Warnings: misogyny, implied domestic abuse, organ stealing.
In Normalcy’s Good Name
It’s rarely earlier than four when Ratchet’s night shift ends. In summer those hours mean that the sky glows pale and blue over the desert, feverish with the coming of dawn, by the time he makes it out of the hospital. He feels that light in his chest and forehead as his steps drag against the pavement. The nearest open diner is a garish place with mediocre food and worse coffee, but it beats going home on an empty stomach. If he attempts it, he knows he’ll wake up shaking with hunger.
He won’t touch the coffee anyway. He’s twenty years past that kind of caffeine tolerance.
The bright yellow lights inside the diner hurt his eyes and make his headache flare fiercely. He feels sticky all over, with sweat and other, more unmentionable things, hands dry from too many washings and clothes soaked in antiseptic. He wants a shower like he has never wanted anything—considers for a moment making use of the place’s bathroom to clean up—but he sits down at the farthest and darkest corner, pain beating at his temples and eyelids burning from the light, and he knows he won’t get up again.
The girl who approaches his table a minute later wears an orange apron. There are food stains over it, ketchup and coffee yellowing at her hip. She looks as tired as he feels even as she greets him in a strident voice and lifts a notepad to take his order.
Her voice is almost disagreeable enough to make him snap at her. “Scrambled eggs,” he manages, not quite adding please at the end for a semblance of politeness. “Some water as well.”
She doesn’t seem bothered. His jaw clenches at the sight of her chewing gum lazily. Considering the sort of company she must get at this hour of night, he figures an overworked pediatrician with not enough energy for small talk is a blessing. “Comin’ up,” she replies as nasally as before.
The place is almost deserted. Ratchet massages his temples fruitlessly, thinking of Optimus’s wide hands and how much better they are at easing his aches away. He’ll be sleeping when Ratchet gets home, or if he’s lucky, perhaps at the edge of waking up. Sometimes they can sneak in a few minutes of affection this way. Sometimes Ratchet comes home and Optimus shifts in bed when the mattress dips under his added weight, and one of his arms tugs Ratchet close until he is caught between hard shoulder and soft flesh; sometimes Optimus kisses his forehead and his lips, and sometimes Ratchet opens his mouths and welcomes his husband’s morning breath as he would freshwater. This the most they can manage when their working hours are so misaligned.
The waitress brings him a plate and a glass some few minutes later. There are fingertip smudges on the latter, and the former bears an unappetizing mush of eggs he thinks he could manage better with his eyes closed, but he thanks her anyway. He refuses the coffee pot she lifts in his direction, and she shrugs, saying, “All right.”
He pours generous amounts of salt and pepper over the dish before even attempting a bite.
This isn’t the first time he comes here, so there is nothing to ease his boredom as he eats. The plastic tables and chairs look the same as in every other crappy diner he’s been to, and the jukebox in the corner is thankfully silent, as none of the clients seem to care for music. There are a couple burly men in one corner hunched over their third cup of coffee. At the counter, a boy of student age pours over homework, looking distressed. No doubt a late essay to finish before classes start at the neighboring college where Optimus works. The last customer is an elderly woman reading yesterday’s newspaper, gold rings glinting around her thick fingers.
Then the door opens with a chime.
The woman who comes in looks almost as garish as the décor. She stumbles her way to the counter in a yellow ensemble of shorts and a cropped tank top, the material of which shines under the light like lacquered wood. The groan she lets out when she trips over her own high-heeled boots echoes painfully in Ratchet’s ears; he almost wishes, viciously, that she hadn’t caught herself on the counter and managed to stay upright.
“Hey,” she says once she catches her breath. The lone waitress of the establishment must have gone back to the kitchen—the woman bangs her fist on the counter, dislodging one of the student boy’s papers, and shouts: “Hey! Customer here!”
The waitress comes back into the room lazily. Ratchet is treated to the pitiful sight of the new customer’s attempts to sit on one of the bar stools—she slips once, twice, before managing it, and in that time Ratchet notices with a flush that her shorts’ hem has risen far over her backside and looks away.
He’s not the only one to have noticed. The two men in the corner are ogling her, their low-voiced conversation long forgotten.
“What’ll it be?” the waitress asks, frowning.
“Whiskey,” the woman answers.
The waitress frowns, nose twitching. “I think coffee,” she replies, turning around to grab the pot.
“Fine. Fine, all right, coffee.”
She is thankless when she grabs the cup handed to her. She doesn’t touch the sugar and cream on the counter, simply sips with a grimace, saying, “This is disgusting.”
“You’re free to go,” the waitress sneers.
The woman mutters something under her breath that sounds not at all pleasant. She dismounts the stool with at least some elegance, but her gait wavers as she grabs the cup and heads toward a table. On the way she must notice the looks she is given, for she stops in her tracks—coffee spills over the fingers she holds the cup with—and snaps at the two burly men, “You want my picture, perhaps?”
Neither of them answers. Ratchet supposes that her attitude makes her lose some of her appeal, though he would prefer to think that her obvious drunkenness be enough of a deterrent. Anyway they both turn back to each other and murmur again, and the woman turns around and continues her search for a seat.
Very unfortunately, she seems to think Ratchet’s corner is where she ought to go.
He looks back to his almost-empty plate as she approaches, resisting the urge to stare when he hears her stumble. She sits at the table next to his with another loud groan. Immediately, his nose fills with the sick-sweet smell of alcohol, and his headache worsens. He can’t resist the urge to throw her a dark look.
She catches it. “What?” she spits at him.
Ratchet looks away and grunts, “Nothing.”
She puts her feet over the chair facing her. Fishnet stockings run up her legs and reappear on her stomach, catching against the jewelry that hangs from her bellybutton. It is almost swallowed by the folds of her skin in this position, but even so, Ratchet can count the ribs on her.
This is a world he knows nothing of, he thinks idly, finishing his water. She must be coming from the club he sees on his way to and from the hospital; he can’t imagine that she dresses this way for everyday business, or at least, he hopes she doesn’t. The perspective is tinted with disapproval.
The woman shakes her complicated hairstyle over a shoulder as she drinks, and Ratchet sees that her hair is sticky in places, too. His nose twitches faintly.
“Been looking enough, old man?” she asks suddenly.
Ratchet’s face burns.
“I wasn’t—” he tries, but can’t finish.
The woman laughs. It is a cruel and joyless sort of laughter, one obviously meant for mocking. “Getting your hopes up?” she says, finally looking at him. Her brown eyes look almost black under the harsh lighting. “I’ve been felt up enough tonight, so I’ll have to decline.”
“I was not getting my hopes up,” Ratchet replies curtly, hoping to pour enough disgust in his voice for his message to come across.
The thought alone would be outrageous even if his preferences leaned that way.
He knows he should leave it at that, but he adds: “I was simply thinking that you should learn some manners.”
Ratchet has always been a spiteful person. Twenty years of Optimus’s kindness were not enough to fully wash this out of him.
The woman’s smirk wanes. “Oh, yeah?” she replies. Her feet leave the chair she has put them on so she can face him fully.
Her eyes are bloodshot. He wonders distantly if alcohol is all that he should blame it for, if perhaps she has more substances in her system wreaking havoc on her judgment. The yellow light of the diner turns her brown skin almost pallid; it is difficult to try and see if anything in her complexion is amiss because of it. Her hands, at least, do not shake.
“Is that what you are?” she asks lowly. “A teacher? You wanna teach me manners, huh?”
Ratchet realizes what situation he is in with the strength of a door slamming in one’s face.
What is he doing? He’s just come out of work. He is exhausted, bone-weary, almost unable to stand. He doesn’t want to be having spats at five in the morning with drunken women young enough to be his daughters.
What he wants is to go home and lie in bed next to his husband. What he wants is Optimus’s arm around his ever-softening middle as he slowly, finally, falls asleep.
“Never mind,” he says roughly.
The woman blinks in surprise, but he is already standing up and turning away from her. He drops money on the table, heedless of just how much he actually needs to pay and tip and hoping it is enough. If not, he’ll come back tomorrow and apologize, he thinks. When the angry woman next to him is not glaring at him hatefully.
It is this hour before dawn when summer heat finally lets up; when coolness spreads over the desert and turns living into an easier task. Ratchet walks quickly to his apartment building, leaving the darker part of town where the hospital stands and heading between lower houses with gardens. He hears the sound of running water near one of the only houses whose neat lawn hasn’t burned. Now he knows how grass has stayed so miraculously green on that side of the road.
Optimus is asleep when he comes home. Ratchet showers quickly, keeping the water cool, sweet-scented shampoo making him sneeze once or twice. He brushes his teeth and lathers cream over his hands to fight off the dryness caused by too many gloves and too much scrubbing.
When he finally slips into bed, he has all but forgotten the rude woman in her skimpy yellow outfit. Optimus hums when Ratchet kisses his cheek, rolling over to his side so he can press them close together and murmur, “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” Ratchet replies. “You can still sleep a little.”
