Chapter Eight

"Tell me what I did wrong, Prowl."

The SubCommander, once chief tactician for the Ark Autobots, looked up from his datapads. His bondmate had occupied that same seat in front of the holotable since she'd been released from repair earlier this morning. He hadn't disturbed her, of course – he knew better, and he also knew that she was inclined to attack problems on her own. He also knew she expected him to be thorough in his assessments, treating her like any one of his command.

Rising, the white and black cruiser walked over to the table and stood opposite the gryphonic femme. He looked down at the re-creation of events. "Your first mistake was that you did not query the courier extensively. You assumed that Dart was like any other Decepticon – that she could fly, and you prepared your iterary thus. You also assumed that she was able to fight – to handle a pistol – and took with you several armaments to test her abilities. These weapons are now lying in ruin among a smoldering forest." He did not need to look at her face, to know that she was nodding silently. "You did not scout the area beforehand, to see if there was any Decepticon activity; reports from last week are not recent enough when dealing with two high-ranking officers and a defector. Also, you did not scout the area upon arrival." Through their bond, he could feel her disappointment and shame. He let his words rest on her shoulder plates for several nanoclicks before reaching out and touching her hand – an action he would never have taken with a subordinate. But, he did not give voice to the words she undoubtably wanted to hear – and to not hear at once: It was your first time, Flamelet. Don't worry. No, he did not say it. And she would be all the better for the omission.

"Go see Solarflare, Flamelet; you've been here all day. I hear she's bouncing off the walls." He aimed a crooked smile at her lowered facial planes.

The brown and flame-armored femme lifted her head and met his optics with a thin, rueful smile of her own. She nodded and touched two fingers to the side of her helm. "Flare?" There was a pause, then Flamestrike's rueful smile turned mischievious. Her hand slid back down to the table. "Mirage is there, reading to her."

"I should have known," Prowl admitted. They stared at one another for a beat of the pump, before Prowl's sentiment kicked in. "Let's go for a walk, my budding tactician." He stood and moved to the other side of the table, offering her an arm as he'd seen many human males do – and, sadly, as he had seen Mirage do so many times for Solarflare. Though, he would never admit to the spy that he was Prowl's template in this whole relationship deal.

The smile on Flamestrike's facial planes was worth it.

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Four days. That was how long Dart was left to wander the halls of Autobot City with nary a clue as to her fate. But it wasn't the waiting that bothered her – it was the attention she was receiving. God help her, she was beginning to prefer the animosity and homicidal glares of the weeks previous! No matter where she went in the City, a random mech or femme would smile, nod and congratulate her on her heroism.

What heroism?

All she did was run – as she was told, no less. They weren't even aware that she considered heading for the hills. Autobots, she sighed. So caught up in their ideals that they began to laud her efforts. Almost painfully. Yet, what irked her more than these praise-singers were the naysayers who jumped on the bandwagon for fear of retribution. That turned her gears in all sorts of wrong ways. She had to abandon refueling in the dining commons because of all the people wanting to be her "friend". As if by association, they could advance their rank in espionage or communications. Well, she had recently washed, so it wasn't going to be by scent or feel.

It was in the quiet of the research labs that the runner found her, sipping her Energon and staring out the large bay window at the falls below. "Courier Dart?"

He said the name as if it were a title and not her occupation. Dart glanced at him sideways, eying his long, lean grey frame. "Y-es?"

"Optimus Prime wishes to see you now."

The can of Energon tipped in her hands; only the runner's quick reflexes saved her a dressing down by the lab caretaker. "Now?" she all but whispered. Well, hadn't she been waiting four days for a word? Hie up, Dart!

She knew the way by now, but the runner showed her up to Prime's office all the same. He left her at the stairs; she ascended alone, pump beating in trepidation. Her future would be decided here. As she climbed, two voices filtered down the stairwell.

"Pair for two."

"Three of a kind for six."

"Slag … go."

"And one for thirty-one."

"You're scarily good at this Optimus."

