Part Three

Skywarp had two modes: 'sneaky' and 'caught.' Anyone with half a wit could tell which mode he was in. One simply calculated Skywarp's proximity to a superior officer divided by the thickness of patently fake innocence layered on his face, multiplied by the number of times Starscream had been heard yelling at him that week. Then assume that, unless the number had come out to zero because Megatron was currently sitting on him, he'd fooled everyone and pulled something already. Unless collared by a wingmate or Megatron, Skywarp automatically schemed. He teleported, attacked from behind, set up ambushes, lied, sabotaged, and committed random acts of trickery on his own faction when not kept adequately occupied by an official enemy.

Except for a general inability to rein in his streak of mischief, Skywarp made a fantastic Decepticon. His loyalty to Megatron stayed secure and sincere despite being in the same wing as two jets known for their flamboyant treachery and quiet reservations. He fought with the same fierce joy present in his pranks. He followed orders, even if sometimes he required prodding. He acted as a dogmatic anchor when Thundercracker deviated slightly from the Decepticon cause. He placed second in the Decepticon Air Fleet, making him an active rival for Starscream's rank; envy, distrust, and jealously seethed between them, yet their hunger for power united their wing into a force to be reckoned with among the Elite of the Decepticons.

If Skywarp didn't drive almost everyone crazy—and managed to hide his idiocy better—he might have earned Starscream's job. As it was, he'd made it into the Elite forces by meshing his talents at mayhem into the outstanding performance in his wing. Yet he blamed his secondary position on Starscream and blatantly showed his resentment through more trickery, which continually made Megatron question why he was tolerated in the flyer ranks. This, in turn, made him hate Starscream more for having to defend him when the silver tyrant raised such questions.

It was just how his mind worked. Because Skywarp only had two modes.

See Skywarp. See Skywarp sneak. Sneak, Skywarp, sneak.

Everyone knew it. That's what made today a challenge for him. That's why he smiled as he walked the corridors, cheerfully heading for the other side of the base and another grand ploy. He made no secret of his passage. The best pranks were the ones pulled right under everyone else's optics, and he and Thundercracker had concocted a doozy last night. Here he was, tra-la-la, going to see Starscream. Reason? No reason in particular. Skywarp was only a concerned wingmate, nevermind the fact that he never visited his wingleader in the medical bay unless he wanted something. Him, gathering information from an inside source before placing his bet? Surely not!

See Skywarp. See Skywarp be a big, fat distraction while Thundercracker sneaked around behind everyone's turned backs. Sneak, Thundercracker, sneak.

He added an extra bounce to his step and nodded jovially to Ramjet as he passed by. The conehead jet gaped after him, but Skywarp was busy being entertained by his role in his wingmate's plot. Never let it be said that Skywarp didn't believe in karma. He figured that the universe had given him Thundercracker as cosmic repayment for sticking him in a flight wing under Starscream. That being said, it could be argued that the universe had bestowed Skywarp upon Starscream as some kind of revenge for them both being unashamedly evil, evil Decepticons. Of course, by that logic poor Thundercracker must have been Straxus in a past life. What kind of horrid action had he done to deserve having Skywarp and Starscream inflicted on him?

One would think their wing would fall apart from their internal, resentment-fueled pressure-cooker, but not so. They somehow diffused their open hate. Skywarp held Thundercracker responsible. The blue jet was the only one Skywarp and Starscream could share some kind of perverse affection for, if only because he was useful to both of them and didn't have their power-hungry natures. They'd worked together for thousands of years, and regardless of sporadic efforts to humiliate and physically injure each other, their caustic working relationship had lasted. Skywarp could harass the other Decepticons with the confidence of a jet backed by the strength of a secure triad, not a trifling support when at least a dozen of the harassed numbered among gestalts or Cassetticons. Starscream could betray Megatron and still wake up in the medical bay, hauled there by his exasperated wingmates after the beating. Thundercracker, loss of faith in the Decepticon cause and all, stayed alive and sheltered from accusation of Autobot collaboration by Starscream and Skywarp's--increasingly frustrated--interference.

Yeah, Thundercracker sure was somebody. He was still the one who checked in the medical bay to make sure his wing pulled through for no discernable reason. Starscream remained convinced the blue jet wanted to seize and sell off his possessions for a profit at the moment of death. Skywarp figured him for actually being concerned about them. Under interrogation, he might admit that he felt a similar concern when Thundercracker crashed.

Under no situation would he admit such a thing about Starscream. He was visiting the medical bay today to mislead the other Decepticons. This was strictly business. Well…speaking of business…

One did not belong to the Air Commander's wing without developing a healthy paranoia about keeping that position. Despite his resentment, Skywarp knew that if Starscream decided to switch wingsmates, he'd be left unprotected. Abandoned. That would make luring a replacement into the wing rather difficult. His combat record may be exemplary, but being discarded by the Air Commander of the Decepticon forces was NOT a recommendation he wanted haunting him. He might not remain in the Elite. He might not remain alive; he had stared down Megatron's fusion cannon often enough to know that only his position at Starscream's side saved his aft some days. He might not even keep Thundercracker, and didn't that make a funny feeling twist underneath his spark?

The idea of someone else--some other jet, maybe even the stupid conehead he'd left staring in his wake--taking HIS place with HIS wing ignited jealousy in Skywarp he couldn't express. He envied Starscream. He wanted his rank. He didn't trust the red jet any further than he could throw Omega Supreme. But the very thought of someone else in his place beside Starscream made his mind burn with a possessiveness that rebelled against all logic. The possessiveness he felt toward Thundercracker could be explained, however grudgingly, in his own mind. He dodged explanations when it came to Starscream. The Air Commander was HIS.

