I adore Lukerlynne's "Kite Strings and Sealing Compound." You should go read that first, if you haven't, as this fic is based on it. You'll like it. A lot.
When the plot bunny came around, I ignored it for a while, spared some thought for how it might be adjusted to other characters (Fail!Idea), and finally, suffering from multiple bunny-bites, contacted LL for permission to write it to get it out of my head. She kindly consented. I leapt to my keyboard.
Why fishing? Well, if you give a man a fish, he eats today; if you teach him to fish, you've given him an incipient ulcer that will last for the rest of his life. (© me, if you wonder.)
Not mine, not for profit.
Starscream needed to fly. It's not just what Seekers do; it is also who they are. If the rumor was that flying kept Seekers sane … well, rumors are not always unfounded. Rodimus Prime understood that, and with Prowl's help, had come up with a plan to let the Seeker take to the skies again.
"Optronix," Rodimus Prime said, in a rare senior-staff meeting to which Starscream was invited, "will stay on the ground. Ironhide has asked to keep him company while you fly."
Starscream froze. The human phrase "deer in the headlights" crossed everyone's processor. "You think separating me from Optronix will keep me from - from re-defecting?" the Seeker snarled, the cheap vocalizer he had been saddled with making his vocal output grate across the audio receptors. "That's insane. I don't want to go back."
"We didn't think that you did," Rodimus said, holding optic contact, "but it's good to have it confirmed. No, the requirement is for Optronix' safety."
"You don't believe I can keep him safe in the air?" The Seeker's wings were quivering with tension and anger.
"I don't believe either you or I can guarantee his safety if he flies with you, no." Rodimus said this so calmly that the Seeker's wings stopped their involuntary motion. "He would very likely not survive a crash as your passenger, should the Decepticons shoot you down. And you know as well as I do that my forces can't guarantee your safety in the sky absolutely. There are simply too few fliers under my command."
Silverbolt and Skyfire both nodded. Skyfire Starscream knew of old; Silverbolt had earned the Seeker's grudging respect as the Autobots' Air Commander. His wing was only five fliers, though, counting himself.
Starscream was used to allowing his mind, not his emotions, to have the final say. That was why he nodded, slowly. "I see. I accept that." He focused on Ironhide. "Why do you want to babysit the little mech? He reminds you too much of Optimus. He's said to me that he doesn't know why you dislike him."
Ironhide paused, and Jazz, Prowl, Ratchet, Wheeljack, Perceptor, and Rodimus all looked at him, along with Starscream. "I don't dislike him," Ironhide said slowly, cheek fins radiating the heat of embarrassment, "and if the kid is all that's left of Optimus, I still want to spend some time with him."
Starscream stared at Ironhide long enough to make the older mech uncomfortable, then nodded slowly once more. "All right," he said.
Starscream put his hand on Optronix' helm, and said, "Have a good time fishing. Be a good mech for Ironhide."
Optronix said happily, "Okay. Have fun flying, please."
"I will." The Seeker gave Ironhide a troubled glance, but nodded politely, and said, "Good luck."
"Thanks," Ironhide said shortly. To him, Starscream would always be a 'con.
Starscream paced away from them, leaped into the air, and transformed, firing thrusters in that moment. He arced sharply up into the sky, spiraling twice around Fireflight, which considerably startled the young Aerialbot, and was gone.
Starscream flew alone. Superion's components twirled around the space he spun through, defining five faces of a cube sixty miles on a side, and Skyfire flew the sixth face: all of them bore sensor jammers. Cosmos was far overhead, keeping watch.
Free, if trapped within his 216,000 cubic miles of freedom, Starscream could fly exactly as he wished. And oh, how he wished.
The space limitation might have irritated the old Starscream, and it was true he could not "stretch his legs," to use a human aphorism, but for the new Starscream, the joy of flight, after many stellar cycles of absence returned to him, crowded out all his other emotions.
On the ground below the Seeker, Ironhide opticked the little mech left with him; the kid opticked him right back.
The sparkling, possessed still of Optimus Prime's vivid charm, had no memory of being the Autobot leader. None at all. No memory of times shared, battles won, friends lost … no memory of Ironhide, no memory of Ratchet.
