Set shortly after "Survey Ship Visit".
A battered, gray-green robot stomped into the hangar bay where a small, white, exploratory starship of archaic design rested. It stared at the starship, the flexible skin of its face forming an expression a human would recognize as a scowl.
"SKYFIRE!" the robot shouted. "Get over here! I want to talk to you NOW!"
The starship's loudspeaker crackled to life. "Kup, I'm rather busy getting refueled and downloading my survey results. Come aboard and talk."
Kup's scowl deepened. "I want to talk to you, not you and your slagging passenger! Privately, as a Security Chief to an Autobot explorer with a history of consorting with senior Decepticon officers!"
"Ah, I'll be right over," Skyfire replied. The starship's rear loading ramp dropped with a loud 'clang', and a tall silver robot with red and blue trim ambled down the ramp. His inverted, folded wings prominently displayed two dark purple Decepticon sigils; he smirked at Kup and leaned against a wall, arm-mounted guns pointed carelessly at the ground.
"I don't think Kup approves of me," Starscream said jauntily. Beside him, the starship retracted its loading ramp and began to fold in on itself.
Kup glared at him. Punctuating his comments with vicious stabs of his finger, he said, "I don't like you, Screamer, I don't trust you as far as Wheelie could throw you, and the only reason you aren't rusting in a holding cell right now is because Rodimus Prime tolerates you."
The starship extended legs and folded its nose in and down, and a few moments later, Skyfire stood before Kup.
"Come with me," Kup said, curt. He tapped in some codes at the door and turned to stab a finger at Starscream again. "You, stay put! Those port defense lasers," he pointed up at a set of gun turrets set in the near-by buildings, "are tuned to you. You try to leave this hangar, up, down or out the door, and you'll be looking for a new body."
"Why Kup! I'm hurt that you suspect me!" Starscream pouted. "I'm all reformed now; just ask Rodimus. Or Octane."
"Yeah, and turbo-rats don't cut cables and petro-rabbits have stopped siphoning fuel," Kup retorted. "Funny you didn't tell me to ask Skyfire."
"Since that's obviously what you're going to do," Starscream replied in his cold crow voice, "it seemed redundant. Besides, he knows me too well. But take your time."
"I will," growled Kup, as he hurried Skyfire into the starport's interior corridors, shutting the door behind him and locking it.
Starscream smirked to himself. Yes, let me get bored out here, Kup. There's not a dumb machine anywhere that I can't suborn, given time.
# # #
Kup strode through the corridors to a small, unmarked office and ushered Skyfire in. "Sit down."
Skyfire gave Kup a quizzical look. "What's this about, exactly?"
Kup looked at him thoughtfully. "You need debriefing."
"I was in the process of downloading my survey reports--"
Kup cut Skyfire off with a chopping motion of his hand. "I don't care about the surveys--that's someone else's department. I want to hear about you and Starscream." He looked at Skyfire intently. "So, is he reformed?"
Skyfire looked away. "No.. and perhaps."
Kup sat back. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Skyfire shrugged his massive shoulders. "If you mean, has he changed into a kindly, thoughtful person who means no harm to anyone, no. He's still Starscream... though he's changed. It's hard to explain. Now, if you mean, does he still plan to take over the Decepticons and defeat or destroy the Autobots, no. Not at present."
"He's still Starscream," Kup echoed, the expression on his face similar to that of a human who had just bitten into something distasteful. "I heard about your little adventure on Nyttheim, the one you told Jazz about. He's still a killer, isn't he?"
Skyfire looked away again. "Yes."
Kup shifted his arms on the desk. "Don't mistake my meaning--I'm not acting against Starscream unless he does something overt on Cybertron. He and Prime have an understanding, and if he doesn't violate that 'understanding', I've got nothing to do with him." He leaned forward. "I'm worried about you, son. Anyone else, I'd say they didn't know who they were dealing with, but you, you probably know him better than anyone else, these days. Why do you stick with him? He's dangerous, and he doesn't have 'friends', just people he uses and discards. I don't want to see you used up and discarded."
Skyfire thought for several long minutes before responding. "He has changed, that much. There are people he's willing to consider friends, who are not expendable. Very few people, but I am one of them. Moreover..."
Kup's engine snorted skeptically.
"Moreover," Skyfire held up one hand, "as far as I know, I and Rodimus Prime are the only two living people whose respect he cares about. He knows that I will act in ways he would very much not like if he crosses the line, and that he would lose something he values."
