The sequel to Appliances and Devices, Too . Please read those first or this won't make sense.
Part 1 - Nuts and Bolts
"Arson? That's not good." Graham frowned, and Poppy bit her lip.
"Do you think it's connected? To Ligh... Sinewave?"
Graham raised an eyebrow.
"He's using his original designation?"
"I'm trying to persuade him to. Vault as well."
"I'm not sure that's such a good idea..."
"We'll worry about it later... Do you think the pub burning down is connected?"
"I'd say it's quite possible." The officer paused pensively. "We'll have to mount our own investigation. It's possibly connected to the tainted energon too."
"Oh... what's the latest on that?"
"The additives were acetone, ethyl acetate and sodium chloride - in other words, nail varnish remover and common salt."
"Yes, very unpleasant. Not actually lethal to our guests, unless, possibly, taken in large quantities over a fair length of time, but certainly nasty enough to cause some internal damage."
Poppy almost growled. How dare someone try to hurt her friends! But Graham was still speaking.
"However, they are all earth-based chemicals: it does appear that the sabotage was human, not Decepticon."
"But why? Mine are harmless!"
Graham eyed her for a moment.
"With respect, Poppy, we don't actually know that for certain."
"... what do you mean?"
"Just because they don't transform into massive, weapons-bearing soldiers doesn't necessarily mean they're harmless. Light... Sinewave and Vault were pretty famous on Cybertron - even Sideswipe recognised their names and he was designed as a warrior with no interest in anything except battle."
That's going to make life interesting if the war ever stops... Poppy thought, nodding at the officer.
"And we don't yet know what the others were..."
"I know - I'm going to try to find out as soon as I can. Planning a family conference this afternoon."
"And in the meantime, I'm sending a couple of squaddies to make sure you stay safe."
"Don't worry. They'll be discreet." He grinned. "Do you have enough room to put up a handyman and a gardener?"
Poppy had been so taken aback she'd not had the wits to mention her idea of having the transformers work, but actually it would probably be better to talk it over with them first anyway. Accordingly, after lunch she called them all together in the lounge - and for the occasion brought a small measure of energon in for them. Chill took charge of sharing it out while Poppy considered how best to approach the purpose of the meeting.
When everyone was settled, she leaned back against 'Beat's leg and smiled around at the curious faces.
"I'm sure you all know by now what happened yesterday..." A chorus of nods. "...and it seems to me it might be good for me to know what you all used to do, back home, and what your real names are."
A faint buzz of unease, and Steamy raised a paw.
"Are... aren't you happy with us as we are?"
"Oh no, don't ever think that!" Poppy hastened to reassure them. "I'm just curious. Knowing how famous Sinewave and Vault - and 'Beat - were on Cybertron, it seems terribly unfair for you all to have to pretend to be something you aren't. I'm just interested to know what everyone is... If you don't mind telling me, that is. I won't insist."
"Tho... do you want to thee our original formth ath well?"
"Can you do that?"
'Spin tilted his head to one side.
"Well, we haven't tried thince we got here and took human-made thapes - but I can thtill remember."
Poppy felt her heart skip, and took a quick deep breath.
"I'd be honoured..."
She watched, enthralled, as 'Spin's physical components twisted, inverted, warped into another shape, still sturdy but less bulky than before, a little taller, somehow more dignified. Certainly more alien. He stood straight and raised his hands.
Poppy fought back a giggle. The lisp appeared to be inherent.
"Sparkspinner? That's lovely!"
If he'd been human she was sure he'd have blushed.
"But 'Thpin ith more practical for everyday uthe."
She nodded, laughing gently.
"OK. I'm used to that, at least. What was your alternative form?"
"A thmall vehicle."
It suddenly clicked. "You all had vehicle modes, didn't you? No public transport - you were the transport."
"And when not vehicles you were what you did... Oh wow..." She shivered as a little sliver of real comprehension settled in her mind. "That's... amazing..."
"It'th rather different from earth, from humanth."
Poppy clasped her hands together, laughing delightedly.
"It's wonderful. You're wonderful. All of you."
Murmuring between themselves, the others began to transform too.
Some were very different: Blurt would much rather use his original Farscan designation, please, and had been just that, responsible for specific frequencies of deep-space scanning: his original form was incredibly spiky and wholly alien to Poppy. On the other hand, some had barely changed: Ramp's Cybertronian basic form was the same as she'd seen at the beginning, as was his function - data analysis, storage and communications. His original designation had been Rampup, but he was more than happy to leave it shortened. TeeVee, Blue and Downbeat didn't look much different to their earthly forms, and were also in the field of communications, though TeeVee had specialised in interplanetary comms during Cybertron's golden age. His original designation had been Listener, but he preferred TeeVee. Blue and Downbeat were also very happy with their earthly names, for which Poppy was grateful: her mind was spinning dizzyingly at this point.
Livewire and Cable - their original designations - had been in communications too, but on the repair side. Being so small, they'd been able to access the tiny spaces in the vast comms arrays that the bigger transformers couldn't reach, and hence had been greatly valued.
Grounds, Hotpot and Hooker had been involved in energon production, and would be quite happy to get back to their original work if at all possible.
Airhead and Sucker were cleaners, plain and simple, ensuring that sensitive workspaces were kept free of contaminants. Hardly glamorous work, but satisfying to them, they insisted. And they really didn't care what they were called, so if it was easier for Poppy to keep the names she knew them by, that was fine by them.
Muncher had been an estates groundskeeper for a Senator. He'd hated it, and had made his escape as soon as he could. He loved it here, and wanted to stay with Poppy. Well, with the house and grounds, anyway!
Steamy's original designation really was Heatsteamcontroller - apparently it was much shorter in Cybertronian! - and his function had been to monitor and control the application of heat and steam in any required manufacturing process...
Poppy flopped back against 'Beat, trying to take it all in, trying to swallow the lump in her throat as she fought back tears. The little alien that cooked her food had once been responsible for ensuring that the heat seals of space-going craft were space-worthy and safe for their crews...
It was so unfair!
Yet they were so grateful - to have a refuge, to at least have each other. They'd survived, when so many had not.
Poppy pulled herself together and started considering how best to proceed. With the exception of Muncher, she could easily imagine the rest fitting in quite smoothly, especially the communication operatives. And she was sure that NEST would appreciate assistance in the production of energon for them all.
Now she just had to convince the rest of her species...
And that had to start with Graham, who stared at her, bemused.
"And you came up with this idea by yourself..."
"Well, not altogether. I mean, it's unfair, the way the transformers have to hide, the way we treat them. When I heard what had happened to them, what they used to be and do... They may never be able to go back, and their work is so important to them, why shouldn't we try to... integrate them. I mean, they're all specialists at what they do. I'm sure there's ways they can become... what's the term - useful members of society. They'll feel better too, doing what they were designed to do. They love their work. They don't call it love, but you should see how Livewire and Cable almost lit up when they were describing what they used to do. And Muncher's voice goes all soft and dreamy when he talks about his duties in the garden. It's just... it must feel a bit like being slaves, to them, to be stuck here doing what they do for me. And it's not fair."
"You do see the world in black and white, don't you?"
"No. Well, not all the time. OK, call it unjust and cruel, if you want to be picky."
The officer chuckled.
"Your own passion is very appealing... You understand we can't do anything without discussing it with Optimus, don't you. He is still their leader in exile."
Poppy nodded - then frowned.
"Hang on. Isn't Optimus the Autobot leader?"
"But my transformers are neutrals. That would mean he's not their leader, wouldn't it?"
"Well, true, more or less - but he's also the Prime. Their Prime. It's very unlikely they'd be willing to do anything without his OK." He paused for a moment. "You should ask them what the Prime is, for them. He's not just the leader of a faction, or the chief of the good guys - Primes are... almost god-figures." He shook his head. "We don't really have anything comparable here. They'd explain it better."
"I'll ask them."
"But they'll agree with me, and since Optimus is, ultimately, the public face of the transformers, it is essential that he both knows and agrees to anything you want to do. If for no other reason than that he'll take the fall if anything goes wrong."
"Fair enough. So how do I go about all this?"
"I'll put forward the proposal to NEST, to start with, let the general know what you want to do. Then we'll discuss it with our own transformers, see what they think."
"D'you think they'll go for it?"
He hesitated, then shook his head.
"I honestly don't know. Especially with the pub and the poisoned energon situation still not resolved."
"Oh. Of course."
"But..." he added, "personally, I think it's a great idea. Even if they can only work within a military context to start with. Or NASA, or ESA. Or CERN! There are a lot of science bods who'd welcome the chance to work with them, I'm sure."
"As long as it's with them and not on them..."
"Of course. Their safety must be paramount. Speaking of which, your two handymen should be arriving soon."
"I'd better go and put the kettle on, then!" She grinned at the officer. "Thanks. I'll keep my fingers crossed it all works out OK."
He gave her a casual salute and Ramp closed the connection - just as the doorbell sounded.
"That's Second Lieutenant Philip Collier and Staff Sergeant Robert Walker, 'handyman' and 'gardener' respectively." Ramp announced quietly as he transformed. Poppy giggled.
"You know everything that goes on here, don't you?"
Ramp nodded gravely, but his eyes twinkled.
"It's my job, Poppy. To monitor you, my colleagues, the premises, and the surrounding area. To keep an eye on what comes in and goes out, electronically. And also the sites you access, to ensure your financial and personal safety."
Poppy stilled, then blanched, then flushed bright red.
"Um... you mean..."
"Yes, Poppy. I looked at the... fanfic you've been reading. It's quite inaccurate, you know."
Poppy pushed herself upright, face flaming.
"Do the others know?"
"No. I didn't feel it was any of their business."
"Thanks. I think." She rubbed her face. "Well, now you've thoroughly embarrassed me, I'd better go and meet the squaddies and hope they think my red face is because I'm too hot..."
Part 2 - Drill
"Hello, 'just call me Phil'." Poppy grinned at the Second Lieutenant. "Nice to see you again."
He chuckled as he saluted.
"Good to see you too, Ms Moss."
"Poppy, please. Ms Moss makes me feel like an old maid."
"OK, Poppy." He gestured to his companion. "This is Bob."
Bob gave her a grin and a wave. He actually looked like a gardener, Poppy thought, tanned with freckles across his nose, and sun-bleached shaggy hair. Which was unusual, for the military - wasn't it? - but it was probably not a good idea to say so.
"Please, come in. Meet the kids. And the other kids."
Laughing, both soldiers followed her into the house.
"Whoa!" Bob stopped in the doorway of 'his' room and gaped. "Palatial!"
Poppy giggled. "It's OK then?"
"It'll do." He grinned over his shoulder at Phil. "Bit better than barracks. Think we can make this a permanent duty?"
"We can but hope."
Poppy opened the door of the room opposite and gestured him over.
"This is yours. Hope it's OK too."
It was a mirror image of Bob's. Phil nodded appreciatively.
"It's rather grand for a simple handyman, but thank you."
"These are the smallest bedrooms in the house. But you could always sleep in the shed or the greenhouse if you insist. Or out in the bushes with the spiders."
Phil raised his hands.
"Oh no, that's quite all right. I think I can just about manage..."
"Do you have much stuff? I can ask them to help carry."
The two exchanged glances, and Phil nodded.
"That would be helpful thanks. We have some gear we need to install to increase the security of the premises."
"Ramp's probably the best person to help with that. And if it's really heavy 'Beat will bring it in. But I'm sure all of them will be willing."
"Shall we go and ask?"