Optimus shakes his head. It drags over the pillow so he can be close enough to push their lips together. It is awkward and infinitely chaste, the furnace of Optimus’s body under the sheets rendering any thought of actual desire null, but it is enough. Ratchet chuckles low in his throat as he pulls away. He rubs a hand over Optimus’s shoulder, content to feel skin with his palm and nothing more.
It is enough. This is enough.
He’s found his happiness long ago.
Ratchet goes two weeks without seeing the woman again. She isn’t on his thoughts at all; he meets his fair share of odd strangers every day he works in the ER, and he’s long learned to let live and let go.
There is a new patient in his ward, a little girl with awful asthma called Jacqueline. “Jack,” she says every time a breathless fit strikes her and he has to run to the small room she shares with Rafael. “My name’s Jack.”
“Jack,” Ratchet agrees, because he knows how children work and he knows, feels, that this is important to her. “Now, Jack, please take your pills.”
The boyish little girl beams at him through her sweat-drenched, red face, and obeys.
Jack is a problem child in all the ways except those parents would recognize. She isn’t boisterous or loud or rude in anyway; in fact she is one of the sweeter patients he has, hardly ever in need of authority from the nurses and other staff. Compared with Miko, whose room is next to hers, she is a harbinger of peace. But Jack has the kind of asthma that common medicine cannot fix. Several interviews with the girl’s mother inform Ratchet that she has already been tested on for new and more powerful drugs. Some worked, others did not. It is up to him to figure out how to help this time.
Jack is the last person Ratchet sees before leaving that night. Sometimes she doesn’t wake up through her attacks at all, and it is the case that time. Bee comes running for Ratchet at almost half past three, guiding him to the girl’s room, where in her sleep she suffocates.
It is never easy to see children in pain. It doesn’t become habit no matter how many years Ratchet works himself to the bone. Jack is not one of those he will see leave for the morgue downstairs, but watching her struggle to breathe because of heat and pollution and other such factors he cannot in any way control makes his heart heavy. Ratchet is still thinking of her when he leaves an hour later, walking through the chill of early morning and watching the sky turn grey. He enters the diner without a word. He asks for toast and marmalade despite his own doctor’s advice against eating sweet things—tonight, today, he needs it.
The person behind the counter is a boy this time, younger and more polite than the girl he saw there last. He smiles and talks with a chirp, putting his best effort toward pleasing Ratchet and earning himself a tip. Ratchet wants to tell him that there is no need, that he should keep his energy for more difficult clients; he always tips.
He only sees her when he is halfway to his usual corner.
Her outfit this time is a tad less exuberant than the last. There is no crisscrossing fishnet over her legs and middle, only bare skin and denim shorts and a wide-open pink shirt. She’s knotted it over her midriff to show the jewelry there, and Ratchet sees despite himself how low the open collar dips before it meets black cloth. A tank top, perhaps, or simply underwear.
She’s seen him too. He can feel recognition in her squinting glare, and he considers turning on his heels and heading for a different table at the other side of the diner, but that would be akin to admitting defeat. That would be like painting himself as one of those people to whom youth is cause for fear.
Ratchet is fifty-two years old. He’s not scared of a woman who looks thirty at most and must weigh less than half what he does.
So he sits at his usual table—right next to hers—and starts spreading jam over his burned toast. It doesn’t quite erase the bitter taste of blackened bread when he bites into it, but at least there is sweetness. He eats deliberately slowly, washing down the bitterness with mouthfuls of orange juice, feeling all the while that he is being stared at.
He’s almost done with his plate when she speaks. “Back again,” she throws his way. Her voice this time is almost kinder.
Ratchet looks at her. There is an untouched glass full of amber liquid in front of her, the ice in it almost completed melted. It has separated into tiny slices over the surface of the drink, floating idly round each other.
“I made an impression, didn’t I?” she asks when he gives no sign of answering. “Am I tormenting your dreams, old man?”
“I’m married,” Ratchet replies dryly.
The woman laughs. Her shoulders widen with the movement; she throws her head back, loud and mocking as he will never be used to, pink cloth shaking over her heaving chest. “Like that means anything these days,” she says at last, wiping tears from the corner of her eyes in one theatrical motion.
Ratchet clenches his teeth reflexively.
As it turns out, she iscin a talkative mood. Though the width and hazardousness of her movements tell him that she has already drunk enough, she seems more clear-headed this time. Her tongue is less sharp with her insults. “I hate that stupid club,” she says to him, pushing her glass around with one bright-red nail. “Can’t go take a piss without some sweaty guy trying to grope me.”
He has no idea what to say to that. He takes another sip of the juice, noticing that the glass is almost empty now. The boy at the counter is eyeing him with an enthusiasm that borders on despair.
“I know what you’re thinking—you’re thinking, oh, she dresses like a slut, she just loves to complain.” Ratchet’s glass hits painfully against his teeth in surprise—the woman doesn’t wait for him to retort either in assent or denial, she simply goes on, “Well, I’m supposed to dress like this, you know? That’s just what you do in sorry places like that. You think I like caking myself with makeup that no one’s going to notice anyway since it’s so goddamn dark?” She marks a pause. “Scratch that, I love makeup. I could still do without the groping.”
“I’m,” Ratchet attempts. He clears his throat. “Well, of course. I… don’t think anyone would enjoy it.”
She stares at him oddly. She must have as little idea what he means as he does himself. “Yes,” she says anyway. “No one does. But my boyfriend goes there for business, and since I work with him, I have to go too.”
Ratchet hums and hopes it is enough of an answer.
“I work so much,” she moans. She pushes her glass away on the table and lies her head over its surface. Ratchet is half-tempted to tell her about how unhygienic that is, but she seems so happy smudging her cheek against the cold plastic that the will leaves him at once. “Lord, I work so much. Never get a moment’s rest. Who does he think is keeping this whole business afloat, huh? It’s certainly not him. Hey,” she calls suddenly, startling him. “What kind of job do you have? Why’re you always out so late?”
“I’m a pediatric surgeon,” he replies before he can think better of it.
She stares at him with wide eyes. With her face crushed sideways over the table, it gives her a strange, owlish look. “I wasn’t expecting that,” she says. “I was thinking maybe a pimp, but for those really high-end escorts, you know. You’re sort of posh.”
“Excuse me?” Ratchet splutters.
“But you’re actually a doctor,” she continues, unhindered. “Pediatric… that means kids, doesn’t it. You take care of kids?”
He’s still in the middle of coughing out the spit he swallowed the wrong way. He looks down at himself in something of a panic—he’s wearing brown slacks and a white shirt, nothing unusual at all, nothing he thinks would pin him as involved in anything so… so tasteless.
“Right,” he answers at last, his voice shaky. “I, yes, I take care of children. At the hospital.”
“Night shift?” At his nod, she adds, “That’s tough. At least kids sleep at that time—must be quiet.”
“Sometimes,” he says wearily.
She gives him a curious look, but he doesn’t elaborate.
“Well, my job’s nothing as glamorous, but it pays well,” she declares. “Didn’t need to bury myself in student debt to get it either. I’m good at what I do,” she adds angrily.
Ratchet has a feeling that she’s not addressing him anymore. “I’m sure,” he mutters.
“I’m the one who has to find those contractors and make sure we don’t go bankrupt and stand there and look pretty while they drool over my ass,” she says. “What does he do? What does he even do? He’d be nothing without me. He can—”
She stops herself before finishing that sentence. With one hand she pushes herself off the surface of the table, her cheek parting with the plastic stickily, and then she grabs her glass and downs half of it in one go. Ratchet watches with something like apprehension as she turns toward him again. There’s a red circle on her face where it was stuck to the table.
“I’m not useless and I’m not a stupid little bitch,” she tells him, looking furious.
“Er,” Ratchet replies. “I suppose not.”
“When I leave his sorry ass, he’ll be begging for me to come back.”
“Good,” the woman says. She takes another sip of her drink, slams the glass over the table loudly, and repeats: “Good.”
Then she turns sideways on her chair until she is fully facing him, legs and all, and she says: “Let’s fuck.”
Ratchet’s mind goes entirely blank.
“I—I’m sorry?” he lets out what feels like an eternity later.
The woman rolls her eyes at him, he thinks. She’s rising from her chair and approaching his with swaying steps. “You and me,” he hears distantly. “I know he’s cheating on me anyway, I might as well do the same.”
Her hand rests on his shoulder, nails like claws digging into the cotton of his shirt until he can feel them on his skin; she bends down over him with a smile, her pupils blown wide open, the corner of her eyes smudged with golden eyeliner. The line of her top dips lower over the swell of her fabricated breasts.
Ratchet pushes her away a little too roughly. She stumbles back over to her table, her hip hitting the corner of it and making her grunt with pain.
