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Jazz is heading your way, was the only warning Soundwave got before he turned to find Jazz's sleek black and white curves propped against the far wall. Soundwave sent a wordless pulse of gratitude to Ravage as he ran down a mental list of possibilities for this visit.

"Is Tetrad threatened?" he asked. That was one of the least likely reason for Jazz to be here, given how exhaustedly most of Cybertron had fallen into peace, but it would need to be addressed immediately if true.

"No." Jazz tilted his head to the side. "Okay, just curious here, but what's your technopathy gettin' from me?"

"Nothing," Soundwave said honestly after a moment's hesitation. Regret followed; he couldn't shake the feeling that he had handed over leverage to one of the most dangerous mechs alive. "Soundwave is not trying to read your internal data. Jazz does not broadcast."

A smile flashed quick and fleeting over Jazz's face. "No, I wouldn't, would I. Say, mech, about Prowl…"

Alarms jangled through his internals. Soundwave didn't dare look away from Jazz's visor. "Soundwave's interest is sincere. Soundwave does not intend to hurt Prowl."

Jazz studied him for an agonizing moment. "Good read," he said. "The problem is, it's real easy to say that. If you're a good enough liar, you can say anythin' and be believed. But even if you're scrap at lyin', you're not gonna tell someone's friend that you're plannin' on pluggin' 'em and leavin' 'em. And you're not scrap at lyin'." He pushed off the wall with a lazy kick. "Soundwave, you got three partners already—good job hidin' that one, by the way. That was real smart of you to keep 'em out of the line of fire even when they went in first. It's pretty clear that you love 'em. So why do you want Prowl so bad?"

Jazz's words wove dizzily around Soundwave's processor. He wanted to speak, but he couldn't articulate the emotion pressing at him. He didn't dare reset his vocalizer; Jazz would take it as a sign of weakness. Of guilt. Instead, Soundwave stood there, all too aware that every nanoklik that passed would make him look worse. The half-spoken accusations hung between them in the center of the room.

Soundwave? Laserbeak's distress mirrored his own. Do you need one of us to speak for you, sweetspark? I can come back if you need me. Or if you'd prefer integration—

He will know, Soundwave said. Jazz is observant.

Panic started to overheat his systems in a way he hadn't experienced in many, many vorns. He couldn't move, couldn't vent, couldn't turn off any of his sensors for fear of meeting an early death at Jazz's hands.

He was not Sentinel, was not Zeta, had never carelessly hurt another for his own pleasure. Had never desired to. But he had doubtless hurt Prowl before, as an unavoidable consequence of being on the opposite side during the war. He had given orders, given intelligence the Autobots had thought secret, had failed in his efforts to protect Prowl because he had chosen Megatron and his people over wistful affection for an enemy soldier. Would Jazz hold cross-faction courtship to different standards than the peace itself?

Soundwave! Ravage snapped.

Jazz took a step forward, and Soundwave's panic eased back into the heightened calm of battle-awareness.

Jazz stopped. "Hey, there." His voice sounded almost gentle. "I'm not lookin' for a fight, mech. I'm here because Prowl's not so good at readin' intent. All you have to do is answer my question."

"Jazz cannot trust answer," Soundwave forced out. He flexed his hands. "What assurances does Jazz want?"

"I just wanna know you're not gonna hurt him. That's all."

"Soundwave understands." Soundwave flexed his hands. He tried to shut off his battle protocols, but they kept humming under his frame. He tried again. "Soundwave understands Prowl. Would not hurt him."

Jazz let out a long, slow ventilation. "Yeah," he said, voice quiet, as though Soundwave had said something very different. "Okay. I get it." He took a deliberate step back, though he stayed upright. Soundwave couldn't look away. "Prowl's pretty happy with you, for him. Whatever you and your Cassettes are doin', keep it up."

"Jazz has no more threats to make?"