With 'Spin and Vault helping the luggage - and several heavy containers that Bob said were full of 'kit' - was quickly brought in and stored away, then Poppy led them back down to the lounge, where they were met by a seated group of curious transformers. The soldiers saluted as Poppy introduced them then handed over to Phil.
"Greetings to you all. First things first, we're not here to interfere or try to disrupt your lives. We're here simply to make sure that you all stay safe."
He paused at a low buzz of electronic communication between the transformers, waiting until they had finished before continuing.
"We are trusting - hoping - that you will all be prepared to help us."
'Spin rose to his feet.
"Of courthe we will! Thith ith our home now, and Poppy ith our friend. We have to make thure the'th thafe."
It took Phil a moment to accustom himself to the transformer's lisp - to Poppy's relief he didn't so much as crack a smile: she didn't think slapping a member of NEST would win her any prizes - before nodding.
"I assume you all feel that way?" At the expressions of agreement from the group he smiled. "I'm glad to hear it - not that I didn't expect it. We'll be here for the duration, and will do our best to blend in." He looked directly at Muncher and indicated his colleague. "This is Bob, the gardener. He'll be working closely with you outside. I trust you'll share your intel and make him feel at home? Despite appearances, he is actually pretty good when it comes to horticulture!"
Muncher uttered a deep chuckle.
"It'd be nice to have someone wi' smaller hands to do the fiddly stuff I have trouble with."
Bob grinned and saluted.
"Yours to command, sir!"
Muncher's engine grumbled.
"None o' that, young fleshling. Name's Muncher"
"Sorry, si... Muncher."
"That's better." the lawn-mower rumbled approvingly, and Poppy grinned to herself.
"I'll be working mostly inside the house." Phil regarded Ramp. "Poppy said you may be the best person to advise me?"
"Not just me." One of the computer's hands indicated TeeVee, Blue, Farscan and Downbeat, who were perched close by. "We all have some skill in surveillance and communication."
"Excellent! So we have a ready made team - that'll increase security right from the start."
"Do you need to start tonight?" piped up Steamy. "Only dinner's nearly ready..."
Both soldiers chuckled.
"No, I think we can wait 'til tomorrow."
"Oh good. 'Cause we've made a low fat lasagne and a great big salad and it's nearly ready."
Bob pushed his plate away and leaned back in his chair with a contented sigh.
"That was really good!"
Poppy eyed him.
"You sound surprised..."
He offered an awkward chuckle.
"No... well, maybe. A little. Your transformer - Steamy? - said it was low fat, but that tasted delicious. Like the best restaurant lasagne."
"Steamy's been learning how to use the oven. He's a wonderful cook."
Phil slapped his comrade on the shoulder.
"Well, at least we won't starve!"
"Oh god, please don't let 'Spin hear you say anything like that! He'll take it as an insult."
"He's not... violent, is he?"
"Of course not. None of them are! You just really don't want to upset a washing machine - he might turn all your laundry pink. And he can gripe like nobody's business when he wants to."
Phil glanced at Bob.
"OK, important safety tip, never piss off the washing machine. Thanks Poppy."
"Anything else we should know?"
"Mmm... not that I can think of right how. Oh, hang on - Ramp monitors everything, including which websites we visit, so if you want to watch porn, better do it somewhere else..."
A moment's silence, then Bob grinned, trying to ignore his blush.
"Thanks for the warning."
"Not that we watch porn, of course," Phil added hastily. Poppy giggled.
"Of course you don't."
"Anyway," Phil determinedly changed the subject, "until we get a proper perimeter set up tomorrow, we'll keep watch in shifts tonight."
"Is that really necessary? We've been fine up to now."
"The arson at the pub has the General worried. We're here, we need to do our jobs."
"Oh, OK then. But you should have 'Beat and Muncher watch with you. They'll keep you company if nothing else."
Phil managed to resist rolling his eyes. Civilians - so innocent and naïve. Although, of course, he and Bob were there to try to make sure it stayed that way...
"Thank you, Poppy. They'll be most welcome."
"Good!" She smiled her thanks up at Vault as he placed a large bowl of fruit on the table. "Well, I have a few things I need to get done before bed, if you'll excuse me. Please, make yourselves at home."
Mellow autumn sunlight shimmered through the windows as Poppy awoke. Snuggled into the continental quilt, she yawned and stretched, then smiled at Livewire. The usual mug of coffee was steaming peacefully on the bedside table, and the gentle sounds of something vaguely classical drifted through the air.
What a perfect way to wake up!
Sitting up with the quilt bundled around her, she took a long swallow of the coffee and settled back on the pillows. She could hear voices from outside: Muncher and Bob, it sounded like. They seemed to be getting on just fine.
She debated going back to sleep for a few minutes, but it was a lovely day, and she really ought to check her guests were OK. And she had a couple of financial analyses to finish for her 'day job': if she got those out of the way she could have the rest of the week off...
Phil was in the kitchen, munching on a small pile of butter-dripping toast washed down with strong sweet tea. He smiled up at her, pushing the plate of toast in her direction.
"Please, help yourself. It's one thing I make pretty well."
Toast? He makes toast pretty well? Oh dear... Poppy grabbed a slice and slathered it with honey, taking a big bite before Steamy - currently scuttling around the cupboards gathering ingredients for whatever he planned to make for lunch - could notice and protest.
"Mm. S'nice." she mumbled around a mouthful of sticky crumbs, and Phil chuckled.
"So, what's your plan for today?"
"Need to get some work finished. I should get stocked up too, now you're here, so I'll take 'Beat shopping."
"Want a hand?"
She considered it for a moment, then shook her head. It was cramped enough in the Mini with just her inside it - with Phil as well it would be positively claustrophobic.
"No, it's OK thanks. But if you'd like to make a list of anything either of you two need, I'll pick it up as well. Any particular food you like?"
"Bob's a big pasta fan. I'm easy. I mean, I love my meat, but I'm happy to try anything new."
Poppy fought back a giggle, told herself to get her mind out of the gutter and yes, Ramp was right, she'd been reading too much fanfic, and nodded.
"OK. I'm aiming to head off about two thirty."
"I'll make sure it's ready by then."
"Good. What are you going to do now?"
"I need to get the indoor set up organised."
"What's that involve?"
"I want to put in some security cameras - infrared for night-time surveillance, and several out in the garage. Only on the ground floor," he hastened to reassure her as she frowned. "I also need to calibrate the energon detector so it recognises the residents. Don't want any false alarms."
"We get an energon detector? Wow. I thought only important places got those."
Phil raised an eyebrow.
"You have several fairly significant transformers living here, outside of a military base - of course you're going to get a detector, especially after the pub arson attack."
Poppy was about to object that no-one knew they were here, but of course that wasn't true any more. She sighed.
"It won't be too obvious, will it?"
"You won't know it's there."
At one p.m. Poppy saved, emailed and closed down the final file with a satisfied sigh and signed off for the week. She chuckled as her stomach growled, and wandered into the kitchen to see what Steamy had made for lunch. In the lounge Phil was waving what looked like a wand attached to some sort of sensor over Livewire's back: he glanced over his shoulder as she appeared and smiled.
"Almost done. Just need to get readings from Ramp, Muncher and 'Beat and we're all set. Oh, and the energon in the garage."
"That was quick!"
"And painless," added Livewire, padding around Poppy's ankles and pointing at the officer with one paw. "I like him. Can we keep him?"
Phil chortled and grinned at the small creature.
"Why thank you! I like you too, all of you."
Poppy grinned and patted Livewire's head.
"Let's see what happens, shall we?" As the clock-radio scampered off Poppy caught Phil's eye and gestured to the kitchen. "Want to see what they've made for lunch?"
Part 3 - Spanner
"Phil and Bob? Yes. Funny and friendly."
"An' it'll be good for you t'have some human company."
Poppy blinked, then frowned.
"What do you mean?"
'Beat was silent for a moment as they approached a roundabout, then sighed.
"Most sentient beings need the company o' their own kind. You've only had us up to now. Y'never meet up wi' friends, no-one ever visits. S'healthier f'r you to have some other humans around."
Poppy opened her mouth to argue, but then realised that he might have a point.
"Mm. Not that I've missed it - you lot are far too interesting and far too much fun for that. But I see what you mean."
"An' from what I've read on t'internet, humans usually form families. Couples to start with? Y'don't have a partner."
"Never met anyone I felt much for."
"S'my point. Y'never will if y'spend all y'r time just wi' us."
Poppy patted his dashboard. This was not something she wished to discuss right now. Distraction was called for...
"What about you? Do you have families?"
Poppy waited, but nothing more was forthcoming. She sighed as 'Beat pulled into the supermarket car park: she'd learned that tone of voice a while back and knew she wouldn't get anything more out of him on the subject. As he parked up she grabbed her shopping list and bag, then hesitated for a moment. The last thing she wanted was for him to be hurt again.
"Will you be OK while I'm gone?"
"Yeah. Anybody tries anything, I'll start up me new alarm." There was the suspicion of a chuckle in his dry, wry voice. "It's... loud."
"Good. OK, I'll see you in a bit."
It was still an hour before she returned, trolley almost overflowing. She'd managed to get most of what she'd come for, but there was still the meat to buy. Filling 'Beat's boot with bags and boxes, she considered the options. There were two butchers in the town, neither of which she'd used before. Trolley parked safely out of the way, she locked the boot and slid into the driver's seat.
"'Beat, could you take a quick gander on the 'net and see if there's anything about Abbotson's Farm and Game, and Cuthbert's Family Butchers? Particularly if anyone has complained about either of them."
A moment's silence, then 'Beat hmmed.
"Nowt much. Prices look t'be a tad better at Cuthbert's. Environmental Health was called out for a suspected E. coli threat at Abbotson's six year ago, but it were a false alarm. Not much between 'em, though Abbotson does game as well as the normal stuff. Good reviews of their venison."
"Oooh, venison!" Poppy giggled. "Haven't eaten Bambi in ages... we'll give them a try."
Parking was tricky: Poppy had to leave 'Beat a good way down the street, and there was a queue in the butchers, so it was a good half an hour before they headed back to the house. But Poppy was chuffed with the trip, she'd found everything she wanted, and shouldn't need another for at least two weeks. Milk, bread and fresh veg she could pick up as needed at the farm shop a few miles down the road. All in all a satisfactory expedition.
There was another vehicle in the drive as 'Beat pulled in, very large and definitely official. Phil and Bob were offloading... things... with 'Spin and Vault's help: Phil waved cheerily as they parked up.
"Give us a few minutes to get this stashed away then we'll help you."
Poppy climbed out and nodded, watching with interest as some impressively big items were eased onto the ground. 'Beat beeped his horn to get Poppy's attention.
"If you could unload the shopping, I can give 'em a hand. Some o'that stuff is heavy."
"Oh, sure. Sorry." She opened the boot, then turned to find Sinewave, TeeVee, Upbeat and Blue standing behind her, ready to help carry. She grinned at them all.
TeeVee waved a couple of hands in the air dismissively and reached for the first six bags...
It actually took a couple of hours to get everything put away, even with the transformers helping. Afterwards they all assembled in the lounge - it was getting a little too cold for the outdoor get-togethers, at least for the humans - for a brief confab. The basic security was now set up, with an outer perimeter around the wall of the grounds, an inner around the house, and a third in the building itself. The energon detector was calibrated, installed and working, and the passive IR detectors were also in place. NEST had sent over the 'cleansers' required for the larger transformers, and Poppy was advised in no uncertain terms not to use them without wearing protective gear. Apparently the solvents the Cybertronians used for cleaning themselves could strip skin and flesh from humans, and even though - at 'Beat's insistence - only the very mildest had been delivered, it could still cause some nasty and debilitating skin conditions.
