Lair of the Stealth Bunnies
Deepest Cuts Chapter Nine
THE DEEPEST CUTS ARE HEALED BY FAITH
They gathered at the launch pad the next morning to leave. It was sooner than had been planned, but when they saw Tarla, silent in Prime’s shadow, Bumblebee leaned to Jazz. “You think she’ll be better back on Earth?”
Jazz shrugged. “Dunno. But I’m bettin’ Optimus thinks so.” He looked sadly at the girl as she began strapping her exosuit in. “I guess this trip didn’t ‘xactly show Cybertron inna glowing light, did it?”
“It wasn’t supposed to be a vacation,” Wheeljack said, “and she knew that.” He stomped over to help her.
“She may have known it,” Bumblebee murmured, “but she sure wasn’t expecting what happened, either.”
“Whoops! Prime comin’ at three o’clock! Scatter!”
They dove in opposite directions.
Ultra Magnus hid a smirk. “They were talking about you.”
“How’d you guess?” Prime’s amusement died as his gaze fell on Tarla as she adjusted the protective webbing over the exosuit. She pushed her hair away from her face, and her eyes met his optics for a brief second. He had see black holes with more emotion. She looked away again and tugged at the webbing, checking the fit.
“It may not have been the way we had planned,” Magnus’ voice pulled him back, “but I can’t say I’m not relieved that we no longer have a saboteur.”
“It went terribly,” Prime said harshly. “We were lucky we didn’t lose any of our warriors. And another human died because of the war we brought to their planet.”
Magnus watched Prime for a moment. He was still watching Tarla. The human was obviously aware of it, but was refusing to acknowledge it. “Forgive me, Optimus,” he said gently, “but what else could we have done. We gave that human a choice, and she chose to be a Decepticon.”
After a long moment, Prime sighed. “I know. Just... how do I convince her of that?”
Magnus shook his head. “I don’t know enough about humans to give that type of advice.”
A small touch of humor glinted in Prime’s optics. “Maybe someday you should come to earth and learn.”
Magnus laughed. “Maybe someday, you’ll talk me into it. Of course, at the rate you’re going, you’ll have all my warriors there anyway. I’d have to come.”
“You’ll always be welcome. You and any you bring with you.”
“We’d better leave some of us here on Cybertron.”
“There will always be Autobots who have no interest in Earth.”
“But you like Earth, don’t you?”
Prime glanced again in Tarla’s direction, caught himself, and looked away. “It’s not home, but yes, old friend. I do.”
“Then you may yet get me to visit.” Magnus nodded at Tarla. “I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea at first, bringing her. but she handled herself well, at that last. I have a lot to learn about these humans. But that one, she thinks fast, acts even faster. She’d be strong at whatever she’d do, if she’d just decide on a direction.”
Prime’s optics crinkled slightly. “You know more about humans that you think you do.”
Wheeljack noticed Tarla ignoring Prime. “Are you really that angry at him?”
“At Optimus?’ She crouched on her heels, adding her pack and helmet in the webbing. “I’m not angry at Optimus.” She jostled the bundle to check the fit, then looked up at him through her hair. “I could never be really angry at Optimus, Wheeljack. Starscream, yes. And maybe that’s the whole difference.”
She shook her head and didn’t answer. Instead, she patted the side of the bike. “Thanks for the use of this.”
He looked hurt. “What, you’re just givin’ it back?”
She stood up, but her hand still rested on one handlebar, curled around it, not wanting to let go. “Wheeljack, I can’t --”
“Tarla, I built it to keep you safe,” he said gently. “It can’t do that sitting in a store room gathering dust. Even if you don’t wanna stick around, the bike’s yours. It was meant for you.” He touched her shoulder in a gesture that felt like a warm smile, then moved away.
Tarla smiled a little at the bike. She patted the seat, then checked the fitting of the webbing again, just for paranoia’s sake.
Arcee was pacing. Her body wasn’t moving, and she was rather proud of herself for having that much control. Proud in a rather bitter and angry way. Mentally, though, she was racing laps. She was fairly certain no one had noticed, until Springer veered away from his conversation with Kup and sauntered over. “Got your stuff all stored?” he asked.
She nodded, with what she hoped was a bright smile. She tried not to, but she glanced past Springer.
The roads to the launch bay were all still empty.
She bit her lip.
Springer followed her gaze, then did a quick head-count. He shuffled his massive bulk for a moment, studying his feet. “Ya want me to go find him?”
Her optics lit up for a second as she considered it, then darkened as she considered it further. “No,” she said, so softly that he had to strain to hear her. “If that’s the way he wants it, so be it.”
