a/n: Just realized I never put this one on here. Ooops. Enjoy!
Title: Almost Lover
Warnings: battle injuries, fixing of said injuries, angst
Description: Starscream is Ratchet's past and present, but he's no longer convinced the Seeker is his future.
Written for the tf-rare-pairing weekly request prompt "Ratchet/Starscream, this needs to stop"
The cave is dark and damp, smelling of must and organic rot. It's also cold but Cybertronians don't register minute temperature changes as humans do. The changes are registered, but not considered irritating.
The moisture in the air, however, is all too tangible and all too damaging.
Ratchet curses, hands working fast, instruments transforming in and out of his fingers in rapid succession. He's done this too many times for his actions to be anything but steady. Though it doesn't stop the tremulous fluttering in his spark.
He should be doing this in a sterile, fully-stocked medbay. Not here, crouched in several inches of bacteria-invested seawater with Starscream's internals spilling energon and coolant every fragging where. Both fluids glisten like an oil stain under the gleam of Ratchet's headlights.
"What was it this time?" Ratchet demands of his stasis-locked patient. "Was it another spell of crazy? Did you purposefully goad him? Or maybe you were in the wrong place at the right time."
The scent of scorched circuits is nauseating. Overbearing. Ratchet's tank churns and he locks down his emotional components, rerouting everything through his logic center, not unlike what Prowl does when he has to make the hard choices.
It doesn't help.
The anger, the helplessness, the exasperation – all are too strong, leaking through the blocks and the reroutes, bombarding Ratchet's emotional core and leaving him feeling scrubbed raw from the inside.
"Sometimes, I think you like it," Ratchet growls, stripping out handfuls of torn lines and replacing them as quickly as possible, struggling to keep Starscream's frame propped against the rock. To keep sparking internals out of the splashing water.
"What do the humans call it? Masochism? That must be what you are," Ratchet continues venomously. "Either that or a fool. Probably both."
He rips out a crumpled fuel pump, tossing it over his shoulder, and slams in a replacement, one he's altering as he goes, as grounders run a slightly different pump than aerials.
"You're definitely a fool. And so am I. Worse than you because I keep fixing your masochistic aft."
Somewhere, on the edge of his senses, he can hear the tide crashing against the shore. It has a rhythm not dissimilar to the pulse of a Cybertronian spark. He keeps counting the pulses, comparing them to the bright flicker of Starscream's spark.
"What's it for? What's the point?" Ratchet demands, not expecting an answer. "All the old excuses turned grey and lifeless eons ago. Now we're just fighting to be fighting. We don't know anything else."
Ratchet shakes his helm.
"Maybe we're all of us masochists."
Energon is slick on his fingers, staining his arms up to his elbows. Coolant is dark and gritty. Scorched wires and circuits make for a nauseating collision of odors.
Starscream's paint is scratched and dingy, one wing mauled and near-useless. It'll be at least a month before he'll be in perfect form, and that's thinking optimistically.
He's been beaten to near-death.
Ratchet has to hand it to Megatron.
The slagmaker knows precisely how to wield the greatest damage, wound the weakest points, cause the greatest pain... All without killing a mech. It's almost an art.
It's a Primus given miracle that Starscream had even made it to this bolthole. Transforming must have been agony. Dry, stripped gears scraping against each other. Bent struts forcing themselves into alignment.
Ratchet's sensor net aches in sympathy, an emotion quickly chased away by more surges of anger, irritation, and despair.
Damn Starscream to the fragging Pit and back.
And damn Ratchet, too, for rushing to Starscream's aid every time.
For lying to his Prime, his brother-in-bond, his Autobots.
For the frantic skip of his spark at the first agonized ping on his private comm. For snatching up every piece of equipment he might need and rushing out of the Ark as though pit-hounds were nipping at his tailpipe.
Damn himself for everything.
And so Ratchet works.
He replaces and he welds and he prays to a deity he's not certain exists. Or, if any of the old tales are true, a deity that surely perished. Cybertron is dead. Who is to say that Primus isn't as well?