Poppy had swallowed and nodded, glancing at 'Beat, who had managed a small smile which had her instantly feeling relieved. 'Beat wouldn't let anything hurt her, she knew.
Though perhaps she ought to let them wash each others' backs for the time being...
Phil took a swallow of his coffee and gazed at Poppy.
"HQ reports we're not much along further with the tainted energon enquiry. Physical security on the base is tight: the thinking is it must have been tampered with en route. The driver's still being held, but so far it looks as though he's clean." He frowned. "There are several bridges over the road on the route he took, and there was a traffic hold-up at one of them. It's possible that someone got into the back while he was stopped under the bridge, poured in the additives, then got out again - but that means someone not only knew the energon was being transported, but also which route the truck was taking. Which means we have a security leak."
Poppy bit her lip. 'Beat patted her shoulder, very carefully.
"Don' worry. We'll look after you."
Bob nodded, his usual grin replaced by a grim expression.
"It's why we're here. Between us all we should be able to keep everyone safe, but if worse comes to worst, we can escort you all to base for the duration."
"But we don't expect it to get to that stage." Phil added quickly. "We're pretty confident this is a minor incident, more of a... prank than anything. It could have been much more serious."
"Yes, but why?"
The soldiers exchanged a look, and Phil sighed.
"There's been a bit of an upsurge in anti-'bot feeling just recently. It's been kept out of the news, but there've been a number of Decepticon incidents around the world. A lot of destruction of property and a number of human deaths. Our Autobots are outnumbered, and can't be everywhere at once - and the general public don't see any difference between the two factions." He grimaced. "One of the drawbacks of keeping their presence secret for so long. Joe Public just sees giant robots causing mayhem."
"But I don't see what that has to do with my transformers! They're small. They can't do any harm."
"That doesn't matter to a frightened human. The very fact that they look like living machines, and can hide so easily in plain sight - and are almost impossible to injure or be killed by your average human - is enough to terrify most people."
Poppy nodded slowly. Yes, she could see how that would be likely.
"So, you think the energon was some sort of warning?"
"And the arson?"
"That's more worrying. We have our own forensic teams going over the place, but whoever it was they did a thorough job. I'll keep you apprised of anything we learn."
"I'd appreciate it."
He nodded, then gazed around at the silent transformers.
"I know you'll stay alert, and report anything suspicious. But please don't let it interfere with your lives here. We want you to feel safe, comfortable and at home." He grinned. "Well, as much as you can, anyway."
'Spin inclined his head, as usual speaking for them all.
"OK. So, anything else we need to discuss?"
'Beat raised a hand.
"Yeah, but it can wait until after dinner."
Poppy looked up at him, frowning. He nodded.
"Y'blood sugar's low. An' y'r internals are growling."
Oh wonderful. Now she had her car nagging her about her health. She sighed, and Phil chuckled.
"Well, it is getting on for eight. And it's been a busy day." He glanced at Steamy. "What do you have for us tonight?"
The little transformer sat back and tilted his head.
"Pörkölt with pasta. It's from Hungary."
Poppy's eyebrows rose.
"Getting adventurous, Steamy?"
Brilliant blue eyes blinked.
"Well, Mr Phil likes meat, and Mr Bob likes pasta, and you like spicy things, and the weather outside is getting colder - it seemed like a good idea."
"I'm sure it will be delicious." Poppy pushed herself to her feet and grinned at her transformers. "There's a film on tonight I'm planning to watch, if you'd like to join me? It's a classic."
A murmur of accord accompanied her to the kitchen.
'Beat touched Phil's arm as he made to follow: the NEST operative glanced up enquiringly.
"By all means."
"I want t'get some upgrades."
Phil pursed his lips.
"What sort of upgrades?"
"Weapons. An' armour."
The Second Lieutenant blinked.
"Aye. And some trainin' in how to use 'em."
"I'm not much of a guardian f'r Poppy as I am."
"But we're here."
"Yeah - but she goes out wi' me. Me platin' in't even bulletproof right now."
"I think you're being..."
'Beat's engine growled.
"I may never need 'em. But if I do, I want t'be prepared."
"I don't know..."
"Wi' respect, you can't stop me. All I need t'do is appeal to the Prime. He'll OK it." His vents grumbled. "If we're bein' targeted, we need t'be able to protect each other. Y'said yerself, there's more 'cons here now an' the Autobots're outnumbered. Back on Cybertron during the war, after I left, nearly all of us had some form o'weaponry fitted. Had to, f'r protection. I'm not askin' f'r fusion or ion cannons - not that anyone'd authorise them - just somethin' f'r defence. Ironhide'll advise."
"But if you get them, everyone will want some."
Phil waited, but the Mini remained silent, waiting.
"I'm not at all sure about this."
'Beat inclined his head.
"'M askin' you as a courtesy and 'cause if it happens you'll need to know the specs. But I need 'em. I will get 'em."
Phil wasn't prepared to argue too hard. What 'Beat was asking made sense.
"I'll speak to Graham after dinner."
"Ta." The Mini gestured to the kitchen. "Better go eat 'fore she comes lookin' f'r you. And don't say anythin' - I'll tell her meself."
In a bed in a hospital a couple of cities over from the transformers' house, a burned and bandaged woman Poppy would have recognised as the landlady of The King's Head peered up woozily at the shadowy figure hovering over her. The figure's voice was low and soothing.
"We are sorry about what happened. You do understand it's all the fault of that robot you were keeping, though, don't you? The one you thought was a jukebox. It had enemies."
The woman tried to speak, smoke-damaged lungs spasming painfully as she coughed.
"But we can help you. Help you get back on your feet. We are prepared to make a significant cash donation towards a new establishment for you. With the insurance payout as well you could be running a new place in a couple of months."
"... liked... the old..."
"Then perhaps we can find you another old hostelry. We do have some pull."
"... what... want...?"
"We just need to know where the jukebox went after you sold it."
Had the landlady been a little more alert, she'd have wondered how they knew it had been sold. But she was dosed up to the eyeballs on painkillers and antibiotics, and just wanted to go back to sleep. She raised one bandaged hand and gestured weakly to the cabinet beside her bed.
The shadowy figure quietly opened the door and pulled out a battered and singed handbag. Inside were a small photo album, keys, purse - and a copy of the receipt she'd given Poppy.
With Poppy's name, address and telephone number on it...
Part 4 - Wrench
"How much longer?" Poppy sighed, elbow on the car door, chin resting in her hand as she gazed out of the windscreen at the drizzle. It seemed to have rained non-stop since 'Beat left. Phil chuckled.
"Of course I am! I was really beginning to enjoy the independence, if nothing else. And... well, I felt safer knowing he was here."
"You really know how to make a bloke feel wanted."
"What? Oh!" Poppy flushed bright red. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."
"Just teasing. We know humans can't compare to big sentient metal beings - well, not when it comes to protection, anyway."
Poppy managed a weak smile.
"I didn't mean to offend."
"You didn't. And last I heard it should only be another few days. He'll be back well in time for Christmas."
Poppy nodded, then turned to the officer.
"Is it painful, do you know?"
Phil shrugged, turning into the driveway and bringing the car to a stop as close to the porch as he could. "I'm afraid I don't know much about the process: they tend to be a bit cagey about the details. I do know that they have to use bits of dead Decepticons to provide the metal required for the upgrades, since earth metal isn't the same, doesn't have the intrinsic strength or density."
Poppy grimaced. "Sounds horrible."
"I suppose it's no more nasty than us having an organ transplant."
Poppy frowned. "Mm. I suppose that's really all it is? That does make it sound a lot better."
"Best way to think about it." Phil climbed out of the car and reached into the back seat for the shopping bags. "Let's get unpacked and I'll make coffee."
'Beat's request had been granted surprisingly quickly, and within three days he'd found himself boarding a military transport at RAF Brize Norton heading for Diego Garcia. All Poppy was told was that Ratchet would be handling his modification, and he'd be returned as soon as he was accustomed to the mods and had been given some basic training in whatever weapons Ironhide decreed suitable. She'd had no further contact with him, although Ramp reported that things were fine and 'Beat was adapting well to his upgrades.
But it had been three weeks now and Poppy wanted him back. She missed the shopping expeditions, and the weekend trips to out of the way places. Ashamed as she was to admit it, he knew more of the history of her home than she did, and made it funny and interesting to hear. She'd grown to appreciate his tastes in music too - and he'd started listening to some of her favourites...
Poppy pulled up short as she entered the house, staring around the lounge open-mouthed.
'Spin paused in hanging the last shimmering icicle on the huge tree now sitting in the far corner, his eyes bright.
"Don't you like it? If not, we can alwayth take everything down..."
Poppy took a moment to catch her breath and take a proper look.
It was beautiful - though with Sinewave directing everyone's efforts that wasn't really surprising. Delicate, sparkling chains of... she peered upwards. Snowflakes? They were probably meant to be snowflakes, given that they were sort of six-sided and silvery, though they resembled no snowflakes or pictures of snowflakes she'd ever seen. They were three dimensional for one thing, little balls of intricate spikes and diamonds and minute crystals. Cybertronian snowflakes, maybe? Did Cybertron even have snow?... They glittered across the ceiling and hung from the light fittings: the mantel above the fireplace was covered in bunches of holly and mistletoe with here and there a tall silver candle rising from the green, and the tree... the tree was magnificent, a green so deep it was almost black, and sparingly but beautifully decorated with more snowflakes, icicles and... she didn't recognise them. Oddly-shaped silver... things. Potatoes? Asteroids? Meteors? She gasped quietly as they all lit up and started to change colour, soft electric blue blending into vivid emerald green melting into rich deep purple changing to soft gold and back to shimmering silver.
'Spin inclined his head, mouth twitching in his version of a smile.
"We'll take that ath a yeth, then."
"It's fantastic! Where did everything come from?"
"Vault and Thinewave dethigned everything, and the retht of uth made them."
Poppy laughed delightedly.
"You are... staggeringly clever. And talented. And creative. All of you." She leaned down to pat Livewire, who was scurrying around trailing something that looked a little like tinsel but which seemed to be twisting and untwisting in strange shapes under its own power. "It's really beautiful. Thank you. All of you."
'Spin waved a hand dismissively.
"Leatht we could do. And it wath fun, adapting our ideath to your human traditionth. We did thome of the other roomth ath well, but mothtly in here, ath thith ith the rec room. Ithn't it?"
Poppy nodded - the term was close enough. Beaming, she pulled off her coat and sat down on the oversized sofa, admiring the decorations. Phil appeared from the kitchen, handed her a mug of coffee and seated himself in the chair opposite, and she mock-frowned at him.
"Did you know about this."
He grinned. "Might have done."
"So that's why we had to go the long way 'round."
"Just wanted to give 'em time to finish."
He saluted lazily.
"You're welcome." He leaned forwards. "I need to ask - what do you have planned for Christmas? Do you go to family or have anyone here? We can't actually leave you by yourself but we can make sure we stay out of sight."
Poppy waved her hand.
"Oh no! Nothing like that. I don't have much family anyway, just my mum, and she's in California. We speak on the phone. I usually have a really quiet day - eat something nice, watch films, pig out on chocolate... Last year was more fun, with this lot here." She gestured to the transformers in the room, then smiled at him. "It'll be nice to have you two here as well. I can make a bit more of an effort with the meals, if nothing else."
"Well, we can help with the veg anyway. I peel a mean spud."
"That I must see!"
They sipped coffee for a few minutes in a contented silence, then Phil asked, a little hesitantly, "Not a party girl, then?"
Poppy shook her head.
