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Innocent Chapter Three


“You are certain you’ve seen nothing unusual?” Prime asked, frowning at the screens of topographical maps as they flicked by on the computer screen.

“Give me a break, Prime.  I’m good at my job,” Hound said with a touch of hurt dignity.  “I gather the other scouts are reporting the same thing?”

“Affirmative.”  Prime glared at the screen.  It’s been three months since the last Decepticon activity was reported.  “They’re being _seen_, but they don’t appear to be _doing_ anything.  I don’t understand.”

“He’s gettin’ antsy,” Ironhide said in an aside to Jazz.  “I say _we_ go find _them._”

“Negative, Ironhide,” Prime automatically answered.  Like the old warrior’s nurse-maiding, his eagerness to “kick Decepticon tail” was common enough to let it go in one audio receptor and out the other.  “But they must be up to something.  Jazz, double the scouting teams and pay attention to --”

There was a scrambling noise and yelling out in the hall, and Tarla careened into the room.  She slid across the metal floor and plopped down, sitting back against Prime’s leg.  She pulled out a magazine from her back pocket and quickly opened it.  “I’ve been here all the time,” she said hurriedly.  “’Sides, you owe me one, Prime, for the lights.”

A second later, Bumblebee came tearing in, streaming water.  “Where is she?” he shouted.

“What in tarnation happened to you?” Jazz asked.

“The fiend set the fire sprinklers so they came on full blast when I came in from patrol!”

“Nonsense,” Jazz said in amusement.  “I just came in that way.”

“She was waiting and turned them on just when I came through!”  Bumblebee lunged for Tarla and she dodged behind Prime.  “It couldn’t have been me,” she said defensively.  “I was here reading the whole time, wasn’t I, Prime?”

“Bumblebee, you are creating puddles,” Prime observed thoughtfully.

“I know I’m creating puddles!” Bumblebee howled.  “I know better than anyone that I’m creating puddles.  And I’m about to create another one right now.  A human puddle!”  He tried to duck around Prime, but Tarla countered his movement.  “Prime, help me,” she cried.

“Enough!” Prime snapped.

“But Prime--”

“I said that was enough, Bumblebee.  Our meeting has been interrupted with this noise, and this water is turning the Ark into something Sludge would live in.  I believe some sort of punishment must be dealt out.”

“Prime!” Bumblebee wailed.  Jazz and Ironhide stared in surprise.

“Yes, one must take responsibility for one’s actions,” Prime said thoughtfully and suddenly bent to pick up Tarla.  She squeaked and demanded for him to put her down, but he motioned for Bumblebee to follow and walked out.

They gathered quite a crowd as they walked through the Ark; Autobots who noticed Bumblebee’s crestfallen and hurt expression, those who wondered why he was wet when it wasn’t raining out, those who had been the butt of Tarla’s jokes and pranks and were anxious to see someone else fill that role, those who wondered at the unusual gleam in Prime’s optics and those were off-duty and simply didn’t have anything better to do.  Their curiosity grew as Prime left the Ark and headed down the path to the Dinobots’ lake.  And nobody cheered louder than Bumblebee when Optimus Prime pitched Tarla into the lake.  Prime waited until the cheers died.

“Responsibility for one’s actions, Tarla,” he said remindingly, and turned back to the Ark.

“That’s _two_ I owe you, Prime,” she shouted above the laughter.  “Two!”  Then she gave up and swam over to the delighted Dinobots.

And that had been the way the last ten days had been.  Tarla had generally been accepted -- there were a few who still grumbled, but they did so more quietly, as there were still more who would defend the young girl.  After the first few disagreements, Prime had issued orders, Tarla had packed and was about to leave until Bumblebee had dragged her back, and if the fights did not stop completely, at least they were handled more quietly.

But it was not uncommon to find Tarla telling stories to the Dinobots, or playing flute for Jazz or whoever else joined them, or down in the workshop areas with Wheeljack, Ratchet, or Perceptor, or a combination of the three, or out driving with Bumblebee, or listening to Ironhide’s “glory tales”.

However, it was Prime she went out of her way for, and ran errands for, and simply sat in the room he was working in so he wouldn’t be alone as much as the role of leader had pressed him into being.  And no matter how busy Prime might be, he always managed to find an hour or two in the evenings to sit in the corner of a candlelit herbal-scented storage room to listen to the music of the flute.  Ironhide had noticed this from the first day and began “unobtrusively” rearranging work schedules and took on extra monitoring duties himself so that Prime wouldn’t be disturbed.  In fact, Ratchet came in on Ironhide “convincing” one of the more hotheaded of the Aerialbots that it would be more toward his interest to work an extra shift.  After all, it was better than spending the next week or so in Ratchet’s repair bay, wasn’t that right, Ratchet?

