nebroadwe: Write write write edit edit edit edit edit & post. (Writer)
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Title: The Roughest Day (Part 1/4)
Fandom: Transformers Prime
Character(s): Sierra (this part; eventual Smokescreen, Knock Out, Optimus Prime, Ultra Magnus, Jack Darby)
Pairing(s): None
Rating: PG
Word Count: ~4450
Warnings: Canon-typical violence.
A/N: This story was inspired by two dangling plot participles from season two of Transformers Prime: Sierra's reintroduction in the opener and the evacuation of Jasper in the finale. It was first conceived after the season 3 episode "Project Predacon" but before the full scope of that arc became clear. Though now completely AU, it remains, I hope, a plausible and enjoyable might-have-been. Crossposted to [community profile] transficsation. Concrit welcomed with a ticket to ride.

          She bears down on the strut with all her weight and will, but it's not enough. The boulder under which it's jammed merely teeters back and forth, taunting her with its stability. She lets up, gasping, then throws herself against the lever once more. Her hands smart where the fluorescent blue liquid oozing from its torn end has soaked through the jacket she wrapped around it and her ears ring with the din of battle rising out of the gorge below: reports as loud as cannon fire and the crash of metal into metal like a fifteen — no, five hundred car pile-up on the highway.

          She's running out of time to make this work.

          Panic chews at her nerves. Damn it, she has a fulcrum and a place to stand and it's not the world she needs to move, just this one huge, heavy, dirty, stupid rock! She heaves at it again, teeth gritted together, breath whistling in her nose, and feels the strut bow slightly under the strain.

          The boulder has to move. It has to.

          Because if it doesn't, she's dead.

Come what, come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

— William Shakespeare, Macbeth

          "Road Runner! The coyote's after you! Road Runner! If he catches you, you're through!"

          Sierra dropped into a straddle split and threw her hands above her head, lips curving in a bright smile even as dread crept up her spine. That was so off. To her right Melody was rock-solid in her own final pose, as always, but at her left Emma had finished half a beat behind the music, a guaranteed deduction. And that wasn't the only mistake — the whole routine had been riddled with small errors: balance checks, form breaks ... Coach is going to skin us alive.

          Ms. Johannsen eyeballed the formation for a harrowing sliver of eternity, then blew her whistle. Sierra pulled her legs around to sit Indian-style as everyone else relaxed, stretching or bouncing in place or, in Manuela's case, dropping to the ground from Tyler's hold while he grumbled about her weight. Sierra reached back and poked his shin with a fingernail; Tyler yelped. "Shut it," she muttered out of the side of her mouth. "God, you're such a baby."

          "Listen up, people," Ms. Johannsen said, her voice firmly suppressing any further byplay. "Good enthusiasm, good energy, but your synch needs serious improvement. Most of you are still thinking about what you're doing. I want everyone to have that choreography burned into their nerve endings by next week so you can stop thinking and start moving." She checked her watch. "Okay, that's a wrap. Cool-down stretches; then everybody hit the showers."

          That's it? Sierra almost missed her cue, but Melody offered her a hand up and she took it, hiding her confusion. Thank you, Mel. "All right, everyone," she said. "Roadrunners on three!"

          The cheer squad gathered about her, palm after palm slapping down on her extended fist. She grinned around the circle and if the expression was toothier than usual, they knew the reason why. Or should. "One, two, three — "

          "Roadrunners!" they shouted with impressive volume — more impressive than their dance skills, certainly. Except for me and Mel and Manuela and Ashley. The circle broke up into chattering groups, Sierra settling in beside Melody slightly apart from the others. Her left hamstring twinged a petulant complaint and she grimaced. Took that last split down a bit fast, she thought as she carefully flexed the muscle. Gotta work on my control.

          "Dodged a bullet there, huh?" Melody asked quietly.

