Author's note: Some of the info used in the fic is inspired by Tricolora from LJ. The story takes place after A Dance to Remember.

WARNING: CONTAINS SLASH(Ratchx'Hide with mention of past OptimusxMegatron)...so don't read if you're not into slash.

.o

Between Mind and Heart

.o

"Oh, great." Mikaela muttered, staring at the frozen hourglass cursor on her laptop. She frowned and double-tapped the control, alt and delete keys. The system booted slowly and ground once again to a full halt.

Outside, heavy rain fell like the hooves of war horses.

Mikaela slumped back in the passenger's seat of Optimus' cab. Optimus himself was taking his security shift outdoors while the others moved about inside the warehouse. Ever since her prom night, she found his presence rather soothing and sought him out when everything else became too stuffy. They didn't have to talk to be comfortable--just sitting in his cab made her feel better after a crappy day.

Sometimes Optimus utilized his hologram and sat in the cab with her. She found that hilarious--Optimus sitting inside himself. He never got the humor in that.

"God, stupid thing!" Mikaela rebooted her laptop. It clicked slowly through the boot up screen and...froze again.

"Technical difficulties?" Optimus' voice rumbled through the speakers.

"Yeah. It's been acting like this after I visited a website about atomic structure yesterday. Probably a virus."

Light rays emanated from the steering wheel. It grew and coalesced into Optimus' six and a half foot tall hologram. He'd improved the hologram of his robotic self a lot since Mikaela last saw him use it. He looked real before...but now the comparison was something akin to normal television versus high definition.

"Let me look."

She slid the laptop into his open hands. "Can't you just connect wirelessly?"

He cocked his head and said in his usual seriousness, "I will. Sometimes, I just enjoy the hands-on approach."

Again with the unintentional double meanings. Mikaela smiled and watched the rain bead up on the windshield. Beside her, Optimus propped the laptop in his lap and his metal fingers clicked against the keys. He booted it in MSDOS mode and studied each process. Finally, he typed a string of code, pressed enter and rebooted the laptop. It worked perfectly.

"Your boot sector was corrupted by a virus. I noticed your antivirus software is outdated by three months," he said. "Now, which website infected your system?"

Mikaela hesitantly gave him the URL. Optimus stared off into space as he accessed it.

"It seems innocent. Did you download anything?"

"Nope."

"Hm. Well, aside from images that won't load properly, I see nothing wrong with this website. Perhaps the virus piggybacked on one of the advertisements. Had your antivirus software been up to date, you would not have been infected. I suggest you update soon."

Mikaela glanced outside. Wind made the rain fall horizontal sheets that pelted the windshield. Thunder rumbled across the sky. "I'll see if my new McAfee arrived in the mail when I get home."

"Then I suppose--ouch!" Optimus' hologram winced. He clutched his shoulder as the rain exploded into golf ball sized hail. "It's hitting my sensor arrays. I can't see anything this way."

"How the heck can you see without a face?"

"Think of it as highly evolved sonar. As you can see, it does have its downfalls. Excuse me for a moment--I'm taking us inside. Is the street clear?"

Mikaela glanced out the side window. She saw headlights shifting aside as cars pulled to the side of the road. The hail sounded like bombs falling, fraying her nerves.

"Yeah, people are pulling over." She winced when the hailstorm intensified. "Let's get out of this before you lose a window."

Optimus' hologram vanished without a word. Mikaela closed her eyes while he backed up enough to turn around and pull into the warehouse. The sound of ice pelting the roof sounded like explosions.

"Earth weather is annoying," groused Ironhide.

Outside, the hail stones continued to pound the wet gravel. Some bounced nearly six feet high when they landed. Wind rocked street lights and tore branches off a nearby tree, carrying on its back the smell of wet pavement. A lightning bolt tore the darkened sky asunder for one ten-thousandth of a second. Thunder followed its wake with the force of a hammer. Mikaela could barely hear herself think over the hail hitting the roof. Fortunately the worst of it seemed to pass, turning the roar of ice to the patter of heavy sheet rain.

"We're under a microburst," she said to herself. "Even somebody like Starscream couldn't fly in this."

