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Posted June 22, 2012

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Fan Fiction: Put Your Funderwear On

Title: Put Your Funderwear On

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.

Rating: PG-15.

Spoilers: AU fusion post-Fast Five and during Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Summary: It had been two years since Toretto and O'Conner had left him laughing in their dust. It was about damned time someone gave him an answer. 17500 words.

Notes: Written for the 2012 Crossover Big Bang. A few minor details (Carrera, most of the Simmons family tree) were borrowed from licensed tie-in material. Many thanks to firefox1490 for fabulous work as my artist, and to hiddencait for incisive beta work. This story would not be the same without you guys!

Put On Your Funderwear Cover Art by firefox1490


Luke had to admit, O'Conner and the Torettos were good at what they did. Very good, especially since they had at least two Non Biological Terrestrials along for the ride-- and probably more, given how fond that team was of fast, flashy cars. They were like ghosts in every country they passed through; didn't so much as rattle the floor, despite their distinctive combination of looks and anything but demure attitudes.

Trying to track them down was like hunting a handful of needles-- not in a haystack, but in a stack of other needles. It was maddening.

It was also the biggest challenge he'd ever faced. Lucas Hobbs never scratched names off his list; not ever, not unless the order came down from his superiors, not until he brought his man in. Somewhere along the line, though, it had become more than duty to bring in the Torettos. It had become a diversion, a chase he looked forward to when nothing else was cooking: a pleasure.

So about the fourth time his pursuit derailed after he'd finally started to make headway, he took a good, long look at the merry dance he'd been led, and came to a slightly different conclusion.

They weren't running from. Not anymore. They'd started running to.

He'd traced some of the team's financial holdings and internet activity to the island nation of Vanuatu, but no immediate physical evidence had turned up there, and the laws of the country had protected their assets from any deeper digging. In Berlin, Toretto's girlfriend had disappeared while Luke and his men were still held up in an unexpected snarl of paperwork at the airport; all she'd left behind were rumors of a woman on a fearsome motorcycle trailed by a small group of special ops soldiers. And by the time he'd gotten word from a bust on a notorious document forger that a small group of the right ages and nationalities had done business in Goa, the crew had already shaken the dust of their beach house and run down garage there from their heels. All he'd found was a scattering of stray fingerprints and a tauntingly placed wrench for confirmation.

And last but not least, Diego Garcia. He'd turned up a solid lead pointing to the islands of the Indian Ocean; and while it was possible that they'd taken refuge in the Maldives, the nearby presence of the joint naval base rumored to house most of NEST's rank and file was difficult to ignore. But he wasn't on the classified access list for the base, and no one would tell him how he might get that inconvenient fact corrected. Luke's every request for clearance to investigate in the area had been shot down as soon as it was filed; and that made no logical sense. NEST should've been willing to cooperate, given the identity-- and nature-- of his quarry.

Secrets and shadow games. Somewhere along the line, O'Conner must have negotiated a deal for his cars' sake. Nothing else made sense. The only question left was whether NEST planned to keep the NBTs and return him and the Torettos to the States to answer for their many and varied crimes, or if they'd found some other use for the human team members' abilities. Given that they'd availed themselves of Luke's services before, but had since revoked his clearance, he'd guess the latter-- but then shouldn't someone have cleared the warrants?

It had been two years since Toretto and O'Conner had left him laughing in their dust. It was about damned time someone gave him an answer.

Put Your Funderwear On

Another country, another city, another day. Luke scratched at his beard, frowning past the security barricades at the wreckage that had once been Bruno Carrera's villa. It was a shame, really; from the location in southern Italy, to the old stone that had made up the buildings, the wide sweep of carefully tended lawn, and the smashed fountain that divided the drive, it had been a work of art before someone had stepped where they shouldn't. There was a sense of history there that had taken centuries to build-- even an 'uncultured American' like him could feel it-- but only a handful of seconds to tear down.

The owner had been a powerful industrialist, according to Luke's intel; wealthy and connected, but more concerned with affairs in Europe than anything further west. The DSS hadn't had any reason to look closely at him before; other three letter agencies had been more interested in his activities. Luke had come to Italy tracking one of the man's guests, a former security officer listed as a survivor of the Mission City event who had also been spotted at the site of a recent 'terrorist attack' in South America. It appeared the two men had had more in common than anyone had thought, given the newly uncovered connections between Carrera and the dustup in Rome-- not that the knowledge had come in time to do anyone any good.

Digital security footage from the villa's gates had shown a black luxury car with tinted windows entering the grounds late at night. Shortly thereafter, the cameras had also recorded the unmistakable roar of low flying jet engines. The carabinieri were pretending not to know what to make of the attack, but Luke's clearance had once been high enough that he could guess: it looked like the work of the F22 that had shot up Hoover Dam, destroyed several planes over Mission City, and wrought havoc around the globe a number of times since.

So much for the latest name on Luke's list. Undoubtedly, the alien had come to the villa because of Carrera-- but that would probably never be proven, any more than his current target would ever turn up anywhere but the cold case files. There wasn't enough of the place left to stack one brick on top of another, much less confirm the identities of any victims. He'd just have to be satisfied in knowing that there were at least two fewer traitors out there with too much power and too little loyalty to their entire species, never mind their nations.

He shook his head, then touched the Bluetooth in his ear to dial D.C. and started walking back toward his truck. His team could join him when they were done gathering every last detail for the official file, but he'd already seen more than enough for a preliminary report. Damned robots. Didn't they have a planet of their own somewhere to fight over? He had enough scum to chase without alien interference muddying the waters.

That included the no name spooks who always seemed to flock in the robots' wake, securing and erasing messes like the one he'd just run into. Luke was almost, almost surprised to notice a stranger in a ball cap and windbreaker leaning against the driver's side door of his LAPV as he approached it. He wasn't dressed like the Italian officers, and he wasn't one of Luke's men; that didn't leave very many alternatives.

"Fuentes? I'm going to have to call you back," he said sharply, hanging up the call, then gestured pointedly at the idiot as he closed on the truck. "You! Step away from the vehicle."

The guy looked up; Luke swept a quick evaluating gaze over him, then frowned in consternation. Five foot ten, with brown hair and hazel eyes, he was younger than he'd seemed at first glance-- and much too recognizable to belong to any alphabet agency but one. It was the kid from the news, the one who'd personally taken down NBE One before disappearing into the bosom of the new agency set up to deal with the side effects of that so-called 'industrial accident'. There was no way his presence at the villa was a coincidence.

"Mr. Hobbs? Or is it Agent?" the kid said, aiming a wide smile in his direction. "Agent Hobbs, hi. My name is Sam Witwicky. I know you're probably wondering what I'm doing here--"

"I know who you are," Luke cut him off, crossing his arms over his chest, eyeing the boy with wary suspicion. "And who you work for. If you're after the NBE that did this, the Italian authorities would be the ones to ask, not my team. And I'm still going to have to ask you to step away from the vehicle."

He'd been watching the way the kid stroked the armored side of the eight and a half ton truck, and recalled very vividly the way O'Conner had behaved around Toretto's half-smashed Charger in Rio. He'd read up on the Allspark effects the first time he'd been tasked to chase a Mission City veteran, and he was pretty sure it took a lot of time to affect something that size-- but he also knew that O'Conner had defied all the specs in those files, and it would be folly to assume that the kid was average, either.

"You mean this vehicle, here?" Witwicky said, still wearing that aw-shucks grin as he gestured casually at the door he was leaning against. He wasn't even pretending to be intimidated by the extra height or mass Hobbs had on him-- another clue, if Luke had needed one, that he spent far too much time around NEST's oversized associates. "Aw, c'mon man, I'm not doing him any harm. I just wanted to meet him while I was here."

Luke's scowl deepened as he closed the last of the distance between them, dropping a hand to rest on the butt of the weapon strapped to his thigh. "You're telling me you're here to meet my truck?" he growled.

Witwicky nodded. "Yeah, and I gotta say, he sure does justice to Bestia's stories. She's kind of terrified of him, but kind of admiring, too, you know? I keep telling her he didn't know any better at the time, and she can't hold it against him forever, but they're people just like we are; she keeps saying she wants a rematch."

"Him?" Luke objected, not sure what the hell the kid was talking about, but not liking the sound of it one bit. "This is my truck, not one of your NBTs. Whatever you're looking for, kid, it ain't here."

"If you say so," Witwicky said, shrugging, giving one final pat to the Gurkha's door. A faint spark of electric blue light leapt from fingers to metal at the contact-- but then he stepped away, raising his open palms in a gesture of surrender. "I'll just get out of your hair, then. Er, beard, I mean. Whatever. If you change your mind, though-- if you decide you want to arrange a play date-- just give Major Lennox a call. He'll know where to find her."

Play date? Luke blinked, abruptly remembered where he'd heard the name Bestia before, and took another step toward the boy, adrenaline jolting through his system. Bestia was what O'Conner had called Toretto's NBT. That meant Witwicky knew her; and that meant that he knew where they were. "Wait. Kid--"

Witwicky sighed, cheerful expression finally fading a little, though he didn't let that curb his tongue. "My name is not kid. It's Sam. Or Witwicky; I'm not picky, really, as long as it's not Wikety or Ladiesman Two One Seven. I'm kind of tired of those. But I know how you military types are about the surnames."

Luke raised an eyebrow, giving the kid another onceover. So he knew Luke was ex-military, did he? Lucky guess from spending a lot of time around other servicemen, or had he read up on Luke in particular? And what was with the nicknames? He got Wikety, but the other one? It might've made sense if Witwicky was a little older-- once he'd filled out, calmed down a little, and tamed that unruly hair-- but he was still in the gawky beanpole stage common to late adolescents. Wishful thinking, probably; and the other matter, therefore, luck. In all likelihood he had minders around somewhere, and had simply slipped their leash when he saw the Gurkha.

Well, wishful thinking was a liability in a world like theirs, and he'd learn that soon enough if he hadn't already. "Okay then, Ladies' Man," he drawled, refocusing his attention on the issue at hand. "Say I was interested in a play date. I have a feeling Bestia's driver would have something to say about that, though; it might be a good idea for me to talk things over with him first. You got a number where I can reach him?"