So he sauntered down to the medical bay to pay his respects to his downed wingleader…and make sure no one had been trying to persuade him to join another wing. Easiest time to do it would be when he was recuperating. Business, right?

Up ahead, the Combaticons and Stunticons ceased glaring at each other from opposite sides of the hallway to let him pass, their competitive tale-telling about the battle yesterday interrupted as the black-and-purple jet strolled through their midst without a care in the world. He continued on his way, but they stared after him thoughtfully.



"I want to know what way he bets."

The Combaticon in charge of the dead-Autobot betting pool opened his mouth to say something about the size of the kickback he expected in return, but at that moment Motormaster chose to crack his knuckle joints--at the same time Onslaught did. The two gestalt leaders exchanged surprised looks before turning their mutual intimidation on the smaller robot. He wilted under the pressure. A strong business persona meant little when Swindle was outnumbered and outgunned. And, anyway, it wasn't strictly illegal under the terms of the wagering so long as no one changed their current bets. They could add more credits and energon in new stakes if they wished, depending on what Skywarp learned from Starscream.

If the Constructicons hadn't kicked everyone out of the medical bay after repairs yesterday, other Decepticons would have interrogated the Air Commander themselves by now. As it was, standard rules applied; only wingmates, gestalt-mates, or Decepticons of higher rank were permitted in while an officer was essentially helpless under the Constructicons' hands; it helped prevent assassination and manipulation. Since that only allowed Skywarp, Thundercracker, or Megatron into the medical bay, the betting had remained enthusiastically against the Autobot Tracks surviving based upon what the nearest Decepticon witnesses reported. Now if Skywarp came back and, with a typically lousy attempt at innocence, placed a bet against Tracks as well, the numbers would rise even higher…

Some of the bettors risking their credits on Track's survival weren't 'in the know' for Skywarp's information, and the witnesses here wouldn't spread the word. If Swindle played this right, the Autobot's death would make him a killing. One way or another.

Greed lit his optics, and he nodded agreement to Onslaught and Motormaster's demand.

The two gestalt teams made themselves scarce, an activity a non-Decepticon might find difficult considering the underwater base corridor's lack of décor. Being Decepticons and therefore experienced in disappearing in plain sight from one particular enraged silver tyrant, they managed admirably. The Combaticons deserted Swindle, leaving him isolated in the hall. Breakdown slapped a hand over Wildrider's mouth while Motormaster bodily picked him up and moved out of sight. The smaller Stunticon didn't struggle since he was well-aware of his problems regarding immobility and silence.

Even neurotic Decepticons cooperated when there was energon, credits, and death on the line. Swindle swelled with pride at their greed. It was touching, really.

…if one was neurotic.

Now, they waited. Swindle loitered conspicuously. Skywarp wasn't that bright. He'd return by the same route to place his bet with the Combaticon and not think terribly hard about where the others had gone.

Or so they'd thought. Breakdown and Dead End stiffened at the same time, causing Motormaster to curse and Wildrider to giggle psychotically when the cream-colored Lamborghini let go of his mouth.

Dead End gave a one-word explanation, "Dirge," and walked off down the hall.

Breakdown offered more, since Motormaster seemed about to punch his head for letting Wildrider give away their location. "Skywarp just turned up on the bridge and nearly dragged Thundercracker off his duty station. He's trying to pass it off as nothing," which meant that he'd failed utterly, being Skywarp and his sole two modes, "but the other jets are following him."

Because Skywarp trying to be innocent was Skywarp up to his air vents in something everyone would want to know about. And Dirge had informed Dead End and Breakdown because the two Stunticons practically owned his wings off-duty these days. Fear, paranoia, and apathy mixed like fire and gasoline: they shouldn't go together because they caused explosive burn-out—and a lot of fun for two sports cars with a determined interest in flyers. The other Stunticons expressed their wing-fascination in more conventional ways that didn't get them updates on interesting things happening on the bridge shift. It led Motormaster to think that his gestalt team was filled with insane glitches, but they did have their good points. He dropped Wildrider and strode after Dead End. The others swarmed after.

Wildrider, being Wildrider, raced ahead like the hyperactive racecar he was. He transformed to his car mode and roared away in pursuit of Dead End, who cornered around the base's hallways with unnatural grace that human greasemonkeys had wet dreams about. The other Stunticons transformed in pursuit, since racing—even inside the base where they were not supposed to—was second nature to them. This meant that they gave up any attempt at stealth and stormed the hall leading to the medical bay like a pack of rabid speed demons.

Motormaster, being the least agile indoors, pulled up and transformed last, eyeing the two jets already standing at the doors askance; neither Dirge nor Thrust reacted in the slightest to the arrival of a group of Decepticon cars that, most of the time, didn't bother to stop when racing in the halls no matter who got run over in the process. Decepticons blinded to their own peril? That struck him as more than a little strange. Stranger was the way Breakdown and Dead End had draped themselves on Dirge and stared as intently as he into the room. His gestalt-mates generally did not share any interests beyond death and fear with their pet-jet. Strangest yet was the throaty, needy sound Wildrider made as he ducked under Thrust's wing to take in the view. That sound…

He associated that sound with battle, with the sight of an Aerialbot smoking from Stunticon-inflicted damage, with pretty wings ground-bound because they'd pounded on some flyer until their sick fascination with flight was satisfied. Breakdown's fingers marred Dirge's wing as they flexed on the metal, and the morbid jet hissed, moving into the scratches. Dead End pulled him back into place against his side. None of them seemed aware of what they were doing. Drag Strip, who WAS aware, ignored them for once in favor of looking over Thrust's wing and echoing Wildrider's engine-purr. The sound, conducted via the hand Drag Strip had absently placed on Thrust's wing, made the jet openly shudder. But the conehead didn't knock the hand away. Motormaster blinked and questioned his optical clarity because it LOOKED as though he actually leaned into the touch. Thrust. Voluntarily letting anyone, much less a Stunticon, touch him? Touch his WINGS?

