Engendering Difference

Mikaela, meanwhile, felt rotten. Rotten, and embarrassed, and between those two things, she felt confused as well. She felt embarrassed by her outburst, which had come out of nowhere – she certainly hadn't seen it coming. It was just... everything had clicked, while Blaster had been talking, and she hadn't liked what she'd seen and something had just boiled over.

That had passed, but now here she was, hiding out by the bend in the road, where it began curving its way down towards the city, hoping none of her friends found her and feeling like a complete and utter wimp just because of that. This is so completely stupid, she told herself, but that didn't seem to have any effect so far as her legs were concerned.

So she sat there instead and tried to figure out why she'd gone off like she had, and that was where she got confused. Because it wasn't as if anything Ratchet had said about humanity was so new to her – how could it be? But most days, that wasn't enough to bring her claws out – it took idiots like Trent (or worse, Simmons) patronizing her to her face, usually, to do that.

Yet she'd jumped down Sam's throat, and all he'd said was that he could see why the 'bots might want to sidestep humanity's gender relations, even if it meant stepping right into being seen as men. Unlike just about every other smug high school boy she'd ever hung out with, he hadn't just taken for granted that anyone in their right mind should want to be a guy: he'd actually seen the problem the 'bots were having, which meant he'd seen the problem humanity was having. So where was the sense?

She was still puzzling over that when she heard the distinctive sound of a three-ton Autobot trying to be stealthy in robot mode. With a sigh, she called over her shoulder, "You're really not very good at that, you know."

"It's funny, but they never tapped me for reconnaissance whenever I put my name in," Blaster's voice came back.

"Yeah, funny," Mikaela said, and snorted.

"So does this still count as a bad time?" Blaster asked after a few moments' silence. Mikaela closed her eyes, counted to three.

"Is it going to matter if I say 'yes'?" she asked.

"I don't know," the Autobot replied. "What follows if it does?"

Mikaela sighed. "You're not leaving, are you?" she asked, without much hope. There was a low hum, and then a strange, hissing noise, before suddenly, the ground nearby began to fall inward toward a pair of pincers and head. Slidesign crawled forward, blowing dust through his turbine generator and shaking himself. Mikaela coughed a bit, and the symbiont's antennae popped up and swiveled toward her.

"Uh, hey," she managed, startled. Slidesign chirped, his antennae fixing on her a moment, then suddenly, he slithered around behind her, curling about her, and she felt a low, gentle vibration thrum through him as he settled there at her back. She blinked. He's... purring? "Blaster?" she called, uncertainly.

"Kemtex model symbionts were never built to handle speech, other than basic commands," the comm officer said. Mikaela glanced up, puzzled by the apparent non-sequitur and was in time to see him come to a halt just above her on the slope. The Autobot sank down onto his haunches and gestured to Slidesign. "It was a pretty controversial decision, but at the time, it was the only way anyone knew of to prevent a fatal case of schizophrenia between the carrier and the symbiont. They were given a lot of empathetic programming instead – hope you don't mind."

"You're saying he's trying to make me feel better?"

Blaster nodded. "He's pretty good with 'bots – seems to be pretty good at reading your species, too. Or at least, you and Sam." So saying, he fell silent, and she could hear servos whine a bit as he settled just a little further.

For some minutes, neither of them spoke, and Mikaela found herself looking at him sidelong, from underneath her lashes. Crouching there, with his back-beams spread for balance and his head down, intricate internal parts gleamed through the gaps that opened in armor, as plates flexed to let him bend. And then there was all the support structure – her eyes wandered over hinging, hydraulics, high tension cabling and struts – all of it made to hold his weight, keep him in place. Too bad no one seemed to know where to put him...

"What are you?" she asked abruptly.

Slidesign whined softly, as Blaster said, "Cybertronian."

"No, really," Mikaela pressed, "what are you?"

"Cybertronian – not female, not male, not –" eyes flashed sapphire "– human."

"I got that." She tilted her head back, eying him top to toe. "Why don't you want to talk about it?"

"Because with Protocol Two, I don't see how this can end well," Blaster replied. "Mikaela – "

"You're a structure," she stated, cutting him off. He vented.

"Yes, I am," he answered.

"What's that mean? Is it... is it like AIDS or something?" she asked, only half randomly. "What's the big deal?"

This time, Blaster's undertones hummed with a definite offense. "It isn't a pathology," he replied, sharply. "Ratchet explained it."

"Yeah, Ratchet said it was about survival, but let's be serious," Mikaela retorted and gestured at him. "What are the odds that some chauvinist jerk is going to be able to do anything to you even if he thinks you're female? And I highly doubt they'll ever see it that way – I mean, look at you! You're, like, the farthest thing from female."

"And you move around in a bipedal form and work in that mode. Naturally, no one's going to believe you have anything structural about you."

