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The Face of the Wilderness

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...For I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Let’s go back half an hour before Optimus hits the stranger with his car.

The diner has that classic lighting to it—the not-quite fluorescents shining off black-and-white checkerboard tiles and the plasticky red pleather of the booths. Most of the staff has clocked out over the past half hour, and only the owner is left, wiping down the bar. Optimus has asked her before, a hundred times, if she’s sure she doesn’t mind these long nights, and she only ever winks at him and tells him to take all the time he needs. He doesn’t pretend to know what she’s implying, but if she’s going to keep plying him with free coffee long after midnight, he can’t complain.

Across the table from him, still in scrubs and looking haggard and ravenous after another forty-five hour shift, Ratchet is shotgunning burnt toast with the speed and energy of a man rescued from starvation in the middle of the Sahara. He’s emptied his mug at least four times, and thanks the owner effusively every time she comes by with the decaf again. Secretly, Optimus suspects that Ratchet is the reason the diner stays open two hours past its marked closing time once a week—he and the owner are old friends, and she’s always giving him these little smiles when his back is turned. Ratchet told him, once, that they went to high school together. She probably fancies him.

“Long night?” Optimus asks, leaning back comfortably in his booth. The pleather is palpably sticky against his uniform, but he doesn’t mind. He’s off-shift. There’s nowhere he’d rather be, and no one he’d rather be with.

Ratchet rolls his eyes. “You have no idea,” he mutters through a mouthful of food, then swallows down another gulp of coffee to clear his mouth. “This new batch of residents is going to kill me. Swear to God. There’s this new student who’s all bright-eyed, keeps volunteering to take cases he’s not ready for. No sense of personal space. Keeps leaning over my shoulder to look at charts.”

“I thought First Aid was on full-time now.”

“Oh, First Aid’s alright,” Ratchet says, waving a hand. “I got used to him. He can mostly handle what he volunteers for, doesn’t come running for advice every time something goes wrong.” He spears a roasted tomato with his fork. “That’s the thing I’m looking for. Students who can work a problem, instead of asking me to fix it for them.”

Optimus smiles into his own mug of coffee. It’s practically empty, but he doesn’t like asking for refills. The diner has a ‘free coffee for cops’ policy that he doesn’t personally agree with. Makes him feel like he’s taking advantage. “If you’re teaching them, isn’t it good that they ask questions?” He says. “I thought that was how they learned. Seems like it’d be better for them to ask you questions now, instead of guessing with diagnoses and getting it wrong.”

“You’re probably right,” Ratchet says, “but I’m just not built for teaching that way. If I had a bigger hospital, I wouldn’t have to deal with this, you know.”

“It’s bigger than it was,” Optimus reminds him. “The town appreciates it, you know. What you’ve done. It’s good for the infrastructure.”

“It’s always nice to be appreciated by the town,” Ratchet agrees, focused intensely on a small pile of baked beans that he’s trying to finagle onto his fork with a butter knife, “but don’t get it confused, I just wanted more work. Free time isn’t good for my health.”

“Are you thinking about expanding?” Optimus asks, watching in fascination as his friend scrapes the wastes of his Full English into a pile at the center of his plate in a mash of crumbs and drippings. “I’ve heard Kepler is looking for somewhere to offload their patients. Apparently, they’re stretched pretty thin out there. Lots of injuries in the coal mines. Chromedome told me,” he amends quickly, as Ratchet fixes him with a suspicious look, bushy brows and shocking blue eyes. “He transferred from there. Apparently, they had a lot of busts up in the mountains. Illegal operations.”

Ratchet grunts dismissively and leans back in his seat, cleaning his hands with his napkin. He’s a little older than Optimus is, short and broad-shouldered and dense, squared off at the top with a short crop of grey hair. “Maybe,” he says doubtfully, “right now, we’re too short-staffed to take on overflow work for them. If we could poach some of their doctors, maybe. I was thinking more along the lines of getting a regional OBGYN office set up. Women around here have to drive an hour out to Huntington just to get routine medical treatment.”

“Like a whole building?” He frowns. “There’s some free land, south of Sheffield Park. I hear there was almost a Walmart there, once, before all the mom and pops ran it out of business. It might be up for purchase for pretty cheap. But how do you even get funding for that?”

Ratchet rubs his temple. “Petition the local government,” he mutters, “write papers, try to get funding from the local colleges. God, it’s going to be nothing but paperwork, I don’t even want to think about it. It’s my night off.

“Didn’t you just get off work?”

“It’s my day off, starting now,” he amends, “and I don’t want to think about paperwork until Saturday. What about you? Any interesting arrests?”

“Oh, the most,” Optimus says, smiling. “Got a cat out of a tree. Stopped Prowl from arresting someone for parking their car in front of his mailbox. It’s been a non-stop thrill ride from start to finish.”

“You ever miss New York?”

Optimus thinks of the unused handcuffs on his belt and the firearm he hasn’t taken out of his holster in the eighteen months since his move. “Not for a second,” he says, and means it. “Driving on the mountains doesn’t scare me anymore. I sleep pretty good now, too.”

Ratchet smiles endearingly. “Got used to the sound of the trains?” He guesses.

“It was the howling I couldn’t stand,” Optimus admits. “Wind does not howl in New York City. Animals do not howl in New York City. I guess prostitutes do sometimes, but I hear that costs more these days—“ he breaks off as Ratchet starts laughing, and feels an untoward thrill of pleasure. His best friend is a serious man, to whom humor does not come often—his laugh is startling and thick, and it excites Optimus’ happiness immensely. I made him laugh, he thinks, and hides his teeth in his coffee.

“Jesus,” Ratchet says, coughing a little. “Not while I’m drinking, Optimus.”

“Sorry,” he replies, not feeling sorry at all. His insides are warm.

“Come on, we should get out of here,” Ratchet says. “Let Elita actually close up shop. You’re still letting me bum a ride off you, yeah?”

“I drove you here, didn’t I?” Optimus puts his mug down and starts getting up. “You worried I can’t make it back down the hill?”

This is how their Thursday evenings go: Optimus gets out of work at 9:45 PM on the dot, goes back to his apartment, and takes a two-hour nap. At midnight, after washing up and putting on a very faint layer of his best cologne (the orange peel one, which the bottle proclaims George Washington used to wear in 1778), he sends an extremely cavalier text to Ratchet about how he’s just out of work, and would he like to go grab dinner/breakfast? He’s hungry, and the hospital’s on his way to the diner anyway, it’s no trouble. And then he waits, anxiously straightening his uniform in the patrol car, until he gets a text back some five minutes later, with an even-more cavalier ‘coffee on you. I’m out in 5’. Optimus picks Ratchet up from the hospital, and they take the long drive out to the only diner open until 1:30 AM, a ways up the mountain and rarely populated by anyone but the two of them. They talk, catch up on the week, apologize to the owner, overstay their welcome, and generally, experience what little genuine connection they can get.

Well. Maybe that last part is just Optimus, who gets most of his social activity from the minuscule police department and the fitness center, twenty five miles out, on the weekends. He doesn’t have much in common with the gym rats who make polite conversation with him on the weight floor, and the police department… the department is…

Here’s the important thing about the city of Midian Hill, West Virginia. It’s got five stop signs, three police officers, and two police cars. When Optimus took the job as police chief, his old chief had suggested the sinecure basically as a gentle retirement. It also, technically, paid better than his position as a regular officer in a larger city, and rent was lower.

