Disclaimer: Me no own and you no sue, dooda, dooda...

A/N: As Mark Twain once said, "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." I am not dead, but I have been bogged down in the swamp that is eighteen credit hours' worth of homework, so... yeah. And I've been busy at work, so this has sort of taken a back burner. But I am here! And the sequel is here! And all is well! PLEASE visit my profile and follow the link to see the trailer for this fic that a friend of mine went to the great trouble of making. That would be amazing, thanks.

A note on the text: (yes, I HAVE taken too many lit courses...) This takes place quite a few years after the first fic in this series, Desert Mirage, and don't ask me to do that math, because I stink at it. I'm going with the idea that Revenge of the Fallen happened as it did in the film, with the only main differences being that Sam/Mik were older, Jazz was still alive and there were a few more Autobots on Earth at the time. I think those are the only noteworthy differences, though.

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Chapter One: Of Green Tile and Distant Stars

Every human held a cherished dream. From the day they learned to understand the world of possibilities around them to the day they left that world, each soul clung to an idealized future in which they would save lives as a fireman, out-shine the lights of Broadway or win the Olympic gold. Astrid had long since lost sight of her own dream, but as she stood in front of the cracked mirror in her green tiled bathroom, she knew that this had never been it.

It was a crummy little apartment she had procured for herself, she thought as she let her toothbrush droop from the corner of her mouth. But then, that was what one had to expect when living the life of a starving artist; two or three different jobs working the chorus for opera and musical productions did not make enough for her to live lavishly. It was barely enough for her to live at all.

It had been a full week since she'd seen a cockroach, though, so she reasoned she was doing fairly well.

But she needed to find another job. Any job. Minimum wage, busing tables, mucking out horse stalls (though those were hard to find in the city), anything. Although she had a decrepit little apartment all to herself, she had very little food or other necessities, like toiletries or gas money. Her poor car had been tucked away in a nearby garage for well over a month, and Astrid herself had been reduced to taking the bus. At least this car did not complain of the long hours in the dank cement labyrinth. Mirage would have.

But that was a subject she would prefer to forget. Forgetting was hard, though, she had found, when the scars of her old life were written across every inch of her skin. She had taken to avoiding mirrors because of the long, slim scar that curved along the side of her face. Barricade's caress. And there were others. Ever since her release from the hospital – even before she had separated from her guardian – she had worn long sleeves and long pants or skirts at all hours of the day, waking or sleeping, working or playing. No one would ever see those marks again, not even herself.

Only the cracked excuse for a looking glass in her apartment was safe to look in, and that only once or twice a day. In public restrooms she ducked her head and watched the water pour over her lathered hands. The last time she had been in a dressing room seemed ages ago. But she was conscious enough of herself without the aid of her reflection. She needed it to apply make-up and style her hair for her different roles, but that was all. It was a taboo item in her household. The other taboo item had been stashed away in the very bottom of her summer clothes drawer – the one she no longer needed now that she dressed like a leper.

The other item was the phone, the beautiful phone she'd been given as a Christmas present several years ago in another lifetime. That was the one remaining line of communication she had with the Autobots, and it hadn't been charged in over a year now. And all because of one stupid fight… or two… or three…

Things had never been calm and easy between her and Mirage, but when she began toeing the deep, dark pool of romance, things had gotten worse. Their last – and greatest – falling out had occurred several minutes after her declaration that she was going out on her very first date. The boy – there was little point denying that that was what he was, no one in their right mind would call him a man – had been a violinist working the in the pit for the local community theater musical. It was little more than bad timing that had led her to agreeing to the date, though. She couldn't even remember what Mirage had done to annoy her that week, but she remembered how mad she'd been, and the triumphant snake of victory that licked up her throat when she saw the flabbergasted look on his hologram's face when she told him.

He sneered.

She snapped.

He yelled.

She yelled.

Then he winked out of existence and sped off into the evening.

Two days later he had not returned, and Astrid lost her favorite coffee mug to the kitchen tiles as she watched the red eyed (metal) alien face offer humanity an ultimatum through her television screen. In an instant she'd snatched up her precious cell phone, the same one that was now left to decay in her bottom drawer, and called for Mirage. But there had been no answer.

