The Dividing Wall
IMPORTANT NOTE: It is highly recommended that you read "The Alone Place" first. This fic takes place several years after that fic.
"You sent for me, Prime?"
Rodimus Prime glanced up from his filework to see Arcee standing in the doorway of his office. He gave a tired smile and motioned for her to step inside. "Let's not be so formal, Arcee. We're friends, aren't we?"
She relaxed a touch and walked in. "Things have changed now, Roddy. You're the Prime now. I don't want to be disrespectful." She moved to take one of the chairs across from his desk.
"I know you never mean disrespect," he replied. "And to be honest, being addressed as Prime just seems... awkward. As if I were wearing an alt mode I was never programmed to use."
"You'll get used to it," Arcee assured him. "And the Matrix doesn't make mistakes. If Primus has faith in you, so do I."
His smiled became less tired and more reminiscent of the young daredevil mech she had been raised with and considered almost a brother. "That means a lot to me, Arcee."
She opened her mouth to say more... but at that moment First Aid appeared at the door. "I received your call, Prime... oh, I'm sorry! Am I interrupting anything?"
"No, no," Rodimus assured the medic, waving him inside. "I wanted to see both of you at the same time. Close the door, will you, First Aid?"
Once the two of them were settled in the Prime's office, Rodimus folded his hands before him and began speaking. "I've called you in here because I feel you two are the most qualified individuals we have at the moment to deal with this issue."
"What issue, sir?" inquired First Aid.
Rodimus drew in a deep intake before continuing, as if steeling himself. "The Dinobots have gone missing."
Arcee's mouth fell open. First Aid's visor blinked in surprise.
"News of this does not leave this room," Rodimus counseled them. "Besides you two, only Ultra Magnus and I know about this. If anyone else finds out, it could start a panic."
"When did they disappear?" asked First Aid. "Swoop put in his shift in the medbay last night, and I didn't notice anything unusual about his behavior. Or at least, nothing that's been unusual since Ratchet and Wheeljack died."
"We noticed their quarters were empty just this morning," Rodimus replied. "A shuttle is missing -- we're assuming that means they've left Cybertron entirely. And First Aid, regarding your last statement... therein lies our problem."
"What do you mean?" the medic asked.
"Ever since Ratchet and Wheeljack's deactivation, the Dinobots have become almost uncontrollable," Rodimus explained. "They take orders only when it suits them, and their behavior has become increasingly antisocial and dangerous. Just this last week I've had twelve incident reports involving the Dinobots, all resulting in property damage and injuries to fellow Autobots -- thankfully none of them serious. In light of their recent activity, their disappearance is all the more disturbing."
"Do we have any idea where they might have gone?" asked Arcee.
Rodimus shook his head. "That's why I've called you two in. You're closer to the Dinobots than anyone else. I thought you might have some idea of where they've gone... and why."
First Aid tapped the bottom of his mask thoughtfully. "The only place I can think of is Earth. They spent most of their lives so far there, after all. And Swoop has a lot of fond memories of the planet, from what he's told me."
"They could have returned to the Ark," Arcee suggested. "Or Autobot City. Or even Dinobot Island, if the energy portal there is still open."
"Then those would be the first places to check," Rodimus noted. "I would like to ask the two of you to travel to Earth and locate the Dinobots -- Skyfire will take you there. And if at all possible, try to convince them to return to Cybertron and rejoin the Autobot forces. But don't try to force them, especially if they become violent. We don't want you two injured."
"Will we be going alone?" asked First Aid nervously.
"Aside from Skyfire, I'm afraid so," Rodimus replied. "The reconstruction efforts on Cybertron require as many available Autobots as possible, and we're stretched far too thin as it is. I can see if it's possible for Springer to accompany you..."
"We'll be fine," Arcee assured him. "When do we leave?"
"As soon as you're ready. Skyfire is prepared to go whenever you are." He nodded at the two of them. "You're dismissed."
As Arcee and First Aid left the Prime's office and walked down the corridor leading to the medbay, the medic gave a groan and rubbed at the center of his visor. "What could have possessed them to take off like that? Without giving a warning, even? Swoop didn't say a word about leaving yesterday..."
"Maybe they didn't want us to worry, or they thought we'd try to keep them from going," Arcee replied, trying to sound calm and reasonable but feeling a pang in her spark. Swoop hadn't even said goodbye to her...
It had been two deca-cycles -- nearly six Earth weeks -- since the destruction of Unicron and the retaking of Cybertron by the Autobots. It had been a time of great sadness for the Autobots, as they had mourned the passing of Optimus Prime and the other heroes of the war who had perished in the Battle of Autobot City... and yet it had been a time of hope too, a time of celebration. For Cybertron was theirs again, and for at least a short time they could know a time of peace and renewal, without the threat of extinction or war hanging overhead.
For Arcee, it had been a time of bewildering change. No more slinking around in back alleys of Cybertron or adjusting to the organic conditions of Earth -- for the first time in her existence she could walk down the streets of Iacon without fear of being shot or captured. Though she didn't walk the streets often, for old habits and old fears died rather hard.
