Author's note: For Christmas, we gave you a fic!Christmas card. This week, we find out what happened when Ish started prodding the pantheistic side of that chapter. Thanks to Wikipedia, it resulted in Ganesh rubbing elbows with the Magi. And if you're wondering about the wording of Optimus' statement of peace, Ish found this phrase both in the Koine Greek and Vulgate Latin Bibles and figured Optimus would be as much of a translation stickler as she is.

This is, in true Middle Earth fashion, Eowyn's birthday gift to all of you, with the others' insanity mixed in. Also, special credit goes to Eowyn's daughter for inviting us to play 'Apples to Apples Kids' Edition with her and for providing the inspiration for Annabelle. (For those of you unfamiliar with the rules for the card game 'Apples to Apples', a 'judge' selects a word card and the other players have to choose a word/phrase from their hand that's the best synonym for the original word. It will be helpful to know that, eventually.) Hope you enjoy, and again, Happy Holidays!


In his holoform, Prowl stood in the middle of the silent, spacious room feeling more than a little overwhelmed. Humanity was...chaotic and bafflingly so. They were sentient, intelligent, ingenious, and occasionally profound, but they were also irrational, competitive, primitive, and frequently violent. The array of human expression that surrounded him was equally chaotic.

It was billed as a "Worldwide Holiday Display," the brain child born from some odd conspiracy of the base's chaplain, its morale officer, and (Prowl suspected) Optimus Prime himself. At various times, this room served as a mess hall, a cultural hall, and an auditorium. Right now, one wall was divided into segments, each featuring the symbols of various cultures and religions. Among others items, an unlit Jewish Menorah and collection of dreidls was set up next to a Christmas tree, several Nativity sets, and a Santa's sleigh. On the other side of that, several symbols of the Hindu celebration Pancha Ganapati were spread, including a statute of the god Ganesh, which was decked out with strings of lights and evergreen boughs. The charred remnant of last year's Yule log was also on display, along with a sprig of mistletoe and a straw Yule goat decoration.

"Observations?" Optimus' holoform asked.

Prowl tilted his head slightly, drawing on his recent research. "They center around the winter solstice," he said, beginning with the obvious. "They are iterations of the Solar Myth. Greco-Roman tradition, Celtic, Russian, Germanic, Persian, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese...It appears to be very prevalent." He paused, continuing to review his online sources. "Their own psychologists, sociologists, and theologians offer various explanations, some more sound in their reasoning than others."

The Prime nodded encouragingly. "Continue."

Prowl glanced around this odd little shrine, searching for the unifying thread - the pattern that would make order out of this alien chaos. Optimus would not have gone to the trouble of encouraging this display and hauling him up here just to make small talk. It had bothered Prowl how often his logic glitch had acted up since arriving here on Earth, and he knew Prime was aware of his frustration. This was a training exercise, an attempt to let him parse this part of human nature into pieces he could handle without crashing his CPU. Add 'classroom' to the list of uses for this location, he mentally noted.

"Family," Prowl concluded. "The celebration of kin-bonds is common if not universal, sometimes expressly so and sometimes simply as a practical matter. Likewise the strengthening of their bonds. Families gather together, engaging in direct communication whenever possible."

"Yes."

Prowl heard the unspoken 'go on.' He studied the displays again, searching for the binding threads. Colors, forms, symbols varied wildly, but...he glanced at the Menorah. "Light. Light - the kindling and sharing of light, decorating with it, wearing it. They celebrate the sunlight through its avatar of fire."

"Not light for light's sake alone," Prime prompted. "Light was a gift from the sun, and the sun was as the All Spark to them."

And the data fell seamlessly into place, bringing him one step closer to understanding these aliens. "Life. Light is a symbol of hope and life. They employ it in their celebrations as expression of that."

Optimus gave him an approving little smile. "Good." He gestured around the room. "But symbols have power. You who oversaw the temple guardians no doubt understand that."

