The door burst open and two medics charged through, followed by a gurney propelled by three more medics and two camo-clad airmen. One of the men paused to hold the door open for Arcee, in her vehicle mode, engine turned off to avoid startling everyone around her, pushed by a third airman.
On the gurney, a black-haired head lolled, jostled by the movements of the frantic medics.
"Obviously, we can't enter the operating room." The woman pushing Arcee slowed as the medics rushed their patient down the long hallway. "I'll take you to a waiting room."
"Thank you, Airman." Arcee kept her voice low, but that was the only control she exerted over it. Had she been physically capable of crying, she would've let the tears flow and not given a damn who witnessed it.
"Any time. And please, call me Carla."
"Okay, Carla. Would you be able to take me to a secure comm system so I can contact my base? My internal comlink was damaged in the fight, and my autorepair system is busy with higher-priority functions."
"Sure." Carla passed a door, made a right turn at the next, and guided Arcee down another long corridor. Some of the base's medical staff hurried back and forth, only a few of them giving her more than a cursory glance. The personnel here had already been briefed on the existence of Earth's newest residents and their battle to protect their new home.
Minutes later, Carla opened one last door and pushed Arcee inside. The ceiling was high enough for her to shift back into her primary mode, which she did slowly, trying to keep the noise of the transformation to a minimum. She bumped her head on the ceiling and crouched before taking a quick look around. Several couches and chairs lined three of the walls, with a table in the center, and a large TV hung on the fourth wall.
Carla pointed at the TV. "That screen is connected to a computer with video phone capability. Just make sure it's set on HDMI-4."
"Thanks." Arcee sat in front of the TV, looking at the CPU tower on the shelf beneath it and the keyboard on the wheeled cart to the left.
"You're welcome." Carla walked over to her and reached up to touch her shoulder. "We'll let you know as soon as we hear anything about your friend's condition."
Arcee tried to smile. "Thanks."
Carla nodded, smiled, and walked out the door. Arcee waited for her footsteps to fade away and contacted the Autobot base.
Optimus Prime appeared in a new window on the screen. "Arcee, how are you holding up?"
"I'm ... in one piece."
Prime's next words came in a much softer tone. "How is Jack? Are his legs ... as bad as they looked?"
"I don't know for certain, yet. He'll probably be in surgery for a while. You saw his legs, though. It's bad."
Prime closed his eyes and lowered his head for a moment. "How did this happen?"
"It was an ambush. I picked Jack up at the hellhole he's stuck working in, and was bringing him home. Barely drove a mile before the Decepticons dropped on us. A dozen Vehicons came out of nowhere and surrounded us." Arcee shook her head. She didn't want to remember those terrible moments at the end of the battle. She wanted to delete it from her memory.
But if she did that, she'd lose more than a traumatic memory. She would lose the rage it inspired in her, and the need to make the 'Cons pay for what they had done.
So, she forced herself to describe what had happened. But she also remembered the more pleasant moments before the ambush.
She felt it was the only way to avoid losing her fucking mind.
Earlier that afternoon...
"Not that son of a bitch again," Arcee grumbled as a familiar car rumbled up to the window. She'd sat here in the parking lot all day, waiting for Jack's shift at the burger joint to end. Passing the time by listening in on conversations whenever Jack was taking orders at the drive-up window, and letting a podcast run in the background the rest of the time. She'd picked up several from a set of speakers inside the burger joint, and had found them entertaining enough to stream every day while Jack worked.
And now that the end was in sight-only five minutes left until Jack could clock out-that bully Vince had driven up in the muscle car his daddy had no doubt bought for him. A blond girl rode in the passenger seat, blowing a bubble, popping it, and continuing to chew while watching Jack, looking at him but not really seeing him.
In the back seat was another girl, clinging to one of Vince's jock buddies. Arcee didn't know the girl's name, but had seen her numerous times. The guy was different from the one she'd clung to in recent weeks, the fifth in a series of guys Arcee had spotted her with since the day she'd met Jack. She'd never seen this guy before, but with a mental shrug, Arcee noted him down as the girl's latest Penis of the Month.
And now that she thought about it, the girl in the front seat was the third one Vince had picked up in the last couple of weeks.
Oy. A sudden realization made Arcee want to shudder. I'm following these kids' social lives like a soap opera. Jack and I both need a vacation.
"Hurry it up," Vince snapped before turning to share a knowing smirk with the rest of the car's occupants.
"Yeah, here it is," Jack said, his voice grating with the effort it took to remain civil. He held four bags out to Vince, and the bully snapped them out of his hands and sneered.
"They better not be cold this time. If they're cold, I'm having a talk with your manager."
The couple in the back seat snickered.
Arcee had to suppress a snarl. You little bastard. Keep it up and you'll find yourself wearing your rectum like a necklace.
"They just came out of the oven," Jack said, fixing a scowl on Vince as he held out a handful of change. "They're not cold."
"You better watch that attitude of yours." Vince jabbed a finger at Jack. "That's not good customer service. Keep up the rudeness and I might have to complain to your boss."
Refusing to stand there and take your abuse amounts to "bad customer service." Right. For a moment, Arcee considered starting her engine, firing up her Sadie hologram, and doing something to scare the crap out of that punk. Maybe a full-speed charge straight at the car and a last-instant jump over it.
"Have a nice day," Jack said through clenched teeth, took off his headset and walked away from the window.
Vince and his friends laughed uproariously.
By the most beautiful coincidence ever, the Legion of News podcast's host grumbled, "Aaaaaugh, god damn, people are stupid!" Arcee burst out laughing.
Still chortling, Vince popped the clutch and screeched away from the window and down the street, shoving his left arm out his window and extending his middle finger at the space Jack had just vacated. Another burst of anger surged through Arcee, but she reigned herself in. Barely.
Jack appeared from around the corner a moment later, slipping on his black jacket and running a hand through his hair. He glanced in the direction the bully had gone, scowled, and shook his head as he reached Arcee.