          "Nothing like last year," Sierra replied, finally putting her finger on what had bothered her. Last year Coach Jo would have been kicking ass and taking names over the squad's clumsiness, not commending its enthusiasm. You get no points for participation, people — only for excellence! Last year the Memorial High Roadrunners had missed the cut for nationals by a whisker and spent the rest of the winter ruthlessly re-drilling the basics. Up until three months ago Sierra had been coming home from every practice with her body wrung out like a washcloth but her mind brimming with the knowledge that this time, this year, they had a real shot at making it, maybe even placing in the top ten.

          But that was before they'd lost Rita and Carlos and Reyna and Deanna.

          Oh, and Memorial High, as well as the rest of Jasper, Nevada.

          Before a meteor shower turned us all into refugees.

          But it didn't pay to think about things you couldn't help, like space rocks raining down on your hometown and pounding everything into radioactive rubble. You had to focus on what you could do, not what you couldn't, like the Red Cross counselors said. I can't rebuild our house, but I can rebuild the cheer squad. So she would, even if it meant playing drill sergeant while Ms. Johannsen looked the other way.

          "Coach doesn't want to scare off the newbies, I guess," said Melody.

          Sierra shrugged and switched her attention to her quads. Her dad said that there were two kinds of people in every disaster: the ones who ran screaming for the nearest exit and the ones who kept their heads and tried to hold things together. Sierra had to admit that Coach Jo, like most of the teachers at Memorial High, fell into the second group. School had been one of the first things emergency management had gotten up and running after the evacuation: the National Guard had trucked in a set of converted shipping containers to use as classrooms and even laid down Astroturf and Tartan track under a big inflatable dome for phys ed. But not everyone who'd stayed was equally good at keeping their cool. "Some of them could use a good scare," Sierra said. "If Tyler doesn't let up on Manuela ... "

          "He'll get over it," said Melody, adding with a giggle, "He just needs to put some muscle on those chick-chick-chicken wings of his."

          "I am not losing anyone else decent off this team!" That came out harsher than she'd intended and Melody flinched. "Sorry," Sierra said immediately. God knew it was absolutely unfair to take her irritation out on her best friend since fifth grade, the one friend of all her friends who'd never, ever, ever let her down. "I hear Tyler's dad went to the NVMA job fair," she went on, "so maybe the problem will just ... go away."

          Melody nodded and ducked her head between her extended arms as she rounded her back. Sierra bit her lip. I said sorry! Okay, so neither of them was a miner's kid, waiting to see whether Erdcom would get permission to reopen operations now that the dust had settled or whether they'd have to move somewhere else, like Carlos and Reyna's family had. Melody's dad was teaching third grade in one of the more colorful shipping containers and her mom was a software development consultant who worked from home — they were doing fine right here. And her own dad, a lawyer, had almost more business than he could handle helping people get their lives sorted out. We're lucky, so we have to take the lead in keeping things normal for everyone else. She glanced over at the pair of PortaKleen trailers on the far side of the field. "You want the long shower?" she offered.

          Melody straightened. "No, thanks," she said, smiling, and Sierra let out a covert sigh of relief. "I need to talk to Coach Jo for a minute."

          "Sure," answered Sierra. She exchanged high-fives with Melody, then grabbed her gym bag and jogged over to the girls' trailer.

          Rank, Sierra's dad also liked to say, had its responsibilities as well as its privileges. These days Sierra cheerfully shouldered her every responsibility as squad captain in return for the privilege of a decent shower. The PortaKleen's stalls, though small, were queen-sized compared to the toothpaste tube in the trailer her family currently called home. The hot water taps actually ran hot and the boiler was large enough to ensure that no one, not even the poor nerds pushed to the end of the line after gym class, had to freeze. Best of all, she could take her time: nobody hounded a captain out of her stall to make room for the plebes rushing through their ablutions to catch the late bus. Sierra tilted her head back, eyes closed, and let the spray play over her face. Bliss. She shut the water off while she soaped up, but rinsed herself and her long auburn hair extra-thoroughly afterward. Thank you, God.

