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Innocent Chapter Four
“How bad is he, Ratchet?” Prime asked.
Ratchet didn’t take the time to look up from Wheeljack. “He’s not good, Prime. I’m patching him up as best I can, but I _must_ get him back to the facilities on the Ark.”
“Do it, then.” Prime glanced over at the small trio of Bumblebee, Spike, and Tarla. The girl was still sobbing uncontrollably, and Prime felt a wrenching urge to go to her, but the situation was still too demanding. More disturbing was the possessive surge he felt at the sight of Spike comforting her.
“You’re hurt, too.” Ratchet glanced up. “Ironhide, do your best to do a field dress on him and send him to me when he gets back.” He stood back and transformed, carefully loading Wheeljack. “I’m expecting you, Prime. You’ll regret it if I have to come looking for you.”
Prime had to chuckle. “I suppose I will. Take care of Wheeljack.”
“I plan to.” And Ratchet roared off.
Ironhide slipped up behind Prime and tried to catch his arm, but Prime turned the opposite direction and Ironhide missed. “Blast it, Prime, Ratchet said --”
“Later, Ironhide. What happened to the meteorologists?”
“Dead,” Prowl said softly.
“Damn Megatron,” Hound whispered.
“Perceptor, take samples. I want to find out what the meteor is made of and why Megatron wants it. Prowl, you and Hound follow the Decepticons. See if you can determine where they took the meteor. Jazz, you and Cliffjumper stay here. See what you can discover from the meteorologists’ notes. I’ll send Sunstreaker back with Chip and see if he can help. As for those three...” he turned back to Tarla and the others and sighed.
“Give ‘em a few minutes more, Optimus,” Ironhide said softly. “Something more happened to that girl than just the battle. Besides,” and this time he signaled to Jazz and they both caught Prime’s arms. “This gives us a chance to patch you up, or else Ratchet’ll take us _apart_ instead of putting us back _together_.”
Prime relented, and Ironhide began to work, fussing over him. Tarla had stopped crying by the time Ironhide was satisfied that Prime’s arm wasn’t going to fall off at the shoulder. Prime shoo-ed Ironhide away and walked over to the three. “Are any of you injured?”
“Spike’s arm,” Tarla said, her face still muffled in Spike’s shoulder.
“Then get back to the Ark. I want to see you all tonight at 18:00. Understood?”
“Yes, Prime,” they chorused softly. Bumblebee transformed, and Spike started to help Tarla up, hesitated, then effortlessly picked the tiny girl up in one arm. He carried her over to Bumblebee and gently placed her in the shotgun seat.
He turned back to Prime, cradling the arm left black from Frenzy’s grip. “Yes?”
“There’s a tin of tea in her quarters. Make her a cup. It will help her calm down.” He paused for a second. “It was the fire, wasn’t it?”
Spike nodded. “Yeah. She couldn’t even move. I’ve never seen anyone so terrified.” He studied Prime for a moment. “Tea, huh?”
“Jasmine.” And he couldn’t quite comprehend the expression Spike was giving him. “Get that arm seen to,” he said gruffly and turned away as Spike slipped into Bumblebee’s driver seat. The VW rolled away before Prime changed his mind and started lecturing them there.
But it was only prolonging the inevitable, and at six that night, they were standing in front of Prime once again. Spike, arm bandaged, was standing slightly apart from the other two, looking defiant, yet somehow confused behind that. Tarla had changed out of the swimsuit and skirt, but she was still pale and shaken. She and Bumblebee were exchanging guilty looks.
Prime had long since learned that silence was much more effective than loud words. He simply stood and watched them.
Tarla stopped forward. “Prime, Spike didn’t even know I was coming. And I -- I really didn’t give Bumblebee much of a choice either.”
Prime continued to regard them thoughtfully.
“Well, I should have said something, or stopped and made her get out,” Bumblebee said miserably.
He still watched them.
Tarla began to fidget nervously. “How’s your arm?” she suddenly asked.
Prime had to fight back a chuckle. “Now that you two have managed to lecture yourselves --”
“Guilt trip,” Bumblebee muttered.
“-- you’ve saved me the trouble of doing it myself. Spike, I realize you had no knowledge of this. In fact, you are to be commended for all you did today. Now.” He turned to Tarla and Bumblebee again. “Tarla, after all I told and warned you, you recklessly endangered yourself and others when they were distracted by the danger you were in.”
She closed her eyes in a mixture of guilt and inner pain. Her lips silently formed Wheeljack’s name.
