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Deepest Cuts Chapter Six

Hot Rod’s Account

I showed up at Arcee’s the next morning, feeling as bleary as if I was hung over in spite of my efforts.  My intentions had been good, but I had been angry at myself, and hadn’t slept worth a damn.

I was surprised, however, when Arcee answered the door, looking as bad as I felt.  “You look terrible,” I blurted out before I could think.

I am _such_ an idiot.

Arcee’s optics closed, as if praying for strength.  Or maybe she was imagining me as a pile of scrap.  With Arcee, either was a good possibility.  “Thanks, Hot Rod,” she snarled.  “That makes me feel _so_ much better.”

“I didn’t mean... I mean... is everything all right?”

She regarded me for a long moment, through narrowed optics, her arms crossed angrily over her chest plate.  “Everything’s fine,” she said in a brisk voice.  “We were just up all night girl-talking.”

I was _so_ out of my element here.  “That’s good,” I said, hoping desperately that was the right thing to say.  “Did I come too early?”

“Doesn’t matter to me.  I’m on guard duty until you get here.  Whenever you decide to show.”

“Am I late, then?” I asked, really floundering now.

“No.  Tarla’s just getting dressed.”  She looked over her shoulder, then came out into the corridor, letting the door slid shut behind her.  “Look, she needs to talk to Prime today.”

I shrugged.  “Yeah, sure.  Whatever.  I figured that was probably on the agenda somewhere.”

“No,” she insisted.  “She _really_ needs to talk to Prime.  As in alone.  Understand?”

“No problem.”

Her optics were narrowed again.  “You sure?  ‘Cause if you can’t handle it, I can take a double shift--”

“I can handle it, Arcee,” I interrupted, and before I could stop myself, I heard some idiot with my voice say, “You keep up this attitude, kiddo, and I’ll chuck you on the next Earth-bound shuttle myself.”

Her optics went wide so suddenly, that I thought she really was going to slag me this time.  Then she bit her lip, in that little unsure gesture that always made me want to blast away whatever was hurting her.  Except it was me doing the hurting this time.  I opened my mouth to apologize, but her jaw clenched.  She hissed, “Don’t worry, Hot Rod.  I’ll probably be long gone before you come down enough from your ego trip to even notice.”  She turned on her heel and stalked into her quarters again.

Leaving me alone in the corridor, seriously considering smashing my head against the wall.  It certainly wouldn’t damage me -- I obviously was broken already.

How could I be so _stupid_?

CHAPTER SIX

Tarla could tell that whatever had happened between the two Autobots, it was far from their usual banter.  Arcee passed it off, shrugging lightly, but her hands were balled into fists and her face was closed off against whatever emotions were going to war.

Hot Rod wasn’t looking much better out in the corridor, but he still grinned at her.  It wasn’t quite as cocky as usual, but it was close.  “Hi.”

She squinted up at him.  “You want to assign me to someone else for a while, so you two can talk?”

Hot Rod gave the door a wary look.  “Arcee can be pretty... lethal when she’s  angry.”

“Oh.”

They stared at the door together, then Hot Rod sighed.  “Hey, I just talked to Prime, and he wanted to see you when you were up and around.”

“Oh,” she said again, but her mouth curled into a sharp smile.  “Goody.  I want to talk to him, too.”

For a brief instant, she reminded him frighteningly of an angry Arcee, and he wondered just what the two females _had_ been talking about all night.  He shuddered, and quickly decided he really didn’t want to know.  It was probably safer that way.  He transformed and popped his canopy open for her.

They found Prime in the control room.  It was hardly a lucky guess, since Hot Rod had radioed ahead between deciding not to bash his head into the wall, and Tarla leaving Arcee’s quarters.  He figured Tarla really didn’t need to know that he had arranged the meeting, rather than responding to Prime’s orders.  Arcee wanted them to talk.  He was at least going to get them in the same room together.

Prime was going over something on the monitors with Ultra Magnus and Jazz.  Hot Rod caught a glimpse of schematic and blue-prints as Tarla climbed out so he could transform.  “Come on,” he said, when she moved to sit in the corner.

“No.  I’ll wait here, ‘til he’s done.”

“Why?”

She rubbed her forehead.  Her head and eyes ached from lack of sleep and haunting nightmares of Megatron.  “There’s enough mistrust of me.  I shouldn’t even been in this room, if they’re talking tactics.”