Not every mech was making the adjustment, however, or was even willing to. Jazz, Hound, and Tracks had elected to remain behind on Earth rather than accompany Rodimus Prime's crew back to Cybertron -- no doubt they had grown attached to the planet and were loathe to leave it. Bluestreak, who had been terribly damaged in the siege at Autobot City, still hadn't fully recovered from the battle, and Arcee wasn't sure he ever fully would -- between the total destruction of his hometown and losing so many close friends in that final battle, he was so devastated that he hardly left his quarters. Elita-1 and Chromia continued to serve the Autobot cause as earnestly as they had before, but there was still a haunted look to their optics whenever they made public appearances, a look of terrible grief at losing their bondmates that no amount of time could erase.
And the Dinobots... Here Arcee felt a flash of mingled anger and guilt. They had been the most vocal in their grief, the most obvious in their inability to adjust, and yet no one had paid them any heed. Even she had been too caught up in other projects and her own mourning to help them, despite seeing the signs...
First Aid walked into the medbay to gather up some tools and equipment for the mission. Arcee waited for him outside, still lost in her own thoughts.
Said thoughts were quickly interrupted by a small orange mech stomping his way down the hallway, kicking at imaginary scraps on the floor and a grouchy frown on his face. Arcee brightened slightly and waved at the young mech.
"Hey there, Wheelie," she greeted. "What's got you so down?"
Wheelie looked up at her, a worried glow in his optics. "Dinobots gone," he informed her. "Something is wrong."
Arcee sighed. Wheelie had befriended the Dinobots during the chaotic escape from Galvatron's forces, and had been close to them ever since. Of course he would know right away if they happened to vanish.
"I know, Wheelie," she told him sympathetically. "First Aid and I both know. Rodimus Prime has ordered us to go try to find them and bring them back. But he wants this kept a secret, okay?"
Wheelie brightened immediately. "I come too! Can help you!"
Arcee shook her head. "You need to stay here, Wheelie. This could be dangerous."
"But Wheelie knows danger," Wheelie insisted. "Know Dinobot's anger. Wheelie their friend, help to the end. Maybe Wheelie not so strong, but a third helper can't be wrong." He gazed up at Arcee pleadingly.
Arcee smiled a little. "I know you miss them, Wheelie. And I know you're stronger than you look -- you wouldn't have survived on your own for so long if you weren't." She knelt down to look him in the optics. "Tell you what, I'll go talk to Rodimus Prime. If he says it's okay, you can come with us."
Wheelie whooped with glee. "I'll go pack, be right back!" And he collapsed to vehicle mode and sped away, engine revving happily.
First Aid walked out of medbay, tucking one last tool into subspace. "Do you think it's a good idea to take him?" he asked unsurely, making it no secret that he had overheard the conversation. "He's practically a sparkling..."
"Maybe in body, but not in spark," Arcee replied. "Remember, he was practically living wild when the Dinobots found him, fighting off Sharkticons and who knows what else. If he survived this long, he must be much smarter than we give him credit for. Besides, the Dinobots are his friends -- and maybe having another friend along can help us bring them back."
First Aid didn't seem so sure, but he said nothing about it. "Should we go, then?"
"Yes," she replied quietly. "We should go."
Swoop still didn't like this. As much as he hated disobeying Grimlock, he hated disobeying the orders given by the Autobots too. And even though he trusted his brothers far more than he trusted most Autobots -- with a few exceptions -- this plan still seemed doomed to disaster in his opinion. But no one had asked for his opinion, so he merely kept his vocalizer silent.
"You Snarl keeping us on course?" demanded Grimlock, leaning over the Stegosaurus and peering over the tail-wing on his shoulder at the controls.
"Me Snarl not get us lost," Snarl muttered. "You Grimlock hold your horsepower."
Grimlock snorted. "Me Grimlock just want to make sure you Snarl not fly us into supernova or asteroid field or something. You Snarl not like Han Solo, no try fancy flying through space rocks."
"Me Snarl not stupid," Snarl retorted.
Grimlock snorted in satisfaction, then turned to face the other occupants of the shuttle. It was terribly crowded in here -- the shuttle was built to carry six standard-sized carbots comfortably, but Dinobots weren't exactly carbots, and their bulkier frames made for a tight fit. Every time Slag was shoved or bumped he went into a shouting spree, and Sludge sported rather nasty scratches across his chestplate from the Tricerotops' horns. Everyone was uncomfortable, edgy, and low on energy, for they'd left Cybertron so fast they'd forgotten to stock fuel for the trip.
"Me Snarl see Earth up ahead!" Snarl announced.
"Thank Primus," Swoop sighed. If this trip had taken much longer, he was sure a fight would have broken out on the shuttle...
Grimlock turned to regard Swoop, his optic band dimming as if he were narrowing his optics. "You Swoop still have problem with plan?"
"Me Swoop think it dangerous," Swoop said carefully. "Think us Dinobots might not be able to do it alone. Us Dinobots should have told him Rodimus Prime. Him Prime could have given us backup..."
"No," Grimlock said gruffly. "Him Rodimus Prime would have told us Dinobots to shut up and go back to work. 'All Autobots needed on Cybertron, even Dinobots,' him say. Him not trust us Dinobots, want us to stay on Cybertron where him Prime can keep optics on us. Him no help. Autobots no help. Us Dinobots do this alone. Our duty."
"It not duty," Swoop replied. "Vengeance not Autobot way."
