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Deepest Cuts Chapter One

Hot Rod’s account:

Another sabatage reported today.  They’ve all been real strange.  No Deceps have been seen around the area, yet computers go kaplooey, things are stolen, and our plans are being found out somehow.  The things that’re disappearing are small, too.   I thought it was Laserbeak, perhaps, but Kup just herumphed at me.  Turns out, Laserbeak’s still on Earth.  And we’re stumped, although Kup’ll never admit it.  He just gets that wise gleam in his optics and starts quoting either proverbs or his old war stories.  I keep trying to tell him that we don’t need stories.  We need answers, or action to get answers, but he snorts and stomps off.

Which means he’s as stumped as the rest of us.

But we _shouldn’t_ be.   Our systemry has improved drastically over the last few years.  We’re still little more than bands of strike forces, but we’ve always been able to keep the Deceps out of our areas, or at least be able to detect them before they do too much damage.  But this... whatever it is... slips in and out, and we’d never know it, except for the damage it leaves behind.

I hope we can figure this out before Optimus Prime decides to send a team up here.  After all, we can take care of ourselves.  Although I’ve never see the great Optimus Prime, when I do, I don’t want it to be because of our failure.

I mentioned this to Kup once, and he snorted at me.  “What makes you think you’ll even get a glimpse of Prime, if he comes, lad?  Go back to transporting your energon and put away such grand dreams.  This is a war, not a picnic.”

As if _he_ has all the answers!

CHAPTER ONE  -- Earth 1993

It was a beautiful October.

The month had always been one of her favorites.  When she was a child, it had been because of the fun of Hallowe’en.  Now it was for the colors of the leaves, the sounds they made when she walked through them, the chill promise of winter in the air.  All these were new to her.  She had lived so long in cities, which blunted the feel of nature with concrete and metal.  The autumn air matched her emotions, the ending of a season, the ending of life.  Spring was full of promise, and she had almost grown to dread such promises, because they reminded her of promises made and broken.  She felt like she was at the end of a season all the time now, had felt it for years.  Spring brought back memories that she was spending her life trying to forget.  Trying to live in numbness.

It was a little easier, in autumn.

The wind was cold with the hint of rain.  A sleety rain, perhaps.  She stretched into the air, leaning off the boulder she was standing on, letting the wind rail against her face.  Her cheeks were already cold and numbing from it.  She wished the wind could numb her memories as well.


She let out her breath, letting it catch in impatience.  She kept her eyes closed for a moment longer, hoping maybe she could lose herself in the cold anyway, in spite of the distraction.


_Not this time._  She opened her eyes and gazed for a moment out over the valley, burnt red with autumn leaves.  The wind whipped her hair into her eyes, stinging them and bringing tears.  She shoved the hair away from her face and turned away from the wind.  She leaped off the boulder, away from the cold wind and into the relative shelter of the rocks and vegetation, pushed her way through the brush back to the road.

“You make me nervous so close to the edge like that,” Steven said.  She gazed at him impassively for a moment, then lifted her shoulder in an abbreviated shrug and started to walk down the road.  

Steven hurried to catch up.  “I’m always afraid you’ll slip or something.  You get that look on your face, sometimes, like you’ve forgotten where you are.”

“I haven’t forgotten where I am, Steven,” she said in a low voice.  “I want to forget where I’ve been.”

“I don’t understand,” he said, as he had told her many times over the semester.  He had attached himself to her early in the school year -- _followed me home,_ she thought uncharitably, almost hissing the words to herself.  Then she sighed.  Steven was quiet, rarely forcing her into conversation, and one couldn’t be alone all the time.

“It’s nothing,” she said in a softer, more gentle tone.  Usually that was enough to deter him.

This afternoon, it wasn’t.  “You always say that,” he said with uncharacteristic persistance.  “But I can tell from your eyes that it’s the farthest thing from nothing.”

She stopped walking and looked at him, her head lowered, gazing at him through untrimmed bangs of hair.  His brown eyes were soft with concern, and it had been a long time since she had let anyone be concerned over her.  He was nice enough, and most definately didn’t deserve the way she kept him shut out.  But she had given up the comfort of confiding to people, or even of becoming so close enough to someone that she’d want to confide to them.  “It’s nothing, really,” she said in what was probably the gentlest voice she had ever used to him.  “Really, Steven.  I just get caught up in memories sometimes.  And they really _are_ only memories.”