Ratchet yanks out more ruined internals, subspacing a few that might be worth refurbishing. Parts are too scarce to casually toss them aside these days. The Decepticons have a better supply chain, but it's not as though Ratchet can prance up to Megatron and hand over his requisitions list.
He has to make do with what he can, including spiking himself to Starscream's lines, transfusing his own energon. Starscream is in no condition to process his own, even if Ratchet could force some down the stasis-locked Seeker's intake.
Starscream will live. He always does.
He won't be cowed. He won't be changed. He'll return to the Decepticons to start the ritual all over again.
What's he doing?
Ratchet asks himself these questions over and over again. Silently. Sometimes aloud. He never receives an answer worth cataloging.
He knows Starscream's internals and frame better than any Autobots. Even those pit-spawned Twins and Prowl and Red Alert, all frequent visitors to his medbay. Moreso than Gears and his chronic, pretend ailments or Hound's gunk-clogged filters or Wheeljack's occasional mistakes in his laboratory.
Ratchet has tangled himself in a chainlink fence of lies, desperation, and sorrow. All in some vain attempt to cling to an echo of the past, an echo that's lost its flavor, its clarity, and its appeal.
What, then, is he fighting to protect? Why is he holding on to Starscream with such fierceness? Why can't he allow himself to drive away? Why is he always left looking over his shoulder, watching the skies for a mere glimpse of a jet's shadow?
Ratchet works for hours. His absences after large battles are as routine by now as his frantic and desperate attempts to save the life of each and every Autobot. Perhaps his friends are under the impression that he has sought solitude to recover himself.
Simply getting Starscream back to minimal functioning is an exercise in tenacity. Nevertheless, Ratchet succeeds, yanking Starscream back from Unicron's eager claws, not that he thinks even Unicron would keep the irreverent Seeker for long.
Lines have been patched, injuries welded, and fluid levels restored to functional levels. All that remains for Ratchet to do is wait for Starscream's systems to recognize his state of repair and allow the Seeker to online. The rest is cosmetic, or can be fixed by nanites and some fresh energon.
Ratchet waits, busying himself with the little things. He pops out some of the smaller dents in Starscream's frame and pulls out a rag, wiping away the worst of the energon stains and scorch marks. Starscream will still need a repaint.
His hands are steady, as they always are, and lost in the familiar motions of minor recovery, some of the trembling in Ratchet's innards calm. His spark remains a frantic whirl, his processor leaping from one thought to the next.
Outside, the world is silent, save for the sounds of organic wildlife. This bolthole is removed from human settlements, so Ratchet can't even hear so much as the roar of a non-sentient vehicle. The tide is rising as well. Soon, the cave will be flooded.
Ratchet will force a reboot if he must.
Fortunately, Starscream – like every other mech in this Primus-forsaken war, Autobot and Decepticon alike – has long-since altered his reboot protocols. Any sane mech would still be in stasis, energy-starved frame conserving power, and rerouting said power to self-repair. The very same drive that gives Starscream the strength to push his mangled frame into alt-mode is what propels him out of stasis.
Ratchet hears Starscream's systems click over from stasis to active and subspaces his cleaning cloth. The steady thrum of a Seeker's engine vibrates through colorful plating, paint scored away in several spots.
Dim optics online and Starscream audibly resets his vocalizer. "We have to stop meeting like this."
For a long moment, Ratchet stares at Starscream. He can't explain why that irreverent response locks up his processor. Why it makes one too many responses crowd on his vocalizer.
But the grip he has on Starscream's shoulders tightens, denting metal he's only recently fixed.
"It's taken me six hours to keep your pathetic frame out of the scrapyard," Ratchet grits out, his spark thrumming hard in his chassis. "I left Autobots in the medbay, fraggit!"
Mercifully, Starscream flinches.