Grimlock gave a cunning chuckle. "Them Autobots not see us Dinobots as Autobots. So us not bound to 'Autobot way.' You Swoop not trouble your CPU about it. You Swoop Dinobot, you Swoop think for good of Dinobots now." And he returned to his seat.
Slag turned to Swoop with a suspicious glare. "You Swoop still want to be Autobot? Leave us Dinobots?"
"Me Swoop never want to leave Dinobots," Swoop protested. "Why can't me Swoop be Autobot AND Dinobot?"
Slag gave a bitter laugh. "Them Autobots never see us Dinobots as Autobots. See us as animals, monsters, experiments. They not need us. And us Dinobots not need them. Right, Sludge?" He turned to the Brontosaurus with an expectant look.
Sludge just shrugged. "Me Sludge just follow Grimlock. Him Grimlock's ideas good ones. Him say Autobots not care about us Dinobots. Him right. Him Grimlock say us Dinobots find Decepticon that killed him Wheeljack and make him pay. Me Sludge agree." He flexed his fists, then clenched them until the joints groaned. "Us Dinobots make him Decepticon wish him never been built."
Swoop looked away and stared out the window. It was pointless to argue with them. Their CPUs were all set. Nothing he could say would change their minds. That didn't stop him from harboring his own misgivings.
And it wasn't as if they didn't have a point, either. Things had been going so well for the Dinobots up until the attack on Autobot City. Thanks to the vigilant efforts of Wheeljack, Ratchet, and Arcee, the Autobots had finally begun accepting the Dinobots among their numbers, inviting them to participate in games or just for a relaxing evening in the lounge, talking to them as if they were fellow mechs and not beasts or sparklings, trusting them with missions that were more than just "run in, smash someone, run out." Optimus Prime had begun to count Grimlock among his officers, including him in important meetings and giving him his say during discussions. And Jazz and Ironhide, possibly inspired by Ratchet's example in taking Swoop on as an apprentice, had begun training Snarl as a pilot. Though the quiet, moody Dinobot had expressed neither interest nor disinterest in his lessons, he had learned quickly, and had Ironhide lived to help finish his training he possibly could have become a licensed pilot within a short time.
Then, in one fell swoop, many of the Autobots who had campaigned on the Dinobots' behalf had been slain, and many more had been reassigned to other duties. The original crew of the Ark had been broken up, and the Dinobots had found themselves assigned among mechs who were native to Cybertron and unfamiliar with the Dinobots' ways... and worse, considered them to be nothing more than Wheeljack's crazy experiments, to be ignored unless they needed to be called upon for a particularly dangerous mission. Even Swoop, once Ratchet's promising student, had been relegated to little more than a go-fer by the Autobot medics -- save First Aid, who tried to include his friend as much as he could but could only do so much to help.
Within a matter of days, all the Dinobots' progress to be seen as fellow Autobots had been eliminated, and they were back to square one... only this time they'd had a taste of what it could have been like to be considered equals, a privilege now denied them.
Swoop shuddered a little as he remembered that terrible day, a day that would haunt him for the rest of his existence. He and his brothers had arrived with Prime's company to find Autobot City in ruins... and their creator dead. It was only after the Decepticons had fled that they were able to mourn, but that mourning would not be forgotten anytime soon.
Grimlock had knelt by Wheeljack's side and released a bellow that deafened all within hearing and rang through Autobot City with enough force to vibrate the metal walls. Everyone present had cringed from the force of the howl... and the deep anger and sorrow within said cry. Slag had argued viciously with Perceptor and First Aid, insisting "Wheeljack not dead! Him Wheeljack blow himself up lots of times and turn out just fine! You stupid Autobots fix him now, make him better!" Snarl had seemed utterly silent at first, just watching the bodies of his creators... until Swoop had approached him and picked up the high, eerie keening he was releasing, his body trembling almost imperceptibly with it. That display had unnerved him far more than Grimlock's splitting cries.
Sludge... his display of grief had been one of the most spark-rending. With a piteous cry he had grabbed Wheeljack's body and run off with it, not wanting to see the scientist taken away to the graveship. And no matter how the Autobots threatened or haggled with Sludge, he refused to return the body. It wasn't until Swoop had intervened that he had finally let go of the body and allowed it to be taken away.
So many mechs had lost friends, comrades, and heroes that day... but the Dinobots had lost their creator. And now... now Grimlock swore that the mech who had killed Wheeljack would be made to suffer in turn.
"Us Dinobots land shuttle at Ark," Grimlock announced. "Leave it there and fly to Autobot City. If them Autobots look for us, that throw them off us Dinobots' trail." He nodded happily, pleased with his own clever plan.
"Us Dinobots need resupply somewhere," Sludge pointed out, thumping his abdominal plate. "Me Sludge low on energy."
"You Sludge had three cubes last night," Slag pointed out grumpily. "Me Slag lower on energy than you!"
"You Slag shut up!" Grimlock ordered. "Fine. Us Dinobots resupply in Portland. THEN us Dinobots fly to Autobot City and get disks from surveillance cameras. Those tell us who killed Wheeljack. Then us Dinobots find Decepticon and..." He let his voice trail off.
