Saturday, September 15th, 2012 12:20 pm
Title: A Wing and a Prayer - Chapter 13 (Read or Download at AO3)
Pairing: Skyfire/Silverbolt

Summary: The problem with falling in love with an Aerialbot is that his brothers are pretty much part of the package. And the problem with falling in love with someone who has unfinished business from his past is that sometimes the unfinished business is Starscream...


A Wing and a Prayer
Chapter 13


Autobot City was still a long way from being an actual city, but now the main Autobot force had relocated here, there were plenty of eager hands to help with construction. Skyfire was amazed by how fast the work was progressing. It helped that their initial blueprints had been so detailed - they had to be, given that Optimus wanted the city to be able to transform independently for better defence - so now it was largely a matter of joining the dots. Initially, personal quarters were being put together in a central cluster near the rec room, but Skyfire knew that when the city was finished, there would be a number of residential areas to choose from.

He liked the idea of living in one of the tower complexes that would stand in the centre. They had been patterned after similar apartments on Cybertron, and with the Aerialbots - and the handful of other flying Autobots - in mind. Quick access to the sky was something Skyfire was beginning to crave like never before.

It wasn't that he was unhappy - in fact, he thought that the last few months had been the happiest he could remember since long before the ice. With Autobot City well underway, he had time to pursue his own projects again, and even the frequent air patrols didn't frustrate him the way they once had. He never lacked for company, whether it was the excitable, tumultuous presence of the Aerialbots or the steadier companionship of Perceptor or Silverbolt. As for Silverbolt… Skyfire didn't have words to express what he felt. Time spent with Silverbolt was filled with a quiet joy.

It was time spent apart from him that was the problem. When Skyfire wasn't distracted by Silverbolt, Silverbolt's brothers, or one of his other friends, he was conscious of a dark uneasiness beneath what should have been perfect contentment. Some of it he recognised: it had a distinctly Starscream shape to it and he did his best not to let it preoccupy him. The rest… he wasn't sure he could put words around it. Except that sometimes he didn't recognise his own life, wasn't sure how he'd ended up with such a web of friendship and love around him - and rather than feeling gladness, he suffered a tightening sense of containment.

He'd left the Aerialbots in the rec room, pleading a need to finish some things in his lab, but as much as anything, he'd just needed to get away. Even from Silverbolt.

The lab wasn't really his yet, since he was sharing it with Perceptor and Wheeljack - it wasn't even really a lab, just a space that would one day be the mess hall, furnished with rough workbenches made of empty crates and pieces of sheet metal, and stacked with the equipment that had been shipped over from the Ark so far. He'd hoped it would be empty, but Perceptor was busy in one corner, transformed to make use of his microscope and muttering happily to himself. Skyfire hesitated in the doorway, almost wanting to turn and go to his own quarters, even though he had nothing there to work on. Then he shook himself. What was wrong with him at the moment? He'd never had a problem with Perceptor's company. He didn't have a problem with it, he decided, and headed for his own pair of benches.

"Good morning," Perceptor said, swivelling his lens towards Skyfire.

"How are the samples looking?"

"Very good, though I do say so myself." Perceptor shuffled back from the bench and transformed, stretching in a distinctly human way. Skyfire smiled; they had all picked up far more habits from their organic allies than anyone would admit. "The moons are looking like a better and better prospect. There's a much higher proportion of hard metals than I'd expected; if the base is dug in below the surface it should prove very defensible even if the Decepticons discover our activities immediately."

"That's good news." Skyfire pulled his toolbox towards him and opened it. On the bench was the energon siphon he had been working on since Cybertron. Optimus Prime had given enthusiastic approval for the project; apparently Skyfire wasn't the only one who found their current diet lacking. "What about volatiles?"

"There may be some closer to the core, but I haven't found much evidence of them in the surface samples. I suspect we'll have to ship them in."

