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If Language Were Liquid

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Ratchet snaps his head up as the Bridge activates and Bumblebee comes hurtling through at full speed. Something must be very wrong—there’s no visit scheduled for today, and Bumblebee didn’t call ahead.

Bumblebee transforms jerkily into root mode, clutching frantically at his throat. Ratchet moves as quickly as he can, grabbing a scanner as he passes a work desk. He puts his hand on Bumblebee’s shoulder, and does his best to radiate practiced medic calm.

“What’s wrong?”

“My—my voi-ce b-b-b—my voice— h-help,” Bumblebee says.

“It’s alright, Bumblebee,” Ratchet says. “You probably just overtaxed it. Turn it off for now, alright?”

“No, n-no—Ratchet, I can’t—can’t—can’t—“

“Bumblebee, please, turn it off before you damage yourself again!”

With a strangled gasp, Bumblebee lapses into silence. After a moment, he starts whirring, growing louder and softer in a wave. 

“That’s it, Bumblebee, nice and slow,” Ratchet says.

They run through a few exercises, meaningless noises to help make the switch from speech to pure info-vocalization.

“[Expression severe distress],” Bumblebee says, once he’s fully calibrated. “Ratchet [medic teammate savior closest friend], I [self scout warrior] don’t want to go back to this again [negative emotional declaration reference past]. Please [informal request distress], it’s not permanent, is it [informal query emotional plea distress]?”

“No, no, it’s not permanent,” Ratchet says. “It might not even be an issue with your voice box at all. You’ve been without a voice box for a long time. It could be that your processor overwrote some speech code.”

“When can I [self scout warrior] turn it [reference voice box reference unspecified time] back on [informal query hope worry]?”

“We should wait until I’ve properly examined you.”

“[Expression dismay anger undeserving],” Bumblebee says. He touches his throat again, then clenches his fist and looks at the ground.

“I know, Bumblebee,” Ratchet says. He feels very tired. “I know.”

“Bumblebee?”

Oh. Ratchet had forgotten Rafael was here. He still isn’t used to weekends.

“Hi [informal close greeting], Raf [alien small human closest friend partner shortname].”

“Hi, Bee,” Rafael says. “Is everything okay?”

“No [negative emotional declaration], I [self scout warrior] managed to break myself [self scout warrior damage declaration emphasis anger]. Again [reference past present emphasis anger regret].”

“Don’t scare him, Bumblebee,” Ratchet says. He turns to Rafael. “Bumblebee hasn’t broken anything. He just needs to give his voice box a rest.”

“Oh, okay.” Rafael smiles, but Ratchet can see he’s still worried. He turns to Ratchet. “I can come back, if you two are busy.”

“Oh, I forgot, you’re here for your lesson, aren’t you?”

“Lesson [informal query reference event]? What lesson [informal query reference unknown event]?”

“Ratchet’s been teaching me all sorts of things about Cybertron,” Rafael says.

“You’re welcome to join us, Bumblebee,” Ratchet says. “You’re already on Earth, might as well stay a while.”

“Well [expression indecision]...let me [self scout warrior] check in with the others [confirm self status group Autobot team closest friends friends allies] to let them [group Autobot team closest friends friends allies] know I’m [self scout warrior] okay [self status normal damaged].”

Bumblebee,” Ratchet says. “I told you, you’re not broken!”

“[Expression understanding disregard annoyance].”

Ratchet throws his hands up. The things he has to deal with, he swears to Primus. “Fine! Why bother listening to me, I’m only a medic.”

Bumblebee sighs. “Sorry [informal apology regret].”

“It’s fine, Bumblebee,” Ratchet says. It’s not like he doesn’t understand. 

This is Ratchet’s fault on more than one level. He should’ve prepared Bumblebee for the possibility of something like this happening. If he was a better medic, he would’ve made Bumblebee go slower back when he first got his voice back, really. But he was so happy. It had been so long since Ratchet had seen him that way. He just didn’t have the spark. 

While Bumblebee connects to the trans-spatial signal (which they just recently managed to get working), Ratchet takes the opportunity to examine his voice box. As he suspected, there’s no damage. It’s a bit warmer to the touch than it should be, but Ratchet is fairly confident that can be attributed to Bumblebee’s panic earlier, and not an injury or virus.

“You can close your throat panel now,” Ratchet says. “Everything looked normal. You should wait about a day before you turn it on, though, just to be safe.”

