Well, I knew it had been a while since I'd last updated this fic, but I didn't realise until this morning that it had been quite so long...sorry guys! It's by no means the longest chapter I've ever written, or the most action-packed, but it sets things up for the rollercoaster ride that's about to begin.
So, let's get on with it, shall we? Enjoy!
"Where is she, Prime?"
Optimus Prime's cold, blue eyes betrayed no emotion as he shifted his attention from the swirling portal of the ground bridge before him to the diminutive form of Agent Fowler standing on a gantry a few mechanometres to his left.
"You know the guys from the White House aren't going to accept your excuses; they want answers and they want them now."
"I understand that," the ancient mech replied calmly, "and I can assure you that Arcee will comply with her summons."
"She'd better, or it'll be both our butts on the line."
The Prime's attention returned to the ground bridge, the dancing green light illuminating the darkened hangar ominously. He hadn't spoken falsely to the human, however, as he checked his internal chronometre for the umpteenth time that night he couldn't avoid the feeling of worry from sweeping over him.
Arcee wasn't going to come without a fight.
"Ratchet, shut it down," Optimus commanded via his com link, not bothering to announce his intent to human ears.
"Optimus, wouldn't it be better—"
"There is no point delaying the inevitable, Ratchet. Shut it down. I will advise you of our next move in due course."
"As you wish," the Chief Medical Officer replied, the portal disappearing without fanfare.
"Hey, what's deal with shutting the bridge down?" Fowler exclaimed heatedly, gesturing wildly. "You just told me she was coming!"
Optimus suppressed the need to sigh as he turned once again to face his human companion, the weight of his role threatening to crush his patience and composure like the boy who had lost his life just a few days ago. It was one thing to deal with his soldiers – at least he understood their failings and had learned to address them accordingly – but the humans? They were so...unpredictable.
"Agent Fowler," he said with an air of authority, "you have my word that Arcee will appear before your superiors, and will accept any penalty placed upon her."
"You got that ri—"
"However," the Prime continued, ignoring the interruption. "It needs to be established that Arcee is not a criminal. Her actions may have been misguided, but her intentions have always been good. The White House will get its investigation, and it will get its answers, but Arcee is not to be treated like a criminal unless proof of guilt can be found. She has been sorely affected by Jack's passing, and needs time to heal physically and mentally."
"That's all well and good for you to say, Prime, but you're not the one who has to break the bad news to his superiors!" Agent Fowler's brow furrowed, his clenched hands bouncing uneasily on the handrail, manifesting his annoyance. "I get that you want to protect one of your own, but a simple cover-up just ain't gonna cut it this time. Prime, a few damaged buildings or injured soldiers are one thing, but a dead civilian, and a child no less..."
"I understand that, Agent Fowler. But you must understand—"
"Ugh, just hold on a minute, Prime," Fowler interrupted again, this time to answer the mobile phone vibrating near silently in his hand.
Optimus remained silent and unmoving as the human stormed off along the gantry, his usually booming voice hushed in an attempt to vet the conversation. For the first time in eons he felt powerless, lost amongst the political plays of an organic race he didn't fully understand, forced to act on a situation that couldn't be ignored.
Arcee's reaction had been predictable for all involved; no amount of reassurance had fully convinced Agent Fowler or his superiors that she would comply with her summons. Still, he had made a promise on her behalf, and Optimus knew that, given time, Arcee would find her way back to the right path.
Time, however, was something she didn't have on her side anymore.
Optimus clenched his hand briefly, stifling another sigh in the process. It was frustrating being caught in the middle; the humans demanding their answers on one side and Arcee and her demons on the other. He didn't want to have to send someone after her, in her current frame of mind she would only see it as a threat and likely attack anyone that approached her. Yet he knew the patience of Fowler's superiors was waning rapidly, his ability to stall them approaching its limits.
Although he wouldn't admit it to anyone but himself, the Prime was fearful of what lay ahead. Arcee's sanity had always been a fragile thing, pushed to the brink of fracture on more than one occasion. Now, in the aftermath of losing her third partner, Optimus wasn't sure if she was strong enough to face the consequences.
Still, he could not deny that she had been the one to place Jack's life in danger; she had been the one that led the boy to his death...
Like it or not, she had some explaining to do.
Heavy footfalls brought the Prime out of his inner reverie, Agent Fowler approaching with a haste that set his spark flaring.
