On Tuesday Charlotte goes out for smokes and doesn't come back. It's a hot day, Cal remembers, and it's a hot night. Mikaela has hot dogs and macaroni for dinner, because Cal's a bit at a loss and that's what she asks for. Then he lets her sit up and watch taped cartoons until she falls asleep in front of them. Then he turns them off and carries her to bed. She wakes up once, just a little bit, and asks, "When's Mommy coming home?" but doesn't really seem to hear his non-answer.
In her bed, she looks like something out of a fairy-tale, all pudgy arms and legs and round little-girl face. She's got huge eyes, their - well, his, probably - little girl. Now they're all shut and eyelashes fluttering on her cheek like some kind of painting.
The night is almost as hot as the day was. Cal finds three packs of cigarettes in the cupboard. He sits out on the back porch and smokes his way through one of them until about 4AM, one after another, coughing occasionally. The moon's a sort of ugly chomped-out size and the stars are mostly drowned out by the light-pollution from the neighbourhood.
At 8AM, Cal puts in the missing person's call. At about six that evening, he gets the call back he was more than half expecting: the police found Charlotte, but because she's an adult and in her right mind, they can't bring her back and they can't tell him where she is, because she doesn't want them to.
Cal says thanks, and hangs up.
Mikaela'd slept in till noon. Then she'd done some colouring. Now she comes up to him where he sits on the couch and looks at him with her big blue eyes and says, "Is Mommy coming home?"
She's so tiny, Cal thinks. Suddenly she's like a little glass doll and he feels like an elephant. He hasn't touched so much as a beer all day in case the police came around, but he feels like he's drunk, the same thick-handed clumsiness. Still, he picks her up and puts her on his knee. "Well, no, sweetie-pie," he says. "Mommy decided to go away. So now it's just you and me. We'll have fun together though, I promise."
Mikaela frowns. "Did I do something bad?" she asks, and Cal wants to hide his face in his hands. He doesn't know how to do this.
"No, sweetie, it's just something Mommy decided she had to do," he says. "Don't worry about it. We'll be fine. Hey, want to watch more Looney Tunes?" he asks, in a desperate reach for distraction. "Or, wait, I got an idea - let's go for ice-cream and then watch Looney Tunes." Because he doesn't want to talk about this anymore, and she likes cartoons and ice cream.
And it cheers her up. Cal watches carefully just to make sure, but when they come back with ice-cream sundaes from Dairy Queen and he puts in the video tape, Mikaela just curls up right beside him and leans her head on his arm. She laughs loudly when Wile E Coyote gets blown up, and Cal relaxes a bit. She'll be fine. Kids are resilient, he remembers reading that in a magazine.
He lets Mikaela stay up late again and she falls asleep in his lap. When he puts her into bed she murmurs, "I love you, Daddy," as he tucks the quilt up to her chin.
After about a week, she's stopped even asking about Mommy and Cal himself's stopped drinking himself to sleep, and he knows they're going to be fine.
Mikaela Banes has glossy brown hair, big blue eyes, glittery earrings, and a father who lets her pick out clothes that are somehow subtly too old for her eleven and a half years even though they don't really show anything and meet all the school dress-codes. She also has one of the worst attitude problems Vincent Oliver has ever come across in his teaching career, and over those twenty years, he's come across quite a few.
"Young lady," he says to her, looking across his desk. He's already made her spit out the gum she'd been chewing, and still Mikaela Banes looks far too sanguine and indifferent about the fact that she's in the vice principal's office. "You have been absent since Monday."
She shrugs. "Dad said I could stay home. He needed my help with work." Vincent has the feeling that if she'd still had the gum, she'd've snapped it at him right then. "He forgot to call again, didn't he."
It isn't that she's trouble, exactly. She doesn't break things, and she's only peripherally involved with the group of boys who've been caught graffiti-ing the school more than twice. She definitely cuts class by hanging out in the bathroom, but so do a lot of the other students. She's been caught going off school-grounds, but only to where the fourteen year olds smoke over by the woods. It's all small scale - that, and her constant absences.
It's the way she doesn't care that gets to him. He almost hates that it does, because it makes him feel like a monster, but - well, damnit, eleven year olds are supposed to at least be sullenly defiant when you catch them doing something wrong, even if they aren't actually nervous.
Mikaela Banes just looks at him like she's bored and she's waiting for this conversation to end so she can get back to what she's doing. And her off-hand implication is right: when they do get hold of her father and tell him about the absence, he almost always says, Oh shit, right, I forgot: I kept her home on Tuesday. No problem.