Bumblebee disconnects from the signal and nods at Ratchet. He still looks dejected, but he bounces back quickly enough.

“All good [status normal emotional declaration reassurance reference group self],” Bumblebee says, holding out a hand to Rafael. “So [expression curiosity], what’s today’s lesson [informal query reference event lesson reference present curiosity]?”

“Ratchet’s going to teach me about designations!” Rafael says. He climbs onto Bumblebee’s hand and sits, kicking his legs back and forth.

“Isn’t that kinda basic [informal query observation reference event lesson complexity low curious confusion]?” 

“For Cybertronians, it would be, but Rafael here is no Cybertronian,” Ratchet says. “He can’t use info-vocalization, or even hear it unless it’s turned up. Anyway, I’ve been focusing on medical training and Bridge engineering, for practicality’s sake.”

“Mmhmm,” Rafael says. “We do a bit of everything, though. History, science, geography...I think I know more about Cybertron’s politics than I do about Earth’s.”

Bumblebee laughs. “[Expression mirth fondness], that sounds like Ratchet [medic teammate savior closest friend] alright [observation reference behavior fond teasing].”

“Well, he still has a lot to learn!” Ratchet claps his hands together. “Are you two ready?”

“Yes, Ratchet!”

“Yes [affirmation eager] Ratchet [medic scholar teammate savior closest friend teacher]!”

Flatterer. Ratchet turns up his subvocals to a level audible to Rafael’s human hearing.

“Now then. Designations, like [scout warrior teammate closest friend] or [self medic Autobot], go in order of oldest title to newest, and from personal to relationship.”

“Whoa,” Rafael says. “It’s weird hearing you sound like Bumblebee. Except—it’s not exactly the same. Is it like that for everyone?”

“Subvocals don’t have the same variety as voices do, but different people info-vocalize differently. You’d never hear Ultra Magnus go—“

“[Expression excitement victory relaxed],” Bumblebee says, in a way that resembles a revving engine. Ratchet’s heard that one many times before—it’s what Bumblebee says when winning a video game.

“Exactly. He probably wouldn’t use that [expression] at all, but if he did, it would most likely sound closer to [expression excitement victory relaxed].” He keeps his info-vocalization smooth and even, drawing it out longer than Bumblebee did.

“Wow,” Rafael says. “That’s so cool. I understood what you said just as well as Bee, but it sounded so different!”

“Yes, Bumblebee tends to be more...varied in tone than most, and much faster, but every Cybertronian’s info-vocalization style is influenced by their personality, among other things. Not to mention, pitch range can be different, too, so even if I copied Bumblebee’s patterns we wouldn’t sound quite the same.”

“That’s so cool,” Rafael says again. “Sorry for derailing the lesson, Ratchet. You said...oldest to newest, right?”

“Oldest to newest, personal to relationship. That might be a little abstract for you—take my designation, Ratchet [self medic Autobot]. [Self] always comes first when you talk about yourself, because that’s the first thing you ever are, understand?”

“Yep! That’s kinda nice, actually.”

“It’s one of the beauties of Cybertronian. [Medic] is self explanatory. I’m a medic. It comes before [Autobot] because I was a medic before I joined the Autobots.”

“That makes sense,” Rafael says. “But Bee calls you something else, doesn’t he? I get why he wouldn’t call you self, but what about all the other stuff?”

“...Well.” Ratchet coughs. He doesn’t really want to discuss Bumblebee’s designation for him, much less do it with him in the room. “That’s where the personal-to-relationship part comes in. My designation for Bumblebee is Bumblebee [scout warrior teammate close friend]. [Scout warrior] comes first, and then I put what he is to me, [teammate closest friend]. [Teammate closest friend] has been part of my designation for him for longer than he’s had [warrior], but it takes precedence.”

“Okay, I think I get it now,” Rafael says. “What about when he called you a scholar and a teacher, though? He put scholar right after medic, but teacher was the very last.”

Bumblebee buzzes a laugh.

“Both of those were joking titles,” Ratchet says, “But they follow the pattern too. [Scholar] is a profession. [Teacher] is, too, but when referring to your teacher, it falls under relationship.”

“I [self scout warrior] could call [hypothetical reference designation] Ratchet [medic teammate savior closest friend], but that [reference designation relationship relationship] would be weird [observation reference designation discomfort].

“...But that sounds the same.”

