The Alone Place

Kenya Starflight

Rated PG just to be safe

AUTHOR'S NOTE: If I owned Transformers, I'd be in seventh heaven, but I don't. Just borrowing them to torment for the time being.

This story is a contest entry for Wayward's "Non-True-Love Relationships" contest on her website "In Space No One Can Hear Starscream," wherein one is required to write a story about a relationship that just doesn't work out. Romance is not my strong point, but I thought I would give it a shot anyhow. Apologies if the cracky pairing gives anyone nightmares...

"Hey Wheeljack!"

"Huh?" The Autobot Chief Engineer glanced up from his equations, his headfins flashing teal in surprise. Visitors were rare in his workshop -- understandably so, due to the high injury rate suffered by said visitors while he was working on a project...

"Oh, hey Arcee," he greeted, raising the hand holding his stylus and offering a wave. "Come in and make yourself comfortable while I finish this up."

"No problem," she replied, and she cleared a stack of datapads from a nearby chair and sat down while Wheeljack jotted down a few more notes. Finishing up with a gust of air through his vents, he set his work aside and turned his attention back to the femme.

"What's up?" he asked. "Message from Ratchet again?"

She smirked. "You haven't blown anything up in a week. Why would there be a message from him?"

Wheeljack chuckled, his headfins blinking along with his mirth. "Aw, the Merry Medic can grump all he wants, but he knows he likes my company in medbay." He planted both hands on the workbench and pushed himself to a standing position. "So what can I do for you, Arcee?"

She looked down at the floor a moment, then back up at the engineer. "I was wondering if I could talk to you a bit..."

Wheeljack studied her pale features for a moment, thoughtful. "It's about him, isn't it?"

She nodded.

He motioned for her to come up to the workbench. "Why don't you help me out here? We can work and talk."

She agreed, sounding grateful for the distraction. Wheeljack's workbench was littered with screws, bolts, computer chips, bits of wire, springs, gears, and an assortment of other small parts, and together they began collecting these and sorting them into their appropriate bins. It was probably the one job other mechs felt comfortable helping Wheeljack out with, for the probability of getting caught in an explosion while sorting components was fairly low.

And it was a job Arcee had helped with a great deal in the past few Terran months. When Ultra Magnus and his soldiers had arrived on Earth from Cybertron not half a planetary cycle past, it had taken awhile for the new arrivals to settle in and find their niches among Optimus Prime's crew. The original passengers of the Ark had been a close-knit company for vorns, and while not outright hostile toward the new arrivals, they still hadn't actively tried to accept them into their fold. And Arcee, as the only femme in the Autobot base, had felt increasingly out of place among her supposed comrades. As a femme -- and the first one many of these mechs had seen in a long time -- she had suddenly found herself the center of unwanted attention... and yet she had felt very alone at the same time, lacking anyone to call a close friend or confidant. And after the close rapport the femmes had shared back on Cybertron, the sudden isolation had been difficult for her to handle.

But she had found an unexpected friendship with Wheeljack -- the older scientist was like the creator she never knew, in some respects. He talked to her as if she were a fellow Autobot, not attempting forced pick-up lines or putting on airs for her. And despite his quirks -- or perhaps because of them -- he was a likeable mech, and he didn't seem to mind her company in the labs.

"What seems to be the problem?" asked Wheeljack as they worked. "He's behaving himself, isn't he?"

"Of course he is," Arcee replied. "He's a complete sweet-spark. Which, I'll admit, isn't at all what I expected when I met him."

"Heh." Wheeljack's headfins blinked in a chuckle. "His reputation preceded him all the way to Cybertron, eh?"

"I don't understand it," she confessed. "Every story I've ever heard about him made him sound like such a monster, and yet..." She gave a small laugh and tossed a bolt into its corresponding box. "I admit he's a bit rough around the edges, and maybe he likes to solve issues with his fists sometimes, but he's hardly a monster. I've met 'Bots from the Towers that aren't as civilized as he is."

Wheeljack laughed again. "I keep telling people they just need to get to know him better. Good to know someone has." He paused to go through a few more handfuls of parts. "So what's the problem? Is he too civilized for you?"

"It's just that..." She expelled a blast of hot air from her vents. "Wheeljack, I hate to hurt his feelings... but you've seen how he acts around me. I don't think it's just a simple crush anymore. I think he wants it to be something more."

Wheeljack considered that. "Are you saying you don't reciprocate his feelings?"

She looked away.

"Ah, I see." He set the parts he was holding down. "You love him."

Arcee bit her lower lip, seeming unwilling to reply. Wheeljack couldn't say he hadn't seen this coming, to be truthful. Oh, it hadn't been evident during their first meeting -- when the young mech had first barrelled into the lab while Wheeljack and Arcee had been working together, he'd been so oblivious to the young femme's presence that he'd knocked her down and nearly run her over. Not the best way to start a relationship. But Arcee, instead of being offended or terrified, had burst out laughing, a reaction that her "attacker" hadn't been expecting at all. That had earned her a puzzled stare -- he was used to mechs yelling at him or bolting in terror after similar incidents.

But Arcee had been deeply curious about the young 'Bot, and he of her -- he had never seen a femme before, and Ratchet and Wheeljack's explanations obviously hadn't been enough to satisfy him. The two began to spend time together in Wheeljack's lab... and from what he had been able to deduce, plenty of time outside the labs too. And even though Wheeljack was hardly the social expert Jazz was, it didn't take much to see that the young mech was growing to like Arcee. It was only a matter of time before that "like" turned into something more.

He hadn't quite expected Arcee to reciprocate that something more... but he wasn't terribly surprised either.