And there aren’t so many memories associated with West Virginia.

So, he’d moved, and inherited a collection of antsy, anxious, or outright hostile subordinates. Prowl, his head deputy, seems to actively detest him. Resents him for taking the job. Chromedome has told Optimus, confidentially, that Prowl was expecting to be offered the position, and doesn’t like taking second place.

Chromedome is young, bright-eyed, and too eager for his own good. He’s an officer, mostly because somebody has to be, and is more or less the only member of the team who knows how to make the internet go on the computers. He transferred from the village about five miles away, and refers to Midian Hill as the “big city”. Prowl’s pretty soft on him. They’ve got a good rapport. Whenever he can, Optimus leaves them alone.

His work’s easier when they aren’t hanging around his ears. His personal time, ditto. That’s why Thursday nights are important.

Ten minutes before Optimus hits the stranger with his car, Ratchet is cashing out for their meal while Optimus fishes around in his wallet for a tip. They usually give the owner about 200%, which is maybe another reason she keeps the diner open for them. She smiles at both of them, all teeth, and makes gentle conversation with Ratchet that Optimus politely tunes out. She’s hanging up her pinafore when they stride out the front door at 2:46.

“Do patrol cars also have regular radios, or just the police one?” Ratchet is asking, as Optimus unlocks the door from the inside. The patrol car is not a particularly impressive vehicle. It’s old, for one thing. The doors have to be unlocked manually. The sirens have to be turned on manually. His truck is impressive. It’s got a V8 engine and a paint job he did himself and a key fob that lets him turn the car on from inside his house in the winter. But he doesn’t really have an excuse to pick Ratchet up in his truck. Obviously, he wouldn’t be at work with it.

“They’re not supposed to,” Optimus says, as Ratchet throws his medical kit in the back seat like it’s a career criminal, “but this one does. I think it’s just a converted sedan.”

The diner is the only stop open late at night, visible halfway up the mountain, along with a derelict bar and a gas station with one lit pump. Elita told him, once, that when she was a kid, the little bend in the road was halfway between town and the coal mine, but that the mine had dried up by the time she was old enough to inherit the family business, and it had been a downhill (ha, ha) battle keeping it operating ever since. Midian Hill, never a large town to begin with, had lost family after family to better jobs in better places, shriveling down until half the buildings were boarded up and the other half were rarely illuminated at night. That was, until Ratchet had come back from his expensive medical school in the midwest and started making Big Changes to the hospital, almost twenty years ago.

To Optimus, the town still looks pretty small. Elita says he just doesn’t have the right perspective.

In retrospect, he couldn’t have avoided meeting Ratchet. You meet everyone eventually, in a town this small. It’s not like New York, where finding his best friend had been a weird platonic meet-cute with a gang of construction workers he’d thought he was going to have to arrest. And Ratchet is a presence. It’s not that he’s magnetic—you wouldn’t look twice at him if you didn’t know who he was—it’s just that the town lives and breathes on his name. Optimus had heard of him, and expected to meet him, by the end of his first week in town.

What he hadn’t expected was… well, Ratchet. He hadn’t expected to get on with one of those intellectual types, which is what the boys back home would’ve called him. He’s…

“I’m putting NPR on if you don’t pick a channel,” Ratchet says, fiddling with the dial. “Stop dreaming and drive, you can sleep when you get home.”

“Oh,” Optimus says, and shakes his head, laughing, a little embarrassed. “Right. I’m not sure there’s much on except classical music, this time of night. Someone up at the station likes it.”

Ratchet snorts. “Fuck these little towns,” he mutters. “Alright, classical it is. Let’s get out of here.”

Optimus turns on his brights after a moment of deliberation, unlocks the parking brake, and starts making his way slowly down the mountain. The slopes of these roads still make him nervous, no matter what he says over coffee, and despite the speed limit markers, he mostly just glides down at an easy 35, one foot scraping the brake pedal the whole way down. Uphill is another story.

But no one else is coming the other way—there’s nothing behind them worth going to, not at this time of night—and if Ratchet ever notices that he drives slow, he doesn’t comment on it.

“I know it’s been a while,” Optimus says, “but—you asked me if I missed New York. You used to live in Chicago, didn’t you?” He squints through the windshield at a shadow moving in the dark. Just a wild animal moving through the brush. “Do you ever regret coming back here?”

“Before you came along? Constantly,” Ratchet says easily, and Optimus almost loses control of the car in surprise. “No one to talk to except Elita, no one who got it. Don’t give me that look. I mean, you know what it’s like to have responsibility. To deal with expectations.” He raises his eyebrows. “But it’s not like I miss Chicago. I mean, I miss living in a city, sometimes. When I travel out there for conferences, I get homesick for it, if that makes sense?”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Optimus assures him. “I was back in the city for Christmas. Best sleep I’ve had in months.”

One minute.

“That’s it, that’s exactly it,” Ratchet says, nodding. “But I didn’t have anyone worth going to visit in Chicago, when it broke bad. It’s frustrating out here, sometimes. I don’t feel qualified for the job I have, but no one else is going to do it.”

Optimus snorts. “I know how that goes. But you’ve done amazing things, with the hospital.” He glances sideways at him. “Everyone says so. Even if you left tomorrow, people would still be grateful.”

“I can’t leave tomorrow,” he replies, “hypothetically speaking. I didn’t start expanding the hospital because I—because I wanted to make a difference, or because I wanted praise. I just—somebody had to. This town would have died if—“

The man sprints across the road before Optimus sees him—he slams down on the brakes—the car swerves left—Ratchet yells an expletive—

And there, that horrible jerk of the car, that awful sickening whump of hard contact.

“Jesus!” Ratchet is yelling, “fucking was that—“

“Was that a deer?” Optimus feels coming out of his mouth, “can you get a visual?”

“I think it was a, person,” Ratchet says, “my bag—“

 

 

 

They get out of the car at the same time, Ratchet reaching for the backseat and Optimus reaching for his radio. Ratchet doesn’t pay him any mind—he is five steps ahead, he is sorting through his medikit’s pockets for his penlight and slinging the rest over his back. The car’s brights are illuminating the body where the crash threw it. With some relief, he sees movement.

“Hey!” He yells to the prone figure. “Don’t move! I’m coming to you.”

He slows as he approaches, spare gravel kicked up by the car’s tires crunching against the asphalt under his feet. There are two things he notices about the man lying on the ground; first, that he’s dressed in a grey coverall, like a janitor or a mechanic, black stains of oil or graphite streaked all over the durable cloth; second, that he isn’t wearing any shoes.

“Hey,” he says again, more quietly, as he gets to his knees, “can you move? You awake? Stay with me, tell me what’s happening.”

The man’s face flutters. It’s twisted in pain, wrinkles worn deep and eyes shut tight, his teeth bared in a grimace. “Hurts,” he spits out, voice thick with regional accent, “leg.”

“Alright,” Ratchet says, taking him by the side of the head, catching his ear between his index finger and his thumb. “Don’t move your head. I’m going to steady you.”

