Sunday, November 11th, 2012 11:27 pm
Title: A Wing and a Prayer - Chapter 19 (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 19


Deep in the black of space, the devourer moved steadily onward. In his wake a trail of shattered rock and metal remained the only evidence of the planets he had passed - and consumed. His target was still far distant, but closer now than it had been for uncountable vorns.

He had once been turned back by the five-faced masters of that world, but he had bided his time and waited as their power decayed. Their machine slaves had overthrown them long ago, and none could be left now who knew his secret weakness. It was time to put an end to the threat of the Matrix for good. And that factory of weapons - that metal planet - Cybertron - would be no more.

*

Autobot City was officially complete. The best part about that was the chance for another party, and Air Raid was starting to appreciate why people said Ultra Magnus wasn't as stuffy as he appeared. Mech knew what the good stuff was, in terms of high grade.

The good stuff was available all round. They had an actual choice of rations these days. In fact - and Air Raid could hardly wrap his processor around the idea - they weren't technically rations any more. The restrictions had been lifted. They were free to choose how much they refuelled, and when, and by what means. To no-one's real surprise, Fireflight had spent a week eating nothing but energon candies before he'd moved on to try other things. None of them could quite get into the habit of filling up their tanks every time, but they were slowly learning that there was more to energon consumption than just refuelling. Sideswipe had been promising them he'd cook his "special dish" sometime. Sunstreaker, in a display of uncharacteristic charity, had pulled them aside later to warn them that his brother was the worst cook on Cybertron, and to treat anything he presented them with as hazardous waste.

Air Raid had been thinking he might like to try this cooking thing himself. Except when he'd mentioned it to Silverbolt, Silverbolt had looked so horrified that Air Raid had wondered if energon had dangerous properties he had not been previously aware of.

But Silverbolt hadn't said he couldn't. Silverbolt was… in general… a lot more laid back, these days. And at the same time, Air Raid knew he was earning himself a solid reputation as a strong leader and able commander. It was as if, as he found his feet among the Autobot officers, he was able to relax more around his gestalt brothers.

Or maybe they'd just grown up enough to earn his trust. Air Raid knew that none of them were as thoughtless as they had been. He could even, in his more private moments, look back at how they'd been when they'd first joined the Autobots, and wince.

So much of that change had been because of Skyfire. Air Raid watched the crowd mill around in the Autobot rec room. Cliffjumper and Brawn were teasing Windcharger about something. Most of the moonbase crew had come back to Earth now. Others had taken their place - Optimus Prime had finally joined Prowl, and Jazz had come back for a visit, but intended to return, while Perceptor was off visiting the moons with a view to bringing back some more samples.

Skyfire was notable by his absence. It was eighteen months since he'd left Earth - almost a year since he headed out into space with no warning at all. They'd heard nothing from him since.

On the other side of the room, Fireflight and Skydive were chatting easily with Arcee and Hot Rod. Slingshot was in the middle of some sort of friendly argument with the twins and Springer. Silverbolt was talking to Hot Spot and Bluestreak, the three of them laughing over something.

It was good to see Silverbolt laughing. Not that he didn't - he moved briskly through their days, with humour and seriousness where appropriate - but there was an edge of sadness underneath his smile even when he was mostly happy. That, too, was because of Skyfire. Air Raid found it hard to reconcile both concepts.

But Silverbolt was doing okay. Air Raid knew that, deep down, he was still waiting - still hoping Skyfire would come back - but he wasn't letting it stop him from getting on with his life. That was good. There was a tiny, treacherous part of Air Raid that thought maybe it would be better if Skyfire never came back - if Silverbolt could just move on and, maybe, think about getting involved with someone else - but it was a voice that he seldom listened to.

The truth was that he missed Skyfire. Probably not as much as Silverbolt did. Or Fireflight. But he was one of them, he really was, and Air Raid still held out hope that he was going to realise that eventually, and come back to them.

Even if Air Raid might need to throw a few rocks at his head before he could forgive him.

*

It was a beautiful little planet. It was almost entirely ocean, interspersed only with occasional archipelagos, and it was in the middle of a steamy, tropical era that had encouraged the blooming of countless different species of algae throughout the waters. From orbit, it was striped with bands of colour that shifted slowly with the tides.