Witwicky snorted, though he seemed more amused than offended. "Right, nice try. Kind of obvious, though. I was under the impression you were actually supposed to be good at this." He shook his head. "But I guess I did kind of come out of nowhere, so I should probably cut you a little slack. And after Megatron? The intimidation thing doesn't so much work with me anyway. Not to knock the muscles, I can tell you work really hard on those; I bet you could pop my skull like a melon if you wanted to. But you don't. Want to, I mean. I can tell."

Luke clenched his jaw as the flow of adolescent bluster washed over him, but Witwicky still didn't blanch at his expression, just kept babbling, posture casual. Luke had run into people who didn't back down to him before, but usually among his contemporaries or superiors; teenagers with Witwicky's strength of personality, who didn't wilt or vent hot air at the first cold shoulder of resistance, were rarer than Hollywood liked to pretend. He was willing to bet most people who met the kid either admired or hated him within the first five minutes.

Personally, Luke was going to have to go with annoyed; he was a little harder to impress than most. He narrowed his eyes, then flexed his biceps and ground his palms together in front of his chest, the tough cloth of his fingerless gloves adding an abrasive scraping sound to the daunting picture he knew he made.

"You sure about that?" he growled, adopting an irritated expression.

He was rewarded with the sight of Witwicky's Adam's apple bobbing in his throat, before the kid choked out an awkward laugh. It was the first sign of nervousness Luke had seen from him during the entire encounter. "Ah, hah hah, very funny. Good times. Re-establishing dominance, I get it. And on that note, wow, look at the time! How about we finish this some other day? When I can maybe hide behind Mikaela?"

Luke raised a deliberate eyebrow. "How 'bout we don't and say we did?" he replied, smirking.

"All right, all right, I give up." The kid waved a surrender, then held out a hand, looking irritated but also somehow amused. "Nice to meet you anyway, man. And remember-- I told you before, it isn't kid."

Well, if nothing else, he had to respect the boy's sheer balls. Luke eyed him skeptically, then took the offered hand in a firm grip.

That was a mistake. The moment skin touched skin, greenish-brown eyes flashed briefly blue; and the next thing Luke knew, he was blinking up at the sky, aching and twitching like he'd just been tased.

"Uh, oops?" he heard vaguely, as if from a distance. "Hey, Ratchet? Maybe we'd better...."

Son of a bitch, he thought muzzily. Never mind the Gurkha; what the fuck had Witwicky just done to him?

The last time Luke had felt so utterly betrayed by his own flesh, he'd been lying on a street in Rio after catching the backblast of an RPG round. Human bodies were ultimately just cages of meat and bone, but he was used to demanding a hell of a lot from his and getting everything he asked for.

Electromuscular disruption blunted its teeth for no man, though. And whatever Witwicky had jolted him with-- ungloved, damn it, he should have noticed the kid wasn't wearing gloves!-- had felt more or less the same as his training experience with a heavy duty taser. Except for his Bluetooth turning into a green-eyed little spidery thing and crawling up over his face while he lay there, twitching. Yeah, that was a fuck-you cherry on his sundae of surprise.

"Oh, shit. Agent Hobbs! Chato, Sparks, Norton, the boss is down!"

The rhythmic slapping of soles on pavement echoed nearby as Luke's team finally noticed his predicament. Only a few more seconds passed before knees crashed down in his field of view, and another person's hand slapped across his face. The Bluetooth bot flew off his forehead; he heard a tiny electronic shriek as it passed out of his field of view, followed by another from his waist as his now much smarter phone wriggled out of his pocket in a panic and skittered after it.

He caught a glimpse of a hand going for a holster in his peripheral vision, and forced himself to speak, voice rasping out as he regained control of his muscles. "Wait! Don't shoot."

"Sir, it attacked you," Agent Gonzalez replied firmly. She towered over him from his prone perspective, stance firm, weapon braced in both hands; she'd eased her finger off the trigger at his command, but was still tracking the movements of the tiny new bots with the muzzle as they skittered out of range.

"No-- no, they were an effect, not the cause," he groaned, shifting his weight up on a shaky elbow. He was still within arm's reach of the Gurkha, but the kid was nowhere to be seen-- which of course was not a surprise, not really. "Anyone see where Witwicky went?"

"Witwicky?" Chato's eyebrows shot up. Of Luke's four agents, he was the only one who'd been with him before Rio, and thus had been there when they'd been loaned out to Banacek after Mission City. He wasn't likely to have forgotten that particular name, even if none of the others recognized it. "I saw a guy in a windbreaker head this way earlier, but I didn't get a good look at his face. You sure it was the kid?"

"Yeah," Luke snorted, reaching a hand up to match grips with Agent Norton. The strongest member of the team bar Luke himself, he still went darker in the face with effort as he helped haul Luke to his feet. "Anyone see a yellow and black Camaro roar out of here in the last minute or so? Or a big black GMC Topkick?"

"No, but I did see a rescue Hummer drive by," Chato frowned. "Loud colors, too. Sorry, boss; I should have put it together."

Luke shook his head, disgusted with himself. "No reason you should have," he said. "My mistake; I let down my guard. Kid said he wanted to talk to me about an old case, but he wouldn't have known I was here in the first place if NEST wasn't already on scene investigating the attack."

"Shit," Norton sighed. "NEST, huh? Figures. I'll see if the locals will put out an APB."

"No, don't bother," Luke shrugged a little stiffly as he stared toward the stirring grass where the bots had disappeared. "Like I said, I'm sure there's another of their agents around, anyway. The way they've circled their wagons around that kid since the beginning, I guaran-damn-tee that request won't end up anywhere useful."

"They shouldn't have let him out at all," Chato commented, kneeling where Luke's eyes were tracking and extending a cautious hand. "Not if he's still leaving little ones like this everywhere he goes."

Gonzalez frowned. She was slowly reholstering her weapon, but she still kept half her attention on the verge as she replied, unsettled. "You're acting like those things are alive."

"They are," Chato shrugged. "They're like pets, as far as NEST is concerned. Or kids, depending on the size and processor speed; you don't want to insult 'em in front of the big ones. They mostly don't show up in the wild like this anymore, though, unless someone's been stirring the pot."

"Probably why he is here, then, if they were afraid our guy left things like that behind him to clean up," Agent Sparks spoke up, staring out over the rubble of the villa. Then he turned to fix piercing gray eyes on Luke's face, his slight frame and sharp bayou country features belying the shrewdest of the three new minds on the team. "You all right, boss?"

"I'm standing, aren't I?" he grunted. "Y'all done here?"

"Not much left to find the carabinieri ain't already picked up," Sparks replied with a bland smirk. "Or those hypothetical NEST agents. You want to stick around and see if they show themselves?"

He was tempted; but no. "I'm sure they'll wait 'til we're gone." They'd been real thorough about stonewalling him since he'd started badgering them about O'Conner's disappearance into their net. But he didn't mistake that for turning a blind eye; which meant, come to think of it, that the situation he found himself in could potentially be turned in his favor. "Chato, you found those things yet?"

The agent in question had his hands cupped closed to the ground, and slowly worked his way back to his feet, staring at something shining nestled in amongst his fingers. "Yeah; got 'em right here. Fuck, they're small. At least they're the kind with green eyes, not red. Were these your phone?"

Luke snorted. "Unless there's more of those critters running around? Yeah, they're mine. I'm not looking forward to the paperwork on replacing them."

Gonzalez' frown deepened. "But what does eye color have to do with anything?"

"Never was told why, but all the native ones from Mission City or Sector Seven had red lenses; they were feral little fuckers, defensive as all hell and mostly too dangerous to try and salvage." Luke shrugged. "But the ones that someone actually touched to light them up-- they seem to start out friendlier, and they're almost always green-eyed."

"Actually touched? You mean there's another way of making those little bots?" Norton raised his eyebrows.

"Before Mission City? Had to be. But that's how they transfer the energy, now. Or spark. Or whatever they're officially calling it," Luke said, holding one of his own hands out toward Chato, palm upward. "Only time I ever saw a handmade one cause harm, was that P90 O'Conner charged up when we ran him and the Torettos down in Rio. Remember that, Chato? Had to knock him out and shoot the shit out of it to stop it attacking you."

Chato paused in the middle of reaching out to hand the little bots over, a disgruntled expression on his face as he recalled the events of that day. "Not likely to forget, H. But, uh. How pissed was Witwicky, exactly, when he made these? Maybe I should hold on to them."

Witwicky might've been annoyed, but that 'oops' hadn't sounded like the product of blind rage. Good thing, too. Might smooth the negotiations a little when the time came if Luke had cause for offense-- but not so much that he couldn't be magnanimous about it. He snorted and twitched his fingers in a 'gimme' motion. "I don't think they'd have let you pick 'em up if that was the case," he assured his friend. "Besides, it's my damned phone."

"Your skin, not mine, boss," Chato shrugged, and extended his hand again.

The little twitching things made some kind of electronic chattering noises when they saw who they were going to, clinging to Chato's hand for a second, but Luke just kept holding out his hand and gestured for the agent to stand still. "Hey," he said soothingly, feeling a little like an idiot as he pitched his voice at the metallic, oversized spiders. "Nothing to be afraid of. I'm not going to hurt you. Just carry you around awhile. You were my phone, remember? I might need to make some calls, but you're free to ride my shoulder the rest of the time. Not your damned fault that the kid doesn't have a lick of sense."

Gonzalez gave a disbelieving huff, and Sparks snickered at him, but Chato shushed them both; good man. If it worked, it worked. If it didn't, well... Luke figured his reputation could survive the hit. But he wasn't going to take guff from his own team about it. Before Rio, they never would have--

He cut that thought off short as a pang shot through him. One thing about the O'Conner and Toretto case-- it always brought up memories of those he'd lost in the pursuit. He'd taken his vengeance, buried Wilkes and Macroy, made sure Fusco was taken care of when his injuries disqualified him for further fieldwork, and eventually vetted three new members for his team with Chato's help, but things hadn't been the same since. And maybe that was another reason he was so keen on catching those oil-blooded felons: it would give him closure for the last of the events that had torn his team apart.

Never mind. Gonzalez would learn, and Sparks was just a smartass; he was trainable, and Norton was already pretty solid. Chato would make sure they settled into a coherent unit sooner or later. And in the meantime....

"Well, would you look at that."

He grinned in satisfaction at the little robots as they finally, tentatively crept from Chato's hand to his, then seemed to perk up, taking him at his word to dash up and hook the tips of their metal legs into the shoulder of his vest. It kind of tickled as they ran up over his bare forearm and bicep, and he felt a strange jolt of recognition at the same time-- as if they recognized something about him, not that that made any real sense.