The weapons specialist, like the medic, was not good at grief. Anger, though, at that both were virtuosi.
Ironhide had been angry over Optimus' fate for a very long time. It would have been easier to mourn his friend if Optimus were truly dead.
But he wasn't. He was beside Ironhide. Being kept safe: Mirage was around here somewhere, as were Jazz and Prowl and Sideswipe and Sunstreaker. Closer to them than the Aerialbots to Starscream, all of them deep within Alaska.
The tall old mech and the short young one stood under trees on the bank of a river so remote that it had no name except the one given it by the native peoples of the area: K'naktlut, "the Shining One." The day was clear, but very cold by human standards; for Autobots, though, the air temperature was about right for optimal functioning.
White and yellow flowers were braving near-freezing temperatures. The fir, pine, and cedar trees around the Autobots were happily trying on their new spring-green needles. The Shining One, freed of its remaining patchy thin ice by the simple expedient of playing a flamethrower across its surface, flowed noisily over gravel in its wider parts, and silently around boulders, near which salmon lay in wait in the deeper water. The river made a wide arc around the bank they stood on, which sloped sharply down, then ceded to a stretch of stone littered with rock. The water would cover it later, when the snows began melting.
Clouds of gnats and midges would have driven a human fisherman insane, or off the river. ("Insane" is a pre-existing condition of the truly dedicated human fisherman anyway, but even they might have packed up and gone elsewhere.)
The insects left the Autobots alone, as they did not have permeable skin with nummies circulating below it. The sole explorer to investigate the carbon dioxide the Autobots exhausted, as attractive to the bugs as the exhalations of humans and other warm-blooded folk, returned to his tribe with his proboscis fractured in several places, said, "No blood … they have no blood …" and died. His tribe reckoned him a hero, and sang his praises far and wide.
It was mayfly-hatch time, though, and that made the fishin' easy. Hungry salmon made mouth-rings on the surface.
Ironhide had been taught to fish by Will Lennox, or rather observed Will Lennox fishing until boredom set in, and then learned to fly-fish using a rod approximately the same size as a toothpick for a human. The 'bot found a surprisingly satisfying challenge in out-thinking a being whose processor was almost as ancient as his own, if nowhere near so complex (the fish, not Lennox). As a creation-day gift, Wheeljack had made five twenty-foot rods of varying specifications for him, and two reels to match.
The small Autobot left in his charge, not yet in the adult armor which would double his height, asked quite politely, "You were going to teach me to fish, while Starscream flies?"
Sadness, not anger, edged into Ironhide's spark. The little mech even sounded like Optimus.
"Yeah, I was." He unsubspaced his gear, pulled his own favorite rod out of his collection, and laid out the other four. "Try 'em all," he said, "by pickin' 'em up and seein' how they work."
The kid tried all four, shaking them experimentally, feeling their flexibility. "I like this one best," he said, holding the bamboo pole that his teacher had begun to fish with himself, all those years ago.
Ironhide subspaced the others. "That's a good choice. Before you start, I want you to watch how I do this. It ain't quite so easy as it looks, but you'll pick it up easier from watchin' and tryin' it than from me lecturin'."
Ironhide chose two different leaders and two identical flies, and set up the rods. "This leader," he said to Optronix, "is about the easiest weight to learn to throw. Later on, we can get you some lighter stuff. And the fly looks like mayfly hatch to the trout. They'll take one of those, since the hatch is happenin' right now."
"Those are the little bugs in the air?"
"Yeah." Ironhide drove the hooks into the cork handles, handed the kid his rod, and stood with his own. "This way," he said, and went out of the trees and onto a rock-strewn shore.
Ironhide demonstrated the technique of wand-waving used to magically invoke the Great Trout Spirit. "See," he said, "you want to lay the leader out on the water so that it doesn't splash, or make a ripple. Then the fly will kinda plop onto the surface, and it's the plop that draws the fish, tells 'em there's somethin' there to eat."
"Okay. I may have to do it a few times to get it right."
"That's what Starscream says too."
