At the moment, Sam thought they were in Nebraska, though he wasn't sure. It was somewhat green and mostly flat but he'd been sleeping for the last few hours and didn't want to ask Bumblebee just yet. Though the radio was on and softly playing classic rock, Sam knew 'Bee was working on something. He kept his eyes closed, pretending to sleep for a few minutes as Journey became the Rolling Stones before a segue into a commercial for Johnny Bob's Muffler Hut.
Sam stretched and yawned. He'd fallen asleep as the sun was setting and now it was pitch black other than the tail lights ahead of him and the headlights behind. Sitting up, he blinked a couple of times before turning around and glancing back to where Ironhide was following closely.
He didn't ask where they were. Probably Nebraska. Somehow his parents had agreed to let him go - it had involved replanting the flowerbeds, cleaning the gutters and quite a few other chores as well as excellent grades on his final exams. Mikaela wasn't with him - her father had just been released and the last thing Sam wanted to do was pull her away. There would be other trips, after all. And they weren't together as much as they had been... not in that sense, at least. Really, he was going to let everything play out however it was going to play out.
As he settled back into the passenger seat, Sam accidentally swung his hand through the holographic driver that Bumblebee had created to fill the gap while Sam slept. All of the Autobots had them, created from composites of images from the world wide web, apparently. When Sam really thought about it, he hoped that his friends hadn't been trawling porn sites while looking for forms to emulate.
When Bumblebee had first shown Sam, Sam had winced and suggested a few improvements, none of which Bumblebee had bothered with. He hadn't seen fault with being a blond pretty-boy and truth be told, the look had grown on Sam. He just wouldn't admit it.
Actually, he'd really only suggested 'Bee go with a female avatar until he'd realized that maybe he was being a little selfish and two boys would look better on a road trip than his playing passenger to a girl.
"Shit, sorry," Sam mumbled. The hologram glanced at him and smiled.
"Sam, I cannot feel whatever you do to the hologram," Bumblebee said a second later. "You were sleeping mostly inside of it. But I can feel you grabbing at the seat."
Sam winced - he hadn't even noticed that in his half-awake shock that he was holding on so tightly. He loosened his grip and smoothed at the material frantically.
"We there yet?"
"About fifteen minutes," 'Bee replied after a pause. Sam had come to recognize the pauses as inaudible transmissions to the other Autobots.
He looked out the window. They had to be the only vehicles on the road. A quick glance at his watch told him that it was well after two in the morning.
Midway though a Pink Floyd song he didn't know the name of, he decided it would be a good idea to fix his hair. Towards the end of it, he realized that 'Bee's hologram had mouthed the words that had gone along with what he'd said.
Between watching endless fields of dark-shrouded corn, Sam would glance over at the seemingly perfect driver who was now drumming weightless fingers on the steering wheel to Aerosmith's 'Sweet Emotion'.
For just a few minutes he was able to pretend he was on a real road trip and not on his way to round up the latest batch of Autobot arrivals.
Midway through Sweet's 'Ballroom Blitz', one by one turn signals began to appear ahead of them. Sam noticed that Bumblebee forgot to reach for his - he just flicked it on.
So much for realism.
They exited the interstate in a smooth line, Optimus in front and followed by a repainted and happily whole Jazz. Ratchet was next, just in front of a pair of Lamborghinis who apparently were lumped into the middle of the caravan in order to maintain proper speeds. And then came himself and Bumblebee. And Ironhide, of course, keeping a careful watch on them both. Two more of the recent arrivals brought up the rear - a blue Mazda RX-8 named Camshaft and Prowl who was currently masquerading as a police car - a Dodge Charger though, thankfully not a Saleen else Sam was sure he'd have already been having nightmares.
Camshaft's license plate was from Rhode Island - where he'd initially landed. Sam didn't know much about him other than that he'd become an instant fan of Mapquest. If he hadn't already had it well-ingrained that the Autobots were warriors, he would have wondered if it was scary to drive cross-country on an alien planet, relying solely on the primitive communication systems of your unknowing hosts.
One by one they stopped for a proper three seconds before making another right from the exit ramp.
Led Zeppelin seemed wholly appropriate. The hologram kept tapping long, slim fingers on the wheel as if the radio was a heartbeat. Sam looked away and out the window. He didn't want to speak just yet. 'Bee wasn't saying anything either - had to just be one of those moments where really, words weren't necessary.
A few miles down the road, the convoy made a left into what seemed to be a large, abandoned dirt lot.
"Don't forget your bag," Bumblebee said as he pulled to a stop between the yellow Lamborghini (Sunstreaker, Sam reminded himself - do not get it wrong and do not call him 'Sunny') and Ironhide. Sam nodded, not wanting to know what would happen to his belongings if they were caught in 'Bee's transformation. He really only had a couple changes of clothing in the bag but so far some of his favourite shirts and at least one pair of pants had been sacrificed for the noble cause.
The hologram forgot to reach to shift and Sam just shook his head and opened the door, bag in hand. The radio switched off.
"What?" Bumblebee asked.
Sam waited for Bumblebee to finish transforming before elbowing him in the ankle. "You forgot to reach for the turn signal earlier. And you didn't shift into park."
Beside him, Sideswipe (the red one - Sam knew he really needed to ask about their names because he had the vague idea that they were rough translations of Cybertronian names forced into English but really, who would name anyone 'Sideswipe' unless... it had been Sunstreaker?) let out an equivalent to a snicker and Bee turned to him, flipping his battle mask down in a playful threat.
"On the way back, I'll remember," Bumblebee said as he straightened up and watched Optimus Prime transform and stretch. Jazz was next, moving in such a manner that Sam knew never to doubt Ratchet's amazing skill. Glancing up at the sky, Sam momentarily was entranced by the stars. The night was cool enough for him to have a sweatshirt on and he could see everything. The universe was laid out above him like the unending sea it was. And there were still plenty of Cybertronians unaccounted for. He'd gotten a cryptic e-mail from the remnants of Sector Seven not more than a few days ago - 'more than a hundred' was all it had said.
Good guys, Sam hoped. He'd only mentioned the e-mail to Optimus in passing - he was fairly sure the government was already in constant contact with the entire group anyway. Looking away from the sky, he wondered if they were currently being watched.
All he saw amongst the stars was one lone airplane, lights blinking just enough to distinguish it from the stars, so far up that it probably couldn't see anything more than the faintest of traces of dimming headlights.
Sam was the last to hear the car approaching, low and green and kicking up dust as it raced into the lot and came to a crazy sideways stop just in front of Optimus Prime.
"Sir," the Autobot said as he scrambled from vehicle to robot with the same breakneck speed. "Very happy to see you again."
Optimus nodded as he reached out to rest a hand on the smaller 'bot's shoulder. "I feel the same. Now what do you have to report, Clocker?"
"There's activity," Clocker said. "But the Decepticons are after resources right now. That's all out here where there's room to race. They'll come to steal power and speaking of that, I might need a charge..."
"Perhaps a Tesla Roadster was not a wise choice," Ratchet commented as he circled around. "Though you look to be in adequate repair."
"I'm a scout, not a fighter," Clocker replied. "I rather like my paint where it is."
"So does Jazz, but that never stops him," Sideswipe commented, earning a glare from the subject of the statement.
"Continue, Clocker," Optimus said, wisely ignoring his subordinates. Sam couldn't help but wonder how they managed not to dent one another up during long days putting together a base in the desert.
"There's an interesting movement amongst the fleshlings," Clocker said as he glanced over at Sam. "No doubt you know that recordings from Mission City have circulated on the world wide web..."
The Autobots all nodded agreement before Clocker continued.
"There seems to be a growing sympathy for the Decepticons," Clocker stated. "One company has gone so far as to create bumper stickers with their insignia so that any fleshling can show support. And apparently, fourteen year-old fleshling females desire to be slaves."
"Is that true?" Sunstreaker asked, shooting a sharp gaze at Sam.
Sam quickly tried to think of freshmen girls without really thinking about them. He'd been a freshman just a couple of years before and yeah, girls had been weird. He'd only had his eyes on Mikaela, though.
"Some, probably," he stammered. "Not all of them. Um, I don't really know any, I mean, but..."
"It's something to keep watch on," Camshaft said, which was the first time in quite awhile that Sam could remember Camshaft saying anything. For the most part, Camshaft was the not-seen, not-heard type. He was quite good at being somewhere without anyone knowing it. He was a robot ninja, lacking mostly in the part that actually involved attacking things.
The other Autobots all nodded again before each turning and glancing towards the road. Sam saw one headlight a moment later, making him inwardly snicker at the thought of someone burning out a part of their body. But no, it was a motorcycle, though that wasn't the part Sam noticed.
He saw her hair first, long and wavy brown beneath her helmet, which was painted to match both her bodysuit and the large purple motorcycle between her legs. Each of her curves was obvious and the bodysuit was unzipped far enough to show full, plump breasts.
Sam swallowed hard as she brought the motorcycle's engine down to a low idle and pulled off her helmet and shook out her hair, revealing a face as beautiful as the rest of her. Swinging a leg over she landed on the dirt and marched over to Ironhide.
"Do you have any idea where the Charii System is?" she asked, hands on her hips. Sam's gaze traveled the length of her body down to the bottoms of what looked like six-inch heeled boots.
"Not an ideal vacation spot?" Ironhide questioned as he leaned down to stare at her.
"No. But mission mostly accomplished. One got away," she said. "Wasn't my fault, either."
"Who?" Ironhide asked, his tone suddenly taking on a deadly seriousness.
"Big dumb jet," she said. "Don't know his name, but he can teleport."
"Big dumb jet," Sideswipe repeated with a snicker. "We know plenty of those."
"I can only think of one who can teleport," Prowl commented. "What was he doing out that far?"
"Picking up the pieces of everything we broke," the woman said with a smug grin. "Better than just hanging out here, anyway. Though Bumblebee seems to have had fun and made new friends."
"Um, hi," Sam managed, raising a hand in greeting as his eyes met hers. And she flickered.
A second later the woman was gone and her motorcycle was looming over him, transformed into a pink-purple robot with the aesthetics of... not quite a woman but instead something that would most likely kick his ass and not call him the next day.
"You must be Sam Witwicky," she said as she leaned down close enough that Sam could see the scratches in her paint. "I was a student of Ironhide's and a subordinate of Bumblebee's. My name is Arcee."
He was going to have words with Bumblebee on the way to the next town. Many words. Strange words. Words that would form questions that would likely not get the sorts of answers that were necessary.
"Nice to meet you," Sam said as best he could for feeling like his voice was going crack and splinter.
The first thing he muttered once safely inside the pseudo-Camaro, however, was only one word: "...girl?"
Part of the reason Sam didn't get a chance to ask questions was that as soon as he'd finished confusedly mumbling, there was a knock on the window. The hologram was back, smiling and beckoning for him to step outside. Sam wasn't entirely sure what to do - they'd all decided to rest for a bit before heading onward.
Bumblebee was the one who rolled the window down.
"I was told to take you to get you breakfast," Arcee said with a smile as she pointed at... herself. Or, well, her hologram pointed at her real body - Sam wasn't quite sure how to make the distinction since her hologram appeared outside of her physical body.
And could manipulate things, he realized a second later. She had knocked on the glass of 'Bee's window.
"Yeah..." Sam stammered. It was well after six and he was fairly sure someone had mentioned a town about a half-hour down the interstate. Breakfast would indeed be a good thing since the last time he'd eaten had been during the previous afternoon. "Okay."
He'd never ridden a motorcycle before, but he wasn't going to admit that as Arcee stepped back and Bumblebee opened the passenger door to let him out. Sam gently patted 'Bee's roof after climbing out, closing the passenger door carefully before turning to Arcee.
"Go ahead," Bumblebee said. "Arcee will not let anything happen to you."
Sam blinked. That wasn't what he was worried about.