Swoop made no move to protest, only nodded while his brothers shouted approval of Grimlock's plan. He still didn't like this. The Decepticons were weaker now, but they were still, as a group, far more powerful than five Dinobots. He wished Grimlock would have at least listened to reason and requested some help from the Autobots. He was sure Wheelie would have been glad to help, or Springer, or Arcee...
He felt a peculiar pang in his fuel tank as he gazed back out the window, as if trying to pick out Cybertron from among the stars. Arcee. He missed her. Ever since the Battle of Autobot City their duties had taken them in separate directions, and he hardly saw her anymore. If only he could have had a chance to talk to her before they'd left... she, of all the Autobots, would have understood...
"Swoop, us Dinobots landing! You Swoop get ready to go!"
"Yes, Grimlock!" he replied, reaching into subspace to make sure his sword and medical kit were still there before rising from his seat.
The air over Mount St. Hilary trembled as Skyfire roared down from the clouds, the force of his passage flattening plants and causing trees to bow and sway wildly. A cluster of deer broke into a gallop and scattered, and birds rose in living clouds to flee before the sudden intrusion on their domain. The shuttle touched down as gently as possible at the base of the mountain, a short distance from what had once been the Autobots' main base on Earth.
Arcee stepped down from Skyfire's gangplank and gazed wistfully at the main doors of the Ark, now sealed tightly against entry. Since the completion of Autobot City, the Ark had lain abandoned, its interior stripped of anything useful and every possible entrance closed and locked forever. There was talk of possibly opening the facility back up as a museum or historical landmark, but so far the Autobots had not approved such a plan. Some felt it would demean the memory of those who had served here by making the Ark a cheap tourist attraction, while others felt the abandoned base might somehow attract the attention of vengeful Decepticons and it would be too dangerous to let humans roam around inside. Arcee herself saw nothing wrong with allowing humans to tour the base, so long as it remained a respectful homage to the Ark and her crew and not a money-making venture, but ultimately it wasn't her decision.
But the Ark had long been the home of the Dinobots, and Arcee had a feeling -- a gut instinct, Carly would have called it -- that they would find the wayward mechs here.
She watched a pair of rabbits venture back out of the forest, eyeing the shuttle and its disembarking occupants warily. She couldn't help but think that Swoop would have loved to remain here -- he had loved the animals here, though he had a special fondness for the birds. He had been reluctant to leave the Ark for the Moonbase of Cybertron, just like his brothers... but in the end all the Dinobots had relented, choosing service to the Autobot cause over the familiar comfort of the mountain that had long been their home.
She remembered the aftermath of the Battle of Autobot City all too well -- it would be vorns before the memories of that terrible day were softened by the buffers of time. And she fully recalled the combined grief of the Dinobots as first Ratchet's body, then Wheeljack's had been recovered and laid out within the medbay. How some Autobots could continue to view the Dinobots as stupid, unfeeling animals after that she couldn't begin to imagine.
Skyfire transformed, sending the rabbits scurrying back into the brush, and inspected the doors. "No sign of forced entry. They haven't tried to enter the Ark, at any rate."
"But we spotted their ship in a clearing two klicks to the northwest," First Aid pointed out. "They've got to be here."
"Wheelie fear they not here," Wheelie suggested. "Maybe it trick to lose us quick."
"That's possible," Arcee replied. "Just because the ship is here doesn't mean they are, after all."
"Perhaps we should split up, then," First Aid suggested. "Search the area, and radio the others if we find any trace of them..."
Light flashed at the edge of Arcee's vision... like sunlight glinting off of metal. She turned and gazed up the mountain, wondering if her optics were glitching... No, there it was again. Definitely metal... and coming from a location she knew all too well.
The Alone Place... the ledge that had been unofficially set aside as a private area for an Autobot if he wished to be alone. And the place where she and Swoop had once confessed their friendship was developing into something more... before the conflict between Autobot and Dinobot had torn them apart.
"You two search the forest and the desert," she told Wheelie and First Aid. "Skyfire, stay by the doors just in case the Dinobots come back and try to get inside. I'll go up the mountain."
"Are you sure?" First Aid asked tentatively. "Do you want someone to accompany you..."
"Femme doesn't mean fragile, First Aid," she assured him, smiling a little. "I'm capable of handling myself. You two look after yourselves, all right?"
"Wheelie leave no stone unturned, 'till Dinos' hiding place discerned," Wheelie replied confidently, giving a jaunty salute.
"Um... what he said," First Aid added.
As the two mechs departed and Skyfire took up position at the doors of the Ark, Arcee set to climbing the mountain. She still remembered where the best handholds and the safest trails were located, so her progress was relatively fast. She wasn't absolutely positive, of course, but a deep instinct -- a "gut feeling," the humans would have called it -- told her it was Swoop who was occupying the Alone Place. She hoped so, at any rate... of all the Dinobots, he would be the most willing to listen to the Autobots and see reason. Then perhaps, just perhaps, he could convince his brothers...
She pulled herself up a shelf of rock to bring the ledge into view... and Swoop, hunched at the edge of the ledge in his Pterodactyl mode, gazing pensively down at the valley below. He didn't turn to acknowledge her presence, only continued to stare off into the distance.
"Swoop?" She took a step closer. "It's me..."
