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Starscream was offline for repairs. Again.
Quite a few repairs, as it happened. Hook had obsequiously come to attend her the very moment Megatron had dumped her onto a gurney, but that didn’t do much to disguise how plainly annoyed she was to be attending her at all. It was also clear that she was annoyed by the quality of the work she could do with what equipment she had.
“Just do what you must to get her back online,” Megatron said at last, growing irritable as she listened to Hook's complaints.
“If I could only keep her a week—five days!” she wheedled. “We could try to fabricate—”
As if they could go a week without an active duty air commander. Neither Skywarp nor Thundercracker were temperamentally suited for the role. Even together, they were something between a stopgap and a catastrophe. And the rest of the air corps wasn’t to be contemplated. They needed Starscream, as much as the implied compliment to her pained Megatron.
…Since when had implied compliments to Starscream made Megatron feel so wrong-footed, anyway?
She knew intellectually it had been some time since Starscream could be trusted with the smallest of compliments — they ended up thrown back in her face, later, inevitably — but she wasn’t absolutely certain when that had happened. Those memories were well and truly archived, now.
Hook made a frustrated noise. “As you command.” Then, “Megatron, if I might suggest—”
There was an uncomfortable, staticky hesitation.
“What,” growled Megatron.
“...supplies at the moment are limited,” said Hook delicately. “Although I’m sure Starscream’s—provocations—are extensive, perhaps—”
She quailed when Megatron turned the full force of her burning optics upon her.
“You question how I choose to mete out discipline?” she asked softy.
Hook shut her mouth with a click of teeth. Her vocaliser cut off with a click, then restarted, uncomfortably shrill.
“No, Megatron. Of course not,” she said, right through her teeth. She went back to her work on Starscream’s unmoving body without further comment, leaning in close to examine the minute circuitry behind her optics.
She’d taken a few blows to the head, Megatron remembered dimly. It had been something of a blur. Her hands flexed.
“Just get her online, Hook. She has a raid to run.” She’d be sneering at the medic’s work and fixing herself the moment she was conscious anyway.
“Of course,” muttered Hook.
Megatron eyed the transparasteel of Starscream’s cockpit, spiderwebbed over in cracks. The lines caught the light oddly, gleaming here, shadowed there.
“If she’d stop trying to assassinate me for half a second she might not be wasting so many of your supplies,” Megatron said at last, which was as close to an acknowledgement as the complaint would ever receive.
It used to happen every few centuries, and it had served both a personal and professional purpose: a dangerous game that kept them both sharp, that showed off Starscream’s skills and creativity in that field — Megatron had always admired her flair for murder — and once upon a time it had served as a litmus test for Megatron’s support among her followers, too.
Lately, however, Starscream had been declaring herself leader of the Decepticons… more often. She would pronounce Megatron dead after minor injuries and sometimes even mild inconveniences, and she would make attacks that showed no skill or planning at all, only vicious and base ambition. Megatron had always enjoyed her vicious temper, but she was not entertained or flattered by assassination attempts rooted in opportunism and executed spontaneously, with any success left up to blind chance.
As far as Megatron could tell, this was now just a vehicle for Starscream expressing her… frustrations.
“Of that,” said Hook, “I have no doubt.” The thought didn’t seem to cheer her.
Megatron shot one last glowering look at Starscream’s battered face. The very sight of it annoyed her — both Starscream’s face and the mess she’d made of it trying to dissuade her from such stupid ploys. She turned and left, feeling restless and unsettled. Behind her, Hook’s saw started up with a low grating buzz.
The first time — ha, their first time, Megatron thought, and she scoffed to herself privately at the idea. Was she becoming maudlin after all these millions of years?
They used to say nobody ever forgets their first, didn’t they? It meant the first mechanism with whom one merged sparks. Megatron had not heard that platitude in a long time. There weren’t really any more virgins to say it about — they hadn’t made new cybertronians for a long time, either.
It was a lie, anyway. Megatron could remember spark merges, of course, but not which was her first. It had been easier, when everyone was younger and sweeter and had less reason to guard themselves so fiercely.