The man grunts, opens his eyes by a centimeter. With his hands physically on him, Ratchet is forced to confront the third glaringly obvious thing about him; he’s huge. Ratchet is no large man, by anyone’s standards—embarrassingly, he’s a full head-and-shoulders shorter than the new pediatrician he hired last spring—but he knows what big looks like when he sees it. A hand like a sledgehammer reaches up and grabs him by the collar. “You,” he mutters. “Who?”

“I’m a doctor, at the hospital,” he replies, “it’s okay, we’re gonna get you back there and take a look at you. Your neck’s alright. You gave us a hell of a scare.”

“What happened?”

Ratchet looks up at the road as Optimus gets the sirens flicked on suddenly, blaring and bright. The man under him wriggles and yelps, like the light and sound is hurting him. It probably is. There’s no way he’s not concussed.

Silently, Ratchet gives a little thanks to whatever terror it is that makes Optimus drive so slowly on the highway. If they were going more than fifteen when they collided, he’ll eat his own shirt.

“You came sprinting out of the woods onto the highway, is what happened,” he says, unable to resist scolding him a little bit. “What the hell were you doing up there? There’s all kinds of wildlife up in the mountains. You could’ve gotten attacked by a bear, or—or a coyote or something.”

The man blinks up at him. He has dark, distinct eyes, and a shock of grey and black hair, long and pulled back. His left cheekbone is bruised, the yellow-black of a four-day heal. Under Ratchet’s hand, on his jaw, he can feel the scratch of beginning stubble. “Running,” he says hoarsely, and goes limp against the asphalt.

In the forest? Ratchet wants to ask. In the middle of the night? But he doesn’t bother. Mostly because any man splayed in the middle of the road after being thrown twelve feet by a car just doesn’t need to be interrogated that exact second, but also because he can hear Optimus’ boots crunching towards him.

“I called it in,” Optimus says, “the police department knows about it. Should we call for an ambulance? I figure, if he needs a—a stretcher, or something, we should wait, but I’ve got sirens and—and I’ve got you. We could drive him ourselves. It’d be faster.”

Ratchet stares down the dark, winding path, beyond what the blinding lights of Optimus’ vehicle can reach. “Maybe you’d better let me drive,” he says, “I can take the turns a little faster than you can.”

“I guess I’m—technically off the clock, I guess that’s okay,” Optimus says, “I mean, I shouldn’t, really, but this is a medical emergency. I’ll defer to your expertise.” Then, “Christ, he’s big, isn’t he? What was he doing running through the woods at this time of night?”

“Beats the hell out of me,” Ratchet says. “Think you could help me get him into the back?”

Between the two of them, with Optimus levering him up under the armpits and Ratchet hanging on to his knees and giving general encouragement, they manage to get the giant lying mostly flat in the caddy. Up close, Ratchet can see that one of his legs is twisted in the telltale bend of a broken tibia, and that his feet are practically callused all over. His sprint through the woods hasn’t sprung a single leak—there’s no blood on him anywhere.

“No blood on his feet,” he says, as Optimus curls down to crawl into the passenger seat, “did you notice that?”

“There’s a lot to notice about him,” Optimus says, staring at the steering wheel nervously, “I don’t think his feet were really on my top, um, priority list. You know, maybe I should drive—you know, it’s my car…” he trails off, looking anxious.

Ratchet smiles at him out of the corner of his mouth, and switches the car into drive. “You scared?”

“Uh, haha,” Optimus says, “no?”

Ratchet is not scared of the mountains. Ratchet spent his delinquent summers rocketing down them on bikes and skateboards and his stepfather’s stolen car long before he ever caught headwind of a semi, long before he got out all those long years ago. He lives and breathes the adrenaline of too fast, which is mostly why he’s not allowed to drive.

Sirens blaring, he hits the gas pedal, and listens to Optimus yell the whole way down.

“Here’s what I’m going to do,” Ratchet says, ignoring Optimus’ firm grasp on the handle above the door and his firm stance on the mom-brake, “I’m pretty sure it’s a broken leg, that’s going to cause the most damage. But if he got hit, he’s probably got some broken ribs. Worst case scenario, I’m going to have to check his lungs, make sure they didn’t puncture. Whiplash, for sure, that’s a concussion.” He screeches around a corner.

“I shouldn’t have let you drive,” Optimus says, miserably.

“Calm down, I know there’s a stop sign at the bottom,” Ratchet says. “Internal bleeding’s going to be the big one. I hope his concussion isn’t too bad. I’ve got some questions for him. What are you going to do?”

“Go back to the station,” Optimus says, “make a report please slow down, put out a—an unidentified persons’ report so we can figure out where this guy’s from. You’re handing him off to First Aid?”

“First Aid’s not in for another three hours,” Ratchet says, “I’ll have to take care of him myself, I don’t want to leave him with residents. If he’s bleeding into his brain, a slow diagnose could kill him.”

“But—it’s your day off,” Optimus says, “you were just saying so.”

Ratchet groans. “Don’t remind me,” he says. “I’ll just—figure this patient out and redistribute my time off. Lord knows I’ve got sick days to spare.”

The hospital is right in the new center of town—if you stripped away the dead chaff of abandoned buildings, the town would form almost a perfect circle around it, expanding outward in rings like vegetation around a pond. It’s the only building, save the police station, that’s open 24/7 in the town, lit up with LED stripes that dim as the town falls asleep but never go out. Seeing the red cross illuminated high above his head every time he finishes a shift, even at one in the morning, even when the whole town is asleep and the hospital is skating by on skeleton staff, fills Ratchet with an old, tired pride. When he’d first come back home to Midian Hill when everything in Chicago fell apart, the hospital was open from 8:15 AM to 5:15 PM, when the staff from the nearby medical college had volunteered to work for teaching credits. If you had a problem after that, you had to call the police station, who had to go through their phone book to figure out which hospital in which neighboring town was closest to the call, and if they had an ambulance, and how long it would be before they could drive the twenty-plus miles out. There was no guarantee anyone would show up at all.

Now, they have four ambulances. The hospital is three small buildings strong, and it runs all night long. It’s very rare that they need to use those ambulances, or the nighttime staff. But the college sends students, now, not teachers. In the past year, Ratchet personally hired on two highly promising young doctors, who actually seem excited to be here and to help with expansion.

It’s not a big hospital, by any means. But there’s work. There’s a staff. There’s money coming in, even if it’s money he’s had to drag out of benefactors by the teeth and sheer power of annoyance. Ratchet works forty-five hour shifts and takes twenty-four hour breaks. He sleeps in his own home once a week and in the residency hall in the long breaks in his even longer shifts. He’s always lived his life that way; flying by the grit of his teeth, pushing and pushing and pushing for the chance to bite off more than he can chew and chewing it. He doesn’t know how to pull back the throttle, and he’s always liked it that way. No time to fret over things falling apart if all he can see ahead of him is how to put them back together. Up until the last few months, he’d never wanted time off, never bothered with breaks. Never had anything to look forward to in the silence of his own house.

He pulls to a stop, sirens still blaring, and gets out of the patrol car, waving over one of the residency students who’s standing outside having a smoke break. As she hastily throws her cigarette in the ashtray and runs towards the front to grab a gurney, Ratchet turns to look at Optimus, who’s looking a little green in the face and wobbly around the knees. There’s a sheen of anxiety sweat on his dark forehead and gathering in the hollows under his cheekbones. He catches Ratchet staring and gives a wobbly smile, and an even wobblier thumbs-up.