“We aren’t,” Prime said.  “This is a chart of the locations of the sabotages.  I’d like Arcee to put more of her cameras up, with real-time feeds, in all of the encircling corridors and facility rooms.   Magnus, give her all the equipment and personnel she requires.  But give her a few more hours of rest, first.”

“I’ll get started on reassigning personnel, both to set up cameras and for surveillance,” Magnus said.

“Make it a small team, the ones actually setting up the cameras,” Tarla suggested.  “You get a lot of traffic in those areas, and it’ll scare her off.  The ‘Cons might decide to relocate her, and we’ll have no idea where to look until you start having losses again.”  She rubbed her forehead again, massaging her temples.  ‘You know, if the ‘Cons could do this with one human, they can do it with more.  Your sensors really need to be updated throughout all your facilities.”  She realized they were all gazing at her, with full attention, and she ducked her head, hiding behind her bangs.  “Sorry.  I shouldn’t be telling you your job.  You’ve probably already thought of all that, anyway.”

“Human infestation,” Magnus mused, then smiled.  “Sorry, Tarla.  No offense meant.”

“None taken,” she assured.  “It’s rather accurate, you know.  Like mice chewing electronic cables.”

“Mice?”

Tarla made an it’s-not-important wave.  “One little rodent could cause a power black-out over an area several city-blocks wide, just by chewing through one cable.”

Magnus grimaced.  “Right.  I’ll get started.”

“Tarla, we brought you here for your suggestions,” Prime said.  “_Any_ suggestions.  Keep them coming.”  Then he really looked at her.  “You look terrible.”

Hot Rod quickly stepped behind the much-larger-and-therefore-sheltering Ultra Magnus.

Tarla pushed her hair out of her eyes.  “Let’s see.... I’ve only had a few hours sleep in what -- I think I’m up to seventy two hours now.  I don’t know what day it is.  I’m not even on my own planet.  And to really make it worse, I forgot to bring any coffee, and I’m starting to go through caffeine withdrawal, which really isn’t going to be pretty.”  She beamed.  “Thank you for asking, though.”

Jazz clapped Hot Rod’s shoulder.  “C’mon, kid.  Let’s go see if Spike left any coffee here.  Bumblebee would know.”

“How come he gets thanked?” They heard Hot Rod complain to Jazz.  “Arcee tried to take my head off for saying the same thing, but _he_ gets thanked.”

“Well, now, Roddi, you just listen to ol’ Jazz’s advice on femmes...” Their voices faded.

Magnus held up his electronic reader of notes in silent explanation and left after them.

“No coffee, huh?”  Prime said.  “Did you bring tea?”

She shook her head.  “I don’t drink it anymore.  Switched to coffee my first semester during midterms.  Couldn’t go back.  Am I keeping you from anything?”

“Not right at this moment.”  He settled in one of the chairs behind a workstation.  “What science were you studying?”

“I wasn’t.  Languages.”

Prime sat back in surprise.  “Why?  You were so talented in the sciences.”

She shrugged, studying her fingernails.  “I was afraid it would draw too much attention.  Especially since some of my knowledge was not from Terran studies.  So I went in an entirely different direction.”

“You gave up a lot because of us, didn’t you?”

She flicked her fingers in dismissal.

He saw the truth behind the gesture.  He suddenly couldn’t sit still and began to pace, trying to cover it by moving from one monitor to another, studying each display briefly before moving to the next.

“I spent a year traveling,” she offered.

“Running?”

“I liked my way of putting it better.”

He let her have it.  “Where’d you go?”

“Down the west coast.  I was afraid I’d get caught somehow leaving the country, or I would have checked out Canada.  I spent some time in San Francisco, then in Monterey.  I was in San Diego for a few weeks, but Ravage found me there.  I headed back north again after that.  Then, things seemed to settle down a bit, so I went back to school.”

“The Decepticons began focusing on Cybertron again, instead of Earth.”

“So I’m gathering.  Things got a lot quieter for me then.  Not that the Decepticons were concentrating on finding me, but they just always seemed to be around.  They’re a lot more visible than you guys are.”

“We do try to blend in as much as we can, if only to avoid detection.  The collateral damage from one of our battles can be... immense.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” she said, deadpan.

“I didn’t think you had,” he answered in the same tone.

She grinned, in spite of the headache.

“Where else did you go?  Did you see many places?” he asked, just wanting to hear her talk.

