# # #

The journey back to the Ark was a haze of pain; I was too badly battered to transform and had to fly slowly back in robot mode. It didn't occur to me to call for help. I'd chosen to do what I did not as an Autobot, but as Skyfire on my own, and I'd make it back the same way. I refused to involve the Autobots; let the guilt be mine alone.

It didn't work, of course. When I staggered into the Ark, my outer hull shattered into a patchwork, Inferno, who had the watch, came running out to meet me.

"Skyfire! What in tarnation happened to you?" he asked in his pronounced Texas drawl. He caught me as I staggered and nearly fell.

"It's not important. Just help me to my quarters--" I said.

"No way! You're goin' straight to the repair bay, I've already called Ratchet!" Inferno replied, all but dragging me down the corridor.

"No, I don't need--" I futilely protested.

"Don't try to argue with me, it ain't gonna work," Inferno said. Ironhide and Bumblebee rushed out into the corridor, followed by Prowl and Sideswipe.

"Skyfire! What happened?" Ironhide asked in his softer drawl.

"Who attacked you?" Sideswipe asked. "And where are they now?"

"Can't you see he's hurt?" Bumblebee said. "It can wait until he's fixed!"

"Skyfire--is anyone following you? Do we need to prepare for an attack?" Prowl asked.

"An attack?" I said, my voice as dull and heavy as my thoughts. "No, no attack right now. Though they might, later. They thought Megatron would be angry."

"'They'?" Prowl said. "I'll have some questions for you after Ratchet gives the okay."

The four of them all but dragged me to the repair bay; Ratchet and Wheeljack were already waiting for me.

"Skyfire! How did you--" Ratchet broke off as I shook my head. "Inferno! Ironhide! Help me get him on the tables--dang oversized shuttle! Skyfire, you're not supposed to get yourself shot up this bad!"

"I'm sorry, Ratchet," I said meekly. "I'd rather not bother you, but they insisted..."

"Not bother me?" Ratchet opened a panel on my chest and attached a diagnostic probe. I gasped involuntarily from the wave of pain that shot through me.

"Hang on, as soon as I'm sure it's safe, I'll disconnect the pain sensors," Ratchet said.

"No!" I growled with sudden vehemence. I deserved the pain. "Leave it. I'd rather feel it right now."

Ratchet looked up at the rest of the Autobots crowding into the repair bay. "Does this look like the late, late show! I've got work to do, and if you're not part of it, git!"

After everyone but Wheeljack and Inferno cleared the repair bay, Ratchet reached into the access panel and adjusted some connections. I felt the pain abruptly cease.

"Ratchet! I told you--" I tried to grab angrily at Ratchet, but found I couldn't move, either.

"I'm not a Decepticon--I don't torture my patients, no matter how much they may think they deserve it," Ratchet growled. "Your motor relays are disabled to keep you from stirring around while I work in here--you've a lot of damage in delicate locations."

"If you must," I said.

"Yes, I must--and you're going to tell me what hit you, so I don't have to guess randomly what kind of damage I'm dealing with," Ratchet said.

"Lasers. Cluster bombs."

"How many Seekers did you fight?" Ratchet asked.

I did not answer.

"Uh-huh. Starscream and who else?" pressed Ratchet as he removed damaged armor panels. "Inferno, give me a hand with these big pieces. Wheeljack, you take a look at those laser burns."

I did not answer.

"You know, sooner or later you're going to have to tell us what happened out there," Ratchet pointed out. "The fact that you won't talk about it suggests that either Starscream was involved, or something went really, badly wrong or both."

Ratchet put his tools down for a second and looked me full in the face. "Did humans get hurt? Is that what you're blaming yourself for?"

"No!" I was suddenly angry. What did he take me for? "No, there were no humans involved. No innocents harmed--and there won't be."

"Then what happened?" Ratchet asked as he continued working on me.

"I'd like to know the answer as well," said a deep, powerful voice. Optimus Prime entered the repair bay. He walked over to stand beside my head, blue optics looking down into mine.

I sighed. "I should have guessed I couldn't keep this to myself. I acted on my own, Optimus; no one helped me. The consequences are mine alone."

"What did you do, Skyfire?" Optimus asked.

"I killed Starscream." The pain and grief I felt echoed in my voice.

Optimus put a comforting hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry, Skyfire. I know he was your friend a long time ago, but this war has changed so many of us. Mourn yes, but don't beat yourself up for defending yourself."

