Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
— Robert Burns, "Ae Fond Kiss"
I hate being the homefront.
— Foxbear, Dying Embers
It was quiet. Too quiet.
Jack poked his head out of the shower, fingers tightening on the water-pump pliers in his right hand. Now that he'd stopped the toilet running and fixed the leaking showerhead, there was nothing to hear but the muffled noise of base operations seeping through the bathroom door: the hum of the monitors, the heavy footfalls of an Autobot crossing the hangar floor, the occasional burst of comm chatter or the electric whine of the groundbridge. Welcome to the new normal.
Jack sighed, rolling his shoulders, and sighed again as the crack of the joints seemed to echo off the institution-green tiling. An upsurge in Decepticon activity had everyone but Ratchet and Ultra Magnus spread across the globe on near-constant patrols. Downtime was scarce; a conversation that didn't also constitute a report ("I'm fine, Jack: it's just a mesh wound. Starscream was trolling for fossils at Qiān Fó Shān ..."), as rare as a B on Raf's report card. No more XMR tournaments, of course, or Creature Double Feature nights or heavy metal jam sessions. Jack had never thought he'd miss Miko's raucous electric guitar, not the way he missed recon with Arcee or refereeing lobbing matches between Bulkhead and Bumblebee or sneaking out for pizza with Smokescreen. But when there was nothing to do but play handyman on the hangar's human-scale infrastructure and worry about his partner and friends, even an ear-shattering chorus of "My Fist, Your Face!" would have been a welcome distraction.
And speaking of distractions ...
Jack dropped the pliers into the toolbox and left the bathroom, stepping softly on the epoxy-coated concrete of the hangar floor. He'd been working uninterrupted for far too long since Miko had grown bored with plumbing and wandered off. He'd made only a half-hearted attempt to stop her; she'd made it clear that basic home repair was not her thing. Haven't you heard? I'm a Wrecker! We're better at breaking stuff.
Jack hoped she wasn't out trying to live up to that reputation again. Or down to it.
To his relief, he found her on the platform that was beginning to resemble somebody's basement family room, where battered and makeshift furniture sat cheek-by-jowl with a widescreen TV and a near state-of-the-art gaming system. All we need now is some stained carpet and a wall to hang that dogs-playing-poker picture on. Miko was curled up at one end of a yellow Army-surplus couch with her sketchbook propped against her knees, thoughtfully chewing on the barrel of a red marker. As Jack approached, she pulled it from her mouth to scribble on the page, then tucked it behind her ear and looked up. "Hey, Mister Fix-it," she said. "Finished already?"
"Taking a break," Jack answered, dropping onto the other end of the couch. "What are you doing?"
"What I do best!" she proclaimed with a grin.
Hoo, boy. "And that would be?"
"Cross-cultural relations!" Miko turned the sketchbook to face him, displaying it at arms' length. "Check it out!"
Jack blinked. Miko's drawings always reminded him of that embarrassing folder of elementary-school refrigerator art that his mom kept in her underwear drawer to prevent him from throwing it away. Miko, however, was immune to embarrassment and obviously as proud of this ... half-melted blue popsicle wrapped in a red- and green-checked napkin? ... as Leonardo da Vinci of the Mona Lisa. "Oooh-kay," he said, trying to match her enthusiasm. "Um, what's it for?"
Miko leaned toward him. "Well," she said, lowering her voice conspiratorially, "remember when Fowler sent the Wreckers to Scotland and Commander Shoulderpads had to ask Optimus what a kilt was?"
Jack nodded, his glance twitching aside to the main board where Ultra Magnus was coordinating mission objectives or collating field reports or whatever it was he did that kept everyone working at breakneck pace without running into each other. Somehow he doubted Miko's artwork was going to help with that. "Um ... "
"And when we got back, I realized we hadn't seen anything except rocks and 'Cons. So I made this!" Miko waved the picture at him again. "For reference!"
