The human children that had come to be their friends had saved their lives, of that there was no question. Without them, Bulkhead, Bumblebee, and Ratchet would all have died, consumed by the scraplet infestation and for that, Optimus owed them a debt that could never be repaid. Giving them a ride home was akin to throwing a drop of energon into a gallon-sized debt and Optimus was happy to do so, even carefully dropping them off a few blocks away from home to avoid suspicion as to why a large truck would be carrying around two children.
He was happy to assist them and pleased with their chattering goodbyes but the long drive home, his joints still aching from the long exposure to arctic temperatures...today, he could have done without it.
Arcee met up with him just outside of town, returning from dropping off Jack, and the two of them returned to base in silence, too weary to converse even on the most basic level. The moment the main doors closed, they both transformed, trusting their feet to guide them better than their tires.
"Go rest," Optimus ordered softly and Arcee only nodded tiredly.
"Yes, sir," she mumbled, not quite stumbling to her quarters. He and Arcee had been repaired first, once Ratchet had established that none of them were in imminent danger, but repairs could do nothing for their fatigue. Even with the children helping, Bulkhead and Bumblebee's repairs had taken much longer and Ratchet had still been working when the children had been forced to leave, the hour of human curfew calling them home.
Heavy footsteps resonated down the long hallway and with some relief, Optimus looked up to see Bulkhead approaching, his armor gleaming mellowly in the dim light.
"Bulkhead. You are well?" Optimus asked with genuine pleasure, his own tactical analysis programs demanding to know who in his team was battle-ready. He cared about his team, each one was like family to him but he could never ignore the fact that he was their leader and he needed to know their state for strategic reasons.
In all actuality, Bulkhead looked better than he had in some time; repair nanites were not to be wasted on anything as simple as scratched paint, but once Ratchet had unleashed them on Bulkhead's battered frame, they would have repaired all the damage they encountered.
"Good enough for hitting, boss," Bulkhead said, pounding one fist into his hand. But it didn't escape Optimus's notice that his optics were dim with exhaustion and the large bot, never the most graceful of their small group, had been lumbering down the hallway even heavier than usual.
He added a mental note on that, clapped a hand on Bulkhead's shoulder, and offered him the same advice he had Arcee, "Go get some rest."
"No problem," Bulkhead sagged, realizing he hadn't fooled his commander in the least, and half-staggered down the corridor in the direction of his quarters. His were furthest from the infirmary; again, tactics, none of them were bunked near the others. If they were, in the event of an attack they could all be killed in the very first strike.
If he thought that Bulkhead would accept, he would have offered to help him to his quarters but past experience had taught Optimus that Bulkhead would be horrified at the mere suggestion that his leader do such a thing. Out of all of them, Bulkhead was the one who clung to their military traditions the closest and if that was what he needed, then that was what Optimus would give him.
And then there was the one who appreciated military hierarchy the least.
"That had better be a ghost or a glitch in the door motors because Primus knows if any of you came back here for less than a processor meltdown after I told you to go rest, I will make you a ghost," Ratchet's sharp voice greeted him as he stepped into the main engineering. The medic was hunched over the monitors, a haphazard stack of data pads on his left.
"If that were true, I would only return and haunt you," Optimus replied, amused.
That got him a startled look from over Ratchet's shoulder. "Optimus, I wasn't expecting you back so quickly."
"It's been nearly two hours," he countered.
"So it has," Ratchet grunted, returning his attention to a data pad. Peering over his shoulder, Optimus noted it was Bumblebee's most recent scan. The little yellow scout was nowhere in the med bay, the temporary medical berths already cleared away.
"How is Bumblebee?"
"Resting. Which is where you should be. Just because I cleared you to leave med bay doesn't mean you're at a hundred percent. You and Arcee are both lucky that you don't have permanent system damage."
"We are," Optimus agreed. Truly, they were lucky, but there was no reason to linger on what had not happened.
Stepping in closer, he frowned as he took in his medic's appearance. Unrepaired damage was still crisscrossing his form but his only surrender to injury was to sit instead of standing like he normally would.
"I already know what you're going to say," Ratchet held up a hand to forestall him. "My internals are just fine. The medical nanites will be recharged by morning and I'll put them to use then." He gestured in the direction of a large container, nanites within glowing lightly as they recharged.
"And you're the only one left with injuries?"
Ratchet snorted aloud. "Of course I'm not. It'll be days before we're all in what I'd call a good state of repair. But aside from some necessary rest, there's nothing that should keep anyone out of the field. We were all lucky, Optimus."
"Indeed," Optimus agreed softly. He stepped a little closer, his optics on the damage that the scraplets had wrought on the medic's frame. It had been a very long time since he'd seen such an injury. Towards the end, even the scraplet species had been dying out on Cybertron. For a time the population had surged, during the beginning of the war, with plenty of dead Cybertronians for the vermin to feast upon but as the war had continued even the pests had begun to die off, leaving the planet a darkened wasteland.
