Saturday, December 8th, 2012 02:23 pm
Title: A Wing and a Prayer - Chapter 21 (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 21



"Commence countdown."

"Five… four… three…"

"All we need now is a little energon, and a lot of luck."

"… two… one…"

*

The eastern suburbs of this sprawling human city were the least damaged after the earthquake, which was why Hot Spot had decided to set up their main field hospital there. Silverbolt found First Aid in the middle of camp. He didn't seem to be treating anybody at the moment, but he didn't get up when Silverbolt waved from the perimeter. As Silverbolt came in closer, he saw why: it looked as though every child in the camp had clustered around him for comfort, protection, or reassurance. Some of them were asleep. First Aid was talking quietly to the older ones. Silverbolt caught enough of it to recognise the basics of human medical care - First Aid was telling them how to help their families in the weeks to come.

"Is Hot Spot still out at the power plant?" Silverbolt asked when he was close enough to speak without raising his voice. He didn't particularly want to wake the sleeping children either. "I tried to check in, but he isn't responding."

"There was another explosion," First Aid replied. "Blades commed Groove and me just after, but I expect they're too busy to answer right now."

Silverbolt grimaced. They'd hoped to contain the fire at the power plant before it reached any of the other tanks. At least they could be sure that there were no humans at risk there. He'd ferried most of them away himself.

"I'd better head over and check if they need back up. What about you? Is there anything you need?"

"We're okay for now. Air Raid dropped off more water an hour ago. We've got everything else."

"Good. Comm Air Raid if you need more - I've told him to prioritise deliveries over cleanup."

"Thank you."

The aid station was so calm and controlled that when Silverbolt got back into the air, the devastation below shocked him again. The earthquake had shattered concrete and tarmac as easily as glass, tearing the roads to jagged pieces and reducing tower blocks to rubble. Fires were still raging in many parts of the city; Hot Spot had been co-ordinating the human fire crews before the first explosion at the power plant. Groove was out there somewhere, running a search grid at a speed the humans couldn't match, and radioing in the locations of survivors he found. Silverbolt's brothers were taking turns in the air, providing valuable overhead co-ordination for the human rescue squads, and on the ground, helping move chunks of broken structures that would otherwise have required heavy lifting equipment that the humans simply couldn't get down the ruined roads.

Even ten of them didn't seem to be enough. Silverbolt had to make choices, again and again, about where he would send his brothers, which desperate situation would receive their help first. He knew Hot Spot was in the same situation - it must be killing him to have three-fifths of his team tied to the power plant instead of working in the city. But the plant fire had to be contained urgently, before the toxic fumes reached sufficient density to roll down over the city and start choking the humans still working - or trapped - there.

He came in from the windward side. That smoke was dense and unhealthy enough that he wouldn't fly through it if he could help it. He spotted Blades hovering over a smoldering wreck that had once been a building, spraying powder over the remaining flames. Heading in that direction quickly revealed Hot Spot and Streetwise working briskly on the other side, where the nearby structures seemed undamaged.

Silverbolt landed and hurried over.

"What's your status?"

"Stable," Hot Spot replied with reassuring promptness. "The second explosion wasn't as bad as we thought - the fire hasn't spread into the main complex. I think we'll be done here in an hour or so."

"Great. Can I do anything?"

"You could see if First Aid needs supplies--"

"Already did."

Hot Spot laughed tiredly. "Of course you did. Thanks. How's the rescue going?"

"Fireflight and Slingshot are working on the north side, and Air Raid's in the east. We think west is cleared. South…" Silverbolt grimaced. "The big fire in the slum district is contained but still going strong. We're having a hard time getting in there - it's too dangerous for the humans and too narrow and cramped for us."

"I'll send Groove over. And I'll go there next, maybe I can help with the firefighting at least…" Hot Spot glanced at the sky. "It's going to get dark again soon. How long have we been doing this now?"

"Twenty three hours," replied Silverbolt after a quick calculation. "Which reminds me, one of us ought to check in with Blaster--"

"Can you do it?" Hot Spot turned to wave Blades over to a new area. "I want to get this under control as soon as we can."

