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"I still can't quite believe it," she says, looking out over the 3500-some square-foot facility that she and Hound were to now start calling home. It gives her an eerie feeling, almost; like something being made official by moving in. Something she doesn't quite know how to react to yet.

 

 

She blinks a few times and smiles a little, shaking her head. The whole affair of getting here was nothing but a flurry of papers, meetings, and men in black suits driving unmarked cars. She signed and initialed thick stacks of documents, sworn to secrecy, promising that everything she knew would be gone if she stepped out of line. It's all so overwhelming.

The Autobot always tried to be there when she was communicating with BREME, the Bureau of the Regulation of Extraterrestrial Machine Entities, a US government agency that doesn't officially exist. He's much better suited to handling these situations by virtue of a few things, and for that, she's eternally grateful.

Hound nods, glancing about the space for himself. "Me neither," he agrees. There's an excitement in his voice.

From this day on, the two of them are operating out of an old warehouse in a dumpy corner of Anchorage. The neighborhood is industrial, and there are practically no full-time residents to speak of, aside from a few homeless. The nearest grocery store is a ten-minute drive, which Astrid isn't too thrilled about, but she supposes that it's a small sacrifice for getting to share a home with her Cybertronian partner.

The accommodations are admittedly spartan. Cinder-block walls painted white, bare concrete for a floor, and exposed ducting along the 20' ceiling are defining features of the "home". What was once the offices upstairs was converted into two rooms and a bath, and beneath that is a small kitchen, couch, and TV. That's the west end of the building. The east side consists of living and working spaces for Hound: an energon tank and dispenser, a berth ergonomically designed for his shape, wash racks, and a work station. The areas are divided up by large barriers of wood and sheet rock on heavy casters so that he can rearrange them if the desire ever strikes.

For all intents and purposes, the warehouse looks like any other work/sleep environment. Aside from, of course, the size of some of the furniture.

Hound's shoulders slack some, and he looks down at her. "You sure that you're okay with this, though?"

Astrid takes a bit of the inside of her cheek between her teeth and absentmindedly chews on it. This isn't exactly what she'd imagined when... well, this isn't something she could have ever imagined. The move to Alaska was supposed to be more or less simple. She'd rented a house on the outskirts of town while she would get back on her feet doing something, and in no time would have the money to buy a house to call her own. Yeah, that lasted all of three weeks. Once day Hound came home and mentioned that he'd been talking with some government folks... the rest is history.

She scrunches up her face and shakes her head again. "It'll just take some getting used to is all."

The look in his optics is one of suspicion, but he's not one to be too persistent. Astrid hopes he doesn't worry himself sick about it; she was telling the truth.

He changes the subject. "How are you feeling about next week?"

"Oh," she murmurs, sucking her bottom lip between her teeth and tucking a lock of dirty blonde hair—she hasn't gotten it cut since the accident—behind her ear. "Right, I almost forgot about that."

Hound laughs. "Forgot! How could you possibly forget about a trip to Autobot headquarters to meet my commanding officers?"

"Hey," she says, shooting him a playful, but tired, look. "In my defense, I've been a little preoccupied here."

The green mech kneels down, chest now eye-level with her, and he places a few fingers on her shoulder since his hand is too wide. "I'm sorry," he says quietly. "I've honestly forgotten what it's like to be a civilian. All this crap is normal to me."

A civilian. But is she's not a civilian anymore though, is she? The world she lives in now isn't anywhere near the one she lived in just a few months ago.

Few people that dealt with Autobots, she'd quickly learned, were even allowed to retain their civilian status. As soon as you get caught up in the dealings of aliens, the government is on your ass. Forever. But her case is even more complex as that; she was a government employee now too. She was told to say that she works for US Fish and Wildlife Services, and even the job description isn't dissimilar to what she'd be doing if she actually worked for them, but right now her ass belongs to BREME. In exchange, she gets something resembling a life with Hound.

Nobody held a gun to her head and forced her to make what she later realized is a Faustian bargain, but for now, it doesn't seem terrible. The worst part is the secrecy.

Astrid's half of the bargain is this: play environmental impact advisor and liaison with the EPA should they come knocking during BREME's project in the wilderness, and in return, she gets medical benefits, guaranteed job security, and a pension. Oh, and complete legal immunity. That is… immunity from civilian courts. It's not something that she ever wants to figure out.

Thinking all of this through for the umpteenth time, she gets a small headache and decides that she needs to go for a ride.

