Author's Note: Remember when I said back in chapter two that there "wouldn't be any more melodramatics"? I lied.

Dang, time sure flies when you're getting ready for college. Sorry 'bout the ridiculously long wait; you guys deserve better. On a related note, my wish came true. For those of you who saw the TF: Prime episode Operation Bumblebee: Part One, rejoice with me! Ratchet actually gave Raf a drive home from school, and he offered to run his sirens in order to cheer him up. Squee! I swear, there's gotta be lurkers on FF that work for Hasbro watching my fanfics and incorporating my ideas into their episodes. …I can dream, can't I? Don't mock me. :c Oh, and no matter what happens, I will never abandon this, or any of my other fics. Even if I don't update for months at a time, rest assured, they won't be left to sit and collect dust forever. Once again, thank you—readers and reviewers—for being so faithful with this story. We're approaching the end; just four more chapters to go. Huzzah! This story is now posted on my deviantART account, for those interested. Visit the bottom of our profile to find the link.

There are a few character references to the books Exodus and Exiles.

Disclaimer: War might be hell, but disclaimers are a bitch.

Warnings: You might need some tissues…

Rating: T

Summary: Round Two commences in Sir Screams-A-Lot versus the terrible, fire-breathing concerned parent. Meanwhile the search for the Holy Gift continues as our three young heroes and their noble metal steeds scour the kingdom. And in his castle, Lord Optimus contemplates whether or not he is out-of-style.

EDIT: Time to give the time in the story. It's 3:30 p.m., over three hours after the previous chapter.

Chapter Ten: Dragon Lady

To say that Ratchet was bored would have been an understatement.

In fact, the medic was fairly certain that most human languages lacked the proper words to describe just how utterly miserable he felt. (Which was a fairly normal feeling for him, if Bulkhead was to be believed.)

With a low-pitched growl the Autobot adjusted his grip on the screwdriver, raised his servo, and threw it. Like a torpedo the screwdriver whistled through the air, its sickle-sharp tip glinting as it sunk into the wooden board across the room. Impact consisted of a muffled, dull thud as the tool burrowed into the epicenter of the target, a series of black and white rings marked with the Cybertronian glyphs for 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, and 100.

Not even bothering to sit up and see if he had hit his target, Ratchet groped on the berth for another tool. Unhurried fingers flitted across the polymer surface before tightening around the nearest object. Without any real effort the orange-white mech flicked his wrist and sent a scalpel flying across his quarters. From his supine posture Ratchet heard the telltale thunk of the tool making its mark. Rather than deign to see if he had hit the target or some other piece of furniture, however, Ratchet threw back his helm and glowered at the ceiling.

This was an all-time low, a testimony to just how hard he had hit rock bottom.

He was playing darts.

With the tools that Optimus hadn't confiscated.

Another thunderous snarl tore out of his vocalizer. Disgusted with himself for such a display, the medic moved his right arm toward the stockpile of tools next to his flank. In a forceful motion he shoved the remaining pliers, drill bits, scalpels, and screwdrivers off of his berth, creating a crescendo of clatters when they bounced onto the floor. As the scattered tools rolled across the ground, Ratchet forced himself to sit up, scrubbed at his faceplates, and sighed.

Unlike his comrades' quarters, the CMO's were fairly utilitarian, mostly crowded with work or unfinished projects that over time had migrated into his room. Anything personal was stored away, out of sight, leaving just a standard-sized berth, a workbench, and a shelf lined with half-completed devices.

The oversized dartboard mounted on his wall had been Bulkhead's idea of a joke. After being introduced to the human game, the ex-Wrecker and his charge had constructed a larger replica of a target. With what could only be described as a slag-eater's grin the two had given it to him as a gift for some ridiculous festivity called "Valentine's Day." The colossal frontliner had slapped Ratchet on the shoulder and insisted that the dartboard would "keep his aim from getting rusty." But both Autobots knew that it was in actuality just another attempt to bait the medic, rather than a sincere display of affection, as the holiday mandated. To add fuel to the proverbial fire, he couldn't dispose of it because Optimus—frag his sense of good humor—had endorsed their efforts to spite his existence. With an innocent smile, their Prime had suggested, "You should bring them along to help find a suitable place to hang it."

Thus, the dartboard was here to stay.

After a few months of being forced to look at it, it became less and less of an eyesore, to the point where Ratchet could enter his quarters without feeling the need to glare at it.

Tolerate it? Yes. Actually use it? Now that was a bit beyond the medic's range of foresight.