“Oh, shit, I’m,” he says in a panic. “I’m sorry—didn’t mean to—I’m married. Married!”
“And I’m taken, whatever!” she replies, looking more offended than ever before. “What the hell is wrong with you? Fine, let’s not fuck then.” She sits down again with her back turned to him this time. “It’s not like I wanted to get freaky with some old man anyway,” she adds, but he can see that her ears have turned crimson.
He’s still a little winded himself. In his hurry to get away from her he has almost slipped out of his chair, and it is with a burning face that he rights his position and grabs his glass. There’s nothing left in it, but it gives him something to do. A quick glance around the room tells him that they are the only customers, that the waiter from before is nowhere to be seen.
He takes a shaky breath. His heart beats too quickly in his chest. Once he is sure that his voice will be even, he says, “I apologize. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
The woman waves a hand without looking at him. “Whatever.”
“I’m married,” he repeats. After a brief second of hesitation, he adds: “And I love my husband very much.”
This gets a reaction out of her at least. She looks slowly over her shoulder until their eyes meet again, and hers have a shine of understanding in them that makes her look older and younger at once. “Husband?” she asks.
Ratchet nods tensely. His thumb rub slickly over the rim of his empty glass. “Married for five years, but we’ve been together for almost twenty,” he replies. “But I have to say, even if—well. You’re much too young, I would never—you shouldn’t be… propositioning—”
She starts laughing again as he struggles for the kinder way of telling her not to have sex with random men twice her age. It is a different kind of laughter than the one she used before: softer and deeper-voiced, something almost private, he feels, as he sees her whole face flush. Though the angry lights above still wash her skin out of color, this way at least she looks healthy.
The waiter comes out of the kitchen with a fresh pot of coffee in hand. His eyes shine as he sees them talking, and he walks their way with a spring in his steps, cheerfully asking if they’d like to order something else.
“Get me a cup of that,” the woman says, gesturing to the pot he holds.
The boy nods eagerly. “Sir?” he asks, turning toward Ratchet.
Ratchet opens his mouth to decline, but a look in the woman’s direction quiets him.
Her stare is void of the mocking and disdain it held before. He can see that her lips are sealed tight—he can sense that she would not say anything if he chose to pay and leave now without another word for her, but there is something else as well.
Something small. Familiar. Something he finds in Jack’s eyes when the girl tries to smile through her fits so that her mother won’t worry; something in the ever-empty chair by Rafael’s bedside that makes the boy look at him in painful yearning, that made him accidentally call him dad more than once.
Loneliness, he thinks. A disease he cannot fix by himself, though he tries.
Oh, how he tries.
“I’ll have some coffee as well,” Ratchet says.
The woman’s mouth relaxes. She doesn’t smile at him, she doesn’t thank him, she says nothing at all. But Ratchet knows the many ways that a person can say thank you, and he sees one in the loose hold she has around her burning cup.
Optimus is awake when he comes home.
Warmth already seems to make the temperature inside difficult to bear. The sun is up in the sky and burning bright over the city. Ratchet makes to turn on the ceiling fan in their bedroom when he sees Optimus’s open eyes—it is an old and loud thing that neither of them can sleep well with—but Optimus says, “No, leave it.”
“It’s too hot,” Ratchet complains, approaching the bed.
He’s still fully-dressed and probably smells of alcohol wipes and bad coffee. Optimus pulls him close with a deep chuckle; his hands are very warm on Ratchet’s bare forearms. “Good morning,” he says after a while of simply holding him. “You’re late today.”
“Something came up,” Ratchet replies sleepily.
As crushing as summer heat is in this part of the country, as hot as Optimus’s body always runs, he will never not find comfort in their proximity. Already his armpits dampen and the folds of his knees become slick, but Ratchet doesn’t pull away. The circle of Optimus’s arms shrouds him in warmth and drags all the sleeplessness out of him. He is left a limp shell of a man, barely hanging on to consciousness.
“Sleep well,” he hears Optimus murmur—feels him press full lips to his forehead and stroke strands of grey hair away. “I’ll see you for lunch.”
It must be recompense, Ratchet thinks, for a past life spent in asceticism. He is not the kind to believe in karma, but one would be hard-pressed not to picture a higher power of sorts in the face of such happiness. Every day he falls asleep in the arms of the man he loves. Every day he gets to see Optimus smile and to feel his arms around him.
As sleep takes his last thoughts away, he finds that they are all about the woman at the diner: her haughty words, the broken heels of her shoes, the smile she gave when Ratchet talked of Optimus that he doesn’t think she meant to.
He wonders if she feels how he does about the man who shares her life.
He doesn’t know how it becomes a habit, meeting her.
Ratchet is still on night shift most of the time. Jack’s stay at the hospital is extended because testing takes time; most nights, she wakes once or twice in a fit of helpless gasping, and Bee or another of the nurses calls for Ratchet to come comfort her. He can see the toll that this is taking on the little girl. Her energy dwindles every day.
Ratchet runs from sick patient to sick patient for hours each day and night, trying his best to remember all their names and stories, to communicate with them in a way that shows he cares. Miko is a world of trouble, but she can be surprisingly quiet when he lets her sit in his office while he fills paperwork. Rafael waits eagerly each evening for Ratchet to pat his head and tell him he did well.
They are his in a way, these children, whether he wants them or not. They are his for the trust that their families put in him to cure all of their ills.
He arrives at the hospital as the sun sets and comes out before it is risen, and more often than not, his steps take him to the small diner with the bad food and coffee.
More often than not, she is here.
She isn’t always wearing a flashy outfit, which makes him believe that she is actually going out of her way to see him. One day she shows up in bright-green heels and a dress so short it can hardly be called one; another she is nursing coffee in an expensive grey suit, sober as the dead and still as mean-tempered. Ratchet doesn’t hesitate anymore to sit in his usual corner. She takes the table next to his and talks, or stays silent, or asks questions he tries not to answer too much. She never sits at his table.
As much as she speaks—as many grand declarations as she likes to make—she doesn’t say much about herself. Ratchet glimpses true unhappiness under the harsh words she uses to describe her boyfriend. He feels that the insults she mockingly directs at herself are ones she has heard out of the man’s mouth before, and he doesn’t know whether what he feels about it is pity or something more.
She’s lonely. He knew that the first time he outstayed himself in this place, so it is no surprise to witness it over and over again, but still Ratchet finds the knowledge difficult to swallow. She is young still despite the shadows that age her, no older than thirty, but she acts like someone younger. Her brashness and vitriol form a very poor defense, the fabric of which is holed, stitched up, holed again. In her colorful outfits and shiny jewelry, she looks like something fragile repeatedly slamming into walls. He wonder how many more hits she can take in one piece.
He learns that her boyfriend’s name is Megatron by pure accident. She is drunker than usual that day, and already sunlight is pouring in through the windows of the room—it’s late, very late, much later than Ratchet usually stays. But the woman is angry and almost black-out drunk and he doesn’t feel good letting her leave on her own.
“I’ll call you a taxi,” he tells her when she tries to grab her purse and stand. Even this much effort makes her wobble in place; Ratchet catches her elbow before it hits painfully against the backrest of the chair. “Sit down.”
“Don’t order me around,” she tries to bite back, but she is so mellowed that he can hardly fear her. “Stupid, fucking,” she says, grabbing for her glass. She hasn’t noticed that Ratchet hid it away minutes ago; she blinks at her empty hand sleepily and adds, “M’not here to be ordered around like, like trash.”
He wonders what to say to that. He wonders if he should say anything.
“Never a goddamn thank you,” she says. Her eyes are unfocused when they look at Ratchet. “‘Thank you’,” she parrots, “not so hard now, is it? Is it?”
“No, it’s not,” Ratchet replies placatingly.
She smiles. It is nothing kind at all. “You think I’m crazy,” she tells him. “You all do.”
“I don’t think that at all.”
“Hah! Liar. That’s fine, though. At least I know you’re not just waiting to jump me.”
He can feel himself flush; she tends to bring the embarrassed teenager out of him, somehow. “Indeed,” he agrees. “Here, drink some water.” He puts his own half-empty glass on her table.
He places a quick call to a taxi company while she holds the glass, unhappy to hear that no one will be around for another half an hour. When he hangs up and looks at her again, he sees that she hasn’t touched the water at all.
“You should drink,” he says again.
She’ll be in a world of pain if she doesn’t. She must know it too, judging by the number of times he has seen her in a degree of inebriation, but all she does is stare emptily at the glass. “Will you tell me more about your husband?” she asks then.
It’s not that he isn’t used to such questions. The children at the hospital are curious about him too: they ask if he has children, if his wife is very beautiful. His more distant colleagues have assumptions of their own as well. He can get away with lying to them because age has made him resistant to guilt, but this woman already knows. He has already come out to her in a spur of embarrassed honesty.
Her eyes are bright under the haziness of drinking. She always seems younger when the subject arises, her words kept firmly away from scorn no matter how hurtful she can be. He can find nothing but curiosity out of her.
