vivis @catsteeth

When Knock Out first caught sight of Breakdown upon his return, his expression immediately became one of horror. Not horror on Breakdown’s behalf, at least not primarily—Breakdown wasn’t foolish enough to think their friendship would be enough to generate such a reaction in a bot who took such pains to present himself as unflappable. There was probably concern in there, and that was enough. But between the sheer brutality of Breakdown’s injuries, the realization that humans had managed to inflict such damage, and the further realization of just what future threats that might lead to, there was plenty to react to aside from that.

“All right, on the table,” was the first thing he said, shepherding Breakdown to the surgeon’s table and practically hauling him onto its surface. “Oh, Primus, your eye. What did they do to you?”

“Vivisection,” said Breakdown, which was the shortest answer. Everything about him hurt. Bulkhead using him as a bludgeon against Starscream hadn’t helped, even though given the circumstances Breakdown couldn’t really fault him for that.

Another complicated thing that hurt to think about.

“Vivi—Oh Primus.” Knock Out’s hands were moving carefully, delicately over Breakdown’s face, his molten-and-solidifed cheek, the holes drilled into his arms and chest and the broken hinges where his outer plates had been forcibly pried open; feeling for damage. “That’s my specialty. They’re copying me! The audacity… Do you still have the eye you lost?”

Breakdown shook his head. At least that didn’t hurt. They’d left the muscle cables there alone. “Heard something about using it as bait. My guess is it’s still back there, if it’s even still intact.”

“Well, that makes things difficult. Eyes are hard to replace.” Breakdown knew a little something about that; he’d functioned as Knock Out’s assistant on the operating table for long enough, after all. Unlike replacing limbs, which only took a bit of careful aligning with the body’s overall movement schematics, eyes delivered information straight to the processor, and as such had to be intricately calibrated to the brain’s information processing settings. Someone like Knock Out, designed for precision work, would need a much different eye than a former manual laborer like Breakdown, and then there was the way each individual bot’s data processing subroutines had been shaped by experience. “We’ll leave that alone for now. There’s a lot to be done, you’ll be on this table a while. What hurts the worst?”

His gaze was sharp and alert. Was that concern? Breakdown knew that asking what hurt the worst was a good guide for a medic to know where the damage was greatest, an impartial tool for to know what to prioritize in treatment. But maybe it was also concern. They were friends, after all.

“Face,” grunted Breakdown. “And spark chamber.” They’d tried so hard to get at his spark. They hadn’t quite been able to breach the incredibly tough endoskeleton surrounding his soul, but they’d damn well done everything they’d could to hack at it. He was going to have nightmares, he knew, about the very essence of who he was ripped out and exposed to the alien atmosphere, dozens of minuscule fleshy eyes staring at things they had no right to stare at as the drills closed in.

“We’ll start with the face,” decided Knock Out, and a blowtorch popped out of his arm. “I’ll restore the structure around your eye socket, then if we manage to drum up a replacement eye for you we can put it in much less invasively than they took it out. Unfortunately the burn looks like it messed up the magnetic alignment of the protometal there, so I’m going to have to re-melt it and re-align the polarity while I shape it—”

Fifteen seconds of excruciating agony later, Knock Out seemed very relieved.

“There we go,” he said, gingerly patting the side of Breakdown’s head, where the re-melting hadn’t reached. “You look much better now!” Because Knock Out always prioritized appearance over everything else. Breakdown felt a grudging and almost affectionate amusement, despite the pain he was in. “We’ll get started on your spark chamber, then.”

Spark chambers were thick, and tough. They had to be, given their precious cargo. But MECH’s tools had managed to penetrate so far into the casing that the wounds felt particularly, horribly vulnerable, like inner layers exposed that were never meant to be. Knock Out seemed to understand that, and moved with swift precision, painting in the layers of protometal and heat-treating each individual one to make sure it crystallized hard and secure like it needed to.

It felt good, having his hands moving around in Breakdown’s chest cavity. This was familiar territory, being treated by the ship’s doctor, by his friend—not like the pack of humans with their alien tools rummaging inside him, searching, tearing, laying bare the most tender and vulnerable parts of him with the promise that it would be fatal. Knock Out’s hands were familiar and safe, patching over the damage, and he kept up a running muttered commentary as he worked that, unparsable as it was, helped Breakdown to focus on his voice, like an anchor. It was relaxing. Breakdown felt himself relax into the medical table and realized just how exhausted he was.

It had been terrifying, now that he was letting himself process it. Breakdown was not a bot who scared easily, but death by slow curious vivisection at alien hands was not a prospect he thought anyone would handle well.

“How did you escape?” said Knock Out finally, tempering the last outer layer. “I only saw Starscream reporting back to Megatron, and he was being awfully cagey about the whole thing. The wings gave it away. I assume there’s something he’s not telling.”

