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Grace and Shockwave (before)

The Decepticons had fallen. An unfortunate truth, but not an entirely unexpected one. There was no use in repairing what was now destroying itself, nor in attempting to salvage that which had outlived its usefulness. Shockwave had no regrets. 

As a scientist, diagnosing self-destructive systems was a skill one was required to cultivate at every opportunity. To hold the terrorized, chaotic mess Shockwave had been met with in the same regard as the well-run taskforce he recalled was an insult. There was no contest.

The Decepticon Army, as Megatronus and General Strika had founded them, had never been meant to operate in isolation. The alliance between the five fallen nations of Cybertron's northern hemisphere would have acted as a governing body, providing a dedicated oversight committee and a representative from each city-state to serve among the highest-ranking officers. They had served the planet itself.

Out of those high ranking officers, only Starscream remained. Not that he served as anything but the Decepticon second officer anymore, with Vos little more than an ashy husk and her people scattered to the winds. And yet even that could not be said for long, judging by the harsh punishments and harsher opinions he was subjected to.

Unsurprising. Starscream was many things, few of them pleasant, but complacent was not one of them. Shockwave could not imagine the warlord had much patience for Starscream and his dauntless ambition. In time, Megatron would lose Starscream, then his armada altogether. The Decepticon Army would be gutted.

As fascinating as it would have been to observe the overall structure collapse in upon itself, Shockwave had higher and greater goals to consider. The loss of his work to collateral damage or malicious tampering would be completely unacceptable. He dealt with several components that could not be replicated without great risk. Irreplicable...but certainly portable. Perhaps it behooved Shockwave to make his exit before the situation devolved entirely.

Predictably, no sooner did Shockwave begin preparations to leave than he returned to discover a shadowy figure standing outside the door to his laboratory. Not concealed, not lurking in the shadowy recesses; just waiting. Shockwave had long appreciated Soundwave's habit of forgoing the customary Decepticon posturing.

Wordlessly, Shockwave gestured for Soundwave to enter, opening the door with an internal command. Wordlessly, Soundwave accepted.

The door hissed shut, followed by a long series of clicking and whirring as the door was secured. Soundwave looked on very patiently. Shockwave had always had the impression that Soundwave regarded his personal security system as an endearing attempt more than anything else, but he was too polite to comment upon it.

Once the room was secure--by Shockwave's standards, at least--Shockwave turned to his guest. "I cannot say that your visit is wholly unanticipated."

Soundwave nodded.

"Very well." If neither combat nor dialogue had been initiated at this point, the probability that this meeting would result in Shockwave's arrest had dropped dramatically. "What do you require?"

Soundwave flashed a series of images across his visor--the exact blueprints of the containment trailer Shockwave would be using to convey his laboratory to the planet's surface, along with coordinates in the northern hemisphere. He made no other move.

"Affirmative," Shockwave admitted. "Are you attempting to stop me?" The question was more of a formality than anything, but it paid to verify one's assumptions.

Soundwave froze. He shook his head no, almost imperceptibly. There was a furtive hunch to his shoulders.

"Then it is something else," Shockwave hazarded. There was little the spymaster relied on him for directly, besides perhaps a sane voice in the midst of chaos. Shockwave would not have considered their acquaintance to be an especially close one, but long-term association might have endeared him to Soundwave on some unthinking, subconscious level. Illogical, but potentially useful.

Soundwave tilted his head. He was not communicating via recordings. Did that mean something?

Apparently having come to some form of conclusion, Soundwave produced a moderately sized box. Shockwave did not see where it had come from, but judging by the way Soundwave held it carefully in his hands, rather than wrapped in the tentillums at the end of the prehensile feelers he favored for general tasks, it was something special. Intrigued, Shockwave accepted it for closer inspection. It was warm against his palm.

The box chirped sleepily, and Shockwave's mild interest was doused as quickly as it had been kindled. "Ah. Hello, Laserbeak."

Laserbeak trilled a sleepy, inarticulate hello. Soundwave stepped closer, leaning over her, and the satellite settled.

"She is injured? No? Then I am unsure why you have called upon me." Shockwave attempted to hand her back to him. Soundwave stepped back out of reach, arms at his sides. "Soundwave, I am busy. "

Soundwave wrapped his hands around Laserbeak and pushed her closer to Shockwave's chest, quietly insistent.

...Ah.

Shockwave could cite precisely three instances over all the eons he had known them where Soundwave had tolerated prolonged separation from his satellite components. The last had resulted in their deactivation. As their numbers had dwindled--the gruesome death of Ravage came to mind, back during the War of Functionism--Soundwave had drawn the remaining satellites closer, seeking to preserve what resources he had left. Slowly, the importance of their safety had grown to eclipse his own.

If Soundwave was intent on parting with Laserbeak, it was because he did not anticipate his continued survival.

Wordlessly, Shockwave tightened his grip on Laserbeak. Wordlessly, Soundwave bowed. The back of his neck was scuffed and dented.

Laserbeak sank back into stasis, warbling unhappily all the way. After a moment of thought, Shockwave placed her in internal storage. It went without saying that any harm done to her would be on Shockwave's head, and he did not relish the idea of losing favor with a mech who had helped invent the algorithms he used to generate security passwords. Better to keep her out of sight and mind until they were far from the crumbling structure of the Nemesis .

Objectively, life aboard the flagship was even more dangerous than active combat. The medbay hosted, on average, a total of fourteen patients at any given time. This number did not shift with downtime. Shockwave did not have the data to calculate the number of injuries that could be sent back into active duty immediately, but he did know that they far exceeded the number kept in the medbay. Many of those injuries were associated with the high command in some way. Perhaps it was less surprising that Soundwave would take action now than it was that he had not before.

Still, his choice to entrust his single remaining satellite to Shockwave was...an unexpected development. Shockwave would not be staying long enough for the favor to prove itself useful, nor for his relationship with Soundwave be affected by this evidence of trust either way, but still. Perhaps the gesture of goodwill would prove itself an opportunity to be considered when they met again to return Laserbeak to her proper place.

Soundwave melted into the shadows, and Shockwave did not wait to watch him leave. If he was going to desert and retain even the most basic components of Project Predacon, he was going to have to be clever about packing.

Earth lived up--or down, perhaps--to Shockwave's expectations. The local biome was dry and cold, wracked with wind whistling through the cracks of his armor. The ground was cracked, covered in low, uniform foliage that rippled and bent easily under Shockwave’s footing. Although mountains loomed large on the gray horizon, the more immediate area was open, uniform almost to the point of being unnatural. It was as though someone had explained what the ground was in no great detail, and this world had been created based on that description.

Laserbeak stayed within internal storage, for now. She had enough energon to last for years spent in stasis; there was no need to invite the emotional situation that would occur should Shockwave wake her.

The contents of his laboratory fit on a single trailer. Project Predacon, certainly the most sensitive and crucial, took up the most space. The bundles of smaller equipment and digital samples could be more or less shoved around it along with an energon processor and other basic amenities. Compared to Cybertron, surviving on Earth was not a daunting prospect, despite preliminary impressions.

The most immediate problem was the temperature. Already, Earth was colder than Cybertron ever was, even at the poles, and the winter would prove even more brutal. While he had the components to insulate a secured shelter, they would be useless unless there was shelter to be found.

Shockwave began moving, ignoring the wind already lowering his body heat at an alarming rate. There was much to do.

He traveled north, roughly perpendicular to the winds. Shockwave's arrival at the treeline of a modest conifer forest was welcome, since it provided both a temporary shield from the weather and a break from the monotony of the landscape. The branches, he noticed, were dry and bleached where they were exposed to the sun and the elements. It seemed this type of weather was characteristic of the region. The dimly lit, cramped forest as uninviting as the prairie, but he considered it an improvement nonetheless. The foliage would serve to mask his location from any searching parties, Decepticon or otherwise. Shockwave had no desire to cross paths with the Autobots while in such a vulnerable position. He highly doubted whatever was left of Orion Pax had kept to his old policy of forgiving, not forgetting . Laserbeak's presence rendered any chance of ingratiating himself in some less noticeable corner of the faction low to none. No great loss.

The forest stretched on for miles. Shockwave directed his course towards the mountains, hoping to find some remote cave to serve as a shelter overnight. Judging by the way the range seemed to refuse to grow closer, this would not be the case.

The best option for temporary shelter emerged after about eight hours of relentless travel, when a bright gap in the trees resolved itself into a clearing. Judging by the geometric but unkempt nature of the area around it, this had once been a place of residence; presumably, some time ago. This was of little consequence. An unstable wooden structure still carrying the vestiges of some green pigment was located at the edge of the clearing, nearly swallowed by the trees. Acceptable, if only just.

Although far from ideal, this was not an untenable situation. Shockwave had done more with less. Some talent for improvisation and renovation was an essential skill for any scientist whose work took them into inhospitable environments. It was not that much smaller than the main laboratory Shockwave had been, either. It was just...mostly destroyed.

Adequate, again. If only just.

The trailer would fit inside easily once it was fixed. With room to spare, even. The supports seemed sound, despite the sorry state of the roof and the fact that one of the doors was leaning against its frame. Whoever was tasked with the maintenance of this structure, Shockwave decided, ought to be shot.

Decided, he began to utilize the metal siding of the trailer as effectively as possible; and by sunset, he had convinced himself that it was salvageable.

That night, the wind howled alarmingly. It did not get as cold as he had anticipated, but that would not last. Insulation was the next logical step.

Weatherproofing and electrical wiring took up the span of the next few days. Once the structure itself was both stable and relatively sterile—an accomplishment of another several days’ work—Shockwave was able to convert the space within with surprising ease.

In no time at all, Shockwave's experiments were set up as well as could be expected. With that accomplished, the next few days were spent, loathe though he was to admit it, pottering . There was only so much he could do to the barn without redoing perfectly good work, and it irked him to waste time and resources. There was a semi-depleted energon nearby, and collecting and processing it ate up a few days. He monitored Project Predacon for signs that the rough method of transportation had damaged or disrupted it.

Tedium, after eons spent alone on a dying planet, was an old friend. Shockwave made do.

The building proved itself far more versatile than he had previously expected. He had cleared out the piles of rotten hay and rusting tools from within and cleaned it thoroughly, leaving a surprisingly large area with which to work. Shockwave had expected hidden complaints to complicate the repairs he had previously made, but the structure stood firm. Faced with the threat of boredom, this was almost a disappointment.

Shockwave began considering plans to convert it from a temporary shelter for long-term habitation. Most of the projects he had the resources for were only suitable for an extended stay, and there was no more attractive position on this planet to leave for.

Laserbeak was set on a shelf, where she could get up and fly away should she rouse herself from stasis. This did not happen, but Shockwave wiled away a few hours constructing a perch for her nonetheless. He truly was getting desperate.

Fortunately, this period of monotony did not last. Unfortunately , it was cut short by the sharp retort of a shotgun blast.

The force jolted unpleasantly through Shockwave's head, reverberating through his neck in a numbed starburst of sensation. When his optic refocused, there was a hairline fracture spidering its way across the red glass; as well a small, wrinkly organic standing in the doorway, bringing the firearm up to its own optic for another shot.

In retrospect, perhaps he should have seen this one coming.

What medical equipment he had could be replaced, but not soon or easily. There was no allowance for injury, even of the slight sort one could expect from such an insignificant little beast. He would simply have to resolve this succinctly.

“Cease,” Shockwave told the human.

It yelled at him wordlessly and fired.

Shockwave knelt with a thud, letting the second shot whizz off into the rafters as he reached for the human. It jumped back, screeching inarticulately. Before Shockwave could do more than register its deceptive speed, it lunged for the relative safety of the nearby worktable, little legs pumping.

If it made it behind the equipment, there was a good chance that Shockwave would not be able to extract it without disassembling several machines--an unattractive prospect. He slid his foot into its path, cutting it off.

It bounced off the side and shrieked. “ Shit--!”

Swearing royally, it feinted to the side and vaulted over his foot. At the last second, it turned on a dime, dashing back out the door, frantic movements smoothing into an even run the moment it was on open ground. Shockwave was prepared to let it, but--

Crack!

Another hairline fracture appeared in his eye, nicking the edge of his HUD. The entire display fritzed into an unintelligible blur.

Just as well. The creature would need to be either disposed of or contained one way or the other. If word of Shockwave’s location got out to the Autobots via their human allies, the effort Shockwave had put into his current base of operations would have been rendered null. He retrieved a containment jar from a nearby shelf. There was a chance the creature would prove useful.

Whether it would have or not turned out to be a question for the academic, as the human would not be contained . Despite signs of advanced age, the human proved adept at ducking and weaving out of the way of Shockwave’s jar at the last possible moment, taking advantage of the close quarters and awkward angle to take shots at his optic and the seams between Shockwave’s plating. Rivulets of energon crisscrossed each other with every successful hit.

Once, when the human stopped to reload its weapon, Shockwave at least managed to get it under the jar. It gaped, sprawled on the grass, staring into Shockwave’s single optic with something approaching terror.

“Cease,” Shockwave reiterated. “You will not be harmed so long as you cooperate.”

Its tiny, wrinkled face scrunched up in hatred, and it pointed its weapon straight up.

Crack. Crack. Crack-!

The jar shattered, shards digging into Shockwave’s one good hand. The human took advantage of his instinctive flinch to sprint for the ramshackle farmhouse, firearm in hand.

Shockwave considered pursuing it. It was not a particularly fast or sturdy creature; all it would take would be one good stomp to deal with the situation permanently. Then again, it could ostensibly prove itself to be a valuable resource.

At the door, it stopped, dropped to one knee, and took aim.

One of the cables in Shockwave’s neck exploded, the two ends flailing with released pressure. The shock of pain and panic cut through his focus. Shockwave stumbled back, fumbling to pinch the loose lines together lest he lose valuable energon.

