He could hear voices.
"He's as good as dead. He has to be- no one could survive that!"
"As good isn't good enough. Get the clamps. We don't give up until his spark goes out, got it?"
"Slag, he's crashing!"
"Frag it! Skydive, stay with us!"
Vaguely, he realized that he should be concerned.
"The others are going, too! Leave him, he's too far gone! We might be able to save the others..."
It hurt... how or why, he wasn't sure, but somehow, under the haze, it hurt unbearably...
"Slag it, not you too!"
They were the Autobots' first attempt at a gestalt team, and the jets did far better than even Wheeljack had hoped. They were, quite frankly, a marvel of engineering. They had to combine not only the flight systems of their alt mode with the circuitry, armor, and weaponry of a Cybertronian warrior, but also the redundant systems and heavy framework required for a gestalt.
Forced to choose between root-mode flight systems and reduced combat maneuverability, they had chosen to scrap the extra flight capabilities. Being able to fly in robot form was useless if it cost them their ability to match the seekers in the air.
And for the most part, the Aerialbots hadn't missed them. So they couldn't fly in root mode. Who wanted to? Their alt modes were much more streamlined, and far more comfortable in the high winds of Mach speed. If it meant that only Slingshot could take off and land in tight quarters, so be it. They were jets, designed to take on airborne seekers. They weren't often called to fight on the ground, anyway. On the rare occasion the Decepticons managed to get close enough to attack them before they could take off, the ground troops had always provided cover long enough for them to get into the air, and take the fight to the Decepticons.
Until one day, they hadn't.
It was hard to piece together later exactly what had happened – whether it was a failure of the jury-rigged alarm systems, of the mechs watching them, or a traitor in the ranks. All they really knew was that the Decepticons appeared out of the dead of night, attacking without warning or hesitation.
The Autobots had awoke to the sound of explosions and screaming alarms. They'd grabbed their weapons and rushed out to meet their attackers, only to be shot down as they left the dubious safety of the makeshift base.
Air Raid had bolted from the buildings, taking to the air – there was no way they were going to fight off so many seekers from the ground, and he knew that their only hope was for the Aerials to distract the Decepticons long enough for the ground forces to pull together. The Decepticons knew it as well, and had been waiting for him. Running out behind Air Raid, his gestalt-mates had watched him fall, tumbling uncontrolled to the ground, trailing fire.
Silverbolt had made it into the air, only to be gunned down before he could so much as retract his landing gear. The big white Concorde had been a big white target for the seekers. Later, there would be speculation that the Decepticons had targeted him specifically, knowing that removing him removed all possibility of the Aerials combining into Superion.
At the time, Slingshot hadn't had the time to consider it at all. He'd taken off just after Silverbolt, barely clearing the buildings before a missile streaked under him, smashing into the bunker and collapsing it on top of his remaining teammates. He hadn't even been able to turn and try to see if they'd made it out; the seekers swarmed him, lasers burning trails across his fuselage and wings.
It was a bitter irony that the vertical take off configuration that had been responsible for his being left behind by his faster teammates saved his life many times over that night, granting him a maneuverability that the seekers couldn't hope to match. He'd always cursed it before, considering the maneuverability it granted not worth the reduction in speed and endurance.
But as good as he was, as maneuverable as he was, there were simply too many. For every one he shot down, another took his place, and they had far more guns than he did. A missile caught him in a wing finally, sending him spiraling to the ground.
When he awoke, he was alone. Not literally – the med bay had been full of the injured and medical personnel. But as he lay on the berth, he felt empty and cold, and more alone than he'd ever felt in his life.
They're dead, he realized hollowly.
A white figure weaved its way through the injured, coming to stand by Slingshot's berth. Ratchet checked over his patches and welds with quick, efficient motions, trying not to flinch at the desperate look Slingshot gave him.
