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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.

Chapter Text

Out of the corner of his eye, Hound sees her search about for a place to sit with a pleading sort of look. He points to a set of stairs that leads up to a small platform just above the height of Prime's desk, one designed to be used when humans were here for in-person meetings with the commander of the Autobots. She took a seat on an expensive-looking chair beside an offline computer terminal. 

Astrid looks estranged and isolated over there, and he knows that she must be feeling similarly. He promised her that this would be quick, and he'd be damned if he can't keep his word.

"So," begins Prime once everyone is situated. "You two have been chosen to work with the Bureau on this mining operation, I see?" He pulls up a data pad and begins to look over the project file behind the desk.

"Yes sir," the Jeep and human chime in at nearly the same time. Hound can't help but keep a close watch on her: body temperature and heart rate have risen to what he could safely assume to be uncomfortable levels. Oh dear.

"And the two of you know what this operation is going to involve? Most of this is Class B information," he states, setting down the data pad again and meeting Hound's gaze with a questioning look. "I'm just making sure we're all on the same page."

"Uhh," Astrid ventures meekly. "From what I understand, it's a type 12 project, meaning that it's of potential interest to all... three factions. Because of possible Decepticon involvement, much of the project data specific to the site remains Class A classified. I'm not a vital part of the managing crew or with intelligence, so Class A stuff is withheld from me."

"What are you allowed to know, then?"

"Methods of extraction, what machinery, equipment, chemicals and substances that will be present on-site, and I'll have access to all incoming environmental data for the sake of analysis. I will be advising the BREME project managers on what effects the operation is having on environmental systems as work progresses, so that they may fine tune their methods and take the land into consideration should changes to the plan need to be made."

"Your role is important, I see," Prime says, nodding. The Autobot leader turns then to Hound, who straightens up in his chair. "And you are there as an EME advisor?"

"Yes, sir," confirms the Jeep. "And anti-Decepticon stopgap."

"Surely you could not hold ground by yourself in the face of an attack, could you?"

"I could try, sir. But my duties also are to scramble Autobot jets in the case of a raid, and to assist in initial BREME defense strategies based on which Decepticons are present."

Hound knows that Prime isn't asking these questions because he's uninformed- he wants to make damn sure the two of them know exactly what they're getting into. The Bureau is a double-edged sword, as the Autobots had figured out the hard way some time back. As a mediator and regulatory body, it considers the Autobots an asset first, and allies second. Much of the time the bots work for them; rarely with them.

"Astrid," Prime says, bringing his hands together on the desk, suddenly dispensing with the formalities. "Has anyone informed you of what the Decepticons are?"

Hound feels her falter here, and he does too: it was a subject he either avoided, forgot about, or simply glossed over in his time with her. "Well, er... not much beyond the fact that they pose a continuous threat?"

"That they do." He stands up and walks to the far end of his desk, to allow better visibility of a pair of large holo screens that appear in the wall behind Prime's chair, alighting in segments. On them appear photos of some in the midst of attacks on human facilities. He recognizes most of the attackers as Prime slowly scrolls through the slideshow of destruction: Skywarp and Thundercracker attacking an oil tanker off the coast of Venezuela; Soundwave and his minions taking control of a nuclear plant in France, Stunticons having a field day leveling a rural town in the Northern Territories.

"Hundreds upon hundreds of humans die in these "accidents" every year," Prime states firmly, slowly. "The Decepticons are desperate for energy just as we once were. So far, we have been successful in our efforts to keep them from forming alliances with humans, and keep them starved. Without surplus energy, they can do little more than carry on like thugs and petty thieves, and surely do they hate us for it." The Peterbilt sits down again. "If they discover that there is energon located in Denali State Park, they will not hesitate to attack."

"Yes, sir," Hound says, suddenly a little nervous himself. Astrid nods.

"Good. Now -" The Jeep senses that Prime is changing the subject, and boy is he right. "- I understand that the two of you are in an intimate relationship with one another. Is this true?"

Hound looks at Astrid, and she looks at him, before they both turn back to Optimus a moment later. "Y-yes... sir. That is correct," he affirms. His spark feels like its' shrunk and is cowering in the corner of its chamber, tail between its proverbial legs. Part of him wanted to lie. He doesn't like that part of him wanted to lie.

"What you do when you're off-duty is none of my business, Hound, but I want you to know that there are others among the ranks that are far less tolerant than I."

"I'm well aware of that, Prime. We... we both intend to keep this as private as possible."

"Is this affair going to interfere with your ability to follow orders as an advisor, data and imaging specialist, tracker, and soldier?"

Hound sits up straight again and shakes his head. "No, sir," he replies firmly.

"And you, Astrid?"

"No, sir."

"Good," Prime concedes. "Hound, you are one of my most loyal, and hard-working soldiers. I trust your word and your judgment. Do me proud."

The Jeep can't help but smile. Doing right by Optimus is very high on the list of things that make him happy. "Thank you, Prime. Will do."

"And Agent Schneider, I look forward to seeing what you're capable of. Welcome aboard."

"Thank you, sir."

"You two are dismissed."

Hound waits for his human in the doorway as she descends the stairs and is back on the ground again. They're about to leave, but Prime fits in one more word of warning.

"Oh and Hound? Good luck with Prowl today. I hear he's not in the best of moods right now."

"Oh great," he mutters, then picks up his voice again. "Thanks for the heads up, sir."

The door shuts quietly behind them, leaving only the pitter-patter and and klon-klon of their footfalls. Hound looks over Astrid again as she walks in silence beside him. Her body temperature's down somewhat, and heart rate also, but not completely. He notices that her hands are much colder than the rest of her too.

He's not sure what to say, but tries the first thing that comes to mind. "Did you want to go back to the break room before we meet up with Prowl? I'm sure there are plenty more bots that would love to meet you..."

"No thanks," she says in a low voice. "I think I just want to go back to the room for a little while."

They arrive at the elevator, but Hound doesn't call it. "Are you okay?" She sounds down and preoccupied with her own thoughts. Whatever good mood he's in is suddenly gone.

"It's nothing."

Hound looks down at her, worry etched into his face. She would see it if she'd looked up, but her eyes are cast downward too. The mech sighs and calls the elevator.

The upper levels are just as deserted as the bottom-most ones, and they again trod along in what Hound feels to be an uncomfortable silence. He hates this. He doesn't like it when someone's angry with him, or when someone he cares about is upset. It weighs heavily on his CPU; empathy seems to be just another part of his core programming. So when the two of them are settled back down in their temporary quarters, Hound can't help but press the issue further. If something is bothering her, it would bother him.

"You know, you can tell me anything," he tries, plopping down on the berth and assisting her up. "That's supposed to be one of the perks of being in a relationship, or so I hear."

Unfortunately, the humor seems lost on her. "I feel stupid here," she sighs.

"Stupid?"

That's… pretty left field.

"Yeah, stupid. I feel ignorant and naïve... I'm still weirded out by you guys, even though I have no reason to be. I feel stupid walking around everyone's feet like a dog, not being able to reach anything..." she takes a breath here, and Hound uses the opportunity to put his hand to her back. "I feel like I'm relying on you too much."

"Relying on me too much?" Hound asks, almost finding her concern humorous. "Let me put it this way," he says, holding her face in his hand and turning her to look at him. "If you had a friend from a foreign country staying with you while visiting, would they be relying on your too much when they depended on you to explain the customs and the people? Or if they asked you how to get around?"

"It's not like that."

He screws up his mouth and tries again. "Then tell me what it's like so I know what you're talking about. I'm a robot, not a mind-reader." The Jeep's brow ridges push together and he frowns. It's not the response he's hoping for... "Please tell me?"

"Nevermind," she murmurs, facing away from him. "You're not really helping."

"Not helping?" Hound blurts out, taken aback. His hand recoils from her. "I'm trying to figure out what's gotten you feeling like this! You gotta help me help you."

"I'm just going to go take a walk."

Astrid lets herself down from the edge of the berth and onto the floor with a light thud; Hound scrambles to the edge to make sure she's alright, what with her knee and all. But by the time he gets there, she's already halfway to the door.

"Let me out, please?"

"Where are you going?" Where is this coming from? Was it the meeting with Prime?

"Let me out, Hound," she demands. Then with a hiss: "I can't even open this goddamned door by myself."

He remains there on the berth, awkward position though it was, and looks at her with optics partially obscured by a face scrunched up by a bubbling defensiveness. She just stands there next to the door, challenging his gaze with her own. Her vitals are up again, he notices.

After a while, he gets up from where he sits, not bothering to muffle the noise of his own movements like he might normally do. Hound notes that she jumps a little when his feet hit the floor. This is one of the rare times that he is made fully aware of how much larger he is than her - for some reason, it only makes itself painfully apparent when he's angry. For all the other times, it feels as natural as being dwarfed by an oak tree or towering over a raccoon or something. He doesn't much like this realization.

He switches to another image: what it was like to look down at her that time on the hillside when she'd leaped up on his foot in order to get him to stop walking. Even then, she was barely thigh-high, as he recalled. And even now, as he looks down at the small, fleshy body standing so close to one of his legs, each weighing some 270 kilos compared to all of her 63, she is confident in her safety. Confident that he will let her out and let her give in to her demons in solitude for while.

"Move," he half-grunts and half-sighs, waving her away from where she stands with one of his proportionately massive feet. She steps out of the way, allowing him room to give a swift but gentle kick to a panel at the bottom of the door. With a click, the thing slides open.

"Don't go too far. We've got that second meeting soon," are his final parting words as she noiselessly rounds the corner, possibly bristling.

Normally, Hound would have trained his sensors on her to keep track of what direction she was headed in, but doesn't this time. It feels too invasive to him.

Later, there's a knock on the door.

"Yeah, come in," Hound calls, quickly subspacing Astrid's bedding. He's sitting on the berth again, back up against the wall, and arms folded across his chest when a certain Porche comes in.

"Hey, yo. Just wanted to check in and see how you two were doing over here... hey, where's your lady friend?"

Hound perks up from where he's stewing, trying to shake the frustration off like dust. "Oh her? Ah, she's just off doing something for a while, I guess."

"You guess?" There's a knowing look behind his visor. He pauses for a moment here, rubbing at his chin-guard contemplatively. Jazz gazes at the wall and he does this for a little bit for effect (he does lots of things for effect), before slowly turning back to Hound, who is desperately hoping the XO has a ray of sunshine for him someplace. But, alas, it's just not in the cards. "You two got into a fight, didn't you?" He smiles and speaks slowly, as though he's caught Hound with his hand in the cookie jar.

Granted, he sort of did.

Slag, Hound is awful at keeping secrets. Absolutely, positively, awful. That's mostly due to the fact that he's never had anything worth hiding from others, or much of anything to be embarrassed of. (Aside from the obvious, but that was different. It was habit. Something there was simply no reason to bring up to anyone ever.) He also, unfortunately, wears his emotions on his sleeves. It's probably one of his biggest weaknesses, truth be told.

Jazz closes in, still grinning, as Hound continues to not answer. The Jeep's silence is apparently an admittance of guilt. Dammit!

"Yes!" Jazz bursts out, hands clenched into fists of victory. "I knew you two were together! Bluestreak's officially two shifts of weapons maintenance richer."

Hound casts him a weary and accusatory look. "You all were making bets on this?"

"Oh, c'mon, man... it was just a bit of fun," Jazz backtracks.

"Don't you "c'mon, man" me," Hound spits out. "Frag you guys."

"Alright, look." Jazz switchs to dead serious mode and closes the door. "Truth is, we've all been theorizin' since the news broke about what went down in Elko back in... what was it... May?"

"Yeah, and theorizing about all of what's wrong with me, or who dropped me as a protoform and dented my spark chamber? Or what lines of core code are corrupted? Because only a really messed-up mech would like Earth and its inhabitants more than Cybertron, right? Please." Hound's intakes are working hard now as the rush of words leave him. "Spare me."

"Well just hold on now a minute, man!" Jazz's voice raises the slightest bit, and Hound is reminded of just why the Porsche occupies a position of authority at AHQ. The Jeep is immediately humbled.

"I-I'm sorry, Jazz... not sure where that came from."

"That came out like a speech you've been practicing or somethin'. You had no intention of coming out to anyone, did you?" His voice softens to an understanding tone.

"Well, judging by the way gossip travels around here, can you blame me?"

"For the record, I get where you're coming from, though."

Hound lifts up his head to look perplexedly at the second-in-command. "You... do?"

Jazz nods solemnly. "BREME gave me a human partner for a couple months of special ops work once. Back in the 90's, one of the first big missions I got working with human powers was in the Balkans during the Yugoslavian Wars. Partner's name was Marissa Faireborn. Things were ugly over there, so I took whatever downtime I could get, and due to the nature of the mission, she was always right there with me."

The Jeep's hopeful. "Yeah?"

"Mhm. Now, I may not have had with her what you've got with this gal, but I get it, man. Marissa's the one that helped me see the value of Earth cultures. And music! She helped me discover music. Was one of the few things we could do to unwind back then: listen to music."

His hope fades. "Do you still talk to her?"

"Enh, sometimes. She left BREME when she thought she was getting too old for being out in the field, and switched over to a nine-to-five with the CIA. Can't blame her. She's got a life to live, you know?"

Hound nods.

Is that the fate that he and Astrid are destined for?

The idea frightens him.

"Do you think it could have ever worked out between you?"

"Not sure, though probably not. She talked about wanting a family at some point, "when this is all over", and there are a dozen reasons why I couldn't give that to her. Didn't even really know what a family was yet at that point! Took me a few years to really grasp the blood thing.

"She tried kissing me once. I remember wondering what was so special about the mouth… didn't feel like much of anything to me, ya know? But she wound up frustrated that I didn't have nerve endings where she wanted them to be and gave up at some point.

"I understand the connection, though. I felt it in my spark. And no, you don't have any screws loose. I checked with Ratchet, already." Jazz smiles again, and slaps Hound on the shoulder; he can't help but laugh a little himself. "But in all honesty, I'd say you were one of the more normal 'bots around here, and definitely one of the most level-headed. Besides, just think of this as a valuable insight that not too many of us got."

He looks straight ahead and thinks on this for a moment. "Thanks Jazz."

"And as for that argument... that's not something I wanna touch with a ten-foot pole," he chuckles. "Sorry! Playing go-between for people's personal affairs ain't my style. And if you two like each other as much as we've been "theorizin'", then I'm sure you'll make it through this in no time."

Hound looks down at his knees, as the rest of his legs are hanging off the edge of the berth.

She felt stupid? How could she? Hound is unable to understand that sentiment. Dependent? Maybe it's all the picking up, and putting down, and relying on him to reach and do things for her that she didn't like. Well, what does she expect at AHQ? The Autobots are Autobot-sized, and they need Autobot-sized accommodations in their own base. Things like sufficient headroom. Honestly, he thinks she's being somewhat unfair.

"I hope so."

A little while later, Hound finds himself among familiar company again in Jazz's office. Trailbreaker, Beachcomber, Skids, and Mirage are all there. It's almost like old times. Almost.

"What's got him down?" Mirage says, gesturing at Hound to Jazz. The round of energon is courtesy of the Porche, but the tracker's cube is the first one empty. Everyone's gotten together away from the noise of the large break room, and is busy chumming it up on one of the rare occasions that they all have free time at once.

Hound, normally one of the chummiest of the group, spends most of the time playing with his finger digits and scrunching up his face in thought. Once again, keeping secrets and hiding emotions are not his strong suit. Not by a long shot.

The Jeep sees Jazz glance at him for some kind of verification. "Er, I uh... he... um... did something... stuff," he mumbles, then: "You should go cheer him up!"

Jazz knows that this is Hound's business and his choice to tell what to whom, and Hound appreciates that. He thinks on as to how the others did it... Powerglide and Tracks? How did their stories reach the Ark? Hound remembers that almost all of it was just hearsay, and that real verifications, real "coming out"s, had been to a select, open-minded few. Hound always supported them and their decisions, respected who they chose to (consensually!) do whatever with, whether they were a human or a toaster or whatever else, but he never thought it would happen to him. Not even in light of his... peculiar past.

In fact, it didn't really quite occur to him just how much he loves this planet, and just how much he admires and envies humans until Astrid came along. Pairing up with one of them never crossed his CPU until after it actually happened. Joined the "knee-high club", as he'd heard others toss around in reference to the rumored Autobot human-lovers. Sapiophiles?

Hound is rudely interrupted from his reveries when another energon cube is shoved into his face.

"C'mon, you green bastard. Cheer up, would ya?" Mirage is never one for niceties, despite having come from the Cybertron capital of polite society prior to the war. Though somehow, his flat, matter-of-fact way of speaking just makes his shining moments of dry comedy just that much more enjoyable. Hound can't help but crack a smile as he takes the second cube. The stuff, while still manufactured by Wheeljack's own distillery, is little more than weak slickwire; not as strong as the high-proof energon that he'd brought with him to Astrid's party. Hound admittedly isn't much of a drinker; some bots can pound down what they'd started calling "jet fuel", or "liquid EMP" because of how fast enthusiasts had to run to the head to purge afterward. The more... raucous among them are known to be big fans.

"Alright, alright."

"Where's your girl, Hound?" Trailbreaker asks, turning from where he's drawing caricatures of Prowl and Ratchet on Jazz's holo-board. Hound sees that they're both sporting buckteeth and top hats.

"How many times do I have to tell you people, she's not my girl... we're just work partners," Hound says, exasperated. Please, Primus, please let him be able to lie convincingly just this once!

"You can tell us however many times you want, we're still gonna put you through the ringer for it," Trailbreaker retorts merrily.

Hound rolls his optics. "She's off... doing stuff."

"Stuff?"

"Okay, fine. She got mad at me."

"Uh oh, what'd you do? Step on her toes?"

"Snore?"

"Leave the toilet seat up?"

"She was getting overwhelmed and felt like I was crowding her," he flatly spells out for them.

"Well... it is her first time here. Can be a little intimidating, I guess. She's probably just letting off some steam. Even the BREME freshman get disoriented the first time they visit."

Hound looks at the cube in his hand, now slowly emptying. "You know, drinking this right before meeting with Prowl is probably a terrible idea. Like, a really terrible idea."

"You're meeting with Prowl about you and this broad, soon? Well in that case, I'd say you should be drinkin' more," laughs Skids.

"You two seeing him about scheduling stuff?" Jazz asks.

The Jeep shrugs. "Guess so. He's Mr. Paperwork... probably going to make Astrid sign a bunch of shit too." His internal chronometer reads about 1100 hours, so another 20 minutes until the tango with Prowl. "I've got another ten before I need to get going here to find my partner."

"Well, come on, then!" Trailbreaker announces. "You've got ten minutes to finish that drink. Chop, chop."


 Sensor arrays, their feedback a little hazy through the energon in his system, comb the hallways of the floor L1. He doesn't catch sight or wind of anyone the size of a human around, so he resorts to calling for her. What? It seems like an alright idea to him.

"Astrid!" he starts, mechanized voice echoing down the corridors. Vector Sigma, he hates his own voice. "Aaaaastriiiiiid!" Where the hell had she buggered off to? "AAAAST-"

"What in the world are you yelling for?" comes a voice from behind him, cool and calculating in its tenor.

Hound whirls around to find himself face to face with the devil himself: Prowl.

"What?"

"Why are you yelling?" Prowl repeats, over-enunciating every syllable.

"I'm looking for my... partner."

"You mean the human that we are due to be consulting with in a matter of minutes downstairs?" Prowl's face has not changed one bit through the entire conversation aside from cocking a single brow ridge at this point.

"...yes. That one. I seem to have misplaced her."

The Mustang looks Hound up and down, his nasal ridge curling up. "You've been drinking slickwire, haven't you?" he demands.

"This isn't what it looks like - "

"Find Agent Schneider immediately, so we can get this circus over with," Prowl snaps. "I'll be waiting for you two in my office. I expect you to be there in five minutes. And that is an order."

Hound straightens up. "Yes, sir."

"And I do not want to hear you yelling. Your designation is tracker, right? Use your damned sensors like a normal mech instead of being an annoyance for those of us who are here to get work done." With that, Prowl disappears in a flurry of rules and protocol.

Slag - if Astrid was uncomfortable during the Prime meeting, she's in for a kick in the butt with this guy. "Jackass," he mutters under his breath, and continues the search.

Hound walks around slowly, glancing about him as he turns on all sorts of optical arrays in order to try and spot her somewhere nearby. Tracking is much easier to do outdoors than in here. For one, you have things like footprints and broken twigs to work with. He tries tracing some residual body heat down the halls, but no go. For a human, those tracks would have disappeared in a matter of minutes.

He turns to his density scanners, then, and does a sweep of the area. Detecting small objects far away takes incredible amounts of focus, as the image grows messier and harder to pick apart the farther away he sweeps. For a radius of about 15 meters, though, it's absolutely spot on. His chemical tracers give him a vague and directionless airborne organic signature that doesn't help much.

Where in the pit could she be?

Oh! "The BREME overnight facilities!" Of course! Hound tromps down the hallways with determination now.

Eventually, he comes to the little corridor that's meant for use only by humans, and kneels down at the entrance to get a good look inside.

"Astrid? You in there?"

Another density scan reveals a small, humanoid form someplace far inside. She's sitting... on some kind of foam substrate (a very low-density polyurethane solid) being supported by a metal frame of sorts. If he concentrates very hard, he can see that her hands and fingers were moving. She's typing.

Hound wonders if there's some kind of signal he can send her... her phone! If he's lucky, she'll have it on her.

Time for one more meeting, he thought up in text format. I'm waiting just outside.

Sent.

He waits a few seconds, and bingo, her form shifts as her phone notifies her of the message. She lifts her hand up with the device, and then sets it back down again. Hound thought she would have stood up then and headed for him, but not so. She just sits there for a little while, unmoving, before slumping over and putting her head to the desk surface.

The Jeep knits his brows in confusion and worry. Yes, their spat is still fresh on his CPU, but he's hoping that she'd been able to let off a little steam by now? He supposes that there's something more to her feeling "stupid" than he might have guessed.

Less eager to see her again right this instant, he stands back up and simply leans against the wall beside the small doorway when she noiselessly appears.

"Ready?" he asks quietly.

She nods. "Yeah."

"Let's go."

The two of them make it to Prowl's office exactly 257 seconds after he was expecting them. Not good. Hound knocks on the door, and the thing slides open almost as if it's angry with him too.

Prowl's voice snaps at them from inside like a whip. "You're late."

"I'm sorry, but I-"

"Nevermind that. Come in, you're first."

"First?" The Jeep peeks his head in to see veritable mountains of documents and data pads cluttering up the desk.

"Talking to you separately will give me a better impression of what this is all about. Now step inside, please. I don't have all day."

Hound gives a sidelong glace in Astrid's direction, who just shrugs. Her racing heart betrays her nonchalant exterior.

"Alright, then..."

The door nearly closes on his heels.

"Sit."

He does.

"This is going on your report, you know."

"What is?"

"Showing up here inebriated."

"It wasn't my idea, I swear." Hound's impressed at the stupidity of his own logic right now, and decides that a visit to Prowl while under the influence of high-grade is something to definitely avoid in the future.

"I'd also like to remind you that this conversation is being recorded."

"Get on with your the interrogation already. Primus."

Prowl shoot the Jeep an icy glare, his optic lenses narrowing. He knows he isn't going to spend more time berating him, what with a schedule to keep after all.

"What are your mission orders as you understand them for operation 256-A, also known as Operation Pink."

Ah, it was that tone. The one Prowl is famous for. Cold and calculating, with a hint of indifference and suspicion. The mech practically holds the trademark on it.

"'To aid in the prevention of Decepticon interference, to provide specialized aid to BREME forces should interference occur, manage all cloaking and anti-visibility operations, and function as primary Autobot-BREME liaison for the duration of the assignment'," he recites – and smugly, too. Hound can play the game; he's been part of the chain of command longer than most 'bots on Earth even knew, and it's easy for most of them to forget because he doesn't carry himself like a drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket.

And while he doesn't particularly like it, he is capable of going from hippie tree-hugger to hardass when necessary. Though this other persona, the war-hardened one, really only saw the light of day during pre-Earth battles, ages ago. In truth, the beauty of this planet is enough to make him want to pursue pacifism. In theory, at least. Kinda difficult when you've got a conniving war machine breathing down your collective necks.

The military strategist behind the desk looks up from a data pad to stare him down. "Good. And what is the projected timeframe of completion?"

"Unknown. Vein size is either undetermined or Class A information."

"Says here that you will be on loan for the project for 18 months."

"That is an approximate minimum, sir."

There's a pause here; a tense one. Silences with the tactician always make Hound fidget.

"Now tell me about your relationship with Agent Schneider."

As if he would get off so easy. "We're just partners for - "

"You've always been a terrible liar, Hound. Especially when it comes to coming up with a story for those of us who are more... attentive than the others. I know about Wheeljack's favor for you, though he wasn't able to tell me much, and I received a memo about it from Prime after you saw him. Now try again."

The Jeep bristles and grinds his dental plates together. "We're currently pursuing an intimate and romantic relationship with one another, sir."

"You do realize that she is an incredible liability, correct?"

The tracker breaks the stare and looks down, off to the side. "Correct," he curtly concedes.

"Assuming you both fulfill your duties to the utmost, there is still a reasonable chance that your unorthodox - and quite frankly, unnatural - taste in companions can be challenged by these circumstances."

Hound's systems start to work in over time, and he beats back the urge to let out an angry rev.

"In other words," Prowl says, leaning in. "Romantic partnerships don't often survive moonlighting as professional partnerships. Do not underestimate the dangers, do not underestimate her physical fragility, and do not underestimate her loyalty to her species."

Hound is seething at this point. What upsets him most, however, is the possibility that Prowl may actually be right.

"Understood, sir."

"Now, then." Prowl sets down the pad and lets out a burst air from his intakes; almost a bit of a snort. "You are to report directly to me about the progress of the operation every two weeks, following standard communications protocol."

"Yes, sir," mutters the Jeep.

"Excellent. We're done here."

That's it? No, there has to be something else. He can feel it. Hound is about to get up, however, when Prowl shoots him a look that tells him to stay seated. He does something then that Hound has not anticipated: he picks up what the Jeep presumes to be the recording device from amid the piles on the desk, and switches it off. Staring him straight in the optics, Prowl speaks in a lower, grimmer, tone: "And I want you to report to me everything that the Bureau is doing. You use your tracking and imaging skills, which I am well aware are the best that we've got, and you use your pet girlfriend, and you monitor everything, and I mean everything that BREME is doing up there. Include whatever findings you have in the report, using a K-type encryption. Schneider is not to know of this agenda under any circumstances. Do you understand?"

Hound's over-charged and previously angry state is covert-operation'd out of him; the proverbial wind taken out of his proverbial sails. Staring at the black and white Mitsubishi now with grave sobriety, the tracker studies him to make sure this isn't some joke. At length, he concludes that Prowl is dead serious - he always is; how could Hound have possibly thought otherwise?

With a slow nod, Hound agrees to the new directive. "Understood."

"Now you're dismissed. Send your human in on your way out, please."


The Jeep takes to pacing about in the hall outside Prowl's office. Astrid has been called in there some 15 minutes prior, and judging by what he had to say to Hound, he's sure she's in for an unpleasant earful.

A number of minutes pass before the door opens and Hound stops in his tracks to see her come out. Out she comes, staring at the ground: a small, quiet thing, trudging out of the meeting with Prowl standing in the doorway: an austere figure looming behind her, painted in the colors of his worldview. Astrid stops when she stands next to Hound, and with one last look, the tactician disappears back into his lair like a dragon having successfully vanquished a few meddling invaders.

"What an asshole," she murmured to Hound's leg.

"You want to talk about it?" he tentatively asks as they start walking back toward the elevator.

"Maybe later."

Slag it, that was more of exactly what she didn't need. In all honesty, it doesn't make him feel particularly good either, and recalling his new orders makes him feel very uneasy. And while Hound won't quite put it past Prowl to want to sabotage their relationship, he can't imagine that this directive has anything to do with that. There's always a purpose to everything Prowl does, and if he feels that there's a good reason to be providing inside intelligence on the project like this, then, he hates to admit it, there must be.

"Feel like telling me what he said to you?" The Jeep preemptively winces as they begin to walk.

She folds her arms, and he can feel her pulse slowly begin to right itself. "Most of it was about how much of a mistake my involvement is, how physically weak and slow humans are, and how he just generally wishes that the Bureau would have picked someone else for the job." She sighs, sniffs a little, and looks away. Is she blinking back tears? "It's pretty obvious that he fucking hates me and thinks that I'm a worthless waste of time."

Hound presses his lips together, face hardening. His hands ball up into fists so tightly that the metal of his palms creak.

That son of a motherfucking…

Two mechs disembark from the elevator and walk past them - Bumblebee and Eject wrapped up in their own conversation - and Hound flashes the diminutive 'bots a curt smile, making sure they're sufficiently out of earshot before continuing.

"He had absolutely no right to say crap like that to you," he mutters, still fuming. You can probably cook an egg on him. "No fraggin' right..."

The mech stops in mid-stride when he feels her small, clammy hand against the side of his knee. His fists unclench, and he vents out a long gust of air - like she does after holding her breath.

"Are you on-duty or anything right now?" she asks.

No… "No, why?"

"What do you say we get out of here?"

"And go where?" He says it without thinking.

The human takes her hand off him. "I don't know, anywhere."

At this he stops to think for a moment. "When's your dinner again?"

"Seven-ish."

His chronometer reads about 2:16 right now, and it takes an hour to get into town. When was the last time that they really spent some time together doing what they both loved to do? When was the last time that they were outside together?

A month at least, he realizes rather unhappily.

"You know what, yeah. Yeah, that sounds good." And here he was, expecting to be the one to make the first reconciliatory move. "Let's go for a drive."

He smiles, for real this time, and leads them back to the elevator to get the hell out of dodge.

Chapter Text

The drive, she guesses, is a better experience during the day. For her, at least. She's not quite sure what things look like with Hound's night-vision capabilities, or if he can enjoy them in the same way that humans enjoy the visible spectrum.

She pauses and wonders why she even thinks about this sort of stuff still. She can ask him what shit's like.

But it feels good to be out of the base. There's something unsettling about scurrying around the Ark like a rat. And part of her knew that it would be like this, but she didn't really know. Being around one giant mech is one thing. But a whole cabal of 'em? One mech's a person; 40 is roadkill waiting to happen.

Outside, out in the world... that's shit she knows. Nature—hell, even the city—is fathomable, predictable in its own idiosyncratic ways. But AHQ is Bizarro World to her; if Hound and company were 6 feet tall there, then she'd be a pitiful 2-foot and change. When's the last time she was 2 feet tall? Astrid's not sure, but she probably spent most of her time in a crib. So that coupled with having to be treated like an infant? OK, not so by any real stretch of the imagination, but it sure as hell feels like it. It's just too damn much.

Still, the anxiety is already lifting, and she's stopped wringing her hands. But something about the way she reacts to being at AHQ, about needing doors opened for her, about sitting on mech-sized drinking glasses like stools, pisses her off royally and she's not sure why.

And now, like the frosting on a shit cake, she has to meet her family and tell them what's going on in her life? Like Astrid even knows what's going on herself! Hi mom, dad, Heather, she imagines. I agreed to be a secret government agent to be with my giant alien boyfriend that you had no idea existed. I hope you'll be supportive of me and my lifestyle choices.

Gag.

Someone just fucking step on me already.

The days of sneaking out of the house to go make out with a boy in the parking lot of a 7-11 are over. Like, 15 years over. Astrid's an adult now. She has to keep her family informed about her goings-on. She has to have explanations for things like moving away from the continental US to do shit. Do what? Oh, nothing.

Being an adult was overrated.

"Too cold?" Hound's voice fills the cabin like a warm blanket, and she's jolted out of her angry stream of consciousness. The temperature of the space doesn't even register.

"No, I'm... good."

"You alright there? Your... your blood pressure seems is pretty high."

Astrid furrows her brows for a second before chuckling. "I really can't hide anything from you, can I?" She should be bothered by that, shouldn't she? She doesn't know a single person who would say they weren't. Partners give each other space and privacy and all that stuff. This guy... this guy would have to go way out of his way to do that. She thinks on it for a minute and finds she doesn't mind right now.

Something in the car around her changes slightly. "I mean, I can not do that if you want me to. I could probably tell those processes to ignore you automatically, even..."

She considers this for a few moments. Is that fair, she wonders? Pretend he's any other guy. That'd be like... that'd be like asking him to plug his ears whenever he's around you.

No, not fair from where she's standing. Besides... it's almost nice not even being able to keep a secret from him like that for some reason?

Astrid shakes her head. "Don't offline anything for my sake."

"You OK though?"

Yes, the question again. Was she? She fidgets in her seat. "I think so," she mumbles into her cupped hand as she looks out the window.

"Where'd you want to go? We have a few hours to kill..."

"I dunno," she shrugs, sighing. "I just needed some fresh air. Had no grand plan." Pines and firs pass them by. One, two, ten, thirty-four...

She should say something already.

"I'm sorry about today," Astrid quietly relents. She sorts through the memories of everything that had happened like a flipbook. Cut the crap, she chastises herself. She allows the images that Optimus showed them to linger. Really linger. "I think I'm scared, Hound."

Scared. But there was so little that she ever felt really scared of? Maybe that was it. Maybe she just didn't know how to recognize the feeling for some reason. And it wasn't the accident... she's felt this way since she can remember. But that didn't make sense either. She was clearly uneasy being around the other 'bots earlier.

She narrows her eyes at the road ahead.

Was that fear she felt, though?

"It's the assignment, isn't it?"

She nods, deciding that it's a good enough shorthand for the tumult going on within her. "It's... everything. So many bits in my life warring for... for what? Priority?"

"Life is... something of a battleground," Hound imparts. She can tell that he's disappointed in his own attempt at wisdom.

"Yeah, you would know, wouldn't you?"

"I suppose I would..."

Astrid kicks off her shoes and rest her feet on the dashboard, hoping he won't mind. "You know, enough about me for a little while. Tell me about you." This casual drive was her idea; she figures that she should probably take a little more ownership of it.

The mech seems caught a little off-guard. "Me? Well... what do you want to know, exactly?"

The way he makes himself seem so boring! "Hound, you're how many thousands of years old? You were fighting a full-fledged war for I don't know how long up there in the stars. You're a soldier in an army. Tell me a little bit about that. I just want to hear something that I haven't heard before, is all. I'm feeling a little like a broken record, and just need to mix things up a bit."

"Hm, alright, then... let's see..."

"Tell me about your enlistment. Everyone's got an enlistment story."

"Gosh, enlistment," he begins, sorting through his memories. He pauses for a long moment, and she wonders if he even remembers now. Or maybe it's something he doesn't want to share. "I think I just walked into an office one day and signed up. I wound up an officer long before the war even started... one of the only Cybertronian career soldiers here on this planet, actually. I've always hovered someplace in the middle of the ranks: not too high up, not too low down. I like it that way. I've declined promotions because of it. Prime knows better than to try and give me any these days." His chuckling surrounds her.

"Too much pressure to be one of the top brass?"

"There's enough pressure being a soldier as it is... besides, my skills are better put to use out on the field than in some strategy room." He pauses. "I mean, I can call shots. I've been put in positions where I've had to call them, but for me its just easier to make those decisions if I'm in the thick of things. There's the physicality and immediacy of it that my CPU just processes better, somehow. Prime's the only one that even tries to understand that about me."

Astrid smiles a little bit, reminded why she likes this guy so much. Is he really that much of an odd-mech-out among his peers?

"Then you've got bots like Prowl who function much better in calm, sterile environments. And the rest of 'em would much rather stay inside all day anyways. Or at least stick to the paved roads. That's not me."

Astrid's faint smile fades away. Maybe that's her problem. Maybe, for all her bravado, for all her talk of bushwhacking, of adventure... she really secretly wants to stick to the paved roads. No, no. No. That can't be right. That can't be why she's freaking out about being at AHQ. And that's sure as hell not the sort of thinking that introduced her to Hound in the first place. What if there's a way for her to find out? To begin to find out?

She's thinking about all those huge, dangerous bodies in AHQ.

Something in her gut is warm and won't sit still.

"Do me a favor, would you?"

"Hm?"

"Pull down the next dirt road you find."

"Why?"

"Let's go on an adventure."

"An adventure..." Something in his voice tells her that he's not quite sure about this idea.

"You know, for spontaneity's sake."

She hears him smile, though. "Why the hell not."

A few minutes pass by the time Hound turns on his indicator, driving console tick-tocking with every flash of the signal. Why he turned it on is beyond her... the nearest car behind them is at least 100 yards away. Always the gentleman. He makes his little right turn, and off into the trees they go.

Hound's suspension system is, quite frankly, out of this world. She hears the dirt and rocks crunching under those tires of his, but she doesn't feel a thing. It's almost as if they're still on asphalt. She knows that she'd asked him about it before—his shocks and tires—and all he did was shrug and chalk it up to alien tech. I'm no engineer, he'd said.

God, if they mass produced those treads of his? They'd be millionaires. Other manufacturers have tried already; it was in the early aughts when the Michelin Man began peddling "patented cyber technology" on TV. They must've unleashed a whole crew of engineering paparazzi out onto the streets to try and construct a facsimile. Because, y'know, asking to borrow an Autobot for the afternoon would have opened up a whole can of legal worms. Asking would have hampered their bottom line.

Astrid knows that it's not just any one component of his that's responsible for the unbelievably smooth ride, though, and it's why trying to "steal" the mechs' tire designs was always so hilariously pitiful. Just like an expert runner utilizes way more than just leg muscles for the perfect sprint, it's doubtlessly a whole-body thing for Hound too. In SUV mode, his suspension system might even be likened to the stabilizing abilities of core muscles.

She tightens hers experimentally. Yeah... probably similar.

A few minutes later and the Jeep comes to a gentle stop in the narrow road.

"Mind if I stretch my legs a bit?"

"Be my guest," she replies, stepping out and standing off to the side to watch him transform.

Never, ever get sick of this.

It's just one of those things that guarantees wonder and excitement. He knows this, and does it slowly for her; like a strip tease, almost. Astrid has by now gotten a pretty decent idea of what turns into what during the process, but it happens so fast and so fluid that she still notices something new every time. It's like gazing at a favorite work of art. It never stops being new.

There's a few different ways that he can tweak it, but the sequence is, by its nature, a pretty tightly-packed process of steps that need to be done in a correct order.

Chest first: the body of the Jeep cracks into 6 primary pieces, with four of them comprising the front of the car. He arches upward here, delineating a new back and front. The broad, squat, front grille angles downward, peeling away from the cabin and curling inward while the beginnings of arms fold out.

Limbs: His arms are the first new body parts to hit the ground, and when they do, hands blossom out; they're fully formed and with digits spread, grasp at the earth for firm purchase. While this happens, the cabin is crushed inward, and from the front seats backward, he distends and pulls his still-forming legs apart. As soon as he's got knees, they're on the dirt under him.

Head: As the rest of him packs neatly away, it's become very obvious that what's before you is a vaguely human-shaped creature on all fours. When he's feeling fancy, Astrid knows that he likes to kick both of his legs out behind him as they finish forming; so that when they come back down, there's feet, shins, knee and hip plates. He's able to finally push himself up onto his great haunches as the two front wheels find their designated spots at where shoulder bones on a human would be. The rifts in his chest are still extant, but at the last minute his head and neck slip out just before they close, and it only takes a split second for his green helm to finish shifting into place and his eyes to flicker online.

The last precious moments are used to vent out any dust or debris that might have gotten in while his body was splayed open, and to close all the remaining gaps with smooth, intricate plates. Some of them are so tight that she couldn't fit a knife between them.

It's when he cocks his head and motions for her to step closer that she knows he's completely done.

Total time? Well, she's taken a stopwatch to it before, just to see, and his average time is 3.29 seconds. In the heat of battle he says he can almost halve that, and on a lazy afternoon like this, it might take him closer to 5. There is a point, though, where he claims it becomes painful to draw it out longer as his momentum just falls off. She hasn't asked him how slow he can go before that happens.

The dirt under her feet makes little crunching noises when she closes the gap between them.

"Well, come on up," he beckons. She looks up at him, now belly-height even as he's seated, and he holds out a hand.

"Well aren't you bossy," she chuckles, climbing up the side of his arm, pulling herself up by the piece of armor at the top of his arm. When she's well off the ground and running out of obvious footholds, he gives her a boost with a hand to the rear, hiking her up to his shoulders, copping a not-so-subtle feel along the way. Astrid gives him a little wiggle in return.

"All settled down over there?" he asks, turning his large, armored head to peek at her as she locates a suitable place to sit herself down. She settles down on a flattish plate between his neck and arm, butt up against the top of a tire. It'll probably leave a streak of black on her shirt, but she really doesn't care.

"Your cargo is safely stowed," she lilts with a grin.

Love this, she thinks, sighing. Love this love this love this...

There are butterflies in her belly and she gives a little yelp as he suddenly rises up onto his feet, jostling her around and forcing her to grab onto his head. The two laugh and he begins his stroll down the road.

She looks down, not ahead. Astrid watches with bottomless curiosity as his huge legs slowly swing forward below her, plant on the ground, and recede back underneath him with every one of his steps. There's almost a sighing sound as his thighs come back into view, then a flat thud as his feet make contact with the dirt. His arms swing in time with his steps, just like humans' do; back, forth, back forth...

"Do I have something stuck in my gears?" he asks, turning not so he can look at her but so his mouth can come closer to facing her as he speaks.

What was that about not minding his ability to unintentionally spy on you?

"I'm just..." she swallows, and squeezes her eyes shut, smiling to herself. "I'm sorry, sometimes I can't just help but watch you do stuff. Like walk."

"Like walk?" There's a playful tenor to his question.

She brings her hands up to start gesticulating, even though he's not even watching. Well... watching with his eyes. "It's just.. it's so goddamn neat. I can't help it. It's... I don't know."

Yes, you DO know.

"Aw jeez," he chuckles, and she can feel him slump a little, trying to feel smaller. "I'm really a very average Autobot, I promise."

"Well, even the most average Autobot there is will never stop being mind-bogglingly cool to me."

It appears that he doesn't have much to retort with other than: "Funny, I can say the same thing about you too."

Hound pauses a little way down the road, wondering if they should continue straight ahead or slip into a much smaller trail through the trees. She lets him make the decision and his legs take them into the bush.

The trees-pines and poplars and hemlocks-drape them in an undulating web of light and shadow that cascades over them like water. Hound's normally bright avocado paint is mottled with a darker hunter green. She leans back a little bit against the deep, jagged treads of his right tire and absentmindedly traces one of the sharp grooves with her finger, pushing it lightly in at one point. She pauses when she hears him vent a burst of air below her.

"Mm," he rumbles a little. "That's nice."

Astrid does it some more, vaguely wondering what the sensation feels like. Maybe sorta like a toe massage, she decides as she withdraws her fingers to look them over: they're lightly smeared with a black residue, and she wipes it off on her jeans.

Eventually, a meadow opens up before them— a clearing packed full of grasses and pioneering species. Something must have disturbed the site no more than a few years ago, and a less noticeable scattering of broken pine branches across the area leads her to believe that the area had been clear-cut. Honey-colored and wispy, the grasses brush past Hound's feet as he passes through them. The ground is sparsely dotted with a variety of yellow flowers; some larger and set atop gangly stalks, others smaller and closer to the ground. It's pretty late in the year, but the sun is still hot these days.

Hound looks down to take note of what he could be stepping on around here, and she knows that he's generally very careful to avoid gopher holes and ground nests. He seems to be making a mental map of nearby hazards to avoid after a few moments of looking around, and then she feels him ease up.

"Beautiful," he purrs, hands on the black plating around his hips. And then he turns his optics to her. "This was a good idea."

"I get struck with a good idea every now and then," she sighs, taking in the view. Big sky, they call it.

He lifts up his right arm and rests his fingers along her thigh; all four of them nearly cover it from hip to knee. She looks at them: gunmetal digits each the size of her forearm. She imagines him using them to point, thumb, and gesture as he shouts commands at other mechs. Maybe running, maybe holding a gun the size of her dining table, maybe on some fuckin' moon circling some planet NASA hasn't cataloged yet. The best part about this daydream of hers is that the 'bots under him are listening to him; they're taking his orders, doing exactly what he's needing them to do to accomplish whatever he needs to accomplish. Aside from standing on a vista with not a sound to be heard but the wind (or waves or cicadas or...), the rough and tumble, the grime, the all-consuming presentness of the battlefield is his element.

She can see it in his form, actually. The way his feet are shaped so that they dig into whatever substrate he's on just so. Thick-chested just enough to provide good protection to his spark without limiting his arms' range of motion or his ability to grapple somebody if he needs to. He doesn't sport a collar or gorget like many of the others seem to; a densely-plated neck does the trick without hampering his field of vision or head motility. If he uses his binocular sensors as much as she thinks he does, then she guesses that he wants to be able to turn and look in any direction without armor getting in the way. His hips, too, are narrower than the others'. A wider base means more stability while standing still at the expense of maneuverability. And Hound does not particularly enjoy standing still.

Astrid finds herself biting her lip as she studies him. To her surprise, though, and confusion a little too, thinking these things has gotten her excited. Her hands are warm, senses sharp, and she feels like she wants to jump down off him and play a game of tag. Catch me if you can, big guy...

God, you're so dumb sometimes.

So she clears her throat and takes a deep breath to calm down, otherwise he's sure to notice, and—

"What'chu thinking about?" he asks in a low, coy voice. She can practically hear him grin and raise a eyebrow.

Crap.

If she lies, it has to be good. If she doesn't, well... better get a head start diggin' that grave.

In a split-second , Astrid settles on a half-lie. "I was just thinking about what you'd said earlier about being a soldier."

Fuck, that's hardly good enough.

"And that's enough to get you going, huh?" He murmurs, turning his head to get a peek of her out of the corner of his eye. The digit furthest up her thigh moves slowly, slightly, rubbing a tiny little patch of flesh through her pants and...

She lets out a giggle that's too loud and too obnoxious to be real, heat rising to her face. "I'm just... it's just cool, is all."

He gives her leg a little squeeze. "You keep saying that. I'm starting to wonder if it's code for something."

Astrid feels like she's got to double down even more now. Moreover, what the heck has gotten into him? Two hours ago they were both feeling like shit. But there's something here and she's going to go along with it... and keep her dignity intact if at all possible too.

She slides out from under his hand and aims to slip off over the edge of his chest—what was, at one point, the SUV's hood—and sort of twists as she does so. She knows that he's not going to let her fall off him and hit the ground from 15 feet up, and his hands are instantly there for her feet to land on. Astrid's eye-level with him, and she leans in for a kiss.

It's chaste. Her skin is still on fire, and the kiss is chaste.

Suddenly she's wishing that his hands were doing something else other than just dumbly propping her up like a ladder. But she's standing there, pressed up against him, and with no idea why she feels this way right now. No clue as to what's turning her on, and she still feels compelled to hide it.

"Maybe it is," she breathes into the base of his neck, arching very, very lightly against him. A good part of her still clings to the hope that he might not have noticed that? With her ear so close, she can hear a faint change in his internal workings. It sounds like he's downshifted; gotten huskier.

The mech is hard. Rock hard. Steel-cybertrontium-or-whatever-the-fuck-alloy hard. There is not a single inch of his body that can yield to her, and like a revelation from god she thinks: and it's hot. Her breath catches in her throat, and even though he can probably sense that too, she knows that he is still nowhere near being able to read her mind. And that's good, because fuck if she isn't startled at her own sudden realization.

Because up until this point, she's told herself a story. A story about a girl meeting a boy, and the girl falling for the boy in spite of his appearance; they kiss, they touch, they hold hands; but it's his mind she likes so much, the story goes. His compassion. His kindness. His goofy smile that's two sizes too big.

And it's still too soon right now, but it won't be long before she seriously begins to wonder if maybe that story isn't true.

Astrid meets his gaze again—are they a deeper blue than they were a moment ago?—and leans in for another kiss. And this time she means business.

Her lips crash against his, and suddenly she's hyper-aware of the fact that not even his mouth yields to hers. She's kissing his bottom lip, and her tongue peeks out to flick at the smooth alloy there. It's very rare for him to dive in open-mouthed right away, and the mech usually waits for an invitation: because at its widest, it could cover her entire countenance. She brings her hands up to cup his enormous face, and then he relents, parting his lips and capturing one of hers between two rows of shiny "teeth". She can't stifle the gasp or stop the surge of heat that shoots southward from her chest.

He picked up making-out really fast, she's always thought. For someone who'd never experienced any sort of human intimacy before, it just seemed like he took to it like a fish to water, and after a few sessions he was a veritable pro at it.

The way he's letting his hand snake up her leg to knead at her ass before heading upward to cup her head as he repeatedly engulfs her mouth with his hot lips is driving her wild. His tongue—"glossa", they call it—plunges into her mouth, and it's such a huge appendage that he could choke her with it. Astrid lets out an accidental groan at the thought, and she coats him with her saliva.

The one thing that he's still getting the hang of is letting her come up for air. She breaks away from him to catch her breath, and she's panting now, chest heaving. Her head is swimming already, and he's barely touched her. God, you're like opium. While she gives her much smaller mouth a rest, she lets her hands come to rest on the sides of that thick neck of his, and he slowly lifts his chin up, watching intently as she slips her fingers just under the edge of his jaw to stroke at what she knows to be a sensitive conduit hidden by plating on each side.

Another gust escapes him; powerful, hot, pent-up. In his chest he's purring. Astrid knows she can overload his spark this way... she can stimulate that mysterious thing someplace deep inside of him that's like a heart and liver and a spinal cord and and a prostate all at once.

She rakes each one with her fingers and withdraws them; he mimics what she's doing with his hand on her ass. His other thumb is on her cheek and he licks at her lip.

"Was this part of your idea too?" he murmurs into her ear.

It's not his style to tease; hell, he barely initiates sex to begin with. It's definitely not for lack of wanting—he's got the libido of a teenager, and the endurance of a draft horse when he plays his cards right. It's his willpower or self-consciousness that usually gets the best of him.

She smiles, arching into him much more. "It is now."

Please get the hint this time...

"What do you think?"

"I think," he begins, running his hand lightly up the side of her leg before letting his thumb come to rest on the crotch of her jeans. He pushes against her mons and good god, man! "...that you've been turned on by something for a little while now."

No kidding.

She wills herself to be sober for a second, though. He senses this and pulls his face away to look at her. "We haven't done this in a little while have we?" she says softly.

He breaks eye contact, looking at her mouth or something, touching her face again. "No," he practically sighs. "Why?"

Astrid just shrugs. Aside from the little quickie in the plane, they haven't really fooled around at all since getting involved with BREME. Since moving out of the comfort of a proper rented house and in with him. Since the prospect of working alongside men in black and giant alien robots that aren't him. Since her life turned upside down. Getting turned on is hard when you're worried about not breaking NDAs and gag orders 24/7. But apparently not hard when you're worried about getting stepped on by Autobots? Please.

She noticed that he barely uses the toy Wheeljack made for him, too. Again, probably more for lack of confidence than eagerness.

"I just... I need this now, OK?"

He nods. "Honestly, I've been waiting for you to say that."

The mech lowers them both to the ground, and he's above her, blocking her view of the sky with his enormous body. He's taken something out of subspace and put it underneath her—what feels like a towel—and gently lays her down on it in the grass. Once again, her mind is spinning with images of him on a battlefield; for a second she imagines that she's an injured soldier under his command, and he's come to her side, leaning over like this. Good job, maybe he says, his hand grasping her shoulder. Maybe she's done something important and heroic in the line of duty. I'm proud of you. A split second later, she imagines him with his holo-cock in her, the biggest size they've been able to fit so far, and they're catching their breath after completing the first arduous thrust. Good job. I'm proud of you. A different line of duty.

Astrid closes her eyes and shivers.

He takes that as a cue to move in, but a thought comes to her. If it can even be called a thought, that is; it's more of a compulsion.

"Wait," she breathes into his neck. "Could you try to do something for me?"

"I can try," he returns with an equally quiet voice.

"Could you..." And now this is where things get stupid. Where things get lost in translation. And that's not even counting that she's trying to explain gibberish. But somehow, the act of baring this to him is thrilling in its own way. "Could you treat me like... like a soldier that's... like... subordinate?" She hasn't been so clumsy with words since debate class.

He lifts her face up so she can see he's knitting his brow-plates together. "Is that... what you've been thinking about this whole time?" She deflates completely, as there's something in his face that betrays confusion more than anything else.

Astrid looks off to the side, wincing, growing hot in the face. "There's just part of it that I want to try experiencing, I guess."

"What part of it? The order-barking? The reprimanding when someone disobeys because they're scared? The look in a rook's eyes after you've just stomped their ego into the ground?"

...Yes.

"No! I mean..." she tries to gather her composure. "You said that you joined in peacetime. Why? Only certain kinds of people join a standing army in peacetime."

Now it's his turn to look away. In fact, he retreats from above her and eases back onto his legs, leaving her in the grass. "I joined because I felt that it would be an environment I could thrive in."

"Because of the structure?"

"No..."

She's reaching, now. "Because of the camaraderie?" C'mon, Hound...

"No."

"Then why?"

He cracks, and scowls, raising his voice to blurt: "Because I wanted to get my hands dirty, alright? And the military was the only place on Cybertron that would let me do that." She can see the tension in his hands as they rest on his thighs. "I don't want to hurt anybody," he continues, seeming to follow an old internal dialogue that she's only now only catching snippets of. "But living in civilian society meant being a Primus-damned pariah."

This is the tip of an iceberg.

She regards him for a little while; listening to his vents circulate the cool air.

"Who are you?"

His head snaps up and there's a look of defensiveness on his face. "What?"

"Who are you?" she repeats, propping herself up onto her elbows. "Tell me who you are. That's not a question, that's an order."

He's still confused, still so ready to be hurt, but her heart swells when he trusts her enough to open his mouth and answer. "I'm Hound... I've been a captain in the Autobot army for over 3,000 years... my alt-mode is modeled after the flagship line of Jeep-brand vehicles. I have a type-C spark from Vector Sigma, I've been on twenty-seven tours of duty, blown into stasis thirteen times, I've got some of the best recon abilities this side of the Eagle Nebula..." his voice trails off and blue optics gaze painfully into hers. "...and if we ever find a way off this rock, I'm not leaving."

She wants to ask him why that is, why that really is, but now's not the time. She's too hot and, dammit, too selfish right now.

"Now, captain," she says—and this is taking a big risk—she's hoping that doing it this way will make it easier for him, and gathers the bottom of her shirt to pull it up and over her head. "I order you to come back over here and kiss me as hard as you can."

He bites his lip for a second, looking at her. If he were human, she might think that there were tears stinging his eyes. But there's a frustration bubbling under that black and green paint, and if they're both lucky, maybe this'll be a welcome distraction.

The mech eases back down onto his hands, and when he's over her again, lowers to his elbows.

"I'm never going to get sick of his view," she murmurs as he comes in for that kiss. He smiles against her.

The kiss is harder. In seconds he has her panting again, letting loose tiny noises from her throat. Astrid licks at his tongue, helping to lubricate the slick appendage, and he covers her mouth as he forces her teeth apart with it, exploring her. The fingers from one of his hands slip under her back, and his thumb slowly pushes away the cup of her bra to expose a hard, straining nipple. His fingers, she realized a long time ago, aren't slick on the inside: he's lightly padded with something that feels like silicone and textured with little wavy ridges so that he can get a good hold on things. Or so he can work magic on her like this.

Back and forth, back and forth. He lazily rubs the tiny bud, shooting electric shocks down between her thighs. His mouth stifles her moan.

But somehow it's still not enough.

"Harder," she pants into his mouth. "Please."

His thumb stops, and she can feel not just her breast, but the entirety of her side get lightly squeezed by his enormous hand. He kneads her, front and back, as his mouth starts to do things to her neck. She's writhing under his ministrations now, arching as far as she can manage, and still her chest contacts nothing but the air between them.

And still...

"Harder, Hound..."

He pulls his fingers out from under her and for a split second she isn't sure if he's backing down, but a startled cry escapes her when he places it on her chest, shoving her down into the ground and palming both of her breasts with one hand.

"God, H—" She's cut off when he squeezes, and squeezes tight.

Ow! Shit!

It hurts, and not necessarily in a good way, but it seems like her pussy is only getting wetter.

"Like that?" he asks, quiet, rumbling.

"Don't you fucking stop," she grinds out, grimacing from the pain even as he loosens his hold.

He smiles, thought she can tell that he's still hiding his uncertainty. "I'm giving the orders around here, remember?"

Doesn't mean that she can't give him her widest grin. She salutes him and winks. "Yes captain, sir."

"Let's get rid of this," he says, grabbing at her bra and tugging it the rest of the way over her head. "And those, too." He aims to undo the button of her pants, but the task requires dexterity that he just doesn't quite have, so she does it for him and he pulls her pants down to her ankles with a rough yank.

His tongue is on her exposed breasts, nipples pert, and she shivers when his dental plates graze them. She wants to close her eyes, but she also wants to keep them open to gaze on the hulking machine before her, his head bent low like an animal hunched over a fresh kill. The sight sends her blood pressure skyrocketing, and already she can feel the tell-tale pressure slowly, slowly, building in her belly.

The green mech senses this and rakes his fingers up her thigh—grabbing, squeezing, stroking—and it hurts. He's doing it so hard that it seems like he wants her to be made of clay. She hisses against him when his mouth comes up to collide with hers again, and his fingers find their way to a very warm and damp spot on her underwear. A whine escapes through her nose and he's curling his giant finger around the band of her panties and he's dragging them down—

"Wait," she breathes. "I want... can I have your cock?"

The mech pauses and withdraws his face just enough to look her in the eye. He's so close that she can see the tiny little concentric rings of light behind the luminescent, almond-shaped plates, his pupils, dart from one of her eyes to the other; absolutely minuscule movements. He vents a burst of air from his back.

He's thinking. He's thinking hard. Hound never told her why, but it's been a while since she's seen him use the piece of hard-light tech that a fellow mech, an engineer named Wheeljack, made for him shortly after she arrived in Alaska. Weeks, if not over a month. Hound had been eager at first—overeager, almost—to introduce it to their play, but since the stuff with BREME went down, he's quietly kept the device hidden away in the plating of his loins. This is the first time she's brought it up.

And now he's thinking about it. She can see the conflicting thoughts write themselves in the contouring of his smooth, sculpted face. He vents again.

"It's part of you now, isn't it?" she murmurs, knitting her brows. "If it is, I want it."

Maybe that's the real question here. Is it?

Maybe he was hoping that he'd never have to figure out an answer. Maybe he was never expecting human sex to turn out to be such an intense, complex thing.

He offlines his optics, and the blue light, the concentric rings, disappear. He bends his head down again, licking, kissing, nibbling his way from her mouth, down her neck, to her collarbone. Somewhere beyond her feet she hears a muffled series of clicks and a warm hum. Suddenly his hand grabs her arm, holding it to her side, and his teeth clamp down on the entirety of her shoulder and he's roughly licking at the strained, screaming flesh.

Astrid can't help the cry that escapes her this time.

That is definitely going to leave marks. A bite mark, to be exact,

And just like that, the shadow of his giant body retreats, and he's back to sitting on his ankles, seiza-style, legs slightly apart. Out from between his thighs juts the toy, as he's called it before; tall, proud, and girthy, the same gunmetal color of his hips. If Hound had any input on the design of it, then he did a great job. It's just human enough to be appealing at first glance, but it's also, dare she day, an improvement. Soft, fat ridges line the topside, she remembers, and a gentle swell near the base gives it the look of a dildo that belongs in a glass case. At the top, near the hole where some of his very real fluids come out from, is a single yellow strip to match the ones at his hips.

And out of that hole a bead of clear liquid is forming.

Before she can get a read on his facial expression, he's snatches her off the towel and brings her right up to his pelvic plates. Her fleshy back yields to his fingers as he holds her up with one firm, trembling, hand while the other gently presses her knee to her chest, exposing her. Every square inch of her body is once again screaming to be touched, and she can't help but arch her hips into that delicious bulge of his. She groans a little when she remembers that she's still wearing underwear.

He hikes the crotch of the garment to the side, revealing her hot, wet, sensitive folds. And with his fingers pointing down, covering the entirety of her opening from mons to tailbone with plenty to spare, he roughly rubs all of her and oh god, don't stop... don't stop...

Astrid is close to coming already. Electricity builds with every stroke. Her mouth is open and she's struggling to hold the weight of her own head up as she clenches her ass and thighs, coaxing her own orgasm along. Not that it needs any help.

In no time it hits her like a hot wave, and Hound rubs harder as she writhes in his hand, crushing his digits between her shaking thighs. He stills, but keeps his fingers against her as she rides out the last of her climax, and then removes them, wiping his hand around the tip of his cockhead to moisten it with her juices. It glistens in the afternoon sun, twitching.

"Legs up, thighs together," he says in a low, husky voice. She does as she's told, wondering what he intends to do. With his free hand he pushes his dick down so that it's pointing out, not up, and tries pushing it between her thighs. It's awkward and doesn't quite work; it slips out and it's clear that he wants to use both of his hands to hold her instead of sparing one to manage his erection. With a little growl that Astrid finds exciting, he rises up into a kneel, and his cock levels out more. Better.

Some 8 feet off the ground he holds her, fingers spread underneath her to support her back, one on top of the other. His left hand is actually firmly grasping her hipbone, and his right has a good grip on her upper arm, thumb pressing into her ribs just under the swell of her breast. She bites her lip as she feels the enormous cockhead press against her cunt and then there's pressure and—

Waitwaitwaitwait!

She snaps her head up and looks at the gunmetal appendage, thicker than a nalgene bottle, beyond the swell of her thighs. Hound's big. Really big. Technically, the thing can be any size that he wants, but he usually prefers something that he seems to feel is "proportionate" to a typical human's cock-body ratio. So, being around 15 feet tall, "proportionate" to him means more than a foot and a half long. The mech can push all he wants, but that thing will never fit. Her eyes are wide, and she shoots him a very nervous look. He meets her gaze, and as he does so, pushes his hips into her even more. Just as she's about to ask what the fuck had gotten into him, the pressure releases and his huge member does a little "pop" as it shoots out above her pussy, burying itself right between her thighs. Like a spring.

Now he starts thrusting. The mech's chin is on his chest and he stares intently at what's going on in his hands. Astrid, still a little languid from her earlier orgasm, is abuzz with endorphins, and even though this isn't directly stimulating any particular erogenous zone, the scene is fucking hot. The swell on his underside slides across her pubic bone, and his tip makes it all the way to her tits.

But it's not long before his easy pace quickens and he's holding her hard again with a grip that could rip a tree out of the ground.

Astrid squeezes her thighs together as tightly as she can for him, and feels heat building in herself once more just at the sight of him rutting against her tiny frame. Like a fleshlight, she thinks through the building static in her brain. He's using me like a fleshlight. At some point he stops thrusting and merely slides her up and down the length of his shaft. His pace quickens, his air cycling grows more urgent, and his grip on her once again becomes severe. In fact, with his thumb digging mercilessly into her ribs it's actually painful to breathe now, and she wheezes in his grasp, panting, searching for some part of his hand that she can hold onto for dear life. The world spins and she feels like she's going to break.

The strength with which her ass collides with the plating around his cock is almost unbearable, and the flesh there stings with every slap against the hard metal. These sensations are almost too much to bear, and she finds her vision growing fuzzy, and the sound of his engine, his long, throaty groans, almost disappear as her world becomes silent behind a blanket of faint ringing.

At some point, he comes. With a ragged jerk his fluids shoot up into the holo-cock and out onto her chest. The liquid tingles, nipping at her skin.

Astid's eyes are closed and she's so much mush now that she barely even noticed. Did she come again? Who the hell knows? She certainly doesn't, and it's impossible to tell what with the numbing soreness in her cunt and thighs.

Her breathing won't slow down, and she sucks in air hard and steady, chest heaving, even though it's been a few moments since he stopped. Or maybe minutes. Hours?

What she does notice is his hands are holding her very gently now, like she's suddenly made of blown glass. She can feel him lower down to his previous sitting position again as he redistributes her along his arm so that he can cradle her against his chest. His other hand touches her face and she struggles to lift her very heavy eyelids.

"Primus," he whispers. There's something in his voice. "Are you alright?"

It's a struggle to keep her eyes open, and its a struggle to focus on his words. Everything is just so... warm and hazy and she just feels so good...

He cups her cheek now, and she sees him looking at her with intensity. "C'mon, Astrid... talk to me..."

But she can't, and she has no idea why. She swallows and opens her mouth, and he's grabbing the towel off the ground to wipe his fluids off her with a terrified look on his face; as though cleaning her up will coax something out. All that comes is another wheeze.

He's shaking his head at her now, eyes bright and clear. His head lifts and he looks around like he's got a downed hiker in his arms but the air lift hasn't showed up yet and he's got no idea what to do—

So Astrid does what she can and raises a very heavy, jelly-like arm and places her hand on top of his, weakly tightening her fingers around his. This gets his attention and he jerks his head to look at her again, his face filled with hurt and confusion. That's when she gives him a shaky smile.

"I'm going to get help, OK? I fucked up and I swear I'm going to fix it."

She shakes her head. "Good," she breathes. "You did... good."

The look in his eyes says that he has no idea how to believe her. "What?"

She swallows again, and while words are coming out, at least, it doesn't mean it's easy to talk. "I don't know," she starts, half-groan and half-whisper, "what this is. Never happened before." She pauses to catch her breath again, trying to will away the buzzing between her ears. "But it's good. Really good."

He vents long and hard when his free hand goes to cover his face. "Dammit," he murmurs. "You scared me. I thought... I..." He pauses. If she were in a better state of mind, she'd have known exactly what he's trying to get across without actually saying. But not this time. "I don't know what I thought."

"You thought I got hurt again," came the simple, quiet, reply.

But that's not good enough for him, and he scowls. "Not that you got hurt, Astrid. That I hurt you! Me!"

She smiles again, and she can tell that this is confusing him to the point of frustration. "You did."

"Then why didn't you fragging say something? I would have stopped! But you kept pushing me and—"

"No," she interrupts, firmly. "I got exactly what I wanted."

The wheels are spinning in his big, ancient, robot head, and it's almost funny to her that he's having such a difficult time with this.

"God dammit," he whispers harshly, hiking her up into a hug against him. The mech cradles her head and he kisses her crown. "Why did you want me to do that?" he mumbles into her hair. "I could have seriously hurt you."

Truth be told, it's not often that the two of them are faced with the harsh fact that he is 3 times her height, 15 times her mass, 35 times her weight, and made of the same stuff as engine blocks and wrecking balls. Every moment that he's near her he goes out of his way to make absolutely sure that there will be not even the slightest chance of an accident. He'd always made it look so effortless, but now she was beginning to see just how much it can stress him out. How much the idea of him accidentally stepping on her foot, or moving his arm without looking first, scares him. And now she's asking him to do it on purpose when he's worked so hard to put failsafe after failsafe between them and another trip to the ER.

"Did you like it?"

Her questions catches him completely off-guard.

"I don't think that's important right now..."

She grabs his face and pushes him away, looking into his eyes this time with severity. "It damn well is important," she says. The buzzing in her head is disappearing and it's becoming much easier to string coherent thoughts together. "Because that was the most amazing sex I'd ever had in my short little human life and I need to know if you enjoyed it too."

It takes him a moment to respond, and when he does, he makes sure he's looking away. "Yeah," he murmurs, defeated. "Yeah I did. And that's why I don't think we should do that anymore."

Astrid's floored. "Seriously?"

"I lost control!" he snaps, still looking away. "If you were another 'bot, or if I were human, it would be easier. But we're not. We're different. I'm big, you're small. I'm heavy, you're fragile. I'm metal, you're tissue." Hound pauses to gather himself. "There is nothing about my body that won't kill you if I don't pay attention to every little thing that I'm doing. All the time. If I trip on something? If I misjudge where I am? How I'm sitting or standing or moving? That's it. That's all it takes. I can't... I won't risk it."

"Then why are we even together?" she says. That gets his attention, and she continues before he can respond. "Because it's pretty obvious to me that if you feel that way, maybe we shouldn't even be together at all. Maybe I should just quit my job with the Bureau and move back into a normal house, surround myself with normal company my own size. Because clearly you're the only dangerous thing that ever happened to me, and wow life would just be so safe without you."

He eyes her, slowly, carefully. His lips form a thin line as he still holds her against him. Her naked breasts are pressing into what was once the front grille of his SUV form.

"You are not the hillside that came down on me that day, alright? In fact, you saved me from it. Doing the opposite of hurt me is how we met in the first place." She watches as he looks off to the side again, thinking, frowning. "I'm not a fucking idiot. I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to all of this. You don't think I know how big you are? You don't think I'm reminded of how much damage you could do every time you get near me?" A breath. "Hey, look at me. What's that thing between your legs?"

"Frankenstein's member," he mutters.

"No. Stop saying shit like that. You wouldn't have asked for one if you didn't want one. And I'm asking you to use it again because it's hot. Because I like it. Now don't make me get down on my knees and beg, because I will."

The barest hint of a smile crosses his face. "And what if it turns out that I liked that too?"

You trying to say something, Hound?

Honestly, right now though, it could go either way.

"Then we suck it up and deal with it like adults because you can't white-knight all of your problems away, big guy."

His smile spreads a little.

"Look, in all seriousness... you think I hooked up with you because I wanted normalcy? Safety? You're one big adventure and that's exciting. You just gotta trust me when I say that I know what the risks are."

"I'm like a game of Russian Roulette," he mutters, still convinced that he needs to prove how awful he is.

"Fine, whatever. Click click, bang, bang."

She draws him into a rough, sloppy kiss. He runs his hand over her back, butt, legs, feeling the give of her skin and muscle, again, like she's made of rubber or clay. Maybe he's got a flesh kink, she wonders absentmindedly. That'd be funny.

Astrid is shaken from her thoughts when he begins move, and she realizes that he's scooting off to the side of the meadow over to the nearest tree that will hold his weight so that he can recline against it. She's still against his chest, but now he can hold her close with both arms instead of needing to hold her up with one. One hand cups her whole rear and the other tangles his fingers in her hair, and they stay like that for a few moments.

"Thank you," he murmurs after a while.

They stay like that until it's time for them to go.

"Are you ready?"

Hound's voice sounds in the cabin as she closes the door behind her.

She brings her feet up to the seat and combs her hair with her fingers. "Definitely not."

He'd carried her all the way back to where they'd turned off the service road before transforming. The walk back was mostly quiet.

"Why are you doing this, again?" He turns his tires toward the road and starts the 45 minute drive into the city.

She sighs, looking out the window at the sun setting through the trees. It's a little after 6 and they're cutting it close. "Because they're my family, they're in town for some kind of kombucha festival, and I owe them an explanation for why I up and left the lower 48."

"How much have you actually told them?" She peers over at the empty driver's seat, watching the steering wheel turn back and forth on its own.

"That I have a new job, a new house, that everything is wonderful... the whole spiel."

"And... me?"

"Not yet. But you'll just be a project partner. We're living together in a mandated facility for the duration of the dig so we can be super productive or something." Astrid huffs, ignoring the soreness in her side. "I'll just keep using the word 'mandated'. It'll make this whole thing sound a lot less like a shitshow."

"So even if you did tell them, they probably wouldn't understand, would they?"

"That'd be the understatement of the year. My dad's practically a Luddite. He hates the very notion of AI research, let alone you guys. And my sister... Heather's just your average born-again conservative. It's a miracle that she even still talks to us after she married to that Tea Party nut."

"I see..."

"As for the project info, I can tell them... what?"

"Class E, I guess. Just... keep it really simple. And remember, the Bureau doesn't exist; for all they know, it's a partnership between MIT and the US Geological Survey."

"Right."

"You sure you can handle keeping this stuff secret?"

"You kidding?" she scoffs. "I've been waiting my whole life to be able to say 'it's classified' to anything I don't feel like explaining. And there is a lot I don't feel like explaining to my family tonight. I'll get to say it, blame it on someone else's decision, and move on. No hard feelings, no guilt, no lies. If it's classified, it ain't personal."

"Blood ties are complicated," he admits. "The impression I've gotten is that it's a kind of relationship that's constantly shifting between unwavering loyalty and maddening frustration."

She laughs into the window. "You just about got it down. And that's only for those of us who have decided to give a damn about family. Some folks just say 'screw it' and go off to forge a life without them. It's a dance that no one really knows how to master." Her ass still hurts, and she shifts uncomfortably on the seat, wondering if he notices. "What about you? I don't think you've told me how that all works 'back home'."

"It's... very different. Parents and children don't really exist, but close relationships of all sorts happen very often. Got names for them all and everything. Parental figures abound, though, most everyone has at least one at some point."

"Did you have one?"

"Oh yeah. Last saw them shortly after the war started."

"What happened?"

"They were an explorer and scientist... a pretty good one, I think, but they never played by the rules. Sometimes I wouldn't see them for ages only to get a message from them in prison someplace, telling me not to worry, that they'd be out in no time."

She was imagining someone just like him; maybe red or brown. If they were on Earth, she imagined that they might turn into a Range Rover, always dusty and dirty like their protege she was sitting in right now. They had boundless energy and patience for whomever they took under their wing. "What do you think they'd say about what you're getting up to these days?"

The mech chuckled around her.

"It's hard to say... I think it'd either be 'go get 'em, kid', or 'pull yourself together!'. He was always telling me that if I had a job to do, then I had to do it. I didn't have to do it perfectly, or the way everyone else said to do it, but at the end of the day I had to suck it up and get it done." He laughed again, clearly reminiscing. "That's probably why I was always bending unspoken rules after I enlisted."

Astrid is thinking. Thinking about the dinner, about what to say to her parents, sister, and brother-in-law, about what to start saying to herself.

"Remember that I told you that everything in the universe is a kind of machine? You, me, plants, animals, planets, everything?"

"Yeah?"

"That was one of the things they told me the last time I saw them. I'd been in the ranks for a while by then, and talk of unrest were just beginning to shake up the edges of civil society. He was going away on an expedition someplace..." He paused, thinking. "Said to me, 'Hound, I want you to remember: when the time comes for you to point a gun at another mech's head, that we're all machines. Every one of us. Planets, galaxies, and guns too.' I think they were worried that I was turning into a jarhead."

"What'd you tell them when they asked why you joined in the first place?"

"That the whole thing was an excuse to work with my hands."

Isn't that what he told her too?

They roll into town a little sooner than expected, about 15 minutes early. Astrid calls her mother, Tracy, to find out if she should just meet them at their hotel instead of the restaurant. The new plans are settled, and she asks the Jeep to drive her to the Marriott downtown.

"Look at all these kids," she murmurs into her hand as she looks out the window at all the young 20-somethings out prowling the streets. "Hipsters, they call 'em," she snorts, spying a group of four, all sporting Ray Bans. "God, I'm going to be 30 in a couple months."

"30, huh?" he teases. "You'll be almost as old as I am!"

"Oh shut up," she giggles, swatting at the dashboard. The mech had thrown up his holoform as soon as they hit the outer suburbs, but Astrid was still leery of interacting with it, so he doesn't even pretend to talk to her through it. "Astrology says that it's an important birthday for some reason."

"You really believe that stuff?"

She shrugs. "No, but if I had a dollar for every person I knew who had a 'mid-life' crisis at 29 or 30, I'd have a lot of money. I'm shaping up to have a pretty good one myself!"

"If anyone's having a crisis, it's me," he retorts. "You're going to be fine."

"Knock on wood..."

It's not long before Hound pulls up into the driveway of the Marriott. His hologram takes its hands off the steering wheel and looks straight ahead, more or less. The movements its programmed to have are minute, but realistic, except for the fact that they appear to loop every half minute or so. In this light, though, no one will notice.

"Well..." he says, breaking the silence. "Is that them over there? 2 o'clock."

She looks off to their right and yes, that's them. Scott is paying the driver of their cab and Heather has both hands on the loaded luggage trolley as she attempts to wheel it inside. A bellman jogs up out from someplace and quickly takes it from her, leading them all into the lobby. The cab drives off and Scott disappears inside too.

"You going in?"

Astrid runs her tongue over the front of her teeth. "They'll be a few minutes checking in," she says, twisting around in her seat to look in the back. Which, of course, is pristine and devoid of anything of hers. Duh, he transformed earlier. Everything in him winds up subspaced when he does. "Did you have my sweater?"

It's a purple piece from Patagonia—a celebratory splurge before she left Tahoe for good—and it suddenly appears on the back seat. "Yeah you're going to want to... cover up."

She eyes the center console, wondering what the cryptic tone is for until she reaches to grab the garment and the position suddenly makes everything ache like a motherfucker. She hisses.

The sweater is in her lap but her shirt is hiked up and she's taking in the sight of her angry skin. "Jesus," she mutters under her breath, mouth open as she surveys the bruises blossoming across her ribs, hips, and shoulder.

"Fraggit..." the Jeep says, and she can tell there's disappointment there. "Those look terrible! Are you sure you're going to be OK?"

She thought that his teeth were going to leave a mark and she was correct. From under her collarbone, across to the meat of her upper arm is a violet crescent, at least six inches long and she can tell by the soreness that it has a twin on the other side. For a moment she forgets the pain and is plain surprised that he could fit that much in his mouth.

"That's a big-ass bite, big guy," she snorts. Remembering how it got there sends a pleasant little shiver down her spine.

"I... I don't know why..."

Astrid shushes him, even as she winces while putting on the sweater. "I'll be fine so long as they're covered. Besides... every time I move it'll feel like you're right there with me."

She disembarks shutting the door behind her like he were a normal car. Not 2 paces from the Jeep does she get a text: Remember, head high and shoulders back!

Astrid smiles, showing teeth, and turns to give him a wink, but he's already pulling away and turning onto the street.

"Well there she is. The woman of the hour!"

Scott is, of course, the first person of the group to see her from where they stroll into the lobby from the bank of elevators. She's sitting on a posh sofa, and it seems to her that they got to their rooms very fast. Astrid stands up and gives a little smile as the four relatives head her way, arms open, and each giving their own greeting all at the same time.

"Hey! How's everybody been?" she replies, going in for hugs. First is Astrid's mother, Tracy; a short but hardy woman in her late 50's who was raised with horses. "How was the flight?"

"Fast," says her father, Richard. He's just barely taller than his daughters, a man of about 64. He's always had a mysterious and regal feel about him, Astrid thought, glancing up to notice that he's wearing his favorite cowboy hat, complete with Southwest-styled beaded hat band. "Only about an hour."

"How'd you get here?" Heather asks, and they begin their stroll to the restaurant.

"Oh, just a... co-worker who's in town for the same meetings."

"And you didn't invite them to dinner?" Tracy asked. "I thought we raised you better than that."

"Uh, he's..." She thinks up something fast, remembering the kind of restaurant they had reservations for. "He's a steak and potatoes guy. Not really into exotic vegetarian fare."

Heather snorts. "My gawd, Astrid, we could have gone to a different place, you know."

"Well he didn't want to intrude either. I told him that it's been a while since I've seen you all."

The restaurant, Bikanirvana, is a couple blocks away, and the group walks at a good pace to make their reservation time. Not having eaten since late morning, Astrid realizes that she's absolutely famished.

There's idle chit-chat about the latest with Richard's work as a nature photographer and Tracy's job as an editor for a book publisher in San Fransisco. For the umpteenth time Scott and Heather ask him when he plans on retiring, to which he answers, as always, never. After everyone's re-acquainted with how boring Scott and Heather's jobs are (he's a tax guy and she does desk work for a company that makes things out of really big pieces of cordura... boat covers or something) Scott tries to turn the discussion to politics after that and no one is interested as usual. Especially not with him.

It's only once they're in the restaurant and have gotten their table that Heather finally gives voice to what is obviously on everybody's mind. "OK, it's time to spill the beans, sis. It had better have been worth flying up here to hear about it in person."

Astrid chuckles. "I thought you all were up here for that kombucha thing? Unless that was a front?"

"It was a lucky coincidence," Richard explains with a smile. "Now come on, tell us."

"It's really not that exciting, I promise," she absolutely lies through her teeth. "I'm an analyst working for US Forestry. There's a project going on in Chugach State Park and I'm there to make sure that they don't do anything that would scare off visitors is all."

"So you're a government paper-pusher," Scott says, looking at her over the top of his menu.

Oh my god.

"Yes and no," she replies, determined to keep cordial with the guy that once argued in favor of privatizing these self-same state parks. "I'll be out collecting samples and stuff like that. And taking lots and lots of notes."

"Sounds pretty cushy," Scott says with what she assumes to be thinly-veiled condescension.

A waitress approaches and asks if they'd like anything to drink. Astrid and Scott order bottles of Taj Mahal and everyone else gets mango lassis.

"So, government job," Tracy continues. "Last time we talked, you'd said something about it being temporary?"

"The project is temporary, but I'm a full-time employee, benefits and all." She snorts. "And in a few years, the state will start paying me to live there too!"

"Well we're proud of you," Tracy announces. Richard nods.

The waitress comes back with the tray of drinks. "What's the project, exactly?" Heather asks as Astrid pours her beer into a chilled glass. She feels silly for thinking, even for a moment, that she'd be able to get away without having to tell them something about that.

"Um, the Geological survey is doing some earth-moving up there," she says, parroting Hound's advice. "I think MIT is in on it too."

Scott sips his beer, eyeing her. "And they need an analyst to make sure they don't ruin anything from turning over a couple of rocks?" He rolls his eyes. "Christ, talk about financial priorities."

In all her worrying about the actual secrets she was keeping, about the the invisible government organization pulling the strings, about Hound, she completely forgot that just telling Scott that she worked for the feds now was more than enough to get him going.

"It's a big project," she explains, impatience lacing her voice. "And a big hole they're going to be digging. They're going a mile down." Crap, she hoped that that wasn't divulging too much.

Richard and Tracy look at each other. "A mile?" her father balks. "Why on Earth—"

She interrupts him. "I don't know. It's... it's classified information."

Her brother-in-law's interest is obviously piqued, and she sees him rub his chin. "Haven't seen anything about that online," he offers. Right; the man's precious blogs.

In the meantime, their waitress comes back to take orders. Scott's been so enraptured by the conversation that he hasn't figured out what he wants yet, and everyone else goes first.

"So what about this partner of yours?" Tracy asks, struggling not to finish her drink before the food arrives. Astrid has no such compunction. "You'd said that he was the whole reason this opportunity came along for you."

Astrid clears her throat, and wonders how to proceed. She buys her time with a long sip of beer.

"He's um..." she begins, studying her glass with a frown. If she lies, then that could open a whole can of worms that she can't anticipate right now. If she doesn't, then she has to come out about being involved with Autobots. The thing is, she's allowed to tell them that. Hell, she could make a website called IWorkWithAnAutobot.com and feature nothing but pictures of her and Hound making out, and BREME wouldn't bat an eye.

So of course this has to be the one thing she'd rather not ever tell anybody.

But if she doesn't, then she knows that she'll never be able to keep her lies straight after this.

"He's an... Autobot."

Scott chokes on his beer and her parents fall silent.

"He's what?" Heather asks, eyes wide.

"Shhhh! Shut up!" Astrid hisses at her sister across the table. Her face must be beet red. "I don't want the whole damn restaurant to know."

"This story just got much more interesting," her brother-in-law murmurs, raising his brow. "You were right, though. This project clearly isn't just about some old rocks, is it?"

It's getting hot in here.

"I-it's not what you think," she fumbles. "I met him earlier this year, we became friends. When I told him that I was moving to Alaska, he said he might have a... a job for me."

Heather shakes her head vigorously. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down. You've known about this thing for months now and didn't tell any of us?"

"You're... friends with it?" Tracy asks, mouth open in disturbed disbelief.

She takes a deep breath, trying to calm down, but the air just keeps getting warmer and she can feel the first beads of sweat tickle her hairline. "Look, I know what the media says. He's not a thing. He's sentient and autonomous just like us. He was part of the search and rescue team that found me and... we... we kept in touch, is all."

Everyone is flabbergasted, and the table collectively takes a moment to gather itself. Her mother and sister look at each other, vaguely horrified.

"You know what those things are, don't you?" Heather asks, as though she's about to deliver a piece of news that will sent Astrid's fragile life crashing to the ground.

She knows what she's going to say, and yet the first thing that comes to mind is still: "He's not a thing. He's a person with a personality."

It's Scott's turn. "Astrid, the Autobots are the result of a black project." He glances around the table for moral support, and they're giving it to him. "They're man-made weapons. Meant to replace the drone program. Did you not see all the construction going on when you drove in? They're still cleaning up $60 million in damage from the last time some of these things decided to have a some fun."

Of course that's what the rumor-mill is churning out, and BREME only benefits from stories like this. If word was that they were sentient aliens from some other planet that got stuck here by accident? Well, that'd ruin everything, now wouldn't it. Better to pretend that this is a mess that we made and have the capacity to clean up. If she were smarter, less emotionally invested, then she might have given up and agreed with him just to bring the end of this conversation that much closer. But no, she can't. She refuses to stoop that low.

"Then why are almost all of them state-side? Why are they out doing busy-work like running around the hills looking for missing hikers, huh? Towing in drunk boaters with the coast guard? Hunting narcos? Why do that when the CIA can just send them over to whoever we're fighting right now and take over the world already?"

"It's not that simple," Scott says curtly.

"It's not that simple," Astrid mimics, scowling at her hands on the table. "Of course it's not that simple. It's not that simple because they've all got goals and aspirations, hobbies, fears, insecurities, just like any of us do, and as it turns out this one is a very dear friend of mine."

The food arrives, and they pause the conversation while they interact with the busser, pretending like nothing weird or tense is going on. When they're relatively alone again, Astrid attempts to dive into her meal, but finds that her appetite has suffered a beating. Everyone starts eating in relative silence.

"How much time are you spending with this Autobot?" Astrid is surprised to hear her father's voice. He seems to be very concerned.

"Who says I'm spending any time with him?" she blurts.

Heather looks at her, deadpan. "You already said that you two were partners, whatever that means."

She swallows. "It's work, that's all. I see him at the dig site and that's it. I go to work, I come home. That's my life."

"Where's home?" Heather's digging. She's got something to prove, Astrid can smell it. "You gave us all a PO box when we asked for your new address."

Astrid sets her fork down on her plate, a little too hard. She's no longer hungry. "I live with him, alright? We were set up in a warehouse by a special organization so that we could be working in the field and at home, too. 80-hour workweeks for the next two months."

"I don't like this," Tracy murmurs over her curry. "I don't like this at all, Astrid."

"What has gotten into you?" Heather looks at her like she's the most disgusting person she's ever met, and Astrid is surprised at how much it hurts. "You're living with an over-sized toaster with a face and now you think it has emotions?"

I can't believe this is happening to me. I can't believe this is happening to me in public.

Astrid realizes that she's almost ready to get up and walk out.

"I don't know how it doesn't scare the pants off you," Scotts says, making his way through a second beer. He lifts his eyes up from his plate and looks at everyone else but her. "Can you imagine living with a tank with programming so advanced that it makes you question who's a person and who isn't? I know I couldn't."

"You know what, Scott? I don't remember asking for your opinion," she says flatly, pushing her food away. "In fact, I'm not even sure why you're here. You don't even like kombucha, if I remember."

Heather stares daggers at her sister. "Excuse me? My husband is part of this family, whether you like it or not."

Astrid stares them right back. "Your husband is a fucking tinhat with a Superman complex."

Everyone's staring at her now.

And that's it. There's nothing left to do, nothing left to say. Astrid stands up, fishing for her wallet, from which she pulls a twenty and throws it onto the table.

"Where do you think you're going?" Tracy demands, very quietly.

"I just realized that I'd rather be in the company of toasters than family that treats me like shit," she says, her casual tone masking the lump forming in her throat. "Enjoy your weekend of rancid tea."

It's barely a quarter to 8 when Astrid walks out of the building, cool night air caressing her face, and she's walking. Where? Who the fuck cares. All she knows is that she needs to put distance between her and this block ASAP.

The bar she storms into is a few blocks away, and while packed, it's at least dark. Tears are dribbling down her face and she's shaking like a leaf on a tree when she goes up to the counter to order two shots of rye. The bartender, a middle-aged man with a ring on his hand, notices her sorry state and gives her one on the house. She nods her thanks and throws a five in his jar before retreating to a small, dark corner of the room.

"Looks like it actually is us versus the fucking world, big guy," she grumbles to herself between hiccups, and throws back her first drink. Astrid wants very much to just disappear right now.

Her phone, surprisingly enough, is silent. At least, it is for now. Who knows what shit will get dredged up in the morning. As she downs her second glass of deep amber liquor, though, she decides not to talk to them for a while. How long?

However the fuck long it takes.

Her tears are dry by the time she gets her first text from Hound, wondering where to get her and how long she'll be. It's almost 10. With a stomach that's been empty for almost 12 hours, Astrid is already completely smashed, and is distantly surprised that no one has tried getting her to go home with them. The anger and frustration and hurt aren't so strong, now, and part of her feels OK, even.

way drunk, she texts back.

Are you still with them? How's it going?

fukc em, dont need em. i cna get drunk on my own

I'm going to find out where you are, and come get you, OK? Just stay put.

Astrid is floored at how he's able to to do that. It's like magic, even. The man is magic.

The song by Heart is suddenly stuck in her head and wow, I wonder if they've got that on the jukebox? She gets up for the first time since sitting down, and it's really difficult to do so. The room is spinning counter-clockwise, and all the tables feel like they're trying to get in her way. She's distantly aware that she keeps apologizing every time she bumps into one, or a person, on her way to the glowing machine in the corner.