"Yeah, I know," she said as he picked up his helmet. "I heard the whole thing."
"It's really getting old. The only reason I haven't punched him in the face is because he'll probably beat the crap out of me. And even if he doesn't, I'd lose my job. Maybe get a visit from the police. Or he'd just get a bunch of his buddies and corner me somewhere at school." He put the helmet on and climbed onto her. "But you know, the more he does stuff like this, the more I want to feed him his own teeth anyway, even if it means getting stomped later. There'll come a time when I won't be able to stop myself."
"I really wish you didn't have to put up with that crap."
"Me, too. That's the worst thing about jobs like this. The customers can verbally abuse you as much as they want, but if you dare to stand up for yourself, the boss chews you out or even fires you." He let out a long sigh. "Sometimes, I wish I had a TARDIS and a box of wire coat hangers."
Arcee snickered. "Wow. You're developing quite a way with words."
"Well, the customers inspire me." Jack grinned. "Also, I think Rick Emerson is kinda rubbing off on me."
"Glad I overheard someone in there playing one of his shows. It definitely makes the hours I spend sitting here pass a lot faster."
"Sure does. It's a shame he decided to retire a few years ago."
"Yeah. At least we can still catch up on what we missed. It does seem like a good way to get your mind off the crap you have to endure at work." She played back the bit that had cracked her up a few minutes ago, and Jack snickered.
"That's one of my favorites. I need to excerpt that line and use it as a ringtone."
She chuckled and eased out of the parking lot. "So, where to? Home, grocery store...?"
"Actually, if you wouldn't mind heading out of town for a few minutes, I'd like to find someplace quiet to just sit and have a moment of Zen. Maybe watch the sunset, while we're there."
"Sounds good." She plotted a course that would take them to the desert terrain outside of Jasper. "No crises, no being shot at, no sitting here, overhearing people yell at you and insult you, and not be able to do anything to stop it."
"Yeah. It's good to just get away from it all every once in a while. Even if it's only for a few minutes." He hesitated before adding, in a softer tone, "Especially if it's a few quiet minutes with you."
Had she not been in her alt-mode, she would've raised a brow plate. There was something about the way he'd said that, and the image it brought to her mind-and the warm feeling that rose up in her ... she couldn't identify the sensation, having never experienced it before.
Well, not before she met Jack. Odd, that.
But she liked it.
"Yeah," she answered, matching his tone, "I'd definitely enjoy that."
They cruised slowly through town, staying at the speed limit, taking their time. Not having to get somewhere at a dead run was a relief in itself.
A relief that, naturally, didn't last long. Arcee's proximity scans suddenly received multiple pings as they reached the edge of town, and she slowed even more.
"Arcee? What's wrong?" Jack frowned and took a slow look around. He knew her well enough by now to pick up changes in her mood even when she was in her alt-mode.
"Proximity alerts-a dozen of 'em."
"That's what my sensors are set for." She sighed. "Good thing we're not heading to your house."
"Yeah-or your base."
Jack turned his head as a pair of Vehicons in their car modes appeared from around a corner, two blocks away. He faced forward and his mouth fell open. "Four more up ahead."
"And four to the rear, plus two more on the right."
Jack glanced right, then into the rearview mirrors. "Oh, hell."
"Okay, here we go. Once we're outside of town, you know the drill." She increased her speed, zipping between two of the sleek black cars ahead-then, when they left Jasper behind, she let it all hang out, surging along the road at maximum speed.
Jack gripped her handlebars and leaned forward, doing what he could to make himself a harder target.
The twelve 'Cons sped after her, but couldn't overtake her-yet. She tried to contact the Autobot base, but the 'Cons were jamming her.
"I can't get through to Ratchet or Optimus. Gotta take these clowns out first." She turned toward the cliffs in the distance. "Okay, Jack, as soon as we reach cover, you hide while I deal with them."
"Arcee, there's too many of 'em! Let's just-"
"I can't call for backup as long as they're jamming me, and I won't risk leading them to your house or our base. Our only chance is for me to disable their jammers and get a message through."
Jack hesitated for several seconds before releasing a frustrated groan. "Okay."
"Good. I'll be a lot more effective if I don't have to worry about you being hurt." She scanned the stretch of desert ahead and detected a small opening at the base of the nearby cliff-large enough for Jack to fit into, but narrow enough and deep enough to prevent the Decepticons from reaching in and grabbing him. "Okay, get ready."
She fishtailed, sending up a cloud of dirt to obscure her next move, which was to charge straight for the opening. Once there, she turned sideways and skidded, throwing up more dust.
Jack dismounted and reached up to take his helmet off.
"Keep that on for a sec." Arcee scanned him and modified her Sadie hologram, projecting an image of Jack on her seat. "Okay, hide-and no matter what, don't let them see you."
He removed his helmet, gave her a worried look, and reached out to place his hand on the side of her gas tank. "Be careful."
"I'll be fine as long as you're safe. Now, hide!" She turned and punched it as he squeezed into the crack in the rocks, heading off at an angle that took her away from both Jack and the oncoming Vehicons. If they bothered to scan her, they'd know that Jack wasn't with her, but she held out the faint hope that they wouldn't be that smart.
And as she'd expected, they continued to gain on her even though she was running at full throttle.
But then, six of them broke off and headed straight for Jack's location.
"Oh, shit." Arcee changed course to pursue the ones who'd veered off.
The rest of the 'Cons stayed behind her and deployed their cannons.
I won't get to him in time. Damn it! She dodged the first salvo from the ones pursuing her and headed for a sloping chunk of rock off to the right. She raised her front wheel a split-second before she hit it, climbed the rock like a ramp, and launched into the air. She shifted into her robot mode and aimed her arm cannons at the Vehicons ahead.
Three of them hit their brakes and transformed, while the other three continued on to Jack's hiding place.