"Good," said Ironhide. He gave his cannons a twirl, "I hope that slagger crashes his aft."

Lightning again. This time the thunderclap vibrated the entire warehouse. Too close for comfort. Mikaela screeched and dashed away from the door.

"Shit!" Sam yelled from the other room, "What is this, the Apocalypse? Someone shut the sky up, I'm trying to STUDY in here!"

"If the sky were sentient enough to understand us, I doubt we'd be heard over this noise." Optimus' deep voice overlapped another thunder boom.

"Good point," Mikaela made a face.

Optimus swung his passenger door open. As soon as Mikaela climbed out, he transformed into his bipedal mode and gave himself a little shake that dislodged most of the water beaded on his armor. He didn't seem to be too badly dented...just the one spot on his shoulder that he fixed without assistance.

"Weather reports indicate we're under a severe thunderstorm warning." Ratchet said. His words proved prophetic when loud thunder crackled seemingly right outside. "Mikaela, Sam, I advise you to contact your parental units and inform them you will be late arriving home. My sensors are detecting poor road conditions and intense lightning activity. Though, some of us could benefit from a good strike or two," he looked pointedly at Ironhide.

The bulky black mech narrowed his optics, "Says the one who walks into live power lines."

"You're so old you'd rust in five minutes just walking outside."

Bumblebee cranked up his radio. "You make me wanna LA-LA!"

Sam burst from the side room, a pencil in one hand and a towel in the other. He flung the towel at Bumblebee's leg. "Bumblebee! Anything but Ashley Simpson! I need my brain cells for Algebra!"

The music cut out. Ratchet and Ironhide exchanged confused looks. Optimus scratched the side of his head.

Bumblebee shrugged. "Not a major sacrifice. You have millions more."

Mikaela heard Sam groan and start dialing on his cell phone.

"Dad? Hi, it's Sam. Uh, the weather's nasty. I'm staying with Mikaela till it passes. So--huh? Dad, no!" His eyes bugged out, "We're--studying! What the--oh, c'mon, I always have one in my pocket! No, I'm not going to use it! I just have it."

She grinned at the helpless expression on his face. Sam's parents were...interesting...to say the least.

"...I'll call you when I'm leaving. Okay? Yup, thanks. Bye." He hung up and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. His face flushed slightly, "Glad that's over. They were freaking out. My dad said he'd bang out any dents the hail put in my car."

At that, Bumblebee shuddered in disgust. "The last time he did that, I ached for a week. I would rather have my legs blown off again than endure two minutes of that hammer."

Mikaela whipped out her own phone. As a latchkey kid, she knew she'd get the answering machine. "Mom, hey. It's three o'clock and the weather is really bad right now. I'm hanging with Sam and I'll be back when the worst passes. Might be late. Bye."

Thunder roared overhead. Mikaela felt the vibrations in her breastbone. She still hadn't shook off the full effect of Mission City. Thunder reminded her of the explosions and artillery fire. She refused to wilt under her fear. That fight ended months ago--Optimus reassured her it was okay to let it go.

Optimus pushed the warehouse door shut and eased to sit in his usual spot next to it. Just in time for the wind to shift and send rain pelting against the metal. "I'm sure it won't get any worse than this. The sound of the rain is actually rather soothing."

Only when it doesn't sound like it's going to eat you, Mikaela thought.

Deafening thunder crackled and the overhead lights guttered out.

"Great," groaned Sam, "It hit a transformer."

Four pairs of azure optics blinked in the darkness. The row of thin windows near the west ceiling didn't provide enough daylight to see. Then Ratchet's headlights came on to eerily illuminate the warehouse.

"I'm so glad I called my dad," Sam muttered.

Ironhide rotated his cannons. "Doesn't this building have a backup generator?"

"I think so," Mikaela squinted at the back corner, "But I don't know if it's charged or not."

"Charging isn't a problem."