Astrid doesn't realize that her phone's been going off— Hound's tried texting, and then flat-out calling, but the bar is too loud to hear the ringer and she's too drunk to feel the vibrations as she steadiest herself against the glass and flips through the plastic pages of album art looking for Heart.

"Try to understand, try to understand, try try try to understaaaaaand..."

She thinks that she saw it a few pages ago, and goes back. No, false alarm.

"Fuck," she curses loudly. "Where the fuck is Heart on this thing? I've got a magic man in my life, and I need to play his song." She continues yelling at it. "No, I don't want fucking Queen. Or Nirvana. Fuck Nirvana. Come as you are my ass."

Suddenly there's a hand around her arm, pulling her away from the jukebox.

"There you are!"

Chapter Text

He'd been trying to get hold of her for almost 10 minutes when he realizes that something is probably wrong.

Astrid is completely inebriated, he can tell from her texts, and it seems like she's gone off to drink alone. Alone, drunk, and non-responsive are not three things that he wants Astrid to be at the same time... pretty much under any circumstance.

Having stayed pretty close to the hotel the entire time makes it easy for him to get to where his sensors triangulated her location based on the signal in his text message, and it doesn't look like she's strayed that far, thank Primus.

But ten minutes in the parking lot waiting for her to come out of the bustling downtown bar has him nervous enough that he's got to do something drastic. Astrid had given him some emergency contact info when they got to Alaska: her parents' and sister's numbers. He will admit that the idea to call one of them and enlist their help in finding her crosses his mind, but he suspects there's a reason she's run off to a watering hole instead of enjoying herself at a jazz club with her family like they'd planned.

Fraggit, it's up to him to get her out.

The giant robot.

Hound is idling nervously in a parking spot next to the building, twisting his front tires a little as he checks his energy stores, making sure he can pull off the holoform rescue. Being the Autobot's probable foremost expert in hardlight — not holograms, as most folks preferred to call it — use and tactics, one would think that this would be a cinch. Not so much. The bar is averaging an occupant for every square meter of space, his sensors indicate, and there's furniture everywhere. It's one thing to make a holoform look like it's walking or sitting on something solid; it's another thing entirely to make it squeeze through throngs of people and have every point of contact look and feel real. To make the clothes look and feel real. This is going to be a nightmare.

Could be worse, though, he thinks to himself. They could all be sober.

With one last groan he activates his holoform: a middle-aged man, probably early forties, wearing a black t shirt, jeans, and a pair of dusty yellow work boots. Not quite clean-shaven, as there's some stubble dotting the face, and under a black cowboy hat Hound gave him a nice, shaggy crew cut with a few grays thrown in at the temples for good measure. He wears a pair of brass-rimmed aviators no matter what the situation to minimize having to fudge realistic eye movements.

"Here goes nothing," he says through the holoform, opening the door and sending him out.

Most other mechs find that using holoforms more than a few meters away from their persons is difficult and disorienting, but not Hound. And where other Autobots get overwhelmed by sensory data, he's is usually just getting started.

The holo walks across the parking lot to the front door of the bar, almost getting hit by the door itself as two people come bursting out, laughing at something. Hound dodges them, wanting to save his contact energy for when it's absolutely necessary, and slips in behind them before the door closes.

"Astrid?" he calls out over the crowd, looking around with his remote binocular sensors, contorting his voice to make it sound like it'd come from a larynx and not a vocalizer in a Jeep parked 12 meters away. He notices that some people are looking at him, and he hopes its because he looks like he just came from a cattle ranch 3 hours away and not because he's not actually there.

He calls out her name again, paying close attention to how the holo's mouth looks when it's open. Thankfully, it's something that he can directly puppet by harnessing the signals that would otherwise go to his physical face in robot mode. The Jeep swears in his cab when someone bumps into him, though, and sends a small splash of beer right into his shirt. The interior of the mouth is completely forgotten as Hound acts out what to do with the holo's hands, and frag that was a close one. The beer doesn't soak into the black tshirt, and he desperately hopes that no one will notice that it's actually on the floor instead.

"Come on, please be here," he murmurs, beginning to seriously worry when he doesn't see any sign of her as he sidesteps tables and moving bodies on bar stools.

Contrary to what most folks think, and a number of sci-fi stories claim, there's very little in the way of a "signature" that's unique to every human beyond smell, and Hound cannot smell remotely. Even if he could, it seems like finding her in this mess would still be like finding a needle in a haystack. All he's got to work with is visual information.

"Astrid!" he yells again, this time a little bit louder, and then he sees it: a familiar purple sweater. She's at the jukebox in the back, perusing songs, and as he draws nearer he can hear her cursing at it.

"Come as you are my ass," he hears her say, and that's when he knows how bad it is. She's usually only a few drinks away from passing out when she starts ranting about grunge music.

"There you are!" he says, grabbing her arm both to get her attention and to help keep her vertical. He'd carry her back to him in the parking lot if he could, but a steadying grip would have to do: the thing is weak. He can barely lift a 5-gallon bucket of water with it before it fizzles away from insufficient energy input. He'd have to be twice a big in order to generate something stronger than that.

"You're gonna have to wait your turn," she loudly retorts, shaking her arm from him and turning back to the glowing glass case. "Well summer lover passed to fall, tried to REALIZE IT ALL..." she sings, completely off-key, and starts laughing uncontrollably. "That song... that song is totally about this guy I know. I'm not lying! I'm totally not lying. Not this time. I'm so sick of lying."

Hound's brows knit together, and he's pretty sure the holo's does too.

"He's HUGE!" she yells, standing up on tip-toes and reaching her arms toward the ceiling. "Like... he's a one-man basketball team." She snorts and collapses back down to the glass, holding onto it, and she turns to look at him. Her eyes are bleary and it looks like she's been crying. "I can't believe I just called him a man. Can you believe that? I'm gonna tell you a secret." She hooks her finger at him. "HE'S ACTUALLY A ROBOT!" and she starts laughing again.

The Autobot in the parking lot is getting nervous. He's found her, yeah, but unless she comes willingly, then he's up shit creek. And on top of all that, he feels paranoia creeping into his CPU at the shit that's spilling out of her mouth.

"Come on, Astrid," he says, and his voice sounds a little more mechanized than it did before. He tries grabbing her arm again. "Everything's going to be OK, we just need to get you home, alright?"

"Hey!" A young man nearby barks at the holoform, and Hound freezes. The stranger sets his jaw and doesn't take his eyes off of Hound as he addresses Astrid. "Do you know this guy?"

Astrid squints at the holoform, and suddenly it occurs to Hound that she may not recognize it in this state. He barely uses it around her.

"C'mon," he pleads. He recoiled his hand the minute the stranger stepped in, otherwise he'd have to figure out the physics of being popped in the mouth. Making a scene is the absolute last thing that he wants to do. "It's me, H...ound," he grinds out, painfully aware of how awkward his name sounds rolling off a human tongue like that. Even if they'd both agreed on a codename like Hank or Hogan or Hunter, there's no guarantee that she'd remember it while so compromised.

The stranger hears the hesitation in the mech's voice and steps a little closer to Astrid. What Hound can only guess is the man's friend or beau steps in closer as well, in case he needs more backup. Fraggit, fraggit, fraggit.

"My Hound is green and 15 feet tall," she says, completely serious. "I don't know who you are."

"Dammit, Astrid! It's me! This is my holo! Remember?"

The strangers glance at each other, and they have a look on their faces that says wait, are we that drunk? But they gather their composure, and the first one steps in between Hound and his human. "You heard the lady; she doesn't know you. Now take your tiny dick and go home."

The other one has her hand on Astrid's shoulder, hovering like a mama bear even though she's clearly a few years younger. "And learn to pick up chicks like a real man, you fucking creep."

Hound's mad, embarrassed, and beginning to panic. The energy stores he has dedicated to his hardlight tech are dangerously low now, so unless he wants to peel away the roof of the building and pluck her out like King Kong, he's got about 60 seconds left before the holo shifts back to the far less energy-intensive softlight.

Grinding his proverbial teeth together, the mech makes one last go of it. The only way that he's going to get her to recognize him is to do something drastic, and risk scaring everyone else in the vicinity.

"OK. If you can look me in the eye and say that you don't recognize me, then I'll leave you alone, alright?" The man steps away a little, willing to let this one last test pass. Hound moves the holo's hand up to his sunglasses and begins to slowly draw them down the bridge of the its nose. "Look me in the eye, Astrid." Once he knows that she is, he shifts the holo's human eyes to look like his own: blue, back-lit, with the tell-tale brilliant apertures sitting behind almond-shaped panes. He even over-lays a faint image of his own face for a split second, and the blue from his facsimile optics are bright enough to cast her in a delicate light. But he pushes the aviators back into place less than a moment later, hoping that did the trick.

The two strangers' eyes are wide as dinner plates, and it's the man that shakily reaches for the young woman behind him. Their mouths are moving but nothing's coming out. Astrid on the other hand, just blinks, completely unfazed.

"I know those eyes," she says, and the couple look at each other, completely dumb-struck. And then: "Oh my god, it's you! My Hound..." she throws herself at him and FUCK the last of his energy is spent making sure she doesn't phase through him and hit the floor.

"We gotta go we gotta go," he says firmly, shoving her off of the holoform way too roughly for his liking. "The holo is going to disappear any second now." A little lie, but it gets the point across to the wasted woman.

"Aye-aye, captain!" she bellows, moving in front of him and ordering everyone aside. "'Scuse us, Autobot coming through! 'Scuse us!"

Hound wants to die a little.

But most of him, in reality, is thrilled that he's finally gotten her out of the bar so that he can figure out what the hell got them into this pinch to begin with.

"Don't touch it, alright?" he murmurs at her as they exit and make their way across the parking lot. "I've officially gone soft."

She giggles, doing as she's told. "Your holo-guy is like one big dick joke."

He frowns internally for a second and then realizes, wait a minute, she's actually right. (In the past he has said various things along the line of "I'm hard" whenever he pulls out the hardlight holo.) The Jeep laughs, and remembers that it feels good to laugh. And he'll take what he can get because he senses that once she sobers up, there may not be much to laugh at.

By the time they arrive at AHQ, she's dead asleep. But that doesn't mean that there isn't collateral damage: not once, but twice, has he had to frantically pull over on the drive out of town in order for her to puke on something that isn't him. Nothing comes out both times, which clues him into how she got so completely hammered, and is very glad that there'll be no accidentally getting any on him. She spends a solid 14 minutes profusely apologizing— and not just for the dry heaving. At one point she even starts crying again, apologizing for things she didn't even do to him. Things like the time she killed a goldfish by forgetting to feed it, or the time she played some kind of mean trick on her mom that didn't wind up being as funny as she thought. She also apologizes for not being a sexy robot with one breath, and being too small for him to fit his dick into with the next.

Hound isn't quite sure what to do about these admissions. He knows she's too far gone to be able to say a single word that isn't the total truth about everything and anything, but there's really no parallel to what over-fueling does to his kind. Nutty behavior, yeah. Making poor decisions, sure. But dredging up things that happened in childhood? That was a little weird to him.

And the sexy robot thing? He sighs, shooting down the highway at a good speed. If that's the way she truly felt, then he decides to wait until she brings up again later... that is, if she chooses to.

I wish there was a handbook for this, he mumbles to himself as Astrid snores and drools into his seat.

He entertains his own daydreams on the road alone.

Hound finds himself wanting to brush her cheek with his sensor net, curious about the marks he'd made, examine them with remote detectors buried deep inside of him, but who is there but Prowl. Stern-faced and scowling, as he looks over Hound's profile for the first time some four-thousand Terran years ago.

"You prefer melee combat? What do you think this is, the pits?" Prowl says with a bit of disgust.

"You... skipped over the part where it says I don't actually like combat, but if I had to chose a preferred method of engagement, that it would be melee?"

"Look, I know you've been in the service for a while, but this is war"

Hound interrupts him. "Exactly. Which is why you shouldn't be getting picky about a single soldier's preferred"

"...which means that the reputation of the Autobots is going to be scrutinized even more now than during peacetime. We can't go do things like Decepticon thugs, Hound. We're the good guys, which means we take the high road. The clean road."

Hound throws up his arms. "The CLEAN road? What about some of the others that do things my way? Worse than my way? Mechs like... like Blades? Latrius? Roadchaser? I could go on. And they do worse without even touching the enemy! You give them this speech too?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," Prowl states cooly. "Regularly.The difference between you and them is that you are an officer and therefore in a position of authority. Those mechs are not. "

"You're acting as though it'd be better for our image if I were to drink myself into stasis on the job than throw a punch."

"Both of them stem from the same aberrant behaviors, and both are equally deplorable. You are never going to be promoted beyond your current rank with something like this tarnishing your profile. Fisticuffs and brawling is for thugs and organics, and have no place in the Autobot... army."

He'd said 'army', but meant something else, Hound knows.

That seems like ages ago now, though. Feeling his fare shift around to get more comfortable in the front passenger seat, his attention is on her for a moment; he realizes that for her, even a few thousand years is an unfathomable length of time. And judging by the frequency of her brainwaves, time itself is unfathomable right now. Apparently it is for him too, as he finds himself driving up the road to the Ark before he realizes that he's done so.

"So how'd it go?" Beachcomber was standing there with Trailbreaker on the gravel, having some quiet time outside the base when Hound drives up.

"She asleep already?" remarked the big black mech, stooping to get a look inside the Jeep's cab.

"I had to rescue her from a bar," he mutters. "Single-handedly."

The others' mouths fall open.

"I'll tell you about it later. It's been a really long day. Help me out though, would you?"

Hound opens the door and undoes her seat belt, and Beachcomber steps forward to lift her gingerly out of the passenger seat. She's as limp as a wet noodle in his hands. He quickly changes, and once bipedal, takes her back from his friend, jerking his head toward the base's entrance.

"I'm going to put her to bed and then I'll be back out for a few. Could definitely use that energon after all this."

The two mechs chuckle, and then when Hound is out of sensor-shot, Trailbreaker turns to the blue off-roader: Are they... sharing a room? he asks over comm.

Ain't none of my business, daddy-o.

Moments later and they're back in their temporary quarters. With one far-too-large hand he attempts to yank open the sleeping bag he'd brought for her, to very little avail. He curses under his breath, trying to do this and hold her steady with his other arm, but gives up and just lays her down on top of it instead, and covers her with the blanket. He takes her bag out from subspace, and fishes around in it for her water bottle, which he sets beside her, and fishes around again for a snack bar, which is a little more difficult to find, but he winds up placing one next to the water.

He steps back and surveys her. She's going to sleep like the dead tonight, he thinks, and then frowns, wondering just what had driven her to do this to herself. Okay, not that he didn't have a damn good idea, but... he wanted the actual story. He hopes to Primus that her hangover won't keep her in bed all day tomorrow, because that's that last fraggin' thing she needs, and slowly heads back outside.

"What'd you do, read her a bedtime story? Criminey," Trailbreaker scoffs from where he leans against a boulder sticking out of the ground. A "Leaverite", a BREME agent had called it once they found out that it went down another 6 meters below the dirt. The name sort of stuck among the Ark's crew after that. "Was tellin' Beach over here that if you weren't back soon, I'd have to drink your drink for you before it got cold." The black mech took a second cube out of subspace and tossed it to the Jeep. "Ain't nothin' sadder than a cold cube!"

Hound chuckled, poking in two corners on the top of the container with his thumb and took a swig. "You've been out of the field for too long, Trailbreaker. Outside the Ark, we take what we can get."

"It's about dignity, Hound!" he says dramatically. "Have you forgotten the meaning of the word?"

Maybe.

He forces a laugh, though. "Hunger strikes count now? Duly noted."

Suddenly, though, Beachcomber is in his comm transceiver. Wait for it, he says cryptically.

Wait for w?

"So where'd you and the broad run off to all day? How come you had to rescue her from a bar?" he asks with a smirk. "Was it attacking her? Inquiring minds are dying to know."

Right. That.

"Good to know the rumor mill is turning just as fast as ever," he all but sighs. "I took her into town to see her folks who were visiting. I think they probably had a few choice words to say so she left and homed in on a watering hole to drown her sorrows."

Most mechs who don't work with humans regularly have a pretty nebulous concept of drunkenness. Sure, it's generally understood that alcohol is a mild poison that humans like to ingest in quantities that usually aren't life-threatening in order to experience pleasurable side-effects. Popular media usually usually depicts drunkenness as a willful bout of temporary stupidity, and most of the mechs are able to wrap their CPUs around that. But others, like Hound, Jazz, Bumblebee, those who work much more closely with their organic allies, have a better understanding of what it does and why its culturally significant. Hound knows, for instance, that it doesn't just stupefy: it removes inhibitions so that emotions are harder to hide. And sometimes the emotions that reveal themselves can be very complicated.

Over-fueling, on the other hand, just dulls the sensor nets and messes with cognition a little. A mech can easily keep a secret right up until they fall into stasis. That is, if they wanted to. There are other substances on the market that can do what alcohol does to humans, and then some; but the use of mods and over-clockers among Cybertronians is far less than illicit drug use in humans. And chemical dependency just doesn't exist.

As always, the corollary is imperfect.

"Well, I don't think it'll take a genius to guess what they could've said to her." Trailbreaker takes a sip of his near-empty cube and looks off into the trees beyond the barbed-wire fence. "It's not like we're particularly well-thought of by most folk."

"Hard to form an opinion if they're not even allowed to know what we are," the green mech grumbles.

You know anything more than that, man?

Not a thing. She spent the whole drive back trying to vomit and rambling about not being good enough for anybody.

"Yep, can't blame em," Trailbreaker says, finishing off his cube and disappearing the empty container into subspace. "Who in their right mind joins a mysterious government organization and suddenly starts getting chummy with giant robots?"

"Mmh." Hound musters a grunt, sipping long on his own drink.

She did tell them about me, though. I know that much. I think she was going to play it off as just a work partnership, but I guess even that was too much for them to handle.

That's some bull, cat. Givin' her the shaft like that.

You're telling me. And now, she's got nobody to turn to besides me. And I'm not human... there are some things I'm never going to be able to do for her. She needs humans in her life, especially right now.

How d'you think this'll re-solve?

I have no idea. No slaggin' idea.

"Hound!"

The voice jolts him out of his comm channel. Beachcomber starts too.

"Sorry, sorry," Hound says. "Was just... daydreaming there for a minute."

"Really. Because from where I'm standing, it looks like you two were having a private conversation."

"Hey cut him some slack, man. Was just asking the green cat a question, yannow?"

He eyes them both. "You know, you've been actin' sorta funny for a while. You sure everything's alright with you?"

Hound vents and stares at the cube in his hand. "I'm fine, really."

"OK, but you know I can read you like an open file, and it's pretty obvious that something's got you all screwed up."

"I said I'm fine."

"Hound, you're among friends, here! Just say it, mech. Spill the—"

"It's none of your fucking business!" Hound snaps, and the English expletive falls out of his mouth so naturally that it startles him. He stares down the black mech, who's standing stock still, mouth buttoned up. "Sometimes you just don't know when to leave well enough alone, Trailbreaker." He throws the half-empty cube at him, and he catches is awkwardly, some of it spilling on him. "Now if you two will excuse me, I think I'm going to retire."

And once again, once Hound is out of immediate sensor-range, Trailbreaker has his last word: "...says the mech with nothing going on."

Hound storms back to his suite, now unable to shake the fluttering of anxiety in his spark.

What in the pit happened just now?

The green mech rests his back against the door behind him as he looks forlornly at Astrid, still in exactly the same position that he'd left her. He vents haphazardly, almost afraid that one of his two friends will come knocking at the door any minute now, and all he suddenly wants to do is hide from the world.

Hound lets gravity draw him to sit on the floor in front of the door and he rubs at the ridge of his nose, shaking his head.

Why... why am I even keeping this from him? He probably knows already.

The mech shudders at the idea, not quite sure why he's so afraid of one of his best friends knowing about his relationship with the human. He keeps telling himself that Trailbreaker wouldn't understand, but now Hound's not so sure. Maybe he would... but is it worth the risk? Hound knows that his spark can't take one more rejection from somebody he respects. It'll be too much.

Once again he looks over to the berth, lifting his optics to see the pile of sleeping bag on the hard surface. He's at eye-level with her now, and tentatively sweeps her body with his sensors. He tells himself that it's to make sure that she's alright and to see if he can tell how dehydrated she is from here, but Hound is still well aware of the real reason.

He can feel them, already well-formed just under the surface of her skin: the bruises. He doesn't know what color they are, their exact dimensions, but he can feel the broken capillaries, sense the dying blood cells pooling in microscopic pockets in her flesh, and he knows. I made those, he thinks, trembling. Me.

And it was so damned easy.

He turns away, forces his sensors off.

That was the other thing he didn't want anyone, anyone, to know. Not Beachcomber, not Jazz. No one.

Hound suddenly feels sick again as he unwillingly recalls the feeling of her between his hands, between his legs. It had felt good. Too good.

"I'm like a game of Russian Roulette," he whispers, repeating what he'd said earlier. He knows that when he finally gets to see those bruises with his own optics, then it'll be even harder for him to deny. This isn't like the bodice-ripping romances he's heard about and flipped through on one occasion or another— this isn't a well-sculpted, 90 kilo man struggling to express his angst in the most masculine way possible, grunting and growling about some metaphorical "beast" inside. Hound is a 2,200+ kilogram machine. He has no inner beast; and he doesn't need one to put her in a full body cast if he gets just a little too caught up in the throes of sensory bliss.

At what point does he put his foot down and say no?

At what point is she asking too much?

I got used to wanting more than I could get a long time ago.

"Had to accept it," he murmurs to himself.

Hound groans and decides that maybe he should make good on his earlier declaration of retiring. It's late, and all he can do is hope that he sleeps like the dead too.

It's a little after 0800 when he rouses from recharge. He's scrunched up against the wall to make as much room for her as possible on the berth, even though it looks like she hasn't moved an inch since the night before. Hound does a sweep of her, not even needing that much to tell him that she'll be sleeping for while longer yet.

In fact, it's an entire issue of the New York Times and a few chapters of Call of the Wild later before she wakes up.

It took Hound a few years to get used to the literary traditions of Earth, namely the conventions of fiction writing, but it's grown on him. Especially Jack London, who came recommended from Optimus himself after it came up that the green mech was a devout fan of John Muir and had taken to keeping a copy in his memory banks. There was something very... thrilling about reading of the exploits of humans and their animal companions being pitted against the wilderness. Their uniquely inherent frailty and determination is something that he will always, even if he were to ever leave the planet, be fascinated by.

He tucks the digital book away, though, and turns to Astrid, whose eyes have finally opened.

"What... happened?" she asks hoarsely, squinting painfully at the skylight high above her.

Hound reaches over her to grab the water that he'd set out the night before and hands it to her. "If you're not miserable now, you will be," he all but sighs. "Drink up."

She stares at him, still squinting and scowling, a little confused. But when she sits up to take a drink of water she groans and Hound can only imagine what hit her just now. She falls back down to the pillow, clutching her head.

"We have any asprin?" she moans.

"If we did, it probably wouldn't be any good now."

"Dammit."

"Just take it easy, OK? We've got the whole day."

There's silence and she rubs her temples.

He can't help but ask, and he makes sure that his voice is soft.

"What happened last night?"

Astrid stops and stares at the ceiling. He can't tell if she's trying to remember or thinking of the words.

"They think I've gone off the deep end," she says, quietly, flatly.

All the giant mech can manage is to vent himself empty and slump back down onto the berth next to her. The deep end, huh? Dammit, dammit, dammit.

But she wasn't done yet. "And it's all because they can't wrap their heads around you even being alive. If Scott weren't there to ask all the worst fucking questions..." She takes a deep breath. "It would have gone a lot better."

"Who's Scott again?"

"The brother-in-law. I called him a tinhat before I walked out of the restaurant... he is a tinhat. Contrails, the Illuminati... the man fucking thinks that there's compelling evidence for a faked moon landing. His problem is not that he's stupid, not that he isn't well-read - he knows what humanitarian crisis is going on at any given moment, and that's way more than most folks can say - but it's that he buys the goddamn snake oil anyway."

Hound stays quiet and listens.

Astrid is scowling now. "He knew what questions to ask as soon as I said "government"."

His spark sinks. "What did you tell them?"

She looks sidelong at him and sucks in her bottom lip. She turns away.

Hound rolls over onto his side and captures her tiny chin in his fingers. "Astrid, I need to know what you said." And he does - not just for his sake, but for the project too.

"I told them about the hole, and I told them about you. That's it," she whispers.

He vents again, relieved. It's OK. She did OK. "Just... just let it blow over, alright?" he offers, kicking himself at how weak his attempt at comforting is. Dammit, if only he knew what it was like to have a family. "Give it time. They'll come around."

But she shakes her head. "No," she says. "They're not going to - at least, not Heather and Scott. Not unless I say sorry, and like hell am I going to do that."

The mech isn't going to pretend to know the details of what went down. He's not going to pretend that he knows her sister and her husband, that he knows what kind of relationship Astrid had with her brother-in-law before this happened.

He's not going to pretend to know how she feels.

"What now, then?"

A breathy, strangled sound escapes her and she shakes her head again. "I don't know. Go back to work I guess."

Hound sits up and slides off the foot of the berth. He can't just lay there all morning like she likely will; he's too awake, to distressed. He's gotta go do something. Something at least somewhat productive.

"Where are you going?" she asks, lifting her head only as much as necessary.

"The firing range," he murmurs, nearing the door. "Text me if you need me, alright?"

"Ok."

"See you in a bit."

The range - or shooting gallery, to be more accurate - is empty when Hound slips in. The lights flicker on at his entry, revealing the large space. It's divided into a mech-scaled range, and a human-scaled one: the former 120 meters long, and the latter less than half that.

The gallery is cold. Not temperature-wise, but the atmosphere of this sort of place has always felt incredibly unwelcoming to him. He stakes out a spot behind the wall and sends a signal to the room's computer to dispense a target for him. A flat softlight image in the shape of a universal mech slides down from a track in the ceiling with a gentle hum, and numbered fields appear along the length of the body.

"Fifty meters," he says aloud, and the target responds.

What is it about this place?

The ambient noise of the Ark answers him: gentle thrumming of distant power cells, the sigh of cycling air, a faint creak or deep, subtle groan of metal as the earth settles around the place, freezing and thawing, pushing and pulling at the alien building materials. The mech notices a tiny smear of rust along where the wall meets the ceiling.

Someone should probably look at that.

But what is it about this place?

Hound takes his weapon out of subspace, and as soon as its in his hand he remembers.

It's a long time ago - a few thousand years - and he's back at the practice range after his first combat mission. Primus, he remembers it like yesterday; and not three cycles prior did he put his first bullet in the head of his first kill. A young Decepticon who turned into something with wheels and whose name he never did figure out. What the ballistic did to the young Cybertronian's face was almost incomprehensible; Hound distinctly remembers the shattered visor; the delicate plating ripped open like paper; the shower of sparks that exploded from the destroyed sensor array behind the transparent optical plate.

His company beat a hasty retreat after that. The kill had been in vain.

Hound thought that that moment had come and gone, but it wasn't until he was in the practice range at the base did it hit him like a ton of lead. The mental breakdown was a delayed response, and Hound had to be dragged out of the space by two of the other soldiers from his unit and taken to the med bay. The war was on at that point, and so every effort was made to get the green mech to stay in the ranks. Two cycles later and he made his second kill. No breakdown followed.

But it was in the cycle he spent in the infirmary that made him realize that he was trapped in the life of a career soldier, and that he always would be.

A vent escapes him.

He brings himself back to the now, feeling the heft of the rifle in his hands as he sets his optics on the target. It's a long, sleek, seductive, ballistic weapon. A dull metallic white, it reflects the harsh lighting of the gallery. He rarely uses it, except in combat situations where he's been ordered to attack from a distance, as Prowl so coarsely reminded him all those millennia ago. The thing is about 2 meters long - slightly taller than Astrid, he quips unhappily to himself - and 130 kilos in weight. He runs his fingers over it, feeling every scratch and dent as he lifts it to his shoulder for a moment of reacquaintence, recalling the mission behind every individual mar. They each tell an ugly story: of pistol-whippings, clubbings, and the narrow escapes that the elegant and awful weapon consistently permitted him.

He'll never deny that the gun has saved his life almost too many times to count. But when he's at his lowest? He's almost sure that it only does so to mock him. That it only lets him live under the condition that he goes out into the field and puts his spark on the line in order to extinguish as many others as he can. Hound looks forward to the day that he can cast it aside forever.

Today, though, is not that day.

"Violence is a tool," Prime said in a speech once. "A powerful tool. And it should be used as sparingly as possible. Let the tool control you, and that is how tragedies happen. I want to minimize the number of tragedies we deal out in this war, and minimize the number that get dealt to us."

But war itself is the tragedy. And he knows that Prime knows. But telling that to the troops is a faux-pas.

Hound gives the weapon a once-over, making sure that it's in good working order. He gives a quick flick to a small switch just above the rear grip, and out of the back pops an energy plug. It'd been sitting dead in the gun for months now - since the last time he was in Portland, actually. He pulls it out the rest of the way and sets it on the counter in front of him, taking a fresh one out of subspace and pushing it into the open port with a click. Flipping another switch, the rifle hums to life.

He lifts it to his shoulder again, this time taking aim at the 50-meter target and after waiting for a few moments, instinct pulls the trigger for him.

SHPOW

Right between the would-be optics.

"Seventy-five meters," he calls out, and the target refreshes itself as it heads further away along the track.

Hound usually does two "rounds" of practice, each to home a different role that he's sometimes given out in the field: footsoldier and sniper. For some reason, he always startes with the second. Wheeljack could probably tell me why that is, he thinks to himself as he takes aim a second time. He's ready to fire, but doesn't; a thought occurs to him.

Should probably bring Astrid in here and teach her how to handle a gun.

Never know when she might need it...

A little while later, and he returns to their suite to see if she's up for doing just that.

"How are you feeling?" he asks upon entering. The door sighs shut behind him.

She's still curled up on the sleeping bag - really, an adorably sad sight - and fiddling with her phone. She looks up at him, and decides to rise to a sit, looking as though she's prepared for the worst. When it doesn't happen, Hound chuckles at the expression on her face.

"Seems that the worst is behind me," she shrugs. The mech is inclined to take her word for it even though her rough night is still written in the bags under her eyes and in her listless skin. "This headache will be with me for a little while, though."

He takes a seat next to her and looks down at her small, organic form. Her arms are visible now, and his spark feels odd when his optics fall on the bruises along her shoulder and bicep. He knows there's more, hidden away under the blanket.

"How do those feel?" he murmurs.

"They're still the best thing that happened to me yesterday," she says with a lazy smile.

He scoffs and looks away. "That's not saying much."

"You know what?" she quietly snaps, and he jerks his head back toward her commanding tone. "Stop.You're not being funny."

The giant mech is suddenly nervous. "I wasn't trying to be."

"Then you're insulting me."

"What?"

"You're talking shit about something I thoroughly enjoyed, and that's insulting. You don't have to do any of that ever again, but the least you could do is not be a jerk about it."

Hound is taken aback, and he searches her face for something, he's not sure. "I..."

I wasn't trying to be a jerk.

That's not what I...

"That's not what I mean," he says, suddenly exasperated. The mech looks away. "It's just... I did enjoy myself. I told you that."

"Then what is it? Why do you have to say shit like that?"

Hound's grinding his denta together in his mouth, spark coiling. There's an ache in his foreprocessors. "It's that I want you so bad sometimes that it scares me," he quietly relents.

A little, warm hand touches his and he's looking back at her. The human hooks a finger at him, and Hound can't help but lean in closer, following it.

"You don't think my desires don't scare me too?" she murmurs, reaching out for his face to bring it close enough for a kiss. Her lips, pillowy soft, brush his lower lip, followed by a flick of her tongue. It was always his policy not to open his mouth until she wants him to - he just didn't like the idea, being so much bigger than her and all - and this is her way of asking for more. He can feel the condensation of her breath on his dermaplating like a warm, faint, touch. Primus, that's one of his favorite little things about humans. The sensation has been driving him wild since he first experienced it with a human passenger so many years ago.

Venting, he parts his lips, and dives in. Eventually his hand is in her hair, cradling the back of her skull and using it for leverage as they continue. Every time he manipulates her head this way or that, or pushes her further into him, a tantalizing little noise escapes from her and into the recesses of his own mouth.

At some point, he has her panting and flushed, but he has to break away because his sitting position becomes hard to hold comfortably. Bringing both legs onto the berth from where they hung off the side, he gets on hands and knees over her and continues his assault.

"So this scares you, huh?" Astrid breathes, breaking away. He doesn't want to pull back, so his mouth goes to her bitten shoulder, kissing and nibbling. Her hand is on the side of his helmet.

"No," he says, disarmed by the lip-locking. I want you all over again, right now. "It's that how I want you is changing..."

He can feel her heart rate spike, and if he had a heart, Hound imagines that his would have done the same.

"Changing?"

"Yeah..." he gently pushes her down on her back, hand almost as wide as her hips slipping under the hem of her shit. "I don't know if it's... if it's the new programming, but I... I find myself wanting to be in you more and more."

Where the pit did that come from? He pauses for a second to reflect on what he'd just said, realizing that it's true.

Astrid responds by taking off her shirt for him. "If your cock continues to be the size of my leg, then I really can't help you there."

Hound thinks for a moment about what Wheeljack told him about the apparatus when he'd gone to have it installed. It'd been an awkward visit; Wheeljack had no compunction either way, but Hound wanted the thing to take as little time as possible, and exchange as few words as was necessary. The engineer had said that the device was designed to integrate with his systems over time, to create as an "organic" experience as could be had, as it learned to tailor itself to Hound's programming, behavior, and emotions. Eventually, maybe after a few weeks or months, it would start to respond to somatic input without Hound's conscious intervention. After that, its attributes would be more or less fully matured and assimilated, and changing them at that point would require conscious, manual, or even mechanical intercession.

In other words, it would become as natural to his systems as having legs or hands. But in the interim, in this pseudo-puberty? Hound has full control over when he wants it, and how he wants it to be. And that usually means "proportional".

Her hand on his brakes his train of thought. "I know," he frets. "But..."

"But you like it the way it is?"

Hound twists up his mouth and he looks down at her. "Yeah."

"You can't have both, big guy."

"I know."

She looks off to the side, then down past his chest, and meets his gaze again with a devious grin. Uh oh. What's that little hellcat up to this time?

"Sit back," she says, biting her lip and getting up onto her knees.

He does as he's told, resting back down on his legs, hands on his thighs. He's watching her as she steps over to him, motioning for him to set his knees further apart, and she takes her place between his thighs. Slag... the mere sight of her settled between his legs like that, looking so small and yet so fierce, sends his spark a-shivering. And when her tiny hands, not even big enough to wrap around his thumb, set themselves on his thighs next to his, he activates the toy.

The feeling of just materializing it, the sensation of its coiling conduits swelling with his own, real, spark fluids, is a shock of pleasure on its own. It's fully erect in a second or two, standing tall.

She runs her hands over it, marveling, hungry, wily. Does she know? Does she know how amazing this feels? What it's like to have small, soft hands pawing at the now-most sensitive tendrils of spark fluid in his body? It feels like she's reaching into his chamber and stroking that ball of energy itself. Oh frag, Astrid...

Hound watches, just as hungry, as she sits up higher - no, kneeling, now - so that his cockhead is level with her mouth. Is she going to...?

And suddenly that wet little orifice is breathing on it, deep and throaty, fogging up the dermaskin. Hound can't help the low moan that passes his lips. Every sensor he has is trained on the feeling of that condensation prickling at the microscopic nodes located in the head. He wants her to do it again until droplets of moisture - her moisture! - form and trickle down his length.

But not this time. This time, Hound quickly realizes, she's going to blow him.

His entire body jerks when her tongue contacts the slit; his cock does so so much that it almost gets away from her. She giggles, grabbing it again, firmer this time, and goes back to coating the end of his large prick with her saliva.

"Shit, Astrid," he hisses, unable to hold back the English swear. This is the first time her mouth has been on him like this, and the feeling is electric. Up until now, not one centimeter of his member has been in her.

The slow build of excess charge begins deep in his chest when he feels her mouth open as wide as it can, and with a circuit-shorting sensation of sucking, his cockhead disappears.

His fingers are restless as they sit splayed on his thighs, and without thinking, he places one on her back while the other goes to grab a fistful of hair. Apparently it's her turn to moan. The sound vibrates the sensitive material in her mouth. One by one, non-vital parts of his HUD give way to static as the overcharged spark fluid begins circulating through his body, filling him with a still-building pleasure. Soon... soon he'll need to ground. Or, as the humans call it, climax.

Her hands are wrapped tight around him as she bobs her little head up and down on him at the firm encouragement of his hand. Together with her mouth, it almost creates the sensation of being inside of her. For a brief second he permits himself to imagine that it's actually her, and she's lowered herself down into his lap, rocking on him.

"F...rag..."

He has no idea that he's offlined his optical array, and quickly fumbles to turn it back on again just as the charge is becoming too much to contain. And Primus is he glad that he does: he catches her looking up at him with darkened eyes, face flushed and skin virile again, and there's just something in her expression that sends him over the edge.

Hound grinds his denta together, throwing his head back, and his hands lock up as the overcharged fluid changes composition for just a nanosecond, expelling the charge down and out via his new toy. The mech can't help the roar of his internals as his cock pulses and pumps out about a half-liter of quickly neutralizing, clear, viscous fluid, realizing through the static and the electricity that he still feels Astrid's mouth on him and fuck! Some of it is in her mouth!

He looks down, optical array quickly returning online and he sees that he's accidentally held her in place against him. Her eyes are shut tight, chest heaving, and even through the haze of grounding he releases her like, once again, he'd almost broken her. He doesn't dare move as she jerks her head away from him and sputters, coughing out some of the grounding fluid and catching her breath. How long had he held her there for?

"By the goddamn pit, are you OK?" he asks, shaken. He has the sinking feeling that he'll be asking that after most times they get intimate.

She's still catching her breath, but leans against the inside of his thigh, draping her arm across it and wiping the stuff from her face. "Remind me... is that stuff going to kill me?"

He draws hips lips into a tight line and wipes himself clean too before putting it away. His dick is dripping from the both of them: his grounding and her saliva. "No no no, Primus no! God, I never would have gotten this made if the byproduct weren't inert and nontoxic."

"OK good," she says, breathing a literal sigh of relief, letting her smile reappear. "Because quite a bit of it went down."

Hound can't help at the little jolt of arousal he feels at hearing her say that. Well, I wanted to be in her...

"Damn, your uh... your stuff tasted weird, though."

He's suddenly self-conscious. "Is... that a bad thing?"

"No," she says, considering it and gesturing. "It was like mineral oil. Didn't taste like too much... was a little sweet, a little salty, like the real thing. The weirdest part was that it tingled."

Hound allowed himself to chuckle a little, noting that his HUDs were coming back online. "It's a byproduct of grounding overcharged spark fluid. Normally, what I uh... what I... expelled-"

"Ejaculated?" she interrupted cheekily.

He blushed in his spark and looked away. "What I ejaculated... it gets processed internally and it escapes later as I go about doing other stuff."

"Like static shock from wearing socks on carpet?"

"Yeah, same principle."

"So all that's been rerouted and reprogrammed to do it this way."

"That's all there is to it, really."

Astrid nods and quiets down. It's only when she reaches out to touch the emitter at his groin does he realize what she's focusing on. Can he go for seconds? Yeah, it's the nature of how his body works as a Cybertronian. He could overcharge and ground all day long. But it does take its toll on one's systems, and right now, Hound is wiped.

"How come you don't go flaccid?"

"I don't know," he replies, quietly, lazily. "Maybe it'll figure out how to do that eventually."

"Would you want the ability to go flaccid?"

Hound considers this for a moment, but decides that the repercussions are too many and too varied to really think about. "It might be more trouble than it's worth." He pauses, looking at her as he rubs her shoulder. "How's that headache?"

The little human shrugs. "It feels like it's going away. Sex is good for that sort of thing, though." He doesn't know that that generally only holds true if you orgasm yourself, even though it seems, from what he can tell, that she's telling the truth.

He nods. "Hey, I had an idea for something I think we should do today."

"Oh?"

"When I was out practicing earlier, I thought... I thought that maybe it would be a good idea for you the learn how to use a gun."

She furrows her brows at him. "A... gun? Why? Isn't that what you're there for?"

"I'm not going to be around you 24/7. And... and if something were to happen, I'd want you to be able to at least sort of defend yourself." He couldn't imagine what human threats she might run into while with BREME, because Primus knew what good a sidearm would do against a Decepticon, but he wanted her to do this all the same.

Astrid fell silent for a few moments, and Hound was worried that he shouldn't have said anything.

"You're uh... you're probably right. Who knows what sorts of crazies I might be liable to run into now."

Whew. "Thank you. It'll just make me feel a lot better."

"Can I shower first though? I'm covered in robot spunk and I still smell like the bar from last night."

"Oh jeez, of course."

A little while later and he's in the practice range again with her in tow. He'd sent her off to the humans' munitions room to fetch an M9, and she was now standing on the small side of the space next to a table; on it is the opened case and a pair of muffs.

She's staring down at the thing, so tiny compared to him and his, but her heart is racing and she's biting her lip, wondering where she ought to start.

"Eyes up here for a minute," he says gently, coaxing her from her own head. Since the weapon is far too small for him to use - it can fit square in the palm of his hand - he pulls up a soft holo to illustrate his talk. A monochrome image of the gun appears beside him and he gestures at it.

"OK, so that there's a Beretta 92FS. It's a sidearm commonly used by the US army, navy, all those folks." She nods up at him, folding her arms tightly. "It's a nine-millimeter semi-automatic pistol with a magazine capacity of fifteen rounds. You follow?" The holo image beside him expels its magazine, and 15 bullet icons slide out to arrange in a neat row beneath.

"...I think so."

"Alright." The image dissolves and instead, Hound fashions a 3-dimensional projection of the gun, sized in proportion to his own hand. He curls his fingers around the grip. The mech is an expert at miming around his massless, softlight holo-images, making them look solid; this is no exception. "There are four main rules to handling a firearm," he continues with gentle authority. "One, always assume that a gun is loaded. Do you know if yours is? Go on, you can pick it up now."

She reaches into the foam inset and slowly, carefully, removes the thing from its case, keeping it pointed away from her. It takes her a few moments, but eventually she discovers that there's no magazine inside. "No," she says, trying to sound firm.

"Are you sure? Open the action and lock the slide like this..." he demonstrates on his own. "...and make sure that the chamber is empty."

She does the same thing, only slower and far less sure, and discovers that the chamber in hers is empty too.

"OK, good." He allows himself a small smile. "Second rule is to always keep it pointed in a safe direction. In other words, don't aim it at anything that you aren't willing to shoot." She nods. "Third, keep your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard. Hold it like this." He shows her on his, and she looks up at it carefully before mimicking the placement of his fingers. "Like that, good. And the last rule is to keep it unloaded until you're ready to use it."

Astrid forces out a sigh, clearly overwhelmed. "That doesn't seem too hard."

"It'll become second nature," he reassures. "Don't worry. Now, it's time to load it. Is the safety on?"

"How do I tell?"

"If you see a little red dot exposed on the side there. No, it is. That little switch thing there is pointed downward, covering up the mark, so it is. Good. Now get your magazine."

She turns back down to the gun case and pulls out what she correctly assumes to be it; and it's been pre-loaded by the previous user. In all honesty, Hound's surprised that the magazine wasn't in the pistol to begin with; gun safety is lax around AHQ, for better or for worse. If it's not mechs walking around with their blasters and cannons, then it's a BREME agent or three with chest holsters. He can count the number of times they'd been visited by a civvie on his fingers, so there was really little need when it came to handguns. Astrid is obviously a glaring exception, and if he's honest with himself, then he wishes she could afford to be this apprehensive forever. Unfortunately, that's not the life that she's living anymore.

"Alright now lock the slide again," he instructs, demonstrating. He holds up his hand now, and a holographic magazine appears in his fingers. "And take your magazine, and just slide it up in there. No, no, wrong way. Flat side against the back. There you go. Okay, so when you release the slide, it's going to put a round into the chamber. How are you feeling?"

Maybe this is too fast for her...

"I'm feeling alright..."

Her heart is pumping faster and harder than the wheels on a freight train. And criminey, it's not like she doesn't know he can sense it.

"We can stop at any point, OK?"

She just nods with resolution. "I think I can do this."

Hound's not sure why some humans have such an intense fear of guns while other don't. They're dangerous, sure, but in the proper hands they're no more so than a hammer or a knife. Maybe it's the sound they make?

He nods down at her, drawing his lips tightly together. "You'll want your ear and eye protection now, then."

Astrid sets the gun down on the table and puts on her glasses and noise-canceling muffs. He gives her a thumbs up, gesturing at her spot along the counter before maneuvering to a crouch behind her.

"Release the slide," he says loudly, and points to the release. She starts at the mechanism. "Now turn off the safety. Push that little switch upward."

Astrid does, and the pistol is now locked, loaded, and ready to fire. He reaches around her to very slowly, very gingerly, help her with her form. Once her hands and arms are to his satisfaction, he calls out to the computer. "Target, 8 meters." Then back to Astrid. "Don't worry if you miss, and take all the time you need."

He watches, hands on his thighs as he crouches behind her, as she tries to calm her breathing. Hound is beginning to realize just how daunting of a task this is for her without being able to conjure up a reason why. She once told him how her grandparents had been avid protesters of the Vietnam War and had met while attending Ohio State the year before that infamous shooting; that her own parents are some of the few left still embodying the spirit of Woodstock even as that culture died with Hendrix and Joplin. I'm a third generation hippie, she'd said once over a beer.

And Hound knows, from what he's read and seen of US culture, that "hippies" don't like guns.

But still... why the fear?

Her movements are steadying, but not by much, and with a single long exhale, she pulls the trigger. The bullet clips the edge of the target.

Astrid allows herself to slump, and she's trembling now. The gun is set down on the counter and she pulls down the ear muffs, lower lip sucked in between her teeth in the polar opposite of a 'come hither' gesture. In fact, Hound worries that she might draw blood.

"I'm a terrible shot," she chuckles uneasily.

"No, no," he says, placing not a hand, but two fingers, on her shoulder. It's all he can comfortably fit. "You did fine," he offers. "You did fine." When it's obvious that she's not convinced, he continues. "Look, we'll bring it home and we'll set up some cans out in the backwoods for you to practice with. That's all it takes - just a little practice. You'll get good in no time."

But she's still staring at the ground between them. "I don't think I can do this."

The mech frowns. "What?"

"What the hell is a handgun going to do for me out there? This world that I'm part of now... these people know their way around a lot more than just pistols. And that's just the humans."

Hound's shoulders sag, trying to not let himself get dragged down by her, well... realism. "There are a thousand and one situations where this could save your life, Astrid. And you don't even have to be good at it: just knowing how to get a shot off without injuring yourself is more than valuable enough." He pauses when their eyes meet. "Besides, you're in Alaska now. I wouldn't want you going off into the mountains alone without one anyway." He laughs a little. "Bear spray will only get you so far."

She smiles a little, and Hound vents a breath in relief. But her expression grows distant again as she turns to look behind her at the target. "I know that," she says at length. "It's just... it's just what Prowl said."

The Jeep scowls in anticipation.

"He's right. I'm nothing but a fucking liability. And a handgun? A handgun isn't going to change that." She pauses and then snorts. "Agent Schneider. God, it's like a bad dream."

Maybe it is. "Screw Prowl," he grumbles. "His idea of being objective is whatever fits with his worldview that day." Hound wants to believe his own words here, but can't quite do it. Acknowledging that he was right would... would what? Make him right about everything - that's what you're scared of, aren't you?

"Maybe," she sighs. "But a broken clock is still right twice a day."

Astrid shrugs off his hand and turns, picking up the muffs again, much to his surprise.

"Let's try this again. I'm not leaving until I prove somebody wrong, here."

They were in there for another two hours before calling it a day. By the time they were done, Astrid had a much steadier hand, and had actually managed to get within the silhouette even at the 10 meter mark.

"Can I see your gun?" she asks after putting hers away. It catches him by surprise. "You said you had one and I've just never seen it."

"Oh, uh, sure." Hound isn't sure why doing so is making him feel so vulnerable - maybe it's because it's one of the last big parts of him that she hasn't seen yet. The mech holds out his hand and in it appears the rifle from subspace.

"Holy shit," she laughs, eyes wide as she takes it in. Hound realizes just how huge it must look to her - hell, from butt to barrel the thing is the size of a small howitzer.

"Let me know if you start feeling sick," he says, holding it up to his shoulder and taking casual aim at a target.

"Sick?"

"Yeah. Cybertronian energy weapons are known to make humans ill after a while."

She knits her brows. "Why's that?"

"They leak EMR like crazy. Migraines, paranoia, nausea... it's all well below your typical safety standards, but there's something about our tech that your bodies just don't like after a while. And some people are more sensitive than others."

"Oh the irony," she grunts. "Will it be loud?"

"Not as loud as the M9. You might still want your muffs, though."

"Might as well get used to sudden, loud noises if there are going to be guns in my life from now on." The human sticks her fingers in her ears.

Hound gives her one last look then shrugs, getting down into a kneel, and turns back to Astrid's target, set as far back on this end of the gallery as it will go.

The rest of their time at AHQ is spent quietly, and generally away from the other mechs. They head out for a late lunch/early dinner, and Astrid stocks up on some junk food: a burger and fries and a bag of chips. When they return, Hound tunes into a TV channel and projects it onto a wall for them both to watch.

The evening passes without fanfare, and before they know it, it's time to catch their morning flight back to Anchorage. Hound says his goodbyes over private comms.

They do Red Alert's sign-out procedure, and Astrid hands over a card key to a room that she hadn't used. And even without a knowing look between them, Red's suspicious. Of what, he likely doesn't know, but his thinly-apertured, side-long look at them as they head out of the base is the security director's bread and butter.

They arrive back home just before lunch, and are greeted with thick fog and damp pavement. It's cool out - a balmy 10 degrees celcius - and you'd hardly have guessed that it was still August.

"Talk about jarring," Astrid says, disembarking the Jeep inside the warehouse and heading toward the couch at "her" end.

Hound engages transformation and is soon standing up, idly following her over to the human-sized common area. "What, Portland to here?"

She laughs, throwing her bag down onto the sofa and then following with her own rear. "No, coming from California."

Hound smiles, recalling her old Tahoe climate - it snows there, sure, but it's still far from being Alaska. "All I've got to say is, enjoy that sun before it disappears!"

Astrid leans back into the beige cushions and closes her eyes for a moment, and Hound can see tension nip at her brows. He lowers himself into a crouch, resting his back against the wall, and watches as her eyes open again. The human reaches into a pocket for her phone and she checks it, scowling.

The mech can easily pry into the goings-on of her every electronic device, but he sees no need to most of the time. "You hear from them yet?" he asks quietly.

The woman stuffs the phone back away, almost angrily. "No," she says, and he can see her running her tongue along her teeth behind her lips as she thinks. "Nobody's going to reach out until it occurs to somebody that, maybe, I'm not the one at fault here."

Hound nods, looking away, at his fingers.

Suddenly, she stands up, leaving the bag where it is. "Well," Astrid says abstractly. "I guess I've got some work to do."

He looks about, over to his console and then up at the frosted skylights. Now that he thinks about it, he does too, but something in him really doesn't want to get started. He notices that the air wandering in from a cracked open window is a chilly off-shore breeze, and he knows that Astrid's first winter here will be cold. But there's something else on the wind... a distant tenseness, like charged particles being carried in from a storm battering the furthest Aleutians.

"Before you go upstairs," he finds himself saying.

The human sets down a cup of water that she'd gotten herself and strolls back over to him. "What d'you need?"

What you need, more like.

He hooks his finger at her and she steps near enough to grab. The mech curls inward, bringing his face towards her small one, and captures her mouth in a kiss. To his slight surprise, she opens up, yielding to his tongue, and he's in her again. (Different appendage, different orifice... same principle.) Hound's reminded very exquisitely that he doesn't just like her mouth, but loves it. It's small, but frag, does it work hard. He loves each and every one of her teeth, their different shapes. He loves the little ridges on the roof of her mouth; the secret salivary gland under her tongue. Primus, the tongue itself, though - what an amazing thing. That one muscle had the dexterity of several fingers, and then some.

She's grabbing the sides of his helm now, her little hands radiating heat. He feels her breathing hot and heavy through her nose, and gods, the sensation of her breath fogging up his upper lip drives him wild. The green mech can't help but grab the rest of her as they kiss, and once again he's pawing and clutching at her like a child with a small animal. Unlike a child, though, he knows exactly how much pressure he can exert before she...

Hound breaks away, though. He senses that she wants to catch her breath, but he also knows that it is time to get to work. They can always finish this later.

They lock eyes, and a smile tugs at his mouth. He kisses the crown of her head, something he picked up a while ago that he liked the symbolism of, and then rose up to his full height. "I'll see you in a few hours?"

"Don't work yourself to death," she counters, heading toward the stairs.

"And don't work yourself to sleep," he calls over as she ascends to the second floor and disappears into the hallway.

I'd rather be outside getting rained on, he thinks, seating himself before the terminal. Processing files is the bane of his existence, but right now, being reminded of the draft from that damn window, something else is making it harder for him to hunker down and get it done.

Just keep your nose to the grindstone, as the saying goes.

Chapter Text

Astrid's about two hours into writing her first official report for the Bureau, when she decides to break for lunch. She heads to the kitchen downstairs, catching a glimpse of Hound on the other end of the warehouse, arms folded across his big, blocky chest, head down as though he's napping. But she knows better - he's neck deep in his own paperwork someplace in his head, doing who knows what. (Though it's probably just as boring as her work.)

She returns upstairs with a tuna sandwich and sliced apple and devours half the meal before getting back to it.

Boring is right, she thinks, sighing, and consults the internet for something that she's forgotten from her statistics classes from eight years ago. The lab results from the initial samples taken from the project site are easy enough to decipher - she's never going to forget how to do that - but it still pisses her off that they're only just now wanting a report on them. The samples were taken, what, back in April? Before so much as a single bulldozer arrived at the remote location; and now, a few days before breaking ground, they want the report. Hound was right: BREME really doesn't give a shit. Environmental stewardship is barely something they even pay lip service to.

Astrid takes a break a little while later to rest her eyes, and decides to study the adjacent wall above the bookshelf. It's a big, empty expanse of white, and she's had a piece of art in mind for the spot, but now she's not so sure. Just as she's about to swivel back to the computer to have a look at what else is out there and in her price range - maybe a nice, big, Monet print - something catches her eye. There's a black book in with her blue books. And there: a blue book with the purple ones.

The woman had decided to try organizing her library by color since moving in, seeing that it's all the rage, and it's not at all like her to ignore her own organization scheme. Especially such a simple one. It's not like it's even alphabetized or anything.

She frowns, though, once she realizes which books these are: U.S. Black Projects, Sites, and Budgets since 1980, and Social Engineering: The Art of Deception. Both bought as part of her own self-inflicted homework upon signing on with BREME. The other thing that the two have in common is that they're heavily earmarked and there are pieces of paper stuffed in the pages. Nothing important, she realizes with faint relief, having pulled them out and hastily looked over what they were. (One's just a packing slip and the other has a few handwritten notes about the history of the Bureau's involvement with the Autobots. Neither of them exceptionally revealing.)

Still, it dawns on her that something happened while they were gone over the weekend.

Somebody was here.

Astrid is chewing on her lip, eyes darting around from one thing in the messy room to another, looking for more concrete proof of what she knows in her sinking gut. It takes a few minutes of second-guessing herself, of paranoia, and then she sees it: a folder, one of several she has on the floor, with a partial shoe-print on it. It's too big to be one of hers, even in her Sorrels, and besides, she's never worn boots upstairs.

"Hound..!" she calls, marching out of the office and over to the railing beside the staircase, folder in hand.

"What's up?" He's broken his pensive machine-silence, animates himself, and strides over to where she stands, just above eye-level with him.

She wordlessly thrusts the sheaf of papers at him, and she can tell that he's immediately switched to tracker mode. Optics, somehow, harden as he scans the mark on the front of the folder, and then opens it, flipping through a few pages just to make sure.

"That's not my shoe," she says flatly, nervous heat rising to her temples.

"No it's not," he murmurs, shaking his head. He pauses for a moment, getting that distant look on his face whenever he goes to do something in his CPU, then hands it back to her. "That's a Wolverine brand Renton LX, size 10 and a half. And Bureau agents don't wear work boots like that."

A tense silence passes between them.

"Is anything missing?" he asks, voice stern. Military.

She's starting to panic. "I don't know."

"Start looking while I get BREME on the horn."

Astrid nods and darts back into her human-sized quarters to begin the long, tedious, process of tearing the place apart.

Fortunately - or perhaps, unfortunately also - her search is cut short less than 10 minutes later when Hound's holo steps into the doorway and knocks on the jamb to grab her attention.

"You're not going to believe what they said," comes his frustrated voice from the holo's mouth.

She's sitting on the floor in front of a filing cabinet with papers and folders strewn about her. Next door in the master bedroom, her fire safe sits on the bed; it was right where she put it last, and with no evidence of tampering. And what little jewelry she has is safe and sound as well. These things already told her that this is no typical burglary, and whoever was in here was looking for something that no pawn shop could put a price on.

"They knew about it," he says sharply, scowling with his words. "The pricks knew about it and didn't think it was important enough to tell us about."

Astrid's stomach does... something. She's not entirely sure. In fact, she's not entirely sure what to think. Is she relieved because the fuckers have BREME on them now, or unsettled that they knew about it to begin with? At ease because it didn't turn out to be a big deal, or enraged by the very same?

She slumps, staring at the mess around her. She's frowning deeply.

"What did they do? The Bureau?"

The holo shifts uncomfortably from one foot to the other - likely mimicking what the giant was doing just outside. "Perps tripped a silent alarm that went straight to their local base of operations. They got out before agents arrived, but they did catch somebody... the owner of the getaway vehicle."

There is so many things wrong with this.

"Just the owner of the car? That's it?"

"They wouldn't talk," the holo shrugged.

"And... and a silent alarm that goes straight to BREME?" She had been informed that the warehouse would be equipped with state-of-the-art security systems, but apparently had failed to mention that the alarms wouldn't be answered by the local PD. "Are we not allowed anything to do with police either?"

She gets up without waiting for a reply and walks out to the railing again, ignoring the holo in her way. It tingles as she passes through it.

Hound looks up at her from where he stands in the middle of the floor, balled fists resting on his gunmetal hip plating. His face has softened, and there's profound disappointment there. "This is the life you're living now," he says quietly. "Police don't know the Bureau even exists. They can't get involved in stuff like this."

Astrid's mouth is a tight line, and Scott's words begin ringing in her ears.

Her head bows down to where her elbows are resting along the railing, and she's hunched over now, exhausted, staring at her feet. For the second time since coming here, she has serious misgivings about this path she's chosen.

Maybe when the project's over I should walk away from this. Maybe everyone was right.

She's dragged out of her thoughts, though, when his enormous hand touches her arm. He's standing there before her, worried, guilty.

"I should have told you more," he murmurs, absentmindedly rubbing his thumb over the backs of her hands. "You should have known more before signing that contract." His voice is disappearing into a hiss. "It's my fragging fault you're here to begin with."

Astrid looks at him, partly shocked, partly hurt, but also partly in acknowledgment that his words are, well, partly true. If she'd known what this would really entail, would she have done it after all? It is a little bit your fault. But you're not to blame.

"No it's not."

She settles for simplicity.

He shakes his head and removes his black and green bulk from the railing, stepping away. "Primus," he says, beginning to slowly pace. Astrid finds herself suddenly thinking that his form is tragically beautiful - so large, heavy, dangerous... but the alien wants nothing more than to be able to touch like a human and have whatever sort of equivalent to the white-picket fence. "You'd think... you'd think that with me being as old as I am..." he stops here and chuckles to himself: "As battle-worn... that I would have thought this through better. That I'd have been able to do better by you."

Now she scowls at how wrong he is.

"Hey now," she half-coos, half-demands, and he stops in his tracks. (Like a good soldier.) "The Bureau is disloyal, dishonorable, and full of conniving Machiavellis. They don't want you to do better." She's being hyperbolic here, of course. "It's in their best interest to keep us in the dark."

"Still."

"The point is, we're here. So we play the cards we're dealt."

"Boy do I know that as well as anyone who's been through a tour of duty."

"Twenty some-odd tours," she corrects with a little smirk, trying to lighten the mood some. "And each one was how long?"

"A few decades by Terran reckoning," he mumbles with a half-smile of his own, then it disappears. "Still..."

"Still what?"

"It's still not fair to you."

"Of course it's not," she says, surprising the both of them. "But human relationships don't actually work the way they do in Hollywood. And if I know you as well as I think I do, you have taken notes from shit like When Harry Met Sally and Dirty Dancing." The look on his face is incriminating enough. "Look - there is no such thing as an ideal human romance... or hell, an ideal human life. Everything you've learned about us from film and TV? It's all a big lie. So give up on trying to emulate it now, because that'll get us nowhere."

He vents air - his way of sighing - and meets her gaze. "So no singing?"

Astrid can't help the chest-jerking chuckle. "Absolutely not."

For a moment the two stand in pensive, but peaceful, silence. And there's something about standing on the second story, about being able to look down at him for once, that had given her that vague and sudden sense of authority. But now it's gone, and she's suddenly aware that he is still almost three times her height. Their roles are once again righted.

"So that's it, then," she sighs with her lungs. "We have no recourse unless the Bureau decides that we do."

"That's all there is to it."

And it occurs to her then that Hound and the rest of his crew, the Autobots on Earth, have been dealing with BREME for almost twenty years. It also occurs to her that there's an important piece of the story that she doesn't have yet.

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure."

"You've been awake for thirty-some years now, and it doesn't sound like the Autobots have a particular reason for being here." His facial expression tells her that he knows what she's going to say. "Why don't you leave?"

The giant green mech looks up and out of one of the dingy skylights above them. "We don't have the means to build something that could reach escape velocity."

"But... the Autobots have engineers, mechanics, scientists... why can't you just whip something up and get off this rock? Building something space-worthy should be a cinch for you guys."

"And under different circumstances, it would be." She gives him a look. "But as it is, we'd have to do it in secret. And a ship big enough to hold even a half-dozen of us my size would be a hard secret to keep."

The tip of the iceberg is widening.

"A secret...?" she mumbles. Then: "So wait, the Bureau has forbidden you from leaving?"

It's his turn to give her a look.

"They're holding you hostage?!"

"It's not..." he's pacing again. "It's not like that. Not exactly."

"Seems obvious what it is to me!"

"There's a lot of factors, a lot at stake." He stops, bringing his arms up to gesticulate. "We live in secret, Astrid. Always, always hiding in plain sight. The number of people who know that we're sentient extraterrestrials instead of some DARPA black project is so small that the files on all of them take up less than a megabyte of space! We are part of your world's machinations, regardless of what anyone likes or wants. We've fought wars for you humans, carried out espionage, shaped your politics... we can't just up and leave. Not for a while, at least."

He's not angry, just frustrated. Frustrated, in a lot of ways, like she is right now about the Bureau's overreach in her life. In his short time on Earth, Hound's already been dealing with their arrogance and control for almost as long as she's been alive.

He's tired.

"What about... what about sending a message back home?"

"Our ships have faster-than-light capabilities. Our messages don't." He pauses to look at her, and predicts the next question on her tongue: "About 84 thousand years to get a message home." The mech shakes his head, and she catches him scowling, like he's trying to rid himself of a mental image. "Our home world is a wasteland now anyways. If we ever go anywhere, it's not back to Cybertron."

"You really are stuck here," she says quietly, shoulders slumping. She brings a hand to her forehead. "My god, I had no idea."

"It's... it's not something I want you to worry about, OK? The lifespan of an average government agency is the blink of an eye to me. BREME will be gone before you know it, and then after that is anyone's guess."

"That doesn't make it right," Astrid says, catching herself in her own pacing. "You.. you're out fighting fucking oil warsfor the US thanks to them? And you've got jack to show for it! God, what would they do if, one day, you just decided to stop picking up the phone? Stop going where they told you to go?"

"We're part of an alliance with your country," he says. There's the barest hint of impatience there, but she wants to plow through it. "We're not going to do that."

"Humor me. What if you did? What's going to stop them? You're giant fucking robots! An army of Bureau agents doesn't stand even a chance against one of you!"

"If we did, we'd be living like the Decepticons!"

His voice was raised, his face hard. Astrid freezes for a brief moment, startled, then slowly lets her breathing pick up where it left off. "Like outlaws," she murmurs.

"And that's not even the worst of it."

She jerks her head at him, recognizing a certain trembling grimness to his tone, and he meets her eyes in acknowledgment.

"If we all go rogue," he begins very quietly, "Or... or if we start a project they don't like and refuse their orders to stop... then it's been made very clear to us that they would be willing to bomb headquarters, and everything in a five kilometer radius." He snaps his fingers. "Just like that. They've had missiles pointed at us for over ten years now, just for that purpose."

There's a horrible sinking in her gut, and she catches the railing to keep her swaying from being too obvious.

Hound closes the gap between them in an instant, and before she knows what's going on he's lifted her up and over the railing and into his huge arms. "But that's not going to happen because we're going to play by the rules, just like we have been."

She's trembling against him, and he tightens his grip on her, stroking her backside. Her hands and cheek are resting on top of his hood, and she's staring at his neck. "What if they know that they have you wrapped around their finger? What if they figure that it's to their advantage to crack down on you even more? Record your every movement? Your every word?"

"The freedom of forty mechs isn't worth a hundred-thousand lives."

Astrid swallows. "I don't like this. Not at all."

"I don't like it either. But it's like you said: we play the cards we're dealt."

He vents, long and low.

"What now?"

"We go back to work."

No, no. That can't be right. You don't just go on with your life like nothing's happened after something like this.

"Just like that?"

"Just like that."

Or maybe you do.

He gives her a little squeeze and she can feel the top edge of his chest bite into her ribs. His angles are uncomfortable, but comforting. And when faced with a problem of this complexity, having someone bigger, stronger, faster than a human along for the ride, well...

I'm in good hands.

"C'mon, we've got work to finish, Boots."

Astrid jerks her head up and eyes him, feeling very strange at suddenly hearing the familiar name for the first time in years. "How... how'd you know that was my old college nickname?"

The mech shrugs, and his shoulders bring her along with them. There's a lopsided smile on his face. "Eh, I just saw it written on something of yours a couple weeks ago. Besides, your name just does not shorten gracefully."

The woman snorts. "No it doesn't."

"Can I call you that?" he asks, lifting his head to kiss her hair.

The answer is almost assuredly yes, but she reflects back on those crazy years at Berkeley just to make sure. Days spent keeping odd hours, racing to finish essays at 5 in the morning, cramming for tests, and nights of underage drinking. A pair of Doc Marten's was her signature wardrobe piece, and 'Boots' just rolled out of drunk and stoned mouths easier than 'Astrid'.

It occurs to her then that he hasn't given her a pet name yet, even though she's got a few for him. The idea is suddenly very appealing.

"Yeah," she says, decided that she likes the way he says it. "Yeah, you can call me that."

Hound gives her a toothy smile. "Alright Boots," he chuckles, setting her down on the floor at his feet. She can tell that he's trying to downplay some thrill he's getting from calling her that. "We'd better get back to it then."

"See you around for dinner, big guy."


While their Sunday ended on a good note, Monday morning has a decidedly grimmer air about it. The two of them are out the door at 7 - separate vehicles - and she can't help but feel apprehensive about her first trip to the job site. Hound's been there already, organizing the security detail, advising on the evacuation strategy in the event of an attack, and setting up the cloaking array.

Being a 24-hour operation, and the hole a paltry mile deep, the earth-moving phase of the project is slated to take less than 4 weeks before the more delicate excavation work begins. In fact, the entire operation is expected to be over well before Christmas. Barring, of course, unforeseen delays.

Hound's first order of business is to get the cloak up and running before they break too much ground.

She's out on her lunch break, actually, when a sharp whistle jostles her out of her daydreaming outside of the bungalow office she's sharing with two geologists from the University of Michigan with whom she's spent most of her aimless morning casually shooting the shit. (Their work hasn't quite started yet, they quietly admitted to her. But, because of the dig's fast pace, it wouldn't be long before they had to hit the ground running just to keep up. Astrid could tell that she was going to like them.)

The whistle, though, turns out to have come from Hound, who's motioning her over to him from the other side of the building, which is blocking her view of what he's doing. With a steaming coffee in hand, she gets up from where she sat on the stairs and walks around to the other side. Once she's in view, the mech crouches down beside a bizarre-looking contraption some 6 feet tall, and quite unlike anything she's ever seen.

"I wanted to show you this before I got it running," he says, excited.

"I didn't know you could whistle."

"It was a recording," he cheerfully dismisses, his whole attention on the machine before them. "This is the cloaker. Was working on it last week, but they want it functional today."

Ah, so that's why it looked so weird. "Autobot tech?"

Hound nods, then lowers his voice. "They're getting it in exchange for a half-ton of uranium, gold and silicon. It's modeled after my own module, though. Neat, huh?"

She smiles; his enthusiasm is contagious. "Congratulations, you're the father of a strong, healthy, baby cloaking device!" She laughs at her own joke. "Aw look, it's got your sensor array."

The giant robot bursts into laughter, clutching at his belly, even. The sight of him is enough to put her in stitches too. The two giggle together like idiots for at least another minute before sobering up; Astrid notices that her face actually hurts.

"OK, OK, but in all seriousness," he starts, biting back another wave of giggles and attempting to lower his voice again. "This is one of our most closely-guarded secrets. Cloaking, hardlight, and subspace tech. These guys want all of it."

"But you're giving it to them. What's to keep them from sneaking this home and reverse-engineering it?"

"It's completely tamper-proof. They've been trying to crack our encryption codes for years without success. But we're always one step ahead: our computers can run circles around theirs."

"You're a race of million-year-old computer-people," she says flatly, sipping the coffee. "I'd hope so."

He shrugs smugly. "Well, it does help when you've got a hexenary system instead of a binary one."

Just then a couple of men in sharp, black suits approached, and Hound was suddenly on his best behavior.

"Status?"

"Was just about to turn it on, sirs."

"And the technicians?"

"Coached them on its use last week. Of course, if anything goes awry, they know not to meddle with it either."

"Of course not. Would hate to see a twelve-million-dollar piece of equipment like this self-destruct because some junior engineer tried taking a screw out."

Astrid finds herself uncomfortable with the agent's idea of what a joke is - it's not the words that bother her, though, but the hint of loathing in his voice and his icy gaze as he says them. Hound seems to sense this too.

"Well go on, let's see it in action."

The giant mech nods, then, reaching down, hits a button or switch or something, and the thing hums to life. "It's scanning the area," he explains, pointing to a yellow indicator light along the side. After a minute, the light turns green, and the very top lights up like a torch, ablaze with orange light. Then suddenly high above them all, about level with the trees is her guess, a faint pattern of hexagons sputters into view. It spreads faster than her eyes can move, until it seems the entire site is covered by this dome-shape, and the sputtering stops.

"That's all there is to it, gentlemen."

"We'll see." One of the agents pulls a phone out of his pocket, dials a number and holds it to his ear. "It's up," he says curtly, pausing to listen. "Yeah. Get a plane in the air, do a few passes." Without another word he hangs up and eyes Hound. "The no-fly zone ends tomorrow, so this had better do the trick."

"You have my word that it's working just as promised."

Astrid decides that it might be time for her to get back to the bungalow; her lunch is almost over.

"Hey, Hound, I'll see you later, alright?"

He turns his big green head her way. "Oh, alright. I'll try and say hi before you leave."

"OK!" she smiles and heads back inside - the autumn wind is picking up and boy is it chilly.

The week passes slowly, and the tenseness from Sunday's scare dissipates by the middle of the week. She's stuck in her bungalow most of the time, typing away at boring-ass reports. But at least she has the two geologists - a Dr. Ben Ahuja and a grad student of his, Sharon, who is almost Astrid's age. The two of them together are a riot, and they invite Astrid out for drinks almost every night, and every time she begrudgingly turns them down.

Aside from the joking and casual chatter between the three of them as they work, though, Astrid gets a few questions thrown her way. How come there's an Autobot here; why she seems to know him so well; what does she know about the cloaking device; why do they need one anyway? She deflects them to the best of her ability, but it's quite obvious that she knows more than she lets on. After a week and a half she asks them if the acronym 'B.R.E.M.E' means anything to them, at which both shake their heads and asks what it stands for. She plays dumb again and swears to herself to keep her mouth shut after that.

Those two are in for a not-too pleasant ride over the next few months.

Two weeks in and they're already a good 300 feet down into the side of a small hill, and word around the site has it that the main gallery will be underway soon. More earth-movers, including a 5 meter tunnel boring machine, are scheduled to arrive the following Monday.

On her way home, sometimes Astrid will pull over to the side of the road a couple miles from the security checkpoint and sit in quiet solitude. Hound is on-site for almost 14 hours a day, and often doesn't get home until after 7 o'clock, so she spends a lot of time alone like this. Astrid's not sure why she doesn't take the geologists up on their offer - it's not like she doesn't have the time when she clocks out. Still, some part of her feels strange associating with other, normal folks now. People that still don't believe that Hound is anything more than well-designed AI. It's a secret that she suspects is becoming too exhausting for her to keep anymore.

She puffs up in her jacket and down vest, watching as her breath hangs in the air, counting the seconds until it disappears. She stares up at the looming hills covered in thick, dense pines, and she can already tell how gorgeous this valley will be come first snow. She pulls up her collar, a little shiver passing through her. She wonders how far into winter they'll be out here after all and how long the excavating will take.

The woman slips back into the driver's seat and reaches for the glove box, pulling out her 'dark and heavy', as she started calling it: the M9. It is dark, and it is heavy in her hands. But maybe more importantly, it's heavy on her mind: symbolic of everything weird and fucked up about her life right now. With a little grunt she gets out of the car and closes the door, heading into the trees a few yards. With her utility knife she hacks off some bark from one of the larger pines, revealing pale, living wood underneath.

She steps back. "Sorry, tree," she whispers, reaching into her pocket for a pair of earplugs, then goes through the prep that Hound taught her.


The first Friday of October Hound is permitted to leave early and go home with her, much to their surprise. There's a new drive-in movie theater in town, some kind of retro revival thing, and it's something they've been talking about doing for months now. Anchorage has culture, they're finding, and Astrid is beginning to feel like it's a place that she can call home.

Bits of snow were already starting to settle in the shadows of rocks and trees, though not much - it snowed a few inches one night recently, and it's beginning to hover in the low 50's during the day. Hound had often teased her about her level of preparedness for spending 4 months of the year below freezing, and likely that many months without sun either. California girl might have bitten off more than she can chew, he once said with a toothy smirk right before she'd smacked him in the leg.

Despite the cold, though, the nape of her neck is still damp with sweat under her coat. Anchorage is humid.

"Where were we going again?" she asks, getting into the car as he leans on it, though not for support. Astrid can tell by his body language that he's at ease right now, making her smile. There are just some days where the mech seems tense or anxious, and will deny it or won't tell her why. She's much the same way, she hates to admit, and the fact that she hasn't been quite her normal, cheerful self since moving is a habit she'd like to break. These days she lives for the smaller moments. Whether it's a shot of vodka after a long day, a bag of chips, or a brisk walk among the trees... the big picture is too daunting to face right now.

He scratches idly at the plates of his neck, looking off toward where the dump trucks pass through the cloak, trundling to and from wherever it is that they're putting the dirt.

"Well, there was a thing I wanted to show you..." he muses aloud, looking down at her with a glint in his bright blue eyes. There's mischief there.

She cocks her brows in return. "I'm pretty sure I've put it in my mouth already," she quips, biting her lip and grinning.

He reaches down and pokes her in the shoulder. "And you say that my mind is in the gutter," he chuckles.

"Then that makes two of us."

The giant mech cheerfully shakes his head, transforming beside her. In a matter of seconds, there's a Jeep standing with her in the gravel, inching forward and rearing to go. "Just follow me, alright?"

"Yes, sir," she salutes, closing the door and taking off after him.

They don't drive very long - still a few miles out from the checkpoint but not yet on paved road - when they pull over, and when he returns to his bipedal form, beckoning her to come near. They head off into the trees.

While the sun is still out (and just barely), it's far behind the mountain and the valley is thrown into shadow while the top of the peaks are bathed in a near-blood red. This is the first sunny day in a long time, and she knows that Hound wants to take advantage of what's left of it.

"Hey, slow down, would you?" she calls up to him. His great strides are far too long for her to ever hope to keep up with, and while he's usually very good about slowing down for her, today he's let his excitement get the better of him.

He pauses to let her catch up. "Sorry. We're almost there." In fact, he holds his arm out and gestures for her to take the lead. "It's just another minute up this way."

Astrid takes him up on the offer, and just as he said, they come to a thin patch of young trees. In the middle of the clearing is a spruce, knotted and gnarled with old age. It would have been quite a sight all on its own, but the most amazing part is that it's split down the middle, and hollowed near the bottom. It's insides are blackened by what she assumes could only have been a lightning strike. And yet, the tree is as alive and green as ever. Even in the dim, gray light she can see the fiercely pink and purple fireweed springing up around the roots, blanketed in fallen leaves.

The sight is enough to put her in a state of ease that she hasn't felt in a long, long time. It's been weeks since she's heard from any of her family, and suddenly it doesn't matter anymore. The beauty of this is all that she cares about right now.

"You know," she says after a few minutes. "This is why I wanted to come here." Astrid feels him take a step forward until he's at her side, and she closes the gap to lean against the side of his leg. After a moment, she can feel the warmth of his plating through her coat, and looks up to meet his gaze far above. "Thanks for reminding me. Now come down here: I wanna kiss you."

She waves him down to her level impatiently. Hound's hulking form lowers into a kneel before her, thighs parted just enough to allow her clearance, and an instant later she's enveloped in him, cheek against his belly. Her face warms, and his arms make sure the rest of her does too; the cool air bites at her exposed skin, but she doesn't mind.

Tender affection quickly gives way to something a little more vigorous, though, and after a few minutes, after the metal giant starts grabbing hard enough to irritate old marks, he stops. He holds her away from him by her shoulders so that he can look down at her, close enough so that she could kiss him if she stood on tip-toes.

With a mouth big enough to cover her face, he asks a quiet question: "Can I tell you what I see when I look down at you when we're like this?"

Her brows press together, but she says nothing.

"I see you on the ground, knocked off a California trail, with a mountainside on top of you." His voice is a near-whisper.

Astrid's not sure what that means, but she thinks she can wager a guess.

"You know what I see when I look up at you?" A pause. "The mountainside."

"I was afraid you'd say that," he murmurs.

"Why? This isn't about what we did in Portland is it?"

He shakes his head. "No. No, I... ah, nevermind. It's coming out all wrong."

"Then shut up and fuck me already," she blurts out. Did I mean to say that? Yeah, probably.

His hand is on her ass, then, and his mouth on hers too.

Yeah, I definitely meant to say that.

Like nothing he lifts her off the ground as he draws himself back onto his heels.

"Have I ever told you how much I love hearing you say the word 'fuck'?" he says, low and gravelly, into her neck. "Especially if it's followed by the word 'me'."

A shudder passes through her, and shit whatever it is that he winds up doing to her out here will not take long to finish her off. "Duly noted, captain," she replies, brushing her lips against his enormous, intricately jointed palm. She hears a vent and a faint revving of his internals, and suddenly his huge index finger is in her mouth. She swirls her tongue around it and he pushes it in to the first knuckle: the segment is about 3 inches long and at least 8 in girth.

He could choke me with this finger, she thinks through the building haze of arousal, and is slightly disturbed to find that the idea turns her on even more. He really fucking could.

The giant withdraws himself from her, though, drawing a long thread of saliva from her tongue before it disappears. In his other hand is the towel, which he lays down on the ground between his knees. In a moment, she knows he'll push her down onto it, and from the way he's still holding that wet finger, he'll probably be doing something with that too...

"Pants," he whispers hungrily, mouth so close that she can barely see anything else.

Did she say that he was going to push her onto the towel? Get me to do it is what I meant, she muses, now on her rear and pushing off her jeans. Quickly now - the air is damn cold and the spit on his finger is going to start drying up. Astrid makes a note to remind him to start carrying lube from now on.

"I don't wanna miss our movie," he chuckles, bending down and completely obscuring her small body beneath him as he runs a massive hand up her side.

"Let's make this fast then," she pants.

"Can do."

He's lowering his moistened finger down to the juncture between her legs, and even before he touches her through the fabric of her skivvies she's aching with want. The giant's bright blue eyes are locked onto her hips, staring intently at what he's about to do, and one side of his mouth is hiked up in a grin as he slowly pulls the crotch of the garment aside, revealing glistening folds.

But out of nowhere he retracts his hand and freezes, jerking his head to the side as thought listening intently. The moment dissipates.

"What is it?" she asks in a low voice, suddenly sober.

He's still listening, sensing, whatever it is that he does, for a moment, and staring at the ground beside him. "There's people," he whispers, straightening up and glancing around in the hastening dark. Astrid sits up on the towel and begins to put her pants back on, shielding herself from view as well as the cold between his massive thighs. She stays there, feeling safe surrounded by his heavily-armored legs and pelvic juncture behind her. His hand is on her shoulder now too.

"You sure it's not animals? Bears?"

He shakes his head, still scanning the trees. "Not at this time of year. There's three of them... directly behind us, 6 o'clock." Astrid strains to sense what he's sensing, but she can't hear a thing. "They're sixty meters away. I'm going to turn around and you're going to get behind me."

Without another word he rises from around her just enough to twist around on his heels, and she ducks out of the way before he settles back down, cheek pressed to the side of midsection from where she stands at his hip.

She can't see anything right now; the sun was long gone and the valley plunged into twilight. A noise. Is that them?

"One is breaking off to flank us," he says, so quiet she can barely hear him. "I'm going to throw up a cloak. Stay still and don't make a sound."

It suddenly gets even darker, as they find themselves inside of a faintly tinted bubble not unlike the large one surrounding the dig site.

"You'd step away from the lady if you knew what was best for you," a voice called out from the shadows. Lights erupt into their eyes as two high-powered flashlights are turned on. They're bright enough for her to squint, and she hopes that the cloak can handle something like this.

"We know exactly where you are, Autobot," comes another voice.

"So what are you two doing way out here, huh?"

"Something you didn't want anyone else to know about? Wonder why that is?"

She can hear their voices moving and pine needles crunching underfoot.

"Some kind of sick government experimentation, maybe?"

"Or maybe just some plain old abuse."

Heat rises to her face at these ludicrous accusations.

"And we the people don't like it when governments abuse their citizens."

"How about you let the poor girl go, huh? She didn't do anything to you."

What the hell is this? What's going on?

The shouting and taunting continue for a few more seconds, and the two of them hold stock still inside the cloak.

"We are demanding that you let her go!"

Suddenly an ear-piercing sound cuts through the air like lightning. She jumps in surprise, but Hound merely hunkers down; he's all too familiar with the sound of a gunshot. But Astrid's breathing begins to hitch and trembles wrack her body. He risks moving only his arm, so that he can better press her against him.

Another gunshot and she gasps for air when it occurs to her that it's hit Hound, making a loud, sharp KANG before ricocheting off into the trees. Then another. And another.

She doesn't have time to react, though, as she finds herself being wrenched from Hound's grasp. She gives a loud cry as she feels herself being dragged away in the dark, across the cold, rough forest floor. Her kicking and scratching don't do anything to the strong arm that has her by the neck like a steel manacle.

Astrid watches as Hound leaps up, throwing off the cloak, body poised for attack: all 15 feet of him.

"Let her go!" he bellows, and storms after them. But the large trees slow his pursuit. She feels herself being restrained by two other sets of arms and wrapped in a few rounds of duct tape before they take off as fast as they can back to the road, weaving through the tree trunks with much more finesse than the metal giant hot on their heels. Astrid can hear the sound of shattering tree limbs and thundering earth - she's writhing now like a worm as another piece of tape is hastily slapped over her mouth and another around her ankles. Her screams are muffled beyond all hope of comprehension.

For the second time ever, she genuinely fears for her life.

A few moments later and they escape into the turnout, and Astrid sees that beside her yellow SUV is parked an unmarked white van. But her attention is drawn to the forest behind her as Hound leaps out, shoving aside old growth with loud groans and cracks. The ground trembles with his every angry footfall now.

They're stopped and one of them suddenly has their gun pointed at his face, and not a second later does something cold and hard press against her right temple. The fury in the Autobot's face evaporates into abject horror.

"Come any closer and she dies!"

Hound has no choice but to obey.

She can't breathe again, and her heart feels like it's going to explode. All that occupies her thoughts right now is the spot on the side of her skull where the bullet would enter. It's as if all the heat in her body were sucked up into that single point, like a magnified sunbeam on a piece of ice. Her head is on fire with anticipation.

"We're taking her someplace safe. Someplace away from here, and away from you, you sick fuck," says a woman.

"You don't know us!" the mech bursts uncontrollably. "I care about her more than anything!"

"Tell that to her family."

"Please! Please, I'll do whatever you want me to. Just let her go!"

"You wanna know what we want?"

Many things happen simultaneously, then.

There's gunfire, there's screaming. There's white-hot pain - so much that she can't see anything but spots, and her head feels like it's struggling to tread water. But it's not her head that hurts... it's her arm? My arm! They shot me in the fucking arm! She screams: a loud, rasping sound that her life does depend on, but even that is restrained by the sticky strip of plastic on her lips. Her chest seizes up, strangling out every last bit of air she has. Her face is wet with tears that she's barely aware of.

"Mmh... mmh..."

My... my...

Nothing exists for her outside of that pain, and how, exactly, it happened is not even within the realm of comprehension. Astrid can't even hear the clamoring and cursing of her abductors through the ringing in her ears, she can't see Hound clutching at his destroyed left optic sensor, and it barely even registers that she's being carried to the van as someone tears a crude tourniquet from the hem of their shirt.

The doors close, and through the dimness of her own consciousness, she hears him call out her name as they drive off, and more threats being yelled out one of the windows as they disappear down the road.

There will be no record of an Astrid Schneider being admitted to any hospital tonight.

Chapter Text

drip

drip

Hound just stands there, still and silent, staring down the road where the van disappeared. To an onlooker, he might have appeared completely lifeless at that moment, with the landscape shrouded in blacks and greys, his armor catching blades of light from a pair of highbeams approaching.

drip

Even Astrid's car, a bright canary yellow in daylight, is now the color of weathered shale.

The Autobot just barely hears the black SUV pull up behind him, four doors opening and closing in near unison.

"What's the problem?" comes the voice of Agent Doley, their BREME contact, from someplace around his left leg, shaking the Jeep out of his stupor.

drip

Hound turns to face the liaison and the four marines he's brought with him in answer to a call that the mech had made a little too late. His black hand is clutching at the left side of his face, but he lets it drop now. Five pairs of eyebrows raise at the sight, which, from what he can tell, is gory. He can feel the fluids oozing down his cheek from where his left optical sensor net had been. The left feed is static, and what his right can gather, the world is flat and gray.

"How in the hell did that happen?"

"She's gone," he says listlessly, good eye drifting down the dirt road again. "They took her."

Doley squints and the marines shift uncomfortably. "Who took who, exactly? You mean your partner?"

Hound grasps at the sides and looks back up at the path he tore through the trees. Pine boughs and wood splinters litter the ground. "I-I don't know who 'they' is. She's injured. Th-they shot her on accident." His CPU is sputtering and stumbling over itself as it tends to do when one of his kind is overclocked from excitement or distress. Hound's finding it very hard to speak and think cohesively, what with the scenario, replaying itself over and over in his head 10 times simultaneously, while also running off a list of possibilities and projections about what courses of action to take, what Astrid's abductor's motivations might be, and the ultimate question - whether her life is in serious danger or not. "They said they'd... that they'd dump her in a ravine if they saw anyone following them."

Doley pulls out a phone and fumbles around with it while Hound continues to ruminate. Astrid had been hit, and if it weren't for his damned metal face, the bullet would never have ricocheted off and into her bicep. Her captors had been upset at this - livid, even - which told him that they want her alive. At least... for a while.

Fraggit! If they wanted her alive, he could have called their bluff and followed them after all!

No... no. Better not to take the chance.

Wherever they're taking her, it's not going to be far. She'll need medical attention soon otherwise they risk losing their hostage.

"Hound! Are you listening to me?" Doley once again drags the mech from his hurried thoughts.

But whatever it is that the Bureau agent has to say, it's not important to him right now. "I'm going after her," he says resolutely.

"No, you're not." Snaps the man. "We're opening an investigation and you need to be repaired."

Hound is suddenly aware of the pain in his head, damage sensors firing off warning signals like the Fourth of July. But he pushes the sensations to the back of his CPU and instead focuses on the black-suited man, cobbling together some semblance of a rescue plan. "We're running out of time! She could be bleeding to death in a meat locker someplace for all we slagging know!" He shakes his head and scowls with his one good optic. "She's my partner for Primus' sake. I... I have to go. I have to go now."

He turns and makes to get down on all fours to start the transformation process, leaving whether or not they want him to. But a series of loud pop and a sharp sting in the tire-heel of his right foot stops him. The giant mech whips around still in his sprinter's kneel, and sees one of the marines pointing his assault rifle directly at him, ready to fire again.

drip

Hound grinds his denta together, rage in his spark. "You wouldn't dare," he hisses poisonously.

