Ratchet wasn’t sure if he felt better or not that by holding Rafael back to work it meant that whatever had happened to Bumblebee had not happened to the small human child as well.
Bumblebee would have been devastated had Rafael been lost, even if it meant they were together when it happened.
However, the guilt of knowing that the two of them could have been on a harmless picnic instead, rattled the corners of his processor and rang loud and clear “If you had just—”
“It’s not your fault, Ratchet,” Rafael said, scraping out the insides of a small human container. The “chicken salad” Jack’s mother had made for Rafael and Bumblebee’s picnic had rotted to the point where they could no longer let it linger in the fridge untouched. He dumped the lid and empty container back into a sink before tying the garbage bag. “Bumblebee wouldn’t blame you.”
“I think he might,” Ratchet said. “It was clear he was upset I had borrowed you away from your outing.”
“Then you can make it up to him when he gets back,” Rafael said. He sat on the edge of the platform near Ratchet’s head, kicking his leg back and forth. He picked up his toy race car and tapped his fingers on the hood. “Because he’s coming back.”
“Of course he is,” Ratchet said. He had forgotten this part. Back in the early days, it was easy to lie to the young ones. Everyone knew when you went missing this long, the chances of returning were slim to none. Miracle cases. The inexperienced believed whole heartedly that their loved ones would make it. Medics reassured them they had a chance. Medics lied. Ratchet knew better. “You’ll have to let him have it for making us wait so long.”
“I might forgive him if his excuse is good enough,” Rafael said. He pulled his knees up and hugged the car. He reached over and patted Ratchet on the shoulder. “Bumblebee can take care of himself, and whatever he’s doing, he’ll come back. He has to. What’s three months to you guys anyway considering how long you live. Maybe he just lost track of time.”
“It’s possible,” Ratchet lied. Three months was an eternity. No contact. No ransoms. No nothing. On the off chance the Decepticons had him and didn’t kill him on sight, they would have bragged they had him by now. Making everyone wait gained them nothing in a tactical advantage. So he either ran away (unthinkable), dead (unthinkable, but probably true), or captured by a third party (unlikely). Ratchet could pray to Primus for the third all he wanted, but he was a realist. “You’ll have to ask him when he gets back.”
“You bet I will,” Rafael said. He shared a look with Ratchet, one that spoke he probably knew the truth too but had decided to keep his lie.
Ratchet missed it.
“Why don’t you go see if Jack’s mother has any new recipes for a snack or meal,” Ratchet said. “I’m sure when Bumblebee gets back he’ll want a raincheck on that picnic.”
Rafael took the hint. He got up and gave Ratchet a side hug and put his car down. “I’ll see you later to help scan the planet for signatures again this afternoon.”
“Alright,” Ratchet said.
“It’s not your fault, Ratchet,” Rafael said again, stronger this time. “It really isn’t.”
Ratchet hummed and nodded as he turned back to his monitors.
Rafael’s footsteps echoed on the metal grates as he left.
“Hey Ratchet,” Smokescreen said, walking in. His door wings flicked with each step, but the usual cheer escaped him. He stopped next to the monitors and glanced at Ratchet from the corner of his optic. “No luck today either, huh.”
“Good guess,” Ratchet said.
“Even you’re not enough of a grump to find Bee and then not tell us,” Smokescreen said, looking at the monitor.
“Do you need something?” Ratchet asked.
Rafael had once again told Ratchet (multiple times) that it was not his fault Bumblebee went missing, just because Ratchet was the one who sent him to a random location through a ground bridge and because Ratchet was unable to bring him back through one. It wore on his nerves until he snapped and yelled at the kid to leave.
Now Ratchet felt guilty about that, too.
“I’d like to say I was busy, but I’d really just like to be alone,” Ratchet said, too tired to put up a charade. “So if you don’t mind.”
“Can I talk to you?” Smokescreen asked. “If it’s just for a few minutes? I did have something I wanted to ask.”
Ratchet dimmed the monitor screen and turned to the kid. Something in his tone tugged at Ratchet’s spark. “Of course. What’s wrong?”
