questions instead.

"A week. Maybe two."

Fourteen days isn't nearly long enough for Ratchet to feel normal again, but it's better than nothing. It's better than having to stand there while Jazz onlines, feeling his spark tug and tug, his chestplates parting of their own accord.

Sunstreaker makes a noise of disgust. "We better run into some 'Cons then."

"Don't mind him. Tracks nicked the last of his polish, and he's pouting," Sideswipe puts in, and Ratchet detects the presence of narrow-band comms.

"Am not," the ever social yellow twin retorts.

"He totally is," Sides says with a smug tone and drops back a pace, the nose of his alt-mode gently tapping Ratchet's. "Mind if I pick a destination then?"

Ratchet edges away. "I'm not helping you cause any mayhem."

"Who? Me?" Were Sideswipe in root mode, Ratchet imagines he'd be utilizing his best innocent look, one that only Bluestreak can pull off effectively. "Seriously, Ratch, I was thinking about Yosemite."

Ratchet's flinch melts away as he manually reboots his audial sensors.

"The National Park?"

"I wanna see Old Faithful," Sideswipe practically sing-songs.

"The Grand Prismatic Spring," Sunstreaker adds, a quieter murmur that nonetheless proves he is also interested in visiting the park.

Color him surprised. Ratchet would have never expected either twin to be interested in Earth's natural wonders. He can't think of a reason not to go. Yellowstone would be a suitable distraction at least. And it's not as though Ratchet has any better ideas.

"It's as good enough a course as any," Ratchet finally allows. "Lead the way."

o0o0o

-seems to be no complication with the altered memory files. Jazz appears to accept all explanations without suspicion. He asked about you, of course, immediately after onlining. But Prowl was there, and he handled everything. He complained of pain, but after I did a scan, it seemed to be a consequence of the incomplete bond. I've scanned him every day since just to be sure.

He's trying to be normal, but even Gears commented that something's off with him. He's depressed, obviously, and he keeps asking about you. Wanting to know when you'll come back and if you're in pain, too.

We had a skirmish the other day. I don't know what Megatron hoped to accomplish with such a disorganized raid, but we stopped him with only some minor injuries. I had to weld Ironhide's right axle again. You should take another look at it, Ratchet. Just in case.

Come back soon.

The transmission ends with a glyph that identifies First Aid. The whole report carries an overtone of sparkfelt concern and personal unease. Aid is a capable medic, but Ratchet knows that his apprentice doesn't feel ready to assume complete control over the Ark's entire medical operations.

Ratchet files a copy the report away, certain that there'll be more to come. He hadn't asked his apprentice to do so, but First Aid must feel obligated.

Venting softly, Ratchet stares at the whole of Yellowstone spread out below him. The scenery is beautiful; Hound would love it here. Acres of lush forest and endless plains, wild animals roaming. Ratchet looks at it without really seeing it.

The distance has helped, but he still knew the very moment Jazz came online. Even across hundreds of miles, Ratchet's spark leapt in eager excitement. Spinning brightly in its chamber, making him stumble mid-step. He'd been secretly glad that the twins had bounded ahead of him, letting him recover from his stagger in solitude.

He catches echoes from time to time. Moments of stronger emotions from Jazz, such as joy or sadness. Once, there was anger, which made Ratchet curious. What could have possibly angered the usually calm bot to such a degree?

There is also amusement.

Sometimes, Ratchet gets fleeting glimpses. Images, one might say. He doesn't know if they are because of what Jazz himself is viewing. Or if they are fabrications of Ratchet's own aching spark. Or if it's some mystical combination of the two. Sometimes, those are accompanied by sounds.

Jazz's voice. His laugh.

It's disturbing. Disturbing and depressing and disappointing, and Ratchet isn't sure exactly how he's supposed to feel about it. Nothing seems simple anymore. Nothing is painted in lines of black and white. Instead draped in shades of grey that leave him stumbling around wondering yet again if he'd done the right thing.

"Bonding wouldn't have been enough."

Ratchet startles at the unexpected voice; his sensors are tuned down to their lowest setting since the wildlife had been given them fits. He twists to the right, where Sideswipe is sitting down beside him, completely without invitation.

"You-"

"Oh, it'll have calmed him for a while," Sides continues blandly, as though Ratchet's half-stuttered response hadn't even pinged on his radar. "But I bet he would've wanted more."

"You wouldn't have been happy like that," Sunstreaker comments, appearing on Ratchet's other side and nearly causing spark-arrest. "Owned. Coddled. It would've been a cage."

"One made of love maybe but a prison all the same," Sideswipe adds in that usual eerie fashion the twins sometimes employ when they complete each other's thoughts.