But she remembered the first assassination.
“It’s fine,” Starscream had said the moment Megatron arrived, a huge presence in a room not quite sized for her frame. Megatron remembered it very clearly. Starscream had those big bright lights, on either side of the big mirror. The way they lit her whole frame was merciless, always harsher than any light outside her rooms.
She’d been peering at herself there, evidently furious with the crack in her optical lens. Her voice had come out tense and furious, too.
It had plainly not been fine.
Megatron still remembered, faintly, the sense she’d felt — not of alarm, she never felt alarmed about injuries, exactly, as she had seen too many. But she had felt subtly violated, offended, a nagging feeling that her territory had been encroached upon. She remembered stepping up behind her and reaching around one broad, smeared wing to touch the dent in Starscream’s wrist plating.
At the time, Starscream’s role had been different. She had access — minimal access, true, but access anyway — to the parties and soirees hosted by influential members of society, the kind who would never dream of attending a gladiatorial match in the pits. She could be counted upon to prove that the Decepticons, terrifyingly, had more than brute strength and will on their side: that they had some subtlety at their command, too.
Megatron had struggled, at first, with the idea that Starscream floating about a glittering room gossiping could serve the cause, but it had. It was in a way Megatron wasn’t naturally given to understanding, but it had.
It also put her in the unenviable position, sometimes, of being unable to retaliate to slights and insults immediately without losing face in public. Starscream hated feeling degraded, but there was nothing subtle about aggravated assault.
“Do you want me to kill her for you?” Megatron had asked, mild as filtered low grade, touching her gently. The points of her claws scraped gently over the dents.
“Who?” Starscream had said evenly. “Councillor Breaklight?”
“Is that who did this?” It was good to have a name.
“Yes.” Starscream had licked her teeth and went back to examining the optical crack. “And no. When she dies, I want her to be scared of me.”
And this had made so very much sense to Megatron, so she had taken the statement at face value. She had squeezed her hand on the warm thrumming metal of Starscream’s wasp-sharp waist, and said, “If you bring me her head, we will set it somewhere to send a message, and use it as an object lesson for her kind.”
Starscream had gone perfectly still, in the way of seekers and racers and fast vicious mechanimals, and then turned her head so her cracked red optic was looking directly at Megatron and not seeing her in the mirror’s glass.
“I’ll make a note,” she’d promised, smiling.
And so it had been decided.
Later, Starscream had brought her a councillor’s grey helm, still caught in an expression of oil-leaking terror. She hadn’t been so practiced yet, and she’d made a terrible mess: energon on her hands and smeared down her cockpit, and, curiously, between the cracks of her teeth —
“Yes. I’ve never seen it — fountain, like that,” she’d admitted, running her tongue over them, optics distant as she explored the taste of energon fresh from another mechanism’s lines.
Megatron had. Megatron had killed and killed and killed until the pit was soaked, until the crowd was glutted on it, until their screaming and cheering had fallen silent to fear, until their thirst for violence was finally slaked. But there was something about Starscream — short, with her long delicate-looking fingers and tapering wings and sharp waist, her shiny polished plating and thin flexible armour. It was in the contrast between her deceptive delicacy and high-gloss finish, and the vicious character beneath it.
Her hands looked so precise and delicate on the councillor’s helm. Megatron had a crystal clear memory of it, photographic.
“Were you caught,” Megatron said, and then stopped talking, because Starscream had wanted to trace her slick, wet fingers over Megatron’s slack mouth, painting it with someone else’s fuel. Her optics dimmed. If she couldn’t smell the reek of it, Megatron might have thought that syrupy slickness was another bodily fluid entirely.
“Only by you,” Starscream said, confident and unconcerned. And coy.
The very air had been ripe with the smell of spilled energon and heavy with charge. The head clanked to the floor when Megatron lifted her and took her bodily to the berth.
The head was useful. And incriminating. But they’d dealt with it later.
And that had been the first.
Megatron mused on the memory file while she was supposed to be paying attention to Soundwave’s report.