Frustrated, he turned, searching the displays for what Prime was driving at. The Temple at Simfur that housed the All Spark had its own rituals and decorum, but they were centered on the straightforward goal of treating all Primus' creations with equal honor and respect. Every mech and femme was greeted with the same words, offered the same gifts, no matter their station, clan, or city-state. But this...this was the epitome of discordance. Some humans fasted while others feasted. Some received extravagant gifts and some received coal. Some had representations of the divine while others adamantly avoided any anthropomorphizing. Some were deeply religious in their celebration and some were entirely secular. Some allowed the sacred to infiltrate the secular in a covert operation.

"A new star in the east," Optimus prompted him.

Prowl gave him a blank look. He knew the allusion, of course, but it was just another iteration of the light-gift motif.

A hint of a half-smile crept over the face of Optimus' holoform. "One rising for a king, but even for the commoners, a star-sign for each."

"The Zodiac." His own alien holoform face twitched in a frown. "But that's such an irrational concept. The stars are too distant to have any kind of influence over the life of any individual human - or even over the whole of humanity."

"And yet it is said by some that 20,000 people were sacrificed by the Aztec every year to feed the sun."

Prowl winced, carefully keeping that number simply a number and not allowing his processors to really dwell on its meaning. He was annoyingly close to glitching again.

Prime waited until Prowl's holoform face smoothed and he nodded for Optimus to continue.

"Let's approach it from this direction." Looking pointedly at first the statute of Ganesh and then at the Christian Magi, Optimus said, "The gifts are offered first to the god and then shared with the whole of the community."

"Consolidating the community in the process," Prowl ventured.

"Consolidating them with what?" Optimus answered. "What motivates this near-universal impulse of theirs to celebrate with sacrifice and generosity?"

Stymied, Prowl turned his battle computer loose on the problem. Freud had reduced human instinct to reproduction and death - humans sought one and fled from the other. Neither seemed applicable here. One could ascribe greed to some aspects of these various celebrations, but it was on the periphery at best. Competition? Again, only incidentally if at all. Blood-thirst? Some of the feasts involved bloodshed, but again, most were surprisingly peaceful.

"Peace?"

Approval flashed in Optimus' alien eyes. "So very close, old friend. Peace on earth to men of good will. Harmony. Is this the essence of human nature?"

Prowl snorted despite himself. "The antithesis of it." He cocked his head to the side. "All this is one grand hypocrisy, then?"

Prime ignored that. "If it is the antithesis of human nature, then where does the concept originate? And why is it not only understood but celebrated in traditions that arose independently all across the globe?"

He skimmed his human sources, but again none of their answers truly satisfied. Instead he began running probabilities, and Prime waited patiently for three minutes until Prowl finally said, "Mental illness."

Optimus actually blinked at that one. "Mental illness?"

Prowl frowned at his own battle computer's answer. "It is outside of normal human behavior and encourages cognitive distortion. The predominant factor for such behavior is mental illness."

"So goodwill - genuine goodwill - among humans is a glitch?" Prime asked, a smile again flitting across his face.

"There is a high probability that it is the case," he stiffly answered, unable to ignore the fact that Optimus had equated his own logic glitch with human insanity.

Optimus' holoform frowned a little. "I think you misunderstand me, old friend. The analogy of a glitch might be useful." He paused for moment, choosing his words. "If Ratchet were to correct your glitch..."

"He would have to remove hardware that is crucial to my functioning."

"You would cease to be the Prowl the Autobots know and love - and respect."

"I would cease to be Prowl altogether."

"But with that glitch-causing hardware..."

Straightening his shoulders with just a hint of pride, he said, "I have the fastest, most-advanced battle computer of any functioning Cybertronian, which makes me an asset to the Autobot cause."

"And to the Autobot leader," Optimus said, losing the fight against his grin. "But why is that?"