Tarla curled up on the floor, her back against the wall.  “I saw a lot of road,” she said.  “And that was a real pain. I didn’t really dare hitch rides, because God only knows who would pick me up.  Although, to be truthful, after Megatron, trouble from humans just doesn’t seem as much of a threat.”

“You were still lucky,” Prime said.  He had a mental image of Tarla, tiny and helpless, being pulled into a car.  His fists clenched.  And she had run away from all the protection he had offered.

“I guess so,” she said in dismissal, answering his words, not his emotions.  “Anyway, sometimes I wish I had just traveled more, for another year maybe.  There’s just so much out there to see.”

“Your world is very beautiful,” Prime agreed, bending over a monitor to scan the information on it.

“Yeah, and there are so many places I’ve heard of, but don’t really know much about.  Like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon...”  She watched him through narrowed eyes as me moved to another workstation.  “... Seaspray’s lake...”

Prime tripped over the leg of the chair in front of the workstation.  He caught the chair before it could topple over and carefully righted it.  He caught Tarla’s reflection in the monitor; she was smiling with evil satisfaction.  “You found out about that, did you?”

“Was I not supposed to?”

“No,” he said heavily.

“Good.  Arcee nearly freaked when she realized I didn’t know about it.  She was sure she had blabbed about something top secret, and that you were going to rip her apart.”

He looked pained.  “I have never ripped any of my warriors apart.”

“She’ll be glad to know that.”

“And if I hadn’t wanted you to know, I would have told her that.”

“That’s what I told her.”  She cocked her head.  “So why didn’t you tell me about it?”

He spread his hands out in front of him.  “Part of it was... timing.  I hadn’t considered the possibility...” He stopped speaking for a moment, being so obvious about choosing his words, that Tarla was fascinated by the process of emotions crossing his face.  “I don’t think I realized that I... cared so much,” he said finally, “until we were packaging you off to Decepticon headquarters. And then I couldn’t tell you, because...”  He stopped again, then sat down, gazing at her in that steady way he had.  “...because logically, I didn’t expect you to survive.  I didn’t see how you could.  And if you weren’t killed outright, Megatron _would_ get any information out of you that he wanted.  And if Decepticons could take on a human shape, your world would be in even more danger.”

“Hell of an effective infiltration tool,” she agreed.

“Logic says that I should have it destroyed, rather than it becoming a weapon.”  Then he shook his head.  “But we have destroyed so much in this War, and it is not a thing of your world, not ours.  I... don’t have the right to destroy it.  So we guard it.  Carefully.  But perhaps, it is being used too much for our convenience, and I shall have to start setting restrictions.  The more it is used, the more the chance grows of the Decepticons finding it.”  He watched her carefully, trying to judge her reaction, but her face was closed off, and he simply couldn’t read it.  Even after all these years of living with humans, he still found it hard to understand them.  She was often better at scanning him then he was at her.  Although, maybe Jazz was right, and it was just that femmes were better at analyzing emotions than males were, regardless of species.

“Then you came back,” he said softly, “and I would have told you then.  But you were so desperate to leave... and I had to give you that freedom.  Do I didn’t tell you then, either.  And then, when we learned you were with Starscream...”  He shrugged slightly.  “it had been the... safest decision, not to tell you.  Megatron will find out about the lake, eventually, but we will keep it from him as long as possible.  Not that he’d ever choose a human form.  He holds humans in disgust.”

Tarla remembered blazing red optics over a huge fusion cannon, and shivered.  Even after years, the terror was still freshly vivid.

“Which is why his using a human now surprises me so much.”  Prime leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, fingers interlaced.  “Parts of it ring true to his personality.  Picking a human that looks so much like you, for example.  And using her here on Cybertron, because no one here would know how to handle it.  That’s pure Megatron.  But he doesn’t like to do things on small scales. This human isn’t winning him any battles, or providing him with an energon source.  It’s just... an annoyance.   Perhaps more psychological than anything else.”

“I think someone else came up with the idea,” Tarla said.  “Soundwave, perhaps, since so many of his children are spies and infiltrates.  And Megatron took the idea and ran with it.”  Prime twitched a little, at the image of Soundwave’s cassettes being his children, but he let it pass, storing it away to think about at another time.  Tarla was picking at her shoelaces, not looking at him, and didn’t notice.  “Maybe they had intended it to be me, at first, but it just didn’t go in that direction.”