Maybe the Constructicons had finally made good on a threat and killed Starsceam. Messily. That might explain the crowd's rapt faces and unusual reactions.

One could hope, anyway.

The Stunticon leader shouldered his way through the bunch until he could see for himself--and stopped. He shook his head. The vision didn't disappear, and he sank to one knee when someone behind him pressed him down, trying to see around his bulk. That someone's grip tightened when his engine thrummed heat and strong vibration of its own, presumably from hand to arm to attached parts that surely must be feeling what he felt at this moment because an answering hum of interest responded.

Oh. Yes. One could hope. Hope, and want, and outright lust for.

He vaguely registered the arrival of the Combaticons--they would very soon regret not joining the race for the best spots to ogle--and a few other Decepticons alerted by Skywarp's inability to act casual to an unusual situation in the medical bay. They clustered around the doorway, filling it from every angle with curious optics. Others joined Motormaster on the floor in crouches and on their knees while late arrivals stood as tall as they could to see over heads and shoulders in their line of sight. Scrapper's searing glare kept anyone from attempting to enter the room. Or rather, the large, experimental weapon o' doom pointed at the door stated clearly that the glare wasn't the only thing directed at trespassers. One would enter at risk of life and limb.

It would have almost been worth a try if Skywarp wasn't standing conspicuously near. The expression on his face nearly qualified as a high-powered weapon in its own right. If the Constructicon didn't get intruders, his expression said, HE would.

More surprising, at least to those who bothered paying attention to anything but the spectacle in front of them, was Thundercracker's smoldering look of protective possession. Where Skywarp exuded more malice than jealousy, the blue jet could have almost put up a sign up that yelled 'MINE!' and been more subtle. Who could blame him? It would take a gun to the head to get through to some of the Decepticons gaping through the door.

He would have honestly felt better with the door locked shut, but the same compulsion that had sent Skywarp up to the bridge to fetch him made him stand his ground and not slam the door closed in their collective faces. The urge to show off was too strong to deny. He just had to make it clear that while they could look, they couldn't touch. Thundercracker turned his head and met Skywarp's optics. No, that was a privilege for them alone, and gloating pleasure lit their optics blazing red. As one, they shifted to look. Smug gratification ran through their circuits at the sight.

Pride of the War Academy, prize of Cybertron's skies, prince of the Decepticon forces. Shrill, cowardly nuisance he might be, but no one denied Starscream his accomplishments. And while they might mock his claim to be a better leader than Megatron, no one-- at this moment, not even an Autobot or his worst enemy--could argue that he was truly one of the most handsome Decepticons.

Laying in state on a repair table, he surpassed 'handsome' and approached 'starkly beautiful.'

Off to one side, Scavenger spoke softly with Mixmaster and watched the impact of his work ripple through the Decepticon Elite like a shockwave. An appropriate sense of satisfaction filled him. The other Constructicons hadn't understood what he'd seen in the Air Commander until he'd begun adjusting the lights overhead. It hadn't been obvious to anyone but him. They'd already finished with the jet and hadn't thought there had been anything left to add.

Mixmaster's professional abilities stood out in the alloy grade he created; the armor he'd produced melted and cooled to a finish on joints that ground smooth without surrendering strength at the edges. Bonecrusher had turned the casts out without a dent, and between he and Long Haul, they had transported and held the entirety of Starscream's outer shell into place while the others finished the wiring underneath and began welding. Scrapper and Hook had rebuilt Starscream with their customary care, laserbeam welds securing newly cast armor plating into place with minimal cold cracking. The upgraded radar array would have attached to the old mounts, but since their design differed from the old array, Scrapper had adjusted them to sit back further to be more aerodynamic and aesthetically appealing. Even the paintjob didn't show a single wobbled line or discoloration where paint or painter failed.

Starscream had been perfect when the Constructicons finished with him, as finely repaired as any mechanism they ever turned out of the medical bay. Scavenger, however, had seen something more to be done to salvage a rough gem from a scrap bin and turn it into a glistening jewel. He'd polished, patient and thorough. He didn't know what Mixmaster had done to the car wax Starscream had accidentally stolen from Tracks, but this was a substance worthy of use in this project. He'd waxed in circles, circles overlapping circles, circles swirling in and out and around until not a single stroke could be picked out as separate on any surface. Every joint received its due share, ever corner an individual stroke of the cloth. Then he'd switched to a softer, less abrasive cloth and buffed the wax off. Only the jet's hands had been left alone; uninjured in the fight, they hadn't been touched during repairs and remained coated in Tracks' mechfluid. It pleased Scavenger to see the contrast. He'd polished endlessly, using particular care around the spatters on Starscream's arms.

When the excavator finally stood back and adjusted the lights for best advantage, the other five Constructicons had stood around the table and stared at what he'd done. And even Long Haul, capable of complaining about anything, was left speechless. Bonecrusher, wordless and impressed, had helped him fine-tune the lighting. Mixmaster had taken the remaining wax off to his corner to replicate the formula. Hook and Scrapper had quietly argued and finally settled on tilting the head of the table up slightly, not enough to disorient the Air Commander once he woke from systems' reboot but enough to make Skywarp gasp at the display when he'd popped through the door to 'check on his wingleader.'

