This is a sequel to A Story Told and Ended. It will not make sense unless you read that first.
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Title: The Writing on the Window, Pt. 1
Warning: Boring things couched in lurid purple prose. Seriously, it's dull and overblown at the same time. Sometimes coping with loss is.
Continuity: G1, Season 3, (D)Alliances AU
Characters: Witwickys, Chip Chase, Astoria Carlton-Ritz, Autobots.
Disclaimer: The theatre doesn't own the script or actors, nor does it make a profit from the play.
Motivation (Prompt): comment-request: "something with Daniel after his father's death and the TF of your choice."
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There were many phases to grief. Humans had chopped them down to five main ones and even labeled them for convenience: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
Humans were always labeling things, compartmentalizing their kitchens and offices and emotions. It was as if humans required labels to make an abstract idea fact. Although humans were forever willing to argue about the terms, the labeling process simply fine-tuned what the phases were and what they were called. Humans didn't argue that there were phases of grief and they must be labeled in order to be dealt with.
Dealing with the phases, of course, led to labeling the many ways of coping. Progression: moving from one phase to another in order. Regression: backward progression, or reversal through previously experienced phases. Skipping: erratic progression and regression through the phases. Stalling: stopping in a particular phase.
Daniel wasn't sure what phase he was in. He wasn't sure it mattered if he could identify his emotions, or figure out how he was coping. Psychiatrists recommended labeling internal struggles, as if recognizing and naming a problem could help solve it, but Daniel had never been to a psychiatrist. His father hadn't believed that psychiatrists really helped anyone.
It was an attitude distilled from Sparkplug's muted contempt for the up-and-coming profession back in the '80s. Sparkplug had been raised in a working-class family. The menfolk had been farmers and blacksmiths, mechanics and soldiers. They were manual laborers and skilled at their jobs, but ultimately just people who believed in what their eyes could see and hands could fix. Mechanical problems could be dealt with wrenches and bolts. Physical problems? Go to a doctor. But mental problems were a man's own realm. Psychiatrists were for the rich folk who couldn't handle their own heads.
The Autobots had never asked how their human friends were coping with being part of an intergalactic war. It'd been such an accepted part of Cybertronian life that the Autobots hadn't even been resigned to it anymore. It'd ceased registering as unusual at all. Pointing it out by scheduling appointments with a psychiatrist would have felt rude; Yeah, so that war thing you brought onto planet and into our lives? Not to add insult to injury and make you feel even more helpless about involving Earth in your war, but we need help dealing with some issues…
In any case, Spike hadn't looked down on human psychiatrists so much as he'd just believed that if the Autobots couldn't fix it, it wasn't broken. A combination of his father's distrust of the profession and the faith Spike had in Ratchet's abilities kept him from even thinking about going in when some government flunkie had suggested it. To be honest, it'd have felt supremely wrong talking to another human about his thoughts. Discussing his life with someone who probably had never been among Autobots or Decepticons or been to another planet would have been weird. He and Carly had lived the majority of their lives with giant alien robots. After a while, it'd stopped being strange for them.
It'd never even started being so for Daniel.
That had, although they'd never told anyone, been intentional. It had been an agreement between the Witwicky parents. The Autobots and Decepticons weren't going to leave Earth unchanged. Carly and Spike had believed that Earth's response to the Cybertronian war couldn't be tentative. Tentative would get humankind killed. Their choice could only be all or nothing: commitment or destruction. Their first step in that commitment had been to dedicate themselves to immersion in Cybertronian society, just as the Autobots had immersed themselves in Earth culture and life without hesitation. It had been an unspoken action-reaction agreement between the Autobot crew and the Witwickys who represented humanity. The Autobots had sent more of their kind to Earth to adapt; in response, the Witwickys had taken the second step.
The second step had been to bring the next generation up inside the merged Earth-Cybertron culture. Daniel had been raised to see Earth and Cybertronian life as equal. More importantly, he'd been raised to not even question if they should be equal. In his unquestioning acceptance of all lifeforms, he shamed those who would have claimed superiority. Trying to explain unfounded prejudice to Daniel's uncomprehending stare unsettled the worst of the Humans First activists, and racists wound themselves into frothing knots around him.
"Optimus Prime died on Earth," Mr. Witwicky had said in his first televised speech in front of the United Nations assembly as the Earth-Cybertron Liaison, "not on Cybertron. How can we accord less respect to the Cybertronians when their beloved leader laid down his life for a foreign world as if it were his own?"
There had been no gaps in the phases of grief when Optimus Prime died. The Witwickys had mourned all of the Autobots who'd died in the Battle of Autobot City as they'd have mourned human family members. The events after the battle gave them no time for delay. They'd progressed through the phases as if on fast forward, running for their lives and desperately grasping onto that living. By the time Unicron had been halted, heightened emotions and battle adrenaline had burned through the worst of the after effects. Their friends had died, and the Witwickys had accepted it.
Chip Chase hadn't. He hadn't been present at the battle. He hadn't been there for the aftermath. He hadn't been on Cybertron for Unicron's arrival and death. It had taken a couple months for anyone on Cybertron to even remember him back on Earth. They'd all been too busy reconstructing a half-destroyed planet.
The man's emotional trauma hadn't helped meet them halfway. He was one of those who would have been better off going to a psychiatrist, but he'd refused to admit it until after the damage had been deeply rooted. "I was in denial for a long time after I saw the news broadcasts, and I took up drinking to stop myself from thinking. I drank a lot," Chip had said through the vidscreen, and Daniel hadn't understood why his mother had paled. Daniel hadn't been around the older man much back in Autobot City, but the handicapped inventor had been kind to him the few times they met. True, the man's voice had gone strained and gravelly, and there were deep lines grooved into his face — but old people got old. It's what they did. "I should have called earlier, but I got angry when no one called to tell me about Ratchet and Wheeljack. I was angry that the funerals were off-planet. I'd wanted to be there. So I started drinking more."