I laughed bitterly. "I wasn't defending myself, Optimus! I deliberately hunted him down and killed him when he was least expecting it! I shot Starscream down when he was wounded and defenseless!"

Everyone froze, then turned to stare at me.

"Why?" asked Optimus Prime.

"Because there was no other way to stop him from doing it again. He nearly destroyed the Earth, Optimus--and only the help of Megatron stopped it at the last minute. You couldn't stop him, you and the rest of the Autobots have never been able to keep him from trying again and again. Sooner or later, he would have succeeded. I love these people too much to let that happen, no matter what the cost to me."

"Skyfire... what you've said is true of Megatron himself. Don't you think I've tried to find a way of stopping him again and again?" Optimus Prime said, frustration in his voice.

"Megatron calculates everything for his own gain, and won't try something that costs him more than he wins, Optimus. Starscream doesn't think of the long-term consequences of his actions--he never did. He didn't even stop to think that killing off all the Decepticons on Earth would ruin any chance he had at leadership. He doesn't think ahead, he doesn't care who gets hurt--he'll destroy worlds on a whim, and neither you nor Megatron has been able to stop him save by a hair's breadth each time. What happens when you fail by a hair's breadth?" My initial vehemence faltered and faded into that dull heaviness. "Well, I stopped him. He won't do it again, ever."

"That's not the way Autobots do things, Skyfire," Prime said sternly.

"I know. That's why I did this on my own; you would never have agreed, and sooner or later Starscream would have succeeded. It had to be done, and I would not let anyone else do it. He was my friend once, Prime." I looked at Prime, knowing that my anguish showed in my face. I never was very good at hiding my emotions. "What would you do if your closest friend turned into a mad, ruthless killer, and the only way to stop him without harming innocent people was to kill him?"

"Skyfire... we'll talk later," Optimus Prime said, a sudden weariness in his voice.

"Prime... I accept whatever punishment you think I deserve. I decided that from the beginning; the cost to me does not matter. Only the cost to all those innocent, defenseless people," I said.

"Prime, out of here!" Ratchet said, "I'm getting into some tricky bits here, and I don't need all this melodrama distracting me! Wheeljack, see what you can do about re-welding all these armor plates while I'm working on internals. Inferno, see if you can find Grapple to assist 'Jack with the welding, he's good at that sort of thing."

Optimus Prime turned to leave. "As I said, we'll talk later." He left.

"Now, Skyfire, answer my question," said Ratchet. "Were you completely off your rocker, pulling a stupid stunt like that?"

"I don't know. I just couldn't see any other way," I answered, as a wave of despair and grief threatened to overwhelm me.

"I'm not saying you did the wrong thing, Skyfire, though possibly only the twins and Brawn will share my opinion. But-- were you daft to try and take on Starscream by yourself? As it is, I'm not sure how you managed to walk home in your present shape," Ratchet growled.

"I... won."

"If this is what winning looks like, I probably don't need to ask why you think Starscream is actually dead," Ratchet said, "But I will anyway. What makes you so sure Starscream won't survive? For someone whose favorite saying is 'Decepticons, Retreat!', he's a tough bastard who's survived some pretty hard knocks."

I sighed. "When we were an exploration team, we'd get ourselves in some pretty tough spots from time to time. He'd get beat up, or I'd get beat up, and we were way out in the back of beyond with no support. We got pretty good at fixing each other up. I know how Starscream is put together as well as or better than I know myself. I straightened and welded his wing struts enough times..." I remembered better days--long distant to them, but so recent to me--and gazed at the ceiling above Ratchet, avoiding his face.

"I shot him through the laser core, Ratchet. He was defenseless and at my mercy and trying to surrender, and I shot him down. Then I took his head." I felt as distant and hollow as I must have sounded.

"Why?" Ratchet's voice lost its even, calm tone. "Why that?"

"Because I did not kill him in battle--I executed Starscream. I wanted them, and anyone else to know that. Because it was the only way I could make myself go through with it--by remembering every human I've met, and how kind they've been to me, even when I nearly killed them with my ignorance of the Decepticons, and remembering what would happen to them if I did not stop him. I had to remind myself I was eliminating an amoral, ruthless killer, not murdering my old friend." I let myself sink into the empty numbness of my grief.

"And you just sent a hell of a message to the Decepticons!" Ratchet said testily. "An Autobot executing Megatron's second-in-command? Megatron will not take that laying down! I'm going to run a check on your cerebro-circuits; you're acting very off-kilter."

