He, in his years of existence, had never stood on his own before.
It was that blasted Management Rail. Leave it to the engineers who built him to give him legs and then forbid him from using them. He was stuck sitting on that dreadful raised platform, left to stare at his legs dangling over the edge while he held on to one of the Aperture Science Regulation Handles on either side of his head. The most he got to do was raise his legs if the platform skirted too close to something below.
And he was plugged into this thing, so really, it was not up to him to decide whether or not he should participate in a bit of scientific discovery involving his human-but-not-really-since-the-skin-was-synthetic appendages. The useless ones. That was a particular kind of torture, to be given the means of freedom, only to be told one's death would result from making use of them.
He and Chell resembled each other somewhat; as much as Wheatley refused to be called a "human," he was built like one. Humans, it was said, trusted robots that looked humanoid.
But, well…who could trust him when he was bloody useless, thanks to this rail?
He related all this in a two-minute time period to Chell, who had been following him below.
Just as he was about to go into the details of how his earlier prototypes were feared and reviled by humans who claimed the robots were too lifelike to be real, Chell stopped below him and stretched out her arms.
Wheatley had become skilled at reading Chell's body language, mostly out of necessity since the poor girl was too brain damaged to speak. Really, he was built to help, so out of the goodness of his heart, he decided to reward her efforts with a response.
"It's appreciated, your effort, I mean. But it's rather hard to hug you from up here."
Her usual frown returned. Chell shook her head and extended her arms further.
"If you really want, there should be a stepladder around here."
She rolled her eyes. He rarely made mistakes, but perhaps he was having an off day.
She placed a hand on the back of her neck, made a pulling motion, then jumped once into the air. Then she pointed to him and to the ground before extending her arms outwards again.
Wheatley's synthetic eyebrows knitted together. "I don't follow."
Chell bowed her head forward; he heard a sharp puff of air escape her. Just when Wheatley was about to ask if she was deflating (Did humans deflate? He had read that somewhere), she slid her ponytail out of the way and pointed to the back of her neck.
Oh, now, this was confusing. Wheatley made to rub the back of his neck.
His fingers brushed against the large black cord there, the main one that connected him to his Management Rail.
"Ah!" Wheatley's exclamation of surprise caused Chell to look back at him. He indicated the large cord. "Is this what you mean?"
"And…what do you want me to do with it?"
She wrapped her fingers around an imaginary cord and repeated the pulling motion.
"You want me to pull the cord out? Is that it?"
She clapped her hands together slowly. He couldn't tell if that was meant to be genuine, since he didn't see her smile while she did it. Oh, well, a congratulations was a congratulations.
Wheatley felt a jolt of synthetic fear go through him. This human wanted him to unplug himself; did there not exist one human who didn't want him to die or become useless somehow? Well, maybe the engineers. At least they had had the courtesy to tell him that if he unplugged himself from the Management Rail (in other words, if he followed Chell's directions), he would die. That bit of information made him almost forgive them for teasing him with legs.
He turned from Chell and crossed his arms. "No, no, no. Can't do that, love. Sorry!" He shook his head. "I am never, ever, ever unplugging myself from my Management Rail. We'll need to think of some other idea."
As much as he wanted to walk, he preferred sitting and being useless to dying.
He expected Chell would throw something at him, or shoot a portal where he sat on the platform and unplug him by force, or at least stomp her feet like some of the younger humans liked to do when they didn't get their way.
Wheatley was met with silence on her end, until he heard the clicking of her Aperture Science Long-Fall Boots on the tile. He turned around.
She was below him with her arms spread. Chell was staring up at him, a smile playing on the edges of her mouth. The longer he stared, the farther she extended her arms towards him, and the more the smile threatened to break free.
"You want to…" Wheatley suddenly and inexplicably found himself speechless at the sight of her eyes lighting up with a laughter she was unable to express any other way. He found himself slowly uncrossing his arms. "You want to hug me again? You can't reach. We established this, haven't we? Earlier, I mean."
Chell repeated her earlier motions.
The unplugging bit. Yes, he got that.
She pointed to him and jumped once. If she wanted him to unplug himself, then the jumping probably referred to him leaving his Management Rail's platform, and…
She extended her arms towards him.
"You want to catch me?"
Since when had anyone wanted to catch him? Since when had anyone wanted to touch him since they've put him on this rail? God knew he never did get the routine check-ups the other Aperture Science robots received. He was just…left there.
But now Chell was smiling at him, and his programming, the same programming that made his wiring spark a bit whenever he saw her smiling, stated that it was most likely a very good idea to smile back.
And he wanted to. So he did.
"Alright. But if I'm dying, it's your fault."
Chell exhaled and nodded, but she didn't look like she meant it. This was serious stuff, this dying business! She shouldn't be so flippant about it, really.
But before he had any time to think about it, he disconnected himself and pushed himself off his platform.
The next thing he knew, he was sprawled out on the floor with Chell squashed underneath him. He didn't think he was very heavy, or much bigger than her, but he felt squirming underneath him and realized she was trying to get out from under him.
"You caught me!" He rolled off her and let her regain her bearings. "And I'm not dead!"
The air had been knocked out of him (so to speak), but he was fine. He had mass, so he wasn't a ghost. Chell seemed to be listening to him while she stumbled to her feet. He was still present. He hadn't died, after all.
He had disobeyed Aperture Science's orders, and he was still alive.
