Lair of the Stealth Bunnies
Deepest Cuts Chapter Five
Hot Rod’s Account
“You know, you ran your mouth off quite a lot there,” Springer said. “Even for you.”
I scowled into my cup. “I don’t need lessons from you, frog-legs.”
Springer lounged back in his chair with a sigh, bracing his legs against the wall and leaning his chair back on two legs. “Might not hurt to pay attention, kiddo.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t exactly see the femmes hangin’ offa ya either.”
Springer grunted and let the chair fall back to the floor. He poured himself another cup. I wanted another myself, but I had to relieve Arcee from guard duty in the morning, and sleeping off a hangover through my first shift probably was not the way to impress Prime. At least, not in a good way.
And I _had_ been a bit of a jerk back there. But it had been seeing Arcee talking about Earth like that, with her optics wide and the way her face lit up.
I had found myself wishing that her optics would light that way for me.
And they hadn’t, so I had been a jerk. Because then, she would at least notice me, even if it was only to bounce a cup off my head.
“She’s really set on going to Earth, isn’t she?” Springer finally said, studying his energon.
I grunted, and we both let out twin sighs.
Primus, I had been _such_ a jerk.
A slumber party was exactly what it felt like.
Arcee had thoughtfully dimmed the lights for her, and Tarla’s intention really had been to go to sleep, but one topic would segue into another effortlessly. For the first time in years, Tarla had someone she could talk to, without careful editing. For three years, she had lived among humans without being able to mention Transformers. Which, she found, greatly restricted conversation. Almost everything in her life somehow led back to the Transformer.
_Oh, yes, I used to play flute, but then Starscream..._
_I was a science major in high school. Yes, I know I’m studying languages now, but that’s because..._
_Yeah, I took a few years off between high school and college, because..._
_Oh, the scars are from when I broke my arm. Well, actually, _I_ didn’t break it. You see, there was this Decepticon..._
And the worst of it was that even the safest conversations always seemed to veer off towards something that wasn’t safe. It seemed like everything always touched back on the Transformers, somehow.
Sometimes, she found herself wishing she could talk to Spike, or even Carli, although she had never met her. Just to talk to another human who were close to the Transformers, just to see if their lives had become as completely entangled as hers seemed to be. But then, Carli and Spike had each other to talk to. And they didn’t have to hide their affiliation from anybody.
It had become easier to simply not to talk to anyone.
It was such a relief to be able to talk to Arcee, without carefully choosing each word. It wasn’t long before Tarla was curled in her bed roll, and Arcee was stretched on her stomach on the couch, her chin cushioned on a pillow, and the scene out of a dorm room was once again complete.
“Tarla,” Arcee said after a comfortable silence, “what is Optimus Prime really like?”
_Really like?_ Tarla drew a mental blank.
“Unless you’d really rather not talk about him,” Arcee added quickly. “But to us--” and Tarla understood she meant the Cybertron Autobots, “-- to us, he’s this great hero, the greatest of all the Autobot leaders. But you... you know _him_. The individual. What’s that like?”
“He is...” Tarla breathed a laugh. “... Impressive. Noble. And all the other clichés one hears about a leader. But with him, Arcee, the clichés fall so short. And he cares so much. He knows every one of his warriors, and not just by sight and by name, but personally. He once told me that a leader was really only as good as those he commands. That he was a great leader, because he had great warriors. And that if Megatron’s troops were half as valiant as his Autobots, the Decepticons would have won a long, long time ago. And he means it, Arcee. He cares about each of his warriors, and still he has to send them out to die. I don’t know of anyone who could do that, caring as much as he does, and still stay sane.” Tarla laughed again, another breathless, almost silent sound. “I couldn’t even stand to witness it, and I had nothing to do with decisions like what he has to make. Just watching them leave, knowing they might not come back, that broke me. And I wasn’t the one sending them out. I don’t know how Optimus does it. But that’s why he’s such an incredible leader.”
“_That_, I know,” Arcee said. “Everyone knows that about Prime. But what is he like when he’s not being the leader?”
“He’s _never_ not the leader,” Tarla said flatly. Then she relented a bit. “Ok, sometimes he has a mischievous streak that peeks through, but he has such a dead-pan way about it that sometimes it takes a beat or two to figure out he’s not serious.”
Tarla could hear the smile in Arcee’s voice. “That’s such a nice way to think of him.” She punched the cushion she was using as a pillow and settled down again. “And what is Starscream like?”
Tarla closed her eyes, letting herself hide in the darkness. _What she really wants to know is how I could leave Optimus for a Decepticon._ She sighed. _At least, it’s one of the nicest ways of phrasing it that I’ve heard yet.”
“You don’t have to answer that. I... I guess it wasn’t very nice of me to ask.”
