But this one somehow found itself migrating to paper (Yes, I do still use pen and paper to write, more often than not.), as just a few ideas and pieces of dialogue jotted down in the margin of my journal. But then they took on a life of their own, demanding to become a story. And since the story, as it grew and developed, started to become more about Prowl and less about a fantasy me, I went with it. I tried to make it not as fangirl as it could be…but I have no idea if I've succeeded at that. So, for better or worse, here it is. Again, my deepest apologies…
One note, however. This is one of no less than three Prowl stories that I have planned. (Obsessive? Me? Whatever gave you that idea? :) ) And in true Nightwind style, I have finished the last of that "trilogy" first. :) Now, it doesn't really matter, because the stories aren't really serialized. But know that this one was spawned by brainstorming ideas for the first story in the trilogy, which is a pre-Earth(!) story that attempts to explain just how Prowl got to be his lovable self. You know, all closed-mouthed, logical, distant…all that good stuff. :) So if anything in this story leaves you wondering where the heck it came from, that's probably why. :) And all will become clear…um, sometime or another… ;)
OK, I'll shut up now. Go read, if you dare. And if you get to the end of this thing and you feel a need to hurl a brick at me for being so incredibly, hopelessly fangirl, then email me or write me a brutal review or whatever, and I will consider myself duly chastised. However, I won't be daunted…because I do already have a kernel idea for another story starring these two a-brewin' away in the back of my noggin…
I know… I can hear you screaming in terror all the way over here… MWAHAHAHAHAHAH! :)
* * * * * * *
Prowl knew exactly where to find Sunfall. The problem was that he wasn't sure that he wanted to find her. He told himself that he was just out for a drive. That he was out to enjoy the warmth and sunshine of a fine late-March afternoon…that he was out trying to forget the horrors of a dark and stormy early-March night. That he was out to get away from the myriad glances that were being cast his way more and more often at Autobot Headquarters. It had been bad enough when those glances had been sympathetic, concerned, and even occasionally pitying ones. Now that they were openly curious, speculative ones, instead... Prowl somehow found that more difficult to endure. He'd never been one who bore easily the stares of others, after all. He preferred to keep to himself. So over the past few days, Prowl had found himself leaving Autobot Headquarters often, on any flimsy pretense that happened to present itself. The others...They understood, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Prowl, after all, had also never been one to let his emotions show very often. He didn't like how...vulnerable...their revelation made him feel...
So he'd leave, whenever he possibly could. He'd head off to a nearby lake — although it was a rather…haunted…place — to sit and think, to try to remember...or to try to forget. Or he'd lose himself in the mindless, loud, impatient traffic of a rush-hour highway. Or sometimes he'd even head into the city, though of course he always avoided...that intersection...
But today was different. Today, Sunfall had left Headquarters as well, for the first time since her...birth. And even as he insisted to himself that he wasn't heading anywhere in particular, Prowl knew exactly where he was going, nonetheless. He took a circuitous route, certainly. But it was of no great surprise to him when he arrived at his subconscious destination, and he found himself turning purposefully onto a wide, inviting driveway lined with immaculate, precisely-laid flower beds. He drove through the open wrought-iron gate, and passed by a sign that read "Willow Run Memorial Park."
Once there, Prowl again took a circuitous route to his inevitable destination, cruising ever so slowly along the well-kept cemetery's narrow, winding road, delaying even while denying to himself that he was delaying his arrival at his destination. He drove slowly, quietly past evenly-spaced headstones and monuments of white and grey stone, some of them in immaculate, perfectly-maintained condition and further brightened with cheerful flowers left by loved ones, some of them eroded by time and neglect. He passed a massive white marble mausoleum, lonely and forbidding in its stark, haughty formality. He drove past humans sitting by the markers of their deceased loved ones, some of them weeping openly, some of them in quiet contemplation, some of them smiling and talking animatedly, as if their loved ones were right there with them and not dead and buried beneath the earth.
Inevitably, however, Prowl had to move on toward the back of the park...where the very newest graves were located. Where one very new grave, in particular, was situated...
It was a lovely location that had been chosen for the burial. Quiet, peaceful, open, situated on the top of a small hill so that, had the grave's inhabitant been alive, she might have had a better view than most others in the park. Bright, cheerful spring wildflowers dotted here and there the surrounding carpet of recently mowed grass, and a gentle, unseasonably mild breeze blew lazily over the crest of the hill. It rustled quietly through the newly-sprouting leaves of the surrounding willow trees, creating dancing shadows on the ground.
And Sunfall was there, of course. She was sitting quietly, her arms wrapped around her bent knees. She didn't seem to realize that Prowl was there, even after he'd transformed and approached her quietly, respectfully, not really wanting to disturb her, yet at the same time feeling an overpowering, unconscious need to speak with her. He was close enough that his shadow fell across the mound of dark, freshly-turned earth covered with a thick, fragrant layer of wilting flowers that marked the grave, yet Sunfall didn't look at him, didn't so much as move. She seemed entirely unaware of anything but the small, plastic, temporary marker that identified the new grave's tragic occupant. She stared at it, a quite familiar contemplative frown creasing the smooth curves and planes of her face. And for a long, haunted moment, Prowl stared at the marker, as well.
Claire Elizabeth Chase
A life extinguished far too soon
Beloved daughter, adored sister, cherished friend
March 30, 1977 - March 12, 1999
The small white marker with its tiny gold letters sparked memories...so many memories. Claire had been alive for an appallingly short time—particularly by Autobot standards—yet she had left such a lasting impression on so many people, human and Autobot alike. Flashes of her brief existence flitted through Prowl's mind, evoking a curious mixture of affection, amusement...and unutterable sadness. So many memories...A bright, happy seven-year-old, her long, chestnut ponytail streaming behind her as she ran, screaming with childish glee, down one of the corridors of Autobot Headquarters, pushing her teenage brother Chip's wheelchair ahead of her as he made exaggerated noises of fear for her benefit. Prowl had reprimanded her then, he recalled, though he'd secretly been amused by her antics, her childhood energy... And he still remembered the awed way in which she had stared up at him back then, her dark brown eyes as big as saucers, her expression a mix of fear and curiosity...
Of course, the childish awe hadn't lasted long. In true human style, Claire had very quickly matured into a young woman, as intelligent as her brother was but in a different, less serious, less...scholastic sort of way. She was a musician, a talented violinist, a creature of the arts, while her brother was passionately devoted to the rigidity of science, particularly anything having to do with computers. Chip lived for computers. But his sister…Claire had always been a young woman who lived to try to make anyone — particularly Prowl — laugh...and she had often succeeded...
So many memories... And the freshest of them were the most painful of all...
"It's...her birthday," a small, soft voice suddenly announced, with a curious, almost wistful hesitation about it, and Prowl realized that it was Sunfall's voice. It was the first time that he had heard it. Tearing his gaze away from the marker, firmly shoving burgeoning, terrible memories to the back of his mind again, he forced his attention to focus on Sunfall, instead.
She was looking up at him, and confusion and helplessness dominated her expression. The bright afternoon sunshine glinted off the shiny newness of her body, burnishing her mostly-bright-yellow color scheme to molten gold. Her Autobot-blue eyes were wide...beseeching...as they stared up at Prowl, begging him for...something. She was simply overwhelmed by everything that had happened to her...and rightfully so. With a sigh, Prowl sat abruptly next to Sunfall, his legs folding under himself as if they'd suddenly decided not to support his weight any longer.
"Yes," he said quietly when he had settled himself, in answer to Sunfall's observation. "Yes, it is." He paused, stared at her for a beat, and then added, equally quietly, "Happy birthday."
Sunfall flinched at that, rose smoothly to her feet...and then just stood there, as if the earth had sprouted invisible arms that had grabbed her and held her firmly in place. Prowl angled his gaze up at her. She looked as if she wanted nothing more than to run somewhere very far away, yet something held her to the spot where she stood. That "something" was, no doubt, the small, broken body in the grave below her feet... She continued to stand there, her posture rigid, her shoulders back and squared, chin raised, eyes narrowed just slightly against the oblique glare of the sun. She didn't appear vulnerable, yet she was obviously troubled. Her arms were wrapped tightly, defensively around her midsection, as if to protect herself from a blow. Her brow was delicately furrowed in a most familiar manner, and her trembling chin was a traitor determined to expose Sunfall's inner turmoil.
"I'm sorry," Prowl found himself saying quietly to her, if only because he could think of nothing better to say. "I…suppose that was the wrong thing to say, wasn't it?"
Sunfall looked sharply down at him then, as if she had forgotten that he was there. And then she abruptly sank down next to him again with a long, tremulous sigh that Prowl also knew all too well. And after that, a silence grew between them…which wasn't necessarily rare. A large part of Sunfall, after all, was Claire, and Claire had always been one of the few humans that Prowl thoroughly understood, and just about the only human around whom Prowl was completely comfortable. It was precisely because she, like he, understood the art of silence, of listening without feeling a need to mar a perfectly good silence with a steady stream of idle, meaningless chatter. Most humans, Prowl had found, seemed to fear silence, but Claire had not been one of them. So Prowl was surprised when Sunfall ultimately decided to speak…and doubly surprised by what she said to break the silence.
"I'm going to kill him, Prowl," Sunfall whispered fervently, clenching her fists on top of her legs. The words were barely audible above the rushing of the breeze as it crested the hill upon which they sat.