"Yes, of course. I'll head back to the city and relieve Skydive on the aerial overview." Silverbolt shot Hot Spot a smile he hoped wasn't too weary. "Take care of yourselves."

"You too."

He commed Autobot City as he glided away from the power plant, processor already half on where he'd need to send Skydive, and whether he'd be able to persuade Slingshot to take the break he'd refused some hours ago - or rather, he tried to comm Autobot City. He couldn't get through. Silverbolt gained a little height in case there was atmospheric interference, and tried again. He seemed to almost connect that time, but the link was staticky and strained.

:Skydive, have you heard anything from Autobot City recently?:

:No, nothing. Why?:

:I'm having trouble getting through. Can you hold your pattern for now while I go up higher? I should be able to get something on the satellite relays even if we're in a dead zone here.:

:Sure.:

Silverbolt pulled up as hard as he dared, climbing swiftly through the sky. There was no cloud cover, but the immense pall of smoke hanging over the city looked even darker from the air. He turned his attention away from the ground. He couldn't afford to panic now. The sky overhead was clear and just shading towards sunset. There were no stars out yet, but Silverbolt thought about Skyfire anyway. He'd hoped they'd be back in time to meet the energon run crew on landing - now it looked as though Skyfire would be there before they returned. In fact, he ought to have landed by now. If Silverbolt had known how extensive the disaster was when they'd first received the frantic call for help from this country's government, he would have left a message - but he'd thought they would be back within the day.

He climbed until the air was piercingly cold and thin, then tried the comms again. For long minutes, the connection strained and hesitated, trying to reach the central tower and, apparently, failing. Silverbolt felt the first stirrings of alarm. He switched from direct comms to a broad receiver frequency, hoping to pick up something on the link between Autobot City and the Moonbases--

Voices exploded into his processor. Silverbolt dipped and pitched in midair, startled by the noise - and were those explosions he heard in the background? People were trying to reach the Moonbases, but someone - Blaster? - was shouting something about jamming. Silverbolt thought he heard Perceptor, Red Alert, Kup, and others, but they were cutting in and out, overlapping. He caught a few words: -- under attack -- Devastator -- activating defences --

How could they be under attack? There was no way the Decepticons could get near Autobot City without triggering the Autobots' warning systems! Silverbolt tried desperately to contact the city again, but if they were being jammed, it was preventing him from getting through. He heard Megatron and felt a shudder of real fear. If Megatron was somehow here - leading an attack on Earth - if this was the retaliation they'd feared, coming with no warning despite all their precautions--

Silverbolt banked hard and began to lose altitude. He was about to open a comm channel to Hot Spot when he caught one more phrase - shuttle down, no survivors - and for a moment, his processor blanked.

No.

The rush of fear and horror was strong enough to reach his brothers. He felt their questioning tug on the gestalt bond, and Skydive was trying to comm him…

No. Please.

His altimeter was streaming meaningless numbers as he dived towards the devastated city. Silverbolt was flying automatically, barely conscious of moving his control surfaces or regulating his speed. Desperately, he tried Skyfire's comm.

Nothing. No connection at all, not even an attempt, as if Skyfire were off planet, or as if he were…

Please.

Skydive had switched to a more urgent call sign. The fire was still raging in the slum district. Silverbolt wanted to scream, wanted to turn and race across the skies towards Autobot City, wanted to open his comms to his brothers and beg them to reassure him.

He was never sure how he did it, but instead, he took all his fear and grief and shock, and bound it tightly in an icy calm that formed a frozen spot below his spark. He sent Skydive an acknowledgement, but it was Hot Spot he commed, on the highest priority they had.