"Never was much of a one for loud music, flashy lights and too much alcohol. Tried it at uni but didn't enjoy the hangovers. I've gone to a few office parties in the past, but didn't really enjoy them. Not being rude, the people I worked with were fine - at work. Outside of it, well, we just couldn't find any common ground. Made it all a bit stilted."
"Happens. It's OK."
He debated asking her about her friends, her hopes and plans for the future, but decided it really wasn't any of his business. She didn't seem lonely, but even so this wouldn't be a particularly good time to intrude.
He was saved having to change the subject by Steamy padding in from the kitchen asking them what they'd like for lunch...
The following morning Poppy had just taken delivery of the new washing machine - 'Spin had protested but she'd insisted he couldn't carry on washing her clothes, not now that she knew what he was - when Ramp loped through from the office.
"Poppy - Upbeat is on his way back. His transport has just landed at Brize Norton."
She grinned happily.
"Great! Any idea of an ETA?"
Ramp's display flickered for a moment.
"They estimate three hours, by the time they've cleared security."
"Terrific. We'll wait lunch 'til he gets here."
"Could we have thome energon, do you think, to welcome him back?" 'Spin asked hesitantly.
"Oh, I should think so. As long as we don't have a repeat of last time."
"That wathn't our fault..."
"I know. I'm teasing."
"Oh. Well, Vault and Thinewave will help me organithe it."
"Thanks, I'd appreciate it."
As they left Phil came in, opened his mouth then closed it again and grinned.
"Let me guess, Ramp beat me to it."
"Yup. He says about three hours."
"Good, good. Be interesting to see what's been done..."
At one p.m. Poppy and Phil were standing in the porch when Graham's Defender drew to a halt outside the house - followed by a strange car. Phil raised his eyebrows and whistled.
"Oh, very classy!"
Poppy stared. The new car was sporty, but still looked rather old-fashioned, though its colour scheme - a rich soft dark teal with silver accents - was certainly modern.
"What is it?" she whispered to her companion. "I don't want to seem ignorant..."
"It's an MGC. British. Absolute classic. They stopped making them in 1969."
Poppy would have questioned further but was halted by the sound of the car transforming...
The figure crouched down to be closer to her. The face was definitely 'Beat's, but the rest...
"Aye. Had to be, to hold mods."
"And... sleeker." Which was true - the blocky bulkiness of the Mini was gone, replaced by a much more streamlined frame. 'Beat's head tilted to one side, his expression faintly worried.
"Y'don't like it?"
She shook her head frantically.
"No, it's not that at all! I think you look amazing! I just didn't expect... I mean, I never really thought much about it." She suddenly realised she hadn't even said hello yet, and grabbed his thumb with both hands. "I'm so glad you're back. I missed you."
His mouth quirked in his equivalent of a smile.
"Missed you too. Got lots to tell everyone." He nodded to Phil. "Sir."
Phil frowned - then spotted the Autobot brand on 'Beat's shoulder and growled to himself. So that was the price required for the upgrades. He exchanged a look with Graham - his superior officer didn't look too happy about the situation either, and muttered, "We'll talk later."
Phil nodded, then turned back to 'Beat: Poppy was now sitting on his hand.
"We've waited lunch for you, Upbeat, and I know 'Spin, Vault and Sinewave have brought in energon for everyone. Perhaps we can hear all about it while we refuel?"
The MGC nodded.
"Aye. Got a lot to tell." He glanced at 'Spin, who was hovering in the doorway. "An' I got to meet the Prime."
Poppy heard a softly gasped "ooooooh..." from behind her and grinned. Better let him talk about that first. She could always find out the ramifications of his upgrades later.
It was very good to have him home.
For the uninitiated (like me!) this and this is the MGC. Lovely lovely looking car...
Part 5 - Prism
Human air transport was primitive - noisy, bumpy and oddly smelly - but it helped divert his thoughts from what was to come. He'd been told the Prime wanted to speak to him. To meet the Prime... The concept was both terrifying and awe-inspiring.
And the flight ended entirely too soon. He wasn't ready. Then again, he didn't think he ever could be ready. He rolled out of the plane into heavy rain and a hot, humid morning, completely different to the weather back home, was ushered into a large, empty hanger and asked to transform and wait. He could feel himself trembling, cables and lines tensed. It wasn't fear, not exactly, but it was certainly something close.
Moments later he caught the sound of a powerful engine approaching, and the Prime's terrestrial alternative form drove into the building. And transformed.
'Beat gazed up, awed, suddenly feeling very small. The Prime towered over him, and not just physically. The field that rolled over his own was brimming with so much, great age, profound sorrow, regret and loss, nobility, purity of purpose, sheer power, infinite compassion, unbending resolve and a determination that felt as though it could move planets from their orbits.
It was overwhelming.
And then the Prime lowered his massive frame, crouching to bring himself optic to optic with the Mini, resting a massive hand with infinite gentleness on his shoulder, and the voice that had raised the sparks of his people throughout the galaxies reverberated through 'Beat, deep, resonant and cadenced with the harmonics of respect and love.
The transformers were staring at 'Beat, utterly silent, eyes wide and brilliant. Poppy hadn't understood all of 'Beat's narrative - some of it, things that could only be expressed in Cybertronian, she guessed, had been said in their own language. Languages, rather. She and the officers were on the periphery of the group, but even there the atmosphere was charged. It felt to Poppy a little like the air before a thunderstorm - magnified by about a hundred. She knew they had personal electro-magnetic fields, and often used them to communicate emotion: going by the way her skin was prickling with static electricity she guessed that feelings were running very high right now.
'Beat had closed his eyes, reliving the moment if the tremor that ran through his frame was anything to go by. Venting a soft sigh, he opened them again and gazed around at his colleagues.
"He asked about all of us, how we got here, how we're faring. He made me feel as though we belong."
Prime had settled himself on the ground - on the ground! - to speak with the Mini.
"I am grateful that you survived. Not only because we are so scarce, because so many were lost, but you in particular are most welcome. You carry the history of our people, of our planet, within you. You are infinitely precious to us all."
Overawed, 'Beat couldn't speak, but the Prime didn't seem to mind. He smiled.
"I understand that you wish for modifications, so that you may better protect yourself and your human, and your colleagues."
'Beat's voice sounded very small. "Yes, my Prime."
"Then we must ensure that the work is done well. However, I must ask that you not put yourself at risk. Never think that you are expendable."
"I will be careful."
Prime pushed himself upright and gestured towards the hanger door.
"Then we will talk with Ironhide and Ratchet. And you and I will speak again before you return."
The following two and a half weeks had been exhausting for 'Beat - not to mention very uncomfortable. Ratchet had muted his pain receptors as far as was reasonable, but it wasn't possible to offline them completely as the medic needed the Mini to be able to respond to stimuli, and tell him how everything felt.
Which was mostly painful. Then again, he was practically being rebuilt from the outside in: pain was only to be expected...
Halfway through the modification, with 'Beat's new, considerably heavier and denser armoured plating not just bullet-proof but missile-proof as well, the Weapons Specialist had made his appearance.
That had been alarming. Ironhide had gazed at him with what could have been disdain, but nevertheless ran diagnostics on his frame, determining his strength and potential offensive abilities. Which were, he'd boomed, not very high. Then again, his weaponry was supposed to be for defence, and there, being a naturally protective 'bot, he scored highly.
It took 'Beat a week to learn how to use his electro-magnetic pulse generator effectively. The first time he'd tried it he'd offlined himself...
Rolling his optics in a purely human manner, Ironhide handed him over to Jolt for training. Between the smaller autobot's much more sympathetic treatment and Ratchet's additional coding, by the end of the week he'd become quite skilful in its use, certainly enough to feel confident of temporarily offlining attackers around his own size, and causing some seriously inconvenient circuit scrambling to anything larger. He wasn't a warrior: his tactic had to be to incapacitate and escape, not stick around and fight.
With that in mind, Ratchet had also upped his power and speed capabilities - and that's when he chose his new alt mode. The MGC was more aerodynamic than the Mini, while still belonging to the same era, something that, despite Ratchet and Ironhide's objections (after all, modern cars were much more efficient) he insisted upon. He was a historian. He liked that era. He would take that form.
Ratchet had also rolled his optics and given up trying to persuade him otherwise, though he was heard to mutter "stubborn young fragger" on more than one occasion.
Towards the end of the upgrade the medic had decided to add a refinement and install a pair of powerful electromagnets into 'Beat's hands.
"Oooh!" Steamy bounced. "What do they do?"
'Beat extended one hand, palm outwards - and Steamy yelped as he was suddenly yanked with a clang into the MGC's hand.
"Can repel as well as attract. An' Ratchet said they will support more than my own weight. I think they can also act as maglevs. Need to try that out." He shrugged. "They'm not absolutely necessary, but they might come in handy. Even if's only to hang from somethin' metal."
Poppy shuddered at the sudden vision of 'Beat stuck to a Decepticon's back, using the EM pulse to try to disable it and failing... Didn't bear thinking about.
"But you are only going to use them for defence, aren't you?"
'Beat regarded her levelly.
"O' course. 'M not a fighter. Me job is to look after you. Puttin' either of us in harm's way is not the idea."
"Oh good." She breathed a sigh of relief.
Vault reached out to touch 'Beat's shoulder, running a finger across the Autobot brand.
"You've joined them?"
'Beat hesitated a moment.
"Well, yes an' no..."
Jolt liked to talk. 'Beat realised after only a short while that the young Autobot had spent a lot of time alone, cut off from his colleagues and friends, and was enjoying being able to speak with others of his kind. Not while they were actively training, of course, but during breaks and at the end of the day, he chattered. It was rather nice, actually - and 'Beat learned a lot more than he believed he was supposed to, about the Autobot team here, and others Jolt had met or heard of. He admired them all - the Prime with awed reverence - and was so proud to be one of their number... It started 'Beat thinking, about where his loyalties lay...
The Prime had not been happy to hear he wanted a brand. Ironhide had scoffed, pointing out in no uncertain terms that he wasn't a fighter and could only be called on for assistance as an absolute last resort, at which point they'd have lost the battle anyway. Ratchet... well, Ratchet had been more sympathetic, and murmured to the MGC that if necessary he could be fitted with destructive weaponry, if it ever came to that. Although he hoped it never would. Poor Jolt had been horrified when he realised that it was his fault that 'Beat had come to this decision, and stuttered his apologies to the Prime. It took several minutes for Prime to reassure him he was not in trouble.
Then the Prime turned to 'Beat, crouching down again, optics meeting optics.
"Why do you want this, my friend? It will mark you as sympathetic to us and our cause. That could be dangerous."
"We are already in danger, my Prime. That's why I'm here. I've been a neutral all my existence. It's time for me to show where I stand." He stood a little taller. "I want this, my Prime. I may never be able to fight with you, but I believe in what you are doing, and I want everyone to know."
Prime bowed his head.
"You gladden us with your bravery and resolve. Be well."
"'Til all are one."
Prime smiled gently.
"'Til all are one."
'Beat eyed Vault warily.
"I said I wanted one, to show loyalty. An' because... well, y'll understand if you ever meet the Prime. But I'm not about to leave you! My place is here. An' I'm not a fighter - I wouldn't be any use to 'em over there anyway."
"So, Autobot supporter then?"
'Beat tilted his head pensively.
Phil glanced at his superior officer, keeping his voice quiet as 'Beat started describing the base on Diego Garcia.
"You think it was that simple?"
Graham shook his head.
"Nothing about them is that simple."
"You think Prime uses personality to get others to join the Autobots?"
"Not deliberately, no - he's too honourable for that. But I can imagine the others taking advantage of the effect he has to... nudge others to join the cause."