"We didn't mean to leave you out of things," Spike had protested, looking helpless to change what had already happened. "Perceptor wants you on the team—"
"No," the old man on the screen had interrupted gently. "I…can't take that anymore, Spike. This is war, and there are losses in war." He'd looked down, one hand restlessly combing through thinning grey hair. "Ratchet and Wheeljack were my friends. I don't think I could bear to make more friends just to lose them to the Decepticons. There doesn't seem to be any point to working with 'bots who will go into battle tomorrow and die before me. There's even less point to trying to be around the survivors when they obviously can't remember me. It's unreasonable, I know, but I felt forgotten. I still feel forgotten. Perceptor didn't call until he needed something and finally got around to remembering I exist. I'm not a tool to be taken out when needed and put away when I'm not. I…care about the Autobots. Wheeljack and Ratchet," his voice had wavered, "weren't my only friends among them. I want to keep my distance from those friends, just in case. I'll stay here on Earth, and maybe it won't be as exciting." Something stretched thin under his voice, giving it an old man's quaver well before his time, and grief and resignation turning under the skin of his face. "Maybe it won't be quite as cutting edge. But my colleagues are less likely to forget me — and more likely to survive me."
Spike and Carly had tried to persuade him differently, but grief could be as irrational as a man was stubborn. Depression couldn't be reasoned with, and pressing a man with bruised feelings only caused more pain. Chip Chase never returned to Autobot City, and although Perceptor frequently held video conferences between Cybertron and Earth, the Autobot scientist never visited his oldest human colleague again.
Daniel sometimes looked at the pictures of Chip Chase before the Battle of Autobot City, all tucked away out of sight by the Autobots. They were kept in the back of drawers in Perceptor's lab and under passcodes in the datafiles. The lines hadn't been on Mr. Chase's face, back in the days before. A smile had been. Daniel took the pictures out occasionally, handling them as tenderly as touching another person's bruised flesh, and he looked at that smile. He wondered what phase of grief the Autobots were in.
Astoria Carlton-Ritz had settled permanently in the Anger phase. The heiress had to be pushing 65 by now, but when she arrived at Autobot City for her bi-annual holiday, Metroplex was the one who complained of headaches. Bodyaches, really, because she had the lungs of a professional opera singer and the voice of a howler monkey. Entire corridors vibrated in pained sympathy when she shrilled her displeasure.
Not 'whenever' or 'if': 'when.' Because she always, always did. Astoria didn't come with a mute setting.
"You never write, you never visit! I never see you! Would it be so hard to push the 'on' button on your gorram vidscreen and say hello?" the elderly diva had railed on one day not two years ago. Less irate ladies would have succumbed to the discomfort of high-heeled shoes and found a seat at this point. Instead, she'd ripped the pink pumps off her feet and thrown them aside as she'd continued stomping down the corridor with her power-suited shoulders rigidly indignant. "And don't say you're never on Earth — I know better, you disgraceful model plane! That tin can planet of yours doesn't have enough wind to keep your goldfish-brain occupied!"
Powerglide had shouted right back, stomping after the rich woman yet somehow never outpacing her. "I tried calling, and your fragging secretaries put me on hold for hours on end! It's not like I don't have better things to do with my time than play phone-tag with a conceited bitch playing power games!"
"Oh, now I'm playing power games?" She'd whirled to confront the plane, utterly un-intimidated by their height difference, and whipped out a smartphone decked out in tasteless but hideously expensive jewels. It had proclaimed its owner to be so wealthy she could color-coordinate her expensive toys with her outfits: both had been a lovely, delicate shade of rose petal pink. Delicacy had been ruined when she'd shaken the phone at Powerglide like a weapon. "You want a power game? I could crush your precious AutoCorp. with one phone call. One. You know how many shares Hybrid Technologies has of that company? Well, do you?" Despite her elaborate hairstyle mussed by angry flouncing and skillfully applied makeup now irreparably smudged, Astoria had managed to look smug. "65%, you rusty paper plane. 65! Hybrid Technologies owns your fucking company, and I am fucking Hybrid Technologies!"
Powerglide had looked down at her and folded his arms contemptuously, completely unimpressed by her threat. "So I hear. E! even had a half-hour special on how you're aiming to make the latest head of the board your, what, 6th husband?" Her smeared-lipstick mouth had dropped open, mouthing obscenities the woman had been too enraged to voice, and the Autobot had thrown up his hands. "Oh, sorry, is it #8 by now? You complain that I can't commit, but you can't find a human man who'll put up with you for more than a year!"
"You—you-!" Astoria's fists had shaken, she'd clenched them so hard, and the expensive smartphone's screen had cracked with a sharp report. She'd thrown it to the floor with all the force frustration and fury could give her frail body, and it'd smashed to pieces all over the corridor. "Eeeaaaaaaaaaaaigh!" She'd turned to storm away again, and one stocking-ed foot had come down hard on a shard of hard plastic. "—yaaah!"
"Astoria! No, no, hold on, I'll take you to First Aid, it'll be okay." Powerglide had scooped her up, suddenly a bundle of wiring held together by worry and concern. Her arms had gone around his neck, a reaction too automatic to be anything but natural, and the woman had abruptly started crying. They hadn't been the showy tears of an actress making a bid for sympathy, either. She'd cried like a heartsick teenager, sobbing and gulping for air as mascara had leaked down her cheeks and dripped onto her pretty dress. "Shh, shh, I've got you," Powerglide had murmured, and he'd turned to hurry back down the hall. "I've got you."
Daniel had watched them go on that particular day, and it hadn't been until they'd turned the corner and gone out of sight that several things had clicked together like a puzzle falling into place. He'd grown up watching Powerglide and Astoria fight, but it'd never occurred to him to wonder why she kept coming back. Why Powerglide stayed instead of flying off. Why his parents watched the always-loud show with tolerant, amused smiles instead of pained grimaces. Watching those two fight reminded Daniel of watching domestic violence disputes on Cops, but neither one ever raised a hand to the other. They would rage off in separate directions for months at a time, but they would always return.
