Will's choice to let the team know what they were dealing with had been based on the simple fact that they knew about Firebolt. Anyone who was able to hide an artificial intelligence for fifteen years was able to understand the rest, in his opinion.
So while Maxx Racing mulled over the information, discussed the facts and had their private little freak-outs, Lennox was calmly explaining another fact of life to Simmons: Firebolt had been Sector Seven's responsibility. They had lost him. Sam had found him again and his presence was known. Sector Seven didn't exist any more and Project had taken its place. If Banachek agreed with Sam and Will's decision, then Simmons could fume all he want.
"We'll take him and leave!" Simmons had argued angrily.
"And you think we can just do that?"
It had been Hoover Dam all over again, Sam had mused. The same power struggle, the same posturing, only now their respective positions had changed. Will had changed. Simmons might still be an agent of some kind, but Will Lennox was more than a simple Army captain now. Like Sam, he had a position among the ranks of the Autobots that allowed him to issue orders to just about anyone.
Lennox had solved the tension by snapping his cell shut, disconnecting the audio-video connection. Sam grimaced.
"He'll be pissed."
"He always is. I understand his argument about security, but this is more than just a piece of Cybertronian tech in the wrong hands. Firebolt has been part of this team for a very, very long time. They know, Sam. Simmons has to deal with it other than just grabbing the bot and leaving."
"And you wouldn't let him," Sam stated knowingly.
Lennox chuckled. "No, I wouldn't. This is where he lives. We can't just assume control and jurisdiction, even if we could. One day the Cybertronians will move freely among us and this is a first step in getting people to understand what they're dealing with."
The phone rang again and Will checked the caller ID. "Banachek," he told Sam, then flipped it open.
Sam prayed that Tom Banachek would show the same understanding and foresight as he had so often before.
The roads were busy, packed with cars, but not jamming. As usual, the thickest traffic was on Highway 15 and not even the worsening weather could deter the humans from going wherever they had to or wanted to be. As he left the city behind him and navigated north on 40 things evened out. Taking the 131 he went further north and cars dwindled in numbers. The further he got, the less traffic he encountered, and the more he stood out. So Barricade changed his plates to local ones.
When the rain set in and the sky darkened the black Mustang had arrived in St. Michel-des-Saints. Barricade briefly scanned for the signal, then drove down an unmarked dirt road that was by now turning into a muddy lane. The town was soon behind him, already forgotten.
About fifteen minutes later, a silver Solstice took the same road.
"Hey, you have an older brother."
WiFi warbled indignantly
"Don't you want to get to know him?"
An email message appeared on Bowman's screen that told the newly promoted major what WiFi thought of meeting Firebolt in very clear words. The Nokia had no relation to the Formula 1 race car and it wasn't interested in him.
"He isn't unlike you, y'know."
Red optics glowed softly. WiFi twipped.
smiled and rubbed a finger over the wing-like structures on the cell's
back. "You're still unique. All of the Allspark's creations are.
Firebolt isn't even a transforming mech."
WiFi puffed his chest out in pride. He could transform. And he was useful, he added through the Email.
"Yeah, you are. So I can't interest you in visiting Firebolt?"
WiFi warbled, shifting with indecision, then seemed to shrug.
"They'll be back in the States in a few months. Reese and Sideswipe want to accompany them to the base. How about then?"
The Nokia cocked his head, then shrugged again.
"Alright. Until then we got work to do."
WiFi scuttled over to him and climbed up one arm to rest on the major's shoulder. Bowman smiled and went back to his computer work.
With the F1 race over and the team's need to move on to the next grand prix circuit – Indianapolis – Maxx Racing was understandably nervous to get on the road. Since Jazz and Barricade had gone off to check on some kind of signal Barricade had received, Bumblebee, Sideswipe and Ironhide made up the Autobot escort. Epps' unit had split up between the available cars, with Epps himself driving with Will and Ironhide.
"So, whatcha think?" Epps asked as they followed the truck that contained the race car.
"I think we have as much power over him as we have over WiFi. Firebolt's his own person. We can't grab him and lock him up somewhere," Will answered. "We can offer the team help, we can have someone drop by now and then. That's it."
"He's not a raving maniac. He hasn't killed anyone," Epps agreed.
"He's surprisingly stable," Ironhide agreed.
