Ah, to be back again in the writer's seat for this story. I do believe I have a pattern going on, three chapters for this story and then three chapters for Where You and I Collide (repeat as necessary). It took me a little bit to get going here, and a bit of last minute bolstering by a friend-read-fan (I'm looking at you, Starscream II), but here it is. Chapter 40. You are welcome.
For some readers, the name Nyarlathotep is not new. This is because the character was first featured in literature nearly one hundred years ago, and you might have read about him. Alternately, you might have heard of him because I cannot keep a secret to save my life, and I have a nasty habit of giving away spoilers when I answer reviews. If you are one of those people, I imagine you are also one of the ones who did your research when I dropped the name The King in Yellow. You are the ones who will not be surprised in this chapter. Everyone else, you are on your own. Good luck. *salute*
Props to H.P. Lovecraft and his homies.
And, of course, who could forget the wonderful people who helped make this all possible by being the fantastic people that they are! Thank you so much to Flameshield, Shadir, CNightJoy, star's dreams, renegadewriter8, Gamemice, femme4jack, Nikkie2010, JenEvan, Haag, Faecat, Ciel, TFLover95, Phoenix51, Lotte-Bubbles, luinrina, Yorozuya, StarscreamII, FORD B, Frenzy5150, and Lecidre! Friends new and old, muses and inspirations, clever readers and thoughtful reviewers, and occasionally free editors - all of you, thank you for your time and your love! I never would have stayed so dedicated to this story if not for your fantastic examples of dedication. =P
May We Never Let Go
To Dream III
Nemesis looked up as the darkness shifted, watching as the floor of the sunken temple darkened and parted. It was a crude means of travel, using the flows of energy through the physical mass of the planet as a conduit - certainly not so advanced as tearing through the curtain of reality, though just as effective. Nemesis did not blame his brother for his plebeian travel. When caged and forgotten within the prison of mortality for so many eons, some things were bound to take time to come back.
A yellow figure appeared in slow succession, laying amidst a spreading pool of black ooze flowing sluggishly from a collection of fresh wounds. As far as mortal forms went, a Cybertronian was not the worst possible cage to be captive in. Even Nemesis had to cede to the advantage of wearing a body of armour, compared to the more traditional forms of flesh and blood. His brother's cage was oddly suiting, considering his common epithet.
The King in Yellow, indeed.
Evidence of the god within reflecting on the mortal shell without?
A low groan rasped dryly in the dark.
"I see your visit went well," commented the Dark Prime.
"As well as could be expected," was the hoarse reply.
"You got their attention. That is all I wanted." Nemesis leaned back in his throne of stone, lacing his elegant dark fingers together. "Our seeds have been sown. A few scarce days of waiting will hardly be any trouble before we reap our rewards."
There was no immediate answer, and Nemesis did not need one.
A yellow hand lifted, scrutinized with a flat red stare devoid of the rage that had been there moments ago, and then dropped back to the ground heavily. "I still feel pain."
"It is temporary," Nemesis assured coolly. "This is all a temporary arrangement for ourselves."
"How temporary?" There was a sigh, and then rasping words that carried on as if Nemesis had not spoken. "I am awake, but I still dream of pain. You have rattled my cage, but you still leave me chained inside."
Nemesis shifted in his seat, a frown settling on his handsome features. "When the Allspark is in our hands and we begin the Expansion, we will be free. Pain will be naught but a memory."
Dull red optics blinked in interest. "Will everything be a memory?"
"Everything already is."
Their deep voices, exchanged in the language of the Dead Ones, boomed ominously through empty catacombs. The words they spoke were older than the first life on Earth, and far darker than the deepest abyss. Heavy sounds that were better felt than heard, resonating in the chest and vibrating in the bones. Their temporary sanctuary trembled in fear deep beneath the sands of the desert. Ghosts of long dead humans cried out in silent agony, unheard and forgotten, praying for escape from the devils that now defiled their resting place. Their afterlife was not a peaceful one.
It was in this place that Nemesis and his newly awakened brother felt most comfortable. The place they hailed from was a dark void, nothing but a cold empty pit of dry bones and mouldering gods with terrible hungers. Life had long since been extinguished – or, more accurately, devoured. This dead temple that lay forgotten beneath the sands, dark and desolate, was a beautiful reminder of home, and a template from which they would work to shape the world in its image.
The Dead Universe would spill out into this world as a plague the Earth has never known, and the slumbering Great Old Ones would stir from their dreams and come forth into this world of light and warmth. Blood would soon stain altars, run freely through the streets, and fill the rivers with red. Prayers would turn to screams. The gods would come to be their shepherds, leading their new flocks to the slaughter.
The godling chuckled brokenly at his thoughts, the soft gibber of a mad creature in the dark.
Above them, jagged earthen teeth trembled, dust scattering through the stale air. Higher above, through layers of dirt, rock, and sand, the sun had already bled out across the horizon. Evening arrived on a dark tide. The night would be cold and bitter.
There was silence in the aftermath. Profound silence, as all the graves of the Pharaohs in the desert lie still. From the abyss of the Earth, there came the rolling, grating stone roar of tectonic plates shifting. The weight of sand, dirt, and rock above groaned and stirred like waking beasts with breath of desert air, claws of granite, and blood of gritty soil. Under the Earth, the ringing pressure was immense – a constant, high-pitched scream in between the ears... no, audios, in these metal bodies... a constant, single-tone drone. It was the sound of unwelcome. The impotent rage of a world who could do nothing about its intruders.
Beyond the overwhelming presence of the Earth itself, the two trapped gods felt the smothering, suffocating presence of their fellow dark gods lingering in the unseen. Deep like a black ocean groaning under its own weight, the heavy air shivering like a discordant violin chord; they prowled in the obtrusive dark, there but not. Their whispered half-formed words were crude, ancient – the resonating bleeding of a broken sub-woofer making bones grind together with its noise.
Imagination could not give form to the dark spectres, nor could nightmares ever paint the portrait of what reality had birthed and raised. They were impossible giants, leviathans in the dark with their gaping mouths hungry to swallow worlds; tentacles and claws and grasping, grabbing, gnarled fingers. They were scaled and they were skinless, twitching exposed muscled and rotted, foetid corpses composed of writing maggots. Oozing, festering, boiling, and decaying. Their breath spawned black miasma, and from their tongues dripped plagues. Their presence birthed darkness in the hearts and minds of mortals; their words blackened souls, making them wither and die. A feast for foetid gods.
Where they touched, no life would ever take root, no goodness would touch, no light would shine.
Though the Expansion had yet to begin, the things of the Dead Universe still leaked through. They came at Nemesis's invitation, a promise of power and the chance to devour. Impatience rode their senses like white-hot pricks; existence in the world of life was always temporary for their kind. Without ties to the world, without a mortal coil to anchor them, they paced upon pins and needles. For now, they were as insubstantial as dark winds, biding their time until the storm came, hoping to conserve energy until such a time when the Allspark ripped apart the bindings of the universe and allowed their world to bleed unchecked.
After all their plans, all their scheming, finally it was all going to come to fruition. All thanks to a stupid god and his even more stupid little servant, thinking to harness power they knew nothing about.
Metal screeched against rock as Nemesis Prime leaned forward, his sleek, dark form glittering like obsidian in the pitch.
"How different you look," the yellow-armoured god observed shrewdly.
Nemesis looked down at himself impassively. "It is an adequate form."
Through the dank shade, a glimpse of Nemesis's true self showed through; that of a dread beast, weaved together by ligaments and tendons, too many eyes and gasping mouths covering the surface, claws and gnarled fingers, puss and slime and festering disease. Oozing, sucking, slime and puss festering from a form impossible to countenance. The Crawling Chaos, a fitting name for a beast who invited madness when looked upon. A terrible shape for a terrible god whose ambitions were as black as the empty pit where goodness has never existed.