It was a show of much speculation among the gossip rags on Earth: the rich celebrity and the Autobot who had saved her so many years ago, screaming at each other in public. If it weren't for Astoria's many husbands and boy-toys, the gossip rags would call it a lovers' spat. They did anyway, in fact, but nobody took them seriously. Powerglide was the Autobot officially assigned to work with Hybrid Technologies, which was indeed the majority shareholder for the Autobots' Earth-side company. It brought Astoria Carlton-Ritz a lot of cash as the imports and exports and inventions turned over, but it brought her nothing but grief at the same time.
Daniel hadn't understood for years that not everyone could have what he automatically assumed was his. It took him even longer to understand why that made Astoria so angry.
For all her rage and verbal abuse that day, her designer clothes had been the perfect hue of pink to complement, not collide with, Powerglide's bright red colors. When Daniel had wandered by the medical bay later, Powerglide had been sitting on one of the berths, no First Aid in sight, with Astoria curled up in his lap. They'd been quiet, just a soft trill of conversation and the low rumble of responses, and they'd looked so peaceful – so at home together - that Daniel hadn't even thought anything about it until afterward. Because that's how they always were. They were violence in motion until suddenly they were not, and it was as natural as the eye of Hurricane Astoria.
She never missed her bi-annual holiday to Autobot City. Her company had donated massive amounts of time and money to rebuilding it after the battle, and she'd shown up to shriek in person at Powerglide afterward. They'd had a spoiled brat hissy-fit at each other right there in the scorched ruins. Astoria's sheer acidity had prodded Powerglide of the dull mourning that had fallen over all the Autobots. They'd ranted and hated each other until passers-by were insulted just from overhearing snippets of the swearwords flying about. Even Metroplex, wounded as he'd been, had asked if he should intervene. Powerglide had lit out of the area like his tailfins were on fire. Astoria had nearly crashed her revoltingly expensive car speeding away while bawling into the steering wheel.
Her total lack of composure around the red Autobot flyer hadn't struck Daniel as odd until he'd had to deal with the woman in a professional capacity. Astoria had matured into a shrewd woman with zero compassion and a frigid attitude when dealing with business matters. She'd taken over and ruled her company with an iron fist. Sometimes, out of acknowledgement of cussing at him back when he'd been a boy stupidly stumbling into the middle of a performance of the Powerglide-Astoria Argument Cabaret, she unbent enough to smile at him. Mostly, vidcalls to her desk were met by a stern mask of a woman who knew what she wanted and would put up with no nonsense getting it.
He'd seen her deal with her ex-husbands in public. Frag, the whole world probably had. It wasn't like her life was private. What he didn't see personally, the gossip shows covered extensively. Her divorces were fast things, wicks lit and extinguished, cut off by acceptance and cash settlements before the explosion happened. Face-to-face interaction was handled with painstakingly cool formality ever afterward. She'd introduced two of her three children and husband #3 to Daniel once, and he'd shuddered at how cold her family was. He'd walked away from that dinner with frostbite nipping his ears after the frozen conversation exchanged over the food.
By contrast, a simple greeting between Astoria and Powerglide was heated enough to weld a hole through titanium. Her plastic surgery-perfect face would flush beet-red in mere minutes, ears threatening to ignite as even the tips went bright as Powerglide's paint. When the Autobot lost his temper he would slam fists into the walls and call her terrible names, or prod blunt, cruel fingers of caustic words into her personal matters. Daniel never saw them anything but calm separately, but put Powerglide and Astoria in the same room — or the same time zone - and it was as if needles of emotion pricked them. Their self control deflated like popped balloons, and the screaming began.
Daniel had had the audacity to ask Powerglide about it once. He'd impulsively blurted out, "Why do you put up with her yelling at you all the time?"
The Autobot flyer had looked down at him like he was an utter nutjob for asking. "What's the alternative?" he'd demanded and gone off for a flight as if insulted.
Daniel had opened his mouth to respond – and closed it again. Because what was the alternative?
Powerglide could have ended it. He could have been the reserved, cultured Autobot with robotic logic and reason. Some part of Daniel, responsible adult extraordinaire, agreed that he should end it. The part deeper than the Cybertron-Earth Liason, however, kept his mouth shut after that exchange.
Powerglide didn't end it. He could have, but he didn't. Instead, he chose to shout back at her. Sometimes he flew out to her private beach or dropped in to land at her mansion and started the fights himself. Most of the time, their screaming, hurtful words echoed down Autobot City halls, always matched and never outpacing each other as they went on and on. Powerglide gave as good as he got, and Astoria gave it good. Neither one surrendered. They went toe-to-toe and never backed down.
They skipped. They bargained, they denied, they regressed and progressed and ultimately went nowhere, because anger was better than nothing at all. Astoria was angry, always angry, because she couldn't bear to move on. Sometimes, grieving what one couldn't have wasn't a quick process. Astoria couldn't have Powerglide, not the way she wanted, not with the way her generation and Earth culture still was. If she accepted that truth, she'd have to let go. She'd have to give up and move on. So she didn't. And maybe it wasn't a mature response or a healthy one, but she remained stalled in her grief, in her anger, and found her personal salvation there.
Chip Chase had accepted the losses and moved on, unable to face more pain if he tried again. Astoria determinedly refused to acknowledge that she had to lose anything. Carly had slipped straight through the anger phase and into depression. As she'd dully explained to Daniel, it fell upon her as Earth Ambassador to rein in her emotions for the sake of the alliance. Earth was watching her every move. If she dared express anger at Cybertron, however histrionic and grieving she may be at the time, the fringe groups like Humans First would seize the moment.