As retorts went, it hit sideways. Her response, then, was only sensible. "What?"

"You can't change forms," Blaster replied in all too reasonable a tone, "and you can't hide easily in another society, granted, but you're in no way specialized for a function that involves your internals in a socially desired productive capacity..." He trailed off and eyed her significantly. "Or are you?"

Mikaela stared up at him, eyes narrowing as she reran that through her mind. "Are we – are you talking about having babies?" she asked finally.

"It's what you do, isn't it?"

"Oh, I'm totally popping them out," she snapped. "Can't you tell? I'm pregnant right now!"

"I wouldn't know, but it's what you do," Blaster insisted, clarifying: "Females of your species – that's how you're made to function."

"Along with a lot of other ways of 'functioning,' thanks!"

Blaster flicked his back-beams. "Look, all I'm saying is: you may not think that anyone could mistake you for a structure, but that's not guaranteed."

"No." Mikaela shook her head, not even tempted to belief. "There's no way!"

"It makes as much sense as you seeing me as a man," Blaster countered, eyes brightening, as he continued, wryly: "Actually, from my perspective, it makes a great deal more sense than you seeing me or any of us as men."

At that, she gave him a rather flat look. "Right. Cute gimmick," she accused.

"It's not a gimmick."

"You really expect me to believe I look like a structure to you?" Mikaela demanded.

"No, most days, you seem like a transport to me. It's just sometimes that you strike me otherwise – or when I think about it. Then you seem like a structure. It's a galactic constant, Mikaela," he said quickly, before she could object. "Everybody understands everyone else on the basis of the difference that structures one's own species. That's why Protocol Two works, because when you open your eyes, you don't think, you just see sexuation whereas we – well, 'see' isn't as much our metaphor, but it'll do – we see modality. Doesn't matter what we're looking at, that's how we see it, and generally speaking, none of us is very sensitive to where others draw a line: so where you see a difference between your sexes, we don't – you all still seem like transports most days. Likewise you see us all as men, and if you hadn't stumbled over my mistake, you wouldn't have realized there might be reason to consider me – or the others – otherwise."

Admittedly, in light of that, it sounded less like a gimmick. Still: "I'm nothing like you," she protested.

"You are very different – which is in part how we got here," he pointed out. Mikaela, however, was not about to let the matter go so easily.

"And you're nothing like us," she continued, pressing the point. "So what's your problem? Who's going to be able to do anything to you, no matter what sex we see you as, other than the army?"

"The army isn't anything to take lightly."

"Yeah, but they won't be coming after you because someone thought you were a girl!" she retorted.

Blaster tipped his head slightly at her, seeming to consider this point. "Why not?" he asked finally.

Taken aback, Mikaela blinked, then frowned. "What do you mean, 'why not'?"

"Just that: why would they not? We've read the news - your species' armed forces are no havens of equality and fairness here or anywhere on this planet. So why wouldn't they?"

To which, Mikaela could but gesture helplessly at Blaster. "Because," she replied, and narrowed her eyes when Blaster glanced down at himself, then over at her, then back at himself, as if attempting to ascertain at what, particularly, she was looking. "Are you being deliberately dense?" she demanded.

"You were pointing..."

"Blaster, you're thirty feet tall!" she burst out. "You're a thousand times heavier than I am. You have machine guns built into you! Even if you could have babies, I really doubt you'd have any problems with the cops, the army, the politicians, or the creep on the corner."

The comm officer gave an odd sounding little rumble at that. "So... it is having babies that makes the difference, then?"

"No! It's not about that, it's about hel– " She was brought up short by the word in her mouth, which she swallowed disgustedly. "No," she repeated, in a more subdued tone. Blaster hummed softly, but did not press her.

"I'm not as well-traveled as 'Bee," he said after a little while. "But since I got out into the field, I've probably learned to speak upwards of... say, thirty different planetary languages," he mused, and gave a little tonal shrug. "Thirty times, being one sex or the other, or even a third – and I couldn't have faked it if I'd had to. Just couldn't see what made you go one way or another with us. Never met anyone else who could have either, save maybe Jazz. Still don't think even he could've made you believe it if you didn't already see him as a her or vice versa."

"For someone who can't see the difference between sexes," Mikaela retorted, "you seem to know pretty well what you don't want to be."

"Thanks to you," Blaster replied. "You talk about your problems enough. We have your statistics ten times over."

Mikaela lowered her eyes then. Behind her, Slidesign whined softly, as if in sympathy or concern. "All right," she said at length. "Fine. So you know about us, thanks to us. But what about you?" She raised her eyes once more to fix upon the comm officer. "Why are we transports to you?"

"I could give you reasons, but – " he gave a tonal flare, like an auditory grimace " – it's hard enough to say for ourselves why a transport feels different from a structure at the end of the day, or why you come off as more transport than structure."

