a/n: In order to protect the artistic impact of this fic, I'm choosing not to warn for all of the content (though the title and summary should give some hint). Therefore, this fic is definitely read at your own risk. If you have a specific trigger, I wouldn't suggest reading this. I repeat, this fic is Read At Your Own Risk.

Title: Survivor's Guilt

Universe: Bayverse, pre-2007

Characters: RatchetxTwins, Prowl, Red Alert, Optimus Prime, Others

Warnings: You may need a box of tissues.

Rating: M

Description: Sideswipe didn't have any answers. Neither did Ratchet. And maybe that was the problem.

Inspired by twinsxratch's Wrench of Inspiration #24 and "Love is Dead," Kerli which is where I derived the cut text.


I.

The silence was louder than any shouting or yelling or throwing of medical instruments. It weighed heavily, tangibly on Sideswipe's plating, dragging him down and down. He didn't dare exvent because the sound would echo in their shared quarters.

Quarters now far, far too large.

He laid there, staring at Ratchet's backplate, digits hovering mere inches from obsidian glossy armor, but he didn't dare touch. He wanted to. There was an ache in his spark that could only be appeased by pressing closer to his bondmate, closing the gap between them, hearing Ratchet moan his designation.

He's not recharging either.

Sideswipe offlined his optics, in-venting sharply.

Please, just go away, he said.

He could feel Sunstreaker scowling at him. And you thought I was stubborn. Primus! Guess we all know who's really stable, don't we?

Sideswipe's plating began to tremble without his permission. His energy field flared before he could stop it, a tangle of emotions that begged and pleaded for relief.

He wanted Ratchet to turn over and look at him. At the same time, he didn't dare look into Ratchet's optics. They held too much accusation for Sideswipe.

They demanded "why are you still alive? Why did you survive? Why are we still here?"

Sideswipe didn't have any answers. Neither did Ratchet. And maybe that was the problem.

His digits curled back into themselves and Sideswipe dropped his servo to the berth, landing with a thump on the empty space between himself and Ratchet. They had more room on the berth now. Easier to fit two frames rather than three, not that any of them had ever minded. Well, maybe Sunny. Always griping about his paint, the vain creature he was.

Just because I had standards, Sunstreaker grumbled. You two could stand to develop a few.

Sideswipe drew his knees up toward his chestplate, his spark whirling and whirling in his chamber, the shaking growing more pronounced now. He felt like he were going to rattle himself right out of his armor, leaving nothing more than bare sheets of protoform behind.

Please, Sideswipe begged. Go away.

How can I? Sunstreaker muttered with an annoyed ex-vent that echoed over and over in Sideswipe's audials. Neither of you will let me.

A keen spilled from Sideswipe's vocalizer before he could stop it, louder for the silence, pathetic like a sparkling's. He wanted to curl into himself, like a protoform ball in a protective energon gel, the outside world muffled by the generative liquid.

Ratchet growled into the silence and thrust himself form the berth with a clatter, a sudden motion that would have startled Sideswipe, had he been more coherent to his sensors. He stared, bleary-opticked, as his bondmate stormed out of their berthroom, the door sliding open and shut behind him with an obstinate clunk.

The silence was heavier now. The berth larger.

Nevertheless, Sideswipe curled into a ball of misery, trying to make himself as small as possible. Sometimes, it helped the pain. Other times, it didn't.

Like now. His spark ached. It pulsed and scraped and bled fire into his lines. His plating itched, like a horde of scraplets had taken up residence. He moaned, low and sick, into the empty berthroom.

I've never seen a sorrier pair of Autobots in my entire existence, Sunstreaker said with a grinding gear of derision. What the frag, Sideswipe?

He didn't have an answer for Sunstreaker either.

o0o0o

Ratchet managed three strides out of their shared berthroom before his hydraulics gave out from beneath him and he dropped into a crumpled heap. One servo clawed at his chassis, as though that could ease the ache, though his medical programming knew good and well nothing would serve as a balm. The pain was imaginary, intangible.

It would pass with time.

Ratchet didn't want it to pass. He needed the pain. It was all he had left.

He wanted to keen, just like Sideswipe, but Ratchet ruthlessly offlined his vocalizer. Like the Pit he'd let his weakness show. Like the Pit he'd loosen his death-like grasp on his energy field. He didn't dare let the pain and the anger and the grief flow free because if he did, he'd never be able to bottle it up again.