Scavenger watched the reactions to his work and sighed quiet satisfaction. From all around him flooded approval.

Usually, Starscream's personality offset his physical beauty. The Constructions held a kind of subdued appreciation for him, as did the rest of the Decepticons, but admiration blunted through time and exposure. In the case of the Stunticons, who hadn't put up with his attitude for thousands of years, they'd never had more than a passing thought about pretty wings or the way he flew. It hardly stood out during a normal day here on Earth. The Air Commander never stood still or gave anyone an extra second to notice how he moved. He took it for granted, numbed as they by time.

Not so today. Lying motionless on the table, they could stare shamelessly at him. They drank him in as greedily as starved mechanical fish thrown in a pool of energon, immersing themselves in him. He fed in through their optics and the chemical smell of wax, through the slow sound of his systems rising toward consciousness and the remembered electric-taste of battle surging in their circuits. Denied touch, their sensors grabbed the stimulus from brief contact among the Decepticons gathered around the door. Engines growled and circuits crackled excess energy; Decepticons who normally couldn't stand each other pressed closer than necessary. And they hadn't even known that they'd been deprived…

How long since they had seen anyone free of the ever-present dirt of this mudball planet? The dust persistently stuck to their bodies in a coating that disrupted sight and touch. Paint became less vibrant, the colors warped by miniscule shifts in the light caused by particles of soil on their armor. What should have been smooth became unappealingly textured by grit. Worse, the filth clung by static and moisture, giving the Cybertronian victims of Earth a disturbing, uneven, patchwork appearance. It disgusted them when they thought of it, but most of the time it had become normal. Tiny imperfections under their paint, small cracks in their armor, and the bumps and scratches of dirt and grease on previously sterile surfaces surrounded them day by day until they could hardly remember what anything else looked like.

They remembered now. Their optics couldn't leave the living memory lying before them. Luster they hadn't seen since Cybertron lay under the medical bay's lights. Tiny flecks of metallic color, usually left dull and flat, aligned from their random dispersion in the paint and drew optics as their alignment practically glowed with an uncommon patina. Radiance called one to follow the sleek bars of highlights from head to foot, from luminous wingtip to wingtip. Metal gleamed, angles so sharply lined in the light from the ceiling that it seemed the reflections could cut. Not a speck of dust interrupted their optics, and the utterly clean lines of Starscream's form robbed their intakes of cooling air--or so it felt, because many of the Decepticons crowding the door were suffering from a temperature increase.

His colors! Thundercracker was blue, but such a difference between the shades! Starscream's body seemed exquisitely detailed in cerulean blue, the splashes of light a precise shade of pale azure and the deepest shadows a sapphire-cobalt that reminded flyers of that indescribable color of this planet's sky when the sun set and relinquished the sky to night. The majority of his body could have easily been seen as white before Scavenger had revealed otherwise. White? No! Starscream glittered a hard-edged silver so subtle and yet so smoothly tinted it was unmistakable as anything else. The shadows were dark pewter without being dull gray. Highlights didn't fade or soften the metallic color; instead, they were nearly blinding in their intensity. The glass of his cockpit…how could it be clear and liquid gold at the same time, more vivid than the sun? It sparkled in his chest like a visible cry and begged to be caressed. Hands twitched at the temptation, wishing to feel the difference in texture between glass and metal, bring it down from fantasy into reality by spanning the curves of silicon and feeling the color. Brighter yet and so distinct it made a couple of the Stunticons moan out loud was the broad stripe of unadorned white along the inside edge of Starscream's wings--as if they needed any further emphasis!

And then there was the red.

There were words to describe the red Starscream was known for and often described as. The problem most of the staring Decepticons had was finding the proper way to fit those words to the essence of the Air Commander. Crimson? Too dark, because every highlight concentrated on his air intakes until it seemed his head was framed in a hypnotic inferno, or perhaps that was the reflection of their fixed optics upon the color already there. Scarlet held onto the periphery of their search, the royal purples mixed into the color almost majestic enough, but no. Not quite it, not quite right. Flame-red was too orange, not violent enough for the savagery inherent even in an immobile body. He wasn't a cheerful, fire-truck red because that definition was laughable when held next to the fierce spark held behind the paint. Skywarp's smile stretched wide as he savored the comparison of Starscream's red to fresh-spilt human blood, not because the colors exactly matched but because the murderous feeling carried through. If the Constructicons could make hatred fluid and paint it on Starscream's body, that color would be his red. The chaos of civil war and furious anger flared like hell-bent rubies in the highlights of his wings and sparked deep and seething in the angles of his torso. The red seemed almost ALIVE.

If it had been alive, the watchers had no doubt it would kill them all. And they would embrace the death. The color and the one who wore it ripped straight into their convictions, into every perception of beauty, and they swallowed his lethal visual lure. They were Decepticons, and they loved him for what they saw glaring back at them from purple, pointed insignia on each wing.

To the Constructions, the jet represented a pinnacle of achievement. His design was ideal. The Decepticon Elite included two groups of Seekers because their design ruled the sky as one of Cybertron's most dangerous weapons of war. Materials balanced light metals for speed against heavy redundancy in support and armor for close combat. The Seeker format had a limited range of exostructural variations available, but of them all, the build-team preferred the variation Thundercracker, Skywarp, and Starscream sported. It wasn't as simple as the conehead-variation, which tended toward ease of transformation instead of attractiveness, but it also avoided the pitfalls of the pyramid-variation, which was technically gorgeous but overly complicated. In the Constructicons' opinions, Starscream had benefited from changing his alternate mode to a native Earth jet instead of keeping the Seeker pyramid transformation. The clash between functional and aesthetic in fighter layouts made designers like Scrapper tic, but the F-15 alternate mode compromised nicely between warfare and appearances.