"I..." She looked up to make optic contact with him. "I love him... but he's so young, Wheeljack! I mean... I'm young too, but he's practically a baby! I don't feel comfortable encouraging him, not when he's just a sparkling..."

"Arcee," Wheeljack interrupted, putting a hand on hers. "He's more mature than you give him credit for..."

"Wheeljack, he's never been in a relationship like this before," she continued, overriding him. "He has his brothers, and he absolutely idolizes you and Ratchet, but this is different! It's... the humans call it puppy love. And I'm just afraid that encouraging it is going to be harmful to him."

Wheeljack's hand squeezed hers briefly. "I appreciate your concern, Arcee, I really do. But you can't protect him from any harm forever. We all make mistakes, fall and hurt ourselves, lose things we treasure. It's the only way we learn and grow." He released her hand. "And who says it will hurt him? If anything, I think letting his emotions mature is a good thing..."

"But what about his brothers? I don't want to do anything to come between him and them..."

"Arcee... I don't want you to answer this right away. I just want you to think about it. Are you really afraid of how this relationship is going to affect him? Or are you afraid of how it's going to affect you?"

Arcee opened her mouth, looking ready to fire off a retort... but the sudden entrance of the subject of their conversation interrupted her. The mech's noisy entrance made Wheeljack look up, taking his hand off of Arcee's, his headfins lighting up in an easy smile.

"Heya Swoop!" he exclaimed. "Can I help you?"

The Dinobot grinned brightly. "Me Swoop not need help. Me looking for her Arcee, and she right here!" His grin turned slightly sheepish, and he ducked his head slightly as he approached Arcee. "Ah... me Swoop have something for you Arcee."

Despite her earlier reservations, she couldn't help but smile at Swoop's sudden shyness. "You didn't have to do anything for me, Swoop..."

"Me Swoop wanted to," he insisted, and he thrust his arms toward him. Her olfactory sensors were hit with the smell of earth, vegetation, and a sweet organic scent she couldn't quite place. His arms overflowed with some sort of plant matter, green intermixed with white and pale pink. Flowers, she believed they were called here on Earth, though the significance of them escaped her in her surprise...

"Me Swoop think they match your plating, Arcee," he said with a bashful sort of smile.

"Where'd you get those, Swoop?" asked Wheeljack, trying to sound curious rather than accusatory.

Swoop's grin was still shy, but it changed to a sort of guilty bashfulness. "Him Spike tell me girls like flowers. Me Swoop not have money to buy flowers, find some."

"Aw, how sweet," Arcee told him, taking the bundle of vegetation from him. "Thank you."

"You Arcee welcome," Swoop replied, his optics glowing with a thrill of pride. Then his attention shifted to Wheeljack. "Me Swoop need to leave now. Late for shift with him Ratchet..."

Wheeljack laughed, his headfins blinking merrily. "You know what, Swoop? Don't worry about your shift. I'll call Ratchet up and let him know we've decided you could use a day off."

"Day off?" repeated Swoop, cocking his crested head to one side in confusion.

"Yes, day off," Wheeljack replied. "Every mech gets a day off once in awhile to do what he wants to do. It's high time you had one for yourself. Now go find something to do to relax."

Swoop hesitated, this sudden change in his schedule throwing him off-balance.

"Would you like me to go with you, Swoop?" asked Arcee, stepping in to help.

Swoop grinned again. "Yes! Me Swoop be glad for you Arcee's company!"

Wheeljack waved them out. "See you two 'round. Go ahead and leave the flowers, Arcee, I can have someone take them to your quarters later."

Swoop was the first one out the door. Arcee began to follow, then turned back to Wheeljack. "Is there any way to find out where he uprooted those cherry trees from?"

"We'll find out where he got them and apologize to the humans as necessary," he assured her. "Now get along. He's going to wonder why you're not following him."

Arcee nodded and left.

" what if I choose to keep my Cybertron alt form anyhow?" huffed Hot Rod, scrubbing furiously at the barrel of his rifle with a wire cleaning brush. "It's not like we have to hide from Earth people, they know and love us already. So what if we stand out in a crowd?"

"Yeah, it's not like others aren't already recognizable even in their alt modes," Springer replied, tossing a cleaned pistol aside. "Prime and Jazz practically get mauled by squishy pink hands every time they take a drive. What's the point of taking on an Earth mode if everyone's going to recognize us as Autobots anyhow?"

"Peer pressure?" suggested Hot Rod. "Fraggin' twins won't leave me alone about being a stick-in-the-mud."

To say the two young Autobots weren't happy to be shut in the armory doing basic maintenance on weaponry was an understatement. Each of them had had their own choice words for Kup (behind his back, of course) regarding their opinion of his punishment toward them, and none of them could be considered flattering in any sense. It wasn't as if it was THEIR fault that Brawn and Cliffjumper had antagonized them to the point where they'd had to lock both minibots in the nearest storage locker just to save their sanities. Never mind that those two had started it, heckling the newcomers and acting as if having a decade or two of experience on this planet made them superior. After a long and scathing lecture on teamwork from Kup and an even longer and less scathing (but far more boring) tale about Kup as a lad on Ansion VI that somehow involved teamwork saving the day, the old warhorse had meted out punishment, and Hot Rod and Springer were determined to be as miserable as possible during said punishment.

"So," Hot Rod said finally, breaking the silence, "how're you and Arcee doing?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" demanded Springer, looking up.

"Come on," Hot Rod retorted with a grin, "you two have been an item for vorns."

"We're just friends," Springer retorted, though with a slight smile.

"With benefits," Hot Rod added, a long-standing joke.