Without looking back Swoop launched himself off the ledge, soaring off. She felt her fuel tank drop... then settle again when he looped back to the mountain and landed on a ledge higher up. Gritting her dental plates in frustration, she resumed her climb. Why was he choosing to be difficult?
She had just barely reached the second ledge when he repeated the maneuver, taking off and touching down higher up the slope. Despite her growing irritation at the chase, she did feel a bit of relief that he wasn't outright fleeing from her. If he was wanting to avoid an encounter entirely, he would have flown off first thing...
They had reached the crater of the volcano by the time Swoop finally transformed and sat heavily down on the crater's edge, a sign that he was done running. Exhausted, her systems buzzing low-energy warnings at her, she walked over to the Dinobot and sat down beside him. Neither of them spoke for awhile, and Swoop didn't turn to look at her. He only gazed into the bowl of the crater, as still as if he'd been offlined.
"Why did you keep running from me, Swoop?" she asked finally.
Swoop shrugged his wings a little.
"Swoop, you can talk to me. You know that."
Again Swoop hitched his shoulders, still not looking at her.
This was totally unlike Swoop. Normally he was the most open and friendly of the Dinobots, especially with those he trusted. To see him withdraw like this, to behave in a matter more fitting for Snarl than for himself, frightened Arcee a little. What had happened to him? And had she, however unknowingly, done something to contribute to this?
Despite herself she found herself thinking back to the battle and it's aftermath... and the Dinobots' display of mourning over the death of their creator. Of all of them, only Swoop had held himself in check, putting aside his own grief to help tend the wounded and carry the bodies. And when Sludge had become hysterical, snatching Wheeljack's body and running off with it, it had been Swoop who had helped pursue him. When Sludge had finally stopped running and sank to his knees, cradling his dead creator like a sparkling cradled a treasured doll, the Autobots had simply shouted for him to "be a good Dinobot" and return the body, but Swoop had approached his brother and knelt beside him, placing an arm around his shoulders. They had remained like that for a long time, not talking, but simply taking comfort from each others' presence.
Perhaps that comfort was all Sludge had really needed, for when Swoop finally stood to leave, Sludge had sadly but willingly handed Wheeljack's body to him. And without a word, Swoop had relinquished it to Perceptor and gone back to his work.
Hesitantly she raised a hand and placed it on Swoop's arm. Of all the Autobots, the Dinobots had been the ones who had suffered the most from the Battle of Autobot City and its aftermath. But of all the Dinobots, Swoop had lost the most -- not just his creator, but his mentor Ratchet. And yet he had never had the opportunity to mourn, being too caught up in helping the Autobots and his brothers.
Swoop finally turned to face her, and his optics flickered slightly, as if he were surprised to see her there. "Me Swoop not think you Arcee wanted to see me."
His words sent a pang through her spark. "I've missed you, Swoop. A great deal. Rodimus Prime has kept me busy... but that's no excuse. I'm sorry."
His lip plates twitched in the beginnings of a smile. "Me Swoop missed you Arcee, too."
She offered what she hoped was a comforting smile.
"What you Arcee doing here?" Swoop asked, puzzled.
It was best to be truthful, she decided. "Prime sent a few of us to find you and your brothers. You worried us in leaving so fast."
Swoop's smile faded instantly. "It none of Rodimus Prime's business. This Dinobot business." His hands tightened into fists. "Autobots not understand. Nobody understand."
"I'll understand, Swoop," she said firmly. "I'm your friend. Wheeljack was like the creator I never knew, and Ratchet taught me a lot as well. I miss them too."
Without warning Swoop grabbed Arcee and pulled her close, embracing her tightly. A high, nearly inaudible keening vibrated from within his chassis, a keen that intensified until it became a shrill hawk-like cry that rang across the crater. Perhaps another Autobot would have been terrified by the wild sound... but Arcee understood that this was a cry of sorrow, not of battle-rage, and she only slid her arms around Swoop as far as she could in an effort to hold him.
"Don't hold it in anymore, Swoop," she urged him. "The others have had their chance to grieve. It's your turn now."
Swoop let out another ripping cry, shaking with the force of it. He rocked back and forth in distress, his grip on Arcee tightening until she gasped in pain. Immediately he loosened his grip, but still refused to let go. It was as if she was his lifeline, and if he released her he would be carried away by his emotions.
"Me Swoop... should have been there..." he moaned. "Me Swoop failed them... should have stayed at city with him Wheeljack... or should have gone on shuttle with him Ratchet... if me Swoop had been there, maybe one of them still be alive..."
"If you had been there, you might have died with them," she said, trying to sound kind but still trying to get him to see reason. "Swoop, you can't go back in time and change what happened. I know it hurts... but it's over now. Nothing we can do can bring Wheeljack or Ratchet back."
Swoop pulled away from her enough to stare at her, as if that thought hadn't occurred to him yet.
"Swoop, come back to Cybertron with us," she said encouragingly. "We need you. And the Autobots on Cybertron might not be accepting of you right away, but I'm sure in time they'll come to see you as fellow Autobots in every right. It will just take time and work."
Swoop nodded slowly. "Me Swoop go back... later."
"Us Dinobots came here for reason," he insisted. "Us Dinobots going to find out who killed him Wheeljack. Us Dinobots NEED to know... and if him Decepticon who killed him Wheeljack still alive, us Dinobots punish him."