“When you first came here, you put yourself under my authority. You are confined to your quarters for four days, with the exception of human necessities.”
“Meals and bathroom trips,” Spike supplied.
“Knowledge from experience?” she shot at him.
Spike actually grinned. “You bet.”
“Tarla --” Prime rumbled in warning.
“I know.” She sobered. “I deserve it, and I’ll carry out the punishment.”
Prime noticed Bumblebee’s hopeful expression. “No such luck, Bumblebee. Extra work shifts, one more per day, for the next week.”
He fixed his gaze on them one more time until they were all shifting nervously again. “All right. Get out of here,” he said gruffly and turned away. He worked at the console for a time, then turned again when he became aware that someone was standing behind him. “I thought I told you to go to your quarters,” he said to Tarla.
“I’m sorry, Prime,” she said softly. “I let you down, and the others. And Wheeljack, most especially. And I broke the trust you had in me, and for that, I apologize most of all.” She turned and walked slowly toward the door.
“Tarla?” he called after her.
She paused, hand resting on the door frame.
“Apology accepted,” he said gently. “By me. There are still others who deserve the same consideration.”
“I know.” She looked up at him. “But if you hadn’t accepted, staying here wouldn’t be worthwhile any longer. I would have left as soon as my four days were up.” She gave him a very slight smile and a wave and was gone.
“And I really didn’t like her at first.” Spike awkwardly tried to help Carli spread the car blanket, but his arm made more of a mess than it helped, and she affectionately shoo-ed him away. The late-night meals on the beach had become a regularity, that Carli first started under the excuse that she was worried that Spike wasn’t eating right. A valid excuse, actually -- she once got a look inside the refrigerator in the Ark, and what wasn’t turning green was multiplying on its own and threatening to overtake and conquer. Since then, the refrigerator was better stocked, and she had an excuse to see Spike.
She watched him paw through the traditional hamper. At least they were finally past the stage when they had to make excuses to see each other. It had taken them long enough -- she had practically had to hit Spike over the head, but then, they both had come a long ways since then.
“I mean, I didn’t even try to accept her,” he was saying. “Hey, what happened to the chicken salad?” When she didn’t answer, he looked up at her and found her still looking at him. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” she said softly. “Just watching you.”
He stammered self-consciously, as she knew he would, and she dropped on her knees beside him. “The salad’s in the blue plastic container.” She found it and held it and a fork out. When he didn’t take it, she glanced up, arching one eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Nothing,” he said with a slight smile. “Just watching you.”
She groaned, rolling her eyes. He reached for the salad and caught her wrist instead, pulling her to him. She sat back, leaning against him, and continued to sort through the hamper. He gently brushed her hair back from one shoulder... and balanced the salad container on it.
“Well... eating with one hand isn’t easy. I’ll work on your ear after the salad, if you like.”
“Now, if you try to hit me, you’ll spill the salad. Hold still.”
She made a show of grumbling, but settled happily in the crook of Spike’s bandaged arm. “Now, what were you talking about? _Before_ the salad and my ears?”
“Hmm? Oh.” Spike set the empty container aside and fished out a sandwich. “I guess I just didn’t like the way she was accepted by everyone so quickly. She... I don’t know... was into everything. Charmed everyone. But she proved today that she’s willing to pull her own weight, and risked her life to do it. If she hadn’t thrown the barrel of that grenade launcher in Frenzy’s eye, I would have come off a lot worse than a bruised wing. But still, that look of pure terror in her eyes at that fire!”
“That’s understandable. Didn’t you say she was trapped in a fire once?”
“Yeah. Her school.”
“Has she talked to anyone about it?”
“Not that I know of. Unless it was to Prime.” He grinned. “They’re spending quite a lot of time together.”
“Is that good?” she asked tentatively.
He shrugged. “I suppose it wouldn’t be the first time an Autobot paired up with a human. And they say Prime’s actually beginning to take it easy. Until this morning, anyway.”
There was a slight pause. “Is she pretty?” Carli asked, suddenly intensely interested in her fingernails.
“Yeah, sort of.” Spike tried to pull the picnic basket closer to him.
The only warning he had was Carli’s outraged indrawn breath before she whirled around, ready to deck him. He ducked backwards, letting out a howl. “Carli, stop it! Car -- Carli, that’s my bad arm!”
“Sorry,” she said, sounding unsure if she should sound contrite or flip. “You all right?”