Daniel had never been to a psychiatrist, but he'd studied the phases of grief on his own for a project once. It'd been part of a speech he'd made for the survivors of one of Galvatron's psychotically random attacks, back before the peace treaty stopped those. His heart had hurt that day for them. He'd shared the widows' and orphans' grief then, but he'd put on a brave face because it had been required of his position as public figure and speaker that day. He understood the responsibility his position put upon him. He'd understood it then, and he understood it now.
The Witwickys had lost Spike, and they'd lost the right to mourn him properly. To mourn him as they felt at the time, progressing naturally through phases without overthinking it. To cry wildly at the gravesite as a child and a wife instead of as dignified officials dabbing their eyes. They could no longer be unregulated by labels and categories, unwatched by camera drones with reporters standing by to add commentary. There had been a parade instead of a private family funeral. It'd been turned into a grand display for gawkers and supporters alike because that was the price of taking a stand at the side of aliens, once upon a day in 1984.
Afterward, Daniel had quietly put in for two weeks off work and driven off without caring what direction he went in.
He called Autobot City from a payphone in Seattle.
"Danny?" Rodimus Prime had sounded solemn, but mostly worried. Daniel pushed that concern away (Denial, a small part of his mind observed) and leaned his forehead against the cool glass of the phonebooth. It'd been raining, and there were trails of water leaking down the glass. His face felt flushed, but he wasn't crying. He wouldn't cry. It was just raining. "Danny, where are you? I just got your vacation notice. I can – Jazz is handling the fallout, but I'd rather you were here." I want you here with me, went unspoken, because Jazz was good enough at diplomacy to smooth over anything without Daniel's help. "Danny? Do you want me to come get you?"
Daniel jerked, head leaving the glass. Roddy's tentative question felt like a poke to the side while dozing, breaking him out of a haze of exhaustion he'd been falling into more and more often since – since. Well. Since his father fell asleep and didn't wake up again on Cybertron. Since his father had died, and denial had nothing on the truth he had heard in the hiss-pop white noise of an empty line where there should have been breathing. On the truth in looking up in horror, eyes still crusted with sleep, to see Rodimus' sympathy stinging from blue, worldly optics into a sudden bloody wound where his heart had been.
He'd pushed away the pain, pasting on a bad patch-job of denial, because he knew his duty. But he was off-duty now, and denial had been a poor bandage at best over that deep a wound.
Rodimus Prime's worry was reasonable. Unfortunately, Daniel no longer was.
A sullen wave of something as bitter as twice-brewed coffee bubbled up from his stomach. It hurt, a searing pressure snapping vertebra by vertebra up the inside of his spine, burning like bile made of molten lead and magma. When it reached the base of his throat, it solidified. It was a cork on a shaken champagne bottle, but instead of a celebration, a lava torrent of misplaced wrath would pour out when it burst free. Daniel's free hand rose to press against the condensation his breath had left on the glass. Outside the phone booth, the sky drizzled grey and gloomy weather onto the street, misty through the blur. He scribbled clear lines through it with his nails.
He closed his eyes, shutting out the pedestrians and traffic and concentrating on pulling in deep, even breaths. The air rasped like a file over the stopper in his throat. Soon a hole would open, and the torrent would pour through.
Some rational piece of him found a label and clung to it, seeking to understand why he suddenly hated everyone and everything. Anger. "No. I don't want you to come get me," he said into the phone, sounding flatly, wrongly calm even to his own ears. (That wasn't diplomatic, another part of his brain remarked mockingly) At the pit of his throat, bitter tar-vomit roiled over in streaks of fiery red amidst the black rage. "I don't know where I am, anyway," he added more flippantly, trying too hard for casual. The backseat observer in his brain flinched, and Roddy made a concerned sound over the phone.
It suddenly occurred to Daniel that didn't matter if the statement was true or not. He was already lost.
He hung up the payphone without saying goodbye, abruptly unable to take speaking with anyone at all, much less Roddy. The mech's concern felt like a cheese grater against raw skin, and he vaguely glad that it would be difficult for anyone to track him down immediately. His personal phone had been left at home, well before he'd gotten in his car and driven to Seattle. The car was in a mall parking lot a couple miles away. He'd walked in the rain for a while before finally meandering his way to a payphone and making that call. He didn't feel like walking back. He didn't feel like going back. Furious energy sizzled down his forearms and jittered the muscle of his thighs, but his head felt oddly muddled with grey, hazy weariness at the same time. It felt like his body, mind, and emotions were in a three-way war over his reactions.
Daniel opened the payphone door, picked a direction, and started walking with the focused intensity of someone thinking while his body worked. He shoved his shaking hands in his pockets, and he tucked his chin into his collar. It didn't keep the rain from plastering his hair flat or the water from dripping down his neck, but it gave him an excuse for why his face was down. His eyes were fixed on the ground. If no one looked closely through the rain, his red-rimmed eyes would go unnoticed. The leaking nose could be attributed to the dampness. People passed him, huddled under their umbrellas, and he was just one more miserable fool who'd forgotten an umbrella today. Nobody looked twice, and he walked on.
As he walked, he thought. Rage and sadness ran rings around the inside of his skull, but his mind wrestled inside that ring. His forebrain was wailing, reaching for the comfort of his childhood friend, but his hindbrain spat venomous truths.
Rodimus Prime was a prominent public figure. Any place he went during political crisis was mobbed by camera drones as the newsies watched like hawks. If Danny sought his old friend right now, it would do nothing but throw him back under the public eye's scrutiny. He…couldn't handle that right now.
Rodimus Prime, all of the Autobots, were allies. Fine. Daniel couldn't – didn't want to, really – change that fact. But his father had died because of that alliance. His father, Spike Witwicky, had died because some idiot alien robot had missed the fact that a gorram Cybertronian pollutant would kill humans. Oops, forgot to carry the two in that equation. Gee, what do you mean there were fatalities? A race of super-robots, and they couldn't even save his dad?
(It wasn't fair or true to think that, some part of him noted) He hated himself even more than he hated the Autobots at that moment. Because somebody should have been able to save his dad, and if not the Autobots, then who?