“You okay, Prime?” He asks, smiling despite himself.

“Super-duper, doc,” Optimus replies, steadying himself on the hood of the car. “You need me to help you get him inside?”

“I’m alright, Lottie’s gonna help,” he says. “You just go home and get some rest.”

Optimus shakes his head, looking noble and stoic even as he has to shut his eyes tightly to avoid movement sickness. “I wish I could just go home,” he says, miserably. “I’ve got to go back to the station. I can’t delay that report.”

 

 

 

Officer Tumbler (Chromedome, to his friends and superiors, which is everyone) has had, for the first time since moving into Midian Hill and, in fact, the first time since his nights were taken up by night shifts even at his first tentative position in Kepler, an eventful night. He’s hoping it won’t go to his head.

With only three officers sharing the police station, their time stretched thinly and their shifts stretched long, Chromedome has (by virtue of least experience, young youthfulness, and general short-straw-drawing abilities) cemented himself as the evening vanguard of their town. If that’s even what “vanguard” means. It’s like, a kind of guard, right? You’d assume, because of the word. Anyway, he’s the evening guard—comes in at 9:30 PM, chats with the chief as they swap shifts over, and then he’s alone until 5:15 AM, when Prowl shows up with coffee to get him to 9:30 AM. He likes the super-long shifts—he’s alone until Prowl clocks in, which means he can catch up on reading, call his mom, text this guy he met on spring break in New Orleans who is, like, so funny and who lives in California so it’s like, normal nighttime hours for him, practice his b-ball toss with paper and the litter bin, and, very occasionally, do his job. His job, mostly, is making sure the chief’s computer is still plugged into the router, and restocking Prowl’s little desk bowl with lemon drops to cover up how many he steals for himself. And sitting by the radio, waiting for calls.

At 5:15 AM precisely, Chromedome is typing up a report, one hour after putting down the phone, and glances up as his superior officer hip-bumps the door open, a travel cup in each hand.

“Prowl,” Chromedome says, breathlessly springing up from his seat, “you won’t believe the night I had!”

Prowl looks at him. “Tuck in your shirt,” he says, and hands Chromedome his coffee.

“There was an accident, up on the mountain,” Chromedome says, sipping the coffee right from the cup and immediately burning the roof of his mouth, “ouch, fuck—with the chief! Some rando came sprinting out of the woods and jumped in front of him, and then these guys called me looking for a John Doe, like, the same night! So I figure, it’s the same guy, right?”

“Which guys?” Prowl squints at him. “They’re looking for a John Doe?”

“Right!” Chromedome gesticulates excitedly. “So—and that’s what Optimus—sorry, the chief—filed a report on! So I told them they could come in and take a look at the report and see if it matched.” He beams.

Prowl looks less enthusiastic. Prowl always looks less enthusiastic, than everyone, about everything. And, like, Chromedome kind of gets it, because if part of your job was getting up at four in the morning to go buy coffee and then slog your way to work, like, anyone would be kind of a bummer. “You misunderstand,” he says, “why would they be looking for a John Doe?”

Chromedome frowns. “Because… that’s what we have,” he says, slowly, so Prowl will understand. “They lost the guy we found. It’s the same guy.”

“And he’s a John Doe to them?” Prowl says. “So they don’t know who he is, but they’re looking for him?”

Chromedome opens his mouth, then closes it. “Well, they—“ he tries, then blinks. “I mean… maybe they figured we wouldn’t have… his… huh.”

“And you just showed them an official police report,” Prowl says, starting to look really steamed, “Tumbler, this is a rookie—“

“Not yet!” Chromedome interrupts, feeling a little wrong-footed at being called a ‘rookie’ when he’s been on the job four whole months. “They’re on their way down now. I was gonna run it by you, obviously.”

Prowl frowns at him. Chromedome wishes, sometimes (read: all of the time) that Prowl didn’t fix him with such a suspicious look when he gets annoyed. Prowl’s suspicious of everyone and everything, which apparently has to include his own team members. The chief, Chromedome gets—after twenty years walking a beat in a big city like New York, you probably suck all that suspicion into your bloodstream. All that crime must make it hard to trust anybody, must get you hardened on the outside. And he’s older, and he likes to get everything Just So. But Prowl’s only ever worked here, where nothing happens. Everybody knows each other, and the gas station clerk on the midnight shift brews him up a special pot of coffee that’ll taste a little better and gives it to him for free, because morning shifts are a real bitch, right? And as haggard as he looks, he isn’t even that old. Chromedome looked at his file once, on a real slow night, and Prowl’s barely eight years older than he is. He isn’t even in his forties yet.

“How about,” Prowl says, “you just let me handle this, from now on. You can learn from the experience. Quietly. From your desk over there.”

Chromedome opens his mouth to snap that he took the call, that he’s the one who was on duty, that he knows where the official report is, and that he can take care of things himself, thank you very much, so he’ll just be doing this himself, but he gets about as far as “I’m—“ before the door to the station opens and two gentlemen stroll through.

They’re hard to… describe, Chromedome realizes. They aren’t unique in any way. Medium height, medium-to-dark brownish hair. One of them is handsome, in that unquantifiable way that, like, K-Pop stars and stuff are. Like, he’s handsome, but if you asked Chromedome to describe how or why, he couldn’t tell you. It’s not like he’s strong-jawed or strong-cheekboned or big-eyed or anything. After a moment of deliberation, he decides to smile at the two of them. The handsome one smiles back.

“We hear you have a John Doe,” the unhandsome one says, “we’re here to pick him up.”

Chromedome opens his mouth to say that, oh, he isn’t here, actually, they took him back to the hospital, then remembers what Optimus had told him earlier that night about not telling everyone about the crash because they didn’t want to go to court over whether or not the department was liable if they didn’t actually have to, and shuts it again. Which is fine, because Prowl is busy stealing his thunder and being really rude.

“This is a police station, not a child care center,” Prowl snaps, “if there’s someone you’re looking for, you can file a missing persons’ report. Would you like to follow me to my desk?”

The two men exchange a glance. “Sorry,” the handsome one says, “we were told on the phone that we could come check a report?”

“You were misinformed,” Prowl says. “Now, I would be happy to take a missing persons report for you, and check it against any John Does we may or may not have on file. I can take your contact information and get in touch with you if we have any news.”

Chromedome shuffles off to his own desk, shooting furtive glances towards Prowl as he and Unhandsome sit across from each other at his desk. Handsome stands behind Unhandsome, hands clasped behind his back, looking slightly fidgety. Unhandsome takes a lemon drop.

He dips his head down slightly, tapping a key here and there on the thick chunk of keyboard attached to his computer, trying to look innocuous. The computer monitor tells him the WiFi has disconnected.

“Alright, let’s get some details down,” Prowl is saying. “I need your name and address. Phone number, too.”

“Why do you need my name?” Unhandsome asks, around the lemon drop.

“So I know who’s filing the report,” Prowl says, in the tone of voice that police use with civilians and civilians use with idiots. “I need to know who to contact if he shows up. Can I get your name, address, and phone number, please.”

Handsome glances over his shoulder at Chromedome, who peeks over his monitor and gives him a thumbs-up of encouragement.