And there it was.

“The Autobots came for me,” said Breakdown. “Bulkhead came for me.”

Knock Out’s pretty eyes widened in surprise. “The Autobots?” he said, setting aside his heat gun, and tsked. “Well, I suppose it’s the sort of self-sabotagingly noble thing they’d do. But—to take that much risk, for the sake of an enemy?”

“It’s not self-sabotaging,” said Breakdown grudgingly. “MECH wanted to dissect me to advance their own technology. Weaponry in specific. If they got away with it, it would be bad for the Autobots too. But—” He stopped. There was still the sharp taste of his own energon in the back of his mouth.

“But?” prompted Knock Out. He’d extruded a fine probe from his wrist and was extending it into the drill hole on Breakdown’s shoulder, assessing the interior damage.

“Bulkhead protected me, after,” said Breakdown. “He fought alongside me.” They’d fought together.

Knock Out looked up from his probing. “Really?” he said, sounding fascinated. “How inefficient of him! He could have just killed you once you’d both gotten out of there, and it would have saved him a great deal of future trouble. Although I’m glad he didn’t, of course,” he added hastily, jamming the probe in a bit too hard. “But, wait, you didn’t try to kill him either?”

Breakdown looked away. “No,” he said. “I was still weak from the… from what they did to me. He would have won that fight. It’s thanks to him I made it out of there.”

Knock Out retracted the probe—wiping Breakdown’s energon off of it—but the look he cast over him was even more probing. “You don’t seem happy about that.”

Of course Knock Out, who valued self-preservation first and foremost, wouldn’t understand the shame of owing one’s life to the enemy. In all honesty, Breakdown could probably do with a bit of that kind of pragmatism. But there was more to it, this time. “I liked fighting alongside him,” he confessed, the conflictedness heavy around his spark. “We’ve been fighting each other for so long, we know all about how the other moves. We… made a great team, really.”

“Oh?” Knock Out tilted his head, coquettish and sly. “Are you leaving me for an Autobot, Breakdown?” He put a dramatic hand on his chest. “I’m sparkbroken.”

Breakdown gave him an unimpressed look, with the one eye he was able to do it with. Knock Out… made a lot of jokes. Probably, they were nothing more than jokes. Breakdown would be lying if he said he didn’t sometimes wish they could be more than that; and sometimes, like when they moved as a seamless pair in battle, complementing each other better than Bulkhead could ever manage, he had the feeling Knock Out wouldn’t mind them being more than jokes too.

But war was war. The more attached you got, the bigger a risk you were taking.

Bulkhead doesn’t know how to fix the servo in my elbow every time it jams,” he deadpanned, and Knock Out gave a delighted chuckle.

“Ah, of course! You love my talented hands,” he said, a purring note to his voice, and Breakdown rolled his eyes. His one good eye. The cut-off optic cable of the other one gave a twinge of protest at the motion. “Right, to business. The drill bit they used to try to get at your joints here didn’t have any kind of lubricant or coolant involved, so there are friction burns all the way down. I’m going to need to grind off some of the burnt protometal to get started on proper repairs, all right?”

That part hurt. All of it hurt. Knock Out had never prioritized gentleness in his procedures, although Breakdown had certainly never prioritzed being treated with gentleness, either. He was a tough bot, and they’d been at war for millennia. No one on the Nemesis wanted a medic who would treat them like something fragile; it would be an insult.

He was still conflicted about Bulkhead. They hadn’t actually finished having that conversation. Then again, flirting was one of Knock Out’s defenses, one of the methods he used to keep the world at arm’s length… maybe that had been him ending the conversation, purposefully deflecting it.

He sighed. Then he grunted, because Knock Out had just realigned the hinge on one of his outer panels with a hard, sharp whack of his hammer, and that hurt.

“What are you sighing for,” said Knock Out in an unimpressed voice, bracing his hands on either side of the panel to pop a dent in it back out. “Am I boring you? Would you like me to do a song and dance while I fix you up? I only have so many limbs.”

“It’s Bulkhead,” sighed Breakdown, although he hadn’t really meant to. Maybe he was just too exhausted for dissembling. Knock Out paused with the hammer, watching him keenly. “We try to kill each other whenever we meet, and have for millennia. But… he saved me, this time. And it was so easy to fight alongside him.” He turned the words over in his mouth. “I don’t know why, but I don’t like that.”

“If you’re afraid you’ll be swayed into defecting by the Autobot power of friendship, at least warn me first,” mused Knock Out, popping a welding gun out of his arm and zipping a neat line up the tear in Breakdown’s chest plating. “I’ll need time to think of what kind of cover story to offer Megatron.”

