"When the sky appears in pain
and sunset no more than a wound,
what are the thoughts that occur
to a libertine soul like yours?
…The canyons of bloody cloud
accommodate my pride,
their nebulous shapes become
a splendid hearse for my dreams,
their red glow the reflection
of the Hell where my heart's at home."
(Baudelaire, "Sympathetic Horror")
When Epps woke that morning, it seemed the fog of his dream would not let him go, and persisted in the shroud of mist that lingered over everything. Stepping out beyond the haven of his tent, his heart was kick started into clawing at the cage of his ribs when he saw the gray damp. Fear coiled within him, and for a long moment he fought the wild, irrational urge to go plunging into the fog to seek out Optimus, to make sure this was no dream. Logic told him that the last shot had been fired, that the dust was beginning to fall on the final battle field, that now he was safe at camp, that nothing threatened them here. But as the morning fog pressed in about him, logic took a leap out the window, icy gut wrenching fear, nipped at his heels and guided him toward the main camp where HQ waited, where Lennox waited, where Optimus waited.
Adrenaline tasted bitter on his tongue as he pushed through the gloom, nerves strung tight as he continued onward and found nothing but silence and fog. Reason abandoned him as he struggled to discern if he was not still trapped in his dream as Optimus had been trapped. No, insistent memory objected, not trapped but crushed under the weight of the skyscraper, crushed, slain…
Despite the chill in the air beads of nervous sweat broke out across his forehead, his fingertips drifted closer to his gun holster as he heard the crunch of gravel. Someone approaching out of the impossibly thick mists, someone—
A young voice, an uncertain voice.
At last recognition came to Epps. But the shock of it all, of reality slamming into him, reasserting that this was indeed no dream, kept his answer from sounding as nonchalant as he would have liked. " 'Sup Stuart…"
The appearance of Stuart seemed to vanquish the monsters that lurked in the fog, and slowly the mists began to dissipate, sounds of movement, of a camp waking, of voices, of life echoed over to Epps as if from a great distance. As the sound slowly saturated the air he began to realize the source of his panic had been from his inadvertent circling away from the camp, rather than toward it. Where he had thought he would have been heading straight into the heart of their make shift base, he had in reality been walking toward the perimeter; running into Stuart had been pure chance.
"Just heading to the press conference…the one Mearing called…" The answer was long in coming; having avoided the senior officer thus far, Stuart now shifted his weight from one foot to the other, uncomfortable in the other's presence. Memory held sway over so many and over such much here, and for Stuart it was no different. Once more in the company of Epps, it was nearly impossible for Stuart to forget how Epps had froze, how he had just let the reporters through, let them swarm Optimus leaving the Autobot leader defenseless.
Of course Stuart knew it was ridiculous to think of the Prime as unable to protect himself, particularly after he had saved humanity from near enslavement. But Stuart recognized that those endeavoring reporters had indeed attacked Optimus, not with plasma grenades of course, but with poison tipped words that were just as efficient as lancing Autobot frames as the most deadly armor piercing rounds. More than this Epps had given the press their opportunity to cast Optimus in anything but a positive way. It had been NEST's chance to show the world what the 'bots were really like.
And Epps had blown it.
For that, Stuart had a hard time forgiving his commanding officer, a man he had come to respect, had come to accept as friend, as family. Stuart cleared his throat, the sound brittle and harsh, "I…should head out, sir."
"Oh…right…" It wasn't as though Epps had been eager to run into the younger soldier either.
"Are you going, sir?"
Stuart had known Epps, had fought beside him and the Autobots for nearly four years now, yet he had never managed to break his rookie habit of referring to all higher ranking officers as sir. NEST had always seemed to function on a far more informal, familiar manner than many other branches of the military, for rarely did the soldiers acknowledge rank among themselves. They were all brothers and sisters in arms, all united under the common cause of defending Earth. Each one knew that when it came down to it, the only rank or chain of command that held sway, that truly mattered, was Optimus Prime's and Lennox's. So although Stuart's habit of retaining military formality was commonly regarded as his endearing idiosyncrasy, under the circumstances, Epps had to wonder if it wasn't a formality that Stuart was deliberately hiding behind.
