Lair of the Stealth Bunnies
Innocent Chapter Seven
The crash echoed down the corridor. Megatron looked up sharply at Soundwave. “What was that?”
“Sound unknown. Location -- Starscream’s laboratory.”
“Somehow, that does not surprise me,” Megatron muttered. “Have Lazerbeak come with us.” He strode out the door. Soundwave ejected the cassette vulture and followed his leader.
They heard the laughter before they stepped through the doorway. Ravage was crouched in a corner, his eyes fixed on Tarla, who was crawling underneath and over-turned desk -- explanation of the noise. She came up, covered with a layer of dust. “Doesn’t anyone ever clean around here?” she asked. Ravage leapt forward and knocked the ball from her hand. “Don’t you dare make me crawl after it again, Ravage,” she shouted. Ravage dropped the ball and batted it with his paw. Tarla dove for it, but Ravage shouldered her out of the way and batted it out of her reach, much to the enjoyment of Starscream and Thundercracker.
Megatron stared. “My warriors are playing with a human,” he said. “My _warriors_ are _playing_ with a _human_.” He threw up his hands in disgust and stalked out, snapping over his shoulder, “Thundercracker, you watch her for a while. Starscream, come. We have work to do.”
“Go ahead, Screamer,” Thundercracker said. “_I’ll_ make sure the kid doesn’t get in any trouble.”
Starscream sneered, both at the hated nickname and at the insinuation. After all, it wasn’t as if the girl had actually done any harm. She had probably saved them the trouble of more Autobot intrusions, by telling Prime that the trouble with the meteor was over.
They didn’t get back until later that afternoon, singed from battle, but with another load of energon. Tarla was sleeping when Starscream came in, but the sound of his footsteps woke her.
“Successful raid?” Thundercracker asked.
“Yes. They need help unloading. See to it.” He yawned. “I’m ready for a recharge.” He noticed Tarla was awake and tossed her a small package. “I found this for you,” he said.
She unwrapped it and stared at the magnificent flute inside. Touched that he would think of such a thing, that he would even remember something she had mentioned in passing, she lifted it to her lips and blew experimentally. The tone was one of the best she had ever heard. “Where did you get this?”
“Picked it up this afternoon,” he said and left for the recharging units. Ravage lifted his head, back on alert.
But Tarla was staring at the flute in horror now. For Starscream to have found the flute this afternoon meant that it would have been during the energon raid. There was no engraving of a military band in the silver, which meant that it had to have been a civilian’s instrument.
She wondered which town had been attacked.
And what had happened to the flute’s original owner.
An hour later, she was still battling the longing to play the flute with the loathing of the blood such a gift had cost someone, when Ramjet came in to say that Optimus Prime had agreed to the trade.
“I’m busy, Tarla.”
“Will Megatron really let me go?”
“Will Prime deliver the energon and give himself up?”
“That wasn’t my question. Will Megatron keep his word?”
This discussion sounded more than vaguely familiar. “Megatron does what _he_ thinks is best.”
“And you don’t agree?” Tarla walked around Ravage, automatically rubbing the puma’s metallic ears. “You’ve stopped talking to me, Starscream.”
“You are a human and a prisoner. What happens to you is an act of war, and I am a warrior.”
“But as a scientist, you were my friend.”
“I am a warrior,” Starscream repeated. “And I am no one’s friend. I’ve never regretted my decision to change. Friends are hindrances in war.”
“Being a Decepticon must be lonely.”
He turned to look at her in disdain. “Are you going to start your damnable Autobot preaching again? Stop your holier-than-thou words. I don’t wish to hear them.”
“I wasn’t preaching. It was only an observation.”
“Then stop observing. You know nothing of us. Nothing!”
“But I know Starscream.”
“You know less of me than you do of the Decepticons,” he told her and got up and left.
Thundercracker popped in a few seconds later. “What’s with Screamer?” he asked. “He nearly ran me down in the corridor.”
It would be too complicated to try and explain something she didn’t fully understand herself. She shrugged.
Thundercracker reached down and ruffled her hair. “Aw, buck up, kiddo. Prime always carries through.”
“That’s what bothers me. You can afford to be happy. With that bargain carried out, the Decepticons have as good as won.” And they made bloody sure she was never left alone again.
“True,” Thundercracker agreed happily. “But you’ll be safe.”
“Thundercracker, if it came between your life and losing the war, which would you chose? Would you rather be alive, when you know that the war was lost because of you?”
He grinned. “Depends on if Megatron also survived and knew that. I can never figure out if Screamer’s the bravest Decepticon or the stupidest, openly trying to cross Megatron the way he does. It’s probably a mixture of both.”
“Will Megatron really let me go?”
“That’s up to him, kiddo.”
