Title: Property Of

Rating: T (a couple not-nice words)

Summary: During Cybertronian 'peace,' ex-Cons hide the sentience of and sell humans as pets to secure Earth. Sam and Mikaela might just be the first to grasp the reality of the situation alongside their new owner.

Chapter: Healthy Suspicion

Thanks to Pokegirl11 for some early typo spotting. And, while I didn't hear from PyroDea on the last chapter, I'd feel remiss for not throwing in a mention anyway.

Surprise appearance in this chapter…

"How do you get anywhere in society with a name like 'Swindle'? Shouldn't that get you banned from business or something? It's telling you up front not to trust him. I don't get it." Really, he didn't. Miles couldn't see the sense in it. If there had been a kid running around openly calling himself a swindler, Miles knew he wouldn't have gotten involved with him. Why didn't the same hold true for advanced aliens?

Optimus blinked, doing his level best to conceal his brief spark of amusement. "He came into the name during the Great War. In many ways, he was an asset to both factions, although his allegiance was primarily to the Decepticons," he recalled. "He helped both sides, and therefore hurt both sides. Swindle has always been a mech interested in personal gain above all else. During the war, it was negligible because, illegal or not," he gave Prowl a neutral look, "his services were often integral to both sides. He was very… unique in that way.

"He dealt in anything from polishing creams and maintenance tools, to firearms and weaponry, to access codes and information. Did he take advantage of our needs? Of course, and thus the name. Yet there was hardly anything to be done about that, and there were always much more pressing concerns than trying to get an even deal out of him," Prime admitted.

Miles was unconvinced that that should provide enough of an excuse to let a self-proclaimed swindler head up so many trades nowadays, but he kept that opinion to himself.

For that matter, Miles was unconvinced that he needed to be here right now. It was only yesterday that he and Prowl had met with those Seekers, and apparently everyone thought that had gone really well. From what he was told, the ex-Cons had turned out to be very friendly and cooperative. While Prowl had cautioned that it was possible they were maintaining a strong cover, even the strategist had admitted they didn't seem keen on undoing the peace.

Also, at least from preliminary questions, Prowl estimated that they knew very little – if anything at all – about the whereabouts of any of the fugitive Decepticons, the truth behind Earth, or whether there were any plans for insurrection in the works.

Right after Optimus had told them how great of news that was, he informed them that they would be meeting with Swindle – who was the public figurehead to the Earth trades – later that day. When asked, the red and blue mech had explained he was attempting to 'get the ball rolling' as well as provide a little cover for his Earth team (not for the first time, Miles had wondered how his friends were faring planetside).

How he could be of any help in such a meeting, Miles had no idea.

But, there they were.

"I just received word that Swindle is here, making his way upstairs. Until I am certain he is off this level, I regret we must switch to Cybertronian," Prime announced suddenly and apologetically.

Miles shrugged. He hadn't been expecting anything different. Yawning, he leaned back against Prowl, who had been holding him for the last fifteen minutes or so since they had returned for the meeting.

It was barely a minute and a half before someone knocked at the door. Prime, briefly surveying the room, answered it.

As anticipated, a purple and orange mech stood on the other side. The escort, a small blue mech named Jolt, stood quietly behind him.

"You said you needed to speak with me about something?" Swindle asked instead of greeted, smilingly and bordering on jovial.

"Yes, Swindle, thank you for coming. Come in, please," Prime said. He showed Swindle into the small room, thanked Jolt and saw him off, and then closed the door. The businessmech stepped inside and took to studying his surroundings, glancing casually from wall to table to Prowl. He smiled when he caught sight of what it was Prowl was holding. "I'm sure you remember Prowl," Optimus went on kindly, gesturing with a relaxed hand.

Swindle nodded and held his hand out confidently in front of Prowl. He watched intently as the mech shifted the human into a secure one-handed hold and then extended the other, accepting the visitor's greeting. "Of course. I've had my fair share of run-ins with you and your ilk in the past, haven't I? Even without that, you're not exactly an easy mech to forget."

In typical fashion, Prowl did not deign to comment. However, he did tilt his head up in acknowledgment of the fact, and even gave a partial nod of agreement.

"And who is this? I wouldn't have pegged Prime's retired Second as the type of 'bot to partake in this little business of mine," Swindle went on, staring at the blonde human. Then he lifted his gaze and moved his optics back and forth between both mechs despite the fact that he continued to address Prowl. "Considering how adamant Prime is about not accepting a human – even as an on-the-house gift – I would've imagined you held similar attitudes about owning them."

Neither Optimus nor Prowl missed the serious look Swindle sent Miles's way near the end of his sentence, but neither could tell what it meant.

"This is Quirk," said Prowl. "It was never my plan to come into human ownership, but circumstances being what they were surrounding him, it was the logical choice. I would normally not be clingy, but since there was an attempt made at stealing him some orns ago by a mech named Leadfoot, I've taken to normally keeping him in close proximity."

Swindle nodded knowingly (Prowl wondered just how knowingly, although he could not rationalize his sudden suspicion)."I had heard something about that mech being apprehended. A pity he resorted to such things. We were acquaintances, Leadfoot and I. Such a pity." He considered the floor for a moment or two and then looked up at Prowl. "At any rate, I'm pleased to see you had him returned and are taking precautionary measures; you can never be too safe. Always good to see someone who truly cares about his pet."

Again, Prowl gave a half-nod in acknowledgement but said nothing.

Since Optimus seemed to be busy studying Prowl and Prowl seemed to be busy studying Swindle (to the ex-Con's growing discomfort), Swindle was the one who vented tiredly and addressed the room in general, "But, I imagine I was not called here to have a meeting about this human or his brushes with criminals. You have some concern about the trade – or rather, trades, plural?"

It was the first indication he gave of wariness.

As there was nothing to be gained from dodging the issue any longer, Prime nodded and simultaneously gestured at the square table. As the mechs took their seats, he confirmed, "Yes, we're here to talk about the Earth trades – particularly the human business, but there are a few points of interest that pertain to your ventures as a collective." He sat opposite of Swindle, with Prowl on the side to his left.