By the time his wound was cauterized and under control, there was no sign of the human. Still, when he retreated to the barn, Shockwave could just make out the far-off sound of pounding footsteps and swearing.

This could prove troublesome.

Grace Kelly had a fucking alien in her fucking barn.

This was one of those things that Alice, rest her, would have insisted came of too much moonshining and not enough sunshining . If Grace had been in a state to look out her back window, perhaps she would've spotted the strange lights and machine-noises and so on before the great creature had made itself a home. Grace liked daylight, and she liked drinking, but the two of them put together was a nasty combination. It just so happened that the last week or so had been alcohol's time. The sun could wait.

This was the price she paid. Big old fuck-off robot, right there in the barn. Damn.

Grace stalked back to the house and got in the shower, clothes in all. The smell of two-buck chuck was just about this side of everywhere, and a little cold water wasn't going to change that. What it might hopefully change was the amount of felt blanket Grace's head felt like it was wrapped in. Once she cleared her head, she'd be in the mood for doing a spot of laundry; and when she went out to hang the laundry, the robot would be gone.

When the temperature of the water finally forced her to shut it off, Grace still didn't feel like doing laundry. Which didn't make her too enthusiastic about the prospect of the rest of the plan turning out the way she wanted, but there you were.

She did the laundry anyway—because that was what adults did, dammit—sitting on top of the machine and crunching a tomato like an apple. At some point, she was going to have to do groceries. At some point, she was going to have to weed the garden to make sure that she continued to have food directly on hand.

Grace pulled a new shirt out of the load and left the rest in the dryer. This was what adults did.

When she went back outside, the barn door was still shut like a vice. Eerie yellow light was only just visible under the doorway.

Goddamnit. Of all the times to be sane .

Grace was still catching her breath after having nearly been locked up in the pickle jar from planet Mars, but she was also still hopping mad. This was her farm, that she had been looking after for the better part of forty years, and there wasn’t any force on Earth or off it that was going to force her out.

She grabbed her shotgun and jogged over. “Hey!”

There was no reply. She shot the door.

The hay window slid open. “Cease.”

The voice was low, vaguely male, but more just metallic and dull. Like an empty oil drum talking. Grace fought back a fit of revulsion and pounded on the door. “How 'bout you cease taking up space in my fucking barn, deadbeat! Scram!”

Yellow light flickered a little fainter. “You do not require this space.”

“Don't you go tellin' me my business, you--”

“I have been here for eight complete solar rotations.” He said, flatly. “Before my arrival, this building was nearly collapsed with water damage and other causes of wear. If you have been using this building, you would certainly have been killed.”

She squinted. “That a threat, boy?”

“An observation.” The door slid shut.

“Wh—now you get back here, freeloader--”

The hay window slammed open. “What do you require in return for isolation?”

“Nothing! Get off my property!”

“To leave before this structure has outlived its usefulness would be illogical. I have put enough effort into this building that it would be foolish to abandon it. If anything, you should show gratitude. I have significantly improved the integrity of the structure”

Grace aimed through the window. “Sure. Here's a damn thank-you gift.”

The shot pinged off the wooden door, sending splinters raining down into the grass, but Grace was satisfied for now. If the robot had been a moment slower, she would've taken another chunk out of his eye.

She'd figure out how to get him to leave later. For now, she had a house to put to rights.

Unfortunately, the organic did not seem to have a life outside of her residence. There were no other people in the immediate area, no distraction to keep her from interfering with Shockwave work every moment of the day. There was nothing at all to keep her from her preferred task: making Shockwave's life as much of a misery as possible.

This was, of course, a waste of effort. Explaining this, predictably, did not dissuade her.

Now that she had emerged from the house, it seemed the organic spent nearly every waking moment within shouting distance of the barn. she had a little [patch of vegetables and a larger patch of grain, both within eyesight of the barn. The endless cycle of weeding and watering and cutting sod, as far as Shockwave could tell, was only marked by the volume and intensity of the vitriol thrown his way. In a way, her scale and imagination were nearly impressive, given her unfortunate species' limitations. If only she could be directed in a productive direction.

It should have been a simple matter to dissuade her from bothering him. She was a fraction of his size, and feeble even by organic's standards; however, she wielded a dangerous mixture of specialized tools and unlimited time constraints. Any attempts to exterminate her proved not only unsuccessful but actively detrimental.

The problem was that there was highly delicate equipment in the area, unable to be moved to a more secure location. As it was, it was Shockwave's first priority to ensure that she did no lasting damage to Project Predacon, Laserbeak, or any of the other experiments and supplies stored within her malevolent reach. Considering that attempts to deal with her directly lead only to property damage and senseless injury--neither being a luxury Shockwave could afford--there was little he could do to address the matter. For now.

After a few days of this, Shockwave finally answered the door on the first try. “I wish to parlay.”

The human considered him for a long moment. “Nah.”

“Clarify.”

“'Said, nah.” She aimed at his optic. “'Rather'd you just leave, honestly.”

Shockwave failed to close the door in time to prevent another hairline crack in his optic. It seemed to be a favored target.

...

“A proposition, then,” the robot continued, a few days after Grace managed to score another hit in his eye, as if he was continuing a conversation from a few minutes ago. “This is your place of residence?”

“Yup,” Grace said. “Meaning not yours,” she added, as though he could have somehow missed how much his presence was not welcome there.

“Noted.” The robot regarded the field at large. “This property has not undergone regular maintenance in some time.”

His great red plate of an eye had been exchanged for a yellow one, she noticed. A nice clean slate for her to practice her aim on. Fine by her. “Yeah, well. You try being over sixty and takin' care of a five-acre lot by your lonesome, smartass.”

“In exchange for the continued use of your barn,” the robot said as if she hadn't spoken. “I would be willing to assist in the upkeep of this place for the duration of my stay. Are these terms acceptable?”

“Are these--” Grace ran a hand through her hair. She was gonna toss this ass out on his pointy metal ear. “Accepta--no, it ain't acceptable! Jesus! What the hell do you mean by—and where do you even get off, talkin' shit about my farm, huh? You raised in a barn? That why you're so keen on mine?”

“I was raised on another planet,” the robot said, as dully as he said everything. “One to which I am unable to return.”

Oh.

... Oh.

Well. That shut her right the hell up. Suddenly, the situation felt less like some crazy adventure and more like Grace was being an asshole. Grace could almost feel the ghost of Alice cooing over the poor little dear; all he needs is a bed for a few weeks . Refusing shelter to a--a refugee or whatever the fuck was the sort of thing that would've had Grace sleeping on the couch.

Dammittohell, God damn . “You on the run, young man?”

"I am much older than you," he said. "And I fail to see what led you to this conclusion."

“Just got the look about you, that's all.” Shit. This was Alice's fault. Hell, it was Ralph's fault for getting her into the habit of taking in strays in the first place. Grace had known what she was gonna do the second she'd heard Alice's voice, egging her on from beyond the god damn veil. Shit .

“Alright, listen." Grace snapped her fingers in the air with a satisfying crack. "I don't wanna know what your story is, and I don't care. Don’t wanna care, for that matter, so keep your self to yourself. This farm's been mine for forty years. You bust that barn, and I'll make a new one out'a your dead chassis. Capische?”

The robot studied her for a long, unimpressed moment. "You will leave me to my own devices when I wish you to do so. You will refrain from screeching epithets except in circumstances that demand it."

"Every situation demands screeched epithets," Grace informed him. Weddings, funerals, rent negotiations. There was a reason she didn't get many visitors. "But that's fine by me, son."

"I am not your son. You will also refrain from violence against my person, my workplace, and especially none of my possessions."

"Providing your person or your possessions isn't asking for it," Grace said sweetly, "That sounds just about fair. And it's my barn, anyway. I'm not gonna take a hatchet to the door. You keep quiet during sleeping hours, hear? And you make one goddamn move to steal the Earth's water supply or what-have-you, and I'll stick that shotgun so far up your rear you'll cough up bullets."

Silence fell over the field. In the background, a few birds chirped uneasily.

"My anatomy is not conducive to--"

"Point stands. "

"The name's Grace, tuna head. I don't want none of that Earthling fee-male shit you get in movies, you get me?"

"Understood. A most ironic name."

"Fuck you. ... Well ?"

"What is...ah. I am designated Shockwave."

"Boy howdy. Did your parents ever hate you, huh."

...

Out of every thirteen days, twelve would include some small form of contact made between Shockwave and his intemperate host. Despite her prickly demeanor and utter lack of regard for basic social constructs, Grace seemed to find her way over to the far end of the yard more often than not. Her work in her yard continued, albeit quieter. Very little direct interaction was required.

When it was, however, Shockwave was forced to resign himself to the fact that no real productive work would get done for the remainder of the day. It was usually some minor task Grace was unable to handle herself, often followed by a string of others. His one solace was that Grace seemed to treat Shockwave's company with the same contempt he reserved for hers. When she could, Grace left Shockwave as much alone as possible.

Time passed. Project Predacon finally moved into the prenatal stage; the first true development since Shockwave's abscondment from the Nemesis. If the persistent yellow glow of the developmental chamber alerted Grace that something was afoot, she gave no sign of it.

...

The bastard was up to something, that was for damn sure.

He always was. Ordinarily, Grace Shockwave's get-up-and-go to be just about his one redeeming feature. More like the only facet of his personality she didn't feel justified about complaining over, but eh. Shockwave was what her mama would have tactfully called a decent neighbor --useful and quiet. As far as boarders went, she could've done worse. Theoretically.

One thing that'd made itself abundantly clear over the last few weeks, though, was the fact that Shockwave had Plans. Plans, with a capital P, were not things that Grace held much stock in herself, but she was well used to the sort of people that did. Ralph'd had Plans. Alice'd had Plans. Ralph's Plans had gotten him killed, and Alice's hadn't; but either way, they'd stirred up a whole lot of bullshit. Grace was getting too old to put up with other people's Plans.

The Plans of a cargo pilot or a small-time gardener tended to have a lot less collateral than the Plans of an alien robot scientist. Grace probably had some sort of moral obligation to make sure Shockwave wasn't plotting to Godzilla the nearby Montana countryside, but she wasn't all that worried. Wreaking havoc on peasantry or whatever-the-fuck else would require a lot more interest in humanity as a whole than Shockwave had ever shown. If a large-scale extinction event were to wipe the whole slate clean and leave Shockwave the sole survivor, the most reaction it'd pull out of him would be an appreciation for the silence. There was a reason Grace was doing a supervillain check, dammit.

There was obviously no way in hell that Grace was getting anywhere Shockwave didn't want her without her knowing. Thus, her grand heist plan for gathering intelligence looked a little like this:

Grace walked towards the barn, where Shockwave was doing something-or-other to the barn roof. When he stopped and turned to regard her, she stopped. She smiled. Shockwave did not smile back, on account of having no mouth, along with just a bad attitude in general.

Grace walked a little closer. Shockwave made no move to stop her.

Still baring her teeth at him, Grace scuttled forward once, twice, until finally, she was within reach of the door.

"Are you having some sort of mental break?" Shockwave asked calmly.

Grace spread her mouth even wider and wrenched open the door. Sunlight poured into the interior.

"If you had wished to examine my workspace," Shockwave began, perhaps a touch exasperatedly. Grace ignored him, ducking in through the gap.

She hadn't actually been in her barn since Shockwave had taken it over. Since a fair sight before, actually. The dilapidated stalls in the back had been taken out--that was a good job done--but the loft was still there, a straight, black outline in the rafters. Beyond that, though, the space was unrecognizable.

"Jesus, she muttered, as the looming shadow of Shockwave filled the door behind her. "I've seen planes smaller'n that table. What the fuck."

"I have seen planes smaller than you," Shockwave said. "They did not survive very long. Do not touch anything, or you shall be deposited outside."

Big words from a guy who'd had to replace his eye after the last time he'd tried to pull something fishy. Grace could still see a broad purple scuff mark on the floor from when he'd slipped and banged his elbow or something trying to catch her. Good times.

The source of the yellow glow was immediately apparent--a clear water tank, taller than it was wide, tucked into the corner like an afterthought. Inside it was--

"What the shit," Grace heard herself say, heart pounding. "Is that a fucking baby ?"

"In a sense," Shockwave said disapprovingly, stepping into the room over her and following her gaze. "An oversimplification. Technically it is an embryo. Alternatively, a larva. Or the precursor to one."

"Well, that's much better," Grace said.

"Is it?"

" No. No, it's not, but thank you for playing!" Grace ran her fingers through her hair, growling. "What in the goddamn...if you're starting a hive, I'm kickin' you out."

Shockwave looked offended. "If I were physiologically capable, I am certain I would devise a far more hospitable settlement than your barn."

" That's the part you take exception to--?" Grace swore into her hands. "I'm gonna get an ulcer. Five ulcers. Why's there a baby in the tank, son? Answer in fifteen words or less."

Shockwave considered. "Because I am growing it."

"Oh, fucking 'course. Naturally. What in the hell is it?"

"Does your previous limitation apply?"

"Y'know what, take thirty this time."

Shockwave took a moment to collect his thoughts. "It is the seeded fossil of an ancient animal native to my own planet, colloquially known as Predacons. I am attempting to create a viable clone."

" Why ?"

"Because there is a war," Shockwave said, calmly. "And I do not anticipate being able to hide forever."

Grace's world stopped. For a moment, her own breathing was loud enough to echo through the barn through the rafters, through her own bones. She swayed.

"Are you well?" asked Shockwave, more curiously than anything.

Grace ignored him, focusing on keeping her footing. She wasn't as young as she once was, and she didn't need to crack something open on the concrete flooring. "Bring--" she cleared her throat, trying to get rid of the sandy bile in the back of her throat. "Chair. Need a chair."

