A/N: Kind of a long epilogue, but there were a few remaining details to be covered. A few loose ends, if you will. And I wanted to make sure everything was as tied up as I could make it.

Anon review replies (for the last time): G1ntsuk1 - Thanks for considering the reactions of those like Prowl to be realistic. The way I figured it, after so long, it would be difficult to shake old beliefs, if not impossible. And even if they did later on do so, Starscream would be well within his rights to not accept them. I'm glad you liked the chapter and hope you find this final one to be just as realistic.

And this is for largomolo - As regards what humanity would think, most don't know. Sparkplug advised they not reveal that Starscream was a convicted murderer, pointing out that even if he was considered to be wrongfully convicted (and at this point, Skyfire hadn't been awakened), a lot of people in the government and the public at large were unlikely to accept that. More so because Seekers had already caused a lot of damage. They were informed that he was a Seeker who disagreed with Decepticon philosophies and joined the Autobots instead. Basically, a diplomatic reason. Now that Skyfire is awake, it is probably most likely to continue to be passed over in silence and considered no one's business but their own. As for the Unicron part of G1, yeah, that would drag the story out interminably. Hope you'll enjoy this last chapter.

I will say right now that one of my readers got what I was going to do pretty much spot on. To find out what it is, read on.

And now for the final chapter...

"I had little welcome when I came, and less kindness while I stayed; but at least I was watched as I went away." - Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped

The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. - T. S. Eliot

Frag it all.

Starscream paced in his quarters, his processor reeling from the question Skyfire had asked him only one short Earth hour ago.

"Will you come with me?"

In truth, he hadn't been sure how to answer that question. As soon as the words had left his old friend's mouth, he'd just stared for a moment. When he'd found his voice again, he'd replied with a question of his own...

"Skyfire, I...do you even know what you're asking of me?"

His mentor had just slumped slightly, a pained, world-weary expression on his face. When he spoke again, he sounded as defeated as Starscream had ever heard him: "I know it's a lot, but I just..." He huffed heavily. "I'm just not sure I want to be alone right now."

The Seeker continued pacing as the memory continued to replay...

Starscream gazed at Skyfire for a very long minute after his friend spoke. Just a little earlier that day, he'd been making plans with Wheeljack, and discussing how things seemed to be turning around, even slightly. He'd been in some of the best spirits he'd been since waking up on what he was now starting just slightly to see as less of a Primus-forsaken planet.

Then he'd gotten the comm. call from Prime, telling him what he'd just been told about Skyfire.

And now, he was being asked to leave, just when things were starting to change. Whether they would end up being for the better or not, he didn't know, but that changes were starting was certainly clear to the jet.

He bowed his head briefly, then looked back at Skyfire, at the misery etched so clearly in his old partner's frame, and felt some stirrings of pity.

He made a decision.

"How long are you going to be in the brig?"

Skyfire's smile was a slightly bitter one. "I was told I would be released once the Rec Room was repaired," he replied, traces of bitterness as clear in his voice as in his expression.

Which would probably take about an Earth week, since Grapple was just peeved enough about the unnecessary work that he would probably delay it on what he saw as principle, mused Starscream. Mech didn't think highly of brawl damage. Not that Starscream could blame him much.

"I'll give you my answer then," the Seeker promised. "I have a lot to consider, Skyfire, and just can't leave on a whim." He smiled sardonically.

"But I will answer," he finished more gently. "I won't leave you without one."

Skyfire looked as though he might want to argue, but then he stepped back and bowed his head. "That's fair," he whispered.

Raising his head once more, he smiled weakly, then said, "I'm feeling a little tired right now, and I know you're busy, so..."

Starscream felt his smile shift into a somewhat gentler one as he replied, "All right, then. I'll come back to visit when I'm free."

Skyfire nodded, then turned to head to his berth. "Till later, then."

Starscream nodded, the smile dropping off his face. "Till later."

He then turned and headed out of the brig, passing by a concerned-looking Trailbreaker on his way out, but he paid the other mech no mind, lost in his own worries...

Damn it.

Starscream couldn't help the flare of irritation that ran through him. His pacing became faster and his features became more agitated as he paced.

He still couldn't believe that Skyfire had made that suggestion to him...

And the problem was that it was extremely tempting. Even knowing that things were changing still didn't make the thought of leaving any less so.

Sure, he had built up a good reputation as both scientist and warrior, but at his core, Starscream had always been somewhat restless. He knew that. Exploring and learning about new worlds had stifled those urges for a time; and in prison, he'd had so much slag to deal with that it hadn't been too difficult in suppressing it.