Still, he let himself be led over to Arcee by Arcee (it was not getting easier to differentiate or unify, mainly because he wasn't sure which he was supposed to be doing).
"You can touch things," Sam said as he awkwardly slung a leg over... (at this point he decided not to think too hard about it, because it sounded wrong in his head and nothing would make it right)
"Not easily," Arcee admitted as she gestured for Sam to slide up so she could hop on behind him. "You just hold onto the handlebars and I'll hold onto you. You just won't be able to feel it."
"But why bother if I'm..."
Arcee's hologram smiled at him as he glanced back at her. Her arms were around him, but like she'd said, he couldn't feel a thing. "Well, the lone sheriff in that town thought it would be a good idea to pull me over to admire my body. Both of them. Needless to say, it might be a problem if he saw the same motorcycle with a different rider."
"Right," Sam said as he reached forward to grab the handlebars. Her... yeah, so not going to think about it. "So I'll just hold on."
Holding on was about all he could do as they sped out of the dirt lot and onto the county road. He wanted to look back and see if the hologram was still behind him, pressed against him... A quick glance down did reveal arms around his midsection, gloved fingers woven together loosely.
Autobot, Sam told himself before he could feel any more awkward. Just camouflage. She was a soldier doing her duty. If it wasn't her and couldn't be 'Bee, it would be Ironhide. Or Camshaft. Or any of the others.
He was really glad that she was the one driving.
The sun was well above the horizon when they pulled into the parking lot of a small diner that glinted silver in the sun. Arcee hopped off first, which was fine because Sam wasn't sure he'd be able to walk right. There had been a lot of vibration and some of it had not been in the good way.
"You'll have to hold the door for me," Arcee said with a smile as she took her helmet off and hung it on one of the handle bars.
"You're going in?" Sam asked incredulously, glancing around the parking lot to make sure no one was in hearing range of the exchange.
She nodded as she walked towards the door, leaving Sam to stumble after her.
Sam was happy that only a couple of farmers occupied the diner and that they only gave the pair the barest of glances. Arcee slung into the booth directly on the other side of the wall from her physical body, flickering for only a split second and in a way Sam was fairly sure that he had blocked from the lone waitress who seemed to be busy gathering coffee mugs and silverware anyway.
"You've practiced," Sam said as he reached behind the salt and pepper shakers for a menu. "Really practiced."
"I believe there's a fleshling saying for that," Arcee replied, obviously thinking. "The reason for invention is necessity?"
"Close." Sam smiled and didn't bother to correct her. She'd said something about being elsewhere in the universe - he certainly didn't expect her to have everything about Earth sorted out. "But what about eating?"
"Can't do that," Arcee said. "Do you like coffee?"
"With enough sugar," Sam admitted. "Why?"
"What can I get for you two?" the waitress interrupted, setting down two mugs and two handfuls of silverware. Somehow she was still clutching a pot of coffee and a ratty green order pad.
"Just coffee for me," Arcee said before looking at Sam. "Sam, what would you like?"
Sam ordered, making sure to add coffee to the end even though he wasn't entirely sure of the reason why.
"You sure you only want coffee?" the waitress asked Arcee as she quickly poured both cups full.
"I'll be riding all day," Arcee said as she pointed out the window and then to Sam. "I spent the night with my cousin here and will be heading on once I take him home. This is a very lovely area."
The waitress smiled. "Well you have a safe ride, dear." And with that she bustled off, yelling back towards the kitchen to start on Sam's breakfast.
"Put the cups next to one another and make them however you like," Arcee directed softly. "Keep them both in the middle and switch them now and then. It will look like I've been drinking."
Sam chuckled - Arcee certainly had thought everything through. Then he frowned.
"How can you talk?" he asked. "I mean..."
"Radio waves bounced off the particles of the hologram," Arcee said with a smile. "One of our scientists figured it out when we were stuck on a boring, cold moon for a couple of years."
"Oh, okay." Sam was going to pretend he understood everything she'd said. Or, he understood it well enough, he just didn't have a clue how it worked.
"I probably can't talk down by the door," Arcee added. "And can't leave my own sight. I'm basing my own sitting position based on yours, so just wave a bit or something if I'm floating or sinking."
Glancing quickly to make sure skintight purple was indeed in the proper places, Sam nodded silently.
A minute passed in silence. Sam drank from both coffee cups, adding a bit of cream and sugar to each but stacking the empty packages into two different piles.
"So... you know Bumblebee?"
Arcee laughed. "Know him? Of course. I served under his command for decades. It's nice to hear his voice again."
Sam grabbed at the edge of the table, leaning intently over towards Arcee. "You knew him when..."
"I was there," she softly interrupted, looking away and down as if it was a memory she would never have dredged up if not asked. "And after - I was there."
Swallowing hard, Sam turned his attention to the window where Arcee - the real Arcee - sat unassumingly. He wasn't sure he'd wanted to hear that from her hologram, beauty aside. For a few seconds, he ached to be able to just talk to her as she was.
"Huh?" Sam looked back at her, into purple eyes that echoed her life.
"Why? I mean, I brought that up," Sam said quickly. "And... it's a little awkward to talk to you while... hey, how can you hear me?"
A smile. "The glass between us isn't much of a barrier."
"I don't mind talking about the past," Arcee continued as she reached to put her hands around one of the coffee mugs, slipping a bit at first and putting her hand through it. "I'm guessing that Bumblebee didn't tell you much?"
"No," Sam admitted. But he hadn't asked, to tell the truth. In a way, he had trouble grasping that the war for the AllSpark had been going on for more than hundreds of thousands of years.
"I definitely have some stories for you, then," Arcee said with another animated smile. "But... oh, here comes your food."
As hungry as Sam realized he was when he inhaled the delicious aroma of the mounded plate of eggs and pancakes and bacon and potatoes, the sudden desire to know more about his friend was stronger.
"Here you go," the waitress said as she set down his plate, glancing at their coffee cups. "More coffee?"
"Just a bit," Arcee replied. "Thank you."
Sam waited a couple of seconds after the waitress vanished before speaking again, using the interim to stuff the better part of a pancake into his mouth. He was going to ask the important question.
"You're a girl. How are you a girl?"
There was an interesting pause during which Sam poked at one of his eggs and subsequently broke it. He considered repeating himself in case the glass had suddenly become very thick between them.
"'Girl' is appropriate in your language," Arcee said slowly. "Or... it is appropriate for me to use this form to communicate because it feels comfortable to me. However, on this world there are physical differences between your 'girls' and 'boys' that we, as a race, don't have. Despite the difference between my natural appearance and Ironhide's, I can assure you that all of our ports and wires are the same."
"Oh." Sam felt vaguely let down. "So you're not actually a girl..."
"If you consider the other Autobots you have met thus far to be male, then I am female," Arcee said simply, switching her hands to the other coffee mug.
Quickly eating the rest of his breakfast in contemplative (and confused) silence, Sam was almost sure that he shouldn't have asked.
"Earlier, before you asked how I could hear you... I said I was sorry," Arcee said as Sam pushed his plate back a bit on the table. "I didn't get to explain why."
"I thought it was because I..."
"It's because I was originally very angry to hear that Bumblebee decided - no, requested - to stay with you," Arcee admitted. "Though he is no longer my superior officer, I hold a high respect for his skill and thought it a waste to devote himself to you."
Sam frowned. Arcee's words cut deep inside and hurt. He almost wished he hadn't just inhaled a small mountain of food. Trying to look at it from her perspective wasn't easy - they each knew a different side of the same 'bot.
"During my original mission on this planet, I came to the conclusion that your kind was full of hate and not worth saving, but I put that aside to focus on the Decepticons," Arcee continued. Her speech was a bit slow and Sam wanted to reach over to her and tell her it was okay. He just... couldn't.
"Bumblebee tells me of how you saved him, and that he's happy we're getting along."
Arcee frowned again.
"And he says you're staring at my breasts."
Sam turned so quickly he nearly upset everything on the table as he caught his leg underneath it. Sitting next to Arcee was a familiar yellow Camaro with a familiar blond driver.
"You're talking to him?"
Nodding, Arcee froze and pointed to another new arrival - a battered county sheriff's car that pulled into the empty space on Arcee's far side.
"Your other new friend," Sam guessed. Arcee had to be talking to Bumblebee, because she didn't reply.
"Now would be a good time to leave," Arcee said as the sheriff entered the diner and went straight to the register. Sam watched in horror as the sheriff pointed at their table - he hadn't forgotten any of his previous run-ins with the law and the last thing he needed was to get arrested in Nebraska for... something or other.
Moving to stand, Sam found himself being stared down at.
"Cindy Lou says this is your cousin," the sheriff said, glancing around Sam at Arcee. "And that you're on your way."
"I am," Arcee replied. "Actually, we were just leaving. One of Sam's friends from school just arrived to pick him up."
The sheriff glanced out the window and then smiled. "Not a farmer, I guess. Can't all be. I'll catch your bill as long as I don't catch either of you speeding in my jurisdiction."
"Not a chance, uh, sir," Sam stammered. Arcee, apparently, had a positive effect on everyone.
"Thank you," Arcee said, smiling as she carefully stood. She tossed her hair and managed a bit of a bounce (which, Sam didn't figure he should have been looking at, being her cousin and all except that he wasn't), distracting from any other errors in her animation. "We'll be off."
"We will," Sam echoed, sidestepping just behind Arcee and giving a quick wave before getting ahead of her to open the door. The sheriff didn't follow and Sam let out a sigh of relief as they crossed in front of 'Bee.
"May we meet again," Arcee said as she stepped oddly to the other side of her physical body. Then she held out her hand like a handshake, putting her hand directly over a handlebar.
"Wait, this is it?" Sam asked, shaking his head. "This can't be it. Where are you going? We're headed east."
"You're headed east," Arcee corrected. "I will be taking an assignment here in the American midwest."
"No, that's not right," Sam insisted as he grabbed the handlebar, not intending to complete the handshake but instead clinging. "What if I don't let go?"
"Sam -" her voice was suddenly harsh. "This is war. We do what we're ordered to do."
Letting go, Sam nodded. He'd momentarily forgotten the warrior beneath the purple paint.
"Well take care," he said, trying to make it sound like an order. "And... thank you."
"Thank you." Arcee winked and then jumped onto... (again, Sam wasn't sure how to process the thought of Arcee-on-Arcee.)
Sam just stepped back, nearly bumping into the partially opened door of the Camaro. He was still a moment as she backed the motorcycle awkwardly up and then sped out of the lot.
"'Bee?" Sam asked as he got inside, gaining a curious stare from the holographic driver.
"What is it, Sam? Arcee said that she approves of you."
"Yeah, but..." he wasn't sure how to say it and they were already most of the way back to where the other Autobots were apparently still resting.
"I think I have more questions than answers."
"'Bee?" Sam asked about when they crossed the border into Tennessee. "Why was Arcee's approving of me so important?"
Bumblebee was quiet for a moment before having his hologram glance over.
"If anything happened to me, I believe she would be a good guardian for you."
Sam froze, processing and re-processing that statement.
"Nothing's going to happen to you, Bumblebee," Sam said in one breath, immediately rubbing the seat beneath him in hopes it would be comforting somehow. "Don't even think like that."
"War is war," 'Bee replied before switching on the radio and quickly shuffling through stations. He landed on a Moby song and left it.
As much as Sam didn't want to think about life without any of his friends, deep inside he knew that it could happen. But he decided not to push the issue - not with Bumblebee, at least. He'd almost lost 'Bee once before and just the memory of that was enough to make him feel a little ill.
"Mind if I catch some sleep?" Sam asked after a minute of Moby explaining the greatest truth of the universe.
"If I could hand you a blanket, I would," Bumblebee said, waving an arm through the seat as if to emphasize his inability to actually touch anything in holographic form.
"Hey," Sam questioned as he shifted and reached back to grab the blanket from where it was half stuffed into his bag. "How come Arcee could knock on your window, then?"