For a moment, it seemed as though Shockwave hadn't heard her. Or he was ignoring her, intent on watching whatever happened next. But then the moment passed, and he got some kind of box from the table for her to rest on. Grace sank down on it gratefully, hoping it wasn't anything too radioactive.

Grace scrubbed her fingers through her hair, trying to forget the feeling of a folded flag bunching under her clenched fingers. They'd brought her a flag. They'd brought her pictures like she'd want to remember the husk of some burned-out plane, a dead bird corpse propped up on the runway...

Slowly, her breathing evened out again. Grace had heard that other people hyperventilated when they got... like that, but she slowed down. Slow, slower, so that there was no escape. Just Grace and the space where someone else should have been.

Slowly, Grace came back together. The barn was eerily quiet.

"Are--"

" Jesus Mary n'Joseph !" Grace spun around so fast she nearly slid off the box. "Were you just standing there the entire time?"

"Yes," said Shockwave.

"Jesus." Grace pushed herself to her feet, stumbling. "Soon as I can fucking walk straight, I'm gonna kick your creepy rear."

"Of course. If there was nothing else?"

Rewind. Alien war. "Yeah, couple things. You wanna expand on that whole war thing? And then the baby? "

"It is not a baby. And those who will come for me are unlikely to harm you." His one great purple hand gently nudged her out. She snarled at him, jumping back. " They like humans."

The door slid shut.

...

Things were a tad different after that.

Grace drank for the first time since she'd woken up with the headache of all headaches waiting for her in the barn. She tried not to feel like she was falling off the bandwagon. She wasn't trying to quit. Not really, anyway. It was just that if there was something she hated more than being sober and lonely for large periods, it was drinking where other people could see her. Even if Shockwave wouldn't have blinked if he'd found her dead with the bottle in her mouth, she felt like he'd judge her, and that was worse.

The taste of death in her mouth the next morning proved her a liar. she was quitting cold turkey, and she was doing it with the world's biggest jackass living twenty yards away. Heaven fucking help her.

...

"Grace," Shockwave greeted her a few mornings after. "The embryo--"

She snarled at him, wordlessly, and kept fucking walking. Wisely, Shockwave shut right the hell up.

...

In between the cravings and migraines and the other unexpected delights withdrawal held, she really did do her best to be civil with her new boarder. Kinda. Grace had the vague impression that you had to be saintly to actually like her, and nearly as nice to tolerate if you happened to have standards. but driving Shockwave off on account of her personality was--it was losing . To Shockwave. To the alcohol. To something.

One might even say she'd formed a Plan--now, that thought? That thought she hated. Grace nearly grabbed her whiskey then and there, because she didn't do Plans.

But Alice would want her to try. Ralph would want her to try. Grace herself might’ve been a nasty old bitch with a rundown farm and a house that still smelled like a barstool, but she’d promised people far better than her that she’d keep going, and by God, if she had to submit to sobriety and giving a damn and taking care of herself, she was gonna drag someone else down with her.

Shockwave very clearly had a Deal. In the 1AM-at-a-bar, what’s-their-deal sense of the term. Grace’s Deal was her house and her booze and her ghosts, and Shockwave’s deal was—what? That he was on the run? That alien war he barely seemed to care about? Just a jerk in general? None of those quite fit right.

Although the third was a definite, to be sure. Grace supposed that if you were a big enough jerk, the prospect of running your whole life or dealing with existential tragedy and loneliness might not bother you so much compared to an existence resigned to your own company.

But there was—eh. Maybe there wasn’t. But there was something about the concentration Shockwave afforded to his work, to the thing in the tank that was slowly growing from a lumpy sort of metal zygote-looking thing into something as spiky and nasty-looking as Shockwave himself—well. Call Grace crazy, but she thought he might’ve enjoyed that sort of work once. Loved it, even; and loving something so much you gave yourself to it was something she could understand.

So. If Grace was gonna survive, so was the awful metal scientist. Shockwave would rue the day he made her start to give a damn.

...

The door slid open. Shockwave's replacement optic contracted painfully in the harsh light after so many hours of darkness. He had not noted the dawn.

Grace stood silhouetted in the doorway, hands on her hips. "Live this open. Y'need more sunlight in this sty, Christ. Listen, how often d'you need to eat?"

"...Twice a day." More, preferably, but Shockwave had to ration. The steady supply of energon aside, he simply did not feel hunger strongly enough to turn from his work these days. A relatively minor side effect of Shadowplay, without the psychological benefits of eating to help reinforce the habit.

"Gotcha," Grace nodded once and stomped off.

Shockwave returned to his work.

...

" Eat! " Grace screeched, eight hours later. Her voice was loud enough to stir Laserbeak, still in stasis on the shelf.

Shockwave turned to confront this new distraction, but Grace was already running off, boots pounding in the grass.

Hmm.

...

"Eat! "

Something light clattered against Shockwave's ankle. It was a stick, apparently thrown at him. Grace was once again running back to the house, apparently content with whatever labor she thought she had completed. Perhaps she was showing signs of senility, in her relative old age. Shockwave was unsure how long humans lived, but he was hopeful the answer was not too long .

Her outburst had coincided, interestingly enough, with Shockwave's mealtime. Most curious.

...

"Eat!"

Shockwave dodged the plastic pipe with little effort. "As charming as your delusions are, you are not accomplishing anything. Please choose a location where you can lose the rest of your faculties in relative dignity."

Grace made a cheerful and rather uncalled for remark upon Shockwave's skill as a technician. "Not getting off that easily, metal boy! I'm gonna be just fine, and you're suffering along with me!"

Grace whooped, laughing at him, and spread her arms wide. The sunlight lit her expression from above, grinning so fiercely she nearly looked furious. For a moment, Shockwave stopped. For a moment, he thought he had seen that face before--in a window?

(In a mirror?)

The back of his neck pulsed dully.

A foolish mistake.

Shockwave slid the door shut on her histrionics, casting the barn into shadow. He did not turn on the lamp for a very long time.

...

The first sign that something was wrong was the barn, because of course it was. Grace had gone thirty years without looking at that damn thing, and now she had to watch it like the weather channel. Cloudy, with a chance of robot alien tantrums. Jesus Christ.

The absence of sound, as far as Grace was concerned, was about as ominous as it got without breaking out with the plastic skeletons and the lanterns. Rumbling? Fine. Horrible machine screeching? Shockwave's knees made worse sounds.

Grace started awake in bed, pulse hammering, ears already straining. It took her a second to think, to realize why she wasn't calming down. It was dead silent.

Grace pulled a coat on over her nightdress, muttering swear words under her breath to keep her hands from shaking. The night outside was a pleasant one, cool and still. she could hear the sounds of critters in the woods, the soft swishing of the trees. all perfectly normal, natural sounds.

God fucking dammit. She took off for the barn at a run.

The barn door protested loudly as she pushed it open, straining. It gave way with a faint sucking sound. Shockwave must've insulated it along with the rest of the barn, the pretentious bastard. How long had it been since he hadn't been there to open the door for her?

The only light inside was the faint glow of the energon stockpile, casting everything in a faint, unearthly blue. It wasn't particularly helpful towards making anything out aside from a few ghastly fucking shadows, but Grace hadn't thought to bring a flashlight, so that was that. The equipment was either broken or turned off, without even the standby lights to mark their controls. No power, then. Come to think of it, where did Shockwave get his power? He sure wasn't on the town line, or the electricity company would've shown up at Grace's door with a tanning knife. She wasn't used to it being so damned dark in here, even at night. Even when she showed up before dawn, Shockwave was there, working by the light of--

Grace's stomach dropped, as she realized what she should've fucking noticed before she'd even gotten to the doors. The tank was empty--shattered, actually, bits of glass and foul-smelling fluid just barely glinting in a starburst shape around the base. The glowing yellow thing inside was missing entirely.

Something moved in the darkness behind Grace. Or not.

She bolted to the side, just as something dark and sharp sliced through the air with a thin hiss of displaced air.

Grace stumbled against the wall, pulse pounding in her ears as she scanned the darkness. Something soft fell on her shoulders. Hair. The thing had sliced through her hair .

Grace abruptly felt her terror crystallize into anger. She'd never done well with being spooked.

She could just barely hear it, a light, thready hum of shifting metal parts and noisy wings as it circled. It was going to come back down, and when it did, she needed to be gone . It wasn't enough to be mobile, Grace needed the environment on her side.

Her eyes fell on the shattered remains of the tank. A few of the larger pieces held their shape, jutting up into the air.

She looked back down. Barefoot. Of course she was.

And then she was out of time entirely, and before Grace quite knew it she was moving. Up, around, jump-- ow, fuck a duck , that really did hurt--ow ow ow dammit but still moving , around the biggest shard of the bunch and under the desk, heading towards the wall--

Something metallic and angry screeched horribly as a wing caught on the shard of glass, sending it screeching to the floor amongst the smaller pieces.

Grace huddled by the table leg, trying to desperately calm down. The hulking mass of dark metal laid still.

Something warm and wet soaked into the sole of her feet. Oh. Right. The largest toe on her right foot had been pierced on the side, a thin layer of skin wrapped around a spike of glass. From the feeling, she was willing to bet that the soles looked like hamburger meat. Fucking figured.

She closed her eyes, and the nausea came and passed. Once Grace no longer felt like she was gonna pass out then and there, she planted her butt on the floor and started yanking the larger pieces of glass out of her feet. within seconds, her fingers with gummy with blood. If she made it to seventy, it was gonna be a god damned miracle. Or, possibly some kind of cosmic punishment.

Once she could walk without hurting herself even more, she hobbled over to the mass of metal and bad attitude on the floor and gave it as solid a kick as she could manage. "And a lovely fucking hello to you too."

The metal shrieked at her, oddly birdlike. Now that she looked at it, it kinda seemed avian. Or possibly like some kind of...origami mistake. Either way, it seemed just as outraged with the glass stuck in its wing as Grace did with its entire existence.

"You wouldn't happen to know a Shockwave, huh?" Grace asked, mostly as a distraction. She didn't feel like braving the damp lawn with the state of her feet just yet. "Big, purple, thinks he's hot shit? Got the personality of an ill-bred toaster oven?"

The origami debacle stilled, whirring quietly. Slowly, lines of dim purple light faded into view.

"Sounds like a yes, huh." At least it understood English. They. He. She. Whatever. "Any idea which way he went?"

The murder bird hissed, high and sharp, and tried to lunge forward. Iridescent blue dripped from the wound in its shoulder.

"Tell you what. You hang out here, and I'll find the son of a bitch himself. You try not to bleed out, and maybe we can all put our noodles together and figure out, y'know." Grace spread a hand around, indicating everything at large. "What the fuck."

The sound of indignant, rattling static followed Grace to the door. It wasn't until she was back out in the dim moonlight that she made out a faint, almost plaintive word. Soundwave? Soundwave? Soundwave?

It sounded like a little lost child.

Son of a bitch .

Grace stomped back over, feet pulsing painfully, and grabbed an old saddle blanket from the back corner. She tossed it over the thing. "I'll be back in a flash, you weird little thing. Shockwave'll fix you right up."

It snapped at her ankles. Grace jumped back out the way and onto another piece of glass. Swearing, she yanked it out and stomped away. Served her right for being such a fucking soft touch. She was throwing the lot out on their aluminum ears, she swore to God.

It took her about a dozen steps to register that whatever had just tried to scalp her had looked nothing like the thing in the tank. Too small, for one. It took another four to realize that the woods had gone dead quiet. The kind of quiet that only came around when there was a predator in the neighborhood.

Swearing silently at Shockwave, herself, and a=anything else that came to mind, Grace looked up.

Perched on the roof like a lounging, hideous cat, a giant glowing metal alien dragon was eyeing her the way the mouser had used to eye a baby mouse, like she was a soft little treat that either was or wasn't worth the effort yet. It had Shockwave beat for size by a solid few yards.

She scowled at it. "Seen a giant purple dumbass around these here parts?"

The Giant Glowing Alien Metal Dragon cocked its head at her, eyes burning gold.

"Long shot, I figured."

Grace set off towards the treeline, trying not the vomit. Apparently deciding that she wasn't acting like prey, the Giant Glowing alien Metal Dragon put its head down on its paws and went back to watching the yard through slitted eyes.

She found the impression he had left more than Grace actually found Shockwave. He appeared to have been tossed into the treeline, skidding through a good few tree trunks before he finally came to rest. There didn't seem to be any fuel on him, but he was certainly down for the count.

Experimentally, Grace tugged on a foot. Shocking no one, this did nothing except perhaps cement how awful the night was turning out

Grace walked back over to the Giant Glowing Alien Metal Dragon. Shockwave had called it something a little pithier, but she was frankly too terrified to give it much thought. "'Scuse me, but my friend? Yes, him. You seemed to have just kinda...tossed him over there. Mind dragging him into the barn? I'd be obliged."

The Giant Glowing Alien Metal Dragon snorted. Hot, hot air washed over Grace, a sharp contrast to the cool night air. "I know, and I'm really sorry to ask, but he's down , bud. He's out . You won that particular bout with flying colors, and he's not going anywhere unless someone moves him for him. Would you mind?"

The Giant Glowing Alien Metal Dragon shot her the evilest eye Grace had ever gotten. Unsurprisingly, it seemed like the dragon was good at those. Languidly, it stretched, melting off the roof like a cat from a sunspot. It was a Giant Glowing Alien Metal Dragon, but it was a Giant Glowing Alien Metal Dragon with class , apparently.

It dragged Shockwave out of the woods by the foot and set him in a heap on the barn floor. Apparently satisfied, it sniffed the area where the tank used to be, swept the glass out of the way with its tail and settled into a ball, dwarfing the remains of the tank by an order of magnitude. Go figure.