Arcee aimed both blasters at the same point on the nearest one's face and ripped out a continuous stream into his optics and out the back of his head. The others hesitated, turning to stare at him as he collapsed, probably startled at how easily she'd dropped him.
She retracted one cannon and extended a blade as she came down on the second 'Con, cleaving the top of his head. He staggered, but remained upright-until she shoved her other cannon into his neck and blew most of it away. She shoved him aside and he fell, the remains of his neck shearing off on impact with the ground.
The third Vehicon, panicking, fired wildly. She spun and twisted, avoiding the blasts, and returned fire. She scored a few hits that drove him back and knocked him off balance. He recovered, but not before she plowed into him. He swung his right fist at her, but she blocked it and drove her fingertips through his optics. His body convulsed and went limp, sparks flaring inside his head and energon leaking from the hole she'd just punched through his face.
Six rumbling engines came up behind her and stopped. She turned to face them. They shifted into their primary modes and stomped forward.
She reentered her alt-mode and zoomed off to catch up with the other 'Cons before they reached Jack, leaving the other six in the dust. She got to them just as one of them stopped outside Jack's hiding place and extended his arm cannon.
She shifted out of bike mode and drove her feet into the ground, launching herself back into the air. Her forward momentum carried her into the Vehicon's back and the impact threw him face-first into the cliff wall.
The other two tackled her and pushed her away. She hacked at them with her blades and they lurched away and tried to bring their guns to bear. She lunged at the nearer 'Con, grabbed the barrel of his gun and forced it upward, shoved her own cannon under his chin, and sent a blast out the top of his head.
She moved on to the next before his body started to fall.
An impact from behind-one of the other six slamming into her. She rolled across the ground and came to a stop face-down. She pushed herself up onto her hands and knees-and all eight Vehicons piled on top of her, forcing her back down, grinding her face into the dirt.
Jack! If they finished her off, he would die. Come on, don't panic. She pushed against the ground, raising herself an inch or two ... but the combined mass of her enemies held her down.
"Arcee!" Jack's scream was followed by the sound of human footsteps approaching.
She gasped. Jack, what the hell are you doing? She tried to wrench herself free of the Vehicons' grip, but couldn't budge. Too many of them! Jack-
A small thump came from somewhere above, and the weight on her shifted. She turned her head, trying to get a glimpse of what was happening. Finally, she spotted Jack-hanging on to one of the 'Cons' legs and trying to climb it.
"What-Jack, no! Don't!"
The 'Con turned his head, trying to see what had just grabbed onto him. "What the hell's that?"
"Hold still," one of the others said, reaching over as Jack pulled himself up to the 'Con's waist. The other Vehicon swatted him, the impact shooting him through the air. He hit the ground ten yards away, rolled to a stop-and didn't get up.
"Jack!" Arcee froze, staring at his limp body, horrified.
Then horror gave way to rage.
Screaming, she threw herself from side to side, forward and back, wrenching herself out of the Vehicons' grasp. One of them lost his grip on her right arm, giving her just enough freedom of motion to strike. Her blade tore into his neck, not quite cutting all the way through, but destroying enough vital components to make it a fatal blow. A shower of sparks, a spray of energon, and the 'Con flopped over onto his back, now little more than a chunk of scrap metal.
The rest shifted their grips, trying to keep her pinned down, but that only gave her more wiggle room. She pulled her left arm in, yanking one of the 'Cons toward her, jammed her cannon into his chest and burned through his armor until she reached his spark chamber-then she rammed her fist inside and ripped the spark out of his chest.
Hands grasped her arms, pulling her away from him, but far too late. She cocked her right leg back and drove it into a Vehicon's chest, knocking him off his feet. She turned to the one on her left and cocked her fist back. He tried to dodge the blow, but she angled it downward, crashing her fist into the back of his head and slamming him into the ground hard enough to put a crater in the dirt.
She looked around; none of the others were near her. She gasped and turned to find Jack-and the 'Cons were running straight at him.
He pushed himself up onto his left elbow, shook his head, and rubbed a hand over his face. "What the hell-?"
One of the 'Cons reached him, coming up on him from behind, and raised his left foot, preparing to stomp Jack into the ground.
No! Arcee whipped her guns back out and drilled through the Vehicon's head. The body sagged, slumped forward, and fell to its knees.
Then it toppled over-falling straight toward Jack.
Arcee bolted toward him. "Jack! Get out of there! Jack-run!" One of the 'Cons blocked her path and she backhanded him, sending him into a backflip and landing him face-down.
Jack shook his head again and turned to look over his shoulder. He saw the 'Con falling toward him and froze. His eyes opened wider and his jaw dropped.
"Jack, move! Get out of-Jack! Move! Jack!"
The dead Vehicon crashed down on Jack's legs. He bolted upright and let out a long, drawn-out scream.
Arcee lifted the 'Con off him, flung it aside, fell to her knees beside him, caught his hand and held it gently as he flopped onto his back, still screaming. She opened her mouth, but couldn't get her voice to work.
She barely heard the approaching footsteps, some of them moving in front of her, surrounding her.
"I'm so sorry, Jack," she finally whispered.
His screaming stopped, but only because he was barely conscious now.
Distantly, she heard the multiple clicks of the Decepticons deploying their blasters and pointing them at her. She glared up at the five remaining 'Cons. As much as she wanted to tear them apart with her bare hands, Jack didn't have that much time.
"Walk away." Fury turned her voice as cold as the surface of her dead homeworld. "If you want to see tomorrow, walk away now."
One of them took a step back, but regained his composure almost instantly. The rest stood their ground.
If that's the way it has to be ... let's get this over with. Arcee stood slowly.
Three of them directly in front of her adjusted their aim as she moved.
She charged just as they opened fire. She dropped under the beams and slid across the ground, plowing into their legs and knocking them over like bowling pins. She planted her feet under her and was back upright in a split-second, unloading a relentless barrage into their backs until they collapsed, molten metal dripping from the glowing edges of their wounds.