The King in Yellow briefly wondered what was revealed of himself when the other gods looked upon him.
It had been so long, he did not recall what he looked like.
"The Allspark will be ours soon," Nemesis announced.
"It is called 'Sam' now."
The admittance brought a brief bout of humour from the Dark Prime. "No matter. After that little show you so brilliantly put on, he will not be able to stay away for long."
"His love for Bumblebee draws him here. He will not come in peace, nor will he go down without a fight."
A graceful dark hand superimposed with the images of tentacles and obsidian knives waved through the dark, dismissing the concerns.
"You have done your part. Worry no more, brother. You are still weak," Nemesis hushed, rising to his feet. His attention was suddenly diverted, rising to the dark, vaulted cavern soaring above. His red optics glinted like hot coals. "Rest for now, recover, and let this become another memory."
"I will do that."
"I will be gone for a time." A dark optic ridge arched vaguely. "Do you need help from the floor, Hastur?"
"No, Nyarlathotep. I think I will stay here for a while." The red glow of his gaze dashed out as he closed his optics, shutting out the world around him for a time.
"Hey! Hey! Over here!" Blaster shrieked, waving from atop the truck bed he stood on. At his call, the convoy of oncoming vehicles subtly changed direction toward him, the Cybertronians heading the humans. Calls had already been sent ahead, disjointed reports of what happened. It was too jumbled to make sense of yet, but it was enough for Blaster to know he wanted to be present when everyone got in.
Mirage glanced down when the microbot hopped down from the back of the truck he had commandeered. "Why can nothing good happen on this planet?"
The red bot looked up at his fellow commander and shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe Earth is bad luck, or maybe we're bad luck. I haven't decided yet."
With a sigh, Mirage gazed down pityingly at the lump of green metal he had propped against his leg. He pet the head leaned up against his thigh, gently touching the dented section where he had administered the butt of his blaster for sweet oblivion.
From the oncoming convoy, a human figure shot up and yelled into the night.
Before Ironhide had a chance to fully stop, Chase tumbled from the back of the bed, stumbling across the hard pavement. Her rough voice was little more than a bark in the wind above the deep rumble of so many growling engines. With no heed to anyone else, she barrelled forward full tilt toward the unmoving form being held up by his much smaller friend.
"Hound? Oh honey, Hound, what happened?" Her dark eyes shot up accusingly as she ran. "Why isn't he moving? What did you do to him?"
Mirage watched her approach with pained optics. "He woke up suddenly in the barracks down below. It was dark, and the space was too enclosed for him."
Too much like the darkened space where Nemesis had kept him.
"I had to knock him out," said the Master Spy.
Chase skidded to a halt before the pair, puffing air that misted white around her chapped mouth. When she came within arm's reach of Hound, she laid her hand to his leg and pet him gently. The metal was as cold as the night, as cold as her skin was from riding in the open air of Ironhide's truck bed. "Just when you were starting to get better..."
Her eyes were not full of hatred when she glanced up at Mirage. "Did the others tell you what happened?"
"I was contacted by Prowl and have been partially appraised of the situation," Mirage replied with an inclination of his head toward the others. He failed to catch Prowl's optic, busy as the tactician was hovering over Sideswipe, who seethed in a fury where he sat perched on the roof of Wheeljack's alt mode.
"So you know why Hound woke up," Chase murmured.
As soon as Will slowed his car down enough to let out passengers, Mikaela was flying across the pavement.
"Chase! How is he? Is Hound okay?" she exclaimed, pinching Chase's arm in the haste of her desperate grip. "What's wrong with him? Did Nemesis hurt him?"
Mirage surprised them by kneeling, something he had never done before for a human. "It looked to me as if Hound's processor had been overwhelmed while transposed in the emitter. He was shunted back to his frame as a default, but whatever trauma he was suffering with you carried over when he came online here."
"Oh my god, poor thing. He scared himself out of the emitter," Mikaela murmured. "He's had it so rough."
Chase brushed a kiss to the side of her niece's head. "Mirage knocked him out." She dug into the pocket of her slacks and drew out the holo-emitter Hound had left behind when his matrix shattered. She offered it up to the Master Spy. "Can you transfer him back into this? He was getting better while he was pretending to be human. I think it calms him down."
Mirage nodded after only a brief hesitation. To his credit, he did not let his distaste of the option show. "I can transfer his consciousness into the device, but... the blow I dealt him will keep him unconscious for a while."
"I don't care," Chase sighed.
Ratchet looked up from his duties directing the injured, his expression stoney. "Transfer him and lock him into the emitter. Override the default settings if you have to. I can't deal with him doing any more damage to his frame if he onlines and freaks out again. And while you're at it, why don't you shift him into alt mode. Roll him someplace that he will be out of the way."
"The Solarium," Elita One intoned absently, transforming slowly. She weaved slightly on her feet, as if dizzy. "Roll him into the Solarium. His mind might not be in his frame, but he loves the plants in there. It'll be good for him."
"The Solarium will be fine," Ratchet agree, returning his attentions to Sideswipe and his shattered arm. The red twin did not look himself, but rather looked like a bomb that might go off at any moment. He was trapped between Prowl and Sunstreaker, both of who had their hands on him to keep him in place. His energon still sluggishly seeped down his frame, painting Wheeljack's alt mode beneath him. "Come on, let's get you to the med bay..."
Optimus took to his feet and sighed, aching all over. "Just be careful with Hound, Mirage. When you are done, come find us."
Mirage offered a shallow bow, stretching out a finger whose tip opened up into snaking cables that attached themselves to the tiny emitter Chase offered. The Master Spy then gained remote access to Hound's processor and did the necessary transfer, looking away when a human-like body formed out of light and force fields. The matrix of the figure was still programmed with the funeral clothes he had been wearing, but somehow looked more haggard than he should.
Chase shushed the unconscious figure, easing him to the ground. Her fingers shook as she brushed ruffled black hair from his forehead, letting his head rest on her lap. Mikaela came down after her, kissing Hound on his cheek as if she could comfort him. Both humans patted his true form before Mirage induced the transformation to his alt mode.
Everywhere around them was a confusion of Autobots and humans wondering what they were supposed to do now. The girl who was supposed to be dead wasn't dead. A Neutral who had been alive not even an hour ago was now dead, her frame still laying in the Banes' backyard. An Autobot that was supposed to be on their side was now not. And the powerful Allspark that was supposed to be nigh-indefeatable was... dying.
The darkened evening was suddenly pierced by the confused cry of one distraught little girl.
"Why did Bumblebee attack us? Why? Why! Whyyyyyyy?" Annabelle wailed, brought into her father's arms from back of the car where she had been silent for most of the drive over. Her eyes had been glassy with the shellshocked look of someone too stunned to understand what was happening around her. Now there was fear glistening around the fat tears spilling down her cheeks. "Why did he wreck Chase's house? Daddy, what's going on? Why was there two Optimus Primes? I'm scared! Daddy, I'm scared!"
"Shush, baby. It's okay. It's okay. You're safe." The look on his face said that Will did not think everything was going to be okay. He pushed his daughter's face into the crook of his neck, wrapping her up tight in his arms to rock her back and forth. She clung to him with choking strength, continuing to wail, but the sound was muffled now. Her small body shook like a trembling leaf in a storm.
"Here," Simmons croaked hoarsely, fishing into his pocket for a set of keys. "Take her to my apartment. She doesn't need to see all this."
"She's seen enough," Will sighed, stroking his daughter's soft golden curls. "She's going to be in therapy for the rest of her life."
Sarah drew a shaking breath before accepting the keys, and then determinedly clutched them to her chest. Her eyes searched for answers, first in the agent's eyes, and then in the giants who towered over her. She wanted the same answers her daughter continued to scream for. Her gaze settled on Ironhide, the mech who had always been a fond, stalwart guardian for her little girl.