Such injuries had been common then and he recognized the distinctive appearance of scraplet bites. The paint alongside the wounds was blistered; scraplets produced intense heat when they fed and those metal burns were probably as painful as the injuries themselves.
With a delicacy of touch that few would suspect he had, Optimus ran a single finger down the very edge of a long, vicious mark down Ratchet's shoulder. He kept his touch very light, knowing that the pain sensors in the area might be scrambled and interpreting any touch as excruciating. Ratchet's quiet sigh indicated otherwise and the medic paused for a moment, his head tipping back as he closed his eyes and relaxed into the gentle touch.
"It's superficial. Looks a lot worse than it is. I'll be fine, Optimus," Ratchet told him, wearily.
He would; even without the use of medical nanites, Ratchet's self-repair would eventually take care of the worst of the damage. Ratchet would be fine and the others were taking in their much-needed rest. Optimus himself had warnings popping in his HUD, informing him that the need to recharge was becoming increasing urgent. Urgent, but not yet imperative, and instead, he continued tracing the long tears along Ratchet's frame, felt the occasional flinch as he touched an exposed sensor or a slightly deeper wound. Eventually, Ratchet resumed his work, not protesting Optimus's careful inspection.
There was no need to do this to the others; without question, their injuries would be repaired to the best of Ratchet's abilities. Bumblebee had already been hooked to the monitors by the time the three of them had stumbled through the ground bridge, their icy limbs frosting instantly as they came into contact with the warmer air. Ratchet had been in the middle of the unique process of triaging himself, a procedure he'd had to do with increasing frequency over the years, even as he barked orders at the children, all of whom had eagerly jumped to the tasks he set to them.
All of them had waited with the patience of long experience until Ratchet had finished basic repairs to himself. A medic's objectives changed with the situation and Ratchet had been forced into a state of constantly using battle triage protocol for a long, long time. In this instance, the medic needed his inhibiting injuries treated first so that he would be able to treat the rest of them. Next had been Arcee and himself; the least damaged were repaired first to protect the others.
Bulkhead was next, as the most capable of the more grievously wounded soldiers and then Bumblebee, and none of them would have questioned Ratchet's choices, nor resented him.
And that left Ratchet as both the first and the last patient. His internals were in order and he would be fine, but he was covered in large, painful tears, rips through the surface armor that were edged in horrible, blistered burns. Like some uncaring dark god had run his searing claws over him or, rather, like some tiny vermin had tried to consume him in the horrific manner of their kind. Painful wounds that Ratchet hadn't healed as he'd expended all his resources, all of his capable efforts, all his care, towards them.
It had been some time since they had all been so wounded and Optimus did not dare pray that it would never happen again but he did beg of Primus that it not be soon.
Eventually, as Optimus worked his way lower, crouching on the floor as he examined the viciously grated metal along Ratchet's legs, the medic spoke again, quietly.
"You should go lie down," Ratchet told him. He didn't even look up from the displays, working through Bumblebee's system chart and probably Bulkhead's as well, glancing at other readings on the screens. Monitoring their base, them, always.
"So should you, old friend," Optimus said, softly, stroking his large fingers over a gash he had discovered on the bottom of Ratchet's foot, likely the reason that the medic was sitting. Foot injuries were particularly painful, all their considerable weight pushing against damaged metal.
Another sigh from Ratchet and he set one date pad aside to focus on another. "After I finish this."
A very typical response and so Optimus gave the typical answer to it, settling himself to sit on the floor. One thumb still traced the laceration on Ratchet's foot, stroking over and over the small wound and feeling the increased heat in the area from his repair systems. "Then I shall wait for you."
It was rare that Ratchet had to look down at Optimus; their size discrepancy usually meant the medic was straining his neck cables to look up and perhaps it was that uniqueness that allowed Ratchet to give Optimus a lopsided smile. "You would, wouldn't you. Very well."
Ratchet touched a few buttons and the lights in the room dimmed, a bright notice flicking to life on the main screen that informed them that security was now on automatic.
Silently, Optimus rose and followed Ratchet down a short hallway, to his quarters. Close to main engineering, to the medical bay, to the ground bridge. Close to where Ratchet was needed. All of them had been so hurt but Ratchet...he was so desperately important to them. Their only medic, their only scientist, and if Ratchet fell there was no one who could take his place. And still, Ratchet was the first and last of the injured to be repaired because that was who Ratchet was and nothing Optimus ordered or begged would change that.
The moment the door closed behind them, Optimus pulled Ratchet into his arms. He'd waited for the necessary medical routines and he'd waited for sake of propriety, and now he was unwilling to wait a single instant longer.
Ratchet only huffed out a laugh, leaning into the embrace. "I meant lie down to recharge."