"We would, and we've done it before." Doley has his hand raised, and the soldier recognizes that near universal sign: hold your fire, but shoot on my order. "Now, you either do as I say, or you don't go anywhere."

The Jeep stares him down, joints and servos tightening with building indignation. There's no time for an investigation! She needs me! She...

With a growl, Hound sets his sights down the road and rushes the transformation, gunning it before he's even fully in vehicle-mode. But before he can even get 20 meters away, bullets shower his other rear tire, slowing him down. In no time do his front tires get the same treatment. His internals, his engine, hitches and he curses aloud in the language of his kind, all static and gain. Behind him, Doley winces at the unnatural sound.

He transforms back, springing up from his hands and knees. I'll sprint back to Anchorage if I fucking have to. Fortunately, their rifle fire will not stop him in his mode. It'll take mortars to blow my legs off.

What the giant green robot doesn't expect, though, is to feel a small pinprick on the back of his neck, followed by a cold ache that seeps into his cabling. Then suddenly he goes limp, hitting the dirt a moment later with many thousands of kilos in dead weight.

BOOM.

He curses again in his native tongue, as loud as his lifeless body can produce it. "What have you done to me?!" he shouts, realizing that he seems to only have remained in control of his face. "Dammit, Doley!" Hound struggles with all his might to move, to get up off the ground, but he barely succeeds in budging a centimeter. The Bureau agent and the four marines walk around his fallen body, getting a better look at him, before stopping within his field of vision.

"Believe me when I say that we really, truly wanted to believe that you were the best Autobot for this job, Hound," Doley chides, still messing with his Primus-slagging phone. "You were almost perfect for it, even. You had extensive experience working with humans outdoors. You have an inexhaustible knowledge of image reproduction, camouflage, and data collection. You have a vested interest in this planet, and you genuinely careabout doing your best work. But something else was seductive about your portfolio..." He slips the device into his coat pocket and eyes him coolly, and Hound is seething. "It really stood out. You came pre-packaged with a human who was right for a different job we had. This human had experience in dealing with Autobots, and in dealing with the weirdos out there who want to make life difficult for us.

"Sure, you were emotionally involved. Kinda creeped a few of us out at first, actually," he chuckles. Hound wants to hit him. Hard. "But, different strokes for different folks. We set you two up, nice and cozy. We pay to keep your lights on, your boiler running for the cold, winter nights ahead. We even pay for her doctor's visits. All that we asked in return was that you two did your jobs. You know, pay your dues and don't bite the hand that feeds." The black-suited man begins to pace back in forth in front of him, careful not to disappear from view. "The one thing we hadn't given enough thought about, though, was that she still had theaccessibility of a civilian. She's not a real agent; she has no formal training. Miss Schneider is just sort of... dancing between two worlds that she doesn't quite belong in." He stops, raising his eyebrow at the giant laying limp on the ground. "But it was an honest mistake. Nobody's perfect, right?"

"Fuck you," Hound grounds out.

Doley snorts. "Cute. I suppose that it was just a matter of time before someone found out that she had all the richness of BREME information without the... calories, you might say. Without the self-defense skills, the mental conditioning, the surveillance of a real agent. Schneider just happened to be the weakest link, is what it comes down to. But like I said, it was a mistake that we just didn't see coming."

Hound is out of words and out of curses in any language. The pain in his head is returning, and he's aware of the ache in his blown tires - which, at least, should be healed enough to drive on in a few hours - prickling at him like small, icy raindrops. He looks beyond the five pairs of legs in front of him at the road, disappearing into a bank of fog. It's a dark, flat, ghost-scape before him.

"You're not even going to allow me the dignity of helping with the case, are you," he mutters, mouth practically kissing the ground.

"I never said that," Doley replies, taking the phone out again and putting it to his ear. "You may not be able to participate in the search, but you're still part of the investigation." A pause, and Hound is not comforted by the man's words. "This is Doley. Yeah. Meet me along the road about 4 miles out from the checkpoint. Bring a tow truck and a flatbed big enough for a fifteen-foot load." He hangs up and turns back to the mech. "You're not completely incapacitated: I can activate and deactivate your paralysis remotely. I'm going to turn it off shortly under the condition that you obey me to the letter, got it? If I tell you to stand, stand. If I tell you to sit, sit. But if you get insubordinate before your ride gets here, I will chain you to the back of that truck and drag you into town. Understood?"

Hound stares at the man and sets his jaw.

"Good."

The ride to the Anchorage headquarters is humiliating at best: Hound had been granted mobility enough to get him onto the truck bed to lay down, and no more. Heavy chains anchor him to the vehicle so he doesn't slide off. The mech feels acutely like a piece of heavy machinery - that's technically what he is, sure, but being treated little better than a damned bulldozer? All he can do is press his lips together and scowl as he looks up at the cloudy night sky above him, waiting until they arrive.

Wait.

That's far from all he can do. It occurs to him that the device in his neck is only able to control his ability to move, his points of articulation, and not much else. Smart, actually, on the part of whatever Bureau engineers designed this thing: too much overreach, and it could just as easily have paralyzed something vital, like his fluid pumps or venting system, which would have him quickly falling into stasis lock. And it's just as well - the device is likely a prototype, as he's never seen or heard of one being used by the Bureau agents before.

Right now, though, the mech's comm system is still online and fully under his control, and that's all he needs.

The others have to know about all of this.

But who? Without thinking, Hound pens his signal to the first three mechs that come to mind:

Jazz, Beachcomber, Trailbreaker: there's a situation going on up here, 906 and 314. Schneider's been abducted, and the Bureau has me on lockdown until Primus-knows-when. I... disobeyed direct orders in attempting to go after her myself. They're using some kind of new tech, though: a remotely-controlled brute-force hack that's immobilized almost my entire body. I have reason to believe that there is something more going on here.

He sends it, complete with his authorization signature. It's not long before responses come flooding in.

T: WHAT?!

B: This is just plain creepsville, man! Prime oughtta know 'bout this.

J: Hold up, everyone. Hound: are you in any shape to give me more specifics?

H: She... she was with me when they took her. They saw past my cloak, they tried overwhelming with visual and audial stimuli; it's like they had a plan, knew me and my MO. I still have no idea how one of them got so close without my detecting him. Snatched her right out from under my arms! Practically slipped through my fragging fingers...

J: Hound! Stay with me, man. I need more.

H: She's injured. N-not critically, I don't think. But still seriously injured. They took off in a white, unmarked van, no plates. Now, the Bureau won't involve me in the search. Looks like they barely even give a shit.

J: i'll notify Prime of the situation. Jazz out.

How did they manage to get one of them close enough to grab her? How did they pinpoint their location in spite of the cloak? As far as Hound knows, no one, not even the Bureau, has equipment that can see through Autobot light-bending tech. And the man that grabbed Astrid... the Jeep combs through his memory files, not able to spot anything in the sensor data that points to any sort of trace that he could have noticed until she was already out of his grasp. Barring some other explanation, the third assailant had been invisible himself. It's like he appeared out of thin air.

The truck comes to a relatively gentle stop, and Hound brings himself out of his CPU. He does a quick sweep of their surroundings, not yet having been invited to the Bureau's regional headquarters yet, and realizes that he's been brought to an industrial park along the harbor. The smell of salt and sea-stuff is heavy in the cold, humid air.

"Up and out," Doley chirps, and Hound can sense the marines, who've followed them in the SUV, begin to undo the chains. "Thanks a bunch, Jim. Here: a nice dinner for you and the wife on me. Sorry to throw your evening's plans down the drain."

"It's no problem, really sir," comes a second voice. Hound guesses its the truck-driver who'd been asked to work this extra bit of overtime. "Have a good weekend," he says, getting back into the driver's seat to wait for them to finish. The mech notices that the man didn't once acknowledge his existence.

Like a fucking bulldozer.

"Get off me," Hound growls, sitting up even though they're not done with the chains. The marines jump back - Hound is darkly amused by their reaction to his sudden movement - and he finishes throwing them off himself before getting up off the truckbed and waiting for Doley's next command.

"In here," he says, gesturing to a large and shabby cinderblock building behind them. The door of what was once a bay for receiving and loading semitrailers opens up, and Hound is permitted to duck into the bright, sterile-looking space. Primus, it doesn't even look like there are lights on from the outside.

He glances about wearily, taking advantage of his temporary ability to move his head and neck, though he notes that there's not much here that looks worthy of his attention. That is, except for the thing on the back on his neck...

"Nah, ah, ah, ah!" comes the chiding, staccato notes from close to the ground. Hound had tried, perhaps even subconsciously, to reach back and feel whatever it is that's on him. Or, as he gives it another moment's thought, what's in him. "No touching."

Hound bites back a growl as Doley suggests that it's probably in his best interest to get into a comfortable, or at least dignified, position on the ground so that when the device is activated again, the Jeep won't be left in a limp pile of himself like last time. He begrudgingly accepts the invitation, and picks out a spot against a wall adjacent to a bank of computers and reclines deeply against it, arms folded across his broad, angular chest. But he's not yet been made immobile.

The chipping paint and rusted rain gutters on the outside of the building couldn't betray the outfit inside any further. White walls, glossy red hand railings, a half-dozen $20,000 computers, servers, rapid-prototyping equipment, an engineering clean room, a state-of-the-art lab, a state-of-the-art munitions store stocked with enough firepower to level the city, and several rooms with walls that not even Hound's tech can penetrate.

"Comfortable?" Doley asks, strolling up a few steps to where three technicians sit, working at the screens, and he watches them for a moment, scratching at his chin. The Jeep stays silent. "Now," he says, turning around and leaning back against the workstation, arms folded, and eyes on the captive Autobot across the floor. "I am fully aware that the first 48 hours after a kidnapping is of the utmost importance. Which is why we're calling in the PD to help locate her."

"From the way you're talking about it," Hound mutters balefully. "It almost sounds like you give a damn. Could've had me fooled for a minute if I didn't know better."

"We've got procedures, Hound. You think that this is the first time this shit's happened? From what I've seen she's got a real nice ass, but your fucktoy isn't otherwise special, I hate to say it."

The Jeep leaps up from where he sits, hands and jaw clenched tight. "You shut your fucking mouth!" The men at the computer screens jump at the sudden volume of his voice, spinning around to stare. Hound couldn't care less about them right now.

There's a glimmer in Doley's eye that tells Hound that he's enjoying this - really enjoying this - and the mech wants nothing more than to punch him right now. With a metal fist as broad as the man's shoulders. It takes all his willpower to keep from giving into the temptation.

"Like I was telling you earlier, Schneider's just convenient. Which means that the Bureau is going to deal with her at our convenience."

The mech's core fluids are a few degrees celcius short of their boiling point, his spark wildly aflame. "If you don't find her, I will kill you personally. You don't get to decide who's important and who isn't!" he snarls, taking one too many steps toward the small, fragile organics. Suddenly, though, there's a twinge in the back of his neck, and with a muffled cry, the Jeep comes tumbling down with a great crash. The floor is cracked where he falls. Hound is able to barely catch a glimpse of the small silver key fob that Doley pulled from his coat pocket to activate the immobilizer, and the thing is instantly committed to memory.

"You are the most melodramatic Autobot I've ever personally dealt with. Where did Prime find you?"

"Doley, sir!" comes a shout from the second floor; a fifth agent has emerged from an office. "Cops are here."

"Good. Let 'em in." Doley nods his head at a marine standing in the corner, cradling his assault rifle, and he proceeds to disappear down a hallway to what Hound assumes to be the front door.

The mech is left to brood for a few moments. He wracks his processors for something - anything - he can do right now. It occurs to him, then, to attempt a scan on the bug in his neck to send off to Wheeljack for analysis. If he's lucky, he might be able to recreate an entire schematic of the thing. Human tech is so damn small! he rages inwardly after starting. Cybertronians are more than capable of making things this small, actually, and even smaller, but this is besides the point right now. Small, intricate things are always much more difficult to get a clean image of than larger things, especially when he finds himself distracted like this. But with a bit of concentration, he's able to fine-tune his instruments just so, and the data starts rolling in: he detects iron, tungsten, gold, silicon, bismuth... and what's this? A tiny smudge of energon?

He's not able to map the circuitry of the device by the time the marine returns with three officers in tow, but he does have precise dimensions, and he sends the data to Jazz. Doley is speaking to who Hound discovers is the deputy commissioner when he receives a reply. And not from Jazz, but Prowl:

We're assembling a team to assist you. Stand by.

A team?

For a nanosecond, Hound isn't sure how he feels about this - the soldier in him, duty-bound and honorable, gets in the way - but then quickly remembers that right now he could care less about good policy, and will take all the help he can get. Somewhere out there, Astrid is injured and terrified.

"Commissioner Phillips, if I may have the honor of introducing you to your first Autobot?"

Hound turns his gaze, to the best of his ability, toward the group of humans that are gathered nearby - though not too near - with mouths agape. The deputy commissioner appears to be a heavy-set man in his late middle-years, possibly nearing retirement age. Hound could do a search for the man if he wanted; pull together a rap sheet faster than they can say "Google". But he's not in the mood. The man's hand, bearing a passing resemblance to an undercooked piece of meat, the mech harshly notices, comes to up to cover a mouth tucked away under a bushy silver mustache.

"You certainly would," he says with a warm, but weathered, voice. An accent that Astrid doesn't have nips at the heels of his words. "Can't say I've met one of these things yet, no..."

"These things". Of course it doesn't occur to him to address me; let's see if Doley corrects him.

"Well this one's code-named Hound." Nope. "Built for reconnaissance; happens to be a data imaging expert and a half-decent fighter too."

"That's not what you said earlier," the crippled mech grunts, startling the police officers. Phillips turns to Doley with his equally bushy eyebrows raised.

"His programming is very advanced," the agent calmly explains. "You'll get used to how lifelike he is. In fact, you can direct your questions towards him. He can processes English like a native speaker." Hound's face is contorted into shameless disgust. Doley gives a little smirk as the mech's insides churn with anger.

"Hurry the hell up, would you?" snaps the Jeep. "Every minute counts here!"

One of the officers fumbles around for a pad and pen with shaking hands; another one takes out a voice recorder, but Doley comes to life from where he's standing, and puts his hand on the device. "I'm afraid recording equipment of any kind is prohibited here."

"But-"

Phillips gives the younger cop a stern look. "You do as he says, Johns."

The other one interrupts. "Sir, I don't know how I'm supposed to label his... his witness statement."

The commissioner puffs up. "For Pete's sake, make something up, dammit! We don't got all evening here!"

"Her name is Astrid T. Schneider," Hound cuts in firmly. "A twenty-nine year-old Caucasian female standing one-point-six-seven meters tall and weighing in at sixty-three kilograms as of this morning. She was abducted at 2052 hours today, but I didn't lose sight of her abductors' van until about 2059."

"How many assailants were there?"

"Three. Two male, one female, all of them middle-aged."

The commissioner strokes his chin and furrows his brows. "Sounds like they didn't care about being identified."

"Do you... do you remember what they looked like?"

Hound pulls up a fuzzy holo image of the three assailants taken at different times during the encounter. One of them is in mid-stride while Hound was giving chase; the woman is holding her gun as she was waving it at him; the third is standing with his flashlight, mouth open as he shouted. All of them are frozen in time.

"Lord almighty!" the commissioner gasps.

But Hound groans. "Right, you can't take photos. Somebody run upstairs and grab this crap from the damn printer," he says, already in the middle of sending his images to the primitive machine in the office.

"Did you get the plate number?"

"If there was a plate number, she'd be safe and sound in a hospital bed right now."

"Whoa there, hospital?"

Hound vents, hard and ragged. "She's been shot, sir."

"Dammit, nobody here told us about any gunshot wounds!" The commissioner says, voiced raised, as he shoots a death glare at Doley. "And would somebody grab us those photos? Our 48 hours to find her just turned into 24. At best." The commissioner wipes his now sweaty brow. "Christ, for a fuckin' military outfit you sure do skimp on the details."

Doley frowns darkly but says nothing.

"Alright," the plump man continues. "You got a picture of Miss Schneider? Man says you work together or something."

"I've got thousands," Hound says, biting back a sudden surge of despair. He sorts through them all in a matter of seconds, grief nigh overcoming him as he reacquaints himself with her smiling face. He settles on a good one to show them - one of his favorites - and it, too, winds up in the printer queue upstairs.

"Is there anyone who she knows who might have wanted to do this? Anyone who might have a grudge?"

"Tell that to her family."

No. No, no. No way would this have anything to do with the Schneiders - it's clearly some sort of anti-Autobot rhetoric. They... they saw us together and it pissed them off. Besides, even if they'd wanted to, how could they? How could they know who to talk to? Which groups were dumb enough to pull shit like this?

For a moment, Hound recalls the man who slipped past all of his sensors, who saw through his cloak, who seemed to move faster than greased lightning. There's something about him... and by Primus I hope I get a chance to find out what it is.

"No... nobody," he says after a moment. "She just moved here - hasn't had enough time to make friends, let alone enemies."

Doley clears his throat. "We suspect that it has something to do with her... strategic position within the Bureau. It is not likely personal."

"What agency is this, again?" Phillips squints at the black-suited agent. "That information would help us."

"I'm afraid that it's classified."

"Of course it is," he grumbles. "What the hell can you tell us, then?"

Doley and the commissioner go back and forth for a minute, voices slowly escalating in volume. Hound tunes them out when he gets a notes from Jazz, letting him know that they've been dropped by Skyfire and were currently 15 minutes out. Thank Primus for sparking winged 'bots that could reach hypersonic speeds.

"Alright, alright!" Phillips barks, jerking Hound from his CPU. "Christ, you're a military outfit: start acting like one! You know, it's people like you what give us veterans a bad name. There's good men and women out there, giving their lives for this-"

"Are we done here?" Doley snaps. "You've got a missing person to locate. I'd hurry up if I were you."

Slaggit... they'd better get here fast.

The commissioner turns beet red and turns to the mech. "Mister Hound, is that all you got for us? If there's anything else that you can remember that'll help, now's a great time to share it."

"I... I've just got details. Shoe prints, handgun makes... but those things aren't going to help you right now." They'll help if we start looking for a body.

"No they won't."

Another agent, the one from upstairs, briskly walks up to the group. "Here," he says, holding out a manila folder with Schneider, Astrid scrawled on the front in black marker. "This is all we can give you on her."

The officer named Johns takes it.

Deputy commissioner Phillips gives a nod to his men and makes to leave, but pauses, looking sidelong at the Autobot in a heap on the ground. "If we need anything else, we can, uh...?"

"He's not going anywhere," Doley brusquely reassures the civil servants.

"Well, if it matters to anyone here, we'll do our best to find her. Good-"

"That's not good enough," Hound finds himself saying.

The officers look surprised. Taken aback, almost. The commissioner sighs, long and slow. "You learn real quick in this job not to make promises you can't keep. But we will do our best. Goodnight."

And with that, they're shown out.

The second agent and one of the technicians take this opportunity to shrug on their coats and gather their things. "We're outta here," one of them says.

Doley cracks his neck and checks his watch. "Gimme a few more minutes and I'm out too." Then, to the two remaining operatives at the computers: "You boys good for the night?"

One of them swivels around in his chair, holding up a large mug of what Hound assumes is coffee. "You in at six, right?" The other two agents show themselves out.

"Six sharp. Schedule a tech to come in and fix this guy's face, would you?" Doley thumbs at Hound. "I'm sick of looking at it."

"He's not going to be talking to us all night, is he? Fuck... I hate the ones that don't know how to shut up."

"You'll be on your best behavior, won't you?"

Hound seethes. Forget bulldozer - he's being treated like his namesake. "I've got nothing to say to any of you."

"Hey, Doley?" the other man at the workstation says, leaning in to get a good look at one of several windows open among his four screens. It appears to be a security camera feed. "Three... no, four cars just pulled up. Coupla sports cars and two SUVs; none of 'em ours."

They're here!

"Probably some goddamn kids..." the agent grumbles, turning to the marine. "Lieutenant, go break up their fight or drug deal or whatever the hell it is they're doing out here."

"Yes, sir."

The marine heads out, rifle at the ready. But it's not long before the bay door slides open and behind the lieutenant stands four Autobots: Trailbreaker, Skids, Cliffjumper, and Jazz.

Doley is livid. "What the fuck, Thomas!" he shouts at the tech. "You don't know their XO when you fucking see him?"

"S-sir, I-"

"He's a fucking Porsche, Thomas! Who the hell drives a Porsche in Alaska?"

The man sucks in a sharp breath of air, setting his jaw. He turns toward the giant mechs as they duck into the space. "What the fuck are you doing up here? I wasn't notified of any..." The agent turns to Hound, staring daggers when he realizes what's transpired. "You. You and I are going to have a word later."

"Whatever you have to say to him can wait," Jazz says firmly, standing to his full 4 meter height when he steps onto the floor.

"Vector Sigma!" exclaims the black SUV, pushing past Skids to rush over to Hound's side. "The frag happened to you?" Before he knows it, everyone but Jazz crowds around him.

"I'm... I'm alright. I can't move, though. Not until he turns this thing off."

"Excuse me, but am I missing something? None of you are cleared to be here!"

"You've crossed the line with one of my soldiers," Jazz says calmly; Hound catches a faint flash of something from behind the executive officer's visor. "I don't take kindly to that."

For the past decade BREME has been trying to find a way to regulate, or at the very least intercept and decrypt the Autobots' commlink waveform and the information hidden therein. Millions of black budget dollars have been poured into the project to no avail - Wheeljack, Skyfire, and Glyph, the Autobots' resident engineers, all knew that it would take the development of functional quantum computers before they even needed to worry about the Bureau eavesdropping.

And it's at times like these that the Bureau would do anything to have the tech to do just that.

Hound can sense agent Doley switching gears though. "You have to understand, the guy was getting out of control. Threatened me and my men, was about ready to hit the ground running, literally, into town if I hadn't stopped him."

"What did you do to him?"

"He's not in any pain if that's what you're asking-"

"You heard me, little man: what did you do to him?"

The mechs standing and kneeling around Hound watch the scene unfold between Jazz and Doley. Nobody makes a sound.

Doley puffs up, though. And if it were anyone else, it would have been downright funny to see a human trying to intimidate a giant robot. But Bureau agents are a different breed of human, it seems. "I don't answer to you," is all he says. "In fact, it's the other way around."

If Jazz flinched, Hound doesn't catch it.

"We were notified of a situation, and saw fit to intervene," Jazz relents, still cool and collected as usual. "How long has he been in that condition?"

"About three hours."

"And how long were you going to let him stay that way."

"Until tomorrow. What's this about, exactly?"

"By not getting him immediate treatment, you've violated section 311.8 of the Groom Lake Pact. By either withholding or being unable to provide the necessary repairs to an Autobot in critical condition, you've forfeited your right to his custody. We're here to take him with us."

Doley's face screws up. "It's a blown optical socket! That's from a nine millimeter bullet. A fucking bee-sting to you people!"

Jazz turns to the blue and gray mech. "Skids?"

"Apparently you need to brush up on your Cybertronian anatomy, sir, because there are vitals conduits that run behind the optics that feed the cranial sensor arrays. He could be hemorrhaging core fluids in there and not even know it."

What the...? Those conduits don't run up behind the optics, they're located near the back of the head, under the thick plating of... oh.

"So you're going to what, take him back to Portland?" He takes a moment to glower at the black and white mech. "No, you're out of your goddamn minds if you think I'm going to let you do that. We've got an investigation to complete, and believe it or not, we need him here for that. We've got a kidnapped operative, you know."

Jazz, Hound sends. He... he's right. I can't go with you. I need to-

The XO appears to ignore him, though. "You want to keep him here for a different reason, don't you? You know, you've got a file too, Doley, and I've read it. You're vindictive sonnova bitch."

"What we're doing here is none of your damn business, Jazz. And I'm done speaking with you. You and your friends are dismissed."

But Jazz doesn't move: he stands there silently, feet planted firmly onto the waxed concrete floor of the space. He's sizing him up.

What are you doing? Again, Hound doesn't receive a reply.

Instead, with metal arms still folded, he turns to the group surrounding the Jeep, and gives a curt nod. "Grab him," he orders. "Let's get out of here."

Without a moment's hesitation, the four Autobots proceed to stoop down and figure out how to best carry Hound's dead weight. But before they can so much as get an arm under him, one by one, the four of them spasm and crumple up on the ground beside him.

"Ow!"

"Slag!"

"What the-!"

Trailbreaker is the last to fall, and Hound catches a glimpse of Doley with a second device... what he assumes is a firing mechanism, separate from the control fob. But it's only for a quick moment, because it takes Jazz about two seconds to close the distance between him and the Bureau agent and grab him, lifting him into the air.

"Hey!"

Hound recognizes the shout as coming from the marine, and if he "squints", he can sense the lieutenant at the ready with his assault rifle shakily pointed at Jazz.

But Doley is not happy at this attempt at a rescue. "Do not fire that thing in here, dammit!" He curses a few more times, struggling in the enormous gunmetal hands holding him like a vice. "Lower your weapon, lieutenant! I said lower it!" The marine backtracks. "Cook, Thomas, get HQ on the horn!" The two technicians leap up from where they sat frozen at their computers, heading for the stairs.

Hound suddenly feels compelled to prevent them from carrying out the order.

He activates his holoform right in their way, and with a gasp they stop dead in their tracks, one almost falling backward into the other. With a swift burst of energy, the man in the cowboy hat pulls back his arm and lets it fly at the nearest agent's face, and he's rewarded with a sharp crack and a sudden gush of blood for his efforts. Agent Thomas collapses onto the stairs with a loud moan, clutching at his broken nose. The other, agent Cook, takes advantage of the opportunity to give a good swing of his own, but his fist just phases through the holo's jaw, throwing him completely off-balance. His hands and knees collide awkwardly with the steel stairs in front of him, and hard.

"Lieutenant!" Doley shouts, eyes bulging from his sockets with fury.

"Sir!" The marine fumbles around his pockets and produces a sat phone, but doesn't get an opportunity to dial anyone before he's knocked down, firmly sandwiched between the cold floor and Jazz's huge foot, which is exerting just enough pressure to incapacitate him. The man pounds hist fists against the toe of the mech's heavily armored pede, wheezing and coughing as he struggles to get a proper lungful of air.

But Hound is busy materializing the first sort of cordage that comes to mind - paracord - and is busy hastily tying up the two agents by the wrists, fastening them to a bright red guardrail along the staircase. The scene used up a good chunk of his energy stores, and with a tired smile, the holo fizzles away.

"Wow, Hound! I haven't seen you do anything that cool in ages!"

"What? What happened? I couldn't see anything!"

"What'd he do?"

Hound ignores them. "Doley has the remote for all of these! He can disable all of them!" he shouts at Jazz.

"Well?" asks the Porsche.

Doley shakes his head, and Hound can practically hear the man's raised blood pressure. "You five are going to be in a world of hurt in no time."

"I've heard that one before," the XO snaps back. "Now hand it over."

"It's so much easier dealing with people who can fucking bleed," he hisses as Jazz sets him down, with the tiny, silver thing between his enormous fingers. He studies it for a moment before the tip of one of his digits opens up to reveal a fine manipulating arm, and in no time he figures out the configuration of the controls, and has it all disabled on them.

The four mechs clamor about each other as they stand up again, rubbing at their joints and trying to pick at the various places in their necks and helmets where the mysterious immobilizing plug had embedded itself. Hound is the last to make it onto his feet, and with Trailbreker's help. Jazz walks over to examine Hound's face. He shakes his head and steps back.

"Can you wait to get that fixed?"

Hound's hands ball into fists as he looks at Jazz with stern conviction. "I'm not fixing a damn thing until we find her."

Jazz nods slowly, then looks to the rest of the group. "Let's get those things out of your heads," he says, crushing the tiny remote in his hand, letting the tiny pieces of metal and circuitry fall to the ground. One by one, he reaches into the puncture-holes and with the spindly manipulator, pulls out the little things, destroying each one in turn.

I hope those were expensive.

When Hound's free from the tyranny of that tiny, human-made contrivance, he looks over his shoulder at the agent with his good eye, who's watching as the marine tries with all his might to undo Hound's hardlight ropes. He's on the phone.

"We should go."

The rest of the 'Bots agree, and quickly make their way out. Outside, it's raining: plink, plink, plink.

Jazz transforms at the edge of the dock, his vehicle mode a sleek white: like a pale ghost in the moonless dark. "C'mon. Let's go find your girlfriend."

Hound, about to initiate the transformation sequence himself, stiffens. Did he just..? "She's not..."

"It's alright, bud. We all know."

Hound takes a step back, spark shivering and shrinking in volume. It was supposed to be a secret. "You... you told them..." The Jeep is feeling the weight of grave embarrassment settle on him. His single optic is still fixed on Jazz, afraid of making eye contact with the others. But a second later, and the Jeep finds that he's backed into a great, big hand, belonging to Trailbreaker. With trepidation, Hound turns his monocular vision on the black mech.

"We all knew, Hound. And we're here because we give a damn about the people you give a damn about."

"Believe it or not," Cliffjumper chuckles. "Looking out for each other is what friends do."

Skids gives a little smile. "S'why Jazz picked us to come. There may be mechs out there who freak out about who you hook up with, but we've got our priorities straight. Giving Red a run for his money is clearly the most important thing in life."

Hound isn't sure what to do, or what to say. He stands there, mouth drawn tight, cycling air awkwardly. But Trailbreaker just laughs and gives him a slap on the shoulder.

"We heading out or what?"

Hound comes-to, setting his jaw and transforming. "Alright," he says, voice aiming for courage and tenacity, but just falling short. He knows that conviction will come in time. "Let's go get her."

 

Chapter Text

August 5th: almost two months ago.


The weekend had not gone well, Heather decides as she and Scott drive up to their little suburban house on the outskirts of Oakland. A fall breeze nips at their exposed skin when they get out of the car and unload their bags.

Two dogs, a chocolate lab and some terrier mix, come bounding up to them at the door, but the happiness at being greeted by the excitable animals after the trip is temporary.

"She's really worrying me," Heather says, leaning against the kitchen counter, arms crossed, and staring into space as Scott pulls a diet coke out of the fridge and goes to go check messages on the machine. The dogs are sniffing at the luggage in the entryway with gross fascination.

"She's a basket case, I'll tell you that much," her husband casually notes in between deleting messages.

Heather stiffens up and shoots him a look. "She is not," she reprimands. "You have no idea what she's been through this past year, Scott. I can't believe you just said that."

"What?" he shrugs. "She very clearly has issues and very clearly needs help. What else do you want?"

"A little god damn compassion for your sister-in-law? Poor thing hasn't even been to a therapist for any of it."

"She could afford her medical expenses and physical therapy; I wouldn't exactly call her "poor"."

"She was reimbursed for that by this agency she works for now, she told me. They won't pay for mental health costs, though. Lord knows why."

"I'll tell you why," Scott says, setting down his can on the white-tiled counter. "They don't want her blabbing to a shrink, is why. Can't take the risk."

"You're full of accusations tonight, aren't you? Why in the hell wouldn't they want her talking to a therapist?"

"You remember that website I showed you?"

Heather groans. "Not this again..."

"No, I'm being dead serious," Scott asserts. "You remember the website?"

"Yes, I remember the website."

"It's all the same shit, Heather. It's all the same shit. She's been targeted for some reason... I don't know why, she might not even know why, but they knew she was weak, and they targeted her for this. Maybe..." He pauses to think for a moment; pacing like he's some noir detective. "Maybe she saw something up there in those mountains that she wasn't supposed to see, and they tried to kill her off."

"Scott."

"Maybe she stumbled upon something big, and they couldn't risk her telling anyone. Disappearing her would have been too risky, so they did something to her so that she wouldn't remember... would be able to tell anyone, and they don't want her talking to a head doctor in case he undoes all of her conditioning and she spills."

"This is one big joke to you, isn't it?"

"Look, Heather, I love your sister. I care about her as much as you do, but she is neck-deep in some heavy stuff, and I'm just trying to figure it out so we can help her."

"Thinking up some half-baked conspiracy isn't going to do that."

"Then what do you suggest we do?" he exclaims, flipping on the kitchen lights proper so they can better discuss the situation. "I know how worried you are, sweetie. But this isn't just some early mid-life crisis for her. In order to be able to help, we gotta see the big picture."

Heather is silent. Scott puts his hands on her folded arms as a gesture of reassurance.

"We're not alone in this, you know. There are people we can go to."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that there are people that know all about what she won't tell us. Maybe we could go to them to find out more?"

She makes an uneasy face and looks him in the eye. "I'm drawing the line at illegal, Scott."

"Illegal? No, no, no, no! I'm just talking about civilian watchdog groups; you know, federally-recognized NPOs. They just have people that are passionate enough about this sort of thing that they spend their time researching and combing declassified documents, sending FOIA requests, reading up on historical accounts and all that sort of thing. It's all completely legitimate; I just thought that they would have resources that we might find handy, you know? They'd be more knowledgeable about the situation."

"Non-profits, huh?"

"All they want is to know the truth about what's going on. Just like us."

Heather looks down at the smaller dog, which has come over to sit beside her feet. The terrier looks up at her owner and wags her tail a little.

"Here, I can show you their website," he goes on, pulling his phone out to pull up the site.

His wife shakes her head and steps away from the counter. "Not right now, Scott. I want a shower and a good night's rest. Show me in the morning."

"Alright," he concedes, but the look on his face says that he knows he's likely won. "You'll think about it though, will you?"

"Are you kidding? It's all I can think about. Night, honey." She pauses. "And make sure the dogs have food and water before you come to bed?"

Scott nods, preoccupied now with the website.


"MUFON?" Heather sounds out, looking over Scott's shoulder with a cup of coffee in her hands as he pulls up the organization's website in his home office. "What do they do exactly? This isn't the website I remember you showing me."

"No, this is a different group. They're a... UFO network. The most well-regarded one, at least."

"UFOs? We're dealing with robots, not little green men."

"I think they'd be interested and willing to help us anyway."

"But they're not aliens, Scott."

He shakes his head. "There are enough rumors going around to merit piquing their interest, I think."

Heather sighs. "Remind me again how they're going to help Astrid?"

"All we're going to ask them for is information. That's it. Just so we know what she's gotten herself into so we can help her."

There's a long silence as Heather paces back and forth across the carpet behind him, nervously clutching her coffee to warm her suddenly clammy hands. At length she stops. "How do we contact them?"

Scott whirls back around in his office chair, clicking away at the website. "Well, here's the Northern California chapter organizers' email addresses. I guess I just send them an email."

"And if they don't reply?"

"Let me shoot off a note and we'll take it from there, okay?"

"I'm sorry, I'm just really anxious about this whole thing."

"It's going to be alright. We'll help your sister out of this mess."

"Let me know how it goes when I get home?" she says, gulping down the last of her coffee. "I've got to get going or I'm going to be late for work."

"Will do. Love you," he calls when she hurries out of the room.

"Love you, too!"


Four days later, that following Saturday night.

The pub is riotously loud, filled almost to the hilt with bodies. Somehow the dark, awkwardly-lit space seems appropriate for the meeting. It feels as though they're doing something dangerous.

"Keep an eye out for a guy in a Berkeley sweater."

"There he is, in the corner over there."

And lo, there he is, sitting next to a younger man at a far corner table, sharing a couple beers between them. Scott and Heather weave their way through the crowd to finally approach the pair.

"You must be Rob?" Scott says, leaning in a little so as to be heard.

"And you must be Scott and Heather," says the man, who's probably in his early forties. He stands up and sticks his hand out for a shake. "Nice to meet you. This is my colleague and fellow investigator, Andrew," he introduces. The younger man, Andrew, rises to shake their hands as well before they all settle down. "Would you like to order something before we get started?"

"Oh no thank you. I'm not a big drinker," Scott insists as he takes off his jacket and hands it on the chair. A waitress approaches them just then with a big smile on her face.

"I think I'm going to have a bloody mary," Heather announces, looking at the waitress. "Something tells me I'm going to need one."

"Anything else?"

Rob shakes his head and waits for her to disappear before speaking again. "I figure the best way to go about this is to just dive right in," he says, talking a little softer so as not to risk being overheard. "Now Scott, in your emails you said this pertains to someone you know. Can you elaborate a little?"

"She's my sister," Heather cuts in. "She had a little accident earlier this year... she was hiking alone south of Tahoe and got caught beneath some fallen rocks and was stuck for several days, I don't know if you heard about that?"

The waitress returns with Heather's drink.

Rob shakes his head, but Andrew perks up. "I think I remember something like that from a few months ago?"

Heather nods "Well, that's when all of this started..."

"Alright. You mentioned that she's gotten sucked into some kind of government work now, correct? And that she claims to be "friends" with some kind of secret technology that they have her working with. Have you noticed any major differences in her behavioral between now and before the accident?"

"She was so down to earth before... practical, straightforward, laid-back. Now she's borderline delusional. What's obvious to you or me isn't so obvious to her."

"It's possible that she's been brainwashed to some extent," Andrew offers. "It sounds like it could be a cover-up if you ask me."

"You know about Operation Monarch?" asks Rob. The words meant nothing to Heather, but Scott doesn't miss a beat.

"I don't think this is like that—"

"Could be the same techniques, at least."

Scott considers this.

"What kind of technology are you talking about exactly? Black project stuff?"

"It may be, I just don't know. That's why I came to you."

"What do you know about Autobots?" Heather asks.

The two MUFON investigators looks at each other for a moment. Rob clears his throat and finishes off his beer. "You know what the unofficial MUFON policy is on the transformers? Stick to grays, because the robots are bad news."

Heather's heart sinks. "No, no, no, you have to help us."

"Look; UFOs, abductions... all the Hollywood crap you're used to seeing? That's what we do. They're safer because no one's come out to announce them publicly, as back-asswards as that may sound. Transformers is deep water, I'm afraid, and whoever over at the CIA and Pentagon is in charge of all that has more power than any of us can imagine. It's dangerous shit."

"Why do you call them transformers?"

"What? They transform. Well, most of the time. That's our trade name for them, so to speak. You've got your grays, nordics, reptilians... and then you've got your transformers. Whole different ballgame with them."

"What do you mean?" Heather asks cautiously.

Andrew speaks up. "You remember that movie, Men In Black?" She and Scott nod. "Well, that was based on a real phenomenon. For many years the UFO community had interactions with them if they'd been a witness to an event or had an experience. They'd show up out of nowhere and threaten people into silence, basically. Well, since the early 90's, folks have noticed a bit of a drop-off in their activity."

"Ever since the Autobots were announced to the world, huh."

"Exactly."

"W-what does that mean?" Heather asks, glancing from her husband to the two MUFON investigators.

Rob presses his lips together in a tight line. "We've got theories circulating about, but no hard evidence pointing to anything. The only coincidence is the decline of reported MIB harassment happening around the same time as the announcement. That and the movie."

"One of the prevailing ideas is that it has to do with the release of the movie itself," Andrew explains. "Some think that the pop culture treatment of the phenomenon created an environment that made it difficult for real experiences to be acknowledged as legitimate. Not that they didn't have trouble with that back in the 60's and 70's," he says with a sad chuckle. "But it's worse now."

Rob continues. "There are other explanations floating about too, of course. Things involving demons, or time-travel and what-have-you."

"...but nothing to do with robots," adds Scott flatly.

"We've got nothing but theories," Rob concedes, leaning back in the booth.

"Have you got one that's useful for us, then?"

"Depends on your definition of 'useful'."

"Alright, let's leave grays, lizards, annunaki, time-travel, religion, and all of that bullshit out of it. What do we have left."

"Propaganda."

"What?"

"Slow and subtle mind control. Quiet game-changers. The shifting of the national consciousness like tectonic plates, as surely as they are massive, to achieve their aims."

Heather looked at him with a little suspicion. "Their aims being, what?"

"To present fact as fiction. You know all that masonic and illuminati stuff the guy that runs that Vigilant Citizen site goes on about? Claiming that evil occult symbolism has completely saturated our culture and nobody knows or cares? It's that sort of thing. Putting secret things into plain view so they'll only rouse unreasonable suspicion."

"I don't follow," Heather says meekly, finally taking a first sip of her drink.

"There are wider implications for just about everything that happens," explains Rob patiently. "Practically nothing happens in a vacuum."

"The chain of events that have gotten a hold of your sister is a symptom of something," Andrew offered. "Maybe personal, maybe political, but probably both."

"Well, what do we do about it, then?"

"Do you guys have any leads? Any information at all you could give us to help? We're at our wits end here, you've gotta understand," Scott pleads.

Rob sniffs dramatically and looks away, grasping the empty bottle before him and lightly tapping the glass on the table.

"There is one group," he says at length; like pulling teeth. There's another long pause here. "And I hesitate to say that MUFON endorses them? Because we don't... but sometimes some of us work with them out of necessity."

"Okay..?"

Rob adjusts his sitting position to reach into his back pocket to pull out a scrap of paper. In his jacket breast pocket there's a pencil. He begins to write. "They call themselves EDW, and like I said, we don't endorse everything they do. However, they are crazy enough to try and tackle the transformer thing." He slides the slip of paper across the table toward Heather. "Still haven't decided if they're brave or just plain stupid."

The paper reads:

Earth Defense Watch

L.W.: 602-555-0127

Heather stares at the scrawl for a long while before putting it away in her purse. "What are transformers?" she asks.

"Nobody really knows," Rob shrugs. "Robots. I've got a few newspaper clippings from the late 80's talking about some new technology that the military was working on, but most of it, whatever it is, is still classified stuff. Whatever tidbits of information we could get our hands on, though, turned out to be dead ends. Nothing in the peer-reviewed journals about any of it, that's for sure. You know ASIMO?"

Heather isn't particularly familiar with it, but she's heard the name. Scott nods his head.

"Honda was commissioned by the Japanese to try and replicate just a piece of the transformer technology, their bipedalism, and as you can see, they've got miles to go," he chuckles darkly. "It's cute, though, and the public loves it. You'll notice that the real ones don't make public appearances like that."

"No, no they don't..." Scott's voice trails off.

"Say, do you have any pictures of this thing?" Andrew butts in.

"She sent me one," Heather offers, rifling through her purse for her phone. It's a few seconds of going through the photo album before she holds it out for Andrew to see, careful to not let anyone else in the pub get a glance.

It's a picture of Astrid and that "Hound" thing out in the wilderness somewhere. Who's taking the picture is something she didn't know.

"It's big," she murmurs, barely audible above the noise. "I don't like it. One wrong step and she's in the hospital again."

"Can I zoom in?" Rob's leaning over to get a better look now.

"It's a decent resolution."

"Wow," mutters Rob. "Look at all that stuff going on in there. My god, let me get a closer look at the face. That's so odd..."

"What is?"

"It looks strangely human, is all."

"Take a look at the arm joint... look at all that," Andrew gasps, his eyes fixed on the luminescent screen. "That cabling has to be, what... an inch or two thick at least?"

"If you look closely, you can see it's a kind of socket joint, I think. And see that plating on the top there covering the gap? It looks like it connects over there and slides with the movement of the arm for optimal rotation. Man, whatever these things are, they were meticulously designed."

Heather's given her phone back.

"So that's it?" asks Scott. "We just call this L.S. person up and tell them the situation? What are they going to do?"

"I'm not entirely sure myself, but they'll sure as hell be able to help you more than us." Rob lifts up his arm and waves down the waitress. "Can we get the bill?" Scott goes to reach for his wallet, but Rob shakes his head and slaps down his card first. "This is on me. Trust me, you'll need another one later."


"You do it." Heather pushes the phone and the piece of paper, which set beside the phone in the kitchen and left undisturbed for over a week, at her husband.

She's looked at that phone number several times a day since it was given to her; and every time she does her hands get a little cold and clammy, whereupon she'll turn away and put it out of her mind for a few hours more. Unfortunately, it's getting to the point where something has to be done. Either they need to follow through, or fall back to the side as a voyeur, watching as Astrid continues to dig her own grave. Not that they've even heard from her since Portland.

Their parents have no idea what she and Scott have been planning. They'd call occasionally to ask if she'd spoken to Astrid at all, only to be given the usual answer: no. Heather never knew her sister to hold an angry grudge like this, and it's worrying on a number of levels.

Scott awkwardly takes the phone and looks at her for a long time without saying a word. His eyes lower down to the phone, and slowly, he begins to dial.

Heather's sweating bullets, and she's sure that Scott isn't faring much better either.

After what seemed like forever: "Hello? Hi, is this... L.W.? Hi, my name is Scott and I was told to give you a call about a little problem going on in the family. A problem that you are best suited to tackle?"

Heather hears a voice on the other end, but she can't make anything out.

"Well, the leader from the Nor Cal MUFON chapter directed me to you after meeting me and my wife about two weeks ago. And the problem is that... well, my sister-in-law is involved with transformers, I guess... yes, the giant robots. Look is there any way for us to be able to meet face to face to talk about... oh, I see. You're in Arizona. Alright... Mhm. Yes."

Heather's hands are ice.

"The problem started earlier this year, during the spring. She was out hiking and got stranded for a few days; claims to have been rescued by one, and subsequently maintained a friendship with it over the following months. No, no history of mental illness. We actually have a picture of her with the thing, so we know its real... uh huh. Right. No, of course. No, we haven't noticed anything suspicious around here?" Scott looks at Heather to confirm this via eye contact. "None of the immediate family either. We're mostly just worried about her mental health now, as well as her safety... How? Well, the other big thing is that she's been recruited to work on a hush-hush government operation outside of Anchorage, and she's living with it. Yes, really. No... no, she won't even give us her address. Hm? Which agency? She said Fish and Wildlife, but I'm not sure. She's keeping a lot from us.

"Oh, let's see... well, she doesn't appear to be interested in making any new friends or having any sort of support system outside of her work. She's also grown irritable and defensive, especially when it comes to this machine thing. I get the feeling that she's personifying it to an unhealthy degree. And it just seems like she's turned into a completely different person, too. No, she appears to be more or less healthy... eating, getting enough sleep. But otherwise, yes, the symptoms seem pretty classic."

There's a lot of talking going on the other end, now, interspersed with Scott nodding his head and making agreeable noises while staring out the window.

"Oh, really? Wow, thank you so much. No, no, I think that's the best plan we've got. Would you like me to give you my cell number so you can-? Oh, oh, okay. Just give me a second here..."

Scott scrambles around in the junk drawer for a pen and paper.

"Alright. Uh huh... uh huh... yeah... okay. So that's "LW at nine-five-six-three-zero-zero-four-nine-eight dot info", right? Okay. Wow, we really can't thank you enough. Yes, of course. We'll be in touch. Alright, thanks. Buh-bye."

Click.

There's a long silence.

"She... said she could probably help us."

Heather realizes that she's been holding her breath. "Did she s-say how?"

"She says that the situation is... something she hasn't encountered yet, and thinks that our only option for getting Astrid out is to sabotage her employment."

"What?" Heather blurted out. "The plan is to get her fired?"

"What else did you have in mind, Heather?" Scott threws his arms up in the air.

Her hand goes to her cheek and her eyes fall to the floor. "I... I don't know. I just want her out of there. She doesn't know what she's doing, and she's putting herself in all sorts of danger. I... can't think up anything else. We can't eventalk to her about it, doesn't even answer the damn phone anymore." Heather pauses to take a deep breath. "Is this legal, Scott? Can we get thrown in jail for this?"

"We still have to hammer out the details over this chat program she wants us to use, but don't worry. I'll make sure that everything we're doing is clean, got it?"

"I want to be involved every step of the way."

"Don't worry, hon. You will."

"So... what else did she say?"

"She said that she had a member in the area that was particularly knowledgeable about these things and their cover-up, so she would be talking to him about it. She seemed very... confident in the plan."

"God, I hope so. I hope that woman knows what she's getting us into..."


The cave, located about 100 miles west of Yellowknife in Canada's Northern Territories, is cold, dark, and dank. And appropriate, considering its inhabitants of the past 20 years. In a part of the cavern, a small gallery broken off from another small gallery several levels below the main base of operations, sits a diminutive, vaguely avian figure, hunched over some kind of Frankenstein communications unit, listening intently.

His once bluish armor glistens in the darkness of the storage room, a wild grin forming on his beak-like face plates, optic sensors glowing a subtle red. Their intensity grows with every word that passes into his audio receptors.

"Excellent," is the very faint reply; it still causes some echoing, but no more than the heavy footsteps of another blue mech that has just squeezed into the storage antechamber. "I will relay the message immediately. I'm sure he will be very pleased..."

Will I? comes the voice in the smaller one's head.

The grotesque bird-like robot stumbles toward the larger, his attempt at humility botched by his excitement.

Commander Soundwave! You wouldn't believe it, but we officially have an "in" with the dig! And a very low-profile one, too!

The larger mech, Soundwave, can't be read from behind the visor and face guard, but his optics do glint faintly, giving the diminutive robot the sense of accomplishment he's looking for.

Inform the others that there has been a change in plans. Starscream and his ilk must not find out, however. It wouldn't be a swift death for you.

Yes, master! Of course, master. As always.

Good. Now tell me of this new target. And make it quick: we must not be down here for long.

Chapter Text

This is the chapter where things really start deviating from the old storyline. Fasten your seatbelts :0


A.

Astrid becomes conscious a few minutes before she can open her eyes. It's not that she didn't have the energy, out that she's blindfolded, but it just doesn't occur to her to do it. She also doesn't realize that she's laying down until she tries moving; her skin is tingling so bad that she can barely feel the sheets. At length, she opens her eyes, blinking a few times to try and coax her head into seeing straight.

It's a room alright, and a bed, but the walls feel like they're moving. She stares at one beyond her feet to make sure that it is, in fact, solid. It takes a few moments, but it is. Astrid goes to sit up and look for a clock, but when she lifts her head, a wave of nausea hits her like a ton of lead and Astrid behind to think that maybe, something's wrong. Warm, tingling skin, bleary eyed, jittery thoughts...

I've been drugged.

Looking around from where her head is resting on the dingy, bare pillow, it dawns on her that she's never been in the room in her life.

And then it all comes back.

A sudden panicked anguish comes over here, but it's vague and sluggish. Her right arm, she realizes, is tied to a heavy eyelet bolt in the ceiling with a sturdy rope. The slack is such that she can move about the whole room, but she doubts that she'll be able to touch the walls or even the floor with the restricted hand. She struggles against it a little; clearly, a tool would be required to escape.

Across attempts to sit up again, trying to power through the sudden spinning, and she's finding that it's taking all her willpower to keep from vomiting. She'll have to wait for whatever the hell they gave her to work through her system. In the meantime... Astrid flops bank down into the dirty pillow with a groan and looks over to her injured arm. A crude bandage is wound about the wound, red seeping through even now. While she has no idea what time it is, Astrid knows that whatever they gave her was since nasty shit, and likely had her knocked out for at least a few hours.

"Fuck," she mutters, eyes darting around.

Does anyone know where she is? How long, exactly, had she been out for? What time is it? Is there any way she can get out of here? By sheer force of will she commands her brain to take stock of what's around her.

There's a bed: mattress, sheet, pillow, and bare frame; an old, dirty rug; a cheap, plastic patio chair off in the corner; a cardboard box serving as a nightstand or table; a floor lamp with no shade; a curtain on the single window. There is a door on each end of the room, interestingly enough - they both are fitted with deadbolts, but the one past her feet has two.

That one's gotta lead outside, she decides.

Cautiously, Astrid peers over the edge of the bed to look at the floor. It's tile, of all things, and covered in scuff marks. This was probably a mudroom. And repurposed, it seems, rather hastily.

Maybe it's the drugs, or the fact that she has to piss, or maybe it's that she's just stupid, but after a few moments she decides to see what shouting might accomplish.

"HELLO?" she tries bellowing, though it comes out a bit hoarser than she was expecting. "HELLO! IS ANYONE HERE? I NEED A DOCTOR!"

If she's lucky, maybe a neighbor would hear.

"HELP! I NEED HELP!"

Astrid doesn't like how her voice sounds in the room. It's too cold and too clear, like shouting out over an ice field with a storm on the horizon.

Her heart feels like it'd leapt out of her mouth and landed on the floor with a heavy splat when the deadbolt beside her head unlocks. In this room, it sounds like a gunshot.

A woman appears, with a paper plate in her hand. Astrid is suddenly petrified, wishing that she could take her words still hovering in the air and shove them back in her mouth. A black hood covers the entirety of her face, and the disturbing sight manages to sober her up a bit. Her breaths come short and haggard, and she backs up against the wall as the plate, with some kind of peanut butter sandwich on it, is set on the upturned box beside the bed.

"You should eat," she says. Her voice is weird.

"What do you want from me?"

The woman regards Astrid silently, facelessly; it doesn't feel like looking at a person, but like something that crawled out from under the bed.

"What time is it?"

"Cody will be joining you shortly," is all she says. The door is shut and locked behind her.

Astrid eyes the sandwich and realizes that she has no idea how long it's been since she'd had food. She reaches for it, but her arm starts hurting again. The pain killers are wearing off.

The sandwich is bland - cheap peanut butter on wonderbread - but it at least fills her up some and helps to calm the nausea. Eating in general is unpleasant right now, though. The cottonmouth made chewing more than arduous.

She lays there, though, and some part of her hopes that this is all just some nightmare that might soon end. That Hound might wake her up and it'll be all over. Her roped hand is resting on her forehead, and she's trying to keep her meal down, when the door opens again. She can't help but start.

In walks a man this time, and his face is not covered. If Astrid thought that the mask was disturbing, the uncovered face is terrifying: this man doesn't seem to think that being recognized in a lineup is a concern. She shrinks back against the wall, sizing him up. He's large, but not too large; well-built, but not too muscular; his teeth are nice, but not too straight... everything about this man seems to scream average in a way that she can't explain. His complexion, hair, clothes, face; he's so unremarkable that it's, well, remarkable. But as soon as her eyes fall onto his hands, she recognizes them. They're the hands that sought her out through Hound's hologram.

"You have a nice nap?" he asks, pulling up the chair and making himself comfortable. "You've been out for about five hours."

Astrid's brows are pressing together so hard that they start to twitch. "What did you give me?" she demands, trying not to let her voice waver.

"Relax," he chuckles. "It wasn't anything a doctor wouldn't have given you anyways."

She eyes him like an animal with its foot in a trap.

"Now that it's almost midnight, let's get the day off on the right foot. A clean slate. What do you say?"

"What do you want from me."

"If I told you outright, that'd just take the fun out of it."

Her heart plummets. He wants to fuck with her. "That robot is going to find me, and when he does..."

The man called Cody just smiles and shakes his head. "I've no doubt about that. But until then, you get to stay here with me. Capiche?"

Astrid steels herself, trying to quell the trembling in her shoulders. "He's a tracker, you know. He could find an eyelash in a haystack."

"I know who he is," comes the cool reply.

Astrid shuts up.

"We've got a few hours, though. So until then, how about you start talking?"

She swallows.

"What are they digging up in that park?"

Like a deer in headlights she answers. "I... I don't know."

"Now, see - I know you're lying." Cody stands up, moving the chair out of the way so he can pace. "You don't get invited to a project like that and not even know why you're there." He chuckles, but it's a dangerous sound. Astrid gets the feeling that he has a short fuse.

"I told you, I don't know!"

Cody closes the distance between himself and the bed, and he places his hands firmly along the edge, hunched over like a predator regarding its prey. "You don't seem to understand," he says in a low voice. "I concede that the Autobot will find you... but I never said how many pieces you'd be in when he does."

The shivering overtakes her.

He releases the bed and returns to pacing. "Let's try again in a few minutes. You just woke up, you're still a little drugged up; I get it. How does that sound?"

Astrid says nothing.

"I'll see you in about twenty minutes." He makes to leave, but something catches his attention, and he reaches under the bed for it. There's a plastic tupperware container in his hand when he rights himself and he throws it next to her. "And if you have to piss, you can use this."

Maybe it's the terror, but once he's gone, Astrid can't think about anything but how he knew that she had to go.

.

H.

21:42 hours.

The night's still young, Hound thinks to himself, attempting to calm down and focus. Where to start... where to start...

"What about the last place you saw her? Maybe we can pick up some clues over there," Skids offers.

Hound sighs. "I can track them on the dirt, but as soon as those tires hit pavement, nothing's left." He pauses and searches the ground for inspiration. "I've got it!" he exclaims, looking from one bot to the next. "The police station. I think they'll help us."

"Why?"

"BREME outsourced the investigation. Couldn't be slagged to do it themselves."

"Whatever we do," Jazz chimes in, looking out over the black, glassy water of the bay. They'd relocated away from the Bureau's regional HQ, but not far. "We need to do it now. Feds are going to be all over the docks in no time. I'm getting whiffs of their comms already."

"Do they know what we look like?" Trailbreaker looks a little worried.

Cliffjumper gives an electronic scoff. "Who cares if they can spot us. Ain't no way they can take down the five of us without some heavy guns, and no way are they going to turn this town into a warzone over their sense of pride. And I don't think those immobilizing things will work on us in vehicle mode."

"Maybe you're right," considers Jazz. "They don't have a public face to save, so they either do this covertly, or they do it..." he pauses, not liking where the logic is taking him.

But Hound grimly finishes it. "Or they do it disguised as another agency, no hiding necessary."

They all look at each other, and Jazz gives the order.

Let's go. Now.

In a half-second, five cars are barreling down the road and headed for the police station.

The Jeep executes a dermal mask as soon as they hit the main road; with a quick sweep of orange light across the countours of his chassis, he's no longer the rich olive green that his spark naturally emanates. Instead, what's there is a menacing matte black. He'll be almost impossible to spot in the dark.

Nice paint, buddy. How're you doing with that optic of yours? Trailbreaker asks.

It's the least of my worries.

Several minutes later, the five find themselves in the parking lot of Anchorage PD.

Alright, everyone: holos. And Hound, throw up something to keep us covered, will you?

One step ahead of you.

Hound projects out his driver just before casting a mass cloaking "net" above them all, obscuring them from the inevitable aerial traffic. He glances about and sees the others materialize their drivers on the sidewalk. Skids and Cliffjumper have male holos, while Trailbreaker has an older woman for his - white hair, sharp eyes, and Trailbreaker's sharp tongue to go with it. Jazz's, on the other hand...

Hound sends him a private comm: Is that..?

The mech chuckles. What can I say? Marissa was my good luck charm in those days. Still is, I guess.

Hound's man in the cowboy hat laughs soundlessly as they all enter the building. It must look strange; the group so stilted and not speaking a word to one another.

"Can I help you all..?"

The deputy behind the front desk looks up from a newspaper, brows furrowed at the prospect of dealing with a bunch of potential hooligans.

"We'd like to speak to the Commissioner, please. It's urgent."

"You all have an appointment?" The cop looks uneasy.

"I spoke to him not two hours ago about a missing persons case down at the docks," Hound says, desperation encroaching. "Please. You have to let him know that we're here."

The deputy narrows his eyes at the group as he gets up, heading for a door behind him. "Have a seat," he suggests warily. He returns with the Commissioner a minute later.

"What's all this about? How in the hell do you all know about the case?" Phillips hisses, staring daggers at them all. He gets up close to the nearest holo, Jazz's, and stares it down. "If you don't have anything for this investigation, then you'd better get the hell out of my precinct."

Hound steps over to the window and points outside. "You took my statement earlier," he explains. "That's me out there." The aging officer goes to the window and squints as he peers outside.

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm Hound, the green Autobot from that fancy facility. These are some of my fellows; they're parked outside too."

"Look," Jazz-as-Marissa interrupts. "This is urgent. If you could take us to your office so we can talk about this quickly, that would help a lot."

Phillips nods silently, not quite sure what to think of the situation. "Follow me."

"I'll stay out here to keep an eye out," Cliffjumper grunts, fizzling away to better focus his sensors elsewhere. The deputy gives a surprised shout, jumping back and hand darting for his gun.

"D-did any of you see that! Comm-missioner! Did you-?"

But the rest of them are already gone, ushered away behind a closed door.

Once they're all gathered in his office, Hound speaks first. "First off, do you have any leads yet?"

The Commissioner wipes his brow. "You kiddin' me? My detectives have only just started hitting the phones, and they're not even done processing the location of the abduction. Haven't even gotten plates to run yet."

"So nothing?" Hound all but cries.

"You need to be patient. There's only so many hours in a day, and I've only got so many men to work with around here."

"Well, we're here to help," Jazz says. "Put us to work."

Commissioner Phillips raises his bushy brows. "You four? How?"

"Well for one, I can tell you right now that the detective making the phone calls? He hasn't gotten a single hit with the credit card company."

Phillips looks at them all, illuminated strangely as they are under the harsh fluorescent lighting, sizing them all up. At length, he nods. "Alright. You can help us. I'm not going to wonder about the damn whys and wherefores right now, but I will be getting all of this on record later." He points a sturdy finger at Hound. "Now tell me how you all plan on doin' this helping, because I don't see you lot putting posters up on telephone poles all night. And I'm not losing my job for you, either."

Hound steps forward and places his holo's hands flat on the desk. "We can remotely access and process recorder media faster than anything or anyone you've got. Since we've got no idea about the make and model of the vehicle or where it went, let us check security cameras, traffic cameras, ATM cameras - whatever - around town."

"No. En-oh no. That's not evidence."

"Dammit," Hound hisses, rubbing at his holo's face. "Say we brought it to you. Say that we did this illegally. I don't care right now. I'm about this close to tearing open every roof of every garage in this fragging town myself if you don't let us do this."

"Commissioner, please," Jazz says, calmer than the captain. "There's gotta be something you can do."

The old man sucks in a long drag of air, puffing up his chest as he thinks. Hound stares at the man's face, trying to read it as he looks away, frowning, rubbing at his mustache. After a few uneasy moments, he lets it out. "I don't want to know what you all are doing," he relents quietly and firmly. "I don't want to know how you do it,I don't want to know who you get it from. Hell, I barely even want to know what you end up digging up, but either way, I doubt that that military outfit is gonna let anyone press charges against you lot anyway. Don't have handcuffs that'd even fit you damn people."

"Don't worry - we're in big enough trouble as it is already," Trailbreaker chimes in.

"That's... the other favor you're going to have to do for us, though," Jazz sighs. "When they come looking for us, and they will, pretend we were never here."

"You're out of your damn minds if you think I'm gonna -"

"You have to! You don't have to tell them that we were never here, but just don't tell them what we're up to," Hound says, raising his voice. "Tell them anything you need to get off the hook. Just buy us time. That's all we're asking."

The Commissioner growls.

"If I find out that you've hurt anybody or damaged any property, I swear..."

"You have our word."

"Unfortunately, that's all we can give you," Jazz says.

"Mind if I ask why you're doin' all of this? Why you're getting yourselves up to your eyeballs in shit for this? Who is this woman?"

Hound's hands ball into fists. "A very dear friend of mine."

Suddenly, Cliffjumper's signature is in their heads: We've got helis coming in hot - bearing eighty-two degrees. Doley rang up Fort Richardson, looks like.

"Damn," Jazz's holo mutters. We're just about done here. Give us a few seconds and we'll be out of here.

"Well, good luck... or something. I guess I hope that you all are as good at this as you say. For everyone's sake."

.

A.

She's not sure if it's actually been 20 minutes - it could have been 15, it could have been 40 for all she can tell - when Cody returns. She'd relieved herself with the makeshift bedpan shortly after he'd left, and anticipating this, the remarkably unremarkable man waves a water bottle at her as he takes his seat once again. Astrid looks at it, and realizes that he's touching everything - leaving his fingerprints everywhere. He's either grossly negligent or knows something that she doesn't.

"Figured you'd want some of this?"

Astrid's jaw is clenched as she nods, slowly and stiffly, and he hands her the bottle. She reaches for it with the arm that doesn't hurt.

"And possibly some of these?"

He produces a few white pills from his pants pocket. She can make a pretty sure guess as to what they are, but everything in her says not to take them.

Cody senses this, raising his eyebrows. "You sure? You're sweating."

She licks her upper lip - and so she is. Cold sweats from the pain that she's still trying to ignore. "I'm sure."

"It's your funeral," he shrugs, putting them away. "You ready to talk yet?"

"I told you," she pleads. "I don't know. They don't... don't tell me anything."

"Why are you there? What do you have to offer them?"

"I... I was with Fish and Wildlife. Th-they decided to bring me on board just a few months ago," she explains, words tumbling out of her that she can barely control. "Surveys. I-I was doing surveys..."

"See?" he says, smiling. "You just needed to loosen up a little bit is all. Now tell me how many other Autobots are there."

Astrid's mind is racing now, searching for the right answer. Should she lie? Should she...? "One," she stammers. "There's just one. Just Hound."

"Just the one..." he murmurs to himself, thinking for a minute. Astrid looks sidelong at him, suddenly feeling like she shouldn't have said anything. He stands up, pacing again, staring at his feet. He repeats himself before stopping and turning back to her.

"You gonna tell me about that hole, now?"

"For the last time, I don't -"

Astrid's last word is caught, strangled in her throat when Cody's hand shoots out to grab her by the wounded arm. And he gives it a little squeeze.

.

H.

22:05 hours.

Everyone, split up, Jazz orders as they tear out of the police station driveway. Skids, you search west of the highway, and Cliffjumper, you head east. The rest of us will head up toward Eagle River. Scan ATMS, gas stations, traffic cams, whatever you can get your sensors on. You've got Hound's memory data - familiarize yourself with it, and keep in constant contact with the rest of us. Those are your orders, now go!

The Scion look-a-like and red Challenger sharply cut over to the highway off-ramp and disappear as Hound, Trailbreaker, and Jazz continue northward.

I'm sure you're wondering why I was able to mobilize a team, Jazz sent. Hound recognizes the signature as that of a private communication.

Well, to be honest... yes.

You know Decepticon activity has dropped off, right?

It was the only way any of us were able to get civilian posts, and mine with WSAR last year. You remember that.

Yep. And in the meantime, some of us were still havin' to put up with BREME. Well, this whole time, we were asking them to report back on anything suspicious that the Bureau was doing.

Like what Prowl wanted me to do...

'Zactly. Reason being, to put it bluntly, we wanted to see if they were having dealings with Decepticons behind our back. Only thing is that we weren't anticipating something like this. Not sure what to make of it.

Hound's vehicular body coils in on itself as they drive and a shudder passes through his spark.

I know what to make of it, he sends, the signal a little strained.

I know you do, buddy. Just hang in there, alright? We need you for this.

The Jeep steadies his wheels. Follow me; I'll take us to where our turnoff meets the main road, and we can split from there.

He take them to a large intersection (one of the only in the area) just off the highway and pulls off to the side of the road. The stretch is almost completely deserted at this time of day, and Hound is tempted to transform.

I imagine they made a left here, he sends.

What's to the right? asks Trailbreaker.

Nothing, really. A residential neighborhood. We won't find anything there.

Alright, so we'll cross the highway, I'll head directly north, Trailbreaker will head directly south, and Hound, you'll head in.

Sounds like a plan.

Let's roll out.

In a matter of minutes, Hound finds himself alone, going down a stretch of moderately civilized road. He spots a gas station, super market, bank, drug store, and a fast food joint up ahead. Good. Pulling over into an empty parking lot, he starts with the gas station.

Wirelessly, he sends out electronic feelers into the CCTV system, temporarily interrupting the feed. After a few moments, he reaches the video data, and streaming it into his processors, began playing through the last few hours to see if he can spot the van. It takes about 10 minutes to rifle through the reel at close to 20x normal speed, but there's nothing. And with no view of the street from the camera's vantage point, he's got no way of knowing if they even passed this way.

His engine roars angrily as he leaves the parking lot to pull into the strip mall next door. He starts the process all over again with the bank ATMs.

Anything? comes the familiar signature of Skids, interrupting the silence.

Yeah, we've been looking for 40 minutes now, and still nothing, guys, Cliffjumper chimes in.

Well, you keep looking! Jazz ordered. Hound, how you doin' over there?

Fine.

A pause. Keep it up, officer. We've still got time. Remember, everybody, this is a 425: treat this just like you would any other MIA rescue mission. We don't quit until the case is closed. Got it?

Yes, sir!

Hey, uh, Jazz, I've got visual on what looks like a police helicopter making rounds around the harbor area. Search pattern.

Alright, keep an optic on it and let us know if you see its behavior change. Stay out of sight, got it? You know the drill.

Yes, sir.

Hound continues what he's doing, trying to keep himself optimistic, but it's getting more and more painful with each passing breem. Some part of him quietly creeps in with the thought that they'd be finding a body before the weekend was over.

No, dammit, she's still alive!

But alas, the bank cameras yield nothing. Next is the store.

Hound isn't sure how much more his spark can take, honestly. But he to has to keep going. There is no other option. He hunts down the video feed starting from 7:30, like he did with the others.

And it's at about the 7:47 mark that he sees something.

Just a glimpse on the edge of the parking lot... a blurry, white, boxy shape under what must have been the broken light off on the south side, just barely illuminated by the lights shining from the front of the establishment. The vehicle seems strategically parked in the patch of darkness, though it pulled into the space haphazardly, as though in a dreadful hurry. Hound decides to let the footage unfold at it's native speed.

In pulls the white van, coming in fast and breaking suddenly to park. From the passenger-side exits someone; the vehicle remains idling. It's a man - he briskly walks nearer to the camera as he goes into the store and disappears out of sight again.

Hound realizes that he recognizes this person.

It's him.

The autobot's spark jumps in it's casing, sending a surge of energy through his frame. For a second time, Hound has to resist the very real and sudden urge to leap up into biped mode and bust into the pharmacy to demand information from them. He gives himself a quick moment to calm down.

Once he has his thoughts and processes in order, he dives a little deeper in to their CCTV system to take a gander at the video taken of the cashiers.

At 7:49, the man appears again, rushing up to the counter and nearly throwing what looked to be a small, white bottle at the young woman behind the counter. He can't stand still, Hound notices. The mech pauses the reel and zooms in as far as he can without losing too much image quality. His jacket, a dark gray, seems to have black stains on it.

Astrid's blood?

If Hound had a heart, it'd be racing.

The cashier, it looks like, notices this as well; she's gesturing at him. At this, he waves his hand harshly, his body language even more threatening than it already was. He can see the man grow angry with her, throwing a wadded up bill on the counter and leaving before she can even give him his change. Another employee steps nearer, though the two remain frozen as he storms out of the store.

Hound switches back to the exterior camera to watch him leave. Just a moment after he steps into the frame, though, the feed's interrupted. It explodes into static for less than a second, then fades out as he breaks into a jog toward the van. By 7:50, they'd disappeared out of the view of the camera, possibly making a left as they exit the lot.

I've got a hit, Hound broadcast.

Where? When?

Slagger bought something at a drug store before heading off; he looked to be in a real hurry. Sending my coordinates now.

Good work! Do you know where they were headed?

I-I don't know... maybe back toward the highway, but that's just a guess.

It's enough to refine the search, suggests Trailbreaker.

I agree, Jazz broadcasts. Everyone rendezvous at Hound's location, we'll proceed from here. Skids, any word on that chopper?

Successfully stayed out of sight, though it looks like they've brought in another one to help out. Coupled with Cliffjumper's sighting, should be a few in the area now. I've been scanning the police channels, and it looks like they think they're after robbery suspects. Not sure about the military ones. They might be in the loop. I hope the Commissioner hasn't thrown us for a loop.

Frag, Jazz hisses. Keep a sharp lookout for press. It's only a matter of time before we've got civilians peering out their windows for us too.

Can do, sir.

Hound sits tight in the parking lot, waiting.

Hurting.

A pain the likes he hasn't felt in either recent or distant memory has him by the throat. His body almost trembles with terror; his sense of normalcy arrested like the frost seizing early morning dew. It was a special gift, he'd been told uncounted years prior;being able to warp one's perception of reality under duress. It's not a wholly common behavior pattern among Cybertronians, the Jeep recalls with a fierce bitterness.

You would understand, Astrid, he thinks hopelessly to himself.

He entertains unintelligible thoughts for a while. Half-mourning, half-smoldering, half-wondering where she is, half-wondering what more he can do.

In a sad appeal to chance, he turns his chemical tracer to the air, hoping to get a whiff of her. Nothing.

Jazz rolls in, then: a silver Porsche. He revvs a little in a sign of camaraderie as he parks beside the Jeep. Anything else? he sends.

No, Hound returns.

What'd the perp buy?

Pills. That's all I know.

Prowl rung me up while I was on my way over.

Yeah?

Said BREME gave AHQ a call and had some very nasty words to say. He bought us time, though.

I guess if you can rely on Prowl for anything, it's making a reasonable argument.

Estimated that we've got about four and a half hours before they figure out where we are.

And from there...?

Let's cross that bridge when we come to it, alight?

Alright.

Jazz opens up the channel to everybody. Hey Skids.

Yep?

Keep heading up the highway and let us know what you find.

Sure thing, boss.

The rest of the crew arrives on the scene a few minutes later. Jazz gives the order to continue the search in Eagle River. There are exactly two stop lights in the area with cameras, and many streets to check now.

Alright, you know the vehicle we're looking for. Split up and start looking!

Hound starts with the north-westernmost corner of the town and begins the slow slog through quiet residential streets, anxiety gnawing dim spots into his spark.

A few blocks in, though, and something on the periphery of his awareness catches his attention. He stops dead in his tracks in the street, scanners straining, when...

There, up ahead!

The Jeep roars forward about 3 meters, coming to a jerking stop next to something pale and wispy along the road. He trains everything he's got onto it and realized that it's a thin bunch of Astrid's hair. His spark leaps, and he pulls a u-turn sharper than any real Jeep would be capable of to continue the search, chemical tracers surging.

Guys, she's been here! I found some of her hair along the road.

That's great! Any way to know which direction they were headed?

I-I can't be sure, but it was along the north shoulder, so if she'd thrown it from the vehicle, then they might have been travelling west.

We'll keep our eyes peeled. Hound, just keep doin' your thing.

In his excitement, however, Hound didn't spot what to any forensics investigator would have been an equally important clue: the hair had been deliberately cut.

.

A.

If getting shot was the most painful thing she'd ever experienced, then this is a close second.

Sweat runs down her brow and tears threaten to spill from her wide eyes as Cody's meaty hand holds a firm grip on the flesh around her wound. Her breathing is coming in short gasps, and she's trying to blink away the black spots that threaten to shut down her vision. Astrid feels like she's going to pass out.

But no, that would have been too merciful. She stays awake for every mind-numbing second that he squeezes the wound.

The door opens, and in rushes the woman from earlier, sans mask this time, and another man. Astrid had screamed her lungs out when he'd grabbed her.

"What are you -" she begins to demand, but stops short at the sight before her. She gives a horrified gasp.

"The fuck is this!" The other man is visibly angry - enraged, even - and he goes to tear Cody off of Astrid. When he does, Cody's hand is covered in red, and Astrid collapses onto the bed, writhing in pain.

"You said we were going to help her!" the woman shrieks, kneeling down beside the bed with a helpless look on her face. "My god... oh my god..."

"The wound was enough, but this is a shitshow," the man bellows. "That's it, I'm shutting this down."

Cody wipes his bloody hand on the front of the man's shirt, closing the distance between them before grabbing him by the collar. "This is my operation," he murmurs, and though the fog of her endorphins Astrid's almost sure that Cody just grew an inch or two.

"Peter, I'm calling the -" The woman turns around to find her partner with his back against the wall and a finger in his face. "Let him go!"

"You let me continue with my interrogation, and you all live. Got it?" There's a pause and the air in the room is almost unbearably thick. "Trust me when I say that I don't want to kill anyone tonight."

Cody lets the man go. He stumbles away, shaking, then looks down at the smear of blood on his shirt, then back to Astrid.

"You two are going to have to do something about those faces of yours, by the way," Cody says, gesturing at them before taking his seat in the patio chair again. "You fucked up."

The two of them exchange horrified looks and then rush out as Cody roars with laughter behind them.

"W-what about you? How come... how come you're not covering up?" Astrid says, broken and breathy from where she lays on the bed.

"I'll tell you a little secret," he says, leaning in. She doesn't have the energy to recoil. Then in a whisper dripping with malice: "You don't need to if you don't have a face." Astrid has no idea what that means, but she doesn't like it one bit. "Now. You going to tell me what I want to know, or do I have to do that again?"

She presses her lips together, wincing at another wave of pain.

"Fine, let's take ten. You wish you'd taken those pills, huh? Fat lot of good they'll do you now," he chuckles, leaving Astrid alone again.

As soon as he's gone she lets out a breath that she's been holding.

I gotta get out of here.

He's going to kill me.

.

H.

23:51 hours.

The trail of clues are not quite like breadcrumbs; they're few and far between - a scrap of torn cloth, a piece of bloody gauze - and it takes Hound over an hour before he can even feel confident that he's heading in an appropriate direction. But just before midnight he finds himself two blocks from a scrap yard on the edge of town, and he thinks that his nose is telling him to go there.

I think I've got a major lead, he broadcasts to the rest of them.

We'll be right over, Cliffjumper announces. Slaggers won't know what hit 'em.

But Jazz isn't so impulsive. Hold up, Ceejay. Hound, what's the sitch?

The Jeep sweeps the area, looking for anything suspicious. Unfortunately, it's difficult to tell what's what among the massive piles of wood and metal scrap. I think it's a junkyard, he says. I can't tell if there's anyone there, but I think I'm detecting at least one heat signature.

Pull up that cloak of yours and do some recon. I'm not risking anything if she's there.

Will do.

Even in spite of all of his eons of training, Hound's terrified. He has no idea what to expect, especially in such a bizarre location.

Making sure that no one's in the immediate vicinity, he transforms as quietly as he can manage and quickly cloaks, encasing himself in a bubble of bent light. Then he approaches.

Hound's cloaking isn't as robust as Mirage's, who can dampen any noise he makes, as well as shield himself from typical cloak-penetrating sensors. Hound's is mostly visual, so anyone who makes a point of listening will hear him coming. The one thing he knows about humans, though, is that their senses are easily dampened by distraction. This is what he's banking on right now.

As he creeps up to the front gateless entrance, Hound hears sounds. The quiet clanging of metal, rustling, hushed voices, and the high-pitched whine of electrical current. The mech scowls, trying to peer around the piles of rusted bits and bobs, but all he can get a glimpse of is the very top edge of a -

...a white van.

His spark roars to life and he fights the urge to tear into the place, guns blazing. No - he's at least smarter than that.

As slowly and silently as he can manage, he take one careful step after another, adjusting the way his foot comes to rest on the ground so minimize any sound and avoiding the small, potentially noisy pieces of metal scattered about the ground. The mech suppresses his air cycling too, so that aside from his footsteps, he's running quietly.

The van's rear is facing him, with its doors open. Hound trains his sensors inside, and while he can detect the faint whiffs of her scent inside, the vehicle appears empty.

Hound creeps closer, training a different set of arrays on the voices, and finds that he can catch snippets of conversation.

"No, no, no, that goes there."

"This'd be easier if you'd let me use a flashlight, Ruben!"

"Gimme that."

Three different voices, all seemingly male. Where's the woman that was with them earlier? Did they drop her off somewhere?

"Hurry up, Frankie! He's gonna be on top of us any minute now. He's their scout, remember? It's the guy's slaggin' day job."

Did he just...?

Hound broadcasts to the others, knowing that they had to see this: I need backup! I've got three perps in my sights, and I don't think two of them are human.

The channel is eerily silent. Hound waits for a moment, optics darting around nervously, but there's no reply.

Jazz? Trailbreaker? Nothing. Anybody?

"And... finished. Okay Brian or whatever your name is, get this van outta here and put it someplace obvious."

His foreprocessors are racing, spark trembling. He imagines the worst, wondering what he should do. Something's happened to the others.

The sound of keys jangling jerks him out of his dread, and Hound realizes that he knows what he has to do.

Fluids are practically boiling in their housing he leaps out of his hiding spot, fists clenched. Even alone, he's so ready for a fight.

"Where is she?!" he bellows, but is caught off-guard for a moment at what his night-vision reveals to him: three humans. All three of them are startled, but two, a pair of men that look bizarrely alike, quickly regain their composure, eyes locking onto the spot where the still-cloaked mech is standing. The third, the man with the car keys, still has no idea what's going on.

"Shit!" hisses the one. "That's him!"

The two scramble up and away from the scene as Hound bounds toward them with great booming strides as the third man is still trying to figure out what's going on. "I can't see him!" he shrieks. Hound is preoccupied with the othes, but they split up and he decides to pursue the one that seems to be doubling back through the junkyard.

"Flip the switch, you idiot!" this one yells. "Flip it before he -!"

Hound's hand closes around the man, felling him like a tree. But the switch, whatever it is, gets flipped, and the giant green mech locks up in a single searingly painful convulsion before collapsing onto the ground and succumbing to blackness.

.

A.

The drug's worn off, but Astrid's still not what you'd call sober. The pain is maddeningly distracting, and under any other circumstance, the endorphins would be making her giddy. It's difficult to focus, but she forces herself to. Her life probably depends on it, no matter what this Cody has said.

She looks around the room with purpose this time.

Her eyes first fall on the floor lamp, which is a perfect weapon to ambush him with the next time he comes in... but that plan needs two arms. In fact, attacking in any way is out, and this leaves her with calling for help.

Astrid's cell phone is gone, obviously, and there's no way out these locked doors without strength that she just doesn't have, but there is a window. It's high up on the wall, making her question whether this is a mud room at all - it may be a basement. Or perhaps a remodeled bathroom. She has no way of telling from here, and either way, even if she were to somehow get her hand out of the rope, it's too high for her to escape out of anyway.

There's only one way out of this room for sure, and that's the door that her captors have come and gone through. The other door can very well lead to a dead-end as far as she knows. So with one way out, and no way to defend herself, Astrid realizes that calling for help is going to be extremely dangerous.

They will hear her yelling, and when they do, someone will come in to shut her up. And probably by any means necessary.

Maybe I can block the door.

She's never done anything of the sort before. They do that with sturdy chairs, don't they?

What else could block the door?

An idea hits her like a ton of lead, but she doesn't like it. No, not one bit. It's risky as fuck, and she's never done anything like that either. Astrid takes a moment to breathe, the weight of everything so heavy on her shoulders. With a trembling hand she wipes the cold sweat from her brow and chews on her lip before lifting her gaze again.

There's the curtains, the box, the mattress, the bedding, the paper plate... and a single outlet along the floor of the opposite wall. The woman scans the floor, looking for something, anything that might undo the screws on the outlet's plate. She searches for a minute, beginning to panic at the thought of having to smash the plastic cover off with something, when she spies a nail near one of the corners.

That'll do just fine.

But the door opens, and she starts. The damn clack of the deadbolt out of nowhere in the dead silence of the room is just as unbearable as the last time - and perhaps moreso now.

"This is it, sweetheart," he announces before sitting down in the chair unceremoniously. "You're gonna tell me this time. I just know it."

Astrid scowls, chewing her lip and making damned sure he can't tell that she's thinking things he doesn't want her to think.

The question now is how to make him go away again?

"The mine..." she murmurs, swallowing.

"What are they digging for, Miss Schneider?"

If she tells him, will he leave her alone? Will he kill her? If she survives, will BREME just go on to do even worse?

"It's..." she begins, but her mouth is dry again. "It's a special ore."

There's a glint in the man's eye that she doesn't like, and a little smile widens his lips. "I know a thing or two about rocks. Go on." He's backing her into a corner.

"I-it's really not that interesting to anyone outside of the US Geological S -"

He cuts her off by grabbing her arm again. His hand is below the wound, and he's putting just enough pressure on it to make her gasp. "Indulge me."

"I... it's..."

Suddenly, the light in the corner flickers, and then goes out for a few seconds. Cody removes his hand and stands motionless for a second, as though he's listening; then a full-on grin spreads from cheek to cheek. He snorts. "Anyways. You were saying?"

"I... don't feel so good."

"No shit, but that isn't going to get you out of this. Now I'm going to ask you one last time before I take my fist to that wound of yours."

She gasps, but the fear is interrupted by a very sharp ache shooting down to her fingertips. Tears moisten her eyes and if this keeps up, she might puke.

Fuck!

"It's this stuff called... called energon," she grinds out through panting breaths.

His grin widens. "Energon..." he drawls; it sounds like he's savoring every syllable. "Do you know what this energon is?"

Yes!

"N-no."

Cody's smile disappears and it's replaced with a hard, icy stare that makes the temperature in the room drop. "Time," he rumbles. "You're running out of time, Miss Schneider."

Her mouth is parted, but the only thing that's coming out are halting breaths.

"No more breaks. You spill, and you do it now."

He rises from his chair; slowly, and in a way that suddenly makes her wish that she was already dead. The man's hand balls into a fist, drawing backward, as he takes the few measured steps required to stand at the edge of the bed. Astrid is pressed to the wall, trying to hide her still-bleeding arm from him.

"No, no... please... god, please..."

"It looks like the bone is what stopped the bullet," he notes in a low voice, bent over her now as he reaches with his other hand to secure her. "Pretty good for a little stick of calcium and marrow, huh? Shame you're not made out of the same stuff as your boyfriend... though really, I've got him to thank for this perfect bit of leverage," he chuckles. "Now hold still. This is gonna hurt like a bitch."

Astrid watches him wind up, and in a flash of panic she blurts out his answer.

"It's fuel!" she cries, shutting her eyes tight, still anticipating the blow. "It's their fuel! This is the first time it's been discovered on Earth and they're going to d-do something with it, I don't know... I don't know, that's all anyone's told me. I swear, that's all I know!"

Cody's grip on her shoulder is firm and he meets her gaze with his steely glare, even as he lets go.

"Good girl," he murmurs, rising and stepping towards the door. "I'm going to have a word with my colleagues. Excuse me."

God, what have I done?

But she has to worry about that later because he's left her alone again.

Catching hold of her breath, she blinks a few times and sets out to begin picking up where she'd left off.

I'm going to do this, Astrid tells herself. And I'm going to succeed.

The only other option? Die trying.

The plan she managed to cook up required that the first step be taken now, because it's like Cody said - she's running out of time.

Trying not to think any more than is completely necessary, Astrid peels off one of her socks and carefully dismounts the bed, reaching for the water bottle on the upturned box and, with a deep exhale, she untwists the stubborn cap. She races over to the nail she spied on the floor earlier, grabbing it with her bad, unbound arm - the other can't reach the floor - and hurries over to the outlet with effects in hand. She keeps a panicked ear out for any sign of life beyond the room, and tries to keep her breathing in check.

Deep breath... deep breath...

You can do this.

You can fucking do this.

With a sudden burst of resolve, she begins to use the edge of the nail head to unscrew the outlet cover. It takes all her strength of will to not cry out at the pain involved in doing so... still, it's slow going. Astrid's heart beats like thunder.

After about a minute, the plastic plate is undone and she slides it along the lamp cord; the box dutifully popping out and revealing some haphazard wiring behind it.

Good god, Astrid, you don't know shit about electrical work! Shit!

Well, she does know something: don't touch.

She grabs the saturated sock and pauses in front of the exposed wiring, not sure what to do now. She needs something to push the sock in with that isn't her fingers. The only thing she can possibly use, she realizes, is the lamp cord itself, which requires unplugging it and plunging the room into darkness and hoping that it might go unnoticed.

Deep breaths...

Bracing the box with her knee, she undoes one of the wire caps to expose the bare wire, and tosses it inside. Then, after staring at the set up for a few seconds to commit the placement to memory, she crosses her proverbial fingers and unplugs the light.

She's sure that death by electrocution must be worse than death by blood loss, but death by infection? It might be a tie. Staring straight ahead, Astrid reaches for where she remembers the sock to be and carefully, shakily, places it in front of the open socket and begins pushing it in, making sure that her fingers touch nothing but the rubber surrounding the lamp cord. A few tentative seconds later, the thing is secured in place with minimal screwing, and the lamp is plugged back in with a small pop from the socket. Astrid whips around to stare wide-eyed at the door for a moment, almost sure that she would find someone standing there.

When she sees that she's still alone, it does little to relax her nerves. Cody had shaken her - badly.

Pushing the box back in with all her might, compressing the sock into the tight space, she holds it in with her knee again and quickly gets to work on replacing the screws. Astrid hopes that she can get away with just one, but the bottom sticks out too much for her liking, and both need to be put back in.

As soon as she's done, she tosses the nail under the bed, replaces the water onto the upturned box, and resumes her previous position on the bed. She doesn't need to pretend to be terrified, though.

Everything is quiet, still. She doesn't hear a single sound in the house or outside, and sat there for what seemed like hours, listening.

She hears nothing but the static in her ears.

Her eyes dart around wildly as she catches her breath, and it suddenly dawns on her... that she's succeeded in the first part of her plan.

Ten minutes, an hour - who the fuck knows - how long it's been, and the rigor mortis that's settled into her cold limbs is shaken off as she stirs, trying to keep warm and nimble, waiting. Waiting.

Breathe.

With having gone so long already without being disturbed, Cody seems to be putting a lot of faith into not just the set up of the room, but also her level of fearful compliance. What could he and the other two be talking about?

Astrid yawns.

She sloppily guestimates that she'd gotten 6 hours sleep the night before, and fatigue is starting to settle into her bones. But no - the vigil must be kept. If what she's hoping to happen happens, Astrid will be awake and ready for it.

But the longer she sits there, the harder it is to keep her eyes open. Her body slackens, and she promises herself that she'll only close her eyes for just a minute... she has to keep an eye on the socket just in case... it...

POP

Astrid jumps at the sound, letting out a small, startled noise. The room is dark. It takes her a moment to realize what's going on, but in no time she remembers and leaps off the bed and goes to the outlet once again.

She wastes no time pulling out the loose screws and yanking the box out, only to be greeted with the smell of smoke.

Yes, yes!

