Lair of the Stealth Bunnies
Innocent Chapter Two
As Ironhide predicted, Optimus Prime stayed by Teletran-One the rest of the night. He shut down his extra systems until he heard the noises of the Autobots moving through the Headquarters and relieving those who had night shifts. By the time Ironhide, Bumblebee, and Jazz came in, Prime was recharged enough to fool all but Ironhide, who knew him better than anyone else. Ironhide glared at him. “You never listen t’me, Optimus.”
Bumblebee stopped in mid-sentence to look curiously at Prime. He obviously didn’t believe that something wasn’t wrong, but when Prime waved him off, he didn’t say anything. Bumblebee was easily as motherly as Ironhide when he was worried. The last time Spike had been sick, Bumblebee had stood guard duty outside his door to make sure he stayed in bed.
“Where did you house our guest last night?” Prime asked, partly out of genuine curiosity, mostly to sidetrack Ironhide off of the lecture he was preparing to give.
It worked. Both Autobots chuckled.
“Well, first Sparkplug offered to give up his room, but Tarla wouldn’t allow it. We don’t really have any other Human-ish sized rooms. Sparkplug kept insisting, Tarla kept talking about a tent outdoors, and we finally compromised.” Bumblebee looked even more amused than usual. “It was a brilliant idea, actually. We sectioned off a corner of the smallest storage room with empty supply cases. Each one is taller than she is, you know. We set one on its side, and Tarla filled it with blankets. It looks more like a nest than a bed, but she loves it. Do you know, she plays the flute? It’s beautiful. She played for us after we fixed her room, and she said she’s play for all of us tonight.”
“Everyone is certainly taken with her,” Prime said, not sure if he should add that back onto his list of worries or not.
“Well, she’s a new face. Of course everyone’s interested in her.”
Ironhide took the moment to resume glaring at Prime.
“Yeah, you should hear Grimlock and the other Dinobots.” Bumblebee mimicked the Dinobot leader’s thick voice. “Tarla come play? Tarla tell story?”
“Is that where she is now?’
“I saw th’girl down by Wheeljack’s workshop ‘bout half an hour ago,” Jazz said.
“That won’t stop Grimlock--” Bumblebee caught Jazz’s arm. “Did you say Wheeljack’s workshop?”
“Sure. Y’goin’ deaf or somethin’? I guess I _had_ better keep my music down. Hey! Where’re you going?”
“Prime, he’ll tear her apart!” Bumblebee was running for the door. “She bypassed security yesterday!” he shouted at Jazz in a means of explanation. He transformed in the hallway and spun off, tires squealing, Prime and Ironhide running after him.
“Bypassed security?” Jazz asked the empty room. “But we all know the old system needed replacing. That’s why Wheeljack’s installin’ the new one today. Now, if she had gotten past _that_ one, that’d be a whole ‘nother story.”
“The new system was installed yesterday,” Teletran-One informed him.
“_Yesterday?_ Wheeljack said he was starting it on Wednesday.”
“Today is Thursday.”
“It is?” Jazz looked at the door thoughtfully. “Well, if it was installed yesterday, and she got in, it must’ve been through the new -- well, I’ll be. She’s cleverer ‘n I thought. Wheeljack must’ve blown a few circuits himself when he heard --” His optics widened. “Oh, my! And she’s in his workshop? Th’poor girl!” He ran out the door. “Wheeljack! Hold it, man! She’s on our side! Really!”
Bumblebee squealed in through the door of Wheeljack’ workshop on two wheels, transformed on the run, and ducked between Wheeljack and Tarla. “Cool down, Wheeljack. Don’t lose your temper.”
Ironhide burst through the door. “Don’t you touch a hair on that girl’s head, Wheeljack!”
In the next instant, Prime ran in. “Easy, Wheeljack. Remember, the humans are our friends. We’re supposed to protect them, not harm them.”
Wheeljack was looking more and more confused and slightly irritated. “Prime, what’s goin’ on?”
Jazz careened in, swerved to miss Prime, and crashed into Ironhide. Both fell, and there was a mixture of curses and a general scramble to get up. “Wheeljack -- Ironhide, get off my stomach -- don’t hurt her! Ease off the throttle, my man!”
