by Dragoness Eclectic

Another fic inspired by a very nice fan art--"Keeping up with Old Friends" by CHI

"Sky? Do you have a copy of that picture?" I ask.

"'That' picture?" Skyfire asks me warily. He thinks he knows what I'm asking for, and hopes he's mistaken.

"You know the one--Skywarp took it back in 1986 or 7, right after that fight, the one where you--"

"I know which one you mean!" he growls. I'm reminding him of something he doesn't want to be reminded of. Unfortunately for him, I need to be reminded of it.

"I had a copy in my auxiliary data store," I tell him, "but I lost it when Galvatron slagged me. I want it back."

Skyfire turns to look me full in the face--we're groundside, in robot mode--looks down at me, his face a mixture of pain and regret. "Why would you keep that picture, Starscream?"

"Sometimes I need a reminder that there are lines I should not cross."

# # #

I don't remember exactly when Skyfire came hunting me--I think it was after the mess with Dr. Arkville, because that was the very last time I intentionally tried to exterminate the human race. The little incident with the Combaticons doesn't count; that was their plan for revenge, not mine.

Patient, peaceful Skyfire, who cannot stand to see innocent lifeforms harmed--I should have known. I should have foreseen it in the violence with which he defended himself and his new Autobot friends from my attacks. I should have known it from how little he'd changed from when we'd flown together, exploring space--I knew how dangerous he could be, in the right circumstances. I should have known--but I didn't. I was rather the fool back in those days.

He must have stalked me for weeks, patiently monitoring Decepticon activities from orbit, waiting for his chance. Who knew? As far as I was concerned, my former friend turned traitor had joined the Autobots and vanished; as far as the Autobots were concerned, Skyfire was an aloof fellow who disliked fighting--they only called him in when they needed transport, and he spent most of his time away from Autobot Headquarters, doing nobody was sure what. So I have heard from... reliable sources.

I was flying cross-country across the American southwest, on my way to a simple retrieval mission. Skywarp and Thundercracker were supposed to rendezvous with me later, with their parts of the mission in hand.

It was a fine, clear day, like so many in the Southwest. I could see for literally a hundred miles, though the view was distorted by the heat rising from the desert floor. Every ridge on the crumpled, eroded hogback mountains stood out in perfect relief, a textbook lesson in geology spread out all around me. The sky above was a perfect azure, marked only by the contrails of jets hauling humans from city to city.

I flew low, skimming those hogback ridges, not wanting to advertise my presence to anyone equipped with a radar. I was tempted to swing north, a few hundred miles out of my way, just to fly the Grand Canyon again. That magnificent valley is a twisting, deadly maze of updrafts, downdrafts and solid stone; flying it at supersonic speeds is dancing with death. I love it!

Almost, I gave into temptation--but the mission timeline was a bit too tight to allow such a diversion, and I didn't feel like being the scapegoat when things went to hell this time. I satisfied myself with seeing how closely I could skim the ridges without actually leaving pieces behind.

He dove straight out of the sun. The first shots caught me by complete surprise, a shock of heat and pain blasting my nosecone. I was in a bad position, against the ground and him above me--but he was going too fast to stay behind me and swooped past in a flash of red and white.

I was already pulling away from one ridge and crossing into the valley--that was the only thing that saved me from plowing into the ground then and there. I pulled up and firewalled my throttle; I needed altitude for this fight!

As I climbed, I got a better look at my assailant--Skyfire! I stared at him in disbelief--did he know of my mission? Or was he just acting like an Autobot and attacking any Decepticon he ran across? Did it just happened to be my bad luck to be the 'Con he picked first?

I toggled my radio to advise HQ about this little complication--well, I tried to. Skyfire's first shots had nailed my radio. I felt a faint stirring of unease. I was on my own.

I had the advantage now--I was behind Skyfire and climbing to his altitude fast. This time, I told myself, the traitor was mine--no one else would stop me from finishing him off. He'd betrayed the Decepticons, he'd betrayed me. This battle was personal.

Too confident. Skyfire dove and rolled, a perfect Immelman that brought him suddenly face-to-face with me. We both fired. I half-rolled, letting the heavy particle beams sleet past me; my lasers did not miss, searing holes in his upper fuselage armor. As he half-rolled and we passed, mere feet apart, I launched two cluster bombs at him; he raked me with his cannon.

I didn't have time to assess the damage I'd inflicted; his cannon had pierced my wings and I was fighting to maintain control. My controls were sluggish; he'd disabled my ailerons in that pass--I'd have to fake it with my flaps, at the cost of a great deal of maneuverability. A small amount of fuel leaked from the wing tanks; they were self-sealing and the problem soon solved itself. I began to worry; fighting Skyfire is like fighting Optimus Prime or Megatron--maneuverability is everything. If it comes down to a slugging match, they've won.