Startled, Prowl jerked his gaze away from the grave marker, at which he had once again found himself staring, and fixed it on Sunfall, who was scowling ferociously. She couldn't have known how much she had sounded like Claire at that moment…Claire on that fateful day…but the similarity was most…unnerving.
"Kill…who?" he asked tentatively, shoving aside his unease.
"A certain person named Chip Chase," Sunfall answered. "This was all his idea, wasn't it?" she asked, gesturing down at the body that she now wore. "She's…I'm…Claire was his sister, Prowl, not some…some kind of fascinating…experiment!" she exclaimed before Prowl had a chance to answer.
Nonplussed, Prowl shook his head, frowning in confusion.
"You are his sister, in a way," he countered after a nanosecond's thought. "And I'm sure his only thought was that you'd want to keep living."
Sunfall scowled at that for a moment and then launched herself to her feet again. But this time she paced, repeatedly tracing a small, frantic circle around Claire's grave.
"Oh no, Prowl," she said quietly, though the volume of her voice steadily rose as she paced. "This isn't about what I wanted or about what Claire wanted. Not at all. This is about what one Charles Edward Chase wanted. And it's probably about what Wheeljack wanted, too, if I know him. Claire can't die! Oh, no! Not when we can use our almighty technology to resurrect her! Who cares what Claire wants? Nobody cared what Claire wanted. You…all of you…you couldn't deal with the thought of little Claire senselessly struck down in the prime of her life. You couldn't bear the thought that humans die and that sometimes they do it in unexpected and really, really stupid ways and that everyone they leave behind has to grieve about it for a while and then suck it up and get on with their own lives.
"But why should you have to do all of that if there's some bit of technology lying around somewhere that can reverse it all with the flip of a magic switch? So you couldn't leave well enough alone. You had to play God. Couldn't resist, could you? Didn't you learn anything from when you guys did this to Spike? And how do you know that Claire wanted to live like…like this? But now she has no choice...and neither do I."
Sunfall paused in her tirade to glare at Prowl. She was half expecting to hear a retort, maybe even a growl of anger. At the very least she expected to see his jaw clench tightly and a subtle twitch work its way through his left cheek, which she suddenly recalled were often the only outward signs that Prowl was angry or annoyed. She expected to see…something. But as usual, when it came to outward emotional expression and Prowl, the part of Sunfall that had been Claire was disappointed. Prowl's face was utterly neutral, his gaze actually somewhat…unfocused. As if he was listening to something else rather than to her tirade. As if he'd tuned her out and withdrawn completely into himself…
And that only served to make Sunfall angrier.
"God!" she suddenly blurted, the word sharp and accusatory and loud and so sudden and unexpected that Prowl actually jumped. "You are so goddamned annoying, Prowl! You know that?" she fumed. He just looked at her mildly, blinking as if only half aware of what she had been saying, and Sunfall suddenly wished that she still had the ability to roll her eyes. "Don't you understand? You're looking at…at some kind of…of robotic zombie. I'm a freak! Claire's probably the only dead person in the world who could conceivably pick out her own headstone or write her own epitaph! But she is dead, Prowl! She died three weeks ago!"
And then suddenly Prowl looked at her, turning all of his attention upon her, staring up at her squarely, unblinkingly. And for a brief moment, the wall that he had long ago erected around his own emotions cracked by the tiniest of amounts. A world of hurt peered desperately, imploringly at Sunfall through that crack for a fleeting moment, and it brought Sunfall's tirade momentarily to a grinding, screeching halt. She stared at Prowl wordlessly. And then he spoke before she could.
"I know," he said. It was a quiet statement, a simple one. His gaze was still locked earnestly, levelly, with hers. Yet there was an odd, far-away note of…remorse in his voice as he added, "I was there."
The words seemed somehow anticlimactic to Sunfall. She snorted disdainfully, folded her arms petulantly across her narrow chest.
"So was the rest of the world, " she spat at him bitterly, scowling. "Or so I hear, anyway. Everyone was there when they pulled the proverbial plug. After Wheeljack had conveniently sucked what was left of Claire's mind out of her head so that he could tuck it neatly into mine, of course. Claire Chase is dead. Long live Claire Chase!"
But something made her look at Prowl again just then, and she really looked at him this time. And she suddenly noticed that his shoulders were slouching. Prowl never slouched. And his face... God, his face… The hurt of which she'd gotten a fleeting glimpse a moment ago had clawed its way fully out of the tiny crack in his emotional armor and had now palpably settled over him like a pall. He seemed…smaller…to Sunfall and it wasn't because she was now quite larger than a significant part of her was used to being. As she watched the weight of the world crush Prowl, it occurred to Sunfall in a distant sort of way that perhaps she'd said too much, that perhaps she should now say something else…like perhaps an apology…to make up for it. But Prowl spoke before Sunfall could muster up any words that she could say to make him all better.
"I didn't mean then," he said in that same quiet, disturbingly detached voice. "I meant…before…"
Puzzled now, Sunfall sank to her knees next to Prowl, sat back on her heels, and regarded him curiously.
"Before?" she prompted when he seemed inclined to say nothing further. She was frowning in confusion now instead of anger. "Before what?"
Prowl heaved a sigh, and his eyes involuntarily squeezed themselves closed. It was something that he had come to avoid of late because once his eyes closed the memories took advantage of the situation and resurfaced with a fierce, relentless, pounding vengeance. And he found himself powerless to stop them.
…The squeal of tires fighting for purchase on rain-slicked asphalt. The horrible, soul-rending screech of metal crunching against metal. The brittle tinkling of shattering glass. The truncated scream that had ripped itself out of Claire's throat. The heavy, crushing thud of the impact from behind him, which in turn propelled him helplessly into on-coming traffic. More impacts. Pain. But keeping the pain at bay for a few critical minutes was a single-minded purpose born of pure and desperate panic…
…And then, a little later, the resounding, ponderouswhoomp of an explosion. The perversely cheerful glow and the intense heat and the crackle and the billowing smoke and the sickening stench of a vehicle fire. The thunder rumbling ominously somewhere in the distance. The rain pouring like a torrent of tears from the heavens. Claire's heartbeat, fast but thready…and slowing inexorably. And the blood, of course. So much blood. The rain couldn't begin to wash away all of that blood…
Sunfall's hand as it descended on his shoulder wrenched Prowl out of his reverie, though not without a noticeable shudder on his part. She was looking at him, staring at him, her Autobot eyes wide and dark with concern and apprehension. But for a moment, Prowl saw Claire's face in place of Sunfall's….
…Strangely untouched her face had been. But for a thin, bubbly stream of blood that seeped out of the corner of her mouth, she might have simply been asleep…
…But when Prowl blinked the vision was gone, and all that was left was Sunfall peering at him, concern etched into the smooth silver planes of her face. She squeezed his shoulder lightly.
"Hey, are you OK?" she asked in small, worried tones.
It was a few seconds before Prowl's attention could focus fully on Sunfall again. But he composed himself through sheer force of will and then regarded her calmly.
"I'm fine," he lied. Sunfall frowned prodigiously at that claim, but Prowl spoke over her before she could contradict him. "How much do you remember, Sunfall?" he asked her, changing the subject with a sudden rush of urgency. "How much…How much of Claire…is there in you?"
Sunfall blinked, taken aback. She hadn't been prepared for Prowl to shift so abruptly the focus of the conversation back to her …though perhaps she should have expected it. Prowl, after all, wasn't much for talking about himself, no matter how often Claire had tried to wrench morsels of information out of him. Sunfall drew away from him, sat back on her heels again, retreated into herself, and stared at the grave in front of her.
"That's the million-dollar question, isn't it?" she said in a small, shuddering, far-away voice after a moment. She shook her head sadly. "And I don't really know the answer yet. I came here to…to try to remember. As if I thought that being close to her would spark some memories and suddenly make everything all clear. Silly, I guess, huh? But some things I do remember, and I remember them quite clearly. Little things, really, but they're things that must have been important to Claire because they're quite vivid. Like playing Bach at Spike and Carly's wedding. Like when she…I…beat you at chess that one time."
"I let her win," Prowl interjected, a fond smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"Oh, sure you did," Sunfall answered patronizingly, her face momentarily adorned with a carefree, sun-filled smile that was utterly and painfully Claire's. But then the moment passed and she heaved a long and wistful sigh. "But then there are things that I all too obviously don't remember at all. Like her…my…parents, for instance. You'd think I would remember them, wouldn't you? But I look at them now and there's just…just nothing there. Absolutely nothing. So I guess maybe it's a good thing that they don't know about…me, then. That way, they can have their grief and eventually go on with their lives. …Without me…"
Prowl, hearing the significant catch in her voice, looked over at Sunfall sharply, saw that the thought obviously bothered her on some level that perhaps even she didn't yet understand. She had settled into a troubled silence for a moment, her gaze downcast. She was idly tracing the red Autobot symbol emblazoned in the center of her chest with one finger, and her mouth was twisted in silent thought. Prowl chose to wait out her silence, allowing her to continue her vent without interruption when she was ready to do so. After all, he knew better than most the power of a good, occasional vent…
"And I guess these gaping holes in my memory are there because… Well, Wheeljack told me that they salvaged what they could, but that…that there was…some significant brain damage..." Sunfall finally continued.
Beside her, Prowl flinched slightly at that, although Sunfall was so deep into her own thoughts at that point, as she settled into another momentary silence, that she didn't notice.