"Go on, Sarah," Ironhide urged quietly, knowing there was nothing he could give the woman. His strength was gone, leaving him feeling hollowed out inside. He kept seeing yellow out of the corner of his optic, thinking for one stupid moment that it was Bumblebee. Good, sweet Bumblebee. But it was only Sunstreaker, looking nearly as shellshocked as Annabelle.
Chromia crouched down, looking as if she wanted to try comforting the small human girl. Annabelle's eyes grew frantic at the sight of her, starting to cry louder. Too many things had happened to her tonight. She's seen her beloved alien robots fighting, she had seen one of them get their spark ripped out and die right in front of her. The illusion that they were good and friendly and couldn't hurt anyone was shattered. Now they scared her.
Epps took the keys from Sarah when the little metal loop kept jangling from how badly her hands shook. "Come on, I'll drive." He tipped a dark brow in Simmons' direction. "You ain't coming?"
Simmons already had a cigarette alite between his fingers. "No. I'll stick around here. There's probably some shit that has to get done."
Blaster trotted over with a solemn expression. "You'll be with me. I'm getting an incoming alert that Starscream is approaching the planet. I will need you for getting clearance on a landing spot big enough for his warship. It's a Titan-class ship, so we're going to need a lot of room."
"Right. I'll get on that." He flicked ash from the tip of his smoke, meeting eyes with Epps while jerking his chin in the Banes' direction. "Take them with you. They don't need to be out here in the middle of the night."
Chase jerked her head when she realized she was being talked about. She licked her lips, eyeing Mikaela next to her, and then nodded. "Yeah, we don't need this shit right now. I need to get Hound someplace calm before he wakes up."
It went without saying that she couldn't go back to her own home. It currently had a Bluetsreak-sized hole in the back of it.
"My place," Dr. Spring offered automatically, leaning out the window of the human-driven van she was riding in. "You can stay at my place for the time being until something can be figured out." She got out and opened the trunk, unfolding a blanket that had been tucked in the back. "You two can sit in here for the drive. It's big enough for the both of you."
Careful as she could, Chase eased out from under Hound's holographic bulk. Her arms curved under him gently, one under his back and the other under his legs, and then she heaved with a strained grunt. Mikaela caught her before she overbalanced and went back to the pavement. Chase's arms strained under Hound's considerable weight, but she cradled him without complaint. She silently bore him to the trunk and curled him in the small space, heaving herself up after him. She let her legs dangle out as they drove away.
Mikaela twisted her fingers together, watching the van depart. Another car waited for her, idling quietly with its strange assortment of passengers.
Miles was driving, looking strangely determined as he kept his eyes straight ahead. One eye was glowing, leaving a little reflection of blue in the glass ahead of him. The other eye was dark, stained red from stress. Sam was in the passenger's seat with his face pressed up against the cool glass of the car, looking sicker and more exhausted as time passed. He had used up too much energy doing everything he had done, especially with his last jaunt of closing up any wounds Bumblebee might have scored on the others. Sideswipe's furious demands to resurrect Roulette had taken their toll; he didn't know how to resurrect anyone, and even if he did, the amount of energy necessary would probably kill him.
Sari and Miko were tucked into the back, huddled together and clutching hands as if they meant to anchor each other. Miko curled herself around her charge like she meant to shield Sari from the whole world.
Sam pushed open the passenger's door and nearly fell out. The seatbelt around his chest caught him like a hook in a fish's mouth.
"There's nothing more you can do for us, Sam," Optimus said, kneeling to the boy. He was gentle as he pushed the human back into the car and shut the door.
"I can... I don't know. I can do something," Sam mumbled absently against the the window, the pronounced glow of his vacant eyes glinting in the glass.
"There is nothing," Optimus replied wearily. "If you do any more, you may put yourself in stasis."
Or worse, was the unspoken warning. Thanks to Nemesis, everyone now knew the big secret that had been weighing on Sam's shoulders for so long. It wasn't just that he was being effected by the Allspark. He was dying from it.
"We cannot afford to have you out like that," Optimus sighed. "Go home. Rest for the night. There is nothing that can be done tonight that cannot wait until the morning." He patted the roof of the car. "Go on, Miles. Drive home."
Miles sighed, jerking his chin to Mikaela to hurry her into the car. She jumped in the back, doing her best not to disturb the two girls already there. They eyed her suspiciously, Sari with fear glinting in her brown eyes, and Miko with defensive anger. Nobody spoke until Miles parked the car.
"Okay," he breathed, running his hands up and down the steering wheel. "Okay. Mikaela, you take Sam up to his apartment. I think you two should have some time alone. Get Sam to bed. Get him to rest. Whatever it is you can do with him."
"Right." She felt awkward falling out of the back of the car, coming around the front, and helping Sam out. He was zapped of strength, barely able to lean against her without falling over. If he fell, she didn't know if she would be able to carry him like Chase had done for Hound. All she could do was stay silent and accept the mild burning sensation of Sam's skin against her own. It was like a thousand little pinpricks, an electric current snapping between them everywhere their bare flesh touched.
Sam cleared his throat, peering up at the woman preventing him from eating concrete. He could see tension in the lines of her face as she hid the pain of touching him. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Mikaela assured, moving slowly toward the door.
Miles stayed behind in the car for a long while afterward, not sure what he was supposed to say to the two strangers in his backseat. He knew Sari, sort of... but he didn't think bringing up the fact that she had spilt wine on his pants a couple years ago and never paid for the dry cleaning. It went without saying that he shouldn't mention the fact that he thought of her and her company as his Arch Nemeses. The Asian woman with her looked like the sort of woman who could kick his ass if he made Sari cry.
As if able to sense his regard, Miko shot him a killing look. "Are we going to sleep out here?"
"No, I guess not," Miles sighed. "I guess you two are with me. I'd tell you that things like this don't happen every day, but it would kind of be a lie."
"Are you kidding me?" Miko snapped, bundling Sari out of the back. "Were you not paying attention to what happened back there?"
"Yeah, I saw," Miles replied, shrugging out of his jacket to offer to Sari. "I'll admit that was pretty extreme. Things aren't usually that bad. You know what? Forget it. It was a bad joke."
By the time they got into the lobby of the building, Mikaela and Sam had already gone up, but others had come down after hearing about what happened. They loitered in the chairs, pacing the spacious ground floor as if in a daze. Miles tried not to meet anyone's eye, hoping that no one asked him any questions. He was lucky to guide his guests to the elevator without incident, managing to get to his floor without Miko's death glare melting the flesh off his bones.
The door to his apartment looked like a safe haven, and his life-sized cardboard cutout of Xena the Warrior Princess was a comforting sight.
Sari sniffled from under his warm jacket, eyeing the 90s pop culture lesbian symbol. "Where'd you get that?"
"At a convention I went to a couple of years ago," Miles said with a sheepish shrug.
Sari finally managed to meet his gaze, her eyes focusing on only one of his. "Your eye is glowing."
Miles quickly looked away. "That's because it's not my eye."
Miko wrapped Sari up close to her body, under the protective cloak of her arm. "You need a hot shower. We're going to get all the dirt off you, and then you're going to sleep for a week. Your dad never has to hear anything about this, okay? He'll deport me for sure. And he'll probably stick a GPS on you. Again."
Sari nodded weakly, letting herself be guided to the bathroom Miles pointed out. He went to the kitchen to wander around aimlessly, listening while the water turned on and the two girls spoke to each other in hushed tones. There was no need for the whispering, though. Neither of them were speaking English. When Miko emerged a few minutes later, a waft of steam followed on her heels. She had Sari's clothes waded up in her fist.
"You got anything for her to wear?"