"The two go servo-in-servo. The data bypasses most emotional processing and is routed directly through my logic centers." He purposely omitted that the fact that his emotional processing was impaired due to the scars his spark received when his entire clan was extinguished in a day. "Under most conditions this speeds up the information relay. However, sometimes...things...just don't compute."

"But when they do, you have abilities beyond that of everyone else. You can predict the future with uncanny accuracy."

"I'm not a seer," Prowl uneasily corrected, "not like Jazz apparently was."

"No, but like him, you see patterns. You conceptualize things that the rest of us can't even begin to understand."

Not that Prowl would complain about the compliment, but he pointedly glanced at the displays.

Optimus caught the look and smiled again. "You conceptualize. Humans imagine."

Prowl baulked a little at the words. There was no comparison between his 'imaginings' and those of the humans! His was the result of meticulous analysis and computation. Theirs...were incomprehensible. He quickly pulled his processing away from that problem. That's why he kept glitching - because he couldn't imagine!

Again, Prime waited for him to work himself away from triggering the glitch, and eventually Prowl nodded at his commander to continue.

"They imagine. They believe. It is all tangled up together in their souls." His voice dropped to a murmur. "I've seen it, Prowl. I've seen it through Sam's eyes - their nightmares, their dreams."

In the year that he'd been on Earth, Prowl had never heard Optimus speak about what passed between him and his bond-brother. He leaned a little closer, intrigued and listening closely.

"They are not as dissimilar as we might think. They have to begin with some empirical input. Everything they imagine is 'like' something else they've seen or heard or felt. But they extrapolate that data, segment and splice it, project it...much like you do."

Prowl shook his head, still not able to grasp it, but he consoled himself that Prime was probably the only 'bot who did, and only then because he cheated by sharing a bond with a human.

"They don't speak about probabilities, Prowl. They speak about beliefs. Their random, organic processors absorb everything around them and their subconscious analyzes it and spits it out as a gut instinct or a hunch or a belief. They believe and that is hard-coded into them as much as simple calculations are hard-coded into us."

Still a little annoyed, Prowl answered, "And yet we don't believe that we must kill our fellow mechs and femmes to feed the All Spark."

Optimus frowned and again chose his words carefully. "You are correct that, of our race, the results of your processing are not the most similar to humans. In many ways they're more like Wheeljack."

"Merciful Primus," Prowl sarcastically muttered.

Ignoring that, Prime said, "They are more random in their processing, and while that occasionally results in errors, it also allows them to see possibilities we don't."

"So like Wheeljack, whatever isn't processor-bogglingly brilliant blows up in their faces?"

Optimus tilted his head, acknowledging Prowl's point. "The brilliance is in the variation. Right or wrong, their processing ebbs and flows as freely as quicksilver. They all know that without the sun they will die. They all are aware that the nights are growing longer, the days are dawning colder. As they understand it, the sun is growing weaker, and unless it recovers its strength..."

"It will die."

"Yes. But these are humans. They do not despair - empirically they know the nights are growing longer but they also know the sun has regained its strength before. So they do what they can to encourage it."

"Encourage it," Prowl flatly echoed.

Again that half-smile played across the face of Optimus' holoform. "Yes, it is arrogant and irrational, but that is also part of humanity. Every human culture at one point believed the heavens themselves were concerned with human affairs, whether it be the Zodiac or feeding the sun or the rising of a new star or a comet being a portent. They believed the influence went both ways, and so they pray and worship."

"But we have personally travelled those stars, Optimus," Prowl protested, wondering if that insane human on the other end of Optimus' brother bond was starting to make his leader a little crazy, too. The thought was an unpleasant one.

"True. But it is also true that the sun survived every winter."

"There is no evidence it wouldn't."

"No?"

The question hung in the air, and Prowl realized it almost didn't. Two times The Fallen had laid claim to the humans' sun, and two times, the clan of the Primes had thwarted him.