“He put [medic] in the relationship category. It didn’t sound any different because [medic] is the only personal title he calls me, but thinking about it is extremely odd. Not calling someone by any personal titles—it’s a social faux pas, I suppose. If done on purpose, it could be seen as an insult, or even as an outright act of aggression. You’re effectively stripping someone of their identity, and only defining them by their relation to you.”

Bumblebee shivers. “Urgh [expression discomfort], I [self scout warrior] don’t even want to think about [negative hypothetical discomfort] it [reference designation relationship relationship discomfort].”

“You said relationship twice,” Rafael says. “Is that what it’s called when someone does that?”

“Very astute,” Ratchet says. Rafael never fails to impress. Sometimes Ratchet can hardly function, he’s so overcome with pride and fondness. “Any other questions?”

“A few,” Rafael says. “Bumblebee, why don’t you call Ratchet an Autobot?”

“Habit [observation reference behavior repeating], I [self scout warrior] guess [hypothetical confirm].”

“He used to,” Ratchet says. “He dropped [Autobot] for everyone, including himself. It was after we came to Earth that you stopped, wasn’t it?”

“There wasn’t anyone but Autobots around [observation reference past reference location Earth reference group Autobot reference negative group non-Autobot],” Bumblebee says, “So it seemed faster [observation reference hypothetical reference past] just to cut [reference behavior designation omit] it [reference designation Autobot].”

“Huh. And that isn’t rude?”

“It depends on the circumstances. In this case, I gave him permission, but even asking can be inappropriate if you’re not close enough. And some titles are more important than others. I doubt Wheeljack would let anyone drop [Wrecker], even Bulkhead.”

“What about adding personal titles? Is that rude, too?”

“That depends, too. Bumblebee adding [scholar] wasn’t inappropriate—though it wasn’t appreciated, either,” Ratchet says pointedly. “If he added [grounder], that would be fine, too. Something inaccurate, like [racer], could be insulting, but if it’s added sincerely then it’s just baffling. Ultra Magnus adds [soldier] to all Autobots, which isn’t rude, but not everyone likes it. I’m no soldier.”

“Smokescreen [racer Autobot teammate friend] is really bad about adding titles [observation reference behavior reference designation personal addition],” Bumblebee adds.

“Oh, don’t get me started on Smokescreen, Bumblebee [warlord slayer].”

“Whoa. Does he really call you that?”

“Ugh [expression emphasis annoyance exasperation embarrassment], don’t remind [emotional negative request annoyance exasperation embarrassment] me [self scout warrior fool],” Bumblebee says. “At least [expression relief exasperation] he [racer Autobot teammate friend enemy] doesn’t do it around [observation reference designation warlord slayer addition negative situation] Optimus [Prime Autobot leader closest friend shortname].”

“Wheeljack thinks it’s hilarious,” Ratchet says dryly.

“Well, I think it’s kinda cool, Bee,” Rafael says.

Bumblebee whirs despairingly. Rafael pats his hand.

“Some of the Vechicons [group grounders flyers allies negative all none] have picked it up too [observation reference designation warlord slayer addition embarrassment],” Bumblebee says.

“Like, as a compliment or an insult?”

“It’s not really either,” Ratchet says. “Compliment is closer, but it’s not about being nice. A title like that, it’s a badge—and a unique one at that. Smokescreen gave him it out of admiration, and if I had to guess, the Vechicons use it out of awe, fear, or both.”

“Huh,” Rafael says.

“Can we [group reference location all] talk about something else now [informal request reference discussion reference designation warlord slayer negative embarrassment]?”

“Yes, yes, we wouldn’t want the Ender of Tyranny to overheat,” Ratchet says, because he can’t resist. 

Bumblebee covers his face with his free hand. “I [self scout warrior] hate you [medic teammate savior closest friend nemesis].”

Ratchet laughs and claps him on the shoulder.

Rafael raises his hand.

“Yes, Rafael?” Ratchet says.

“What Bumblebee did just now—he called you his nemesis. And before, he called Smokescreen enemy.”

“A fine question, my young friend,” Ratchet says. “Adding a temporary negative relationship title can be used to indicate anger, whether serious or not. [Nemesis] is a strong title, of course, but by keeping [closest friend] Bumblebee let me know it wasn’t serious. Though that’s not always the case. As with everything, it depends heavily on context. Even now, Optimus uses [close friend nemesis] when talking about Megatron, though whatever friendship they had died long before Megatron himself.”