"Hmm? This wouldn't happen to have anything to do with the fact that some of my sectors think there've been investigations done on them, would it?" Swindle mused, somehow managing to keep the accusing tone out of his voice.

"I imagine it would," Optimus answered honestly. At the same time, he steadily commed Prowl, / Pet Miles. /

/ Sir? / Prowl returned, although he began to carefully run his finger down Miles's back nonetheless. The human was the teeniest bit surprised at first, but quickly relaxed into it. The probable explanation dawned on Prowl right as Optimus began to elaborate.

/ He will be less suspicious the more reassurances we give that nothing is amiss. /

The pleased, almost relieved look Swindle gave Miles was inconspicuous yet damning all the same. His gaze trailed on the sight as he made to turn his focus back to Prime and asked, "If you don't mind me being forward, Prime, what exactly are your concerns?"

Optimus inclined his head gravely. "We know you are breaking regulations. I have had several mechs looking into your records and studying some of the humans more closely after processing. The results are fairly conclusive," he prefaced, watching Swindle carefully. The practiced con-mech hid his unease well, and looked only the slightest bit chagrined at being 'found out' on whatever it was he was about to be called out on. "Your stock is not passively captured, and they are treated for injuries far too quickly to meet health regulations. That they are as injured as they often are after capture is illegal as it is, but the application of chemicals in these amounts after the fact is an even graver offense.

"On top of that," Optimus went on after a brief pause, "there is absolutely no transparency to your record keeping. We understand the desire to keep some trade secrets and statistics to yourself, but you give the impression that you are hiding something. It is part of the reason we decided to look further into this matter. The system you're using right now needs to change. It is unacceptable to continue with such secrecy; it is not allowed by any standard ruling regarding the accessibility of records."

Swindle mulled that over for a moment. "You could have approached us about the records without trying to dig through them," he observed neutrally, still deep in thought.

Whether or not he planned on saying more, Prowl jumped in and pointed out, "You can't expect us to believe you would have been completely honest with us had we approached you right away. We were ensured that information was not falsified this way. Though the methods may be ethically questionable to some, they were legal, and the results speak for themselves."

Sideways-nodding twice, Swindle refocused his optics and turned them to Optimus. "I can see that there's little to be gained from lying, so I won't. The records were intentionally inaccessible, and I admit to telling my employees I did not mind them skirting the passivity clause. The methods used to treat injuries, though, are a little beyond my direct oversight."

"But you ultimately pay for those aspects. Surely they are of concern enough to you that you'd be aware of regulation violations," insisted Prime.

"It's rather cheap to treat most injuries," Swindle argued. He gestured absentmindedly at Miles. "Even en masse, the total expenditure there is miniscule compared to other concerns. Besides, I think you could be underestimating our scientists. If they wanted to produce healing balms for cheap, they can do it. It would be even less of a red flag in my books.

"Still," he waved off the comments he predicted would come, "I won't question your findings. I plead ignorance, but I won't deny the findings and I won't stop you from enforcing the laws."

Optimus blinked calmly. "All of them? We would require an immediate ban on these healing methods, immediate enforcement of the passivity clause, and disclosure of your records – and they must remain disclosed from here on out."

Swindle vented exasperatedly. "Of course, of course. I won't pretend it'll be easy to immediately enact, but I will try my hardest. What repercussions are the trades facing?"

The ex-Autobots exchanged looks. "Consider this a final slap on the wrist," it was Optimus's turn to wave off concerns. "Publicly disclose the failure to comply with the laws. We are willing to give you an orn to set things in order. If you haven't complied by then, or are not well on your way to, then we will discuss more extreme measures."

"Among them a partial takeover of the trades or an independent planetary investigation team. We have already considered the possibility and looked into it," Prowl added.

A flicker of recognition ran over Swindle's face, but he remained silent.

"Is that it, then? Are the specifics all we have left?" asked Swindle.

"I don't really think we need to review those," said Prime. "The specifics are in the regulations. Which, unlike your records thus far, are a matter of public record. Meet them, and we will be squared away."

Swindle shrugged inelegantly. "Fair enough. These are all of your concerns, then?" Although his gaze flickered back and forth between both ex-Autobots, neither it nor his voice had any suspicious inflection.

"For the time being," said Prowl.

Optimus hesitated. He glanced at Miles, then pretended to contemplate instead of turning quickly to Swindle. "Actually," he began, only then lifting his optics, "I must admit I'm increasingly concerned about something." Intrigued yet unreadable, Swindle tilted his head in open inquiry. "The rumors about Starscream and other fugitive Decepticons being somehow connected to Earth are reaching my audios with rising frequency. There is no better mech to ask than you. Do you have any insight into their validity?"

The change was unmistakable. What it signified was a different question altogether. Swindle stiffened and his optics narrowed a fraction. "I'm hearing these rumors with increasing frequency, too. As always," he said slowly, "I have to tell you that I don't know whether there's any truth to them. I haven't stumbled across any rogue Decepticons during my dealings with the planet, and I've never heard any reports about my subordinates running across them. I can't say for certainty that they aren't there, but if they're doing or planning something, it's parallel to my interests, not intertwined with them." He moved his neck as though working a stuck gear. "We're in the same boat. The rumors are starting to concern me as well."

"Understandable," both Optimus and Prowl said in unison.

They spoke for several breems more, regarding the mysteries and rumors surrounding the planet, what Swindle's future plans for the trades might entail, and a series of inquiries that the businessmech had for Prowl about his experience with Quirk and with humans in general (he was interested to hear about Prowl's involvement with the species in Verita Pax). Not much more information could be gleaned.

Eventually there was a knock on the door, and Jolt entered a moment later, claiming he was there to escort Swindle back down.

They all said their farewells and shook hands – "We'll be in compliance by the end of the orn, to the best of my ability," Swindle promised – and then Swindle was gone. Whatever he was off to do was anyone's guess.

/ I was expecting more resistance, / admitted Prowl after a moment.

/ As was I. It could be that he suspected we planned to confront him about something more serious, and was merely relieved we didn't, / Optimus speculated.