Ratchet coughed slightly and thought it was best to simply nod.  Slingshot sullenly agreed and Ironhide sent him out.

Ratchet chuckled.  “You sneak around even less, and Prime will _have_ to notice.  I’m sure he knows you’re doing this.”

“Shucks, Ratchet, not much happens that Optimus doesn’t know about.  But he’s not objectin’, and it seems t’be workin’.”

“Actually, it is.”  Ratchet waved a read-out at him.  “He’s not as drained as he usually is when he reports in for a recharge.  And do you know, I walked in when no one else was around, and he was _humming_.  _On tune!_”

“But he’s never --”

“I know that.  But I talked to Tarla and Jazz for a while, and they both agreed that Prime couldn’t concentrate on tones simply because he never took the time to.  It’s logical that if he’s relaxing and listening to music as much as he has been lately, that he’d develop the ear that he and everyone else gave up on.  In our opinion, that’s the best sign yet.”

Ironhide chuckled.  “Poor Optimus.  “E’erone’s gangin’ up on him.”

“Yeah, well, he seems to be enjoying it.  But don’t be too forceful, or he’ll have to stop overlooking it, and then we’ll be back where we started.”

     *

But Prime had been right all along.  Things had been too quiet for too long.  And while it wasn’t exactly what Ratchet had meant, things were back as they had started, and as they had been for eons.

     *

Tarla was down by the lake when the klaxon alert went off, and she jumped, nearly falling off Sludge’s back.  As it was, she nearly dropped the book and barely managed to catch it before it went into the water.  “What is that?”

Grimlock glanced up at the Ark, unconcerned.  “Alarm.  Decepticons attack.  Finish story.”

“An attack?”

“They want us, they call.  They go in first, get in trouble, up to us to save them.  Me, Grimlock, strongest.  Finish story.”

“Later,” she promised absently and dove into the water.  She swam across the lake, found the skirt that she wore over her swim suit, and ran back to the Ark.

It was in a state of controlled pandemonium.  Announcements were coming out over the PA system, calling warriors to report to Prime, and ordering replacements to fill in for those who were being called out.

Being so much smaller than the Autobots crowding the corridors, she was able to dodge and dart her way to the main control room where Prime was shouting out last orders.  “Jazz, Ironhide, Wheeljack, House, Cliffjumper, Perceptor, Prowl, Ratchet, Bumblebee -- transform and roll out!”  He suited action to words, the trailer rolling up to hitch behind him.  He was followed by each of the others.  Spike vaulted into Hound’s front seat, and Tarla caught Bumblebee’s hurt expression in the instant before he transformed.  Even so, his door automatically opened half-way for Spike, and Tarla caught it and jumped in before it could close.

“What are you doing?”  Bumblebee hissed.

“Going with you.  I’ve never seen either Decepticons, or you all in action.  If Spike’s going, I am too.”

“Spike’s been with us for years.  Now would you get out?”

“Not on your life.”

“Bumblebee, what’s keeping you?  Get in gear!” Prime ordered as he roared out.

“But -- oh, great.  I’m gonna get in trouble.  Tarla, Prime’ll have my fenders,” Bumblebee moaned, but zipped after the others.

“So fill me in.  What’s going on??”

Bumblebee sighed, but gave in.  “Remember that meteor that hit about three months ago a ways from here?  The Deceps are hitting the site.  The meteorologists called in when they caw the ‘Cons flying for them.”

“But why the meteor?”

“Dunno, but I can guess.  That meteor’s prob’bly made of something Megatron wants.  Which is mostly likely why Prime ordered Perceptor along.  Perceptor’s not a warrior,” Bumblebee said, but without a trace of condescension.  “But he’s the best there is at what he does.  When you can understand what he’s talking about enough to appreciate it.  Now, I’ve got to listen for orders, so I’ll hafta to ask you to keep quiet.  When we get there, I’ll drop you off with Spike, and you’re gonna hafta promise me you’ll stay put.  Prime’s gonna kill me as it is,” Bumblebee grumbled.

“So make a good showing, so he won’t mind.”