"Yeah, maybe. Give me a second." Miles shot off into his room where he collected a large t-shirt, a pair of flannel pants, and terry cloth robe. Nothing fancy, but everything was clean.
Miko gave it a nod of approval, opened the bathroom door a second time, and threw the clothes in without looking. Once done, she turned back to the kitchen and started opening every cupboard she came across. There was almost a desperate air about her.
"You got anything to drink?" she asked. "And I don't mean water."
"Sure." He shifted aside some things in an open cupboard, pulling out a bottle of vodka that had been full a couple of weeks ago. Now it was mostly empty.
"Not much," Miko observed gravely.
"I got backups," Miles admitted, bringing out a bottle of tequila he had been saving for a special occasion. This wasn't a special occasion, but it was the sort of thing he didn't want to think about for a couple of hours. Tequila was good for making people forget.
"Good enough," Miko said, snatching the bottle and jimmying it open. She drank straight from it, and then sputtered at the burning flavour.
"It's not sake," Miles warned belatedly with a wry shake of his head. He swigged straight from the vodka bottle, appreciating the burn he had grown to love over the last couple of stressful weeks.
"You know, 'sake' just refers to any alcoholic drink," Miko shrugged absently, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "The drink you call 'sake' in English is really called nihonshu."
"Oh." Well now he felt a little stupid.
"I don't care if it can take paint off a car, right now I'll drink anything," Miko admitted stubbornly. She wandered out of the kitchen into the living room, throwing herself onto the couch and propping her socked feet up on the coffee table scattered with work-related papers and magazines. She stared down the neck of the bottle. She appeared to be trying to think of something to say – anything that meant she didn't have to think about what had happened. If she was unnerved to be in the house of a stranger, she didn't show it.
"How did you lose your eye?" she suddenly wondered.
"An accident," Miles replied automatically.
"It's always an accident," Miko snorted curtly, her fingers tightening around the neck of the tequila bottle. "No ones does something like that on purpose."
"I guess you're right." He shuffled awkwardly. "Seven years ago... almost eight, I guess, there was a fight between the Autobots and someone who worked for The Fallen – that smokey demon thing you saw with Mikaela. I was in a car, there was an accident, and a piece of glass went through my eyeball." He didn't remember much of the accident, except for the feeling of the glass going in. It was a hot, wet sliding motion as it sliced so easily into the gelatinous sac of his eye. The rush of wetness down his face as blood and fluids flowed free. After that, he only remembered screaming.
Miko shuddered, taking a deep draught from her tequila. "Do things like this really happen every day?"
Miles sat down next to her, thoughtlessly shoving everything off the coffee table to scatter across the floor. "No. The Cybertronians aren't bad people, they're just damaged, and come with a lot of baggage." He swigged more vodka, appreciating the burn all the way down.
"Yeah, baggage. Is that what you call an evil shape-shifting-ancient-alien-god-thing, the evil version of Optimus Prime, and the yellow one that freaked out on everyone?" Miko followed with another long suck on the tequila bottle. She made a face as it went down.
"I don't know what to call all of that."
A prolonged silence stretched on between them, with only the sounds of the shower hissing in the background.
"Is Mikaela going to be okay here?"
The question struck Miles as odd, but then he had to remember that Miko had none of the backstory that everyone else knew. She was a stranger coming into the madness with no warning. All she knew was what she had seen so far, and sufficed to say that Nothing and No One had made a good impression.
"This is Mikaela's life – she's strong, and she knows the score around here. She'll be fine," Miles assured quietly.
"Yeah?" She was quiet for a time again, swilling tequila around in its bottle before taking a fortifying swig. "What about with the Ambassador? He glows in the dark, and he fucking melted my gun with a single touch. That's not normal."
"It's normal for him. Mikaela is safe with Sam. He'd never hurt her." But still, a scared part of Miles worried for both of them. It would only take a little spark to create an accident... He took the last drops of the vodka as a means of blocking out those thoughts.
Miko tugged awkwardly at the collar of her shirt. "Is he... human? Or something else?"
All Miles could do was offer a sad shrug, because he wasn't sure of the answer anymore.
"So, what about you?" Miles wondered, hoping to steer the conversation away from less shitty topics. "How long have you been with Sari?"
"A couple of years. We met at a concert, and I got her out of a tight spot. I've been with her ever since," The way her expression shifted uneasily, it was obvious she didn't want to talk about it.
Behind them, the shower stopped and they listened to the sounds of Sari getting dressed. Miles glanced over at the woman he was sitting with, finding it odd that he was getting drunk with a billionaire's daughter's bodyguard when he should be doing something else. He should be looking after his best friend, welcoming Mikaela back from the dead, looking after the dozens of humans who had been traumatized and banged up from the fight at the funeral. But no, he was sitting on his couch with a nearly empty bottle of vodka.
Sari appeared in the doorway, backlit by the light in the bathroom. Her red hair was twisted up in a towel, her eyes nearly as red from crying while the water ran. She was still beautiful, enough to steal Miles' breath away. He wished he had some form of comfort for the young heiress.
"Got something that makes it hurt less," Miko called, summoning her employer over and shoving the bottle into her hands.
Sari weaselled her way between the two of them on the cushions, cradling the bottle without sipping from it. She glanced at Miles from beneath the overhang of the towel.
Miles saluted her vaguely. "Sorry you got mixed up in this."
"Sorry your friend is dying. At least we got Mikaela back to you," she replied numbly, and then took a long draught of the tequila like she were dying of thirst.
"Kampai," Miko grunted quietly with a grimace.
Optimus stared up at the stars and cursed at how aloof and unaffected they looked. As a young Prime-in-training, he had been taught to look to the stars for inspiration – as a Prime, he was to look as they looked, to aspire to their distant power. In that moment, he could only attest to feeling as volatile as the core of a star right now.
The ground beneath him was too hard, too rough. He felt every grain of soil grating up through the slates in his armour. The air was dry and cold, whistling through his frame on a bitter wind. Night had settled fully, with the weight of the world coming down with it. It was lonely out in the desert, far from the lights of the base and the comforting glow of the Solarium, but it was the only place that they knew they would not be overheard. And if Nemesis came back for round two, they were far enough away from the humans to prevent causalities.
Not far from the Prime and the few commanders than had convened with him, a yawning black canyon opened up in the ground. Even after so many years, the mark Unicron had left on the planet was still as virulent as ever. If worst comes to worst, they could always throw Nemesis into the chasm.
Ironhide stared down at his clenched fists in his lap. "This is bad, Optimus."
"Nemesis struck a blow today..." He trailed off, not able to finish.
From behind them, Chromia snarled her frustration. "Nemesis is playing with us! Toying with us! He wanted Bumblebee from the very beginning – he could have taken Bumblebee any time he wanted - but he waited until Bumblebee handed himself over because he liked the game. It's the same with Sam! He could have snatched the Allspark away from us today, but all he did was taunt!" Her sharp feet kicked at the ground, sending clods of dirt flying. Animals shrieked in terror, running in all directions away from the femme. "We're nothing to him. The only reason he doesn't come back now and finish us off is because he enjoys how much he's hurting us right now!"
Ironhide revved deeply, craning around to cast his sparkmate a hard look. He did not fault her for the sharpness of her words. Everyone was on edge. But he wished the truths she spoke did not strike so deep.
"He knows our weaknesses, but we don't know his," Mirage observed darkly. "If what you've told me about the encounter is accurate, then Nemesis is looking to stir dissent among us. We took the bait today with Bumblebee."
"We might not know his weaknesses, but we know what he wants," Jazz countered. "He wanted Bumblebee and now he has Bumblebee. Now he's setting his full sights on the Allspark. We can work with that."
"Work with what? The Allspark is dying, remember?" Mirage reminded bitterly. "Not much of a secret weapon. And the gall of Sam not to tell us. To find out like this is a slap in our faceplates!"
