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Bushwhacked

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It'd been three days since Astrid last ate a bite of food.

In between the painful delirium and numbing bouts of unconsciousness, she was seriously beginning to feel it, though the excruciating stomach pains and acute episodes of panic had long subsided. She could feel the acid churning, though.

Countless attempts she'd made to reach the main compartment of her backpack, but to no avail thanks to her awkward position. The thing had saved her life initially when the landslide hit, though. Sheltering her back from being crushed under heavy rocks, it managed to create just enough of a space for her to breathe as she laid mostly on her stomach.

She'd mostly been able to keep motility in her arms, and thank god some cuts and bruises were the worst of their injuries. That and a couple scorpion stings the previous night. The young woman was thankful for every hour that she didn't hear the call of a coyote or see one pausing to look her over from a safe distance. One had gotten too close and she'd managed to bust its head with a well-aimed rock, sending it skittering and yowling away. But that was yesterday, and her weakness was worsening by the minute.

Was she really going to die? Alone and lost somewhere in the remote northeastern area of California? Her friends probably reported her missing maybe the day before-she was due to show up at their campsite already, hoping to spend the rest of the week with them-which meant that search and rescue teams were already combing the mountains from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite. It was a hopeless search; the square miles for them to cover were just too many, and she was far from the trail now.

Astrid once again found herself fighting unconsciousness. The struggle to free herself from the dirt and debris was over: human 0, wilderness 1. As much as she would have liked to just fall asleep and die, she'd read Deathwatch in school; she knew very well that her last moments would be agonizing. All she could do now was accept it and prepare.

Another long day passed, littered with bouts of something like sleep. It was impossible to keep the time. Tonight might be her last sunset; she'd try and rest up so that she could enjoy it. Rest up...

Somewhere off in the distance she could make out, through the undulations of her own failing body, the rasping of her own dry and ragged breaths, the sound of a helicopter. It took a too many minutes for her brain to register it, but before long she was able to comprehend the situation enough to lift her head and wave her stronger arm.

"Please see me..."

Her voice was not her own. It belonged to an old woman with dust for spit; she sounded like two crumbling stones rubbing together. Just that simple exertion of energy seemed to deplete what stores she had, and Astrid let her head fall back down again, eyelids heavy. The backpacker was able to discern a noise to her right that sounded much like a car, but she felt too weak to pay it much attention. It wouldn't have been her first auditory hallucination yet either. But something about the surge of the powerful engine, the branches snapping and more rocks tumbling down the hillside, made her wonder if, perhaps, it might be real after all...

She closed her eyes then and rested her head. A strange sound greeted her ears and she heard heavy footfalls despite the helicopter drawing nearer. Astrid distantly felt weight being lifted from her back and legs, and what might have been many hands -or perhaps two large ones?- grasp her firmly and yank her out of the debris.

A very strange voice wove through the buzzing in her ears and the slow, cracked breaths filling her lungs, and everything else faded into the distance.

"Let's... get you out of..."

But that was all as she finally allowed herself to fall into blackness.

Finally, she could get some sleep.


Astrid was able to hear her own wheezing breaths, slow and steady, as she woke up. Her vision was blurry, but she recognized the face of a doctor hovering about, a clipboard in hand. The light was natural; it filtered through a window behind her.

"Astrid!" A muffled shout from her left caused her to turn her head, a pain shooting down her neck.

The woman was in her mid-fifties, shoulder-length salt and pepper hair in a haggard ponytail. There were bags under her eyes, which were filling with tears. Thin lips pursed into a painful smile, and now her cheeks were wet as she reached out for the younger woman's hand. Astrid smiled weakly.

"Mom..."

"Oh my god, you're finally awake." She jumped up, restless, but clearly exhausted. "Just... just relax, ok? Everything's going to be ok."

"Congratulations," said the doctor, biting back a very genuine grin as he looked her over. "You made it."

Astrid adjusted herself in the hospital bed, attempting to sit up, but a pain and stiffness in her legs prevented it. "What... happened?"

The doctor set his clipboard under his arm, clicking the ballpoint pen in his hand a few times. "Your tibia and fibula of your right leg have suffered from spiral fractures," he began. That's not exactly what she was asking, but it would do. "And your right ankle was nearly shattered. Your left kneecap has a hairline fracture, and your right hip got a pretty good bruising." He sighed. "You were severely dehydrated, too, and practically on the brink of starvation." He fumbled around with his files a bit, and pulled out a big white envelope. "MRI results were as expected... we'll throw these up on the wall for you later."

She looked down at her leg casts. Lo and behold, the right leg was in a full cast, slightly bent at the knee. The left was in a heavy brace.

"When can I go?"

"Astrid!" her mother exclaimed.

The doctor chuckled. "We put 8 pins in you yesterday. What do you think?"

She sighed. "I think I'm going to be here for a few days."

"And you'd be thinking right." He put her folder back at the foot of the bed and leaned in. "Look: this is a big deal. It's all over the news... you almost died out there. Try to be patient with yourself. Your body needs time to heal."

Astrid's mother, Tracy, nodded in grim agreement.

He pulled a syringe out of his front coat pocket, flicked it once, and injected it into the IV line. Astrid watched him. "Morphine?" she asked, smiling weakly.

The doctor chuckled. "Enough to take the edge off. Now, if you'll excuse me, a nurse will be in to check on you in an hour."

Astrid nodded, feeling herself suddenly filled with a bright, tingling warmth, followed by a subtle floating sensation. The doctor was about to leave the room when she stopped him before she no longer had the wherewithal to put words together. "Wait, one more question." He halted mid-step. "Who brought me to the hospital?" She knew the obvious answer would have been the search and rescue team that found her, but some strange, vague memory kept her from believing it.

"Well... I wasn't there, but... I heard from a guy down in ER that there was some civilian SUV following the ambulance. I guess they were with WSAR? I don't know. " The doctor shrugged, then smiled. "Why, you know them?"

Astrid shook her head. "No, that's what I was hoping to find out."

"I wouldn't worry about it if I were you," said the doc as he turned to leave. "Now do us all a favor and get some rest, would you?"

The two of them were left alone together, and Tracy reached out to hold her hand again, stroking it with her thumb while avoiding touching the IV needle.

"Where's dad?" Astrid asked, feeling the painkillers working their magic. It'd be a matter of minutes before she was out again.

"In Connecticut. The flights were just too expensive on such short notice... he's so sorry."

She nodded, and her eyelids started to grow very heavy.

"Let's call him... when I'm up..."

Astrid wasn't actually thinking about her father, though. Rather, the last few images in her mind before drifting off into blissful, silent, sleep, were what she may or may not have remembered from being pulled out of the debris.

Meanwhile, Tracy was busy getting her husband on the phone anyway.


About two weeks had gone by since Astrid was released from hospital custody. She was on sick leave from her job as a guide at Adventures Inc. indefinitely, and against the wishes of her parents and sister, returned home to her little rented house on the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe instead of staying with family in Sacramento. Her mother, however, took off a week from work to stay with her, but had to go back home the previous sunday and leave her daughter to her own devices. It took a lot of convincing to get her to believe that one of Astrid's friends in town would be by every other day to help, and otherwise just a phone call away.

The strangest thing was that the day she was released, she started to get calls from journalists and news people for interviews about her story, and (complying, for once, with the wishes of her parents and sister) did a single phone interview for the town paper.

What began to eat away at her though, was the fact that she never was able to thank the people that saved her, or even see their face. She tried doing some internet research in her now copious amounts of spare time, but nothing more turned up except for a few stories of other hikers lost in the California wilderness who also mention a civilian SUV involved in their rescue, only confirming what little she already knew. Just when she thought to give up and focus on recovering from her injuries, she received an email one day from someone using Jolly Green Giant as a pseudonym:

Hey there Astrid,

You don't know who I am, but I just wanted to follow up with you and make sure that you're all right.

-The Jolly Green Giant

The message, though friendly, seemed cryptic. Who the hell was this person? She pondered for the entire day whether or not to reply, but curiosity got the best of her, and she finally, cautiously, began to write back. It had to have been either somebody at the hospital that somehow got hold of her email address, or one of the WSAR people, somehow. If it were the latter, then this wasn't a chance that she was going to let go to waste.

JGG-

I am doing better now. Able to putter around a bit, at least. Thanks for asking.

How do you know me? Who are you?

- A. Schneider

She had planned on going to bed after sending the email, but a reply came fast. Eerily fast. In fact, according to the time logs, she received another message from The Jolly Green Giant 38 seconds later.

Astrid,

I'm very glad to hear it! They say you'd have been deactivated in less than 24 hours, but... better late than never, right?

Oh! Well, since you asked, I suppose I should tell you. Name's Hound. You probably don't remember, but I pulled you out of the debris. And about finding out your email, well... wonderful thing the internet is, right?

At any rate, I'm happy to hear you're doing much better. Good luck on any future trips you might take!

-Hound

Astrid couldn't tell if she was relieved, or creeped out even more. She asked for his name, and he gave her another alias. She asked how he knew her, and he claimed to be part of the search and rescue team. Was this "Hound" with the press? Was he a stalker? He wasn't asking for any personal information, or digging for more story material, though. After spending some time puzzling over the situation, she decided to sleep on it.

She had to admit, sleeping was a pain in the ass when you had a cast on. And god forbid she needed to use the restroom in the middle of the night, seeing as how it took so long to get in and out of her wheelchair. But aside from that, the emails kept her up even with the Oxycontin she took before bed. When Astrid couldn't take much more staring at the ceiling, she scrambled into her chair and wheeled over to the desk. She reread over his last email, and was thrown a bit by his choice of wording... deactivated? Astrid didn't really know what to make of it, but began to reply anyways.

Hound,

So... what you're trying to say is that my rescue more or less hinged on you finding me and digging me out?
If that was you, why don't you tell me your real name?

-Astrid

She wheeled away to make a cup of coffee, returning to her computer about five minutes later with a hot mug full of fresh brew with a little cream. Decaf- she was already buzzing with curiosity and anticipation of figuring out this little puzzle.

And again, there was already a brief reply.

Well... yes... it was me. And I did tell you! My name is Hound.

Astrid blinked. That couldn't possibly be his real name.

Well Hound, thank you for saving me. I owe you my life. Honestly.

Not twenty seconds after she hit the send button was there a reply. Was this guy just sitting in front of his computer waiting for her to email him? It was like he was sending her messages faster than he could type them.

No, there's no reason to thank me. Just doing my duty.

Astrid started to type again.

There must be something I can do. I would feel horribly guilty if I went without repaying you somehow, especially now that I know who you are, sort of. How about lunch on me? I'll meet you somewhere. You can order whatever you want.

And 9 seconds later:

That's totally unnecessary! Promise. I'm not in it for the reward. Helping humans is payment enough for me.

The woman blinked, and reread the message as though it would help her make more sense of it somehow. Yet again, his choice of words was puzzling, to say the least. Part of her became really curious about this character, and just how he became to be part of a No Cal WSAR unit. And so 6 minutes and 20 seconds later:

Nonsense. I'll meet you at Delmonico's. Wine, steak, lobster, whatever you want, on me. Sunday at 1? If... you're in the area, that is. If not, how about a gift card?

She couldn't help but feel strange... it was as if she were doing something she wasn't supposed to, like this were a breaking some sort of social contract. One some level it felt wrong to face her savior in such a blunt way, but... it almost felt just as wrong to let him go off into the world without telling him how she felt. It was a burden on her, in a way.

It was several minutes before a reply came.

Well, alright. I'll stop by there.

Astrid really wanted to know who this was that had saved her. So far, the pieces didn't quite add up. Well, what few small pieces she had to work with at least. And despite the constant calls from her family to check up on her, she elected not to tell them what she had planned in two days.

And due to her being house-bound, those two days passed painfully slow; without another word from her strange, anonymous correspondent. Astrid convinced her friend, Eli, to drive her to the restaurant that day.

"Give me a call when you're done, okay? I'm guessing you'll be done in two hours tops, right?"

"Sounds good to me."

"I have no idea why you're doing this, by the way. I wouldn't do it, that's for sure. Just... don't be weird, OK? Think about how this guy must feel."

She huffed. "I'm not going to be weird, I promise."

He helped her out of the van, into her chair, and she proceeded to wheel inside. The receptionist, recognizing Astrid from a photo in the newspaper, immediately ushered over the manager, who proceeded to offer her a pre fixe meal on the house. The woman awkwardly declined the offer.

"I'm actually waiting for someone," she said. "But I'll have a glass of the house wine." Wine was brought-they gave her the whole bottle-and Astrid waited.

In fact, she waited for half an hour, before sighing to herself and thinking just how crazy she was for getting herself into this situation. Maybe the cabin-fever was getting to her, and just as was her nature, Astrid was not content with sitting around doing nothing. After all... her affinity for the outdoors was what had gotten her injured to begin with, and now that she couldn't go out and do the things she loved, she had to go looking for a different kind of adventure. Astrid huffed as she picked up her phone and called Eli.

"Lunch date stood you up, huh?" Eli asked as he loaded up Astrid's wheelchair in the back of his van. "To be honest, I'm not surprised."

"Oh shut up," she laughed. "It was a long shot, but at least I tried."

"Least he could have done was say no instead of chickening out, I guess." He got into the driver's seat of the truck, closed the door, and started up the car. "Did you eat?"

She shook her head, but held up the nearly-full bottle of wine. "But I got to keep this."

He laughed. "Well, wanna do drive-through?"

"Sure."

With that, they rumbled off in the old bucket in the direction of a Burger King. As they pulled away from the curb, Astrid caught glimpse of a green vehicle parked behind them in the rear view mirror. It pulled away with them.

"You're awfully quiet," Eli prodded.

Astrid raised her eyebrow for a moment before bobbing her head from side to side. "Eh, just... tired. Didn't sleep well last night."

"Ah," he nodded as they pulled into the drive-thru. "Whaddya want?"

She only glanced at the menu as an intelligible voice rasped through the speaker. "Number nine with clear soda, thanks."

They ordered, drove up, paid, received their food, and returned to Astrid's house, where they ate their late lunch over some small talk. Eli tried to find out who she planned on having lunch with, but she refused to reveal who. He had to return to work at 3, so there was no time to stay and hang out after lunch. At twenty til, he left, but not before making sure she didn't need anything. She gave him the wine as a thank-you for being an accomplice in her bizarre adventure. "Shouldn't be mixing booze and pills anyways," she'd said.

Astrid found herself with a cuppa, looking out of the glass double doors that led to a tiny backyard, pushed up against a forested hillside. At the top of the rise was a fancy timeshare resort; she could hear the ruckus by the pool on summer weekends.

It was somewhat of a myth that California didn't have any wildlife left, but that really only counted for the counties south of Big Sur and west of Sacramento. She'd seen bears tromping around in the trees beyond the fence on one occasion, not to mention countless deer, and an assortment of other critters. Astrid sat and sipped, listening to Natty Dread playing softly in the background and wondering if it was maybe time to shell out for a Netflix account.

There was a knock at the door.

The woman set down her coffee and turned herself around for a moment before wheeling over to the door. She hoped that it wasn't a journalist. "COMING!" she shouted, maneuvering over to the nearest window and peeking out. A gasp escaped her lips and she pulled the shade closed again when she saw a Jeep parked in the driveway. The same car from earlier.

Wh-

Astrid wiped her face and ran a hand through her short hair. This was just crazy.

Dammit, it probably was a journalist or stalker that she'd been emailing! "How could I be so stupid," she hissed at herself, wondering if she should even open the door. In a way, it was too late; she'd already confirmed that someone was home. She had to open it.

A deep breath, and Astrid reached for her phone, dialing 9-1-1 and carefully setting it in her lap without hitting the 'call' button. She wheeled over to the door, and with a clammy hand, clicked the latch and maneuvered the thing inward around her chair.

"Can I-" Astrid cut herself off when she saw the landing was absent of a visitor, and it also appeared that the Jeep was empty. Who had knocked? She wheeled out over the threshold, glancing about the property, suddenly very, very nervous. "Hello?"

"Hey, uh... Astrid." The woman jumped in her wheelchair when she heard the voice. It was strange- mechanized, almost, and seemed to come from the unoccupied vehicle.

Astrid's eyes darted around a few more times. "Y...yes?" She risked wheeling out a bit more onto the walkway towards the car. "Uhm, why... why are you hiding?" It occurred to her who she was talking to. "H...Hound, right?" She dragged out the 'h', feeling quite silly to be addressing anyone as such.

"Oh, I'm not hiding. Well, not really."

Astrid knitted her eyebrows, staring at the car with puzzled scrutiny, a little bit less nervous now. "Well, come out of the car, then. I can't thank you if I can't see you."

"You're looking right at me." And to prove his point, he turned the wheels of the Jeep back and forth a bit on the gravel of the driveway. Still, there was no driver as far as she could tell.

"Now you're just screwing with me. Look, you can come in for some coffee if you stop playing games." What was his problem?

"Well... alright. I can't come in, but I will come out. Just... don't freak out, ok?"

What the hell does that mean?

Astrid was expecting a man to straighten up in the cab of the Jeep, laugh to himself and step out, but that's not what happened. In fact, it's far from what happened. Astrid couldn't quite explain it, but the SUV transformed. It broke into a bunch of little pieces, and those pieces moved around each other. She stifled a gasp when she began to recognize limbs. Out of those limbs came hands and feet. And last, but certainly not least, a head ascended from inside what was now a big, blocky chest.

On that head there was a face, and on that face was a sheepish grin. "Ta-da," said the mouth. Was that... was that nervousness she heard in that voice? "See? I told you I wasn't really hiding."

Astrid's eyes were as wide as dinner plates. "You..." she stumbled, sorting through her disoriented thoughts aloud. "You're one of those Auto... bots, aren't you?"

He shrugged, and he smiled again, his white, metallic face lighting up, blue eye things gleaming. "And proud of it."

"Wow... well, that certainly explains, er, everything." She paused for a moment to look around again. "Why don't you come around back? You're sticking out like a sore thumb out here."

"Well, sure."

She watched in fascination as he turned and squeezed between the garage and the house to get to the backyard before turning on her wheels and going back inside. Pausing just as she closed the front door, Astrid took a very deep breath and cancelled the call to 911 with a shaking hand, and set the phone on the dining table.

Maneuvering about the house until she was back to where was before answering the door, mug still steaming a bit where she set it on the dining table, Astrid took a good, long sip before setting it down again and opening wide the two back doors. Hound took to sitting down on the ground.

She might've objected to that if the grass wasn't mostly comprised of patches of dirt, weeds, and Saint Augustine. He was idly picking at something at some joint in his hand when she realized that she didn't really know what she was doing, or what to say.

Quite frankly, she was surprised that she wasn't in hysterics. After all, she'd been hours from death when this... individual saved her.

"Would you... like some water? Or... uh... oil? Antifreeze? Whatever it is you guys drink?"

Hound laughed politely and raised his hand in declination. "No, no, I'm alright."

An awkward silence passed.

"Look, I... wasn't really expecting this. You. I thought you were..."

"Human?"

"Well, yeah." Astrid tapped the chrome rails on the wheels of her chair. "I'm really sorry. I know I've heard about your organization before, but I've never actually seen one of you, or ever expected to see one of you, face to face. It's like finding a, uh... a gold bar in the attic. They exist, but you've got a better chance of being struck by lightning than ever seeing one with your own eyes!" she laughs nervously and looks at the ground. "So... what brings you to California, I guess?"

Hound seemed to genuinely find what she had to say interesting, or at least he appeared to be as interested as a machine could be. She knew all about them, just like everyone else on the planet. The official story was simple enough: that they were experimental AI let loose about the country to interact with people, to learn, and to train for their ultimate purpose as protectors of the country, just like any other serviceman or woman. They were first announced when she was still in elementary school, but it didn't seem to be all that much of a surprise to too many folk, seeing as how advanced artificial intelligence had become by then. Coupled with even earlier hububs about SETI finally detecting very old and very distant transmissions from space (which no one could make heads or tails of, of course), the unofficial word was that the Autobots were the product of a black project putting some kind of alien engineering into practice. Or that they were just another way for the state to surveil their citizens. Or that they themselves were, somehow, alien. Or...

Frankly, the whole debate bored her to death, so she never had an opinion one way or the other about it. SETI continued to intercept old, distant, unintelligible transmissions, and the Autobots went about their business as civil servants or university aides, keeping under the radar. The public got bored and moved on.

But suddenly, Astrid was faced with needing to form an opinion. Because before her was this giant machine, with arms and legs and a face, and he - why's he a he, again? - seemed freakishly human. From where he rested his hands, to where he rested his eyes, it was all so organic. He was as fully present and embodied as anyone else she knew, but it didn't seem odd to her, she realized. In fact, it seemed quite natural after all.

Astrid decided that he was a person, then, and that she'd treat him as such.

"I was driving east from San Fransisco - heading to a new station in Yellowstone to help with a research team - and I heard on the radio that a young woman had gone missing while on a backpacking trip from Tahoe to Yosemite, so I volunteered to take a detour and help. We knew about the landslide, but thought you might have just gotten lost trying to get around it, or was maybe headed back to your starting point. When there was no sign of you along the trail, we started combing around the landslide. And that's when I picked up some life signs. They were... they were faint. But I knew you weren't gone yet." He shrugged. "I guess the rest is history."

Hm. Maybe he could tone down the humanness just a little.

Astrid said nothing when he was done. She began to imagine things from his point of view, then; images that she'd stifled until now. The trail, the landslide, the debris piled up at the bottom of that valley, and Astrid's broken body sticking out of the bottom of it next to an empty water bottle, hand desperately clutching a stick to beat back the vermin or a rock to beat back the coyotes.

She remembered the blood covering her arms and face, caked especially thick on her cheek and forearms. She remembered horror settling into her gut when she first tried to twist around and reach her bag, only to be rewarded by a shooting pain in her leg that almost made her faint.

But perhaps most distinctly she remembered the weight of the rocks on top of her. After a while it became more than just a pile of rocks, it evolved into a symbol, a metaphor. It represented the heavy burden of knowing that she was going to die a fucking terrible death. Each and every stone pressed down on her as though taunting, daring her to try and reach the other compartments of her pack buried hopelessly under their weight, the compartments of food to stave off oblivion just a little longer.

She wondered at how much she must have stunk. Days of blood, sweat and dirt caked on every inch of skin... pants that she could only keep from being soiled for so many hours.

I must have smelled like a dead possum dumped in an outhouse. Like piss and death, she thought.

A lump of the likes she'd never felt before amassed in her throat and her eyes burned with sudden tears for the first time since coming home. Just like that, the very wilderness she had so adored, had nearly taken her life. Most bushfolk knew this. But did they really?

She did now.

The silent sobs that had so suddenly taken hold of Astrid caused her to slump in her wheelchair. For a moment, the world around her, Hound included, disappeared.

"Hey there..." the voice, though inhuman, somehow managed to retain a certain warmth. A large, five-fingered, articulated hand that should have weighed almost seventy pounds rested lightly on her shoulder. The lack of any other words was cause for her to open her eyes and look at a kneeling Hound, who seemed to be unable to actually conjure up anything else to say.

After what might have very well been forever, Astrid regained her composure and wiped her eyes with a sleeve. "I'm... I'm sorry," she said groggily. "I don't really know much about you Autobots, but I'm sure that was more awkward for you than it was for me." The woman forced a smile.

The mech had moved his hand a few moments before, and the sad frown that was previously upon his face was now replaced with a small, soft, smile. "I'm always learning something new about humans, but at least I know why people cry. It's going to be okay," he reassured.

She gazed down at her hands, sighing. Her eyes still felt puffy. "I would have given you a hug if either of us were fit for the job." She gestured at him and then at her legs.

"Right," he seemed to reverently reply. "Primus, that must be terrible to be stuck in a thing like that when all you've known your whole life is how to walk upright."

Astrid let out a small chuckle. "Yeah, well... if anything, it's hard on my hands, and I'll be on crutches in no time. Paraplegics can do it, why can't I? Anyways, I'll never get used to having to get around on four wheels like this... hell, how do you do it? Don't you ever find that you'd really just need your hands while you're in that car mode?"

Hound seemed to mirthfully consider this. "Sometimes. But not as often as you'd think."

"What's it like? Going from one to the other?"

"It's like... going from walking to swimming, I think."

The woman nodded, trying to conceptualize it. "I suppose. But we don't need to rearrange our bodies in order to swim, though. God, can you imagine what a triathlon would look like if we had to do that?"

"We have stuff just like that back, uh... back at the base." Her companion went from kneeling to sitting then, and his smile spread. "I'd rather not imagine humans being able to do it. It would be pretty messy, being made of meat and all!"

She laughed, picturing a cartoonish image of a person breaking their limbs off and rearranging them, blood squirting everywhere, organs falling out...

"Now that's the one thing very few of us can do, though," he said. "Swim."


The two continued to chat for some time. They flitted between the subject of Led Zeppelin, to Astrid's aching arms, to Hound's intended function as a sort of scout. The word "scout" always reminded her of someone smaller and faster than it seemed this particular robot was, but he went on to explain a few of the roles he was equipped to handle with deft precision, and everything made sense. He was equal parts tracker, imaging specialist, and infantryman: all things he'd need to get behind enemy lines, perform recon or blow something up, and get out. That sort of work wasn't on the horizon just yet, he was quick to add, but in a civilian setting, his skills made volunteering for search and rescue operations a no-brainer. He admitted that he wasn't looking forward to fighting - and something in his body language suggested that he was speaking from some sort of experience, oddly enough - and that he would be out in the woods all day, every day if he could.

Astrid compared it to her own job as a mountaineering guide: It's not work if you love what you do.

"You know," she said, studying what to her was a purely mechanical body. "I didn't think any of you could... appreciate nature. At least in the same way a human might." The woman sensed she might be treading on potentially dangerous ground, but he didn't appear to take offense.

Hound folded his arms over his chest and looked down at her. "It's very much the same as a human's capacity to appreciate technology. Or math. Or those little vacuum cleaners that people like to think of as pets."

"Roombas?"

"Yeah, like Roombas." He paused here for an second. "And isn't everything in the natural world, including yourself, a machine in a sense? You're a biological machine, just like these trees, your neighbor's dog, and the entire ecosystem of this region. This planetary system, this galaxy, are cosmic machines. We are all machines... I just happen to be an inorganic one. Everything is math. We all operate under the same laws of physics, after all."

"You like thinking about this stuff, don't you? That almost sounded rehearsed," she chuckled.

Hound averted his eyes and rubbed his fingers against the plating on the back of his head. "Well, I uh... you know... I've got lots of time to myself and all..."

Astrid laughed. "It's alright, I do the same thing. Nature is my life, and it definitely gives me time to think. I know some people don't like when they've got nothing to keep them busy but their own thoughts; makes those folks nuts. But I like it. It's constant noise that drives me up the wall."

The mech considered this. "Me too. I know of some 'bots that wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they actually had time to think." He paused for a moment, then broke out in a light chuckle. Then under his breath: "In fact, I could name a few that seem to have forgotten how to think altogether."

Astrid snorted. "Can't we all."

The two remained for a few moments in what almost felt like a contented silence between them. Her ears heard the birds then, the rustle of something in the trees behind her backyard. A woodpecker off in the distance, the windchimes hanging from her neighbor's porch. A kid yelling at the resort far up the hillside.

It was then that the woman noted, upon a longer, less schematic sweep of the giant robot seated on her dirt, that the two glossy panels some inches below the bright olive of his helmet, were not as she thought she remembered them from a few moments before. And without such respiratory obligations as a human, it was difficult to tell... but it seemed to her that he was "off", if that was at all possible for an creature like Hound.

The world was suddenly made of glass; she found it difficult to break the silence, but after a few moments she was able to make a sound. "Are you alright?" she ventured, almost sure the glass would break under the weight of her cumbersome ignorance. Eyes, listless as of late, roved around the sleek contours of his face.

His eyes woke up. Binocular optic sensors, previously a silky, lifeless gray, illuminated from deep within. A short look at her and Hound's faintly luminous eyes turned to the glass world around them. "Just listening to the birds."

The glass melted away, revealing trees, chainlink fence, weeds, haphazardly set pavers, garage, and house. She smiled and ran a hand through her hair. "It's why I love it up here. Couldn't stand living in Sacramento, even if it meant being close to family." A pause here, though it was not meant to last forever. "It's been real hard not being able to do anything for the past few weeks," she lamented, her voice softening, as though she'd been defeated. "And it's going to be weeks more before I can even being to plan a getaway."

Hound thought here. "How about you and I go investigate some back roads tomorrow?" Then he grinned. "I'll drive?"

She looked at him sidelong, seriously considering his offer. "Really? I thought you needed to be in Wyoming with the other guy?"

"Beachcomber? Oh, he'll be alright for a little longer. He likes being alone anyways."

It was something of an unconscious sense of relief that came over her then. Astrid was being freed from her prison. Even if she would be on somewhat of a leash, and only for a few hours.

"You... would do that for me?"

Hound knelt in a bit closer, loosely weaving his large fingers together. "I want to help you feel better in any way I can," he stated, as though it was the simplest, most obvious thing in the world. "And that includes mental health. It'll be good for your noggin to get out for a little bit, I think. Besides, we both seem to have the same appreciation for the outdoors. I'd love to go."

Either the wheelchair seemed a little unstable, or the cement slab of a back porch she was positioned on was uneven. Regardless of which, though, Astrid felt it necessary to reach for the rails on her wheels and hold them so she wouldn't lose her balance.

"Thank you very much, Hound. You have no idea how much this means to me."

The smile, though lessened at times, never fully disappeared over the past few minutes. "I think I can make a pretty good guess. What time should I pick you up?"

"I, uh... ten?" Far less than composed. "Can I bring music?"

"Of course. It'll give me a chance to try out my new CD player."

Astrid laughed dumbly, weirdly gleeful at the fact that this highly advanced piece of DARPA technology had a CD player even though most of the world was already past that and well into the age of the Bluetooth and iPod. "All right then. Ten it is?"

"Ten it is."

She watched in thinly veiled wonder as he rose up on a pair of legs taller than her, were she able to stand. He tread lightly when exiting the backyard, flashing one more benign grin before disappearing behind the house. As soon as he was out of sight, Astrid turned on her wheels and headed back into the house with the first burst of adrenaline she'd felt since getting out of that hospital bed. Dodging furniture with something just short of expert maneuverability, Astrid raced back to the forefront of her house to peek through the window by the door, just catching the tail end of Hound's transformation back into the Jeep. Without a second to spare, he'd started his engine and was carefully heading down the driveway.

Astrid turned from the pane of glass and sat in her chair. The house seemed very dark and quiet just then; not foreboding, but like it was holding its breath. The sun had almost gone down, and the world outside was growing darker as well. She would have to turn on some lights or risk being swallowed by the pitch. The young woman considered going to sleep, but she knew it would take all too long to succumb to the blissful oblivion.

And with that in mind, she wheeled over to the living room and to her music collection. Turning on a single side lamp, Astrid perused the spines of the jewel cases, plucking out one: Fragile.

Jon Anderson would help her figure out what had just happened, and hopefully help calm her down.

Chapter Text

At 8 o'clock sharp the following morning, Astrid's alarm scolded her awake as it tuned into a local radio station playing some Red Hot Chili Peppers song. She smacked at it, knowing exactly where the snooze button was, and it promptly shut up. She wasn't going to go back to sleep yet, though, no - she had a long and arduous morning to get through before she was in any shape to even leave the house.

Sliding into her chair with the grace of a hippopotamus, Astrid wheeled herself over to the bathroom in preparation for the task of getting showered and changed. She was careful to avoid complaining to herself yet again at how difficult it was to do anything with a full leg cast and knee brace. C'mon, don't dwell on it.

But her more-or-less cheery mood was suddenly dampened when something occurred to her: this accident would likely mean the end of her job. Disability would stop when she could walk again, and the pressure to quit her position at the small company would be there if she wasn't flat-out let go anyways. Moreover, it just wouldn't be right for her to assume her previous job right after recovery. She would still be physically compromised for months to come, and to have strangers rely on her for tours and hikes? Not the best idea.

But she would deal with that when the phone call came. Today she would be happy.

It was 9:42 when she was finished getting ready. Astrid was only mildly disappointed that she wasn't yet able to wear anything but very loose sweatpants. Her left foot was still tender, but it had long since returned to normal from bearing an uncanny resemblance to a purple grapefruit. She tentatively slipped a sock and Birkenstock on that one. As for her right foot? Astrid begrudgingly strapped the black apparatus her doctor loosely referred to as a "shoe" over her cast, though it more resembled some kind of medieval torture device.

At a quarter to ten, the young woman reached the kitchen to eat a quick breakfast and pack herself water and something to eat, not quite sure how long they would be gone. Energy bars were a favorite go-to. She threw three of those into a small bag alongside one of her old Nalgene bottles, nearly opaque from years of scuffs and scratches. With a small bowl of cereal in her lap, Astrid headed to go fetch her CD case at 9:55 and proceeded to inhale the remainder of her breakfast. She was finished brushing her teeth at 9:59.

And at 10:01, a polite little honk sounded outside, startling her more than she was expecting.

Astrid suddenly didn't much want to go on a drive. Setting the leather CD case in her lap, she maneuvered over to the same window she'd peered out of the evening before to see the individual she'd so pestered into receiving her gratitude. And there he (it?) was, waiting patiently in the driveway. Astrid watched him for a few moments, and found it extremely curious when he shut off his engine after little more than 15 seconds. Did Hound, a machine, know better than to leave himself idling?

A hand, now slightly calloused from being used to propel the wheelchair, grabbed a ring of keys on the console beside the door, and held them firmly. She forced herself to reach for the door and open it. A pleasant spring breeze meandered through the opening to inspect her house. Astrid obliged with a light smile, rolling over the threshold and onto the landing. She dutifully turned around to close and lock the door. It'll be fine, she told herself. And if it's not, then just make an excuse to get him to bring you home.

The young woman looked at the Jeep parked not 6 feet from where she sat. It suddenly occurred to her that this was real - much more real than her previous encounter with him. Yesterday had had all the definition of a weird dream. But this... this was really happening, in high definition. In fact, this was possibly the most real she'd felt since the accident.

As she looked at the vehicle more though, she was beginning to do something strange. She was anthropomorphizing it. Astrid was trying to remember where his arms came from, or what parts of the Jeep made up his legs... but his transformation was just a jumble in her mind. Despite knowing that the front grille became his chest, she saw that as his face now. The round headlights were eyes... and the more she looked, the more it seemed that they were coyly looking her way.

"Something wrong?"

To say the voice startled her was an understatement. In fact, she hadn't been expecting it at all for some reason. Astrid's brain had it that she was surveying a car, not a living being. Her heart rate jumped and she grew hot in the face; she conjured up a smile to try and hide the flush.

"I j- n-nothing, sorry," she stammered. "Zoning out for a second."

Astrid carefully navigated down the small, wooden ramp a carpenter friend had built for her some weeks ago so she could get up and down from that single step. She paused just out of arm's reach of the passenger side door, studying it. The part of her mind responsible for logic and reason informed her that this car was still the same Hound she'd met yesterday. This was still him; he just looked different. That was all. His arms and his legs and his hands and his face were not recognizable in this form, that was all. He was the car.

Christ, why was that concept so difficult to accept?

"...zoning out again?" His pause was very brief. "Or did you need help getting in?"

Astrid made a small noise when the Jeep moved, and not on its wheels either. The very frame of the vehicle shifted lightly, something like someone tilting their head to the side during a conversation.

She let out a strained laugh, as the action had almost caused her to fall backward onto the pavement. "I, uh... if... if you mind... not doing that again..."

"Doing what again?" Hound's near disembodied voice asked meekly.

"M...moving like that. It's really weird, I'm sorry." Astrid raked fingers through her hair and laughed a bit more to show that she wasn't trying to be mean.

The car sagged down. "Oh. I'm sorry, I'll try not to." After trying to reason with herself that she was doing nothing but entering a vehicle, she reached forward to grasp the handle of the door, but was again interrupted. "Here, let me get that for you." With a dull click, the door carefully opened. Again she jumped, but she tried to ignore it. He was just trying to be polite after all.

