Watch & Burn
Chapter 6: Confrontations
The bridge was dim and quiet. That changed when Starscream stalked in, heels announcing her entrance with the sharp staccato strike of metal-on-metal. The only illumination radiated from the tendrils that fed energon to the Nemesis’ central console and targeting arrays. Shadows hung from the corners like organic cobwebs, eating the gleam of burnished Cybertronian steel.
Megatron stood ahead, her back to Starscream, facing the giant screens that plated the far wall. Her spiked shoulders formed a brutal landscape, a terrain as unforgiving as her spark. Her death-grey coloration – the same Starscream had taken on, after the abandonment of her trine – harked back to each mech she had killed on her quest for more power, more glory.
More, always more. In that, at least, they understood each other.
“Master!” snapped Starscream. She spat the word like venom, but it still left a filthy smear on her glossa.
“Starscream,” said Megatron. She twisted at the neck, just slightly; enough to appraise her approach with one glowing red eye. Checking for weapons, Starscream suspected. “Is there any particular reason why you are the only mech to show up on shift?”
Starscream didn’t slow her advance, storming up the elevated ramp to the podium from which Megatron liked to dictate her latest diabolical – or just plain demented – plots to the drones. On the rare occasion she took this post alone, the space always felt enormous – as if Starscream was, as always, struggling to fill Megatron’s cloven footprints, which left a far larger stamp on the world than her own.
This was a room built with Titans in mind: not just in scale but personality.
As it turned out, when you shared the stage with that same Titan, the available space felt quite inadequate.
Starscream refused to let this stop her. She stalked up to Megatron, not pausing until her pedes were less than a meter from Megatron’s own. In fact, she was so incensed by this latest humiliation that she didn’t even spare her usual concern for the radius of Megatron’s reach, and whether she was in danger of being mechhandled.
“You,” she hissed, wings trembling in a high, offensive arc. “You! When were you intending to tell me that you were leaving?”
Megatron’s eyes widened. Not with confusion. With surprise.
Which meant Knock Out hadn’t been lying. Which meant she’d told the truth.
All too quickly, Megatron got a hold of herself. Her optics slimmed to slivers of fire. “The doctor,” she snarled.
Starscream laughed, though it snagged on her vocaliser and came out a scoff. “Oh, don’t blame her. You two must be in close cahoots, after all, to share information of such pertinence to the continuation of the Decepticon cause with your CMO, rather than with your Second in Command. Primus knows, I wouldn’t want to get in the way of –“
“Stop.” The order fell from the warlord’s mouth, heavy with finality. Starscream’s jaw snapped shut, but it wasn’t wilful. Her body simply placed Megatron’s authority above that of her own brain.
Self-preservation instinct. Stupid, ridiculous weakness.
She hated it; hated it. Every time Megatron snapped at her, it wasn’t just an affront to her pride. It was a reminder, as so many other things were, of where it had all gone wrong. Once, she obeyed out of respect. Out of admiration. Now? In that jerky flinch and the panic that sprouted across her neural net, despite Megatron not lifting a single digit? Admiration and respect were nowhere to be found.
But Megatron wasn’t glaring. In fact, if Starscream didn’t know better, she’d read into her Master’s expression – the brows drawn close together, the scarred mouth tight as if in pain. And she’d intuit from this that Megatron too saw the ghost of everything they once were in Starscream’s cringing. And it doused her spark in icewater, too.
So what if it hurt her? So what, if it made her regret?
Megatron could win this war, and attain every power in the galaxy. Yet still, she would not be able to change the past.
Starscream shook her helm. "Forget it," she snapped. "Clearly, I have no cause to complain. It is you who lead, oh Mighty Megatron, and I who follow. Far be it from your humble servant to criticise your plans."
She was being too bold, she knew it. She hadn't spoken so candidly to Megatron in centuries. The insubordination sent a perverse thrill of glee through her circuits. It was almost enough to drown the jolt that shot up her back strut when Megatron took a heavy step forwards.