With another sigh Ratchet hunched his shoulders and drew up his knees before his chassis.

This was getting ridiculous. After two solid days of nothing to do, the medic was seriously contemplating mass murder. The lag in repairing and upgrading their base was grating on his nerves in ways that harassment never could. Even the children's constant pestering is tolerable by compari

At the thought of the human younglings, his processor came to a grinding halt. More tumultuous sentiments assaulted the medic, causing him to shake his helm in attempts to rid himself of the thoughts. To no avail, Ratchet was left with the same nagging emotions that had been manifesting more and more as of late:

Humiliation. Frustration. Regret.

Of course, he was no stranger to said feelings. Associating them with the humans, however, was an entirely different cube of Energon. Over the course of the past four days the irksome emotions had made their presence known, magnified with each passing day since he had first scared off the red-haired scoundrel. Not exactly the 'Bot best equipped to cope with emotional distress, Ratchet had resorted to his favorite coping method.

Complete denial.

If he didn't have to look at the pesky brats, surely the strange feelings would be filed away in the back of his processor, happily forgotten.

Therein lay the problem. Confining himself to the barracks only worked for so long before he was bored to tears. (Not that his optics could actually produce tears.) Also, while the isolation physically separated him from the children, it did little to stop him from remembering that they were the reason why he'd barricaded himself in his room. Primus, he wasn't able to escape them even in his own damn head!

What I wouldn't give for a strong dose of high-grade, the Cybertronian lamented. Anything to drown out the sensations crowding at the forefront of his CPU. The Pit, he was even tempted to medicate himself, if only to last out the last few days of his "vacation." Unfortunately, all supplies at the moment were being negated to battle-related casualties. In the event of a fight against the Decepticons or MECH, their resources would be needed for repairs. "Happy meds"—as Bumblebee had dubbed them—were out of the question

In his halfhearted musings Ratchet considered brewing high-grade. Instantly the scientist inside of him jumped up and down, spouting out calculations. If I recalibrate the pressure chamber in the refinery, then all I would have to do is modify the dispenser to… For several kliks his neural circuits desperately attempted to abridge the long calculations into a condensed version that he could work with. Sadly, his skills were limited to medicinal, not engineering, and he was left grasping at nothing.

These were the days when he wished that Perceptor was still with their crew. Antisocial as the physicist might be, he specialized in coding and mechanics and would have easily compensated for Ratchet's so-so handiwork.

The idea of being forced to remain sober made him growl.

Whether it was the figurative straw that broke the camel's back, or boredom making him reckless, Ratchet pushed himself off of the berth. Pedes connected with the floor underfoot as the broad-shoulder mech stood. That was it. He couldn't keep avoiding the brats, and he certainly couldn't do it in his room. At least in the medbay he could lock himself in its storeroom and keep his servos occupied. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and he wasn't above getting on his knees and begging Optimus to let him go back to work.

Acting before he could change his mind, he crossed his room in three long strides and palmed the keypad beside his door. Upon recognizing his unique signature, the lock pinged, and the paneled door slid into the wall. Optics narrowed, Ratchet peered cautiously around the doorframe.


A little more bravely than before, the orange-white Autobot advanced into the empty corridor with his proximity sensors on high alert. Dimmed blue optics roved over the floor space, double-checking the vacancy of the hall. When the scans along his HUD confirmed what a visual had already concluded, at last the medic relinquished his hesitation and proceeded.

Of course, Ratchet wasn't afraid of them. And any person stupid enough to suggest it would mysteriously disappear overnight. Instead, the recalcitrant Cybertronian found himself admitting, however reluctantly, that it was the impending conversation that he dreaded. There was not a doubt in his mind that the humans would pounce on him like piranha as soon as they smelled the blood in the water. Questions, demands, answers expected of him for his rash behavior. His decision to give a damn had resulted in their routine being thrown out the proverbial window—the routine in which Ratchet would berate, lecture, or curse at the kids while they ever-faithfully countered with their whining, teasing, or harassing.

After months of cultivating a steady relationship—or lack thereof—one impulsive action had thrown away the familiar. Now there was only…this; this whirlwind of disjointed feelings and anxiety of the unknown.

Worst of all was that Ratchet had no idea how to revert back to his usual aloof and distant self. Suddenly Jack, Miko, and Rafael knew that he had taken Vince for a joyride straight from the Inferno—knew that he had risked breaking protocol to get even on their behalf; knew that he had been punished for going out of his way; knew that he had set aside his "vacation time" to fix the broken laptop.