"Thanks," was her knee-jerk response, though it was audibly as strained as her laughter. She gazed about the cabin of the Jeep. It was spacious and looked very little like the rugged exterior. From the looks of it, the upholstery was relatively new, as well as the sound system. In fact, everything seemed to be pretty up-to-date. Then again, she didn't think he often had passengers to rub their dirty paws all over the place.

Astrid tossed the CDs onto the driver's seat and then got to pondering how to get into her own seat. "Hound, would you mind lowering yourself a bit so I can get up in there?" The brutally factual thought that she was climbing up into a cavity in his body was almost... repulsive. But she pushed it aside and hoped she would get used to the idea.

"Sure thing."

With that the body of the car sunk down as low as possible on his shocks. Much better. "Thank you."

With a mighty push of her arms, Astrid hoisted herself up into the seat without a second thought to elegance. She reached up to grab the handle just above the door and used that to pull herself up and over into the seat. When that was through, she reached down to collapse her wheelchair and wedge it into the back seat. A small huff escaped the young woman for her labors, and Hound politely closed the door for her, returning to his normal height again. The engine started, and with it surprisingly enough, the radio.

"Whoops," he chuckled, almost embarrassed, and switched off the music. She noted that his voice sounded very different from inside. "We don't need that. Here, put on whatever you'd like." Just then the stereo turned back on, and he switched from the radio to CD. Astrid, feeling a little more comfortable with him (though still trying to avoid pondering just what part of him she was sitting on), reached for the black leather case and zipped it open. She flipped through the plastic sleeves, and decided on a disc.

"6-CD changer, hm?" she noted aloud as she slipped the CD into the slot. She half expected something extraordinary to happen, but just like any other car stereo, it sunk in with a few clicks and whirs, and in no time at all, music began to play softly. "Now where exactly does a giant robot go to get stuff like that?"

The Jeep chuckled. "Best Buy?" They were just a block away from her house now, and he'd come to a soft halt at the stop sign there. For some reason, the idea of him obeying traffic laws stuck her as... what? Fascinating? Endearing? Surprising? For some reason, she thought the Autobots were above that, somehow. "You mind if I pull up a holoform so people won't get suspicious? I'll take it down soon as we get to the dirt roads."

"Pull up a what?"

"Lemme show you."

Astrid glanced around the cab, not exactly sure she was looking for. Just then, however, a figure appeared in the driver's seat, meriting a startled yelp from Hound's human passenger.

"Who... is... that's not you, is it?" She stumbled over her words as she stared at the newcomer. Eyes darted from one part of him to another, and she knew something was wrong with him right off the bat. He... lacked definition.

"Go on," said the Jeep with mirth. "Touch it."

Astrid's eyes searched the dashboard, as though she would find his grinning face there somewhere. "Why," she said flatly. "What's going to happen."

He broke out into a laugh. "Just do it. Watch."

Cautiously, slowly, she reached out her hand to touch the relatively static figure sitting next to her. Fingers hovered inches from his shoulder when she hesitated. The man - he looked enough like a man at any rate - was of average height, weight, and build, it seemed. He sat with his right arm resting stiffly on the steering wheel, the other one idly fingering a toothpick caught between his teeth. His eyes, fixed ahead, were hidden behind a dark pair of sunglasses and partially under the brim of a worn leather cowboy hat.

He was completely oblivious to her existence.

Taking a deep breath, Astrid willed her hand to touch him. The appendage closed the last few inches between it and the black cotton of his sleeve, and... felt nothing.

Astrid yelped, yanking her hand out of the driver's arm like a child touching a hot stove. He remained chewing on the toothpick and staring out over the dash. "What is that?" she demanded.

Hound was laughing as soon as she'd recoiled. Only the gentle weight of inertia told her he'd left the intersection behind and was headed for the main road. "It's a... hologram, you might say. Just for a few minutes while we pass through the more high traffic areas. Then I'll promise it'll be good as gone."

She turned away from the fake driver - it was giving her the heebie-jeebies - and instead looked out the window to her right. "You have a destination in mind?" she asked the glass beside her cheek.

"How about the old logging road off of Timber Drive?"

Astrid thought for a moment. "Oh, yeah, that's a nice area. Haven't been up there in a while."

There was a short interlude here, as the young woman shifted her broken leg a bit and listened with renewed fascination to the thrum of the Jeep's engine. Or... what she assumed as an engine. Astrid wondered for a moment what it might look like if she popped the hood. Would there even be an engine there, or was he just reproducing the sound to avoid suspicion?

"So Astrid," he said, lightly mechanized voice filling the space from an unseen source. "When I was looking you up to see how you were doing a while ago there... I found out that your father is Lee Schneider?"

"Ah," she chuckled. "Yes. That's my dad."

"I really admire his work."

"Really... well, I'll be sure to let him know when he gets back from the Great Lakes." She allowed herself to dwell on her father for a bit. He was a photographer of some renown in the naturographer world, as some of his favorite subjects included landscapes and remote environments. He often did jobs for magazines and other freelance work on the side, both usually requiring much travel on his part. It honestly surprised her that Hound knew the man by name. Well, his published name, at least.

"Were you... able to see him after the accident?" His tone was soft and unsure.

The young woman smiled a little to herself. "The day I was released from the hospital."

"Oh, good. I'm glad to hear it." Relief.

Astrid listened to the last stanza of Take It Easy blend gently with the hum of the Jeep.

Avoiding the face of Hound's hologram, she twisted around in her seat to get a closer look at his interior, searching for any trace of the robot she'd met yesterday.

"You alright, there?" he mirthfully probed. At that, she turned around and began to carefully search the console. "Whatcha looking for?"

"I'm looking for you, I suppose," she said matter-of-factly. Her fingers ran over the smooth plastic buttons in charge of the heat, AC, and radio, attentively reading every bit of text and every symbol stamped on them. After a while, she sat back in her seat, absolutely befuddled.

Hound chuckled. "Want a hint?"

She smiled and shook her head. "I give up."

"Well if it's any consolation, you won't find much evidence of a face or any of that in this form. I don't have any."

"Then how the hell can you see what I'm doing?" Astrid furrowed her brow. "Or drive for that matter?"

"Oh, don't worry. I've got plenty of other ways to "see" what's going on."

"Hm." Astrid thought about this for a moment, before getting a rather silly idea. "Can you feel that?" she asked, jabbing at the armrest.

"Yep."

She reached forward to turn the temperature dial back and forth. "That?"

"Mhm."

She knocked on the passenger side window. "This?"

"Sure can."

The young woman could tell from his chipper tone that some part of him was smiling somewhere, so she decided to continue the game.

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Three."

She covered her hand with the bottom of her shirt this time. "How about now?"

"Two." He was getting a kick out of this.

"Now that's just creepy," she said, removing her hand.

Hound laughed, and she could feel the vehicle move a bit with the sound, an unintentional reminder that he was not just a disembodied voice. "Density scanners, of course. A quick sweep of ya was all I needed."

Astrid shifted in her seat a bit, some part of her a little unsettled out by the concept. She brushed it off easily enough though. "That so."

"Yep," he said, and proceeded to retract the sunroof. A gust of warm air swirled about the Jeep's cab, mingling with the lyrics of Life in the Fast Lane. "So you like the Eagles, eh?"

"I love the Eagles," she said with a smile. "The Eagles, Credence, Hendrix, Billy Joel, the Beatles... even the 80's stuff. AC/DC, Motley Crue, Ozzy, you name it."

"Journey?"

Astrid laughed. "Who doesn't like Journey?"

Just then, the Eagles stopped abruptly, and was replaced with the famous opening lines: Any way you want it, that's the way you need it, any way you want it... Hound cranked up the volume and rolled down both passenger side windows, letting the wind carry the music out and into the trees pressing up to the side of the road. The young woman managed to suppress her fits of laughter just in time to begin belting it out with Steve Perry. It was such a trite, all-too-famous tune, but the fact that this robot wanted to play it made it, well, new again.

A refreshing three and a half minutes later, Hound turned off from the main road and onto Timber Drive. And just as he'd promised, the holographic driver fizzled away into nothing. She breathed a silent sigh of relief as they were once again left with the Eagles in the background. She draped her arm out of the open window, feeling the wind push against her open palm as they continued on the winding incline.

"I don't know much about you robots," she admitted out of nowhere. "I've seen a few things in the news, and there are photos on the internet of some of your more... well known, uh, people." She paused here, and noticed that Hound had slowed down a small amount when she began talking. "I'd... like to know more, though. See if the rumors are true, or if everything we've been told is hogwash, I guess." She paused, then appended that: "Whatever you can tell me, that is."

"What would you like to know?" he asked, gaining his previous speed once again.

Oh jeez, specifics? She was hoping that he'd just hand it to her on a silver platter!

"Well," she began, trailing off. Astrid decided to start simple. "How come you turn into a Jeep of all things? Who made that decision?"

He chuckled - this Hound guy liked to laugh - and slowed down to take a tight turn. "I'm sure you've noticed, but we all turn into things. It's just what we do! Helps us do our jobs better at any rate, I suppose. As for who made the decision, well, that was all me. The specs were right for my size, my personality, my uh... my power output. I like being out in the bush, just like you do. Wouldn't make sense for you to own a Beemer, would it?"

"No, no it wouldn't," she said, smiling. Now, a trickier question: "Alright, how about this: who made you and why?"

He was quiet for a long moment, and Astrid was starting to think that maybe it was an inappropriate breach of social contract. "Y-you don't have to answer, obviously, but I figured that it might be... worth a shot?" She forced a laugh, trying to fight the heat rising to her face. "I-I wouldn't tell anybody. Don't really have anyone to tell!"

The Jeep stayed silent for a minute more - it almost got the point where Astrid was beginning to worry that something was wrong with him - when his voice filled the cab again.

"You really want to know?"

His voice sounded like a blank check, and something about it stopped her cold in her proverbial tracks. She was suddenly not sure if she wanted to know. Astrid reached into her bag to grab her water bottle - her mouth was feeling a little dry.

"Lay it on me."

Famous last words, perhaps.

Another pause. Then: "We're actually aliens."

She choked on the water, not wanting to spit it out all over his dashboard. Astrid was expecting for him to follow up with a "just kidding", but it never came. He was waiting for her to reply.

"Y-you. All of you... you're aliens?"

You know, some part of her knew it. Some part of her knew that the idea was just too ridiculous for the government to pour however many billions it would cost just to do R&D on the Autobot concept. The technology required to perform such complex and elegant transformations as the one she witnessed in her own driveway the day before didn't exist anywhere else in society. It all just appeared out of thin air.

Or, as it were, the vacuum of space.

He laughed, but there was something else there, it seemed. Maybe nervousness?

"Every last one of us."

Astrid had been leaning forward in her chair, she guessed, because she found herself collapsing back into it, staring dumbly at the part of him where an airbag might be.

"Oh," is all she said.

"N-now don't go blabbing that around like it's gossip, alright?" he chuckled. Yes, there it was! He was nervous!

"Well how do I know you're not pulling my leg, huh?"

The engine choked and he ground to a halt. "Pulling..! Hey!" he huffed, nervousness replaced with a little indignation. It almost made her want to laugh. "Now I just blew my cover to you and that's all you've got to say about it? That I might be pulling your leg?" He started up again, and it sounded to her for a minute that he revved in a way that bore an uncanny resemblance to a rough sigh. "Humans, I tell you."

She blinked, feeling her back press into the soft cushioning of his seat, not wondering but knowing that he could feel that too. The robot-turned-vehicle didn't just have manners, but mannerisms. He didn't just talk, he had a cadence. He searched for words and smiled awkwardly when he wondered if he might've said the wrong thing.

Nah, this couldn't just be some clumsy, human-made AI.

"OK fine, you're an alien. Whereabouts, then? And why are you here?"

He hummed and hawed a little, quietly, and she wondered if he'd intended for her to hear it. "A long time ago, in a star system far, far away," he began with a chuckle. "Me and the rest of the Autobots here on Earth went on a little day trip - a three-hour tour, you might say- when we wound up in the galactic neighborhood and we crashed."

Astrid listened with rapt attention as he proceeded to tell her everything. Well, it certainly felt like "everything".

The crash put them all in a kind of coma, he said, but the earthquakes and subsequent eruption of Mount St. Helens, which was only about 100 miles away from where they lay buried under old growth forest, jerked them awake. They tried going unnoticed as they repaired their battered ship, but their dwindling energy stores made it soon apparent that they'd need help from the locals to accomplish anything. They tried to skim energy from local sources where they could do it in secret and without disrupting operations, but that didn't last long. Apparently a few baddies had also been shipwrecked on Earth in a similar fashion - he assured her that there were not many of them and that they were currently under control - and one day several decades ago, one of them decided to play a mean trick: to see what would the humans would do with a captured Autobot. The plan fell through at the last minute ("Quite literally!" the Jeep exclaimed) and while the Autobot in question managed to avoid capture, the Autobots as a whole could no longer avoid directly interacting with humans. Talks ensued...

"And the rest, as they say, is history."

Once again, Astrid wondered if maybe Hound wasn't pulling her leg. Or if maybe this was all some kind of tall tale he was programmed to regurgitate.

But just as before, when she put the pieces together, no other officially sanctioned story made quite as much sense as this. So she decided to believe him. Why not? What could it hurt?

"Well I'll be damned." A pause. "How did you all find such a big rug to sweep that under? How is it that more people don't know this? Why aren't we being followed by paparazzi?"

"Your government goes a surprisingly good job keeping us out of the spotlight," he admitted. "And we do our best not to interfere with your daily lives, unless its an emergency, or important research that needs our help, or -"

"Or a nobody with a broken leg and a bad case of cabin fever?" she interrupted with a raised eyebrow and a grin.

"Now don't go talking like that," he said. "You're already one of the most affable humans I've met so far! And I've been on this planet for as long as you have, probably... say, how old are you?"

"Wait, you mean you can't carbon date me?" she laughed. "I'll be thirty later this year."

"Thirty, huh? Then that puts you... well, that puts you a few years ahead of me, at any rate."

She shook her head. "What I meant was... you didn't have to write me, you didn't have to reveal yourself to me, you didn't have to do any of this. I'm not a scientist or a government employee or military whatever. So how come you're taking me on this drive?"

"I guess... things can get a little boring, talking with the same in-the-know people all the time." Hound's voice softened a little bit. Did he sound tired? "It's nice to see a new face every once in a while."

"I could say the same thing myself." She paused for a long moment, looking out the dashboard to the view ahead of them: a steep, winding dirt road, just wide enough for a single vehicle, flanked on all sides by big, stately trees. She got a deep whiff of the air from the open windows, and it smelled of cedar and pine. "I did some research on you when I was released from the hospital, you know."

"Research? Me?" He sounded genuinely surprised.

"Well, I knew something was odd about the rescue, so I asked my doctor if he knew anything about the people that brought me in. He said he heard that off-road vehicle was tailing the ambulance up to the ER parking lot. So I went online after being released, and after too many hours of digging through forums and articles in obscure outdoor magazines, I found three people who'd claimed a Jeep had been involved in their rescue."

Hound chuckled here, meriting a smile from his passenger.

She continued. "The first I came across was a man who was stranded somewhere in the Cascades, near Mount Bachelor, I think. The forum post I saw had a lot of replies, but he said little on the subject himself beyond confirming that there was, in fact, an Autobot present in the SAR unit."

"Don Fuller," he recalled with mirth. "That man insisted I be repaid with a car wash and full detailing twice a month for the rest of the year."

"You're serious?"

"Dead serious. It was actually a very nice gift... I didn't have to deal with quite so many scoldings for tracking mud and dirt into our headquarters!"

She laughed. "What about Ryan Manning?"

The Jeep shuddered. "Got his leg caught in an old bear trap and had been stuck out there for two days too long. I was the only one who could pry it off then and there. Poor fellow, I think he had to suffer through a... a leg amputation." If there was something odd in his voice then, she didn't notice.

Astrid recalled how close she'd been to a serious infection as well, somehow avoiding needing serious intervention in the end. She'd been ushered into surgery very soon after arriving at the hospital to set her twisted leg back in place, drain her hematomas, and control the hemorrhaging in her abdomen. Thank god her bones had merely been crushed, not twisted into more... complex fractures.

"God, yeah. You always need to be careful of where you step, especially when navigating underbrush like that. And trust me: if it's not rusty bear traps, it's snakes, or even just holes that will sprain your ankle in a snap - no pun intended." She thought for a moment here, realizing that Hound might not have any idea of what that's like. A tiny part became a little resentful, even. "You're lucky you don't have to worry about things like snakes and traps." Astrid was going to add rock slides, but she didn't actually want to make him feel bad.

"Well, you don't have to worry about things like sand in your joints and sinking to the bottoms of lakes," he countered.

Oh, what had she started? This argument could go on forever. The list of human maladies and conditions was seemingly endless. "Touche," the young woman wisely decided.

They continued the drive, and Astrid draped herself out the window, feeling the fresh air on her face. She tried to touch the thick foliage flanking the road for a few moments, and just as she was about to pull her arm back in, Hound slowed a little and leaned to the right shoulder, as if to bring the greenery within reach for her. The leaves softly brushing against her fingertips brought a smile to her face. Astrid brought her arm to rest on the window, placing her chin on it and letting her hair mingle with the breeze. The confinement of her house just didn't compare to this.

She'd watched every movie she owned already, memorized the daytime programming schedule for all of her favorite channels, and even reread a few favorite books. She was running out of things to do, and had already decided to spend more time in the kitchen once she was allowed on her feet again. (Astrid wasn't a spectacular cook, though she could make a mean sandwich.)

But this was a refreshing change. The sound of dirt and gravel under the Jeep's tires would have never sounded more beautiful in her life.

Astrid closed her eyes and rested lazily on the door, fingers gently tapping the exterior to the rhythm of the music playing in the background. She remained like that for a minute or so, then the album ended, and she rose up to replace it.

"Do you like Boston?"

The vehicle slowed a little, and she read it as him thinking. "Can't say, really. I've never been there before..."

Laughter bubbled out of her. "No, no... the band Boston." She heard his engine stutter the tiniest bit. "You know, we were just another band out of Bosto-on..?"

"Oh!" he said. "Right... sure, I like them!" Astrid flipped through the plastic sleeves of the case and found the CD she was looking for. The Jeep slowed a small amount as they came upon an incline, and she felt him shift gears. "You know," he said, appending his previous statement, though it was in a meeker, almost tender, tone. "You can play whatever you want, if you'd like."

She twisted up her face for a brief moment before smiling at the console. The ejected disc delicately eased onto her finger, and she hesitated replacing it. "Well I was raised to ask the driver what they want to listen to," she teased. "It's just common courtesy."

"It seems that we've got very similar tastes, Astrid." There was a wink in his voice.

Don't Look Back began to play when they cleared the top of the rise, and Hound slowed to a gentle halt. Out before them was the view of a valley, some hundred feet below, bright with young grass and aflame with poppies. Beyond that, a few more small lakes, and fading into the distance, were more mountains, the highest shadows of which were still white with snow.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" she said reverently.

Hound pulled up farther to allow for the best view, and came to rest on something of a turnout from the dirt road, where he set himself in park and dampened the sound of his engine. All there was to hear was the breeze brushing into the cab and mingling with the music.

"It is..."

"Mind if we sit here for a few minutes?"

"Not at all."

Chapter Text

It was beautiful.

All the windows were rolled down and doors open; he wanted Astrid to feel as though she were genuinely outside. Not to mention just how good that warm spring breeze felt as it whispered against him inside and out.

Hound was glad that he had the time to spend the day doing nothing but hanging out and going for a leisurely drive. That he was able to enjoy today on his own terms, temporarily relieved from the pressures of duty or the stress of working with the search and rescue unit, was just such a blessing. Not to mention that he was doing someone else a favor in the meantime as well!

Astrid... when he thought over what had happened to her some weeks before, it was difficult to comprehend just what she'd gone through during those days alone. Humans, by their very nature, were fragile creatures. A pile of rocks to him would have been nothing; maybe a little time to dig himself out, but he wouldn't have ended up with anything more than scratched paint and a few dents. To her, though... Hound could only imagine what she felt.

A whole slew of adjectives presented themselves. Words like 'determined', 'terrified', and 'resigned'. But it had to be far more complex than just that: she was stuck there for days, and without fuel, her body had begun to cannibalize itself - something Cybertronian bodies didn't do. That's not what would have killed her, though. He remembered that every centimeter of exposed skin had been covered in lacerations, open wounds caked with dirt, sweat, and worse. Many of them had been inflamed and weeping liquid that told him one thing: infection. She'd passed out in his arms, and it was all that he could do to hold her filthy, battered body as he waited for the helicopter.

He stifled a shudder, not wanting to dwell on it. Hound liked rescuing; it was tremendously rewarding work. But sometimes it was very scary, and very ugly work too. The ugliness of things had a tendency to weigh on his spark... maybe a little too much. For all its majestic beauty, for all the cleverness of its dominant species, and for all his appreciation for having the opportunity to spend some years here, Earth could be an ugly place. But it was outings like this that made him love it all over again, and made that weight on his spark just that much easier to carry.

The scout turned his sensors every which way, looking and marveling at every rock, bough, and fiery California poppy in his most detailed hundred yard range.

But he felt her shift inside of him, and those sensors suddenly turned inward. It'd been a while since he had a passenger. Giving rides to both civilian and government agent alike was a rare occasion that was usually fraught with professionalism and protocol that ruined any fun that the experience might have been. This was different, though. And, if he were being honest with himself, a little bit in that gray-area between breaking and following a rule. Interacting with civilian humans during the course of an assignment was permitted and didn't require reporting. But "bonding above and beyond the requirements of an assignment" was much more... suspect. It could blow their cover.

Well, not like they hadn't crossed that Rubicon already, at least.

Hound wondered if she could be trusted to keep that secret, however; if she actually believed him, if she thought he was still just a dumb machine, if he'd get into trouble for telling her. He decided to just let come what may. 

"You never answered my question," she asked, and Hound remembered that human voices never ceased to amaze him. They sounded just so... right. He found that he could compare many of them to natural things, like rivers, or breezes, or the soft beat of a bird's wings. When he thought about it, hers reminded him of driving on a road covered in fallen leaves, dampened after an afternoon shower.

"What question?" He liked his voice less.

She laughed a small amount, and he could feel it. It shook her frame; small, lazy tugs from deep within her chest. Contracting abdominal muscles, a jerking diaphragm. "You never told me why you turn into a Jeep, specifically. Well... a Jeep-lookin' thing." He was going to reply, but suspected that she wasn't done. "I mean, I don't really understand what make and model you are either. I didn't see a specific name on you anywhere. It seems like you've got all the... veni, vidi, vici of a bigger Wrangler, but the smoother body lines of something else. A Liberty, maybe?" She was wracking her memory for specific brand names, and Hound wanted to laugh. She'd never find what he was, because he didn't come off a GM assembly line.

What did veni, vidi, vici mean, though? He did a quick internet search and wasn't sure if he liked what he found. He frowned in his CPU.

"Conquer?" he asked the little human sitting in his cab. "To go and see, sure... but I have no interest in conquering anything."

There was an abrupt change in Astrid's heat signature and she shifted in the seat again. "Well, I mean, that's what Jeeps are sort of known for... they're built to go and tear up the road, climb rocks, plow through mud and such." He felt her shrug. "To conquer the outdoors."

Now, in all of his years here on Earth, working alongside its people, the mech was never able to understand the human obsession with exerting dominance over the natural world. In all of his perusals of hiking and outdoor sport media, the undertone was always there, hidden in the words. Whether it was a simple walk on a well-beaten forest path, or the grueling climb up El Capitan, it was always about challenging nature. Humans pushing themselves to be better than it.

For all he liked about humans, that one thing unsettled him; it reminded him of the Decepticons, actually.

Why was coexistence not good enough?

As a tracker, he'd become reasonably well-versed in Earth's ways over the years. And he found that simply being in it was enough for him. Nature wasn't there to be cut down and leveled, no! In fact, it wasn't there for anything but itself, and to experience it without taming it, fencing it off, putting it in a zoo... that was a real gift. A gift that Cybertron had never been able to give.

"It doesn't always have to be about domination," he said, and realized a little too late that she wasn't aware of the train of thought that brought out the words. Hound saw her knit her eyebrows and jerk her chin back about an inch toward her neck.

"Who said anything about domination?"

Underneath the confusion, there was a tiny trace of defensiveness in Astrid's tone.

"Well, I, er..." He was struggling for words that wouldn't offend. "I mean, from what I know of humans... I've always felt that you, as a species, have control issues." He paused to gauge her reaction. "And given your circumstances of being relatively fragile creatures, I understand why. But what I don't understand is why it has to be like that all the time, I suppose. From what I know about your history, it wasn't always like that either. Something changed."

He sighed here, sinking down on his shocks, and noticed - not for the first time - that his passenger flinched when he did so. Then Hound swung the front passenger door, the one closest to Astrid, wide open, revealing a completely unobstructed view of the meadow and mountains to her. The gesture, a stand-in for a wide sweep of his arm, was only meant to punctuate his point, though.

"Earth is a damn amazing place, Astrid, and I've come to love it as much as any human can. I have no desire to beat this, though. Why do you?"

Hound wasn't sure if he was successful in the articulation of his feelings. But he gave it his all, and hoped that the discussion wouldn't put a hamper on their day or their acquaintance.

Astrid sat there and looked out over the mountains, considering them. She remained like that for some time: completely silent and relatively still. Her mouth was twisted up a little and her brows were pressed heavily together as she thought.

"I've never actually thought of it like that before," she said at some length.

He would have said something if he knew just what to say, but the sentence was not so much a thing open to discussion as it was a soft, but staunch, declaration. The mech waited for her to finish. After some time, Hound noticed that she was emitting a little more body heat now, and had still gone without elaborating on her opinion.

"If you disagree," he gently ventured. "You can say it. I'd love nothing more than to be wrong about this."

"I... I do disagree with you. I'm just not sure why."

The honest reply threw him. Perhaps the answer lay somewhere in her programming? The kind of programming she didn't have conscious access to?

"You..." she began a minute or so later. "You said that you crashed your whatever thousands of years ago. That means you probably live for a very long time, right?"

Hound wanted to nod, but knew he couldn't. "We generally do, yes."

"I'm sure you know, but... humans don't live so long. We each have about a century, give or take - mostly take - to do all that we want to do in this life. And the fact that the only certain thing about death is its inevitability is a hard thing for many of us to deal with, I suppose. We have expiration dates." Astrid paused: picking her words carefully. "What would you do if you had a timer hooked up to your arm, and had to look at it every day? If you could count down the years you had left to do, see, and experience? Or worse: what if all of the things you wanted to do couldn't be done before that timer ran out? How would you feel?"

The Jeep faltered. "I... hadn't thought of it like that before."

"Most people don't have time to sit and watch the clouds for as long as you can, Hound. Me, I loved it so much that I made it my job so that I could have that time. I restructured my life around it. But what about the other stuff? What if I wanted to study photography like my dad, or become a vet? Or just run off and climb Everest?"

She paused here and sighed, and Hound noticed that her body heat was not like it was before. "I don't think it's about conquering nature," Astrid said, her voice softer than a moment ago. "I think it's about humans testing the limits of their mortality. By facing the world head on do we experience it, and when we triumph over that small, tiny task that we set for ourselves... it's like saying, you made me so fleeting, but I did this thing anyways. I climbed this rock, or hiked this mountain, or swam this gulf, and I beat you at your own game. For now, I'm the winner. For just for this one moment... I'm perfect and infinite like you are.

"You know... I guess maybe this does mean I agree with you. Maybe it is a little about conquest. I don't know how it is with giant robots, but on Earth, something has to die in order for something else to eat. That violence is inescapable, but we can at least try to do it with respect." A pause, then: "I think that's mostly what's changed. Throughout most of human history, we gave a damn about our environment because we had to. But we don't think we need to anymore."

Hound sat in silence, pondering everything she said. It was just then that he felt more alienated from humans than he ever had before, though he prided himself on being able to understand them on a level that other Autobots hadn't even bothered to achieve.

The rift between humans and Cybertronians seemed so very wide now - almost impassible. Humans, as he now understood, were imprisoned by the linear progression of time; their mortality weighing upon every aspect of their lives, whether they wanted to acknowledge it or not. It pained him to think about what it might be like to have a mere ninety Terran cycles to live. What would he do with that time?

Well, he knew what he wouldn't do.

Had he finally managed to catch a glimpse of the elusive, chronic, "human condition"?

And then it occurred to Hound that maybe he shouldn't be burdening himself with this stuff too much. As sad as it made him feel, there was nothing that he, nor anyone else in the universe, could do about it. He couldn't even fully appreciate what she was saying because it was so far removed from his own reality. As vividly as he tried to simulate the situation in his CPU, he knew it would be hopelessly imperfect, because all the imagination in the universe could not change what he was. But... maybe in that way, he was more like her than not.

Suddenly, that gap grew small again.

"I'm... sorry if I ruined the mood, here," Astrid said meekly.

Hound physically sighed - he rose up on his suspension system a few inches before sinking back down again, cycling air through his undercarriage. "Trust me, it would be damn hard to ruin this view."

She smiled a little. "Thanks." Then: "I... I don't know where all of that came from."

"I don't either, but I'm glad you told me. I understand you better now. I mean, as a species."

"Hound, I am by no means a fair representation of humanity. No one person is."

"Well, gotta start someplace."

Now if you're feeling kind of low about the dues you've been paying,
Future's coming much too slow,
And you wanna run but somehow you just keep on staying,
Can't decide on which way to go

"Would you like to keep going?" he asked. Astrid looked back over the console, still on some unconscious level convinced that she would find his face there. "The road, I mean."

I understand about indecision
But I don't care if I get behind
People livin' in competition
All I want is to have my peace of mind...

She nodded with a smile. "Sure."

Making sure that she was sufficiently inside, he carefully closed the door and started up the engine-sounds. He didn't really have an engine in this form - it was the same internals as his bipedal mode - but it was all part of the disguise. Soon, he felt the crunching of gravel under his tires and was slowly navigating the old dirt road once again, heading in the direction of those mountains in the distance.

If he ever doubted his decision to meet with her yesterday, then those were gone right out one of his open windows. She wasn't just amiable, but hands-down the most engaging human he'd met yet too. It felt good to have her as a passenger, and Hound found himself hoping that this might be the first of many future wilderness drives with the human.

Chapter Text

"You know, it's funny..." he ventured after several minutes of silence in his cab. Astrid was in the middle of replacing the music with a Hendrix album, letting the disc slide in. "I never got around to telling you why I picked this vehicle mode."

Hound felt her settle back into the seat.

"You're right... I guess you didn't." She still seemed a little quieter after their discussion earlier. He paused, taking careful inventory of where her arms were resting. "Well?" the woman said with a smile. "I'm waiting for this great reveal."

The Jeep chuckled, half with his vocalizer and half with his internals. He found it funny that they should have discussed so much in the past two hours from asking that question, and despite the answer being superficial enough, it still hadn't been answered. They'd discussed everything but that. "It was a tie between a sort of Jeep and a Land Rover, but... I liked the round headlights."

There was a pause before Astrid burst out laughing. "That's it? That's the only reason?"

A smirk manifested itself in his processors. "Well, there's that, and also... you know... the Jeep culture."

"Jeep culture?" she asked with mirthful caution, eyeing the console with a single raised brow. "Never owned one, so I wouldn't know."

"Well, I should say that it was the headlights and a particular t-shirt I saw once. Something about owners driving Jeeps... naked."

Not that nudity was especially thrilling to him! But, from what he knew of humans, the sentiment... was enticing. Er... entertaining.

Astrid roared with laughter, and he was glad she didn't take it the wrong way. In fact, this whole time he was hoping that she wouldn't catch onto the fact that he could "see" right through her clothes - and skin, for that matter - and get uncomfortable enough to end an otherwise lovely day. Fortunately, that didn't happen, and double fortunately, this little joke of his wasn't taken in bad taste. "Trust me, you do not want somebody's bare butt all up on this nice upholstery."

If he had an eyebrow in this mode, he'd have raised it. "Why, are humans dirty critters? D'you soil your nests?"

She laughed even harder, and he joined her.

"Oh my god, no!" She paused to catch her breath. "It's just... ah, nevermind."

He wasn't quite as green as she seemed to think he was - he had just as much internet access as she did, and likely more - but he decided to leave it at that. The mech decided to try making some chit-chat instead, trying to remember topical subjects that humans liked to discuss. He wasn't around topical people very often - most of his conversations with humans were about soil samples or ice cores or changes in BREME policy.

But what to talk about? He didn't watch television hardly, he didn't see movies, he certainly didn't go shopping.

"Would you mind talking about your job? If it's not a sore spot for you, that is."

Astrid sighed and moved around in his seat a little. "I was a trail guide," she said. Hound noted the 'was' and frowned in his CPU. "Hiking and backpacking tours during the warmer months, snowshoeing and crosscountry skiing in the winter. The winters were always slower, though, and I'd grab a second job. But it was a lot of fun, and a lot of work. Sometimes I'd be responsible for three, four, people for a few days. Met some interesting folks that way." She chuckled. "Some jerks too. Worst group was three young guys, recently graduated from Berkley or something. They wouldn't stop flirting with me the whole damn weekend. One of them even grabbed my ass," she muttered.

Miserable brats, he smoldered quietly. Why, if I'd been there...

"What in the world did you do?"

She raised her hand and held her thumb and forefinger close together. "I was this close to ditching them after they'd gone to sleep. But that would have gotten me fired faster than I could say "sexual harassment", so I gentlyreminded them that I kept bear spray on my person at all times and that it would be a shame if I'd accidentally mistaken somebody for one. They didn't say much of anything to me after that."

"Serves them right," the mech huffed. "Treating a stranger that way."

"Had a nice big drink when I got home from that one."

"I'm sorry that happened to you."

"Eh." She waved dismissively. "It's a kind of service industry. You're going to run into assholes like that every once in a while."

Another question popped up in his foreprocessors and he wonders if it isn't inappropriate to ask. He took a brief moment to frame it so it didn't seem too... probing. "Were you... seeing anyone at the time? What'd they say about it?"

"Nah. Started seeing a guy about a month after, though. An out-of-towner who liked to come up on the weekends, but that didn't work out for more than a couple months."

The words sort of just spilled out of him for some reason: "How about now?" Then, almost backtracking: "I'm not going to make anyone jealous am I?" He laughed, anticipating tension and trying to preemptively diffuse it. Why did he want to know? The slag has gotten into you, Hound?

She seemed to ignore the awkward question and shook her head. "In a dry spell," Astrid chuckled. "That's the hard part about living in a small town... you go through the pool pretty quick."

Hound felt... lighter at hearing this, for some reason. Reinvigorated. But he kept himself reeled in. "What do you do when you've exhausted all your options then?"

A shrug. "Online dating? I honestly don't know. How about you? You got a pretty little robot waiting at home that I might make jealous?"

The Jeep burst into genuine laughter at that. "No, and for better or worse." He gathered his thoughts here, looking for a way to explain to her the whys and wherefores without giving a lecture about it. "Besides, we just don't work that way. Well, I mean, we do. But we're just... well, we're different."

"Try me."

"First off all, we have these things we call sparks in your language..."

"Sparks?"

"It's a kind of... life force. It's an object located in our chests when we're bipedal. Or, I guess it's an object, at any rate. Honestly, I'm not sure. I've never seen a bare spark with my own sensors before, but they come in housing containers that our physiological systems interface with. I've seen those, at least.

"At any rate, the spark is where we are. Most of our personality is there. It's the thing that dictates our colors, our optimal size, what we might best turn into. And sparks can be bonded. It's like a... sort of like a marriage."No, not like a marriage at all, really, he laughed to himself.

"Marriage?" Astrid blurted out with a snort. "Why would sentient machine men come up with the institution of marriage of all things? I mean, convergent evolution and all," she chuckled. "But marriage?"

If he had a brow plate in this mode, he'd have cocked it at her. "Don't like the sound of wedding bells, I take it?"