For another two days she lived in mortal terror, wondering if the Autobots had failed, if the world would fall apart quite literally beneath her feet, if Mirage was dead. From the sanctuary of her bathroom floor she scoured the internet with her laptop. Never in life had she visited so many cheap, obviously fake alien fan sites. But then, she found a credible one, with real footage, and a different kind of terror filled her. She watched the flat, pixilated image of Mirage and several other Autobots driving off of an aircraft carrier in their alt forms, glanced at the date in the bottom-right corner, and wondered why – since he was clearly not dead – Mirage had not answered her calls.

In the sudden absence of suspended horror that she'd been living off of for the past few days, she felt the fear of rejection curl in her gut. Had she finally pushed one button too many? Was he sick of her? Had he left her for good this time? This wasn't a rare occurrence, Mirage speeding off and spending days, weeks or months in the field with the other Autobots, but this wasn't the normal situation. The world had nearly ended. There had been attacks all over the world and thousands had died. Was he really so angry with her that he didn't even care if she was still alive?

So she made a test, a way to save face if he no longer cared to continue their weird relationship, and a way to offer him a way out if he wanted it: she moved.

And he did not follow her.

And that was how she'd come to this. A life without purpose, without a dream, was a difficult thing to savor.

.O.O.O.

"We've reviewed your resume…"

Shut-up.

"And I've got to say we were surprised by the number of… qualifications you've got. Aside from management, I think you're the first college student to ever apply here. Times have been really tough, though."

One word. Either yes or no – pick one.

"Is that a problem?" Astrid asked. It took a great deal more of her acting talent than it ought to have to keep the question from becoming a snarl.

"Of course not! The world could come to an end and we'd still have angels and demons pulling up on their clouds and lava. Nobody says no to a good burger and shake."

The idea of Soundwave and Ravage pulling up to this Sonic rip-off and ordering a number four was almost enough to make Astrid smile. Almost.

"The world isn't ending yet, though. And you've got a job."

"Really?" Astrid cast an eye over the manager lady's pink poodle skirt and tried to decide whether or not she was happy about landing the position.

"Really." Unaware of the sarcasm running behind her new employee's benign expression, the manager happily reached into the bin next to her and pulled out a fierce blue skirt with a fluffy white dog stitched near the hem. "Welcome to the Oasis Diner!"

In twenty-four hours the last bit of paperwork had been signed, a few hours of sleep had been stolen, and Astrid was back at the diner, with about thirty minutes of training and an obnoxiously bright poodle skirt under her belt. For the next few weeks she would be the student of the high school kids that came and went from the work schedule posted on the slick, brown wall tiles.

She tried to argue with herself that it could be worse. Much, much worse.

Another pair of hands appeared next to hers in the sink, and Astrid glanced sideways to receive an eyeful of black. Black hair, black shirt, black nails, black liner. The slight smile on the plain, unpainted lips came as a bit of a surprise.

"Hi."

Astrid blinked. "Hi."

Tattoos were everywhere, some dark – clearly real – and others half-faded and brown, probably henna.

The girl beside her wiped her hands down her black jeans and offered a half-cocked smirk. "My name's Jess. You the newb?"

"Yeah," Astrid snatched a paper towel to dry her own hands. "Nice to meet you.

"Likewise. What's your name?"

"Astrid."

"Like the flower? Cool."

Lips puckered, Astrid leaned back against the sink and watched as Jess darted off into the staff bathroom at the back of the kitchen. In under a minute she was back, turned from emo-goth to dark-tinged fifties girl in a skirt yellow enough to blind older patrons. As she tied her dyed hair up in a matching yellow ribbon, she said, "I'm in charge of training you. Hope you don't mind being put under a kid like me."

"Oh, no, it's fine," said Astrid. "How old are you, anyway? You don't look like a high schooler."

"Good reason for that: I'm not. Sophomore in college." With a quick jerk, she finished the bow over the ponytail. "How old are you? Turnabout is fair play."

