“Hey there, Ratchet. Can I ask you something?” Chip ventured, craning his head up to meet the medic’s gaze as he looked at him over a data pad. At the expectant eyebrow-raise he received, Chip fidgeted slightly. “Is Wheeljack feeling alright? I know he’s still recovering from the malfunctions he had—you all are—but since I wasn’t here to see it, I wondered if there was any lasting damage. The other Autobots said he’s been acting different…” He trailed off when he perceived how Ratchet’s expression had changed; his features had softened, his optics had dimmed.
“So they’ve noticed it too. I’m glad I’m not imagining it,” Ratchet muttered, rising and coming around his desk so there wouldn’t be a barrier between them. “Almost all of Wheeljack’s physical systems are back to normal, aside from some aches and glitches in his legs, but he’s also having trouble getting back on his feet in…other ways. I trust Spike and Carly have told you that the Dinobots went rogue.”
“Yeah, but this wasn’t the first time, right?” Chip protested. “And they’ve always come back.”
Ratchet was quiet for a minute. “That’s true, but you have to understand, Chip, that this is the first time they…they didn’t just leave us. They were going to leave us to die.” Chip’s eyes widened and Ratchet smiled regretfully, answering the unasked question. “Spike and Carly explained our situation to them, told them we were dying, and they had no intention of helping. The only reason they did was because they wanted to reach Cybertron. Wheeljack struggles every time the Dinobots stage their little strikes, but the idea that they wouldn’t come back even to save our lives…”
“That must be awful for him,” Chip murmured, clenching his hands tightly in his lap.
“It is.” Folding his arms, Ratchet perched lightly on the edge of his desk, remarking, “Wheeljack has always taken it harder than I have; even if we built them together, I don’t think of them the way he does. I’m fond of them, proud of them, worry for them—all of the things I should do as a caretaker, but that’s all I am. I supplied medical expertise and base essentials, but Wheeljack first thought of them, designed them; he was the last mech on the team to work on them and the first face they saw when they came online. He created them, sired them, and every time they push him away with the rest of us, it breaks his spark.” His vocalizer crackled with a burst of static, his optics flaring a little, before he concluded, “But like you said, they always come back. Then Wheeljack starts to hope, just a little, that they’re home for good, and they run off again. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thinks they don’t care for him at all now.”
After processing this for a moment, Chip swallowed hard. “Do they care?”
“Mechlings think of themselves first because they don’t know better. I’m sure you’ve made mistakes that hurt your parents, but that doesn’t mean you don’t love them, right? The Dinobots’ minds and sparks aren’t like ours; they probably don’t realize how it affects him and clearly they only learn lessons the hard way. They inherited that from him,” the medic sighed. “Maybe this is the hard lesson for all of them.”
Chip had no idea what to say to that, so instead of prying further he mumbled thanks and wheeled himself out of the medical bay, his heart sinking for his friend. Sometimes it was all too easy to think of the Bots simply as aliens, as robots that sometimes turned into cars and, on occasion, took flight. There were strange nuances to their interactions, customs and habits on Earth that they didn’t understand, and it made them seem even more foreign. He knew they were living, feeling beings, but he had never considered the thought that they could be parents.
Despite himself, he eased to a stop in front of the entrance to Wheeljack’s lab, peering cautiously through the cracked door. No one was inside, but he could see the signature clutter on the tables and the floor.
Slipping inside, he drew closer to the contents on the floor, surprise and unease mingling when he spotted the dents, cracks and leaks marring the various half-made inventions. Wheeljack had a track record for devices that broke, but nine times out of ten, that was simply faulty programming; he wasn’t careless with them. They wouldn’t have become so badly damaged like this unless they had been swept off the tables with force. To his dismay, he could see droplets of energon drying in various patches on the broken circuit boards and wiring.
Hastily spinning around and doing his best to stay calm, Chip left the lab, mentally sorting out all of the different places Wheeljack had mentioned feeling most comfortable. If he had left the Ark, there was no way Chip would catch up without calling on the other Autobots.
Wait…maybe that’s just what Wheeljack needs, he realized, glancing in the direction of the large sparring chamber.
True to their form, the Dinobots took some convincing, especially on the part about keeping their new mission secret. They weren’t exactly known for their stealth and Grimlock had a penchant for making everything a grand escapade so he could boast about it, but through sheer insistence (and an implication that none of the other Autobots could do it better) Chip managed to get them all outside to look for their maker.
“Where we start looking?” Slag grumbled, peering over his shoulder toward the ship’s entrance as though he was already regretting the fact that he’d left.
“All around the area,” Chip suggested, feeling surprisingly nervous. “Maybe Swoop should fly for a better view.”
“Why we look for him, Wheeljack, anyway?” Sludge questioned as Swoop transformed and took off, wheeling over their heads for a minute or two before rocketing off into the distance.
“Well…None of the other Autobots know it, but he wants to be found.”
“If him, Wheeljack, want to be found, he should stay where other Autobots can find him,” Grimlock huffed. As Sludge picked his wheelchair up for easier traveling, Chip glowered at the Dinobot leader.
“Or maybe all of the other Autobots should stay where he can find them,” he retorted. Grimlock looked puzzled for a minute before pushing past Slag and Snarl to lead the way. There was no indication that he had understood the inference, Chip noted reluctantly, but he had a feeling that as soon as they found Wheeljack, the issue would be made fairly clear. “He won’t have gone far,” he informed the mechs around him. “He’d want to stay close enough that he could drive back if Prime called about a battle.”