Springer chuckled. "Why're you asking? Jealous?"

"Hardly," Hot Rod replied. "Don't get me wrong, she's a good friend, but we've known each other since we were sparklings! Kissing her would be like kissing my co-creation."

"Eh," Springer replied, going back to his weapon, "we don't see each other that much. She keeps busy in 'Jack's lab, and I'm running my aft off for Kup and Ultra Magnus most of the time. But last I checked, she was doing all right."

"You are so romantic," said Hot Rod sarcastically. "Seriously, 'last you checked?' When was that, two weeks ago when you bumped into her at evening break and spilled energon on her?"

"Shut up."

The door to the armory flew open, and both mechs looked up to see Blurr dart into the room in a flash of blue. "Sorry I'm late, really and truly sorry, but I got held up by a crash in the hallway, the twins crashed again and I had to wait for everyone to clear it up, wasn't my fault, the hallway was blocked for the longest time and I know I'm fast but I still couldn't..."

"Whoa, whoa, cool your vocalizer down, Blurr," Springer told the young message courier. "It's okay that your late. Just apply some of your super-speed to this job for us, all right?" He gestured toward the pile of weapons that still needed cleaning.

"Right, right, I'll get right to work, I'll work as fast as I can, but I still want to do a good job, because if we don't do a good job Kup'll just send us right back in to do the job over again and I don't want to do it over again, I want to get it right the first time..."

Springer shook his head and just let the 'bot ramble, handing him a cloth and a rifle to get started on. "Remember when Bluestreak tried saying hello to Blurr the first time they met?" he said in a quiet tone to Hot Rod.

Hot Rod laughed. "Poor guy looked so shocked to finally meet a mech that talked more than he did. Couldn't even get a word in edgewise."

"At least someone around here makes an effort to talk to us," Springer pointed out. "Everyone else just ignores us or gives us slag about being the new guys. Slaggers."

"Ultra Magnus says to just give it time. This unit's been isolated awhile..."

"They accepted Tracks and Blaster and Perceptor pretty fast..."

"Tracks says it took them awhile to accept them into the fold."

"Wait, you talked to Tracks? He won't even speak to me!"

"No, actually, I overheard him telling that to Arcee."

Springer snorted. "Sure, they'll talk to her because she's a femme, just because some of them haven't even seen a femme for four million years. The rest of us are just chopped scrap..."

"You think she likes the attention? They don't talk to her, they fawn over her like lovesick turbopups..."

"The Dinobots don't fawn over her," Blurr piped up, breaking out of his monologue and into their discussion.

"Of course not, they're animals," Hot Rod retorted. "They don't fawn over anyone, they just look for an excuse to pound random mechs into scrap..."

"Not this one," Blurr protested. "He wasn't trying to fight her at all, he was just walking beside her..."

Springer glanced up from his rifle. "Wait a klick... when was this?"

"It was just a little bit ago, when I was waiting for the hallway to get cleared up after the twins crashed, you remember I was late, and I had nothing else to do while I waited so I just had a look around, and I saw Arcee with a Dinobot, don't know which one, I still don't know all their names, but they were just walking and talking, couldn't hear the words, but he said something and she was laughing at him, though not really at him, just what he said..."

Springer frowned. "Why's she talking to a Dinobot?"

Hot Rod shrugged. "Maybe she's just trying to be nice, Springer. She's like that, you know. Like with that human kid, Daniel..."

"But the Dinobots are animals!" protested Springer. "Befriending Daniel is one thing -- that's a sentient being. But why the Dinobots? Why Wheeljack's mad-scientist spawnlings? Is she trying to prove something?"

"Don't ask me, I don't have all-access passes to her CPU." Hot Rod went back to cleaning.

Springer tossed the weapon aside. "I'm going to talk to her."

Hot Rod glanced up. "Now? In the middle of punishment detail?"

"Why not?" Springer retorted. "You'll both keep quiet about this, won't you?"

"Oh yes, I'll keep quiet, absolutely quiet, you won't hear a word about it from me, not one single word..."

"Can it, Blurr, I get your point." He turned to Hot Rod. "You?"

"Are you nuts?"

"Thanks." He fired off a salute and strode out.

"If you get your aft caught, I'm denying all responsibility, you hear me?" Hot Rod shouted after him.

"Love you too, buddy," Springer shot back.

The ledge was located roughly halfway up the side of Mount St. Hilary, just wide and strong enough for about three mechs to sit side by side. It had been dubbed the Alone Place by the original crew of the ark, and it was here that many a mech had retreated for some peace and quiet, watching a sunset or a meteor shower or just needing some quiet time to think. It was almost considered part of the base itself, and an unspoken rule held that no one was disturbed while occupying the Alone Place unless there was an emergency.

It was here that Swoop led Arcee, his steps becoming fast and eager as they exited the base and headed for the well-worn hand and foot holds marking the path up the mountian. She had to take three steps for each of his, though she didn't ask him to slow down. She was too curious about his destination.

Swoop turned toward Arcee. "You Arcee keeping up?"

"Yes, don't worry, Swoop," she assured him. "I'll be just fine."

His face lit up with his customary grin. "Me Swoop have something to show you. Found it yesterday. C'mon!"

She laughed and followed after him. He was so eager to show his discovery to her, and she found that pure simple joy refreshing somehow. It was just so... unusual to see that kind of untainted happiness in any Autobot these days, much less one of Prime's front-line soldiers. But then, Swoop had been full of surprises since the day she'd met him.