"Well…Lennox said it's mandatory, yeah?"
"Yes what, sir?"
Epps felt old then, standing under the morning sun that was beginning to burn through the fog; he felt ancient, worn and beaten. Yet as he took a moment, letting that ancient sensation sink in, feeling the weight of his life upon his shoulders and his heart there rose a clatter of noise just beyond Stuart. It was the unmistakable a rattle and sigh of gears and servos, the cadence of an approaching Autobot. Epps tensed, watching as the Cybertronian emerged from the mist, focus elsewhere as he walked across the yard, sunlight winking off of glossy yellow paint, clean and fresh. Bumblebee.
At the sound of the heavy footfalls—hard to miss considering that even the scout's steps vibrated the concrete beneath their feet—Stuart turned, a genuine smile lighting up his features, his entire demeanor changing. He waved at the passing Autobot.
As soon as Stuart's voice reached Bee's audio receptors he turned toward them, emitting perky whistles and clicks following promptly with the drawl of John Wayne, "Morning to you there!"
Bee's bright optics danced from first Stuart then to Epps, clearly wishing them both a good morning, but Epps' greeting caught in his throat, thick and swollen the words could not work their way past his tongue. Again, where an Autobot was extending friendship to him, Epps found himself only capable of offering silence.
Before Stuart could comment on the strained silence that had rapidly filled the air, another voice chimed in, oblivious to the tension below him, "Hey Stuart, morning!" Sam's voice echoed on the heels of Bumblebee's audio clip, and both Epps and Stuart turned looking for Sam on the ground.
"Up here." Comfortable and at ease, Sam was perched on Bumblebee's shoulder, swinging his feet in the air, palms pressed against the warming panels of Bee's shoulder struts, "Hey Epps…sorry I didn't see you…"
Epps' jaw muscles felt rusted, aching as he willed them to work, " 'Sup Sam…" Scarcely had he mouthed the hollow greeting before Sam was off chattering about how he, Carly and Bee had been excused from exercises, how, in fact, all search efforts had been suspended until tomorrow because of a conference Lennox and Mearing had called. Of course Sam and Bee's presence hadn't been required at said meeting, thus the source of Sam's exuberance stemmed from the prospect of a day not spent wading through the remains of a city, of death. Epps vaguely thought he heard Sam mention how they were going to leave the city and go for a drive.
"…Sir? Are you alright, sir?"
How the hell did the Autobots do it? How did they endure for so long, live through unspeakable horrors, countless decades of suffering and death and still have the strength the ability to enjoy life? A wheeze of a sigh worked its way from Epps' lungs. Apparently Sam and Bee had already said their goodbyes and when Epps looked up he briefly caught the sight of Bumblebee's doors, jauntily perched high up on his back like wings, as the Autobot turned the corner, disappearing behind a still serviceable building.
"Sir…?" There was genuine concern beneath Stuart's tone that surprised Epps.
"Yeah, yeah…c'mon man, lets get our sorry asses to this meeting that Lennox and Mearing are so worked up over…"
He knew how to deal with reporters. Knew how to stand by, silent as the grave, serious and steady when needed, and when to give empty, soul-less smiles to reassure. How swiftly Lennox had come to recognize that there was a measure of training for such things, training that was no less intense than actual combat preparations. Though when it came down to it, he preferred the latter rather than the former by far. But each and every moment of this press conference grated upon him, shredding him emotionally, tearing what was still raw and aching, into opaque fragments.
When Epps at last had joined them, Lennox had known, known instantly in the pit of his stomach that he was looking at a man who was being pushed closer and closer to his breaking point. He walked as though each step might shatter him, like glass spider webbed with filigree cracks, needing only the slightest amount of pressure to break. So, it had been a sleepless night for Epps as well then. Really, after taking one look at Epps, Lennox was not surprised, had seemed to expect as much even. It was precisely why when Epps did appear out of the sluggish mists and drizzle that clung resolutely around them, the first thing Will was sure to do, was tuck his old friend into a far corner…and pray no one would ask him any questions.