Skyfire couldn't stop thinking about how much he wanted to show it to Silverbolt.

He sighed and returned to his instruments. He'd found a rocky island with caves big enough to set up a base of sorts, and he was rather enjoying the warm, humid weight of the atmosphere at the equator, although he'd have to check his seams for rust before he left. He also hadn't thought to use the caves on the first day; he'd foolishly forgotten about monsoons and failed to consider their likely magnitude on a world with so much water. At least none of his equipment had actually been carried out to sea, though some of it had bobbed merrily along in the runoff almost to the beach. He was fairly sure he'd looked utterly ridiculous as he'd chased after it. He rather wanted to share that with Silverbolt, too.

Skyfire glanced at the cave entrance, where the daily downpour formed a sheet of water that glowed faintly. He thought that some of the bioluminescent algae were getting caught up in the water cycle, launched high into the atmosphere by evaporation, only to descend in the rain as glimmering motes. He'd taken images, but he didn't think his analytical, multi-spectrum recording devices really captured its beauty. He wished Fireflight were here with his camera…

Oh, slag it. His processor had only one track today and he might as well accept it. Skyfire left his experiments where they were and moved over to the cave entrance. There was a large, comfortable rock just inside. He sat down and gazed out through the rain.

The island was desolate. There were no trees on this world; there was no reasonable way they would have evolved. There was some scrubby green ground cover, but it seemed to be more an adapted form of seaweed than grass. If the rains had been coming regularly every day for as long as Skyfire suspected, it might well be a sort of amphibious plant, surviving the dry spells by storing water during the rain. There were no land animals to graze on it, so it could afford a peaceful, lethargic cycle of growth and replenishment.

The seas were teeming with life. Skyfire had seen more variations on the basic concept of 'fish' than he could count, not to mention some of the weirder denizens of the depths. It was amazing, wonderful, exactly the sort of thing he lived for - seeing something new and fantastic, learning all he could about it.

It wasn't enough.

He'd wanted solitude. Well, he had it - he'd had a year of it. At first it had been everything he'd hoped. Although he'd made no progress in untangling his confused emotions, he'd been able to forget about them for a while. He'd been through three systems in the last year, cataloguing each planet, making copious notes both on its potential to aid the Autobot cause and its own unique personality. He'd taken enough samples to keep Perceptor happy for half a vorn. And the Aerialbots would just love some of the things he'd seen. Fireflight would have so many questions. Air Raid and Slingshot would want to hear more about that big, dusty planet where the winds were woven in intricate tapestries through canyons miles deep. Skydive would be intrigued by the world where the atmosphere rendered visibility almost to zero, but dramatically enhanced magnetic detection. Silverbolt…

He missed Silverbolt so much.

He'd thought that being alone would give him insight into his own spark, and in a way, maybe he'd been right. As he'd settled into his old routines - pursued his old dreams - he'd slowly become conscious of the emptiness where there had previously been love and laughter. Had he really not even noticed how many friends he had? Had he really treated them all as a burden to be shed?

Old habits, he thought sadly as he watched the rain. There were so many people we couldn't trust… so many people who seemed to care but were really trying to use us.

The old hurt flared up tiredly, but it was barely a flicker now. Us had been him and Starscream, once. To his surprise, he'd found it hard to conjure more than the occasional brief thought of Starscream, even though he'd been doing the work they'd once shared. His thoughts yearned ever more persistently towards Earth. Towards Silverbolt.

And there in the rain, all at once, he had the answer he'd been seeking. He wanted to go back. He couldn't be pinned in one place - no, he could never live like that - but he had nothing to run from anymore. He missed Silverbolt like a part of his circuitry that had been removed. He wanted exactly what he had so carelessly cast aside.

He was almost sure he had left it far too late.

Skyfire watched the rain. He supposed he could stay out here. He had enough sources of energy to sustain himself. He could just… keep going. He didn't know if he could face returning only to see the ruins of everything he'd left behind

But he hadn't said goodbye to Silverbolt. Not properly. He'd hidden behind cowardly words about the importance of the mission and the unexpected need to depart. He'd lied. He hadn't even spoken to him face to face.

Skyfire watched the rain. It was beautiful, and he wished Silverbolt were here to see it with him.

He didn't expect he could salvage things now. But he owed it to Silverbolt to face up to his folly.