:Autobot City is under attack.:

:What?! How can it be--:

:I don't know, but Megatron is there, the comms are jammed, and-- it sounds bad.: Silverbolt swung around over the city, spotting Skydive coming to meet him. He'd need to find the others fast. :There are-- it sounds like there significant casualties.:

:Primus! What do we do?: Hot Spot sounded closer to panic than Silverbolt had ever heard him. :My team can't fly - and we can't just leave these people to fend for themselves--:

:No, so you're staying here. I'm taking my team back at once to find out what's going on.:

:Right.: Hot Spot was back in control of himself. :We're done with the power plant. We can take over searching for survivors in the city. What about First Aid? If there are wounded--:

:I can't carry him, not at the speed we'll be going.:

:Okay. Go, then. We'll cover things here.:

With a blip of acknowledgement, Silverbolt closed the contact. Skydive had caught up, and he could see Air Raid in a clear patch of ground, staring up at them both. He took a moment to steady himself, then opened the comms to all four of his brothers.

:Autobot City is under attack. Get in the air and follow me.:

*

"Unicron, answer me! Do you see this? The Matrix! I now possess what you most fear. You will do my bidding!"

:You underestimate me, Galvatron.:

"What--?!"

:For a time I considered sparing your wretched little planet, Cybertron - but now, you shall witness its dismemberment.:

"NO!"

*

It took Skyfire hours to sneak around the planet to Kalis. He had to go in low - he'd be far too obvious if he stayed in orbit - and that meant dodging Decepticon patrols through the canyons of Cybertron. He was running silent, comms completely shut off. When he finally reached the city, he almost fell foul of a trio of Seekers swooping down from the north; he only escaped by pulling off a quick landing in the shadow of a tower block, then ducking inside.

He hated to be grounded, but there was no way he could stay in the air undetected for long enough to take the readings he needed. By a stroke of luck, the building he was in was well-placed to triangulate the energy output from the nearby reactor. Skyfire stationed himself in a room on the upper storey that had once been some sort of office, and unloaded his specialised sensor equipment from subspace.

Between losing himself in his work and the need to keep his sensors alert for Decepticons, Skyfire mostly managed to keep his processor away from the awareness that he should have been on Earth by now. Mostly. He wished desperately that he'd been able to speak to Silverbolt before he left. He hoped he'd be able to get through on the comms as soon as he returned.

The readings were complex and extensive. Gradually, Skyfire sorted through what he was seeing. The fusion reactor was slowly decreasing its output. However Starscream had restarted it, the process had not been permanent. It wouldn't be able to power the engine, which relieved them of one immediate threat. But Skyfire thought that the reactor, when it settled down, would be producing significantly more energy than before. It certainly wasn't unfeasible that Starscream was planning to keep boosting the output until it was stable enough to move the planet. And Skyfire was picking up certain signatures that he recognised - the thermal and electromagnetic shadows of large weaponry, the kind that would be used to repel orbital bombardment. He could think of only one likely target - or rather, two. He thought that the Moonbases were buried deep enough in Cybertron's moons to withstand such an assault for some time, but not indefinitely. If this was Megatron's next move against the Autobots, they would have to react fast. Maybe they could rig up a shield? The energy requirements would be high, but as long as they could keep bringing in energon from Earth…

Skyfire debated with himself. Should he try to get in closer, find out more about what Starscream was doing here? He remembered the ambush on Mercury vividly. But those guns were bigger than anything Elita-1 had reported. What else didn't they know? It had been difficult getting here, and if he didn't get away undetected, it would be even more difficult later. He was going to need to find out everything he could while he was here - and he knew that was why Optimus had sent him, not Jazz or Bumblebee. They might have better skills at infiltration, but Skyfire could piece together what he was seeing and react immediately. He thought he'd better start by trying to move over to that installation to the west, which looked like--

And then every siren, every klaxon, every call to alarm in Kalis went off at once.

Stunned by the cacophony, Skyfire's first thought was that he'd been spotted. He yanked his gun from subspace and spun around, scanning out of the windows for the threat. But what he saw were Seeker wings shooting into the sky, other aerial troops following them, every Decepticon with flight capability racing in the same direction.

Were the Autobots attacking? What could have prompted Optimus Prime to launch an all-out--

Cybertron shuddered.

