Disclaimer: I do not own Transformers. If I did, then none of them would have been permanently off-lined in TF:TM. Y'all get to blame Hasbro for that little bit of emotional scarring. ;)
Three Iron Bands
"A rumor without a leg to stand on will get around some other way."
- John Tudor
//: Location: Iacon, Cybertron…//
Wheeljack took a sip of energon, leaning back in his chair. It was a new chair, recently requisitioned from Autobot HQ. Bits of its predecessor were still lodged in the workshop ceiling. The engineer tipped his head back, considering a piece of the shrapnel and mulling over the days' events in his head. It had been an odd day – very odd.
It had all begun with a call from the new Prime. Wheeljack hadn't met him yet, and was admittedly surprised to find that his reputation as Cybertron's most gifted – and frequently explosive – engineer had reached the audios of the biggest mech in town. A wry smile tugged at Wheeljack's lips. If only he had known that "biggest mech" held more truth than any title ever could. The 'bot was big. Really big. What a surprise it was, to walk into the newly established headquarters and meet the Prime. When the red and blue stood up to shake the engineer's hand he seemed to unfold forever; it boggled Wheeljack's processors to think that all that bulk had been tucked away behind a desk that now seemed dwarfed by comparison.
He actually flinched, headfins flickering uncertainly, when the Prime came around said desk and warmly clasped both of the engineer's hands in his own large, blue ones. Wheeljack nearly cringed, expecting a crunch and squeal of metal crushing metal at any moment, but the Prime's handshake was – while firm, as a leader's should be – surprisingly gentle for his size.
"Wheeljack. It's good to finally meet you," the Prime said, a smile evident in his rich, deep voice. He studied the mech before him, taking in the odd design. Fin-like protrusions from the side of his helm flashed when he spoke; strangely static door-wings stuck straight up from his back; his build was stocky, as if he'd been created with the purpose of lifting heavy components in mind, but his hands – while large – were also dexterous, obviously capable of the most delicate of tasks. Truly, he was one of a kind.
"My designation is Optimus Prime. I have a favor to ask you." Straight to business, no beating around the bunker; Wheeljack decided that he liked this new Prime.
Optimus moved back around his desk, gesturing to a chair placed in front of it before settling down into his own seat. It was a well-loved – or possibly abused, depending on which way one looked at it – chair that the Prime occupied. It looked as if it had been a part of the mech's life for a very, very long time.
Oh, the stories that chair could probably tell, Wheeljack thought to himself with an inward chuckle, sitting.
"What kind of favor are we talking about, here?" he asked, eyeing Optimus with keen optics. He wasn't about to be roped into the service, no siree. He might live in Iacon, but he wasn't a fighter.
Optimus Prime leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk and steepling his fingers thoughtfully. It was as if he was reading Wheeljack's processor. The thought made the engineer nervous. He fidgeted a bit, wondering just what was going through Optimus' mind.
After a moment of silence in which the large red and blue mech treated the engineer to one of his to-be-patented long stares, Prime sat back again with a sigh. He'd heard every rumor in the mill about the white mech sitting before him, from the rumors of frequent explosions in his workshop to tales of awe-inspiring inventions that could better life for the entirety of Cybertron. It was only natural that the fact of Wheeljack's neutrality in the recent civil war had reached his audios, too. If it were up to Optimus – truly up to him – Wheeljack would have been left alone to his own devices indefinitely; unfortunately, they needed him.
"The favor I ask of you is great," he said after a while, voice solemn. "I wouldn't ask it if the situation were otherwise, but –"
Optimus blinked. No? But he hadn't even posed his question yet!
The tables of the processor-reading game appeared to have turned. "I'm not choosing any side in this Primus-damned war," Wheeljack said flatly. "I'm a neutral, and I'm staying that way."
"Yet you live in Iacon," Prime replied evenly.
Wheeljack shrugged one shoulder, mouth twisting down in a dismissive grimace. "Workshop's here."
"Under Autobot protection," Prime tried.
"I never said I wouldn't sell ya anything I build that might be of use, did I?"
"Sell it to us?" Optimus was incredulous. Apparently the rumormongers had forgotten to mention how stubborn this mech was! Didn't he see that there were no neutrals in this war? Certainly, he could claim neutrality for a while, and the Autobots would leave him alone, but if the Decepticons caught wind of his talents he was as good as drafted!
Wheeljack was giving him a flat look that said clearly that, while he was content to sit here and say no all day, he did in fact have better things to do. It was all Prime could do to stop himself from lunging across the desk, grabbing the silly little engineer's shoulders, and attempting to shake some sense into him.
Optimus reigned in his annoyance – a task that he would find more and more difficult over the years due to trials as yet unimagined – and shrugged one massive shoulder. "If that's how you wish it to be. However… I warn you that the Decepticons will not give you a choice."
Decepticons, Decepticons; that was all Wheeljack was hearing these days. Decepticons this; Decepticons that. Oh, did you hear about the slums? The Decepticons bombed those. Yup. For sure. What? Why? Well, I don't know. For the hell of it, I suppose. They're Decepticons.
He rolled his optics towards the ceiling – nice ceiling, no holes – and made a face. "Begging your pardon, sir, but they'd have to catch me first."
"Fast, are you?"
"Not as such, no. But I know every access tunnel and power conduit line in Iacon like the back of my hand. And most of the by-ways that have been built over, over the vorns," Wheeljack replied. His mouth twitched in a smirk. "Besides, I have enough explosives in my workshop to play merry hell with anyone that has the ball bearings to follow me."