Tarla rolled over. Arcee’s optics glowed in the near-dark. It was such a comforting spring-day-sky blue, that Tarla couldn’t take offense. “No, Arcee, it’s all right. It’s just... not an easy question to answer. Starscream is... complicated.” She sat up, drawing her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. “There’s really two completely different aspects to Starscream’s personality. There’s that ruthless, scheming warrior that everyone knows. Pure Decepticon and all that. But before he was a warrior, he was a scientist. And a really good one. It was amazing, working with him.”
“You’re a scientist? But you’re so young.”
Tarla waved her hand in dismissal. “I studied some science. And I was too smart for my own good. It’s how I ended up in all this trouble to begin with. I’ve worked with Wheeljack, too, but that was kind of a different flavor. He’s more of an engineer. But Starscream...” and she smiled in the darkness at some memory, not realizing Arcee could see her. “And that’s the part of him I met first, you see. But it’s not who he is anymore, or who he wants to be. I think I brought out the scientist in him more often, but it wasn’t what he wanted. I think he started resenting me for it, and I had to leave, before he consciously realized he was resenting me.”
“You think he would have killed you?”
“No,” Tarla said quickly, then hesitated. “At least, I’d like to think he wouldn’t. But I keep getting reminded that my judgment isn’t always the greatest. I think... I think he’d just stop protecting me quite so carefully. And I am small, and easily squishable.” Her smile went rueful for a moment, then faded entirely.
“The way I heard it,” Arcee said, leaning up on her elbows, “and I’m sure it isn’t accurate, but I heard you had several friends on the Decepticon side. Wouldn’t they have protected you?”
“There were only a few,” Tarla corrected. “But none of them would openly defy Megatron alone. Starscream defying Megatron is an everyday occurrence, but without him as a focal point, no, I don’t think anyone would stand forward to protect me. Although,” and she grinned, sharp and malevolent, “I have very little doubt that Ravage would take revenge for me.”
“Did you live in the Decepticon headquarters?”
“Good God, no. Megatron would have killed me on sight. I caused him to lose face in front of the Autobots, you see. No, Starscream has a few hideaways, and he stashed me in one of them. As long as I wasn’t in Megatron’s direct line of sight, he was willing to ignore me. I was probably the most well-known secret in the Decepticon ranks.” She shrugged. “And eventually, being apart from the headquarters was what made it so easy to leave. As Starscream lost interest in me, he stayed away more and more. I just... walked away. For all I know, I may have been gone for weeks before he even noticed.”
Arcee had pillowed her chin again on the cushion. “It wasn’t easy for you, was it?” she asked softly, her optics glowing with gentle concern. “Not like the rumors, huh?”
“I’ve never stopped being scared,” Tarla said in a low voice. “Ever second, every minute, until I thought I was going insane with it. And then, just when I thought _maybe_ everyone had forgotten me, and maybe I had myself trained enough not to let something slip, I find Bumblebee bleeding energon all over the road, and here I am, terrified all over again, except this time, everyone hates me.”
“Not everyone,” Arcee protested.
“No,” Tarla said wearily. “I’m protected by a few, but everyone else is sure I’m on the other side. Which means I’m little better off here than I was with the Decepticons.”
Arcee was quiet for a moment. Finally, she said, “I’d like to believe we’re better than the Decepticons.”
“That’s what the Decepticons say about the Autobots.” Then she felt bad for dumping her own cynicism on Arcee. “No,” she said. “The Autobot way is better. It has to be. For both our worlds.”
The silence was not quite as comfortable this time, and Tarla searched for a way to reverse the mood again. “Why do you want to come to Earth?”
“I think I need Earth,” Arcee said slowly, after a moment of searching for words. “I could say something like Earth needs me to protect it, but that sounds like something Hot Rod would say. And Earth has its guardians. But here, I’m just a member of a strike force. On Earth, I think I can see myself doing more good. I want to protect, not just attack. Not that I’m afraid. I mean, I am, but if I let that take control, I wouldn’t be as far ahead as I am now. And I’m good at what I do. The Deceps always underestimate a femme, you know.”
Tarla laughed softly. “Yes, I do.”
“You would.” Arcee sounded surprised. “Yes, you would, wouldn’t you? Anyway, I don’t think I’m saying this right. I think... Primus, don’t take this the wrong way, but I think humans need more protection against Decepticons than other Transformers do. You humans are so fragile compared to us, and Earth is teeming with life. I couldn’t bear the thought of it being destroyed by Decepticons. I don’t know if I’d make much of a difference, but it would make a difference to myself. ....I’m not making any sense, am I?”
“You are making perfect sense. That was beautiful, Arcee.” Tarla shook her head. “You’re so much a better person than I am. All I do is run.”
