Wednesday, November 7th, 2012 03:35 pm
Title: A Wing and a Prayer - Chapter 18 (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...

Notes: Sorry for the late update, guys! I've unfortunately been fairly unwell for the last couple of weeks - the first time I thought I was getting better, I got worse again and had to have antibiotics, and then as soon as I finished those, I got really sick again really quickly. So now I have more antibiotics. Not fun! But I am up to robot romance today, so I'm getting this chapter out while I can. And there is yet more to come, don't worry. :)


A Wing and a Prayer
Chapter 18


The day they destroyed the space bridge, Optimus Prime ordered everyone in the city onto downtime except for the bare minimum needed to monitor the long-range defences. Red Alert wouldn't leave his post, naturally, and neither would Ultra Magnus, and Optimus himself only appeared briefly in the midst of the celebrations, but for everyone else it was an unprecedented holiday. With the space bridge gone, Megatron's forces could no longer reach Earth without passing through the intricate web of sensor arrays that Cosmos and Blaster had created around the planet. The Autobots would have enough warning to intercept the Decepticons at the point of their choosing - and to activate Autobot City's defences. Seaspray and Mirage's reconnaissance expeditions to the sunken Nemesis had registered no signs of activity, though they had yet to attempt to enter the base proper. Silverbolt and his team had scoured the planet for weeks before the attack, making sure there were no hitherto undiscovered reserves of Decepticon power. The Earth was, for the moment, safe.

And so were the Autobots. The noise and laughter in the large rec room was astounding - even overwhelming. Silverbolt looked for Hot Spot, but his friend had been dragged off by some of the Iacon 'bots - a pair of Triplechangers called Sunstorm and Springer who'd taken a liking to the Protectobot leader and his gestalt. Silverbolt couldn't blame them. His brothers were engaged in yet another drinking contest with the twins and Trailblazer, and even though Silverbolt knew that he would be the one dragging their sorry afts back to their quarters when they inevitably lost, he wouldn't have dreamed of stopping them.

There was more high grade than Silverbolt had ever seen. Apparently Ultra Magnus, now in charge of the daily running of Autobot City, had a surprisingly shrewd sense of forward planning. He'd ensured that there would be enough for this celebration when it came. Not only that, but the last arrivals from Iacon had included a couple of 'bots with experience in energon preparation. Small trays of gently glowing energon candies were being passed around. The older 'bots were treating them almost reverently, taking only one apiece and savouring it. Silverbolt had watched Fireflight try one earlier. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen his brother speechless for so long.

He remembered Skyfire picking through those dusty parts on Cybertron. His siphon had more than fulfilled its potential. Even their standard rations tasted better these days. Silverbolt had never even realised that he disliked the slightly oily undertone of raw energon until he'd tried the refined version.

His spark ached dully. He ignored it, along with the urge to slip away from the party. He couldn't leave yet - people were still coming up to congratulate him and praise his team. He seemed to be getting away so far with drifting around the room, never staying in one place for long enough to be noticeably isolated, never getting involved in any serious conversation - but his absence would be noticed if he left. And he didn't want to worry his brothers.

But the truth was, he didn't feel like celebrating. Even when he'd seen the space bridge explode under their combined fire, he'd felt only a trickle of grim satisfaction. He was more aware of the fact that their last direct link to Cybertron was now gone. The space bridge had been a potential escape route for the force stationed on the moons; now they would have to fly the gauntlet of Decepticon patrols and scouts between Cybertron and Earth if they wanted to come home.

After they'd landed, when everyone was still yelling and hugging and dancing around ludicrously (in Air Raid's case), he had been hit by the almost unbearable need to hear Skyfire's voice. He would have given anything in the world right then to be able to open a comm link to the moonbase and speak to him for even a few minutes. But the moonbase was still on one-way comm restrictions. Contact was few and far between. Skyfire had commed three times since he'd left - three times in six months. But after all, Silverbolt reminded himself often, the comms had to be rationed and other people wanted a chance to talk face to face instead of relying on letters.

Skyfire… didn't write often, either. Silverbolt knew he must be busy - everyone on the expedition was expected to do the job of two or more mechs. Regular datapackets were sent between Earth and Cybertron to enable status reports to pass between Optimus and Prowl. Anyone could include a personal message if they wanted. To start with, Silverbolt had written every time a datapacket was due out. He was starting to falter, these last few weeks. Skyfire's replies, when they came, were brief, and focused on details of the moonbase construction. He never wrote about himself or his thoughts. He never asked questions about Earth… or about Silverbolt's brothers… or about Silverbolt.

Silverbolt realised he'd come to a stop and lingered for too long. Someone was already approaching him. He relaxed fractionally when he recognised Bluestreak.