Soundwave already knew exactly what to do about the Autobots who were using human communications satellites to make a nuisance of themselves amid Decepticon interests in the other continents. Soundwave felt she benefited from reporting about it and having Megatron agree with her, Megatron assumed.
The problem of Starscream was weighty, though, and Soundwave would inevitably figure out the right entity to kill to solve their problem on her own. Starscream, Megatron thought, had always performed best when she had some challenging outlet for her creativity.
“What was that again?” she asked, looking up.
Soundwave paused in her report. Obligingly, she replayed the clip: The clip was from above, from a camera in some part of the ventilation system presumably, as captured by Laserbeak or Ravage on an intelligence run. It looked to Megatron as though they were in some kind of recreational area, with comfortable seating set closely together, but it was hard to tell — the Autobots’ base was extremely… orange.
“I can’t modify my search light wavelength to reach a satellite, Huffer!” snapped a red and purple minibot, clunking his shoulder against another. They were bickering about how best to disguise their signal from the humans who sold information to the Decepticons, Megatron gathered.
“Infrared,” she said slowly, reflecting. Infrared scanners weren’t useful in long distance applications for most cybertronians, but they could be tricky to work around if a mechanism needed to get in close.
“Soundwave, I have every confidence in your plan—”
Soundwave, who had not presented a plan, twitched.
“—and there’s something else I must attend to.”
She got up, already opening a comm line to the repair bay. Hook, she demanded, is Starscream online yet? If Starscream could be redirected, then perhaps Megatron's cruelties could be reserved for her enemies.
Starscream was online.
She was still in the repair bay, too. Sulking, which Megatron didn’t care about, and looking mutinously up at Megatron’s entry, which she sort of did care about. There had been a time when she had flexed her wings and smiled warily to see Megatron. It had been… some time ago.
Megatron ignored that, too.
“Starscream,” Megatron rumbled, ignoring her face and her recently-patched cockpit and her stiff, cranky wings. “I have a task for you.”
“Of course, Megatron,” said Starscream, in a tone that Megatron’s processor translated to mean ‘I am going to take your spark out with a screwdriver the second your back is turned’.
Stop that, Megatron wanted to sigh, and, you’ll like this one.
She didn’t say any of these things. All she had for Starscream, for millennia now, was rough warnings and glowering, finite tolerance and violence. She sent her the stills of the Autobot—“Gears”—a minibot with native infrared scanners and a disinclination towards battle.
Leave them the body, she sent. Bring me the head, she sent.
Remind them why they are never safe, she did not send, but she rather thought Starscream might have gotten the idea anyway, because she stopped sulking and lifted her wings.
“Oh,” she said, soft in a way Megatron had not heard her in—millennia.
“Am I understood, Starscream?” Megatron prompted.
“Yes. You certainly are, Megatron.”
By midday the following day Starscream had rearranged her own flight schedule. She dropped off the comms for a few hours, and then she returned. She left the Autobots the body, and she brought Megatron the head.
The last time Megatron had seen Starscream so obedient and efficient was…
Any occasion completely escaped her, actually.
Gears’ head in robot mode was a particularly uncommon shape, set like a red hemisphere upon his shoulders. When Starscream landed back on the Victory, she unfolded from her jet mode and made her leisurely way across the ship to the command centre, dangling Gears’ detached head from the fingers of one hand. She scraped one of the stout protrusions of it along the wall of the corridor in a horrible scree-ee-ee all the way, a macabre counterpoint to the click click of her thrusters.
She interrupted an admittedly tiresome report from the Stunticons when she entered, and Megatron held up a hand to forestall Motormaster’s inevitable loud protest. The head hadn’t gone grey yet. There was an art to avoiding the particular chemical reaction that killed off paint nanites, and Megatron had forgotten Starscream’s long efforts at practice. She remembered now, though, watching the puddled fuel leak in slow but steady dribbles from the optics. The air around Starscream and her grisly prize reeked of electrical discharge and fuel, and the old familiar smell of burning oils.
