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"The Ties That Bind"
by Yellow_Ideya & DragonDancer5150

Chapter 16 – With Head Held High

A friend accepts us as we are yet helps us to be what we should. – unknown

Wheeljack followed the intern – 'former' intern? what was Ratchet going to do now? – out of the shed. Now that he was thinking more clearly, he could better take in their surroundings. They were in what he thought was called a MASH unit, a mobile army surgical hospital – a small military base of mobile containers and semi-permanent structures located not far back from an active front line and meant to take combat wounded to stabilize for transport to safer, better-equipped facilities. He looked again at Ratchet. He himself had not been so badly off that he couldn't have been evacuated with most of the rest of the students, but Ratchet . . . Ratchet had. And the others – the Autobots in command of the current situation – had allowed Wheeljack to stay with his friend instead of trying to keep him out of their way. He thought he remembered the medic Evac having a lot to do with that. He made a note to find and thank him for that. And apologize. Heh, he definitely needed to apologize.

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There were a couple of Autobots outside when they stepped out, but aside from them, the area was more or less empty. It looked like they might have been towards the outskirts of the unit, set aside to make room for more important buildings. Not far away, however, there seemed to be more activity and the sound of transports was joined by the sight of one lifting off and leaving.

Ignoring the milling soldiers, Ratchet turned and headed in that direction. As they got closer, the number of Autobots increased, many with weapons on display, and the reason quickly became apparent: one of the transports that was presently being loaded had a line of shackled Decepticons waiting outside its loading doors. Ratchet stopped a safe distance away and looked at the procession, suddenly reminded of their own experience. This was different, though, right?

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Reflexively, Wheeljack tucked back a bit, suddenly stricken with the same sense of similarity. But . . . no, these weren't innocent hostages. These were enemy soldiers who had been stopped from committing atrocities. And whatever it was that awaited them at the hands of their Autobot captors, the former engineering student was certain it was kinder than anything he, Ratchet, and the others would have faced.

He took another look at the line of 'Cons. Every one of them sported evidence of damage and emergency repairs. Perhaps that was why they were only now being moved, that they'd needed medical care first? Wheeljack figured that made sense.

Wheeljack caught Ratchet's arm, giving it a light tug as he turned for another direction, anywhere but over by those Decepticons. "C-c'mon, Ratch. We should probably-!" He stopped cold at a voice calling out to him, at once terrible and too familiar.

"Hey, 'Jack! You're looking a little better. Haha, I wouldn't get too comfortable if I were you!"

Wheeljack spun around back toward the line of prisoners, his optics picking out Skystalker instantly as the other was just being brought out, struggling to free himself, from the medbay to join his fellows. With a faint squeak, Wheeljack started to tuck behind the nearest barrier – Ratchet – but then he caught himself . . . and instead shifted forward, putting himself between his tormentor and his new friend. He couldn't bring himself to say anything, but on the very remote chance the other former student actually managed to break free of his guards and come at them, he was not about to let the slagger hurt or even threaten his friend. Not again!

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Ratchet couldn't do much more than gape at the audacity of the Decepticon as he taunted Wheeljack. He was being hauled off as a prisoner of war, and he was STILL making threats? Scowling, Ratchet moved so he was standing next to Wheeljack – he wasn't letting his friend think that he needed to be defended – and pointed an angry finger at the mouthy mech.

"Real scary coming from the glitchhead in the cuffs! Don't tell me the Decepticons recruited you for your mouth!"

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At the same time, one of the guards yanked on the prisoner's arm. "Be quiet!"

"Medic's right," growled another. "Tough talk coming from a shackled patch-job."

Skystalker ignored them, leering at the two student survivors even as the guards hauled him over into line with the rest. "Good to see you too, nursie-bot. Holding off on that trip to Primus, I see. Good! Might wanna keep a close optic on your little dirt-digger friend there." The grin turned even nastier, tilting his head to indicate his captors. "Because this? Is just temporary. And then I'll be coming back for what's mine."

"That's enough out of you!" the first guard snarled, yanking again, even harder, as he wrestled the Decepticon up the ramp of the transport. Skystalker went with them, laughing.

Wheeljack had glanced at Ratchet when the other stepped up beside him, then refocused on the graduate engineer. Unlike anyone else, he knew full-well the mech's cunning. At Skystalker's words, it took everything in him not to curl back in denial and terror, trembling softly at the claim and the implied threat – the promise – of things to come. But then he thought again of the mech at his side, and he felt his resolve harden, hands closing in tight fists. Do what ya will ta me . . . but I won't let you hurt my friend!

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"The only thing you'll be coming back for is a broken face!"

Ratchet watched with no small amount of satisfaction as Skystalker was forced on board the transport and out of sight. "Slagger..." he muttered before looking over at Wheeljack. He didn't know the details about what the other mech had gone through, but he knew enough, and it just made him all the angrier about the whole situation. But that was what mechs like Skystalker and Gutcruncher wanted, right? They pushed at those buttons because it was what they were good at, and it was easier to be a thug pounding on the easy spots than having the guts to do the difficult things in life.

