therizinosaur: (Default)
Nellasaur ([personal profile] therizinosaur) wrote2013-12-21 11:22 am

[FANFICTION] Mercenary Medicine, ch 13/? [TF: PRIME]

Title: Mercenary Medicine
Fandom: Transformers: Prime
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Knock Out is a freelance medic-- he works alone and he likes it that way. But when he finds a corpse that isn't as dead as it ought to be at the bottom of a pile of bodies, it puts his entire careful operation at risk.
Chapter: 01 || 02 || 03 || 04 || 05 || 06 || 07 || 08 || 09 || 10 || 11 || 12 || 13 || 14 || 15
Notes: Set way before what we see in the show and nowhere near Earth. Contains copious amounts of worldbuilding and headcanon. Thank you to my VIP screeners beta-readers, and special thanks to Dirge for letting me bounce ideas off her and helping keep my Breakdown in line. Mercenary Medicine wouldn’t be the story it is today without you, Dirge.

**

When Knock Out ducked through the sluggish panels of the door to his current quarters after his period of recharge, he found Breakdown already waiting in the common room. That alone wasn’t unusual; Breakdown kept erratic hours. This wasn’t the first time Knock Out had emerged bright and early to get started on his day—a terrible habit that he intended to relinquish as soon as he didn’t have Blackout looming over him and judging him for his work ethic—and found Breakdown already up. No, the difference today was in the fact that Breakdown was waiting for him. He looked up as soon as Knock Out emerged, their optics meeting.

Breakdown’s eyes still had that same luminosity in them today as Knock Out had noticed last night.

“You still goin’ through ‘Rider’s stuff?” the bigger mech asked, pushing off from where he’d been slouched against the wall.

“As a matter of fact, I am.”

Breakdown didn’t continue immediately, but Knock Out waited quietly. Sometimes you could lead a patient, and sometimes you had to coax out them out, but sometimes you had to give them their head and allow them to come to you on their own terms. Knock Out considered himself a good judge of when to wait and when to push.

After a long moment, the other mech found his voice again. “Need some help?”

“Please,” Knock Out said, nodding to the bigger mech and gesturing that Breakdown should precede him to the lift.

He didn’t need the help, not really. How could he but take into account how slow Breakdown was, how regularly clumsy? It wasn’t that he considered himself a perfectionist or a control freak—not in any matters other than his finish, anyway—but he was used to doing things for himself. He already had a system in place for this and having to deal with someone else getting in the way was going to be a trial, of that he was sure.

But he was just as sure that the detrimental effect on his inventory would be worth it. After all, Blackout wasn’t showing any signs of softening towards him, and the Deployer was, well, a Deployer. Even if Knock Out had a way to access the symbiotic link that allowed the drone and its host to communicate, what would it be able to tell him about his captors? The things weren’t actually sapient, no matter how their hosts inevitably tried to insist otherwise.

Breakdown, though, might just be the ticket he needed to get through this ordeal intact. All he had to do was draw the sullen grounder out of his shell, coax that affable Breakdown that he’d met last night into thinking well of him, and he’d finally have some sway, some input that Blackout might actually respect. There was a lot that Knock Out could do with that kind of leverage. Certainly it would be worth the cost of inviting Breakdown to muddle around in his inventory operation.

Following the other mech onto the lift, Knock Out offered Breakdown a smile, careful to keep it friendly without letting his satisfaction seep through. He was immensely gratified to see that smile returned; it meant he was already well on the way to securing that goodwill.

**

“Hey, uh, doc?”

In the middle of transcribing Breakdown’s latest description of yet another one of Wildrider’s prototypes, Knock Out held up one finger—wait, please—and finished up his typing with a rapid flurry of his fingertips. He had to admit, Breakdown’s assistance with this was proving more valuable than he’d thought. The inventory wasn’t progressing any faster, but the mech’s familiarity with the work of his Stunticon teammate meant that the information Knock Out was entering was much, much more complete. They’d gone through all of the crates left from Wildrider’s workshop in the course of a few days, and we were working now on updating the information on the prototypes Knock Out had guessed at on his own.