"And he's been with the team for nearly fifteen years," Sam argued quietly over the open comm lines. "A lot of people were in contact with him and no one ever told anyone anything. Fifteen years."
"Time doesn't matter here, kid," Simmons joined in, connected to them through a secure video feed. "The existence of the machine is a danger of the security of Project."
Lennox laughed softly. "Hell, we all are, Simmons. And every day someone who has no clue about the mechs could stumble over one of them. It's only a matter of time. Firebolt's not some machine you can just lock away and forget about. Sector Seven lost him, almost deliberately placed him into the 'wild' and then couldn't find him again. You made the mess and it luckily didn't get more messy than it was back then. Firebolt's been keeping a lower profile than most mechs."
Simmons glared at him.
Banachek, who could be seen on the left side of the split screen, steepled his fingers. "Your risk assessment, Major Lennox?"
Will didn't even react to the old rank. He simply met the calm expression of the other man with an equal calm of his own.
"Leave him where he is. He's no danger. He can't even transform. We can stay in contact, give him an idea who he is, where he came from, and let the team in on what is going on. Wi-Fi has proven that it can be done already. We have a responsibility, sir. We created them, we abandoned them."
Simmons opened his mouth to say something, but shut up at Banachek's look.
"It's risky," the head of Project said.
"So is everything we've done so far. The Autobots could be discovered. I could be seen. Sam might end up in the wrong hands should he have an overload in public. Heck, Tom! Soundwave wanted to kidnap me! Everything's possible, everything's risky."
Banachek looked at Will with serious eyes, his face unreadable. Finally he nodded. "Someone has to supervise this. Would you be willing to do that?"
Lennox shrugged. "If you want me out in the open, sure. If you don't, let Reese stay with them."
Banachek smiled a little. "Sergeant?" he asked, turning to the man in question.
"I got no problem with it," Reese answered. He was riding one of the civilian cars.
"Where are they going after this race?" Banachek asked.
"France, England, Germany… Europe in general. They won't be back on this continent at all until the season is over in October and they come back for testing."
"A long time."
"I'm prepared to stay with them," Reese told the Project leader.
Banachek was silent for a long moment, then nodded once. "I'll get back to you. Keep a low profile."
"Will do," Lennox answered. And it wasn't like Maxx Racing had done anything but keep a low profile.
The video feed went dark. Lennox glanced at Epps who only shrugged.
An hour later the cars arrived in Speedway, home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Will Lennox didn't know what exactly had changed him; it definitely hadn't been the Allspark shard he had absorbed. This time it wasn't connected to that.
That's a first, he mused wryly.
No, it was something else. He had never felt this calm and settled since coming to Montreal. He had never been able to accept his situation more than now. In a way, it had started when he had talked to Firebolt. The mech was different from every single one he had ever met. Even WiFi, who was a baby compared to Firebolt, didn't have this acceptance and belief the race car had.
Firebolt had accepted his fate and he worked with it as best as he could; he even ignored the set-backs and simply struggled on.
The struggle wasn't so much physical as psychological. Firebolt had been born out of violence and fear and terror. He had survived experiments and loss, he had come out stronger.
The hybrid Will had been born out of an accident. Brief pain, confusion and then the knowledge that he was no longer human. Firebolt hadn't existed consciously before the Allspark energy had been forced onto him; Will had been a human individual, with a family and friends and a career. His loss had started right away.
The hours spent talking to Firebolt had cleared a lot of what was on Lennox's mind, more than any chatting with the mechs or humans at the base could ever have. Firebolt understood him better than even his own partner.
Will smiled. Ironhide accepted his need to talk to the newly discovered life form. The mech kept an eye on him, but he wasn't hovering or crowding. Like Sideswipe, for now he guarded without interfering.
Stretching, enjoying the crisp morning air that surrounded the race track at this time of day, Lennox inhaled deeply. At three in the morning there was no one up yet. The mechanics wouldn't come in until maybe six, some earlier, some later, and those who had worked through the night to fix a problem had already gone to bed. He was alone in the night and it felt good.
And, yes, he felt settled. Almost serene. It had taken him this long to accept himself and it had taken a little mech to push him into the final acceptance that nothing could be changed back.
This was him.
With all his powers and abilities.
He shouldn't be scared of what he was, but he should respect what his body could do.
Firebolt had come to terms with his abilities the same way. He had developed from a child-like personality to who he was today, a full member of the team. He wasn't a toy or a tool; he was Firebolt.