Skyfire nodded absently, listening but already half-absorbed in his own work. One of Optimus Prime's long term strategies involved establishing bases on Cybertron's moons to try and counteract the Decepticons' increasing hold on the planet. The moons were composed of waste metal from various construction projects on Cybertron itself; they were essentially giant floating slag heaps.

"We'll have to get hold of them first. We can hardly start mining Earth for materials, and I don't suppose Iacon's refineries have any left."

"Ah, well, there have been some interesting discussions on that point." Perceptor wandered over to watch as Skyfire picked up a small welder and continued where he'd left off with the compression pump. "You should talk to Chip when you have the chance. This new Earth Defence Committee of theirs has been busy getting co-operation from the nations with a stake in extraterrestrial exploration. I believe there's a plan in the works to assist human exploration of the rest of their solar system in return for mining rights on some of the gas giant moons."

"Really?" Skyfire put down the welder, interest piqued. "I hadn't heard anything about that. It would certainly solve some of our resource problems."

"Chip put the idea forward while you were on Cybertron, and he's been too busy to stop by since. He definitely wanted to talk to you about it though. You're the obvious candidate to work with the committee."

"I'd certainly appreciate the chance to get off-planet more often…"

"I thought you might." Perceptor was still examining the energon siphon, but Skyfire caught a flicker of mingled sympathy and concern in his field. "I know how you get when you're stuck in one place for too long."

Skyfire flinched, though he knew the comment was meant with the best of intentions. It was too close to that darkness hiding behind his thoughts lately - and reminded him vividly that Perceptor had been witness to other things Skyfire would have rather stayed buried in his past. Things like Starscream's ruthless abuse of Academy politics and single-minded pursuit of the grants and permits that would get them off-planet. Things that had torn into Skyfire's conscience, but that he had gone along with because he couldn't be trapped on Cybertron with no hope of leaving, he just couldn't resign himself to that fate…

Perceptor caught the reaction and shot an apologetic glance at him. "I didn't mean--"

"I know. Do you mind if I get on with this? I'd like to finish today or tomorrow."

"… of course."

Perceptor went back to his samples. Skyfire picked up the welder again, but his attention was not on the work. He had to realign his seams so many times he might as well have left it for the day and come back when he could concentrate, but he forged grimly on. He needed the excuse to be alone with his thoughts for a while.

*

:It looks pretty good,: Air Raid said as they circled over Autobot City in a holding pattern. :D'you think they'll get the hangar finished before winter? It'd be nice not to get rained on while we're prepping.:

:It's not a top priority, sadly,: Silverbolt replied. He too was taking the opportunity to look over the city as they waited. :And I think the science wing is the next project.:

:That'll make Skyfire happy.:

:I'll say.: As they came around on another loop, Silverbolt opened up a second comm channel. :Fireflight, where are you?:

:Sorry! I'm just coming!:

:Hurry up, would you? I know we've got some time to spare but I'd rather we were in position ahead of schedule.:

:Bet he's been in the ducts again,: put in Air Raid. :What did you find this time?:

:Oh, it was really cool, there was an alligator and the human workers were really scared, but Beachcomber just picked it up, and it tried to bite his finger but I think it hurt its teeth because then it shut its mouth and wouldn't open it again and Sunstreaker wanted to keep it but Spike said--:

:Tell us later,: Silverbolt broke in gently. He wasn't really annoyed, but he was getting antsy waiting to set off on their mission. :Are you nearly in the air?:

:I'm just lifting-- whoa, eek, sorry Tracks! -- uh I'm just lifting off now, wow, I hope he's okay…:

:Did you forget to check your airspace again?:

:Maybe? But he's fine, he's just shouting at me on the comms-- I said I was sorry… maybe I'd better say it again…:

Fireflight rose from the city, quickly gaining height and speed to match theirs. A slight scuff of blue paint on his wing tip explained why Tracks might have a few words to say. Silverbolt considered opening a comm channel to apologise on Fireflight's behalf, but decided against it. Fireflight had to deal with his own mistakes, and he was definitely getting better at it.