Word of the Dinobots' creation had reached Cybertron, of course, and the general concensus was that their creation had been a failed experiment. Stories of their limited intelligence, their crudely designed animal alt modes, their almost Decepticon-like lust for battle were always circulating through the underground, gleefully told to new recruits to purposely set them on edge or to simply scare them into behaving. Some mechs wondered if Prime kept them online and members of the Autobot army simply out of pity; others theorized they were part of some anti-Decepticon plan that Prime had yet to reveal the full details of. Arcee herself had arrived on Earth knowing only that scant but terrifying information gleaned from those stories, and she had dreaded her eventual confrontation with the beast-mechs.

Primus must have had mercy on her -- or just a bizarre sense of humor -- because the first Dinobot she had encountered had been Swoop.

She had just been leaving Wheeljack's lab after helping him put together one of his many contraptions -- one that actually worked, wonder of wonders -- when Swoop had charged into the lab after running an errand, oblivious to anything but talking to the scientist. Arcee hadn't had time to step out of the way, and she had promptly bounced off of the larger mech and landed on her aft. She should have been upset or frightened, she supposed... but instead she had burst out laughing at the absurdity of the situation. And her laughter, instead of upsetting Swoop, had only confused him, and the look of puzzlement on his face had only made her laugh all the harder.

And from there... well, once Wheeljack had convinced Swoop that Arcee wasn't laughing to make fun of him, the two of them began to talk. It had taken awhile for her to get used to Swoop's odd speech pattern, but once that barrier was overcome she found herself befriending the young Dinobot.

She didn't know if Swoop was an example of the average Dinobot, but she was forced to admit upon getting to know him better that he wasn't the dumb brute she had taken him and his brothers to be. Indeed, Swoop was a bright mech, and certainly possessed more common sense than some of the "normal" mechs in Prime's unit. While shy around most other mechs -- not that they encouraged him to interact with them on a regular basis -- he was quite friendly and outgoing with Ratchet, Wheeljack, and his Dinobot brothers. And while he did tend to solve problems with his fists, though not as much as his brothers, he certainly wasn't the oil-thirsty monster she'd expected from his kind.

At first their contact had been limited to their encounters in Wheeljack's lab, helping him with his experiments. But when she'd learned that Swoop pulled regular shifts in the medbay, helping Ratchet out with cleanup and minor repairs, she found herself risking the medic's ire time and again by slipping into repair to see him, though she did try to make herself useful by offering her services to Ratchet. Ratchet must have suspected something going on between her and the young Dinobot, because eventually he stopped complaining and began giving her regular assignments, even showing her how to do the same basic repair work he was training Swoop to accomplish.

She had no idea when their friendship had blossomed into something deeper. All she knew was that their friendly chats in the lab and medbay -- mostly small talk revolving around life on Cybertron and how it compared to life on Earth -- became longer, more involved talks in the corridors and in the wilderness surrounding the base. Swoop's unbridled enthusiasm for whatever project he undertook -- be it fetching a needed tool for Wheeljack or Ratchet or plunging into battle against the Decepticons -- and his almost childlike curiosity when he happened across an interesting object on their walks were refreshing changes from the cynicism that seemed to infect other Autobots, and she couldn't help but be charmed. And though he was by no means the most attractive of mechs, there was something about the way his smile lit up his entire faceplate...

"You Arcee need help up?"

She snapped out of her reverie and looked up the side of the mountain. "Oh, I can make it up, Swoop, it's not that far a climb..."

Huge hands grasped her waist, and before she could protest Swoop was airborne with a thrust of his antigrav units. She gave an involuntary shriek at suddenly being airborne, but before she could voice any protest he had reached the ledge and set her gently down, landing just beside her.

"Swoop!" she exclaimed, trying to sound annoyed but unable to hold back a giggle. "Give me some warning next time!"

"Sorry," he replied sheepishly. "Him Spike tell me Swoop it polite to help a femme out like that."

She smirked. "And what other romantic advice has Spike been giving you?" she inquired, making a mental note to have words with the human next time they met.

"Him Spike say femmes like flowers," replied Swoop. "Me Swoop found flowers for you in park in human city. Pink and white like you Arcee... remind me of you." He set a hand on her shoulder, smiling with a tenderness she'd never seen in the Dinobot before.

Arcee shifted slightly, a little uncomfortable at the gesture. "Swoop, you said you had something to show me?" she prompted.

"Ooh, yes!" he squawked, almost birdlike, and let go of her shoulder. "Up here." He grabbed a jut of rock and hauled himself up a little further, then reached a hand down for Arcee. She took it and let him pull her up to his level, finding secure hand and foot holds before releasing it.

On a ledge just at eye level with the two Autobots was a tangled mat of sticks and grass and feathers, roughly disc-shaped with a depression in the center that held four smooth elliptical objects. She scrutinized the affair carefully, but she couldn't see the significance this apparently held for Swoop. Were these considered precious stones on Earth, or was there some kind of security device embedded in them or in the heap of plant matter?

Swoop grinned brightly. "Been thirty-one days. Him Hound say that right length of time."

"Right length of time?" she repeated. "For what?"

Swoop held a finger over his mouth and pointed. Puzzled, she turned back to the mat... and saw that one of the "stones" had cracked. Swoop hadn't damaged it, had he? No, it appeared to be breaking open on its own...

"Eggs," Swoop explained. "Him Hound say they probably from prairie falcon. Me Swoop watch them build nest, keep eye on it. Wanted to watch eggs hatch."

Arcee gazed at the eggs with a new sense of appreciation. She knew academically that this was one way organics reproduced -- by creating pods of a sort to house their developing offspring -- but to actually see the process up close was an opportunity she'd never expected to have. If only Perceptor could be here to see this. He would be ecstatic at the chance to observe an organic birth...