Prime continued, "Whether their sun was ever in danger or not, the point is they believe.They believe, sometimes because experience has born out the belief and sometimes in proud defiance of evidence to the contrary. Their capacity and inclination to believe – in something greater than themselves, in perfection, in perfection made flesh – is something universal to human nature. It strengthens them on both the individual and communal level. It motivates them to improve themselves and their relationships with others."

"Peace on earth?" Prowl challenged, full of doubt.

"Are you saying it is not possible?"

Prowl frowned, considering. "It is highly unlikely."

"But not impossible."

"No," Prowl finally conceded, and again the data slipped into place. "That is why my calculations are useless, isn't it, because they themselves are the walking exception to logic. They operate on random data streams. They are capable of anything."

Optimus chuckled. "But even in the most chaotic systems..."

"...there are patterns." Prowl nodded, finally beginning to understand the themes in the displays before him as he re-ran his calculations. "And some kind of extrapolation can be made from those patterns, even though they are far less accurate."

"Yes. But you have the best battle computer in existence. I am confident you are up to the task."

Prowl vented a sigh and then gave Optimus a calculating look. "So in summation, every human is capable of the arrogance of Sunstreaker, the wild creativity of Wheeljack, and the violence of Megatron."

"And the wisdom of Alpha Trion, the loyalty of Bumblebee and the compassion of Jazz."

"I believe the appropriate human term here is 'schizophrenic.' Do we truly want share a planet with this species?"

Optimus chuckled and clapped Prowl's holoform on the shoulder. "I am bound to them, old friend."

...

Sarah Lennox was used to unconventional etiquette where the Autobots were concerned. Ironhide had cautiously approached her husband to ask how humans showed appreciation. Will, after several years of being the one to co-sign thank-you cards, had pointed him to e-cards, but the Autobots were never ones to do things by halves. The following Christmas, she had received several polite thank-you cards, but had also been deluged by gift baskets that were meant as belated hostess gifts by 'bots who had just discovered the form and function of . The humans in NEST tended to use more conventional mail but got into the spirit of breaking the mold.

A few years into the friendship, they had all found middle ground when it came to holiday procedure. She sent e-vites an appropriate amount of time in advance and learned not to be offended when orders interfered with New Year's Eve.

She also learned to expect anything and everythingby way of RSVP's. Bumblebee sent her an mp3 of "I'll be home for Christmas" to explain that he, Sam and Mikaela would be spending the holidays on the mainland. Optimus accepted her invitation in a way that was meant to be warm and familiar, but still sounded like an address to the United Nations Security Council.

The text from Prowl was even less familiar: "I will most certainly attend your heliocentric celebration of community consolidation."

Everyone else managed to vote 'yea' or 'nay' in their own way, whether clicking "Yes" on the e-vite or passing the word through the NEST channels of communication. One of the human jokers (Quinn) turned up on her front lawn with flags and an extensive knowledge of semaphore signals. She never did figure out exactly what he said, but he showed up the day of, so she assumed it was a 'yes.'

The day before Christmas, a nervous-looking second lieutenant turned up on her front doorstep with the base exchange's equivalent of a florist box.

"Sign here, please," he said.

"The Army has FedEx?" she asked.

"The Army has underpaid guys in the quartermaster's division," he corrected. "It's my pleasure to save you a trip."

"Thanks," Sarah said, examining the box with a certain amount of apprehension. "Have a sugar cookie."

A few minutes, two cookies and a mug of eggnog later, the jolly postlieutenant left her alone and she finally located the card. It had no name, but someone-probably the lieutenant himself-had written "Nollaig Shona Dhaoibh" in large, blocky handwriting.

A quick Google of the phrase explained that someone had assumed that the Lennoxes spoke their Irish ancestors' language. That also explained why someone had tracked down several sprigs of holly arranged to look like a nosegay.

"So," she asked Will that evening, "who do you think is the culprit? Optimus? Arcee?"

He stared at the card for a long moment, mouth moving, and he nodded decisively. "Twins."