So that was it. The Dinobots sought justice for Wheeljack's death. She couldn't fault them in the least... but revenge was not the Autobot way. And she feared that if the Dinobots found Wheeljack's murderer and took out their rage on him, the Autobots would decide the Dinobots were a threat and order them destroyed. How could she convince Swoop of that...
"Me Swoop not think it good idea," Swoop went on. "But me Swoop Dinobot. Me Swoop help brothers. Have no choice."
Well, at least Swoop wouldn't need convincing that revenge was a bad idea. "Let us come with you," she urged. "First Aid, Wheelie, and Skyfire are here. We can help you talk to your brothers and get them to see reason..."
"Him Grimlock not listen to reason," Swoop complained. "But you Arcee's company be welcome." His smile returned a little. "Good to have friends."
"It's always good to have friends," she agreed, and she slipped out of his arms and stood. "Where are your brothers?"
"Them left without me Swoop. Me Swoop tell them me Swoop need time to think alone. Him Grimlock tell me Swoop to catch up later. Them on their way to Autobot City now."
"Then we don't have time to waste." She turned to find the trail she had used to climb up here. "I'll radio the others..."
Swoop grabbed her around the waist and leaped into the air, activating his antigravs to soar high over the mountain.
"This way quicker," he insisted. "Not have much time."
"But the others..."
"Us not need others for now."
/Arcee!/ That was First Aid's voice over the radio. /Are you all right?/
/I'm fine/ she assured him. /I... found Swoop./
/So I see/ Skyfire noted dryly. /Hold tight and I'll be up in a moment to rescue you.../
/No! Just... stay there. This is something I need to do.../
/But Arcee.../ protested First Aid.
/Do you want the Dinobots back or not? Just follow at a distance, all right? I can handle this./ She just prayed to Primus that she was right, and that she wasn't about to make a huge mistake.
Swoop supposed he shouldn't have been surprised to see Autobot City in turmoil when he finally touched down and lowered Arcee to the ground. Autobots and humans were swarming everywhere, some running to safety, others charging toward the command center with guns drawn. Alarms blared throughout the city, overlaid with terrified screams and confused shouting. From the command center a thin trickle of smoke drifted skyward out of the twisted-open doors.
He sighed, his wings drooping slightly. Grimlock might as well have erected a banner reading "THE DINOBOTS HAVE ARRIVED."
"What happened?" demanded Arcee.
"Dinobots happened," Swoop replied, thinking the answer should have been obvious.
"I know, but what did they do?" she clarified. "They wouldn't be so stupid as to attack someone..."
At that moment Slag wedged himself through the doors of the command center, sword drawn and a feral snarl plastered across his face. Grimlock emerged right behind the Tricerotops, his arms full of what looked like security-camera disks. He spotted Swoop, paused a moment, then shook his head resignedly.
"You Swoop take long enough to catch up," Grimlock huffed. "Me Grimlock think you Swoop never show up..." His gaze rested on Arcee, and though he had no visible face Swoop knew he was scowling angrily at her. "Why you Swoop bring stupid Autobot?"
Swoop hesitated. The few times he had been bold enough to stand up to Grimlock, it had ended badly...
Arcee rested a hand on his arm, and though it must have been his imagination, he fancied that her touch bolstered his energy levels slightly -- or at least his bravery. He returned Grimlock's glare and spoke.
"You Grimlock the stupid one," he informed the Dinobot commander. "You Grimlock not even think before you Grimlock put plan into action. You Grimlock destroy property, terrorize Autobots, steal information." He pointed at the disks in his arms. "That not the Autobot way."
"You Swoop shut up NOW!" Grimlock ordered. "Us Dinobots not Autobots!"
"You Grimlock shut up and listen!" roared Swoop, optics flashing.
Grimlock's visor blinked in surprise. Slag's mouth dropped open in shock. Sludge and Snarl, pulling themselves through the mangled doors behind Grimlock, stared at the youngest Dinobot as if they'd never seen him before. To see Swoop, ever the calm and friendly mech, suddenly explode at Grimlock was so unheard of that it had his brothers frozen on the spot.
"You Grimlock always say that them Autobots never accept us Dinobots," Swoop continued. "That us Dinobots never fit in with them Autobots. Well, maybe it not all them Autobot's fault. Maybe it us Dinobots' fault too."
"Them Autobots think us Dinobots nothing but animals and experiments!" Grimlock thundered.
"And what us Dinobots doing to show them Autobots otherwise?" Swoop demanded. "Us Dinobots not interact with them Autobots, not talk to them, not try to help them. Us Dinobots keep to ourselves too much. Pick fights with them Autobots, wreck things, not listen to orders. And now look what us Dinobots doing!" He gestured around him, indicating the smoking building and the Autobots now surrounding their group with weapons drawn. "Us Dinobots not give them Autobots reason to think us Dinobots anything more than monsters! You Grimlock say them Autobots need to treat us Dinobots like equals. Well, maybe us Dinobots need to ACT like equals first!"
Grimlock looked ready to retort, but paused, as if this hadn't occurred to him.
"But them Autobots not being fair," Sludge complained. "Not giving us Dinobots chance."