The saboteur's mouthplates tightened into a thin line.
"Sam had his reasons for his silence," Elita One tried to reason, her voice only tremoring slightly. "I can only imagine how scared he has been, with such a big power inside such a small body. Around every turn, there is something to remind him that he is less and less human, and that it is our fault for bringing this mess to him."
"Is that any excuse for not telling us that our source of life is disappearing through his slow death?" Mirage replied. "If we had known sooner, we could have been searching the universe over for a cure! For a way to transfer the Allspark to another vessel! As it stands, the way has been left wide open for Nemesis to come in and offer him sweet nothings to ponder on and be tempted by."
"We will discuss it with Sam in the morning. Little could have been done tonight with him on the verge of collapse," Optimus said heavily.
Ironhide rumbled pensively, a deep sound like distant thunder. "If we're not going to talk about Sam, how about we talk about Bumblebee. Like what the frag has been done to him? How the pit are we gonna get him back?" He thumped the ground with his clenched fist, creating an impressive crater in the dirt. He snorted through his vents to clear them of the dust plume he had stirred in his anger.
"Can we even be sure that was Bumblebee?" Chromia demanded caustically. "We just established that Nemesis is playing us. What better way to take us down than by using our love for Bumblebee against us. For all we know, what we saw could have been a... a doppelganger. A dressed-up energy leech, or worse."
"It was Bumblebee," Optimus confirmed darkly, a twinge in his spark causing him to grimace. "I wish to Primus it wasn't him, but it was. Couldn't you tell by looking at him? He was standing right in front of us-"
"Yes. No... I don't know right now!" Chromia growled, both hands raking over her head. "I know what I saw, but I don't want to believe it. I don't want to think of what Nemesis had to do to Bumblebee to make him like that... I can't think of Bumblebee willingly agreeing to let go of everything to become that."
"He might not have had a choice, Chromia," Optimus sighed.
Elita One murmured a soft note, twining her fingers together as she paced a slow circuit through the dirt. Like her sparkmate, she wished to any higher power that the creature they had witnessed that evening was not Bumblebee. She wished for a great many things. But she knew the truth, had listened as it had been screamed in her head, as the light of day shone down on Bumblebee and cast a truly dark shadow.
Optimus glanced back at his mate, opening his mouthplates to say something to her, and then decided better upon it. He returned his gaze to the glittering stars above him.
Elita felt his brief gaze, followed by the twinge of his disappointment and impotence. She stayed away from everyone in the small gathering outside the Solarium, not aloof but apart. She did not dare come near for fear of suffering a panic attack at their closeness. It was too soon after being held captive under Sam's power, and though he had not meant harm, enough damage had been done in opening old wounds. She felt the breaking in her spark that she could not be near her own sparkmate, but underneath that clutching desperation was the resigned understanding of the mech she had so much faith in.
"He could have been reprogrammed," Ironhide offered futilely. The tone he used was grasping, as if he did not even bother to believe his own false hope. "Getting Bee back could be as easy as rebooting him, or getting Ratchet to restore his original programming."
"Reprogramming can only go so far if the spark rejects what it has been given. What we saw with Bumblebee today had nothing to do with his processor," Elita dismissed quietly. She pressed a hand to the side of her head, trying to will away the voices she heard. They gave no comfort, only a distracting headache. Their cacophony reminded her of why Nightbeat had rarely ever recharged – the voices he had given to her had driven him to near insanity.
Jazz couldn't see her, but his head turned in her direction as if he meant to take her measure by the sound of her voice alone. His expression was grave, from what could be seen behind the shield of his precious visor.
"Having trouble, Elita One?" wondered the saboteur.
"Nothing I can't handle," Elita dismissed quickly, not liking his scrutiny. She dropped her hand from her head, fisting it tightly.
He let himself be dismissed, turning his faceplate away. "You're right, ya know? About Bumblebee. Ah don't think this has anything ta do with his processor. Ah think, in this case, Nemesis might have been telling the truth. What we saw back there was the real Bumblebee."
"Some sort of extra-dimensional creature, like Nemesis?" Mirage posited with obvious distaste.
"Don't know what else ya might call him," Jazz shrugged, lacking the words necessary to describe what he had felt in Bumblebee's presence. It had been as if the layers had been pulled back from the bot, exposing a raw nerve to the air. Without his optics, Jazz had not been able to see what Bumblebee had been remade into, but his processor had envisioned a being that had been turned inside out. What had once haunted distant recesses now seethed outward.
"You say this because of what you saw in Bumblebee's head so long ago," Optimus observed gravely.
"Probably," Jazz agreed with a shrug.
Prime shook his head, his tone darkly musing. "I always suspected that you knew more than you let on."
"Ah usually do know more," Jazz intoned dismissively. "Ah knew Bumblebee was not from the Allspark, but that wasn't mah secret ta tell. Ah didn't know what everything else meant."
"You should have told someone."
Jazz snorted a harsh, mirthless sound. "Really, Optimus? Who was Ah gonna tell? Ah couldn't confront ya about it. If Ah told anyone else about how Bumblebee had been made without use of the Allspark, it would have started something that Ah didn't want ta be a part of." His arms crossed stubbornly over his silver chest. "It's not like he's the only secret Ah've kept from ya for your own good."
"When you looked inside him, did you see what he really was?" Prime pressed. "Did you know?"
"No," Jazz replied tightly. "All Ah saw was a scared little youngling who only wanted ta know where he came from. He had no memories of his creators, no idea where he was from, or what had been done ta him before ya brought him ta Iacon. Ah did what Ah thought was right by going inta his head."
Bumblebee's plight had struck a chord with Jazz, because the majority of Jazz's life was exactly like Bumblebee's beginnings – a mystery. At the height of his madness, Jazz only remembered flashes of things. Brief, disjointed memories. He had hurt a lot of bots, and had lived as a scourge upon Cybertron and elsewhere. He knew these things about himself, but the details of his life remained beyond his grasp – perhaps even too terrible for him to want to remember.
He refused to regret the things that had made him what he was, but far be it from him to wish that fate on an innocent youngling.
"When I cracked the firewall, Ah saw the memories. Ah saw how he was made. There was no flashing sign inside his head ta say that something else was lurking in there. The only hint was some odd corruption in the data, a darkness that had no place being in a little youngling's mind." It had been too much like the darkness that had been fostered in himself at a young age. "Ah figured that it was a result of the way he had come inta the world. Ah wanted ta give him the best chances possible at a normal life, so Ah partitioned the data to make it inaccessible ta him, and then put the firewall back up ta make it look like it never came down."
"It makes me wonder what other secrets you have kept from us," Mirage drawled.
"More than ya want ta know, but not enough ta make meh an enemy," Jazz replied boldly, tilting his chin up in challenge.
"This isn't the time to start a fight over Jazz being himself," Optimus cut in, successfully defusing the tension between the two powerful commanders. "Blame cannot rest on him. There was no way for him to know the meaning of what he saw in Bumblebee's mind. Even I was tricked when I drew him into this world through my spark. I had thought him from the same place I had always draw sparks through the Allspark."
Finally dragging his optics away from the stars, Optimus shifted so that he could see the small gathering of his commanders. "If blame should be placed anywhere, it should firmly be on my shoulders. I am the one who was foolish enough to think I could bring life to this world without the Allspark."
"You sought to give us hope," Elita One countered. "Misguided, perhaps, but Bumblebee had been meant as a beacon to remind us that life was worth fighting for."
Chromia heaved a vile curse into the night, scrubbing her hand violently over her faceplate. "How the pit did everything go so wrong?" she demanded. "What the frag are we supposed to do now?"
It was a good question, and sadly there was no immediate answer.