Daniel…Daniel should have been there.
His teeth squeaked, he was grinding them so hard, and the sidewalk ahead of him was clear because people were actively avoiding him now. There was something manic in the tendons standing out from his neck, and his eyes may have been full of tears, but that was less visible than his rabid need to lash out. No one wanted to be a target. Daniel just kept his head down and walked faster.
He should have been there.
He should have saved his father.
It was an impossible thought to have, an even more impossible wish to grant, but it flung itself over in Daniel's head to be considered in excruciating detail from every angle. He kneaded it like bread dough on top of the flat surface of his exhaustion, punching it down and turning, punching and turning. Every turn churned out another scenario; every push and pull, another What if…? that could never be. If he'd been there (he hadn't been), if he'd called more often (he'd called as much as possible), if he'd asked his father to stay out of that sector (how could he have known?), if he'd asked for his father instead of Bumblebee for the import negotiations (Bumblebee wasn't an Earth Ambassador), if the shuttle had been faster (faster than what?), if Perceptor had found a cure (it wasn't fair to blame Perceptor), if the Autobots hadn't poisoned his father…
(But it's too late for that, the little narrator in his head complained nasally. What are you trying to accomplish, torturing yourself like this?)
He fisted one hand and pressed it to his temple, trying to subdue the turbulent washing-machine cycling of hopeless imaginings. It didn't work.
Daniel looked up when the sidewalk ended, stopping at the edge where cement turned to a spill of gravel that led into an empty lot. Weeds poked up through the stones. Further back, they grew in spiny, spindly abundance where the muddy grit showed through old tarmac. He crunched off the sidewalk and went to lean against the ancient metal fence. It caught his jacket on sharp ends and stained it with straight lines of rusty metal red like half-healed scars from a flogging. The wire groaned against his weight, neatly woven gaps long since pulled into funny shapes by young boys' sneakers and time, and Daniel unconsciously pressed into its unwilling support. The metal felt familiar.
He leaned, and he looked out into the empty lot. The smell of wet dirt and oily water eased over the burr lodged in his throat. It pulled at the spines with the deepest of memories, gently dislodging the hate. There was an overpass overhead that overflowed with the background bustle of a busy road. The sounds filtered down to the lot and played a while, calling every drop of oil to remember what it'd been like to be part of a car, every weed to defy urban sprawl by growing a centimeter more. There was something of despair in abandoned lots like this, but empty places were opportunities to children. There were sticks and drawn lines between the mud puddles, and broken plastic toys among the beer cans and sharp pieces of glass. It was mundane and dreary, but it freed a clear space in Daniel's wool-and-splinter filled chest where there had been crushing pressure a moment ago.
It hurt a little to lean the side of his head against the rickety fence, but he couldn't make himself care all that much. The old metal wire caught his hair and stabbed tiny pains where the trapped hair pulled his scalp, but that was okay. He'd had worse. He deserved worse.
He looked through the nearest time-stretched square of wire, seeing the empty lot but watching the scenarios his tormented mind threw up. They flickered, bad TV reception through the awful memory of an overly-formal funeral. Dark images seethed out of the overpass' shadows, hissing a vicious stream of, What if, what if, what if what if what if if ifffff…
The rain continued falling. It was cold on his face, but there were hot traces among the cold drips of water now.
Maybe time passed. Maybe it didn't. The sky seemed equally grey when the loud blare of a horn jolted Daniel from the half-asleep daze he'd fallen into, bloodshot eyes drooping but unable to completely close. He peeled the lids open, eyes feeling sandpaper dry despite the rain dripping into them, and glanced around blearily. He half-expected to see the bright flash of red and orange, the gentle blue light of optics, but the car on the road behind him had been dated before the Autobots ever landed on Earth. The pollution-emission laws had probably made it illegal to drive back in the 2010s.
Daniel had walked well out of the nice areas of Seattle, however. The car, much like the hooligans hanging out its windows to stare at him, relied on the poor side of the city's lax law enforcement to stay on the streets. The teenager at the wheel honked again, and his friends grinned, beckoning to the older man standing far back from the road. He was turned into the fence like it would protect him from the rain, but it had soaked him through. His shoes were nice, but the rest of him looked oddly ragged. He was probably one of the crazies that wandered the streets. The empty way he looked at them said that there was nobody home inside that head.
But they weren't bad kids. Tom's girlfriend had spotted the stranger with his nice shoes and weird huddling, and what the heck. This was their neighborhood, and spring in Seattle was too dang cold for people to stand around out in the rain. They were bored, anyway. They were going through one of those teenage phases that meant talking to strangers their parents would warn them away from sounded like a grand idea.
The man ventured a step toward the road, expression confused, and one of the twins leaned out. "Hey, man, you lost?" A pained look crossed the man's face, and Sasquatch elbowed the twin. Wrong question to ask, apparently. "I mean," twin #2 corrected, the boy twin, "you gotta place you're supposed to be?"
Did he have a place he was supposed to be? "Not really," Daniel said hoarsely, surprising himself. He hadn't known the answer until he said it out loud. (The others will be worried, the observing, detached voice said) The thought seeped into his mind like it picking its way through a jungle gym made from razor blades: not so much invading as just looking for a safe space to set down a moment. Something dangerously sharp shifted, bristling and not ready to be soothed, and the soft waft of thought withdrew as quietly as it'd come.
A speaking look non-teen outsiders would never be able to interpret was exchanged. The shaggy mountain of a boy in the middle of the back seat shoved one of the twins out of the way. "You hungry, man?" There was something gaunt about the stranger. He looked well-fed and healthy, but the first impression was still of hunger. The soft parts of his face seemed hollow.
Daniel couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten, actually. Probably on the shuttle, with Roddy pleading with him to swallow mouthfuls of something that was nutritious but could have been sawdust for all he tasted it. "A little," he said, less because he was hungry than because he didn't want to remember the shuttle ride.