A squawk broke into her processes, and she glanced up to see a bird of some kind land at the edge of the nest, glaring balefully at her.

"That the mother," Swoop told her softly. "Her used to me Swoop now, but you Arcee new to her. Scaring her a little."

"Oh," she replied quietly. "Should I leave?"

"No, you Arcee stay!" Swoop protested. "She get used to you!"

The falcon, apparently satisfied that Arcee was no threat, turned her attention back to the nest, where the hatching egg had finally split open enough to reveal a tiny hooked beak, smooth and dark gray with a whitish knob protruding from the tip. The head followed, eyes squeezed tightly shut and white down damp and matted with birth fluids. The chick lay there a moment, half-in and half-out of the egg, beak open and panting as it rested before struggling to break free again.

"Shouldn't we help it?" she asked.

Swoop shook his head. "Him Wheeljack say let it hatch by itself. Us Autobots try to help it hatch, might hurt it."

Together they watched as one egg after another broke open, each spilling out a bundle of damp white down. The chicks curled up in a heap at the bottom of the nest as they hatched, the effort of breaking their shells exhausting them. All the while Swoop looked on in rapt fascination, and Arcee wondered how anyone could think him a dumb brute after seeing him like this, so captivated at this display.

When the last falcon chick had entered the world, the mother falcon gave the Autobots a look that could almost be described as reproachful before spreading her wings and settling atop the nest, covering her chicks and the remaining fragments of shell with her own body. Swoop, seeming to take the hint, pulled on Arcee's arm and climbed back down to the main ledge. Arcee followed, dropping beside the Dinobot easily.

"That was amazing!" she exclaimed, smiling. "Thank you, Swoop!"

Swoop smiled shyly. "Welcome. Me Swoop come here often, watch birds fly and build nests. They Swoop's friends." As if on cue two swallows dove down and perched on Swoop's left wing, and his smile widened at their arrival. "Come here sometimes when me Swoop need break, want quiet time. Me Swoop like Dinobot brothers, but sometimes them too much to handle."

Arcee sat down on the ledge and patted the stone next to her. "We all need some time to ourselves. Even if you love someone, they can sometimes annoy you."

Swoop carefully sank to the ground, doing his best not to dislodge the birds. "You Arcee never annoy me Swoop, though. You nice to me Swoop, even when other Autobots not. Me Swoop like that very much." He reached out as if to take her hand, then paused, as if not sure how to proceed.

Arcee wanted to draw away from that hand -- not because she feared he would injure her, but because she was suddenly afraid of her own reaction to his touch. Wheeljack's earlier remark had a ring of truth to it. It wasn't just Swoop who she feared would be hurt if she allowed herself to return what he obviously felt for her. She herself was afraid of her sudden feelings for him. She felt so comfortable in his presence, and yet that very sense of security terrified her, for security was a luxury no Autobot knew. She feared that if she confessed her feelings, she would lose him. He would either be put off by it... or she would lose him in the war. And she had been hurt enough in her life, losing her creators even before she had been activated, seeing friends die under the hands and blades of the Decepticons on the battlefield, and finally being torn from her homeworld entirely as the last of the Autobots had evacuated to Earth and the Moonbases for safety. She didn't want to be hurt again... nor did she want Swoop to be hurt in the same way.

Swoop cocked his head to one side, his mouth plates pressed together in a worried line. "You Arcee scared of me?"

"Not of you," she assured him. "Swoop... I'm glad you like me, and I'm glad I can call you a friend... but are you sure about this?"

The Dinobot's mouth relaxed, but his optics looked strangely sad. "Me Swoop not know much about being friends or in love. Never loved another 'Bot before. But me Swoop not stupid either. Me know what I feel." He took her hand and, before she could protest, pressed it to the chest ridge that formed his beak in Pteranodon mode. "Me feel it right here, in spark. If you Arcee not feel the same way, me Swoop will try to understand. But me sure about this, as you Arcee say. Very sure."

Her own spark flared at his words, and she found herself drawing a step closer to him. "Swoop, I don't want to do anything to hurt you. I don't want to come between you and your brothers."

Swoop smiled. "There room for you Arcee AND me Swoop's brothers," he insisted. "Me Swoop know you Arcee never hurt me."

"And I know you wouldn't hurt me," she replied. "Swoop... I don't just like you a lot. I... I love you."

His smile threatened to crack his faceplate in two. "Me Swoop love you Arcee too." And he bent down -- almost knelt down, in fact -- and brushed his lips against hers in a tentative kiss.

It was obviously his first kiss, clumsy and awkward, but there was a sweetness to it that not even the most experienced mech could match. Arcee cupped a hand around his jawline and returned the kiss, offlining her optics and leaning against him. Emboldened, Swoop wrapped one arm carefully around her waist and traced her cheek gently with the fingers of the other. For a brief, shining moment, the mountain and the Ark and all thoughts of the Autobots and the war fell away, leaving only the two of them sharing a stolen moment of tenderness in the Alone Place.

A falcon's cry cut into her processes, dragging her back to reality. She pulled back and onlined her optics to gaze at Swoop. The young Dinobot's own optics were still darkened, and his face bore such a relaxed, serene look of happiness that she wondered how she could ever have been worried that revealing her love for him would hurt him. With a smile she leaned forward again to place another kiss on that mouth...


Swoop's optics flared online, and he and Arcee turned sharply to face that call. Springer stood on the ledge just an arm's length away, his face a mask of shock and horror. How had he gotten so close without either of them noticing...

"Springer, I thought..." she began, her first reaction anger that he had violated the rules regarding the Alone Place.