"Me Swoop not think them Autobots being fair either," Swoop went on, "but there still things us Dinobots can do about it. Maybe if us Dinobots show them Autobots us Dinobots WANT to be equals, them treat us decent."
Grimlock simply stared at Swoop, seeming to ponder his words. All around them, Autobot City's security forces kept their weapons ready. Arcee gripped Swoop's arm tightly, her entire body tense as she waited for Grimlock to react.
"You Swoop saying us Dinobots should give up looking for him Wheeljack's killer?" Grimlock said finally.
Swoop raised his chin, realizing that his next words could very well provoke an attack and steeling himself for it. "Yes. Vengeance not Autobot way. Vengeance for Decepticons. Us Dinobots track down Decepticon and get revenge, then us Dinobots no better than him Decepticon who killed him Wheeljack."
Slag's grip on his sword tightened, and he moved to spring on the Pterodactyl. Swoop raised a hand, ready to snatch his own weapon from subspace...
There was a massive clatter of disks striking the steel road as Grimlock dropped his load, and the Dinobot commander's massive hand grabbed Slag by one of the horns of his alt mode and jerked him back. "Us Dinobots not fight each other, Slag!"
"But him Swoop..." Slag began.
"...has right to speak him Swoop's CPU," Grimlock finished for him. He looked back at Swoop, still bristling. "Us Dinobots go discuss this elsewhere."
"But wait!" came the protest, and an Autobot bearing the badge of security chief stepped forward. "What about the damage done to the control center? Someone's going to have to answer for that..."
"Take it up with Rodimus Prime," Arcee informed him. "He'll make the decision. For now, we need a private area where the Dinobots can meet and plan their next move."
"They're capable of planning?" someone muttered, but the heckler quieted remarkably quick when Slag glowered in their direction.
Grimlock stomped off. Swoop moved to follow his commander... then stopped with a wince as something crunched under his foot. He looked down to see he'd stepped on a handful of the disks, and he hastily bent to sweep them aside so no one else trampled them...
But one disk in particular caught his optic... for it bore Wheeljack's signature symbol. With awe and great reverence he picked it up and cupped it in his hands.
"What do you think it is?" asked Arcee.
"Me Swoop not know," Swoop replied. "But us Dinobots find out."
It had been Jazz who had finally come to Arcee and the Dinobots' aid, managing to secure a room large enough to accommodate all five Dinobots that was also secured, out of the way, and equipped with a viewscreen. It was this viewscreen that had everyone's attention now, as Arcee slid in Wheeljack's disk and stepped back so as not to block anyone's view. The screen flickered a bit, then blinked to life, showing Wheeljack from the chest up as he gazed into the camera, head tilted to the side as he considered the recording device.
"...sure it's on? I don't see the little light blinking."
"For the fifth time, Wheeljack, the light only blinks when the power's low!" griped a familiar voice -- Ratchet. "Record already!"
"All right." Wheeljack raised a fist to the front of his mask and made a scraping sound with his vocalizer that sounded remarkably like a human clearing his throat -- a trait he'd most likely picked up unconsciously from Sparkplug. "This message is for the Dinobots, to be delivered to them once the war is over and it's time to return to Cybertron... or upon the event of my deactivation, whichever comes first. They're free to show it to anyone else they see fit to, though..."
Arcee glanced at Grimlock, sure he was going to eject her from the room now. But Grimlock made no move to order her out. His optic band was fixed on the screen.
"Anyhow... wow, I had everything planned out that I was going to say, but now it all seems so silly. Just meaningless platitudes from an old-timer mech with too much to say." He shook his head, his head-fins blinking a light azure with laughter. "Primus, you five have really grown in the last twenty years. Grimlock, Slag, Sludge, Snarl, and Swoop... you've matured a great deal and really come into your own. And you've proved yourselves in my optics... and in Ratchet's and Prime's as well. I'm really and truly proud of you. I've... never had creations based on my own spark before... but you five are like my own children, and even had you been created from my own programming I couldn't be happier for you.
"I know you've all come a long way... but I'm sorry to say that you've still got a long way to go yet. That's not saying you're inferior to anyone else, no. Everyone keeps growing and changing, even classic-model mechs like myself and Ratchet." Here Wheeljack chuckled as Ratchet snarled off-camera. "And yes, you've proven yourselves to Prime's crew... but I'm sorry to say that Prime's view isn't necessarily the rest of Cybertron's view. And when we return home... they might not welcome you as readily as the crew of the Ark.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is... just keep going. Don't give up. It's going to be hard, the road you five take, and there's going to be setbacks and difficulties. There'll be misunderstandings among the Autobots, maybe even mechs who don't want to see you progress any further. And it's going to be discouraging. But don't forget that no matter how hopeless it seems, there's still mechs rooting for you and helping you along. Sooner or later -- and I hope to Primus that it's sooner -- you'll be seen as Autobots in your own right, and I just hope I'm there to see it. But if not... I'm confident that you can make it on your own. You've come this far, after all."
Wheeljack paused to rub at his optics a moment, and Arcee swore she could see a touch of optic fluid leaking out of the corner of one, though it might have been her imagination. "I know there was something else I was going to say, but frag if I can remember it right now. I'll add to this message later if it comes to me. Anyhow... good luck, Dinobots. Keep up the good work. 'Til all are one." A pause... then Wheeljack turned to face someone to the side. "How do I shut this off again?"