"I'm going out," she announces, turning around and heading for the bright yellow road bike hanging from a hook beside the door. She bought it after arriving in Anchorage, at the behest of her physical therapist. Astrid wound up taking to it like a fish to water. "I need some fresh air."

"Can I drive you?" the Jeep offers. "Getting out sounds like a good idea."

She looks up from where she crouches next to the bike as she checks the tire pressure. "Rock-crawling?"

He smiles. "How'd you know?"

The wind slicing through the holes in her helmet, whipping her hair behind her, is pure bliss. She powers along the coastal trail, hitting her first mile mark in no time.

Why can't everything be as simple as riding a bike? Going only as fast and far as your legs can pedal you, as slow as your hands can break? With nobody but you to set the pace, steeper, unpaved terrain would be nothing but voluntary. She frowns and shifts to a higher gear.

Off to her right, a pod of orca whales surface and send misty plumes up into the air in short, powerful bursts. She stops pedaling and coasts as she watches in awe for a few brief moments. Astrid will never going to get sick of that part of being here.

What she was already sick of, though, was worrying about meeting Hound's "family". With no idea what to expect, she entertains all sorts of scenarios, most of them nerve-wracking. Are they all like him? What if they're not? What will they think of me? What if most of them don't actually like humans that much and act more like… well, robots?

She decides that for all his talk of routine and normalcy, Hound has to be feeling similar.

"Not everyday you bring home a human girlfriend," she mutters under her breath, gripping the bullhorns under her palms a little tighter.

The other half of the situation is that Astrid is seeing her family again for the first time in months. They're meeting her in Portland for dinner; her parents, sister, and brother-in-law timed a four-day weekend with her trip so they could all talk about her crazy life in stereo. Because hearing about how much of a weird screw-up she is is something she has always just loved.

Now, though, she's a weird screw-up with secrets. Talk about icing on the cake.

"Just get through the next two weeks," she half-breathes, half-chants. Legs pump harder to pick up the pace, maybe to make her elevated heart rate seem warranted.

Hopefully the Jeep is having a better time out in the hills.

Late next Thursday night, Hound and Astrid drive over to the cargo facilities at Ted Stevens International. The days are still long, and the stars just beginning to come out, so they have to keep their errand on the down-low.

"Good evening, Mr. Wells," Hound says as he drives up near to the airstrip, maintaining vehicle mode to avoid catching the attention of wandering eyes. The BREME suit stands there beside an unassuming cargo plane and her crew.

"Good evening, Hound," replies this Mr. Wells. His hands are clasped together in front, and when Astrid disembarks from the driver's side seat, he nods at her. "Ms. Schneider."

She returns the nicety.

"Your flight will be 3 hours," he informs the each of them, pausing as a red-eye takes off in the distance. "You'll be arriving at about 2:15, by my watch, and you're to report to us upon arrival at AHQ. All briefing and questioning that transpires during your visit will be on record with us. Got that?"

"Yes, sir," Hound affirms. Astrid just nods.

"Have a good flight," he says. "And good luck, Schneider- you're in for a world of surprises when you get there." Mr. Wells gestures then toward the plane, where one of the ground crew waves the Jeep forward with a lighted baton. He drives up the gangway with Astrid close behind.

"Watch your step, ma'am," the crewman calls out, before he and another go around to begin signaling the pilot.

Hound transforms behind her; the space is just tall enough to accommodate him, but he kneels down to gently grasp her arm.

"This isn't a commercial plane," he says, and she lets him bring her close as the hatch slowly lifts up with a mechanical whine and closes. "It's going to be a bumpy ride."

She looks around at the dimly lit hold. "Where the hell do I sit?"

"You can go up front if you want," the mech offers, gesturing toward a door at the head of the space.

"And if I don't want to?"

A smile spreads on his faceplates. "Then you'd better hunker down with me." He pulls her down with him until she's nestled between his legs. "Don't want you to go flying during takeoff. That'd be bad."

"Probably," she grins. The grin turns into a yawn. "So, this not being a commercial plane and all… I take it the trip will be loud, cold, and generally miserable?"

Hound looks away and nods. "I tried asking if they could schedule a normal flight for you to coincide with mine, but..."

Astrid scoffs and leans against his thigh. "Buncha cheap bastards."

"Tell me about it. I did bring you a little something to make the ride a little more comfortable, though."

"Oh?" She perks up and looks at his bright, warm optics above her.

He reaches behind him and produces a pillow, like pulling a coin from behind someone's ear. And moreover, it's her pillow. "Grabbed you one of these..." He does it again with the other hand, and this time reveals an old blanket. "And one of these."