Grace poked Shockwave. "Better fucking not be dead. Do we have a jump starter or something?"

The dragon snorted at her. The Origami Thing screeched irritably from Shockwave's far side. Fucking helpful.

...

Shockwave awoke to the sound of chaos. Something high and screeching was interspersed with deeper, irate growls, like some caricature of a conversation. The sound was reminiscent of the Nemesis. The familiarity was not comforting.

He sat up with an effort. His chest stung terribly. For some reason, someone seemed to have attached a weak battery to himself and left it hanging by the cords. He batted it away, manually activating his optic.

The barn was in a terrible state. Without turning his head, Shockwave could already spot damage that would not be undone easily. If ever, in fact. It took a long moment of dull curiosity for the shape at the far end of the barn to solidify into the Predacon, now fully armored and just as fearsome as Shockwave had anticipated. The high-pitched noises were Laserbeak, apparently finally awoken by the noise. She did not sound happy.

Shockwave forced himself to his feet. The generator must have blown entirely for the barn to be in such complete darkness. If he was to salvage anything left of Project Predacon for a second attempt, he would need to work quickly.

"Whoa, watch your fuckin' step!"

Shockwave halted. Grace stumbled back out of his way, leaning against the wall and looking as irate as usual. She seemed to have sustained damage to her feet, which she had been in the process of wrapping up. The roll of gauze was a thin, bright daub of white in the darkness.

To her immediate right, a fully awake, clearly unhappy Laserbeak chittered at her, a spike of glass clearly visible in her wing. Shockwave's chronometer reported that he had only been unconscious for a matter of minutes. Clearly, they had been well spent.

He stood, with an effort. While Shockwave could detect no abrasions on his person, the entirety of his back had sustained general damage, most likely from...ah.

The memory files were loading now. He had mishandled the last and most delicate stage of the operation. The fact that the Predacon was lying peacefully in the corner as opposed to running loose through the countryside was a definite surprise.

Shockwave was not fond of surprises. They were symptoms of variables he could not control. "What transpired while I was offline?"

Grace raised an eyebrow. "Am I supposed to know? I just got here, wiseass. I've been running clean up after your Jurassic Park ass since three in the goddamn morning. Where the hell did that come from? And why's it so keen on taking my head off?"

She brandished her hair, which had been shortened on one side.

"Laserbeak," Shockwave addressed the satellite component. She fell silent at her name. "The human is not hostile."

Laserbeak agreed easily enough. Apparently, Grace had made a passible first impression.

"Hi, Laserbeak," said Grace. "I'm Grace. Does the dragon have a name, too? Is that what we're fuckin' doing now?"

"There is no need for histrionics," Shockwave told her.

"Sweetheart," Grace said, sweetly. "If I were having histrionics, believe me. You'd know . Now answer the question, before I go apeshit."

Laserbeak rattled pathetically. Shockwave retrieved her, prising the spike of glass out of her wing joint with some effort. "This is Laserbeak. She has been left under my care until she could be safely retrieved."

Grace rubbed her temples. "What, she's just been here the entire time?"

"In stasis, yes. It was not necessary to awaken her."

Laserbeak hissed in protest. Shockwave set her on the table, where she could work through her reaction to the situation without immediate access to the delicate wiring in his wrists.

"Yeah, I'm with her." Grace jerked her chin, frowning. "She's been asleep on the shelf for a solid month? Jesus Christ, why ?"

This was not the aspect of the situation he had expected Grace to fixate on. Perhaps she placed even less importance on her own safety than Shockwave did, considering that both Laserbeak and the Predacon were more than capable of tearing her to pieces. "It was not necessary."

Soundwave? Laserbeak asked. Soundwave? Soundwave?

"Soundwave chose to remain on the Nemesis ," Shockwave told her. "My condolences."

She shrieked at him, high and long and furious, and took off into the night with a vicious twist of sharpened wings. The tip of her wingspan clipped the door as she passed, leaving a clean cut in the wood.

Grace tentatively removed her hands from her ears, checking for blood. "Jesus."

Laserbeak had been steadily losing energon for some time. It was doubtful she would make it beyond the confines of the woods, no matter what direction she followed. Retrieving her would be a simple matter. "You may return to your rest, Grace. Thank you for your assistance."

She stared at him, a disbelieving grin slowly spreading across her face. "You're joking, right? That knock on the head unlocked your funny protocols or whatever shit. What's keeping your dragon thing from tearing you a new one all over again?"

"Safeguards will be put into place," he told her. The Predacon raised its head and growled.

"Sure." Grace leaned against the doorway. "You know what? You have fun getting your ass handed to you via the treeline. I'm going to bed."

...

The next day dawned like a horrible realization. Grace's joints ached, her head pounded, and her mouth tasted the way a bad haircut looked. It was the sort of morning that made Grace want to go back in time and kill herself before she went to bed the night before, just to spare herself the disappointment.

Terror hangover. That was new.

Breakfast was a torn-off piece of bread, stuffed in her face as she jogged across the lawn. In the daylight, the large, unreasonably spiky creature lounging on the roof looked just as capable of slaughtering her as it had the night before.

"'Morning," Grace told the Predacon. It rumbled at her.

The door was ajar. Shockwave was at his usual place, looking his usual amount of unruffled. Grace's fingers itched for her shotgun. She was pretty sure the only reason it bothered Shockwave at all was that he was a big baby about getting hurt, and she was entitled to a little compensation after the fucking nightmare she'd dealt with while he snoozed it off in the bushes.

"I will be setting out to retrieve Laserbeak," he said, in lieu of a greeting. "I suggest you avoid the Predacon while I am gone, as a matter of safety."

"Seems to like me better'n he likes you," Grace said pointedly. "Good morning, you're welcome for dealing with your fuck up, all that good stuff. Any idea how you're finding--Christ, is that really her name?"

"A rough translation of it. My path through your forest is quite easy to retrace. Scanning for Cybertronian vital signs will be an imminently simple matter."

"In a dense forest?" Grace pointed out. "looking' for a stealth bird , or whatever?"

"Indeed."

"Christ, I hate you." It was the damnedest thing. Shockwave looked like he could function as an adult person, but actually, he was a dumbass who blew things up indoors and got tossed around by Frankensteinian dragon monsters. Jesus. "Have fun getting lost for three hours, idiot."

"You doubt me?" Shockwave's yellow eye finally swung around to look at her. "An interesting perspective from a member of a species that only invented lidar within the last century."

"O ho , someone's feeling catty. Wait a minute, I'll need m'good boots." Letting him fuck off into the woods by himself after the flustercluck last night sounded like a fishing trip in a sewage treatment facility: bound to catch shit.

"Unnecessary. Furthermore, illogical." Shockwave turned back to whatever fiddly little light-up toy he had on the work table. "Your presence would only hinder my progress."

"Yeah, and you dying in the woods would leave me with a bored dragon and a barn full of bullshit, so we're even." Grace ducked around the doorway before he could answer.

Almost immediately, her foot slipped on the grass, pulling the skin on the sole of her foot, and knives of pain re-embedded themselves underneath the bandages.

Cursing, Grace wrestled her rainboot off. The gauze was rusty and pink from bleeding all night.

Shit. Backing out meant she would lose face, which definitely wasn't an option. She could change bandages when she went in, but there wasn't a reality where hiking would mean anything less than hobbling herself for months.

...Unless.

Grace hop-limped over to where the Predacon's head was hanging off the roof of the barn, steaming curling lazily from its huge nostrils. "Hey. Hey , 'Scuse me. Can I get a sec?"

One luminous yellow eye opened. The Predacon stretched, neck arching so that its spikes bristled eye-catchingly. Once it was done, it looked at her, not maliciously.

"Hi again," Grace said, brightly. "So I'm sure you noticed, but I banged m'feet up pretty bad. And we're plannin' an excursion today, so I'm up shit creek without workin' feet, as they say. Could I bum a ride?"

The Predacon seemed to take a moment to process this. Then, it leaned down and breathed directly over Grace, artificially warm air blowing her hair back.

So he could breathe fire. Important safety tip, right there.

"You make a valid point," Grace said, trying in vain to get her hair to go back in place. It wasn't like she styled it, Jesus. "But consider this: it'd piss Shockwave all the way off."

The dragon considered, snout still pointed casually towards Grace. If he got a sneeze, there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it but roast.

After an unnecessarily long moment, it offered her a solemn nod.

Great . Great. Grace stammered her thanks and ran in to change her bandages, feeling like she'd stepped in front of--and then dodged --a bullet. Made of flames.

...

"Absurd," Shockwave announced. "Completely unacceptable."

"I really hoped you'd say that," Grace said, apparently pleased with herself.

It had taken the human an unreasonable amount of time to get ready. Shockwave estimated that he could have easily have scouted then immediate vicinity just in the time she had taken to 'get her boots on'. It seemed that even such simple tasks as operating shoelaces required a great deal of effort from the little creature.

When she finally arrived, it was with a new, wholly unanticipated problem. Shockwave had hoped that simple principles such as staying away from apex predators might have been instilled in the human already. Judging by the ease with which she nestled among the barbs on the Predacon's neck, a jostle away from being stabbed, this was not the case.

"The Predacon is not a beast of burden," said Shockwave. "Get down from there immediately."

"Thought you said I was gonna be a liability ," Grace crowed. "I'm not hurting anything, huh? What, am I gonna break your fuckin' dragon?"

She gave a barb a light kick. The Predacon shook its head, snorting in protest, and Grace was forced to grab hold lest she be thrown off. Despite her bravado, it was apparent that she was not the one in control. This could prove an opportunity to test the Predacon's instincts for pack behavior, and to see how well it responded to simple orders. The worst that could come of the human's presence was her death, which held no great repercussions. If she could be killed.

Decision made, Shockwave ducked through the foliage, eager to see how the Predacon would intuit an unspoken prompt. "Your argument is crude, but logical."

" Crude, but logical . Mneh," he heard Grace mutter. "Sorry about him, big guy. He's not big in the brains department."

...

Grace hadn't been in the woods since...Jesus. Since before the drinking was a problem. Which probably meant not since Alice, so...yeah. That was some math she didn't feel like following all the way through, but it'd been a good few years. Predictably, shit had changed around a little.

Alice's tree had fallen over, for one. Shockwave actually stepped on it as he passed, but it didn't really matter. The needles had gone orangey-brown and mostly fallen off, leaving bare, brittle bark in its wake. It was a wonder it hadn't fallen down before, honestly. Grace had gotten a damn fucking heart attack every time she saw Alice scaling the slender branches, trusting her weight to something that was clearly too ruined by sickness and parasites to support her. Alice had believed in the tree, though; said that it would pull through in the end.

It split cleanly under Shockwave's foot, sending a small wave of insects scattering into the leaves. Fucking figured.

At least someone was having a good time. The Predacon seemed entranced, head swiveling every which way to take it all in. If she was eight hours old, Grace figured, and the only thing she'd really seen was a couple of grumps and the farm they lived on, she'd be pretty impressed with the woods, too.

Then he jumped to snap at the lowest branches of some hardwood or another, and Grace had to scramble to avoid falling off. "Jesus--"

"Cease," commanded Shockwave. He had paused, head turned all the way around like an owl. Like he wasn't creepy enough. "This is not a recreational excursion. If you cannot behave yourself, your presence here will not be required."

The Predacon subsided, hissing deep in its throat. Shockwave turned his head back around and set off again, apparently unconcerned with the prospect of turning his back on an irritated dragon.

Jesus. Grace leaned up to get the Predacon's attention. "Don't take it too personally, big guy. I don't think he realizes what he says most of the time."

Shockwave's head snapped back around. "I would hope you realize I can detect everything you say."

"No one has the heart to tell 'em that's just how ears work," Grace added solemnly. "He's so proud of it, too, bless'um."

The Predacon turned so that it could see her out of the corner of his eye. Grace wasn't sure, but she thought he looked amused.

It was just barely autumn, which meant it was more August than anything. The hardwoods were starting to look yellowish, but it was early enough in the season that they looked sickly instead of picturesque. The oaks were still fine, though; or at least they were before the Predacon pushed them out of his way. Grace had meant to say something or other about it; but by the time she was done gaping at the huge sections of roots that came out of the ground as easily as a carrot, they had already moved on and it felt awkward to just bring it up. Also, unlike Shockwave, she had a vague idea that the Predacon wouldn't take constructive criticism as much more than an opportunity to snack.

Instead, Grace let herself babble. She'd been good at chit-chat, once upon a time; you just let your mouth run, and threw a rock at it whenever it wandered too close to messy territory. Shockwave didn't give her a reaction either way, but the Predacon seemed to listen.

He was a good boy. Grace gave him an affectionate little pat every once in a while. She wasn't entirely sure he could feel it, but eh. It made her feel better.

Eventually, the sunlight ahead grew brighter on one side. They broke through the trees on the diagonal, so that the treeline stretched around like an arm on one side, framing the first few yards of the prairie as if in presentation.

Shit, Grace lived in a pretty place. Shockwave sure as fuck wasn't gonna enjoy a vista like this, and no one else came near. It was a damn shame she didn't leave the farm more, that's all.

"Follow," Shockwave said tonelessly. It was the first time he'd spoken up in a while. "Quietly. The open air carries sound more effectively."

"Are we hiding from someone?" Grace asked, maybe a little petulantly. The idea of hiking around in abject silence wasn't a fun one.

"You are not." Shockwave referred to the scanner. "We, however, are."

He set off, a giant purple tower in a sea of beige. Fucking idiot.

The Predacon was little better. He started forward with his head canted up towards the sky like a showhorse, daring someone to notice him. Grace shifted so that she wasn't in danger of falling back and onto the spikes behind her. As they set off, she thought she saw the Predacon eyeing the sky speculatively.