:Come on then.: Silverbolt broke out of the holding pattern and climbed towards cloud level. He was dizzyingly aware of their height as always, but he pushed it aside, knowing that the clouds would block his view of the ground below and give him a sense of security. :Skydive, Slingshot, are you guys set?:

:We're good to go as soon as you reach the coast,: replied Skydive. :The human pilots say we'll have cloud cover the whole way there.:

:Great. I'll comm you when we're over land.:

They were inside the thick overcast now. Silverbolt could feel the damp of the clouds on his plating, but pressed onwards and upwards. A few seconds later, the greyness above them lightened, then thinned, and then suddenly they were flying beneath blue sky with the ruffled white tops of the cloud layer below them.

:Ah, that's better.: Air Raid rolled from side to side, enjoying the sun on his wings. :Sucks to be Slingshot and Skydive, staying under that lot.:

:They need the cover.: Silverbolt was monitoring his sensors carefully; without being able to see below the clouds, he had to calculate their position on his instruments. :We can't risk the convoy coming under attack, not when so many humans are involved.:

It was the biggest delivery of materials to Autobot City yet, including some much-needed microcomponents and a shipment of platinum that Skyfire was counting on. It was becoming harder and harder to hide the activity around the site, and soon even Hound's holograms wouldn't be able to conceal its location. Prowl had decided to consolidate as much as possible into this one shipment, making it easier to defend. The flip side was that if it did come under attack, they stood to lose a lot. Which was why Silverbolt was leading two of his brothers into a carefully crafted diversion.

They were to pick up a shipment of metal components - useful but not vital - from a factory in Europe. Jazz had arranged for their communications to be more careless than usual, hoping the Decepticons would pick up on it. His latest intel suggested that they had.

Although they were almost certain to come under attack, Silverbolt wasn't nervous about the mission. The factory was a military installation, heavily defended by human weaponry, and the humans in question had willingly agreed to help fend off any Decepticon involvement. Silverbolt's orders were to keep well out of reach of any Decepticons who came calling - the main purpose of the exercise was to have them focused on the factory while the Autobots' real concern, the materials shipment, was being transferred on another continent.

The Decepticon force on Earth was noticeably shrunken these days. By Prowl's calculations, the most they could spare for interception would be the Stunticons - and though Motormaster's gestalt was a formidable force, they often functioned poorly as a team. Silverbolt thought the human emplacements could handle them with assistance from the Aerialbots. He still would have felt happier if all five of them had been there - not least because they would then have been able to combine into Superion if necessary to counter Menasor - but the convoy needed air cover as well. In addition to sending Slingshot and Skydive to fly with the human pilots heading up the shipment, Silverbolt had posted Skyfire in a low geosynchronous orbit that would place him ready to dive into the atmosphere and come to the convoy's aid if there was trouble.

Silverbolt's sensors told him that they were now over water. The whole of the Atlantic lay between them and their target. He and his brothers could fly considerably faster than any human aircraft. They would reach their target within three hours. In the meantime he sent a quick update to Skydive, then did the same for Skyfire.

:It seems quiet up here,: Skyfire replied. :Except I caught a flash of something entering atmosphere over the North Pole. I was too low to see it properly around the curve of the planet. It could have been a meteorite, but I've notified Prowl.:

:Last I heard, all their space-capable troops were on Cybertron. Cosmos would have picked them up if they were coming in from outside the solar system, and Mirage would have reported the space bridge opening if they'd come in that way.:

:I know, but we've had a few instances lately of Decepticons turning up in places they weren't supposed to be.:

:I agree. Let me know if you see anything else.:

:Of course. Be careful, won't you? Don't do too good a job as bait.:

:We'll keep out of the way and let the human artillery cover us,: Silverbolt promised. :Our ETA is two hours, forty-seven minutes. I'll comm you and Skydive when we reach land.:

:Got it.:

It had been a while since Silverbolt had flown long-distance. He found he was enjoying it. Even when the clouds thinned out, the ocean beneath them was far less frightening than land - it was easy to lose his sense of scale and feel as though he were flying just above the water. The sun was bright and warm, and he chatted with Air Raid and Fireflight as they settled in to the flight. It almost felt like a holiday, though he was careful to keep his scanners running and his comm channels clear.