Optimus cast his gaze to Elita One, nearly as aloof as the stars themselves – she was beautiful and untouchable, even to him. She met his gaze, drawn to it, and her optics were so sad as she gazed at him. She always looked so sad. He could feel her presence through their bond, knew of her love for him, her wish to be with him, and the awareness that she hurt him with her distance.
Without taking her gaze from her sparkmate, Elita answered Chromia's question. "We are going to take this one step at a time."
"In which direction, though?" Mirage wondered coolly, pacing a track through the dirt. "What problem can we solve first? We are faced with impossible decisions in all directions."
"They're not impossible decisions, just hard ones," Jazz countered tensely. "Like deciding whether or not we need to kill Bumblebee. That's not impossible. He can be killed, we just have to decide if that's the right thing ta do."
"That's not a decision we can make with just us here," Optimus sighed. "The other commanders – no, all the Autobots here should have a say in this."
The line of Jazz's mouth turned grim. "Are we gonna put Bumblebee's life ta a vote, then? That's stupid and ya know it. Ya saw him back there. The Bumblebee we knew is gone. We just have ta kill the thing that's walking around in his armour."
"Jazz!" Chromia snapped.
"Ya know Ah'm right," Jazz shot back. "Ya saw what came out of that portal with Nemesis. That wasn't Bumblebee. It was something else, and it had no qualms about trying ta kill us. Ah'm used ta making hard decisions, so if it comes down to it, Ah'll make the kill shot and let the rest of ya hate me for it."
It was the harshness of his words that reminded everyone that Jazz had not always been an Autobot, nor had he always been a good bot. There were things he was willing to do that few others would even dare contemplate.
"This is Bumblebee's life we are talking about," Ironhide rumbled in warning, flashing the saboteur a dark look that he could not see but he certainly felt it. "We're not going to be making any rash decisions tonight."
"No, not tonight, but soon," Jazz replied steadily.
"I have never hesitated to call you a hypocrite, but thank you for demonstrating the fact so succinctly," Mirage sneered. "We gave you every chance to redeem yourself when Prowl dragged your sorry aft to our doorstep and made you our problem, and yet you are the first to volunteer to kill Bumblebee the moment he goes bad? Your sense of loyalty astounds me."
"There is a difference between Bee an' Ah. Ah wasn't an evil god dragged out of another world against his will and stuffed into a mortal cage," Jazz spat. "It took Nemesis time before he was able ta break away from The Fallen – that must mean he needed ta gather his strength. If it's the same with Bee, then we still have time ta strike before he gets too powerful. If Ah get the shot, then Ah'll take it."
"We shouldn't be too hasty in this," Elita One warned.
"Will ya be so reserved when it's Bee's hands crushing one of our sparks, instead of Nemesis'?" Jazz asked.
Elita looked away sharply, as if she had been slapped. "All I mean to say is that we still have one resource open to us that might be... of use."
"The Fallen," Optimus said, confirming his suspicions when a wave of dread filled him through his sparkbond.
"He has experience in matters of... otherworldliness. If he is willing enough to safeguard Mikaela in order to bargain with us, then perhaps he may know something about Bumblebee or Nemesis and is willing to share. He will...help us." The words obviously cost her, their sound trembling on the night breeze. She shivered as if suddenly freezing.
"And if this is just an elaborate plot by him?" Mirage intoned.
Optimus eased to his feet, making his way to his sparkmate's side. He hid his hurt when she subtly shifted away from his towering figure, frightened to be caged in.
"We will just have to take the risk," the Prime said. "The Fallen may be a mad creature, but he has shown himself to be as equally clever. He knows things that we do not – perhaps he knows of a way to save Sam's life, or maybe he might know what has truly happened to Bumblebee and how it can be reversed."
"How do we... deal with him?" Ironhide said disdainfully.
"We bargain," Jazz said, and he almost sounded relieved to have a way out of his bid to murder Bumblebee. "The Fallen has things we want, and we have things he wants. The Twins have more experience with him than Ah do, but Ah know he works by making deals. If he gives us anything, we have to return something of equal value... and Ah imagine he's gonna price information about Nemesis and Bee at a premium."
And breaking a deals with the spectre had major consequences, as the saboteur knew well.
"So, we are really considering this?" Chromia asked incredulously. "Hands up if anyone really thinks this is a good idea."
"It's not a good idea, but it is all we have right now," Optimus said. "The Fallen might be our only means of learning more about Nemesis, and hopefully he will know something about getting Bumblebee back. None of us has to like it, but he may be our only hope right now."
"I imagine the others are going to object to this," Mirage observed. "Some more violently than others."
"They will be dealt with," Optimus replied.
"And if The Fallen does as he is wont to do?" the Master Spy pressed.
Optimus shuttered his optics, only to startle at the soft touch of tiny fingers slipping into his hand. He looked down to see Elita One's hand gently squeezing his, supporting him even when their future prospects clearly terrified her. He closed his hand around hers softly, trying not to spook her.
"We will deal with whatever comes our way. We have to."
Sam was out cold the moment his head hit the pillow.
To be honest, he'd been nearly insensate halfway up in the elevator. Every floor that had passed, his weight bore heavier on Mikaela's shoulder until she was nearly dragged to the floor. Though Sam struggled against the pull of exhaustion, it had been too strong, and Mikaela could not blame him after seeing all the amazing feats he had managed.
The very unfortunate thing about Sam's flagging strength was that Mikaela was not freakishly strong to make up for it. As much as she wanted to, she could not simply sweep Sam off his feet and carry him down the hall to his door. What happened in reality went more along the lines of heaving his dead weight down the hall, half-dragging, half-carrying, while Sam was semi-conscious enough to push with his feet. Mikaela was forced to prop him on her hip while she patted him down for the keys, and then juggled his weight while opening the door.
Getting to the bedroom had been another interesting affair. She only dropped him once, and hopefully no one was going to notice that bruise on his forehead shaped like the doorframe.
All that work had been worth it for the moment when he tucked his hand in hers, offering a grateful smile lit by the eerie light of his eyes. She pushed his body onto the bed, and that had been the end of it.
Now Mikaela laid with him, not yet ready to move away. She stretched out beside him, shivering in the contrast between the cool sheets beneath her and the unnatural heat Sam's body radiated. To make him more comfortable in sleep, she had stripped Sam of most of his outerwear – his blazer, shirt, shoes, socks, and slacks. Laying in nothing but his boxers, the glowing glyphs across his skin were especially obvious in the dark. They were bright enough to illuminate the room, casting off an eerie blue glow that made the shadows dance.
Careful not to disturb him, she traced the lines of his face. His jawline, cheekbones, under his eyes, done the line of his nose. She pet his short hair, stroked down his neck. She gently caressed the marks of the Allspark, feeling a strange crackling energy tingle up through her arm.
Unable to help herself, she leaned across the scant distance between them and planted a kiss at the corner of his mouth.
Sam did not even twitch at the contact. He laid like the dead. The eerie translucence of his skin only added to his corpselike appearance, where the play of light and shadow made the hollows of his cheeks extra dark, his eyes sunken into his skull. His exposed chest looked wasted, shadows showing where his ribs began to peek through. Sam had always been rangy, but now he appeared sickeningly gaunt.
He looked like his was dying, which was fitting...
A sudden sound erupted in the quiet, shocking Mikaela when she realized it came from her. A lone sob, sounding more like a choke. It was followed by another, and then another, until the choking sobs were joined by the blurred vision heralding tears. And then she was just laying there, crying her eyes out with her boyfriend laying like he was dead next to her.
Everything around her was the same. The smells of the apartment were the same. Her clothes on the floor were in the exact places she had left them. The melted clock on the bedside table had not been moved. Everything was the same. Same. Same!
But everything was also different.
Her house was in ruins. Bumblebee wasn't Bumblebee. Sam was dying!