It's tempting, but in the end, Ratchet decides not to ask. Despite their annoying tendencies, their berserker tactics on the battlefield, and their aggravating codependence on one another, the twins have always had an odd and unique way of seeing to the core of a problem. Ratchet doesn't know how, and he prefers not to delve too deeply into the particulars of it. All he does is fix things.

He vents, shifting so that his optics capture the view again rather than look at either twin.

"You believe me."

A sound of metal ringing on metal as Sides taps his helm. "Been in Jazz's head."

"Would've believed you anyway," Sunny mutters on Ratchet's other side, and his arm brushes the medic's, field a tentative flicker of concern. "Jazz is as fragged as the rest of us; he just hides it better."

"We think it's better this way, too. We like going into the medbay without fearing for our plating," Sideswipe insists. "Aside from your wrenches, of course."

"Who else could we get to put us back together?" Sunstreaker questions, but there's genuine affection in his tone.

"We can't do it ourselves."

"Yeah. Remember that time Sides put his left leg on backwards?" the golden twin asks. "He never got anywhere."

The red twin chortles, hands lifting in great caricature of his own actions back then. "I just kept going forward and backward at the same time."

"It was embarrassing."

Ratchet shakes his helm. He'll never understand the twins, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"I do have an apprentice, you know. Aid is more than capable of reattaching missing limbs and fixing the both of you."

Sideswipe jostles him with an elbow. "Yeah, but he doesn't know how to do the tough love. He's all about hugging."

"And those optics!" Sunstreaker does a fair exaggeration of a shudder. "They're dangerous! I can't argue with those optics."

Amusement threatens to wheedle its way past Ratchet's defenses. "You two are impossible sometimes."

"Yeah, but ya love us anyway." Sides smirks and leaps to his pedes, planting his hands on his hips. "C'mon, Ratch. Sitting here moping is boring. And Sunny's getting dirt on his finish."

"I am not!" Nevertheless, the other twin jumps up as though an Insecticon took a bite out of his aft. "There's not a scuff on me!"

The two dissolve into their usual squabble, which is sure to end up in the exchange of blows. Ratchet shakes his helm, climbing slowly to his pedes. This so-called vacation isn't quite what he had planned, but it is a useful distraction.

Optimus was right in the end. The twins are a good choice.

o0o0o

Returning to the Ark makes Ratchet feel at once uneasy and relieved. He's happy to be home again, to recharge in a berth, drink fresh energon, and get back to work in his medbay. He doesn't feel quite right unless he's surrounded by his tools, the hum of the Ark, instant access to Teletraan One and most of his friends within scanning distance.

That he and the twins arrive not long after Jazz has left for a patrol with Smokescreen is no coincidence. Ratchet doesn't feel up to confronting him yet. He doesn't know what he'll say, doesn't know how he's supposed to feel about it, and not even a few weeks have taken the sting out of his spark.

The ghostly images are starting to fade. And the times of experiencing Jazz's emotions are coming less and less. But Ratchet honestly doesn't know long it's going to take before it all goes away. Before he can feel like himself again and not some half-amalgamated version.

Wheeljack is waiting for him at the front entrance.

"Hey, Ratch."

He considers the fact that he doesn't flinch at the friendly nickname a step up from his earlier behavior.

"Hey, Jack."

"Feeling better?"

Ratchet approximates a snort. "Somewhat." He pauses, glancing back at his escorts and guardians. "Your duty is done, brats. Scram."

Sideswipe grins, executing a playful salute. "Our duty is never done, Ratchet. You still haven't reforged us into toasters." He laughs as he skips past both engineer and medic, entering the Ark.

"Come see me later," Sunstreaker says, his optics performing a quick sweep from Ratchet's chevron down to his pedes. "Your paint is a disgrace."

"Sunstreaker!" Wheeljack sounds horrified, his indicators flashing a shocked purple.

The yellow twin rolls his shoulders in a lazy shrug. "What? I'm being honest." He too disappears inside then.

Ratchet now has no buffer between himself and the lengthy, scrutinizing look Wheeljack is giving him.

"What?" he barks.

"How are you doing?" his friend asks, all soft tones and gentle glyphs. Like one might speak to a feral turbofox or a terrified and weeping human.

Ratchet stomps past his best friend. He feels the weight of the past months on his shoulders, and now, there's no welcoming lover to ease the burden.

"Like I'm ready to be useful again," he finally decides.

Wheeljack follows. "Is that a good idea?"

"Yes, it fragging is." His words are sharp, testy, and Ratchet performs a systems check just to calm himself down. "I need to get my hands busy. I need to do something. I can't sit around and think anymore."

"Stubborn aft."

Wheeljack's mutter is just loud enough for Ratchet to catch. He refrains from commenting.