“Stop that.” Arcee’s voice was sharp, and Tarla ducked reflexively. “I may only know rumors of what happened afterwards, but Bumblebee told me how a frightened and nearly defenseless human child infiltrated Decepticon Headquarters and saved Earth, by herself, and was captured and wounded because of it. Wounded by Transformers. You had next to no chance against them, and you knew it going in, and you knew you probably wouldn’t be coming out, and you did it anyway. You’re only five feet tall, and flesh, against twenty feet of steel. You weren’t even a warrior. And everyone keeps forgetting all that because they’re so caught up in the rumors of what happened later. But Bumblebee was there, and he told me. Primus, Tarla,” and her voice dropped to a whisper. “I don’t know if I could ever be as brave as you are.”
“It doesn’t seem like so much, when you look at everything else,” Tarla said in a small voice.
“No, that’s the way those idiots who don’t know the truth are looking at it.” Arcee’s voice was firm. She was sitting up now, her optics narrowed, every inch the warrior now. Tarla could easily see this Arcee fending off a squadron of Deceps. “Don’t you let yourself see you the way they do. You know the truth. And the ones that care about you, they know the truth too. Oh, Primus, what’s wrong?” She carefully sat on the floor next to Tarla. “Those are tears, aren’t they? Are you wounded and no one noticed? Oh, I’ll have Bumblebee’s fenders, I will!”
Tarla rubbed at her face. “No, I’m not hurt. Tears can... they can be good things, too.”
“Oh.” Arcee chewed on her lip. “I have a lot to learn, about humans, don’t I?”
Tarla smiled. “You’re off to a great start, Arcee.”
She brightened. “Really? I... I wish I knew what it’s like. Being human. Not that I don’t want to be a Transformer. It’s who I am. But I wish I could be human, just for a day. I’d learn so much.” She gently touched Tarla’s hair with her forefinger. “I’ve wondered what having hair would be like. It seems so... versatile.”
Tarla blew her bangs out of her eyes. “Sometimes the upkeep is a pain.”
“Hot Rod keeps telling me it’d get tangled.”
“It would.” Tarla studied her. “What about Hot Rod?”
Arcee studied her fingers. “What about him?”
“Is he going to Earth, too?”
Arcee shrugged, carefully not looking at her.
“Have you asked him?”
“Why would I do that?”
Tarla gave one of her own abbreviated shrugs. “I don’t know. I just thought you guys were a couple.”
Arcee caught her breath, then let it out quickly. “We’re not. We’re... just friends.”
“Oh.” Tarla ducked her head. _Oh, I really believe that one._ “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to pry.”
Arcee fluttered her fingers in dismissal, as if she didn’t care, but Tarla could tell it was with relief at the excuse to drop the subject. “I’ve been bothering you with questions all night. I should be apologizing to you. Anyway, I’m hoping maybe Prime will allow me to visit Seaspray’s lake for a day. I think it would be a wonderful step in human/Autobot diplomatic relations, if more Autobots knew what it was like to be human.”
“Which would be great, if it were possible,” Tarla said, searching through her pack for her hairbrush.
“Well, I imagine Prime doesn’t give out permission to just anyone, but I think I’d have a pretty good reason.”
Tarla pawed through another pocket, then stopped in mid-search and stared at Arcee. “Huh?”
“Don’t you think it’s a good reason?”
“To become human for a day, silly.”
Tarla kept staring blankly at Arcee. “Why,” she asked slowly, “do I have the feeling you aren’t talking hypothetically?”
“Because I wasn’t.”
Tarla held up her hand. “Ok, slow down. Back up.”
“Both. What are you talking about?”
“Definitely still lost, here.”
Arcee gasped, her optics wide, and pressed her hand to her mouth. “Prime never told you about Seaspray’s lake? But he must know. Prime knows everything.” Then her face turned a rather sick expression as she realized she may have said something she wasn’t supposed to.
“Did Optimus brief you?” Tarla asked, and Arcee nodded. “And if I know Optimus, it was pretty thorough on what you _needed_ to know, and what you should and should not pass on to me. And if that wasn’t on his list, then he deliberately left it off. Optimus doesn’t overlook things.”
Arcee relaxed slightly, still not completely reassured.
“You ok?” Tarla asked.
“Good. Now what the hell are we talking about?”
Arcee squirmed for a moment, then sighed. “Do you know who Seaspray is?”
“Never met him.”
“Neither have I. He’s an Autobot, naval operations. Anyway, he discovered this lake that can make you shift forms. It’s supposed to be a secret, but I think almost everyone knows. Like you said, the most well-known secret. According to Bumblebee, there are a few Autobots with human girlfriends, and they use it. I’m sure Prime knows, but he selectively notices.”
“It changes Transformers into humans?” Tarla asked carefully.
“And humans into Transformers.”