Her chin came up. “And if he decides to kill me, would you stand for me?”
“Against Megatron? No.”
She nodded, thoughtfully.
“Look, kid, the trade’s in a couple of hours. Ravage’ll bring you.”
“Yeah,” she said softly. “We’ll see you later.”
Thundercracker tousled her hair again and went out.
She didn’t move for a long time. “I’m scared, Ravage,” she finally said very softly. “It’s one thing to _say_ that you’d die for a cause. It’s another to actually face it, especially if it brings nothing but destruction to those you love.”
Ravage rumbled under his breath. Tarla finally stood up and began to stuff things into her knapsack. She hesitated when she came to the flute. It was the best she had ever played, had heard few better. She’d never be able to afford one even close to this quality. Yet she found it difficult to touch it, as if it was stained with the blood of its owner. Blood money. After a long time, she wrapped it in its cloth and fitted it in her pack.
She spend the rest of the time trying to control her shaking. When Ravage stood up and nudged her, she shouldered her pack. He crouched, and she slid up on his back, resting her hands on his withers and automatically gripping with her knees. Not so different from riding horseback.
The first thing she noticed when they entered the control room was the sullen expression on Frenzy’s face. It encouraged her slightly. It meant that the small Decepticon was angry that he wouldn’t get a chance to kill her... or else that Megatron simply hasn’t told him that he had no intention of releasing her into the Autobots’ hands.
It still amazed her how easily a smile could come to Megatron’s face. The frightening thing was watching how effortlessly the smile would slide into an expression of malevolent triumph. “Good, Ravage. Girl, approach me.”
She numbly slid from Ravage’s back, but the spy-puma had to nudge her to get her to move forward.
Megatron glanced at Frenzy. “You have nothing to fear, human,” he said. “We will escort you to the site of the trade. Prime will cross first, then we will send you across to the Autobots. The energon will be the last segment of the trade, but you need not concern yourself with that. Your affairs with us end when you cross from our lines. We thank you for your help,” he added, as an afterthought. “Skywarp will be your transportation.”
Tarla glanced beseechingly at Starscream. Skywarp was the only one of the F15 jets who frightened her. His name was apt -- Skywarp’s personality was twisted and warped; destruction and the Decepticon cause were one and the same to him. With her eyes, she begged Starscream to intercede, to say he would take her himself.
But Starscream refused to look at her, fixing his gaze on Megatron, his optics burning with war-fervor.
Skywarp transformed, his canopy open. Ravage once more had to nudge her forward, and finally Starscream sighed impatiently, plucked Tarla up in his hand, and plopped her in Skywarp’s cockpit. Ravage jumped in next to her, transforming into cassette mode.
She got a glimpse of Starscream and Thundercracker transforming on either side of her, then the forms of dozens of other Decepticons taking to the air as Skywarp launched. Skywarp didn’t say anything to her during the flight. But every few minutes, he would laugh, shortly and high-pitched.
Ironically enough, they landed at the meteor site, where all this hell had begun. Skywarp landed and, as the canopy popped open, Tarla saw Prime, Bumblebee, Ironhide, and Ratchet standing on the other side of the plateau. They were surrounded by trailer trucks filled with energon cubes. The sight pushed her even farther into the sense of hopelessness that had settled around her.
She numbly crawled out of the cockpit. Ravage landed beside her and Skywarp transformed as soon as her feet touched the ground.
She saw Prime look at her, verifying that she was alive and at least uninjured enough to walk on her own. Then he started across the plateau. She looked up at Megatron, and although his mouth was curved, the expression was twisted past any resemblance of a smile.
And she knew. _Knew._
Megatron was going to kill Optimus Prime.
He’d go on to destroy the Autobots. And Earth.
There really _was_ an importance that was higher than one person’s life.
There was no innocence in war. No one was immune.
And it all pivoted on her.
She snapped out of the numbness that had isolated her and looked at Prime. He saw her chin come up, her shoulders square, and he stopped, two-thirds of the way across the plateau.
“I’m sorry, Optimus,” Tarla said. She wanted to say more, but didn’t have the words. She took one step backwards, her eyes still locked onto Prime’s optics, then wheeled and ran, angled so that any stray Decepticon shots at her wouldn’t hit any of the Autobots.
It occurred to her, in that brief instant, that perhaps she should have run _towards_ the energon -- maybe they wouldn’t have fired, for fear of hitting the energon. It would have been a good idea.
The Autobots all thanked Cybertron she didn’t think of it until it was too late.
As Tarla broke into a run, Megatron snarled, aiming his cannon at the fleeing girl. Prime roared and launched himself at the Decepticon leader. The shot went wild, breaking the astonishment of the other Decepticons, and they stepped forward to eliminate Prime and the other three Autobots.