I'm sorry.

"No, you're not you pit-spawned slagger," Ratchet snarled out loud, his vocalizer tripping back on with a rattle of static. He couldn't even keep control of his own systems, frag it!

I'd do it again.

Ratchet rebooted his vocalizer, choking off the pained cry. His servo slammed into the floor, metal ringing against metal in a loud chime.

"You don't think anything through. You never did!"

His systems were racing, pushing energy through his frame. His cooling fans kicked on, struggling to cool his frame. His processor ached. The moan that left his vocalizer was broken, better suited to the intensive reconstruction unit of his medbay.

The first few orn would be the hardest, Hoist had said, but what did he know? They were none of them trained processor analysts.

The pain was unbearable. Ratchet's servo grasped at his chassis. He had the sudden urge to tear open his chestplates, rip out his spark, if only to stop the agony. Surely the Pit had to be kinder than this. Surely.

You're not that kind of coward, Ratchet.

If living with his own mistakes was courage, than Ratchet would prefer the cowardice. This... this was unbearable. And staring into Sideswipe's oh-so-familiar faceplate was all the reminder he'd need, orn by orn.

His fault, his failure.

He could save a million Autobots over the course of this Pit-spawned war, and even half a hundred Decepticons, but when it came down to the one spark that mattered most, Ratchet had failed. This agony was only part of his punishment.

II.

"Have you even talked to him?"

Sideswipe snorted, hunching over his energon cube. He stared into the depths of the foul-tasting midgrade. The war was making everything taste like slag.

"I'll take that as a no."

Sideswipe's lips twisted into a scowl. "Don't you dare start, Smokescreen. I'm not going to play your analyze game. We both know you aren't really qualified."

Smokescreen leaned back in his chair, digits rapping across the tabletop. "After the Decepticons blew all the academies to slag, do you really think qualifications matter?"

No one was paying them any attention in their quiet little corner. Save for the looks. Sideswipe could feel them crawling over his plating, nipping at his backstrut.

Pity.

It made his tanks churn.

If you didn't insist upon acting like a sparkling, maybe they wouldn't pity you.

Sideswipe offlined his optics, tipping his helm to bury his expression in his cube. However, he couldn't hide the shudder in his plating.

"Are you still hearing him?"

Smokescreen's voice was careful, too gentle, and that caution made Sideswipe's insides roil. The too-large space behind his chestplates ached, creaked like something old and rusted.

Sideswipe didn't answer. His silence spoke for him.

Smokescreen ex-vented quietly. "You could-"

"Don't." Sideswipe surprised himself with the amount of static in his vocalizer. He didn't bother to reboot it. Maybe the glitch will keep him from saying something he might regret later. "Don't start."

The chair creaked as Smokescreen levered himself up, perhaps sensing a lost cause. "Talk to Ratchet, Sideswipe. I mean it."

Smokescreen left.

He's right, you know.

The energon cube shattered in Sideswipe's servos.

o0o0o

Ratchet stared into the mirror, his chestplates wide open, the bright aura of his spark whirling away without a single hint of the pain that wracked his systems. White whorled with a pale green and a vivid citrine, tendrils of energy licking out like lightning.

It was the ugliest thing he'd ever seen.

"There's nothing wrong with your spark."

Ratchet startled, slamming his chestplate closed, forcing it with his servos when it didn't move fast enough, and turned. Hoist was standing there, his expression set with the same pity that everyone else seemed to be giving Ratchet lately.

"Of course there isn't," Ratchet retorted, pushing past his old friend into the main medbay where he hadn't been allowed to work for the past two decaorn.

His own fragging medbay!

Hoist followed him. "If you know that, then why do you keep looking for a flaw?"

Ratchet didn't answer, stomping to his workstation and examining his tools, which were spotless since they hadn't seen any use lately. A glint of metal caught his optic and he picked up his surgical saw, testing the edge of it. Sharp as ever. The metallic mesh on his digit sliced open, drawing energon.

He watched it well up, pink and bright, before his self-repair nanites went to work, quickly sealing the small cut.

"Ratchet." Hoist's servo landed on his shoulder.

Ratchet jerked away, tucking the saw into his subspace, the slither of concern in Hoist's energy field an unwelcome buzz against his own. "I'm fine."

Hoist, at least, didn't call him out on his lie. "It was a legend, Ratchet. That's all it ever was. We used to laugh about it."