"Ratchet!" In the hallway ahead of them, Bluestreak grins at the medic. "Welcome back!"

He grunts something that is more or less a greeting. Bluestreak, however, is unfazed, continuing on his merry way. A few others looks up and give similar greetings as Ratchet goes by. They don't seem to mind his gruffness either.

"Prime's gonna want to talk to you," Wheeljack says, drawing up beside Ratchet as Fireflight wanders away. "Make sure you're okay and all that."

Ratchet expected as much. He doesn't look forward to that particular conversation. But he dreads encountering Jazz even more. Speaking of...

"How's Jazz?"

"Better than you. He doesn't have the truth glitching up his memory core." Wheeljack's tone borders this side of bitter.

Ratchet whirls on a heel. "Jack, this isn't easy on anyone."

"Easier for him." Wheeljack tilts his helm upward, unperturbed by Ratchet's frazzled energy field. "He's got Prowl to help him. And plenty of bots who don't know a slagged thing. While you wandered into the wilderness for two weeks. So yeah, he's doing a lot better than you." Jack leans closer, indicators flashing a sour yellow. "Tell me I'm wrong."

To do so would be a lie. And Ratchet's done enough of that today.

"I'm tired," he says instead and starts back down the corridor. "I'll see you tomorrow, Jack."

Wheeljack doesn't follow him. Ratchet can feel his optics anyway.

o0o0o

The first time he sees Jazz is nearly a week later, when Ratchet wanders into the rec room for a cube of midgrade before he slips into early recharge. Wheeljack hovers at his side like an overprotective caregiver, practically welded to his hip.

Ratchet spots Jazz immediately, as though the saboteur has some sort of homing beacon connected to Ratchet's body. Jazz is sitting at a table, surrounded by members of his team, smiling through the fatigue evident in his clamped plating, dim optics, and drooping doors. His paintjob and wax have suffered, leaving him looking scuffed and dull, and his smile is lopsided.

Ratchet lurches mid-step, spark whirling eagerly, and nearly tips over. Wheeljack's quick reflexes are all that saves the engineer from being knocked to the ground.

Ratchet stares. He stares at Jazz like he's never seen the saboteur before, his chest aching and his vents stalled. He gropes at his chassis, fingers finding the invisible seam in his chestplates and tracing it. As though considering how much effort it would take to coax them open, to reveal his wildly spinning spark to the room at large but most importantly to Jazz as well. Heat cascades across his sensory net, cooling fans kicking on with a quiet whine.

Jazz looks up then, their optics meeting, and Ratchet swears the world does this strange tilting, tunnel-vision sort of thing. His spark surges, a bright flush of expanding energy, and a keen escapes Ratchet's vocalizer before he can stop it. Before he can so much as get a grip on himself.

He's incapable of moving, of accessing higher processor functions. He can only stare, his spark responding of its own accord. A hundred images coasting through his active memory.

All conversation in the room has stopped. Everyone's staring. How can they not? This is obviously a spectacle, the sight of sharp-mouthed Ratchet made speechless.

Someone touches his arm. No, grips his elbow.

"Ratchet?" Wheeljack. He'd know his best friend's voice anywhere even if it is spoken subvoc. "You're scaring me."

He's scaring himself. He's never felt so weak.

The sound of a chair scooting backward is all too loud in the silence. Jazz is rising to his feet, doors high and tense behind him.

Ratchet's not ready for this. He won't ever be ready for this.

He whirls, all but knocking Wheeljack out of his way, and leaves. Not fleeing. Ratchet would never call it running away. But he's definitely making haste, heading straight back to the medbay because his personal quarters are no solace either.

His office is his best option. He can lock the doors with a code only the Prime and Prowl can override. Well, Jazz could probably hack it if he wanted to, but Ratchet hopes there is a sliver of propriety left in his ex-partner.

The medbay is quiet. Empty. Perfect.

Ratchet goes into his office, shuts the door, and sinks into his chair. His spark thuds within the chamber as he buries his face in his hands, struggling to get himself back together. It's a losing battle. There's a distinct rattle in his plating, and his hands won't stop shaking.

His office isn't soundproof. So he knows when someone else comes in, and not long after, a second pair of steps follow. A brief scan identifies the mechs, not that Ratchet needed more than a single guess for each of them.

"Now's not a good time, Jazz."

"Is he all right?"

Anxiety. Worry. Sparkfelt, not a lie.

"It's still too soon," Wheeljack says consolingly, no doubt planted between Jazz and the door to Ratchet's office.

Primus, just the sound of Jazz's voice is too much. Ratchet swears it's echoing around his spark chamber, setting the energies into a chaotic frenzy.

"But..." A resigned sigh. "Can ya do somethin' fer me then? Tell 'im I'm sorry."