This one had spark. Perhaps a bit too much, Optimus thought. Overconfidence could get a mech killed, these days. In any case, it seemed that Wheeljack's processor was set; he wouldn't be joining the Autobot cause any time soon. A pity – he would have been quite the asset.
"Alright, Wheeljack. Consider yourself a free mech," Optimus said without a hint of bitterness. He waved a hand towards the door. "I'm sure you have more important things to do than sit around here all day." As he said it a smile crept into his optics and his vocals, taking the sting out of the words.
A lopsided grin was Wheeljack's response as he stood to leave. "For what it's worth, Prime, you're going to be a great leader. Compassionate, yeah? Don't lose that."
Optimus paused, halfway out of his seat. He had been preparing to escort the engineer out of headquarters himself when something made him stop, processor whirring as an idea began to form. Perhaps some good could come of this meeting, yet.
The engineer froze, turning slowly with a look of trepidation etching his features, headfins dimming to a dull glow. He hoped that the Autobot commander hadn't changed his mind about simply letting him remain a neutral in the war. Did Autobots practice drafting? He didn't think so, but there were rumors. There were always rumors.
"Actually, I have another small favor to ask," Prime said, plunging ahead before Wheeljack had a chance to respond. "I would very much appreciate it if you would take a few of our new recruits under your wing, so to speak. They show promise in various scientific fields, but they need training. If we can't have you on our team, at least allow us to have engineers trained by you."
Silence reigned in the office once again as Wheeljack mulled over the offer. His workshop was a dangerous place; then again, these were young soldiers Optimus was talking about. Even if they specialized in the sciences, they were still trained in combat. Better to learn to avoid explosions at all costs in an environment near a body shop than out on a battlefield.
Besides that, he could really use some extra help with some of his latest projects.
He eyed Optimus, noting the hopeful look in the other mech's optics. His expression seemed to take vorns off his finish, and Wheeljack realized with some shock that this big red and blue mech, commander of an army and Prime of Cybertron, wasn't many vorns older than himself. That realization in itself was enough to give him pause, but then a further realization struck him: how hard must it be, to be so young and have so many burdens?
A rush of sympathy hit him and it was mostly this newfound understanding of the Autobot commander that pushed Wheeljack to say what he said next.
"…Oh, alright. But I want a new chair."
Wheeljack took another sip of energon. Yes, it had been a very odd day indeed. He had been assigned three recruits to mentor. He felt vaguely nervous when he though about meeting them next solar cycle. Vaguely nervous… and a little excited. He had never taught before – he could only hope that he would meet their expectations. He hoped to learn as much from his three students as they learned from him. Being a naturally gregarious mech, he was certain that they would all get along fine. He settled farther back into the brand-new, unexploded chair with a contented sigh.
A pneumatic hiss told the engineer that he had a visitor. He never bothered to lock his workshop. A part of him felt that if he did, he might as well just pick a side in this thrice-damned war. His gaze shifted from the shrapnel in the ceiling to the mech standing in the doorway, grinning like a loon. The boxy white form was familiar, and quite welcome. As the mech moved further into the workshop the light shone off of the red crosses on his shoulders, making them seem to glow in the dim room.
"Heya, Ratch. What's up?" Wheeljack called, a friendly smile lighting his face.
"Just blew in from the body shop," the medic replied with a wink. "Not too bad today. The Decepticons have been quiet."
"You and I both know that that's never a good thing," Wheeljack replied dryly. He took a deep swig of energon, mood suddenly foul. He didn't want to talk about the war tonight. He didn't want to talk about it at all, for that matter.
Unfortunately, while Ratchet's berthside manner was something every other medic in his class envied, he was sometimes a little slow on the uptake – especially when he'd had a good day without too many young mechs and femmes to rebuild. He pulled up a box and perched on the edge, eyeing Wheeljack thoughtfully.
"So… heard you went to see the new Prime today."
"Yeah," Wheeljack replied shortly. Ratchet continued to stare at him, obviously expecting more. After a while he rolled his optics, deciding that the engineer needed some more prompting.
"He was big."
"Yeah, I know. What did he want to see you for?" Ratchet was beginning to become exasperated. Still, his curiosity would not be left unsatisfied.
Wheeljack sighed. Oh, Primus, what he wouldn't give for a different friend some days. "He wanted me to join up," he replied flatly, stubbornly refusing to give Ratchet the details he so desperately wanted. He threw the new Autobot insignia on the medic's chest an acidic glance.
"That's all," Ratchet said flatly. That couldn't be it; if that was everything that had happened then he was a glitchmouse. There was more to it, there had to be – why else had Wheeljack's oh-so-expressive headfins been practically lighting the room all by their lonesome?
A little glimmer of the nervous excitement he'd felt earlier tickled Wheeljack's spark. "I said no. Now he wants me to teach," he said, a little of his good humor returning. A smile teased at the corners of his mouth. "I said yes."
The medic looked dumbfounded. "You. Teaching."
"Yes, Ratch. Me. Teaching."
"Well, I suppose as long as you don't blow your students to bits…"
"That's why I've got you right around the corner, healer."
"Slag. I knew taking that oath was a mistake."
They stared at each other for a moment, both wearing goofy grins on their faces, and then broke into uncontrollable peals of laughter. It was one of the last times, in the hectic, tragic orns that followed, that they'd ever laugh so hard.