Tarla looked at her hands. They were suddenly cold, and she realized it wasn’t just her hands, but her whole body. She wrapped one of the blankets around her shoulders, rocking slightly. “Why didn’t he tell me?” she whispered.
Arcee sorted through a variety of answers, then spread her empty hands out in front of her in a gesture of defeat. “I don’t know.” She watched Tarla huddle further into the folds of the blanket. “Tarla, would it have made a difference in any of the decisions you made?”
Tarla’s eyes were haunted. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “It might have. Oh, it might have.” She pressed her hands against her mouth. Her fingers shook.
Arcee caught her hands and pulled them away from her face. “You can’t go back and change it, can you? All right. Prime must have had a good reason not to tell you, and there’s no use getting upset about it until you know what it is.”
Tarla took a deep breath and nodded, but the haunted look hadn’t left her eyes, and Arcee could tell that her words had been of little comfort. “Do you want to go yell at him?” she suggested tentatively, although it was the last thing she wanted to be a part of. “Bumblebee acted as though that was the usual thing to do.”
A bit of humor crept into Tarla’s face. “No. I’ve only yelled at Optimus once, and by the time I actually got to him to yell at, I had already spent most of my anger by rehearsing to Bumblebee at the top of my lungs. That’s probably where he got that idea.” She cocked her head. “Optimus isn’t an easy person to yell at.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Arcee said in relief. “I’m sorry. I never meant to upset you so. I just thought you knew. It was part of the myth that had built up around you. Everyone thought you knew.”
“Which added a while different intensity to the rumors, didn’t it?”
Arcee shrugged in a way that meant it had.
“I think I’m glad I missed that one entirely.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Tarla’s mouth curved into a smile, but it was her sharp and joyless one. “Yeah. Keep watching my back for me. ‘Cause when the Deceps find out I’m around the Autobots again, it’ll be open season on Tarla.”
“And that girl knows.”
“Yeah, but I’m not sure she’s going to say anything. Not yet, anyway. It must have been a huge shock for her to see me. I think I’m the first human she remembers seeing. It much have thrown her for a loop, but I’m betting she’s curious as hell. And maybe a little relieved that she’s not the only human around.”
“Oh!” Arcee suddenly looked a little startled.
“Nothing. Not anything to worry about, anyway. But I suddenly kind of knew what she felt like.” She leaned forward. “See, there aren’t too many femmes. At least, not in this force. And I was just thinking how nice it was that you were here. Because I can’t talk to Roddi or anyone else like I have been with you.”
This time, Tarla’s smile was more genuine. “I had been thinking that about you, earlier.”
“That poor child. She must be so lonely. We have to be able to help her somehow.”
“Only if she wants to be helped.”
Arcee didn’t seem to hear her. “I thought I had it bad, but I don’t know what it must be like, to be that alone. At least Aleeta-One and her warriors come through occasionally, and them I’m not the only femme around. Even if they are older.”
“Aleeta-One,” Tarla echoed. Prime’s girlfriend, his mate for millions of years. She had almost forgotten, shoved the memory far back into her mind, thinking that if she never saw Prime again, she’d never have to even remember. The cold came back again, more intense than before. She had this horrible feeling that she had forgotten how to breathe.
Arcee gazed at her in dismay, with an I-blew-it-again expression. “They haven’t seen each other in a long time,” she said weakly. “They’re both leaders, and the War...”
“The War always comes first.” Tarla brushed her hair away from her eyes. Her fingers were frozen. “Oh, God, how could I have...” She gave a short laugh. “Oh, now I really have to have a talk with Optimus. I just have no idea how to.” She laughed again, bitter and harsh. “I’m really wishing Bee had found someone else to break down in front of.”
Arcee was twisting her fingers around each other. “I’m sorry.”
Tarla waved a hand, rather amazed to find that it wasn’t too frozen to work. “Don’t apologize for my stupidity, Arcee. I knew all about Aleeta. I just didn’t let myself think about it.”
“Can I ask another question, then? Since I don’t think I can make anything worse.”
“Never say that,” Tarla warned. “Go ahead and ask. Believe me, Arcee, you’ve done more good for me than harm.”
“I have?” She debated leaving it there, on the good note, but she wasn’t sure she’d convince herself to try and ask again. “You’ve... seen Megatron, right? Been around him?”
Tarla’s face drained of color.
“There are a lot of horror stories about him...” Arcee trailed off.
It took a moment for Tarla to find her voice again. When she did, it was hard and low, filled with terror. “The stories can’t begin to describe him. He’s worse. much worse.”
“Some say he’s insane,” Arcee whispered. “That’s the only way he can do what he does, because he’s mad.”
“No, Arcee,” and Tarla’s voice was even softer than Arcee’s whisper. “Megatron is completely sane. That’s why he’s so terrifying.”