“You could talk about them, perhaps.”  He shoved his hands in his pockets.  The wind didn’t really reach the road through the trees, but the air was still cold.  “It might help.”

“No,” she said.  “Nothing will help.”  She couldn’t think of anything else to say that would explain further, without crossing that line she had drawn between herself and the rest of the world, and so she started walking again.  Steven understood the rebuff and caught up to her, but didn’t speak to her again.  She lapsed back into trying to not think.  When that didn’t work, she concentrated on conjugating French verbs.  Anything to fill the void that wanted to fill itself with memories.  She didn’t look up from her feet until Steven suddenly whistled.  “Someone sure went off the road up there.”  He pointed up ahead of them at the skid marks on the road and the broken guard rail and brush.

Tarla took a few more quick steps and knelt by the marks.  “Not too long ago, either.  We’d better see if anyone’s hurt down there.”  She peered down the embankment and saw the gleam of yellow metal.

Steven stopped her as she started to make her way down.  “Better let me go.  It’s a long ways down there, and you might not be able to climb back up again.”

She bit back a sharp reply -- _I’ve taken care of myself through worse_ -- but he couldn’t possibly know that, and she couldn’t possibly tell him.  She fumed silently and considered plunging ahead anyway, but she had learned something from her past mistakes, and at the very least, she had gained some control over her impetuousness.  She let Steven carefully pick his way down.

“There’s no one here,” he finally called to her.  

She was thankful for an excuse to let her impatience slip into her voice.  “Great.  Some drunk driver goes off the road and abandons his car.  Get the plate number, and I’ll report it to campus security.”

There was a pause, then “No plates.  It’s a yellow VW bug.  And hey, you ought to see the dashboard!  Someone’s done a lot of modifications to this baby.  That must be one hell of a stereo system.  I sure wouldn’t have abandoned anything I put this much money into.”

“He may have done something that made that much money look trivial,” she snorted, but her curiousity began to override her impatience, and she debated following him down anyway.  “Any other marks or something that can be used for ID?”

She heard him crash through more bushes.  “Lots of scorch marks.  Wonder what could have made them?  Wait a minute -- there’s something on the hood.  It’s an emblem of some kind.  Black.  I don’t recognize it.”

Tarla went cold, past the chill of the weather.  Emblem.  No plates.  Scorch marks -- she plunged down, crashing through the underbrush.  Steven was saying something in concern to her, but she couldn’t make out the words through the blood pounding in her ears.  Gravity helped her down the embankment faster than she would have gone on her own, even in her panic, and she crashed against the back of the VW.

It couldn’t be.

It was.

“Bumblebee?” she whispered, then louder.  “Bumblebee?  Answer me!”  She pushed past Steven and yanked at the dented door until she could wrench it open.  She laid her hand on the complicated dashboard.  “It’s Tarla, Bumblebee.”

There was a whisper, full of agony.  “Tarla...?  No... energy... hurts... Decep... ticons... can’t radio...”

She caught her breath in something that was almost a sob.  _Almost, hell_  She _was_ crying.  “Don’t worry, Bee.  I’ll get you home.”

“Prime... Starscream... why, Tarla?  Why?”

The coldness threatened to engulf her completely.  _Well, you wanted to be numb, kid._  It wasn’t the relief she had wanted.  She leaned out the door.  “Give me your CD player.”

Steven backed away, and she found herself wondering what she must look like, to bring fear in his eyes like that.  “What’s going on, Tarla?”

She caught the sudden rush of rage before she could launch herself at him and shake the CD player away from him.  “Give it to me,” she ordered.  The ring of authority overrode any other reaction and he numbly unclipped the player from his belt and unhooked the headphones from around his neck.  He handed it to her, gingerly, as if handing food to a wild animal.  She snatched it away from him, and he took several steps backwards.  

She didn’t take the time to care.  “Bumblebee, I’m going to give you a tiny bit of energy.  Direct it all to your communications systems and let me make the call.  Don’t you take the energy to speak.”  She slipped underneath the dashboard and plugged the player into one of the sockets on the dashboard, and the radio lights grew faintly brighter as the player’s batteries drained.  “Good thing you’re as fuel-efficient as you’ve always bragged, huh, Bee?”

Bumblebee chuckled slightly, then choked it off as if it hurt.  Tarla wiggled back into the seat and rested her hand on the dashboard again, trying in a useless gesture to let some of her own energy flow into the wounded VW.  “Can you raise the Ark?”