Wheeljack looked at the pile of Autobots on the floor, then at Bumblebee standing defiantly between him and Tarla, then at Prime looking thunderously protective, and threw up his hands in disgust. “Would somebody please tell me what’s goin’ on?”
There was a general chorus until Prime’s voice boomed over the others for silence, and he reached down to pull both Jazz and Ironhide to their feet. “From the way you reacted to Tarla’s presence here yesterday, we were uncertain of your reaction to her today,” he said tightly, glaring at Wheeljack.
Wheeljack glanced at Tarla. “But why?”
They stared at him. “The security system?” Bumblebee reminded him.
“Oh, that.” Wheeljack dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “I’ve fixed that. Tarla ‘n me are working on ideas for that cloakin’ device. Why didn’t ya bring her down yesterday? I could’ve used th’help then.”
“Why, you --” Ironhide spluttered uselessly for a few seconds and could only come up with “Unpredictable mad scientist of an Autobot!”
Jazz sheepishly began to edge out the door, half-hoping that Wheeljack hasn’t even realized he was there (impossible) and hoping even more that he would forget that he had ever come in, once the inventor got back to his work (which was much more likely, and was what indeed happened).
Bumblebee looked uncertainty at Tarla and seemed to be convinced by the pile of charts around her and the device in her hand. She was trying not to laugh too loudly.
Prime simply turned and walked out.
Wheeljack looked over at Tarla. “What’s with them?” he asked, jerking a thumb at the other Autobots as they left, grumbling, and couldn’t understand why the girl burst out into loud laughter.
“Spike doesn’t like me very much, does he?” Tarla asked Bumblebee later as she rummaged through the refrigerator in the kitchen that had been set up in the Ark for the humans’ use. She found a package of ham and added a slice to the sandwich she was making. She slipped it into the microwave, turned it on, then hopped up to sit on the counter to give Bumblebee her full attention. “Does he?” she repeated.
Bumblebee, being the smallest Autobot, as the only one who could really fit in the kitchen, and he still had to kind of curl up in the corner and not move too much, for fear of knocking something over. He was slightly uncomfortable from the position, and began to look even more so at her question. “Well, I wouldn’t say that...” he began.
The microwave tinged, and Tarla jumped off the counter. Juggling the hot sandwich in one hand and carrying a glass of milk in the other, she sat on the table. It was the only way she could come close to looking Bumblebee in the eyes. “He’s supposed to be your best friend, yet he hadn’t come near you if I’m around.” She took a bit, chewed it thoughtfully, and swallowed. “For that matter, he won’t stay in the same room with me, much less talk to me.”
Bumblebee shifted even more uncomfortably. He and the Autobots who were closest to Spike were well aware of how the young human was acting, but were uncertain how they should react. Bumblebee kept insisting that Spike would snap out of it -- it had only been two days -- and Prime had decided to let Bumblebee handle it.
But handling and understanding Spike was a heck of a lot easier than trying to explain him.
And so he paused carefully, trying to think of the correct phrases and words to try and portray his best friend. Tarla waited patiently until Bumblebee looked up again.
“Spike and I are a lot alike. I’m the smallest Autobot, and Spike’s the youngest here. His dad raised him, but he was busy, so Spike was lonely, like I was at times back on Cybertron. Y’know, being the youngest, sometimes the older ones don’t have time for you, or treat you as if you’re even younger than you really are. So that’s why Spike and I teamed together. Mutual spirits, I guess. Well, once on Earth, I become more useful because of Spike. Diplomatic relations, they called it at first. We called it friendship. Something happened to Spike. He was respected and awed by humans and he himself was as fascinated by us as we were by him. He loved being around us when other humans were around. It was a pride factor, y’know. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But then, here you come along. You’ve managed to capture all our attention that’s usually reserved for him. Also, you’ve managed to out-smart some of our most intelligent, which is something he could never do.” He didn’t mention the attention Tarla was receiving from being a tragic figure, her father having been killed in a fire at the high school. “He’s also not the youngest anymore -- even Carli is older than he is.”
“His girlfriend. Tall, blonde -- the girl you noticed in he picture on his bureau.”
She nodded, still munching on the sandwich. “So he sees me as a threat?”
“Yep. Already, he’s being told to look after you, you were put in his room, and his friends are paying more attention to you than him. This won’t last long. Spike’s not a malicious person by any means. He’s always been a good and loyal friend, and he’s the closest friend I’ve got, Transformer or non.”