It had begun to revive when he was released, and afterwards, his experiences in the Autobots had sated that urge to a certain extent, but it had always been there.

It would always be there, Starscream suspected. He'd felt something stir in him at Skyfire's request, even as he'd been shocked by it; an old familiar thirst for adventure and learning that war had never entirely quenched.

Damn it!

Starscream halted in his pacing and turned his gaze towards the ceiling of his room. He let out several heavy vents and off-lined his optics.

He wanted to go, but he wanted to stay, too.

Optimus wouldn't stop him from leaving, he knew that. Neither would the rest of his friends. Even if they thought he was making a mistake, they wouldn't prevent him from going if this was really his wish.

Skyfire needed him.

But the Autobots needed him, too.

Starscream flicked his wings and let out an irritated huff from his vents.

He had no idea what to do.

As he stood in the middle of the room, lost in thought, a chime sounded at the door.

Startled by the unexpected noise, Starscream whipped his head towards the sound.

What the frag?!

"Who is it?" he called. Who the Pit could be coming to pay him a visit this time of night? Mirage had been sent to the Victory to learn of what fallout had followed the Arctic mission, Wheeljack was on shift, and Ratchet was still working on the fight participants. Optimus, he didn't want to bother before the morning cycle, and it was highly possible he'd gone to recharge anyway after getting the reports from Ratchet and giving Starscream permission to go down to the brig. No one else currently on the Ark would bother to visit Starscream.

Which made it all the more surprising when Jazz's voice came over the intercom: "Heya, Screams. Mind if I come in?"

Starscream frowned. Jazz had never really been a friend of his, but he'd always done his best to keep on the good side of the Special Ops commander. It would be suicide to do anything else.

With that in mind, he called out, "Go ahead, Jazz." He'd probably hack his way in, anyway, Starscream thought ruefully. Best to just give him what he wants. It would make the Seeker's life less frustrating. And marginally safer.

The door opened, and Jazz sauntered in, a slight smile on his face as he glanced around the room. "Nice place you got here," he said easily. He strolled over to the desk and pulled out the chair. "Mind if I sit?" he asked, doing just that as he spoke.

Starscream raised a browridge. "Of course, Jazz. Do make yourself at home," he replied drily, going over to sit on his berth. "So what brings you here at this time of the night cycle?"

Jazz affected an innocent look and clasped his hand over his Spark. "Now can't I just come and visit a friend?"

Starscream smiled sardonically. "Jazz, stopping by someone's quarters is never just a visit for you," he answered. "And last I checked, I'm pretty sure we've never had a conversation that didn't have to do with weapons provision for your or your agents."

Jazz chuckled easily. "Got me there, Screams." The easy expression dropped away, and his features became serious. "A little bird was chirping in my ear, as the humans say."

Starscream schooled his features into a blank expression. "Oh, really?"

"Yeah." Jazz leaned back in his chair. "Told me about a pretty interesting conversation he overheard in the brig just about an hour or so ago."

It took every effort Starscream had to betray no emotion. Damn it, Trailbreaker. But he supposed he couldn't really blame the mech for talking to Jazz. Trailbreaker was, after all, a support member of ops on occasion, and he'd usually been more neutral when it came to Starscream's presence. But he also knew that Jazz looked on the Seeker as an ally, and hearing what he did would have raised concern.

May as well be honest, Starscream decided. "I take it he told you about Skyfire's offer and my reply to it."

"He did," Jazz confirmed. "You're thinking about accepting, aren't ya?"

Starscream shrugged. "I won't deny I'm considering it," he admitted. "Would you stop me if I did?" There was a slight edge to his words as he spoke.

For his own part, Jazz ignored the tone, just shrugging casually before he answered. "Couldn't stop you if you really wanted ta leave. Short of killing you, that is; but I'm not in the habit of assassinating loyal mechs."

He leaned forward now. "But I do have an opinion, if you're interested in hearing it."

Starscream frowned for a few moments as he thought. He had a pretty good idea what his friends would think, but they all had a personal stake in the matter. Jazz, not being a part of his inner circle, had none. But perhaps...an outsider's perspective might be just what he needed.

"I'm listening," he finally said, curious about what the Spec. Ops commander had to say.

"First, I got ta say I know what it's like to have a friend you would want ta do anything for ta help. Also know what it's like ta have that friend make you so crazy sometimes you just want ta physically shake them. Not that you can do that ta Skyfire," he said with a small grin now, "but you get my meaning."