“If you drink,” he says at last.
Her smile is absent. She drags the glass to her lips and sips, slow and deliberate, almost cat-like.
“Optimus and I met at a wedding,” he starts.
She snorts loudly. “Romantic.”
“Well, yes. It was, very.” Ratchet has to take a moment to compose the rest of his words; those memories are old now—decades old—and he doesn’t often revisit them. He has no need to hang on to past happiness when every day by Optimus’s side feels like a first meeting. “He was the groom’s best man,” he says. “I remember the suit he wore—a very nice and elegant grey. He had a white flower in his breast pocket.”
“This is boring,” she sighs.
Ratchet smiles weakly and adds, “I remember because I spilled wine all over it.”
He hears her breathe in, sees the corner of her lips shake almost into a smile.
“I was so very awkward. Back then… well, let us just say that I was better off hiding my preferences than disclaiming them. The bride was a distant cousin of mine—I didn’t know her very well—but Optimus was going around talking to the guests, and eventually he came to talk to me. The party was beautiful, they had rented a whole wine cave for it and hired a decorated chef for the food. He came to talk to me—I was standing alone in a corner while everyone danced—and I became so flustered that I dropped my wine over his jacket.”
She laughs her mocking, cruel laugh.
Ratchet can’t quite stop himself from smiling either. It is surprisingly easy to narrate this to her, drunk though she is. Part of him hopes that she will not remember a word of it, but a bigger—better—part thinks, Even if she does, it’s fine.
He tells her of Optimus’s booming laughter when the wine spilled and Ratchet hurried to clean it with napkins. He remembers falling in love with that laughter and smile more than the rest of him at first; he recalls the warmth of his handshake, the sight of their hands linked together in the dark of the wide room as couples danced on the ground not very far away.
“I would love to meet you again,” Optimus had said.
Ratchet had kissed him that same night on the side of the road, after most of the other guests had left. The sun was rising over the horizon, crisp and springly, paling the fields around to blue. He had stood on his tiptoes and put his lips to Optimus’s.
“A first kiss on the first night,” the woman says, toying with the empty water glass. Under her heavy sarcasm, Ratchet senses envy. “I would’ve thought you’d make him pine for months, you’re so proper.”
Ratchet blushes at her words. “Things were different back then,” he replies.
“How lucky. What a boring, romantic story.”
There is no sign yet of the taxi he called. The waitress at the counter—the same one as the day Ratchet and the woman met—is bobbing her head to the rhythm of a song, earbuds sticking out of her ears, her apron stained with coffee. They are alone in the diner. It feels like they’re alone in the world.
The woman next to him says, “I wish I’d met Megatron like that.”
It is an odd name, Ratchet thinks. “How did you meet him?” he asks carefully.
She snorts again. “How do you think? At a party. We had sex in some bedroom and he said he wanted to see me again.” She pauses and adds, “I said yes.”
He doesn’t know if he hopes or dreads to hear regret in her voice. He doesn’t know what it is he hears, instead.
“Forget I said that,” she says then with a sort of calculated nonchalance.
“What?” he replies. “I didn’t—”
But he meets her eyes and falls silent.
There are things she isn’t telling him. A great many things, about herself, about her job—about the boyfriend she so loves to dislike. He sees a warning in her eyes that makes her look more sober than she truly is, and it is enough to stay his words.
He thinks about the name again in the days that follow. The woman doesn’t show up for a few days, and Ratchet is alone when he eats his eggs and drinks his water and tips the waiters of the diner overly much. Megatron; an odd name, a name that makes him think of bulky handymen in action movies or smirking villains in leather armchairs.
He realizes that he has never asked for the woman’s name.
He tells her so the next time he sees her. She looks at him in silence for what feels likes minutes before answering, “Starscream.”
“What kind of name is that?” he scoffs.
He expects her to laugh, to snap at him. Instead she puts her chin into the palm of her hand, her long black hair falling over her shoulder, and replies, “It’s a name, and I like it.”
Her tone is absolute.
He doesn’t understand what she means by it for a long time after that. Starscream continues to show up sporadically over the next few months; sometimes she arrives before him, sometimes she shows up as he is about to leave. Sometimes she is drunk in her sharp suits, sometimes she saunters in on needle-like heels and with all of her legs bare to the light, and she is stone-cold sober. He can’t figure out what she wants from him, and at the same time, he can. He can’t understand why she sometimes enters the room with an elegance to her that makes heads turn around, and why she sometimes stumbles in wearing torn tights and broken shoes, her hair matted with liquor.
The first time he sees a bruise on her, they have known each other for two months.
It is nothing serious, nothing requiring attention except maybe some over-the-counter salve. It could almost be innocuous. But Ratchet sits at his table with a plateful of beans and eggs and cannot stop looking at the dark spot over her wrist. He feels deeply unsettled, he realizes, and even more so when she greets him and he understands that she is drunk once more.
He sees no other signs of violence on her. He never has. No, all the violence is in her voice and attitude; it is in the words she uses about others and about herself, in the way she so clearly thinks to have reclaimed power over them, even as she keeps twisting the knife.
That night Ratchet asks her, “Why do you stay with him?”
He feels unbelievable foolish in the second that follows. This is perhaps the poorest, least thoughtful question he has ever asked someone—really, Why do you stay with him? Isn’t he a doctor? Hasn’t he seen enough of those women in emergency rooms, silent and skittery while a husband watches from the corner and Ratchet applies gauze, applies lotion, sutures wounds? Hasn’t he seen those children before—does he ask them why they stay with their families?
Starscream was in the middle of yet another tirade about this man, this Megatron, whose name she has never pronounced again. She stops mid-word and looks at him, flushed with alcohol and irritation, brittle under the flickering light. Then the light shifts again and she is once more solid as a rock.
“Why not?” is her reply. She shrugs with one of her nasty smiles on. Ratchet eyes the bruise on her wrist, thinks that it must be almost invisible in regular daylight. Thinks that if not for the neons above turning her skin lighter, she could bear many more bruises of the kind with no one the wiser.
He doesn’t realize how much he has come to care until that thought makes his hands shake.
“He is obviously unkind to you,” he tries.
This is a lost fight, he knows; but he tries.
“Forgive me, but you don’t look like you love him very much.”
“It isn’t about love,” she sneers. She touches one long nail to the rim of her glass. Today, her pink polish is flaking. “Not anymore anyway. Plus, there’s a lot of advantages to being with him—and he’d come running if I left, so why bother? It’s not like it’s always bad. He’s done some good things.”
Textbook answers. Predictable answers. Ratchet feels like he is reading out of one of the pamphlets on domestic abuse that his colleagues from the psych ward leave in their offices. It’s five in the morning on a Saturday, and he wants nothing more than to order whiskey for himself.
“What good things?” he asks again.
Starscream marks a long pause before replying, “He paid for my surgeries.”
The question is on the tip of Ratchet’s tongue with simple strength of habit. He looks up from the bruise to observe her face and finds her looking deliberately away. He shuts his mouth. He thinks, pauses. Realizes. Blushes.
He forces out: “I see,” in the most neutral tone he can manage.
He suddenly wants to hit himself for judging her on what he once noticed of her cosmetic surgeries.
Starscream snorts. “Oh, please,” she tells him in obvious attempt to unburden the air. Her hand is not as assured as always when she waves off the silence; Ratchet hears the rings on her fingers clink loudly against glass when she grabs her drink again. “If you start making a big deal of this after telling me about your tragically boring homosexual love story, I’ll really have to drink myself to death.”
“We wouldn’t want that,” Ratchet says mutedly.
“No,” she replies. “We would not.”
He orders whiskey.
Optimus says nothing when he slides under the cover that morning. Summer is slowly abating, the crushing desert heat withering down into milder temperatures. They can sleep close together without Optimus kicking the sheet away for air. They don’t need the loud ceiling fan anymore. Ratchet knows he smells like alcohol and smoke—Starscream walked out with him into the rising sun, a long Camel hanging from the corner of her mouth, freshly-reapplied lipstick leaving stains on the filter. Ratchet stayed long enough by her side before their paths diverged for the scent to cling to him. He knows what he smells like, he knows what this looks like, but Optimus embraces him and says nothing.
Ratchet murmurs, “I met someone.”
“I’m not having an affair.”
Optimus chuckles. “You come home hours late and smelling like a woman,” he says. Ratchet blushes into his shoulder and pinches the soft of Optimus’s belly. “I know you’re not having an affair, Ratchet,” his husband says against his forehead. “I trust you.”
“Good,” Ratchet replies. “Good, because you’re the only oaf in this world that I want.”
Once, there had been doubt.
Optimus is a wise and kind man, the kindest Ratchet has ever met. He fell in love at the age of thirty-two watching this marvel of a man smile at him, and he has never fallen out since then. But one cannot control how someone else feels, and there was a time someone else came to feel for Ratchet in the same way Optimus does.
