Thursday, March 21st, 2013 02:23 pm
Title: A Wing and a Prayer - Chapter 23 (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 23


Skyfire came out of recharge with a jolt, momentarily unable to process his surroundings or why the gravity felt different. Then it flooded back in on him - he was on Earth. He was in his own quarters in Autobot City. He was off-duty for now. Silverbolt was safe. Silverbolt was...

Silverbolt was recharging curled against him, one arm lying loosely across Skyfire's body as though to be sure not to lose him somehow - though Skyfire could hardly go anywhere, since one of his own arms was pinned beneath Silverbolt, hand still resting against the wing he'd been stroking when they fell asleep. Skyfire offlined his optics and drew in a deep breath through his intakes. His spark felt loose and light, freed of a huge burden - and on fire with amazement and joy. For this moment, he could push aside the knowledge of all that had happened in the last few days, and acknowledge that he was happy - and luckier than he had any right to be.

He checked his chronometer - it was sometime in the afternoon - and his comms - which were devoid of messages or alerts. Ultra Magnus had told them all to rest for as long as they needed. Skyfire spared a moment of immense gratitude for the Autobots' new second-in-command, and let himself slip back into recharge.

The next time he awakened it was early evening, and Silverbolt was running drowsy fingers over his cockpit glass. Skyfire turned his head to meet Silverbolt's optics, which were barely lit, giving off only the faintest blue glow.

"Hey. How are you feeling?"

Silverbolt's optics brightened and he rolled closer to Skyfire, leaning up for a sleepy kiss.

"Like I just slept for a week. I didn't, did I?"

"Not even close."

Skyfire couldn't resist kissing him thoroughly in return, and for a while there wasn't really any further need for conversation.

Gradually, contentment gave way to a more focused interest, and Skyfire was just beginning to feel his systems start to race when Silverbolt jumped slightly and pulled away with a grimace.

"Comms," he said, optics fixing on a point across the room as he switched his attention elsewhere. "Hang on..."

Skyfire watched his face, entertained by the series of expressions that crossed it. He had a fair idea of what Silverbolt was going to say even before he sighed and looked down at Skyfire ruefully.

"My brothers have just woken up. Would it surprise you terribly to learn that they drank entirely too much high grade and Fireflight thinks his head is going to fall off?"

Skyfire laughed. "Not terribly."

"I'm tempted to let them sort themselves out..." Silverbolt ran his fingers down that one particular seam that always made Skyfire shiver. It didn't fail now. "But I guess I'd better go. I mean, we'll have time later... right?"

"I'm not going anywhere," Skyfire said. "Well. I might leave the berth..."

Silverbolt leaned down to kiss him for a long few seconds. When he drew back, he said hesitantly, "You could... come with me?"

"Would that be okay, do you think?"

"I think so. If you want to?"

Skyfire's answer was to sit up and swing his legs over the edge of the berth. Silverbolt's soft, happy smile almost stopped his spark. Skyfire followed him out into the corridor in a daze.

The big rec room was littered with mechs who hadn't made it to their quarters. Many were still flat out in recharge, including Blades and Slingshot, who had curled up together in a way that left little doubt that last night's revelation hadn't been some sort of hoax. Others were awake and in various stages of high grade hangover. Fireflight and Air Raid were sprawled pathetically on one of the couches, while Skydive was huddled mournfully in a chair nearby. Fireflight gave them the most woeful look Skyfire had ever seen on a mech.

"My head--" he began sombrely.

"-- is going to fall off. Yes, I've heard." Silverbolt sat on the edge of the couch and gently patted the head in question. "Did you use a med chip?"

"Don't have any."

"Me neither," moaned Air Raid, who was face down on a mesh cushion. "Even Skydive hasn't."

Skydive mumbled something incomprehensible about not being a walking dispensary and shot Silverbolt a pleading look.

Silverbolt passed out the little painkiller datachips without further comment. Skyfire found a few in his own subspace to supplement the supply (and pass over to nearby mechs who were in similar straits).

"M never drinkin' high grade again," Air Raid mumbled into his cushion.

"You said that last time," replied Skydive, who seemed more alert already. He looked thoughtfully at Silverbolt and Skyfire, but didn't comment. "And the time before."

"Shut up."

"Come on," said Silverbolt with only a trace of amusement. "Let's get you all back to our quarters."

"Don't wanna move," protested Air Raid.

"I can carry someone," offered Skyfire. He was not particularly surprised to find himself immediately in possession of a very wobbly Fireflight. "Ah. Sorry, Air Raid."

"Mrmph."

"I can manage you on my back," Silverbolt said. "You are going to have to sit up, though."

"Mrmph!"

"What about Slingshot?" Skyfire asked.

They all looked at Slingshot and Blades. Skydive reached over as if to shake his brother. Without apparently coming out of recharge, Blades twitched and made a noise that could only be described as a growl.

"... guess he's staying here, then," said Skydive.