Astrid reaches for them, and he slowly lowers them to her. "Oh my god," she gushes. "You are amazing!" She wraps herself in it, cushioning herself against the hopelessly cold, hard floor. Those rivets are going to be the end of her, she decides.

They were moving during the entire exchange, and are now, she guesses, on the runway.

"Where are we?" she asks.

Hound bends down to peek out of one of the few portholes in the side of the craft, and confirms her guess.

It's only a few minutes later that they take off, and a few minutes after that when they arrive at their cruising altitude.

It's loud, yes, and cold, and generally miserable. But Hound seems to raise his surface temperature so that she has something warm to snuggle up to, and she finds herself at eye-level with his pelvic plates. Coincidence? she muses to herself. Her lips press together in a mischievous simper, and her eyes lazily follow the yellow striping flowing inward and downward along the front of his plates, starting at the sides and terminating at the counterweight between his legs.

She bites her lip and her smile grows toothy. Counterweight. Astrid turns the word over in her head. I mean, that's what it is, but…

But nothing. Not once has she ever looked at that peculiar piece of anatomy and not likened it to man-bulge. Not even the very first time that he transformed in front of her.

Astrid's hand, sturdy from years of working the outdoors though always slim and lithe compared to his, reaches out and brushes against the yellow. She immediately perceives a jolt from under her fingers.

"What are you-?" she hears from up above.

The human tilts her head up and to the side, meeting his eyes as she draws little swirls along the side of his hard angles. "Oh, nothing… don't mind little ol' me down here."

She leans in, opening her mouth and brushing the pad of her tongue along one of those yellow stripes. She can hear the buzz of electricity under the plating. Hound shifts under/around her… to get more comfortable? To get away? Knowing him, somehow both.

Astrid gets her answer in the form of a very large hand on her back. Encouraged, she weaves her hands into the slight gap at his thigh and perceives the slightest buck in return.

"You're about to join the mile-high club," she laughs before diving in for more.

A few hours later, and it's the landing that wakes her up.

Astrid's cradled in his folded legs like a bird in a nest- she always woke up with a crick in her neck whenever she slept on him like that, though. It might sound sexy on paper, but "my boyfriend's body is hard as steel" has its definite downsides. In fact, the two of them had a running joke for a while that referenced duct-taping pillows to his arms and legs. They came surprisingly close to attempting it.

Before long, they're taxied into their spot and the gangway is lowered.

Astrid is only half-awake- her normal bedtime is quite often before midnight as the morning hours are her favorite. The human-shaped Jeep surrounding her gives her a light nudge to make sure she'll get up on her own two feet.

"I'd carry you, but..."

She winces and shakes her head, stepping off the blanket so that the mech can send them back into subspace. "No PDAs yet," she grunts.

He chuckles a bit and transforms mid-step, disembarking the cargo plane as an avocado-hued SUV that looks like it can drive to Everest base camp. There's hubub going on around her as she works her way down the ramp, but at this hour, everything's just noise. She trudges to his passenger side and the seat is reclined as far as it will go for her.

"How far is AHQ?" she asks, falling back asleep as he pulls away from the tarmac, the gentle thrum of his alien engine like a warm blanket.

"About an hour out of town," he softly explains.

"You know," she continues, drunk on fatigue now, "You could read off the fuckin' phone book with your cabin-voice and it would be auditory bliss."

The engine chokes, and his laughter fills up the space. "Auditory bliss, huh?"

"Auditory bliss."

"If you don't get to sleep already, then I'll start reciting prime numbers. Don't tempt me."

"Whoa," she mumbles into the seat belt. Her voice is getting smaller with ever word. "Let it be known that such is the… the wrath of Hound..."

If he did start prattling off numbers after that, then she didn't remember.

It's almost 4am by the time the two drive past the security gate at AHQ, and Astrid is out.

So out, in fact, that she never feels the second pair of large hands very carefully lifting her out of the front seat at Hound's direction so that he may transform and carry her in. Nor does she feel herself getting wrapped up in the blanket again, or her face being covered so that the lights inside don't bother her.

She sleeps like the dead until 10, when there's a knock on the door.

The sound doesn't actually register at first. She sort of groans and rolls over. But the interruption is insistent.

Knock, knock.

"Hey, 'Id?" came a vaguely familiar voice. "You up and kickin' yet?"

Who was that?

Her surroundings begin to come into focus, and for a few precious seconds, she's thrown into the twilight zone of disorientation. Where the hell am I?