"Of course."

Wheeljack's vocal tones are wary, but not condescending.

"Thanks." A pause, a shifting of gears. "And here. Since he didn't get any. Just... I'm sorry."

"I know."

Steps fade, the medbay doors open and close. A faint tapping on Ratchet's door is Wheeljack's soft request to be let inside. Ratchet allows him.

He looks up as the engineer enters and his tanks lurch. Wheeljack's carrying a cube of energon, which he then sets on the corner of Ratchet's desk in easy reaching distance.

Ratchet groans at the sight of it. Just like old times, eh, medic? Jazz taking care of you like he used to. Like he wants to.

Wheeljack's field fluctuates with uncertainty. "Ratchet..."

"What am I supposed to do?" he demands, fist thumping the desk. "Was I wrong? Did I overreact?"

It hurts. By Primus! Like someone's scouring his spark chamber with acid. He's getting push-pulls of emotion, worry-affection-guilt-love-remorse, and Ratchet can't be sure if they are his or Jazz's or some combination of the two.

Wheeljack drags a chair over, sitting down in front of Ratchet. "Do you want to rekindle your relationship with him?"

The question is tentative, soft. As though Wheeljack almost doesn't dare voice it. By contrast, Ratchet's tone is laced with static.

"I don't know."

"Do you want to uplink with him?"

Alien sensation of someone sifting through his systems without his permission. Unable to access his own subroutines, unable to shove the invader out. He's helpless, like he's never been helpless before and not even a violent scrub will ever get him clean.

Ratchet's tanks churn, rumbling on fumes. And eager even to expel those.

"...I couldn't."

Wheeljack vents audibly. "Ratchet, all Jazz can remember is the good times. In his processor, nothing ever happened except for a failed bond. He won't understand why this is hurting you."

It's too much effort to raise his head.

"Is Prowl right then? Should I have just let the bond happen?"

Jack lets out more air. Long and low.

"Only you can answer that."

Ratchet shutters his optics. He doesn't know that he can answer that. Not when all he can see are shimmering images of that betrayed look on Jazz's face and all he can hear is Jazz's voice.

This's supposed ta be a good thing! Yer supposed ta love me!

Love. What a twisted, foolish notion.

Ratchet doesn't have an answer. And he doesn't say anything when the engineer presses the cube into his hand either. He just drinks it in silence, wondering if he's ever going to feel normal again.

o0o0o

Weeks pass.

Ratchet's life settles into a sort of routine. Maintenance checks and supply requisitioning and medbay overhauls and recharges spent staring at the ceiling and energon consumed quickly without pleasure because his system needs it and no other reason.

He doesn't see Jazz except in brief glimpses. Ratchet's dignity is saved from overreacting as he had earlier. It's easy to avoid the saboteur who seems to be making his own efforts to stay away in return. The half-lie, half-truth that proximity only prolongs the pain seems to be enough incentive.

Busy work keeps Ratchet just that. Busy. He heals a bit more, the pains easing into a dull throb that worsens with fatigue and exertion but only then. The flashes of Jazz's daily life have all but ceased, though he still catches echoes of stronger emotions. It's a minor improvement but still improvement.

Wheeljack has finally stopped trailing him around like a second shadow. Prowl is most grateful for this as he's happy to have his sparkmate around again. Even so, Ratchet is hardly ever alone. The twins come by daily to needle him, bring him energon, and so that Sunstreaker can nag Ratchet about his scuffed paint. Aid is a constant presence, eager to learn more, eager to distract. And of course, Gears and his regular complaints about his various creaks, leaks, and discomforts.

It's a familiar sort of busy, and Ratchet embraces it gladly.

Early one shift, however, Mirage and Bumblebee come to call. The look of gravity on Mirage's face is not uncommon, but Bee's solemnity is worrisome.

Ratchet puts down the tools he'd been cleaning and immediately scans both for possible issues.

"What is it? What's wrong?" he asks even as his scans come up clean, though Bumblebee could stand to have a few worn circuits replaced.

The two mechs exchange a glance. But it's Bee who speaks, probably volunteered for the act.

"We wanted to apologize."

Ratchet reboots his audials. "You... what?"

They can't mean what he thinks they mean. Right?

"Apologize," Mirage repeats, his clear vocals a deep trill. "First, for not coming forward sooner. And second, for not helping to prevent the current… ah, circumstances."

Ratchet retreats a step. He knows that they know then. It really doesn't come as a surprise. They're Spec Ops. Same as Jazz.

But they really don't have anything to do with the current mess.

"I'm not sure I follow," he states with confusion, but an inkling of wonder and worry both shoots down Ratchet's plating. "This isn't your fault."