“I had thought f that, too,” Prime said.

She scowled at her sneakers.  “I brought it on myself.”

He didn’t say anything, because the words of comfort that came so easily to him on the battlefield and hospital bays would not bring the same comfort to her.

“But I hate it,” she snarled.  “I hate the way everyone looks at me.  I hate the way I’ll never fit in a normal world again.  I hate the way I’m constantly looking over my shoulder.  And most of all, I hate that I’m going to pay the rest of my life for a mistake I made when I was just a kid.”

He still didn’t say anything.  This type of ferocity was not something he had ever seen in her.  It had the flavor of some other influence, this person she had grown into.  Ravage, perhaps.  He wondered how deeply the flavor had seeped into her.  He missed her laugh and her pixie grin.

She shrugged, the anger not gone, but simply muted into control.  “Sorry.  Feeling sorry for myself ain’t gonna help, I know.”

“I told you about Orion Pax’s mistake,” he said quietly.  “I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to make up for that mistake I made when I was young, and I still don’t feel like I have, all these millennia later.”

She whimpered.  “Optimus, you are the greatest person I know.  There’s no way I can ever measure up to you, and if you haven’t found some sort of healing, how will I ever?”  She buried her face in her hands.  “It’s like I’m dead inside, Optimus.  I don’t want to live like this.”

“I think,” he said slowly, “or rather, I believe, that eventually, you can repay for your mistakes.  That’s a generic “you”, by the way, not you personally.  And over time, you will heal.  But it takes work.  And it takes faith.  Faith in yourself, in that you are strong enough to want to try.  And you must have some desire for that, because you are here, and not still running.”

After a long moment, she looked up.  “Arcee thinks I’m believing the rumors too much.  She had to remind me that I helped save the Earth.”

“No,” he said sharply.  “You _did_ save it.  Never forget that, Tarla.  I haven’t.  And I knew what it took for you to take on that mission.  And that is why I still have hope for you.  Because I have faith in you, even if you don’t.  Or I never would have brought you with us.”

She was trying to hide her blush by ducking her head, hiding behind her shaggy hair, and Prime could tell that it had been a long time since she had thought any good of herself, and praise had become almost painful for her to hear.  “God, I wish I had some coffee,” she murmured, then added a little louder, “I really have to bring up something else, and I would be a lot happier if I had some coffee in me first --”

“Aleeta-One,” he said.

Her jaw dropped.  She recovered and frowned at him.  “Stop doing that.”

“Doing what?”

“Second-guessing me.  Especially so easily.”

His optics crinkled in his version of a smile.  “I’m a leader.  I _have_ to second-guess.  It’s part of the job description.”  Then he dropped the amusement.  “I haven’t seen Aleeta since before the jeonide-ten incident.  We’ve talked a few times, but not recently.  She leads her own strike-force, you see.  And we have not discussed... how our relationship falls in this war.  The War always comes first.  It has to.”

“Yeah, I had kinda noticed that, too,” she said dryly.

“We found it!”  Hot Rod announced as he came in with Bumblebee.  He held up a tiny canister, minuscule between his finger and thumb.  “You shall soon have your coffee, m’lady.”  He set the canister down and rubbed his hands together eagerly.  “Everything’s under control here.  Now!  Um... how do you make coffee?”

     *

Bumblebee ended up making the coffee, which fascinated Tarla.  He cited his years of experience around Spike and Sparkplug, who apparently drank vast quantities of the stuff.  “Obviously you are not a true addict,” he teased, “if you actually forgot to bring any.  It’s always the first thing on Spike’s list.  Sometimes even before Carli.”

“Oooh, don’t tell her that.  You know, I can make it myself.”

“Nope, I’m in charge of coffee on Cybertron.  Wheeljack had to come up with a special gadget to brew coffee using Cybertron power sources.  We couldn’t just plug a coffee maker into a wall socket, here.”

“You could have just brought instant.”

“Now, I now you aren’t a true addict, if you’re willing to settle for that stuff,” Bumblebee scoffed.”

“A coffee-maker doesn’t work when you’re living out of a tent, either,” she retorted.

“Oh.  Good point.”

The scary thing, she reflected later, was that the coffee was really good, and she was afraid to ask Bumblebee if he had slipped anything in it.  For all she knew, his secret ingredient might be energon or something oily.