“Yeah, well _friends_ don’t talk about each other behind their backs,” Spike snarled from the doorway. His anger was obvious, but behind that, they could both see the hurt. He turned and ran.
“Spike!” Bumblebee lunged to get up, but was wedged so tightly in the tiny room that it was several seconds before he could get out the door. Bu that time, Spike was gone, and the tragic expression on Bumblebee’s face was more than Tarla could stand. “Go find him,” she urged, pushing the Autobot down the hall. “Go explain, do something, but don’t let him think you don’t care enough to go after him.” Then when Bumblebee paused, obviously torn between the duty of watching after Tarla and the need to go to his friend, Tarla shoved him as hard as she could, which was considerably stronger than her small size belied. “Go!” she said loudly. “I was looking after myself long before I’d even _heard_ of Autobots.”
Bumblebee gave her a grateful look and ran down the hall, calling for Spike.
After he had gone, Tarla leaned against the wall, her head buried in her hands. “I’m sorry, Bumblebee” she said softly. She stood like that for a long time before she pushed herself away from the wall and strode down the hall towards her quarters.
Which was where Prime found her later. The storage room was dark, except for the fluttering of a candle flame, and the sounds of a flute came from the corner of stacked supply cases.
Tarla saw the blue glow of Prime’s optics as he stopped to let them adjust to the dimness. She lowered her flute. “Come on in, Commander Prime,” she called.
“Just call me Prime, please,” he said, traces of embarrassment in his voice, and came forward. She was curled in the nest of blankets. Bumblebee had been precise in his description -- nest was the perfect work. Candlelight gleamed off the silver of the flute in her lap.
“I gather Bumblebee told you?” she asked.
She sighed and waved Prime towards one of the cases. “Sit down.” She held up the steaming mug from the floor in front of the bed-case. I’d offer you some, but...” she shrugged with a slight smile.
The smell was unfamiliar, different from the smell of the coffee Sparkplug drank in vast quantities in the mornings. “What is it? It smells like... flowers?”
“Close. Herbal tea. Jasmine, to be exact.” She took a sip, then carefully tucked the blankets closer around her, trying not to spill the tea.
“Why the darkness?” Prime asked. “We do have lighting; you need not work by candles. If there is a short in the system, it can been fixed --”
“Don’t you dare touch it! I had a devil of a time trying to get the lights to stay off. The system kept trying to turn them back on again. There’s a short there now because I did it myself. I’ll repair it later. I just wanted darkness. It’s the best way to get in a mood to play and think.” She caressed the flute, turning it so the candlelight gleamed off it again.
“If you want to be alone...” Prime started to get up, but Tarla waved him back.
“No, I don’t mind. What did you want? Although if you’re down here to watch over me while Bumblebee’s talking to Spike, it’s not necessary. Or do you still not trust me?”
“It’s not a matter of trust, Tarla, but of protection. You have little knowledge of the Headquarters, and even less of what to do if the Decepticons attack. I can’t afford to have my warriors distracted while they’re being gunned down, because they don’t know if you are safe or not. Do you understand that?”
She thought for a second. “Not really, But I know nothing of the Decepticons.”
“Then perhaps you are fortunate,” Prime said softly. “For there is a reason why we keep few humans around us. To keep them from dying because of us. To Megaton, humans are nothing. To us, humans are everything, and therefore our biggest weakness.”
“The Decepticon leader. If they captured you, Spike, or any of our other human friends, we would have to choose between whatever Megatron wants -- which only rarely does not mean detrimental harm for the Autobot cause, Cybertron, or, more likely, Earth itself. We would have to choose between that and watching Megatron terminate you before our optic sensors.”
Tarla looked pale in the darkness, shadows from the candles flickering across her face.
“You see, Tarla,” Prime said softly, “it is not only you I am thinking about, but also my Autobots, all humans, and your world. This is not one of your cartoons. Megatron plays for keeps.”
She toyed with the flute, then looked up. “I understand, Prime. I apologize for my impatience. I did not realize your intentions. It’s --” and she smiled ruefully. “It’s been a strange week.”
“Affirmative.” Seeing her so solemn and scared in such a vivid contrast to her usual vitality was disturbing, in an unfamiliar way. He abruptly leaned forward and gestured at the flute. “Bumblebee says you’re a good musician.”
