Chapter 16: Loss of Gleaming, Gain of
The streets of Iacon were eerily empty the next lunar cycle as Ariel walked past the all but abandoned buildings of the once shining city. Rubble from the last Decepticon barrage was scattered across the street, forcing her to wind her way down the deserted road rather then walk in a straight line. Gaping holes filled the nearby buildings and the wind was whistling mournfully through them, creating a sorrowful music that pulled at Ariel's spark. Here, it was easy to see that the war hadn't just taken lives; it had devastated them, even the ones that still survived. It had stripped them of the gleaming that had once covered almost everything, no matter how distasteful their societal system was.
There was nowhere Ariel saw this clearer than the deserted streets of her home city. As she walked down the empty, narrow road of the lower class residential sector, she felt a deep sorrow take hold in her spark to join the other pangs of loss and anger that already weighed on her.
"We have lost so much," she thought as she slowly walked towards her destination, "so much that we can never regain even if we win in the end."
That thought stayed with her until the end of her journey. The road continued winding along, but Ariel turned to her left, going up to a domicile that she had only been to once before.
Physically, there was nothing to separate it from the others that lined the street. It was a small structure by Cybertronian standards, with only one floor and a bare handful of rooms. But it was not the outward appearance that drew the rose shaded femme to the door.
She softly knocked before patiently waiting for the sole inhabitant to answer. Dimly she heard the muted shuffling of someone inside, but the door did not open and nobody answered her quiet knock.
"Optimus Prime?" Ariel called softly through the door. But then when nothing even moved in the room beyond, she tried in a much softer voice, "Orion Pax?"
She waited another cycle somewhat anxiously before she heard the scrape of a chair against the floor and the slow, heavy steps of someone coming to the door.
The door slid open with a slightly rusty whoosh to show the large red and blue mech standing there. Ariel looked up at him, a part of her hoping that it would be like when they had first met, their optics locking across the slight distance that separated them. Back then she knew she had surprised him from the stunned look on his face. It had taken Jazz speaking up behind him to shake the staring mech out of his daze, but as he had waved her into his residence, inwardly Ariel had been pleased. It wasn't every orbit that someone looked at her as if he thought she was beautiful.
But now there was no locking of optics. In fact, Orion Pax barely looked up as he held the door open for her. She entered without a word, the silence stretching even after Orion Pax closed the door and gestured her towards one of two chairs. Nodding her thanks, Ariel sat, hands folding automatically into her lap.
"I did not expect anyone to look for me here," Orion Pax finally admitted as he sat down across from her.
Unable to think of anything else, Ariel replied, "I knew you would be here."
His optics twitched slightly as if he wanted to look over at her, but resisted for some reason she could not fathom, or maybe, did not want to fathom.
"Am I not worth looking at anymore?" She inwardly asked, wilting at the answer.
But the distant mech was unaware of her inward distress. "Oh?" Orion Pax said, asking without really speaking.
Ariel nodded, not able to bring herself to look at him when he so obviously did not want to see her. "Yes, I have a very strong sense of intuition." She told him, unsure of how else to describe her odd premonitions. She rarely told others of them, afraid they would write her off as malfunctioning, but she did not want to keep such secrets from the mech in front of her. She was almost as afraid of admitting the reason why as she was of his reaction to her words.
But to his credit, Orion Pax did not look at her as if he thought she had more than a few rusted wires in her head, but then, he still refused to look away from the window. Instead, he nodded slowly and did not speak for several cycles.
"Do you find it easy to trust your intuition Ariel?" He eventually asked, voice subdued.
Caught slightly off guard by the question, Ariel hesitated a klik before nodding. "Yes," she told him before thinking more on her answer. "I know that I feel things for a reason, whether it be because of a surrounding situation or something that I know or that happened to me in the past. My emotions guide me even as my rational mind advises me on the most prudent course of action." She told him, her voice level and self assured. There had been a time, when she had been much younger, when she had thought she was mad. But she had grown since then and she knew she was as sane as everyone else functioning. Even if her premonitions did set her apart from most of her peers.
But she did remember what it was like to doubt herself. And she still knew what it was like to be different.
Orion Pax nodded and looked down at the floor, optics thoughtful and reserved.
It took several cycles, but eventually Ariel gathered up the daring to speak. "What is it that you feel Orion Pax? Why are you sitting here alone?" She asked, hiding most of her hesitation.
The mech vented a long sigh, elbows leaning heavily on his knees as he shuttered his blue optics and hung his head.
"I am lost," he finally answered her.
Ariel blinked in surprise at his words. "But…" she stammered, unconsciously reaching out to him, but quickly catching herself, "but why?" She asked as she put her hand back in her lap.
Orion Pax gave a harsh burst of laughter, glaring at the scuffed metal floor. "Because honestly Ariel, I am not a Prime. I'm just a data clerk, a librarian," he nearly spat in derision, "how am I supposed to lead the Autobots to victory when I am nothing but a farce?"