…Gently pushing fine strands of brown hair away from her small, pale face…the indentation in the back of her head that hadn't been there before…his fingers coming away from the indentation macabrely decorated with tiny, gritty, jagged pieces of bone liberally smeared with some kind of fluid that wasn't entirely blood…
But then Sunfall's suddenly fervent voice again dragged Prowl away from torturous memories.
"I want to remember, Prowl," she was insisting. "I want to remember her. I do. In some ways, I—I need to remember her. I'm…I'm just so damned tired of the others staring at me, you know? Or saying something to me that I don't understand, though they obviously think that I should…And Chip…Oh God, poor Chip is the worst one of all. I think—I know that he thinks of me as just…Claire. Just Claire in another body. And in some ways, I am. But in some ways…"
"In some ways you can't be," Prowl finished quietly for her when her voice trailed off sadly. "In some ways, you're not Claire Chase. No matter how much…we…want you to be. But, at the same time, you're here and everyone knows that a part of you — a large part of you, maybe — is she. They just don't yet realize that you're not entirely Claire…though everyone will have to accept it…eventually. Chip. The others. Me… But you see, it's just…difficult…"
Sunfall looked at Prowl then as his voice trailed off. His tone was different from any that, drawing on Claire's fragmented memories, Sunfall could ever recall hearing from him. Wistful it was, almost…longing. Her eyes narrowed searchingly as she regarded his profile. His expression was half fond affection and half…abject misery. And then, unbidden, memories…Claire's memories…tumbled through Sunfall's head, surfacing and sinking again in a confusing jumble that she had not a hope of organizing under the circumstances. Brief, disjointed flashes of Claire's existence played out in her mind's eye. She could suddenly hear faint snatches of long and very often animated conversations between Claire and Prowl. She was suddenly recalling frequent visits to a lake near Autobot Headquarters, visits when Prowl would sprawl on his back in glorious relaxation, his big black-and-white body glinting in the sunshine, the haunting specter of an eons-old war and the weight of his responsibilities temporarily lifted from his shoulders. And Claire would sometimes play her violin during those little escapes. Occasionally the dulcet tones had drawn a small crowd, but more often it had been just for Prowl, because it had relaxed him. And floating above it all, there was Prowl's laughter, so rare and so… So deeply cherished.
A realization dawned upon Sunfall. It was a sudden realization, so sudden that for a moment she couldn't quite think straight. Yet for that moment, everything was crystal-clear to her.
Clear…and vaguely frightening.
Suddenly, Sunfall understood with perfect clarity what it was that had drawn Prowl to the cemetery.
"You were… You were close, weren't you?" she ventured quietly, hesitantly, uncertainly. "You and Claire."
For a long moment, Prowl was silent, staring at the grave marker in front of him. Sunfall waited, as Claire softly and unbiddenly whispered in her mind that he'd answer her, but in his own good time. And, sure enough, Prowl suddenly drew in a deep breath, deliberately squared his slumping shoulders, and turned his head to stare at Sunfall, eye-to-eye.
"In a way, yes, I suppose we were," Prowl finally admitted, his voice steady with his customary calm. "As close as was possible, considering the…differences…" he added almost wistfully, as he turned his head to stare once again at the grave.
Sunfall just blinked dumbly at his profile for a moment. Somewhere in her mind, Claire sighed with satisfaction and then slowly floated down into complacent silence. Sunfall, however, was overwhelmed.
"My God…" was all she could think of to say for a very long moment, suddenly numb, as her thoughts raced out of control, as certain ragged bits of her disjointed memory slowly began to coalesce in her mind. "That's…that's why you wanted to know how much of me was…is…Claire," she said. "Isn't it?"
Prowl nodded wordlessly, his eyes still fixed on the grave in front of him.
"This…this whole situation must be so hard for you, then," Sunfall said quietly after an extended period of silence, distress evident in her voice. "I'm so sorry, Prowl."
Startled, Prowl looked over at her, surprised by the earnest, forlorn concern for him in her voice and in her expression. It was another expression that was eerily, painfully familiar. He offered her a weak half-smile and an equally weak attempt at reassurance as he reached over to softly pat her folded leg.
"It's not your fault, Sunfall," he said quietly. "Not your fault at all."
"But it…it might have been easier for you if Claire…if she really had died, wouldn't it?" Sunfall asked in a quiet, shaking voice.
In answer, Prowl sighed.
"I've asked myself that question quite often over the past few days," he said after a moment, leaning forward to pick up one of the wilted flowers carpeting Claire's grave, staring at the tiny, pitiful thing contemplatively. "And I still haven't come up with an answer yet."
Another silence grew between them, a silence as comfortable as all of the silences — some of which Sunfall now remembered — that had passed between Prowl and Claire over the years. But something was eating away at Sunfall, something that she needed to know. It was something that no one had seemed willing to tell her since her…birth.
"What happened that night, Prowl?" Sunfall asked quietly, and at his sudden, pained glance, she quickly added, "No one will tell me. I know that there was a car accident…and now I know that you were there, if I'm interpreting you right..."
Prowl nodded wordlessly again.
"And I think…I think I need to know. I think I need to know it all. Will you tell me, Prowl? Will you tell me what happened to Claire? I realize that it won't be easy for you…but I need to know, and you were there, and no will talk to me about it. Tell me, Prowl. Please?"
Prowl hesitated, pulled in a huge, shuddering breath. And then, seeing his reluctance, Sunfall desperately launched the final, fateful volley.
"You need to talk about this, Prowl," she said quietly, laying a gentle, empathetic hand on his shoulder again, her voice soft but imploring. "I can see that it's eating away at you. Keeping it all bottled up like this just isn't doing anyone any good."
Those last words were familiar, and after she said them, Prowl stared at Sunfall, his eyes narrowed searchingly.
"Did Jazz put you up to this?" he snapped sharply, suddenly.
Sunfall recoiled from the accusation in his words, surprised.
"Jazz…?" she began to echo in confusion.
Prowl shook his head.
"Nothing," he said. "Never mind. I'm sorry; I had no right to snap." And then he drew in another huge breath, let it out as a sigh. "All right. All right, Sunfall. I'll tell you. I'll tell you all of it. But I'll warn you right now that it isn't…pretty."
"Death is rarely pretty," Sunfall whispered, almost to herself, as Prowl gathered his thoughts, and delved into his memories…
* * * * * *
"I'M GONNA KILL HIM!"
The words, yelled at the top of a female voice, echoed down the corridor. They heralded Claire Chase's arrival in the Control Room of Autobot Headquarters even before she stomped into the cavernous room with impressively loud footsteps. She regarded the other current occupant of the Control Room and I with a prodigious scowl for a moment, her fists planted firmly on her hips, her back stiff with outrage.
And then she growled at us, with not a hint of joking in her voice, "Do either of you guys have a spare arc welder on you or something?"
I exchanged a befuddled look with Jazz.
"That'd be Ratchet's department, I think," Jazz answered fliply before I could say anything. "And if it's Ironhide you're plannin' to kill, I think Ratch might just hold him down for ya..."
Suppressing a long-suffering sigh, I elbowed Jazz as he dissolved into a self-amused chortle. Instead, I focused my attention on Claire. Jazz's customary good humor had actually managed to ease the scowl that marred her young face, something that I knew wasn't easy to do. Claire was nothing if not stubborn about holding on to outrage.
"What's wrong, Claire?" I asked of her calmly. Calmness and clarity of thought were useful in any situation, after all…but when dealing with an angry Claire Chase, it was doubly true.
"I'm freakin' stuck here, that's what's wrong!" Claire rather unhelpfully elaborated. Then she took a deep breath and further explained, "I took my car down to the garage a few days ago, OK? Sunstreaker drove me home since, you know, it was pretty much all his fault that it was all, like, shot to hell, anyway. And at the time he promised me — He swore to Primus, even! — that he'd take me down to pick it up tonight when it was finished, so that I could pay for it before the garage closed for the night. So I went to the effort of wangling a ride here this afternoon from Spike, who graciously wenttotally out of his way to pick me up on his way in…"
"But?" Jazz prompted as Claire paused to take a breath. "Why do I sense a big ol' 'but' coming on?"
"But it's going to rain tonight!" Claire suddenly announced, perfectly and eerily mimicking the indignantly wheedling tone of voice that Sunstreaker used whenever he didn't particularly want to do something for reasons of vanity. Jazz erupted into a gale of hearty guffaws as Claire stalked in a tight, angry circle, her arms folded tightly over her chest as she fumed. After pausing for a second to glare ferociously at Jazz's mirth, she ranted, "God forbid that His Royal Beautifulness should do anything to tarnish that nice shiny patina of his, you know. And the creep didn't even have the guts to tell me in person! No, he sent his poor brother in like some sort of sacrificial lamb. And I've got that audition tonight and everything! And everyone else is going to be busy during that little, teeny window of time between my car being done and being able to pick it up withjust enough time to get to the concert hall for auditions. God! Mark my words, guys, when I get my hands on him, Sunstreaker is seriously dead meat. If he's worried about a few rain spots…"
"Claire, calm down," I interjected as she paused and gathered her breath to continue her tirade.
She looked up at me then, her eyes wide and her expression somehow…wounded, as if I'd betrayed her by not sharing her outrage.