"Threats?" Jazz laughed, as though Soundwave had made a joke. "I'm not tryin' to threaten you, Soundwave. You don't need threatenin'." He wiggled his fingers. "I'm no technopath, but I think I've got a pretty good grasp of what's goin' on here."

"Soundwave said nothing. Soundwave was enemy. Soundwave could hurt Prowl."

"You said plenty." Jazz gave him a small smile. "'Sides, I knew enough comin' in here. I just had to get confirmation. Good job, mech. You're doin' all right. Just don't start tryin' to keep Prowl all to yourselves, or we'll have a problem."

A ploy. It had been some sort of ploy. Soundwave relaxed all at once as his battle protocols finally shut off. Of course Jazz wouldn't want to risk an unprovoked attack; that would disrupt their peace treaty. "Soundwave would not isolate Prowl," he said. The words came easier now. "Prowl needs Jazz. Jazz is…" He trailed off, unable to find a word to describe what Megatron was to him, what Jazz was to Prowl. Even the word amica felt inadequate. "Jazz is necessary."

Jazz's smile widened. "Yeah, you're definitely doin' all right," he said. "See you 'round, Soundwave." Before Soundwave could dredge up a formal farewell, Jazz had turned to walk through the door with one hand up in a lackadaisical wave. He vanished into the corridor as effectively as one of Soundwave's Cassettes, leaving Soundwave alone in a room lit only by the consoles he'd been working on.

Chapter Text

Megatron's optics flickered on. His claws curled. Experience and a close call or two had taught him to forcibly override the instinct to roll off the recharge slab and into a battle-ready crouch, but he couldn't—and wouldn't—override the instant jolt into awareness. He had mechs to protect who couldn't fight for themselves. He couldn't take chances.

Still, after the third unpleasant wakeup in the same joor, he was beginning to regret turning down Nickel's too-smug offer of a toggle.

A flicker of motion caught Megatron's optic, and he groaned. He reached over to scoop up the tiny, squirming hatchling. "Taillight, I expected better from you," he said. Taillight, apparently unconcerned with Megatron's severe tone, chittered and flung eir arms around two of Megatron's fingers. "No. You cannot use emotional manipulation. Why do you think this will end any differently than it did for Beep?"

Beep, who refused to answer to anything else and should have been deep in recharge by now, let out an excited flurry of chirps from the opposite end of the room from the hatchling recharge pen.

Megatron groaned and turned off his optics. "Please tell me that Silicone is still where ey's supposed to be, at least."

Beside him, Orion stirred and hummed into awareness. "Oh, no, is Beep visiting again?"

"Taillight is," Megatron said with a sigh. He didn't bother trying to stop Taillight as ey let out an excited squeal and launched emself from Megatron's palm towards eir favorite parent. "Apparently, Beep's been recruiting for eir explorations. We'll make a revolutionary warlord of em yet."

Orion sat up and carefully cradled Taillight against eir chestplates. "Is that Beep in the corner? What's ey doing there?"

"How should I know?" Megatron grumbled, but he rolled off the slab carefully. "I can't wait until they're old enough to communicate properly. I'd like to hear Beep explain half of what ey does."

As it turned out, Beep was in the corner because ey had figured out how to use eir magnets to climb the wall, and ey was chewing happily on the corner of the built-in viewscreen from eir precarious perch. Megatron extracted em, earning a low, mournful wail and some reproachful clicks, and then walked over to Orion to retrieve Taillight as well.

Silicone, as it turned out had stayed inside the recharge pen, and ey crouched there with eir face pressed up against the glass. Megatron poured Beep and Taillight inside and stroked Silicone's smooth little helm as a reward for being the only good hatchling. "I don't suppose you can tell us how your siblings are getting out," he mused. "Or how they are managing to survive with no recharge. That's a talent I could use, myself." Silicone's tiny engine rumbled in a happy purr.