"I'm not sure, Sam. She must have had opportunity to learn."
"Yeah..." Sam pulled the blanket over himself, wishing it was big enough to actually cover all of him. He shifted a bit until he was leaning half against the passenger window with his jacket as a pillow. For a moment he just watched Bumblebee's hologram as it drove along, not blinking or smiling, simply being - enough to satisfy any oncoming traffic.
Once, when the slowed down in a patch of construction, Sam opened his eyes and thought he saw 'Bee smiling at him. But at the same time, the radio was droning on with an older, mostly obscene Nine Inch Nails song. Closing his eyes seemed like the smart thing to do and after that, he wasn't entirely sure he hadn't dreamed it.
The sun was low in the sky when Sam and Bumblebee slid through a fast food drive-thru just outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Somehow Sam had expected the entire event to be eat-n-go but instead 'Bee took him off to a nearby park where most of the rest of the group was waiting.
"What's up?" Sam asked as he climbed back over to the passenger seat. "Why did we stop?"
"We're staying here until Optimus returns," 'Bee replied, causing Sam to look around and count cars. Sure enough, there was one missing.
"Where did he go?"
"Exactly? I don't know," Bumblebee admitted. He made his hologram blush a bit, probably trying to look embarrassed. "He wanted to go alone."
Sam frowned but started eating his burger anyway. Yet another thing that probably wasn't much of his business, anyway. And certainly, any sort of covert meeting was suddenly less covert when the Autobots involved. For a moment Sam wondered how Optimus Prime had even managed to convince them not to follow him. Even if it was an order, he was fairly sure Ironhide and the twins were having a difficult time not sneaking away.
"Mind if I get out for a bit?" Sam asked as he spied a picnic table with a playground not far beyond. As much as he truly liked riding around with everyone, he was sick to death of sitting down.
'Bee popped the door without replying.
Grabbing his drink and the fast food bag that still had a mostly-uneaten carton of fries in it, Sam crawled out of the car and stumbled a few steps before his legs wanted to work.
From the picnic table, Sam could watch everyone without trouble. Clocker was still with them, even though Arcee was not, but he was sitting still without a holographic driver in sight. Sam wondered if the scout was hard at work or simply resting. He had yet to see Clocker's 'driver', but he wasn't going to go potentially wake the 'bot up to ask, either.
Beside Clocker, Camshaft was engaged in some sort of conversation with Ratchet, obvious only by their bumpers being a little closer than need-be. Sideswipe and Sunstreaker had adopted hologram form, attempting to mirror or annoy one another, Sam wasn't sure which. They didn't stray far from their physical bodies and weren't really making noise (oddly enough, for them).
Finishing his dinner, Sam stretched and chucked his garbage into a can nearby before beginning to walk around the playground. It was a nice playground, filled with old metal jungle-gyms and metal animals with springs beneath them. But it wasn't as fun as he remembered, now that he could touch his tiptoes on the woodchips below while hanging from the highest bars.
Hanging there, his sneakers dragging against the ground, Sam did not feel like he'd saved the world once and was trying to help save it again. He just felt like a big kid far from home. In a way, he was a little scared and a little lonely.
He found himself thinking of Miles and how Miles would have been hanging upside down from the top of the next set of bars, acting like an utter monkey regardless of who was watching. But Miles was still in Tranquility, likely washing his dog or attempting some random feat of geekdom that only Miles was capable of.
Laughing and closing his eyes to simply feel the breeze as it was, Sam missed 'Bee's blond hologram appearing outside of the Camaro and slowly walking over to him.
Sam opened his eyes, a little surprised and half-expecting to see a yellow Camaro in front of him, not the hologram. They both smiled and Sam patted the spot at the table beside him.
"I... don't know," Bumblebee said carefully as he tried to reconfigure himself into a sitting position without passing limbs through wood and metal.
"Not bad," Sam commented as he glanced back at the parking lot. "You're... way over here."
"I thought it might... want to talk." There was a brief moment of silence before Sam understood exactly what 'Bee was saying.
"We could sit over by..."
"With everyone around?" 'Bee interjected, gesturing to where Sideswipe and Sunstreaker were chasing each other around themselves, learning to leap and land and, apparently, sense the others' holo-presence. Jazz was apparently sleeping on his own hood, headphones covering his ears and sunglasses covering his eyes as the setting sun painted both car and driver in new colors.
"You have a point," Sam admitted as he looked back at Bumblebee. "But... I don't mind how I talk to you. You're all... you."
"I'm glad you feel that way, Sam," 'Bee replied. "I was just hoping that you didn't find this scenario to be... creepy."
"No!" Sam said quickly. "Not at all. I mean, it was good for talking to Arcee, so... good for talking to anyone." Really, he hadn't meant it quite so bluntly but he didn't try to backtrack.
"Then I suppose I should tell you stories." Bumblebee didn't seem to have taken the comment negatively, causing Sam to let out a soft sigh of relief. The last thing he wanted to do was offend his friend - his giant robot friend.
Sometimes he stopped and wondered how, out of billions of people on the planet, he'd ended up in, well, his own shoes. But instead of wondering that, as he kicked out his legs and tried to find a bit of depth in false eyes, Sam simply listened to everything that Bumblebee had to say.
Sam had long-since returned to Bumblebee's passenger seat and fallen mostly asleep when he opened his eyes to an almost-unfamiliar noise.
'Bee was talking to someone - just not a familiar voice. A few holographic display panels popped up on Bumblebee's dashboard, flashing through screen after screen of the world wide web. After a couple of seconds and a half-lidded glance out the window, Sam realized that Clocker had shoved his way next to Bumblebee and was the one initiating conversation.
"Sam, are you awake?" 'Bee asked as he manifested his own hologram to reach over and jokingly poke even though he really couldn't touch anything.
"Kinda," Sam admitted. "What time is it?"
"Well after eleven," Clocker interjected as Sam sat up and shifted to look at the displays.
"What's all this?" Sam asked. It looked frighteningly like MySpace.
"Apparently," Bumblebee said as he shifted one of the displays over to be right in front of Sam, "the Decepticons have found ways of deceiving the more technilogically-inclined amongst your kind."
"No," Sam said as he read over the page. "Clocker, you remember those fourteen year old girls. This... 'Thundercracker' guy has thousands of friends on here and most of their usernames sound like Miles' little sister."
"This is only one page of many," Clocker replied. "While we've been waiting, I have extended my searching to find more than a hundred unique pages or sites supporting the Decepticons if not being wholly run by them."
"Wait, and you can log onto those?" Sam asked, a little panicked. "Can't they tell?"
"Most of your current computer technology is archaic to our kind," Clocker replied. "I believe all current data involved exists on actual server machines and I have been accessing it via a local unlocked wireless network that just reaches this park."
"So what are they planning?" Bumblebee was the one to ask, finally, after scanning through what looked like a good hundred MySpace pages at incredible speed. He didn't look away from the panel in front of him and it took Sam a couple of seconds to remember that his hologram was just sitting there and it was the robot that made up the car that was doing the actual work.
Maybe the holograms weren't a good idea. And Clocker... had to be using the radio. Sam hadn't even thought about it.
"I don't know," Clocker admitted. "Even on their own potential pages, there isn't much actual information. Yet people are drawn to it."
"Everyone wants in on the next big thing," Sam commented as he actually started looking at the photos and vague bits of information that Thundercracker's MySpace presented. Shadowy black and white snapshot of a twenty-something handsome hologram or photomanip... And the girls seemed to comment wildly about his not wanting to hurt them.
Looking away, Sam shook his head.
"How are we supposed to fight this?" Sam asked. "I thought you guys just blasted the daylights out of one another and that was it."
"Apparently, revenge on this world and on us requires slightly different tactics," Bumblebee said, sounding his true age for just a few seconds. Sam shivered even though the night was far from cold.
Clocker was apparently about to say something when headlights lit up the parking lot.
"About time," Sam said as a familiar semi came to a stop, taking up the better part of four parking spaces in the next row out. "I wonder where he was. Where would he go alone?"
One by one, the display panels flickered off, leaving only the lights on Bee's dashboard and the running lights of the others as light. Optimus even turned off his own headlights and without thinking, Sam got out of the Camaro and walked over.
"We've gotta talk to you," Sam said as he approached the truck. He didn't quite know how to explain MySpace, but he could probably say 'Wikipedia' and send Optimus in the right direction.
"I have to talk to all of you as well," Optimus replied almost softly. Sam nearly missed the sound of the driver's door latch yet he knew once he heard it that he was supposed to climb up and open it. Almost hesitantly, he put a foot up on the bottom step of Optimus' cab and grabbed at the door for support.
Swinging it open, Sam found himself at an utter loss for words. Behind him, Clocker had transformed and was peering in as well. Bumblebee followed suit in the silence, and within seconds, every Autobot in the lot had transformed to try to see what exactly Optimus had brought back that had rendered Sam speechless.
Long, blonde hair nestled around the girl's face as she slept with her head on her hands, she was wearing only a black tank top and plaid miniskirt that was mostly out of place from her sleeping sprawled across the bench-seat of Optimus' cab.
Apparently just the act of staring was enough - somehow she knew all eyes (and optics) were on her and she stretched cautiously, revealing blue eyes and tiny skeleton earrings precariously dangling from each ear.
"Oh," she said softly, "did I fall asleep?"
And then she saw Sam.
"Hi," she said as she shifted and sat up, flashing the briefest bit of white panties. "Nice to meet you. You must be Sam."
Sam blinked once and would have stepped back if there wasn't a metal leg pressed against him.
The girl smiled, reaching for her own bag that was decorated with three neon pink skulls on black canvas.
"Y...yeah," Sam said. "Hi. Um... I think there's been some sort of mistake." He cleared his throat. "Optimus... you gotta give her back."
"Give me back?" the girl asked with a laugh as she dug around in her bag, which she'd pulled onto her lap. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Here it is!" she exclaimed a moment later as she pulled something black out of her bag and handed it to Sam. "You've heard of us, at least."
Sam thought it was a wallet at first, but instead it was a badge - one he remembered all too clearly.
"Not good for much, anymore," the girl continued even as Sam realized that despite her appearance she was someone with some sort of amazing, unique skill. He hoped. "Mmm... Back up, would you all?"
The group obeyed, giving her room to slip down to the ground and stand clear as Optimus transformed.
"I'm sorry to keep everyone waiting but there was a delay in picking up our newest ally," Optimus said. "More road construction."
"The roads on this planet are poorly manufactured," Ironhide agreed, even though Sam couldn't imagine road construction stopping Ironhide if Ironhide really wanted to get somewhere.
"I'd like you all to meet former Sector Seven agent and our current liason with the American government," Optimus continued. Sam didn't look up - he was just staring at the badge he'd been handed, a little unsure what he was supposed to be thinking. "Melissa."
Something about Melissa bothered Sam - not necessarily in the sense that he didn't want her along on the journey but more that she was far too comfortable and far too knowledgeable.
And she'd managed to sweet talk the entire caravan's way onto (and off of) the Pennsylvania Turnpike with a couple hundred dollars and a smile, making the booth attendant happily ignore how Sideswipe was gunning his engine and Clocker following closely behind Optimus in a way no normal beautiful sportscar would follow a semi.
That was another thing that tended to make its way through Sam's mind and stick - Clocker. In the rather-correct body of an electric car, he seemed to need a little more help than the occasional gas station pit stops that the other Autobots did. Apparently Optimus kept some interesting power reserves that he allowed Clocker to access, but the actual process was still a bit of a mystery - the couple of times Sam thought he might catch a glimpse, Bumblebee quickly diverted him. All he knew was that the green Tesla seemed to enjoy it.
But that wasn't on his mind as they wound their way into the countryside...
"You think she's cute?" Sam asked, tilting his seat back. He'd feigned driving for the last few hours, finally trading with Bee at the last rest stop.
"Do I think who is cute?" 'Bee asked.