"Calm down? CALM DOWN?" she demanded. "Jeeeesus, Prowl! I'm up for the Oregon Symphony tonight! Quite a step up from the local chamber orchestra, you know. You think I'm going to calm down and accept the fact that I won't get in —yet again! — just because Mr. I'm So Gorgeous is afraid of a little freakin' water?"
I suppressed an exasperated sigh as I elaborated, "I just meant thatI'll take you down."
Claire blinked a few times at me, taken aback, while Jazz shot me an odd look, one of…disbelief.
"But…You've got—" Jazz began to protest.
"So I'll be a little late," I interrupted with a casual shrug.
"You? Late?" Jazz stared at me in vast puzzlement for a moment, a thoughtful expression dominating his face for half a second…and then he angled a glance down at Claire, a jaunty grin neatly splitting his face in half. "'Scuse me. I'm gonna go pester Ratchet now. He's just gonna love hearing that Prowl here's flippin' out." And he paused dramatically before adding, "Again."
I gave Jazz's retreating back a long, withering glare as he left the room and then looked down at Claire who was still staring up at me, her brown eyes narrowed now in a curious combination of gratitude and puzzlement.
"Are you sure about this?" she asked tentatively. "I mean, Optimus'll probably drop-kick your ass for—"
"He'll get over it," I assured her with a confident, nonchalant shrug, although my audios were already ringing in anticipation of Optimus' wrath.
"Well…um, thanks, then," Claire was saying, smiling beatifically up at me. "I really do appreciate it, Prowl."
"For you, Claire?" I said, smiling down at her myself in return. "No problem at all."
* * * * * *
My windshield wipers beat a steady, catchy rhythm as I drove carefully into swirling, patchy fog and driving rain, blazing a trail for Claire behind me. The weatherman hadn't been joking when he'd warned on the five-o-clock news that tonight was going to be a wash-out. The visibility wasn't helped by the fact that it was ten PM on a Friday night and there was a lot of traffic on the streets of Portland, even in the miserable weather. More traffic meant more blinding headlights blaring away into the gloom. When the sheets of rain were combined with neon signs and the light from shopping centers, movie theaters, and fast food restaurants, the result of all of the reflected glare was that you couldn't see much more than five feet in front of yourself. Behind me, Claire was ferociously tailgating me, hanging about two feet off my back bumper, but I didn't care. I knew, after all, that she could see far less well than I could.
Still, the rain and the general gloom couldn't seem to dampen Claire's spirits as we headed back toward her apartment building. I had insisted upon seeing her safely there, given the weather. But the audition had gone so well that she was still giddy with relief. Even now, the communications pick-up that Wheeljack had installed in her car was transmitting to me her happy humming. And I, of course, was equally happy for her. Tonight, she hadn't succumbed to the nervousness that usually plagued her at auditions, that had in the past sabotaged all of her efforts to break into the symphony…
I had decided to accompany Claire to the auditions rather than return to Autobot Headquarters, where I was supposed to be. I had made that decision for several reasons. The main reason was that I knew of Claire's tendency toward nerves at auditions. When she was playing in a group, she was fine. When she was playing by herself or for me, just for fun, she was equally fine. But in an audition situation, she often froze. She had once told me that she felt totally alone in such situations, and then her nerves took over. So I told her that this time I'd go to the audition and she could imagine that she was playing just for me. So I had wedged myself into the concert hall and settled myself into an aisle, blithely ignoring the puzzled stares of the other auditioners and the people who'd accompanied them.
The audition piece for this year was a Vivaldi violin concerto, one that was technically difficult, but one that I knew Claire loved to play and, more importantly, I knew that she could play it extremely well. Still, she had as usual succumbed to self-doubt as we'd walked into the concert hall, worrying over things that I knew that she could handle with ease if only she'd relax. So I attempted to convince her to relax. We passed the time between our arrival and her turn to audition quietly, Claire sitting cross-legged and tense a couple of steps above me in the aisle, leaning forward to rest her chin comfortably on my shoulder so that we could talk without disturbing the general silence of the hall, other than the music that the auditioners played. And, though I tried to keep the whispered conversation focused more on inconsequential things, Claire was nervous and evading my efforts to persuade her to relax. She spent much of the time before her turn to audition commenting on how good everyone else was and how she couldn't hope to compare, while I spent most of the time trying to convince her otherwise, pointing out small mistakes that other auditioners had made. My efforts didn't seem to mollify her, however.
And when it was finally Claire's turn, she had approached the stage as if it was a gallows, her stride hesitant, her shoulders bunched in familiar trepidation. After she had climbed the steps and moved to stand in the middle of the stage, looking forlorn before she raised her violin to her shoulder, she looked right at me. I gave her a wink and a small, encouraging smile and a thumbs-up. And for some reason, with that gesture, her nervousness seemed to evaporate. And at her cue to begin, she took a deep breath, raised her violin, rested the bow lightly against the strings for a moment…and then she played. And the music simply spilled out of her, dulcet, sweet, and flowing through brilliant highs, mellow lows, and complicated, rushing phrases with her customary, breathtaking, natural ease.
Which was the second reason that I had chosen to accompany Claire to her audition; I simply loved to listen to her play. When we Autobots had awakened on Earth after a four-million-year sleep, some of us had been instantly taken with Earth's then-current pop culture, with everything that had been happening right then in 1984. And most of the others continued to be mired in the present and there they seemed quite content to remain. But I…I had been quite taken with the past, with the classics — Old history, old philosophy…and especially old music. So much had happened while I had slept on the humans' planet, and I wanted to know it all. And I was much more curious about humanity's past than its present and future. So while some of the others — like Jazz, of course — drowned themselves in the here-and-now, I found myself drawn to what had been, to the old, in particular to music from the late 17th century, what the humans called Baroque. There was a rigid, mathematical precision to it, a certain logical progression, and yet at the same time it often managed to evoke an intense emotional response from the listener. That was a combination that resonated very comfortably with me. Jazz was always trying to foist modern human music upon me, but I would have none of it, almost from the very beginning.
And then Claire had come along, not long after our revival on Earth, appearing one day in Autobot Headquarters out of the blue, alongside of Chip. When we had met her, she had been only seven years old…but she had already been taking violin lessons for several years and even at such a young age, she was already very good. And, of course, she had only improved with age. Many of the Autobots — including me, of course — had attended her very first concert with the local chamber orchestra, when she had been all of twelve years old. It was an informal, open-air, summer evening affair. She could hardly be seen up on the stage, a tiny figure mired in the mediocre ranks of the second violin section…but she had not stayed in the mediocre ranks for long.
A shared interest in the same type of music — an interest, I might add, that was rare in one of her age — had precipitated an odd sort of friendship between us. It was a friendship that had only become stronger and closer through the years, as Claire grew through her turbulent teenage years and into womanhood. So I had watched as she had steadily worked her way through the ranks of the chamber orchestra, breaking into the first violins and eventually working her way to second-chair, just a step below concertmaster…and now here she was, trying to break into the state symphony. I was so proud of her, and I very much wanted her to succeed. So, besides the fact that I loved to listen to her play, I had simply decided tonight that if my being there at the audition in any way helped Claire to realize her dream… Well, then I was going to be there for her, whether Optimus Prime liked it or not.
And, of course, that was the third reason I'd decided to go to the audition with Claire. I was supposed to have been at Autobot Headquarters this evening for a strategy session with Optimus Prime, some of the other Autobots, and some U.S. Army representatives. Optimus would not have been at all happy with me, had I been late. And, applying a twisted sort of logic to the situation, I had simply deduced that being even later — missing the thing entirely, in fact — would further delay having to listen to our fearless leader's wrath. I'd even turned off my comm so that no one could reach me…
It amazed me, really, this sudden…wayward attitude of mine. I had never been what anyone, by any stretch of their imagination, would call a rebel. But Claire had needed me. That took precedence over the wheedling, whining, sniveling U.S. Army, as far as I was concerned. I'd had quite enough of them over the years. Optimus would… Well, he wouldn't really understand, no. I'm not sure thatany Autobot could really understand the relationship that had slowly evolved over the years between Claire and I. But he — and everyone else — could simply deal with it, as far as I was concerned. I had decided that I had a right to enjoy myself for once in my life. I hadn't enjoyed myself for a very long time, really. And I enjoyed being with Claire. And I especially enjoyed listening to her play.
Closing my eyes as Claire played up on the stage, I envisioned the last time I had heard her play the very same piece that was flowing out of her violin now. It had been up at the lake, back in the fall, before the cold, damp embrace of a northwestern winter had settled in. And it had been one of those amazingly crisp late October days, when the sky overhead was a deep, crystal blue warmed by a yellow sun unimpeded by cloud cover. There was no wind, and the air was crisp, fresh, but not at all cold. The lake was perfectly calm with the lack of wind, reflecting the cloudless sky as well as it would have had it been a giant mirror rather than an expanse of water. I was lying on my back, hands cradling the back of my head, staring up at the sky, utterly relaxed, as if I had not a care in the world. And at that time, I hadn't had any…or, at least, I had temporarily forgotten them all, if I'd had any. I'd had one leg bent and Claire had been leaning her back comfortably against it, creating a warm spot, as she played a solo from the very same concerto that she was playing now...