"Yeah, he looks comfortable." Air Raid had finally lifted his head to peer at Slingshot with an expression that Skyfire had learned to be wary of. "Hey, has anyone got a camera--"

"No," said Silverbolt firmly. He hauled Air Raid upright, ignoring his protests. "Can you walk or do you want a ride?"

"I can walk. Not sure if I can walk in a straight line..."

"Come on, then."

It turned out that Air Raid's definition of walking could more accurately be described as rebounding off the corridor walls in a vaguely forwards direction, but Silverbolt and Skydive got his arms over their shoulders and half-carried, half-dragged him with them. Skyfire had no trouble carrying Fireflight; he was lighter and smaller than Silverbolt, and, for once in his existence, apparently not inclined to wriggle. He had rested his head against Skyfire's shoulder, and Skyfire almost thought he'd gone back to sleep, until he spoke.

"Are you... back?" Fireflight's voice was so soft it barely reached Skyfire's audios.

"Yes."

"For good?"

"Yes. For good."

"Good," said Fireflight. He didn't say anything else, but Skyfire could feel the soft wash of relief and gladness in his field.

By the time Skyfire had navigated the doorway into the Aerialbots' quarters, Air Raid had landed face down on the couch. He did not seem inclined to get up again, though from the volume of his protests, Skyfire guessed that his incapacity was exaggerated. Skydive had vanished, presumably to his own room, and Silverbolt was trying to persuade Air Raid that it wasn't much further to his berth. Skyfire carried Fireflight further into the room, almost tripping over a pair of crates in the corner, and deposited him carefully on the other couch. Then he looked down at his left foot, startled.

"Er..."

"Oh, Steelspring got out again." Fireflight seemed unconcerned by the large snake wrapping itself around Skyfire's leg, and Skyfire belatedly remembered that it was his pet. "Those crates aren't very secure but we can't get a new tank yet until all the important stuff's been taken care of--"

Skyfire could feel the crushing power of the snake's coils, deadly to its prey but insufficient to make a dent in his plating. He reached down and carefully unwound the python, holding it up to examine the markings.

"He is a beauty, isn't he?"

"He is!" Fireflight beamed proudly. "He can eat a whole rabbit. In one go!"

"That's... impressive."

"It certainly is," said Silverbolt dryly, "especially when he tries to follow it up with Fireflight's hand."

"I'm sure that was just a mistake and he didn't mean to..."

Skyfire looked at the snake, which was looking back at him with an air of calculation. He didn't see a lot of intelligence or empathy in those eyes, but he supposed that as long as it couldn't hurt Fireflight, there was no need to disabuse him of the notion. He carefully returned the python to its crates and wedged them more firmly shut.

"Between you and Beachcomber, Autobot City is becoming distinctly reptilian."

"Oh, we talked him out of the alligators," Silverbolt replied. "Eventually. Though maybe we shouldn't have, they might have given Megatron something to think about..."

He stopped, the lightheartedness ebbing from his face. It was impossible to get away from the battle completely.

"Anyway," Silverbolt went on, "You three are off duty until I say otherwise. So's Slingshot, whenever he comes back. Get some more rest and don't, I repeat, do not try to fly anywhere. Got it?"

Fireflight nodded, already looking like he was headed back into recharge. A faint snore was the only answer from Air Raid. Skydive's closed door made no comment. Silverbolt shook his head, cast a resigned look at Skyfire, and headed for the door.

"Though I'd be amazed if they could find the runway," Silverbolt added when they were out in the corridor, "let alone get into the air..."

Skyfire laughed.

"Now that's taken care of..." Silverbolt moved pointedly towards Skyfire's door. "I was thinking that since as far as I know I'm off-duty until I say otherwise..."

Skyfire caught him in the doorway and kissed him. Silverbolt pressed eagerly against him, and Skyfire was just fumbling for the keypad-- when his comms went off. Long-range ping, high priority, from Perceptor. It almost certainly was important enough to interrupt his downtime, no matter how well deserved.

He pulled back, his grimace no doubt speaking volumes, and Silverbolt half-laughed, half-sighed.

"It's going to be one of those days, isn't it?"

*
It was, in fact, one of those days.

*
"Perceptor's readings don't lie," Skyfire said, in the face of Ultra Magnus's scepticism. "The fusion reactor is still running at a stable level. And if Starscream really did unlock the first layer of encryption on the engine controls, we stand a real chance of gaining control of Cybertron's direction in the future. We could put the planet into orbit around a blue giant, harvest more solar radiation than we can use in a lifetime..."

"Or even Earth's sun," added Silverbolt. "The yield would be smaller, but we'd have the advantage of nearby allies and the extant facilities here and on Mercury for energy gathering..."

Skyfire had no idea when Silverbolt had picked up the technical terms he'd been using so confidently for the last ten minutes, but he was happy to have the backup. "Of course, in that case we'd have to carefully calculate the orbital effects... but we can think about that later. The point is, if we leave the fusion reactor to shut down, I don't know if we'll be able to restart it again."