Ah, well. He'd deal with them later. Time to get back to the airport and catch the next transport home.

He turned to walk around the Gurkha to the driver's seat, but stumbled to a halt almost immediately as sore, temporarily weakened muscles nearly pitched him to the ground. Fucking Witwicky. He caught himself with a hand braced on the side of the truck, then popped an eyebrow at his subordinates to see who'd comment first.

"Maybe you better let one of us drive, Boss," Gonzales tossed herself on that grenade. "Just for today?"

Luke snorted, then fished the keys out of his pocket and flung them to Chato instead. He hadn't let any of the newbies drive yet-- and it wasn't the day to change that. It would have to wait for some other time. "You break it, you buy it," he reminded his senior agent, more for form's sake in front of the others than genuine caution, and gestured with his chin toward the driver's seat.

Chato snorted, taking Luke's comment with a grain of salt, and nodded in acknowledgement before walking around to climb in. Luke raised an eyebrow when Gonzales compounded her previous error by actually opening the passenger door for him, but climbed in without comment; he'd find some appropriate paperwork revenge for her later.

He meant to stay alert for the drive back, expecting a call from NEST at any time, but either the kid hadn't told anyone what he'd done or Luke was just that tired; his eyelids started to droop less than ten klicks away from the villa, and he didn't hear another sound until they were already at the airport.

"Hobbs? Boss?"

Chato's voice drifted its way slowly into his consciousness, breaking Luke away from the last lingering remnants of a very strange dream. He'd felt-- warm, somehow; warm clear through in a way that had nothing to do with his environment, but the kind of internal glow that came from good companionship. Eager. Fierce. Even protective: shielding something, or someone, from any possibility of harm, only without the adrenaline rush and bloodthirsty anger that usually went hand in hand with those emotions for him. He didn't understand it; but it had felt good. Kind of relaxing.

What wasn't relaxing was the tone Chato was using. Alarmed and fairly urgent-- and now that Luke was paying attention to that, he could hear the others arguing, too, in lower voices behind him.

"Did you try--"

"Of course I tried that, damn it, that was the first thing I--"

"Ouch! What the fuck, man; the handle stung my--"

"--not that way, look, this panel--"

"--military vehicle, sure it doesn't have a--"

"--think Wikety did to it?"

"What the hell's going on?" He broke in over all of them, cracking his eyes open slowly to mute the inevitable headache.

They all shut up in a hurry, and he turned to look over his shoulder enough to see the three agents exchanging glances in the back seating area. "We're at the airport, but the truck won't let us out," Gonzalez filled in for them, and they all gave him sheepish looks.

"Won't let you?" Luke blinked at her, then glanced over at Chato, then finally took note of the man in the generic government suit outside pantomiming through the windshield. The man's mouth was working, but he couldn't hear a thing he was saying. Either the Italian official was putting on some kind of show, or the soundproofing on the Gurkha had suddenly gotten a lot better....

He abruptly put the dream together with the mention of Witwicky, and a wave of foreboding swept through him. "Just wanted to meet him my ass. I'm gonna kill that kid," he growled.


"Never mind." Luke shook his head, then set his hand on the passenger side door handle. As he'd half expected, it didn't resist him; all the locks gave way with an emphatic clicking noise.

He grimaced. Yeah, that was nothing less than deliberate. What the hell was he supposed to do with a semi-sentient-- or, fuck he hoped not-- fully sentient LAPV? He already had enough color on his record from the price tag of his trip to Brazil; he wasn't sure he wanted to know what his superiors would do in response to that piece of news.

The agents exchanged looks again, then popped the doors and practically threw themselves out of the vehicle. Luke watched them go, drawing up in an awkward cluster outside to talk to the foreign agent, and shook his head. Then he followed them out more slowly, patting a hand against the panel of the door as he stepped down.

He picked up a brief burst of confused/protect?/stay! from that brief contact with the Gurkha, echoed by electronic chirps from the phone that seemed to have found a home in his pants pocket while he slept, and shuddered, trying not to broadcast the automatic spike of uneasy resentment that shot through him.

He'd told O'Conner two years ago that Toretto's car belonged on Diego Garcia with others of its kind, not anywhere within reach of him. The time since had done a little to make the idea of shape shifting metal beings seem like less of an abomination-- but still not quite enough for it to seem normal. Especially when they were talking to him without words somehow, a side effect O'Conner had never so much as hinted at. But Luke did realize the mechanoids weren't the ones to blame, not even technically; it would do him no good to resent them for it.

"I'll see you again in a few hours," he growled at the truck. "Settle down, and don't give the nice agents any trouble. We'll figure out how this works when we're back in D.C. I don't want you causing waves before that."

It seemed to settle on its shocks, giving an uneasy sigh of noise, but somehow projected resignation as well; he shuddered again, disconcerted, then walked away to face his team. Whatever they saw on his face, they seemed to decide as one not to ask; instead, they fell in with him as he headed for the first of the hoops they had to jump through to leave the country.

They mostly left him alone on the long flight back, too, though they all eyed him curiously when he tapped the phone and asked it to shift back so he could finish the conversation with Fuentes. At least they knew better than to eavesdrop while he was talking to her. He'd fill them in later.

Luke and Monica Fuentes had worked together off and on since she transferred to the DSS. She'd been an undercover Customs agent before that, but her face was too publicly known after the Carter Verone takedown for her to keep that career up long-term. Her path had intersected with Brian O'Conner's at some point during that whole mess, so Luke had picked her brain for information when the ex-agent's name hit his desk, and discovered a healthy respect for her skills and sharp mind in the process. She'd dropped him the clue about Ortiz and had been helping him surreptitiously track NEST operations ever since as part of his support team.

"What were they thinking?" she blurted, as he finished filling her in on the events of the mission. "It makes no sense for NEST to send a civilian-- especially that civilian-- to the scene of an attack."

"Maybe they didn't-- not the military half of the command," he replied. "What about the other half? You told me his records list him with a dual citizenship now-- the other nationality might be classified, but I think we can guess what it might be. There had to be other NEST personnel on site, but I didn't see him with anyone else-- just that garish rescue Hummer. I think I heard him call it Ratchet; that's the name of one of the First Five."

"A very interesting theory," she replied, "but why would they send him? I don't care what Sparks said, that doesn't make any sense. If NEST is holding Brian and Toretto...."

"That's just it," he interrupted her. "The kid said he was here to meet my truck; and that he'd talked to Bestia. That's...."

"One of the NBTs, I remember," she said, her tone mildly annoyed. "The one Toretto drove-- the Charger. I still don't see how all of this is relevant. If he was trying to warn you off, there were much easier ways of doing it."

"He said I might want to arrange a play date," he reminded her. "I think that shock he laid on me was an accident-- but whatever he did to my truck wasn't. I think maybe O'Conner or Toretto or one of their friends told him their version of events in Rio, and he was indulging in a little payback."

"And their allies went along with it because...?" she challenged him.

"I don't know. As a favor to the Charger? Deterrent? Field trip for the kid? Who the hell knows. He might have just decided to mess with my life on a whim without telling anyone else what he was up to. Because you know if it turns out it is alive, I might as well sign the transfer of property papers myself. There's no way they would let me keep it in D.C."

Fuentes sighed. "Well, I'm sure you'll blow that bridge up when you come to it."

He rolled his eyes at her dry tone. "Very funny."

"Anyway." She cleared her throat. "Speaking of transfer papers-- I finally tracked Brian's down."

Luke frowned, sitting up straighter in her chair. "Tell me it's dessert this time, not veggies," he barked.

There'd been some interesting elisions in the file the FBI had handed him on O'Conner-- bullshit he hadn't discovered until he'd been on the plane leaving Rio, wondering what the hell he'd missed that had made it so difficult to get a handle on his opponents' movements and motivations. Toretto had been more or less what he'd expected, but not his partner... and even the fact that they were obviously partners, that O'Conner wasn't just there because of the sister, hadn't jived with the facts reported from that original case in L.A. Finding out that O'Conner hadn't been 'overpowered' by Toretto at the end, that he hadn't gone straight from that case to another undercover op in Miami but had instead actually run the streets himself for awhile, had made a lot more sense out of his attitude and obvious comfort with the lifestyle.

O'Conner's claim to have joined Sector Seven after that, though... 'former federal officer in deep cover for five years', no shit, but as one of those spooks? Everyone who'd even heard of them, and that was precious few, had told him the Sector had been a tight-knit nepotistic group. No one had ever just randomly joined that 'do anything and get away with it' government black hole while it had been active, if they weren't family; and afterward, every known member had either joined NEST or gone civilian. Luke hadn't been informed as to the decision process for who'd gone where, but he did know that virtually all of the personnel actually present at Mission City were among the former; only a few had done a runner, and he'd been sent to track down most of those. O'Conner's name hadn't appeared on any of the lists he'd seen.

"Depends on your tastes, I suppose," Fuentes chuckled. "As it happens, one of the Sector agents NEST let go? Seymour Simmons? He's holding something of a grudge. Works for his mother at a deli in New York now."


"And don't get your panties in a twist, I'm getting to it. He says he's the great grandson of the founder, one Walter Simmons. And as it turns out, the current Simmons is Brian's second cousin."

"He's what?" That did raise Luke's eyebrows. "Why wasn't he with the Sector all along, then?"

"I guess it's something of a pattern with the family. The first Simmons' wife, Clara, left him for another of the First Seven and took their daughter out of the life; as Mrs. Theodore Wells, she had two more daughters. Margo Simmons and her son joined back up with the Sector, but Bill Simmons died before his son was born, and Seymour didn't find them until he was an adult. The Wells girls didn't join up, but three of their children did, and one of those was Brian's father. He was pretty much absentee until he died when Brian was twelve, and Brian's path apparently didn't cross Sector Seven's again until just after Verone's arrest."

"Pretty damned convenient timing," Luke grunted.

"Convenience seems to have been the word of the day where he was concerned," she agreed. "The papers I found? His transfer to the L.A. office after the Sector Seven assignment has CYA stamped all over it. Reading between the lines, it looks like the FBI plucked him out of Mission City without bothering to fill in either the remaining Sector hierarchy or NEST, and Brian fell through the cracks until his picture hit the news again."

"Bullshit. Are you telling me that he could have been with NEST all along?" Luke clenched a fist. "No bus breakout, no manhunt, no massacre...."