Before she has the chance to do much anything else, though, the exposed wiring sparks again. To Astrid's amazement, a small flame appears on the wiring, flickering a greenish blue and giving off a horrible stench of plastic. She wasts no time, then, ripping off her other sock and holding it to the flame and praying that it doesn't extinguish. The wool didn't burn, she notices.

Fuck.

Without thinking, as the flame begins to die already, she digs underneath her bloody bandages with gritted teeth, and tears out the remaining clean gauze. Terrified of losing her only chance, she sticks the white cotton into the flame. It catches immediately, and Astrid panicks, realizing that she has no idea where to put it... right! The box! She scoots over to the cardboard box and moves it away from the wall, turns it over and set the gauze inside. Astrid turns one of the lips of the box inward toward the small fire, and the cardboard also catches without hesitation.

Okay, what now, genius?

What else in the room is flammable?

The sheet. Try the sheet...

Astrid grabs the bed sheet, which by touch she can identify as a cheap, rough cotton. Good. That'll burn too. She throws that on the fire, careful not to smother it. Unfortunately, this makes a lot of smoke.

She sits and watches the fire dance for a few moments, thinking up her next course of action, almost completely lost to the animal instinct to survive.

Ah ha!

Astrid gets up, kicking the box and sheet over to make room for the bed. Thankfully, she's able to reach it with both arms, and give it a good pull. It takes a few seconds to push it in front of the door, length-wise with the room. She grabs the lamp to wedge the other door shut with: taking off the shade, she smashs the bulb off against the bed frame, and set it in place, making sure that it would hold at least a little. Just in case that door does lead someplace.

Now back to the fire.

The box, now mostly consumed with flames, is positioned up against the side of the bed, with the idea that the cheap wooden frame and mattress might catch as well. As for the curtain? Well, she's saving that for last.

Time to wait.

The room itself is brightly illuminated by this new light source, and she's entranced; able to forget, for just a moment, the pain in her arm and the new trickle of blood that threatens to spill out of the bandage. The smoke is filling the space much faster than she'd anticipated, unfortunately, so she gets down onto the floor to sit. Still, she can't avoid the inevitable coughing.

At some point, the bed proper catches fire, but the mattress just stinks. It's at this point that Astrid gets up to tear down the window curtain and throw it on the bed too. Glancing back at the door to see if the knob is close enough to the flames to be made too hot to touch, she does the last thing she can: smash in the window.

There's nothing left to do it with except for her own bare hands, and she knows from heresay that this will hurt. So weaving her fingers together, Astrid raises her hands above her head and gives the high window as hard of a hit as she can manage.

And holy shit, it does hurt. And it doesn't break on the first try - especially since it's probably double-paned.

But she has a crack to work with.

So she does it again, and again, and again.

That is, until a smoke alarm outside of the door goes off, and Astrid freezes.

She's out of time.

With a surge of adrenaline she swings her fists at the glass, causing an unmistakable crash that can probably be heard for blocks, and her hands bloodied from the broken shards. Just then, the door rumbles ferociously, - someone's trying to get in. Her eyes dart to the hole in the glass and sees, to her horror, that it's covered up by firewood stacked up against the house outside.

Even if she yelled, no one would hear her.

The door stops jiggling and thumping uselessly against the bed for a few seconds... and then, with a burst of inhuman strength, the door bursts open, and the flaming bed is shoved out of the way, throwing Astrid to the ground.

Cody stands in the doorway, hand gripped firmly onto the searing hot metal of the doorknob.

"Oh my god!" shrieks the woman from behind him. "Shit!"

"Fuck!" cries the man - she can see his arms trying to wave away smoke in the dark hallway behind her interrogator. "Get the fire extinguisher and call the fire department!" he yells.

Out of the black smoke Cody approaches where she's been thrown to the ground, arm still pulled painfully toward the bolt in the ceiling. He's stiff, like a coiled spring. Astrid gets a very distinct and predatory vibe from him, sensing that something in him has changed. As though now he's something... more.

"You will not," he barks at the nameless man. The room is, for all intents and purposes, deadly quiet as he closes in on the young woman in front of him. Astrid looks up, daring not move an inch, and sees a horrible gleam in his cold, hard eyes. "You started this, didn't you," he demands.

She opens her mouth a little, but nothing comes out. He stares down at her for a long, painful moment before turning away toward the other two people.

"Gasoline, lighter fluid, alcohol, kerosene, whatever you have that will speed this up for her. Bring it here, now."

"You can go fuck yourself," the man bellows. "This is my house!"

Cody is oddly composed compared to the other two. "You've implicated yourselves. Don't be ridiculous. It's either you or the house at this point, buddy."

"You told us we were going to help her get away from that thing! Not... not..."

"Elana, don't bother arguing with this nutjob. Go get the phone!" But at this, Cody disappears into the dark, smoky hallway. "Hey!" Astrid hears the man shout. "What are you -"

She thinks she hears something that sounds like a crack or crunch, and remains frozen when the woman screams. There's another another long pause, then silence. Her breathing comes in short bursts again, almost like convulsions, and her body is cold despite the heat from the fire.

Cody doesn't return for some minutes, but when he does, she hears him set something down. Something heavy and plastic, and a sloshing sound accompanies it.

"Get up," he demands, returning to her field of vision. When Astrid's too slow for his liking, he grabs her by the injured arm and hoists her himself. She can't help but let out a horrible cry. "Clearly," he says, stepping up onto the bed into the fire. Astrid looks on in horror as he stands, unscathed, in the flames. In fact, he's paying it all no mind despite the fact that his clothes are beginning to burn. "You didn't believe me when I said that Hound would come find you; you had to take things into your own hands." Cody is fiddling with the rope on the ceiling; he unties the knot and hoists her arm up so that it's high above her head - tightening her literal leash. She can't even reach the walls now.

He continues. "But that's OK." He jumps down, shirt black and smoldering. He kicks the bed away from the center of the room and back up against the wall where it was originally, and with such little effort. "We all make mistakes. This one's going to cost you your life, though." Cody, eyes reflecting the dancing orange light in his eyes, steps up to her and grabs her by the face, wrenching it near his. "He'll mourn for you," he says in a low voice. "But he'll do what we need him to do in the end."

His eyes flash, then - and it's not the fire. For a second they shine red.

"Wh-who are you?" she stammers.

A big, toothy grin spreads across his face. "Codec," he announces with a rumbling voice. "Espionage extraordinaire, Decepticon loyalist, and proud Pretender revivalist. And you, flesh bag, are about to be disappeared." He moves toward the hallway and returns with what looks like a gas can, and now Astrid knows that she's going to die.

He pours the stinking liquid around the room, on the walls, and splashing some at her feet.

She screams. She screams for Hound, for god, for somebody. She begs him to stop; she promises him anything that he might want. But it's like he doesn't even hear her as he disappears down the hall, dribbling liquid along the floor and around the corner.

That's it?

This is how she dies?

She realizes that when Hound finds her, she'll be unrecognizable, even for Hound - they'll have to identify her by her teeth.

Astrid cries out at this, even though she knows no one will hear.

I don't want to die!

Not like this!

Suddenly, the accelerant catches, violently rushing out the door to consume the rest of the house in a blast of heat, and Astrid starts to sob.

Chapter Text

There's a pinging as Hound rouses.

Sensors come online in sluggish waves, and his single optic is the last to deliver its hazy feed.

He's on the ground. There's dirt in his joints, and a senses a fine layer of dust on his backside. The giant brings his arms under him and pushes himself up into an unsteady crouch, aware of a faint, lingering ache from a short someplace in his head.

"What happened?" he murmurs, looking around carefully. It's a junkyard.

Suddenly, Hound remembers his mission, and he jumps up, ready for action.

What was I doing here? How'd I get on the ground?

The pinging persists.

Hound here, he answers.

Primus, comes Jazz's voice. There you are! What the slag is going on over there?

The Jeep scowls, wondering for himself for a moment, before the memories start coming back. They're shadowy and strange, though - not at all like his usual photo-quality snapshots. But as he surveys the alien memories, it makes sense why.

An... an aircraft of some sort, he beings, sorting through the images. I don't know if it was manned or not, but it hit me with an EMP weapon. He thinks for a moment. Doley's backup must be targeting us one by one, he guesses.

Maybe, the XO murmurs over their shared channel with an undertone of suspicion. Hound doesn't take it personally. They've got all sorts of stuff in the air right now lookin' for us, either way. Everybody, keep your sensors at full capacity, overclocked, whatever you need to do to make sure they don't get the 20 on you. If Hound didn't know what hit him, then we're all just going to have to work that much harder.

There's a resounding clamor of yes, sirs in response.

The mech squelches the urge to beat himself up about this - there'll be plenty of time later to study his own data tracks and wonder how he screwed up so badly. Right now, he's got a job to do.

Jazz, though, isn't done speaking to him. Through a private channel: Do you think that they located you by accident or not? Sounded like you were following a trail.

I don't know. I... I have to pick up where I left off.

Because if they're planting false leads, I want this team to know.

And what if they are? he sends with a distinctly defensive growl. We call off the search because it might all be a trap now?

That's not what I said, captain.

Hound shuts up. Jazz may be chummy while off-duty, but at times like this, he's all business. There's a reason he's Prime's right-hand mech and not just a saboteur.

Sorry, sir. If I'm given any reason to believe that may be true, I'll alert you right away.

Thank you, Hound. A pause. I know this must be hell for you. Just try to stay focused.

Yes, sir. Hound out.

The Jeep is left standing in the dark, surrounded by the piles of metal, and squelching the urge to take his frustration out at one.

"I'm coming, Astrid," he whispers, transforming mid-stride and heading back to the road.

Tires like fists, pounding the pavement with a renewed and embittered tenacity, his desire to know what's happened to her - and if she's OK - is his spark's sole purpose for the next twenty minutes. Block after cold, dark, block he combs in silence, so focused that hope isn't even on his mind. He's in full-on tracking mode.

Nothing else matters.

It's about 0015 hours when Skids breaks radio silence: Guys, might wanna check this out... tune into channel 2.

Hound pulls over and checks in. It almost hurts to pull himself away from the pursuit, but this might be important.

"- suspects are reported to be driving a green, four-door Jeep of unknown model. Police say that the armed robbery took place just outside of Anchorage, where at 29 year old woman was abducted. Reports say that there was gunfire. If you have seen this vehicle at any time this evening, police are requesting that you call their tipline, toll free at -"

Slaggit, Jazz broadcasts.

While Hound is no longer green for the time being, he pulls warily away from the curb to continue the search. I doubt that Phillips has anything to do with this, the Jeep says. But still, no good. They're really out for my blood, aren't they?

We'll just play it safe, lay low... if we avoid looking suspicious, we'll be fine, right? Trailbreaker suggests.

Cliffjumper scoffs. What we look like, a bunch of James Bonds?

They didn't mention anyone but Hound, the Porsche intervenes. Still, Teebs is right. We play it safe. And see how long we last.

Four helis out now, Skids charily chimes in. Three Bell 429s and one... shit, one Kiowa. The Bells have spotlights.

The Jeep wonders if it was the Kiowa that nailed him.

One of the search helicopters passes by overhead, and he hastily pulls into an empty driveway just in case their light falls on him. It's shaping up to be a horrible, horrible night. The aircraft does a few slow passes over the neighborhood, and Hound stays put until they move on.

So... what, are we gonna get picked off one by one? Cliffjumper broadcasts. That's the plan?

Hound knows Jazz is growing agitated. Plans have changed, Cliffjumper. But I don't think grouping up to get hauled off all in one go is going to do anyone any good. Now quit your complaining - and don't forget that you volunteered to do this.

Cliffjumper's end of the channel is silent.

How's it looking up there, Skids?

More of the same, boss. I'll let you know if I get any leads.

Good. Now move out.

And the night wears on. Hound doesn't like that he has to keep on his toes about the helicopters and their damned searchlights. They're distracting him from his work.

Though something else is beginning to distract him too. Memories. Images of her start trickling into his foreprocessors - her smile, the feel of her against his hands, the sun in her hair. The way she hugs his arm, or looks into his optics with all her fierce vitality. The way she so boldly treats him like an equal, neither cowering like most, nor demanding like some. She treats him, for all intents and purposes, a hell of a lot like a human.

Hound pauses at the thought, catching himself off-guard; but he doesn't have it in him to dwell on it for long. Too few precious resources for introspection, now. Too little energy. Too much heartache.

By 0048 hours, he's covered a dozen square kilometers of road and winds up passing by Trailbreaker. They stop for a break together for a few moments, sitting in uneasy silence in a parking lot.

I think we've pretty much taken care of this town, the black SUV sends.

I think so.

Trailbreaker switches over to the group comm line: Hey Jazz, I think we've covered Eagle River. What next?

All we've got is the drugstore lead, huh? Hm.

They could be out in the wilderness for all we know, Hound says weakly, remembering that many a victim has been disappeared in the bush. It's just too easy to hide a body out there.

Well, we don't know, so we're gonna keep combing the towns because it's our best damn bet. Skids, keep an ear out for cell phone calls being made in your area.

Sure thing.

And nobody else has anything, huh?

I might have something... Skids offers. I can't be sure though.

Well, what is it?

I'm seeing smoke a couple klicks to the west up here, not sure if any of you can get a visual on it.

I can't in this form. Hound, can you get a whiff of it?

The Jeep trains his sensors to the air, but finds nothing. I'm not smelling any smoke from here.

Could just be a chimney or bonfire, Trailbreaker suggests.

Yeah, you're probably right.

Keep an eye on it, though. Someone else might need our help tonight, Jazz says; he sounds exhausted.

What do you mean?

If a house is going up, I can't just sit here and watch it burn.

You know that thing'll be a Bureau magnet, right? Who knows, they might have even set it to bait us! I say let the humans take care of this one.

Hound doesn't like the implications of talk like that. Not at all. But the mech isn't exactly a multi-tasker, and his spark is selfishly telling him to ignore whatever other tragedies are going on tonight in order to take care of his own.Cliffjumper might be right.

Jazz seems to consider this. If it comes to that, I'm not asking any of you to join me. But right now, focus on the task at hand. And like I said, Skids, update us as necessary.

Jazz, I think I'm actually going to up across the river and join him. I've covered about a quarter of this town, and still nothing.

Alright, Hound. You continue on. The rest of the bots and I will wrap it up down here.

Hound peels away from the lot like a sulking shadow, leaving Trailbreaker behind. Ten minutes later and he's gotten off the highway at the next town up. Skids informes him that he has the entire southern half to go through, which really isn't much... Hound guesses it might take him about an hour at most from what he can tell from his maps.

The streets are quiet and poorly lit, with streetlamps maybe one every fifty meters or so that are a dim orange. Some of them buzz irritably. Anchorage and its surrounding areas are completely desolate at this time of night. Not a single thing stirs aside from the occasional chilly off-shore breeze, but even that makes no sound. It's like a ghost town.

Dutifully, he patrols down the winding residential streets. The landscape is bare and houses further apart than they are closer to town, which means he can cover ground a little faster here without fear of missing anything.

A small commercial plane moseyss on by overhead, probably headed for Fairbanks. Hound can see the smoke that Skids was talking about now, maybe a half klik away from him. It certainly is only a small trickle. Though the idea pains him, Hound resigns to doing a quick drive-by to see what it is. Just a quick peek, though - he has to stay focused.

But something about it doesn't sit right with him. His sensors are finding traces of petrochemicals in the air. Normally that would mean nothing to him as human vehicles belch the stuff all the time and cities, especially near shipping and transit corridors, are always heavy with the musk of combustion engines. But Wasilla, AK in the dead of night? He finds that hard to believe, especially since the scent is growing thicker with every block as he approaches.

Hound finds himself creeping down the gently curving, freshly-paved road in complete silence, like a cat stalking prey. He's minding the properties and driveways he's passing still, but something about this smoke up ahead is begging to be identified as arson.

Suddenly, however, all doubt is put to rest as Hound hears, sees, and feels an explosion. A huge plume of black smoke erupts on the tails of a bright red fireball before him, filling the sky with light and sound for the briefest of moments. Instinctively, the Jeep guns it.

Vector slaggin' Sigma! Skids exclaims over the channel. Did anyone else see that?

See what? What happened?

Holy smokes, I can see it now... and no pun intended.

What is it?

An explosion! Some house just got totally gutted, it looks like!

Hound interrupts the chatter. I'll be on the scene in 20 seconds.

And I'll meet you there, Skids replies.

What, are you guys crazy? Cliffjumper bursts out. This is just begging for trouble!

If there was anyone in that house, they're in even more trouble right now, sends Jazz. I'm on my way. Cliffjumper, Trailbreaker, you stay hidden and keep us covered.

As Hound races down the streets, people start emerging, bleary-eyed, from their front doors to watch the spectacle in awe and horror. He hears sirens as he pulls up across the street from the blaze.

The two-story structure is almost completely engulfed, but it doesn't take long to see that it was the garage which had exploded. Against his better judgment, Hound decides to transform. There are throngs of people out now, but not too close. Unfortunately, they're crowding him.

"Out of the way! Gimme some room!" he shouts at the spectators, startling just about everyone who can hear him over the roaring flames. Whether they stand back out of surprise or because they actually heard him didn't matter. As soon as he's sure he won't crush anybody, Hound initiates the process, folding himself out of his previous form as fast as he can and landing on two metal feet.

Of course, none of the humans around him know what to make of the situation. Several people shriek and run, but most just start talking, ushering each other out of the way, suddenly extremely cautious. Families clump together, and young people turn their phones and cameras away from the blaze and onto him. Hound can't give less of a damn right now.

"Is there anyone still inside?" he demands of the crowd, projecting his voice so that he can be heard. Thankfully, there are a few people that recognize him for what he is and know he's there to help.

"A couple lives there!" a woman shouts to him from several meters away, visibly distraught. "I don't think they've come out yet!"

Hound nods and closes the distance between himself and the house. It's a very hot fire, and already the structure is beginning to be compromised beyond repair. Two people are still in there?

Behind him pull up two fire trucks and an ambulance, and in seconds they're pulling out hoses and readying gurneys. The firemen don't even pause in their measured swiftness, but the fire chief runs up to him, bulky in his heavy uniform.

"I didn't know your kind would be here," he calls up to the mech.

"I happened to be in the area."

"Were you."

Hound looks on, thinking that the chief might suspect him from the news broadcast. "Tell me what I can do to help. I'm not big enough to hold the whole house up."

The chief gives him a hard look for few seconds. The hoses spring to life, and the firefighters shout at each other as a small group is preparing to enter the structure.

"If you're insisting on it, there ain't much we can do to stop you. Go around back and take a peek inside. Use your best judgment." With that, he goes off to go direct his men.

Hound jogs around behind the hose-operators to enter the back of the premises, spotting a few pieces of old furniture pushed up against the back wall next to a door. He ignors them and begins looking inside the windows, starting with the top floor.

He weaves his way around, trying to see past the flames with his single optic, most of his other sensors ineffective in the face of such temperatures. Making them useful again would require re-calibration... and time that he doesn't have. The blaze is loud, too. The roar of the flames with the crackling of building materials make it almost impossible to hear anything but.

The mech doesn't spot anyone upstairs, but now that he's much closer to the action, he begins detecting an odor that disturbs him greatly: the faint whisper of burning skin and hair. Suddenly frantic, he gets down onto all fours and begin looking into the bottom story windows, noting that an inordinate amount of smoke is pouring out from behind a pile of firewood stacked against the house. A window..? This smoke smells strongest of the terrible odor.

With a single sweep of his arm, he sends the wood flying off to the side, and yes. It is a window. Blacked out and half-broken. He finishes it off with a quick jab of his huge fist, and training his optic into the flames, he sees something.

And it's moving.

"I'm getting you out of there!" he yells, spark surging against the confines of its casing deep in his chest.

He heards a cry; unintelligible, as though muffled, but straining for volume. The mech jumps up to his feet and begins frantically tearing out the room above, throwing furniture and wood beams to the ground behind him. He takes his elbow joint and bashes in the ceiling near the edge, careful to avoid having debris fall on his target, and once a hole is made, he grips hard and rips down the flimsy wall.

"Just hold on! I've got..."

The giant's spark arrests for a second, and his cabling goes cold.

There, before him, is a woman he knows, and she'd tied to a beam in the ceiling by some sadistic design. He can see her eyes, reddened from the smoke and soot, meet his. Her pants are covering her face in a futile attempt to keep herself from breathing in the toxic air. It's held to her mouth with a bloody arm.

Hound! What's going on? Skids asks, presumably arrived on the scene. But the Jeep doesn't even hear him.

Without a single circuit firing, he flings himself into rending open the room, ripping out the walls and roof in a fearful rage with only one thing in his processors: rescue. He doesn't even notice the two firefighters in the skeleton of a hallway, nor does he even notice the badly burned remains of the homeowners not 4 meters from where Astrid is tied up.

All he can see is her, reddened from her own burns and bloodied from the bullet still, almost 6 hours later, in her arm.

Hound grabs the rope tying her to a beam in the ceiling and gives it a tug, tearing it out of its compromised foundation, and finally freeing her. She lays in his hands, limp and wheezing, unable to speak. Shaking; she's shaking so bad. Her eyes are shut tight as he holds her in his open palms, clutching herself weakly. He sees that she's crying.

He collapses into a kneel, afraid to bring her closer or touch any more of her than he already is.

So badly he wants to just sit and hold her and will her pain away, but he's jolted back into reality as some remnant of the roof caves in with a crash, belching a cloud of sparks and embers into the air. No, he's no doctor. And her wounds of the flesh need tending to immediately.

Hound rises to his feet and carries her back around the house to the waiting ambulance just as the exploratory team of firefighters are dragging out the bodies and two paramedics rush to meet them.

"I've got a live one!" he calls to the third, standing by with the gurney. The others, most likely just having pronounced the couple dead, look up at the prospect of a live victim, and dash over when they see what the Autobot is holding.

Primus, Hound. Is that...?

Police have arrived on the scene too, and are busying themselves with taping off the area and controlling the crowd. Several officers rush over to the sidewalk with a tarp to cover the bodies.

Carefully, Hound lowers her down onto the tumbrel, and the medical staff immediately take over.

"Where are you taking her?" he asks quickly; they're already shoving her up into the back of the ambulance.

"Alaska Regional," one of them replies before closing the door and racing off in the direction of the highway, siren blaring.

Hound, watch out for the - !

Just as he's about to transform and follow them, a black SUV pulls up and cuts him off. Before it even comes to a stop, two men dressed in black suits jump out and point at him what appear to be weapons. But it only takes a second for Hound to recognize them as immobilizer dischargers.

"EME number twelve, otherwise known as Hound, you are under arrest in violation of the Groom Lake Pact. You are entitled to the rights and benefits as outlined therein. You will assume your vehicular form now, and we will provide transport for your immediate removal from the area to one of our facilities where you will be processed. If you do not comply, we will use force."

A third man steps out of the large truck, but leisurely. Doley. "I think you've had enough fun for one night, Hound. It's time for you to come with us."

"Why you -!" the Jeep snarls, fists clenched with barely contained rage. He's about to start towards them, the three agents taking shaky steps backwards, when there's a shout from behind. Hound stops in his tracks, whipping around.

"Drop your weapons and hands where I can see them!"

Two police offers have their pistols drawn and pointed at Doley and his cohorts. Dutifully, they drop the immobilizers to the ground and raise their hands, frustration and anger twisting their faces.

"Autobot," says a third cop, not taking his eyes off the men in black. "You know these clowns?"

Hound looks squarely at the three of them, hard features set in his face plates. "Never seen them before in my life." He pauses for a moment and tilts his head to the side. "I think they might know something about how this fire started, though."

The Bureau agents say nothing, but the looks on their faces are priceless.

"Is that so," the first police officer declares, holstering his gun and reaching for the metal jangling at his belt. "Hands behind your back, gentlemen. You have the right to remain silent..."

Holy slag, Hound.

The mech turns around and there, down the street, are parked Skids and Jazz. The Scion flashes his headlights at him.

That was her, wasn't it? Jazz asks quietly.

Hound nods. His cabling still feels encrusted with ice.

Look, I... I gotta get to the hospital.

The channel floods with disquieted understanding.

Hound turns back toward the police officers, sensing the two Autobots pull away and slip silently back into the night. "You get everything you can from those three, and be sure to tell the Commissioner down at headquarters everything you find. And keep an eye out for a white van. That might still help lead you to the perp."

The mech breaks off into a sprint, transforming mid-stride to the raucous adoration of the bystanders - who have no idea what's just transpired - and speeds away down the street. This news story is going to be everywhere in the morning.


The hospital is quiet at this hour. Hound pulls into the visitor's lot and parks, engaging his holoform and sending it into the ER waiting area.

"You just admitted an emergency burn patient by the name of Astrid Schneider," he says, stepping up to the receptionist. "Caucasian, dirty blonde, brown eyes, 166 centimeters tall, 62 kilogr - "

"Hold on, hold on," the woman chides, turning to her computer. "What's her name again."

"A-Astrid Schneider. I don't know if you've got her name on file, or... or if she's a Jane - "

"She's in surgery right now," comes the casual reply. "You can see her in the morning, sir. Visiting hours are from 8 to - "

"No," he blurts out, scowling. "No. I'm not letting her wake up alone."

"Are you her husband?"

"No, but I'm - "

"Then you're going to have to wait until the morning, sir. I'm sorry."

His holo's feet fizzle like an angry twitch. "You're telling me that I need to just let her wake up in a strange place, all by herself? Let her wonder where the hell I am?"

"Sir, you need to sit down and wait like everyone else."

"Fraggit... if you won't help me that I'm going to just go find her myself."

Hound probes the hospital's computer system for her information, while disengaging from the holo for a few seconds.

"Am I going to have to call security?"

"Found her," he says, perking back up once he's found what he's looking for. "I'll be getting out of your hair now, ma'am."

The mech disappears the holo and locates the room where Astrid is being treated. In no time he reappears in the hallway outside, scaring the ever-loving shit out of a nurse in the process. Oops.

"Oh my god!" she shrieks as papers and a clipboard go flying into the air. She's almost fallen to the ground, and her eyes are wide as dinner plates. "Oh Lord..." she makes the sign of the cross and backs away. "Stay away from me!"

"Whoa, whoa, lady! Calm down!" The man in the cowboy hat throws up his arms, adopting a pleading look. "I'm just here to wait for my girlfriend! She's in surgery!"

"Waiting for your..." she repeats to herself in a whisper. It takes her a moment, but she decides that Hound is still not a normal visitor. "Security!" she shouts.

"No, no, no, it's not like that!"

"Security!" The nurse bolts down the hall, and just as he detects others coming to her rescue, he dissolves it. No time.

No energy.

Outside, the Jeep sits low - very low - on his shocks. No more holo until Astrid's awake to vouch for it, he decides.

Few thoughts pass through his CPU over the next agonizing half hour. In fact, there's only two that come to mind at all: dreading the worst, and revisiting the horror of finding her tied to the ceiling in that flaming prison. He recalls the moment that he recognized her in that room - wounded, frail, so small - and to his surprise it dredges up an even older image. One where, instead, she's sun-stained; dirty; sunken and swollen. A ghost caught under a mountain in the midmorning sun.

Rescuing is always tricky business.

With a cowering shudder, Hound wonders what the prognosis is. Where the bullet went. How much permanent damage there'll be. He can't help but begin to feel guilty - a somehow worse feeling than the existential dread he faced earlier in their relationship. But try as he might, he keeps coming to a single, terrible, conclusion:

I'm a danger to her.

It feels like being hit by a freight train.

Hound minds his rifle, then. The white, sleek, killing machine that he's always aware of, tucked away as it is at the furthest corner of his subspace pocket; it's almost literally a thorn in his side. All the many thousands of years he'd both respected and hated it for what it did and what it continues to allow him to do: save him so long as he keeps throwing himself in the face of death and destruction. And if he stops the cycle, walks away from it completely, then... well, he doesn't know.

But he finds it ironic in a most dismal, despairing way, that he's thinking of giving up on his human and keeping the gun.

I'm doing the same thing to her. I'll be there to save her only if I keep putting her in harm's way.

"Oh Primus..."

The mech suddenly feels like the ugliest creature in the universe.

Unable to stay away much longer, though, he returns his consciousness to the building, sans holo this time. Having some of the strongest sensors among the ranks is what allows him to do this, and even though it's draining and it requires concentration, it's still not enough. But hospital halls aren't exactly big enough.

The door opens and a surgeon comes out. He waves to someone down the hall and heads for the break room, wiping the sleep from his eyes. The way he carries his head makes the mech think that he's aware of what his patient's been through this evening.

A few minutes later, the door opens again, though this time by a mechanism, and out comes a hospital bed being pushed by an assistant. Astrid's lying there on her back under a few white blankets, needle in the back of her hand. She doesn't look at peace - she looks dead. It's the general anesthesia.

Hound's remote presence follows them as they wind their way out of the belly of the building to where she'll be staying.

She's eventually wheeled into an empty room with what, in the morning, will prove to be a nice view of the mountains, and proceed to hook her up to the equipment in there. Her oxygen mask is adjusted, something put into her IV, her chart and whiteboard written on. Then they file out, drawing a curtain closed around her but not closing the door.

Them mech is still there, still invisible, sensors shamefully assessing her body.

Her skin is red everywhere. Her arms and hands are covered in gauze, and he thinks that he can detect more wrapped around her legs under the blanket. Her bullet wound is probably clean and tidy under there someplace too, but it's hard to tell damaged tissue from healthy from this far away. If he really concentrates, he discovers that she's off-gassing. If his chemical-tracers worked from this far away, he'd be able to smell it; but his imagination works well enough.

Her pulse and breathing are slow and measured; mechanical almost. What few winks of brain activity she has are just enough to keep her vitals working.

He reaches out with an unseen hand, its fingers made from far-reaching sensor arrays, and he touches her shoulder, brushing against skin not covered by the gown. But his remote eyes see it, now, and he recoils.

The bite mark on her shoulder.

It's still only faded to a splotchy green, even all these weeks later. And maybe it's the scale of the room that's disorienting him, but the mark seems enormous, now. His mouth, his denta - they did that.

He did that.

Hound withdraws from the room, retreating back into his body outside, overcome with anguished guilt.

I'm a monster.

He finds himself torn between two courses of action: stick around and help her through this, or say goodbye and keep her out of harm's way. Keep her away from my bad habits. He's utterly torn.

A few minutes crawl by as he rocks back a little in the parking lot, lost in his own despair. But after a while, the thought of her waking up alone is still unthinkable to him. And just as he's about to send himself back up there, he notices 4 vehicles approach, recognizing them as the rest of Jazz's team. In moments, they've pulled up and surrounded the Jeep.

"There you are," Cliffjumper says vocally. The nearly-empty parking structure echoes with the Charger's mechanized voice.

"We went to the wrong hospital," says Trailbreaker, parked beside him. "Wouldda been here sooner if you'd had your damn comm open. C'mon, open up before someone hears us."

Hound does as he's told.

I take it you're gonna be here for a while, Jazz ascertains.

He vents air through his undercarriage. I have to.

I understand. Look, we're going to head back to the station and let 'em know all of what we found, so give me your memory tracks and I'll hand 'em over for you. Is there anything else we need to do before we leave?

The Jeep starts compiling his data and readies it for transfer. I'm going to need someplace to take her when she's released. If you could make a trip out to the warehouse to see if it's crawling with the Bureau's people then we'll... have no place to go.

Skids and Cliffjumper, you mind?

Cliffjumper bristles. Honestly, boss? I'd feel more comfortable if we stuck together - don't wanna give the Bureau a slaggin' opportunity to pick us off. This isn't over yet.

Jazz sighs. Fair enough.

When you get there, stay off your feet, Hound warns. I don't think they know how to target us with those immobilizers in vehicle mode yet. The technology probably requires landing a shot to the head.

Noted. We'd better get going, the Porsche says.

Take 'er easy, alright? Trailbreaker says with a huff in his tone. Don't forget to get some damn recharge. I know how you get, ya bastard.

Hound forces a weak smile over their connection. Thanks for everything you've done for us tonight. Wouldn't have been able to do any of it without you. Truly.

We're Autobots for a reason, winks the black SUV. When it comes down to the wire, we don't leave anyone hanging.

In other words, Skids says. We got your back.

They're about to make to leave, but a question crops up in his CPU. A stupid, petty, selfish question, but he has to know. Hey guys, are you... are you all the only ones that know about...?

Just us, Prime, Prowl, and 'Jack.

Could you do me a favor and not... you know?

Not even remotely in my job description, Jazz chuckles. See you back down south sometime, Hound.

And they're gone.

He peers up at her room a few stories above him, taking a moment to gather his courage, and returns to wait dutifully by her bedside.

.

Several hours pass before she begins to stir. Light's on the horizon, but dawn wouldn't come for a while yet still. Outside, Hound's intakes race to shed the sickly heat he finds himself suddenly producing.

Watching her come out of the medically-induced sleep isn't like watching her wake in the morning. She stirs, yes, but mostly in the face. The rest of her barely moves at all, and she makes no sound as her eyes sluggishly open. In fact, she stares, through half-lidded eyes at the far wall for a few moments, and the mech almost suspects that her mind is still mostly asleep. After a while she blinks deeply and starts looking about the room, barely turning her head.

Energy fills him; he's been holding his proverbial breath.

"Is... is anyone there?" she croaks weakly.

"I'm here," he says, trying to keep the manic relief out of his voice.

"Hound?" She glances about the dim room for a moment. "Where... where are you? I can't see you."

He's forgotten about the invisibility of his sensor-presence, rectifying that right away. "I'm right here," he reaffirms, coaxing the man in the cowboy hat to step up to the bedside.

Remote sensors survey her face, red and still glowing with heat from the fire. "Not this," she whispers. "Gimme the real you."

His brows furrow. "But -"

"Please?"

He's no Prowl, but he can still manage to come up with a dozen scenarios where this will end badly. And yet, no part of him is interested in denying her. Hound's human holo nods, soon replaced by a much larger, much greener figure. He's kneeling and hunched beside her to avoid clipping through the ceiling.

A faint smile tugs at the corner of his mouth.

"There you are," Astrid says quietly. She reaches up with a weak arm, so slowly, and Hound meets her the rest of the way, ignoring the funny feeling in his spark at the size of his hand compared to hers. She's shivering.

"Of course I am," he says, resting two fingers against her cheek. That's all there's room for.

A few seconds pass as her lids droop. "Thank you," is all he can get out of her for some time, so he sits there beside her, watching as she drifts in an out of sleep. He wants to let her rest, but... something's eating at him, rending his spark in two.

"Astrid?"

She emits a little groan.

"I'm so, so sorry." His voice is almost as feeble and broken as hers.

She groans again in faint acknowledgement, and he wonders if she'd even heard him.

"You just... just rest, OK? I'm not going anywhere. Just -"

But there's a started cry from behind him. Training his sensors in that direction, he finds... Richard and Tracy, accompanied by a nurse.

"My god Richard, it's the Autobot," Astrid's mother gasps, covering her mouth.

"How the hell did it get in here?"

"You get away from my daughter!"

Hound jerks the clone's head back towards the bed, scowling when he sees her stir at the noise.

"Shh!" he hisses, bringing a finger to his mouth. "She's trying to rest."

"I'll grab security," the nurse says, eyes still wide. "This guy's been a nuisance since we admitted her."

"Get out," Tracy demands, balling her hands into fists. "Get out!"

Astrid's awake again, though. "Mom, dad, please..." she slowly groans. "I want him here."

The couple toss aside the small duffel bags slung over their shoulders - the mech sees now that they've probably just gotten here from the airport - and they rush over to to her side, crowding him. "My god, Astrid," her mother sobs. "They didn't tell us hardly anything over the phone. B-but that's alright, we're here now. You can tell us after you've slept."

"Holy -!"

Security's here.

"Leave... leave him alone," Astrid says, mustering her strength. She reaches out with her hand, fingers bandaged into a mitt, and weakly grasps his arm as best she can.

"S-sir, I'm going to need for you to leave. You're disrupting the staff and patients."

The woman in the bed presses her free thumb against him like a squeeze. "No," she grunts.

Richard tries calming her down. "Honey, let us take care of things now. Please."

"I want him here," she quietly snaps. "We're..."

And suddenly time slows down. Hound's optics brighten, brow ridges raise, and his mouth opens to say something, but -

"...dating."

He just stares at her, mouth still agape. Outside, it feels like the concrete underneath him is going to start melting any second now with how hot he's gotten.

No, no. This is a bad dream. She didn't just...

The hum of the machines in the room fill his proverbial ears.

"Sir..."

"H-hold on a minute," Tracy snaps at the guard, who's just as confused as everyone else from where he stands in the doorway. She turns back to her daughter, and Hound feels her grasp tighten even more. "You're what?"

Astrid doesn't look at anyone, though. She's got her bleary eyes set straight ahead, trembling even more than she was before. "I was going to tell you at some point," she whispers.

Hound's spark is quaking with more emotions than he has names for. Indignation, embarrassment, panic, shame... and even the barest hint of pride. Still, he has no words. Just when he thought he had it all figured out...

What am I? Friend or foe? Stability or addiction? Safe or dangerous? Person or experience?

No, definitely not a person. The look in her parents' eyes say otherwise.

"We... we can talk about this later," Richard says, trying to keep his composure, trying to force a smile. "Just rest up, sweetheart."

Astrid's weakening again, that much is obvious. The outburst used up everything she had, but still, she manages one more look at him hovering high above her, and there's a pleading look in her eyes.

"There's nothing to talk about dad," she whispers. "I care about him, he cares about me. The rest... the rest will be in the paper."

.

Hound quickly made it clear to everyone that there'd be no physically removing him from the room until he decided to leave, and so the guard, doctor, and two nurses eventually leave them alone to ponder Astrid in silence as she sleeps. He notes that the sun's finally come up.

Tracy and Richard aren't even acknowledging his existence now that their daughter isn't "present". They're sitting in chairs opposite the bed from him, where he continues to kneel, and they're fighting off sleep.

Now that everything's quiet, the mech notices that he's tired too - he's been overclocking himself for, what, almost 14 hours by now? And almost two solid days without a sip of energon... that'll take its toll on any bot in his size bracket. Hound's quickly slowing down, and he's not sure how much longer he can keep the holograms up without energy, recharge, or both. Teebs was right.

Astrid's mother touches her husband's hand as it rests on the armrest of the beige chair, standing up. "I'm getting us some coffee," she announces softly and leaves the room.

The tenseness skyrockets now that it's just him and Richard together. The man has a presence, that's for sure. His face is neatly creased and folded by age, tanned and wind-worn. Bright white hair is tied back in an unassuming ponytail; it rests on the collar of a shirt that had been neatly starched and pressed as soon as it'd been taken out of the laundry. Hound is almost sure that this man, just shy of two meters, could beat him - the millennia-old combat veteran - down with little more than a look and a word.

"You've played us all for fools," he says quietly, and Hound almost starts at abruptly being addressed again. The disappointment and sadness in his tone pierces the mech's spark chamber, and he suddenly feels incredibly vulnerable: laid bare. Something in the metal giant wants to get on the floor in front of him and beg for forgiveness. "You got a name?"

"Hound, sir."

"If you've got real emotions like she says you have, then I hope you're happy with yourself."

The mech wants to die.

Oh Primus, he wants to die.

"I... I never meant for this to happen," he whispers, the words tumbling out like a bag whose bottom has given out. "I'd give my life for her any... any day of the week..." The clone hand covers the clone face. If his face were flesh, there'd be a deep crease between his brows. "You have to believe me." It sounds like he's trying to convince himself more than Richard, though.

Outside, the Jeep in the parking lot rocks back and forth, coiled tight as a spring. The last dregs of his energy burns painfully, aching as it pumps through hidden cabling. He almost wants to burn it up here and now and juts fall into stasis lock already.

Richard just studies him, though. He doesn't utter another word until Tracy returns with two cups of coffee.

"Thank you, dear."

Hound can't take it anymore. If he sits here any longer, it feels like he'll start clawing off his own paint.

"I h-have to go," he murmurs with a tremor in his voice. "If she wakes up while I'm gone, tell her I'm coming back. Please."

With that, he disappears from the room and takes off out of the parking lot.

.

Jazz? You all still here?

Hound? Jazz's ID flashes in his mind as the originator of the message. We're on our way to your place right now, and Skyfire's inbound for pick-up. Did you want an update?

No... I think I'll be joining you, actually.

Really? I thought you were -

Her folks showed up.

A tense sort of felt static fills up their comm - Jazz understands.

I'll meet you all there.

It's only about 10 minutes before he turns onto the stretch of road there the warehouse is situated. Hound creeps along slowly, sending feelers out to see if anything's amiss, but it doesn't take much to spot the three black SUVs parked outside the building down the way. The others, he can sense, are approaching as well.

Don't need this anymore, he thinks to himself, letting go of the black paint job to let his brighter avocado green show from underneath as he transforms.

Behind him, his comrades transform as well, and soon the sound of tires on asphalt are replaced by heavy footfalls. A hand is slapped onto his rubberized shoulder, and he turns to see Jazz's visor give a little flash despite his grim face.

"We've got Prime and Prowl on our side with this one," he says. "So let me do the talking, alright?"

Hound averts his eye to look back at the humans exiting their vehicles. "Arguing is the last slagging thing I want to be doing right now, so be my guest," he mumbles.

"Gentlemen!" calls one agent from the front passenger seat of one of the SUVs - the deep tinting makes it impossible to see who it is, but Hound knows that voice all too well by now. He folds his arms bitterly across his chest, standing back to watch the exchange. Skids, Cliffjumper, and Trailbreaker fall back to where he is to let the Porsche do his thing. "I hope you all know that we have orders to take you back to Nevada for some workplace productivity re-training." Hound knows better than to brush off anything that Doley says; the man has the power to make good on even the most sarcastic threat.

"Can it," Jazz barks. "I got off the horn with my superiors not 20 minutes ago and I hear we're off the hook."

Agent Doley gives them all a poisonous look - Hound especially - as he addresses another suit behind him. "Nowak?"

"On it," the woman says, pulling out a sat phone and dialing up. Doley and the 'Bots stare each other down as they listen. "Sir, we've got units 5, 12, 17, 19, 28, and 32, here. They're claiming..." She trails off for a moment. "Uh-huh... right. Yes, sir."

In spite of his anger, a small part of Hound is still fearful: it would take precious little for the Bureau to take them all into custody now. To take him away from his human, laying in that hospital bed, expecting him to be there when she wakes up.

"They're right," she declares with palpable disappointment.

Hound's spark, which feels as if it'd been wound up tight enough to cease its nuclear fission and collapse into a singularity, relieves itself of some of this pressure built up in its casing. A rush of hot air escapes him and he struggles to keep from slumping. Trailbreaker takes quiet notice of this and gives a little physical reassurance; it helps, but not enough to stop his hands from shaking.

This awful, awful nightmare is just about over.

"You need us, and you especially need him," Jazz asserts with firm authority. "Guess the Bureau is beginning to smarten up - his holo skills are the best this damn planet's got, Doley, so you'd better treat him with some slaggingrespect."

The agent in question says not a word - none of them do - for a long moment before they start filing into the cars.

"This ain't your planet," the human says at length as he settles into his own seat. "And these antics of yours will come and bite you boys in the ass someday. I can promise you that." Then the door closes and just like that, they're gone.

Hound breaks the silence and takes some uneasy steps forward, nearly pushing past his superior as he makes for the warehouse. "I need energon," he murmurs, wiping at the gaping hole in his face. He heads around to the back of the building to the security locks, and engages them remotely, not even bothering to transform like he's supposed to. Instead, he ducks unceremoniously inside and beelines for the small tide-powered filling station. A cube is filled for him, which he takes to the table and damn near collapses into a chair. The others quietly file in.

The warehouse is almost silent as he takes a moment to sit, letting the piece of oversized furniture support his dead, exhausted weight. Slowly, his fist begins to pound the surface of the table, harder with each stroke, until it culminates in a blow so hard that he almost startles himself. At this, he takes a drink and stares at the slight dent he made.

"Burn out," he announces quietly to anyone who will listen, not taking his optic off the clean white surface before him. "Total burn out." Hound shakes his head a little. "I haven't felt this slagged in millennia." Still, silence. Cliffjumper shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Are they listening to him? It almost doesn't even matter. "The last time I remember things going so wrong was when we lost Tyger Pax. You guys remember that?"

"She's still alive, Hound," Trailbreaker offers, though his tone is not that of the jovial mech that most folks usually see. It's serious, quiet, measured. "There's something gone right."

"Humans are so much more... intense than we are," he continues, shaking his head. "The look her father gave me? That was worse than all the combined disappointments of every superior officer I've ever had. Even Prime's."

"You were intimidated because you looked someone in the eye who cares about her as much as you do," Jazz says. "Probably more."

"I was intimidated because I've got blood on my hands. And he knew it." The mech is shocked to hear the words leaving his mouth.

"Don't go blaming yourself for this." This time it's Skids. "It'll drive you mad."

Hound thinks about it for a moment.

"She needs you, Hound. Especially right now. Don't throw in the towel just yet."

"I... I don't know," is all that comes out. He takes a big gulp of energon, his body relaxing as the warm fuel begins to course through it.

"Our ride's here," Jazz says quietly. "Skyfire's just checked in. Look, I'll prepare a packet from our meeting with the PD for you to look over tonight, how does that sound? Your their main contact now. If there's any progress to be made on the case, you'll be the first to hear about it, alright?"

The green mech nods.

"And put yourself in to have that optic repaired soon. Bluestreak can stick you on another cargo plane when you're ready." Hound doesn't verbally respond to that either, which Jazz doesn't seem to like. "At attention, officer," he suddenly barks.

Hound, by no conscious coordination of his own, jumps up from his seat and stands tall, staring straight ahead.

"You need to get over yourself," the Porsche sighs after a moment. "As your second-in-command, I need you to be alert and focused on this mission, especially if this is what we're going to be dealing with from now on."

"Yes, sir."

"And as your friend... I don't want to see you get tore up over this."

"...yes, sir."

"At ease, soldier."

Hound slumps back down into his chair and his gaze settles back down to the fresh dent in the table. His fingers coil themselves around his drink.

"We'll see you again soon, ya green bastard."

And with that, they file out, leaving him alone for real this time.

Chapter Text

"Vector slagging Sigma!" comes the snarling bellow. The man, like a shadow now, watches from hundred meters off or so as the Autobot scout hands the Schneider woman over to some human medics, and in no time they're off to the hospital. His furious cry is lost in the roar of the flames, even from this far away.

He didn't kill her after all.

Soundwave is not going to like this.

No... no. He won't even give him the chance to discover this fatal error.

With a growl, flesh melts, eyes flash with red, and the creature that called himself Cody for a few weeks darts off into the night to rectify his sloppy mistake.

An hour later he makes it to the hospital complex, stalking behind bushes and parked cars, looking, searching for... Ah yes, there he is. The Autobot scout. Parked dutifully nearby, undoubtedly preoccupied with the heavily injured - but not dead - human.

Disgusting.

This one has a number of uniquely irritating abilities, though, and he's a solid fighter. Either way, Codec is no match for any mech in the scout's size bracket in traditional combat. And what's worse, it's well-known among the Decepticons that there's just no sneaking up on this particular Autobot. Especially alone.

Codec makes an impatient clicking sound, deciding that his best bet is to wait.

Fortunately, it's only a handful of hours later when the Jeep does just what Codec was hoping for: leave. Why is beyond him, but it's of no concern. He'll be in and out in a matter of minutes, even if it will take sacrificing a milligram or two of his own body mass to synthesize a suitable dose of abrin.


Hound's not there when she wakes up, but her parents are.

"Good morning," her father's soothing voice fills the room. Blearily she looks over at him; her mother is asleep in the chair beside his.

"Where'd he go?"

Richard frowns. "Didn't say."

Astrid has the sinking feeling that they'd run him out... or maybe her words did.

"About what I said, dad?" she begins quietly. "About him and me?"

"Don't worry about it, sweetheart. You were compromised - we took it with a grain of salt."

It's her turn to frown. No, scowl. "Well that's a shame, because I meant it."

The old man sighs hard. "And like I said last night, we can talk about it later."

"No. I need to clear the air before he gets back."

"Astrid..."

"He is sentient, dad. He has feelings. And he's as real as you or me."

"He is a machine, Astrid."

"So are we! Just different hardware."

Tracy stirs, but falls still again, and Richard buries his face in his hand. "I literally have nothing more to say on the subject," he murmurs. "This is going to go nowhere."

Astrid scowls, staring at her feet. She falls bitterly silent, but the nurse comes in before long, syringe in hand, and Astrid forces herself to act normal.

"How are we?" she asks, looking over the chart at the foot of her bed. "How's the pain?"

"It's alright," she lies. Whatever that is, it had better knock me out until Hound comes back. Truthfully, the pain itself is odd; she's mostly just uncomfortable. Her skin feels like sandpaper and wet plastic wrap, and the dressings chafe in a way that she's never experienced before. Astrid can tell that without whatever medicines are in her system right now, the sensation of being covered in second-degree burns (and, as she'd been told, a single spot of third-degree that needed a small graft) would be almost unbearable.

"Well, it's just about time for pain management, alright?" The nurse steps over to the IV and gives the syringe a little flick. "It'll help you get some more sleep."

Astrid nods, watching as she empties the single CC of liquid into the IV drip and settles down into her pillow to wait for sleep.

"There we go." She dumps the needle into a sharps container on the wall and heads for the door. "If you need anything, you know where the button is."

"Thanks."

It only takes a few more moments to start feeling the effects of the drug, and it's not long before she's dozing off again.

I hope he's here when I wake up again...

Chapter Text

Astrid's still sleeping when he returns.

Body humming with fuel, sure, but spark slow and heavy still. He keeps his back to Richard and Tracy as he reappears, slowly, cautiously, beside the bed so as not to startle anyone too badly. He thanks his lucky stars when he finds them both napping, though. Early afternoon fills the room with a soft grayish light; it's overcast outside.

He gazes down at her, worry creasing his metal brows and lips pressed tightly together.

Hound wants to speak with a doctor. He wants to know everything about her prognosis, about her recovery, about how exactly many square centimeters - no, millimeters - had been burned, what she'll need from the store when she's released, what medicines they'll prescribe her, what their side effects will be...

"I'm gonna take care of you," he murmurs to himself, reaching out to touch her hair, but stopping when he realizes that she's radiating heat. Is she too warm? Should I take off one of the blankets? He studies the white piece of cloth for a brief moment before noticing that it's not just her surface temperature that's warmer than normal. His optics (the clone holo has both intact) to her face again and there: a faint sheen on her brow.

The barest scan is all it takes for him to see that her core temperature is exactly 2.24 degrees above her typical average, translating to about 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Is this normal?

He checks her again, as the sheen begins to form beads. She's at 102.2, now. And her heart rate has started to climb.

"No," he whispers, optics narrowing. "Not normal."

The mech reaches over with his hardlight hand and presses the call button on her hospital bed. After a moment, the nurse answers.

"What can I get you?"

"Something's wrong," he says into the small, built-in receiver, trying to keep his tone even. Outside, the Jeep has taken to rocking on his wheels again. "She's got a fever, and only getting worse."

The woman on the other end recognizes him as the non-human nuisance in room 3016, and after a short, pregnant pause: "Be right there."

Astrid's beads of sweat are formed enough to begin travelling down her temple when the nurse arrives with a doctor in tow.

The mech scoots out of the way despite being massless; the last thing he wants is to get in the way. "Her heart rate is up 34 beats per minute since I was here this morning, and blood pressure is dropping. Sh-she was at 110 over 76 earlier, and now she's at -"

The doctor raises his hand and Hound shuts up.

"What's going on?" Tracy's voice cuts through the thick air. "What's happening?"

"Stay calm ma'am," the nurse says, while still trying to assist the doctor in checking Astrid's vitals. She's beginning to stir, and Hound still can't help but but monitor her himself. It seems like she's getting worse by the minute. Why?

"Who was in here last?" the doctor asks, putting his stethoscope to his patient's chest.

The nurse darts over to the clipboard and flips through the pages. "Cherise," she says, scowling in confusion. "Administered her scheduled dose of morphine. She might be reacting to it?"

The doctor shakes his head and reaches for a small device on his belt. "Doubt it."

Hound had heard stories of patients taking completely unexpected turns for the worse like this, or surgeries going wrong and the mistake only being noticed days later, or...

"Dammit, what's going on?" Richard cries, getting up in the doctor's face.

"Sir, I'm going to need you to calm down. We're going to find out what's wrong, OK?"

The mech's softlight form might've trembled the faintest bit, might've jerked for barely a nanosecond as the body projecting it from 70 meters away struggled to keep still, struggled to keep energy flowing evenly. Every sensor he has is trained on the woman in the hospital bed, and he's desperately hoping there's something he might notice before the doctors do.

Astrid's body spasms as two more doctors rush into the room. She's awake now, and mostly conscious. "I'm gonna - hnn! - gonna throw up," she grinds out, clutching her head. He watches in horror as the slender cabling in her neck pull taught and her face contorts in pain. They're pulling her off the machines, talking to each other in hurried medical jargon that Hound can't decipher, and neither can Tracy or Richard.

"Where are you going?" he demands, pausing for a brief second when he realizes that Richard had said the same thing at the same time.

"She's going back to intensive care," the original doctor barks, and with that they've rushed her out of the room and down the hall.

Hound exchanges stunned looks with her parents before pulling the holo and following them with his remote consciousness.

The room they lead her to is uglier. The lighting is different, there are more machines, and no chairs for guests to sit on. She's tried vomiting, but there's nothing in her stomach to bring up. She starts coughing and they put a breathing mask over her mouth.

The mech feels so utterly helpless. Impotent in the face of whatever horrible thing that's ravaging her small, organic frame. As an Autobot soldier, he could fight their enemies, take bullets or mortars or shellings for her; as a giant, he could keep the roof from coming down on her, could hold her high above the muddy chaos at his feet; as a mech, he could carry her burdens or keep her warm; as a friend, he could help keep the darkness away.

But now? All he can do is watch.

An image flashes in his CPU - a hospital room and a hospital bed, a doctor wit ha clipboard, and Astrid Schneider there before him, maybe a woman of 70 or 80 years by Earth reckoning. Maybe runaway cell growth and the harrowing, poisonous "treatment" has left her thin and frail and wheezing. Or maybe a single burst blood vessel in her brain has reduced her body to a shell and nobody's home anymore. It doesn't even occur to him not to be there in those last moments - or days, or weeks - but it does occur to him how helpless he'll be. There's nothing we can do, they might say.

A haggard groan drags him back to the present, to a far youngerAstrid Schneider, trembling and sweating in her bed.

Hound had no idea that humans could talk so fast. Long strings of syllables are flying out of their mouths at the speed of light as someone takes three, four, five six, seven phials of blood and all but jogs out of the room. He catches a few acronyms: GGT; AST; ALT.

"Astrid," a doctor says, standing close and leaning in. "Astrid, can you tell me where it hurts?"

"M-my arm," she breathes, gesturing to to the limb with the IV. "And my stom... my stomach."

He begins gently pressing three of his fingers into her belly. "Here?" She shakes her head and he tries again in a different spot. "Here?" She winces hard when he reaches her right side, near the ribs. "Liver," he practically growls to another ICU doctor standing on her other side, perhaps confirming a suspicion.

Liver?

Hound snakes his sensors into her flesh, noting the texture and color and timbre of every cluster of cells he comes into contact with. Something here is wrong, yes, but he's not sure what. He can describe it in terms of color, though: it feels brown. And it feels wet. Like the humus of a forest floor. He's not sure what a liver ought to feel like, but something in his CPU says it shouldn't feel like this.

The mech needs to tell them, but there's no way he's going to materialize in the ICU. Too many heart attack victims there already. So, he hijacks the phone line.

Ring, ring.

The staff look at the machine on the wall as it makes a clicking-buzzing sound; it probably doesn't do this often. The nearest one answers.

"This is Graham," he says into the receiver warily.

"No time to explain," Hound says, throwing his voice into the machine and trying to keep the panic out of his words. "But it feels wet," he explains. "I-it feels like her liver is turning to mud. I don't know why. I don't -"

"Who the hell is this?"

"A friend of hers, alright? Please. It's worse than it looks."

The doctor stares at the phone in his hand with narrowed eyes before bringing it back up to his ear.

"Like mud, you say?"

"I-I don't know the human body like you do. I only know what my sensors tell me."

"We'll look into it. Thanks for the... tip."

Click.

Hound withdraws back into his own body outside. With a pained groan he transforms in the middle of the parking lot, startling a few people nearby, but he doesn't care. The giant braces himself against the side of a low parking structure and buries his face in his other hand, spark reeling. Helpless rage suddenly fills him, though, and he fights the urge to put a hole in the concrete wall, settling instead for tightly balled fists and clenched denta.

When will this nightmare fucking end?

Why is she crashing?!

He paces for a few minutes, CPU swirling with directionless anger, with despair, with terror and pain.

Not 24 hours ago she was tied to a rafter in a burning house, doused with gasoline. Someone wanted her dead in the worst way. Someone...

The mech stops, stiffening.

Was this another attempt on her life?

He gathers up what he believes to be her symptoms and does an internet search, homing in on liver-related phenomenon. Most of the results are things like cancers, appendicitis, heart attack - he withers at the very notion - or infection, among dozens of others. If he eliminates everything that would be impossible for her to contract from someone else, or otherwise be triggered by another person, then...

Hound's 18 kilo fists tighten harder, somehow, and his spark flares, licking at the walls of its housing. He can't hold back the surge of physicality this time and with a swift jerk of his arm, a crumbling crater of concrete appears in the side wall of the parking structure. A car alarm goes off nearby.

A second later and the Jeep pulls back into its spot, engine revving furiously.

Inside, the man in the cowboy hat appears at the ICU nurses' station.

"Astrid Schneider has been poisoned," he states firmly.

"Excuse me?"

"One of your patients is a woman named Astrid Schneider. I have reason to believe that someone tried to murder her."

The young man jumps up from his station. "Sir, you can't just come in here and say -"

He reaches out to grab the holo's shoulder, but it just meets thin air. The ensuing shout of surprise is a familiar sound to him now.

"What the-!"

"The Autobot at the house fire last night? That was me. Schneider's case is our case." He hopes his emphasis comes across.

The nurse stares at him, eyes wide as dinner plates, and nods slowly. He returns to the other side of the desk, not taking his eyes off of Hound's human holo, and fiddles with something. A doctor in navy scrubs - Hound recognizes him as being one of the ones at Astrid's side - comes up. He looks harried.

"Yap?"

"Doctor Ross, I... I think this guy wants to speak with you."

"I'm a little busy, Jeff, it's going to have to -"

"It's the Autobot." Word gets around, he sees.

The doctor's eyes snap up to meet Hound's, but all there is is the steely reflection of the aviator sunglasses.

"That was you on the phone earlier, wasn't it?"

The holo nods.

"You've got five minutes."

A moment later and Hound finds his holo standing in a small break room. Two people are curled up on the floor, asleep, someone's at a table eating a shabby sandwich, and two others are speaking in hushed tones.

The navy-scrubbed doctor folds his arms and looks at the holo expectantly.

"Last night was an attempted murder," he says quietly. "And I've got the nagging suspicion that this is more of the same."

"How do you figure."

"These symptoms - cough, fever, nausea, acute abdominal pain, headache - they could be anything."

"And you're suddenly a doctor now, huh?"

Hound vents sharply. "No, but I am every piece of monitoring equipment you've got in this place, and then some. With what I can see, it doesn't take a Primus-damned PhD to see that she's been poisoned."

The doctor sucks at his teeth, squares his jaw, and looks out over the others in the room for a moment.

He lowers his voice to a near-whisper. "If you say that someone's been making attempts on her life, then you might just be right. Then it becomes a question of what and when." He eyes the holo, brows heavy. "Can you process blood samples?"

He shakes his head. "That would take training and programming I don't have."

"You said her liver felt like "mud"."

"I... I don't know what it's supposed to feel like, but it seemed wet and dark - gooey, almost."

"Gooey..."

The doctor takes a moment to think, eyes darting from one floor tile to another as he occupies the entirety of his conscious thought in trying to figure out what that bit of simile might mean in medical terms.

"Do you think you might have detected the beginnings of necrosis?" That's a word that Hound never wanted to hear in conjunction with any human, let alone Astrid. Boots. His human.

Outside, he vents raggedly. "I don't know."

"We'll check it with the bloodwork," he sighs. "But that could be consistent with acute poisoning, depending on the delivery."

"Delivery?"

"If it was ingested, inhaled, or injected."

"What would liver upset suggest?"

"If it was injected directly into the bloodstream, that's probably where it'd hit first."

Hound thinks, trying to keep his thoughts in check; on the task at hand. Truthfully, this puzzle is the only thing between him and another emotional breakdown.

"Can I ask you something?"

"Hm?"

The doctor leans in a bit closer, folding his arms. "If she's been poisoned intravenously," he murmurs very quietly. "Then it must've happened since she was admitted."

Hound makes the holo nod. "I can take a look into your CCTV systems and find out who's come into contact with her?"

He shakes his head. "No, leave that for the police."

The Jeep growls outside.

"Look, I gotta get going, but how should I keep you in the loop?"

"You won't need to. I'll be around."

"Uh, the ICU doesn't -"

But Hound pulls the holo before he can finish - it's draining his systems and like the pit is he going to leave the premises again.

Angry and restless, the mech scans the area. He casts a wide net - 75 meters in every direction - and takes note of every person, every vehicle, every entry and exit, every stone and tree, looking for any sign that tells him that one of the three people who'd abducted her yesterday had been here. He's carved their faces into his memory banks - he'll never forget them - and it's a vigil he'll keep for the next 5 hours.


Report, Codec.

The pretender, slinking around the bushes just out of sensor-shot of that slagging scout shudders. Soundwave's comm wracks the small mech's liquid frame like being struck by lightning - there's nothing he can do about it. The larger Decepticon is his Primary, his symbiote, after all. There's no turning that voice down, no drowning it out.

Everything you wanted has been accomplished, master. The Autobot scout was successfully intercepted early this morning, and it seems that my brothers covered their -

And the Schneider woman?

Codec's spark lurches.

Alive, and with no one the wiser about what's been done to her guardian.

This, at least, is not a lie.

If that is so, why have you attempted to eliminate her?

Slaggit! He must've seen a video, or a news report, or something. Codec pauses for a precious few fractions of a second, but Soundwave - damn him - knows his secondaries all too well.

She knows something, doesn't she?

I... I don't know how, sir, but she found out that I was... not human.

There's a silence. Codec knows to fear that silence.

You've erred and are trying to cover your tracks, aren't you? You were gravely mistaken in thinking you could hide this from me.

Sir, I can guarantee you that she'll be dead soon enough. And in the hours before expiring, she'll be in no shape to tell anyone, let alone the Autobot -

Enough of your excuses. What of the samples? Fire does not render the material inert.

They are safely hidden, sir. We will have to find another agent willing to take them, of course.

Soundwave floods the channel with his displeasure, but stops. It's the silence again.

Master...?

Perhaps not. The humans are fickle and frail. Unreliable.

I don't understand, sir.

Your understanding is not necessary. Your orders now are to make sure that the Schneider woman is dead within 24 hours, and to thereafter surveil the scout's movements until it is time for us to mobilize.

Yes, master.

If you fail me again, parasite, I will extinguish your spark myself. Pretender or not, I have no use for subordinates who cannot perform as required.

The comm closes, and Codec jerks in pain, like something's been torn out of him.

Red optics flare with loathsome rage, and he ruefully thinks on the reward that Soundwave and Scrapper had promised those secretly disloyal to Starscream: a means to get off this disgusting rock and return to Cybertron. The thought is enough to motivate him to suffer Soundwave's tyranny.

And so, he does his duty, and waits.


Already, Hound is beginning to tire. Sensors have been operating at maximum capacity for hours, and he's gone through the security tapes for the whole building twice over. Unless he's losing his touch, nothing seems amiss.

It's after four o'clock in the evening, and he's deciding whether or not to start conserving his energy a little more when he notices commotion in Astrid's already crowded ICU suite. She's been in and out all afternoon, either unconscious or occupied by the strange unreality of fever dreams. She's been losing fluids almost faster than they can replenish them, though, and her painful, jerking tremors continue. He wants so badly to be in there - really, physically there - but he'd just be taking up room. Getting in the way. Making a mess of things.

Like how he's done with her life.

And so, he sends up his consciousness, invisible, silent, and watchful - not unlike a ghost. Haunting, or haunted?

She's in the bed, and the bottom of his spark chamber gives out again at the sight. Skin still freshly burnt from the fire, now her own body is burning itself up - irony of ironies. Hound wants to put it out. He would give anything just to relieve her of her fever, he realizes. He'd sell his home planet - the whole damned place - for just that singular miracle.

And underneath those bandages are his marks: a perfect metaphor for the shit that started it all. He can see them there. The purples and greens.

All because he couldn't keep his proverbial dick in his proverbial pants.

But something she'd said during their time in Portland is ringing in his CPU:

You think I hooked up with you because I wanted normalcy? Safety?

He wants to put another hole in that wall.

"My god," gasps Doctor Ross, covering his mouth with his hand as he looks over the latest results of one of her blood tests. The others in the room stop and look up. Hound does too. "It's abrin."

Eyes widen and Hound takes the moment to find out what this is, and he can't hold back the engine roar when he does a second later. The sound is so loud that it feels like it might crack his own glass.

When he returns to the ICU after half an hour of researching everything he can about this highly lethal substance made from the Rosary Pea, everyone has donned clean suits, goggles and masks. A sign has been posted on her door: SELECT AGENT - MEDICAL PERSONNEL ONLY

This time, he's returned in holo form - he needs to speak with them. Doctor Ross, with deep bags under his eyes now, is studying the bloodwork again and consulting a computer off in the corner. On the other side of the room, someone's on the phone, and a third doctor is hunched over a thick book in her lap, frantically flipping through pages covered in minuscule type.

"Sir! What are you -!"

"This is a hologram," he quickly explains. "I'll be fine."

Ross turns from what he's doing at the computer and gestures at the person on the phone. "We're not equipped to deal with this here," he explains, brows creased with worry. He rubs his face.

Hound's aghast. "Where in Vector Sigma is she gonna go? This is the biggest hospital in Anchorage!"

The man, clearly overwhelmed and horrified at the situation, shakes his head. "She needs toxicologists that we don't have, and we need to contain this. If someone's running around this goddamn hospital with one of the most poisonous substances in the world, I..."

He takes a deep breath and goes back to the computer.

"You're right," he relents quietly. "There's no time to transport her to the lower forty-eight. We gotta do the best we can with what we've got."

"I'll be right back," says the man in the cowboy hat before disappearing.

Outside, Hound transforms and jogs over to the window in Astrid's room - a tiny sliver of a thing in the corner, scarcely wider than his palm. He peers inside and is able to see the end of her bed, nearly obscured by clusters of machines, but nothing more.

It's the first time he's seen any part of her with his own optic since the ambulance took her away. A feeling that humans might compare to nausea trundles through him, but he attempts to ignore it so he can focus on this one task. It's not much, but it's his and he's going to put every sensor he's got into it.

The deep scan of the room would be easier to perform if he were actually, physically, in there - he'd be able to analyze the air with his own cycling system, but this will have to do. Like a prospector panning for gold beside a river, looking to separate dots of shimmering wealth amid grains of sand, Hound offlines nonessential processes and slowly begins sifting through samples of molecules with his spectrometer.

It takes him an hour to go through roughly 20% of the room, and that rate would only climb exponentially as he worked. It would have to do. Coming out of his focused state, he rings the phone again and another one of the doctors answers.

"I don't think any of it is airborne."

Hound watches the human as she scowls. "You don't think any of it is airborne?"

"I went through as much of it as I could, and didn't detect anything. However much there is... it all seems to be contained in... the patient's body."

"Thanks, Autobot."

"Is there anything more I can do?"

"I don't think so."

"...is there anything more you can do?"

She looks out the window at him, lifting the goggles from her eyes and lowering the mask from her face. "I don't think so. Supportive care is all we can do at this point."

Hound sinks down onto his knees, his forehead coming to rest against the wall with a faint crack. A long, slow vent escapes him.

It's exactly as his research said, though. Neither abrin or its weaker cousin, ricin, have antidotes. If the body is equipped to recover from the poison's ribosome-disabling characteristics, then it will. Most of the time, though, the stuff hits hard, and death usually occurs within a couple of days.

Who?

Who did this?

What monster would do this to somebody?

Why his somebody?!

His face scrunches up in pain and he braces a hand against the wall as his spark all but threatens to collapse.

Images from last night flash through his foreprocessors like a hellish slideshow. Whoever wanted her dead was picking the most inhumanely torturous ways to do it. Ways that would leave as little evidence as possible.

"UGH!" he shouts in a sudden fit of despair and frustration.

Who would do this, though? This wasn't the antics of some sloppy human killer. These were attempts at assassination.

"That man..."

Images surface of the man who managed to see through his bent light - the man who reached through that barrier and ripped her from his arms like taking candy from a baby. Then appears the recording from the drug store, the strange wave of static as he stormed out and back to that damned van.

The van which they never found.

Hound finds himself wishing that he were more like Nightbeat or - Primus forbid - Prowl. Someone who could recognize hidden patterns and follow threads tying otherwise inexplicable events together. Someone who was smart enough to figure this out.

Because he's beginning to come to a conclusion and he's not liking it.

So far, the only humans who might have the means to see past Autobot bentlight tech... is BREME.

He thinks back to that strange and garbled memory of getting EMP'd from some kind of human aircraft. An aircraft he didn't see or hear coming, apparently, until it was right in top of him.

No... no, it makes no sense.

Why would BREME kidnap Astrid like that? Imprison her in a burning house? Try to thwart his attempts to find her at every step of the way? Try to kill her again at the hospital? If they wanted her dead, why go through all that trouble? They'd had plenty of opportunities to stick a cyanide pill into one of her brown bagged lunches while at the job site.

Why would BREME want her dead, though? Did she know something he didn't? See something she wasn't supposed to see?

His CPU aches.

The only thing he knows for sure is that someone wants her gone.

He has so many questions for her, now. What did she see in that van and that house? Who were those people? What did they say to her?

He may never get the answers to them, now.

Hound lifts his head from the wall, ducking down again to peer into the crowded, ugly room. There's bags of ice between her thighs now, and he can feel her temperature plateauing. She's hovering at around 40.1 degrees celcius. Her insides feel "gooier" than they did before, though not by much. Maybe it doesn't take much. Her liver, that first line of defense against blood-borne threats is taking the brunt of the attack, but her flesh around the IV in her arm is bruising. It was injected.

The giant mech changes his position so that he's facing outward, towards the parking lot, with his back against the wall next to the window and hands on his knees. People are staring, eyeing him warily as they walk to and from their cars, and he couldn't care less. But it's a single voice, off to his right, that does capture his attention.

"Is that...?"

He turns his big green head and sees them: Richard and Tracy.

He's not sure what to do, honestly. Just hours ago, their daughter was sleeping, recovering, as comfortable as possible after such a harrowing ordeal. When he last saw them, it was in the aftermath of a crisis overcome. But they might all lose her now anyway.

Armored plating feels thin and brittle under their scrutinizing stares, though. Even in places where it's more than 44 millimeters thick. He feels naked now; he wants an exosuit to put on so he can hide himself from them. This is the first time they've seen the real you, he distantly realizes.

"Yeah, it's me."

Hound says that a lot these days. Between two different physical bodies and countless combinations of bent light, massless projections of himself, and the human-shaped holoform, it often is necessary for him to reaffirm what is and isn't "Hound". Sometimes it's even hard for him to tell.

The older couple slowly approach, stopping just short of arm's reach. She really does look like them.

"What do you know?" Tracy asks quietly, wringing her hands. "They haven't told us anything yet."

"She's been poisoned." Hound draws his lips into a fine line, looking back down and into the window. "And there's no antidote for it."

The woman is wracked with sobs and the mech offlines his good optic. "If you go back inside, I can tell the doctor to meet with you."

"Why?" she yells. Her voice is haggard and ugly. Richard is holding her tight, keeping quiet. But Tracy's burning gaze settles on him. He can feel it. "This is your fault, isn't it?"

Hound's spark almost coils tightly enough to initiate nuclear fusion. His fingers slowly curl. They leave marks on the concrete sidewalk.

"Probably," he mutters.

The woman lunges at him, though, fists flying. Richard cries out and goes to grab her again, but not after she's managed to land a few blows to the side of his leg. Hound recoils like he's been hit with a mortar, frozen as Richard drags his wife away towards the entrance again. Not a single circuit fires until long after they've disappeared back into the building.

Her blows had been even less than a friendly slap from any one of his fellows, but this...

This...

Humans are more intense than we'll ever be.

They're not made of proteins and amino acids, they're made of sheer will.

A mech facing death has nothing on a human doing the same. And he'd know: he's seen both in plenty.

Hound rings the phone inside the ICU. He tells whoever answers to go out into the waiting area - their patient's family is waiting.


Night fell at around 5 o'clock, and it's close to 8 when the mech finds that he'd slipped into recharge, jolting himself awake at the incessant sound of tapping by his left side. Blearily, he looks down, and sees Doctor Ross banging the thin strip of glass. He's holding up a bundle of papers and pointing at it frantically.

"What the..?"

He sends in the man in the cowboy hat, who appears just inside the doorway of Astrid's room. The first thing that catches his attention is that she's not trembling anymore.

"I don't understand," the doctor says, flipping through the papers with eyes wide in confusion and exhaustion. "These results don't make sense."

"What? What doesn't make sense?"

"Look."

Ross flips to one of the rear pages in the stack: a photo of what he assumes to be a sample of her blood under a microscope. He recognizes the doughnut shape of the blood cells, but there's a lot going on there that he can't make heads or tails of.

"What am I looking at?"

Ross steps over to a lightbox for x-rays and sticks the papers up into the railing. He grabs a pen from his pocket and points; the others pay attention but don't gather around. They must've seen it already.

"There," he says, pointing to something that looks damaged. "Necrotic tissue."

Hound looks with remote eyes, two sets of brows knitted together, still trying to understand what's so out of place here. "I still don't -"

"Those." He taps with the end of his pen, and now Hound sees it: little black specks, crowded around the dead cell. Actually, the picture is full of them. A rush of panic electrifies him.

"What are they?" he murmurs, terrified of the answer.

"We have no idea."

"What are they doing?"

"Whatever they are, it looks like they're targeting cell debris and... doing something with it."

The mech has no idea what to make of this. He stares at the picture - talk about alien biology - and realizes he knows next to nothing about the human body beyond what he's seen on TV. He turns towards Astrid, now laying much more still in the bed than before, breathing slow and steady.

She's asleep, but he still can't help to go up to her side and put a hand on hers. She doesn't like this form, and he'd change if he could, but now's not the time.

"You're going to be OK," he whispers, feeling hopeful when he realizes that her temperature is down to 39 degrees now. "I promise."

"You two seem close," comes the tired voice of one of the other doctors as she reties a ponytail. "She help work on you or something?"

"You might say that."

The room is, except for the beeping and sighing of machines, quiet for a few moments.

"Gonna go take a nap," Doctor Ross murmurs quietly, rubbing his face. "You know where to find me."

"You wanna go get 'em?" the lady doctor asks the third with a grunt. "We should be good to have company for a little while."

Hound stiffens at the mention of Astrid's parents.

"Yeah OK."

The man in the cowboy hat turns to her. "I'm... gonna make myself scarce for a little while. I don't want to intrude," he lies.

She nods and heads for the door herself. "I've gotta see to another patient."


He knows he's going to have to get BREME on the line at some point this weekend.

Even with the possibility that they might be the ones behind this.

He's about to ping Jazz, but realizes that opening a comm with the XO like this is generally reserved for emergencies.

Blaster?

Read you loud n' clear, bud.

Patch me through to Jazz, please.

On it.

It's a few moments, but soon the Porsche answers.

What's up, Hound? How's your lady friend doing?

Jazz, we've got another situation up here.

He's on the line for an hour, and eventually Prowl and even Prime himself join the meeting.

Bluestreak will schedule you a flight this week under the pretense of getting your optic repaired, Prowl says stiffly. We will discuss this in further detail here.

Agreed, Prime rumbles. If the Bureau is behind this crime, then that is a transgression that goes far beyond unacceptable by our standards as Autobots. However, such a grave accusation requires incontrovertible evidence.

How is she? asks Jazz. They all know that she's the key they'll need.

Hound vents and rubs at his face.

Stable, I think, he says, signal weak and quiet. Then: I don't feel comfortable leaving her here alone, sirs. Whoever's after her, whether Bureau or killer, will have no problem hurting her if I'm not there.

He's right, Jazz says. How do we get her to AHQ too?

Prowl grunts. We can tell them that her well-being is of interest to the Autobots as an organization and that we will not permit her to leave Hound's protection.

The Jeep bristles. That's... kind of how things are already. And they hardly respect it as it is.

Which is a position I happen to agree with. However, we do not need their respect, Prowl says in that way of his. Just their cooperation.

Hound is about ready to shove his fist up through the comm channel and right into the black and white mech's jaw servo.

Prowl, that was unnecessary, warns Prime.

My apologies, sir.

Hound, you have your orders, says the commander.

And if there's any developments, I want to hear about it. Jazz tries to sound a little less grim, but the situation isn't exactly peaches and cream. Remember what I told you, captain.

The Jeep sighs. Yes, sir.

Hound, we'll see you soon. Prime out.

Prowl out.

Jazz out.

...Hound out.


Astrid's condition doesn't just stabilize over the next six hours, she improves.

Hound, still seated outside of her room in the ICU can read her vitals, and while he doesn't want to get excited just yet, they're looking much better. Her fever's down to 38.49 degrees, the bruising around her IV is already disappearing, and her insides feel... more like meat and less like garbage. A different doctor, taken over for Ross, remarks about the brown cloudiness of her urine at about 1 in the morning and sends it to be tested.

It doesn't take long for the results to come back.

"She's... peeing out a lot of dead tissue," the new doctor exclaims, confused over the new printout from the lab. To Hound, it looks practically identical to the earlier picture of the blood. Except for one important thing.

"I don't see any black things," he notes, man in the cowboy hat hovering close to the doctor's shoulder.

"No..." he mutters, rubbing his chin. "They're staying in her bloodstream, and I don't see any in the dead neutrophils."

"The what?"

"The white blood cells that eat pathogens in the blood. It doesn't appear that either is attacking the other, otherwise the neutrophils would be full of them."

"Does this mean she's going to be alright?"

The doctor raises his eyebrows, still gazing at the photo. "Maybe," he relents, but there's a big 'if' hanging in his voice. "Ross and I looked over the available literature and I find it hard to believe that anyone could turn around this quickly. It normally takes at least a few hours to start getting sick. But stabilizing in twelve?" He shakes his head in disbelief. "Either they got their dosage wrong or there's something weird going on here."

"Doctor, do you know where... somebody might buy abrin?"

"Don't know, don't wanna know."

"Fair enough."

Hound wonders when he should notify Commissioner Phillips of what's happened here... if someone hadn't notified Anchorage PD of the incident already. No, not yet. One thing at a time.


Astrid's eyes flutter open at around 4 in the morning, and Hound makes sure that he's there to greet her, even if it means projecting the awkwardly small, awkwardly shaped human holo all night.

"Astrid!" he exclaims, and the man in the cowboy hat leaps up from the chair in the corner, rushing to her side.

"Hey... big guy," she breathes.

"Vector Sigma," says the holo, smiling, but with brows still knitted together. "By Primus, you're awake. You're awake..."

He presses the holo's forehead to hers, solidifying it for the gesture.

"What happened?" Her voice is still faint and cracked, and she's blinking slowly. "Felt... felt like an infection."

By the pit, is this an appropriate time to tell her? Should he wait? He should wait.

"You... you reacted badly to something."

She looks around the dark room, illuminated only by the light shining in through the windows in the doors that lead out to the nurse's station. "I'm in..."

"Intensive care." He looks her over. She looks like shit. Beautiful, wonderful, messy, living, shit. Spark fluid cycles through his system in ragged bursts, creating hot spots in his neck and chest. "Primus, I thought I was going to lose you."

"Oh Hound..."

Fuck it.

The man in the cowboy hat disappears and is slowly replaced by his clone holo. He's clipping through machines, walls, even the bed itself, but he doesn't care. Solidifying his arms and head, he wraps his arms around her to the best of his ability and touches the front of his nose to her forehead this time - his is far too big for them to touch heads together now. He traces a finger along her jaw and chin, acutely aware that it's not the same as touching her with his own two hands. But it'll have to do. Dammit, it'll have to do.

"I'm sorry that I... scared you."

The mech jerks his head away from her and can't help the scowl that crosses both his faces. She's sorry? She's sorry?

"Don't apologize," he hisses, trying to keep the self-loathing anger out of his voice. But when she looks up at him, confused, he doubles back. "Please... it's not your fault. Vector Sigma it's not even remotely your fault..."

His gigantic hands brush up against her bandages and he recoils.

So much.

Her tiny body's been through so much.

"Just rest, okay? You're not out of the woods yet."

She smiles weakly and manages a breathy chuckle. "Yes, captain."

Don't call me that. I don't deserve to be called that.

"I'll... I'll be here. Your parents are here too - probably at a hotel. I'm sure they'll see you first thing in the morning."

"Don't you need to recharge?"

"I'll recharge right outside your window."

"But..."

"I'm not leaving. Not again."

She gives him that lost look again, and a growl escapes him.

"I'll be fine."

Astrid nods, then closes her eyes. She's asleep faster than he could say "goodnight".


The next day, Astrid feels even better. In fact, she's practically cogent: cogent enough for him to begin asking questions.

"It was three of them," she reaffirms, recalling the night of her abduction. "Two men and a woman. Two of them I think were a couple."

"Did they take you directly to that house?"

"I... I think so. I don't remember much. I was in so much pain from... from the bullet, and then they drugged me. I woke up in this room."

Hound remembers that room. He remembers finding her in there, surrounded by flames. He remember what his spark felt like at the sight.

"The one man," she goes on, thinking. "He... he did all the talking. Something about him was strange..."

"What did he say to you?"

She searches for the words, for the memories. "He... he talked about you." Astrid glances up at the man in the cowboy hat, perplexed. Hound's not surprised - from what he remembers, they seemed to be generally anti-Autobot. "And he didn't cover his face, like the others."

He wasn't afraid of being recognized.

"What did he say about me?"

She thinks for a few moments. "I think he knew who you were," she says slowly. "Like he knew which Autobot you were and... and that you're a scout."

Outside the mech frowns. Only three kinds of people know his military background these days: his friends, his enemies, and the Bureau.

"Did he say anything about BREME?"

"He asked w-what the project was, what we're doing there." She pauses, and then covers her mouth with her busted hand. "Oh my god, Hound, I told him everything."

"What?"

"I told him everything I knew," she whispers. "I-I told him about the energon." Astrid buries her face in her hands. "He was going to hit me... hit me in the arm. He'd squeezed it already, and it hurt so fucking bad, Hound, I..."

"Stop, stop. Shh, it's OK. It's OK."

Astrid groaned. "Oh god, I fucked up. I fucked up."

"You didn't," he reassures, but the Jeep outside is trembling. "He probably doesn't even know what energon is."

Her eyes, wide, dart to him. "No, no, I think he knew, Hound. He seemed to know somehow."

A human that knows what energon is?

Hound could probably list all of them off by name, there's so few of them.

If he wasn't panicked before, he is now, and trying to hide it.

"What else do you remember, Boots?"

A few more seconds pass as she wracks her memory. "The couple got mad at him for threatening me."

Hound thinks back to the strange threat they yelled as they took off. Finally, something that actually makes any sense here.

He begins to put a few of these pieces together: three people, two of whom seemed to be operating with a different motive than the third. The couple appeared to be acting out of a warped sense of responsibility for Astrid's well-being, wanting to protect her from the Autobots. But this second man...

"Boots, was the man that threatened you the same one that took you from me?"

A longer pause. "I couldn't see anything in the dark that night. B-but I remember that he wore a black shirt."

Black shirt, huh?

It was the same guy.

The guy that Hound still cannot, for the life of him, figure out how he saw past the cloak.

"He threatened them, too," she continues. "They were ready to call the whole thing off, but he threatened them."

"How did the fire start?"

She didn't need any time to remember this. "I did it."

The brow ridges on both of Hound's faces jerk upward. "You... why?"

"I... I thought it might buy me time to yell for help. But when I broke the window, there was firewood covering it up."

The mech's spark sinks and trembles, remembering seeing that smoke come out from behind the pile of wood. He remembers the broken window, her bloodied hands. That was her doing? Outside, the Jeep covers his face and lets out a slow, pained vent. He doesn't want to do this anymore, but he has to.

"Cody managed to -" she catches herself here: "Cody! That was his name! Cody!"

"What did Cody do?"

"I barricaded the door with the burning furniture..." Hound doesn't want to hear this story. "But he opened it. I didn't think... anyone could be that strong." She looks around the room, biting her lip. "H-he told me that he'd planned on letting me go w-when you eventually found me -"

"He did know that I'm a scout."

She nods. "But because I s-set the fire, he was... he was going to..."

"It's OK, it's OK. You don't have to tell me the rest right now if you don't want to."

Astrid shakes her head, even as tears threaten to spill. "If I don't, I might forget, Hound."

"Primus slaggin'... Astrid, I don't want you reliving this right now if you don't have to."

"I do have to."

The holo nods, relenting, and outside the Jeep is still cradling his own head. "What was he going to do," he asks in a quiet murmur, not wanting to know the answer.

"He was going to burn the house down, with me in it."

Hound's beginning to imagine the scene, much to his own horror. A strange, violent man, appearing in the flames and telling her under no uncertain terms that she was going to die.

"He grabbed some diesel fuel from the garage or something, started pouring it everywhere." The image in his CPU changes accordingly. "And then he left."

The mech forces the pictures in his head away, relieved that her story's finished for the time being. He reaches out and grasps her shoulder.

"Wait," Astrid says, almost as if another memory were triggered by the touch. He jerks away, afraid of the implication. "No, before Cody went to grab the fuel, he..." she pauses, confused by what she's seeing in her mind's eye. "He tied my arm up more..."

Hound senses no significance in this bit of information, but... just let her talk. She needs that.

"He got on the bed to do it?" she asks rhetorically.

"Why? What's special about the bed?"

She scowls at him. "The bed was on fire."

"Didn't he get burned?"

"His clothes burned," she murmurs, then begins shaking her head. "But he didn't."

A human who knows what energon is, who can see through cloaks, and who doesn't burn.

Doesn't sound human to me.

"Oh my fucking god, Hound," she exclaims after a moment, looking straight at his holo with wide eyes. "He was a Decepticon."

The mech freezes, and his holo even glitches for a second.

"Astrid, that's... that's impossible. Not even a holo's clothes would burn."

"He said he was... was some kind of "revivalist". A... a, uh..."

Oh, Primus. Oh no, no, no no... this is bad news.

"Please don't tell me that he said he was a pretender."

"...he said he was a pretender."

"Ughhh."

Shit, shit, shit.

"Astrid, I gotta pull the holo for a little while and... get some important people on the horn."

"Where are you going?"

"Nowhere, Boots. I'll still be right outside. Give me a holler if you need me, OK?"

She nods, and the man in the cowboy hat dissolves into the thin air he always was.

Vector Sigma...

We almost almost went to war with BREME over this.

Chapter Text

It's been two days and already she's sick of being in the hospital.

Technically, she's actually well enough to leave, they tell her - the poison's been neutralized, and aside from the burns and gunshot wound, it's almost like none of it even happened.

That "reaction" she'd had, though? Hound had told her that afternoon that she'd actually been poisoned. It's cousin Ricin, weaker by thirty orders of magnitude, was once used in a political assassination by the Bulgarian secret police and the KGB. The victim died within a matter of days. Astrid's mouth had fallen open dumbly, and she didn't have anything to say. How come I'm alive?

But she knew who'd been behind it, even before he told her that part of the equation.

Nobody had actually caught the pretender yet; she hadn't seen where he went, and neither Hound nor anyone else (he'd been accompanied by a few of his giant metal friends in the search, she found out as well) had detected a Cybertronian in the vicinity. But it'd been probably close to half an hour between when she last saw him and when Hound tore open the side of that house and plucked her out of the flames.

And Cybertronians can move fast, she's learned.

He doesn't need to tell her what, exactly, a pretender is in order for her to get the jist. She saw him with her own goddamned eyes. If Hound unsettled her at first, then this is a whole new level of fucked.

She asks him if this thing can impersonate anyone, or if, like him, "Cody" could only take on a single alternate form.

"I don't know," he says into the phone receiver. He's used up almost all of his holo reserves over the past day, and he told her that he'll feel naked and weaponless without at least the dregs left before apologizing a lot and getting mad at himself. "Pretender forms were outlawed on Cybertron a long time ago. Nobody's born a pretender is the thing. They're made. Becoming one is akin to torture, many don't survive the process, and their physiology is so different from an average mech's that hardly any mechanics and engineers knew how to treat injured ones," he explains grimly. "The processing centers were shut down before the war, but..."

Astrid knows what he's going to say. He doesn't need to finish.

"He could be anywhere," she murmurs into the phone, hand on her forehead. "Anyone."

The green giant groans.

"Decepticons experimented with it around the height of the war, but the ROI just didn't work out in the long run. Of course they'd have a few crazies who'd want to continue working on the technology, though. And who knows what they came up with when no one was looking."

"That would explain why he wants to kill me, though." She's speaking in hushed tones, eyeing the room. "Showed me his hand, thinking I was out of the game." She snorts. "Have the Decepticons ever seen an action movie? Revealing the evil plan almost always backfires."