After saving the entry, he lowered the datapad to his lap and looked up at Breakdown. The other mech was still fiddling with the device in question, an unimpressive lump of metal and wiring that was—apparently—supposed to be some sort of sonic grenade. His head was bowed over it, the big silver pauldrons over his shoulders bristling defensively, but there had been nothing but diffidence in his voice when he spoke.

“Yes, Breakdown?” Knock Out said, watching steadily as Breakdown peeked up at him, caught him looking, and dropped his gaze again. Hurriedly, the other mech set down the grenade and reached for the next prototype, but once he had it in his hands he went right back to fiddling with it in his lap.

“What’s gonna happen to all this stuff?” he finally asked. “Where’s it going?”

“That I don’t know, I’m afraid,” Knock Out said. “Our, ah, commander hasn’t seen fit to share our final destination with me, and I take it he hasn’t told you yet either?”

“Nah,” Breakdown said, and then softer, “He doesn’t tell me anything.”

Now that was interesting. Knock Out made a point of filing that little revelation away for later contemplation, then said, “I’m sure he intends to offload it once we arrive. What happens to it after that…” He shrugged, but Breakdown still wasn’t looking up and failed to react to the gesture. “You’ll just have to ask.”

The other grounder grunted softly, the sound impossible to interpret.

Knock Out waited a long, silent moment for Breakdown to either elaborate or start talking about the item in his hands, then prompted him with a gentle, “Why?”

“Jus’ wondering,” Breakdown muttered, quick and defensive. He went silent again, long enough this time that Knock Out assumed that was all he was going to get out of the other mech. Well, no one could say that he hadn’t tried. He picked up the datapad, moving to the next line of the document he was working on, but as soon as he opened his mouth to suggest that they continue, Breakdown blurted out, “Can I have some of it?”

That gave Knock Out pause. He’d spent so long thinking of this cargo as Blackout-and-Breakdown’s, belonging equally and wholly to both of them, that it was a shock to realize that Breakdown didn’t see it that way. He didn’t trust himself to respond immediately, staring instead at Breakdown until the other mech raised his head and their optics met.

The expression on his face was almost painfully earnest.

“Of course you can, Breakdown,” Knock Out said impulsively. He set the datapad aside and got to his feet. “Stay here.”

Leaving Breakdown where he was seated at the edge of the workmat, Knock Out hurried off to where he was currently storing empty cargo containers. He grabbed one off the top of the stack and wrestled with it for a moment, opening it up from the flat, space-saving storage mode to its functional configuration. The minor effort gave him a moment to mentally regroup. Knock Out considered himself an observant, clever mech; realizing that he’d so fundamentally misconstrued at least one aspect of the situation here was startling, to say the least.

He clutched the crate close for a moment, venting rhythmically as he tried to collect himself. Only when he was sure he had himself under control did he return to the workmat, offering the container across to the other mech. “Here.”

“Thanks,” Breakdown said, smiling faintly at him. “Can I take—uh…” He trailed off, the smile gone; he looked as unsure as a newspark, fresh out of the Well.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Knock Out said gently, “anything that once belonged to your, ah, teammates is now yours. Take what you want.”

Telling Breakdown to do as much was risky, when the cargo was Knock Out’s only to document and not to distribute. Blackout would very likely disapprove of him taking liberties like this—he could already hear the flier’s pompous, pedantic voice claiming that all materiel belonged to the Decepticon cause or something equally fatuous. But Blackout had several storage lockers full of his own things secured in the captain’s cabin, and Breakdown had nothing.

Encouraging the mech to take a few mementoes of his dead bondmates was hardly going to diminish the collective might of the Empire. Besides, how different was it from skimming a cargo shipment for choice items, or pilfering a few things from communal stores for personal use? Everyone did it, from the officers down to the anonymous laborers, as long as they were clever enough to get away with it.