"Braga still killing racers in L.A., and Reyes still running Rio?" she replied, dryly. "He's a train wreck, I know, but you have to admit he and his friends did make good catalysts."

"Nothing was worth watching two of my men die in front of me when it didn't need to happen," he snarled.

"You're right. I'm sorry," Fuentes sighed. "I was trying to cheer you up: you have an angle, now. Simmons is a crazy bastard, but he and Brian get along all right, if you believe his stories. So how willing do you think he'll be to arrange a meeting with just about the only blood family he has left?"

Luke rubbed a hand over his sweaty scalp and let out a long, frustrated breath. It was an angle to follow, if Thing One and Thing Two didn't give him any traction. "No chance his cousin will go to Diego Garcia instead?"

"Simmons?" Fuentes snorted. "No. NEST made sure he doesn't have access to any of their facilities; he wouldn't say why, but I can only guess he made an even worse impression on them."

"That annoying, huh? Sounds like that runs in the family, too." Luke shook his head.

Fuentes laughed, a deeply amused sound that helped soothe the ashes still steaming in his gut. "Oh, I can't wait 'til you meet him. See you back in D.C., then?"

"I'll be back in the office in a couple of days," he agreed. He paused a moment, then added, "Thanks, Fuentes."

"Just doing my job," she said sweetly, and hung up.

Sass and a hard worker. Luke shook his head at himself, then took Thing One back out of his ear, tucked it into his pocket with Thing Two, and turned his attention back to the rest of his team.

There wasn't any kind of a message waiting for him when he did get back to D.C., and Luke started wondering if the kid had reported what he'd been up to at all. Maybe he'd been right about the alien robots being the ones responsible for that particular appearance, not the human military half of the operation. But if that was the case, wouldn't they have been even more concerned about the tiny new 'bots Witwicky's interference was responsible for creating? He had to've known what he'd done. Nothing about the situation made any sense.

OF course, nothing about NEST had ever made much sense to Luke. Trying to keep a lid on the secret after everything that had happened was just going to end up killing more people, not less, no matter what scary scenarios their public relations arm had come up with regarding the revelation of aliens. At the rate things were going, that was pretty much inevitable; better to roll out the facts before events did it for them.

He did have a thing or two left to try before going with Fuentes' angle, though. First and foremost: he routed a call through to NEST command at the Pentagon to dutifully report his discovery of two micro-NBTs. He wouldn't mention the Gurkha over a public channel-- he hadn't had time to corner it alone again, and he was a little wary of springing any trap Witwicky might have been trying to set-- but the little Things were pretty harmless, by any scale he cared to use. And it would be a topic of conversation NEST wouldn't be able to avoid, unlike O'Conner.

Though it appeared they could delay it. Luke's first day back behind his desk after the mission to Italy was a Wednesday, and he bounced off voicemail after voicemail before finally leaving an actual message with a harried young officer. The man promised Luke that he would get a call back as soon as was expedient, but didn't let him draw out the conversation, even when Luke used his most commanding tone of voice.

The screen the office kept always tuned to CNN put that call in a little more perspective a few hours later. There'd apparently been a 'toxic spill'-- aka 'industrial accident'-- in Shanghai after ten p.m. local time, and the blurry, low resolution footage was full of an enormous dual wheeled machine crashing along an overpass, crushing every car it encountered. It was after dark there, twelve hours ahead of D.C., but the big blue and red figure dangling from its chassis was impossible to mistake even amid the nighttime chiaroscuro of streetlamp and shadow. NEST had tracked another enemy alien to ground-- and once more made a hash of capturing it. It was almost as though their quarry were making a point of forcing their interactions into the public eye.

Luke was reminded of facing Toretto down amid a crowd of racers in Rio, and curled his lip at the newsfeed. Any team could fall for that sort of trick once, but Shanghai wasn't even the second incursion to have blown up so badly in the last year. Didn't anyone in charge in 'botland have a decent grasp of hunting tactics?

Never mind; it wasn't his business. His business looked to have a few days of downtime and sorting files, maybe a little domestic work, before the next mission; his team didn't always chase bad guys. Sometimes they protected visiting foreign dignitaries, a more usual DSS duty on home soil.

And since he was commonly known to work very late at his desk... he might finally be able to make time to talk with his Gurkha without someone overhearing him. Or at it; though he was beginning to resign himself to the fact that it was probably with. Damn that kid; Luke really didn't want to have to deal with eight and a half tons of sentient armored patrol vehicle. The tools of a man's trade were supposed to do what he wanted them to, when he wanted them to, not act with a mind of their own.

What if it-- or he, if Luke took the kid literally-- decided he wasn't bound by Luke's orders and went his own way? It wasn't as though Luke would be able to manhandle the truck into obedience as he could most other human agents if he had to; the Gurkha outweighed him by such an enormous factor it would never even notice any attempt he made to physically reseize control. It might have unlocked its doors at his touch at the airport in Italy... but only after locking the entire team in first. That was an ominous sign.

He should just order the thing scrapped. But... despite how uneasy they made him, despite the fact that he was deeply suspicious of their motives, he hadn't needed Witwicky to tell him that the NBTs were feeling, thinking beings. He'd seen that in Rio. He couldn't just kill one, if it even sat there and let him do it. And... it was his. He'd lost half his team to Reyes' men, but O'Conner's NBTs had saved the others, and his truck had got him through it; there was just a slight possibility he might have grown irrationally, vaguely attached to the vehicle in the process. Even if it had unexpectedly become a robot.

Luke waited until the office was dark, then manned up, strapped his Smith & Wesson Competitor back to his thigh, and headed down to the garage where the LAPVs were parked when not in use.

It wasn't until he was walking out of the stairwell, heading for the gray, boxy beveled shape of his particular truck that something else abruptly occurred to him. When Witwicky had touched him, both parts of his phone had transformed-- but the weapon in his holster hadn't. He frowned, tapping his thumb against the grip of the sidearm, and reminded himself to revisit that later. Then he glanced up at the nearest cameras, reassured himself his face wouldn't be visible on any of the security feeds, and opened the passenger door.

If he'd been holding out any hope he'd been hallucinating earlier, the rev of the engine turning itself over, the flare of the headlamps reflecting off the concrete wall, and the crackle of static as the radio activated would have disillusioned him. Luke frowned, feeling an unaccustomed sense of concern and loneliness bubble up behind his breastbone, and reached out to lay a hand on the dash. The feeling lifted a little at the touch-- and the engine slowed too, sending his own stomach churning with disquiet.

He was picking up something entirely nonverbal from it; that hadn't been his imagination. He'd never heard of that happening before, not from any agents he knew to have interacted with NBEs or NBTs. And NEST had definitely never circulated any information about such side effects, just instructions on what survivors of the Mission City 'accident' should do if they inadvertently started sparking machinery to life in their wake-- most of which boiled down to don't, and wear gloves that cover the entire hand.

Luke flexed his hands in the half-gloves he habitually wore, and cleared his throat.

"So. You got a designation I should use, or what?" he asked, feeling just a little ridiculous.

There was a brief silence; then an embarrassed feeling accompanied by the nonverbal equivalent of a headshake. "Creators assign designations to newsparks," the radio said, in a decidedly masculine voice. There was a definite emphasis on the first and last words.

"And Witwicky didn't stick around," Luke snorted. "Figures."

It made a noncommittal, staticky noise. "Agent Hobbs could choose a designation?" it suggested.

If they weren't 'born' knowing their own names unless someone programmed them in... that meant Bestia had to have been O'Conner's deliberate choice for Toretto's ride: the Italian translation of the word Beast. Interesting. Kind of a masculine name for a feminine car. He'd have to look up Nesso in a dictionary later, to find out what O'Conner had been calling the other one, but he thought he remembered it had been a 'she', too.

That gave him an irreverent idea of what to call the Gurkha; also a little gender inappropriate, assuming that the robot idea of gender was even analogous to the human one in the first place, but he couldn't think of one that would suit better after Witwicky's hints about 'play dates'.

"Belle," he said, one corner of his mouth tugging up in amusement. "I think I'll call you Belle. And you can call me Hobbs."

"Hobbs," it agreed. Then it added, with overtones of curiosity: "What is the significance of Belle? Search results feature an animated human female with a yellow textile covering."

Luke blinked at that, humor transmuting into surprise. "Wait. You have access to the Internet?" No wonder the 'bots tailored their shapes and behaviors so quickly to human norms... at least, when it suited them. They had it all right at their fingertips.

Belle sounded almost smug as he replied. "The Allspark adapts."

...Yeah, Luke wasn't even going to touch the use of the present tense in that statement, though it had interesting implications for Witwicky's appearance. He filed that for later and addressed a more immediate question. "You able to contact any other robots with that communications equipment of yours?"

"Yes. But I have not chosen one of their factions," came the matter of fact, not entirely helpful answer.

"Huh." He frowned, crossing his arms over his chest. He hadn't even anticipated that it could have just contacted the NEST bunch on its own; but at least it hadn't contacted the enemies of its kind, either. "So you haven't heard of Bestia?"

There was another brief pause, one Luke mentally filled in this time with images of flashing browser windows. Or did it even need a browser? "Designation unclear," the radio concluded.

"You'll find out." Luke could say that much for a fact. "Let's just say she's the Beast to your Beauty. In the meantime... I need to ask, what are your intentions? You plan on choosing one of those factions, or what? You can't exactly stay here indefinitely."

"State your reasoning," Belle interrupted him then, inexplicably disgruntled.

"My reasoning for what?" he replied, frowning at the shift in tone.

"Why can't I stay? You are DSS. My registration is DSS. The Diplomatic Security Service is therefore my faction."

"Except for one small, inconvenient fact: that the only government faction that takes NBTs-- that's robots like you-- is NEST, not the DSS," Luke informed him. Strange; he hadn't expected loyalty from it. What had Witwicky been playing at?

"You do not want a guardian?" it-- he-- replied, sounding stung.

Luke cast his eyes up toward the ceiling of the truck. How the fuck was this even his life? Wanting to comfort a goddamn talking piece of machinery. "Let's just give it a little time to sink in," he said gruffly, "and see what happens. But you can't let anyone else know you can talk until I clear it. Understood?"

Belle was silent for a long moment. Then the engine shut off suddenly, taking the headlamps with it. Shadow fell in the cab of the Gurkha, everything going dark for a moment while his eyes readjusted to the normal parking structure light levels, and he was picking up nothing extra from his new sixth sense but a nebulous feeling of dread. "Or, uh, you could just leave and go join one of those factions?" he added, uneasily.

