Author's Note: So yeah, I know that in most movieverse canon sources, Epps is already married and has a bunch of kids by the time of the first movie. I don't care. :) I think this way is more fun, and I have some specific reasons relating to Introductions: Annabelle Lennox for why I'm making Robert Epps get married later. Yes, I'm a nut for canon, but for once I'm tossing it all out the window and doing it my way because I'm the author and I can. (And I'm such a geek that I feel it necessary to write an author's note explaining this. *hangs head and slinks away*) :)
TIE IN: Ties in loosely to Sarah's and Annabelle's stories in that Arcee and Sarah (aka Spitfire) are good friends. Also, this fic takes place just a few months before my fic, Tranformers for Christmas.
It was a stupid thing to do, no doubt about that. Newlyweds babysitting? Most people would think babysitting would be the quickest way to discourage a couple from having kids. Of course, most people haven't babysat Annabelle Lennox. She was six years old, sharp as a tack, and cute as a button.
We could only claim four months of marital bliss when Sarah Lennox mentioned that they couldn't find a sitter for their date that Friday. It was opening weekend for a movie she'd been dying to go see, but Hyde was in the brig for something or another and Prowl refused to let R.C. change her shift around so she could sit for them.
"We can do it," I told her. We were at a backyard BBQ and football game at her house. A couple dozen men and women from the base – Bobby's fellow soldiers – were milling about us. In my ten years in the military (hazmat waste management), I'd never seen such a close-knit unit. Commanding officers usually didn't invite their subordinates over for steak and beers. And yet Will Lennox did. Surely I could babysit for Sarah.
"Are you sure? I mean, I know you're newlyweds, and…"
I waved away her protests. "It's one night."
"I doubt it would be worth your time. We only pay five dollars an hour."
"Like I would let you pay us!"
"But I have to give you something in return."
I looked around at people chatting and eating and then back at her. "Looks like you were the one who gave first."
She chuckled. "Alright, I'll take you up on it on one condition. You have to think of something – even something little – I can do for you in return. Even if it's just borrowing an egg or a cup of flour sometime."
"Deal." Of course, I was far from a domestic diva like Sarah, but maybe that could be one of the things she could trade me. "I'm a lousy cook," I offered. "Can you teach me to make something besides spagettios?"
She laughed out loud at that one. "You're on. You choose the night of your first cooking lesson and the meal you want to make, and I'll be there."
"Bobby's going kiss your feet, girl."
"You know, it's still weird to have anybody call him by his first name."
"It's still weird to have somebody call me Epps."
She grinned. "I imagine."
So that's how Bobby and I ended up babysitting for Sarah and Will Lennox that September evening. Bobby had just tucked a sleeping Annabelle in (and can I just say there are few things more unintentionally attractive than a man being all fatherly toward little kids). I was in the kitchen cleaning up from our bedtime snack of popcorn when I heard a vehicle coming up the drive. At first I thought the Lennox's must be home early, but there was only one headlight. As it got closer, I could see it was a motorcycle, and the driver had a ponytail streaming out from under her helmet. R.C.? What was she doing here?
She drove the motorcycle around to the backyard, and I cut through the house to meet her on the back porch. As I stepped through the door, though, the motorcycle…transformed. It stood up and started talking. "You won't believe this, Spitfire…Oh slag!" Then it collapsed back in on itself, returning to a motorcycle shape, and switched off the headlight.
My eyes were frozen open. "Eeee?"
I could hear Bobby's footsteps running through the house toward me, but I couldn't tear my gaze away from the freaky machine in front of me.
"Sweetheart?" he said, tentatively touching my arm. "Sweetheart? What's wrong?"
"Ih... It…it's alive! It's alive! R.C.'s motorcycle…"
"Theresa, she parked it here earlier this evening."
"No…she didn't. It just drove… And stood up… Oh…! Oh no! It's one of them!" My job, the one that had brought me to Diego Garcia in the first place, was to clean up after battles. My team managed everything from hazardous substances to unaccounted munitions. Following the NEST team around, I'd helped clean up my fair share of robot bits and pieces. "It's her bike! River's BIKE! GET ANNABELLE! RUN!!!"
I bolted for the back door, but Bobby caught my arms, pulling me up against him and turning us to face the motorcycle. "It's okay, Tessa," he soothed, using his pet name for me. "She's an Autobot. It's okay."
"A…what?" I was hyperventilating.
River Christiansen flickered into existence in front of me, and I felt the earth start to tilt under my feet. At least the apparition had the good grace to look embarrassed.
"Breathe, Theresa," the ghost-girl said ruefully. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Bobby helped me sit down in one of the camp chairs on the porch. "Way to let the cat out of the bag, R.C. You couldn't have waited another month?"