"Do you remember anything else that he might have said? Any other clues I could take to Prime?"

"No." A pause. "It feels so long ago now," she says quietly. "If it weren't for these bandages, I'd have a hard time believing that any of it actually happened."

"Even if you forget," he growls into the phone. "I won't. You don't mess with the human of a guy who's been through twenty-seven tours."

No, no you definitely don't.

Her parents come stumbling into the room, then, accompanied by a nurse. They've barely gotten any sleep the entire time they've been here. She can see it written on their faces, and the sight pains her.

"I'll call you back in a few," Hound says, hanging up. Astrid knows that he's still eavesdropping anyway. He's kept his vigil outside that tiny window since she was moved to the ICU, and has refused to budge, even at the behest of the hospital's director, several security guards, and even the police commissioner himself. He even had to scare away a reporter around lunch time after someone notified a local news channel that there was a giant robot hunkered down outside of the hospital.

"How are we doing?" the nurse asks, grabbing the clipboard from the front of her bed and giving it a once-over.

Astrid suddenly finds herself sitting rigid, though, and eyeing the people in the room. Could they be him? How would I know? Would Hound be able to tell human from pretender?

God, she hopes so.

"F-fine," she says, trying to play it cool, but stutters a little anyway.

The nurse replaces the clipboard and goes to check the machines. "Good. You might be ready to go back to the outpatient ward soon, if Doctor Ross gives you the OK."

She nods, slowly. "Hey, uh, mom. When I get back home, could you make me my favorite dinner? I'm just... I'm really craving some comfort food." Astrid eyes the woman carefully.

"Pot pie?" Good answer. "Gosh, of course, honey. Anything you want to eat."

Her father, though, is vegetarian. She turns to him.

"Don't worry about me, sweetheart. I'll just have your mother make one without chicken."

If what she knows of Hollywood doppelgangers is true, then while this pretender could steal the shape and voice of just about anyone, he wouldn't be able to replicate their mind.

Whew.

Doctor Ross comes in now, with a piece of paper in his hand. It's a sign printed out from a computer that says in big, plain type: SPECIAL AGENT - MEDICAL PERSONNEL ONLY. He holds it up for Astrid and her parents to see, and then promptly crumples it up into a ball and throws it in a trash bin.

"Looks like you're just about in the clear," he says, looking over the clipboard for himself as the nurse replaces her catheter bag.

"How?" Astrid asks. No one seems to be able to explain it.

"I said just about," he goes on. "We want to do a biopsy."

She and her parents exchange looks, and she's sure the giant mech outside is frowning too.

"But she's fine," Richard says.

"And that's precisely why, Mr. Schneider. We're going to take a small liver sample to make sure we haven't missed anything." He puts the ear pieces of his stethoscope in and steps over to her, pressing the resonator into her back. "Deep breath." She does as she's told, and after repeating the process a few times, he steps away, turning to her. "Frankly, Miss Schneider? You were at death's door not 24 hours ago and this recovery is looking more and more like a miracle. Problem is that I don't believe in miracles."

She knows what they're going to be looking for. Those little black mystery dots they kept finding under the microscope.

"You're scheduled to begin prep in an hour, alright?"

"Wait, wait, wait - what will this involve?"

"You'll be sedated, given local anesthesia -"

"Local?" She doesn't like the sound of this.

"It's a very thin needle, Miss Schneider, and it's in and out in just a couple of seconds. The sample size we need is very small. Hardly anything, even."

"It's really not that bad," Richard offers.

"Dad, that was a skin sample! They want to stick a needle into my stomach! While I'm awake!"

The phone starts ringing. Ross picks it up, and without even finding out who it is, hands it to her.

"Would it make you feel better if I were in there with you?" Hound asks.

She screws up her face. "What? No, Hound. That's... that's not how this works. I mean, not saying that I don't want that, but..."

"You'll be fine. You can do it. We gotta find out what those things are, Boots."

Astrid looks around the room, realizing that she's holding her breath and lets it go. "Yeah alright."

"Who's that on the phone, Astrid?"

"Oops, gotta go."

"Already gone."

Hound hangs up and she hands the phone back to Ross, thumbing toward the window.

Her parents groan.

"You know what? If you can't handle this, then you can kindly get the hell out, because I would rather be alone in here than deal with your snide shit right now."

"Sir, ma'am, this is an intensive care unit, not family therapy."

With a sigh and a slump of their shoulders, the older couple bitterly acquiesce.

"See you in an hour, Astrid," Ross says, headed for the door, but he and the nurse almost collide with two people standing outside, peering in. They look terribly out of place, here.

"Is that Miss Schneider in there?" asks one of them, raising his eyebrows in her direction. He reaches into his coat pocket and produces a brass badge, flashing it at the doctor.

"I'm sorry, officers, but she's scheduled for a procedure shortly. I can't let you in right now."

"Police?" Tracy wonders aloud, standing up. Richard is close behind when she greets them. "I'm her mother. What do you need?"

"We'd like to ask you a few -" Ross and the nurse squeeze past them here "- questions, if you don't mind."

"We could try and help you out..."

"Great, let's find a place to sit down."

They disappear down the hall, and Astrid finds herself alone, heaving a tired sigh. Her stomach is twisted up in a little bit of a knot at the thought of the biopsy, but I've been through so much painful shit already, this should be nothing, she reasons. Still; it's tougher when you can see it coming.

Astrid's been sitting up in the bed for a while, and leans back now against the pillow. She's starting to get restless, actually. The mechanical compresses around her legs whirr and sigh every few minutes as they keep blood circulating to her feet. She thinks back to the picture of her blood that Ross had showed her, asking her if she'd encountered anything that might explain them: if she'd partaken in any illicit drug use lately, gotten cut with a rusty piece of metal, bitten by a tick - the list went on, and she was able to report a negative to each one.

She stares at the ceiling. "God, I feel like I'm in an episode of Law and Order," she says aloud, with a half-hearted smile.

Hound responds with a light strumming of his giant fingers along the window, and she giggles.


The biopsy really wasn't as bad as she was anticipating. She'd been asked to hold her hand to her head, take a deep breath, and it was over before she knew it. Of course, she'd been drugged, and only instinctively knew where her forehead was when Ross asked her to put her palm on it, and after taking a long nap, she wakes up to find herself back in the outpatient ward, just as promised. It feels like a long-ass needle was pushed into her abdominal cavity, though, and she's greeted with a pretty miserably dull ache in her side when the painkillers begin to wear off. But it could be worse.

It could always be worse.

The doc says they should get some kind of results by Monday night, and when Astrid remarks on how short of a turnaround that seems to be, he relents.

"Honestly? We're all curious more than anything at this point."

They'll be shipping a piece of her sample of blood and Kupffer cells off to a forensics lab down in Washington to do cultures on it, though. Whatever it is those little black things are, they hope to be able to have a petri dish full of em in a week or two.

It feels odd to have stuff in her that nobody knows what they are, even though they don't appear to be doing harm. The body - the human body - is complex as hell. It could take them years to find out what this is. The idea makes her a little apprehensive.

If there's one reason she can say that she's glad that for being in and out since the fire is that she hasn't had the opportunity to see what the news has had to say about the whole thing - or worse, start fielding calls from reporters looking to be the first one to get hold of her. But she's got an interview coming up, alright. Her mother had told her that the police plan on being in contact and want her down at the precinct as soon as she's able.

But Astrid still can't shake her paranoia, and she's since run out of inconspicuous questions to ask her parents every time they return to the room after leaving. The staff scare her even more, and as much as she likes Doctor Ross, there's no way for her to know if it's really him. If it was ever him. The drugs from the biopsy had managed to placate her enough to forget about the whole thing by the time she was wheeled into the clean room, but it's all coming back to her again.

At least she's still in a hospital bed and not on a slab under the unrelenting scalpel of the PD's medical examiner.

At some point in the evening after her parents had gone to grab some dinner, Astrid gathers the courage to ask Hound something she should have asked hours before:

"Is... is there a way for you to sense the presence of a pretender?" she fearfully wonders in a hushed voice.

"I can detect my kind's life signs from 50 meters," he says, trying to reassure her. "I imagine I could detect a pretender too, especially since their sparks have no shielding."

Astrid doesn't know what that means, but: "You mean you've never run into one before?"

She can tell he's trying to pick words on the other end of the line. "I've never had the opportunity to track one, no. Kill one... yeah."

Fair enough, she supposes.

"At least there's that."

"I'm not letting anything happen to you again, OK?"

"C'mon Hound, please don't make me an impossible promise."

"I've still got my sensors up and the instant I notice something amiss, it's clobberin' time."

She laughs a little into the phone, recognizing the catchphrase from somewhere but can't place it. "What would you do, rip the wall out again?"

"Whatever it takes." His words are serious, and Astrid feels that this conversation has ended. She wants to reply with a yes, sir.

"OK."


Doctor Ross can find no reason to keep her for another day, so the following morning she's released. The bandages on her busted hands are removed, and much to everyone's surprise, the latticework of lacerations from the broken glass are all closed up and well on their way to becoming thin, pale scars.

The burns and the bullet wound still aren't looking quite so hot, but Ross assures them that they too are healing oddly fast. The blisters, in fact, are already beginning to reabsorb. Still, the doctor reminds her under no uncertain terms not to pop any of them.

She's given prescriptions for drugs, recommendations for home dressings, and an estimated recovery time, though a timeline of two weeks for the burns and another four for the gunshot wound seem awkwardly generous. Before Ross sends them on their way, though, he sends her parents out of the room and warns her in a quiet voice that the police will also be questioning her about the poisoning that he and Hound believe happened at the hospital. Astrid bites her lip and nods.

Her parents had bought her a fresh set of clothes to wear home - jeans and shirt, nothing special. It's better than whatever the hospital would have given her, though.

Hound's standing by the crosswalk in front of the main entrance to the hospital, arms folded and with a smile on his silvery face that turns toothy when they emerge.

"Long time no see," he says, collapsing down into a kneel when she bounds over and obscures herself in a tangle of his enormous gray and green limbs.

Tears sting at the corners of her eyes and she knocks on the hard plating of his belly. It makes a muffled clacking sound, almost like concrete.

"Yes, it's really me," he chuckles around her. "Got no energy left for anything else."

"Let's go home and get some robot food into you, then."

Her mother clears her throat behind them, but Richard's gone. "Your father's grabbing the car," she announces awkwardly.

She and Hound look at each other before she takes a step away from him and he lets his hands rest on his thighs.

"Thanks, but I'd like to go with him."

Astrid can see the woman's distate flare up in her face as she looks at him. "You know how your father and I feel about those self-driving cars."

"They make us pass driving tests too, ma'am."

"He's a better driver than any of us," she says flatly. "Besides, this way you'll be able to follow us and I won't have to tell you how to get there. The docks can get confusing."

"The docks?"

But before they have time to start a discussion about their neighborhood, Richard pulls up in the rental.

"One street-legal vehicle coming right up," the mech says with a little smile and Astrid takes a few paces back to let him transform.

Richard and Tracy haven't seen this yet, and by the time he's done all of three and a half seconds later, their eyes are wide as dinner plates as they stare, dumbstruck, at the newly-formed Jeep-of-sorts in front of them. Neither Cherokee nor Wrangler Rubicon, Hound's a make and model all his own. From matte black rims set into huge, clawed, tires, to the thick, angular ram bar he sometimes sports in front, to his interior upholstery that's not quite leather and not quite fabric (some Cybertronian material, he'd explained once), he looks normal enough at a glance, but it doesn't take long to start noticing that he's truly one of a kind. All the Autobots are like that, he'd said. It's impossible for them to completely mimic any human vehicle down to the last stitch or bolt.

If it's not the sight that catches an onlooker's attention, then it's the sound. It's quite unlike anything a human will ever hear: a groaning, clicking, and sighing. There are faint whispers of violence in there, like a car getting T-boned in slow motion, but it took Astrid months to notice that. What's most apparent is the yawning hum of electronics, though; that alone is unearthly enough.

"We'll drive slow," she calls as she hoists herself up into his passenger seat, which closes behind her. Not that he's ever reckless behind the wheel, Astrid thinks to herself. So to speak.

"Boots, we gotta talk," is the first thing he says as he figures out how to exit the premises.

"That way," she says, pointing off to their right. "And I figured as much."

"I've been on the phone with the Bureau while you were sleeping." He sighs, and it sounds eerily human from inside him. "They want to speak with you right away. Before the police do."

She heaves a sigh of her own. "And?"

"The good news is that they might let us do it first."

"Us?"

"Autobots."

"How'd you swing that?"

"I, uh... I played up the trauma card. That you wouldn't want to talk to any humans about it until the pretender was caught. I'm sorry."

Astrid shakes her head as they turn onto the main thoroughfare with her parents keeping close behind. "It's OK, that was a good lie. Um... how does that work with me speaking with the police, though?"

"We might be able to keep that from them long enough to find that 'Con. And we might just have the Commissioner's help in this too if he hates Doley as much as I think he does." A pause. "Oh, and don't be surprised if they're there waiting for us."

She groans. "I'd be surprised if they weren't."

And it's just as well, because as they turn onto their street, there's a black SUV parked in front of their building.

They head around back to the transponder locks and Hound drives in. She's never gone through this thing yet, and doesn't quite know what to expect, though she's seen him go in and out plenty of times so far. It's a heavy, bomb-proof box, basically, with a door on either end, and a computer inside that makes sure that he is who he says he is. When the door shuts behind them with a heavy clong, the pitch-blackness is pierced by a single red light, like a laser, that sweeps quickly over him.

"You can't hear it," the Jeep says with a faint chuckle. "But it says "Welcome home, Hound" every time it's done scanning me."

She can't help the laugh that escapes her, and before she knows it, the bright white light of the warehouse's fluorescent fixtures bouncing off the whitewashed walls and polished concrete floor making her squint. Her eyes adjust and immediately her gaze is drawn to the only two black things in the entire space: a pair of Bureau agents making themselves comfortable on her couch.

"Of course they let themselves in," she mumbles, disembarking.

"You know," the car says when she's stepped out, continuing to speak even has he transforms: "Most people would consider this trespassing."

The two men rise up from their seats, and Astrid sees that one of them is carrying a folder thick with papers. "You'd be right if you actually owned this property," he quips back.

"Let me go let my parents in," Astrid grumbles, glaring at the men as she walks past them towards the front door. Outside, the two look bewildered as they take in their industrial surroundings, bags in hand and not quite sure where the Jeep and their daughter had disappeared to. "Over here," she calls, and waves them in as it begins to rain.

Behind her she can hear Hound start to get into it with the men in black, though he's careful not to raise his voice.

They stop in the hallway, eyes narrowed as they listen to the bubbling argument, but Astrid plans on ushering them upstairs. "Just ignore them."

Hound looks up from where he's knelt on the floor beside a coffee table and area rug, pausing for a moment to acknowledge her parents' arrival. He raises his hand in brief recognition before going back to it.

"Why are they arguing with it? Why... why don't they just make it do what they want it to do?" Tracy whispers as they hurry over to the stairs. Astrid glances behind her and sees her mother's hard gaze fixed on the scene, puzzling over the bizarre sight as they make their way to the second level. It occurs to her that most folk have never seen such a thing. It must be jarring.

"Because he's a he and the only person that controls him is him. Not sure how many times I have to tell you."

"Are those...?"

"They're with the agency I work for now, yes. Here." She pauses in the small upstairs hallway, gesturing to the master bedroom. "You guys can stay in here, I'll take the couch."

But her mother is still paying attention to the two agents and the giant robot on the ground floor below, scowling in confusion.

Richard takes her bag from her, nodding his thanks to Astrid as he goes to put their things away. She puts her hand on Tracy's shoulder and pulls her in the direction of the bedroom. "Sorry mom, but you... probably shouldn't be listening to this conversation."

A moment later Astrid is slowly making her way back down the stairs with the bedroom door closed behind her, and she finally allows herself to pay attention to what they're saying.

"- has nothing to do with you or the Bureau," she catches Hound bark. He's in military captain mode, now; she can tell by his body language, even being crouched so low to the ground. "This is our concern. Our fight to finish. Our wartime laws to uphold."

"And your fight is now being fought on our soil. What do you want us to do, extradite that thing?" A snort. "Even if we were capable of doing that, the Autobots have never even disclosed to us the location of the so-called Cybertron."

"We would try him here," the mech continues, gesturing to the ground between their feet. "The Groom Lake Pact established the Ark as a sovereign nation, complete with the rights and responsibilities of -"

"You think your sovereignty matters?" one of them says darkly. "You think that crowning Optimus Prime king, or electing him President would make one whit of difference to us? You are a shipwrecked platoon of a few dozen soldiers and a handful of tinkerers. You've been operating under martial law for decades. Extradite..." he scoffs, shaking his head. "No. If you find it, you hand it over to us. Consider it a tithe."

"Ah, Miss Schneider," the other one says when he notices her standing there at the bottom of the stairs with a white-knuckle grip on the railing. "We were just talking about your... incident."

"What do you want?" she snaps.

"That's the thanks we get for bringing you a new phone?" chuckles the one, producing what appears to be a brand new cell phone from his leather briefcase.

She narrows her eyes at him. "How'd you know they took my phone?"

"If I were going to abduct somebody, I dunno, I'd want to make sure they couldn't call the police?" He chucks the box at her and she catches it with a fumble.

"I believe the appropriate response is "thank you"," the other lilts.

Astrid is trembling with anger for some reason, and then she remembers: the warheads pointed at AHQ, and the hundred thousand lives they were willing to sacrifice to keep the Autobots in line.

"Out," Hound snaps with authority. His voice is normally soft, warm, and a little rough around the edges - not as deep as some of the others' - but this tone is different. It's thinly veiled loathing. "I want you out. Now."

They don't start, nor do they wilt. A smirk crosses one of their faces as they shoot an acerbic look at Hound, then Astrid in turn. One of them cocks an eyebrow at her as they begin to turn and head for the door. "Looks like you're recovering quickly."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she hisses as they pass her.

"Eight AM Thursday, Schneider. Sharp."

"And number twelve? We expect you as soon as you're done at the precinct tomorrow."

And with that, they show themselves out.

Astrid jumps at the sound of Hound's hand coming down to meet the concrete with a sharp crack. He chips the cement a little but nothing more.

"I swear to the pit," he growls, grinding his teeth together, his single good optic boring into the back of the front door that had shut behind them. She's never seen him so mad, and it's a little disconcerting.

"Hound, they're gone," Astrid says quietly. "Please try to calm down, you'll... you'll scare my folks."

His gaze darts upstairs, then, and his features soften upon remembering that they're not alone. "Shit, I'm sorry... it's just that..." He wipes at the damaged optic. "You have no idea what they put me through on Friday night."

She swallows, stepping closer. "You wanna talk about it?"

"No. You don't..." He looks away, scowling deeply. "You don't want to know."

Whatever it is that they did in the hours between her getting dragged away from him in the woods and him tearing open the side of that burning house, it must've been bad. But the missiles come to mind again.

No, it must've been terrible.

"They didn't say anything about wanting to talk with me," she murmurs, looking down at the white box in her hand.

Off to the left of the kitchen and living area is a set of table and chairs for him and his fellow giants. It was a little bit of an eyesore at first, but she's since gotten used to the strange quirks of Cybertronian design sensibility, and the seven-foot pieces don't bother her anymore. Hound stands up with a strong vent and a faint whir of his joints, and heads over to it, settling down with a shuffling clong. She follows with trepid footsteps and leans against the thick leg of an adjacent chair.

"You might be off the hook for now, then," he mumbles.

A heavy, stifling pause follows.

"Did you really plan on trying the pretender?"

"Prime would want to."

"...but you don't."

The giant mech vents again, steepling his thick, black fingers and drawing his mouth into a tight line. "It's not my call."

She vents too. Or sighs, as her own species calls it.

Astrid's attention is drawn upstairs, then, at the sound of a door opening. She opens her mouth to speak when Richard and Tracy approaching the railing above, but Hound beats her to it, even with his back to them.

"What did you hear?"

"W-we didn't hear hardly any -"

"Mom," she says flatly.

Richard clears his throat and speaks softly. "We heard almost everything."

The mech beside her visibly bristles.

"It's... he's an alien, isn't he?" Tracy asks.

"It makes no sense," Hound says, struggling not to lose his cool again. "Why would they talk so openly around you two?"

The idea of intelligent life in space isn't as earth-shaking a concept as it once was - faint and indecipherable radio signals were detected years before the Autobots came into the public eye. But still, aliens were things that belonged to the far-flung reaches of space, not anywhere near the little blue planet. Let alone on it. To the general public, the notion is as horrifying and unacceptable as finding out that your government is harboring Nazi war criminals.

The secret of both the Autobots' and Decepticons' true identity is closely guarded among those who know it, and those who know it are closely guarded themselves. And then it dawns on her.

"They're on the Bureau's list now," Astrid murmurs with a scowl, shaking her head. "That's the only reason they'd talk like that."

The older couple are headed down the stairs now, and they approach the enormous furniture with trepidation. Staying, as always, out of Hound's reach.

Tracy's salt and pepper brows press together; she's about to ask a question she doesn't want an answer for. "What list and what Bureau? I don't understand..."

"The Bureau of the Regulation of Extraterrestrial Machine Entities. They... they have a list, mom. A list of people who know about what... what Hound is. And once you're on that list..."

"You're on it forever," the mech gruffly finishes, still not looking at them.

Her parents exchange confused and fearful looks.

"I'm sorry," she says.

"What, exactly is going on here?" Richard asks as he glances from his daughter to the Autobot sitting at the table. "What are you actually doing over there for these people? For this agency that doesn't exist?"

Hound finally turns around in his seat to meet their gaze. "We shouldn't say," he vents. "Plausible deniability is still on your side. I want you to be able to fall back on that."

"Scott was right, wasn't he?"

Something in her face twitches. "Scott doesn't know jack shit," she snaps, catching herself too late. "Mom, dad - you have to promise me that you will take this with you to the grave. You can't tell anybody. Including Heather and Scott. I don't know much about the Bureau still, but I know that if you do, they'll make you wish you hadn't."

They nod, slowly.

Astrid groans a little in the back of her throat at the pain that's slowly beginning to return. A shooting ache races down her injured arm and she silently heads over to the kitchen to grab a glass of water so she can take another pill.

"I don't have anything to eat, by the way," she announces from the kitchen area.

"We'll... we'll go to the store," Tracy murmurs, shaking a little.

"You wanted pot pie tonight," her father says dumbly.

"If it's too much work, you really don't have to."

"No no," the woman interjects. "I need to take my mind off all of this. It'll give me something to do."

Hound addresses them this time. "Are you two OK with going down to the station in the morning with us?"

"That's why we're here..."

"Hound," Astrid says, finishing her water. "His name is Hound."


Codec can't believe the events as they've unfolded before him.

With a grinding, jagged growl of frustration, his body bristles: literally. What might be called a "back" arches upward and a dull pattern of spikes flow along it like waves, and his smooth, featureless face cracks open to reveal a glowing mouth filled with countless rows of bared teeth.

He doesn't understand!

The woman should have been dead within 24 hours - he'd taken the shape of that witless nurse and administered ten times the lethal dose of the substance! It should have torn her asunder from the inside! Tissue should have sloughed off into masses of liquefying flesh under their very eyes!

No.

He will not fail Soundwave a third time, regardless of the reason behind this disaster. The consequences will be dire indeed if he doesn't, and dying on this rock is a disgrace he's not interested in pursuing.

Why doesn't Soundwave make the scout himself do it? It would be easier and so fittingly ironic. He growls again - that would alert the Bureau far too soon, and they would likely respond by ripping out the Autobot's spark chamber at the very least. No, they need Hound intact.

Codec will wait, patiently as always, for the right time to strike again.

And this time he won't fail.

Chapter Text

Hound doesn't really have a whole lot to say for the rest of the evening.

Not since Tracy had said the "a-word".

He catches them staring at him out of the corners of their eyes, and it's just unnerving. Now that they know what he is. He can imagine what it must like to be them, though: a species so sheltered, really. How did Astrid take it so well when he blurted it out that first time? Sure, he remembers how her pulse quickened and she'd held onto her breath for a few seconds too long, letting it out when she'd remembered about it. But all she'd said was "wow", and they'd gotten on with the drive.

Nothing like being reminded of how enormous you are when you're surrounded by human civilians, though. They couldn't even touch the top of his chair back if they'd tried. The mech slumps a little in his seat, trying to feel a little smaller.

A little warm, fleshy hand on the side of his leg grabs his attention though, and he looks down into a pair of brown eyes. "You haven't eaten, er... well, you know what I mean. Not since we got back." He wonders if looking up all the time hurts her neck.

He reacquaints himself with his low energon levels, and nods. "Better go gas up," he says, forcing a smile. The moment he rises from his chair he can feel her parents' eyes on him from where they're in the middle of taking stock of the kitchen, and they stare as he heads to the rear of the space, to where his little energon dispenser is. As he pulls out a fresh cube, he looks their way for a brief moment before going back to what he was doing. Not that he has to worry about them believing him to be little more than a mindless automaton now, but they're still wary. Still hostile. And the Autobot would expect nothing less. He hopes that acknowledging them like this might ease their discomfort.

The cube is hardly such when he takes it out: it comes out of a little slot on the front of the machine, in the form of a transparent square pane. He grabs two opposing corners with his thumb and index finger then, and the other two with his other hand, and pulling them away from each other, draws the thing open. The cube is pushed against a lighted panel on the side of the machine, and with a little whirring noise, is filled. Warm and a touch alkaline, just how he likes it.

Hound makes for his berth on the adjacent wall, with Richard and Tracy still watching in silence. Astrid's reclined against the couch, studying her new phone with a scowl, but he looks past her and raises his cube. "Want some?" he offers with a little chuckle before sitting down again. They still have no idea what to make of him.

The warm energon sluices down his metal gullet, filtering down into his primary fuel tank, and feels like heaven after so many awful days without.

"We're going to the store," Tracy announces. Hound stares at his feet, nursing his drink. "If you need anything, give us a..."

While his optic is on the floor in front of him, his other equipment is still trained their way. He senses Astrid hold up the box and give it a shake. "Not yet. I'd like to make sure this thing is legit first. You just go and get whatever. It's alright. I promise I'll eat it." They make for the door, putting their coats on, when Astrid stops them. "When you get back, knock on the door four times so I know it's you?"

A silence.

"OK," Richard says.

"And stick together! Don't separate!"

They don't know what to make of that either.

When the door shuts behind them, Astrid heaves a heavy sigh and Hound finds himself scowling.

"I don't trust this thing," she announces, throwing the box clear across the floor until it skids to a halt by his foot. He picks it up and twists up his face at it. It's some kinda Samsung, and seems new. But he's not an engineer, and it's anyone's guess as to what might be hidden away on the little device's hard drive. The mech sets it down beside him and stares at the cube in his hands.

"I wouldn't either," he blandly offers, though he wants to say something else. "Hey Boots?"

"Yeah?"

"How'd you take it when I told you I was... not from Earth?"

"I was with you, wasn't I?"

"Yeah, but..." He chuckles a little. "I'm no mind-reader."

"I knew that you were an alive, thinking, feeling being," she starts. "You were just too complex to be a simulation, you know?" The thought brings a little lopsided smile to his broken face. "Besides, no matter what the press or the talking heads in Washington want people to think, it's kind of deep in our programming to expect things to be alive. Some old-ass part of us wants things to be alive, even. I don't know if you've noticed, but we are generally in the habit of talking to our stuff."

He laughs a little at this, nodding. The humans indeed do that sort of thing a lot, now that he thinks about it.

"Problem is," his human on the couch continues. "We lose our shit when it turns out stuff is alive. We lost the ability to acknowledge non-human intelligence a while ago."

"And how long is 'a while ago'?"

She laughs and shakes her head. "A few centuries at least. In other words, no time at all."

The mech's grin turns toothy.

"Why'd you tell me to begin with?"

He looks her way for a moment, then back to his cube. Its faint, fuchsia glow is a bit on the mesmerizing side. Why did he tell her? She was practically a stranger to him then, and he was just a mech who wanted to give her a lift. Maybe it was his way of rebelling against an uncomfortable status quo. "I guess I trusted you for some reason," he relents at length, venting. "Things were simpler before all of..." Hound gestures to the space around them here: "...this. I didn't know how deep the rabbit hole went. But I'm beginning to understand now."

Even with his optic still on the drink, he can see her get up from the couch and pad quietly over to him. When she stops beside the rough-hewn girth of his leg, he bends down with arm extended and palm up, and she steps into it so he can raise her to the berth. Astrid doesn't sit beside him, deciding to stand - something she hasn't gotten much of in the past few days.

"Seemed so complicated back then," she says, resting her chin on the top of his blocky black shoulder. "Not in a million years could we have anticipated this."

Hound allows himself to marvel, for a moment, at how wise she is for being so young. At 29 Terran years, he'd barely gotten the hang of transformation, and wasn't even let loose to find his way in the world yet. There wasn't a scratch or dent on him at that point. He can't imagine being able to have anything useful to say to anyone at that age.

Well, he still can't, but he sure does try.

"You OK?"

He turns his head to look at her sidelong before letting it drop again as he frowns.

Am I OK? Of course not!

"The Bureau has been nothing but a nightmare since they took you." He vents, squelching memories that seem to be so far away already. "A nightmare." He refuses to tell her why - refuses to tell her the things that Doley said and did. If it were up to him, she'd never know. "And now they want me back at the site tomorrow? With that slagger still out there?"

She's silent.

"I can't leave you," he says, voice softening. He feels helpless, dammit. "Not for a minute."

Out of the side of his sensory field he catches her check her arm: touching it gingerly. She winces and lets out a faint and breathy groan at the pain. Of course it still hurts, Boots...

"We'll sleep on it," she suggests weakly. "Figure it out in the morning."


The rest of the evening is odd. Richard and Tracy announce their return with the requested four knocks, but Hound can't help training his scanners on them to look for any evidence that they might not be who they say they are. But there's nothing.

Astrid's returned to the couch, and for the rest of the night is waited on hand and foot as Hound sits on the ground next to her, arms on his knees, as he spends the time going over Jazz's report and writing up memos of his own. He wants to reach over to where she is on the couch and touch her, but not with the Schneiders nearby. He's not feeling so brave right now.

After dinner they bring her bedding down and make up the couch for her, and she has to reassure them that she has no problem with letting them stay upstairs. She'd said that she was going to feel safer the closer to him she could get anyway. His spark wants to feel good about having her speak about him like that, but the circumstances prevent him. So it sinks a little instead.

When the couple go to bed and an hour later, he's still sitting beside the couch, lost in his own mindless thoughts. Astrid's taken a painkiller and is quickly falling asleep.

He finds himself poking around the internet, and after a few minutes, arrives at the front page of a video website. A hot, creeping sort of feeling worms its way through him, and before long he's staring at a list of videos with blurry thumbnails colored black and orange. Spectator footage from Friday night.

There's something he thinks he's looking for, though, and he sees it after scrolling a little: a still featuring a hulking black mass against a backdrop of searing flames lapping at the night sky, embers and sparks swirling around the viewfinder.

"Stand back!" a voice in the video says, loud enough to be heard over the cacophony.

Hound almost doesn't recognize his own voice; if not for the camera quickly panning over to a big SUV pulled up among the crowd that, in a matter of seconds, becomes a bipedal creature, he might not have put two and two together.

His voice was not something that he liked a whole lot, and for reasons beyond him. Since coming to Earth he's tried tweaking it a little, finding inspiration in "older" movies and TV shows. For a while he tried speaking a little more like someone that the American humans thought of fondly, modeling his cadence after the actor Jimmy Stewart. They'd all taken cues from famous humans back in those days, but most of them have since slowly reverted to something more natural. Hound, on the other hand, still had a little bit of Jimmy in him and it was one of the few things he did like about the way he spoke. It injected warmth into an otherwise cold, deep, vocalizer. Made him feel more accessible.

The view from two meters off the ground is hardly flattering: he looks enormous. Gargantuan, even. His feet look big enough to smash a car and hands sturdy enough to tie a knot out of an I-beam. The tire treads built into his upper back and heels look rough enough to shave off skin. (Though none of this is exactly far from the truth.) For a split second, he looks in the general direction of the anonymous cameraman, and with a frightful, one-eyed frown, he bounds off toward the flames, leaving the crowd to vibrate with his every heavy footfall.

ENCOUNTER WITH AUTOBOT IN ALASKA! that one was called.

He looked up another. Then another. And still another. Five different videos, and five different angles later -

"What are you doing?"

The Jeep jerks out of his alpha subroutines. Literally, he jerks. When his optic onlines a split-second later, he sees what he'd accidentally subjected her to: on the floor in front of him, bathing them both in red, is the video. He'd been thinking "aloud" - his body betrayed him.

The image disappears and they're plunged into darkness, but the damage is done. Her heart is beating hard and her hands are cold.

"I..."

The air is thick with expectancy.

"Why were you looking up videos of yourself? W-why those videos? Dammit, I was right goddamn here."

"I thought you were asleep," he blurts out before burying his face in his hand. "I'm sorry. Primus, I'm sorry... I didn't know. I didn't know I was doing that."

"Why, though?" she repeats with a sigh.

The heat rises in his core. "Sometimes I like to see what I look like to you." He gestures with a gentle nod of his head upstairs. "And now, what I might look like to them."

She mulls this over for a moment. "What do you see?"

"A big metal thing."

"A thing?"

"I don't like the way I look."

"What are you talking about?"

Hound wants to just drop the conversation, but he can't at this point. It would be the epitome of rude. "Just the... the everything. I look monstrous."

He can feel her frown pressing into him even though she's gotten no closer.

"Don't worry about them," is all she says.

"And why shouldn't I?" he finds himself saying, gesticulating with his huge hands. They're practically as big as his own head. "They're your family. Maybe I'd like to have their respect someday."

"You may not get it," she whispers.

"Why not?"

"Because they're human."

The word hits him like a ton of lead and for a few minutes he's not sure why. But it creeps over him like itching rust, and he realizes that they're both in exactly the same position. Exchange Richard and Tracy for Prowl and any other Autobot who has no personal love of organics and it's the same damn thing. But that's not the whole story.

"I do it for me too sometimes," he admits quietly. His elbows are resting on his knees, and his right hand is worrying at the side of his helm. "I didn't join the Autobots to fight. But if I've got to, I want to at least make sure I'm the good guy when I do."

"Hound, I was going to be burned up alive in that god-forsaken house if you hadn't ripped it open like a damn tin can. You saved me. Again. What more do you want?"

He's not quite sure anymore.


The morning is quiet. Hound, having one foot in the world of military protocol and another in the life of civilians, can move between them like a frog can move between land and water, so he's able to see this situation from several sides. He's actually looking forward to speaking with the Commissioner again, though, and seeing what they've since come up with... if anything.

Prowl and I have decided that you should keep the Pretender stuff from them if at all possible, Jazz says in a quick, early morning briefing. They might've helped us Friday night, but jury's still out on just how much was them and how much was just sheer dumb luck. Let them continue thinking that they're after a human perp for now. If someone's going to break the news to 'em, let it be the Bureau.

Roger sir, Hound sighs over their comm. Should I bring up the... the EMP?

That would be an emphatic no, Hound. We want Perceptor to analyze those data tracks to try and see if we might spot something you didn't - before you go tellin' anybody.

Oh?

Frankly, you're the best eyes and ears we've got on this planet, and if someone pulled a fast one on you, then that's got us all worried. What's that old slogan? 'Loose lips sink ships'?

Hound nods, though Jazz doesn't see it. It's something that's been bothering him, but he hasn't exactly had time to dwell on it. But now that Jazz has brought it up again, the green mech realizes that it does paint a worrying picture. A Pretender with a grudge is on the loose, someone out there has the means to sneak up on one of the best Autobot scouts without leaving a trace, and the Bureau wants custody should they find the Pretender. And the worst part still is that this could be the work of either BREME or the Decepticons - it fits both their MOs.

When do you want me down? asks the Jeep.

We've got you scheduled for Friday morning. That was the soonest they'll let you leave.

And Astrid?

...Still working on that. I'm not exactly in their good graces right now after what I did up there, but I'll get Prowl on the line with them if I need to. They like him, at any rate. He speaks their language.

Hound snorts; but it's through a combination of choked internals and a gust of cycled air. That he does, the Jeep thinks darkly to himself. Aloud, though: They want her back Thursday. Ark or no Ark, I don't want to leave her. No, I'mnot leaving her.

I get it, Hound, I really do. We're helping you the best we can. Trust me when I say that we don't want anyone getting hurt, here - least of all a human.

I know, I know. Sorry. Hound pauses, recalling the argument from yesterday. Jazz, there's something else you should know.

I don't think I can handle any more good news, the Porsche chuckles, obviously tired. What you got?

It's the Bureau, he begins, almost wincing. If we catch the Pretender, they want it.


Hound's in the middle of wrapping up one last minor report as the Schneiders make breakfast. He's not exactly engrossed in the task - just summarizing in more formal terms what he'd told Jazz on their briefing earlier - so when Tracy begins staring at the mech again, confused, fascinated, fearful, he notices.

"What is it - he - doing?"

When he does work like this, it looks a helluva lot like he's daydreaming, or lost in pensive thought. Astrid's learned to read his body language a little, though, and can usually tell the difference between him thinking and working.

"I'm writing a memo," he answers before Astrid has the chance to. If he's going to be around them like this, if they're going to go about their lives with the knowledge that extraterrestrial intelligence is present on Earth...

...if he's going to continue dating their daughter, then he might as well make sure they get to know him.

Hound's still seated on the floor next to the couch, with his back to the kitchen. A meek and cautious "oh" comes from behind him, and they go back to what they were doing. But a thought strikes him, as he looks down at his hand, turning it over under his monocular gaze. It reminds him of something.

"Mister Schneider," he says, back still to them. He turns his head a little to get a peek of them out of the edge of his field of vision.

The white-haired man starts a little, then goes back to cracking eggs into a bowl. "...Yes?"

"I didn't get a chance to tell you, but I'm a big fan of your work, sir." A little more of that Jimmy Stewart is coming out. Astrid might think this too formal of him, but as far as he's concerned, the man is his superior right now.

He hears him stop, and the two women fall silent.

"My photography?" the man asks.

"Your color and composition are phenomenal," the mech continues, keeping his voice light but level. "And you do a great job of capturing scale."

"Why, uh, thank you."

"A question, though."

"Yes?"

"Why do you work under a pseudonym?"

A faint chuckle escapes the man, and Hound can hear him whisk the eggs. "Lee's my middle name. It just... sounds better."


They're due at the precinct at 10, and it's at 9:30 that Hound gets a phone call from one of Phillips' detectives.

They'd found something big and needed him in the building to talk about it.

That wasn't originally part of the plan - he was to simply sit outside while Astrid did her questioning and gave her statements, but apparently that's changed.

He'd expected Astrid to be withdrawn and tense, but she's taking it well, all things considered. Her heart rate remains more or less in the normal range for the drive over to the station. Even with her parents in his back seats.

Not surprisingly, they start when his voice fills his occupied cabin.

"Are you sure you're feeling alright about this?" He bites back the 'Boots' that wants to come out, but he's not sure how Richard and Tracy will take it.

She rests the side of her head against the window - he's got much less sensation in the "glass" - and shrugs, furrowing her brows. "I have to do it." He knows what they're both thinking. "They might be able to help us find..." her voice falters for a moment. "Find that guy."

"I'll be scanning the building the whole time, alright?"

She nods.

"And if it gets to be too much, don't be afraid to ask for a break."

They pull into the parking lot and she opens the door. Richard and Tracy exchange looks and disembark too. He gives them a quiet moment as he pulls into a spot and prepares his holoform.

"Good luck, Boots!" he finds himself blurting out, and not inside the cabin this time. The three of them stop mid-stride and Astrid gives him a little wave as they go inside.


"So what's this all about?" the holoform asks the Commissioner as they near the end of a dreary hallway.

Phillips opens the door and switches on a light, revealing a storage room. Large shelving units are arranged in a few aisles, and they're filled up mostly with bankers boxes, each clearly labelled. He can't smell remotely, but he imagines that it would be a grim sensation.

The Commissioner wordlessly walks him down one of the aisles - clearly a thoroughfare - and leads them through an open doorway at the end. In the adjacent space is the white van.

"Oh."

"Found it in the river yesterday," the older man announces, rubbing at his bushy mustache. "Homeowner noticed tire tracks leading down to the river on his property."

Hound can see now that this much is clear. It's dirty, but from silt. A few pieces of stray freshwater plant matter has gotten caught in the windshield wipers and side mirrors.

The Commissioner continues, circling around the vehicle. "Didn't even bother trying to clean up after himself. Whoever it was, he was in a rush."

"No kidding," the holo murmurs, studying the van. Memories flood the mech in the parking lot, but he wills himself to shove them aside. He's also struggling to not give away the fact that he knows what sort of person the perp was, hoping that Astrid can keep those details to herself as well. Primus, he hopes she has the wherewithal to do that. In the meantime, he approaches the opened rear doors, and spies some blood on the floor. "You swab that?" Of course they did, but he still asks. If blood residue that obvious remained in the submerged vehicle, then it couldn't have been in the water for more than a few hours.

"DNA's not in yet."

"I'm betting it's Astrid's," he murmurs quietly. "What else did you find?"

"Hair, fiber, prints from the homeowners from the arson - they were killed in the fire, by the way - and two other interesting things."

"Two?"

"Different set of prints," he grunts. "Prints without prints, really. And they weren't burned off, neither."

Hound bristles outside. Cybertronians didn't produce oil, or sebum, or anything like that. Not even the hardlight holos could. Pretender technology had advanced since it was outlawed. Why would the Pretender bother to replicate skin oils, though? He wracks his CPU, trying to remember the secretion's natural purpose in humans.

"And the other?"

"Honestly, Mister Hound, the van isn't why we called you. It's what we found in the back that we needed your opinion on; it has forensics stumped."

He doesn't like the sound of that, and his holo frowns accordingly.

"In here," Phillips says, leading him away to yet another adjacent room, staffed by a single young woman at a work station. "This is Miss Carlton, one of our forensic investigators."

The woman, probably in her early thirties, looks older than that. He can detect faint residues in her clothing that tell him she's a smoker. "Nice to meet you, ma'am."

Carlton looks from Hound to Phillips with a very confused look on her face. "Uh, sir...?"

"He's with me," he says a little cryptically. When he sees that she's still got the look on her face: "Autobot," he grunts. Some kind of vague understanding crosses her features, but with one question answered, a whole slew of others just presented themselves to her. But there's no time to ask them right now.

"Lia, if you could show him the container."

Container?

She seems to light up at this, and Hound's own interest is mighty piqued. She dismounts the tall work chair and fetches a large box from a shelving unit from the back of the lab, setting it down on some clear counter space. The box is labelled with a series of numbers, and below them, in sharpie: Schneider, A.

"Nobody here can figure out what this thing is," she says, undoing the flaps. "Never seen anything like it."

The holo approaches the box and peers down inside. What greets him is a sort of canister. It's large, about 100 cm long and thereabouts around the middle, and from the way Miss Carlton was carrying the box it didn't seem heavy. It's no ordinary container, though, and he knows now why they'd never seen anything like it. It's a bright, brushed metal, and the fact that he can't see any seams tells him that it was machined from a single piece of material. A series of six clamps - very handsomely designed, he must say - seems to hold a lid in place at one end. The only marking on the whole thing is a single word near the lip of the lid: CAUTION.

Something in Hound hesitates then, and only much later will he be able to look back and know what the feeling actually was. For now, though, he chalks it up to a little hiccup in his processors, maybe some residual corruption from the EMP, and with a little frown, he ignores it.

"Looks expensive," the mech remarks as Carlton slips on a pair of gloves before reaching in to lift it out.

"Very," she says. "If you intend on handling it, you'll need to put on some gloves first."

"No need," the Jeep says with a little smile and a shake of his head. "This is a hologram." He phases his hand through the thing to prove his point and the investigator jumps back with a gasp at the sight. Phillips just chuckles. The man in the cowboy hat reaches for the container and is surprised that he's able to lift it - the holo's maximum load is about 18 kilos - and lift it easily, at that. It weighs, by his measure, about 4 kilos. Hardly anything for something that size. "Have you opened it yet?"

"There's about three and a half ounces of fine black powder inside and nothing else."

"Which means how much?"

"Twenty cubic inches and change."

He does the conversion to metric in his CPU. In other words, a little less than a sandwich bag full. Not much.

"You run it through a spectrometer yet?"

"Still working on it," Carlton grumbles, thumbing at a bank of machines along the far wall behind her, some of them newer, but most of them are old. One of them is humming away. "As you can see, funding is a little hard to come by around here."

"Can I open it up?"

"Hold on," she says, reaching for a respirator and goggles. She hands it to the commissioner before fetching herself a pair. "Alright, go ahead."

He undoes the strangely complex clamps, and again feels that halting sensation. It's not that he's hesitant, but rather that for a split second, he doesn't know how to proceed. Odd. But once again, it's over, and he goes back to what he's doing.

Hound notes the seeming redundancy of there being six clamps on the thing, when it's obvious that one or two would have done a sufficient job. Moreover, they're simply holding the canister shut, not actually locking it. No key or passcode is required to get inside. To him, this means that whatever is inside is dangerous, and that whoever the owner was knew this. Knew this but wasn't afraid of it falling into the wrong hands. Cocksure, the Jeep decides.

Just like Carlton had said, the inside holds a not insignificant amount of a black powder that bears a close resemblance to dust. It glimmers faintly as it catches the ambient light from the lab, and Hound wonders if it might be a silicate.

A container worth several thousands of dollars just to hold 100 grams of a substance that appears to be worthless?

"You mind if I do my own analysis? No offense to you or your outfit, Commissioner, but between me and those machines, I'm afraid there's just no contest."

"No offense taken," he chuckles through the respirator. "Pull up to the gate, I'll have the guard let you in."

The man in the cowboy hat dissolves himself with a nod and a few moments later, Hound is rapping on the forensic lab's garage door. The metal panels roll up and away on motorized tracks, revealing the white van.

Now that he's pulled back into himself, though, Hound notices that there's something on the air. A faint whisper of... something familiar. But he can't quite place it.

"Holy shit!" Miss Carlton's voice from down below brings him back to reality. "It really is an Autobot!"

"Alright, alright," Phillips says with a dismissive wave of his hand. He's holding out the canister and Hound takes it from him/.

His analysis only takes a few seconds, which isn't surprising. He's no portable lab like Wheeljack, or diagnostitician like Ratchet, but he's got some damn fine hardware for seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and otherwise sensing anything and everything in a 40 meter radius. Interpreting the data, though, is not his strong suit. For millennia one of his primary jobs has been to see, to remember, and report back to someone else.

Oh, how he wishes this were one of those times, though.

Because as soon as the analysis is done, he's jarred into high alert by an old protocol being triggered - one he hasn't tripped since the height of the war - and he's greeted by red. A lot of red. Translated into English, it might say something like:

PROTOCOL 971, FILE NAME: THETA-CLASS WEAPONS INDEX

FUNCTION x3440100110030

ID MATCH: POLYNUCLEATED BOROTRISILICASE FENESTRANE

COMMON ID: RED HAND

MARGIN OF ERROR: LESS THAN 0.4%

RECOMMENDATIONS: IMMEDIATELY REPORT TO AUTOBOT WAR COUNCIL

FILE END

Hound's foreprocessors go blank for a minute before he realizes that his spark has stopped spinning. With measured movements and trembling hands, he slowly puts the lid back on and sets it on the ground before backing away. In fact, he backs into the barbed wire fence.

"If you could clamp that lid on nice and tight, Commissioner, and, uh, rinse off the outside with some water, please," Hound says, voice stiff.

"Hound?" Phillips does as he's asked, but there's a suspicious look on his face. He hands the thing over to Miss Carlton, who goes inside. "Did you figure out what it is?"

The Jeep nods slowly, venting shallow and ragged. "Yeah," he murmurs. "It's a death sentence for -" he catches himself here. "For certain kinds of machines."

The Commissioner looks at him long and hard. "A what?"

"If... if any of it..." Hound shakes his head to clear his thoughts. "Look, it's above my paygrade. And it sure as hell is above yours too."

"Did any get on you?"

He's already running scans. "I-I don't think so."

"Get that hologram back in here so we can talk."

"Yes, sir."

Hound transforms, pulling hastily out of the guarded driveway and back into the parking lot outside. His CPU is a mess right now, and he can barely concentrate enough on the task at hand to get the holo out again. The Red Hand virus had... a nasty reputation. Hound had never seen its effects in person, but every wartime mech knew what it was. The cycles leading up to the almost-assured moment of spark collapse was, frankly, the stuff of nightmares. It was one of the most potent weapons of biochemical warfare that had ever been used in Cybertronian history. Needless to say, Hound is confused, angry, and afraid.

What in Primus' name is it doing here? On Earth? In a container made by human hands?!

Like he'd said, though - it's above his paygrade.

He's just about got a handle on his nerves when he notices that same strange "smell" from earlier - some kind of residual energy or chemical signature in the air. Something deep in the back of his CPU clicks. Suddenly, old military scout protocols kick in, and the amiable mech dissolves into someone with 27 tours of duty under his belt.

The man in the cowboy hat is standing next to the van, but it must've been apparent that no one was home for a few seconds.

"Hound..?"

"Someone's here," the holo says without opening its mouth.

"Who's here -?"

He's gone before the words have a chance to leave the Commissioner's mouth.

Got to find where she is, he chants in his foreprocessors, hardlight avatar sprinting down the hallway. I've got to find..!

He's not bothering with really trying to imitate a real human body anymore. He's clipping on everything that's getting in his way and phasing through walls as he sweeps every damn room that he passes in the precinct. The smell is growing stronger.

It doesn't take long for the place to wind up in an uproar, though. Someone's scrambling to describe the phenomenon over the PA system; he's some kind of intruder. Not that Hound notices or cares right now, but in a hot minute the Commissioner will be shouting orders for everyone to stand down over his radio.

The station's bigger than he first guessed, though, but it quickly becomes apparent that the top two floors don't have what he's looking for. So he drops into a basement level - down through the floor - and winds up in a pitch black room with a single heat signature. The reddish-orange blob appearing on his sensors is shaped like a human, but it's unmoving. It's when Hound checks for a heartbeat that he realizes that he's not a meter from the body of a police officer, stripped of his uniform. And he's been dead for minutes at best.

Hound swallows his bubbling horror, quickly taking stock of the scene before him. Neck broken, swiftly and deftly, and with a styrofoam cup of water spilled on the floor nearby. A cup of water that, perhaps, might have been intended for someone else.

No... no, no no...

The man in the cowboy hat phases out of the room and into the hallway where, for a brief second, he catches glimpse of an identical police officer walk into a room some 10 meters down, and close the door behind him.

"NO!"

Hound removes the holo and silently reappears it inside the locked interrogation room, behind the doppelganger. Nothing clever comes out of his avatar's mouth; there's no striking pose, no artful choreography, no pause. The mech has the Pretender in an ugly chokehold only a fraction of a second later, and Astrid leaps up to her feet, heart racing, at the sudden attack.

"My god Hound! What are you doing!"

The imposter reaches for the officer's radio, and he's barely able to get out a rasping syllable before Hound cuts him off.

WHAM.

The man in the cowboy hat throws him down, head-first into the edge of the heavy table with a sharp bang. Astrid shrieks, expecting gore. But it's quickly obvious that it was the table that'd cracked and not a skull.

"Get up," the mech demands when the man just lays there on the floor like a limp fish. He knows that he can take a harder hit than that. "I said get up!"

The Pretender just starts to laugh, though.

"Shut up," the Jeep growls, lifting up his yellow-booted foot to bring it down on that ugly false face...

...but this guy is fast. In a flash he's whipped around and grabbed the holo's foot, throwing the man in the cowboy hat to the ground faster than Hound can go massless. He doesn't hit the linoleum floor, though; he just clips through it awkwardly, trying to get his bearings. But before he has the chance to recalibrate himself, the Decepticon is on his feet.

And he's holding his sidearm to Astrid's head.

"Hound.."

Spark fluid boils in the mech outside. "You're here to finish the job," he snarls.

"What can I say? I'm a courteous mech. If I make a mess, I like to tidy up after myself."

His sensors catch him begin to squeeze the trigger, and without thinking he appears the first thing the comes to mind into the pistol's empty cavities: liquid cement.

Click.

The Pretender frowns and pulls the trigger again.

Click.

"You of all mechs should know not to underestimate the versatility of hardlight tech," the man in the cowboy hat mutters.

With a growl, he flips the gun around in his hand, not taking his eyes off the hologram, butt facing Astrid now. In an instant, he lifts his arm to hit her with it, but before the Autobot even raises his own - there's no liquid cement for this - Astrid turns around in his loosened grip and takes her palm to the underside of his nose.

He's knocked off-balanced by the retaliation, but there's no blood, no broken bones, and no gurgling scream that usually comes with such an attack. Just another ugly noise and some cursing in Cybertronian. He takes another swing at her with the gun again, but she ducks out of the way so that Hound can grab him by the forearm. The two of them struggle for a few moments - Hound has to be very careful about how and when he applies his holo's meager strength, here - and perhaps thanks to the mech's greater-than-average skill in hand-to-hand fighting, the same hand-to-hand fighting that Prowl had once chastised him for, he manages to smash the Pretender's hand into the wall with just enough force to get him to let go of the gun. It falls to the floor and slides away.

Astrid dives at it before Hound can be overpowered again, raising the business end to the imposter. Their struggle abruptly ends.

Hound notices now that her breathing is short and heart racing. Beads of sweat drip down her scowling brow, and her hands are shaking. She is the image of pure rage right now.

"Where do I sh-shoot him," she manages.

"Don't! He's not flesh, he's -!"

He'd put the cement back in there to keep her from hurting herself, but he doesn't have the energy to spare anymore. He hopes words will be enough to keep her from doing something dangerous.

"I KNOW what he is!" she hisses. "I know exactly what he is. Now tell me where it'll hurt him the goddamn most."

The Pretender stars laughing. "She's kidding, right? You've got to be -"

BLAM!

The bullet hits the Pretender in the eye, tearing the seemingly-organic organ from its bloodless socket. It flies across the room and once it collides with a far wall, it's not an eye anymore: just a spatter of what looks like liquid mercury, dribbling down toward the floor.

The Decepticon lets out a mechanized cry that almost vibrates the air. Another expletive from back home.

"A-Astrid, put the gun down. Please, put the -"

"That was for you, though!" she shouts, face wild. "This is the motherfucker that took your eye, Hound!"

"Astrid! This is not how Autobots do things! Besides, I don't want bullets ricocheting in here! I'm easy to fix, you're not! Just put it down..."

"You're right, I'm not easy to fix," she mutters.

BLAM!

Pieces of the pretender's uniform explode over his left arm, revealing more dribbling metallic skin underneath the human disguise. "Stupid human bitch!" the Pretender howls.

"Hound," she warns, her hands shaking even more now. "Shut him up otherwise I'm going to empty this entire fucking magazine at him."

Suddenly, though, there's pounding at the locked door, and muffled shouting. And suddenly, Astrid's resolve crumbles, like she's been woken from a dream. She blinks, staring at the gun in her hands, and with a few gasping breaths, she realizes what just happened. The gun is set onto the table and she steps away from it.

The man in the cowboy hat nods at her. Good. You did good.

But he's temporarily distracted by the sudden jerk in his holo's weak arms: the Pretender is trying to pull a fast one. "Oh no you don't," the Jeep hisses. Stasis lock. They gotta put him in stasis lock before they can do anything else. But how? "Astrid, open the door and grab that gun again."

She looks at him, very confused.

"Just trust me, alright?"

The human nods, grabbing the weapon again, and darts over to the door, yanking it open with trembling fingers just as two officers rush to approach with a hand-held battering ram.

"Out of the way!" Hound's holo bellows.

"Hey, what -"

"He's got - !"

"- that's not -"

"- that's fucked - !"

"What happened to - ?"

"MOVE!" shouts the man in the cowboy hat, still just barely containing the Decepticon in his weak grip. "Someone lead the way to the exit! And Astrid, if you could -"

"On it," his human replies, gritting her teeth and holding the gun to the imposter's chest. Right over that unshielded spark of his.

Just like that, though, they race out of the building. Up the stairs, down a hallway, past the lobby, and past Richard and Tracy. They leap up at the sight of their daughter holding a gun to an officer's chest, with the rest of the precinct swarmed behind them, weapons drawn, shouting.

Once outside, the holo and Astrid make it to the end of the block, with a crowd of officers and civilians amassed behind them. This is as good as it's going to get for what he's got to do.

The man in the cowboy hat falls still and silent as Hound pulls the rest of his consciousness back into his real body, and he hopes that the Pretender doesn't get a chance to capitalize on this moment of vulnerability. Half a second later, though, tires are replaced with heels and hands, and he's bounding down the pavement. The police are shouting, now, unsure of what to do, and Astrid is holding the gun to the imposter's chest with every ounce of will that she has. His holo is still clutching the Pretender as Hound rushes over. It winks away as the metal giant reaches down to grasp Codec in a much stronger, much more real vice-grip.

Everyone falls silent.

"You have no idea how much I want to kill you right now, in front of all these people."

The Decepticon spits at him. As it hits his cheek, the transparent fluid changes into that selfsame liquid metal.

"Good to know that hardlight is still more realistic," Hound scoffs. "So how do you want this to go down, scrapbag? Because I know of a few real ugly ways to deal with you."

The loathsome Decepticon in his hands just growls, and begins to writhe. Seconds later, the man shifts and ebbs and is torn asunder as he assumes his true shape: a bright body of metal, smooth and nearly featureless, with a long stump for a head. Astonished cries and gasps erupt from the crowd about them.

"Listen up, humans!" he bellows, twisting around his Hound's grip to face them. His voice sounds like bones in a wood chipper. Hound's hard face hardens even more, though his optic stares at the sight before him in vague horror. "Your end is upon you!" No. No, no, no. "The war is here and the Decepticons have won."

Hound's frown is deep enough to hold water by this point, and his spark is spinning furiously. But it's what the Pretender does next that has the Jeep scared.

He turns back around, revealing nothing but a glowing red mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth, and in Cybertronian, says: "Clock's ticking, master."

His slick, cold body hits the ground hard, and Hound's foot on his chest hits even harder.

The crowd cries out in astonishment. That is, everyone but Astrid. She's standing there, swaying a little, and still holding the gun - but there's a grimness, there. Rancor. And the barest hint of pleasure at seeing their enemy literally crushed underfoot.

As Hound looks around him, though, taking real stock of the scene for the first time, he sees that everyone is looking at him with awe and uncertainty, and it's attention that he doesn't want right now. No; not with that creeping feeling in his CPU. He has no idea what Codec's last words meant, but they've got him spooked.

"What in the hell is that thing?" says a man that Hound recognizes as the Commissioner. His gun is still drawn as he carefully approaches the disabled Pretender. "And where is the real Williams?"

"He's a..." We're AI, not aliens. "Black project gone rogue. And I'm afraid that Williams is dead, sir."

"Dead?"

"Storage closet," the Autobot murmurs, then points to the scraps of uniform scattered about his feet. "That was his."

Phillips' face scrunches up for a brief moment as two officers exchange looks and dart back into the building. "The rest of you," he barks, "Get this block taped off! I want crowd control, I want the coroner on the horn, and I want a goddamned tarp to cover this ugly sonnova bitch!" He heaves a great sigh, watching as his men get to work before turning to Hound and Astrid with a much quieter voice. "Hound?"

"Yeah?"

"I take it you know who to contact to take care of that thing?"

He nods, as though it's a no-brainer. Truthfully, the mech is still torn about what to do about this Earthbound Pretender, but right now...

Astrid sets the gun down on the ground with a shaking hand, and nears him. If Autobots had muscles, he might be trembling too. Their eyes meet - three between them - and she collapses against the bulk of his massive leg when he kneels down.

"I... I don't know what came over me. I..."

He shushes her, placing his hand against her back and holding her as close as he can manage. (As close as he dares.) "It's all over, now. You did good, Boots. You did good."

"It's not over," she says, though, little soft hands grasping at his arm.

He vents raggedly. Well, for her it's over. For him, though? It's just beginning. She must've known that much, at least.

"I know. Boots, we've gotta do something shady now." Hound does not, for the record, like where this thought is taking him. It's not like him to think this way, and it's definitely not like him to act this way, but all bets are off when it comes to BREME. The Bureau just has a habit of bringing the worst out of people. But now's not the time to debate about it. A decision has to be made fast - before Doley shows up. "There's a horrible Decepticon weapons that's turned up, and the Bureau has no idea its here," he says quietly. "We're going to take it to AHQ without telling them."

The little sunkissed human still clutching at his knee gives him a look. She's exhausted, body and soul, but she knows there's no going back now, and it kills him that she's coming along for this awful ride. She's coming willfully.

"I'll ask later," she murmurs, suddenly sounding very old.

"Go to your parents," he says quietly, nodding in their direction. Her gaze follows his. "I've got to go... take some initiative."

She steps away, and Hound subspaces the gun for her. For a brief moment he thinks about doing the same to the comatose Decepticon - he'll fit in Hound's sub-dimensional pocket, no question there - but the unshielded spark would... well, Hound's not sure if anyone's subpsaced an unshielded spark before. Wheeljack would probably know what could happen, but now's not the time to take that chance. He has to leave something for BREME to take home, and Codec is looking like the better choice. He watches as a black tarp is lowered down on top of the hideous Cybertronian's body and tears himself away to speak with the Commissioner.

"I'm going to have my people analyze that stuff you found in the van," he says, trying to hide his trepidation. "We've been authorized to take it by... you know. That "military outfit"."

Phillips looks at him long and hard, then nods with a sigh. "Not like I can stop any of you people. S'above my paygrade too... nobody tells the cops nothin'."

Hound chuckles a little, but the smile quickly fades as he kneels down. "This is a highly sensitive matter, Commissioner. I need your word that you'll use the utmost discretion when deciding who to... disclose this to."

"Look, Autobot, I'll do my best, but unless somebody starts tellin' me what's going on or who you people are, it's all Greek to me. But I'll keep my trap shut as long as I can."

"Thanks, Commissioner."

Hound quickly makes himself scarce just as news vans start pulling up. He heads around back to the forensics lab, which, he finds when he activates his holo with what dwindling energy reserves he's got left, is empty. He uses it to grab the canister and open the garage door and as soon as its within arm's reach, the thing disappears from the softlight's grasp, tucked safely away in the Autobot's subspace. He does not like the feeling of stowing that particular cargo away - it feels like a ticking time bomb. But he's not done yet.

Disabling the holo, he sends out some cybernetic feelers into Miss Carlton's computer and spends the next few minutes scrubbing the object's file clean. Well, not clean, exactly, but he does change some of the entries - namely the subject's composition, which the forensics investigator hadn't gotten around to entering yet because the results weren't in before all of this insanity went down. He writes something much less dangerous in the input field: SiO2. Silicon dioxide, an extremely common Earth compound.

Enabling the holo again, though, he realizes he's got one last bit of Red Hand to remove from the lab before anyone returns. With unsure movements, he opens the mass spectrometer in the corner of the lab - it's since completed its analysis - and removes the sample, holding onto it for subspacing too. He's not entirely sure that this is the only other sample in the lab, but he's running out of time. With one last jerk of an electronic finger, he targets the computer displaying the MS's results - a plain little graph of thin lines showing the dust's chemical composition - and strangles it into a blue screen of death. "I hope that's it," he murmurs to himself, frowning. Playing saboteur is not in his MO.

A minute later, he's back outside and transforming. He pulls up a little too fast - a little too harried - and throws his doors open as he screeches to a halt in front of them. "We gotta go!"

Astrid jumps in, but her parents are practically shell-shocked. She has to usher them in.

"You need a ride back, and we need to take care of some business. C'mon!"


"What is it?"

Astrid's studying the semi-transparent orange diagram of the Red Hand container that Hound is projecting into the air between them. It's rotating slowly, giving her a three-dimensional view of it.

"It's like a... a virus that infects Cybertronians."

"Like a computer virus?"

"No. A biological virus. Imagine a... a bubonic plague bomb."

"Why is it here? Where'd they find it?"

"Codec must have had it," the Jeep relents, venting shakily. "Which means the Decepticons must have had it. Where they got it from, I... I don't know." A pause. "This is what I'm taking back to headquarters, though."

"You're going without me?"

"Astrid, I took this and I scrubbed that lab as clean as I could to prevent anyone from finding out what this stuff is. But the Commissioner knows, and I can only expect him to lie for us so many times." He puts his face in his hand and shakes his head. "I don't want you in cahoots with me if I can avoid it. Not... not this time."

"No," she barks, indignant. "No. You can't do this to me, not with all the shit I've been through this week. I've got a mystery to solve too, you know." She gestures to herself, and Hound remembers the bandages covering her arms; the thick square of gauze covering up a hole in her arm. He remembers the black specks in her blood. Maybe Ratchet could take a look...

Hound nods. "OK. You come too."

"Not sure what we're going to tell Doley, though..."

He waves a hand at her. "We'll figure it out. We always do."


Jazz, we got another emergency on our hands.

Hey man, what'd I tell you about all this good news?

Best news we've heard in twenty years, the Jeep retorts with a sardonic chuckle. He doesn't actually want to say it. It's still shaken him up pretty badly - but, if this is going to merit dragging out Skyfire, then he'd better spill. We've got uh... we've got something of interest. The Pretender had it. He watches as Astrid runs around the place like a madwoman, throwing things into a bag.

You found the Pretender?

Found, fought, and threw into stasis lock.

That's my mech!

Yeah, well... what he had isn't going to be so easy to clean up.

Oh?

You heard of a little thing called Red Hand?

Jazz pauses for a brief but stifling moment. Then: We're scrambling Skyfire in ten. Coordinates headed your way in five.

Chapter Text

"Astrid, please! Can you just hold on a minute and -"

"We're getting picked up in thirty minutes, fifteen miles out of town, and I'll be damned if I don't have a toothbrush. I'm sorry mom, it'll have to wait!"

Astrid brushes past her parents, flustered and scared as they stand in the doorway of their daughter's bedroom as she races into the master bath. No time, no time, no time. She'd often talked of assembling a bugout bag after Hound once told her that the warehouse could potentially become a Decepticon target, but she put it off. And now look.

She throws the meager toiletries into her duffel bag and goes to dash out of the room again, but a pair of hands grab her by the arms and bring her to a forced halt.

"You've got five minutes, Boots!" Hound calls from downstairs.

She whirls to face Richard, his hands still on her. "You heard him earlier," she said breathlessly, looking from one to the other. "Lives depend on this. Not human lives - at least, not yet - but lives nonetheless. Just trust me that where we're going is safe."

"Where are you going? How long? How do we contact you if you don't have a phone? Dammit, Astrid, we have no idea what's going on!"

"Portland. To meet with his superiors. As far as how long, I don't know; maybe a couple of days at the most. You hold down the fort for me, alright? The keys are downstairs on the counter." She meets her father's gaze. His eyes, pale and remote, are so full of emotion now. It's jarring to her. "Trust me," she repeats. "And tell..." the words come out like a reflex, but as she's about to finish, it sounds hollow. "...tell Heather that I'm doing fine."

The three of them all know why she caught herself. Nobody's heard from Astrid's sister since this whole thing began. Normally, Heather would at least reach out to gloat when something went wrong. But even that is strangely absent now.

Tracy and Richard nod quietly, and Richard lets go of her arms.

"If anyone asks where we are, play stupid," she calls as she glides down the stairs and over to a transforming Hound. She pauses just before assuming her spot in his passenger seat, and: "I love you guys."

They, of course, love her too.


Astrid spends the drive out of town counting quietly in her head, trying not to think about everything that's happened. It's a wave that's threatening to crest.

One, two, three, four... How many trees on this block. How many birds perched on that telephone wire. How many black cars. White cars. How many fence posts marking the property line beside the dirt road after that turn. Hound doesn't say anything during the drive either, but she can tell in the sounds his car-form is making, the way he's taking turns a little too quickly, changing lanes a little too abruptly, that he's trying not to think about what's happening too - just focusing on the objective at hand.

One, two, three scars.

"We're here."

One, two, three, four, five bandages.

The door swings open and she steps out, cold dirt crunching under her shoes. A chilly offshore wind had picked up and she shivers.

"He's a few minutes out," says the Jeep after he transforms. His eye is focused on a low point in the mountains, but after a few moments he shifts his gaze onto her. "Hey Astrid?"

"Hm?"

"What happened earlier. You're... OK, right?"

"I don't know. I think I'll know later."

"Alright."

"Are you OK?"

The question catches him visibly off-guard. She suspects that, being a soldier, he doesn't get asked that so often. "Well," he starts, folding his arms as if trying to keep himself warm. "You're worrying me, is all."

"I think there's going to be a lot of you worrying about me in this relationship." She's not sure where that came from, but it came out very easily. Too easily. Must be something she was holding onto for a while.

He looks as though she's said something off-color, though, then resumes his vigil on the mountain pass. "Seems to be the way of things, doesn't it?" he says with a sigh from his vents. She thought he was going to fall silent, but he winds up continuing. "So long as I'm going to be stronger and tougher, or I get in just that many more half-seconds to think, or that I have a greater awareness of our surroundings..." he trails off, but clearly not done. "...so long as I have to watch where I goddamn step? I think you might be right."

Then there was silence.

About three minutes of it, until a sonic boom rips through the valley and nearly knocks Astrid to her feet.

She looks up, naturally, to where she thinks the sound is coming from, but there's nothing. Just clouds of dust being picked up by hot air that's whipping her hair around her head. She's about to ask what in the devil is going on, but it becomes pretty clear in a short instant.

The landscape in front of them bends suddenly, and after a second, sharply twists around in nothing short of a psychedelic fit. The sight is almost nauseating to her for a moment, as trees and mountain ridges seem to droop and swell and jerk, revealing some kind of shape. It's when it starts fizzling away that she recognizes the sight: Autobot technology.

And before she knows it, her field of vision is taken up by a hulking white form that practically glistens in the pale, cloudy light. It's a plane, obviously. But it's a strange plane. A huge plane. A plane at least as big as a jumbo jet, but with the lines of a fighter. She notes, too, that it has a nose, but no cockpit. As the massive form descends, deploying thick landing gear, she has to cover her mouth and close her eyes - it's just kicking up too much dust.

It touches down with surprising delicacy, though, and in no time a 20-foot hatch opens up on its side. Out of it comes shooting a ramp.

"You two had better hop in quick before anyone around gets wise," comes a very deep and powerful - but somber - voice from someplace in the aircraft. It catches her completely by surprise, and Astrid realizes that she still has no idea if the vehicle has a pilot. It probably doesn't. Hound gestures with a nod of his head toward the ramp, motioning for her to go first, so she does.

Inside is just as cavernous as she might have guessed. There are eight Cybertronian-sized seats, four against the opposite wall, one in the front, and three on the side they've entered from. They're padded with a strange-looking material, and the harnesses are immense. Hound immediately makes himself comfortable in one of them and straps in. She watches as the straps, once affixed, shrink, almost: both they and the seat conform to the Jeep's frame. Fascinating.

But that leaves another question: where does she sit down for the flight?

Hound seemingly reads her mind as the hatch closes, and he pats his leg. "Come on up," he offers. "Skyfire's vehicle mode wasn't designed for humans, I'm afraid."

She goes to take him up on the offer but stumbles forward, falling onto one of his feet as the plane very quickly ascends. She finds that she can't free herself from the floor until they've reached altitude. Righting herself, yet another question presents itself, and a worrying one at that. Oh god. "Please tell me this cabin is pressurized?"

"I can make any such accommodations that you might require, Agent Schneider," comes that deep, calming voice again. She realizes that it's all around her - yup, they're in another Autobot. "All I ask is that you do secure yourself."

A sigh of relief as Hound hoists her up onto his lap. "OK, thank you."

"Hound, I hope you'll excuse my silence during the flight, but I'm sure you understand that I prefer to focus on flying." A chuckle that vibrates her bones. "I'm still a little... distressed by my encounter with the cerebro-shell, even after all these years."

Oh wow. So this was that Autobot. The one that almost single-handedly revealed their presence on Earth thanks to the cruel meddling of a Decepticon.

"That's no problem by me," the green mech replies. "I think Astrid and I could use a little R&R ourselves right about now anyways."

"Excellent. Now if you'll hold on."

Suddenly, and with an amount of shaking that has Astrid worried for a moment, they take off down Skyfire's nonexistent runway. She's sent hurdling backward into Hound's splayed hand, crushed against him and unable to move until they've broken the sound barrier and reached their final cruising speed of god knows what. It occurs to her that the usual cabin noise, the hissing and humming and whining of aircraft engines, are bizarrely absent now. What she doesn't know is that the sound of Skyfire's afterburners are far behind them.

Hound chuckles a little, his optic on her the whole time. "You alright?"

She groans and winces. "I think I'll be OK... so long as we don't do that again." Astrid wraps her arms around herself when the temperature begins to drop a little, tucking her face into the collar of her down vest. She tries closing her eyes to nap, but can't, and stops trying after a few minutes. Her eyes wander instead.

The cabin is dimly lit by a pair of luminescent stripes - one down the middle on the floor, and the other mirrored above on the ceiling - that throws the far corners of the jet's interior into deep shadow. She allows herself to wonder for a moment at what all turns into what: where are his arms? His legs and head? It seems almost impossible to her right now that this arrangement of parts has the ability to be reshaped into a humanoid being.

Astrid glances off to her left, spotting Hound's yellow stripes in the dimness, almost glowing against the black of his pelvic armor. She remembers the last time they'd gone at it, and it'd been good - something about him always makes it good - but it hadn't been great. He'd been a little too gentle, a little too removed. Wait, why the hell is she thinking about sex right now? After all you've been through and your mind's in the gutter already?

She shivers, remembering. Each scene from the past few days like a horror show. And yet... each one accompanied by an image of him. Tearing after her through the deep, dusky trees like a bull moose. Ripping out the side of that house. Throwing that Decepticon face-first into the pavement. She remembers what it felt like to point that gun at Codec's face. And honestly? Part of it felt good. It was definitely still terrible and terrifying, though. And yet.

Astrid had never imagined that Hound had it in him to manhandle such a comparatively small person. Codec's shining metal body had all the mass of an averagely-built, six-foot man - barely more than her in the scheme of things. But when push came to shove, the Jeep had little compunction about using that difference to his advantage and sending the Decepticon into what he'd called "stasis lock". It'd been so visceral. So raw. For a split-second, he'd been terrible and terrifying.

And yet.

"I think some part of me likes that you have to watch where you step."

Astrid feels him shifts under, above, around her. Bending forward to the best of his ability, in spite of the restraints. When she finally looks up to meet his gaze, the look on his face does not instill her with any confidence. In fact, all that there is there is cautious confusion.

"What?"

"Nevermind."

"Tell me what you mean."

She's beginning to wish she hadn't said anything. "I-I don't know."

"No, really," he says, very quietly. Hopefully quiet enough so that their pilot won't hear them. "You enjoy the fact that I endanger your life just by being around you?" His expression deepens and it makes her feel like a damn fool. "That you've become a target just by knowing me?"

"Fuck," she breathes, closing her eyes.

"It's not fun for me, you know," he continues. "The hurt I can cause you, the damage I can do if I'm not damn careful." Is his voice faltering? He covers his face with his hand. "You know... I've found myself wishing I didn't know you these past few days," he admits, even quieter than before. She breathes short and shallow and hugs herself. "Because none of this would have happened to you if it weren't for me. Dammit, Boots..." He hunches over now, encircling her in a pained hug. His mouth is at her ear and his hand is splayed across her back, threatening to clutch her into a desperate grip. "I... I care about you. A lot."

Emotion squeezes her throat. She just buries her face in his side, wrapping her arms as far around his belly as she can manage, and swallowing hard, says: "If you never knew me, I'd be dead a long time ago."

Something in him breaks. His body shakes, vents cycling air haphazardly, like halting gasps, and something nips at her back through her layers of clothing, passing from his trembling hand to her. Before long, her entire body is covered in tickling jabs of electricity, both sharp and warm. She can feel the flickers of this strange energy as it pulses and jerks in time with his own faint shudders, and for a moment she wonders if this perhaps isn't meant to feel nice. Astrid looks up after a minute, and sees his face scrunched up in pain, optic dim. His grip around her tightens, and he clutches her to him like some small, precious thing before releasing her and straightening up.

"You were..."

But the gentle little shocks are already fading, leaving her skin buzzing and her muscles soothed.

The green mech lifts his hand and softly wipes at her cheek with the textured pad of his thumb. "So are you," he murmurs. Astrid blinks and feels a wetness there. So she is.

She wipes her face on her sleeve, leaning against his belly to her side, and he covers her with a draped hand.

"I'm sorry. That must have been... uncomfortable for you."

"Everyone needs a good cry every once in a while," she says. "Even G.I. Jeeps with twenty-seven tours of duty behind them."

"That didn't hurt you?"

"No, no. It even felt... sorta nice."

She watches as the barest hint of a smile tugs at his lips. His hand holds her closer. Vents cycle air normally again.

"Let's talk about this later, OK? I need time to think about it."

Astrid nods against him, sighing.

"Skyfire?" Hound asks aloud. "How long do we have?"

"Three more breems, my friend."

"A little more than twenty minutes," he translates for her. "If you can, though, Astrid would very much appreciate if you took the descent easy," he gently suggests. "I don't think she'd be too comfortable with going from three times the speed of sound to 300 kilometers an hour in about 45 seconds. Too many G's without a suit, I'm afraid."

We're travelling how fast?

"Of course. Perhaps make it four breems, then."

"Thanks." He turns back to her: "It might not be fun, but it shouldn't make you sick, at least."

"At least," she chuckles sardonically.


Skyfire has no windows, but he appears to have VTOL capabilities, so as they descend like an elevator (after a moderately gut-wrenching slowdown) she doesn't have the faintest idea where they've ended up until he opens the hatch again and light comes pouring in.

Hound's straps undo themselves but when he sets her back on the floor she doesn't wait for him before going over to the opening and making her way down the long ramp. She has fewer reservations about being here this time, and curiosity is getting the better of her.

The space is positively gargantuan. Mostly white, with some of that orange-copper equipment that she recognizes from last time, and some brassy yellow also. Off to her far left is what appears to be a... no, it can't be. Astrid holds back a laugh at the sight of furniture so enormous that not even Hound would be able to get up into a seat. It's a bar, not unlike the one she met his friends at, with some other pieces of furniture clearly built for taking a load off. The bar's counter, though? Probably twenty feet from the ground. The whole things strikes her as silly for some reason.

"This is where the air team hangs out," Hound explains as he strolls up to her, and the two head off to the side to, presumably, give Skyfire some room. "We've got an A-10, two F-16s, an F-18, an EA-6, a couple of helicopters, and Skyfire here who, as you can tell, never took an Earth mode."

It occurs to her for a moment that Hound did indeed have a vehicle mode before he came to Earth, and that she had no idea what it was. She makes a note to ask him about it later.

"That's a lot of planes," she says, eyebrows raised and hands in her pockets.

"A lot of planes and, when the high-grade starts flowing, a lot of fists," he chuckles. "Big fists. Poor Silverbolt gets an earful from Prowl whenever one of his flyboys gets rowdy."

Astrid's about to make a quip about human flyboys, but they're interrupted by Skyfire's big, soothing voice. "If you'll pardon me, I'm going to transform now," he announces.

If the Jeep's transformation sequence is difficult to understand, then this one is downright impossible to keep track of. Skyfire breaks into thousands of pieces where Hound breaks into dozens, or maybe a few hundred, and they rearrange themselves so fluidly that this Autobot appears to be reshaping himself instead of simply folding himself up into a different configuration. It's mesmerizing and beautiful and disorienting all at once. It takes a relatively long time to complete as well: it's more than ten seconds before the vehicle is replaced by a figure, red, black, and white, kneeling before them. Even as he rises, a few small, errant pieces tuck themselves neatly away.

"Whoa," she breathes.

Skyfire the mech stands at around five stories tall, Astrid wagers, and it seems that Hound would only come up to his knee. His aircraft mode was much larger: at least 100 feet long and almost that wide measuring from wingtip to wingtip, but he was mostly hollow in that mode, a vessel made for ferrying his fellow soldiers. Get rid of that space inside, and you're left with something much more compact.

"Welcome back to Autobot Headquarters Hound, Agent Schneider. I must go to the holo machine now, so I may join you in the labs shortly. Excuse me." With that he turns and disappears down a far corridor, ducking his head for clearance even here.

Hound must've known he was there but Astrid was too busy being distracted by Skyfire to notice the red and white mech who was now standing behind them. He's about Hound's size, a little bulkier, and it's clear by his markings that he's some kind of medical personnel. He's holding a datapad and looking none too impressed - she gets the distinct feeling that he always looks like that, though, even when he is impressed.

He nods at each of them in turn. "Hound, I take it you've got the..?"

The Jeep nods, patting his chest like a coat pocket. "Subspace."

"Good," he says, doing something with the device in his hand in response before turning on his enormous heel and heading down the corridor behind them - one built to accommodate mechs of their size. Hound follows, and Astrid is lefts scurrying behind them to catch up. "Leadership is all up there," he grunts. "So is Wheeljack, Perceptor... Red, too."

Hound notices her having a hard time keeping up, so he stops and gives her his arm. She quickly scrambles up the familiar limb and finds a seat on his shoulder.

"Now you said that you almost came into contact with it?" the red and white mech asks, still not looking up from his pad.

"Yeah... didn't get any of it on me, though."

"You sure."

"My scans came out clean, doc-bot."

They come to an elevator and the medic hits the call button, and makes a concerned, rumbling noise as he looks sidelong at the one-eyed mech with the human on his shoulder. The lift comes and they all step inside. "Jazz tells me that your sensors may need a tune-up, though."

She can feel Hound get defensive, but he stops himself, scowling instead. "Yeah," he mumbles at length.

"Your busted optic is a perfect place for it to get in," the medic says, shaking his head a little. "However, it is dormant until it gets the opportunity to interact with spark fluid."

The elevator opens and they head out. Hound seems to know where they're going, but red and white stops them. "Ah, ah, ah... over here."

He pulls them over to the right, where Astrid spies a large... thing loom into view. Half of it is transparent to view the inside, and the rest is god knows what. What she does know, is that it seems to be big enough to accommodate a mech of either Hound's or this medic's size.

"A quick visit to the vacuum chamber."

The green mech glances at her before shrugging a little and setting her down. This "vacuum chamber" looks a hell of a lot bigger from down here.

He steps in, facing outward, and the thing closes around him. The medic steps over to a lighted panel, his huge foot landing a little too close for comfort, and he begins to operate it. Hound looks around expectantly, and after a moment he suddenly seems to be subjected to gale-force winds as the chamber fills with air moving faster than she can guess. Stuff is loosed from him and swirls around at a hundred miles an hour: bits of dirt, pebbles, pine needles. When red, white, and crotchety is satisfied, he hits another button and Hound jerks backwards as all the air is sucked out through vents behind him. Then, finally, with a short, powerful hiss, it opens again and the Jeep stumbles out with a vent.

"Criminey," he mumbles. "Haven't done that in a long time."

"If it was on you and not in you, then that ought to do the trick."

"And if it's in me?"

"Then we've got about six hours before you become symptomatic... and four before you're contagious."

Astrid shivers.

"And spark collapse in 24," the Jeep murmurs, looking down at her with grim resignation on his face. She looks up at him, eyes wide and hands cold. What? What?

"H-Hound, I..."

"Don't say your goodbyes just yet," he rumbles irritably as they come to a door. "You're not a dead mech until I say so."

The door, some twenty feet tall, is labelled "lab" in both English and Cybertronian, and below it are placards warning of the hazards to be found inside. Corrosive materials, flammable gases, explosives, heavy machinery, high voltage devices, biohazardous substances, medical waste, and, like icing on a cake, radiation.

Inside is a huge, brilliantly-lit space, strewn with a half-dozen different workstations, and all of them cluttered with bits and bobs and half-finished projects. Storage lines the walls - more of those green panels that showcase a whole assortment of tools suspended inside of some material, like resin or jello.

There are six Autobots already there, all talking among themselves, and now there are three more. Apparently that'll make ten once Skyfire joins them. She recognizes Prowl, Optimus, and the expensive one with the visor - what was his name? Jazz? - along with two others she hasn't seen: a gray one with no mouth, and a smaller red, black, and teal one. The security director that she met when they checked out last time is here too, but she doesn't recall his name.

She feels really small in here like this. Hound hadn't picked her up off the floor, and her entire field of vision right now is barely anything more than giant legs and giant feet.

Her mech taps her on the shoulder, though, and before she can turn around he's scooped her up into one hand and is lifting her to a table surface, where he gently deposits her.

"I'll be fine, OK? I promise."

She nods silently.

"Alright, you," the medic grunts, setting down his datapad and pointing over to a machine in the corner. "Let's get you scanned."

Hound walks over to it, trying to keep his head high but she can tell he's struggling. It's some kind of apparatus mostly hanging from the ceiling, and it lowers itself around him in ringed segments. Everyone watches the Jeep stand still, trying to square his shoulders. She wishes she could be in there with him, but...

"What's the prognosis, Ratchet?" Jazz asks.

"That's what I'm finding out."

The medic, Ratchet, grabs a screen from the ceiling and yanks it down on its hydraulic arm until its about waist-level. He looks up at Hound, then back down to the screen, pushing a button here and there as the rings start to move and make more noise.

It seems to take forever, and Astrid struggles not to give herself away here, but after the longest five minutes of her life, the rings withdraw back into the ceiling and Ratchet hums and haws over the results on the screen in front of him with a thinking scowl.

"Gonna have to give you a clean bill of health," he says after a while. "Looks like your scanners can be trusted after all."

Astrid fights back tears as the other mechs clap or cheer.

Hound dashes over to her, the biggest spring in his step that she's ever seen, and... pauses, sobering up. No PDAs, his suddenly frustrated face says. He does raise his hand at her and a little smile crosses his face. With her own open palm and her own smile, she gives him a high five - hitting him a little too hard, though, and she has to shake the sting off with a chuckle.

Optimus Prime's voice demands their attention, though. "Don't misunderstand me, captain, but you'll have opportunities to celebrate later. Now we must sort out the bigger issue at hand. Time is... of the essence."

Hound looks away from her and toward his massive, towering, superior officer, and nods. With that telltale faint flash, the canister appears in Hound's hand and he sets it down on the table nearest Prime. "There is is, sir."

The room falls deathly silent for a moment, and Astrid notices that Skyfire had joined them at some point - much smaller, this time. Some kind of hardlight avatar.

"Well I'll be slagged," the gray, mouthless one says, the protrusions from the side of his head faintly blinking with his every syllable. He's got a thick Brooklyn accent.

Jazz folds his arms across his chest and shakes his head. The red and black one cocks his head to the side, murmurs "fascinating" under their breath, and Ratchet grumbles. Prowl and Prime are both unreadable.

"You know, I'd be lying if I didn't say that was by far the scariest thing I've ever had in my subspace compartment."

"I don't blame ya one bit," the mouthless one says, muscling in to get a closer look.

The red and white mech, Ratchet, snorts somehow. "It's ironic too, considering that subspace is probably the safest place you could keep it."

"I would like to thank you, Hound," Prime says, "For taking such a dangerous task upon yourself. I wouldn't ask any of my soldiers to carry such a burden lightly." He chuckles a little - a sound that she's never head. "If I had any decorations to give you, I would."

Hound looks a little surprised, but very pleased with himself. "Thank you, sir. Really, it was a non-choice. I think you all might agree with me that letting this fall into Bureau hands would be..."

"...catastrophically dire," Prowl finishes. "It was foolish of you to act outside the chain of command, but seeing as how you did exactly as we'd have asked regardless, the transgression is forgivable."

If Hound isn't bristling, then she is for him.

"On that note," Ratchet says, grabbing the container off the table and whisking it away to a small chamber off on the side of the room with mechanical arms inside, attached to the ceiling. "Let's see what the Jeep has stumbled on here." The container is quickly obscured by four large, metal bodies - characters she can only assume at this point are responsible for the Autobots' STEM-type operations.

"The Red Hand virus, you said?" Skyfire confirms.

"Yes. Revealed by my spectro-analysis and the forensic lab's mass-spectrometer."

"The forensic lab?" Prowl asks, cold and calculating, despite a raised brow plate.

"I eliminated all evidence of it having been there."

Jazz chuckles, still looking over at what the science-bots are doing to the canister. "You should think about putting in for a black ops job."

"No thank you," Hound smiles, eye fixed on them too.

"Easy... easy does it..." the mouthless one mutters. Astrid sidesteps the pile of junk on the table and draws closer to the far edge to get a better look. Skyfire moves a little, allowing her a sliver of a view, but it's enough to see the mechanical arms at work behind the glass: one holding the canister and the other one carefully undoing the final clasp holding the lid on.

"There we go."

The lid is set aside and all four bots maneuver themselves to get a peek inside.

"That's it, alright," Ratchet grunts.

"Frag me and leave me fer dead, there it is," the mouthless one quietly exclaims.

"I'm hesitant to say for certain, but it does indeed look the way I remember it."

Skyfire just rumbles balefully.

They're moving quickly, now, and three of them step away to draw their own screens down to get to work.

"I'm grabbin' samples, guys," says the mouthless one, taking control of the arms inside the sealed chamber. "Perceptor, see about identifying any possible trace of Cybertronian material inside of there. If it's got fuel to mutate, I wanna know."

"Analyzing now."