"Melissa," Sam replied. "Who else?"
There was a pause as Bumblebee tried to have his hologram driver look thoughtful, though thoughtful looked quite a bit like hungry.
"By human standards, she's attractive," 'Bee said after a moment. "On the world wide web, she would qualify as 'I'd hit it'."
Sam laughed. "Okay, that might have been too much info. Besides, I really just wanted to know what you thought of her in general."
"You asked if she was cute," Bumblebee replied. "Not what I thought of her."
"Okay, you got me," Sam said. "I want your opinion of her, then. All of her."
"Despite her outward appearance making her look like a MySpace drone, she seems well-informed and comfortable," 'Bee said. "She is acceptable to me."
"There's something odd about her," Sam stated. "Sector Seven or not."
"She has likely known of Megatron for her entire life," Bumblebee responded. "We don't scare her."
"I still don't think I like her, even if she is cute." Sam wasn't sure the conversation was worth continuing. In a way, he was a little jealous.
"Liking someone and working with them are two different things," Bumblebee noted. And that was the end of the conversation.
It was well after three in the afternoon when they rolled into the vacant lot beside a vacant building in the middle of nowhere somewhere outside of Pittsburgh.
There was no one around.
Melissa jumped down from Optimus Prime's cab, smiling as she dug keys from her bag.
"May not look like much, but this'll be home sweet home for a few days," she said as Sam crawled out of Bee, a little unsure if his legs would keep working. "There's power, water, wifi... And beds for those of us who'd like them."
"A safehouse?" Sam asked. A real bed sounded wonderful, no offense to Bumblebee.
"Something like that," Melissa replied. Most of the windows on the lower level of the building had been boarded over, making it look like no one had been there in ages. "It's a good rendezvous point and we're free to use it."
One by one the Autobots began to transform, stretching in the afternoon sun for the first time in days. Normally they'd get a few minutes at night, like when Melissa had arrived the night before, but that was it.
"We're well secluded," Optimus said as he surveyed the area. "Take some time to relax."
"There's a hose!" Sunstreaker exclaimed as he pointed at the green coil near the building. "I need to get some dirt out of..."
"Want a bath?" Melissa interrupted cheerfully. "Let me change and I'll see if there's a bucket and some soap inside."
"I'm in," Jazz said as he stretched and then looked over to Prowl.
"So am I," Prowl noted. One by one the rest of the Autobots agreed that being clean would certainly be nice.
"And you'll be helping," Melissa said as she began unlocking the building.
"Well yeah, it's a nice day and you probably need a bath too... Besides, would you want to be stuck covered in bug guts and dust? I didn't think so."
Sam shook his head - it was going to be a long afternoon (though he really couldn't argue a need for a bath himself).
Luckily Sam had a pair of shorts with him that lacked metal adornment, perfect for getting close to sensitive metal and prized paint jobs.
Sure enough, on the inside, the building was much more comfortable. It was a two-story flat-roofed structure that might have been a meeting hall or branch office at some point, though Sam couldn't fathom what it was doing in the middle of nowhere. A computer with a blinking wireless adapter sat against one wall in the half-divided downstairs, beside a couple of sofas. He dumped his bag on a chair in the makeshift kitchen while Melissa began to dig under the sink.
"There might be some canned food around," Melissa said as she bent over at the waist, showing more of her bottom than Sam thought he wanted to see and still think of her as a federal agent. "If not, there's a pizza place about ten miles away. I was here for my first mission... watching for an NBE that had been reported."
"You've always done this?" Sam asked. When Melissa held up a large, blue sponge in his general direction, he took it.
"Yeah," Melissa replied. There was a slight crash but Sam didn't look down. It just wasn't decent. "I suppose it's weird to you but I grew up doing this, so none of it bothers me."
"It's actually really... great to talk to Optimus," she continued. "I've been so curious. We've talked the entire time - well except when he was letting me touch him."
She produced a mostly-full bottle of green dish soap. Close enough. Sam almost dropped it.
"Touch him?" Sam was glad he was only trying to juggle dish soap, not anything he could have broken.
"Well, I wanted to know about how he processes sensation while in his adopted truck body," Melissa explained. "Like if he can feel where I'm sitting or if I accidentally kick a door panel when I'm stretching. I wanted to make sure I wasn't doing anything that would hurt him because I don't know if he'd tell me."
"So you..." She needed to find a bucket quickly, because Sam wasn't sure that he wanted to get to the end of the conversation.
"Bucket!" Melissa announced as she produced a red bucket from beneath the sink. "Kinda had to dump everything under the sun out of it, though."
She stood up and set the bucket on the table.
"I'm going to change. You should probably do the same," she said. "There are two bedrooms upstairs. Well, two rooms with beds. About as home-like as the rest of the place."
"Right..." Sam grabbed his bag and headed for the stairs at the other end of the main room. He hadn't noticed the television at first, but it looked modern and there was a game controller dangling from a box beside it. Obviously the government allowed a few... indulgences when it came to Sector Seven - even if they didn't really know about it.
"I've read your entire file, by the way," Melissa said as she followed him, high boots clunking on the wooden steps. "You're absolutely otherwise normal and unspectacular."
Sam frowned and stopped when he got to the top of the stairs. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Means that you're an excellent choice to be involved in all of this," Melissa replied as she walked past him and into one of the rooms. "Bathroom is at the end of the hall - let the water run for a minute after you turn it on."
Shaking his head, Sam turned and went into the other bedroom, closing the door a second after Melissa closed hers. He still didn't really like her, though most of it could be attributed to her Sector Seven upbringing.
As he stripped off his clothing, he began to hope the place had a washing machine - he only had a couple of clean shirts left in his bag along with the track shorts he was going to be using as swim trunks. He shook his head. Obviously he hadn't planned very well at all. Not that there was exactly a planning manual for cross-country trips with giant robots.
He made his way downstairs before Melissa had emerged from her room, even after a trip through the bathroom and discovering that her warning had been more than fair. For the first few seconds the tap had run a sludgy, rusty brown.
Doing the same with the kitchen sink, he began to fill the bucket with lukewarm water. Hopefully the twins wouldn't mind dishsoap. Ironhide or Ratchet likely wouldn't care, but some of the others... Sam wondered how they even handled automatic car-washes.
"I found some towels!"
Sam hadn't even heard Melissa come into the kitchen, but without her boots she was likely quite a bit more light-footed. He turned around to see her clutching an armload of multi-colored towels.
"I know these didn't use to be here," she continued. "Someone must have brought them and forgotten. Bad for them, good for us. I'm a bad traveler since I totally forgot to bring one of my own."
Sam nodded. He hadn't grabbed one either despite knowing there weren't going to be many motels in his future.
"Hey, I didn't mean to upset you," Melissa said once Sam turned the tap off. The bucket seemed to be mostly suds until he picked it up. Then it was just a bit over-filled and heavy. "I mean, about being ordinary. It sounds kinda nice, actually."
"It's okay," Sam said quickly even though it really wasn't. He wanted to get the car wash over with and see if the bed in his temporary bedroom was as comfortable as it looked.
There was no point in kidding himself - it could be as hard as a rock and it would probably feel like feathers.
When they stepped outside, Sam wasn't entirely surprised to see that a game of garbage-can-lid Frisbee had broken out between the twins, Jazz, Camshaft and Clocker.
Melissa started laughing as she set the towels down on a second, still-whole can. For the first time, Sam got a good look at her swimsuit - two piece and white, not at all what he was expecting. Still, little skulls decorated the sides, making it a little closer to the rest of her wardrobe.
"Okay!" Melissa yelled as she grabbed the end of the hose and turned it on. "Who's first?"
"Sunny's first," Sideswipe said as he narrowly ducked being hit by an errantly tossed lid. "He thought of it."
"'Kay," Melissa said, waving the hose in the air and thoroughly soaking Sam with cool water. "Get over here and we'll get to work!"
He was still really trying not to like her. Because he just didn't want to be wrong.
Sunstreaker transformed and drove over to an area that wasn't as likely to involve flying garbage can lids (mainly because Prowl had shooed everyone off across the sprawling field behind the building) between the building and where the other Autobots sat in relative silence.
"This might be a little cold," Sam said, quite sure that it was going to be a little cold. Melissa had sprayed him again in the interim and the water was getting almost too icy despite it being a warm summer day.
"Hmm. Do you guys notice cold?" Melissa asked absently as she started hosing off Sunstreaker. "What about rainy days?"
Sam thought he saw the yellow Lamborghini shiver. That answered that.
The sun was dipping below the horizon when the two humans decided to call it a night. They'd managed to get through half of the group and Sam thought Melissa looked just as tired as he felt. Neither had really expected the 'bots to be as demanding as they were about exactly where to clean and touch and where they'd missed spots.
"Tomorrow," Melissa promised as she turned the hose off. It was getting a little cool and the combination of that and being soaking wet made Sam want to offer her the shirt he wasn't wearing. "Especially you, Optimus. I want you to tell me every little thing about how it feels."
She giggled and then headed into the building, Sam close behind her. "I'll call for pizza and get someone to drive me into town."
He hadn't even realized that he was hungry but suddenly food sounded like an amazingly genius idea.
"Then I'm going to bed," Sam commented. "I'll never look the same way at one of those fundraising cheerleader car wash things again."
"I don't even want to know how you looked at them to begin with," Melissa said as she bounded towards the stairs. They'd used all of the dry towels on the Autobots, leaving nothing for themselves.
"You know what I mean," Sam said. He momentarily wanted to stick out his tongue.
"I'm going to change and see about that pizza," Melissa announced. "You take a nice shower and get comfortable. Maybe find us some plates."
Sam nodded and headed for the bathroom. And he remembered to let the water run for a minute before indulging.
He was fully-dressed (thanks in part to an extra hand-towel which worked fairly well for drying) and downstairs before Melissa returned. He'd even managed to locate a pair of plates and some dusty paper napkins. The table wasn't even really worth setting, but he did it anyway. He hoped she'd stop and get soda as well, since the fridge seemed to only contain a jar of mustard and something in a plastic container that he didn't dare open.
Stepping out into the lot, Sam couldn't figure out why it was empty. And then he saw them, gleefully racing out on the road and through the field. Well, except for Prowl and Ratchet.. And Optimus, who was at least watching. He had told them to relax, after all.
Ironhide was the one missing - apparently he'd been the volunteer for the run into town. Unless Melissa's idea of 'volunteer' was akin to 'closest to the door when she stepped out of it'.
Sam almost missed the vehicle coming up the road - he would have entirely if he hadn't been looking for Ironhide's distinctive frame because he was starting to get really hungry. But it wasn't Ironhide approaching.
He'd settled down to sit on one of the upended garbage cans (he hadn't done it, but he would bet $20 that Sideswipe had) but got to his feet the second he realized that it was her.
Pulling into the lot in a skid, holographic driver jumping from physical body as she more unrolled than transformed, Arcee looked up to see Optimus curiously approaching. She yelled something in the harsh Cybertronian language as she straightened up and stopped broadcasting the hologram who had slumped like a forgotten doll for the few seconds between.
Sam winced, partly wishing he could understand and partly wishing he had ear plugs.
Optimus simply nodded and gestured for everyone else to go back to what they were doing (as if that did any good - they simply kept slowly circling closer, especially Bumblebee).
"English?" Sam asked as he looked up at Arcee.
"Sam," Optimus said, "I'd like you and Bumblebee to go with Arcee to check on something."
"After dinner?" Sam asked.
"Tomorrow," Arcee said. "We all need rest."
"So what are we checking on?" Sam didn't like agreeing to anything he didn't know the details of. He could think of quite a few times he'd ended up with extra chores that way.
"Another scout, Skyblast, found one of the points where the Decepticons have been regularly accessing the world wide web," Arcee explained. "He'll meet us there. So far he's only seen one possible Decepticon make the transmissions and he has no idea who it is."
"So it's... safe?"