Starscream chuckled in spite of himself. "Yes," he replied. "I certainly do."

The smile suddenly fell away from Jazz's face.

"But the thing about friendships, Starscream," Jazz said, dropping the nickname for the first time that Starscream could ever recall, "is that they change. Over time, life starts getting in the way. We meet new people, go through various experiences. Priorities change. Sometimes this can alter a friendship for the better, sometimes it ends it. And there are also times," Jazz finished more softly, "that a friendship is there for only as long as we need it."

Starscream felt his vents still for a moment. "Jazz...," he started.

But the saboteur raised a hand, indicating he wasn't finished. "The way I see it, from everything I've heard, Skyfire was there when you were going through some pretty tough slag. He'd also gone through some similar experiences, so you and he had something ta build on there. Common interests and a similar background. Then, it all changed thanks ta a freak storm, and you were left on your own again.

"You know better than me what happened in that prison, though I'm pretty sure I could make some educated guesses," Jazz went on. "In any case, that began ta change you. Then Optimus Prime showed up and gave you an out from that Pit, and you continued ta change. You developed a small circle of friends; you also learned ta fight. You went through one pit of slag after another. You became a whole other person from what Skyfire knew. You learned ta live without him over thousands of our years. You're mechanomiles away from that explorer you once were."

He paused, but this time, Starscream couldn't bring himself to speak. He wanted to hear the rest of what Jazz had to say.

"You changed, as you said ta Skyfire. But he hasn't, and considering how he reacted ta some vidfiles, not ta mention that he locked himself in his quarters for an Earth week, he's not quite ready ta accept that time hasn't stood still for you. You got priorities and responsibilities that go far beyond what you had as a scientist. You know that you're not who you were when he knew you. You hold the same principles, but you've also accepted that you've been through so much there isn't any going back ta what used ta be."

He smiled, with a sad edge in it this time. 'War does that ta a mech, after all," he finished.

"Life does that to a mech," whispered Starscream.

"That too," Jazz agreed. "In any case, yeah, I do think it might be better for him ta leave, get his head on straight and see what the universe has become. He needs that for now. And I wish him the best of luck, if you can believe that."

"But you don't think I should go with him, do you?"

Jazz's features became carefully blank now. "I think going with him just because you feel sorry for him ain't a good idea," he replied. "Neither is leaving just because mechs here are making you crazy with their behavior right now. But staying due to feeling obligated ain't much better."

He leaned forward. "Still, I can well understand the desire ta keep a friend from getting lost in their own head." He smirked knowingly. "So that said, I have a third option for you ta consider, if you're willing ta hear it."

Starscream, somewhat reeling inside from all he'd just heard, nodded. It couldn't hurt to hear Jazz out, he decided.

"I'm listening."

"Are you sure about this?" Optimus Prime looked up from the datapad Starscream had handed him.

"I am," Starscream said firmly.

It had been about four Earth days since Jazz's visit, and Starscream had spent a lot of that pondering the other mech's advice:

"You've built up a reputation here. Not all of it good, by some mechs' standards, but you've really gained some respect in most's opinion. I'd say you've more than earned some time away."

"Time away?"

Jazz grinned now. "Yeah. Humans call it a vacation. You're taking some time off, getting away for a bit, letting things settle down, helping a friend...Granted, we can't all do that, war ta be fought and all, but you've gotta good reason, so..."

"You're saying to ask for a temporary leave of absence to accompany Skyfire," Starscream said slowly, realizing where Jazz was going with this.

"Yep," the smaller black and white mech agreed. "Just give it maybe a few standard months for things ta settle down. That way, you can help out Skyfire and get him settled down somewhat, then get back. I know Jack's got something in the works with, and I think it would be nice ta have someone around ta make sure it's not explosive, you dig?"

Jazz had left soon after that, and Starscream had spent most of the next few days considering what he'd had suggested to him. At first, he hadn't been sure what to make of it, admittedly. But when he thought about it, he couldn't deny it made a strange sort of sense. It would certainly be a compromise between the parts of him that were torn, he admitted.

And it hadn't hurt that the night before, he'd had a very curious encounter with Sideswipe...

"Heard you talked with Skyfire."

Starscream, who'd been walking back to his room from Monitor Duty, startled at the sound of the unexpected voice, and turned around.

"Sideswipe, I see Ratchet released you."

"Yeah, yesterday," the red frontliner replied with a grimace. "Sunny'll be let out tomorrow. Your old buddy packs a punch."