The room is huge and she feels to be about the size of a small dog. There's something that looks like a desk; another thing that looks like a chair; shelves; a panel of transparent green stuff with things in it. Large things. Metal things.

She comes-to a bit more and remembers the drive to… ah yes, this is AHQ then. Ok.

"Beachcomber? That you I hear?" the human calls out.

The door beyond the foot of the berth she was laying on slides open and in steps a familiar blue face.

"Groovy," he says with a lopsided smile. "You remember this old cat. How's it hangin'?"

It was an odd question to ask someone as they're just waking up from a dead sleep, but, well, cultural differences and all that.

"Been alright… meeting up with my folks this trip. Should be a blast." That last sentence was dripping with sarcasm.

"Keen-o," he murmurs in that way of his, leaning against the jamb. "Well your hip machine went off to some morning gigs. Told me to get you up 'coz sleeping in makes you feel like a graveyard."

She snorts. "Yeah, yeah it does."

"This pad is what we classy chassis like to call the Ark, by the by. Pretty funky, ain't it?"

"Weird," she says, eyeing her surroundings again. "Neat, but weird. You guys have anything in the way of amenities… my size?"

"Totally," he drawls, stepping over to help her off the berth. The drop is only about 6 feet, but it's too early to prove anything. Astrid steps into his hand and he lowers her the rest of the way. "Joint is pretty cubesville, though. We don't get many humans around here, and if we do, they don't stick around to party. Stay outta hotels in town, usually. Can't blame 'em! Wouldn't wanna be no Quentil quail around here, that's for sure."

"Quentin quail?"

"Y'know… someone small and young and-"

Astrid covers her face and stifles back a laugh. "Beachcomber, I think that's slang for jailbait."

"Hey man, you know that's not what I meant! You humans are pretty, well..."

She holds up her hand and laughs in her throat. "I get it, I get it. Even a middle-aged man is young enough to get you guys into trouble."

The blue mech laughs. "See? You dig me."

"How many of you are stationed here right now?"

'Oh, I dunno… few dozen machines. I don't usually hang here, so I'm outta orbit."

She keeps careful pace with his long strides; to her, it's a powerwalk, and to him, probably more like a scurry. "And… you all know to watch where you step, right?"

"Hm?" Beachcomber does something with his foot that puts it just about in her path, and she jumps. "Syke!"

"Oh my god, Beacomber! I swear..."

He chuckles, continuing along his original trajectory. "You've got nothin' to worry about, little lady. Most of us could see you comin' from a mile away."

"Well, that's a relief." Mostly. It's unsettling to learn that most of the Autobots have a number of Hound's imaging capabilities.

"Just keep clear of the big yellow one," he says in a lower voice. "He doesn't get on with any cat, really, not just humans."

Astrid nods, wondering how many yellow mechs there are in AHQ that she might have to keep her eye on.

"Now through here's the little cats pad," he says, stopping and gesturing at an Astrid-sized corridor. The opening comes up to the tops of his legs. "Got no idea where everything is, but rooms and stuff should be labeled all square-like, y'know?"

She wants to shower, and realizes that she doesn't have her bag. Crap… Hound was the last one to have it.

"Do you remember seeing a blue and orange bag in the room, by any chance?"

Beachcomber rubs his face and thinks for a second. "I think I did," he decides. "You need it?"

She nods, and he offers to go back and get it for her. In the meantime, she ventures further into the shabby space. Very underwhelming, she confirms as she looks out over a cheaply and sparsely furnished communal kitchen space. Astrid strolls over to a white plastic toaster on the formica countertop and inspects it for a moment. You'd think BREME could afford to not shop at Walmart, she muses, pushing it against the backsplash again.

The area seemed heavily used… at one point. The fluorescent lighting overhead makes a loud buzzing noise as though it's going to fail at any moment. There are scuff marks on the laminate flooring, and a small piece taken out of the edge of the laminate break room table, revealing the chipboard inside. The place has seen some action. But not anymore? BREME liaisons wouldn't suddenly start staying in hotels because the "cancel" button on the toaster broke and the fridge was full of expired food. They clearly had the means to keep this place in top shape, but it was apparent that there was no longer any interest.

"Wonder if the hot water even still works," she mumbles to herself.

"This it?" Beachcomber calls from where the mech and human hallways meet, setting her duffel on the floor.

"Perfect, thank you!"

"Well, I'm outta here," he says as she approaches to gather her things. "I got your main squeeze on the horn and let him know that you were over here."

"Hey Beachcomber?"

"Mm?"

"Could you try and keep um… his and my thing on the down-low? Especially around here..."