"So, some party, huh?" Bluestreak was holding a cube of high-grade, but Silverbolt was almost certain it was the same one he'd picked up at the start of the evening. "It's so weird having all these people here… what you think of the Iacon guys?"

They weren't really 'the Iacon guys', not any more - they were part of the Earth taskforce now. But they were still the newcomers to the Autobot base, and it gave Silverbolt a strange sort of jolt every time someone like Bluestreak treated him as one of the old guard.

"They seem fine. Springer's a bit…" He stopped, trying to find a diplomatic way of phrasing it. "… he's used to working on his own. He doesn't like orders much."

"Especially not from someone younger than him?" Bluestreak asked, a wry smile quirking his lips. "I get that. I'm supposed to be training some of them in marksmanship, but…"

Silverbolt nodded, knowing what he meant. The Iacon refugees seemed to divide the Earth Autobots into two categories - old and to be respected, or young and to be impressed. He was under no illusions as to which side of the line he fell on. But Springer was a professional soldier and he would take orders, no matter how much he resented it. He'd just argue constantly about them. Silverbolt could handle that - he wasn't a patch on Slingshot and Air Raid at their worst.

"It's strange..." Bluestreak went on quietly. "When we first woke up here, we figured all the people we'd known on Cybertron would be four million years older than us, that we'd have all this catching up to do... but in the end, so much of the planet shut down that they went into stasis only a few millennia after we did. So we've all stayed pretty much equal. Funny how things work out, isn't it?"

"I suppose so." Even that made him think of Skyfire - of how the world had not remained still for him, but moved forward and left him lost. "Do you - are there people in stasis you're waiting to see?"

"No."

Bluestreak's voice was very quiet, very matter-of-fact. Silverbolt glanced at him, surprised and suddenly worried that he'd given offence. Bluestreak caught the look and half-smiled, as if he was used to it.

"I joined the Autobots after the devastation of Praxus," he said. "Well, except really they took me in. I was… the only survivor. I didn't really have anywhere else to go, so I joined up."

"I… I didn't know. I'm sorry."

"It's okay. It's, kind of, one of those things that for a while everybody knew it, it was almost like being famous, but everybody tried not to talk about it, at least not around me - so after a while it turned into this sort of open secret. You know?"

"I know," said Silverbolt softly.

"Yeah, I thought you might." Bluestreak toyed with his half-drunk energon. "Hey, listen, if you ever - y'know, if you want someone to talk to - I'm actually a pretty good listener, believe it or not."

Other people had made similar offers, in more or less tactful fashion. Silverbolt found he didn't resent this one. He did believe Bluestreak was a good listener. His talkative nature couldn't quite hide the watchfulness in his optics or the way he picked up so easily and wordlessly on things - like Silverbolt's mood this evening.

"Thank you," Silverbolt said. "I'm… I don't really know what I want, yet."

"You're allowed to be angry, you know." Bluestreak wasn't looking at him; he was gazing out over the crowded room. "I mean, I don't know what happened exactly, and I kind of get the impression you don't either, but even if he had really good reasons, just upping and leaving like that… it's not okay. You're allowed to not be okay with it. Just, my opinion."

Silverbolt looked over at his brothers. They were having fun, but they hadn't quite been the same since Skyfire left. He'd affected them all - become a part of them. Now they were struggling to find their centre again, adjusting their orbits to account for the missing sixth.

"Thank you," Silverbolt said again, meaning it more than he could properly express. "I think maybe I needed to hear that."

*

Jazz had taken to turning up unannounced in Skyfire's doorway and talking at him until he gave in and took a break. It was driving Skyfire absolutely crazy, but at the same time he felt a reluctant gratitude for the interruptions. If it weren't for Jazz dragging him away from his quarters, he might never leave.

"Yo, did ya hear the news?" There was triumph in Jazz's voice as he swung into the small room. "They've done it - the Earth space bridge is down."

"Really?" Skyfire put down his datapad, willing for once to give Jazz his full attention immediately. "Did they disable it, or--?"

"Nope, total destruction. It ain't gettin' back up from that. We're havin' a toast in the rec room, if you wanna come."

Skyfire hesitated. He felt oddly awkward around the other members of the moonbase crew - as if he were there on false pretences, and everyone knew it. But it would be rude to hide in his quarters while the others were celebrating. He set aside the datapad, carefully disconnected the power source he'd been testing, and followed Jazz to the 'rec room'.

It wasn't much of a room, and to be honest none of them had much time for recreation, but at least it was big enough for Skyfire to feel comfortable standing up. The tunnels and rooms they'd hollowed out so far were cramped and claustrophobic. He often had to stoop, and he was developing an unpleasant ache in his camshafts from constantly working sitting down. No-one was especially comfortable in their cave-like lodgings, but Skyfire was also dealing with the intense claustrophobia brought on by being unable to get out and fly.

