Author's note : Yes, a fic that doesn't star the Stunticons. I'm as surprised as you are.

There's also a shoutout to Koi Lungfish's "Stuck in the Mud". Hope you enjoy!

Chapter 1

Unless his team was engaged in battle, Silverbolt kept their gestalt link in a corner of his mind, functioning like a necessary but self-regulated subroutine. Or background noise, of which there was plenty when the other Aerialbots were around.

It wasn't that he disliked being constantly aware of his teammates, exactly. It was just easier to go about his duties and catch up on his reading and maybe even spend a little time trying to play N-dimensional chess with Perceptor when he wasn't distracted by the often volatile surge and flux of his team's emotions. If ever those got really out of control, he checked in with them, but for the most part he left them alone. They knew they could rely on him if things ever got really bad, but they also knew he wasn't going to peer over their shoulders or bail them out of every scrape.

So when he heard the chorus of footsteps approaching his office, he guessed something was up. He set down the flight schedule he'd been going over and tapped the gestalt link, just enough to sense an undercurrent of deep resentment. It felt as unpleasant as sandpaper rubbed against his wings, but just as impotent, incapable of doing any real damage.

He still knew it would be a little while before he could return to the flight schedule, though.

"Hey, Silverbolt!" someone said from outside, the words almost drowned out as a fist thumped on the doors.

It was Air Raid, and he didn't sound happy at all. Silverbolt leaned back in his chair, trying to make himself as comfortable as possible for whatever was going to happen.

"Come in," he said, and the doors hissed apart. The other Aerialbots crowded inside immediately.

As the team leader, Silverbolt merited not only his personal quarters but an office, and although that had previously been large enough for him to meet with Optimus Prime, Prowl and Hot Spot simultaneously, it never seemed big enough to accommodate all the Aerialbots. Their height and wingspans filled it, and everywhere he looked was red and white rather than the dull orange of the Ark's walls.

Skydive claimed one of the two chairs on the other side of the room, but the other stayed empty and Silverbolt could tell right away that the other Aerialbots were too agitated to keep still. Turbines whirred and Slingshot's wing flaps were twitching. Above them, the tiny model Concorde hanging by a fine wire from the ceiling swayed minutely, as if buffeted by a wind.

"What's wrong?" Silverbolt said without preamble.

"It's Powerglide," Air Raid said at once. "He was talking slag about you."

Oh, is that all? Silverbolt almost wanted to laugh, because he was far too used to how some of the Autobots (the other Autobots, he reminded himself, because we're Autobots too) talked about them. Odd that that would have upset the team so much, though.

"Powerglide's just jealous," he said, looking around at the team. Slingshot's arms were folded and Fireflight's mouth set in a tight line; they really were taking this seriously, so he had to defuse the situation. "He was the only Autobot flyer before we showed up. Of course he's going to—"

"He can be jealous all he fragging well likes," Air Raid said. "But he doesn't get to pull rank he doesn't have."

"Air Raid," Silverbolt said as evenly as he could, "don't interrupt me again. All right?"

He was fond of his team and so he tolerated a lot from them; they could tease him, ask how he had ever become their leader or even question his decisions, albeit in private. But he didn't allow them to get away with open rudeness, not in private, not anywhere. Especially not Air Raid, whose unruly streak was a mile long; Silverbolt liked his defiance, but not when it turned in his direction.

So now Silverbolt waited until he got a half-grudging nod in reply, then continued. "What do you mean, pull rank?"

"He said he should be the Autobot Air Commander," Skydive said.

Silverbolt laughed—he couldn't help it. "Are you serious?" He knew the answer in the next moment, of course; Skydive was perhaps the only Aerialbot completely lacking in a sense of humor, and anything to do with flying he took even more seriously.

"You think that's funny?" Slingshot said with a withering look. He leaned against the wall, arms still crossed and his optics fire-hot behind his orange visor. "Well, a lot of 'bots don't. And if they agree with that jumped-up glider…"

"Just where are we going to be?" Air Raid said.

Fireflight nodded. "Besides, if anyone should be the Air Commander, it's you, Bolt."