"No sweat," he smiles. "Your secret is safe with me. I'll catch you on the flipside!"

"See ya."

Breakfast is old, freezer-burned burritos of unknown origin, and the shower water is warm. It's about all she can ask of a place like this.

As she towels off, her ears catch someone whistling. She stops and strains to hear what the tune is, but can't quite make it out. She throws fresh clothes on and, bag in hand, heads back out to where she was, following the sound. Astrid half-expected to see someone sitting at the table enjoying a cup of Nescafe, but she's alone. The sound, as it turns out, is coming from the larger hallway outside. And as soon as she spies a pair of green and silver legs, she knows who it is.

"Alright, I give up. You have no lungs, no windpipe, no saliva… how are you making that sound?" The human walks up to the Jeep, meeting his blue gaze.

Hound purses his lips together and out comes the wolf whistle of all things. "That's for me to know and you to find out," he teases. "Did you sleep well enough, I hope?"

She shrugs. "Well enough. You know, I was wondering, though… where is everyone? Beachcomber said there were like, 30 or 40 of you here and so far this whole place seems deserted."

"Everyone's downstairs. The basement levels is where all the excitement happens around here," he explains and begins to walk. "There's really just temp quarters and emergency deployment up here."

She nods.

"I was thinking you could meet some of the crew before our thing with Prime and Prowl later," he suggests. She can tell that he really wants her to.

"The crew?"

"Yeah! Some of my old buddies. A few of us go way back."

"And what's 'way back' to you? A hundred-thousand years?"

"Well… a couple of them I met while fighting in the old wars."

Astrid rolls her eyes and laughs. "Alright, spare me the details. I didn't get enough sleep for this sort of thing."

They head further into the complex, passing a number of enormous doors with bizarre markings beside them.

"Is that Cybertronian?" she asks, gesturing toward one.

Hound stops and looks at the plaque beside one of the doors. "Yeah," he says, voice distant. "Weird, huh?" Why would his native writing system seem weird to him? Maybe he was looking at it from her point of view.

They round a few more corners, Hound keeping his paces slow and measured for her—something he learned to do early on in their friendship—and she sees keypads beginning to appear next to the doors. Locks.

After a few more moments, the two arrive at an elevator. It's gargantuan; the biggest elevator she's ever seen by far. As they step in, she guesses that the car is several stories high and wide enough to accommodate four or five Hounds standing shoulder to shoulder. Why did it need to be so tall..? Beachcomber is about Hound's size, maybe a few feet shorter, but it never occurred to her that maybe, while Hound is the standard size of an Autobot, he is far from their biggest.

The thing shudders to life and they head down, down.

She stares out straight ahead, hand loosely grasping at some bit of something on the side of his leg.

"It'll be fine," he reassures her as the car comes to a stop. "Nobody here bites. Promise."

The doors open, and her eyes are as wide as dinner plates.

They step out of the elevator and into a cavernous room maybe 50 feet tall and with at least a 5000 square foot area, and styled like a rec room. To her left there's a massive screen with last night's football game on, and a crowd of five mechs crowded around it on hard seating. Someone wearing a red jersey fumbles the ball at the 5 yard line and the bots jump up, yelling at him.

To her right are some tables and what looks suspiciously like a bar, and behind it, something that looks suspiciously like a still. A blue and white mech stands behind the counter and dispenses something into a metal can; it's dark and thick, like motor oil.

A few heads turn to see who arrived, and Hound gets a few nods from strange faces before they go back to what they were doing before. One or two gazes linger on her for a moment, curiosity writ on their faces, but she isn't spectacular enough to merit inquiry, so they too return to what they were doing.

One mech, though, leans back in his chair and calls out to them with a lopsided grin on his face. "Who you got there, Hound?" This one is big, black, and silver, with a visor instead of eyes.

"Come on," he says to her before striding over to his own seat. "Trailbreaker! I want you meet my new partner in crime, Astrid. She's on the project with me in Alaska."

She cranes her neck to try and see the both of them at the same time, very suddenly aware of how big everyone's legs and feet are around here, and not sure how to feel about it.

But the new mech leans down and reaches out with his hand, one bigger than Hound's, which she takes in some semblance of a handshake. "Nice to meet you!" he says. "All you need to know about me is that I love a good drink, good company, and a good joke."

"Soon-to-be government agent," she says with a laugh.

He straightens up. "Why don't you set her up on the bar here, Hound? Let's have a conversation like normal folk."

"Sure," she shrugs when he turns to her with a questioning look.