She looked up and found the last two Vehicons. They exchanged a glance and backed up a few more steps.
She launched herself at the nearer one.
"Shit!" he blurted an instant before she slammed into him. She extended her blade and plunged it into his chest with enough force to lift him off the ground. She pulled the blade out-and drove it back in, again and again and again, until the Decepticon fell to his knees, energon vomiting from a dozen gaping holes in his torso.
Arcee toppled the body with a casual shove and advanced on the final Vehicon. He retracted his guns, held his hands up, and backed away from her.
"I don't care." She continued her inexorable march toward him.
"Mercy!" He stumbled and fell, kept one hand up and tried to scoot away from her.
She planted her knee on his chest, pinning him down.
"No second chances." She put her gun under his chin, blew the top of his head off, and returned to Jack without giving the body another glance. She kneeled beside him, touched his hand gently, and tried to contact the Autobot base.
No longer jammed-but her internal comlink had been damaged in the fight and couldn't get a signal out.
"Jack? Can you hear me?"
He moaned, but didn't open his eyes.
She trailed a fingertip across his cheek, barely brushing his skin. "Jack? Oh, please don't-" Her voice broke and she tried to regain control of herself.
He opened his eyes slowly, twisting his face up, clearly in horrible pain. He smiled up at her, but it was shaky and lasted only a second or two. He looked around, taking in the scrapped Decepticons all around them, and moved his mouth for several seconds before he could speak.
"Yeah. All of them."
He smiled again. "That's ... that's my girl." He started to fade out again.
"Jack, stay with me! Please tell me you've got your phone on you! My comlink's been disabled."
Groaning, trembling, he reached under his jacket and pulled his phone out. It slipped from his hand and bounced on the ground.
Arcee picked it up, eased it open, and gingerly dialed Raf's phone. Come on, come on, pick it up.
"Hey, Jack," Raf said after the second ring. "What's up?"
"Raf, it's Arcee. We were ambushed, my comm doesn't work. Tell Optimus that Jack's badly injured. Have him contact Fowler; we need Jack airlifted out of here immediately."
"One sec." Raf's voice became fainter as he turned away from the phone. "Optimus! Jack's hurt-he needs an air ambulance." He returned to his phone. "Ratchet's contacting Fowler now. Wouldn't it be faster to bridge him back here, then straight to a hospital where people already know about you? Like, the new Groom Lake base?"
"I don't think moving him is a good idea. I'd rather leave it to people who know what they're doing." She looked around at the Vehicons. "We'll also need a cleanup before any humans arrive; there's a dozen dead 'Cons here."
"I'll let Optimus know. Hang in there, Arcee."
"Thanks. See you soon." She closed the phone and slipped it back into Jack's pocket. Then she held his hand and waited for her friends. "Hang on, Jack. Help's on the way."
"And that's about it. You arrived a few minutes later, and then the air ambulance from Groom Lake, and I rode it back here with Jack." Arcee shook her head and wished there was something nearby for her to punch. "I still can't believe he tried to attack one of the 'Cons. When they let me see him, I want to ask him what the hell he was thinking."
"His concern for you overrode his common sense." Prime's expression softened. "No one is immune to that, and we all make mistakes. Do not be too hard on Jack-or yourself."
"If he doesn't sur-" She cut herself off and covered her face with her hands. "Tailgate, Cliff, and now Jack ... I'll never forgive myself."
"He is strong. Do not lose hope."
"Right." She took another moment to pull herself together again. "Anyway, it'll probably be a while before he can have visitors. I'll give you an update as soon as I know anything."
"Very well. In the meantime, is there anything we can do?"
Arcee mulled it over for a long moment before answering. "Would you speak to Fowler? I want to tell Jack's mother what happened. He could be stuck here for months, and if he loses both legs-" She shook her head quickly. "She deserves to know-not to spend months wondering why her son disappeared, thinking he might be dead, or living with some bullshit cover story cooked up by the government." Arcee stared at Prime's image. "She needs to know everything, and I want to be the one who tells her."
"June Darby is on her way, Arcee," Prime told her over her newly-repaired comlink two days later.
"Thank you, Optimus," she said softly. "I imagine it was a hard sell?"
"Agent Fowler was surprisingly reasonable. I believe that he was aware of how he would feel if something similar had happened to a member of his family. He would not want to experience what Ms. Darby has been going through for the past forty-eight hours."
"Good. Any guesses as to why so many 'Cons attacked us? Are they up to something?"
"We have detected no further Decepticon activity in the area, but we cannot rule anything out at this point. We will inform you if our investigation turns anything up."
"Good. If Jack was hurt because of some insane plan of theirs, I'll slaughter them!"
"I know. I just ... you know me. I'm just blowing off some steam."
"Yeah. Well, thank you again for doing this."
"Jack is family. It was the least I could do. Please, keep us informed."
"I will. Talk to you later." Arcee signed off and waited silently, sitting in her vehicle mode in one corner of Jack's room, watching him while her autorepair system finished its work. Trying not to look at the empty space where his legs should've been. Trying not to let her rage at what the 'Cons did to him overwhelm her. Wishing she could do more than just sit here silently.
At least he'll live. Arcee hadn't dared contemplate what she might've done if he hadn't made it. Losing her home and so many friends over the centuries, losing Cliffjumper so recently and then seeing what had been done to his body ... meeting Jack and thinking he was a pain in the tailpipe, then growing more attached to him despite her efforts to resist it ...
He was willing to die for me. Damn. And if he had, Arcee wondered if she would've been able to go on. This could have been the one that caused her to snap.
The human phrase, Blaze of glory, came to mind. Not that there would've been any glory in it. Only the destruction-with extreme prejudice-of every Decepticon who crossed her path, with whatever weapons she could get hold of-her bare hands, if necessary ... until one of them finally managed to extinguish her spark.