"It's good that you're finally awake. Fireflight could use the company," Ratchet said to distract the young jet, trying not to wonder if he was saying it for Slingshot's benefit or his own. "We moved him out of Medbay earlier; he came back in a bit better shape than you did." It wasn't easy keeping his voice even while Slingshot was looking at him like that, but he managed. "A piece of the ceiling pinned him in the rubble and mangled one of his wings, but no permanent damage." He flinched as soon as the words came out of his vocalizer. No permanent damage? What else would you call losing three-fifths of a gestalt?
"'Flight? He's okay?" Slingshot demanded.
"He's..." He's not anything approaching 'okay,' "He's been patched up," Ratchet settled for. "Whoa, not so fast," he said, catching Slingshot as he tried to sit up. "You'll ruin all that work we put into piecing you back together."
Slingshot sat there, shivering under Ratchet's hands and staring off to the side. With a feeling of sick horror, Ratchet realized that the jet was staring directly at the area where the medics had tried – and failed – to save Silverbolt.
"You should have just let me die," Slingshot whispered hoarsely.
"Don't you fragging say that," Ratchet said fiercely, giving Slingshot a little shake. "What do you think would have happened to Fireflight? We almost lost him as it was; do you think he'd survive losing another brother?" He softened his tone, resting his hand in the crook where Slingshot's wing met his fuselage. "He needs you, Slingshot. You're the only person he's got left."
"Hey, 'Flight," Slingshot murmured, pulling himself up to sit on Fireflight's berth. "How're you feeling today?" He stroked one of Fireflight's long wings absently, not really expecting a response. He'd done the same thing every morning since he'd woken up in Medbay six days ago, and he hadn't got a reaction yet.
Fireflight just laid there on his berth, staring at nothing.
Slingshot sighed. "Come on, it's time for you to refuel." Slowly, mindful of his own healing injuries, Slingshot slid back off the berth and tugged Fireflight into a seated position. He wrapped the red jet's hands around a cube of energon and settled back onto the berth next to him.
Slowly, Fireflight's optics dropped to the cube in his hands but he made no attempt to drink it, apparently mesmerized by the swirling colors.
Wearily, Slingshot guided the cube up to his mouth. "Drink it, don't just play with it, 'Flight."
Smokescreen insisted Fireflight's ability to interact with things, however limited, was a good sign, showing that the jet wasn't completely catatonic. That there was something of the old Fireflight still there.
Slingshot didn't see it, but he couldn't give up on Fireflight, not if there was even the slightest chance...
"Ratchet says I'm almost fit to get out of here," he continued after a moment. "I don't think they want me going back to the front lines, but I can't just sit around, y'know? Too much time to think when I'm cooped up in here. Smokescreen's agreeing with me, surprisingly. He's turning out to be not too bad of a guy, Smokey." Slingshot let his head rest against Fireflight's shoulder. "I'll have to leave you for a while, but Smokey'll take care of you while I'm gone, okay?"
Fireflight didn't respond, totally engrossed in the energon.
"I'll get them," Slingshot promised quietly. "The ones responsible for this, for Silverbolt and Skydive and Air R-raid..." his voice broke. It took him a moment to pull himself together enough to speak again, his voice rough. "I'll get them. All of them."
Fireflight sipped his energon in silence.
"You did the right thing," Wheeljack said quietly, watching the two jets from behind the observation deck window.
"Did I?" Ratchet asked, shoulders slumped.
"Bein' responsible for 'Flight'll help keep Slingshot together." Wheeljack looked over at him. "Gives him somethin' to live for."
"Sometimes I think it would have been kinder to just let them both go," Ratchet admitted, not looking at Wheeljack. "They'll never be fully healed, no matter what Smokescreen says. I... I just wonder if maybe we didn't do them an injustice by forcing them to live."
"Ratchet..." Wheeljack laid a hand on Ratchet's shoulder. "You gave them a chance, and that's all anyone could ask. It's up to them now. Come on, let's get you refueled, too."
"Is it?" Ratchet asked doubtfully. He gave the jets one last pained look before allowing himself to be led away.