"There is a generator in the southeastern corner," Optimus said. He was an ocean of calm in the middle of chaos, but Mikaela knew that deep inside he raged just like the storm outside. She could still see him kneeling on the docks, Megatron's head resting tenderly against his chest while he gently thumbed the dirt off his jagged cheeks. His face had the most solemn, composed expression she'd ever seen. At the time she thought it was some obscure Cybertronian ritual for the dead. Now she knew she witnessed him saying goodbye.

And she could tell Optimus still grieved the death of his love, his home and his comrade. There was no "getting over" a loss of that magnitude.

Ironhide stopped spinning his cannons and retracted them into his arms. Ratchet's light played eerily over his battle scarred visage.

He said, "You're looking a little overclocked there, Prime. Catch some recharge. Nothing's going on that you need to worry about. I can handle this."

Optimus looked ready to protest, though a moment's consideration resigned him to silence. He nodded slowly and leaned back against the wall with his arms crossed. His eyelids snapped shut and the light his optics cast slowly dimmed the faintest flicker. All of his systems cycled down to minimum power, which was evident when his joints all hissed in unison to release any lasting tension.

"'bout time he recharged," muttered the weapons specialist.

"He hasn't been...sleeping?" Mikaela asked, frowning.

"Not efficiently, but making Optimus rest when he isn't ready is about as easy as telling Ratchet not huff whenever I mock him."

Ratchet huffed. "Ironhide, you're incorrigible."

"Ooh, big words for such a little CPU un--"

"Shut up, you slag bucket!"

Laughing, Ironhide brushed past Ratchet on his way to the generator.

Sam's eyes grew to the size of saucers, "Did he just..." He dropped his voice to a whisper, "Did he just tap Ratchet's ass?"

"Looked like an accident to me," Mikaela answered him. The question made her uncomfortable--she didn't think it was her place to explain Cybertronian sexuality. It'd lead to questions about where she learned it and she knew Sam wouldn't like the answers.

I'm not sure what would freak him out more--the fact that they can have sex or the fact that I had it with Optimus. She frowned and shivered. Her thin white spaghetti strap tank top and the black vest she wore over it did nothing to keep the cold away. "Jesus! It's cold in here."

Again, Sam's eyes widened. He licked his lips and glanced around, the wheels in his head turning until an idea made his eyebrows twitch. "Why didn't you say so? My coat's in the other room. Just hang tight, I'll get it."

His sweetness made her smile.

The torrential rain continued its sweep across the roof. Mikaela glanced up as the lights came back on. The warehouse had no heat, but light was a good thing.

Then she noticed a strange sound--something like the noise of an old doorstop being bent and released. She walked closer to Optimus and leaned towards his side. His intakes knocked and clicked, spilling hot air through the spaces in his face and sides. Despite the air movement, his chest did not rise or fall like an organic. He radiated heat like an oven. She relished the warmth even though it worried her. "Ratchet?"

"Yes?"

"Something might be wrong. Optimus' intakes don't sound normal."

Worry flashed over Ratchet's face. He walked over, listened and the concern disappeared into the bemused raise of one optic ridge. "Ah, that's nothing to worry about. Air turbulence in his manifolds." He dipped his yellow head and offered her his strange, yet warm mechanical smile. "In organic terms, he's snoring."

Mikaela bit back laughter. Optimus...snoring?

Ironhide slowly made his way past Bumblebee. "Is Optimus rattling again?"

"Yes," Ratchet said. Mikaela watched him gaze deeply into his bond-mate's optics. Even gruff, harsh Ironhide softened for a heartbeat at the sight of Ratchet's caring expression. "He's still in pain from the loss of his bond mate. Inability to recharge is just one of many symptoms. Frankly, I'm surprised he hasn't cried."

Mikaela chewed on her bottom lip. Yes, yes he did cry. She held him--his hologram--while he cried for ten straight minutes. That was how she discovered his stoic manner was just a front to remain in command not just of his men, but himself as well.

"Ratchet." Ironhide whispered.

"What?" groused Ratchet as lightning flashed outside.

"I don't know what I would have done if you--"

"I didn't, so don't talk that way."