Dart paused on the landing, audios canted towards the conversation. Solarflare perched on a chair in front of Prime's desk, a fan of cards in her taloned hands. She was still sans wings, the gaping holes covered with bright blue tarp-like patches. The Autobot commander leaned on one elbow opposite her; he drew a large card from his hand and laid it on the desk. "I find it easier than trying to best Prowl in chess," he chuckled. "Three …" Suddenly, he looked up. The whole universe suddenly shrank until there was nothing left save those huge blue optics. Dart gasped and quickly bent her head, spoiler rattling in apology. "Dart. Please, come in."

Head low, the black and silver femme strolled quickly across the carpet. She heard the shuffle of cards and the scrape of a chair. Then Solarflare spoke: "Excuse me, Optimus." Something rattled on the desk.

"No, leave those, Solarflare. We'll finish the game in a while."

"Best two out of three, I hope?"

"I think I have time for best out of five, my dear."

Dart lifted her head in time to see the grin stretch across Solarflare's sharp-planed face. The avian femme bobbed her head and fairly bounced out of the room, pausing only to clap Dart a hearty one on her left shoulder strut. She watched Solarflare until the femme was down the stairs before turning her quavering attention to the commander.

"You … summoned me, sir?"

"Requested, more likely," the giant replied with fair humor. He gestured to the chair Solarflare had vacated. "Do sit, Dart." He leaned forward at a slight angle as she acquiesced, glancing at the game set-up. A long wooden board with holes and two pegs spaced some distance apart sat to the side. Cribbage … they were playing cribbage! she realized with a start.

"I'd invite you to play," Optimus was saying, "but I did promise Solarflare to stay the game." He turned his head slightly and looked at her out of one optic. "Though, if you happen to glance at her cards …" The optic shutter winked, deliberately.

Dart was taken aback. "I … uh …" she stammered, at a loss with how to progress. Optimus nodded.

"Very well, we'll get to the heart of the matter." He folded his hands over the desktop and fixed her with those depthless blue optics. Dart wanted to cringe in obeisance, but felt a pull stronger than her Decepticon-honed quirks could combat compelling her to return the gaze. And so she did, with a levelness that astounded her. Optimus continued without acknowledging the change in her demeanor. "Both Flamestrike and Solarflare expounded on your heroism some days ago," he said in that low tone that simply resonated throughout her exostructure. Dart cringed inwardly at the word "heroism" but stayed silent. "You were given the opportunity to run, to take your cargo to the Decepticons, but you remained on course. Your offer to carry your wounded comrade merely exemplifies the qualities that make us Autobots. In short, Courier Dart, I've been handed two recommendations to end your probation and to induct you into the Autobot ranks. Which I intend to fulfill."

Make me … an Autobot? The word bounced around in her cortex, latching onto nothingness. What good would that do? Would it make all of her problems go away? Would it make her a better person? … Did she really want to be one of them after all that she had been through? All these thoughts and more flowed through her cortex as she sat in stunned silence before the Autobot commander.

"Dart …?"

Roughly, she shook herself, spraying the thoughts away like so many droplets of water. "Sir?"

"You were gone a while, Dart. Tell me your thoughts."

She looked at the Autobrand upon his shoulders, at the outlined optical regions. The soulless geometric shapes would tell her nothing – not that she expected Primus to issue a proclamation. Still, it would have made things easier. "I …" She paused, turned and rubbed at her arm to collect her thoughts. Prime waited patiently. "I … don't think I could be an Autobot," she said at last, the words flowing from her lip components.

If there was, indeed, a mouth behind the mask, she was sure it was set into a thoughtful frown. Clearly, Optimus Prime hadn't been expecting that. "And why not, Dart?"

She looked at her hands, lying there in her lap. She would tell him the truth – but not the whole truth. No, never … never, ever that. "I don't believe … I belong. There is so much expected … of me. Of being an Autobot." Slowly, she lifted her head, spoiler set low on her shoulders, offering mute apology. "I wasn't much of a Decepticon, and even then, there wasn't much expected of me. Here, there are so many rules and regulations. An … unvoiced code. I'll never be one of you, no matter how many symbols you paint on my body," she admitted, time strengthening her vocalizer. "I'll know it and they'll know it. They already do."