None of them understood why, and inevitably were going to ask him.

Problem was, Ratchet had no answer. Not because he wouldn't give it, but because he couldn't.

Out of habit born from experience he prowled down the hallways, not really bothering to focus on the walk so much as the destination. Most of the mech's attention was being diverted to keeping an optic out for the children. Last he had actually seen them was the night he had gone AWOL; since then, not a trace of the little pests. The Pit, they hadn't even been hovering around the sofa when Ratchet had ground bridged the others back to base over an hour ago. No doubt they had been off plotting in some remote corner, waiting to spring their Twenty Questions on him when he least expected it. Who knew where they were now—


On reflex he whirled around with his extension blades already protruding from his arms. Tensely Ratchet skimmed over the dark hallway, gaze darting back and forth to identify the source of the noise.

Astroseconds after he heard the noise several rats darted across the ground. Tiny feet pattered over the steel surface, creating a skritch-skritch-skritch sound as their claws scraped against the hard material.

An optic twitched.

"Wretched vermin!" roared the medic. Through the air he slashed his blade in a wicked arc of metal and steel, showing just how pissed he felt. "One of these days I will litter this base with mousetraps and knit your fragging pelts into a welcome mat! You can set an example for what I do to those who get—on—my—nerves!"

The last four words were enunciated with as much venom as a copperhead's bite, but the rodents continued to dart obliviously into the shadows. Seething, Ratchet sheathed his weapons and stomped down the hall.

Some might have called it paranoia. He preferred the term "hyper vigilance."

Fine. Maybe he was blowing it out of proportions. That didn't mean he had to admit it.

At last the orange-white 'Bot rounded the final bend and peered into the central command center. From a glance the room appeared empty, yet vorns of being forced into dangerous scenarios had taught him that looks could be deceiving. Scans began to absorb in any data available—heat signatures, EM fields, organic composition, anything and everything his sensor grid could pick up.

Yet all of Ratchet's precautions were rendered moot when the unmistakable baritone of his leader reached his audios: "…think that you should look elsewhere. I highly doubt you would find anything suitable in a—what was it again?—ah, yes: a 'ToysRUs.'"

Perhaps it was the absurdity of the words that made him pause, all previous cautions aside. He ran a diagnostic on his audios. Maybe his CPU was finally starting to glitch from impact trauma.

It was only after a very long, very dumbstruck pause that it finally dawned on the medic that Optimus was using his comm. line. With Miko, of all people, leading Ratchet to surmise that she was off the perimeters with the other two children. Their absence might have attributed to the reason why his scans had come up negative for other Cybertronian readings, with the exception of Optimus'. Well, that's one mystery solved, Ratchet realized, a bit belatedly. Upon deciding that he didn't like being left out of the loop, he extended his own broadcast channel to synchronize with the other mech's radio frequency. What he didn't expect to find was a signal block so heavily encrypted that all he got was a mile-long wall of codes.

Taken aback by the barricade, he again homed in on the wireless signal and attempted to connect to the transmission.

Access denied, came the monotone response. Following that message was a polite request for a password.

That…wasn't normal. Under any other circumstance signal jammers were strictly prohibited due to their need to be able to contact each other at any given moment. It was part of protocol. So why, in the name of Primus, was he being blocked? While Ratchet had basic training in hacking communication frequencies, he was certainly no Jazz, and by the looks of the security files in place Optimus had gone through painstaking amounts of trouble to keep him out.


Realizing that what he was hearing he wasn't supposed to be privy to, the CMO ducked back into the hallway. Washing over his sound receptors was the heavy thunderclaps of their Prime's footfalls. When Ratchet dared to sneak a glance around the corner he caught a brief glimpse of Optimus pacing slowly. One servo was pressed against his ear finial to better amplify the communiqué.

As the broad-shouldered Cybertronian pressed his spinal plating firmly against the wall, he overheard Optimus answer whatever it was Miko had said. Judging from the content of the conversation, their topic seemed to be about human color trends. That on its own terms merited therapy sessions, and lots of them.

"…that doesn't even make any sense. How is purple the 'new black'?"

Were they seriously having this discussion?

"—but the pigment purple is derived from red and blue, whereas black is the absence of color. It is entirely different because it doesn't reflect light—"

Apparently they were.

You'd think Optimus was channeling Perceptor, by the way the two were going at it. At least part of his wish was granted; now he just needed Prime to shut up and build him a high-grade dispenser.