The trucks of energon shimmered and disappeared. In their place stood every Autobot that could have been spared, and smack in the midst of them all was Hound, a triumphant grin plastered across his face at the success of his holograms.
And just as Tarla ducked behind an out-jutting of rock, the Transformers went to war.
If she had thought the last battle had been bad, it was nothing compared to this. For now Tarla had friends on both sides. Ravage -- her Ravage who had chased tennis balls -- was slashing Bumblebee’s leg open. Ironhide brought Thundercracker down, pounding with both fists, and one of Starscream’s laser bursts caught Jazz in the chest. Rumble pounced on Cliffjumper, and when the Autobot fell, brought both pile-drivers down. One missed. The other crushed Cliffjumper’s arm. His scream was drowned under the noise of the battle.
And Optimus Prime had gone beyond the image of the noble leader. The fury, grief, helplessness, pain, and frustration that had been pent up inside him for the last week exploded, and he finally had Megatron in front of him to take it out on. He had no gun, but had wrenched Megatron’s cannon away from him, and they were on an equal footing. They had both gone past words and insults. One by one, Megatron drew weapons -- laser sword, mace-like ball-and-chain -- and each one, Prime dodged and placed his own blows to disarm the Decepticon. Megatron fell back, his face a mixture of dismay, confusion, and the beginnings of fear.
“What is it about this human that brings this battle-madness upon you, Optimus? he rasped. Prime didn’t answer, but pressed on. Megatron ducked a blow and rammed his shoulder against Prime’s chest, knocking him off-balance. Megatron brought him to the ground, one fist gripping Prime’s throat, the other one finding a boulder. He brought it up, intending to crush Prime’s skull with it, but Prime wrenched himself sideways and rolled up and on top of Megatron, holding the same boulder up in his own hand.
But it never came down. Frenzy had kept out of the battle, slowly working his way to where Tarla was hiding. In a darting move, he grabbed her arm in one hand and the nape of her neck in the other. He pulled her to one side of the out-jutting and twisted her arm. “Go ahead,” he urged. “Scream.”
Her mouth already open, she realized his attention wasn’t on her, but on the war between the two leaders, and in the same second, she realized what Frenzy intended. If she screamed, Prime would undoubtedly break off in an effort to protect her. She sank her teeth into her lip instead, against the pain. Then she felt the bones in her arm snap, and agony lanced through the entire length of her arm and deep into her shoulder. Dimly through the haze of pain, she heard someone screaming, and it wasn’t until she heard Frenzy’s triumphant laugh that she realized that the screams were hers after all.
The boulder fell from Prime’s hand and his optics burned. He roared Frenzy’s name and started forward --
-- forgetting Megatron. The Decepticon caught Prime’s leg as the Autobot leader lunged away. He tried to heave Prime aside, but Prime’s anger had reached peak. Tarla’s screams echoed in his audio sensors, the screams that had haunted his imagination day and night. In those tortured imaged, he had been unable to save her.
But this was reality. This was different.
He snarled and blindly turned against the mechanism that was attempting to hold him back, to keep him away from Tarla. Megatron rolled away from Prime’s fury, reflected in the ice blue optics and the fierce blows, even more accurate than usual. He let go of Prime for an instant, and that was all Prime needed. He shoved Megatron aside and ran to where Tarla’s screams had abruptly stopped.
But someone had been quicker. Someone else had heard Tarla’s screams and had leapt onto Frenzy from behind, as was the way of spies. Teeth and claws slashed, Tarla fell away, and Ravage braced himself between Frenzy and the huddled girl behind him. Frenzy howled in anger and pain, then Prime was there, sheltering Tarla against the rest of the battle.
His back was to Megatron.
The Decepticon had found his cannon. In a quick, fluid movement, he reattached it to his arm and aimed at both Prime and the human girl he was protecting.
“Don’t do it, Megatron.”
He turned and his optics widened in disbelief at Starscream who stood near him, both lasers leveled at him.
“You turn traitor now?” he snarled. “I have Prime in my viewfinder!”
“Not traitor. Not now,” Starscream said quietly, the enraged “scream” gone from his voice. “I couldn’t care less if you atomized Optimus Prime. But we will not allow you to kill Tarla.”
“_We?_” He looked around and saw Thundercracker, also with lasers held carefully on him. Ravage still held Frenzy at bay, his head lowered, eyes flaming, teeth bared. Rumble looked uncertain, but the odds were turned enough. “I’ll tear you all limb from limb!”
“I think not,” Starscream said. “The human is too well-liked, from both sides. To put it simply, Megatron... we outnumber you.”
Their optics met. A silent war blazed for an instant.
“Bah! Decepticons, retreat!” Megatron leapt to the skies, and all the Decepticons followed, except for Starscream and Ravage.