Mikaela eyed him a long moment. "You know what I think?" she asked, balancing her elbows on her knees, hands folded together.


"I think you're so on to the whole 'she'-'he' division in English and other languages because it's something you know. Ratchet said you suppressed something in your language that might invite a comparison," she told him, "but I think probably the first comparison you made told you that we fit your pattern, and that's why you don't advertise – because something happened between you, and structures didn't come out on top. That's why we're transports to you, not structures."

It was, at least in part, a shot in the dark. She really had no reason to suspect, except that explanations or no, she just couldn't believe that alien robots who weighed in the tons made a policy about grammar to hide their differences from weaker species – not unless they had reason to fear already. And what do Cybertronians have to be afraid of, except other Cybertronians? she reasoned.

Blaster said nothing, but behind her, Slidesign gave an odd tch-tch-tch-tch, shifting his legs, all the joints flexing in a way that reminded her of nothing so much as a black widow's articulated limbs. It made her flesh crawl. In response, Blaster clicked gently at him, and the symbiont settled once more.

"You underestimate non-Cybertronian species, which you shouldn't," he admonished. "But I won't say you're wrong – not after the war."

"So it's a post-war rule?"

"You misunderstand: it's more complicated than that," the comm officer warned. "Protocol Two has been with us almost as long as we've been in contact with other species, and it's in place because we've had some... unhappy... experiences with sexed species. Sexed identification is only one dimension of the problems we've encountered, but it's a consistent issue, and one that admits of a legal and linguistic solution. If we can't grasp why you perceive us one way or another, we can at least try to protect ourselves from its worst consequences.

"The war came later than all of that, but – " Blaster shook his head, back-beams dipping " – there isn't one aspect of our lives that it hasn't changed, including adherence to Protocol Two. Once the war grew beyond a simple rebellion, it was obvious that we needed to keep structures from being singled out in any way by alien species – we needed to make certain they weren't especially targeted because their mode was assigned to some less desired sexed position than that to which transports were assigned."

"Because someone had problems with structures during the war?" Mikaela demanded, suspicious.

Blaster gave an odd, negative little harmonic chuff. "You fought at Mission City," he said, instead, unhappily. "I suppose you noticed what happened to the structures on site?"

Images of massive destruction loomed large in her mind's eye at the very mention, and she stared then at Blaster as the realization hit. "You mean...?"

"Most of us died with our cities or our ships," he confirmed, and Slidesign whined softly at him. "We were never made to leave them."

"But you're here," she protested. "You can – you did."

"Yes – and no. Blaster survived and he did leave Nova Cronum – even left Cybertron, like just about everyone. But I haven't always been Blaster."

Mikaela thought about this for some minutes. "Are you... are you, like, amnesiac?" she asked finally.

"Sometimes I wish, but no – I'm a structure. I was made to be a part of someone, with my cohort brothers – we were made to be Vox, the comm cluster for Nova Cronum. We were made to be one – him."

"How," she asked, confused, "can you be part of somebody and that somebody at the same time?"

"Because that is how we were. And now we're otherwise – now, I'm Blaster."

As answers went, that was completely unhelpful. "What are you?" she asked, this time in all perplexity. Blaster laughed a little – sadly, she thought.

"I don't know," he answered, honestly. "I don't fit into your world. I don't even – " and here, his tone grew wry, but there wasn't a drop of humor in it " – fit into my own anymore."

"Try," she urged nevertheless.

But Blaster shook his head. "I can't, Mikaela."

She gave him a skeptical look. "You can't try?"

At that, he simply hummed softly, back-beams fluttering agitatedly in a silence that stretched so long that Mikaela was on the verge of telling him to forget it when suddenly he spoke again.

"We used to think each other's thoughts," he said, and there was an undercurrent in his voice that set her on edge like nails on the chalkboard. "Before the war, we spent most of our days synced up to each other in alt-mode, processing comm flow. We're not true telepaths – we look, we don't see; we see, we don't look. We saw – we heard. We were our labor and each other's lives. We were Vox. We were one – with each other, with our work, perfectly."

Blaster fell silent, and Slidesign chirruped, then crooned, a low, anxious noise. Without warning, his tail snaked out, lightning quick, to coil snugly about his partner's wrist. Mikaela started, but Blaster just gave a soft hum, running his fingers over the 'vertebral' joints, and along the flats of those bladed prongs, and then, unexpectedly, his hand and forearm shifted forms. Mikaela blinked, as the two seemed to fuse, Blaster and Slidesign seeming somehow to lock about each other, like braiding metal. The symbiont whined up at his carrier – as if encouraging him, she thought.