"I don't think he could be that subtle. I can see Ratchet using it though."
"You think that's what happened?"
"I don't know. 'Beat is usually pretty level-headed..."
"So is his affiliation a security risk?"
Graham growled his frustration.
"I don't know! I don't know how the Decepticons view neutrals. If they usually ignore them then yes, it's a security risk. If they try to get them to join their own cause, then again, yes. On the other hand, the Autobots are the good guys, and the brand marks him as one of them to the general public. Though given recent reactions that's a pretty slender positive."
Bob sighed. "Something else to worry about then."
"It's... unfortunate and short-sighted, but they're all individuals in their own right. We can't tell them what to do. Well, unless it contravenes our laws, anyway."
"At least he can protect himself, now. Better than before, anyway."
"So let's be thankful for small mercies..."
For Upbeat's mods I have borrowed unapologetically from Transformers: Animated's Ratchet: they seemed perfectly appropriate for 'Beat.
Part 6 - Chisel
Poppy adored driving in 'Beat's new car form. It was fast and sleek and smooth - and for the first time she actually quite enjoyed the admiring glances he got when they were out and about. She found it amusing that 'Beat wouldn't let anyone else in the driving seat, though - which meant that when Phil and Bob wanted a ride she had to go with them. However, since she did, genuinely, have more shopping to do than usual at this time of year this did not pose a problem...
"What are we having for Christmas dinner then?"
Poppy smiled at Bob, who was blowing into his hands to warm them, red-faced from finishing off repairing the shed in the bitter wind that had sprung up over the last hour.
"I though we'd be really traditional and have goose."
"Ah, I haven't had goose in donkey's years..." Phil licked his lips, eyes half-closed.
Bob chuckled. "I've never had it. Is it nice?"
"Very rich." Poppy added redcurrant jelly to the shopping list. "I thought we'd have potatoes roasted in duck fat, honey glazed baby carrots and peas, Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, and spiced swede. Anything there either of you hate?"
Both officers were practically drooling.
"Can we spend every Christmas with you?"
Poppy giggled and swatted at them with the teatowel.
"You two are such stereotypes! The way to your hearts really and truly is through your stomachs, isn't it?"
"But the food here is so great..."
"And Steamy does most of the cooking!"
The little transformer piped up from where he was directing 'Spin in preparing today's lunch. "And after your New Year celebration you're all going back on healthy diets!"
Twin mock groans came from the two men, and Poppy laughed.
"Oh come on! We can't eat like this all the time!"
"I suppose not." Bob sighed. "Pity though."
Poppy eyed her list critically once more and reached for her bag.
"Right - I'm off."
Phil rose to his feet.
"Mind if I come help carry?"
"That'd be great." She smiled at Bob. "We shouldn't be more than a couple of hours, but it depends on how busy everywhere is."
The officer nodded.
"I'll try and get that guttering fixed while you're gone. If the weather gets any worse it'll blow down."
"That would be great, thanks. I'm sure Muncher will help..."
The town was packed, so it was fortunate that they weren't in any hurry. Abbotson's Farm and Game had Poppy's goose ready for her to pick up, and she and Phil dived into one of the independent shops nearby for a selection of pickles, chutneys, jellies, biscuits, and a couple of bottles of country wines that Poppy thought sounded nice. A quick stop at the supermarket for some of the more mundane items they were running short of, and it was a good three hours before they arrived back. The bitter wind had given way to a rather unpleasant light sleet, and they hurried into the house while 'Beat drove into the garage to dry off before joining them inside. (Poppy had been impressed by his thoughtfulness: he never went into the house until he was clean and dry - to avoid damaging the furnishings, he explained.)
Bob was on the phone, and he waved at them for attention as they carried everything in.
"Can you hang on a minute?" Poppy raised an eyebrow, but the question was obviously addressed to the person on the other end of the line: he placed his hand over the mouthpiece and regarded Poppy a little anxiously.
"I know this is a bit short notice, not to mention cheeky, but would it be OK if my fiancée joined us for Christmas?"
Poppy glanced at Phil, who shrugged, and quickly performed a mental inventory of supplies. She had more than enough food - and she hadn't realised Bob was engaged. She could hardly say no! She grinned and nodded, and the officer smiled back gratefully. They left him to talk while they put things away in the kitchen.
"I didn't think to ask, but do you have anyone you'd like to invite?"
Phil chuckled and shook his head.
"No - but thanks for asking."
Poppy frowned as she made space for the new condiments in the cupboard.
"It can't be easy for you both, being stuck here all the time."
"Actually, it's one of the nicest duties I've ever had. I know Bob likes it too. His fiancée is a junior doctor over in Reading, so it's not like they get to see each other all that often anyway."
"Mm. What happens when you want to take time off?"
"I probably won't, at least, not for any length of time, but if Bob does we'll get someone over to replace him temporarily." He grinned. "We won't leave you unprotected."
"Oh, I wasn't worried about that. It just seems unfair you having to spend all your time here."
"Trust me, it's fine."
"Well, if you're sure..." She glanced over her shoulder as Bob came through the door.
"You sure that's OK, Poppy? We don't want to put you to any trouble. Angela only just found out that she can get the time off."
"It's fine - you should be together at Yuletide. And it's not like we don't have plenty of room." She frowned. "Does she know about the transformers? We don't want to give her a heart attack."
Bob laughed. "No, she knows about them. Will be chuffed to meet some, to be honest."
"No problem, then." Poppy hesitated for a moment. "Will she want her own room?"
Bob blushed, but shook his head.
"If it's OK with you, she'll share mine."
"Fine. When's she arriving?"
"Christmas Eve. She's back on duty on Boxing Day, but not 'til the night."
Poppy nodded. "It'll be lovely to have her here."
Bob leaned over and kissed Poppy's cheek. "Thank you. I really appreciate it!"
Surprised, Poppy felt her face heat up, and tutted playfully.
"I didn't notice any mistletoe..."
Bob chuckled and snapped his fingers. "Dammit. Knew we'd forgotten something!"
"Too late now." Phil grinned and gestured to the window; outside the sleet was lashing down. "Nobody's going out in this!"
"At least we got the guttering finished..."
The weather had calmed by the evening, and just after sunset Poppy ventured out to the small pool at the front of the house. Although the wind had dropped, it was nevertheless very cold, with a hint of frost in the air. Poppy rubbed her hands together and settled the little lit lantern in the branches of the solitary cherry tree that overshadowed the dark pond. Heavy footsteps behind her alerted her to 'Beat's approach, and she smiled over her shoulder.
The transformer stood behind her for a moment, then reached forward very carefully to touch the lantern.
"What's it for?"
"Just a little tradition I inherited from my mum. It's Yule tomorrow - the longest night of the year."
"Yeah. Y'r winter solstice."
"In very ancient times humans used to celebrate it - light fires and make a lot of noise to try to persuade the sun to rise again. It's where the idea of lights on the tree comes from. I think. At least, that's what mum always told me..." Poppy frowned. "I suppose I ought to check that... Oh well, it doesn't matter. I like the idea! Though it should be an evergreen tree really. Pine, or holly! Holly would be ideal." She looked up at the metal face above her. "Sorry, I'm wittering. You don't have any silly customs like this, do you?"
"No. But they're not silly. They're fascinating, a most intriguing synthesis of historical periods. Each new generation adds its own meanings, its own traditions. They are very revealing."
Poppy chuckled to herself. She wasn't wholly used to 'Beat reverting to historian mode yet; it was such a contrast to his normal Scouse affectation that he seemed like a completely different person.
"So you can tell a lot about a people through their traditions?"
"Do you have any at all?"
He inclined his head musingly.
"Of a sort. Very few and simple though."
"I'd love to hear about them."
He regarded her gravely.
"I will try to gather together what I can. I'll need to confer with the others, however."
"That's fine, whenever you're ready." She shivered. "It's getting cold."
"Yes. Weather forecast said it might snow."
"Oooh, that would be fun! I haven't had snow for Yule for as long as I can remember."
"Then we'll.... 'keep our fingers crossed'."
She reach up and back to grasp a large metal finger.
"But for now, you'd best get back in before you freeze."
Poppy wished 'Beat goodnight at the garage door, and went into the house with a pensive frown on her face. 'Beat shared the garage with Muncher now, overnight, and while it was fairly warm, it wasn't the most comfortable of places. She wondered if it might be possible to improve it - even get some kind of beds out there. If the transformers could feel pain, no doubt they could feel pleasure too, and something a bit softer to sleep on - recharge on, rather - than the floor would probably be welcome. Then they wouldn't need to transform into their vehicle modes, which she was sure weren't terribly comfortable...
Bob and Phil were talking quietly in front of the fire, and looked up when she seated herself .
"Ready to hear a report?"
She raised an eyebrow.
"Actually, it's good news. Well, sort of. NEST has the go-ahead to build an energon production plant in the new year."
"Oh, that is good news!"
"In the middle of the Sahara."
"What? But... sand?"
"Yes, that's what we said, but apparently Agadem is one of the sunniest places on earth. It's already an oil-producing and mining region, so the infrastructure is already in place. And our 'bots have the tech to keep themselves irritant free and operating efficiently. It's a good plan, really."
Bob grinned. "Ah yes, there's always a but, isn't there?"
Phil sighed. "It means that Grounds, Hotpot, Hooker and Airhead will be leaving."
"Oh!" Poppy's heart sank, then she caught herself. Of course they would! Energon production and cleaning had been their specialities on Cybertron: they'd be needed at the plant. She forced herself to smile.
"That's great! Better than wasting their lives here..." She paused. "Um... will any of the others be going too?"
"At the moment we don't know. I can tell you Vault, Sinewave, 'Beat, Muncher, Cable, Livewire and Ramp will definitely remain. Oh, and 'Spin, of course - he refuses to leave you. But the rest - we're not sure yet."
Poppy nodded, refusing to let herself feel upset. Phil reached out and patted her shoulder.
"But it won't be until well after the New Year - and we rather think there may be some new arrivals by then too."
"So we need to make this the best Yuletide ever!" Poppy managed a chuckle. "And if Ramp's staying, I never need be out of touch. But I do hope Steamy and Sucker can stay..."
Part 7 - Hammer
Three things gently nudged Poppy to wakefulness on the morning of Xmas Eve.
The first was the rich smell of hot chocolate - with whipped cream and marshmallows if she could trust her nose. The second was the silence - a thick, heavy, feathery silence. The third was the extraordinary whiteness of the light filtering in through her bedroom window...
She bolted upright, suddenly fully awake, and dived for the window.
Outside everything was white, a soft, gentle mantle of snow covering the land as far as she could see, with large flakes still drifting down. Poppy shivered and jumped back into bed, pulling the quilt up around her and gratefully cupping the mug of hot chocolate - with, yes, swirly cream and chocolate and vanilla mini-marshmallows - in both hands. Livewire twinkled at her as she sipped.
"It's so pretty! We never had much weather on Cybertron. Here there's so... much..."
Poppy giggled and patted the little transformer.
"It is fun, isn't it?"
"Are you going to build a snow-person?"
"If there's enough snow... we could build a snow-'bot!"
Livewire tilted his head to one side.
"That would be interesting."
Poppy slurped down the last of the chocolate. "We'll see."
Down in the kitchen Phil and Bob were tucking into the cholesterol heaven that usually went by the name of 'full English breakfast' - much to Steamy's dismay.
"You aren't going to have anything that unhealthy, are you?" He asked anxiously as Poppy headed for the fridge.
She grinned over her shoulder.
"Actually, a bacon butty with fruity sauce would go down a treat. I'll grill the bacon." she added before the little transformer could object. Phil chuckled.