"Skyfire, get to work finding its marker. We might be able to trace this to a place of origin on Cybertron. If, that is, it's legit. And Ratch -"

But Prime, apparently, has a more important order to give: "Ratchet, get to work on a defensive strategy should we face an outbreak. Designation, Code Black."

Ratchet doesn't seem to like this task, but it has to be done. "Right away, sir."

"We should find out who made that fancy-ass container," Jazz suggests with a frown. Prowl nods and Ratchet makes a non-committal, yet still agreeable, grunt.

This is all terribly exciting and scary, but Astrid remembers that she's barely knee-height here and standing on a table the size of her bedroom. Even if she weren't, and that this were n army lab full of top human brass and scientists all hard at work trying to solve a some military puzzle, she'd still feel small. She looks over to Hound, who meets her gaze. They're thinking the same thing.

"Are we dismissed, sir"? he asks.

"No," Prime says, turning toward them with his body and not just his head. Jazz and Prowl, his right and left hands, notice and shift their attention as well. "Agent Schneider, I need to know everything you saw and heard during your time with the Pretender."

What first strikes her about the request - aside from the fact that it came from Optimus Prime, an Autobot whose speaking voice alone makes her want to join the ranks and do what he says - is his wording. He didn't ask for everything she knew; but rather everything she saw and heard.

Maybe it's that choice of words that wracks her memory, specifically, or maybe something else about where they are and what she'd experienced that morning, but after a few long moments of thinking, something else percolates to the surface. Slowly, awkwardly, but it comes.

"He kept telling me... telling me that Hound was going to find me, but not yet. He said to give it a few hours."

"Anything else?"

"Yeah," she murmurs, hand at her chin as she presses her brows together more, like trying to physically squeeze it out. "I remember later, the power went out."

Jazz comes to life at this. "It sure did, didn't it."

"I don't remember the power going out," Hound says, frowning.

"We assumed it was that EMP that knocked you flat on your aft."

Prime addresses her again and the chatter ceases. "What about the power, Agent Schneider?"

"I think I remember Codec... he seemed to be happy about it."

"What do you mean by happy?"

"He didn't say anything, but when the lights came back on, he was grinning about it. And I know this sounds stupid, but it's almost as if he was expecting it."

Prowl, Jazz, and Prime all look at each other. Hound looks at her, and she swallows.

Astrid didn't know about an EMP - Hound had simply said that something happened to him on Friday night, and that he wasn't sure what it was. She's a little upset that he didn't talk about it further, but, she supposes, that's water under the bridge now.

"You three, in my ready room," Prime says, all twenty-some feet of him making for the door. Jazz and Prowl are right on his heels, but Hound hesitates.

"Sir, but what about -?"

"She can stay here for now."

The Jeep glances at her one last time, and then he, too, falls into step behind them. "Yes, sir."

Astrid's not stupid - she knows now what the implications of this are: Hound had been attacked by Decepticons or someone working with Decepticons that night. And if she was with Codec, then there were more of them out there, roaming the streets of Anchorage. She sits cross-legged down on the table, half-thinking, half-watching the STEM bots do their work in front of her.

She pieces a little more of those exchanges she'd had with Codec together, and it's becoming more and more likely (to her, at any rate) that that entire ordeal - the kidnapping, the holding her hostage, maybe even the interrogation - was nothing more than a ruse. An excuse to get Hound away from Bureau agents and away from her while making her think that she and not him was the target. But to what end?

The security mech is not doing anything right now. At least, not to her simple human eye. He looks agitated, though, and has taken up pacing in a tight line as he watches the others warily. He takes notice of her for a moment, but only to screw up his face and shake his head.

"Irresponsible, leaving you in here alone," his huff.

Astrid lifts her head from her hands. "Excuse me?"

"You, a human," he states. "Small, fragile, full of corrosive liquid in a sensitive environment." She raises her eyebrows at him.

Ratchet scoffs from where he's standing some forty feet away, working, as he is, at his giant datapad-like screen. "You talk like she's a water balloon with a leak." The slimmer red and white mech squares his shoulders and scowls when Ratchet looks up from his screen and her way for a moment. "You'll have to excuse Red, he's not all that used to having humans on-base. Even after twenty years." That last bit is delivered especially low and deadpan.

"That's all you have to say at a time like this?" Red Alert - that's his name - bursts. "We discover one of the most dangerous weapons in Cybertronian history on an alien planet and you think it's a time to crack jokes?"

"Relax, alright?" the mouthless one butts in. "You think we don't know what this means?"

"I think you're being flippant is all."

"Ah, we're all flippant to you."

Red draws his lips into a tight line and somehow finds his way over to the workstation she's sitting on, leaning his hip plating back against it as he crosses his arms and pouts, almost. "Why are you even here? You gave your statement, you should go."

"I'm with Hound," she shoots back, frown deepening. "And I'm waiting for him to get back." She's not offended for some reason, though she is losing her patience with him.

"Why in the world are you with Hound?"

She swallows. "I'm his friend."

"The captain makes too many human friends if you ask me."

"I didn't ask you."

"One of them got killed, you know."

Astrid bites her lip and looks off to the side, remembering Hound's message from earlier that year on her way to Elko. Ryan Manning, a name that she'd never forgotten; a man murdered for being saved by Hound and then giving him a year's worth of car washes for it. Distantly, and with a morbid bit of amusement, she wonders what the Xeno Trackers would do if they found out that she was fucking him.

"And you're talking to would-be number two," she mutters acerbically.

Red starts a little with surprise. It's a second later that she realizes that everyone else in the lab has paused in their work and fallen silent.

"Sorry," Red says quietly. "I... didn't know."

"In the past week I've been shot, beaten, interrogated, burned, poisoned, and almost shot again."

"We got us a regular Rasputin in here," the mouthless one remarks, and Astrid can't help but chuckle.

"Really?" Red exclaims. "With the jokes again? Can't you mechs take anything seriously?"

"Everyone copes in their own way, Red Alert." This time it's Skyfire. Then: "And to get back on subject, I've got a marker. It's boron."

Astrid and Red (Alert) straighten up at the news, though she doesn't know what it means.

"Boron?" Ratchet grunts. "That's not a tell from any wartime Decpticon lab I'm familiar with."

Mouthless strolls over to Skyfire's screen, who gestures at it. "Yeah, well, who knows just how many mad science projects they had goin' on back in those days. Just 'coz we didn't document this strain, don't mean it don't exist."

"It could be a new strain," red and teal says. Their British accent borders on campy, but it fits them somehow. "Also Wheeljack, I've detected no trace of mutagenic material within the confines of the container."

The mouthless mech nods. So that's his name. She recognizes it from somewhere, but can't remember the context. "Good. Means it's not volatile. Yet."

The four STEM bots, Red Alert, and Astrid all gaze into the sealed chamber and look at the unassuming container - barely the size of a film roll to them.

"There could very well be more of this stuff out there," Ratchet murmurs with a rumble, saying what they're all thinking.

Astrid finds herself raising her hand then; like a student in a lecture class. Wheeljack notices, giving her room to speak.

"If you don't mind me asking," she says meekly, not wanting to feel smaller and dumber than she already does, "How does it work? Why is it so dangerous?"

"You know," mouthless chuckles - if it didn't come from someone so silly and outgoing, she might think his laugh had a conniving quality to it - "I'm not sure Jazz even knows the details. But boy when it comes to something he don't wanna know, good luck gettin' him to ask!"

The other mechs, save Red Alert and the British STEM bot, have a good laugh at this.

"See, it's like this," Wheeljack continues, hitting a button on his screen. Three holographic panels flicker to life in front of him and he moves out of the way so he can show her what she quickly recognizes as a basic schematic of a Cybertronian body. "Spark chamber's here, spark fluid conduits run along here, here, here... you get the idea."

She nods.

"The stuff can get in just about any way you might imagine. If its temporarily airborne, it might get in through the vents. Suspended in liquid, it might get in via the fuel tanks. As a solid it can coat the ends of ballistic weapons or be scattered with shrapnel. The possibilities are endless."

"And the Decepticons loved it," Ratchet grumbles. "For a while, at least. It takes disciplined ranks to maintain clean rooms and safe handling procedures, and the 'Cons don't exactly have disciplined ranks." He vents, folding his great white and red arms. "Their own started getting sick and it almost reached the scale of an epidemic before they bombed their contaminated facilities to save the rest of the army. Without new hosts, the virus ran its course. Haven't seen it since."

The diagram pans in to get a better view of the middle of the body: hips, thighs, hands, forearms. The conduits that Wheeljack had pointed out, marked white, are shown to be more complex in this view than before.

"So one way or another, it gets into the spark fluid, and from there is has a field day," Wheeljack explains. "By Earth reckoning, it takes 10 hours for the Pax strain to become contagious, 8.4 hours for the Altihex strain, and a mere 7 hours for the Kaon strain. This is a new strain - we gotta figure out how long this one takes to mutate. Anyways, it's called Red Hand because it crystallizes the body in stages. The first thing it attacks is the plating of the hands, and by then it's too damn late. You're not only a goner yourself, but every time you cycle air you're sending out particulates to be cycled in by someone else. By that point you got about... a day or so to go before catastrophic spark failure."

"Jesus," the human says, letting out a breath.

"Ugly stuff."

"You're not kidding. How did this stuff... come about? Evolve?"

"It's not the product of natural evolution," red and teal explains. "A scientist working in the field of nanene technology long before the war stumbled upon this crystalline molecular arrangement in seeking to develop fuel additives that might introduce what human medicine calls a clotting factor; something which our bodies do not have. I am sure you can guess what happened after that."

"Have we lost all perspective? Forgotten all safety protocol?" Red Alert snaps. "Here we have a bomb that can only target Cybertronians and you're explaining to a human how to use it! She could be a Bureau plant for all we know!"

Skyfire, Ratchet, and Wheeljack glance at each other and shrug. "Hound trusts her," the jet says.

"I don't."

"Don't you trust Hound?"

"Wheeljack, I don't trust anybody on this planet."


When Prime returns, he's only got Jazz and Hound in tow, and while all of them look uneasy, Hound looks particularly distressed.

"I'll tell you about it later," he murmurs quietly as he finds a place against the edge of the workstation she's nearest.

The STEM bots explain their findings to the brass, and Prime accepts the grim news with dignified unease.

"Skyfire, you worked with many scientists who later became Decepticons when the war started. I'd like you to pay a visit to me later so that we may discuss possible candidates for masterminds behind this. A profile might help us."

"Of course, sir."

"Red Alert, I want a report detailing crisis predictions and courses of action should we suffer a virological attack. Run diagnostics on your entire system. If a camera is out, repair it. If wiring is exposed anywhere, cover it. If a bolt is missing, anywhere, replace it. Clean up the databases as well, and send out a notice to everyone to keep their chatter to a minimum. I want the Ark and all Autobot communication airtight in 24 hours."

"Yes, sir!"

"Jazz, have Rewind see if he can't figure out where that canister came from. Who made it, and who bought it."

"On it, sir."

"Perceptor, can you get a half-life on that strain?"

Red and teal nods. "Undoubtedly, sir."

"Then do that. Its age will be able to tell us if it was made here or if its leftovers from the war."

"Well, wait a minute," Jazz cuts in. "If the container is man-made, we can't rule out the possibility that the contents are too."

Prime rumbles. "You're right. However, judging by our talk earlier, that it not the likeliest situation."

Astrid narrows her eyes at the Jeep, but he doesn't look her way.

"On that note," their commander continues. "Ratchet, Hound needs looking at in the morning. Prowl will get you a diagnostics order."

"Sure thing, boss," the medic says. "In the meantime, Hound, I'm prescribing you two hours in a CR chamber to get you through the night."

"Oh? Which one?"

"Number, uh.." he glances at a datapad on the workstation next to him. "Four."

Hound nods, turning to Astrid. He goes to extend his arm to her but pauses. "Did you need Ast- Agent Schneider for anything?"

"You're both dismissed," Prime says, a kindness in his tone. "Get some rest."

"And that's an order," Jazz says. The edge of his mouth is curled up into the barest hint of a smile, but Astrid can tell that he wishes he were getting ordered to get some R&R about now.

"Come on," the Jeep sighs, and she steps into the crook of his arm.

"Goodnight, everyone."

A few of them bid their goodbyes, and Astrid is surprised to find Red Alert look at her in particular before nodding his head at her in acknowledgement. For the first time she gets a full view of his face; there's worry and exhaustion there, too. She nods back.

"What happened?" she asks when they're outside and the door shuts behind them.

Hound's shoulders, squared and set back since they disembarked Skyfire's cabin, slump now. "They think I've been deliberately compromised," he mutters, heading down the hallway in the opposite direction of the elevator.

"Wh... what does compromised mean?"

The Jeep vents and rounds a corner. "It means what it means."

Astrid frowns. "Humor the human, would you?"

"I'm sorry," he vents, stopping in front of a door. There's a big 04 painted on it. "It's just... I don't know." He presses a button and the room opens. Inside is a small, dimly lit room, maybe the size of a large closet to him. He gently kneels down to the ground and she hops off him before he rises up to his full height again. The mech, now very much the fifteen foot metal giant, steps past her and over to some kind of large device and begins to operate it.

"You don't know what?"

"It's... a pride thing," he mutters.

A pride thing? She knits her brows as she watches him finish what he's doing. The device, she realizes, is a large vat, and as it hums to life, the lid retracts, revealing glowing stuff inside that faintly illuminates the ceiling. The lip is almost ten feet off the ground, though - far too high for her to catch a glimpse of what's inside. His silvery face is lit by the glowing liquid, and she sees the frustration there. Is it a new frustration, though? Or an old one?

His sensors are the reason he enlisted, the reason he felt different from his fellows, and the reason he lives for his work.

But now, they've been... compromised. Ripped from him.

Astrid swallows.

"What'd they do to you?"

He steps in, and she catches herself flinch, some automatic response to the sight of his huge leg lift up and over the edge of the vat. He settles in with a sploosh and disappears from view. He doesn't reappear for a moment, so she resigns herself to spending the next two hours with him and finds a place to sit on the floor with her back to the wall.

The green mech does reappear though, folding his arms along the edge and resting his chin on them. "We won't know for certain," he murmurs, "Not until Ratchet has a look at me. But they think I was cerebro-shelled."

"Cerebro-what?"

His brow plates press together and it looks like talking about this pains him for some reason. She recognizes the term from someplace, and then it comes back to her. It was how the Autobots were given away to humans in the first place: Skyfire had been the victim of a similar attack decades ago and made to dance like a puppet in the sky above Groom Lake before crashing to the ground. It scared and humiliated him so much that he never took an active role outside of the base again after that. Never even took an Earth mode.

Oh.

Oh damn.

"It's a bit of Decepticon technology - a bit of technology that Autobots either never figured out or refused to figure out - that we call a cerebro-shell in English. It's sort of like a tick. It buries itself into your CPU, integrates with your systems, and hijacks a few of your processes."

A chill passes through her. She has no idea what this means. It doesn't seem anyone else does either. But yeah... yeah. This is definitely a pride thing. Hell, it's a dignity thing. A "who knows what the Decepticons are learning from this" thing.

"That doesn't make any sense," she exclaims. "You... you almost killed one of their own! I-if they had some kind of control over you, why would they let you..."

"I'd rather not make any guesses yet, Boots. They've got some sick minds over there."

Astrid sighs hard, slumping. Her mind's a flurry of angry, frustrated thoughts, and when she steals a glance at him out of the corner of her eye, she sees no more Decepticon in him than she did last week. How? Why?

The side of her fist comes down hard onto the floor, and it makes a weak, muffled thup. No crack, no dent, no sign of her frustration is left - not even like the faintest of his blows. The pristine spot makes her want to keep hitting it until something does show. But blood would run sooner than that, so she just falls forward, forehead pressed to the ground like she's in elementary school again, ducked under a desk for an earthquake drill.

This isn't a drill.

And just like an earthquake, there's nothing she can do but wait it out.

Actually, she wants a drink.

Ten minutes pass in silence between them, and she's since straightened up again. He's not moving much, and when she looks up at the giant again, she sees his eye is "closed". Is he asleep?

But some unknowable technological part of him catches her looking his way and his single good optic lights up again and he stirs. Not asleep - just thinking.

"What is that in there?"

"Stuff," he shrugs. "I don't know, exactly. It helps regeneration processes along."

"Can I go in there?"

He smiles, lazily, tiredly, down at her. "I don't think so." The smile fades. "You don't have to spend the whole time in here with me, you know. You must be getting hungry at least."

Astrid takes stock of her body and yeah, she is hungry. He probably wants to be alone right now anyways - she can at least do that for him.

"Want me to call one of my friends over to escort you out? One of the ones you met, of course."

She thinks, suddenly struck with a faint jolt of unease at the idea of being handled by another mech. But at the same time, it's a little exciting. She's never sat down and spent time with another Autobot... it could be fun.

"OK."

"I'll ask Trailbreaker."

Trailbreaker was the big black, red, and silver mech, wasn't he? He probably won't be weird with me, she decides.

A few long minutes later there's a knock at the door before it hisses open. Hound sloshes around in his tub and Astrid gets up.

"Hope you two don't mind if I list you as a reference for my human-sitting business," he says, leaning against the doorframe.

Astrid smiles and shakes her head and she can hear Hound chuckle.

"When's her curfew?" he continues.

"Just give me a couple hours, OK?" the Jeep says, less happy. "Doctor's orders."

"Oh no worries - we'll have all kinds of fun without you. Won't we, Astrid?"

She raises her brows at him. "I just hope we have the same definition of fun."

"Details," he announces with a wave of his hand. Then a little more serious: "You, uh, want me to carry you, or would you rather walk?"

"How far are we going?"

He thinks for a second before crouching down and giving her his arm. "Yeah... I'll just carry you."

She looks at him for a moment, scrutinizing his anatomy before she just goes leaping up onto this other Autobot.

He's big, alright - a few feet taller than Hound, and while sporting smoother lines, he's bulkier. His arms are thick, built similarly to the green mech's, but his shoulders are different. Sloping, with stuff mounted to his back. It won't be quite as easy to balance up there, and she'll be even higher off the ground, but...

"I don't bite," he says in a warmer, quieter voice. "Promise."

"Go on," the Jeep encourages. "I'll be fine."

Well, there's nothing for it, so she walks over to the big SUV and steps into his hand. Slowly, steadily, he lifts her up as he rights himself, and protected by a steadying hand, she climbs up onto that wide shoulder, bracing against the top of his arm and the equipment on his back. It's different - very different, somehow. But the most glaring difference is that he doesn't hold her with nearly the same kind of confidence as Hound does. It must have been a while since the last time he's picked up a human.

"Well, we're off."

Astrid can see him from up here. Hound is sitting in a tub of whitish glowing liquid that comes up to his chest, and he almost looks small from this angle. Well, human small.

"Stay out of trouble you two," he says, forcing a smile. He taps the side of his head twice, then, and points it at her. I'm thinking of you? she guesses.

"See you in a bit, big guy."


"Hey, can I... see your quarters?" she asks.

It's admittedly an odd request, but she can't honestly think of much else that she'd like to do. There's too much on her mind right now, and surprisingly enough, the idea of quietly chatting with a mech that she trusts sounds like the most appealing option. She also hasn't ever seen another Autobot's living space yet, and that sounds kind of interesting too.

"Well, I, uh," he stammers for a moment, caught completely off-guard. "Sure, I guess. Why not?"

They head off down the hall and round a few corners until they come to a wide corridor that she's never seen before. There are lots of doors here, and she spies several other mechs coming and going from some of the suites.

2E is the number of Trailbreaker's door, and in a moment it shunts open, revealing a white room not unlike the temp quarters that she and Hound stayed in when they visited last. Excepting, of course, that this one is very lived in.

It's dark at first, but accent lighting flickers on at their entrance. Furniture-wise, there's a berth, storage units, and normal shelving for stuff that, she guesses, can't go in the green goo. There's also a desk, and on the wall above it, an collection of items that has her biting back a laugh. (So quickly, at least.) There's not one, but two signed sports jerseys, a neon Pabst sign, a taxidermied skunk head, some sort of art made from license plates, a "Hang in There" poster - the one with the kitten - and, best of all, a singing bass.

He hesitates for a second before deciding to set her onto the desk, which is littered with stacks of datapads, and she quickly makes her way over to the bass. She hasn't seen one of these in years. On tip-toes she can reach the button, which she pushes without hesitation. It starts singing Take Me To the River, and flapping its rubber tail. Astrid starts laughing as Trailbreaker takes a seat on his berth, under a sign that says "Man Cave - Est. 2004".

"Holy shit," she says, a big fat smile still on her face when its over. "You've got to have the coolest room here. This is hilarious."

"That fish is stayin' right here," he warns with a grin. A cube of energon has appeared in his hand from somewhere as he sits on the edge of his berth. He points at her with the hand holding it. "Go catch your own."

"Where did all this come from anyway? Where does a giant robot get signed jerseys from?" Astrid marvels at the sight with a chuckle, shaking her head.

"I've put in my fair share of service hours too, you know."

"Oh? Doing what?"

"Fires and shipwrecks, mostly."

Fires, she can believe. But shipwrecks? "Shipwrecks? How in the..?"

He thumbs at himself. "I'm the 'Bot they call when they got crap to salvage or people to rescue. Especially when there's still air trapped in a wreck."

She just gives him a confused look.

"Forcefields come in handy!"

She gives him more of the same.

"Oh come on, nobody told you I've got a forcefield?"

She shakes her head.

"Your boyfriend wounds me. Here. You gotta see th -"

But she goes rigid and imagines that her face has turned beet red. "Oh come on, Trailbreaker. He's not my..."

The eighteen-foot mech freezes too before letting his shoulders slump. "Well slag, I, uh..." A vent escapes him. "I guess Hound didn't tell you that I know about you guys."

Astrid swallows, staring at her fingers. "No, no he didn't..."

An awkward silence passes quickly between them, but she soon figures out just why the Jeep has been friends with him for so long. "Well, if it's any consolation, I really don't give a damn."

"Y-you don't?"

"Hell naw! Why should I?"

She sits down on a particularly tall stack of datapads, folding her arms tight and screwing up her face. "It's just that... well, when I met with Prowl and Prime, they seemed..."

"Ah, phooey," he says with a dismissive wave, taking a swig of that energon. "Prime's brass and Prowl's a damn jerk no matter what you do. If things were up to him, the rec room would be gone, we'd all be painted white, and the Ark would have hall monitors. There's not much in the universe he does approve of."

She gives a half-hearted chuckle, but the image of the looming mech, sterile white and grim black, won't leave her.

"You know we helped get you back, right?"

Her head snaps up to look him in the... well, visor. "You did?"

"Seems he didn't tell you much of anything that went on that night, heh."

"What did happen anyway?" She's not sure she wants to know, though. "I... I figured that he was looking and eventually found me. I mean, that's what he does, right? He's a tracker sometimes?"

Trailbreaker smiles an old smile, and Astrid can't help but wonder what the black mech has seen in his eons being alive. "Hound wears a lot of hats around here. We all do, bein' so few of us, but he wears the most, and always has. He's real blue collar that way, you might say."

Blue collar, huh?

He waves his hand. "Anyways, yeah, we got shipped up for the night to help. Jazz, Skids, Cliffjumper, and me. When we got there, the Bureau had him in chains for insubordination."

Astrid gasps, clasping a hand over her mouth. Motherfuckers.

The visor covers his wold-be eyes and would-be brows, so it's hard to tell, but she's pretty sure he's scowling. "Jazz... finagled our way out of a bad situation and we got the hell outta there. It was a long night. A long, long night." He vents slowly. "So that's how I know." Then, a laugh: "Though I could tell something was up months ago. He'd sometimes talk about this little human civvie he'd met and just light up."

Astrid blushes deeply and bites back a giggle.

His grin turns into an open-mouthed smile when he sees her, and he points his finger again in her direction. "I think he likes you more than he even knows. More than the rest of us know, at least." He ends with another swig of energon.

"Hey Trailbreaker -"

"Ah, it's just Teebs."

"OK, Teebs... I've got a question, then."

"Shoot."

She swallows, wondering if this isn't maybe inappropriate to ask, but it's something that's been weighing on her since she confronted him that night during the road trip and tried to wrap her head around his answer. She still hasn't quite been able to, and ever since moving in with him, the rabbit hole just seems to only get deeper.

"Why does he like me? Why does he like me and not... another Cybertronian?"

Trailbreaker leans back against the wall and vents, long and slow, biding a few moments as he thinks up an answer. "Don't tell him I told you this, but..." Uh oh. "But ever since I've known him, he's had a fascination with organics."

A fascination.

"Fascination?"

She's not sure what to think about this, and it hits her harder than she thinks is rational. Images go flying through her head of him; of him looking at her, touching her; snippets of words echo in her brain.

"Yeah, like, he'd try and get himself stationed off-world all the time. Sometimes he'd use his hardlight to try and sneak into exclusion zones during the war and mingle with locals. Never seen him look at a mech the same way as an organic either. Of course, you ask him and he'll flat-out deny it." He taps the side of his head. "But I'm not as aloof as he thinks I am. Friends notice stuff."

Is this why he... hooked up with me? Because I fit a profile?

"He once told me he was treated like shit back home."

"Organics are... how to I put this... a novelty to us, at the end of the day. A stupid number of us see organics as at least a little inferior, and that's a downright shame. But mostly, your average mech just doesn't care to get involved. Like being organic is a lifestyle or somethin'." He mimed scare quotes around the word.

A novelty?

Like whip-wielding fem-doms or overeager virgins?

"I... I think I knew," she says, surprised at her own stammering. She did know; or at least, she thought she knew. But there's something about getting such frank vindication from someone who's known him for fucking millennia that's throwing her. Someone who's saying it in such plain English. "I think I knew, but..."

"You know what Cybertronian sex looks like?"

Her eyebrows shoot up so fast that they nearly go flying into the air.

"A handful of mechs sitting in a room, sending data packets to each other at slightly different frequencies so that the waveform builds up in our primary hydraulic regulatory complex, or whatever the hell it would be in English, until the spark fluid reaches its carrying capacity - around 30 volts - and then you short yourself out."

"Sounds, um..."

"I think it's great. Shorting is like being wide awake and dead asleep at the same time. You can taste color, smell sound, reach out and touch everything's source code for a fraction of a second. Pure, stinkin' bliss."

She laughs a little. "Sounds like an LSD trip if you ask me."

"Yeah but, to each their own, right? That's what this is about?"

She considers this and nods.

"What's human sex like?"

Astrid about chokes on her tongue. She's about to blurt out an excuse me? but remembers that this is a giant alien robot she's talking to. It's probably going to turn him on as much as waveforms and source code does it for her.

"Well, uh... beyond the mechanics of it, it's... very tactile. It's a lot of friction and pressure, a lot of putting parts of yourself into someone else or vice versa, like you're trying to smash yourselves together into one thing. And you say stuff to each other - almost doesn't matter what it is - to stimulate the brain, which is the one erogenous zone you can't touch. A lot like the spark, really..." she pauses to let that sink in a little bit. "But you keep doing it and like waves that amplify each other, you do it until you crest, and, uh... boom. Orgasm. For a moment it's like you're made of ball lightning, or it's like getting a gasp of air after being underwater for too long. Except that the air is laced with cocaine," she snorts.

"Now see, that sounds pretty uninteresting to me. I don't even know what a hit of cocaine is like." She does. She did one once. ONCE. "But Hound? He's always... liked that, I guess."

"Way you describe it, I feel like he should see about marching in the Folsom Street Fair." Then again, judging by the bruises he left...

Trailbreaker laughs. "You get him to do something like that and I'll give you a slaggin' medal."


The two spend the next half hour talking with his holo in the Bureau common area while she stuffs her face with something barely recognizable from the freezer. He tells her that it's about three in the afternoon. No wonder she's starving; last time she ate was at seven that morning.

Astrid asks what the CR chamber does, what he knows about pretenders, his opinion of Red Alert. But then she looks at her peeling hands again and remembers why she came.

"What does Ratchet know about human physiology?"

"I imagine he knows a good amount - worked with some field surgeons in the Balkans back in the day."

"I mean more... diagnostic medicine."

His holo - a man a few years younger than Hound's, who sports a brown beard and short-cropped hair under a Yankees baseball cap, black work pants and a red t-shirt; it all goes so well with the man-cave paraphernalia - hums and haws at the shabby table. "Your guess is as good as mine." And then after an inordinately long pause: "Well, looks like your boyfriend's done. Let's go get 'im."

She throws away her microwave tray and heads out to the main hallway, where the big SUV is waiting for her, hand low to the ground for her to jump into.

It's a few minutes but they're back at the CR chamber as Hound walks out, hand on the jamb. He smiles a little as he sees them approach, and Astrid can't help her own. He looks like he's been through a hand wash, gotten buffed, waxed, and even his busted eye looks a little better.

"Stay out of trouble?" he asks.

The black mech snorts. "You kiddin' me? We're like Thelma and Louise over here."

Hound can't help but laugh as she switches from one 'Bot to the other. Soon she's resting her rear on a familiar flat, green, panel of armor, hand on a jagged tire. She's acutely aware of the shape of the treads; they're like crumbled granite.

"Say, I was thinking... what if we all came back to my room and broke out some high grade? I could invite a coupla mechs down, we could make an afternoon of it. What d'you say?"

Astrid is honestly hoping that Hound takes him up on the offer, because Trailbreaker's words won't leave her alone now, but the Jeep vents and shakes his head. "No thanks, Teebs. Not tonight. I've got an appointment with Ratchet in the morning and he wants me to lie low until then."

"Hey, suit yourself. I'll see you two around alright? Oh, and hey: how long you here for this time?"

"Don't know. We'll see what the Bureau has to say about it."

"Well see if you can hang out before you high tail it out of here, alright?"

"Will do."

Chapter Text

He doesn't know if their terrible morning has finally caught up with him or what, but the meeting with Prime has left him feeling like a pile of scrap.

The time in the CR chamber did help - it always does - but he still feels awful. Not just awful, but gross. Like, I-want-even-my-paint-sandblasted-off gross. And while the mech welcomed the solitude, he didn't do as much thinking as he'd like about Astrid's words on the ride down. He couldn't get much further past the idea that she wanted something from him that he couldn't - wouldn't - give.

He did briefly wonder that if maybe the prosthetic wasn't such a good idea after all - that maybe, by appropriating such a basic cornerstone of humanity as genitalia, that he hadn't opened up some kind of door that might have been better left shut.

Of course the irony of this wasn't lost on him either. How I want you is changing, he'd told her. It was the truth, but maybe not the whole truth. An old Disney animated film popped up in his head, playing the reel in the silver screen of his foreprocessors:

I wanna be a man, mancub
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I'm tired of monkeyin' around

He feels, as he walks away from Trailbreaker with Astrid on his shoulder, like an ape. Dancing for the Decepticons now, but worse, dancing for the humans too.

Now don't try to kid me, mancub
I made a deal with you
What I desire is man's red fire
To make my dream come true

"You feel better?" she asks.

The film stops playing when he turns his head to look at her. Astrid seems tense, but he can't quite place it. "A bit. Don't worry about me, alright?"

She makes a face at him that almost gets him to laugh, but before he knows it they're back at their temp quarters and he's gently letting her down to the floor.

"You sure you don't want to see what's going on the rec room?"

Hound gives her a look, trying to inject a little lightheartedness into his facial servos. "I thought this place made you nervous?" He waits for her reaction, but it's not what he expected: she seems to just turn inward at the little jab. With a long vent he sits at the edge of the berth before continuing. "Besides... Prime wants me to limit interaction with folks until Ratchet takes a look at me."

"Oh."

He watches her look around the space; her face says that she wishes she were someplace else.

"So wait a minute, if you're funnelling information to the Decepticons right now, then why aren't you in a holding cell?"

Letting himself be distracted from her strange manners for a moment, he wonders how he might explain things to her better. There's a lot about the Cybertronian situation on Earth that he just hasn't told her. That is, the vast majority of it. He rubs at his square helm, not even feeling the little puncture wound from Doley's immobilizing round anymore. The CRC must have taken care of it.

"The Decepticons are, and have been, at a strategic disadvantage since we partnered up with the Bureau," he begins, remembering those early days on Earth, scrounging and pirating what little energy they could get their giant mitts on - for a few years, they were no different than the 'Cons, who were just as stuck and just as desperate. "Our average size is me. Their average size is a meter taller and several hundred kilos heavier. In a fistfight, they've got brute strength on their side, no question. What they don't have is numbers, tighter ranks, good resources, or morale." He looks upward, remembering that he's bugged, and smirks a little. "And don't you sorry slaggers forget it."

Astrid chuckles from where she stands, leaning against the adjacent wall.

"Point is, the different sides here know each other well enough. And frankly, the 'Cons are in no position to try anything, especially now that we've got what may have been their last attempt at a trump card." Or so they all assume. "It wouldn't be the first time that they've gotten a tour of the base anyways - we had a break in about 7 years ago, so nothing here's a mystery to them. We've got nothing to hide."

"So it's not being a security risk that's shitty?"

He vents air, slumping a little. Whoosh. "No." The mech shakes his head, suddenly aware of his every conduit fiber, every servo, every inch of plating. That was the hard thing about being a million-year old computer person, as Astrid put it - sometimes it was hard to tell where you ended and someone else's code began. Most other mechs didn't seem to mind, but him... he valued his autonomy like that for some reason. "It's just the feeling that someone's in your head. That... I don't know what's me and what's not."

The little human nods. "That is," she says, "Assuming you do have that thing in there."

"Which is what we're going to find out in the morning." He pauses, looking her over. He notes her peeling hands and neck, senses the thick dressings hidden away under jeans and jacket sleeves. "I haven't forgotten about your errand either," he says quietly, hoping that Ratchet will be able to at least make a show of trying to find out. "I'll ask the doc-bot as soon as we see him."

He watches her look awkwardly off to the side, thinking for a moment, before shrugging the jacket off and rolling up her sleeves to reveal those bandages. What're you doing, Boots?

"I shouldn't be alive," she murmurs, peeling one of the pads away from her forearm. Hound frowns. "I really shouldn't. Not that I'm..." she trails off, staring at the skin on her arm. Hound's optic goes from her face to the spot she's suddenly scrutinizing, and notices that it looks very clean. She looks like she was expecting much worse, and so the Jeep does a quick internet search for second and third degree burn photos. It only takes a quick glance for him to get the idea: weeping blisters, skin reduced to the consistency of leather or cured tobacco, patches of discoloration that bear a resemblance to painted jasper. To his untrained eye, what's covering her arms look like little more than bad sunburns now.

She swallows. "...Not that I'm complaining."

"You recover from a would-be fatal poisoning, and now it looks like those burns are healing faster than physically possible. Something's not right."

"No, something's a little too right."

What could cause such a thing? he wonders. An overproduction of some kind of... of hormone? Or tissue-building cell? Is this some kind of beneficial cancer? The black specs mingling among her blood answer him like a looming, enigmatic presence.

"Your bruises faded quickly too, if I remember," he says quietly. "They didn't always fade so quickly." I've been making marks on you for a little while now, haven't I?

"Did they?"

He nods.

She sits down on the ground, back to the wall, and tugs the sleeve of her jacket back down. She hugs herself, and Hound realizes that it's a little on the chilly side in here: only a few degrees warmer than the ambient temperature of the Earth, and it's closer to it the further down you go.

"The Ark was your ship, wasn't it?" Astrid asks, glancing about her again.

He does the same, even though he knows the layout of these rooms like the back of his hand. "All of this - all the white - is new. The orange further down is original. It's pieces of what we called the Ark."

"You... never told me when you wound up here, by the way. Or how, exactly."

Hound realizes that this is true. He never sat her down to tell the tale in its entirety, and he's not sure why. Something about the story makes him sad and frustrated, even though being stuck on Earth is one of the best things that's happened to him since the war started. It doesn't help that she's never pressed him for details either, and it occurs to him now just how relatively disinterested she is in the fact that he's an alien from space. She's never demanded to know what space travel is like, what other worlds he might've been to, or whatever else is out there that the humans haven't discovered for themselves. Astrid just never seemed to care. The mech smiles a little when he realizes that he's grateful for it, and that it's just one more thing about her that he likes. As far as she's concerned, there's not much of interest beyond her little blue planet.

And frankly? Hound is inclined to agree.

But she's asking now - maybe to kill the time, maybe because she actually wants to know. But he doesn't have much else to do, so why not read a little bit from that book?

"We crashed at some point before the Ice Age. Our wreck was covered in glaciers for a few thousand years," he chuckles. "The Mount Saint Helens eruption in 1980 was enough to jolt a few emergency systems back online, and it was programmed to revive and repair the primary physician on board first, so Ratchet was the first one of us to get a look at where and when we were. Spent a year repairing as many of us as he could."

"How'd you wind up in the neighborhood?"

"We were a small, exploratory task force charged with scoping out some strategically significant uninhabited planet, but we wound up in a spacial anomaly - a wormhole, basically - that I guess spit us out around here, on a collision course with Earth. The properties of the anomaly itself were such that it shut everyone down, shorted out the Ark... we were ghost ship when Earth came up to greet us."

Astrid seems to be trying to imagine it. Can she? Probably not. But that's OK, it's not really worth imagining.

She starts looking at her hands, and Hound suspects her thoughts have drifted. Turns out he's right on the money.

"You know," she says quietly. "I meant what I said earlier. While we were... with Skyfire."

So that's what's got you all distracted? Not that it isn't eating me up too.

He looks away because he's not sure what else to do. He doesn't want to talk about it right now; that he knows for sure. "I did too," he says at length.

She swallows, and the mech can't help but press his brow plates together as he detects her heart rate slowly begin to climb. Her entire body is heavy with expectancy.

"Hound?"

Oh no, he knows that tone. "Yeah?"

She swallows again. "We didn't get together because you... had a thing for humans, did we?"

His spark constricts for a nanosecond before spinning faster, tighter. A little static creeps into the corners of his foreprocessors, his waking mind, as he turns the question over in his head; warily, like suddenly he's holding another can of Red Hand. He's standing on a hill of disbelief, flanked by sharp towers of worry. Where did this come from? Did she somehow find out that she's only the latest chapter in a very long, tedious book called Hound the Biophile? A memory finds him: one of their first actual encounters while on the roadtrip to Alaska, where he'd admitted to being interested in humans since the day he went in for spec processing by the Bureau so many years ago. She'd laughed at him then. Is that what this is?

His spark is running hot and when he returns to reality he realizes that he's gripping the edge of the berth hard enough to leave dents. He also realizes that it's taking him a long time to answer.

"Of course not," he sort-of breathes, sort-of snorts; in that mechanical way of his kind. "Organic or not, it's the personality that matters to me, Boots."

"That night on the hill -" he knows exactly what night this is "- you said that Cybertronians do stuff that you don't care for. That you're a tactile mech. A few weeks ago, you told me that you were ostracized for it." A pause as she watches his face grow harder. "Then we fucked in that clearing, and you left marks so big and so deep that I was feeling your fingers for days afterward."

What in Sam Hill are you trying to get at, here?

He fidgets under that gaze. His image is filtering through the tiny holes in those gelatinous orbs in her skull, refracting the light, and exciting cells at the head of her optic nerve. Those cells are telling her that she's looking at a giant, green, machine-man, and that he certainly looks a helluva lot like a soldier before a superior officer. Why is he scared? No - why is he angry?

"I told you, I enjoyed myself," he reiterates. And it's true! Did she not believe him?

His response, apparently, isn't good enough, and her reaction confounds him. "God, you say it like you'd tried a new flavor of ice cream or something."

Hound narrows his optic at the human, spark spinning faster still. The plating on his chest would be very warm to the touch, and his hands tremble as they return to the edge of the berth for purchase. What is this about? Why is his word not good enough? Images of her in his giant hands, looking so small, feeling so soft, flood his CPU like signals warning him of impending stasis lock.

"I slagging loved it, OK? What more do you want from me?"

The startled look on her face at the tone of his voice pains him.

"I just..." The small human falters, forcing his scowl to deepen. He doesn't want to be here, he doesn't want to be having this conversation. Not now, and probably not ever. But they've been having this conversation for a long time, and it's got to end someday. "I want to know why!"

"Why what?"

She explodes, fists clenched and eyes shut. "Why you touch me so damn hard and then hate yourself for it!"

The feeling of spark cessation is a strange thing. It's not lethal or even particularly dangerous, like a heart attack, but the repercussions are felt through the body like a wave. Hound's halts for only a second before that wave threatens to drown him.

"Because I like humans, alright?" he blurts, loud and jarring. Astrid starts. "I like the way you move, smell, feel." His voice is forceful. "I like how you breathe with these little... bags in your chest. I like that you're mostly water. I like that you can sweat, spit, bleed, piss, cry. I like that... I like that I can slagging squeeze you. Bruise you like an apple. I told you I've been wanting to fuck a human since before I knew what fucking was. You knew that."

The words leave him like a torrent of that selfsame water that she's mostly made of, and he's left cold and empty in their wake.

And yet, he still wasn't telling her the whole truth.

"You do have a fetish," is all that comes out of her.

A fetish? The words come out before he has a chance to bite them back: "Talk about the pot calling the kettle black."

She narrows her eyes at him, and her blood pressure spikes. Despite the cool air, he detects dampness on the nape of her neck and in her peeling hands. "Th-that's not the same thing and you know it!"

He screws up his face. "And how's that?" he demands. "I've got a thing for your kind, and you've got a thing for my kind."

Astrid blinks, and shakes her head for a second like she's trying to clear an etch-a-sketch. "I don't have a thing for your -"

Hound throws his oversized arms in the air. "So what, you lied to me then?"

"I've got a thing for you! Just you!"

The desperation in her voice is saying otherwise, and he's not sure what to think about that. "Me, huh?" he says in a low rumble, standing up. "So you definitely don't have a thing for these -" he shows her his hands "- or these -" he points to his feet "- or this -" he transforms, there on the floor, quickly and sloppily, revving himself once back on his shocks, and then transforms back again. He pauses to study her face, wild with surprise, a little trepidation, and fading anger.

"Or this?" he points to the black-plated counterweight between his silver thighs with a firm thrust of his downturned finger.

Oh oobee doo
I wanna be like you
I wanna walk like you
Talk like you too

"Fine! I do like it. I love the shit out of it. And it may not be fun for you, but it sure as hell is fun for me." She's leapt up onto her own two feet to hold her ground - something that few humans would dare do against something like him. He hopes that a day where she stops doing so never comes. "The danger is a goddamn thrill, OK? Why the fuck do you think I hit the backcountry alone? If a hiker falls in a forest and no one's around to hear her, does she make a sound?"

Hound's mouth tightens into a line as he looks on her.

"Every time I compare you to that mountain that came down on me, I'm figuring something out. And every time I do it, it makes just that much more sense." She pauses, clenching her fists, the muscles in her face. She remembers to breathe. "Remember that first drive you took me on?"

Of course he does - remembering is the mech's job. He remembers how she'd struggled to get from her wheelchair to his passenger seat, and how badly he wished he could help her in; he remembers the way she felt sitting in him, the sensation of her cheek against the window; he remembers exactly which albums she'd popped into his stereo during the drive; he remembers the strange sense of loneliness that prompted him to throw all caution to the wind and tell her who he really was.

Of course he remembers.

"Remember what I told you about humans?"


"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 challenging the world do we experience it, and when we triumph over that small, tiny task that we set for ourselves... it's like saying fuck you for making me so fleeting. 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 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."


Their eyes meet and she knows that he's recalled the moment with near-perfect clarity. He doesn't know what it feels or looks or sounds like to remember something with a human brain, but he imagines that it must be perfect in its own way. It has to be.

"You wanna know what my problem is, Hound? Well there is it. I'm fucking human." She pauses and there's a faint twitch in her face just as her eyes start to moisten. "I'm meat and bone and water, and unlike you, as soon as this fire," she says, harshly gesturing to her chest as a tear rolls down her cheek, "goes out, there's no stoking it again. No magnesium you can scrape filings from, no rocks you can bang together, no stick you can twist fast enough to bring any of us back.

"I am going to die. And I'll be damned if I don't head toward that finite horizon, hurl myself at the mountain with all my feeble glory, ecstatic with the knowledge that it could swallow me up at any minute. I'll be damned if I don't face my end with courage and resignation."

His CPU is swimming, and he's finding it hard to look directly at her because she's burning as bright as a sun.

That violence is inescapable.

"Why do I have to be the mountain?"

"Because we're all mountains! I have just as much power as you do, it just looks different than yours."

He shakes his head. No, no. "That's not what I want. I don't want either of us to have power over the other."

She narrows her eyes at him. "Now look who's lying."

He snaps his head in her direction.

"I thought you got a kick out of bruising apples?"

Hound's spark churns in its chamber.

He remembers the first time they screwed around - it seems so long ago now, even though it was only earlier this year - and what it felt like. He remembered thinking, as her hands were winding their wily way up into the fine recesses of his plating to stroke at long-ignored cabling surging with vital spark fluid, how this was different, somehow. How, maybe, this chapter of the book might not be like the others. How there was something peculiar and special about humans, and this one in particular.

Primus he wanted to grab her. He fought with all his inebriated will to keep his hands away unless it was to give the lightest, faintest touches he could muster, or to touch her exactly where she told him to. The following morning, he thought that he would never get a chance to do that again, but a few weeks later, he did. And he got to touch her even more.

The colors she turns when he touches her! Pinks and reds and blues and greens; a veritable feast for the optics. Her skin sings like an instrument in response to his fingers, his mouth.

But he doesn't need to be made of metal to get those colors. He doesn't need to be big, he doesn't need to be a risk to her well-being - it takes such little pressure. In fact, there's almost an art to it. Maybe finer brushes wouldn't perhaps paint a better picture?

"How long has this been going on? This fascination of yours?"

There's an alien above him - scaled, an opalescent purple-blue with six limbs and complex eye organs; this species would normally have only come up to hip-height, but the hologram levels the playing field. It's an off-world station, and he's snuck into an exclusion zone under the guise of a pleasure-mech. The alien, a local, dragged him into a dirty alley, informing him that a protrusion on their thorax needed some attention. Terrified, excited, and above all, fascinated,Hound maneuvers the holo's hands, sending out gently pulsing waves of electricity just as he's seen the others do, and is rewarded with a dribble of liquid. Coin is inserted into a slot on his arm, and the alien walks away, leaving Hound to wonder at that wetness still coating his holo's hand. Leaving Hound to wonder why he feels the sudden urge to ground a charge.

A decacycle later and he's in Prowl's office, the aide to Hound's current Field Commander, and he's chewing him out for even having the word "melee" on his profile. Chewing him out for preferring to do things with his hands like some violent brute or dirty-fighting Decepticon - same thing, really. Word is already spreading that the new captain spends an inordinate amount of time around the hydrophilic organics, but the mech ignores the jabs and rumors because he's trying for another promotion, hoping that maybe being one more step removed from the field won't help him focus on the war.

Fisticuffs and brawling is for thugs and organics, and have no place in the Autobot... army.

Hound knew what he'd meant to say, though.

The Autobot way of life.

While he walked out of that office with his chin high and shoulders squared, the newly-minted captain made a beeline straight for one of the illicit distilleries on base to give into his aberrant behavior and choke down the equivalent of twelve liters of high grade.

As the fighting got more and more dire, though, and bigger and bigger cities started to crumble, Hound's little fascination ceased to matter one whit. He shoved it to the back of his hindprocessors for more than 900 years.

But then Earth happened.

By Primus did Earth happen.

"It's been going on a long, long time," he rumbles quietly.

She shivers. "It's no use hating it, I promise."

The mech looks her way and she meets his gaze for the first time in a few minutes. "How d'you figure?"

"You don't think I don't know what it's like to feel fucked in the head about it? I find a giant robot that turns into a car hot. It's probably got an entry in the DSM."

"The what?"

"The diagnostic something manual - no pun intended. It's a big book of ways in which people can be fucked in the head, and it's about yea thick." She holds up her hand and there's a gap of almost five centimeters between her thumb and index finger. "That's a lot of ways."

He flashes a faint smile and looks away again, thinking about Prowl. "I don't think I know how to not hate myself for it, Astrid. Been doing it for so damn long."

There's a lengthy pause, and something seems to click for her. "I'm the first... organic you've really been with, aren't I?"

He grinds his denta together. "Yeah."

"However long you've been dealing with this has come to a head because of me," she murmurs. "This isn't about me being human at all, is it? This is about you finally getting what you've always wanted."

He vents, long and ragged, letting his head droop as he grasps the edge of the berth hard enough for it to creak. "I don't exactly hate myself," he says. He's got to set that record straight, at least. "I'm just not proud of what I want." He looks at her with his single optic. He drinks her in: sensors tearing through her clothing to the burned and battered flesh beneath, and suddenly he realizes that he's disappointed that his marks did fade so quickly. He wants her covered in them every day for as long as they're together.

"I'm not either, you know. Why do you think I flipped my shit the first time I was here? I was..." she pauses to clear her throat and lower her voice. "I was getting worked up from being around so many of you. Of getting to finally see you perfectly at ease in your surroundings." A sigh. "I was mad because I really didn't want to like it."

He frowns. "You said you felt small and useless."

"Yeah, well, when humans are trying to cover up something about themselves that they can't handle, the first line of defense is usually just to broadcast the exact opposite thing, and then crank it up to eleven. I guess the giant robot strategy is to pretend it doesn't exist, get drunk, and do it anyway?" She cocks a brow in his direction.

A weak little snort escapes him. "Why do you have hangups about it anyway? Humans have sex. "Giant robots" don't. I'm the fish out of water here."

"Let me get this straight. You've been watching porn for twenty years and somehow failed to notice that, in almost every culture on Earth, sex that doesn't resemble procreation is a horrible taboo?"

It... it is? Hound always thought that it was all just part of the game and everyone was in on it. He does have to admit that dirty talk threw him for a loop for a good long time, until he realized that it was just one more idiosyncratic aspect of human intimacy that he would never completely understand. The abstinence movement is straightforward enough, nothing there to write home about - but the more subtle relationship that human society has with its own sexual impulses is almost impenetrable to him without the help of an insider.

Well here's your insider.

"I... I guess so."

"If it involves bruises, if it involves weird objects, or silly outfits, or if it involves people that look too different from each other, then you'd better keep your trap shut because no one wants to know about it. And depending on where you are, it might even just get you arrested."

"...Oh."

Oh? Is that all you've got to say, you big oaf?

"What I'm trying to say is... we're not all that different. In fact, only difference I can even think of right now is that you've been at this for a long time while I'm just..." she pauses to chuckle at herself, "...just getting started."

Hound bends at the knee and sinks down onto the floor across from her, with his back against the berth. He notes how little room she takes up compared to him and his hulking frame. A long quietude passes between them - a tired one, he guesses - while he watches her eyes wander about his legs and arms and belly. Is she looking at him or through him?

He breaks the silence. "What do we do?"

"We both need to stop beating around the bush," she murmurs, looking down at herself then. "And you need to figure out what you can and can't do because as far as I can tell right now, I feel like I'm game for anything."

What I can and can't do? Hound cycles air as he thinks, trying to recall how he felt every time they went at it, trying to pick out things that particularly excited him and things that didn't. The one that comes immediately to mind was when she asked him, clumsily, childlike, to treat her like a soldier.

Part of him immediately latched onto the idea. Military protocol is something he knows backwards and forwards - he's lived, breathed, and dreamt it for eons. It's his second nature, second language. For the longest time, it was the only language he could speak with his body, his hands. And to hear her want to try and speak it too? That thrilled him.

But it also scared him. The rest of him withdrew at her deceptively simple request, because it's also a language of violence. Of chaos and turmoil; collapsed sparks and rent plating. It had been the language he spoke when he ordered mechs into battle... ordered innocent Cybertronians to their possible, probable deaths. It's a language he doesn't want to speak anymore, but it's so much part of his identity now. There's no just walking away from it.

Maybe it would be remiss to not at least try to... make a piece of that his own. Their own.

Hound wants to take it slow, but he also wants to take it fast - to go sailing off the edge into the warm humidity of her breath. To flirt with oblivion in her small, hot physicality just as she wants to find the same in his big and hard and steadfast.

Is this the mountain that she was talking about?

"Let's play it by ear then."

He reaches forward to pick her up but stops his hand just short of the small creature. He's not sure if this maybe isn't...

But it is. She notices him hesitate, his gunmetal hand almost big enough to wrap around her waist, crush her like a can, but she doesn't think anything of it. And suddenly he's in awe of her fearlessness as she reaches out to touch one of his fingers, coaxing him the rest of the way. So he grabs her, snaking around that midsection, and brings her to him.

Fascinated all the way.

"It's not even six o'clock," the giant murmurs, observing the chronometer nestled someplace in his CPU as she sits on his left thigh, toes touching the floor. He looks down and notes how she looks nestled in among his tangle of tree-trunk limbs like that; he notes that he likes it.

"Let's call it a date night in."

Astrid stands up on his leg and motions for him to come in close. He does - paying attention to what it feels like to bend toward her, to have his hands at the ready to wrap around her delicious little frame - and she grabs at the sides of his green helm to bring him in for a kiss. It's small and it's quick, but the moisture on her breath, he realizes, makes that bizarre, maybe-broken-maybe-not part of him want to grab that flesh and squeeze until she's left with stripes like shadows from where his fingers had been.

But he brushes his thumbs along her shoulders and discovers that that, too, is good and right in its own way.

"You wanna watch something?"

He piggybacks on a satellite connection and with a flick of a mental switch some local TV station appears on the adjacent wall via his projection equipment. There's a hurricane off the coast of Florida, it tells them.

"Sure. Pick something."

"And would you mind if I... if I had a little high-grade?" He becomes aware of a small cube in his subspace just then - and it's calling his name.

"A lazy evening in front of the tube with my man and a drink after a long day?" She chuckles, taking her seat on his leg again. "Why, this almost feels like a normal relationship."

A... a man, she said? Hound pauses for a second to consider the word. It makes him feel funny. A good kind of funny. But he files that away for later and focuses on the cube that's appeared in his hand, the channels he's flipping through, and the lovely little human at his side.

You'll see it's true
An ape like me
Can learn
To be
Human too


The distant sound of morning rain filters through Hound's recharging CPU and touches something inside of him in just the right sort of way to gently bring him to consciousness. He's surprised that he can hear it through all the layers of building material, but he supposes that it's carrying through the frosted, porthole skylight somehow. It's about nine o'clock in the morning, he ascertains. And all is quiet.

Astrid's sound asleep beside him on her camping pad, bundled up in her blue and green sleeping bag like a caterpillar in a cocoon. Having fallen into recharge on his side, he takes a few lazy minutes to study her. To see what colors she looks like in a thermal scan, or what strange arrangements of gray she might appear as in a density sweep. He takes her heart rate and blood pressure, measures her brain activity: while not exactly awake, it turns out she's not as asleep as he thought. She's in some kind of twilight consciousness - something Cybertronians don't have under normal, healthy circumstances. Hound wonders what that state might be like.

He props up his head and rests his other arm along his hip joints, reflecting vaguely on the day before.

How in the world is she so OK about all of this? She had a gun held to her head for Primus' sake!

Was that just another arm of the mountain?

He scans himself again, trying to find traces of that fragging Decepticon bug, a little bemused that someone might have been forced to eavesdrop on these recent conversations. Maybe as soon as whoever was on the other end of the shell started hearing talk about interspecies relations, they'd hit the self-destruct button to save themselves from second-hand embarrassment. Hound chuckles at the thought, a little surprised at how much he didn't care one way or the other.

It was the opinion of his peers that mattered, at any rate - not his enemies.

Astrid rolled over with a breathy groan and opened a pair of bleary eyes, squinting to see him in the dim light. "Mornin' tall, green, n' handsome," she mumbles, sleep heavy on her voice. Hound likes the way humans sound first thing in the morning, and how it quickly changes as even their vocal chords wake up.

"Mornin' short, pink, n' pretty," he smiles.

"Short?" She cocks a brow at him and bites back a grin. "I'll have you know that I'm on the tall side of average around here, thank you very much."

"In that case, good morning, tall, pink, n' pretty." He leans in to plant a kiss on her hair and she giggles.

"And the same to you, average, green, n' handsome."

His hand is resting on her hip joints now, lightly, lightly, and he's stroking the curve through the polyester and goose down of her sleeping bag. She's studying his face when she reaches out to lightly trace around his busted optic, careful not to get too close to the stuff that shouldn't be exposed.

"Doesn't that hurt?"

"Not anymore."

"It looks awful."

"I might say the same thing about your bandages."

"Touche."

She fidgets a little under his hand and he feels her blood pressure slowly begin to raise. Something else in her is waking up too.

She pulls her arm out of the sleeping bag and grasps at one of his digits, looking at it. "Hey, big guy."

"Yeah?"

"How about a coupla bruises to get me through the day?"

She doesn't have to tell him twice.

Hound distantly realizes that this feels a little bit different than all their other times. He feels... better, somehow. Bigger. Brighter. Lighter. Like something was there that isn't there now. 

Like... a burden's been lifted.

So this is what that feels like, huh?

The sleeping pad and camping mat are returned to subspace before Astrid even has a chance to dislodge herself from them, and she gives a startled yelp as her rear makes sudden contact with the hard surface of the berth. Hound laughs at her confusion before taking advantage of it to swoop in for a kiss, crushing her against his chest after he swiftly maneuvers from beside to above her. The little human squirms against him, her soft flesh yielding to his plating. He likes that.

She worms her little fingers into the armor under his chin, where on a human the jugular might be, and strokes at the spark conduits on either side there. His chest flares with a sudden warmth and static laces his HUDs - he likes that too.

He's in all fours above her, grasping at the surface of the berth as she works away at his neck, and by Primus if Hound doesn't tear himself away he'll overload much sooner than anticipated. So with a heavy, rumbling vent he grasps at her forearms and gently pulls them away with a single hand, onlines his optic and looks her in the eye.

"What are you in the mood for?"

"What you got?"

He cocks a brow plate at her. I know what game you're trying to play, his face probably says. And you've got me hook, line, and sinker.

"Um... turn over. Wait, no, take your clothes off first."

Astrid grins and does exactly as he asks. "It's brisk in here," she says, working her pants off. He stares at the limbs with three gauzy dressings between them, looking merely sunburned too, and is greeted with waves of her goosebumps. Such a curious thing! "So you'd better warm me up fast."

The pads of his index finger brush along her thigh and he can feel them: her tiny little hairs standing on end. Signs of an ancient animal pedigree.

"I don't think that'll be a problem," he chuckles, watching with rapt attention as she slides the straps of her bra down her shoulders and discards it into the pile beside her. The chill air makes her nipples pucker up into little buttons of rich pinkish brown, and the sight causes a stirring in his chest.

As soon as her underwear is off, she's on her belly, whining when her bare chest comes into contact with the cold metal. "Shit," she laughs, wincing as she lays herself down.

"Here, let me help you with that..." Hound plants his hands on either side of her shoulders, sending heat to radiate from the digits, warming both her and the metal she's laying on. It won't stay warm for too long, but it'll help.

"Mmmm."

And so will this.

He withdraws them, quickly giving her right ass cheek a moderate flick with his middle finger. Astrid jerks and howls in surprise, whipping her head around.

Hound just laughs. "What? I though you wanted me to warm you up?"

She shoots him a glare and settles back down as he chuckles to himself some more. With a purring vent he leans in, planting a kiss on the injured cheek, before giving it a gentle bite then doing the same with the other. That she seems to like. He has her mewling and arching her rear up towards him in no time, and it's a sight that he will never, ever, tire of seeing.

"Or maybe this is more your speed?" he murmurs in a low voice against the back of her thigh, tracing his pointed glossa up along the cleft of her ass and up to her tailbone.

"My god you're such a tease," she moans, arching her back so far that she's almost on her knees.

He raises a brow at the sight. "Am I?" The giant mech dives back in, swiftly grabbing a fistful of ass in each hand and spreading her cheeks apart to make room for his glossa to dip into her.

Astrid cries out at the sudden penetration, her hand shooting back to grab onto him, or something at least. "F-fuck, even your goddamn tongue is huge..."

He thrusts into her that way a few times, but he knows it won't be comfortable for long without lubrication. Hound withdraws a final time, raking his glossa up and across her second hole, getting a sharp moan out of the little human. Compared to a Cybertronian's mere handful of "erogenous" zones, the human body comes pre-packaged with a whole slew of them. Each, as far as he can tell, giving a slightly different sensation, a slightly different experience. That's not to say his pleasure is incomplete, but that every now and then he wishes he knew what it felt like to have a prostate or testicles or nipples. But maybe he does have more than the six basic conduit access points and just never thought about it. It would be something to explore on his own first, though.

He wonders at that other hole, though - kept tightly shut by strong rings of muscle, and providing, he hears, a completely different experience from the vagina.

"Do you like... anal?" he asks. The word sounds clumsy coming out.

Astrid laughs awkwardly, and she brings her shoulders up a little. He senses heat rise to her face. "I haven't done it in years, but... I definitely don't do it, uh... first thing in the morning."

Hound doesn't know why the time of day would matter, but he jots her response down into his memory banks for later, and he nods. "I'd like to try it sometime," he whispers, pulling back to worry his denta along her shoulder - the one that didn't have a bullet in it. "And hey, let me know if anything starts to hurt, alright? I mean, in a bad way."

"Well now that you mention it, this does make my arm ache a little..."

Hound frowns and shakes his head. Well that's no good. "Up y' go, then, c'mon." He wraps his giant hands around her slight body and brings her over to him as he sits back against the wall with his legs hanging over the side of the berth. He looks down at her and almost melts at the sight: her knees spread apart to brace against each of his thighs, her hands on the plating of his belly, back shielded from the chill by his hands. "As soon as I feel like this is aggravating your injuries, I'm calling it off, alright?"

She gives him a salute and a smile. "Aye-aye, captain, sir."

The Jeep can't hold back the laugh. "I'm a military captain, not a ship's captain." He had a feeling that the crew should have agreed on a different English translation for that one.

Astrid gives a little shrug before sliding down his body. "Eh, same thing, right?"

Hound's about to protest - if he's a stickler about anything, it's about getting the chain of command straight - but then her fingers start tracing little circles around the holo-emitter at his groin and after a moment she adds her hot, moist breath to the situation and the mech can't do much of anything but choke out a gust of air.

"Doesn't he want to come out and play?" she asks, her voice a touch higher, a hint more playful. She's still paying a lot of attention to the sensitive dermaplating around the emitter.

The mech looks down at her. "He's waiting for you to move your head," he rumbles, trying to hold back the surge of spark fluid to the area. Wheeljack wasn't kidding, the Autobot thinks through the static in his CPU. I am slowly losing conscious control of it.

"Is he?" She leans to one side, and with a soft groan Hound lets it out - all fifty centimeters of him. His gunmetal length shoots past her face; half a second later he can feel it fill with his vital fluids, and like the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae, a viscous bead of lubricant forms at the tip and dribbles down the head. "Whoa," Astrid breathes. In an instant she's all over it.

"Shit, Boots," he chuckles, huskiness unmistakable on his vocalizer as he looks down at her in wonder and not a little lecherousness. "Keep that up and you can bet your adorable rear end that I won't - hhhn - won't last."

She's made an O shape with both of her hands around him. While he's still too thick for any of her fingers to touch, he'll be slagged if it doesn't still feel amazing - and Hound distantly realizes that it feels so good because it's a pair of tiny human hands that are doing it.

But then he remembers the possible bug, and with a twitch in his cock, he puts his hand on her arm. "W-wait," he grinds out. "Are you OK with this, even with the... the possibility that I might be compromised?"

Please, Primus, say yes.

She gets a glimmer in her eye, though, and looks straight up at him. "If there are any 'Cons in there watching..." Hound watches with surprise and bemusement when she whips out a pair of middle fingers with a flourish, before opening her mouth and running her tongue along several inches of his length without breaking eye contact or putting her hands away. "Enjoy the show, fuckers."

The Autobot is sure that he grows just that much harder at her irreverent display, and his hands want to grab her and not let go until she's painted every color in the visible spectrum. But she's one step ahead of him as she turns and throws a leg over his member to straddle it between firm, warm thighs. Hound almost bucks at the sensation, internals purring.

He chances a look downward and, quite frankly, has no idea how such a sight could turn him on so much. She's almost on all fours, with his cock stuffed between her legs, disappearing beyond the strong curves of her thighs and parted ass. He can feel where the hot, slick folds of her pussy rest on him, spread gently apart as well, and he can feel her breasts brushing against the moistened tip of his head. If he concentrates, he can even feel her tiny clit against him, so, so, so small, but no less potent than his own Autobot-sized prick.

Hound can't help himself. Astrid starts rubbing against him, back and forth - which is a damned treat on its own - but his hands refuse to have nothing to do. The one ventures over to her rear, pried open so fully by his girth, where he merely explores the places where their bodies meet. The other loosely wraps around her shoulder, fingers splayed across her chest and neck, while he finds his index finger wanting to follow the curve of her cheek towards that mouth of hers. And before he knows it, the tip of the digit sinks in between her lips, parting them wide too. She moans, and begins to do things with her tongue that has his body pumping out another dribble of lubricant.

Her body temperature is no longer a concern. He can feel her radiating heat now as she gyrates on him. Little moans would be escaping her if his thick finger wasn't in the way, but he can still feel their minute vibrations.

"Let me know when you're going to come," he murmurs in a low voice, surprised at how much it did wound up sounding like a command. Where did that come from?

She can't speak with her face stuffed as full of his hand as it can handle, but she nods. From the way she's moving, Hound suspects it won't be long. He removes his finger so it can resume its proper position at her other hip, where he helps her along, pushing and pulling her along the top of his thick member. Forget coke can, he observes, staring at how big he feels when she's on him like this; distantly smug. I'm carboy thick.

But it's that thickness that's going to get him into trouble right now, as he senses the first rumblings of a building charge deep within his spark conduits. Ah, frag this. I am going to take control.

Astrid gives a startled little cry when he grabs her and maneuvers them both into a better position for him to move. He gets up onto his knees on the berth, and bent over, positions her not unlike hoe he had her in Portland. Except this time, she's facing downward, and he hopes that there's a chance that they might actually get to come at the same time this way. Hound can't see her in this position - she's too small, and too soft, pressed up against the hard bulk of his frame. It gives him a little thrill having to navigate her by feel alone.

She wordlessly intuits that he wants her to wrap her delicious legs around him again, and squeeze. A moment later and he feels her do that O thing with her hands around the head of his cock too, and wow.

"F-frag..." he sighs, venting raggedly as he begins to thrust.

He wonders what he feels like to her; what it feels like to be full of fire instead of spark. But all he can know is what she feels like to him: a hot coal, slicker than water, softer than velvet, more pliant than the finest clay... more fragile than spun sugar. And how much of my grip she can take!

There's a metaphor there that he could make about coal and diamonds and crushing pressure, but her movements are becoming erratic against him and a cloying sort of sweetness is beginning to fill his spark mains, radiating outward toward his dermaplating. HUDs pop and fizzle until his optical array simply offlines itself. He gives one final thrust before the little body beneath him stiffens and shudders. She scrambles to hold onto something when her feet brace against the front of his thighs, toes curling, and her own hands find his at her waist and hip bones.

It's some combination between her high-pitched moans and her instinctive jerking against his member that does the trick for him. It's intense, that brilliant, bright sensation inside.

"I'm gonna -"

Hound looses just enough motor control to make it difficult to hold himself upright-ish, and tears one of his hands away from her to brace himself as he falls forward. WHAM. Electricity arcs from his splayed fingers to the metal berth beneath, his other hand clutching her to him like a vice.

"Hnn!"

His cock throbs and convulses, pumping out wave after wave of warm, sticky grounding fluid; that unbearable sweetness rushing out of him like a cresting wave.

He stays like that for a moment, gathering himself, waiting for his systems to come back online, and as he cycles air through his burning internals he gently, shakily, lowers his human to the berth before easing himself back onto his side with a long, lazy vent.

Hound actually starts to laugh to himself - low at first, before gaining enough momentum to have him clutching at his chest. It tapers off and he's just left aglow. For some reason, all that talking seemed to... help.

"On a scale of one to ten, how was it?" The mech asks, looking over at Astrid.

She's laying there, radiating heat and quite aglow herself Some of her bandages are mussed, but she doesn't seem to mind. Hound sees that her hips and sides are red, though - a little jolt of excitement tickles his spark when he thinks about the pretty colors they'll be by the afternoon.

"On a scale of one to ten, that was a holy shit." She laughed too, rolling onto her back, but it faded, leaving a thinker's frown on her face instead of a smile. He watched with his own frown as he eyes roamed the ceiling, spark sinking in its housing.

"What's the matter?"

Astrid screwed up her face - a little dramatically, he sensed, to try and downplay something - and swallowed. "You... like me for me, right?"

Hound's air cycling halted for a moment as he considered her with knitted brow plates. In the time that he's had to get to know her these past six months, he's seen the many different facets of Astrid Schneider and marveled at them all: her devil-may-care adventurousness, her unhurried geniality, her fiery strength and no-bullshit attitude, and her at times comically foul mouth. It never occurred to him that she might ever feel insecure. At least, not like him.

The Jeep gently draws her to him again - maybe surrounding her like that might make her feel safer, he figures - and he just keeps his big mitt draped across her hip because the shoulder facing him is the one with the hole in it.

"You are the nicest and funniest person I have ever met, on or off Earth," he murmurs. "You are the only person I have ever felt like I could really be myself around - the only person who's ever made me feel like I didn't have flaws. And that is more valuable than... than anything I can think of."

"Really?"

He smiles down at her. "Scout's honor."

Astrid smiles, sighing against him. It's a contented sigh; a relieved sigh. He can feel her tiny rush of air against that spot on his low chest where the car parts meet the less Earthly-looking metal that makes up his belly. Her toes brush against the top of his thick pelvic plates, though, and he's reminded that the holo-device is still activated, jutting out long and straight in the cool air. With a flick of a mental switch he offlines it, and in seconds it disappears back into his loins, spark fluid re-entering his body.

He's about to suggest that they take a few moments to relax, but it seems Astrid's already dozed off against him, and with a vented chuckle, he feels like following suit.


"Slaggit, Hound, I know you're in there!"

The mech is roused by the sound of a voice in the room. It takes him to moment for him to realize where it's coming from: a speaker beside the door; a relic of a paging system that the Bureau made them install back in the mid-90's. Hound had no idea that it still worked.

"I've been trying to get a hold of you for over a breem and you're not answering your comm pings when, need I remind you, that we are on a level one alert? Do you realize just how insecure this system is? Why, a human child with some tin foil and a wire hanger could listen in to every word I'm saying!"

Hound rubs at the dermaplating on his face, looking over his comm data. Huh, looks like the paranoid android was trying to ring him up.

"Hound, are you even listening to me?"

"Good morning to you too, Red Alert," he called out to the speaker, shaking his head with a smile.

"Good morning? I've been up since 0400 while the rest of you were cozied up on your slabs!" The security chief grunts, and audibly. "When I can make it to 1100 hours without having to babysit single Autobot on base, especially an Autobot officer who was supposed to be in the med bay five minutes ago, then you can wish me a good morning."

Hound's about to make a good-natured retort, but Astrid beats him to it.

"Is that the way you talk to all your friends, or just the ones you like the most?"

"Wh... I... Agent Schneider? Why are you -" Red Alert catches himself, and the comm goes silent for a moment. "Look, just get yourselves down there ASAP. Ratchet and the others are due to be working around the clock on this littleproblem of ours, and I would hope that you could at least extend him the courtesy of being punctual. Alright?"

"Our apologies, Red," she answers. "We'll be down there soon."

"And Agent Schneider?"

"Yes?"

"If you're going to be switching quarters, you're supposed to notify me. Everyone needs to be accounted for around here, and human guests are no exception."

Hound's struggling to keep himself from laughing.

"Sorry Red, I'll check in with you later."

"Thank you," he mumbles. "Red Alert out."

As soon as the comm line is closed, the green mech lets it out, and Astrid joins him until she's wiping tears from her eyes.

"That guy needs to get laid," Astrid snorts as she begins putting her clothes back on.

Hound appears a towel and shammy from subspace, one for each hand, and begins mopping up his puddle of fluid from the berth, making sure to mop of every last trace. "Oh, he does. And don't get me wrong, Red's a nice mech once you get past his... quirks, but I have no idea how Inferno can stand being around him like that."

"There's an old human proverb about that," she says, jimmying her pants back on.

"Oh?"

"Different strokes for different folks," she chuckles.

Hound snorts, a half-vented, half-vocalized sound. The now wet towel goes back into subspace to be dealt with later - there's a washing machine in the Bureau wing, if he recalls correctly - and he starts work on buffing her hand prints away from his more... obvious areas. After a moment, he looks himself over and shrugs. Good enough.

"You ready?" he asks, extending his hand to her.

"Could you run me over to the bathrooms real quick? I gotta pee." She jumps into his hand and shimmies up his arm with practiced ease. It brings a smile to his face to watch her navigate him so effortlessly like that now - it wasn't too long ago when she was still afraid of slipping or grabbing the wrong bit of armor - and her slight weight on his right shoulder just feels correct.

"Alright, but I'm gonna time ya!"


Med bay is three levels down, built using a good number of pieces of the original facility as it existed on the Ark. Some of the tech was orange, some of it white: a veritable calico quilt of old and new. Hound imagines that maybe in another 100 years, the whole place would be white. He's not sure how to feel about that.

"By Primus, there you are!"

Ratchet is leaning against a surgical slab, tools all neatly lined up on a tray beside him, with First Aid hovering eagerly nearby. He sets Astrid on the ground and takes a seat on the edge of the slab to give Ratchet easy access to the back of his head.

"Sorry Ratch, I... overslept."

"Agent Schneider," he says, grabbing a small scraping tool to investigate the tiny hole left by the immobilizing round. "If he ever tries that excuse with you, remember that healthy Cybertronians don't "oversleep"."

Hound and Astrid exchange glances, and she looks like she wants to laugh, so he makes a face at her, but it just makes her want to laugh even more. "Alright, alright, I lost track of time."

"I can see that," the medic mumbles, poking and prodding. "You've got Agent Schneider's hand prints all over your face."

The Jeep freezes for a second - Oh no! I forgot to get my head! - but when no further comments come, and when he looks down at his little human to see her shrugging back up at him, the panic wilts and he feels decidedly... OK.

"Guess I missed a spot," he says with a little laugh.

Ratchet switches tools. "You missed many."

The words are more like a reflex now than anything else: "Don't tell -"

"Oh calm down, I'm not going to tell anyone." There's a long silence as Ratchet focuses on his work and all he can hear is the sound of gentle scraping. "I'm only seeing a single puncture back here," he announces with a grumble. "There ought to be two, and from what I saw when fixing up the others, this is from the immobilizer and not from a cerebro-shell."

Hound screws up his face and turns to look at the docbot when he feels him pull away. "You mean to tell me that I haven't been shelled?"

"Can't say until I take a deeper look. Now open up."

The Jeep faces forward again and delves deep into his shell programs, looking for the one that will open the various ports and hatches around his helm. He engages it, and the back of his head opens up like a spring bloom, laying bare a lot of really important components. Astrid comes alive from where she's been standing, wanting to get a better look.

"Hand me the JX9 coupling cable, Aid."

A moment later and Hound can feel Ratchet plug something in, and suddenly some part of him is sucked up into the med bay's diagnostic mainframe. Most mechs didn't have strong opinions about interfacing with digital automatons like this, but Hound could never get used to the sensation of being an entire facility, even if just for a breem. Suffice to say, routine CPU maintenance is something he likes to put off for as long as he can get away with.

"Hm."

Hound doesn't like that sound. "What do you see, docbot?"

"I don't get it," he grunts. "There's not even a speck of foreign hardware in here."

He frowns. "So no shell."

"No shell."

The Jeep recalls those dim, hazy memories from the junkyard, forgetting that he's still plugged in.

"Your images of the so-called EMP, huh?" Ratchet is watching along with him on the diagnostic console. "Sure does look like one, at any rate."

The feed only accounts for about fifteen seconds. It shows him in the junkyard, looking about, and then his attention is drawn skyward toward a helicopter - possibly the Kiowa that Bluestreak had notified them of earlier - just as something on its underside lights up, and Hound's sensors are overwhelmed by static until they give way to nothingness. He wakes up again, eight minutes later, motile and cogent. Jazz is hailing him on comm.

"I'm no forensic analyst," Ratchet says, scratching his chin. "But it looks like your sensors were working just fine when this happened."

Hound doesn't like the sound of that either. "I have no idea how anyone could have pulled a fast one on me like that. Even a human would have heard that big of a chopper coming with plenty of time to spare. No offense, Astrid."

"None taken," the organic says from beside his foot.

"Something's fishy. I can tell you that much, captain," Ratchet admits, turning to First Aid again. "A JX4 cable, please." He soon has two heavy cables sticking out of the back of his head and he fights the accompanying disorientation. "I'm gonna run a level four diagnostic on you for now. You're not showing any symptoms of malware, brute force hacking, or any other sort of compromising bugs that would warrant a level five, but you did have a glitch back there, and bad, so we're going to see if we can find out why."

Oh boy. This means he's going to be stuck in here like this for an hour.

"In the meantime," he continues, "I'm sending your memories of the EMP over to Perceptor. He might be able to tease something out of that data."

Hound nods.

"And I might as well work on that optic of yours while you're being scanned."

Oh, right. He almost forgot.

"On your back, and watch those cables."

Hound does as he's told.

"Hey," Astrid calls up to them. Ratchet cocks a brow ridge at her. "Can I watch?"

The medic shrugs and reaches down for her. "Don't see why not." He deposits her unceremoniously onto Hound's midsection, returning to his position behind Hound's head. "Just don't get any closer than that; skin and fibers have a knack for getting everywhere you don't want them to be."

"You won't even know I'm here." She gives the Jeep a little wink.

First Aid, who'd gone off to the other side of the room, returns now with another tray, arrayed with a completely different set of tools, and a box; likely housing the new optic.

Ratchet tinkers with some stuff in his head for a moment. "Now, you were told that you were getting an upgrade, right?"

"An upgrade? We can afford upgrades?"

The medic sighs. "No, we really can't. But Wheeljack has been developing a prototype made from recycled parts, and he says playing field tester is your payback for some favor he did for you."

Why, that cheeky bastard!

"And if anyone's qualified do to QA on a new sensor, it would be you." Ratchet hands the tool back to his assistant manning the diagnostic screen. "Alright Aid, set his damage threshold to 780."

Suddenly, he can't feel Astrid standing on him anymore.

"Damage threshold set, sir."

"Tension calipers."

"So what kind of upgrade are you giving him?" Astrid asks.

For a brief moment, the calipers come into view, but they disappear just as quickly as the good optic is carefully removed. Hound's left with one blank feed and one static feed now. Far from blind, but still - he feels uncomfortably vulnerable. The remnants of the other are removed too.

"Most of us have static lenses, Agent Schneider," he murmurs, only half paying attention to answering her question. "The few of us who don't had them installed long before we got here. This is the first time we've produced a new optical array instead of fixing or replacing what we already have. So today, the captain gets the Ark's first new pair of active lenses."

"Active? You mean... the kind that have zoom capabilities?"

"And a wider field of vision, too. A full 46 degrees wider." A brief pause. "Ion coil," he orders First Aid. Hound can feel a sort of vague warmth in his left optical socket, and a wetness as the new tool is used.

"Wow."

Hound can only think of three 'Bots that have active lenses: Jazz, Mirage, and Bumblebee, due to the nature of their work during the war. All in all, this is quite an honor.

"Oh, and Wheeljack said something else, too. Mentioned that he tailored the interface to fit you, whatever that means."

"Uh, alright. I wouldn't know what that means either."

"Aid, left optic, please..."

The procedure takes another fifteen minutes before Hound is allowed to sit up again. Ratchet does a few more things at the back of his head before setting down the last tool of the operation, circling around to scrutinize his handiwork.

"Wow, they look awesome!" Astrid says, standing on his left thigh and patting his arm.

"Still some cosmetic damage from the bullet," Ratchet grumbles. "But I'll have to take care of that later. Aid, set his damage threshold back to normal, please."

"Damage threshold set."

"Thank you. Alright, are you ready to boot up? Don't be surprised if you get errors; we'll straighten those out."

Hound nods, shivering in his spark at the sudden onslaught of tactile information. Ratchet walks back over to the diagnostic screen to take over the post-op.

"This might hurt a little, but give it a moment to adjust."

After a moment, Hound feels the boot process for the new hardware spooling up. Fluid surges into the new conduits, creating static. Then, with barely any warning at all, the things online and he's greeted with a searing brightness.

"Agh!"

"Hold on, hold on, it's calibrating the gamut..."

His vision darkens after a couple of seconds, leaving him with a clear picture of the med bay. Good contrast, he notes. Good saturation, exposure... but where are most of his HUDs?

"Not getting any errors, Ratch, but I think something's wrong. Most of my system feeds are missing. Fuel gauges, sensor status, altimeter..."

"No errors over here." A pause, as he looks over the diagnostic console. "Lets have you check all the functionality before we start troubleshooting. How's the zoom?"

Without a HUD, Hound has a hard time figuring it out at first. Then he does something that he feels is akin to squinting - real, actual squinting - and it happens. Suddenly, a storage compartment on the far wall looks three times closer. The new visual data combined with the still-running diagnostic scan has him feeling a little dizzy.

"Holy crap."

"Now look side to side without moving your head." Hound begins to, but old habits die hard and - "I said without moving your head."

He wills his head to remain still as, shakily, awkwardly, he wills his new eyes to... look out of their own corners. "I... I can see the sides of my own helm!"

Ratchet laughs, but Astrid is a little dumbstruck. "Wait, are you saying that you've only been able to look straight ahead this whole time?"

The three 'Bots laugh together now. "I still had a pretty large degree of visibility, but to be quite honest... it didn't compare to a humans'. Though having a half dozen other sensors to see with really made it a non-issue." He looks around again, getting the hang of it, then looks down, at Astrid, and zooms in on her face.

"Whoa! You've got, like, pupils now!"

"I do?"

"Yeah! And I can see them moving now! That's sick."

He smiles. Maybe this isn't so bad.

"Looks like it's all working as intended," Ratchet announces from behind him. "Which means that this HUD issue was probably deliberate."

Hound sighs, rolling his new eyes. "Wheeljack is going to be the end of me."

Why would he do away with the HUDs? Why is this supposed to be more to his liking? While he's busy trying to think it through, though, Astrid says something that makes it all click.

"Being able to move them like that, and without all that computer shit, you're one step closer to seeing how I see." She elbows him in the side, and he mimes getting the wind knocked out of him.

I wanna be like you...

"Now I wonder why Wheeljack would do that," Ratchet says in that deadpan lilt of his.

Hound looks down at the little human standing in his lap, and brushes her arm with his thumb. "Seems like it might be a valuable experience."

"Well have fun with that. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to leave you with First Aid while I finish up my report for the security meeting at 0400. If you're in the clear, Hound, you'd better be there."

He turns to catch the medic, who's already halfway out the room. "Wait, Ratchet. One more thing."

"Yes?"

Hound looks at Astrid - it's pretty clear she's ascertained what he's going to bring up - and his optics dart (dart!) back to the red and white mech. "We've been meaning to ask... could you take a look at her blood?"

Ratchet screws up his silver face. "Her what? Why?"

"They found some stuff in it at the hospital when I was there, and nobody knew what it was," Astrid says. "I guess Hound and I were hoping that maybe... you'd know more?"

"Why on Earth would I know more about your blood than a human doctor?"

"It's just... weird shit's been going on with me lately and I'm at the end of my rope. Please, doc."

Ratchet looks at each of them in turn with brow plates pressed heavily together, and lets out a long, rumbling vent.

"Alright," he relents with a grumble. "I'll give you fifteen minutes and no more."

Hound smiles. "Thanks, Ratch. It means a lot."

The medic gestures at First Aid, who was preparing to take over the rest of the diagnostic scan.

"Aid, see if we have any sharps, would ya?"

Chapter Text

Ratchet did still have human medical equipment after all. The old medic grumbled about how difficult it is to even find veins for fingers his size; if he misses, she's not allowed to complain, and Primus, he wishes she knew how to do it herself. Eventually they get enough blood to smear on their version of a microscope slide: a round pane of some transparent material. It looks fancy. Ratchet takes it and eases it into a slot on the side of the diagnostic console and starts hitting buttons on the screen.

A few seconds later he turns the screen so that they can both see - Hound twists around some on the slab, cables still hanging out of his head - and there on the screen is a live image of her blood.

But one thing immediately jumps out at her about the image, and she finds herself having to squelch a sudden wave of nausea. "Oh my god, they're moving!"

Red blood cells aren't independently mobile, so they're more or less sitting there, big blobs of red slowly sloshing around in the microscopic eddies. But the black things, they're... moving about. Roving, almost. She watches in vague horror as a few of them run up against a blood cell here and there and then head in another direction. The things are alive.

Her eyes dart to Hound, who's staring at the screen with hardened features. She watches as his new optics move from speck to speck, narrowing with every second. He doesn't know whether to be mad or terrified.

Ratchet looks similarly as he stares and scowls and rubs his chin. First Aid is harder to read, having no facial features, but their body language tells her that they're stumped too.

"You're up to date on your vaccinations, yes?"

She nods, swallowing. "Yeah."

"Haven't been bitten by anything lately? A tick? A dog?"

"N-no."

"Traveled overseas in the past six months?"

Hound's frown explodes. "Dammit, Ratchet, you know we've been in Anchorage this whole time!"

"I have to ask this stuff, Hound! I've never seen a human blood sample like this, and apparently, neither has any other human!"

The Jeep quiets down, folding his arms tightly. Astrid still can't get over the fact that there's little black things swimming around in her blood.

Ratchet sighs, turning back to the console and working a few controls. "I suppose the least we could do is get a clearer picture of one," he mumbles. "Let's see what 1500 looks like."

The video feed shutters and the cluster of blood cells dotted with black is quickly replaced by no more than two black things and one very large blood cell. The black things aren't specks anymore, she notes. They have discernible shapes, now. What even looks like fronts and backs and sides. She can see their mechanism for locomotion now, too: they've got little tails like protozoa. But there's something decidedly strange-looking about their configurations, and -

"Wait. That's it?!" Ratchet exclaims before bursting into riotous laughter. "By the pit, I'm losing my edge."

Astrid is so confused by this reaction that she almost doesn't even hear him.

Hound is livid, though. "What in the smelter is so fraggin' funny that -!"

"You don't know what this is?"

Hound squares his jaw, looking at the screen and saying nothing. Astrid has no idea what's going on.

"Alright, 2500 magnification."

One of the black "specks" fills the whole screen now. It wiggles around, propelling itself through the fluid, and the computer must have some kind of lock-on because the camera pans to follow it.

Hound shakes his head, still scowling. "Just tell me what it is."

Ratchet gestures to it with a wide sweep of his arm. "That, my friends, is a nanene."

Astrid looks to the green mech because she still has no idea what's going on.

Hound, on the other hand, looks flabbergasted. "I... It... No. That's impossible. That's -"

Ratchet cocks a brow plate at the Jeep and folds his arms. "The nanene is 150 nanometers in length; small enough to pass through the mucous membranes of a human body. Not impossible, just... not my first guess. Or my tenth."

She grabs his arm and looks up at him. "Hound, what the hell is he talking about?"

He looks down at her, then looks away, arms still folded. "Your body is made of cells, ours is made of nanenes," he says, almost a mutter.

What? How would...

Oh.

Oh.

Astrid's eyes widen and she chews on her lips as she stares at the thing swimming on the screen, and she realizes now that it's different because it's inorganic. Her knees suddenly feel like jello and so she sits down on the slab before she loses her balance falls onto it.

But the puzzle isn't over for Ratchet. "The real question is how they got there," he continues with a mumble. "Fluid-to-fluid contact is the only way this would happen, and I can't exactly picture you letting yourself bleed all over her."

Hound vents, long and low, rubbing at his face. "It's from grounding fluid, Ratch," he sighs. "Long story."

Now it's the medic's turn to look confused. "What in Primus' sweet name is... Wait. You mean axial peizo-kinetic diffusion fluid?"

"I, uh... yeah."

"That stuff isn't supposed to... come out."

"Wheeljack may have modified me a little."

"Alright mudskipper, you need to tell me what's going on. As your doctor and your superior officer."

Astrid swallows. It suddenly occurs to her that only three people in the world know about the holo-device: Hound, her, and its designer, Wheeljack. (And a few unlikely, anonymous, Decepticons now.) If their relationship was a secret, than this is a veritable skeleton.

And they were going to have to spill the beans.

"A few months ago, he made this... thing for me," he begins. "A hardlight prosthetic." Astrid closes her eyes to hide the wince in her face - this is painful to listen to, and she'd really rather be anywhere else in the world right now. A ski slope without sunglasses. Death Valley in July. Adrift at sea. The New York City Chinatown subway station elevator.

"Aid, go into my office for a few," Ratchet groans.

"But sir -"

"First Aid."

"...yes sir."

The smaller red and white mech disappears through a door and shuts it quietly behind them in a way that distinctly reminded Astrid of a dog retreating with its tail between its legs.

Ratchet turns back to Hound. "Continue, captain," he says flatly.

"I, uh, I... I asked him to build me a..."

She can't take it anymore. "Hound commissioned him for a strapon," she mutters, covering her face with her hands. "For me. Us. For us. He wanted to be able to... to..."

"...have sex," the Jeep finished for her, staring at the floor. "Like a human. Sort of."

Ratchet eyes the both of them like a schoolmarm might eye a pair of students who'd just got caught drawing dirty pictures on the chalkboard. "Uh huh."