"Sunny and..."

"The other twins," he corrected firmly. "They're closet linguists and get a little slaphappy with whatever they find on Google."

For reasons she couldn't quite identify, she shuddered. "The pervert twins...bought me flowers?"

"The pervert twins bought you flowers," Will chuckled. "Can I kick their afts for hitting on my girlfriend?"

"Be my guest."

Christmas day, Arcee arrived a few hours before the appointed time. The femme spent most of the time being Sarah's errand bot, helping in the kitchen or carrying things to the table, but she took a little too much pleasure in playing bodyguard. On her watch, no one came anywhere near the stove without surviving Arcee's interrogation and getting down on their knees.

Guard duty was Arcee's stated purpose, but that didn't happen until the rest of the gang started storming the fortress. The real reason that she came so early was that she had nearly as much fun with the things she got Annabelle as Annabelle herself.

This year, 'Bee had put together a playlist worthy of a radio station and had one of his on-site friends load it onto a bright pink mp3 player that fit perfectly into the pocket of the pink denim jacket that matched her favorite first-day-of-school dress. Arcee was a veteran of a war, a strong-willed warrior who struck terror into the hearts of just about everyone including her allies. Watching her twirl to "Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep" from the Diego, Dora and Friends album tempted Sarah to record the whole thing for posterity and/or blackmail.

The twins turned up next with another innocuous – and therefore ominous-looking – flower box.
"'Sup, Spitfire, Spitlet," Mudflap drawled.

"Yo-yiggity-yo, my homies, y'awl be lookin' fiiiiiiiiiiiiine," Skids agreed.

"Stay away from the kitchen," Arcee growled.

"Naw," Mudflap said. "Where da shrub?"

"Your thoughtful gift is on the mantelpiece," Sarah said politely. "Will!"

Will scuttled into the living room, ready but not very willing to play babysitter to the twins. "'Sup, guys?"

"Ma maaaaaaaaaaan," Skids crowed. "Where can we put this up?"

They disappeared into the living room just as Mudflap uttered the first terror-inducing words of the day: "Where y'awl keep da hammers?"

In the spirit of carpool, half the humans arrived en masse with Ironhide and the others piled out of Optimus' cab. Sarah kept one ear open for any trouble in the living room and surprisingly, nothing raised her suspicions until she heard a loud, slightly flummoxed, "Whooooooooooooooa, NO!" and a round of awkward laughter.

She immediately slid past Arcee, wiping her hands on her apron in case she had to grab someone by the scruff of their neck. Ratchet was still standing frozen in the doorway, looking mildly shell-shocked.

"Are you behaving yourselves?" she asked with curiosity and a hint of maternal sternness in her voice.

"You might not wanna stand there," Epps cackled.

She glanced up and stepped quickly away. Of course the pervert twins had brought mistletoe.

"Come here, love," Ratchet cooed, holding his arms out dramatically. "I promise I'll keep my tools to myself."

She played along, pecking him quickly on the cheek and getting a mild tingle in return from the holoform. Amid the laughter, she asked, "Who was his previous target?"

"Epps," the rest chorused.

They were saved by the bell, a little literally, as someone else arrived on the doorstep. She opened the door to find Prowl and the more...sensible twins lurking on her welcome mat.

"Feliz Navidad," Sunny said.

"Merry X-mas," Sides added.

They scooted past her to greet the rest of the crowd. Prowl bowed his head formally and said in a rush, "My felicitations on this recurrent and most frivolous commemoration of the unconquered sun and temporary human unity."

"Merry Christmas to you, too," she replied a heartbeat later, once she'd kind of deciphered his meaning. With a still-puzzled smile, she added, "Have a sugar cookie."

"So," Sunny said as she closed the door, "what'd we miss?"

"Ratchet, Epps, mistletoe," Will called.

"Damn!" Sides protested.

"And didn't no one get nothin' on video," Skids said, sounding both gloating and disappointed.