The memory faded as Claire finished playing and lowered her violin from her shoulder, her eyes closed for a moment after she finished, as the echo of the final notes of the piece bounced off the walls of the concert hall and faded slowly. There was a brief silence…and then, as one, the hundred-or-so current occupants of the concert hall began to applaud quietly. Only a few had managed to rouse the other jaded auditioners to applause, but Claire had managed to do so, and the unexpected sound of it made her eyes snap open in surprise. She flushed momentarily, then grinned and sketched a hasty, nervous bow. The musical director thanked her for braving the awful weather to audition — and there was a note of approval in his voice, I noticed, that hadn't been there for many of the others who'd auditioned. She nodded, thanked him with a wide grin, and then virtually floated toward the stage steps.
She'd fairly bounced down from the stage. And she hadn't stopped babbling, humming, laughing, singing, or whistling since then. Even the foul weather couldn't drown her spirits. She'd actually laughed and jumped with both feet into rain puddles like a child as she'd ran to her car…
"You really didn't have to stay for the auditions, you know," Claire suddenly said now, her voice snapping me back to the present moment and managing to drown out the sound of the torrential sheets of rain that pounded against me.
"You know I love to listen to you play," I immediately transmitted back to her. "Besides, it, uh—"
"—delayed the 'Wrath of Optimus Prime' for a few more hours," Claire finished for me with a low, knowing chuckle. "He's gonna weld you to the wall for missing that meeting, you know. I mean, he'd've probably forgiven a bit of lateness, but tototally blow him off like that…? Woo! You are so in for it, my boy. I've been a decidedly evil influence on you, haven't I?"
"Evil? You? Nooooo…" I replied with an answering chuckle. And then a yelp from my scanners diverted my attention, and I noticed that, just ahead of me, the right lane of the road was flooded out. If Claire hit it — or even if I hit it — it'd be very easy to go careening out of control. "Whoa! Look out," I warned as I quickly swerved into the other lane to avoid the flood. Claire deftly followed the trail that I blazed, thankful, no doubt, that her car was a small and maneuverable Ford Escort. It didn't much like the rain, from what I'd been able to gather of Claire's infrequent complaints during the trip from the concert hall to her apartment, but at least it could handle such sudden shifts in vector and velocity better than a larger, more cumbersome vehicle could have. And as I glided to a stop at the red light in front of me a few dozen meters after that, Claire's Escort did the same.
"Man, rain sucks," Claire sighed over the comm as her car halted behind me.
"Tell me about it!" I answered. After all, along with the omnipresent dirt and dust that wreaked havoc with delicate internal systems, Earth's weather — especially the wetter incarnations of it — was a nuisance that required a certain period of adjustment.
I said something else inconsequential then…and was puzzled when Claire didn't answer.
"Claire? Hello?" I prompted after a moment…but then I noticed what she had no doubt already noticed.
Behind her, a wild light was flailing, approaching Claire's car much too quickly. A car…a truck, actually, judging by the height of the lights…was weaving, fish-tailing its way inexorably toward Claire's car, obviously quite out of control, perhaps having hit that flood that Claire and I had both managed to miss. Time seemed to slow as I watched it approach. I called Claire's name again and again, desperately this time, trying to get her attention, to make her aware that she needed to move. But my words went ignored as, I imagined, Claire stared with deer-in-the-headlights horror into her rear view mirror and I sat there, completely and frustratingly numbed. It vaguely occurred to me that I should do something. Like transform and divert the oncoming vehicle if I could. Like heroically shield fragile Claire with my far less fragile body, at least.
But there was suddenly no time… No time at all.
And then there were the sounds. Claire's last word was my name, murmured, whispered as softly as one would say a private prayer. And then there was the screeching of tires against wet, slick asphalt. And then there was a sort of brittle, hollow crunch punctuated by an abortive scream that ripped itself out of Claire's throat and speared me with an overwhelming and soul-rending sense of guilt. And then, a split-second later, there was a mighty and terrible jolt as the front end of Claire's car mashed itself with a vengeance into me…
* * * * * * *
Transforming was nothing less than pure hell. One of the two…or three…or four…I'd lost count…cars that had hit me when Claire's car had shoved me helplessly into the intersection and on-coming traffic had bashed in my right front wheel rim, making it difficult and supremely painful to wrench my shoulder back and into place. And my legs, where Claire's car had rammed into me… They were screaming at me, and aftershocks of that impact and the others were still ramming their insistent way through my infrastructure, leaving a lingering trail of pain in their wake. I consciously put it aside for the moment, though, and managed to complete a pitifully slow and decidedly shaky transformation. And then I pushed myself up onto my one good hand and my knees in order to take stock of the situation.
Several cars, at least, had hit me, but their operators, from what I could tell, appeared to be all right. One of them was already stalking around his bashed-in BMW, oblivious to the rain and everything else, screaming enraged obscenities into a cellular phone. The other bystanders were, for the most part, gawking mutely at me, their eyes huge as saucers. I don't know if they were in shock because I was an Autobot or what…but at the moment I really didn't care.
Because I had finally, dazedly turned my head so that I could see Claire's car. Or what was left of it, anyway. And a vague intimation of panic began to gnaw hungrily at the edges of my still-dulled senses as I surveyed the wreckage. What had once been a small Ford automobile — small, nothing flashy, but perfectly adequate for Claire's purposes — was now a twisted, unidentifiable mass of metal, glass, and fiberglass. It had been violently crushed between the pick-up truck that had hit it and me, and it had folded and refolded and twisted in on itself in protest. The pick-up truck that had rammed Claire had ridden up over the trunk of the car. Its front tires were resting where the back window of Claire's car had been. And its cab was empty. I had no idea where the driver was…and I didn't care at all because at that moment I spotted Claire.
If transforming had hurt, moving was even more torturous, but now I hardly felt the pain. Panic had pushed it firmly aside. It would hit me later, I knew, and life would not be pleasant when it did. But for the moment…I could see that Claire was still in her car, slumped and unmoving over the steering wheel…and small flickers of flame were visible under the bashed-in hood of the car. It took a moment or two for their significance to smash its way through my swirling, dazed, fuzzy thoughts. But when it did, my mind was suddenly jolted clear…and I was suddenly desperate. In the distance, I heard sirens approaching. Rescue crews, no doubt, were converging upon the scene of the accident. But they wouldn't arrive in time. Not before those small, perversely cheerful sparks became a raging, all-consuming inferno, at any rate.
I knew what I had to do.
Walking was out of the question. My legs, I knew, were too badly damaged for that. But I could still crawl after a fashion, gingerly favoring my severely bashed-in right shoulder. In that manner, I slowly, laboriously crossed the stretch of wet asphalt between my position and what was left of Claire's car. The torturous journey seemed to take forever, and by the time that I reached Claire, the disparate, small flames had coalesced into a larger fire that intermittently licked angrily out from underneath the accordion-folded hood of her car, hissing malevolently and smoking noxiously in the dampness.
I considered the problem. Claire was still in the car, quite obviously unconscious. I tried the door handle, knowing that it was, no doubt, not going to work and I wasn't disappointed when it didn't. All other options exhausted and time running very short, I knew what I had to do. So, steeling myself, I braced my injured right arm against the car for leverage, hissing and wincing in pain that I couldn't quite shove aside this time, and then with desperate strength I pushed with my left hand against the roof support on the driver's side of Claire's car. Metal squealed in protest. The windshield of the car splintered and shattered with a hollow pop, and the roof support rent neatly in two so that I could then roll back a corner of the roof of the car like the lid of a sardine can. And after hastily ripping apart the remains of the dashboard, which had unmercifully ground itself into Claire's chest and abdomen, pinning her to her seat like an insect in an entomologist's collection, I could finally pull Claire free.
And I did so with seconds to spare. I pulled her limp, unresisting body from the wreckage of her car as carefully as haste allowed and shuffled awkwardly backwards away from it, so that I was huddled in the middle of the street. Just after I had accomplished that, the fire finally found the fuel line that fed the engine of Claire's car. What was left of the car and the pick-up truck sitting atop it subsequently exploded with a mighty, reverberating whoomp that echoed and re-echoed for long moments off the surrounding buildings, shattering a few windows in neighboring storefronts. I cradled Claire's comparatively small body in my arms, shielding her as random bits of her car and the pick-up rained in what under other circumstances might have been a comical manner from the heavens. And when it was over, I was finally able to look at her.
She was alive… She was breathing, at least, though very shallowly. Her chest had been crushed by the steering wheel of her car, as the dashboard had been shoved back into her body when her car had collided with me. The only reason that I could tell that she was breathing at all was that I could hear a distinct rattling, gurgling wheeze that was emanating from her throat. And her heart was beating, too, frantically slamming away in what was left of her chest. I could feel its rapid, thready pulsing through Claire's back, against my arm, as her heart fluttered like a panicked butterfly, trying desperately to keep her alive. And the blood…Primus below, there was so much of it… I could feel its thick, sticky warmth oozing over my legs as it flowed from her various injuries, beginning to pool darkly around me. I could smell the tang of its constituent iron in the air, even above the reek of the guttering vehicle fire. And it was mixing, I suddenly noticed, with the energon that was oozing out of me from somewhere, as well...
As if to try to distract myself, I tried to find where the blood was coming from, in the vague, distant hope that I could somehow stop its flow. But it seemed to be coming from everywhere; the damage to Claire's body was quite obviously much too extreme for me to be able to do anything about it. One of her legs was a twisted, torn-up mess. The long bone in her thigh had broken and both of its jagged ends had ripped themselves out of her flesh, peeking out from below the hem of her skirt and glittering an alien, blood-smeared white in the firelight. Blood was spurting like a macabre fountain out of the resulting, pulpy tear in her leg, in gouts timed to the frantic beat of her heart. And a dark, malevolently glistening patch that I didn't want to think about was spreading across her abdomen…
I tried my voice in order to distract myself from a dawning, awful knowledge...