“Will.... try... Homing beacon...?”

“We gotta get their attention first.”  She found the frequency the Autobots commonly used.  “Autobots?  Anyone there?  C’mon, guys?”

There was an answering crackle, then Jazz’s voice came through.  ‘This’s th’ Autobots.  Who’re you and how’d you know this frequency?”

The familiar voice of the Autobot she had spent hours with, discussing music and human customs, threatened to bring the tears back again.  She didn’t dare cry; she didn’t know how long the radio would hold out.  “Jazz, Bumblebee’s hurt.  Are you receiving his beacon?  I don’t know how long I can keep it broadcasting.”

“We’re gettin’ you, girl, but we’re not gettin’ who you are.”

She took a deep breath and let it out.  _Oh, God._  “Jazz, it’s Tarla.”

There was silence and Tarla wondered if the connection had been broken.  “Jazz?”  she asked in a low voice, trying to keep fear out of it.

“We’re readin’ you, Tarla.”  She heard him murmur to someone in the room with him to get Prime.  And fast.  

She panicked.  “Jazz, I need to save as much of this energy as I can.  You have our location?”

“Right.  Stay where you are, an’ we’ll be there directly.”

She turned off the radio and rested her head on the dashboard for a minute.


She sat up so fast that her head nearly rebounded off the head rest.  “Don’t talk, Bee.  Save that energy.”

“Missed... you...”

She held her hands over her mouth.  Her fingers were shaking.  _Oh, God, they’re coming, I have to run, run again..._


She jumped again, at the human voice.  She had forgotten Steven.  She looked at him through Bumblebee’s window, her eyes wide.  It was probably more emotion than he had ever seen from her.  


_I can’t run.  Bumblebee’s hurt._

She fought the panic down with a deep breath.  “Bumblebee is a Transformer,” she said softly.  “You know what they are, right?  I... lived with them for a while, a few years back.”  She spread her hands carefully against the steering wheel.  They still shook.  “My memories,” she said softly, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice.

He looked very confused and more than a bit frightened.  “You mean the robots that are trying to take over Earth?”

Bumblebee chuckled in spite of himself.  “Right idea.... wrong side...”

Tarla cuffed his dashboard.  “I told you not to talk.  Anything I can do for the pain?”

“Trash... Laserbeak?”

She reacted as if she had been slapped.

“Sorry... forgot... No... Can’t even... transform...”

“Then don’t try.  They’ll be here soon.”

“What does it transform into?” Steven asked, looking skeptically at the battered little VW.

“He.  This is his alternate form.  He’s an Autobot, and they aren’t trying to take over the Earth.  The Decepticons are.”  She hated the feel of the last sentance coming out of her mouth.

“And you were friends with the Autobots?”

“I had friends on both sides,” she said evenly and pushed past him to climb out of the seat.  She went to sit on the ground against the trunk of a tree.  She wrapped her arms around her knees and buried her face in them.

He didn’t ask any more questions.


An hour later, there was a roar of jets.  Tarla’s head jerked up.


She scrambled to her feet.  “I hear them, Bumblebee.”  She sighed and rubbed at her face, then looked around.  Steven was still hovering, looking as though he really wanted to leave, but as if he felt he had some... duty, or something... to stay and watch over her.  She shook her head, snorting softly under his breath.  _Ah, well... it isn’t his fault.  No one’s fault but your own, kid._  “Steven, get in Bumblebee and stay there.”

“No... I’m... a target.”  Bumblebee wobbled in frustration, trying to transform.  “Can’t...”

“Then don’t.  Even if you could transform, you’re too weak to do any more than get killed.  Let me handle this.”


“You’ve forgotten again,” she chided in a light voice that didn’t match her emotions in the slightest.  She scrambled up the incline.

“What is it?” she heard Steven ask, hesitantly, as if he felt strange talking to a car, no matter if it was one that talked back.

“’Cepticons,” Bumblebee answered.

“They’re the bad guys right?  And you’re letting her go up there alone?”

There was a pause, and Tarla slowed down a little, to hear what he’d say.  

“They... won’t hurt her...”  he finally said.

She turned.  “Bee, stop talking, unless it’s to the Autobots.  Tell them to hurry.”

The jets circled again.  The sound of their engines changed sharply, and she knew they had seen where Bumblebee had gone off the road.  By the time she had reached the twisted remains of the guardrail, they were transforming to land.