Even Decepticons outside Devastator could see the appeal of Starscream's design. His alternate mode hardly resembled an Earth-made F-15, although humans apparently couldn't tell the differences for as many times as the Seekers had infiltrated their militaries. Maybe humans couldn't see the differences outside of color between the blue, black, and red jets, but no Cybertronian could make that mistake. They were as different as opposite sides of the color wheel, and Starscream stood out from his wingmates like a renegade tint: part of the spectrum, but pure and distilled to something beyond them. The differences were almost microscopic even to their optics, but the tiniest measurement carried a wealth of beauty inside it.

Like his wings. Starscream's wings were lovely. Absolutely stunning in width and length, with thinner flaps than Skywarp's and wider breadth than Thundercracker's, they indicated a level of flight capability that made other flyers envious. The longer shape practically shrieked his confidence in flutter-control and agility. The shape of his air-brake had an inexplicable charm to it. It made one want to trace the edge with a finger or something else, just to see his reaction. The dogtooth on his tailplane held similar appeal; Skywarp's was a fraction shorter, and Thundercracker's didn't quite notch as deep. In his alternate mode, he stood a hair shorter than his wingmates because the sacrifice of height off his landing gear had trimmed the gear wells down to make him lighter and correspondingly quicker. In robot form, he stood taller than his wingmates because of the extra length on his heels; his afterburner nozzles were longer than any of the other jets' and explained in part why he was the fastest Decepticon in the air. This speed could also been seen in his slender fuselage. While Thundercracker could carry more fuel and Skywarp actually had slimmer tanks, the shape of Starscream's fuselage found the middle ground between distance and speed.

His weapons were powerful and completely different than his wingmates'. It made the shape of their mounted weaponry almost incomparable to Cybertronian observers, as the differences were so obvious. The contours of their cockpits and chest-launched weaponry dramatically altered from jet to jet, and, while the Air Commander's cluster bombs were deadly, some would concede that Skywarp's nosecone looked more centered or Thundercracker's shoulders were broader. However, Starscream's null rays were notorious. Power hovered over them in an almost visible haze of war and glory, and Decepticons treasured power. They didn't need to be beautiful guns to attract admirers, but it certainly helped.

His electronic systems spoke of control, power, and speed as well, relying less on automatic systems and more on real-time thought. Other jets thought out how they flew, but most of the routine things were done by subprocessor programs. Starscream actually did most of the details instead of pushing them aside as automatic functions. It made him quicker on the uptake in flight and battle. It implied how fast he thought, and to what depth he monitored himself and his surroundings. The fact that the newest upgrade in radar arrays was currently integrating with his flight systems and weapons grid just added to the aura of being a top-of-the-line model, supremely ready for combat. Lesser designs didn't stand a chance against him.

All the lines and shapes that clearly signaled a warrior to Cybertronian eyes, contained in a shell of texture and color that demanded appreciation. Fast and furious, but as striking as a bolt of lightening…and as brutal. Everything about him, every single component, was made for warfare. Being enticed by someone whose fundamental nature was that of a weapon of mass destruction did strange things to the mind. One couldn't help but realize that Starscream advertised his ability to fight by standing out as spectacularly as he did. He drew attention as iron filings glued themselves to a magnet, seduced and twisted his admirers, and used them for his own ends without a shred of regret.

Nothing else could showcase Starscream quite like his face. While the rest of his body was a study in shining paint and polish, his face was a dark, matte gray. His armor was composed of sleek lines, all sharply defined and highlighted, but his face had a different texture. The sharp lines were contrasted by delicate curves, and the highlights and shadows blended in a silken appearance that hinted at aspects of personality he concealed. His body cried out for adoration, but his face…his face whispered of a vulnerable side. Like they were hard of hearing, those who saw the muted appeal had to cuddle closer and reach out to him. Satin-soft looks suckered them into his cruel grip, and they reveled in their servitude. He smiled, and it rewarded them. He frowned, and their sparks sank. He pouted, and they'd turn against each other to please him.

His optics revealed his plans, windows to a poisoned spark that held them captive. They were dimmed at this moment but just waited to light with glee, fear, anger, or hate. He FELT so passionately they couldn't help but feel, too. Even the screechy voice that would come from his mouth thrilled them, an imperfect grain of salt in the sugar bowl that sweetened him despite all predictions.

Displayed to all the Decepticons that could fit in the door to the medical bay, he overloaded their minds and sent shivers down their limbs. Yes, they hadn't stopped to SEE this clean-polished perfection of line and form in so long, and yes, Starscream was undeniably stunning as a design, but over all the artistic--and erotic--appreciation soared a hunger that trapped them. It was one thing to respect and admire a warrior in abstract, knowing his potential, but there it was splashed on his hands! A killer's hands, spelled out in dried mechfluid. Not one of the Decepticons in the doorway, from Onslaught to Frenzy, could look away from that proof without seeing overlaid on Starscream's body the memory of those hands plunged into an Autubot's chest. Over and over again they heard the crunch of metal, Tracks' agonized scream, and the triumph washing Starscream's battered face. The repetition added gruesome details as their imaginations wished, layering it with the smell of a battlefield, the desperation in the Autobot's optics, and the grieving of Tracks poor, pitiable friends. Above it all shrieked the shrill laughter of the Air Commander of the Decepticon Air Fleet.