"Man, I'm 29 years old. If I had a dollar every time someone asked when I was going to settle down and pop out a few kids, I'd be able to afford a permanent vacation to Fiji." She shook her head and looked out the window. "It's all dumb anyways. The whole thing's silly in my book. Going into debt to throw a party over the fact that you signed a piece of paper, all while ignoring the elephant in the room that is the abysmal rate of divorce within the first five years of getting hitched? It's all a racket." A pause. "I say get rid of it and just use common law across the board."

Hound howled with laughter. He didn't understand all the intricacies of marriage, but it sure was entertaining to hear her gripe about it. Her indignation was almost... endearing, even.

"Anyways," his human passenger sighed. "Tell me more about that spark bonding thing. You merge together like Borg?"

"Primus, no! You exchange some vital fluids and a few key lines of programming, and... it's a deep connection, I guess. I hear partners can feel each others' emotional states, even at a distance."

"Sounds like you've never done it."

"I... I've never been bonded, no. I'm in no rush about it." He also wasn't often interested in other Cybertronians in that way, but that was neither here nor there...

"Hell yeah," she said, grinning, giving a little slap to the armrest. "Welcome to the club."

"Oh? You sound like it's off the table altogether."

"Hey, it's like you said. No rush."

Hound's spark was aglow with... with something. She was so damn refreshing!

"So you said your spark thing is in your chest, but only while you're in your robot mode. Where does it go when you're a car?" Astrid twisted around to have a look behind her, as though she'd find it sitting in the back seat. This greatly amused him.

"It's... someplace else."

"What, do you leave it at home?"

"Subspace," he corrected, smiling to himself at the prospect of explaining another bit of alien life to her.

"Huh?"

"It's like a... knapsack. A sort of sub-dimensional space roughly the same volume as our physical persons where we can put things."

Astrid just blinked. "Huh?"

He laughed and tried again. "It's a closet located in another dimension that's tied to our sparks. Make sense?"

"Makes me feel kinda dumb is what it does," she snorts. "OK, OK. So it's like an invisible U-Haul trailer you're always dragging around. My next question is... what would a robot want to carry anyways? Electrical tape? Motor oil? It's not like you've got car keys," she giggled.

"Oh, there's some useful stuff, sure, but... well, we can be sentimental too, you know."

Hound booted up the transfer shell and rummaged through the things he had in there, picking out a few smaller items. With something like a little popping sensation for him, the items - a fossil, a human's first aid kit, and a small device called a stim hack: an emergency injectible that he could use to buy a few minutes in the event of impending stasis lock - winked out of the subspace and immediately appeared in her lap. She gave a startled yelp and he laughed.

Astrid's heart rate was through the roof, but the open-mouthed grin on her face was unmistakable. "That's awesome!"

There was a few moments of silence in the cabin as Astrid gingerly picked up the fossil and turned it over under her gaze. Hound had actually stopped so he could focus on the scene before - inside - him, and except for the dull thrum of his internals and the whine of Jimi's Stratocaster turned down low, everything was quiet. She set the rock down, trying to contain her excitement, and he was trying to contain his own enraptured little thrill at seeing her poke through the items with all the wonder and fascination of a child. There was just something about the way she moved, the way she made little faces when she talked, the way she was so at ease now in spite ofeverything... he was what? What was the word? Charmed?

She opened the plastic box, looking through it as though she might find something else extraordinary in there, but it was just some band aids and antiseptic pads and a few pills. Closing that, she then reached for the hack. It was metal, and utilitarian in design - not a pretty thing to look at. About the size of an empty roll of toilet paper, with a button on the side that exposed the spring-loaded needle, it was required that all Autobots carry one for obvious reasons - but Astrid didn't need to know the details. It was alien enough just to look at.

"This is really cold," she remarked with a murmur, studying it carefully. "The rock was too, now that I think about it. How come?"

"Subspace is a vacuum, so if left in there long enough, it'll get pretty icy to the touch."

"That is so goddamn awesome. What is this thing anyway?"

"Oh that's just a... just part of my maintenance kit," he lied, whisking the things away, startling her just as much as before.

"Shit," she said, settling into her disbelief. "I... shit, man. I hope you can appreciate just how much language is failing me right now."

Hound laughed, getting back to climbing up the rough fire road.

But his passenger wasn't done. "It really makes you think," Astrid sighed, looking out the window. "All things considered, humans are pretty damn lame creatures. We've got nothing on that robot stuff of yours."

"What!" Hound exclaimed, taken aback, almost slamming on the breaks (or, more accurately, clenching his break pads down). "No. No way! Believe you me, humans are amazing."

She folded her arms and stared at the console, still thinking his face was there somewhere. "Oh yeah? Try me."

But he was ready. Or, so he thought. "You've got, uh, hair," he tried. "It keeps you warm, it uh... protects various orifices from foreign material, it expands your sense of touch so that you can feel things that aren't even technically contacting you. And... it looks nice."

"Uh huh." Her surface temperature was beginning to rise a little.

"You've got toes."

"Really? Toes?"

"Hey now, I don't have any toes, and sometimes I wish I did. They way they keep you upright and stable, the way they connect to the muscles in your feet and legs, each one tightening and relaxing in concert with all the others to move you just so. And all without you even needing to think about it! Humans are, as far as I'm concerned, some of the most graceful and balanced creatures I've ever seen." A little heat was rising up in his spark, too.

"Well, you've clearly never watched a mountain goat scale a cliff-face."

He was tempted to transform then and there to give her a good talking-to about how great and wonderful her species was, but he had one last thing to try.

"Can a mountain goat swim?"

"Huh?"

"I said, can a mountain goat swim? Because it certainly can't dive, and it double certainly can't do it with a human's finesse."

Astrid swallowed and held back both a smile and a blush, he could tell. "Swim, huh?"

"What I wouldn't give to have buoyancy," he admitted. "In fact, I'd give up my subspace if it meant I didn't just sink like a stone in water."

She laughed. "Really?"

"Honest."

The smile came out after all. "Well if you're ever in town again, a friend of mine at the marina might be able to hook you up with some industrial-strength arm floaties."

He laughed.

"You know," she said, looking out the window again. "You're pretty goofy for a robot."

"Well you're pretty goofy for a human," he replied.

Hound had wanted to say that she was something else - charming, clever... cute, maybe - but 'goofy' would have to do this time. He remembered her story about the boys with the bear spray, and, Primus help him, decided that he didn't want to come across like that in the faintest. After all, this trip was about her, and she'd already shown him an incredible amount of trust by coming out here with a stranger and no way to get herself back home should something go wrong. Nope - it was his job to make her feel as comfortable as possible.

"Well," he announced. "We're here."

They'd rounded the last corner and before them was a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding valleys so gorgeous that it almost shuttered his vents. He felt her scoot to the edge of her seat to get a better look out over the dash and hood as they pulled off the dirt road.

"Well would you look at that," she said quietly. Off in the distance to their right, dissolving into blue-gray was the desert lowlands of northern Nevada. If visibility was better, they might've been able to spot Reno. But off in the other direction, at about his 10-o'clock, rose the far-flung peak of Mount Shasta, still gleaming white with year-round snow. "Can't believe I've never come up here before. This view is spectacular."

He killed the music, which was barely audible anyways. He hesitated to ask for a moment, worrying about inconveniencing her, but... "Would you mind if I got up to stretch for a while?" he ventured. "I-I mean, if it wouldn't be too much trouble for you, that is! If you don't want to bother with the wheelchair, it won't hurt my feelings one bit."

"No, I like that idea," she said. "If I'm going to be stuck sitting, it might as well be outside, right?"

Hound chuckled. "It's up to you."

Astrid reached into the back seat for her little wheelchair and unfolded it onto the ground after he'd opened up the passenger-side door for her. He was glad that they were at least on level ground - he wouldn't have even thought to ask her to do this if they weren't. Like an exhale he lowered himself down on his suspension as far as he would go and with a little leap of faith, she'd slipped into the chair looking only a little clumsy.

"You alright?"

She gave the empty cabin a thumbs up and flashed a smile.

Instead of asking her to back away, he did, and shut the door to initiate the transformation sequence. Hidden servos sprang to life as previously microscopic seams in his Jeep-body separated, widened, and created angular planes of green that shifted to reveal different shades of bare metal underneath. At some point he became aware of his limbs, then his hands and feet, and when his fingers came into view, his head slid together, and quickly enough there he was, crouched down on the dirt.

He turned his head to look at Astrid, who was covering her mouth with her hand. "Pardon my French, but that is fucking wicked!" she giggled. "I could watch you do that for an hour and not get bored."

He rubbed the back of his head and grinned, trying to hide the boyish excitement at her approval. "I get that a lot."

"I'm sure you damn well do!"

Astrid turned her attention back to the view, eyes widening at it in almost the same way as they had for his transformation. She really did love it out here, didn't she? It gave her something that four walls and a roof never could, it seemed to him.

She was getting nearer to the edge, though, and that had him worried. Sure, she was still a couple meters from the drop-off, and seemed aware of the risk, but he didn't want to leave anything to chance. Or... maybe he was looking for an excuse.

"You look like you're rearing to get rescued again," he chuckled, taking a step closer behind the seated human.

She looked up and cocked a brow. "Well it's a good thing you're right here, then. Besides, can't really blame me for wanting to soak in as much of this as I can."

"What if I said you could get an even better view than that?"

Astrid seemed skeptical, but intrigued. "And how might you do that?"

A little burst of excitement filled his spark as he reached down, worming his fingers under her arms and hoisting her up into the air.

"Sh-shit, oh my god! What are you -?"

And before either of them knew it, Hound had her safely perched on his shoulder, secured on one side with his head, her back with one of his tires, and her other side with his hand, with which he was trying to steady her as unobtrusively as possible. He could feel her heart race, her face flush and her breath come out in carefully controlled gusts of warm air.

But a thought occurred to him and he was suddenly worried. "You're... you're not afraid of heights, are you?" She was almost five meters off the ground and with her leg in a cast to boot.

Astrid blinked and swallowed, shaking her head and looking him over. "N-no, but... I've never sat o-on a giant's shoulder before."

He smiled a little. "I've never had a human sit on my shoulder before."

It's kind of nice, he noted. "Feel free to hold onto anything up there if you'd like."

She wrapped both arms around his head - still not quite long enough to meet each other on the other side - but it seemed to him that she'd positioned her arm directly over his optics. What was more, though, was her chest was pressed into the side of his helm, and he could feel, with his own plating, her heartbeat. There was a funny feeling in his spark.

Maybe... maybe he should start nipping this little game in the bud.

"You know," he casually offered, not giving any hint of the excitement building in his circuits. "If I fall, you're going with me."

Her arms pulled away from him fast as lightning. "Hey! I thought you said you could... see without your eyes?"

He shrugged, and she bobbed up along with his shoulder. "Never said I couldn't."

Astrid paused to put one and one together before slapping the side of his helm with a huff. Hound burst into laughter.

"Oh come on, it was just a little joke?"

She turned away from him, folding her arms. Her heart was still racing. "Hmph. Famous last words."

He grinned, showing denta. "Is that a threat?"

"You bet it is."

"And how do you plan to offline me?"

"Well, I figure if poison and piano wire won't do the trick, then you leave me no choice but to kill you with kindness."

"Sounds like a terrible way to go."

"Believe me, it's the worst."

Hound couldn't help but smile, even though the woman would never know just how content he was right now. He looked out over the vast, deep blue of the lake again as she sat and he stood in relative silence. A hot breeze meandered in from the east, and a hair loosened from her head to tickle his nose. He brushed it away. A couple of vultures circled high above on those warm updrafts, slowly, lazily. He knew their eyes were on the ground far below them, looking for lunch.

A thought came to him out of the blue. "Remember when you were talking about all the things you wished you could accomplish in life?"

"Yeah?"

"What's the one thing that you could, but haven't yet?" That was a question that he asked himself sometimes, but he usually avoided coming up with an answer. He wasn't sure that he was interested in finding it out.

Astrid was silent as she thought, and Hound turned his gaze back to the sky, watching the wispy clouds slowly sail on by. They looked like cotton balls and shredded tissue paper.

"I think I'd like to move to Alaska someday."

The remainder of their adventure was very pleasant. Astrid had realized while sitting on his shoulder that her bag had been in the backseat when he transformed and panicked about it a little, but Hound assured her that he'd stowed it away in his subspace. He fished through all his stuff and soon enough, the little bag phased into existence in the palm of his hand. She grabbed the pack from him and took out some kind of snack bar. She unwrapped it and aimed to take a bite, but paused, and asked if it would be alright if she ate on him. Instead of words, he pointed out a dried splash of mud here, a layer of dust there...

"Crumbs are the least of my worries," he chuckled.

She giggled through her nose as she chewed and Hound decided that he wanted to try to make her laugh at every opportunity. It made him happy for some reason.

It was another hour and a half before they got back down to the highway, and another ten minutes before they reached down again. Hound had to bring out his holo driver, much to Astrid's quiet dismay, but it couldn't be helped: the town was packed full of tourists this time of year and an empty driver's seat would surely be noticed in the bright, afternoon sun.

His passenger decided not to put in another album when they got back to the pavement, so peaceful silence interspersed with casual conversation filled the air of his cab instead. That is, until Astrid's body made a strange noise during one of their lulls.

"Was that you?" he asked rhetorically - of course he knew it was her.

"Yeah," she laughed awkwardly. "I think I'm getting a little hungry..."

"That bar didn't quite do the trick, eh?"

"They'll buy you an hour or two and that's about it. Humans burn a lot of calories without much to show for it."

"Hey now - I want to have a good time here, and to me, that means limiting the self-deprecating commentary."

"I..." she sighed. "Yeah, you're right. Sorry about that." Then she laughed a little. "Almost can't help it. Guess that's another weird part of being human!"

"What, shortchanging yourself?" Now, he knew that wasn't true. "Now come on, that's no way to impress a giant robot," he said with a smile. "At any rate... where would you like to eat?"

"Huh?"

"I can take us to a drive-through, if you'd like."

"No, no, no. That's way too much work. I'd have to get into the driver's seat, you'd have to go out of your way -"

He grinned in his CPU. "This whole day was rather out of my way, Miss Schneider."

"Well, y-you really didn't -"

"Nonsense! This whole trip was out of my way, and that's just what I wanted."

She paused to laugh a little and try to hide a smile. "OK then... how is this going to work, exactly?"

Hound flexed a little cybernetic muscle. "Touch the hologram again. Go on," he said, a grin on his voice.

Astrid made a face, hesitating for a moment, and then tentatively reached out with a pointed finger. "Not gonna bite, is it?"

"Of course not!" Hound laughed. It could, though. If he wanted it to.

Slowly, surely, and with an expression that told him she was expecting some kind of practical joke, her finger drew nearer and -

Well, Astrid screamed. Just a little, though; her finger had come into contact with it because it was no longer a simple illusion twisted into existence using bent light. The holo had gone from wave to particle. Massless to solid.

"Hardlight!" he proudly announced to his terrified passenger.

"I-I... He... I-it -"

Hound chuckled. "Don't worry, it's not alive. It's still exactly the same hologram as before, just... a little heavier now, you might say."

"No. Fuck that thing." Astrid was doing that thing that humans do when they laugh and giggle uncontrollably, but their face, still white as a sheet, gives away their unease. It's almost like... they're being entertained by their own dumbstruck reaction. "Fuck. That. Thing."

"It'll be able to get your food for ya?"

She sucked in a sharp breath. "Alright, man. Just... just don't scare anyone. Let's uh, let's grab some Mexican."


Ten minutes later and they were idling at the drive-thru menu. "I hope you know how crazy this is," she whispered to the console.

The voice of the cashier crackles over the speaker.

"M-moment, please!" his passenger called. Her heart was racing again.

Now, Hound was perfectly willing to admit that manipulating the hardlight avatar was tricky business, but it was not by any means beyond his skill. Now that he didn't have to worry about driving, the mech could focus on the task at hand. With care he overrode its pre-programmed driving pose, giving him "manual" control. The man in the cowboy hat leaned back in his seat to give Astrid room to order.

"Oh my god," she silently whined. Hound would have started to worry that he was genuinely scaring her, but there was something in her tone that told him she was half-joking. "I'm going to have nightmares about that thing..."

But that didn't stop him from feeling a tiny twinge of hurt. After all, it was one of the things he was famous for; a technical ability that he'd spent eons honing. A little part of him deflated when she didn't respond with the praise he was... well, hoping for. But he understood. "All you have to do is lean over."

She inched toward the false driver, taking care to avoid getting within too many centimeters of it. "I'm ready now," she called through the open window.

"Go ahead, ma'am."

"Just a number ten with diet coke, please."

"What kind of sauce?"

"Red."

"That'll be -" Astrid strained to listen and returned when the cashier was done speaking.

"What'd she say?"

Hound's holo shrugged, but it was still the car that spoke with a little laugh. "I haven't the fainest clue."

"Well," she said, fishing through her bag. "I've got ten, here." Then: "How are we doing this again?" The look on her face was priceless!

"Just hand it to the holo."

She did, just as slowly and awkwardly as before, and Hound had the photonic puppet take it... more or less naturally. Astrid covered her eyes as he scoot them around the bend and up to the window. Had his passenger looked closely at the gauges behind the steering wheel, she would have noticed one that wouldn't be found on any other car. It was an unassuming little thing, situated next to the gas gauge - which always read 3/4 tank - and labelled only from 100 to 0. The needle had been sitting at around 92 for the past few days, but now began to fall. It would have been barely noticeable to the human eye, but it fell. If he'd started with a fully charged bentlight power cell, he could summon a completely solid cowboy-hatted man for a whole 18 minutes. (To contrast, the Autobot's only other hardlight user could barely get 3 minutes out of his projections.)

Astrid tried not to look, but apparently curiosity got the better of her, and she stared, wide-eyed and with a hand over her mouth, as Hound carefully choreographed the exchange of goods, and at last handing her the brown paper bag as he pulled out of the driveway.

"Your change," he offered, a little smugness creeping into his voice. What? He was proud of himself!

Astrid let him sort of dump it into her cupped hand, stuffing the coins into her pants pocket. "You are the craziest son of a gun I've ever met."

"Well, you've only met your first giant robot. I'm sure you'll meet crazier!"

"I just..." She shook her head and stared at the bag in her lap. "Honestly? I'm still having a hard time believing that this isn't some sort of wild dream. Or that you're... not AI."

Hound nodded inwardly. "That's alright. Can't exactly say I'd feel different if I were in your shoes."

"And is it just me, or does it feel like we shouldn't be doing this? This whole thing feels illegal."

Well in a way, she was right.

Not officially, of course. But there was a code of conduct that the Autobots were expected to follow in exchange for being able to freely move about the country at all. The details, though, depended on the circumstances, and who you asked. 'Bots and government agents alike ran the gamut from livid to wary when it came to civilian interactions like this, though some mechs, due to the nature of their desired work and personality, were given a little more leeway. Hound, for instance, worked with a lot of civilians when he did search and rescue work - the volunteer teams, the police, and the rescues themselves. But his track record was good and he knew where to draw his boundaries.

Usually.

"Don't worry, you won't get in trouble," he said, knowing full well that if anyone was going to get reprimanded for this it would be him. "But we should be careful."

Astrid nodded.

"Just... don't tell anyone about me, alright?"

Why did he trust her? Hound wasn't entirely sure, and never would be. While, all things considered, the odds were in his favor - he couldn't imagine anyone believing her if she did try to spill the beans - there was always the risk that she might tell the right person at the right time and before anyone knew it, they could have a Vice documentary, a breaking NPR story, and an emergency White House address on their hands.

But Astrid was... I don't know. He couldn't shake the feeling that there was just something trustworthy about her. But Hound was also in the habit of tending toward optimism, even where it wasn't exactly warranted. Was there a chance that his trust might've been a little misplaced? Well, sure, but... he felt, deep in his spark, that there could be a payoff here that would be worth the risk.

"Of course I wouldn't," she said. "Not sure who I'd tell, anyway!"

He felt relieved. "Alright, then. That's about all there is to it."


The Jeep pulled up into Astrid's driveway and killed the idling engine sound, though he was still very much "on".

"Thanks again," she smiled. Then a laugh: "Great, now I really owe you!"

He was feeling a little on the silly side of happy. "Oh, I think I know how you can repay me," he said, forcing his voice to all but drip out of his vocalizer. He sank down onto his front shocks.

Her eyebrows shot up and her voice hitched a little. "...Oh?"

Hound shifted back to his usual chipper tone, cadence infused with just a hint of Jimmy Stewart. "Could I crash here for the night?"

His passenger growled a little and smacked the dashboard. "You goon," she exclaimed, blushing. "Making me think..."

"Making you think what?" he wondered.

"Ah, nothin'." She paused for a moment, and Hound was really beginning to ponder just what she'd expected him to say. The awkward beat was over, though, and she covered her tracks. "Of course you can stay. I'd just need to get my car out of the garage... thing hasn't been driven in weeks."

"I can help?"

"Not sure what you can do, but I'll take you up on that offer. First, I gotta eat."

She reached for the button on her seatbelt but Hound undid it for her and proceeded to recline her by a few inches to give her room. "You're more than welcome to eat here if you'd like." He didn't want her to go inside or some other place where he was too unwieldy to follow. Hound knew she might've invited him into the backyard like yesterday, but somehow he liked this more. He genuinely liked having passengers, and it was... cozier this way, besides.

So when she settled down and began to open up the crinkled bag, he was relieved. "OK, but I'll need to use the restroom when I'm done."

"No problemo."

They made small talk as she ate, and he made good on his promise to try and get her to laugh whenever he could. Then she disappeared into the house for a few minutes to relieve herself, and before long, was back outside.

Hound would have moved the vehicle himself, but putting the car into neutral required a small body and a smaller key. So Astrid wheeled into the garage, and with an effortlessness that he found himself admiring, hoisted herself up into the driver's seat and turned the Earth vehicle on.

"Ready?" she called.

He'd transformed and, unknown to her, shielded the view of him from the street with a hologram. It was a weekday afternoon and there weren't many folks about in this neighborhood, but you never knew when a Peeping Tom was going to come out of the woodwork. He stood in front of the garage, bent over, with his hands lightly grabbing the rear bumper of the pretty yellow 4x4.

"Yep!"

With that she put it in neutral and he eased it out into the driveway. When they were finished, he helped her out of the car, and she held up her hand, apparently, for a high five. The gesture caught him off-guard for a moment, but he smiled and let the palm of her hand collide with his. It was tiny.

"Ow," she laughed.

He did the same. "Sorry. And hey, thanks a lot for this. You really didn't have to."

"It's the least I could do."

She wheeled herself into the space, and Hound followed, ducking down into a crawl to squeeze under the open garage door. All in all, he was impressed with how she'd turned it into an extension of her house. Since Astrid only had one car, half the garage was dedicated to play. A rug covered the floor closest to the side door, and along that wall was a workbench, a large mini-fridge, and a beer pong table. On the rug there were a few folding camp chairs facing the corner, where an old 28-inch TV was situated. Elsewhere were tubs of holiday decorations, recreational gear, seasonal clothes, random junk; there was a bike, gathering dust; a lot of camping gear.

"Clearly," he declared with a chuckle as he seated himself on the floor. "This is the happening place to be. What's the cover to get in?"

"Ladies are free, and for dudes, it's a two-drink minimum. That is... two drinks for me."

"Wuh-oh," he said, feigning worry. "You going to kick me out if I don't have any?"

She smiled and winked. "Eh, it'll go on your tab." Astrid watched him for a moment as he got situated, looking around to make sure he wouldn't hit his head on anything. "You alright over there?"

"Yeah, I'm alright," Hound reassured. "You know, I don't think I've ever been in someone's garage before."

"Well, welcome to Chateau Schneider."

He chuckled, glancing around again at her impressive collection of gear. "I take it that the manager isn't here often?"

"As little as she can manage."

"Say, I'd like to know where you've hiked. I don't get out as much as I'd like, and, well, next time I've got a few free days I'd like to get an expert's recommendation."

Astrid beamed and blushed. (She was a blusher, that's for sure.) "OK," she began, then spent a moment humming and hawing over the answer. "Have you ever made it out to Utah?"


They talked like that for some hours, and every story she told drew him deeper in. He suddenly wanted to know everything about her: where she'd been, what she'd done, seen, experienced; what her hobbies were; what her favorite color was. (Maybe it was green?)

But eventually the talk turned to the grim, and the mech discovered that, under no uncertain terms, her work with Adventures, Inc. was done. Her time as a guide was officially behind her. Hound fretted on her behalf, but tried to play it at least a little cool.

"What... what will you do after this then?"

Astrid shrugged, awkwardly reaching for the fridge door to grab what turned out to be a can of beer. It opened with a sharp hiss and a crack, and she took a long, slow swig of the stuff. "I have an ecology degree under my belt, believe it or not," she chuckled. "Maybe I'll move back into the city and do some civil engineering something or other. I don't know. Switching careers is hard."

"You're an ecologist?" he exclaimed, surprised at how impressed and thrilled he was. "You should definitely do something with that!"

She laughed. "I have to practice ecology to be an ecologist. Right now, I'm just a grad." She paused and sighed, clearly thinking. "Still, I'd hate to leave this place. I never much cared for the cities closer to the coast. They're too damn busy."

"How come you never pursued ecology as a career?"

"Eh, long story short is that life happens, you settle for what's good enough instead of waiting around for the ideal. The years go by quick, you know. And we humans, well... we don't have too many of em." She took another drink of the beer. "I don't want to give the impression that I'm unhappy with how things turned out, though! Far from it. I knew I wanted to be up here since I was a kid. My folks used to take us camping around here, or we'd rent a cabin." She paused to shrug, and maybe reminisce. "I fell in love with Tahoe a long time ago."

Astrid didn't really answer his question, and it was obvious that it was something she didn't want to think about quite yet, so he didn't push. And while he knew in a sort of academic way that humans were fragile creatures, it never really hit home until now. A few broken bones was all it took to hijack her life for a while. For him, it would take quite a lot of damage just to interrupt his daily routine, let alone keep him underperforming for this long. How did this happen? This was an existential question more than anything - he knew the approximate tonnage of the landslide, how fast the debris was probably moving compared to her top speed, yes - but how?Hound felt just awful for her, and frustrated with himself for only being able to do this much.

Without thinking, he reached forward and squeezed her shoulder with a metal hand too big for the job.

"I'm so sorry, Astrid. I wish... I wish I could help more than this."

The little human turned and looked at the comparatively massive green forearm beside her. She patted it, bringing her hand to rest on a panel of his warm, earthy, avocado green. He found himself committing to memory the feel of her little hand on his arm and noticing, with a little satisfaction, warmth radiating from it. It was a... tender moment. Morose. And after what seemed like many minutes, she removed her hand from him and he did the same for her. He noticed that she'd left a faint hand print on him.

"You've done more than enough, Hound. The rest is my shit to deal with, alright?"

He nodded slowly and silence fell between them.

Astrid sighed, then resolutely took another drink from her beer. "So, you watch TV?"


Later that evening, all was quiet in the garage. Astrid had left the light on for him when she'd gone inside to go to bed, which he appreciated as a gesture of courtesy more than anything else. It really wasn't necessary, though - he had more than ample night vision and plenty of other sensors besides. So after she'd disappeared into the house, he reached over, careful not to bump into anything, and flipped the little switch.

Hound had thought about transforming back into his vehicle mode for recharge, seeing as how the space wasn't exactly designed with the dimensions of a five meter robot in mind, but eventually decided not to. For some reason, it felt more appropriate to remain as he was, laying on the floor with his hands behind his head as he stared at the ceiling. Minutes crawled by, and eventually he offlined his optics in preparation for recharge. But before shutting down his waking systems, his foreprocessors, the Autobot did a curious sweep of the house, slowly and carefully. And like a little blip on a radar, he "saw" her in the far end of the building. He watched her as she moved - got out of her wheelchair, maybe, and scoot herself into bed.

If he really concentrated, rerouted a little more energy to his scanners and focused, he could feel her breathe. A tiny little repetitious stirring in her chest; a gentle rise and fall, barely more than a few centimeters' worth. This mechanism, respiration, which provided a molecular building block so vital to human systems that hardly any of them could survive for more than a few dozen seconds without it, fascinated him. Amazed him. So delicate and finely orchestrated. So perfectly designed! And yet, the more he thought about it, the more terrifying it seemed.

Hound wondered what it must be like to have lungs, to breathe.

He had no protein matrices of alveoli to fill with air, no diaphragm to expand or contract, no cartilaginous framework to allow for any flexion within his body. He sighed, noting that the sound was partly being produced in his vocal processor, and partly by the rush of air through his vents. It did not result in the faint slump of his shoulders like it sometimes did with humans. No, he was solid. Metal. Static. Hard. The mech took his hands from behind his head and held them up in front of his face, exploring one with the other.

He carefully traced the multitude of joints in each finger, each palm. He ran the end of his index finger of the thin, slight pads along the underside of his digits, which allowed him a good grip on things. They were nothing like the pliable smoothness of human hands. Cybertronian tech, for all its comparatively unimaginable advances, would still engineer something as delicate and expertly crafted as Astrid's hands.

Deceptively simple was her design.

The mech glanced at the camping and hiking gear along the wall to his right. There was a lot, though not an excess amount for a single enthusiast. Then he was inundated with an image of her: freshly unearthed from the expanse of brown rubble, ragged pack still strapped to her even more ragged body underneath. In retrospect, the pack frame probably saved her life. He frowned at the thought.

She'd get over this, he knew that much. She'd find a way to get back outside, to get a job that didn't suck the joy out of her life. It wouldn't be like her old life - this life - but the pride in overcoming had a chance of winning out over the pain of regret.

Hound swept the house again, resting his invisible psycho-electronic fingers on her chest to feel its rise and fall. This time, the movement was slower and steadier. She was falling asleep.

Maybe it was time he slipped into recharge too.

Chapter Text

Strange... as soon as Astrid opened her eyes, she received a text message. The cell phone vibrated a few times on the bedside table and fell silent once again. The woman groaned and stretched, popping a few joints here and there before falling limp. With as much enthusiasm as she could muster, Astrid reached for her phone to see that the message was from a strange number. It wasn't the typical five or ten-digit, but she opened it anyways.

Good morning! -Hound

She set the phone back down again and giggled to herself tiredly. A hardy gray feline rose up from her feet then, a cat by the name of Stanley, carefully making his way closer to her face. He stretched and meowed.

"You're hungry aren't you?" Astrid mumbled, petting the long-haired cat.

Meow.

"Yes you are. Come on, let's feed you."

Meow.

"Oh, him? He can wait until my baby's been fed."

Meow.

"Alright, if you insist."

Meow.

Astrid reached for the phone again and reread the small note. It coaxed another smile to spread across her face as she went to send a reply to the Jeep in her garage.

Morning 2 u 2! ill be out in a few after i feed my poor, starving cat :)

With that, she sat up. The motion reminded her that she was weighed down with a cast. She was getting much better at getting in and out of her chair, and due to a small streak of dismal humor in her, Astrid was almost sad to know that she was moving onto crutches in a few days just as she was getting good at this. And so with the grace of a three-legged dog, she maneuvered into the wheelchair, Stanley dutifully dashing into the kitchen before her.

In a few minutes, she'd thrown open the front door, headed down the small ramp, wheeled past her yellow Xterra, and headed over to the side door to the garage. A brief knock was all the warning she gave before opening up.

To her surprise, Hound was lying face-up on the floor. "Hey there!" She paused here, surveying his form for a moment. "You know, that doesn't look entirely comfortable."

The green robot knocked against the side of his chest, producing a typical metallic sound. "Concrete is as comfortable to me as a good mattress. Don't worry about it."

The corners of her mouth turned upward in a smile, but she was slightly preoccupied with how he looked laying down. In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to be fascinated by, but she was fascinated by it nonetheless. It didn't occur to her that Hound would... lay down. He was a robot, right? Couldn't he technically... rest (or whatever he did) in any position?

"Do I... have something stuck in my chassis?" The Jeep propped himself up on an elbow servo and looked over himself with scrutinizing optics.

Astrid chuckled. "No, I was just thinking."

"Oh."

A silence.

"When do you... when do you leave?"

Hound, with a little effort, turned himself around so he was instead laying belly-down. Astrid couldn't help but liken the behavior to that of a human. He bobbed his head from side to side and looked curiously at his beautifully engineered hands. "I've got the feeling that someone will get huffy if I'm not there by tomorrow morning."

She nodded. "You should probably get going soon, then." Disappointment laced her voice (moreso than she would have liked). Of course he had to go. He had obligations to an entire military organization; he had a duty.

The Jeep suddenly sat up, though he was leaning toward her and gesticulating as he spoke. "You know that I'd like to stay here... this is really a beautiful part of California, and you're a great friend, but you need to relax and heal. I don't want to distract from the important things."

"You wouldn't distract," she lied with a smile. "But you've got responsibilities to the Autobots, and I would hate to interfere with that."

Hound looked at her, and she thought for a moment his eyes grew a little brighter. "I'm really glad I had the chance to meet you," he said with a chipper tone.

"Same here. I feel... privileged to have gotten to know you. Honestly. And I'm... going to miss you." she didn't quite know what to do with her hands, so she folded her arms across her chest and brought her shoulders forward a bit. The mech drew in closer, resting an arm on his knee.

"Who says we can't still keep in touch?"

Astrid looked up at the luminescent panels set in his face, pondering for a second how he saw with them. "Really? I'd like that."

"Then let's do that."

"And maybe when I'm on my feet again, I'll drop by the park to say hi."

"I'd like that."

She grinned. "Then let's do that."

He was still leaning forward as if to say or do something, but nothing came. It was almost unnerving, though she felt no tension in the air.

"C'mere you big lug," the woman said at length. She stretched out her arms, not really knowing or caring just how this would work. When his posture changed the tiniest bit, she waved her hands to beckon him down. "Come on," she said in a sing-song manner.

Hound began to lean slowly in, opening his arms a bit, though paused. "I don't..."

"Shut up. This is to make up for two days ago. You're a big kid, you can do it."

A chuckle escaped him as he made to kneel in closer. She heard him making minute and subtle sounds with every movement, like some kind of faint, humming symphony. Astrid listened to the whirs of machinery emanating from him, whether from the shifting of joints or the unseen servos from deep within his body.

Soon enough, two arms of quite unnatural girth wrapped around her as much as they carefully dared. Then, a strange thing happened: not in a million years would Astrid have ever thought that she would find... comfort in lightly pressing her face against the front grille of a Jeep. It was a completely illogical and absurd thing when she thought about it. Hound was a vehicle. She was hugging a car. A very sentient car at that, but a car nonetheless. Not an ounce of flesh or bone comprised him, and the only place one would find organic material on his person would be in the treads of his tires. And yet here she was, hugging him. And she was getting a rush from it.
The moment didn't, in reality, last long at all. Astrid swayed a small amount when he let go, and was glad she was already sitting down.

"You know," she ventured. "You give pretty good hugs for being a large metal thing."

Hound's posture was suspiciously similar to that of a young boy who'd just "accidentally" brushed hands with his crush, his head down and gaze averted with a self-conscious smile on his face. "Well, hehe, I do try."

And there it was, again. The creeping silence. Despite the absence of words for those few moments, however, Hound's body language spoke volumes. Astrid was just afraid that hers was doing the same.

"I should get going," he said softly.

The woman's eyes slowly wandered to a button on the wall. Upon pushing it, the garage door opened, revealing a pale morning beyond the end of the driveway. Mist from the lake was attempting to flee the sun, burning off as it crawled up into the foothills like terrified ghosts passing low over the trees and rooftops. Astrid hoped that the smell of moisture and negative ions fresh in the air would help ease the blow she would suffer today.

"You probably should."

For some reason far beyond her, she was desperately hoping he didn't want to leave as much as she didn't want him to. But away he went. Hound eased himself out of the garage, one last chance to stand fully upright before the long drive to Yellowstone. Astrid couldn't help but yet again marvel at his construction. What was it all for? All of those pieces? Each one had to be important in some way. But what did they all do? How did they all work in such perfect unison? She watched with almost childish intrigue as he raised his arms to the sky and flexed every digit in an eerily human display.

Someday she would find out.