Starscream cocked his head to the side. "He can when he's sufficiently irritated," the jet agreed. "But I'm sure you weren't looking for me just to say that."

The other mech fidgeted for a moment, then let out a heavy huff. "Yeah," the usually jovial mech replied. "He said you defended me to Skyfire. When you talked to him in the brig."

"I did," Starscream confirmed, starting to have an idea of where this was going.

Sideswipe lowered his head to stare at the floor. "I just wanted to know why you defended me like that," he muttered.

"If Jazz told you exactly what he was told by Trailbreaker," Starscream said simply, crossing his arms on his chest, "then you should know exactly why."

Sideswipe grimaced. "Yeah, he did," the frontliner confirmed. "But it doesn't seem right somehow. You should be pretty slagged off and holding it over all our heads. And enjoying seeing us get beaten to slag. You're not the kind to forgive and forget, Starscream."

Starscream was startled by the open admission. Not once since Skyfire's arrival had any Autobot who'd disparaged him in the past made any effort to admit they'd been wrong. Now he was being approached by Sideswipe, resident prankster, all-around friendly mech and one of his most extreme tormentors and hearing him come right out and say just that.

And once more, it seemed he had Jazz to thank for this. Maybe the other mech had been right after all, he mused.

As much as it shook him, though, he knew better than to let anyone else see that. But maybe it wouldn't hurt to acknowledge the admission. He knew better than anyone what it cost to back down on a belief or situation.

He let out a soft huff. "You're right. I'm not," he replied. "But I've lived and worked alongside you for thousands of our years, Sideswipe. I might not like you, but I do understand the value of loyalty to one's comrades. Even if they don't expect the same from me. Especially if they don't," he finished harshly.

Sideswipe flinched, and Starscream knew he'd made his point. "Is that all?" he asked, more neutrally.

Sideswipe's expression went carefully blank for a moment as he looked away. When he looked back at Starscream there was an odd expression in his optics. "If you ever need help with the minis, just let me know," he said, this time with a little more fierceness to his voice.

Then, without another word, he turned and walked away.

That encounter had been what he really needed to confirm what he'd already been leaning towards, and seemed to underline Jazz's words about allowing time to settle things down. Sideswipe's words hadn't been what Starscream would call a complete apology, but were likely as close as he'd ever come. And Starscream highly suspected that Sunstreaker would be following his Twin's lead.

But that was for the future to determine, Starscream thought, as he focused his attention on the here and now.

"Optimus," he began quietly, "you know how it's been around here since Skyfire came here. Things have become very unsettled, and things need to start going back to normal. Or at least a certain degree of normal. And while both of us are here, that can't be done.

"It's not like I'll be gone forever," he went on, "but this will at least give things a chance to settle down. Allow mechs to accept the new facts, and let them make their own decisions. Right now, my presence is a distraction."

Optimus let out a heavy huff from his vents. "I would have released you from your oaths as an Autobot," he said quietly. "You've been cleared, and I know you haven't always been happy here, Starscream."

Starscream nodded. "I know. But being an Autobot has been a part of my identity for a long time. For most of my life, in fact," he went on. "I don't think I could give it up forever if I wanted to." He smirked. "Besides, I make your lives interesting, admit it."

Optimus laughed. "No, I can't deny that part, " he replied. "And I also can't deny you've earned this time to escape. All I ask is that you keep in contact while you're away, and give us notice when you're on your way back."

"I will," Starscream said with a nod. He rose from his seat. "Permission to leave, sir?"

"Permission granted, old friend," Optimus replied. "And may the winds guide you safely."

Starscream felt a surge of emotion at those words. "And you as well," he whispered, then turned to leave.

Thank you, Optimus Prime, Starscream thought as he left the office.

For everything.

"I heard you were leaving."

Starscream, who'd been getting things put away and packed up for his upcoming journey, looked up at the sound of the voice. "Yes, Mirage," he said quietly. "I am. I assume Jazz filled you in on everything?"

"He did," the former noble replied. His features darkened. "I won't say I'm happy about it, though."

"Neither were Wheeljack and Ratchet," Starscream replied. It had been hard to let them know of his decision, and their hurt reactions hadn't been unexpected. "But they understood, once they knew why."

"I, too, understand," Mirage answered. He shook his head. "But it doesn't feel right somehow. You've just been cleared, and now..."

"I plan to return, Mirage," Starscream reassured the other mech. "I only intend to be gone for about half a stellar cycle. It won't be forever. And if it helps," he said, a wicked gleam in his optic, "I left a crate of my null bombs in the lab for your use while I'm gone."