Perhaps he was. Perhaps it worked, too, for Blaster resumed then: "You can't lose that without losing yourself. And what you're left with is... just yourself. And you feel how small that is, and how narrow – and how heavy." His undertones gave a shivery little flare that sounded like pain. "Some structures," he said carefully, "they just... laid that weight down. Went up with their ground and out like lights. Of the ones who didn't – " back-beams flittered uneasily " – every one of us lost his mind when he lost his gestalt."

Blaster halted once more, and Slidesign, sensing his partner's distress, crooned. For her part, Mikaela found herself suddenly and oppressively aware of all the little shifts in Blaster's armature, and their clicks and whirring. They made her twitch in response to the overwhelming sense of unquiet.

"Some of us," the comm officer said at length, "a very few – came back from that, at least a little. But we came back someone else – we came back something else. We didn't think the same. We didn't feel the same. We didn't really know who we were – we couldn't even remember the same way anymore. Some outgraded to transports, to try to make a clean break, to make it bearable – to get some sense back in their lives. Transport shells make some sense, after all – in a war, you'll always have to move at some point, and the quicker, the better."

"How come you didn't?" Mikaela ventured to ask. "Become a transport, I mean."

"Because it doesn't really help. If it did, you wouldn't have so many outgraded structures killing themselves," he said, with an unpleasant little trill. "Outgrading just takes the edge off, but that damage is still there. It's always there – down in you, like a break that doesn't ever close." He lifted his back-beams, let them fall. "You can run from it to another shell if you like, but running from it isn't very structural, and I'd rather not contribute to the complete annihilation of the mode I was made to be."

Mikaela sat there for a few minutes, trying to wrap her head around the life he had described, and its apparent end in Cybertron's warring.

"Why can't you just... I mean, since there are other structures out there, couldn't you sort of...?" She gestured vaguely as she trailed off, but Blaster gave a negative flare of tones, and shook his head.

"We don't work that way," he said. "Having other structures around, outgraded or not, it – it can help you through the days that leave you wanting to die. But just having a group of structures in one place doesn't let us be what we are, or what we were – what we're supposed to be. We have to fit together – we have to work together, and you can't just take a jumble of us from different tasks, different cohorts, and throw us together like that. We don't fit with each other, so we can't merge into a gestalt. If we can't merge, we can't work like we're supposed to. We're just…" Another tonal grimace, as Blaster finished bleakly: "We're broken."

"But they could fix you, right?" Mikaela said, after a moment. "Ratchet or somebody could – "

"No." The denial was short, succinct, and horribly certain, and she winced in response, but Blaster gave a quick, sharp shake of his head. "Don't," he said, flatly, and when she gave him a surprised look, gave urgent explanation: "I've already done a lot of grieving for that, and for the others who don't have the luxury of it – probably have a lot still to come, but that's for me to do. Besides," he said firmly, as back-beams lifted in what seemed a determined fashion, "I've been lucky."

"Lucky?" she repeated, unable to suppress consternation.

"Very," he answered, as he reformed the hand and arm that had seemingly merged with Slidesign's tail, and began extricating himself from his symbiont's grip. "We may all be more transportational these days, but I'm still a structure, despite it all. I've got Slider and a place here now. And two of my brothers are still out there, in fact, even if they are transports now – they're two of the 'bots in my squad, heading for Earth. Not many structures still have brothers from their original cohort." He gave her a rather darkly amused look. "War being what it is, if you survive the first attack, there's always some new and interesting opportunity to get killed. We've beat the odds so far."

Mikaela looked uncomfortably away at that, not much liking that reminder. Barricade was still out there, she thought, and Starscream, and who knew how many others of Megatron's followers? Followers who might not be so willing to give up the fight, or think twice of bringing it to Earth. Blaster, sensing her mood and its origin, gave a soft rumble.

"Welcome to our world," he said, not without sympathy, and Slidesign chittered quietly. She grimaced.

"Some world! And you still think our gender relations look bad," she couldn't quite refrain from saying.

"We're not the only ones to think so," he pointed out. Mikaela closed her eyes a moment.

But it wasn't as if there were any denying that, after all – certainly she couldn't deny it. So with a glum nod, she conceded: "Yeah, I know." A pause, then: "I still think your gender regs suck."

Blaster hummed softly. "I won't argue with you."

For a long while, neither of them spoke, just sat there, watching the shadows lengthen as out over the ocean, the sun sank slowly.

"It's funny," she mused, after a time and more calmly, as she idly traced infinities on Slidesign's casing, "I always did kind of assume you were all 'it', except you can't really say that in English to somebody. So I thought 'he' had to be just what 'Bee picked up on first, and then everybody used it. I didn't think there was any kind of... how'd Ratchet say it?" Mikaela frowned, momentarily at a loss.

"'Difference that matters'?" Blaster supplied.