He bends down, palm up, and she steps into it. Normally this would be a more intimate interaction, but circumstances being what they are, they have to play normal.

...not that any of this is particularly normal.

She's deposited onto the counter. "I feel like I should start dancing," she jokes; the others laugh along, but she's not entirely sure if the implications of the cultural reference really hit home.

Other bots sitting at the bar begin to notice her now, and a small black and red one sitting on the other side of the Jeep leans in closer. "Windcharger, Astrid. Astrid, Windcharger," he introduces them.

"Welcome to the Ark," he said, lifting up a cube of purple stuff in a small toast, taking a sip. "Couldn't help but overhear... so you and Hound are partners now?"

"Yeah, they have you working with BREME, huh?" Trailbreaker piped in.

"Hm?" Another mech, who was sitting on the other side of Trailbreaker, became interested in the situation, it seemed, when BREME was mentioned. "We've got a human visitor? How come nobody told me!"

This one stands up to catch a glimpse at the woman standing on the bar, trying to see out from behind the black mech's bulky form. He, too, sports a visor, and has a mostly white body with black, red, and blue accents. It looks like he turns into something expensive.

Astrid just waves as he gives up and walks around Trailbreaker to get a better look. "Sorry Jazz," Trailbreaker grunts. "But I'm not moving. Not even for Primus themself!"

"Yeah, yeah," he good-naturedly dismisses with a wave of his hand. "Can the lip over there, would ya?"

"Like hell I will," he retorts, taking a gulp of energon. "This beauteous mouth is my greatest weapon. I've been told my humor is quite disarming."

"Quite the wordsmith," the mech named Jazz says in a low voice, thumbing at Trailbreaker as though he weren't sitting right next to him. Hound laughed, and so too did Astrid. "So you're Hound's girl, huh?" he asks. "Put 'er here." Jazz, too, stuck out his gigantic hand for a shake.

"Well, I uh..." Astrid glances over to the Jeep for some kind of hint as to what she should be telling these guys.

"His girl!" howls Trailbreaker. "You just going to sit there and take that? You gotta stick up for yourself a little bit around Jazz. He can get vicious." He leans in, smiling widely.

Astrid feels herself turning beet red, and laughs nervously. Fortunately, Hound quickly butts in.

"C'mon, guys," he says, trying not to sound like he's overcompensating. "We're just work partners."

"Famous last words," Jazz jests with a wink in his voice, then returns his attention to her directly. "So what're you two going to be doing up there anyways? Wait, wait, let me guess… baby bird inspector. No… tree doctor. You're a tree doctor, aren't you?"

The human can't help but laugh at the mech, and Hound does too. "God, I wish!" she replies. "But no, just playing the role of environment analyst. I get to kiss the EPA's ass through this whole process… BREME is powerful, but its public agencies that have popular clout on their side. They do everything by the book. Y'know, or so they say. Either way, no one wants to be the person to explain to the National Parks Board why Denali suddenly became a superfund site."

"I guess this parks stuff is pretty damned important around here," Trailbreaker says, gulping down the last of his drink and setting the empty metal can next to her. It's about the size of a 5-gallon bucket from the hardware store.

"Well, being the wise, humble people we are, if we never passed the parks act, our country would probably consist of nothing but strip mines and suburban housing tracks! Gotta take what wilderness we can get these days."

"Imagine that, though," Jazz muses aloud. "Pure energon, right here on Earth."

Hound scoffs, and Astrid is almost inclined to agree. "Yeah but who says we'll ever see a single tic² of it? Whatever BREME says is law."

Jazz lays a hand down on Hound's shoulder. Astrid watches, and realizes that his arm had traveled some 10 feet to complete the gesture. "Aw, c'mon, man. BREME's not all that bad. They've got some good folk workin' for 'em."

Hound appears to consider this. "Yeah, I guess… they were nice enough to set us up with a place to..." But he pauses. "...to work together."

Astrid glances around to see if anyone else noticed, and her eyes wind up meeting Trailbreakers. She could have sworn that the corner of his mouth turned up and a pair of optics behind the visor flashed in a knowing sort of way.

"No way," says another voice that she hasn't heard yet. A mech walks behind the crowd of bots now standing at the bar and stops when he catches a glance at the human now sitting there. Getting used to this kind of behavior now, Astrid just smiles and waves at the newcomer. He eventually pushes his way past Jazz and Hound to get a better look. "Hey! This that human you ran into trouble with over in Nevada not long ago! What's she doing here?"

