The bridge was dim and quiet. That changed when Starscream stalked in, heels announcing his entrance with the sharp staccato strike of metal-on-metal.
The only illumination radiated from the tendrils that fed energon to the Nemesis’ central console and targeting arrays. Shadows hung from the corners like organic cobwebs, eating the gleam of burnished Cybertronian steel. Megatron stood ahead, his back to Starscream, facing the giant screens that plated the far wall. His spiked shoulders formed a brutal landscape, a terrain as unforgiving as his spark. His death-grey coloration – the same Starscream had taken on, after the abandonment of his trine – harked back to each mech he had killed on his quest for more power, more glory.
More, always more. In that, at least, they understood each other.
“Master!” snapped Starscream. He spat the word like venom, but it still left a filthy smear on his glossa.
“Starscream,” said Megatron. He twisted at the neck, just slightly; enough to appraise his approach with one glowing red eye. Checking for weapons, Starscream suspected. “Is there any particular reason why you are the only mech to show up on shift?”
Starscream didn’t slow his advance, storming up the elevated ramp to the podium from which Megatron liked to dictate his latest diabolical – or just plain demented – plots to the drones. On the rare occasion he took this post alone, the space always felt ginormous – as if Starscream was, as always, struggling to fill Megatron’s cloven footprints, which left a far larger stamp on the world than his own. This was a room built with Titans in mind: not just in scale but personality.
As it turned out, when you shared the stage with that same Titan, the available space felt quite inadequate.
Starscream refused to let this stop him. He stalked up to Megatron, not pausing until his pedes were less than a meter from Megatron’s own. In fact, he was so incensed by this latest humiliation that he didn’t even spare his usual concern for the radius of Megatron’s reach, and whether he was in danger of being manhandled.
“You,” he hissed, wings trembling in a high, offensive arc. “You! When were you intending to tell me that you were leaving?”
Megatron’s eyes widened. Not with confusion. With surprise.
Which meant Knock Out hadn’t been lying. Which meant he’d told the truth.
All too quickly, Megatron got a hold of himself. His optics slimmed to slivers of fire. “The doctor,” he snarled.
Starscream laughed, though it snagged on his vocaliser and came out a scoff. “Oh, don’t blame him. You two must be in close cahoots, after all, to share information of such pertinence to the continuation of the Decepticon cause with your CMO, rather than with your Second in Command. Primus knows, I wouldn’t want to get in the way of –“
“Stop.” The order fell from the warlord’s mouth, heavy with finality. Starscream’s jaw snapped shut, but it wasn’t wilful. His body simply placed Megatron’s authority above that of his own brain.
Self-preservation instinct. Stupid, ridiculous weakness.
He hated it; hated it. Every time Megatron snapped at him, it wasn’t just an affront to his pride. It was a reminder, as so many other things were, of where it had all gone wrong.
Once, he obeyed out of respect. Out of admiration. Now? In that jerky flinch and the panic that sprouted across his neural net, despite Megatron not lifting a single digit? Admiration and respect were nowhere to be found.
But Megatron wasn’t glaring. In fact, if Starscream didn’t know better, he’d read into his Master’s expression – the brows drawn close together, the scarred mouth tight as if in pain. And he’d intuit from this that Megatron too saw the ghost of everything they once were in Starscream’s cringing. And it doused his spark in icewater, too.
So what if it hurt him? So what, if it made him regret?
Megatron could win this war, and attain every power in the galaxy. Yet still, he would not be able to change the past.
Starscream shook his helm. "Forget it," he snapped. "Clearly, I have no cause to complain. It is you who lead, oh Mighty Megatron, and I who follow. Far be it from your humble servant to criticise your plans."
He was being too bold, he knew it. He hadn't spoken so candidly to Megatron in centuries. The insubordination sent a perverse thrill of glee through his circuits. It was almost enough to drown the jolt that shot up his back strut when Megatron took a heavy step forwards.