He gave Wheeljack a light nudge on the arm to redirect his attention. "Forget about him. He can sit and mouth off to his buddies in an Autobot holding cell until the end of time for all it matters."

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Wheeljack's attention was wholly on the transport . . . and what an overactive imagination was suddenly painting for him in his future. He really had been an idiot to think things would improve once Skystalker had left the school, hadn't he? The continued torment from others notwithstanding – he'd chalked that up to habit. After the encounter in the basement of Engineering, though, he realized just how wrong he'd been.

At the intern's nudge, Wheeljack jumped as if he'd been electrocuted. He even rubbed absently at his arm as he looked up, optics dim and pale. Wrestling his composure back into place, he nodded even as he drew a shuddery intake of air, fans rattling softly with stress. He forced more confidence into his voice than he was actually feeling. "Heh, yeah. Hey, with any luck, they'll bury him so deep in Detention, even Primus Himself'd have a hard time findin' him, yeah?"

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"A mech can only hope," Ratchet answered, moving away from the transport with Wheeljack in tow. He was done hanging around the unsettling procession. After they were out of range from the Decepticons and their Autobot handlers, he spoke up again.

"Why didn't you do anything about those scrapheads if they were harassing you?" Ratchet wasn't blind, deaf or stupid – he'd put two and two together in the short time he'd been around Wheeljack, and it didn't take much to figure out what had been happening to the engineer before now. The whole situation really scuffed his aft.

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Wheeljack followed all too readily, making himself look around at everyone and everything around him. It kept him from dwelling on what had just happened.

He flinched in mild surprise, pulled suddenly from his thoughts as he was, but couldn't say he was surprised by Ratchet's question. One foot scuffed at the ground as he vented a heavy cycle of air through his exhausts and shrugged. "What was I supposed ta do? I mean . . . I tried ta keep 'em from harassin' or hurtin' anyone else, but . . . well, for one, I knew I could take it." He snorted in self-deprecating derision. "I'm a minin' mech. We're built for punishment. An' besides, there really wasn't anythin' I could do. I wasn't even supposed ta bethere, Ratchet. The doyen owed me a favor after I helped 'im out of a scrap, but he could only cover me so far. I couldn't afford ta get in trouble or have any kinda attention brought on myself from any authorities. The attention I got as it was, was bad enough.

"People like Skystalker are untouchable - heh, wereuntouchable..." he added with a forced chuckle, glancing back in the direction of the transport. "But anyway . . . seriously, if ya think about it, who woulda gotten suspended or expelled if anythin' was brought up? The glitch with all the backin' an' who half the people are afraid'a fraggin' off, or the glitch from the aft-end of the Badlands with the faked school records an' the crank-cased ideas that keep slaggin' classrooms?" Okay, so he was exaggerating on that last . . . but so did everyone else. He dearly loved what he did, accidents and all, but he wasn't deaf to what people said about him.

He shook his head. "Easier ta just keep my head down, do what they said, take the punishments when they came, an' bide my time till they left school or I did. I just had ta outlast 'em, that's all. Once I had my degree, I could get a good position somewhere – hopefully with the Ministry of Science or somethin'! – an' then where I'd come from wouldn't matter so much. I'd have a degree an' accomplishments I could point to." He made a show of pointing at his other palm as if he had a data pad or film sheet in it. "'See? I'm worth somethin' to ya. Look what I've done so far. Just gimme a chance, an' I'll show ya what I can do for you too.'"

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Ratchet crossed his arms and listened to what his friend had to say, mulling it over as it came out of him. He couldn't empathize with Wheeljack's situation to completely understand it and maybe from where he was standing, it looked different – it was easy for a mech to stand up on high and proclaim that this is the way things should be, but he did at least know from experience that that wasn't always the way things were. Still, there had to be a difference between preaching and believing, right? He frowned at Wheeljack, staring at the mock 'data pad', then back at the former engineering student himself.

"Oh sure. Wheeljack the punching bag, that's who we want! The one who got himself up out of the mines and into Gygax and still didn't have the bearings to hold his head up to a bunch of low-RAM bullies. Definitely him. Let's stick him in the hot seat." He paused for a moment to recollect his thoughts before continuing.

"You know, you can stand there and talk about your accomplishments until your systems shut down, but how much are they gonna mean if you're still down in the scrap where you let those mechs put you?"

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The engineer recoiled at the words, taken completely off-guard. He thought Ratchet would understand!