"I had a great time with you, Hound. You're a true friend."

The great chrome and faceted body turned around and he looked down at her from over his shoulder. There was a smile planted there. "My sentiments exactly," was his reply. Without warning he bent down, bringing his limbs underneath him and tucking his head down as all the pieces of him shifted about, and not 3 seconds later, there was a second vehicle in her driveway. Astrid wanted to protest his transformation; gazing at his Jeep form was not nearly as interesting as his bipedal form, not to mention that it was a most obvious signal that he was leaving in a minute or so. Astrid's brow furrowed and her mouth drew into a tight line as she looked over him now. Hound gave two chirping honks before starting his engine, the hiker waving goodbye all the while.

And then he was gone.

Astrid sat in the driveway for several minutes, absently staring at the street, pondering this strange hole that was present now. The psychological abscess didn't exist before she'd met him. It was almost as if, merely by existing and being in her company for two short days, that he had wedged himself somewhere in her being and created a vague emptiness that she wouldn't even be aware of until he was gone again. She truly hated herself for even considering that her already missing him was due in small part to what he was, that he was exotic in a sense. She knew people clung to things for the sake of clinging to it, and she didn't want to think of Hound as a celebrity friend. Something to boost her ego and brag about. He was alien, after all. But no, there was something else. The void had very little to do with personal gain and more to do with him.

But there was nothing she could do about it now. He was a working professional that had happened to save her life. A lasting relationship of any magnitude was not meant to be, and the sooner she understood that, the sooner she could move on with her life and deal with the priorities that existed before a giant robot knocked on the door. The hole would heal, and so would her leg, and things would go back to the way they were.

To Astrid's relief, the phone inside began to ring. Turning on her wheels, she made her way up the ramp and back into the house just in time to answer.

"Hello?" To her chagrin, her voice sounded tired and detached.

"Hey Astrid, it's Jim," was the reply from the other end. "We need to talk."

Chapter Text

Difficult. It was very difficult.

She didn't cry, though. She was going to deal with this like an adult.

Astrid had been on the phone with Jim for nearly half an hour about the situation the previous Tuesday. Between then and now, she'd made several phone calls to family, traded in her wheelchair for a pair of sturdy crutches, and begun to consider what to do to pay the bills.

Being 'let go' was maddening, there was no denying that. But through the beer, margaritas, and tubs of ice cream, she began to realize... that the accident was a wake up call. Astrid had settled - she'd gotten comfortable. Always one to claim that she never sought fame, fortune, or anything else but a humble life close to the wilderness, the idea of getting too comfortable seemed almost alien to her. Wasn't that what she wanted? A peaceful, unassuming life? But the more she mulled, and puzzled, and thought over this basic self-perception over the past few days, Astrid began to understand that this was not the case at all. In fact, the answer, hiding in plain sight, was the very thing that threw her life off-course to begin with:

But this was no ordinary hike, no. It was 75 miles of mountainous terrain to conquer in complete solitude. It was a test of her skill and endurance as an accomplished outdoorsman, a woman of wild North America. And what was more, it was going to only be the beginning. If she could do it, then there could be something even bigger on the horizon, maybe: something called the Pacific Crest Trail.

In the scheme of things 75 miles wasn't much, but it was going to be the most difficult thing she'd ever done so far. In doing it, Astrid wasn't trying to prove anything to anyone other than herself. And perhaps it was the eagerness to reach this self-erected milestone in her life that caused her to make her biggest mistake... that is, embark on the trip at all.

Northern California had experienced n abnormally wet winter that year, and the rather arid region saw mudslide activity with the newly loosened soil. Astrid knew all too well that park rangers could only maintain a certain portion of California's trails, so when no word came of slides along her intended course, the hike-through trek stayed green-lit. Unfortunately, the big man upstairs had a huge "I told you so" planned for her. This cosmic smack on the hand could not have hurt more; physically and emotionally. They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but did Astrid really come out from that pile of rocks with nothing more than broken bones and sunstroke? As much as she wanted to think so, she had a feeling that the repercussions of the accident were far from over, and only when all was said and done could she truly measure her growth as a person.

And where did Hound figure into all of this? He was harder to place - an extraordinary, though humble, wild card. He wasn't a major player... he wasn't going to change her life, just because she played host to an Autobot one evening.

...or maybe he did change it.

Or maybe he had yet to do so?

Astrid had desperately tried to avoid thinking about him for the past few days; she didn't want his comment about being a distraction to morph into some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. She was never going to see him again, she knew that much, not to mention that she hadn't even heard from him since he left. He was probably leaving her be to deal with her life, and just as well. She had no business associating with one of his kind. Their worlds were too different.


"So I heard from Eli that your cast is coming off in 3 weeks." The young woman on the other end of the line was Natalie, one of Astrid's friends and ex co-workers. "That's totally great."

Astrid smiled into the phone, making more comfy on her couch. "Isn't it? My god, I'm so looking forward to being able to walk again."

"I know, right? The folks at R.E.I. have been asking for you," she giggled. "Speaking of guys... Eli also told me that you had some date with a no-show a little while ago. Care to share some deets?"

She scoffed and furrowed her brow. "Oh, come on, Nat."

"Aw, at least tell me who he is so I know who to avoid." The young woman burst into laughter at her own joke. When it was met with silence, she continued. "Honestly, girl! You nearly die, alone in the wilderness, and he doesn't have the manners to let you know your date was cancelled? Forget avoiding him; I'll hunt that son of a bitch down and give him a piece of my mind."

"Hey, whoa, take it easy there, Bessie. He wasn't a... total flake."

"Really? Where'd you two hook up then? Is he hot? Is he sweet? Oh, what am I talking about, of course he has to be sweet... you can't really put out when your leg's broken!" Natalie's laugh was obnoxious and Astrid didn't find the joke to be all that funny.

She sighed. "Yes, he was damn sweet, actually." She paused a moment to think about the absurdity of talking about him without once mentioning that he wasn't, in fact, human. "Tall, dark, and handsome, you might even say." Astrid permitted herself a snorting chuckle. "Really tall."

"Oh my god," Natalie squealed. "Wherever you found him, you have to take me there."

Well, she thought with a little macabre smile, All you gotta do is get your leg stuck in a bear trap and wait!

That she almost laughed at.

"Ehhh... let's just say that we just kind of ran into each other." Astrid knew, though, that she'd have to switch the conversation up a little otherwise continue to endure Natalie's grilling. "Besides, didn't you just dump what's-his-name? Don't you want a breather?"

"Hello? It's called rebounding. It's a helluva lot better than sulking around and feeling sorry for myself. Besides, it wasn't going to work out anyways. He had way too many pictures of -"

Astrid's computer, which was sitting on the coffee table in front of her, made a little noise to indicate that she'd gotten an email. While vaguely listening to Natalie continue on about her idea of a nut, she drew the laptop closer to read the message.

Her face blossomed into a wide smile at glancing at even just the subject line. "Sorry to cut this short, but I'll have to call you back later."

"Huh? What's up?"

"I, uh... I think I've got the runs. Gotta go!"

Click.

Hey!

Sorry it took me so long to email you, but they put me straight to work as soon as I got here Tuesday afternoon, and I've been busy ever since. I really hope things are going well for you... if I'm not mistaken, you're on crutches now? If that's the case, good for you! You're almost there.

It's kind of funny - I almost got used to you sitting in my passenger seat, and though Beachcomber is here too, I kind of miss your company. Heh, BC's a great mech, don't get me wrong, but he's not the best conversationalist ever. Well, neither am I, but... well, I guess I just miss our conversations, is all.

Anyways, this message has some attachments as you can see. Sorry that I wasn't able to clean them up before sending them to you, but I hope you'll appreciate them all the same. If you've looked at them already, I'm sure you're wondering what exactly is wrong with the last image. Well, that one's straight from my personal memory files. That's how the world looks to me! (When I want it to, at least.)

So there you go. Hope you enjoy.

-Big Lug

Reading his words gave her those cliched warm n' fuzzies. For some reason, this really felt like a thing gone right in a sea of things gone wrong... or at least, things that felt like they could have gone About a dozen photos greeted her eyes in the attachments section, all of them of the sweeping views of Yellowstone National Park. Maybe it was her imagination, but she could almost see a little bit of her dad's style in the mech's pictures. The way he tried to frame his shots, the colors and times of day he captured... the scale of the land. Astrid had been to Yellowstone once as a kid, and swore up and down that she'd go back. This was a reminder to make good on that promise.

Her favorite was without a doubt the one shot of his hand, palm upward, catching some of the boiling hot water droplets from an erupting Old Faithful. In the background she could make out another robot through the white mist, laughing. He was blue and gray with a sort of visor that obscured his eyes... she assumed that was Beachcomber. There weren't any tourists around, she noticed - maybe the area was blocked off while they did their work at the geyser.

The last one, though, she could barely make heads or tails of. In fact, it took Astrid a minute to realize that she was looking at trees, and a minute more to discern a human figure kneeling down next to the trunk of one, doing something. There was color to it, but not color as she would see in a normal photograph; it was comprised of many layers and depth in one flat image, as well as what she decided was heat detection. It was an overwhelming picture.

That's how the world looks to me!

Astrid sat back on the couch, rubbing her chin as she looked at it more. The woman was trying her very best to imagine what it was like to see everything in that way, to be able to process it and turn it into something comprehensible. She tried, but couldn't do it. It just made her head spin.

She suddenly felt compelled to share with him how she saw things as a human. But how? There was no way for her to... take a snapshot of her mind's eye like he could, or tap a button and send what she's seeing to the printer. She knew that most of what eyes do isn't just to passively observe, but to capture bits of information and help piece them together like the way a police sketch artist takes a list of attributes and draws an approximated portrait of a perp. But even then, getting her hand to do exactly what she wanted it to do was a whole different skill alone - if she'd thought about drawing him a picture, she quickly dismissed it as too dissimilar to his experience. These were pictures of what his robot brain could do, but a drawing, even if she were good at it? Well, it would have to pass through two translations before her brain could make it out onto the paper. And any savvy internet user could tell you what gibberish results when you send a sentence through Google Translate too many times.

He'd told her not to feel like this, but Astrid still couldn't help the slight pang of resentment at feeling inferior. So she sat for a few moments to clear her head before taking to the keyboard to write a reply.

Big Lug-

Well, I'm glad to hear they're keeping you busy. There's nothing worse than having nothing to do!

Things are fine over here… off my crutches, yes, but they hurt something awful after a few minutes. Almost makes me miss the wheelchair. Things have been a bit boring since you left, in all honesty. I can drive again because my left foot'll tolerate the pressure now, but other than that I'm still not as mobile as I'd like to be.

She stopped here and reread what she'd written, letting out a great sigh. A minute or two passed before her fingers were brought back to the keyboard again.

Hey remember all that talk about how us humans gotta grab life by the horns and stuff? Well, I think I've come to the realization that, in the immortal words of Bon Jovi, I got stuck in the moment, and I couldn't get out of it. LOL. Anyways, I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think it might be time for me to move on. I'm 29... a third of my life has already come and gone. So I better get a move on, huh?

Miss you too.

-A.

Astrid didn't read over the rest of her email before sending it, not wanting to analyze her words all to hell. If she had, her line about missing him instead of their conversations would have jumped out and not survived the editing process.


Time passed. Slowly. It crawled by in a sort of dizzying numbness; the days were all a fog. There was a complication with her ankle: something about the ligaments was preventing it from healing properly. A multitude of MRIs and X-rays were taken, and surgery was scheduled for the morning of May 28th. The surgery was outpatient, and the doctor said that she'd be on her feet again in a couple of days, but still. It was just one more thing preventing her from putting on her shoes and hitting the trails.

Astrid hadn't heard from Hound in a while, either. She'd received only one more batch of photos from him before correspondence went cold, and that was two weeks ago. This made her feel sad and defeated, somehow. There was a sort of expectancy about the whole thing, like she wanted something from him, but Astrid, true to human fashion, couldn't put her finger on it. So she felt she had nothing more to do than give up on it. Whatever "it" actually was.

The woman spent the remaining days of her little recovery watching bad daytime TV and trying not to think about things too hard. Her head seemed fragile these days - she didn't want to break it. Who knew what would come gushing out.

Hound's photo was stuck to the fridge with a magnet beside another photo of her sister and brother-in-law from a trip they took to New York City. Below them was a jumble of magnetic poetry, with a few words strung together here and there: breath ing winter day s while lay ing in the black dirt

It was a little ritual of hers to move the words around every morning to see what came of it.

Just when it seemed that the days couldn't get any more unbearable, the unthinkable happened: her cast came off.

The hospital visit was not as ceremonial as she felt it should have been. A few moments of shrieking on the part of the hand saw, and a crack that sounded eerily similar to the breaking of bones saw that the stupid thing was gone for good. It didn't even occur to her to be embarrassed about her thin, pale, hairy leg, criss-crossed with scars and pocked with pink from the pins. Nope, she was a free woman now. A weaker woman than before, but still free.

It was insisted that there be a party for her at her house. Her mother drove up for the weekend, and even her sister showed up; and that was besides the good half-dozen of her other friends and an old co-worker or two that would be there.

"Oh, would you look at that," Tracy murmured, pointing to the TV in the living room as they unpacked groceries and started marinating meat for the grill.

Astrid paused and glanced at the breaking news segment with a headline that read: EARTHQUAKE DEVASTATES PORTLAND. She thought that that didn't exactly sound right - was Portland particularly earthquake-prone? She didn't remember, and didn't have time to before a camera panned across the Willamette, the deep, wide waters of which had become home to three bridges. Black smoke rose up from the city, and the camera cut to other areas of destruction: collapsed brick buildings, downed powerlines, broken fire hydrants gushing water, fields of stopped cars as people crowded the highways to get out.

They cut back to the reporter, and Tracy turned up the volume so they could hear.

"...Red Cross is here, and FEMA has been relocating residents to emergency shelters. The people of Portland also have another kind of help," he said, and the camera cut to a shot of... Autobots! Two of them were removing the collapsed wreck of a building to get to the people inside with the help of dogs and firefighters. "The government has sent no fewer than twenty of the robots to help with the cleanup effort, and they are making record time." Another cut to others moving abandoned cars in a street to let ambulances through. This is how she was used to seeing them: on the news or in magazines. Not up close and personal. Astrid wondered if Hound was there.

"That looked like a big earthquake," Tracy remarked, hand on her mouth.

"Yeah," she said. Astrid wanted to sit and watch, but she decided to take the evening and focus on herself, as selfish as that sounded. She could catch up on the disaster tomorrow. "Let's put on some music instead," she suggested, turning off the TV and heading for the stereo.

Tracy nodded, putting vegetables away in the crisper. "Good idea."


The party went well. The grill was hot, drinks were cold, and food was plenty. There were maybe a dozen folks over altogether, and they celebrated with games of horseshoes, some cards, and a few hours into the evening, a football game on in the TV in the garage.

Astrid hadn't heard from Hound in over a week, and though she knew he was busy, she sent him a quick note asking for his best wishes.

She was pretty drunk by 9 o'clock, but the night was still young, and instead of drink herself asleep, she binged on some hot wings and pasta salad while waiting for her second wind. Astrid didn't want to get blackout drunk with her mom and straight-laced sister over, sure, but something else told her not to. So she listened to that little something.

But in spite of having her first real good time in a while, Astrid couldn't help but drift back to the Autobot more and more. She started to feel a little numb the more she dwelled on him, but she shook it off like the silly little slump it was. This was her night, and she was going to damn well enjoy it... even if she was fielding questions about the weird picture on her fridge.

Laughter and speaking volume increased as the night wore on. When the clock chimed 10, people started to trickle home, and she was saying goodbye to someone every 15 minutes or so. Eventually it was just Astrid, her mother, and her sister Heather who were left behind to help clean up the mess. They chatted some, but it was mostly quiet. They were tired and had a long drive back to Sacramento before their night was over. Astrid realized that this was the only part of the evening where she was able to forget about Hound for a while. But that wasn't to last - a little after 1, the two women said their goodbyes and left Astrid to her own devices in an empty, clean, quiet house.

She stood with her elbows on the kitchen counter, looking around for something that might keep her from going to bed yet. The alcohol was taking its toll, but she was still restless. She had her legs back! Of course she was restless. For a brief moment she thought about going for a walk, but realized that someone would probably mistake her her for a prowler and call the cops. No, not a great idea.

Reading would put her to sleep, she was too buzzed to appreciate a movie - and having watched what felt like thousands in the past few weeks already, it wasn't a fun idea - and stargazing would make her dizzy. Astrid looked off to her right and chanced a glance at a familiar sight: a bottle, squat, with a cork stopper and half-full of amber liquid. It was calling her name, it really was.

"Ah, screw it," she muttered, getting up to fetch a shotglass from the freezer.

The tequila went down smooth. A little too smooth, as this wasn't exactly the best anejo on the market. She cleared her throat a little and decided to grab the bowl of cut limes they'd left in the garage. The next shot would be better. But as she stepped back into the house, bowl in hand, Astrid thought she heard something - the sound of a car pulling up into the driveway. She shut the door behind her anyway.

"Oh," she said dumbly, noticing a familiar shape on the coffee table. "Mom forgot her reading glasses." It didn't occur to her that almost half an hour had passed since Tracy left, though.

She poured herself another shot, lime in hand, and threw it back when her phone buzzed with a text. She winced and sucked on the lime before retrieving the message.

Knock knock.

Astrid was confused for only a few seconds before realizing who it was in the driveway. She sprinted to the front door, almost tripping on the leg of a chair along the way and giggling to herself about it, tore it open. Outside sat a long, rugged frame, green and black, with tires so rough they could strip paint. A grin spread across her face from cheek to cheek, though she didn't know it, and she stepped down off the little landing to greet her guest, turning the porch light off along the way.

"You're taller than I expected," he said softly.

"You don't know how good it feels to walk again."

"I think I can guess."

She paused to fold her arms, suddenly feeling the need to hug herself.

"How come you came back?"

If the Jeep had body language, then he was using it. Something in the way his tires were positioned, how he sat on his shocks... Hound was tired. Then she noticed it: little sparkles along his frame. She squinted, straining to see in the darkness, but soon realized that they were scratches on him. Dents. Bare metal was exposed underneath, and it gave her the chills to look at.

"Portland," was all he said at first.

"That wasn't an earthquake, was it?"

"No."

A beat.

"I needed to get away for a little while," he continued. "And... give you my best wishes."

"Come on inside." Astrid headed over to the side door of the garage and reached in to hit the door mechanism. "Alcohol doesn't do anything for you, right?"

He chuckled a little. "Not a thing."

"Well, what do you do to... loosen up, then? Relax? Get shit-faced?"

He transformed then, and for some reason it seemed even more spectacular this time. When her eyes were drawn upward, the alcohol made him seem fifty feet tall. Astrid almost lost her balance. As soon as he was on his own two legs again, a light appeared in his hand, and he held it out for her to see. It was a transparent cube-shape, maybe ten inches on each side, and it was full of dangerously ebbing purple liquid that glowed. "High-grade energon," he said with a little smile before ducking into the garage and taking a seat on the floor.

The door closed behind him, and she rushed inside then to go grab her own high-grade.

She was feeling very, very warm when she returned to the garage, though it had to have been because of the hours of drinking. In fact, she was surprised that she hadn't said anything stupid yet. She wasn't a heavyweight by any stretch of the imagination, and she could hold her liquor, but sometimes Astrid was in the habit of running her mouth when inhibitions went out the window.

"What's energon?" she asked, taking a seat on the floor for the first time since before the accident. "I mean, the name's a dead giveaway," she laughed. "But what's it exactly?"

Hound seemed to eye her for a moment, swirling his drink around, before maybe deciding that he wanted to lose himself as much as she wanted to. "Highly concentrated liquid fuel," he said. "You could run an aircraft carrier on this stuff."

Astrid pouted. "Take it I can't try any then."

He laughed and wagged a finger at her. "I don't recommend it."

She was seated off to his side, facing him, and she realized that she was within arm's reach as some tequila found its way into her little glass. Astrid threw her head back, hissed at the icy burn, and set the shot down with a little clink. The human suddenly felt compelled to touch him.

Hound fell very still when her fingers came into contact with the side of his black and green leg. It dwarfed her own calf by countless orders of magnitude in size, and though blocky, was somehow elegant in its own rough-hewn way. Hard edges met and parted, wrapping around the basic boxy shape; supporting here, reinforcing there, thick metal pushing up against thick metal to conceal god-knows-what underneath. Instead of a hamstring he had the black swell of a massive tire, hard and jagged.

Her fingers felt along an edge, where a particularly long run of paint had been violently scraped off. She didn't need to be sober to know that these marks weren't from disaster relief. Hound had gotten into a fight.

"Does that hurt?" she asked quietly, mesmerized by the sharp glints of metal hidden behind the green. It shone in a way she hadn't seen metal shine before. Or maybe that was the alcohol too.

Astrid head him take a drink from his cube - a long drink - before he answered. "No," he murmured in that way of his; so human and yet still so machine-like. She heard a gentle whoosh of air from intakes along his chest. "It... it feels nice, actually."

She giggled, covering her mouth. It seemed that she giggled a little too long, and a little too loud. But his words seemed funny - something about a robot being able to feel things that felt good struck her as... something. She wanted to touch him more. Get to know him - her friend? - something else altogether? - that way.

The human looked up as she explored his leg a little more, and discovered that his eyes were on her. Those soft blue panes in his face were focused in her direction, at least - it was hard to tell, what with him not having obvious pupils and her being pretty damn drunk by now. His face was unreadable to her as he took another long drink.

"You lookin' for something?" he said with a lopsided smile and an uneasy chuckle.

Astrid swallowed and laughed again too, removing her hand from him and reaching for the bottle again to throw back another shot, bringing her just that much closer to oblivion.

She was restless, alright. And frustrated. And, deep down, sad. She didn't really know this, but she did know that she was suddenly looking for some excitement, and if Hound was going to be looking at her like that then maybe her excitement would best be found in the bottle instead of his fascinating leg. The human on the floor next to him suddenly felt very small. Small, but heavy.

Astrid let a fourth shot sluice down her throat, and the room really began to spin.

She tried focusing on his hands, on the one that brought that weird cube to his weird mouth, and she found herself thinking about how heavy they were. How much pressure they could exert.

"You alright over there?" he said, a smile tugging at the corner of that weird mouth. That weird, smooth, interesting mouth. She wanted to touch that too. "I feel like I'm drinking by myself."

"OK, OK, what d'you wanna talk about?"

"Let's talk about you," the giant machine replied, bending forward. Was he getting drunk too?

She eyed him. "What about me?"

"Let me see you stand up," he suggested with a wink in his voice. "Let's see those legs, er... you know what I mean."

Astrid giggled a lot again, leaping to her feet and almost falling over in the process. One of Hound's massive hands darted out to provide support, but she was alright. Still laughing, she stood on the rug before him, hands at her sides as she bit back her own giddy exhibitionism.

Hound sat on the floor in a way that definitely told her that he was slipping too. He had a hand on his knee and he leaned to the other side, pointing at her with his cube hand. That lopsided smile? Well it was downright sloppy now. His cube was mostly gone too. How strong was that shit?

"Go on, turn around," he chuckled, making a little circle with his finger.

She happily complied. "Don't hear you talking!" she called, sing-song, when she was facing away from him.

"Well alright then," he said, voice reminding her of a black and white movie all of a sudden. "I, uh... I think you look great."

"Really?"

"Really! That color looks good on you. And I like your hair like that."

It was just a sort of shaggy mess, though. She hadn't cut it since before the accident. "You and your hair, dude."

"Hair is great. It's soft, it's smooth..."

"So you're a hair man." Astrid laughed so abruptly that she snorted.

Hound chuckled, then did something that took her a moment to process.

He reached forward, his huge arm coming towards her, and this was followed by the sensation of a really big hand cupping her ass. The floor pulled away from her all of a sudden, and she was in the air, moving towards him. Eventually she found herself seated, sort of, on his oddly composed chest and he was on the floor, looking up at her.

"I think I might be a you man."

OK, that was funny. Totally, completely, absurdly funny. One, he wasn't a man. Two... well, she forgot what the second thing was, but it was funny too.

"What?" he whined, laughing like a blushing teenager.

"You're an alien."

"Yeah?" he cocked a thing that looked like an eyebrow at her. "And what of it, sweetheart?"

"Alright. Firstly, don't call me sweetheart," she drawled. "And secondly..."

She practically fell forward onto him, and he looked like he wanted to bark a surprised laugh, but he got really still again all of a sudden when her lips found his. It was quick, sloppy as hell, and her eyes were shut tight because it seemed like the sensible thing to do when you weren't just kissing someone you barely knew, but a giant robot alien someone to boot. Astrid quickly righted herself, almost feeling triumphant.

"Welcome to Earth."

Hound was the very picture of surprise. He laid there, eyebrow things almost disappearing under the lip of his helmet, mouth open a little.

Astrid laughed. "So you're a me man," she said, holding onto some rubberized part of him otherwise she was going to go flying off, things were spinning so much now. "No, wait... a you man. No, tha's not right eith-"

His face took up her entire field of view all of a sudden. That bright, gleaming face, flanked by hardy green. Something large and articulated brushed against the back of her head and she couldn't talk because her lips were covered - and she meant covered - by a pair of warm, smooth swells thrice the size of hers. This was not so quick, not so sloppy, and her eyes weren't shut this time.

But it was soon over too, and when Hound's head was on the ground again, she struggled to keep focused on it because nothing would hold still.

"Oh," she breathed.

He smiled, and boyishly, looking away for a moment before fixing his eyes on her once more. Was it her, or did they seem a darker, richer blue than before? "I think I've been wanting to do that for a while."

Astrid looked behind her, at his white belly and the expanse of his legs stretching far beyond what she could reach even with her pointed toes. With hands high above her hand, she realized, he was still more than twice her height. Er... length. It was length when he was laying down, right?

Something about him drew her in though. Some kind of... challenge. There was a barrier to be broken, there. A trail blazed. And she was going in not just blind, but drunk off her ass. Where was the map? Fuck the maps, this was exciting. Fascinating. Spine-tingling. But it was also... gross. And not a little wrong. Some paranoid little part of her was still convinced that this kind, funny, elegant machine under her still had a plaque on him someplace that said PROPERTY OF U.S. GOVERNMENT. Astrid wondered if she could get thrown in jail for kissing military equipment.

That wrongness seemed to be part of what pulled her under, though. Sober, she would never have let it get this far. Sober, she would never have touched his leg, or let him grab her. That would have been too real, too much, too... dangerous. But she wanted a little danger right now. She wanted that rush to sweep her away from her worries, to help her remember her working leg and forget how it got broken in the first place.

But the way his big, heavy thumb touched her cheek with more care and caution than she could have ever imagined, that too was dangerous in its own way.

"I think I've been wanting you to do that for a while now."

Did she really? Did it matter? Her sober self would have vehemently denied it, but her drunk self was fair game.

"I... I hope that I'm not being..."

She snorted happily, waving her hands at him dismissively and swaying in time with the spinning room. "All I know s'at the night's still young n' I don't want either of us feelin' like crap." Astrid knew what she'd meant to say, but that's what managed to come out. It would do. "So put 'er here, space cowboy."

This time she all but collapsed forward onto him, grabbing his face to help guide her lips to his again. She squeaked when one of his fingers ran down her back, from neck to tailbone, but that didn't stop her. She - they - were on a roll, and through the numbing haze of intoxication she could barely feel the rush that should have come with the touch.

And before long, kissing would be the least of their drunken worries.

Chapter Text

The morning trickled in through the tiny gap between concrete and garage door; but it was actually his internal chronometer that slowly dragged him out of recharge with a sensation like incessant jabs to the head. Something like a groan or the sigh of hydraulics escaped him. He brought a hand up to his faceplate and noticed that the limb felt uncharacteristically heavy. In fact, all of him felt heavy, and he couldn't quite pinpoint why, even going so far as to worry about the possibility of damaging the floor. He made to move his other arm about then, but noticed a different sort of weight to it. Something on the order of about 65 kilos more than he was expecting.

Hound onlined his optical sensor net. The process was sluggish, and the interference he was experiencing was a almost painful. He attempted to ignore it as he turned his head to see what was on his arm, and-

Whatever viscous sludge that was chugging through his system after last night over-fueling felt like was suddenly vaporized, and his CPU exploded agonizingly to life. Shock claimed his every feature; his mouth fell open. There, prone and fast asleep on his forearm, rear pressed up against his side and arm hanging off, was Astrid. Her clothes were balled up under her head instead of covering her body. Her bra was around her waist.

This scene seemed to cue a mental slide show. Images of varying lecherousness, skewed by a thick haze of static, played out in the forefront of his processors like, for the lack of a better term, a car accident. It was then he noticed that a finger on his free hand was thinly coated in an oily fluid, and that there was a peculiar organic smell thick in the air.

"Oh dear Primus..."

Hound wanted to leap up to his feet, but he had to wake her first. He didn't want to. That meant having to face her. Panic began to settle on him like thick dust, and as his gaze turned once more to the human, he began to shake his head from side to side as though the repetitious movement could somehow undo what had happened. There was a shuddering in his spark; hit joints stiffened. What was he going to do? What was she going to do? What if anyone else found out? What really happened?

Was it as bad as his memory files suggested? The mech groaned, aiming to massage the bridge of his olfactory sensors, but recoiled his hand when the smell-her smell-reminded him just where those fingers had been.

Brow ridge furrowed. His mouth, so used to curling upward in countless grins and smiles, was now yanked downward in a distressed frown. Disgust mingled with panic, mingled with anger. Who was he disgusted at? Him? Her? The circumstances?

Either way, him. Definitely him.

How did he let this happen? Vector Sigma, this was all his fault, wasn't it? He wasn't so much of a pushover that he couldn't say no, was he? The mech looked down at himself, spotting numerous whole and partial hand prints about his chest, thigh, and hip plates. He suddenly wanted nothing more than to crawl inside himself and rust away into nothing.

"How did this even happen?" he lamented once more, staring at the ceiling.

The most damning question, however, was the one he was avoiding most.

Did he, or did he not in some way want what took part? Or was it the high-grade that made him think that he wanted it? It didn't even matter who came onto who first... from what he could piece together, they both practically did it at the same time. But then there was the question of whether or not Astrid had done it solely from intoxication or not, too. Not to mention that this... this wasn't the first time that he'd fooled around with an organic. Not a human, but... but... there were others.

More images flooded his head. A Cemerian on Rhydolus; a Hhknunnl'e on Ggeng 4; a Vinzakka on an Autobot outpost in the Happlan System; another Cemerian someplace else.

He... he'd tried having relationships with his own kind, but something about them was lacking. There was a sensation that Hound could not only feel, but craved, and no other Cybertronian seemed privvy to its existence. Not being able to explain to a spark-mate why you still feel woefully incomplete? It gets old fast.

So he chased organics when no one was looking.

But those experiments were just that, really. I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine. Quick, impersonal; massaging away a dull ache that he knew would always come back eventually. His problem was chronic, and an eon ago he learned to accept that he would be stuck treating the symptoms for the rest of his long, miserable life; that there was no cure.

But this wasn't just some tryst... w-was it?

Unlike the others, Hound genuinely, unabashedly liked her. He knew enough about her to admire her. To be in awe of her accomplishments. To appreciate her hobbies. To understand her worldview.

Was there some shred of truth to what had happened at all?

There had to have been.

It had to have been there all along, in some small way, and getting drunk only let it out in a way that neither of them had the willpower to control. Hound recalled memories from their drives. Was it the feeling of her ass on his seat or her conversation that he enjoyed more? The last dregs of concentrated energon being flushed from his system was making it difficult to think that hard.

But the mech couldn't stay in his head forever. The day had to begin at some point.

"Astrid," he whispered, turning to her once again.

Nothing.

"Astrid." Less feeble this time.

Still, nothing.

Hound risked lifting his arm in the air. He did so carefully as he sat up and brought her closer. Distantly he noticed that his first inclination was to bring her closer to his chest, but he knew better than to initiate any more physical contact than was necessary, especially given the state of her clothes.

"Astrid, wake up."

He nudged her shoulder with the opposite hand, but it turned into a slow stroke over her upper arm. This motion seemed to stir her.

The human groaned, long and broken. Her arm painfully lifted from where it hung to scratch her scalp before hefting her head up to look around. When her gaze locked with his, he noticed that her eyes were puffy and bloodshot. The sight made him ache everywhere.

"What's going on?" she mumbled groggily. "Why are we in the garage?"

His vocal processors seized up for a moment. "We need to talk," he replied at length.

The look she gave him was ignorant and confused, but after attempting to stretch, her ball of clothes fell to the floor and she was made suddenly aware of her nudity. For a second time he saw the light of realization catch her like a deer in headlights, and her eyes shot open in a sudden sobriety. His frown deepened.

Astrid's eyes darted around wildly: from his face, to his chest, to his feet, to the floor, to the discarded bottle of tequila, to the empty energon cubes. Then back to him. Her expression was pleading, distraught, and he could tell she was trying to form words in her contracting throat, but was failing. Instead, she shook her head vigorously.

"No, no..." She began to tremble. "Put me down."

"I-"

"Put me down now."

Emotion laced her voice, and Hound did as she asked. As soon as she was a meter from the floor, she leaped off him, gathered her wad of clothing and frantically put it back on. As she bent to pick up the rest, she spied a small bottle nearby, and slowly picked it up. The label, he saw, said K-Y Ultragel. Her face morphed into a twisted show of her horror.

"Oh fuck me," she murmured, throwing the bottle away from her.

"Astrid..."

Still shaking her head and giving him one last look, she ran from the garage.

"Astrid wait!" The attempt was futile, he knew. He sat in silence for a few moments before cursing aloud. "Fraggit all to hell!" Hound brought his fist to the floor in sudden frustration and regretted it when he saw the cracks.

There had to be something he could do about this! This couldn't possibly be the end of the line... for her to cut him off was an outcome so terrible that he didn't even want to think about it.

Hound shoved his shame and self-loathing aside with every ounce of willpower that he could muster. I've gotta fix this..!

Sending a signal to the motor responsible for the garage door, the thing came to life and opened. Light flooded in and he stepped out. Standing up gave his gyroscope and equilibritory unit a run for their money, and he had to grab the eave on the garage to steady himself for a moment. He took this opportunity to pinpoint her location in the house, however, and as soon as he was able to, squeezed into the backyard, not particularly concerned for the attention he might be warranting. He came to a small frosted window high on the wall, and heard water running. The window wasn't closed all the way, and steam was billowing out through the slight gap. He couldn't see through the glass with his color spectrum sensors, so he listened intently for a moment instead of activating some other array that would let him see through the wall. The mech wasn't able to discern any noise other than the hiss of the shower. Gathering up his courage, he lightly tapped on the window.

"Astrid..."

"What the hell do you want? Just leave me alone!"

The sudden outburst was surprising and left him stung.

"Can we talk?" he said, putting his face close to the opening. "I'm... I'm not judging you, o-or..."

"I really don't give a shit," she hissed. "Just go away! I've fucked up my life enough without your help already. I don't need a goddamn giant fucking alien making me... making things more complicated than they already are." She pauses here. "So just go. Go and do whatever it is that you people do and leave me to do whatever it is that I'm doing now."

Those words sliced him open like a high-tensile energy blade. He couldn't help but recoil from the icy blast, taking a step back and setting his jaw.

"If that's what you want," Hound said to himself. "Fine. I'm out of here."

The 15 foot mech returned to the driveway and transformed. With angry roar of his engine, he sped down the street, heading for the nearest highway.

The haul to Yosemite seemed to take forever. It was about eight hours of solid driving for the anger to go away, and by the time he reached the park, the Jeep was a silent wreck. It was about four in the morning when he decided that he just needed a rest. Over a day's worth of stress had taken its toll, so Hound pulled to the side of the road and went into an uneasy recharge for a few hours.

"Hey, buddy. Some place to be catchin' zees, dontcha think?" Came a familiar voice. An arm (one of similar size and weight) came to casually rest on his roof and fingers began to strum. "You're just askin' for a ranger to go ape, you know."