The rest of the moonbase crew were already gathered. Some miracle - or Jazz - had even brought Prowl out of his lair. Ironhide and Cliffjumper were arguing about something again, with Gears egging them on. Smokescreen was attending to the energon, and Brawn was staring moodily out of the single window.

It wasn't exactly the company Skyfire would have chosen. He remembered vividly, for a moment, the hubbub of the Aerialbots' chatter coming down the corridor and the way it had pulled him out of his thoughts every time.

"Pity there's no high grade," Jazz said. "Extra rations'll have to do. C'mon, 'bots, wake up and look happy! We're celebratin'!"

There was grumbling, but for the most part the moonbase crew obliged. No-one could honestly say they were happy here, but they were putting up with it on the promise that they'd be returning to Earth as soon as their task was complete. No-one else seemed to feel as trapped as Skyfire did.

"Yes, we're on target," Prowl was saying in response to a question from Cliffjumper. "At this rate we'll be able to reopen communications with Earth in ten or twelve orns."

That was in the region of three Earth months. Some way off, but uncomfortably close. Skyfire flinched from the thought of being in regular comm contact with Autobot City.

Messages had been coming in steadily since he'd left. Not just from Silverbolt, who wrote with a regularity that made Skyfire guiltily aware of his own sparse responses, but from Fireflight, Air Raid - even Skydive had written occasionally. Perceptor wrote often. Hound, Beachcomber, and Trailblazer had all sent a few notes. Each new letter seemed to weigh him down a bit more. Even here he couldn't escape - couldn't get the solitude and silence he was convinced he needed to make sense of his own processor. He made himself reply to some of them, but far too many were sitting unanswered in his inbox. The guilt he felt every time he went near them only made it harder to think of anything to write back.

That guilt was compounded by the results of Jazz's monitoring of Decepticon activity on Cybertron. Starscream was there, certainly, but he was uncannily quiet, apparently on a short leash under Megatron's watchful optic. It might be punishment for attacking Shockwave and helping Skyfire escape, or the result of his erratic behaviour in targeting Silverbolt - or both, or something else entirely. No-one was ever entirely sure which of Starscream's actions found favour with Megatron - he often seemed to get away with what would be unthinkable in the Autobot ranks, only to be punished for some minor disagreement. Whatever the reason, he hadn't been back to Earth since Skyfire had left - and now he could no longer reach it. Silverbolt was safe from that threat, at least. And it had been no action of Skyfire's that had ensured it, in the end. He might as well have stayed on Earth.

Except out here he was even more sure that he needed to get away, just for a while. Get away from everything - the Autobots, Earth, Cybertron, all of it. He felt like he hadn't had a chance to catch his breath since he'd been pulled from the ice. He just… needed time.

Something Prowl was saying about resource replenishment gave him the beginning of an idea. He carefully ignored the part of his processor that whispered he was only making things worse, and considered the logistics. It might be workable. He was almost finished building the large, manually piloted transport shuttle that would be used once they were in a position to bring energon from Earth in large quantities, so he wouldnt be needed for transport for much longer…

"Hey." Jazz had appeared at his side again. Skyfire realised he hadn't been making any effort to talk to the others present; maybe no-one but Jazz had noticed, or maybe they all had. "You okay?"

"I'm fine." Skyfire tried not to sound too irritated, but it was just one thing after another - he was constantly being jogged out of his thoughts before he could reach any conclusions. "I think I'll head back now."

He didn't check whether there were any sour looks following him out of the room. At this point it didn't even matter; he could imagine them clearly enough. And he couldn't truthfully claim he didn't deserve them.

*

The house of cards was impressive - nearly as tall as Silverbolt himself, its base taking up the entirety of the Aerialbots' common room table. Silverbolt froze in the doorway, afraid that the slightest movement would dislodge it.

Air Raid was contemplating his construction, another pack of cards in his hand.

"It's okay," he said. "I found a new way of stabilising them. They won't come down unless something actually crashes into them."

Silverbolt was still careful as he moved into the room. Air Raid's new hobby had started out with basic pyramidal shapes constructed from the Autobot-sized replicas of Earth playing cards that Smokescreen had produced, and swiftly expanded into intricate constructions of ever-increasing size. Silverbolt would never have believed Air Raid could have the patience for something that required such delicate balance and concentration if he hadn't seen it with his own optics.

"What are you going to do when you run out of cards?"

"Find more," Air Raid replied promptly. There had been a few complaints of people's decks going missing recently, but they were good-natured. Most Autobots seemed interested in Air Raid's card houses, which he constructed in the large rec room as often as in the Aerialbots' private space, and he was always getting questions and compliments on his designs. "Sideswipe says Sunstreaker's got a stash, he's gonna dig them out."