*

Later, Air Raid could pinpoint the exact moment everything went wrong.

It wasn't when the Stunticons showed up, because Silverbolt had expected that. And it wasn't when they combined into Menasor, because Silverbolt had expected that, too, and Air Raid knew what to do.

It wasn't even when Air Raid, busily harrying Menasor from behind, was caught in a hail of anti-aircraft fire, and Fireflight squawked an alarm over the comms as two unpleasantly familiar forms rose from cover to sit on his tail. As far as anyone knew the Combaticons should have been on Cybertron, but even then, Air Raid was sure they could handle it. The human artillery was incredibly efficient, keeping the Decepticons away from the factory. As soon as Silverbolt realised they were facing two full gestalts, he issued new orders that pulled the three of them back within the covering fire laid down by their allies. It was a siege situation now, but one in which they could hold out indefinitely. Once the shipment had been delivered safely, Skyfire would be able to bring them backup. They just had to be patient.

Air Raid had never been very good at being patient, but he entertained himself by taking pot shots at Onslaught (fragger had caught his tail fin with that first burst of fire) and taunting Blast Off and Blackout over the comms. They were doing okay. They'd get out of this.

The exact moment everything went wrong was when Astrotrain, Blitzwing and Octane came screaming down from high atmosphere, pouring a deluge of laser fire onto the Aerialbots from above. Each of them bolted in a different direction; they were sitting ducks and Air Raid knew the Triplechangers had the firepower to take them down fast if they didn't get out of range quickly.

:Get as high as you can and as far away as you can--: Silverbolt shouted over the comms, before cutting out abruptly.

He didn't just cut out on the comm. Their gestalt link flared and went quiet the way it did when one of them was unconscious. Wheeling through the sky, dodging fire from all directions, Air Raid tried desperately to catch sight of his brother. He thought he saw the Stunticons converging on a silver smear on the ground, but then Blackout was closing with him and Onslaught was plugging away with that terrible gun of his…

Air Raid never even saw the shots that knocked him out of the sky.

*

Silverbolt came back to consciousness knowing to the depths of his spark that he was in trouble. Even before he could fully comprehend his surroundings, he was aware that the sounds were all wrong. There was a hollow echo behind the gurgle and whirr of complex systems, and a sensation of pressure confirmed by his altimeter's hazy readings. He was below sea level.

He already knew he would see dull violet metal when he onlined his optics. He tensed, waiting for some acknowledgement of his awakening, but none came. Slowly, his optics recalibrated themselves. There was still no sound from anywhere nearby. Silverbolt pushed himself up on one elbow, braced for an attack.

He was alone in a small cell. His diagnostics were reporting damage, but the only wounds that had been at any risk of offlining him had been patched up. He ran his fingers over the unfamiliar welds, grimacing. He hated the idea that Hook or Scrapper had been at his systems.

The fact that they'd repaired him was a good sign, though. It wasn't uncommon for prisoners of war to be taken by both sides. What was unique to this particular conflict was that they were generally released quickly. Prisoners were costly to keep: they required energon and accommodation, both of which were at a premium on Earth. Optimus Prime would never have countenanced the killing of Decepticon prisoners; Megatron might have felt differently about the Autobots he captured, but considered them too valuable to deactivate. Prisoners could be traded for concessions, or for the release of one's own troops. Most of the Autobots had seen the inside of the Nemesis's cells at one time or another, and most of the Decepticons had been locked up in the Ark on occasion.