Hound rolls his eyes, and Astrid shakes her head with a smile. "Yes, this is her. Why don't you introduce yourself? She understands English."

"Oh, right!" This new bot is black and silver, with red horn-looking things sticking out form the front of his head. She's surprised to see whole car doors protruding out of his backside. "Hey, name's Bluestreak," he says. "We heard all about your tussle with those slaggin' hunters back in June. What was it like as… as a human? You get into any good fights? Any blood?"

"Hey, hey, hey, now," Trailbreaker interrupts, pushing him back with a big hand. "We're not done hearing about her new job with Hound, yet. You'll have plenty of time to get your gossip stories later, kid."

She spies Hound trying to suppress laughter as Bluestreak makes a strange hand gesture and emit a few odd sounds before stepping back to let the original discussion finish up.

"And watch your language!" the black mech barks with a grin.

All the bots laugh at Bluestreak's expense, but she quickly realizes that's nothing outside of routine for them all.

"So tell us about that energon," Trailbreaker encourages once the laughter subsides. "They don't tell us anything around here, unless they want us to do something. Carrots and sticks, that's all they give us."

"Yeah, that's the impression I'm getting when it comes to government agencies," Astrid chuckles, beginning to be more at ease with this group. "Um..." she begins, noticing that Hound is standing as close to her as he possibly can, his hand down on the counter-top next to her. Is he subconsciously being... possessive? Astrid giggles inwardly at the thought, then continues as best she can. "I mean, it's basically like I said. I take a sample here, a sample there, try and make sure we don't accidentally kill every bear in the park. Of course I'm only one person, though, and I'm definitely not a biologist, otherwise I'd say they actually gave a damn! Honestly, though? I think I'm just there to absorb some heat and do some damage control if something goes wrong. And something probably will go wrong."

The bots nodded a bit.

"Well, welcome to the club," Trailbreaker says, grabbing Jazz's drink out of his hand and holding it up. "To being used for nefarious designs and not being able to do a damn thing about it!"

A mech in some other part of the space shouts "hear, hear!" in response, and everyone laughs.

The black mech attempts to take a swig of the stolen drink, but Jazz is quick to snatch it back up again. At that he motions for the blue and white Autobot behind the counter, who has been silently listening the whole time, to get him another. He does so without a word.

"Alright, alright, Bluestreak here—we like to call him BS for short, you know—is chomping at the bit to hear about your earlier adventures, so you might as well tell that one."

"Not often you hear this sort of thing from the human's mouth," he says in his defense.

"From the horse's mouth," Astrid corrects.

Bluestreak twists up his face. "That doesn't make any sense."

"It's an idiom, kid," Trailbreaker says, working his way through his second drink. "It's not supposed to make sense."

Astrid and Hound—who has been there, done that already—are full of belly-laughs. Her face starts to hurt from laughing. She looks over at the green mech, though, who shoots her a knowing glance. You know what details to leave out, it says.

I most definitely do.

 

"Alright, alright." The human turns to the barkeep and asks him to hand her an empty "glass". She turns it over, and as expected, makes a perfect seat. "So. The story starts last year, actually, some time in September. I'd learned that some of my friends were planning on doing a week-long camping trip in Yosemite in the spring. I knew that I had to go join them, and I figured what better way to meet up than to hike all the way in and grab a Greyhound on the way back, right?

"I'd only ever done 4-day weekend trips before at the most, and the only times I'd ever go solo was for basic overnight hikes. Use the buddy system. That was something my parents drilled into my head from pretty early on. Unfortunately the trip was biting off more than I could chew, and I should have known better than to insist on going even after the super wet winter we had. And my lapse in judgment nearly cost me my life when, to no one's surprise, a washed-out hillside came down on me about 50 miles in."

Optics brightened and mouths fell agape.

"Crushed one of my legs, broke a half-dozen bones, and the worst part was that I couldn't get anything out of my pack. For three days I was stuck there, unable to reach my food or my second water bladder, baking under the hot sun. I swear to god, I thought I was going to die. In fact, I was sure of it. That is… until the afternoon-"

"Morning," Hound quietly corrects. "It was about 11:30."

Astrid continues with a little smile on her face. "That is, until mid-morning on my third day under those fucking rocks, when I heard helicopters. I'd been pretty delirious for an entire day by then, slipping in and out, so I never really saw what happened, but not long after that someone pulled me out, and all I remember is that the hands seemed really big for some reason..."

The human went on from there.