"Nothing will happen to you, Sam," Bumblebee said from where he'd snuck into the conversation. "This should be quite simple."
"Where at?" Sam questioned. "Nearby?"
"About six hours away," Arcee answered. "A port town in Michigan situated directly beside large chemical factories."
Optimus nodded. Sam wasn't sure whether to be excited or not, but he took a bit of comfort from flipping the other garbage can (empty, probably had a nice yearly service) and offering it to both versions of Arcee before ending up with her hologram sitting beside him, legs dangling and bumping soundlessly against the metal until Melissa and Ironhide returned.
About ten minutes after Arcee's arrival, Melissa (and Ironhide) pulled into the lot.
"Sorry!" Melissa yelled as she climbed down from Ironhide's passenger side, pizza in hand. "We made another stop! Can you help get things from the back?"
"Sure," Sam said as he slid down from the garbage can, a little curious why Arcee followed him with her hologram. She stopped before circling around behind Ironhide (line of sight, Sam reminded himself as he reached for Ironhide's tailgate), instead resting a hand on him (or not).
Laughing at the assortment of soda, oil, and other goodies packed into the back of Ironhide, Sam grabbed an armload and headed for the building. He figured he could at least put everything on the concrete slab that acted as a stoop, at least until Ironhide could transform and clear the area.
He guessed that Arcee was filling in Ironhide on the next day's plan, even though he wasn't involved. Melissa bounded over and stopped cold. Apparently because of Ironhide's size, she hadn't even seen Arcee.
"Who're you?" she asked sharply.
"Arcee," Arcee said, making her hologram look up with a smile Sam could only describe as sickeningly sweet. Or defiant. He wasn't sure. "Sam's cousin."
She was going to get him in trouble.
"Sam's..." Melissa frowned and then held out the pizza boxes. "Take these, then."
Ready to grab for dinner, Sam watched as Arcee managed to take the boxes and very, very quickly drop them off near the door as Melissa looked away to continue unpacking Ironhide.
Sam set down the box of oil that he'd been handed and stared. But apparently that was the limit on her ability as she let the hologram fade and simply transformed. Her physical form was small enough that she wouldn't damage anything human-sized and Melissa, wriggling around to get something that had rolled to the front of the pickup box, didn't notice until she sat up, stray can of lithium spray in her left hand.
"Huh?" she said as she looked up at the real Arcee and quickly did the math. "Oh... you carried something! How did you do that?"
"Practice," Arcee replied as she easily took several white plastic shopping bags and deposited them over at the door in just a couple of steps. "It is not an easy skill to learn."
"You know, if Sam hadn't mentioned you earlier, you might have gotten that 'cousin' line past me," Melissa said as she climbed down from Ironhide, skirt pushing up momentarily. She held up a hand in greeting. "I'm a former Sector Seven Agent - Melissa. I've been asked to assist and offer resources for however long is necessary."
Arcee leaned down and offered Melissa a pair of fingers to shake. Ironhide, finally free of cargo, pulled forward just a bit and transformed, looking slightly grumpy about his time as a pack-horse, though Sam wasn't sure that it wasn't just the usual Ironhide grumpiness.
"Pizza?" Sam suggested. He was curious about just what Melissa had brought home, but at the moment, his stomach came first.
And then he could see if that bed felt as good as it looked.
He woke to daylight and stretched, a little unsure where he was for a moment until everything untangled itself in his mind. It was already well after nine in the morning though Sam was fairly sure he just needed to give up on his body clock for the rest of the summer. Melissa had brought home enough food to keep them both from starving for a few days so he knew he didn't need to bother Bumblebee right away to find him breakfast.
Almost nervously walking over to the window, Sam glanced out to see Melissa talking to Camshaft while gently cupped in one of his hands. Things seemed normal enough - for being completely abnormal and involving giant alien robots. At least he felt rested and his back had worked out all the kinks it had been gathering from sleeping curled in 'Bee's front seat.
What he really needed to do, he realized, was laundry.
In only the sweatpants he'd mostly forgotten that he'd even packed, Sam headed down to the main floor of the building and began to poke around. He hadn't really done much but pass through the main room, noting only the most basic of things about it (like the decent tv and the game controller).
Smiling when he pulled open a door that was half-hidden beneath the stairs, Sam stared at the compact combination washer-dryer that was crammed into a space barely big enough for it.
Glancing around for detergent, Sam realized there were half-damp towels hanging everywhere.
And he probably needed to ask Melissa if she had anything that needed to be washed, just to be polite. She was starting to be tolerable, after all.
Carrying the clean, dry (and mostly fluffy) towels out to Melissa, who was frantically trying to stop an argument between Ironhide and Camshaft over line position for carwashes, Sam was rather glad he had already loaded his repacked bag into Bumblebee for the trip north.
"That is a technicality," Ironhide protested, looming over Camshaft as if he expected Camshaft to do something other than hold his ground.
"Fleshling custom is for one who gets out of line to lose that spot," Camshaft countered.
"She is the one who removed me," Ironhide retorted, gesturing at Melissa (complete with canon). Melissa dove off towards the garbage cans, peeking over one as the two Autobots continued to argue.
Sam just set the towels down and quietly inched to where 'Bee was waiting. If Melissa hadn't mentioned that the temperature was somewhat cooler up along the lakes, Sam wouldn't have bothered washing his sweatshirt but it had seemed like a good idea. One sweatshirt, a few towels... shouldn't have dropped him into a potential armageddon.
"I don't think I'll ever find this as normal as Melissa does," Sam commented as he closed Bumblebee's driver's door and reached for the seatbelt.
"You don't have to," 'Bee said as his hologram appeared in the passenger's seat and gave him a quick wave. "You just have to be here."
There was a pause that Sam knew meant that Bumblebee was talking to Arcee, who powered up her own hologram and offered a thumbs-up.
"This was not a shortcut," Bumblebee complained as they inched forward along the interstate on their way to where a massive three-lane freeway merged off into a miniature shoulder-lane. Sam thought if he ever saw an orange construction barrel again, it would be too soon.
"I don't think there are shortcuts," Sam replied. "I'm glad you're driving. The roads here don't make any sense whatsoever."
"And the construction..."
"Welcome to Earth, roads under construction," Sam interjected. They'd switched seats somewhere in Ohio and 'Bee's hologram was currently half-slumped against the steering wheel in a very good impression of an exasperated teen driver who hated road construction.
Bumblebee flipped through a few radio stations, settling on the Who again - Baba O'Reilley. Sam sighed. Traffic didn't move.
Arcee was a few cars ahead of them, getting admiring stares from the construction workers as far as Sam could tell.
"'Bee?" Sam asked after a moment. He'd wanted to ask all day but the time didn't seem right. The time still didn't seem right. "Can I ask a question?"
"I believe you just did," Bumblebee replied, glancing up. Sam wanted to reach over and push shaggy blond hair away from blue eyes but he resisted. There were too many other sets of eyes around to risk a holographic glitch.
"At least you're doing well with Earth humor, if not our inferior highway system," Sam remarked. He reached to tilt his seat back just a bit more. Looking out the window while asking sounded like a good idea.
"Anything you'd like, Sam," 'Bee said. They inched forward for a few seconds before stopping again halfway under an overpass.
"What's going on with... Well, do you guys... pair up like humans do?" Not quite what Sam wanted to say or how he wanted to say it.
Bumblebee chuckled. "I've been waiting for you to ask that - it's a very human question."
"Your culture likes to impose its rules onto others," 'Bee explained. "It's not surprising that you'd be curious about..."
"Yeah, I guess," Sam interrupted. He hadn't thought of it quite in the way Bee had put it, but it was very much the truth - he was judging the Autobots based on his own beliefs, regardless of theirs.
"But to answer your question," Bumblebee continued once Sam had nervously glanced over and then back again, half out the window and half nowhere. "Yes, sometimes one will choose to take a... lifemate of sorts. There has to be... a very strong bond. I can't figure out a word in your language that corresponds."
"I think I understand," Sam said. He hadn't even noticed that Bumblebee had made his hologram sit up and start to drum his fingers on the steering wheel. The look was good, but the slight thump-thump noise was missing and ruined most of the effect of the act.
"But that wasn't your real question, was it?" The look on Bumblebee's face was nearly wicked, something that Sam wasn't sure the Autobot could have conveyed outside of using a hologram.
"Don't think about it like a human," 'Bee reminded him. "We don't reproduce like your kind. There's no social taboo against companionship or pleasure. And despite the pronouns or appearances and voices we've chosen for this world..."
"Same ports and wires," Sam finished. "Arcee told me that."
He waited for Bumblebee to say something, but there was only silence. They inched forward again. Part of him wanted to ask what the obvious next questions - had 'Bee? Did 'Bee? Would 'Bee? And with who?
"Probably not very interesting to a species with an entire complex communication system capable of sharing information across the globe that is instead used mostly for retrieving explicit material," Bumblebee said as they reached the end of the construction and the one lane opened back into three.
Sam was glad he hadn't said anything further. This way he could just laugh and wave as they caught up to Arcee.
"You sure this is the place?" Sam asked as they pulled into the dark, vacant parking lot of a suburban mall. "We're at a mall."
"This is the location," Arcee's voice replied over 'Bee's stereo. "Your global satellite system leaves no doubt."
"She's correct," Bumblebee said. "Though... I'm not picking up anything."
"I'll circle the place," Arcee said as she revved her engine and took off towards the shadowy edge of a discount store.
"What should we do?" Sam asked. "Can I get out and stretch?"
"Yes," 'Bee said as he opened the passenger door for Sam. "But stay close."
"Not like the mall's open," Sam said. "Though I wouldn't mind picking up a few things if it was."
As Sam wandered over to a small island in the parking lot that contained a bit of ragged grass and a haphazard tree, he glanced upward at the stars. Most of the lot's lights were even off for the night and he was fairly sure they'd been the only vehicles on the road.
If the Decepticons had indeed set up an operation here, they were either stupid or obviously knew something that Sam couldn't fathom.
And then he heard what he guessed was Arcee coming back from the other direction. He froze. She wasn't alone.
"Bumblebee!" Sam yelled at about the same moment 'Bee transformed, charging his weapon immediately and firing at the vehicle pursuing Arcee.
The slightly-larger, pale-colored motorcycle lacked a visible rider and it swerved quickly to avoid being hit. At almost the same moment, both it and Arcee converted. Arcee was poised to fire but didn't move as the other motorcycle-robot shook its head as if it was momentarily stunned.
Sam tried to hide behind the tree, knowing full well that it wouldn't do any good. But he was at least out of the way for the time being.
Taking a slow step forward, Arcee screamed something in Cybertronian, the words harsh and for the first time in his memory, Sam didn't need a translation. He understood the raw anger in Arcee's voice as the Decepticon brought one metal finger down along its chest to trail along a burned black pointy emblem.
And when the Decepticon spoke, Sam realized two things - the first was that the Decepticon was a 'she' in the same sense that Arcee was a 'she' - and the second was that she and Arcee very obviously knew each other.
Arcee retorted and the Decepticon raised her own weapon. Bumblebee fired, grazing her leg in an obvious warning shot. He spoke, but more to Arcee than the Decepticon. But Arcee still seemed to waver, despite having a clear shot. The Decepticon kept speaking and Sam wished he could understand her because it was very obvious that whatever she was saying was upsetting both Arcee and 'Bee.
Bumblebee flipped his mask down. He was not going to waste another shot on a warning.
And then he froze. Sam stepped forward without meaning to, but Arcee had paused as well, after finally looking like she was going to shoot. It took a few seconds before he figured out that the female Decepticon was doing something to them - holding them in some sort of lock. She stepped closer, emitting a noise like a purr as she reached to lower Arcee's weapon. There was a flicker of recognition visible on Arcee's optics, but that was all. Arcee didn't move, even as she took a low-powered blast in the abdomen.