"Your respect?" Kup asked mildly.
"My respect, and much, much more." Skyfire's tone was clipped and final, discouraging further inquiry.
Kup understood, and shifted his line of inquiry. "Even if he won't turn on you, he's still a menace to innocent bystanders out there. He'll bring trouble on you, and you won't look too good the next time he goes all killer Decepticon on someone. I've read your reports, and read between the bytes--you've been lucky that his targets were all scum of the galaxy. Cut him loose, Skyfire."
"That wasn't luck, Kup," Skyfire said grimly. "I know what he is, and I know what he would do if I wasn't there. While he's with me, he's on the only leash that will ever hold him--his own desire to keep my respect. Without me... no. I couldn't call myself an Autobot or look myself in the reflecting dish if I let Starscream fly off to do whatever amused him."
Kup stared at Skyfire for long moments, and then sighed. "Lad, you've leashed yourself to a runaway atomic vortex, you know that?"
Skyfire gave Kup a small smile. "Fortunately for me, I like this particular vortex."
Kup sat back. "That may be. It's hard to believe he doesn't want to take over the Decepticons any more."
Ice-blue optics stared back at Kup. "I said he didn't plan to take over for now. I didn't say he doesn't want to. Starscream was beaten down pretty badly by Galvatron; he lost everything, including any powerbase he had with the Decepticons. They won't follow him after his extremely public execution at Galvatron's hands."
Skyfire's voice softened as he added, "He was very depressed to find out just how much he was hated by his fellow Decepticons, once he no longer had any power."
Kup said dryly, "I might be a tad more sympathetic if Ratchet and Ironhide hadn't been friends of mine. Frankly, Starscream earned everything that came to him, fair and square. So," he leaned forward again. "what's he up to now?"
Skyfire spread his hands. "In the long run? I don't know. At the moment--he seems content to travel with me. I think he's taking the time to figure out who he is and where he's going right now."
"That," said Kup, "is what I'm afraid of."
# # #
Starscream spent his time staring at the wall. Port defense installations are meant to protect from attack from above, not from inside hangar bays. That much power has to come from somewhere, and there's maintenance access as well... Yes! I can feel the magnetic field from the conduits right behind the wall there... One null ray, and I can be out of here--
"Personally, I think it would look better with a wall mural," came the jaunty voice of Rodimus Prime from behind him.
Starscream spun to face him; Rodimus stood a few dozen meters away with his hands on his hips and an amused smile on his face.
"Prime! How nice to see you again!" Starscream said. Even from here, he could feel the power of the Matrix locked in Prime's chest; the heat of it warmed his cold, dead spark like the sun in the Sahara and the light of it blazed like a nova star. He didn't dare look too closely at it lest it mesmerize him and draw him out of his body entirely. Starscream hated looking like a complete dork in front of Rodimus; he closed his eyes and watched Prime only with his physical optics.
Starscream grinned in spite of himself; there was something about the young Prime he almost liked, and he couldn't help but respect Rodimus's raw power, as he went toe to toe with Galvatron time and again. (That Rodimus was an effective enemy of Galvatron's just made this Prime even more likeable to Starscream). And the Matrix, oh yes, the Matrix called to him and it warmed him and he could just hover around Rodimus forever, basking in its radiance....
Starscream shook his head violently from side to side. "Servos still settling in," he muttered. He smirked and said, "So, what brings you to visit little ole me?"
Rodimus walked forward, stopping a body's length away from Starscream. "I wanted to talk to you in private."
Starscream tilted his head slightly. "Do tell? There seems to be a lot of that today--Kup just ran off with Skyfire for that very thing."
"Kup worries about Skyfire," Rodimus said gravely. "So do I."
Starscream's optics narrowed, and glowed redly. "Do you think I would harm Skyfire?" he snarled.
Rodimus stared cooly at Starscream. "Right now? Not intentionally. But what happens in the future, when you find a way back to power with the Decepticons? What will you do then?" His voice lowered. "While you are thinking about that, remember this: if you harm Skyfire, or any other Autobot, you'll have me for an enemy. If you turn up on Earth and threaten innocent humans, you'll have to deal with me."
Starscream hunched his wings. "Why the threats, Prime? I've done nothing wrong!"