"This is wonderful!" he laughed. "And I can stand, too! Look! Watch me do it. You know, this is quite momentous. I've never ever stood. Now that I'm off my rail, I can go wherever I want with my legs. Just like you! We're both free as anything, aren't we? Here, watch me stand. Not going to bump my head on a rail, now, or lose my balance and unplug myself from anything. Standing…like a normal person…can…"
As Wheatley spoke, he began to rise to his feet.
And he promptly fell.
Chell had already stood up again and had steadied herself against a nearby wall to watch him try and stand. When he looked to her, she was shaking with silent laughter, one hand placed over her mouth. It was useless, since no sound would come out, were she to try laughing, but the effect was there, and it was humiliating.
Wheatley felt frustration and anger bubbling up within him. This was a great achievement for him, and all she could do was laugh at him. It wasn't his fault that he couldn't get this right on the first try.
"Oh, you think this is funny? I'm having a grand old time and you're just laughing at me."
Her silent giggles slowly subsided, and she shook her head.
"As if you were able to walk on your first go. I'm going to try again, and this time, I'm sure I'll-ah!"
There he was, on his bottom again, and she was laughing at him harder than ever. Before he could respond, Chell moved towards him and put an arm around his shoulders.
He shied away from her touch, as if that could lessen the jolt that went through him when she touched him. "No, I can do this…don't need any help, thanks."
He started to rise up. Chell put her arm around him again, and, through his protests, supported himself as he shakily balanced on his two feet.
Wheatley felt a surge of pride. She had helped him up, so he hadn't done the entire getting up part all on his own, but when she moved away, he found that the wobbling stopped, he steadied, and…
There it was! He was standing!
"I'd dance around the room, but…"
Wheatley had watched her walk, but when he tried to take a step forward, he found himself losing his balance again. He was just like an infant, he thought to himself as he threw his arms forward in an effort to steady himself, trying to walk for the first time. Except…he was rather large for an infant, wasn't he?
It wasn't totally apparent when he was on his Management Rail, but Chell was so much smaller than him. He wasn't sure if it was him who was massive when she was normally-sized, or her who was tiny when he was of an ordinary height, and he couldn't remember what size the engineers were, but the difference was there.
He stared at his feet on the floor.
"Why are you so small? Hmmm? Know the answer to that one at all?" His legs were shaking as he took his next step. It held. He was getting good at this! "Because, uh…you don't even come up to my shoulders. It's kind of endearing, really. Compared to this whole facility, we're both small." Next step. Still standing. "But you're the smaller one."
Wheatley finally looked up from his feet long enough to see that Chell was staring at him. One eyebrow was raised, and the corner of her mouth was upturned, and her arms were crossed…that didn't look too good.
"No hard feelings, love. Just an observation, you know."
He straightened up. "We're in Aperture Science! We may as well behave like scientists, right!" Never mind the wobbling. He looked pretty professional when he drew himself up like that, he thought.
Until he fell down again.
He felt an arm around his shoulder and a hand on his lower back beginning to push him up again.
"No, thanks. I'm an expert on this walking thing, I don't need-oh."
Wheatley fell silent. Chell had slipped her right hand in his, and was squeezing it gently.
The emotion simulators in him were working too well: he felt his face growing hot, and every time he tried to talk, he stuttered. Robots weren't supposed to feel like this, shy and at a loss for words. Robots weren't supposed to feel all fluttery with every little squeeze a human girl gave their hand, and robots weren't supposed to feel warmth and a bit of a shock where said human girl placed their left hand on their back and pushed to allow them to take their next step (their third successful one, their third of all time) without losing their balance. For a moment, Wheatley thought he was malfunctioning.
But Chell placed her cheek on his right forearm and braced her body against him. Her left hand moved to his waist and pressed.
Wheatley, still unable to think straight, leaned against her.
"This works, too, I think," he said, and his voice was so much quieter.
He felt the muscles in her face shift from where it was pressed against his sleeve, and though he was focused on making sure his next steps were steady and he wasn't bringing them both down, he knew she was smiling at him.
Hesitantly, he put his left arm towards her and grabbed her right waist to brace himself. Their steps increased in speed, if only by a fraction, now that he was balancing properly. They took small, slow steps in a lazy circle around the room.
"You know, I'm so glad we're walking together," he said finally, his mind starting to work properly now that the initial shock of her touch was being replaced by a small warmth somewhere deep inside his circuitry. "Now we're more like a team, eh? Walking…no rail telling us where we have to go…both of us, standing on our own two feet, together. Brilliant."
Chell looked up at him. He smiled down at her.
"We can just…can we stay like this? I mean, you have to test, and…and we won't get anywhere very quickly."
Her hand withdrew from his waist, and she drew away.
"No, don't! Please."
But Chell was already away from him.
"Did I offend you? Very sorry about that." He moved towards her. "But that was very nice, you know. Whatever it is, I won't do it again. Please?"
With a smile, she pointed to his feet. Wheatley blinked and followed her outstretched finger.
He was balancing, and she wasn't there, helping him along. Without realizing it, he had cleared several steps across the room.
Nervous laughter welled up in his throat. "I'm standing."
She shook her head and latched onto his arm again.
Finally, he understood what she was referring to. He may be relying on his own (he must admit, extensive) skill to stand, but she was still there, and she always would be.
"Can we still…?"
Chell led the way out of the room.