Surely Blackout wouldn’t actually object. Surely!

—It wasn’t lost on Knock Out that he was attempting to justify this risk to himself. Blackout was volatile, disinclined to listen to reason, and adhered stringently to protocol; he wasn’t the type of cyb to be swayed by ‘but everyone does it’ if he decided to object to Knock Out’s presumption. Knock Out was running this risk for no other reason than for Breakdown’s sake, and he wasn’t entirely comfortable with that. Breakdown was still the enemy, after all. Complicit in the theft of Knock Out’s ship, accessory to Blackout’s violation of Knock Out’s security and privacy…

Wasn’t he?

This enemy, this mech he was risking Blackout’s displeasure for was…staring at him while Knock Out sat there mentally dissecting his motivations for attempting to justify a risk he normally would have found untenable.

“Just… just let me know what you take, so I can strike it from our general inventory, hm?” he said, hoping the smile and the professional cadence of his tone would cover his discomfiture.

“…Uh. Sure,” Breakdown said. He sounded skeptical, but if he was, he didn’t pursue it, and for that Knock Out was grateful.

“And if there’s anything in particular you’re looking for,” Knock Out continued, “I’ve been through quite a few of these containers already. I might be able to help you find it.” Where were these words coming from? Why couldn’t he mute his vocalizer? It was one thing to endear himself to Breakdown to get the big bolt-cruncher on his side; this was something else entirely.

“Sure,” Breakdown said again, nodding. He looked up and met Knock Out’s optics, and smiled. The expression had a way of reconfiguring his whole face, lighting it up. “Thanks.”

Knock Out couldn’t help but smile back. Maybe this was one of those risks worth taking.

**

Every day they made progress, moving on when they were finished with the contents of Wildrider’s workshop. Breakdown proved as slow as Knock Out had expected, but not, as he had feared, clumsy as well. Knock Out had seen enough of him thumping about to have assumed the worst, but as long as the big grounder didn’t try to rush, there were no accidents.

It helped that Breakdown took instruction very well, accepting even Knock Out’s sharpest corrections with all the equanimity of the most phlegmatic Vehicon laborer. His work was thorough and methodical—as long as Knock Out told him what he needed to know to be thorough and methodical. He even asked questions when he was stuck, which was a refreshingly rare quality in Knock Out’s recent experience. The sorts of Decepticons who got duty assignments out here on the outer fringes were fractious and self-aggrandizing, more likely to boast their competence and shift the blame when they failed than to admit ignorance and ask for help.

There was a reason Knock Out preferred to work alone. The price of Decepticon assistance was so rarely worth the value of the labor he got in return. Exceptions to the rule like Breakdown were few and far between out here. It was certainly a pleasant surprise for Knock Out the laborer, who wanted to complete this onerous task as quickly as possible.

Knock Out the medic was intrigued too. Working together like this offered him a superb opportunity to observe Breakdown’s physical impairments in action. It was an interesting case—when he moved slowly and concentrated on what he was doing, the big grounder didn’t seem to have any problems. It was only when he let his attention lapse, or when he tried to force himself to move faster, that the symptoms started to manifest. His lack of coordination, clumsiness, and poor balance all summed together into a picture that was sending insistent pings to Knock Out’s medical intuition.

Helping the last Stunticon had made a convenient bargaining chip when he convinced Blackout to release him from the cargo hold, but the well-being of a cyb was worth more to him than just leverage. Knock Out thought it was high time he started to make good on his pledge. Just watching Breakdown and mentally taking notes wasn’t actually worth anything, after all, not unless he put his observations to good use.

Though the inventory project didn’t leave him with a lot of spare time, he started dedicating some of it to research. He still had a few medical manuals to hand, stored carefully in a reinforced compartment in the maintenance bay; it was easy enough to take one or two to his quarters when he was off-duty. Reading and research had never been his strong point when it came to medicine, but it made a productive way to pass the cycles.