A dark part of her questioned why she even bothered to come back to all of this. She didn't like the first time around all that much, and the second round was looking like it was going to suck just as much. But the moment she thought it, it made her hate herself for thinking something so selfish, and the tears came harder, and she cried louder into her pillow. She wished Sam would wake up to hold her and comfort her, but even that was a selfish thought. He was wiped. And a part of her suspected that he was teetering on the edge of going into a death-lock. If he wasted energy waking up, he'd probably fall straight into stasis.
Mikaela cried for longer than she cared to, feeling more and more pathetic the longer she cried by herself, in the dark. Even with Sam beside, she felt alone.
At one point, she must have cried herself to sleep, because she found herself jolting awake to the sound of murmured voices and the chink of glassware. Light poured in from underneath the door, strobing as people walked back and forth in the room beyond. The sky was still dark outside, though her midnight visitors apparently did not care what time it was.
"Fuck," Mikaela swore, feeling even more shitty than she did before passing out. Her eyes stung, and her stomach churned in a knot of sour feelings. As much as she loved to be back home, she needed time to decompress before she saw everyone again. At the very least, she needed a shower to get rid of the desert grit from her hair and the linger smell of The Fallen off her skin.
Shoring up the gumption necessary to show herself in public, Mikaela lurched to her feet and looked down at herself. She stripped off Sam's jeans and the borrowed blouse, throwing on her own clothing from the floor. It was freezing cold, but soft and familiar against her skin. She caught her dark reflection in the mirror on the wall, relieved that she looked like herself. Being around No One for so long had made her begin to doubt if she was really Mikaela Banes at all or if she was just an extension of his insanity.
Giving one last once over to Sam, she tugged the sheets higher and tucked him in. She laid a kiss to his forehead, heartened when he actually grunted in his sleep and his brow crinkled. It made him look less dead, though no less strange while he still glowed.
Pasting a smile on, Mikaela pulled open the bedroom door – and promptly froze.
Her company was not exactly what she had been expecting – insofar as she had been expecting human company, and what she saw gathered around Sam's kitchen and lounging in his living room were certainly not human at all.
A furless, black-skinned jackal trotted up to her, and then promptly stood up in the shape of a man to take her hand and place it on his arm in a very gentlemanly gesture. Gold bracers guarded his wrists, and an immaculate shawl of gold draped his neck and shoulders. He looked a lot less fierce than the first time she saw him charging into battle against Nemesis, but certainly a lot more otherworldly than the last time she saw him on the airplane.
He gave her an odd smile, a baring of his ivory white fangs in a muzzle of blackened flesh.
"I wasn't expecting you," she said dumbly, allowing the Egyptian god of mummification and the afterlife to lead her to the table and set her down at an empty setting. He sat beside her, an odd cross between impossible and domestic as he took a teacup in his clawed paws and sipped from it. The tea smelled exotic.
"Do I call you Anubis, or do I call you Mr. Jacquel?" Mikaela pressed in that same dumbstruck tone.
The jackal-headed god set down his teacup and shrugged. "Either one will do."
Mikaela looked down at her empty teacup. "Am I dreaming?"
"Do you want to be?" asked the god who sat on her other side, a man with a strange bird head whose beak was long and curved. He poured her tea from a teapot that Mikaela was one hundred percent certain Sam did not own. It didn't look very old, and it definitely did not look Egyptian. It looked... British.
Thoth caught her staring, pulling back the teapot and set it back on the ornate silver tray. "British Museum," he said with a relish. "They hold enough of our stuff, it's only fair that we borrow theirs. Don't worry, they'll never miss it." He winked a bird eye at her.
Mikaela choked on nervous laughter. She tried to hide her panic by taking up her teacup and breathing in the spicy aroma of the tea. She took a sip, finding the flavour pungent and striking. Any lingering tiredness was instantly banished. Her hands shook as she set the teacup down on its saucer.
From across the table, a brown hand reached out and patted her wrist. The fingers glinted with dozens of rings of gold, with gold bangles on the wrist, and armlets on the upper arms. On the tips of the fingers, the nails were long, thick, and curved – claws. Instead of a woman's head, a black cat's head was perched on her shoulders with a sweetly concerned expression. The ears flicked back and forth absently, the earings in them jangling a soft tune.
"About that dreaming business, my dear," said Bastet in the warmest voice possible, "We can make this a dream if you want it to be."
"Are gods real?" Mikaela asked brokenly. "Are you really... real?"
"Do you think we are real?" Bastet asked lightly, her cat mouth moving slightly out of time with the words. Her very warm, very soft, very real hand gave Mikaela a gentle squeeze.
"Yes." The word felt thick on her tongue.
"Then we are real." Bastet drew back her hand to take a delicate sip of her tea, drinking rather than lapping like a cat.
Mikaela stared at the goddess who had helped to save her life. To her left was another god, and to her right, yet another. There was a man with a falcon head in the living room, sitting erect on the couch with a spear crossing his lap, watching with sharp eyes for any sign of undesirables. Mikaela imagined he was watching for The Fallen. There were others, half-formed shadows that perched on cushions or paced along the walls. They added to the quiet din, there but not there, filling up the quiet space with the comfort of people being there.
"I don't want to be alone right now," Mikaela mumbled, feeling a new wash of tears sting her eyes.
"That's why we're here," Bastet soothed, her words gently purred. "We didn't think you wanted to be alone."
"Why you?" Mikaela wondered, scoring her eyes with the back of her wrist to dash away unwanted tears.
"Familiar faces? You seem like a nice girl, and you have powerful allies," Bastet offered, one shoulder arching in a graceful gesture. "If you'd like another pantheon, I'm sure something can be arranged..."
"No, no, that's alright. You've gone to enough trouble already," Mikaela hurried to say, feeling the bizarre urge not to be rude. She took a fortifying sip of her tea. "Sam's dying... everything's so messed up. I don't think I can be alone right now."
"We know. We know," Bastet cooed sadly, stroking the back of her hand soothingly. "No One has put you through the wringer, my dear. But enough is enough. You've had a big day. It's time to rest now. This will all work out, you'll see."
"Can you save Sam?" she warbled.
"No," Anubis said gravely.
"He is beyond our help now," Horus said from the couch, never looking their way. "The Allspark has done its damage."
"Oh." Mikaela deflated sadly in her seat, glancing briefly at the sliver of open doorway into the bedroom, where Sam's blue light glowed steadily.
"Is there anything else we can do for you?" Bastet wondered.
"Stay until morning?" Mikaela asked wearily. Even if this was all a hallucination, or a dream, or just another way for No One to torment her, it was nice right now. She needed company, but not people who were going to coddle her. She didn't want the faces of her friends and family crowding around her, their expressions bleak and strained as they dealt with their own problems. She felt safe surrounded by gods, which made a fantastical kind of sense when she had spent the last eight years dating the most powerful power source in all the universe.
"What makes you think we haven't been here the whole time?" Anubis chuckled, shaking his big jackal head. "Mortals. Just because you can't see it, you think it's not there."
"Of course we'll stay until morning," Bastet assured over the other god, simultaneous seeming to kick Anubis under the table. Or perhaps she cat-scratched him with her toenails.
Thoth leaned down to her with a pigeon-like coo, his feathers soft against her skin as he said, "You look like you could really use a spot of tea, my dear."
Mikaela swallowed the hard lump in a her throat, figuring that she could really use a spot of tea.
"I don't remember falling asleep," Sam said as he walked the burning sands of a desert. He felt the grains shifting between his toes, sinking into the open gouges that scored his skin.
"No one ever remembers falling asleep," Lucifer replied blandly, keeping pace easily. His blonde hair shone like glided gold beneath the untamed sun, while his immaculate suit was nearly impossible to look upon as it simmered with a retina-searing glare.