Vincent takes a deep, quiet breath and tries to shake the irritation. She's a kid, for Christ's sake. Instead, he focuses on something he knows he can use and says, "Look, Mikaela. I've looked at your grades. You're obviously very bright, and so far that's meant that you've been able to keep up with your classmates. But if you don't start attending school regularly and paying attention, you're going to find out that kind of thing doesn't last. Natural talent isn't everything. You have to learn how to work hard and discipline yourself as well."
Bright, pretty eyes that are also somehow hard look back at him. "Can I go eat my lunch now?" she asks.
Vincent gives up, and sends her back out into the halls. The bitter part of him considers making a private bet at how long it takes before she's in what he privately calls the delinquents' program, or using the day-care center at the high school for her very own early bundle of joy.
Then he shakes it off, pulls over a file, and gets back to work.
She is the hottest girl in the entire school, and Trent's been waiting all week to figure out the perfect time to ask her out. He's pretty sure she'll say yes - why wouldn't she? - but chicks could be weird about that kind of thing, and if you didn't pick the right moment they'd giggle and brush you off, or play hard to get, or whatever. And if you let them do that, then it always wound up being that much longer before they'd let you get any action at all, even just making out.
He does not understand why girls make this kind of thing so complicated and stupid, but he figures that's the whole Mars-Venus thing. They get something out of it, so whatever. He can play the game, as long as he gets something too.
Mikaela's standing around with two of her friends, Lacey and Eva, all three of them leaning on the wire fence and laughing about something. From his vantage point of the stone picnic table, Trent appreciates the way Mikaela's jeans hug her ass, the way a little strip of skin shows between the bottom of her shirt and the top of her belt, the same perfect tan as the rest of her. He wonders whether she's got any tan-lines, or if she undoes her top when she lies in the sun. It's a really, really nice thought, that one.
"Hey, man," Gerard Tompkins asks flicking the brim of Trent's hat. "Are you gonna sit here drooling all day, or are you gonna make a move already? Because if you're not, I totally will."
"Like she'd give you a second glance," Trent says, with tolerant mockery. "I'm waiting for my moment, dude. And that moment is never when a chick is with three other chicks. You have to wait and separate them from the herd."
"Yeah," Gerard says, shaking his head. "Whatever you say, mighty hunter."
Trent ignores him for a second, watches as Mikaela says something to her friends and then start towards the school without them. "Watch and learn, kid," he says, clapping Gerard on the shoulder. "Watch and learn."
He catches up with her and matches her pace as she gets to the door. "Hey, Mikaela," he says, and she looks up. It's like she's thinking about something really important, but right away her little frown dissolves into a smile at him, all at him, and Trent feels smug about that.
"Hi you," she says, which is an invitation if Trent ever heard one. That's the nice thing about Mikaela. Even if she's being coy, she's not shy or timid like the other girls. She doesn't giggle or try to hide behind her friend. She doesn't bite her lip and look like she's never had a dirty thought in her life. She wears tight jeans and tight shirts and leaves her hair down and tousled, and lipgloss that looks like it'd taste so fucking good. And supposedly she likes cars or something, or so Victor Dorzen said.
Basically, Mikaela was up for anything and you could tell, and in twenty minutes or less she is absolutely going to be Trent's girl.
It'll be a good year.
Oh, we're so dead.
Vaguely, Lennox is aware he says the words out loud; mostly, they fill up his head with a fear like nothing he's felt in years. Worse than his first mission on his first real op; worse than that time in Basic they all thought they really were going to die. Worse than Soccent, worse than the day his daughter was born, worse than anything. For a space as long as the heartbeat of God, those words, that thought, they're all he has in the world while he looks at the transformed tank stomping its way over the ruins of this poor city and turns to see the fucking chopper-bot shift and land and look down at them all, while the good-guy 'bots are looking up a different street as they all shout Megatron! and Retreat!
Then his sense of the ridiculous, which has saved him so many fucking times and will save him again and is saving him now, it kicks back in and he thinks, I'm running from an unbeatable enemy called Megatron who wants a cube that brings machines to life.
And maybe that same sense, maybe some shade of brilliance, or maybe just some little twist of madness (he'll never be able to decide later) makes him think, I might as well act like I'm in a sci-fi movie, too.
The look Epps gives him in response to his sudden tight bleak grin is worth it. And the next thoughts are just where's the fucking kid and the fucking cube?
For a minute there's nothing but the immediate smell of smoke, the crunch of fuck knows what under his boots, the weight of his weapon, and the yellow bulk of the downed Autobot he's running towards, which now has a tow-truck right next to it for some completely unknowable fucking reason. More importantly, it has Sam standing on the back of it, waving his hands.
Cube; boy; building; flare. Sam is easy, makes it so easy to just tap right into some ancestral adventuring bullshit in the back of the kid's brain that eventually overcomes the squawking flailing disavowals and sends him scurrying to do as he's told. Leaving Lennox to hope to God he did not just send a kid on a suicide-mission or at least, not on a pointless suicide-mission.