          Melody was already drying her own blonde bob in front of the mirror when Sierra pushed the curtain of the stall's dressing area aside. They did their make-up together, checking each other's work as always. Sierra dimpled experimentally at her slightly underlit reflection, then added a touch more blush to her cheeks. "Like so?" she asked.

          "Mm-hmm," approved Melody, adding with a wicked smirk, "The face that launched a thousand street races."

          Sierra rolled her eyes. "Make that Memorial High's quest for the state championship."

          "Uh-huh," said Melody, an uncharacteristically cynical lilt to her voice. "That's ... going to take more than a good game face." She avoided Sierra's gaze in the mirror as the other girl tried to catch her eye.

          Sierra sighed. She couldn't really disagree. But you had to believe in the dream first or you'd never get anywhere. And it helped immensely to look the part you were playing. A game face involved more than powder and glitter; it had to project warmth to spectators and confidence to competitors, support for teammates and poise for judges, all while appearing natural, cheerful and, oh yes, cute. Sierra had spent the past six years perfecting hers — not just the full-on competition version, either, but a set of lower power variants for use on teachers, classmates, salesclerks, security guards ... pretty much everyone, actually, except her family and Mel. Unless, that is, she was wheedling permission for a late night out from her parents or making excuses for missing curfew, which was a lot harder than inspiring her squad or impressing a finicky judge or keeping desperate wannabes in their place.

          Melody linked arms with her as they crossed the parking lot to the bus stop, gym bags swinging heavily from their shoulders. The graveled space was largely empty except for the line of late buses and a few cars, most belonging to teachers but several to students. Coach Jo waved at them from her convertible before peeling out in a scatter of pebbles and red dust that earned her the derisive laughter of the too-cool-for-school crowd lounging across the way. Sierra primmed her mouth. "Hardly the behavior we expect of a role model!" she exclaimed in a nasal, grandmotherly voice.

          Melody snorted, then elbowed her in the ribs. "Heads up — incoming."

          A flame-detailed black coupe purred up beside them and Mr. Too-Cool-For-School himself, Vince, leaned out the driver's side window, red hair artfully mussed, teeth gleaming in a broad smile. "Ladies," he said expansively, keeping pace with them as they walked. "Going my way?"

          Obviously, Sierra thought as Melody giggled. What a lame pick-up line. "Sorry," she said without meaning it. "We're catching the bus today."

          Vince cast a contemptuous eye at the buses. "You? The shining stars of the cheer squad? Please." He hit the brakes and Melody stopped, too, leaving Sierra no choice but to listen to the rest of his invitation. "Only losers take the bus. You two are winners."

          Melody preened, flipping her hair back, but looked to Sierra for her cue. Thank God. She pinned Vince with a competition-grade smile and answered, "Oh, thanks, Vince, but I don't think there's room for both of us and all our stuff in the back seat." She patted her gym bag ingenuously.

          Vince's smugness decreased by at least half as he spotted the trap. It was one thing for two girls to sort themselves into front seat and back seat, but another thing entirely for them to make him pick one to take the place beside him. Gotcha! Sierra thought and pulled Melody toward the buses. "C'mon, Mel, we don't want to be late."

          Vince, thankfully, didn't follow, but called after them, "Any time you want to ride like a champ, Sierra, you know who to buzz." He smirked. "You have my number."

          Do I ever, thought Sierra, skin crawling. And your cell, too. She'd scored it back when she'd thought street racing was the coolest thing in the history of ever, before the crowd had gotten too rough and her parents had tightened her curfew — and, sadly, before she'd recognized Vince, the self-styled king of the pavement, for the swaggering ass he was. She offered him a Queen Elizabeth wave and strode off, her exit only slightly hampered by Melody's foot-dragging. "See you later!" her friend shouted over her shoulder.

          "Mel!" Sierra exclaimed once they were safely out of earshot. "Really?"