Vicious. Sadistic. Completely without mercy.

Primus, they wanted him.

Motormaster and Vortex only noticed where their hands were when Swindle nudged between them, gaze intent on the offline Air Commander. "Hey, what do you think you're--"

"Back off, you--"

"Do you want pictures or not?" Reflector's components snapped in unison from closer to the floor, and a mass blink went through the crowd. Reluctant optics refused to part from Starscream for a moment, but then dazed minds registered what had been said.

Motormaster and Vortex split apart like the biblical Moses had walked between them. "DO I?" they chorused, and the hallway erupted into chatter as the other Decepticons started thinking again.

"How much?"

"Can you get a different angle?"

"Who's the tallest? Oh."

"Being tall doesn't mean Scrapper will let me through the door."

"You could lean in. We'll hold onto your wings."

"NO. Skywarp looks trigger-happy."

"C'mon, Astrotrain…"

"Skywarp, buddy, pal, let the camera a little closer. Whaddya say?"

Skywarp and Thundercracker exchanged a considering look. "No," Skywarp said firmly, and Thundercracker shrugged, just a little disappointed.

"Five percent off the top," Swindle offered, and a low whistle came from further back in the group. Swindle didn't offer percentage before he'd taken his share. He said it was bad policy.

Skywarp hesitated. Thundercracker grinned. "Fifteen."

The Combaticon looked mortally offended. "Seven."

"Seventeen." This from Skywarp, who got a confused glare from Swindle.

"Eight," he countered.

"Eighteen," the two jets said together, looking entirely too smug for the Combaticon's business sense.

"Eight," he repeated stubbornly, refusing to go higher. He saw how these negotiations were going. Well, that's how it was with supply and demand. The demand was stuck out in the hall, and the supply…

The supply was walking toward the hall, watched by an alarmed audience. "Time to close the door, don't you think?" Thundercracker asked solemnly over his wing. Skywarp nodded, stealing Thundercracker's grin to paste on his own face. He was definitely in 'sneak' mode. And the glitch-ridden slagheap could get away with pulling his scam over on Swindle, too, since it was his wingleader on the bargaining table.

"Ten percent," the jeep ground out. It sounded like it had cost him something vital. "That's MORE than generous."

"I dunno, Thundercracker…think he's holding out on us?"

The Constructicons just leaned on Scrapper's giant doomsday weapon in the background and looked amused at the fuss. Anyone looking at them might have noticed how all of them found some way to touch Scavenger, who looked embarrassed but comfortable with the contact. Some of the crowd did notice when Starscream's optics flickered erratically. They all took notice when the Air Commander made a drowsy, vague sound before subsiding back offline. Bonecrusher strolled forward and checked a status output on a nearby computer console. "Integration complete. Huh. Took him longer than I thought. He'll be up t' speed soon."

"You're running out of tiiiime," Skywarp sing-songed teasingly. Thundercracker tapped on the inside lock, managing to look bored.

Swindle had to be restrained by Reflector's components from beating his head against the doorframe. The camera needed the entrepreneur to be conscious to close the deal. "Fifteen percent, you cross-wired invention of the Pit, and that's my final offer!"

"Me? Cross-wired?" The purple-and-black jet did the innocent act he was so bad at. His smile skipped straight from 'cavity-inducing sweetness' down to a creepy 'hypoglycemic' level only an evil Decepticon getting his way could achieve. Somewhere, a diabetic died. "We accept. Scrapper?"

The Constructicon gestalt leader looked Swindle up and down. The Combaticon looked thoroughly miserable, already anticipating the blow. "Five percent. Nonnegotiable."

"After set expenses?"

Scrapper cut the jeep's hope off at the knees. "Off the top."

"Ouch," someone said from the back. It sounded like Ramjet. It sounded like he was laughing. It figured that he'd like watching the Decepticon trader get the short end of a deal, considering how ruthless Swindle could be when it came to cutting deals with him. Smiles on the other Decepticons' faces indicated he wasn't the only one enjoying the show.

Swindle winced. Ouch, indeed. "Agreed." He perked up a little as he recalculated profit. "How close?"

The two jets turned to look at the Constructicons. The Constructicons shared a look amongst themselves. They looked back to Skywarp and Thundercracker, who looked to Swindle and Reflector. They all looked at Starscream as he shifted and mumbled once more, optics lighting a second longer before dimming again. Movement reflected light off that faultless body like a scattering of divinity across the room. If a statue of Aphrodite had slinked off her pedestal and opened her legs to a worshiping man, it might have inspired the combination of awe and lust that stirred the Decepticons right then.

Scrapper shrugged, willing to bend the rules, and Thundercracker stood aside, sweeping an arm into the room. "Just don't touch him."

That left quite a bit of room for interpretation, now didn't it? Eager expressions crept over many faces peering in the door, and Swindle rubbed his hands together. Reflector's components actually seemed happy as they combined into their camera form. Swindle advanced on a helpless Starscream as his wingmates stood by and the Constructicons observed. The cluster of Decepticons broke into raucous suggestions of what exactly they wanted pictures of, some of the suggestions quite graphic as their ideas bounced off each other and grew wilder. All the scene lacked was Soundwave giggling manically in the corner to make base history as the weirdest moment ever.

Fortunately for Decepticon history--not to mention dignity--a deafening bellow suddenly shook tools from shelves all along the wall paralleling the hallway. "WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!"