"We'll recharge," Optimus agreed. Later. For now, he only walked Ratchet backwards, towards the berth, intent on lowering the smaller mech onto it. His intentions met with reality as Ratchet squirmed in his grip, resisting. Optimus would have released him, instantly, if that had been what Ratchet truly wanted. Which he doubted and the fact that he managed to hold his grip long enough to seat Ratchet on the edge brought credence to that.
"I think I have enough dents without you giving me more," Ratchet grumbled, but he allowed Optimus to part his legs, only raised one optic ridge in surprise as Optimus knelt in front of him. Doubtlessly not what he'd been expecting and the comment on the dents hadn't been a joke. It wouldn't have been the first time they pounded injuries into each other after a heated battle, Optimus dripping energon on Ratchet from dozens of trivial wounds while the medic cursed and fought him as much as he goaded him on. The two of them would be slippery with fluids, skidding through pools of energon as Ratchet screaming out his anger and pleasure and need while Optimus proved they were both very alive from between Ratchet's legs.
"I can be gentle," Optimus countered. He rubbed his thumbs over the smooth metal of Ratchet's inner thighs, one of the few areas that lacked injury. Only one tiny gash marred the white paint and he leaned in to press his mouth against it, tasting the sharp tang of injured metal.
Above him, Ratchet's ventilations hitched and it was hardly more than a groan as he spread his legs wider and said, "Prove it."
Again, there was no injury here, hidden from the scraplet's hunger but not from Optimus's. He pressed his mouth against the panel, tracing the edges with his glossa coaxingly. To his surprise, the panel opened beneath the first touch, sliding back. Perhaps it was telling as to how exhausted Ratchet truly was. Optimus was more accustomed to using a great deal of persuasion to get this far.
Instead, Ratchet arched back with a quiet sigh, lifting his hips in a silent plea that Optimus responded to, eagerly, licking the slick edges of Ratchet's exposed valve, murmuring soft encouragement against it as Ratchet choked out a moan. His own sigh was merely vibration, felt the quivering response as he licked deeper, tasting the bland sweetness of lubricant. His HUD informed him that the liquid was non-toxic and also non-nutritive and he shuffled that message aside absently, focused on what he was doing. On Ratchet's startled moan, echoing his own contented murmur as he rubbed his glossa against the sensors on the rim before pressing gently inside.
"Ohhh," Ratchet whimpered, barely more than a vibration. His hands were clenched into fists, resting on Optimus's shoulders and he reached up and took one, coaxing it to relax so that he could twine their fingers together. The other hand he slid briefly into the small of Ratchet's back, forcing him to arch up further as he lapped softly, sliding his hand back down to press a single finger inside, stroking deeply.
Ratchet was squirming in his grip, unable to be still, words garbled with need and any other time Optimus would have already been inside him, spread those white thighs and taken, pounded into the tight slickness of Ratchet's needy valve until they both slipped into enforced recharge. Not this time, not with these injuries beneath his seeking fingertips. He could feel the rough gouges in Ratchet's fingers where they clenched against his own, on his hip where their hands were curled, holding Ratchet up. Not this time, not with unexpected fear still gripping his spark; death had been to close for all of them and now he just wanted to feel Ratchet quivering against him. Wanted to feel him overload, feel his ventilations, harsh and desperate. Wanted to feel him moan.
Ignoring the insistent pressure of his spike trying to extend, instead Optimus buried his face against Ratchet's valve, licking around his own driving finger even as it tightened, the bright shock of overload sending a tremor through his hand as Ratchet keened with it, his hand clenching painfully tight around Optimus's.
Gently, Optimus withdrew his finger, pressing soft kisses and licks against Ratchet's heated valve, listened as his ventilations eased, his trembling shifting to the normal sound of systems humming smoothly. A last tender kiss and Optimus stood, urging Ratchet to lie back on the berth so that Optimus could join him. It was a rare indulgence, recharging together had its own set of complications. Not in the least because it was tactically unsound for the leader and the only medic to spend such a long time together in one spot, dangerous to the team, and Optimus shut down the warnings flashing at him about it without a moment of hesitation.
Dimming blue optics met his and Ratchet began, sleepily, "You didn't—"
"I had what I wanted," Optimus informed him.
Ratchet hummed a contented sound in reply, drifting into deep recharge. There wasn't a single response as Optimus drew one gentle hand down Ratchet's back, tracing the ragged wounds over and over, memorizing their positions down to the last micrometer.
They couldn't afford to lose Ratchet. Warriors were easier to replace and much as any death hurt and much as he mourned the loss of Cliffjumper, Optimus knew that tactically, Ratchet's death was not one they could afford. Tactically, he knew this.
But here, in the dark, listening to Ratchet's systems running with purring smoothness, Optimus could confess, softly, words that he could speak to no one, not even their recipient.
"I can't lose you."
There was no response, only the mingled sounds of their internals. Recharge warnings were flashing into his HUD insistently and Optimus ignored them, his hands moving ceaselessly in the dark as he rested in head against Ratchet's chest and listened to the living thrum of his systems, the exuded warmth of his spark.