“Where you’re concerned?”

“What’d you say?”

“Nothing.  You’ll hafta be quiet now.  We’re almost there.”

“That was quick.”

She could hear the smug grin in his voice.  “Autobots can override speed limits during emergencies.”

“Must be nice.”

“Hush.”

Up ahead, she could already see the dust swirl as Prime transformed back into robot mode, leaving the trailer behind as he followed the road downhill and our of sight at a dead run, gun held at the ready.  The other Autobots followed.  It was unsettling, Tarla realized, to see her friends who had listened to her music, laughed with her, had replaced her family, suddenly bristling with weapons and looking deadly grim.

Hound squealed out of line for a brief moment.  He didn’t take the time to stop, but instead gunned around hard in a tight circle as Spike leapt out with a large knapsack.  As soon as his feet touched the ground, Hound peeled out and roared away.  Spike was already pelting up the incline when Bumblebee, who _did_ take the time to stop, let Tarla out.  “Follow him, and for Cybertron’s sake, stay with him!”

She waved, already trotting up after Spike.  She scrambled up the last of the blackish rock terrain to him.  “Hi,” she said breathlessly, and without taking her eyes off the crater in the plateau below.  She barely had time to take it in -- the six Transformers lifting a protectively sealed case out of a crater that had recently been enlarged, another Transformer in the shape of a spaceshuttle waiting, and one other, larger, and immensely more menacing than the others, giving commands -- barely had time for it all to register before Prime leapt out.

“Megatron!” he roared.

The Decepticon leader spun.  “Prime!” he snarled.  “Decepticons, defend the meteor.  We must have it!”

“Not if I can help it,” Prime said and fired.  Megatron dodged, leapt backward, transforming into a gun the size of a cannon and landing into the arms of the nearest Deceptacon, and the shooting started.

“What are you doing here?” Spike growled as he broke open the knapsack.  He quickly began to assemble a small grenade launcher.

“What’s that?’ she asked, ignoring his question.

“Exactly what it looks like.  He pushed the knapsack at her.  “As long as you’re here, make yourself useful.  Hand me grenades as I need them.”

“Got it.”

“You’d better.”  Spke took the first grenade and dropped in into the launcher.  “This is a new idea.  It’s not as much use when they go hand-to-hand out there, but in a firefight --”  He lined it up at the Decepticon who was wielding Megatron -- a blue-tinted Decep counterpart of Blaster -- and fired.  The Decepticon flew backwards in the blast, releasing Megatron, who transformed just before he landed.  Prime lunged forward before Megatron could regain his footing, but another Decep fired, missing Prime, but knocking the gun from his hand.  Spike rammed another grenade home and fired.  The grenade exploded as the Decep aimed again, and the laser shot went wild.  Ironhide snarled and ran forward before the Decep could fire again, and Prime went after Megatron.

“But in a firefight, it’s pretty damned effective,” Spike finished.  “We’ve got them outnumbered.  It won’t take long.  Just for your information, the one who was firing Megatron was Soundwave, the shuttle is Astrotrain, the one Ironhide is fighting is Thrust.  The ones with the green tint are the Constructicons.  They’re probably the ones that dug out the meteor.  Speaking of which --”  He swung the launcher to aim at the case.

Tarla caught his arm.  “We don’t know what that thing’s made of.  For all we know, a grenade could explode it and kill everyone out there.”

He nodded reluctantly.  “I’ll just find another use for it.  “And he quickly fired at one of the Constructicons, who rolled out of the blast, beating frantically at the flames crawling up his leg.  He barely had time to recover before Prowl attacked him.  On the other side of the crater, Bumblebee and Cliffjumper hit Soundwave from opposite sides.  The other five Construticons gave up trying to load the meteor and drew guns.

There was a roar of jets as five planes flew in, transforming and landing.  Two were of the same series as Thrust, the other three were of a different.  The leader stepped forward, firing the two lasers mounted on his arms.  Cliffjumper ducked behind a boulder as one burst barely missed him, and Bumblebee dove into the crater.

“Starscream,” Spike muttered.  “Grenade.”

She slapped one in his hand.

“Congratulations, mighty Megatron,” Starscream sneered in a high-pitched, metallic voice -- he was aptly named.  “Your plan was _so_ infallible.  Your success is indisputable.”