Wheeljack was young and handsome. Full of energy, determined to have his way. Ratchet could never have kept up with him even if he had wanted to. But it had been the first time anything threatened his relationship with Optimus so, and Optimus, like any other man, had felt jealousy. The experience at least had the benefit of washing away the very last of Ratchet’s idolizing.
He rubs his forehead against Optimus’s shoulder. Optimus’s hand runs over his back once, twice, and again.
“Tell me about her,” he says.
He is attentive as Ratchet speaks. He never interrupts him except to ask questions. He listens to Ratchet’s frustrations and worries, shares the heavy weight on his heart about the bruise and the harsh words, about the drinking and smoking. He presses his thumb to Ratchet’s shoulder when Ratchet berates himself for not noticing sooner and tells him for the thousandth time that he is not Atlas, and that the world is not to be born upon one’s shoulders.
“You sound so old when you say that,” Ratchet tells him.
“It makes my student lower their defenses,” Optimus replies. “It’s easier to surprise them that way.”
They laugh into each other’s face. They spend those languid morning hours in each other’s embrace.
“You should invite her for dinner,” Optimus declares as Ratchet is freshening up in the bathroom. His voice carries over the length of their apartment smoothly, deeply. “This Starscream.”
“You must be joking, Optimus. She’s nothing like any acquaintance of ours.”
The thought is preposterous—Starscream, here? He tries for a moment to imagine her sitting at their table, in the middle of their antiquated furniture. Starscream looks at home in that garish diner and in her bright makeup and jewelry. Her too-sharp knees and elbows would shatter his plates and flower vases. Her too-sharp tongue would damage the peace he has built here painstakingly.
Optimus appears in the frame of the bathroom door. All those years he has managed to keep some of build he sported when they met, though his shirt falls open round his middle without revealing quite such a jutting hipbone. Still, he is beautiful. Ratchet fills his eyes with him as he brushes his teeth; he thinks of an hour ago, when his fingers were running over buzzed, frizzy hair, when his knuckles dug into soft skin and hard muscle.
“You like her,” Optimus says.
Ratchet can lie, but not to him.
Starscream is more jittery than usual when he meets her a week later. She comes into the diner dressed in that same awful yellow outfit he first saw her wearing, looking sober but frayed at the edges, her makeup mostly gone. For the first time he notices the thin white scar that runs vertically right above her left eyebrow. It is usually masked by concealer.
She sits next to him in silence at first. This is not unusual—she is always the first to open their conversation, and it sometimes takes a while for her to do so. Ratchet eats his breakfast slowly, staring idly at the couple other customers in the room. One man has not stopped stealing glances at the girls sitting next to him, though his eyes deviate every now and then in Starscream’s direction. The two girls he observes are deep into their own conversation, drinking coffee and laughing.
Finally, Starscream seems to relax. She sighs and says, “Sorry I haven’t been around. Something came up at work.”
Ratchet glances at her arms and legs quickly. He finds no sign of any other bruise. “That is fine,” he replies. “It’s not like we ever set a schedule.”
It makes her laugh in a somewhat defeated way.
Talking is easier after that. Today’s target for Starscream’s vitriol is not Megatron but another man, whom Ratchet understands out of her disjointed complaining is a business opponent of sorts causing her some trouble. He nods when she looks like she is waiting for him to, shakes his head when her monologue turns ruder than he appreciates. She calls him an old prude and smiles.
“What’s with you today?” she asks an hour later, when the pace of their conversation has turned slower. “You should’ve called me foolish at least twice by now.”
The diner has emptied out. The man and the two girls are gone, replaced by some early risers with dark circles under their eyes, one of whom has a small service dog at his feet.
Ratchet clears his throat and says, “I’d like to invite you to dinner.” Immediately he flusters and adds, “That is, Optimus and I would like to have you for dinner. If you would like.”
Starscream falls very silent.
He is not discreet in staring at her, he knows. She must feel his uncertainty from a mile off, ruthless as she is, and it is a wonder that she does not immediately make use of it to torment him, to mock him for his attachment. But she is looking down at the cup in her hands unblinkingly, silently, her face paler than even the bad lighting warrants. She doesn’t look happy.
“Starscream?” he asks softly.
It is the first time he calls her directly by name. She seems startled for a second before her smirk wipes it away. “Dinner,” she says. “At your place?”
He nods. “Yes, whenever it suits you.”
After another silence, she asks: “You told your husband about me?”
“I’ve been coming home late without explanation for months,” he replies. “Of course I had to tell him about you eventually. I don’t lie to him.”
“That must be nice,” she says. “Not lying.”
He doesn’t know what to say to that.
Quiet stretches between them. Ratchet has nothing left in his plate and two empty glasses in front of him. He fingers the outline of his phone inside his jacket. He never thinks of taking it out whenever he is with her, but this silence is heavy, uncomfortable. The need to distract himself from it beats like headache at his temples.
“You don’t have to,” he says at last, but she cuts in, “No.”
“No, I’ll come. It’s fine. When?”
She still doesn’t look happy. Ratchet makes plans with her for the following Wednesday evening, when he is not on shift and her own schedule matches—he gives her his address and his cellphone number—but she doesn’t smile except to mock. She doesn’t laugh except to deride. It is rare that he feels warmth from her, or any kind of true affection, but he expected it for this at least. Her loneliness has always been the most obvious of her plights.
“I should go,” she says almost as soon as she has pocketed the paper on which he scribbled his information. He is tempted to ask if she would rather he send it to her via text—he is a doctor, and his handwriting suffers from it—but he has no time to. She stands from her seat, drops a couple bills over the table, and adds, “See you Wednesday.”
Then she is gone almost as quickly as she came.
Optimus is curious when he tells him about it, but not worried. “She’s a young woman,” he says, sounding very wise. “Of course she is worried about spending dinner with two older men she doesn’t know.”
“She knows enough to know neither of us is interested in taking advantage of her,” Ratchet replies dryly.
He’s been talking and arguing and drinking with her for months. Always at the same crappy diner near the worst club in town, always in the middle of the night. Whatever her issue with the invitation is, Ratchet doubts it has to do with his and Optimus’s gender, or with her going alone somewhere.
“I shall invite Arcee too,” Optimus grunts, rolling to the other side of the bed so he can grab his phone. “Perhaps her presence will help Starscream feel more at ease. It has been a while since you two saw each other as well.”
“I’m sure she misses me terribly.”
“I have always said your sarcasm is one of your least attractive qualities.”
Ratchet gives Optimus enough time to finish his text before pinning him to the bed.
For the following hour he thinks nothing of Starscream, of her cutting edges and bruised wrist, of her smile like a million needles. He kisses his husband as if he is still thirty, makes love to him in approximation of what their first night together was. Optimus’s laughter and moans waft hotly over his face. Sweat slicks the sheets they are laid in as Ratchet moves over and in him, kissing everywhere he can reach, pressing his palms over black skin and twisting his fingers in black hair. He is almost fifty-three years old. He is almost fifty-three, but although his back aches with the exertion of lovemaking as it did not always, his heart burns out of the same flame.
He doesn’t see Starscream at all until Wednesday. He half-expected her to abuse the trust he has put in her by giving him his number, but there is no sign of any unsolicited texts or calls. It makes him nervous for reasons he can’t fathom. He finds himself thinking of her during his longer working nights, in-between Jack’s coughing fits and Rafael’s sleeplessness. He sits in his office filing paperwork and sees sharp smiles in the shadows.
He and Optimus cook together all of Wednesday afternoon. It is anything but quiet; they have put on music, turned on their TV. Their hips knock together when they work side by side. Ratchet forgoes his suit jackets in favor of a pale blue cardigan which he knows Starscream will make fun of and Optimus will say compliments his eyes.
Arcee arrives at six o’clock sharp. “Optimus,” she says warmly the second she crosses the threshold, her thin arms embracing Optimus tightly. Then—”Ratchet. You look older.“
“So do you,” Ratchet grumbles.
She doesn’t. Arcee is a knife of a woman, unbothered by her early-greying hair or the laugh lines around her face. She shows up now wearing the same kind of sharp suit she presents to her students and occasional lady loves, face bare of any makeup and hair cut overly short around her ears. She laughs at him good-naturedly and embraces him too; Ratchet puts up a front of hostility, but he knows she can feel him soften in her arms.
They talk easily, cheerfully, as they wait for Starscream to arrive. Arcee is curious about her of course. Optimus fills in the blanks that Ratchet is reluctant to—”They have an ongoing affair of having bad coffee together at five in the morning,“ he declares, and Arcee replies, “I’d be worried if I were you, Optimus. Ratchet’s rarely met anyone he approves of.”
Time passes. Six turns to six-thirty, then seven. Ratchet starts checking his phone for missed calls or texts a little too frequently. A fifteen past seven Optimus breaks the appetizers out, entertaining Arcee with mild conversation but shooting him worried glances.