I never realized how strongly I feel until now. Not that she was sure exactly what she felt at the moment. More than friendship, more than a familial connection. She couldn't pin down the proper term for it, though, having never experienced anything quite like this before. Baffling.
But at least it was something to occupy her thoughts while she waited. Better than dwelling on Jack's injuries or what he would face in the immediate future.
Footsteps in the hallway. Arcee checked her internal chronometer and almost gasped. How had so many hours passed so quickly?
The door to Jack's room eased open. June Darby poked her head in and gasped when she found his bed. She rushed over to him and burst into tears.
Another human stepped inside and closed the door. He wore the uniform of an Air Force general; probably the one in charge of this facility, Arcee guessed. He wore his shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper hair in a ponytail-more than a little unconventional, judging from her admittedly limited experience with human military. Maybe he had taken advantage of his rank to let a few of his personal quirks rise to the surface.
"Last I heard from the doctor," he said, keeping his voice barely above a whisper, "your son is still heavily sedated. I'm so sorry they weren't able to save his legs. The damage was too ... well, I'm sure the doctors have already spoken with you."
Ms. Darby nodded, but was crying too hard to speak.
"The good news is, his other injuries are far less serious," the general continued a moment later. "Just a few scrapes and bruises. His life isn't in any danger."
She nodded again, and brushed a lock of Jack's hair away from his face. She gazed down at him for several long moments, leaned over and kissed his forehead, wiped tears from her eyes and made a visible effort at pulling herself together. "S-so, um, is Arcee around? I talked to her on the phone before I was brought here."
"Yes, she is. She wanted to be the one who told you everything, which is why I haven't given you many details." The general turned, looked at Arcee, and smiled slightly. "Now, this is one of the reasons you were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Arcee and her people...aren't exactly public knowledge."
Ms. Darby frowned at him, arched an eyebrow, and sniffled. "What does that mean? Are you going to tell me they're aliens, or something?"
"Well, as a matter of fact ..." He waved a hand at Arcee, which only confused Ms. Darby even more.
"You brought his motorcycle?"
Arcee finally spoke. "Hello, Ms. Darby. I'm sorry we had to meet like this."
She gasped and took a step back. "It talks!"
"The motorcycle is only her alt mode," the general said.
"Try not to freak out at what you see next." Arcee transformed into her primary mode, and was immediately thankful that Jack had been placed in a room big enough for her to fit into as long as she didn't try to stand up straight.
His mother released a hoarse squeak, her eyes nearly popping out of her head. Arcee immediately sat and leaned against the wall, pulling her right leg up slightly and resting her arm on her knee, trying to look as casual and non-threatening as possible.
"Relax, I won't hurt you." She managed a brief chuckle. "I'm sure you can guess why Jack never told you about me."
"What ... what the hell?" She flicked her eyes back and forth from Arcee to the general.
He patted her shoulder and stepped forward, extending his hand. "I'm General Frank Sanchez. It's an honor to meet you face to face, though of course I wish it were under better circumstances."
"Likewise, General." Arcee's huge hand enveloped his in a gentle grip. Huh. A general taking care of this personally, instead of having a subordinate handle it. But then, me being here is hardly an everyday occurrence. Maybe he just wanted to meet the alien robot.
"I'm sure you two have a lot to talk about, so I'll let you get to it. If you need anything, just call the nurses' station." He pointed at the small control panel built into the rail on Jack's bed, smiled, and left her and Arcee alone.
"Thank you, General," Arcee said before the door closed.
"Any time, ma'am."
"So ..." Arcee trailed off, suddenly having absolutely no idea where to start.
"So ... you're a robot."
Arcee grinned. "An alien robot. Pretty cool, huh?" Her smile faded and she scooted slowly over to Jack's bedside. "Even if he had told you about me, you probably wouldn't have believed him."
"Not without seeing you like this. I have heard your name before, though."
"How?" Without realizing what she was about to do, Arcee reached over and stroked Jack's hair.
"Arcee," he mumbled.
His mother stared at her for a moment, then shook herself out of it. "Well, I overheard him on the phone a couple times. I ... I thought he was talking to someone he knew at work or school."
"Never would've guessed, huh?" Arcee slid her left hand slowly, gently, under Jack's, and held it.
"Not in a million years." June gave her another odd look, shook her head abruptly, and ran a hand through her hair. "What the hell happened to him?"
Arcee nodded at the chair beside June. "Might want to sit down for this. It's a long story." She waited for June to shrug and sit down, still holding Jack's other hand.
Then Arcee told her everything-the war on Cybertron, the death of her homeworld, the continuing fight against the Decepticons, landing on Earth and finding the 'Cons here. Losing Cliff-twice. Meeting Jack and becoming his guardian. And finally, the ambush that had landed him in this hospital.
"In so many centuries of fighting, nearly being killed so many times I can't even count them all, there have been only a few times when I was absolutely terrified. The last two happened when Jack's life was in grave danger-the most recent being the ambush I told just you about. The only other time I was that afraid was centuries ago." She shook her head slowly.
Jack's eyes fluttered open, closed, and open again. "Ar-" He looked up at his mother and blinked a few times. "M ... Mom?"
"I'm here." She tried to smile, but it was shaky at best. "How are you feeling?"
"My legs hurt."
Her face twisted with her effort to stop another burst of tears. "You gave me quite a scare."
"I ... did?" He almost drifted away again, but forced his eyes open. "You mean ... all that stuff really happened?"
All she could do was nod.
"The De ... Decepti ..." He stared down at himself, blinked and frowned. "It fell on me. It ... wait-that looks ..." He fumbled with the sheet.
"Jack, don't worry about that right now." June tried to catch his hand, but he pulled it away, struggling to fight off the sedatives, and finally lifted the sheet.
Arcee closed her optics. She couldn't bear to watch this.
Jack's horrified moan snapped her eyes back to him. He was staring at what was left of his legs, eyes wide and mouth open. He drew in a deep breath, preparing to let it out in a scream.