"The 'if' bothers me!" growled the weapons specialist. He pulled Ratchet to his chest and bent forward, bringing their mouth plates together with a soft clank. Reality funneled around them as they stood absolutely still. Nothing could touch them. Not the storm outside, not time, not even the worries running through their own processors. Then they moved in unison--Ironhide's left hand and Ratchet's right--and interlocked their fingers. It was...beautiful. Mikaela even saw sparks leaping between their mouths. She touched her own lips, flashing back to the tingling kiss Optimus gave her.

"And stop beatin' yourself up over Jazz. He went down fighting," said Ironhide insistently.

"His Spark was in my hands...my hands...and I couldn't keep it burning! He slipped through my--"

"We've been over this!" The weapons specialist snapped, "Jazz had no business being online when we found him, but he was! He didn't die alone out there."

"I couldn't hold him long enough for Bumblebee--"

"Jazz wouldn't have wanted him to see that."

"I should have--"

"Shut up!" Ironhide cut him off with another crackling kiss.

A gasp sounded. Mikaela's eyes wandered to the door. She froze and simultaneously felt her stomach turn to lead. Sweat broke out on her brow, under her arms and down her back.

There stood Sam, slack-jawed.

Oh, shit... She thought, Pleasedon'taskme, pleasedon'taskme...

Sam's gaze moved from the kissing mechs to Mikaela.

Dammit!

She twisted her lips to the side and raised her eyebrows. Nope, she wasn't going to say anything. He turned to face Bumblebee, one hand raising in a helpless, confused gesture.

"We..." Bumblebee's black face pinched in a frown, "...need to have a little talk."

Sam closed his mouth, nodded and ducked back into the room--he was so dazed he forgot to bring his jacket to Mikaela.

"Ahem!"

Ratchet and Ironhide pulled apart to focus on Bumblebee.

"Sam saw you."

Thunder bashed through the warehouse.

"So?"

"Ironhide..."

Ironhide glanced at Ratchet and slapped his palm against his forehead. "Great."

"Perhaps I should do this," said Ratchet. "Knowing you, you would only traumatize the boy further."

Ironhide huffed and stepped out of Ratchet's path. "Fine, I'd like to see you do better."

"Of course I will. I'm a medic. I know I won't be the one to slag the poor kid's brain. You have a filthy mouth when it comes to uplink talk."

"Don't make me plug you."

Ratchet continued towards the door. "...I rest my case."

"Tch!"

"Plug?" Mikaela arched a brow.

Ironhide folded his arms and chuckled, "To put it mildly...it's inserting my fingers into his--"

"Ironhide!"

"Oh, frag off, Ratchet! She asked!"

Ratchet muttered something about disassembling Ironhide's vocal processor and tried again to coax Sam out of the back room.

Mikaela inched closer to the warm air seeping from the seams in Optimus' chassis. This was exactly the reaction she feared and it made her glad she didn't have to explain it to Sam. C'mon, Sam...be open minded.

"What's he so afraid of?"

She gazed up at Ironhide's dark face, silently taking in his scars and naturally harsh expression. "Guys from Earth just don't like it when something threatens their sexuality. Especially between the ages of--oh--twelve and twenty."

"How annoying." Ironhide's mouth twitched in a smirk, "Constraining your desires--"

"We kinda have to, Ironhide." Mikaela said, folding her arms, "Unlike you, females around here can end up saddled with a baby they can't afford to take care of. It can ruin somebody's life. You guys can afford to fool around."

He frowned and the glyphs on his head glistened eerily in the overhead lights. "I understand your point. What I don't understand is this concept of ridiculing lovers of the same gender. Doesn't such a bond without risk of impregnation result in more sexual freedom?"

Mikaela tipped her head back to regard Ironhide. Optimus also commented on this issue and she knew they were just trying to understand their new home. Still, it didn't make his question any less uncomfortable.

"Some say it goes against nature. Some even consider it wasting the opportunity to conceive children. Then there are religious implications that I'd rather not get into."

"Then your evolution is flawed."

"Excuse me?"

He snorted, "You attain reproductive capabilities long before you actually wish to utilize them."

"Yeah, well," Mikaela tried her best not to look as offended as she felt. She was sure Ironhide didn't mean to be so abrasive, but his statement heated the pit of her stomach. "I didn't design the human race. I'm just part of it."