Granted, all of said patients are minor injuries that Hoist is more than capable of foxing. The worst is Smokescreen. His pelvic assembly will need to be realigned but Ratchet can't do that until the nanites lay some groundwork anyway. The diversionary tactician can't feel anything right now, as loaded up on sedatives he is.
"Then you shouldn't have come," Starscream retorts, faceplates twisting with disgruntlement. Irritation for irritation. Blame for blame.
"I didn't have a choice." Ratchet leans over Starscream, something swelling inside of him, something he can't name. It knocks at his chestplate, makes his spark feel too large and confined. "Just like you couldn't help calling for me."
Starscream's engine growls a warning. He hates to be reminded of any weakness, especially one related to an Autobot.
Clever fingers stroke at Ratchet's side, tracing familiar paths, inciting a low curl of arousal in Ratchet's systems.
"It's inevitable, isn't it?" Starscream purrs, redirecting so smoothly, his energy field tentatively reaching out. Trying to soothe, to encourage. "But what would you expect from eons of the same routine?"
Ratchet exvents slowly, ignoring the quiet burn of arousal threading through his circuits. It would be easy, too easy, to fall into that pattern, to close the distance between himself and Starscream, press their lips together. Taste Starscream on his glossa, swallow the sounds of Starscream's pleasure, and lose himself in the Seeker's embrace.
Ratchet does none of this, instead drawing back and putting a subtle distance between them.
"It's not the same," he says. "Not at all."
He and Starscream are not the mechs they once were.
The world they inhabit has changed. Even the war has altered its course.
They adapt. That is what Cybertronians do. They adapt and compromise.
Now Ratchet wonders if he's compromised too much. If in the process of adapting, he's become something wholly unfamiliar and a shade too dissonant from his former self.
He looks at Starscream and he aches, to the very core of his spark. They are neither of them the same, not anymore.
Ratchet remembers the past, indulges in the present, and draws a blank on the future. He doesn't know where they are going, stuck as they are in this infinite loop. He isn't sure that they ever knew.
Starscream's energy field goes flat and cold, losing its inviting edge. "Of course it isn't," he grits out with pure Starscream vitriol. "We're on some pathetic mudball, fighting to the death because our leaders have a grudge."
Ratchet lowers his helm, giving Starscream a level look. "Not what I meant."
Starscream growls, surging upward, forcing Ratchet to step back into the seawater slop, now deep enough to slosh over his ankle joints.
"Then what the frag do you mean?" Starscream demands, hands a sharp slap on Ratchet's windshield. "This isn't the time for games, medic!"
"No, it isn't!" Ratchet shouts, vocals raised in familiar, easy anger. "But you keep playing them."
Fury rises up, lashes out, and Ratchet clings to it.
His emotional rerouting would be preferable, if it would work, but he'll take anger as a substitute. Anger is clean, powerful, and a better barrier to the illogical urge in his spark to take Starscream into his arms and keep on this dead-end path.
"One of these days, Megatron will go too far," Ratchet continues, words pouring out of him where they had been stunted earlier. "He'll break you beyond what I can fix. And I'll have to watch your spark gutter and extinguish."
Starscream makes a noise of disdain, his vocalizer spitting static. "And one of your crazy Autobots could shoot me down in the next clash. What's the difference?"
Ratchet forces himself to take another distancing step back, the most intimate layers of their energy fields snapping apart with brutal efficiency.
"I don't know," he says and swears his circuits are sparking ice at the admission. "I only know that I'm not doing it anymore."
Eons of memories fight for dominance in his core. Snippets of a life spent with and apart from Starscream. Images of the way they were, before the war even began.
That terrible illusion called love has always teased their relationship but never formed the actual words. It's more obsession and affection and the comfortable routine of the familiar.
Starscream is Ratchet's past and present, but he's no longer convinced the Seeker is part of his future. Not anymore.
Starscream's pedes splash into the murky water, his optics spiraling down to narrow pinpoints of crimson. "I never asked you to rush to my aid in the first place. Hook's a sadist but he's capable."