“I guess she must have been held back,” Ratchet says when the clock strikes eight. “Let’s eat, you must be famished, Arcee.”
The food is excellent. In all ways, this is a pleasant evening: Arcee and Optimus satisfy each other with stories of their students, none of whom overlap because physics and philosophy are too-far-removed majors—”A shame,“ Optimus says, “for they have much in common”—and Ratchet finds, occasionally, the mood to laugh.
His throat is tight by the time dessert comes. Optimus delays Arcee’s departure in gentle and unobtrusive ways. If she notices, she makes no comment at all. Yes, in many ways, dinner is a lovely affair.
Starscream never shows up.
Miko shakes with energy for the whole duration of his next night at the hospital.
Three different times a nurse comes to fetch Ratchet from his office, frayed and worried because she is not in her room, or not in her bed, or nowhere at all. On the third offense he finds her playing with old dolls in the third floor waiting room; she cries, “Doctor Prime!” at the sight of him, her small fists waving the broken arm of a toy his way, her face somehow smudged with dirt.
He scolds her. He has to drag her back to her room in spite of the ruckus she makes that wakes many more patients. This is the oncology floor, he tries to explain to her, the men and women here need as much rest as they can, but she won’t hear a word of it. She yells and twists her small hand in his grasp and tries to run back to the toys. Bee has to bring an armful of them to her room for her to finally calm down, and then again, she doesn’t sleep. Ratchet knows that her medication is the cause for the surplus of energy. She is just a child, not even seven years old; she cannot understand the full scope of her own actions, or why they might be a bother to him or to others.
He apologizes to the people she has woken up in person. Some smile indulgently despite the stark weakness that chemo keeps them in and which necessitates as much recuperation as they can handle. Others lecture him, and Ratchet sees the circles under their eyes, the underskin ports at their clavicles or the scarves they wear to hide their shaven heads, and cannot find it in himself to indulge in frustration.
“This is hard for you,” the hospital head tells him when four o’clock rolls around. She is the administrator on duty for the night, and she has come in half an hour ago to oversee the admittance of a crush injury patient requiring immediate surgery. Ratchet greeted her when he came out of Miko’s room—she took him aside for a talk. “You’ve been on night shift for too long.”
“It’s nothing unexpected,” he replies, trying to keep fatigue out of his voice. “If it weren’t me it would be someone else.”
She hums thoughtfully. “Someone expressed that they would not mind switching to night shift on this floor,” she says. “How would you feel about working regular hours again?”
Ratchet thinks of waking with the sun, of preparing breakfast for Optimus and driving him to university. He thinks of lunch breaks taken together in Optimus’s paper-strewn office, of reading by his side in bed until their eyes tire out.
“I’ll think about it,” he replies tightly.
“Please do. You can take a few days to give me your answer.”
He isn’t thinking of Starscream for perhaps the first time in days when he enters the diner, which is reason enough, he supposes, for her to be there and waiting.
He has no clue how to feel when he sees her hunched over his table in their usual corner. Not her table, but his. The plate he is holding is hot to the touch—just coming out of the washer—but he forgets the discomfort in favor of trying to experience anger, or disappointment, or worry.
“Starscream,” he says coldly when he reaches her side.
She lifts her head at the sound of his voice. It only takes one look at her face for Ratchet to forget all about scolding her.
He drops his plate and glass on the table in a hurry, almost spilling his eggs all over it. “What happened?” he asks, extending a hand toward the ugly purple bruise on her cheekbone that she hasn’t managed to conceal fully.
She slaps his hand away. “It’s nothing,” she replies. “So, how was work?”
He knows he is staring at her with his mouth open like a fool. She doesn’t look back—she is too busy examining her own nails in boredom—but the effect is broken by the rest of her. Her outfit is as skimpy and colorful as ever, her hair styled into a complex bread over her nape, but her eyes are bloodshot. She smells of liquor. The side of her face is swollen.
“Did you go to the hospital?” he asks, sitting down in front of her.
She rolls her eyes. “It’s just a bruise,” she sneers. “Not the end of the world.”
“It could be more than a bruise. You could have a fractured cheekbone—”
“Oh, shut up, will you? If I wanted to see a doctor I’d see one. I can speak, I can eat, it doesn’t bother me.”
There is true aggression in her words, not simply the fake kind she likes to harbor around him. Ratchet’s lips thin in frustration.
“Did your boyfriend do that?” he asks lowly.
It is the first time he asks so directly.
He has known, he knew, that she was living dangerously. He has not forgotten the bruise around her wrist so worriedly shaped after a man’s hand, or how carefully she avoids citing any names, any places of employment. He knows she has money. He knows she holds some sort of responsibility-heavy job. He knows that at least twice a week, she comes out of the shady club two streets over and does nothing but complain about it, which has led him to believe that she never goes there of her own free will.
None of it paints a picture he likes to consider in full. “Is it him?” he presses. “Megatron, was it?”
“I told you to forget that name,” is her scathing reply. “God, you’re so annoying.”
“You need to get you face checked by someone. It’s still swollen, how long ago—”
“Ratchet!” she snaps.
Some heads turn in their direction. The waitress behind the counter takes out one of her earbuds and looks at them sideways. Ratchet doesn’t realize how tense he is until he is left alone in that silence, heart beating against his ribs and shoulders throbbing in a solid line of pain.
“I didn’t come here to talk about this crap,” Starscream says. “Shut up already.”
Now, of all times, he experiences resentment.
“Is that why you didn’t come to dinner?” he asks. Half of him is tempted to take her hand in his as he would one of his patients; but Starscream is not a patient and not a child. He finds he doesn’t want her to think him patronizing. “Were you hurt?”
“Dinner,” she says. “Right. I completely forgot about that.”
It is worked and rehearsed, the way she picks at her nails and puts on disinterested airs. Ratchet wants to snap and call her out on her façade. He wants to shake her, to make her realize how absurd her stubbornness is.
But Starscream is not one of his patients. She is not a child. She is an adult in full capacity of deciding things for herself, and she has never shown any appreciation for him trying to butt in on her business.
Ratchet forces his tension to abate. He toys with his food, all of his appetite gone. “We could schedule another one, if you want,” he says. “Optimus would really like to meet you.”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” she replies.
She sounds so matter-of-fact about it.
For a long while neither of them speaks. Ratchet forces some breakfast past the tight knot of his throat, but even freshly-pressed juice tastes to him like nothing. Starscream takes out her phone, an expensive and sleek thing in pale gold, and taps on its screen with the tips of her long nails.
He gives up on eating before his plate is even half-empty. Starscream hasn’t ordered anything, no coffee, no drinks.
“I’ll be back on day shift soon,” he tells her.
Her nail taps against plastic. “Oh?”
“Someone offered. I’d like to spend more time with my husband.”
“Good for you,” she replies spitefully.
“Starscream,” Ratchet says.
She pushes her chair away from the table. Now everyone is looking at them, he feels, and the spell of that corner of existence with her seems to lift at last. He can see just how ugly her expression is under all the makeup and under the purple bruise; he can see just how disgusted she looks by him and everything around her.
“I was thinking it’s time I stopped coming to that mediocre place anyway,” she says, shoving her phone inside her purse. “See you around, old man.”
“Starscream, please wait,” Ratchet says, rising after her. “I never said I wanted to stop meeting you.”
“Because you so want to be spending your time sitting around this place and waiting for me to show up, is that it?” she retorts.
Ratchet hesitates. Starscream’s eyes narrow in cruel pleasure.
“It was a nice enough way to pass the time,” she says, slow and deliberate. “But I’ve got better things to do than meet your husband and play nice. I’m never nice.”
“I would know,” he replies between his teeth.
She huffs and turns around again. Her heels clacking against the ground as she crosses the room are the loudest noise around; the chime rings for a long second when she pulls open the front door, and in a gust of cool wind, she is gone.
Ratchet makes no move to stop her.
The children are happy to see him during the day. They are surprised at first—so little is enough to perturb their habits—but they adapt quickly. Miko takes to leaving her classes and other activities every time she sees him roam a corridor so she can follow after him. Rafael likes the opportunity to talk to him instead of dozing on and off in his company. Jack’s asthma becomes more manageable with the trials she is running, and soon enough her mother can take her home.
It’s a somewhat tearful goodbye. Ratchet hadn’t realized just how close those three have become in the ward, and the sight of Rafael and Miko sobbing on each other while Jack hides her face in her mother’s jacket almost tugs a tear out of him.
Bee, of course, is openly crying. Ratchet finds him in the nurses’ office with a half-empty roll of paper towels and says, “For God’s sake, get a grip, Bee.”
Bee nods and rushes to his work again. When the other’s back is turned, Ratchet quickly wipes his eyes.