"Very well," Optimus conceded in what suspiciously sounded like a sigh. By the sounds of it he had given up on trying to understand the vast and complex social laws that dictated color trend, and had invoked the oldest of parenting tricks: if you agreed with the teenager, it would stop arguing about being right. "Why not purchase it in blue? According to the RYB subtractive color wheel founded by Isaac Newton, it is a primary color—"

Vocalizer dwindling into static, the Prime trailed off as Miko interrupted with a few short, dismissive words. For a heartbeat, nothing, until Optimus replied in a carefully neutral tone, "What do you mean, 'Blue is out of style'?" He hesitated, then suggested lightly, "Why not red?"

A pause. "'Red is dead'? I fail to see how a particular mindset renders a color socially unacceptable." Even as he addressed the communiqué Ratchet noticed a minute disturbance in the magnetic fields brushing against his own. A quick flare that practically oozed panic.

A sudden thought occurred to the medic.

Keeping his movements minimal, Ratchet stretched his backstruts far enough to peer around the corner.

Although Optimus was facing his direction, the red-and-blue Autobot was too fixated with examining his own armor to pay Ratchet's appearance much attention. Horror blossomed across their leader's normally composed expression as he lowered an arm and compared it to the blue on his hip. It was like watching a train wreck that Ratchet didn't know how to stop. A really, really hellish sort of train wreck, complete with jaw-dropping. Only when Optimus scratched a flake of red off of his arm did the ground suddenly feel a lot colder.

Well I'll be damned. The Pit just froze over.

Never, in the eons of being acquainted with the modest Prime, had Ratchet ever pegged him as self-conscious. Just to confirm his theory he did a double-take. Sure enough Optimus was speaking over the frequency again but was twisting his head to try and get a glance at the armor along his back. All because Miko—Miko, of all people!—had told that his color scheme wasn't popular. It was as if someone had switched the mech he knew and trusted and replaced him with a peacock. Or Knock Out. It was kinda hard to tell the difference some days.

The behavior lasted another klik before Optimus shook his helm, like a wet dog trying to dislodge water from its ears. With a final grimace at his paintjob he rumbled, "That sounds like an excellent idea. What would you like the engraving to say?"

It was as if someone had thrown a switch. Gone was his self conscious frown, replaced with a thin-lipped scowl. "Absolutely not. We are not desecrating it with that sort of language." A strained hiss of steam left Optimus' smokestack. "Where did you even learn those words…?"

"Bulkhead, I bet," muttered the CMO. Primus knew what else those three glitches were teaching the children.

"Miko." There was no mistaking that tone. A lecture was brewing. "Please place the nearest Autobot on the line. I would like to speak with one of them."

Another pause ensued. In the heavy stillness of the impending talk Ratchet could distinctly make out the metallic tap of Optimus' pede. Despite the talk-down being aimed at another of his comrades he still reflexively flinched. Generally speaking, it was a good idea to have a healthy fear of the guy who could easily turn them inside out.

Not even half a minute later he heard Optimus exhale oh-so-carefully. Probably trying to stop himself from leaving the base and shaking them by the neck until screws flew out. Ratchet found it hard to disagree, considering that they still needed as many cannon fodder as possible to throw at the Decepticons. Very softly, the Matrix-bearer ordered, "Arcee, I will only repeat this message once, so listen well: When I said to educate the children about our culture, I explicitly meant everything but our profanities. Pass on the message to Bulkhead and Bumblebee. And no, learning human curses from the children, no matter what language they're in, does not count as an 'equal trade.' Understood?"

Even through the heavy encryptions Ratchet could hear her sullen voice seep across the line. An affirmative noise followed before he heard Miko's obnoxious voice again.

"…agree. Next, we must consider the number that can be placed inside. Do we know how much space an equivalent size ratio will leave us with?" After a moment Optimus suggested, "Why not ask Jack? Perhaps he—"

As intriguing as this conversation was, Ratchet found his interest waning. Despite his curiosity, there was no telling when the others would be coming back. All the more reason to prep the altar and sacrifice the last shreds of his pride.

Just as Ratchet stepped into full view Optimus paced in the other direction. With a long-suffering sigh the medic braced himself. Tucking his dignity into some dark corner of his processor, he edged closer, a servo reaching out about to prod the other mech in the back and get his attention. Before he could act on the impulse the Prime spoke, and his outstretched hand froze: "You don't need to worry, Rafael. If anything, I am sure that Ratchet will appreciate the gesture—"

At that second Optimus chose to make an about-face in his pacing, bringing himself nearly chassis-to-chassis with Ratchet. Their chestplates bumped lightly together, creating an echoing clang. Optimus recoiled instantly as if stung, while the digit that had been pressed to his ear finial dropped to his side. Their locked gazes bore into each other, one taken aback by the nature of the conversation, the other panicking at being overheard. With a cocked optic ridge Ratchet folded his arms across his chassis and coughed pointedly. Protocol violated, conspiracies plotted with those brats: he couldn't wait to hear what the excuse was this time.