I'd forgotten just how agile Skyfire could be, and it cost me. How had he fared with my cluster bombs in his face? If he could still maneuver, the smart thing for him to do was pull a wingover and get on my tail--

I half-rolled again as cannon fire streaked past my tail, and dove. Evidently my cluster bombs hadn't slowed him down. My roll was sluggish and sloppy; worry turned to fear. Yes, I can admit that now; I was afraid. I was flying like a newbie fresh off the factory floor, and Skyfire was riding me like he'd been dogfighting all those nine million years, instead of sleeping in the ice. I needed my edge back, but the damage to my ailerons crippled me; there were things I just couldn't do without them.

Skyfire was still on my tail, close enough now to open up with the particle beams. He did exactly that. I threw myself into a skid, reversed thrusters, and hit my air brakes, ending up behind him to his right. He was mine!

Thrusters forward again, I retracted my air brakes and unloaded every cluster bomb in the launchers into Skyfire's hull--and then lost control, unable to pull out of the shallow dive I'd started. A stray particle beam had knocked out the control module for my elevators.

I transformed before I hit the ground; I still had control in my robot form. Where was Skyfire? He should have crashed beside me. I spun around just as the particle beams hit me from behind, tearing my arm cannons away.

Every one of his ports was cracked and crazed; his armor was a shattered mess, but he still flew--and all his guns were fully functional and pointed at me. My guns were gone, my launchers were empty and I couldn't fly away. I raised my hands. As far as I was concerned, the fight was over--at least until I could escape from him or the rest of the Autobots.

"I surrender, Autobot!" I snarled at him. Skyfire transformed back to robot mode, his double-barreled particle cannon pointed at my mid-section. I had never seen such grim and ruthless purpose in his face before; worry crept into my circuits all over again.

"That's not an option, Starscream. You've tried to kill every living thing on this planet at least twice. You have no remorse, and no intention of stopping while you live," he said. "I can't forgive that, I can't look the other way anymore. For the sake of the innocent people of Earth, I can have no mercy on you."

I froze; at this late date, I can admit that. I should have done something, anything, but the shock of hearing my death sentence from patient, peaceful, Autobot Skyfire paralyzed me. All I could think was that he couldn't really mean it, he couldn't really care about those frail, primitive organic creatures--and he wouldn't really kill to protect them... He wouldn't kill me. His old partner. His old... friend.

"No, Skyfire! I'm defenseless--"

He shot me.

The blast took me right through the chest and flipped me onto my back. I couldn't move--he'd severed one of my control network routers; all I could feel was pain radiating through the middle of my body.

"I'm sorry, Starscream," he said as he bent over me. "Not that you'd understand, because the Starscream I'm apologizing to died a long time ago." Then he grabbed my head in those powerful hands and twisted--

I don't remember anything after that.

# # #

I came back online about two weeks later, in the usual place I come back online after a battle--Hook's worktable in the repair bay. Hook looked as happy as usual to see me--which is to say, vaguely disappointed that his repairs had actually revived me--while I found myself feeling uncommonly fond of Hook.

"Good, you're functional," he said. "Megatron wants to see you as soon as you're mobile."

"Welcome back, Screamer!" Thundercracker said with a grin. He and Skywarp stood nearby, far enough back not to annoy Hook while he was working.

I flexed my neck cables and joints; they seemed a bit stiff. "Someone care to bring me up to date? How long have I been out, and what exactly happened?"

"Two weeks, Skyfire missed your laser core by about two inches, and decapitated you," Hook said. "I'm sure you know about the other damage."

No wonder my neck was feeling stiff! I felt a chill in my circuits; one shot to the laser core and the taking of my head--that was an execution! If I'd still been using the old pyramid Seeker shape that Skyfire had been familiar with all those years ago, that he knew like the back of his own hand from all the times he'd repaired me in the field, his shot would have punched right through my laser core. Only his lack of familiarity with my newer, longer F-15 form had saved my life. I thought over the fight--he'd disabled my communications right off, so I couldn't call for help, crippled my flight controls so I couldn't outfly him, grounded me, then executed me.

I had survived by the slimmest of chances. "So how did you get me back?"

"We came looking for you when you didn't make the rendezvous," Thundercracker said. "Found Skyfire standing over you, still holding your head."

"He looked like he'd gone a few rounds with Megatron or something--you gave him a good fight," Skywarp added. "Hook said your launchers were completely emptied." A rare note of respect echoed in his voice.

"He wasn't interested in fighting us, though. He told us to take you back to Cybertron, 'cause you died a true Decepticon and belonged there. I had to talk him into giving up your head, though," said Thundercracker.