He would go back.

*

Silverbolt looked at the hysterical heap of mechs, then at Hot Spot. Hot Spot held up his hands guiltily.

"Look, it wasn't my idea, okay?"

"But you let them do it."

"It didn't seem like a big deal! Spike said Daniel plays it with his friends all the time!"

"I suspect humans have fewer projections to get caught on each other," said Silverbolt wryly.

The large mat, painted with coloured dots, had become crumpled beneath the struggles of the combined Protectobot and Aerialbot mass. It was, Silverbolt understood, a silly party game enjoyed by humans. It was also apparently a hitherto undiscovered weapon of mass destruction. Or at least mass embarrassment. And he'd thought Wheeljack's switching exercises had been bad…

"I suppose we could pour soap over them or something, see if that loosens things up," Hot Spot suggested.

There was a muffled series of protests from the mat. Silverbolt was trying very hard not to laugh, mostly because he thought that once he'd started he might end up completely unable to stop.

"You've got your rotors in my afterburner," snarled Slingshot from somewhere inside the pile.

"And you like it," Blades shot back.

"Oh dear Primus, are you two flirting?" demanded Skydive.

"Frag off!"

"Shut it, jetboy!"

Hot Spot sniggered. Silverbolt shot him a look that he hoped communicated that they were not done talking about this, then moved over to examine the mat from another angle.

"Okay," he said briskly. "Groove, can you transform?"

"I might smack Air Raid in the nosecone if I do."

"He'll survive."

"Hey!"

Groove awkwardly shifted into his alt-mode, managing not to do Air Raid any damage. As Silverbolt had hoped, his relatively small, slender form was easy enough to pull out of the pile. Hot Spot got the idea and quickly dragged his teammate out of the way.

"Right." Silverbolt surveyed the rest of them. "Fireflight, you're next…"

It took almost an hour, and several false starts, but eventually they were all free. Silverbolt was actually quite proud of himself for figuring out the logistics of the disentanglement, but everyone else was too busy arguing about whose fault it was and complaining about their scrapes to compliment him. Oh well.

"I suppose if I ask who started it, you're all going to blame somebody else?"

Contrary to his expectations, everyone except Air Raid promptly pointed at Air Raid. Air Raid looked sheepish.

"I didn't realise it was so… involved."

"I think I bent an aileron," Slingshot muttered, craning over his shoulder.

"Get Blades to kiss it better," suggested Streetwise, who was nursing a bent bumper.

"You can shut up too," snarled Blades.

"O-kay," said Hot Spot cheerfully. "So now we've learned a Very Important Lesson about the suitability of human games to Cybertronians, who wants to go get something to eat?"

Silverbolt smiled. Hot Spot's way of dealing with things was different from his own, but they'd found that both seemed to work, especially when used interchangeably. Their gestalts had only become closer over time. And Silverbolt was very conscious of how good a friend Hot Spot was. He didn't know, sometimes, how he would have got through the last year without him.

They left the hangar in a loud gaggle, arguing and teasing each other. The ten of them made their slow way to the rec room, clogging up the corridors as they went, but no-one seemed to be coming the other way, so Silverbolt didn't worry about it too much. And he could trust at least, oh, six or seven of those present to get out of the way if required.

"How did they rope you into it?" he asked First Aid, who had fallen in beside him.

"It'll be fun!" First Aid replied in a passable imitation of Fireflight. "It won't take long! Please?"

"Ah. Yes. I see the problem."

"Actually," First Aid went on in a confessional tone, "it was fun. Until we got stuck." He paused. "Actually, it was even fun after that. Do you think Blades and Slingshot are really…?"

"I have no idea." Silverbolt regarded the two 'bots, who were walking ahead, arguing as usual. "But at least they're not killing each other."

"Indeed," said First Aid fervently. He had, after all, been the one having to patch Blades up most of the time.

The common room was moderately busy, but the Aerialbots' usual corner was free. Silverbolt took First Aid up on an offer to bring him energon, and headed for his favourite chair.

Bluestreak intercepted him. Silverbolt smiled enquiringly, an expression that faltered as he took in Bluestreak's faintly worried look.

"Hey," said Bluestreak. "You got a minute?"

"Of course," said Silverbolt. "What is it?"