He watched her warily. “Yeah. I swear, I’ll never understand women. Answer their questions and they suddenly start beating up on you.” He dug out another sandwich. “Besides, she probably can’t even cook.”
Later that night, Spike walked down the corridor to the storage room that served as Tarla’s quarters. He grinned in recognition at the sight of the open door. Quarters Confinement meant that you couldn’t leave to see people, but said nothing about people coming to see you. And an open door was much more inviting than a closed one.
But he wasn’t prepared for the darkness inside the room. As his eyes adjusted, he realized that the dim light came from a candle, and Tarla was sitting in front of it.
She was staring at the flame with such concentration that she didn’t realize Spike had entered. Slowly she reached one hand out toward the flame, palm out. As she grew close enough to feel the heat from the tiny flame, she stopped, then obviously forced herself closer. Her outstretched hand trembled, shadows from the flame outlining it. She tried to push it even closer, her hand shaking so hard that Spike was afraid she might knock the candle over.
And she couldn’t do it. With a soft strangled sound, she launched herself a good three feet away from the candle and buried her head in her lap.
Spike started to back out, but he misjudged distance and ran into the door frame. Tarla sat up with a start and saw Spike. Her eyes flashed through emotions as she realized he must have been watching. “Hi,” she said, not really settling on an emotion at all.
“Hi, yourself.” He hefted the box he was carrying. “Brought you some stuff to keep you from getting too bored. There’s some books, a CD player and some CDs, in case you get tired of making your own music with that tin pipe of yours --”
“-- and some munchies. We didn’t want to pack anything bigger than snacks. You’ll want the excuse of fixing food to get out of this room.”
“You really are experienced at this.”
“Yeah, but Carli’s used to packing care packages for me, and she comes to keep me company.”
“You seemed to have changed your mind about me.”
He shrugged, then winced when the motion shifted his arm. “Yeah, well, it’s kinda hard to fight a battle when you can’t get along with those on your own side. You may not be my best friend... but you’re not my enemy, either.”
Neither of them mentioned that they had saved each other’s life. Nor did they mention the candle that Tarla was studiously ignoring.
“Is Prime really angry at me?” she asked suddenly.
Spike looked at her in surprise, then decided the question really wasn’t so much of a surprise after all. “Prime isn’t that easy a character to figure out, but he doesn’t automatically dislike someone because they screwed up.”
She bit her lip, looking down at her fingers twining around each other. “He usually comes to see me in the evenings.”
“But there was a Decepticon attack today. And he also is maintaining the image of the leader dealing out discipline. When the Deceps calm down and your four days are up, things’ll be back to normal. At least, as normal as they ever get around here.”
The following silence grew to be uncomfortable, so Spike pushed himself away from the case he was leaning against. “It’s getting late. Guess I’ll see you later -- if you don’t die of boredom first.”
“Oh, I seem to have folks looking out for me,” she answered lightly. “Catch you later.”
He looked back from the door, but she had already turned away from him and was staring at the candle flame again. Slowly she reached one hand out toward the flame. The light gleamed off a tooth as she bit her lip, trying to control her shaking hand.
Spike quickly stepped out and keyed the door shut behind him.
Prowl looked exhausted. “They led us on an incredible chase, Optimus. They threw Ravage, Lazerbeak, Buzzsaw, and Rumble in our path. If it wasn’t for Hound’s tracking abilities, we would have lost them several times. The jets even split up so we had several vapor trails to choose from, and of course, they ended up at Decepticon Headquarters.”
“But if they had gone elsewhere...”
“I know, Prime. It was a logical order.”
Prime signed. “Go and recharge, old friend. And thank you.”
“Of course, Prime.” And Prowl walked out.
“Jazz, your report?”
“Nothin’, Optimus. Not a single scrap of _any_thing. We found what looked like personal logs, but they had been torched by lasers. My guess is that the Deceps took the notes, rather ‘n deal w’ith human prisoners. Anythin’ from Perceptor?”
“Not yet,” Prime started to say, but there were steps outside and Perceptor ran in.
“My greatest apologies for my tardiness, Prime, but my findings were such that should be checked multiple times for confirmation.”
“Ne’ermind all them long fancy words,” Ironhide grumbled. “Just tell us what was in that hunk o’rock.”
There was a slight glint in Perceptor’s optics as he visibly considered giving a long complicated speech, simply to annoy Ironhide, but science always came first to the scientist. “Optimus, that meteorite is comprised primarily of jeonide-ten.”
“Jeonide-_ten_?” Prime asked incredulously. “And _Megatron_ has it?”