"You wish for me to stay?" the radio rasped out, static cropping up to make the words almost unintelligible.

Luke took a deep breath, debating with himself, then nodded. "Yeah. I do, okay? I'd rather you stayed here."

The sense of oppression eased, and the passenger door popped open of its own accord. "Then I will stay," Belle added with finality, and the radio shut off with an emphatic click.

Luke rolled his shoulders, working out the tension that had suddenly knotted them up, as he took his cue and got out. Negotiating with his own damned vehicle. What next?

He shook his head and headed for his civilian SUV. Time to pack things up and go home-- get a little shut eye while he still could. Because as complicated as things had been, he had a feeling that they were about to get even worse.

Friday finally brought a call back from the Pentagon-- and a somewhat confusing interview with another distracted officer under the NEST umbrella. The guy took down a description of Luke's phone and asked that Luke send him a digital pic of both transformed and original parts for the tracking database. Then he told Luke to call back if it were to suddenly adopt a Decepticon insignia, comparative image to follow, and to have a nice day.

"Wait," Luke couldn't help but ask him. "Don't you want me to bring them in?"

"Ah, no. Not if they have green optics," the guy said. "They're already government property, you said? If we tried to track down every single microbot created in the last two years and remove them to Diego Garcia, the base would be overrun. As long as they pose no threat, they're generally better put to use in the field."

Luke frowned at that. Better put to use? No, if he had to bet, there was something a bit more practical behind it. "And that way you don't have to issue replacement equipment," he concluded with a snort.

"Good day, agent," the young man said-- and that was that.

Luke clenched his jaw as Thing One made an end call sound in his ear, nerves crackling with a burst of irritation-- then yelped as his watch suddenly fell off his wrist, clasp pinching the skin as it twitched loose.

He stared at the bared skin for a moment, wondering how the hell he'd caught the band on something without noticing it-- then felt that uneasy roil in his gut again when the watch face suddenly flipped itself over on the floor, linked band unwinding itself into a caterpillar of little metal legs. "Son of a bitch," he muttered.

Thing One chirped in his ear again, then unmade itself from Bluetooth form without his input, chittering its way down his neck, dark tee shirt, and khakis to land on the floor next to the inexplicably transformed accessory.

What, had he just not noticed it transforming at the same time as the other accessories? But no; he'd been wearing a different watch that day. Witwicky couldn't have touched it.

"Boss?" he heard Chato ask in confusion, as he walked into Luke's office with a file in his hands.

Luke raised a shushing finger in his direction, then stooped to lay his hand palm-up on the floor, coaxing Thing One back onto it. The transformed Bluetooth made a distressed noise, but obeyed. The watch, on the other hand, looked up at him with, fuck, little red lights glaring from its face--

--just before Chato crunched it under his boot heel, frowning. "The hell was that, H?" he asked.

Luke stared at the crunched, sharp-edged little thing as the light in its optics faded, then at his hands, thinking about gloves, selective activation, and the jolt to his system, and felt the edge of a more ominous realization incoming, like air pressure dropping in advance of a storm front.

There'd be time for that later, though. Thing One and Thing Two had unexpectedly failed to get him past the NEST cordon-- and of course it was just when his plan failed that he discovered he might need to reach them for personal reasons as well as professional. Plan B it was, then: one weekend trip to New York City, coming up.

"Trouble," he told Chato. "That deli in Brooklyn-- D. Cappucio and Simmons. Get the location from Fuentes and plot me a route; I'm headed there tomorrow."

"You sure that's a good idea?" Chato raised his eyebrows in concern.

"Best lead we've got right now," Luke shrugged at him.

Chato considered that, then nodded. "Take Fuentes with you," he said, then held out the file he'd been carrying. "She's talked to the guy before, and she blends better than the rest of us."

"I'll take that under advisement," Luke said, frowning as he took the sheaf of papers.

Chato held onto his edge for just a moment longer, though, waiting until Luke looked up to meet his eyes. "Take the Gurkha, too," he said, grimly. "I got a feeling about this one, Boss."

"An anti-personnel vehicle on the streets of New York?" he replied incredulously, popping an eyebrow. "It's not exactly built for stealth."

"Whatever that kid tracked you down for-- you're going to meet with another civilian involved with that world. I don't like your odds of running into another one of those things out there," the agent shrugged.

Luke sighed. "Point," he said. Then he waved Chato out of his office, scooped up the tiny, angry robot's corpse, and started digging through his inbox for an interoffice manila envelope to repurpose. He might not need the proof-- but if he did, he didn't want it to look like he was carrying around something valuable.

It was-- just not to the right kind of people. He shuddered and tucked the envelope into his briefcase.

That envelope was the only thing he removed from Belle when they parked on the street outside the corner deli nearly twenty four hours later. The drive had been fairly smooth, apart from the usual traffic; the only thing remotely notable about it had been the occasional sighting of a sleek new Corvette Stingray Concept in the rear view mirror. Every single alien he'd heard about that hadn't gone for a war machine or construction disguise had adopted a flashy car form, and the gorgeous lines of the silver racer raised his suspicions. It never did anything overtly threatening, though, and passed them and vanished a while before they reached Brooklyn.

The deli itself, somewhat to his surprise, wasn't just a fašade; it was a genuine, briskly functioning business. There were at least three people behind the counters when they walked in: an older woman in her sixties or seventies with obviously dyed hair, a young man chopping meat with very bad teeth, and a flint-eyed, sharp voiced guy working the till who snarled at the latest customer as though he took particular offense at the details of his order. Older than Luke, wiry, clearly used to giving orders, and maybe a few bullets short of a magazine?

Luke cocked an eyebrow at Fuentes. "That the guy?"

She smirked in return. "That's the guy," she said, then strolled into the shop ahead of him, all tight skirt, pale blouse setting off tan skin and taut curves, and solidly constructed high heels at least three inches tall somehow complemented by the badge clipped to her belt.

Special agents didn't come any hotter than that-- and it didn't take long for Simmons to notice. He did the ground-up appraisal as she sauntered up in front of the register, cutting off two other customers, and didn't even bother to hide the appreciation in his gaze.

"Well hello," he said. "What'll it be, ma'am? You here for the daily special?"

Fuentes braced her arms on the counter and leaned forward just a little, presenting a fašade all promise and distraction. "Mmm, no. I'm here for Seymour Simmons. Heard of him?"

Not the most sophisticated technique. But very, very effectively delivered. "Heard of him? 'Course I've heard of him," Simmons said, grinning at her. "He's me."

She cut him off before he could elaborate that theme, straightening up again in a way that begged the eye to caress her shapely form. "Former Agent Seymour Simmons?" she clarified, in a tone almost a purr.

Simmons' grin shaded briefly toward a leer-- then suddenly fell away entirely, his eyes sharpening on her with an abrupt focus that had nothing to do with her body. Maybe he had been a government agent, after all. "Ma? Ma, I'm taking my smoke break!" he yelled toward the back of the shop, darting his eyes past Fuentes to take in Luke's hulking form.

"What do you mean, you're taking your smoke break?" the older woman's commanding voice carried from the back of the deli. "You don't smoke!"

"Yeah, well, I'm thinking about taking it up!" he yelled back, then waved over the guy with the bad teeth. "Take over the register, wouldja? I'll be right back."

The former Sector Seven employee was wearing a ridiculous outfit with some kind of white chef's coat, a blue scarf, and a flat white hat; he scraped the hat off as he walked past Fuentes and Luke toward the door, dropping it carelessly on a table and eyeing them sidelong. "Not in here," he hissed, leading them out onto the sidewalk.

It was scarcely less public outside, but he started stomping down the sidewalk like a man with an urgent mission, checking everywhere around him with quick, darting glances. He wasn't running, though, or heading for a car, so Luke didn't think he was trying to lose them. He and Fuentes trailed easily in Simmons' wake until the guy finally found a niche between buildings out of the main foot traffic that fit whatever criteria he'd been looking for, then turned to glare at them, narrowing his eyes.

"You're the one I talked to on the phone the other day," he accused, pointing at Fuentes.

"That's right. Special Agent Monica Fuentes, with the DSS. Pleased to meet you," she said, dredging up a bright smile and offering him a hand as though nothing out of the ordinary was going on.

He snorted at her, ignoring the hand. "Diplomatic Security Service. Federal law enforcement arm of the Department of State-- the only such agents who are also members of the Foreign Service. Real convenient excuse for all those other questions you were asking-- if you're really the same woman. How do I know that's really true, and that's not just some tinfoil badge on your belt? You could be working for one of those amateur hour blog operations like The Real Effing Deal for all I know."

"You seemed willing enough to take my word for it the other day," she wheedled him.

"You thought I was just taking your word for it? Hah!" Simmons spat, pointing a finger at her again. "And you never said you'd have this guy with you. Who's he? Some other supposed special agent?"

Luke was tempted to pull his .44; but that kind of cowboy behavior wouldn't fly as well on the streets of New York as it did in the favelas of Brazil. He pulled Thing Two out of his pocket instead, flattening his palm in a signal for it to transform. "This credential enough for you?" he asked, cocking an eyebrow as it clicked and whirled, shifting from a sleek touchscreen phone into a many-limbed metallic creature in the space of a breath.

The effect on Simmons was profound; he stiffened, taking two jerky steps backward. "It's one of them," he hissed. "Are you crazy, bringing that thing here? It's been listening to every word we've said!"

"Relax," Luke snorted. "It's mine. And according to its big brother, they're supposed to choose a faction before they share data with others of their kind. Civil war being what it is and all."

"Big brother?" Fuentes hissed through the corner of her mouth, eyes sharp on him.

"Later," he promised, then pulled his hand slightly back in surprise when Simmons got over his startlement and leaned forward closely, peering at Thing Two from a distance of a couple of inches.

"It doesn't look any different than any other I've seen," he said skeptically, "except its eyes aren't red, and it's not shooting everything in sight. Huh. But then, I haven't seen many of them since Banacek told me I had too much baggage and kicked me to the curb. Baggage, he says!" Simmons snorted. Then he straightened up, eyeing Luke with a frown. "And who exactly are you, then, big boy?"