Something moved in the darkness and Will turned, eyebrows rising in surprise. It wasn't completely dark since the light of the city around the race track was bright enough for his eyes to pick up a lot more than a mere human. Curse and gift of the hybrid. He knew the shape because he had seen it so often before, but never this defined while so solid.
"Ironhide?" he asked, trying to make sure despite the knowledge that this was the hardlight holoform of his partner.
"Who else did you expect?" the well-known voice wanted to know, the features reflecting amusement.
"Someone with more sense. This is depleting your energy reserves!"
"Ratchet gave me an upgrade a while ago."
Will's brows rose again. "And you didn't tell me why?"
"Surprise," Ironhide rumbled and closed the distance, pulling the hybrid human against the hardlight holoform.
It still felt very solid. More solid than a human should feel. There was a lot more mass, a density that wasn't human cells, and it was all condensed into this six foot something human frame. But Lennox was used to touching a very solid and completely non-human metal being, so this was nothing extraordinary. And they had touched with the featureless holoform, too.
"Color me surprised," he quipped. "This is… very nice."
"I thought as much. Range is limited, but that has its advantages, too."
Lennox chuckled, reading between the lines. Ironhide was still parked around the back.
A hand slipped underneath his long-sleeved tee and trailed across his spine. Will shivered a little as the fingers traced the stationary runes without seeing them. This wasn't new either. Ironhide had touched him before, with his own hands, and later, with the development of the hardlight hologram, with smaller, more human-like hands. Lennox felt no aversion; his body sometimes craved the contact.
"You've changed," Ironhide said, inhumanly blue eyes never leaving Will's face. "Coming here was good for you."
"I guess. Firebolt settled some things for me."
Ironhide nodded. There was a strange expression in his eyes.
"Feedback?" Will teased, knowing the signs.
"Yeah. It's a strange sensation."
Lennox blinked. "Uh… this is hardlight, right? You don't really feel anything…"
"Energy is transmitted. Your energy. I might not have human receptors or my own sensors, but something flows back to me from you."
Lennox felt breath catch, both from the words and the maddening fingers that had taken on a more forward approach to exploration. Ironhide leaned closer, lips against his ear.
"I might not be the most experimental mech and I never jump into a situation without preparation, but I'm willing to make an exception now."
"'Hide?" he stuttered.
"Does this form disturb you?"
"If you prefer the image to be different…"
Lennox moved forward, lips crushing against Ironhide's, and he grabbed the holoform jacket, digging his fingers into the surreal fabric. The holographic lips reacted, so real and still so alien, but familiar and not weird. The kiss, as it was, wasn't one where the angels sang and the clouds lifted for the sun to come out. It was wild and sloppy and the first shared between them. In a way it completed a process, a development, that had taken eight long years to reach this point.
thousand thoughts piled up in Will's mind, but none were concerned with
who he was kissing. He had come to terms with his relationship to an
alien mechanoid years ago. Things wouldn't have worked as they had if
he hadn't. He was more surprised and amused by how real all of this
felt, despite the knowledge that he wasn't kissing a) a human being and
b) Ironhide as such.
When they parted, he felt his nerve endings jitter, his whole body suddenly alive and thrumming. Ironhide regarded him with an amused smirk.
"How far are you willing to go?" the mech asked.
Will gave a little laugh. "I think I already took this far beyond what I would have ever thought it could be."
Ironhide touched his left temple, brushing over what had to be a rune. "It excites you."
Lennox groaned. Treacherous little glyphs! Now they had to be readable!
Ironhide leaned forward. "Me, too."
"Did you surf the net again?" Will managed.
"Research into a culture is never wrong. I learned that from Jazz. Research into a culture's sexual preferences, habits and mating rituals is sometimes enlightening."
"'Hide…" he sighed. Mechs made it sound so… clinical!
"It helped me understand your need for sex."
"I thought we didn't have sex?"
Ironhide suddenly grinned and Will felt blood rush somewhere south. For a moment he panicked, wondered if interfacing in protoform wouldn't be preferable to an experimental mech, then a very primal part of him took over.
They had to get a room. Soon. Now!
Because Ironhide was right. He was excited. He was having a very human reaction to his partner's holographic form, and he had never in his past considered men. But this wasn't about men or women, male or female. This was about Ironhide. And Lennox had the hots for him, plain and simple.