Ultra Magnus sighed. "I'm reluctant to send our people out to Kalis when we're still uncertain of the stability of the planet--"

"I'm not." Rodimus Prime leaned forward on the comm screen. His transformation under the power of the Matrix had given him an appearance of greater maturity, and he was certainly working to live up to his title so far, but Skyfire suspected that scratching the surface of the new Prime would reveal much of the old, impetuous Hot Rod. "We should totally go for it. Now, while we can. I'll take Springer, Perceptor, and the Dinobots--"

"You can't go yourself," Ultra Magnus countered, with what looked like barely repressed impatience. "You have to delegate-- send out a few scouts, take it cautiously--"

"No way." The tone was light, almost teasing, but Skyfire saw something steely in the Prime's optics. "We've lost enough people. I'm not sending a couple of 'bots out on their own to get jumped by any Decepticons that might be lurking in Kalis. I'm going, and I'm taking a bunch of people with me. Hey, Skyfire, do you want to come?"

"No." The word was out before Skyfire could stop it. He winced at the abruptness of the answer. Rodimus was looking at him in surprise. "I mean... if you need me there, of course I'll... but I would rather stay on Earth."

"Okay, sure, no problem." Fortunately Rodimus didn't seem to mind being so blatantly contradicted. "We just pulled a guy out of stasis, mech called Sky Lynx, and he's got the weirdest root-mode, I think Swoop's in love... but he can fly, and he seems pretty impressed with himself, so we'll give him a shot at taking us out there."

"Rodimus," Ultra Magnus said, in a tone that would have made Skyfire think twice about crossing him, "perhaps you and I should discuss this further--"

"Nope, no time, gotta go, someone's yelling something about turborats in the air shafts, can't stop-- hey, Silverbolt, tell Bluestreak I got his messages, would you?-- bye all."

The screen flickered off on Rodimus's irrepressible grin. Ultra Magnus sat staring at it for long enough that Skyfire and Silverbolt exchanged uncomfortable glances.

"We're doomed," Ultra Magnus said, unexpectedly, and put his head in his hands. "Thank you for your input. Please show yourselves out."

*
Parting from Silverbolt was harder than Skyfire had imagined, even just for a few hours, but the kiss Silverbolt left him with was so full of promise that he was able to take some reassurance from it.

He went back to his quarters to work. He didn't want to go into the labs - not when Wheeljack's experiments would be sitting there, never to be finished - and he needed to use the comms more than he needed lab equipment. He called Perceptor at the same time as he brought up the data on the fusion reactor on his datapad. He was amused to see his friend looking up from his own datapad as he answered the comms.

"How are you getting on?"

"Rodimus is organising an exploratory team," Perceptor said. "I, ah, didn't expect quite such a direct response, I must say."

"Neither did Ultra Magnus. I'm not sure he knows what to make of our new leader."

"It must be hard," Perceptor agreed. "For both of them. I suspect that Rodimus is glad to have a chance to do something straightforward. I believe the enormity of the task before him is only just beginning to sink in. In many ways it is easier to lead in war than in peace."

"Optimus would have led as well in either," Skyfire said with a sigh. Then he caught himself. "Not that I mean any disrespect to Rodimus - it's just so--"

"I know." Perceptor glanced sideways, perhaps at a door or window. "So does he, I think. No-one means any disrespect... but no-one knows what to expect, either. And he is so young, and so... unlike Optimus. He will need people by his side who have no doubts, and at present, they are few and far between. Even his closest friends cannot help but wonder. Springer and Arcee would die for him, but they are finding it hard to take his orders without arguing."

"That sounds familiar. Maybe he should talk to Silverbolt and Hot Spot."

"It would do him a world of good, in my opinion, especially since they're closer in age. But he won't be able to come to Earth for some time, and I understand they cannot be spared."

"No." Skyfire looked over at the pile of debris he had swept into a corner. "The city is... it will take months, maybe years to repair it all."

"But... everyone there is well?" said Perceptor. "I was glad to hear there were no further casualties. And that Silverbolt and his brothers were unhurt."

"As well as they can be. Apart from the hangovers." Skyfire half-smiled, remembering Air Raid's complaints. "Silverbolt is - he's keeping everyone going, as usual."

"I'm not surprised. I hope he'll remember to attend to his own needs as well."

"He will if I have anything to do with it," Skyfire said with some feeling. Then, seeing Perceptor's raised brow-ridges and smirk, "I didn't mean--"

"I'm sure." Perceptor laughed at Skyfire's expression, but his smile was fond as he continued. "Was he glad to see you?"

"I... yes." Skyfire remembered how tightly they'd held each other the night before, and had to fight the urge to leap to his feet and immediately seek Silverbolt out. "Yes."

"Good. I'm glad. Are you staying there for now?"

"For the foreseeable future, except for supply runs. I'll need some things from Cybertron. The energon refinement system needs rebuilding from the ground up, and this time I want the equipment to do it properly..."

"If you send me a list, I'll put Wreck-Gar onto it - he has a knack for scavenging."