/ I think it likely that any suspicions raised when Jazz's team scoured their records will be allayed, at least for some time now. / Prowl regarded the door. / He seemed to take our words at face value. /

Optimus, too, regarded the door. / Yes, he did seem to do that… but it is always difficult to be certain with Swindle. I have never greatly enjoyed that mech; he is far too practiced in deception and far too keen on self-interest. /

/ I agree. /

Right as Optimus was about to respond, he received the message that Swindle had been shown to the elevator. Deeming the coast clear, he changed to spoken as well as English communication. "We continue to operate as we have, if not even more cautiously. We can hardly move ahead while tactically blind; the moment there is word from the Earth team, we can proceed."

"Word on what?" asked Miles, jumping at the chance to join the conversation. "And what's the summary of what just happened?"

"Word on either what the chances of an alliance with human forces are and a report on the state of your planet from a war-tactical perspective, or any information on what it could be that has Swindle and his associates so attached to Earth. The more I consider it, the more I am certain that there is something about Earth – something important – that we do not know, and that made Swindle take the risk of dabbling with a planet with a sentient dominant species." Prime's optics narrowed. "I also grow more concerned by the day that the trades, and certainly Swindle, may not be the root of our involvement there…"

"I discussed with you the rumors that either your planet or your solar system may be the hiding place for some Decepticon fugitives," Prowl reminded rather than asked.

Miles nodded, but hesitantly. "That Starscream guy is the main one, right? That's why you had me check in on those Seeker guys." He frowned confusedly. "But you said they didn't know anything. Didn't you say something along the lines of, they were surprisingly nice and considerate, genuinely didn't seem to know anything, and the one was freaking you out from the way he kept looking at you?"

"Skywarp and Thundercracker indeed seem uninformed in that area, yes," Prowl said, ignoring the lattermost comment. "But the rumors may yet hold merit. That Skywarp – a mech who would know Starscream well – thought it was a fair possibility is disconcerting. The way Swindle reacted to the offhanded question…"

"How did he react?" Miles asked.

"Difficult to gauge," Optimus answered him. "That is the problem with Swindle. He is excellent at his craft. However, I must agree with Prowl. There was a change in him when I brought up Starscream. Though I can't be certain why, it is clear that the rumors are very important to him, at the very least."

They were all silent in thought for several moments. Eventually, Optimus let out a tired huff of air, stretched his joints, and straightened. "This is why we must wait for news from our friends. Once we have an idea of what it is we are truly dealing with, we can act accordingly. As much as I would like to act immediately, blind haste could make the situation much worse for everyone involved."

Absently, Miles nodded. "Yeah, not making it worse would be nice."

Although, to be honest, Miles wasn't sure how much worse it could feasibly get. For a moment, anyway. Then he recalled what Prowl had said about the war, the lingering tensions, the sheer firepower he knew these guys had at their beck and call, what Mr. Seasick had said about euthanizing people way back when… and it wasn't so hard anymore to picture what 'worse' could entail.

He covered his mounting unease by snorting at the one humorous thing he picked out of all that.

It would be Earth that wound up with the super dangerous fugitives or some ultra-rare mineral or turned out to be the best tactical location to start up a rebel base or whatever other ulterior motive there could possibly have been.


Some last minute changes to their trajectory prompted by the appearance of what was either satellite debris or potentially active components resulted in a slightly off-course landing. Originally intending to follow Bumblebee's course exactly, the scout's ship was nowhere to be seen when Ratchet, Ironhide, and Annabelle touched down. Neither, for that matter, were they in a clearing of any sort.

The sounds of the landing had registered as a crash at first: something was breaking, there was havoc being wreaked outside, and once they came to stop, Annabelle announced with sincerity, "That didn't sound good!"

"Great. The first thing we do when we get here is destroy some of the wildlife," grumbled Ironhide, shuttering his optics for a long moment and then shaking his head.

"No, it didn't," Ratchet agreed with Annabelle, "but everything should be fine. I think we broke some of your trees." To Ironhide, "Not ideal, but it was unavoidable. We have a walk ahead of us before we rendezvous with anyone anyway. I don't think anyone needs to know about this."

Briefly, Annabelle looked to be in mourning for the fallen flora. Then she realized what that implied. Her face brightened and the corners of her mouth tilted up. "That means we're here! We're here, we're here, we're here!" She started to bop back and forth in Ironhide's hands (he had insisted on holding her for 'atmospheric entry,' whatever that was) and repeated her announcement over and over again in a sing-song voice.

Both medic and weapons specialist watched her with bemused intrigue until she finished her impromptu performance with a giggling flourish.

"We're here," she said again, this time with finality. "I wanna go out!"

There was no point in wasting time. / Open the door, / Ironhide told Ratchet, needlessly. The medic was already running through the checks and preparing to open the ship. "Just a second, 'Spark."

Literally a second later, the pressure lock hissed and the mechanical locks clicked. Annabelle whipped her head around like a turbo fox. To be fair, the mechs weren't much subtler.

Sunlight was the first thing they noticed. It wasn't that the ship was dark, but rather that Earth was much nearer to its sun than Cybertron and the colonies were to their nearest stars. The tinted atmosphere also helped enhance the effect, effectively blocking out the darkness of space. At almost the same time, there was the flooding of air. This registered more with Ironhide and Ratchet – particularly the latter, with his powerful sensors – because all of the atmospheric nuances were obvious to them; Annabelle's reaction was more primal, involving a deep inhale and a corresponding pleased sigh.

Finally, they all caught sight of the mesh of browns and greens that filled the world beyond.

"Come on, let's go!" Annabelle urged, bouncing insistently now, as though she could make them move that way.

Ironhide chuckled and obliged, standing and fluidly stepping around and out of the doorway.

Earth was softer than any Cybertronian cities' ground, and the plant life was rather crowded in this location – and tall! Ironhide hadn't expected organic organisms of this height, sentient or not. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what was unnerving to him was pleasing to Annabelle.

"Look at all the organic life," Ironhide said quietly, avoiding any potential confused comment from Annabelle by keeping to Cybertronian.