Megatron stayed there until Taillight and Beep noticed that their sibling was getting positive attention and tumbled towards em in a clamor of nonsense noise. Megatron straightened, then, and returned to the recharge slab. He draped his arm over Orion's shoulders and drew him down until they both lay flat again. "You don't need to come out of recharge when they act up," Megatron said. He kept his voice quiet. "Nickel did a thorough workup of my coding. I won't hurt them."

Orion turned his head to face Megatron. "I never thought that you would," he said reproachfully. "I just…" He sighed and burrowed closer, pressing the whole lean length of his metal plating against Megatron's. "It's not fair that you have to take care of them every single time."

Megatron's spark pulsed, warm and in love and charmed all over again by Orion Pax. He stroked down Orion's side, igniting a sleepy charge between them and letting it dissipate into the air around them. "You'll have your chance," he said. "If Beep continues along this path, the lack of recharge will lead me to a crash, and then you'll have to watch over them while I'm under medical care getting scolded by Nickel."

Orion groaned. "Beep," he called out, setting off the excited chitters again. "If you don't go into recharge and stay in recharge, you're going to come to meetings with me as a punishment. That goes for you, too, Taillight."

Silence met that threat, and Megatron huffed a laugh. "Do you think they'll listen?" he asked, amused.

"Well, if they don't, they'll learn a great deal about the rebuilding efforts while Silicone has fun playing in the nursery," Orion said. "They understand more than they want you to think. And they definitely know they're not supposed to be up and about when the lights are out."

Megatron shut off his optics and tightened his arm around Orion. "I have done a great many things in my lifetime," he murmured, too low for the hatchlings to overhear, "and many of them were terrible. But I must have also done a great deal of good in my life to have you by my side, raising our hatchlings."

Orion ducked his head and pressed his face against Megatron's chest. He didn't say a word, but Megatron could feel the affection and embarrassment crackling through them almost as though they were still connected. Perhaps, Megatron thought, systems too tired for overcomplicated emotions and bolstered by Orion's warmth, it is time to ask him to sparkbond with me.

He held onto that thought, imagined two sparks pulsing as one, and let the simplicity of it drag him down into routine recharge once more.

Chapter Text

"This isn't working."

"Okay," Laserbeak said. Ey ignored the jolt of panic that Prowl's words sent through Soundwave. The five of them huddled close, near but not too near Prowl's recharge slab. They'd all known this would end in disaster except for Prowl. Despite that, ey stayed perfectly still on Soundwave's shoulder and sent a blunt mental warning towards Buzzsaw to do the same. "What do you need us to do?"

Prowl shifted. His optics flicked. His wings twitched. "There are too many of you," he said. "This isn't going to work. There are too many—"

Enemies. Laserbeak could hear the last word of that truncated sentence as clear as day even though nobody spoke it. Ey briskly set aside the automatic reflex of hurt with ease born from practice and flew backwards, instead. Buzzsaw followed suit a klik later. Ravage, Laserbeak noticed, had already relocated to the corner of the room and sat there, watching Prowl with a steady gaze. "Okay," ey repeated. "Is this better? We're still in the room but not too close."

Prowl's wings settled, though his optics didn't. His fingers moved against Soundwave's arm not like a lover's caress but as though he didn't quite realize they were still there. "No," he snapped, and before Laserbeak could feel hurt about that, too, he added, "The entire purpose of this exercise is to overwrite the code that says so many mechs so close to me is a threat. Otherwise, this courtship will lead nowhere."

Soundwave leaned in towards Prowl, and Prowl tensed again. Laserbeak's spark ached with sympathy; Prowl wasn't weak, and neither had Soundwave been, but they were both broken and reshaped by casual cruelty in a way that made em wish the war was still on so ey could rip out a few sparks with eir claws.

Prowl relaxed again as Soundwave lowered his upper body awkwardly to rest his helm against Prowl's shoulder. Making himself vulnerable, Laserbeak noticed, and pressed emself against Ravage. "The process is slow," Soundwave said. "Even traditional courtship would be complicated with five mechs."