She leaned forward. "Fair warning--I do not fly well. You take off, and Shockwave'll have to clean puke out from under your spikes. Choose wisely."

He hissed at her in distaste,  wings shuffling indignantly. Crisis averted.

After another half-hour or so, Laserbeak finally appeared as a comparatively tiny grey lump in the grass. She didn't have a face--or a head--but she still managed to look miserable.

"Ah." Shockwave picked her up and examined her like a broken kite. "A few minor injuries persist, but she is quite repairable."

He tucked her under his arm like a football and turned to leave.

"Now wait a fuckin' minute," Grace said. "You're in charge, right? Someone entrusted that thing into your care, right? Told you to keep her safe?"

"Affirmative." Shockwave paused as he passed them. His gaze was...unnervingly guileless. Grace suppressed a shiver. Shockwave looked at people the way most people looked at an empty envelope.

"Then care ," Grace snapped more angrily than she meant to. Shockwave didn't make direct eye contact very often. Maybe that was a good thing. "If she's one of yours, then you damn well act like it!"

"Caring and care for something in the material sense of the term are not mutually inclusive," Shockwave countered. He started moving again, and Grace felt herself unconsciously relax once she was no longer in the crosshairs of that stupid traffic light he called an eye. "Laserbeak shall make a full recovery."

"She wouldn't need a damn recovery if you'd done your fuckin' job ," Grace snapped. "But that's not your problem, right? not your fucking job, to, to care about something other than yourself, right? That's for other people!"

"Emotional attachment and maintenance are not the same," Shockwave said, slightly louder than usual. "Despite how your primitive language construes them. Laserbeak's family would not have entrusted her to me had she required the former. For the latter, my means are more than accurate."

"Of course she needs you to care," Grace snarled. Her pulse was roaring in her ears. "Of course she--!"

"I do not care," Shockwave said over her. His voice was cold and clear. "Not because Laserbeak is undeserving of my attention, but because  I am physically incapable of it."

He waited for her to say something. When she didn't, he turned and began to make his way back towards the treeline, just as calmly as he'd come.

Still sitting on the Predacon's neck, Grace watched him go.

Shit.

...

Shockwave's announcement seemed to have an unexpectedly profound effect on the farm. He hadn't anticipated the fact that his condition was news to Grace; furthermore, he hadn't expected it to matter to her. The result was an interesting mixture of greater isolation, interspersed with more notable moments of contact, as she struggled to maintain equilibrium in light of this new information. It was a striking difference, given how little the information actually affected life on the farm.

The first few days were spent in relative peace, as Grace avoided the barn. On occasion, Shockwave caught sight of her speaking at the Predacon, as though expecting a coherent answer. Her tendency to anthropomorphize the creature was astounding.

Laserbeak occasionally took it upon herself to spy on the human, collecting hours of footage of Grace in the garden, Grace tucked foolishly close to the Predacon, gesturing wildly with her hands, and Grace sitting listlessly in her house, staring sightlessly through a handful of primitive pictures strewn over her lap.

None of this was of any meaning to Shockwave, but it seemed to help manage Laserbeak's stress level. At least she had made no further attempt to locate Soundwave.

There had been no word from him. As the days after Laserbeak's reactivation stretched on, the possibility that he had been damaged beyond coherency loomed larger. His death would have alerted Laserbeak immediately, of course; but a slow fade from sanity would have been too gradual for her to detect. Conversely, Laserbeak's jarring, unexpected return to consciousness would have pinged Soundwave before her systems had finished rebooting. The lack of communication was alarming, though not unduly so. There were many reasons a spy would not reach out, even if none of them suggested perfect health and a sound mind.

The Predacon, meanwhile, had not been designed with inaction in mind. Shockwave quickly found it necessary to allow it to roam the countryside, with strict orders to appear to no one. Already, it was gone nearly as often as it was present. Shockwave was confident he continued to hold the creature's loyalty, however. The farm may have been confining and unattractive, but it was where it must return if it wanted to eat.

...

If it weren't for the others, he might not have returned to the farm at all. Shockwave might think him a slave to his instincts, a mindless beast clinging to its den; but the scientist was a faded, unhappy little thing who assumed everyone was as unfortunate a creature as he was. The Predacon knew who he was, though, and he knew where his loyalties lay. He would not be one who abandoned his allies.

Once, he understood, the farm had only been Grace's. She had allowed Shockwave to stay, out of a sense of pity and honor, no doubt; and Shockwave had brought Laserbeak with him to honor one of the few allies someone like him was able to sustain. Shockwave may have been the one to conjure the Predacon forth, but it was on Grace's land that he had come forth. It was of her soil and energon that his body had been forged, and so his allegiance was not only Shockwave's. A comforting thought--the scientist was almost amusingly poor company. At least Laserbeak was entertaining, excitable though she was.

He had the vague impression that things were not always this way. Laserbeak spoke with the hurriedness of one who had not spoken in ages. Grace, at first, had been fearless and warlike, just as willing to stand up to Shockwave as she was to the Predacon. She was--more retired, now, but the underlying fire remained. Shockwave...

Well. The Predacon was under the impression that Shockwave had been Shockwave for a very long time. He had probably remained unchanged since long before he had come here.

Units of time were a difficult thing. Grace's measures of days and nights seemed short, but he could not remember very many of them, and so perhaps they were longer than he realized. Laserbeak outlined joors and orns, but they were based on the movements of some other place and time. Using them felt impractical and unwieldy.

Visions and whispers of another land, another time, and another family ran through his dreams. As time went on, the farm seemed smaller and smaller.

So, he left.

Never for long--he had bonds with Grace and Laserbeak that could not be ignored, and he was certain Shockwave was incapable of operating safely without supervision for large amounts of time. The area around the farm was more than enough, though--forests and open plains, foothills that ascended into towering mountains. The Predacon's dreams held nothing like this.

Grace's was not the only homestead he returned to. Worn little houses dotted the prairies, hunkering in the meager cover of a few planted conifers. Newer structures could be found amongst the foothills, tucked into valleys or beside rivers. The Predacon knew them all; memorized faces and buildings, noted which ones turned up to him in awe or in fear. If the farm was Grace's territory, this was his.

Shockwave thought him faithless. Let him. The ones who mattered would know better.

...

It was a rough week.

The first thing Grace had done when they all got back was pour even remotely boozy out the window into the side garden. Not even just the usual shit--she threw out the rubbing alcohol, the bottle Ralph's parents had given them on their wedding night, an old bottle she'd been using as a flower vase. She was battening down the fucking hatches, and if that meant lashing herself to sobriety with a god damn zip tie, she could live with that.

The plants in the side garden were probably dead now. Grace had a feeling that if the two 12-packs hadn't done it, the nail polish remover had. Wasn't like she had a use for that shit anymore. She was on the wagon for good this time. For good.

When she was done, Grace drew herself a bath. She didn't get out until she was shivering.

The next morning dawned. The light changed. Grace watched it from the bed, wondering vaguely why she wasn't getting up, making food, tending to the farm. She hadn't been drinking . These days were supposed to be over .

Maybe the problem hadn't been the drinking. Maybe it was just her.

...Fuck that.

It took her the better part of the morning, but Grace finally got herself out of bed and into the shower. Shampoo. Condition. Jesus fuck , it really was one of those days, huh. Grace buried her face in her hands and screeched, trying not to cry in frustration. Some days, everything was hard. Some days, there was nothing for it but crawling along the best you could.

Grace made herself eat some toast. She washed her sheets, on account of them smelling sour and old lady-ish. One step, and then another. Take sheets off the bed. Put them in the machine. Leave them there for a bit instead of hitting the buttons. Wait until her own lack of a functioning work ethic disgusted her enough for her to add soap and start the machine. It was like walking in a blizzard--as long as she kept moving, she'd be fine.

Grace went to bed exhausted.

It had been a while since the bullshit she'd had to deal with was her own. Shockwave seemed to exude it in a miasma, drawing everything in until it was Asshole Robots Power Hour. It was nearly relaxing. Shit was so much easier to deal with when it wasn't hers.

Christ, she was never saying that in front of Shockwave. That was some sappy bullshit, right there.

It wasn't easier the next day, but she needed food and the food was outside, so that was that. The sunlight didn't burn her eyes nearly as much as she thought it would.

The cucumber patched bristled with too-large cucumbers. She'd have to pickle them anyway if she wanted to make it all the way through the winter. She had to get store bought meat anyway, but the pickles and fermented vegetables stretched shopping trips into once-a-month excursions. Kept the bill down, too.

Jesus wept , she decided, halfway through weeding the tomatoes. She wanted a drink.

At one pointed, Laserbeak zipped over and landed in the grass, chattering at her. The Predacon followed, loping up like some giant cat and curling his body around the garden like a comma. Fucking cute.

"Hey," Grace croaked, flicking a hand towards them. Laserbeak ventured closer, and the Predacon. "Either of you wanna take this pile over to the compost?" She flapped a hand towards weeds laying in a neat pile by her side.

The Predacon sniffed it. He scoffed, looking so offended Grace nearly wanted to apologize.

In a flash of movement, the pile was gone, and Laserbeak was already floating her way back from the pile, flicking mud from her talons as she went.

"Mighty obliged," Grace called, reaching out to pat Laserbeak on the lower-wing thing. "That's a real help, I'll tell ya."

The Predacon snarled and lunged. Grace nearly dove out of the way on instinct, but instead, his jaws snapped through the dirt of the bed, carving a chunk of soil out of the ground. Lifting it, he launched into the air, scattering bits of soil as he went to deposit the clump of mud and weeds in the pile. When he came back, he looked expectantly at Grace. His lower jaw was streaked with dirt.

"...Yeah, good job?" Grace tried. "I appreciate that just a hell of a bunch. Always use help with the weeding. Yeah. Let's get you hosed off--aw, Laserbeak, don't sulk, you did just as good. Meet by the garden hose, double-time."

In all honesty, soil was the last thing she needed in the compost, since it would slow the rot down, but Beginner's Agriculture for Apex Predators could be a lesson for a day when Grace didn't feel like going outside was a battle well run. It made it easier to eat her supper, too, remembering how proud the Predacon had looked to have helped her. It made her wonder how young he and Laserbeak were.

She slept better that night. The next day was still hell with the wheels torn off, but Grace still made a point to go out and see them. She might be a miserable bag of bones, but she'd be damned if she let that get farther than her. Grace had beaten everything else the world threw at her; she'd beat herself, too.

...

"Hey." Grace poked her head through the door. "How y'all doin'?"

Laserbeak buzzed cheerfully at her from the shelf. Grace waved back. There was her girl.

Shockwave didn't turn around. "We are adequate."

"Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Good. Listen, Shock', if we weren't alright between the two of us, would you care?"

"No." Shockwave exchanged one unfathomable tool for another. "If your behavior was not interfering with my work, one could go so far as to call us on good terms."

"Yeah. Yeah. Well, good talk. G'night, Lasy-girl, you look lovely."

Laseebeak's high-pitched shriek of farewell followed her out into the night. As soon as the door shut behind her, Grace stopped, braced her hands on her knees, and groaned, waiting for her stomach to settle. Fuck her, there was a reason she hadn't had friends in over a decade. People were hard .

...

Grace's behavior had become even more erratic than usual. Shockwave hesitated to assign subjective qualifiers, but it seemed as though he had gained the human's trust. Most puzzling.

He had done nothing to warrant this trust. It seemed that in the ensuing weeks since Grace had decided to re-integrate herself into the group, she had become accustomed to him. Strange that something so small as prolonged time spent in the same room could count for so much. Shockwave supposed there was no accounting for reason in the mind of a pack animal.

At least Grace seemed to have a positive effect on Laserbeak and the Predacon. He wasn't entirely sure what manner of association built up in the mind of Predacon between the human and home base, but the fact that it existed it all was excellent data. When he had more resources, it was entirely possible that Shockwave would be required to make more.

The future was an uncomfortable, nebulous thing. The farm was a comfortable environment, particularly in light of Laserbeak's odd attachment to the human. Eventually, though, they would be forced away. If they did not rejoin the war in some form or another, the war would come to them.

That was not an immediate concern, however. The continuing development of Project Predacon and the fulfillment of Shockwave's promise to Soundwave was, however, and Grace made both of those things easier. The farm was where they would stay. For now.

In the meanwhile, Shockwave observed.

Grace seemed to attract the others while she was in her garden. It was a prime opportunity, since it was within earshot and eyesight of the barn. Shockwave barely had to leave his work table in order the observe.

It was, for the most part, tedious work. Grace was loud and strident, easy to make out; and the others' reactions to her were easy to catalog. she made them feel at ease; comfortable, even. The tasks she set out for them were novel; her lighthearted scoldings were amusing. Slowly but surely, Grace was having a definite positive influence on Laserbeak and the Predacon. The product of some sort of emotional bond, no doubt, since Shockwave showed no sign of any such thing himself.

There were variables at play here that he could not quantify. There were hidden truths these others were privy to that Shockwave was not.

In light of this, no hypothesis he could set forth could be acted upon, since he was operating without all the information necessary.

Shockwave stopped observing Grace in her garden after only a few days.

Unfortunately, this did not actually reduce the amount of exposure to the human Shockwave had. As the seasons slowly changed and the fruits of her labors ripened, Grace set about fermenting and canning vegetables with almost feverish intensity, rotating between a good four or five different crocks. For some reason, these crocks were stored in the barn.

"Stinks up the house," Grace said cheerily. "Hate having the sink smell of dill all the damn time. And don't get me started on the garlic. Garlic's enough to make your hair curl."

"I do not have hair," Shockwave informed her.

Grace grinned, baring crooked teeth. "With my garlic, it'll curl it anyway."