Living a diurnal rhythm is such a comforting thing. As expected, Ratchet wakes with Optimus every morning. He lunches and dines with him every day. The tired stolen minutes of affection between them bloom into endless hours of comfortable silence, the both of them reading or watching TV together or going out at night for movies and theater.
On the nights he is on duty and cannot escape driving to the hospital, Ratchet doesn’t linger. He files paperwork at his desk and performs first diagnoses for some of the emergency patients. He goes out in the dark of night and walks past the diner on his way, and he doesn’t look inside.
Three months pass like this.
He doesn’t think about Starscream.
He has become so good at not thinking about her, truly. At first any woman of roughly the same appearance caught his eyes no matter what she wore or where he went; a flash of bright clothes on dark skin, long black hair, too-long nails painted fluorescent. Now Ratchet can go days without even thinking her name or looking for her face in the crowd.
Why should he find her by accident now, after all? The city isn’t small. If their paths never crossed before that one night and if now she wishes to stay away, there is nothing he can do to stop her. He never thought to ask for her own number. He doesn’t know where she lives or works, and he would be unwilling to step foot into the club she frequented even if she had not told him that she has no wish to return there.
So he doesn’t think about her. He fills his mind with thoughts of the new patients in his ward, of Optimus’s latest literary love, of what bracelet or watch to get him for their coming anniversary. Arcee unwittingly helps him by arranging for a surprise party of sorts—Ratchet snorts at the idea, telling her they are way past the age of surprise parties, at least until Arcee puts Bulkhead on the phone to shut him up.
“It’ll be quiet,” Bulkhead swears in a not-so-quiet voice. “Come on, Ratchet.”
Ratchet has never truly been able to refuse them.
It does promise to be a rather tranquil thing. They rent the back room of a nice restaurant near the main avenue, somewhere draped in old-fashioned red and gold which Arcee cannot stop herself from commenting will ‘look as lovingly ancient as you two’. Ratchet reminds her dryly that she is only seven years short of hitting her own half-century.
Family comes. Not from Ratchet’s side—they have never quite forgiven his lack of interest in women—but from Optimus’s. His mother cries on the phone with him, speaking of how happy her late husband would be, asking after Ratchet’s health and eating habits. It is nothing he didn’t expect from her, but Ratchet has long lost his own mother. Her concern means something to him that he cannot name.
Optimus must be suspecting something if only for Ratchet’s insistence on spending their anniversary night at home, but he plays along. He is delighted when Ratchet tells him to wear something nice and drives him to the restaurant. His smiles are wide and warm when he greets Bulkhead and his mother, when he embraces Arcee.
They eat. They laugh. Optimus tells stories of how a few of his students learned mysteriously about the anniversary and prepared fake essays in his honor; he reads two of them with a seriousness that drives Bulkhead into spilling his first wine glass of the evening.
Ratchet smiles into his own drink. The night is the right side of cool when he steps outside for some fresh air, deep black and welcoming the way only late winter can be. His is pleasantly buzzed from wine and food and company. He pictures by his side the lit end of a long cigarette, held between two painted fingers.
His phone vibrates against his thigh. He takes it out with a fumble, almost dropping it to the wet ground before he manages to firmly catch it. The number on the screen is not one he recognizes, which drags a faint frown out of him. It is way too late for people to be trying to sell him things.
He picks up the call anyway. “Hello?” he greets, rubbing a hand over his hair.
Silence greets him.
No, no quite silence. There is the sound of static and some feeble, watery noise, like something moving in a sink or bathtub. He is about to end the call when something else reaches him—a deep, raspy breath, the kind he hears from patients coming in with chest injuries.
“Hello?” he repeats in a tenser voice. “Can you hear—”
“You’re a doctor, right.”
Ratchet’s mind blanks out.
“Starscream?” he all but shouts into the receiver.
“You’re too loud,” she replies nonchalantly, as if this is just another night at the diner, as if she isn’t calling him after months of silence and sounding like she is injured—“I need a doctor. I think.”
“Where are you?” he asks. “I’ll call an ambulance right away—”
“No ambulance,” she cuts him off. “This isn’t fucking worth it.”
“Please tell me where you are,” he begs.
His fingers hurt around the case of his phone. He has pushed his back off of the wall without realizing, and stands now as if ready to run whichever way she tells him to. Hearing her chuckle at him in her usual, cruel way does nothing to reassure him.
“I’m home,” she says. “I think… God, this is going to sound stupid, but I think I’ve probably lost a kidney.”
“A kidney,” Ratchet repeats weakly.
“Yes. So, you might want to hurry up.”
“Where are you?”
She is silent for a moment before answering, “Don’t call an ambulance. Just come over.”
He agrees because he feels that if he insists she will simply hang up. “Don’t move anywhere,” he tells her after feeling his phone buzz with her incoming text. “Don’t move, please.”
“Fine, but hurry,” she breathes. “It’s goddamn cold.”
Ratchet stumbles in his hurry to reach his car and read the address she sent at once. It’s not far, not far at all, somewhere he could run to in less than ten minutes and which will take him less than two by road. He calls for an ambulance right as he turns on the ignition, and then he drives with a ferocity he has never shown before.
Starscream lives at the top of a tall and sleek apartment building. The woman in the lobby watches him punch in the code with wide eyes, but Ratchet doesn’t listen at all to the words she tries to shout at him—he eyes the opening doors of the elevator up front and pushes the people coming out of it from his way, pressing three times on the button to the highest floor as if it will make him rise faster.
He is all but ready to break his own shoulder forcing open her door, but there is no need. The handle moves under his shaking hand and opens easily.
“Starscream?” he calls as he steps into the dark living-room. His eyes pick up the glow of a lit flatscreen TV and shelves full of various books and trinkets; there are coats on the hanger behind the door, some of which he recognizes for having seen her wear them, but Starscream herself is nowhere in sight.
“In here,” she calls.
Her voice comes from a hallway behind the white leather couch. Ratchet makes his way there running; an open door almost at the end of it lights the way, and he pushes it open with no warning.
She is sitting in the wide bathtub inside, her face entirely bloodless. For a terrifying second he thinks she will not move at all, but then her head turns around to face him, making her wet hair drag over her shoulder darkly. “Hello,” she greets feebly. “Er, I’m naked, so—”
“Don’t move,” Ratchet orders again as he sees her try to shift in the water.
He crosses the distance between them in two steps. The water in the bath looks clean enough, only slightly pinked by her left side, where botched stitching closes a recent wound. It is cold when Ratchet touches it; there are still some ice cubes floating at the surface, which tells him that at least whoever did this had some idea of what they were up to.
“Can you at least grab me a towel or something?” she seethes, and he realizes then that she is, indeed, entirely naked.
He turns around without even the strength to blush. “Fine, but don’t let it touch the wound,” he replies.
He doesn’t actually let her hold out her arm to take it—he places the towel over the tub for her privacy’s sake and nothing else, not even allowing the fabric to wet itself with the water’s surface. Who knows what sort of infection Starscream already risks.
“What happened?” he asks in a rough voice.
“That fucking bastard Silas happened,” she spits out with as much viciousness as if she were not halfway into shock. “When I get my hands on him he’ll learn what fear tastes like.”
“I just woke up like this,” she cuts in. He can see already that she is working to avoid his questions, to avoiding giving too much away. “Didn’t feel a thing. It hurts now, though.”
“I bet,” Ratchet replies weakly.
He starts hearing sirens in the distance a second or so later. Starscream’s face goes hot with anger; Ratchet has to restrain her with both hands to prevent her from bolting out of the tub. “I told you not to call an ambulance!” she yells.
“What do you think this is?” he shouts back. “You think I can just show up and be ready to deal with someone missing a kidney? Who knows if that’s even what they took, if they took anything? You need a fucking ambulance, you need a hospital and proper equipment,” he roars, “and you’re gonna sit here and accept it for once in your life.”
Starscream stares at him with her mouth wide open.
He feels so tired all of a sudden. He collapses against the side of the tub, his forehead hitting cold porcelain and his breaths coming in short bursts out of his chest. There is an ache where his heart is beating off-tempo, something close to the feeling of breathlessness after running too quickly and for too long, though he hasn’t even run that much. He almost jumps out of his skin when a wet hand touches his shoulder.
“Why’re you dressed all nice?” Starscream mumbles from above him.
Ratchet’s chuckle feels like a sob. “Today is Optimus and I’s twentieth anniversary,” he replies. “We were celebrating.”
“Oh.” She thinks for a second before adding, “Sorry about that,” sounding not very sorry at all.
“I didn’t even tell him I was leaving,” Ratchet says.
He huffs and pushes himself away from the tub. Starscream meets his eyes for a bare second as he picks his phone up from his abandoned jacket—when did he take it off?—and sends a text to Optimus. Emergency, it simply reads.
A few seconds later a reply comes: Understood.