“Um,” Unhandsome says, shifting in his chair, “uh, Adam. Adam… Miser.”

“Adam Miser,” Prowl dutifully repeats as the clacking of his keyboard drowns out the details of their easier conversation. Chromedome also gets a little distracted checking his phone, because California Guy keeps texting him shirtless selfies and asking for advice, and it’s not like Chromedome usually gets the chance to slack off when Prowl’s at work.

He doesn’t like being talked down to, is the thing. He doesn’t like being ‘not good enough’-ed by a bitchy crankcase with a face like a withered Grecian statue. There’s a reason he moved out to Midian Hill instead of living with his parents in Kepler for the rest of his life. He hates being treated like a… like an idiot, or a drain, or a waste of time. Especially since he’s the only one in this office who can work a nightshift without developing sleep apnea or whatever. He’s just sick of—

“What do you mean, you can’t file it?”

“I mean, I can’t file it,” Prowl says, in that same tone of voice. “We have a very strict principle in this district. Except in cases with particularly vulnerable individuals, like children or elders, a missing persons report can’t be filed until the person has been missing for seventy-two hours. I can fill the report for you now, but I can’t file it for several days.”

Handsome speaks up. “I’m sorry for interrupting, Officer Prowl,” he says, his voice all soothing tones with the implication of big, bright teeth, “our man isn’t exactly vulnerable, but he might be dangerous. We’re—frankly, we’re a little worried about the residents of your town.”

“Oh, well, thank you for bringing up that piece of information at this stage in the conversation,” Prowl snaps. “I’m glad that was such a relevant detail for you. When were you planning on mentioning it?”

Behind his monitor, Chromedome rolls his eyes. Prowl’s on such a power-trip. He gets like that, sometimes, when he’s taking a statement with somebody getting emotional about something or other. He doesn’t like emotions. He’d take a Clorox wipe to them, if he could.

“I had planned on bringing it up while we were describing the missing person in question,” Handsome says, “please understand, we’re not trying to withhold information. We’re just trying to find our lost…” he pauses. Chromedome peers over the computer. Is he choked up, or something? Emotional?

“…Family member,” Adam Miser says, helpfully, just as Handsome says “…convict.”

Prowl stares at them. They stare at each other. Chromedome stares down at his phone, which is currently displaying something he’s definitely not supposed to be looking at while at work.

“…I hope the two of you are aware,” Prowl says slowly, “that filing a false report with the police is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years of jail time.”

“Of course we know that!” Adam Miser jumps in defensively. “We’re… prison guards. We guard prisons. We know about prison.”

“So it is a convict,” Prowl says. Chromedome drops his phone on the ground. “Any particular reason you decided to lie?”

“I wasn’t lying,” Adam Miser says, “he is a family member. He’s… a member of… The Family. You know.”

“The Italians,” Handsome puts in helpfully.

“Yes, I’m aware of the American history of the mafia, thank you,” Prowl says nastily. “Can you provide any proof?”

“What do you need proof for?” Adam Miser asks, and then immediately amends “that’s not what I—that came out wrong, obviously—“

“Obviously,” Prowl says. “This is a serious claim, gentlemen. If it’s true, it’s going to thrust the department into immediate action. But I can’t just expedite every missing persons claim by anyone who walks through that door and tells me they’ve got a missing convict who needs to be immediately apprehended. I need proof that he’s a criminal. I need proof that he’s in your care. I need proof that you two are officers of the law, and not two flunkies on a joyride through Appalachia trying to stir up trouble in my jurisdiction. I need paperwork. I need your badge numbers.”

Adam Miser moves like he’s going to say something, but Handsome puts a hand on his shoulder, and he stills. “We’re sorry, officer,” he says, “to be honest, we were off-duty when we got the call, and it’s been all hands on deck for the past few hours. We called this department two hours ago, and we were told that there was a John Doe we could check against our missing convict. We didn’t come here with the intent of filing a Missing Persons, so we… didn’t see any need to bring paperwork. We weren’t planning on apprehending him ourselves, just calling in the on-duty guards if we could ascertain that it was, in fact, him, and not some random so-and-so.”

“How about this,” Prowl says, “my good friend Officer Tumbler is going to take both of you and walk you back out that door. You can drive your vehicle back to your superior officer, get the paperwork on your supposed fugitive, and bring it back here. That’ll make this conversation a lot nicer.”

Handsome sighs heavily. “The longer we wait with this, the more danger this town could be in,” he says, and runs a hand through his hair. He sounds stressed, and Chromedome feels for him (in no small part because he’s got friends in this town, and his house, and all his stuff). “We’re a two hour drive from our main office. Four hours—there and back again—could be devastating to the safety of this town.”

“You’ve got thirty seconds to turn around and start walking,” Prowl says, “before I arrest both of you for obstruction and loitering. Tumbler.” Chromedome looks up. “You know where the door is, don’t you?”

“I—“ he starts, standing up, and flushes awkwardly when Handsome and Unhandsome turn to stare at him. “That is—right. Yes, sir. Come on, guys.”

He can feel their frustration coming off them in waves as they let him herd them gently back into the early morning. The sun’s not up yet, but there’s a distant purple glow on the Eastern horizon, promising a long and furiously warm day, and the birds are already doing their song and dance up in the treeline. Up close, he can see that Handsome is actually really handsome. It’s something about the eyes, maybe, or just the calm look in them.

“I’m—I’m really sorry,” he says to Handsome, when the door closes behind him and cuts them off from his Deputy’s prying eyes, “I didn’t realize Prowl was gonna get so—you know. So—so that. I mean, I should’ve expected it, he’s such an asshole, he’s always such an—“

“Hey, hey,” Handsome interrupts, and puts a hand on his shoulder, “calm down, kid. We’re not mad at you. And you don’t have to apologize for anyone else.” He smiles. Chromedome was right—he does have big, bright teeth. “Believe me, I get it. I used to work up in Concord. Ever heard of it?”

“Uh. No?”

“Exactly. It’s up in Massachusetts. Nice town, nice people. I had a hundred bosses all exactly the same as that jackass.” He shakes his head. “Book-smart jerk-off bureaucrats who can only get off by putting other people down, makin’ us normal folks jump through hoops just to do our jobs. That’s why I moved down here in the first place, but…” He trails off, glances at his work partner.

“People are the same everywhere,” Adam Miser says, “assholes are unavoidable. There’s a lot of ‘em, and they’re hard to sieve through.”

“What he said,” Handsome says. “Look, uh—here, I’m gonna give you my number. The name’s Getaway. When you’re on civilian time, you can give us whatever tips you want.”

Getaway reaches into his wallet and produces a business card, which carries only his name and number on it. Chromedome takes it, chews his lip nervously.

“Look,” he says, just as Handsome—Getaway—moves to go, “you didn’t hear this from me, but… if a John Doe isn’t in prison, that doesn’t mean he’s not… you know, in the next most likely place.”

Adam Miser and Getaway exchange glances. “You saying he’s at the hospital?” Adam Miser says.

“All I’m saying is—if you drove two hours out here, why just run home? That’s it.”

When he looks up, Adam Miser is smiling broadly at Getaway, who’s smiling broadly at him. “Thanks, kid,” Getaway says. “You did the right thing, telling us that. I know it might not feel that way, but this guy’s dangerous. If you see him, don’t engage.”

