Cybertron, Science Academy
Along with the myriad official rules that governed life in the Science Academy, there was one, unwritten and unspoken, that was almost more powerful than anything that could bring disciplinary action, enforced as it was by the subtle responses of hundreds of cycles of students. It was more a part of the culture of the labs than anything else, and Skyfire had long been uncomfortable with it. On the surface, it was not onerous. After all, no mech or femme appreciated interference in their independent work, and perhaps that was how it had started. But simple non-interference had long ago tuned to something more dangerous, as now, no matter how dangerous the situation might become, no student would speak up when they saw a portion of an experiment about to go wrong.
Skyfire had seen explosions and noxious emissions begin out of carelessness that a single phrase might have stopped -- and just as often seen the injured student be roundly mocked for having created the problem, rather than given any assistance. Not all that long ago, no one had been able to use the lab for three joors because of lingering corrosive gasses from one such mistake. In the back of his processor, he blamed that event for his pause in front of another student's bench. His optics had caught the Seeker student lifting one beaker from the rack that would not mix at all well with the chemical composition Skyfire had already noticed in the main mixing vat.
His pause drew the Seeker's attention, and sharp optics flicked up to his as his strident voice demanded, "What do you want?!"
Words had never been Skyfire's strong suit, and in the face of angry, tempestuous fields and sharp amber optics he was even more lost for them. His optics flicked to the uplifted beaker and then to the vat wordlessly. The Seeker's optics followed his own, and Skyfire registered a minor blip of … frustration?… in the other's fields, before he irritably put it down and reached for a more suitable material. He slipped away quickly, rather than draw more ire from the other student, putting the incident from his processor to concentrate on his own tasks.
A shadow falling across his work pad, even remaining there, was easy to ignore. The jangling sensation of another mech's fields invading his space was not as easy to ignore, and Skyfire looked back and to his side. Standing between him and the room's main lighting was the Seeker from earlier in the lab, amber optics flicking with white, matching the nature of his fields.
"Why did you stop?"
He hadn't anticipated that question -- hadn't anticipated seeing the Seeker again at all -- and Skyfire searched quickly for an answer that would fulfill his obligation to respond. "I did not wish the lab to be closed again, even temporarily." That was true, if not all of the truth.
Instead of turning away, the Seeker flicked disbelief through his fields, optics watching him. "You should stick to truth-telling, as your fields give away more than you think they do."
"As much as yours indicate a very hyper, ill-at-ease nature?" Skyfire asked blandly, full truth in every word.
To his surprise, the Seeker flickered amusement all through his energies, then shifted to bring their optics to an even level. "That is better. I am designated Starscream."
"Skyfire." Now he was curious; why would such a bluntly unflattering assessment amuse this Seeker? Mechs that carried the full weight of the upper echelons of the Seeker hierarchy, as Starscream's designation glyph implied he did, were usually very prickly about how they were perceived, and quick to answer any insult.
"I have a project in mind, but it is going to require a sharp optic and good sense of timing on multiple levels. Would you care to provide that -- so that the labs do not get closed, even temporarily?" Starscream offered, his optics glinting with humor and -- was that challenge? Skyfire let his sensors take in the Seeker a little more fully, but now those fields were deceptively still.
"I am certain you can have any partner you chose," Skyfire demurred, uncertain if he wished to work with such a confusing, sharp-tempered mech.
"Then you will! Because I choose you. First thing next lab cycle." With that, and not allowing for any disagreement, Starscream turned on his thrusters and was walking away, leaving Skyfire perplexed.
Little could he know that Starscream was only just beginning to perplex him, as he would continue to do for their long association.
Skyfire kept a hand firmly on Starscream's shoulder, restraining him from going after the trio of native mechs. "Starscream." He kept his voice level and low on the designation, trying to draw his attention. Starscream, of course, kept spewing insults in multiple dialects, some of which made Skyfire's audials want to self-censor the inputs rather than retain the phrases. "Starscream." To punctuate that iteration, Skyfire squeezed his digits just slightly, a fraction of the pressure he could bring to bear, but just enough to ping Starscream's HUD with potential damage warnings.