"Of course not," Bumblebee says with a bit more bark than Ratchet would have thought him capable of.

"However, we feel that apologies must be made." Mirage shimmers a bit, as though fighting to stay visible. "We always suspected something like this might happen. Not if but when."

"Though to be fair we didn't think he'd go so far." Bumblebee runs a hand over his helm. "Jazz always gets possessive, but..."

Ratchet's hands are fists now, and his tone is too cold.

"Who told you?"

The two exchange glances again, and Ratchet detects the low vibrations of narrow-band comms between them.

"No one," Bumblebee assures.

"We figured it out for ourselves. It wasn't hard," Mirage adds. "He's our commander. We know him better than anyone." A wry smile curves the noble's lips. "We've felt the brunt of his nature before."

Bumblebee shutters his optics. "Red Alert will never ask to borrow either of us for a mission ever again."

Mirage steps closer. His field tentatively seeks Ratchet's, a contact that the medic slowly accepts.

"So we understand, and we think it's better this way. Safer, too. For everyone."

Ratchet stares. "You can't mean-"

"We do," Bee cuts in, and he doesn't look the least bit innocent or young. "We know Jazz."

"We know how he is," Mirage explains, and his tone says nothing and everything. "We know him better than any save Prowl. Or now perhaps you."

His optics are dark and glittering. Ratchet wants to step back, to not feel Mirage so close. To have his energy field full not of sympathy or pity but sorrow. Understanding.

"We are sorry, Ratchet," Mirage repeats. "More than you will ever know."

Ratchet offlines his optics but says nothing. After all, there's nothing more to say.

o0o0o

Megatron can never stay silent for long, and if he is, Ratchet can bet it's because he's cooked up another hare-brained scheme to obtain galactic domination. Whatever nonsense the Decepticon leader concocts, however, Megatron is still dangerous. As is his army. And all Ratchet can do is put the broken bots back together again.

They win, sending the 'Cons scurrying about to their leaking, underwater lair. But it's not easy. It never is, and sometimes Ratchet wonders if they are all just fighting for the sake of fighting now. Because they don't know any better.

The medbay is the picture of chaos. Scanners screaming data, mechs comming him with updates on their patient's status, the smell of scorched metal thick in the air. The frantic scamper of pedes across the floor. Yelling for supplies, for help. Energon and coolant making footing treacherous.

Ratchet recalls it all clinically, even as he struggles to fix Sunstreaker, the twin's spark guttering before his eyes. Sideswipe is no help on the matter, hovering over his brother anxiously, getting in the way more often than not. Ratchet doesn't have the spark to throw him out.

First Aid is bent over Smokescreen, frantically patching up scores of pierced energon lines from some kind of shrapnel-based projectile. Wheeljack's unconscious, unable to help anyone much less himself, but at least he's stable. Perceptor has his hands full with Warpath, and Bluestreak is doing his best to help Skyfire repair Grapple. Hoist, meanwhile, has Air Raid, and even Prime is here, helping weld Mirage back together.

It's a madhouse.

Ratchet doesn't have enough hands. He doesn't have the tools, and there's only one of him and too many bots to fix. Too many close calls.

Sunstreaker's frame jerks beneath his hands, monitors screeching out their distress, and Ratchet curses. An energon line starts spurting bright pink into the air. Sideswipe hyperventilates, caterwauling, energy field a dizzying press of anxiety-fear-pain.

Ratchet needs a clamp. A clamp and a micro-welder and another pair of hands, and he's ashamed of himself. Because as Sunstreaker's vitals are stuttering, for the first time, Ratchet feels normal. He gropes around his tool tray, scattering his equipment everywhere, and that's when a micro-welder appears in front of him. As if summoned.

He half-glances over his shoulder with a grateful look and sees Jazz standing there, silently offering the needed tool. Their optics meet, and a shiver races through Ratchet's spark. He doesn't speak, can't speak, just takes the micro-welder and gets back to work.

"Grab a clamp," Ratchet orders as Jazz shoulders Sideswipe out of the way, nimble fingers already reaching into Sunstreaker's chassis. "Before Sunny bleeds out everywhere."

"Whatever ya say, Ratch."

To his credit, he doesn't flinch.

It's an improvement, one Ratchet latches onto gladly. He bends over Sunstreaker again, micro-welder moving into place. The yellow twin is going to live, fraggit. Primus help them all.

o0o0o

It's late, near dawn by the time everyone is stable enough for Ratchet to sit down and let his processors settle. No one's going to offline; they'll all live to fight another day. It's another small miracle, pulled from who knows where, and Ratchet feels the fatigue of it settle down to his struts.

The medbay is still, only the sound of monitoring systems piercing the quiet. Sunstreaker's still here, Sides curled up next to him on the tiny berth. So are Warpath and Smokescreen, but they are all under a medically-induced recharge.