There was no humor in it to Ratchet anymore.

He turned on a pede. "I have to go," Ratchet said, making for the door. "Prime's orders. I'm not supposed to be here."

Hoist didn't follow him, but Ratchet could feel the medic's optics on him anyway. "Then why did you come?"

Because he didn't have anywhere else to go.

III.

Sideswipe returned to their quarters after another failed conversation with Prime. Three decaorns and their leader still refused to allow Sideswipe to return to the battlefield.

Too emotionally unstable, Prime had claimed as his digits tapped over a datapad displaying Sideswipe's medical file.

That neither Sideswipe nor Sunstreaker had ever been on the mentally stable side of things wasn't an argument that Prime would accept.

He'd just given Sideswipe the same sad, compassionate look everyone else tossed him and repeated his denial. Under the gimlet optic of Ironhide, pity clashing with a determination to toss out the increasingly belligerent frontliner, Sideswipe gave up and walked out of Prime's office.

Beyond the defensive walls of their fortress, the war raged. The Decepticons were growing closer and closer. Rumor had it Megatron was aiming for the Allspark. At this rate, he might get what he wanted.

And Sideswipe wasn't out there. The only thing in all the universe that might make him feel normal again and Sideswipe couldn't even get that sanctuary. Maybe those pitiful looks were well-deserved. He was useless like this.

Sideswipe punched his code into the door and it opened to admit him. He stepped into their dimly lit quarters. Either Ratchet wasn't here or he was in recharge.

The door to the berth was open. Sideswipe hovered in the frame, looking at the berth which was indeed occupied by his recharging mate. Ratchet was lying on his back, a position he loathed, one arm slung across his chassis. His expression did not reflect peaceful repose.

Sideswipe wondered what memory purges haunted his mate's recharge. The war probably took prominence and with it came the images of dying mechs, perhaps. The broken and leaking frames that came into Ratchet's medbay that he put back together again and again. All the sparks that he'd saved, pulled from the edge of the Well.

Or maybe the purges lingered on the one he didn't.

Sideswipe's facial plating twisted with more emotion than he could name, tiny mechanisms grating against one another. His grip on the door frame made metal crinkle like it were nothing more than foil.

He couldn't stay here this orn.

Sideswipe turned away, energy field a raging torrent that he struggled to contain. His free servo clutched at his chestplate, rubbing over the near-invisible seam. He could feel the pulse of his spark behind the thick armor, whirling and spinning without a care in the universe. Selfish.

This isn't what I wanted.

Sideswipe staggered into the hallway, feeling like he couldn't ventilate until he was free of the oppressive atmosphere of their quarters. The door shut and he sagged against it, trying to regain himself.

'Then you shouldn't have left.'

Silence wrapped around him like an icy wind. Sideswipe palmed his faceplate and in-vented shakily.

Maybe Hound would put him up for the orn.

o0o0o

The moment the door slid shut again, Ratchet's optics onlined, the dull glow illuminating their quarters. He didn't have to look to know that Sideswipe was gone.

He couldn't decide if he was relieved or disappointed.

Ratchet turned on his side, pressing his backplate against the wall. He wondered if he closed his optics and imagined hard enough, he could pretend that there was a golden frame pressed warmly to his back. Then, if the illusion held, he could imagine Sideswipe was in front of him.

They'd both activate their engines at the same time, trapping him between their rumbling frames. Sideswipe would be smirking, mischievous. Sunstreaker would be smug, his devilry better concealed. Ratchet would bluster, gripe about his early shift, but he'd also be the first one to reach out, to stroke Sideswipe's panel and cant his hips toward Sunstreaker.

Maybe... maybe if he closed his optics, Ratchet could be home again.

IV.

War was the best impetus to shatter good intentions.

Prime had meant for Sideswipe to stay off the battlefield, but he couldn't very well stop the frontliner when the Decepticons attacked with a force strong enough to drive the Autobots back. They were microns away from losing Tyger Pax. Reinforcements wouldn't arrive for another ten breems.

It became a call to arms for every available mech. The brigs released those serving time for minor misdeeds. Blustreak hobbled out of the medbay on one functional pede, still able to shoot from behind a rampart. Ironhide stormed onto the battlefield, cannons whirring, one optic covered by temporary plating.

Prime led the charge, mismatched plating with weld scars crisscrossing his armor. Seekers streaked across the sky overhead, engines whining, strafing the ground troops with little regard to their own ranks.