He couldn’t bear to see her unhappy, not today, not after she had worked so hard for this. “You sure?” He ducked down to look up into her downcast optics. “I could haul him in by his spoiler, hold him down while you tie a few knots in his fuel line.”
She laughed a little, trying not to. “I don’t need you to hold him down.”
“No,” he agreed. “But it’d free your hands up. Let you concentrate on those knots.”
She shook her head, smiling, but still not looking at him. He let out a breath, scanning over the lights of Cybertron’s skyline, the way the dark shadows of buildings melded seamlessly into the black of the sky, the stars taking over for the lights without any real distinction between artificial and natural.
This was home.
But home was also friends.
“I was thinking,” he said.
“That would be a first,” she said, her smile shining through again.
“Hey, this is me, we’re talking about here, not Hot Rod.” Then he could have kicked himself, as the downcast hue came back to her optics. “No, that’s -- anyway, I was thinking that maybe Earth could use a triple-changer like me, y’know? I’ve been wondering what it would be like, flying over those forests you’ve been telling me about. And if there were folks there I knew...” He shrugged. “Dunno, might be worth it, if I thought I’d have a welcoming committee.” He touched her chin gently. She finally met his gaze then, and realized that Hot Rod had had a reason to be jealous all along. His hand cupped her chin, his fingers brushing her cheek. “I’ll miss you, Arcee,” he said softly. He let his hand drop, backed away two steps, then turned and walked away.
Arcee touched her face, warm where his fingers had been and cooling fast in the air. “This was not how I wanted to leave,” she whispered.
“Whazzat?” Jazz had been walking by and caught her voice, but not the words.
“Nothing,” she said quickly.
“Aw, ev’rything’ll be fine, darlin’,” he grinned. “Jus’ a case of the jitters is all. In a few days, you’ll wonder why you’d even been nervous.”
He was being kind, and she smiled, to show she appreciated it. He didn’t know her well enough to realize the smile wasn’t genuine. “Thank you, Jazz,” she said. Her face was all one temperature now, as if Springer had never touched her. She sought him out with her optics and spotted him talking to Kup again. But he was watching her, his optics sad, despite his grin and the self-sure tone she could hear as the breeze would occasionally send pieces of his voice to her.
“You’ll be fine,” Jazz said again, soothingly, then raised his voice. “Optimus, we’re all ready here, whene’vr you are.”
“A minute more, Jazz,” Prime called back. “He’s late,” he said to Magnus.
“Get used to it,” Magnus grunted.
They heard the engines, before the red-and-orange car roared into sight. He wasn’t traveling nearly as fast as usual, because his canopy was popped open enough to make room for the top of Arcee’s maple tree. He transformed on the run, carefully holding the pot in one hand and balancing the tree against his shoulder. He gave Prime a sheepish grin and a shrug and jogged up to Arcee.
She glowered at him, hands balled into fists on her hips. “What’s the matter, Hot Rod? You decide the responsibility of taking care of a plant was too much for you?”
He shuffled his feet, much like Springer had done. “Aw, c’mon, ‘Cee. Giving it to me is like passing a death sentence on it. Besides, I think you need to take it. I think it needs to go home.”
Arcee faltered a little, glancing at the older warriors. “I didn’t know if there’d be space.”
Hot Rod pointed at Omega Supreme. “He’s immense. Come on. I’ll help you find space.” He juggled it for a moment, batting branches away from his face and spitting out a leaf. “I’ll even help you plant it on Earth, since I’m going to be there and all.”
She stopped walking, and he went a few more steps before he realized it and turned back to her. He studied her face for a moment, as if committing her expression to memory, then smiled. It wasn’t his usual cocky grin. She thought she liked it better. “I talked to Mags last night, and he arranged it with Prime,” he said.
“Kinda left it to the last minute, didn’t you?” But her voice was gentle.
“When have I not?” Then the impish grin was back and he waved to Springer. “Bye, Frog-legs!”
Springer’s face creased in puzzlement, then his optics narrowed as it clicked. “Oh, is that the way it is, huh?” He rocked a little on his feet. “Enjoy it, kid. I’ll be along soon.”
Hot Rod’s grin vanished. “What’d he mean by that?”
Arcee pushed him aboard Omega Supreme ahead of her.
“That’s everyone.” Prime gazed at the skyline one more time.
“Let’s roll out,” he said.
HOT ROD’S ACCOUNT
The sky on Earth is beautiful
I’m not talking about the night sky, although I imagine it’s similar enough to Cybertron that it nurses Transformers through bouts of homesickness. I’m talking about the deep blue sky the first day we arrived. It had been night when we landed, and the next several hours were a blur of downloading orientation files and getting settled.