Chromedome nods, and stuffs the business card in his pocket, and he goes inside.

Prowl is watching the door when he comes in, sipping his coffee. He still hasn’t taken his jacket off, the one he wears in the morning no matter what time of year it is.  “Be careful with guys like that,” he says, “did you hear how much they were fishing?”

Chromedome thinks about this. “They seemed stressed,” he says diplomatically.

Prowl grunts and turns his gaze to his computer. “They didn’t have a picture,” he says, conversationally, “they didn’t even know his name when I asked for scant details. When they’re shifty like that, they’re probably stalkers. Maybe thugs, if the guy they’re looking for really is a criminal.” He glances up. “Don’t let guys like that push you around,” he adds, seriously, “they’re manipulative. We’ve got code for a reason. The chief’s going to want to know about that.”

And then Chromedome makes the easiest—and stupidest—mistake he could make: he does not tell Prowl about what he told Getaway. He does not show him the card. He does not tell his superior officer where they’re headed. He does not, in short, want to look stupid.

Instead, he says “I’ll put the pot on, my coffee’s getting cold. Yours okay?”

 

 

 

Ratchet looks up from his clipboard to see First Aid eyeing him critically. “What,” he says.

“It’s your day off,” First Aid says, head tipped to one side. “You should really go home.”

“I want to make sure this patient gets treated correctly,” Ratchet says, deciding not to mention that since he makes the schedules and since he’s salaried, it isn’t as though he’s putting anyone else out of work or grasping for hours. “I was in the car that hit him. I feel responsible.”

“How,” First Aid says. “You weren’t driving. It was the middle of the night. He shouldn’t have been there.”

“Interesting case,” Ratchet says, defensively, and starts walking down the hallway towards his patient’s room. Undeterred, First Aid pulls up at his elbow, matching his pace. “No shoes. Wasn’t inebriated. And Lottie says there were a lot of previous breaks on his leg when she took the x-ray.”

“Go home,” First Aid says, “go to sleep. Jesus, doc, if there’s no one else telling you this, I will.”

Ratchet glares at First Aid out of the corner of his eye. First Aid is easily the most competent doctor on his staff, besides himself. He’s smart, he’s well-respected by the rest of the team and the students, and he has this extremely annoying habit of telling Ratchet to take more time off. If he were cynical, Ratchet would say it’s because First Aid is trying to assume power in the hospital and push him out of his hard-earned position. If he were honest, he’d say it’s because First Aid cares about people, and has picked up a very frustrating ‘concern’ for Ratchet’s ‘health’.

As he doesn’t like either theory, Ratchet has decided on a third one—First Aid is probably the youngest in a family with a lot of kids, and can’t sustain himself without someone older to absolutely infuriate.

“Fine,” Ratchet says, “just let me finish this and I’ll go home. I want to check in with him quickly, that’s all.”

“You’re sure,” First Aid says, looking doubtful. “You won’t mysteriously find another patient who needs your immediate special attention, and then not tell me until I find you still here, four hours later?”

“I’ve never done that!”

“You’ve done it twice in as many weeks,” First Aid says. “Ratchet, I know it’s hard for you to trust other people with your work, but you’re not running this machine by yourself anymore. It’s okay to let go of some of the responsibility. We’re going to pick it up for you.”

Ratchet stops, standing at the door. His hand is frozen on the knob, his jaw tight. “It’s not that,” he says, feeling a little shocked. “It’s…”

All I have, he doesn’t say, because he doesn’t owe First Aid or anybody else the ugly secrets he knows about himself. “…It’s not that,” he repeats instead, feeling slightly inadequate.

“Sure,” First Aid says, sounding unconvinced. “Last patient. Then you’re going home, promise?”

“Fine. Promise.”

“Even if a guy gets wheeled in and all of his organs are scrambled and we think he’s an alien abduction victim for real?”

“Where do you get this stuff?” Ratchet asks. “You watch a lot of TV?”

“You even own a TV?”

“Shut up,” Ratchet says, and opens the door.

In the two hours since picking the stranger up and moving him through the various stages of identification and recovery, Ratchet has learned a lot of things about his new mystery patient, and all of them concern him. John Doe (or “number three”, as Lottie has taken to calling him after finding a patch on the shoulder of his jumpsuit simply marked 3, black stitching on yellow) is about 6’9” and close to three hundred pounds, almost all of which is extremely dehydrated muscle. The callus on his feet, which is thick enough to avoid all puncture damage that you would expect from a run downhill through the woods, covers not just the bottom of his foot, but the top and ankle as well. The gums on his teeth and the cuticles on his fingernails are both drawn back and damaged from neglect.

He’s not bleeding internally at all, which is both good and confusing. Ratchet had feared severe brain damage, as after their initial conversation after the collision, he had passed out and not resurfaced, but scans came back clean. Lottie had used the emergency as an excuse to teach some of the night students how to take x-rays, and had chased him down to give him big, confused eyes and literally dozens of pictures showing a history of numerous breaks; not just in the ribs and legs, but all over the body.

And then, of course, there’s the mystery of Doe’s origins. He’d come from higher up the mountain, but had shot down through the forest, rather than down the road. His jumpsuit looks, Lottie tells him, like the kind coal miners used to wear back in the seventies, tough grey denim with patches and a visibility strip across the chest. But the only coal mine in Midian Hill has been dried up for nearly thirty years. And he didn’t—doesn’t—have any shoes or work boots. Lottie had posited that he was some kind of feral child of previous coal miners, trapped in the woods for a thousand years, and had consequentially been taken off the case. Ambulon had offered to pull a blood sample and check to see if his DNA matched anyone in the system, which Ratchet had dismissed as unnecessary at this point in the procedure, but had praised as a good idea if they couldn’t find other identification. As he’d walked out of the room, he’d heard Ambulon behind him muttering “anyway, it’s probably a Rip Van Winkle thing” to the tiny crowd of doctors who had stopped by to stare at the chart, and had quietly kicked himself for shooting Lottie down so quickly.

“It’s a good thing you’re up,” he says to the stranger, who is sitting mostly upright, “otherwise, I would’ve had to wait days to figure you out. It’s my day off, you know.”

John Doe peers at him. He looks less dingy and mysterious in his hospital gown printed brightly with little dinosaurs. With his face wiped down with a warm towel, removing layers of grime, Ratchet can almost guess at his age, maybe in his thirties or forties. “You,” he says. “I know you.”

Ratchet nods, sits down in the chair next to the hospital bed. “I was the first responder, technically,” he says. “I was in the car that hit you. Sorry about that, by the way.” He smiles encouragingly. “My name’s Ratchet. What’s yours?”

John Doe stares at him, looking a little confused. “Ratchet,” he repeats back, “you’re Ratchet.”

“You got it,” Ratchet says. “That’s one hell of a concussion you’ve got there. Do you think you can remember your name? What’s your name?”

John Doe stares at him, frowning. “Megatron,” he says, frowning.

Ratchet does not comment again (as much as he wants to) that he’s never seen such bad whiplash in his career. Instead, he opts for diplomacy, and says “that’s a nice name.”

Megatron brightens. “Thank you,” he says, “I chose it myself.”