"Yeah, that. I thought you were all just the same – which is weird in its own way!" she admitted. "But then Sam caught that word, and you said it was a mistake and started explaining, and everything just..." She gestured vaguely skywards. "It felt too much like... us. And I guess," Mikaela sighed, just a little wistfully, "I'd kind of gotten used to thinking that at least somebody didn't have to deal with our mess. I liked thinking that. Although," she added quickly, glancing up at him once more, "I did mean it when I said it's not that bad being a girl. I mean, I wouldn't want to be a guy."

"Fair enough. I never wanted to outgrade to a transport," Blaster replied, wryly. He cocked his head at her, and his eyes brightened a bit then. "You know, I think I owe you one."

"For what?" Mikaela asked, confused.

"For defending my disclosure against what seemed to you to be an unjust and oppressive policy. For 'defending my honor,' as I believe would be the appropriate saying, had our situations been reversed," he answered. At that, Mikaela felt her face heat.

"Some defense," she muttered. "You didn't even need it."

"You didn't know that," Blaster countered. "And you weren't wholly mistaken." At her surprised look, he hummed softly, and said: "If someone had undertaken to destroy structures out of some twisted bigotry, he could hardly have improved on what we did to ourselves in all equality. Structures were never more than thirty percent of all Cybertronians, even at our height. Thanks to the war, I'd guess we're no more than five percent of survivors – that's a loss of roughly ninety percent of our numbers."

The trouble with Cybertronians, Mikaela decided, as she shook her head sharply to try to clear it, was numerical. There were so many numbers to attach to them – number of feet tall, number of years old, number of miles crossed, number of years spent at war, and so on and so forth – and the one thing all such measures had in common was that they were mind-blowingly excessive. This one was no different: try though she might, she couldn't imagine losing ninety percent of all women. She couldn't even imagine very well losing ninety percent of her high school class. Who would be left? Probably Trent, she thought, disgusted.

"I'm sorry," she said, which was pitifully inadequate, but what else did one say to something like that?

"So are we." There was a brief silence, then: "I know your gender relations are poor, but some days," he said, bloody irony the sharp edge to each word, "despite holding on claws and clamps for millennia to being a structure, I swear I'd trade modality for sexuation." Slidesign gave an odd, skittery whine, and Blaster, with a little huff of air, gently ran his fingers along his symbiont's back. "Maybe if we'd had that, if we could make a future for ourselves between just two of us, like you and Sam – maybe the war wouldn't have been so damned relentless!"

Mikaela rubbed at her brow, chewing gently on her lip as she glanced back towards the base, thinking with sudden longing of Sam. Of Sam, who probably was still trying to figure out what had hit him, to say nothing of her, earlier that afternoon, but who at least was flesh and blood and familiar in all his difference. And funny, and friendly, and... she thought, and let that thought run out. Not because there wasn't more – there was a lot more in that 'and' – but some words were better left unsaid, even unthought, until they were truly needed. Sitcoms wore them out for people long before they ever needed them, and left them to be the misers.

But that was all right, she thought. Words mattered less than the reality.

An electronic hum drew her gaze back from the horizon to a more metallic reality, even as Blaster asked, "You okay?"

"Hm? Yeah, I was just thinking," she said, flushing a little, though she smiled, too, as she lowered her eyes a moment. For of a sudden, she was struck by a thought – one so obvious, she was only surprised it'd been absent so long: If they don't 'see' difference between sexes, does that mean they don't 'see' love and sex like we do? Is it all just a future to them? Just more of us? She supposed they must see something more, Blaster's explanation notwithstanding. After all, no one seemed to be expecting her and Sam to reproduce any time soon, despite, as Ratchet had so bluntly and clinically put it, Sam wanting to mate with her. And bad as Marvin Gaye was, there were worse songs to pick when one was an undercover agent clumsily trying to arrange for said 'mating' – it could've been The Bad Touch, after all...

But "something" wasn't necessarily much: 'Bee had been clumsy about it, and Ratchet had been clinical – maybe they really did have a hard time with recognizing and dealing with that kind of feeling. And if they really didn't see what was so evident to human beings... Was there any such thing as romantic love among robots? Was there attraction across their modes? And if there were, would she 'see' it, since she couldn't 'see' modality? Or maybe modality would have nothing to do with it, if it existed – who knew?

She supposed she could ask. Instead, after a long moment, she looked up at Blaster and said, quietly: "Thanks. For telling me all that."

"I'd say 'no problem,' but I somehow feel that's abusing semantics a little much."

She chuckled at that. "No kidding!"

"Well, that's good to hear," Blaster said, apparently referring to her laugh. But then he sobered. "Can I offer you an apology?" he asked. "For Protocol Two – for all of us?"