"That would be very helpful, thank you." Skyfire realised they had strayed completely away from his reason for calling. "Speaking of scavenging - I wanted to go over the Decepticon manifest lists that Elita-1's team put together before-- before. There are one or two components that you should look out for in Kalis - if Starscream--" and it was strange how easy it was to say his name now, "--was working on the long-range weapons I think he was, he'll have retrofitted them and you'll be able to use them in Iacon to get some of the major systems back up."

Perceptor grabbed his own datapad. "Go ahead." He paused, tilting his head as if listening. "Ah. I think Grimlock is having a disagreement with someone. Possibly several someones. Or a gestalt. I'll just lock the door..."

*
With Skyfire busy, Silverbolt saw no reason not to put himself back on duty, with his first order of business being a general check on the city. Metroplex reported no problems except a few lost and overcharged mechs who had now been safely shepherded to their own quarters. The rec room was slowly emptying out. Hot Spot's team had limped off sometime earlier, according those remaining, and Slingshot had last been seen heading for the Aerialbots' quarters. Sideswipe was still trying to work out exactly how he'd ended up under a couch that really did not have space under it for him, and Jazz was keeping a close optic on everyone. Silverbolt wasn't sure he'd even touched the high grade, though he'd done a good impression last night.

Bluestreak, who had left before Silverbolt the night before, had now apparently recharged and was back to full energy. This was getting him some protests from everyone else as he chattered away, but he didn't seem to mind. Remembering Rodimus's request, Silverbolt headed over to his spot by the window.

"Oh! Thanks!" said Bluestreak, obviously relieved. "I was wondering if the comms had gone through, it's still kinda spotty, I just wanted to check he's okay, I mean, it's gotta be hard, suddenly being Prime and all, and I guess he's really busy..."

"He is," Silverbolt said without hesitation. "It sounds like it's crazy up there."

"Now I feel bad for sitting around down here. Do you think I should ask Ultra Magnus to send me up to help?"

"You've earned a rest," Silverbolt said firmly. Bluestreak had pulled far more than his weight in the last few days, working constantly despite his obvious grief. "Also, Skyfire's the only one who could take you, and he needs at least a few shifts to recover before he flies back."

"Oh, of course, I didn't even think of that..." Bluestreak smiled properly for the first time in days. "He's okay, then?"

"Yes." Silverbolt almost said more, but he realised he didn't need to. Bluestreak could guess. "He's okay. He and Perceptor are doing something with fusion reactors right now. I prefer not to ask exactly what. Which reminds me, I should check on Inferno and Red Alert. See you later."

"Bye!"

As he left, Silverbolt noticed that Bluestreak immediately resumed his aimless stream of conversation. Sunstreaker half-heartedly threw an empty energon cube in his general direction, but Silverbolt thought it was out of habit rather than genuine irritation. Bluestreak had been too quiet since the battle, and there was something soothing about his easy, unselfconscious chatter.

Inferno had spent a couple of hours in the rec room, but had clearly been reluctant to leave the infirmary for long. Silverbolt found him recharging on a spare berth in the med bay. Red Alert was sitting up, still hooked into the direct feed, but now with his optics online and an array of datapads spread around him. He jumped fractionally when the door opened, and directed a piercing stare at Silverbolt for a few seconds as if assessing him for threats, but it was worlds better than his previous panic.

"How are you feeling?"

"Better, thank you." Red Alert spoke softly, obviously mindful of Inferno. "And yourself?"

"I'm fine. My brothers not so much, but they'll sleep it off."

Red Alert nodded. "I've been reviewing the security feeds. I didn't know we had that much high grade."

He sounded like he was trying to disapprove - more of the idea that he hadn't known something that was going on in the city than about the high grade itself - but his spark wasn't in it.

"I'm going over the reports from the last few days," he went on. "There is... so much to think about."

"I know." Silverbolt came and sat next to Red Alert's berth. He realised that just the knowledge that Red Alert and Metroplex were both watching over the city again had taken a weight off his shoulders. "I don't have anything to do for a while, if you want some help."

"That would be very much appreciated," replied Red Alert without hesitation. "And... thank you, Silverbolt, for all you've done."

Silverbolt wasn't sure if he meant helping Inferno set up the information feed, or beginning on the repair of the city. For Red Alert, both probably counted equally as personal favours. He picked up a datapad and brought up some of the more reassuring statistics - their supply of raw energon and the many offers of help from their human allies.

For several hours, they went through equipment lists, supplies, and damage reports. Ultra Magnus joined them for a while. Silverbolt half-expected him to reprimand them for working instead of resting, but he seemed to recognise that they could no more sit idle than he could, and merely thanked them. He left them with gigabytes of data on the battle with Unicron and the current situation on Cybertron. Red Alert preferred to continue his work with Autobot City's immediate needs, but Silverbolt turned to the new information with a mixture of eagerness and dread. He wanted to know everything that had happened... but he knew it would not be easy to read.