The car's passenger door popped open, and for a second it looked like an Autobot. Daniel's heart sank. A tiny Asian girl clambered out, however, and the back door opened. Twins tumbled over each other, boy and girl with giggles and smirks and shrieks as if the rain would melt them, and the largest boy shoved himself up against the far door to give everyone more room. They all resettled themselves like clowns piling into a car far too small to hold them, and the back door slammed shut. Daniel stared.
The driver, a young man with a blonde-streaked Mohawk and black-rimmed glasses, leaned over the empty passenger seat to peer out at him. "You coming?"
Which is how Daniel Witwicky, Cybertron-Earth Liaison and mourning son, found himself at an IHOP eating chocolate-chip pancakes with five teenagers who thought nothing of shoplifting packs of tissues from the convenience store next door. The twins plopped down in the booth beside him and proffered the stolen Kleenex to him with identical grins. He took the tissues, a little bemused.
"Blow your nose," Tom advised sagely. "You're kinda gross." The boy's girlfriend chimed in what seemed to be agreement, and the others all nodded. Since the girl's words had been in what sounded like Mandarin, however, Daniel could only guess at the meaning.
He'd cleaned up some in the restaurant restroom, but environmentally-conscious establishments all had the air blowers instead of paper hand-towelettes these days. It'd made wiping his face difficult, and evidentially the teenagers had spotted his problem. Well, he had kind of looked 'gross.' It probably hadn't been a difficult problem to spot. "Thanks," he said, and meant it.
"De nada, amigo," the biggest boy waved off his thanks, sounding as easy with the slang Spanish as the tiny Asian girl did speaking Mandarin.
Daniel's tired mind slogged along that train of thought, having no other path it really wanted to take. While it did so, he turned his attention to eating. The pancakes tasted like fake butter and waxy chocolate, but they were hot and fresh. He hadn't realized how cold he'd been standing in the rain until Tom, the driver, had glanced over at him and turned the car's heat on full-blast. Only then had he begun shivering.
The car had smelled like grimy exhaust and the candy-tang of teenagers. Like the two girl's glittery dollar-store earrings and hairbands, perfume and aftershave and the smell of clothing overdue for laundry had collided inside the car and fought to stand out the most. Daniel's own smell of sodden dirt and cologne hadn't stood a chance against that gaudy reek. The teens had chattered on, over, and around him, assuming they had the automatic right to question him closely on every topic just because he'd gotten into their car. With their combination of law-breaking punk and interfering nosiness, he should have felt threatened. Overwhelmed, perhaps, or at least defensive.
The heat had washed over him, as pervasive as their multiple languages and casual assumptions, and Daniel just didn't have it in him to be riled any longer. The hate and anger had steeped in the cold rain and run out of him through the soles of his feet, and he'd left it moldering in the mud. He'd gotten into the car, and a heartbreaking apathy had pacified his defenses before they could be raised. He'd answered the questions briefly, unhelpfully, and the teens had soberly taken his answers at face-value. All he'd said was that his father had died, and he wasn't dealing with it very well.
"That's rough," the boy twin had summed up, as if that statement could encompass sympathy without real understanding, and then they'd brought him to IHOP.
Sometimes, teenagers had simple, linear thoughts. Food healed all.
He'd almost laughed, but it would have been unkind even if they'd understood his amusement. Sitting in IHOP felt so out of place that it didn't feel real. In a way, that made it even more so. He felt displaced. He felt like he was sitting on the sidelines of his own life for a time, and anything done in this time wouldn't matter. He could do whatever he wanted, go wherever he wanted, and nothing could stop him. His father had died. Nothing could possibly hurt him any more than that.
The thought crept up on him like fog through the city streets. (Do you have a place you're supposed to be? it asked, mist tendril-voice infinitely sad) He thought back, Not really.
But the smell of used motor oil and ingrained dirt lingered, a city lot repurposed, and old memories of other languages stirred under the laughter of teenagers who meant well. He remembered the background sound of cars rushing by, and the half-aware feeling that the cars were alive. And Daniel thought, as slow as the cold maple syrup on the table top, There is a place I want to be.
There didn't seem to be a reason not to go there. Moreover, he couldn't think of a reason to stay. While his heart squeezed pained chugs of blood thick with misery through him, an electric spark of something like hope zapped in the pit of his stomach. It filled him with energy, or maybe that was the chocolate chip pancakes hitting his body with a sugar rush. Even though he was fighting back tears hard enough to make his temples pound, there was a little traitorous thought that ventured, If you just go there, it'll all be okay. (Bargaining, a cool machine labeled. Progression to the next phase) Daniel didn't want to believe it, knew better than to believe it, but it was more hope than he currently held. You'll feel better, if you just go there.
When the check came, Daniel grabbed it before any of the kids even saw it. "I got it," he said when they gave him wary looks.
"You sure?" the girl twin said doubtfully. The story had been a good one, and the guy's shoes were nice, but they hadn't really believed that he was more than a down-on-his-luck bum.
He flashed his credit card at them. "Yeah. Call it a thank-you for the company."
The Autobots would be able to trace his credit card purchase as soon as it was made. On the one hand, he wanted to reassure Roddy that he was okay, and a purchase at an IHOP would probably help. On the other hand, he'd need all of the cash in his wallet for another, less traceable purchase. He wasn't angry at the Autobots, not anymore, but he still didn't want them to know where he was going. He didn't want to talk to them. The secret stuck close to his ribs, small and hushed like telling the others would call the deal off. It'll stop hurting, if you just go there.
The teens exchanged wide smiles. Free meal! "Hey, it's all good," Sasquatch said, spreading his hands. "Where you going from here?"
"Well," Daniel accepted the credit card back from the waitress, giving her a polite smile on automatic, "I was hoping you could help me out with that. Do you know where there's a Greyhound bus station?"
The Asian girl spoke up, nudging her boyfriend and sketching a path in the air while talking his ear off with directions. The girl twin batted her arm and corrected in a strange hybrid Chinglish language Daniel almost understood, and Tom just rolled his eyes. "I know where it is! Holy cheezits, gimme a break!"