Silverbolt came around the table to examine the structure from the other side. Air Raid had somehow created a kind of spiralling central ramp that was flanked with little pointed crenellations. In the middle Silverbolt could just see an interlocking frame of cards that was keeping the whole thing steady. Air Raid had carefully chosen packs of cards with different coloured backs to make patterns as the tower rose. Silverbolt shook his head, impressed all over again.

"Are you taking pictures of these? You really should."

"Fireflight's taken some. But I can always build them again if I want to, I'm saving all the schematics in my permanent memory as I go along."

"Still, it would be nice to have a record. And it's easier to show other people if you don't have to build the whole thing first."

"I guess." Air Raid seemed to be only half listening, idly tossing the cards he held from one hand to another. "There's something not quite right about his one, dunno what it is…"

Silverbolt smiled. The fact that Air Raid was more interested in building the card houses than showing them off was another surprise, and one that Silverbolt liked. So much of their existence had been centred on proving themselves to other people. It was wonderful to see Air Raid doing something for the sheer love of it.

He'd never had the chance before. None of them had. But Earth was so quiet now. In the months since they'd destroyed the space bridge, there'd been almost no Decepticon presence anywhere near the planet. A half-hearted response had come from Mercury, but the early-warning sensors had done their job, and Astrotrain and the others had been sent packing with severe enough damage to keep them out of action for a while. Autobot City was more than half complete, and there were so many Autobots now that the shift schedule had slowly relaxed into what Silverbolt was told was a more normal pattern for Cybertronian days. He hadn't even realised that the hectic interspersal of uptime and downtime wasn't how it was normally done.

And now he had… free time. More of it than he knew what to do with. His brothers had found it hard to adjust as well, but gradually they'd begun to explore their own interests. Air Raid's card houses were one avenue of experiment. They'd all taken a keen interest in the library of Cybertronian movies on Teletraan-2. Skydive had even started a film club, whose members included both Autobots and humans, to compare Earth and Cybertronian styles of cinematography. Fireflight was finally able to indulge his endless curiosity almost without restraint, and to everyone's surprise - his own included - it had turned out that when he had time to find out everything he wanted to about something, he was much better able to stick with a train of thought - and remember to come back when he'd said he would. He'd formed a happy alliance with Perceptor and Chip, and would often volunteer his downtime to fly them somewhere in the name of Science.

Hot Spot's team were out and about more and more often, lending their assistance to human rescue squads. Sometimes Silverbolt went with them, and sometimes, bizarrely, so did Slingshot. Something odd seemed to be happening to his rivalry with Blades - they'd gone from hating to be in the same room with each other to actively seeking each other out, albeit to go another round of arguments. But they were only arguments - neither of them had thrown a punch for a long time now. Hot Spot had a theory about it that Silverbolt was finding hard to accept, but he had to admit it did kind of look like… well, that was between them, and he wasn't going to interrogate Slingshot. He wished he could ask Skyfire what he thought.

Even that ache was less than it had been, although it still refused to go away. Talking to Perceptor and Bluestreak had helped. Bluestreak really was a good listener, and had enough experience with losing people - in one way or another - to empathise without making assumptions. And Perceptor had found an excuse to start a conversation with Silverbolt in the rec room one evening, which he'd gently turned to Skyfire…

*

"I've had all of two replies from him this whole time," Perceptor said, exasperation mingling with resignation in his voice. "He gets like this sometimes."

"He does?"

"Oh yes. Back at the Academy, he'd either shut himself in his room for a few orns or disappear off to another solar system for even longer. At least this time he hasn't headed off into space without telling anyone. Of course, Starscream--" and Perceptor said the name very deliberately, refusing to dodge around it, "--made it worse. He couldn't stand being ignored, so he'd keep chasing and chasing, and Skyfire would just… pull away even more. I've learned to let him get over it and wait for him to come back on his own. I'm still hopeful he'll break the habit now things are different."

Something loosened in Silverbolt's spark then. It gave him hope that he'd done the right thing after all by letting Skyfire go.

"What was he like when he first came to the Academy?" he asked, suddenly aware that he'd been avoiding talking about Skyfire for so long, it felt like a dam about to burst. "Before…"

"Before he met Starscream?" Perceptor sipped his energon thoughtfully. "He was very… driven. He had a lot to prove. Has he told you much about his early life?"

"No… not really."

"I'm not surprised. He was always… ashamed, in a way, even though it showed nothing but credit to him. He was sparked simply as a transportation mech, you know."

"I think he did mention that once," Silverbolt said slowly.

"You probably don't know much about that whole controversy," Perceptor went on, settled into his story now and happy to keep talking with little prompting. "For a long time, Cybertronians were assigned roles when they were sparked. It was believed that Vector Sigma would create sparks suited for their occupation, and that no element of choice was necessary. By the time my generation were created, it was beginning to fall into disrepute. There was a lot of anger about the lack of free will. 'Bots chose to retrain, reprogram themselves even, take on new physical forms and learn new skills. A lot of the rigidity had already been lost, especially when it became apparent that when Vector Sigma offered up the spark of someone who had died rather than creating a new one, there was very little control to be had over its personality and destiny. But there was still stigma in a couple of areas. Sentient mass transit, for example - the sparks of shuttles and trams were generally seen as dull and uncurious, content to carry passengers on the same routes for vorns."