Footsteps echo through the empty apartment. Ratchet finds enough of a voice to call and guide the emergency team to the bathroom. He stands aside quietly as they pull Starscream out of the bath, covering her in something less hazardous than a regular towel to preserve her dignity and laying her onto a stretcher.
“Are you family?” a woman asks him in passing, and Ratchet answers, “I’m a friend.”
It doesn’t mean anything to her. It is simply a note at the end of a piece of paper, something to notify the police whenever they will get involved. Ratchet would like to think that this is all it means to him as well, but Starscream is watching him from the stretcher, shivering now that they are trying to keep her out of hypothermia.
It has never been just coffee, just luck. It was never another note at the end of his days, something to turn over and forget when fate shifted the pace of his living.
He thinks—he hopes—that she understands this as well.
Starscream’s room is located two floors beneath the pediatric ward. It is oddly uneventful to go to work that Monday knowing he can see her whenever the fancy strikes him. He doesn’t hesitate to, either; Starscream tries to keep him out with her words and attitude the first few times, only to abate with evident relief when she realizes that he is not about to give up.
“It was so pathetic of you to lie to me,” she tells him, ignoring all but the lit screen of her phone as she types in quick strokes.
“You’d be dead if I hadn’t,” Ratchet replies, which always shuts her right up. “Be grateful you can even see me now.”
As it turns out, she is indeed missing a kidney. It is not the first time Ratchet is exposed to the aftermath or organ trafficking, but it has never struck so close to home before. Starscream is an unusual victim as well—the opposite of dependent or in need of money, as well as a poor donor in light of her frequent alcohol intake. Ratchet has the satisfaction of witnessing her horrified expression when her doctor explains that she will never again be anything but sober. It’s already a miracle that her remaining kidney seems to be functioning just fine.
Since Starscream’s kidney is of very little value to whoever stole it, this must be an act of revenge. Ratchet doesn’t forget the name she uttered in her shock, Silas, but he doesn’t question her about it. He knows how fruitless that endeavor would be. In a way it is enough to see her spend so much time on her phone, working remotely, wearing the visage of a Hollywood villain.
He doesn’t envy the person who is about to bear the brunt of her anger. Thankfully, he thinks with satisfaction, this isn’t him.
Oh, she tries often enough. She drags animosity out of her lungs like air, insults and targets and spills acid at him. But Ratchet is becoming better at recognizing when her innate inconsideration is at play and when she is simply flustered. He makes an iron wall out of himself and waits her out.
Two days after Starscream is admitted into the hospital, Ratchet arrives to her room, only to find the door opening in his face. The man who emerges is of a height with Optimus; broad and thick and somber, dressed in a grey suit so rigid that not a crease can be seen on him. Ratchet lets him through without thinking, and the man only gives him a dismissive glance before going his way.
Inside, Starscream looks in a worse mood than usual. “Who made the mistake of smiling at you now?” he asks, throwing a pack of sugar-free gum at her. She’s been requesting them, saying they help her with the nicotine cravings.
She remains oddly unresponsive. “Thanks,” she says. “Now get out, I’m busy.”
He looks at her for a long moment before leaving.
The man can’t have made his way out of hospital grounds yet. Ratchet descends into the underground parking lot and finds him walking toward a car the same expensive color of his clothes, inside of which a young woman waits.
She looks very young. Perhaps no older than twenty, twenty-five.
“Excuse me,” Ratchet calls.
The man turns around. Ratchet wasn’t absolute before but he is sure, now, that he must be at least fifty. He is not at all what Ratchet imagined in the rare days he liked to try and put a face to the name—his thoughts had wandered to movie-like images of brutes with little mind and too much muscle, but although this man looks imposing enough, his eyes are sharp. In another life, perhaps Ratchet himself would have found him handsome.
“Are you Megatron?” he asks once they are face to face.
He can see from the corner of his eyes that the girl inside the car has stopped staring at her phone and is listening in on them. “Who asks?” Megatron replies with very familiar disdain. His voice is deep, elegant, poised.
Ratchet smiles thinly.
He punches him across the jaw.
Starscream can hardly stop laughing enough to breathe. She holds the side where her stitches are in one hand as she chokes on her own amusement, tears spilling out of her eyes and undoing the black eyeliner she put there. It runs into the creases at the corners of her eyes and makes her look half-mad.
She tries to calm down several times, but every look at Ratchet sends her into another fit.
“If you’re quite done,” he mutters some ten minutes in, wincing when his hand flexes by accident.
Bee’s splinters are always good, but a sprain hurts no matter what, especially in fingers.
“This is the best day of my life,” Starscream cries. “Oh, Lord, that hurts.”
“Then stop laughing!”
At least, Ratchet thinks with some shame, Megatron was too stunned to do more than watch him wobble away, holding his own hand in pain. He didn’t have time to rise to his feet and give chase, and Ratchet hopes—hopes—that no professional killers or other agents of chaos will be sent after him in retaliation.
“Don’t worry,” Starscream heaves after another highly pleased look at his face, “he won’t do a thing. He’d rather die than admit some puny doctor landed one on him in front of arm candy.”
“Aren’t you worried about yourself?” Ratchet spits back.
It is perhaps a little harsher than the situation warrants, but his worry isn’t unfounded.
Starscream’s smile lengthens. “He can’t do anything to me,” she says. “I’m the rightful leader of this whole damn organization—any step the wrong way and I can, truly, get rid of him. Not like that,” she adds, seeing the shocked face he pulls. “What do you think I am? Anyway, I’m done with him. He won’t come talk to me unless it’s business-related.”
Ratchet bites the inside of his cheek before answering, “Good.”
There is something almost gentle to the look she gives him then. It is immediately replaced with mockery, but Ratchet feels warmed all the same.
A knock comes at the door. They both turn their heads to look, and Ratchet is halfway out of the chair he occupies before the next second has passed, surprised to find his husband standing there with flowers in his hands.
“Optimus,” he says. “I didn’t know you were visiting.”
“Student protests,” Optimus replies. “My classes were canceled for the afternoon.” He gives an inquisitive glance to Ratchet’s bandaged hand, but doesn’t ask.
Starscream has fallen oddly silent. Ratchet can’t read any of what she feels at the sight of Optimus, but her hands have gone still over the covers of the bed.
“This is Starscream,” he says to break the silence. “Starscream, my husband Optimus Prime.”
“Good afternoon,” Optimus greets in as deep a voice as he ever uses. He places the bouquet on Starscream’s bedside table before holding his hand out to her. “Ratchet’s told me so much about you, it’s a pleasure.”
“Pleasure’s mine,” she replies. Another long second later, she shakes Optimus’s hand.
Awkwardness fades as Optimus lingers, as it is wont to do. Starscream never quite becomes the loosened version of herself she is around Ratchet alone, but she comes close enough with Optimus’s conversation. Optimus himself never comments upon her wounds or anything so untoward; he delights her instead with stories of his students or of Ratchet himself, who huffs in indignation but allows it.
He leaves only when visiting hours come to a close. Ratchet cannot linger for the whole afternoon—he has work to do, patients to see to and surgery to prepare for the coming days—but he passes by often enough to see Optimus and Starscream deep in conversation. He comes back as the sun sets outside, walking inside as Optimus finishes, “… hope to see you again soon.”
“You too,” Starscream replies with what almost sounds like sincerity.
Optimus squeezes Ratchet’s hand on his way out. “See you tonight,” he murmurs.
The hospital has gone quiet. Many of the families around are leaving too, some with bright faces, some wearing heavy frowns. This is daily habit to Ratchet, not something he attaches too much attention to, but Starscream looks for a long time. She stares at the wives and husbands, the children, the friends. She stays silent until night crawls over the city and forces Ratchet to reach for the nearest lamp’s switch.
She blinks at the sudden light. “Well, what do you know,” she says. “Your husband’s hot.”
“Yes,” Ratchet replies with pride.
“I was picturing some little old man with no hair.”
He blushes, knowing she is once again referencing his own receding hairline. “Glad I could prove you wrong,” he retorts frostily.
Taking her hand in his feels so very easy. She doesn’t even twitch when she feels his blunt fingers around her own, when he closes them and strokes over her bloodless knuckles. It is as though Ratchet hasn’t thought of doing this so many times before, only to hold himself back.
Her grip is very tight.
“If I invite you to have dinner again,” he says softly. “Will you come this time?”
She doesn’t reply. She is looking through the window and at the dark city, the light of which shines on her skin. She has put gold glitter at the highest of her cheekbones today; when she moves her head this way and that, her face glows like metal.
“Did you mean what you said?” she asks.
He doesn’t have to think before replying, “Yes. Of course.”
It doesn’t matter if she means all the times he was rude to her, all the times he was uncouth and grumpy, or all the others. The dry comments over bad coffee. The cold smiles driven out by cold laughter. Looking at her wounded body laid on a medical stretcher and calling himself her friend.
He has never been anything but honest with her.
Starscream takes her hand away from his, patting it twice in condescension.
“Then ask me again.”