"Then who designed you?"

"He did." She pointed her thumb upwards, chuckled at Ironhide's confused sneer and decided to go help Ratchet talk sense into Sam.

.o

Mikaela checked her watch. Four-thirty--still raining and thundering...and now Sam sat beside her, his head in his hands, trying to digest the information Ratchet just fed him. Fortunately, Sam finally remembered the coat and she was wrapped in warm softness that smelled like Axe body spray. Contrary to the commercials, it didn't smell good enough to make her jump Sam's bones.

"My dad doesn't like gay people..." Sam said softly. "He's always had this crazy fear of me 'getting' gay."

"Homosexuality is a term used for lovers of the same gender. Cybertronians have no genders." Ratchet said dulcetly, remaining calm despite his obvious frustration. He'd only explained it about ten times. "'He' is a pronoun we use to identify ourselves as something other than objects. We fit the protocols you deem masculine--and, Sam, I do understand your confusion." He glanced Mikaela's way, "Gender is as alien a term to me as genderless is to you. In fact, the idea of sexual reproduction is extremely fascinating." He refocused on Sam, "Which reminds me...are you ever going to tell me your penis measurements?"

"RATCHET!" Mikaela and Sam both groaned.

"...what?" the medic blinked, "It's for science."

"My junk isn't for public inspection," Sam muttered. He looked helplessly at Mikaela and pointedly folded his hands over his lap.

Ironhide slid next to Ratchet and wrapped a possessive arm around his waist. "We've been together for nine million years, Sam. Bumblebee and Jazz were going to bond..." At that, Mikaela's heart paused. Ironhide went blithely on, "...and Optimus loved his bond mate even longer than all of us put together."

"Ten billion years," Ratchet added. "His lifetime."

Sam's gaze flicked from Bumblebee to Ratchet, then to Ironhide and finally Mikaela. "Who was his...uh...mate?"

"Megatron," Optimus' voice answered softly.

Startled, Mikaela looked up. Optimus' eyes were still closed and offline. Did he wake up long enough to answer? Was he talking in his sleep?

Sam's features blanched. "The Cube..."

"Sam, he's not mad at you. You did what he couldn't." Mikaela rubbed his arm, "He told me that himself a while back."

Rubbing his head, Sam slowly made his way past Ratchet's leg, gazed dazedly up at Bumblebee and slipped back into the side room. Mikaela knew he'd come around in time...after he got over the shock. She refocused on Optimus as his intakes resumed their soft rattling.

"He talked in his sleep."

"His Spark calls for its mate." Ironhide replied. He seemed haunted by his leader's emotionally charged state. Realization slapped into Mikaela like the thunder outside. This was exactly what Optimus meant about keeping himself controlled--the moment of emotion he showed in his sleep made Ironhide uneasy, which meant Ratchet was moody and Bumblebee could do nothing but sit beside Jazz's torn remains. They didn't take well to their leader being anything less than a pillar of strength.

Mikaela looked up at Optimus. His face was turned to her. He appeared serene, betraying nothing of the pain raging in his Spark.

"Does this mean you guys dream?"

Ratchet regarded her through the corner of his optic, "Recharge means all functions but the most vital are turned off."

You don't dream? Mikaela found that incredibly sad. "Then why did he say Megatron's name?"

Turning once more to Ironhide, Ratchet said to her, "As Ironhide said, his Spark reached for its mate. It will go unanswered and Optimus will awaken knowing that."

Cold water dripped onto Mikaela's cheek. She looked up at the ceiling and squinted, looking for the leak. There was none. She searched until she noticed moisture clinging to Optimus' eyelids.

His Spark must be crying. She leaned on his leg even though she knew he couldn't feel her. Somehow, it gave her the impression of helping him stay upright against his grief. She listened to the thrum of his Spark, a faint, pulsing hum droning beneath the air rushing into his intakes.

Faintly, she heard Sam whispering to Bumblebee. Relief flooded her. Better to have Sam accepting this than acting as if everything between them changed the moment he learned his giant alien friends were sexual beings.