"It was an accident, okay? Two adults – a male and a female – and one little girl. How was I to know it wasn't Sarah and Will home with Annabelle? Why would I bother to check?"
"Because it's Friday night?" Bobby shot back, but he was trying to make me focus on his eyes and was rubbing my hands. Trying to pull me away from going into shock, I idly realized. "Come on, Tessa, stay with me. Sarah didn't faint, and you're as tough as she is, aren't you? The guys will never let me live it down if you faint."
"Spitfire told me they couldn't go tonight because I couldn't switch shifts," R.C. defensively rambled on. "Besides, it was only a matter of time."
"Shut up," Bobby snapped at her. "Theresa, listen to me. It's okay. R.C. is on our side. She's saved my life a dozen times. She's not going to hurt you."
"Let me breathe," I finally mumbled, dropping my head to my knees and feeling an icy prickle down the back of my neck as I exposed it to the monster in the yard. But if Bobby could tell it to shut up and it obeyed, I would probably survive long enough to catch my breath.
After a minute, R.C. said, "The good news is she has a strong, healthy heart."
"Wait 'til she catches her breath," Bobby muttered, grinning at me when I lifted my head enough to look at him. To R.C., he said, "You think Sarah on a rampage is scary? You ain't seen nothing yet."
There was love in his smile, and I returned it before dropping my head again, still trying to get a grip.
The ghost girl stepped onto the porch. I could hear her riding boots tap softly against the wooden decking as she strode to Bobby's side. Just on the edge of my reach, she knelt down so we were eye-to-eye. "I'm really sorry, Theresa. Truly I am. I didn't mean to frighten you. Come on inside and I'll do my best to answer your questions."
Clapping a friendly hand on Bobby's shoulder, R.C. rose to her feet and let herself into the house.
Doubled over, I listened to her pottering around in the house, throwing something in the garbage, turning on the kitchen sink, putting a couple of dishes in the dishwasher. My breathing gradually slowed.
"Better?" Bobby asked.
I glanced at the back door and then at him again. "Is she for real?"
He chuckled in relief. "As hard as it seems to believe, yes. R.C. is a member of the same species you clean up after, but she fights to protect us."
"But she's in there alone with Annabelle."
"So? She's perfectly safe. Watch this." He walked over to the motorcycle and kicked the front tire so hard it almost fell over.
"Hey!" R.C. pushed the back door open wide enough to poke her head out. "Was that really necessary?" Looking at me, she said, "Would you please come inside so your husband stops trashing my alt-form?"
R.C. snorted. "I wouldn't go that far, Mr. She-saved-my-life-a-dozen-times. But to you," she told me with a wink, "I'm as safe as kittens."
"Kittens are vicious," I said back, a slight smile fighting its way forward. "Sharpest claws ever. And teeth. And they don't know to not bite the hand that feeds them."
"Then I'm safe as sleeping kittens, okay?"
Bobby took another swing at the bike tire, and R.C. narrowed her eyes at him. "If you so much as smudge that paint job, I'm going to Ratchet."
Bobby looked nervous, apparently thinking better of assaulting the motorcycle.
"Ratchet?" I asked as he returned to the porch. "As in Hatchett Ratchet?"
"One and the same," R.C. assured me, pushing the door open a little wider in invitation. Bobby grabbed the door, holding it for me, and R.C. went back into the kitchen. Still a bit dazed, I followed her and my husband inside.
"Sarah likes mint tea when something's upsetting her. Do you have a preference?" R.C. amiably asked as she stood before the open cupboard. "She's got Earl Grey and a few others for Graham, of course, but I doubt caffeine would be in your best interest at the moment. For herbal teas, it looks like we've got lemon, mint, orange blossom, and ginger. And hot cocoa, of course. Though why anyone would stock hot cocoa while living in the Indian Ocean is beyond me. You can make iced tea with the others, but hot cocoa mix makes lousy chocolate milk."
"Lemon tea," I managed to answer, latching on to the first thing she'd said.
She nodded and confidently assembled the makings of an evening tea – cups and saucers, spoons, tea bags, sugar, and finally the steaming kettle. She even made a cup for herself. "Oh! I almost forgot. Spitlet and I made cookies yesterday. I bet there are some left." R.C. stood and began searching through the cupboards again.
"Annabelle's Autobot nickname," Bobby clarified.
"Does she know about the…the…robots?"
"Autobots," R.C. corrected, "and no, she doesn't. We'd definitely get you security clearance before we gave it to a six-year-old. There they are!" She retrieved a Tupperware full of sugar cookies and set them on the table in front of us. "Now…down to business. What do you want to know?"
"How many of you are there? And who…?"