"Nothing bad - probably. But I thought you should know…" Bluestreak cast a glance over at the other Aerialbots, still preoccupied with the energon dispensers. "Skyfire's back."

"What?" Silverbolt's spark lurched and ached in an all-too-familiar way. "Here?"

"No - he's at Moonbase 1. I was on duty with Blaster when the report came in. I… thought you'd want to know."

"Thank you," said Silverbolt numbly

Bluestreak let him go. He walked over to one of the public access terminals and quickly logged into his personal files. He checked his inbox for new messages. Nothing.

For a moment he considered going back to his quarters and calling Skyfire. The restrictions on comms to the moonbases had been lifted months ago. He could comm Skyfire right now, could hear his voice and--

No. Silverbolt logged out and took a moment to steady himself. Then he walked calmly back to their corner, and took his seat just as First Aid arrived to hand him some energon.

No. He wasn't going to drop everything and run to contact Skyfire. If Skyfire wanted to talk to him… well, he'd see. But it had to be him who made the first move.

*

The base - or rather, Moonbase 1, as it was now officially known - was so different Skyfire barely recognised it. The rough rock corridors and cramped rooms had been replaced by metal-panelled hallways and facilities that were, if not luxurious, at least on the level Skyfire would expect from an outpost or research station. The faces had changed as well. Optimus Prime had taken command, leaving Autobot City in the capable hands of Ultra Magnus. Many of those present were his oldest allies - Ironhide, Ratchet, Prowl, Jazz, and Bumblebee among them. Even Spike Witwicky was taking a turn on moonbase duty, kitted out in the exo-suit Wheeljack had designed to allow him to keep up with his larger friends.

Skyfire had half expected a cool welcome. His own overwhelming sense of guilt had seemed all-encompassing. But Jazz had practically tackled him, Fireflight-style, when he'd landed, and dragged him into the common room - where, to Skyfire's surprise, the rest of the crew quickly appeared, apparently of their own accord. No-one said a word about his leaving, only that they were glad he was back. Ratchet told him to expect a full check up before he was cleared for regular duty, but clapped him on the arm as he said it. Bumblebee was curious about the worlds he'd visited, Hound wanted to know if he'd found any interesting life forms, Sunstreaker wanted to know if he'd been attacked by any interesting life forms, and Prowl immediately asked his opinion on an asteroid mining project that had been proposed for the first of the systems they would reach - though he subsided when Jazz told him to "let the mech catch his breath, for Primus' sake!"

Optimus Prime said, "I am glad to see you safe. Did you find what you were looking for?"

The question was asked without special inflection, but Skyfire read a second meaning in the words nonetheless. He didn't know if it was really there, but he was answering both questions when he said, "Yes."

It wasn't exactly coming home. Not to this base, orbiting the world that was slowly awakening beneath them but still so different from the one Skyfire had known - not to these people, with their own bonds of friendship to which Skyfire had come late. But his spirits lifted more than he had expected, just from talking to others and sharing what he'd seen.

They assigned him quarters. It was bliss to recharge in a proper berth after a year of finding the least uncomfortable patch of ground, or snoozing in high orbit. He had so much to go through with Prowl, they spent almost three shifts debriefing. And he was painfully aware that in that time, he neither tried to comm Earth, nor heard anything from Autobot City.

There were messages in his inbox - scores of them. Even though his friends had known he wouldn't see them until his return, many had kept writing. Fireflight had apparently got into the habit of sending him a weekly diary of his latest discoveries. Noticeably absent was any mention of Silverbolt. And Silverbolt himself had written nothing since that final message Skyfire had sent, telling him he was leaving when it was already too late to reply. Skyfire… hadn't really expected otherwise, but his spark ached anyway.

He read every one of Fireflight's excitable letters. Then he read through Perceptor's sporadic updates on his work, and Wheeljack's single message entitled "I know you won't read this for months but HOLY SLAG LOOK AT THIS EXPLOSION", complete with attached video file. He found himself laughing more than once, and every time it was followed by a sharp echo of regret and shame.

The comms were open now. He could call… any of them, if he wanted. There was no need to rely on letters any more. Skyfire even opened up the comm menu and scrolled through the contacts, before shutting it down again with a sinking feeling of guilt.