"Claire?" I croaked, my voice as broken as her body.
Amazingly, her eyes opened, but there was no recognition in them, no focus, no hint of awareness at all. The unseeing pupils of her eyes, barely discernible from the deep brown irises, were unequally dilated, and her eyes seemed huge and liquid and helpless in her pale face. It was a face that was eerily lit and that had been given some semblance of misleading animation by the dancing light of the fire that was ravenously consuming the remains of her car. As horribly damaged as the rest of her body was, her face was curiously untouched, almost…peaceful. Her lips were parted slightly as she struggled for breath, and a thin, steady stream of blood flowed out from them. If only because it gave me something to do, I tried to wipe it away, only to have it replaced by still more, at which time I realized the futility of the effort and focused my attention elsewhere.
Some time during the course of the crash, some of her hair had freed itself from the long, hip-length brown braid that ran down her back, and the errant strands had fallen into her face. Gently, I smoothed them back…only to discover an indentation in the back of her head that certainly wasn't supposed to be there… And as I gingerly felt around the jagged edges of the wound, as I felt the gritty pieces of bone clinging to my fingers and the mushy, yielding mass beneath the injury, I recoiled from it in dawning, visceral horror.
"No," I murmured. It was more than a denial; it was a prayer. "Oh Primus…God… Please…No."
It was a horror that savagely smashed its way through the dull, dream-like, detached fugue in which I had been floating since the accident, a fugue that had been cushioning and damping the shock and pain and sorrow that were swirling in my subconscious. Because I suddenly knew that, whatever her other injuries were, that three-inch hole in the back of Claire's head was likely her death warrant. And that knowledge chewed at my very being, cruelly wrenching away a part of me that had only just begun to reawaken, thanks to Claire, after millennia of a troubled, restless slumber. Suddenly, I wished with my entire being that I had the humans' ability to sob and wail like an infant…
Because I had seen enough death in my time to know that the specter of it was hanging over Claire, all menacing and greedy. I knew from painful experience that, any second now, it would snatch her from my arms with a gleeful, possessive cackle and that, along with it, it would snatch away a large part of my own soul. The sirens in the distance were closer now, yes, but I somehow knew that they were still too far away…
Much too far away…
And just moments later, I looked up through the sheets of rain that poured from the heavens, as if the humans' God shared in my sorrow. As I spotted the pulsing red glow of the lights and heard in a very distant, detached way the wail of the sirens warbling above the thunder in the distance, I also felt Claire's heartbeat weakening… Slowing… Fading…until it was suddenly gone. A final breath rattled its way through her ruined chest before it fell a final time, and her eyes, only half open now, dulled, lost the vital spark that was Claire Chase. I couldn't bear to look at them so, ever so gently, I closed them.
And I knew, of course, that she was gone.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to rage. I wanted to bemoan her fate…my fate. I wanted to yell at, to throttle Primus, or God, or whatever other deity I could get my hands on… And I wanted to demand to know...why. Why her? Why me? But I did none of that. As usual, when faced with an emotional crisis that loomed over me in overwhelming menace, I retreated into myself. I sat huddled in the middle of the street, surrounded by humans that I didn't see, with rain pouring down my face, the drops looking, no doubt, like the tears that I couldn't shed because I wasn't human. I sat as still and as outwardly emotionless as a statue while I battled inwardly to push aside the all-consuming hurt, both emotional and physical. I knew that if I did anything else, that if I didn't hide deep within myself, then I would break down right there, right then…and I lived in fear of that. So as the human medics approached me warily and then gently relieved me of my lifeless burden…as they fussed briefly over her shattered body and shouted at one another and then hurriedly loaded her into the back of an ambulance…as the ambulance screamed off with flashing red and white lights that briefly illuminated the dismal night…I simply sat and watched it all happen with rigidly enforced detachment.
It was a detachment that almost shattered when a hand alighted on my good left shoulder a few minutes later and Jazz suddenly knelt next to me, deep concern etched into every square millimeter of his normally-jovial face.
"Prowl?" he ventured tentatively after a moment, after I didn't so much as acknowledge his presence. And then he shook me lightly for effect when I didn't respond even to that and added, "Prowl, you OK?"
"I'm fine," I lied, but my voice sounded to me as if it belonged to someone else. I was, after all, screaming and raging inside, but that voice was nothing if not calm, level, and so very, very…detached.
Jazz looked doubtful at that but chose to let it slide for the moment, apparently. And then Ratchet materialized from nowhere and knelt at my other side, hissing quietly but without his customary outraged ranting at my physical condition. He was, beneath his bluster, amazingly empathetic, after all…
I distantly heard the high-pitched warble of a medscanner as Jazz explained, "Red Alert heard on the police radio about an accident with an Autobot involved. You were the only one we couldn't reach, so we logically deduced that it had to be you. We got here as qu—"
"She's gone, Jazz," I interrupted Jazz's steady stream chatter in the same hollow, flat, detached voice. "Claire. She's dead."
I saw, as if from far away, Jazz and Ratchet exchange a deeply concerned glance.
"Naw, man," Jazz said after a moment, with false, enforced cheer and an encouraging squeeze of my shoulder. "She's a bit banged-up, sure, but I'm sure the docs will work their magic on her and she'll be just f—"
I turned my head — slowly, painfully, for it was ringing suddenly — so that I was looking Jazz squarely in the eye, and I announced levelly, interrupting Jazz's admirable attempt at reassurance, "You're wrong, Jazz. I felt it. I felt her die. She's gone. She died in my arms. Just as everyone who's ever gotten close to me has…died…"
I paused to gain control again, both emotionally and physically. I was trying to corral the pain that was running rampant throughout my entire body, now that my attentions were focused more on controlling my emotions than the pain. I was also trying to bat aside the blackness that suddenly seemed to be swooping down upon me. Jazz stared dumbly at me, at a loss for words for once in his life, while the world suddenly spun sickeningly around me.
But before I finally — and perhaps mercifully — passed out, I whispered, my voice shaking despite my best efforts, "And it's my fault, Jazz. I couldn't do anything to stop it…"
The very last thing I heard as I collapsed sideways toward Jazz and he caught me before I smacked into the ground was Jazz murmuring softly, regretfully, "Oh, man, Prowl…I'm sorry. I'm so damn sorry."
* * * * * * *
Pachelbel'sCanon in D echoed - very loudly - off the walls of my quarters, its deftly interweaving strains flowing all around me, soothing, smooth, joyous, sweet...bittersweet. It was Claire, after all, who was the first violin of the string quartet playing the piece. I could still recall as if it had happened just yesterday cajoling Blaster into attending Claire's concert - As it turned out, it had been her final one, I suddenly realized with a stab of pain - and recording for me this particular piece, as it was my favorite of them all. Classical music wasn't exactly Blaster's stock in trade, but he'd finally agreed, grudgingly, to attend...and afterwards even he had deemed the canon "suh-weeet." And I had often found myself playing the recording over and over in the days that stretched between Claire's death and her funeral and now, as well, in the endless expanse of time that seemed to loom dolefully in front of me, now that she was buried and irrevocably gone...
I hadn't been there when they had taken Claire off life support. I didn't, in fact, see her at all after the medics at the scene of the accident had pulled her from my arms and taken her away. For one thing, I'd had to spend a few days in the medical bay, enduring Ratchet's and then Optimus Prime's endless subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to persuade me to talk about what had happened on the night of Claire's accident. It was a subject that I avoided either by abruptly and clumsily changing the subject or simply and directly insisting that there wasn't anything to discuss, much to Ratchet's frustration.
But besides that... I just...couldn't see Claire. I knew what would've happened if I'd made the journey to the hospital while she'd languished there, brain dead and on full life support, while arrangements were made to donate her undamaged internal organs. Had I gone to the hospital, I would have been confronted with that all-but-dead Claire...a Claire whose premature death I considered entirely my responsibility. It was a somewhat irrational feeling, a part of my mind naggingly insisted -- the logical and eminently calm, cool, and dependable part. It was what the humans had termed "survivor guilt," that calm part of me knew. Nonetheless, irrational or not, the sense of overwhelming guilt was there, and I couldn't imagine the possibility of dealing with it in public, of facing head-on my failure...and, as a result, possibly breaking down in public. I refused to do that. Not like that. Not again...
Eventually, Jazz had told me that the physicians had turned off the machines that had supported her mockery of a life and that she had officially passed away peacefully minutes afterwards. And that was quite enough for me. In fact, it was more than enough. Because, to me, Claire had already died a week before that...and it was something that still weighed heavily upon me...
After my release from the medical bay, I had spent the few days between that day and Claire's funeral ensconced in my quarters, thinking, remembering, grieving...and, to be truthful, hiding from everything and everyone. The only person that I had made an effort to see during that time was Chip Chase, in order to express my sympathies...and to convey my apologies. He had looked at me with sorrowful gratitude at the former and with an askance curiosity at the latter, but I hadn't elaborated. I couldn't. I had found that I couldn't say much to Chip after all, despite my best intentions. When all was said and done, he reminded me too much of Claire...