With the coming of colder weather, a new dilemma presented itself. Shockwave had originally planned for the Predacon to stay within the barn for the winter, perhaps in stasis. given the beast's acute propensity for roaming, however, confinement could harm its mental state. The prospect of the Predacon panicking and breaking that confinement--and possibly the barn--was not an attractive one.

As it stood: the temperature in the area would become too cold for the Predacon. Shockwave could not control the location or the cold, but he could certainly control the creature.

In theory.

"I will be attempting to weather-proof you," he informed the Predacon, in late September. "Please report to the lab for preliminary testing."

The Predacon took off in a flare of wings and barbs. It alighted on the opposite end of the field, hissing gently.

Hmm.

...

Several hours later, it was clear a different approach was in order.

The general state of the surrounding area had...deteriorated. Although the gardens were intact, the same could not be said for the (largely unused) greenhouse located on the other side of the house. The barn, while standing, would need to be re-sealed and fortified after repeated blows to several targeted areas, rendering the structure temporarily unusable. It was easy to forget, docile though the Predacon was, that it was still very good at its original purpose.

Eventually, it disappeared over the treeline, leaving Shockwave with a very unpleasant logical next step.

He did not knock on the door so much as he did the side of the house. Grace answered all the same. "Top of the fucking morning to you. I'm assuming you're here to tell me all about your plans to fix my backyard."

"I require your assistance," Shockwave told her.

Grace blinked very hard. "...What?"

"Your presence is required," Shockwave said, very patiently, "To prevent further damage to the premises. Alternatively, you could refuse, and risk the Predacon damaging your home further."

"And what in the hell're you doing to that poor creature now ?"

"Nothing that is not required for its continued survival. If you would hurry ."

...

"No," Grace said, flatly. She kicked the tub of grease with her foot. It smelled the way the barn smelled after a hot day. "If he doesn't want this shit on him, I'm not making him. Nothing doing."

"You are being illogical," Shockwave said tonelessly. "The Predacon either submits to the unpleasantness of the sealant or the unpleasantness of freezing to death. I will not waste eons of work out of misplaced regard for its perceived comfort."

It was like arguing with a crooked slingshot. There was always a comeback, but it was seldom in the right direction. "I don't give half a rat's ass about your resource allocation, Shockwave. Can you--fuck, I dunno--make it smell better? Exactly how much of this will he need slathered on his plating, anyway?"

"The sealant must be applied directly to the protoform. This tub shall suffice for the entire creature."

"Proto- what ?" The plating on Shockwave's arm split along the seams, revealing what looked like dark cords and wiring underneath. Grace's stomach did a slow roll. " Nope . That's not fucking it, son. Make it smell prettier, and we'll talk. Would you want your muscles to smell like a pig crossed with a tractor combine?"

"Given the choice between that and the agonizingly slow loss of my faculties to extreme cold," Shockwave said, "Yes."

"Did you explain--nope, no you didn't. Jesus." Grace legitimately didn't know how Shockwave had survived this long, she swore. "Okay. So I'm gonna go get some herbs, and you're gonna turn this shit into fucking potpourri."

...

At some point, Laserbeak resolved to tell Shockwave that she was not his carrier drone. She had a wide array of skills, very few of which were useful on a farm a thousand miles away from the war. She was an analyst , an agent of silence and speed. She was very, very good at what she did. Unfortunately, being sent out to bring the Predacon home was the closest thing she had gotten to her job in months.

Finding and tailing marks on Soundwave's behalf was old hat. That had been her original function, back when there had been more than just her. Ravage had been the reconnaissance expert. Rumble was the saboteur. Frenzy had been combat support, and Buzzsaw...

Well, He had wanted to be a mechanic. See how well that had served him.

As their numbers dwindled, Laserbeak had adapted. she had always adapted.

She thought she had done a rather good job of adapting to the farm, for example. Grace was sweet, in an entertaining sort of way. She reminded Laserbeak of a chattier, angrier Soundwave--always busy, never hurried. she seemed to hold about the same regard for Shockwave, too.

At least the scientist was easy to avoid. The most interaction Laserbeak had been forced to have with him was the occasional assignment, or the odd update on their plans regarding the current situation.

It sounded as though things were staying as they were, for now. Still. It had been drilled into Laserbeak's psyche--trust your instinct, but verify. and her intuition said that, within the closed system of the farm, tension was building. She didn't know where, or when it would snap, or even what exactly was causing the change, but the farm felt like it was waiting for it.

A ping on her internal scanner snapped her out of her reverie. Out of habit, Laserbeak activated her camera for later review.

The Predacon came into view long after he should have. His mottled coloring blended in deceptively well with the dry foliage, despite the difference between the forest and the environment he had ostensibly been bred for. Laserbeak had a feeling that Shockwave had less of a hand in the Predacon's development than he assumed. Laserbeak had a lot of feelings, though.

The prehistoric creature was crouched over something in the brush, attention focused on it intently. Laserbeak chirped a standard greeting, along with the directive she had been sent to deliver.

The Predacon barely acknowledged her. Directive origin: Shockwave?

Directive origin: Grace , Laserbeak corrected, a little annoyed. General query ?

Reluctantly, the Predacon shifted so that she could scan the object of its attention.

"Oh," said the human. "Hi?"

Laserbeak jerked back so fast she hit the canopy above her. The human--it was much smaller than Grace; a juvenile?--jumped, tracking her movements with something like awe on its face. The Predacon re-circled itself around it, hissing gently. Don't scare her.

This, Laserbeak hadn't missed in the slightest. The twins had gotten into enough scuffles between them, but at least no one had tried to bring home an alien baby . Laserbeak flew around the Predacon's head, spamming the communications link with scandalized exclamations.  The Predacon batted her out of the air. not hard enough to hit the ground, but Laserbeak had to work to maintain her balance in the air. When she righted herself, the Predacon was giving her a very ugly look. You're scaring her .

It didn't look all that scared to Laserbeak, jumping up and down to see over the protective talon the Predacon had placed between it and her, but Laserbeak wasn't about to argue with an apex predator when there wasn't an intimidating old woman to yell at him for eating her. Instead, she broadcast the general impression of an irritated sigh. You can't keep it .

The Predacon hissed, apparently offended. Child. I will return her to her place. She is lost.

For Primus' sake. Fine, just do it quickly .

The Predacon ignored her, nosing at the little creature carefully. It latched onto one of his barbs and climbed its way up, far more clumsily than Grace ever had. It was short enough that it had to look around the spike in front of it to see ahead. "I think my home's North, but I didn't bring a compass. Do you remember what my house looks like?"

The Predacon rumbled a pointless affirmative. At his pointed look, Laserbeak reluctantly swooped down and grabbed the child's satchel, which appeared to be full of loose bread. Anything to make this go faster.

The Predacon took off slowly, for him; a long, loping before he finally launched himself into the sky. The child buried its face in the spike in front of it, and Laserbeak thought she knew why.

The trip to the weathered little blue house in the middle of the prairie was a long one. They both could have gone faster, but the Predacon sent Laserbeak a filthy look every time she broke ahead. She settled for zipping along in the Predacon's draft, taking advantage of the lower wind resistance.

At one point, the child reached out and brushed soft fingers against Laserbeak's lower wing. She let it. The more she looked at the little thing, the less likely it seemed that it was capable of doing any harm.

Outside the house was a human woman, far younger than Grace but with the same tense, unhappy expression she sometimes had. When she caught sight of them, the woman's face broke with emotion, stumbling forward to meet the Predacon as it landed with a buffet of wind.

The child slid off the Predacon's back, landing hard and stumbling before it was swept up in the woman's arms. She babbled into its hair, words too muffled for Laserbeak to detect.

Awkwardly, Laserbeak put the bag on the ground near her. It fell open, and some of the bread went in the grass.

The woman lifted her head, eyes disgustingly moist. " Thank you," she told the Predacon, voice uneven. "She'd been gone for hours, we didn't--"

The Predacon snorted, dry breath blowing the woman's hair back. She blinked, smiling. At her side, the child disentangled itself and patted the Predacon's talon, murmuring something soft and shy.

Laserbeak circled above in a holding pattern while the three did whatever they needed to be doing. Obviously, their human was the superior specimen. There was no crying with Grace.

Eventually, the humans went back inside. The Predacon waited until the door closed before he turned to Laserbeak. Do you see?

Negative , she said, sourly. Directive: go home, already?

...

"You're gonna be alright," Grace said fondly. "big ol' baby."

The Predacon whined pitifully. He had been snarling on and off for the last few hours, but with Grace sitting right in front of his nose, he seemed reluctant to do more than bare his fangs.

Shockwave was intrigued, to say the least. Grace had been able to do what he could not with nothing more than a few soothing phrases and her hands, pressed to the Predacon's face. The unexpected show of gentleness from her was...a surprise.

Shockwave did not enjoy surprises. They were indicative of variables he was not aware of.

As he worked, he considered the events of the last few weeks. In that short period, he had observed behaviors and situations governed by an aspect of life he did not understand.

An aspect of life, he realized, that had been artificially hidden from him.

"Easy," Grace murmured. "Almost there."

The Predacon growled, eyes on her, and abruptly turned his head away, hiding it under a wing.

Grace snorted. "Doesn't like to be babied, does he? How're we doing?"

"Virtually done." Shockwave slid the last seam of plating back into place. "Now, it must set."

Grace looked up with a scowl. "And how long'll that take?"

"Long enough."

"Great." Grace hitched up the knees of her overalls and sat next to the Predacon. "Like getting your nails done, but worse."

"I don't know what that means." Shockwave turned to go.

"Wait a sec," Grace called. When he turned back, she was waving him back.

There were many things he could say to that. Instead, he stopped, cocking his head. "Why?"

Grace shrugged. "Who needs a reason? Might as well suffer together, huh?"

Shockwave left.

...

Grace, Shockwave reflected, was a creature of emotion. She was not alone in this, of course, but what was a part of everyone else was a defining character trait. If she did not feel, she would not be Grace.

An observation: Shockwave had spent the last few centuries interacting with and attempting to predict people who were subject to a set of rules he could only infer through indirect observation. Objectively, he had not been successful.

Eons ago, he had stumbled out to the Shadowplay clinic and into the arms of the Resistance. He had been--coddled. Mollified. Tended to , as if he were an invalid. Shockwave had struggled to understand the depth of care his former friends had insisted on giving him, and come to the conclusion that it was pretense designed to keep an eye on him. If he was resting, he was not out working towards his goals. He had assumed that Orion's people had shifted their goals away from his, and were attempting to capitalize on his ignorance in order to keep him on their side.

Shockwave had inferred that this must have been the case even before. He had assumed his mind had been opened.

For the first time, Shockwave considered the fact that it had been closed instead.

He tried to think back further. What had been the precise observations that had led him to this conclusion? What had proven his companion's treachery?

The back of his neck pulsed painfully.

The Decepticons. There had been nothing Shockwave could have done to salvage their cause.

...Had there been?

Why hadn't he tried?

Why had he run?

Why had Soundwave not followed?

Why--

Why--

Suddenly, Shockwave was on the floor, Laserbeak perched on his shoulder and screeching desolately. His head felt filled with static.

"I am fine." Shockwave brushed Laserbeak away. She hovered above him, still screaming. "Cease. I do not require assistance."

As soon as he was upright again, she returned to his shoulder. Shockwave could hear the low hum of her scanners.

She cared. Illogical.

...

The datapad cracked in his hand. The display flickered, but the programming it showed held steady.

Shockwave was a fool. If the mnemosurgeon who had changed him so radically could affect his personality, planting passive suggestions would have been simple. Whoever it was had deliberately sabotaged his thinking, warping his thoughts before they even occurred to him.

Mistrust Orion Pax , said the programming in the datapad. I am right. I am free.

Shockwave came to what felt like a very inadvisable decision. He could only hope that meant it was the right decision.

...

It was practically her catchphrase by now, but the bastard was at it again. Grace was going to be haunted by the smell of ozone and awful, dawning realizations that it had been quiet for more than five minutes at a time for the rest of her life.

"When I die," She told the Predacon conversationally. "And I meet my loved ones in whatever place lies beyond this veil of tears, the first thing they're gonna say to me is, 'wait, you didn't leave him unsupervised , did you?' And you know what I'm gonna say? 'Shit, you're right', and then I'm gonna haunt his ass for the rest of time."

The Predacon looked unimpressed and laid back down. Grace finished tugging her coat on and tracked the silence back to the barn, ready to chew steel and spit nails.

"I am busy," Shockwave said, almost before the door was all the way open. "Leave me be."

"Nah. Whatcha up to?" Grace surveyed the barn. Nothing was immediately amiss, but that could mean anything. There was an unfamiliar coil of wires, a few odd doodads that could have been anything, and--

Grace stepped all the way into the barn. "What in the hell'd you do to your book thing?"

Shockwave glanced at the remnants of the tablet he seemed to favor for more intricate work. "There was a minor incident. It is none of your concern."

"Oh, yeah?" Grace bristled. "Well, let's just see about--"

"Grace, I have an important query."

Fuck. Grace could count on one hand the number of times Shockwave'd used her name and have quite a few fingers left over, too. "Sure, bud. What's the story?"

Shockwave tilted his head. "Would you consider us friends?" he asked, in the same drone he used to say anything.

Jesus Christ . Grace felt like she had failed to dodge a bus with the words HEALTHY COMMUNICATION stamped on the side. "Am I being punked?"

"No. Please keep in mind that there is no wrong answer."

Grace swallowed the tide of defensiveness lodged in her throat. "Yeah," she said. "We're friends."

"I see," said Shockwave. He paused, with the air of a host who wasn't sure where to go from here. "...Would you like to sit?"