Ratchet’s heart sinks a little. He’s not going to get any useful information out of this interaction—leastways, nothing they can use to try and communicate with family or friends. Still, ‘Megatron’ is talking to him, and seems to be awake, more or less. That’s something. That’s something he can work with. “I just want to ask you a couple questions, Megatron,” he says, “then we’re going to let you get back to sleep. Can you tell me why you were up in the mountains?”

Megatron’s eyes have focused—insomuch as they can—on the pencil in Ratchet’s hands. “Pencil,” he says, firmly.

“You got it,” Ratchet replies. “Megatron, can you tell me—“

“Pencil,” Megatron says, emphatically this time, and holds out his hand as if to grab at it. On instinct, Ratchet pulls his hand away, and Megatron fixes him with a glare.

“Yeah, it’s a pencil,” Ratchet says, “do you—do you want a pencil?”

“You can’t have it,” Megatron says. “Give it here.”

“How about this,” Ratchet says, diplomatically, “I will give you this pencil if you tell me one thing about yourself. Then, you can—have it. You can keep it. Whatever. Does that sound fair?”

Megatron stares at the pencil. He stares at Ratchet. “Fair,” he says. “We’ll trade.” He stretches out his open palm expectantly. Ratchet glances down at it, then puts the pencil in his hand.

“Alright,” he says, as Megatron takes the pencil in his hand and begins to twirl it back and forth like a nervous tic, “why were you up in the mountains? Do you remember?”

“That’s where we live,” Megatron says, and then, “pencil.”

“We? Who do you live with?” Ratchet watches him rub the pencil with fascination. “Do you have family up there? Anyone we can contact?”

“Yes, I have a family,” he says. “We all live in the mountains. B ut you won’t be able to contact them. You won’t even be able to find them.”

“Is there anyone else up there?” Ratchet asks, feeling hopeful. “Anyone who we might be able to get in touch with, who could come get you?”

Megatron narrows his eyes. “I told you lots of things,” he says, and holds up the pencil. “I said I’d tell you one thing.”

“Oh,” Ratchet says. “Um—do you want something else?” He rummages around in his pocket. “I’ve got… some spare change, uh, this random key—“

“Key?” Megatron perks up and stares at him, interested.

“Oh,” Ratchet says, “um, yeah, it’s not—it doesn’t unlock anything anymore—it used to be my house key, back in Chicago. They changed all the locks when I moved out, obviously, um. It’s not like it.” He stares down at the little silver key. The key that unlocks his home in Midian Hill is copper, and set on the same ring as his car keys and the key to his office. The key to his house in Chicago sits in the change pocket of his wallet and falls out whenever it unzips.

It’s—it’s garbage. He doesn’t need to keep it.

“It’s not like it does anything,” he says, staring at it, “if you want it, uh, to hang onto it while we talk…” he trails off and glances up at Megatron, who’s staring at him intently.

“Trade,” Megatron says, and holds his hand out.

Ratchet stares at his hand, and then back down at the key. It’s worthless. There’s no danger in giving it to him, and at least it would be out of his wallet. It’s a piece of garbage. He doesn’t need it.

After a long moment, he reaches out and drops the key in Megatron’s hand, staring at it hard. When he looks up, Megatron is looking at him and pulling his hand away. He feels vulnerable. Watched.

“There’s us, and there’s the others,” Megatron says, holding the key between his thumb and forefinger. “The others are dangerous. We have to stay together.”

Ratchet’s brow furrows. “What do you mean, dangerous?”

“They’re not like us,” Megatron says, “they’re cruel. We work hard, they take what we have.”

Suddenly, Lottie’s ‘feral coal miner’ theory is holding a little more weight. “Is it a… rivalry, of some kind?” Ratchet asks, wishing he had his pencil back. He feels like he should be writing this down.

“I don’t know what 'rivalry' is,” Megatron says, and then, holding up the house key, “Chicago.”

Ratchet sighs, and considers rummaging around in his pockets for something else he can give this guy when there’s a gentle knock on the door and First Aid pokes his head through. “Hey, boss,” he says, “I got two guys at the front desk who might be able to give us an ID?”

“Oh,” he says, “um, yeah, you should bring them back. I want you as an escort the whole time, though. Nothing like what happened up in Kepler, we don’t need that kind of heat.”

“You got it.”

“I want to see that they have paperwork before they sign anything.”

“Relax, boss,” First Aid says. “Just because we didn’t all study in the murder capital of the world doesn’t mean we trust everyone implicitly. I’ll be right here with them the whole time, make sure they don’t do anything criminal. Oh, and look at that!” With a flair, he prods one arm through the door, swinging Ratchet’s coat into the room. “It’s time for you to put this on and go home!”

“You’re too dramatic for your own good,” Ratchet says, sighing, and crosses the room to take the coat out of his hands. “Get out of here. We’ll talk later.”

As soon as First Aid closes the door, Ratchet sighs, slings his coat over one shoulder and returns to Megatron’s bedside. “Well, you heard the man,” he says, scratching at his neck, “I’m out of here, or I’m in trouble.”

Megatron stares up at him. “You’re going?” He asks.

“I’ll be back tomorrow-ish,” Ratchet says, wiggling a hand. “Today’s supposed to be my day off. I kind of poached this case. Don’t worry—First Aid’s smarter than he lets on. You’ll be just fine with him. Besides.” He shrugs. “Apparently he’s got a couple of guys who know you up front. They might be able to take care of you.”

Megatron keeps staring—as Ratchet turns his shoulders to go, he reaches out and grabs Ratchet’s hand in his. “Wait,” he says, “the key. Take it.”

“You don’t have to—I don’t need it—“

“I’m not stupid,” Megatron says firmly. “I know giving it to me hurt you. I don’t do that to people. Take it back.”

Ratchet stands there for several seconds longer than he needs to. He takes a moment to pause, to think, to stare at the key in Megatron’s hand. He stalls for thirty seconds. It’s that seemingly innocuous act, that hesitation, that changes the course of his life.

“Thank you,” he says quietly, and takes the key. “You’re right. I wish you weren’t—hanging onto this isn’t making my life any better.”

Only then does he turn to go—which means, when he opens the door a crack, they can hear the stranger’s voice from down the hall filtering in.

“We’ll need paperwork and the patient’s consent before you can go anywhere with him,” First Aid is saying.

“Sure, sure,” says a stranger, “we’re just here to identify—“

Ratchet doesn’t catch the rest of whatever the stranger is saying, whatever he’s trying to identify Megatron as, because at that moment his patient, leg in a cast, severely concussed, and on an I.V., violently throws himself out of bed and onto the floor, arms and legs scrambling.

“Woah!” Ratchet is at his side in a moment, catching the I.V. before it topples to the ground on top of him and grabbing for his shoulders. “Alright—alright—what’s happening, why—“

“No,” Megatron shouts, panic rising in his voice, “no, don’t let them—“

“It’s okay, it’s okay—“ blood is pumping in his ears as he struggles to prop Megatron up, getting his shoulders under one arm and trying to pull. With a soft thunk, the weighted door closes, shutting them off from the sound of distant voices. “We’ll get you back up, I’ll call for help—“

“No!” With one giant hand, Megatron grabs Ratchet by the face, covering his nose and mouth, strong and vicelike. In a moment of dumb animal panic, Ratchet releases his grip on Megatron’s arm to scrabble desperately for air. He can’t get a grip—Megatron is so ridiculously strong, one arm already around him by Ratchet’s hand, holding him and bracing him down—

“You can’t,” Megatron is saying, and Ratchet forces himself to listen, swallows down his panic. He can’t breathe breathe breathe but he’s not asphyxiating, yet, he’s just terrified by how easily he’s been overpowered—“they can’t know I’m here—Ratchet, please, listen, they can’t see that I’m here—“

“Mmph,” Ratchet says, closing one eye and staring up desperately with the other, scratching at the hand on him. All at once, Megatron releases him and pulls his hand back, and Ratchet gasps for air.