"Jack, please, try to calm down!" June cupped his cheeks in her hands and tried to get him to look at her. "Please-at least you're alive!"
He continued staring, his breaths coming in quick, panicked gasps.
Arcee leaned forward and took his left hand in both of hers. "Jack!"
He snapped his head around to look at her. "Arcee?"
"I'm here, buddy."
He let a long breath rush out, grinned and motioned for her to come closer. She leaned over farther, and he put his arms around her.
Whoa. Slowly, carefully, she slipped her hands behind his back and held him. She found herself smiling and lowering her head, resting her chin on his shoulder, and closing her eyes.
"This feels like a dream," he finally mumbled. "Is this really happening?"
"Yes." She pulled back just enough to look into his eyes. "I'm so sorry. If I'd gotten to you in time-"
"No, you did everything you could." He leaned forward, touching his forehead to hers, and closed his eyes. His lips quivered with the effort of holding himself together. "I ... I guess it was only a matter of time before something like this happened."
"It's not your fault, Arcee."
Yes, it is. I let you down. She kept it to herself. He had enough on his mind already.
June stepped closer and put her hand on Jack's shoulder. He turned and put his arms around her. Arcee watched them hold each other for a long while. June wept and rocked him gently, while he continued to keep his emotions under control-barely.
Finally, he reached over to Arcee and she held his hand again, still unable to think of anything to say to him-anything at all that would make this better. All she could do was hold his gaze and offer what she hoped was a reassuring smile, but couldn't keep it up for more than a few seconds. She leaned closer to cover her inability to hold his gaze, and put an arm around him, barely noticing his mother staring at her.
"So, you had the same idea, eh?"
Arcee looked over her shoulder and found General Sanchez walking toward her. She cocked her head. "Idea?"
Smiling, he leaned against the rail that ran along the edge of the roof, and gazed straight ahead. "I try to catch every sunrise and sunset. I miss a few because of everyday work, and the occasional emergency, but usually I make time for it. Taking in the sunrise helps me face each day, and the sunset gets my mind off any troubles that crop up during the day. Well, most of 'em, anyway."
Arcee nodded and zoomed in on the pink and orange clouds near the horizon. "Jack wanted to take a detour out of town and find someplace quiet and take in the sunset; it was on the day he ended up here, so we never actually got to it." For now, she'd left Jack alone with his mom. They needed the time together ... and there was something about the way June had looked at her that made her uncomfortable. She'd needed to get away for a while.
"Sorry to hear that. Maybe when he's able to get around on his own, he can catch a few." Sanchez smiled. "The sunsets and sunrises out here are unbelievable."
"Yeah, they sure are." She glanced over her shoulder again and smiled. She stood on the pavement in front of the building, and the roof was more or less at her eye level. "When I first came to this planet, I didn't give much thought to what the scenery looked like. Didn't really pay attention. It was so completely unlike anything I ever saw on Cybertron, it just kind of slid past my optics." She waved a hand at the sky and smiled. "But now that I've seen it, I know what I've been missing. No sunset on Cybertron ever looked like this. It's just beautiful."
"When I was growing up, I always took it for granted. Then one day, randomly, I just sort of noticed it, and kicked myself for not taking the time to appreciate it before. Funny, how you can sometimes miss things that have been right in front of you all along."
"Yeah." She continued gazing at the sunset, wishing she could share it with Jack. "Too true."
Sanchez remained silent for a few minutes, gazing out at the sky. Finally, he said, "So, how's our newest patient doing?"
She smiled. "He took it really hard at first, but once he got it out of his system, he's had a pretty positive attitude, all things considered. Almost back to his old self."
"Well, he's handling it a lot better than I would've. Don't tell anyone I said this, but if I'd looked up and seen something the size of a Vehicon toppling over on me, I would've just pissed myself and died." He laughed.
Arcee managed a brief laugh. "I might have to share that with Jack, but I won't tell anyone else."
"Well, if it helps brighten his day a little, then by all means. But if it spreads all over the base, you know who my prime suspects will be." He grinned. "Anyway, here's another bit of good news for him-one of the projects our research teams are working on happens to be highly advanced prosthetic limbs. I'll see about getting Mr. Darby fitted with a pair of kickass legs ASAP."
Arcee grinned. "That'll really make his day."
Sanchez smiled, turned back to the sunset and watched silently. When the sky had faded to black, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. When he opened his eyes, his face was as serene as any she'd ever seen. "Now that's the right way to bring the day to a close. Well, I should be going. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, General." Arcee contemplated the night for a few more minutes. Again, she wished Jack could've seen it with her.
Well, maybe we can catch the next one. Make up for the one we missed.
The next morning, Arcee smiled and waved as she crawled over to the table in the hospital's cafeteria where Jack's mother sat. "Hello, June."
"Oh, hi." June waved back and took a long sip of her coffee. She looked frazzled and seemed to be having trouble keeping her eyes open.
"You okay?" Arcee lowered herself carefully to the floor and rested her arms on the end of the table. The top of her head brushed the ceiling and she hunched over slightly to avoid knocking out any light fixtures.
"Just had trouble sleeping. And by 'trouble,' I mean I was up all night, alternating between crying and nearly freaking the hell out. I finally gave up and went in search of a good caffeine delivery system. Aside from that, I'm still trying to wrap my brain around all this."
"I'm sorry. I spent most of the night kicking myself for letting it happen-going over and over it in my head, trying to figure out what I should've done differently."
"Hey, don't beat yourself up over it. It was pretty clear last night how much it hurts you. Sometimes, things happen that no one can stop." June took another sip and aimed a thoughtful look at Arcee. "Jack's certainly not holding it against you. He said you did your best."
Arcee stared across the large room at the vehicles moving around outside the window. Finally, she said, "Obviously, my best wasn't good enough."
"Well, it was good enough for Jack."
Arcee managed a fleeting smile. "Yeah, but he's kind of biased."