"Nah, uh. You have fun in here. Blow something up and I'll shoot your kneecaps off, bye! " Grace tore it out of the barn.

Somewhere, Alice was howling with laughter.

...

A few nights later, Grace was moving before she even knew she was awake.

Her Ralph had been a military pilot. Once, he'd shown her how to dress quick, how to be up and in your uniform by the time the man in the bunk next to you was finished yawning. She'd liked it; she'd practiced, enchanted by the idea of discipline. It had been a game--first one dressed properly got a kiss. Since they were married, and there was only the two of them, day after day, there was never really a loser.

Grace was running through her home, heart pounding in her throat. It was snowing--huge clumps of flakes littering the ground, pale blue in the moonlight. Fly me to the moon , said a song Grace had heard as a child, and in her panic, it sounded like someone was whispering in her ear.

Grace was pounding at the barn door. She had crossed the yard. She must have, to have left footprints, to have gotten where she was at all.

Why was everything so damnably slow? Why was she so scared ?

The air shifted behind her. Grace back out of the way on instinct. The side of her fist stung from hitting the icy door.

The Predacon snarled, tail twitching; and, with a snarl, he dug his talons into the seam of the barn doors and wrenched . The wood splintered, revealing the shine of metal underneath. Grace squeezed by, almost cutting her fact on the jagged metal.

Somehow, she'd known what she would find inside before she had left her bedroom. That didn't make it easier to bear the sight of Shockwave collapsed on the floor, eye glowing glaringly bright and unseeing.

For a moment, Grace was eleven years younger, and the second love of her life was splayed out on the ground, doll-like, dark hair wreathing her face like the mane of a monster, and Grace's world was crumbling once again.

Then it all snapped back into place and Grace ran forward, ignoring Laserbeak's mourning peals.

If Shockwave was dead, Grace was going to kill him.

...

Shockwave opened his eyes.

No, he didn't. But he was awake.

Was he?

He was in a dark room. The Senate chambers. A small apartment, crammed with books. The barn. The hallway. Which hallway? The lab.

Shockwave felt, very briefly, ever so faintly regretful.

And then the last five centuries poured into his head, and Shockwave felt everything .

Later, he would realize that the mnemosurgeon was either worse at his job than he had expected or very, very vindictive. Instead of removing the software that prompted emotion, they had blocked it, creating an unfiltered backlog full of emotions, ready to rush to the front of his mind the moment the block was removed.

But that was much, much later, after the screaming had stopped.

...

He came to in the barn, on the floor. Laserbeak was perched on his chest, like carrion ready to feast.

"Oh," he told her.

Laserbeak hissed.

An entire wall of pure movement took up the left side of his vision. His optic needed calibrating after so long offline, but it was still tuned enough to make out the vague form of the Predacon, moving cautiously closer. Grace appeared from its side, almost running over.

"You--" Red-faced, Grace shook her finger at him, face screwing up. "You awful -- worried us, you son of a--"

She broke off, visibly struggling to keep her composure. Her lip curled, wrinkled skin stretching flat.

The tide of grief that washed over Shockwave was almost overpowering. He remembered , now--he could imagine. It was terrible. It was awe-inspiring. People felt this much every moment they lived; every time they spoke, they caused happiness or sadness or despair. Every time they heard someone speak, their entire world was shaken and rocked and torn down, all in the course of a few moments.

Shockwave had spent the first part of his life in awe of the sheer resilience of people.  He had lost that.

It was too much. Grief at what had been stolen mixed with joy at having it back mixed with shame--shame? Why shame? Why grief instead of anger, why joy instead of relief, why--

" Shockwave !" Grace yelled, right in front of him. He jumped, nearly jostling her off. "Jesus!"

Automatically, he raised a hand to keep her steady. "What?"

"I said," Grace repeated. "What in the hell happened?"

Shockwave looked around the room again. Laserbeak was circling in alarm, still not far. The Predacon was paying sharp attention, eyes on him. Had it always looked so alert?

"I was broken," Shockwave said, numbly. "And I still am."

Grace shot him an incredulous look. "Bullshit. now tell me what actually happened."

 

...

Shockwave seemed to want them close for the rest of the day.

No one was complaining as far as Grace could tell. Laserbeak spent a lot of time in the barn anyway; and with the damaged door, the Predacon seemed to have volunteered as an impromptu furnace.

No one was talking much. Not that it was quiet, thank God, but everyone was too busy listening.

Grace couldn't be sure how much Shockwave was there or not. He seemed to drift, eye tracking movement that wasn't there. Occasionally, he'd make sounds--crying, groaning, little simple sounds. The worst, by far, was the laughter.

Eventually, Shockwave quieted. When Grace looked up, he was looking at her.

Or towards her, at least. That dinner plate of an optic organ didn't seem to be focusing on much of anything very well.

"Hey," Grace said, cautiously. "You ready to talk about it?"

"No," said Shockwave, numbly. "But I believe I shall."

"Uh." This felt like troubled water. Or like the waterfall on the other side of the troubled water. "If you wanna, bud. We're not on a fucking schedule."

Shockwave was quiet for the rest of the day.

...

The next day was a little better. Kind of. Shockwave finally got up and hammered the door back into shape. The Predacon left for a bit and came back with a hunk of a log, which he left outside. For some reason. Laserbeak stuck so close to Grace, she nearly hit her head on her a couple times.

Christ. Grace tried to think about what Alice would've done if she'd been in charge of three terrified robots. Probably gotten Grace to be the bad cop, and made everyone tea even though they couldn't drink it.

Well, Grace could do one of those things.

...

Something bounced off the side of his head. Shockwave looked up. Grace was standing over him, frowning. "Alright. Family fucking meeting. Form up, troops, let's go."

Shockwave processed this with some difficulty. "I don't--"

Grace crossed her arms.

As it turned out, Shockwave was not at all equipped to deal with the prospect of her disapproval. "Very well."

Laserbeak landed on his shoulder. The Predacon curled around them, watching them through slitted eyes.

"Yup. Feelings time." Grace braced her hands together, flipping them so that they pointed at him. "You first, car crash. We're doing this the hard way."

The term feelings time should not have been so ominous. "I don't understand what you want from me."

Grace shrugged. "Just start talking."

"But--"

"Yup. First word, good start." Grace made a rolling motion with her hand. "Keep it rolling."

"Many years ago," Shockwave said, "I was ritualistically mutilated by my political rivals and left in the mud. I have spent an entire civil war without the capacity to either process my own emotions or empathize with another's. In order to correct the latter issue, I accidentally provoked the other. thus, I am coming off the tail end of what I imagine was a mental breakdown."

There was a moment of thick silence.

"Well," Grace said. "Shit."

"Indeed." Shockwave's hand was shaking hard enough to rattle against his leg. He moved it.

"Not getting what people think isn't that bad," Grace said, after a pause. "I've got that problem. I, uh, i get troubled with expressions, you know. Unconscious cues. Nothing wrong with having to do a little guesswork."

"I was a senator," Shockwave said, softly. There was a tremor in his voice now. "Reading people was practically my life's work."

"And then you went through a war," Grace said reasonably. "And now you can't understand why it won't click back into place."

"I thought I would be as I was," Shockwave realized. "I was supposed to be as I was ."

His voice broke. Unbidden, memories--of the surgery, of the days after--teased his senses, tricking him into smelling soot and waste instead of wood and dust. "This was supposed to fix me."

"Don't you ever say that again," Grace said, flatly.

"I--"

"No," Grace got to her feet, voice rising. "Don't you ever say that again , do you hear me? You don't fix people ."

Shockwave had lived the last several centuries under the axiom that everything could be fixed; that he was the only one capable of fixing it. It would have been so much easier to just...leave it be. To let himself fade into oblivion. This hurt. Existence hurt.

Grace stepped into his shadow. "Hey. Eye on me, huh? Take it easy." She pressed her hands to Shockwave's optics, pinpricks of cold. He must have been overheating.

Grace didn't seem to know quite what to say. Had that happened before? He had no way of knowing, now. It was so difficult to quantify a smile, a frown. Shockwave must have realized that, once. He had brandished his emotions like weapons, screamed them into the faces of his enemies until...

Until he had been maimed, cast out, and forced into compliance. Shockwave had not been a threat to the Senate because he had been subversive. He had become most dangerous when he was exactly what they had asked for.

The Predacon circled around them uneasily, wings twitching with attention. Above them, Laserbeak held a standard scanning position, a silent guardian.

Laserbeak. She must miss her family terribly. What a strange thing not to realize.

Grace reached up and clumsily patted his knee. "Uh. Y'alright, bud?"

Shockwave looked back down at her. She was so much smaller than him, but for a human, she would have been fairly stocky. Solid.

What else had he ignored?

"No," Shockwave told her. "There is a war going on. And it has ruined me."

Grace blinked, digesting what little emotion showed in his face. Whatever she found there made her brow crease. Grace rolled her eyes. "Y'aren't ruined, drama queen. Sit your ass down and breathe, wouldja? You're making me nervous."

Shockwave curled his arms over Grace, clumsily; and for the first time in eons, he just breathed .

...

It got worse before it got better.

Grace knew she'd been a mess after Ralph's plane went down. She'd spent a few months bouncing from relative to relative, trying to find her place in a world that had ripped the best of part of itself away from her. Grace had drank. Grace had traveled. And eventually, she had met a woman climbing her gutter to see what flowers Grace had put in her window box, and the world had started spinning again.

And then Alice had died. and Grace had gone back to being lost like the thirty-two years in between had been a happy dream.

all of this was just to say that Grace didn't know what she was doing or how to help anyone, not even herself. but she was damn well going to try.

"Hey," she whispered at 3 in the morning, a couple of days afterward, poking her head into the barn. "You want to go on a hike?"

Shockwave had cocked his head at her, almost birdlike. "Oddly, yes."

A few days later, she had finally dragged the spare wood that had been clogging up her garage and made giant checker pieces while Shockwave drew a grid in the snow. Laserbeak smoked them both.

Shockwave told a joke. Grace laughed. She nearly took up drinking, overcome with memories. Shockwave set the bottle of whiskey she had bought on fire.

Life persisted.

...

"Wait, you lost me again. Are the Autobots the Functionists?" Grace repeated, squinting. "Or were the Functionists just plain fucked?"

The barn door was open, and the two of them were sitting in the early afternoon light. Logically, Shockwave understood that the altered quality of the light was due to the increased angle at which solar energy was hitting the planet. It didn't make it any less calming.

"Functionism as a movement has ended," Shockwave explained patiently. He was seated uncomfortably on the floor, Grace perched on his knee. For some reason, he had built no Cybertronian-sized chairs during his time on the farm. It had made sense at the time. "But its followers dispersed into other existing systems, including the Autobot-Decepticon conflict, the colonies, and countless other Cybertronian strongholds. We were quite the imperialistic race."

Grace made a derisive sound in the back of her throat, swinging her legs off the side of his knee. She had a cup of ginger tea balanced in her hands. Occasionally, the steam would be caught up in the wind, creating strange, vaporous shapes that caught the light strangely.

"Nothing like a lot of dark, moist nooks and crannies for fascism," Grace sneered, face twisting up. "S'practically a breed of mold. But the guys you hate right now are the Autobots. They're the baby version of the fascist fucks."

"To the contrary." For a moment, Shockwave could see the shape of a geometric emblem in the steam. What a subjective observation.  "Orion Pax followed a radically different model from the one designed by General Strika, but he implemented many of the same ideals. Notably, the right of the individual to affect their own societal standing."

"Yeah, that's a nice one." Grace took a sip of tea. "So, anyone could run for office?"

"Or pursue a suit in court. Or start a business, provided they have the resources. All of these matters were intensely regulated by the Functionists. Many were refused access to certain activities at all."

Grace took a long, long drag of her drink, glaring into the mug as though wishing it was filled with something else. "Same tune, different lyrics. So you didn't like it, and this Orion didn't like it. Sounds like two great tastes that taste great together, if you ask me."

"Not necessarily." Shockwave hesitated. It occurred to him for the first time that this part of Cybertron's revolutionary history would not impress Grace. "In the power vacuum, the two factions descended into what should have been a minor conflict, had we not been relatively well-matched. One could say that it lived long enough to grow fangs."

Grace harrumphed. "Sounds just about as stupid as human wars. How'd you feel about all this."

"I felt nothing."

"Don't fucking sass me. You know what I mean." Grace leaned back, weight braced on her hands as she eyed him closely.

"I feel..." Shockwave tried to identify his thoughts. The only concrete sensation was one of endless, meaningless repetitions, as though he had been thinking the same things in a loop the entire war. His feelings on the matter were a dormant program, waiting for a prompt that had never come. "Nothing. Too much. I had already--" He had to stop for a moment. He did not think about why. "Been compromised. I had been acquainted with both leaders, before, and I did not side with the one who had been my friend."

Grace seemed to digest this. For a moment, the barn was silent. Outside, the Predacon knocked over a tree with a crash. Laserbeak shrieked in protest.

"And Laserbeak's friend?" Grace asked after a bit.

"Also knew Orion. He chose Megatron as well, but for different reasons than I." Better reasons, looking back on it; although he had pitied Soundwave at the time. "He did not deserve what happened to him."

"Wait a f--wait a second," Grace sat up, frowning. "'Thought we didn't know what happened to Laserbeak's homeboy either way. He could be fine, you said."

"Indeed. However, my departure was the result of fractures forming in the infrastructure of an organization for which Soundwave had sacrificed eons of his life and most of his family. Regardless of whatever transpired after we parted ways, his life would have been miserable even before he was forced to part with Laserbeak." Shockwave fought down a fresh wave of--grief? The urge to bury his head in his hands and scream was unfamiliar, but one that seemed to grow stronger with every passing day. "I could not comfort him. I regret that."