Of the five of them, Fireflight was the most good-natured, so he said that as if conferring a well-earned reward, but Silverbolt felt any remaining traces of a smile drain off his face. He had no desire to get into some sort of contest with Powerglide—or with anyone, for that matter.

"I'm already the Aerialbot leader," he said. "I don't need to be anything else, but Powerglide doesn't have any such position. So let him pretend to be the Air Commander if he likes. I've got no problem with him being the self-appointed Autobot version of Starscream."

He thought that would settle it, because the Aerialbots were united in their loathing of Starscream, much as they secretly admired his skill in flight. But Air Raid shook his head.

"We told him just what Fireflight told you," he said. "That if anyone was the Air Commander, it was you."

Oh great, Silverbolt thought. "Where did all this happen again?"

"In the common room."

Better and better. The Ark was not a private place; by nightfall every 'bot would have heard about the confrontation. "And he just said he should be the Air Commander, out of the blue?"

There was a subtle change in Air Raid's expression, brief as a flicker in his optics, but Silverbolt caught it—just as he did the quirk of Slingshot's mouth and the sudden uncertainty in Fireflight's face. He said nothing, though. For all Air Raid's faults, he always admitted to whatever he had done, and sure enough he spoke up a moment later.

"Well, not exactly out of the blue," he said, shifting his weight from one foot to another. "I told a joke about him."

"I see," Silverbolt said. There was a pause. "Go on."

"Go on?" Air Raid said with an air of innocence.

"Share the joke."

"Oh." He paused, evidently thinking it over and realizing that Silverbolt would eventually hear the joke from some other 'bot. Or perhaps even from its subject, in which case it would sound ten times more offensive than it would be coming from the source. So he smiled broadly and launched into it.

"Powerglide staggers into some minibots' meeting looking all banged up and dented. 'Whoa man,' says Brawn. 'What happened to you?' Powerglide hangs his pointy head. 'Well,' he says, 'I was flying over the beach when I looked down and what did I see but Jazz lying there on his back, all polished and shiny, with his legs spread and his interface panel open. So of course I dived down.'"

If Silverbolt could have crawled under his desk he would have done so. As it was, it took all his considerable self-control not to react in any way, much less sink his head into his hands. Air Raid continued, his grin growing wider.

"'Wow,' Bumblebee says. 'Jazz must've been startled.' 'Yeah,' Powerglide says, 'but not as much as Mirage was!'"

He cracked up laughing, Fireflight chuckled and Slingshot smirked. Skydive just looked as though he was a thousand miles away. Silverbolt waited until they were silent again.

"Were Jazz or Mirage in the common room at the time?" he said, though he had a feeling the answer was yes. Air Raid simply wasn't the type to do anything behind anyone's back.

"Jazz was," Air Raid said, sounding utterly unconcerned about the proprieties of telling dirty jokes involving the third-in-command of their army. "Don't worry, Bolt, he thought it was hilarious."

He would, Silverbolt thought. "And Mirage?"

"Didn't see him around," Slingshot said.

If he had been trying to lessen the tension in the room, it didn't work, and there was a brief silence as Silverbolt made a mental note to apologize to Mirage later. That kind of humor wouldn't have gone down well with him or Powerglide; Mirage was too fastidious and Powerglide too self-important.

"So that's why Powerglide said he should be the Air Commander," he said. That was starting to make a lot more sense now.

"Well, maybe, but that doesn't make it fair," Air Raid said. "I mean, if he was torqued off about the joke he should've taken it out on me instead of trying to grab your position."

"That's not my position!" Silverbolt said, feeling his usual restraint start to fray. "I am not interested in being Air Commander, all right? The Autobots don't even need such a rank."

"Why not?" Fireflight said. "I mean, the 'cons have it."

"Half of them are flyers," Skydive said, apparently returning from whatever reverie had kept him preoccupied. "So their second-in-command had to be a flyer as well, and therefore the Air Commander."

"Second-in-command, huh?" Air Raid said, optics gleaming.

