Title: Beneath That Metal Exterior
Fandom: Prime
Genre: Humor/Family (and Hurt/Comfort)
Pairings: No outright pairings are mentioned, although I will drop in hints of innuendo. How you guys interpret that is entirely up to you.
Rating: T for mild language.

Summary: Set the day directly after "Bully." The following chapters will deal with Ratchet's relationship between himself and the kids as he reluctantly becomes involved with sorting out their dilemmas, particularly those of one Rafael Esquivel. (You can decide for yourself which episode this story is set after, as the plot is compliant with mostly all of them.)

A special thank you to SargesGrl12 for writing her touching contribution to the TF:P fandom, "Bully." I hope that my response story does her work justice. Check it out when you get the chance; otherwise, it might be a bit difficult to keep up with this fanfiction.

Chapter One: Déjà Vu

"…and don't forget, for tomorrow's finals you'll need to bring a calculator, number two pencil, eraser…"

For once unable to concentrate, Rafael allowed his apprehensive thoughts—and gaze—to trail toward the window. Rain was pounding a steady bruise into the pavement, soaking everything as far as the eye could see. Already large puddles were expanding on the asphalt outside and sliding toward storm drains embedded in the road. Muddy expanses of grass would no doubt be greeted with grumbling from the students who would have to slosh through inch-deep puddles to get home. Restlessly the short brown-haired boy fidgeted in his desk, adjusting his glasses out of an idiosyncratic tendency.

It wasn't the storm that was making him so nervous.

A chime from the clock above the classroom door alerted Rafael to the impending end of school. Another two minutes until he would shuffle outside, lost in the surge of his classmates' stampede for freedom. Another two minutes until the unfamiliar presence of an ambulance would come into view, swinging the passenger seat's door open.

While the bespectacled boy was deeply grateful to Ratchet's intervention the day before, he was still put-off by the medic's uncharacteristic insistence on picking him up after school. Normally Rafael was greeted by his Autobot guardian Bumblebee, the Camaro's sleek yellow and black-striped paintjob cruising along the sidewalk with warm beeps and clicks of welcome.

To have his routine abruptly thrown out the window was extremely…well, nerve-racking, to say the least.

Not that he wasn't heartened by Ratchet's offer. It was just so awkward. Whereas Bumblebee was easy-going and enthusiastic to talk about Rafael's interests (videogames, technology―the usual flair), Ratchet's untouchable aura and imminent disdain for humans made it difficult to hold any sort of conversation. Just the idea alone of being chauffeured by the Autobots' medic had his gut in a roiling mass.

Lost in his thoughts, he nibbled at the eraser of his pencil and blankly watched his teacher scrawl something on the blackboard.

A sudden motion out of the corner of his eye caught Rafael's undivided attention. Several rows back Vince lounged in his chair, feet unperturbedly thrown atop his desk. To the untrained eye, the gesture was innocent enough, but Rafael knew better. Deep dislike glittered in the redhead's eyes, an unspoken promise to get even for the humiliating events of the day before. Apparently Ratchet's attempt to spook the bully had only yielded a new level of humiliation and revenge. Unconsciously he squirmed in his seat, silently pleading for the bell to ring just so he could bolt to safety. Reluctant as he was to grace the grouchy medic with his presence, if given the choice between the medic and the jerk, he'd pick the medic every time.

"…expect the best out of all you tomorrow. Mr. Esquivel, are you listening?"

Startled by the sudden use of his name, Rafael allowed his pencil to clatter to the floor beneath him, along with a few sheets of paper disturbed by the jerking motion. Babbling an incoherent stream of apologies, the boy bent over to hastily scoop up his belongings, reddening in response to the other kids' laughter. Before Rafael could properly explain himself, however, the bell loudly rang and heralded the end of the school day.

Around him chairs scraped against the tiled floor as his peers charged for the exit. Still trembling with embarrassment and anxiety, Rafael managed to unceremoniously cram the pages into his backpack. There was quite a large amount of space in his bag now, thanks to the conspicuous absence of his labtop.

Saved by the bell, Rafael noted with grim amusement. Under the disappointed scowl of his teacher he scampered from the room, head ducked down to hide his uneasy expression.