Breakdown, avoiding Megatron’s gaze in Motormaster’s shadow, coughed into the quiet of the command centre. Other than her two pink hands, Starscream had avoided the fuel. She looked polished.
“Motormaster, you can send the rest of your report in writing,” Megatron said. She didn’t take her gaze from Starscream. A fresh spatter of fuel drooled slowly from around Gears’ optic.
There was a short, unhappy hesitation.
Motormaster’s engine made a long, aggressive growl of protest. “Megatron—”
“You’re dismissed—and you can hurry up, lest I make your dismissal a permanent one.”
The deep thrum of her fusion cannon filled the air. Even Motormaster wasn’t combative enough to stand her ground in the light of its glow. She got out, preceded by most of the stunticons and followed by Dead End, upon whom the threat of certain death never seemed terribly effective anyway.
“And what about me, Megatron,” said Starscream, in a tone that said she knew very well Megatron’s optics hadn’t left her since she entered. Smug. Satisfied. “Am I not to be commended for my… contributions?”
Megatron huffed softly through her vents. She was feeling an odd mix of pleasure and vindication and exasperation — and a strange nostalgic pride.
“Show me, then,” she instructed, and let Starscream approach her seat in the command chair, right in the centre of the room.
Starscream did, and then she lifted the head like an offering. There was a processor in there, battered, scorched and now marinating in the leaking energon of a hundred tiny lines cut clean through. That was the source of the smell, then.
:Soundwave:, she commed, :have the Autobots become aware of any losses:?
:Negative:, said Soundwave.
Which meant she was going to be able to comm Optimus Prime and show her the leaking, blank-faced memento, and watch her optics and her face as recognition and realization dawned. As long as she did it fast, Megatron could be the one to break this news. She felt positively giddy with this cruel pleasure.
Good work, Megatron knew, was to be praised. She hesitated.
Then she didn't hesitate again:
“Ah, Starscream,” she purred, just as though she'd expected it. “Marvellous.”
It was nearly automatic — it had used to be automatic — just to to reach out and sweep her up with one big arm, right where her wings tapered at her waist, until she hit Megatron’s own plating with a quiet clank. Starscream was warm. Her plating was alive and responsive and pleasant to touch. She was, compared to Megatron, small enough to pull in and clutch to her much bigger frame.
More energon sloshed free from the head in Starscream’s hands at the sudden movement, spilling a long wet trail down one of her thighs. Megatron was not squeamish. If she had ever been squeamish, a few cycles down a mine shaft had cured her of it. She did not pretend to mind the lukewarm spill.
Starscream braced herself with her free hand on Megatron’s chest plates, leaving a single perfect hand print that just touched the Decepticon brand there. She used the leverage to make herself comfortable in her perch upon Megatron’s thigh.
“Your work is exquisite.” As it always was, when she really put her mind to it.
“Yes,” Starscream said, baldly egotistical, “it is. And what about it?”
Megatron stroked a finger over the scarred transparasteel of her cockpit. Starscream wriggled pleasantly on her lap, smiling expectantly.
It was a nice smile, for Starscream, narrow and entitled, yet inviting and hinting at all sorts of other appetites. But Megatron was aware of how quickly it would sour if those expectations weren’t met. Feeling obliging for once, she put out a commendation on the general comms. She knew when Starscream had seen it because the base of her wings moved against Megatron’s arm, and the air eddied with their sudden pleased fluttering.
Starscream did so love to be publicly praised.
:Soundwave. Put a call through to Optimus Prime for me:, she sent then, looping Starscream in on the communication. Soundwave sent back an affirmative, and before them, the view screen blanked and then cut to a calling signal. Starscream kicked her thrusters, excited.
:Connecting,: Soundwave sent, perfectly neutral.
:Excellent,: said Megatron. :It seems I’d like to gloat:
Starscream laughed aloud at that, like she’d told a terrific joke. Like Megatron, she, too, was a cruel, savage thing. She wriggled enticingly in Megatron's grasp, plating flushed with warmth and all her many hungers, and her powerful jet engine turned over in anticipation.
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