Sideswipe and wisdom. The last two words you'd expect to appear in a single sentence, without a negative qualifier (none, not) between them. But hey, the big red guy might surprise you.
Maybe, Sideswipe mused later, it was nothing more than the paint job the recent recruit wore that had initially endeared him to the twins.
The kid was red and yellow. Sideswipe's red, trimmed in Sunstreaker's yellow.
He had more guts than was good for him; the twins knew this since he was quite often the sparring partner of one or the other. He also appeared to possess the approximate common sense of a variable-speed rotary drill - the kind that runs just fine without load, and then slows down, if not stops entirely, when given something to do.
This had been his first battle. First encounter, really, with the enemy; he'd been on patrol, but hadn't met with any Decepticons while performing that duty.
"Hey, kid," the red warrior said, sitting down on the earth beside the younger mech.
The kid raised optics leaking cleaning fluid to Sideswipe. "Sides."
"What's up?" The red warrior didn't put his arm around the kid, although he wanted to.
The kid made a helpless, palm-up gesture with one arm, to include the whole of the battlefield, littered with scrapped armor from both sides and a few offlined Decepticons. "I had my first kill."
"Got to ya, hunh," Sideswipe said.
"Yeah, it did. I mean … I'd never killed before. Never seen a human die before, either."
Sideswipe leaned into the kid so that their fields intermingled, and the kid could get the reassurance he needed.
The kid, reciprocating, leaned into Sides. In response, Sideswipe put his arm around the younger mech's shoulders. "How'd it happen?" the seasoned warrior said.
"I … he was trying to shoot down Skyfire, and Skyfire had wounded aboard."
"How far was he from you?"
The kid shrugged. "Hundred-twenty yards."
"You had a good shot?"
The kid nodded. "Jazz was closest, but still clear. There was nobody of ours behind him, if I missed."
Sideswipe was impressed by the kid's foresight, but knew this wasn't the time to mention that. "So you took the shot."
"Yeah. And I … I put it right through his spark casing."
"Good. He didn't have any time to suffer, then."
The kid leaned in even closer. "But it's … it's not like when you're in the shooting range. I mean, I felt it. I felt his pump stop, and I felt his spark leave."
Sideswipe's eyes grew distant, seeing not the battlefield in front of him, nor the drones harvesting usable armor, but the inside of his own processor. "Yeah. That's the thing they don't tell you about, isn't it? You always know."
Sideswipe's arm tightened briefly around the kid's shoulders. "Afraid so. I've lost count of how many kills I have, and I can't remember all of them anymore. But every time, you still feel it happen."
"How do you … keep doing it, then?"
Sideswipe looked down at him, seeing the fright and the pain in the kid's eyes. "If I need a reminder, I think about what my brother's life would be like if the 'cons won."
The kid was silent, but his eyes asked the question.
"First, it'd be short. They'd kill us both, Sunny and me. If they didn't, we'd spend the rest of our lives doing one of three things: manual labor, gladiator fighting, or being expendable frontline troops, at least until the 'cons found out we wouldn't fight for them. Sunny would never get the chance to draw again, no matter what they chose for us. We'd live a long time if they set us to labor, but it wouldn't be worth it."
The kid gulped. "They'd do that to all of us, wouldn't they?"
"Not all of us. Prime and Ratchet both have valuable skills, so they might be enslaved; if they weren't they'd be killed outright, along with a lot of the higher-ranking officers. An awful lot of civilian Cybertronians would die too."
The kid shivered. He had creators and siblings somewhere … he wasn't sure where anymore, or if they were still alive, but he had them. No more than Sides did he want that kind of life to overtake the mechs and femmes he cared about.
Sideswipe continued. "Even if they didn't kill or enslave us, life under them wouldn't be worth living. You'd have to watch what you said and did and even thought. So I fight them, and I kill as many as I can. I understand that the mech I just shot may not be all that different from me. If we met after the war, maybe we could've shared a cube and talked about the good old days that weren't all that good."
The kid was silent, and Sideswipe watched the drones clear the field. After some moments, the red warrior said, "The humans used to have gods of war."
"Yeah. Like Primus, except all they watched over was war."
The kid shivered. "That's … creepy."
"It sorta makes sense to me," Sideswipe said, looking down at his right hand, his left cupping the kid's shoulder at the moment. That hand had wrapped around how many throats, and squeezed until life was extinct? He couldn't remember all of them, either. "It's like … every mech I kill is a sacrifice to the Primus of war. Every time I feel rotten about it, it's an ... an apology to the real Primus. I don't want to kill, but I have to. For Sunny, for everybody else. So I do it for the Primus of war, and then afterward, I apologize to the real Primus for it."
"You think Primus – the real Primus – is on our side?"
Sideswipe, not himself the brightest of 'bots, didn't for a moment think "Stupid question." He couldn't respond to it directly, either; for all the red twin's apologies, it was Optimus that Primus spoke to, if to anyone. He gave the kid the best answer he had: "Optimus is, and he carries the Matrix."
"Proof enough, I guess." The kid hugged his knees closer; his optics had stopped leaking. "I'll haveta start doin' that, then. Apologizing to Primus, I mean. I feel awful about having killed him, but it was either that or let him get a shot off at Skyfire and everybody he carried."
"Yeah. Sometimes you got nothing but lousy choices." Sideswipe stood, and offered a hand down to the kid.
The kid looked up at him, but didn't take his hand. "So you just make the best lousy choice you can?"
Sideswipe said, looking at him with the haunted eyes of experience, "Yeah. It ain't always somebody's life, or your own, you sacrifice in war. Sometimes it's your peace of mind."
The kid let Sideswipe pull him up. "So shooting somebody dead can be a kind of sacrifice too. Not of the mech you're shootin' at, but of yourself."
"Yeah," Sideswipe said.
"I'll have to think about that," the kid said. "I don't know what to believe right now."
Sideswipe shrugged. "You got time to make up your mind," he said. "You ready to go back?"
"Yeah, I think so." They both transformed.
Where one rookie and one experienced frontliner had gone into battle, two seasoned warriors returned to the Ark.