Starscream did her best to stand her ground. It had worked before, had it not? But her nerves betrayed her. She found herself craning rearwards, off-balance, her wings sliding down until their tips pointed at the floor.
"I-I-I'm sure you had a reason, after all, for withholding this from me. P-perhaps my Liege would care to regale me with it?"
Another step. Megatron's weight sent a subtle rumble through the support balustrades that underpinned the bridge. Starscream capitulated: a tiny, rearwards shuffle. Her servos flexed, sharp claws ready to lash out at a moment's notice. If it came to it, she could swipe a cut across Megatron's faceplates. It might - might! - give her time to dive away...
Megatron's sneer was spark-chilling to behold - even to Starscream, the most common recipient of that expression over the past however-many millennia. "I'm disappointed," the giant mech growled.
Starscream gaped at her audacity. "You?" she squeaked. Then, controlling her tight, high tone: "You are disappointed, Mega - Master?"
"Yes. That you would misinterpret my actions in such a way. That you would storm in here, like some stropping sparkling..." Megatron's voice waxed loud; she loomed over Starscream, hands clasped behind her broad back, putting their faces in a proximity usually reserved for biting. "And accuse me in such tones unbefitting to that of a subordinate. Perhaps -" Her eyes shone hot as the Pit. "- I have been slacking on your discipline."
Starscream swore her knee joints went a little runny, as if she'd been dipped in the smelter. Did she slide back into their old game? Did she beg? Bide her time, lick her wounds, bottle this shame up in her tank to sour like acid, until she could once more spit it in Megatron's face?
Or did she, as she had in Megatron's cabin, stay standing?
But this was not Megatron's cabin. This was not an intimate space, crowded only with pleasant old memories. This was where Megatron ruled, and Starscream slunk to do her bidding, no matter how reluctantly, plotting all the while how to slit the cabling that connected her Master's idiot helm to her spark.
Starscream couldn't be strong. Not here, in Megatron's domain.
She slid to his knees, a movement fluid from long practice. Her drooping wings scraped the floor, and Starscream detested the twittering rattle as they shivered, almost as much as she detested the crack in her voice.
"Mercy, Master! I spoke out of turn!"
Her beseeching optics had no visible impact. Megatron stood impassive. Starscream was horribly aware of her fusion cannon. How easy it would be for her to lift it. To power it, to fire off a shot - another clean kill for the Slagmaker, the monger of Cybertronian's greatest civil war…
She did the only thing she could. The only thing she could ever do, in the face of Megatron's tantrums. She threw herself forwards, face to the floor, on level with her master's hooved feet. If Megatron was to shoot her, at least let her deliver the finishing blow to the back of Starscream's helm. At least let her not have to see death coming.
But no agony burnt through Starscream's chassis; no smoking bolt made its home in her spark.
"Cease your nonsense," said Megatron, quietly. Tiredly. Sounding every one of her years.
"What else would you call it? This pathetic sponging. It isn't befitting, for a mech of your station."
It was also unfitting for a mech of her station to be sent to the medbay every cycle. To be beaten and berated in front of the troops she was supposed to command, made a laughing stock, the joke of the entire war effort. Starscream, Megatron's chew-toy. That was how any new recruits - if there ever were any - would know her! Not as Starscream, Second in Command!
And now Megatron dared tell her she acted beneath herself?
"You ask me what I call this?" she asked, quietly, still glaring at the floor. "I call it survival."
Megatron could plant one of those giant pedes upon Starscream's head and crush it down so her cheek lay flush to the floor. She could apply more weight, and more, and more still, until her helm plates discovered their buckling point. She could run her through, skewer her on an armblade, or else put her fusion cannon to good use.
She did none of it. She just stood there, over Starscream, the low huff of her vents the only sound.
"Why," said Megatron, her voice almost as bass as the rumble of thrusters in the Nemesis's bowel, "do we always end up here, you and I?"
"I don't think you'd like my answer," said Starscream, because it was true, then winced and braced herself for pain.