“I don’t get it,” Jazz said. “We usta use jeonide all th’time back on Cybertron. What’s the problem?”
“Ah, but the jeonide we were accustomed to using as a cooler-lubricant was jeonide-_five_. As you know, in strong concentrations, it may also be utilized as an energy source. Jeonide-_ten_, however, is a much denser concentrate of the element. It has such a high radioactive status, that it produces considerably more heat than the coolant jeonide-five. This makes it extremely unstable.”
“How come I never heard of this... jeonide-ten b’fore?” Ironhide asked.
“It is an extremely rare element. I myself have only observed two minuscule portions. An amount as vast as that meteorite must contain would be extremely dangerous, if not handled properly, and sometimes even when it is.”
“Can it be made into a weapon?” Prime was looking more and more worried. Ironhide knew there was reason, still he began to curse silently at Megatron for throwing Prime’s life back into chaos.
“Anything can be constructed into a weapon,” Perceptor was saying. “But that is not what is worrying me, Prime. J-ten closely resembles J-five, and because it is so rare, few have ever been fortunately enough to obtain a sample to study, whereas everyone has seen J-five.”
“Get t’ the point, Perceptor,” Ironhide said wearily.
“My fear is that anyone, even scientists, could mistake J-ten for J-five. And if the Decepticons attempt to convert J-ten into the energy they are accustomed to obtaining from J-five, the element will undoubtedly reach stress point and detonate.”
“In English, please?” Ironhide growled.
Perceptor sighed in impatience. “It go boom.”
Ironhide muttered something under his breath. Perceptor heard him clearly, but didn’t understand what intelligent donkeys had to do with anything.
“Just what sorta detonation’re we talkin’ about here?” Jazz asked.
Perceptor looked slightly embarrassed. “To be entirely truthful, I can only estimate. At the very least, it would completely destroy the underwater Decepticon Headquarters.”
“Well, that’s what we’ve been trying t’do all along, ain’t it?” Ironhide said triumphantly.
“Yes, but you have failed to take into consideration the repercussions from such an explosion. The results would be seismic quakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions -- at that’s at the very least. A meteor of J-ten that size and volume might indeed decimate half the Earth.”
“By Cybertron,” Prime whispered.
“Then let’s go get it back!” Ironhide brandished his gun.
“On the contrary,” Perceptor said quickly, almost in panic. “Jeonide-ten is _highly_ unstable. The mere vibrations from a battle could set it off, much less a stray missile or laser shot.”
“An inside job?” Jazz grinned and rubbed his hands together. “Now _this_ has th’ring of style. Count me in, Optimus.”
“Affirmative -- it should be an inside job,” Prime agreed. “However, Decepticon sensors will pick up any Autobot readings. We have to figure a way past them.”
“Yeah, but we ain’t never done that yet. Only prisoners have ever been in Decep HQ,” Jazz said.
“Perceptor, how’s the adaptation of Tarla’s cloaking device coming?”
“I haven’t worked on it -- that is Wheeljack’s expertise. However, I do know that it has yet to be completed.”
Prime turned to Ratchet, who had remained silent throughout the whole conference, but the surgeon foresaw Prime’s question and shook his head, holding up a hand in warning. “Don’t even ask, Prime. He hasn’t even regained consciousness yet, and even if he did, he was hit so badly that he won’t even be out of the repairs bay in less than a few weeks, much less back working in his lab.”
“And I fear I simply haven’t the knowledge to create something of that type,” Perceptor said mournfully. “I’m a scientist, yes, but not an engineer.”
“So we’re in trouble,” Jazz said again. “No one has ever bypassed Decep security. The only one who ever got in were prisoners, Autobot or human.”
The amazing thing was that Prime could actually tell when the tension in the room changed. No one said a word, yet everyone glanced at each other, read the same thought in everyone’s optics, then slowly turned to look at Prime with a mixture of discomfort and pity. For him. Optimus Prime.
And no one said a word.
Jazz finally sighed. “Well, I’m gonna leave this to wiser minds ‘n mine. I’m goin’ for a recharge. Comin’, Ironhide?”
Ironhide started. “What? Oh... yeah. Comin’.”
Jazz almost ran for the door, Perceptor after him. Ironhide paused, started to say something, then thought better of it and left, too.
There was a moment of silence, then Ratchet moved form his corner and began to walk a small circuit -- not really pacing, but it was close. The even, measured sound of his footsteps was more than irritating -- it was almost... threatening, especially since Prime knew and was dreading what Ratchet was going to say.