Mirage's features lightened up now and he laughed. "I will let Jazz know. He rather enjoyed using them when we went to deal with Shockwave."

"I'm sure he did," Starscream replied, with a small smile of his own.

"So when are you leaving?" Mirage asked.

"Tomorrow at sunrise," Starscream replied. "The Rec Room is now fully repaired, and Skyfire's been released to his rooms. He's preparing as we speak."

The other mech nodded.

"I will see to it your quarters are left untouched during your absence," Mirage promised. "And on that note...," he reached into his subspace, and rifled around for a moment before pulling out a cube of some very dark looking energon, "allow me to share a drink with you before you go. For old time's sake."

Starscream stared at the cube. "Is that high-grade?" he asked, unable to believe what he was seeing.

Mirage made an affirmative sound. "Indeed. I was saving it for the end of the war, but Primus alone knows when that will be, so seeing off a friend will have to do."

Starscream's optics brightened, knowing what a gift was being made. Mirage had little left from the past, and this was obviously something he had cared about. "I accept," he said softly.

Mirage grinned, and walked over to Starscream's desk where he set down the cube. He then pulled out two smaller drinking containers, and poured the high-grade into them. Once done, he picked them up and handed one to Starscream, then he held up his own.

"To a safe journey and safe return," the spy said softly.

Starscream tapped his container against the other's and smiled.

"To a safe journey and safe return," he replied.

"Lovely morning, isn't it?"

Starscream startled, but smiled as he recognized the voice of the mech coming up behind him. "Rest well, Skyfire?" he asked. "And yes, it is."

Skyfire nodded. "I did," he replied easily. Glancing towards the eastern sky towards the sunrise, he flicked his wings. "I just wish..."

Starscream flicked his own wings. Skyfire had been somewhat disappointed to learn that Starscream would only be with him for a short time, but had seemed to accept it when the Seeker had pointed out once more that he did have responsibilities that he couldn't leave behind.

"I'll help you find your kin," he'd promised. "And now you know where I am, you can come visit."

Even with that, though, it seemed that Skyfire wasn't fully reconciled to the idea. There was a part of Starscream that was admittedly annoyed by that, but he pushed it down, knowing that it wouldn't be fair to Skyfire.

"You know I can't stay with you forever," the Seeker replied quietly. "And you know why."

A weary look appeared briefly on his features. "I do, but I can still wish otherwise," he replied.

He turned and looked at Starscream. "Shall we be off, then?"

Understanding the change in subject for what it was, Starscream nodded. "Let's go."

Skyfire stepped forward, and transformed, then lowered his ramp for Starscream to board.

As the Seeker stepped forward, though, he couldn't help but turn around to take one last glimpse of the Ark...

And froze.

There, standing in the doorway, was Prowl.

The former Enforcer just stood there, doorwings held stiffly, his features impassive. Starscream found himself wondering what the mech was doing there, but had a feeling he wouldn't get an answer when he asked.

Then Prowl did something unexpected. He nodded, and his doorwings flicked in the gesture used to wish another winged Cybertronian farewell.

Then he stepped back into the shadows of the doorway, but Starscream had a feeling that Prowl was still watching. He may not have apologized, but perhaps he'd done some thinking, Starscream mused. And maybe Jazz had done some working on him, too.

In any case, it was time to go. Starscream flicked his own wings in the gesture of farewell, then turned and stepped up the ramp into Skyfire's hold.

As Skyfire took off, Starscream off-lined his optics.

Goodbye, my friends.

As Skyfire broke the atmosphere and into the stars beyond, Starscream smiled.

He was going, but he would be back one day. He knew he would.

And that's a promise.

A/N2: And here we are at the end. Has been a long ride, but has been an enjoyable one. Story has been a learning experience in many ways, but it has been a rewarding one, too. Thanks to all those readers who have followed me from start to finish (though I can't imagine many of them are left from when I began at FFnet), and those who came in during the run and stayed around to see how things played out.

And now we have come to the end of our long trip into this AU. I hope you all enjoy how this ends. It wasn't an easy ending to write, but I felt it the most realistic way.

There is not going to be a follow-up to this story. After 8+ years, I think that while it is possible I could go on with a continuation or sequel, I also find that I'm ready to call it a night. But do feel free to imagine any possible futures you like. And if one does feel they want to write a follow-up or sequel to this, I will only request that permission be asked, considering that I do have a personal OC in the story.

Thank you all, and goodbye. At least for this story. ^_^