For the first time in decaorns, Sideswipe felt something approximating normal. He leapt into the fray, racing forward, leaving his unit far behind.

Someone shouted for him. Ironhide perhaps but Sideswipe ignored him. He had his optics set on a massive Decepticon, heavy treads indicative of some kind of armored vehicle, cannon perched on its left shoulder.

His energon blades burned as he unsheathed them, molten metal dripping to the ground in thin, ropy strips. Sideswipe didn't bother with a battle cry. He shifted power to his hydraulics and launched himself at the Decepticon, eager to feel metal rending beneath his blades.

The Decepticon didn't see him coming, too busy trying to take aim at the very battlement where Bluestreak was sniping with deadly accuracy. Sideswipe decapitated the tank in an instant, the smell of scorched metal blending with everything else: burned energon, blasted circuits, munitions.

Sideswipe's spark surged. Where once he would have felt echoes of pride and relief and caution and battle glee, he now felt nothing.

His backplate itched. No one was there to watch it.

The ground shook. Sideswipe turned as a roar echoed across the battlefield. His lipplates stretched into a grin.

Menasor had come.

And Sideswipe owed the combiner team some retribution.

o0o0o

He lost Slingshot. Spark chamber cracked, essence escaping before Ratchet could so much as assess the situation. He had just managed to force Slingshot's chestplate open when his spark guttered and died.

There was nothing he could have done. The Aerialbots would be beside themselves with grief and Ratchet had no comfort to give them. He had failed.

First Aid shouted for him. Hound was thrashing on the berth, processor in disarray, some virus or something one of Soundwave's symbiotes had passed along before the scout had blasted out it's spark.

The floor was gummy with spilled energon and coolant, mixing into a sticky sludge that hampered everyone's movement. The air stank of scorched wiring and despair.

They lost Tyger Pax.

Prime had done the unthinkable, casting the Allspark into the void of space. Megatron went after it, as a matter of course, but the Decepticons continued to fight.

Prowl had called for a tactical retreat. Back to Iacon, he said.

If Ratchet had to move Moonracer, she was going to offline. He didn't know that he had a choice. It was no longer safe here, as evidenced by the explosion somewhere nearby, making the whole building shudder, the lighting flicker.

Fixit went to help First Aid.

Ratchet was still standing here over Slingshot's empty frame, staring into the grey spark chamber, hands covered in energon.

"Medic!"

A soldier shouted over the din of pain and agony and machines screaming their death tolls. Useless shout, Ratchet reasoned. Everyone in here was already trying their best.

He looked and his spark stuttered.

Surely that smoking ruin could not be Sideswipe.

Ratchet was moving before he thought twice about it, nearly knocking over one of the technicians. Part of him clinically cataloged the visible damage. Some mech had ripped off Sideswipe's leg, clawed through his ventral plating and energon was pouring free. One of his helm crests were missing, the sensory bank left behind spitting sparks into the air. His optics were dim, his chestplate crumpled inward.

No. Not again.

Ratchet shoved his way through to his mate's side, digits trembling. He almost didn't know where to begin.

Staunch the bleeding. Set up an energon drip. It wouldn't do to have Sideswipe leak out. Clamp something on that sparking array before it shorted out and scorched something in Sideswipe's processor.

Primus there was so much energon.

In the flickering emergency lights of the medbay, Sideswipe's armor looked a terrible xanthous gold instead of the mercury silver he knew it to be.

Hoist snatched the welder out of Ratchet's servo, bodily shoving Ratchet back. "Get out of the way," he demanded, sounding nothing like his usual congenial self.

Ratchet balked. "But..."

Sideswipe's optics flickered on, a keen of pain rumbling up out of his chassis. His vocalizer glitched, his energy field flared, but none of that prevented the crying that hammered at their bond.

He was calling for Sunstreaker.

Ratchet turned on a pede and fled.

o0o0o

Sideswipe onlined to Ratchet's faceplate and an unfamiliar medbay ceiling. Prowl must have been serious about that retreat. They were probably in Iacon.

He'd lived.

Honestly, Sideswipe didn't know if he was relieved or disappointed.

Don't be so quick to join me, glitch.

Sideswipe concentrated on ventilating, trying to ignore the ache that had settled throughout his entire frame. He was quite certain that he was a mess of welds again. The new connections on his leg itched. His paint job was a fragged ruin, had been a ruin since... since...