It takes a little over half an hour to tell the whole thing in sufficient detail. Hound give his perspective at certain points, and the both of them are careful to give the romantic undertones a wide berth. As far as the others are concerned, he never even returns to get smashed with her after the depressing Portland skirmish.

"Vector Sigma," Trailbreaker exclaims when she's done. "Now, see, this woman here is keepin' it real. Next time an Autobot complains about humans being an inferior race, you hold him against the wall and tell him her story."

Jazz nods. "Some of us could use some remindin' sometimes, that's for sure."

Bluestreak looks dumb-struck. "Wow! That's amazing that your little organic body can take so much. And those Xeno-Hunters? Boy am I glad you got the chance to kick their sorry tailpipes all the way to jail! They're nothing but trouble around here."

"Yep, she handled the situation very well," Hound says, beaming. Just then a raucous series of cries erupt from the bots watching the game, which is now apparently over. Some proceed to stand up, stretch some, and bid the others farewell as they go back to work. The channel is changed to a rerun of House. Seeing the game end, the Jeep takes it as a cue to turn to the group and bid a quick farewell. "On that note, we should probably get going... got a meeting with Optimus and then Prowl later."

"Oh, well you definitely wouldn't want to see you get on Prowl's slag-list," Jazz light-heartedly quips as Hound bends down a bit, motioning for her to get back into his hands so he can lower her to the floor.

"Nice meetin' you, Astrid!" Trailbreaker said, giving her a little bit of a salute once she's back on the ground again. "Hope to see you around again before you leave."

"Don't worry, we'll catch you guys again," Hound says. "I wanna know what you crazy slags have been up to, as well."

"Slags?" Jazz says, turning back to the black mech with feigned indignation. "Three months with a girl and he comes back using language like that. Tsk tsk."

Hound laughs and waves them away.

"Nice meeting you all!" Astrid calls back as they head for the elevator again. Once they're back inside its relative privacy, Hound crouches down to get closer to her eye-level.

"See, they all liked you," he says with a smile before beckoning her to meet him halfway for a kiss, and then rises up again just in time for the doors to open.

The metal on this level isn't the sleek, brushed silvery aluminum-looking stuff that the upper basements are made of. The elevator is made of the same material, as is the area just outside where they step out. But the paneling beyond that is a coppery sort of orange; a strange and unearthly metal that just serves to remind Astrid where exactly she is and who she's dealing with.

"Which one are we meeting first?" she asks in a near-whisper.

"Optimus Prime," Hound replies, slowly navigating the place before coming up to a closed door. It's... massive, she notices, gulping. Some 7-8 feet higher than Hound, she thinks.

Well, it's only fitting for the leader of the Autobots to be that big...

She doesn't even notice Hound kneel down beside her, and grasp her hands, which turns out she is mindlessly wringing together. Only looking up a little now, his eyes meet hers. Even in her most stressful moments, that soft blue light always seems to be able to calm her down.

"It's going to be alright," he says softly, not taking his eyes off her. "Prime's the kindest, wisest, and most compassionate being you'll ever meet. Now just take a deep breath..."

Astrid does as she's told, and then lets it out

"Better?"

She nods, and Hound smiles, putting his free hand against her cheek. "This'll be quick, I promise."

"I know, it's just... nevermind. Let's get this over with." She puts on a determined face and looks him straight in the eye.

Hound stands up again and knocks. The sound reverberates in her bones, it feels like. The door slides open with the soft hiss of pneumatics. Hound stops in the doorway, turning and motioning for her to enter before him, so she gathers up every ounce of courage and professionalism she has in her, and steps over the wide threshold.

Astrid fights hard against the urge to let her mouth fall open upon entering. In the middle of the room, smaller and clearly designed for minimal occupancy, is an enormous desk that rises some 10 feet from the floor. She can only guess at what covers its surface after catching glimpses of things that Hound had called data pads. But from behind the desk he rises, looming like an elegantly orchestrated moving tower of metal painted red and blue. She sees pieces of vehicle on him too; some kind of commercial freight truck, she guesses, from the shapes of the windows that adorn his chest and the size of the tires that line the sides of his legs. So, a humble leader.

His face is almost entirely obscured by some kind of featureless mask, but the blue of his eyes are unmistakable as they shine brilliantly down at her.

"Welcome to the Ark, Ms. Schneider," he says, his voice commanding, yet kind, in a fatherly sort of way. "My name is Optimus Prime, Autobot commander. Why don't you two have a seat?"

They do, and door hisses shut behind them.


[1] The Bureau of the Regulation of Extraterrestrial Machine Entities, founded in 1991

[2] 2.8 Earth ounces.