"Special Agent Luke Hobbs," Luke bared his teeth at him, stroking the spine of Thing Two to coax it back into phone shape and tuck it back to safety. Good thing it was so responsive; he barely had to hint what he wanted it to do before it did it, greatly reducing the likelihood of causing a scene. "Heard of me?"

Simmons' eyes widened, and he looked Luke up and down again, as if comparing him to some description. "Yeah, as matter of fact, I have. You're the lunatic who's been chasing my cousin Brian, aren't you? Not that he doesn't need taking down a peg or two-- just because he was touched by the Allspark and I wasn't, they take him in, but refuse to listen to a word I have to say? I've spent my whole adult life looking for these things, but do they believe me when I tell them there's still dozens of them scattered around the world that have been here for ages? One of them saved my mother's life before I was born, for Pete's sake! But no, I pissed off the kid, and Brian figures out how to schmooze him, and that's that."

"So he is in contact with Brian," Luke said grimly, seizing that little tidbit.

Simmons' expression went even shiftier, if that was possible. "Maaaaybe," he drew the word out, "and maybe not. Depends on who wants to know, and why."

"You do realize that there are active warrants still out on Brian and his friends?" Monica put in, gently.

Simmons snorted. "On Brian O'Conner, maybe. That might have been the name they hired him under, but he served as a Wells. It's something of a tradition in the First Seven families-- otherwise I might have been a Carlson. Can you imagine? Seymour Carlson?" The man shuddered visibly. "As sure as there've been robots on this planet since the wheel was cutting edge tech, he's going by Brian Wells again, now. Don't know anything about his pals, but you can bet they're leaving the warrants out on his civvie alias for some long-game reason."

Luke rubbed at his temple. "This just gets better and better," he growled. "So how do I get in touch with him-- or Toretto-- to prove it? If you're right, they're not going to let me arrest them-- but forgive me if I don't just take your word for it. I want it straight from the horse's mouth-- and their babysitter, the Major Lennox that Witwicky mentioned when he crashed my scene."

Simmons scowled, a reddish flush creeping over his cheeks. "So you've actually met Alien Boy and his bodyguards, then? What, was he trying to recruit you to NEST? Is that your real reason for being here? Find out if Seymour Simmons is gonna be a problem? See if I have all the missing files? 'Cause if you actually wanted information on Brian, I'm not the one to ask, you know. He doesn't talk to me much anymore. Too busy with his new friends."

Luke parsed all of that as half excuse, half bluster, and half leading conversation, and retrieved the manila envelope of mashed, transformed watch he'd tucked under his arm. "Only if recruitment methods typically involve a guy who wasn't at Mission City spontaneously creating things like this when he's angry," he said, holding it out to Simmons.

Simmons' eyes widened dramatically as he looked into the envelope; he started to stick his fingers in, then snarled when Luke pulled it back out of reach.

"I'm only showing it to you because I'm not wearing anything to use as a better demonstration," Luke added, glaring at him in a not so subtle warning. "I was feeling pretty much just like this when it jumped off my wrist yesterday."

"That is a little more literal a recruitment method than I was thinking of," Simmons admitted, reaching for the envelope again. Luke let him take it that time, watching him pore over the tiny crushed 'bot; then the man glanced at the pocket where Luke had stowed Thing Two again and sucked a sharp breath.

"That other little guy. You said it was yours. As in, it was on you the first time it transformed?"

"It was-- is-- my phone," Luke confirmed. "Where the fuck else would it have been?"

Simmons' eyes gleamed as he came to some conclusion, staring into the envelope again. "Let me guess, you shook hands with the kid or something just before that happened?"

Luke exchanged a glance with Fuentes.

"And if he did?" she asked him, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Figures," Simmons said, sounding strangely bitter, then turned suddenly back toward the deli, pushing past Luke and Fuentes to storm back up the sidewalk.

"What figures?" Luke growled after him.

Simmons stopped in his tracks, glaring back over his shoulder and waving the envelope angrily. "If he did to you what I think he did? Which is grossly unfair, let me tell you; I could have used a little of it years ago! All that power in the hands of a punk kid; might've known it would all come down to this in the end. You ought to have a pretty nice Gamma signature right about now, but since I don't happen to carry my detector on me, you're gonna have to follow me to the meat locker to be sure."

Luke exchanged a glance with Fuentes again, and she shrugged.

"Fine," he sighed, and followed Simmons back to his mother's deli.

Apparently, Simmons hadn't been speaking metaphorically when he'd mentioned the meat locker. But as he led them back into the deli, he seemed to abruptly realize that Luke and Fuentes were both still employed by the government that cut him loose, not to mention in contact with the department that shafted him, and prickled up like a stuck porcupine. He corralled his mother, aimed her in their direction, and then disappeared into the back while they were still fending off her suspicious questions about just why they had tracked down her son.

Sharp woman, Mrs. Simmons. Luke had no doubt that she knew all about whatever her son had hidden in the walk-in freezer; if she'd been around a planet-bound NBE long enough for it to save her life decades before Mission City, she had to have been Sector Seven once too, and she still possessed the fierce determination it would have taken for a woman to survive in the male dominated hierarchy of the times. She didn't buy Fuentes' cover story about 'looking for Seymour's cousin' for one minute.

Fortunately, Simmons didn't dawdle long in his secret hidey hole. He stalked back into the deli before his mother had got more than half of Fuentes' career history out of her, kicked the only remaining customer out, and flipped the CLOSED sign into place on the door. The customer didn't offer more than a token protest, in contrast to Simmons' mother; probably because of what he was carrying in his hands. It looked like an old fashioned Geiger counter-- a device Luke knew was used to measure radiation.

Mrs. Simmons' eyebrows shot up at the sight of it and she pursed her lips at her son, glancing between him and the two agents. "Must you, Seymour?" she said, sourly.

He scowled back at her. "Ma," he said, clearly exasperated, layers of old arguments festering in his tone.

"Well, I'm sure you know what's best, son," she sniffed. "Call me when you're done taking bread out of your mother's mouth." Then she headed for the back room, chivvying the other employee along with her, with a distinct air of washing her hands of the entire situation.

Simmons looked momentarily stung, but shook it off quickly and switched on the device, extending its wand in Fuentes' direction. It ticked a little on her, enough to make Simmons frown, but evidently not enough to trip whatever criteria he was looking for-- but when he turned to aim it at Luke, it erupted into a storm of crackling.

"Ah HAH!" Simmons said, grimly triumphant. "Definitely more than could be accounted for by transfer, or even the presence of those microbots. You, my friend, are a source of Gamma radiation."

"And what exactly is that supposed to mean?" Luke asked him, frowning.

It couldn't mean-- what he thought it meant. He'd been clear on the other coast when the aliens had first revealed themselves; he'd never so much as seen the Allspark before its destruction.

"What do you think it means?" Simmons fired back scornfully, switching the little meter off now that he'd proven his theory. "You know how the aliens are powered by things called sparks, right? Kind of like a human's bioelectric field, only concentrated into a single point that can be seen with the naked eye. The Allspark was apparently like a giant well of the things; it was one of the ways they reproduced themselves. When Alien Boy blew it up-- they say it left a little piece of itself in everyone within range. I don't get the metaphysics, but it's like their souls have an extra dimension now. They can create little guys like your watch, little baby bots, if they don't take the proper precautions-- and the energy regenerates, fed by the human's energy, unlike the original Allspark. But they're limited in scale, and didn't get any knowledge with it. The thing about Wikety, though-- scuttlebutt says he got a teeny little splinter of the Cube stuck under his skin, and everything that didn't blow outward? Went into him. I wouldn't be surprised if he can do everything the original Allspark could, and then some."

"Like imbue other human beings with its energy," Fuentes said, a worried line creasing her forehead.

"Yep," Simmons said, bitterly. "Typical, I tell you. I did as much as any of them that day; Keller would never have been able to contact the outside world if not for me. Plus, my family's been looking into these things since before my great granddaddy talked to Wikety's, a hundred years ago! But am I in the inner circle? Huh?"

"So you're saying I affected not only the watch-- but the phone, too," Luke broke into the rant. That would explain a few things. As new as it was to him, the effect must have been too weak to affect more than his phone when he'd collapsed-- and Witwicky hadn't reported the microbots because they hadn't been his responsibility. Hell, he might not even have realized what he'd actually done to Luke.

Fuck. He was either going to have to get over his uneasiness fast or invest in antacids, because this apparently wasn't going to blow over: the kid had wrenched his life permanently off course. By accident. Maybe it was time he cut O'Conner a little slack-- because if this was how Toretto's luck dealt with his opponents, unlikely carom shots off the angles of fate, it was no wonder the cop had fallen into Toretto's orbit.

"Better buy yourself some new gloves," Simmons said sourly, unwittingly paralleling Luke's thoughts, "and be sure and tell that fickle cousin of mine 'hi' when you see him."

"You're going to tell us where he is, then?" Fuentes leapt on that tidbit.

Simmons snorted. "Hah; no. But you'll see him soon enough. Like NEST will let a guy like with your experience wander around loose when they have an excuse to bring you in. Unless you're in someone's bad books. Want I should put in a word for you with Banacek?"

Luke shot down that eager, wild-eyed offer with a firm shake of his head. If NEST wasn't already aware of what had happened, he wasn't about to tell them. "No, that's all right. You've been helpful enough already."

Simmons narrowed his eyes suspiciously at that, but let it go. "Then I'd appreciate it if you make like a tree and get out of here, before my mother gets even angrier than she is already. The world could be ending around here, and she still wouldn't be any happier about this kinda thing."

Fuentes gave Luke a long, evaluating look, then pulled a card from a skirt pocket and tucked it into Simmons' hand. Even when she wasn't trying, there was an inherent sensuality to her movement; Luke let it distract him for a second, then shook it off, already grimly planning the trip back to D.C.

"Thank you for your time," she said, smoothly. "If you do hear anything else from your cousin, I'd appreciate it if you would give him this number. We've wasted enough of the taxpayers' money chasing him already; if we can close his file, even unofficially, it would be of great benefit to both our agencies."

The card looked innocuous enough, but Luke knew it featured her private number and her name, not Luke's office at the DSS; Brian O'Conner might not respond to an overture from him, but he very well might for Monica Fuentes, particularly once he knew she was working with Luke's team. Both he and Toretto were known for being protective of those they'd claimed as friends, and it wouldn't be surprising for them to sound her out.

Simmons made a skeptical face, but took the card before shooing them out of the deli.