And leaving Lennox suddenly faced with a teenage girl who's still trying to get chains from a tow-truck around the body of a half-blasted good-guy transforming-robot (Jesus fuck this whole thing was insane) despite the fact that she is about to get blown up by the fucking war-zone she's in the middle of.
"You have to go - " he says, and he's right. She's a civillian, she's unarmed, she's a kid - but she's arguing with him.
Their words tumble over one another - you have to get out and no I'm not leaving and you have to GO and no - as he tries to fend her away, back out of the perimeter, back to something that might resemble safety in a million years and after twelve hard drinks - until she jerks herself away.
Lennox will remember this the rest of his life, he's fucking sure: the moment where this kid with her hair in a pony-tail and a filthy face, torn clothes and the curves of baby-fat still in her cheeks snaps, "I'm not leaving until I get Bumblebee out of here, okay?" and meets his eyes like a woman five times her age who's already walked through fire.
The girl, he's pretty sure now, who went and got this tow-truck. The girl who did this while, to be totally fair, every other civillian here ran and screamed or, in Sam's case, protested he couldn't do something.
Then she steps away from him and goes back to securing the robot - to securing Bumblebee. And Lennox could stop her, could get someone to throw her over their shoulder and take her out of harms' way. Instead, he lets her go: she might be about to get herself killed, but he decides that in this world, in this situation, that's her right and her choice to make.
On a whim - okay, more like a drunken dare - Sam once read all the way through the Twilight saga. Eventually he'd resorted to video-blogging his responses and making his roommate put it up on the web just because they were that fucking stupid, but along the way one thing had really bugged him.
He didn't, and doesn't get the whole watching-Bella-while-she-slept thing. It, like, seems to be both the cornerstone of tweenie-girls' giggling about the oh-my-god-romance and at the same time the feminazis' oh-my-god-creepy and mostly to Sam it just sounds like the biggest dumbass thing to do ever. Who wanted to stare at a girl sleeping? When there's no smiles or pouts or eye-rolls or anything?
Sam actually kind of hates it when he's awake and Mikaela's asleep. When her face is all slack and empty, eyes flickering under her eyelids and knees curled up to her stomach. It feels weird. It feels like she's someone else. Like she's not his girlfriend, not his Mikaela: she's a stranger with a frownline between her brows.
Which is why, if he wakes up early, he tends to lean over and kiss her cheek or run his fingers through her hair. So she'll wake up, too, and those beautiful blue eyes will light up either with a smile or with some kind of aggravation because she was having a good dream. She'll lean on her arm or her elbow and say, "What, Sam?" with narrowed eyes and sexy pouting lips. She'll laugh at something dorky he says or tease him about being a nerd or a scaredy-cat or a little-girl or something. Or she'll complain about his roommate, if she's staying at the dorm with him.
(Apparently shared danger did not comrades make, at least not in that case. Not that Sam can blame her. The dude still can't not leer.)
It's kind of the same when she's working on an engine. Sam thinks it's hot that Mikaela loves cars the way she does, and everything. In fact he's pretty sure he still wouldn't've had a chance with her if not for her initial appreciation of Bumblebee's engine, which now that he thinks about it sounds so wrong when said like that. And it's great that she's got her own skills, her own thing. Her competence is totally part of what makes her so goddamn sexy.
But it's still that same kind of distance, that same kind of feeling like there's a whole side to her he's not part of. Like there's a whole person, hidden away behind the smiles and sarcasm and affection he sees and gets to have. A person he doesn't know at all.
He's tried to articulate that once or twice. She always got mock-offended and asked him if he was trying to imply she was two-faced or duplicitous (and that time she'd then poured beer in his lap for being startled that she knows the word "duplicitous"), and he never quite gets it right, he thinks. And when they're together and she's awake, it's totally obvious that it's stupid anyway. That she loves him and he loves her and one of the best things about Mikaela is just how honest she is.
Sam figures he's got it pretty good, really.
They named her little star-sword in their own language, because English naming patterns are strange and incompatible with Cybertronian designations - it simply means Mikaela in the private ways the Autobots speak between themselves. It had been Ironhide who spun tone, cadence and vocal texture around the idea of the young human female, because (Ironhide had insisted) anyone who, unarmed as she was, would at such high risk bring a fallen Autobot back to the field of battle and to substantial victory deserved her own name in every language there was.
Optimus Prime had hardly been one to disagree.
