Lair of the Stealth Bunnies
Deepest Cuts Chapter Seven
Hot Rod’s Account
I shot past Arcee before I realized she was there. I pulled a three-sixty, transformed, and jogged back to where she had wedged herself up near the ceiling, balanced on a girder, and was installing a camera. She glanced down at me, then focused on the camera again without saying a word.
I leaned against the wall and gazed up at her. “Um... hi.”
“Hi,” she answered in an even, almost toneless voice.
“I... um... thought you were going to get some rest.”
She shrugged. “Couldn’t settle down. Why? You gonna tell me again how bad I look?”
“No! Aw, Arcee, I didn’t mean... ‘Cee, you look great. Beautiful. You always do.”
She looked down at me again, a spanner dangling from her fingers. I wondered if she was about to throw it at me. I usually wasn’t fast enough to duck one of her throws anyway, but I figured this time, I deserved it, and braced myself.
A smile began to hover over her face. Primus, she was so beautiful, her optics alight like that. Even with that grease smudge across her right cheek. In fact, the smudge made her even more beautiful. I beamed at her. “You are such a jerk,” she said fondly.
“I know,” I admitted. “I can’t help it sometimes. Need some help?”
“You wouldn’t fit up here.” She made a few more adjustments on the camera. “’Sides, this one’s almost done... there!” She squinted at it for a moment, then nodded with satisfaction. In one of her breathtaking moves, she suddenly swung off the girder and dropped lightly to the floor next to me. I wished she had been a little slower. I would have loved to have had the time to catch her. She caught me watching her. “What?” she asked defensively.
“Nothing,” I said softly. “I guess... I was just wishing I wasn’t so much of a jerk.”
The smile broke through then, and she laughed under her breath. “You really are impossible, Roddi.”
I grinned. If she was using my nickname, it would be all right. After all, she didn’t have a nickname for Springer. “Impossible, I can live with.”
“Sometimes, I’m not so sure _I_ can,” she said, but the smile was still there. “Grab a camera and let’s go.”
“Anything you said,” I said.
And I meant it.
I helped her put up about a dozen more cameras. By the last one, she was letting me swing her down from the girders myself. I couldn’t tell if she was allowing it simply because she was tired, or if there was something more to it. “Thanks,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to get a couple of those up without you giving me a boost.” She sat on her heels and poked through the supply case she had been using to carry the cameras in, sorting over the odds and ends of spare parts, cords, and chips. “Did we lose something?” I asked.
“Hmm?” She looked at her hands, hovering over the box, as if she wasn’t sure what she was doing with them. “No. I... I guess I’m not sure what I’m looking for.” An expression of annoyance touched her face. “Just went off-line there for a moment. I’m tired after all, I guess.”
“Prime just lectured Tarla on how being tired would ‘impair her judgment’.”
She grimaced. “Sounds like something he’d say.”
I crouched next to her. “It’s more than just being tired, isn’t it?”
She studied me for a moment, then shifted to sit on the floor, her knees drawn up to her chest. “It’s just kind of an overload. So many things happening at once. I’m leaving, Roddi. I got the transfer. I’ll be on Omega Supreme when he and the others return to Earth. And I want to go, you know that.” She chewed her lip. “I’m guess, I’m just a little scared.”
“You’ve never been scared,” I teased.
She shot me a scalding look. “Then you haven’t been paying much attention, have you?”
Whoops. _Really_ wrong thing to say. I searched in panic to find something to smooth it over, and everything I ran through a quick mental rehearsal sounded only worse. I sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m not any good at this. Maybe...” And I closed my optics, miserable. “Maybe you’d be better off talking to Springer. He’s older. Might know of something to say to help.”
Her fist slammed into my shoulder. “Dammit, Roddi, if I wanted to talk to Springer, I’d be talking to Springer.”
“I just meant... I keep saying the wrong things.”
“Then stop talking,” she said and suddenly curled up against me, hiding her face against my chest.
_Someone’s gonna radio me any second now. I just know it. It has to happen._ I held Arcee and kissed the top of her head. “I don’t mean to say the wrong things all the time.”
She laughed softly, muffled against my chest. “It’s because you’re a jerk. You can’t help it.” Then she raised her head, and her fingers touched my face, then she kissed me, shy and unsure at first, then with fire that was pure Arcee.
_Oh, Primus, I’m going to have to let this lady go, watch her board a shuttle and leave and maybe never see her again._
I leaned back enough to look at her face, how the light played across it. I traced her cheek with my finger. She leaned closer to kiss me again, and I stopped her, my fingers resting against her lips.
“What?” she whispered.
“Hot Rod’s Law of Averages,” I said.
“Give it a moment,” I said. Right on cue, my comm-link blipped for attention. “See?”
She began to laugh. “Oh, dear. You really have the worst luck.”