But Ratchet paced more, until Prime couldn’t stand it any longer. He suddenly realized how Tarla and Bumblebee must have felt yesterday, as he had waited for them to say for themselves what they had done.
“Don’t say it, Ratchet,” he finally said softly.
“I don’t have to. Prime, you know that it’s the only --”
“Ratchet...” Prime rumbled warningly.
“Well, someone’s gotta say it, and you just might conveniently overlook it, until --”
“You would even suggest that I would knowingly endanger the Earth?” Prime asked incredulously.
“No,” Ratchet said very softly, stopping in front of him. “But you might wait too long, trying to think of another solution, which does not exist, outside of a firefight, and you know that would be more dangerous than anything else we could do. Prime, Tarla is the only one who has a chance of getting past that security.”
Prime looked directly at Ratchet. “No,” he said flatly. He turned away and unconsciously began to imitate Ratchet’s pacing.
“Look, it’s obvious from the way you two have been hanging around each other that you care about the girl, but --” Ratchet broke off. Prime had abruptly stopped pacing, his back to Ratchet. His fists were tightly clenched.
Ratchet was silent for a long moment. “I should have see it,” he said softly, and with more than a touch of sadness, shaking his head. He walked over to Prime and gripped his arm tightly. “Optimus... are you in love with her?” he asked in a wondering voice.
“I am an Autobot,” he said tightly. “She is a human.”
“And you know there are such pairings,” Ratchet said with growing delight. “There was Powerglide, and Seaspray even knows of that lake that can change him to a human form. He uses that when he visits his girlfriend.” He snapped his fingers. “That’s it! You can have Seaspray import a drum of that stuff up here!”
“And you want me to send her in among the Deceptacons?” Prime shook his arm free from Ratchet’s grasp. “Damn it, Ratchet, she knows nothing of the Deceptacons and even less of warfare. And what is she supposed to do when she gets in? She can’t carry it off.”
Ratchet had sobered. “There is a chemical that can neutralize the jeonide-ten. If we don’t have it, I’m sure Perceptor can whip it up.” In all the years he had known Prime, he had never heard him swear.
Prime resumed pacing again, then stopped, his back to Ratchet once more. “Ratchet,” he said very softly, “there is a more than ninety percent chance that she’ll never make it back alive. I refuse to send _any_ human in against those odds, even if they weren’t innocent of the War.”
“I think the decision goes beyond that,” said a new voice from the doorway. Tarla stepped in, looking nervous. “It’s pretty clinched that there’s no other option open.”
“You’re supposed to be in your quarters,” Prime said, trying to forestall what he knew was coming next.
She held up a good-sized sandwich. “’Human necessity’,” she quoted with a slight smile.
“How long have you been standing there?” he asked.
“Ever since the meeting started.” The smile slowly stretched into a grin. “I started out with two sandwiches.”
“I see.” She had heard everything, then.
“I’m the only one who can get in.”
“Don’t you understand? Didn’t you hear? I... I don’t want anything to happen to you!” he burst out, then looked away.
“Optimus,” she whispered. She slowly walked over to him and leaned against his leg, pressing her cheek against the slightly warm steel. It always surprised her -- the warmth coursing underneath the cool surface of Autobot “skin”. She still always expected steel to be cool to the touch.
“Optimus,” she said softly, “a wise leader once said that in a war, sometimes there must be choices between one person and a race of people, a cause, or a world. All three are involved in this situation. One person just can’t be seen as more important than those.”
“I need to stop spouting words of wisdom,” Prime muttered. “They seem to have a habit of coming back to haunt me.”
Prime was silent for a long moment. “Ratchet,” he finally said, “I want you to get Tarla all the information on jeonide-ten that we have. I want her to know everything possible about the whole situation. Get her a file on Decepticon personnel, too. She has to be ready to leave tomorrow afternoon.”
“Yes, Prime,” Ratchet said. “C’mon, Tarla. Let’s see what we can find for you.”
She looked up worriedly at Prime, but he continued to stare stoically ahead. She backed away slowly and left, hurrying after Ratchet, who kept talking, desperately trying to alleviate the dismal mood.
Prime finally moved over to Teletran-One. “I want to get a message to Seaspray,” he told the computer.
“Acknowledged. Enter message when ready. It will be forwarded to Seaspray during the next naval communications.”
Prime tapped the message in, entered it, then cleared the screen. He spent a long time staring at the blank screen, until Bumblebee came in with something else he could focus his attention on.