Now she sits on the roof of one of the lower buildings in the facility, dressed in the clothes that fit precisely to her form (moreso than most humans) and leather boots with good soles, not unlike those Lennox (whose designation, in turn, is his current rank and the modifier for fearless) wears. Her arms are wrapped around her knees and Optimus is once again struck by how fragile humans are, to have risen to such prominence on their planet, and to set themselves against great odds - against hurricanes and tectonic violence, against floods and eruptions even to set aside the menace of Decepticon incursion - which even then, they met as they could.
Sitting on the roof puts her near Optimus' eye-level. It takes almost nothing to fold a bit, settle, and say, "It is good to see you, Mikaela."
Despite the simple truth that no Autobot of Optimus' size could creep up on any human inadvertently, she startles and looks up a little. Her smile is slightly strained, the muscles around her eyes and reaching back towards her temples, ears and upper scalp not moving. Indicating, as Optimus knows, that the smile is performative, not entirely genuine.
"It's nice to see you all, too," she says, and her voice is less conflicted than her smile - which, Optimus suspects, merely means she is better at lying with her voice. She lets go of her legs and lets them fall into a crossed pattern, lying flat on the roof, hands resting on her ankles.
There are nuances to the sexual dimorphism and accompanying gender variation which Optimus does not entirely understand; each Autobot has accepted a certain pronoun connected largely to which octave their voice resonates in, although Arcee shifted the tone in each body in order to claim the pronoun she because, as yet, no one else had. There are variations in address in Cybertronian as well, of course, but they are for different reasons; here, everything is defined by male or female, with some of the languages assigning the dimorphism even to inanimate objects in ways that seem wholly nonsensical.
But what Optimus is already quite clear on is that for each dimorph there are expectations, limitations and assumptions which have everything to do with the duality, and little to do with the individual. What Optimus has not observed personally, Bumblebee has often relayed (usually in slightly disbelieving bewilderment) - including Mikaela's initial note that young males do not appreciate technical and mechanical competence in their females.
Optimus suspects that the heart of Mikaela's turmoil is somehow related to this divide, even if the complexities of how and why are too entangled with human thought, physiology, instinct and culture for any Cybertronian to understand in such a few short years. Arcee has guessed at some of it, and unfolded enough understanding and suggestion that Optimus expects part of the turmoil to resolve itself shortly - but that does not make its causes anything other than opaque.
Considering all that, directness seems appropriate, and likely something someone non-human could succeed with better than any human, being free from the complicated dance. Optimus elects on the phrasing, "It would benefit us all if you remained."
"I - what?" Mikaela says, blinking repeatedly in the human expression of confusion. She opens her mouth several more times before closing it again. "You - "
Optimus continues to pursue directness. "Arcee has told me that she believes you feel unwanted. That you were an accessory of Sam's and not valued on your own behalf. This is untrue."
Mikaela stares at Optimus with her mouth still open. Optimus folds slightly further, and rests a hand on the roof beside her, so that they truly are as close to eye-to-eye as human and Autobot of his stature can be. "You have fought with us and for us," Optimus tells her. "You have fought against our enemy, and remained steadfast as a friend. You are intelligent and capable, and lack neither courage nor quickness in battle. And you have done all of this though you did not have to, because there was no threat against you, and though it put you and in some cases your progenitor in grave danger. You have skills that could readily be integrated with ours; you learn quickly and without the interference of arrogance or fear of encountering others with greater skill than you."
Optimus pauses and considers the next words, but in the end does say, "And at present, your qualities and skills are wasted on a progenitor who will perhaps value them higher when he is required to manage without them."
Mikaela is staring at her hands on her ankles now, still blinking quickly every few seconds. Her breathing has increased its speed and decreased its depth, her heartbeat has quickened, and she is biting at her lower lip before she looks up at Optimus sideways. Her eyes are wide. "You're serious," she says, softly.
"Entirely," Optimus confirms - and then, on a second thought, adds with a certain amount of dryness, "I suspect Ironhide would appreciate an assistant who did not waste time telling him that some things are impossible. And we have others en route to this world, including some of our best inventors, builders and mechanics. It would be an asset to have someone to meet them with experience of her own."
Mikaela takes a breath and opens her mouth. Then she closes it. And again. Optimus suspects one protest swallowed is that her father needs her; it's anyone's guess at the second one. Eventually, she says, "There's no way they're going to let a convict's daughter work in the most classified base in the entire world."
"That," Optimus says firmly, "is not their decision. You would not be in their employ; you would be part of our team."
Mikaela stands up, leaning on one arm and getting her boots under her before she straightens her legs and looks up into Optimus' face. "You're serious," she says, "I mean, you mean it."
This time, her eyes are still wide, but also glitter in the various external lights of the building. And this time, Optimus merely nods.
This smile dawns across her face like the touch of a new-lit spark. "Okay," she says. "Yeah."