Nevertheless, Epps knew how to deal with reporters, should have been an old hand at these things.
But what broke Epps, what at last pushed him, was in fact, the sudden appearance of Elena. Not mistaking that all too familiar clip of stylish heels snapping against the concrete, Lennox breathed a sigh of relief; here at last was a soldier who knew how to fight a different kind of battle, who was every inch the Director that Mearing was not. Her armory was not of grenades and guns—though he knew first hand that she was an excellent shot—rather, her weapons were of precisely aimed words, honed and lethal. He had hoped she would come, had wished for it perhaps no less fervently than her husband, though for vastly different reasons. Swooping in, she should have immediately zeroed in on the pack of reporters, should have been able to herd them with nips and bites of well-chosen replies. Instead, the first thing her steely gaze focused upon was not Lennox, not Mearing, not the throng of press, not even her husband Epps, but rather Optimus.
Touch was a sense most took for granted, a sense that was typically foreign to the 'bots yet intimately familiar to humanity. Like oxygen, humans craved it, needed it—more perhaps than they realized—those in the closely knit unit could and often did pat a worn Autobot arm panel there, a shin plate here, through touch expressing what was verbally beyond them. As the aftermath of death lay around them, these simple touches and brushes gave voice to a thousand emotions that in its roots both sought to comfort and be comforted.
No different, Lennox had lingered beside Optimus, perhaps a shade closer than normal; his forearm resting easily against the kneeling Prime's shin. This touch was not just an expression, a yearning for comfort and support to be drawn and given, but defiance also: a determination to show these reporters that the Autobots were no snapping, snarling monsters. No mere machines to crush and destroy but beings that were decidedly something more.
Having come to understand that since the last shot had been fired, since the last enemy had fallen, most of their human companions had all come to linger closer, seeking out that touch as reassurance that they were indeed alive, had survived somehow. Whenever possible, Sam had hovered around Bee, never letting the yellow scout out of his sight, often wishing to perch on his guardian's knee, his shoulder, anywhere in short where he could be close to the young though battle hardened 'bot. It was no different for Vladimir who shared such a strong bond with Ratchet and again with Sideswipe and Olsen who had become fast friends. In the wake of battle, the humans had become all the more protective of the 'bots; it was both strange and yet oddly reassuring.
So it was that Optimus voiced no objections to Lennox now, instead took comfort as well from the steely reserve of one of their staunchest allies and resigned himself to the attack that was to come. Having been forewarned, the Prime now knelt ever patient and tolerant to the flurry of questions—most were less than kind, some just barely respectful—that the press tossed at him.
Such was the scene that Elena was welcomed to that morning. It was the first time that Elena had seen Optimus since the defeat of the Decepticons. Of course, Lennox and Epps had warned her that their Papa Bot was worse for wear, but it had not been enough to truly prepare her for what she was now witness to. Tears instantly sprang to her slate gray eyes, her features knit into one of sorrow and suffering as she moved to stand directly before him, moving through the gathered press as easily as water. Delicate, a white blooming flower, she reached out with one hand to the Prime, the other sprang to her own lips as though to hold in a river of apologies. Tissue thin, her fingertips came to brush against the foremost point on Optimus' battle-mask and, with soft click, he shuttered his optics, leaning ever so slightly into the sympathetic touch.
The snap and flash of one reporter's camera.
It was a moment perfected, sculpted in the validity of emotions felt by both parties.
Click. Click. Click.
More cameras, hungry for more, swallowing the scene up as Elena placed her other hand, palm flat against the side of the Prime's mask. She shook her head, one flawless tear, a liquid diamond drop, fell from her lashes as she murmured, "What have we done to you…to the Autobots…what have we done…?"
She felt the vibrations of his answer through her hands, up into her arms, "We defend…we protect…no price is too much to pay for the salvation of Humanity…"
Click. Click. Click.