Starscream did his best to stand his ground. It had worked before, had it not? But his nerves betrayed him. He found himself craning rearwards, off-balance, his wings sliding down until their tips pointed at the floor.
"I-I-I'm sure you had a reason, after all, for withholding this from me. P-perhaps my Liege would care to regale me with it?"
Another step. Megatron's weight sent a subtle rumble through the support balustrades that underpinned the bridge. Starscream capitulated: a tiny, rearwards shuffle. His servos flexed, sharp claws ready to lash out at a moment's notice. If it came to it, he could swipe a cut across Megatron's faceplates. It might - might! - give him time to dive away...
Megatron's sneer was spark-chilling to behold - even to Starscream, the most common recipient of that expression over the past however-many millennia. "I'm disappointed," the giant mech growled.
Starscream gaped at his audactiy. "You?" he squeaked. Then, controlling his tight, high tone: "You are disappointed, Mega - Master?"
"Yes. That you would misinterpret my actions in such a way. That you would storm in here, like some stropping sparkling..." Megatron's voice waxed loud; he loomed over Starscream, hands clasped behind his broad back, putting their faces in a proximity usually reserved for biting. "And accuse me in such tones unbefitting to that of a subordinate. Perhaps -" His eyes shone hot as the Pit. "- I have been slacking on your discipline."
Starscream swore his knee joints went a little runny, as if he'd been dipped in the smelter. Did he slide back into their old game? Did he beg? Bide his time, lick his wounds, bottle this shame up in his tank to sour like acid, until he could once more spit it in Megatron's face?
Or did he, as he had in Megatron's cabin, stay standing?
But this was not Megatron's cabin. This was not an intimate space, crowded only with pleasant old memories. This was where Megatron ruled, and Starscream slunk to do his bidding, no matter how reluctantly, plotting all the while how to slit the cabling that connected his Master's idiot helm to his spark.
Starscream couldn't be strong. Not here, in Megatron's domain.
He slid to his knees, a movement fluid from long practice. His drooping wings scraped the floor, and Starscream detested the twittering rattle as they shivered, almost as much as he detested the crack in his voice.
"Mercy, Master! I spoke out of turn!"
His beseeching optics had no visible impact. Megatron stood impassive. Starscream was horribly aware of his fusion cannon. How easy it would be for him to lift it. To power it, to fire off a shot - another clean kill for the Slagmaker, the monger of Cybertronian's greatest civil war…
He did the only thing he could. The only thing he could ever do, in the face of Megatron's tantrums. He threw himself forwards, face to the floor, on level with his master's hooved feet. If Megatron was to shoot him, at least let him deliver the finishing blow to the back of Starscream's helm. At least let him not have to see death coming.
But no agony burnt through Starscream's chassis; no smoking bolt made its home in his spark.
"Cease your nonsense," said Megatron, quietly. Tiredly. Sounding every one of his years.
"What else would you call it? This pathetic sponging. It isn't befitting, for a mech of your station."
It was also unfitting for a mech of his station to be sent to the medbay every cycle. To be beaten and berated in front of the troops he was supposed to command, made a laughing stock, the joke of the entire war effort. Starscream, Megatron's chew-toy. That was how any new recruits - if there ever were any - would know him! Not as Starscream, Second in Command!
And now Megatron dared tell him he acted beneath himself?
"You ask me what I call this?" he asked, quietly, still glaring at the floor. "I call it survival."
Megatron could plant one of those giant pedes upon Starscream's head and crush it down so his cheek lay flush to the floor. He could apply more weight, and more, and more still, until his helm plates discovered their buckling point. He could run him through, skewer him on an armblade, or else put his fusion cannon to good use.
He did none of it. He just stood there, over him, the low huff of his vents the only sound.
"Why," said Megatron, his voice almost as bass as the rumble of thrusters in the Nemesis's bowel, "do we always end up here, you and I?"
"I don't think you'd like my answer," said Starscream, because it was true, then winced and braced himself for pain.