Silverbolt felt a stab of anger at the idea of anyone dismissing Skyfire like that, but said nothing, not wanting to disrupt Perceptor's flow.

"Skyfire was specifically assigned to transport scientific expeditions out to other systems. You can imagine how quickly he became involved as much more than just a pilot - he won a lot of respect from some of his passengers, and they were more than willing to teach him anything he wanted to know. Others were… less generous. They found it ridiculous and disrespectful that a 'mere shuttle' was engaging them in discussion on their projects. Some were very cruel."

Perceptor scowled with uncharacteristic emotion.

"Fortunately, he was encouraged by several of the good ones to apply to the Academy. He had to fight every step of the way, but he taught himself enough and persisted so long that they eventually let him in. We met soon after his arrival, and it was obvious at once how intelligent and dedicated he was. He faced a lot of prejudice at the start, from people who'd look at his root mode and pre-judge him. He could have requested a reformat, taken on a new alt-mode, but… he loved to fly, to explore. He didn't want to change himself to fit in better. I always admired that about him."

"Yes," said Silverbolt, thinking of the steel beneath Skyfire's mild exterior. "I think maybe that was why he found it hard to adjust to being with the Autobots, even though he wanted to help."

"I agree. Taking orders, carrying people around, putting aside his scientific knowledge for the sake of other priorities - yes, I think it was all horribly familiar to start with. But… you made a real difference, you know."

Silverbolt said nothing, unable to speak through the mixture of gladness and despair that gripped him. Skyfire had changed so much and seemed to open up so far to him - only to start retreating just as Silverbolt thought they understood each other completely.

"I don't think I've ever seen him as happy as he is with you," Perceptor went on gently. "If he's pulled away now, it's not because of anything you've done. He has his own glitches to work out."

"I suppose Starscream is one of them," Silverbolt said.

"Yes." Perceptor sighed, leaning back in his chair and staring up at the ceiling as if looking into the past. "The other area in which Cybertron was slow to adjust was allowing military mechs to transition into civilian life. It's a large part of what began the Decepticon movement, even before the energy shortages. Starscream never even fired a gun after he was sparked; he was adamant that he wasn't going to fight and he went straight to the Academy to demand admission. He faced even worse treatment than Skyfire - instead of looking down on him, people saw him as dangerous. He used that to his advantage. It's not really surprising that he and Skyfire ended up as partners. For a long time they had what you might call an… 'us against the world' mentality. Neither of them trusted many other people, especially Starscream."

All at once, Silverbolt understood why Skyfire had known how to handle his brothers in the beginning when they'd been so insular and suspicious. He'd thought it was just Skyfire's seemingly endless patience - but Skyfire had found it familiar, hadn't he?

"But they brought out the worst in each other," said Perceptor. "I think they both thought they could… change the other one. Skyfire was conscientious, generous, ready to forgive the people who'd treated him poorly, and he considered the best revenge against them to be simply proving them wrong. Starscream was vindictive and suffered no qualms when he trampled others to get his way. Skyfire thought he could teach Starscream conscience. Starscream thought he could break Skyfire of the habit of compassion. They were both wrong, but the more they tried, the uglier their partnership became. It was a bad thing to watch. As the energon crisis set in, when everything was falling apart around us, I think Skyfire started to realise it had to end. He tried more than once to get out. But then they went to Earth… and only Starscream came back."

Perceptor sipped from his cube again. He didn't look like he was really tasting it.

"There was a lot of talk. Many people thought Starscream had killed Skyfire, or at least left him for dead. Even I wondered. But in the end, I didn't think Starscream could have cut the cord any more than Skyfire. He was… far, far worse when he returned, all pretence of morality gone, and he quickly alienated the last remaining allies he and Skyfire had at the Academy. He lashed out at everyone. There was a lot of pain there, and he seemed to think he could lessen it if he inflicted enough on other people. They never had a chance to throw him out - the Academy was shut down by government order and we were all cut adrift. When I heard later that he'd joined the Decepticons, I wasn't surprised. Or that he rose so quickly through the ranks. They had no use for conscience either, and he was as quick to learn to fight as he had been to learn science."

"I can't really imagine him without weapons. I suppose I thought he'd need to be armed to go off-planet."