A kindle of warmth rose up in Breakdown’s spark at the thought that Knock Out would cover for him, even if it was only for the sake of a joking hypothetical. He thought of expressing that kind of gratitude, then decided against it, lest the sincerity spook Knock Out like a skittish beast-class. “Oh, shut up. Nothing that drastic. I guess…” He stared up at the ceiling as the heat of the welding gun moved along his body. “We’re both heavy duty manual labor frames, we think the same way, we fight the same way… We could have been friends, you know? If not for the war, and the Wreckers incident.” Which had also been because of the war. So really it all came down to one cause. “And if I start to think about that, I start to think about what sort of opportunities I’ve been missing. What sort of people I’ve misjudged. How everything could have gone differently. It’s kind of scary.”

“Right, so I’ll probably tell Megatron you died in a freak accident, to buy you a few months’ head start.” The tone was light, but as Knock Out put away his welding gun and came back into Breakdown’s field of vision, his voice shifted. “What’s gotten into you? I know you’re the sensitive type, but you’re definitely not an overthinker.”

Breakdown couldn’t help but snort a little. Only someone as self-centered and flippant as Knock Out would term him the sensitive type based solely on the fact that he tried to be friendly to the Vehicons. (And that was only because he remembered what it was like to be on the bottom rung of the ladder—not something Knock Out would relate to.) “Hey, I just escaped a slow death by torture. Cut a bot some slack for getting philosophical.”

“Slack duly cut,” said Knock Out dryly, drizzling surface repair solution onto a cloth and beginning to apply it to the most burned and pockmarked areas of Breakdown’s body. He’d been shot at quite a bit during the escape. “But you know you won’t get anywhere with those kinds of thoughts, right? Sometimes I think about how if not for the war I might be comfortably retired back on an intact and peaceful Cybertron with a handsome bot on my arm, with a social circle that doesn’t keep shrinking through battle casualties and a local population that doesn’t go squish underfoot. But thinking about that doesn’t change anything—it just makes you feel bad.” The surface repair solution was cool on Breakdown’s skin, with a slight fizzing sensation as the catalysts within sped up the protometal’s healing. “What matters is where we are and what we do with it. Any spots I’ve missed?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Good,” said Knock Out, stepping back and surveying Breakdown with satisfaction. “I’ll let the solution sit on you for a bit and in the meantime we’ll put something over that empty eye socket of yours, hmm? Protect all that vulnerable machinery until we can find a good replacement.”

Breakdown’s face had healed enough that it didn’t take long to fix a hard plate over the hole; Knock Out seemed very pleased with the result. “Oh, you look dashing,” he said. “Tough and battled-scarred, just how I like ’em. And with the whole fashionable asymmetry thing going on, too! Lovely.”

Knock Out flirted with everyone, Breakdown knew. It was a good way of making people feel off-balance, and making people feel off-balance was a good defense, and good defenses were vital in the cutthroat world of Decepticon high command. (Sometimes Breakdown felt that Knock Out’s budding allyship with the biggest schemer around was going to hurt him more than it helped him.) But the genuine excitement lighting up his lovely face as he praised Breakdown’s new look was something he was fairly certain other bots didn’t get to see. It made him wonder, sometimes. It made him wish.

If there hadn’t been a war—if their relationship wasn’t defined first and foremost by their status as fellow soldiers, if attachment didn’t lead to grief which led to severely decreased functionality—

—but if there hadn’t been a war, then an upper-middle-caste hotshot surgeon and a low-caste crate hauler would probably never even have met in the first place, let alone befriend each other to the point of wishing. No comfortable retirement for him; Breakdown would have kept working until upgrades couldn’t keep up with the wear on his frame, at which point his spark would have been quietly and painlessly snuffed out. It was good that there had been a war; that was the whole point, for people like him—something that Knock Out would never truly understand. And maybe the crate hauler would have met a similarly low-caste construction worker instead of a flighty doctor, and they would have been best friends, or perhaps even—

Breakdown’s head ached. It had been a long day.

“I think most of the surface damage has healed enough for a gentle buffing,” mused Knock Out, moving closer. Typical of him to prioritize the paintjob. “I’ll go slow? Lightest setting.”

“Why not,” said Breakdown, shrugging, and Knock Out got out the rotary buffer, moving it in familiar circular patterns along the planes and surfaces of Breakdown’s body.

There might have been a gentleness in the touch, the reassurances that Knock Out wouldn’t say out loud—or there might not have been. He was such a complicated creature, hiding everything behind seamless layers of detachment and flippancy and charm. Breakdown wasn’t like that at all—what you saw was what you got, whether it was well-wishes or a hammer to the face. But at least he cared, and meant it.

Maybe that was why it was dangerous. Maybe, confusing as it was to navigate, Knock Out’s approach was the right idea. The safer idea.

“Done,” announced Knock Out, clicking off the buffer. The silence was loud after the soft high hum of its motor. “You can get up now.”

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