Sam took another step forward, kicking something. He looked down and saw a pair of filthy tennis shoes. And without thinking, he grabbed them and ran forward, lobbing one at Arcee with the sort of skill he wished he had at baseball tryouts in junior high. It caught her in the thigh, but it was enough that she broke out of the hold the Decepticon had on her. She fired quickly, screaming something that Sam definitely didn't want translated, creating a glowing hole in the Decepticon's side.
As the female Decepticon fell, the hold on Bumblebee was released as well and he moved forward. Yet they all froze at the sound of a jet overhead.
Sam ran back for the tree, still holding one ruined shoe as it descended, opening fire. He almost missed that it was the female Decepticon that took the first hit as the rest blew holes in the parking lot behind her. Bumblebee yelled something and raised a hand as the jet circled for another flyover.
And that was when the Decepticon fired, hitting the jet's wing and sending it spiraling off in a trail of smoke. Arcee yelled something. Bumblebee blasted the energy bow clear out the Decepticon's hand and across the parking lot, spinning before hitting a dumpster at the edge of the mall's Chuck E. Cheese.
They all heard the sirens at the same time.
"We've got to go!" Bumblebee called. Somehow English sounded out of place, but Sam merely nodded as 'Bee transformed and skidded over to the tree. Sam dropped the spare shoe almost as an afterthought as he jumped into Bumblebee. He was thankful to see Arcee following them out of the parking lot.
"What was that?" Sam asked, panicking a bit as they sped off towards the east. "I thought..."
"I'll tell you later," 'Bee said as he picked up speed. "We've got to find Skyblast."
"Water," Arcee's voice echoed over the radio, a little too loud and a little too upset. "He says he landed in the water."
"Skyblast," Arcee corrected. "He says he isn't totally under water."
"He's in the lake?" Sam asked. He knew a bit about the Great Lakes from geography glass. The thought of being in one was not particularly a happy one.
"Nearby," Bumblebee commented as they turned a sharp corner. "We're almost at the water."
"What about... the... I mean, the police..."
"They won't find anything," Arcee said bitterly. "She couldn't have been alone."
"If what she said was true, she definitely wouldn't be alone. Ever," 'Bee added.
"What did she say?" Sam asked. The treeline vanished as they came upon the water - black in the night and only broken by the marker lights for the shipping channel. "Who was she?"
"It's complicated..." Arcee began, only to interrupt herself as she pulled in front of Bumblebee. "Dammit!"
Sam saw the jet-robot, Skyblast, a few seconds later, about twenty feet out into the water and thankfully in the middle of a vacant public beach.
"We've got to get him hidden," Bumblebee said as he jumped the curb and headed for the water. Sam wished he'd have put his seatbelt on. Safety first, and all, especially as they skidded down towards the water. He grabbed at the seat beneath him, watching as Arcee transformed and ran, a much more logical choice for the rocky sand.
"Let me out," Sam said as he pulled at the door handle. "Can you guys even go in the water?"
"Let's find out," 'Bee said as he came to a stop to let Sam out.
Together, the three of them dashed into the water before Sam could even pause to stop and think that the water might be absolutely freezing. Recoiling for a second, he winced but headed forward. He probably should have asked for a ride on Bumblebee's shoulder but there just hadn't been time for that much thought. Arcee and Skyblast were speaking quickly in Cybertronian though Skyblast looked over at Sam when he approached and offered a hand in greeting.
"Can you move?" Sam asked. "We've got to get out of here. Someone had to have seen that."
"He can't," Arcee said. "And the waves are causing the sand to shift. We're sinking."
"But," Skyblast said in smooth, practiced English, "I'm no longer on fire."
"We have to try to get to shore," 'Bee said. "Even if someone does see us."
"I've already sent a distress call," Skyblast said as he tried to shift a bit. The resulting splash nearly dunked Sam under the water and he wished he would have at least taken his shoes off. He was soaked. Hopefully Bumblebee had left his bag up on the sand somewhere.
"Any response?" Arcee asked as she looked around quickly before reaching to pull on Skyblast's arm.
For five minutes they struggled to get Skyblast closer to the shore, finally figuring out how to use the waves to their advantage even though floating several tons of Autobot was mostly impossible.
Sam was exhausted by the time they neared halfway and with a nod from Bumblebee, he headed toward the shore.
Yet again, he heard the incoming jet before he saw it. Beginning to hate turning his back on anything, he spun around quickly and slid on the sand, falling back as he flailed to catch himself. His hand landed on the familiar strap of his bag.
And all he saw was white.
Getting to his feet, Sam was happy he'd had plenty of practice in running for his life.
"Sam!" Bumblebee's voice was barely audible over the roar of the engines of the gigantic white... space jet thing that was hovering over them. It made him momentarily think of the Bugs Bunny cartoon with the airplane stopping just before crashing - air brakes. The big white space jet had air brakes...
Arcee was talking quickly in Cybertronian. Sam could see lights begin to turn on in the houses nearby. It had to be well after midnight.
They were still alive, so obviously it was a friendly transforming robot.
Awkwardly, it landed on the sand, transforming quickly and taking all of a couple steps forward to drag Skyblast onto the beach. He (since Sam was fairly sure such a creature would be a 'he') didn't say a word before transforming again and offering a cargo hatch as 'Bee and Arcee stumbled out of the water.
"Come on, Sam," Arcee said. He guessed that she was smiling for the briefest of seconds before she and Bumblebee began dragging Skyblast up the ramp and into the dark cargo-hold of the white space jet.
Grabbing his bag and trying to follow at the safest distance to his ears - Skyblast's legs seemed mostly useless and the sound of metal against metal was painful - Sam followed. He was a little afraid he'd get used to a life with the Autobots and eventually fishing robots out of lakes and being rescued by...
The thought was interrupted by the clang of the cargo door closing and an immediate takeoff that knocked Sam off his feet. 'Bee caught him easily, holding him close against his chest for a few seconds until they were high enough in the air that Sam's ears popped.
Sam swore, mostly without meaning to and just a little because it seemed appropriate.
"We should be at... cruising altitude," Bumblebee said as he set Sam down. "Though I wouldn't suggest wandering around the cabin too much."
"Very funny," Sam said as he looked over to where Arcee was carefully trying to get Skyblast into a sitting position.
"How bad is it?" Skyblast asked as Arcee tentatively touched something that was sparking blue.
"Ratchet'll patch you up," Sam said. "He can do that, right?"
"Yes," Arcee said. "And I believe our current benefactor will be equally helpful."
Sam turned from where he was marveling at the hole in Skyblast's lower torso and froze for a moment before remembering that the pilot had not wandered off - the pilot and the plane were one in the same and could easily do two things at once.
"Rescuer," Arcee corrected as she stood to address the tall, sturdy hologram in the white and red flight suit. "More than once."
The hologram smiled and then looked over at Skyblast and then back to Arcee. "Looks like I missed all of the fun."
"Probably for the better," Arcee said almost softly. "I don't... I'll tell you when we land. Can you look at Skyblast?"
"Needs a few new wires and some paint," the white jet - pilot (Sam wasn't about to interrupt for an introduction) said. "So do you."
Arcee glanced down at herself, touching the singed spot on her side. Sam frowned - he hadn't even realized that Arcee had been injured.
"Arcee?" he asked without meaning to speak. "Bumblebee, are you okay?
"I have sand in places I do not want sand," 'Bee replied as he squirmed a bit to demonstrate. "Otherwise, Sam, I am fine."
"So you're Sam Witwicky," the jet said as he looked away from a slightly closer examination of Skyblast. "It's an honor to meet you."
"Just how long have you been in this system?" Arcee near-interrupted.
"Long enough to begin exploring," the jet replied almost wistfully. "Not long enough to finish."
"Sam," 'Bee said after a few seconds of silence passed between them all, "I'd like you to meet Skyfire, an explorer and scientist."
There was something in Bumblebee's tone that was unspoken and Sam was surprised that he caught it. But he considered Bumblebee amongst his closest friends, so he was supposed to notice little things... Yet Sam couldn't help still feeling mostly in the dark. So much was being tiptoed around and usually the Autobots didn't tiptoe.
Skyfire - the pilot version - glanced down at his hand before offering it to Sam. A little curious, Sam returned the gesture without expecting the firm, friendly handshake.
"Hey!" Sam wasn't really sure how he'd managed to say anything - he was fairly sure his mouth was just hanging open. Unless he'd seriously made a mistake and there was indeed a pilot involved, Sam knew he'd just found an exceptionally skilled holo... creator. He'd have to think of a word for that.
"A third form, if I may call it that, is exceptionally useful due to my size," Skyfire explained as he released Sam.
"Then get over here and fix me," Skyblast interjected. "Or at least disconnect a couple of sensors - this is starting to hurt."
"Sam, could you help me with that?" Skyfire asked as he rested a hand on Sam's shoulder. "Unfortunately there's a line-of-sight rule with this pseudo-body."
"I know," Sam said. "Arcee explained it to me. Was it you that she was stranded with?"
Skyfire nodded. "That was an unpleasant yet fruitful learning experience. Now, if you'll just go over to Skyblast and reach up into that nasty hole... Don't worry about burning yourself - the lake should have taken care of that. Perhaps he's accumulated some local aquatic life, however..."
"I am not full of aquatic life," Skyblast shot back. "And don't just grab things inside of me."
Sam frowned and glanced back at Bumblebee. But 'Bee was distracted - he seemed to be having a silent discussion with a very upset looking Arcee.
"Maybe I should have you disconnect his vocal processor instead," Skyfire commented as Sam began to climb up onto one of Skyblast's useless legs. Skyfire was right about one thing - there wasn't much in the way of heat coming from Skyblast's body. In a way, it unnerved him.
"What am I looking for?" Sam asked as he inched a hand towards the jagged gash in Skyblast's side.
"Something that feels like an embryonic chicken - an egg," Skyfire said. "With clips on either side..."
Sam reached up inside, feeling a couple of things that really didn't feel like anything he could describe until he happened upon something he would have described as less of an egg and more pear-shaped. But it had clips on either side.
"Think I have it," he said just as Arcee gave up on silent communication.
"I... I just couldn't believe what she was saying!" Arcee cried. "I wanted..."
"You refused an order," Bumblebee stated in a tone that made Sam freeze. He knew that 'Bee was a respected soldier and unit leader - he just hadn't yet gotten to actually witness that side of him.
"You're not my..." Arcee paused before lowering her gaze. "Yes, sir. It won't happen again."
"Just undo the clips and pull," Skyfire instructed coolly, forcing Sam's attention back to the literal task at hand.
"And do it quickly," Skyblast added. "You're touching some very personal wires."
Wincing, Sam forced the clips apart and began tugging as Arcee said something in Cybertronian.
"What did she say?" Sam asked softly as the unit began to separate.
"Everything else will be said on the ground," Skyfire replied. "I suppose that would be safer."
"I don't know anything more than you do," Sam said as he wiggled each side a bit, leaning up against Skyblast fully and wishing he could actually see what he was doing. But he could feel, which was more than what Skyfire could do...
Finally, the unit popped apart and Skyblast let out something akin to a sigh.
"Now get your hands out of there," he muttered a moment later before offering Sam a hand down.
"Sorry," Sam said quickly as he climbed back down to stand beside Skyfire's hologram. "You feel better?"
"I feel like I can't feel my legs, which is somewhat worse than just not being able to use them," Skyblast said. "But it doesn't hurt as much."
"And you aren't on fire," Sam added, earning a quizzical look beside him.
"Hmm. Sam, I believe you'd best return to Bumblebee's care," Skyfire said after a moment. "I'm going to begin our descent in just a moment and if you thought going up was bad..."
"Tray tables in the upright position," Sam said with a nod. He was a little wary of going over to Bumblebee, who still looked just a little irritated. Without being able to hear the entire fight, he couldn't pick a side. They were probably both right, anyway. Whoever the female Decepticon was, they each obviously felt quite strongly about her.