I shifted my gaze to Ratchet. "He did say Megatron would be unhappy."

"Who said that? Not Starscream?" Ratchet asked.

"No, no. Skywarp. Or Thundercracker. I forget which." I sighed again. "I doubt you'll find anything unexpected in my cerebro-circuits. I've been thinking about this for some time. The incident with Dr. Arkeville's exponential generator was simply the last straw; it showed me I couldn't look the other way anymore, just because we'd once been friends."

"You fought Skywarp and Thundercracker, too?" Ratchet asked.

"No, they came along afterwards. I gave Starscream back to them." I said. "I think they were afraid of me," I said, wondering.

Ratchet put his tools down. "Skyfire, right now I'm afraid of you." The sudden stab of loss and regret that went through me must have shown in my face, because he immediately looked stricken with regret.

"I'm sorry. I'm also afraid for you. You're not in good shape, mentally or physically. You've already spilled your story to Optimus Prime and everyone else who was in earshot, so no chance of keeping it quiet until you are fully repaired. However-- I will keep you on the damaged list until I'm absolutely sure you've recovered fully from this battle. Do you understand me?"

"I... understand. Thank you, Ratchet."

"And next time you find yourself in a desperate moral dilemma, consider talking to your friends. That's what we're here for, Skyfire," Ratchet said.

"But what would you have said, if you'd known what I was worrying about?" I said, skeptical.

"Might have come up with some alternatives--but we'll never know, because you didn't talk to me or Wheeljack," Ratchet said.

"You're... right. I'm sorry."

# # #

Optimus Prime ordered me to confine myself to Autobot HQ while I was still on the damaged list. I spent about a third of my time in the repair bay, getting my armor plates welded and replaced one at a time; the rest of the time I sat in entrance of the Ark, watching the horizon. I spoke little to the other Autobots, rebuffing their attempts at conversation. I had no interest in explaining or justifying my actions.

Sunstreaker and Sideswipe made one ill-considered attempt to cheer me up.

"Hey, big guy! What's with all the moping? Prime won't come down on you that hard, and you should be proud! You slagged Megatron's second-in-command, and by far the biggest annoyance in the whole Decepticon force!" Sunstreaker told me cheerily. "I wish I'd been there--I wish I'd done it!"

I turned slowly and looked at him, my grief transmuted to utter rage. This stupid little yellow peacock dared--

Some of my anger must have showed in my face, because Sunstreaker's jaunty smile turned to a look of dismay, and Sideswipe grabbed his brother's arm. "Sunny, don't argue, let's just go, NOW!"

They both ran.

# # #

"You really did get that sappy over me? Sky, I'm touched."

He tried to sound sarcastic--he's too much the Decepticon to admit to such feelings openly. I know better; I'd been watching his face as I told him what happened back then. I've begun to understand just how lonely he's been all these years; few among the Decepticons liked him, and even with those few, there was no real trust.

He'd trusted me still, perhaps mistakenly, and when I went after him to kill him, I hurt him far more deeply than either of us knew at the time. I hurt him enough to make him change

My face is still too revealing of my emotions. He smirked at my expression.

"You're still a sap, Sky! Relax, it's water under the bridge, as they say."

"I'm surprised that you're so... forgiving."

"You didn't kill me. Ever since my death at Galvatron's hands, I find that near-misses just don't matter anymore." He chuckled. "I imagine you were even more surprised than I was to find out that I'd survived."

"You could say that, yes."

# # #

Though I didn't learn of the conversation until much later, it was Ironhide who finally pushed Prime to make a decision about me a few weeks later. "Skyfire's punishing himself worse than anything you'd give him. It'd be a relief to him if you did come up with something."

Prime sighed. "The truth is, I don't know what's the wisest course of action yet. It's not a minor discipline issue, like Sunstreaker going off half-cocked yet again. Skyfire has never fully accepted my authority, and makes his own decisions as to what's the right and wrong thing to do."

"Prime, that just won't work. You're Prime, not him. We might have our doubts and disagreements, and I'll tell you to your face when I think you're wrong, but when push comes to shove, you're the one who calls the shots, and we trust you to get it right. Even if I have to tell you what's right," Ironhide said.

"But when he defied Megatron in the very same manner, letting his conscience override his orders, we cheered Skyfire on and praised him for it, Ironhide," Prime pointed out.

"Yeah, and it got him in hot water with Megatron and all the rest of the Decepticons, didn't it?" Ironhide answered.