“You knew Knock Out right? Before the war?” Smokescreen asked. He rubbed his thumb and his lips pursed. “What sort of guy was he?”
“About the same as he is now,” Ratchet said. Just what he needed; more old memories. “Opportunistic, charismatic, and more dangerous than he looks. Why?”
“I don’t know. Last time I saw him up close, I thought he was going to rip the key out of my chest, but he just used the phase shifter and made a joke,” Smokescreen said. He dropped his arms and tilted his head. “He struck me as the kinda guy who didn’t go out of his way to be cruel, but still did bad things. Which means if push came to shove, and I say, got trapped with the guy somewhere, he probably wouldn’t immediately stab me in the back, right?”
“I suppose that sounds accurate,” Ratchet said. Though usually that was because going out of his way to be cruel would take extra effort that would get in the way of vanity, but that was an aside. Ratchet clicked off the monitor, aware of the silence in the small hanger with Optimus and the others already having turned in. “Why are you asking about Knock Out?”
“So, I uh,” Smokescreen said, lowering his voice. He stepped closer to Ratchet and glanced over his shoulder. “Might have been investigating what happened to Bumblebee on my own. Listening in on conversations with the Vehicons, and stuff like that.”
“Oh?” Ratchet asked, his processor trying to figure out when Smokescreen could have even done such a thing. No one had gone out unless they were in pairs. “When?”
“At night,” Smokescreen said, shrinking down. “I’ve been uh, using the space bridge and turning off the warnings to keep it from waking you up.”
Ratchet restrained himself from yelling. The fury was so great it had calmed him. “Did you now. And how did you get back?”
“I set timers?” Smokescreen said, wincing. “Like, I set it to open a certain amount of time after I was dropped off. I was really good about making it back before anyone else saw them.”
“Then you deleted the logs,” Ratchet said, glaring at the log screen. Not a single mention of any night trips once everything was shut down for the night. “Smart, but I’m still going to disconnect your engine and leave you grounded for the rest of your life.”
“Hey! Hey!” Smokescreen said, holding his arms up. He kept his voice hushed, but the panic was real and sneaking out. “Can I at least tell you what I found out first? I’m telling you now, right?”
Ratchet almost said no. That brat kid was going to get himself killed like Bumblebee and Ratchet wouldn’t be able to take it. Not two kids. Not this close together. He was going to tie Smokescreen down to a block and lock him in the base after this.
But for now:
“I’m listening,” Ratchet said.
“Great, great,” Smokescreen said, lowering his arms. He flicked his wings up and down and rubbed the back of his neck joints. “Thanks.”
“Okay! Jeez, so I started spying on the Vehicons at Energon mines and patrols, because they like to chatter and stuff, you would not even believe the gossip. And the more I heard, I started figuring some things out, but I didn’t want to tell anyone until I was absolutely sure,” Smokescreen said. “Optimus and Raf are devastated enough, and I didn’t want to get their hopes up if I was wrong.”
“You still should have told someone,” Ratchet hissed, unable to hold it in. He put his hands on the console and cycled his air intakes. “Going off alone to spy like that is dangerous right now.”
“Are you going to listen or not?” Smokescreen huffed.
“Talk,” Ratchet said.
“Knock Out’s missing, too,” Smokescreen said. He almost looked excited, holding his hands up into fists. “I’m sure of it.”
“What?” Ratchet asked.
“The rumor mill is saying he went missing in the same energon mine explosion we last saw Bee at,” Smokescreen said. “No one’s seen Knock Out since then. They think he’s dead, but there wasn’t a body. Same as us with Bee.”
“You don’t say,” Ratchet said, giving Smokescreen a tad more credit. It seems he was just looking for what happened, not Bumblebee himself. Still no excuse for his reckless trips out of the base alone, but understandable. “Whatever took Bumblebee from us must have also taken Knock Out, but who would want to hurt both sides?”
“What if they’re just somewhere together?” Smokescreen asked. He lowered his voice again. “Ratchet. Think about it. If the ‘Cons killed Bumblebee, they would have held it over us. They would have said something. They wouldn’t be able to help themselves.”