The doors swish open, Ironhide stepping inside like a mech with a mission, a cube in each hand. The iridescent magenta of the energon identifies high-grade. Ratchet's tanks give a thirsty gurgle.

Ironhide smirks. "Thought ya'd be interested." He wiggles one cube in Ratchet's direction.

"Give it here," the medic grumbles in response.

Ironhide settles down beside him. He hands over the cube and pops open his own.

"Don't I get a thank ya?"

Ratchet grunts. "Thanks."

He quickly downs about a third of the cube, cringing as it goes down thick and oily. Rife with impurities sure to leave behind a kick. He'll online regretting it tomorrow. But it's worth it.

"Ya did good today," Ironhide says then, fiddling with his own cube. His field is tangible, but his emotions are closed off. "Everyone's alive thanks to ya."

Ratchet makes a noncommittal noise.

"Noticed ya didn't act up when Jazz appeared."

He slants a look sideways. "What're you getting at, old mech?"

"Yer one ta talk."

Ratchet sucks down another third. He shudders as it hits his tanks.

"You're the one who showed up in here with something on your processor."

Ironhide nudges him with an elbow. "Talk ta me, Ratch. Yer strugglin'. Tell me, and I can help."

Ratchet waves him off automatically. He thinks to finish his energon but holds off for a moment.

"You can't."

"I can try."

Ratchet's vents stutter, and he balances his elbows on his knees. He needs more high-grade. He really does.

"I don't know how I'm supposed to fix myself much less tell anyone else the answers." He finishes off his cube before tossing the empty container over his shoulder, where it dissolves into nothing before hitting the floor.

Ironhide pushes another one toward him. "I guess it really depends on what the questions are."

There is only that has taken prominence in Ratchet's thoughts lately.

"Did I do the right thing?"

"Would ya have been happy bonded ta him?" Ironhide asks with a surprising amount of intuition.

Ratchet lifts the new cube, admiring the less-magenta, more-mauve color of the energon. There were good times, lots of them. He remembers being happy with Jazz before all the craziness started. He remembers being comfortable and challenged. Laughing and teasing, soft touches interspersed with welcome rougher edges. He remembers long nights and early mornings.

Most of all, Ratchet recalls affection. Perhaps in his more dangerous, illogical times, he might have even called it love. That sort of emotion can't be easily tossed aside. Ratchet hasn't immediately shifted into loathing. He doesn't even despise Jazz.

"Maybe," Ratchet admits, and it's the sort of admission that makes him ache deep down. "If he'd asked. In the far, far future." He pauses, spark fluctuating weakly. "If he'd asked."

Ironhide makes a rumbly noise of contemplation. "If ya ask me, Ratch. I don't think yer angry enough."

Ratchet looks up from his cube, startled.

Ironhide swigs his high-grade as though it has less kick than gasoline. "Sure, Jazz is our friend, ally, we all trust 'im. But you trusted him the most." He peers intently into his empty cube before tossing it. "It's just not right what he did. When a mech says no, that should be it. Ya don't press the issue."

"But-"

"But nothing."

Ironhide pulls another cube out of subspace, cracking it open. Ratchet only tangentially wonders where he got them from.

"We ain't like the humans. Spark-bonding's nothing to chuff at. It's permanent, Ratchet."

He scoffs loudly. "You don't have to explain that to me."

"I think I do." Ironhide sits up, turns toward Ratchet, and pins him with those bright optics with the same unerring intensity he gives a battle. "Ya ask me if ya did the right thing like ya weren't attacked. Cause ya were. And from a military standpoint, ya were fightin' fer yer life."

The draws the medic up short.

Ironhide has a point. One Ratchet has only considered in passing but never put much weight into. The spark is a bot's life. If it's no longer his own, if it's taken from him, what then is his life?

Ratchet's fingers twitch around his cube. "It's not the worst fate to be bonded to that devoted of a partner."

"And if Jazz hadn't forced it, I could give ya that point." Ironhide rolls his shoulders. "But if he was willin' to force that, what else would he decide is necessary? What else would you have to give up?"

He tips back half the high grade. He feels his systems stutter at the influx of ultra-rich energon.

"You make a compelling case," Ratchet admits very slowly.

"I know that I do." Ironhide throws back the rest of his cube and climbs to his feet, looking down at the medic. "I like Jazz. I do. He's one of the best 'bots ta have at your back and at your side. But even I can see when some thing's just aren't meant ta be."

With that little nugget of wisdom, Ironhide takes his leave. Ratchet is left with third a cube and more burning conflicts in his processor. He lifts a hand, absently rubbing at his chestplates.