Barely fifteen minutes later, Swoop let out a telltale screech, circling back toward them from a distance—the furthest distance Wheeljack would have allowed himself. After looping one more time, Swoop descended, landing several yards away as the other Dinobots hurried to catch up. Chip’s nervousness grew as the scene came into view: the flyer crouching next to his creator, who sat precariously close to the edge of a deep ravine. They didn’t have to be in earshot for Chip to know Wheeljack was ranting; his audial strobes were already flashing in dark, heated colors. As they approached hearing range, Sludge returned Chip to the ground.
“…shouldn’t be this far out. What are you doing here?” Wheeljack snapped. Swoop half-straightened out of his crouch, confusion written over his entire face.
“You, Wheeljack, wanted to be found!”
“No, Swoop, I didn’t. You know Optimus wants you on a probationary period; you’re not supposed to leave the base until he tells you to.” Chuckling bitterly, Wheeljack shook his helm. “But then again, you’ve never wanted to follow Optimus’ orders; why start now?”
“You, Wheeljack, come back,” Slag ordered, mirroring the snap Wheeljack had used and drawing his attention. Looking further over his shoulder as the other mechs ventured closer, his optics narrowed.
“Oh. You all came.” Despite his frown, there might have been the slightest hint of hope in the words; his audial strobes lightened just a shade, but the Dinobots didn’t seem to notice. “Why should I come back with you?”
“Why you not?” Sludge pointed out.
“Other Autobots no good at looking for you. You safer where they can see you,” Grimlock added. Off to the side, Chip winced at his words and the amusement in them, and rightly so—it was precisely the wrong thing to say.
“Safe?!” Wheeljack echoed incredulously, his tone and volume skyrocketing. “Why would you bother making sure I’m safe?! Did someone—oh, of course someone put you up to this! You would never come on your own; you don’t care enough for that. Well, you don’t have to bother! Go without me; you always do!” The Dinobots glanced at each other in varying degrees of bewilderment and apprehension, but none of them moved as Wheeljack twisted around and reeled onto his feet, voice cracking as he spat, “Are you listening to me for once? I’m letting you go wherever you want; isn’t that what you’re after?! Just go! Aah!”
Wheeljack’s sharp, wordless cry wasn’t out of anger—in fact, it wasn’t even planned, as one of his legs had just collapsed underneath him. Swoop’s arms shot out before he could hit the ground, dragging him away from the ravine’s edge.
“You, Wheeljack, hurt!” Swoop squawked in alarm.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Wheeljack ground out, barely given the chance to squirm away before his frame seized up a second time, sending him sprawling in front of his creations. All of them watched with wide optics as the inventor clutched at his left leg, hissing painfully through his teeth.
“What happen?” Slag demanded, his tone decidedly less of a growl as he bent down and peered closer.
“It’s just some residual glitches,” Wheeljack muttered, barely looking up as the other Dinobots drew tentatively near. “Nothing to worry about.”
“If no worry, then why…” Sludge hesitated for a solid beat before gingerly nudging his forefinger against Wheeljack’s smaller hands. “Why you bleeding?”
Wheeljack had the grace to look surprised, lifting his hands from his leg and turning them over, examining the scrapes and dents. “That isn’t because of the glitch,” he admitted tensely. “I smashed some things.” Snarl made a vague noise of surprise and Wheeljack gave him a jaded glance. “Yes, I smash things too sometimes.”
“But you, Wheeljack, smarty mech,” Grimlock protested. “You make smarty things!”
Wheeljack huffed lightly, optics trailing over each of them before reaching the ground. “Well, sometimes what I make doesn’t turn out the way I thought.”
Sludge tilted his helm, not seeming entirely satisfied. “That why you smash? Why you bleed?”
“Yes. It makes me…angry…and sad…” Wheeljack explained, optics and audials dimming as he lowered his voice. “…and it makes me feel alone.” Vents hitching, he tensed again, as did the Dinobots, and finally he squeezed his optics tightly shut. “I don’t want to be alone.”
Silence swept over them suddenly, during which Chip studied the Dinobots carefully. They were sharing glances again, but these didn’t hold confusion. Instead, for the first time the human could remember, he saw a tiny spark of understanding in each gaze, optic and visor. Grimlock rumbled wordlessly for a second or two before reaching out and snatching Wheeljack from the ground, rattling another startled gasp out of him as he let him dangle in his hands by the waist.
“You, Wheeljack, not alone,” the Dinobot leader reminded him. “Me, Grimlock, and other Dinobots look for you when other Autobots don’t.”
“They no good at it,” Slag concurred bluntly.
“What he say,” Sludge piped up.
“And you, Wheeljack, always look for us,” Snarl grunted.
“So we Dinobots promise: we always look for you,” Swoop concluded, a hint of a smile crossing his face.
At that, Wheeljack blinked several times, clearly at a loss for words. At long last, inch by inch, he relaxed in Grimlock’s hold, ex-venting weakly in relief and gratitude. “Okay,” he whispered, so softly that his audials barely flickered. “I think…I’m ready to come back now.”
Just like that, the touching moment slipped away; the Dinobots took off with Wheeljack toward the Ark, all of them—but mostly Grimlock—bragging to a degree about how they had come up with the idea to search for Wheeljack when they caught on that he was missing. Unnoticed, Chip wheeled after them, shaking his head and smiling. Usually he didn’t like others taking his credit, but this was an exception he was willing to make.