Bumblebee picked him up a moment later, holding him in a friendly 'everything is okay, really' way as Skyfire's hologram bowed and vanished. A second later, they began a downward dive that lifted Arcee clear into the air and sent Skyblast across the hold. Sam grabbed onto Bumblebee and closed his eyes as he felt Bumblebee shift as well. He was glad he hadn't eaten anything in the last few hours, because his stomach was currently trying to relocate itself several hundred feet above his body.
The telltale crack of metal against metal made Sam open his eyes and glance over to see what had happened. Instead of anchoring himself, 'Bee had grabbed onto Arcee and was keeping her from crashing into the back of Skyfire's cargo hold.
Sam let out the breath he didn't know he was holding when they leveled out a moment later to make a nice, soft landing.
"You haven't had passengers in awhile, have you?" Skyblast grumbled once Skyfire came to a full stop.
"Are we in Pennsylvania?" Sam asked as Bumblebee set him down. He let go of Arcee a second later and she was the one who walked over and gave a firm bang on Skyfire's rear door.
"These are the coordinates that Arcee gave me," Skyfire's voice echoed as he released his cargo door. "And considering that Prowl is about to shoot me, I'd assume that we're in the right place."
"I'm already hurt," Arcee said as she stepped onto the ramp. "I'll go first. Hopefully Prowl will... ask questions before shooting."
"I don't feel better," Skyblast said as he rolled a bit and tried to crawl towards the night air.
"Prowl?" Arcee called as she kept walking. "We need your help. Skyblast has been injured."
"What happened?" Prowl asked as he stomped into the cargo area and finally lowered his gun when he saw Skyblast.
"Long story," Sam said. "I'd like to hear it too."
"It's complicated," Bumblebee said. "Optimus needs to know first."
"No he doesn't," Arcee quickly stated.
"A little help?" Prowl asked from where he'd managed to get Skyblast half-hoisted onto his shoulder.
Sam was happy to see Melissa waiting at the end of the ramp, peering curiously upward.
"What's going on?" she asked as Sam walked by her.
"I don't know and no one seems to want to tell me," Sam said. "C'mon. They can handle it."
"So how was your day?" Sam asked. "I think you can take a guess about mine."
"Sam, are you okay?" Melissa questioned as she ran a couple of steps to catch up to him. "What - who is that?"
"That's Skyfire," Sam said as he stomped towards their temporary residence. He hadn't noticed at first, but Skyfire had set them down at the far end of the field. And the lot was disturbingly empty, save for Ratchet who raced by them a few seconds later. "Where is everyone?"
"Exploring," Melissa replied. "Everyone was getting the robot equivalent of cabin fever. Wasn't pretty."
Sam almost smiled, forgetting how frustrated he was for a moment before realizing that Melissa was probably dealing with the same thing.
"We were attacked," Sam said flatly. "By some Decepticon. And then Skyblast - he's the little jet - tried to save us but ended up in the lake. Skyfire rescued us."
"Sounds exciting," Melissa commented. "I mean, Skyblast will be okay, right?"
"I hope so," Sam replied. "I think so. I just want to know what's going on."
"Hmm. I can access a partial NBE database," Melissa said as she glanced back across the field. Sam followed her gaze just in time to see Skyfire transform. "Though I know he's not in there."
"Prowl wanted to shoot him."
"I know. I was talking to him until just before you arrived. Then he just jumped up and headed off, powering up his guns as he went." Melissa paused, watching for a minute as Skyfire cautiously sat down and started assisting Ratchet with Skyblast. "Didn't really say anything, either."
"Incoming," Sam said when he glanced back towards the road and saw a half-dozen sets of headlights. "Maybe we can finally find out what's going on when Optimus arrives. Where did he go, anyway?"
"I don't know," Melissa admitted. "The twins just wanted to go somewhere, Camshaft wanted to be somewhere no one else was, um... Ironhide had found something interesting nearby via wikipedia and wanted to go look at it, but Prime... I'm not sure. I was trying to, y'know, do some work."
"I'm really not just here to give car washes," Melissa said firmly. "I'm a government agent. Thankfully, Prowl was almost helpful with my current project."
"Current project?" Sam asked. He could see Camshaft racing towards them.
"Getting everyone processed as 'naturalized aliens'," Melissa said with a giggle. "But without birthdates, passports, hair colors and whatnot, we're going to have to create an entirely new system."
Camshaft came to a dead stop directly in front of them, transforming and standing up to his full height. His gaze crossed the field and he didn't look down while he spoke.
"What's going on? I just received a brief transmission to return. ...Is that Skyfire?"
"Yes," Sam said flatly. "Other than that, I have no..."
"Skyfire," Camshaft echoed. "Now that's something I thought I'd never see."
"Why?" Melissa asked.
"That might be something to ask him about," Camshaft said before transforming back into his vehicle mode and taking back off across the field.
"Okay, if that's what you've been dealing with, I can see why you're pissed," Melissa stated, hands on her hips. "When Prime gets back, I'll make him tell me. We're supposed to be a part of this, y'know."
Sam nodded and they kept walking.
"Oh shit," Melissa said under her breath before glancing over at Sam. "Were you seen?"
"Probably," Sam said. "But after Mission City..."
"Maybe I can teach them to file flight plans..."
The two kept walking in silence as first Ironhide passed them, then Sunstreaker and Sideswipe, then Clocker and Jazz, before finally familiar semi-truck headlights appeared to pierce the darkness.
There was a tremendous gust of wind behind them, almost knocking Melissa over. Sam reached for her arm just as Optimus came to a stop, transforming and looking up at the large white and red robot Sam knew was standing behind them.
"We have another problem," Skyfire said calmly. Sam turned around to see the Autobots slowly inching over from the far corner. Ratchet was carrying Skyblast as if he was nothing more than a child.
"We seem to be gathering problems," Optimus stated. "I met with two other scouts who reported similar scenarios to what Skyblast initially discovered."
"Then perhaps we could use a bit of situational irony," Skyfire said. Behind him, the Autobots inched closer. Still holding Melissa's arm, Sam guided her off to the side. Whatever was going on, he didn't think he literally wanted to be in the middle when it was finally explained.
"Would someone just explain?" Melissa asked as she pulled free from Sam and stepped forward. "It's been a really long day and we're all tired and some of us have been shot at and some of us are humans who are still rather new to all this craziness and don't know all of your drama."
"This is Skyfire," Arcee spoke up from the shadows behind the big 'bot. "Prowl was right to be suspicious of him because for most of his existence he was a Decepticon."
"That's a bit of an understatement," Sunstreaker commented. He and Sideswipe were close together, blending almost into one in the dark.
"Situational irony," Skyfire said as he looked down at Melissa.
"And how is Starscream?" Optimus asked almost casually.
"He's... I don't know," Skyfire said. "He keeps promising that he'll come get me as if I'm still stuck on that damned moon. If he thinks I'm there, all the better."
"Starscream," Sam said softly, instantly conjuring up an image of the new Decepticon leader. And fear.
"Though I suppose I should be upset with him," Skyfire said after a tense moment of silence. "Apparently he's taken another mate."
Sam forgot how to think, and all the pieces hadn't even quite fallen into place yet.
"Unless you've failed to fill us in on some plan of yours," Skyfire continued, "you'd best be upset with your mate as well."
"Elita," Prime said almost curiously. "She's..."
"A very good shot," Skyblast chimed in, not bothering to think before speaking.
"She claimed to be Starscream's new mate," Arcee said flatly as she stepped forward. "I hesitated to shoot her and she shot me. It wasn't a warning shot, either. If Sam hadn't been there, not a one of us would have returned tonight."
"Situational irony," Skyfire said one last time as he offered a hand to Melissa. She climbed up and Skyfire lifted her up to chest level. "Did you have any other questions?"
Sam felt lost in the instant eruption of chatter, both in English and Cybertronian, as he tried to piece together everything he'd just heard. The adrenaline from the parking lot battle was beginning to fade and he couldn't help feeling tired. And there probably wasn't anything he could do, anyway - maybe it really was drama worth staying out of for the time being. Obviously everyone had very strong views on it that they were going to voice...
He'd been riding around inside of Starscream's... mate? Partner? Even if he tried to process the term as 'roommate', Sam couldn't help but feeling a little sick. Sure, Bumblebee had said to not judge based on human standards, but it was still an absolutely weird thought.
Looking around, Sam realized that he'd lost track of 'Bee while stomping away from Skyfire.
Sam wheeled around and smiled at the sight of his guardian.
"This is weird," Sam said as Bumblebee sat down and offered Sam a place to sit on his leg. "At least to me."
"It's a problem," 'Bee replied. "I hope you can understand the delicate nature of..."
"You mean you didn't want Skyfire to drop us into Lake Erie," Sam interjected before yawning. "Yeah, and the whole part with everyone hooking up like a soap opera... Just let me know if you've got anything going on - I'd like a day without surprises.
"Understood," Bumblebee said as he shifted a bit. "My current only longing is to have the sand removed from..."
"Car washes tomorrow," Sam muttered, yawning again. "And jet washes, and motorcycle washes, and whatever-Skyfire-is washes..."
Sam opened his eyes and tried to remember what he was doing and where he was - he'd apparently fallen asleep, unless the sun now instantly rose in the middle of the night. Blinking, he untangled himself from being half-sideways in 'Bee's passenger seat, one leg kicked up into the dashboard and an arm wrapped in the seatbelt.
"Morning," he mumbled as he straightened out. "Or afternoon, maybe?"
"Still morning," Bumblebee replied, manifesting his hologram a moment later. "You fell asleep on me last night and I didn't know how to put you into the building without waking you up and making you walk there yourself."
Sam smiled. "It's okay."
And then he remembered the rest.
"Hey, what happened last night? Everyone was talking and..."
"Talk," 'Bee said with an overdramatic flop back in his own seat. "Quite a bit of it. Prowl still thinks that shooting Skyfire is a good idea and Optimus... It's hard to tell what he's thinking. He just ordered everyone to remain focused and that he'd order us all back out into the field if he had to."
"He probably thinks - last night aside - that it's too quiet. The Decepticons could have wiped out a city by now but they haven't," Sam said.
"Starscream is going with something more subtle," Bumblebee said as he turned a bit to look at Sam. "I think we should follow up on what Clocker found the other day."
"The stuff on MySpace?" Sam asked. "You think that was really them?"
"You think it wasn't?"
"I think it's a genius idea," Sam said. "If they can get it together, start a movement... and whatever else goes along with that, well... Don't ask me - technically I'm not even supposed to have an eBay account."
Bumblebee was giving him the oddest of glances and Sam realized what he said.
"Not that it's a good genius idea," Sam said, wondering if he could back-peddle far enough to get a smile. "Just... the sort of idea that you really wish you had but you didn't and, uh..."
'Bee smiled, nodding. "I understand. I think."
Sam sighed as he glanced around - everyone else seemed to have settled into their power-conserving resting states, or whatever they all did at night. Sunstreaker seemed to be covered in mud, as did Sideswipe, something Sam hadn't noticed the night before. Then again, he was fairly sure he wouldn't have noticed much of anything beyond being angry and dealing with a space jet (who was neatly parked off at the far corner of the field as if he knew better than to dare park on the pavement with everyone else).
"I should go inside and shower and change. I think my jeans are still damp from wandering around in that lake," Sam said as he reached for the door handle. "Sorry about that, by the way."
"Your bag is over at the door to the building," Bumblebee replied as he began firing up internet display screens. "I'll be out here. Take your time - Melissa is still asleep."
"Melissa..." Sam echoed. "Where is she?"
Bumblebee's hologram pointed over to where Optimus Prime was parked beside Prowl and Ironhide.
How he expected his summer vacation with the Autobots to not be exceptionally crazy, well, Sam honestly didn't know.
Picking up his bag, he reached inside to double-check that everything had survived intact. The first thing his hand came in contact with was his cell phone. Looking at it for a moment and doing a quick time conversion, Sam decided to call home. He rather thought he should tell his mother that he loved her.