"Twenty-three. It seems like ages since I was in college."

Jess sat down on the diner's one kitchen chair and fished a pair of white roller skates out from under the counter. "Well, maybe hanging out with us young'uns'll make you feel springy again."

Astrid touched her shoulder, where the scar from Barricade's claw marbled her skin. "Maybe."

Laces tied and skates secure, Jess popped to her feet and clapped her hands. "Alright! Let's get started."

.O.O.O.

One by one, the base's hall lights blinked off. They would stay aglow all night in some portions of NEST headquarters, but in the residential sections they always winked off at hours conducive to human recharge. Mirage thought it was stupid.

The humans that had semi-permanent quarters on base had rooms to themselves, and the doors to such rooms were more than thick enough and well enough fitted to block out any and all light from the halls. It was also easy enough to turn off the lights in the barracks for more temporary visitors. Why did the Autobots have to be bothered with the human 'sleep' cycle? It was foolish and it was unnecessary, but Prime insisted that such a practice would not only help to understand their human companions and their needs, but might also help the humans see that they were willing to be flexible.

Prime could be flexible. Mirage just wanted the lights turned back on.

Any effort the Autobots made to integrate themselves into the humans' culture was a wasted effort. Only a few had even cleaved to their cause through the latest incident with the Fallen. And Matrix knew what would happen next to place their sanctuary on this planet in jeopardy. They had already suffered losses, both in personnel… and other things. Sick of the dark, Mirage turned from the silent hallways and made for the nearest exit.

Outside, the stars and moon were glowing, hot and cold. The moon, though brighter, did not hold his attention for long. Instead, the stars filled his optics and his processor, and he stood watching them burn with a quiet intensity. After seeing the massive spheres of power and flame up close he almost found the humans' descriptions of the stars as cold and 'twinkling' as insulting. Such terms were diminutive and ridiculous next to the raw power that the far stars displayed. But humans were ignorant like that. They were ignorant about the galaxies and the very Earth they inhabited, and they were ignorant of anything beyond their so-very-limited range of perception.

He was better off without her. They were better off without them.

His internal com system was the first to alert him to his leader's presence, and the slight tremors in the dirt came second. Optimus Prime had always been a mech worthy of Mirage's respect, though they did not always see eye to eye on many issues, especially about the war that had swallowed them all. There was no mech alive, Autobot or Decepticon, for whom he held greater respect. Perhaps that was one of the greatest reasons why he had sided against the power of Megatron and his Decepticons.

Eventually, Prime came a halt beside the spy, and there was a hiss of hydraulics as he set his hands on his sides and leaned back to peer at the stars.

"They are always beautiful," he said, "no matter what planet one is on. The stars are always a reminder that everywhere there is beauty to be found in the universe." He paused. "And yet they seem different from the surface of every world. The atmosphere here is so thick it nearly veils them, but they are still lovely."

"Is there a point to this, sir?" said Mirage.

"Only if you think there ought to be." Mirage stiffened, and Optimus continued. "Ever since the battle over the Matrix of Leadership you have been unlike yourself, Mirage, and we can all see it. I am worried for you. And for Astrid. Have you had no communication with her?"

"None," Mirage spat. "The phone is dead, and she clearly does not wish to be hunted."

"Are you so sure of this?" Optimus asked, more gently. "Humans are strange creatures, and according to many of the soldiers the females are even more erratic. Is it not possible that there was some miscommunication between you?"

"Of course. We miscommunicated when we agreed to your decision to pair us."

"Mirage…"

"Please do not, Optimus. There is nothing you can say that you haven't said before. I have made my decision, and I shall honor hers. Goodnight."

He stalked away, back to the base, and turned his back on the stars.

A/N: Like it? Hate it? Yes, there have been major changes, but did you really think I was gonna let those two have their butterflies and puppies forever? Really? I will try to update this fic AT LEAST every other week, though I make no promises. I would love to update it every week, but I'm not sure if my schedule would permit that. So... it's the regular deal: the more reviews there are, the fast I will try to update. I hope to hear from my old readers again! I miss you guys!