Because of his late departure from the class, he had avoided the traffic jam of noisy teenagers. However, the rather uneasy silence of the empty halls provided more foreboding than it did comfort. Clutching at the straps slung over his shoulders, Rafael trekked past the lockers as quickly and calmly as his trembling legs would allow.

It went without saying that he jumped badly when a menacing pressure was applied to his shoulder, halting his steps. "Where do you think you're going, you little rat?"

Icy adrenaline gushed through Rafael's veins, sending his body temperature plummeting. He had to choke back his fear as Vince's foul breath buffeted his ears. "Not runnin' off, are you?"

Swallowing the bulge in his throat, Rafael jerked around and wrenched himself free of the much taller boy's grip. "Back off, Vince," he growled, feeling less brave than he actually sounded. "You can't—"

"Can't what?" snapped the redhead as he took a step nearer and leered. "Pummel you until you're a bloody smear on my boots, whimpering for me to stop?" With an unpleasant laugh he stooped forward and gripped Rafael by the shirt collar, bodily lifting him an impressive five inches off the ground. He growled softly, "If I recall, there aren't any parking places for cars inside the school. My lucky day."

Helplessly Rafael flailed, unable to do more than squirm midair. The younger boy opened his mouth in a clear attempt to call for help, only to have his cries muted as Vince brusquely slammed his palm across his mouth.

Beneath Vince's sweaty hand he whimpered as the redhead triumphantly crowed, "When I'm through with you, you're gonna need that ambulance." Evidently on some sort of roll, the teenager gleefully tacked on, "See, I figured that since you're pals with that Darby punk, you asked his folks to pull off that little stunt yesterday. I hear his mom's a nurse. And guess what?" Bared teeth were thrust into Rafael's stricken face as Vince all but purred his delight. "I put two and two together."

As if waiting for a response, Vince shifted his hand's position minutely, allowing Rafael to both gasp for air and answer.

"Really?" He knew what he was about to utter was tantamount to suicide, but under pressure he couldn't help but feel goaded. "You know what two plus two is? Last I heard, you were flunking Algebra."

That smart remark earned him a solid fist to the face that resounded with an earsplitting crack. Immobile as he was, Rafael could do nothing more than recoil against the blow and utter a muffled scream beneath Vince's quickly readjusted palm. Already the boy could feel a livid bruise blossoming along his jawline, joining the bruise near his nostrils. Warm, metallic, sticky blood trickled down his face in rivulets. Still seething, the larger teenager clenched more tightly against his shirt collar. He was obviously unbothered by the crimson spatter on the sleeve of his leather jacket.

"Nerd," Vince snarled, rearing his arm back and briefly unmuting Rafael once more, "you'll regret that dearly."

Confined to his alt mode, Ratchet resorted to the only means to conveying his frustration by revving his engine. Loudly.

Impatience flared up inside him, leaving the medic feeling a bit drained and exasperated. Although he had volunteered to pick up the boy, he couldn't help but regard his offer as a waste of time. Steadily rain thrummed against the hood of his alt mode, sending droplets scattering across his red-and-white frame. While normally unbothered by trivial Earth weather, twenty minutes of waiting eventually gave way to annoyance. Suddenly the desire to see that punk's stricken expression had lost its appeal.

It didn't help that Bumblebee kept comming him what felt like every other astrosecond. Finally the medic had caved and silenced his transmitter, rendering Bumblebee's insistent calling into blissful silence. It would be worth a lecture from Optimus later to not have to endure the scout's constant pestering.

Granted, Ratchet could understand Bumblebee's concern, as he was beginning to share it.

Twenty minutes, he snorted to himself, his wheels gyrating briefly and sending up a wave of muddy water. What could possibly be taking the boy so long? He knew that Rafael's final exams were approaching, and he would want to obsessively prep himself by any means necessary. However, that rational thought didn't stop his thoughts from leaning toward one other possible scenario, one that made his wheels spin all the harder.

Worry crept through his chassis like rust, leaving the medic in a brief internal debate. If by some odds that human delinquent had injured Rafael, then the boy would be unable to call for help, given the state of his—Ratchet internally winced—wounds. Due to his undercover status, however, Ratchet knew he was unable to physically enter the human building and search for his temporary charge. Optimus was fickle about that specific guideline, and would have his aft mounted on a wall for even considering breaking that rule. An ambulance suddenly careening down the corridors with its sirens wailing would definitely fall under the category of "not incognito."