R.C. took a sip of her tea. Why would a robot ghost do that? HOW would she do that?
"There are many of us, though there are less than a dozen Autobots on Earth right now. More trickle in from time to time. As for who, there's me, Optimus Prime, Prowl, Ironhide –"
"Aaron?" I interrupted her. "Aaron Hyde?"
"Yep. Aaron Hyde is really Ironhide. Hatchett is Ratchet, though in reality, Hatchet is the nickname, not the other way around. Prowl and Prime just use the same name regardless. Joel Tapp is Jolt. Skids and Mudflap just use their Autobot designations, Sunstreaker and Sideswipe go by Sunny and Sides unless – "
"The Haught twins?" I blurted out. "That explains a lot."
R.C. sniggered. "Yeah. Prowl just about had a fit when he saw them pull that stunt with the business cards."
I grinned, remembering. It was at my first Lennox Football game, and when Sunny and Sides introduced themselves, I'd asked what their names really were. They'd each produced a business card for me.
I'd read Sides' out loud. "Hugh R. Haught?"
He'd smirked. "Thanks. Good of you to notice, but you're not my type."
Sunny's card had read "Boyer Haught."
At the time, I'd figured they were black ops or something and that's why they were using obviously false names. Little did I imagine!
"Those two are loose cannons," R.C. continued, bringing me back to the present. "Actually, all the twins are. If you notice, the only time they're allowed off the base is when you've got at least two senior officers around to bang heads together. Literally, as needed."
"And what's your Autobot name?" I asked.
"R.C., though it's spelled A-R-C-E-E."
"And you're the only girl."
"For now, and technically, I'm a femme," she corrected with a shrug. "I have a sister who I expect to show up sooner or later."
"Wow." I took a cookie, not because I was hungry, but because I needed a minute to think.
"Hi, Annabelle," Arcee abruptly said, looking off toward the stairs. "Shouldn't you be in bed?"
The girl was standing at the foot of the stairs, rubbing her eyes and blinking at the bright kitchen light. She managed a groggy smile as she focused on our little party at the table. "R.C.! You're here!"
"I came to say hi to your mommy, but she's not here yet, so I stayed to talk with Mr. and Mrs. Epps."
The girl sleepily drifted to Arcee, and the femme put an arm around her when Annabelle rested her head on Arcee's shoulder. "I'm thirsty."
"Okay, Spitlet." Arcee stood and got a glass of water for Annabelle. "There you go. Do you want me to tuck you in again?"
She nodded, and Arcee scooped the girl up into her arms. "Be right back," she said to us.
I watched as the ghost carried Annabelle upstairs. "Is it okay for her to be alone with – "
"Trust me," Bobby interrupted. "Annabelle's never safer than when she's with an Autobot. They adore her. And they would happily kill to protect her."
I shuddered; it was the wrong thing for him to say. Fortunately the medics came through before we did, but I'd seen puddles of blood from the dead and wounded mixed with the wreckage and destruction that was the aftermath of battle. I knew exactly how happily these things killed.
"To protect her," Bobby repeated. "The Autobots aren't like the monsters you're used to cleaning up after. They're…well, they're almost bizarrely gentle. I mean, sure, they're walking weapons, but half of them were scientists before the war that destroyed their world, including Arcee. They can pick you up and do a somersault and set you back on your feet in the middle of a battle without even bruising you."
I shuddered again. "Please tell me you're talking hypothetically."
I felt dizzy again. Pushing my cup of tea out of the way, I crossed my arms on the table and rested my head against them, my mind filling with images I did not want to contemplate. Wait a second… "You said they pick you up and somersault. How big do these monsters get?"
"You remember Prime's semi?"
My eyes widened. Arcee had been taller than me, and she was just a motorcycle.
"Prime is in the neighborhood of thirty feet tall. But it was Ironhide I was thinking of. He's pulled both me and Lennox out of a few scrapes that way."
Arcee's riding boots tapped on the linoleum and I looked up to see her cross to the kitchen counter and open a drawer there. She rummaged around for a moment and then returned with a paper lunch-bag. Unceremoniously sliding it across the table to me, she took her seat. In case I started to hyperventilate again.
As if she'd been a part of the conversation all along, she said, "Optimus is the biggest of us, at least here on Earth. He's our leader and our best fighter." Then she took another sip of her tea.
"How do you do that?" I blurted out.
"Pick stuff up? I mean…you're not real. I saw you just…turn on like a TV set."
She leaned back in her chair. "We have four forms – a base robotic mode, a vehicle mode or alt-form, a cometary or transitional form, and a holographic driver or holoform. What you see in front of you is my holoform. And how it works is…complicated."
"Know much about Einstein? He almost understood the physics behind my holoform. Missed a few of the major points, though."