"Arcee!" he repeated, anger flooding his own voice and optics. "How could you? I thought we were... you and I were..."

Swoop looked back and forth from Springer to Arcee and back, hurt confusion displayed for all to see. "You Arcee with him Springer?"

"No... I mean... we used to..." She couldn't seem to get her vocalizer to work in her defense.

Springer gave Swoop a withering glower, then climbed quickly back down the cliff face. He was out of sight before Arcee could stop him.

"Why him Springer so angry?" Swoop asked. "Me Swoop do something wrong?"

"No," she assured him, patting his arm in what she hoped was a comforting gesture. "It's not you, Swoop, I promise. He's angry with me, not you."

"Oh." He lowered his arms and got to his feet. "You want me Swoop to protect you, then?"

"No, that won't be necessary. I'm going to talk to Springer about this... but you try to stay out of his way until then, all right?"

Swoop nodded. "Okay."

Four days passed, and despite all Arcee's efforts she still hadn't managed to corner Springer long enough to talk to him. It seemed he was intentionally avoiding her, taking patrol shifts at odd hours and finding all sorts of excuses to be out of the base whenever she was inside it, and vice versa. And to make matters worse, he had revealed what he'd discovered to both Hot Rod and Blurr, and one or the other of them (she suspected Blurr) had spread the news around the entire Ark, turning poor Swoop overnight into the laughingstock of the Autobots. Which must have been precisely Springer's objective in spilling the news in the first place.

"I could just rip his vocalizer out!" she snarled, scrubbing furiously at the grease-stained wrench.

"Whose, Blurr's?" asked Ratchet, stopping by the scrub basin to drop off a few more tools for cleaning.

"No, Springer's," she replied angrily. "He's doing this to Swoop to get back at me. As if he thinks he owns me or something..."

"Well, don't you think you should have let him known you were seeing Swoop?" asked Ratchet. "It has generally been assumed that the two of you were a couple..."

"We're just friends," she insisted. "I thought he understood that..."

"Apparently he didn't," Ratchet replied. "I'm not letting you entirely off the hook, but still, it doesn't make what he did to the two of you right."

She sighed and tossed the wrench aside, reaching for another tool. "I didn't want this to happen."

"Want what to happen?"

"Swoop to get hurt. I just knew this was going to happen..."

"Arcee, you couldn't have done anything to stop this. There were going to be consequences to this whether or not you decided to go through with it. All you can do now is decide how you're going to deal with the aftermath."

Swoop shuffled in at that moment, his crested head hanging, his arm stacked high with power packs. Ratchet dropped the last of the tools into the scrub basin and turned toward Swoop with a resigned expression. "Swoop, I said I needed a few, not an armload."

Swoop's optics barely flickered in response. "Me Swoop sorry. Me return the rest. Can't do anything right..."

"Swoop, stop talking like that," scolded Ratchet. "Do you think you'd be working here if you were incapable of doing anything right?"

The Dinobot barely raised his head to make optic contact with his mentor. "Me Swoop heard them Autobots talking. They say you Ratchet only let me Swoop work here out of pity. That you Ratchet and him Wheeljack 'baby' us Dinobots, that we too stupid to survive without you two."

Ratchet's jaw dropped, and he stared at Swoop with an expression of stunned rage. Arcee took this as her cue to step in, and she shook greasy cleaning fluid off her hands and turned to reassure the Dinobot.

"Swoop, you know that's not true!" she told him firmly. "You're not stupid, and don't listen to those morons who try to tell you otherwise!"

"Swoop," Ratchet said quietly, trying to sound comforting for Swoop's benefit but sounding as if he were barely restraining the urge to hunt down a few mechs and surgically remove their vocalizers, "you work here because you're a bright young mech with the makings of a true medic. Maybe not a brilliant surgeon, but a good field medic -- someone who could potentially save his teammates' lives in battle someday. And if you ever hear anyone say that kind of thing again, be it to your face or behind your back, you tell someone, all right? Me, Wheeljack, Prime, Grimlock, even Arcee. We'll make sure it comes to a stop. All right?"

Swoop brightened a little and nodded. "Okay."

"Good." Ratchet took a few of the topmost power packs and motioned for Swoop to go. "Put the rest of those back, then come back so we can go over..."

The door to medbay hissed open again, admitting the yellow and gray hulk of Grimlock. Arcee stared at the Dinobot commander with mixed awe and fear as he clumped his way toward Swoop, his optic band fixed sullenly on his teammate. Behind him came the other three Dinobots, Slag clenching his fists and jaw as if he were about to explode with rage, Sludge looking annoyed, and Snarl wearing an apathetic expression as he trailed along at the end of the pack. Whatever the Dinobots wanted with their comrade, it couldn't be good...

"What do you need, Grimlock?" asked Ratchet, careful to keep his voice even. "I can help you..."

"Me Grimlock not need you Ratchet," Grimlock growled. "Me want talk to him Swoop."

Swoop carefully set down his load. "What you need from me Swoop?"

Grimlock turned from Swoop to Arcee, and she involuntarily backed up a step. While she had seen Grimlock in passing or from a distance a few times, this was her first true face-to-face meeting with him... and he was every bit as intimidating as she had supposed he was.

"Stupid triple-changer 'Bot right, Swoop?" demanded Grimlock, reaching out and jabbing a finger at Arcee. "You Swoop like her Arcee?"

Swoop's expression didn't change -- long association with the Dinobot commander had no doubt trained out any instinct to show fear to his faceplate. "Arcee Swoop's friend. Her nice to me Swoop. Never call me stupid, make fun of me or other Dinobots. Her good friend."