Hound groaned and shrugged off Beachcomber's arm.

"Hey, now! What got you so creamed? You're normally a pretty cool bent-eight, man."

"I just don't feel well, Beachcomber." Hound mumbled, sinking down on his shocks.

"Whatever you're sellin', I ain't buyin'. Now I'll be right here until you spill and spill honest."

The Jeep sighed and began the cumbersome process of transforming. He remained on his knees for a few moments when finished before standing up and swayed a little from a circuit-ache.

"Can we walk and talk?" he asked weakly.

"Bummed cat gets to call it."

Hound really didn't know where to start. He was slouched over and staring at the ground with arms folded over his chest. "You remember when I got called over to Tahoe couple of months ago?" he ventured uneasily.

"Mmhmm." Beachcomber nodded his blue head as they walked along the gravel road.

"Well, some stuff happened, and I ended up becoming friends with this human."

"Mmhmm."

"She was smart, and cute, and loves being outside, and-"

"Hey, whoa, king's X, buddy." He makes a 'time-out' gesture with his hands. "This goin' where I think it's goin'?

Hound's spark chamber, already feeling like a tin can that's been kicked around, just got one more squeeze. "Alright, you know what, let's talk about this some other time."

"Hey! Alright, alright, I'll can it. Lay it on me, no questions asked."

The Jeep cast a sidelong glance at the off-roader before heaving a great sigh and continuing. "I rescued her from a landslide. That was it at first; just like the other times I do work with SAR. But she... she reached out to me after. She thought I was human."

"Awkward."

"Yeah, well... I revealed myself to her. Surprise! I'm actually a giant metal alien guy!"

"...which doesn't often go over well with the civvies."

"She... got over it pretty quick. Anyways, I felt bad for her. And I mean real bad. You know how a rancher is supposed to put down a horse that's broken a leg? I could see in her eyes that she felt like a lame horse." Hound shook his head, hurting some more. "Waiting for someone to put her down."

"And?"

"In a way, that's what happened," he muttered angrily. "She lost her job, and with a jacked-up leg, there's just no getting back to doing what she's been doing. Not for a long time. And until then, rent's still due, gas still needs to be put in the car. But maybe worse than that was that she couldn't run off into the hills to at least relax. You know, she told me that she goes through bivvy sacks like toilet paper." He wasn't sure if Beachcomber knew what that meant, or what a bivvy sack even was, but that almost didn't matter right now. "Sure, that's hyperbole, but point is, she was out there almost every weekend."

"And now she's not."

"And now she's not," Hound repeated solemnly.

"But that's not exactly what's bummin' you out, is it?

The Jeep let out a long drag of hot air from his vents and looked off into the distance. "Portland was a shit-show," he said quietly. "One of the seekers took down a bridge. A whole slaggin' bridge, man. That city is nothing but bridges! The reservoir got hit and an entire historic subdivision was flooded out. The river needs to be dredged from all the pieces of buildings that got blown into it... it was just a mess. The fight was long, dirty, and awful. I'm sure everyone there hates our fraggin' guts now. Anyways, I had to get away."

"Hmmm," his companion rumbled. "So that's why you were runnin' the hamster wheel in your own head before that."

"Yeah, I guess." He shrugged. "The fight pushed me over the edge. Four humans killed, hundreds injured, Tracks, Cliffjumper, and Inferno all wound up in stasis-lock, and municipal damage figures were in the 8 and 9 digits."

"So you went to go see this human of yours."

Hound nodded. He was beginning to feel sick to his spark just thinking about it again. "I headed south and didn't stop until I got to her place," he started. "There were people over, so I parked down the block and waited until they were all gone. No way I was going to knock on the door and introduce myself. Not even on a good day is that an idea that'll end well."

"That's just how things are, man."

"So I waited 'til everyone left and went up the driveway. She came out... and..."

"And what?"

"I don't know. There was something different about her right off the bat. I don't really know what it was... she'd been drinking, but that wasn't it. There was something else. If I were another 'bot, I might've been able to tell, but I was just feeling like such shit and wanted the company..."

"Mmhmm."

"All I wanted to do was unwind. That's it. She, on the other hand. She wanted to keep drinking." Hound paused here. "I figured that there'd be no harm in having a cube of high-grade, so I did."

"I'm hep, man, I get it."

"She was just acting weird though. Her body language was changing with every sip she took and... I dunno, I thought my imagination was getting the better of me at that point, so I stopped.

"Or at least I wanted to. I figured that I would stay until she went into recharge and just make my way here, but I guess that wasn't in the cards. I asked her to come over and sit by me since she was there, chugging this nasty stuff off in the corner by herself like it was a bad habit. Well, she stood up and walked over rather... rather..." He was trying to pick words that wouldn't make him sound like a fool. "Dramatically." He shrugged weakly. "I didn't want to over-fuel, especially if I was heading back here in an hour or two. But she insisted I waste myself with her. She even did a toast." Hound clenched his jaw servos, dreading the next parts.

"And?"

"And... I don't know what came over me. It must have been the energon, but... I did a second cube."

"Dag, yo... just how processed was this brew, now?"

"Wheeljack's strongest," he admitted shamefully. "But things seriously started to go downhill after that. I felt this really strong compulsion to just... just feel her against me." Hound paused. "I don't know where it came from," he lied. "Next thing I know she's kissing me and I'm doing it back, and..."

"That's it? I thought necking wasn't a huge deal to the little cats."

Hound's shoulder sunk. "Apparently the night was just getting started."

"Dang, daddy-o, never pegged you for a kinky type!" he chuckled. Hound visibly stiffened. "You always seemed to be, like... a function-driven mech. Not much interested in the bonding stuff."

"I was interested, though!" he blurted out, catching himself far too late. Hound covered his face with his hands and shook his head as the silence between them grew longer. "That's... that's not what I meant. I..."

"Sometimes you can be a real goof, you know, man? You could never lie worth a damn, but shoot, you keep tryin'."

That's it, then? He was easy to read for everyone else but him? Part of him was getting angry that Beachcomber seemed to think he knew him better than he knew himself, but...

But what, you thick, miserable mech?

I... I wanted her, didn't I. I...

"I guess I wanted something more than just to experiment," he says, more to himself than not. "It's my fault for not knowing how I felt. It's my fault for waiting for the high-grade to get flowing to..."

"...to make your move?"

"Yeah," he said, listless, confounded by his own logic. "I waited until the worst possible moment to make my move."

"If it's any con-so-la-tion, sounds like you weren't the only one."

Hound knit his brows in thoughtful frustration. She made a move too...

"Are you saying that she might've... wanted it too?"

"Look, guy, you're gonna have to ask her that yourself. I'm no psychic-hell, I'm not even a shrink-so you're gonna get no easy answers from me. What about the broad, though? Didn't just leave her hangin' like a no-good overload-n'-run sort of mech, right?"

Hound shot him an icy glare. "Primus, Beachcomber, of course not!" He folded his arms and stared straight ahead. "I woke up, remembered what happened, got her up, and she flipped out at me once she came-to. Ran into the house and refused to even speak to me."

"Hoosh, man, that's harsh... but can you blame her?"

"...no." Hound made a small noise, thinking about what must've been going through her head that morning. "I just want my friend back, Beachcomber. I can go without thinking about her like that if I have to, without touching her, whatever." The green mech paused, recalling the worst memory he had on file. "You should have seen her... the look on her face when she realized what'd happened. I was supposed to help her get her life back together, not frag it up even more."

"I think you're beatin' yourself up, man. I understand, you know, that you shouldn't a had that second cube, but then she shouldn't have been gettin' blitzed into oblivion either. I think it might be fair to say that it was both your fault for this mess."

"That doesn't make me feel any better."

"Alright, man, listen here." The blue and gray mech put a hand on Hound's shoulder to stop him so they could talk eye to eye. "I may not be your normal go-to love guru, but I know a thing or two about what goes on in people's heads n' stuff. Now, I might be readin' between the lines a little too much, but it seems to me that while this chick had something botherin' her real bad for a while... and when drinkin' her sorrows away didn't do the trick, she turned to you. The last, forbidden resort. I don't think that this problem was something that you could have done anything about to begin with, but I don't think she was hip to that."

Hound stopped for a moment to think, think, think... and then kicked at the gravel. Tiny pebbles went flying everywhere. "How could I be so stupid," he said, defeated. "How didn't I see that? It was right there the whole time... and I didn't see it. She was coming to me for help, and I was too stupid to realize how to give it."

"Naw, naw, man, that ain't what I'm sayin'. I'm thinkin' that, believe it or not, you were in the same buh-boat as her, you know?" Hound cast Beachcomber a weary look before turning his optics back to the ground. The buggy laid a hand on the Jeep's shoulder for emphasis as he continued. "All that rigmarole that you been dealin' with put you in the exact same place, man. You were going to her for help, and she didn't know it." He finished off with a pat to Hound's shoulder plates. "The universe is a hard teacher, man, and it doesn't spare anybody. We're all like, little bugs runnin' around the grand machine."

There was a hefty pause as it all sank in. Beachcomber, even with his slow-as-molasses jive about the universe, was making the most sense that Hound had heard in a while.

"How do I fix this?"

"That's where I stop and say, you gotta do this on your own, man. That landslide was way more than just dirt and rocks, you dig? It was a big pile of all kinds of slag, man, and it just happened to come down on the both of you at the same time. Maybe you gotta help each other out of it. At the same time though, maybe not. That's what you gotta find out."

Chapter Text

Imagine that, Hound thought to himself as he quietly went about his field work near Yellowstone lake with a small band of human geophysicists and surveyors. The world actually does make sense somewhere in Beachcomber's head.

The Jeep had not been particularly inclined toward social interaction for the past several days, and this made the scientists around him a little uneasy. He honestly didn't blame them; working around a giant robot that you assume was man-made AI is one thing. But a grumpy, anti-social giant robot? The civvies steered pretty clear of him. Hound was trying his best to engross himself in his work. Otherwise he'd have done nothing but sit and frown and try to dissect the situation and subject it to his admittedly not-great problem-solving skills. There was a reason he was a data-collector, not an analyst. All it usually did was make him worry.

To his surprise, the tracker had discovered that his partner seemed to enjoy chatting it up with the human scientists after dark, though, even without Hound there to help keep them entertained. They really weren't allowed to tell civilians about their pre-Earth lives; it was reasoned that most folks would find the very idea of interstellar space exploration and aliens quite distressing, and pretending that it was at least feasible that the mechs were made in the US was very strongly encouraged. But Beachcomber, bless his spark, couldn't keep his mouth shut. Hound was at least thankful that it was sometimes difficult to tell what was a real recollection and what was simply a tall tale, just by how he talked, and it seemed that the humans were mostly convinced that his stories of other worlds were the latter.

The green mech would often sit in the vicinity of these campfire stories of asteroid excavations one hundred lightyears away, or run-ins with local fauna on other exoplanets, and silently listen. Oh, how he would listen. His face was learning how to smile again, and hearkening to Beachcomber's choice of vocabulary was good practice. Astrid was beginning to occupy less and less of his processing until he was only thinking of her here and there through the day.

It saddened him deeply to remember what she told him through the steam of the shower that morning. It hurt, it really did. But what could he do? Hound had tried to mend their friendship, and she wanted no part of it. He began to think about what it would have been like if none of this even happened. In fact, it probably would have been for the better.

This  was probably for the better.

There's a reason that Autobots kept civvies at arm's length at all times, even when working around them.

Somehow, he still wasn't comforted.

"Ex...excuse me, Hound, but you're er- sitting on my files..."

The Jeep was shaken from his depressing thoughts by the voice of a young man (the UCLA graduate student, he remembered) standing beside him. There was a look of uncertainty on his face as he gazed at the metal giant seated there on the ground. For some reason, Hound didn't get self-conscious this time like he usually did around humans. Normally, the good-natured bot would have smiled kindly and made some small joke while simultaneously reassuring the nervous little organic that he was completely harmless.

"Oh... I'm really sorry," he said, emotion struggling to enter into his voice. Hound stood up from where he was seated on the ground and, lo and behold, a heavily crumpled manila folder stuffed with sheaves of paper lay there in the dirt. It was labeled Virtual Core Sample Data, with a sector number and date. Oh that's right... he helped the team gather that information two days ago. How'd it get on the ground? Whatever, it didn't really matter.

With tentative fingers, the mech grasped the folder, brushing the dirt from it, and tried to un-crumple the papers a little. He handed it to the grad student.

"Th-thanks..." was the murmur of a reply before he walked briskly away, head down.

Hound sighed with a venting of air.

Just then, though, something happened that the green mech would never have seen coming. It was a text message, and from none other than Astrid. His cooling system kicked into high gear as he tried to figure out just why she decided to talk to him again. Was she making amends? Was she getting mad at him for something else? Did he leave something in her garage? She wasn't the grudging, spiteful kind... or at least, he was 99% sure she wasn't. If she turns out to be a jerk, he thought, then at least it'll be easier for me to move on.

Once again, he wasn't really comforted.

Here goes nothing...

And with the computational equivalent of flicking his finger, he opened the message.

You need to leave Yellowstone ASAP.

Wait, what?

Hound read it once more.

Still, it made no sense. Was he sure it was from her? He double-checked, and yep, that was her phone number, her location, everything. What in the pit was going on? He was torn between his persona as professional Autobot soldier, and blubbering emotional wreck. After a few moments of pacing, he decided to put on his game face and figure out what this was all about. And yet, it still took all of his willpower to send the reply:

Why? What's going on?

Hound remained suspended in nervous, pensive silence as he waited for a response. He was forced to wait several minutes, and once he opened the data packet, it was clear that she'd spent that entire time typing.

Got a visit from 2 men yesterday. Shabby, nervous, just weird. Wanted to interview me about the accident, told them Id done one already. Wouldnt take no for an answer, kept trying to look inside the house as they talked. They... they kept asking and pushing and I just... I let something slip, I'm sorry

Slip?

Hound could feel his optics narrow. It took another few minutes for her to reply, but this time it was from hesitation.

said wsar had an experimental robot... idk, I'm sorry, they were smooth talkers and I was flustered and I wanted them to go away

He could feel his spark sinking.

I'm really sorry, she sent again. Hound was surprised at this for some reason; surprised, and sad. Her panic was palpable.

It's going to be OK, he replied. Why did you wait so long to tell me?

I don't know I just... I had my friend come spend the night because I was scared. I thought... maybe nothing would happen

He didn't like where this was going. Not one bit. He wanted to reach through their satellite link and take her into his arms, tell her that it was a simple mistake, that there's only so much you can reasonably expect a civvie to withstand. The idea that two strange men harassed her like that, especially while she was still recovering and living alone? It makes his spark fluid boil.

Are you OK? What did they do?

My email got hacked. I can't get in... they changed the password and someone's sending out emails to my friends. Creepy emails asking what they remember happening

I'm OK though

Good.

Hound rubbed his face, and he started pacing again.

He recognized this MO.

Bizarre and sudden interrogations, breaking into people's homes, doxxing, hacking online accounts... the green mech knew who was likely behind this, and he was suddenly angry that they were targeting Astrid. Fuming, even. The locations of "secret" meeting places were well known among the Autobots and the agency that worked with them, but it was agreed long ago that doing anything but letting them continue their operations relatively unimpeded would just throw more fuel on the fire. Right now, Hound wanted to do nothing more that storm one of those houses and wreck their stuff. 

Unfortunately, protocol was strict when it came to incidents like this. Hound opened up a comm channel between Beachcomber, Jazz, the Autobot's XO, and himself. Really, he was supposed to be notifying Prowl, being the 'bot's real mediator between them and the world of human affairs, but Hound knew that the black and white tactician would be giving him an earful instead of help.

Hound to group, I repeat, Hound to group.

Loud and clear, came Jazz's familiar comm signature after a moment.

Beachcomber, only a few hundred meters away, would know that this was something serious going on. I'm hep- what's the word?

We've got a 309, the green mech broadcast. That human just got hold of me... she says she's been targeted by what sounds like the Xeno Trackers.

That's jive, man, came Beachcomber's reply. Hound sensed him stop what he was doing and make his way towards him. You mean we gotta lay rubber?

Hound gave his fellow a look once he came over and twisted up his mouth, shaking his head. We have no other choice.

Keep in touch, Jazz said over the channel to them both. And let me know if you need anything.

Will do. Hound out.

Beecee out.

"Where do we go, man? Do we just leave these science cats here? Research grants take major bread, and beatin' feet for a few days seems worse than square, man. That's giving 'em the shaft."

"You know the rules, Beach!" Hound says, keeping his voice down. "We stay the hell away from civilians at the first sign of trouble. You know, real trouble. We don't want them getting dragged into this underworld."

"No," the blue mech said, looking down. "No, we gotta book it."

"Just give 'em the usual excuse. I'm sure they'll understand." 'The usual' was a little humiliating, but it always worked: pretend to have a malfunctioning something-or-other that needs looking at by a special technician who is always a day's drive away, no matter where you actually are.

With heavy sparks, the two mechs returned to the office trailer to share the unfortunate news with their human partners. They made up something about the working conditions so they'd both be off the hook while getting "repaired". Hound was so busy thinking about where they were going to go and how long they'd need to lie low in case the Trackers came prowling around, that he didn't expect to get another text from Astrid.

Is everything ok?

It's nothing we haven't dealt with before. My buddy and I just need to make ourselves scarce for a while is all.

Ok.

Are you OK? I mean really-- are you OK?

Shaken.

His spark aches.

Don't think they stole anything... cancelling cards just in case. Sucks I can't get into my email now.

An idea came to him: I can help you with that later. If you want me to, of course. But can I test something real fast?

Test something?

Hold on.

Hound took a moment to send a signal to her landline phone. A little probing around was all it took to confirm his earlier suspicion. His frown deepened.

They've tapped your landline.

What???

They probably came back in the middle of the night and bugged you.

U fucking kidding me? I'n getting out of here and calling the cops.

Where will you go?

idfk... this is too damn much. If I go to my friend's again, he's going to ask questions. Don't know if I can handle that.

He thought for a moment.

What if you went camping for the weekend?

That could work.

We'll meet you.

It took her a long time to reply.

why

Slag. He could tell she wasn't into the idea.

If you're bugged, they might follow you. These guys don't mess around, and I don't want you alone in the wilderness again right now. We all know what happened the last time you did that.

if they follow me, wouldn't you 2 being there defeat the whole purpose of going into hiding to begin with?

Do you remember me telling you about a certain Ryan Manning?

ya?

What I DIDN'T tell you is that he was murdered. Somebody gave him a lethal dose of sodium pentothal while he was in for a leg amputation. Died of severe hypotension right there in his bed.
The kid that killed him claimed to be a Xeno Tracker. The org said otherwise and we never found out one way or the other, but they HURT people, Astrid. They're dangerous. If they want me, they're NOT going through you first.

It took her a long while to reply.

where am i meeting u

Human "truth seekers" had always posed a problem to the Autobots, ever since the Decepticon attack on a Seattle power plant some decades prior. Just a few kids with video cameras and an overdeveloped sense of adventure were their only adversary for some time; that is, until a grave mistake nearly blew their cover in 1991.

A small scuffle between the two factions had resulted in Skyfire sitting at the business end of Bombshell's cerebro-injector, but somehow the bug went undetected during Ratchet's analysis and for several weeks no one encountered any behavioral changes in the scientist. While on a routine scouting mission however, Skyfire had somehow found himself circling in the airspace over Groom Lake, Nevada, having absolutely no control over his own physical actions. The panicked SOS from the massive jet caused quite a stir at Autobot HQ, so Optimus quickly gathered up his best tacticians to try and solve the problem. Unfortunately, before any action could be taken to help their comrade, Skyfire had warranted himself some rather unwanted attention from the military installation 11,000 meters below, and before anyone could utter a single fraggit, three F-15s were hot on his afterburners. Still unable to control himself and bound by protocol not to vocally communicate with humans, the scientist was promptly shot down. This seemed to destroy the cerebro-shell, but by the time he was able to gain control of his systems once again, he was buried under a meter of hot, desert soil and extremely damaged from the crash. The real trouble was that he had to transform in order to unearth himself. It was either that, or risk being overtaken by humans. The latter, as far as Optimus was concerned, was not even an option.

Skyfire had been in robot mode for less than twenty seconds before quickly transforming back and rocketing up to a sub-orbital altitude to escape the American jets. Three hours later, and he was safely taking refuge in the skies over Antarctica.

He'd been in robot more for less than twenty seconds. Quite terrifying, however, was the realization that twenty seconds was far more than any human needed in order to document the incident. Four grainy, blurry photos surfaced, making rounds in every single UFO-enthusiast circle around the globe. In retrospect, everyone was grateful most of the internet hadn't existed quite yet, but still, it was putting pressure on every crew member of the Ark. Skyfire was mortified and refused to leave HQ for the better part of three years under any circumstance. Everyone decided that it was ultimately for the best. The US military attempted to counter this with a barrage of press releases, claiming that the entire mishap was a black ops training exercise. Fortunately, the excuse generated buzz all on its own, and much political drama on behalf of the republican president ensued, leaving the thought of alien robots in the minds of the only people who cared much to begin with: UFO hunters. And no one really listened to them anyways.

The Xeno Trackers formed because of that incident. Their manifesto was to shed light on the covert activity going on around Groom Lake, and find evidence supporting the harboring of extraterrestrials there on behalf of the US government. Gathering solid evidence to support all their theories was an immensely tall order, but the crazies that comprised the bulk of the group were up to the challenge.

It turned out that the buzz caused by the training exercise excuse was in actuality a rather beneficial distraction. Both the public and the press were completely unaware of the government's new attempts to locate and have secret talks with whatever their Air Force pilots had encountered circling over Area 51. The process took many years, but the partnership with the Autobots and United States military was complete under President Clinton. In exchange for fuel and efforts to keep them secret from the geneal public, Optimus Prime allowed military and NASA scientists glimpses at the technology Cybertron had to offer. And this was yet something else that both sides had to keep under serious wraps for fear of organizations like the Xeno Trackers uncovering their dirty little secret. From a national standpoint, publicly acknowledging the existence of extraterrestrials would do far more harm than good. At the time, at least. And so, the alliance remained relatively covert for a few years. That is, until reports of dark, flying triangles started to flood the media. Most people were convinced that these unknown aircraft were part of the military "black project" program, though there were (as always) some who maintained they were of alien origin. This hype emboldened the Xeno Trackers into taking more action, and ever since the Autobots have been hard pressed to stay one step ahead without blowing their cover even more.

It was about 2003 when the giant robots had finally been publicly acknowledged by the president after people got wind of the government's various mechanical helpers during increasingly numerous civilian sightings. The secret was finally out, though there was still so much mystery surrounding them that it seemed there were now more questions to be asked than even before. Xeno Trackers were fueled by this information, broadcasting that they'd been right all along, and that they demanded the government to fess up to their other long-held secrets, like the truth about Area 51, and whether or not the giant robots were alien or man-made. It was actually at this prompting, according to the government organization responsible for dealing with the alien mechs that founded shortly after the '91 incident as well, that forced the executive branch's hand: it was revealed during a State of the Union address that the Autobots were "really" the results of an advanced AI project funded by the military. Since then, the Autobots were very strongly discouraged, and sometimes outright forbidden, from talking about their extraterrestrial origins to anyone not already in on the secret.

And such things have been for the past few years. Exceedingly, yet necessarily complicated. It was difficult, trying to remain an enigma despite simultaneously attempting to assimilate into American culture. It was a trying task, though all the mechs who cared enough to work alongside humans were doing well. The conspiracy groups did not help in the least, though.

Despite all of this, however, it didn't stop some of them from trying to make friends out in the world.

We'll meet up in Elko, Nevada, alright?

Sure... i'll try 2 be there at 3pm tomo.

Sounds good.

Hound was anxious as he and his fellow hit the road at about midnight. This whole new ordeal was not something that he was expecting at all. (Well, in all honesty, he was always expecting it, but he just wasn't expecting for it to happen at such a time, and for it to involve such an individual.) And the more he thought about it, the more he sunk into a depression, once again berating himself for messing up Astrid's life more than he was fixing it. The Jeep just hoped that he was doing the right thing this time.

You alright there, daddy-o? Still pretty quiet. Beachcomber was inquiring over a private channel between them as they drove west on Interstate 80, the glow of morning nothing more than a whisper on their rear windows.

I'm not sure if I want to see her again... well, so soon at least.

Heh. Then why'd you even come? I couldda gone for you, man, and you couldda shagged ass someplace else.

Hound wasn't sure what 'shagged ass' meant, but he could wager a guess.

I guess it's that thing that I do sometimes... The Jeep trailed off.

But Beachcomber finished for him. You mean the whole volunteerin'-to-help-somebody-without-it-really-passin'-through-your-noggin' -what-that-means-for-you thing?

His engine hitched lightly in lieu of a half-hearted chuckle. Yeah. I guess that's the thing. He vented some air like a sigh. I don't know, Beach. I just... I feel like a damn fool. I've known plenty of organics over the cycles, but none of them has me as worked up as this one does.

Beachcomber was a long-time friend... almost as long as Trailbreaker, the Earth-bound mech that he had the most history with. Unfortunately, having never been spark-bound, or having any interest in doing so in the future, TB was usually a pretty terrible confidant when it came to relationships. Neither Hound nor Beachcomber had ever been bound either, but the blue mech was considerably less... flippant. In fact, the fellow off-roader was so enamored with Earth's 'free love' culture that there was a time when he very seriously considered changing his name to Woodstock. To everyone else's relief, he didn't, though it was more out of laziness than anything. Changing names was a big deal among the ranks, and Beachcomber didn't care enough to go through the rigamarole. 

The other important thing about Beachcomber that set him apart from Trailbreaker, is that he knew of Hound's slightly eccentric interest in organics. And while Hound never told him any real details of his lone adventures off on organic homeworlds, Beachcomber wasn't dumb and probably had an idea of what the green mech was getting up to. And if he did, then he never mentioned it. But what Beachcomber did know is that Hound had never, up until recently, developed strong feelings towards any particular individual like this.

Just cool your jets, man. You're a real gone cat, you'll be fine. We're gonna put the kibosh on this whole thing, and you n' your lady will be copacetic again in no time. Just be glad it's happenin' at all, man.

Hound considered this, and decided his current partner in crime was yet again right about something. As good a friend as Trailbreaker was, he wasn't always capable of taking things as seriously as Hound would like, and the blue mech seemed to provide a refreshing perspective on things.

Yeah... this isn't about me OR her. This is about setting things straight, and keeping those damn lunatics out of her life. If they've got a beef with us, they need to find a better way of doing it.

Right on, man. That's one way of lookin' at it.

Elko, Nevada was still a few states away, but the two Autobots were making good progress. Hound was looking forward to returning to the desert; hopefully he would be able to enjoy the drive a little more this time around.

Chapter Text

This was ridiculous.

That was all Astrid could think about during the 5 hour drive to Elko. Well, there was that, and the paralyzing fear of anyone she knew finding out what was going on. She didn't want to see that damn robot again. In fact, she would be perfectly content to go the rest of her life without ever having to encounter another one of them. Nope! Not another one of them, or him, ever again.

...well, at least not so soon.

Her train of thought trailed backwards in time to, yet again, take a glimpse at where her mind was that horrible morning after. Waking up in the garage with him was probably one of the most terrifying moments of her short life. The shreds of memories left over from the night before was enough to induce waves of nausea from shame and horror. She wanted to scream, she wanted to tear out her hair, she wanted to crawl into a hole and die. In fact, Astrid had done her best to accomplish the latter after wretching. Locking herself in the bathroom seemed like the most logical thing to do after an entire night of illogical things, despite the fact that he wasn't in the house to begin with. She felt absolutely disgusting. The taste of vomit fresh in her mouth, the smell of sex, sweat, liquor, and oil hanging thick in the air around her... she turned on a scalding hot shower and sat under the pounding jets of water for the better part of 2 hours, until the water got too cold to bear. Even then, she didn't feel clean enough. With nothing else she could do to help the distressing feeling, she threw on some sweats and slept the day away.

Astrid's mind hiccuped when she realized she'd skimmed over something... oh that's right, he'd come to the window to try and calm her down. Just remembering that fired her up again. Her pulse hastened, her eyes narrowed, and her foot felt heavier on the gas pedal. What right did he have to try and talk sense into her? What made him think, in all his vast, mechanized knowledge of everything, that talking would help the situation at all? Nothing either of them could say would help her reverse or at least forget what had happened. There was nothing that either of them could do, even in a sober state of mind, that would make the situation any better.

Didn't that damn robot understand what they did meant? It meant that she wasn't just nuts, but that she was, deep down, faulty. Something, no matter what it was, was fucked up, and it would merit therapy at least. Maybe something was wrong with her sexually? Maybe something was wrong with her emotionally? Maybe her father did something stupid to her at such a young age that she didn't even remember, and now that primal resentment has finally reared its ugly head. Maybe she suffered head trauma during the accident. Maybe...

Astrid decided to stop thinking lest she reduce herself to a smouldering pile of anger once again and do something stupid while driving. Taking a few deep breaths to calm herself down, she turned on the radio and glanced at the rear view mirror just to make sure that the only thing following her was a wide swath of empty highway.

Three more hours to go.

By the time the woman had passed the "Welcome to Elko" sign, standing just short of erect in the dry, dusty ground, Astrid had broken into a cold sweat. Her hands shook and her heart rate was a bit swifter than normal.

"I don't want to be here," was her soft mantra.

Astrid was trying to compare her apprehension to something else, and finally settled on surgery. It felt like she was about to go into some very invasive surgery... when reasoning with logic, she knew she had nothing to fear, and that she trusted the doctors and surgeons with the operation. It still didn't help.

When a yawning ache churned in her gut, she realized that her shaking was probably due to low blood sugar, and so decided to stop at the first fast food joint she came across. She also figured that she needed to stand up and get the blood flowing, so the Xterra was parked outside the first place that popped up: a Del Taco.

Food was ordered and eaten in pensive silence, though it wasn't rushed. She was deliberately taking her time, trying to stave off the inevitable as long as she could. There was that, and also, she didn't know exactly where she was to be meeting him. When Astrid was finished with her food, she remained in the booth, pretending to be preoccupied with her phone like any other twenty-something American girl. But then an idea came to her. What if she didn't go to meet them? What if she got in her car, and turned right around to stay in a motel somewhere? She looked back at the inanimate yellow 4x4 and the sparse camping gear hastily piled in the back seat. The thought was extremely tempting. In fact, a quick glance out the window revealed a Days Inn right across the street. She swallowed hard and went back to doing nothing.

Maybe ten minutes later, and her phone vibrated, letting her know a text message arrived. Astrid sighed.

Where are you?

She bit down on her lip, gnawing on the chapped skin. Her fingers hovered over the tiny keys, trying to summon courage.

I'm staying in a motel tonite instead. thx 4 everything. good luck.

In a false display of bravado, she turned off her phone just after that and sat in the booth, heart beating in her throat. About thirty seconds later, though, she espied none other than a green Jeep and another off-road vehicle speed into the parking lot driveway. The blue SUV-looking thing backed into the space next to her car, and the Jeep slowed down to an almost predatory pace as it circled the building, finally coming to a stop on the section of driveway closest to her window. She ducked down. Her heart sought to leap out of her mouth, but she kept it in check with much effort. Her breathing was shallow as she gazed at the Jeep again. Upon close inspection, there was no driver.

Astrid calmed herself down, but that didn't stop her from throwing away her trash any less hastily on her way to the restroom. Just before she closed the door, she saw him circle around nearer to the front doors. The bathroom provided little comfort. The white walls, etched with unintelligible gibberish and painted with an ugly mural of graffiti were imposing. Astrid leaned against the brushed metal of the handicap railing, and hesitantly turned her phone back on.

She was not surprised to find an unread text message.

You need to come out.

The electronic device was promptly slipped into her bag, though she didn't move one inch.

Why was she suddenly terrified of him again? Was she overreacting, or did she have every right to behave this way? She was acting like she'd had a one night stand with an axe-murderer. When in fact it was a (mostly) consensual act carried out by two (mostly) consenting... things.

"He's a fucking alien!" she found herself hissing to the myriad symbols scrawled on the wall. The bathroom made a poor courtroom, and the graffiti a poor jury. She wasn't going to get the verdict she wanted out of them, and in fact, seemed that they were trivializing the situation.

Maybe she needed a little trivializing.

Out of ammo and tired of running, she forfeited her spot in the restroom and slowly walked outside.

Astrid's eyes immediately fell upon the pugnacious form of the Jeep, silent, as she nearly tiptoed past. The wide, round headlights seemed to follow her with disapproval all the way to the Xterra. It was an eerie moment, walking past him like that, but as soon as she started the engine to her own car, the two bots headed out of the parking lot. She assumed they wanted her to follow.

Apprehension tightened every muscle and ligament in her body, as she struggled to conjure up anger for him. She was able to do so, but it wasn't as strong as she was hoping for. Christ... what was with her?

They drove for another ten minutes, and the woman could hear messages being sent to her phone, consciously ignoring them. They drove, turning left here, right there, until they came on a small campground nestled in the foothills of some stunted mountains. Before approaching the front booth, however, the Jeep and blue vehicle pulled over. Wondering what they were up to, she pulled over behind them. Immediately, both of their left hand blinkers went on. What the hell were they trying to say? Frustrated, she threw open her door and walked up to the driver-side window of the green vehicle. It took immense amounts of effort to look casual.

"What are you doing," she hissed at him. The window rolled down for effect, revealing the holographic driver she hated so much, toothpick still protruding from between its pearly whites.

"Check in for us," he said in a very quiet voice. "There's a reservation under your name. Pick a spot as far from everything and anyone as you can manage."

Swallowing, Astrid strode back to her car and pulled up in front of them.

Some time later, she returned to the front with the desired camping spot. Two pairs of invisible optics, glowing with a cold and calculating light, were on her back; she could feel them. When she waved over the two mechs, the ranger informed her that each campsite was allowed two vehicles, and every one after that was ten dollars per night. Biting back a string of livid comments, she forfeited two fives in return for another parking stub. The Jeep rolled his window down to receive his stub, and she tossed it inside without pausing in her stride. The blue one received a slightly kinder treatment.

Astrid had made sure that their site was up against the mountains and had the most tree cover as possible. She pulled into one of the two available spots and immediately began to unpack her things, pretending to not notice the Jeep pull in beside the yellow car.

A strange sense of panic swept through her when she heard a car door open and close behind her. Goosebumps appeared in a subtle wave on her arms, the fine hairs on her neck standing on end. She didn't hear footsteps in the dirt, or hear the movement of clothing, or feel that any physical thing had actually drawn closer, but when she turned around to see a man standing there, Astrid couldn't help but let out a burst of a gasp, mingled with unintelligible sounds. Her heart near leaped out of her chest. Fortunately, it didn't take her long to recognize the toothpick, cowboy hat, and aviators. Astrid glared at herself in the reflection of the sunglass lenses, before turning to the Jeep.

"I refuse to speak to you through this thing," she stated firmly before going back to unpacking her tent. Out of the corner of her eye, the hologram drew near. Christ, she hated that thing!

To her surprise, it spoke. Well, not really spoke, as the mouth didn't move, but a voice (his voice) projected from the proper areas of the body. "How else am I supposed to talk to you? Besides, I don't want people to think that you're here all alone with three cars."

Astrid snorted.

"Look..." His voice had held a certain tone of stiff professionalism the entire day, but he dropped it just then, and the the soft tenor she was used to returned. "I know... that you..." the fake thing ventured.

Astrid stopped what she was doing with a sharp exhale and faced the holoform, though her eyes darted from the aviators to the Jeep. "We'll discuss this later." She honestly felt like a complete idiot talking to this... this puppet. It wasn't him, and both of them knew it. Not only that, but even thinking about discussing the little mishap made her uneasy. "Don't you have other things to worry about anyway?"

There was no point in searching the holographic face for any signs of emotion; they weren't there. It wasn't designed for true interaction with a human, it was designed to be a finishing touch on one big costume and nothing more. Astrid sighed and turned away from it.