The day of Claire's funeral had dawned depressingly and cruelly beautiful. The air had been unseasonably warm for mid-March in the northwest. Birds sang in spite of the solemnity of the occasion. The sky had been a cloudless and impossibly lovely shade of blue, and the bright sunlight had been mockingly cheerful as we, the mourners of Claire Chase - her family, her human friends, and almost the whole complement of Autobots - had gathered at her gravesite. We had listened to the drone of the priest as he had pronounced the benedictions designed to speed Claire's soul on its way to heaven. We had watched as her coffin was lowered into the ground with a heavy, ponderous finality before we had all of us trickled away, leaving Claire in a cold and forever isolated peace.
I had been the last to leave. I had hung back, making sure that everyone else had gone before I knelt to leave a single red rose on top her coffin, before it was buried. And, as well, I murmured the farewell to Claire that I had been too stunned to utter as she had laid dying in my arms. It really hadn't made me feel any better about the situation, though. She was, after all, still dead. There was nothing I could do about that fact now. And so much had been left unsaid while she'd been alive, I realized. There was so much that I should have told her...
That knowledge had preyed on my thoughts as I'd returned to Autobot Headquarters, opting out of the subdued post-funeral reception that Claire's family had organized. I couldn't bear the thought of attending, of bearing the wondering stares that no doubt would have been leveled at me, as they had been every time during those rare occasions that I had ventured out of my quarters before Claire's funeral. So I returned to Autobot Headquarters, to the neutral, undisturbed sanctity of my quarters, and there I remained for...quite a long time, indeed.
A few days passed in a dreary progression of uniform bleakness. Mostly, I sat and did little but think and wallow in memories, listening to the music that Claire and I both loved. I kept expecting someone - Optimus Prime, at least - to show up on my doorstep, to try to cajole me out of my funk, or at least to give me something to do to take my mind off Claire's death. Had I known about the buzz that was quietly, stealthily threading its way through the corridors of Autobot Headquarters concerning Claire and the idea that Wheeljack and Chip had concocted - or, rather, resurrected - to attempt to preserve her... Well, I might not have been surprised that I'd been left alone and unconsulted. As it was, though, the eventual news came as a complete surprise to me...
And Jazz, of course, was the one who delivered it, interrupting the 154th time that I'd played Pachelbel'sCanon since Claire's funeral...
I had been playing it so loudly, in fact, that I never heard Jazz's request for admittance to my quarters. I'd been sitting at my empty desk, slouching in my chair, eyes closed, drowning in memories, some pleasant, some...not. I didn't hear Jazz ring the door chime. I didn't hear him pound worriedly on the door when the chime failed to rouse a response from me. I didn't even hear the door slide open as Jazz used a security override to gain access. I had no idea, even, that he was there until the music stopped in mid-phrase and something simultaneously tapped me lightly on the shoulder.
I bolted immediately upright with an involuntary but strangled yelp as the present and its stifling reality hit me upside the head, abruptly dissipating the hazy memories in which I'd once again been drifting. My gaze darted frantically around the room for a few moments before it finally settled on Jazz, who was standing next to me, his arms folded across his chest and his expression half baffled and half concerned.
"What's wrong?" I asked of him as he continued simply to stare at me with the oddest expression on his face.
"Nothing," he replied after a beat. "And everything. Are you all right?" I opened my mouth to reply, but he spoke over me, "Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. 'I'm fine.' Y'know... You tend to be a very bad liar, Prowl."
"'-Not a lie,'" Jazz snorted, finishing my thought out of long practice as he abruptly plopped himself on the corner of my desk as if he owned it. "Yeah, I know. I mean,surely there's a logical reason why you've spent the last nine days holed up in here, listening to ol' Pachelbel..."
"You've kept count? I'm touched," I said archly, with a small smile...and it was the first smile I'd attempted since Claire had died. Trust Jazz.
However, something was bothering Jazz, obviously, for the comment evoked not a flicker of humor in him in return.
"Look," he said, his voice suddenly and uncharacteristically quiet, not to mention quite...grave, "we need to talk, Prowl."
"Jazz, I don't want to talk about th-"
"Oh, I'm not even gonnatry to make you talk about that night. Primus forbid that you should have to talk about that night. No, Prowl. We need to talk about what's going on right now." He jerked his chin over his shoulder toward the door. "Out there. Like, as we speak, even..." he added.
"Why?" I asked, frowning in puzzlement and tilting my head to the side to look up at him. "What's going on?"
Jazz was silent for a moment. He frowned, gathering his thoughts, I suppose. I leaned back in my chair and waited for him to answer, regarding him quizzically while my fingers dug themselves nervously into the armrest. Then, suddenly restless, Jazz launched himself to his feet and began to pace around my spartan quarters.
"What's wrong, Jazz?" I finally prompted when he simply paced for quite a few long moments, saying nothing - which was decidedly un-Jazz-like, to say the least. I felt a vague sense of unease begin to nibble on the outskirts of my thoughts. After all, when something bothered Jazz to the point of putting a damper on his perpetually cheerful outlook on life, I knew that something had to be very wrong, indeed. "Jazz?" I prompted yet again.
He stopped pacing abruptly, turned to face me with his hands draped behind his back, as if he was reporting at parade rest to a superior and not to...well, not just to me. And still he hesitated.
"Jazz?" I prompted once more as he fidgeted, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, and then brought his arms forward to cross them, shield-like, over his chest.
"I guess there's just no easy way to say it..." he said, his gaze downcast, avoiding mine.
"Saywhat?" I demanded, beginning to become just the slightest bit exasperated, and not in the normal way that I often became exasperated with Jazz when his methods of going about doing things violently conflicted with my own.
Jazz took a huge breath, let it out, and then lifted his chin to look squarely at me before dropping his bomb.
"Do you remember...oh, 'bout fourteen or fifteen years ago now...when Spike had that...accident?" he asked pointedly.
And for a long moment after Jazz asked that question, I sat very still, my mind reeling. Oh, I remembered that incident all too well! Injuring Spike had been Megatron's idea of a distraction to cover a retreat. Spike might very well have died as a result of it all if not for some...intervention...from Wheeljack, who hatched the questionable idea to implant Spike's mind temporarily into a robotic body. It was a procedure that hadn't been entirely successful...
And I knew exactly what Jazz was implying now, of course, and my mind was suddenly a whirl of conflicting emotions. A brief spark of hope flared somewhere in my mind, only to be doused by a tidal wave of uncertainty. Was this what I wanted? More importantly, was this something that Claire would have wanted? And, if so...The procedure had been a flawed process before...Would it be so still, and would Claire pay the price? With Spike, there had been a fail-safe, the knowledge that his cybernetic existence was but temporary. There would be no such reprieve for Claire.
Very slowly, very carefully, I sat up straight in my chair, folded my arms on the desktop in front of me, and regarded Jazz with something that I hoped vaguely resembled calm.
"They're...going to do that to Claire?" I clarified, rather unnecessarily. "Transfer her memories and personality into..."
Jazz nodded once, crisply.
"That seems to be the plan, yeah," he said as my voice trailed off. "I didn't really pay attention to all the technobabble, but Chip and Wheeljack were spewing phrases like 'engrammatic templates' and 'cortical matrices' at each other. Apparently, they were able to copy those...things, whatever they are...from Claire's brain before she...died. Don't ask me how..."
"And they're going to transfer them to-"
"-A Transformer brain and body, yeah. One that has the alternate form of a...Mazda Miata, I think Ratchet said."
I smiled slightly, fondly, at that.
"She always wanted one of those," I said, more to myself than anyone else, my voice barely above a whisper. "A bright yellow one."
Jazz's mouth twisted in a half-smile.
"Well, now she's getting one, in a way... It's under construction now." He paused then, stared at me for a long moment in frank appraisal, his head tilted inquisitively to the side, his visor narrowed slightly, searchingly. "Are you... Are you all right with this, Prowl?" he finally, quietly asked.
"All right with it?" I asked in a dazed sort of way. And then I blinked, opened my mouth to answer that of course I was all right with it. But then I closed it again, as I realized that perhaps I wasn't...
True, a part of me...a large part of me...was overjoyed at the news. Because it meant that Claire would be alive again, that she had cheated death, and that I hadn't failed to protect her, to save her. And yet...and yet... How could I be sure that this was what Claire would want? Who were we to make this decision for her? Would she even remember being Claire? Would she remember everything? Would she remember...me? And if so, would she blame me for all that had happened to her...?
My internal war of sudden indecision must have been quite visible on my face, for Jazz suddenly grimaced, nodded knowingly, and announced, "Yep! I thought as much..."
Somewhat dazed, my thoughts spinning in a hundred different conflicting directions, I pushed myself up out of my chair and to my feet, and then paced restlessly around the room. It was an activity that kept my body busy while my mind careened out of control. Jazz watched me expectantly.
"When...?" I asked as I paced, as I tried to collect my thoughts into a nice neat pile so that I could more easily sift through them. "When is this supposed to happen?"
"Dunno," he said. "The body doesn't need all that much more work, though, and that's the only hold-up. Everything else is set to go. Wheeljack's been working overtime," he added, his face twisted in a way that was neither a smile nor frown but an uncertain middle ground between the two.
There was a long moment of silence, broken only by the sound of my footsteps as I paced the confines of my quarters, but Jazz finally broke it by asking, "So... Do you want to tell me about it or not, Prowl?"
"About...what?" I asked blankly, halting in my pacing and frowning, in response to which Jazz blew out an exasperated breath and aimed a glance heavenward.