Quite frankly, Ratchet wasn't in the mood to send Jasper, Nevada, into a state of uproar at the boy's expense. He could already see the five o'clock news, a bald fleshling male reading his report with a flawless poker-face: "Earlier this afternoon, eyewitnesses claimed that a runaway, unmarked ambulance was tearing apart Jasper High. Authorities still don't know why the hospital chose to send an emergency vehicle to the school, although government personnel are still investigating this so-called 'attack.' In other news…"

Another scathing snort escaped his vocals.

Just what he needed. Human conspiracy theories and a manhunt.

Static unexpectedly laced through his audios with a frantically pinging message. Fighting back an indignant huff, ruthlessly Ratchet onlined his transmitter and all but spat, Bumblebee, for the last time, I'm sure the boy is

"Uh, Doc?" A tentative squeak answered from the other end. Judging by the rather poor transmission signal from the cell phone and the feminine voice that spoke, Ratchet safely surmised who the caller was.

Reverting to a similar dial transmission that synced up with the phone's, he grunted in reply, "Miko. Why are you calling?" A pause, and he indignantly barked, "And how did you get this number?"

Almost nonchalantly Miko answered, "Bulkhead showed me how to contact you. Apparently Autobots are walking satellite dishes, because if you press a few buttons, human phones can get through to the other line."

Had Ratchet been in his bipedal form, he would have quirked a brow and rolled his optics. "Remind me to reintroduce Bulkhead to my wrench later," he growled. Stifling a sigh, he snapped through the transmission, "What is so important, Miko? I'm waiting for Rafael, and am rather preoccupied."

"That's just it." Normally the human girl's tone contained an air of haughty confidence. Now concern riddled Miko's voice, making her sound disturbingly like a female version of Jack. "I tried calling him a few minutes ago, and he isn't responding. You know Raf, he's practically glued to his tech." More pressingly, she said, "You gotta find him, Doc! I think Bumblebee's gonna blow a fuse or something if you don't—"

"Alright," snapped Ratchet impatiently across the line. "I'll search for him. Tell Bumblebee to stop dragging his pedes across the floor unless he wants to spend the next two hours buffing out skid marks." With that said, he immediately terminated their connection, sending the line into white noise.

Once more the heavy sentiment of worry settled across his frame. Headlights flashing on, the ambulance roved his wheels and sped down the street. Mucky rainwater grazed his axles as another wave was launched into the air. As Ratchet drove around the corner toward the back end of the building, alarming thoughts raced through his processor, each more burdening than the next. You just sat there and waited for him to trot along! Of course something was the matter if he didn't show up for twenty minutes, you fragging idiot! How daft would a 'bot have to be to ignore the obvious?

Mentally rebuking himself solved nothing. Instantly the gauge housing his alt mode's speedometer flickered dangerously toward thirty-five. Ignoring the fact that he was in a fifteen mile zone, the ambulance ominously sped toward the rear doors of the school, shuddering to an unsteady stop mere feet from the entrance.

Engine rumbling ominously, Ratchet did a brief scan that consumed no more than a klik of time to complete. A second scan told him that there were no recording devices nearby. Certain that no pesky humans were within the immediate vicinity, he chanced reverting back to his bipedal form. Diagnostic results lining the inside of his HUD alerted him to the presence of several fleshlings of varying ages and heights inside the school. Teachers and students, the medic gathered, his faceplates furrowing into a pensive expression. If he locked onto individual heat signatures, there was a distinct chance that he could move about the school and avoid being spotted…

It was a risk that he would unfortunately have to take.

Through a stream of Cybertronian curses Ratchet crouched, wishing furtively that for once in his eons-long life that he was Arcee's height. Call it coincidence or the work of Primus, he was able to squeeze through the double doors and enter the back end of the school. While the ceiling was somewhat elevated, it did little to compensate for just how slagging tall he was. Forced into an awkward crouch, Ratchet began to painstakingly navigate the hallways, all the while grumbling about his rotten luck.