"Sideswipe," Ratchet said, words gritted out, his optics dark with anger and something else, too. "What in Unicron's rusted undergarments were you thinking to take on Menasor without any backup?"

Sideswipe worked his intake, resetting his vocalizer. "I don't need backup," he retorted, surprising himself with the rough quality of his vocals. Oh, right. Menasor had kicked him once. "And it didn't matter anyway. That slagger had to pay."

"By getting yourself killed?"

"That wasn't my intention."

"You frag near succeeded!" Ratchet's vocalizer tripped into a louder range but he didn't tone it down.

They were obviously in a medbay. Other patients were resting but Ratchet didn't seem to care. Not with the worry Sideswipe could feel pulsing through his mate's energy field. Worry and concern and guilt and fear and so many helpless emotions that Sideswipe shuddered in their wake.

Sideswipe struggled to sit up, but the temporary plating on his midsection prevented him. He collapsed back against the berth, directing a glare at his mate. "It's a little too late to worry about me, Ratchet."

The medic reared back, optics flashing. "What the frag is that supposed to mean?"

"Exactly what I said." Sideswipe's uninjured servo curled into a fist. "I suppose I owe Hoist my thanks. He's the reason I'm still online. Guess Sunny got the short end of the deal."

Ratchet jerked as though he'd been physically struck. His mouth opened and closed but no words emerged. His energy field flooded over Sideswipe, ripe with despair that suddenly shifted into anger.

Ratchet leaned closer, gears grinding in his frame. "Contrary to popular belief, I am neither a miracle worker nor Primus! I can't fix everything, Sideswipe. I can't-"

"You let him die."

The accusal tasted bitter, like stale energon and tainted hydraulic fluid. Sideswipe didn't even know if he meant it or not. All he knew was that he stood there, watching Sunstreaker turn grey on a medberth, and Ratchet hadn't saved him.

"Sideswipe!"Ratchet sounded horrified, but above it all, guilty. It was so thick in his energy field that Sideswipe's tanks churned.

Sideswipe, don't.

He forced himself upright on the berth, ignoring the warnings his systems screamed at him, or the pain blossoming in his midsection as temp plating buckled. "Tell me it isn't true," Sideswipe hissed, ventilations panting, memories dark but clear, nudging at his processor. "Tell me you didn't stand there and watch his spark gutter!"

Color drained from Ratchet's optics, turning them a sickly off-white. Part of Sideswipe hated himself, but he couldn't stop the words from coming, the accusations that he'd been keeping to himself all this time.

No. Don't do this.

"You gave up on him," Sideswipe declared, one servo clutching at his chestplate, where his spark whirled in distress. "You let him die."

Ratchet's energy field went completely flat, inanimate. His ventilations were a bare whirr in the silence of the medbay.

He lowered his helm, those empty optics focusing on Sideswipe and Sideswipe alone, servos limp at his sides. "And if you had been watching his back, he wouldn't have been hurt in the first place."

Sideswipe's processing power came to a grinding halt for a long, stupefied moment. And then the anger rushed in, with all its roaring glory, and he found a well of strength he didn't know he had.

A bellow tore free from his vocalizer as he launched himself off the berth, tearing free the energon drip from his lines, crashing into his mate, sending them both clattering to the floor. He didn't know if his blows landed. He could only hear the rushing in his audials, feel the pain in his spark, sense someone calling his designation.

Other mechs were shouting. Alarms were blaring loudly.

Ratchet struggled. Sideswipe flailed, only half of his frame responding. Anger flushed heat through his systems. Pedesteps announced the arrival or more mechs. Servos landed on Sideswipe's limbs, dragging him back.

He got a glimpse of Ratchet, faceplate stricken with guilt and despair, but Sideswipe's vision started to glitch out. Static danced across his optics. Something impacted the back of his helm and Sideswipe's world went dark.

V.

"Why aren't I in the brig?"

"Do you really think that's where you need to be?"

Ratchet's shoulders sagged and he leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. "I don't want special treatment, Red. It's not like I'm the first mech to lose someone to this war."

"No. You aren't," Red Alert replied and his voice was so careful, so gentle, that Ratchet felt a bit like shouting just to break it. "But putting you in the brig isn't the solution either."

Ratchet hung his helm, offlining his optics. He had no words.

The chair creaked as Red Alert leaned back. "It's been a diun. Do you even share a berth anymore?"

"Only in silence."