I frowned, not liking her superior tone.
Arcee sighed. "Okay, let's try this analogy. It's flawed, but you might understand it. You know how matter has four states? Solid, liquid, gas, and plasma?"
"Light is a specialized type of matter, and almost always, it's in a plasma state. My holoform is light in its solid state."
"I think I followed that."
Arcee winked. "Only because I'm a brilliant teacher. Any more questions?"
"Only a thousand or two."
Bobby's cell phone vibrated over on the counter, and he stepped over to read the text. Sighing heavily, he returned to the table.
"What's wrong?" I asked him.
He frowned at Arcee, and she averted her eyes. "You gonna tell her?"
"You're going to make me," she answered, glancing back up at me. "Prowl and Jolt are on their way. I'm busted. None of us are supposed to use anything but our alt-form and holoform off the base, but we've all gotten a little lax about that rule here at Will's and Spitfire's house. Prowl's coming to haul me off to the brig, so if you don't see me for a couple of days, that's why. Don't think I'm avoiding you or something."
"The brig? Are you going to be okay?"
"I'll be bored out of my mind. And I'll probably need to beat a few helms in afterward because I know Skids and Mudflap will come hassle me about it. But physically, yeah, I'll be fine. It's Ironhide I'll have to worry about. He's the Lennox's guardian."
Knowing how close Arcee and Sarah were, I asked, "Why aren't you?" Her eyes lit up as though I'd paid her the biggest compliment in the world.
"Because Hyde and Will work together more," Bobby answered.
"That and the male chauvinist pigs in the human command chain think it's more of a mech's role," Arcee said, humor in her eyes. "I submitted footage of a maternal grizzly protecting her cubs, but the brass apparently didn't find it to be persuasive."
Bobby rolled his eyes. "Liar."
"Joker," she solemnly corrected him over her teacup.
The sound of engines pulling into the drive dampened my mood. The posse was here. When someone knocked on the front door, Bobby went to answer it.
"We're the same people you've hung out with for the last year and a half," Arcee said softly. "Now you just know us a little better."
Nodding in answer and lifting my chin a little, I slid the paper bag back over to her.
"There's a femme," she said with approval and returned the bag to the drawer. She was leaning against the counter when Prowl's and Jolt's holoforms walked into the room.
Looking at Arcee, Prowl coolly ordered, "Come with me."
Obediently, she stepped to his side and stood at attention.
Turning his steel-blue eyes on me, Prowl said, "On behalf of NEST and the Autobots specifically, I apologize for what has happened this evening."
"It was an accident," I interrupted him.
"It was carelessness," he corrected. "And it will be dealt with accordingly, I assure you. We will not impose upon you in such a manner again."
"I…" I couldn't say I didn't mind, because I had freaked out, and while the major freaking out was over, I was sure that there would be little things that would freak me out over the next days and weeks and months. "What's done is done," I finally said. "Don't go too hard on her."
"The rules are clear, as are the punishments," Prowl answered. "We will leave you to your evening in peace. Do you have any questions I can answer for you before we go?"
Looking at the three of them, it was still hard to wrap my mind around them being anything but what they appeared to be. "Can I see you in your…real form?" Otherwise, it would be too easy to pretend it was all a dream.
Humor flashed in Arcee's eyes before she quickly repressed it. Jolt looked pleased.
Prowl blinked in surprise, and his eyes grew distant for a moment before focusing on me again. "Normally, the answer would be no, but Prime has ordered a special dispensation for you because of the circumstances and isolated location. Jolt, Arcee." And all three of them flickered out of existence.
I drew a sharp breath, surprised but not shocked this time. Well, I'd asked for it. The cars out front revved to life and drove around to the back yard to join Arcee. Holding Bobby's hand tightly, we went out to the porch.
Arcee transformed first, nodding her head in greeting to me. Jolt was next. He was half-again as tall as Arcee and much stockier. Kneeling on all fours in front of us so we were almost eye-level, he said, "Thank you for your courage."
What was I supposed to say to that? I finally settled on, "You're welcome."
"As if Epps would bond with a coward," Arcee scoffed.
Bowing his head in acknowledgement of my words, Jolt rose to his feet again and stood beside Arcee.
Prowl transformed. He was taller by far and more outlandish-looking with his doors rising at an angle from his body. "Satisfied?" he rumbled.
He was an imposing sight, and I swallowed. "Yeah."
"Then we will see you on base." He collapsed back into his vehicle mode, with Arcee and Jolt following suit. All three of them drove off, Arcee's holoform flickering to life as they went.
Bobby took my hand. "You okay?"
"Yeah," I weakly answered. "But you and Sarah and Will have some explaining to do!"