“Welcome to my world, kiddo.” I gave her another kiss that was meant to be quick, but drew out wonderfully until the com-link beeped again. I growled. “Yeah, Hot Rod, here. Whaddya want?”
“Hi guys!” Bumblebee’s voice came through, cheerful and happy.
I wanted to kill him. “What?” I snarled.
“Now, now, that’s not the way to talk to a good friend, is it?”
Arcee was nibbling on my fingers, and I really wanted to give into the distraction. “Bee, you have no idea what you’re interrupting.”
“Actually, I do.” Bumblebee sounded entirely too smug. “I drew the first lot to watch the camera feeds, and you’d better be glad I did. Have you forgotten you installed one a few feet from you?”
I honestly didn’t know Arcee could make a squawking noise like that. She was on her feet so fast that I nearly toppled over in the sudden absence of her weight against my side. “Bumblebee, you were _watching_?” she screeched.
“No! That’s why I called! To tell you! So I wouldn’t watch!” Bumblebee panicked as Arcee went for the camera, since it was a closer target than Bee himself. She swarmed up the girder and yanked the camera out of the bracket she had so lovingly installed just a few minutes ago. As if in afterthought, she smacked the camera against the wall a couple of times, swinging it by its cords, then flung it to the floor.
“Now, you need to install a new one,” Bumblebee unwisely pointed out.
Arcee snarled wordlessly at him and strode away. She found words again a few steps away, and by the time she turned the corner, she was swearing long and hard.
“Better hide, Bee,” I said maliciously. “I think she’s coming for you next.” I cut the link and roared laughter.
A few minutes later, I calmed down and beeped Wheeljack. Bothering Wheeljack when he was in his lab was never something to do lightly. I’d rather face a squadron of ‘Con jets than a Wheeljack angry at being interrupted. Still, I was on Tarla-duty, and facing an angry Prime was infinitely worse than the other two options put together. And since I was in a good mood, and still chuckling under my breath, I figured it was as good a time as any.
Wheeljack answered, bright and cheerful. “Just checking in on Tarla,” I said quickly, to reassure him that I had a legitimate reason for bothering him.
He didn’t sound bothered. “Oh, she’s fine,” he said. “We were just puttering around her, chatting, and suddenly I realize I’m the only one talking. I look over, and she’s sound asleep.”
“Good. Prime was after her to get some rest.”
“Figured as much, when I saw her. You don’t want me to wake her up, do you?”
“Nope. I value my life.”
“Wouldn’t’ve guessed it, by the way you carry on sometimes.”
I heard the grin in his voice, and couldn’t let that rest. “Yeah? You sure she’s just asleep and not hurt?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, your gadgets are kinda famous for blowing up...”
“Watch it, youngster,” he warned, but his voice was still light. “Let th’girl sleep herself out here, Hot Rod. She’s about as safe here as anywhere else.”
Which was true, unless one of Wheeljack’s inventions took on a mind of its own. Which also wouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone, once I thought about it. Still, Wheeljack was one of Prime’s elites, and he never would have let Tarla near the workshop if he didn’t trust Wheeljack to keep her safe. “Sounds good, Wheeljack. Let me know when she wakes up.”
“Will do.” And he signed off, already sounding distracted as he returned to whatever it was he was working on.
I looked at the remains of the camera and chuckled again, before I went off to find Arcee.
“What are you going to do if she comes?”
“Keep her talking. I want her to think, and sometimes vocalizing is the best way. It’s easier to accept what you’re thinking, if you actually hear yourself say it.”
“What happens if it goes bad? If she pulls a weapon?”
“...Well, I guess that’s why you have Arcee there. Stop pacing, Optimus.”
“We can’t afford to let her get away again. You know that, don’t you?”
“You’ve made that quite clear.”
“I don’t think I have. I think you’d let her run, because you want so badly for her to make the right decision for herself. And you know yourself, that sometimes
it’s the wrong decision.
“Dammit, Optimus, for all your words about believing in me, you rub my face in it as hard as the others do!”
“...I don’t want to. But I’m the --”
“Leader, I know. Believe me, I’m as apt to forget it as you are. What do you want me to do, Optimus? Shoot her?
“If it comes between that and risking her killing one of my warriors, yes.”
“What happened to protecting human life at all costs?”
“In this case, she’s a Decepticon first, and a human second.”
“Not by choice.”
“That won’t matter to an Autobot she kills. We’ll try not to kill her, Tarla.”
“Capture her. Then what? You can’t put a human in stasis-lock.”
“We’ll decide what to do with her when we have her. At least if she’s captured, she can’t do us any harm.”
“But it’s the wrong --”
“Tarla, it is not open for debate. We’ll do everything we possibly can to take her without hurting her. I promise you, we’ll try.”