If anything, Megatron seemed to be consider his response. "It was you who stormed in here, demanding a confrontation. And yet you still seek to blame me?"
Starscream bristled. "And it was you," he retorted, pushing back onto his knees and folding his arms over his chest, "who didn't inform me in a timely fashion of your plans! Who chose to share tactical information with that notorious gossip of a medic, before you thought to fill me in! Who -"
"I did inform Knock Out first. When he was mending the popped oil valve in my knee, in fact. I have been advised away from heavy impacts for the next few weeks."
"I told you so," muttered Starscream.
"But," continued Megatron, a little louder, after dispatching a glare hot enough to weld Starscream's mouth shut, "I only told him, because I had to ask him to prepare my flame for the long-distance spaceflight."
Starscream's mouth cracked open, but only for long enough to let a tiny "Oh," escape.
Megatron's glare didn't debate. "When you entered, you demanded to know when I intended to tell you. Now you have an answer: Tonight. I hoped for it to be a pleasant surprise.”
Starscream gawped. Then gawped harder, and more unattractively, at the hand Megatron held out, with the intent to...
Toss him off the Bridge? Grab him, hoist him up, and slap him back down onto the ground in a finishing move he'd trialled in the arenas of Old Kaon?
Or, perhaps, to help him to his feet.
"I intend to embark on a crusade," Megatron said, undaunted by Starscream's lack of a response. His empty hand remained outstretched. An offer, a silent oath. "I will journey to the far side of this galaxy, to summon the scattered Decepticon denizens, that they might convene on this planet and aid us in our quest for victory. And Starscream, I would have you assume command of the Nemesis, in my absence."
Starscream managed to wrestle his jaw shut before any drool leaked out. He examined Megatron's claws as if they were the implements by which he intended to attempt self-surgery. Then, equally tentatively, he lowered his own hand into the Warlord's grip.
He was heaved to his feet with embarrassing ease, no effort apparent on Megatron's face. "Does this please my Second?" Megatron asked.
"Y-yes Master! Indeed, it does."
Command of the Nemesis! Somehow, he'd been so drawn into his fury at the thought of another slight from his liege, that he'd overlooked Knock Out's comments on his ascension.
But it was true! Megatron really did intend to trust Starscream with this responsibility! This - this privilege! He would have the entire amassed forces of their fleet answer to him, and him alone!
Starscream's spark spun faster than a neutron star. It felt as if it were emitting pulses too, hot flares of radiation burning like supernovae in his chest.
Megatron's grin curled out of hiding. When he looked Starscream up and down - the high, confident set of his wings, the pauldrons back and the chest thrust out so that the Decepticon insignia flared brilliant red beneath the waxy bridge lights - Starscream didn't shy away. He stood proud, and let Megatron's gaze rove over him like a warm pair of hands, mapping old, familiar paths that had, just that morning, felt too sore to ever be traced again.
"That's better," his Master purred. Low, velvety. A voice that had caressed Starscream's audials on many a late night as he stayed up through the cycle to plot out the points of their early battle strategies, Megatron grumpily demanding that he leave it and return to their berth. A voice that had told him he was magnificent, as he rode Megatron's spike, fluttering and gasping, bowing over him like an acolyte at the temple of Primus, so that his every intake might siphon from Megatron's breath...
Starscream dipped into a hasty bow before his processor got carried away. "Will that be all, my Liege?"
He kept his head raised, eyes fixed on Megatron's - and saw the flash of disappointment there. As if Megatron had hoped that compliment would thaw him. As if he'd hoped Starscream would stay.
The two of them, on a deserted Bridge, no energon alert signals popping up on their scanner... Well. It'd been a very long time since Starscream had been fragged by someone high enough in rank to pin him face-first over a console.
No matter how tempting that image, his determination won out. He waited in his bow until Megatron made his reply - a short, curt dip of the chin - then unfolded and slunk to the door.
He couldn't let the old fool think he was that easy to charm, after all.