Melissa wandered into the safehouse about a half-hour later. Sam had managed to get on and off of the phone in ten minutes, take a quick shower and find reasonably clean clothing in that time. Hoping there was still pizza in the fridge, he was just reaching to see when Melissa appeared. She was exceptionally rumpled but smiling.
"Morning!" she chirped. "Maybe... afternoon?"
"Still morning, though well after eleven," Sam replied as he located and grabbed a pizza box that felt fairly full. "Anyone up out there yet?"
"Hard to tell," Melissa said as she took the box from him and put it on the table. "I mean, for all I know they're chatting on AOL while sitting there looking like nice, ordinary vehicles. Which reminds me, Prowl and I need to finish at least a rough version of that new database today..."
"And carwashings," Sam added. "Every day is going to be carwash day. I hope you bought more soap."
"You can go buy more soap," Melissa said with a frown as she poked at a slice of pizza before picking it up. "Maybe some more food, too? You have a shiny 'government likes paying for the robots' bankcard, right?"
"Yeah," Sam said as he grabbed a slice for himself and sat down at the table. "You ever stop and think this is weird?"
"You mean how I spent my life chasing these guys only to find that getting to know them means wanting to smack them stupid?" Melissa asked as she relented and sat as well. "Not in the last... how long have I been in here? Five minutes."
"Why? None of it is your fault," Melissa said between bites. "I can't even figure out how to get valid license plates for everyone. I mean, everyone seems to have them but Camshaft's is also registered to a real Mazda in Rhode Island and for some stupid reason Sunstreaker and Sideswipe put their names on theirs, because that's so not suspicious... You know, I honestly thought that maybe getting everyone real, legal government-issued plates because that would be perfect except..."
Melissa set down her pizza crust and took a deep breath.
"Do you have any idea how the common every-day tax-payer would react to seeing a line of exceptionally pretty vehicles including two Lamborghinis, an electric Tesla, a Hummer, a what-is-Ironhide-anyway-other-than-big?, a new Camaro, a specialty painted semi, etc. all with government plates?!"
Sam started laughing, and Melissa soon joined in.
"Not to mention that no one has a damned title or registration anyway. Or insurance," she said, trying to keep a straight face. "Can you imagine trying to sign everyone up with Geico? I think they'd save us 15% and try to send us elsewhere."
"So you're trying to do this to help everyone blend in?" Sam asked. He ate his crust.
"It's for the future, too," Melissa explained. "The idea is that after the Decepticons are gone, the Autobots would like to stay on this planet at least for awhile. With the proper paperwork and a few people-skills classes, Prowl and I think that most everyone should be able to find some form of employment."
"You've got to be kidding me," Sam said without thinking. No way could any one of the... well, Ratchet was outfitted as a rescue vehicle. A sentient ambulance had plenty of benefits. And surely Prowl would make a rather good real cop. Okay, maybe not the worst idea he'd ever heard...
Melissa frowned and shook her head. "There have been hundreds of N.B.E. sightings since Mission City. If half of those are Autobots... or even non-faction-allied robots... Well, robo-welfare's gonna hold up about as well as smacking government plates on everyone's asses."
"But it's just been online speculation... Mission City was explained as..." Sam paused. "Someone is admitting it's real?"
"Go to the store later," Melissa interjected. "Buy a few copies of Newsweek. One of the guys sent me the text, but apparently the photos are the best part. Someone got out of Mission City with a roll of good ol' 35mm film. Mostly its analysis and comments on the whole internet infatuation. And trying to explain away something that isn't a photomanip."
"What?" Sam couldn't believe Melissa hadn't mentioned that little detail yet. He had been a few days without television, but...
"I haven't mentioned it to anyone yet," she admitted with a slight shake of her head. "Things just seemed tense enough yesterday and..."
She trailed off before standing up and heading over to the door. Sam heard it a moment later - everyone seemed to be transforming and stretching for the day.
"So soap, food, a few copies of Newsweek... Anything else we need?" Sam asked as he absently put the remnants of the pizza away.
"Nothing a polite girl like myself will bother you with," Melissa replied with a smile as she opened the door. "Here's to another bizarre day!"
Sam stretched as well, walking out into the sunshine. Sideswipe and Sunstreaker were standing right there, rather filthy, and looking at Sam as though he had ought to know exactly what to do.
"I need to go buy soap if you think I'm washing either one of you," he said. "Until then, get Arcee or Melissa or Skyfire to turn the hose on for you."
He didn't listen for the retort. Instead he headed for Jazz, who had been oddly quiet and was still off on his own, untransformed.
"Hey," Sam said as he reached to rest a hand on Jazz's left rear quarter. Apparently it worked on horses - Sam remembered that from summer camp one year.
"'Sup?" Jazz asked as he opened a door, letting a stream of music outward.
"I need a lift," Sam said. "Thought I'd let Bumblebee dry out a little after last night's beach party."
"Where to, man?" The volume of the music decreased as Sam slid inside, a little surprised at how comfortable - and low - Jazz's interior was.
"The nearest town," Sam said. "I've been tasked with getting food for Melissa and myself - and soap for you guys."
Jazz laughed as they headed towards the road. Sam reached for his seat belt.
"You've been so quiet," Sam commented as they drove. "I dunno... I thought..."
"Earth-stuff," Jazz replied. "Culture n' stuff. Music."
"Everything you ever need to say, there's a song for," Jazz explained. "Made it easy for 'Bee to talk to you before Ratchet an' the AllSpark fixed him up."
"Well, there isn't really a song for 'I'm secretly a robot trying to save the universe'," Sam said as he put a hand up on Jazz's steering wheel. It felt a little odd - being in someone other than Bumblebee. He hadn't even offered 'Bee a wave or anything... Suddenly he felt guilty but he didn't say anything. Instead he glanced out the window at cows lingering in a cluster near a farmhouse. Already they were miles from the safehouse - he assumed the unassuming farm was the nearest neighbor.
"Nah, he just didn't find it," Jazz replied as he switched stations. "There's music for everything."
Laughing, Sam nodded. There probably was a song like that out there somewhere.
"So what have you been listening to?" Sam asked a minute later.
"Musicals," Jazz said. "Movie scores, pop songs, big band, death metal, new wave, singer-songwriters, happy hardcore, folk songs in every language I can find... It's fun."
"Did you have music on Cybertron?" Sam asked, still trying to process Jazz's list. He couldn't imagine any of it in juxtaposition, let alone in the same day. Or at all.
"Of course," Jazz answered. "But... art, culture, creativity... those are some of the first things to go when war breaks out."
Sam was quiet for the rest of the trip to the quiet general store in the middle of a small town. Two rusty pick-up trucks were the only things in the lot when Jazz pulled in, and even nearby, at the combination Pizza/Burger/Chicken Wing place, there didn't seem to be much happening. The quiet was sort of nice, considering what Sam knew he was going back to.
"I'll only be a minute," he said as he opened Jazz's door and got out. Usually he told Bumblebee to stay put, more as a joke than anything else. But... he didn't want to offend Jazz, who had just been... rather honest with him.
Sam opened the door and wandered in, grabbing a handbasket on his way by. Soap. And food...
Melissa had been right - Ironhide was gracing the cover of Newsweek with the tagline 'We Believe. We Think." spelled out in blocky white text. He looked at the rest of the row, at Time and the tabloids and local papers, at USA Today and People and (since it was there) Better Homes & Gardens. All alien-free.
"When...?" Sam asked under his breath. Everything had been quiet for weeks - long enough for school to end for the year and for most of Mission City to be metaphorically swept under the rug as a terrorist attack using new technology... But America had won, of course, and things were...
Realizing he hadn't turned on a television or even checked his e-mail for the last week, Sam suddenly had a grand desire to do both. Yet his mother hadn't mentioned anything -- of course, she knew. And they'd only talked for a few minutes and she'd really only said that Mojo was fine and did he have enough underwear and there'd been an awkward bit when he'd said the name 'Melissa'... he supposed that would distract his mother well enough. Unless she really didn't know - if the news really was just hitting...
As covertly as he could, he dumped five issues into his basket. Going through the checkout would be awkward, unless the clerk wasn't paying attention at all. Maybe he could just say that he really liked aliens and had a friend who really liked aliens. He also had an alien sitting in the parking lot, but that didn't need to come up. Otherwise, it was mostly truthful, if he considered Melissa a friend -
Dammit! Sam turned and stalked off in the direction of the soap (he hoped). The world wide web would be buzzing already and yet a single Autobot hadn't said anything. He was sick of being in the dark about everything.
Soap. Dishsoap would have to do, since they didn't have that either. He grabbed four bottles and groaned - in no possible way would the clerk not think he was absolutely crazy.
And when Sam got to the food aisle and began loading in canned pasta and anything else that looked easy to make without much mess, he figured he could just say he was in a militia and they were gathering supplies to resist the alien invaders.
Though that wouldn't explain the soap.
"That your car?" the clerk asked when Sam reached the only checkout. She was middle-aged, likely owned one of the trucks out front. She began ringing things through without really looking at them.
"Belongs to a friend," Sam replied. "Mine's, uh, in the shop and he, uh, let me borrow it."
"Nice lookin'," she commented as she handed him the first bag. "Every now 'n then someone comes through with somethin' nice. Can't haul a trailer with it, though."
"Nope," Sam agreed. He pulled out his wallet and handed over his rather dull looking government debit card that had a fictional bank name on it but a very real Visa logo.
"Aw, hey," the clerk said as she got to the magazines. "You like this stuff? Dun know what it's doin' in Newsweek - I thought they covered real stuff like wars and cancer 'n stuff."
"It's interesting," Sam said. "It's okay if I buy that many copies, right? I have a few friends who..."
"Sales is sales," she interrupted as she bagged them and looked up. "Go ahead 'n swipe your card through the reader. 'N tell yer friend he has a nice car."
"Yes, ma'am," Sam replied. He didn't think he could get out of there soon enough.
Jazz hadn't moved when Sam emerged, not that Sam thought Jazz would have moved. He supposed at one point he'd meet an Autobot with the attention span of a gnat who would chase after butterflies and bunnies, but that was hopefully far in the future.
"Can you access the web?" Sam asked as he got into Jazz. "Like, now?"
"What's up?" Jazz asked. Sam forgot for a second that he was in a friend, not a real car and flung the bag with the cans a little harder than he'd meant to. He winced, but Jazz didn't comment. For future reference, Jazz was not built to be a grocery-getter.
"Ironhide is on the cover of Newsweek," Sam said as they backed out of the parking lot and onto the road.
Jazz stopped short.
"Ironhide?" he asked. "When they could have put a good looking 'bot like me on the cover?"
"I think you were busy at the time," Sam said flatly. "Mission City pictures."
"Rub it in, why don'tcha," Jazz said as they sped back into the fields.
"It's bad," Sam said. "I mean, if everyone knows."
"Might help flush out Starscream."
Sam sighed. He wanted to understand the Autobots' brand of undying optimism but it was difficult.
"And, Sam, the 'net has been talking about it every second since it happened. Remember that interview with your parents?" Jazz slowed down for what had to be the most useless four-way stop sign in the entire universe. Coming to a full stop, Sam couldn't see another vehicle in any direction, let alone any worth stopping for.
"I know," Sam said. "But that was... I dunno... So Optimus knows about all of this?"
"He knows," Jazz said. "He might even have a plan. Sometimes we think he has a plan and afterwards he says we were just winging it."
"Last night, I thought he'd..." Sam wasn't quite sure what he'd thought - that Optimus would be angry or yell or just drive off or what. Maybe punch Skyfire just for being there. But Optimus hadn't done much of anything but ask for more details about the actual mission and if they'd learned anything other than how to get shot up. He'd been... almost too calm.
"He knows better," Jazz said. "There'll be time for emotions later."
"So you've been listening to musicals?"
"Sam, I've been listening to everything."