He's beginning to wonder if there's no real answer to be had.

o0o0o

His personal quarters hold no appeal for him. The raucous and always-busy nature of the rec room even less. And not even Ratchet is enough of a workaholic to spend all of his online hours in the medbay.

He finds himself in Wheeljack's lab. Probably not the safest place to be but the better choice out of all the other options. Being here keeps his processor occupied, keeps him from thinking about things.

More time has passed. The initial buzz and gossip about his relationship with Jazz has faded to background murmurs. Mechs don't give him that pathetic consoling look much anymore. Things have, for the most part, become closer to this side of normal.

He still doesn't talk to Jazz. It's not a matter of actively avoiding the mech as much as it is the rest of their fellow Autobots In the Know are doing a fair job of keeping them apart. He only sees Jazz in passing, peripherally. They haven't talked since then.

Ratchet supposes he should be grateful for the relative normality. It's better than the alternative.

"Argh." Wheeljack huffs in aggravation and shoves at the clutter on one of his many desks, sending bits and pieces to rain down upon the floor. "That's it. I need a break."

Ratchet smiles, bending back over his own little project: rewiring a phase conductor.

"Of course you do. You've been at it for hours."

"You're one to talk." Wheeljack approximates a snort. "I'm going for some energon. Bring ya back some?"

"Sure."

Wheeljack leaves, and Ratchet is now alone. He doesn't mind. The lab is nothing like his quarters. Nothing here is silent. There's always some project in progress to stare at, and Wheeljack has a lovely orrery depicting Cybertron and her moons that's in constant motion. Plenty here to keep his processor occupied.

Ratchet is just turning back to his work when hears the doors to the lab open again.

"That was quick."

"It's me, Ratch."

His hands falter mid-wire at the familiar voice. Ratchet performs a systems check, drawing upon eons of calm gleaned from times of great stress. He carefully sets aside the conductor, withdrawing his hands, and turns to greet his visitor.

"Hello, Jazz."

The saboteur looks as uncomfortable as Ratchet feels but determined as well.

"Wheeljack said you were here. I hope you don't mind."

Mind?

Ratchet's not sure what he's supposed to think. Maybe there is a shred of relief. It's the confrontation he's been dreading. Perhaps it's better just to get this over with. See what comes of it.

He keeps his distance though, safer that way.

"I..." Ratchet falters, words failing him, and settles for something less conflicting. "How are you?"

It's a testament to how far they've come that his spark doesn't instantly assail him with acidic pain and torture. There's only a faint spinning, an interested lurch, but none of the usual torment.

"Better." Jazz wanders toward one of the occupied tables, examining a project in progress but wisely not touching anything. "My memories are still a bit glitched. Aid says there's nothing he can do."

Ratchet vents audibly. "They probably won't come back. Because..."

"Because of the failed bond. Yeah. I know." Jazz's optics are inscrutable thanks to the visor, his field tightly contained. "What about you?"

A certain measure of honesty will be easier to bear than a full lie.

"The pain comes less and less."

Jazz winces, ceasing his meandering circuit and coming a few paces closer to Ratchet. Close enough that if either of them were less tense, their energy fields might brush.

"I never meant to hurt you."

Ratchet wants to laugh bitterly, but this Jazz doesn't know what his previous self had done. Has no clue what it is that's really hurting Ratchet. This Jazz thinks that they were both intent on sparkbonding and that it had failed.

"Sometimes, these things happen," Ratchet says, proud of himself for not saying something else, something less than tactful.

Jazz shakes his helm. "They shouldn't have. I'm sorry, you know. Sorry about us. Sorry about hurting you."

Ratchet's spark twinges, and this time, he knows it's not because of the failed bond. His ventilations hitch.

"You don't have to apologize. It's not your fault."

He doesn't even have to lie. He often wonders how much of this whole situation is of his own making.

"I'm still sorry." Jazz lifts a hand, as though intending to reach for Ratchet, before thinking better of it. He closes his fingers and drops his hand back to his side. "We can still be friends, right?"

His vocalizer crackles with static.

"I'm not sure when we stopped," Ratchet replies and hesitates.

He shouldn't. He really shouldn't. But to let things drift away like this. He can't do that either.

He lurches forward, crosses the distance between him and Jazz, and pulls the saboteur into an embrace. It feels... He doesn't know how it feels. He's not quite repulsed nor relieved. The thrum of Jazz's systems is familiar to him, the gentle buzz of Jazz's energy achingly intimate. He wants to let go, and he wants to hold on, and Ratchet suspects his feelings when it comes to Jazz will never be cut and dry again.

Jazz is, at first, stiff in his arms. His field ripples with surprise and then... relief. He returns the embrace, his hands pressed flat against Ratchet's dorsal plating.