Optimus cleared his throat and let his gaze drop to the floor. "Um."

For a mech who had unlimited access to the knowledge of the universe, that was rather…anticlimactic.

Canting his helm to the side, Ratchet opened his mouth with all intentions to verbally (and physically) wrestle the truth from him. Frankly, he was getting tired of beating around the bush. At the very least, if the kids were intending to buy something and haul it back to base, he'd like to know beforehand how many injuries it was going to cause. You know, give him at least some time to prepare the medbay.

And just like that, the alarm system went off.

Immediately both Autobots swung their heads in the machine's direction. Instinct had Ratchet already padding across the room, side-stepping around Optimus and rapidly keying into the silo's alarm system. An image popped up across the panel. Outside cameras were quickly zoomed in on the rapidly-approaching object. Optic ridge furrowed, Ratchet quickly typed in the security code. The cameras adjusted their focus and homed in on the off-white automobile barreling toward the rock face.

"Nurse Darby," he sighed, and at once set the proximity alarms on standby. As the pings quieted to a dull hum he stretched out his back plates and sighed. "What do you suppose she wants this ti…"

Upon turning around, however, Ratchet found that the room was empty. All desire to grovel on his knees was promptly abandoned.

You have got to be kidding me. Way for their leader to bail and leave him to be the door greeter. Oh, Optimus would certainly be regretting that come his next maintenance appointment.

Which now left him with the issue of dealing with her. Hm. Well, best get to work…

Roughly three minutes later he heard the car door slam, followed by the tap of the human's shoes. Not even bothering to greet her, Ratchet shifted slightly to the left to better get at the motherboard with his wrist drill. With his helm firmly tucked under the PC he could barely make out her white sneakers on the floor space beyond the console.

Yep. This was his great and glorious plan: the ostrich approach. Shove his head under the nearest machine and appear too busy to talk to her. Simply put, just because he was under orders not to work didn't mean that she knew about it. Granted, the floor wasn't too kind to his spinal struts, and while the spacing was inadequate, if it gave him an excuse to avoid the human then it was all fine and dandy, as far as he was concerned.

The shoes stopped moving and a long breath followed. Oh, goodie. Her patience was already worn thin, and given how well they normally got along, it looked like the fireworks would be starting early today.

"No, the children are not here. They're out with the others on some sort of errand. Optimus is more than likely in the back of the base"—When he should be the one having this conversation—"and I'm currently repairing the terminal's motherboard. So sorry to disappoint. Good bye."

At least no one could accuse him of beating around the bush.

"What, no 'hi, how are you'?" Ms. Darby countered, though the friendly teasing in her voice sounded strained, as if she was barely holding back what she really wanted to say. Instead, her shoes scuffed the floor as she collected her thoughts. "I know where Jack and his friends are. In fact, he borrowed my credit card an hour ago because Miko said that they had to go on a 'life or death' shopping mission."

If his face wasn't hidden beneath the machinery, she would have been able to read the dark look on the medic's faceplates. "Is that so." While it didn't explain what he'd overheard earlier, Ratchet could now care less. "Well, then I suppose there's no need for me to show you the door. Have a nice day."

Still the human refused to budge. Her stance seemed to grow tense at the edge of his periphery. "Actually, I wanted to talk you."

"Need I remind you," he ground out, "that I'm not their babysitter? If you need to talk to someone about wiping their butts, then go bother my comrades. Otherwise, leave. I've had too many interruptions this week, and I'm sorely behind on my work."

Perhaps he was being a tad too blunt. He didn't care; anything to make the human go away at this point was fine by him. First the children, that wretched vandal, and then Fowler. His quota for human-Cybertronian interactions had been well exceeded, and nothing would have made the red-white mech happier than to make this one go the slag away. Never mind the fact that his temper was well beyond its breaking point.

Ringing silence followed his barbed comment. A heartbeat after he'd spoken June planted her soles more firmly against the metal underfoot and exhaled aloud. His optics briefly flickered to her legs as she shifted back and forth, clearly making a herculean effort to not yell.