"How do you know? Evil never sleeps," Sam groused, wishing he had a pair of pockets to shove his hands into. Unfortunately, he was naked. Again.
"Touché," the devil chuckled. "You're a clever boy. It makes me wish I tried harder for your soul."
Sam shrugged. "Your loss."
"C'est la vie." Lucifer shielded his jewel bright eyes to peer up at the unchanging sky, as if he meant to check the time or the direction of their progress. It was hot in the desert, but he didn't sweat. Sam imagined it was much hotter where he was from.
"So." Sam glanced at the same sky, but saw nothing significant. He almost wished to the skyline of Mission City, if only to break up the monotony of the whistling dunes scraping against the distant sky. "Why doesn't anyone remember when they fall asleep?"
He couldn't seem to stop himself from responding, the words pulled from him like a puppet pulled by strings. The words felt disembodied from the movements of his mouth.
A smirk glance was cast his way. "It is not until you wake up that you come to the logical conclusion that you had fallen asleep sometime in the past. You need to be conscious to remember something, and being conscious defeats the purpose of falling asleep."
Sam shot the devil a sidelong glare. "People remember their dreams, but they're unconscious while they dream."
"Are they really?" Lucifer wondered lightly, as if humouring a stupid, young child.
"Are they really what?" Sam snapped.
"Are they really dreaming?"
Sam made a face. "How can they not be dreaming?"
White silk-clad shoulders shrugged carelessly. "It is not like they remember falling asleep."
"But that would mean I'm awake right now. I'm not awake. I can't be. I know I'm dreaming."
"How do you know you're dreaming?"
"Because I... just do," Sam said lamely, growing disgruntled with the conversation.
"Right. You are so eloquent." Lucifer shrugged a perfectly sculpted shoulder, rustling his immaculate wings. "What if you are both? Perhaps you are both awake and dreaming."
"I can't be both," Sam insisted. "This is a dream. It is obviously a dream. You can't be awake and dreaming at the same time."
One golden brow arched condescendingly. "Then what do you call daydreamers?"
"Urgh!" He spread his arms wide to encompass the endless desert that stretched out to the horizons all around them. Reality had never looked so high-contrast. "All of this can't be real."
"Again, why not? Real is such a subjective thing. People manipulate what is real all the time. Reality is built upon perception, and perception is all in the eye of the beholder," Lucifer said with a dismissive flick of his perfectly manicured hand. "If the dream is what you perceive, then it becomes reality. If reality is the prerequisite to being real, then all dreams are real for as long as you perceive them."
Sam pursed his lips, wanting to argue, but could think of nothing to say. The conversation was done. His part in the puppet show finished.
The devil cast him an enigmatic look, one that was not as inherently evil as all his other looks. Instead, it was a look that seemed to etch the fallen angel's age upon his eyes. He was ancient, and knew all the evils borne by man. He looked wearied by his existence.
"All things that are real, Sam, are only real because they are first dreamt of."
Sam made a noise at the back of his throat, a cross between disgust, annoyance, and an unbidden fear he could not pin down. "Why do you always come? Why can't I have someone else?"
"Because you won't let anything good happen to you."
They walked for what felt like hours. The sand shifted to cover their prints behind them, leaving no trace of their journey. Their landscape never changed, the dunes never shifting, nor did the shadows shift upon the sand. Though the sun never moved in the sky, Sam was convinced that days had passed before he grew too irritated to tolerate the dream any longer. He had the sneaking suspicion that they had not moved an inch from the moment the dream began.
"I'm sick of this!" he exclaimed, stopping dead in the sand. "Where the hell are we going?"
Lucifer cast him a look like he was stupid. "Nowhere."
"We're already here."
Like a slap in the face, Sam jerked back with a sputtering curse. His eyes darted around and suddenly he realized his surroundings had changed. They had walked to the top of a rocky limestone outcropping, bleached white as bones under the unforgiving sun. The natural monument jutted like dry, jagged bones from the sand, pockmarked with empty black holes that stared outward like the dark sockets of a skull. The stone was sizzling hot beneath Sam's soles, and sharp enough to cut with every step. Pools of blue quickly spread beneath his feet. His blood felt cool compared to the stone.
"Dream logic," he sneered.
Lucifer's tone was the very definition of patronizing when he said, "You are in a dream, after all."
Sam resisted the urge to spit a few choice words the devil's way. He took a deep, calming breath and let it out. When he could look at his company again without wanting to create an incident of biblical proportions, he asked, "So why the desert? Personal preference? Didn't you do some of your best work in the desert?"
"Actually, I do most of my best work on the internet."
"Of course you do." Sam still glared, waiting for an answer. He wasn't waking up without a damn good one.
Lucifer straightened the front of his lapels, unruffled by the Allspark's attitude. He seemed to think it was cute. "Who says I had anything to do with this?"
Sam gave a black glare.
The devil rolled his jewel bright eyes, flashing yellow like a snake's under the piercing light. "You don't get it, do you? This isn't even your dream."
Sam followed the tilt of the devil's head, squinting into heatwaves. At first he thought he was looking into a mirage, a mirror image of the outcropping beneath Sam's feet. But the figure standing atop of it was not Sam's reflection. Its shape was indistinct, its details blurred, as if it did not know what it was supposed to be. The lone figured stared unblinkingly down into Sam's soul.
It was dark and cold in Sam's head, but his heart lurched in his chest.
"Bee?" he croaked. "Bumblebee?"
That strange, blurred shape twisted its head about, searching for the owner of that name. The wind blew, bringing with it the dry sound of shivering thrushes at the height of summer. Sand picked up, rubbing Sam's skin raw, getting caught in the whirling gouges that decorated his skin. He felt each particle acutely, while watching as the sand passed through the phantom with ease.
"Bumblebee, it's me. It's Sam." He did not realize he had been creeping to the edge of the rockface until Lucifer's hand stayed him at the shoulder.
"That first step is a doozy."
Sam shrugged away, not caring for the bottomless black pit the opened up at his feet. "What's wrong with him? Why isn't he talking?"
"Bumblebee never existed, Sam. He was just a veneer that built up over top of the being who was really there, a bit like a fungus," said the devil. "What you see there is just an echo."
"You're wrong. He wouldn't be here if he wasn't real. You said this was his dream! He has to be real." To the mirage, he called out, "Bumblebee! Bumblebee, you are real! I won't let you disappear! Just hold on, okay? We'll figure something out!"
The figure flickered, fading.
"No! Come back! Bumblebee, please don't go! Please! You can't leave me!"
It stopped fading. The head cocked to the side, obviously listening.
"Stay right there, okay?" Sam croaked, holding out his hand in a staying gesture. "Don't move. Stay right where I can see you. Don't go anywhere."
It became a little more solid as the echo settled.
Lucifer turned to leave.
"Hey," Sam called, not daring to look away from Bumblebee. "Thanks."
The devil shrugged nonchalantly. "I do my second best work in deserts." He departed the dream by stepping off the rock, and then was no longer there.
Now alone, Sam eased to the energon-stained edge of the outcropping and eased himself down to dangle his legs over. He was heartened to see Bumblebee's remains did the same, but then reminded himself that it was just an echo. A fragile echo. It had no identity right now, so it had to copy him in order to be real.
"We're going to figure this out, Bee," Sam said hoarsely.
The wind came again,dry and biting, and while the sand whispered it said, "Sam."
"That's right! I'm Sam! And you're Bumblebee!" Sam exclaimed, desperate to do anything to get Bumblebee back. "Don't worry, buddy. I'm going to get you back."
The echo solidified even more, its faded yellow brightening, the lines sharpening. "Sam."
"I know you're in there, Bumblebee. You're not just some fungus. You're real. I'm not going to let you disappear."
It might not have been his dream, but Sam dreamed hard enough for the both of them.