"'About what?' he asks?" he asked imploringly of the ceiling before leveling his intent stare on me again. "What happened that night? I mean, I know it's bothering you. Everyone knows it's bothering you. It's why everyone else has left you alone. It's why no one else would come here to tell you about this. They're sorta afraid to. They were gonna just let you find out for yourself when you eventually poked your head out of your shell. Surprise, surprise! But I couldn't do that to you. 'Sides, I don't have to, 'cuz I know how to deal with you."
"Oh really?" I asked archly.
"Yup," he replied with a bright and insufferable grin. "Loads of pestering. Works every time. So talk. Or I'll just keep pestering you some more. Keeping that stuff all bottled up inside doesn't do ya any good, you know."
I shook my head, reluctant to my core, and yet...Well, Jazz and I had known and worked with each other a long time, and I knew that, despite his gregarious and somewhat gossipy nature, he was also very perceptive, very empathetic...and, unfortunately, very persistent. I sighed wearily.
"There isn't much to tell, Jazz," I found myself saying and, to my shock, it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be. "Her car was rear-ended by a pick-up truck which subsequently pushed her into me. I pulled her out of her car before it exploded, but she still died of massive internal and head injuries. What more is there to say?"
"True," Jazz said with a matter-of-fact nod, then added, "So then why do you blame yourself for something that was out of your hands?"
It was a question that brought me up short.
"What... What makes you think that I blame myself?" I asked carefully.
Jazz snorted softly and then smiled tolerantly, tiredly at me.
"One...It's the only reason I can think of that you'd be hiding away from the world in here, as if you're afraid someone might find out your terrible guilty little secret and then rub your face in it. Two...You said so yourself."
I scowled at that for a long moment...and then remembered the damning words that I'd said just before I'd lost consciousness at the scene of the accident.And it's my fault, Jazz. I could do anything to stop it... I had said...
"Why do you keep blaming yourself for this, Prowl?" Jazz persisted, while I inwardly cursed myself. Jazz's face was creased in a curious frown. "It was an accident, man," he said, his voice full of confusion. "They happen."
I nodded slowly, thoughtfully...
"Yes...I know. They seem to happen to many people that I...care for. But this one was one that I could have...that I should have prevented."
Jazz frowned at that.
"Oh?" he asked. "How so?"
I couldn't believe that I was talking about this...and yet there I was, suddenly babbling away, as if a dam had burst. Jazz tended to have that effect on me, I'm afraid. His tendency to be talkative was contagious, I suppose. So I resumed my pacing, talking as I walked, if only to spare myself having to look at Jazz's face while I did so.
"I saw the truck coming, Jazz," I found myself saying, my voice a quiet, flat, careful monotone. "I sat there and watched it weave closer and closer to Claire's car. And I watched her not moving out of the way. To this day, I wonder if she even saw it coming before the very last second... But instead ofdoing something about the situation, I just... I just sat there. In reality, it all happened so quickly, took maybe thirty seconds at the most. Yet, while I was watching it happen... It was like every second was drawn out into an hour, an hour in which I knew that I should have been doing something. Yet I...just couldn't. I couldn't make myself move or transform or...anything. It was like I was frozen. I just sat there and watched it all happen when I could have done at least two things to prevent it...and Claire died because of it. She died because of my mistake, my...hesitation. I'm sure she has to know that... I'm sure that, now, if she remembers it at all...she'll blame me..."
Jazz frowned, shook his head, folded his arms across his chest, and then regarded me with an odd expression on his face, his head tilted to one side.
"Well," he said matter-of-factly, after a moment's thoughtful consideration. "We'll just have to see what she thinks about that, won't we?"
* * * * * * *
"Blame you?" Sunfall suddenly asked, blinking in vast confusion as Prowl's voice momentarily dwindled down to a troubled, weary silence. "Why on Earth would I blame you, Prowl?"
During the course of Prowl's story, he'd risen to his feet, wandered aimlessly in the general area when he couldn't bear to look Sunfall in the face. He was currently half a dozen paces away from where Sunfall was still sitting, where she'd been sitting throughout his tale. She could see only his troubled profile.
It was just past sunset and the fingers of orange and red that streaked the heavens were tingeing Prowl's body with the same fiery, angry shades. But he was staring meditatively out over the rest of the cemetery, ignoring the glories of a sky on fire. He was too busy to notice a beautiful sunset, too busy bleeding from a gaping wound that apparently hadn't yet healed.
So when Prowl didn't answer her even after a minute or two, Sunfall added imploringly, "Jazz was right, Prowl. It was an accident. Just a stupid, senseless accident. They happen. And it's not at all your fault that one happened to...to me."
Prowl shook his head.
"I could have transformed," he said determinedly. "I could have diverted the pick-up somehow so that it didn't run into...into you. I could have put myself between you and it. I could have-"
"-But you didn't," Sunfall interrupted sharply. And when Prowl looked over at her with a deeply pained expression on his face, she got to her feet and slowly approached him while adding softly, "Yes, you could have done many things. But you didn't. And no one could have expected you to. You're not perfect, Prowl. You're...fallible, just like everyone else in the universe. In the seconds between the time that you noticed the pick-up and the time that it hit Claire's...my...car, you froze. You just couldn't think of what to do. Not in time to prevent what happened, anyway."
"Yes," he said miserably. "Yes, that's it exactly. And-"
"-And no one else could have done any better than you did!" Sunfall insisted firmly and somewhat exasperatedly.
She had halted two steps away from him. She wanted so badly to reach out to him, to try to comfort him since he was so obviously hurting, and had been, apparently, for quite some time. Yet at the same time she was loath to violate his personal space uninvited, since such invasions were something at which he usually bristled, especially when he was upset and trying desperately not to show it. So Sunfall just stood there and watched him helplessly, her fists clenching and unclenching nervously at her sides. She was waiting for a clue from him as to what she was supposed to do next.
Prowl, meanwhile, turned his head to look at her curiously after a long moment's contemplation. His eyes were narrowed thoughtfully, glowing blue in the gathering twilight as he studied Sunfall's face. She could see that his brow was familiarly furrowed and that he was frowning in puzzlement.
"Do you really think so?" he asked quietly after a moment of searching Sunfall's face, and his voice was tinged with a cautious hopefulness.
Sunfall shook her head and smiled softly at him.
"No, I know so," she assured him earnestly, her voice steady with certainty as she explained. "For one thing, you didn't entirely fail, you know. You seem to have forgotten that you pulled Claire from her car, and if you hadn't done that then there would have been nothing of her to salvage to make...well, me. As for the rest... I forgive you for being...being momentarily...well, human, for lack of a better word."
A small, fond smile crossed his face as Prowl chewed on that for a long moment. And then he wheeled around suddenly and steadily crossed the small distance that separated him from Sunfall, until she was no more than half an arm's length away from him. Sunfall, still trying to assimilate all that he had told her about her former self and her death and her...rebirth, tilted her chin up to look at him as he approached, and the expression that she saw on his face was intense, imploring. And then, when he halted, he tentatively reached out, cupped one side of Sunfall's face with one hand, ran his thumb over her cheek. And then he spoke.
"Promise me that you'll remember Claire, Sunfall," he said, his gaze locked with hers, his voice low, as if he feared that someone would overhear, yet at the same time desperate, imploring. "You're...you're all that's left of her. You're all that I have left of her. Don't let her go. Please. As long as you remember her...as long as some part of you is she...then she's not really dead. And it means that, yes, I didn't completely fail to...to save her."
Sunfall blinked. She was overwhelmed, confused, uncertain as to what, exactly, she was supposed to do with her life now. She felt as if she'd been tossed into the deep end of the pool of life, without warning and without any sort of proper preparation...and with some quite heavy emotional baggage threatening to sink her before she could even begin to swim. Since her birth, she'd been slowly drowning, flailing about desperately, searching frantically for some type of lifeline, some type of grounding, some type of direction. But now she realized that perhaps the very things that she had been seeking were right there in front of her, in Prowl. She and Prowl, in some ways, had a long history between them. He knew Claire. More than that, he cared for Claire, and it was a caring the depth and breadth of which even Claire, perhaps, had been unaware. And he would help her now. Of that, Sunfall was suddenly certain.
And Prowl's request was a simple one, a heartfelt one. Some part of Sunfall knew that it had not been an easy request for him to make, and she also knew that it hadn't been easy for him to tell her all that he had told her. It had required him to let down his guard and, in all the time that Claire had known him, she could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that Prowl had done that. And a large part of Sunfall - even the parts that weren't Claire - felt compelled to grant Prowl's request. She would remember all that she could of Claire. She would be Claire in every way that she could be. It was, she thought, the very least that she could do. She owed Prowl - and Claire - her life, after all.
Smiling softly, Sunfall brought her own hand up to cover Prowl's, squeezed it gently. His hand under hers and against her face was cool, soft against her own new, metal skin.
"I promise, Prowl," she said fervently, not taking her eyes off his. "I will remember her."
And with Prowl's answering smile - warm, rare, genuine...beautiful - Sunfall felt...whole, for the first time in her very brief existence. It was a feeling that she liked very much. And the part of Sunfall that was Claire Chase for the first time since her "transformation" felt...settled...in the hand that Fate that had chosen to deal to her, eminently comfortable with her destiny. And she felt, at the same time, hopeful about the future. Claire Chase was, finally, at peace.
And as she stared into Prowl's eyes so, too, was Sunfall.