"The thing is, I'm not here to talk to Arcee or any of the others because I know that they're doing their jobs. What I want to talk about is why you—the mediclet Rafael get hurt and neglected to tell me."

Ratchet froze.

In absence of his own witty retort Ms. Darby plowed on, her voice growing more dangerous by the second: "I know enough about bones at a glance to see that it's broken. Ulna or radius, I can't tell. Of course, I wouldn't have to make guesses if one of you had let me know that it was broken!" In his continued silence the woman snapped, "And slash marks! I caught a glance of several along his sleeves, not some accidental scratches from playing too rough. They're not shallow, either. I want an explanation, Ratchet, or so help me I'll visit my mechanic for a welding torch and shove it up your damn exhaust pipe!"

So much for pleasantries.

Gathering every ounce of patience he could scrounge for, the mech braced his servos against the console and slowly began to back out from underneath. As his helm cleared the underside he was brought directly eye-level with the red-faced human. Optics and irises met in a crackling exchange before Ratchet seamlessly rose to his pedes. Glacial blue lenses swept over her as the medic's drill retreated back beneath the armor around his wrist. Dusting his armor free of debris, he loomed a little closer and glared. Briefly he considered a dozen or so ways to avoid the talk, only to realize unhappily that if he said the wrong thing, she would go to Fowler.

If she told Fowler some outrageous story about the Autobots endangering civilians, Fowler would contact the United States government.

And if the U.S. government got involved…

Primus, he needed high-grade.

June continued glowering up at him. "I'm waiting."

In a guarded tone, Ratchet answered, "The…issue…that resulted in those injuries has been taken care of. There is no need for you to concern yourself over the matter."

"No need for—?" June spluttered, her voice choked up and thick with anger. In the second it took her to swallow her incredulity Ratchet began to realize what a futile battle he was fighting, though he certainly had no intentions of backing down. Not yet. Not while the toss-up was still between the truth and his pride. He actually had to force himself to not flinch as Ms. Darby yelled, "They're children!"

With his own irritation fueling him, the Cybertronian couldn't help but snap, "Really? I hadn't noticed."

The clenched hands at her sides balled into fists. "When I first found out about you, I only let Jack, Miko, and Raf stay because Arcee assured me that they were safe, despite the fact that only hours before I watched an eight-legged robot play cat-and-mouse with my son. Imagine how petrified I was when I saw Rafael walk through my front door with his arm in a makeshift sling. Can you even begin to understand what a parent goes through when their child gets hurt? In a war, at that! His parents don't even know that his life is endangered every day that he comes into contact with you, leaving me as the middle man! Not only did you let him get hurt, but you didn't bother to tell anyone!"

By the time she had finished her breaths were ragged and coming out in sharp exhales. Still Ratchet looked on unflinchingly. While her claim was a fair one, it was unrelated. And all things considered, it wasn't his job to report to her every time one of them got in a fight a school. Those issues weren't the sort of thing his business card entailed.

Curtly, despite the churning feeling in his tanks, Ratchet informed her, "I reiterate: his fracture was an unrelated incident. Why he didn't bother to tell an adult, only he knows."


"If I'm not mistaken, there's something on this planet called medic-patient confidentiality. You of all people should have heard of it. Don't come to me looking for answers when all that I did was fix him up."


"Are you kidding me?" she spat out. "You're not his doctor! And what do you know about human anatomy? You're not even human. If he gets hurt and you don't tell someone—"

"Then that obviously means everything is fine, Ms. Darby," the medic hissed back. "The problem is gone, like you should be. Now leave."

With the last vestige of resolve in his possession he viciously shoved his feelings away. A final parting glare was shot in June's direction before the orange-red Autobot whipped around and began to stalk across the hanger.

"That's it?" the woman yelled after him. "Is that really it? Jesus Christ, how can anyone stand you? You're heartless," she snarled.

Never once did his stride falter.

"How can you think it's okay to let them run after you into battles? They're like sheep being led to slaughter, and they'll never see it that way because the kids trust you to keep them safe. And yet you'd still brush it off if they got hurt in your war. Do you even care if they die?"

Just like that, Ratchet stopped.

He wasn't sure what he was feeling. Too many emotions erupted like a geyser, all at once, blurring around the edges until he couldn't discern guilt from rage, regret from pain. It was too much. Too raw. When the mech tried to swallow, the cables in his throat seized, rendering the motion physically impossible.

In that instance, the only thing he knew was that the human was wrong.