Still, if was good, and it obviously hadn’t done Spike any harm.  She filled her thermos.  Her headache started to ease with the first sip.  _It might be an addiction, but God, what a thing to be addicted to!_

“But I’m not sure how much more good I’m going to be,” she said, once they were back in the control room.  “Rust is hardly going to approach me if I’m surrounded by Autobots.  Wouldn’t Spike be a better choice, if you still think this human-to-human approach is best?”

“It was also your experience with the Decepticons, that I wanted to use,” Prime said.  “You might understand something in her reasoning that we might not.”

“And that I’m a familiar face to the Decepticon side?”

“That, too,” he agreed.

“’Sides, Carli would never let Spike leave this close to the wedding,” Bumblebee put in.”

“And I would be reluctant to ask that of him, unless we have no other option,” Prime said.

“Wait a minute.  What wedding?” Tarla asked.

“Carli and Spike’s.”  Bumblebee beamed.  “I’m the best man.”

Tarla blinked, then carefully set her coffee aside.  In a quick motion, she yanked off her sneaker and hurled it at Bumblebee.

“You see?” Hot Rod said.  “That’s why I don’t understand femmes.  They’re always throwing things at a guy!”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Tarla demanded.  She glared at Prime.  Observing that she still had one sneaker, he quickly stepped out of her throwing range.  “We’ve been a little busy,” he tried.

She snorted.  “I believe, ‘Oh, Tarla, by the way, Spike and Carli are getting married’ takes less then ten seconds to say.”  She turned her glare on Bumblebee again.

“You can’t damage me,” Bumblebee warned.  “I am the Maker of Coffee, remember?”

She rolled her eyes.  “All right.  I guess I’ll have to let you live.”

“I appreciate you sparing one of my warriors,” Prime said in a voice that was not completely without amusement, but rang with enough authority to pull their attention back to the real matter at hand.

“I’ve got a suggestion, but you aren’t going to like it,” Tarla warned.

“Distract the Decepticons away and leave you unattended somewhere and available for Rust to find you?” Prime asked.

She pointed at him.  “I told you to stop doing that.”

“You’re right.  I don’t like it.  So let’s improve on it.  Leaving you unattended is out of the question.”

“Set some of those cameras up and have someone watching me.”

“We wouldn’t be able to get to you quickly enough,” Hot Rod said.

“I though you were the fastest ‘Bot on two planets,” Bumblebee murmured.  Hot Rod sneered at him.

“Did Wheeljack ever finish working on that cloaking device?” Tarla asked Prime.

“I’ll ask him, but I don’t think it ever passed the prototype stage.  Decepticon sensors were simply too advanced.”

“Yeah, but how much hardware can Rust be carrying around?” Bumblebee asked.  “She’s even smaller than Tarla.  I’ll bet her sensors aren’t that strong.  that prototype might be enough to hide from them.”

“Good point.”  Prime jotted a note on the digital pad sitting nearby.  “Even as used to humans as we are, it is still hard to think in such limited size.”

Tarla studied her coffee.  “Ya oughta try being human for a day, Optimus,” she murmured.  “It’d give you a whole new insight on humans.”

He gave her a sharp not-now glance.  She pretended she hadn’t noticed by topping off her coffee with fresh from the thermos.  Her headache was almost gone now.

“I’ll stay with Tarla,” Hot Rod offered.

“The Autobot that does has to be able to stay quiet,” Prime said.

“And you couldn’t keep your mouth shut if you life depended on it,” Bumblebee said with a grin.

“And you’re any better?” Hot Rod challenged.

They mock-glared at each other, then Bumblebee shrugged and Hot Rod shook his head.  “Arcee,” they said in unison.

“Yes, I believe so,” Prime agreed.  “She is also smaller, which may be more beneficial.  Fewer readings for the prototype to conceal.  As for the distraction, I think we may have over-used the energon-bait tactic.”

“Let Megatron know you’re on Cybertron,” Tarla said, and they all noticed how every trace of amusement had vanished from her voice.  She wouldn’t look up form her coffee.  ‘It’d get him up here faster than anything else, trying to figure out what you’re up to.”

Prime looked thoughtful.  “Yes, it would, wouldn’t it?”  His optics glinted suddenly, and Tarla had the firm impression that leading Megatron on a wild-Autobot chase appealed to him.  _Kinda payback, for all the times it’s been the other way around._  Then he sighed a little, regretfully, and Tarla knew responsibility had brought him back.  “Very well.  We have a place to start.  I’ll work out a few more details with Magnus.  Tarla, go get some more rest.”