Only half an hour managed to pass when she found herself laying down in the 3-man tent, gazing up at the stark white polyester. A mature Pinyon pine cast an intricate spatter of shadows across the tent, but it was not enough to hold her attention for long. She brought a hand up to massage at the inner corners of her eyes in attempts to stave off a headache, but she knew it would be to no avail.

Why was she here?

The obvious answer was that her house wasn't safe to live in until a police investigation cleared things up, but... there was something else. Something more. Like a switch, Astrid turned her attention to her legs, becoming aware of them. She felt them over, took inventory with her mind's eye. The faintest of stubble from not having shaved, the weakness of her right leg, the fresh scars on both limbs, the stitches having been removed with her cast were all taken account of. The more she lay there in silence, listening to the occasional bird or wail of a child on the other side of the campground, the more she remembered how depressed she was. The word felt alien in her mind; it was something that she never thought to associate with herself. She realized that it'd been going on for some time, and the tryst did not help in the least. Knowing him seemed to just make things worse, as a matter of fact.

We are all machines...

Before she knew it, 5 o'clock was fast approaching.

I'm judging for the both of us.

She recalled their interactions a month or so before. Light, fun, and understanding. Deep, deep down, she wanted that again.

"Astrid." Hearing her name immediately brought her out of the depths of her own churning thoughts, though her eyes remained fixed on the shadows on the tent. His voice was gentle still, though if she squinted, she could hear a sense of calculation in the tone. How many times did she have to tell him that she didn't want to talk about it? Astrid was growing exceedingly exasperated, and his persistence only made her sick and angry. The woman opened her mouth to speak, but he interrupted. "You should think about calling Tahoe law enforcement about your house before the night's over if you haven't already."

That wasn't what she expected to hear. His words were chosen carefully and spoken so unobtrusively that, if she didn't know better, he sounded as if he was feeling just as shitty as her.

"Youmade the first move," she whispered. The words were so faint that she barely heard them. A little more time passed before she felt like moving to reach her phone. To her immense dismay, there was no reception in the valley, so with no energy left for hesitation, she tore open the flap to her tent, strode right on past the two holograms sitting at the table, and was headed for the main entrance. It was a good ten minute walk, and another 5 minutes of being on the phone with 411 before she made it through to the South Tahoe police dept.

"Hi, yes," she began, putting on her best voice. "I'm calling because I have reason to believe that the land line and internet at my home has been tampered with, and that I am being stalked... no, as soon as I suspected something, I vacated the premises... I'm staying with friends, yes... Monday morning? That's great... right. Thank you very much, Officer Sherman. A report? I'll get back in contact with you Monday, as I'm out of town right now... My name is Astrid Schneider. Yes, of course. Thank you, you too."

Click.

At least that was taken care of now. Or at least, as much as she could accomplish without visiting the precinct.

After hanging up and slipping the phone into her pocket, she gazed at the whole of the campground, and decided that it was the perfect opportunity to have a few extra minutes to herself. The young woman started the trek back to her site, but she deliberately took the longest way to get there, and walked at practically a snail's pace.

Nevada had a different smell than California, she realized. The vegetation was similar, but there was just something else... a particular dryness, perhaps, that lingered in the air and ripened the smells of all else that sought to travel on the wind. The desert just had a unique feel to it. To many it was a harsh and unforgiving place, but to her, ever the nature-lover, it was where the true colors of the earth were revealed, worn away by centuries of wind and sand so that there was nothing left but the pure foundation. Day hikes in Arizona made her feel welcome to be human; at the time, she doubted that being anything else would have allowed her to feel the warm embrace of something so often associated with cold lifelessness as rock.

As metal...

Suddenly, her little detour wasn't long enough.

Astrid had returned at least an hour later after having abandoned the campground for a small walk in the hills. Getting out and walking felt better than she ever could have predicted, and when she thought about it, it surprised her to find that this was the first time that she'd actually done so since getting her cast off. Really? Weeks had truly gone by without her really knowing... up until this morning, Astrid hadn't really left the house.

But all in all, she felt considerably better after walking. She also managed to avoid thinking about him for the most part. Picking at a scab interrupted the healing process, after all.

The sun was very low in the sky when she finally returned. The two holograms jumped up (almost as if they were human) upon seeing her. "Where have you been?" the voice seemed to come more from the Jeep than his holo, urgency evident in his failing to project the sound more convincingly.

"I'm fine. I just went for a little hike."

If they'd said anything more, she didn't hear them. She was hungry, and getting a fire going before nightfall was the current priority. Before long, a blazing hearth had become the center of the camp site. Astrid pulled up a chair and stared into the orange light. There was a Coleman mug, blue and speckled, loosely grasped between her hands. She saw the holos get up from where they were seated to join her around the fire. Camping chairs fizzled into existence, massless, yet strong enough to support the weightless bodies now seated upon them. The sight almost made Astrid smile, but then she remembered who she'd be smiling at.

The silence, in a strange way, was almost content. Almost. There was something hanging in the air, though it wasn't obvious what it was, to her surprise. They all seemed to be waiting for something. Pushing that thought to the side, however, she reached forward with a fork in hand to pluck a ballpark frank off the grill before it got a little too "cajun" for her liking. She stuck it in a bun with a drizzle of mustard before wolfing it down. Two more were devoured in a similar fashion when Astrid turned her eyes upward.

Stars. Billions upon billions of them littered the velvety blanket of the night sky...

This planetary system, this galaxy, are cosmic machines.

"Cybertron is about an arc second from Sirius." A voice, deep and smooth broke the silence. She glanced over at the second hologram. Should it have been human, he would have been immediately recognizable as an old beach bum. Long hair tied back, a short scraggly beard, a hooded sweatshirt faded from either over-washing or too much exposure to the sun, trashed cargo shorts, and sandals spoke volumes about the blue robot. "You can't see our sun, though. It was a white dwarf back in the day... and you know how those cats get dimmer like there ain't no tomorrow."

Astrid nodded and turned her attention back to the sky, looking for Sirius.

"How far?"

"Lightyears, little lady. Lightyears..."

She stole a glance at the man behind the aviators and was disappointed to see the facial expression unchanged. Feeling a little bold, her eyes darted over to the Jeep, and she noticed that his chassis was sitting lower on his suspension than normal. She turned back to the stars.

She and Beachcomber softly discussed Cybertron and the night sky for a long time; all the while the Jeep remained silent, his holo unwavering in its impersonal stolidity. She wondered for a brief moment about the state of the hologram should he fall asleep. Astrid was falling asleep herself, as a matter of fact. Camping did that; without the light and noise of the city, sleep was easier to come by. Beachcomber seemed to notice her eyelids struggling to stay up, and excused himself.

"You mind takin' the first shift, man? I'm gonna catch me some, uh, some zees..."

"No problem," he said. It startled her to find that he was still very much awake after not having said anything for the better part of 2 hours.

The fire was dying now. She hadn't added any logs to keep it going, and the decreasing light wasn't helping her fatigue. "You know what, I think I'm going to be hitting the sack too," Astrid announced, rising from her chair to put the campsite away. Squirrels had a habit of running amok in the early morning.

"Hey, well now there's no need to end the party just 'cause old Beachcomber's calling it quits, you know..."

Was he doing what she thought he was doing? "No, no... I'm getting tired. It's after ten anyways. I usually don't stay up much longer than this when I camp."

"Well," he said, and she felt compelled to finish his sentence with 'I tried...', but he finished it himself at length. "I ain't the kind of 'bot to argue with a lady... or a anyone, really. You know better than I do what's best for you. Catch you cats on the flipside."

"Goodnight, Beachcomber."

Hearing his voice sound with hers at just that moment was startling to say the least. A silence passed as she expected to hear the Jeep say something, but he was silent. The embers from the dying fire reflected in the sunglasses under the cowboy hat. Still, the face was changeless; it was unsettling. Astrid nodded at the quietude between them and headed for her tent.

"Wait..." came the quietly mechanized voice. There it was. She stopped walking and turned around to find the hologram, to her relief, gone. "Can we please talk? Just let me explain myself before you decide never to speak to me again. Please." Astrid remained where she stood, completely still, as his words turned over in her head. She thought about it for a moment, the bile beginning to rise in her. She didn't owe him anything, did she?

Thoughts came in from their first encounter. She hadn't even seen him, but he was there, digging her out for the WSAR crew. He accompanied them all to the hospital, checked up on her afterward...

Yes, she owed him. Everything, in fact. But for now, at least, she owed him this.

Chapter Text

A weight, like stones, settled in Astrid's gut. It suddenly occurred to her just how much courage he was being forced to summon up in order to do this. He was the brave one. She was the coward.

Distantly she watched as he opened the back door and rearranged the seats to form a flat, open space. With a thin-lipped frown, Astrid looked downward before walking up and getting inside. The door shut behind her with a muffled click. The human found herself sitting cross-legged on the industrial-grade upholstery, staring at her fingers as they nervously picked at each other. Silence in the cab was viscous and absolutely deafening; so much so that it was almost uncomfortable to breathe.

"I..."

The mechanized voice began, but as soon as he trailed off, the hungry, fluid quiet filled all the spaces back up again. Astrid was near drowning in it, but she'd never tell him.

"I can't say that I've had many proud moments lately," he said at length. The voice was fragile and tentative, struggling against the current, but he continued on. "No matter how hard I try, it seems like I have trouble making the right choices these days..." A sigh filled the Jeep interior, accompanied by the sinking of the vehicle closer to the ground. Astrid's eyes remained fixed on her own hands as she listened to him. "I know that... I know that it's a little late in the game to ask for you to forgive me, and I don't expect you to.  But I still want to say that... I'm sorry. I didn't mean for any of this to happen, I just... I just wanted to help." He paused here. "Fraggit, I shouldn't have even come back. It just wound up messing everything up. I should have disappeared from your life like all the others."

Astrid sat, motionless, noiseless, turning his words over in her head. A tension emanated from around her. Frankly, she was unsure of how to feel. Toward him, at any rate. All the contempt that she could muster anymore was now directed at herself: her own actions, her own ego, her own myopic sensibilities. It wasn't that she realized it then, no; it was that she suddenly admitted to herself that Hound had absolutely nothing to do with any of the unfortunate events that transpired in the previous weeks. This wasn't a revelation by any means, though out of nowhere she was suddenly capable—and willing—to accept the consequences of her actions. And inactions.

The tiniest shudder drew her out of her thoughts for a brief moment.

"You don't want to talk," he said in a quiet voice. "I understand." The door nearest her slowly opened, and the smell of campfires rushed in. "Thanks for hearing me out, though. I appreciate it."

No, no, no... that's not how I want this to go!

Astrid turned her head to look out the door for a brief moment before abruptly reaching for the handle and drawing it shut, whereupon she assumed her cross-legged position once again.

How does it go then, Astrid?

She took a deep breath.

"As a friend," she began. "You're allowed to let me know when I've gone astray. You... help me fix things. Not fix them for me. That's not your job." Her voice was slow and soft. It didn't carry by any means, instead being absorbed into the interior of the Jeep. Absorbed by his insides. "And by those standards, I couldn't have asked for a better friend. You're a nice, compassionate guy, Hound. I never meant to drag you into all this fucking drama... I was the one who let you down." Astrid wasn't so sure that's exactly what she meant to say, but dammit, she sure did try.

It felt strange to be speaking to him in such a business-like manner... though it was as if she wouldn't be able to tell him everything she meant to if her emotions came too far into play. She hoped he'd understand.

Emotions, huh?

You're talking like there's more than just friendship at stake here, she thought to herself, but shoved the sentiment aside.

"...really?"

Astrid suddenly felt restless. She shifted, she started picking at her nails. 

"Really," she said in a low voice. She was fighting the urge to look him in the eye, read his face, as she spoke. But that just wasn't going to happen right now. She sighed. "I'm sorry. Can you forgive me?"

Somehow, she felt him smile. "I did that a long time ago. Can you forgive me?"

"I'd be a fool not to."

The woman scooted over then to rest her back against the front passenger seat, gazing out the rear window. There was a contented silence as both of them got used to the idea of each other again, but there was one tiny thing still gnawing at Astrid's insides, and now, she felt, was the time to say it.

"For the record," she ventured, tone acclimating itself to friendliness once again. "You are an alien."

The Jeep shifted a small amount, and suddenly she was terrified that he might have taken it the wrong way. She swallowed.

"I beg your pardon, but... you're the alien here, Miss Human."

There was nothing she could do to stop the soft chuckle that escaped her. "Then I suppose that makes us both aliens."

He laughed too. "We're all somebody else's ET."

A pause.

"You saved my life, didn't you?"

"I hope I did."

Another pause.

"Hey, did you want to go get your pillow and sleeping bag? You can uh... I mean, you're more than welcome to, if you... if it's not too soon, that is..."

Astrid smiled a bit at his stumbling. "Sure," she said. "It's probably going to hover around 80 the whole night anyways. I don't sleep so well when it's that hot."

With that, she reached for the door, but let out a yelp when she saw a face looking at her through the window, jumping out of her fucking skin. He knocked on the glass and let his lips curl up in a nasty smile.

"Well, hello in there. Mind stepping out?"

Chapter Text

A microsecond was all it took for Hound to realize what was going on.

Frag frag frag fraggit... He berated himself, training every previously-distracted sensor he had on the human that was invading his personal space. It didn't take him long to see that there were more of them around the campsite.

"H-Hound..." he heard Astrid whisper, mimicking a ventriloquist as she stared at the invader in shock. Her heart rate was through the roof. "It's one of the men that came to my house..."

"Just... just stay calm," he said to her through the sound system, equally as quiet.

BEACH! He sent through a private channel. The Jeep wasn't so used to sending such strong signals at bots, but he was a little angry at his friend for having slipped into recharge and not keeping watch like he'd said he would. Wake up, you oil toker, we've got company!

Wha... huh?

Company, Beachcomber! Company! By Primus, I need your help here!

Well I'll be slagged! Sorry man, the zees caught me by surprise.

Hound decided not to reply or else he might start getting even angrier at him when it was totally unnecessary. The situation, however, was a dire one, and needed to be dealt with pronto.

How in the pit did they find them here?? he thought. But now was not the time.

He started by darkening the tint on his windows so that at least they wouldn't be able to look inside without a flashlight.

"Hmm," the man, in his late forties, said. He removed an old baseball cap from the crown of his head and wiped the sweat from his brow before putting it back. "Gonna make it harder than it needs to be, huh?" Hound was getting irritated by how loud his voice was... he was sure that passerby would think him crazy for talking to an empty vehicle. "Well that's just fine. We came prepared."

"There's more?" Astrid squeaked. He felt her tremble inside of him.

"Three more of them under those trees over there."

Hey, man, you got like, a plan or something?

Alright. How about we... Hound was going to have to improvise. It was very rare that a 309 turned into this kind of mess. Uhm... well, they don't have a single shred of proof that they'd targeted the right cars. As far as they know, we could be someone's property. Let's try the holos before giving ourselves away yet. If someone comes along—

"Can't we just call the police, o-or the sheriff? None of us has to actually deal with them, right?"

"They haven't done anything wrong, yet. And you don't own me, either— I don't have a license or any registration to speak of, not to mention the holo... it would be a huge mess."

I'll pull out just mine, for now. I don't think they've spotted you yet.

Good thinkin', man.

This was going to be tough. Routing most of his energy to his holo generator (it was significantly more powerful than that any of the other Autobot troops, so he had to be careful how much gas he let it guzzle), he picked a spot to make his entrance.

"What in the hell do you think you're doing!" A man in a black shirt and cowboy hat walked into the campsite. Hound payed close attention to the down-turned corners of his mouth and furiously knitted eyebrows. He'd chosen to leave the sunglasses off for effect, revealing a pair of eyes as green as the Jeep's paint job. He hated doing eyes. They were difficult, but keeping the shades on would have been weird.

The creeper in the baseball cap stepped away from him and jerked his head in the direction of the voice. "Well I'll be damned," he chuckled after an initial moment of shock. "This here your Jeep, sir?"

Uh oh. Hound didn't like the tone in his voice.

"Damn right it is," said the hologram. It felt strange to be referring to himself as an inanimate object. "Now why don't you step away from my car and high tail it out of here."

"Hey, whoa now! I ain't done anything to your vehicle, sir. I was just admirin' the body work."

Hound remained silent, and his holo remained angry.

The man in the baseball cap walked out from around the car and approached the man in the cowboy hat. "That's a mighty fine custom job you got done, there. And that color... I never seen that color before." His voice was slow and almost taunting. Hound felt like he was being backed into a corner. "Where'd you go to get all this custom work done? I'd like to check 'em out myself."

The holo smouldered. "It's none of your business, sir. Now if you'd kindly—"

"None of my business?" the man interrupted with a chuckle. "I'm sorry, but... you hear about the freedom of information act, sir?" He suddenly got in real close, and his voice dropped. "This sort of thing should be everyone's business, Mr. Experiment."

Hound didn't like the man being this close to his holo. That meant he had to manipulate the mouth and fully articulate every word he was saying. The Jeep knew that these guys weren't going to leave from being asked at this point, and so forwent the complicated puppetry involved in making his hologram look like it was speaking.

"I've just about had it with you people," he said in a low voice. His holo's mouth remained shut. "Leave us alone or there will be hell to pay." Rarely was Hound ever mad enough to be able to threaten someone.

The man's eyes opened wide before composing himself and fixing a crooked smile on his face. "Looks like we found 'em, boys." With a renewed boldness, the man reached forward as if to grab the holo's face, but like Astrid had weeks before, found that his fingers touched nothing but warm air. He paused for just a second at this, before spinning around and facing the car again. The holo dissolved, useless.

"Fraggit!" Hound cursed inside the cab.

"What?" Astrid said quietly. "What's going on?"

"He's got us. They only way to get 'em to leave now is a physical threat."

"You... you're going to transform?"

"I'm going to do everything I can to avoid that."

She fell silent.

"Cameras, you dumbasses, get the cameras!" the baseball cap-wearing man hissed to the trees behind him. Shadows began to move, and a few others appeared from the blackness.

What now, man?

Anything we do now they'll be getting on camera.

"Astrid, can we get out of here?"

She shook her head. "Front gate closed at ten... no coming or going. They must've walked in."

Let's see how long it takes them to get bored.

With that, Hound proceeded to sit perfectly still and silent, quietly casting holograms over his license plates in the likelihood that these goons would be snapping photos of every inch of him. He was glad that they hadn't yet seen Beachcomber parked about 50 meters away, and if they did, they had no way of knowing that there were two Autobots on the premesis. Right now, the blue mech was their trump card.

"So care to tell us where you're from?" said the man, slowly pacing back and forth in front of the Jeep. "We've got you cornered," he smugly reminded them. "It's late, and you're in earshot of a hundred campers right now. Changing under these circumstances would be a big mistake, and you know it."

"What are you doing now?" his fare whispered.

"Try not to move... We're going to play dumb for a little while."

The man outside continued. "We know all about you," he hissed. "We know that you're aliens. The gov'ment can fool most folks, but not us. We've been on you for years, ET."

A few minutes passed while the four men studied the parked Jeep, waiting for any sign of sentience. Well, he wasn't going to give them any. Hound stewed in his processors. He knew that many humans were brash and stupid, (though he could definitely say the same about his own race) but this was just taking it too far. Harassing a young woman to get to him. Fragging lowlives...

They'd taken to circling around him not so unlike a pack of wolves, and it took every ounce of will he had to keep himself from swinging his doors open in their faces.

"C'mon ET, don't tell me that you don't know what we're after here; that you can't sympathize with us. We just want the truth, is all. You know, facts. I'd think that your little ones and zeroes brain would be able to deal with facts best. Why, you might even have a physiological inclination toward telling the truth, wouldn't you agree?"

The ring leader's cadence just made him even more mad. This man excelled at being a considerable nuisance. He began to tap on the hood with a knuckle, causing Astrid's breathing to hasten.

"It's going to be okay," he said in a very soft, very quiet voice.

"I hope so," she whispered.

"Alright," said the man in the baseball cap, tugging at the collar of his t-shirt. It was clear he was getting sick of waiting. "You wanna play hard? I can play hard." He reached into his pocket and produced something small and shiny. With a faint click, it doubled in length. He crouched down near one of Hound's wheel wells, pulling his arm back, when one of his henchmen came up and grabbed his shoulder.

This man was younger, and armed with a video camera. "Dan, what in the hell do you think you're doing?" he hissed.

"What does it look like I'm doin'? I'm not leaving until we get something out of this thing."

"You're slashing the fucking tires, man! That chick knows what we look like! What if she sends the fuzz?"

"She already knows that I look like, coward," the older man growled. "Don't see me wilting like a fuckin' leaf. Now, are you helping or not? Because I ain't stoppin'. Not now. Not while we've got one cornered."

The younger man hesitated for just a moment, and Dan wrenched his arm away.

"S'what I thought," he muttered. With a mighty thrust of his right arm, he plunged the work knife deep into Hound's front right tire, and dragged it to the side. With a hiss, the thing went flat, and pain blossomed in what would have been Hound's right shoulder.

The mech let out a quick, muffled growl inside his cab, feeling Astrid clutch tighter to the front driver's seat in what might have been an effort to make him feel better. A moment later though, and it happened again, and again. The Jeep shuddered, trying to ignore the sting.

You okay, man? What's goin' on?

They're slashing my tires!

That's jive, man! Don't let 'em do that!

And what, transform??

"Goddamn it, Dan, that didn't even work!"

"I saw it move!" He studied the car again, rubbing at his chin. "Alright, you guys get your keys out." Hound heard a sign of frustration escape Mark.

Dan himself forwent the keys. He had his knife at ready and approached the Jeep again, dragging the razor-sharp blade across the front grille. Before long, he began to feel the scrapes all over, though none of them were painful like the cuts from the knife. Forcing himself to focus, he saw that Dan was showing particular interest in the round headlights. Switching the position of the blade in his hand, he brought his arm back in preparation to smash the left one, but Hound was quickly getting tired of this game. He flashed his highbeams for a split second, meriting a cry of pain from the troublesome human.

Unfortunately, the effort was futile.

"Why, you son of a..."

CRACK!

The Jeep hissed, and Astrid yelped.

Alright, that was the last straw. He was done with this. No more playing around; no more mister nice mech.

"Jesus Christ, Hound," Astrid gasped. "Don't let them do this to you! Let me out so you can transform."

"I like that idea," he replied before promptly smacking one of the other men with his left passenger door, knocking him to the ground in an unconscious heap. "Go go!" The young woman darted out of the cab as he started to transform around her. Pieces of himself came apart and joined back together in sturdy mechanical bonds to create his bipedal form. In a matter of seconds, before the three remaining conscious men stood a giant, pissed-off robot. There was a fierce frown upon his metallic visage. To minimize being spotted, he cloaked himself from behind with a softlight holo so that only the tiny men at his feet would see him.

"I think it's time for me to teach you people some respect," he said.

Holy-

Don't do it, Beachcomber. I don't want you on their hit list too.

Just say the word, man, and I'll be right there to give you a hand.

"Jesus-fucking-Christ! You better be getting this, boys!"

Hound picked up their limp comrade, holding him under the arms in one hand and taking a rumbling step forward.

"You put him down, you bastard!" the third human shouted.

"No, no, no, it's evidence!" Dan said, snapping away with a digital camera.

Hound gently set the unconscious human down on a picnic table. "The only thing this is going to prove is how much of a bunch of belligerent fuckheads you all are."

"What about his bitch, Dan?"

"Forget her. We want pictures of the robot!"

From what he remembered of the word "bitch", it was highly derogatory, especially toward human women. And Hound didn't like it when people, human or not, threw around insults like that about his friends. With a deep frown, Hound reached forward and grabbed Dan by the waist. The man wriggled around in the vice grip, pounding his fists against the metal to no avail.

"If you... kill me," he wheezed, still fighting the tightening digits around his ribcage. "The army... will be all... over... you..."

The Jeep brought the man's twisted face close to his. "You're an annoying, lowlife piece of slag, but that doesn't mean I'm going to kill you."

"Hey, you put him down! Put him down!" Mark had grabbed a piece of firewood and was hitting it against Hound's leg with all his might. It hurt a bit, sure, but it wasn't doing much damage at all.

Then to the Jeep's surprise, he heard Astrid's voice. "You leave him alone, you son of a bitch!" He glanced down just in time to see her tackle the man to the ground. He cried out in pain upon falling back on his large Nikon camera.

"Shut the hell up!" Shouted another voice from elsewhere in the campground. "Some of us are trying to sleep!"

"Help! Help me!" The man in Hound's grip began to shout at the top of his lungs upon being reminded that they were surrounded by civvies. "Oh god I think I've broken a—" What a lying slagger! With a hard flick to the back of the head, Hound silenced him. The mech felt disgusted with himself at having to resort to such measures against these humans, but what else could he do? There was no time to think about how to be nicer.

"Hound," Astrid said from where she was positioned at his feet, pinning a groaning, whimpering, Mark to the ground with his face in the dirt. "People are coming!" He appeared to be incapacitated not by her, but from whatever injury he sustained from falling on the camera.

He turned his head to see flashlights appearing from several directions, then took quick inventory of the situation. 5 campers were in close vicinity. There was an unconscious human on the table and another in his hand, Astrid had a third on the ground, and the fourth had disappeared. Frag, frag, frag.

Beachcomber, I'm saying the word.

Right on, daddy-o.

To his right came the distinct sound of transformation. In a matter of seconds, the blue mech was by his side. "Beach, I need you to disable everything."

"One total blackout comin' right up."

It was going to give Hound a bit of a circuit-ache, but it had to be done. Before he knew it, the off-roader was emitting wavelengths of just the right frequency to disrupt all lights, phones, and cameras in the immediate vicinity. The campground was plunged into pitch blackness. Unfortunately, that ended in more commotion than before. Several women shrieked from the loud, high-pitched sound, and a few small children burst into wailing tears. Every single dog within a mile radius of the place began to bark. Unfortunately, the pulse blew out most of Astrid's car windows as well.

At least nobody can see us now.

Hound heard the man named Mark cry out in fear and surprise at his feet, as his camera lens, flash, and viewfinder exploded next to him, showering him with glass. It would be much later when he discovered that the camera's memory had been totally wiped.

"Ranger! Someone get the ranger! Something's going on!"

"I heard someone yelling for help over here!"

"Call 911!"

"My phone doesn't work!"

"Mine doesn't either!"

"What the hell is going on?"

"Astrid, it's time to go," Hound said, anger fading away to a sense of panic. He transformed, threw open his passenger-side door, and felt her clamber in before gunning it through the campsite and up the rocky hill, completely ignoring the conventional means of exiting the campground.

Beachcomber, we need to find that other hunter.

On it, daddy-o.

Both mechs set their sensors on full as they clambered over the rocky desert landscape. He felt his passenger hastily put on her seat belt and hold on for dear life.

"Sorry about the bumpy ride," he said.

"It's... it's alright. Just find the motherfucker."

There, man. 3 o'clock.

Got him.

"Sorry, but I need you out again."

He felt her undo the seat belt when he came to a stop, and she quickly leapt out. Hound was bipedal in an instant, jogging over to where the fourth and final human was fleeing in pure, unmitigated terror some dozens of meters away. Hound snatched him up without effort.

"Oh please god don't kill me!" he cried out, tears threatening to spill forth. "I'll do anything you fucking want me to do, just please don't hurt me, please! I-I have a wife and a 5-month-old back home! Please god..."

Hound swallowed his feelings of embarrassment. This job was so much better suited for other mechs who didn't think twice about manhandling humans.

"I'm not going to hurt you," he stated firmly, and the young man fell silent despite the trembling that wracked his whole body. "Just give me your camera."

The human fumbled for the device hanging from his neck. "Here, take it! It's all yours!" He thrust it at the green mech.

Hound took it in his free hand and studied it for a moment before crushing it. Bits of glass, plastic, metal, and circuitry fell to the gravel at the Jeep's foot. "Now I'm going to put you down, but I want one more thing."

"You want my wallet?" he stumbled, reaching into a pocket. "Here! F-for the girl! I've got fifty bucks, take it! She can buy herself something nice!"

"We don't want your money," he snapped. The human froze and shut up again. "I want you to go back to your little group," Hound began, speaking slowly. "And I want you to tell them to call off their search. I want you to tell them that the Autobots and their human allies don't want to be harassed by you people anymore. And if they don't listen, you'd best remember who we're friends with. We can have you all arrested before you have time to apologize." The human nodded stiffly. Hound put him down, turning to Astrid. "Come on." His voice changed from stern to soft and tired. "Let's get you home."

The man scrambled backward, and Hound gave him one more hard look before transforming again.

You're going to have to find your own ride back, slagger.

Chapter Text

"Hey! How are things going in the world of humans?"

The normally bright shade of green covering the Jeep's chassis would have looked to be a dark and dull shade of gray or olive then. The only glow in the room came from a square of light marching in through the open door; it clung to the far wall like a pool of soft orange.

Hound was sitting width-ways on his berth, reclining against the wall as casually as any flesh-and-bone creature. The tracker had been called back to the Ark a few days before as part of some regular organizational procedures. Really, Prowl just wanted to make sure that everyone was periodically reminded that they were a military unit with strict protocols and structure. That and he'd been required to attend a couple meetings, especially considering the recent... events.

"Things are alright on my end, here..." said the voice on the other end of the line. She sounded relieved, but tired. "The police checked my house last monday. Said my phone lines were being tapped, and that I had a bunch of data-mining and keylogging malware installed on my computer. They recommended I get a new machine altogether. Said to change all my passwords, phone numbers, locks. Perhaps get some kind of security system installed in the house, too. I'd have to ask the landlord, though. He's not going to like that his insurance is going to go up because of this."

Hound winced at these suggestions, knowing that wasn't what she wanted to hear. He didn't want his friend living in fear, after all; having to constantly look over one's shoulder was a horrible feeling.

"Are you going to look into any of it?" he asked meekly.

"Well, I can't really afford to do all of it," she said with feigned jest. "But I'm going to get a new computer, and I'm going to have the locks changed."

"Not even get new numbers? I'd have thought those would be higher priority, especially if they'd had you tapped."

"The thing is..." Astrid trailed off for a moment. "Well, I'm looking to move, Hound."

The green mech sat up straight at this notion, needing to know more. "What? Where are you moving to? Are you going to be closer to your family?"

She chuckled. "No, I'm going to be moving further north." His spark lept at the idea of her being closer to the Autobot's base of operations. "I'm thinking Alaska." And then it sunk again.

"Alaska?"

"Yeah. I haven't decided if I want to be in Anchorage or Juneau yet... I guess it all depends on if I get hired for the job I applied for."

"You applied for another job?" he asked with a smile.

"Yep. I decided I finally want to do something with this degree I have, so I applied to be a statistician with the US Fish and Wildlife Service."

Hound's spark leaped with joy. "I'm so happy for you, Astrid. I really hope you get the position."

She chuckled a bit on the other end. Fatigue. "I hope so too... Hey, did you ever hear about what happened to those guys in Elko, by the way?"

"You kidding me? It was the talk of the base for days. I guess everybody considered it my finally "growing a pair", if you know what I mean," he mumbled, rolling his eyes. "It was a pretty slick story they cooked up, though. What happened on your end?"

"Police called me up to get a statement the day after you left, said my story didn't add up when I told him that I'd spent the night in a motel and left all my stuff there-can you blame them?-so they were sending detectives to Tahoe. But I guess by the time they arrived, they'd been told Autobots were involved, and to put it simply, "stories were going to changed" to preserve everyone's "integrity" or somesuch. That's all I could get out of them, really."

"You've got to admit, the drug, assault, and vandal charges were a clever cover up. And the stolen EMP grenade bit? Classic! Thank Primus that all the other campers were so disoriented that they couldn't give any meaningful testimonies."

"Yeah, if anyone else had seen you..."

There was a pause then, and Hound's internal communications system almost seemed to register the ambient noise in the background grow louder to fill the quietude between them. "Hey," he said, not wanting to break the silence, but rather massage it away. "Is everything okay?"

The young woman responded to his gentle tone. "Yeah, I guess," she began with a sigh. "I don't know... I suppose I'm just getting sick of this town. I don't feel quite safe in this house anymore either. The recent events have been a wake up call; it made me realize that I was stuck... stuck in the moment, and I'm just now getting out of it."

Hound couldn't hold back a laugh at the song reference. It was a small sign that she was in good spirits someplace, and that was an encouraging notion."You know, I remember that email you sent me..."

"Which?"

"The reply to the first batch of photos I sent you. I read it over I don't know how many times... but there was something touching about it, Astrid. Something true. Something genuinely human." Hound was suddenly lost in his own thoughts, and he spent a few seconds trying to navigate through the fragments of a speech. "And... I don't like you because you're Ahuman-like being a human is some exotic gimmick-but I like you because you ARE human. You differ from me in so many amazing ways, and yet, we're fundamentally the same. So much life and vitality... it really would do you a disservice to spend too long looking at clouds. I want you keep climbing mountains. I want you keep blazing trails, and I want you to not have to worry about anything else. Because you, as the most human of humans, need these things.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is... I hope you get to do everything that you want to do, and I hope that Alaska will provide you with the opportunities to do 'em. You deserve it, you really do."

The other end of the line was silent for a while, and Hound was suddenly scared that they'd gotten disconnected. "Y-you're still there, right?"

"Of course I am," she said, and he could hear a smile in her voice. "It's just... you're talking like I'm never going to see you again."

"Well, I-"

"I was actually going to ask if you wanted to help me move?"

The Jeep gasped and sat up straight for a moment, before leaning forward in a sitting position better suited for taking action. "I... I'd love to! Come to think of it, I haven't been to Alaska yet... been all up in through Canada, but never that far northwest. I'd have to get permission, of course, and Prowl will probably give me a hard time if he has to switch my rotation..." he was thinking aloud now more than anything. "But I'll try my damnedest to swing it. But wait, what about your mother and sister? Wouldn't they be coming with you too?"

"I told them that I might be able to get help moving... and besides, I think my mom would really like to just fly up with my dad when he's home too."

"Ohh."

"Hey Hound..?"

"Yeah?" The Autobot narrowed his optics, training them on a small dent in the far wall of his quarters. He wasn't sure he liked the tone of her voice.

"We're good, right?"she asked quietly.

"Good?" was his calm and mirthful reply. He suddenly felt like a mentor of sorts. "I'd say we're better than ever."

"Okay. I just needed to hear that. I've been thinking lately about-"

Hound shook his head as though she were there in the room with him. "There's no need to. It's all in the past, and life's too short (even for me) to spend time dwelling on the things that we've done. What's important is that you've got a full life ahead of you, and I'd like to be your friend through the thick and thin of it. How does that sound?"

"That sounds awesome, to say the least."

"Good. Now chin up: you've got a leg to strengthen."

"Oh my god, you're right... and it's already 3:30? I'm going to be late for physical therapy! I've gotta go. Thanks for chatting with me... I'll talk to you again soon."

"You bet."

Click.

Hound closed the connection and reclined once again against the wall with a great mechanical sigh that came from both his gears and his vocal processor.

"I'm glad things worked out for you, man."

The jeep was startled out of his subroutines, and abruptly jerked his head over to the open doorway to see Beachcomber standing there, leaning against the jamb. There was a soft smirk on his blue visage and a gleam behind his visor. Hound settled back into his previous position, and the movement cued his fellow off-roader to enter the room.

"How... long were you standing there?" the green and black mech asked, cocking a brow ridge.

"Hey, long enough, you know. So you're takin' the little lady up on her ba-bah bada offer?"

Hound threw his hands up. "Criminey, you were listening for that long? They should just rename you 'Eavesdrop'," he mumbled with a shake of his head. "But yessiree, I wanna go with her. She really shouldn't be driving a moving van all that way by herself anyways. And don't ask me why she doesn't just ship everything to begin with."

"Yeah, that sounds kinda dangerous, if not a drag too. I think it'd be groovy if you two cats did the road trip together. Anyways, I'll catch you later, brother... I gotta split."

"Alright, I'll see you 'round."

It was two weeks later when he got the call. They were to meet up at the California/Oregon border on the afternoon of the coming Friday, and she was to send him the address of where they were meeting up.