.o

"Mikaela?"

She opened her eyes. Wait, when did she close them?

Again, the voice spoke, a low rumble vibrating the side of her face. "Mikaela, wake up. It's almost nineteen-thirty and the rain has diminished considerably."

Mikaela became suddenly aware of her cheek resting against Optimus' left arm. Embarrassed at herself for falling asleep, she sat up straight to regard the Autobot leader. He blinked slowly. She half expected him to yawn or stretch, but he didn't.

"Geez...I didn't mean to fall asleep on you. How long have you been awake?"

"One hour."

"Mm. Sam taking me home?"

"Sam and Bumblebee left shortly after I came online. I told them I'd escort you home. I--" He paused a moment and sat absolutely still. Mikaela arched a brow. His voice resumed where he left off, "--thought it best to let you recharge a little longer."

Mikaela wondered if the cold weather made "waking up" harder for Autobots. Then she dismissed it, leaned on him and sighed tiredly. It was nice of Optimus to look out for her this way. "Thanks...my mom doesn't get home until after midnight most nights, though, and that's if she comes home at all. Part of her job."

"What does she do?"

"She's a nurse at the county hospital."

"Ah. The urge to repair must be genetic," Optimus closed one eye in a wink.

Mikaela chuckled at him. "Guess so."

She rubbed a hand through her hair to remove the surface tangles and looked around the warehouse. Ratchet was clearly in recharge and Ironhide sat outside in vehicle mode, taking his guard duty shift. From the look of things, power hadn't been fully restored yet. She shivered at the prospect of returning to a dark house without electricity.

"Sam saw Ironhide and Ratchet kiss. They talked to him--well, Ratchet did all the talking. I still don't know how he's taking it. He freaked out a bit from what I saw."

Optimus slapped his forehead with his hand, scrunched his face plates and shook his head. "Hopefully Bumblebee will offer a less...clinical...explanation that will appease Sam."

"Yeah. Sorry about that." Mikaela yawned.

"You have nothing to apologize for. Maybe--uh, Mikaela? Your abdomen just made a strange sound. Are you functioning properly?"

She covered her stomach as her face flushed, "I'm fine. Just a little hungry. Hey, think we could swing past Taco Bell? I don't feel like cooking tonight. Stove probably won't work at home anyway. It's electric."

"I have no qualms with visiting this fast food...place."

"That settles that. Let's go."

Optimus chuckled and transformed himself into truck mode. He did it a little slower than usual, as if the storm's coldness seeped into his joints and left them a tad stiff.

Exactly fifteen minutes later, Mikaela exited the restaurant and climbed back into Optimus' cab. He drove two blocks to the abandoned alley where they first met and parked next to a dumpster.

Mikaela set her soda in the cup holder Optimus so graciously extended for her. Then she rattled the bag open and the smell of beans wafted deliciously into her nostrils. She unwrapped one end of her burrito and sank her teeth into its flavor. Soft tortilla gave way to the steaming tang of beans and nearly liquid cheese. Sipping her soda added a cold, sweet rush. She closed her eyes like an addict getting a fix. "Mm, so good..."

"What is it like?"

"Hm?" She swallowed, "What's what like?"

"Taste."

"Um..." Mikaela scratched her head. Explaining taste was like describing color for someone blind since birth. "It's...wow, this is hard...you guys can't taste?"

"Not the way you seem to. I can detect the chemicals within a substance. Like the piece you just dropped--it contains gluten and an abundance of polysaccharides."

For a split second, Mikaela pondered dripping hot sauce on his dashboard to see his reaction. Then she decided against it. At the very worst he'd give her a long list of chemicals and she'd have to clean up the mess.

"What do you guys eat then?"

"My body can convert many of Earth's fuels into a usable energy source."

Nodding, Mikaela took another bite of her burrito.

"Returning to our previous subject, what is taste like? How does it..." Optimus' voice dropped to a whisper that shot straight down her spine, "feel?"

She swallowed, licking her lips. "Um...it's--warm. The tortilla bread is sorta bland by itself--"

"Describe its texture." He sounded genuinely curious.