The security director ex-vented quietly. "He's your mate. You should be drawing together. Not apart."

Ratchet lifted his helm, catching Red Alert's optics. "We should be dead," he said flatly.

Not unexpectedly, Red Alert frowned. "But you're not. You are both lucky that what we all feared was only a myth."

Luck?

Ratchet ground several gears together. "That's not what I would call it."

Red Alert rapped a few digits across his desk, the steady cadence a damning sound to Ratchet's audials. "Like it or not, you two still need to consider your future."

A twitch raced down Ratchet's backstrut, optics whipping toward the security director, servos clenching tight. "I didn't think I'd survive either of them. Why would I need a future without them?"

The silence that followed was almost worse than Red Alert's overwhelming pity.

Another heavy in-vent and ex-vent echoed from Red Alert. "You cannot join him, Ratchet."

He looked away, staring hard at the massive bank of monitors just behind Red Alert, for once not being watched avidly by their owner. Each screen showed an Autobot going about their daily business. Heading to patrol, coming back from it. Heading to the rec room, meeting friends in the hallway, sneaking off to a quiet corner with their partner...

Ratchet felt a distinctly unpleasant swell of hate for every last one of them. It passed, but the fact that it had been present however briefly, made the pain in his spark worse.

"Nor can you continue to blame Sideswipe," Red Alert added, though his words were becoming a distant buzz to Ratchet's audials. "It's not his fault."

"I know," Ratchet said, servos clasped together. "Of course it's not."

Because Ratchet knew, in his spark, that all the blame was his own.

o0o0o

"You've set your recovery back an entire decaorn."

The chastising tone was a burr of familiarity in an ever-growing sea of uncomfortable new experiences.

Nevertheless, Sideswipe did not offer its owner a response.

"Sideswipe."

He lightly dragged digits over the repaired plating on his midsection. "I'll report to my usual cell as soon as Hoist clears me," Sideswipe offered.

Across the desk from him, Prowl tucked away a datapad, proving that his full attention was devoted to Sideswipe alone. "I would rather you return to your quarters and talk to Ratchet."

Sideswipe scowled, gears in his mouthplate clicking sullenly. "There's nothing to say."

"He's your mate."

"So?"

It was Prowl's turn to frown, his optics cycling down to narrow pinpricks. "He's hurting as much as you are."

Sideswipe's servo flattened over the thin plating on his abdominal array. His circuits still itched. But he said nothing.

Prowl's doorwings twitched, an indication of his growing impatience, though it didn't reflect in his tone. "Do you think it was his fault?"

Sideswipe's emotions were too frayed for him to hide the way he flinched, the way he recoiled into his chair.

And Prowl, ever the tactician, pressed on. "Have you even stopped to grieve?"

It was easier, Sideswipe reasoned, to simply ignore every question Prowl threw at him. That way he couldn't incriminate himself. Besides, it wasn't as though he had anything to say. Unless...?

"Sideswipe-"

"I don't know what you want to hear, Prowl!" Sideswipe snapped, ventilations a struggling rasp in the heavy silence of Prowl's office. "Sunny's gone and Ratchet's not enough and no amount of talking is going to fix any of it!"

Unsurprisingly, Prowl barely reacted to Sideswipe's outburst. "Is that why you're angry with him?" he asked.

"It's not anger."

"Then what would you call it?"

Sideswipe ex-vented noisily, folding his arms over his chestplate and looking away. His denta gritted sullenly.

Prowl rose from his chair, circling around the desk to Sideswipe's side, coming into his peripheral view, where he crouched to better meet Sideswipe's optics. "Just answer me this," he said, energy field tentatively reaching out as his servo landed on Sideswipe's shoulder. "Do you still love Ratchet?"

Sideswipe jerked away from Prowl, throwing himself from the chair, wheeled feet leaving a streak on the polished floor. "If that were enough, Cybertron would be a different place," he spat at the tactician. "If you're not going to punish me, can I leave?"

The look Prowl gave him was worse than the pity in the mech's energy field. "Do you think Sunstreaker would be happy if he could see you now?"

Sideswipe's mouthplates creaked as he pulled them into a bitter smile he didn't feel. "He's furious actually. Thinks we're both a couple of glitched dumbafts."

Prowl returned to his chair behind his desk. "He would be right, you know."

"Yeah. I know."

VI.