They glared and hrrmphed at him before sliding out of the booth to flounce off toward the bathroom together. The beleaguered boyfriend shared eyerolls with the other boys at the table, and suddenly they were all long-suffering men looking after the womenfolk.
The waitress watched the girls and the boys, and she caught Daniel's eye. "Teenagers," she mouthed, and Daniel's smile turned into something genuine, and it felt – well, if not good, at least not bad.
"Lemme get the keys, and we'll take you," Tom was saying, and suddenly everyone was pulling their coats back on.
"You don't have to," Daniel protested half-heartedly, and the boy twin elbowed him.
"Naw, but we want to," he said, and that was that.
It had been easier to give in than to fight. It'd been easier to wait for the girls to get back and climb into the car than to excuse himself and call a cab. He'd endured their good-natured cheer and awkward sympathy with scraps of strength that disappeared when he stepped out of the car at the bus station. He'd lifted his hand to wave goodbye, and it'd felt like a block of cement on the end of his wrist. He'd stood out in the rain for at least five minutes before summoning the will to go inside.
He'd stood in line, eyes scanning over and over the destination list without reading it a dozen times, and finally forced himself to get out his wallet at the ticket machine. It'd taken most the money in it to buy the tickets all the way to New York City, and he almost felt bad for that. He'd withdrawn the money right before getting the bad news; it had been for his secretary's birthday present. He'd been on his way out the door to go buy her something when Roddy had called.
He suddenly remembered, digging the crumpled bills out, that he'd forgotten Amanda's birthday. It'd been three days ago. The day the shuttle had landed on Earth, carrying his father's body.
He dropped the bills in the machine as if he couldn't stand to hold them any longer, took his tickets, and walked past the bus station pay phone on his way to the right departure gate. He didn't stop. There was a sludgy burble of resentment waiting to get out, and he didn't dare tempt by making a call. It wasn't Amanda's fault that she had celebrated an anniversary of life on a day of death, but he couldn't help but blame her anyway. Happy Birthday, Amanda.
Now that the anger had drained away, it'd left him strangely weak. There was a pulsing center of purpose lodged in his chest, but it hurt. His head felt numb, like he was reading his lines instead of actually thinking, and he didn't want to talk anymore. He didn't want to talk, he didn't want to interact. He wanted to turn in on himself and wait, because some sore and stubborn portion of his heart had stuck on the idea that it would get better. It wouldn't be okay, it could never be okay again, but if he could just reach where he was going, then it would get better.
Mostly, he didn't want to think about it. The hope was fragile and stupid, and it'd break if it were handled too often.
So he leaned his head against the bus window, face turned toward his own reflection, and he didn't think about hope. He didn't think about his father. He thought about nothing. He concentrated on the formless ebb and flow of his heartbeat in his ears and the restless noise of fellow passengers all around him. It was night outside, and after a couple hours of monotonous driving, the lights on the bus shut off as people made themselves as comfortable as possible on slick plastic seatcovers. There were sighs and groans as everyone tried to sleep. Only the orangey glow of the aisle lights and passing cars' headlights lit up the bus. One passenger near the front had the overhead light on as she read, and several people had their cellphones or a portable movie player out, but a few more hours passed without more than a bark of laughter here, a brief conversation over a phone there. Eventually, the light of various widgets shut off. Eventually, only the subtle sounds of sleepers and the steady, underlying noise of a diesel engine filled the bus.
Inside the bus, time had slowed. It was like Daniel had been encapsulated, shut off from the outside world and its ticking seconds. The passing headlights hypnotized him. His breathing sounded as loud as an airplane droning by overhead, roaring in and out of his lungs, and only the mouth-breathing of the man sleeping in the seat beside him kept Daniel from holding his breath in a weird fit of paranoia. He was afraid he was being too loud. He could hear the difference when he closed his own mouth; the sound shifted from a hollow whoosh like air in a cave to the slick sound of air pulled over tissue wet and inflamed from too many tears. Breathing through his nose physically hurt a little, and the way he had to keep sniffing or blowing his nose clear on stolen tissues threatened to wake the nearest passengers. He switched to breathing through his mouth again.
Hot air blew against the cool glass, and against the next pair of blue-tinged headlights, a wobbly heart took shape. Daniel hesitated, and the mist evaporated.
Feeling wobbly himself, he blew again with more care, angling his head to find all the lines. They were small, as small as his pinkie finger or a child's fingertips. He stopped, watching the fingerpainting of some past passenger dissolve, and something slid in his chest like a sandcastle's walls falling down. Breathing carefully, he raised his head a bit. There was another line drawn there, old oils from someone's skin still stuck to the glass in the shape of a letter. Daniel traced the letters with measured exhales, exploring the words, and, unnoticed, tears started to fall to his lap.
They were simple messages. Short things: a name, a shape, a sentiment. Anything that could be drawn with a finger before warm air cooled and the condensation went clear again. 'I was here.' 'Carl stinks!' 'Do not!' A star, a triangle, a simplistic block house with two hatched windows and rectangle door. Happy and frowny mouths under various pair of eyes: angry eyes, eyes with big eyelashes, sly anime eyes, and eyes with crazy-dilated pupils. In every handwriting imaginable, 'Hi!'
And over and over again, the easiest thing a child on the inside looking out could draw: hearts in every shape and size overlapping each other. Something that could be read backward or forward, inside or out. A greeting, a goodbye, an acknowledgement of the people on the other side of the glass. A visible expression of love.
Without thought, his hand had raised to the glass to add to the collection, doodling names and shapes on the window. How many times had he done this? Amanda despaired of his handwriting, insisting that he type anything he gave to her, but he'd grown up without using pencils and pens for writing. Those were for fun, not assignments. His grandfather had never gone to middle school, much less high school. His father had finished one year of high school before going to work on the oil rigs. Daniel had never stepped foot in a school. He held honorary degrees from Harvard and MIT, but he'd never gone to school. He hadn't even been home-schooled. Handwriting hadn't been important when he'd never handed in an assignment.