“Sometimes it’s best to let people suffer in not knowing what happens,” Ratchet muttered. While Smokescreen had a point, it also depended on who killed him. If it had been Soundwave or Shockwave, he doubted they would have cared enough to report killing a scout. Starscream or Knock Out on the other hand? Ratchet conceded the point: “But it’s a possibility.”
“But more importantly, their doctor is missing,” Smokescreen said, not noticing Ratchet’s twitch at the word “Doctor.” The young racer continued on, “Don’t you think they’d be banging down our doors asking for him by now? Because they’d know we wouldn’t have killed him and kept the body. That’s creepy.”
“Another point,” Ratchet said. He touched the side of his head and stared at the floor. “But that still doesn’t explain where Bumblebee or Knock Out went, if they even are still alive somewhere.”
“I thought at first maybe the humans got them,” Smokescreen said, he flicked his wings again. “But I checked there, too. Vehicons aren’t the only ones who like to gossip on radio waves and comm channels.”
“You’ve been busy,” Ratchet said. He didn’t even know Smokescreen knew how to listen in on those channels.
“I’ve had three months,” Smokescreen said, something cold flashing in his eyes that Ratchet didn’t like. It went away just as fast, replaced with a childish pout. “And not much else to do.”
Ratchet flinched. That was also regrettably true. Optimus avoided him (not intentionally, but he did) due to his age and similarity to Bumblebee, and the others never quite got along with him alone. Everyone had curled in on themselves, Ratchet included.
“That’s not your fault, either,” Smokescreen said, nudging him with an elbow.
“You’ve been talking to Rafael,” Ratchet said.
“Didn’t need to,” Smokescreen said. He flicked his wings again and smiled a bit. “I think we just got some hope, Ratchet. One mech missing is a tragedy, two means conspiracy. I’d bet every last credit I have that they’re together somewhere, trying to get out of whatever trouble they’re in.”
Ratchet didn’t dare hope just yet.
“And I never make a bet I can’t lose,” Smokescreen said, looking back at the monitors. “Just you watch. We’re going to find them, Ratchet. I know it.”
But he might let Smokescreen.
“What do you have there, Rafael?” Ratchet asked, watching as the small boy shoved some containers into the fridge. “Are those from June?”
“Yup!” Rafael said. He held up a tub and grinned. “More chicken salad for when Bee and I have our picnic.”
“Rafael,” Ratchet said, softly. “Maybe you should eat it now instead of saving it. It’ll probably be rotten again by the time Bumblebee returns.”
His spark didn’t hurt as much saying it this time; it was a half lie. Perhaps he’d listened to Smokescreen more than he’d thought last night.
“Then I guess it’ll go rotten,” Rafael said. He shrugged and closed the fridge door. “June said she’ll make as much as I want and Bumblebee can pay her back. The deal was me, Bee, a picnic and trying June’s chicken salad for the first time. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
“You’re going to go through a lot of rotten chicken salad that way,” Ratchet said. “Seems like a waste.”
“Waiting for Bee to get back isn’t a waste,” Rafael said. He tapped over to the computer console and hopped down on the controls. “No matter how much rotten chicken salad we go through.”
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Smokescreen said. He used a finger to ruffle Rafael’s hair and grinned. “Right, Ratchet? I bet we won’t go through as much chicken salad as you think.”
“I don’t make bets I’m not sure about,” Ratchet said. “Unlike someone else.”
“Then I’ll make the bet,” Smokescreen said. He put his hands on his hips and flicked his wings. “We’re going to find Bumblebee and Knock Out, drag them back, and force them to go to a picnic.”
Ratchet choked a small laugh at the sight; catching himself, he touched his chest. Hope. That’s what that was.
“Did you say Knock Out?” Rafael asked.
Smokescreen and Ratchet both jerked.
Right. Ratchet hadn’t told anyone about Smokescreen’s little scouting missions in the dead of the night alone.
“Gotta’ go!” Smokescreen said, holding a hand up. “See you later!”
“Smokescreen!” Ratchet yelled. “Don’t you run away!”
The race car screamed out of the base door and Ratchet shook his head.
What was he going to do with them all?