When I find that child, he vowed, ducking back around a corner when he heard a nearby classroom door click, I'll make him endure tenfold of everything I'm going through to find his sorry

That particular train of thought came to a standstill, as did his own movements when a warning ping rang across his neural net. Focusing on the alert, Ratchet sifted through the information feed and recognized the heat signature as Rafael's. Diagnostic reports gave him a rough estimate of the boy's location, about thirty-six feet west toward a large room that he remembered Jack calling a "gym." The description matched, anyway; the suspended rings that the children were so fond of throwing those obnoxious balls through were facing each other across a vacant court. Stands and risers ringed part of the room; he could just see the inside of the gymnasium through the glass panels on several doors.

Grumbling under his breath, the white and red mech continued to stiffly walk in that direction, ignoring the nagging voice in his head that was reminding him of the other part of the diagnostic report: that Rafael's vitals were in semi-critical condition.

He almost uttered a silent Thank you to Primus for not having his comrades present to see him wedge himself through yet another human door. Bulkhead would have never let him live that down. Once again he was forced to duck and half shove, half haul his too-wide chassis through the pathetically small doorframe. It required herculean effort to not snipe aloud at the bitter unfairness of it all. Ignoring the threatening creak from the protesting metal frames, Ratchet managed to propel himself into the gym, unscathed.

Well, almost unscathed.

While the scrapes he'd left along the doorframe were minimal, Ratchet was disgruntled to note that he had scratched himself. Many tiny flakes of paint littered along the floor were evidence of that. He glared at the gym doors as if they had verbally offended him. "Wretched human building."

Too consumed with his desperate search, Ratchet didn't bother to cover his tracks and clear away the paint flecks. Able to stand at his full height in the more vaulted room, the medic whipped around, sending out electrical scans for signs of organic life. Almost instantly the reports told Ratchet that Rafael was close at servo. Just beyond another door in a closed room, a sign bolted across it that read Boys' Locker Room.

Holding back another sigh—more worried than aggravated this time—the mech grabbed at the handle and turned it.

The first thing that greeted him was an overwhelming smell.

Sweat, mold, various human body odors, urine, cheap cologne—the odor was so powerful that Ratchet had to override the coding in his neural net and offline every olfactory sensor he possessed. Primus, he knew humans were putrid, but this was an entirely new level of disgusting. This place was a biohazard, a breeding ground for germs! The armor plating around his mouth curled as he bit back a gag reflex and vented sharply. Even though Optimus strongly encouraged interaction between their races (namely the kids and his comrades), this was a part of the "intermingling" that he certainly could have done without.

He swore to himself that the smell would permanently be scarred into his memory log for as long as he lived.

What drew him out of his one-sided rant was a quiet moan. Quickly Ratchet homed in on the sound and forced himself through the door, oblivious to the scrape marks he left in its frame as he shoved himself into the cramped room.

Again the wounded noise surfaced behind a row of lockers blocking his view. Now reduced to an almost scuttling gait, the white and red mech inched along its perimeter, moving out from behind the row of lockers and into the aisle.

He wished he hadn't.

Rafael was huddled beneath a wooden bench, several nasty scrapes lining his arms, legs, and face. Each breath was rapid and shallow, drawing a raspy huff from the semi-conscious child. The boy's brown vest, sleeved undershirt, and baggy pants were tattered and torn in several spots, revealing a few bare patches of skin. Blood had pooled around his limbs where he had been viciously attacked, leaving only several areas of skin unharmed. Automatically the medic's protocols took over, transmitting a data feed to his HUD as Ratchet numbly stood and watched. The reports were sending him basic vital stats: he wasn't in any sort of mortal jeopardy and hadn't lost severe levels of body fluid, thought the information was far from comforting.

After several tense kliks of uncertain staring, Ratchet kicked himself into gear. Crouching into a more comfortable stance, he gathered the human child in his hands, carefully trying to keep his expression blank. Blood dribbled along the medic's fingers as he cradled the boy close to his spark chamber, optics narrowing.

Yes, the children more often than not annoyed the frag out of him. Yes, they were always under his feet, be it at the base or on the battlefield. Yes, they gave him a processor ache.

But the suddenly broken form of the youngest human in their ramshackle lot left Ratchet gritting his denta until he could taste metal scrapings inside his mouth.

Had Rafael been conscious, Ratchet wouldn't have dared say anything, for fear of injuring his own pride. Now, without having to worry about the youngling overhearing him, he vented a soft sigh and uttered an uncharacteristic, "I'm sorry."

Amidst the confusing whir of data feed and emotions he managed to silently turn, intent on doing everything in his power to set things right.