He's right, of course.
Ratchet was the one, the first time, to leave the Ark, tearing into the inky night and following the distant call of his lover's distress. So he has only himself to blame.
"I don't mean just that, Starscream," Ratchet says, lifting his helm, refusing to look away from Starscream's optics. "I'm talking about us. This lie we're living. It has to end."
He sees the very moment recognition dawns, and feels the way Starscream's energy field retracts so completely that it's like a slap to the faceplate.
"Why?" Starscream demands, vocalizer edging upward in familiar, outraged tones. "Are you that much of a coward?"
Ratchet's shoulders slump. "Yes."
Because he can't do it anymore. He can't lie to the Autobots and his Prime. He can't fear and hope every time he sees a jet in the sky. Or rush out to his beloved's rescue, tiptoeing the line of treason.
Ratchet has pretended blindness in the face of the war, but his optics are online and his sensors wide open.
It will hurt. He can't pretend it won't. More than any physical wound a Decepticon can cause.
Ratchet's thought cascade grinds to a realized halt.
A bitter laugh escapes him before he can stop himself.
In the end, a Decepticon is the cause.
Ratchet laughs. He laughs despite the ache in his spark, the weakness in his limbs, and the screaming of his logic center, aiming itself toward a glitch.
He never sees the fist coming. Only feels the blow as it crashes against his faceplate, cracking fine metal. Ratchet reels, optics fritzing, his crazed laughter cutting off with a choked noise that echoes in the cave.
He can hear Starscream's ragged ventilations. And when his optics reboot, he sees Starscream staring at him. Red optics are dark and betrayed as his energy field sears with hurt.
Ratchet resets his vocalizer with an audible click, but Starscream shakes his helm sharply.
"Frag you," the Seeker grits out, static lacing every syllable. "Frag you and the orn I ever laid optics on you."
And then Starscream is gone in a rapid flurry of forced transformation and the heat of his afterburners.
Ratchet can only watch him leave, tracking the fiery burn of his flight until it vanishes into the bright sunset.
The drive back to the Ark feels a lot longer than it should. He assumes it is because he's no longer breaking the human's speed limits and mindlessly following a distress ping linked to his core processor.
It is a lucky break that Ratchet doesn't think about much during the drive. Not about Starscream or the past or the current war or the Decepticons. His processor is eerily silent, his logic center still grappling with the earlier reroutes now that his emotions have calmed enough to be tamed.
The Ark is quiet by the time he returns, the calm after the storm of battle, when 'Bots retreat to their quarters to regroup and let self-repair do its work.
He passes no one in the hall so there are no witnesses to the state of Ratchet's frame, the mix of energon and seawater muck that clings to his plating. Save, of course, for Red Alert's cameras as they dutifully track his movements.
Ratchet heads for the washracks first and foremost, his circuits crawling at the sensation of filth coating him. He wants to be clean, to retrieve a cube of energon, and then perhaps retire to his quarters after checking on the patients he left in the medbay.
The unsettling numbness in his processors continues to linger. He should fix the reroutes, put everything back in its proper order.
The washracks are empty as well. Ratchet selects a stall in the far corner, out of sight of the door, and lets the spray fall down on him, lukewarm. It sheets over his plating, washing away energon spill and pieces of kelp and other organic muck.
He tilts his helm down, offlines his optics, focuses on the steady noise of water spattering against metal and the soft noises the frame makes as it cools. He invents and exvents, centering himself, before he finally accesses his protocols and returns himself to standard functioning.
The numbness remains. Is this normal? He doesn't know. He should be feeling something, shouldn't he? Like grief or regret or the pain of a broken spark.
Relief rises to the fore, an emotion that seems as though it should be incongruent to the situation at hand.
His frame shudders and his ventilations lose their rhythm. The bitter laugh bubbles up again but Ratchet swallows it down.
a/n: I'm starting to enjoy writing this pairing. You may see it more.
Feedback is always welcome. :)