Tarla was cradled in the palm of Prime’s hand, but she struggled to stand, carefully holding her broken arm. “Thank you,” she said weakly, her eyes on both Decepticons.
Starscream felt the presence of guns held at him, but he held his head high. “I can protect you from Megatron,” he said. “Come back with me.”
She shook her head slowly, wordlessly, her eyes never leaving his.
He stepped forward. “You are right,” he said softly. “It is lonely. Come back with me, Tarla.”
“No. _You_ were right. Friends are hindrances in war.”
“Come back with me, Tarla,” he repeated one more time.
She closed her eyes. “I can’t,” she said in a broken whisper. “I’d just be waiting, watching you kill my friends, and watching my friends kill my friends, until one of them killed you. I can’t live like that.”
He waited silently for a moment, then transformed, his canopy open for Ravage. The puma paused by Tarla; she touched his head gently, then he ran and leapt from ground, to Starscream’s wing, and into the cockpit.
Ironhide raised his gun and would have fired, but Prime held up his hand. “Let him go.”
“But, Prime --”
“Do as I say, Ironhide. He saved both of us.”
“It had nothing to do with _you_, Optimus Prime,” Starscream snarled and launched.
Tarla watched him leave, her face impassive. Ratchet came up, saying something about getting the injured back to the Arks, and fussing over her arm.
“Yes,” she said softly. “I’ll return to the Ark. Then I’m leaving. I’m sorry, Optimus,” she said, her voice suddenly choked. “But I can’t stay with you, either.”
She awkwardly ran and climbed into Gears’ front seat -- taciturn Gears, who wouldn’t ask any questions.
It was difficult, trying to fit things into her knapsack with only one arm. The other was encased in a frame of a substance much lighter and firmer than plaster, and it was numbed beyond feeling. It had been broken in three places between the wrist and elbow.
There were two flutes on her next-bed. She studied them both, then packed one, leaving her student flute behind, the one she had first brought with her to the Autobots.
Wheeljack had recovered while she had been gone, and barely believed all that had happened while he had been on temporary deactivation. He had fussed in anger when they told him Tarla was leaving, fussed until Ratchet finally threatened to disconnect his speech synthesizer. The other occupants in the med-bay were mournful enough about Tarla leaving without more complaints, threats, and plots to get her to stay. They all had been said to her by this time already.
But one Autobot dreaded her leaving more than any of the others. Prime was out in the hall when Tarla came out.
“Why?” he asked simply.
“The same reason I told Starscream.” Tears rolled silently down her face, but her voice was clear. “I can’t stay, watching, knowing my heart is on both sides.”
“You care about a Decepticon that much?” He had promised himself he wouldn’t ask her that, but it came out so unintentionally that he almost didn’t believe he had actually said it.
“I care about you both too much,” she said in a whisper. Maybe he wasn’t meant to hear the answer. Then again, he knew that she knew his audio receptors would have picked it up no matter how quietly she had spoken.
“Where will you go?”
She shrugged, her arm cast making it an abbreviated movement. “I don’t know. Away. I can’t run to any side, so I’ll head away from them both.”
“I love you.” It was the first time it had been said.
She winced. He hadn’t meant for the words to bring her pain. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“I’m a human,” she said simply.
He paused for a long moment. “And I am an Autobot,” he finally said. “I’ve ruined your life, haven’t I?”
She shook her head. “Not you. After all, I was the one who snuck in here. No one forced me to do that. Fate? Destiny? I don’t know. You didn’t ruin my life. The War, maybe. You made it bearable.”
“Maybe... maybe someday...”
She smiled, no longer the impish grin, but a slow sad smile. She was years older than she had been a week ago. “Someday,” she said softly, “there will be no sides. Everyone will be on one.” She gazed at him, memorizing each detail, then turned abruptly and walked away. She didn’t look back.
There was no one else to see her go. She left with only this one farewell.
A few minutes later, Brawn found Prime in the same place. He looked at Prime for a long moment, then set down the large drum he was carrying. It sloshed.
“She’s gone, eh?” he asked. Prime nodded, and Brawn looked thoughtful. “I’ll miss her,” he said after a while. He tapped the drum. “Delivery to you from Seaspray. Says he wishes you two the best.”
Prime looked at the drum. The water that changed a person’s form -- that could change an Autobot to a human, or a human to an Autobot. “Thank you, Brawn,” he said quietly, and Brawn left.
Prime picked up the drum and keyed open the door to the storage room. The first thing he noticed was the faint smell of jasmine. The second was the abandoned flute.
He set the drum down. “Someday,” he said to it and to the empty room. “Someday, when all are one.”
He turned and walked out, keying the door shut on the herbal fragrance and the echoes of flute music.