Currently the Autobots had no Decepticon prisoners. Which meant that whatever Megatron planned to bargain for was likely to be something the Autobots could ill afford. Silverbolt silently berated himself for getting captured, even though he knew the attack had been utterly unpredictable. How were the Decepticons getting their troops between Earth and Cybertron without passing through Cosmos's perimeter or using the space bridge? All signs pointed to a second space bridge somewhere the Autobots had yet to discover, but Skyfire, Cosmos and Omega Supreme had surveyed every square mile of the Earth's surface from space…

Thinking of Skyfire sent a pang through Silverbolt. He'd be worried. That thought led onto his gestalt. He'd known from the moment he awakened that none of them were nearby. That was a relief, but also concerning. He doubted Air Raid and Fireflight could have escaped the ambush, but if they'd been shot down, wouldn't they have been taken prisoner along with him? He tried his comms out of habit, but was unsurprised that they were all jammed. He tried feeling his way along the gestalt link - but his brothers were very far away. All he knew was that they were alive and conscious. At least, he consoled himself, they'd be able to tell the same about him.

Silverbolt sat up on the edge of the berth and immediately noticed one oddity: the cell was not bounded by a forcefield, but had a heavy iron door set in one wall. He had never been held on the Nemesis before, but he had dutifully read Jazz's briefing notes for all officers on the known layout of the Decepticon base. He was sure their cell block was similar to the Ark's, a series of open-fronted rooms with forcefields separating them from the corridor.

The berth was strange, too. It was set in the middle of the room, away from the walls, and Silverbolt was unsettled to see restraints at each corner - though he had not been tied down with them.

He had an idea of what that meant, but he flinched from accepting it. No Autobot had ever given information under torture. The Decepticons had eventually tired of it, except for occasional, sadistic acts of revenge - but Megatron had put a stop even to that once he'd realised that he could get more out of Optimus Prime if he promised delivery of prisoners unharmed. Would he make an exception if he felt there was more to be gained from it than from bargaining?

Crushing the panic that threatened to well up in his spark, Silverbolt forced himself to think back to the training he'd received from Jazz. He began to carefully shut down certain pain relays and to build in extra firewalls around his core functions. He had to go slowly - he wasn't able to code on the fly the way Skyfire could - but he remembered the instructions clearly enough to be confident they would work. Perhaps he was overreacting - probably if they'd meant to torture him he wouldn't have been permitted to awaken until they were ready - but he felt a little better once he'd finished.

Then he settled in to wait. And wait. And wait some more.

Almost four hours passed with no sound of approach, no comm contact, no indication that there was anyone but him aboard the Nemesis. Silverbolt caught himself imagining the base completely abandoned, deep below the water, himself locked in a room with no exit and no-one to hear him if he called out… He clamped down on the horror. He began going through flight exercises in his processor to keep himself distracted.

Finally, Silverbolt heard a door slide open and the sound of footsteps - two pairs - in the corridor outside. There was a pause as someone worked the door lock - a big mechanical thing by the sound of it, rather than an electronic code pad. Silverbolt had already considered and discarded the idea of rushing the door when it opened. There was no window to let those outside see him, but he'd spotted a camera in one corner that could easily be feeding images to a monitor just outside.

The door swung open, revealing Soundwave, gun in hand and trained on Silverbolt. Without a word, he stepped into the cell.

He was followed by Starscream.

Silverbolt bit back his reaction, silenced the urge to demand how the Pit Starscream was here on Earth when last reports had placed him firmly in Kaon, why he was here when he had seemed so thoroughly occupied by his projects in the Decepticon capital…

The smirk on Starscream's face answered that question and left Silverbolt cold and afraid, truly afraid, for the first time.

"So," said Starscream, pulling the door shut behind him and leaning against it with his arms folded and that triumphant smirk mocking Silverbolt as their optics locked. "I believe we have some… unfinished business."

- end chapter 13 -

Note: ... sorry. ;) Next chapter will be up next weekend!

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