Lips twisted into a wordless snarl, the broad-shouldered mech turned on his heel. The action was slow, calculating, and with each step he took in his approach Ms. Darby shrunk back. All traces of righteous anger on her expression were substituted with an apprehensive timidity. It was in that brief span of time that the medic imagined she was experiencing what an animal must feel before a predator: absolute fear. The knowledge that she had gone too far.

Every sweep of his footsteps across the stone was designed to intimidate. Not a word was uttered as he sank on one knee to the floor, coldly gauging her as he craned. Their shared proximity allowed his facial vents to expel hot wafts of air over the woman, ruffling her hair with each ventilation. Neither moved for a solid minute as his ancient gaze bore into her skull.

"June," Ratchet growled. His vocalizer was serrated glass. Cutting. Painful. "You are a member of the medical community. Tell me: How many lives do you think you've lost under your direct care?"

The tables had turned. With a half-flustered, half-apprehensive look the raven-haired woman stammered, "I—I've never lost anyone—"

"Six thousand, three hundred and seventy-four." The statistic silenced her. "That is how many lives I have watched die directly under my own hands, not including Neutrals or races from other planets."

All possible retorts died on her lips as she stared at him. There was simply no response to that.

Digits curled and scraped against the floor, taking metal shavings with them. He bowed his head and kept complete and utter eye contact, never once blinking as he watched the human cringe. She had wanted his attention, and now she was going to have it.

"When I watch Jack, Miko, and Rafael skip into our headquarters every day, I dread the thought of our system's alarms going off. You cannot understand what the klaxon means for me. Whenever Miko hears it, it means another Primus fragging photo shoot. Jack hears the sound and runs after Arcee because he promoted himself to her de facto partner. Rafael hears our alarms go off and takes it upon himself to tamper with every piece of machinery within reach, because he believes that he is smart enough to help us."

A deadened look crossed the Cybertronian's features as he clenched his denta hard enough to make his jaw pang.

"For countless centuries I have watched Autobots rise to the call and prepare for battle. And whenever I hear that sound, I wonder how many more soldiers aren't going to return. I am only left with the burden of wondering how I'll ever be able to earn my comrades' forgiveness if I cannot save the ones who do come back."

Another heavy, constricted breath left Ratchet, causing his shoulders to tremble faintly.

"You can never imagine," he growled, "what it's like to have so much blood on your hands. Friends, allies, comrades—dead. All because I lacked the skills to save them." Softly, Ratchet breathed, "On your planet you have a creed called the Hippocratic Oath. First: Do no harm. A wonderful sentiment to live by, if it wasn't for the fact that every day I break it."

For a moment Ms. Darby parted her mouth in a clear attempt to speak. One frigid glance stopped her.

"There are many traits that I despise about your species. What stands above them all is your frailty." Without any warning, charcoal-black fingertips reached out. The metallic digits gently glided over June's still arm, causing her exhales to hitch as he caressed up to her shirt sleeve. "Soft skin, covered in dead cells. Bones that can be snapped with just a slight squeeze of my hand." A single finger slid beneath the woman's chin, tilting her head back to meet his directly. Mere inches separated their faces, hers flushed. Each gasp caused her chest to rise and fall as she was forced to stare into his abyssal optics. "Necks, with nothing more than a spine stopping them from breaking at the throat. Unsharpened teeth, minimal speed, skulls crushed from the most delicate of blows. You aren't made of metal and steel. If I twisted off your arms, I wouldn't be able to put them back."

The contact continued as a single digit drifted down her chest, grazing the fabric until the metallic pad rested directly above her heart. Rhythmic pulses emanated from the organ and Ratchet relished the feel of life beneath his hands, if only because it meant that she wasn't another name on the deactivation record.

"Every time I watch the children come here I am forcibly reminded of those traits. Their involvement in this war means inevitable casualty. I thank Primus every day when I see them return from missions unscathed, and I curse Him the next when the children come back."

It was days like this that Ratchet was grateful he couldn't cry. And it was days like these that he wished he could.

Ever-so-slowly his hand retreated back to his side. In its wake Ms. Darby exhaled shakily, deflating, as she sank back on her heels. Immediate fury was swept away in place of the emotions that had been consuming him as of late. "You're right: I know nothing about human biology." He swallowed back a pained grunt. "My disdain for your kind has left a gap in my knowledge of human anatomy, and the more I try to deny it, the more I fear that there will come a day when I will pay the ultimate price for my inabilities. One day, one of them will get hurt. And I won't be able to save them. That was why I had Jack and Miko help direct me in healing Rafael the day he was attacked at school, shortly after I brought him back here."