"Skyfire was the one who was armed. I don't think he entirely trusted Starscream with a weapon, even before everything went to slag." Perceptor shook his head. "I held out hope for vorns that Skyfire would come back. Starscream's account was garbled enough that there was room for hope. But in the end I accepted that he'd been deactivated. I can't even describe what it was like to come out of stasis here on Earth and see him. It felt like having him back from the dead - all the more now he was free from Starscream at last. You could almost call it the best thing that could have happened to him. It's… funny how things turn out."

"I don't think he sees it that way," said Silverbolt.

"No." Perceptor sighed again. "And I'd never say it to him, of course. He lost so much. But I don't think he's quite realised yet how much he's gained in return."

*

Silverbolt was brought back to the present by a door banging open to disgorge a laughing, scrambling Fireflight, clutching what looked like a scaled-up human sword, pursued by Slingshot.

"Give that back!"

"Not 'til you say who it's frooo-oooom--"

"It's none of your fragging business--!"

Fireflight darted around the couch and headed for the main door to their quarters. Slingshot went the other way, putting on a burst of speed to head him off. Fireflight attempted to reverse direction with a shriek of mixed alarm and hilarity… and with a certain amount of inevitability, lost his balance and went careening into Air Raid's card house.

Cards flew everywhere as Fireflight nosedived over the table and wound up in a heap on the far side. Slingshot stopped dead, Fireflight stared in horror at the wreckage, and Silverbolt turned to Air Raid to prevent him attempting fratricide--

Air Raid looked at the mess and shrugged. "Oh well, I was gonna need to start that one over again anyhow. Can you guys help me pick them up?"

"Sure," said Slingshot, grabbing the sword from an unresisting Fireflight and subspacing it.

"Oh Primus, Air Raid, I'm so sorry," Fireflight babbled, reaching for the nearest cards, "of course I'll help--"

"It's no big deal. Hey, you've got some stuck in your flaps!"

"Huh, that gives me an idea," said Slingshot… and the next thing Silverbolt knew, he and Air Raid were plastering Fireflight with cards, finding ways to get them to stay on while he shrieked that it tickled and begged fruitlessly for mercy.

Somewhere in the middle of the racket, Skydive stuck his head out of his room, regarded them all with weary resignation, and then returned to whatever it was he'd been doing for seven hours straight. And Silverbolt started to laugh, helplessly and with a dizzying awareness of how much things had changed.

"Come and help," urged Air Raid as Fireflight squalled that he'd do anything they wanted if they'd just let him up. "Maybe we can cover up every bit of paint so he's like an armadillo…"

Fireflight gave him a pleading look. Silverbolt laughed harder. And he thought that maybe, after all, things would come right. Skyfire would be back soon - and there would be no more Starscream harrying Silverbolt through the skies - and with this peace and space, surely he would get past whatever had driven him away.

"I'm not going to help," Silverbolt said firmly, "but I am going to get the camera."

*

"Come in," said Prowl as Skyfire hesitated in the doorway to his office. "Close the door."

At least it was a real office now, rather than a rough-hewn cave. The temporary passages had been widened out and reinforced, as well. Skyfire could go to most places on the base without stooping.

"I can't fault your calculations," Prowl said without preamble as Skyfire carefully took a seat on the crate that served as a spare chair. They weren't exactly living in luxury yet. "You're right about the energon reserves and our plans for the next few years of Earth time. In fact, it's a commendable proposition and could save us considerable trouble in the future. But I question your motives."

"What?" Skyfire hadn't expected such bluntness; he was too used to Optimus's tact. "You can't possibly think I'd do anything to hurt the Autobot cause--"

"I don't, as a matter of fact," said Prowl coolly. "I don't believe you would even have brought this to me unless you genuinely thought it would help, and I also think it's a stroke of genius that will make a marked difference to our position here. But I'm almost certain that wasn't the angle you approached it from. I am reluctant to give you permission to do yourself further harm."

"Excuse me?"

"I'm not blind, Skyfire. First you fled Earth, then you retreated into your quarters here, now you want to set off into the unknown with no idea when you'll be coming back. I… sympathise with any feelings of claustrophobia you may be suffering--" the quick flicker of his optics towards the door made Skyfire think that Jazz had been dragging Prowl out of his office almost as often as he'd been pestering Skyfire, "-- but I'm not sure you realise how your actions are impacting on others."

Skyfire muted his vocaliser forcefully to prevent himself from saying something regrettable. Did Prowl think he was an idiot? Of course he knew he was hurting people, especially those he'd left on Earth. It was an unending weight of guilt on his spark. But he had to do something or he was going to go mad. He had to find a way out of this maze he'd stumbled into, and only the silence of space seemed like it would help.

"Nevertheless," Prowl went on when it became obvious that Skyfire was not going to reply, "I will approve the mission. The solar systems Cybertron will pass in the next few years are a resource we should not squander, and you are the only one with the skills to scout them out and determine what use we can make of them. But I think you should go back to Earth first."