Before him, Lennox felt sighs and murmurs ripple through the crowd, sensed the tide finally beginning to turn within the reporters. Perhaps maybe now, at long last, they were beginning to see that the Autobots were not their enemies. Questions lost their harsh edge, became more genuine; Mearing had been right, this conference had been the key toward turning the publicity in the 'bot's favor and through it all Elena had been the catalyst. Had she planned it, Lennox had to wonder, or had she merely reacted? Fielding answers in a cool and even tone, she stood on Optimus' other side, yet for all her composure Lennox had to wonder if that moment had been perhaps too perfect…But even as the question rose in his mind, it was banished as he took a moment to study her features. No, those tears, that anguished expression on her face when she had first beheld Optimus, had been all too real.
"Now that the Decepticons are all dead or gone, how much longer do you think you and your troops will remain here, Mr. Prime?"
Defensively, Elena snapped out a reply before Optimus could, "You wouldn't mean to imply that you would exile the very beings who just saved our entire race and planet now would you? Or should I say, you wouldn't suggest to exile them again?"
"—Well, what I meant—"
"—Because I don't think I need to remind you of what happened the first time we mistakenly exiled them." A perfect blend of sass and sweetness as a sharp smile turned up the corners of Elena's lips as a nervous laugh ran through the gathered group; the reporter who had asked the question fell silent, rebuked and no one dared to oppose her.
"The Autobots were always a peaceful race of beings that were forced onto the offensive by the Decepticons. That their war was brought here was unfortunate, but the moment that the Decepticons involved Sam Witwicky, they involved humanity. Their war became ours and they became not just our most valuable allies but for many of us, they became some of our most trusted friends."
Tactfully Elena side stepped, fingertips drifting back, dancing inches away from the gaping wound of Optimus' shoulder, twisted and blackened, "I don't know about you…" She continued quietly, no longer speaking exclusively to the press but also to the great being that knelt beside her, "…But knowing how much the Autobots have sacrificed, at how many of their brethren have given their lives to protect humanity, the last question on my mind would be if they are leaving but rather of how long we could invite them to stay…This could and should be their home now too…"
Incredibly, Lennox heard a murmur of ascent ripple through the group. Finally, at long last, Elena was making them see Optimus not as a monster, as a looming threat, but as a defender, a protector; it was a truth they had known all along, but a truth the world had yet to truly learn and appreciate.
Timidly, a second reporter shuffled forward drawing Optimus' gaze, "Mr. Optimus Prime do you think you would…you could consider allowing the Autobots to remain on Earth as their…as your…new home?"
This time Elena didn't answer for him, and the soothing, plush velvet of his rich timber washed over them all, "We would be honored to consider Earth as our new home, if humanity as a whole were to extend such an invitation."
Impossibly, the reporter managed a nervous though nonetheless genuine smile, looking actually pleased by the Autobot Leader's answer. Slowly but surely, more questions continued to come, about the loss the Autobots had endured. Jazz. Wheeljack. Ironhide. Skids and Mudflap. Jetfire. The interest now was anything but condemnation, rather the like mind of all gathered was to memorialize them and to have those Autobots remembered for their sacrifice.
Standing amid and yet a part from the throng of press, it was all too much for Epps.
It didn't bother the solider that his wife had not seen him and had gravitated instead toward Optimus. No, what ate at Epps, pushed at his fraying grip on reason was that his wife was perpetuating the notion that Optimus was some sort of saint, of long awaited savior. Elena, in his mind, was being taken in, perhaps wanting so very much to look around at all of the destruction, ruin and loss of life and not just make sense of it all, but something more. She, like so many others wanted to look at it all, at all of the remains and somehow absolve Optimus of fault, of blame, to instead see him somehow as victim and not victimizer.
It was all too much for Epps.
Unable to take the press conference for a minute longer—no one besides Lennox had even taken notice of his arrival and continued presence anyways—Epps began to work his way to the back of the gathering, away from Elena, away from Optimus, away from it all. Bypassing the last of the reporters, Epps tossed one last look over his shoulder. The last sight he had of the gathering was a pair of unearthly blue optics locking gazes with him and watching wordlessly, unmoving, as Epps turned his back and walked away.