"It is an organic planet after all," Ratchet agreed, glancing around with intent optics. He stepped out after them and closed the ship back up. "I just messaged Jazz. He transmitted the alt mode specs and reissued the coordinates. I'll send you yours…"

A moment later, frame modifications were running through Ironhide's processors, and the familiar urge to alter his frame to fit in took hold of him. "Can I put you down for a second?" he asked Annabelle.

The girl nodded happily, said "Uh huh," and then stepped carefully out of his hands when he crouched. Apparently she was unused to the feeling of the forest floor beneath her feet, because even as Ironhide watched her, her little toes stretched and felt daintily around the various pine needles and twigs on the ground.

Now unburdened, Ironhide turned his attention inward, running through the list of modifications. From the way Ratchet's optics had dimmed, he could tell the medic was doing the same. It would have been more ideal to implement the updates with a transformation, but the density of the trees didn't make an unpracticed transformation sound appealing. Instead, both medic and weapons specialist changed their frames plate by plate, joint by joint, occasionally having what must have looked like miniature seizures and contortions to accommodate component rearrangements.

Less than half an Earth minute later – a stretch of time that could have been boiled down to mere seconds had transformation been possible – both mechs stood completely reformatted for Earthen alt modes.

Annabelle was gaping openly at them.

"What was that?" she demanded. Her eyes narrowed and then she pointed at Ratchet. "You have words on you now!"

Ratchet blinked down at himself. "So I do," he confirmed, noting with amusement that some of the alien words on his paintjob that had barely registered during reconfiguration spelled out the phrase 'search and rescue.' Jazz said he'd thought the alt was apropos. Apropos indeed.

"Now we'll be able to blend in better," Ironhide explained as he bent back down. Annabelle quickly climbed back into his hands, arguing that neither of them looked camouflaged (she mutilated the word, and it came out sounding more like 'cafamolged'). Ironhide countered by explaining that they hadn't adopted their disguises fully yet, and it was hard for inorganic organisms to really blend with organic environments.

Now that the necessities were out of the way, they began to follow Jazz's coordinates and set a path through the trees.

Along the way, Annabelle babbled on about how she didn't used to live in a forest, but then she had, although this didn't look like that forest, and how she liked a lot of animals and hoped they ran across a deer, and how her dad was good with guns but he didn't like hunting very much, and other randomness. Every so often the mechs would interject with a question for clarification, but really, they were content to let her talk herself into tiredness. Which, after forty or so minutes, she did.

They walked quietly for another ten or fifteen minutes.

It gradually came to Ratchet's attention that Ironhide wasn't adapting to the environment very well. Instead of calmly taking in his surroundings to satisfy his curiosity, when the mech looked around he did so roughly, like sensor blips were startling and sudden, without any hint of improvement. Ratchet turned a questioning expression towards him.

"My sensors are driving me crazy. There's too much alien, organic life ringing on them." Ironhide shouldered aside a branch that was proving a hindrance. "Yours must be going crazy."

The medic shrugged, pausing momentarily to let a chipmunk scurry by. "I have been trying to find the balance between muting my sensory input and letting it naturally adjust ever since the ship door opened," he indirectly confirmed. "But it's not like we should have expected anything less. Try and dim them for now, until the base readings adjust at least."

Ironhide acquiesced with a thoughtless nod.

He startled when Annabelle suddenly shot up, as if about to pounce out of his hands, but calmed when he saw she was only lunging at a nearby branch and tearing a leaf off. Once she had the green thing in hand, she settled back down in his palms. Apparently she decided one wasn't enough, though, because she did this several more times, steadily collecting a small pile of leaves. When she was finally satisfied, she lay down and proceeded to place the leaves on her nose, blowing up at them and laughing when they went sailing.

"Why are you doing that, Annabelle?" Ratchet voiced the question both mechs had.

She paused in the middle of placing a leaf on her nose and looked over at him. "Because it's fun," she said simply, like it should be obvious.

"Mm." Despite not understanding in the slightest, Ratchet acknowledged the explanation and moved on.

Twenty minutes later, Ironhide still didn't seem to have gotten control of his sensors or his nerves. The way he carried himself oozed a level of rigidity and uncertainty that normally wasn't there.

"I know that being here is a novel experience and all, but you need to calm down. I have the feeling that you aren't really even trying," Ratchet offhandedly commented, not even bothering to look at Ironhide as he spoke.

"Slag it, I'm trying! It's just so… so…"

"Organic?" offered Ratchet, glancing sideways. "I don't know how many more times you can possibly say that."

Ironhide gave his friend a simmering look. He carefully shifted has hands again to protect Annabelle from yet another branch trying to get in his way. "How are you still so calm about being here? When's the last time you were on a planet like this?"

"It's been a while. But, I don't think standing around slack-jointed or running around crazy because we're impressed by the local wildlife is going to endear us to the natives," Ratchet said smoothly. "And I can't imagine they'll take kindly to you staring at them and uttering something stupid like, 'Your planet is really organic,' the first time you see them."

"As if I would," Ironhide groused. "Besides, I haven't said it that often. And just so you know…!"

"Whatcha talking about?" Annabelle peeped up loudly, twisting around in Ironhide's hand so that she could look at him.

The ex-Autobots blinked at one another.

"We're admiring the forest," Ironhide said after a long moment. Even as he spoke, he had to hesitate in his step because a sleek black creature – a snake – slithered into his path and he had to move to avoid crushing it. The place was, certainly, full of alien life and alien sounds. These singing 'birds' that Annabelle seemed to like were, while apparently harmless, making him uneasy for reasons entirely beyond him.

Annabelle looked around, and then blinked uncomprehendingly between the two mechs. "They're only trees."

"We haven't seen Earth trees before," argued Ratchet. "We do not have trees where we come from."

"Oh, yeah, that's true," Annabelle agreed after a moment. Then she became quiet again, settling back down into Ironhide's hands and blinking up at the forest as they passed.

They walked for another thirty or so minutes before Ironhide let out a tired system's worth of air.