"So what are you saying? That there's no place for Skyfire among the Autobots, either?" Prime's tone was challenging.

"I don't know, Prime, I just don't know," Ironhide said.

"Neither do I. Worse, by his own admission, Skyfire killed a surrendering prisoner, something that goes against everything I believe in. Ironhide, I also wonder if Skyfire belongs with the Autobots, but it would be a worse wrong to abandon him than anything he's done."

"I'm still wondering when Megatron is going to make a move. I'd expected the Decepticons to try to slag one of us in revenge by now," Ironhide fretted.

"His lack of response is odd--"

The sliding door interrupted Optimus Prime; Prowl stepped in the door. "Prime, I know I'm disturbing you, but this is pretty important."

"Are we being attacked?" asked Optimus Prime.

"No--and these surveillance images from Cosmos should give you an idea why," Prowl's voice was calm, his face impassive. He stepped over to Prime's terminal and typed a few commands.

A very clear image showed three Decepticons flying in formation over the desert--Skywarp, Thundercracker, and Starscream. Several more images in the sequence showed them arriving at the Space Bridge and being transported. "Cosmos took those this morning."

Ironhide looked at Prime. "He didn't kill him!"

"No, but Skyfire thinks he did. Prowl, bring Skyfire to the bridge, now!"

# # #

I stared at the images in blank astonishment. "H-how? I was sure he was dead!"

"Obviously, you missed," Prowl said. "Barely. This is the first sign we've had of Starscream since your run-in with him. I believe he's been out of commission until now."

I clenched my fists. "I... failed," I said, feeling empty and listless. "I can't go through with it again, and he's still alive to try again and again until he succeeds."

"Skyfire." Optimus' tone caught my attention. "We're Autobots, and we're all dedicated to protecting Earth from the Decepticons and our own actions. You're not alone in this, and that's been your mistake--thinking it was all up to you. It's not. No matter what it takes, we won't let them succeed."

"I hope you're right, Optimus," I said. "Because the price is too high if you're wrong."

Events unfolded rapidly and unexpectedly after that. Three days later, Jazz fielded a phone call from their puzzled and angry U.S. government liaison officer--Would Optimus Prime care to explain who the giant red and blue jet robot was who smashed into the supposedly Top Secret base of a Top Secret elite anti-terrorist unit just to turn over one human prisoner? And how had the Autobots gotten their hands on Dr. Arkeville, long wanted by both Cobra and the Top Secret anti-terrorist unit whose name he couldn't mention, anyway? And it was hardly necessary to threaten the unit personnel into protecting Arkeville; they were not in the habit of abusing prisoners or turning them over to enemy terrorist organizations.

Jazz informed the officer that, regrettably, he could not answer his questions because the large red-and-blue jet was the Decepticon Starscream, and the Decepticons had failed to inform him of their plans in this matter. Jazz offered the opinion that threats were the only way Decepticons knew to get things done, so they were to be expected. The liaison officer was not reassured to realize that the Decepticons knew of one of their Top Secret units, but he was somewhat mollified to learn that the Autobots were not to blame.

The next day, Laserbeak flew through the Ark--a daily occurrence with the stealth reconnaissance cassette, but less usual in that he dropped a package at my feet as I brooded at the entrance.

After much analysis amid paranoia, the package proved to contain an image disk, with one image and a brief message. The image must have been taken by either Thundercracker or Skywarp, for it showed me as they had found me, wary and grim, cracked and battered from Starcream's cluster bombs, still holding Starscream's severed head in one hand.

The message was from Starscream: "I can take a hint! No more exponential generators or Dr. Arkevilles!"

# # #

"...and I kept my word on that, did I not?"

I glared at my frequently annoying friend as I continued to apply gentle pressure to the bent left wing beam. "Apart from that attempt to drag the Earth into the Sun, you mean?"

"Ouch! Hey, careful there! That was the Combaticons' doing, not mine. I figured I might as well bluff Megatron with it while I had the console. I wouldn't have let things go that far," he answered.

"Uh-huh. Why did you turn Dr. Arkeville over to the GI Joes, anyway? We never figured that one out."

"He didn't want to fall into Cobra's hands again; his original departure from their ranks was less than friendly," Starscream said sardonically.

I made an exasperated noise. "To repeat my question: why did you turn Dr. Arkeville over to a safe haven, anyway?"

Starscream looked at me as if I were short a few processors. "I liked him."

-- FIN --