Her chin came up in that familiar gesture that meant he was probably going to lose whatever argument was coming next.  “Tarla,” he said, before the argument could really start, “Your judgment will be impaired if you try to function on as little sleep as you’ve had.  You aren’t the only one at stake here.”

She winced.  He hated causing her pain to simply make a point... but then, there was no simplicity involved when it meant his warriors’ lives.  “Optimus, there’s no way I can sleep, with the coffee I just drank.  Give me a couple of hours to work the caffeine off, and I promise I’ll crash.”

“That would hurt,” he said gravely.  She cocked her head.  “Crashing,” he elaborated.  The humor was the only apology he could give.

She rolled her eyes, and for a brief second, the pixie grin flitted through.  Then the communicator on the central station blipped for attention, and her grin vanished, as if she expected bad news, and therefore, to be blamed for it.  She glance at him, then quickly looked away, and he hoped she hadn’t read in his optics any of the pity he was feeling.

The blip came again.  “Prime, here,” he answered.

“Hey, Optimus,” came Wheeljack’s voice.  “If ya happen to know where Tarla is, could ya send her to my lab?”

“Affirmative, Wheeljack.  She’s on her way.”  He keyed off the communication.  “But afterwards...”

“Sleep.  Yes, Optimus.”  She stood up and beamed at Bumblebee and Hot Rod.  “So which one of you has babysitting duties?”

“That’s me.”  Hot Rod transformed and waited.

“Optimus,” she said softly, “we aren’t finished talking yet.”

“We are for now,” he said.

“Yeah, but don’t think you’re getting off that lightly.  Hey, Bee,” she called.  “Can I get my shoe back?”

“Are you nuts?  Why should I give you ammunition?”

“Aw, hell, Bee.  You guys have no idea how cold these floors are.”

“Shoulda thought of that before ya threw it, huh?”

     *

Tarla had seen Wheeljack’s lab back on the Ark.  It had been cluttered with stacks of parts far taller than she was.  The first time she had walked in, she had been nervous that she’d bump against a pile and get crushed by the resulting landslide.  There must have been some sort of organization in Wheeljack-ian logic, because he never had to search for long before he found whatever it was he was looking for amidst the piles.  It was a fascinating process to watch.

So she thought she knew what to except when Hot Rod dropped her off.  And when she was surprised at the sheer _size_ of the room, she told herself that she probably shouldn’t be.  The Ark, after all, had not been intended as a military base, and Wheeljack’s complaints about lack of space had a great deal of validity to them.  Even four years ago, he had been itching to design a city for them, and he had shown Tarla some designs he had been playing with.

But now, seeing the comparative size difference between the two labs, Tarla had more of an understanding.  She could also see why Wheeljack always jumped at the change to make a trip to Cybertron.  _He’ll probably load Omega Supreme to the brim with stuff to take back._

“Hey, Wheeljack?” she called, feeling even tinier than usual as her voice echoed through the stacks of parts and components.  “I think I’m lost!  Where are you?”

“Over here, Tarla.”

“Which way is here?”

“Oh.  Sorry.”  He appeared around a stack.  “I forgot you couldn’t see over the tops of these.”

“If there’s a human who can, I’d be afraid to meet him.”  She followed him through the maze.  “So what’s up?”

“Well, actually, I’ve got something for ya.”  He realized he had outdistanced her with his quick stride and slowed so she could catch up.  He carefully matched his pace to hers.  “Now, I’m a little worried ‘bout you, kiddo.  You’re pretty small, even for a human, and it’s just too easy for you t’get hurt.  And I felt real bad, that I was out of action during that whole J-ten thing.  I can’t help thinkin’ that if I had been up and around, maybe I coulda put something together that would’ve protected ya better.”

“Wheeljack,” she said, “I was the reason you got hurt.”

He snorted.  “I just didn’t duck fact enough, Tarla, and ol’ Skywarp never shoulda been able to get his crosshairs on me.  ‘Sides, I’ve been hurt worse ‘n that just testin’ my own inventions.  It was bad timin’, is all, an’ don’t let me catch you saying any different.  I was proud of you, when I heard of what you’d done.  That would have been a hard job for one a’ us to have pulled off.”

“It was what I did later, that was the problem,” she muttered.