Mikaela ran her fingers through her hair, habitually twisting a strand of it about her fingers as she considered this request. "I – mm. That's awkward." To the puzzled rumble, she explained: "Look, after what you've said – I get it, now, why you're all so... cagey. Even if I don't think you need to be."

Blaster flicked his back-beams. "We'll take that into consideration."

She gave him a long look at that. "Sure you will. Seriously, Blaster – Protocol Two isn't going anywhere, is it?" It wasn't really a question, and Blaster had the grace not to treat it as such.

"It will take some time," the comm officer admitted. "A long time, by your measures."

"That's what makes the apology awkward." Mikaela sighed. "Look, can we just call it even? Since in the end, we're not changing soon, either...?"

Blaster flared his vents at that, but he also laughed quietly. "Two wrongs cancel – under the circumstances, that is... a generous mathematics," he concluded.

"It sucks," she corrected him. Her only answer was a low rumble – agreement, perhaps, even as Slidesign emitted an emphatic string of clicks, as if hopeful, and hummed, vibrating hard. On impulse, Mikaela scratched gently at his armor, and got a curious-sounding trill. Antennae swiveled, as if to get a better 'look' at her; she gave him a lopsided smile.

"Thanks, Slidesign," she told him, and this time got a definite and cheerful chirp in response.

"Think it might be time to head back?" Blaster tactfully asked.

"Probably so," she said, and rose to her feet, brushing at the dust clinging to the seat of her pants. Slidesign, meanwhile, got his legs under himself, and snaked about her before skittering over to Blaster to pull himself up onto his usual observation perch, clinging to his partner's back. The comm officer clicked softly at him, then held out his hand to Mikaela.

"Thanks," she said again, as she settled into the palm of his hand, letting him lift her into place on the shoulder Slidesign wasn't using. From across the way, the symbiont chittered at her, as if in greeting, and she smiled again at him, though she said nothing as Blaster stood and began walking back towards the cluster of hangars in the distance.

They'd come perhaps halfway in silence when Blaster finally spoke. "You're sure you're all right?" he asked.

"Hm?" Mikaela blinked and shook herself slightly. "Yeah, fine. Why?"

"Because you're pretty quiet. Plus, Slider's getting what I'd call 'pensive' off you. Something still on your mind?"

Mikaela, who was staring at the small figure standing next to Bumblebee on the tarmac's edge, considered a moment before answering: "You know how you said sometimes you wish you could trade modality for sexuation?" And when Blaster's tones flared in an affirmative: "That future isn't always in the bag even so – and it's not all about kids."

"Ah." She gave him a quick look at that, for she thought he seemed ever so slightly amused, but then turned her attention back to the boy and the 'bot who stood waiting for them.

The moment Blaster was within polite range – for a Cybertronian – of 'Bee, Sam was moving, so that when Blaster crouched to let her down from his shoulder, he was already nearly upon the comm officer. Mikaela, who'd slid off his hand while still some five feet in the air, rocked back on her heels a bit as Sam came to a somewhat abrupt halt before her.

For a moment that felt like the longest the world had ever known, time upended, and it was as if nothing had happened since the day she had accepted a ride home from the awkward and obviously smitten boy in his beat-up car.

Then: "So," Sam said and coughed, managing to look somehow guilty and hopeful at the same time. Which was why, perhaps, she found herself blurting out, before he could launch into whatever speech was clearly coming:

"I'm not mad at you, Sam."

"I – you're not?" Sam blinked, expressions shifting to one of almost comic relief when she shook her head. "Seriously?"

Mikaela gave him a close-mouthed smile, shook her head once more. And then, just because Sam still seemed uncertain, and because there were sometimes better ways to say a thing than with words, she stepped forward, laid her hands on his shoulders, and kissed him. It was not the melting sort of invitation that some kisses were, but she took her time – long enough for Sam to kiss back – before she broke it off.

He gave her a dazed half-smile. "Wow," he managed, and so help her, she couldn't quite prevent a giggle. That made him laugh, too, a little self-consciously at first, but then less so as he shook himself, and slipped an arm around her waist.

An electronic rumble drew their eyes upward. The two 'bots, who had retreated one of their own long strides to talk together in muted Cybertronian, had given up the pretense of disinterest and were watching them both now.

"Is that the future with or without children?" Blaster leaned closer in to address his better-traveled colleague.

"I'd say it's a definite... I'm not sure," 'Bee replied, with a flick of his panels.

Sam looked from one 'bot to the other, disbelief warring with suspicion. "That's irony, right, guys? A little irony right there, to break the tension?" he ventured. His girlfriend rolled her eyes.

"Probably not. Later, Sam," she said, then, to his expectant look, and smiled sweetly as she glanced over at the 'bots to add: "But not in the car. We'll find someplace else."