          "What?" Melody took in Sierra's disgusted expression and huffed. "Oh, come on, Sierra. Vince isn't that bad." She grinned mischievously. "And you always said he had a sweet set of wheels."

          "There's more to life than wheels," Sierra replied loftily. "He's a goon."

          Melody shrugged. "All boys are goons. Oh, excuse me — all except for Jack Da — "

          "Mel," Sierra said again, this time putting a warning into her tone.

          "Oops, my bad," Melody mock-apologized, her own voice gone merrily malicious. "Obviously a sensitive topic."

          Sierra stuck her nose in the air, refusing to be drawn further. So she'd ridden with Jack Darby once and let him copy her chemistry homework a few times. He'd seemed nice. And interested. But he'd never followed up, never come to parties or asked her out, and after seeing his motorcyclist "friend" she could guess why. That had been that, even before the meteor strike. And afterwards he was just gone, like so many others — Sierra had heard that his mom, the nurse, was helping the military with disaster relief or something. Nice work if you can get it, I guess.

          She and Melody mounted the steps into the bus and took a seat two-thirds of the way back, dumping their bags and backpacks onto the bench across the aisle. The diesel ground into motion with a lurch; Melody pushed the window shut to keep the dust out of their faces. "Sierra," she said. "I need to tell you something."


          "I — " Melody's knees bumped Sierra's as she wriggled sideways to face her. "We're leaving. Moving. My mom — one of her clients offered her a job."

          Sierra's breath caught. "Wow, that's — " She couldn't think of an adjective. "Which client?"

          "ThoughtWorks. In Chicago."

          Plenty of people had wasted time panicking when the Humvees rolled through Jasper broadcasting the evacuation order. But Sierra's dad had simply tossed everyone's go-bags into the trunk while her mom tricked the cat into his carrier and Sierra and her brother Danny grabbed the stuffed animals and video games and snacks they absolutely couldn't live without. Their car had practically led the exodus to the tent city the National Guard had conjured out of nowhere behind the mall in Gillette. It had been an adventure, like pioneering but with electricity, right up until the moment they'd learned that Jasper was gone. Gone. Sierra remembered how the word had seemed to echo inside her head. Going, going ... "Chicago?" she heard herself say. "When?"

          "Next month." Melody took her hands, squeezing hard; Sierra managed not to wince. "My dad will stay here to finish out the school year, but my mom's taking the rest of us with her. We're going to live someplace called Tinley Park; she says it's real cute and friendly."

          Sierra freed her right arm from Melody's grip and wrapped it around her friend's waist. "Well, at least that gives us time to plan you a proper good-bye party," she said.

          "Sierra — " Melody's voice wobbled.

          "I mean it!" Sierra insisted. "We had one for Rita and she only moved to Gillette." She hugged Melody gently as the other girl sniffled. "We can't just let you ... disappear off to Chicago."

          Leaning into the hug, Melody blinked back tears. "We'll Skype," she promised. "And you can come and visit. I've seen pictures of our new condo — it's got a pool and everything."

          "Sure," Sierra answered. The word lacked conviction; she sat up straight, pulling Melody with her, and placed both hands on her friend's shoulders. "Just one thing, Melody Harper," she went on, staring her straight in the eye. "If you join another cheer squad, don't think I won't be out to kick your sorry butt at Nationals."

          Melody hiccuped out a chuckle. "Bitch," she said, resting her forehead against Sierra's.

          "That's Captain Bitch," Sierra corrected. "And don't you forget it."

          "Never," Melody whispered.

          They sat close together, saying nothing, until the bus pulled up to a tall, black-bordered white sign marked "A." Sierra hugged Melody once more before disembarking and stood beside the signpost until the bus, and with it her best friend's wildly waving hand, turned a corner out of sight.

          Going, going, gone.