It was all there, the attack on the moonbases and their destruction, the desperate fight that had wiped out the lines between Decepticon and Autobot. He was achingly aware of how narrowly Skyfire had escaped being killed either on the energon run or by remaining in the bases. He tried not to think too hard about those who had been less fortunate. He moved on to the aftermath. Rodimus had made a hundred decisions in the first few hours, almost seeming to pick the answers at random, but Silverbolt didn't fault any of his choices. Either he was naturally gifted or the Matrix was helping - or both. Silverbolt thought of Bluestreak. He and Hot Rod had been racing partners and friends since Hot Rod arrived on Earth, both of them young and energetic and talkative enough to keep up with each other. If Bluestreak's comm messages were anything like his talk in the rec room, Rodimus was no doubt grateful for the semblance of normality.

He started scanning the lists of Decepticon defectors. There were few names there he recognised. Most of the Earth-based force had been too hardened to their cause to surrender - those who had survived. Optimus had been right, Silverbolt thought sadly - Megatron's attack on the city had been ill-advised, and it had cost him many of his best troops. But against all the odds, it had been unexpected enough to do so much damage before he was forced to retreat...

The list of Decepticon casualties went on - but Silverbolt stopped cold, staring at the name he had not until this moment even thought to look for.

Starscream was dead. There were no details, only a time stamp that placed his death after the battle of Autobot City, but before the arrival of Unicron.

Did... Skyfire know? He hadn't said anything. He might not have seen the casualty lists - but no, Silverbolt's command code enabled him to check the access history. Skyfire's datasequence was there, from just before he'd left Cybertron. He knew. But he hadn't said anything.

Well, but what could he have said? And what could Silverbolt say now? That he was sorry? It would ring hollow. He wasn't sorry. But he found he wasn't particularly glad, either. He'd long since realised that Starscream had already done his damage to Skyfire, and that his continued existence - anywhere in the universe - was a minor inconvenience in comparison. And, despite how much he'd learned to hate the Seeker - despite how he would have liked to return even a tenth of the pain inflicted on Skyfire - Skyfire had loved him once. There had been something in Starscream worthy of that.

Silverbolt lowered the datapad. Red Alert was still preoccupied with his work, but Silverbolt thought, all at once, that he would like to return to being off-duty for a while.

"No, no, go ahead," Red Alert said when Silverbolt asked if he would mind being left to his task. "Thank you for all your help."

A quick comm told him that Skyfire had finished with Perceptor and was in the Aerialbots' common room. That reassured Silverbolt, but he hurried anyway as he left the medbay.

*
When Skyfire turned off the terminal - his last sight of Perceptor being his resigned expression as he was shooed away from his console by Rodimus and three Dinobots who were ready to set off right now - he found that more time had passed than he'd expected. He'd covered everything with Perceptor that he'd wanted to, but then they'd got to talking about plans for Autobot City and the energon refinement system. It would be a huge task to build new machinery, especially with the more ambitious plans Skyfire was drawing up - but he realised that he relished the challenge. This was his home now, and he would do anything and everything in his power to help make it the best it could be.

Perhaps even more importantly, it was Silverbolt's home. Skyfire would never again leave it behind so lightly.

He went out into the corridor and pressed the door chime on the Aerialbots' quarters. After a few seconds, the door opened to reveal Skydive. Behind him, Skyfire could see the other three crowded onto one couch, apparently watching something on the screen that was drawing loud commentary from Slingshot and Air Raid.

"Is Silverbolt back yet?"

"Not yet."

Skyfire hesitated, suddenly and forcefully thrown back to the early days of their friendship - when he hadn't known if he would be welcome without Silverbolt there. But Skydive was already stepping back from the door, and there was no hesitation from Fireflight as he called, "Come and see what we've found!"

He expected them to be watching some human show or other, but whatever was playing was clearly Cybertronian. More surprisingly, nothing was on fire. In fact, everyone seemed to be talking quietly and normally, and Skyfire was momentarily at a loss as to what Air Raid and Slingshot were finding so hilarious.

Then someone on screen raised his voice, and it became apparent that some sort of torrid, forbidden love was taking place between the artillery vehicle and the communications array - in old-style Cybertronian hexadecameter. Air Raid and Slingshot cracked up at the ridiculous dialogue. Skydive gave Skyfire a long-suffering look.

"This is the third one we've watched. They're just getting stupider and stupider. Please tell me this isn't cultural."

"Oh, Primus, no." Skyfire watched, fascinated, as an escalating fight broke a window and several laws of physics. "I remember these. At least half the cast always ended up murdered by the other half, and some of the romances were logistically impossible without bending space-time. Everyone thought they were supposed to be parodies, but the director just kept making more and more... after a few vorns it slowly dawned on everyone that he was taking it completely seriously. And writing all the dialogue. There are a few hundred of them."

"A few hundred?" Skydive collapsed into a chair. "Primus."

"You distract them," Skyfire suggested, "and I'll scramble the transmitter--"

"We can hear you, y'know," said Air Raid cheerfully. "Oh, wow, is he gonna-- he totally did! Five points!"