The alternatives were fretting uselessly about things currently out of his control and buffing the finish straight off his exoplating. It was almost enough to make the dry medical reading some engrossing and pleasant.

**

There was quiet in the cargo bay as the two of them sorted through the crates of basic supplies that Blackout had pulled out of the outpost’s medbay. Breakdown was sitting on the floor with a sack of loose nuts and bolts in his lap, the miscellany falling with soft clinks and clatters as he separated it out. Knock Out was working on a stack of mesh patches and regenerative gauzes, looking for breaches in the packaging and checking viability dates. With a swish and a thump, he tossed an expired package into the waste bin; the handful of damaged nuts and bolts that Breakdown had identified as unusable chimed in counterpoint as he dropped them in a moment later.

It was a productive quiet, a pleasant quiet. Knock Out was enjoying himself, as much as any self-respecting cyb could enjoy such monotonous work.

That was why the distinct sound of skittering was such an unwelcome interruption.

Ever since Breakdown had started working with him, Blackout’s Deployer had been noticeably absent. At first Knock Out had assumed Blackout was just relying on his big spy instead of his little one, but that presumed that Breakdown was reporting everything they did together to the flier. Though he’d been sure of that in the beginning, it hadn’t taken Knock Out more than a few days to change his mind. Breakdown was so reticent to talk about Blackout that Knock Out could only assume he didn’t willingly talk to Blackout. And it was easy to assume further that if Breakdown didn’t like the big flier, then he probably didn’t like the drone any better.

So when he detected the scrabbling approach of the arachnoid Deployer, Knock Out purged his vents in a snort and didn’t bother to modulate the disdain in his voice when he groused, “Bug’s back.”

“Huh,” Breakdown said, distractedly sorting another few usable bolts from his palm into the storage jars Knock Out had provided him. Only when he was done did he look up. “What’d you—” he started, but then he must have heard the sound of the drone’s approach, because he went silent and the touch of confusion on his face cleared.

Knock Out still couldn’t believe the way Breakdown’s smile made his whole face more handsome, how it made Knock Out want to smile in return whether he had a reason to or not. It was particularly unpleasant contrast to the way his fuel surged when Breakdown said, with all evidence of pleasure, “Hey! It’s Scorponok!”

“That thing has a name?” he said. There was an embarrassing snap in his voice, but better to sound annoyed than to reveal of shocked he was that Breakdown apparently liked the creeping little spy.

“Yeah, of course he does,” Breakdown said, his smile gone again just as fast as it had come. His expression was uncertain as he looked up at Knock Out. “Didn’t you know that?”

Crossing his arms, Knock Out turned his face away. “Obviously not,” he said, struggling to get his discomfiture under control and not really succeeding.

A huff of vents was all he got in response as Breakdown climbed to his feet. He called out a wordless buzzing trill, the sound returned a moment later by the drone as it clambered into view at the top of a stack of crates.

“C’mere,” Breakdown said, walking over to the crates and holding his hands up in invitation. With a metal-on-metal squeal that made Knock Out wince, the Deployer leaped into Breakdown’s arms.

Apparently heedless of the new scrapes in his finish, Breakdown came back to the workmat and resumed his seat on the floor. Scolding him all the way, the drone wriggled out of his arms and hauled itself up over the broad shelf of his chest, climbing up to his shoulder. With a flick of its tail that glanced off the side of Breakdown’s helm, it settled itself.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” Knock Out asked, unable to keep the horror out of his voice. So much for keeping his emotions to himself.

Breakdown rumbled a laugh. “Not much,” he said, with a shrug that made the drone scold him all the louder. “He’s only little.”

What could Knock Out say to that? He certainly wouldn’t have let that drone—any drone—scrabble its clawed little feet all over his finish. If Breakdown wanted to get all scratched up, well, that was his prerogative. Knock Out certainly wasn’t going to interfere.

“Just don’t let him come over here,” he said finally, into a silence that felt expectant. It was a weak sally, but Breakdown grunted an acknowledgement, and that was good enough for him.