“Get the meteor out of here!” Megatron growled between locked jaws.  He brought his fist forward, crashing against Prime’s jaw with strength enough to pulverize a brick wall.  Prime staggered, and one of the other jets placed a burst high in his shoulder.  Tarla could hear Prime’s grunt of pain.

Spike heard her gasp.  “Don’t worry.  Prime can take whatever Megatron can give and return it by twice.  Still --”  he launched the grenade at Megatron as the leader brought up his gun.  “There’s no need for Megatron to get over-confident.”

“As you command, mighty Megatron,” Starscream replied smoothly.  He and the other jets formed a line between the Autobots and the Constructicons as they continued to load the meteor into Astrotrain.

“Oh, yeah?” Spike murmured vindictively.  “Let’s see how you deal with this.”  He slapped another grenade in the launcher and began to aim again.

“No,” snarled a voice from behind them.  “Let’s see how ya deal w’_this_!”

They whirled.  “Frenzy,” Spike gasped, then tried to push Tarla out of the way as the smaller, more human-sized Decepticon’s arms transformed into powerful pike drivers and began to hammer at the ground.  The ledge they were on trembled, and Spike was thrown off-balance enough to fall, and holding on to Tarla enough to pull her over with him.  She clawed at the rocks and slowed her fall, rolling more or less harmlessly to the ground.  Spike shot past her, tumbled to a stop, and tried to climb to his feet, shaking his head to clear it.  Frenzy saw the movement and passed right over Tarla.  Spike tried to roll away, but Frenzy caught his arm and wrenched him to his feet.

“Now, what do we have here?” he said in a terrifying croon.  “A present for Lazerbeak, perhaps?  He’s so talented at getting what we want from prisoners.  Or mebbe I should just break your neck now!”

A few rocks were still bouncing down the cliffside.  Tarla reached out and somehow found the barrel of the grenade launcher, bent and badly dented.  Without another thought, she threw it.  It hit Frenzy directly in an optic sensor.  He howled and stumbled backwards, releasing Spike.  Bumblebee tackled Frenzy hard.  “Let’s see how you deal with someone your own size,” he growled, pounding Frenzy’s head against the ground.

“Forget size,” snarled one of the jets like Starscream.  “Fight where you can win.”  He fired, one laser at Bumblebee, one at the humans.  The line of brush in front of Tarla sparked and burst into flames --

--_flames roaring, smoke choking her, blinding her as she ran down alien corridors that had been as familiar as a second home for four years, explosions from the science wing, the blaring of alarms, screams_--

“Tarla, get out of there!!” Bumblebee screamed.  The girl was frozen, pale against the flames, backed up against the cliff --

--_screams, echoing through the red haze, people pushing past her, slamming her against the wall of lockers_--

“Tarla!”  Wheeljack shoved Soundwave aside and ran forward --

--_clutching against the lockers, panting for the breath her lungs couldn’t bring in through the smoke, instinctively brushing her fingers against the locker number, realizing it was Eva’s, her best friend_--

Prime forgot Megatron, fighting to push him away and reach Tarla.  Megatron took advantage of the distraction and smashed his fist against Prime’s wounded shoulder.  “Decepticons, retreat!” he shouted.  “We have what we came for!”

The jets leapt into the air, transforming, and swooped down, firing on the Autobots.  They dove for cover, and the other Deceps broke free and either flew or ran into Astrotrain, who hit the sky the second he could --

--_Eva, who would be sitting her fifth period class, the one her father taught, Eva, who always complained how hot it was in that room, right over the furnace, the furnace that exploded_--

Someone caught her up, throwing her over a shoulder, a human shoulder, she dimly realized --

--_running back through the halls, trying desperately to find a room door that had been left open when the classes had emptied, finally finding the window at the end of the hall, throwing her bookbag through it, screaming, feeling a huge metal-shod hand lifting her gently out, and still screaming, fear, even though she knew she was safe, but knew that her father and Eva were_ --

-- screaming, the smell of smoke thick, felt herself being set down, knew she was safe, but still screamed, screamed, screamed --

Something hit her hard, and she snapped back from the strange mixture between memories and reality, and looked up into Spike’s pale face, his expression torn between fear and worry.  One of his wrists was already blackening from Frenzy’s vise-like grip, but he shifted his weight to support her when she suddenly began to cry.  And she cried harder, as hard as she had been screaming seconds ago, cried at her memories, at Prime as his shoulder sparked and ran fluid, and at Wheeljack, who was laying in a crumpled heap on ground blackened by the laser fire of several jets.


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