I hadn’t realized Arcee would be the only femme here. She was already getting far more attention than I liked. She took it with the casual jabs that she gave everyone, but when one warrior got a little too friendly, I was halfway across the room before his hand actually touched her.
I was only three-quarters across the room, when he passed me, going airborne in the opposite direction. He hit the wall hard enough to dent it.
Arcee set her fists on her hips. “Anyone else?” she asked sweetly.
“You should see her shoot, too,” I couldn’t help adding, just for good measure.
Everyone was suddenly intensely busy doing something else.
“They’ll get used to it,” I said.
“Damn straight, they will.” Then she glared at me. “And just what do you think you were doing, charging over here like that?”
Ah, but I was used to her glares. “I liked his gun. Kinda figured he wouldn’t need it after you were done with him, so I wanted first chance at it.”
“You’re impossible,” she told me.
One of the others joined me and we watched her walk away. “That’s some femme,” he said.
I shook my head, filled with pride. “No. That’s some warrior.”
It was supposed to be a light day, as an introduction, but it was after noon before I got outside again, and when I saw the sky in its vivid shade of blue, it was several minutes before I could move again.
“It’s something, isn’t it?” The warrior who had spoken to me earlier was also on his way out, and he stopped near me. “It bothers some ‘Bots, least those who’ve never been on a world with a sun. But me, I’ve been on several, and none of them could rival this. I’m Cliffjumper, by the way.”
“Hot Rod,” I said, and he shook my hand in the Terran way of greeting. “I’ve seen pictures of Earth, but the real thing...!”
He studied my expression, then smiled. “You’ll do just fine here.” He clapped my shoulder. “Gotta roll. I’m on patrol. We’ll talk later.” He transformed and beeped at me, then zipped away.
I walked a ways from the Ark, then climbed up the side of the mountain until I found a rock that made a good seat and watched the clouds float by. It was not a way that I had ever expected to spend and afternoon on a new world, with roads to explore... but I was surprisingly content.
‘Bots came and went on their duties, and several called and waved to me. Felt good, getting the attention, being the new kid and all. After a while, I heard a more familiar, lighter toned engine, and Tarla came around the bend in the road on her bike.
I sighed. Her pack was strapped on behind her. She was leaving again.
I guess I had thought that just the action of bringing her home safe would somehow heal all the wounds, between her and the Autobots, between her and Prime, between her and herself. Maybe it was because it looked like Arcee and I were driving in the same direction together, and I was happy enough that I didn’t want Tarla to be unhappy.
I slid down the mountainside and landed in the road, far enough ahead of her that she had time to coast to a stop. She pulled off her helmet. “A bit more graceful about it this time, weren’t you?” she said, waving at the mountain.
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” I shrugged. “Amazing what you can do when you aren’t being shot at.” I pointed at her pack. “You leaving?”
She balanced the helmet in front of her and crossed her arms on top of it. “Optimus pulled something with my school. I’m not sure what, but I imagine it had something to do with new landscaping and a new computer lab. They don’t really want me back, and I can’t really blame them. If Decepticons showed up once looking for me, they might again, and they might not be so peaceful about it.” Her eyes were dark from the shadows of her hair. “Frenzy’s still out there.” Then she pulled herself out of that fear. “Anyway, the deans worked it out that I can finish up over a computer link-up. I just needed a few more classes. I already have enough credits in language, so it’s just a matter of finishing up a few more basic requirements. I’m just going back to tie up a few ends.”
“And then what?”
She hesitated a long moment.
“It seems a shame to waste the chance Starscream gave you.”
She looked up at me sharply, squinting against the sun. Then she glanced away again, running her fingers over the visor on her helmet. “I wondered if you were close enough to overhear that.”
“As much as I hate to think anything nice about that guy...” My voice trailed off. It had been a rotten attempt at a joke. “Yeah. I heard. And, no,” I said as she glanced at me again. “I wasn’t planning on telling anyone.”
Of course, she’d tell him. Or maybe, she hadn’t had to. “Prime knows everything,” I said, a bit wistfully. It going to be as easy to get away with pranks around here.
“It’s stupid, really,” she said viciously. “One little thing, and it’s supposed to go a long ways towards fixing all the mistakes I made.”
“Shooting a Decepticon isn’t exactly a little thing,” I pointed out.
She waved it all in dismissal.
“And it didn’t look like Starscream thought so either.”
Her eyes flicked back to my face again.