"Language," Sarah interjected over her shoulder as she returned to the kitchen. "Spitlet still likes to repeat everything her grownup friends say."

She sent Arcee out to the living room to run interference with gingerbread men and Christmas-tree-shaped sugar cookies, adding, "Find Annabelle, will you?"

"Last I knew, she was playing 'Apples to Apples Kids' with Optimus, Epps and Mudflap," Arcee reported quietly. "And she was winning."

"Tell Epps that if he doesn't keep Mudflap in line, he's doing the dishes," Sarah commanded with all the authority of Morshower. "And see if anyone wants cocoa."

When the kitchen door swung open again, she expected Arcee with drink orders, but instead, Ironhide lumbered in.

"Sarah," he said with the same kind of strained formality that she associated with Prowl, "may I have a word?"

He hadn't batted a holographic eyelash at the mistletoe incidents but was looking as though a court martial was in order. She closed the door quickly and lowered her voice. "What is it?"

She met his eyes to find that he was actually looking amused. "I would hate for Annabelle's personal belongings to be damaged. Would you like me to remove the array of toys from underneath the tree?"

Her face broke into a grin, knowing he meant Annabelle's improvised crèche. "Who tipped you off?"

"Prowl. He was tapping his fingernails so hard he was practically tearing up the arm rest on the couch."

"And you bullied it out of him?"

He nodded, eyes sparkling and not looking the least bit ashamed.

"It's our Nativity scene and it stays put, and you get to take care of anyone who damages her toys," she announced. "Has anyone else noticed?"

From the living room, she heard Skids howl, "Aw, hell, no!"

"Yes," Ironhide said solemnly. "I think that Skids has noticed."

"You're ready to take still shots, right? 'Cause I have a feeling I'm going to want enlargements."

"Always ready for action," he amiable growled, falling in behind her as they went to the living room.

"How come he get ta be da angel?" Mudflap protested, gesturing grumpily at the tree.

The data packet was transmitted from 'bot to 'bot, and Sarah watched in amusement as holoforms' eyes widened. Prowl was still distractedly finger-tapping the arm rest, almost glaring at the little Nativity set, but Jolt broke out in sniggers.

"Oh sure, laugh!" Sideswipe snarled. "We get stuck watching slagging sheep with the reject twins and Wheelie!"

"Dunno," Jolt wheezed, "I'm in a Ratchet-and-Prowl Magi sandwich!"

Ratchet whacked Jolt up the head while Skids wailed, "Duuude! Ya jes broke ma brain!"

"Watch it," Sarah warned, eyes darting to where Epps, Annabelle and a now-very-distracted Optimus were sitting at the card table.

One of Arcee's eyes twitched. "Virgin...Mary...?"

Ironhide proudly crossed his arms over his massive chest. "And don't forget Bodyguard Joseph."

With another round of laughter, all eyes - human and holoform - turned expectantly to Optimus.

He blinked.

He opened his mouth and then abruptly shut it.

His gaze grew distant, researching online.

He blinked again.

He looked around the room at the grins, smirks, sparkling eyes, and (in Prowl's case) stricken expressions.

Completely oblivious, Annabelle came to his rescue, whining, "Come on, Prime, play your card! What's a word like 'spooky'?"

He gratefully turned her way and placed his card on the table, ignoring the chuckles and murmurs as everyone else turned their attention back to the toys under the tree. Annabelle gathered the cards from Epps, Mudflap, and Optimus and thoughtfully examined them. "Hmm…I like 'Spiders,'" she mused, flipping that one face down on the table to discard it. Mudflap groaned in disappointment that she didn't pick his card. "There's nothing spooky about 'Christmas!' That's silly! So I guess 'The Basement' the winner!"

"That's mine!" Epps collected the winning 'Spooky' card to add to his tally and then gave Prime a mischievous little grin. "Ya sure you don't want this one, Optimus?"

Without hesitation, he answered, "Yes."