The whole planet seemed to rock and strain. Skyfire staggered. Another tremor followed, worse than first. What was happening?

He grabbed his equipment and left the building at a run. Outside, he could see the Decepticons disappearing over the horizon. He transformed and shot skywards, careless now of his own safety. Several Seekers came within easy range, but they paid him no attention. Skyfire kicked his thrusters into full burn and rose above the curve of the planet, straining his sensors in the direction of their flight.

The monstrous figure hove slowly into view as he raced around Cybertron. Skyfire had never seen a Cybertronian so large - to the best of his knowledge until that moment, such a thing was impossible. But the impossible was right in front of his optics, and tearing at the planet with hands the size of cities. He opened an emergency comm to Moonbase 1 - and was met with only silence. A long range sensor sweep tried and failed to find the moon… either of the moons. They were just gone. The enormous mech hovering over the horizon roared wordlessly and tore into the planet once more, and with a dizzying horror, Skyfire realised what must have become of Cybertron's moons. And the Autobots stationed there? He tried every frequency he could find - tried to reach Optimus Prime, Jazz, Bumblebee - but there was no reply. Nothing. Except - one channel, barely used. He opened his comm.

:This is Elita-1. Skyfire, do you copy?:

:I copy! How-- the moonbases--:

:They're gone. There's no time. Shockwave is mustering the Decepticons to attack. We're doing what we can from down here but we need more air forces. Can you assist?:

:… assist the Decepticons?:

:It's the only chance we have!:

:I'm on my way.: Skyfire somehow found a little more speed. :What about Autobot City? Do they know? Are they sending backup?:

:There may not be anyone left to send,: Elita-1 said quietly. Just for a moment her authoritative voice wavered; there was fear beneath her words. :The city was attacked by Megatron and most of his core forces. The last we heard, there were many casualties. We don't know… how many survivors there are, or if they can help us.:

Ahead, the great figure was swiping at the Decepticons attacking it. They were making little impression on its plating. Skyfire noted it distantly, Elita-1's words echoing through his processor like a nightmare. Casualties. Survivors. Autobot City - Autobot City was supposed to be safe, supposed to be protected, supposed to be--

How many survivors were there? How many - and who?

:What is that thing?: Skyfire whispered, unable to think straight, grasping for some sort of sanity in the madness.

:The Decepticons are calling it Unicron. Apart from that… we don't know.:

Unicron. That was a name that stirred some faint, distant memory. He'd heard the name once, he was sure. It carried a weight of dread and shadow that he associated with myths and stories. Unicron. An old, evil legend. Something dismissed by most as a tale to scare newsparks…

There was no time to chase down the memory. Or to think for more than an agonising second about Autobot City. Skyfire was close now, close enough to see the Decepticons taking damage and their desperate attempts to rally. They needed support on one flank. He wondered if they would shoot at him if he tried to give it to them.

He'd have to take the risk. And some yawning, screaming part of his spark - a part that knew, without a shadow of doubt, that Silverbolt would not have permitted Decepticon incursion into Autobot space if he had been able to stop it - had he been functioning to stop it - almost welcomed the threat of annihilation.

He dived towards the exposed flank, and began firing every weapon he had at the creature called Unicron.

*
"Light our darkest hour!"

The Matrix opened.

*

The Aerialbots' quarters hadn't been too badly damaged. Silverbolt found himself feeling guilty over how grateful he was for that. It meant that they still had somewhere to go that was theirs.

They needed it. Shock and fear filled every corner of the city that had been their sanctuary. People alternated between feverish activity and helpless wandering through the wrecked halls. Silverbolt was trying to keep as many of them busy as he could. He and Hot Spot were almost the only 'bots with command rank left on Earth. The last anyone had seen of Ultra Magnus, he'd been trying to evade Decepticon forces as they pursued him and his squad off planet. Red Alert had been hurt badly enough in the attack that First Aid wasn't letting him out of med bay yet. And the others… Prowl, Ratchet, Ironhide, Optimus Prime…

Silverbolt had to turn his thoughts away every time they veered in that direction. He still couldn't believe it - came up against blank incomprehension every time he made to turn to one of them for instructions, and remembered they were gone.