Great. Was he, Ironhide, gonna be this mad whenever the little one mentioned his parent's name?
But his teaching function took over, and saved him from his own anger. He watched the sparkling try it, his skill increasing rapidly; he was pleased that the young one perfected a cast quickly. Within a few tries Optronix was setting a fly and skipping it just right.
Perhaps a joor later, one of the fish in the river rose up like thunder to claim Optronix' fly for his (or her) own.
Ironhide, unable to consume the meat offered by catching fish, used only barbless hooks. This meant that about fifty percent of the time, the fish was able to slip the hook, and return only lightly wounded to the river.
Optronix seemed to have no problem with that. Ironhide caught him saying, "Bye, fishy," to his erstwhile prey, and a smile flitted over the weapons specialist's faceplates. "You did good," he said to Optronix.
"I like it that we don't hurt them much."
That statement was so like Optimus it nearly brought the cleaning fluid to Ironhide's optics. "Yeah," he said, his vocal audibly thick even to himself.
"Does it make you sad," Optronix said diffidently, watching his line fly out over the water, "that I remind you of your friend?"
Ironhide was not prepared for this. "Yes," he said shortly, pulled his line out, and inspected the fly briefly. "How'd you know that?"
Optronix turned his helm to the river. "Starscream told me that I remind you a lot of a friend of yours, and that's why you always seemed mad at me."
"I was … I was never mad at you, Optronix. I was, I am, mad at what happened to my friend, and I miss him a lot." Ironhide would have been astonished to discover that when humans wanted to cry, their throats ached just like mechs' did. "It hurts a little less all the time, but I really miss my friend. —You're a brave little mech, to bring this up with me."
"Sideswipe said I have more guts than good sense."
Ironhide, despite himself, laughed. "Ratchet says that about Sideswipe, you know."
"No, I didn't know that. But I know that I make Ratchet sad, too."
Ironhide watched his fly drop precisely where he wanted it to, and turned to Optronix to find the wide blue optics on his own. "Has Starscream told you why?"
"No. I was still a baby when we left the Decepticons, so all I remember is being afraid of Megatron, and riding on Ravage's back." Optronix turned away to cast again, watching his fly fall.
Ironhide snorted at that picture, but when the child turned his helm, he found the old mech smiling at his line. "Next time I see her, I'll remind her of that."
Optronix was silent for a cast or two, and then said, "If you hurt her when you're fighting, could you – could you not tell me about it?"
He was young, Primus but he was young. "Sure," Ironhide said gently.
"The last time she was in our brig, Starscream took me to see her."
Our brig. Good. Ironhide did his best to conceal the sharpening of his focus when he heard that, but the tilt of the little mech's helm let him know he hadn't succeeded. He said, trying for casual, "He did? Was that upsettin' for you?"
"No. Except - I couldn't touch her through the forcefield, and I wanted to hug her." The younger mech paused to unsnarl his line. "I wish she could understand how bad Megatron is, and come to stay with us. Frenzy, too, and Brawl and Soundwave." He looked up at Ironhide. "I wish Megatron would die. He hurt Starscream a lot when we lived there. Mirage used to hide me from him."
Ironhide did not bother saying, "You shouldn't wish bad things on mechs." So far as he was concerned, anything bad you could wish on Megatron was all to the good, down to and including pede rot. "Huh. Always wondered why you two got along so well."
"Mirage is okay, for a grownup."
The spy shimmered into existence. "Watch what you say about people," he told Optronix, and vanished again. Unabashed, the kid grinned, then let the expression fall from his face and glanced at Ironhide, then back to his fly, twitching it along the surface. "Will you tell me why I made you and Ratchet mad?"
Ironhide, unused to conversations with sparklings of any age, especially very bright sparklings, and achingly conscious of tiptoeing among landmines, said after an awkward pause, "That needs to come from Starscream; he's your parent."
The young mech said quietly, "I don't like it that people know something about me that I don't know, and that they're mad at me for it."
Well. There was the meat of the matter. "That's not … we ain't mad at you, Optronix. But because you're here, our friend can't be. That's hard for us."
"As hard as it is for me?"