None of them were ones she thought of as friends.  Skywarp was an F15 jet, and the only Decepticon of that make that truly scared her.  Fortunately, he wasn’t very smart.  Thrust and Dirge, she hardly knew at all, except by sight and name.  Laserbeak made her nervous, simply because of his specialty.  He was the questioner, the torturer.  The cassette-vulture had never actually done anything to her, yet his eyes had always seemed to be focused on her.  He was the first one who noticed her and screeched, coming to land in one of the trees.

Dirge followed Laserbeak’s gaze.  “Move aside, human.  This does not concern you.”

“I’m afraid it does, Dirge.”  She moved out of the shadows of the trees.  “Do you recognize me?”

They all did and glanced at each other.  “The Autobot is ours,” Thrust said, but he didn’t sound as sure of himself.

She squinted up at them.  The afternoon sun glinted off of steel and played havoc on her eyes.  “You’ll have to go through me to get him.”

“As you wish,” Skywarp grinned and aimed his twin lasers at her.

“And you can explain it to Starscream.  I called him, you know,” she lied.  “He knows I’m here.  Knows you’re here, too.”

Skywarp froze.

“Traiter!” Dirge hissed.

“Yeah, but Screamer won’t see it that way,” Skywarp said.  “You know she’s his pet.  I’m calling Megatron.”

There was a roar of a car engine and the squeal of tires.  “Calling him what, Skywimp?” Hound laughed and fired his turret gun once in the air.  Jazz came up next to him, with Ratchet just behind.

But Tarla’s gaze was focused on the huge vehicle behind Ratchet, the huge, powerful semi truck.  Leader of all the Autobots.  Optimus Prime.

Everyone else’s attention was on the face-off.  No one saw the pain and the echoes of pain behind it etched on Tarla’s face as she looked away.

The tableau more or less halted.  The Autobots calmly waited as Tarla stepped forward.  Neither side would fire, for fear of hitting her.  The Autobots wouldn’t, because of the way of Autobots, and the Decepticons wouldn’t because they were afraid of Starscream.

Dirge ran first, leaping for the skies, Thrust quickly following.  Skywarp whirled and fired once blindly down the embankment, then he and Laserbeak also took off.

Ratchet immediately rolled over.  “Where is he?”

She pointed down the embankment.  Hound fired a cable down, and she led Jazz to Bumblebee.  Jazz clucked sympathetically at the smallest Autobot and quickly rigged a make-shift sling and wrapped it around Bumblebee.  He helped pull Bumblebee up, clearing the brush ahead of them.  He and Hound loaded Bumblebee into Ratchet’s back compartment, and the chief medical officer roared off, lights and sirens blaring.

And through all of it, Optimus Prime stood apart, in truck mode and silent, except for a brief phrase of encouragement to Bumblebee.  Tarla glanced at him one more time, then turned to Jazz and Hound.  “Well, it was nice seeing you all again.  I have to go now.  Good-bye.”  She quickly began to walk away.

Hound and Jazz glanced at each other, then each took one step forward to flank her.  “Now, jus’ a minute, here,” Jazz said.  “You leavin’ us again so quickly, after disappearin’ f’r four years?  Even th’ rumors stopped two years ago.  We fin’lly find you, and ‘It’s nice seein’ ya, good-bye’?”

She deliberately glanced at her watch. “I’m late for a class.”

They caught up with her again, in one effortless step.  “At least let us give you a ride,” Hound begged.

For the first time, Optimus Prime moved, rolling foward with the sound of tires crunching gravel.  His door swung open.  “You will ride with me, Tarla.”

She hesitated, but very few could disobey Prime when he used that tone.  With her tiny height, she had to jump to catch the edge of the door and used it to swing up inside.  As a last minute thought, she remembered Steven and leaned out the window.  “I’ll see you later, Steven,” she said softly, although she knew she probably wouldn’t.  His eyes held too much fear.  “My memories,” she said, with another of her abbreviated shrugs.  It was the only explanation she could give.  Or would give.  She shrank back into the cab, away from the window, so she wouldn’t have to look and see the fear in his eyes again.

Prime hesitated, obviously wondering if she was going to say anything else to him.  She could sense him mulling it over, then he rolled foward.  From one of his rear-view mirrors, she saw Hound transform and stop next to Steven.  Steven shook his head at the offer of a ride, backing away nervously.

_Can’t blame  him, I suppose.  Not everyone can accept new things._

“You’re just going to leave him behind?” Prime asked.  “No words?  Nothing?”