          Sierra settled her backpack on her shoulders, picked up her gym bag, and turned for home. After a week or so in the tents, everyone who couldn't or wouldn't leave had been moved into trailers on government land about twenty minutes' drive west of Gillette. By now small personal touches distinguished most of them: a string of white or colored lights framing the front door, a wind chime made from orange juice can lids hanging from a window, a tiny garden in which four o'clocks and scarlet columbine bloomed. Some doubled as quasi-legal storefronts, like the Ramirezes' agua fresca stand or the Kowalski brothers' home repair service. But more than a few simply sat empty, gathering dust and, lately, graffiti. Someone had spray-painted AREA 51 and THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE in bright red letters on the one at the end of Sierra's block. Her mom had complained to the mayor's office about it, but so far nothing had been done.

          Wow, what a surprise.

          Sierra trudged cross-lots to shorten the walk, ignoring the tinny belling of the Smiths' chihuahua as she trespassed by his window. She'd ask Manuela to help her and her mom plan the party — that is, if her mom could get past the fact that it was yet another farewell bash. Everyone's going to leave eventually, she'd said last time, her voice tired and sharp. Won't you get partied out? But she'd come around after Sierra had pleaded a captain's responsibility to her squad and with her help the team had thrown as classy a send-off for Deanna as they had for Carlos and Reyna and Rita. Besides, this is Mel, Sierra thought. We've known each other forever. Mom likes her. She's practically family.

          She made for the trailer's back door, keeping to the path her dad had laid out between the carefully-tended beds of grass seed he was trying to cultivate into a lawn. From the kitchen window, open to the warm spring air, seeped the garlic- and basil-tinted fragrance of pasta sauce and the less appetizing sound of raised voices. Sierra paused. Things had been a little tense at home lately and she wasn't quite sure why. Her mom and dad almost never argued in front of her or Danny, but they'd been shorter with each other than usual. Creeping under the window to listen, Sierra heard her dad say, "We'd be giving up everything we built here."

          "News flash, honey," her mom replied with a breathy chuckle. "Most of it's already gone — the house, your job — "

          "I still have work," her dad interrupted.

          Her mom chuckled again; this time the sound had no humor in it at all. "Eighty percent pro bono."

          In the momentary silence that followed her dad didn't dispute it. Sierra frowned. She'd heard at school that he was taking people's cases for free and she'd been proud of him, but she hadn't thought he'd lost so many paying clients. "People need help," her dad said. "And I'm developing some influential contacts at the state level — "

          "Contacts don't buy food," her mom said, "or pay for health insurance or put gas in the car. We're burning through our savings. We need to salvage what we can and get out, before we really have lost everything."

          A breeze, too light to raise any dust, disturbed Sierra's hair. Lose everything? What does that mean? She dashed the straying strands from her face and pressed her shoulder against the trailer's siding. "Not yet," her dad replied calmly. "It's only been three months. We agreed we were good for at least six."

          "And then what?" asked her mom.

          "We'll see where things stand," said her dad, even more calmly. Sierra knew that tone well: it was the I am rational; your argument is invalid voice he used to shut down debates over everything from bedtimes to politics. "Erdcom has an enormous financial stake in seeing the mines reopened if they can do so at all safely. They've been lobbying the BMRR to get inspectors on site as soon as possible. There's an excellent chance operations will resume by the end of the year — "

          " — and Erdcom will surprise us all with a company town for Christmas?" her mom broke in with withering sarcasm. There was another uncomfortable hitch in the conversation before she sighed and went on, "Caro called this morning."

          "Did she."

          "She wanted me to know that she and Lou would still be happy to have us."

          "Too kind."

          "Damn you, Pat!" her mom exploded and Sierra jerked away from the trailer wall. "She's my sister! She cares and she's worried about us, as well she should be!" Her shoes creaked across the kitchen floor, toward the window, and when she spoke again, it was in the cold, level timbre with which she counted to three before handing out a punishment. "You don't have to come if you're too busy. Sierra, Danny and I can make the trip just fine on our own."

          "Helen, you're not —" Her dad's voice cut off and his shocked pause slowly lengthened into an oppressive hush.