"Browbeaten by your 'bots. A sad state of affairs."
"Ah, they only have my best interests at heart. I mean spark." She put the bacon under the grill and sliced the loaf. "Anything planned today?"
"The usual. What about you? Is there anything we can do for you?"
Poppy smiled over her shoulder.
"Actually, yes. I'm heading into town to try to pick up a little something for Angela to open tomorrow, so she's not left out - any suggestions?"
Phil turned to Bob, who frowned and shrugged.
"Um..." He was silent for a few moments. "I... don't know."
Poppy planted her hands on her hips and scowled at him.
"She's your fiancée . You must have some idea of what she likes." She waited expectantly as Bob's face went redder and redder, then humphed, "Honestly. You can spot a sniper at half a mile but you don't know what perfume she wears? Men!"
Phil laughed outright and slapped Bob's shoulder.
"Oh, you're in trouble now!"
Bob looked utterly dismayed. Poppy glowered at him.
"Right. You obviously have no idea about perfume, which I suppose includes bath stuff and cosmetics as well. Books? Music? Films?"
"I know she likes comfortable underwear..."
Poppy raised her eyes and hands to heaven.
"I can hardly buy your fiancée underwear, can I?"
"... s'pose not..."
"What have you bought her?" She scowled. "I trust you have bought her something?"
"Yes, a pair of earrings and a bracelet she admired when we were out last."
"Oh good, that's something at least. What sort of earrings?"
"Dangly blue ones."
Poppy eyed him for a moment, then rubbed at her forehead and tried again.
"And the bracelet?"
"A silver charm one."
That was more promising. "What charms have you already got on it?"
"A grenade. And one of those medical signs - the staff with the two snakes around it."
Poppy stared at him. A grenade? Riiight. He was obviously going for meaningful symbolism rather than romance...
"A ring, and it came with a heart."
"So, would it bother you if I bought a charm for it too? Assuming I can find something appropriate."
"No, of course not!" He grinned, obviously relieved at being let off the hook. Phil caught Poppy's attention.
"Could you look for something for me as well?"
"You could come with me and choose one yourself."
"I could, but you're bound to be better at it than me, and I've just remembered there's something I need to do today."
She eyed him suspiciously, but he seemed genuine. She sighed.
"Oh, OK then. Any preferences?"
"She likes cats. Can't have one herself, because of her hours, but she did mention she'd love one."
Poppy nodded - cat charms weren't too hard to find. "I'll see what I can do..."
The snow had stopped by the time she'd eaten breakfast and was ready to head out, but it was lying quite thickly and there was ice underneath it in places. 'Beat hastened to reassure her they'd be safe - by extruding metal spikes from the fabric of his tyres. Poppy blinked.
"Given the weather here, we thought it might be useful."
But he still drove slowly, not wanting to draw attention to himself, and it was four hours before they returned home.
It had, however, been a successful trip.
"Those are great!" Bob peered at the small boxes with Phil looking over his shoulder: Poppy had found a cat and kitten charm at one of the jewellers in town, and scouring her favourite antique shops had turned up a robin and - of all things - a tiny silver robot, both of which she'd snatched up without even asking the price. "They're perfect!"
"Excellent. I'll get them wrapped and stashed under the tree." Poppy closed the boxes as Vault helpfully laid wrapping paper, tape and scissors on the table. "Do we know what time she's arriving?"
Bob nodded. "She rang while you were out. She'll be here about seven."
"In time for dinner - good!"
"And would you mind if we went to Midnight Mass?"
Poppy eyed him, surprised. "Of course not - you don't need to ask me."
"Don't suppose you'd like to come with us?"
"No thanks. But we'll have mulled wine and mince pies waiting when you get back."
Angela arrived at half past six, parking her Audi as close as possible to the porch. Bob grabbed her small case and hustled her in out of the snow, which had begun to fall again. Once inside she shrugged out of her jacket and smiled at Poppy.
"Hello. I'm Angela. You must be Poppy - it's great to meet you! And thank you so much for the invitation. It will be wonderful for us to spend Christmas together."
Poppy returned the smile, eyeing her new guest. Angela was tall, a little taller than Bob, in fact, and well-built, with short dark hair and a brisk, no-nonsense tone which presumably came with the job. Her handshake was decidedly firm, and Poppy didn't miss the way her gaze darted swiftly around the entrance hall - presumably looking for transformers but too polite to ask about them this soon. Poppy grinned.
"They're staying out of the way until you're settled, then they'll come and say hello."
Angela stared at her host for a second, then a hint of pink coloured her cheeks.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to be rude."
"You weren't. I know you're looking forward to meeting them - Bob said you would be." She gestured towards the stairs. "Let me show you to your room..."
Bob hastily raised a hand.
"That's OK, Poppy, I'll take her up."
Oh, of course, they hadn't seen each other in weeks... Poppy nodded.
"Can I get you anything to drink?"
Angela smiled gratefully.
"A coffee would go down a treat. It's getting colder out there."
"I'll have it ready when you come down."
Midnight, and the snow had stopped falling. Poppy stood at the lounge window, gazing out for a few moments, then turned to Phil.
"I'm going out, just for a bit. It's been so long since I've seen snow like this - I want to just enjoy it for five minutes."
"Want me to come with you?"
"No, I'll be fine." She chuckled. "Besides, 'Beat will probably follow me - he usually does."
"Takes his duties seriously, does Upbeat."
"It's rather sweet."
"Well, if you aren't back by 1.30 I'll send out a search party..."
Poppy stopped on the slight rise at the back of the house, under the trees that the transformers sat beneath in the summer. Now, with the branches bare, the snow lying thick and soft, the sky cloudless and the gibbous moon bright, the scene before her really did resemble a Xmas card. She leaned back against 'Beat, who with his engine running and his arms loosely, carefully wrapped around her was wonderfully warm, and for a few minutes there was a contented silence.
Then Poppy sighed. Seeing Angela and Bob together, restrained in public but with an undercurrent of affection, made her wonder if she really was missing out on something important in life. She'd been completely honest - she never had found anyone she'd want to be intimate with - but...
But she wasn't lonely. She was quite content, especially this last couple of years with her new 'job' and her wards. She'd never felt the need to matter to anyone. Did that make her a freak?
Did she care?
She snorted quietly. That was a definite no.
"Are you all right?" 'Beat's voice was low and rumbling, and she nodded.
"I'm fine." She shivered a little: it was getting colder. "We'll go back in a minute."
"There will be mulled wine. Bob and Angela are on their way back."
"That'll be nice." She pulled away and grinned up at him. "Come on then. Let's get back. A drop of wine will be very welcome."
Poppy woke early and made her way down to the kitchen before any other human was awake. Steamy and 'Spin were already at work, organising themselves, Vault and Sinewave and the ingredients for the day's meals: Poppy had been told in no uncertain terms she was to take it easy today, they'd be doing all the work. 'Spin hustled her through to the lounge then brought her a mug of hot chocolate and a plate of butter biscuits.
"Livewire ith going to wake up the otherth."
"Oh, he mustn't do that! Let them sleep in for once."
'Spin hesitated, then vented a sigh.
"Oh, all right. But no more than an hour!"
Poppy nodded. When 'Spin was in this mood there was no point in arguing. An hour would bring it to 8.45, which really wasn't too early...
But Phil arrived ten minutes later, kissed her cheek, got himself a mug of tea and dunked a couple of Poppy's biscuits in it, spluttering when they melted half into his mouth. Poppy giggled as he hastily caught a soggy bit before it slid off his chin.
He mumbled something that could have been "elegance be damned" before taking a long swallow of the tea and grinning at her.
"Merry Christmas, happy Yule, season's greetings! I think that covers everything."
"I heard the others... waking up as I came down. They should be here in twenty minutes or so." He smirked. "Then we can open the presents."
"You're a big kid really, aren't you?"
"Yup!" He stretched out on the sofa. "Never quite grew out of playing with guns."
Poppy rolled her eyes.
"And we entrust the country's security to you lot."
"Aw, you know you love us really."
They watched the TV for a few minutes, then looked up as Angela and Bob came into the room.
"Merry Christmas!" Angela looked rested and happy, Poppy noted, pleased. The woman had looked tired and stressed last night. She grinned knowingly at Bob, who blushed and hurried through to the kitchen to get coffees and came back followed by 'Spin carrying a tray of tall glasses of Buck's Fizz. Angela's eyes widened.
"Wow. This is special!"
"Nothing but the betht for our Poppy."
Angela smiled at her host.
"You are so lucky. I don't suppose I can take them off your hands, can I?"
"Don't think NEST would go for it, I'm afraid."
"True, true... pity though." She accepted a glass from 'Spin and raised it in a toast.
"Here's to Poppy!"
Presents were exchanged and opened over paté on toast: Phil and Bob seemed happy with their shoot-em-up game (Poppy knew nothing about them and had had to trust the sales assistant's advice), Angela was delighted with her jewellery, and Poppy pleased and touched when 'Spin handed her a disc and a rather large printout of Cybertronian history and traditions.
"It wath 'Beat'th idea. He thaid you were interethted tho we all got together to tell him what we remembered."
"Thank you, all of you!" She glanced around at her transformers. "I really appreciate it."
'Spin waved a hand. "You do tho much for uth, it ith the leatht we can do for you."
"We got you something too." Phil smiled. "But you'll have to come outside to see it."
Curious, Poppy pulled on her coat, shoved her feet into a pair of Wellingtons, and followed the two officers out of the house, Angela trailing just behind her. Phil gestured at them.
"You two go over to the pool - but don't watch us."
Frowning, the two women did as instructed and waited, facing away from the house. The sounds of uneven footsteps crunching on the snow - and the noise of two separate engines - soon broke the stillness...
"You can look now."
Poppy turned - and clasped her hands together in delight. The two men were staggering under the weight of a young, beautifully proportioned holly tree. Phil grinned.
"A good choice then."
She nodded and glanced at 'Beat and Muncher standing nearby.
"Oh yes. Did 'Beat tell you?"
"Yep. It's why I couldn't come with you yesterday."
"It's lovely!" Poppy reached out to touch the smooth, prickly leaves. "It's going to look beautiful by the pool."
"An' if you tell us where you wants it, us'll plant it f'r you." Muncher indicated himself and 'Beat. "Get it settled nice and firm."
"Thank you, all of you! This is fantastic."
"You're worth it."
"Why thank you, kind sir."
He tugged at the hair escaping from under his hood at his temple.
"You'm welcome, Milady."
Laughing, Poppy pointed out the space she wanted the holly tree to go.
"That was... huge. And delicious." Phil leaned back in his seat and patted his stomach. Beside him, Angela sighed happily.
"I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a dinner so much. Thank you, Poppy."
Replete with good food and good cheer, Poppy waved a hand dismissively.
"All I did was buy the food! Steamy, 'Spin and Vault did everything else."
"Such a pity they can't enjoy it themselves."
Poppy nodded. "They have energon, but it's not the same."
There were a few moments of contented silence, then Phil hauled himself to his feet.
"Better go get seated. Nearly time for the Queen's Speech."
Poppy rolled her eyes but didn't argue...
The afternoon rolled by contentedly. The humans taught the transformers how to play Charades - one of the few games where the 'bots didn't have an inbuilt advantage, although Poppy did have to remind them that only human subjects could be used. Watching Ramp trying to act out On the Origin of Species was hysterically funny (which was, Poppy thought, why he chose it in the first place. He of all of them knew how much more accepting humans would be of their alien immigrants if said aliens proved themselves both capable of humour and not averse to being laughed at...) At seven 'Spin and Vault brought through sandwiches, cake and trifle and more Buck's Fizz, and the group - even 'Beat and Muncher, who squeezed in and made themselves as small as they could at the back of the room - watched the usual old favourite films on the TV.