"Prime, Arcee has just been located at the Darby residence. She is now in direct breach of our instructions; I'm sorry Prime, but I have orders to bring her in."
The Prime felt his shoulders slump as he realised the decision about Arcee had been taken from his hands. But what had he expected, allowing her to disappear as she had and calling off any attempts to follow her?
His optics dimmed slightly as he nodded once in assent. "Understood," he replied, his voice devoid of emotion.
The road stretched out like a black ribbon before her, the slick tarmac both friend and enemy as it pierced the breaking dawn. Pale, pink light touched the jagged mountains rising up on the horizon, the dark shadows amongst them the only source of hope she had left as she pushed herself onwards.
Within those shadows she would find reprieve.
Within those shadows, she would find the one she would kill.
Another red flag popped up in her HUD, warning her of her urgent need to refuel and rest. Yet, like all of those that had come before it, it went ignored.
"I blame you."
The words had been laced to hurt her, Arcee understood that. And they had hit home too, stinging like the burns that still marred her protoform. But, as the cool morning air caressed her altmode softly, she also found that she understood the truth behind those words.
June was grieving, and grief – her own ever-constant companion – always cast the universe in a shrouded light. It was obvious now, as the sun began to breach the horizon; June had spoken without thought.
Of course June wanted revenge – of course; how could it be any other way?
Adjusting her rear view mirrors, Arcee watched as the harshening sunlight glanced off the two dark forms lingering in the distance, spectres of her past in the shape of the enemy. They had been there for hours now, tailing her with uncertain intentions, but there was no denying who they were.
June had set them on her, after all.
They maintained a steady pace, keeping an even distance as they traversed the lonely road behind her with obvious purpose. The sense of betrayal they brought with them cut to the very core of Arcee's being, and for a moment she felt her systems falter, overwhelmed by the weight of it all.
But what had she expected, approaching the grieving woman as she had?
There was no such thing in such a cruel universe as this.
She allowed herself to slow, feeling the road pull at her treads as if to encourage her to stop. The invitation was resisted, but eventually accepted, forcing her to transform and stand in the middle of the road without realisation.
It had only been a matter of time, Arcee realised belatedly; they would have found her regardless of June's help. Her own comrades – her family – had condemned her before June had even stepped into the picture; her appointment with government and military officials a thinly veiled excuse to see her taken away in chains.
She knew they blamed her, as much as June did.
Still, the two black cars continued to gain distance on her, the metaphoric crossroads approaching faster than she would have liked. Arcee knew that, had he been there, Optimus would have wanted her to surrender. But if the war had taught her one thing, it was that surrender wasn't an option for those who wanted to survive.
The command to unsheathe her blades danced lightly through her systems, tormenting her will like the grief that plagued her spark. She had always been a fighter, fighting the enemy with the same hatred that she fought herself, her two foes one in the same.
She was conscious of the fact that it would be easy to destroy her pursuers, their flimsy vehicles and delicate flesh nothing compared with the skills and weaponry she possessed. It was a harrowing thought as the human connection was made between the approaching militia and her lost partner; the fragility of their existence never so clear.
Arcee felt her anger shift, the emotion so strong it set her stumbling backwards like a physical blow. Why had she let Jack win her over; why hadn't she fought harder, as her instincts had told her from the very start? The thought made her empty tanks churn, her weakness for the boy exposing yet another of her failings.
Just like Tailgate; just like Cliffjumper.
Her spark began to pulse harder in her chest as the sun continued to rise, the soft hues of daybreak giving way to a cold, empty blue. The time for action was fast approaching, yet Arcee found herself paralysed with uncertainty and grief, lost like so many times before.
Still, the blades in her arms remained locked away, the desire to fight suddenly shrinking away like a warrior defeated. What was the point, after all; if she chose to attack, or even defend, what would it achieve in the end? The humans would send others; they would always send others.
There was only one option left now to save herself, the same option that had kept her fighting for all those dark millennia following Tailgate's demise. She turned her optics away from her pursuers and transformed again, forcing the pain of the action out of her mind.
The humans would have to wait.
To be continued.
The next couple of months are going to be pretty hectic on my end, which means that a quick update is rather unlikely. Still, I have a good idea of what comes next, and will do my best to make sure you're not kept waiting too long.
As always, I'd like to send a big thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read, favourite, follow and review, it's an honour and a pleasure to share with you all.
And of course, a huge thanks to Taipan Kiryu, for once again helping me with the difficult decisions :)