"Hm...soft, a little rough. Inside it is the best part." She bit down and chewed, focusing intently on the sensations filling her tongue. It was weird to pay such attention to an act as simple as eating--especially since she usually rushed through it so she could focus on homework. "It's warm...the beans just kind of melt and the cheese is all gooey and stringy. Good stuff."

"Interesting. What about your beverage?"

"My Pepsi?" Mikaela sipped it instead of gulping. "Cold...the bubbles make it sound like an arena of people are clapping in my head." She swallowed it, "And it tingles when I swallow. Burritos are a bit salty, but sodas are usually sweet. They're...opposite...flavors. Sort of."

"And you take enjoyment from these mixtures of texture and flavor?"

"Yeah."

"Then answer me this one question..."

"Hm?"

"This treat you call chocolate. Does its taste actually equate to sexual pleasure?"

Mikaela covered her mouth so she wouldn't spray beans all over Optimus' windshield. "I'm sorry," she tried to stop snickering long enough to avoid choking on the food in her mouth. "Um..." She giggled again, "People often say 'if food was sex, it'd be chocolate.' So what do you think?"

Optimus laughed and rocked on his wheels. "Taste sounds like an amazing sense."

"It is, Optimus," she consumed the last of her burrito and patted the seat, "I think touch is better, though. It's the sense that tells me I'm alive."

"I see no argument in that."

Mikaela smiled, "So...what does transforming feel like? No...first...how does it work? Is it--is it voluntary or do you just kind of set it off and your body does the rest?"

"The act of transforming is controlled by a string of software subroutines that execute in a specified order. This order can be changed or interrupted if doing so is necessary. And, unless I've taken heavy damage or have a foreign substance lodged in my joints--like sand--the process is painless."

She leaned back, taking in his explanation and relishing it. When she first met Optimus she was afraid he'd think such questions were rude. And she had so many--some she hadn't thought of yet.

"Why a Peterbilt?"

His voice gave a bemused rumble. "I can only mimic a vehicle roughly the same mass as myself. It was the first available source. I rather like this form. I...used to be silver."

"Like Megatron."

"Yes..."

Mikaela absently finished her soda, pushed the empty cup into the Taco Bell bag and threw her trash into the dumpster right outside the window. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't bring him up."

"It's all right, Mikaela. I feel free enough to speak about him with you. Not so much with the others."

She knew why. It made him emotional and he had to stay the strong, unimpeachable leader. Even Bumblebee never mentioned he was in a relationship with Jazz--he hadn't given a single outward sign of grief at all except for the way he sat by the deceased Autobot's body.

"Death used to be such a foreign concept to me," Optimus spoke quietly, almost to himself. "And suddenly I began to see it every day. And Megatron...he died in such agony, Mikaela. I saw the pain in his eyes. He never said a word to me--he just...gazed back, silent. Then he was gone. I can't reach him. I'll never reach him."

"You don't believe in an afterlife? Like...Heaven?"

"We generally don't concern ourselves with the unknown, Mikaela."

Tears stung her eyes. His tone wasn't accusing or angry, but the answer itself seemed cold...a blinding reminder that under it all, Optimus was a machine. Sophisticated, evolved, alive, sentient...but still a machine.

"The prospect of my own death doesn't frighten me. I know that, should the worst happen..." Oddly, his voice had a smile behind it, "...I know I'm surrounded by people who will--"

The pause stretched on. Fifteen seconds, thirty seconds. Mikaela lifted both eyebrows and jiggled his door handle. "Optimus?"

No answer.

"Optimus!"

"--remember me."

"Oh." She chewed her bottom lip. Something wasn't right. "Um, Optimus?"

"Yes?"

Worried now, Mikaela leaned forward and frowned, "You trailed off. I never heard you do that before."

"I spoke a complete sentence, Mikaela. Are you sure your audios are functioning properly?"

She shook her head. "No, you stopped."

"My memory banks never recorded a pause."

"Well, you did. Maybe you need more sleep...recharge...stuff. And have Ratchet check you out just in case. Can't have you falling apart just yet, you know."