"Don't worry," Sideswipe said to him the moment Ratchet stepped into their shared quarters. "I'm going to stay with Bluestreak for a while."

Ratchet's spark gave a lurch and his frame followed it, nearly missing a step. He drew to a halt, just beyond the door, hearing it slide shut behind him.

"You don't have to do that," Ratchet said quietly, optics hungrily drinking in the sight of his silver-plated mate.

Sideswipe was, as always, as beautiful as he was strong, every motion built with casual grace and lethality. He and Sunstreaker were not mirror images, but their faceplates resembled to a point that it pained Ratchet to so much as look at Sideswipe. He could see echoes of Sunstreaker in his surviving twin. And it hurt.

Sideswipe paused in the midst of pulling a cleaning kit down from a shelf. His optics, too, were downcast. "Yes, I do."

"Prime's going after the Allspark and Megatron," Ratchet said into the following silence, unable to take his optics off his mate, his spark longing to take Sideswipe into his arms and never let go.

The ache within his chassis couldn't decide if such an action would help or worsen the pain. Ratchet found it hard to reason anything anymore. Everything was off balance now and it was not getting any easier.

Ratchet's servos clenched into fists at his side. "He's asked for volunteers."

Sideswipe flicked a shoulder panel with a derisive noise. "I don't know why he bothers. I can tell you who he's going to take." He slammed a crate onto a desk, contents rattling noisily. "Ironhide. Jazz. Prowl."

"And me."

Sideswipe's helm jerked up, optics blazing bright as they focused on Ratchet, grief etched into his features. "You're leaving?"

"Yes."

He couldn't stay here. He couldn't watch himself and his mate slowly self-destruct, ruined by a grief they couldn't bear to share. Ratchet couldn't do it. He was not that strong.

Besides, everyone knew Prime's quest was just short of a fool's errand. Maybe Ratchet would get lucky. Maybe another Decepticon would do what Menasor failed to finish.

Don't say such a thing!

Sideswipe's servos dropped from the crate he'd been filling, his frame shifting toward Ratchet but making no motion to close the distance between them. "I.." His vocalizer crackled, thick with static.

Ratchet understood. He was having a hard time finding the words himself. "Maybe what we need is time. Distance. Who the frag knows?"

And maybe one orn Ratchet would be able to look at Sideswipe without feeling both overwhelming guilt and suffocating despair. Maybe one orn he could hold Sideswipe without feeling the echoes of Sunstreaker's arms around him.

Maybe one orn he would be able to stop loving both of them. Though if that orn ever came, Ratchet would walk into a Decepticon's blast range with optics wide open.

Sideswipe exvented softly, shoulders sinking with resignation. "I'm sorry."

"So am I," Ratchet replied and left unspoken precisely what he was apologizing for. Sideswipe already knew anyway.

He was not Sunstreaker. He was a poor substitute for Sideswipe's twin. And Ratchet knew, he did, that they loved him. They loved him like they never cared for anyone outside of each other, but in the end, Ratchet was not Sunstreaker. He was not an echo of Sideswipe's spark despite the irrevocable ties that bound them.

His chassis felt too small, his frame tight. Ratchet's energy field was a vibrating burr of anxiety that he held close to his plating. He could feel Sideswipe's optics on his backplate and suddenly, all he could think about was escaping.

Ratchet turned on a pede, facing the door. "We're leaving in six joors." He paused, indecision warring heavily inside of him. "I'm not asking you to come but..."

"I know." Sideswipe cut him off gently, a softness in his vocals that few of the Autobots would have believed him capable. "Take care of yourself, all right?"

Ratchet offlined his optics, drawing in a heavy ventilation. "You, too."

Because Sunstreaker wouldn't be there to watch Sideswipe's back and Ratchet wouldn't be there to put him back together.

Something lurched in Ratchet's chestplate again, a swirl of agony mingled with regret and such heavy grief that he couldn't bear it. He slammed a servo onto the door panel, triggering it to open, and escaped into the empty hallway beyond before his legs collapsed beneath him.

You can't leave.

Ratchet sagged against the door, his frame ticking as his cooling fans clicked on, trying to work against the sudden crop of heat dragging across his circuits.

He needs you.

Ratchet dragged a palm down his faceplate, his processor throbbing within his helm. The plea he sent into the ether was both broken and desperate.

Please, Ratchet said. Leave me alone.

The ghostly pulse in his spark was silent.

VII.

"Are you certain this is the best course of action?"