On the drive down through the state, Hound kept himself preoccupied by the radio and his meandering thoughts. It had been a month since he last saw her... since he stood on the gravel of her driveway for the last time. It had been a month since she sat in his passenger seat and laughed at his lame jokes, since they listened to music together like old friends and made fun of his bulky appearance.

It'd been a month since he last felt right.

Since then, his passenger seat just never felt quite warm enough, his radio not quite loud enough, his hands not quite full enough, and his spark not quite light enough. There was something missing, Hound realized as he drove down the long, straight road through Grant's Pass, surrounded by trees and naught else. Something that being all that he could be couldn't quite make up for. It was then that he thought back to all those months ago, to that night that he'd sworn to himself to never call back to the forefront of his mind.

It would only set him up for a bad mood, after all.

But for some reason, he couldn't let it go. It was like he was a detective that just couldn't keep that one cold case in storage. He kept pulling it out and looking over the files for something that he may have missed all those other times. The kinds of crimes that would rob him of sleep as he tried to piece things together in ways that only the dark quietude of night would permit. He revisited the scene in his CPU countless times, looking over the faces, the words, the possible perpetrators. But in the end, it had only been the two of them... just the two of them in a garage. Just the two of them in a garage with bodies full of high-grade and well-beings torn asunder from nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hound never wanted to think about it... never wanted to admit it to himself. He just wanted to ignore it and hope that it would eventually fade away as all corrupt files and subroutines ultimately do. But here he was, thinking about that night again as though it were a dirty little secret he was trying to keep from even himself, and he was beginning to come to the realization that underneath the disgust, underneath the anger, and the shame, there was something else. Something else that suffered a blow when Astrid woke up in his arms and looked like the most sickened human being on earth.

There was something true about what had happened. "Something real..." the jeep said aloud to himself. I've been wanting to do that for a long time, he had said. "I'd been wanting to do it... I wanted it," he affirmed. "Wanted... her..." A pause. "No, no, no, no, no... this isn't right." This wasn't right. This wasn't supposed to be how things went. He wasn't supposed to be thinking these things. Frag, he wasn't even supposed to be thinking about any of this at all! Primus slagging... "Fuck!" he blurted out through his vocal processors. "There is honestly something wrong with me... with my programming or something... this isn't supposed to be how things go..."

"Am I really that slagged up?"

...

"Am I really that spineless? That I can't even stand up to myself?"

...

The Jeep spent some minutes trying to reason and robot the situation back under control, but it was too late. He'd made the deadly mistake of acknowledging the missing something and now he had to live knowing that it would never be filled.

He couldn't drive any longer. The sudden rush of emotion... it was too much to bear. Hound had pulled out onto a dirt road so he could have some peace and perhaps figure out why he'd suddenly torn wide open all those old wounds.

He had absolutely no reason to!

They'd kissed and made up, so to speak. They were friends again. And that's all he'd wanted... that's all he told her he wanted. Maybe he'd lied.

Beachcomber, buddy, you awake?

Hound, man... it's way late. Why'd you get me on the horn at such an hour, brother?

Beach, I need your help again... I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place and I don't know what to do anymore.

Hey man, slow down. It'sss... gonna be alright. What happened exactly?

Son of a glitch, Beachcomber, the feelings were there! I feel like slag now... as soon as I started thinking about being around her again, I just got this sinking feeling in my spark. She'll hate me if I mention anything! She'll get offended and creeped out, and walk away from me and I'll never hear from her again. You gotta help me out, buddy... it hit me like brick wall on my way down, and I just don't-

Whoa there, man. Just slow your processors down for a bit there and relax for a minute, you know? You sound like you're in pretty bad shape... I can barely understand your jibber, you been jabberin' so fast.

I'm sorry, Beachcomber. I'm just pretty miserable right now because I realized that I've been feeling a little bent out of shape since the night we interfaced. I've... I've hidden it pretty well... I've hidden it from myself, too. I guess I didn't even want to entertain the possibility. I wanted to remind myself that it was all out of the question.

Yeah cat, I can understand that... Uhm... I mean, it's not like this is just something you can like, let go and forget, you know? This is part of who you are right now, and ain't nothin' gonna change that. But you just gotta realize the circumstances of your... situation, and you gotta like... obey the rules and stuff, but you also gotta listen to your spark. Dig?

Yeah, I dig...

If you're convinced in that green head o' yours that maybe she feels the same way, don't go rushin' green head first into anythin'. What you've got now is sweet, man, and bah-bah don't you go forgettin' that friendship and how important it is and all that. Dig?

...dig.

And if she's not all into this stuff you've got goin' on, try not to sweat it. You're a cool cat, so don't let this jive throw off your ge-om-et-try, you know? You'll find some slick bird to plug up that hole o' yours someday, man. May not be soon, but if we get outta this war in one piece, which I'm bettin' we will, you'll find someone, though you might be hurtin' for a while. Not gonna lie.

A pause.

Hey Beachcomber?

Mmmmmmhm?

I lied to her, didn't I? When I told her that everything was fine?

Nope, brother. What you told that human was fact as cold and hard as the rock I'm sittin' on right now. What you did was lie to yourself. You were only tellin' her what you believed to be true. Got it?

Yeah. Thanks Beachcomber.

No problem, daddy-o. I'll catch you in the morning.

...'Night Beachcomber.

Hound remained there on the dirt road for the rest of the night, hurting all the way up until he went into recharge.

Chapter Text

The air was hot and still as she stepped out of the yellow 4x4, packed to the hilt and windows all accounted for. She stretched her arms up toward the bright summer sun and cracked her back. Most of her things would be arriving at a storage facility by skid while she looked for a new place. Getting across the border with even this much was going to be a nightmare.

Astrid had been on the road since about 8 that morning. She'd made pretty good time in the maxed-out vehicle... (she checked her watch here) it was only almost 3, and she'd made it past the state border. Ashland was about a mile or two up the highway. Her parents used to go to the Shakespeare Festival sometimes.

And where was Hound? She'd thought he'd be here already... she told him exactly where they were meeting up: a road just beside the juncture between the 99 and Pacific Highway. (Decided to forgo someplace more public after all.) She couldn't imagine that he could have possibly missed both a moving van and her bright yellow car, especially since there weren't any other vehicles around as far as she could tell.

At least it's not like she was particularly eager to get behind the wheel again anyways. It was a beautiful day, and this was a well-earned break for her. She hoisted herself back up onto the seat in the van, her legs resting on the step below the door as she reached for a water bottle and a small bag of almonds. A few minutes passed by as she munched away, and eventually her eyes drifted downward when they were tired of the bright sun. She examined her legs; they were freshly shaved now. The physical therapy worked wonders for her; though they were still a little weaker than they were before the accident, Astrid was still slowly building up her strength.

She set down the almonds and drew one of her legs up so she could look at it more closely... scars laced the skin of her thighs and calves almost like she'd been lashed and stoned. They were relatively faint, though, and she knew most of them would fade come Christmas. Though some wouldn't... particularly the ones from the metal pins that they hammered into her bones. Some clustered around her ankle, and the others dotting up her shin.

It's not that she thought them ugly, or was ashamed of them. They were testament to what she went through, and a testament to how good life could be when given a second chance.

Right now, life was good.

Astrid was about to go open up the back to make sure her things hadn't shifted too much during the drive when she heard a car coming. Just as she slid up the back hatch to take inventory, the familiar form of a Jeep pulled up beside her and gave a little toot of the horn. She stepped away from the car and up to the passenger side window, and the glass-looking pane promptly rolled itself down for her.

The young woman rested herself against the door, crossing her arms on the ledge now formed from the absence of a window.

"Hey there, how was the drive?"

"It was, uh... it was alright. There was an accident on my way down. Caused lots of congestion and... frustration..."

She looked at the console with slight suspicion. There was something in his voice that seemed off. But, it was probably none of her damn business. "Yeah, car accidents are awful things. Been in a couple fender-benders myself," she said with a bit of a laugh. She stepped away from the car and gave his siding a couple quick pats before returning to what she'd been doing a moment earlier.

"You're very lucky," Hound said after her. "I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you... if you were injured or something again."

"Well," Astrid said from the inside of the van as she double-checked all the tie-downs for the heavier pieces of furniture. She'd gotten rid of most of her things, actually. "The thing about injuries..." she paused here to tighten one of them. "Is that you usually recover. You can worry when I'm just about dead," she chuckled. "I speak from experience here."

The silence was something new. It wasn't like him to not have something to say... perhaps the humor was lost on him that time? Maybe she'd gotten over the accident faster than he was.

She popped her head out to get a look at him, perhaps be able to read his car form somehow. "You alright over there?" The human noticed that his chassis seemed to be sitting a little low on the wheels, but as soon as she'd spoken, he popped himself back up again. "I'm sorry if I freaked you out, there."

"Freak me out? Haha, nonsense. I know exactly what you're saying. In fact, I could say the same thing myself."

Astrid smiled, but she still had her suspicions. "You sure?"

"Yeah, no, I'm fine. Promise." She saw him fiddle with his wheels a bit. "How far are we going today?"

"I'm hoping to make it to Portland before I pass out... or Salem at least. Man, it's going to be a long drive."

Hound was silent again, but she tried to ignore it.

The young woman got into the van and closed to door behind her. It made an obnoxiously loud noise. "Hey dude," she called out to him after starting the engine. "Just follow me, alright? And if you need to talk, you know my number."

"Affirmative," was the reply.

The two of them managed to make it to Portland, but just barely. She checked into a motel along the 5 for the night, just about ready to collapse.

"I really hate to leave you out here all by your lonesome," Astrid lamented while seated in the front passenger seat of the Jeep. "But I am wiped... and I could definitely use some proper laying down in a proper bed. No offense."

Hound shifted. "None taken! Maybe... maybe for our next stop." A pause. "It's nice having you around."

She arched her brow at the console, and her heart rate was steady, but a few thoughts were going through her tired head. He wanted her around for no obvious reason than to have her near, which was relatively new, but was also obviously down and preoccupied with something, and had been all day. It was weird.

"I'll definitely consider it for tomorrow night. How about that?"

"Sounds good. Oh, and if you ever want a uh... a massage, I'd be more than happy to give it a go." He laughed awkwardly. "I hear you need strong hands to give a good massage."

Okay, she thought. This is definitely new. He can't be flirting with me, can he? I thought we... I thought we resolved this.

There was a nagging in her stomach now, though, and the expression on her face grew a bit more complicated. Astrid brushed it aside; she wanted to get up to her room, whether it was to think or to sleep.

"Maybe," she said, and was surprised at the own slight twinge of teasing there. Fuck's sake. It was late. Maybe he'd ignore it. "I'll see you tomorrow, alright?"

"'Night cutie."

Astrid just blinked at that, and not wanting to linger, she jumped out of the car and walked very briskly to her room, which was right in front of the parking space Hound sat in.

Feverishly, she tore open the dirty white door of her room and closed it, pressing her back to its surface as though she feared Hound was going to come barging in and she was barricading it shut with her own small bulk. Astrid hoped that he wasn't still prodding her with sensors as she threw the card key on top of the nightstand and began to pace.

She was expecting a flood of thoughts, but nothing came. Her mind was blank, except for a single sentiment:

This is so surreal.

Another silence.

He just called me a cutie.

The giant robot outside just called me a cutie.

He was flirting with me.

The giant robot outside was flirting with me.

Astrid was also expecting to be awash in frustration and feelings of yuck as she thought about how their relationship had developed over the past few months. That night in the garage, the things she'd said to him.

It all seemed so long ago, now.

Almost... inconsequential.

I was in a different place then.

She was in a different place then. Her future was gone, she had no reason to stay in Tahoe, and she was living in the shadow of the accident. She'd wanted "normal" again and wound up reaching for anything but. Why? Why'd I kiss him?

Astrid sat down on the foot of the cheap bed and touched her lips. That kiss was one of the few things she's actually remembered from that night. She remembered his big mouth, his clumsy tongue, his sloppy lips. The way he cradled her against him even though it was awkward as hell. It was... she remembered feeling that he had no expectations, and that she could have put a stop to it at any time and didn't. Why didn't I?

One of the other muddy memories she had was touching something on him. It was like a cable or something, at the top of his leg, inside. And she remembered the sound he made when she touched it. It was part rev, part groan, part inexplicable electronic whine and shit, he just sounded so damn happy. Like he'd never experienced a single pleasurable sensation before that. He... he'd said something about her small hands, too, she recalled. Something about how they felt. How she felt.

He was so still there, above her. Even with those noises he was making. Deathly still, like he'd tied himself up and couldn't move even if he wanted to.

Why didn't I say no?

Why does anyone do what they do when they're shitfaced and depressed? How many of those things are mistakes? Was it that that night was a mistake, or did she just assume that it was one? Expect it to be one? Treated it like one? Because if you fuck anything but another human being while you're drunk, then that's clearly a mistake. And if it's not, then you're a freak of nature who's just gotten really good at hiding it. What was it... that guy that fucked a bicycle in a hotel once. He got caught and wound up listed as a sex offender.

Y'know, because relations with a bike is totally the same goddamn thing as rape or child molestation.

Astrid's hands balled up into little fists, she realized. She was pumped. For what? Fuck if I know. She wanted to fight the system, suddenly. Fight something. Anything. Take it out on a punching bag because she'd bought into somethingstupid and was just now getting wise to it.

Screw everyone else, I'm making my own damn choices.

And then out of nowhere, a calm washed over her. There was something she had to do, now.

She stood up, grabbed the card key, and opened the door, staring at the green SUV in front of her with new eyes. And suddenly, he looked vastly different. Sleek curves shaped his vehicle body into something inspired by nature. Part jagged boulder, part liquid, part muscled tiger, he was. The signature seven slats of his front grille were like teeth, round headlights gleaming like eyes. Tires covered in grooves so tough that they were like the rough paw pads of a big cat, and she knew that he could distend and retract the treads depending on the terrain, like claws, tearing into dirt and mud.

He was strong and heavy. And perhaps most importantly, she realized that he was attractive.

"Astrid! Is everything..."

"Open up, we're going for a drive."

"What? W...where?" It seemed to her that their roles had suddenly reversed: that SHE was the giant robot and Hound was the fragile human, now.

"Someplace secluded."

The engine came to life. "Astrid, I—"

"Don't talk, just drive."

It was 15 minutes in complete silence. Astrid had her arms tightly folded and her legs crossed the entire time, as Hound brought them both to a park of sorts off SW Kingston Drive. There, on the dark road, Hound pulled over, putting on his emergency lights.

You're really doing this, aren't you?

"No, I want to talk to you face to face."

"But—"

"We'll be fine over there. You can stand behind a tree."

The Jeep sighed and opened the door to let out his charge. She began to walk up the hillside as he transformed, glad to find it covered in short, dry grass. In no time at all she could hear his footfalls on the soft earth before his long, powerful strides brought him past her. He waited for her at the top of the gently sloping hill, where he would be safe from prying eyes against the black backdrop of old, fat pines. Astrid wouldn't have seen him in the moonless darkness if he hadn't turned on his parking lights to dimly illuminate her.

She finally stopped and stood defiantly at his feet, looking up at him with lips drawn tight. If the light were brighter, she might've seen the hurt in his face.

"Hound, I need to ask you a question."

"Alright..." he said softly.

"Do you like me?"

He paused, standing stock still for a split-second. "Of course I do. You're one of my—"

Astrid sighed loudly and shook her head. "Hound, are you attracted to me?"

He seemed to glance nervously to his right, down at the road now lost in the blackness. "I..." Then he looked back to her, eyes trained, and she noticed his hands slowly ball into fists. "...yes," was the simple reply.

Shit, alright.

The human shifted weight from one foot to the other, brows knitted. "Why?"

He was caught off-guard.

His posture faltered and his fists loosened. "Why?" he repeated quietly, confused and hurt. Suddenly his defenses were up and he straightened, almost to the point of rigidity. "Dammit, Astrid, I didn't drive all the way out here for this." He was back to being 15 feet tall. "And maybe, if you haven't actually gotten over that night, you can drive to Anchorage without me," he snapped, and began walking away back down the hill.

Shit! No, wait!

She started running after him. "Hound, wait! That's not—"

He stopped, and she could tell the frustration and hurt rising within him, almost like he couldn't stop himself. "Then what is it? I was sparked when you humans were still hunting mammoths with sharpened sticks! I'm a patient mech! I was perfectly happy keeping all this shit to myself, but no, not you. You wanted to poke and to prod and to lay me bare." He paused very briefly here, and she considered interrupting him, but decided against it, swallowing her pride for a moment. "I know how you humans are! You want to... to pick apart everything that's not like you! Well guess what, I'm not your experiment. And I certainly won't be your goddamn fool, either."

He continued his way down the hill, cutting his lights, and she was reminded of how long his strides were when he wasn't trying to keep pace with her.

"Hound!" she shouted after him. "Dammit, Hound! That's not... that's not what I meant!"

"What did you mean, then?" he bellowed angrily, still walking. "What could you possibly mean."

"Just stop for one second, would you?" she panted, minding at a sudden ache in her leg. He stopped, glaring at her, and she slowly caught up. Good sign... good. Means he wants to hear you out. "I just... what I wanted to know was..." Suddenly the words were hard to get out.

He folded his arms and said nothing.

"I wanted to know what in the hell somebody like me had to offer somebody like you," she murmured, looking away. "For me... it makes sense. But guess I just can't even imagine what I could bring to the table for you."

There. There it was.

Astrid wasn't sure how she had expected this to go; some part of her imagined extracting this from him in a far less volatile way, but looking back, she was definitely the one at fault here. Again.

She met his gaze, and they were visibly softened. He looked... estranged.

"Why is that even a question?" he asked quietly.

"Because I guess "we" humans have an inferiority complex, alright? We're barely good enough for ourselves, how could any of us possibly be good enough for something greater?"

Hound got down into a low kneel then, one arm on his knee. "How many times do I have to tell you? I'm not "greater", whatever that even means. None of us are."

Now it was her turn to disbelieve him. "Yes you are. You're bigger, faster, stronger, you—"

"Is that seriously all you see me as? A collection of body parts that you think are superior to yours?"

Fuck, no, I... "No, of course not! I..."

He looked at her, face heavy with expectancy.

Astrid took a deep breath and let it out slow. "Because if I did, I probably wouldn't have feelings for you too."

Her breath caught in her throat and heat rose to her face; lips pressed tightly together. She cradled the sides of her head.

"Y-you... do?"

His voice was faint as a whisper.

Do I?

God I feel like a teenager! Do I know how I feel? Of course I do... or... I think I do. Don't lead him on. Fuck, just don't lead him on.

Her mind was racing, but it was true: all she came back to every time was the smile he brought to her lips, his kindness, his humor, his near-reverence for the very same wilderness she'd dedicated her life to. And that was hard enough to find in a human guy! Someone who was genuine about it, at least— instead of using the trail as a way to show off their machismo. She'd tried dating hikers before; most of them had complexes that she just didn't have any interest in enduring. And the rest of them? They wanted someone feminine to impress at the end of the day. A woman that liked pink sleeping bags and pom-poms on her snow boots.

But this guy.

This guy could give a rat's ass about her Sorrels. About her affinity for tequila on the rocks. Her skill at pissing in the woods without needing toilet paper. Her occasionally-hairy armpits.

Her battle scars.

And maybe there was a human out there that could fit her like glove, but you know what, I'm not going to stand around waiting for Mr. Flesh-n-Right to show up. Not when I've got this amazing person right in front of me.

"Yeah," she said, finally. "Yeah I do." Astrid was surprised at the smile that crept across her face as she looked at him in the dark, barely able to make out anything but the blue of his eyes. "I've got a few feelings, alright."

And she wasn't sure because of the poor light, but he seemed to just... light up. He reached out to touch her cheek with that enormous goddamn hand of his, as delicately and unsure of himself as any other human. There was a faint tingling of electricity as his fingers brushed away her hair.

"Can I kiss you right now?" he asked, bringing his face lower. "I really want to."

The question was so boyish, so fucking eager! Astrid let out a giggle and said yes.

The two of them met almost half-way; she was on her tip-toes, and the two of them were holding the others' face when their lips met. And Astrid knew this wasn't the first time they'd kissed, and probably not even the second or third time, but dammit, it sure felt new. His lips were like hers, but not like hers. They were malleable and smooth, but barely yielded to her flesh at all while his was able to demand so much more. But he was kind, too; he made sure his mouth, which could easily cover more than half her face, didn't overpower hers. In fact, he kept his lips together even when hers parted to lightly suck at his glossy bottom lip.

The exchange was only a few seconds long, despite feeling like hours.

Heat coursed through her and she felt so awake and alive. The heat and moisture on her hands would leave prints.

It was weird to kiss somebody for that long and not have them pant as they pulled away, but she decided that it was something she could get used to. Besides, it seemed like he was breathing heavily elsewhere; some part of his body was cycling air louder than normal.

"Now where'd you learn to do that?" she murmured.

He was looking at her mouth, still. Fascinated... maybe even hungry. "I've been studying," he casually retorted with a smirk.

"Oh god," she said, shaking her head at the sudden thought. "You've probably seen..."

"Yeah," he laughed. "Seen all of that too."

A blush rose to her face and there was a faint flutter in her stomach. "What d'you think?"

"I think..." and here he looked a little embarrassed at how honest he was trying to be. "I think I want to have a first time again."

"Wait, wait," she said, pushing him back onto his heels so that she could have a seat on his thigh. "What does that even mean for someone like you?"

"Well... I guess if this is something we're going to make a go at, then you should probably know a few things."

"Exactly," she said, beginning to yawn.

"We can talk about it tomorrow?" he asked.

Astrid shook her head. "No. I'd rather start the conversation now."

He hesitated for a slight moment. "Well, alright. My kind have what we call 'sparks' in your language; they're sort of our life force." Astrid nodded even though he'd explained this all to her already. "They're also how we... experience pleasure. I'm a unique mech in that I... I guess that I really enjoy physical sensations. Not many others appreciate that sort of... input the way I do."

"So you're a weirdo kinkster, then?" she teased, sorry once she felt that it'd hit a nerve.

"I guess so," he chuckled awkwardly. "Most other mechs do it completely hands-off-like: some of them like the feeling of having a hardline connection, some do it wirelessly, I dunno. I've done it a few times and I never could see what was so great about it. There's just something about being touched that I love."

Astrid had a few other questions on her mind, now, but she was getting very tired all of a sudden, and so kept things simple. "So how come you said this would be a first time if you've done similar sort of stuff before?"

"It'd be my first real time with a human," he said quietly, shrugging off his awkwardness.

"No, no, it's OK, I was just trying to get things straight is all."

"I don't count... that time in the garage, obviously."

"I don't..." Another yarn. "...either."

"We can talk more later, though," he said, gently lifting her off his thigh and walking with her, keeping her smaller, slower pace. He transformed when the got back to the pavement and she crawled inside, fading fast.

"I'm looking forward to this," she murmured into the seatbelt beside her cheek.

"Me too."

She was asleep by the time that they got back to the motel, and was roused by the feeling of a cool breeze on her face and her seat being righted.

"C'mon, let's get you inside," he said, and she opened her heavy lids to see the holo driver sitting beside her. "I'd carry you if I could, but I can at least open the door for you."

She smiled weakly shook her head, slipping out of the Jeep. Astrid grabbed hold of the door to steady herself - as soon as she hit that bed she'd be out again - and met Hound's holo at the door a few feet away. He passed his hand over the card reader and the little green light came on. With a loud ka-klak he opened it and motioned her inside.

"I'll see you in the morning?"

She had no idea why that sounded like a question.

"See you in the morning, big guy," she chuckled, and then just about collapsed.

Chapter Text

His internal chronometer read 0836 when he noticed the first signs of stirring; his human had just come out of REM and would probably be more or less awake in 20 minutes. Out of curiosity, a large finger brushed her shoulder as she slept with her back to him. The motion caused her to sleepily roll over and face him before stilling again.

The mech had just joined her; he'd spent the night out in the parking lot, buzzing with happiness. He couldn't wait for her to leave the room before seeing and touching her again.

But a gasp tore him from his giddy thoughts, and Astrid was looking at him with eyes wide and mouth even wider. "Hound, what are you - !"

Right.

One of the more subtle things to be understood about really knowing how to use hardlight tech was the use of "clones": hardlight forms that were perfect replicas of the emitting 'Bot in question. There's no extra load on the physics engine, since those calculations are routed through the CPU and handled with the very same hindprocessors that deal with a mech's actual movements. In other words, a complete facsimile that looks and moves like your actual self would always be less of a drain than trying to emit any other object, even a replica of a different scale. Always. In fact, it was the first thing a mech learned when being fitted with light tech of any density.

"Relax," he said, smiling and putting his hands up. "It's just holo. See?" He phased his fingers together.

"What am I going to do with you..." she laughed.

"You want coffee? I can grab you some from the office."

"Not looking like that you aren't!"

He laughed too. "Of course not." He snapped his fingers purely for effect, and an instant later, he switched the image of himself out for the human holo again. "But I can with this."

Astrid just covered her face and giggled, falling back onto the pillow. "Alright," she relented. "I'll time you."

Hound's driver phased through the door and headed to the main office, grinning to himself at the surprised shriek of laughter that escaped through the door behind him.

"You're going to get us in trouble!" he heard her yell from inside.

He crossed the 10 meters or so between her suite and the office, passing a bank of rooms that were probably half-occupied. He came to the door and, with a sudden necessary surge of energy, grasped the handle and swung it open to step inside.

Hound nodded at the clerk behind the desk, who was reading a magazine and barely paid him any mind; he headed for the small console table that held a couple coffee dispensers, foam cups, and a few different flavors of creamer. It was then that the mech realized that he'd never prepared a cup of coffee before, and resolved to get better at it. What does she like?

It occurred to him that he must have looked very odd, standing there, staring at the spread, and decided to just throw something together to avoid any potential suspicion. So he grabbed a cup, pumped away at the "regular" dispenser, and looked over the little plastic cups of creamer. Irish cream, hazelnut, half & half... half and half of what?

I have no slagging idea what any of this is.

After a moment, he grabbed two without looking, and went to snatch a packet of sugar to be done with it and realized that there were as many sweeteners as there were creams. Oh for Primus' sake!

He grabbed a random few of those too before heading out the door.

"I stopped counting at 5 minutes, big guy," she smirked, opening the door when he'd knocked.

"There's cream, and there's sugar," he huffed, setting down the myriad of items he was holding so that he could return the holo to it's less energy-intensive softlight mode. "Nobody told me that there'd be a dozen kinds of each in there. I realized that I didn't even know what you liked!"

She laughed. "It's OK, promise! I'm really not picky. For future reference, though, I don't usually do cream."

Sugar, no cream. Got it.

What the hell kind of intimate partner was he if he didn't even know the way his human liked her coffee?

"I'm going to remember that even if it's the last thing I do," he said, determined to start this relationship off right.

She picked a green packet out from the pile he'd brought and tore it open. "And how do you like your energon stuff?"

Now it was his turn to laugh. In fact, he'd somewhat accidentally returned to his clone form in the middle of it, suddenly taking up much more space. She walked around him to the bed and sat down.

"You're never going to have to get me a cube."

"You never know," she retorted, raising a brow and taking a sip. "So come on, humor me here."

His spark was swollen with bliss right now. This was so much fun. She was so much fun.

"I like it warm... about 38 degrees celcius. With a slight negative charge... oh and just a touch of chromium."

"38 degrees celcius? Don't forget you're in the States, now," she scoffed with a smile.

"That's about 100 in your farenheit."

"You all are based out of the US. Why do you use metric, then?"

"Honestly? It just makes more sense."

"That's what they all say."

The two laughed together.

Astrid sat in the bed for a few more moments, sipping the coffee. Hound was enjoying the contented silence between the two of them from where he sat on the floor, back against a wall. After a few moments, though, he noticed her set her beverage down, gather up a blanket and pillow, and throw it at his lap. It caught him by surprise, but he quickly solidified the area just in time for the bedthings to collide with his pelvic plates. The Jeep then busied himself with an expression of intrigue as Astrid slipped off the bed and settled down on the floor between his legs and lean back against his lower belly with the pillow between them.

He gave her a look. "I'm going to need to see about upgrading my emitter gear if you're going to keep this up," he said wryly. Hound liked the way she looked against him like that.

"Oh, not so technologically advanced all of a sudden, huh? I can't even sit with you without needing an upgrade. Tsk tsk."

"I believe that this is actually called cuddling."

"Details," she snorted. "Besides, I'm going to need to install floor-to-ceiling sliding doors in my new place just so you can come over, huh? Talk about upgrades."

She'd meant it as a mirthful jab, but Hound realized that he hadn't actually thought this all through yet. Sure, he'd occasionally thought about what it might be like to hook up with an organic, but those had all been daydreams and fancies. Most of the other races he'd encountered over the millenia all at least had some means to accommodate off-worlders of varying dimensions - but humans? Humans had had no real contact with any other intelligent race before, let alone a race of veritable giants (outside of their ancient lore, of course), and therefore had no method of dealing with them, no design praxis for adapting their infrastructure, no framework for including them in their society.

What if he wanted to drop by to watch a movie with her? What, exactly, would that involve?

OK, just... just stop. This is too much too soon. Just take 'er easy and enjoy each day as it comes, alright?

"Hound?"

The small hand on the underside of his resculpted bumper brought his attention back to her. With a smile, he met her gaze, studying the small, faint, concentric rings in her irises, each the color of rich Baltic amber. "I'll see if the Bureau'll give you a tax rebate for it," he said with a wink.

"Bureau?"

"It's the agency we report to... doesn't officially exist. As far as the public is concerned, we answer to the CIA and whatever department we're working for that season."

She screwed up her face. "So do you or don't you work for search and rescue?"

"I did, for a couple years. I might do it in Alaska, too, who knows. I'll have to ask the Bureau - they might have something different in mind for me up there."

"What 'bureau' is it, exactly?"

Hound chuckled. "Don't worry about it. The men in black are our pain in the neck," he said, thumbing towards himself as a representative of the Autobots as a whole. "And with any luck, you won't even need to talk to any of 'em."

"Men in black!" Astrid exclaimed with a laugh, catching the reference. She shook her head. "My god, of course that would be what it is."

"Hey, that film was based on a real United States phenomenon, you know. A mythos formed from real encounters. Of course, the 'men in black' have been around supposedly since Roswell..."

"Well while we're on the subject, mind telling me what really happened at Roswell?"

Hound laughed and shrugged. "Would if I could. The Bureau doesn't let us in on stuff like that, though. M'afraid that we aliens are in the dark about flying saucers just as much as you are."

"Hopeless. You're all hopeless."

A pause passed between them; it was calm, peaceful. Hound checked the energy stores his body set aside specifically for his use of the hardlight tech, pleasantly surprised that it was being used up at a relatively slow rate. Cloning was really the way to go in these situations - it was his physics engine that ate up the vast majority of his energy when taking up an alien form, and specifically an organic one. Rendering realistic skin and muscle was so damn difficult. He estimated that he could hold this for upwards of an hour if he wanted.

"Hey, we're good, right?" Astrid asked, breaking the silence. "I just want to know, because last time I asked you that, you weren't being completely honest."

"I'm feeling better than I have in a long time," he said, giving her a squeeze. Her concern for him felt like it would cause a meltdown in his spark. "And... you're good too, right?" Please say yes.

"I feel pretty great, actually." She planted a small kiss on the delicate sensor pad of his right thumb.

It was in that moment, though, that Hound found himself being struck by something he hadn't quiet felt before. It was a strange combination of emotions... sadness, anger, loss. But mostly it felt like dread; a dread that sunk down into the pits of his spark chamber like an acid boring its way through his dense internals. He realized that, like the kiss on his finger, this wouldn't last.

That he would live for a long time to come - indefinitely, even - just as she was fleeting, winking into existence and winking away again in a manner inherent to all organic things. While he would likely go on to outlive entire Earth-nations, hell, maybe even the planet itself (as slim of a chance that was), not even with the most advanced medicine would she outlive this century.

She'd be gone before he knew it.

The Jeep in the parking lot shuddered, knowing that yes, this is what dread feels like.

The question, though: was he brave enough to face it?

Suddenly all the horrors of war, his millennia of serving as captain in grueling campaign after grueling campaign, his harrowing years of training, his experience watching the sparks of friends get snuffed out on the fronts like unplugging a strand of Christmas lights... suddenly, all of that was nothing compared to the prospect of watching Astrid grow old and die.

His paint could be regenerated; his parts replaced; his spark could even be transferred to a completely new frame if it had to. In 50 years when she's frail and wrinkled, he'll look just as he did the day they met.

And there wasn't a damn thing that anyone in the universe could do about it.

Was he brave enough to keep going?

"Astrid?"

"Hm?"

"You've had pets, right? Like, a dog growing up?"

"Yeah, why?"

"What was that like?"

She gave him a look, but indulged him. "It was great. He was a black lab my sister and I named Rabbit." Hound gave her a look. "Hey, I was like, three, and she was six. We wanted a rabbit more than a puppy and figured that if we named him after one, he might turn into a rabbit. Anyways, he turned out to be amazing... was a member of the family."

"How old were you when he... when he passed?"

"I was sixteen. The whole family was there at the vet's office and... he was just in so much pain." He held her a little closer. "Probably one of the worst days of my life."

"If it's so hard, why do humans do that to themselves?"

"Because if you love animals, it's worth it," was all she had to offer. "You cherish the time you have with them, even though it's painful when they... when they go."

Hound nodded.

"Why d'you ask?"

"Oh, I just..." he vented awkwardly out in the parking lot outside. "I was just thinking that maybe I'd like to get a dog at some point," he said, smiling awkwardly, then laughed. "A big dog, of course."

The look in her eye said that she knew that there was more to his words than he was letting on, but thank Primus she didn't pursue it further.

"What's that saying?" she asked rhetorically. "It's better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all?"

The pair reached Vancouver sometime around midnight. The border crossing had been a pain, and had almost turned into a full-on circus if Hound hadn't intervened and given the border guards a good what-for. They'd called in the RCMP for backup after more than an hour of bothering Astrid, and it was actually thanks to them that they were able to cross the border at all. The Mounties were familiar with the Autobots' complete international immunity, that their affairs were to remain unimpeded, and that any complaints were to be taken directly to the CIA. The looks on their faces when the mech materialized in the inspection room, though, was priceless. Afterward, Astrid was the one to get a bit of her own what-for; Hound had no idea what she'd been thinking when she decided that this would be a good idea! "What would you do without me?" he mused aloud once she was allowed back in her car again.

They'd trundled into whatever cheap, empty, motel near the border that would take them, and agreed to spend little more than the morning in town before heading up the highway. In fact, they'd made it to Kamloops before the human decided she wanted to break for the night. She said her butt was sore from sitting, and Hound had mentioned something about how he could very easily fix that for her, but she batted his hand away and headed upstairs to her room for a little R&R. But, much to his surprise, he found her asking him to come up after a little while. He was even more surprised to find her not wearing pants when he appeared in the room.

"I was just curious to see... how much we could cram into an hour's worth of hardlight power," she'd said, edging to the foot of the bed.

Hound's air cycling outside was labored, and the look on his holo-face must have been one of shock. "Are you... are you sure?" His hands were burning with the sudden desire to touch her, even though there was no way for her to really return the favor through his hardlight clone.

She got off the bed and walked toward him, stepping into the circle made by his legs. "I want to try again," she said, softer, sobered, this time. "Our last time... your first time with a human, it was..."

It both underwhelming and overwhelming at the same time? "It was OK..." he tried finishing for her. But that wouldn't do.

"No, it was shit. The whole thing was shit. We barely even remember it." Well, he remembered a lot more than he let on, but...

A smile crossed his face. "Alright then," he said, leaning down to plant a kiss on the spot where her hair parted. "Once more with feeling." He was feeling that creeping dread again, but firmly shoved it aside.

"How do we start?" she asked, looking up at him, eager and determined to make a good impression. The sight made him want to laugh.

Gosh she's cute.

"Well..." he put his massive hands on her hips, giving a light squeeze. "You're not going to be able to... to pleasure me like this, but-"

"Whaaat?" she whined, frowning. "That's not fair."