Rodimus Prime gave Starscream another long, cool look--a look Starscream found unsettling. Those ice-blue eyes, like Skyfire's, full of hidden wisdom...
Starscream flexed his wings and looked aggrieved. "Nothing that concerns Autobots or humans, and it was necessary to keep Skyfire safe."
Rodimus folded his arms gently. "Does Skyfire know?"
Starscream's head snapped up, and he glared at Rodimus. "He doesn't need to be bothered with details. Don't worry, Prime, I'm not rallying the Decepticons to my side. That's what you worry about, isn't it? Well, forget it! They won't follow me--they hate me and fear me, and fear Galvatron too much. Fools! He tosses their lives away on some mad whim or another, and they just take it!"
Rodimus Prime considered Starscream carefully. "When did you become concerned with the lives of Decepticons? Or anyone?"
Starscream shifted in place and started to pace in the short area of Prime's field of view. "A good commander is always concerned with the lives of his troops. They are a limited resource."
"You weren't a very good commander, were you?" Rodimus prodded.
Starscream whirled, eyes blazing. "Yes, I was! Well.. no. I think I was mad, those last few decades. We all were. I lost sight of why I was fighting Megatron; Megatron lost sight of why he was fighting for Cybertron. We... almost destroyed what we were fighting for in the heat of trying to win the fight."
Rodimus remained still, very aware of how unguarded Starscream was in this moment. A momentary eye of calm in the raging storm of passion and emotion that was Starscream. Was this even.. regret?
Starscream clenched and unclenched his fists. "Things were almost sane again, when Megatron finally had Cybertron in his grasp. But you Autobots looked like you were going to get a foothold again, and we'd have yet more centuries of fighting on and on, and the end was so near... Megatron went for the risky master stroke with that raid on Earth--and lost everything. I just couldn't resist when temptation came my way..." he concluded bitterly.
"What would have happened if you hadn't... disposed of Megatron?" Rodimus wondered currently.
"He wouldn't have been picked up by Unicron, reprocessed into Galvatron, I wouldn't have been murdered by him, you wouldn't have gotten the Matrix from him, and Cybertron and every last Decepticon and Autobot would have been destroyed. Including myself and Megatron, probably," Starscream said, wings hunched. Bitterness rolled off him in a near-palpable wave.
"So Galvatron is Megatron," Rodimus said softly. "I suspected, but wasn't sure..."
"He was. The mind of Megatron is gone; only his ego remains in the thing that is Galvatron," Starscream snapped. "Don't you have better things to do than talk about him? I certainly do."
Rodimus looked at the storm brewing in the former Air Commander's optics, and the wings quivering with rage. "Do you? What would you do if you--" Rodimus waved his hand at the control panel, beaming unlocking codes. There was a whir as the defense batteries swung back to their rest positions, and a whine of draining energy charges. "--could go where you wanted and do what you wanted?"
"I would visit some old friends," Starscream said, lifting into the air and transforming. He turned in the direction of the buried Decepticon Crypt, not so far away. "Guide the Autobots well, Prime--you are better than Optimus ever was. You are the leader they need now." Afterburners ignited and he vanished over the horizon in a roar of jet engines.
Rodimus Prime stared after the irrepressible Seeker. Strange, how Starscream called out Rodimus's own worst doubts and dismissed them. Stranger still, Rodimus felt that Starscream really meant it.
# # #
"I still don't trust him one micrometer," Kup growled.
Rodimus Prime looked at his mentor and security chief. "I wouldn't say that I trust him--he is Starscream, after all. I don't think he would willingly harm Skyfire, and he's going out of his way not to annoy me."
Kup favored his star pupil with a skeptical look. "Lad, no one sensible would annoy you. Not that Starscream ever fit the description..." He shook his head. "Skyfire doesn't think Starscream means him harm, and Skyfire thinks that he can restrain Starscream's... bad behavior. I think he's an optimist, but short of interning them both, there's not much we can realistically do about it."
"Well... we could order Skyfire to separate from Starscream and imprison Starscream," Rodimus said, deliberately.
Kup glared at his Prime. "Lad, you didn't suddenly turn stupid on me, so I figure you're goading me to explain why what I'd really like to do won't work. You know as well as I do that Skyfire will just look at you with those big blue optics and solemnly explain that as a free being with a conscience of his own, he has a right to refuse orders that he considers wrong, and if that means he's not welcome on Cybertron, he'll accept the penalty. And then he'd refuse the orders and leave."