Grimlock leveled his gaze back on Swoop. "Me Grimlock hear you Swoop and her Arcee not just friends. Him Springer say you Swoop love her Arcee."

Swoop nodded. "That true."

"Hrrrrm." Grimlock set a massive hand on each of Arcee's shoulders with enough pressure to make her feel like he was trying to push her into the ground. He turned her this way and that, seemingly having a look at her from all possible angles. "Her Arcee small, weak, not have good alt mode. Her not even fly or breathe fire. Why you Swoop like her so much?"

"Me Swoop already tell you," Swoop replied. "Her nice to Dinobots."

Slag belted out a mocking laugh. "Nice stuff for sissies! You Swoop not want nice 'Bot for girlfriend, you want big strong 'Bot! Like us Dinobots!"

"Dinobots stick together," Snarl spoke up, though his couldn't-care-less expression didn't waver. "One for all and... how that go again?"

"And all for one," Ratchet supplied.

"And all for one," repeated Snarl with a nod.

"Us Dinobots not need Autobots," Sludge added. "We team! Not need be kissy with Autobots."

"Swoop has always been and will always be a member of your team," Arcee said at last, forcing her vocalizer to work. "I love him, but I'm not about to take him away from you. I understand his brothers are important to him, and I'm not going to come between you and him."

Grimlock jabbed a finger at her, and she had to jump back to keep him from striking her. "Him Swoop spend too much time with you Arcee! Other Dinobots doing training, he in Wheeljack's lab or medbay with you. Other Dinobots spend time together, he off walking with you. Him Swoop always with you, never with Dinobots! Him almost not Dinobot anymore, and it you Arcee's fault!"

"Grimlock!" exclaimed Ratchet. "That's enough!"

"Me Swoop still Dinobot!" protested Swoop with a pathetic wail.

"Then why you Swoop not come to Dinobots' room anymore, except to recharge?" demanded Slag, optics flashing. "Grimlock right, you not Dinobot anymore! Me Slag say him not welcome with us anymore!"

"But me Sludge still like him Swoop!" Sludge defended. "Me miss him! Not want him kicked out of Dinobots!"

"You Sludge stupid!" Slag roared. "Him Swoop come back to Dinobots' room, me Slag bash his face in! And bash you Sludge too if you get in me Slag's way!"

"Me Grimlock bash you Slag's face in if you don't shut up!" Grimlock growled.

Slag curled his lip but subsided.

"Grimlock, aren't you being unreasonable?" asked Ratchet. "Swoop has the right to have a relationship with whom he wants..."

"Us Dinobots not need friends," Grimlock retorted. "Have other Dinobots, have Wheeljack and Ratchet. Other Autobots ignore us or make fun of us. Them think we Dinobots stupid animals that only care about fighting. Them want us disappear until it time to fight Decepticons. Us Dinobots fight Devastator, fight Seekers, and them Autobots never thank us for it. We nothing but dumb fighters to Autobots."

"You know that's not true," Ratchet replied. "Arcee, for example..."

"Arcee dumb Autobot like the rest of them!" Slag cut in.

"Arcee not dumb!" Swoop defended fiercely.

Grimlock turned on Swoop a final time, optic band flashing. "You Swoop have choice -- stay with her Arcee, or stay with us Dinobots. One or other, not both. Me Grimlock give you until tomorrow to make choice." He turned around and stormed out, Slag and Snarl trailing after him.

Sludge stayed behind, and he looked at Swoop with a hopelessly confused expression. "Me Sludge not understand -- you Swoop still look like Dinobot... and me Sludge still want to be Swoop's friend... but me Sludge want to be Dinobot too..."

"Don't worry about it, Sludge," Ratchet told him. "We're going to let Prime and Wheeljack know about this, and we'll see if they can talk some sense into Grimlock..."

"Him Grimlock stubborn jackass, as Sparkplug say," Swoop interrupted, his gaze locked on his feet. "Him Prime not going to change him Grimlock's mind. Him still hold Swoop to choice." He looked back up at Sludge and gave a slight, resigned smile. "You Sludge go with other Dinobots. Me Swoop be okay. Still friends with Sludge, even if not Dinobot."

Sludge grinned happily at Swoop's reassurance and trotted out after the rest of the team.

Swoop's shoulders dropped in a gloomy slump, and he hung his head forlornly. Arcee felt as if her spark would break in two at the sight, and she opened her arms comfortingly toward the Dinobot. Swoop accepted the embrace, pulling her against him. She barely reached his lower chest, but he seemed to take comfort from her contact anyhow.

"Slaggit," swore Ratchet, and Arcee heard the clang of a wrench being thrown roughly onto a table. "I'd thought Grimlock would be more reasonable than this." He sighed heavily. "I'll inform Prime of this. Swoop, you might want to talk to Wheeljack. He'll probably let you spend the night in his quarters."

Swoop nodded. "Me Swoop go talk to him."

"I'll go with you," Arcee offered.

Swoop shook his head. "It me Swoop's problem, not Arcee's."

"Both of you go," Ratchet told them firmly. "Now."

The two of them were silent as they left medbay and walked down the halls. Few other mechs were present, and those that did spot Arcee and Swoop together at least had the tact to not say anything to their faces. Arcee had to wonder, though, what exactly was being said about her and the Dinobot when they walked out of sight.

"Me Swoop not know what to do," Swoop finally bemoaned. "Me not want to... what words? Not want to 'break up' with you Arcee. But not want to lose Dinobot brothers either. Me can't have both, but not want to give up either."