Luke stopped outside for a moment, squinting up at the sunlit buildings, the press of humanity around them, and the blocky shape of Belle, waiting at the curb across the street. It was a surreal juxtaposition, and the disquiet that had been tingling along his nerves since his first sight of Sam Witwicky transmuted suddenly into something a little more productive: a prickly, galvanizing anger that sharpened his thought processes considerably.

He might have been hijacked into their world, but as God was his witness, he was going to live in it on his terms, not according to anyone else's. He scowled as his scalp started prickling in the sunshine, beading up with droplets of sweat, then glanced down at the concerned face of the woman beside him.

"We done here?" she asked, quietly.

"For now," he replied. "Though if I don't get the answers I'm looking for directly, I might well come back and find an excuse to raid that meat locker. I'm getting sick of the bullshit runarounds."

She smiled wryly. "Thinking about blowing up that bridge after all?" she asked.

He snorted. "Think you could stand taking a transfer back to Customs after they fire me? Maybe you can harass the big guys for transporting weapons of mass destruction over intergalactic borders."

Fuentes' smile widened a little at the implied assumption that she'd still be involved, and ran with the theme. "I wonder if they even have customs officers in their culture? I suppose they must have, back on their world-- but I don't think I ever heard any occupations mentioned outside of the war."

"Well, it looks like we're going to get the chance to find out." He shook his head, then headed for Belle, automatically glancing up and down the street for any signs of undue interest.

The street was clear in that moment-- but it didn't stay that way for long. He and Fuentes were still traversing the crosswalk when a shift in the flow of traffic drew Luke's eye to a shining silver car a block away. There was no mistaking the racer that had followed them to New York; even if the vehicle itself hadn't been fairly unique, the license plates were identical. He tapped Fuentes on the arm, jerking his chin toward their probable pursuer, then picked up speed, hurrying onto the crowded sidewalk.

They were still several yards from Belle when a black and white Saleen roared into the intersection where the Stingray was waiting for the light to change, sirens screaming and lightbar in full whirl. Luke thought for a confused second that it might be after the potential NBE-- then belatedly realized it was probably an NBE itself, as it turned tighter than any Earth-made vehicle could, the image of its driver flickering distinctively, and aimed straight for the Gurhka.

"Belle!" he yelled, as little spikes started growing out of the Saleen's grille. "Protect yourself!"

Then he glanced over at Fuentes-- and found her already chivvying civilians out of the way, dark eyes and full lips set in fierce determination. Perfect. He turned back to the action just in time to catch a view of the Stingray erupting upward, silver surfaces flashing like mirrors in the sunlight as it stood up into a two legged figure with wheeled skates for feet and blades in its hands longer than Luke was tall.

Belle was transforming, too: a more ponderous production as he figured out where everything went for the first time, groaning amid the whirr of moving parts and clank of cabled muscles and armored limbs stretching into place. Luke stared almost in awe at the wide expanse of armored plates dropping into place across his chest, the turret armament now sprouting in enlarged form from his fists, and the wide, protective stance he adopted as he braced for the Saleen's arrival. He wasn't trying to get out of the way or run for cover. He was doing what Luke would have done. Luke grinned fiercely as he drew his weapon to support him, wishing he'd unpacked that rifle armed with sabot rounds-- he'd been worried it would give Simmons the wrong impression.

The Saleen sprang just as Belle finished settling his feet, rapidly shifting into an angular, spike-covered silver and black form mid-leap. Its red eyes flashed as it brought its cannons to bear, barking out a harsh command: "Surrender now, Mutations!"

Belle ignored it and leapt, batting the cannons aside as he tackled the enemy to the asphalt, safely out of the way of any pedestrians-- though not out of traffic: an old Ford pickup groaned under the impact of the former cruiser's back, disgorging a panicked pair of guys in overalls to add to the crowd of screaming bystanders.

"It would only be polite of me to return the invitation!" Belle ground out as the two forms wrestled, his much bulkier form momentarily pinning the Saleen as he pounded one of its cannons against the ground and Luke emptied all his rounds at it in support.

Belle's victory only lasted for a few heartbeats, though; the apparent Decepticon quickly proved its millennia of wartime experience as it turned the tables, trapping Belle under it and wrenching the cannon arm free to stab at Belle's chest with long, wickedly clawed fingers. "You are no match for me!" it growled.

"No, but I am!" the Stingray laughed triumphantly, pouncing on it from behind. The Saleen howled, caught off guard; it must have been focusing too tightly on Belle and Luke to have noticed the other coming. One of the Stingray's blades bit deep into the struts and cables of the enemy's right shoulder, severing some kind of fluid line in the process. Then it swiveled tightly on its wheeled feet to repeat the chop from the other side, arching over Luke and Belle in a move out of some otherworldly heavyweight ballet, delicately severing several claws from the reaching hand and then kicking the Saleen precisely in the chest.

"Sideswipe!" the cop car roared as it clanged to its back in the street, clasping its uninjured hand to its shoulder wound.

"Barricade!" the Stingray snarled back, then darted forward again. "It's been too long."

The newly identified Barricade-- definitely a Decepticon, Luke remembered that name-- lurched and shifted up to what would have been its knees, if it hadn't been transforming back into vehicle form at the same time. The damage showed even in that shape, rents in the paneling and dripping, viscous liquid marring its previously pristine form. It spouted something back in what was probably its original language, full of static and modem sounds; Luke caught a brief glimpse of a scrawl of marred lettering on one side panel now reading "To Pun-sh a-d --slav-" before its tires caught. Then it was peeling away, Sideswipe in immediate, furious pursuit.

Luke reloaded his weapon as the aliens screeched out of sight around a corner two blocks down, then warily knelt next to Belle, casting a worried glance at the rent torn in the plates covering his abdomen. Damn, Barricade's blades were sharp; it looked like whatever alloy they were made of was tougher than what the Earth had to offer. "You all right?" he asked.

"The damage is only superficial," Belle said, prodding at the peeled back layers of metal and paint with blunt, squared-off fingers as big around as Luke's forearms. "There are more serious casualties among the crowd."

"Good. Shift back, then," Luke nodded. The action had all gone by so fast he'd barely paid attention to the human element, but he could still hear Fuentes behind him, and the sobs of several shell-shocked voices. He wasn't surprised there'd been injuries, even in such a short engagement. "Can you detect them? Can you tell if they come back?"

Belle gave a discordant blatt of noise. "I would have known the Decepticon was nearby earlier if I knew what it was I'd been sensing," he said. "If they do not both start shielding, I will be able to trace their fight all over the city. And if they do, I will still have enough warning time to transform."

"That'll have to do," Luke said. "Let me know the second one of them shows up again." He waited a moment longer, to make sure Belle was successful in resuming his Gurkha shape-- new scars in the rear right door and all-- before whipping out Thing Two to place a few necessary, furious calls.

Emergency responders were on-site to deal with the human wounded within a few minutes, and Luke and Fuentes were happy to give their statements and hand oversight of the crowd over to a swarm of NYPD. There didn't seem to be any NEST agents among them yet, but there undoubtedly would be soon; even if they didn't have their own methods of tracking incidents, Luke had blistered a few ears at their command center before being forwarded to an ass named Galloway.

Classified, classified, classified. He could tell by the man's tone of voice that it was no surprise Sideswipe had been in the vicinity of Barricade. The only thing he hadn't known was the location of the rendezvous, and his voice was full of suspicion as he questioned Luke about it-- he'd had a number of questions about Luke's use of the ensparked phone he'd reported 'found' at the villa north of Castrovillari. But he didn't mention Simmons. Nor did he ask about the big gray robot Barricade had attacked; if there'd been footage of Belle from someone's cell camera, Galloway was keeping mum about it.

And he seemed to expect that Luke would do the same. At least, until he reported to the Pentagon for an immediate in-depth debriefing. Luke could only imagine what would happen there. Galloway was NSA, and it seemed pretty likely that entire crew was in duck and cover mode after the black eye of Shanghai.

He fumed as he climbed into Belle, dripping with sweat, crushed asphalt powdering his clothes and Barricade's yell of 'Mutations' still ringing in his ears.

Mutations. Plural. Given what Simmons had said? Luke was fairly certain he knew what that meant. So much for being able to keep what had happened to him under wraps for any length of time.

Fuentes was uncharacteristically subdued as she climbed in next to him, her expression dark with worry. "I got a call on my cell while you were talking to D.C.," she said.

He leaned his head back against the headrest for a moment in silent protest as Belle started his engine and pulled out into traffic, then turned his head to look at her. In that tone of voice, and given that she'd just handed her card over? "O'Conner," he guessed.

The corner of her mouth lifted in a worried smile. "Simmons must've called him as soon as he heard what was going on outside," she said. "They'll be in the States in a few hours. He wanted to arrange a meet."

"Where?" He scowled.

"Sideswipe will pick our trail up outside of town. He'll lead us in," she replied, making a face.

"That crazy silver swordsman we just met?" Luke raised an eyebrow. "They're that sure he won't still be chasing Barricade?"

Her expression darkened even further. "Apparently, he's already lost him-- which means Barricade's gone to find his commander. The Decepticons were probably aware that at least one new Gamma signature had traveled from Italy to D.C.-- but they had no way of knowing what it was. Now they do."

"And that means?"

"Brian wouldn't say why, but the Decepticons have started collecting any and all people and machines touched by the Allspark outside of NEST control; they've broken into several old Sector Seven strongholds in the last few days, and NEST fielded at least one attack in the last 24 hours. He said if NEST doesn't collect you-- the Decepticons almost certainly will. Barricade wasn't running; he was retreating for reinforcements."

Luke's grip tightened on the steering wheel as he clenched his jaw. "Figures."

Fuentes' expression softened a little at that, and she laid one hand over his. "Luke," she said carefully. "You're the strongest man I know. But no one's strong enough to face these guys on their own. Not even with the help of-- what did you call him?" she gestured at the dash.

He swallowed, turning his hand to clasp her fingers. "Belle," he said, with a faded smirk, and stretched the truth a little. "After the woman I was talking to just before he was born."

Her cheeks reddened a little at the compliment as they stared each other down. "Cute," she said, dryly. "I think you should consider it. The Decepticons aren't much different from Verone's crowd; there's no point in trying to stand alone when there's another organization just waiting to take them down."

"I don't back down, Monica," he replied. "I thought you knew that about me by now."