He stabbed a finger in Prime's direction. "And, you know slagging well that trying to imprison Starscream, or terminate him, or doing any-slagging-thing to Screamer that he's averse to will result in the same hijinks we had last year with Trypticon and a certain possessing ghost!"
Kup folded his arms and scowled at Rodimus, who seemed to be hiding a smirk. "And explaining that all out loud to you still doesn't make me feel any better about it, as you should have known!"
Rodimus tried to look innocent. "I thought that talking it out would, ah, make things clearer."
"Clearer, my creaky, unoiled shoulder joint!" Kup scowled ferociously.
Rodimus looked sheepish, then thoughtful. "So, how did you know that Starscream...?"
"...isn't quite what he seems?" Kup lowered his arm and said, "From watching you, lad. I don't have a Matrix, but I know you well enough to tell when it's talking to you, and you start getting that look every time Screamer is around."
Rodimus murmured, "It doesn't talk to me, exactly, but it lets me know things. For instance, he doesn't have a functioning lasercore, and his... essence, his spark, isn't really attached to that body. Not when he's close to me, anyway."
Kup scowled again. "Just great. I had hoped that I was exaggerating there, lad. Skyfire didn't mention a thing about it, either."
Rodimus looked skyward, after the departing pair. "I'm not sure Skyfire knows."
Kup shook his head. "Wonderful. So no one has any control over the slagger! You can't even threaten him seriously. I suppose I ought to be happy that Skyfire has some tiny bit of influence over Starscream. It just isn't sinking into my emotional circuits like it ought to. Probably my antiquity; we didn't have real subtle emotions back in the old days. Why I remember back when....."
# # #
"Kup doesn't trust you," Skyfire said as they headed for deep space. He flew in starship form, with Starscream relaxing in his cargo bay.
Ruby optics flickered in amusement. "You do have a gift for understatement, Sky. I don't think Rodimus exactly trusts me, either. However, we have an... understanding."
"You do have a track record," Skyfire pointed out. "What 'understanding', exactly?"
Starscream shifted carelessly on the bench he occupied. "That's the nature of 'understandings', Sky--they're aren't exact. Let's just say Prime will tolerate my continued existence, and my coming and going with you, so long as I tolerate his Autobots' and the humans' continued existence, if you know what I mean. Pretty basic, really."
"'We won't hurt you if you don't hurt us or innocent bystanders'?" Skyfire paraphrased. "That is... pretty basic. And blunt."
"Well..." Starscream stretched indolently, like a cat, forcing lubricants through formerly quiescent joints. "It's more than most Autobots would grant me. I think I've heard the phrase, 'should be shot through the core for war crimes' mentioned once or twice. Poor Skyfire, you've been so insulated from the harsh realities of war--you have no idea how badly your compatriots hate me."
Skyfire fell silent for a time. Finally he said, "I remember when I thought I had executed you in cold blood... there were some who cheered what I had done. Ratchet and Optimus were appalled."
Starscream looked up, startled. "Optimus Prime was appalled that you tried to murder me?"
"Yes, of course he was. He was always about being better than that, of not falling into the trap of turning into Decepticons with a different badge color," Skyfire replied, sounding puzzled.
Starscream laughed softly. "Well, well. It really was Principle for him. Sky, Optimus despised me personally. Whenever we met in battle, he was the one that started the trash-talking, and showed me nothing but contempt." His voice turned more bitter, and Starscream snarled, "Megatron got his repect, but I was always less than garbage to him. Killing Optimus was one thing Megatron did right."
"Optimus protected me, Starscream. He helped me get my processors straightened out after you and Megatron tried to make a Decepticon of me, and held no grudge for my attack on the Autobots," Skyfire said, with perhaps a hint of pain in his voice. "I agreed with what he stood for."
Starscream hunched his wings. "I'm... sorry, Sky. He may have been kind to you, but he hated me and I hated him back. Let's not talk about him. At least we can agree on Rodimus--can't we?"
"I like Rodimus; he wants everyone to work together peaceably--be they Autobot, Decepticon, humans or others, and he's willing to let bygones be bygones if they do," Skyfire said.
"He treats me with respect, Sky. I'm not rusted-out debris beneath Rodimus's feet," Starscream said, with a self-satisfied smile. "I think we can agree to agree about Prime, then."
-- END --