Arcee reached over and threaded her fingers through Swoop's. "Swoop... I won't come between you and your brothers. The five of you share something special, and I don't want to take that away from you. I don't want to hurt you. I think... it's best if we end the relationship. 'Break up,' as you put it."

"But it hurt me Swoop if me not see you Arcee again."

"You'll see me again," Arcee assured him. "It's not as if I'm going away, after all. And maybe, given a little time, things might improve enough between the Autobots and the Dinobots that Grimlock won't mind us being together again someday."

"Him Grimlock stubborn, though. Never change his mind."

"You never know. Maybe he'll find himself a friend -- or even a girlfriend -- among the Autobots someday and change his tune."

Swoop snorted. "Not likely. Him probably scare femmes off. Or squish them when him try hugging them."

She couldn't help it -- she chuckled a little at the mental images Swoop's words conjured. Swoop smiled a little despite himself.

At the door to Wheeljack's lab they drew to a stop, and Swoop pulled her around to stand in front of him. He knelt down and gazed into her optics, still holding her hand. For a moment Arcee was reminded of Spike when he had knelt and proposed marriage to Carly... surely Swoop wouldn't attempt something like that...

"Me Swoop still love you Arcee," he told her. "But me can't leave Dinobots either. Me Swoop break up with you Arcee. Not see you anymore except in lab and medbay."

She nodded in response, not trusting herself to vocalize. Her spark ached at giving up what they had shared together, but she told herself that in the end, this would save much greater pain down the road...

"But me Swoop think breaking up not forever," he said with a sudden grin. "Her Carly break up with him Spike lots of times, and now they married and have baby Daniel. Me Swoop think maybe him and you Arcee be friends still, just not 'item.' Us wait unil Grimlock get smarter and Autobots learn to like us Dinobots, like you Arcee say."

Arcee leaned forward and hugged Swoop around the neck. "I'll miss you, Swoop, and what we had together."

"Me Swoop miss you Arcee," he replied, wrapping his own arms around her. "Still friends, though?"

She nodded. "Still friends."

Swoop nodded, then stood and walked into the lab. Arcee waited where she stood until the doors hissed closed behind him, then turned and headed for her quarters at a slow walk.

Within a week, almost any trace of the debate Arcee and Swoop had managed to stir up -- what some had jokingly referred to as "Dino-gate" -- had vanished. Gossip turned to more current (though not necessarily more relevant) matters, and Arcee felt she could finally walk down the corridors again without feeling as if she were being talked about behind her back. Swoop began appearing in the company of his brothers again, and after a few good thrashings from Grimlock Slag finally stopped giving the young Dinobot the cold shoulder. Any ripples in the daily life of the Ark had smoothed out, and for most of the crew things went back to normal.

Arcee wished things could have worked out otherwise. But for now, this was for the best.

"Hey Arcee."

She looked up from the report she was filling out and turned to see Springer enter her quarters. The normally cocky, confident look on his face was gone, replaced by genuine concern... and maybe a little apprehension. He carried two cubes of energon in his hands, and one he extended toward her.

"Figured you could use a fuel-up," he said.

"Oh." She took the cube from him. "Thank you."

Springer stood awkwardly, passing his own cube from hand to hand as he searched for words. "Look... Arcee... I was an aft, all right? I was upset at seeing you with Swoop, after all this time thinking we were together. But that doesn't excuse me being stupid and telling everyone and their turbohound about the two of you. I... I'm sorry."

She shook her head. "No, Springer, I'm sorry. I should have at least had the courtesy to end our own relationship properly before seeing Swoop. I guess I was feeling ignored -- you hardly saw me after we arrived on Earth, and Swoop was kind to me."

Springer smiled slightly. "He's... really not that bad a 'Bot. He did let me keep my head on my shoulders after apologizing to him..."

"You apologized to Swoop?"

"Of course I did. You don't think I'd make that stuff up, do you?"

"No... it just surprised me, is all."

Springer looked away, as if trying to see through the walls of her room and pick out Swoop among the occupants of the Ark. "The Dinobots get kind of ignored here, don't they?"

"They do," she replied. "It doesn't help that they're seen as animals most of the time."

He sipped his energon thoughtfully. "Animals don't fall in love with Autobots. And they don't hold their brothers back from pounding mechs just trying to make an apology."

"What? Swoop held his brothers back from fighting you?"

"Actually, it was more a case of four of them holding Slag back."

Arcee couldn't help laughing. "Oh Primus... I wish I'd been there. With a camera."

Springer laughed a little himself. "Arcee... I accept your apology. I'm not going to have any fantasies about us getting back together again, but I hope we can still be friends."

"I accept your apology too, Springer. I... I'm not ready to go back into a relationship with anyone just now, but I would like to be friends."

"Friends it is," he replied, extending a hand. She grasped it and shook it, sealing the bargain.

"I need to finish this, then I'll be right out," she told him, picking the form back up.

"No problem." He turned to go, then seemed to remember something and turned back. "Oh, Jazz has scheduled a Mortal Kombat tournament tonight in the lounge. See you there?"

"Sure, who's playing?"

"So far the sign-ups are myself, Jazz, Blaster, Wheeljack, Hot Rod, the twins, Bluestreak, Grimlock, and Slag."

The last two names grabbed her attention. "Grimlock and Slag?"

"I figured it was only common courtesy to invite any Dinobots who wanted to play," he replied. "Besides, it'll give Slag a chance to pound me without doing any real damage."

Arcee smiled as Springer walked out. One Autobot apologizing and inviting the Dinobots to play video games wouldn't make up for the years of ostracization and false rumors Swoop and his brothers had put up with since their activation. But it was a start. A real start.