"Thank you, Thundercracker. I would definitely not be the same without it," I said in my usual sarcastic way. They both grinned.

"Yeah, you couldn't run off at the mouth--Slag it, Thunder, you really blew it, didn't you?" Skywarp said, smirking.

"Starscream, you're mobile and your mental functions are fully restored. Report to Megatron on the bridge, and clear out of my workspace," Hook interrupted. "Now. I have other work to do. If you buffoons," he said, looking at Skywarp and Thundercracker, "don't have anything better to do, I have some storerooms that need cleaning out."

Skywarp and Thundercracker made themselves scarce. I lifted myself from the worktable, flexed various stiffened joints and gears, and slowly made my way through the base to the bridge. I had much to think about.

I'd crossed a line with Skyfire. I thought that he'd crossed that line with me in deserting the Decepticons, in rejecting them, in rejecting me, but now I wasn't so sure. He hadn't changed in his nine million years of icy sleep; I'd changed, and I'd blamed him for being himself while I had changed. I'd assumed that because I believed in the Decepticon cause, and understood the absolute necessity of it, that Skyfire would too. Or at the very worst, he'd go along with it because he was my old friend, the way Thundercracker goes along with Skywarp. My mistake.

Skyfire had not changed; he still believed what he believed in with that rock-solid conviction that made him the unshakably patient, peaceful being that he was. That peacefulness is deceptive; he is relentless and stubborn when it comes to what he believes is right, and fears nothing and submits to no one in that righteousness of his. He will respond to force with force, if necessary. He would not yield to my orders, or Megatron's orders, because they were wrong in his eyes; he could not do otherwise and be Skyfire.

We Decepticons can't tolerate subordinates who refuse to carry out orders because they don't like them. You can't run a war that way. The Autobots have more room for such dissidents--Skyfire did belong more with them than us--but he didn't stay with them in the long run, either. Even Optimus Prime cannot long deal with a soldier who obeys only his conscience, regardless of orders. Knowing Prime as I do, he never would have ordered my... execution in that manner; Skyfire did that on his own.

I'd crossed a line, and Skyfire knew the Autobots couldn't stop me, so he decided to stop me himself. It cost him--at the end, there, when he apologized to the long-gone friend I had once been, I could see the grief behind the grim purpose in his face. I suspect it also cost him with his Autobot friends. He didn't let that stop him; doing what is right in his view is more important than his own grief or pain or even life.

I'd been very foolish to expect him to abandon everything that made him Skyfire just to join me in the Decepticons. Selfish, too, but I am a selfish person. He could not have remained a Decepticon and still been the person I'd learned to... to l--to be friends with--so long ago.

I admit, I am not the most rational of beings. To most, having a former friend hunt you down and execute you like a mad dog would be taken as a rather extreme rejection. In my case, it brought me to my senses--I'd been acting like a jilted lover because Skyfire had insisted on being himself. A fine behavior for Megatron's second-in-command and soon-to-be successor, wasn't it?

He came as close to killing me as anyone ever had--I wanted to hate him for that, for bringing me face-to-face with my worst terror. I have always hated being made weak and afraid, but--

If I were my usual vindictive self, I'd still be acting like the jilted lover with Skyfire. I'd already embarrassed myself enough. The only solution was to forget it, forget him. I'd have nothing further to do with Skyfire, either as a friend or an enemy.

What had been between us so long ago, when I was a brash young fool fresh out of the factory was done, now. We were too far apart. He knew it from the day I shot him for not obeying orders; now I knew it, too.

And yet... I never again put "wholesale genocide" on my list of options. Back then, I couldn't have told you why, nor would I have cared to examine my motives too closely. Looking back now, however... I think I owed Skyfire that much, out of respect, and for a friendship that once was.

That, and I like keeping my head firmly attached to my body.

# # #

Twenty years later, and I needed Skyfire's help. To my surprise, he offered it without question. To his surprise, I accepted it. To the surprise of us both, dead friendships, like dead Air Commanders, can be revived. We are still very far apart in most ways, but I don't have to cross his line to hold to what I believe, and he doesn't have to cross mine to be himself.

Skyfire did have another copy of the picture. In it, Skyfire is standing up, wary and grim, just as 'Warp and Thunder found him--still cracked and battered from my cluster bombs, still holding my severed head in one hand.

There's one big difference between crossing the line with Skyfire, and crossing it with Megatron: Skyfire let me step back across the line.

-- FIN --

Author's Afterword: I've seen stories where Skyfire finally realizes that the friendship is OVER, usually because Starscream persists in trying to kill him. Inspired by 'that picture', I wrote one where Starscream is the one who has to realize that the relationship is 'over'... at least for the time being.