Raf had once spent half an hour showing Jack optical illusions on his computer: endless waterfalls, reversing staircases, rabbits that morphed into ducks or vice versa, depending on how you looked at them. He'd had to pretend interest after the first ten minutes; swapping between perspectives had been more effort than fun. Now Jack felt his eyes skew fit to cross as the popsicle suddenly took on unhappily familiar contours. Oh, no. "A picture of Ultra Magnus ... in a kilt?"
"Worth a thousand words, right?" Miko grabbed another marker from a gray metal holder Jack had last seen on Agent Fowler's desk and drew a horizontal line behind the kilted robotsicle, after which she began filling the space above it with fluffy clouds and m-shaped birds. "Now they won't have to ask!"
Jack tried and failed to imagine Ultra Magnus's reaction to having Portrait of a Senior Autobot Officer As a Scotsman posted on the Cybertronian equivalent of the refrigerator. Wheeljack's response, on the other hand, he could envision all too clearly. "That seems like an awful lot of work," he said, wondering how in the world he could head Miko off this time. Raf couldn't scrub a physical picture out of existence the way he did a JPEG. "Why didn't you just find something on the Internet?"
Miko tossed her marker back into the can and rolled her eyes. "Oh, please," she said. "Who's going to have a shot of a Cybertronian wearing a kilt?"
Try the conspiracy websites, Jack thought reflexively — except that alien bagpipers were too out there even for the tinfoil hat brigade. Probably. "No — what I meant was — "
But Miko, reminded of a more serious grievance, barreled on without listening. "And I can't snap one myself to Photoshop because someone got his tailpipe in a twist over my cell phone!"
She scowled so ferociously across the hangar at Ultra Magnus that Jack half-expected the Autobot's field sensors to sound an alarm. Optimus Prime's straight-arrow second-in-command had reacted with predictable horror upon discovering images of his comrades, their base, and a number of their missions stored in an unsecured ("But it's password-locked!" "Not to Soundwave and his ilk."), portable ("Like I'd take it anywhere near Soundwave!" "Uh, Miko, you already have. Twice." "Not. Helping. Jack."), human device ("Well, your 'devices' aren't safe, either — Raf hacked straight through Soundwave to download the Iacon database!" "Which is why security protocols must be observed with the utmost stringency."). He'd loomed above her, conscientiousness personified, and ordered her to hand over her phone; she'd refused, head thrown back, teeth bared, and dared him to take it. It's like watching the irresistible force meet the immovable object, Raf had whispered to Jack after prudently stashing his own phone and laptop out of sight under the couch.
Fortunately (for the onlookers, if not for philosophy) Optimus had intervened before the combatants could resolve the paradox. Miko had been permitted to keep her phone and its photo app as long as all current and future shots were downloaded to the base's mainframe. In return, she'd sworn to curtail her paparazza impulses around the Autobots and focus on reconnaissance and espionage. The sight of her solemnly linking pinkies with the titanic Autobot leader had made Jack wish for his own camera — if only for proof that Miko hadn't been crossing the fingers of her other hand behind her back. Until now she'd seemed content to keep her promise; he hoped this wasn't the first crack in her resolve. "Look, Miko," he said, "I just don't think Ultra Magnus will appreciate — "
"I know!" she snapped, hugging the sketchbook to her chest as if she expected someone to try to take it from her, too. "Ever since he got here — ever since we got here — " She pressed her cheek against the book's spiral-bound spine, turning away from him, and her voice dwindled to a mutter he had to strain to catch. "Everything's different now."
Jack followed her gaze to a section of hangar floor scuffed with huge, dark foot- and tread-marks that identified it as the emergence point for the groundbridge. He opened his mouth to say something sensible and comforting, then shut it when he realized he had nothing to offer. Day by day, hour by hour, the war was heating up again. The Decepticons had the edge in personnel and resources; unless the Autobots could prevent their foes from resurrecting the Predacon army that had defeated their outpost on Earth eons ago, Team Prime would suffer the same fate. His own hands clenched, nails digging into his palms. And there was little or nothing he, Miko or any human could do to help.