"This is starting to bug me. Our landing couldn't have been thrown off that greatly. We should have come across someone by now!" he exclaimed.

"You know, I have to concur. I would have thought…?"

Even as Ratchet started to explain himself, there was a hurried and pointed series of movements arising in the surrounding brush.

Speak of the Unmaker…

"Suddenly," Ratchet said somewhat dryly, switching to English so as not to offend and also stopping where he was, "I don't think that that's a problem. Something tells me we've been found."

Ironhide only nodded once. He, too, stopped and set to studying the foliage as figures began to come forward: one, then two, then three, and then a fourth. Four humans came from the trees.

To Ironhide's faint interest, they were all armed with appropriately small weapons. He couldn't stop himself from running a rudimentary scan on one of the human's main firearm, but ceased when he noticed the attention was unnerving the weapon bearer.

The comment made Annabelle scramble around and prop herself up with Ironhide's fingers. "Found?" she repeated.

Ratchet, who had been steadily scanning the group that intercepted them, suddenly found himself scanning his companions instead: Ironhide and Annabelle were both studying the four men, the former clearly trying to see if there was any resemblance between these humans and his charge, and the latter simply looking for the familiar face of her father.

"Where's my daddy?" said Annabelle at last, frowning to accentuate her question.

Ah. None of these was her father, the mechs realized.

Silence officially broken, one of the men – the largest of the group, built solidly and strongly and without cranial hair – spoke up. "He's nearby. We were expecting you from a different direction. That's where he's at."

"Sorry to not fit into your plans," Ratchet apologized without easily identifiable intonation. Not wanting to put the humans off, the moment he realized the effect that made he added, "If Jazz had been more specific, we would've altered course."

After a few more seconds of silent appraisal, the same man said, "I don't think there's really any point in asking if you're Ironhide and Ratchet."

The indirect address had Ironhide hesitating, suddenly reminded (although he had never forgotten) that he was here because he was expected to turn over the child hanging over his fingers.

"That would be us," Ratchet confirmed in his stead, simultaneously sending a radio ping to try and get Ironhide to snap out of it. "I'm Ratchet. The idiot who can't seem to get over the fact that he's on Earth is Ironhide." Because his ping only partially got Ironhide out of his stupor, Ratchet leaned over and pushed the mech's shoulder, radioing, / Seriously, snap out of it. You're embarrassing me in front of the aliens, and we haven't even encountered Annabelle's father yet. /

The bald spokesperson nodded and said, "Nice to meet you. I'm Togg. These are Donnelly, Michaels, and Borkowski." The human nodded to each man in turn, and each gave a partial nod at his own name.

Ratchet returned the nods in kind, and Ironhide did the same after a moment.

Togg quickly threw out a couple orders – "Go tell the patrols from here northeast that we're good," he pointed at Borkowski and then off into the woods, then pointed at Donnelly and said, "Cover here until I get back" – then addressed the silent mechs. "Michaels and I'll bring you to Lennox. It'll be at least fifteen more minutes, though."

Without another word, Ratchet and Ironhide were being summoned to follow the humans as they walked off into the woods.

"Lie back down, youngling," Ironhide instructed gently.

Annabelle turned around, eyebrows furrowing. "Why? I'm not tired!"

"Because he said it will be a while longer before we reach your father, and it is safer for you to stay seated when we move," he explained patiently, yet sternly. And, while Annabelle pouted for a minute, she ultimately huddled back down and Ironhide was able to start following the strange human (made all the stranger because neither mech was accustomed to interacting with any of their species beyond Annabelle, Sam, and Mikaela, for the most part).

/ I take it Lennox must be her father, / Ratchet theorized. Apart from the context of the situation, the name 'Togg' had mentioned meant nothing to either mech. He waited a moment before posing that as a question to their guide.

"Yeah. Will Lennox, that's her dad. Guy's been an undercover mess since Annie was taken… don't even get me started on his wife…" breathed Togg, before deciding it wasn't his place to hand out details like that.

The walk was decidedly uneasy. Togg only spared them a few comments and glances, but seemed content to try to ignore them and focus on directions instead. Contrastingly, Michaels – who, unbeknownst to the mechs, had never been in close quarters with a non-disguised Cybertronian – barely looked away. He kept giving them wary and apprehensive looks, shaking his head to himself, and taking calming breaths. Ratchet would've said something about the stress response, but figured that might make things worse.

Inevitability, on the other hand, was what was taking over Ironhide.

This was it. The first group they'd encountered had been a fluke. This time, there was no avoiding it. They were being led directly to Annabelle's father (whom he now had a name for, but found it difficult to wrap his processors around). Needless to say, he wasn't much for conversation at the moment.

Oblivious to everything else, Annabelle was passing the time by tapping out different rhythms on both her legs and Ironhide's hands. Even she, though, subconsciously must have picked up on the tension, because she was very subdued.

/ I certainly hope we end up someplace with fewer trees and more open spaces, / Ratchet commed as he raised his arm to ward off a flurry of branches. / For once, I envy smaller mechs… /

His attempts at lightening the mood while simultaneously complaining fell flat.

Some fifteen minutes – and only one or two spoken comments – later, Togg gestured up ahead. "There. You can probably see 'em through the trees."

They were still some distance away, but both parties could indeed start to make out the other: there were eight humans ahead, all of them growing still once they saw the approaching group. Only a couple relaxed at all when Togg cried something out in greeting.

/ Bee and Jazz aren't there. I wonder why? / Ratchet observed, giving silent voice to the first thing Ironhide had noticed. The absence of their friends was glaring.

Next, Sam and Mikaela registered on both mechs' sensors. Finally, a splash of familiarity on their otherwise overtaxed environmental and bioscanners! It was the familiarity that made them register so quickly when it would have been wiser to focus on the group of strangers that accompanied them instead.

As he and Ratchet approached the newest collection of humans and they were able to make out more and more details, Ironhide felt his systems stiffen. He meant to start scanning again to try and locate the human physically distinct as Annabelle's father, but found that there was absolutely no need.

The man stood out like a bright red mech commanding a drone army.