Or maybe Ratchet did understand, and it was Wheeljack who was just fooling himself. His gaze and shoulders dropped, head hanging. "Y-yeah . . . yeah, guess you're right." But then the wording of the intern's last comment really hit him, and his head snapped back up. "Wait . . . 'let' them put me? 'Let' nothin'! I already know what scrap I am, Ratchet. I've been tryin' ta get myself outta that heap! Yeah, I took their abuse, I know that, but . . . well, fraggit, what else was I supposed ta do? If I pushed back too much, they'd just have me expelled. Skystalker knew, Ratchet! I don't know how but he did. A-an' he . . . "

The fight drained back out of him suddenly, shoulders slumping with a shrug. "I just . . . right or wrong, I didn't know what else ta do. I mean . . . I thought about goin' ta the doyen, maybe in private, but he'd already done too much for me. I couldn't involve him in that too." Not to mention that Skystalker honestly scared the living spark out of the younger engineer, but he wasn't about to admit to that.

And now the doyen was dead. He'd not been a "friend" per se, but he was someone Wheeljack owed a great deal to, had looked up to. And now he was gone. The engineer passed a hand over his face as he realized and took a moment to deal with that new point of grief before making himself shove it aside for now. He'd deal more fully later, grieving for the doyen and for all those who were just lost.

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Ratchet looked at his friend – watched him go through the motions he'd seen too many times already in the short period of time he'd known him. Reaching out, he gripped Wheeljack's arms and straightened him up, setting his shoulders and making sure his head was up and forward.

"That's what you do. Because you're not scrap. You're a smart mech. The doyen believed in you. Your professors believed in you. Slag, I believed in you enough to follow you down into those tunnels, and the mech I saw down there was one who believed in himself."

He let go of Wheeljack then and took a step back, his expression softening. "Maybe there wasn't anything you could to Skystalker... maybe you couldn't fight back; mechs like that just want to kick everyone else around because they can. And you can let him and lay around where he put you even after he's gone, or you can pick yourself back up and hold your head up because you're better than that." He punctuated the final few words with a finger to Wheeljack's chest. "The doyen knew it. I'm convinced of it. I know you want to believe it. Maybe you should start listening to that instead of the slag that comes out of the scummy tailpipes Skystalker and his goons call their mouths."

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Wheeljack flinched back on reflex when Ratchet reached to grab at him, but he made himself not pull away. Ratchet was his friend. Whatever the intern's intention, it wasn't to hurt him!

Ratchet straightened his stance, and he followed the wordless guidance in silence, gazing up at his friend quizzically by the end.

"That's what you do. Because you're not scrap..."

Wheeljack could do little more than gape up at his new friend, a little stunned. A hand brushed absently over his chest in the wake of Ratchet's poking as he took in the other's words and their meaning. It hit him that the earlier "attack" was probably Ratchet's way of making a point, not actually meaning to put him down. He felt the tension ease from the cables running through his shoulder struts, and he nodded, his voice quiet when he finally spoke.

"I . . . I do believe in myself. I know I can do it if they'll just give me a chance. I just . . . I've always had ta fight ta get that chance. An' I-I do pick myself back up after . . . but you're right." He'd pick himself up and keep going, but it was because he wanted to be 'better than that'. He'd never quite managed to convince himself that he actually was – there was always one more thing he had to do first, one more step to take to get there.

But what Ratchet was saying – what he seemed to genuinely believe – was that he already was.

They'd both said "thank you" so many times already that Wheeljack almost didn't want to say it again. It risked cheapening the words. But he didn't know what to say instead. Then, his subconscious answered before his conscious mind could - he'd stepped in and was hugging the other mech before he knew what he was doing.

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"Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born."
- Anais Nin


Author's Note: I noted at the beginning of the first chapter that this stemmed from a roleplay I was playing with a friend of mine. This is as far as we got before real life started kicking her in the teeth. That was the first part of December last year. I'd been slowly posting this, dragging it out, on the hopes that we'd be able to pick it back up sometime – there's been talk of it on and off over the past year – but it's . . . just not happened, and I'm past the point of thinking it might still. Which is fine – RL comes first, always. I've tried to write a decent ending for this myself, but I . . . I cannot do Ratchet justice. Not to follow up this with my own attempts. I know I've written Ratchet myself in other fics, but . . . I don't feel he compares to Reve's, and for this, I just have continuously failed to manage anything, so . . . I'm posting this as-is rather than not post it at all, which is the only other option.

We were pretty much done anyway. Really all we had left that we'd talked about was for the two to go find Evac and talk to him, and either offer right then to join the Autobots or at least be taken somewhere safe to try to get back on their feet…and they eventually soon after joined the Autobots anyway. There was also a possibility talked about briefly of playing a follow-up to this, where Skystalker does escape and come after them, and they get to deal with him once and for all (a la "What Goes Around" from "Partners, Friends", come to think of it, if anyone reading this is also a Yu Yu Hakusho fan). However, again, unless my friend's life settles down enough for her to have time and want to do that at this point . . . yyyyeah, I really don't see doing it, unfortunately. Just so y'all know.

Anyway, THANKS SO MUCH FOR READING! I hope you've enjoyed!