Little, perhaps, something inside him murmured. It sounded not unlike Optimus. But not nothing.
You didn't roll your eyes at Optimus Prime — at least, Jack didn't — not even when he left you behind to plug leaks in the plumbing, because you'd seen him carry the small loads himself, as well as the weight of two worlds. He'd fought Megatron sword to sword in epic battle between routine patrols and energon scouting runs. When he spelled Ultra Magnus at mission control, his concentration never slackened until everyone was home safe, whether they were dodging Decepticons or rush-hour traffic. He'd sacrificed the chance to restore his own planet to save the Earth, but he'd also brought Raf snowballs from the Yukon, taken Agent Fowler's rants in stride, and rescued Miko's How I Hung Out With Aliens On My Exchange Year slideshow from deletion.
Cross-cultural relations, huh?
"Is that it?" Jack asked. "That one picture?"
Miko lifted her head and aimed a creditable glower at him despite the dampness of her lashes and the tracks of the sketchbook's binding across her face. "What?"
"Well, Scotland isn't the only country on Earth with its own, uh, national dress," said Jack. Miko's glare deepened and her lips parted, but he hurried on before she could interrupt. "I mean, what if the next mission sends the 'Bots to Japan or India or — or Bavaria or someplace? If we had a whole stock of visual references for them to consult, they'd never have to ask what a kimono or a pair of lederhosen was."
Now it was her turn to blink. "Lederhosen?"
Jack mimed raising a mug. "Those short pants Germans wear to drink beer."
Miko considered that, absently retrieving the marker from behind her ear. "The 'Bots don't drink," she pointed out.
They don't play the bagpipes, either, Jack thought. He waved the objection off with studied nonchalance. "It was just an example," he said and prayed he wouldn't have to come up with any others.
"Hmm," said Miko, tapping the marker's red cap against her teeth.
Jack leaned back against the creaky, faux-leather cushion. The back of his neck itched, but he resisted the urge to fidget. For all her childishness, Miko wasn't a child: you couldn't pat her on the head and hand her a box of crayons to keep her out of trouble. But you could let her do the job she'd assigned herself — and if it prevented her from running headfirst after her friends into danger, so much the better.
Because you're not helpless as long as you're helping, right?
The comm's audio feed sounded an alert and Jack's attention immediately shifted to the monitors. "Base, this is team two," said Bulkhead's voice, hurried but calm. "We have the package."
If Ultra Magnus had contemplated any other outcome, he gave no sign of it. "Acknowledged, team two," he responded. "Rendezvous with team one at the arranged coordinates."
"On our way. Team two, out."
Jack released a breath he hadn't noticed himself holding and checked on Miko. She was frowning, but pensively and not at him or the commander. After a moment she stuck her marker in the can, slim fingers rummaging through its contents until they found a pencil. "Wheeljack," she said as she flipped the sketchbook open to a blank page, "could totally rock a hakama."
Jack didn't bother to ask what that meant — he was pretty sure he'd find out, one way or another. Besides, Miko was already absorbed in her new drawing, lips pursed as she pondered her subject, pencil scratching and swooping across the paper. He rose quietly. One of the bathroom sinks drained in fits and starts, he recalled; if he snaked it now, he could stave off a complete clog later ...
He glanced back over his shoulder, but Miko had slumped down behind her sketchbook again. All he could see were her knees and the top of her head and her right elbow, momentarily still. "Sure," he answered.
He waited until the bathroom door had closed behind him to smile wryly, then set about his own work whistling "Scotland the Brave" against the uncanny hush.
Author's Note: The cover art for this piece, "Sir, What's a Kilt?" by Amber_Dawn at AO3, also inspired its composition. For the sake of our friendship, I hasten to add that Amber_Dawn draws much more skillfully than Miko and that "Sir, What's a Kilt?" does not in any way (save subject matter) resemble the "kilted robotsicle" described herein.