The human was built firmly, in admirable shape as far as humans went. His hair was short, but very similar to Annabelle's in color – only a few shades darker. The eyes were different – a brownish, greenish color as opposed to Annabelle's misted blue – but still somehow the same. There were several shared facial characteristics between the two, and that was in spite of the fact that Annabelle was still young and her features still developing.

Yet it wasn't anything physical that first gave him away. All of those observations were made after determining that the man was Annabelle's father. It was the demeanor that singled him out.

Body tense, apprehensive. Expression serious. Eyes taking in every detail, both measuring and searching. Inhaling slowly, preparing to act. A being unmistakably with a purpose and expectations.

Then Annabelle, as though sensing she was being searched for (or perhaps only realizing Ironhide had practically stopped walking and so it was okay for her not to sit), crawled up Ironhide's palm and peered out over his fingers. It took her another second to spot the man, but he saw her immediately; Ironhide caught his sharp breath and the snap of attention onto the child.

When the girl began to stand – and certainly when she released an excited shriek – the mech found his undivided attention back on her. He considered requesting that she sit back down or hold on more tightly, because she was now beginning to bounce excitedly in place, which was decidedly unsafe, but he refrained. In part this was because he didn't want the first thing the human saw him doing to be giving his daughter orders, and also partly because he knew it would not be long before he had to put her down anyway.

"Daddy! It's Daddy, Ironhide – my daddy!" she cried out, turning around and smiling up at him ecstatically.

He looked back at the human. Somewhere behind him, he sensed Ratchet going through the same exchange of attention. He knew the other humans were watching them, and he knew Sam and Mikaela were probably giving the lot of them strange looks, and that it should have been more concerning than it was that neither Bumblebee nor Jazz was there to greet them.

But right now, Annabelle and her strange father were the only things he cared to focus on.

Eight people were hard to keep completely calm for a several hour waiting game. Surprisingly, it wasn't the teens that were causing the most problems in that department. When Epps asked how civilian teenagers could be content with simply laying around for hours on end – not sleeping or playing games or anything – they answered with,

"What do you think we were doing for nearly ten months?"

That was the end of that.

It was Graham's men that were starting to get on Lennox's nerves. Graham had offered his team to boost the numbers for fanning out in groups, even though Bee and Jazz were pretty certain the rendezvous would happen around these coordinates. Graham and three of his men had joined this group: Carrera, Johnston, and Morrison. Having only been briefly introduced to the two mechs already at the safe point while both were still in 'car mode', the prospect of meeting two more had them filled with nervous excitement and suspicion.

They were good, reliable men, but they were understandably tentative. Hell, Lennox would've admitted to anyone who asked that he was uncertain, too. That didn't change the fact that it made control more troublesome than normal.

"Jazz estimated they'd be here by now," Lennox observed as his watch continued to tick. Noon had come and gone, and it was getting on towards one o'clock.

"No one's perfect," Epps said wryly and with a roll of his eyes. "Johnston said he thought he saw something on the way out here. That was probably them coming in. I'm sure they're on their way right now, Annie safe with them. They'll be here."

Lennox nodded, but continued to stare out into the trees, waiting for the first sign that there was a mech navigating the forest. For what felt the hundredth time in the last fifteen or so hours, he wondered what had happened during the recently dubbed Highway Sojourn. Epps had insisted it was entirely uneventful – just two walks filled with pointless conversation sandwiching a search of abandoned cars up and down the 108. Yet, somehow, Jazz had come back in a state of triumph, proclaiming that he'd gotten a promise out of Epps that the man would go riding with him some time.

Apparently Epps had sworn the mech to secrecy about the circumstances that brought about that promise, and Epps wasn't telling anyone any time soon. From the way Epps had exclaimed, "Oh, come on, man, I told you not to say anything about that!" when Jazz made his announcement, Lennox also gathered that the promise itself was supposed to have been a secret.

Add that to the way Epps had joked loosely with the silver mech for the rest of that night, and Lennox knew he had something he should probably be keeping his eye on.

While they continued to pace about, Lennox got to wondering how Pierce and Howard (the man had not so much volunteered as he had insisted that he be in on this) were handling things back at the warehouse. Lennox and Epps had both agreed that they didn't want either mech there to potentially make the situation even more stressful. Sam and Mikaela had, of course, protested, but they were easily overruled in the end. In retrospect, Will thought that maybe they should have brought at least one of them along, even if only in disguise. That way they would have radio contact with these unknowns that he knew were currently somewhere in their territory.

The latter was a thought that went against every instinct he had, which clashed wonderfully with his parental instincts, the likes of which almost made him want to go running through the woods to find where they were – screw the idea of sitting back and letting them come to him when his daughter was at stake!

God, what a thought! Pacing again – and once more earning the concerned looks of both Epps and Graham – Lennox tried to hold onto the idea while wrestling it into submission. Annabelle. She was somewhere in these woods. Accompanied by two mechs, yes, but still on Earth. Within a one mile radius? Five miles? He didn't know. It was still the closest he'd been to his daughter in over a year.

Soon, he told himself. He didn't need to run off and start freaking out, scouring the forest for her. They'd show up sooner or later…

Luckily for everyone, it was sooner rather than later.

Carrera was the one to point hesitantly to the side about five minutes after Lennox had that thought. "Uh, sirs…?"

Everyone snapped to alertness. Lennox stepped quickly up to the man and followed his pointing. In the distance, heavily obscured by trees, there was something moving. More than one something, it looked like, but it was the large yellowish something that stood out from the branches and foliage.

"Ratchet," Sam muttered. "Gotta be. It's practically the same color."

A few more seconds elapsed and the distance shrunk, and it became evident that there was a second large form – this one black, much more in line with the shaded forest – as well as a couple people rustling through leaves. They could hear heavy branches being pushed aside and walked through.

"It's us. They came a bit more easterly than we expected," Togg's voice shouted out, both confirming that this wasn't some surprise attack and explaining why they were approaching from the direction they were.