I was struggling for words, because this conversation was really forcing me to be serious, and my reputation was taking a beating. “There are a lot of people who have faith in you. And some of those people are... Primus, one of them is Optimus Prime, and if his opinion matters as highly as it does to everyone else, why does it seem to mean so little to you?”
She flinched, but she didn’t look away.
“And if you can’t believe his opinion, and that of all the ‘Bots, and ‘Cons too, for that matter, that come to your help. And if that isn’t enough, add what Starscream did for you. How can you look at all that, and still think so little of yourself?” I touched her chin gently. Her face was streaked with tears, but she wasn’t making a sound. The sun glistened off her face.
“I went through those corridors today,” she said softly, “and Autobots who refused to speak to me two weeks ago greeted me by name. All because I shot a Decepticon.
I didn’t think it would help to point out it was not so much because she shot _a_ Decepticon, as it was _which_ Decepticon she shot. “I dunno. I shoot at ‘Cons all the time, and I still don’t get a lot of respect.”
“I can’t imagine why,” she said, deadpan. It reminded me of Prime’s sense of humor. Then her eyes went dark. “You will, though, Hot Rod.”
“Get that respect someday.”
The conversation was getting way too serious, if it was focusing on me. “So, you’re going back to school. Then what?”
Her gaze rested on my Autobot symbol. “I’m coming back,” she said in a whisper, as if to say it aloud would be to jinx it.
I didn’t dare push it. “We’ll be here.”
She straightened then, in a sudden burst of energy. “’Sides, I got an invite to Spike and Carli’s wedding. I have to be here for that.”
The wedding wasn’t the solution to that battle that was going on inside her, but maybe it was a step in the right direction. Short of picking her up, bike and all, and dragging her back into the Ark, there wasn’t much else I could do. And she was one hell of an accurate shot.
If she didn’t show up for the wedding, maybe I’d risk it then.
There wasn’t really much to say after that. We kind of shuffled around a few topics, like the weather, until she gave one of her strange shrugs, that always looked like she stopped in the middle of it. I had commented on it once to Bumblebee, and he had looked thoughtful for a moment. “I guess, if my arm had been broken that badly, and I wasn’t so easy to repair, maybe I’d move a little differently because of it, too,” he finally said, and I guess that was when it really sank in just how fragile humans were. I had a sudden surge of protectiveness, and wondered if that was how Arcee felt.
It was not a bad feeling.
Not long after she left, I saw a flash of Arcee’s pink armor at the Ark’s entrance. I sent her a beep on out private inter-comm link, telling her where I was, and soon, she walked around the curve, carrying her tree and a shovel. She waited as I slid down the mountain, bracing the pot on her hip. “You’re getting better at that,” she observed.
“Must be a female thing,” I muttered, and when she cocked her head, I explained, “Tarla said the same thing.”
“I know. It sounded temporary this time.”
“I hope so.” Her optics followed the road for a moment, tracing it as it curved around the mountain, as if hoping she’d see the human coming back already. I realized why I was so fascinated by the daytime sky -- it was exactly the same shade of blue as Arcee’s optics.
She looked at me again and patted the pot. “They said if I was going to plant it, I should do it soon, before it gets any colder. Do you still want to help?”
She tossed the shovel at me. “Bumblebee said there’s a grove a little hike from here that would be perfect. It’ll get some of the heat from the Ark’s ventilation system, which will help nurse it through its first winter.” She cradled the pot protectively as we walked, and I wondered if she was going to decide against it. She had had the tree for a long time now, and in some ways, it held more memories of our home on Cybertron than it did hopes for a home on Earth.
She didn’t change her mind though, and carefully worked it out of its pot, gently working its root system loose as I dug a hold for it. It was a good thing she had changed its pot a few times in the past, because I had no idea what I was doing. I held it straight while she packed dirt around it in the hole, then watered it, and wrapped strips of cloth around the base of the trunk to help keep it warm until it adjusted to the weather.
“I think you’re right, Roddi,” she said, sitting back on her heels when we were done. “I think it needed to be home.”
I sat next to her, then leaned back to lay on the ground, noticing the alien feel of grass and dirt against my back instead of metal, and the different sound of the wind rustling the leafs as they fell in burning colors. Autumn, Tarla had called it. I’d blend right in a forest of them. I smiled at the image. That held possibilities.
Arcee settled against me, sitting in the curve of my arm, her hand on my chest. I watched her watching her tree. The fiery colors of the grove made a perfect background for her. She tilted her head back against the breeze, Primus, but she was beautiful.
She smiled then, still not looking at me. “I’m glad you came, Roddi.”
I covered her hand in mine, lacing our fingers together, and looking at the sky, the same color as her optics.
“Me, too,” I said.