His sharp audio receptors picked up what she really hadn’t intended him to hear.  ‘Everyone makes mistakes, kiddo.  I should know, seein’ as how many times my gadgets blow up in my face.  But mistakes can be fixed, providin’ ya want to bad enough.  And speakin’ of my gadgets...”

“It’s not one that’s going to blow up in my face, is it?” she asked in a light attempt to tease.

“Nope.  It’s a prototype, yeah, but it’s been tested.  It was something I originally had in mind for you, ‘cause it just seemed right for you.  Then I built it for Carli, which meant Spike ran almost every test we could come up with for it, before he’d even let her near it.  But she didn’t really take to it.  And that really didn’t surprise me, ‘cause like I said, I had you in mind as I designed it.”

They turned another corner and the maze opened up into a largely clear center of the room.  “There,” Wheeljack said, pointing at a purple and black motorcycle.  He beamed.  “Whattya think?”

She blinked.  “The bike,  you mean?”

“Of course.”

“Oh.”  She cocked her head and studied the bike, pacing a circle around it.  “It’s a very pretty bike.  I especially like the way the purple blends into the black.”

Wheeljack snorted.  “You’ve been around us this long, and that’s all you can say?”

She stared at him blankly for only a second before he saw the realization hit.  “It’s a Transformer?”  She crouched next to the bike, resting her hand on it.

“Not exactly.”  Wheeljack sat cross-legged on the floor on the other side of the bike.  “It’s not alive.  Of course, there’s no way I could do that.”

“I never did get Optimus to answer that,” she murmured.

“Answer what?”

“Where baby Autobots come from.”

Wheeljack sputtered.  He pulled himself under control and shook his head.  “Oh, no.  I’m definitely not taking that one.  You’ll have to get that answer from someone else.”  Although he found himself wishing he had seen Prime’s expression when she dropped _that_ question on him.  Then he wondered how the topic had come up.  Then he decided it was safer not knowing, and very firmly set his curiosity aside.  “Now, it’s not alive, but it’s not a typical Earth bike either.  It works along the same lines as Spike’s exosuit, except this was really designed to be more... well, covert.  It doesn’t scream Transformer technology at first glance, so it won’t draw a lot of attention to you.  The body’s based on a Kawasaki Hayabusa, because it was the best shape for what I wanted it to do.  The skin is not as tough as ours, relatively speaking, but it’s pretty close.  It will handle some pretty good glancing shots, but nothing point-blank.  Look.”  A shield shot up from behind the seat and melded itself up and over in a bubble, which would enclose the rider.  “Do I need to give you a helmet lecture?”

Tarla shook her head, eyes wide.

“Good.  I’ve got one for you too.  You’ll love it.  It’s got a heads-up display, sensors, targeting -- everything I could fit it.  But back to this.”  He tapped the shield.  “This’ll hit higher speeds than a normal bike, and it has a better sense of balance.  Doesn’t mean you can’t take a spill on it, but if you’ve got that dome up, you won’t be leaving pieces of yourself along the tarmac.  Now, the fun part.  It has two other modes.  One’s a basic battle suit.  The other’s a flight mode, and believe me, there’re a few Autobots who’re gonna be pretty jealous over that part.  You’re not going to get a high altitude like one a’ the jets, but it’ll do ya.”

“You said something about targeting,” she said slowly.

“Yep, and I wantcha to listen real close to me on this, kiddo.  This is not a fighting toy.  It’s made for evade and flight.  The weapon’s aren’t very powerful.  They’re based on Ratchet’s laser scalpels, and they’ll give a pretty good zap.  So if you get snatched up by someone, I wantcha to shoot ‘em in the optics and make a run for it.  Understand me?”

“Yes, Wheeljack,” she said in a solemn voice.  “It’s a beautiful gift.”

“I want you safe,” he said gently.  “This’ll help compensate for you being so...”

“Squishable?”

He shook his head.  “’Fragile’ was the word I was going to use.”

She ran her hand over the tinted dome.  At her touch, it slid open.  She laughed softly.  “I think it recognizes me.”

“It should,” Wheeljack said smugly.  “It’s programmed for you.  No one’s gonna hot-wire this baby.  Hop on.”

“I’ve never ridden one before,” she said.

He handed her a helmet, painted to match.  “We can fix that.”  Then he stopped and really looked at her.  “Um... Tarla?  Where’s your other shoe?”


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