"No," Silverbolt said, before he realized Air Raid hadn't meant that—he'd just been trying to get a rise out of his leader. Primus preserve me. He decided to turn the conversation away from himself and back to just how useless such a rank was to the Autobots.

"Skydive is right," he said, feeling relieved that there was at least one Aerialbot who talked sense. Unlike the others, Skydive was never emotional. "The Decepticons may need an Air Commander, but we don't—and I hope we're not going to look to them for our standards again."

That was a fairly pointed dig and Slingshot looked sullen, but Air Raid was just as determined as ever. "You're not even going to consider it?" he said. "I mean, think of how the 'bots would treat you. How they'd treat all of us. Air Commander is a big step up from being just another gestalt team leader."

"And there might be privileges," Skydive added. "Right now you have to file flight schedules each time we go on patrol or on training manuevers—and you have to get those approved. The only time we just taxi out and get in the air is when the 'cons attack and everyone decides we're needed."

"That's because unidentified aircraft suddenly appearing in someone's airspace are usually treated as Decepticons." Silverbolt tried to keep the tautness out of his voice, but he didn't succeed. The others got into trouble together because they were reckless or belligerent or just plain impressionable, but when Skydive followed them into a mess (or worse still, instigated one himself), it was because he had convinced himself on some logical level that it was the best thing to do. And arguing him out of such a position was well-nigh impossible.

"Powerglide seems to fly whenever he wants to, instead of on a schedule," Skydive said. Before Silverbolt could point out that Powerglide flying overhead didn't resemble one of the Decepticon F-15s—Air Raid did, and had been shot down once for it—he continued. "Besides, that isn't the only privilege I had in mind. If you were the Air Commander we could get our own quarters."

That was a sore spot, Silverbolt realized. With the addition of two gestalt teams, not to mention newcomers like Skyfire, the Autobots' numbers had grown, and as a result Skydive had to share a room with Fireflight. Silverbolt had never thought of Fireflight as a difficult roommate—it wasn't as though Skydive had to share space with Gears or Sunstreaker—but Skydive liked his privacy.

Plus, he was, technically at least, the second-in-command of the team—though Silverbolt couldn't help wishing for a second-in-command who backed him up. Then he reminded himself that the real function of that position was to look out for the good of the team, not necessarily of the leader.

But he didn't think this latest and craziest idea would do the Aerialbots any good. If he somehow became the Air Commander, not that Prime would ever entertain the notion, it would make Powerglide resent them more, and a lot of other Autobots might see them as taking another step too close to the 'cons for comfort. Silverbolt and Hot Spot were good friends, so Hot Spot probably wouldn't envy him, but Silverbolt wouldn't be just another gestalt leader—he'd be someone with ambitions above and beyond that.

"If you want your own quarters so badly, I'll see what I can do," he said. There were parts of the Ark which were deserted due to damage but which were being rebuilt, not to mention cautious excavations into the volcano. "But I'm not going to make a blatant power grab, so you can all forget about that."

"Yeah, Silverbolt's right," Slingshot said to the others. He uncrossed his arms, clearly pleased to have everyone's attention on him. "He's not the kind who goes after power. He gets it handed to him by Prime."

"Slingshot," Silverbolt said, a warning in his tone. It was one thing to be criticized, but that was going too far.

"Isn't that the truth?' Slingshot looked a challenge at him. "You got your rank from Prime. That's fine, we're used to it. But here's a rank you could earn, and you don't want to."

"And how exactly am I supposed to earn it?" Silverbolt was starting to get angry. "By beating Powerglide in a race? By beating him, period?"

"Sure!" Air Raid said eagerly. "His top speed is nowhere near yours."

"No one'd ever talk slag about you again," Fireflight put in.

Slingshot nodded. "We'd like having a leader whom other 'bots looked up to... maybe literally."

Silverbolt was on his feet before he could think once, let alone twice, and since he was taller than any of the other Aerialbots, he stared down at them. In the back of his mind he sensed their surprise and unease, a gradual realization that they had gone too far, but the sharp raw sting at their words felt much closer at hand.

"Sorry to have disappointed you," he said curtly, and strode out of his office.