Days passed. Skyfire had so much to do - so many tests to run on his samples, so much to write up - but where before he had buried himself in work to avoid thinking, he no longer wanted to take that way out. He had to face up to his choices… he just couldn't quite find the courage to take the first step.

"How are things on Earth?" he finally asked Jazz.

"Peaceful," Jazz replied. He was looking out of the rec room window at Cybertron rising over the moon's close horizon. "The Decepticons've left it alone so long, Red Alert's almost actin' normal half the time. The 'bots back there've been workin' with the humans a lot, puttin' together new projects an' teachin' them some of our tech. They're lightyears ahead o' where they would'a been by now. Some o' the younger mechs—" Jazz hesitated for barely a fraction of second, almost unnoticeable. "The Protectobots've started workin' disaster relief. Three different countries've adopted them as citizens, an' First Aid's a card carryin' member o' somethin' called Medicins sans Frontieres, which seems t' involve walkin' into the middle of warzones an' tellin' em all to behave while he fixes people. Ratchet thinks he's as good with human medicine as Cybertronian repair now. Says a lot that he was willin' to leave Autobot City in First Aid's hands an' come here with us."

"Yes." Skyfire could hardly imagine Ratchet allowing someone else to take over his med bay - but the evidence was right over there in the corner, arguing with Ironhide about the best way to throw a wrench. "And - the others?"

Jazz looked at him. "The Aerialbots?"

Skyfire nodded, swallowing sudden nerves.

"They're doin' great," Jazz said. "Real pros. Fireflight's figured out the basics o' navigation, Air Raid's everyone's buddy, Skydive's been teachin' human pilots how to fly like Seekers, an' Slingshot's… actually not bad company these days. And Silverbolt - he's a hell of a leader. He an' Hot Spot do a lot o' travelling, diplomacy stuff - tryin' to get the heads o' the various countries to work together. Succeedin', too, lot o' the time."

It was almost painful hearing someone say Silverbolt's name after so long, but Skyfire was more aware of the rush of mixed emotion that swept over him in its wake. Of course Silverbolt was doing amazing things - he'd barely begun to explore his potential. Had Skyfire really expected him - or the others - to simply be sitting where he'd left them, unchanged? He was glad - and proud - to hear of Silverbolt's success - but it made him even more doubtful that he could make amends. Silverbolt had almost certainly moved on. There might not be room for Skyfire to return to his life - and he couldn't honestly decide if he had the right to try.

"You lookin' forward to goin' back?" Jazz asked him another time.

"I suppose so," Skyfire said. "Eventually. I'm needed here for now."

"You sure are," Jazz replied without hesitation. "Don't get me wrong, you comin' back when you did was a gift from Primus, with the second base so close to finishin'. I don't s'pose Prowl'll let you take off again for a while. But you'll get a chance to take some leave after that. You talked to anyone back there yet?"

"Perceptor called the other day," Skyfire said. "We've been catching up."

"Lot o' science to get through, huh?"

"Yes."

It had been a careful conversation. It had been good to talk to Perceptor, but Skyfire had been constantly bracing himself for accusation, unspoken or otherwise. Perceptor, of course, had chattered easily about his projects, asked after Skyfire's discoveries, and said not a word about Silverbolt, or Skyfire's precipitous departure. Skyfire almost wished he had. He was starting to feel he didn't deserve so much kindness from those he'd left behind.

It was that thought - and a kind of masochism that went with it - that drew him back to his quarters and his terminal. He started reading the messages Silverbolt had sent him before he'd left - messages he'd read hurriedly before, and scarcely ever replied to. It seemed crazy now. He found himself wanting to ask a dozen questions for every one of them. How had Skydive's proposed air gala turned out? Had Air Raid ever succeeded in building that giant card house in the hangar? What was it about Slingshot that Silverbolt wanted to talk about but felt he couldn't put into a letter? Had Fireflight really spent three days in Australia with Perceptor and not been lost once? What was Silverbolt's new office like, the one that finally let him get on with his paperwork without distraction from his brothers?

Was Silverbolt happy, in the bright new city with so much freedom at last?

Skyfire rested his head on one hand, reading and re-reading the words long into when he should have been recharging. He could imagine them in Silverbolt's beautiful voice, could picture the expressions and gestures that would have gone with them. The clammy weight of fear and confusion that had made it seem impossible to reply before was gone. He would have given anything, just then, to reach back in time and give his past self a good, hard shake.