"Speaking of which ... you and Jack ...?"
Arcee waited for her to finish the question. When she didn't, Arcee cocked her head. "Me and Jack ... what?"
"Well, you two got pretty touchy-feely after he woke up. So I can't help wondering if there's something going on between you."
"We're friends." Arcee shrugged.
"Uh-huh. I saw the way he looked at you."
"What way? I didn't notice anything different about-"
"Probably because you were too busy looking at him the same way."
"What way?" What's she getting at? Whatever's on her mind, why doesn't she just say it?
"I didn't just fall off the turnip truck, you know. I was a teenager once. I've seen that look plenty of times on kids who had a crush on someone." June arched an eyebrow. "Can't say I expected to see the same expression on a centuries-old alien robot, though."
Oh. She's suggesting that Jack and I are ... Her mouth parted slightly as it finally hit her. Wait a minute. Is that what I've been feeling? You've got to be kidding me.
"Then there's the way your mood brightened when he hugged you," June went on. "And the way he calmed right down when he saw you, yet I couldn't even get through to him." June gazed at her and tapped her fingers on the side of her coffee cup. "So, I just have to ask-what exactly are your intentions toward my son?"
"Intentions?" Arcee stared back at her, utterly at a loss. "I don't know. I have to admit, I'm a little confused."
"Seems pretty obvious to me. And, frankly, it's kind of disturbing."
"No kidding. I don't even know how to explain it. Sure, Cybertronians form close friendships and strong bonds, but as you've probably noticed, we don't have any ... well, 'plumbing.' It doesn't work that way for us. So this is ... something entirely new."
June continued staring at her for a long moment before finally looking away and finishing her coffee. "Well, at least you can't have sex with him. That's good. He's a little young for that, anyway."
Arcee raised a brow. Think I liked it better when she didn't come right out and say it.
June shrugged. "But then, I suppose you'd think that kind of thing is gross, anyway."
"It never occurred to me at all. But I'm sure we could figure something out. The difference in our sizes could be a problem, but we could work around that, too." Arcee flicked a sidelong glance at her; the look on June's face made her burst out laughing.
June grinned and shook her head. "Now you're just messing with me."
"Maaaaaaybe." Arcee winked at her, then sobered again. She doubted that she'd be able to maintain a good mood until Jack was released, with or without prosthetic legs. "Eh, I don't see how he could be interested in me, anyway. It'd be too weird."
"Actually ..." June sighed and raked her fingers through her hair. "I have to be honest with you; I think he might be. Last night, you were all he wanted to talk about. It was like keeping you secret almost overloaded his brain. He said the moment he realized how he felt about you was after you blew up the space bridge. You were badly damaged, your life signs almost down to zero. Jack said he almost died inside when he thought he was about to lose you."
"He did? He really said that?" Arcee thought back to that day-Bumblebee carrying her through the bridge back into the base. She was offline, her systems trying to reboot and not entirely succeeding. She'd finally started to come back up just in time to hear Jack rushing to her side.
The sensation of his hand on hers. His voice, trembling with raw emotion.
She'd managed to open her eyes and smile at him. Seeing the relief on his face had given her the strength to come back from the brink.
And in the months since then ... the times she had been unable to stop thinking about him. The burst of anger she'd felt when that girl, Sierra, asked him for a spin on his new bike. The anger that surged through her every time a customer at KO Burgers treated him like crap-which was pretty much constantly.
The thrill that ran through her during her recent fight with Knockout, when she heard Jack's distant voice saying, "That's my girl!" And again, right after he was injured ...
And then ... Airachnid. Oh, hell, Airachnid.
Arcee shuddered. That battle was the last thing she wanted to dredge up now, but ...
"The other time I was afraid I'd lose Jack ..." She took a moment to pull herself together, and forced herself to keep talking. "It was supposed to be a routine mission-no risk. Just a milk run, checking out some energon deposits Ratchet detected. We found a Decepticon ship." She realized that her fists were clenched and tried to relax them. "It was someone who captured me during the war on Cybertron. Airachnid. She tortured me. Murdered my partner right in front of me. Would've killed me, too, if Bee and Cliff hadn't gotten to me in time."
June took one look at Arcee's expression and some of the color drained from her face. She covered her mouth with her hand and waited for Arcee to continue.
"I kept telling Jack to stay hidden, but he wouldn't listen. Airachnid got the upper hand, immobilized me-and Jack showed up. Airachnid chased him through the forest, hunting him like an animal, while I tried to free myself. After I got loose, there was a huge explosion in the distance. I headed straight for the fire." She grinned. "You should be proud of Jack. Airachnid's the most vicious enemy I've ever faced; she went freelance, and now she hunts indigenous species for sport-and Jack not only held her off, he blew up her goddamned ship! All he had was his survival kit and a wooden stick he found near the ship, and he went on the offensive; lit the stick on fire and used it to cook off the energon supply. Turned the entire ship into a big hole in the ground."
Arcee paused, smiling. The memory of it calmed her and excited her at the same time. Finally, she said softly, "He was amazing."
A moment later, a realization sank in. Looks like June's right. Oh, shit. If Prime or the others found out about this-well, they wouldn't actually do anything, but it'd probably make things weird back at the base.
June stared at her for a long moment. "I'm guessing that was when you fell for him?"
"Well, even then, I still hadn't figured it out. Not consciously, at least." She shook her head slowly. "I should've, though. Sometimes, I'm as sharp as a bowling ball."
June chuckled, glanced at her empty cup, and pushed her chair back. She hesitated, looked up at Arcee again, her expression unreadable. "So ... when are you planning to head back to your base?"
"Unless Optimus Prime recalls me for a specific op, my standing orders are to protect Jack." And a hell of a job I'm doing of it, so far.
"Ah." June stood. "Well. Think I'll get some more coffee. Though I have a feeling I'll be needing something stronger today."
Arcee peeked into Jack's room. He looked over to her, grinned and waved. "Hey!"