"But," he continued, grinning. "I can wait my turn. Besides, I want to get to... know you better." He kissed her hair again, bringing his hands to her shoulders now, stroking her arms. "It's one thing to study diagrams, it's another to hold the real deal."

Astrid giggled and sighed under his hands, and with a yelp, he scooped her up and relocated her back to the bed.

"So I'm your guinea pig?" she teased from where she lay, gazing at him from under hooded eyes. He knew what she was trying to do, but he wanted to avoid it... for now, at least. One thing at a time, you little firecracker!

"I'm still learning, believe it or not," he admitted. "Still learning what humans like, let alone what a certain special one does."

"If you wanted to know, big guy, you could have just asked."

He cocked a brow ridge at her as she hooked a finger at him.

"I like kissing," she started, once his great big head was comfortably within reach. Little palms and splayed fingers radiating heat pressed against the sleek sides of his helm - thank Primus his sensors were good enough to feel it like it were the real thing! - and she brought his face down towards hers. "It just isn't foreplay without it."

Just like the last time they'd kissed, pressed up against a bank of dark trees on a greenbelt in Portland, her lips felt exquisite, and he kicked himself for not thinking up the whole kissing thing before coming to Earth. (Not that any other mech would have eagerly locked lips with him, but still.) The small stretches of supple, curving flesh, lighter than air and softer than chenille, pressed up against his own lips, and he could feel her hot breath gently wash over his upper. They moved against him, too - sucking, pouting, brushing, and in no time he found himself emulating her movements. Astrid took a quick breath before diving back in, this time open-mouthed, and he was caught off-guard when her tongue darted out and dipped into the cleft between his lips. With a ragged vent he opened up.

Bliss. This is bliss.

His glossa slipped out and dipped into that moist orifice and he could suddenly feel her heartbeat around his tongue, pulsing in the soft, pillowy tissues of her mouth: in her strong, slim tongue, in her palate, the velvety insides of her cheeks. Astrid felt so alive, then! So vital! The human was pulsing, humming with bio-thermal energy. She burned like a slight, masterfully sculpted engine of pliant flesh: a machine that governed countless individual processes, maintained a precise temperature, and even kept time.

Frag, humans are amazing. YOU'RE amazing.

"I also like being touched," she broke away long enough to say, and Hound realized that his holo's hands had been doing little through the exchange. She stroked his arms with those finely ligatured fingers of hers, running up and down the length of his admittedly massive green forearm, and almost being able to reach the single yellow stripe across what would have been his bicep.

"I don't think I can understate how good this feels," he murmured, running his giant hand up her naked thigh, relishing the sensation of brushing against every visible and invisible hair there.

"Yeah? Even though I can't... yannow..?"

A lazy smile spreads across his face and he nodded in time with his gently groping fingers. He suddenly found himself wanting to be candid. "Can I... can I tell you how long I've wanted to know what a human feels like?"

"Oh?" she cocked a brow at him, and the look on her face said that she's curious but doesn't quite know what to expect.

If he had saliva and a throat, he'd have swallowed. "I um... it was within our first year of working with the Bureau, and each of us was going through examinations. They were mapping us." He could recall those couple of days like they were just last week, and it gave him a guilty little thrill to do so. Astrid encouraged him to continue with her body language. "I had an agent, not a machine, doing my documentation. He had to crawl all inside me in vehicle mode; they laid me down and he had to get up on top of me in order to get a few measurements. I just remember the way his hands felt... his knees and legs..."

Astrid giggled, and he wondered with a sudden fear if he'd ruined their moment somehow. "A guy?" she asked.

"Why not?" he said, taking his hands off her, suddenly embarrassed. "A human's a human to me. Soft, smooth, warm..." He tried injecting a little spark back into their conversation by leaning in, and planting his holo's hands on either side of her on the bed. "Wet..."

"You know, when you put it that way... it's kinda hot."

Hound smirks, realizing that he might be able to make her get his perspective. "All humans make the same sounds when they're being touched," he goes on. "Your little bodies all do the same thing when you get off, no matter what the anatomy looks like..."

"If you want to touch a human so bad," she interrupted, low, sultry. "Then you really should get to work with those hands."

She didn't have to tell him twice.

.

It was going to be a long and arduous drive from there on out; the highways that they intended to take would lead them up through the western mountains of British Columbia and into the Yukon before they could head west and down into Anchorage. Assuming all went as planned, it would take the two of them another 5 days to make it into the city, whereupon Astrid would immediately start looking for an apartment to live in while she found herself a realtor and a proper house after starting her new job.

Hound absolutely loved the Cascades... he believed them to be the most gorgeous mountain range in all of North America, creating some of his favorite views and vistas. He was concerned about the drive, though; the road would take them through some extremely remote wilderness, and the mech just wasn't sure how well some of them were maintained. But, as usual, Astrid was there to assure him that she knew what she was doing: how to handle both bad roads and inclement weather. But he wasn't one to nag, so he just kept close behind and made sure to be ready to spring into action just in case anything happened.

All in all, though, the drive was wonderful, and uneventful, even... except, that is, for another evening they decided spent together while stopped in some tiny town along the 37.

"Christ," Astrid half-drawled, half-groaned. "I can't even walk!" She'd tried to stand up to use the restroom, but Hound saw her legs completely fail her, and she sunk back down into his embrace.

The giant stroked her bare skin from knee to ribcage, basking in the afterglow of what he'd wanted for so long now. His vocal processor was sluggish, so his voice reflected that: it was low, husky, and slightly broken. A human might've called it 'guttural'. "Then don't," he chuckled. "Stay right here with me."

There weren't too many positions that they could 'cuddle' in without him theoretically crushing her (though impossible, of course, with the clone form), so he'd resorted to sitting on the bed and reclining against the wall. His torso took up pretty much the entire queen-sized bed, so his feet had to cross themselves on the floor. Astrid held onto him for fear of losing her balance as he piled up much of the bedding into his lap, arranging it almost like a nest of sheets, blankets, and pillows. He knew it would be much more comfortable for her to sleep there than on bare metal.

She looked at the sight and laughed. "No," she said with a toothy grin. "No. I'm sorry, big guy, but I am not sleeping there."

He couldn't help but laugh too, gesturing grandly at the cushy mess he'd made on himself. "You sure? It looks sorta bed-like to me. I saw on a nature documentary once that humans sleep in nests they make with stuff they find in, like, fields and stuff."

Astrid's smiling and her face is scrunched up in this way that makes him feel like a million bucks just from looking at it. "I think-" she's interrupted by a burst of snorting laughter. "I think you're thinking of birds, Hound."

"Birds? Really?" He mimes being deep in thought. "But humans are social animals... sorta fluffy... small... and you lay eggs too, right? I could have sworn that you lay eggs..."

"You getting weird porn and documentaries mixed up again?" she jested, complete with a roll of her eyes.

"Well, they are sort of the same thing."

"Aliens!" she declared, throwing her arms up as she made another go for the bathroom, disappearing around the corner. "Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em." The door closed behind her and he could hear water being run.

The smile on his face faded, and he looked at the ceiling. The dread was returning.

Slaggit, why can't I just enjoy this? I knew what I was getting into - why do I have to keep thinking about it, then?

He tucked her in that night with a kiss and a smile, promising to reappear as soon as she let him know it was OK to come up.

.

It was day after gorgeous day of driving through the mountains after that. It rained a little some of the days; a warm, summer shower that made everything come somehow more alive than they already were. When the clouds cleared, hills and valleys looked impossibly greener. Hound loved it. Green was his favorite color, after all. At least... well, when he limited himself to the colors humans could see.

These moments almost made him forget his worries, and in fact, it did manage to do just that for a little while. He couldn't help but slow down as they turned a high corner with nothing but the guardrail to obstruct their view of a steep valley with a long, skinny lake at the bottom. It was almost black, except where it shimmered like white gold in the sun. A bald eagle swooped down from some roost up on the mountainside above them, heading for the water. A raven followed it, and Hound chuckled to himself, knowing what the smaller scavenger had in mind.

Other cars were few and far between here, and that only contributed to Hound's enjoyment. Sometimes he'd swerve a little, back and forth, behind Astrid's small yellow SUV, and she'd respond with a break check.

But they'd still see a few maybe every couple hours and he could tell that passing the larger vehicles made Astrid a little nervous. She would break and make room for them, especially on the turns. That, in turn, made Hound nervous. He really wished that she could have just ridden with him for this whole drive, but there was no way that he'd have been able to haul her car behind him, too. Why couldn't she just have sucked it up and bought a new one after arriving by air? She knows he'd have driven her wherever she needed to go until she arranged for a new vehicle.

But... the woman could be a bit stubborn. Which is why he liked her.

.

After what seemed like weeks, Anchorage finally came into view after a quick and painless border crossing.

Astrid, who had started getting restless (and frankly, a little grumpy) suddenly sprang to life again at the sight of her new home.

"It's gorgeous," she gasped at him over her phone as they drove into town. "I know I should find a motel or something, but... shit, I want to take a look around first."

Hound laughed. "Well, I'm afraid that you won't be able to have my company if you do," he reminded.

"Oh." She deflated a little. "That's right. What would you do?"

"Don't worry about me!" he said with a smile. "Really, go have the afternoon to yourself. I can keep myself plenty busy." The last thing the mech wanted to do was to keep her cooped up on his account.

"You sure? I don't want you to feel like I'm ditching you..."

"You forget: vehicle modes are just as natural to us as being biped. I'm not wanting for anything when I'm transformed. Promise." It was a little lie - it was frustrating not being able to walk into a store or cafe with her like any other human, but that wasn't exactly unique to Earth's infrastructure. He could deal with it just fine.

"Well, if you say so."

She found a bit of street parking in a walkable neighborhood and got out of her car, waving at him as he passed her by. Hound had the man in the cowboy hat wave back at her as he continued on, wondering where it is that he wanted to go.

I think I'll find a nice place to park and do some reading...

.

Hound didn't do his usual reading, though. Jack London, Mark Twain, human advancements in metamaterials and stealth technologies - no, there were other things on his mind, and it was the internet brought him face to face with a world of philosophy that he'd only ever been familiar with in name: existentialism.

He'd found a lovely parking lot beside a park that overlooked the ocean, expecting to turn away from his study every once and enjoy the view, but that's not what happened. The mech quickly found himself neck-deep in the writings of Kierkegaard and Zapffe. And before he knew it, two hours had passed and he was nowhere nearer to finding an answer to his despair over Astrid's... human condition. In fact, he'd only succeeded in making himself feel worse.

Hound was tempted to keep searching - surely the humans had some advice someplace - but decided against it, and with great difficulty. It was easy to get sucked into this crap. Especially for a worry-wart like him.

No... if he and Astrid were to be together (whatever that means) then it would have to be on each of their terms.

This is for me to figure out.

Later, Astrid phoned him up and asked if she could have dinner with him.

"Got some lobster ravioli to treat myself," she explained with a hungry grin on her face as she shut his passenger side door behind her. She was about to take the lid off her take-out container when she paused, glancing at the dashboard.

"What's the matter?"

"I don't think I ever bothered to ask how you felt about me... um..."

"Yes?" He wanted to laugh at her hesitation. It was adorable.

"About me eating... in... you..." She practically had to drag her own words out. "God that was an awkward thing to say."

He sensed her look about his cabin with an expression on her face that told him that she was suddenly seeing his car-mode very differently. "Is it?" he asked with a little chuckle. "I mean, you know what you're doing every time you climb in, don't you?"

Astrid screwed up her mouth, raising her eyebrows, making Hound want to burst out laughing even more. "Well, no. I mean yes. I mean..." she sighed, heat rising to her face. She let out a little nervous laugh. "I know this is you," she continued after a moment. "That this upholstery, these joists, the windows... it's all somehow part of your body. I get that."

"So what's the big deal?" He was genuinely curious, but part of him was getting a kick from putting her on the spot. He didn't often enjoy needling others, but this was cute and to him, pretty harmless.

"There's only two - no, three - ways for a person to be inside of another person where I come from," she chuckled. "One, it's because you're a baby and you haven't been born yet. Two, it's because you're fucking somebody. And three, it's because you're eating somebody and that makes you a goddamn cannibal." She was practically in stitches by the end of her explanation, and Hound could tell that her heart was still racing.

"So which one are we?" he practically giggled, trying to keep from moving too much on his shocks.

"That's why it's creeping me out!" she burst. "This isn't natural! Er... this isn't Earth natural!"

Hound let out a laugh - engine choking - and hurriedly shushed himself before a passerby got suspicious at the sounds emanating from the parked Jeep. "That's the thing about being a vehicle - you carry things, Astrid," he explained. "And sometimes, those things are other people."

"OK, OK, that's fine." He could tell that she was trying really hard to keep from exploding into another fit of laughter. "Just... try not to remind me too often. There's a learning curve to this."

"I can do that. And by the way, you can eat in - " he chose his term carefully: " - here. If you still want to, that is." He was a location right now, not a person. Not yet, at least. He trusted that it was something she could get used to with time, though.

She paused and he wondered if something else were bothering her about this - but a small, genuine smile spread on her face for a moment before she opened up her meal. "Thanks, Hound. I mean it."

And just like that, all thoughts of Kierkegaard vanished.

After a few minutes of silence: "Hey?"

"Mmh?"

"How are we going to do this?"

Astrid knit her brows and finished her bite. She didn't ask what he meant, and looked out the window - his window; the one that hid under the heavy plating in his middle back - and took a moment to chew on this instead.

"I haven't thought that far ahead," she admitted.

"Me neither," he admitted too.

"How long can you stay here?"

"I have to work," he said. "We can't just do whatever we want. If Prime doesn't put us to a task, well, your government will."

"What do you mean, "our government will"?"

Hound did his people's version of swallow. "Remember the secret agency I mentioned?"

"Oh."

"There's always odd jobs for us to do to keep busy. Some fun, some... less fun."

He lets her think for a moment. "What if you got a gig in Alaska?"

The mech considered this - the idea had crossed his mind, but he didn't know of any around Anchorage. He supposed he could actually ask instead of make assumptions, though. "They might have something for me..." He paused. "But they're not going to like why."

She smiled. "Just tell 'em you like it here."

Well, that wouldn't be a lie. Alaska was beautiful beyond imagination and a real breath of fresh air. He could definitely live here for a while, squishfriend or no squishfriend.

"OK," he said, smiling with his voice. "I'll ask."

"I would just hate to be long-distance, and all."

"I would too."

"Well," she said, taking another bite of her food. "We'd better head out. I gotta start looking for jobs like, yesterday."

.

That night, Hound's little human - his wily, smooth-skinned, warm, organic, and trouble-making human - coaxed him out to the outskirts of town so they could have a little fun.

Human fun.

Tactile fun.

Hound still had a helluva lot to learn, and the journey was proving to be just as thrilling as he imagined the goal was, but still... he was beginning to feel that something in their sessions was missing. Her hands were exquisite, and mouth, and everything else, definitely - and her deceptively strong little fingers worked veritable miracles on the spark cables exposed from deep in the junctures of his neck and limbs. And he had a good time pleasing her too! She swore that a single one of his fingers was enough to do the trick and then some, that what he had to offer her was more than wonderful and exciting enough, but...

...what if he could offer her something more familiar? What if there was a way that she could pleasure him in a way that his body was built for in a way that her body wanted?

I am Cybertronian, after all. I can modify myself.

He'd have to talk to Wheeljack about it.

Oh Primus. That wouldn't be a conversation that he'd want getting out - not a word.

The giant stroked her shoulder, distantly noting that he was fighting the urge to touch her harder - what's THAT about, I wonder? - and he turned over with a low, satisfied grunt to envelop her under his hulking black and green arm. "Here's a thought," he murmured, lazy from the overload. He noticed her little toes barely reached far enough to graze his belly. Gosh she's cute.

"Yeah?" she responded, equally low and lazy. "What's up?"

"What if..." He stopped, actually. The words, he realized, were just going to sound so stupid. Maybe it was a bad idea.

"What if what?"

"I just, uh..."

"Go on, spit it out."

"What would you do if I had a... a penis?"

She squinted at him, screwing up her face. "What would I do if you had a penis?" Her mouth changed just slightly, but it suddenly became recognizable as a smile. "I'd probably be all over it."

His spark, which had been wound up tight, let itself loose. He vented a soft gust of air in relief. "You would? Even if it weren't, uh, flesh?"

"Hel-lo: one word, big guy. Dildos."

"Oh."

OH.

"What if it were scaled to me and not you?"

She shrugs. "That's what hands are for."

"And if there's no... uhm... explosive finish?"

Astrid's eyes are drooping, but she's still awake enough to smirk. "You're pretty explosive as it is."

The mech did his version of a blush and buried his face into her neck - well, as much of it as he could fit there, which was little more than his mouth and nose. What he was trying to do, though, was cover up the damn pubescent smile that was blossoming from cheek to cheek. You really are green - and in more ways than one. He tried imagining for a second what he looked like from her perspective, but quickly gave up. It would probably just take away from the moment.

"Duly noted," he said, trying to sound mature. "We really should get back to the hotel, though," he murmured. "You're warm now, but it won't take long for a chill to set in."

"Thanks mom," she joked, planting a kiss on his nose and reaching for her bra.

Oh, two can play at that game, missy. "Hey, I didn't say anything about clothes, though!" He snatched her wadded up fabric and subspaced it just as her arm shot out to steal it back. When they disappeared, an indignant cry escaped her. Humans and their attachment to garments would never cease to be a source of fascination and amusement not just for him, but for just about every Autobot he knew. Nudity wasn't especially thrilling to him, erotically speaking, but her cultural hangups were definitely a source of amusement if he wasn't mean about it.

"You didn't," she growled.

"I did," he grinned. With a quick movement, he rolled back onto his heels away from her and transformed, leaving her with no choice but to get in.

She stood up in front of the Jeep, buck-naked and hugging herself, and with a priceless look on her face. "I am going to kill you..." she lilted dangerously.

Hound just roared with laughter, opening the passenger side door for her. She stormed over and, before he could stop her, though, she ground her bare feet into the dirt and hopped in, hiking them up onto the dashboard. "Hey, now, I didn't say you could do that!"

"I thought you liked dirt, Hound!" She wiped her feet onto the glass.

"You... you're gonna clean that off later!" He tried sounding mad, but it was almost impossible through all the laughing. As soon as he'd gathered his composure he nabbed her clothes out of subspace and "tossed" them at her lap.

Laughing through her nose, Astrid proceeded to dress as he took them back into town. "If I wanted to kiss you in this mode, where should I do it?"

Hound pondered this for a moment. His vehicle-self had no lips and no face - that was only natural of course; he couldn't imagine it being any other way. Tactilely-speaking, his cabin didn't have much going for it either. Like he'd said, vehicle modes were for carrying and travelling, and little else. Definitely not for kissing.

But the more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea.

"Maybe... the center console?"

Astrid leaned over, and after brushing her lips against the hard, rubberized surface, gave it a kiss. The mech was pleasantly surprised at the sensation. He made a mental note to maybe pursue more of that too.

.

It took four days, but Astrid finally found a place to live, and even got a few bites on the employment end. Nothing conducive to a career, she'd noted, but it would be an income.

Hound knew that his little vacation wouldn't last much longer too, and that he'd either have to go back to his previous post, schedule a new one, or figure out how to stay near Anchorage. Truthfully, he was fretting about it a little - always nervous to rock the boat, to stray from his routine. But if he didn't, well... things wouldn't exactly go the way either of them wanted.

So one morning the mech excused himself to go for a drive around the hills. And make a phone call.

"I'd like to speak with the scheduling director, please," he announced to the operator at the other end of the high-security line.

"One moment, Hound."

After a few clicks, he was connected.

"Goethe speaking," came the gruff voice.

"Hi Mr. Goethe," said the green mech, pulling over to the side of the dirt road to better concentrate. "I'm calling to ask about getting a... reassignment."

The man on the other end hummed to himself, pulling up Hound's file. "You've been on leave since Portland," he grumbled.

"No," he nervously corrected. "I had some XT's I was handling with Beachcomber since then, sir."

"Ah, yes, yes. I see that now. Good work." He paused, probably reading. "So you don't want to go back to Yellowstone, I take it?"

"No, sir."

"And Prime has no plans for you?"

"No, sir. I was thinking Alaska, actually."

"Oh?"

"It'll be a nice change of pace, is all. And it's beautiful up here."

"Well, let's take a look..." he trailed off, and Hound could hear the sounds of a mouse and keyboard. "How does HAARP sound to you? Their needs sort of match your qualifications."

HAARP? The glorified radio station? "Didn't that get shut down?"

Goethe chuckled. "'Course not," he said cryptically. "They just moved it further north."

Hound reminded himself of its old location, and decided that even that was too far away. "Too remote for me," he said. "I was thinking maybe... Anchorage?"

"Too remote? Alaska's nothing but remote. You want civilization, you need to be lookin' at the lower 48. Besides, there doesn't seem to be anything else for you to do up there."

Hound deflated, sinking down on his shocks with a sinking feeling in his spark. What was he going to do? What would he tell Astrid?

"Alright, thank you sir. If anything else comes up, let me know."

"Well, wait a minute, there might be something there..." A pause and Hound strained to listen as the man read. "I'll have to get more information, but there might be a project starting up in Chugach."

"Really?"

"I'll find out more and let you know."

The mech tried to curb his sudden excitement. "That'd be great, sir. Thank you."

"We'll keep in touch, alright? Until then, you ought to get back to AHQ. I'll make sure they're ready to receive you in the next 48 hours."

48 hours? Well, at least it was a notice.

"A-alright, sir."

Frag.

.

Astrid was understandably upset when he told her that he had to leave. In fact, she'd started crying, and he realized that there was only one other time that she'd shed tears around him. She was still in a wheelchair then.

If he had tear ducts, Hound imagined that he'd have done the same, too. But all he could do was vent raggedly as he held her close (but not too hard) and wonder, for the umpteenth time, about how in the pit they were expecting to pull this off. Forget the existential despair - at this rate, he wouldn't even be with her long enough to celebrate her 31st birthday!

"I'll be back, I promise," he murmured into the crown of her head. He felt her fingers digging into the top edge of his chest, smearing their little oily marks all over him. The mech wanted to keep them as long as he could, but knew he'd have to buff them off before heading back. They would not make for a fun conversation-starter.

"When, though?" she sniffed, wiping her face with the sleeve of her sweater.

His spark sank. "I couldn't tell you."

"God dammit," she hissed, pushing herself away from him. Please don't walk away, he thought, and was relieved to find her only turning around so that her back was against him now. He wove his fingers together around her as she stood on him, each foot planted firmly on a thigh. Hound didn't have anything to say, though he was trying to come up with something. At length she broke the silence. "I guess this means that it's worth doing, at any rate. I mean, look at us... we've been an item for less than a month and I'm already making with the waterworks at the prospect of you being gone." She lowered her voice. "I thought I'd take it better."

Maybe it was because his concept of time was different, or maybe it was because he had a better inkling of his feelings (which, truthfully, was a rare occasion for this one), but he knew, and he was a little more OK with it. She was right, though. Hound really really didn't want to leave. In fact, he'd have asked for more time if he hadn't already spent the better part of a month playing hookie.

No, he had to go. He was still an Autobot, there was still a chain of command, and there was always work to be done.

"Me too," he said quietly. "Maybe it'll be good for us to be apart for a little while, though," he suggested with a frown. "It'll give us time to think about... things. Figure out what we want from each other."

"Strategize," she mumbled. "I hate that this needs strategizing."

"Me too."

Maybe he could reach out to Tracks? See how he did it? No... he and - what's his name? - Raoul were very private people when it came to their personal affairs. Besides, Hound could have sworn that they never wanted to "be together" so much as, well... it wasn't really his business. Living together wasn't on their to-do list is what he knew about them, so there was probably no point in asking, and that was that.

"When do you leave?"

"Five in the morning tomorrow."

"I'll go and see you off."

He smiled a little, but shook his head. "I'm flying freight. I don't think they'll let you into that part of the airport. You sleep in and plan that move of yours. You get the keys in 2 days, right?"

"Yeah... Wish you were there to help drive the stuff, at least."

"And push boxes in through the door," he chuckles.

"I guess that's something else we've got to figure out: an indoor space you can actually fit into."

He gave her belly a reassuring pat. "That is the least of my worries, right now."

"You really have no idea when you're coming back?"

The mech looked away. "It'll be weeks at the most, maybe a couple of months. But that's a very pessimistic guess."

He felt her nod. "Alright... I guess I can do that."

"Now come on, let's go have some fun before it's time for bed."

.

It'd been two weeks at Autobot Headquarters and Hound was beginning to lose hope that he'd ever get a chance to do anything more than simply visit Alaska. He tried hanging out with the other mechs, spending time in the rec room, going for drives in the countryside, and deploying himself for the occasional SAR operation around Mt. Hood, but there was always that feeling that he ought to be spending time with her. His human.

They'd call each other every day - and Skype, once he figured out how to finagle a "camera" on his end - and he got updates on how the unpacking was going, the job-hunting-turned-job, and how she was beginning to realize that she had no idea what she was in for come winter. Listening to her freak out about so many months of freezing temperatures and short daylight hours was enough to bring a big smile to his oversized face.

She, on the other hand, got secret glimpses of the base, of some of the other 'Bots, and some of his routine too. For some reason, she was endlessly fascinated by all of it. Hound, on the other hand, was usually bored out of his CPU. Especially on days of sentry duty.

It was just when he'd given up hope of hearing back from BREME about his request, though, did that very thing happen.

One afternoon while on patrol around the grounds (all 820 hectares of it), he got a comm request on his Bureau channel. It was Goethe.

"Sorry for the delay, Hound, but that project I'd mentioned? Well, turns out its a bigger deal than I thought. We've been briefing on it all week."

"Oh?"

"And as luck would have it, you are exactly the mech we need for the job."

Hound's spark jumped, but he kept his tone level. "What sort of job?"

"We're diggin' a hole in Chugach and we need someone to operate the cloaking equipment that's gonna conceal the whole site."

Hound's browplates rose up high enough to almost disappear behind his helm. The humans have never asked for tech to be used on such a large scale. Concealing a truck or plane has been about as much as they've ever dared to request so far. He wondered what Optimus would think of this. "I guess I would be the mech for the job, then."

"We also need someone to head our security detail. Someone who's familiar with Decepticons," he continued. "We're conferencing with the Prime at about 6 o'clock this evening. I suggest you be there."

"Will do," he affirms. And then something else slipped out: "Before you go sir..." An idea had occurred to him.

"Yes?"

By Primus, what are you doing?

"You wouldn't happen to need an environmental analyst for this project, would you? B-because I know of one, and she's a very dear friend of mine..."

.

Hound was ecstatic. It was all he could do to keep from telling everyone he came across of the tremendous news. Mirage knew something was up, but Hound played it off as one of his general Earth-inspired good moods. There he goes, getting happy about trees again, his friends would joke to each other. He'd have to tell them eventually, but... he didn't want to get ahead of himself. He had to make sure Astrid was on-board first.

Something about carts and horses.

The meeting with Prime, Jazz, and Prowl went well. Red Alert, the security director, Bluestreak, the Ark's traffic coordinator, and Wheeljack, the mech who would be building BREME their cloaking array, were there also.

The crux of the project?

"To put it simply, we have reason to believe that we've found energon ore on Earth," said one of the men on the screen. The room had fallen deathly silent, but Prime was quick to demand an explanation.

For an hour, the humans explained the details of their findings, and the Autobots were left with no other feasible explanation for the discovery of the ore other than that it was, indeed, a natural geological formation. This was potentially fantastic news: depending on the size of the find, it could theoretically power all of the Autobot's operations for years to come, instead of drawing from the grid. The humans, of course, were keen on studying it, but that was to be expected.

The only problems, then, were Decepticons - but Decepticons were a given - and peeping Toms. Which is where Hound would come in.

The project, one of the biggest Autobot-BREME joint operations in seven years, was kindling an excitement in the Jeep that he hadn't felt in a long time. Not to mention the bargain that he'd tentatively struck with Goethe.

By the time the meeting ended, which went on for the better part of three hours, Hound all but bolted out of the war-turned-conference room to get Astrid on the horn.

Once safely back in his quarters, the green mech rung her up and paced, a big, nervous smile on his face.

"Hello?"

"Hey hey, Astrid!"

"Wow, what took you so long tonight? It's like, nine."

"I know, I know, I'm sorry. This meeting came up, and get this: they're going to be transferring me to a station near Anchorage."

He could hear her jump up from her seat. "What?" she cried. "No way!"

"Yeah!"

"My god, that's great news, big guy. Shit, I could just could about cry..."

"Don't cry for me Argentina," he said, laughing.

"I'm not, I'm not! It's just... wow, we might have a shot at this after all."

His spark, which had been burning bright and wild before, tempered. "Yeah, I know," he said quieter. "For a while there, I wasn't sure if we did."

She sighed. "Me neither." A pause. "Alright, so, what is it?"

Hound lowered his voice, even though no one would be able to hear him from behind the closed door anyway. "Well, they think they've found a deposit of raw energon in the state park there, about a 45 minute drive from the city. They're going to be digging for it and, well, want the whole operation uh... hidden."

"Raw energon?"

"You know, the pink and purple stuff. It can occur in mineral form, but we never thought Earth had the right geology for it. I guess we were wrong."

"Wow, OK. So... when do I see you again?" she laughed.

He chuckled a bit himself. "I think they plan on breaking ground in August, but I'll be around for the planning stages. So let me think... I could probably visit for a week or two here soon, and I believe they'll want me to stick around starting next month."

"This is so exciting! Ugh, I can't believe it. OK, the question now is, where do you stay? The... the air base?"

The mech's spark started flaring up again, and he couldn't keep the stupid grin off his face. "That's the other thing," he said, slowly for some reason. "They would let me live in the city, in a suitably retrofitted building, under one condition..."

"Which is..?"

Please say yes, please say yes...

"...that you work with me as the project's environmental advisor."

There was a noise on the other end of the line - loud, high-pitched, raw. He was about to ask Astrid if she was alright when her voice came careening over the line: "Yes! Yes, of course! I mean... probably of course! I... shit I don't even know what that would entail, but... fuck it, yes! Count me in!"

The mech's feet did a little skip as he turned to collapse in a blissful heap on the berth. Primus, he can't remember the last time he was this damn happy. Everything was suddenly going so amazingly well.

"Vector Sigma," he half-breathed, half-laughed. "I'll um... I'll let them know right away."

"What did you tell them about me? I mean, I haven't done ecology stuff since school!"

"I just said that you had your degree, that you were a friend of mine, that you could be trusted, and that you were already in the area. It was practically a done deal."

"Wow. I just... I still can't believe it."

"I know!"

"I think we're going to have a blast," she said.

"I think so too."

.

"What's the matter with you?" Trailbreaker asked. Hound, the black SUV, and a few others were doing inventory the following morning after a shipment of supplies arrived, under Bluestreak's surprisingly watchful eye. (The mech didn't know when to shut up, but when push came to shove, he was as professional as any of them.)

"What, never seen a happy 'Bot before?" the Jeep quipped back.

Teebs input some numbers on his datapad. "Well, you're not outside, you're not covered in dirt, and you don't have a cube in your hand, so somethin's up."

Hound chuckled, maneuvering a heavy skid aside with a powerlifter as Bluestreak finished directing some humans on where to put the last of the shipment in the Ark's cargo bay. Most of it was raw materials.

"I got a station in Alaska," he said after a moment, beaming. Of course, that was only part of it, but with his reputation? It ought to be enough.

"Oo-hooooh," Trailbreaker said with mock-awe. "There's lots of dirt up there."

"I'm tellin' you, it's good for the spark."

"Nobody enjoys your proselytizing, Hound. I hate to break it to ya."

He shrugged with feigned disappointment. "More for me, then."

They carry on like that for a while, interrupting the monotony of the work with little jokes and aimless conversations.

"Hey Teebs," Hound found himself saying, though, and with a decidedly different tone.

"Yap," came his grunt from the next aisle over.

"You ever know a human who uh... who died of old age?"

"Hmmm. I think, uh... I think Parker died a few years ago. One of the assistant directors; he was pretty old for a human."

Hound shook his head and sighed. "No, not some Bureau mook. I meant someone you knew personally."

"Can't say I did. Why, you know someone 'bout to kick the bucket?"

They all are, compared to us, he thought. "No."

"What I do, when I'm faced with the very real possibility of everyone I know and care about getting blown away by some Decepticon or another, is one, stop thinkin' about it, and two, enjoy it while it lasts."

Hound pondered this, and realized that doing that used to come naturally, back when it was mortars and gunfire instead of stroke or organ failure. Was it that he was having a hard time accepting a human's natural lifespan, feeling like the ripe old age of 80 or 90 Terran solar cycles would always be premature? Or was it that he just gave too much of a damn about this one particular homo sapiens, and jealously wanted her around as long as he would be?

Hm.

"Now stop being weird, ya green bastard. Go take a mud bath or something and come back when you're happy again."

The Jeep chuckled, picking up his datapad to type in more numbers. "I don't think Bluestreak would appreciate that."

.

"I said no peeking!"

Astrid was seated inside of him as he rolled them down the street, making a left turn in a part of town that some folks might not want to find themselves around at night. But the mech knew better, and that was half the reason he'd made her keep her eyes firmly closed since they pulled off the main drag.

Up ahead was a building - about 70 years old, a few thousand square feet, and once home to some small distribution company for car parts or tools or something - being swarmed by a small construction crew. The parking lot was littered with sawdust and scraps of cut linoleum. A painter in white coveralls appeared from the door, carrying a compressor for his air brush kit as another pair of crew hoisted a table saw back up onto a truck. Looks like they were almost done.

She was giggling, and yes, her eyes were closed. He liked the way her bubbles of laughter vibrated down into his seat. "Are we there yet? God, be glad I can't hear where we are or something like you can."

He gave her a laugh in return. "It makes surprising you just that much easier!" They came to a stop in front of the warehouse and then he gave the go-ahead: "Alright, you can look now."

She opened her eyes and immediately her attention was drawn to the bustling movement on the north side of the street, but it didn't quite click for her yet. "What am I looking at?" she asked, cocking an eyebrow.

Hound laughed again, almost beside himself with excitement as he opened her door. "Get out, I'll show you."

The little human did as told and a few moments later she stood beside him in the street. The construction crew gawked for only a second or two before getting back to work - the Bureau must've told them that an Autobot would be visiting.

"Well, there it is," he announced, grin on his silver-white faceplates. The mech looked down at her standing beside his foot. "This is where we'll be living."

Her face lit up and she turned to look at the sight before her again. Suddenly this building mattered tremendously. "Oh wow," she gasped. "Wow."

Hound almost giggled himself as he got down on a knee to be closer to her. "What do you think?"

"I... well, I'd like to see the inside!"

"OK! You go through the front door; there's one in back for me."

She nodded and strolled across the street waving to some of the crew as she headed for the door. Hound quickly transformed and headed through a drive-in lock box in the back, where the loading dock used to be. Once inside, he transformed, glancing around. He was beaming.

"I can't believe it," she said, marveling at the place for herself. It was a warehouse alright, but the renovations would make it more than just habitable, but comfortable. And in spite of the fact that it was a bit on the cozy side for someone his size, it would be comfortable for the both of them.

"Me neither," he vented contentedly, sinking down closer to the floor again.

She flitted about for a few minutes, looking at the kitchen, going upstairs and peeking into the two rooms there, surveying the bathrooms, the plumbing, the lights, minding the "wet paint" signs. She was fun to watch. Eventually she found her way back to him, resting a hand up on his knee.

He was picturing what it would look like with her furniture in here, with her all moved in. Maybe she was making herself dinner as he finished a report, or they sat and read in silence together, or turned on the TV and watched a favorite show. (He hoped that she liked M.A.S.H.) After tens of thousands of years living in military bases, making camp on battlefields and foreign worlds, the idea of being domestic for a little just seemed so thrilling. Finally, he had an organic partner to call his own, and something resembling an organic life.

"What're you thinking in that big, green head of yours?" she asked; there was some sort of finality in her voice. A happy finality.

"Just two words, really," he said with a smile. "Welcome home."