If anything, Megatron seemed to be considering her response. "It was you who stormed in here, demanding a confrontation. And yet you still seek to blame me?"
Starscream bristled. "And it was you," she retorted, pushing back onto her knees and folding her arms over her chest, "who didn't inform me in a timely fashion of your plans! Who chose to share tactical information with that notorious gossip of a medic, before you thought to fill me in! Who -"
"I did inform Knock Out first. When she was mending the popped oil valve in my knee, in fact. I have been advised away from heavy impacts for the next few weeks."
"I told you so," muttered Starscream.
"But," continued Megatron, a little louder, after dispatching a glare hot enough to weld Starscream's mouth shut, "I only told her, because I had to ask her to prepare my flame for the long-distance spaceflight."
Starscream's mouth cracked open, but only for long enough to let a tiny "Oh," escape.
Megatron's glare didn't debate. "When you entered, you demanded to know when I intended to tell you. Now you have an answer: Tonight. I hoped for it to be a pleasant surprise.”
Starscream gawped. Then gawped harder, and more unattractively, at the hand Megatron held out, with the intent to...
What? Toss her off the Bridge? Grab her, hoist her up, and slap her back down onto the ground in a finishing move she'd trialled in the arenas of Old Kaon?
Or, perhaps, to help Starscream to her feet.
"I intend to embark on a crusade," Megatron said, undaunted by Starscream's lack of a response. Her empty hand remained outstretched. An offer, a silent oath. "I will journey to the far side of this galaxy, to summon the scattered Decepticon denizens, that they might convene on this planet and aid us in our quest for victory. And Starscream, I would have you assume command of the Nemesis, in my absence."
Starscream managed to wrestle her jaw shut before any drool leaked out. She examined Megatron's claws as if they were the implements by which she intended to attempt self-surgery. Then, equally tentatively, she lowered her own clawed hand into the Warlord's grip.
She was heaved to her feet with embarrassing ease, no effort apparent on Megatron's face. "Does this please my Second?" Megatron asked.
"Y-yes Master! Indeed, it does."
Command of the Nemesis! Somehow, she'd been so drawn into her fury at the thought of another slight from her liege, that she'd overlooked Knock Out's comments on her ascension. But it was true! Megatron really did intend to trust Starscream with this responsibility! This - this privilege! She would have the entire amassed forces of their fleet answer to her, and her alone!
Starscream's spark spun faster than a neutron star. It felt as if it were emitting pulses too, hot flares of radiation burning like supernovae in her chest.
Megatron's grin curled out of hiding. When she looked Starscream up and down - the high, confident set of her wings, the pauldrons back and the chest thrust out so that the Decepticon insignia flared brilliant red beneath the waxy bridge lights - Starscream didn't shy away. She stood proud, and let Megatron's gaze rove over her like a warm pair of hands, mapping old, familiar paths that had, just that morning, felt too sore to ever be traced again.
"That's better," her Master purred. Low, velvety. A voice that had caressed Starscream's audials on many a late night as she stayed up through the cycle to plot out the points of their early battle strategies, Megatron grumpily demanding that she leave it and return to their berth. A voice that had told her she was magnificent, as she rode Megatron's spike, fluttering and gasping, bowing over her like an acolyte at the temple of Primus, so that her every intake might siphon from Megatron's breath...
Starscream dipped into a hasty bow before her processor got carried away. "Will that be all, my Liege?"
She kept her head raised, eyes fixed on Megatron's - and saw the flash of disappointment there. As if Megatron had hoped that compliment would thaw her. As if she'd hoped Starscream would stay.
The two of them, on a deserted Bridge, no energon alert signals popping up on their scanner... Well. It'd been a very long time since Starscream had been fragged by someone high enough in rank to pin her face-first over a console.
No matter how tempting that image, her determination won out. She waited in her bow until Megatron made her reply - a short, curt dip of the chin - then unfolded and slunk to the door.
She couldn't let the old fool think she was that easy to charm, after all.
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