"I think so, yeah. Ratchet, for instance – Ratchet really likes sparklings. Always has. And he really liked our friend, too. Sometimes I think those two might have been the only real friend the other one had. So now Ratchet misses him an awful lot. And he takes care of you. But you remind him that his friend isn't here any more, so that makes him sad." The old mech paused, and then committed a rare Willful Act of Self-Appraisal: "With Ratchet and me, it's awful easy to mistake 'sad' for 'mad.'"
Optronix, unaware of the Self-Appraisal, said simply, "You weren't the only ones, but most of the rest of them think I'm okay now."
"'Course you are. You always were."
They fished together in silence for a joor or two,and then the kid brought his line in. "I couldn't sleep last night, I was so excited to be doing this. I was kinda scared of you, too. But you're okay, and now I'm sleepy."
Ironhide, an unexpected warm spot over his spark casing, brought the line in, subspaced their gear, and unsubspaced two heat-dispersing blankets, a pillow, and a thick pad. (Being a soldier is being prepared.) "Here. Let's get you settled under the trees, where the duff is thick."
"The shed needles under the trees. It'll be more comfortable to sleep on than the rocks."
Optronix was asleep within seconds after Ironhide floated the second blanket down over him. The weapons specialist sat beside the makeshift bed, looking out over the river, and thought.
Thought about Optimus, whom he would not see again; thought about pain, and loss, and friendship.
Optronix moved, and mumbled something in his sleep. Ironhide plucked the blanket up around his young friend's shoulders, and peace suddenly flowed over him like the river before them.
In war, it was necessary to mourn, and to move on. With the young mech who was once Optimus Prime sleeping beside him, Ironhide mourned, and moved on, and rejoiced in finding his friend again.
Starscream landed on the rocky area sometime later, and immediately transformed. "Where is he?" he said to Ironhide, his voice sharp.
"Right here," Ironhide rumbled, placing his hand lightly on the young mech's shoulder. "He's takin' a nap."
Starscream's shoulders came down. Ironhide said, "You going to shoot at me if he was gone?"
"No. I have no weapons. I was going to punch your face in." The Seeker knelt beside the bed, and picked up the sleeping mech.
"Like to see you try," Ironhide said, but without his usual anger. He subspaced the components of the bed.
"You would have hurt me quite badly, no doubt." Starscream stood. "But the mech is worth fighting for."
Starscream wasn't looking at him, instead making sure that Optronix was safely cuddled into his shoulder, when Ironhide said, "Yes, he is. But we ain't the 'cons, and I wouldn't have hurt him, and we won't keep him from you. You should know all that by now."
"No," the former 'con said, nestling his child closer. "No, you aren't, and you wouldn't. And I trusted you, you personally, enough to leave him with you."
Some part of Ironhide, deep within, hidden from everyone except perhaps Chromia and Optimus, uncurled itself.
Being Ironhide, he carefully ignored this. Enough fraggin' personal change for one day had already taken place.
They began the walk to pick-up point, and Ironhide commed Skyfire, their ride.
Starscream said, "Did he ask you any questions?"
"Yeah, he did. I answered all of 'em but one."
"Who he used to be."
"Yeah, that was it. Roundabout, anyway. He asked why he made me and Ratchet mad all the time."
Starscream sighed. "I hope that he's old enough to understand the answer. He's very persistent in wanting to know; I've wondered if some of his memories are re-surfacing. I'll have to talk to Ratchet about it. Thank you for not answering that question."
"It should be you. You're his parent."
Starscream only nodded. "Thank you for taking care of him."
"I enjoyed keepin' him company. I'll do it again, if he wants to go fishin', or you want to go flyin'."
Starscream blinked. "I'm glad you'd do that for him."
"Ain't only for him, or for you either."
Starscream smiled; he knew first hand how much charm Optronix had at his command, and would not have been surprised to be told that it was this which made his presence in the Ark so difficult for those who had known Optimus. "I'll let you know," he said, his raspy vocalizer not well-suited to the gentle tone he used. "I imagine he'd like that."
They waited for Skyfire in companionable silence, Optronix asleep on his parent's shoulder, next to his old, and new, friend.