"He rerouted a few conduits, changed a little programming, and slapped a sub-dermal holo emitter on me in a... strategic location."

The docbot turns back to the screen and watches the nanene - whatever those things really are - swim around. "And let me guess: the big closing number involves discharging the diffusion fluid. Which is toxic to organics, I might add."

"No, no," Hound is quick to butt in with a frown. "The grounding fluid is different than the diffusion fluid. The charge is passed osmotically from one to the other and -"

"And apparently a few nanenes get thrown into the mix too." Ratchet vents hard, pushing the diagnostic screen away to get a better look at the two of them. Specifically, Astrid. "Are you experiencing side-effects?"

She looks to Hound and he does the same. Those new optics are pretty damn cool. "To be honest, doc," she says, wringing her hands. "I think they saved my life."

"Doctors said it didn't seem like they were triggering an immune response. Something about neutrophils," Hound says, not quite sure what he's talking about.

"Interesting."

"They're not gonna kill me, are they?"

"To be quite honest, Agent Schneider, I haven't the faintest clue, because you're the first human who's had this kind of interaction with one of us. While you're still here, I'd like to do a full physical on you to determine your health. I'd also like to get a small sample of your tissue with the nanenes from your blood to see how they interact. I'll only be able to give you a prognosis after that, and even then, who knows what might change in ten, twenty years down the -"

Hound interrupts then, though, panic on his face. "The hospital," he blurts. "They have a samples of this at the hospital."

Ratchet falls silent, and for the first time Astrid sees his grumpy, unimpressed exterior melt away. His optics harden and his mouth tightens into a fine line. "If they figure out what they have there in that kit," he murmurs. "It would upend the very foundations of Earth medicine. No... no. We can't be responsible for that."

Astrid stares, unblinking, at the edge of the slab in front of her. She's imagining little glass vials of her blood, packed in ice, arriving at various medical institutes around the country for analysis. She imagines the uproar and confusion when the nanenes are isolated.

"Ratchet, what do nanenes do?"

Ratchet answers. "They're Cybertronian stem cells, Agent Schneider. And half of our immune system. They are our basic building block, they repair our injuries, and they're our first line of defense against foreign material. It is their job to maintain our bodies. And from what you tell me, it seems like they've made themselves right at home in your body, doing just that."

"Oh," is all she says, exchanging looks with Hound, who cocks a brow at her and stays silent, probably wondering, just as she is, about the repercussions of this.

"Looks like your diagnostic is finished," Ratchet grunts after a moment, and it becomes apparent that he's thinking through this too. "I'm going to call First Aid back in here to wrap you up, Hound."

The Jeep nods, shaken from his wandering mind. "All... all right..."

"Astrid, come with me, please."

"Uh, OK."

The medic holds his hand out and she steps into it, holding onto his shoulder as he heads for the office. The door shunts open and Ratchet thumbs outside to a First Aid who's dutifully working away at a computer terminal. They jump up and brush past them, and Ratchet sets her onto his desk as he starts going through storage cabinets.

After a few moments he finds what he's looking for: a box full of more human medical supplies. With finer manipulators at the ends of his thumb and forefinger he removes a few things and sets them down next to her.

"Tissue samples would be ideal, but I don't have the equipment or anesthetic, so these will have to do. If you could swab the inside of your mouth with that for me, then put it in that tube, and then pluck a few of your hairs and put them in this baggie while I prep another blood draw, that would help me greatly."

She does as she's told, and a few moments later Ratchet has a full vial of blood from her.

"I'd like a urine sample as well - in here - and if you can sacrifice any of them, one of your wound dressings. Scrapings from that will probably be as good a tissue sample as I'll get."

He hands her a plastic pee cup and goes to do a few things at his terminal.

"Uh, am I just supposed to do that right here? On your desk?"

He looks at her like he doesn't know what she's talking about, but it clicks a second later and he rolls his eyes. "I can turn around if you'd like."

She raises her eyebrows at him and he does, arms folded. "No blaming me if I miss," she grumbles, shoving her pants down and squatting over the stupid little cup. Thankfully she doesn't have a full bladder to contend with, and a manages to squeeze out a modest, workable amount.

"Here."

He sets the tiny assortment on a tray, and does some things at the terminal while she takes off her jacket and checks to see if there might be a burn that doesn't need its bandage anymore.

"How's it looking out there, Aid?" he calls out.

"He appears to be clean!" comes the reply.

"What?" Ratchet mutters before getting up to go see for himself, leaving Astrid there.

She looks around for a way to get down, but doesn't find one. "Seriously?" Astrid finishes what she was doing - a smaller pad of gauze on her forearm probably won't be missed - and heads as close to the door as she can get and listens.

Hound, apparently, is clean. Clean as a whistle. And quite possibly too clean, if his record is correct in stating that he missed his last annual CPU hygiene exam. All of his systems came out just fine: his sensors, his memory banks, everything. Ratchet's getting a bad feeling about this, and is going to send off the video feed to Perceptor for analysis ASAP and then finish his slaggin' security report for Code Black procedure.

"Am I off the hook?" Hound asks, Astrid on his shoulder.

"I have no proof that you've ever been tampered with," Ratchet says. "If you ask me, it'd be inappropriate to hold you at this point."

Hound nods. "Do you need anything more from us?"

"Don't go too far," the doc bot says, cocking a brow at them. "Prime'll want you at that meeting. The both of you."

Astrid lets a out a long sigh, and as they're about to leave, Ratchet stops them. "You know, actually, I think Wheeljack wanted to take a look at the new optics."

"Is he around?"

"Should be. You know where the lab is."


"Well, well, lookit you!"

Wheeljack seems oddly chipper compared to everyone else's grim tension, but Astrid supposes that he's just like that. Looking about his lab, a chamber as spacious and accommodating as Ratchet's med bay, it seems to her that he fills the role of Autobot mad scientist. Not that she can tell, really, but there's gotta be at least a dozen different works-in-progress about the place, and another dozen purposeless messes besides: things that might be guns, the whole gamut of electronic bits and bobs, and off to the side of his primary work station, a pile of empty energon cubes.

Why, the mech practically belongs in Silicon Valley.

Wheeljack steps in close and examines Hound's new eyes with satisfied humming and hawing, letting out gentle gusts of air from his vents.

"If I didn't know better, 'Jack, I'd have thought that you were just being lazy when you designed this interface." Hound cocks a brow at the scientist and smiles.

He steps away with a little flourish of his arms, clearly pleased with his handiwork. "I been readin' this book lately what inspired me: Zen in the Art of Archery. Reminded me of you, 'Cap, and I figured hey, that sort of thing might be up your alley."

If Hound's looking up the book, he doesn't make any indication of it. "It's taking some getting used to, that's for sure."

"The humans call it muscle memory. You're familiar with the term, aren't you, Schneider?"

Astrid smiles a little, turning to Hound, who gives her a quizzical look. "Human bodies can learn things and store information sort of independently from our brains. Like when I write a sentence, the way I write the letters is muscle memory. It's how my hand and arm learned how to write after years of repetition."

He considers this, and from the look on his face, he seems to come to a favorable conclusion. "Hm. So, Wheeljack, you're trying to force me to develop some... muscle memory, then?"

"Precisely. It's already been programmed into your, erm..." The mouthless mech just points, and it doesn't take a genius to realize what he's referring to. "How's that goin' by the way?"

Astrid clears her throat. "We've run into some complications."

Hound goes to lean against one of the workstations, and Astrid takes the opportunity to hop off and stand. "You probably won't be hearing from Ratch until the security meeting, so..." He pauses. "Well, to make a long story short, her body's full of my nanenes."

"Uh oh," he says, rubbing at his face plate. "I hadn't counted on that. How's it gettin' in?"

Astrid turns beet red and sucks in a long, loud, breath.

Hound covers his face and chuckles acerbically. "How d'you think, Wheeljack?"

"Hey, hey. I'm just troubleshootin', alright?"

"It normally doesn't go in," Astrid butts in, stuffing her hands in her pockets. Then in a mutter: "Mouth is my best guess."

"Wait, 'doesn't go in'?" he repeats, looking perplexed an even a little taken aback. "But... but I designed it to be able to go in! I thought you wanted it to go in?"

"Even the best designed products don't always get used for their intended purpose," she says flatly. "What we do works."

Hound vents. "Yeah, so long as it doesn't hurt you." He turns back to Wheeljack and shakes his head. "That's about all I have the wherewithal to say about it. You'll get an earful later anyways, I'm sure."

She snorts. "The good doctor will probably want your help culturing my samples or whatever too."

The scientist sobers up a little, stepping over to Hound to slap him on his giant metal shoulder. "Well if it helps any, the optics look great on you, and if you want any tweakin' on 'em, just let me know, alright? Won't hurt my feelins none."

Hound looks around a little, and then his gaze falls on her. "I think they'll grow on me."

"Good. I'll see you two in about 0400 hours?"

The Jeep motions for her to hop back on, and she does. His shoulder is still warm from sitting on him. "See you then."


When they get outside, he looks... well, he doesn't seem to know how to look. Excited, confused, anxious, tired - it all could probably be summed up by the word troubled.

"You uh... you wouldn't think less of me if I wanted to go grab some high-grade, would you?" Hound's hand lifts up to gently press her to the side of his head, and she traces along a faint seam on the edge of his helm before grabbing his face and making him look at her.

"It's always five o'clock somewhere, big guy," she says with a wink.

And off they go to the rec room.


The space is just as gargantuan as she remembered it, if not more so. There aren't quite as many bodies in here as last time, which may or may not be helping with the scale of the room - she's not sure.

No one's watching the enormous TV screen, so Hound asks with a nod of his head if she wouldn't mind taking a seat in that direction. She replies in kind: sure.

He actually deposits her on one of the large, couch-shaped things - they're wide, meant for sitting, and sort of cushioned, at least - before heading back to the bar to grab his drink. She peeks out over the top of the couch back, seeing if she might recognize anyone, but it doesn't appear so. There's a gray mech with doors on his back at the bar who Hound seems to know very well (he looks familiar, but it may be due to his body type, which she could swear that he shares with Prowl); a smaller red 'Bot on the other side; a very large green mech with wheels and helicopter blades who barely fits on his seat, sitting alone; a table on the far end of the room from the main entrance is a smaller green and yellow mech chatting with a larger, but still relatively average-sized, red Autobot, and a small yellow one; behind the counter is a big red and black mech who very clearly turns into a firetruck. She can see the ladder tucked neatly away along their enormous backside. Hound starts talking with them too as he gets his drink.

Astrid smiles a bit to herself at the scene before her: a bunch of fifteen, twenty-foot machines, each with enough firepower to level a ten-story building, all sitting and shooting the shit with one another. If she closed her eyes and ignored the size of the couch she's standing on, she could almost imagine herself in any other bar. And that, of course, is when she starts humming the Cheers theme song.

"Making your way in the world today takes everything you got... Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot..."

She seems to catch the eye of the small yellow 'Bot who excuses themselves and strolls over to her.

"You must be Agent Schneider," he says - she decides they're a he upon hearing their voice - and puts his hand out for a shake.

Though smaller than almost everyone else in the room, he's still a good eleven foot, and his hand at least four or five times bigger than hers. But she takes it anyway, and smiles. "Yeah, that's me."

"I'm Bumblebee. The Autobot's, uh... human relations guy. I like to try and meet everyone who winds up here. You know, make sure they're comfortable and all that."

"So ambassador, then?"

He grins. "Ambassador, liaison... a captain like Hound over there - we wear a lot of hats."

"Yeah, so I heard."

He glances about for a second before leaning in. "I heard about your run-in with the Pretender," he says quietly.

"Oh, right. That."

"You alright?"

She nods. "I'm... getting used to it, I guess. All of this."

Bumblebee frowns. "Nobody should have to get used to it. I'm sorry you feel that way."

His comment gives her pause, but not in a good way. Astrid feels like... she's earned something, somehow. Become part of something that not even deciding to date a giant alien machine got her into. And she wants it acknowledged. What happened yesterday was the result of six months of choices she made about the direction that her life would take.

"You know," she says, looking over at her big green mech still at the bar, "Only once since meeting him did I say no. It didn't really help me in the end. And since then, I've realized that saying yes gives me control." She rubs her chin. "So don't get me wrong, Bumblebee, and no need to apologize. I chose to be here."

"The Bureau is lucky to have you, then."

She cocks a brow at him and flashes a dangerous smile. "They don't have me."

He looks at her - no, regards her - and there's something in his face that's changed from just a moment ago. It's a look of mutual understanding. Camaraderie.

"I'll be right back," he says, slapping the edge of the couch to punctuate his point, and he heads over to the bar too, muscling his way up to the counter even though it comes up to his chest. He exchanges a few words with the bartender, and thumbs in her direction. Hound and the silver mech look her way, then back again. Giant barkeep rubs their chin, thinking, then disappears behind the counter for what seems like a while. They return with something in their hand, but it's small and she can't see it because the bulky, colorful bodies are in the way. After a few more words, Bumblebee, Hound, the silver mech, and the small red mech head back over, each with a small, dangerous-looking cube in hand.

She's suddenly sharing the sofas with four mechs, sandwiched between her green beau and the little yellow ambassador.

"Cliffjumper and Bluestreak," he introduces, pointing to each one in turn. "You met Bluestreak last time you were here, and Ceejay was up in Anchorage looking for you when you went missing."

Oh, she remembers him now! The young, talkative one. Cliffjumper, though, she didn't meet. "Jeez, it's like you sent the whole cavalry to find me. Who else was there that I don't know about?"

"Was Jazz, Trailbreaker, Cliffjumper, Skids, and me. Don't think you've met Skids yet."

"Nice to meet you, Cliffjumper."

"Pleasure's mine!" he says in a way that makes her think "tough guy".

Bumblebee turns towards her and opens the hand not currently occupied by an energon cube, revealing a bottle of vodka. A very expensive, very dusty bottle of vodka. And about a third of it has already been drunk.

Astrid takes it from him and laughs. "Where in the hell..."

"Believe it or not, about four years ago the Bureau agents used to actually mingle with us," the yellow mech explains. "Not anymore, though."

They watch as she looks over the bottle of Gray Goose - she doesn't get to have this very often at all, and they're just giving it to her. Talk about your kingly gifts.

"Alright, alright, a toast," Bee says, holding his cube "up" in her direction. The other 'Bots don't seem to be in on this.

"A toast to what?" Hound asks, though dutifully holding up his cube.

"We're gonna make Schneider here an honorary Autobot."

Cliffjumper and Bluestreak exchange looks, but smiles creep over their faces. "Honorary Autobot, how does that work?" Bluestreak asks.

Bumblebee chuckles and shrugs. "What, I'm HR, aren't I? Isn't that part of my job description?"

Hound laughs. "Well I say it is now. To Astrid."

"To Astrid!"

She holds up the bottle as high as she can before taking a small drink. It goes down smooth as fucking glass. "Wow," she says, feeling refreshed, even. "That's good shit."

Cliffjumper leans forward, elbows on his knee joints. "So what's her Autobot name gonna be?"

"Autobot name?"

"Yeah! You're an Autobot now, you need an Autobot name."

"Uh..."

"Groundpounder."

"Earthworm!"

"Sun..."

"Sunstroke!"

Astrid's turn. "Punch... thrower?"

They roar with laughter.

Bluestreak takes a long, happy swig. "She'll need an insignia too, you know."

"Insignia? You guys have insignias?"

"We use transponders to recognize each other," Hound explains, "But during the war, a lot of divisions and platoons wound up adopting their own unofficial emblems. All us Earth-bound 'Bots decided to start using one, too." He looks down at himself and she watches as a panel high on his chest flips over, and on its backside is a red sort of badge that looks vaguely like a face. He'd never showed it to her before.

Astrid looks around and the other Autobots do the same: moving some small bit of their armor around to reveal their insignias, like war veterans rolling up their sleeves to show off their service tattoos. And like most service tattoos she's seen, it strikes her as being a little on the ugly side, but it has its charm. Especially since she knows what it means to the shipwrecked crew.

And what it means to be invited into the fold.

She's flattered - no, touched. Honored. And before she knows it, a lump is forming in her throat at the sudden swell of emotion. It occurs to her now that these mechs, these Autobots, would lay down their lives for her.

And perhaps more importantly, she realizes that she'd do the same for them.

Because they're all in this together.

Hound puts a hand on her back, sensing her heart rate or blood pressure or whatever it is that he's tuned into, while the other mechs seem to be relatively oblivious to her change in headspace. She smiles at him and gives him a little wink.

She stands up, tapping the mouth of the bottle against Bumblebee's arm to get their attention, and holds it out in front of her. "Well," she says. "To Autobots."

"To Autobots!"


"It's transmitting a signal," one of the communications specialists call out from where he sits at a computer terminal. He, and the 35 other personnel currently scrambling to get the situation under control, are located in containment facility A3 of what's publicly known as Nellis Air Force Base. Also known as Groom Lake. Dreamland. Area 51.

From their post on the viewing deck, they look out over the ground floor some two stories below them, where in the center is installed a sort of transparent holding chamber. Its hasty construction is readily apparent: from the haphazard welding, to the roughly machined metal parts, some of which can be recognized as repurposed due to their mismatched remnants of enamel or chipped powder coating. Inside the thing, though, is the real prize. Stuck with several dozen needle-like arms, is an undulating glob of metal. It shines like polished pewter, but moves like mucous, and clearly has a mind of its own.

"Then shut it down!" replies a woman in uniform, three bars on her lapels.

"W-we're not sure how to, sir. This one's nothing like the others! No hardware, no moving parts, no processing equipment, nothing. And not to mention that our Faraday jammers are still in in the prototyping stage..."

"Well get the Faraday team in here so they can figure out how to deal with this thing, and ASAP. There's no telling who it's talking to."

If only they knew.

Help you? The tone of the data packet coming from the other end of the comm line chilled Codec to the carbon tubing on his brutally liquefied nanenes.

Soundwave - Master - please, I -

While we have indeed collared the hound, you were sloppy, Codec. As sloppy as my real symbiants would have been. I expected so much more from a Pretender... so much more from a loyal servant who owes me his life.

She should have died! he practically shouted. No frail human body should have been able to endure what I inflicted!

Unlike Starscream, I tolerate neither failure nor excuses. And neither does Megatron, whom, you seem to forget, is the true master of all Decepticons. Compared to him, I have been most liberal with my patience. But even Soundwave's mercy has limits.

No. No, please, you don't know what they've done to me, I -

I know perfectly well what they are doing, Codec. Or have you forgotten the depth of the symbiant link, too?

Master! You'd really leave Earth's only Pretender to the humans? He's desperate now. I am the most valuable asset you have! Your most versatile soldier! Your quickest, most cunning -

Your supplications bore me, and your services are no longer needed. Feel free to tell the fleshbags whatever you wish, Codec. It will not -

Static.

"Got it!" an engineer shouts excitedly from the computer terminal, her team surrounding her as she furiously types commands into the containment module.

Standing next to the woman in uniform are two BREME agents, probably of high station. They observe the scene in silence, eyes turning from the Faraday team's engineers to the chamber on the floor with its liquefied prisoner.

"So it can turn into anything?" the army woman asks the two black-suited men.

"As far as we know," the first one replies. "You remember what it looked like before we stuck it with those phase disrupters, right?"

She nods, remembering the horrible, faceless thing shackled in the vat of liquid nitrogen - a stopgap method of restraining the creature after it had come-to. "Yeah, it actually looked like something." She pauses and thinks some, eyes still fixed on the rippling metallic mass inside. "Can we weaponize it? Reprogram it?"

"No, sir. This one's physiology is completely different than that of the other Autobots and Decepticons. All the disruptors are doing is preventing it from taking any sort of shape... this is its natural form. We haven't even found success with the other body types yet, and they at least have hardware we can hack into. I'm sure you remember our attempts with number 46?"

"That defector, right." She pauses to reminisce about the lone Autobot who'd knocked on the door demanding to be dismissed from the organization. Suffice to say, the Bureau had... denied his request. "Well, if we can't brute force into its head, then any chance we can reverse-engineer anything?"

"It would take years and you know it."

"Well, work on putting together a proposal because whatever this thing has, the DoD is going to want."

"Our top priority right now is Alaska." The Bureau agent looks at her out of the corner of his steely eyes. "We need to reach that energon vein before anyone, or anything, else. If we fail on that front, things will get messy and peoplewill die, and it'll be you standing on that podium making an emergency address and fielding questions from every news station on the planet."

The Colonel scowls and says nothing.

"We've blocked transmissions on all bands, sir!" a technician calls out from the computers and a worker on the floor dressed in bright orange gives a thumbs-up. "It shouldn't be able to see, hear, or talk."

The military woman begins to walk, arms folded, away from the scene. The Bureau agents follow. "What of number 12?" she asks. "The Autobot who left us this present. Has he been accounted for?"

"No, but his movements are predictable. We suspect he's fled back down to AHQ; the attempt on his partner's life probably had them both spooked."

"Spooked?" The woman stops and turns to a technician nearby. "Specialist, bring up the file for ETU N12."

Pictures of Hound flood the screen, accompanied by physical specifications, offensive and defensive capabilities, and a summary of his psych profile. The woman leans in close and scans the text before straightening up again. "Says here that he's close to this partner of his. Very close." The last part she says with a little bit of a sneer.

"He's our go-to unit for the Alaska project and she's on it as well in a minor, but necessary, capacity."

"They live together."

"Life is stranger than fiction, isn't it, Colonel?"

"You can't make this shit up." She sighs, still clearly unsettled. "At any rate, it seems to me that he's protecting her in the best way he knows how right now. Get Portland on the horn - I want to know what they're doing down there."


Astrid stands in Hound's palm, hand on his shoulder for balance. Prime's personal office was too small for such a meeting, apparently, so they've crammed into what was once the ship's ready room: a conference-like space with a long table in the center and several holoscreens at the far end. Seated is Prime, Jazz, Prowl, Ratchet, Perceptor, Wheeljack, and Skyfire. Standing are Red Alert, the red mech from earlier that she'll soon come to know as Ironhide, the Master-at-arms, the huge green mech she'll also soon come to know as Springer, a special operations commander under Jazz. On the table is a smaller mech, almost her size, named Rewind (but she doesn't know that yet either). Finally, there's her and Hound.

Prowl quickly outlines the topics that will be covered during the meeting, and they begin.

First up is Ratchet, who spends the first twenty minutes giving his presentation for Code Black - a containment strategy should the Autobots suffer an outbreak of the Red Hand. He gives recommendations on what to do for a suspected infection if a mech is more than four hours from Autobot medical personnel, and methods for... dignified quarantine should someone be too far gone to get help. He also provides plans for the manufacture of virus-proof coffers for storing the deceased, which Prime approves on the spot, ordering that he and Wheeljack begin construction on several right away.

"There's... something else," the doctor says as the last slide disappears from the screen behind him.

"I assume that it's relevant?" Prime asks.

"Not directly, but it's an important development that command needs to be made aware of." He shoots a look at her and Hound in the back, and Astrid groans inwardly. Hound vents and looks at the floor for a moment before dutifully returning his gaze forward.

"I'll give you time at the end, Ratchet."

"Thank you sir."

Red Alert steps to the front of the room, and gives a brief speech about the state of AHQ's security protocol. He speaks in code and technobabble that Astrid can barely understand, suffice to say that a "Level 1 Alert" is the lowest state of readiness they seem to have out of a total of four. (She assumes a Level 4 Alert is something Prime might announce if the Ark is under direct attack.) He outlines new entry and exit procedures, including scans, and makes suggestions about who he'd like on his security team for the situation, which Prime grants, telling Prowl to make the schedule changes as soon as they're done.

Wheeljack and Skyfire are next. They explain the likely origin of the virus on Earth due to the Boron marker: a certain Decepticon named Mixmaster. They give a brief overview of his modus operandi, and possible intended uses of the virus. None of the proposed means of delivery make sense, given what they know of the enemy's limited logistical ability to safely handle the material, and limited access to resources to build such. So they propose three likely scenarios.

Scenario 1: The Decepticons have been driven to desperation due to energy shortages severe enough to risk the lives of every Cybertronian on Earth. The probability of gaining an advantage this way, they estimate, is slim.

Scenario 2: They have the resources and wherewithal to effectively deploy a virological weapon of this destructive capability due to previously unknown or severely underestimated stocks of materials and energy. The probability of gaining any advantage this way is higher, though it begs the question: why now and not at any other time?

Scenario 3: Either of the aforementioned scenarios with an additional complication: unrest among the Decepticon ranks have produced a small contingent of terrorist-minded actors, who perhaps are, themselves, neither desperate nor especially possessing of sufficient resources to produce and deploy a virological attack. Their intention is not to gain any particular advantage, but simply to produce chaos and destruction.

The Boron marker reveals itself to be a lesser-quality derivation of the Pax strain, and requiring almost 16 hours to mutate. Perceptor gives it a half-life of about 108 hours, after which the virus is too degraded to effectively attack a healthy Cybertronian body. He has yet to calculate approximate environmental degradation times - they explain that Earth's atmospheric properties will have a direct effect on the virus' period of stability, and all of the known data is relevant only to Cybertron and the conditions of its colonies or the vacuum of space.

Now it's the little robot's turn. His name is, apparently, Rewind, and his job was to research the man-made container. His findings were inconclusive, unfortunately. He was able to narrow down the possibilities to a total of 32 different factories around the globe, but without a serial number, or any other identifying information, he can't pinpoint the manufacturer or give a production date. His only suggestion is to comb the databases of all 32 companies to look for incriminating information, but sifting through the petabytes of information, even for a Cybertronian, would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack - and that's even if the records weren't wiped from the system or kept offline. Prime thanks Rewind for his efforts, but is not pleased with not knowing where the Red Hand container came from... or if there are more out there.

Prime asks Wheeljack if he's thought up any way to combat the virus yet. He gestures to Ironhide, who is his partner on this project, and says they haven't come up with anything yet, but that he is optimistic about the infection times, which buys them another six hours to detect and combat the virus. The speed with which it attacks the Cybertronian body, Wheeljack notes, has always been the biggest challenge in fighting it, and this may provide an opportunity for a breakthrough.

Perceptor walks up to the front of the room as Wheeljack takes his seat, and he announces that he's been working on Hound's case for the past several hours; the focus of the room shifts accordingly, and she can feel the Autobot fidget underneath her. She gives one of the tires on his back a reassuring squeeze, startled for a moment when she finds the treads faintly shifting in length, like clenching muscles.

On the screen behind him is the feed from the junkyard, which begins to play through.

"The first discrepancy I noticed is that there appears to be quite a bit of time left unaccounted for," he begins. A few symbols in the corner of the feed are circled in white - Astrid assumes that must be Hound's clock. Huh. It's never occurred to her that his heads-up displays would be in his native language... or any language at all. "Fifteen minutes and twenty-two seconds, to be exact."

"Which ain't unexpected for an EMP," Ironhide remarks.

"That is correct," Perceptor replies, hands behind his back. "However, I discovered that there was data missing from the feed as recorded. Hound, as most of you know, is in possession of seventeen different visual sensory arrays alone. The Captain can see sound if he so chooses, making that a tentative eighteen."

"And?" Prowl asks.

"This feed comprises only five: the Cybertronian average." The image behind him changes as he lists them off: "Narrow band, wide band, infrared, radar, and thermal."

The room falls into an uncomfortable silence.

"I also took the liberty of cross-referencing radar data from the local airport. There was no aircraft capable of launching such a powerful electromagnetic weapon in Hound's vicinity that night. Which leaves me with only one conclusion -"

"The memory is a plant," Prime finishes for him.

"Precisely, sir."

"I did a thorough diagnostic on Hound this morning," Ratchet butt in, astonished. "And found no evidence of that kind of tampering. Jazz, how long did Hound's radio silence last?"

"About twenty minutes. From... 2315 to 2338 hours."

"Twenty minutes?" the medic groans, then turns to where the two of them are observing nervously, patiently, from the back of the room. "Hound, is there anything else there? Even the barest whisper of ghosted data?"

The Jeep frowns. "I've poured over that slagging video a hundred times. Nothing."

"Wait," Jazz says. "Even if Hound was not personally attacked with an EM weapon, all the evidence points to one having been used, still."

"If ya gimme a description of what you saw out there," Ironhide offered, "I might be able t' identify what, 'zactly, it was."

Jazz starts counting fingers. "It resulted in blacking out the whole county for almost thirty seconds. Assuming the epicenter was the junkyard, then it was localized enough to knock him out for twenty minutes. Yet, in spite of being able to do that, it didn't blow the whole grid offline. Or leave any obvious physical evidence that he remembers. Like a crater."

Ironhide grumbles for a second. "Too sophisticated for an EM weapon," he decides. "And if a bang went along with it, we wouldda heard 'bout it by now."

"Explosions are good for news ratings," Rewind mutters.

"Any idea then?" Prime asks.

"The blackout couldda been caused by drawin' on grid power," suggests the Master-at-arms. "In which case we can take ordnance outta the equation."

"We might be lookin' at an installation instead of a weapon," Wheeljack grunts. He turns to Hound. "You sure you didn't see nothin' when you came-to?"

"Not a damn thing," her mech sighs.

Ironhide vents too - a ragged, rumbling sound. "Couldda been a stasis field."

Jazz shakes his head. "Those need a continuous power source to operate."

"It needs a continuous power source t' maintain stasis," Ironhide corrects. "No reason 'a think that a little jolt from the field wouldn't be enough t' knock a mech out fer a few minutes, jigger somethin' in his head, pack up n' get outta dodge before the effects wear off."

"I can sniff out a Decepticon a mile away," Hound butts in, almost defensively. "I had my sensors overclocked that night, and there was nothing anywhere near that place except humans."

"Stasis fields aren't hard to operate," Jazz shrugs, running out of solutions. "Maybe humans were on the job that night."

Prime stands up then, with a sigh on his vents. He holds his hands up and everyone quiets down. "It's clear that we will not find a satisfying answer to this problem over the course of a single security meeting." He turns to Ratchet and Perceptor. "Can either of you find any hard evidence to point to Hound being compromised, hacked, or otherwise tampered with in a way that is not conceivably indicative of an EMP?"

The two STEM bots look at each other.

"Looks like we've only got hunches, sir."

"Intuition, but no evidence."

"Then Hound, we will assume that you are clean until we can prove otherwise."

The Jeep nods. "Thank you, sir."

The towering mech sits back down and gestures to Ratchet again. "Now if you please, what was that other information you wanted to share?"

Ratchet stands up at the head of the table, fiddling with his gray fingers as he looks at them again with a pained expression on his face.

"I... regret the breach of patient confidentiality, but it's necessary in order to explain the situation."

Astrid nods and stares at her knees.

"It was discovered this morning that Agent Schneider is... in possession of Cybertronian nanenes. That is, some of them have come to be absorbed into her body - namely, her bloodstream."

Everyone in the room looks back at them. She draws her lips into a tight line and clears her throat as Ratchet continues.

"How in the -"

"The how isn't the important part," he's quick to say. THANK YOU. "But two other things are." The image of her blood with the black things appears behind him. "One, is that this was not previously thought possible without either the nanenes or human tissue being destroyed by coming into contact with the other."

Prowl practically sneers. "We had no reason to even study it. Up until a few months ago, such an idea would have been dismissed as irrelevant quackery. As useful as pontificating on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, to use a human turn of phrase."

Astrid's blood pressure hikes up a few points.

"And I would have agreed with you," Ratchet mutters. "If it hadn't been for a chance absorption of material. Which, whether any of you like it or not, has happened, and cannot be ignored now. The problem is that, due to Schneider's recent hospital stay, samples of this mixed material are now in human possession."

Another tense silence.

"To our knowledge," Jazz says quietly, turning to his sole superior officer, "Not even the Bureau knows that this is possible. If they were to find out..."

Prowl suddenly rises from his seat, and also turns to Prime, with a stern frown on his face. "Optimus Prime, you know I would follow your every order, sir, and that I want nothing but the best for both human and Autobot here, but I cannot stay my opinion any longer." The black and white mech points with his whole damn arm at her and Hound. The Jeep jumps a little, like he's been shot. "That relationship needs to end. Their... their mingling is putting all of us at risk, now."

"Prowl, sit down, please."

The tactical advisor lingers a moment, staring them down, before returning to his seat.

"Your sentiment is noted, Major, but this is not the time."

"Yes, sir."

"Hound, any idea where those samples might be?"

"Th-the primary physician overseeing her case mentioned a lab in Washington, but who knows where else they... m-might be."

"They'll leave a paper trail," Prime says. "Skyfire, your next task is to hunt down those samples. Report to Prowl your findings so that he may dispatch someone to retrieve them."

"Will do, Prime."

"Ratchet, I know you're busy, but if you could begin study of how the nanenes are interacting with Schneider's -"

"Already on it, sir."

"Good."

Prime rises again, and it feels like the room was designed to funnel everyone's attention to the large red and blue mech at the head of the conference table. His rich, blue optics survey the room and everyone stands still and tall, waiting. Waiting.

"I want you all to look around," he begins, pausing for a moment so that everyone may actually do so. "I want you to recognize the faces of your comrades in arms - your fellow Autobots. Know that we are all here because of our unwavering loyalty to the pursuit of freedom, to fellowship, and to each other."

He begins to pace with great, measured strides. "We are here because we choose to be. No, we did not choose Earth - but we did choose to meet its challenges. And we make that choice every day, whether we are engaging Decepticons in open combat, or negotiating shipping traffic with the Bureau."

Prime stops and his gaze falls squarely on her.

"Agent Schneider." She starts, blood draining from her body and pooling in her feet. Everyone's suddenly looking at her. "I want you to look around. I want you to recognize the faces of your comrades in arms... your fellow Autobots.And I trust that you are here because you, also, have an unwavering loyalty to the pursuit of freedom, to fellowship... and to the soldier whose spark you've captured so completely."

She swallows, trembling, tears stinging her eyes. Hound reaches up, trembling too, and presses her to him.

"I do not trust the United States' Bureau of Regulation of Extraterrestrial Machine Entities," he says, volume increasing just enough to transform it from a sentence into a declaration. "But I trust all of you, and I trust what they have." He points much in the same way that Prowl did at them. "And an Autobot that cannot trust their own kinsmen is, as I see it, more of a threat to our survival than a few nanenes in a blood sample."

The room is so quiet that if she closed her eyes it wouldn't be hard to imagine that she were alone.

She's shaking uncontrollably now, and a tear wets her cheek. But she barely moves a muscle, suddenly wanting to stand as still and square and tall as the rest of the massive metal soldiers in the room. The Autobots, it occurs to her now in all its overwhelming power, aren't just soldiers. They're friends, lovers, people - people who are trying to make the best of a shitty situation so far from home. People who would lay down their long, hardy lives to protect the very society of short-lived, short-sighted homo sapiens that would rather farm them for parts than make inroads with them.

"Do I have your full cooperation?"

In a chorus of deep, strong, rumbling, electronic voices: "Yes, Prime, sir!"

"Yes, Prime, sir," Astrid whispers.

"Good. Let's get back to work."

She starts thinking about where a tattoo of that insignia might go.


"Hound, Agent Schneider?"

The Jeep stops before he steps back into the lift, turning them both around. It's Perceptor.

"What do you need" Hound asks.

"If I may, I'd like to speak with Schneider in my office for a moment."

Astrid exchanges looks with the green mech and they shrug at each other. "Sure," Hound says, turning to follow the smaller STEM bot.

"In... private," he politely clarifies. "It won't take longer than a few minutes. We'll meet you back in the rec hall if you'd like."

They look at each other again. She wonders what the mech would want to speak to her about? He wasn't working on the nanene case with Ratchet, so it probably wasn't about that. "OK," she says, nodding at him. Hound lets her down to the floor and steps into the lift.

"Forgive me for rudely interrupting," Perceptor says after a few moments of silence. He's very careful about not outpacing her, which the human is grateful for. "But it was important that I discuss this matter with you alone."

"Oh?"

"I consulted with Ratchet and Wheeljack about it, and they agree that, while we hope that you should never need to use this..." He stops at a door beside Wheeljack's lab and it opens to reveal a small, very tidy office. There's another door inside that she assumes leads to the lab itself, but that one's closed, and once inside, the one behind them closes also. "...It would be far worse for you to need it and be without."

Perceptor goes over to a storage unit on the wall - not one of the green goo panels, with all of its contents exposed to see - and pulls out a box. No, it's a case. She can't tell from the floor, but appears to be specially designed to hold many of one specific sort of thing.

"What's this about, exactly?"

He pulls one of the things out: it's tiny in his hand, like a pen cap, and simple in its design. "I spent much of my time this morning analyzing the Captain's memory tracks of the EMP event," he begins. "And while we could find no concrete evidence of tampering, all of the clues seem to point that way." The red, black and teal mech reaches for something else on his desk and then with both in hand, he comes back around to kneel beside her on the floor. "We do not know how they implanted such passable false data in his memory processing units, we do not know what Hound really saw, and we could find no immediate tells in his programming. Wheeljack suspects that this may be an altogether new development in Decepticon back-door technology."

Astrid frowns up at him. "Didn't Prime just finish giving a speech about trust? What are you...?"

"This is not a matter of trust," he says, picking his words in such a way as to drive a shiver down her spine. "This is a matter of your safety."

He takes the opportunity to open his hand and reveal the two small devices, which she takes after a moment, looking them over.

"This is a comm beacon." He points to the smaller of the two: it's puck-like in shape, but smaller. It fits squarely in the palm of her hand and is featureless aside from a small button along the edge, and beside it, an inactivated LED light. "Or, as the Bureau calls it, an 'S-O-S'. Its operation is simple: press the button, and a beacon will activate, alerting our communications director that you are in danger and in need of immediate Autobot assistance."

She swallows and nods.

"And this is a hard hack. It is designed to physically puncture Cybertronian plating to inject its payload directly into the nanofluid matrix for instant delivery of code." Oh god. No. She doesn't like this one bit. "Many of us carry some variation of these on our persons at all times, usually stims or overclocking agents to use in the event of an emergency. This one is designed to induce immediate stasis lock. Only Jazz and Prowl carry one of these."

Astrid stares at it, this simple metal tube the size of a cigar. It looks eerily like a large epipen. Maybe if she thought about it in that way - that instead of clubbing her sleeper agent boyfriend into a coma, she would be helping him survive a sort of anaphylactic shock - it might be easier to use. If she has to use it. She hopes she doesn't.

"Won't he know I have these?"

"The hack is shielded, but the beacon is not. Unless you tell him or let him see it, Hound should not be able to detect the former, and neither should whoever might be peering in through the open back door."

Astrid shivers, looking at them for a moment again, feeling their weight. "Perceptor... how will I know when to use them?"

"Did Prime not just give a speech on the subject of trust?" he answers, the faintest something in his voice. He reminds her of Spock, then. "You will know. And when you call, we will come."


It sounds like this plan is falling apart, Soundwave.

The Seeker, a steely, slate blue in broad daylight, looks like a menacing shadow here in the bowels of the cave system. And even though he's bigger than his co-conspirator, he's still less menacing than him.

Megatron values adaptability, Thundercracker. It would serve you well here.

Well Megatron isn't here now is he? he growls over their small, private comm. It's cramped in here, but their electronic "whispers" leave him feeling even more so. Thundercracker longs to return to the skies, but Starscream forbids it unless they're doing a raid. And even then, he's become too scared to let his fellow Seekers participate much anymore. Thundercracker does not like being grounded, let alone holed up in a cave for months at a time. He doesn't even care about getting back to Cybertron anymore - he just wants an opportunity to spread his slaggin' wings like he was meant to every once in a while.

Soundwave tolerates the ornery F-16 because he's strong. his motives are simple, and they both want the same thing: to remove Starscream from power. We will not use the scout to disperse the virus, he says - this, clearly, is the final word on a long-debated matter. Because without him, there will be no clean excision of the Nemesis from human custody.

Thundercracker rumbles deep in his engines, red optics flaring with frustration. They don't even know what they have yet. We could take them all by surprise. One sonic blast from my afterburners is all it would take to have the fleshies bleedin' from the ears and -

No. In mere solar cycles it will become apparent to them that their energon "vein" is no such thing at all. At which point, all will be chaos. Let our pawns perform the menial labor. In four Terran days we move to capitalize on their ignorance. Can I count on you and your mechs to be ready to mobilize?

Thundercracker vents - a deep, whining, mechanical sound, like spooling turbines. "Yes."

Dirge and Astrotrain would be ready. Soundwave still has not told him how he'd planned on dealing with the tyrant Seeker, whether they would simply incapacitate him or outright kill him, and who would be doing it - but Soundwave was thorough and if anyone had a chance at organizing a successful mutiny, it'd be him.

Chapter Text

Hound can't imagine what Perceptor might want to talk to Astrid about. Maybe he's been asked to pull her aside and explain something, or maybe to find out if she really, truly, is OK with this. But that's not exactly Percy's MO - it seemed like something Jazz or Bee or even Wheeljack are better suited for.

But there's so much on his CPU right now. He'll just ask her about it later.

The Jeep steps out of the lift and into the rec hall, surprised to see Trailbreaker behind the bar - er, ration counter - this time.

"What'll you be havin' today?" he says, leaning against the counter as Hound approaches and gesturing to the distillation tanks behind him. "We got energon, energon, energon, and... let's see, what was that last one... ah yeah, energon."

Hound laughs a little as he takes an empty seat and plops both elbows down onto the bar. "I'll take the energon, please. High-grade."

Trailbreaker purses his lips but the hiss comes from his intakes. "Excellent choice, sir."

"How long you in here for?"

The black mech hands Hound his small cube of rich purple. "Eh, shift just started. Say, where's the human?"

"With Perceptor, I guess. She'll be up shortly."

"And that, uh, that meeting?"

Up walk Windcharger and Mirage who take their places beside Hound. "Yes, how was it?" the stately blue and white mech asks.

"Oh, hey Mirage, long time no see. How was uh..."

"Miami?" he finishes, as Trailbreaker slides him a drink. "Splendid," he says flatly.

Hound wants to lose himself in the spy's most recent adventure. "What were you doing over there?"

"A drug bust. Had to let myself get stolen again."

The Jeep laughs a little - while more on the recon end of things than sabotage, Mirage is still an intergalactic mech of mystery, and to be stuck doing that kind of humiliating undercover work? Well, Hound doesn't think that his sharp, slim friend is enjoying it much anymore.

"Hey," grunts Windcharger, who only comes up to their collective shoulders. "It sure beats digging ditches."

Hound cocks a brow. "Do they really have you digging ditches?"

The smaller, stouter mech waves his hand dismissively and chugs down a little high-grade. "Some construction company in LA was working on this prototype earth-mover that incorporated some kind of belt mechanism with an oscillating magnetic... eh, it's really not that interesting."

Teebs leans in. "You sure?"

Windcharger eyes him from over the end of his cube. "Positive. 'Sides, I head this security meeting was a damn big deal. Can you spill any beans, Hound?"

The green mech rounds his shoulders and buys a moment with a mouthful of high-grade. He's honestly still reeling from Prime's words, and was hoping that he might avoid having to say anything at all if he just changed the subject enough. "It was a lot to take in," he murmurs, pausing. Then, cryptically: "She's really one of us now." He stares at his drink.

"Who?"

"What, Schneider?"

"I mean, I overheard Bee earlier, but..."

Hound shakes his head. "It's more than that, I think."

Mirage, Windcharger, and Treailbreaker exchange looks.

The Jeep chuckles a little. "You'll get the memo about it from the brass, I'm sure."

Teebs snorts, but something past the bar catches his attention. "Ah, well, speak of the devil."

Hound turns his head and sees Astrid standing close to a familiar scheme of red and teal over in the lift car off to his right. Perceptor doesn't step into the hall, remaining inside. From there he ensures that Astrid disembarks safely before giving Hound a simple, grim nod in acknowledgement. The lift doors close and he's whisked back downstairs to the labs. That's not at all unusual for Perceptor, but...

She seems off. Anxious. "Sorry to keep you waiting," she says, forcing a smile, and the mech can tell that she's trying to hide it too. His spark aches a little - for all the stress this is causing him, it's got to be twice as bad for her.

Hound bends down, palm up, ready to receive the little human. But that's when he notices it - a small, dense shape of metal on her person that wasn't there before. It draws his attention like a dead pixel on a computer screen or a spot of light on an otherwise dim wall. Interesting how his new optics process this information - before, he might've been clued in by a small marker in his field of vision, or drawn to it in some other, more obtuse way, but this... he realizes that this requires more on the part of his "intuition". Minding it feels almost like an itch, except that it's not even his body. It feels elegant, almost.

The device itself is a few centimeters in diameter, one or two thick, and familiar, though he can't put his finger on it. But it's really not any of his business, so when she takes a stiff step into his hand for him to lift her to the bar, he goes for the more banal.

"What'd Percy want to see you about?"

"He just... wanted to give me something," Astrid says, sitting down cross-legged on the counter. She reaches into the pocket of her jacket to reveal the metal device and holds it out for him to see. "Said it was a beacon or something?"

"Oh, I remember those," Teebs says, pointing.

"Yeah, he said that they wanted me to have a direct line to the Autobots so I wouldn't have to go through the Bureau. Just in case." Is that why she seems so nervous? The idea of going behind BREME's back? Hell, not that he blames her. He's a little nervous for her, to be honest.

He nods, though, and smiles. Hound realizes that something about the smile is really genuine - that there's something he would have otherwise held back before, but not now. Not since... well, not since the meeting. And even though Mirage and Windcharger probably don't know the true nature of their relationship, the green mech finds himself less worried about whether they'll pick up on it or not. He's got less to hide, now.

"I'm glad you have that, Boots," he says, trying to reassure her. "If something happened, I wouldn't want you calling Doley."

She stuffs it back into her pocket, and she visibly relaxes a little. "Like hell I'd call him."

Mirage looks surprised. "Your primary contact is Agent Doley? Primus, I'm sorry about that."

Trailbreaker twists up his face. "You know him?"

"Do I. He's a miserable little thing that likes to throw his weight around," the sleek blue and white mech snorts.

Hound bristles, looking at his drink again. "I'm sure word's gotten around already, but suffice to say, he does not like us." He glances as Astrid, who's staring, mesmerized, by the swirling high-grade. "I wouldn't trust him as far as she could throw him." She looks up at him then laughs a little.

"Say, Astrid," Trailbreaker leans in, gesturing to their two friends. "Not sure if you met these guys, but this here's Mirage, and that's Windcharger."

The little human waves and smiles. "I think I remember you," she says, grinning at Windcharger, who chuckles a little bit. But she turns to Mirage: "Never met you, though." She goes to stick her hand out for a shake, but remembers that she's not among humans, pulls it back a little, then shrugs and sticks it out again. They all laugh, and Mirage takes it. Well, he does a little more than that: his big blue fingers engulf hers and he leans forward to bring his lips to her knuckles.

"Pleasure's mine, Agent Schneider."

Astrid looks startled, entertained, and flattered all at once. If there was something weighing heavily on her mind before, it seems to be gone now.

"Oh!"

They all laugh again.

"Hey," Trailbreaker interrupts, gesturing for Hound to lean in closer to him. "Those the new optics, huh?"

"Yeah, they're a prototype," he shrugs. "Not sure why, as I don't think too many 'Bots would appreciate the interface."

"What's wrong with the interface?" Windcharger asks.

"Nothing wrong, it's just... very different." He chuckles. "It's a lot more 'feeling' and a lot less 'reading'."

"Still a ways off from having human eyes, though," Astrid says with a smile. "Did you guys know that if I stare at something without blinking for long enough, my eyes'll stop working?"

"Whoa."

"What the... why?"

"I've never heard that before!"

Hound hasn't heard that before either. That sounds... like a pretty crucial design flaw, if you ask him.

The little human shrugs, though, like it's no big deal. "I guess they found out a little while ago that our sight is movement-based. Even when we think we're looking straight at something, our eyes make these almost microscopic movements otherwise things start fading to black. It's like how sharks gotta keep moving or they'll suffocate."

Trailbreaker shakes his head. "I'm tellin' you, bud." He looks directly at Hound with that smile of his. "Humans."

Just then there's a pinging in his head, though. Nothing shows up in his field of vision - it's a sensation, like someone tapping his shoulder. But sensation is in him. He doesn't have time to dwell on what it feels like, though.

"Sorry guys, but I gotta take this call."

Hound, here.

Just heard from the Bureau. It's Jazz. And he doesn't sound happy. Slag. They thank you for the gift, but want you back in Alaska ASAP.

The green mech frowns. That's it? Of course that's not it.

Oh don't worry, I'm not done yet. So they've all but closed the case with the police, they've spoken with the security director at the hospital and resolved the poisoning thing - it's been decided that the Pretender assumed the form of a nurse at some point - but there's one thing left. Word's gotten out that the PD had an odd piece of evidence that they'd showed you but is now missing.

Hound squelches a flare of panic. I-I covered my tracks. They can't pin anything on me.

No, they can't. I suggested that, since you didn't know exactly when the Pretender infiltrated the station, that it must've managed to make off with the canister at some point.

But that's not good enough for the all-to-honest mech. But... but I was examining the Red Hand just before I went to confront Codec. That doesn't hold water.

It'll be good enough. That fight was pure chaos. Who knows what who remembers.

Hound nods. This sort of thing is Jazz's specialty - he trusts the XO's judgment. He has to. Alright. What else do you need us to do?

Just be on a plane in 4 hours. Prowl and I are working out the reports right now, so don't worry about that. We'll have your story tighter than a hangman's knot.

Can do, sir. He glances at Astrid, who's looking his way with a concerned look on her face, and he remembers. Right - this means we've only got a few hours to get a physical in. Doctor's orders, apparently.

Well you know Ratchet's number, Jazz scoffs. There's a pause. How are you feeling, by the way? That was quite a speech Prime made.

Still processing that. Don't want to take it as some kind of carte blanche, though.

Good. Prime really values you, though, I hope you know. And you didn't hear this from me, but... Astrid? She's the first human he's trusted in a long, long time. That's your judgement he's going by there too, you know. Your word means quite a bit around here. Don't forget that, alright?

Wow, Jazz. I... I don't know what to say.

Don't say anything then. Just do your damn best up there because that's the hardest job any one of us has got right now.

Will do, sir.

Alright. I'll keep you posted. Jazz out.

Hound out.

It's harder for her to tell when he's done, but the others pick up on it right away. "What was that about?" Mirage asks.

Hound just looks to Astrid, though, sitting on the counter. "We gotta go in a few hours, Boots. Anchorage has caught up to us."

She looks away, then - and something in her body language saddens him. Like she... doesn't want to leave. I don't want to leave either. Astrid gets up, though, hands still in her pockets. "Let's do this thing," she says.

"C'mon, Ratchet'll want to see you before we go."

"I'm sure he will." She pauses and turns to the others. "Hey, it was nice meeting the two of you, and Trailbreaker, nice seeing you again."

He smiles and gives a little salute. "Good luck up there. Holler if you need us!"

She sucks in a breath and takes Hound's hand, climbing up onto his shoulder. "I just might need to. Bye guys."

Hound nods at them too. "We'll be back."

They will be - but not under any circumstance they can imagine.


"I think I'll be able to work with what you've given me," Ratchet says, surrounded by a whole slew of screens suspended from cam arms hanging from the ceiling. Beside him is a small windowed chamber, not unlike the one that the Red Hand had been kept in. Inside, stacked in a squat little column, are what appear to be petri dishes. More cam arms are protruding from the wall, with delicate equipment on the ends, busying themselves moving about from one dish to another and measuring and monitoring. "I think I've managed to create a little bit of protein matrix from the living cells I got from you earlier. Thankfully I guessed the right growth medium on the first try, too, so they're coming along nicely. It should only be another few hours before I can drop the nanene infusion in there and start monitoring the interactions. Still debating on whether or not I should use a pure nanene infusion or synthesize your so-called grounding fluid, Hound."

The green mech had set her onto the berth as the doctor talked and worked away on the screens.

"I still think you should use the grounding fluid only if you want to study its effects specifically!" First Aid calls from Ratchet's office.

"But in the interest of keeping it simple, Aid...!"

"You're the chief medical officer, sir." Hound can hear the assistant's proverbial eyes rolling.

Ratchet vents. "Yeah, if nothing else..." He turns from the monitors, and behind him the equipment in the chamber continue to do their thing. "Alright, Schneider, it's time for your physical."

Hound looks to her, and she seems to be stifling a laugh. "This ought to be good," she says, stepping over to where the doctor is motioning for her to come closer. He grabs a data pad.

"Hound, what's her weight and height?"

He looks her way for a moment, furrowing his brow plates as he sends out his sensory feelers. "166 centimeters tall, and 60.68 kilgrams in weight."

"And her heart rate and blood pressure?"

The Jeep laughs. "I thought you're the doctor, Ratch?"

"Yeah, and you're my equipment right now. So chop chop."

"Aw, so no puffy arm thing?" Astrid whines with a giggle.

"Oh I've gone one," he says to her with a glance out of the corner of his eye before gesturing with the datapad to Hound. "It's just that your boyfriend's faster."

Hound rolls his eyes - making sure that Ratchet, with his static lenses, sees him do so - then proceeds to concentrate for a moment to focus on what his little human's blood is doing. He can feel the firm knocking of her heart, the slight and sudden jerks of pressure as each pumping motion sends that red fluid surging through kilometers of veins. Hound has to do a little internet search, though, to remind himself how to translate this felt sense into numbers for Ratchet. "One-twenty-eight over seventy-three," he announces a moment later.

"You know," Ratchet says, trying and failing to sound enticing as he inputs the data. "I could sure use another diagnostic machine around here. Compensation is very competitive: I'd hook you up to the wall and you could draw as muchpower as you want."

"Standing around and measuring stuff, huh? Sounds tempting."

Ratchet's little grin widens. "I know how much you miss your first job."

The green mech chuckles, recalling the old memory. "Yeah right," he scoffs with a wave of his hand. "Been there, done that, over it."

Ratchet chuckles some too, but Astrid gives him a questioning look. He turns to her. "One of my first apprenticeships, years before I enlisted, was as a surveyor." She raises her brows at him. "Didn't even need equipment. Could do it all myself."

"Damn."

"Bored me out of my dermaplating. Though if you asked me to do it again here, I'd be more than happy to."

Ratchet shakes his head and vents, still smiling. "Alright, Schneider, take that jacket off. I'm gonna take a gander at your lymph nodes."


It goes on like that for a while longer. He pokes and prods her with his oversized fingers, "listens" to her deep breaths, peers into her mouth and ears, and grills them both on what either of them can remember of her medical history over the past year since there's no way he's going to be able to procure files from any of her human doctors. And at the end of it, he comes to the tentative conclusion that nothing in her body has changed for the worse because of the nanenes.

"My guess - and it's just that, a guess - is that they might be playing some kind of support role. Maybe they've read the instruction book, your DNA, and are doing no more than your own cells. From what you've told me and from what I've seen, though, they might only be acting out various immune system roles. Clearing away dead tissue makes it look that way. Nanenes aren't organic, so they can't function like stem cells for you. There's no..." He wiggles his fingers and searches for the right word. "Affixing themselves to any tissue structure. They can't become muscle or bone, for instance. So they might have no choice but to wander around." A pause as he thinks. "Do you have any allergies, Schneider?"

Astrid shakes her head. "Um, nickel, I think."

Ratchet's about to respond, but he stops himself and starts to giggle, almost. "So you have a metal allergy." He giggles more.

Hound can't help the proverbial belly laughs, while Astrid just buries her face in her hand and makes snorting noises.

"What I want you to do when you get home is give yourself contact dermatitis - a skin reaction - and write down its symptoms and duration compared to what you're used to experiencing, and have Hound send me your notes. That'll give me a few more clues."

She nods.

"I take it she's not to see a real doctor until we've sorted this all out?"

Ratchet frowns, venting. "That'd be for the best. It's going to be a royal pain in the neck to hunt down the samples that have already escaped into the wild - let's not add to their number."

But it seems that a thought has occurred to Astrid as she shrugs her jacket back on, and she's scowling. "What if this never gets sorted out?"

Hound hadn't... thought of that. And apparently, neither did Ratchet.

"What if the nanenes never leave my system?" she continues. "What happens if I get into an accident or... or mauled by a bear and I need to go to urgent care?"

The docbot rubs at his face. "We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. Worst case scenario is that we can... modify a dialysis machine and filter them out, I suppose."

"And what happens if more work their way in?" Hound frowns too - her youth is showing.

"Then you abstain from fluid contact," Ratchet replies, quick and firm.

There's no way around this, Boots.

"We'll do it if it comes to that," Hound butts in, firm in his own quiet way.

"But..!"

He looks down at her, and she looks very small all of a sudden. And he feels very much like a captain. "We do what we have to do. It's that simple."

Astrid sucks in a breath and holds onto it, lips pressed tightly together, before letting it out. "Yeah alright."

"Well, Schneider, you've got your homework assignment. And I'm sure the Bureau is chomping at the bit to repay you both for the Pretender, so you'd better skedaddle."

"Thanks Ratchet. You'll be hearing from us soon."

Astrid looks at the medic and nods up at him. "Thanks for everything. Really."

"Just doing my job."


After saying their goodbyes and spending a few minutes going through Red Alert's new sign-out protocol, they're on their way to the airport. It's a dark, rainy afternoon - one of those ones that makes it impossible to guess what time of day it is if you don't have a clock. To save himself from thinking about what kind of trials and tribulations are waiting for them when they get back, Hound focuses on the sensation of water running off his waxed frame; of each row of harsh treads as they contact the pavement for the briefest of moments before being swept up and back around to do it again dozens of times a second. He can feel the water sluice up between them, only to be flung off towards the rest of his chassis. He can feel the brisk air wash over his hot internals and steam rise from his exhaust pipe (which is mostly only there for show). Windshield wipers glide silently over his biggest pane of "glass", though that too is only a display to keep from rousing suspicion.

"Is there a way I could call my parents?" she asks from inside of him. Her voice tickles.

"So long as you don't mind me being able to hear?"

"That's fine. They're probably freaking out about me not having a phone."

He opens a comm line and piggybacks on a cellular network when she gives him a phone number to home in on. It starts ringing, and he plays it over his speakers. "Just talk normally, they'll hear you."

It rings for another few seconds before someone answers. "H-hello?" It's Tracy. Hound immediately knows something's wrong.

"Hey mom, it's me. We're -"

"Oh Astrid!" the woman blurts. "Astrid, oh my god, oh my god..."

His passenger's eyes widen and her jaw sets. "Mom? Is everything alright? What's going on?"

"Oh my god," she repeats, growing hysterical. "Astrid, your... your sister. I h-heard from your sister."

"Mom, calm down. What happened with Heather?"

"Sh-she called an hour ago. She told me everything. Oh god, she told me everything." A groan and a sob. "I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do, Astrid. I just... I..."

"Mom, what did she tell you?"

Hound pulls over to the shoulder and turns on his emergency lights.

Tracy starts crying, and they can hear Richard in the background, but they can't make out his words.

"Mom!"

"She..." Tracy's voice is much quieter now. "She says they're responsible for what happened to you. Th-that they had no idea it would get so out of -"

"What?!" Hound roars, unable to help the angry rev that tears out of him.

"Who's that!"

"It's Hound!" Astrid shouts, blood pressure and heart rate skyrocketing. "Mom, this had better be some kind of sick goddamn joke, or I'll -"

The mech can't contain his anger and disbelief. "Or I'll lock them up and throw away the slagging key."

But Tracy has been reduced to incomprehensible sobs, and it's clear that the yelling will get them nowhere. There's shuffling on the other end, and after a moment, Richard speaks: "Just get up here," is all he says before hanging up.

His cab is deathly quiet, and Astrid is suddenly as pale as a ghost.

"'Tell that to her family' they said," she murmurs after a good long while. "I remember that." She swallows, blinking back her own tears. "Hound, what do we do?"

The mech's CPU is simulating a hundred different scenarios, but none of them give him anything to work with. He looks out with his sensors over the silent road before them, shrouded in fog and black from rain. His thermometer tells him that it's 7 degrees celcius outside.

"Let's find out if it's true, first," he all but whispers. His treads dig into the gravel for purchase or he feels like he's going to roll away. "Then... I don't know."


Hound elects to remain in vehicle mode for the flight back to Anchorage, and Astrid elects to lay down in the back seat. It's a grim trip, with the both of them mostly occupied by their own thoughts. They talk here and there - wonder aloud at what this might mean, what Heather and Scott might have actually done, or even been able to do all the way from Sacramento.

Hound quietly goes through his files on the various truth-seeker organizations that have had it out for Cybertronians at one point or another for the past twenty years. He eliminates the legitimate ones straight away - these are usually larger, national or international non-profit organizations with a reputation to keep. Because of this, most of them don't get a whole lot done other than catalogue experiences and post crummy photos to their websites. The lesser-known ones, though - the ones that don't have 501(c) status and therefore aren't mired in bureaucracy - they can afford to be a little more cutthroat. Could this be the work of the Xeno Trackers that they ran into that summer?

The green mech doesn't think so, because something about the whole thing seems off. The XTs were only on record for having one murderous nutjob in their ranks, and when it was discovered what he'd done, the administration cooperated in his arrest. Could they have run off with their tail between their legs after what happened in Elko, only to decide that such a humiliating defeat needed to be repaid by any means necessary?

No... whoever these humans were, they were working with Decepticons, even if unwittingly.

So, he goes through the known facts of the thing again.

It started off with a kidnapping - no, a break-in. Someone had not only managed to get into the warehouse, but know that the two of them would be gone for long enough to make it worth the risk. Someone familiar with their routine.

Then the kidnapping. And how they could have known that the two of them would be found on that road at that hour only made sense in the context of ongoing surveillance. However, the kidnapping can't have happened without someone to know the ins-and-outs of Hound's Cybertronian tech... and what it takes to distract him. The Bureau knows the half of it, but it takes a fellow Cybertronian to truly fathom his skill. To truly know their enemy. Moreover, the Bureau doesn't have bentlight-penetrating tech. The Decepticons do. The human accessories accompanying the Pretender that night were the ones to care about getting personal, while the Pretender seemed occupied with simply isolating him. Their alliance was perhaps one of mixed motives.

Astrid wasn't supposed to get injured, and definitely wasn't supposed to die. They wanted her alive. At least, the humans did. He doesn't know if the Pretender killed his cohorts or if they'd died in the fire by accident, and that is likely something anyone will never know, but the Decepticon's initial hesitance to commit violence tells him that he was simply interested in buying time more than helping her.

Was Astrid's sister the tip-off the humans needed to get involved here?

...Was willing human accessories what the Decepticons needed to get involved here?

Hound thinks, and hard, about what use humans have to Decepticons. What they can possibly offer beyond free labor or sadistic fun.

First thing that comes to mind is that humans can maneuver about and manipulate human infrastructure, and generally get to places that giant metal bodies can't.

Second thing is that they don't show up on one of the normal Cybertronian sensory nets: namely, radar. Humans also have no transponders, which can be tricky to fiddle with in a jam.

What else can they do?

They can infiltrate other human groups or communicate/negotiate with other humans more easily. They can survive on a much broader array of foodstuff, they can swim, they feel only comparatively mild symptoms when exposed to electromagnetic...

Electromagnetic pulses.

Hm.

They aren't susceptible to Cybertronian viruses, either.

Hound's imagining how that conversation might have gone, now. The first one between the Decepticons and whoever these humans were. And what he imagines isn't, all told, too far from the truth.


Twelve Weeks Ago.

"Hi, you must be Cody."

That's probably not his real name.

The woman is in her mid-fifties, but looks a little older. It's because of her smoking habit, which is obvious from the lingering odor of tobacco in her skin and hair. She wears a simple jeans and t-shirt, on which is printed the eponymous slogan: I Want To Believe. She wears it only when she's meeting new people - it makes her easier to spot, and more approachable. Her colleagues say that she can come across as intimidating otherwise; but in this field, she has to be.

The man reaches out to shake her hand before sitting across from her at a table in the diner. They haven't spoken much before now, but what she's heard has her interest piqued.

"And you must be Lori."

It's not her real name either, of course, but it's what she goes by in these affairs.

The man before her seems average in every way: in build, height, facial features, and choice of clothes. He's the kind of man who could disappear in the smallest crowd; the kind of man who you could look straight at and still not see. Something about his person seems curated to her, and she wonders if this isn't a role he's very practiced at playing. It adds to his credibility.

"I don't see any reason to beat around bush here, so let's jump right in." She lowers her voice and puts her elbows on the table.

"I agree."

"So in your email you said that you used to work for a certain agency - the agency, as you put it. The big kahuna."

Cody looks around with eyes so average that she has a hard time believing they're real. "The Bureau for the Regulation of Extraterrestrial Machine Entities," he corrects with a murmur.

A little twinge of excitement tickles her spine - this isn't the first time that she's heard mention of "The Bureau", but she keeps herself reigned in with practiced cool. This isn't her first rodeo. "What did you do there, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I'd be saying too much." Understandable, but it was worth a try. "All you need to know is that I spent years around those things, and I know what they can do."

"So is this a proposal or a confession?"

Cody chuckles, steepling his fingers. "I still know people who know some people," he continues. "And word is that they've discovered something in Alaska."

"Alaska?" Lori cocks a brow and dips a french fry into her mustard. "Like what?"

"I can't say. But it'll be a global game changer."

"And you want our help whistle-blowing."

"Something like that."

"What's in this for you, exactly? What are you hoping to get from working with us?"

He smiles at her, and there's a flicker of something behind his eyes. "The usual: vindication, justice. The Bureau... they've got too much power. They're keeping too many secrets from the public. These Autobot things? People need to know what they really are. But I'm just one man - I need help."

"Look, Cody. We need a lot more than that before we spend money sending people up there. If you can give me something, anything to prove to me that you're legitimate..."

"I could get you money."

Lori's suddenly not so sure about this Cody character.

"That... depends. It depends on what you can prove to me."

He sighs, like this is inconveniencing him, then reaches into his jacket to pull out some folded papers there. "I hope this suffices."

She takes the papers, opening them, and looks them over. They look like photocopies. There's an excerpt from what appears to be a contract, a page from a project briefing, and a few other miscellaneous things there. Lori wants to look over them more, but it's not the place.

"What is this?"

"The tip of the iceberg. My connections were concerned that you wouldn't believe me, so I had them get me a little evidence. Those first two concern the Alaska project... there's not too much there, but hopefully it's enough to corroborate my story."

The first page he hands her reads:

TOP SECRET - BREME EYES ONLY

The circulation of this document shall be limited
to those persons who are authorized to have the
information in the performance of their duties.

This document may not be reproduced without
the consent of the official whose authenticating
code appears thereon OR the consent of a higher
authority in the U.S. Bureau of the Regulation of
Extraterrestrial Machine Entities.

And so on and so forth.

"I looks legitimate enough, but I can't make a decision here and now. I'll have to talk with my people."

"How long will it take for you to reach an agreement?"

He's mighty presumptive, isn't he? "I don't know."

Cody looks visibly agitated now - a little less average and invisible. She senses that there's something lurking there under the surface, and makes a mental note not to meet with him in private. "I don't think you understand," he says with a little snort. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, here. This is going to be the biggest Autobot-government joint operation in years. They'll have one Autobot on the premises. He'll be isolated from his peers, working only with -"

"Most of 'em work assignments alone," she butts in. "We've got one in Jersey City. Another playing bodyguard after they made that assassination threat against the governor of Louisiana. I've even heard that one of 'em is patrolling the highway out of Vegas operating speed traps of all things. What makes this one such an easy target?"

"This one is accessible," he all but growls. "You have to believe me."

"I said I'll talk to my people."

He sighs harshly. "There's also a matter of timeframes."

"Timeframes?"

"You've got four months to act on this, and it's going to be harder and harder to get to him with every passing week as they lock things down."

Lori studies him from under furrowed brows.

"What d'you mean, lock things down?" she says, minding her speaking volume.

"I'm talking cloaking devices. Bent-light generators. Alien technology."

The woman rubs at her eyes, collapsing back into her seat. This is the most intense conversation she's had in a while.

"Like I said: once in a lifetime."

He's right, though. Can they afford to pass this up? It would be dangerous as hell, but... whistleblowing and protecting citizens from predatory government suits isn't exactly a cushy gig.

But he seems anxious to get somewhere. "Just think about it, alright? You know how to reach me."

And with that he walks out. She watches as he puts his hands in his pockets and heads down the street, disappearing into the sidewalk traffic. How does he do that?

Lori's left with a funky taste in her mouth from the encounter, and something about his man doesn't sit right with her one bit. But his proposal is tempting. Maybe too tempting.

The final nail in the coffin doesn't come from Cody, though. It comes in the form of a phone call from a man named Scott two weeks later, referred by a MUFON investigator, and he's worried about his sister-in-law. The story he tells her isn't like anything she's heard before, and something about his desperation seems eerily genuine. A woman entangled in the shady machinations of an even shadier government agency. An agency doingsomething in Alaska.

She looks over the papers that Cody gave her again. The second document calls itself a summary of "Operation Pink": it's a mining project being carried out within the borders of Denali National Park.

Scott's description of a young woman who's been robbed of her freedom from being in the wrong place at the wrong time hits all the right notes, and Lori decides then and there to take the case. If they don't have contacts in Alaska, they'll make some, even if they have to take Cody up on his offer of funding. In fact, the mysterious ex-Bureau employee seems so eager to get directly involved, that he takes it upon himself to go up there in person. That all she needs to do is find him people to work with.

She should have known better than to take him up on that too.


It's almost zero celcius when they disembark from the plane, and it's pitch black out even though it's not even close to dinner time. Hound gets them home as fast as his tires will spin - and as fast as the posted speed limits will allow. It starts to rain as he pulls into the driveway, and to no one's surprise, a black SUV is waiting for them alongside the silver rental car.

Astrid stiffens, and he can feel her surface temperature jump by several degrees. "Oh god, Hound," she breathes, "What if the Bureau knows?"

Hound vents uneasily, and the thought has been dancing at the back of his CPU. "Let's... let's not jump to conclusions," he murmurs, scanning the building as he crawls by to head for the rear door. "See, there's four heat signatures in there. They didn't haul them off."

His passenger sucks in an uneasy breath and settles back into the seat, but her heart's still racing.

"They're probably here to talk to us, Boots."

"Yeah. Yeah..."

"We've come this far. Let's put on our game faces, alright?"

She nods.

Ka-KLONG goes the heavy metal door behind them, the pitch blackness pierced by the sweep of a single red light. He's promptly identified and cleared for entry.

Welcome home, Hound.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, c'mon.

The doors open up in front of them, the bottom retreating into the floor and the top retreating into the ceiling, and they're flooded with fluorescent light turned almost warm from refracting off the whitewashed concrete walls. In the middle of the room, rising from the couch at their arrival are two men dressed like black holes. Behind them, at the dinette, sit Astrid's parents, huddled together. They look like cornered prey animals.

He heaves a vented sigh as he opens the back door for her - she never got back into the front seat - and Richard and Tracy rush up to their daughter to embrace her in tight hugs. Tracy's face is wet with tears again.

"Give the Jeep a little room, please," Doley calls out to them as he rises from his seat and crosses the floor. The humans do so, and Hound notices the look that Astrid gives them when they approach.

Transformation is initiated, and a few seconds later he stretches himself out on a pair of legs, flexing ten fingers before balling them into fists.

"Mom, dad," Astrid says, forcing her voice to stay even, "If you could go upstairs while we talk with these gentlemen..."

Hound looks down at them - their eyes widen at his new optics - and he gives them a curt nod. They don't need to be told twice at this point. Quickly, silently, they climb the stairs and disappear behind the bedroom door.

"Nice hardware," the second agents says, glancing up at the mech. "At least you got something useful done while you were out playing hookie."

"Is this a game to you?" Hound mutters, lowering his brow plates into a scowl. "One of your agents almost gets murdered by a Decepticon and you think she's playing hookie?"

"If you came to us first you wouldn't be in trouble."

"We'd have gone to you if you gave a damn!" he shouts. "If it weren't for me, weren't for us Autobots, she'd be dead! And who knows what else compromised!"

"Correction: if it weren't for you, she wouldn't be anywhere near here."

This time, it's Astrid: "If it weren't for them, you wouldn't exist. Now hurry up and say what you came here to say."

Doley eyes her with such thinly veiled disdain that it makes Hound's spark tremble with anger. "We came to thank the robot for the Pretender," he says flatly. "And to remind him that this is two strikes." The man's brown eyes shoot back up to cut into the mech's own. "Because he knows what happens at three."

This. This is why they've cooperated with Jazz so far. Because punishment for three insubordinate infractions in as many years is written into the Groom Lake Pact, and not even Prime himself would try to argue his way out of it. It's the only thing holding this circus together, and as small of a hand as the Autobots had in its codification, they still had a hand, and Prime still signed it.

"Is that all?" Hound grinds out.

"We feel that, as we continue with this extraction, our risk of Decepticon interruption is only going to grow. So the Bureau has decided to increase our security measures," Doley coolly explains, running his fingers through his short brown hair. "Starting with you Autobots. Wouldn't that be awful if we had a breach because of your lackadaisical command structure?" he chuckles. "It'd be the very picture of irony."

"What does that mean," he growls.

"It means that none of you are to cross the state border unless you are given express permission." The second agent shoves a manila folder at Astrid as Doley continues. "It means that all debriefing will be done by us now; that we've locked down Schneider's finances; that we'll be installing surveillance equipment inside this building at some point in the next few days; that marines will soon have twice the presence at the project site than we have now; that we'll have jets ready to scramble at a moment's notice, among other things. The rest is in that folder, I recommend you read it tonight." There's a pause, and Hound watches with grim bitterness as Astrid opens the folder and is greeted by sheet upon sheet of fine print. "Oh, and Schneider: use that damn phone we got you. You're not going to get another one."

"It sounds like you don't want any Autobots near the project anymore," Hound mutters, folding his arms.

"Frankly, Hound, we don't." The honesty catches him by surprise, but the green mech knows that it's only because he can afford to say as much. "We'd rather do this on our own, but that's not going to happen, is it?"

"What, afraid we'll team up with the 'Cons?"

When Doley smirks, you know that there's something to worry about. And Doley's smirking. "Wouldn't you like to know what we're afraid of."

Hound just stares daggers, but somewhere he wonders what that might mean.

"Schneider, you look well enough to return to work Monday. Don't know how, don't care. You know when to clock in."

Astrid says nothing.

"Well, we best be on our way."

"You know where the door is," Hound spits.

They don't need a last word to know that they've won. As soon as they're gone, Hound's arms fall to his sides and Astrid lets out a breath she's been holding. She looks up to him with a pleading sort of look, then down at the sheaf of papers in her hand. Without a word she heads to the dinette and sets them down, then grabs herself a beer.

She leans against the kitchen counter, staring at the ground in front of her, and Hound sees nothing more for him to do than to come in closer and drop to a kneel. It'll be easier to talk this way.

"We should call 'em down," Astrid murmurs, nodding to herself. "Figure out what's going on."

Hound agrees.


"Sir! Sir!" A young specialist dressed in fatigues rushes down the hallway as fast as his legs can carry him. The Colonel overseeing this outfit looks up from her desk at the visitor, irritation palpable in the very air of her office. He's interrupting her.

"What is it?"

He stops just inside of the doorway, body bobbing up and down with his every labored breath. Her office is a long way from the "factory floor" as they call it, and he's run the whole way here. Whatever it is is either urgent or extraordinary, and she's liable to guess the latter - urgency merits using telecommunication around here, which is discouraged because the E.M.E.s can intercept them so easily.

"It's..." A breath. "It's dead, sir."

The Colonel jumps up from her seat. "What?!" Then: "Show me."

The room is abuzz with engineers and scientists in radiation suits scurrying about the containment unit that had once held the mysterious alien (in)organism. The lion's share of the area is taped off, though, and she knows better than to charge in any further. Beyond the technical chatter going on on the floor below, she can clearly hear the croaking of Geiger counters.

But what draws her attention more than the bustling scene is the contents of the housing unit itself. The cam arms of the phase disruptor's dozen needles that had once been sunk into an amorphous, metallic body are now exposed to the air. Below them, at the bottom of the containment unit, is a puddle of metallic fluid, maybe four or five inches deep. The insides of the housing are spattered with much of the same, and she can see where every large globule had dripped down into the puddle at the bottom. It was like what happens when you put an egg in a microwave.

"What in god's name happened, agent?" she asks the black-suited man standing silently at the railing. She's not sure how long he's been standing there.

"Spark collapse," he replies simply, nodding at a pair of physicists perched at the top of a ladder as they reach in with what looks like a soup ladle duct taped to a broom handle in an attempt to fish something out. She notices now that a film of oil is pooling at the surface of the dark chrome sludge as it continues to settle, and that it has a greenish-purple sheen.

"A kind of nuclear reaction?" she guesses, still floored at the scene before her.

"Sort of," he says flatly. "These things tend to be pretty self-contained."

The Colonel watches as the makeshift scoop withdraws from the pool, dripping fluid like liquid mercury, and in the middle is... something. It's hard to make out from all the way up here. Whatever it is, though, seems to be strangely heavy for its size. Ten, twenty pounds at least from how much awkward struggling there is in getting it out. She wonders if the duct tape will hold, but it does, and before long the only solid remnant of their prisoner is dropped into a padded case and whisked away.

"Why is this so different from the others' deaths? Number forty-two went comparatively quietly."

"The other aliens's core power source is housed in a casing that mediates between it and our reality. This one didn't have any such thing."

"Reality?" This is news to her.

"Inasmuch as we've been able to tell, the Cybertronian spark chamber contains a multidimensional space that allows for an otherwise enormous, heavy body to exist within less than a cubic foot without triggering an undesirable subatomic reaction. We've guessed that the technology is similar to their so-called "subspace pockets", but we don't know for sure. We don't have a way of dissecting the parts of them that don't actually exist," he chuckles. "Yet."

"Why is this one so different?"

He shrugs. "We don't know. It must be a necessary component of its shape-changing abilities."

"Do we have a cause of death, by any chance? We don't even know if it was critically injured."

"Probably a suicide."

The Colonel's brow arches. "We're not even sure if that thing was sentient, and now you're telling me it was capable of suicide?"

"We prefer to assume all of them are sentient unless proven otherwise. It keeps us from being... caught off-guard."

Just then another specialist jogs up to them. In his hand is a stack of papers, wrinkled from being clutched in his hand. He gives them to the Bureau agent who immediately begins to flip through them.

"In fact, it seems that it not only was capable of suicide, but it was capable of revenge too." He holds the papers up, giving them a little shake, the faintest of smiles crossing his otherwise emotionless face. "It seems that it's given us coordinates for the Decepticon base of operations and something about a virus before expiring." He pauses to stuff them into his briefcase. "Give my regards to Soundwave, it said. I hope my death costs him dearly."

Chapter Text

Astrid sits at the dinette, across from her mother as Richard watches a kettle of water boil.

She's reading the documents that Doley gave her, and a look of horror has twisted her face since she started. Hound is sketching out a basic image of the situation to her parents as she reads - he speaks as quietly as he can.

There's a long silence, and when Astrid finishes her skimming, closing the folder and shoving it away from her, Tracy touches her hand. Astrid looks up.

"What do we do about Heather?"

Her mom looks painfully old all of a sudden, and exhausted. Her little family suddenly rent truly asunder, unwitting daughter pitted against unwitting daughter.

Astrid swallows, then looks to Hound to buy herself a moment to think. The giant mech is seated on the floor with his back to them, elbow resting on his knee, and chin resting on his hand. He's buying himself a moment to think too.

"We don't do anything," he says after a little while. "It's out of our hands."

Tracy's suddenly on alert at those words. "What does that mean?"

"We can't protect her or Scott."

Astrid finds herself cradling her face in her hands. "What happens to them is depends on who finds out. There... might be a chance that the Bureau doesn't, though its slim."

Why are you trying to save their asses? she wonders ruefully. This was probably all Scott's idea. He would hate you enough to do something like this.

"Don't you talk like that," Tracy hisses.

"What the fuck do you want me to do?" she says, standing from her chair suddenly and staring her mother down. When the woman doesn't answer: "Go to the police? Write my congressman?"

"We could get a lawyer," Richard mutters quietly.

Astrid whips around to face him, even as he continues to stare at the simmering kettle. "This - all of this - is outside the purview of the law. It is invisible to every branch of government we have, dad."

"I don't believe that."

"You want to see the batteries of warheads pointed at Multnomah County, Oregon? Pointed at Autobots and civilians alike? You think the president knows about that?"

Richard falls silent.

Astrid heaves a harsh sigh and pushes the hair from her face. "Hound, I should call her."

"I think you should." He heaves his own sort of harsh sigh too.

She walks over to him, folding her arms because it's cold in the warehouse, and Hound dials Heather up, projecting the sound on a speakerphone-like setting.

Ring, ring.

"H-hello?"

"Heather, it's me."

The gasp is shrill and loud, and it quickly morphs into a sob. "Oh god, I'm so sorry, I, I-"

Astrid is surprised at how cold she is right now. "Who did you contact?" When she doesn't get an answer right away, she firmly repeats herself.

"S-s-some woman i-in Arizona..."

The youngest Schneider lets out a harsh breath as she wipes her forehead. She glances up to Hound, whose optics are fixed on the far wall; his chin is captured in his black fingers as he listens and scowls.

"Was this Scott's idea?"

A quiet, choking breath.

"Was this Scott's idea."

"Yes."

Hound visibly stiffens.

"Who did you talk to and what the fuck were you trying to do?"

"Y-you had us scared, dammit! What were we supposed to do? Just... just sit back and watch you fall through the cracks?"

Heather's sudden burst of defensiveness is only a little surprising. Even now, it's about being able to justify themselves.

"Answer her question," Hound says with little patience in his voice.

"Who... who is that? Is there someone else on the line?"

"It's the Autobot."

"Don't you dare hang up, Heather," she shouts after a long moment of silence.

Astrid's sister is cowed. "We talked to MUFON first," she says quietly. "The investigators we talked to, they... they said they didn't want anything to do with 'the transformers', so they gave us a phone number, and... and we called."

"Who was this person?" Hound asks.

"We still don't... don't know. All we know is that sh-she was in Arizona and that her name was Lori. She was someone who could... help us with our case..."

"Your case!" Astrid exclaims, barking with bitter laughter. She can't believe her ears! "Is that what my life is to you?"

"We were trying to help!"

"By trying to get her killed?" Hound growls.

"We were trying to get her fired, OK?" Heather begins to sob again. "That's it - fired. Fired so she wouldn't... wouldn't..."

Astrid's eyes narrow at the floor. "Be working with Autbots, huh?"

There's a silence, and Hound rubs at his face.

"We can't protect you," she mutters. "And frankly? I'm not sure I want to even if we could."

"Astrid, what are you talking about? What protection? What -"

"You have no idea what you put in motion. And all because you couldn't keep your goddamn noses out of my goddamn business. Goodbye, Heather. You might be contacted by another Autobot in a day or two, I don't know. But you won't be hearing from me ever again."

She makes a throat-slitting gesture at Hound, who promptly closes the line.

She's trembling.

The warehouse is silent.

"You OK?" comes the very quiet, soft voice if the giant robot behind her.

"No," she almost snaps, catching herself in time and trailing off into a self-deprecating snort. "My own sister and brother-in-law tipped... tipped off the fucking Decepticons somehow." Astrid heaves a sigh and clutches herself as she tries to fathom the repercussions of this.

But there are fingers on her shoulder - large, hard, black fingers. "It's going to be OK," he anxiously offers. "Neither BREME nor the Autobots will let anything happen to anybody."

"That's only part of it," she murmurs. "I... I know it's hard for you to understand, but... when a blood bond breaks..."

Whether he understands or not, she doesn't know because he doesn't say anything more. He just draws her in closer until her forehead is pressing against the side of his leg. But she can only stay like that for so long too.

"Mom, dad," she begins, lifting her face from the green giant and looking their way, "You've gotta get out of here."

The Schneiders exchange looks. "Why?" Tracy cautiously demands.

Astrid looks to Hound and he flicks his bright new optics in her direction, heavy under gray-silver brow plates.

"Things might get ugly, and the last thing I want is to see you caught in the crossfire."

"Ugly?"

"Remember that "earthquake" in Portland this year?" She puts the word in finger quotes.

"Y-yes, I..."

"That kind of ugly." She pauses, but sensing that they're going to protest, holds up her hands to punctuate her point. "No ifs, ands, or buts. I may be a sorry excuse for a government agent, but... you two have no reason to be here. You'll just be putting yourselves in danger."

"Astrid! How will you... why? What's going to happen?"

"We don't know what's going to happen," Hound sighs. "And that's why it'll be best for you to leave." He looks down at her with those new, finely-motile eyes of his, so human but so not. "Wish I could put you on the first plane out of here too."

She knows. She knows how much he hates the idea of her being anywhere near here if and when this place should metaphorically - or perhaps literally - blow up. It doesn't occur to her, though, that he could die in a battle just as well: he's so big, after all, and his body so unimaginably resilient. Right now, the worst that she can imagine is stasis lock. The Autobots are strong, and many, and they have doctors, right?

But she fingers the metal tube in her pocket. "I'm staying right here. Besides - I don't think the Bureau would appreciate it."

Her parents come over, braving the close proximity to Hound, and envelop her in a hug.

"We can't convince you otherwise, can we?" Richard almost whispers.

"I've got too much at stake here to walk away." She buries her nose into her mother's hair for a moment. It's a familiar smell; one that brings childhood memories rushing back. But she steps away and looks up at Hound who's gazing down at them all, both warmed and worried at the sight. "Besides, I gotta look after the big guy." She gives him a little wink, hoping that he doesn't notice the very real place those words are coming from.

Richard turns to him, though, and she sees Hound almost flinch as he straightens up the faintest bit. "If you are what you say you are... I can have your word that you'll take care of her?"

"To my last firing circuit, sir." Then a small hint of a smile: "Scout's honor."

Richard nods, turning away - and he keeps nodding, trying to convince himself that this'll all be OK. "Will you have a phone? Something we can call?"

"I'll have him." Astrid gestures with her head toward Hound.

"It'll be best that we be the ones to contact you," he says. "Your calls can be traced, mine can't."

The Schneiders exchange grim looks and nod some more.

"You should go pack your things. Hound, can you find them a flight?"

"Sure can. I'll book it with Bureau money too."

"Thanks."


Thundercracker and Scrapper have found themselves in the presence of the great Lord Starscream.

They had been escorted in by the Insecticons; Kickback and Shrapnel now hold weapons, hot and spooled, to their heads. On each side of the Gracious Seeker's makeshift throne is a triplechanger, standing still and silent.

"Did you think you could fool me, your Lord Starscream?" he asks with that shrill, rasping voice. "Did you think my sensors too dull to detect traitors in my ranks?"

With a sharp jerk of pain the guns ram into the backs of their helms, sending them to the ground to prostrate themselves before their lord and master. He rises from the throne to step towards them. "I have no love for you ground-bound imbeciles," he spits at Scrapper, delivering a swift kick to the head to punctuate his point. The Consctructicon leader barely flinches at the blow, keeping his optics leveled at the ground. He is no stranger to this sort of treatment. "And this is precisely why. Your loyalties are as cheap as your vehicle modes." Thundercracker struggles to bite back a chuckle at the irony of Starscream's words.

"But you, Thundercracker," he says, voice almost softening as he now stands before the great blue jet. "As a fellow Seeker, I had such high expectations of you, and you never failed me... not until now. I hate the thought of punishing someone so wonderfully wrought in my likeness."

Thundercracker grinds his denta together. "You talk like you're one of the Thirteen," he mutters balefully. "Megatron was under no such delusions."

He takes this opportunity to look up, now, and meet Starscream's suddenly hateful gaze. "You do not speak his name here!" he bellows, flooding the cavern with a burning, clawing EM field. He storms away, beginning to pace. "Megatron was a fool! In fact, if it weren't for his incompetence, he would have made it to Earth! But no - it was I, Starscream, that navigated us out of that wormhole to safety. I saved us."

It was Starscream, huh? Thundercracker pretty distinctly remembers everyone being thrown into stasis, and that crashing into Earth had been by sheer accident - that is, if "crash" might even be an appropriate word to use... their ship had broken up in the atmosphere, leaving them each to fall into the Artcic Ocean like coins tossed into a well. But Starscream's historical revisionism comes as no surprise. Though, he does wonder if his loyalists even believe the story.

Thundercracker has had enough of this, though. He'd anticipated getting caught eventually - there was no way they could have continued to plan their coup unnoticed from within Starscream's tiny domain for long. But the others are waiting, and the idiot who now calls himself Leader of the Decepticons is long overdue for a regime change.

Soundwave, I'm giving the word, he comms the Multiple.

Starscream whips around, though, and suddenly has Thundercracker by the spark cabling. "What was that?" he hisses. His digits, each sharpened to a point, dig into the delicate columns of the Cybertronian's neck, and as the spark fluid is choked off, his optic sensors grow dim and begin to glitch.

"I," he grinds out, struggling for purchase without giving the impression that he's putting up a fight. "I don't know what you're..."

"I know a comm when I smell one, traitor." Starscream's red optics flash dangerously. "Bombshell, dispose of these -"

But there's a clamor outside the throne room's doors suddenly, and Starscream pauses to listen for a moment. That pause will cost him his life.

Thundercracker and Scrapper each take the opportunity to roll out of the way just as the doors burst open and a heavy explosive is fired inside - it shakes the entire cavern system and then some, and with a tremendous noise, chunks of hard earth shower down from the ceiling onto the throne, burying it. The triplechangers quickly gather their wits about them and return fire, while Starscream makes to escape... but quickly finds his route caved in. They're trapped.

Which is exactly how Soundwave planned it.