And there was another source of terrible, secret guilt: the relief he'd felt when he'd found out it hadn't been Skyfire flying the energon run. The way he was clinging now to what Skyfire had said in his message: that he'd been sent away from the moonbases, that maybe, just maybe, he hadn't been there when they were… destroyed. Consumed.

No-one knew what was happening on Cybertron except that the unthinkable attack had been thwarted. Communications were almost non-existent. Too many relays and transmitters had been destroyed. Ultra Magnus had managed to send one high-powered, tight-beam message a few days ago: the being known as Unicron was destroyed. The surviving Decepticons had fled. Cybertron was under Autobot command. But there had been no details, no explanation - and no word on whether there were more casualties.

Silverbolt had set Blaster to doing what he could with the communications tower while he co-ordinated the other Autobots in what repair work they could manage. Hoist and Grapple could supervise the structural work, but Metroplex's transformation cog had been damaged in the initial attack, and there was no-one in the city now who could work with his systems. The enormous mech was frustrated and plagued with his own guilt that he had been unable to assist during the attack. Silverbolt had been spending much of the time when he should have been recharging keeping Metroplex company in the central control tower.

Right now, though, he knew he needed recharge - even though he dreaded the moment when he'd be alone in his berth with his thoughts. He crossed the common room tiredly. He also needed energon, but he couldn't bring himself to walk to the temporary supply room. The refinement system had been badly damaged, and the raw energon tasted even worse to him now.

Just as he reached his own room, the main door opened abruptly behind him and Fireflight came racing in.

"I found him! I found Steelspring!"

Sure enough, the enormous snake was wrapped many times around Fireflight's neck and torso, coiled almost as tightly as his namesake. Steelspring couldn't hurt Fireflight even with his tightest grip, but Silverbolt still felt a little nervous every time Fireflight had him out. He'd seen what the python did to his meals, after all. But Fireflight had been heartbroken to find the tank shattered and his pet gone after the attack, and Silverbolt couldn't help smiling at the first genuinely happy expression he'd seen on his brother's face for days.

"Where was he?"

"Down by the generators where it's warm. Metroplex told me something had been slithering around over his thermostatic sensors, so I went to have a look and there he was! I think he's pleased to see me."

Silverbolt regarded the snake, which showed no evidence of such emotion (and was quite possibly attempting to eat Fireflight despite previous experience), and decided not to comment. "We'll have to find somewhere to put him until we can get a new tank. We can't have him prowling the base, not with the humans in and out to help with clean up."

"Air Raid's bringing a couple of empty crates over. We can knock the sides out and put them together and he should be okay for now."

"That's great." A wave of tiredness swept over Silverbolt. "I'm going to recharge for a bit. Okay?"

"Okay." Fireflight was half-heartedly attempting to uncoil Steelspring from his neck. He paused to look over at Silverbolt, some of the gladness leaking out of his face. "Have you heard anything from Cybertron?"

"Not yet. I'll tell you as soon as we know anything."

As he closed the door behind him, Silverbolt tried not to let his own processor go down that train of thought. Surely Ultra Magnus would be in contact soon. Surely someone would come to take charge. And surely… maybe… he had to believe… Skyfire was okay, and he would come back to Earth soon.

*

"Let this mark the end of the Cybertronian wars… let us move forward to a new age of peace and prosperity. 'Til all are one!"

"'Til all are one!"

*

Skyfire was pacing up and down on the launch pad when Perceptor found him.