Optimus' gentle tones feel as much of a rebuke as they do a soft query.

Ratchet cast an askance look at his Prime. "I don't see where I have any other choice."

"There are always other choices to be made, Ratchet." Prime's battle mask slid aside, making the fathomless blue of his optics even brighter. "You have already lost one. Do you wish to lose the other?"

Ratchet's helm lowered, his digits tightening where they gripped the railing in the bridge. "I already have, Optimus. There's nothing left to save."

A servo grasped his shoulder, the Prime's energy field buzzing with sympathy. "I understand, old friend. Perhaps when we return with the Allspark, you will believe differently."

Ratchet didn't have the spark to agree so he said nothing.

The truth was staring him in the faceplate with the reality of his mate's actions.

Sideswipe hadn't come to say goodbye.

o0o0o

"Why are you lurking in the shadows?"

To his credit, Sideswipe did not leap into the air despite his surprise at both the unexpected words and the unexpectedly familiar voice. Instead, he shifted further back into the recessed alcove, though his optics remained locked on the tiny ship that would transport Prime and his crew.

"I thought you were leaving with them."

There was a slight creak as Prowl changed positions. "No. I thought it more prudent that I stay behind to guard Cybertron."

Sideswipe watched as the last of the maintenance crew scurried down from the space shuttle's armored frame, completing their final checks. The Axalon was good to go, due to leave in less than a breem.

Prime and his team had long since boarded. Sideswipe had watched every step Ratchet had taken into the ship, until the lanky medic had disappeared from view. He thought he should feel something. Anger or sadness perhaps. But an odd sort of numbness had invaded Sideswipe from the tip of his sensory horns to the ends of his pedes. He couldn't seem to dredge up much of a reaction at all.

"You should have gone down there," Prowl said once the silence between them got too overbearing.

Sideswipe could feel the weight of the tactician's optics, even as the Axalon let out a heavy hiss of disengaging locks. "I'm not the one who chose to leave."

"You didn't give him a reason to stay either."

Sideswipe folded his arms over his chestplate, the thrumming of the Axalon's engines seeming to vibrate straight through to his spark. "Once I wouldn't have had to."

The landing bay door cycled open as the Axalon started to rise into the air, the ground below filled with cheering mechs and femmes. The hope of a million plus Autobots rested on the struts of Prime and his crew.

"You may never see him again."

Sideswipe stepped out of the shadows, into the heat and light of the shuttle's thrusters as it pushed toward the open bay and the inky blackness of space beyond.

"I know."

"And you are willing to accept that?"

Was that disbelief Sideswipe heard in Prowl's vocals? Had he managed to surprise the usually far-sighted tactician?

"We all do what we must," Sideswipe replied, watching as the Axalon disappeared into the dark beyond.

He sent a prayer to a deity he didn't believe existed. Maybe Prime would return with the Allspark. Maybe the war would come to an end.

Maybe Ratchet would come back.

Until then, all Sideswipe could do was fight. Fight and live.

He lifted a servo, touching a digit to his chestplate, feeling the steady thrum of his spark beneath the thick armor. Echoes of Sunstreaker pulsed equally strong. He could also still feel Ratchet, fading with growing distance but present nonetheless.

He wished circumstances were different. He wished he had protected his twin, been just a nanoklik faster in pushing Sunstreaker out of the way. He wished he'd dragged his broken twin back to the medbay faster. He wished he hadn't been forced to watch Ratchet try and fail to save Sunstreaker's spark.

He wished he hadn't watched his twin's spark disassociate before his very optics. He wished even more that he hadn't felt the agony. He wished he'd been able to say and do a lot of things, if he'd known it was going to be the end.

Most of all, he wished that the stories had proven true. That Sunstreaker's death would have meant his own even though they would have dragged Ratchet down with them. That, Sideswipe believed, he could have bore.

Living without his brother was something Sideswipe had never considered. He didn't know where to begin. He couldn't comfort himself. He didn't know how to comfort Ratchet. He didn't know how to fix anything.

Sunstreaker, for once, had nothing to say either. He was silent in the wake of Ratchet's departure and silent in the face of Sideswipe's broken spark.

For all that Prowl was standing just in his shadow, Sideswipe could not remember a time he ever felt so alone.


a/n: Eventually there will be a sequel, I'm just not sure when. After all, Ratchet and Sideswipe do meet on Earth some time later.

Feedback is welcome!