Skydive sighed and pulled out a datapad, making a note of some kind. "See, after the first one, they came up with a scoring system..."

Skyfire intended to sit and read something on his own datapad - or go and find Silverbolt - but the movie was oddly compelling in its sheer dreadfulness. And it was hard to resist calling out scores once he understood the system. And they were all laughing, and for a while, none of them were thinking about anything more than this.

Silverbolt came through the door just as the grand finale hit an unprecedented triple digit jackpot, accompanied by shrieks and cheers from the Aerialbots. He stopped where he was, looked at his brothers, looked at the screen, looked at Skyfire, and said, "You know what, I'm going back to reading reports with Red Alert."

"It's a trap," Skydive told him, equally deadpan. "Help. Help us please."

"You could leave any time you liked!" said Air Raid. "And I saw you giggling about the anti-gravity eels."

"I don't giggle," retorted Skydive. "And if I didn't stay, you'd all get the scores mixed up and then you'd fight and then I'd be dragged into it anyway..."

Silverbolt ignored the rest of the argument, which seemed likely to descend into even further silliness, and came across the room to where Skyfire was sitting. To Skyfire's surprise, rather than taking another chair, he leaned over, kissed Skyfire firmly, and then settled himself in his lap.

The other Aerialbots pretended not to notice, although Air Raid couldn't entirely hide his smirk.

"Have any of you refuelled?" Silverbolt asked. His plating was warm and his field lapped eagerly into Skyfire's, sending shivers right to his spark.

"Yep," said Fireflight.

"Slingshot brought us some," Skydive clarified.

"Only 'cos Hot Spot told him to," added Air Raid.

"Hey!" Slingshot swatted Air Raid. "I coulda thought of it on my own if I'd known where you guys went..."

"We didn't think Blades would appreciate waking up in here," Skydive said innocently, "and it seemed to be a two-for-one deal back there..."

"Shut up." There was no real heat behind the words. "See if I ever bring you energon again."

"You know what time it is?" Air Raid had seized the remote. "Next movie time!"

"I haven't refuelled today," Skyfire said quietly to Silverbolt. "If you want to go and get some energon?"

"Maybe later." Silverbolt leaned his head against Skyfire's as Air Raid started the movie playing. "I'd like to stay here for now. If that's okay with you."

Skyfire didn't have to tell him in words that it was more than okay with him; he knew Silverbolt could feel it through the interplay of their fields, just as Skyfire could read his contentment and the fading memory of something that had shaken him. He queried silently, but Silverbolt gave the field equivalent of a shake of the head - not now. It's not important. The awareness of how thoroughly open they were to each other was terrifying, but in a different way from the fear he had felt before. This was the fear of a drop onto an unknown planet: exciting, awe-inspiring, and wonderful.

He would have happily spent the rest of the day there, watching ridiculous movies, with Silverbolt in his arms. So it was more or less inevitable when, some time later, Silverbolt grimaced, got off his lap, and said, with a sigh, "Comms..."

*
Silverbolt thought quite seriously about barricading the door as it closed behind them. He leaned against it with a long sigh and an exaggerated slump. Skyfire turned back and smiled sympathetically.

"Do you want me to carry you to the berth?"

That was tempting, just to get Skyfire's hands on him, but Silverbolt's pride rebelled. "No, I'm fine."

Skyfire's quarters were already looking better - either he'd found time to clear up the debris or Metroplex had sent his drones in. Silverbolt walked past Skyfire and collapsed on the berth, offlining his optics in relief. A moment later, the padding dipped as Skyfire sat beside him. He began to stroke Silverbolt's helm lightly, and this time when Silverbolt sighed it was with contentment.

"We'd better recharge while we can," Skyfire said after a moment, an almost-question behind the words.

Silverbolt turned his optics back on, reached up, and pulled Skyfire firmly down to the berth for a long kiss.

"Not yet."

He could feel the immediate answering surge of systems from Skyfire. Moments later, they were tangled together on the berth, finally free to touch each other the way they had been craving all day. Silverbolt took a moment to set his comms to only permit urgent messages - and hoped devoutly that none would come through - before he busied himself exploring all the sensitive junctures of Skyfire's plating. Then Skyfire reached for his wings, very deliberately dragging his fingers along the curves so that Silverbolt shuddered and arched against him. That in turn sent shivers of sensation through Skyfire's field, rippling like water that lapped over Silverbolt's plating.

Skyfire began kissing him over and over, steadily more urgent. Silverbolt didn't even try to hold back the moan that escaped his vocaliser as Skyfire laid his hand on Silverbolt's chest and rubbed his thumb over the spot directly above his spark chamber.

"Can I..." Skyfire stumbled over the words, voice almost inaudible. "Can I see?"

He'd never asked Silverbolt to expose his spark, even after they'd discovered the pleasure of touching the casing. It had seemed to be a boundary he could not bring himself to cross.