The Stunticons didn't even bother to wait for the fusion cannon blasts. They transformed and took off in the opposite direction of Megatron's infuriated voice, knocking over and running over everyone in their paths. That's not to say that Megatron didn't TRY to shoot them, but one of the benefits of having a car alternate mode was the fact that being on four wheels naturally put them below the level of anyone left standing. Even Motormaster managed to vanish around the first corner available before Astrotrain cowered out of the way. That left Dirge and Ramjet nursing smoking holes in their legs, Vortex missing three rotors, and Frenzy with tire tracks on his face. He played dead, hoping to escape the carnage wrought by an angry tyrant who had finally tracked down his missing troops.

Onslaught didn't have that option since the shot he'd taken was extremely painful but nonlethal. Of course, Megatron didn't give him the chance to explain his gestalt--or grovel, which probably would have done more good at this point in time during their forgotten duty shift--before decking him and grabbing him by the back of the head to drag along behind him. The other Combaticons followed like whipped puppies, knowing it would be worse for them if they didn't.

"You," Megatron snarled, pointing his right hand and accompanying fusion cannon at Astrotrain, "take that excuse for a soldier to Soundwave immediately," the dreaded arm-cannon swung to point at Frenzy, who couldn't help but cringe, "and you will BOTH report to me afterward." A thin smirk like a knife wound crossed the silver Decepticon's lips at the train-shuttle's wide optics. "For…punishment detail."

That was the kind of phrase that gave Decepticons nightmares. It also explained why Starscream was the only one of them who regularly dodged their assigned duties. Astrotrain gulped back fear and nodded quickly, picking Frenzy up by the closest leg and bobbing a bow in their commander's direction as he retreated down the corridor. The three coneheads watched him go and were silently grateful that they'd joined the crowd at the END of their shift.

Megatron snapped a glare at the trailing Combaticons, doing a quick count and coming up one short. "SWINDLE!"

Brawl raised his head and dared to point past him. "He went that way…"

"Silence!" With a brutal clang of his fist meeting the Combaticon's head, Megatron turned away and decided to deal out a special punishment to the Stunticons and Swindle later. The anticipation of pain would send Breakdown into a paranoid fit anyway, and having one of their gestalt-mates be absolutely terrified would drive the rest out of hiding just to get it over with. He'd have to come up with something that imprinted obedience in their very circuitry. It seemed that a mass desertion of duty required more than dented armor and a few well-place fusion burns. Perhaps melting Swindle's back and fusing him to a wall would remind them of loyalty and discipline.

It abruptly occurred to him that he'd been so busy beating on his wayward troops that he didn't know WHY they'd never showed up for their shifts. "What on Cybertron were you useless pieces of junk do--"

He paused and took a cautious step back. From there, he could see straight into the medical bay. Six Constructions looked back at him, respectful but wary. On the repair table in front of them…

Megatron's optics flickered once. Twice. Slowly, they flickered a third time, blinking at his second-in-command. The last time he'd seen him, the jet had been a shredded burden in Construction arms. This…"Tell Starscream to report to me directly once he returns online," he said blandly.

"Wish I'd thought of that," Thrust muttered from behind him. He panicked when the silver tyrant pinned a glare on him that seemed fit to incinerate him on the spot. "Repairs!" he yelped, pulling his wingmates up by their arms. "In our, uh, quarters! Far from here!" Dirge and Ramjet didn't need their frantic third to hustle their steps, as they were quite well aware of what great targets they made stumbling along the hall. Megatron's optics could be felt on their backs even after they turned the corner.

What a wonderful topic to bring up with Starscream when next they spoke: why were the Elite Decepticons all idiots? Pondering that question enflamed his temper again, and Megatron threw Onslaught down the hall ahead of him. He jerked a nod to the Constructicons and stalked after the Combaticon leader, who groaned inaudibly as he attempted to crawl away.

Brawl rubbed the brand-new dent in his forehead and hissed, "You owe me!" at the six Constructicons before hurrying after their commander. This would not be fun.

When the sound of pounding steps and sounds of pain had receded far enough away, Mixmaster tipped back to look behind Bonecrusher. "You can come ou-out now."

Swindle poked his head out to have a look around, not trusting the crazy chemist. Skywarp had grabbed Thundercracker and teleported out the moment Megatron started roaring, but he'd been left on his own with Reflector. The camera had been no help. Luckily, Bonecrusher was bigger than he was and had been standing close enough to duck behind. When he was sure the coast was clear, Swindle sidled out and smiled nervously. "Thanks, guys! I'll just get the pictures and--"

"Seven percent," Hook interrupted him. 'Or else we call Megatron back,' his expression finished. The arrogant son of a toaster had him over a barrel and knew it. Worse, Swindle knew it, too. Nothing ground broken glass into his ego like having terms dictated to him.

"Deal," he spat, freezing his features into an impassive wall. This deal kept going downhill, but no use letting them get to him. Business as usual. "Can I get to work now, or will you insist on haggling through the film development?"

"By all means," Hook said graciously, shooing him toward Starscream. "Work."

"If that's what you call work," Scrapper said just loud enough to be heard. The other Constructicons snickered rudely.

The next time the Constructicons needed something, he'd jack up the price so high they'd have to build a space bridge to reach it. He held that thought close to his spark and kept his peace as he snapped pictures. Admittedly, some of the shots he got thawed his icy demeanor. Reflector sure seemed appreciative, directing him into better lighting with shutter-clicks and whirrs. He swore that the zoom function had been invented by Primus. There was a particular shot that he wasn't certain he wanted to share with any buyers, although he might have to allow a glimpse or two to his gestalt-mates for saving his aft from Megatron's wrath. Besides, envy drove up sales. Letting potential customers know what they were missing made them want more.