"This isn't backing down," she shook her head at him, reaching over with her free hand to brush tingling fingertips over a scratch on his cheek. "It's denying them the opportunity to make you the hunted instead of the hunter."

He gave her a grudging smile at that. "You know how to talk my language, woman."

An eyebrow went up primly in response. "If you want this conversation to continue? Monica's much more likely to keep me on your good side than woman," she said.

Luke tightened his fingers on hers, feeling the electric tingle build a little more-- but whatever the Allspark energy in him was doing, it didn't seem to be affecting her in any way, and it wasn't an unpleasant feeling. "And do you want this conversation to continue?" he asked, seriously. It wasn't a topic he'd ever intended to breach in D.C., so as not to foul their working relationship-- but at the moment, it didn't seem likely he'd set foot in the office there again. "Or shall I have Belle drop you off before we leave the city?"

"You think I'm about to pass this up?" She laughed at him, a low, rich sound. "You do remember what I used to do for a living. I'm as much an adrenaline junkie as the rest of you."

"All right, then," he grinned in return. "Had to give you the chance; but I won't insult you by asking again."

The silver Stingray picked them up just outside the city, running close escort, and guided them to a rendezvous somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. It wasn't a short drive. But the narrow, tree-lined chunk of hilly road that was their destination was much, much emptier than lunch hour in The City That Never Sleeps, and Luke understood the desire for caution. He would bet the location was obscured from satellite coverage, as well.

Fortunately, Belle's abilities included a holographic projection unit; something he seemed very smug about, claiming again that 'The Allspark adapts.' And there was a lot of room in the rear compartment. Luke and Monica had plenty of time to... talk... about the situation, though obviously there were a few subjects they weren't going to cover with other sentient, if inhuman, beings so close at hand.

They were more than ready when Belle finally pulled over and shut down his engine, and they stepped out onto the country lane to find O'Conner and Toretto, arms crossed, resting next to each other against the hood of a familiar Dodge Charger. Sunset painted the hills red-gold around them, limning both men's bodies with warmth as they got to their feet, but they otherwise looked much as they had in Brazil. No NEST uniforms. No gloves. Just a wary knowing in O'Conner's eyes that hadn't been there the last time around.

Luke deliberately nodded to the larger man first, the only human opponent who'd given him a run for his money in a physical fight in years; he respected Toretto more than he did his partner, whatever he might have in common with the latter. "Toretto," he said, with a nod.

"Hobbs," the man returned the gesture.

Monica took care of the other greeting herself, smiling at O'Conner. "Brian," she said. "It's good to see you're still in one piece."

"Nearly wasn't, a time or two," he grinned back. "But you know me."

"No," she shook her head, still smiling as she took a stance at least as close to Luke as O'Conner was standing to Toretto. "I don't think I ever really did. But it looks like we're about to make up for lost time, doesn't it?"

The former cop glanced between the both of them with raised brows, a little surprised-- and a lot amused. "Ah, it's like that, is it? Well, I suppose I can't fault your taste."

Toretto made a disgruntled objection-- and that finally broke the ice, bringing a reluctant grin to Luke's face. Okay. So that was how they were going to play it?

He gestured to his Gurkha, then to the Charger. "And just so we're all clear; Belle, Bestia. And Bestia, Belle."

"The one I was named for?" Belle asked, metallic voice eager.

"The one who maimed me? You named him what?" the other car replied, sounding offended.

O'Conner chuckled. "Later, girl. You can take it up with him later. But I'd take it as a compliment, if I were you."

"And now that we're all friends here, maybe you can tell me what the hell is going on? And why now? I hadn't seen hide nor hair of any of your robot friends in months before Witwicky's little handshake in Italy."

Toretto snorted and crossed his arms across his muscled chest. "Might as well tell them," he shrugged, exchanging a glance with his partner. "It was your bright idea."

"Partly," O'Conner clarified, rolling his eyes. "Partly my idea."

"Really? Which part?" Luke asked, dryly. "The part where he created another NBT and abandoned him to my care? The part where I'm suddenly getting called a 'Mutation' by red-eyed robots from hell? Or the part where I was just at ground zero for the latest factional dispute within arm's length of millions of innocent people?"

O'Conner made a complicated, pained face. "The part where I suggested NEST get you off our trail as part of our agreement to help their people figure out how to master this shit instead of just living with it?" he shrugged, waggling his fingers. "It was your own record that got them interested in recruitment, instead of burying you in bureaucratic hell-- and when you made it clear to Sam you knew the villa attack was Starscream's work when Lennox had already made sure there wasn't any physical evidence, you confirmed their assessment. But I'd already told them you'd seemed a little uncomfortable around Bestia, so...."

The Charger rocked a little on her tires, inching forward enough to nudge the back of Toretto's thighs; he patted her absently as gravel squeaked under Belle's tires, the Gurkha reciprocating Bestia's movement.

Luke scowled, reaching out to lay a reproving hand on Belle's hood. "Another test? And you seriously thought that was the way to butter me up to work with you and jettison a career I spent a long time building?" He didn't add thieves, thugs, and oath-breakers to the epithetical you-- they'd largely settled those differences as inconsequential compared to more important matters when he'd joined them to take down Reyes-- but the words hung in the air between them, nonetheless.

"Like the man said, they were the ones who wanted to add you to their team. We ain't exactly soldiers, in case you haven't noticed. They've got a lot of special ops types, but none with your exact skill set, and since a lot of their job's been chasing down rogue Decepticons the last couple years...." Toretto shrugged.

"And you what, endorsed that recommendation?" Luke crossed his own arms.

"You caught us; would have kept us, if Reyes were a little less of an asshole." O'Conner shrugged, giving him that same shit-eating grin Luke had so badly wanted to smack off his face in Rio.

Luke was still deeply skeptical. "Right. And you used Witwicky because?"

"He's a bright kid. He's picked up the control techniques pretty fast, and he's been chomping at the bit to get away from Diego Garcia. He's been stuck there a lot of the last two years. Since they knew he could probably wake your truck up quickly enough for you not to notice until it was too late, and he'd have Ratchet and a backup team with him, they figured he'd be safe," O'Conner said. "The other thing, though...."

His expression darkened. "The Allspark energy always reacts to the touch of other people-- sometimes more dramatically than others-- but it's never done anything like that before. He said he didn't know what happened, and Ratchet's scans at the scene were inconclusive. But if Barricade was calling you a Mutation...."

"Let me guess; that's their word for NBTs and affected people both," Monica said, grimly.

"Allspark Mutations, yeah," O'Conner nodded.

Luke frowned, a thought tickling at the back of his mind. Both times Belle had claimed that the Allspark adapted... he'd been referring to it in the present tense. There had to be more to what was going on with it than everyone seemed to have assumed. "This Allspark thing. All that energy was contained in one object before the kid destroyed NBE One with it? How'd that work?"

"You mean Megatron," Toretto nodded. "Gotta call a thing by its name, right Bri?"

O'Conner gave Toretto a dirty look at that. "Yeah, all the energy was in this Cube. Big metal six-sided thing, about what you'd expect from the name, with runes no one could read carved all over it. Long story short; it fell to Earth thousands of years ago, Sector Seven found it not long after Sam's ancestor found Megatron, and they discovered that channeling energy from it would give machines life. But they were always violent; Optimus says that's because so much of our technology is based on Megatron and they had him housed in the same place by the time most of the experiments started. So the closest thing they had to a template to base their own programming on when the agents jolted them was the Big Ugly. In the old days, back on Cybertron, the Primes were the ones that activated it; almost every mech who's survived this long was sparked that way."

Luke narrowed his eyes. "So you had the energy in a vessel. A mediator, and some kind of intent to activate it," he spelled it all out. A vessel that had been inorganic before-- but clearly wasn't, now. Except, according to Simmons, for a little piece embedded under a particular teenager's skin.

"You'd have to ask Optimus, or maybe Bee; I think they're the only ones that ever touched it with any kind of intent in its old form," O'Conner shrugged. "But that sounds about right."

"You never think that a kid with a splinter of the thing in him, basically the host of the biggest piece of it left, now that you've taught him how to impress his will on that energy, might accidentally wish for the wrong thing at the wrong time?" Luke snorted at him, shaking his head in annoyance. "They feed him that recruitment story just before he went to Italy? What do you think he was thinking when he went to shake my hand?"

O'Conner swore under his breath as the penny dropped, and Toretto's eyes widened in alarm.

"Fuck, maybe we should get the kid some Hazmat gloves," Toretto said. "There's a thought. Put ultimate power in the hands of a fuckin' teenager. We're lucky the base is still there at all."

An engine revved behind him then, and Luke glanced over his shoulder to see the silver shape of Sideswipe tearing back up the road from where he'd been parked for better signal reception. "It may not be much longer," the NBE said. "Megatron has him."

"What?!" O'Conner straightened up from his slouch, every muscle drawn taut. "According to whose report? I watched Megatron die. And I thought Sam was out scouting grad schools with Mikaela and Bumblebee? They got him off the island as soon as that first attack on the shard failed."

"The second succeeded," Sideswipe said, shortly. "One of Soundwave's brood got through. And there was an attack on the carrier group over Megatron's drop point. As soon as Optimus heard, he diverted Bumblebee to meet up with our group, but Megatron got to them first."

"Shit. Shit!" O'Conner swore. "How close are we?"

"Not close enough," Sideswipe replied.

Toretto squeezed his partner's shoulder, expression grim. "Back in the car, then, Bri." He gave him a shove, then headed for the driver's side door, both of them completely ignoring Luke and Monica. Then he paused, door half open, to give them a dark, meaningful look. "You three in or what?"

"This asshole as bad as Reyes?" Luke replied.

"Worse," Bestia said, grimly.

"I go where Hobbs goes," Belle declared.

Monica gave him a look. "I think you already know my answer," she said. Another woman might have laced her fingers through his or batted her eyes to add a softer emotional weight; but she just stared Luke down, expression demanding.

He stared back at her for a moment, then gave Toretto a nod. "Can you brief us over the radios as we go?" he asked. "Hunting people down and making sure they pay is what I do, Mutation or no."

The corner of Toretto's mouth curled up a fraction. "Kinda making a habit of this."

"Yeah, well don't get too used to it," Luke tipped his chin. "All I'm signing up for right now is the rescue."

"We're wasting time," Sideswipe broke in, impatiently. "Optimus and the others are already converging."

"Then put your funderwear on," Luke said, walking back to Belle with Monica at his side. "And let's roll."


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