There was a new quality to the quiet now, though, their companionable productivity disturbed by the fidgeting of the drone over Breakdown’s shoulders. It didn’t seem inclined to sit still; constantly it shifted its position, rearranging its many limbs or clacking its claws together. Occasionally it would climb from one part of Breakdown’s armor to another, making an exceptional racket as it went. Breakdown wasn’t quiet anymore either, laughing softly at its antics or talking to it, or sometimes even just humming a counterpoint to its almost constant vocal chatter.

His obvious ease and comfort with the drone seemed to stick in Knock Out’s gears. As much as he tried to tune them out, he couldn’t quite manage it. He found himself watching them as much as his own work, his own fingers moving slow over the packages he was inspecting.

“Uh, doc,” Breakdown said finally, catching him looking. “You all right?”

So much for not telegraphing his upset. Since when had he had so much trouble keeping his emotions under wraps? Why was he already comfortable enough in Breakdown’s presence to let himself slip like this?

“I don’t like Deployers much,” Knock Out said, the lie sounding awkward even to him. He gave his head a shake. “—No. I don’t like that Deployer much.”

What was wrong with him? It wasn’t that Knock Out made a habit of lying, but he was a strong proponent of polite fictions, and ‘I don’t like Deployers’ was a perfect excuse for his antipathy towards Blackout’s drone. Why had he kept talking?

“Why not?” Breakdown asked.

“It’s Blackout’s, isn’t it?” Knock Out said, and he could have disabled his own vocalizer manually for it. What was it about Breakdown that compelled him to honesty like this?!

“Yeah, okay,” Breakdown said, chuckling, “but you shouldn’t hold that against Scorpy. It’s not his fault his host’s a stripgears.”

—Well. Maybe that had something to do with it: the conspiratorial way Breakdown laughed, the way he didn’t miss a beat acknowledging Knock Out’s point, the complete lack of judgment or defensiveness in him.

Breakdown flashed him a grin and then got up, one hand bracing the drone—Scorponok—absently. He dug around in the waste bin they were both using, and then walked over to Knock Out and knelt in front of him.

“Can he have these?” he asked, showing Knock Out a palmful of discarded hardware. The broken bolts, rusted nuts, warped washers were all scrap. Oh, scrap metal had value, of course; it could be machined into other components, or melted down and reforged. Knock Out made a habit of collecting it, either to use for himself or to trade, but a handful of nuts and bolts weren’t worth much on their own.

Though he was tempted to refuse on the principle of denying something, even indirectly, to Blackout, he found he was more interested to see what use Breakdown and the drone could possibly have for the handful of scrap. Knock Out nodded assent.

“Thanks,” Breakdown said, and sat down right there on the floor, less than an arm’s reach away. He coaxed the drone down from his shoulder, chucking it under the chin when it settled in his lap. He picked one of the hardware discards out of his palm and offered it pinched between his blunt fingertips.

To Knock Out’s surprise, the bug ate it.

One by one, Breakdown fed the drone the discards. It consumed them with all evidence of eagerness, grabbing at the mech’s fingers and waving its tail—the blades at the tip safely tucked away in their sheaths—back and forth over its carapace. Between the crunches and the grinding of its mandibles and the mechanisms behind them, Knock Out could hear it chattering to itself.

He was so intent on watching Breakdown’s hands that he didn’t realize Breakdown was watching him until those hands stilled and Knock Out looked up. He hadn’t even realized he’d leaned forward, but he straightened up now, his own hands flexing and uncurling unconsciously. “What?” he asked, far more defensively than he would have liked.

Breakdown chuckled at him. “You seen many Deployers?” he asked.

“...No,” Knock Out admitted. No point in denying it, since his interest—and unfamiliarity—was obvious. “Only a few, and only as patients.”

"No wonder you don't like ‘em much," Breakdown said, nodding thoughtfully to himself. "Scorponok always gets mean when he's hurt, mostly because Blackout gets scared."