"Oh, good, I was afraid you would have left already--"

"We were supposed to leave two hours ago." Skyfire tried not to let his frustration into his voice. "But Hot Rod - I mean, Rodimus - is still arguing with the Decepticon defectors and I don't suppose Ultra Magnus is willing to leave the planet until they've reached some sort of agreement…"

"Indeed." Perceptor's voice was soft, his manner unusually hesitant, even accounting for the weight of grief. "But I'm glad you are still here. There's something-- I've just heard, in the latest batch of reports, and I thought you… I thought I should tell you before you heard it second-hand…"

Skyfire stopped where he was, frozen. Every one of his systems seemed to flood with excess coolant, chilling him until he was numb. They hadn't heard anything from Earth since the battle. He at least knew that Silverbolt hadn't been present for the initial attack - but Perceptor had confirmed that the Aerialbots had returned in time to cover the retreat of the Matrix. They had been fighting hard when the shuttles left Earth, and not all of Galvatron's forces had followed Ultra Magnus… and the look on Perceptor's face, the weary certainty that what he had to say would bring pain to Skyfire… for a moment, Skyfire couldn't speak, could hardly even think. He could only wait the agonising seconds before Perceptor found his words again.

"We have an updated list of Decepticon casualties. It seems that… Starscream was deactivated before Unicron even attacked. He was not salvageable. I… thought you should know."

Skyfire stared at him. He could barely make sense of what Perceptor was saying. "Starscream?"

"Yes. I just thought--"

"But you haven't heard anything from Earth?"

"No." Perceptor frowned. "Why?"

Skyfire turned away abruptly and crossed to a parapet that had remained mostly intact after Unicron's destruction. He leaned on it and offlined his optics, willing the shaking of overtaxed systems to subside. Silverbolt wasn't-- at least, for now, he could still hope--

Behind him, a soft, distraught exclamation marked Perceptor's belated realisation.

"Oh, Skyfire, no, I'm sorry, I-- you thought I meant-- I'm sure Silverbolt is fine, he has the others to fight with him, and most of Galvatron's forces came after us--"

"It's… it's okay." Skyfire slowly took hold of himself again. "So… Starscream is dead."

"Yes."

"How did he die?"

"It seems that when Unicron's herald, Galvatron, arrived ahead of his master, the first thing he did was deactivate Starscream and assume leadership of the Decepticons."

"… Primus." Skyfire shook his head. "All those years avoiding being slagged by Megatron, and he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"It is ironic, in a black sort of way." Perceptor came to stand by Skyfire's side. "The defectors claim it was Starscream who ensured Megatron did not return from the battle of Autobot City. If he had not betrayed his leader, Galvatron might have targeted Megatron, and Starscream might have been able to switch allegiance instead of being eliminated as a rival."

"Perhaps." Skyfire turned his optics back on and gazed unseeing at the ruins of Iacon. "But Starscream was on borrowed time from the moment he refused to bend under Megatron's rule. Do you think Megatron would have tolerated him once their power was assured and he no longer needed every resource he could get? Do you think this Galvatron would have allowed him to live past the first betrayal?"

"No," said Perceptor after a moment, "I suppose not."

Skyfire wondered what he should be feeling. There was grief, of a kind, but it was distant and quiet, a dull ache that was familiar rather than new. He had been grieving Starscream for a long time - he had lost him long ago. His death was a final note in a requiem that had begun before they left for Earth all those vorns ago. Skyfire grieved him, but he grieved the friend and partner he had loved long ago - and that mech had, perhaps, never been entirely real to begin with. Skyfire had seen what he wanted to see in Starscream - had wilfully blinded himself to the parts of Starscream he despised. It had taken meeting Silverbolt for him to start to realise that… and oh, how he wished he had seen it sooner.

"Thank you for telling me," Skyfire said at last.

"You're welcome." Perceptor said softly. He cocked his head, listening. "Ah - unless I am very much mistaken, that is the sound of Ultra Magnus and the rest of the Earth expedition heading this way."

Skyfire turned quickly. He too could hear swift footsteps - Ultra Magnus's unmistakable heavy tread, so like Optimus Prime's - and the others whom he was to carry to Autobot City. His spark tightened in both fear and desperate hope. Soon he would know for sure… either way, he would know.

-- end chapter 21--

Notes: There is one more chapter after this, and then an epilogue.