"That is a most unlikely scenario," Optimus all but snickered. "Would you like me to stay with you when you return home?"

The question shot little thrills down her spine and across her belly. Practicality kicked in. Having a huge truck parked outside the house too often would arouse suspicion from the neighbors. One might even call the police...and in her nightmares one of those police cars would be Barricade lining up for a killing shot. It was always her fault when Optimus got hurt in her dreams.

And that was when she wasn't dreaming about him in bed with her. Those waking visions often left her sweaty and aroused. She wasn't supposed to have such thoughts about Optimus anymore!

"Thanks, but I'll probably go to bed as soon as I get home. I'm still pretty tired. You should get some rest after you drop me off."

"That sounds like a plan." Optimus' engine started and he pulled gently onto the empty road. Street lights began coming on as power was restored to the block.

Mikaela rejoiced--she wouldn't be walking into a scary pitch black house.

"We are being followed."

Her mental party crashed down. She looked in the side mirror and her heart froze at the black and white Saleen glistening menacingly in the amber street lights. "I thought Bumblebee got rid of him! I-I saw him trashed!"

"Obviously not damaged enough to extinguish his Spark. Mikaela, get into the driver's seat and buckle your safety belt."

Mikaela hurriedly scooted over, pulled seat belt from its home and fastened it into the clasp. "What's he want?"

"I'm not sure. My destruction for one. He may not realize Megatron is gone." Optimus remained utterly calm as he pulled up to a stoplight. "If I can, I want to avoid a fight. If our numbers are doomed to dwindle...every life is precious."

"Precious, right, say that again when he's trying to pound your face in."

Optimus' air brakes hissed. Was he irritated?

Barricade rolled slowly to a stop behind them.

Mikaela's heart pounded hard against her sternum. She grasped the steering wheel just in time to feel it jerk to the left. Suddenly, Optimus' engine roared. Tires screeched in a cloud of smoke. He peeled out of the intersection and gunned it down the darkened street. Mikaela saw only the white and yellow flashes of the street reflectors his headlights briefly illuminated.

"Call the others!"

"He's jamming my signal," Optimus' low voice gained a slightly harsh edge. "I'm leading him away from the base."

Rain speckled, then pelted the windshield. Lightning ominously lit up the sky to signal the storm wasn't over--in more ways than one. Briefly, Mikaela glimpsed the police vehicle still in pursuit.

"If it hails again, Mikaela, take the wheel. You are my advantage--Barricade does not have a driver."

Like that made her feel any better! She tried her cell phone. The battery was dead. She cursed Murphy's law and shoved it back into her pocket.

Optimus drove swiftly over a flooded dip, causing water to spray in all directions. Rain and condensation covered the windows too thickly to see anything other than light and shadows. Optimus was avoiding the major intersections. Mikaela didn't worry about him running into a dead end--he had GPS--and she could track his progress on the little screen beside the steering wheel. His present course took them towards the same grassy hill where he rescued her ruined prom night.

They approached the hill.

And passed it in a blur.

Ahead, railroad lights blinked as the signal gates lowered. Mikaela heard the train toot its horn. It sounded like it was right on top of them!

Optimus crashed right through the gate at breakneck speed. The Amtrak train roared by mere inches from his back tires and smashed into Barricade's right front headlight. Mikaela winced at the sound of metal meeting metal. Barricade spun out in a spray of broken glass.

"He's only delayed," Optimus' voice tore away her relief. He sped down the road--Mikaela had no idea where he was going because the driving rain made everything a blur.

"Is he still jamming your signal?"

"Yes. What about your cellular phone?"

"Battery's dead. Maybe if we--"

A horn blared. Someone had pulled an illegal U-turn right across Optimus' path!

Optimus swerved hard to the right, his semi horn blasting full volume. He turned too smoothly, too easily, and Mikaela realized with horror that he was hydroplaning on the wet road. A very wet road with a very steep drop off towards which they were very quickly sliding. She desperately gripped the steering wheel and pumped the brake pedal.

"I can't stop. Brace for impact!"

"Optimus!" Mikaela screamed and covered her head with both arms.