The pressure stopped his partner for a moment, as Skyfire had known it would. Harm (or threatened harm) to Starscream's plating was one of the few things that could check Starscream from an intent to do damage to others. The minor fact that logic decreed that if Starscream did in fact engage his temper physically, of course his plating would be damaged did not seem to matter to the Seeker's quick temper. As would Skyfire's, which Starscream did occasionally have the grace to apologize for.
"He insulted you!" Starscream snapped, turning to face his much larger exploring partner.
"I am not upset by his words," Skyfire pointed out, though that had to be obvious.
"You should be!"
Starscream's fields were a lightning storm of emotions, and Skyfire tried hard to discern the full meaning behind them before Starscream could settle them and 'go blank' as Skyfire had termed the Seeker's ability -- when he tried -- to hide all of his emotions. Most, Skyfire corrected himself. The 'blank' was always a mask over his waiting and planning. However, Starscream surprised him. He was not controlling his fields into blankness so much as letting them shout one thing.
"Because you deserve better than you put up with, and I am tired of you taking that kind of dreck!" In that burst of words there was the sense of a fiercely protective field reaching out to wrap around Skyfire, as if Starscream could shield him from harm.
Some cycles, Skyfire was convinced he would never, ever truly understand Starscream. He really wasn't worth any kind of violence over mere words.
The planet was trying to eat Skyfire's partner. That was the only way to describe the way that the ground had shaken and wrenched itself apart directly under Starscream's pedes, too quickly for even that nimble Seeker to kick in his heel thrusters for escape from the planet's heavy gravity.
Skyfire struggled to maintain his own hover -- never a good tactic for his mass in mechanoid form -- as he held tight to Starscream's upthrust hands. The chasm had ground to a much thinner fissure just as the Seeker had reached a point where his pedes were nearly at what had been ground level prior to the upheaval. 'Nearly' was not 'at', and his partner was thoroughly trapped.
"Starscream, be very still," Skyfire said steadily, even as his sensors registered an aftershock beginning to vibrate through the strata beneath them. The damage that could cause his partner...
"How can I -- slag!" Starscream had looked up mid-complaint about that request to see that Skyfire was pulling his laser rifle. Thankfully for Skyfire's processor stability, Starscream froze, holding tight to the one hand that was his life-line, while Skyfire aimed most carefully. The ensuing blast vaporised most of the entrapping rock, and led to a yelp from Starscream. Skyfire winced; he really had tried to allow for the placement of Starscream's pedes to keep from hurting his partner, but he was able to jerk Starscream upward, away from the planet's grip.
"I hurt you," Skyfire said repentantly, just as Starscream's thrusters sputtered to life, freeing Skyfire of some of his weight.
"It's only a pede!" Starscream told him, pushing upward even as Skyfire tried to increase his own altitude.
As protective of his own frame and appearance as Starscream was, that confused Skyfire further. He thought more on that as both air-frames were finally able to get enough clearance to safely separate and transform for true flight.
::The larger moon of the fourth planet seemed very stable. We can repair there,:: Skyfire sent to his partner, wanting to make amends for the miscalculation.
::Once we are in space, I will dock, and we will go! I do not wish to linger in this system.:: Starscream's tone made it clear he would not take no for an answer, but at least within Skyfire's hold he would not be stressing his frame further. It would have to do, even if it seemed at odds with Starscream's typical behavior.
Unless... ::Are you angry that I had to intervene?::
There was a long pause on their channel as both were buffeted by the erratic air currents on their climb. They were not distracting enough to keep Starscream from speaking had he chose to, but Skyfire knew if he pressed before Starscream chose to answer, the currents would be blamed. Eventually, just before they broke out of the atmosphere, Starscream was willing to reply.
::Anyone else, I would be. But I know I will have to save you next time, and that makes it quite fair.::
Skyfire thought the words did make sense, but something under them, half-hidden in the phrasing, did not. He flicked an interrogatory glyph, undefined, at his partner, letting his curiosity show.