She grinned. “Fair to middlin’, I suppose.”
“Have you met Jazz? He’d love to hear you play. He’s one of our best on Earth culture. And then there’s Blaster, but his taste runs more towards rock, the harder and louder the better.” Prime shuddered, much to Tarla’s amusement. “Also, Skids, our theoretician and anthropologist would most likely be fascinated. We’ve never had a musician here before. Smokescreen might also be interested. Of course, you’ve already won over Bumblebee, Cliffjumper, and Ironhide. And I should have realized that Wheeljack’s temper would stabilize as soon as he found something new to work on.”
“Don’t forget the Dinobots,” Tarla laughed, but at the same time, she was studying Prime curiously. As the Autobot leader began talking about his followers, his formal manner had relaxed until he was talking to Tarla on an equal basis, and not the somewhat detached leader-ish way that she had noticed before. She wondered how many others had witnessed this. “You care about them greatly, don’t you?” she asked gently.
Prime visibly came out of his musing, and she could almost see the struggle between the leader and the person. The barrier almost came up again, but finally Prime dropped it completely and nodded. “They are my friends and their lives depend on me.” Like Tarla had done when telling about her father, his optics focused on the wall past her. “Every time something happens to one of them, I wonder what I could have done to have prevented it from happening, knowing it was my fault. I should have planned better, should have foreseen, should have _something_. And to know Megatron takes such pleasure in destroying one of us...” His hand clenched into a fist, shaking with an anger that was rarely revealed, always felt. His gaze was drawn to it, and he signed, slowly relaxing and releasing the clenched fingers. “And even so, I cannot _help_ but respect him, his intelligence, cunning, and power. In another time, we might have been friends. Then again, I easily could have been a Decepticon leader.”
“Never!” Tarla cried, surprising herself.
“You’d be surprised,” Prime said, almost to himself. “I was not always Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots.”
Tarla curled even tighter among the blankets and leaned forward eagerly at the story-telling tone. She reminded him absurdly of Grimlock and so he abandoned the last of his reservations of her. And in doing so, he knew he had accepted her as he had few other than Ironhide and Ratchet.
“Back when Cybertron was still unified, I was a warehouse worker in an energon storage facility. I was young, about the equivalent of your age. There was no war, no worries, except getting my work done as soon as possible so I could enjoy the free time with my friends, and Ariel, my girlfriend. I was rather a hot-mouth, impetuous. My name then was Orion Pax.”
He went quiet for a moment, and Tarla tried to picture a younger version of Prime as he had described himself, carefree, in love. It was hard... but not impossible.
“A new form of Transformers had begun to emerge. We were all curious about them. They could fly, you see, and we couldn’t do more than glide. At that age, you want to believe in a hero so badly that you’ll grab at anything new, as we did these new Transformers. When some of them came to the warehouse, we flocked around then. They talked with us pleasantly, and we knew the rumors of attacks had to be false. Until the leader demanded all the energon. I tried to stop him, but he pushed me away, brought up that huge cannon of a gun on his arm to bear on me. Ariel screamed and ran forward, between me and that gun. ‘This can’t be happening,’ I kept thinking. ‘He won’t shoot her, not a female.’ I tried to get to her, but that push was harder than I thought and I was still destabilized.”
Prime fell silent again. Tarla was frozen, dreading, yet knowing what had happened next.
“He shot her,” he said in the wondering voice of someone very young, very confused, and very scared. It was the voice of Orion Pax. “He shot her, and she fell, smoke billowing from what had been her chest, and I saw in her eyes the same surprise that this could happen, and then the pain, and still surprise, for even then, she still could not believe a Transformer could kill another Transformer, much less her. And then there was nothing but the pain, and her optics went dim, and she flew back with the blast against the wall and crumpled to the floor, and Megatron _laughed_ as he turned and shot down each of my friends. I screamed and went for him, and he shot me as well, and the last thing I saw was the smoke from his cannon and the last thing I heard was his laughter.”
It was a long time before he looked up and saw that she was trembling. “I am sorry,” he said. “It was hardly the type of story you were expecting.”
She swallowed. She wasn’t even sure she could talk until she forced herself to stammer., “But... but how... I mean...”