That was all well and good, but Lennox was already lost. All it took was the clear view of black armor to jar his memory, drawing up the projection of a well-armed mech displayed side by side with the image of Annabelle, and the rest of the world drowned away.

The black mech was no longer exactly like the picture Lennox had been shown, but it was obvious that it was the same being. Lennox found himself looking over the approaching behemoth from head to foot, the obscuring greenery be damned. As he did so, he found that he could finally make out the glowing blue dots that made the mech's eyes, and noticed that they were fastened on him in an equivalent examination.

Unlike the projection's unforgivingly alien components, there was at least a sense of familiarity from the mech's current body. Clearly, the vehicular disguise had already been incorporated. Yet, even with the underlying sense of 'earthiness,' there were too many things Lennox couldn't get past: the gruffness hadn't changed, and neither had the sheer size of the mech, and, for that matter, that same set of cannons that were way larger than he was remained exactly in place. It was definitely unnerving, and maybe even a little frightening, but none of it compared to the strength of his desire to make sure that the teenagers were right. If that mech had Annabelle, then Lennox didn't care how much firepower it was packing.

But where was Annabelle? Sam and Mikaela had been leading Bumblebee when they crossed paths. Annabelle wasn't anywhere to be seen. Lennox was sure he couldn't have missed anything; he'd studied the mech up and down and had accounted for everyone in the approaching party except for Annabelle.

It dawned on Will that the black mech's hands weren't simply placed in front of him, they were cupped. Was it possible…?

And then, the answer to his unspoken question, a small face poked up from below the curve of the mech's fingers.

She was unmistakable, and Will felt his heart skip multiple beats at the sight of his daughter.

Annabelle looked healthy enough, her eyes wide and searching and her face unstressed, her tiny fingers dwarfed by the digits she was grasping to hold herself up. When she caught sight of him – for one glorious moment, their eyes met and he could assure himself that she was still in there, that she was still the same, that she hadn't completely changed since he last saw her – she gave a happy squeal and started to bounce.

The sound and the motion had the great black mech glancing down at her in concern. From the ground, Lennox worried briefly that she might fall.

"Daddy! It's Daddy, Ironhide – my daddy!" she exclaimed, glancing up at the robot excitedly – no, don't look away! – and pointing back at him, as though the mech couldn't figure out who he was.

The mech's attention was back on him. Lennox felt it rather than saw it, because he was staring at Annabelle.

"It's recognizable," the mech answered. His voice was as gravelly as Lennox might've guessed, but the thing that caught his ears was the light giggling that Annabelle fell into for some reason at the comment.

Will was moving forward before he knew it, barely aware that he was no longer standing next to Carrera and completely oblivious to the strange look Epps was giving him. He couldn't tell if the other group had stopped moving yet or not, because everything had melted away, and he just wanted to have Annie back again…

On the peripheral of his senses, he saw the massive mech crouch down. He only really noticed what had happened when he saw Annabelle's bare feet touch the ground.

Next thing he knew he was pelting forward.

They met somewhere in the middle, her happy frolicking meeting his desperate running, and he dropped down and scooped her into his arms in one fluid motion. He wrapped an arm around her, hugged her to him, ran a hand through her hair, pressed his face in her shoulder, gave her several frantic kisses to the cheek and top of her head.

"Daddy," she breathed happily, in turn wrapping her arms and legs around him – like a baby monkey clinging to its mother – and squeezed him back.

"Oh God," he breathed shakily, straining to hold back relieved tears and failing. She was real, she was back… "Annabelle, never… God, I'm never leaving you again. You're safe, you're home, you're safe," Will muttered. Whether to himself or to her, it didn't matter.

No one and nothing else mattered.

"I missed you and Mommy," said Annie. Will pulled his head back so that he could look at her as she spoke – look at her bright, impossibly healthy eyes and the adorable way her face would move when she was thinking hard, and simply refreshing himself on the way she always looked when she was talking to him. She'd grown, and he'd missed a whole year of her childhood, but she was still very much the same, if not even more beautiful and precious than he remembered. "But Ironhide took good care of me."

That drew Lennox's attention, cracking the bubble of the world he'd retreated to. He contented himself with staring at Annabelle's face for a few seconds more. Then, hesitantly, he looked up at the mech who had brought her, unconsciously hugging her just that much tighter.

The mech… Ironhide… was watching them with unwavering optics, having stood up once more. So was the other one – and so was everyone else – but they weren't his concern at the moment.

Forcefully strangling his nerves, Lennox cleared his throat and addressed the mech tensely, "Thank you. For… for taking care of her, and… and for bringing her home."

Ironhide seemed as unsure about what to do with the more or less mandatory thanks as Lennox had felt about giving it. Several heavy seconds passed by before Ironhide found his voice and offered lowly, "It was my pleasure."

Will wasn't sure how he wanted to take that statement, because it was probably meant harmlessly and politely enough, but it was still a mech who had owned (his blood boiled at the word) Annabelle saying it had been a pleasure to do so… but then, what sort of response was he expecting? Maybe he shouldn't even have said anything to the mech at all.

All that was pushed to the side for the moment by lowering his gaze back onto his daughter and giving her a squeeze.

"What am I, spare parts?"

Lennox looked back up sharply, singling out the other mech at the same time that everyone else did. Annabelle, however, giggled and amended, "Ratchet took good care of me, too." Her father blinked at her.

This time when Lennox looked back up at the yellowish mech, the mech addressed him. "It's nice to finally meet you," Ratchet said plainly. Ironhide gave a barely audible grunt of agreement. "And it's nice to see you again, Sam and Mikaela," he turned his attention to the grinning teenagers. At least, Sam was grinning. When Will stole a glance at them, Mikaela was smiling warmly at him and Annabelle.

Squeezing Annabelle yet again, as though to prove to himself that she hadn't suddenly disappeared, Lennox started to try and claw his way back to his comfort zone. That meant going through the process of command and ignoring the unimportant conversations starting to develop.

Catching Togg's eye, Lennox began to ask, "Did you…?"

He was effectively cut off. "Already sent Borkowski to let everyone northeast of here know they've arrived."

"And the post you were…?"