"Oh, for the love of..." The camera rocked once, then went dark as someone -- most likely Ratchet -- switched it off.
Arcee realized optic fluid was building up along the edges of her own optics, and she hastily wiped it away. She turned toward Swoop to see he, too, was rubbing at his optics and muttering something about dirty optic glass. The rest of the Dinobots remained still, continuing to watch the screen as if the message hadn't ended yet.
Finally Grimlock rose and strode away from the group, facing the wall, arms folded before his chestplate.
"What's he doing?" asked Arcee.
"Him Grimlock do that when thinking," Swoop explained.
Whatever Grimlock was pondering, it was weighty enough to occupy his CPU for some time. The other Dinobots began to shift and fidget in their seats, waiting for their leader to say something. Swoop looked the most nervous of all, and finally he had to sit on his hands to keep them still. Arcee patted his arm, wishing she could say something comforting but not knowing what to say.
Finally Grimlock turned and walked back to the others. "Me Grimlock," he began, pronouncing every word very clearly as if making perfectly sure that he would be understood, "think long and hard about this. And NOT because me Grimlock stupid." He glared at Arcee as if daring her to refute that, but she only gazed calmly back. "But because this matter that require much thought."
He had everyone's undivided attention. Swoop worked one hand free, grasped Arcee's hand, and squeezed gently.
"Him Wheeljack created us Dinobots," Grimlock continued. "Him Wheeljack closest thing us Dinobots ever have for a father. Him counting on us Dinobots to make him Wheeljack proud. And me Grimlock say us Dinobots been doing a poor job of that." His gaze rested on Swoop as he continued. "Him Wheeljack trusting us to be good Autobots. Us Dinobots keep acting like animals and Decepticons, then us Dinobots let him Wheeljack down. Me Grimlock say us Dinobots end search. Me Grimlock say us Dinobots return to Cybertron, help Autobots." He extended his arm out, palm down. "Dinobots with me?"
Swoop reached out with his free hand and rested it atop Grimlock's. "Me Swoop in."
Snarl and Sludge, likewise, added their hands to the pile. Slag hesitated, then huffed and placed his hand topmost. Arcee stood back a little, watching...
"You Arcee with us?"
She stared at Grimlock, startled. "What?"
"Me Grimlock say 'you Arcee with us?'" Grimlock repeated. "Maybe him Swoop need check your audials."
"I heard you," she replied. "But I'm not a Dinobot."
Grimlock hadn't a traditional mech face to convey emotion, but there was something about the glow to his optic band that indicated he was being as solemn as possible as he spoke. "You Arcee always been good to us Dinobots. You Arcee come here after us Dinobots -- not to force us Dinobots back to Cybertron, but to help us Dinobots. And him Swoop love you Arcee. Him Swoop see good things in you. Me Grimlock stubborn jackass maybe..." He glanced at Swoop with an amused flicker of his optic band, and the young Dinobot ducked his head in embarrassment. "...but even stubborn jackass can change CPU." He motioned to her with his free hand. "You Arcee one of us now."
Arcee looked at Grimlock, then at Swoop, who was beaming with joy at his leader's announcement. Overwhelmed, she stepped forward and rested her own hand, slim and fragile compared to the Dinobots' hands, to the pile.
"Us Dinobots keep up the fight," Grimlock announced. "Help the Autobots. 'Til all are one."
"Til all are one," everyone repeated, then dropped their hands.
Grimlock nodded to the doorway. "Us Dinobots go home."
As the Dinobots shuffled out of the room, Swoop and Arcee lagged behind, taking up the rear of the pack. Once she was sure Grimlock was out of audial-shot, Arcee nudged Swoop slightly to get his attention.
"I was there when Wheeljack died," she told him softly. "I saw who killed him."
Swoop blinked. "Why you Arcee not say anything before?"
"Because you all seemed so intent on finding out for yourselves," she replied. "Besides, it wouldn't have mattered anyhow. It was Skywarp who shot him down... and he was among the Decepticons confirmed dead after Unicron was destroyed."
Swoop nodded slowly. "So revenge impossible anyhow."
"Yes," she replied.
Swoop drew Arcee close, embracing her. She returned the embrace, leaning against him and taking some comfort from his presence.
"Thank you," Swoop said finally. "For not giving up on me Swoop. Or on us Dinobots. Us Dinobots owe you Arcee."
"You don't owe me anything, Swoop," she replied. "You've given me so much already."
His smile seemed to brighten the corridor, and he leaned down to gently kiss her. She offlined her optics and returned the kiss, recalling that stolen moment on the mountain so long ago when they had first admitted their feelings for one another...
"Hey you guys, hurt Wheelie's eyes!"
Arcee pulled away and turned sharply to see First Aid, Skyfire, and Wheelie standing further down the corridor, waiting for the Dinobots... and watching Arcee and Swoop's display. The young orange mech had both hands pressed over his optics as if blinded. Skyfire merely looked amused, while First Aid beamed happily. The Dinobots reacted with gleeful whoops and cheers, making poor Swoop duck his head low between his drooping wings.
Arcee laughed and squeezed his hand. "C'mon, let's hurry back. Medbay's in need of you."
Swoop nodded and hurried after her.