“I guess that’ll have to be good enough, since you aren’t giving her much more of a choice then Megatron does.”
“...I wish you’d at least wear the exosuit.”
“I don’t want to scare her away.”
“If shooting starts, I want you out of there --”
“Optimus, you’re fussing. You don’t fuss over your warriors like this, do you?”
“You aren’t one of my warriors.”
“And don’t I know it.”
The compromise was that they would leave the exosuit in bike mode in the corner of the room. Wheeljack had assured them that it wouldn’t show up on sensors any more than any other Earth car or motorcycle would, and this way, Tarla could get to it easily. The rest of the day was spent with Wheeljack, running practice sessions with the exosuit. And when she thought she was somewhat comfortable and was at least able to transform without falling flat on her face, Wheeljack set her out with Hot Rod for target practice.
“I don’t even want to be any good at this,” she grumbled to Hot Rod. The small lasers were mounted over her wrists, folding in and out of a compartment in the armor. It vaguely reminded her of the way Starscream carried his lasers, which made her twitch a little inwardly. She told herself that Wheeljack just didn’t have that type of sense of humor for it to have intentional, and it made sense in the way the suit was designed. In bike mode, the guns folded out above the handlebars, and it was that area that curved up around her arms when it transformed. There wasn’t much transforming involved from bike to flier. It sprouted a set of wing fins, the bubble shield wrapped around her and the tires folded up flat, but she didn’t move at all.
She was dying to find out how it worked. She had pestered Wheeljack with questions until the inventor sighed. “Look, kid. Right now, just accept that it works. I promise I’ll take it apart with you someday and show it to you bolt by bolt, but just this moment, it’s more important that you lean how to use it.” Then his optics took on a fond glow. “I don’t think I’ve never said that to anyone before. Usually, they’re begging me _not_ to explain.”
That had been what the first few months with Starscream had been like. She had taken apart so many things to try and figure out how they worked, that Starscream just grew to expect to find her sitting on the floor surrounded by parts and components. After the first few times, his irritation had gradually seeped away, and he would just sit on the floor with her and explain how each piece worked and fit in with the other pieces. She was so hungry for the knowledge that she devoured everything he taught her , and as soon as one thing was reassembled, she went on to the next.
Those were her favorite memories of Starscream, looking over her shoulder as he talked her through procedures, the high-pitched scream of anger and frustration gone from his voice. There were no sides then, right or wrong. No War. Just the comfort of learning. And of not being alone.
Wheeljack brought back those memories hard, and right behind them, the memories as Starscream lost interest. The weeks of being alone, and dodging Starscream when he was around, consumed again with battle rage and hatred, his optics blazing in a red far deeper than the other Decepticons’.
_You could continue learning from Wheeljack, you know_, she told herself. _He would never be like that other Starscream._
But the thought didn’t bring any comfort, and so she scowled at the lasers on her wrists.
Hot Rod signed patiently. “The hope is that you won’t have to use them. But you hafta admit, it’d be stupid to get yourself killed just because you didn’t know how to use those guns when you needed to.”
She really couldn’t argue with that, but she tried to anyway. “I got by four years without having to shoot anyone.”
“The way I heard it, you got your arm just about crushed, too.” He studied her for a moment. “And maybe, if you had something to shoot with back then, you wouldn’t have felt that you had to go with Starscream.”
And because Starscream had been so recently in her thoughts, she flared, her chin jerking up. “I did _not_ feel like I _had_ to --”
“Or maybe,” he interrupted gently, “you’re just afraid who you might have to point those lasers at.”
She choked off her anger so sharply that she nearly choked on the sudden intake of breath as well. It would have been easier, she thought to herself, avoiding his gaze, if he had sneered it. She could have kept the anger then. But instead, he had been so gentle about it, so like a big brother, so caring, that grief poured in where the anger had been.
In spite of everything, they still cared about her. And it had been so long since she had been cared for, that it hurt more than the sneers and hostility did.
And in the absence of the anger, she knew Hot Rod was right.
Another marvel of the exosuit -- tears didn’t fog the face plate of the helmet. And although Hot Rod’s receptors had to have picked up the sobs she tried to hid, he didn’t say anything. But he rested his hand carefully on her shoulder, and it was the first gesture she drew comfort from in years.
“All right,” he said in that same gentle voice, “when you bring up your arm with the lasers out, it’ll automatically activate the targeting controls in your helmet. See the cross-hairs in your heads-up display...”
Arcee met them coming back a few hours later. “Good timing,” she said. “They’re just about ready in there.” She handed Tarla her sneaker. “Here you go.”
Tarla nudged the kickstand down and balanced enough to pull on the sneaker. “How’d you get it from Bumblebee?”
She shrugged and her optics glinted. “Oh, Bee and I just had a little talk.”
Hot Rod made a choking sound.