"No Orion Pax, no," Ariel insisted, voice soft but firm, this time not resisting the urge to lay her hand on his arm, "you are exactly where you are supposed to be. You are Optimus Prime, as well as Orion Pax. Each is the same because they are both you. I don't know why you cannot see it as I do, but I know you have it in you to be a great leader."
"And does your intuition tell you that as well?" He asked, scoffing at the idea, although Ariel wasn't sure if it was more at her intuition or the idea of him being a great leader.
Ariel shook her head. "No," she told him, wondering how he could not see himself as he truly was, "it is because I know you."
That gave him pause. For the first time since he had let her in, Orion Pax looked up at her, fully meeting her gaze.
Ariel did not even feel the urge to look away. "You are great, no matter which name you chose to go by, and I would follow you to the very end of the galaxy and back to prove it to you."
It wasn't until Orion Pax had stared at her for several cycles that Ariel began to feel embarrassed by her declaration, no matter how strongly she felt it was true.
"Do you really believe that Ariel?" The mech finally asked, his voice soft in wonderment.
Ariel smiled softly at him and nodded decisively. "Yes," she told him simply. Then she shyly looked down at the table top. "I just wish there was some way I could convince you of the same." She admitted.
If she had looked up at that moment, she would have seen the soft gaze the mech was giving her, as if he thought her more dear to him than anyone else alive. But she did not look up and she missed it, however she did not miss him placing his hand over hers where it still sat on his arm. "If you keep placing such faith in me then I am sure you will convince me some orbit soon." He admitted, gently patting her hand.
She felt the fluid rush to her faceplates as she looked up just enough to see her hand held in Orion Pax's. With wide optics she looked up at him.
Orion Pax stared back at her, his face just as astonished as hers as he realized it too.
They were holding hands.
They suddenly both leaned back, hurriedly taking their hands back out of sheer embarrassment, and although not even the meanest Decepticon interrogator could have gotten them to admit it, neither was exactly upset by the contact.
"So, eh," Orion Pax stuttered quickly, trying to look at anything else but his guest, "have you heard anything about Ariah yet?"
For some reason Ariel wasn't nearly as upset over the mech's refusal to look at her this time than before. It almost made her smile in fact, although she would never admit why. At least, not yet.
"N-no, I'm afraid not." The rose red femme coughed to hide her stutter. "However Chromia did tell me that she, Firestar, and the Praxian Inferno were going to scout out the edge of Primahex the next orbit when the Decepticons are busy with their siege on Praxus again." She told him, her buoyed spark sinking slightly at the thought of what was turning out to be a long, bitter siege of one of the proudest nations on Cybertron.
Orion Pax nodded, but didn't speak, his thoughts wavering between his worry for the little organic femme and hard put Praxus.
"You," Ariel spoke after a few quiet cycles, "you really do care for the little organic don't you?" She asked, an unexpected jealously sneaking up on her.
Orion Pax looked up at her again, surprise written all over his face. "Of course," he answered, clearly shocked at her question, "she is…" he tried to find the right word to describe exactly how he felt about the small, soft bodied, Aria.
Ariel looked away from him, her spark sinking further. "Yes, I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised with all the time you look after her. She is quite the remarkable creature."
Orion Pax's mouth fell open at her unspoken implication, looking more shocked than before if that was possible. "What?" He shouted in stunned surprise. "You think that I-she-we?" He stammered.
Then much to Ariel's astonishment, he started laughing, the first true laughter she had heard from him in orns.
"Primus no!" He finally said when he had enough air to speak through his gales of laughter. "Ariah is, well, she is my, my friend," he said, although he couldn't help but feel it still was not quite the right word. "But she is more then that," he quickly added, knowing he didn't have the words to explain himself correctly and wishing very much that he did, "she is my…responsibility."
Ariel quirked an optic ridge at him. "Your responsibility?" She asked, clearly confused.
Orion Pax looked slightly unsure now. "Well, yes, I found her and she is so young and soft and sometimes it seems that if I look at her wrong she'll break. Honestly I'm not sure how she can be so bold walking around us when just a little slip and someone might accidentally sit on her and then where would she be?" He asked, wondering briefly on if her kind had an afterlife, a matrix of some kind she would one day return to.
Ariel laughed lightly at his protective concern. "You worry too much Orion Pax. Aria is brave, not stupid. She is well aware of the difference between us and her. I dare say she is also very aware of your concern for her." She added, remembering some of the irritated glowers she had seen the organic give the large mech when he had expressed his concern for her safety regarding one action or another. "If I may speak bluntly Orion Pax, you worry more than an over protective guardian sometimes. Aria, while young even for her species, is well on her way to maturity. Just try and keep that in mind the next time she climbs onto Ratchet's table to find out what he's doing." She told him gently.
Orion Pax shuddered slightly at the memory. The chief medical officer had been conducting a minor surgery on one of the newer recruits, a brash young mech called Hot Rod, and she had just climbed up onto the table, never minding the surgeon's saws, and asked him what he was doing. The memory alone still sent Orion Pax to the point of glitching.
"You're right," the large mech admitted with a vented sigh. But then the first hints of a smile returned to his otherwise somber face as he looked over at the pretty femme again, "and please, just call me Optimus."