She smiled, squeezed through the door, and sat beside his bed. Then she saw the bloody tissue in his left hand. "Hey, what happened? Are you okay?"
Jack's face turned red. "I was trying to get into the wheelchair a while ago, and my hand slipped and I fell out of bed. The pain meds they have me on must be messing with my eye-hand coordination. I faceplanted. Had a nosebleed for a while." He sighed, checked his nose for fresh blood and found none, and tossed the tissue into the wastebasket beside the bathroom door. "Don't tell anyone, okay? My dignity's taken enough hits already."
"Your secret's safe with me." She smiled and nudged his shoulder. "Next time, though, let someone help you."
"I need to be able to get around on my own. I won't always have someone nearby to help me."
"I'll always be here for you."
He blushed again, but smiled.
An awkward silence settled over them.
She tried to think of something to say. "I, uh ... I talked with your mom this morning."
"Oh?" His face turned even redder. "Oh. She told you what I said?"
Oh, yeah, that'll make this whole thing so much less awkward. Goddamn it. "Yep."
"Shit." Jack grabbed his pillow and covered his face with it.
Chuckling, Arcee tugged the pillow away, bopped his head gently with it, and placed it on his lap. She held his hand between hers. "Hey, don't be embarrassed, smooth operator. Actually, I feel the same way about you."
He stared at her. "You do? Seriously?"
"Yeah. I think I have for a while, now, but it didn't really sink in until this morning."
He let out a long, relieved sigh. "I was so afraid you'd laugh at me or think I'm insane or a perv or something, so I kept it to myself."
"Well, maybe that's why it took me so long to work out what was going on inside my own head. Something like this just hadn't ever occurred to me before." She grinned and nudged his shoulder again. "Might not be a good idea to mention this to anyone else, though. There's a certain someone we know who'd milk it for all it's worth."
Jack rolled his eyes. "Miko."
"Yep. I can so imagine her nicknaming you 'The Robosexual Romeo.'"
"Oh, Jesus Christ!" Jack snickered, but looked horrified at the same time. "That'd make me want to go find a Decepticon and beg him to kill me." He shrugged. "Anyway, I suspect you'd want to maintain a professional demeanor, at least around Optimus and the others. So I'll keep myself under control around them. As much as possible, anyway." He winked.
"I'd appreciate that." She chuckled again. Then she let herself think about how bizarre this was. "Do you think this could even work, though? I have zero experience at this kind of relationship, and this whole thing is a little ... well, weird."
He laughed. "My whole life, I thought we were alone in the universe-at least, there wasn't anyone else within our reach. Then, a few months ago, I was just admiring a really cool motorcycle when a pair of cars with nobody driving them tried to kill us-and after that, the cool motorcycle turned into an alien robot, and I was caught up in a war that started somewhere across the galaxy. I don't even know what 'normal' is, anymore."
She looked away and sighed. "I'm sorry about all that-"
"I'm not. If none of that had happened, I'd never have met you. I know I was kind of reluctant to get involved, but I'm glad I did. Having you in my life is worth it. I just wish I'd had the nerve to say it sooner."
"Well, we can't change the past. All we can do is move forward. And we can start by making sure you never try to get yourself killed again. I mean, climbing up a Decepticon's leg? Really?" She sighed. "But then, you probably won't listen to me, anyway."
"Well, let me put it this way. When you were pinned down by that pile of 'Cons and defenseless, I couldn't just stand there and watch them kill you. After the space bridge, being completely unable to do anything to save you ... it just tore me up inside. That's why I doubled back to Airachnid's ship, hoping to find something in it to use as a weapon; it wasn't enough just to get away from her-I had to keep her away from you. And that's why I tried to take her out." He patted the back of her hand. "And that's why I did what I did a few days ago."
"I'm supposed to protect you." She gazed into his eyes for a long moment and finally shook her head. "You could've died if-"
He reached out to caress her cheek. "You're worth the risk."
She closed her eyes and leaned closer, delighting in the unexpected sensation of his palm on her face. She smiled, reached up and placed her hand gently over his.
"I think I've shown that I can handle myself," he went on, softly. "Sure, Airachnid almost got me at the end, but you were there for me. We can watch each other's backs. It's what partners do, right?"
She nodded slowly. He clearly wasn't going to be talked out of fighting alongside her, so maybe it was time to give in to the inevitable.
He sat upright and put his hand on her shoulder. "Now, I hope you won't think I'm being too forward, and I really hope you won't think this is disgusting or anything, but I'll never have another chance to do this and be able to blame it on the pain meds if it goes horribly wrong." He tugged gently on her shoulder and she leaned forward, wondering what he was up to.
He kissed her. Just a quick one, only slightly more than a peck, but it was enough to catch her completely by surprise.
Uh, what the hell? She stared at him and blinked a few times. Well, that was ... weird. Her mouth wasn't that much bigger than his, not enough to make kissing impossible, but still ... weird.
When he backed away, his face had turned red yet again. He looked at her expression and drew in a quick breath. "Uh, sorry! I didn't mean-look, it's the meds, I swear! We can forget it ever happened if-"
"Take it easy, Romeo. You didn't offend me." She smiled, though a bit perplexedly. "Well, that was most definitely not disgusting. Not quite sure how I feel about it, though." A smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth. "I don't know, I might need to try it a few more times before I have enough data to form an opinion."
Jack laughed softly. "I think I can help you with that." He kissed her again. Like before, the contact was brief, but for an entirely different reason.
A sharp intake of breath came from somewhere off to the left. Both of them turned toward the sound-and there was June, standing in the doorway with her jaw dropped.
Jack blurted something that sounded like, "Huahhh!" and jerked back.
Arcee mirrored his action, but without emitting any odd sounds.
Both of them stared back at his mother for a moment that seemed to last an eternity.
"Well," Arcee finally muttered, "this is awkward."
June arched an eyebrow. "No shit."