His mother had talked with him, correcting his thoughts but rarely doing more than sketching out an equation when they needed a visual. His father had handed him the tools and stood over his shoulder when he worked, but computers were how he saw the inner workings of the robots he worked on and with. His teachers had been towering robots who spoke to him like he was an adult. They'd raised him, played with him, and quizzed him on knowledge he'd never known he was learning all the while. They'd never given him a test to fill out. They'd asked him to apply their lessons while fighting Decepticons and working beside the friends who'd taught him.
He'd learned how to compose documents from typing long, involved letters to soldiers stationed far away. "Sure, we could call," Blaster had said, holding him in his lap as fumbling young hands pressed the buttons, "but calls are for important officer-type things. Take it from someone who's spent time stuck in another solar system," the communication specialist had winked, "we like to get something we can hold onto. Proof that someone's thinking of us—whoa, now, you sure you want to say it like that?"
Daniel had read the sentence aloud and nodded firmly. "Yes. Decepticons is dingbats." He'd hesitated when Prowl came up behind Blaster's shoulder and solemnly shook his head. "They're not dingbats?" Prowl's lip had curved, just barely, as Blaster made a rewind that sentence twirl with one finger and Danny blinked. The boy had stood up in order to reach the Back Space button. "Ooooh. Are."
Later, Blaster had printed out the letters and let him draw clumsy, colorful pictures of exploding Decepticons and fishing ponds. The pictures got more elaborate, the grammar better as Daniel grew older, but he'd never stopped writing them. Crayon scrawls from whatever Autobot was nearest lined the edges, indulgent acquiescence to their tiniest human's demands, and the letters had shipped off to every corner of the Autobot resistance. They might not have been 'important officer-type things,' but the Decepticons had done their best to intercept the flimsy things anyway. When the Autobots resistance cells got them, trouble had inevitably followed. Morale boosts were like that. There'd been nothing quite like having a mail call with real, tangible mail a 'bot could hold onto when hope had seemed lost. And maybe there had been some envy in the Decepticons' actions as well, destroying the proof that someone cared dearly for those not present.
Wheeljack and Perceptor had thrown about terminology and blueprints in the laboratories, discussing science that only Daniel's mother could easily follow, but the boy had grown up knowing that they would break it down for him if he asked. There had been theories and equations and the downloaded biology textbook on Ratchet's medbay screen, scrolling through the basics of Earth science like it was no big deal that a 7-year-old boy and an Autobot older than his entire species could talk about the cell cycle until Smokescreen came by to take the kid for a drive.
Daniel idly wrote out a section of long division on the bus window, messy and never in a straight line, but it hadn't mattered when the window belonged to an Autobot. Smokescreen could correct him in an instant if the math was incorrect, no matter how scrawled the numbers. Daniel had written multiplication tables and calculus alike on the wily Autobot's windows, listening with fascination unchanged through the years as Smokescreen talked about the gambling stakes at far away game tables. At age 14, he could write an entire long equation out, define the variables, and pull out the common factors before the edges of his breath began to fade off the glass. He remembered one time when Smokescreen had challenged him to do it faster, more efficiently, and Daniel had seen Bumblebee drive by with Spike inside. He'd stopped his writing – he'd been winning the challenge – and waved. When Bumblebee had slowed, letting his father wave back, Daniel had just smiled and balanced the equation with a heart, then wiped his hand through the whole thing in order to start again.
The window in front of him now beaded with moisture so densely he couldn't see out, and Daniel tried to calm his breathing. Hot air rushed out of him in short, irregular panting on the very edge of sobbing. The window was scrolled with angles and curlicues, and one trembling hand rose to draw a heart in the mess. It wasn't perfect. His hand shook too badly for perfection. He stared at it, one wobbly child's heart among many, and forced himself to sit back in his seat, away from the window. Slowly, the fog faded away.
The window glowed, alternatively dazzling and white as headlights periodically lit it, and Daniel watched the hearts gradually fade into the night outside. Beside him, his seatmate began to snore. The other passengers murmured, quietly stirring. Somewhere in back, a baby began to cry. Someone shushed it, offering food or warm arms or simple comfort.
Daniel wished for what he couldn't have. His heart ached. His head throbbed. He didn't believe, not really, that things were going to improve, but it was either have a little faith or nothing at all. Daniel wasn't ready for that, not yet. (Depression phase, his mind whispered, and his mother's sad resignation loomed) There was a place he wanted to go, a destination he was headed toward, and he had to be okay until he got there. That was the deal. His bargain with the universe: get to New York City, and it would be better.
His eyes closed, tear-swollen and hurting, and his head leaned toward the cool glass again. 56 hours, with a bus-change in Minneapolis. He just had to last that long, sunk in this gluey mire of travel-lull and emotional exhaustion. He had to wait out the nightmare a while longer.
The seconds ticked onward. The cars continued passing. In their erratic headlights, a heart blinked in and out of sight on the bus window as if beating to the rhythmic breath of the man who'd drawn it. At last, after far too long, he slept. The beat slowed. Sometimes it faltered as the man's breath caught in the midst of sad dreams, but it never stopped. The bus drove on. It was headed to New York City.
Daniel Witwicky was going to Sparkplug's Garage.
He was going to see Tracks.
[* * * * *]
[ A/N: Obviously, there will be a continuation of this. Part 2 will actually fulfill the comment-prompt. Hopefully, it will be less boring as Daniel gets past the phase of mourning where everything is seen in lurid, helpless detail.
As I told someone upon posting this: I'm into Transformers for the robots! I DON'T KNOW WHY I'M WRITING HUMAN FIC HELP I CAN'T GET MY HANDS OFF THE KEYBOARD SRSLY GUYS SEND A CROWBAR.]