          Sierra's own breath caught hard, as if she'd taken a trust fall and someone had missed their hold. Her thoughts tumbled over each other: were they really leaving? would her dad stay behind? would anybody ask her or Danny what they wanted? what would she say if they did? what about the team? would things just keep falling apart until there really was nothing left? Her knees folded and she collapsed into a crouch, one hand clamped over her mouth to prevent the sick feeling in her stomach from escaping. What's going to happen? Are my parents splitting up?

          "No, we won't go," said her mother, each word as heavy and slow as a semi climbing a steep grade. "Not yet. —Don't touch me."

          Her father's footsteps retreated. Sierra heard the clank of a spoon against the side of the sauce pot and a small sound, a harsh exhalation that might have been a laugh or a sob. She hugged her shins, then deliberately focused on her own breathing in one of Coach Jo's relaxation exercises. In through the nose — one, two, three, four — and hold for four — and out through the mouth for eight. Again. After the three cycles the tension dropped away, as it always did, but she kept going until her head felt light and she tottered a little in place. Okay. Okay.

          Rising carefully to her feet, she picked up her gym bag. Her mom was setting the table now; Sierra could hear the rattle of cutlery being removed from its drawer. The front door slammed distantly as Danny stomped in with his usual greeting of Hey, what's for dinner? — perfect cover for her own entrance. Sierra cracked her neck and straightened her back, pulling her mouth into a smile as she reached for the doorknob —

          — and froze as she realized what she was doing.

          She was putting on her game face.

          She'd been putting on her game face to go home.

          Gym bag banging against her thighs, Sierra whirled and ran back down the path and through the neighbors' yards until she reached the AREA 51 trailer. Beyond lay nothing but rocks and sagebrush all the way to the eastern horizon, where low hills thrust up brown and green to meet the cloud-streaked sky. Sierra sank down in the trailer's shadow, her gut churning not with nausea now, but with anger — at Mel for leaving, at her dad for staying, at her mom for threatening him, at everyone for making her go to school and practice and parties as if nothing were wrong. I hate this! I hate it, I hate it, I hate it! She was tired of holding everything together with a smile and a can-do attitude. She was sick of pretending to be fine. Her hands were shaking; she clasped them together and pressed her thumbs against the bridge of her nose. I can't fake it anymore. I can't ...

          The breeze, growing stronger as the sun sank, hissed in the sagebrush; as if in answer, Sierra's phone buzzed. She fumbled it out of her jacket pocket to see a text message from Danny: Dinnertime mom says where r u?

          She hesitated, then replied, Gone to mall. Back late. She'd catch hell from her mom for skipping supper without warning and from her dad for lying about where she was, if he ever found out. But she couldn't go home right now. Maybe she could spend the evening at Ashley's ... or maybe ...

          Maybe she could just leave, too.

          Sierra's skin flushed hot, then chilled into gooseflesh as the idea seized possession of her brain. What if she took Aunt Caro up on her offer? She had toiletries and a change of clothes in her gym bag and Greyhound had a stop and a ticket office at the mall. Could she still catch a bus out of Gillette tonight? She pulled up the Greyhound website on her phone. Aha! 7:05 p.m. to Las Vegas, yes! And she could make the last departure from there to Carson City, where Aunt Caro and Uncle Lou lived, easily. The trick would be getting to Gillette. Sierra checked her watch. If she left now, she'd have just enough time to buy her ticket and snatch a bite to eat, but she'd need a ride to the mall from someone she could trust ... or someone she could ditch.

          Heart beating faster, Sierra grinned and pulled up her contacts list, scrolling down until she found Vince's number. Hey champ, she texted him. Engine still warm?

To be continued ...

[Acknowledgments: Transformers Prime was created by Hasbro Studios. Copyright for this property is held by Hasbro.]
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nebroadwe: From "The Magdalen Reading" by Rogier van der Weyden.  (Default)
The Magdalen Reading

August 2014



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