“I could not be repaired. But I could be remade. I was taken to Alpha Trion, who foresaw the need of an army to battle the Decepticons, and the need of a leader the match of Megatron. There is very little of me that is still Orion Pax, except the memories. One day I shall kill Megatron, or he will kill me, or we will kill each other trying.”
“Did -- did any of your friends...?”
“Survive?” The cold way he anticipated her questions was more frightening than what she had just heard. “None of them survived as they were. Like myself, they were remade, refitted for the Autobot armies. There are very few of us left. Ironhide is one. Another one, not one of Orion’s friends, but another worker at the same warehouse, actually survived. He is back on Cybertron. His real name is Pickup Truck, but he goes by Kup. As for Ariel... she was remade into Aleeta-One. And I left her to die on Cybertron.”
He was silent for an even longer time, until Tarla thought he wouldn’t speak any longer.
“I held up the Ark’s launch for as long as I could. The building was exploding around us when she and the other female Autobots burst through. They almost made it. But the building collapsed between us, and we knew they could never get through in time. She radioed through and told us to launch, and we had no choice. The last thing I saw before we launched was her and the other females turning to face off the Decepticons. I thought she had died. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I found out that she had survived, she and some of the other females. They have formed a strike team against Shockwave and the Decepticon forces on Cybertron.”
“But that’s wonderful!” Tarla cried. “She’s alive.”
“But I can never forget that it was my inaction against Megatron that killed Ariel, and that I left her behind in a lost war.”
“There was nothing else you could have done,” she whispered. “If you had waited then, you _and the Ark_ would have been destroyed. Just like you tol me -- the choice between one person, and the cause to save a people and a world.”
“Logically, yes, but that doesn’t make the situation any easier.”
There didn’t seem to be much to say after that. Prime finally sighed. “I can now understand your method -- your mood setting, I believe Jazz would call it. It does seem to be very effective.”
Without another word, Tarla lifted the flute to her lips and began to play.
And so, Prime finally took Ironhide’s advice and ignored the nagging thought that there was work for him to do. In fact at one time during the next hour, Ironhide himself came bay, checking on Tarla as he had promised Bumblebee. On seeing Prime in the storage room, optics dimmed, but focused on the girl, he began to smile. “Well, I’ll be...” he drawled softly and quietly stepped back out the door and continued down the hall.
Tarla finally lowered the flute, then grinned at Prime. “So, what kind of music do they play on Cybertron?”
Prime stopped to think. “It’s been so long. There were so few musicians after the Wars started. There must be some tapes somewhere on the Ark. I’ll look when I have some spare time.”
“Which isn’t often, I’ll bet,” Tarla commented. She had seen Ironhide step in and had correctly guessed why he had left.
Prime nodded absently, not really hearing what he had heard from Ironhide and Ratchet so often.
“Well, I usually practice in the evenings. You’re always welcome to stop by. You’re a good audience.” She suddenly grinned wickedly. “We might even make a musician out of you yet.”
Prime coughed. “It’s... uh... been tried. Jazz finally declared me tone-deaf.”
She laughed. “Ah, Prime, if it wasn’t for Aleeta-One, I’d wish you were human.”
“And,” he answered, “if it wasn’t for Aleeta-One, I’d wish you were an Autobot.”
She leaned forward, the impish grin still crossing her face. “And how do Autobots make love?”
If she had ever wanted to see Optimus Prime shocked beyond words, she got it then.
“Well?” she prompted. “Where _do_ baby Autobots come from?”
“The workshop?” Prime returned as innocently as he could.
Tarla stared at him, just as wordlessly as he had done a few seconds ago, spluttered, then gave up and laughed. “You’re terrible,” she finally managed to get out, shaking her head ruefully. “How many people know you have as wicked a streak as mine?”
“Not many.” Prime stood up and walked toward the door.
“You’re not going to answer my question, are you?” she demanded indignantly.
“Affirmative.” Prime stepped out the door and into the hall. There was a soft _thump_ as a pillow flew out and ricocheted off the opposite wall. Prime picked it up between his thumb and forefinger and gently tossed it back in, then quickly keyed the door shut. He snapped the control plate off the wall, found the short in the lighting systemry, quickly repaired it, then reactivated the storage room lights. He chuckled at the sudden squawk and hurried away before Tarla’s eyes could adjust to the light enough to give pursuit.