“Please,” Megatron says, “please, help me.”

“Who—“ Ratchet coughs. His throat is hoarse, and his voice is weak. First Aid is in the hallway, he’s right outside, but Ratchet can’t call for help even if he wanted to. With all the small talk, it could be minutes before anyone walks in to help him. He has to stall. “Who are they?”

“They’re my owners,” Megatron says, and Ratchet feels his blood go cold, “please, I can’t go back—if they know I’m here, they’ll take me back—please—“

There are choices you make in your life—choices you make on the edge of a coin as it stands straight up, just before it collapses, choices you make before you think to breathe.

“There’s a backway out,” Ratchet says, “you’re going to need to lean on the I.V., I don’t have time to get it off you. Hang on to me and stay quiet.”

The patient rooms on the fourth floor each have a small closet, ostensibly filled with emergency first aid equipment for nurses who just used their last tongue depressor and forgot to refill their pocket before coming in. In practicality, they’re throughways, shortcuts that lead into the next hallway over in case of an emergency. With a grunt of effort and the rattling of the I.V. on its post, Ratchet manages to pull Megatron through and shut the door behind him, wrestling him through the packed space.

“Right through here,” he hears First Aid saying, and then, “uh. Huh. Wait.”

With a rattle and a tug, Ratchet gets through the closet and opens the door out the other side, giving a cordial peek up and down the hallway before dragging Megatron through after him. It would be a lot easier, he thinks to himself gruffly, if he wasn’t dragging a three-hundred pound giant behind him.

“Put some of your weight on the I.V.,” he mutters, “it’s not as fragile as it—hrf—looks.”

There’s a distant sound of soft shoes sprinting along the hallway, and Ratchet feels a burst of adrenaline as he shuffles Megatron around a corner. There’s no way he’s getting him down the stairwell, and it’s further to the elevators, but it’s a straight shot.

“Lottie,” he hears First Aid saying, distantly, as he tries not to squeak on the linoleum, “did you stop in to see Number Three just now?”

“Um, no, I was uh—I was with Mrs. Gates,” she’s replying, as Ratchet gets to the sliding doors and stabs furiously at the down button, “I thought Ratchet was with him?”

“Ratchet’s gone,” he says, “and Three is, too.”

“Oh, shit. Shit.” A pause. “Do you think he’s drilling us on the codes?”

“He better fucking not be, he’s supposed to be going home. I’m going to check on—“

Whatever First Aid intended to ‘check on’, Ratchet doesn’t overhear—there’s the gentle bing of the elevator, and the doors slide open.

“Okay, you—c’mon, get in,” Ratchet mutters, “I’m going to take the stairs, or it’ll look suspicious. I’ll get you down to—“

“Wait, wait,” Megatron says, and grabs Ratchet around the shoulders. The quiet squeaking of shoes on linoleum is approaching fast. “I can’t—alone—“

“You have to! We’re about to get caught!” He hisses back. “I promise, I will get you out of here, but you need to get in there and out of sight!”

Ratchet pushes, and Megatron stumbles back, lets go as he leans against the back wall of the elevator. “You promise,” he says, gripping the I.V. and reaching for the rail lining the perimeter.

“Yes,” Ratchet says, and steps back, “trust me.” And the door shuts between them.

As Ratchet turns towards the stairwell, First Aid rounds the corner and almost slams right into him. “Ratchet!” He says, stumbling. “Hey, did you—when you were in the room with Num—uh, the John Doe, did you maybe…”

“I took off right after I got my coat on,” Ratchet says, and feels the cool clarity of lying under pressure wash his mind clean. He knows how to do this. He’s done it his whole life just to make it from one day to another. “You know, I was thinking about what you were saying earlier—about trust—and I’m sorry. I know you can run this wing by yourself, I know you can—can problem-solve and deal with things on your own. I want to give you more responsibility to—“ he pauses, stares at the elevator buttons on the wall, and then refocuses on First Aid, his eyes narrowing. “What were you about to say?”

“Wh—I—what?”

“About the patient,” Ratchet says slowly, and crosses his arms. “You came running over here to ask me something. What were you about to say?”

“Uh,” First Aid says, “I was just going to—ask if you—still had his chart? I couldn’t find it in the room.”

Ratchet sighs in a gentle affected relief. Secretly, he’s quite impressed—First Aid came up with that lie just as fast as he’d come up with his own. Maybe he had strict parents growing up, too. “I thought you were going to tell me something happened,” he says, “in the two minutes I was out of the room. No, I put it in one of the desk drawers so it wouldn’t get picked up by mistake.”

“Alright. I’ll, uh, I’ll check there,” First Aid says, “thanks.”

Ratchet blinks at him. “Nothing did happen,” he says, “did it?”

“Are you just looking for an excuse to stay in this building for an extra ten minutes?” First Aid jabs an accusing finger up at him, and Ratchet throws up his palms in the universal cool your jets posture. “What was all that about trust, huh? I’m telling you one thing—start by trusting me on that! Go on, get out of here.”

“Fine, fine,” he says, a surge of relief as he passes First Aid and opens the door to the stairwell, “stop wagging your finger like an old maid.”

“Or what? Your strong Canadian Boyfriend (TM) will come beat me up?”

“I’ve told you before, he’s definitely real, and his arms are huge,” Ratchet says, smiling, and First Aid laughs. “I’ll see you Sunday.”

“You know, you could take some extra—“

The door shuts behind him, cutting off what’s probably about to be another lecture about how Ratchet has approximately two years of vacation time saved up and when is he going to start spending it, you can’t take it with you, and he sprints down the stairs. He has to get to the bottom, before anyone else calls the elevator—he has to get Megatron out into the parking garage.

But he’s fast. He’s always been fast.

Moments after he jams at the button on the bottom floor, the doors to the elevator peel open and Megatron falls out onto him. “You’re alright,” Ratchet mutters, pulling his arm over his shoulders, “my car isn’t far. Put your weight on the I.V., remember?”

“You didn’t leave me,” Megatron says, staring down at him. Ratchet huffs.

“Don’t make me regret it,” he says, “give me a little help here—we’ll put you in the back, that way you can lie down. The security cameras shouldn’t see you if you’re below the headrests…”

As he urges his patient into the back seat of the tiny grey sedan, Ratchet hears the gentle rising sound of an announcement, paging Doctor Pinkerton to the fourth floor in the sort of unobtrusive voice that would never insinuate an emergency code was being called. They’ll shut the garage down in a minute or two.

“Stay down,” Ratchet says, rolling slowly past the gate and flashing his badge at the electronic scanner. The enormity of what he’s done is swelling thickly in his lungs. “And hold on tight. I drive pretty fast.”