Silverbolt stopped making the effort to keep his chestplates closed. The light from his spark spilled out, illuminating Skyfire's face. The raw emotion there made Silverbolt shudder and reach for him, wrapping his arms tightly around Skyfire and kissing him passionately. Everything felt far more intense with his spark exposed. He almost thought he could overload just from this.

Skyfire seemed to have other plans. He edged them apart just enough that he could stroke the very edge of Silverbolt's spark chamber. Silverbolt's optics snapped offline as he arched into the touch, crying out helplessly. Primus, he was right on the edge already... he wanted it to last longer, but oh, he needed this...

But Skyfire had withdrawn his hand and gone still. His field was rippling with such a torrent of emotion that it was like being buffeted by a gale. Silverbolt onlined his optics and reached up to touch Skyfire's face questioningly. Skyfire turned his head into the touch, and Silverbolt realised he was shaking.

"If..." Skyfire caught Silverbolt's hand in his own, pressing it against his cheek. "If we'd been spark sharing, before... if we'd, if we'd been bonded... I would've known you were alive... I, I would have known..."

"Maybe," Silverbolt replied softly, controlling the wild, ecstatic response from his spark to the words. "Maybe not. Bonds aren't always reliable over extreme distances. I... read up on them. A while ago. It might not have made any difference, not after such a short time."

Skyfire drew a shuddering breath, and Silverbolt knew that this had been haunting him. He gently moved his fingers against Skyfire's faceplates, stroking lightly.

"It's okay," he said. "Really. You don't--"

"Can you imagine," Skyfire interrupted, quiet but intense, determined to say this now he'd found the courage, "can you imagine what it's like to open your spark to someone... someone you love... someone you've convinced yourself is... better... than they are... and in that moment of vulnerability, when neither of you can pretend, you have to face who they really are, what they really are, and it's nothing like what you want to believe is true - and you can't hide your horror and disgust and dismay, but worse than that, you can feel the same reaction from him, because he never really wanted you for what you were, only... only for what he thought he could make of you... and even worse again, you know you never really wanted him for what he was, either, but only... only for what you pretended he was by willfully blinding yourself..."

Silverbolt couldn't imagine it, but he could feel it in Skyfire's field - the crawling, sickening reality of such a revelation. He understood then. It was all laid out like a map in Skyfire's field. To him, sharing sparks was a thing that destroyed love and ended joy - a thing that stripped away all pretence and left only pain. He had never experienced the gestalt bond, which had taught Silverbolt how it was possible to be utterly different and yet fit together. And he had never dared share his spark again after the trauma of those handful of efforts with someone whose true self he had never wanted to know.

"Oh, Skyfire," he whispered, moving to pull Skyfire down into his arms and holding him tightly. "I love you. And... I understand. We don't ever have to try, if you don't want to. Or I'll wait as long as you need, until you believe me when I say I already know you by heart, and there is nothing in you that could dismay me."

"I do believe you," Skyfire murmured into his audio receptor. "I... think I started believing you... before... but I didn't-- I couldn't--"

"I know." Silverbolt turned his head so he could kiss Skyfire's helm. "It's okay now."

Skyfire shifted around so that they were kissing fully again. Silverbolt's spark was still pulsing needily, but the intensity had ebbed. He wanted more than anything to bring Skyfire to overload, to smooth away some of the memory of that unhappiness with sheer, uncomplicated pleasure. He found the edge of one of Skyfire's wings and began to massage it in the way he knew Skyfire loved. Skyfire moaned faintly into the kiss, and Silverbolt pressed him down onto the berth, sliding in close so that the energy flickering out of his spark could cascade over Skyfire's plating.

He felt the moment of decision in Skyfire's field a split second before his chestplates opened.

Silverbolt pulled back, looking down at Skyfire for a moment that seemed to last forever.

"I meant it. I can wait," he said. "As long as you need."

"I know, but... I can't." Skyfire reached for him, and there was no hesitation now. "Not any more."

The first touch spark to spark made them both cry out and flinch - it was so intense it was almost painful. Almost, but not quite - and once started, neither of them could stop. Feedback spilled over from both of them, looping around and around, so that Silverbolt could feel Skyfire as if he was Skyfire, and he could feel Skyfire feeling him, and--

Overload hit them both simultaneously, so hard and bright and glorious that Silverbolt felt like he was falling. But there was no fear - not even a trace. And in that moment when they were one, Silverbolt finally did, truly, understand - no matter how well you knew someone, no matter how close you were, the depths of their spark would always be strange and unexpected and impossible for you to truly understand...

... but there was nothing there that could change the way he saw Skyfire. And in the constant echo of feedback, he knew that Skyfire knew it... and he knew that Skyfire saw nothing in Silverbolt he could not accept.

Long after the aftershocks of overload had faded, they stayed close, half-awake and gently looping wordless thoughts and soft-coloured emotions back and forth between them. Silverbolt was happier than he could ever remember being, even in the wake of all that had happened.

"I love you," Skyfire murmured. He didn't need to. Silverbolt could not only read it in his field, he knew it now in the depths of his own spark. But the words were an affirmation, and a promise. "I've missed you so."