Luckily this particular Autobot had an alt mode that allowed some interesting acrobatics inside – as well as darkened windows and a soundproof interior.
Later, Will Lennox had never been so glad for all of it as he lay panting on the transformed leather seat, his body tingling, oversensitive to even the slightest touch, covered in writing that spoke clearly of what had happened, what he felt and just how much he enjoyed the simple presence of his partner. Ironhide's holoform looked pleased, despite the fact that he had had to shift back to the black, featureless version.
"Drained ya?" Lennox drawled.
The rumble all around him was a soft laugh that reverberated throughout Will's body.
"The feedback was… different. Very intense. Very pleasurable."
Ironhide leaned over him, the alien blue eyes reflecting what he felt. "You had to make a lot of compromises in the past. Our encounters were on my level. This is for you, Will. I enjoy it, too. I think we can broaden that compromise to include your own physical needs and satisfaction."
Lennox was a little stunned. "Yeah, I guess," he finally managed.
Because despite everything, he was still inherently human when it came to physical reactions of this kind.
Lennox sat up, studying the hologram, then smiled as black fingers trailed a string of cosmic glyphs over one bare shoulder.
This was new, but it didn't upset his balance any longer. New wasn't terrifying, just… new. He could work with it, handle it.
"Thank you," he said sincerely.
Ironhide hummed softly around him.
The team was getting ready to fly to Europe and so was Sideswipe. He had moved from being one of the exhibit cars to the 'newly acquired' car of Maxx Racing. Sergeant Reese was 'his driver' and the soldier had cleaned up nicely from military grunt to racing circuit member. His knowledge of the whole 'scene' helped immensely. He had been Lennox's primary and probably only choice. He also hadn't fought much. Actually, he would probably given half a year's salary to go on this mission.
Sideswipe had been talking to Firebolt frequently, fascinated by the young mind and the unusual birth. Like WiFi, who he had met once or twice already, Firebolt was a human creation. He hadn't been given the power of transformation, just something close to the concept of hiding in plain sight. Firebolt was a lot older than WiFi and he had a lot more experience with humans. He wasn't a warrior, had never heard of Decepticons or Cybertron. He was a racer, an adrenaline junkie, and he was protective of his crew. Everyone in the team knew who he was and everyone kept the secret.
Sideswipe in turn answered whatever questions the humans had. Prime had told him to decide for himself how much he revealed. So far no question that had been asked had been too private.
When he had first transformed to show the Maxx Racing team just what they were dealing with there had been more than one gaping mechanic. They had quickly settled into this new situation and while there had been curious glances at his alt mode now and then, it had become a matter of the past now. Sideswipe was no more exciting than their own mechanoid member.
He had been easily accepted.
The contact with the human crew and the Allspark creation had helped to ease his spark a little. It felt good to talk, even if he would never reveal his darkest fear – that his twin brother was dead, killed by Decepticons. It felt good to make friends, to teach them about Cybetronian tech, to mould their allies.
Firebolt in turn had been fascinated by his larger 'brothers', as well as Will Lennox. The human with the Allspark glyphs on his skin had been a source of nerve-ending curiosity, and Firebolt had spent long nights just sitting with Lennox. Whether they had talked or the mech had simply studied the glyphs had been anyone's guess. Will never spoke about their little all-nighters.
Hiding the hybrid human hadn't been as difficult as Lennox had first believed. He spent his time in the trailers that doubled as the team's own sleeping quarters for the engineers, their replacement parts warehouse, and Firebolt's garage when he was being transported somewhere. When no one was around, he took a stroll, hiding as much of him as was possible without arousing suspicion.
"We won't come with you to Europe," Will told the team the night before the scheduled overseas flight.
"Too bad. It's a whole different atmosphere than here," Gillespie told him with a grin. "So you trust us with Firebolt?"
"I always did. You took good care of him; you kept his secret." Will held out a hand. "I'm happy he's in such good hands."
"Don't worry, Lennox. He always will be. Won't let anything happen to the speedster."
Will chuckled. "Sideswipe will be there for a while longer. And you have our number."
Sideswipe rolled aboard the cargo plane that would get him to France,
he reflected that maybe, just maybe, life on Earth might not be so bad.
to be continued in Co-Dependence, coming soon :) The sequel will answer the question as to what Barricade and Jazz are following.