At ten Poppy was having trouble keeping her eyes open, partly the effect of the alcohol, partly because it had been a very long day. Mind you, the others looked fairly tired too, and soon afterwards Bob and Angela excused themselves, heading upwards with twin yawns. Phil sighed and pushed himself to his feet.
"I'm gone too." He eyed Poppy for a moment then lightly stroked her hair, bent down and kissed her cheek. "Thank you. This is one of the most enjoyable holidays I think I've ever had."
She smiled tiredly up at him.
"I've had a wonderful time. It's great having you here."
He made to speak, then shook his head and smiled.
"Sleep well, Poppy. I'll see you tomorrow."
One a.m. Poppy and 'Spin had locked up and Ramp had activated the automatic security systems, and the house was silent and still, the transformers in what they called recharge, the humans asleep.
All except for one, who slid out of the bed without waking the one sharing it and made their way silently to the window. Checking that nothing and no-one was visible, the human pressed the torch against the glass and began to flash out a simple, deadly signal...
Part 8 - Anvil
"Poppy... Poppy, wake up!"
Poppy snuggled further under the duvet. She'd been dreaming of summer barbecues and really didn't want to wake up... But Livewire's voice was insistent.
"Poppy, please! The house is on fire."
She jerked upright, instantly awake. Downstairs she could hear crackling, glass shattering, a dull roaring as fabric caught fire, and curtains of bitter smoke were curling under her door. Dragging on her clothes she ran to the window, panicking as she could see the flames inside the building illuminating the garden... She turned sharply at the hammering on her door.
"Poppy! Are you there?"
At her voice the officer burst into the room, slamming the door behind him and joining her at the window.
"Stairs are alight," he choked out between coughs. "We'll have to jump."
"It's too high!" wailed Poppy. "We'll kill ourselves..."
And suddenly 'Beat was there, reaching up towards them. Phil grabbed hold of Poppy's wrists and shoved her out of the window: for a second she dangled against the wall, then 'Beat pulled her gently to him, settling her against one shoulder as he reached back up for the officer and Livewire, who was clinging to Phil's leg. With the humans out of harm's way the MGC strode to a safe distance and set them both on the snowy ground, crouching down to inspect them.
"Are you damaged?"
Phil shook his head. "Did everyone get out?"
'Beat nodded. Phil stifled his coughing and frowned.
"Why didn't the alarms go off?"
"Ramp says they were disabled, just for a moment, and before he could get the systems back up the power was cut and an incendiary lobbed through the window..."
Poppy barely heard them, staring at the blazing building with tears streaming down her face.
Through the smoke they could see the forms of Bob and Angela, arms around each other, staggering towards them. Phil raised a hand.
Bob nodded, hand over his mouth as he tried to stop coughing.
Poppy felt Angela wrap an arm across her shoulders.
"I'm so sorry..."
Poppy swiped at her stinging, tearing eyes and gazed helplessly at the other woman. Angela turned her head to Phil.
"Anyone rung 999?"
"Ramp. NEST know too - Graham's on his way." He glanced at 'Beat. "Where are the others?"
"'Spin has taken them out to the greenhouse. They won't be seen there, and it's warm enough to be comfortable."
"Good. Sensible, our 'Spin."
"But you need to get under cover."
Phil shook his head. "We'll need to speak to the emergency services when they arrive. They'll probably want to check us for smoke inhalation." He glanced quickly at the house. "And it's not as though we're cold right now."
As the blare of sirens sounded faintly in the distance, Bob peered through the smoke. "Think we can salvage anything?"
"From that? Not a chance."
"I think I can see... Hang on a mo." Bob moved towards the building: pulling away from Angela. Poppy followed, hoping against hope he'd spotted something they could save.
"What is it? What can you see?"
Bob turned to her.
"Sorry Poppy. Nothing personal."
A second later he was pressed against her back, one arm pinioning her arms against her body, the other... She felt something cold and hard pressed against her neck, up under her chin.
"Don't speak." Bob's gaze was fixed on Phil and Angela, who were both staring at him with utter disbelief.
"Bob? What...?" Angela took a step towards her fiancé. "What are you doing?"
"Getting away before anyone else gets here." He pressed the gun a little harder to Poppy's jaw, forcing her to tilt her head back. "Poppy will be fine as long as you don't move."
Phil held his hands open before him. "Where do you think you can go?"
Bob had started backing away, keeping the fire behind him and Poppy as a shield. "Oh, I have friends. People who don't want aliens on this planet. Don't want anything to do with their war."
"And attacking neutrals is going to accomplish what, exactly?"
"It makes a point. And this is only the start."
"Bob, please! Let Poppy go. We can talk. Sort something out." Angela took a step towards him. "Please!"
Bob shook his head, gaze never leaving Phil. "Sorry, love. I guess the engagement's over."
Angela took another step.
"But I love you."
"And love makes you so easy to manipulate." He was still moving: the terrified Poppy felt him twitch as the sound of sirens grew louder and louder. "She's coming with me. When I'm clear, you can have her back."
"No!" Angela stepped forwards again. Poppy felt the gun leave her neck as Bob pointed it at the other woman.
"No closer. I will fire."
"Bob, surely we meant something..."
He sighed irritably, and Poppy felt his arm tense as he pulled the trigger. The bullet grazed Angela's shoulder and she spun backwards, dropping to the ground with a scream. Phil dived towards her - and two things happened at once.
Bob's hand twisted out to the side, the revolver pulling away from any human targets. Swearing, Bob tried to regain control, only to gape as 'Beat appeared in the smoke, hand outstretched as he deployed his electromagnet.
Then a shot rang out, and Bob cried out and crumpled, falling away from Poppy, who dropped to her knees. As Graham ran towards them, Phil left Angela to his superior officer and dashed to Poppy, pulling the shaking woman to him and holding tightly.
"You OK? No, sorry, stupid question. Come on, sweetheart. You'll be OK."
'Beat was crouched over Bob, who was moaning on the ground. The MGC looked up as another form appeared, looming over them. Graham smiled grimly up at his Defender.
"Perfect shot, as always, Stronghold."
The transformer saluted, then turned to 'Beat.
::A little slow off the mark, but not bad for a civilian::
'Beat shook his head, gazing at Angela.
::Not good enough::
::We can do something about that...::
'Beat and Stronghold were back in car form - with Bob handcuffed and locked in the back of the Defender - as the ambulance and fire engines swept into the grounds. Graham took over, leaving Phil to get Angela and Poppy into the medics' care and under thermal blankets. Angela wasn't too badly hurt, and Poppy just bruised where the gun had pressed into her skin, but both women were suffering from shock. The ambulance crew wanted to take them in for observation; Angela reluctantly allowed it but Poppy refused, grabbing hold of Phil's hand and glancing in the direction of the greenhouse.
"Can't leave them..."
Phil hugged her. He was no psychologist, but it might be easier for her to be busy doing something rather than alone and reliving the last few hours. He smiled at the medic.
"It's OK. I'll look after her."
The woman eyed him, frowning. "And you're a doctor, are you?"
"Basic training." As the doctor hesitated, he sighed. "Ask my superior. I know enough to get her to you if I'm worried."
"Very well. But I want to see her in a couple of days, just for a check up. Sooner if there's anything that concerns you."
"I'll make sure of it myself."
Graham had left, taking Bob back to base for questioning and medical attention - possibly in that order. Stronghold's shot had pierced the muscle of his upper arm, missing bone and artery, a painful and debilitating wound but non-fatal.
Poppy watched from 'Beat's driving seat as the fire service finished putting out the fire and checking the ruin of the house for any immediate danger. She bit her lip as the tears ran down her face. There was nothing left...
Phil was finishing up speaking to the police, advising them that the investigation would be carried out by the military as this was an internal affair. Poppy didn't care. All she wanted was for the last four hours not to have happened.
What was she supposed to do now?
Phil slid into the passenger seat, rubbing his hands together: it was getting colder as dawn approached, and the snow had started again. He touched Poppy's shoulder lightly.
"Let's go and check on them. Graham's organising transport - I'm afraid you'll all be spending New Year at the nearest base, but at least you'll be safe."
"We were supposed to be safe here." Her voice trembled as she wiped her eyes. "He was one of yours."
Phil flinched, then took her hand.
"I know. I'm sorry. We won't let it happen again."
She eyed him, suddenly, momentarily furious - but it really wasn't his fault. He was trying to help... She slumped wearily in her seat, too exhausted and heartsick to stay angry, and gestured vaguely towards the grounds.
"OK 'Beat. Greenhouse. Let's make sure they're all right..."
Part 9 - Cogs
Poppy half-dozed on the way to the base. Graham had arrived back accompanied by a large truck and the transformers had loaded themselves into it. 'Beat, for once and only because he realised how exhausted Poppy was, allowed Phil in the driver's seat, although he insisted on driving himself: the officer contented himself with keeping one hand on the wheel, in case of onlookers, and the other arm across Poppy's shoulders. As they pulled in through the gate she roused and blearily peered around her.
"We're here." Phil gently pulled his arm away. "You need to get some sleep. We'll sort things out later."
Poppy's door opened, and a young woman crouched down to gaze in, saluting when she saw Phil.
"Lieutenant Catherine Bowers, sir. I understand we have a civilian casualty?"
"This is Poppy Moss, NEST Consultant and Earth liaison to Cybertronian Neutrals. She's not injured, but needs somewhere to sleep. I'll brief you on what's happened once she's settled."
"Yes sir." Lieutenant Bowers unclipped Poppy's seat belt and helped her out of the car. "Come with me, please ma'am."
Poppy glanced back.
"It's OK, Poppy. I'll come and check on you in a bit."
Eight a.m. on Boxing Day and it was snowing again. Poppy shivered under the thermal blanket, bewildered and exhausted. All she had left was what she was wearing... She bit her lip. She was not going to cry, not in front of everyone...
Livewire suddenly appeared at her feet, tugging at the hem of her jeans.
"Poppy? Are you all right?"
She picked him up, cuddling him to her, ignoring the hard sharpness of his lines and angles, and allowed the lieutenant to gently guide her inside with a hand to her shoulder.
"Are all of you OK?" She heard the quaver in her voice and swallowed. The little transformer gazed up at her, eyes bright.
"Yes. But Poppy... our house..."
"I know." she whispered. "I know."
The lieutenant ushered her into a bedroom and sat down on the bed: Poppy followed.
"Do you need anything?"
Poppy gazed around dully. The room was warm but fairly nondescript - she could see an en suite shower-room through an inner door. A fluffy blue dressing gown lay, rather incongruously, across the foot of the bed.
"No. Thank you."
The officer nodded.
"I need to speak to my superior, but after that I'll be right next door if you do need anything."
The lieutenant hesitated a moment, then patted Poppy's arm.
"We'll do what we can to make you comfortable while you're here. Please just ask."
Poppy nodded, not looking up. She heard the door close - then the tears started. Livewire chittered unhappily.
"What can we do to make it better...?"
She'd fallen asleep fully dressed, and woke to the tap on the door and Phil's voice calling her name. She pushed herself up to sit and snuffled out, "Come in."
Phil entered warily, mug of tea in hand, his face falling as he caught sight of her red-rimmed swollen eyes. He sat on the end of the bed and eyed her sadly.
"How you holding up?"
"How do you think?" she sniffled. Livewire shifted from his position beside her to the bedside table and watched the humans closely. Phil nodded and reached to pat Poppy's hand.