Across the short expanse of desk, Optimus Prime nodded. He was quiet for a moment, then settled in his high-backed chair. "Given the choice, I would prefer to have you with us, Dart. I've watched you more closely than you may have imagined. I see potential, much potential." He vented a small sigh, the first she'd ever heard from the supreme leader of the Autobots. It was … odd. "But I always honor the choice of the individual in cases like these. You are not the first, nor the last to refuse the Autobrand. And I respect your decision."

"Thank you, sir," she murmured.

"It is mutual, Courier. But tell me, what do you wish to do? We have few Neutrals on base, but I sense that you do not wish to be here, either. Even it was with noncombative status."

Where did she want to be? Free … that was it. Free and in the open – with the sun on her face, the wind blowing across her metallic skin. To be free, unburdened. Alive. To stretch her servos to their limits and more. Unbidden, the words sprang to her lips. "North, sir. To … Canada, possibly. Long stretches of forest and tundra." And then she saw herself running free out on the open land. Yes, that was it.

"Canada it is, Dart." Suddenly, the great bulk shifted forward, standing until he was rising tower-tall over her. Dart quickly jumped to her feet, knocking the chair back. Her hand hovered awkwardly at her side – did she salute now? "You have my permission to stay as long as you wish, to gather what supplies you might need. And … before you leave, please see me. No matter what I might be doing."

There was a hand, large and blue, hovering in front of her face. Dart's optics flickered before she realized that Optimus Prime was offering to shake her hand. Slowly, hesitantly, she lifted her slim silver hand and placed it in the huge metal paw. The firmness, the decisiveness in that grasp blew her away. With Optimus Prime, the Autobots would most assuredly … win. She hoped. She had lived under Megatron; her world would not be the same if he triumphed. Nor, sadly, would she.

Prime relinquished her hand almost at the same time she wrapped up her thoughts. He settled back a pace, watching her. And, because it felt right, Dart lifted her arm and saluted the red, blue and white mech. Then, without asking permission, she turned and left the room, plans streaming through her cortex as fast as she could run. Down the stairs she jogged, passing Solarflare lounging against one wall, deep in conversation with a tall black mech.

"D-art?" she called out, but the femme moved swiftly past. She couldn't talk, not right now. Maybe in a day or two, when she was collected. Until then, she needed to be alone.

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"… So, I went back upstairs, and there was Optimus, looking thoughtful. I knew better than to ask what went on, but he seemed so … disappointed."

Flamestrike nodded thoughtfully, lounging on the bench sideways, her feet propped up on a discarded punching bag. The sounds of wrapped taloned fists thwacking into heavily-padded bag punctuated her friend's words. "Did he say anything?"

Thwack-thwack. "No. We finished our game – I trounced him in the end. I think he was preoccupied. And I haven't seen hide nor hair of Dart since."

"Neither have I," Flamestrike murmured. "Have you, Sunstreaker?"

The huge golden melee warrior lowered his brow ridge as he stared at her over the rim of the bag. "What the slag do I care about a Decepticon? She could've fallen off the bridge, or gotten lost in the mess hall. Speed it up, girl. I haven't seen punches like that since you landed here," he spat at Solarflare. The grey femme didn't pause in her maneuvers, but she grinned all the same.

"I'm a bit unbalanced, if you haven't noticed."

Flamestrike chuckled, but Sunstreaker, as always, frowned. He had no time for fun and games when he was training his only pupil. This was rather odd, considering his track record with his sparktwin. "Then you work through it. Someday some Con might rip them off and you'll have to compensate. Bleeding, no less. Step it up!"

As her friend's efforts redoubled, Flamestrike's attention drifted elsewhere. Half-heartedly, she scanned the gym, looking for a sliver of the lanky femme – a shoulder strut, a spoiler, the tip of her foot. It was in vain; there was no sign of Dart. What if she was out on assignment already? Flamestrike's wingtips twitched at the sudden revelation. But, so soon? The senior infiltrationist was too experienced to assume such an assignment would require her knowledge; yet, if that was the case, it would have passed in front of Prowl's desk. No such assignments requesting speed had come up in the past two days. Enough overtracking, Flame, she chastised, returning her attention to Sunstreaker and Solarflare.

"Flamestrike?"