Maybe that was what finally pushed him into action. He called up the comm menu and hesitated for only a moment as he calculated the time difference between Cybertron and Earth. It would be mid-afternoon in Autobot City. Perceptor had told him that the shift pattern had relaxed to match Earth's days. Silverbolt would at least be awake, although Skyfire had no guarantee he would be in the city. That was almost enough to talk himself out of it, but he forced himself to key in the request for a personal channel. His hand shook and nervous agitation gripped his spark. The long-range comm system was set up to direct calls to wherever their recipient had logged in last. If Silverbolt wasn't there, it would go to a recorded greeting… and maybe it was Skyfire's turn to leave the messages.

The connection took long enough that he slowly began to relax. He had just decided that he wasn't going to get an answer - and started trying to think what he would say to the answering machine - when the screen lit up with the soft golden sunlight of Earth. It lay in wide squares across the back wall of an office, indicative of large windows somewhere out of shot. But Skyfire barely registered the room, all his attention seized and held by the sight of Silverbolt looking back at him. All at once his courage failed him and he didn't know what to say.

Maybe Silverbolt didn't either. There was an uncomfortably long pause before he finally said, "Hello. It's good to see you again."

His voice was too calm, too controlled. His expression was neutral and distant. Skyfire recognised the signs that he was off-balance and trying to hide it. His spark ached.

"I… wanted to let you know that I'm back."

"I heard." Silverbolt glanced down at his desk as if checking something on one of his datapads, though Skyfire guessed it was simply an excuse to look away. "How was your trip? Did you find anything interesting?"

Skyfire almost choked on the rush of words welling up in his vocaliser then, all the things he'd wanted to tell Silverbolt and show Silverbolt and explain to Silverbolt while he'd been away - configurations of suns and vagaries of metamorphic rock and the glittering rainfall of the ocean planet - but he managed to contain the flood.

"So many things," was all he said for now. "How are you?"

"I'm fine."

"And the others?"

"They're fine too."

Skyfire cringed at the succinct answers. He cast around desperately for something else to say that might get more of a response from Silverbolt.

"I gather Fireflight's been busy," he said. "Judging by my inbox. Did he really come back from Borneo with a reticulated python?"

"Oh yes. It's living in a tank in our common room and Slingshot keeps threatening to feed Daniel to it." Silverbolt's expression softened fractionally. "I didn't realise Fireflight had kept writing all this time."

"I thought I'd comm him instead of writing back," Skyfire said. It was almost but not quite a request for permission. "It's probably easier to catch up that way."

"He'd like that," said Silverbolt. He hesitated, more of the distance easing out of his face. "It's… really good to talk to you again."

"You too," Skyfire replied softly. "I… I've missed you. And I--" There was so much to say, so much to apologise for, but he started small. "-- I'm sorry I left so suddenly. I thought it was the right thing to do at the time, but… well… I shouldn't have done it that way, and I'm sorry."

"Oh."

It seemed as though that was the last thing Silverbolt had expected. His optics met Skyfire's, and for a split second there was something in his face that made Skyfire's spark jump hard and hopeful. Then he looked away, in the direction of the unseen window, gazing into the distance for a few moments before he looked back at the screen.

"Will you be… leaving again?"

"No. Prowl's given me a list three orbits long of work I can do here, and after that I-- I thought I'd come back to Earth."

Skyfire felt a sharp ache of regret and longing at the startled look that came over Silverbolt's face then - chased by the faintest hint, for the first time, of a hesitant smile.

"Really? You're definitely-- you're coming back?"

"As soon as I can," Skyfire said. He hadn't known it was true until now. "I'd like… I'm looking forward to seeing how the city's come along."

"You won't believe it." Silverbolt was talking more normally now - maybe a little faster than usual - and his optics were warmer and his face more animated. "It's almost finished - the last thing to do is wire Metroplex into his autonomous systems and finish diverting the water into the moat - and you should see the mess hall and the rec rooms - it's amazing. There's so much space! It's like having a real home at last."

"I can't wait to see it," Skyfire said. "How's your office?"

Silverbolt did smile then, beautiful and brilliant and with the accompanying flash of amusement in his optics. "Perfect. It has a lock on the door."