"We won't be making the redeployment run until both moonbases are operational," Skyfire said evenly. "That will be another four or five months from now, by which time Cybertron will be close enough to give the Decepticons the same idea. If I don't go now, I might as well not go at all."

"You could make the run alone. You could bring us some supplies on your return, that would improve everyone's morale."

"Do we need the supplies?" asked Skyfire stubbornly.

Prowl held his gaze for several seconds.

"No," he said at last. "And I am concerned by the increasing orbital patrols. But if you wanted to take the chance…"

"I would rather set off for the upcoming systems as soon as possible."

Prowl sighed.

"Take what you need, then. Your manifest seems reasonable. Take a little more energon than you've specified - the last thing we need is for you to end up drifting without fuel. You're cleared to depart whenever you think fit."

Maybe Optimus had bled into Prowl more than it seemed over the vorns. Skyfire got to his feet.

"Thank you," he said.

"I hope you know what you're doing," Prowl replied quietly. "And… you may use the comms before you go."

Skyfire nodded, but his spark sank. How was he going to tell Silverbolt?

*

"Okay, okay, maybe this wasn't one of my best ideas..." Wheeljack admitted sheepishly.

A chorus of groans from the mechs scattered over the ground suggested they'd figured that out some time previously. Silverbolt had managed to steer clear of the latest pile-up, and was leaning against the hangar wall stifling laughter. After the initial frustration, the whole exercise had become so ridiculous that he couldn't help but see the funny side.

Hot Spot, sprawled on his back and showing no sign of moving any time soon, shot him a sour look. "I can see you sniggering over there. How do you keep dodging the fallout?"

"I'm just faster on my feet than you lot?"

There were several rude remarks from both the Protectobots and Silverbolt's own brothers. Fireflight was in the process of picking himself up; he was the only one who had retained his initial enthusiasm for the project.

"I think I almost had it that time--"

"Give it a rest, 'Flight," Slingshot groaned. "You got me right in the nosecone. I can't feel my radar array."

"That wasn't my fault this time, you were supposed to be going on the other side..."

"You know what," Air Raid put in plaintively, "I like being a leg. It's fine. I'm a good leg. Legs rock."

"At least," put in Streetwise from the other heap, "you didn't get two people - naming no names, Groove and Blades - both trying for your spot. I think my chassis's broken in two places."

Blades and Groove had plenty to say about that, of course, and Slingshot couldn't resist jumping in with a few choice remarks about Blades's co-ordination, and Blades wasn't going to let that go... Silverbolt left them to it and wandered up to Wheeljack, who was staring gloomily at his datapad.

"With a bit more work we can probably manage it," he said. "The question is whether it's really worth it."

"Yeah, I thought it'd be more... intuitive, with your gestalt link and all." Wheeljack cast a dubious look at the squabbling mechs. "I just thought, switching out your weapons capabilities would throw the Decepticon combiners off, they'd be expecting a photon shot from Slingshot on Superion's right and they'd get a scatter-burst from Air Raid instead... but it's no good if you can't get back into combined form quickly enough."

"We'll give it a couple more sessions," Silverbolt promised, though inwardly he cringed at the thought. Wheeljack had proposed learning to change their gestalt configuration mid-battle, having the four smaller Aerialbots form different limbs than usual. More than once, they had entirely failed to reconnect to Superion's torso, causing Silverbolt to crash painfully down on his aft. "It might be a useful backup in a face-off with the Decepticon combiners..."

Hot Spot came up behind him, looking a bit scuffed, and slung an arm around Silverbolt's shoulders.

"Hey, maybe while we're at it, we should try mixing it up a bit, connect a couple of yours up to Defensor..."

Behind them, there were a series of loud clangs and the familiar sound of Blades and Slingshot gearing up for a fight. Out of habit, Silverbolt turned quickly to make sure they weren't killing each other, but First Aid was already shepherding Blades off to have his rotors looked at, and Skydive and Air Raid appeared to be actually sitting on Slingshot.

"Primus forbid," he said dryly.

"Yeah, seriously, don't try it," Wheeljack put in. "It'd mess your gestalt link up horribly - like sticking someone else's programming in your processor."

"Anyhow, I take it we're done here for the day?" Hot Spot stretched, and Silverbolt felt the amusement and wincing weariness in his field. "I cannot tell you how up for a cube of high grade I am right now."

"Someone mentioned high grade?" shouted Streetwise from across the hangar.

"Sure, sure, Groove's got a bunch, right Groove?"

"I was saving that," Groove said without rancour. "But if it's for a good cause…"

Enthusiastic approval seemed to imply that the Aerialbots and Protectobots could think of no better cause than getting overcharged after a day of repeatedly hitting the ground hard.

"Let's head to our place, then." Hot Spot lowered his voice and added, for Silverbolt's audios only, "and I reserve the right to crash on your couch if it ends the way it did last time."