'Bee's panels drooped disappointedly at that, though his eyes brightened noticeably. "I've been feeling the need to practice eavesdropping," he quipped. Casting an eye at the western horizon, alight with sunset orange, he asked, "You want me to take you home now?"

"We can call your grandma, tell her we're going out to dinner so she won't start calling my parents' place," Sam suggested, addressing himself to the privacy problem.

"Sounds good," Mikaela agreed. 'Bee hummed, then stepped away from Blaster and folded down into his Camaro form, opening his doors for the two of them. Sam, phone to ear, was waiting on Grandma Lori to pick up the phone; he absently slid into the driver's side seat. Mikaela was about to do the same on the passenger's side, when a thought struck her and she paused, hovering in 'Bee's door-frame a moment before she turned back towards Blaster.

"Hey," she called up to him, just a little diffidently. The comm officer canted an optical ridge, back-beams lifting slightly in question. "Earlier, you said you'd been female to some species before, right?"

"To several of them, yes," he answered. "Why?"

"I'm wanting to ask you something," she said, "and I'm really not trying to be, like, offensive about you and having sexes..."

"Ask," Blaster replied.

"It's kind of silly, but..." She took a deep breath and blurted it out before she could stop herself: "Since you're not really one or the other, would it bother you if I thought of you as a girl? Not in public," she added hastily, "just for myself."

Blaster laughed – a rumbling laugh that shook his frame and sent a glitter of sunlight flashing off his armor, but as he sank down to squat across from her, the eyes that fixed on her were alight with something other than amusement.

"If you like, not at all," she answered. To which, Mikaela smiled brilliantly.

"Thank you," she replied, and got an odd, emphatic chirrup from Slidesign, who swayed slightly on Blaster's shoulder, as if to affirm his – or her, Mikaela supposed now – approval. She gave her a nod, then waved good-bye to them both before she quickly ducked her head and settled into her seat, letting 'Bee shut his door behind her.

"So," she inquired of her boyfriend, who was staring at her, "dinner?"

"Dinner," he confirmed. Then, a little more timorously, "'Bee, you cool with that?"

"Of course," came the response, as the Autobot pulled away from the tarmac and snaked back towards the road. "And don't worry," he added, "I was kidding about eavesdropping."

At that, Mikaela hung her head, staring down at her hands as she worried at one of the rings she wore. "It's not that we don't trust you," she temporized. "It's – "

"It's just that we did deceive you, so logically... " 'Bee let the conclusion supply itself. "I'll be at the curb."

"Okay," Sam said, nodding, before he glanced sideways at Mikaela. "Thanks, 'Bee."

"No need." Their ride chose that moment to tune in to the local airwaves, and, with Venus ascendant and the dark coming on, he flicked his lights on and paced the white lines down the road. Sam sang tunelessly under his breath on and off; Mikaela said nothing, just watched the glare of the city play off 'Bee's windshield.

Eventually, they pulled into the lot at the local diner that the two teens favored. They disentangled themselves from seat-belts and cracked the doors open; Mikaela grabbed her purse from the floor. They had hardly set foot on the pavement, however, when 'Bee called quietly to them:

"Sam, Mikaela." And when they paused in his door frames: "I'll be online with Ratchet, and maybe also Prime."

Which was unnecessary reassurance at this point; Sam cleared his throat awkwardly, and looked at Mikaela. "Um, listen, 'Bee," she began, striving to sound anything but uncomfortable. Her effort must not have been terribly convincing, for 'Bee continued, by way of explanation:

"Because now that Prime's off shift and away from the bureaucrats, he's going to be getting Ratchet's report, and he'll want a word, I'm sure."

"Oh. Okay." Mikaela nodded, though she found herself confused: why was he mentioning this? "Then we'll, um, let you get on with that." She looked at Sam, who was quick on the pick-up, though his brow, too, was furrowed in puzzlement.

"Yeah, we'll see you in an hour – or whenever you're done. Just, you know." Sam held up his phone by way of illustration, and then, at a loss for more, stuck it back into his pocket and made as if to depart.

"I will. But should you have any questions yourselves in the meantime..." their Autobot friend hastened to finish, and just a little too earnestly to be off-handed about it.

It was probably – no, it was undoubtedly a mistake to think of Bumblebee as "cute" or "innocent," though after a year's acquaintance, it was a surprisingly easy error to make at times. As now – with 'Bee's object finally in plain view, Mikaela glanced at Sam, whose mouth seemed caught between a pucker and a smile and who was, in any case, deferring to her still. She leaned meditatively on 'Bee's door, feeling the give in the hinge and the little recoil as 'Bee unobtrusively 'leaned' back, and after a moment, she nodded.

"We'll call," she assured him.

"I'll be at the curb," he repeated, which felt suddenly far less distant.

So saying, he fell silent, in an instant becoming no more than an outdated Camaro, which left Sam and Mikaela gazing at each other over his roof. Sam lifted a brow.