"Lieutenant Bowers has gone shopping for you - you'll have some clothes at least when she comes back."
Poppy nodded dejectedly. She felt wrung out, unable to think beyond the next five minutes, if that. She took the mug Phil offered and sipped.
Heh. A nice cuppa. Cure for anything that ails you. So British... Another cliché occurred to her. Stiff upper lip. Yes. Keep calm and carry on. Illegitimis non carborundum.
She managed a rather watery smile.
"Sorry. Shouldn't sit here feeling sorry for myself."
"You have every right to, love. I'm so sorry we failed you."
"He fooled me too."
"Yeah, but that's not really the point." The officer sighed. "At least you weren't hurt."
She drained her mug and rubbed gingerly at her eyes.
"Where are they?"
"We cleared out a couple of rooms for them. Except for 'Beat - he's in the garage with Stronghold." He grinned briefly. "Defender's probably convinced him to join the army by now..."
Poppy managed a chuckle.
"Just joking. Are you hungry?"
She hadn't been, but the thought of food made her stomach grumble. Phil smiled.
"I'll take that as a yes." He glanced up at a knock on the door, and Poppy rose to open it. Outside lieutenant Bowers stood laden down with bags: Poppy caught two as the officer lost hold of the handles.
Poppy shook her head.
"Please don't call me that! Poppy will do fine."
"If you're sure, Ms Moss - I mean, Poppy."
"I hope this is all right." The other woman dropped the bags on the bed and saluted Phil. "Sir." Returning her attention to Poppy, she smiled. "We're about the same size, I think, and Second Lieutenant Collier said you don't do fussy, so it's all a bit basic. Hope that's OK."
Poppy had pulled a variety of clothing out of the bags, all pretty much what she would have chosen for herself, and nodded.
"Thanks - this is all fine."
Phil rose to his feet.
"Right - if you'd like to get yourself ready, we'll go for some food. Off-base, I think. Be less intimidating. And tastier! Half an hour be long enough?"
She nodded, and with a smile he left the room. Lieutenant Bowers inclined her head.
"Do you need anything else right now?"
"Then if you don't mind..."
"No, of course not." Poppy offered a small smile. "Thank you."
The officer stood. "You know where I am if you need anything later."
As she left the room Poppy forced herself to consider what to wear.
Things were quiet after Xmas, and many of the better eateries were closed, but Phil managed to find a pub offering a minimal menu, and after a hearty soup and chicken and chips Poppy was feeling a lot more like herself - although determinedly thinking of more pleasant subjects every time the image of her burning home filled her mind did help considerably. She knew she'd have to face it at some point, but for now, ignoring it allowed her time to recover a bit. Phil was happy to do most of the talking, telling her about life at the base, what it was like working with the larger transformers - not that he'd had that many dealings with them, although he'd spent some time at Diego Garcia, still their primary base although others were now being organised around the world...
The cider made her feel relaxed, and as Phil paused his chat to peruse the list of desserts, she tentatively asked about Bob. Her companion frowned.
"He's in the brig right now, not talking. We think he may have been responsible for the tainted energon, but probably not the arson at the pub. Which means we have an outside group - or another inside one - to deal with." He shoved a hand through his hair. "That's not good news. So the investigations are ongoing. I'll let you know what I can when I can."
"Thanks..." Poppy gazed into her glass. "What... what's going to happen next? To me?"
"That's still being discussed. I can't tell you anything at the moment. Maybe in a couple of days. In the meantime, you'll be safest at the base. I know it's not very interesting for you... When we get back I'll show where the others are staying. You can always spend the time with them if you feel lonely."
He chuckled lightly.
"Of course. Though they miss you."
Poppy blinked. "It's only been a day!"
He nodded gravely. "Never underestimate a transformer. Yours are deeply attached to you."
"And I haven't even been to check on them yet!"
"Livewire's been keeping them updated. They understand you've been through a lot."
"Can we go back now?"
Phil raised an eyebrow. "Before dessert?"
"If you wouldn't mind."
He swallowed the remainder of his tonic water and gestured to the door...
The mood in the room the transformers were borrowing was sombre. As she entered 'Spin moved to hug her very lightly.
"Hello Poppy. Are you all right?"
She nodded and tried to smile at them all.
"I'm fine. I'm sorry I haven't been to see you before..."
Ramp waved a hand dismissively. "You've had quite enough to worry about. We're all well and coping. Though it would be nice not to be... cooped up, I think the term is. They aren't prepared to let us out around the base, not until they can be sure Bob was working alone." He shrugged. "I don't see why, it's not like anyone here can really damage us."
"Ramp, they have guns, and missiles, and bombs here. I know you're all tough, but all the same..."
"She does have a point." Steamy chirped. "They got lasers too, and I don' want one of them up my exhaust port."
Poppy choked on a laugh. Where had he got that from?
"We'll do our best to make sure it doesn't happen, shall we?"
A chorus of affirmatives had her feeling a little more like her usual self...
She'd tried an early night, but slept badly and woke up tired and dispirited, unable to stop the tears. Livewire chirruped anxiously around her, asking if she wanted to speak to anyone, but she shook her head and made herself stop crying.
No. This was self-indulgent. It was just possessions. She was alive, her friends were alive. That was what was important. The rest - it could be replaced and rebuilt. Most of it.
She blew her nose, wiped her eyes, reassured Livewire she was all right - and through him the rest - and went to find Phil.
Phil had wanted to follow her in Stronghold, but as both Poppy and 'Beat pointed out, the MGC was now missile-proof and more than capable of taking care of his human. Phil was needed at the base. They wouldn't be too long...
Though in fact they were less time than expected, as Angela was no longer in the hospital. The staff wouldn't give Poppy much information since she wasn't family, but from the nurse she spoke to muttering about doctors making the worst patients, Poppy assumed Angela had insisted on going home. Or back to work. At any rate, she'd been allowed to leave, so she couldn't be too badly off.
Poppy had no idea of her home address or a contact phone number, and ringing the hospital where the doctor worked got her nowhere - Angela wasn't on duty. Sighing, Poppy gave up for now and let 'Beat drive them back to the base.
Her transformers were a little agitated when she dropped in to see them - all except Ramp, who was being insufferably smug again. She frowned around the group.
"What is it?"
"Wing Commander Graham wantth to thpeak to uth. All of uth. In a few minutth, now you're here."
Poppy glared at Ramp.
"I assume it's good news?"
"Not supposed to say."
"You are a real pain in the arse sometimes."
"It's a talent."
She raised an eyebrow. "And you've been watching too much TV."
"Of course it is..."
There was a moment's silence, then Poppy seated herself with a sigh. The room was fairly large, with a variety of seats and couches, and a couple of small windows: her transformers had enough room to be comfortable but not much more.
"I hope it's about giving us a new home."
'Spin nodded. "Yeth, uth too. Thith ithn't much of a plathe. The houthe wath much nither." He touched Poppy's hand gently. "I'm thorry you lotht tho much. But motht of it can be got again, can't it?"
"Most of it. Though not my photos." She'd tried not to think about it before, but felt the lump in her throat grow as she considered the loss of her photo albums. There were pictures in there of her father, the only photos anyone had of him...
"Oh, that'th OK." said 'Spin brightly. "We made copieth."
"While you were out. They theemed important to you, and the thtorage medium wath very fragile. Tho we made copieth of everything." He gestured to Ramp. "He hath them all in internal thtorage, though we can get hardcopy for you anytime you want."
Poppy burst into tears, much to their consternation.
"... did we do wrong...?"
She hugged him.
"No, you wonderful people. Not at all. Thank you..."
Phil tapped on the door and poked his head into the room.
"All ready?" He frowned worriedly as he caught sight of Poppy. "What's happened? Are you OK?"
She swiped the wetness from her face and grinned at him.
"I'm fine. Honest."
"If you're sure. We're ready to speak to you now."
The room they were led to was large, large enough for 'Beat and Stronghold, who were already present, to stand without their heads touching the ceiling, and with one whole wall of video-conferencing screen. Graham was there, along with several other important looking people whose names she never remembered afterwards. Phil and lieutenant Bowers ushered them to seats or spaces around the large table and Graham smiled in welcome.
"Thank you all for being here. Before we start, let me introduce you to General Morshower" an area of the video wall lit up with an image of NEST's commanding officer, "and Optimus Prime."
Poppy's mouth dropped open. The Prime's face must have been almost life-sized on the screen, and she stared greedily, trying to memorise everything. Even on the screen there was a presence about him...
The overlapping metal plates of his mouth shifted into a small smile as he fixed Poppy with his brilliant blue gaze.
"Welcome Poppy. It is good to see you at last."
"Sir." It came out as a squeak: Poppy stared, drinking in that glorious rich voice. The Prime smiled a little more deeply.
"We must thank you for taking such good care of our people."
"It's easy." Without taking her eyes from his face, she gestured at her transformers. "They make it easy. They're wonderful."
"Not everyone would think so. Nevertheless, you have been put to much distress through behaving with such generosity and greatness of soul, and we regret that you were subjected to danger."
Poppy shook her head, not knowing what to say. Graham spoke up, saving her embarrassment.
"That's what we're here to discuss." He raised what looked a little like some sort of remote control, pressing one of the buttons, and a three-dimensional image - a hologram, it had to be, but what detail! - appeared in the middle of the table. "We'd like your opinion on this."
Poppy frowned. "What is it?"
"Your new home, if it meets with your approval."
"Let me interrupt, before we go any further..." Everyone gazed at the General, who was staring at Poppy. She felt herself quailing under the direct look. "Ms Moss, we want to offer you a permanent post. The building you see in front of you will be the British Cybertronian consulate, and we want you to head it up."
Poppy's mouth gaped wider and for several seconds she was unable to speak. Then she managed to gasp, "But - I'm not a diplomat! I don't have the training to do something like this!"
"You don't need any. It's not a diplomatic post." Graham smiled, trying to reassure her. "We're calling it a consulate, as that's the closest term we have to what it will be. It won't be too much different to what you do now, except that you'll have other humans visiting occasionally."
"What we are hoping," the Prime's voice interjected smoothly, "is that the domicile will become a gathering place, a nexus, where humans and Cybertronians - neutrals, at least - can meet to exchange ideas, acclimate to each other. It will be a workplace as well, for Vault and Sinewave initially, and for others as they arrive - a safe place to explore how our technologies can be adapted to Earth's civilisation, to make a better world for us all."
"You'll have all the help and protection you need, along with diplomatic immunity for you and your guests." The general leaned forwards. "It will be a full time job, but you can hand-pick your own staff."
Poppy sank back into her seat, glancing around the table. Her transformers were watching her, eyes bright and hopeful; Phil was grinning delightedly; Graham seemed almost proud! But her gaze returned to the Prime. He inclined his head.
"We would be honoured if you would accept. But I understand that such decisions need some thought, so we will not expect an answer right away..."
He blinked. "Yes?"
Poppy beamed at him.
For a moment Prime and human regarded each other - then the Prime nodded.
"It will be my greatest pleasure, sir."
"In that case," said Graham, activating a laser pointer and directing it at the hologram, "we need to take a look at the house. We were planning to build it closer to London, but now - it can be built over the ruins of the old one, since you're all familiar and comfortable with the area. However, you'll notice it's bigger, with higher ceiling and wider entrances, to allow for transformers like Stronghold and 'Beat - and potentially even bigger guests - to enter without causing damage to the structure. You'll have your own wing, with plenty of guestrooms: in the other wing will be berths for the transformers. And of course, there'll be reception rooms and the main library, where we're hoping our resident scholars will be spending a lot of their time..."
Onto Consular. the fourth part of the tale...