By some unspoken agreement, they break apart a few moments later. Ratchet doesn't have any words; he's used them all. And Jazz... he doesn't know how to describe Jazz's expression right now.

"Thanks, Ratch."

"You needed it." Ratchet pauses, his faceplates threatening to heat. "We needed it," he corrects and flounders. What else is there to say?

Something like a smile curves Jazz's lips. "Yeah. I guess we did." He taps a pede against the floor, easing toward the door. "I guess I'll see you around then."

"Always."

More static than glyphs, but Ratchet's response trails Jazz out the door. The saboteur leaves, and the lab feels measurably abandoned.

In Jazz's absence, Ratchet's legs no longer seem fit to keep up his weight. They buckle, and he sinks to the floor, frame immeasurably heavy. He had known it wouldn't be easy, but he couldn't have imagined it would be this hard.

He hangs his head, shutters his optics.

Primus.

He feels heavy and light all at once. Isn't sure what to think. Closure, is that what they call it? No, not quite. It'll never be over, but maybe... maybe they can start to move forward now. Just a bit.

"Ratchet!"

Wheeljack's panicked tone fills his lab. He hurries to Ratchet's side, energy field flaring concern and regret.

"I'm fine," Ratchet replies a bit irritably, resisting his best friend's attempts to haul him up. "Honestly, you nanny bot. There's nothing wrong with me."

Wheeljack holds up his hands. "Could've fooled me, the way you're sitting on the floor like that. I saw Jazz leave. What happened?"

"Nothing," Ratchet snaps, only to pause, reconsidering.

The tremors in his frame ease away. He corrects himself.

"Everything."

o0o0o

"Almost done," Sunstreaker says. "Hold still."

Ratchet forces himself not to shake his helm. "Oh, how the tables have turned."

Sideswipe snickers, kicking back where he watches with intent interest, the slow and steady glide of cloth and oil over Ratchet's plating. Sunstreaker has spent the last few hours, stripping, repainting and waxing Ratchet's frame. Just as he demanded Ratchet let him do months ago.

It isn't unlike the human female's tendency to cut their hair after ending a relationship, come to think of it. Though Ratchet will never reveal the comparison upon pains of offlining. He could just imagine what hilarity Sideswipe could make of it.

"I swear, you're worse than Sides," Sunstreaker mutters, crouching to examine a streak on Ratchet's calf plating with a frown.

"Hey! I resemble that remark!"

Amusement spills out of Ratchet's energy field. "I am only here because you insisted. I am perfectly capable of my own maintenance."

"Not from where I was standing," the yellow twin retorts and rises to his feet, planting his hands on his hips. He gives Ratchet a critical once-over. "I declare you finished."

"Much obliged, your majesty," Ratchet retorts, but there's no real heat to it.

Instead, he goes to the mirror on the far wall. An obvious contribution by Sunstreaker. But it's at least handy to have around. Especially now.

Ratchet stares at himself in surprise. He's still red and white. That had been his one request. But the placement and pattern are different now. There's far more red than there had been before, and a few other colors have snuck in. Stray shades of blue and green and even yellow that Sunstreaker used for accents.

Altogether, it's… nice. It's different. But still good. Refreshing almost.

"You look good," Sides declares as he comes up to Ratchet's left. "You really do. Great job, Sunny."

Sunstreaker offers a smirk from Ratchet's right. "Naturally. With my talent and Ratchet's looks, you couldn't get anything less."

Sideswipe laughs but doesn't argue. Instead, he smiles, watching as Ratchet's optics take in his new paint once more. His hand finds Ratchet's shoulder then, and the medic isn't surprised when Sunstreaker's somehow sneaks to the other one. Their touch is somehow welcoming and familiar as they stand there.

Ratchet allows himself to gaze into the mirror a minute longer. Allows himself to wonder what Jazz will think of this. If he'd appreciate the new look as much as he had the old one. He'd often commented that he'd like Ratchet's appearance as it was. And Ratchet knew that he liked all the white paint because it showed color transfers so easily. It let everyone know just what Ratchet had been doing and with whom.

A wordless way of possession. Of ownership.

But Ratchet doesn't belong to anyone but himself. Not now. Not ever. Not unless he allows it and never before that.

This just goes to prove it.

He nods then and turns to the twins. They look at him like the know exactly what he's been thinking, but they say nothing. They both just grin and follow him out the door as he turns to leave.

"Thank you," Ratchet says before they go.

He doesn't have to explain what he really means.


a/n: Thank you again for reading. I hope that the ending satisfies. Whether or not Ratchet chooses to seek another partner again I leave up to the reader's imagination. I am, however, quite certain it won't be anytime soon.

I welcome all commentary. I hope that I answered all questions. Thank you for reading.