"Shall we?" he asked, sweeping an arm towards the diner. Mikaela shut her door, and came to join him, lacing her fingers with his. Shoulder brushing shoulder, boyfriend and girlfriend crossed the lot in silence.

'Bee traced their passage on IR sensors, following the little bloom of heat in their wake 'til it and they were lost against the radiance of the diner's glow – dark lights against that brightness that eventually disappeared in it.

So they were 'out,' as the local idiom would have it, even if only to a pair of teenagers, he thought, and fell to musing on the fact. It felt odd, after so many missions and millennia, to think that there were alien others who knew what he was – knew fully what he was, or as fully as they could grasp at this point. It felt – exposed, even though it was Sam and Mikaela, who were in a separate category from the rest of humanity so far as he and the others were concerned. For they were disinterested – they had no stake other than friendship and their personal survival in knowing anything. That was refreshing and something 'Bee had rarely experienced among alien strangers since leaving home.

So all in all, knowing that they knew what he was – what Ironhide, Ratchet, Prime and Blaster respectively were – felt less dangerously exposed than it could have, he decided.

His comm line lit quietly just then, and he recognized the code. Tapped my line already? he accused the comm officer, though without ire.

Just monitoring – I'm on duty, you know. And you turned your radio off five minutes ago, Blaster replied.

Just playing my part out here of four-wheel sideshow steal.

Then Sam and Mikaela...?

Having dinner and discussing our anatomically interesting points, as planned, 'Bee answered blithely. Then more seriously: What did you tell her?

As much of the truth as an hour and English allows, Blaster said, and 'Bee fancied he could hear the air through the other's vents. Planning to talk with them yourself?

If they ask.

Will they?

Probably, he admitted. I told them they could.

There was a brief pause in the messaging, then: You're going to file with Prime, then, for violating Protocol Two?

On our end, the damage is done, 'Bee replied, half argument, half statement. Any further damage can only come from them telling someone else.

Are you worried about that?

Are you?

I've given them our best reason to take Protocol Two seriously. They're thoughtful, Blaster replied, though 'Bee rather thought an undercurrent of anxiety marred conviction.

You should point that out to Prime, he suggested helpfully.

You want me to cite you? Blaster asked, only half mockingly. Then: Do you think this will change anything? Change how they see us?

I'm not sure. We'll find out soon enough, I suppose. Bumblebee paused a moment. Should be interesting, being a modal species to somebody other than ourselves for once, even if through a sexed lens.

As long as we're a modal species, not just another strange instance of sexuation, the comm officer stressed.

You're the one who's going by 'she' now to Mikaela, 'Bee pointed out.

That's different, Blaster objected immediately, seeming just a bit defensive. Bumblebee obligingly let that stand, and after a moment, said:

I doubt we'll ever truly be clear of that lens, personally. How long have we been out in the 'verse, after all, and are they any less modal to you or me despite knowing better?

There was another short space of silence, during which 'Bee idly scanned the area, but found nothing other than the swirling electromagnetic eddies of cars and radio, and a couple of bats making the night echo. Then: Ratchet wants a word, Blaster announced, so I'd best sign off. Do me a favor, though, 'Bee.

Mildly curious, Bumblebee replied: Sure. What favor?

Since we likely can't be free of the lens... if they ask along a certain vector, don't go so far as to mention Ironhide, all right?

And with that, Blaster was gone, leaving 'Bee no time to muster an appropriate response, for Ratchet did, indeed, want a word. Still, he took a moment to laugh quietly to himself before answering, and to shoot Blaster a quick message:

Never fear, my friend – on that issue and its misconceptions, you two can speak for yourselves!

Author's Notes: Title of fic comes from Salt 'n Peppa's 1990 song. This story was originally conceived and published in 2008. Its third act just didn't want to play nice, as many readers noticed, however, so I removed it until I could revise it and find a better resolution. That took a lot longer than I'd imagined it would.

Many, many thanks to Sakon76, who has been instrumental in helping me finally to beat this into its current form; were it not for her, the third chapter could've sat on my hard drive for another year. It has been much improved thanks to her all its remaining flaws are my own.

On Blaster's appearance in this story – I needed someone whose original alt-mode was not a car or any sort of vehicle; he fit the bill. Otherwise, he got, as it were, 'Bayed', including the symbiont translation of being a cassette carrier. Sorry, Blaster-fans!

Finally, Lost One, since I have no e-mail address/PM options for you thank you for your thoughtful comments on the first two chapters. Your questions are dead on target the 'trumping' issue you identified proved in the end to be the most intractably difficult problem for me to address. I don't know if this chapter succeeds in defusing it or at least relativizing that issue in your estimation, but if it doesn't, it's not for lack of trying, just lack of skill at this point!