Understanding dawned on Ms. Darby's face. "The incident with the kid and the ambulance…that was you?"

His optics narrowed. "One of the few things I could do right in protecting him," the mech admitted in a tone brimming with self-loathing. "If being the 'big, scary, human-hating robot' is what it takes to keep them away, then I will gladly continue to be that mech. If making the kids hate me and the thought of coming here are what stop them from getting killed, then I will do as such." A long, excruciating blink followed. "I cannot bear the thought of them dying in this war. So never," he snarled into her face, "assume that you're the only one here who knows what could happen if mistakes are made, because I've been living those mistakes for more eons that you could ever begin to imagine!"

Unable to continue looking at the creature who bore such striking resemblance to Jack, Ratchet swung his helm to the side and shuttered his optics. Anguished silence rang around the outpost, echoing with the last traces of his roar. Suddenly, he craved the high-grade, but not as an entertainment for the boredom. What Ratchet longed for was an escape into a drunken haze, to bury himself away from the guilt and maudlin thoughts he had fought for centuries. Escape from the humans that had walked into his life and reminded him of the thousands of ways they could die, and the one way he would always fail to save them.

Just as he considered asking her to leave again, something warm pressed against the back of his hand. Startled, the red-and-white 'Bot peered down to find Ms. Darby's palm resting over his servo. Softened watery eyes studied him as she continued to soothingly stroke across his knuckles.

"You're right," murmured June. All the while her hand continued its delicate ministrations. "I can't understand what you've been through, and I doubt I ever will. I'm sorry for what I said to you. I shouldn't"—her voice jarred fleetingly—"I shouldn't have made such immediate assumptions. Though I never would have thought…"

What? That I'm tired of watching the body count rise?

"…that of all the Autobots here, you would be the best one qualified at keeping them safe."

"What?" Confusion washed away his previous thoughts. "Are you deaf? Did you not just here what I told you? I. Can't. Fix. Them."

"No," June conceded, pulling back as she spoke. Calmly she ignored his seething to offer him a faint smile. "But healing isn't always about the physical. Sometimes, you have to heal the emotional wounds too."

Unable to find a reply to that, he continued to gaze silently down at the smaller creature.

While Ms. Darby began to return to her car, she called back over her shoulder, "I think I've overstayed my welcome—not that there was any to begin with." A teasing, if not sheepish glint entered her eyes. "Anyway," the nurse continued, "I need to get back home. Bills to pay, groceries to buy; you know how it is."

Actually, he didn't.

"Besides," the woman tacked on, "I came here to find out whether or not the kids were in danger. It turns out my theory was the farthest thing from the truth. Though I'm sure that you'd rather have the truth stay as it was: secret. So I'll keep it that way." Hands were on the car door handle, and soon enough she was swinging a leg inside, the car revving as she inserted the keys into the ignition. As the vehicle began to u-turn June rolled down the window and peered out. "Oh, and Ratchet?"

Uncertainly he nodded for her to speak.

A knowing look crossed her face. "They don't hate you—they love you." With that said the off-white car pulled out and drove away.

Five minutes after her departure Ratchet continued to stare at the tunnel.

It wasn't happiness he was feeling. To be honest, he wasn't sure what to call it. All that the medic was aware of was how much less the guilt, pain, and regret hurt. Like a weight being released from his shoulders, Ratchet felt the sensation of being able to truly breathe again. Suddenly, the children's presence in his base didn't fill him with as much dread as it once had.

It wasn't happiness he was feeling.

It was hope.

Author's Note: To answer any questions in advance, yes, Perceptor and Jazz are canon characters. TF: Prime is part of the Aligned continuity, which includes the books Exodus and Exiles, both of which they appear in. So ha. I win. And yeah, I know, technically Operation Bumblebee: Part One confirmed that his alt mode was an Urbana 500. I don't care. He looks like a Camaro, so he's staying a Camaro. That, and I'm just too lazy to go back and make edits.

Jeez, this chapter was hard to write. I mean, I was all in the mood for getting this done, but even as I forced myself to type word after word, it just wouldn't click. This chapter was supposed to be done three months ago, but I kept redoing the middle and end segments because I just couldn't get it right. Even Sam, my "editor," said that it sucked. I'm still not overly satisfied with it, but hopefully I'll get my mojo back for the next chapter. Until then, bear with me.

Hey, Chance O'Neal, do you still think that Raf's gonna cosplay? Muwahaha. Nice try. Keep guessin'. ;)

Coming up next — Chapter Eleven: Yes, It Can Get Worse