Skyfire laughed. And all at once, talking was easy again - as easy as it had always been with Silverbolt. He was aware it was growing ever later, that he should get some recharge - but he couldn't tear himself away from the terminal. Not when, with every word, every smile, every second of Silverbolt's presence, the heavy ache in his spark was slowly easing.

*

Silverbolt was relieved that there was no call for Superion's presence in the near future. He didn't think he could have hid his distraction from his brothers in the midst of the full gestalt link. He wasn't entirely sure he was hiding it regardless, but in the end it was Hot Spot who caught on first.

"What's up?" They were walking along the southern wall; Hot Spot had said something about wanting to take a break from the crowded rec room and look out over the city, and Silverbolt had gone along without realising it was a ploy to get him alone. "You're almost as scatty as Fireflight this week."

"I am not," Silverbolt protested, even as he guiltily reviewed the last few days. "I've just had a lot on my mind."

"Uh huh." Hot Spot stopped to lean against the wall, arms folded and expression sceptical. "I know what you're like with 'a lot on your mind', and this isn't it. What's going on?"

"Nothing," said Silverbolt. Hot Spot contrived to look even more incredulous. "No, really, I just…"

He trailed off. He hadn't wanted to say anything - to anyone - but particularly to his brothers - that might raise false hopes. Including his own. But if Hot Spot was concerned enough to ask him outright, Silverbolt owed him an explanation.

"I've… been talking to Skyfire." Silverbolt hoped his face didn't give away the roller coaster of emotion that filled him when he thought about it. "He's going to come back."

"Is he?" Hot Spot's voice was flat. "How nice for him."

Silverbolt shot him a sharp look. Hot Spot frowned right back at him.

"I really hope you're not thinking everything's gonna be magically fixed just because you waited patiently while he fragged off to Primus-knows where--"

"Of course not," Silverbolt snapped. Then he sighed, because he had to admit, there was a small part of him that wished things could be that simple. "I'm not… expecting everything to just go back to how it was. I don't even know if that's what I want. But… something's changed. He's commed me every day this week. He just… he sounds different. Looks different. I think maybe we'll be able to talk, now - figure things out."

"And what if he gets back here, goes all cabin fever again, and takes off for another few years without saying goodbye?"

"I don't think he will," said Silverbolt. "I think--"

"You think, or you wish?"

Silverbolt turned away, taking a couple of steps along the wall and leaning his elbows on it to give himself space, both figuratively and literally. Hot Spot was right to be sceptical, he knew that. He ought to be just as cautious. It was just… he couldn't seem to squash the hope that had dawned in his spark when Skyfire confessed so frankly that he'd been wrong. It had meant everything, in a way Silverbolt couldn't begin to explain to anybody else. Even Hot Spot.

"I'm not going to rush into anything," Silverbolt said. "We're just talking."

"Yeah, that's the part that worries me," said Hot Spot with a sigh. "You're 'just talking' and it's enough to make you completely miss Slingshot and Air Raid hacking Skydive's datapad to play 'Wind Beneath My Wings' on a loop--"

"They what? When did they--"

"I don't want you to get hurt again," said Hot Spot quietly.

There was nothing Silverbolt could say to that. Hot Spot had been there for him when things were at their worst. He'd been understanding, patient, and caring. They'd even talked about becoming interface partners, but neither of them quite wanted that sort of relationship. And Silverbolt had been relieved, because he hadn't felt anything like what he felt for Skyfire with Hot Spot, and he didn't think he could have pretended otherwise. Or that it would have been right to. What they had with each other was something like Silverbolt imagined it would feel to have a brother who wasn't under his command. And no-one understood the trials and tribulations of the gestalt bond as well as they did. He would gladly call Hot Spot his best friend, after his brothers - and Hot Spot was looking out for him the same way Silverbolt would look out for one of his team.

"I can't promise not to hope," Silverbolt said at last. "I can't help it. But I'm not going to do anything stupid. Okay? I'll wait and see what happens when he does come back - and if things really are different."

"Okay." Hot Spot didn't look convinced, but he was willing to let it go, and that was enough for now. "C'mon then. Let's go rescue Skydive from the tyranny of nauseating 80s pop ballads."

-- end chapter 19 --

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