"My couch is your couch," Silverbolt replied solemnly, but couldn't keep his expression serious. "And I'll try and herd my lot off before they start redecorating yours."

"Come on then, guys, let's get going!"

The mixed gaggle of gestalt members headed for the hangar exit. Silverbolt stopped to arrange another session with Wheeljack - who at least seemed to have regained his customary good humour - then hurried to catch up.

Hot Spot was waiting at the entrance to the residential section. The others were a cacophony somewhere up ahead.

"I'm going to stop by my quarters quickly," Silverbolt said. "I was waiting on a report from Cosmos about atmospheric conditions over the Atlantic, and I'd like to just check it's come in."

"You're a workaholic, you know that?" Hot Spot shook his head cheerfully. "Okay, I'll see you there."

Silverbolt gave him a friendly shove down the corridor and went into the Aerialbots' common room, then through to his own quarters. Maybe he was a workaholic, but he couldn't say he'd want to be any different. Since everything had quietened down he'd had a chance to catch up on the dozens of things he'd always felt he should have known from the start. Skydive wasn't the only one staying up late poring over old historical records on Teletraan-2, and Silverbolt was finally learning to feel confident in his own command. Weather patterns over the Atlantic were a minor thing, but after the hurricane that had hit last summer, he'd been studying meteorology with some willing human volunteers. He didn't want his brothers, or Hot Spot's, or the humans, caught in something like that again.

The report was waiting in his inbox (along with a cheery note from Cosmos that all was quiet in the solar system). So was a message from Skyfire.

Silverbolt's spark lurched. He'd had a reply, brief though it was, to his last letter. That made this the first time Skyfire had written to him without prompting. He opened the message hesitantly. It might be a good sign. Or it might…

He read the message. Then he read it again. The words didn't quite make sense, or maybe he just didn't want them to. Phrases jarred out of the mix at him - have to leave while the launch window is open - unsure of the duration, maybe a year or so - out of comm range - all happened rather suddenly

He read it again. His spark hurt. Not the dull ache of missing Skyfire, but a tearing, unbearable pain that he knew could not really be physical. He realised he was shaking. He'd waited so long - he'd been holding on so patiently - he'd given Skyfire as much time as he needed--

"At least this time he hasn't headed off into space without telling anyone," Perceptor had said.

So much for that.

Hot Spot came looking for him some time later. Silverbolt didn't raise his head from where he'd buried it in his arms, just let Hot Spot read the words on the screen for himself.

"He couldn't even call?" Hot Spot demanded, voice sharp with disbelief and anger. "He just left you a note? That's-- Primus, what is wrong with the mech?"

Silverbolt couldn't muster up the will to contradict him. Hot Spot sat down next to him and, gently, pulled him into his arms.

"He doesn't deserve you," Hot Spot muttered furiously. "I slagging hope he knows that."

"Don't," Silverbolt whispered.

"I'm tired of giving him the benefit of the doubt," Hot Spot retorted, but he said no more, just held Silverbolt tightly as he shook.

Maybe I am too, Silverbolt thought wretchedly. He offlined his optics and clung to Hot Spot. Maybe he was never going to come back. Maybe I'm an idiot for thinking he would. Maybe… I've lost him.

*

The black of space was cold, and silent, and welcoming. Skyfire flew until Cybertron vanished behind him, checked his heading, and flew some more.

It was wonderful. Glorious. It brought back a hundred memories of other journeys in other times. Those first expeditions when he'd been little more than a pilot, but had begun to discover the joy and fascination of scientific exploration. The trips out of the Academy, alone at first, and then with Starscream. Setting out, just the two of them, and Skyfire would think, each time, that if they could just get away from the suspicion and resentment on Cybertron, maybe Starscream would start to change, or maybe Skyfire would understand him better…

Setting out to find new planets, new species, new sources of energy. To study the unknown and tease its secrets from it, like the intricate dance of the Medusa Gyr system, or the gorgeous crystalline structure that had covered the whole surface of Tanus IX. Even when things had become so bad between them that Skyfire had thought of ending it, his spark would lift when they set out on a new flight, and he would think that maybe this would be the time that everything fell into place…

He'd even felt the weary flicker of excitement when they'd set out for Earth that last time. They'd been sure it would contain undocumented organic life, that prize they coveted. They'd found the planet wrapped in an ice age, and Skyfire had given into reckless desperation, because somewhere, in the back of his processor, he'd thought, this is the very last chance for us…

Space was cold and silent and welcoming. Skyfire could almost feel the vacuum caressing his plating like water. He tried not to think about Silverbolt. He had, after all, never deserved Silverbolt.

Maybe when he came back, he would know what to do. Maybe he'd understand his own spark. And maybe he'd find some sort of peace, out there in the black.

-- end chapter 18 --

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