“I have nothing to say.  Better to just leave.”

“You seem to do that well.”

The rebuke was more than effective; it hit her right to the core.  She automatically shifted to lean as tightly to the passenger door as she could, as far away from Prime’s voice transmitter as possible.

They said nothing else for about a mile more, then Prime turned off onto the next side road.  “You go on ahead,” he radioed.  “I’ll meet you back at the Ark later.”

Jazz and Hound both murmured something affirmatively, skirting around them and... well, “fleeing” was a pretty accurate description.

Prime stopped at the small meadow at the end of the dirt road, the meadow shrinking even smaller with his great size.  “Get out, so I can transform.”

“Prime, I’m going to be late for my class,” she tried one hopeless last time.

“You can miss one class.”

She swung out, and he slowly transformed.  For a moment, he towered over her, then he settled down to sit on the grass.  She remained standing for another moment, shifted restlessly, and he wondered if she was going to bolt and run.  And he wondered what he would do if she did.  Finally she sank to the grass.  The only sign of defiance was that she refused to look at him.  Instead, she ripped at blades of grass, shredding them with her fingernails.  Her face was still and impassive, showing no sign of the pixie smile that had almost been a trademark.  The last time he had seen her, she had been shadowed by fatigue and pain.  But the lines etched in her face now went past that to defeat.  He wondered if it was a protective mask or if it was reality.  

“Your arm healed well?” he asked.  Frenzy had shattered it, in that battle four years ago.  It had still been in a cast when she had left.

Tarla blinked, as if it was the last thing she had expected him to say.  She looked down at her hand and wiggled her fingers, as if testing them to see if they really did work.  “’S’okay,” she said.  “I’ve got kind of a weather ache now in my wrist.  That was the worst of the breaks, you know.  But it’s all right now, Prime.”

“You used to call me Optimus,” he said softly.

She closed her eyes, and he knew this was more along the lines of what she had expected and dreaded.  “You didn’t have to come,” she said, her voice flat and without emotion.  “They didn’t need your help to come get Bumblebee.”

“You think I could have stayed, knowing you were here?”

“You must have had more important things to do.”

“I probably did.  But actually,” he said, looking away from her, “at that moment, I couldn’t think of a single one of them.”

“I didn’t want you to come,” she suddenly snarled.  “I left to forget.  I don’t want these memories.  Damn it, Prime, I fight to forget them, but they haunt me.  They chase me, constantly.  I left to escape that.”

“You left with the Decepticons.”

She drew in a deep breath, choked on it, and fell silent.

“Tarla, we know the truth behind the rumors,” he said more quietly.  “You left us, saying you were desperate to keep away from both sides of the War, and we were willing to give you that freedom. if it was what you needed to heal.  But you went and lived with the Decepticons for over a year.”

“Not with all the Decepticons.”  Her voice was flat and emotionless again.

“No,” he agreed.  “You went with Starscream.”

“Optimus,” she said softly, “I didn’t go with him for his cause, but for who he was.”

“Do  you think that makes it any easier on your Autobot friends?  Do you think that makes a difference to them?  Or to me?”

The sound she made was almost a sob.  Or maybe it was just a sigh.  “I never meant for it to happen.  I really meant to just disappear, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.  I was scared, hurt, and had no where to go, and all that determination that I started out with just... disappeared before I could do anything with it.  I was just a kid, Optimus.  I was alone with no where to go.... and Starscream found me.”

“You could have come back to us.  Did you think that I would -- that I _could_ turn you away?”

She looked up, meeting his gaze for the first time.  “I knew you wouldn’t.  But I also knew that if I returned, I’d never be able to leave again.  So instead, I went with Starscream, because I thought it would be easier to leave _him_.  And it wasn’t.  The same thing happened with him that I was afraid would happen with you.  Once with him, I couldn’t leave.”  Then something similar to desperation took over the lack of emotion in her eyes.  “Optimus, I still lo--” she began wildly, then choked herself off and buried her face in her hands.  When she looked up again, her eyes were locked against emotion.  “I still don’t want to be involved,” she finished, whether or not that was what she had started to say.  “I don’t want any part of your war.  Leave me alone, Prime.”

“Tarla --”  he began.

“Please!” she cried desperately and bolted, like he had been afraid she would, running away from him and back to the world she was fighting to lose herself in.

After a long time, Prime transformed and headed back to the Ark.

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