::I chose you, you are mine, and therefore you are allowed to be stronger,:: Starscream sent when Skyfire pressed that again.
It did not settle Skyfire, but he knew it was all he would get from his whimsical partner. Perhaps, one cycle, Starscream would even say why he had chosen Skyfire. That cycle was not this one, and Skyfire found himself dwelling on the mystery once again.
Mostly, they let him be, either from distrust or respect, depending on which mech was involved.
He could not even blame them, having seen for himself that the mech he had once allied with was not one to be respected any longer. Yet... none of them seemed to even know that Starscream had once been far more than the whipped mech of a raving megalomaniac. Even Perceptor, who was vastly educated and a delight to speak with, had no idea that Starscream had once been a prominent name in the Academy of Science.
How had it come to pass that none of their joint works had survived? Why had Starscream allowed himself to be made over as a brute fighter? Where had all of his shining brilliance gone?
None of it made any sense, but then... what of Starscream ever had?
Skyfire remained, alone, trying to fathom answers that could never be his.
Then another craft approached, on a vector from more civilized regions of space. Skyfire tracked it after the first ping against his hull, but he knew that his mass registered as nothing more than a derelict, given the low power-consumption cycle he was using.
What he had not anticipated was the craft suddenly course-correcting to a direct intercept. What few vessels had passed near to him had left him there, respecting the apparent death of a ship within space and refusing to pillage what they'd seen -- or so Skyfire had fancied on each near encounter.
He prepared to cycle up shields and weaponry, on the off-chance this was an attempt at salvage from him.
That voice, that frequency... was it truly Starscream? How was that even possible, when Skyfire knew the war had experienced a crucial battle so long ago, killing most of those Skyfire had ever known with any real degree of intimacy?
::You cannot ignore me!:: Starscream snapped across the channel.
Yes, it truly was. Reluctantly, Skyfire prepared to meet his one-time partner, having only known him as an enemy since thawing from the ice.
::Oh stop bristling at me! The war is long over, and I came looking for you!::
That did not compute at all, but Skyfire opted not to drain his resources more than he had to. ::I should trust you on that matter?:: he responded, receiving silence that was as crushing as a gravity well near a gas giant. Starscream cut his own power, applying judicious thruster bursts to negate his inertia, and came to a stop near enough that his fields barely touched Skyfire's.
Starscream, who had been able to hide all of himself but his calculation, was teeming with nervous energies throughout his fields, and when he did send again, it was hesitant.
::I came. As I wished to eons ago, the first time I lost you. Can you not at least trust that?::
Skyfire wanted to deny Starscream, wanted to demand retribution on behalf of the innocents, but in truth, he also wanted to not be alone. If Starscream could be hesitant, did it mean they could learn one another again?
::Skyfire... the war is over, many are extinguished, and I find myself missing something that no amount of ambition has ever managed to fill within me,:: Starscream sent at last, once Skyfire's fields had synced with his enough that they were in contact without conflict, all along the edges of their fields.
::So you think I can fill that?::
::You always did.::
Skyfire's fields relayed the burst of confusion those words caused, before he carefully schooled them back to neutrality. It was something he'd learned from Starscream himself, and the Seeker knew it. Tiny thruster puffs pushed Starscream even closer, their fields meshing more solidly than they had since before that last exploration flight ended.
::I never understood,:: Skyfire offered, wondering if Starscream would finally tell him why he'd made that choice so long ago.
::Neither did I, until you weren't there, and I realized how empty I was with only sycophants and threats around me.:: Starscream's voice was soft across the comm, modulated carefully to be pleasing, not harsh and strident. ::You never saw me as anything but what I most wanted to be. A scientist on his own path, just as you were. More, you did not seek to leash me other than to help me stay on that path, while others... well, they never saw me as you did.::
The answer was confusing, but when had Starscream ever been anything but?
::What do you want from me now?:: Skyfire cautiously asked.
::I hear this region is very lightly explored, with intriguing evolutionary patterns,:: Starscream sent, traces of arrogance and humor mixed together, haughtily implying that they were the right combination to study such things.
Skyfire might not understand, but he was willing to start trying to once again.