Knock Out snorted. "Blackout? Scared? Please." He would believe it when he saw it; the big ones like Blackout never seemed to feel anything but aggression and superiority.

"Yeah, I know," Breakdown said. "It doesn't happen often. An' he likes to pretend it doesn't happen ever—but we know better, don't we, Scorp?" He stroked the Deployer's back, running his fingers up the inside curve of the tail and swatting the mechanism at the end lightly. With a snick, the blades disengaged from their housings, but the drone retracted them again immediately, chirring pleasantly as it did.

It reached up for Breakdown’s other hand, swiping at his upturned palm. “Nuh-uh, not yet,” Breakdown chided it. He offered his hand to Knock Out instead; there was one last rusted, bent washer sitting on it. “You wanna try?”

Knock Out eyed the washer for a moment, sitting very still while he considered; then, decided, he picked it out of Breakdown’s hand with the very tips of his claws. “Oh, I suppose,” he said, making himself sound far more confident than he felt about the prospect of offering his fingers to the drone.

Bracing one elbow against his thigh, Knock Out leaned towards the drone, offering it the waste washer between his fingertips the same way Breakdown had earlier. Scorponok clattered at him and crept up one of Breakdown’s legs to perch on the knee. Knock Out couldn’t help but feel that the blank lenses of its simple optics were watching him malevolently. Gone was the wriggling affection it had shared with Breakdown; it seemed again the wary, feral creature that had stalked him regularly at Blackout’s behest.

He was just starting to reconsider trying this when the Deployer struck, lashing Knock Out across the wrist with its tail. Knock Out jerked back with a yell, his other hand clamping the wound automatically—only there was nothing beyond a blunt and fading impact pain: no spurting fluid, no severed circuitry, no sparks. No wound.

The drone had kept its blades sheathed.

It jumped off Breakdown’s knee with a fluting cry and chased after the washer, which was bouncing erratically away across the floor. Knock Out stared after it, frowning.

Breakdown was staring after it too. “Huh,” he said. “He doesn’t like you very much.”

“You don’t say,” Knock Out said. He tried to sound unbothered, but something in the way he said it made Breakdown look from the skittering drone back to him. Knock Out averted his optics and levered himself up hastily, heedless of the packages he was scattering out of their careful stacks around his seat.

His movements made the drone look up too, although it seemed more interested in its snack than in him. Its mandibles were already rasping away at the washer, its tail waving over its back with lazy contentment. Regardless, Knock Out was careful to give it a wide berth as he hurried away.

“Doc?” Breakdown called after him. “You leaving?”

“That’s right,” Knock Out said, refusing to look back at the other mech as he answered. “I trust you can finish what you’re doing without me.”

“Uh. Yeah, sure, I’ll—I’ll do my best, but—”

“Just finish,” Knock Out said. “I’ll check it tomorrow. And don’t feed any of the good bolts to that thing.”

It was a petty rejoinder, and Knock Out regretted it as soon as he said it—even moreso when Breakdown’s response was a subdued, “All right.” He still didn’t trust himself to look back; not until he’d reached the lift did he feel in control of himself enough to turn back the way he’d come.

Breakdown was still sitting on the floor when Knock Out had left him, staring his shoulder after Knock Out, his expression open and bewildered. Scorponok had returned to his side and was pawing at his armor, but Breakdown was ignoring it. That made Knock Out feel smug and pleased—right until Breakdown shrugged and turned back around, scooping the drone into his lap again as he did.

It took Knock Out an effort of will not to stab at the up button. So much for maintaining his poise. He relied on his ability to keep his emotions to himself—to be able to choose when to reveal what he was really feeling and when to conceal it—to keep himself safe. Breakdown disarmed those careful defenses of his, and the worst part was that the other mech didn’t even seem to realize he was doing it.

It might have been nice to have competent assistance with his work, but it wasn’t worth this price. Whatever he might have been thinking otherwise, Knock Out was going to be glad to see the backs of both of his unwelcome shipmates.

The trick was going to be making himself believe that.

**

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