"You too," whispered Silverbolt. "I missed you too."

*
The city was starting to look better from the air, even though the interior was still a mess. Red Alert had managed to manually transform Metroplex back into his resting state - to the city guardian's relief - and much of the exterior damage was repaired. Somehow, the appearance of normality made all the difference. Silverbolt could look down on his home and feel that it was once more a place of safety. Although he was going to have to talk to Blaster about the lights on the comm tower - obviously, he'd done what he could with the resources he had available, but the flashing disco panels were... disconcerting. And Air Raid kept trying to 'dance' on his way down to the runway, which Silverbolt could only see ending poorly for all concerned. Speaking of which...

:Try not to crash into the city we've just spent three weeks repairing,: he said as all four of his brothers shot past, dog-fighting with low powered lasers. :Or at least aim for the moat if you do.:

:No-one's gonna crash,: Air Raid replied, spinning dizzyingly out of the way of Slingshot's latest volley. :Relax, Silverbolt.:

:I am relaxing,: Silverbolt protested. :Well, as much as I can when you maniacs keep almost-- watch out for that tower, Fireflight!: He paused. :Are you doing this on purpose now?:

Laughter over the comms confirmed his suspicion. Silverbolt sighed and pulled around in a long curve that would take him a little higher - but he would have been smiling if he'd been in root mode. They could tease him all they wanted - it was worth it to see them wheeling happily through the sky. They hadn't had a chance to fly for pleasure for weeks. He was glad they had an excuse to get out into the clear air for a bit.

He scanned upwards, but there was no sign of Skyfire yet. The sky was shading slowly towards evening and soon the first stars would be out. Silverbolt had to resist the urge to fly higher and higher - just for now, he had no fear of falling. He was too full of anticipation.

Lasers splashed across his undercarriage, tickling the plating. Silverbolt yelped over the comms, prompting more laughter, and banked left in time to see Slingshot racing away.

:Come on, Silverbolt,: said Air Raid. :He's not going to be here for ages yet. Play with us!:

:I wasn't--: Silverbolt stopped, realising that there was no point in pretending when he could feel their knowing amusement through the gestalt bond. :Who's keeping score?:

:Who do you think?: Skydive asked dryly.

Instead of replying, Silverbolt carefully took note of where they all were in the sky relative to him. He couldn't twist as agilely as the smaller jets, but if he lined up right and built up some speed....

His brothers scattered in the face of his sudden, roaring descent. Fireflight shrieked gleefully over the comms, and Skydive got off a few startled shots before he turned and fled.

:Oh, bring it on,: crowed Air Raid, recovering first and turning for the attack. :Bet we can hit you four times before you can hit each of us once.:

:I'll take that bet.:

In the end, it was a close thing - Slingshot and Skydive double-teamed him, and Slingshot's accuracy was only improving with time - but Silverbolt managed to tag each of them in turn. Then, made mischievous by victory, he tweaked the settings on his electrical generator, and snapped off a weak burst of lightning - just enough to make them all yell and laugh as static danced over their plating.

Silverbolt's long-range comms pinged. He opened the channel, still laughing.

:Stormy weather down there?: Skyfire asked innocently.

:No idea what you're talking about,: Silverbolt replied cheerfully. Air Raid and Fireflight were coming in for revenge. He turned and fled, climbing as he went. :Are you in visual range?:

:Look up.:

One of the emerging stars was brighter than the others, and falling rapidly towards them. Silverbolt almost imagined he could feel Skyfire getting closer, although he knew that they hadn't been spark sharing long enough to form a bond yet. He wondered how long it would take before they started to notice, before he could be quietly sure, in the back of his processor, that Skyfire was all right, no matter where he was.

:I see you. Did you get all the supplies?:

:Yes. Wreck-Gar is very efficient, although I wish he'd let someone reprogram his vocaliser. I should be able to get the refinery up and running in a couple of shifts.:

:Great!: Silverbolt dodged a volley of shots from Fireflight. :You'll be hailed as a hero. Sideswipe may try to kiss you.:

:I'll bear that in mind,: said Skyfire gravely, :and take appropriate evasive action. Speaking of which, do you need any help down there?:

Slingshot had circled to cut him off, and Skydive was stalking him several thousand feet below. He was momentarily unsure where Air Raid was, which was never a good thing.

:Well, if you're offering...:

Oh, damn, Air Raid had somehow managed to get above him. In fact, they had him boxed in rather nicely - and Silverbolt was overwhelmed for a moment with pride and admiration. They had come so far - all five of them. He could never have imagined, when they'd first awakened, that this would be their future. And he would never have believed he could be so happy.

And then Skyfire dived out of the evening sky, silver wings flashing golden in the sunset light, and sent Air Raid fleeing out of the way with a surprised yelp.

:That's cheating!:

:That's tactics,: Silverbolt corrected him, spark soaring as Skyfire settled into place off his wing. :Now, about that bet...:

-- end chapter 23 --