When he judged he'd taken enough pictures, he was almost in a good mood again. It would definitely be worth the trouble once the credits started rolling in, anyway. Money: soothing to the ego and his greedy, greedy spark.

Reflector separated into components again, and the trio headed for the door. They would develop the pictures and print them up. After that, it would be up to Swindle to sell them. He sauntered after his partner of the day and counted up prospective sales. Oh, but they would sell. This was one of those opportunities that dropped like a sack of energon into his lap. All the work he'd have to do would be in distribution. There would even be some Autobots wanting to buy despite the battle yesterday. Hey, he might even be able to sound out whether Tracks had survived. The betting pool was a tidy sum of money…


Scrapper's voice jolted him out of his thoughts. Startled, Swindle whipped around, optics automatically seeking out threats. Scavenger and Mixmaster were looking at something in Mixmaster's hands while Bonecrusher and Long Haul guided the half-finished weapon o' doom back into place as Hook lifted it using his crane alternate mode. That left Scrapper alone to look at the Combaticon standing in the center their domain. The look on his face was hard to interpret. Swindle glanced toward the door and decided he couldn't run fast enough to make it.


"I think," Scrapper said, stepping forward to stand beside the repair table Swindle had been circling so avidly a minute ago, "that a complete list of who buys those pictures would be an appropriate price."

In no way did that have a good sound. Scrapper would be a fool to blackmail him further, and Scrapper wasn't a fool. He had the sudden, disquieting thought that HE was the fool. The words dragged out of his vocalizer, "'Appropriate price' for what?"

He unexpectedly found himself the focus of six sets of wickedly amused optics. Not good.

"For my silence."

Swindle swayed on his feet as a seventh pair of red optics lit and stared him down. "How…how long..?"

"Long enough," Starscream whispered, his voice harsh and soft at the same time. The lazy smile on his lips made him impossibly more glorious, a fallen god poised at the ready.

When the Air Commander bent one leg and sat up to cross his arms on top of it, it dizzied Swindle. The same spellbound feeling that had enraptured a hall full of Decepticons prickled around his spark and trembled in his wrists, an all but physical sensation born in bold colors and sharp wings. By Cybertron, when he flashed the light of his optics on him--!

The Combaticon drew back, nodding. "Yes, yes. Yes! I'll…I'll get that to you." Starscream cocked his head to the side, and Swindle swallowed a sound suspiciously like a whimper. The sheer sense of a predator watching his every move made him sympathize with Breakdown's paranoia; he would feel that gaze peeling him apart for days. Yet he yearned toward the predator, wanted to be the prey. He stumbled back without looking away, afraid to run and more afraid to stay. His back hit the wall beside the door, and then he was through and out of sight.

Swindle sagged against the wall outside the medical bay, unable to get his feet to move.

Given a few hours, at most a day, and the awestruck need revving his fuelpump would dim back down to its former levels. None of the Earth-bound Decepticons could stay in as perfect condition as Starscream currently was in. Reality would disrupt the dreamlike state they'd wandered into. Once the jet started walking around again, the grit would begin to stick. The microscopic scratches would mar his paint, and the prenatural shine demanding in-depth study of intense colors would reduce to a common paintjob. His personality would take care of the rest. Even on this world, Starscream could achieve beauty, but unless he kept his mouth shut he stayed merely handsome.

For now, silent in thought, the Air Commander bled charisma only the truly lovely possessed. The silken planes of his face settled into a pensive expression, and he seemed an elegant sculpture dedicated to the Decepticon empire. His optics stared at the dried mechfluid still covering his hands. No regret entered him at the sight; his thoughtful appearance sprang from other causes. The caked fluid only seemed to inconvenience him as he flexed his fingers unhurriedly, one at a time, watching flakes fall from the joints to the table. They fell slowly, appearing to float gently down.

His optics gradually focused past the flakes to see Scavenger standing in front of him, quietly waiting. A shallow tin of wax and a clean cloth were in the Constructicon's hands, and Starscream examined them with a mild look of puzzlement. Scavenger knelt next to the table and balanced the tin on his knee, then reached up and offered his free hand to the jet. Starscream's optics looked over it and straight into the excavator's optic band.

How much did he know? How much did he guess? Could he reconstruct the gestalt dynamics and individual quirks that had led to this instant? Time had suspended itself when Decepticon desire laid on display in the medical bay, destruction and conquest personified and unconscious. It wouldn't last, but the cause it sprang from and fed in turn would continue to burn out of control.

Scavenger had made that possible. He'd filled the hole, completed the finished project past all expectations. He worked with junk, but that was the fault of the material. So what if it wouldn't last? He'd done his best with what everyone else had abandoned.

For a short while--an hour, a day, perhaps an eternity--Starscream had been everything he insisted he was.

The corners of the jet's mouth turned up in a tolerant smile and one stained hand settled tenderly in his proffered one. And as he bent to his task, Scavenger thought that the wax had been worth saving from the trash after all.

A salvager couldn't ask for more than that.


LD's Notes: It's the fic that ATE MY BRAIN. I didn't mean to bring any other characters in it. This started as character interaction between the Constructicons and Starscream. Thundercracker walked into it somehow and took over a few pages. Yeah, sure, it happens. Scavenger wanted a part—well, whatever, it wasn't that long. Then Skywarp dragged half the slagging Decepticon base into this. ARGH. Thank you to QueenZerg for putting up with them all and sorting the whole thing out. So here it is; tell me what you think of it at dementedangel (at) hotmail . com. By the way, the figurine from Tracks' dash is the deposed patron saint of driving, St. Christopher. I don't know why Tracks had one. Maybe he thought that since he already had the wing, he needed a prayer.