"Donnelly's covering until I go get him," Togg reassured. He smiled faintly.

Lennox spun around and nodded at Morrison.

"Did you hear what he just said about Borkowski circling north?"

"Yes, sir," Morrison confirmed, shooting a wary look at the two mechs who were now casually observing the proceedings while greeting the teenagers and responding to a question Graham had posed.

"Do the same for the other side."

"Yes, sir," he repeated. He didn't need to be told twice. A moment later, he was vanishing into the trees.

In the middle of reminding himself what the next step they'd decided on was, Annabelle spoke up, "Where's Mommy?"


Will looked down at Annabelle, her face all innocence and hopefulness at the idea of being reunited with her mother.

Sarah was going to flip.

"Will," Graham called his attention; Lennox gave it. Everyone grew hushed. "Epps and I have this under control. Go home. If anyone asks, we're processing the guy who showed up with her; your family deserves the rest of the day to yourselves."

The captain's first instinct was to balk at being told to go, but, really, he'd been planning on it. It had been an unspoken presumption. Plus, he'd had the feeling he wouldn't want to deal with people, let alone mechs, once he had Annabelle in his arms.

He'd been right.

He nodded slowly. Before he left, Lennox surveyed the scene one last time: two mechs, significantly larger than the two he already had on his plate, with a scattering of his and Graham's men amongst them. The teens – the life-altering, nerve-wracking teens – looking alternately between him and said mechs with none of the apprehension or uneasiness exhibited by everyone else.

Epps gave him a long-distance encouraging nudge in the direction of home.

"Tomorrow," said Lennox, blinking at each person, human and mech, in turn. He finished on Epps. "I'll be back at the warehouse tomorrow for the midday shift."

"Sure thing," chorused Epps and Graham.

"See you then," said Sam.

"Have fun," Mikaela told him.

With a final nod, Will turned and set a steady course back towards the civilian sector; Annabelle waved and called goodbye to everyone (his insides clenched at the way she said 'bye-bye' to Ironhide).

"Your mom is going to be so happy to see you," he whispered to her. She nodded and cuddled her face into him.

Lennox did his best to ignore the heavy pair of optics that he could feel on his back as he walked away.

He would deal with that later.

More than once, he'd found himself wondering if they'd made the right decision, keeping things secret. Not long after this mess had started, there had been plenty of doubts passed around the office. Some thought they should've taken the chance at bartering right from the get-go; some thought that, just maybe, some of the blame rested with themselves because, just maybe, the invasion would've gone away if the invaders had gotten what they'd come for.

Those dissenters had been reproached. From his perspective, it was clear that there was more than one motive driving those mechanical bastards. Otherwise, why would they be taking people? Why would they be snatching John and Jane Doe off the streets and keeping them?

John and Jane Doe definitely wouldn't have any sort of tactical information for the aliens. No – there had to be another motive there. He may not have known what it was, but he knew it had to be there.

That raised an all-important question.

Were the aliens even after what they had all assumed the aliens would be after?

Surely a technology-based race would've been smart enough to check through all the information networks for anything useful before tearing them down like they had. Granted, it was possible that the mechs actually had gone through everything before dismantling the networks, but it didn't seem likely, because they had been on top of monitoring network activity right up until their own systems were brought down (much to everyone's horror and irritation).

Oh, but they'd been building up their systems again, with weapons and defenses as top priority. They were an innovative group that liked to play things by the belt, and there was no way they were going to roll over and give up just because communications and widespread information networks seemed beyond reach. It may have been selfish, but their own base was of higher priority than anything else, and they were guarding it with their lives.

But where was he again?

Ah, yes. The question of whether or not all their predictions about why the aliens might come and what they might want when they got here might have been wrong.

There were those who wanted to cling to hope, pointing to the fact that John and Jane Doe couldn't possibly be targets if the aliens were after the base's special cargo. There would have been ransom mentioned or demands made, these people claimed.

Then there was the majority, which strayed on the side of caution. Recently, some of their low-key system sweeps indicated that – maybe – there had been activity surrounding the downed Witwicky records. It was hard to be really, really certain, but even a hint of a possibility that the mechs were seeking information pertaining to the name 'Witwicky' spelled trouble. More and more people were coming on board with the idea that the aliens were probably still after getting their property back and had merely screwed themselves over by attacking the networks before they realized that the networks could be useful.

As for him? He knew they would come eventually. He could feel it in his bones. With every fiber of his being, he knew they'd be coming. It wasn't a question of 'if', it was a question of 'when.'

Maybe they'd be here tomorrow. Maybe they'd be here next week. Maybe they'd be here a few months from now. Hell, maybe it would even be another few years, because they obviously hadn't managed to track them down yet.

He stared over the top of the internet-defunct computer monitor and out of the observatory glass into the dimly lit recesses of the well-guarded holding room.

Even if they did come tomorrow (or next week, or next year), these humans were going to give 'em hell before they handed anything over.

Because, above everything else, it was clear that the aliens were here for no good. That was something even John and Jane Doe could see. Giving into their tormentors wouldn't change anything. At best, the status quo would stay where it was. At worst…

He didn't even want to think about it, but his imagination wasn't pretty.

So, they would put up one hell of a fight before they were overtaken by any questing aliens.

Oh, yes. They would keep the aliens from getting their way or else they would die trying, or his name wasn't Seymour Reginald Simmons.

And last he checked? It was.


So, who is excited about the news that there's going to be a Transformers 4? I know I am. Maybe a little concerned about what they could possibly do with it (given what they've done so far, I mean – because I know there is PLENTY that could be done with the material), but I'm excited nevertheless.

The vast majority of this chapter was written over my spring break, which is (sadly) coming to a close. I'm back in school(s) on Monday. Seriously – I'll be back in 3 different schools. My own college, the elementary school I volunteer at (mandatory) for a few hours Mondays and Wednesdays, and the middle school I do my field experience at on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I have packed days this semester. It's so annoying. I shall lament the free time break gave me… it was fun while it lasted.

R&R, please & thank-you. Reviews and messages fill me with glee.