Thundercracker smiles, and with a violent roar, lets loose a sonic blast in the direction of the self-proclaimed Seeker King.


By evening, the Schneiders are gone and Astrid is on her second glass of vodka and juice, but it's not doing much good for her nerves.

"Wonder if the nanenes are interfering with my ability to get drunk," Astrid mutters, staring at the tumbler in her fingers as she swirls the liquid around inside.

"Maybe," Hound murmurs back. He's studying the ceiling when she glances over at him, and it's clear that his mind is elsewhere. "You know," he says after a little while. "I really do wish you were on that plane with them."

"I'm sure you do." She can't help the breathy snort. "Like I said, though, Bureau wouldn't like that."

The fine hairs on her neck tell her that he's looking her way, and when she goes to check, he is. Huh. Thought that only worked for eyes, not optics.

"Doesn't sound like you would either," he says.

"It's like I told Bumblebee: I made a choice. And I'm making one right now too."

His voice softens and he gestures a little bit with his head. "What've you chosen?"

"I've chosen to fight, because frankly? No matter who wins, I don't want to live in a world where the Autobots have lost."

Hound's face cracks into a little bit of a smile, but there's a grimness there. "That's my Boots." Is it really, though? She can see it in his eyes - his optics - that there will always be that tiny part of him that wonders if this all isn't just a big mistake. She can live with that - can't blame him, at any rate. He's seen some shit, and he's surely done some shit. Twenty-seven tours must've taught him what it's like to truly have regrets.

She gets up from the dining table to dump the rest of her drink down the sink - it's just not fun to sip anymore - and afterward his voice finds her.

"Hey, c'mere."

Astrid turns to follow his words, but she pauses, remembering the thing hidden deep in her pocket. "Lemme... go pee first," she says, racing up the stairs. She doesn't have to go, but she unzips and sits on the toilet for a few seconds anyway. The metal tube is cold to the touch, but quickly warms as she holds it, turning it over under her gaze. Still, it terrifies her, and Perceptor's words echo in her mind.

On her way back out, she decides to stow it away into the nightstand drawer for now. There's no way she can keep it on her without him finding out eventually, Astrid decides.

With a deep breath, she heads back downstairs.

"I haven't been this much of a scout since before Earth," he remarks when she approaches, chuckling a little.

"How do you mean?"

"All this..." He searches for the word with a little wiggle of his gigantic fingers. "Reporting stuff to somebody. I've written more reports in the past two months than I have in the past two years. Can you believe it?"

Astrid laughs. "Sure can."

There's a little pause as the both of them ponder their circumstances.

She traces a seam along his arm, though, getting his attention. "So... what are we in for, exactly? What's going to happen?"

He vents, twisting up his face and looking out across the warehouse floor. "The 'Cons are definitely after the energon," he murmurs with a frown. "We've likely eliminated their only pretender though, so black ops stuff is off the table for them now. They'll resort to more conventional tactics to get it."

"Shouldn't we... tell the Bureau about this? Won't they want to be able to plan a defense strategy?"

Another vent. "S'not for us to decide, Boots. And you know..." He stops here - maybe to think about the implication of his own words. "The Bureau has been thinking of us as a third faction since the beginning. Maybe it's time we started acting like it."

"Is it scary, fighting other Cybertronians?"

Hound regards her for a moment. "Fighting never stops being scary so long as you've got something to lose." His fingers creep around her waist and bring her a few inches closer.

Astrid imagines standing before a Cybertronian that wants her dead. Four or five tons of metal and alien circuitry, full of utter loathing and disregard for the human race. It wouldn't take much - a stomp, a kick, a pounding fist - to reduce her to a smear on the ground. Like a bug. She swallows, and the image is replaced by the eerie feed that Perceptor had from Hound's disorienting moments in the junkyard.

"They're going to try to use you, won't they?"

Her words catch him visibly off-guard for a second, but then his features harden a little. "I'd rather not... openly speculate."

A few minutes pass with them like that before she glances toward the kitchen and notices the time.

"We should get to bed... you've got to be there in the morning, and I've got a report to work on tomorrow."

"Wait," he says, almost a little desperate as she hops off his leg. Astrid turns to face him. "I just..." the Autobot begins, trailing off before just picking her up and bringing her face to his for a kiss. There's an urgency to it, like they might not get a chance to do this again for a while... or maybe never. The thought hits her and suddenly she's returning his gesture with a little urgency too.


"Any last words?" Thundercracker growls with a whining roar from his afterburners.

Starscream is laid low - each one of his arms is firmly in the full-bodied grasp of a Constructicon, while two more aim their weapons at his head. The shots won't kill him, but it'll be more efficient to squelch the Seeker's spark if he's in stasis lock and not flailing about. He lost, the degenerate: twenty-five Terran years of this was twenty-five too many. The blue Seeker looks on at the fallen Decepticons - the triplechangers, the insecticons, Bitstream - with a little frustration and disappointment. Soundwave had tried extending to them an invitation to join the mutiny, but either Starscream's lies had taken root, or they were too tired to care anymore.

What comes out of Starscream's vocalizer surprises no one, though: a stammering stream of pleas and empty promises of loyalty and good behavior. But when it becomes clear that this tactic isn't working, and Thundercracker is about to turn away for a word with Soundwave, he tries one last time.

"You'll never find him," he hisses.

Thundercracker does his people's equivalent to cocking a brow. "What makes you think that?"

Starscream thinks that he's got some kind of leverage now, and a sneer crosses his face. "You'd have to comb every klik of this miserable planet. You think the humans will let you?"

It's Thundercracker's turn to smile now. "The humans have found him for us."

The glimmer in Starscram's optics quickly disappears, and all there is now is dread. "No..."

"Yes."

The low, harsh droning voice comes from behind the blue Seeker - Soundwave has entered what remains of the room.

"S-Soundwave! Please, I... i-if you've f-found him, then... then let me explain to him myself..."

If the Multiple has emotions - and nobody is quite sure if he does - then his featureless face gives no indication that they've been successfully appealed to in any way. After scrutinizing the Decepticon traitor with near-panoptic sensors behind that visor of his, Soundwave dismisses himself without further explanation, and beckons Thundercracker to follow with a flare of his EM field.

"Kill him."

Starscream barely gets a chance to live up to his name before being cut off by a short burst of gunfire.


All the remaining Decepticons can fly, so it's decided that they wait for the cover of nightfall before taking to the skies and heading west. Someone notices that Soundwave's kin, aside from Laserbeak, are missing. "They have been put to work in Anchorage," he replies simply. Only Thundercracker knows what that means.

They're about half a klik away from the mouth of the cave when Hook notices something on the periphery of his sensor range, and moving fast. It's not long before they can all hear the roar of jet engines - there's three of them, all screaming together, and they're passing low.

"Look out!"

The three human craft fire long, neat lines of payload, and the hillock above the cave mouth shudders with smoke and fire. Nobody actually ducks for cover, as the explosives are too weak to do much even without landing a direct hit.

"They know where we are!" someone shouts. Though the humans and Autobots alike knew that the Decepticons had taken refuge in this province of Canada, nobody knew exactly where. Until now, it seemed.

"They wanted to draw us out," Thundercracker growls. He turns to Soundwave. "Let me take them down before they do something really stupid."

Soundwave is silent, though his EM field is warning enough. No, it says. "We will take them by surprise in Alaska."

The blue seeker rumbles in frustration.


"I'm sorry," he vents raggedly. "I just need this right now. Just... slag everything else for a while."

His big, metal finger is rubbing between her legs, and she knows he can feel her heat. "Not entirely sure I could say no to you, big guy," Astrid pants as he lowers himself onto his back, bringing her with him.

The gunshot wound gives faint protest when he grabs her roughly, but it feels good, now. The memories of how she got it, of firing her own .22... they go straight to her belly and she moans at the rush.

Yeah, this does feel different, she notices when he yanks her pants off and she hears a seam burst someplace. This is some kind of last hurrah, isn't it?

The fuck before the storm.

A shitty Dave Matthews' song wanders through her head for a few bars until Hound replaces it with the ringing of tinnitus when he crushes her skull to his mouth with enough force to shatter pavement, it feels like. Her arm hurts good, and he seems to savor the feel of her saliva in his mouth.


"How do we know it's him?" someone asks. It's the question they've all been wanting to ask, and though they all feel a little freer having finally rid themselves of Starscream, it's far from over. Far from getting off of Earth.

It's a question that's on their minds because Soundwave is now the only one of them with a vehicle mode that can break orbit. The mech who started this also happens to be the only one who can truly walk away from it if things go sour. The others are coming down from their post-mutiny high, and they're growing nervous. Humans have taken an interest in them all of a sudden, which means Autobots can't be far behind. And Soundwave's plan is do-or-die: even the slightest miscalculation will turn this into a suicide mission.

"Ravage has given me the B.R.E.M.E.'s data. Their estimated size of the so-called "vein" is precisely what the Nemesis would have had on-board after eighteen lightyears' worth of travel."

Eighteen lightyears is the distance between Cybertron and its nearest wormhole.

"Twenty-four hundred teliex*," Hook murmurs. "If my calculations are correct."

"They are," Soundwave emotionlessly intones.

"If it is the Nemesis, how do we even know that anyone on board is still alive?" Blitzwing asks gruffly.

"We speak of not just Megatron, but Sixshot and the Predacons," the Multiple says, almost curtly. "There is little in this universe that they cannot survive."

An uneasy silence falls on everyone - some seem agitated at this news, others disturbed, and a few more excited - and after some hours waiting impatiently, Soundwave transforms without notice and takes off as soon as the sky is dark. The others scramble to follow as close behind as they can manage. Thundrecracker roars up to Soundwave's flank and remains there through the flight, wishing that they had a leader for a leader; not just a tactical genius.


The woman is out walking her dog, and it's actually almost cool enough to put a sweater on this time of year.

She's got a cigarette in her mouth and she's fumbling for a lighter in her purse when a blue and white muscle car pulls up beside her with a deep roar of its engine. The woman frowns at the sound, but ignores the vehicle - they must be parking. She keeps walking.

But the car revs, and closes the gap between them, stopping again beside her. The woman pauses this time, her dog growling, and tries to peer inside through the tinted windows but can't see a damn thing.

She's about to give the driver a middle finger when the passenger side door opens, and she sees that there's no one inside. Her heart skips a couple beats, and her dog starts to bark.

"Get in Lori," a voice says from someplace. It's vaguely feminine, though she can't place why - it's deep, and mechanical, and it sounds like the rumbling of 12 cylinders. It also sounds angry. "I need to ask you a few questions."

The woman who calls herself Lori takes the unlit cigarette from her lips and flicks it away to make room for the smile spreading on her face. She hoists her small dog up into her arms, and steps toward the open door.

She chuckles darkly. "I guess the jig is up, huh?"


Hound's using one of his fingers this time - the thick, unyielding appendage strains her comparatively fragile insides, but he fills her up again and again and again. He pushes the air from her lungs, hitting all the right spots, while another lightly textured digit strokes mercilessly at that little nub of hot flesh, threatening not to push her over the edge, but shove her, roughly and without the barest hint of pomp. The mech all but wants to commit murder right now, and Astrid's going to let him.

He's lost himself in her, she'd have noticed if she wasn't so preoccupied with keeping her proverbial lights on. Almost like he wants to preemptively cover her in aches and bruises before an enemy can come along and do the same. If I make you hurt, if I mark you first, his hands seem to be desperately chanting, then maybe it'll shield you against theirs.

Astrid might remark to herself later that his thick streaks of purples and greens look like streaks of warpaint.

"Oh god, Hou -"

He cuts her off with his mouth on hers, biting her lip, choking her with his tongue. He breaks away just long enough to whisper: "Don't talk." He manhandles her a little further up so his teeth can work on her chest. A gasp tears out of her when he bites down on the meaty flesh of her breast, and she knows that'll leave a mark too. Hound rumbles with satisfaction at his handiwork.

Astrid can feel him move his arm down to stroke himself. With her so up high on him like this, she can't even reach his length with her tiptoes, but he's still got his other hand stuffing itself between her legs, pinning her like a butterfly to a board. A second finger presses against her asshole - he's been wanting to do that, hasn't he? - and with a firm insistence, he eases it in past relaxing sphincter muscles. A loud, ragged cry tears out of her lungs. Still, like he'd asked, wordless.

His body's growling rev of approval vibrates her, and she feels so, so, so small on him like this. Tiny and pliant and honestly, helpless as fuck. The little human's organs feel like they've disappeared, subspaced maybe, to make room for his massive fingers. She's spilling over with him like a cup overfull - just a writhing, mewling, glove for his metal hand. A glove two sizes too small... which is just how they like it.


"Just got off the phone with the Canadians," says a young man wearing four chevrons on his arm. He's standing tall in the doorway of the Colonel's office, hands behind his back. "Either our liquefied friend gave us the wrong directions, or there weren't any survivors."

The Colonel rubs at the bridge of her nose from behind her desk, and the black-suited men sitting across from her say nothing.

"A half-dozen JDAM-fitted Mark 80's isn't going to take out even a squad of those things," she mumbles. "No sign of life at all? No movement, transmissions, nothing?"

"None at all, sir. They've done four fly-bys."

"Son of a bitch lied to us, then."

One of the BREME agents turns to her, rubbing his chin. "I don't think we should mistrust the dying words of a soldier betrayed," he suggests. "For all intents and purposes, we believe it was telling the truth."

The other one rises from his seat and heads over to the telephone attached to the wall - no wireless communications are permitted here. "I'm going to call in a forensics team. Colonel, if you could ask our neighbors to hold off on another sortie until we get some real eyes on the ground...?"

She sighs and nods, reaching for the phone on her desk - ever since it was discovered that the rogue Cybertronians were hiding out someplace in the Northwest Territories, she's had the Deputy Minister of National Defense is on speed-dial.


There are boots on the ground in three hours, just as the sun disappears beyond the horizon. They'll have several hours of twilight to work by at this latitude.

It's absolutely frigid at this time of year, but pains were taken to keep their equipment from freezing. Bureau agents bundled up in orange parkas move quickly across the blasted out hill, setting up floodlights and sweeping the area with all sorts of gear: sound imaging, geiger counters, metal detectors. It's quickly established that this was, in fact, once the mouth of a previously uncharted cave system all but collapsed in now.

The team's geologist and lead ballistics investigator notice something odd about where the ice has formed in relation to the freshly rent earth: it seems as though part of the cave-in happened before the snow was melted by bombing.

Orders are to bring in the excavation equipment now, and fast. Thankfully, a few backhoes and bulldozers were waiting for them upon arrival, trucked in from town. If it's one thing the Bureau has learned in their 25 years of dealing with the aliens, is to be prepared for anything.

Another hour of frantic digging goes by before the bucket on one of the excavators makes a dull klong - that distinctive sound of metal on metal. The entire crew moves like lightning now to unearth whatever, or whoever,this is. And it's not long before a purple arm and silver head reveal themselves. Everyone stands in a circle around it in silence for a moment. The lead agent gives a curt nod and everyone gets back to it.

"Haven't seen one of these bastards in a long time," one of them mutters, pinching a cigarette between two thickly gloved fingers. He scrunches up his nose as he looks on at the fourteen-foot robot; the mucous membranes in his nostrils are icing up. "Called 'em Walkers because they have legs in both modes as far as we can tell. This one is ETU N46, I believe."

"I think there's more down here!" calls an agent looking up from a sonar screen.

"How many, you think?"

"Hard to tell, but I'm seeing at least four."

The Agent with the cigarette thinks on this before allowing himself to be distracted by the bitter cold for a moment - the temperature sunk below zero Fahrenheit about an hour ago and he curses. Last headcount had the Decepticon numbering 22 to the Autobot's 38 - even if there are a dozen robots buried here, that still leaves ten unaccounted for. He takes a long drag as he watches a couple of agents clear rubble from a blast injury to the Walker's head. It's pretty obvious what had happened here, but that still begs the question: where are the others?

With a frown, he turns and looks out over the boreal landscape to a wall of trees about 50 yards off, a mass of black against the faintly luminous white of snow. Then he looks up to the sky, which is completely clear and has, as he understands it, been cloud-free for days now. Then he looks down at the snow under his feet, noting its solidity. This area hasn't seen fresh powder in a while.

"Comb the area for tracks," he suddenly bellows, dropping the cigarette butt into the ice. Bureau personnel look up from what they're doing and with an unspoken understanding of priorities, a few of them jump up to grab flashlights.

Off in the distance he can hear the droning whine of a helicopter. "Really?" he groans with a sigh. He knows who it is. "Right now?" Not that he blames the Defense Minister for wanting to know exactly what the Americans are doing all the way up here, but his timing is awful.

He meanders over to where he expects the craft to land, and a few minutes later it surely does, and out hop a trio of Canadian defense officials. "Minister," he shouts over the oscillating roar. "Glad to meet you, sir."

"The honor's mine. Reynolds, I presume?"

He nods and they get away from the noisy craft even as it powers down.

"Did we get 'em?"

The Minister is a Sikh man in his early 50's, though you might not know with the furry hood pulled up over his Daastar, and this Bureau agent hasn't met him before. He's sharp, competent, and good at his job, or so the story goes, but apparently inexperienced at dealing with the alien robots. (Only the US and Canada know that they're such. The rest of the world... well, the rest of the world can think whatever it wants to think.)

"Not even close," Reynolds says, stopping at the top of the adjacent little rise and gesturing out over the excavation scene before them. ETU N46 has been almost entirely extracted, and they're working on another that the agent doesn't recognize yet. "Even if you'd hit em with something bigger than Mk 80's like we'd told you to, it doesn't look like it would have done any good. Not only did we bring a knife to a gunfight, but the gunfight was over by the time we even showed up."

One of his aides, a young woman, snaps a photo and the flash catches Reynolds' attention. He throws his hand up in front of her and gives her a warning look. "No pictures."

The Minister looks from her to him and chuckles a little incredulously. "Excuse me Agent Reynolds, but how do you expect me to -"

He hardens his features and lowers his voice. "No pictures. We will give you our data."

The Canadians exchange frustrated looks for a moment. "Alright," the Minister relents with some bitterness. "Tell me what I'm looking at, then."

"We've located the bodies of at least four dead or comatose individuals inside of a collapsed cave system here. We don't know how many more there are, how extensive the cave network was, or what killed them, though my guess is intra-faction violence. It certainly looks like damage from their own weaponry with that first one we dug up."

"But there are twenty-two known Decepticons," the Minister interjects. "They certainly didn't all kill themselves off."

As if on cue, there's a shout coming from beyond the floodlights. "Footprints!" they holler, gesturing to massive indentations in the snow with their flashlight beam.

"Heading west," the Canadian mutters, stroking at his neatly kempt beard. "Into the wilderness, maybe. Any further north and they lose the tree cover." Another pause as he thinks. "There are a lot of places to hide in the Rockies..."

But Reynolds knows things that even Canada's highest ranking defense personnel don't know, and that knowledge has him frowning deeply.

"Yeah, maybe," he mutters under his breath. The Decepticons can't possibly know, can they? "Excuse me," he says, pulling another cigarette from deep in his pocket, taking his glove off for the dextrous task of lighting it. "I need to make a phone call."


"Wake up, sleepyhead," comes the quiet, rumbling voice from all around her. Something touches her hair, and with a little groan she turns over and stretches, remembering the hard, blocky body underneath. A thick pad of foam and a plush down comforter separates his metal from her marked flesh.

"What time is it?" she groans. It's still dark out - of course it's still dark out, it's Anchorage in November. The sun won't be up until 9.

"Quarter after six," he murmurs. Then chuckling: "And I've still got to shower, eat, pack my lunch..."

"I can just hose you off when you get home," she says with a groggy smile. "Suds you up, scrub you down..."

"Do you do detailing too?"

"Oh, yeah. I get into all the little nooks and crannies."

"I'll be sure to tip you good, then."

"Baby, your tip is all I need."

They both burst into lazy laughter and he gives her a good squeeze before taking the entirety of her bundle and, sitting up, sets her onto the floor beside him. It's flatter, and arguably more comfortable than laying on all the bumpy irregularities of his chest, but she still prefers his metal to the concrete floor.

"Sorry Boots, but I gotta go bring home some bacon."

"Wish that you could actually bring home some bacon."

He thinks for a moment. "I wonder if I could..."

Astrid giggles. "Please don't. That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen."

"You going to be alright by yourself all day?"

She shrugs, the smile disappearing from her face. "I'll be OK. Might be good to have the place to myself for a while."

"I'll miss you at work. Even though we barely see each other all day as it is."

She looks up at him. "I'll miss you too, big guy. See you in about twelve hours?"

He gives her a wink - a quick flicking off of his right optic so that those fascinating little rings disappear for a half-second. "I'll see if I can't get off early."

"Alright. I'll see you around, then."

"Have a good day!"

With that, he transforms, and heads out the rear locks.

It feels strange to have the warehouse to herself again - it's something she hasn't had since before all this happened, when they had some vague resemblance of normalcy. He could work longer hours than her, so he did, and she often had at least a couple hours to herself at home before he drove up at the end of the day.

She lays, staring at the ceiling high above her, and remembers that one of the light bulbs needed to be changed.

But for now, she turns over to fall back asleep. And when she wakes up an hour later, still dark as night outside, Astrid decides to dedicate a few hours with her bugout bag. Just in case she needs to make another quick getaway.

The pack, a hardy 70L number, will fit a bivvy, her prized down 4-season sleeping bag, burner and fuel, emergency blanket, sleeping pad, first aid kit, utility knife, a compass and map of Anchorage and its surrounding areas, change of clothes and a second change of underwear, roll of duct tape, bungee cords, hatchet, several days' worth of dehydrated rations, a 32oz water bottle, and a diddy bag for her miscellany.

What else would she need?

She reaches under the bed to grab her fire safe, and digs around inside for a few important documents. Birth certificate, social security card, passport... she heads to the office to make photocopies of all these before folding them up as small as she can and stuffing them into a freezer bag. A ballpoint pen and #2 pencil make their way into the bag too, as well as a slip of paper with a few important phone numbers scrawled onto it.

That's really about all she can think of. Except for...

Her eyes wander over to the nightstand drawer, where she tucked the hard hack away for safe keeping, like a can of mace. Astrid chews on her lip as she approaches and slides the drawer open. Should this go into the bag too? No... no. It should be within arm's reach whenever possible.

She tucks it into a hidden inside pocket on her down vest, and gives it a pat through the fabric.

The beacon, she decides, can go into the bag. She can't imagine a situation where she'll need instant access to that and not the hack.


Hound comes home at almost 7 that evening, and it's been long since the sun had set too. Over three hours, officially, though twilight did drag on for most of it.

"Boy, something was up over there," Hound calls up to her from someplace downstairs. Astrid is wrapping up a rather stressful email response to Alaska's Fish and Wildlife - they'd been demanding some information that apparently no one else had yet bothered to give them. Something to do with hunting permit projections for the following year. Measuring the effects on game populations was far, far beyond her purview, so she was expecting to get yelled at over the course of the next 1-2 business days.

"Like what?"

His casual tone didn't immediately raise her hackles, but maybe that's because he's more used to this sort of thing than she is.

"Well, Doley wasn't giving me a hard time, for one."

This she laughs at.

A moment later and she's standing on the mezzanine. "You think they know something's up?"

He's at his energon dispenser, holding the cube to it like a cup with a soda fountain. "It's hard to tell. Said it himself, though: I'm the only Autobot they want in the picture up there. If that."

"They ramped up security then, huh?"

"Yeah. There's a MANPAD for every marine now, and twice the marines than when we were last there."

"Man pads?"

"Er... they're like bazookas, but they fire missiles at airborne targets. They're pretty powerful little gadgets."

Astrid swallows at the thought. "Oh."

"Hey come on down here when you're done. It's Friday! We should watch a movie or something."

"OK, gimme a few."

She wraps up her work, fixes dinner, and makes some popcorn. Hound reveals that he wants to put on It's A Wonderful Life. He warns her that he intends to make her sit down and watch Gone With the Wind with him someday, and she feigns exasperation. Astrid makes him promise that he'll watch Citizen Kane and Casablanca with her in that case, at which he flashes one of his handsome smiles and agrees to the terms of the deal.

The rest of the evening, they discover, is nice. Not exciting, not tense, not... anything. Just nice.

Like a Friday evening at home should be.


Astrid's biting a hole into a slice of bread the following morning - for a gas-house egg - when Hound makes a sort of groaning noise from where he's reclined on the floor. She looks over to him, and bites back a snort at the sight of him reading something on a datapad that he's holding up in the air above him like a person might do with a phone.

"What's the matter?"

"They want me at the site today."

She screws up her face. "What? It's Saturday."

"It looks like somebody wants me to come over to do drills with the marines," he grumbles.

"When do they want you there?"

"Should leave in about ten."

"And how long will you be gone?"

"Doesn't say."

"I swear to god, I'm going to find a regular job when this is all over. The Bureau can kiss my ass."

"And lose the warehouse?" He sounds nervous.

She laughs, though. "What? We could buy a parcel someplace and build something on it." The bread goes into the pan and she cracks an egg into it.

"You know, that's not a bad idea." A pause. "Say, you mean that... we're really in this for the long haul?"

Astrid turns, leaning against the kitchen counter and gives him a little smile as she cocks her head to the side. "Sure, why not? Seems to be working out so far, I'd say."

His face lights up and he rolls over onto all fours, attempting for just a second to crawl over to her underneath the second story but quickly giving up and growling in frustration. "Just c'mere, dammit," he huffs.

She crosses the floor over to where her oversized alien robot boyfriend is crouched and he bends down to give her a kiss.

"Guess I could have just sent a holo under there, but... you know," he chuckles.

Astrid winks at him. "I prefer the real thing."

"I'll see you in a few hours, alright? Holler if you... er - email if you need anything. If it's still light out, we'll go on a little walk when I get back."

"Sounds good and can do, big guy."

He's gone again, leaving her with just the sound of sizzling egg in a pan. While she waits, she rolls up her sleeve and looks at the marks from two nights ago and frowns - what should have been splotches of royal reds and violets are already fading to yellow and that deep-tissue gray. They'll be gone by tomorrow. She distantly wonders what it might take nowadays to leave her red and smarting for a week. Road rash, she thinks with a pout. She makes a note to do some research on other stuff they can do. There's a whole world of that stuff out there, she knows, but she's never really ventured into it. Maybe it's time that she did.

The yoke breaks when she flips the gas-house egg, and she curses under breath as the yellow runs a line across the pan and begins to turn opaque.

Just then, the doorbell rings, and Astrid about jumps out of her skin at the sound.

"Who in the fuck...? Oh god, it better not be Doley. Please, please not Doley."

Astrid turns the pan off and goes to answer.

Peering through the peephole, it's hard to tell who it is, because it's drizzling out and they're holding a large umbrella. She's never seen a Bureau agent with an umbrella, has she? Steeling her nerves, she opens the door.

The first thing she notices is the trench coats - brown, not black. And they're not wearing shoes. Or at least, she doesn't think they are. But the umbrella is lifted and she's greeted by a pair of smiling, silver faces. No eyes, just visors - and they're red.

"What's cookin' good lookin'?" the left one says with an accent she can't place. "Smells good."

Without thinking, she goes to slam the door, but one of them puts their foot in the way and begins to muscle his way in. Turning, she makes a run for it, but she doesn't even make it out of the hallway before one tackles her to the ground.


*1 teliex = ~10 personal energon ration cubes

Chapter Text

Hound isn't pleased at having to sacrifice his saturday on a dime like this. The 45 minute drive is nice and quiet, but... he'd rather be spending it with Astrid. Moreover, Doley didn't even have the decency to call him himself - had someone else send him the equivalent of a text message.

A few little flurries of snow greet him at the 1-mile mark along with the sole guard at the security checkpoint there, who waves him past without looking up from his newspaper. There's another checkpoint at the half-mile mark that has a few armed guards, who also wave him past as they crowd around a hot thermos. The quarter-mile checkpoint features a chainlink fence and gate, more armed guards, a Humvee with a turret, and a lot of signage warning of the lethal force that would be used against trespassers.

He slows down here and toots his horn at one of the marines. "Hey, is Doley even here today?"

The young man shakes his head. "If he is, I haven't see 'im."

Hound continues on to the final checkpoint: the one right at the border between the outside and the inside of the holo-dome.

"Oh, didn't know you were supposed to be here today, Hound," the guard said, adjusting his hat as he steps out of the guardhouse. The threshold to the shielded area is deceptively unprotected: the road under the mech's tires are resting on a multipurpose plate buried into the ground: with a flip of a switch, two-foot spikes could shoot out of the mechanism, impaling most vehicles or at the least destroying their tires, or an EMP blast could render whatever electronics are situated above the plate - electronic components in a vehicle, hidden surveillance equipment on someone's person, computerized weaponry. "You know the drill, Autobot."

Hound does indeed know the drill. He unfolds himself out of his vehicle mode, sending the transponder in the guardhouse his signature.

The man waves him through. "You're clear," he announces.

Hound gets back down onto his tires and heads through the tunnel, and before he knows it he's inside the dig site. He sweeps his sensors about, looking for whoever it is that he was supposed to be doing the drills with, but finds that the marines that he was supposed to be training weren't here.

"Hey!"

He flags down a patrolling marine that is here. He stops as Hound transforms.

"Where is everybody?" the Autobot asks, gesturing around.

The marine shrugs, pulling his collar up around his neck a little more. "Yeah, the unit was called to base for a few hours this morning for some reason, sir."

Hound's face scrunches up. "Who gave that order?"

"Colonel McIntyre, I believe, sir."

Well, the name certainly rings a bell, so the story checks out, he decides. "I guess I'll just wait for 'em then. Any idea when they'll be back?"

"No, sir."

Hound groans and rubs the back of his head. "Alright." The marine continues on his way.

Just as he's about to get Doley on the phone - horror of horrors - something happens to him, though.

It's subtle. Like a jolt, or a shiver, that runs from his head, to his feet, to all ten of his chunky black fingers. It's startling more than it's painful, but Hound instinctively knows that something is very, very wrong. A half-second later his suspicions are confirmed when he can no longer move anything but his mouth and newly installed active lenses.

"What in the..."

Has he been immobilized? No... a quick scan tells him that the nearest Bureau agent is fifty meters away. Too far away to land a suitable shot with an immobilizer. Moreover, he's heard nothing, felt nothing, and he hasn't crumpled like a rag doll, either. This is something altogether different.

But then it happens. His worst fear. His legs begin to move of their own accord, and he's walking now.

"No," he gasps. "No, no, no..."

His arms swing in time with his steps, and it's all Hound can do but look on himself in horror. It's the Decepticon sleeper bug, finally activated.

Where is his body taking him? In a moment that becomes apparent: the hardlight generator. Hound scowls deeply, and he'd be balling his fists right now if he could. But instead, all he can do is sit and watch as he crouches in front of it, hands deftly undoing the faceplate of the generator's main control access before diving in.

It's a few minutes of meddling when Hound realizes what he's being made to do, and his expression morphs from malice to horror. "Fight it! C'mon!" he quietly growls at himself, straining against his hijacked body with all his might. But his hands neither listen, nor respond to his pleas. They just keep working at recalibrating the projected holodome from softlight to hard, trapping everyone and everything inside.

"Hey, what're you doing here?" Hound wants to whip around to see who it is, but his sensors tell him enough: it's Agent Nguyen, Doley's second. "You had the weekend off, Autobot, and I don't remember you being cleared to maintenance that thing either."

"Nguyen," he says, trying to keep his voice firm and level. "You and everyone else need to get as far away from me as possible right now? You won't be able to -"

"Are you threatening me?"

The Decepticon still isn't finished, though, and Hound at least goddamn wishes he could turn the hell around to address the man. "No, sir, I'm warning you! Everyone here is in danger! I've been -"

Hound turns around, still in a kneel, and backhands the Bureau agent, knocking him to the ground in a heap. "NO!"

But he's still breathing, Hound quickly realizes. Just unconscious. Thank Primus...

You Autobots are so painfully saccharine, comes a voice from inside his head - it's not a "voice", per se, but definitely not his.

The green mech practically snarls in response. "And you 'Cons are dirty-fighting, spineless, sons a' -"

Would that the shell could have controlled your mouth too, Hound. But we were working on a strict deadline.

The Decepticon pulling his strings finishes, and the holo-generator makes a different sort of noise. The dome is slowly gaining mass and tensile strength, he knows - but to what extent is something Hound can't immediately calculate without more information. All he can see is the already meager morning light dim to an eerie, artificial twilight that the humans would have difficulty seeing in.

"That thing doesn't have enough power to sustain a hardlight for long," he mutters balefully to that voice in his head.

It will be long enough.

Hound's suddenly aware of six marines behind him, pointing assault rifles.

"Stop!"

"I can't!" he shouts back. The Decepticon has him stand up and turn around, and he sees several other people running up from some other part of the site - four more marines and two BREME agents. They're reaching into their coat pockets.

The marines open fire, and Hound's face twists up at the shower of little pinpricks pinging and ricocheting away. The marines quickly realize that they need bigger guns. And the agents brought them... in the form of immobilizers.

You will block them with a hardlight object, the voice in his head demands.

Hound responds with a nasty swear in their native tongue.

Very well then.

The first agent fires, but Hound's hand blocks the small device with his hand. "Augh!" It buries itself deep in his plating, but doesn't do the trick. The other agent is already running to flank him and land a headshot, but the Decepticon uses Hound's other arm to do the same.

The humans are confused and not a little afraid as they are suddenly faced with one of their worst fears - a rampaging Cybertronian without backup or preparation.

"Scramble jets and evacuate everyone!" one of the agents yells. "NOW!"

"A Decepticon is controlling me!" Hound cries as he takes a powerful step toward the cowering marines who foolishly attempt to hold their ground. "The holo has mass, now! Like a wall! You won't be able to get a communication signal out!"

And neither can you.

Hound's CPU stops in its tracks, and he quickly tries to send out a message - a simple distress signal - but something's preventing him from doing so. It feels like his mouth has been welded shut. An ugly, terrifying feeling. No... No, this can't be. The mech's spark flares with rage and despair, and it threatens to boil his fluids. He tries to transform, but being a motor function, that too is curtailed. A pained, primal roar of frustration suddenly escapes him as he begins to cross the dirt toward the earth-moving equipment and the mining tunnel. The voice in his head has no reply for it.

Whoever is controlling him has his emotions reeled way in - so far in that it's disconcerting. There's no gloating, no electronic laughter, nothing. Just silence. Hound wracks his memory for who this might be, but is at a loss and is distracted besides.

Workers and marines alike, already noticing to sudden change in light, are getting out of their vehicles or moving away from their stations to stare up at the dome above their heads, wondering aloud about why it's so opaque now.

Hound stops beside a mobile office trailer, humming away with a generator beside it. He senses two humans inside.

"Please, Primus, don't do this," he murmurs. Begging is his only recourse now.

But the Decepticon ignores him. His strings are tugged, and Hound the puppet grabs the roofing and rips it off with a horrible noise. The pair of small organics start at the sudden destruction and run screaming out the hole where the door had been just as Hound's fist comes smashing down into a laptop and through the desk it sat on.

He listens as they yell at each other to keep running, to find someone with a gun to protect them. Hound's spark trembles and he wishes for a way to offline himself.

"Why are you doing this!" he demands as his hands continue to rip the office apart.

No answer.

His sensors tell him that another band of regrouped marines is approaching, with the three remaining Bureau agents on shift. With them is another turreted Humvee and six MANPADs between them. One of the Bureau agents has a megaphone: it's Doley.

"ETU N12, you are hereby ordered to follow surrender protocol or we will open fire!"

Still no answer from the voice.

Hound's spark sinks - MANPADs and one turret isn't enough to put him in stasis... to put him out of his misery and eliminate him before he kills somebody.

"You're gonna need more than that!" he says, pleading. "You know my file, Doley, I can survive a direct hit equivalent to a ton of TNT! If you stay out of my way, he won't kill you! Hunker down at the edges of the dome! That's your best bet, I'm telling you!"

Doley's face twitches with pure hatred as he stares the Autobot down for a moment. "Fire at will!" he shouts after a moment, and Hound is suddenly swarmed by hot, truly painful blows to the chest and shoulders. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! He's almost knocked to his feet, but the Decepticon controlling him gets his bearings and dodges the remaining missiles from the MANADs, and rushes the Humvee. With a cry, everyone quickly leaps off the vehicle and with a loud crash and groaning of metal, Hound rips the turret from the car and flings it away, where it collides with the inside of the hardline dome and falls to the ground. There are more pinpricks of immobilizers along his backside, but none of them are adequately landed. The Humvee, turned over, has sprung a gas leak and caught fire.

"Get the hell out of here!" he bellows at the scattering humans before continuing his original course toward the excavation. Then, to his Decepticon captor: "Why are you doing this?"

Because your humans have done us the estimable favor of discovering the Nemesis.

His spark ceases spin for a few moments, but his body continues to plod onward toward that great, big hole in the ground.

The Nemesis? The Nemesis?

The last time that ship flew, its manifest consisted of the Decepticon's best World-Breakers, they called them. Mechs powerful enough to blast moons from the sky. To wipe entire cities off the map.

The manifest also listed Megatron.

Hound's CPU is suddenly awash in glitching thoughts and images and memories and projections; but the one thing that he keeps coming back to is Astrid. He's never going to see her again, is he? He's never going to be able to give her his first Christmas present, or take her on the birthday weekend camping trip he was planning.

It occurs to him, as he gets closer to that hole, deep and dark, that Astrid may not have another Christmas or birthday at all. If the World-Breakers wake up today, human civilization won't be here next week.

Hound - Autobot captain and scout, lifelong soldier, veteran of 27 tours - finds himself, for the first time, longing for a bullet to his spark. Because he, of all mechs in the ranks, is going to be the one to usher in the destruction of Earth.

Unless the humans on the outside realize something's gone terribly wrong here, then it's all over.

And there's nothing he can do about it.

I'm sorry Astrid. I'm so sorry.

Chapter Text

"Where you going, sweetheart?"

The one that has her legs in a vice-grip laughs as he wrenches her to her feet with her arms held tightly behind her. The second one comes about and stops in front of her as he takes the trench coat off, revealing a bizarrely human-like silhouette - but he's all silvers and purples with streaks of red.

"Who are you!" she demands, still struggling against the other's Cybertronian strength.

"Rumble and Frenzy at your service," the paler one announces with a flourish and an accent that she can't place. He looks around a little bit, rubbing his chin. "Hey, nice place you two got here. Sure beats a slaggin' cave in the arctic."

"You're here to finish me off, aren't you?" she barks, trying to sound more indignant than scared. "Well it's not gonna happen! Hound's the best -"

The blue mech waves dismissively and looks around some more, heading for the kitchen for some reason. "Yeah, yeah, we know all about that fragged-up "boyfriend" of yours. Been watching you two through his own optics for the past week! Pit, I'm glad that's over."

Astrid can't tell if her blood has run ice cold or is close to boiling over with anger. All she knows is that she jerks suddenly, hoping to free herself. But the other one - red and black - chuckles and holds her tight.

The blue one starts yanking the drawers out of her kitchen cabinets, though, dumping their contents to the floor at his feet.

"What the fuck are you doing!" she yells. "That's my - argh! - my goddamn silverware!"

The silverware crashes to the ground with a shrill clanging. He looks down, kicking the spoons and forks around a little with his big foot, and moves on. He's looking for something and it wasn't there.

"We're here for a little thing you called a beacon," he says, moving to the next drawer, which is, thankfully, full of foil and saran wrap instead.

The beacon? Why? Why do they want that?

"So you're... not here to kill me?"

"Look, flesh-bag, you either shut up, tell us where it is, or Frenzy there will jump off the pier while he's still holdin' onto you."

Once again, they're not here for her per se. She just happens to be a convenient target while... oh no.

Hound's in trouble.

Astrid's mouth goes dry and a shiver passes down her spine. They want to call the Autobots, while making it look like she sent the distress. They're going to set an ambush, using her as bait and maybe Hound... Hound as the weapon.

An odd feeling comes over her right about now. No, settles in her - and it's the same sort of feeling that came over her at the police station when it occurred to her to retaliate against the pretender instead of wait for Hound to deliver all the blows. The same feeling that filled her when she shot that fucker in the face. It's a strange sort of clarity, where things seem to slow down and where she can suddenly hear everything. The trembling stops, and her breaths come steady and powerful.

Inhale. Exhale.

Think.

"He'll come for me," Astrid bluffs. She wants to see their hand.

The saran wrap and foil tumble out of the drawer and onto the ground. He moves onto the junk drawer. "Not this time, sweetheart," he says with a chuckle. "Who do you think sent that fake summons this morning?"

I gotta buy some time. Maybe Hound's sent a distress already and we just need to wait for the cavalry to show up.

"So you gonna tell me where this beacon is or do we gotta ransack this whole damn building?"

"I thought you said to shut up," she mutters.

The one holding her chuckles. "She's right, yannow."

"Alright, you know what? You shut up too Frenzy."

"What'd I do?"

"You're pissing me off is what."

So, wait. Two bickering captors, of seeming questionable intelligence, who need her to find the thing they're looking for. Astrid's pretty sure she's seen this movie before.

One thing's for certain, though. She needs to get out of here - get to her car - with not just the beacon, but the hard hack as well, intact. She realizes that it doesn't look like these two creeps have vehicular modes, and that she might be able to outrun them in her little yellow SUV. She fights the fear-driven urge to use it on one of them: fat lot of good wasting such a precious tool on only one of them would do her. It's hardly an escape plan.

"So how come only one of you is looking? Four optics are better than two."

Rumble turns to her and gives her this look like he's disgusted by her simple-mindedness. "Because somebody's gotta keep you from running off."

"It'll take you all day at this rate."

Rumble throws the junk drawer that he's holding behind him, and its contents go flying. Safety pins, fridge magnets, rubber bands, twist ties, pencils, memo pads, wine corks, screwdrivers, screws...

"Alright, you find it then."

Frenzy suddenly lets her go, and she stumbles forward, clutching her arms.

"You got five minutes or I piledrive your skull in."

Five minutes... alright then...

She hesitates, though.

Think! Think or you're dead, and so is Hound!

Astrid swallows, nodding. "It's upstairs."

"Follow her, Frenzy. And make sure she doesn't use it!"

She walks tentatively toward the spiral staircase and works her way up. But Frenzy has a hard time with the steps - though roughly human-sized, his feet are still the wrong shape for the stairs and he goes slow... or else he trips. Hm.

"Slaggin..." he mutters under his "breath".

Astrid takes this opportunity to rush into the bedroom ahead of the small Decepticon, a plan spontaneously forming in her mind. She leaps across the bed to the small master bath and opens a drawer, hoping that what she's looking for is... yep, there it is. She plucks out the tin of hand salve and obscures it in her palm, rushing out and back to the door-side of the bed just as Frenzy appears in the doorway, fists in the air, ready to take her out.

"What was that, huh?" he shouts, looming over her. He barely fits in the door.

"I was getting you the beacon. Which is what you wanted, right?"

She tries to make it clear with her body language that she's holding something, but make it less clear that she's trying to obscure it. Astrid glances at his visor, gleaming red with indignation, and she wonders for a second how many sensors these little guys have. Definitely fewer than the ones Perceptor listed off at the security meeting, seeing as how they can't actually home in on where the beacon is. Which means that each one of the senses they do have are just that much more precious...

"Well? Where is it then?" he demands.

"It's not where I thought I put it." She eases the tin into her back pocket.

Angry confusion crosses his face. "You lost it."

"I put it away for safe keeping," she corrects, pushing past him, and trying her damnedest to put on an air of fearlessness. "And I guess I hid it away too good."

"Pit, you humans are so dumb," Frenzy growls, following her as she heads into the office.

Astrid jumps when she hears dishes shattering on the tile floor downstairs. Rumble is still rooting around her fucking kitchen! He better not be breaking the Pyrex!

"There's one more place it might be," she mutters, trying to ignore the ransacking downstairs. "Just give me a minute, it's a mess up here..."

Frenzy is menacing in the doorway, his arms folded as she kneels on the floor and opens up the lowest drawer in her desk, the one meant for her hanging files. Behind them, in the back, is a can, and if she can just pry the thin red straw from where its been taped to the metal body and stick it into the nozzle without letting on what she's doing...

"What are you doing?"

"Looking for the beacon! I-I'm sure it's back here somewh -"

"That doesn't look like lookin' to me."

Frenzy is slowly closing the meager distance between them, and is soon in her face. Shit. It's now or never.

Yanking the can out of the back of the drawer, she jabs the end of the straw onto Frenzy's visor and pulls the little plastic trigger.

KSHHWOOOOORT!

Frenzy makes a strange sound that she can only guess is some nasty word in Cybertronian as his face is suddenly covered in globs of thick, sticky, yellow goo. In less than two seconds it's doubled in size, and as he tries to wipe it off, it only smears onto his delicately jointed fingers and continues to grow into puffy globs.

Expanding insulation foam: Astrid hates the stuff.

And so will these two when she's done with them.

She kicks Frenzy away from her with all her might, and succeeds in at least sending him onto his side as he scrambles to tear the stuff off his face - leaving Astrid an opening to dash back into the bedroom and grab her bugout bag, complete with beacon. The hack, though, is in the nightstand drawer: like lightning she grabs it and stuffs it into her coat pocket.

"What's going on up there?!" Rumble bellows from down below.

"She attacked me! I-I can't see!"

Astrid is suddenly acutely aware that she's cornered in the bedroom - unless she wants to jump out the window and hoof it on foot, which she definitely does not - then she needs to get downstairs and out the front door.

"Attacked you?!" If Rumble ever had any patience for anything, then he's lost it now. Another Cybertronian curse tears out of him and she hears metal feet clanging up the stairs. She also hears a high-pitched rev coming from the office. It's more of a whine, but it's angry machinery all the same, and it's time for her to get out of here.

She darts out of the bedroom, breath coming short and quick, just as Frenzy staggers heavily out of the doorway, face almost completely covered in the foam. It's all over his hands, he's smearing it on the door frame as he gropes at it, cracking the wood under his deceptively strong grip, and he snarls with blind rage. "I'm gonna fragging kill you!"

Astrid yelps as he takes a swipe at her, but she ducks out of the way and dashes over to the stairs.

"Not so fast!" Rumble snaps as he surges up to the last few steps, and she's all instinct when she shoves the can in his face and sprays him with some of it too. "What the -!"

She's also all instinct when she, seeing her only exit blocked by another angry Decepticon, leaps over the railing.

Astrid falls onto the couch... sort of. She lands irregularly on the cushions and tumbles, hitting the edge of the coffee table and sending a sharp, searing pain shooting down her side. But all she has time for is a gasp and a wince. In a split second she's on her feet again and making for the hallway when two pairs of heavy metal feet come crashing down onto the concrete floor behind her, hard enough to form cracks. She stops to get a look at her pursuers: they're partially blinded by the foam, but it's obvious they have other, likely inferior, ways of locating her. What else is obvious is that weapons have emerged from their arms, and that they are pointed in her general direction.

"You lousy slaggn' meatsack," Rumble growls, almost sounding hoarse. "You're gonna be pulp by the time we're done with you."

"You want the beacon?" she shouts, suddenly white with fear at the prospect of getting mowed down in the foyer. With lightning speed and trembling hands she reaches into her back pocket and grabs the tin of salve, hurling it with all her strength over their heads. "Then go and get it!" It skitters to the floor with that sort of clanking that only metal can make, and the two of them dive for it faster than she can say syke.

Astrid fumbles for her car keys hanging from a hook in the hall and pries the front door open as fast as she can, beelining for her car.

The frigid air is like ice against her flushed skin, but it doesn't register. All she knows right now is to escape.

A second later she's behind the wheel and tearing out of the parking lot, tires squealing as rubber burns when she takes a hard right out of the driveway. She doesn't look back to see if Rumble or Frenzy are behind her as she heads for one of the main roads that lead out of town: the one that will take her to Denali.

Astrid's running stop signs and speeding through vacant intersections, cutting people off and generally driving like a crazy person. It's a marvel that she doesn't catch the attention of a police cruiser before leaving Anchorage, but she bets that a few people are on their phones to report the yellow SUV breaking every known traffic law in town. Her side also continues to hurt in a way that ought to be indicative of a cracked rib. But that's not even remotely on her list of concerns right now. In fact, there's only one thing on her mind: Find Hound.

F ind Hound.

Though she's pushing 70 on a road with a 45 MPH speed limit by the time she's left city limits, it'll still take her more than twenty minutes to get to the first checkpoint. That is, if she doesn't hit a deer or a patch of black ice that'll send her careening into the nearest tree. So she slows it down a hair, and contemplates what, exactly, is going on.

Or tries to, rather. She's finding it difficult to think.

Decepticons lured him back to the site today under the pretense of last minute drills, and the... thing in him has surely been activated. What that means, she has no idea, but being left alone with the thought for fifteen minutes breaks her adrenaline-fueled hyperfocus and she threatens to pull over to the side of the road, curl up in the back seat, and wait for it to all be over.

But that's a non-option - tempting, but unfathomable. Her loyalty to her giant alien robot boyfriend, to his friends, and to all the good things that Prime listed off during that little speech of his is too strong, too branded into her identity to cut her losses and get the hell out of dodge.

And yet, most of that is still too abstract for her to be really conscious of right now.

Gotta save him, is what winds up keeping her foot on the gas pedal and barreling down that empty highway toward what might be her own end.

Gotta save him.


Astrid drives past the first checkpoint; the guardhouse door is closed to keep the snow out, and she passes by without so much as slowing down. It's that guard's job to simply take note of who's coming up the road and radio the others if he sees something suspicious, but he knows her yellow car.

Her teeth are chattering not from cold but from a second surge of fight or flight chemicals as she plows past the half-mile checkpoint, and she realizes that neither guardhouse seemed to be in any state of alarm. The gates at this one are still wide open, even, and either no one's around or they're all holed up in the little buildings. She scowls and mutters to herself. "The fuck?" What was she expecting, though? A military response? Barricades? Someone telling her to turn back, that there's a warzone ahead?

Though she's halfway to the final checkpoint, visibility is low thanks to the flurries, and she decides to pull off the road, not getting a good feeling about this. She kills her headlights and drives a hundred or so yards into the trees; just far enough to disappear. Then she cuts the engine.

It's deathly silent.

The tiny flakes of snow make no sound as they begin to slowly gather on her windshield, and all she can hear now is her shallow breaths and the blood beating in her ears like a war drum. Her fingers are still clutching the steering wheel, even, and after a few moments she finally lets go in order to reach into her pocket.

The metal tube is ice cold when she runs her shaky fingers over it.

Well, there's one sort of weapon. She'll want the other one too.

Astrid opens the glove compartment and grabs her gun, sucking in a breath as she looks it over, repeating the steps that Hound taught her to make sure the magazine is full and properly loaded. Muscle memory, she thinks. It's almost muscle memory.

She grabs the beacon from her bugout bag, too, and stuffs it into the other pocket, before taking a deep breath and exiting the car. Astrid hisses when her feet hit the fresh powder on the ground because she's not wearing shoes. Quickly and on tip-toes, she comes around to open the back of the car - it's fucking freezing out here - to grab a spare hat, gloves, down jacket, and muddy hiking boots.

As she hurriedly laces up her boots, though, a sound draws her attention, and sends the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end: a faint, droning whine, like idling airplane turbines, and its coming from the direction of the road. Astrid freezes, ears and eyes peeled for whatever it might be, but sees nothing before the sound fades again... almost as if it had passed her.

Too dangerous here, her instincts tell her and a moment later she dashes off into the snow, not even bothering to close the rear door to her car. It would make too loud a noise in the eerie winter silence.

Astrid knows exactly how and where the excavation site is secured and patrolled. Hound once told her that they'd used a tactic similar to Groom Lake: barely-there or outright non-existent security, with the surrounding hills and roads peppered with warning signs and simple chainlink fences to deter by disinterest rather than a show of arms. So once you were inside the gated fence marked by the second checkpoint, you were actually in the clear. The holodome made sure to convince you that nothing of importance was going on out here. And if you got too close, a marine on the inside could just shoot you before you even saw him.

She knows better, though, knowing too where it's going to be safest to get inside. And as she jogs the remaining distance between her and the edge of Hound's bent-light illusion, she's expecting to be able to walk right through it. But that's not going to be the case. Because what she finds instead is a barrier solid enough for snow to gather on... like a glass windshield. The image that had been projected - a small clearing with a single, unassuming outbuilding and a radio antenna that looked real from every possible angle - looks different. She can see the faint outline of the hexagons, which distort the image now, and the snow collecting on top casts a strange shadow that shouldn't be there.

"Shit," she hisses under her breath.

Astrid retreats to the cover of the trees again before heading back toward the road to get a peek at the guardhouse there. A few minutes later, she stops dead in her tracks at the sight of the guard spilling out of the little building on the ground, laying still as stone. A dark puddle has spread out from around him.

"Oh my god..." She covers her mouth with her gloved hand, recoiling from the sight. "Oh god Hound, please tell me you didn't do that... please, please tell me you didn't do that..."

I gotta get in there!

Astrid turns from the scene, trying to put away the horrible images creeping into her mind. But it's hard. Tears sting the corners of her eyes.

She hears that whining again, though, and this time it seems to be closer than before. Collapsing onto her belly with gun in hand, she peers back toward where she'd just come from and sees something that takes her a second to make heads or tails of. It looks to be part-bird, part-drone, with gleaming yellow eyes and a black and red paint job. It's a good six foot from wingtip to wingtip, but they don't flap: it's got some kind of hover mechanism. Either way, that's what's making the whining sound, and that's probably what's done the guards in too. She waits for it to head back down the road, doing its own rounds, before so much as breathing.

"Fuck!" Astrid whimpers, almost choking now on her own words, as she begins to frantically dig at the dirt underneath the bottom lip of the dome. Hound said the hologram terminated at ground level, right? So this should do the trick...

But she gasps, recoiling in surprise when the hardlight simply fills the divot she's dug with more holomatter.

Ground level as in... wherever the dirt happens to be.

Fuck!

Think think think...

Astrid looks around, desperately hoping something comes to her, and it does: in the shape of a tree branch. She nabs it, and, starting over at a different stretch of bent light, digs just shallow enough to snugly wedge the branch into the ground at the edge, so that it's flush with the dirt around it. She pauses to listen for that whining again, but her ears are greeted by silence so she quickly sets to work tearing the cold soil out from underneath the wood now, pushing it under the edge of the dome as she displaces more dirt, until it seems to be doing what she thinks its doing: propping up the bottom of the holomatter.

Swiftly now she digs underneath the branch. It's a long time: three, four minutes, maybe, before she breaks the surface on the other side, and what greets her then sucks the breath from her lungs and the color from her face.

She hears gunfire, and the tearing of metal, and shouting.

"No..."

With another burst of adrenaline she squeezes underneath, scrambling to fit through the tight opening. There's dirt in her hair, on her face, and once she's through, the acrid smell of a chemical fire greets her nose. But it's when she stands up to get a look around that the sheer scale of the horror sets in.

It's dark in there, and only getting darker as snow on the outside and black smoke on the inside continue to blot out the sky. Her heart races as she takes another fearful step in, toward the chaos, straining to see: her office trailer, and the one next door have been all but shredded; vehicles have been upturned; and if she squints, she can make out people running toward the hardlight boundary. Civilians. Wounded marines.

If Hound or Decepticons don't kill them, then the smoke will.

She fumbles for the beacon, and hits the button on the side. The little LED light flashes a few times then goes dark.

What?

Astrid activates it again, but the same thing happens.

"Oh fuck me..." Is it broken?

Her eyes dart around, looking for an answer as she yelps at the sound of metal being torn some ways off. Hound.

No... no, it can't be broken. Maybe the hardlight is blocking the signal somehow. She goes back to the hole and sticks her hand outside before pushing the button again, and this time the light stays on. A weak smile spreads across her face and she leaves the beacon there in the dirt so that it can continue transmitting its SOS.

Now to find him.

She covers ground like someone in an action movie would: knees bent, head low, firearm held tentatively forward but not up. She has no idea if this is proper form. It's not long before she comes across a small group cowering behind somebody's Subaru, though. They're coughing and wheezing.

"Schneider, is that you?" It's one of the vehicle operators, but she doesn't know his name.

A moment later and she's ducked down with them. "What's going on? Where's Hound?!"

"I knew we couldn't trust those fucking things!" someone else bursts.

Astrid scowls. "Where is he!"

"Headed for the gallery," a third says - she's hoarse from yelling. "It's like... it's like he just lost it. Ten minutes. He did all this by himself in ten minutes..."

"Was yellin' about body snatchers or somethin', telling everyone to get out of his way. I don't believe a word of it!"

"It's a coordinated Decepticon attack," Astrid hisses, flinching at the sound of something else going up in flames. "They're using him."

"Decepticons?! It's just him! A-and the Bureau, they said -"

"Nevermind what the Bureau said!" she curtly interrupts. "Look, I know of a way for you to get out, but I don't know if it's any safer. I don't know how many are out there, but I saw a little one... it killed all the guards."

They hesitate.

"It's at my 5 o'clock, near those spare excavator buckets. You can decide if its worth it," she says, standing up again. "But I gotta find the big guy."

"Find him? What, you got an airstrike in your pocket? Because that handgun ain't gonna do the trick!"

"He'll kill you, Astrid."

She swallows, looking out over the flaming ruins of the project site. "He just might," she murmurs. "But I have to try. Good luck, you guys. Stay safe."

With that, she leaves them, heading for the entrance to the excavated gallery, taking cover where she can find it. She passes others taking refuge behind vehicles, some of them smashed up, others left alone, creeping closer and closer until...

Until she sees him.

His metal body gleams in the firelight, tires still muddy from the morning drive. He's pulling what looks like part of a tunnel boring machine out of the gallery, bit by bit, and his face is set in a gut-wrenching expression of anguished defeat. His optics look washed out; not the bright, rich blue that she knows.

She can't believe that her Hound has been reduced to this.

"If you can't put up a fight," she whispers to herself, steeling her nerves and wiping away a tear that's wet her cheek. "Then I'm gonna put one up for you."

With a deep, shaking breath, she takes off toward him.

She's forty feet away when he stops and turns. "I thought I told you to get out of here!" he shouts. Oh god, even his voice threatens to break her. "He's going to -"

But when his optics are finally on her, he - or the Decepticon? - pauses for a moment. "It's me!" she shouts. "Just me."

"Astrid..." Hound's face, streaked with black carbon, twists up into panic and horror. "No. No! Get out of here! Please, Primus! Please, just go!"

"I'm not going to leave you like this!"

He lets go of the machine and takes a step toward her. "There's nothing you can do! Get out and use your beacon! Or take a Bureau agent with you! They'll be able to call in a -"

She reaches for the hack and holds it high up in the air, jaw set and eyes narrowed. "I'm not leaving until I at least try to save you."

Hound hesitates again, his expression moving from anguished to terrified. "A stasis hack? Astrid, there's no way he's going to let you get anywhere near my head to stick me with that!"

"I said that I'm not leaving until I try!"

With that, he bounds for her, all fifteen feet of him. She can't help the shriek of panic that escapes her as she darts out of the way, dropping the gun to the ground when she suddenly finds herself running for her life.

"Run!" he shouts from behind and above her.

He's fast. So terribly fast for something so terribly big. She turns on her heel though, digging her fingers into the cold dirt for purchase as she yanks herself in the opposite direction in the blink of an eye, slipping between his feet and suddenly getting an awful idea. Well, not an idea so much as her body doing the thinking for her now.

Just as he's about to whip around, she grabs a handhold on the side of his leg and hoists herself up onto him.

But Astrid hadn't really considered the fact that climbing him would be slow and arduous on a good day. And as Hound's captor twists around and raises his fist, he blurts out: "Hold on!"

A split-second later, and the world is ripped from her.

A flash of light that forces her eyes shut. A strange squeezing sensation that pushes every molecule of air from her lungs. And now, a distinct floating that turns her stomach so hard that she wants to vomit but can't.

There's another flash of light, but this time she opens her eyes. Astrid screams when it's apparent that she's in the air and falling, with Hound's backside before her. Hack still in hand, she throws her arms around one of his tires to break her fall, scrambling up. There's no time to think about what the fuck just happened, because she's within arm's reach of his head, and...!

"Watch out!"

Hound's betrayed body swings around, trying to figure out how to get at the human now on its back. His arms reach up and around to grab her. She ducks and dodges out of the way, holding on for dear life.

"I'm going to try and get you as close to my head as possible!" he says, frantic.

"What was that!"

"I - argh! - I subspaced you! It's the only thing I can do!"

Again, there's no time to think about what that means, but she immediately catches on. If he can move things in and out of his subspace pocket at will, reappearing them wherever about his person he wants, then he can effectively teleport her out of the Decepticon's reach. Only problem is that -

"Hold on!"

That flash of light, that feeling of immense pressure, that nausea, and now a deep pain in her bones this time...

The problem is that subspace is a vacuum.

The second flash of light signals her to open her eyes and prepare to break her fall again. This time she's reappeared on top of him, and comes crashing down about his shoulders. Her busted rib and injured arm roar with pain as she falls onto his hard plating, but she scrambles to get herself into position anyways. Astrid manages to raise her arm in preparation to plunge the hack into the side of his head when she's torn away a third time.

"Again!"

The aching is severe this time. Everything in her body hurts at the complete and sudden depressurization, and she can almost feel the blood vessels bursting in her skin. The nausea isn't quite as bad this time, which is a relief, but as the seconds tick by, Astrid starts to panic. Her lungs are empty and her body is screaming for air, she hurts everywhere, her exposed skin is icing up, and she's floating in the inky blackness of a dimension that's populated by just a single living creature: her.

But every second that passes brings that number closer to being zero.

It's not long before the pressure, squeezing her both inside and out, becomes unbearable, and it feels like she's literally going to explode. She thrashes, willing her eyes to stay shut, hoping that somehow he might feel her moving around in this strange non-place inside of him, that she might signal that she is going to die in here if he doesn't get her out.

Hound, please!

Maybe he did feel her, because there's one more flash of light, the sudden feeling of down, and she's on him again. She gasps at the pain - it's all she can do without air in her lungs - but Astrid's body knows what it has to do, even as her mind is still reeling.

Quickly, and fighting every screaming nerve in her body, she raises her hand, clicks the button on the end of the little metal tube, and jams it into the back of his head just as one of his hands has her by the leg.

The mech under her freezes, like his components have been suddenly gummed up, and he grunts in what seems like a stab of pain. Everything slows down, though, as she grabs hold of his big green head and drags herself closer to his face. Little pinpricks of electricity travel from his head to her hands. It feels good.

"I love you, big guy," she wheezes, barely audible even to herself.

"I... I love you too." Then: "I'm sorry."

Hound's optics flicker off, and his body sways underneath her. After a moment, gravity takes him down and she goes with him.

Boom.


Astrid doesn't remember hitting the ground, but when she comes-to a few minutes later, she's greeted by blinding pain in every inch of her body and the taste of vomit in her mouth.

Her first waking thought is Hound.

She's right next to him, his huge silhouette black against flames and distant floodlights, and she's close enough to crawl over to his head in the dirt.

He looks dead like this; laying in a splayed heap on his back, optics dark, mouth open. There's no air cycling through his chest, no humming vitals, nothing. As she surveys him, she notes deep dents in his plating, and in some places, outright holes. It makes her heart ache.

"Hound, Hound..."

The human doesn't know why she's cradling his face in her hands, or why there's tears wetting her cheek, or why she expects him to wake up any moment and tell her that he's alright. He's in stasis: some kind of state of existence that's just one step away from being irretrievably gone. Right? He's not... he's not...

She leans over him and presses her cheek to his chest. "The rest of the Autobots are coming, alright big guy? They'll be here in no time."

"Wow," comes a voice from behind her. Astrid goes to whip around, but her joints still feel like such utter shit and moving quickly just makes her dizzy and - "I gotta give you some credit, Schneider. You actually took him down."

Doley.

"Jesus Christ," he balks when their eyes finally meet, eyeing her face. "How'd he do that?"

Without a mirror she can't see that her eyes are completely bloodshot and her skin is covered in splotchy rashes. But, from the way she felt that last time he put her in there, she can take a guess. "Subspace," she says brusquely.

Doley's eyes widen - it's the most emotion that she's ever seen him express before - and he steps in closer. "He put you in subspace?"

Astrid turns away from him with a scowl. She doesn't want to give the man any ideas. "You need to shut down that generator and get people out of here."

"Can't." The man strolls over to Hound's belly and sits on it like he's a piece of fucking furniture. "Your Autobot friends made sure that this place would get blown sky high if it was tampered with by anyone but him."

"Why the hell are you just sitting there?" she spits at him. "There are people here that need to get out before we all suffocate."

He gives her a look, though - one she's gotten to know over the past few months. "What are you waiting for? Your boyfriend here doesn't need to breathe, but you do."

She swallows. Her mouth and throat are bone dry, she notices. "I'm not leaving him until he wakes up."

That's when Doley stands up, though, and his tone changes. "He's not going to wake up."

She stands up too, but it's a struggle, and her legs hurt. "Why -" she begins, pausing to wince and catch her breath. "Why the hell not? What are you talking about?"

"You read the classics in school, didn't you, Schneider?"

Astrid narrows her eyes at him, balling her hands into fists, even though each one of her knuckles aches too. What the fuck is this asshole talking about? "What's that got to do with -"

"You ever read Old Yeller?"

What can only be described as a rage wells up in her battered body. "You wouldn't -!"

Suddenly, there's a gun in his hand. Astrid freezes. "Come on, Schneider. You're really going to take a bullet for him? For an alien?" Doley cocks his head in a pitying sort of way. "If I shoot you, what's that gonna do anyway?"

"If you've ever loved anyone in your miserable goddamn life, you'd know why I'm not leaving him," she spits, trembling with anger.

He lowers the gun and barks a laugh up towards the blackened sky. "Love!" he shouts with bemused disbelief. "You love that thing?"

"You fucking heard me."

"You're in for a world of heartache then, missy," he laughs. "Because as soon as I can get a call through this fucking interference, we're shoving him onto a cargo plane and flying him to headquarters, where he's never going to see the light of day again."

Astrid's heart feels like it's going to cave in on itself as her legs give out from under her and she falls to her knees. "You son of a bitch, Doley," she mutters, choking back more tears. "That's all you care about right now? Getting yours?" Her words twist up into a snarl. "Nevermind that Hound loves this fucking planet more than you do! Nevermind that there's goddamn Decepticons at the door!"

"I don't see any Decepticons around, do you?" he snorts. No wonder he seems to at ease right now. "Most of them are dead, Schneider. As of yesterday, as a matter of fact. And in another hour, when I don't personally phone up the commander at Elmendorf Field, they'll be more than happy to send the 90th fighter squadron to check in on us. I don't think a ragged handful of Decepticons will be willing to go toe-to-toe with a dozen, fully-loaded Raptors."

What a smug, arrogant, insufferable piece of - !

But her rage is temporarily forgotten when a deep, loud, boom shakes her in her bones. She's knocked to her ass, but Doley braces himself against the shockwave and looks around wildly with anger on his face. "What in the..!"

The darkness lifts, suddenly. Well, it flickers for a moment - a split-second of light, another of shadow, spasming until the hardlight dome gives and there's nothing separating them now from the open sky. Both she and Doley stare in awe as the smoke suddenly has somewhere to go, and billows like a column of black up into the snow-laden clouds. They're looking up, though, when they should be looking east.

"What is going on here?!"

It's Jazz.

And Ironhide, Ratchet, Bumblebee, Trailbreaker, Mirage, Cliffjumper, Springer, and Skyfire.

And Prowl.

Something lights up in her - or wells up, maybe - at the sight of the Autobots approaching with business on their cybernetic brains. But Astrid has a hard time getting up off the ground to greet them, even as she uses Hound's shoulder as leverage. Half of them - Ironhide, Springer, Bee, Mirage, and Cliffjumper - break off to secure the perimeter, massive guns in hand and fingers ready to fire at a moment's notice. Skyfire, all ten stories of him, stakes out a spot at the mine's entrance and he waits.

Ratchet, though, looks horrified as he quickly closes in on her. "By Primus, Schneider, what happened to you?"

She goes to steal a glance at Doley, but he's suddenly gone. Where did he go?

Astrid turns back to Ratchet. "Subspace," she mutters, eyes now surveying Hound. Trailbreaker's silently fallen to his knees beside his friend, more emotion on his face now than she imagined he would ever dare show.

Ratchet's mouth falls open at this explanation, but it seems to make sense to him. "She needs to get to a hospital," he declares to Jazz and Prowl, who look on grimly, each fingering their own weapon. "Acute depressurization sickness. It's a miracle she's still conscious, let alone standing."

"No," she blurts with fists clenched. "I'm not leaving him."

Jazz speaks up. "Schneider, this is no place for a -"

"With all due respect, Jazz, I'm not yours to order around."

Neither commanding officer makes any indication that this is something that they wanted to hear... or that it's something they wouldn't honor. Push is coming to shove. "Alright," Jazz relents at length, hiking his seven-foot rifle a little further up his arm. "But I'm not happy about it, and Hound wouldn't be either."

She sets her jaw and looks away.

"Ratchet, how long will it take you to revive him?" Jazz asks.

The medic looks over his comatose patient and something appears on the ground beside him from subspace. "Fifteen, twenty minutes?" He opens it, revealing a kind of field surgery kit.

"You've got ten."

Ratchet and Trailbreaker work on rolling Hound over onto his belly, and then the docbot gets to work.

Prowl and Jazz step away from the scene to scan the skies, and everyone's probably talking to each other over those silent, wireless connections of theirs. The place is eerily quiet, and Astrid can't help but look over her shoulder to see if anyone's tried to escape yet, and to see if she maybe can't catch a glimpse of that terrifying drone-like Decepticon lurking in the trees.

Trailbreaker stands, beginning to pace, and she watches in awe and surprise as his right hand dismantles itself and reforms into the barrel of a gun.

"How much do you know?" she asks him.

"We analyzed those visual feeds again; dug way, way deeper than we did at first, and found it: traces of code that wasn't his," the big black mech says quietly, still slowly pacing and, too, watching the skies. "Perceptor told us what he'd given you, and we knew, as soon as we got that SOS, that Hound had been activated as a sleeper."

Astrid nods, watching as Ratchet buries himself knuckle-deep in the back of Hound's head, cables snaking out and into the side of the kit, which is doubling as a remote terminal.

"Big Bureau mobilization yesterday, too," he adds. "Don't know why, but we can track their movements well enough, and something had their attention up near Yellowknife."

"Decepticons," Ratchet grunts.

"They're here too," she says quickly.

"We know. Caught a whiff of their chatter as we came in, but they're quiet now."

Suddenly they're both frozen, on edge, heads jerked toward the east. Then, she hears it: the roar of a jet engine.

"Not anymore they're not!" Ratchet yells, forgetting about his patient for a minute as he doubles over around her, crushing his massive hands to the sides of her head. Astrid doesn't breathe, doesn't move - she has no idea what's going on - but just as she expects the craft to deafen her with its low, aggressive pass, everything is dampened, like there's cotton in her ears. Peeking past Ratchet's hulking frame, she sees a wall of translucent pink surrounding them all. What the - ?

It's not enough to make the sonic booms painless, though.

BA-BOOM

Her exhausted body clenches up in pain at the sensation, at the sound that tears through her ears. They're ringing when Ratchet removes his hands, rushing back to finish Hound on the double.

"Thundercracker!" Trailbreaker shouts.

Ratchet is moving as fast as he can with Hound, face sharply creased with what resembles worry lines. "Thanks, Captain Obvious. Now keep your trap shut, your shield up, and cover us!"

"Cover's my middle name, docbot."

Astrid can barely hear them, and it feels like her eardrums have disintegrated. She groans. But even that is cut short by the sound of gunfire. Big gunfire, and a lot of it. She freezes, huddled down on the ground by Hound's arm, and her insides suddenly feel cold.

She's in the middle of a warzone, now.

A warzone.

"Hang in there, Schneider!" Ratchet barks.

Meanwhile, her teeth have started to chatter.

"Shields are at ninety percent, Ratch," Trailbreaker informs them, wincing as that pink wall is hit by ordnance. "Make that eighty-five!"

"What's... what's going on?" she asks through the chaos going on outside their small bubble, flinching at another explosion.

"Constructicons! Slaggin' heavy-hittin'... and I don't know where that Seeker went!"

"We're sitting ducks," Ratchet growls with a ragged rev of his internals, still racing to get Hound back online. Astrid wonders how much of this chatter is just a courtesy for humans, and how much of it is coming naturally. The medic curses in Cybertronian - she's beginning to recognize that particular "word" now - which tells her that it's probably more latter than she's giving them credit for. But she still doesn't doubt that there's a lot more chatter going on electronically.

A glinting of metal in the dirt a few feet away catches her attention, and swallowing, she reaches for that familiar weight of cold metal. It's a useless piece of shit right now, but it makes her feel at least a little better having it.

"Seventy-two percent, Ratchet!" Teebs warns, sticking his gun-arm out through the shield and doing some firing for himself.

"Ablating foreign code from node 320098-19..."

"No one here but you is a doctor!"

Astrid finds herself smiling a little at their antics, even in such a dire situation. Maybe it's that kind of attitude that's kept them sane all these years.

"...320098-22... 23..."

Someone screams at a big explosion that rocks the entire forcefield bubble and throws Trailbreaker to the ground. It's her. Gunfire nearby the shield illuminates them inside, and she manages to catch a glimpse of Jazz drop-kicking a much bigger green, silver, and purple mech before shooting them in the chest.

"Down! Long Haul is down!" Teebs announces, but catches himself. "Oh frag me, three Seekers have shown up."

"Almost there..."

But they've suddenly been made the target of an airstrike and the forcefield fizzles. "Augh!"

When it dissolves, Astrid feels exposed. Tiny. Helpless. Because before her, in all its terrible glory, is now a completely unobstructed view of the fight going on around them: Ironhide and Cliffjumper are duking it out with a plane with tank treads three times their size; Jazz and Skyfire are taking on two more now and paying dearly for it; Springer is managing to hold his own against someone gray and green and silver, as the others are doing the same with more of them. Bullets tear through the air, shrapnel whistles past her and Ratchet, and dirt goes flying everywhere. The ringing in her ears begins to drown almost everything out now as the sheer volume of the fighting assaults the delicate sense organs that were never meant to withstand this.

She shrieks when someone throws a car at somebody else and the thing misses her by mere feet.

"Astrid!" Trailbreaker shouts, bent over Hound's prone body. She can barely hear him. "Astrid, get out of here! Take cover!"

Her mouth is open to retort, but nothing comes out. Another breath is sucked from her lungs as something explodes nearby and rocks hit her in the back, tearing holes in her jacket.

"Go!"

She goes.

Knees and ankles and feet ache and burn as she runs, but she goes, legs moving as fast as they'll carry her. A blue and white mech appears out of thin fucking air near her to shoot someone else in the back of the head. One of Skyfire's enormous feet comes crashing down in front of her as he and Jazz are pushed onto the defensive, and she ducks around it. Even if no one is trying to kill her, it's just a matter of time before she got trampled.

Safety comes in the form of an upturned Humvee and a pile of gravel. Astrid huddles behind the lifeless machine, clutching her little gun and repeating the steps for using it in her head over and over and over like a mantra. She breathes deep and slow, trying to calm down, but like hell is that going to happen right now.

What she doesn't expect is to hear Doley's voice.

"You know, I was wondering how they got the idea to show up. How could they know?"

She whips around, heart racing, and meets his gaze. He's clutching his arm, she notices - the fabric of his coat sleeve underneath looks wet.

"You're hurt," she says dumbly.

He ignores her. "You called them, did didn't you?"

When she doesn't answer, he restates his question, firmer this time.

Astrid swallows. "Yeah, I-I did. And we'd all be fucking dead if it wasn't for them."

"You don't understand, do you, Schneider?" She doesn't like his voice. There's something there that she's never heard before, and the way he's taking those slow, predatory steps toward her... "There are agreements in place. Boundaries drawn that they do not cross. They are not supposed to be here right now, no matter who would be dead because of it."

She remains silent as he takes another step closer, flinching when stray bullets tear into the Humvee. Doley doesn't flinch though.

"You committed an act of treason against the United States government by bringing them here."

Her eyes widen and her breath catches in her throat. What?

"Yeah, you heard me. You just aided and abetted an enemy of this country. Not sure about Cybertron, but do you know how we deal with traitors here in America?"

She's a deer in headlights.

"We kill 'em."

Astrid's trapped. Trapped between this crazed man, someone the law doesn't even know exists, and the horrible fight going on beyond the Humvee. She steals a glance around the olive drab bumper just in time to see Jazz get hit in the face so hard that he's knocked to the ground. The sound of the metal fist against his metal cheek is almost like a gunshot.

Hound is still down, and Ratchet is still working away as Trailbreaker fends off a nameless attacker looking to make a couple of easy kills. Things slow down again, and the din of the fight fades into the bland, droning sigh of tinnitus.

And when she turns back to Agent Doley, there's a gun in her face.

His mouth is moving, but she can't hear him. He looks both angry and pleased with himself, like this is something he's wanted to do for a while now. Like he's finally got a good enough excuse to pluck this particular thorn from his side.

Astrid finds herself thinking that, out of all the ways that this could have ended, she never would have guessed that she'd be killed by a fellow human in the Earth's good name. That it would be at the hands of an agent of her own country.

His finger slides into place against the trigger and he narrows his eyes at her, leveling the weapon at her forehead.

She doesn't know if she's scared anymore. If she's in pain. Her mind is empty as she stares at that black hole in the end of the gun where the bullet will come out of, unable to conjure a single thought or feeling. All she knows is that the air is cold and the snowflakes melt as they hit her nose.

His finger squeezes.

Nothing.

Wait, no - not nothing. Something. She's still there, Doley's still there, the snow is still falling and the ground is still shaking from giant metal feet hitting the ground.

Doley frowns, wincing at his arm, and squeezes again.

Still nothing.

He looks down at his weapon, mouth drawn into a tight line as he expertly unloads the magazine and finds it empty. He stares at it for a moment, wordless, before hurling it away and locking his eyes on her before he closes the remaining distance between them with rage etched into his face.

Doley reaches out to snatch her gun from her, but her conscious mind has ceded control and her animal brain is going to put up a fight.

It's a tangle of limbs, clenched teeth, and a battle of wills. He's stronger than her and he's pushing her down to the ground, and she's trying to kick his legs out from under him, but her knees are stiff and she has no leverage. She just succeeds in smearing mud along his pants. She lashes out with a hand that she's just freed from his grip, trying to land a blow somewhere, anywhere that it'll hurt the most. A second later he cries out, staggering, letting her go to clutch at his arm. Her fist is covered in blood.

She holds herself up against the Humvee, watching as this man is suddenly drained of all decorum, all pretense of humanity, and she suddenly finds herself looking at a monster with one thing on its mind: revenge at any cost.

He lunges at her with a snarl, forgetting his wounds, eyes wild with hate and rage, and she feels his hands around her neck, squeezing as hard as they can. The effect is immediate. Her limbs tingle, her head swims, and her vision blurs. She thrashes against him, but he's like a wall now, impenetrable and unmoving. He wants to watch as he wrenches the life from her.

Bang.

Doley's hands loosen and he looks around; confused, maybe, about why that one sounded so close. He lets go, now. Takes a single step away from her.

And it's only when they both notice the bright red peeking out from underneath his coat does she realize that her finger is on the trigger of her gun, and he that there's a bullet in him.

Agent Doley takes one last look at her, perplexed. How in the hell? his expression seems to ask.

Her face replies: I don't know.

His legs give out on him. He topples to the snowy ground, and doesn't get up again.

Everything comes rushing back to her now: the sounds, the smells, the chaos. She can hear the blasts of gunfire, the distant screaming of other civilians, still taking refuge elsewhere at the site, the stinging odor of machine fluids, the noxious fumes of burning diesel. Her aching body comes back, and suddenly, too, the weight of the firearm still in her hand.

She gasps, like she's been underwater this whole time and only just now has been able to reach the surface. She trembles uncontrollably and stares through moistening eyes at what was once a living, breathing, human being, now motionless on the ground. Her thoughts have returned, and they're racing.

But she doesn't move, even as she wants to get up and run, because the terrible truth about what's she's done is beginning to dawn on her:

Astrid Schneider has just committed murder.

Chapter Text

He's online.

Hound knows this because he's aware of an excruciating pain in his chest and CPU; because the smell of charred earth and Cybertronian chassis fluids fill his chemical tracers, his audials are pounded with whip-sharp flurries of gunfire, his comm system is aflame with frantically-parsed data, the ground beneath him is quaking like thunder, and his other dozen sensors are feeding him the unmistakable tells of battle.

The captain's optic feeds are still static, but he doesn't need them to know that Ratchet and Trailbreaker are with him, and that Astrid isn't. Panic rises and he trains his sensors to the ground underneath him. Nothing's there but dirt and a little vomit.

"Wh... where is she?" are the first words out of his mouth. The servos responsible for the motor function of his vocalizer burn and he slurs the question as his optics heave themselves back online. In spite of this, his desperation is palpable and cuts through the air like raw shrapnel.

"Got the hell out of Dodge, captain," the medic cuts in, getting to his feet and replacing his surgeon's tools with a rifle.

Hound wants to go to her. Ferry her to safety and get her out in one piece. He wants to lay her down on a soft bed and stand guard while she sleeps for days. He wants to...

He wants to take her camping, have her use him as a tent so she can snuggle up in her sleeping bag in his back cargo area and he can feel her soft breath on his insides. He wants to go to Moab with her for one of the big Jeep Jamboree events so he can blow everyone else out of the water and have her take all the credit for the green magic mystery vehicle stuffed full of custom "aftermarket" parts. He wants to commission Wheeljack to overhaul his hardlight system so that the can hike the PCT with her like a human - all 4,200 kilometers of it, and all in one go. He wants to road trip with her from Death Valley to Alert, Nunavut. He wants to...

I do love her, don't I?

The green mech doesn't have time to wonder what this means, because Ratchet's firing at someone coming up behind him.

"Hound, buddy, we need ya about now!" Teebs shouts over the din as he and Ratchet wrestle with the much larger 'Con. It's Hook.

For a split second, he wants to sweep the area to see where she is, if she's safe. But he has to trust that she is, because if he doesn't get to his feet right now, there's a good chance she won't make it out of here if she is.

And just like that, something clicks. The pain in his joints, the aching in the holes blown through his armor from the barrages of MANPADs: gone. His sensors recalibrate in a fraction of a second, and he's able to focus on the detail of every sound, every vibration, every piece of flying metal or clod of dirt.

Hound has his wits about him.

And that's bad news if you're a Decepticon.

He plucks a piece of data from the invisible swarm of Cybertronian code flying through the air that tells him how many 'Cons are in the vicinity and who they are: Constructicons, Seekers sans Starscream, triplechangers, and a few other miscellaneous others. They're outnumbered and out-muscled. But there's no time for Hound the Autobot captain to strategize - the skirmish is already well underway, and just as skirmishes go, it'll be fast and violent. This isn't the lethargic exchange of fire between two units who would like nothing more than to throw their guns to the ground and crack open the energon. This is the sort of thing that seals fates. Stakes are high here, and it's going to be all or nothing. Unfortunately, that’s going to mean there are precious few ways to end this for the Decepticons: either they surrender, escape, or die trying. Of course, take too long here – Hound knows their timeframe to be less than an hour – they can expect to all be greeted by a B61 jacketed in stars and stripes.

He's been in these kinds of conditions, though, and without consciously thinking, he jumps to his feet, bright white rifle suddenly in his hand, and gives Hook a swift kick that sends him to the ground, prone.

"Trailbreaker!" he barks, and the black mech knows what to do. Ratchet helps him: quickly, they have the Constructicon restrained in a crushing embrace, and a few moments later, the giant green mech gives a strangled cry before spasming and falling limp. It's an old, ugly trick of theirs: isolating the spark chamber via Tailbreaker's forcefield until the spark fluid is choked off. It's not lethal, but it's a quick, devastating way to incapacitate a soldier if you can get close enough. They drop him like lead and regroup.

With his "mind's eye" he's constructed a map of the situation. Mirage at his 7 o'clock; Jazz, Skyfire, Ironhide, Bee to his 4; Prowl to his -

“Good to have you back, captain,” the black and white calls in that flat voice of his.

Hound looks off to his 2 o’clock, exchanging a wordless breeze of their real native Cybertronian tongue: part body-language, part electronic pheromone, it’s barely a blip on either of their radars but their camaraderie is suddenly reaffirmed.

You’ve got until 1150 to wrap this up, Prime suddenly broadcasts through their heads. May Primus be with you all!

Hound’s chronometer reads 1108, local Earth time.

Hound! Do your thing! Jazz bellows over their shared comm, struggling through a heavily dented helm. Spark fluid is dribbling down the back of his neck from underneath the black plating.

“Can do!”

He flexes not muscles, but electronic infrastructure in his head and body, and suddenly the killing field is strewn with copies of himself. With so many clones, he nearly loses consciousness, spreading himself so thin. But there’s a jerk in his side and Ratchet’s to the rescue: he’s plugged a thick cable from his shoulder to a port underneath one of Hound’s tires, and he’s flooded with both spare energy and cogency.

What the -!

Did he just teleport?

Autobots don’t have teleporters!

Who cares, get ‘em!

The Decepticons are so startled that their own comm chatter leaks out into the open for a few exchanges. It buys the ‘Bots a precious half-second, though. And it’s almost just enough.


They’ve been driving for twenty minutes now, heading north on the 95 freeway with no signs of stopping.

“This is kidnapping,” she says.

“Maybe.”

“No, this is kidnapping.”

Her captor has barely spoken this entire time, leaving Lori – Melinda is her real name – with nothing but the low, muffled growl of a powerful engine and the whining of her dog to listen to. She has no idea what’s going on.

“What happened to those questions you were gonna ask me?”

The Mustang’s RPMs jump, pressing her back into her seat a little.

She wonders if she should maybe keep her mouth shut.

“Plans have changed,” that inhuman voice says in a way that sends the hairs on her neck standing on end. There’s an urgency there that wasn’t before.

The woman scowls, gathering her dog up in her arms and holding him close. “What the hell does that mean?”

The car is silent.

“I’m going to call my lawyer if you don’t -”

“You won’t get a signal here.”

She quickly checks her phone: the car is right. No bars.

“Son of a-!” she yells, kicking the glove compartment futilely. “Where are you taking me!”

There’s a pregnant pause. “Portland.”

Oregon?!

“Portland, Oregon.”

“Like hell you are!”

Melinda starts smashing buttons on the dashboard, the door, tries the handle. When nothing yields, she starts pounding on the window with her fist, trying to wave and yell at the cars that pass by.

The Mustang roars and pulls off the highway with screeching tires, and down a short dirt road to a long abandoned gas station. The door opens as the car turns, sending her tumbling out into the cracked concrete pad, into the dust, dog clutched to her chest. What she sees next is something she’s been waiting the past damn fifteen years to see with her own eyes, something that steals the breath from her lungs and sends her scrambling for something solid against her spine.

The Mustang turns. Like how those shabby romance novels describe werewolves turning. Things become other things. There’s suddenly limbs where there were none before; a torso; feet; fists. Before she knows it, there’s a face glowering above her: harsh blue lights framed by silver white, bent into a grimace of its own.

“We’ve just been attacked, and I’m to keep you safe, understand?” said the machine from its strange mouth. Anger and frustration rake its voice. “Even though I don’t think you deserve it, that’s not my call to make.”

Melinda quivers against the crumbling wall of the gas station. She must be quite the sight, clutching her dog and staring at the giant, metal thing now looming, hunched, above her. Her teeth chatter, and not because it’s cold.

“Y-y-you...”

“I am Chromia,” the robot hisses, its hands balling into fists. “And for the next twenty hours, you are my Primus-slaggin’ charge until I can get you to headquarters.”

Melinda stares, dumbfounded, up at the blue and white giant. She has nothing to say; none of this makes sense in the way she’s used to things making sense. Not even the sort of sense she’s used to constructing out of the stuff of conspiracy theories. So long chasing these things, and suddenly one’s looking her in the face.

The Chromia snarls, rolls its head, and collapses back down to the ground; landing, as it were, in the shape of a blue and white Mustang. The engine roars, and the door flies open impatiently. “Now get in. There’ll be a manhunt for you soon enough.”

Melinda obeys.


Several mechs, familiar with Hound’s abilities, take the opportunity his softlight clones have given them to gain ground. Skyfire bounds over to Blitzwing, and gives the ten-meter mech a rough stomp mid-transformation. He cries out in sheer agony – transformation is a Cybertronian’s most vulnerable moment on a battlefield. Blitzwing’s a tangled mess by the time the great white bomber presses the end of his weapon to that splayed chest. He won’t deliver a killing blow – its not in Skykfire’s nature – but one of their worst opponents has been incapacitated.

“Ironhide, behind you!”

Skywarp has suddenly appeared on the scene: a huge, menacing black figure with wild optics and a murderous grin on his treacherous face. Mid-air, he blasts Ironhide in the head with the thrusters in his feet, and the old veteran grunts in pain, being thrown back by the force. Hound has one of his clones rush him – startling him for long enough to get the Seeker to fire on the massless facsimile before Jazz dives for his knee-joints, knocking him to the hard ground.

Cliffjumper is going at it with Drag Strip and Dead End – the small red fighter overcomes the latter with a sort of practiced ferocity that’s always made Hound a little uneasy, but gets the job done every time. Shimmering silver fluid geysers from Dead End’s inner thigh – another lethally important spark m