"Ee-ah!" All of Flamestrike's armor shook as she spun herself away from the bench. She pivoted, wings fanned out, only to find Dart stepping backwards with her hands held up. "Primus, Dart. When did you get to be so stealthy?"

The slim femme put a hand to her chassis and flashed her a small, rueful smile. "Dancing around homicidal warriors makes you that way," she replied.

"Ah, like Sunny here," Solarflare chimed in, joining Flamestrike. The golden melee warrior snorted and muttered words that did not bear repeating, stalking off into the depths of the gym. Solarflare stripped off her gloves and tied them together, hanging them off her right shoulder strut. "Where've you been, girl? We were wondering what happened."

Dart shifted her weight from foot to foot. When she looked up, her facial planes were sloped with remorse. "I'm … leaving."

Leaving? "Wait one nanosec," Flamestrike interrupted. "Why?" At her side, Solarflare was frowning, the tines of her helm rattling. The gryphonic femme stared long and hard at the courier's stance, at her expression. She could be guarding information or she could genuinely be trying to conceal her sorrow. But leave? When she was finally accepted? It didn't seem right.

Dart vented a sigh. Then she lifted her head and for the first time, Flamestrike truly saw into her optics. She'd always known that they were an un-Decepticon shade of blue – Autobot blue no less – but the depth, even for their glass composition, was startling. How could she have ever been angry at the courier? "I can't stay," she said simply. "This wasn't meant for me. I … wanted to say goodbye before I left."

"Goodbye?" Solarflare whispered. Flamestrike snaked a glance at her wingmate's face. She could read the whirl of emotion on Solarflare's sharp planes – shock, apology, shame. Flamestrike couldn't blame her – both of them were guilty of giving the courier a difficult time.

"Yes." Dart nodded. Her gaze flickered from femme to femme, to the ground before sweeping back up. "I also want to say … that I appreciate what you did for me. I understand that it was difficult for you – and I don't blame you for it. But, thank you all the same."

"Dart …" Solarflare began, but the courier shook her head. To the ranking femmes' surprise, she lifted her hand and sprinted out of the room.

In disbelief, Flamestrike turned to Solarflare. "Did you ever …?"

"No clue …"

"Where would she go?" Flamestrike mused, staring at the open doorway.

"Hopefully off the end of a cliff," Sunstreaker's gruff voice interrupted. "Enough crying, ladies. Let's get to work." And he threw two pugel sticks at them, staring pointedly at the sparring ring.

As if they were one system, the femmes sighed in sync. Such was the consequence of warfare – so little time to contemplate loss. Flamestrike picked up both sticks and handed one to Solarflare. They had work to do. Flamestrike flicked her optics to the door one last time. Goodbye, and good luck, she thought to the former Decepticon, before ducking under the ropes. Maybe you'll need it, maybe you won't. From what I've seen, you can do just fine.

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Epilogue

The early morning chill was already dissipating when Dart stepped outside. Dew beaded on her silver and black armor, only to shimmer and evaporate. In the distance, the sun peaked over the horizon, spilling red-gold light over the valley, painting Lookout Mountain in bold, majestic tones. It was all too beautiful, Dart realized. Even the sharp angles and battle turrets of Autobot City looked … peaceful. Soon, though, it would be morning and the City would be revealed as it always was – the base of Autobot operations.

No one stopped her as she passed through the gates and started walking across the bridge. Her subspace pockets had been filled to capacity with packs of Energon chips, flasks of oil and other necessities. The leather satchel she carried over one shoulder strut held what little possessions she'd accumulated in her year among the Autobots, as well as navigation tools and a passkey fashioned by SubCommander Prowl to allow her safe journey through Autobot territory.

Dart paused and favored the City one final glance. A dual wind passed overhead, fanning her helm. Startled, the courier looked skyward in time to see two winged shapes soar above and away – back to the orange spires, blocks and turrets. They alighted and transformed – Solarflare perching, Flamestrike standing. Air caught in Dart's ventilators; Solarflare waved, Flamestrike saluted: Goodbye.

"Goodbye, my friends," the former courier whispered. With a shift of her shoulder plates, she settled the pack.

And with a powerful thrust of her right leg, she was off, sprinting over the bridge.