Grace snorted, unimpressed. "Jesus. You couldn't hold someone's hand 'cause yours was cut off, huh? The entire fucking war wasn't your fault--"

"Grace," Shockwave said. His voice sounded strained, even to him.

"...Yeah. Sorry, bud." Grace put her tea down on Shockwave's knee, avoiding his eyes. "Not good at this shit."

They sat in silence for a while.

Eventually, Grace glanced up at him, sniffed, and stood up with a creak. "Rally the troops. We're going on an emergency hike."

Shockwave processed this. "Clarify."

Grace nodded reasonably. "We're gonna look at beautiful fucking winter foliage and shit until you feel better."

That was going to take significantly longer than a single afternoon. "This is an illogical course of action," Shockwave told her, bemused. "Trees will not cure ills wrought by eons of war."

Grace shrugged on her coat. "Fair, but they ain't gonna hurt it. C'mon, you can take samples of pine needles to put under glass, or whatever. Where's that damn dragon? God forbid anyone stays put around here, Jesus."

...

Shockwave eyed the flower dubiously.

"Okay," Grace said, scanning the book. "How does the flower make you feel?"

It was a peony, presumably from the bush in front of the farmhouse. Shockwave had no emotional attachment to either the flower or the bush, that he was aware of. "I feel that it is a flower."

Grace flipped a few pages. "Uh. Any thoughts on the color?"

"It is pink," Shockwave supplied.

"Yeah, Shockwave."

"Although the center is brown."

"I know, Shockwave."

He paused, having reached a realization. "I have an emotion to report in regards to the book. Would you like me to share it for the purposes of this exercise?"

Grace squinted at him. "Is it irritation?"

"It is," he confirmed.

"Yeah, that checks." Grace tossed the book over her shoulder. "Well, fuck that . Can't believe I renewed my library subscription for this pile of horseshit."

"Indeed." Shockwave stood. Bits of dead grass clung to his legs where they had lain on the ground. "Perhaps it would be more prudent to look into literature designed to invoke ethos directly, rather than through self-reflection."

"Yeah," Grace grunted. "Guess that makes sense."

Odd. That was an unusually tame reaction for her, especially compared to her usual methods of expressing displeasure. Shockwave waited.

Accordingly, she scowled at him. "Shut the hell up. I can be nice if I damn well please. I'm just not much of a fiction reader, that's all. That was Ralph's thing."

"Ah." Shockwave was uncomfortable. That was an emotion he could identify easily, at least. "You need not be involved in this. I will retrieve the books myself."

Grace's shoulder relaxed unconsciously, but her scowl didn't lessen. "Yeah, sure. And what kinda bullshit would this entail, precisely? I'm curious."

"Laserbeak spent the majority of the war collecting intelligence under far more extreme conditions--"

"Fucking try again."

He sighed. "Alternatively, you could buy a computer, thereby severing your last source of consistent, direct human contact."

Grace's mouth twitched. "You know how to pitch a sell, that's for sure."

"You will have to acquire the components yourself, of course. I will compose a list...hmm." Shockwave's attention was caught after the fact, drawn to the spot of color forgotten on the floor.

There was something wrong with the flower. It was pristine and pink, just like the picture he referenced said it should. Except...

"Grace," Shockwave said, carefully. "Peonies do not flower in this part of the world until well into spring."

Grace's shoulders stiffened. "...Huh."

"Furthermore," he continued, leaning in closer to scan the flower approximate. "This item appears to be made out of some sort of plastic compound."

Grace's jaw worked. "Well..."

"Did you attempt to complete the exercise with a fake flower?"

""I--It--" Grace sputtered, monosyllables slowing morphing into strangled curses the longer she went on. "It's--it's from my fucking wedding bouquet, I couldn't find anything else. Sorry for trying, I guess. Jesus!"

Ah. Shockwave sat back on his haunches, aware that he had almost certainly put his foot in it . "I apologize for bringing up a difficult subject--"

"I brought the fucking flower, don't apologize," Grace snarled. "Just--it's fine. S'okay. Christ."

Silence descended over the room.

"May I asked which marriage--"

"Both."

"Ah."

In the background, one of Shockwave's projects made a faint ticking noise.

"Well," Grace said, brightly. "Good fucking talk. Computer. Books. Let's never do this again."

She half-walked, half-fled the room. Shockwave couldn't blame her.

...

"That is not the computer," Shockwave explained again. "That is the router. It will connect your computer to the other computers, after a fashion."

"Don't you fucking sass me," Grace snapped, tossing a tied bundle of cords across the barn. "Plug this into your generator, would'ja?"

That wasn't how this worked. Shockwave told her so. In the background, Laserbeak chittered mockingly.

"That goes for you, too." Grace shook her finger at the satellite. "Making fun of an old woman. Shame on all of you."

"You are the youngest one here," Shockwave said, patiently.

"So you've got no excuse," Grace said triumphantly. "Hand me the little thing, there. That. no, that. Just, fucking--" She got up and a set of wires herself.

There was a certain amusement to be derived in watching Grace struggle, Shockwave decided. Particularly since she refused his help.

...

Grace's phone rang. She answered it, dubiously. There were maybe three people in the world who had her number, and two were dead. "'Llo?"

"Mrs. Kelly?" said the phone. " My name's Agent William Fowler. I'm sorry to bother you, but we're conducting an area-wide survey of sorts. Would you--"

"Agent, huh." Grace pursed her lips. "What agency?"

"I'm a special agent. Ma'am, I was wondering--"

She hung up the phone. Fucking telemarketers got weirder every day.

...

Shockwave heard the string of swearing long before Grace came around the corner. It was long and imaginative and ended with a whole-hearted: "God, I hate spring."

Shockwave rose from his seat. "What is stuck this time?"

"The truck." Grace slouched in the doorway. "It's out back."

"I don't understand why." Grace's vehicle was far from practical, given her chosen surroundings. Why she insisted on using it in her work was beyond him.

"Fuck you, that's why," Grace said without heat. "I was trying to get that stump the Predacon grabbed a couple months back away from the barn."

"Illogical. He likes it there."

"Yeah, well." Grace stopped halfway around the barn. "What in the hell is that?"

"What?" Shockwave followed her gaze. "The plane?"

"S'not a plane. It looks like..." Grace trailed off, squinting. trailed off,

"Ah." Shockwave realized all at once what the figure rapidly growing larger was. "Grace, ready your weapon."

Laserbeak streaked over, a grey blur against the sky. The Predacon raised his head from its perch on the roof, snarling.

"What, the shotgun? I don't have that," Grace said dumbly.

Shockwave re-focused on her. "Why? Where is it?"

"It's in the gun locker , wiseass, I'm not constantly armed!"

"You used to be...never mind. We will continue this conversation at a later date." This was getting them nearer. Shockwave shook his head and folded himself into a tank.

"What the sh--?"

He fired.

The sky lit into a burst of energy and color, the sheer force flattening the surrounding grass in an arc. The Eradicon scout spiraled, audibly swearing, and skipped across the field like a stone on water. He skidded to a halt with a groan.

Shockwave transformed, satisfied. It seemed he still had it.

"Can you all do that?" he heard Grace ask Laserbeak, as the Predacon pounced.

The Eradicon, pinned between two enormous claws, and visor-to-point with the ends of the Predacon's sharpened barbs, stammered something high-pitched and incomprehensible.

"You," Shockwave announced, "Are trespassing."

It was almost easy to slip into the facade of what he had been. The gait, the flat voice, the dead stare. This, he could do. This was easy. "It is in your best interest to cooperate. Who is your current commander?"

"I--" The Eradicon stammered, visor flickering in distress. The Predacon breathed over his face, and he whimpered.

"For fuck's sake, let the poor kid up." Grace huffed, smacking Shockwave's ankle with the side of her boot as she passed. "That means you, Pred', up you get. C'mon, look at'em. What's your name, son?"

The Predacon subsided, prowling around to loom threateningly behind the small woman. The Eradicon stared at her, speechless.

Shockwave crossed his arms and glared , careful to keep out of Grace's peripheral.

"Name--uh--Al? It's a nickname--serial number A11CE--"

"Nice. Used to know an Al," Grace said approvingly. "Good name. Short for a lot of things. Now, what brings you over to our neck of the woods, Al?"

"I uh," Al's visor seemed to shift between her and Shockwave. "I've got a message from commander Soundwave, sir. Confidential."

Laserbeak zipped over so fast, she nearly clipped the Predacon. Input prompt? Input prompt? Input prompt?

Al shrieked and ducked. The Predacon hissed, amused, and Laserbeak alighted on his helm vibrating with excitement.

"Speak freely, messenger," Shockwave said.

Al sucked in a slow, deep breath, nerves falling away in favor of ingrained training. "The Decepticons," he started, "have disbanded--"

"What ?"

Everyone turned to look at him. Shockwave forced himself not to duck away under the realization that such an unseemly outburst had come from him. "...Continue."

"...Following the final annulment of the High Command," Al continued after a pause, "As set forth by former commander Megatronus and General Strika, under the treaty of the Five Cities. The surviving members--"

"Where're they going?" Grace demanded, leaning forward.

"I'm getting there," Al said irritably, and immediately remembered the circumstances and cringed. "I-- I mean. Ma'am. Those who wish to continue to fight for the ideals of the Decepticon alliance are re-convalescing as a non-combatant group, temporarily designated the Ascenticons. Those who wish for peace are either joining the Lost Light expedition, details following, or accepting the terms provided to them by Rodimus Prime and returning to Cybertron--"

"Rodimus." Shockwave was aware of several emotions warring with each other in his chest. None of them demanded a reaction of any kind beyond knowing more , and so they were difficult to classify. "What happened to Orion?"

Al blinked. "...Who?"

Primus save him from undereducated youngsters. " Optimus ."

"Oh, him. He stepped down?" Al shrugged, still flat on his back on the ground. "There's a lot of conflicting information, actually. Intelligence and official channels all say he died, but like, in a bunch of different ways? But there's a red and blue truck restoring the library system who's just kind of friends with the entire old guard, so--"

"Understood. Laserbeak, can you verify this?" She rattled off a happy confirmation. "Excellent. Inform Soundwave that I shall send Laserbeak with the group's decision within a joor. There is energon in the barn."

Shockwave stalked away, leaving Al's plaintive question for the others to answer.

"What's a barn ?"

...

"You wanna tell me what that was about?" Grace sipped her tea, perched on Shockwave's chest like a bench.

"No." Shockwave closed the lid on the trailer. It was in perfect working order, even after all these months. Disappointing. Fixing it might have made for a temporary distraction.

"C'mon, that poor kid. I think you hurt his feelings." Grace kicked her stockinged heel against Shockwave's torso.

"It is no less than he expected."

"Fuck you, that's not an excuse. C'mon, put that big shiny new heart of yours on your sleeve for a sec. Go on."

She made it sound so easy. Grace was used to this--to the contradiction, the struggle for composure, the constant onslaught of her own thoughts beating against each other for priority. Shockwave could only hope to borrow a fraction of that skill.

"I don't want things to change," he said instead.

Grace snorted. "Tough."

They were silent for a long moment.

"May I stay here?" Shockwave asked at last.

"Like I could ever get rid of you."

"Will Laserbeak visit, do you think?"

"I figure. I think she'd miss the big lug, anyway. And you. I guess." G race's eyes glinted at him like she was very carefully not telling a joke.

"The Predacon was built for war," he pointed out.

"And bred for farm work. That's his choice."

There was a clatter outside the barn, and a muffled ow . A second later, someone started screaming.

They both stood and listened to it; and to the swaying of the trees, and the rush of the wind, and the creak of the barn.

"If I asked you come to Cybertron--"

"Packing'd take eight fucking years, but sure. If you were nice about it. And we'd still visit, right? Least twice a year."

"Twice?" Shockwave focused on Grace.

She nodded. "July 2nd for Ralph, October 20th for Alice. Ashton Cemetery. And I'll need a garden, to grow the flowers. I always grow their flowers."

"I will be terraforming large quantities of land anyway. Pick a few hardier varieties." It would make for a diverting project, creating an isolated environment suitable for the garden. If it could be done at all. Keeping things out would be a simple matter, with the right materials, but keeping the flora in containment was another.

The screaming was getting louder, Shockwave registered faintly.

"So," Grace said, after a comfortable pause. "Who's Orion?"

"No one."

Grace's eyes lit up . "A good- lookin' no one?"

" No one . Or someone. Or...no. Stop that." Shockwave turned to his work table, avoiding her gaze.

"Naw," Grace said, self-satisfied. "'No-Ones are all kinds of a treat. You realize you're damned now, right? Y'just damned yourself to an eternity of me knowing about one of your No-Ones."

"Someone is screaming outside," Shockwave pointed out. "Fixate on that."

Grace sobered. "It's gonna be rough on the Predacon, y'know. He's gonna have to say goodbye to a lot of folks. Real civic-minded, that one."

"Indeed."

The screaming was not stopping. With a sigh, Shockwave stood and peaked through the barn doors. He froze. "...Grace."

"Yeah?" She came and looked. "...Son of a gun."

A very regal, very alarmed-looking Cybertronian covered in familiar bronze barbs and spikes stood in the middle of the yard, beset by a screeching Laserbeak. Al was also screaming, although he sounded more confused than anything.

"Well, shit," Grace muttered. "'Told you he was a person. Can Laserbeak do the thing, too?"

"She is a satellite component, so no." Shockwave could just make out the confused, angry look on the Predacon's face. "I imagine we should deal with that."

"Yup." Grace grabbed the door, ready to slide it open, and paused. "You ready?"

"No." Shockwave considered. "Yes. Or no. Are you?"

"Let's just fucking go." Grace shoved the door open, and for a moment, the light blocked out the shadows.

Grace and Shockwave, after