Prowl's hand slid up Soundwave's shoulder—a little too hard, judging by the sound, but Soundwave didn't even flinch. "For a technopath, you're terrible at addressing reality. The logical path would be to continue to overwrite my code."

"Not to interrupt," Buzzsaw said, "but totally to interrupt. Reflex coding doesn't actually work like that. The whole point is that it's written by experience, not voluntarily, and so it's very hard to rewrite in a conscious way. And it doesn't happen that fast." Ey shook eir wings. "You're thinking about this from the wrong angle."

"Ey's right," Ravage said. His tail gave a single, violent lash. "We have tried this your way, and it is clear that it is not working. Yet your desire to make this work remains, for which we are all grateful. Might I suggest that you would have more success growing accustomed to our presences one by one and learning who we are as mechs instead of satellites attached to Soundwave?"

Prowl's mouth flattened, and he raised his chin with a flinty light in his optics that Laserbeak recognized as interpersonal firewalls being raised. "I recognize it," he said in a flat voice. "I already agreed that all of you could court me, didn't I?"

"Yes." Ravage's tail lashed again. "You agreed to let us all court you. Do you think that being sparkmates means we spend all our time together as a single, lumbering unit?" The flicker in Prowl's optics said that yes, yes he did. Laserbeak held back a large vent of frustrated air. "It does not. We are four individuals who spent the war presenting ourselves otherwise. We are not Soundwave."

"We all know you agreed to court us because of him," Laserbeak interjected, "and we're grateful for the chance, but we don't want to impose if it turns out you're not attracted to us. We want to build a relationship, not reformat you to best please us."

Prowl's whole frame flinched at that, and he wrenched himself away from Soundwave with his wings held high. Soundwave swayed, then straightened. Laserbeak could feel his singular focus like a beacon pulsing in eir spark. "Cassettes are correct," he said, and, for the first time in a long while, Laserbeak regretted that his voice couldn't convey the depth of emotion behind those words. "Soundwave wants to court Prowl, not who Prowl believes Soundwave wants."

Then he tilted his head and, clearly responding to some cue that none of his sparkmates could, stepped back until he had pressed himself against a wall across the room from Prowl. Prowl trembled, his fans giving an uncomfortable shriek, and Laserbeak found emself grateful that ey'd already pressed against Ravage. Ey wanted nothing more than to move, to be close to eir sparkmates, to offer comfort in the way that ey was so used to. But ey didn't dare so much as shift eir weight until Prowl's trembling lessened, until Soundwave pulled away from the wall and stepped out again.

"I don't need to be coddled," Prowl grumbled.

"Soundwave is technopath," Soundwave replied. The exchange was familiar enough; they'd discovered early on that Prowl had an innate distrust of things that felt nice. "Soundwave does not enjoy feeling distress of discomfort."

Prowl's wings jerked, and then he laughed, a low grinding rumble that had little humor in it. He crossed the distance to Soundwave again and yanked him down for a fierce kiss that Laserbeak could almost feel through the sparkbond. "Fine," he said, and Laserbeak could have been imagining it but he sounded almost happy. "We'll try it your way, and if it doesn't work then…"

If, not when. Laserbeak's spark jumped, and ey took to the air before Ravage could nudge em. "That's our cue to leave," ey said, though ey risked landing on Soundwave's shoulder for a brief goodbye nuzzle, since they'd managed to do that before without setting off Prowl's nerves. "Don't get into too much trouble."

Soundwave rumbled wordlessly and curved around Prowl more sensually to stroke down the middle of his back. Laserbeak followed the motion with eir optics as ey flew towards the door. Soundwave might have the advantages of technopathy and instinct, but Laserbeak and Ravage and Buzzsaw had all fallen in love with Soundwave himself all those vorns ago; at least Prowl could speak for himself. They would make this thing work with love and patience and all the time in the world on their side.