“Oh,” Rafael says. He looks down for a moment, clearly lost in thought.

Hm. Maybe Ratchet shouldn’t have brought that up. Sometimes he forgets just how young Rafael is. In all the tragedies of war, lost friendships are a smaller sort of sorrow, but it’s a sorrow Rafael has never known. Ratchet hopes, from the core of his spark, that he never will.

Maybe changing the subject will help. “Was there anything else you wanted to know?” He asks.

“I mean, besides everything? Info-vocalization is fascinating, Ratchet, I can’t believe you didn’t teach me this stuff sooner.”

“Well, like I said before, there’s very little point,” Ratchet says. “This was more a lecture on Cybertronian culture than a practical lesson. You’ll never be able to info-vocalize yourself, so—“

“What if I could?”

Ratchet stops. “What?”

“What if I could? You guys have access to Cybertronian tech now, and Ratchet, you’re really smart. What if you built a device that lets me info-vocalize?”

“Well—well I suppose I could try, but I’m no engineer, much less a—a xenotechnician.”

“You built the Groundbridge out of spare parts, I bet you could do this too!” Rafael stands up and jumps onto Ratchet’s knee. “You don’t have to, but I’ve actually been meaning to ask you for a while.”

“What, to info-vocalize? You didn’t even know the term.”

“No, no, not exactly,” Rafael says. He looks down. “I wanted...I wanted you to make me something that’ll help me hear info-vocalization. Like a Cybertronian hearing aid, or something.”

“That sounds...doable, actually,” Ratchet says. “I wouldn’t have to worry about programming all the pitches and modulations in a way you could use—I’d just have to target local subvocals and raise them to a level you could hear without damaging your audials.”

“So you think you can do it? Really?” Rafael bounces in place. “Yes! You’re the best, Ratchet!”

“Now, now, I make no promises,” Ratchet says. He coughs. “But I’ll see what I can do.”

Rafael beams.

“You [alien small human closest friend partner shortname] never mentioned wanting something like this before [observation negative reference request past reference subvocal device audial curiosity confusion],” Bumblebee says, picking Rafael back up and lifting him to eye level.

“Well, I didn’t want...I know how much getting your voice back meant to you. I didn’t want to seem selfish, but—I’ve missed hearing you like this,” Rafael admits.

“Oh [expression understanding confusion fondness love],” Bumblebee says.

Ratchet looks at them both, at the pair they make. So vastly different, and yet so very much the same. Once again, he’s struck by how grateful he is that they landed on this odd, primitive, wonderful little planet.

“Lesson’s done for the day, I think,” Ratchet says. “Why don’t you two go for a drive? I hear the weather’s nice.”

“Yeah [expression eager excitement joy]!” Bumblebee jumps up, careful not to drop Rafael. “Ratchet [medic teammate savior closest friend], you should totally come with [request observation reference activity eager excitement joy]!”

“Oh, well, I don’t know,” Ratchet says. “I’ve got work to do.”

“Please, Ratchet?” Rafael makes an expression that Miko has told Ratchet is called “puppy dog eyes”.

“Oh, fine, fine, if you insist,” Ratchet says. He stands up as well, and stretches a bit. “You’ll have to go slowly, though, I’m not as fast as you youngsters.”

"Ratchet the speedster [medic racer teammate savior closest friend],” Bumblebee says cheekily as he sets Rafael down on the ground.

“Just for that, Rafael is coming with me,” Ratchet grumbles as they transform, but he can’t hide his amusement.

Rafael climbs into Ratchet’s passenger seat and buckles up.

“Ready [query reference status curiosity excitement]?”

“Ready,” Rafael says.

“Then what are we waiting for?” Ratchet revs his engine, just a bit. “Let’s roll out.”

Rafael laughs, and Bumblebee joins in too, revving his engine as loudly as he can. Ratchet’s not a sentimental mech, but right now he thinks it’s his favorite sound in the world.

Together, they set out on the road. Rafael is safe within Ratchet, and Bumblebee is by his side, keeping pace with him.

Ratchet puts the siren on and speeds up.

“Hey [expression annoyance amusement fondness], no fair [observation reference behavior annoyance amusement fondness]!”

“Keep up if you can, slowpoke!” Ratchet laughs.

Bumblebee does, of course, but he doesn’t pass them. Ratchet rolls down the window for Rafael, and he sticks his head out to feel the wind. They drive, and drive, and drive, and Ratchet feels younger than he has in a very long time.