Ariel smiled at him, a mix of pride and pleasure appearing in her system. "Of course," she told him unable to hide her delight at the offer.
They fell into silence again as they stared at each other, smiling. In fact, they were so busy looking at each other, enjoying the rare moment of happiness, that they didn't notice that someone was at the door until it swung open to show a slightly tense, silver mech standing in the doorway.
"Jazz?" Optimus asked, jumping slightly and not completely out of surprise, "how did you find us here?"
The smaller mech looked slightly overheated as he leaned against the open door frame. "Well, I wasn't looking for her," he said pointing over at the now jumpy Ariel, "but you weren't at the Hall of Records and this is the only other place I could think of." He admitted.
Then he seemed to realize just exactly who he had burst in on.
Optic ridges rising nearly to his crown, Jazz slowly looked back and forth between his two friends, optics clearly insinuating something.
"Oh for Primus' sake it wasn't like that!" Ariel finally shouted, putting her hands flat on the table as she stood up.
Jazz zeroed in on her, optic ridges still high on his head. "Wasn't like what?" He asked innocently enough. "I didn't say anything."
Ariel glowered at the intruding mech, but Optimus sighed before she could dig herself deeper into trouble.
"What did you want Jazz?" Optimus asked in resignation, recovering slightly from his earlier start.
Jazz's optic ridges finally descended a little as he turned back to his old friend. "Well I just thought that you'd like to know that Aria came back riding on top of a youngling, but if you two are in the middle of something I can just come back later and-"
Optimus rose suddenly to his feet. "What?" He all but shouted in total surprise. Then he quickly thought over what Jazz had said and tried to think of a more appropriately response, but could only come up with another even more disbelieving, "What?"
Jazz leveled a stare at him. "You heard me. She's full of surprises that one. If all organics are like this one then I will never visit her planet. Ever."
Optimus tried to process his friend's news, but wasn't getting very far. Fortunately, Ariel had a question of her own. "Where is she?" She asked urgently.
Jazz jerked a thumb over his shoulder towards the center of the city and the hub of Autobot activity. "At the base, but that's not even the best part."
Optimus and Ariel shared a curious look. "Well what is?" Optimus regained enough of his senses to ask.
Jazz started grinning, a decidedly gleeful, mischievous, gesture. "Oh no, I'm not giving away the surprise. You'll just have to come and see for yourselves."
The old building next to the Hall of Records that served as the Autobot headquarters was packed by the time Optimus Prime and Ariel arrived, Jazz in the lead. Fortunately, they didn't have to shove much to get to the front of the crowd. The various mechs and femmes saw their Prime making his way through their ranks and eagerly stepped aside, more than willing to let him and the others through.
With everyone's compliance it wasn't long before the three broke through to the front of the mass of bodies all whispering in wonderment. Aria was standing there, near the door, Wheeljack, Chromia, and the youngling Jazz had mentioned standing by her side. Optimus couldn't help but notice the dazed looks on the two adults' faces, as if they had been shell shocked by the little organic. The youngling for his part just looked uncertainly at the crowd and its mass of attention as he chattered at Aria. Optimus guessed that he didn't know yet that the little femme couldn't understand him.
The room fell strangely silent when Optimus stepped towards his organic friend. She looked up at the sudden lack of noise and smiled when she spotted him, as innocent and alien as ever.
Optimus felt a substantial weight fall from his shoulders and he slumped slightly in relief. Carefully, he walked over to her and knelt so that they were more on eye level with each other.
"Ariah," he said, his relief clear in his voice despite his stiffness with her language, "what happened? How did you-?"
He stopped, frozen in mid sentence as he caught sight of the strange glowing sphere the organic femme held in her hands, tight against her chest.
"No…" he managed to think before his processors stopped altogether.
Aria caught him staring at her precious cargo and lifted it up for him to get a better look at the glowing ball. As if he needed one to know what it was.
"I found it." She told him somewhat proudly. "I'm not sure what it is, but it was sitting at the bottom of this cavern where I found Bluestreak. Isn't it funny lookin'?" She asked, smiling as she peered at the glowing ball in her hands and showed it to him.
Stunned, the new Prime looked over at Wheeljack and Chromia, silently asking if they had any better idea of what was going on.
Chromia managed to shake her head, mouth still gaping slightly, shocked beyond speech, but Wheeljack managed to say, "She doesn't even know what it is."
Optimus gave a small, breathless laugh. That didn't surprise him. Not. At. All.
There was a slight commotion behind him as someone pushed their way to the front to see what was going on. The fuss died out when the mech succeeded and froze when he laid eyes on the sphere in Aria's outstretched hands.
"Is that what I think it is?" Optimus heard Ironhide whisper behind him. Dimly he noticed that even the gruff mech was held in a state of awe.
He whole sparkedly agreed. It just couldn't be true, and yet it was. The proof was right there in front of him, held carefully in Aria's little hands. But no matter how much Optimus doubted his own optics he still couldn't deny that there, sitting in her hands, was, for real and for true, the rarest of all objects on Cybertron.
"It's a spark."